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Chapter Text

Sun beat down on the crowded market square as Joan traveled from stand to stand with her little two-wheeled cart, admiring the array of pastries, bread, and cheeses arranged on the table set closest to the fountain. She’d probably gotten enough produce for the week, and just in time; the grey clouds hanging overhead threatened rain, and a strong breeze whipped through the market stalls. Suppressing an aggravated sigh, she adjusted the knot of her scarf below her chin for the millionth time, hoping she could get home before the storm broke.

Eleven months here, and she still missed New York so much.

The thought of it still put a lump in her throat: bright winking skyscrapers towering over the sidewalk as she walked toward Rockefeller Center, yellow cabs and bright ugly cars honking their way through each traffic light, the stupid hot dog carts parked next to every major intersection between Broadway and fifty ninth, her beautiful little pink and teal apartment—

A fierce gust suddenly ripped her scarf from her head, and Joan cried out. It was her favorite – a real Hermés – and she hurried after it, clumsily dragging her cart behind her. Blue patterned silk billowed through the air, was whisked past two big crowds of people, and tangled around the trouser leg of a redheaded man in a dark coat who carried a shabby briefcase. He glanced down in surprise once he realized it was curled around the back of his calf, and bent down to grab the tail end before it could blow away again.

Vielen Dank. Vielen Dank.” Joan rushed up to the stranger as fast as she could, already reaching for his arm, ready to thank him. When he turned around, she drew her palm back as quickly as if she’d been burned.

Lane Pryce stood there with his mouth hanging open, and her scarf clutched in one balled-up hand.

It had been so long since she’d seen a familiar face that Joan actually wanted to cry with relief. After months of drifting through anonymous crowds and barely knowing the language and sitting at home staring at the walls, here was someone she knew, someone powerfully familiar. Even if she hadn’t liked him much back in New York, here in Germany his face was the most welcome sight in the world.

“What are you doing here?” she blurted out first.

“I—” he blinked in surprise. His mouth opened and shut soundlessly before he was finally able to answer. “Well, I—I live here.”

On instinct, she leaned forward to hug him; one arm briefly encircled his shoulders. “Me too.”

He must have been stunned, because he barely reacted, and by the time she pulled back, one of his palms hovered somewhere near her elbow. After a hesitation, he held her scarf out to her.

“Sorry. Erm. Here.”

“Thank you,” Joan quickly folded the fabric and tucked it into her purse. Letting out a deep breath, she tried to smile. Act normal, for god’s sake. You haven’t seen the man in years. “The wind—I couldn’t lose it. It’s my favorite.”

“Ah,” Lane seemed to take this answer in stride, and his gaze was steady. She felt buoyed by the unexpected success; in New York he’d hardly spared her a glance that wasn’t scornful. “Well. Can’t have that.”

“No,” she said.

A strange silence fell over them. Joan tried not to fidget. It had been a long time since they had seen each other, and – she realized suddenly – they were probably going to run out of things to talk about, if she wasn’t careful.

“How is your son?” She could barely remember his son’s name. He’d been in private school somewhere on the East Coast. They fought over grades, if she was thinking of the right kid. “Nigel, isn’t it?”

Lane actually smiled this time. “Yes, he’s well, thanks. Just turned sixteen.” His expression dimmed slightly. “Although, I suppose you didn’t hear about the rest. My—well, Rebecca and I, we, er—divorced.”

Oh, no. “Recently?”

He seemed relieved that she hadn’t offered apologies, and exhaled a sharp breath. “No, not really. Erm. Three years ago.”

“Well.” She was determined to steer the conversation into clearer waters, and injected as much lightness into her voice as she could manage. “Sometimes that’s for the best. You’re happier now, I hope?”

Lane gave her a strange look, scrutinizing her over the top of his glasses like this was such an odd comment to make.

Joan pressed on. She was probably talking too much, but she wasn’t just going to walk away like a stupid little fool. This was probably more than she’d talked to anyone in several weeks, not counting Greg or her mother. “My husband’s stationed at the checkpoint between the US and UK sections—an inspections physician. That’s why we moved.”

He wanted to go to Vietnam. He begged. They’re desperate for doctors, and they wouldn’t even take him.

“Oh,” Lane’s frown deepened, like he was supposed to remember that Greg was in the service. But why would he? They’d never talked about it, for god’s sake. “How—well, do you like it, so far?”

She knew what she was supposed to say. What she would have said if they’d bumped into each other on the street in any other city, or on any other day. She’d have kept the conversation light, made some joke about how Berlin’s not her type of town, but cosmopolitan enough. The city’s so interesting. It’s very European.

“It’s not Manhattan.”

Her voice wavered a little, and her eyes threatened to fill, but she refused to cry in front of him, and glanced out at the sea of people milling around the market instead. It was impossible to look back at Lane without feeling shame crawl along her skin. God, she should have just lied to him and been done with it. This could have been some funny story to tell her mother over dinner—I saw someone from New York today—and now it’s just one more disappointment to fold into all the rest, one more person who sees right through her relentless attempts at pretending.

You’re not happy.

“No, it isn’t,” he said, as they watched a group of children playing by the fountain. A tall boy was splashing two others with water, and they were all shrieking with laughter. Joan glanced over, assuming Lane had finished that thought, and so she was surprised when he spoke again.

“But the homesickness fades, in time. Or, it did for me, anyway.”

She had no idea he’d missed Manhattan that much. “Oh.”

He kept talking, voice a little too loud. “Whoever thought one little office could provoke such nostalgia, hm?”

For a second she was so grateful she could have hugged him again. Lane was letting her save face. He knew she didn’t want to fall all over herself fumbling for an explanation, or pretending she could really start to love Berlin when she could barely get out of bed. She didn’t know why he was letting her off so easy.

“Actually,” he continued, scratching at the back of his neck, “you may be interested to know that—”

Someone bumped into her rolling cart. Joan gasped, turned to grab for the handle before it could fall and crush the small basket of eggs that were inside, and got a good look at her wristwatch in the process. Almost eleven.

“Sorry. You’ll have to hold that thought.” She felt sick at having to run away like this, especially after he’d been so considerate. He deserved more than two minutes of bad small talk. “I’m meeting my husband for lunch, and if I don’t go now, I’ll be late.”

“Oh.” Lane frowned. “Is it very far?”

“Not very.” Joan bolted her shoulder and stood as tall as possible, trying to make up for before. “But I won’t keep you.”

They stared at each other for a few more seconds before she spoke again; she kept her voice very level. “Thank you for saving my scarf.”

“Yes. Of—of course.” Lane was peering at her through narrowed eyes again, like she’d said something wrong. Hell, maybe he was horrified to see her here. Maybe he was just being polite and wanted to get out of this conversation before she could keep him here for another minute.

Joan still gave him a smile, although the expression was so forced it was a wonder she was able to make it seem believable. “Take care of yourself.”

By the time she walked away from him and rounded the corner onto the street that would eventually take her back to Dahlem, she was hiding her pursed mouth behind trembling fingers in order to stay composed. By the time she arrived home, the bout of tears had passed, but all she wanted to do was lie on her bed and stare up at the ceiling and think about nothing at all.

She was barely able to put up the groceries before crawling back onto her pillows, lying on top of the covers in her ugly drab dress with a cold washcloth slung over her eyes.

The loud sigh Greg let out when he came home and stopped in the bedroom doorway told Joan all she needed to know. He thought she was milking it. She’d been quiet and miserable for months, and he’d never been able to find anything physically wrong with her, so eventually he’d just stopped asking.

“Jesus. Again?”

She didn’t move. She barely even raised her voice. “I have a headache.”

“You know, you asked me to come eat lunch with you,” he snarled. “I could’ve stayed on base instead of putting up with more of this shit.”

Then don’t come home, Joan wanted to say, but she was so tired of having these fights, and so she said nothing.

“Well, where the hell’s the baby?” he asked finally.

“With my mother.” Joan was embarrassed to admit she hadn’t even wondered where they were. “At the park.”

After a few seconds, she heard footsteps retreating down the hall, the bang of a couple of cabinet doors as they opened and closed, and then the sound of keys jingling in the lock as the front door slammed shut. Thank god.

Joanie. Do you want to be married or not?

Her mother had asked her that right before they went to bed, the first night she’d arrived, but Joan couldn’t even remember the look on her face, now. The only memory she had of that conversation was of the melting ice in the bottom of her full rocks glass, and the way the entire room had pitched and rolled because she’d had too much to drink.

Joan pulled the cold washcloth off her face, sat up, and tried to ignore the little voice in the back of her head, the one that was nasty and critical and kept making her tear up in the middle of the morning. You stupid moron, why did you ever leave New York? Why did you say all those ridiculous things to Lane Pryce, like he’s anything close to a friend? Like he cares about what happens to you?

Why did you let Greg talk you into this?

Chapter Text

The next day, Kevin was down for his first nap and her mother was making coffee when Joan heard the mail slot clink as it opened and closed. Mom’s footsteps padded up and down the hall, and suddenly she was striding through the living room doorway, carrying a small cream-colored envelope in one hand.

“This one’s yours. It’s local.”

Joan stared at her, not understanding, but she took the letter with an extended hand and ripped the flap of the envelope open with one red fingernail, not bothering to look at the sender’s name or return address. The single piece of stationery inside was creamy and thick, and when she got a glance at the elegant looped handwriting that covered one side, she was actually surprised.

Dear Joan,

In hindsight, I fear my conduct in the market must have seemed rather rude, and for that I must apologize. Please know that I meant no offense…

She read the letter as quickly as she could, so stunned she could barely speak. Apologize? He hadn’t even done anything wrong. She’d been the one who’d fallen all over herself; she’d hugged him and then turned sullen and short, like a pouty child. And then she’d practically run away, for god’s sake!

“Who’s that from?” her mother asked.

“Oh.” Joan glanced over the letter again before refolding it and putting it back into its envelope as carefully as possible, not wanting to tear it. “Someone I worked with in New York. He has a business.”

“Here?”

Joan barely heard her. She was still thinking of the last sentence.

I’m sure you’re very busy with your family, these days, but if you could spare the time, your assistance would be much appreciated.

Yours sincerely, Lane Pryce

See the business. Think about something other than dinner and the house and being alone.

“I think I want to go out,” she said.

She glanced over at her mother for confirmation, expecting to see some kind of enthusiasm, but the older woman just raised an eyebrow.

Joan stared right back at her. “What?”

Her mother just snorted. “Can’t go like that. He’ll think you’re sick.”

Fine. So she was still in her wrinkled silk bathrobe, and the voluminous nightgown she’d been wearing since this morning. Joan hadn’t really given her clothes much thought yet – even the idea of showering was exhausting – but Mom was right. She couldn’t let anyone see her like this.

“Don’t be stupid.”

Forty-five minutes later she was showered, dressed, and had fixed her face. Although her pink floral cinched uncomfortably over the hips, it still zipped – and it was from before she’d even had Kevin.

After staring at her reflection with a critical eye, Joan reached for the glass stopper of her perfume, tapped it gently against the bottle’s mouth, and dabbed a little scent onto her wrists and the curve of her neck, just below her ears.

Her mother glanced her up and down with a critical eye. Joan knew that look. She thought this was a stupid idea.

“You’re going to get caught.”

“It’s not like that,” Joan grumbled, refusing to acknowledge the way the straps of her slip dug into her shoulder as she replaced the bottle stopper. She needed to reduce. The welts from her girdle were practically rising already. “He wants me to tour the company.”

“Really.”

Joan fixed her mother with an annoyed expression. “To get a second opinion on the books. That’s all.”

Lane doesn’t really like me, she didn’t bother to explain. He’s inviting me out of pity. You’d understand if you met him. We barely got along in New York.

I understand that all men are dizzy and powerless to refuse you…

She shook her head to clear it, and gave her reflection one last inspection in the mirror. Well, she’d probably looked worse.

“Don’t stare too long, Narcissus,” her mother said with a scoff, and Joan turned away from the mirror.

**

His office was located in the American section of Steglitz, near the university and just north of the botanical gardens. Joan tried not to wince as she got an eyeful of the buildings around it; next door’s front stoop was covered in beer cans and cigarette butts. Looked like student housing, judging by the look of the two kids who were smoking out front.

She boarded the elevator and rode to the fourth floor, and when the doors opened, the first person she saw was a matronly receptionist who sat behind a battered desk, separated from the rest of the office by a glass wall and double doors. Across from her desk was a pair of dilapidated green chairs and a small coffee table, while behind the glass was an open workspace with four to six small desks laid out in neat columns on either side of a wide corridor. It had probably been meant to be the secretarial pool at one time, Joan assumed, although each employee seemed to have piles of papers and personal belongings stuffed into their corners.

On the far right hand side, she thought she spotted a modest office with a window – Lane’s, she assumed – and in the far left hand corner opposite that, there was an identical one, with the door closed. Maybe it was conference space.

God, she hoped he didn’t bring clients here. It looked like a disaster area.

Joan studied the engraved name printed on the glass doors as the elevator slid closed behind her. PAA. And under that, in even smaller print: Pryce and Associates, Inc. Ugh. It sounded like a regional airline, not an ad agency.

To her left, the receptionist hadn’t batted an eyelash, with a cigarette clenched in one crone-like hand and a magazine balanced on her lap. The cherry was so long Joan hoped it would fall from the tip and singe one of the pages.

She cleared her throat. “Guten tag.”

“Good morning,” the woman said in heavily accented English, as she pushed her cigarette into the ashtray, and removed her thick glasses. “You are here for…?”

Joan pulled off her gloves, and balanced them over the top of her pocketbook. She summoned up her best smile. “Mr. Pryce is expecting me.”

“Yes. His afternoon is very full,” the woman replied flatly. “Did you have appointment?”

Joan raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry. There must be a misunderstanding—”

“Mrs. Harris?” came a sudden voice, and she turned to see Lane had pushed one of the double doors open, and was striding towards her. He was very energetic today. She didn’t remember him being so energetic before.

“Hello again.”

“I’m—forgive me. I didn’t realize our appointment was—so soon.”

Shit. Had she misread the letter? “I hope I’m not intruding.”

“No, no,” Lane held up two hands. “Everyone’s at lunch. And there’s someone else coming along at one, but it’s only the plumber. No clients.”

“So,” the secretary began, “you will not be taking your usual—?”

“Obviously not, Marta, thank you,” Lane glanced from Marta to Joan in a bemused way, like the woman should have figured this much out. The receptionist stared back at him with such palpable contempt it set Joan’s teeth on edge. “Now, then, if you will get our guest some tea? And Mrs. Harris, through here, please.”

“Of course,” Joan gave Marta the most withering smile she could manage before she followed him. “Thank you for all your help, dear.”

They walked through the glass doors and down the corridor of the small, mahogany-paneled bullpen. Joan noticed two young men working together in one corner, sketching out something. The two desks closest to her overflowed with drawings and posterboards, a stack of files were stashed behind their desk chairs, and typewriters keys gleamed from greasy fingers. If Ida Blankenship had ever seen a steno pool like this, she’d have gone insane.

Thankfully, Lane’s office was fairly neat, although Joan had to suppress a knowing smile once she eyed the surface of the desk. If she remembered correctly, scrap papers always got dumped in there in droves.

He closed the door, and gestured for her to have a seat as he settled into his red leather chair. This was noticeably smaller than the office he’d had at Sterling Cooper or SCDP, Joan thought ruefully, but it was much more tastefully decorated. No towering suit of armor crammed into the corner, no oddities inherited from Mr. Cooper, just a fresh coat of green paint and a few naval paintings hung on the far wall. The lamp and abacus and blotter and pipe holder still had places of honor at the top of his desk. He’d also installed a couple of long shelves above where his crendenza had stood in the old offices, and so his blue-willow tea set and a few coffee table books and some other items gave nice life to the room.

“Joan?” he asked suddenly, and she startled.

“I'm sorry. It’s a beautiful space,” she offered quickly. “Although you didn’t bring me here for decoration advice.”

“No, I did not.”

Lane reached for the file cabinet that sat slightly to his left; two tall brown drawers bookended the wall behind him. He pulled out a leather-bound ledger, and ran one hand over the top of it before placing it in front of her.

“As I mentioned, I’d like to solicit your expertise, not only in the financial sector, but in particular, with the staffing. That’s been the, er, sticking point, you understand.”

Joan raised an eyebrow. “Well, you don’t seem to have trouble retaining people.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Everyone’s comfortable.” She gestured to the bullpen through the shuttered blinds. “Photographs, personal items, desk clutter.”

That hausfrau in the hallway.

Lane sighed, and removed his glasses. Meaning there was more to this story than she’d noticed. Interesting. “Well. I had held previous employees to a much higher standard, but there was endless complaining.”

And probably a lot of turnover. Joan reached out for the ledger. “May I?”

“Please.”

Her eyes widened as she opened it, began to read, and took in the first year’s budget. “Jesus. That’s all you started with?”

He made an amused noise.

“No wonder you’re still on austerity.”

Solve the problem. Her mind whirred as she flipped through each page, filing away numbers in the back of her head. Year one, loss. Year two, profit. Year three, profit. Year four, profit. Year five…

She let out a sharp breath. These numbers couldn’t be right.

“You seem surprised,” Lane commented dryly.

“Well.” Joan glanced up from the ledger, and cleared her throat in an attempt to mask her shock. As ruthless as he’d been with the budget in the early days, even SCDP had never grown profits like this—probably because no one like Roger or Don was spending a carefully laid margin into the poorhouse. “I don’t know what to say. It’s clearly not a money problem.”

It was hard to hide her sudden pang of disappointment. She’d been so ready to utilize those skills; move money around in a hundred creative ways just so the office could stay afloat for another week. Just like the old days.

“On the contrary. I need you to find four more salaries in there.”

Four.

He had to be joking. Joan turned her attention back to the ledger; her mind jumped into action again. Even with profit margins in the double digits—and most businesses would kill for these numbers—the amount of steady cash he needed wouldn’t be enough to hire four people. Let alone four professionals with an ounce of job experience. Who the hell was he kidding?

“You could do so much with this kind of surplus,” she said, hoping she could change his mind about that number. “A new space. Bonuses. Renovations.”

“Mrs. Harris—” he began, but she refused to let him interrupt.

“New people are expensive. Hiring is expensive. And you can’t fit four more professionals into this budget without sacrificing your comfort or your sanity.”

He regarded her with a serious air. “So you think it’s a fool’s gambit.”

“No, I meant, why four?” Joan tried to dodge the question. “What services are essential?”

Lane ticked off the people on his fingers. “Well, we’ve got a writer, obviously, and an art director-stroke-photographer, although those two jobs are getting to be a bit of a sticky wicket, taken together. Then there’s two accounts men, and also our eminent receptionist.”

Hm. So they’d need an art director and writer apiece, and a full secretary, who could double as an executive assistant. She had no idea why he kept saying four people. “I counted six desks.”

Lane’s face darkened. “May as well have had two rotating doors installed in place of them.”

Ah. Joan tried not to seem satisfied, although she still had one last question. “So why do you need me?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Sorry?”

She set the ledger aside, and lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “You could have hired someone to consult for you months ago.”

“Well, I intend to hire you to do it.”

Dread crept into her stomach. Joan steeled herself for the unpleasant truth. “But you don’t like me. Why would you want to work together again?”

“I—” Lane sputtered to a halt, his mouth half open. “What?”

“You don’t have to pretend it’s not true.” She refolded her hands in her lap, oddly uncomfortable. “Some version of that sentiment came out of your mouth almost every day we were in that office together. I don’t care what you say or you’re being ridiculous or don’t play coy.”

He was still staring at her. It was starting to become unnerving.

“Not that it matters now.” She waved one hand in a dismissive motion. “I’m just curious.”

The long silence that fell over the room was thick with tension; it lasted for so long that Joan actually had to look away, and had to stop herself from squirming in her chair like an impatient child.

“Well. Initially, we—we did start off on the wrong foot, but that wasn’t any indication of the future. Everything we did…all the hours we spent…you must know that I—I trust you.”

Her gaze snapped back to his in silent shock; Lane gave a funny sort of laugh, and just shrugged before averting his eyes.

“When we met at the market—I only thought—there had to be some particular purpose in our crossing paths. We’re in the same industry. We worked at the same company, and now, here we are again.” He let out a sigh. “I’ve never believed in coincidence, you know.”

“Out of all the gin joints?” She wanted to get the tension out of the air, but he didn’t smile at her glib reference.

“No, don’t joke.” His voice had become more emphatic. “Mrs. Harris. You understand how a successful business ought to function, and I believe you will know precisely what needs to be done here. As far as I’m concerned, you are the only person suited for this position. Will you consider it?”

Joan considered this. Maybe it was a devil-you-know situation. He probably just wanted to work with someone who he wouldn’t have to waste time getting to know; a temporary consultant who wouldn’t come crawling back begging for more hours, or who wouldn’t get offended when he threw a fit over switching to the generic coffee creamer brand. Which had actually happened before.

“Well,” she let out a breath. “I don’t see why—”

The door opened behind her with a bang; Joan jumped and almost shrieked in surprise before she realized it was that stupid secretary carrying a large metal tea tray in one hand.

“Here you go,” Marta deposited it onto Lane’s desk so brusquely it was a wonder the whole dish set didn’t topple into the floor. “For guest.”

She was out of the office and striding down the hallway before Lane’s sputtered thank you could even register. Joan tried to control her exasperated look. That nasty piece of work was going to be the first one out the door. They could hire someone younger and more pleasant instead.

“Forgive me,” Lane broke her train of thought as he set one steaming china teacup in front of her. “But I don’t remember how you take your tea.”

Joan blinked. “One sugar, thank you.”

**

“Jesus.” Greg was laughing, open-mouthed, with a little bit of mustard hanging out of one side of his lip. “You got a job?”

Joan took a deep breath, determined not to throw something into his smug face. Kevin was old enough to understand when his parents were fighting. Even though he was in his room, and had eaten earlier, he couldn’t hear them fight like that anymore. That was something she’d sworn not to do.

“Now, Greg,” her mother dolloped out a scoop of potato salad onto his plate, and gave Joan a look that said bite your tongue when he wasn’t looking, “I think it’s a good thing. Let her get out of the house, feel a little important.”

“Feel important?” Joan echoed, outraged.

“Oh, sweetheart, don’t give me that attitude,” Gail set the pot down onto the table; the blue serving spoon skittered around the edge before screeching to a stop above the handle. “I think, and I’m sure Greg agrees, that you’ll be happier once you can gab with the girls at that little office. Work a few days a week, and come home refreshed. Have a few stories. What’s the harm?”

You know what I’m doing there, Joan wanted to scream. It’s a good job – an important job. There are no goddamn girls to talk to. Where the hell do you think I’m working, the West Berlin Macy’s?

But she stayed quiet and watched Greg react to this pronouncement. He pulled a face and frowned and nodded like there were so many moving parts to consider. Like her getting a job had been his idea all along.

“Yeah,” he said finally, as her mother stood up to get a refill for herself and another beer for him. “I guess that’d be okay.”

Joan was so relieved she felt like it was pouring off of her in waves. Standing behind Greg, her mother didn’t even bother to hide her triumphant expression. See what I did? See how easy it was? That’s how you get a man to do things for you.

It was going to come with strings attached, Joan thought with a loud sigh. There were always strings attached.

Later, once Greg was in the shower and Kevin was down for the night, her mother motioned Joan over from the staticky television.

“Joanie. Come take your vitamin.”

Joan had gotten up, walked over, taken it from her outstretched hand without protest, and gulped it down with a few sips of water before realizing what it was, and why she’d been taking it at the same time every night.

Birth control. Her mother was giving her birth control pills.

Her eyes widened as she put the glass back down onto the counter. She and Greg had fought over that for months after Kevin was born, and the last time they’d had that argument was right after moving here.

You’re a woman! You’re supposed to want more than one kid!

Every single month she got her period, she cried with relief. No more. Not this month.

“Mom,” she choked out, close to tears for some reason, but her mother just waved a dismissive hand, voice light and airy.

“Don’t fuss. Dr. Emerson says they’re good for your health.”

Shut up. Don’t ruin it.

Joan snapped her mouth closed, and let herself bask in the brief snippet of peace that followed this realization. She was on the pill again. Walter was helping her all the way from New York. And tomorrow, she was going to start her new job.

Chapter Text

Her official tour of the office lasted less than five minutes. First, Lane took her over to two paper-cluttered desks that made up creative, and indicated the petite wild-haired boy sitting by the aisle. His messy desk was covered in open folders and food wrappers, and he wore a badly fitting plaid jacket. “Mrs. Harris, our esteemed writer, Michael Ginsberg. Michael, this is Joan Harris, our financial consultant.”

“Hey, how’s it going,” said the boy, who barely shook her hand long enough to grasp her fingers. “Oh. Wait.” He glanced at Lane, and scratched the side of his head. “Was I supposed to say it in German?”

Joan lifted a surprised eyebrow. Dear god. He sounded like he’d just gotten off the train at Park Slope. “Are you from New York?”

“What? Oh, yeah. I guess he didn’t mention it.”

How did a kid from the city end up all the way out here? She pressed her lips together, deciding not to ask that question. Army brat. College. Moved for the job. There were a hundred possible reasons why he wasn’t a Berliner. Joan didn’t think she should loiter long enough to find any of them out. “Well, it’s nice to meet another one, Michael.”

“It’s Ginsberg!” he called out after her as she and Lane walked the two feet away to the second creative desk; here, a thirtysomething man with neat blonde hair and very long sideburns was poring over an arrangement of photo prints.

“Frederich,” he said after Lane introduced him. As he reached forward to shake her hand, she noticed a couple clippings from photo negatives were stuck to his rolled-up sleeves. “Ich freue mich auf die Zusammenarbeit mit Ihnen.”

Oh, god. Joan racked her brain for the words. I-I look… “I’m sorry, I only caught the first part.”

“He says he’s looking forward to working with you. As are we all,” Lane supplied quickly, and motioned toward the other two desks, which were across the room toward reception. They began to walk in that direction. “Now, accounts is over here. Hans is the senior man, and Dominic, right there, the junior.”

“You once worked in accounts before, yes?” Dominic asked as he reached out to shake her hand. He looked like a young Rudy Valentino; tall and swarthy. “Perhaps we will, how you say, swap notes.”

A few feet away, Lane was engrossed in conversation with Hans, and so the lie sprung to Joan’s lips, automatic. “I did, yes.” She managed to smile, although her heart was pounding with anxiety. “You’ll have to update me on all the clients.”

 

 

The voices inside Lane’s office kept getting louder and louder.

“Marta, please. Mrs. Harris only means—and I agree—that—“

“She’s about to go postal,” Frederich muttered to Michael and Hans, who eyed Lane’s closed door with nervous expressions. Those two had brought Marta into his office a few minutes ago, and it sounded pretty tense.

“C’mon. You think Joan’s crazy? Lane hates crazy.”

Hans snorted out a noise that meant Ginsberg was completely wrong. “He hired Marta.

“Yeah, but Marta doesn’t give two craps about this place, and—”

Behind the closed door, a chair scraped against the floor, and a woman’s voice – Marta’s – rose to a yell. “Grünschnabel!1

“Oh, boy.”

“—klugscheiβer—!”  2

“Now, Marta, surely you—you must realise—“

“Scheiβratte!” Another voice drowned out the other two, faster and higher-pitched. “Das ist ja Kinderkacke, Marta!” 3

“Ladies, I-I really must insist—“

A long stream of mixed English and German curses drowned out Lane’s plea, so obscenely colorful that after a few seconds, Frederich turned red and started laughing.

“Scheisse.”

“Jesus. Is she allowed to do that?”

Joan’s tirade ended with a succinct “—fick dich ins Knie!” 4

Hans suppressed a snort as the door flew open with a bang, and Marta strode out of Lane’s office with Joan and Lane not far behind. She turned to face the two of them, and spat on the ground.

“Flachzange!”  5

With that, Marta marched down the corridor and out the doors into the hall, with Lane and Mrs. Harris staring after her: Lane with his arms crossed over his chest, frowning, and Joan wearing her calm poker face. It was eerie as hell, honestly.

Frederich, of course, had to make a stupid comment, and waved a hand to get Joan’s attention. "Mrs. Harris, you curse very fluently.”

Joan glared at him, stone-faced, before she and Lane retreated back into his office and shut the door behind them.

 

           

“Give me one good reason why not,” Joan pushed the file folder of resumes across the desk in Lane’s direction; the one at the top was her current favorite candidate. Joan just loved saying the girl’s name. Katya. Katya. It was very Doctor Zhivago. “Young women are very resourceful.”

“And very dramatic.”

She glared at him. “They’ll smile and smooth over problems and converse happily with clients. And they’re cheap hires.”

“And they’ll gossip on the telephone, and cry over their boyfriends, and have those two imbeciles—” he gestured toward the window, where Michael and Frederich were working “—fawning over them.”

“We can always throw a bucket of cold water on them.”

Lane raised an eyebrow. “The boyfriends or the employees?”

“Both,” said Joan, and stabbed at the top of the heap with one red fingernail. “We’re bringing her in.”

 

 

After a flawless typing test, a spelling test, and after giving Joan a presentation that she’d written herself, regarding the best translations of common German idioms, Katya was hired. A short, willowy girl with ash blonde hair, a Romanesque nose, and an almost-permanent smirk, she worked hard, didn’t complain, and she didn’t take any shit from the boys.

Mein gott, Mrs. Harris,” she’d said at the end of the first day, after they’d cleaned out and organized Marta’s desk and the two others, which clearly hadn’t been emptied since the last occupants sat there. Her slightly accented English had a British lilt. “These boys are so dirty. How do they live like this?”

She and Joan reorganized reception, reviewed client correspondence, and wrote lists and lists of to-do items on a yellow legal pad. A few days after that, Joan bullied the boys into cleaning up their work spaces, reviewed the last of the budget, and selected finalists from the pile of resumes regarding the receptionist position. Like hell she’d let an executive secretary like Katya waste her time in the lobby. The woman was too talented for that.

Two days after she and Lane interviewed and hired Brigitta, a shy, quiet girl who seemed simple but friendly enough, Joan decided it was time to address the matter of the empty office.

“Lane,” she said carefully, standing in his doorway. It was still odd to call him by his first name, even when they were alone together. “Are you planning to bring on a partner, anytime soon?”

She had several points she wanted to make about her using that office. It would make a better impression on the new hires. It would allow her to make phone calls in peace, especially if they were regarding confidential finance or client information. And, honestly, sprucing it up would give them somewhere else to meet besides Lane’s office, which had gotten a little stale.

Joan had gotten maybe two sentences into her pitch before Lane stopped her with a perplexed frown and a wave of one hand.

“Oh—by all means, take it if you like.”

She had the place swept, wiped down, and prepared within a couple of days, and after a few more days, she began to make it workable: adding a few pieces of small furniture—end tables and lamps, and her favorite part—a fresh new calendar for the far wall. Although she was technically a temporary employee, it was nice to have a little visual interest in the room.

Joan was astute enough to admit she also wanted to personalize the place, just a little. Maybe the next person who worked here would appreciate it.

It was, she thought as she placed the last of the folders into the middle file drawer and surveyed the room, basically the type of work she’d done at the beginning of her career. Cleaning and organizing and managing a skeleton staff.

You could do worse, the voice in her head reminded her.

Strangely, Lane was as quiet as ever. Joan had assumed his newfound zest for life would carry over from the business side of things, and that he’d be in her ear constantly asking for advice or making conversation or catching her up on what she’d missed since they last worked together, but he had been very reserved so far. He’d leave his office door open for most of the day, and talk on the telephone to clients or go out with accounts if they needed his input. He’d usually have a long meeting with her after lunch or at the end of the day to ensure priorities were aligned. And every week, usually a Wednesday, they’d have an afternoon tea.

That was it.

Well. She supposed she couldn’t ask him to be more outgoing, when it wasn’t in his nature. He was very busy here, obviously; much busier than he had ever been at SCDP. There were clients to meet and employees to manage. And if she sometimes wished she could knock on his door and talk to him without a file or a teacup gripped in one hand, the feeling passed almost as quickly as it came.

You could do worse.

 

 

Brigitta was missing from her desk, and so Joan wedged the pram between the half-open glass door and the hinges in a daze, cringing at the way Kevin’s screams rose in pitch as she tried to push it through without catching her purse or satchel on the door. Her ears rang and her head pounded from listening to him cry all night. He wouldn’t stop. This morning, Greg had thrown a damn fit about it, and left before the sun was even up, plus Mom was still so sick she couldn’t even get out of bed.

She glanced into the buggy. The baby was still red-faced and screaming, his mouth open wide and his face almost purple.

Oh, god, why wouldn’t he shut up?

The boys stared at her with anxious eyes as she wheeled the pram past their desks and into her office. She could feel them judging her, and couldn’t stand it.

“Goodness,” Lane was standing in his doorway, and frowned deeply at the two of them as they passed Katya’s desk. He looked horrified. “Someone’s in a state.”

“I know,” Joan hung her coat and satchel on the coatrack as she spoke, and dropped her purse as she tried to hang it next to them, “and I’m sorry, but—” Kevin’s wails got louder “—my mother couldn’t watch him, and he just—”

“It’s all right.” Lane held up his hands in surrender. She noticed the way he winced at the noise. God, he probably just wanted to fire her. Or throw her out. Who the hell brings a screaming baby to work? “Just—see what you can do about it, hm?”

The phone rang. He indicated to Katya with a raised hand that she should wait to answer it.

Joan gave him a tight smile in reply as she backed into her office with the buggy in hand, not sure if she could do anything at all to keep the noise down.

“Of course.”

           

 

Two interminable hours later, out in the bullpen alone, Lane pressed one hand to each of his ears, where he’d stuffed some gauze from the first aid kit into them. The boy was still crying, even after all this time. While the others had already gone for lunch, declaring the endless screaming unbearable, Lane had stayed, assuming that Joan would have it under control soon enough.

Why she hadn’t been able to quiet him yet was beyond all reasoning.

With a sigh, he pulled the gauze from his ears and resigned himself to full-blast wailing. Shockingly, he was met with something very close to silence, broken only by the baby’s muffled whimpering, behind Joan’s closed door.

He got up from his chair and walked over, relieved, but when he lifted his hand to knock, a sudden, harsh cry made him stop in his tracks. Not Kevin’s.

Oh, god. Tell me she isn’t—?

Lane stood there unmoving, and leaned forward to listen very carefully. On closer inspection, the baby was hardly making any sound at all; whining softly in a way that suggested it had nearly worn itself out. But above that was the distinct noise of muffled sobs: Joan, crying, clearly trying not to be heard.

Inside the room, Kevin let out another small wail.

“Please stop,” Joan whispered on the heels of a congested noise; whether she was talking to herself or to the baby, Lane didn’t know. “Oh, god, please just stop.”

He should have walked away. He should have left her alone. But Lane couldn’t turn away from the door without feeling a dreadful, heavy ache in his stomach, and so after he hesitated another moment to gather his courage, he turned the handle and stepped inside.

Joan sat slumped on the sofa with the baby in her arms, and looked up with a gasp once she saw him. Her tear-streaked face was bright red and her temples and the underarms of her green dress were damp with perspiration. She held the baby with one hand and was wiping at her face with the other, and in her hold, Kevin kicked off his blanket with another squall of annoyance.

Lane had never felt more sympathy for anyone in all his life. How long had she been like this? Why didn’t he look for her sooner?

“Here.” He crossed the room at once, gesturing for her to hand the child over. “Give him to me.”

It was a mark of how upset Joan was that she did not argue; did not even hesitate, just passed the baby to him and immediately hid her face in both hands, still too upset to say anything.

Oh, poor dear. Lane adjusted his hold on Kevin so the lad was better balanced in the crook of his arm. Frantically, he racked his brain for a better way to comfort her, but he had no words – he could think of nothing that might help except soothing the baby. All he could do was stand here and rock the lad back and forth, with the vain hope that it would calm him. Perhaps if the baby were calm, Joan might be able to relax, as well.

“There, there, little one,” Lane murmured to Kevin, who had screwed his face up in a way that suggested he might start howling soon, instead of whimpering. “What’s all this fuss and nonsense, hm? What’s got you so upset?”

Kevin gave a little alarmed screech, and waved two tiny fists in the air. One bumped against Lane's chest.

“Oh, yes,” Lane said cheerfully, as if this were an excellent point. “I’m aware. But you will have to sleep eventually, you know. No use pretending otherwise.”

After a couple of minutes, Kevin stopped most of his squirming, and Lane was able to get a proper look at him. He pressed the back of his free hand to Kevin’s little forehead and cheek. The child was very hot to the touch, eyes glassy and cheeks wet, and a small tuft of blonde hair was stuck to his forehead. Lane brushed it away with two fingers.

“Poor little thing.”

When he glanced at Joan to see how she was doing, his heart dropped into his stomach. No longer hiding her face, she was staring at some distant point on the floor, but looked sadder than he had ever seen her, even on the last day at the agency; worried lines were etched across her forehead and her chin trembled and her too-bright eyes were bloodshot. She seemed utterly exhausted.

“You really didn’t have to come in today, you know.”

The work can wait. His words were meant as a kind of peace offering, but it was apparently the wrong thing to say, as Joan made a sort of squeaking sound, and began to cry again.

“I’m s-sorry. He’s teething.”

Lane sat down next to her at once, and put the still-unhappy Kevin into the pram on his immediate right, deciding that wheeling it back and forth might be more useful than having a baby in one arm. After another moment, he put a tentative hand on Joan’s shoulder.

“There were plenty of sleepless nights when Nigel was this age,” he said first. “Ghastly business.”

Joan let out a sniff. He quickly dug into his trouser pocket for a handkerchief, which she took without a word.

Lane kept talking, making sure he continued to roll Kevin’s buggy with his free hand. The lad was still whining, but not as loudly as before, now. “When it was our time, Becca and I got—well, very desperate. I think in the end, she froze a bit of gin and water into some plastic ice trays and let Nigel gnaw at them, like a little toothless rabbit.”

When Lane glanced over, he noticed she was not weeping as much as before, but a sudden thought occurred to him—had the child been like this all night? Had Joan been able to get any rest at all?

“If he had a little sleep, would it make you feel better?”

Joan smiled for a fraction of a second, but it only lasted for a moment before her mouth thinned again.

“It’s not him,” she made a watery sound, “—it’s just—”

She teared up again, and swiped at her face with his handkerchief.

“I feel so lost,” she said finally.

Lane tightened his grip on her shoulder. Why would she feel lost? Was she still homesick? Was it the work?

“And I thought once I had the baby, things would be different, but I’m still—” she let out another sniff. “Alone.”

He bit back the questions that hovered at the front of his mind. Doesn’t your husband do anything? How could he not see that you’re so overwhelmed? Is it something I’ve done? Let me help. You're not alone. I don’t want you to think that.

When she glanced over, as if gauging his reaction, he held her gaze. “I felt that way when I left New York. Like I was terribly adrift, and nobody had noticed. It was...very painful.”

She nodded, but she was still very quiet. Lane pulled his hand away from the pram handle in order to press it against the side of her knee. God, why had he told her about his own feelings? He needed to be reassuring. He needed to comfort her.

“If anyone can get through the worst of it, you can.”

She made a skeptical face, and wouldn’t meet his eyes, but he continued.

“No—now, I have seen the way you work. I have seen the way you think. And I know in my bones that nothing can pull you down for long. That’s the type of person you are. You—Joan, you have so much strength.”

“I don’t feel strong,” she whispered.

Her voice caught in the middle of the sentence, and Lane’s heart broke at how plaintive she sounded, and the way she stared at the ground. It was the same look he’d seen in the square, when they had met; her usual confidence and charm replaced by an unnerving, quiet melancholy. He had not realized how well her poise truly suited her until it was gone; he wished he could snap his fingers and instantly lift her out of her gloom. In New York, Joan had always seemed radiant: self-assured and witty and full of joie de vivre.

Lane wanted to see her feel that way again.

“You are,” he said in a tone that brooked no argument. “And the next time you forget, or you’re at your wit’s end, come and get me, and I’ll remind you of it.”

The answering smile she gave him was very weak, but it was better than none at all. Lane decided to try and make her laugh this time.

“Now, that’s assuming neither of us are blubbering on like Kevin at the time of crisis, but generally—”

Joan’s eyes widened, and she straightened up, her voice a whisper. “Lane.”

Why wouldn’t she let him finish?

“—I really do think—”

She shushed him. He pulled his hands away from her, alarmed.

“No, just listen,” she said in a low voice.

He did—and then realized exactly what she meant. Everything was quiet.

“Oh.” She let out a huge breath of relief, and together, they leaned forward and peered into the pram, where an exhausted Kevin was finally asleep, sprawled out on his back with his mouth open.

“Thank god for that,” Lane agreed, quirking a grin in Joan’s direction.

She smiled back this time.

"Right.” He decided they shouldn’t waste a prime opportunity for tea and sustenance. “I'll put the kettle on."

After a few minutes in the galley kitchen, he returned with two sizeable mugs of builder’s tea in one hand and a small plate in the other, which held the ham and cheese sandwich he'd intended to have for lunch. He didn't feel much like eating, now, and it seemed better that Joan get some food and get her spirits up than for him to wave an enormous plate around in front of her, like an idiot.

"You really didn’t need to do this," Joan gave him a pointed look as he set her cup and plate down on the end table. “I’m not hungry.”

Lane shrugged, and pretended not to know what she was talking about. "Well. It's only leftovers, but you're welcome to it. I’m not going to eat anything."

After a minute or so, she took a small nibble of food, closed her eyes like she’d just tasted manna from heaven, and then bit into the sandwich again, with the gusto of someone who hadn’t eaten properly in years. Lane had to suppress a satisfied noise. Least he’d done something right.

“Tell me about how you got here,” she said, after she’d gobbled down most of her meal, and half her tea. In the pram, Kevin was out like a light. “I don’t think I’ve heard the whole story.”

“Oh.” Lane didn’t know why she wanted to hear about that. “Well. It’s a bit—convoluted—but I’ll give you the short version, first.”

Chapter Text

They passed a large bed of roses as they walked through the middle of the botanical garden, pink and yellow and red and white buds bursting vibrant above thick stems rooted in green grass. Joan loved the way they looked, how soft their petals were. If they hadn't been looking for a place to sit down, she would have stopped the conversation to go look at them up close.

“So the business is technically based in England," she said instead.

Although it was a few blocks away from the office, she and Lane had begun to meet here during lunch, as a way to get out of the building for more than an elevator ride. Joan wasn’t crazy about all the walking, but being outside was fine, especially in the spring, and Lane was good company. At least she was catching up on the history of things.

“Mm. Learned from my last mistake.” Lane’s wide smile lit up his face. “If the establishing paperwork for a business gets filed in England, they consider it an English business with a European branch. I’m able to invest my money how I see fit. And Inland Revenue doesn’t snipe half the profits through taxes.”

Joan couldn’t help smiling back. “Not a bad lesson at all.”

“No, indeed,” Lane gestured to an open bench. Once they sat down, he opened his briefcase and pulled out two bright glass bottles of soda – orange for him, ginger ale for her – and opened them.

“What are we eating today?” she asked, as he handed over the ginger ale and a wax-paper-wrapped sandwich, one by one. “Ham or turkey?”

Since she was supposed to be reducing, she hadn’t brought lunch to work for the last couple of weeks, in an attempt to skip a few meals. For some reason, Lane got so upset about it that he eventually started bringing extra food for her. Joan had meant to refuse it, of course, but she’d felt sorry for his trouble, the first day it happened, and then on the second day she’d been starving, and then after that she just stopped pretending she wasn’t going to eat whatever he brought. Her clothes had been fitting better lately, despite the extra calories. Plus, it was cheaper than eating out, which she certainly couldn’t complain about.

“Ah. Well. I got a bit experimental with these, so it’s—if you don’t like it, we’ll just grab something from the market.”

Hm. Joan tried a bite of her sourdough roll, tasted hot tender beef and sweet carrots and celery and some kind of tangy rich gravy, like au jus. Brushing over her chin with the back of her knuckles in an attempt to keep juice from going everywhere, she swallowed the bite, and made a pleased sound. Had he just made this today? 

“This is good.”

“Is it?”

She nodded, still surprised. For some reason she thought he didn’t cook very much. Maybe he’d just been using up some deli leftovers, before. “Reminds me of pot roast.”

“Mmph.” Lane was mid-mouthful, and so he shielded his mouth with a hand before speaking again. “Well. It is pot roast.”

“How the hell did you come up with this idea?”

And how can you cook a pot roast? I can’t even cook a pot roast.

He made a noise that said it should have been obvious. “Nigel.”

“Oh, my god,” Joan had to grin at the image. Of course a teenage boy would come up with that idea. Of course a teenage boy would want to live on meat and gravy sandwiches.

“This is better than my mother’s,” she told him after a few more bites. Lane’s face lit up in a delighted way, but she quickly shushed him, as if Mom was going to pop up in the middle of the park and overhear them talking.

“Don’t tell her I said that.”

 

 

Just before 9AM, Joan swept into the lobby ahead of a skiff of wind, which blew fallen flower blossoms and spring leaves across the stoop as the door swung closed behind her. She stopped to pull off the scarf that covered her hair as she crossed the lobby, and it was at that second that the notice caught her eye. In the far right corner behind his desk, Günter was stapling it to the large corkboard hanging on the wall, stark black letters bold against white paper:

Property for sale.

She stopped walking, and immediately began to formulate the sentence in her head so she could ask him about this. Is the building for sale? The whole building? How did Germans express the difference between whole and half? Or part? Maybe a flat or single space was up for lease, and not the entire building. Maybe floor three was emptying out? But the law office never seemed to have any complaints….

“Fräuline Harris! Guten morgen.”

Joan snapped back to attention. Günter was waving at her. He always said her name in the strangest way: Hare-ees, emphasis on the second syllable, the two r’s elided instead of standing out. And he always called her Fräuline, which she hated—according to Lane, it was regarding how young she looked, although Lane had refused to give further specifics.

Cheap flattery about her figure, probably, but Joan wasn’t going to turn a blind eye to it. Not many people tried to flatter her these days, let alone say hello.

“Frau,” she corrected firmly, but waved back in a pleasant way before she pushed the button for the rickety little elevator. She could ask him about it later. Today’s German lesson: find out the words for whole. And floor.

 

 

In bed in the dark, Joan lay quietly on her back, with Greg rutting away on top of her, her legs wrapped around his thighs and her hands resting lightly on his bare shoulders. Another few minutes and he'd come, maybe. She let her gaze wander over his right shoulder and down to the dresser that sat to the left of the bed. Light from the small window kept making one of the drawer handle pulls wink at her, like some faceless sprite imagined by a kid who might be afraid of the dark.

Greg shifted on top of her, and made a frustrated huffing sound. Either he was almost there or he was annoyed because she wasn't really trying. It didn't matter. Her mind drifted back to the office and the for sale posting she'd seen up in the lobby. If Günter was selling the floor below theirs, maybe they could lease or buy it at a reduced cost since...

"Shit," Greg hissed into her ear, thrust faster, and Joan snapped back to attention, ready to shush and pet him into a soporific sleep so she could take an aspirin and go to bed. But, she realized with a start, it wasn't his orgasm. Not even close.

He wasn't hard anymore.

"Damn it." His voice was louder now, breath after frustrated breath in her ear, and his hand moved between them as he pulled out a little, squeezing himself, testing. "God damn it."

He withdrew. Joan couldn't help the grimace she gave him as he pushed up onto his knees; she must have looked flabbergasted. Her voice was a whisper. 

"Greg?"

"Just..." he clamped his mouth closed, and glanced down at his limp cock, boyish face contorted with anger as he made a jerk-off motion with one arm. Moonlight streamed through the thin curtains, casting a long shadow across his body. "Fuck! Don't talk to me."

With that, he got out of bed, opened the door to the hall, and stormed outside. The bathroom door slammed shut behind him, and after a second of hesitation, Joan got up, pulled on her silk robe and rushed after him.

The hallway was always drafty at this time of night, even with the robe, and the lineoleum floor was freezing under her bare feet. Joan cast a nervous glance toward the closed door of the second bedroom as she shifted her weight from side to side. The baby wasn't crying - thank god, it didn't wake him up - but Joan saw the tiny stream of light that issued from under the frame, and knew her mother had heard. She tried not to think about that, and concentrated on talking to her husband instead. It sounded like he was kicking the side of the laundry hamper, or maybe opening it up. Clothes rumpled together as they hit the floor.

What the hell was he doing? Why was he having this kind of tantrum? Good god, it was one hard-on, not some botched operation!

"Greg," she said again, still not able to keep the incredulous note out of her voice, "just come back to bed. We'll—" well, whatever, "it's okay. It doesn't matter."

"Joan, I said shut up!"

She pulled a face. What the hell else was she supposed to do, pretend she didn't notice? He’d been inside her, for god’s sake!

"Honey," she tried to reassure him again, although her heart wasn't in it, "it's late, and you're tired, and you shouldn’t—"

The door flew open, and there Greg stood, wearing the uniform he'd put in the laundry just last night and holding his shaving kit in his other hand. His mouth was set in a line. "I said I don't want to talk about it."

"You—you're leaving?" Joan couldn't even be angry; she felt washed through with shock and exhaustion and a twisted, sick desire to burst out laughing. "Greg."

Come on, she tried to say. I don’t care. I really don't give a shit. It's not like I was having fun anyway.

"Wh—where are you going?" was all she managed to get out.

He shoved past her with a roll of his eyes, and within a minute, he was through the front door. The door had barely closed behind him before Mom had poked her head out into the hallway; her neon pink curlers and yellow cap looked ridiculous at this hour, for some reason. Joan bit the inside of her cheek to stop from smiling.

"What the hell was that all about?"

"I don't know," Joan replied dully, but she covered her mouth in case Greg came back inside and saw the shit-eating grin on her face. It was the stupidest thing that had happened to her in months, so stupid it was laughable. What the hell did he think he was going to do on base, force himself on some poor Army nurse to prove he was fine? Over one sexual mishap?

She slept alone in the middle of the bed for the rest of the night, and smirked to herself all through her morning toilette. By the time she got to the office, she felt like she was holding back hysterical laughter. On her walk over, she saw concrete posts and soldiers standing at attention and amorous young couples on next door’s stoop and it was basically some huge cosmic joke.

Greg was a dud. A limp noodle. A softie. And he’d run away.

Joan had to hide another helpless giggle behind her hand as she struck through a line item in the ledger balanced in her lap, remembering it all over again: his look of horrified confusion as he glanced down at himself in the dark, like he thought he’d been doing so well. How she couldn't control the shock on her own face, like some scared little virgin. The whump-whump-whump as he’d kicked the side of the hamper.

"What on earth is so funny?"

Across his desk, Lane was frowning at her in a mischievous way; he obviously wanted to hear the joke. Joan waved one hand through the air to prove that she was fine, although she could hardly choke out an answer.

"Nothing."

"You realize you've been snickering all morning." Despite the narrow-eyed look he gave her, she knew he wasn't really offended by this. He was using his lofty, I’m-very-content-today voice, which was quieter than normal but about ten times as facetious. “Aren’t you going to tell me why?”

God, she wished she really could talk about it with someone—but the only person she could call was Kate, and they hadn’t spoken in ten months. Maybe she could just hint that Greg had been upset over something stupid and left in the middle of the night. If Lane drew his own conclusions from that, or if he thought they had just gotten in a dumb fight, how bad could it be?

"Fine," she sighed, and had to smother another laugh, as the words spilled out of her mouth so fast she couldn't even censor them. "It's impotence. I’m laughing at impotence."

He stared at her.

She blinked back in mute horror, trying to mask her shock. Well, she certainly hadn't meant to tell him that.

Lane burst out laughing. His face turned pink, and then red, and then almost purple, and by the time he stuttered out anything close to a real response, she was giggling just from looking at him. Sometimes she forgot he had such a good sense of humor hidden underneath those perfectly pressed suits.

"D—did you mean—in-incompetence?" His voice cracked over the last word, high and nervous as he cackled.

Joan snorted out a laugh. Why the hell would she have meant incompetence? What in god’s name did he think she was talking about, the books? The resumes?

"I think I know what I meant to say," she wheezed, after almost a minute. She was breathless and her head buzzed and her stomach ached from laughing so long.

He raised one eyebrow in a skeptical expression that plainly said bullshit, which just set them off again. This time, she laughed so hard she had a coughing fit and her papers spilled into the floor, and Lane got so tickled he had to put his head down onto his desk.

"Well." Once he sat up and they finally got their wits back, he let out a long breath. The grin on his face had turned into something almost, but not quite, solemn. "Perhaps you meant incongruence."

Joan's mouth pursed as she fought and failed to suppress another grin. "I think you mean inconsistent."

"Don't be impotent, Joan." Lane flipped to the next page, purposely not meeting her eyes, like this was supposed to be a mean brush-off.

She knew better, and had to bite her lip to stop herself from laughing again. "Imprudent. Pick up a dictionary sometime."

It was a dumb game, sure, but for some reason it kept going for the rest of the day—and honestly, even poking fun at how ridiculous the word was had drastically improved her mood. It was almost as good as telling someone the entire story.

Just before his one o'clock meeting with Hans and a prospective client at a restaurant down the street, Lane dropped a stack of papers onto her desk with a level-voiced:

"Manner of utmost impotence. End of day, please."

And when she leveled him with a hard stare – which didn't even work, her mouth just kept twitching up around the corners – he only shrugged.

"Do you mean importance?" she asked lightly.

His mouth quirked up as he adjusted his glasses with one hand. "I believe I know what I meant to say, thank you."

She shoved the folder aside for a little show as he turned away from her desk. "You're impossible."

"Well, your impotence is noted."

"Impish." Completely deadpan.

Lane chuckled at that comment, and ducked out to grab his clipboard, but he came back not ten seconds later, frowning sheepishly at her as he approached her desk, plucked a single page from the top of the stack he'd just delivered, and walked back to the door, attaching it to his clipboard.

"Sorry. Forgot this one."

"Imposition," Joan called after him, and he snorted out loud as he walked away.

 

 

Her mother set the last of the dry dishes aside, and surveyed the clean kitchen with obvious satisfaction. Everything was done here, and the baby was down for the night. Sitting at the kitchen table nursing half a cup of tea, Joan had to admit it looked good. Greg never lifted a finger when it came to cleaning or cooking, obviously, and if he did laundry, all he took was his own clothes. Usually just his uniform. Left to her own devices, she’d let everything pile up until the house was filthy, so it was nice to have another set of hands to help with the work. And clean spaces to call her own.

Sighing, she took another sip of her tea. Greg had called her early this morning and told her he’d be working the night shift again. Joan still wasn’t sure if he’d requested a transfer or if they’d gotten new schedules, but so far, she hadn’t talked to him in earnest for more than three days. The last time she’d seen him was when he’d stormed out of the house.

“Joanie? You hear what I said?”

She met her mother’s watchful gaze, her hands cupping the mug like she was holding a precious flower. “What?”

Gail gestured toward Kevin’s room with the balled-up dishtowel in her hand, voice calm. “Can you handle him on your own for a few hours?”

“Yes.” Joan felt her cheeks get hot; embarrassed that someone even had to ask. Of course she could take care of her own child. She wasn’t totally inept. “Why?”

Her mother’s smile was serene. “I’m going out.”

Joan almost knocked over her mug, and concentrated on keeping her hands very steady as she pulled the teabag out of the water via the string and a nearby spoon. Quickly, she deposited the bag into her saucer, along with the teaspoon. “That doesn’t answer my question.”

One glance at the clock confirmed it. Seven thirty was too late to meet someone for before-dinner drinks, and too early for anything with a man besides a salad and a peck on the cheek. And her mother didn’t talk to anyone here, so it couldn’t be a date. Was she meeting friends? Who would she know in this godforsaken place? The only other reason she’d go out was if she was—oh.

Of course.

“Are you working again?” she asked after a short silence.

Her mother raised an eyebrow.

Joan thought there was a flicker of truth in her expression. “The last time you did anything after eight that didn’t involve a man or poker, you waited tables at that awful country western bar.”

It all made sense. Ever since she’d arrived, her mother had never breathed a word about needing money. She’d never complained about being shut up at home during the day, or stuck being alone with the baby and no one else for company. She never asked Greg or Joan for anything, really, and in all the time she’d been here, Joan had never seen her without a little bit of cash, not even in the beginning, when money had been so tight. And her mother couldn’t have had much saved up after buying the plane ticket—at least, not right away. She could have gotten hired right after Joan started working at the agency.

“Oh, god, that place. Well, I guess you don’t approve,” Gail drawled as she folded her arms across her chest.

Joan shook her head, too tired to pick a fight. It was just curiosity, that’s all. “No. I don’t mind.”

She could be getting paid under the table. Hell, maybe she wasn’t even waitressing, maybe she was stocking the bar or working the dish pit at some rat-infested hole in the wall. Plenty of people in the American or British sectors wanted to hire English speakers, probably. Why wouldn’t they hire someone who wasn’t going to flake out on them? At least she had experience. She could learn German, meet a few people, have a few drinks and just...do whatever she wanted.

For a strange second, Joan envied her mother so much her mouth flooded with bitterness.

“Go,” she said again, as she swallowed around the tightness in her throat, and gestured towards the door with her mug, careful not to slosh tea all over the place. “I’ll be fine.”

Her mother studied her for another second before turning toward the counter and reaching for the nearest pack of cigarettes; some awful French brand that had been on sale and tasted like cloves. Joan wasn’t sure why she’d whirled around so quickly, but at least their conversation hadn’t ended in an argument. Which was more than she could say about ninety percent of the conversations they’d had before moving here—before all of this had happened.

“Well. Keep it to yourself, then,” Gail said as she rummaged through the first drawer for the small box of matches. Her voice had become louder, more pointed.

The bristle of irritation at this request was automatic, although Joan knew why she’d said it. If Greg heard that someone other than him was earning halfway decent money; he’d probably blow through the rest of the little savings they had, either on base or with some idiot girl who didn’t know any better. She suppressed a sigh. That couldn’t happen. Not with a baby to keep.

“I will,” she answered.

“I’ll be back around midnight.” Her mother stubbed the end of her lit cigarette into a yellow glass ashtray, and gave Joan an indulgent smile as she breezed over and put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Don’t stay up much longer. You’ll get circles under your eyes.”

Like anyone was going to care if she looked tired in the morning. Once her mother had gone, Joan let out a sigh, and reached out for her tea again. She took a sip, and winced against the bitter taste of the dregs.

Chapter Text

“For god’s sake, Joan.” Lane pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose as he paced behind his desk, but the pounding in his temples only got worse. “We’ve plenty of candidates as it is. Just bring in one of these chaps,” he waved his hand toward the stack on his desk with a growl, “and let’s get on with it.”

Her eyes flashed and she set her jaw in a furious way, chin jutting out proudly as if she were making a point in her own head. “I’m not getting on with anything until you decide exactly what you want.”

“You’re being ridiculous,” he scoffed, as she shot him another poisonous look.

“Why? These cee vees are all the same. Everyone studied English or business.”

“Oh, I don’t care if they studied archeology, for god's sake! What about this fellow? He’s—” Lane glanced at the paper at the top of the stack, the one that wore a post-it bearing a large red X “—very experienced.”

Three years advertising at a small car company. Perfectly acceptable.

“And pretentious,” Joan added, “which is why I’m not hiring him.”

Lane made a frustrated noise. “You can’t tell if someone’s pretentious by a single line item on his resume—”

She parroted part of the objective back to him in a high, mocking tone. “As a senior contributor, my work was held in the highest esteem—

“Will you stop doing that?”

Joan tossed the resume toward his desk, turned on her heel, and walked right out of his office. Lane just sighed as the paper floated into the seat of the other chair. If past patterns were anything to go by, she was only going to sail into her office, find some object supposedly related to this conversation, and sail right back in again to toss it into his face.

True to form, she arrived in his doorway a few seconds later with her nearly full Rolodex in one hand. Lane prayed she didn’t pitch that at his head, but instead she simply slammed it down onto the top of his desk, nearly dislodging his abacus from its usual place in the process.

“Then call whoever you want. If you don’t want my advice, why did you even ask for my help?”

“You’re acting like a madwoman,” Lane snapped. “For god’s sake, you’ve already hired plenty of writers—talented writers!”

In an attempt to head off the retort he knew was coming, he barreled ahead. “And now your method seems to be turning away everyone who isn’t up to your particular standards! They can’t all be Peggy bloody Olsons!”

He folded his arms across his chest and wished desperately for a nice gin and tonic to pop up in his line of sight. God, he needed a drink.

“God,” Joan sunk into the nearest chair with her mouth twisted as if she might laugh, one hand brushing her fringe back into place.

Lane hated when she did that. When she got quiet all of the sudden, like she was worried she'd say something wrong.

“What?” he asked flatly, when it seemed no explanation was forthcoming.

“Peggy started out as Don’s secretary. Which she hated.” Joan’s eyes bore into his with a seriousness he did not know how to parse, and then flicked back to the arm of his chair for a moment. She picked idly at a loose thread on the right armrest with glossy red fingernails before meeting his gaze again. “I’ve never hired writers. I don’t know what’s supposed to be different.”

Many thoughts swept through his mind at once.

Lane first tried to picture Peggy Olson as anyone’s secretary, cheerfully taking lunch orders and buying presents and all the rest, and the image was so ridiculous he very nearly laughed. Half the time they’d worked together, Peggy was holed up at her desk or in that tiny little shared office, with a carton of bad takeaway in one hand and a library’s worth of loose paper left crumpled by the bin. At the Pierre, she’d bickered endlessly and loudly with Campbell about the smallest campaign details, to the point where Lane had seriously contemplated decamping to the fire escape and working there for the remainder of his life.

In the snow. In February.

And then Joan’s comment registered. I don’t know what’s supposed to be different. She couldn’t actually be anxious about this part of the process. Could she?

“Well, I—I’m sure you’ll find someone adequate.” He debated whether he should share how terrible his own hiring experiments had been, before he landed Ginsberg. Or rather, before he stumbled upon Ginsberg completely by accident – almost quite literally. While Lane still had no real idea how to train the lad up, it was clear he was talented, and that had put paid to it in the end.

“Wouldn’t say I knew precisely what to look for, either,” he finally told Joan, and scratched at the back of his neck in a sheepish way. He felt like blushing, which was absolutely ridiculous. He wasn’t a teenager, for god’s sake; she wasn’t going to ridicule him for not knowing what to do, either. Joan simply wanted a sympathetic ear. He could do that much. “I could tell you the kind of person I wanted to work with, but not much else. Nothing creative, you know.” He let out a sigh. “Perhaps there’s our real issue.”

“Great. We’re uncreative morons.” A tiny wrinkle formed above Joan’s nose as she frowned at him. He did enjoy seeing her glare like that; it was rather funny.

He gave her a look that plainly said not to joke. “I wouldn’t use those terms.”

She still seemed to find her acerbic comment more amusing than he did, but didn’t voice the insult again, simply picked the fallen resume out of the other chair. “Well, at least we won’t have any issues hiring accounts. You always know exactly what to say there.”

Lane was so surprised at the compliment he nearly knocked her Rolodex off the lip of his desk, and yanked his hand back to prevent this. His fingers brushed anxiously over his side and toward the seam of his waistcoat.

“Between Hans and Dominic? And Ken, and all the others back home?” She did not seem to understand why he was surprised. “We’ve never had trouble.”

Lane tried not to let on how pleased he was to hear her say the word we, and felt like blushing again, so much so that he had to turn around and pretend to search for a very important document in the middle file drawer.

“Well, I’ll keep looking,” she sighed finally. He waited until he heard the click of her heels against the wood before he turned around.

As she sat back down at her desk, replaced her Rolodex, and began to flip through the resumes, her mouth pursed into a little dissatisfied moue, Lane snuck a couple of quick glances through her open door, just to make sure she wasn’t still angry. She was writing something on her notepad in quick shorthand; her earring was unclipped from her ear, and lay by the base of the telephone, which made him smile. She always forgot to put it back on after making a phone call.

Truthfully, he found it delightful that she could become so absorbed in these details; it spoke to a degree of interest he had once written off as impossible. Joan Harris, so set on being put together and polished, often got so engrossed in business details she forgot nearly everything around her. Including, but not limited to: when to eat or drink, when to sleep, when to go home, or when to fix her jewelry.

He wished he had the courage to tell her the full truth. From the moment he saw her in the square, he’d wanted to work with no one save Joan. He’d wanted someone to challenge him as relentlessly as she’d done at Sterling Cooper—someone who could also guide the business with a firm hand.

The blithe confidence that had infuriated him in New York now seemed uniquely necessary here. He admired everything about the way she worked, really: her command with the finances, the way she’d whipped the place into shape nearly overnight, the way she took on even the smallest tasks so single-mindedly, determined to learn every possible variable before making a decision. Even when they argued – especially when they argued – the certainty resonated inside his chest like a second heartbeat. She wasn’t simply drawing a paycheque. She cared about what happened to the business. She was essential here. She needed to be here.

“Mr. Pryce,” Katya appeared in his doorway so quickly it actually startled him. She eyed his guilty, wide-eyed expression with a raised eyebrow. “Your call with Mr. Sterling is still okay for Friday afternoon, yes?”

He nodded, swallowed. “Erm. Yes. Absolutely, if, er, Caroline’s confirmed it.”

“Very well. I will check, just in cases,” she said, and disappeared back out into the bullpen.

           

 

“Now.” Perched on one side of the bright blue sofa, with Hans at his left hand and a stack of RFP-related materials on the end table to his right, Dominic gave Joan a significant look. They’d just walked her through a short history on Mumm wines. She sat up taller in her chair, expectant. “Frau Harris, I assume you have, how you say, pitched with Herr Pryce before, yes?”

Joan controlled the smile that threatened to take over her face. His pronunciation of the word was hilarious. Peached.

“Yes, but not recently,” she said, making sure her voice was airy. She could hear her heartbeat pounding in her ears, so loud it was almost distracting.

“So you are aware of his….peculiar way.” He rummaged through the files, handed her a business card with the name of the restaurant on it. She tucked it into her folio as surreptitiously as possible.

Well, I used to think he couldn’t close a sale at all, so…

“More or less,” she said carefully, still not understanding. Maybe it was about his shyness. Lane had trouble talking to someone unless he knew that person very well. Even if he was polite to a fault, clients probably read the reticence as awkward and distant initially, just like she had. “The first impression may need work.”

“He means the clipboard,” Hans said in an undertone, glancing right towards Lane’s shuttered window. “The constant notations.”

Joan pulled an outraged face. “I’m sorry?”

Lane brought a clipboard to these dinners? And wrote on it in front of clients? Oh, absolutely not. She didn’t know who could have given him this idea. Cooper would rather have died of embarrassment than be considered rude and withdrawn in front of paying customers. Roger would rather have died than be seen in public carrying a clipboard.

The boys laughed at her clear annoyance, and exchanged a look that said they weren’t too happy about it, either.

“Well, I guess it’s a new method,” she said, in an attempt to save face. What in god’s name had Lane been thinking? He’d scare people off with that kind of thing if he weren’t careful. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Later, when she faced the shabby half-mirror in her new hunter-green skirt suit, she took in three deep breaths, hoping to quiet her nerves. It was a little loose in the shoulders, but the only alterations her mother had been able to do were in the bust and waist. Maybe she shouldn’t have splurged, but Joan hadn’t wanted to look like someone’s wife or tagalong at this stupid little dinner; she wanted to look like a professional person. The type of person who had extensive accounts experience and represented a healthy, robust ad firm.

When she stepped out of the restroom with her day dress on a hanger, and walked back toward her office to get her purse, Ginsberg startled and flinched at her change of clothes like she’d just clocked him in the forehead with one of her high heels.

“Shit. You look different,” he said loudly, with a hoarseness to his voice that said he shouldn’t have looked at her at all—and god, Joan was glad he couldn’t keep his mouth shut, for once. She let the stupid compliment wash over her, and focused on controlling her breathing as she ducked into her office to get her purse. It’s just one client dinner. It’s nothing. Lane will be right beside you.

She’d never had to sell at a client dinner before. In New York, her only duties during client dinners, if she attended, were to be charming and make small talk with the wives. Which was not going to fly here, not least because there wouldn’t be any wives at their table, just accounts men trying to spend a night out on the town.

One hand fussed awkwardly with the large charm bracelet on her right wrist. Joan wasn’t even sure why she’d worn it; she wished she’d gone with something more demure, more discreet. It was too late to go home and swap it for anything better. Maybe she should take it off. But then her earrings would seem like too much by comparison, and there’d be no—

“Joan.”

She snapped her head up from her bracelet and saw Lane poised motionless next to Katya’s empty desk, squinting at her as if she were a stranger who he barely recognized. Quickly, she dropped her arm to her side, and smoothed her face into a calm expression.

“Are we ready to go?”

He shook his head no, and made a little turning motion with one index finger as he walked closer, like she must have another outfit or an outrageous accessory sewn into the back of her skirt. She snorted out an amused noise, but did a slow, dutiful spin to prove it was just a plain suit, nothing exciting.

“You look very smart,” he said once she was facing him again, in a way that said he wouldn’t make too much of a fuss about it. The smile she gave him was so relieved it almost made her cheeks hurt.

“Thank you.”

 

           

           

Joan felt giddy and weightless as she stumbled through the front door of the office, Lane at her heels.

“I think that went very well,” she said, kicking off her black pumps one at a time and surveying the empty office with a sigh. Although she hadn’t had more than two glasses of wine, she still needed to sober up a little before going home. Thank god Ginsberg wasn’t working late.

“Despite the slight overindulgence, yes,” Lane said. She snorted.

“You’re not mad. If you were, you wouldn’t talk to me.”

“Oh, really?” Lane pretended to be annoyed. She waved a distracted hand through the air, not believing that for a second.

“I should’ve eaten more. I got nervous.”

“No one could tell,” he protested.

“I could,” Joan huffed, and strode toward her office as an idea from earlier today flicked to life. If it was after eleven here, it was probably six or seven in New York. The timing would be perfect. Roger had given her the correct number and everything. “Do German operators speak any English?”

“What?”

She was already reaching for the phone. “I’ll just be a minute.”

“No, you’re not making a phone call right now—”

“Too late. I’m already dialing,” she shot back, as she put the phone on speaker and a harsh dial tone filled the room. Lane’s eyes widened like she’d gone insane, but he didn’t argue.

After three separate conversations with an operator, Joan was left listening to the familiar jingle of American phone rings, and hoping her first instinct had been right about this.

“Stan, I swear to god. Don’t you have a date to get back to?” were the first words out of Peggy Olson’s mouth. Joan had to wrench her gaze away from Lane’s to keep from laughing out loud.

“Well, it’s not Stan,” Joan said after a small pause. Out of one corner of her eye, she saw Lane put a palm over his mouth. He looked like he was going to start giggling. “But I’ve got to admit I’m curious.”

“Oh, my god,” Peggy gasped. Static rushed through the phone in a burst. “Joan?

“Hello, big shot,” Joan told her, with a wink in Lane’s direction. His eyes crinkled up around the corners, as if he were grinning. “I thought I’d find you working late.”

“Well, yeah.” A rustling noise suggested Peggy might be closing up some folders, or maybe clearing things off her desk. “But how did you—aren’t you out of the country?”

“West Germany.” Joan glanced at Lane again. He’d pulled his hand away from his face, and seemed calmer. Maybe he wouldn’t mind saying hi. “Roger said you’d moved up in the world.”

“You still talk to Roger?” Like that was the big takeaway from this conversation.

“Lane’s got an agency in the American sector of Berlin, which is where I’m working.”

“Wait. Lane Pryce?

“Yes. He's here now. We’re in the office,” Joan said quickly, in case Peggy got the wrong idea. She knew exactly what certain members of creative had thought about her and Lane, and didn’t want him to get one whiff of those ugly rumors. “You’re on speakerphone, so feel free to say hello.”

“Oh, um, hi,” said Peggy.

“’Lo,” Lane cleared his throat. “How’s Manhattan these days?”

“It’s, uh, good.” She sounded very bewildered. “I’m sorry. I still don’t understand why you guys called me. Not—I mean, it is nice to talk to you both, but...”

“We’ll get to the point,” Joan pursed her mouth to keep herself controlled. “Lane and I are hiring a senior writer, and we don’t know what to look for.”

He chuckled. “I believe someone used the term uncreative morons.”

Joan glared at him. He raised an eyebrow.

“What do you mean? What to look for on a resume?” Peggy asked. “Or in general?”

“Portfolio pieces,” Joan elaborated, twisting the telephone cord around one finger as she leaned against the desk. “The quality of the writing. How to gauge creativity, if that’s even possible.”

“Yeah.” Judging by the static, Peggy sounded like she was going through even more papers. “I mean; it’s hard to say. Depending on your clients, and how you want the tone of the agency to, um, stand out. Do you guys have a style guide?”

“Sorry?” Lane shot Joan a mystified look.

Joan pulled a guilty face. Shit. “Apparently not.”

“Oh, god,” Peggy huffed, like they should have known better. “Okay. You remember the ones for SCDP, right?”

Joan was already reaching for her notepad to jot these things down. “I remember getting them printed.”

“I can send you a copy. Stan’s got a few extras. And I’ve also—I mean, you probably know how to spot the good resumes, but there’s a copywriting test I can send over, too. I made my juniors take it before they got hired. It’s basically a mock campaign: slogans, tags, the usual.”

“That would be wonderful, thank you,” Lane gave Joan a sort of sidelong look that she couldn’t decipher as he supplied Peggy with their address.

“How are things at home?” Joan asked, mainly to get Lane to quit staring at her. Was he trying to prompt her to say thank you? Or be polite? “Abe doing well?”

“Abe? Jesus, that was over months—” she cleared her throat, and stopped talking, like it was a very long story. “I-I’ll tell you about that later. You need any more hiring materials?”

“Just the mockup of that copywriting test,” Joan reminded her.

“Want an answer key, too?”

“Don’t go to a lot of trouble,” Lane interrupted quickly.

“No, no. You can see the ones the boys filled out.” A snicker crackled down the extension. “But if you poach Mathis or Freddy from me, I’ll post your driver’s license on Ted’s bulletin board.”

“Oh, god,” Joan rolled her eyes even at the thought of Paul Kinsey. Lane was watching her with a bemused frown. “How is Freddy these days?”

“Well, Violet convinced him to take up birdwatching, so,” Peggy said slyly.

Joan imagined Freddy with a pair of waders and binoculars, camped out with Violet in the middle of Riverside Park. Ah, jeez, honey! A redbird. She smothered a laugh behind one hand.

“What’s wrong with birdwatching?” Lane volunteered after a long few seconds, glancing from her toward the phone like this was very odd behavior.

Peggy was audibly laughing, like she thought this was an extension of the joke. Joan quickly tried to stop before she hurt Lane’s feelings. Oops. Maybe he didn’t just go to the botanical garden for the flowers.

“You remember Freddy,” she said instead, patting his arm.

“Erm. Which—which one was he?”

“She took his office at the old place,” Joan said quietly. “On second thought, I’m not sure if you met.” She raised her voice a little, talking to Peggy. “Next time you see him, give him my best. I may still be the subject of an ongoing bet with Burt Peterson.”

“You?” Lane sounded shocked. “What on earth for?”

A lesbian rumor wasn’t something she could bring up with a third person on speakerphone. Although Peggy would appreciate the irony, being friends with that little tomboyish girl. “It’s ridiculous. I’ll tell you later.”

Maybe.

“Okay,” Peggy sounded just as confused as Lane. “Well…I’ll send that over, but I should probably go. Heinz is coming in tomorrow and I’m still writing tags.”

“Of course,” Joan decided she couldn’t let one thing go unchallenged. “Tell Stan hello for us.”

“Tell Roger to stop giving out my phone number,” Peggy retorted with a scoff.

Joan grinned.

Even Lane laughed. “Well, we will try, dear.”

Once she hung up the phone, still smirking over whatever the hell Stan and Peggy were talking about by phone at eight o'clock at night, she turned to Lane with a considering expression. His face was shadowed in the near-darkness of the room - the light from Katya's desk barely illuminating a thing - and so she reached forward and switched on her desk lamp to see him more clearly.

"What are you thinking about?" he asked, turning to glance at her as she pulled her hand back from the toggle switch.

"That for-sale posting in the lobby," she told him with a significant glance. "Did you see it?"

Chapter Text

A few weeks later, Joan got to the office a little early, and was washing two mugs in the cramped kitchen sink when Lane strode through the glass doors with a beaming Günter in tow. They waved to her as they walked closer. She couldn’t help eyeing the landlord’s thrilled expression as she cut off the taps and dried her hands on a nearby tea towel.

Guten morgen.” She gave Günter a little smile before glancing at Lane, who was still wearing his coat and hat. “Both of you. This spells trouble.”

Lane shook his head, as a little smirk turned up the corners of his mouth. “Now, now. You may like what he’s got to say. I find his proposal very intriguing.”

He gestured toward the landlord, who nodded in a solemn way as he straightened up to his full height, and began to speak in slow, accented English.

“I tzink,” he emphasized his words with a broad sweeping motion between her and Lane, “you are good tenant. For the space.”

Joan frowned, and tilted her head slightly, as if this movement would help her understand. “The space?”

“Ah.” Lane rattled off a few phrases to him in rapid German. Joan couldn’t dissect the entire thing if her life depended on it, but she did recognize a few key words—the most interesting one being verkauft. Bought. Or maybe sold.

“Lane,” she asked, as she raised a suspicious eyebrow, “did you buy the unit?”

It hadn't taken much for her to talk him into considering it. She’d seen the books; if they bought, they’d be paying much less mortgage than if he continued to rent the place, and he could sell it in a few years for a better profit, if they grew the way they were planning and needed to move. Not to mention, he kept saying he wanted to invest in property sooner or later; he had even confessed that technically, he had enough saved up for a down payment! It was a logical step. She had no idea why he hadn't done it earlier, honestly.

Lane shook his head and gestured down the shared wall. His mischievous smile got very wide. “Whole floor.”

She actually gasped. “What?”

Günter said something else that Joan couldn’t understand, but it didn’t matter, because she was already moving. She squeezed the landlord’s hand with a thank you, dropped it, and turned to Lane so she could throw her arms around his neck. He was a good sport about this, but after a few seconds, patted her shoulder with two quick, short taps of one palm, like he didn’t know how to tell her to quit hugging him.

“Sorry,” she said, and moved backwards.

He cleared his throat and gave her a quick smile as she stepped away, obviously trying to get past the awkwardness of the moment. “It’s all right. This is very exciting.”

Joan realized she should probably apologize to Günter, too. “Entschuldige.”

Gerne.” He looked very amused.

“Mit tiefer Dankbarkeit,” Lane added—and Joan knew what that meant! With deepest gratitude.

“Can we convince him to let us do a little repair work?” she asked Lane, pulling an innocent face. Even if it was nothing more than putting up a fresh coat of paint, she wanted to make this space feel personal. She was so tired of everything in her life being beige and taupe and Army green. Cookie-cutter.

He raised his eyebrows, clearly alarmed, and Günter started to laugh although she was positive the man didn’t know enough English to understand what she’d just asked.

“Now—erm—getting a contractor may be difficult,” Lane told her, in a low voice that meant she shouldn’t bother getting her hopes up.

Joan let out an understanding sigh. She was setting her sights too high. They didn’t have enough money for lavish renovations. She knew that. “It was just a thought.” She was still too excited by the news to be truly disappointed.

 

 

 

“Okay, it’s really not that hard to process, here,” Michael stood perched on top of an empty desk, with his right ear pressed against the shared wall. He sounded surprised that he’d had to explain this more than once. “Technically, this is not a load-bearing wall. We could knock it out ourselves.”

Next to Joan, Frederich and Dominic were taking bets on when he’d fall off, whispering and giggling like little boys. She folded her arms over her chest as she watched Ginsberg take a step back and almost stumble, windmilling his arms to keep from pitching backwards onto the floor.

“Are you quite certain?” Lane walked closer, and peered at the wood paneling like it had some kind of mathematical equation for this opinion printed alongside the vertical stripes. “I don’t mean to doubt you, but—”

“I’m telling you, it’s fine!” Ginsberg raised his voice, although he was already talking so loudly Joan was surprised the law firm hadn’t heard the details by now. “We knock out this wall ourselves, we can connect the two rooms, maybe build a couple more if we need to. Anyone else know anything about framing and drywall?”

Lane still looked worried, so Joan decided to counter Ginsberg’s stupid question with a second stupid question, raising her hand high, like she was in class.

“Does framing pictures count?”

Lane covered his mouth to hide an obvious laugh. Joan pursed her mouth to hide a smile of her own. If she was honest, she enjoyed making him laugh. It was nice to see him get rid of that serious poker face every once in awhile.

 

 

 

“Hiya, Red,” was the first thing Roger said after the call got patched through. It was a sleepy afternoon, rainy and cold, and Joan was so tired that even a mug of caffeinated tea wasn't helping. “How’s things with Victor Lazlo?”

Joan winced at the reference. “Oh, dear god.”

Roger snorted. “Hey, I know how much you like Bogie.”

“Is this really what you called to talk about?” She pushed her cookie around her saucer with an idle finger as she talked, loopy from operating on only four hours of sleep. “You hate Greg.”

Roger barked out a real laugh this time, like he was surprised. “I’m not talking about Greg, numbskull.”

“Oh.” Joan frowned. There was only one other man who she spent a significant amount of time with, besides Kevin. “You mean Lane?”

“Bingo.”

She sputtered out a scoff, and wondered why the hell Roger couldn’t just call Lane if he wanted to talk to him directly. “Well, I don’t even know where to begin with that. Did you need something specific from him?”

“Oh, come on. I can’t call to say hello?”

“Roger, it’s not the phone call.” Joan let out a frustrated sigh. “I’m exhausted. Someone—” emphasizing the word so he had no doubt who that was “—kept me up all night.”

“Yeah, well, you got to watch those young ones,” Roger said slyly. “They’ll eat, drink, pass out, and forget to send you flowers.”

She rolled her eyes at this comment, although he couldn’t see her. “And they probably got that from their fathers.”

He laughed, but after a few seconds, he got suspiciously quiet. Joan moved the receiver to her other ear and waited for the other shoe to drop. Whenever he stopped talking, he always dropped a bomb.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to send any money?” he finally asked.

She groaned out a no. “We’ve been over this.”

“Sure. You’re proud, I’m proud, we’re both too stubborn for our own good.” He let out a sigh. “At least let me put him in the will. El’s getting most of it anyway. Kevin’s share’ll look modest by comparison. You’ll barely notice.”

“Very funny,” Joan retorted gently, wondering what Roger’s idea of modest was. Six figures, probably. “It’s still a no.”

“Fine. I’ll quit asking,” he answered calmly, although she knew better than to believe it. They had this conversation at least once a year. It was so familiar it was practically a ritual by now, like TV news patter. Up for it? No. Repeat ad nauseum.

Sometimes, lying awake and anxious in the middle of the night, she wondered what it would mean if she decided to take him up on that offer. Let Roger write Kevin into the will like all the other ad exec trust fund babies. She’d have the peace of mind—which was enticing—but in the meantime they’d still have to scrimp and save from day to day, especially if Greg was around. And she’d be indebted to Roger for something she could never repay.

The truth was, she didn’t want Kevin to grow up expecting all his problems could be solved with a single blank check. People didn’t just give you money for no reason. And even if a young boy was lucky enough to get money and live comfortably at some point, there was no guarantee he’d spend it wisely. What about the kind of life you’d live once you had access to all that cash, and no real problems to worry about? She’d watched Roger and Don and all the rest spend themselves stupid in Manhattan, and while it was certainly a lot of fun, it wasn’t smart.

God. Her younger self would be criminally offended at how boring that sounded. Save your money, sew your clothes. It’ll be different once you get older and men stop draping you with jewels just for one glimpse at your décolletage.

“Earth to Red. Earth to Red.”

Joan snapped out of it. “What?”

“Thought you’d gone to sleep,” Roger joked. “I asked if you guys get to watch the landing over there.”

“Oh. Well, I want to.” Greg and her mother would probably be at work, but she and Lane had talked about staying here and turning on the radio, or maybe going out to one of the pubs, if they aired the broadcast. They couldn’t not see it, for god’s sake. Everyone was going to watch.

A quick knock sounded on her door, and it swung open to reveal Lane, who gave her an exasperated scowl as he tapped the face of his pocket watch, clenched in his other hand. They were supposed to be in the British sector to meet with a supermarket chain in forty-five minutes.

“Aren’t you ready yet?”

Ugh, Lane when he was crabby. He was going to snap their heads off in the taxi. She suppressed a groan, and raised her voice a little to let Roger know that they weren’t having this conversation in private. “If there’s nothing else, I’m headed into a meeting.”

“Tell Victor hello,” Roger said almost as loudly, although he wasn’t even on speakerphone. Joan did roll her eyes this time.

“Goodbye.”

 

 

The radio was turned up almost as high as it would go, dragged out from its usual place on the top of his file cabinet to sit in a place of honor out in the bullpen, on top of an empty desk.

Lane was gazing out the nearest window, a drink in one hand, trying to catch a glimpse of the moon from beyond the fire escape stairs. Joan, meanwhile, sat stretched out on the sofa with a blanket over her legs, leafing quickly through a magazine. He wasn’t sure if she was even reading it; honestly, it seemed as if she was struggling to stay awake.

Personally, he’d been so excited about the sheer possibility of a moon landing that he hadn’t slept in two days. The fog of exhaustion he normally felt during this time of night was completely absent. And Nigel had even phoned yesterday morning to make sure he’d be watching it live, as well. Lane couldn’t remember the last time he and his son had both been excited about the same subject, let alone excited to watch a single piece of world news.

BBC had already featured days of programming: scientific explanations about the data the astronauts would be collecting on their mission. Insights about the hazards of traveling in space—the intense heat on launch, the small window of time to get the landing itself right—the ways the men might be affected by the voyage.

But, as they waited for further updates, the networks had gone in a more avant-garde direction. Currently, a woman’s voice rang through the room, her crisp accent measured and musical as she recited each word.

“Be kind and courteous to this gentleman, hop in his walks and gambol in his eyes…”

“Whose voice is that?” Lane wasn’t sure whom they’d got for this particular verse. She did sound familiar. Must be some movie star.

Joan glanced up from her magazine and toward the radio, head tilted and eyes a bit unfocused, as if she were concentrating deeply. After a few seconds, something seemed to click.

“Judi Dench.”

“Really?”

Lane must have made an appreciative face, because she made a noise of assent, and kept going.

“Mm hm. I think she’s Titania.” She seemed surprised by his obvious confusion. “From A Midsummer Night’s Dream? One of the fairies?”

Had they even said the name of the piece yet? “How do you know that?”

“I had to memorize some of it in college,” she answered with a shrug.

As if it was so very simple. Just a bit of Shakespeare, nothing difficult. Lane was fairly certain he’d had to do the same thing at one time, but by this point in life, he’d retained almost none of it.

“I like it,” she said absently, flipping to the next page with a sigh.

“Well, the poetry’s—nice, I suppose.”

Honestly, he hadn’t given the poems much thought, other than wishing the anchors would return to the scientific programming. But as he listened further, he supposed it was important that they space out the updates, add a human element to the proceedings. Not every day man goes to the moon. A bit of poetry in a time of gravitas was probably all right.

He glanced over again, saw Joan’s head snap up as she jerked upright with a frustrated noise – clearly having nodded off.

Poor dear. “If you wanted to sleep, I’d wake you for the important part.”

She pulled a face, and got to her feet, tugging the blanket around her shoulders. It trailed behind her like a long cape, and in the thin light, it made him think of a royal, one of those Scandinavian countries where they were all gingers. Or possibly a children’s book character. He was sure there was some famous protagonist who wore a cape.

“No. If I went to sleep now, I wouldn’t get up. But thank you.”

“Oh. Well, would you like a—”

A knock on the glass door made them both turn, and after a moment, Günter poked his head around the frame, raising a hand to them and speaking very loudly.

“Herr Pryce, Fräuline Harris, ich habe einen Fernseher…”

“Ah. My goodness.” Lane listened for a few seconds before he began to translate. “He says he’s got a television set downstairs in the office, if—if we’d like to come and join him? Oh, that’s very kind. Vielen Dank.

Joan suppressed a yawn with one hand. “Sure. Sounds like fun.”

Lane considered the reply he’d make to Günter in her stead, but she didn’t wait for him to start talking, just let out a sigh as she turned back to the landlord.

“Ich kann mir kaum einen Kaffee machen, so schlaftrunken wie ich bin.”

“Ei! wie schmeckt der Coffee süße.” Günter’s face split into a wide grin.

Lane translated quickly, concentrating as the other man spoke faster. “Ah! How sweet coffee tastes—not sure what that’s supposed to be from—oh, but he says he has got a coffee machine, so there’s a stroke of luck for you.”

“I did tell him I’m too tired to make coffee, right?” She hid another yawn behind her hand. “Ein kaffe, bitte.”

The laugh that tore from Lane’s throat caught him completely by surprise. He hadn’t expected her to joke—although clearly, her German was much improved.

“Didn’t even know you drank coffee,” he teased back.

She snorted out a laugh. “Only when I’m sleep-deprived.”

Quickly, he began to gather up a few things so they wouldn’t miss another moment. “Well, let’s go. After you, then.”

After taking the little elevator downstairs, and filing through the half doorway behind the messy lobby desk, they arrived at Günter’s office, which was flooded in dim blue light. The large set, centered in the middle of the wall, was already on and broadcasting live from the anchor’s desk, still BBC. Lane glanced around. With a long table or some kind of desk stuffed in the left corner by the television, and three hard chairs set a few feet in front of the set, as well as other piles of books and paper blizzarding the floor, there really wasn’t much room for a party. But it was nice to have been invited down.

He took a seat on the far left.

Without a word, Günter slipped past the gaggle of chairs and to a small coffee decanter that sat behind a large stack of papers and files, pouring water into it from a large glass pitcher just as Joan came inside with a large bag of sweets, the blanket still wrapped around her shoulders.

Lane raised an eyebrow as she sat down next to him, and held out the bag, shaking it once.

“Where did you get that?”

She smirked. “Ginsberg’s desk.”

He gave her a displeased look—they were certainly going to hear about this—but she just grinned at him, and popped one into her mouth.

“Chocolate and caramel.”

Temptress. She knew it was his favorite. He took a sweet grudgingly, and bit into it. As sweetness flooded his mouth, he had to stop himself from sighing aloud.

“Mm. Thank you.”

She put down the bag next to the legs of her chair, turned slightly, and raised a hand to get Günter’s attention. “Kann ich ihr telephone benutzen?”

“Ja.” The landlord gestured toward a small round lump on the table.

Joan walked closer and slid a few papers aside from this pile to reveal a handset and rotary dial, and quickly made the call. As she spoke to her mother, voice soft, she leaned against the table and twisted the cord around and around on her finger. Lane wondered idly if she ever did the same thing to her hair. Perhaps that was what she was trying to avoid. He imagined her walking around her flat at this time of night, in a silk robe with her long curls hanging messy around her face, turning off the lights and laying out her clothes and—

Someone cleared their throat. Lane glanced up in alarm to see Günter standing in front of his chair, a cup of coffee in one hand.

“Ah.” Lane took it, not knowing how to refuse. “Danke.”

The landlord brought one over to Joan, as well, and Lane felt a stab of surprise at how widely she beamed at the man, removing her earring and adjusting the phone under her shoulder before she took the coffee from him.

After a few more minutes, she hung up, and took a long sip of her coffee.

“How’s the little one?” Lane asked, quickly rattling off a couple of comments in German so Günter did not feel too left out. Mrs. Harris phoned to check on her baby. He’s with her mother at the house.

“Oh, fine.” She took another sip. “Mom says the party is fun.”

“Is that why you didn’t want to go home? Too many people?”

When Joan had mentioned she wouldn’t be watching the moon landing with her mother, he’d briefly wondered about inviting her over to his flat—making an evening of it, with food and drink and all the other trippings of a special occasion. Then he’d wondered if it would be stupid to offer such a thing, and so he’d made a less lavish offer—just suggested staying late at work with the radio.

There would have been nothing wrong in it. They weren’t acquaintances; Lane liked to think they were friends, anyway. And surely he could invite a friend for an evening over without it turning into some kind of salacious gossip item.

Joan’s smile was secretive, but whatever she was about to say was interrupted—Frost came on again with the live feed, Günter motioned for Joan to take her chair, and from that point they watched the flickering picture in silence, fascinated, as the lunar lander eased towards the moon’s surface.

Lane could not put his thoughts into words at the moment of landing, but just before the spacecraft touched down, he felt Joan slip one hand into his, and without thinking, he squeezed her fingers.

The rest of the evening passed in a blur. Günter brought out a bottle of what appeared to be some kind of moonshine, and with this, they drank toasts and offered several rounds of cheers and Joan taught them both the lyrics to a little patriotic American song that had the same tune as God Save the Queen.

By the time she and Lane finally stumbled back upstairs, it was nearly quarter to five, and as they were putting on their coats, the phone in her office began to ring.

She groaned, and seemed to hesitate as to whether she should answer, but the caller showed no sign of hanging up, and so she eventually went to pick up the extension.

Lane assumed it was her mother checking in until he heard a little gasp, and looked up from putting on his coat to see Joan standing frozen behind her desk, one hand over her mouth, eyes wide in horror.

“Oh, no.”

Chapter Text

Joan knew something was wrong the second she picked up and heard Roger’s strained hello. He wouldn’t call her this early unless it was bad news.

“What’s going on?”

The first image her mind conjured up was poor Margaret, drugged out and dead in some ditch.

“It’s Bert.” Roger's voice was so quiet, but it was the fact that he used Cooper’s first name, more than anything, that made Joan’s heart lurch in alarm. “Joanie, he—he died.”

As she processed the words, she shielded her mouth with a hand. “Oh, no.”

“Yeah.” Roger made a raspy noise. Joan’s stomach sank as she realized he was crying. “Hattie was the one that found him. She thought he was sleeping.”

Oh, god. “What happened?” She swiped at the tears that sprung to her eyes, careless, frantic. Bert can’t be dead. He’s basically Roger’s father—better than, honestly. How can he be dead? He’s in such good health. “What—what can I do?”

“I don’t know.” His voice broke over the next word, and it made her tighten her grip on the receiver. “Can you write the obit?”

Shit. It was probably why he had called her. He wasn’t going to be able to put a single word on that page. And Joan knew she couldn’t just wander around Dahlem at five A.M., sobbing in the streets about a dead person three thousand miles away. She needed something to do. She needed to—

“Joanie?”

“I’m here. I can do that.” She dashed away a few more tears with her knuckles before she reached for her pen.

“You wrote Ida’s, didn’t you?” he asked after a second.

“Yes,” she forced out. With Bert. The two of them together.

A soft touch on her shoulder made her startle and glance up from the phone. Standing to her right, Lane was visibly pale, and his jaw was tightened in a way that made her realize how worried he was. She shook her head in an attempt to tell him he was okay. Not Rebecca. Not Nigel.

“Who?” he mouthed.

She covered the receiver with one hand, mouth working as she tried to speak. “Mr. Cooper.”

Bittersweet understanding dawned on his face, and he pulled his hand away, his mouth forming an O of surprise. As she lifted the receiver back to her ear, Joan had to force herself to breathe normally so she could speak again.

“His birthday’s the eighteenth, isn’t it?” she asked Roger with a sniff, jotting down a few key dates. Sister Alice, born—what year was Alice born? When did she die? Where did she attend college again? Radcliffe?

“What? Um. Yeah.”

Joan could hear the thick despair in his voice, and wished she could reassure him in person instead of over the telephone. This was just unfair.

“Roger, honey, I’m so sorry.”

As she spoke, Lane went out into the bullpen, clearly trying to give her a minute of privacy. She was thankful for his discretion, but it really wasn’t necessary, as Roger didn’t even respond right away. The only way she knew he was still on the line was because he kept clearing his throat, the noise muted and soft.

“Want to know the worst part?” he asked suddenly.

“What?” she answered.

He let out a huff, like it was such a stupid detail to mention. “I didn’t even know he was sick. He never—”

A sudden clunk echoed in her ear, but no dial tone followed. She guessed he’d just put the phone down, and wiped away more tears as she imagined him trying to pull himself together enough to make twenty more of these phone calls.

“Hello?” said a breathless voice — a female voice —and Joan sat up immediately as ten years’ worth of instinct startled her into speech.

“Mona?”

“Oh, Joan,” Mona replied with a sad sigh, like she wasn’t surprised at all. “I’m glad he called you. It’s just terrible news.”

“Yes,” Joan whispered. That was all she could say.

“I overheard him ask about the eulogy. Did you get what you needed?”

“What? Oh, um, no.” Joan quickly ran through the required dates and biographical facts, and jotted down a quick list of people she thought should be mentioned in the eulogy: Roger and his father, obviously, all the immediate family. Maybe his girl from Japan. And maybe Ida? She was basically family, too. Jesus, Ida would have been crushed if she were alive.

“…and Hattie, of course,” Mona’s speaking voice was very even, as if they were planning any other gala, just trading details about flowers or stationery.

“I’m sorry. The second to last name?” Joan lowered her voice to try to keep it from wobbling, although this didn’t work one bit.

Mona still noticed, and made a sympathetic noise. “I hope you’re not by yourself. It’s late.”

“No.” Joan teared up again at the thought of Mona Sterling asking about her well-being; an act of kindness that she certainly didn’t deserve, given everything. Movement by the door made her glance up. Lane stood inside the doorway as if he’d overheard enough to guess who was on the other end of the line. But he didn’t walk forward, just stood inside the doorway as if he hadn’t decided whether to stay or go. In the shadows, his eyes glittered dark behind his glasses. “Lane’s with me.”

She motioned him closer. Stay. Please.

“Oh,” Mona sounded like she didn’t know how to respond to that. Maybe she didn’t even know who Lane was. “That’s wonderful, dear.”

Joan took a deep, shuddering breath. She really didn’t feel like explaining away his presence or the fact that they were in the office, not when there were bigger fish to fry. “Um. I’ll dictate a draft to Caroline when I have it. Early.”

“I’ll let her know.” Mona replied. There was a brief pause before she spoke again. “Thank you for doing this. It means the world. Really.”

Joan nodded, forgetting to speak. Lane touched her shoulder a second time, his thumb rubbing back and forth over the muscle. She resisted the perverse urge to close her eyes. “Of course. We all—”

Loved him, she tried to say, but she couldn’t force the words past her lips, and covered her mouth with one hand to stifle a cry. Oh, god, he was dead. She was never going to see him again. She wouldn’t even be able to go to the funeral.

“He would have appreciated that,” Mona said—and even this, Joan thought, didn’t sound fake; it was shockingly earnest. “I’ll tell Roger you said goodbye.”

“Thank you,” was all Joan could say. She hung up the receiver, sat motionless while she stared at the phone for a couple of minutes, and then turned to Lane, her face tear-streaked.

He tightened his grip on her shoulder, which made her sigh, but they didn’t even look at each other. She stared at a scuffed patch on the hardwood, still unable to believe it. Dead. Bert had always been so healthy, so strong-willed. He couldn’t be dead. It was impossible.

“A titan of industry,” Lane said into the silence.

She barely heard him. All she could think about was the way Cooper had purposely avoided her eyes in the elevator, that fateful summer night. Don’t waste your youth on age. The way he’d smiled when she’d walked up to the group on the night they formed SCDP. The languid drawl of his gruff voice. Very good. The brief, polite thank you note he’d written her a few months ago, and the childish, half-drunken screed she’d sent back in return, filled with self pity and anger and so many other details he hadn’t asked to know about her terrible little life. Her skin crawled with shame just remembering some of the choice quotes.

How could you do that to him? Why did you put your problems on a dying man? He was probably feeling awful by that point, and all you did was add to his burden. You’re a horrible person.

“What am I supposed to say?” she asked loudly. Her voice echoed through the charged, weighted silence.

I don’t want him to be dead.

Lane patted her shoulders again, with two hands this time, and brushed a stray lock of hair away from the clasp of her necklace. But he didn’t answer her question, which made Joan glad for some reason. It would be easy to talk and talk and fill the silence with idiotic words. It was harder to accept that some things were very painful, and nothing he or anyone else could say would change that.

Selfishly, she was glad he was here. It did help.

Joan sat motionless for another minute before she leaned forward and picked up the notepad on which she’d written pertinent names and dates. Without looking at the names too closely, she turned to examine Lane’s face.

Hands now poised on the top of her chair, he stared back at her with a wary expression, like he wasn’t sure what she was about to say or do.

“I should get started,” she told him flatly, and moved to go sit at Katya’s typewriter.

Here, after several minutes of staring at the blank sheet of paper, she picked up a pen and wrote five words at the top of the unlined margin, the usual bubbles and points of her letters sloppier and less pronounced than usual.

The Japanese have a saying…

 

 

 

After one handwritten version and two typed onionskins—her hands were shaking so badly she kept mistyping her Cs and Ts—Joan thought she finally had a workable draft. Reading it over one final time to make sure, and marking a few minor corrections with red pencil, she decided the full text could benefit from a proofreading. Pushing her chair back from the secretary’s desk and standing up in one fluid motion, she picked up the legal pad and the two typed drafts and collated these into a neat pile as she walked toward Lane’s office.

Inside, Lane was sitting behind his desk with his feet kicked up onto the tabletop, staring out at a spot above the mounted shelves. The lamp’s dim yellow glow threw the angles of his face into sharp relief, and his lit pipe, which sat in a nearby glass ashtray, cast a sweet, hazy vanilla smoke over the room.

When he noticed she had come in, he sat up, and reached for his glasses, which were lying on the desk next to his ashtray. “Sorry. Did you need me?”

“I don’t know if this is any good,” Joan said slowly, to get that much out of the way, “but if you have a minute, I’d appreciate a second opinion.”

She didn’t want to have to ask the question out loud. Will you read it? Will you tell me if it sounds stupid?

He motioned her over. “Of course.”

Still uncertain, Joan thumbed through the sheaf of pages one more time before relinquishing them. It was clear why she couldn’t hire a writer; she just didn’t have the creativity for this kind of thing. Everything she’d typed out sounded so factual linked together, as banal and boring as if she were making a grocery list.

“Good,” she said quickly, before Lane could look it over in earnest, or—god forbid—read part of it out loud. Her throat was getting tight and she felt like she might cry if she just stood here silently and let the truth wash over her, with nothing to focus her mind. Bert’s dead. He died. “Um. I’ll be in the kitchen. Let me know if—”

She couldn’t finish the sentence, just put a palm over her eyes for a second and let out a frustrated sigh before walking away.

What she meant to do was get a cup of tea, or eat a few stale club crackers from the box at the back of the second shelf, but as she turned the little corner and arrived at the recessed space where the sink and counter sat mounted on a long counter, the big pile of mugs in the basin immediately drew her focus.

Balanced on top of them was a grimy-looking yellow bowl that looked like it had hardened cornflakes in it, or some kind of oatmeal or cereal. Joan didn’t even know why this made her so angry, but before she could think too much about what she was doing, she’d picked up the dirty bowl and the old sponge, which was lying next to the dish rack, and had turned the taps on, full strength.

Drizzling liquid detergent into the bottom of the dish, Joan fumed silently to herself as she scrubbed. Who the hell would leave a bowl in this condition at work? Who the hell was eating their disgusting breakfast here? She dug the rough side of the sponge into the porcelain, as if elbow grease alone was going to get this thing clean. What she really wanted to do was pick it up and smash it into a thousand pieces. People were so awful—so goddamn inconsiderate!

“Jesus!” she hissed, rubbing the pad of her thumb over the hard particles that refused to slough off, as hot water poured through her hands and past the bowl and down the drain. And after another minute of scrubbing, she was so frustrated that she just threw the sponge into the basin, picked up the bowl, and tossed it into the nearby trash can.

This didn’t help her mood one bit, and it certainly didn’t stop the tears that were bubbling up into her chest and throat.

She just needed a second. She’d be fine in a second.

I miss New York, she’d written to Cooper. She could almost picture the words on the page as she’d scrawled them, messy and frantic—remembered practically crying as she wrote. I miss the agency. Nobody understands that.

Reaching forward, Joan cut the water off, and slumped forward against the counter, both hands braced on either side of the sink as she stared down at the vortex of water circling the drain and the assortment of dirty mugs still in the basin.

A board squeaking a few feet to her left caught her attention. Lane.

“Joan?” he asked softly.

She bit her lip, and raised her head as she pulled her hands away from the counter.

“I’ll look over your notes in a minute.” Her voice was high, rushed—breathless from the effort of holding everything at bay. “Thank you.”

Lane didn’t say anything, and for a second she thought he’d go back into his office and shut the door, the way he always did in the past when they got bad news. But after a second, he began to walk towards her, not away. The tread of his shoes on the wooden floor was slow and deliberate as he moved.

Joan still didn’t turn around. So, when he stopped almost directly behind her, so close she could hear the half sigh he let out as he pressed his face into the crook of her shoulder and neck, and put a tentative arm around her waist, she was so stunned she couldn’t speak.

Her first thought, absurdly, was that he was hitting on her, but when he didn’t try to cop a feel or do anything weird, and he didn’t say a single word, this thought turned into something very different.

It was a hug, she finally realized. Lane was hugging her.

Tears pricked her eyes, and without thinking, she leaned into the embrace so the back of her head was balanced against the top of his shoulder. It had been so long since anyone had actually wanted to hold her, including Greg, and this wasn’t even romantic, for god’s sake. It wasn’t empty pity, and it certainly wasn’t cursory, like the kind of hug you’d exchange with a stranger in a receiving line. It was the sort of gesture you could only get from a friend; someone who understood exactly what you were going through. Or wanted to try, at least.

He let out an uneven breath, and a second, sadder thought popped into Joan’s head. Maybe he was grieving, too. Maybe he needed this just as much as she did.

Lane adjusted his position slightly, his hands moving to the sides of her waist, and she kept her eyes closed so she could savor this feeling, the contractions of his chest as he breathed in and out, and the woodsy scent of tobacco and cologne that surrounded him. She wanted to turn her head an inch to the right and kiss his cheek in quiet, simple thanks. But she also didn’t want to give him the wrong idea, so instead, she let out a little oh, a grateful, wordless exhalation, and placed her hands over his so she could grip them tightly.

As they stood there, motionless, she decided that one good hug from him meant more to her than all the platitudes in the world, because he didn’t just dole physical affection out for anyone. Which, frankly, spoke volumes about the kind of person he was. There were only a select few people to whom he gave his personal time and attention. And as childish and cold as this logic might have seemed to a stranger, the knowledge was weirdly comforting to her.

He was trying to make her feel better. Her, of all people.

After another few seconds, Lane let out another deep breath, and flexed his hands once against hers, as if he was trying to warm up his fingers after standing out in the cold. Joan released her grip immediately, and swallowed the lump in her throat as she reluctantly straightened up into a standing position.

“Can I—keep it?” he rasped, looking everywhere but at her face as he stepped backwards and she turned to face him. “Your draft.”

She must have looked stunned, because his cheeks got pink as he explained. “Erm. When someone important, er, passes—I usually—save the obituary. I-I wouldn’t normally ask, but there’s not much chance of us getting a Times out here. Unless someone mails it over.”

He laughed, once, the noise low and dull.

Joan was still shocked that he didn’t have any copy changes. When she used to write letters for him, he’d come back with a thousand small revisions, with specific notations right down to the word sincerely. “It’s really okay?”

“It is.” Lane met her eyes this time; one corner of his mouth tugged up in a way that suggested he was trying to smile. “Poetic, I think.”

Her eyes widened.

“Well. To me, anyway.” He shrugged, and glanced out toward the glass doors, where the elevator was shrouded in an enormous shadow. “Poignant. Thoughtful, but not, er,” he pursed his mouth as he searched for the word. His eyes brightened slightly when he finally found it, “cloying. If that makes sense.”

It did. Relief flooded her in a wave so visceral that her skin pebbled with goosebumps. But Joan didn’t let herself get lost in the bittersweet triumphant feeling, just rubbed at her upper arms with both hands. It was getting cold in here.

“Sure. Um. Keep it."

She guessed she’d go ahead and call Caroline, after making the few changes she’d marked earlier. If Caroline was even in the office by now, or if the woman could even type for crying. She'd loved Cooper, too, almost as much as she loved Roger, and Roger was like another son to her.

Joan let out another heavy sigh, and decided she didn’t have the stomach to wait any longer. Either way, she just needed to call and see if her friend was all right.

“Can I use your office?” she asked quickly. Lane looked like he was on his way out the door, and she didn’t feel like sitting next to the giant calendar right now, staring at the empty walls. Her office was still so impersonal.

He nodded, and didn’t question why she’d asked, just waved a distracted arm towards the back corner. “Mm. I’m just—I’ll come back with something to eat, if that’s all right.”

If he could even find anything at this hour, Joan thought sourly, but bit her tongue before she could venture this out loud. Maybe he just wanted to walk, try to clear his head. Or maybe he was trying to give her some time alone.

“That’s fine.”

After the glass door opened and closed, and Lane had disappeared into the side staircase, Joan finally turned and began the short walk back to the desk.

Chapter Text

“Ugh,” Peggy grumbled, as she and Stan waited at the back of the receiving line, about twenty feet from where Roger and Mona and her new husband and a few others stood next to the closed casket, and were shaking hands with all the mourners. Her black wool dress was itchy and hot; even in the packed palatial room, she could still feel sweat trickling down her shoulder blades and pooling at the small of her back. “I should have worn a different dress.”

“Will you cool it for ten minutes?” Stan muttered back.

“You’re not even dressed up!” She hissed out a sigh. Maybe that was why she was so frustrated; she felt like her mother in this stodgy dark suit, and he was wearing grey paisley. And corduroy. “I don’t even know why Roger invited us.”

Ted and Jim had stared at her in shock when she’d told them not to expect her at today’s campaign review. There was a public memorial in a few days, but from what Peggy had gleaned from Caroline, the wake was supposedly limited to a small group. Although it seemed like half of Manhattan was still here, so when she and Stan had arrived – late – they’d barely had time to say hello to Harry and Pete and Ken and a few others before getting in line to shake hands with the family.

“We’ve been in line for half an hour,” she said under her breath, trying to ignore the way her stomach was grumbling.

“Roger’s a talker,” Stan said mildly. “Just look at the art, or something.”

Ugh. Peggy turned toward the wall, where huge flower arrangements in exquisite vases sat next to a museum’s worth of famous paintings that lined the floor. She recognized one or two of them—the Rothko that had almost gotten Jane Sterling fired, a weird-faced girl that had to be by Picasso—while Stan pointed out the more obscure ones in an impressed undertone, whispering artist names into her ear like a dirty secret. Kandinsky. Degas. Pollock.

As they shuffled forward, she pointed at an ornate gilded frame that was set backwards, facing away from the receiving line. The small label on the back was written in Japanese, the ink faded red with age. Someone must have forgotten to straighten it.

“They won’t care if I fix it,” she said to Stan before she walked forward—not an actual question, just repeating what she thought might be true. It’s backwards. People might like to see it. It’s probably trees or a gazebo or something.

“Oh, my god,” she gasped after she turned the painting around, and had one side of the frame clutched in each hand. “This woman’s having sex with an octopus.”

She glanced back to see Stan grimacing at her, and then realized—the entire room had gone silent. Swallowing, she snuck a quick look to her left at the family, where Roger Sterling and the funeral party were also staring at her.

“Sorry,” she mouthed, and pulled a guilty face.

After another second, Roger burst out laughing.

“Oookay,” came Stan’s voice from behind her, but they didn’t have time to dwell on how weird this was, because Roger had already left the receiving line to come over and say hello.

“You like that one, huh?” he asked, and jerked a thumb over at the rest of his family. “Rest of these jokers thought it was too much for a funeral. Spoilsports.”

Peggy struggled for something better to say than hello or I’m sorry. Everyone was still staring at her. “Bert didn’t really have this in his office.”

“Sure he did.” Roger laughed again, softer this time. “I think he came up with a different metaphor for everyone who asked. You know, she’s the client, and the octopus is the business.” He paused, looked thoughtful. “Or maybe she’s the business. I forget which.”

“Oh,” Peggy said slowly, still unable to tear her eyes away from the painting. She was ready to put it down, and apologize again, when she noticed the intent way Roger was staring at her.

“You want to keep it?” he finally asked.

She blinked, stunned. “What.”

Roger shrugged, like offering her a priceless painting was the easiest decision in the world. “Be a shame to see it collect dust in some stupid penthouse.”

“I-I don’t know what to say,” Peggy sputtered, still staring down at the woman’s painted face, at the tiny cephalopod that covered her cheek and wanton open mouth. “Are you sure?”

I didn’t know Cooper well. He didn’t even like me. He called me “the girl.”

“Ah, come on.” Although Roger’s voice was as light as ever, when she looked up, Peggy noticed his eyes were more serious than she had ever seen them, and this was what made her realize it wasn’t some drunken whim. He looked tired. “Put it behind your desk, terrify every man within spitting distance. You’re the only one I know who’d have the balls to do it justice.”

“I—” she wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or insulted “—thank you?”

“Sure thing, kiddo.” He glanced back toward the end of the line, where his ex-wife was staring at him impatiently, clapped Peggy on the shoulder, shook Stan’s hand with a murmured nice to see you, and walked back over.

She and Stan stared at each other for a few more seconds before Peggy motioned toward the front hall with the back of the painting.

“Um. I guess we should—go.”

They found Pete, Harry, and Ken standing in the front parlor and talking with a couple of other people Peggy didn’t recognize.

“What are you, stealing everything that isn’t nailed down?” Harry asked when he saw what she was holding, crunching down on a hard candy and putting the crinkled wrapper into his suit pocket as he talked.

Peggy turned the painting around and felt a triumphant jolt in her stomach when he choked in shock and started hacking like a tuberculosis patient.

“It’s a bequeathal. For my office,” she said sweetly, and turned innocent eyes on Kenny, who was practically wheezing with laughter, and Pete, whose silent, wide-eyed stare was somehow managing to convey that he was both dismayed and impressed. “Anyway, nice seeing you all.”

 

 

 

“All right,” Lane said, as the small group of them stood in front of the shared wall. It was Saturday morning, nearly eight thirty. The boys had stripped away most of the wooden paneling late last night, and the wallpapered sections between the studs had been marked with spray-painted red Xs, thanks to Joan. Although she still hadn’t arrived for the day. “Anyone want to say a few words before—”

“Bring out the hammer already,” Frederich sniffed, waving a dismissive hand. “Too much ceremony.”

Ginsberg sounded thrilled. “Yes! Exactly! Thank you, man.”

Down by reception, the glass door swung open in a large arc and clicked angrily against the stopper; loud vibrations rang through the room like a gong, but Joan didn’t seem to notice the noise as she stormed toward them, her jaw set and her expression dark as a thundercloud.

Oh, dear. She’d probably got into a fight with Greg again. Lane wasn’t privy to all the details, but he did know that things had been going very badly between Joan and her husband ever since they’d moved. Or perhaps even before they’d moved. For the most part, she kept her own counsel on these matters, but it did not take a stroke of genius to notice that relationship had become strained.

It did take Lane a minute to realize one thing that had changed.

Instead of her usual dress or skirt, today, Joan was wearing black cigarette trousers and a cotton blue blouse whose sleeves were cuffed up to the elbow. Her long hair was tied up and secured with a long headband or scarf—the same one he’d saved in the square, he thought.

She glanced over at the group of them, and huffed out a hello as she batted a stray piece of hair away from her face. “Sorry I’m late.”

“Good morning,” Lane ventured.

Joan gave him a thin smile that didn’t reach her eyes.

“We’re about to knock the crap out of the wall,” Ginsberg piped up helpfully, and picked up the sledgehammer with one hand. “Want the first shot?”

"You must be joking,” Dominic groaned in German.

“Mein gott, Michael!”

“Yes, I would,” Joan interrupted, with a look that told him they had better be getting on with it.

“All right, boys,” Lane motioned for Ginsberg to hand him the hammer. If Joan was going to participate in the knocking down portion of today’s work, she might as well have the most ceremonial bit. “That’s enough.”

He took the hammer in two hands and presented it to Joan as if offering her a sword. She eyed the heavy tool with sharp eyes before she took it from him.

“Well. Let’s start at the center,” he told her, and together, they walked a few steps over to the shared wall.

“Now. Have you ever hammered anything before?”

“Is this demolition or rocket science?” she snapped.

Lane ignored her terse tone and decided to jump straight to the point. “Right. Well. Just—hold it up, like this. Hands at chest level, spread a few inches apart.”

She took the neck of the hammer in one hand and the handle in the other, hefting it up to her right shoulder as if she were using a baseball bat, and nearly clocking him in the skull in the process.

“Good lord!”

One of the boys snickered as Lane jumped backwards to avoid the blow.

Joan sent him an annoyed glance at the exclamation. Lane tried to smile at her as he walked around to her left, keeping a careful distance now, and losing confidence in this idea with every passing second.

“Erm. Good. So you’ve—it’s a sort of brisk chopping motion.” He demonstrated again as best he could: spanned his hands a few inches apart and mimed the way she was to strike the wood. “Plant your feet with your weight on the back foot, here. Hold it directly in front of you and—”

“Oh, for god’s sake, Lane,” she snapped. “I’ve got it!”

Message received. He stepped further to the side, and closed his mouth.

She glared at the wall as she raised the sledgehammer. Lane winced at the way she aimed it—her hands were too close to the hammerhead, the angle was all wrong—and as she brought it down, he closed his eyes to keep from witnessing the disaster that would follow.

Thunk!

Silence. No one screaming. Probably no blood.

He cracked one eye open.

Joan stood in front of the wall with a wide-eyed expression, still gripping the handle in one hand, with the hammerhead wedged into the drywall nearly a foot below the X she had marked out. It was not the best blow, but she had not hit a stud, or injured herself, or dropped the thing on her foot.

He breathed out a sigh of relief.

Without pausing, Joan wrapped both hands around the handle, planted one foot against the wall, and wrenched the hammer from the plaster with a little grunt. She took several tottering steps backwards in her low pumps; Lane realized what she meant to do seconds before she raised the hammer again, swinging it like a baseball bat this time. She was a bit too far away for this strike to count for much, however; it barely dinged the surface.

Giving the wall a scorching glare as she stepped back, and letting out an annoyed growl, Joan raised the hammer a third time. On this try, she swung the tool with so much force that the bloody thing flew out of her hands, whizzed headfirst through the air like a boomerang, and struck the middle of the wall, crashing through the drywall in a large uneven patch, and letting in a small ray of light from the far windows of the other room.

They were all silent. Dominic was the first person to speak.

“Scheisse.”

Fragmented pieces of drywall and dust fizzled through the air, and the hammer was still lying akimbo inside the wall. Only the middle and end bit of the handle were still visible.

Ginsberg let out a low whistle. "Joan, you got some rage."

She scoffed, and fussed one red-palmed hand across her brow, where a tiny piece of loose plaster was stuck to her forehead. “I do not.”

"Oh, lord.” Lane was determined, somehow, to salvage this moment and steer it back toward the ceremonial. He’d wanted it to be majestic, not homicidal. “Erm. Joan, it might be best if—someone else ought to have a turn—"

"Okay," Joan interrupted with a shrug, and gestured to Frederich, who was already walking forward with his hands outstretched, rolling up his sleeves.

 

 

           

They were in the middle of the Tuesday status meeting when it happened again. One minute, they were going through the budget of the local chocolatier with Dominic and Ginsberg, and the next, Joan was checking her watch, clearing her throat, and standing up from the table.

“I’m sorry, I’m expecting a telegram,” she murmured to no one in particular, and strode out into reception and down the front stairs, as if the delivery was waiting for her in the lobby at this very moment.

Lane tried not to seem concerned about her departure, although he knew there was no telegram in sight; this was the stock phrase she’d come up with in order to excuse herself from the room for a few minutes, if she felt completely overcome. He was glad she’d confided this much, but oh, he wished he could do something to help her feel better.

She’d been crying at the drop of a hat since they first heard the news about Cooper—not hysterically, not the sort of thing that would draw everyone’s attention—but in a furtive, secret way. Behind closed doors and in corners when she thought no one was looking, he’d see her wipe her eyes or tilt her head up, chin set, as if she was willing back more tears. Like she was too exhausted to do anything but choke back the knot in her throat, and go on doing whatever it was she had been doing before the weepy spell hit. It would have seemed normal if it hadn’t been happening for so long, and by now Lane was starting to get very worried. Was she able to eat? Or able to sleep? She looked as if she were barely holding herself together, flushed and listless, although it seemed no one else had really noticed.

When she came back to the table after nearly ten minutes away, he pulled out his handkerchief from his pocket, and set it onto the top of her knee under the table when the boys weren’t looking, ignoring the surprised glance she gave him after he did this. And when she tried to give the thing back to him, a couple of hours later, he refused to accept it, just gently pressed the square of fabric back into her outstretched palm.

“Just in case,” he told her with a shrug, and pretended not to notice how her eyes got glossy again.

 

 

 

“Mrs. Harris?” Katya’s voice rang brisk and clear over the intercom. “Your visitor has arrived.”

Joan checked her watch. Ten minutes early. “Thank you. Send him in.” She quickly toed off her shoes and got to her feet as Katya showed a short, slim Japanese man wearing a dark suit into the room, and quickly walked away, shutting the door as she left.

Guten morgen, Mr. Mori,” Joan summoned up a small smile. “I hope you had a pleasant trip?”

“Very pleasant. Arigato.” The lawyer inclined his head to her in a stiff bow; she mirrored the gesture, making sure to keep her back straight and her hands down. After doing this, she extended one hand, palm out, to the space by her coat rack.

“You may put your shoes there, if you like.”

“Of course.” He untied his laces efficiently, set his gleaming wingtips in a neat pair by the foot of the rack, and stood up again.

“May I?”

“Please.” Joan hit the button on her intercom twice to signal Katya. “While we work, my secretary will bring us some tea, if you don’t mind.”

“Thank you for your gracious hospitality. Mr. Sterling told me of your kindness.” He set his briefcase into the chair next to him, and opened it, producing a large ream of papers. “Shall we begin?”

Joan nodded.

 

 

 

“Why’s Joan meeting with some lawyer?” Ginsberg asked, as they sat at the long table, reviewing the latest creative budget.

Lane pulled a face, not wanting to admit that he had no idea. The only reason he could imagine her needing a lawyer in the middle of the morning was something best not spoken aloud. “That’s none of your business.”

“So this is not about the typography thing?”

“What typography thing,” Lane began, alarmed, but was interrupted by the sound of Joan’s door squeaking open on its hinges.

“Mr. Pryce.” The first thing he noticed when she stepped out was that she was only in her stocking feet. “Do you have a minute?”

“Of course.”

Lane ambled over, curious at being called Mr. Pryce, and he only became more curious once he stepped into her office and noticed an array of papers laid out across her desk.

“I need an official witness for this paperwork,” Joan told him quickly, “if you don’t mind. But you’ll need to remove your shoes.”

“Ah—erm, certainly.” Lane knelt down to fumble with the laces, and tried not to glance at the lawyer as he stood up and gave a stiff bow. He supposed she’d explain the reason for the paperwork at a later time. “Have you got a spare pen?”

The lawyer walked Joan through the various signatures in a businesslike manner, and did the same for Lane, although Lane only had to sign twice on either set of documents. After the last page had been initialed, the lawyer gathered up the first set of papers, and clipped them together, then did the same for the second.

Lane felt awkward standing around in his sock feet – one side of his argyle sock had a loose thread hanging from the small toe, which was beyond humiliating – but Joan had not asked him to leave, and so he dawdled another moment by the coat rack as she wrapped up her business.

“Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Mori,” Joan told the lawyer as she pulled a single, crisp business card out of a metal cigarette case. The man accepted it with a short bow, holding it by the top edges and examining it very closely.

“You are most welcome, Mrs. Harris.”

“Did you leave Mr. Cooper’s effects with Katya? I’ll open them at a later time.”

A slight pause. Lane pretended to be very interested in tying his shoelaces.

“Forgive me. I—do not understand.”

Joan sounded confused, as well. “I’m sorry. You said it was a personal bequeathal. I assumed that meant a larger box?”

Lane glanced up from his shoes and saw her pick up a cream-colored, sealed envelope from her desk.

Next to Joan, the lawyer frowned at her as if she’d missed something very important. “My apologies. Mr. Sterling informed me that you were aware of this particular gift.”

“Of Mr. Sterling’s gift, yes,” said Joan slowly, with a quick look at Lane. “I’m sorry. The details must have been lost in translation. What were Mr. Cooper’s instructions?”

The lawyer glanced over at Lane with an expression that said this news was not for all ears. Lane turned pink, and quickly excused himself, leaving Joan’s office and shutting the door behind him without another word. He resisted the urge to linger by the door, and went straight into his own office, pretending not to notice that it took nearly an hour before Joan’s door opened and closed again.

Perhaps the legacy was as eccentric as the man himself, Lane mused later that night over a couple of gins. Joan had not told him anything further, so the gift could still be very elaborate. It could be artwork, or furniture—a collection of some import that could not be shipped to Germany. Something that spoke to her personality, or her classical interests. In most cases, Lane would have assumed the deceased would have left a bit of money and been done with it, but that sort of gesture seemed rather bland for Bert Cooper, a man who prided himself on such opaqueness and formality.

Although he very much hoped—shuddering at the thought—that Bert had not left them another ant farm. One was quite enough, thank you.

 

 

 

The next Saturday, they met again to begin painting the second room. Lane had picked out a clean taupe color for the walls, and the boys had come up with a colorful pinstripe design they were going to do with tape. Very modern and bright. Everything was coming together so well.

Tinny music from the transistor filled the room as they worked: Joan hummed under her breath as she carefully painted the trim and shutters jet-black. Lane worked around her, filling in the trimmed portion of each wall with a long roller. On the other side, Michael, Frederich, and Dominic had momentarily lapsed in their duties, and were slinging paint all over the dropcloth as they kept lancing each other with their brushes. Ginsberg was covered in blue and Dominic had so many large splotches of red on his shirtfront that he looked like he’d been in some kind of horrible accident.

“Steady on!” Lane exclaimed, as two large spots of paint splashed against the wood floor.

“Lane, they’re having fun,” Joan chided, to his left.

He lowered his roller and turned to glare at her. “Yes, but they are free to do so without getting paint all over the floors.”

She stopped her work and flashed him a wicked grin, and for a second, he was too pleased by this to register that she was walking toward him, very slowly, the tip of her little brush poised in the air.

“No,” he said quickly, once he finally realized what she was up to, and quickly brandished his roller as if it were a shield. “No, now, Joan—don’t do anything rash.”

“It’s not rash,” she said, still grinning.

“I pay your salary,” Lane blurted as she feigned forward, and quickly parried this strike with his own, smearing a streak of white paint up her hand and forearm. “Oh, don’t you dare get—!”

She darted past his weapon with ease, and the next thing he knew, wet bristles tickled a thick stripe up from the apple of his cheek to the tip of his ear. Beside him, Joan just cackled under her breath, resting her free hand on his shoulder as she continued to paint his face for a few seconds. Lane rolled his eyes and made a lot of sullen noises before she drew back, secretly missing the way she’d patted his arm. Wondering just how ridiculous he looked with his face painted this way.

“I drew a comet,” she told him, voice airy.

“Of course you did.” He glanced down his shirtfront to see two spots of black dotting his waistcoat. “I’ll have you know this is a very important waistcoat. And now it’s got paint all over it, thanks to you.”

Across the room, the boys had gone helpless with laughter.

“Holy shit. You look like David Bowie’s grandpa.”

And suddenly there was a voice echoing around the other room through the plastic dividers, a man who sounded very perplexed.

“Joanie?”

Joan’s demeanor changed instantly; the smile dropped from her face, and without another word, she put her paintbrush into the bucket, put the bucket on the floor, and walked slowly to the hanging plastic and past it, toward the lobby.

Lane pretended to need another rag from the pile so he could get closer and try to hear what they were saying.

“I need to talk to you,” her husband told her in a low voice. He was in uniform today, as if he’d just gotten through with work.

Joan did not seem thrilled by his appearance. “Can it wait?”

“No.” Was Lane imagining how curt the doctor sounded? “Why? Are you busy?”

“Fine,” she finally sighed.

That tone of voice was the one Joan used with difficult clients, when she was trying very hard to hold her tongue.

Quickly, Lane peered out through a long rip in the plastic. He watched as Dr. Harris caught his wife’s arm, and tugged her gently towards the front door, with a murmured word Lane could not hear from this distance. Joan looked surprised not to be walking towards her office, but did not argue, and after a moment the two of them were through reception and out of sight.

 

 

 

By the time they were downstairs in a corner of the deserted lobby, Joan was fed up with all the pretending.

“Greg, what the hell do you want?”

He turned to face her with a scoff. “Jesus. Why are you always mad at me?”

Joan bit her tongue to bite back the automatic response. “You dragged me out of work for this?”

“Are you kidding?” Greg hissed back, his face set in a stony frown as he gestured toward the stairs. “That isn’t work. And your cheapskate boss can’t make you leave your family, on a Saturday, just so you can—”

“He didn’t make us do anything—“

“Do you have any idea how selfish you’re being? Nothing’s ready for Tuesday. The house looks horrible, there’s no food—”

“I knew it,” Joan growled, and shifted her weight from foot to foot with a mulish look. “You don’t even care what I’m doing here, you just want to make sure I don’t embarrass you in front of the goddamn brass.”

“Hey! It’s an honor to have the Colonel in our home,” Greg hissed, “and when he’s there, I expect you to show him the respect he deserves.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure your precious Colonel falls all over you…”

“You’re such a bitch. Why are you like this?”

“Fremdschämen,” Joan muttered with an eyeroll, folding her arms over her chest.

“Speak English, damn it!”

Without warning, Greg shoved her backwards. Joan took two big stumbling steps before her back knocked into the wall, both hands scrabbling for balance against the dirty bricks. It wasn’t a hard hit, barely a bump, but she had already gone quiet, eyes wide and her mouth set into a tense line as she waited for him to speak.

Greg rubbed one hand across the stubble at his jaw. “Jesus Christ, Joanie. I mean, every time I ask you for anything, you get hysterical and pick a fight for no reason. Do you know how much patience that takes? How much shit I put up with?”

Joan tried to force air into her lungs, terrified that someone was going to walk in and find them like this. Terrified that he was going to really lose his temper, do something he couldn’t take back. “Greg.”

He stepped closer, one hand brushing against the front of her waist, and she shut her eyes, her breath speeding up as he leaned down to whisper in her ear.

“You’re my wife. You swore to support me in whatever I want to do. And if I think you’re not cutting it, I’ll make sure you aren’t distracted. Got it?”

“I’m not distracted,” Joan breathed as he pulled away, and opened her eyes just in time to catch rage flitter across his face.

“Don’t do that,” he said tightly, and shook his head as he pulled away and stepped backwards, his fisted hand moving down to one side. “I don’t like being the bad guy here.” He let out a sigh, boyish jaw set taut with anger. “Just tell your boss you need to go home early.”

“Okay,” Joan said flatly, not daring to contradict him.

“Good.” He exhaled again, and relaxed a little, giving her a crooked smile. “Look, everything’ll be better once the party’s over. When the Colonel sees us, sees our family, it’ll be worth all the stress. I promise.”

“Yeah,” Joan managed.

She didn’t cry when he gave her an expectant nod, and walked out the front door. She didn’t even cry after he left, just stood there leaning against the wall with her heart racing and her breath coming fast, counting down the seconds until she had to use her legs again. You’re okay you’re okay you’re okay

“Everything all right?”

Shit. She opened her eyes and saw Lane poised in front of the door to the stairwell, watching her with a wary expression. He looked ridiculous with black paint smeared all over half his face.

Joan pushed herself into a standing position. You’re okay. You’re not hurt.Dr. Harris went home to sulk.”

“Oh.” Lane looked sorry to have asked. “Well, I—I just came down to get more dropcloths. Ginsberg’s made rather a mess of things.”

Joan couldn’t give this comment the smile it deserved, but twitched her mouth at him in what she hoped was a pleasant way. “I’m sure.”

“Do you—will you come back upstairs, in a bit?” he asked.

She shook her head. “If I stay here any longer, Greg’ll kill me.”

And god, that was supposed to be a joke, but it sounded bleaker and bleaker the longer it lingered in the air. And Lane didn’t even laugh.

“I’m sure he'll come round.”

“Well,” Joan sighed, after several long seconds of awkward silence, “you’re officially invited to the world’s worst party, if you don’t have anything better to do on Tuesday night.”

Lane looked puzzled. “What on earth for?”

She huffed out a breath through her nose. “Labor Day. The Colonel is coming.”

           

 

           

The music and the commotion was audible from all the way up the street, and as Lane crossed over the small lawn toward the squat yellowish one-level house, he hoped he hadn’t made a mistake in coming here.

Joan had invited him in earnest; he knew that much. What he did not know was how well her husband might react to having a gatecrasher, especially considering how much the man (apparently) disliked him?

He knocked first, and got no answer, and when he went to knock again, the door swung open. After taking a moment to gather his courage, Lane stepped inside.

The sitting room was swamped with folding chairs and bottles and cups and plates of half-eaten food. There was one couple on the sofa, a young army man in uniform and his girl, necking rather passionately considering they were in a public room. But otherwise, everyone seemed to be out back. There were roars of laughter and scattered conversations drifting up from the back garden and through the open patio door into the house. The clink of bottles and glasses.

Outside, someone was shouting in a sort of fond way. “Jesus, Benton! Leave the kid alone, would you? He gets enough of your bullshit on base!”

Behind him, the clink of dishes being collected alerted him to the presence of a few others, and as Lane walked toward a long folding table that was currently separating the kitchen from the rest of the hall, he nearly collided with an older red-haired woman wearing trousers and a faded floral blouse, balancing a set of empty Tupperware containers in her arms.

“Sorry!” Lane exclaimed, catching one in his arms before it could fall to the floor. This must be Joan’s mother? “I do hope I’m not too late. Joan—Mrs. Harris—invited me for the, erm, party.” He gestured with the neck of the bottle of wine he was carrying. “Didn’t want to come empty handed.”

The woman put her tupperwares aside, glancing him up and down before extending her hand, taking the bottle from him first, and then reaching back out for a handshake. “Well, I can’t be mad at a man who comes bearing gifts. Gail Holloway.”

“Lane Pryce. Very nice to meet you,” he said warmly. “Mrs. Harris has told me so much about you.”

“Uh oh.”

“No, good things, I assure you.” Well. Mostly. “Says you’ve been quite the help with the little one.”

Gail frowned at him like he had to be lying.

“And—and you know how grateful we are to have her working with us,” he said quickly. “She’s very clever. You must be proud.”

Gail was still studying him very closely. It was making Lane rather nervous.

“Erm. May I use your w.c.?”

“Sure. First door on the left,” she said, nodding her head toward the length of the hallway. “Go on.”

He got to the appropriate door and opened it only to realize—there was a bed and a dresser illuminated by a tiny pastel lamp. It was someone’s room!

“Oh, dear.” He began to close the door, but before he could shut it, someone answered him in a low whisper.

“Lane?”

Joan’s voice. He stuck his head in; saw her sitting in a rocking chair next to Kevin’s crib, wearing a silk robe over what appeared to be pajamas. Good lord.

“Sorry,” he murmured, and flushed a bit red. “Thought this was the loo.”

She waved him inside without another word, and after glancing down the hall to make sure no one had noticed, he entered, and shut the door behind him.

“I-I would’ve come earlier, only my phone call with Nigel went a little long.” Extremely long; nearly forty minutes. “He’s got girl problems, if you’ll believe it.”

Some girl from the neighboring school had started sending him little notes through one of her friends, and Nigel was apparently stymied over how to write back. Lane was so thrilled to be asked about such an important matter that he had lost all track of time. It was only Nigel’s being discovered by a roommate that had finally halted the conversation.

Joan smiled. “That’s cute.”

“Aren’t you enjoying the party?” he whispered next, peering into the distant shadows of Kevin’s crib to see if the lad was asleep. The little one was out like a light, face down on the mattress and drooling with his mouth wide open, so clearly he hadn’t been much trouble.

“It went a little long,” Joan told him with a yawn. “We saw the Colonel off an hour ago. Officially, I fell asleep putting the baby to bed.”

Lane raised an eyebrow. So this was a bit of subterfuge. “And unofficially?”

“Stay for a minute.” She motioned towards the duvet. “My mother won’t tell.”

“Well, if you won’t get in trouble with your mother, then it’s all right.” Lane was smiling as he sat down on the edge of the bed, and decided not to ask what her husband might think of all this. “You been feeling any better, lately?”

Joan gave him a quizzical glance.

“I know it’s been sad.” He cleared his throat, still whispering for some reason. “Losing Cooper. Did—erm—meeting with the lawyer help at all?”

“Oh.” She glanced down at the blanket in her lap, her hands toying over a satin edge. “Well, it was certainly enlightening.”

“That’s good, I suppose?”

She met his eyes again, her mouth pursing into an amused expression as she looked up. “You want to know what he left me.”

Whoops. Lane did not think his interest was that obvious.

“Sorry.”

“No. I don’t care if you do.” She looked over at Kevin’s crib, now, her expression softening as she watched the little one snuffling out even, deep breaths. “This stays between us.”

He nodded an affirmative, but did not dare to break the sudden spell that had fallen over the room. Joan was still watching her son, reaching between the crib bars with one finger to stroke the back of his little loose fist, and the look on her face was so poignant, so open and hopeful, that he did not want to spoil it by talking.

“He didn’t need to be so generous with his money,” she said first, so low the last word was practically silent. Lane tried to downplay his shocked expression as she continued. “It’s more than we could have ever...I still don’t understand why he thought about me. I wish I knew.”

“Joan, he—cared for you.” Lane sought her gaze. “For all his faults, he was very attentive to those who truly liked him. I’m sure you know that much.”

The small sparkle of tears that sprung to her eyes was not a surprise, but Lane was very heartened when she gave him a little smile, and the watery expression seemed brighter than it had in several weeks. “I do.”

From the kitchen, the clang of something clattering into the floor made them both startle; Joan straightened up with a sniff as she peered toward the door, clearly suspicious, or worried, or both.

“I should be going,” Lane told her.

She nodded, but gave him another smile as he stood up. “If you’re hungry, there’s a container hidden on top of the fridge. I made you some fried chicken, since it’s your favorite.”

Lane’s mouth watered at the very suggestion. Homemade fried chicken. God, he hadn’t had that in years.

“That’s—thank you so much.”

Joan smiled at him again, made a little shooing motion. “Go grab it before my mother does.”

He left the room with a murmured goodbye, shutting the door behind him as quietly as possible, and made his way to the kitchen to discover someone – an unknown person in a pink dress – washing dishes at the sink with the water running on full blast, oblivious to everything behind her.

The refrigerator was on his immediate left, and there at the top was the container in question, one orange corner peeking out over the edge of the door. Lane stood up on his toes, grabbed it, and took his leave without so much as a word to anyone else.

 

 

 

“Joanie.”

A soft knock on the door made Joan look up from her book. Her mother was standing in the doorway with a half-full trash bag in one hand and a pair of tongs in the other.

“What happened to the rest of the chicken? I thought there was one more bowl to throw out.”

Joan gave her mother a don’t-be-stupid look, her brow wrinkling up. “The orange one? No, I gave it to Lane.”

Her mother pulled a disgusted face. “On purpose?

“Mom, everybody else ate it,” Joan said, in a lame attempt at defending her cooking. The first batch had almost been a disaster, but her mother had helped save it, and the second one had been great. Even Greg had said so.

“Sweetheart, it was so bad I couldn’t even serve it. Those birds could have flown out of here, even after another hour in the oven.”

Joan’s eyes widened in mute horror.

 

 

 

Once home, Lane couldn’t even wait for the oven to warm up before he decided to try eating a leg cold. Opening up the orange container, he made a pleased noise at how many pieces Joan had managed to fit in. Clearly, she’d arranged for him to have quite a large helping, despite his lateness.

The outside looked very inviting – the leg nearest the top had quite a bit of fried skin left on top. Lane reached out to grab it with one hand, and before he could stop to savor the moment properly, he grabbed the leg in two hands and took an enormous bite from the middle.

Seconds later, he nearly choked in horrified surprise, and rushed over to the sink to spit the mouthful back out at once, coughing and spluttering as he stared down at the rest of the piece in shock.

God, it was the most awful bloody thing he’d ever eaten!

On closer examination, the middle of the meat was so raw it was still pale pink and slimy, although the outer edges were dry, and the crust nearly burned. The breaded coating was uneven and thick in some places, and almost nonexistent in others, and for some godawful reason, it tasted like the inside of a sugar bowl! If a sugar bowl had been mixed with the tastes of lard and slightly burnt flour.

Lane tossed the rest of the bone into the sink, and covered his mouth with one greasy hand, unable to keep from giggling. It was possibly the worst piece of chicken he’d ever eaten in his life—perhaps the worst thing he had ever eaten, full stop. Completely, horridly revolting.

And she’d made it just for him. Dear god.

He laughed until his stomach ached and his face burned hot with mirth.

Chapter Text

“Ah.” Sitting next to her at the six-person table, Lane scribbled down another note on his clipboard. “Danke. How wonderful to hear.”

Joan thought she could see a thin beam of sunlight reflected off the lenses of Lane’s glasses as he spoke—they were sitting near the windows—and although she kept nodding and studying him very intently as he spoke, her mind was far from work. He always quirked an eyebrow when he was—

“…isn’t that right, Joan?”

“Absolutely,” she said, with no clue as to what he’d actually asked.

Herr Schmidt held up a placating hand before she could embarrass herself any further. Joan tried not to notice the way his salt and pepper hair fell across his craggy face and into his eyes as he leaned a little closer to their side of the table. He was much more handsome than the rest of their clients.

“And you believe your agency could be more beneficial to us than the rest?”

“We do,” Joan said, and summoned up a wide smile. “And we’d love to know who else is in the ring, if you don’t mind sharing.”

“Putnam, Powell, and Lowe,” said the younger Mr. Schmidt.

“Ah.” Lane turned to Joan, gave her the blank-eyed smile that meant he was panicking, and needed a rescue. “You’re—also considering PPL.”

“Well, I think that’s only natural,” Joan took a drag of her cigarette in an attempt to buy three extra seconds. “PPL does offer an extensive range of services. I think it’s nice to see you don’t hold their history against them.”

Lane blinked at her, his client smile fading. Dominic’s good-humored expression seemed cannier.

“What do you mean?” the elder Schmidt asked.

Joan cleared her throat, assumed an innocent face. “Oh, nothing scandalous. They made a lot of money with that sale.”

“The American branch,” Dominic’s shrug was as expressive as any fake smile could have been. “Bought by McCann Erickson.”

“Ah.” The elder Schmidt seemed relieved. “Well. We are not American. Why should I care what they do with their other properties? That only means they must turn the focus to us, for a change.”

“Naturally,” Lane said. “Long as senior leadership is active in the business, I think that’s a very fine goal.”

He wrote a couple of nonsense phrases in shorthand on his clipboard before setting it aside, face up, and meeting the Schmidts’ eyes again. The two clients tracked his every motion, expectant, but when he didn’t speak right away, the sudden silence threatened to turn awkward.

Joan didn’t like the idea of Lane’s notes being visible, either, but when she glanced down at the clipboard placed next to her arm, she noticed a word carefully written in the margin, scrawled so close to the sentences that it looked like a grammar correction: Duck.

For a second, she had no idea what Lane meant by that—and then it came to her—brilliantly, perfectly.

“Well, I’m sure you heard what they did to poor Duck Phillips.”

“I know he is no longer there.” The elder Schmidt made a face. “A shame.”

“He brokered the entire deal,” said Joan, giving Lane a sympathetic look, as if they’d read about the merger in some newspaper instead of orchestrating the respective details right down to the letter. “And they dumped him before the ink was even dry. Duck didn’t realize he was out until it was too late.”

“You were in New York during that time?” the younger Schmidt asked Joan.

Sure, as queen of the steno pool. “Lane and I saw exactly what happened to anyone who refused to fall in line.”

Giving them a warning look, as if it was Powell and Ford who’d been the problem, and not Duck’s complete breakdown.

“Of course, the merger was very successful, and they were able to sell again,” Lane leaned forward as if he was about to share something awful, spoke in an undertone. “But St. John doesn’t care for change. I imagine the next few years may be somewhat telling for his business.”

Joan had heard Lane complain about St. John Powell before – he’d grumbled over his treatment as a middle manager a hundred times, even during the SCDP days – but she had never heard him say a bad word about the man in public, even indirectly. Honestly, it was kind of refreshing.

“They’re old fashioned,” Dominic said with a dismissive wave. “Look at their advertisements. Hand drawn, not good for television.”

“Their radio spots sound like FDR’s Fireside Chats.”

Lane gave her a warning look. Joan decided to backpedal.

“What would you like to see done differently in your current campaign?”

 

 

 

A couple of hours later, Joan was juggling her satchel, purse, and a leather bound portfolio containing her financial documents through the long queue at a branch of Deutsche Bank, in the British sector. For some reason the wait was agonizingly slow today; someone at the front of the line had dropped three huge bags of coins onto the desk, someone else had to be walked through filling out their deposit slip, and by the time Joan got to the head of the line, she was frustrated and exhausted, ready to complete her wire transfer and go back to the office before her lunch break ran too long.

The desk clerk seemed just as irritated with the holdup. A wiry older man with thinning blonde hair and a bristling mustache, as pale and Aryan as they came, he spoke curtly to her the second she stepped up to the counter.

“Kann ich lhnen helfen?”

“Ja,” she cleared her throat, “du kannst mir helfen. Um. Do you—I’m sorry, do you speak any English?”

“What do you want?” he huffed immediately, the barest hint of an accent turning the w’s into slightly guttural, sharper v’s.

Joan kept her voice very, very patient. “Well. I’d like to open a checking account and make an international wire transfer. And I’d also like to speak to someone about opening a safety deposit box.”

“Fill out the paperwork.” He gestured to the high marble table a few feet to their left. “Someone will assist you once you have finished.”

“Yes, I saw the paperwork, but it doesn’t—I have questions about wire transfers that involve inheritances.”

“Make an appointment.”

Joan set her jaw, and put her portfolio onto the counter, pushing it towards the man with one hand as she tried to control her temper. She needed to open an account, and this was the only bank branch that spanned both the British and American sectors. Greg would never look for her here. It was nowhere near post. “Please, just look at it.”

He reached over and flipped her leather folio open. Joan knew the instant he saw the amount on the original document; his thin mouth pursed and his eyes bulged open for a brief second before he was able to compose himself. Even then, the man’s face still blazed a ruddy purplish-red, and he didn’t meet her eyes right away, taking a deep breath and straightening up.

“I see.” He immediately snapped his fingers at a young woman behind him, motioning for her to come and take his place at the teller desk. After that, he walked around the counter and whisked Joan toward a long hallway on the right hand side of the room. “Right this way, madam. Herr Bankdorektor Gottlieb can speak with you immediately.”

They marched past the wide eyes of the onlookers in the queue—which extended out of the front doors, now—and down the corridor, past several small offices and a half-full conference room where a lunch meeting seemed to be in progress.

She was led to the largest office, lush and spacious with a green leather sofa and a sitting area directly beside the doorway, and two plush leather armchairs in the same color facing a mahogany desk. In the center of this desk, pointed out toward the armchairs, was a gold-engraved nameplate and pen holder. Joan took a seat in the nearest armchair by the desk.

“May I offer you something to drink, Frau—?”

“Harris,” Joan said absently, still stunned at how quickly the tables had turned once they’d seen that number. Was this how people always behaved when you had money? She knew there was preferential treatment, obviously; she’d seen it a thousand times at Sterling Cooper and in all her other jobs. But it was one thing to know you couldn’t say boo to your wealthiest clients when they got needy or handsy or tried to flout policy. It was another to actually see the instant people flipped that switch in their minds, reclassified you as important. Someone worth buttering up.

I’m not that person, she wanted to tell this idiot, although a meaner thought was also bubbling up from the back of her brain—let him suffer for a couple of seconds. Let him think that two wrong words on a random Wednesday afternoon were going to get him fired.

“I’m sorry, what is your name?”

“Herr Amsel, madam.”

“Charmed,” she said, and took his offered hand, but didn’t smile.

He left the room quickly after that, with barely enough time for Joan to eye the large oil painting on the wall—it looked like a Rembrandt, although she couldn’t be sure—before the bank director arrived.

“Frau Harris. I am Johann Gottlieb. Good afternoon,” he said carefully, as she turned in her chair and rose to greet him. He wore a brown tweed suit in a subtle pattern and dark narrow glasses, his accent was much more pronounced than Herr Amsel’s, and his distinctive drawl gave him an air of calm authority—although the way he was growing out his silver hair made her suppress a smile. Clearly, he wasn’t immune to current trends.

“Please, have a seat.” He gestured to the armchairs as he sat down behind the desk. “How may we help you?”

Joan repeated her earlier requests. Opening an account, safety deposit box, answering a few of the more complex tax questions that she hadn’t reviewed with Mr. Mori.

By the time Herr Gottlieb was reviewing the nuts and bolts of the paperwork, Joan felt calmer than she had in months. She was going to have her own bank account. Her money would be safe—and so would Kevin’s, and so would Mr. Cooper’s.

“Now, are there other accounts we might consolidate for you, or investments you’d like to make?”

She decided to honor the niggling feeling that kept pushing her to mention her job. “This is the majority of my money, but I also work in advertising. My business partner and I manage an agency together.”

“Ah. All the more reason you should invest.”

He seemed sincere about his concern for her money, if a little pompous. Joan couldn’t help but appreciate that much.

 

 

 

Lane was so excited he kept stuttering over all his words as he paced behind his desk. Joan referred to this as his happy pacing, because he kept clapping his hands together in front of him every few steps, a big grin splitting his face, like he wanted to start skipping with glee. God, he was so giddy when he had something nice happen to him. She always enjoyed seeing that.

“Granted, a—well, as you know, it’s too soon to believe that there will be—some sort of mass exodus, I suppose, but I really—it’s quite—”

“Breathe,” Joan reminded him.

He did, laughing slightly on the exhale. “Sorry. I just—can’t believe it worked.”

“I got a call from Georg this morning. He seemed excited.”

“And so he should be.” Lane was practically twinkling. “He doesn’t have to endure some horrid contract with PPL. We receive nearly seventy thousand in billings. Michael gets to write a—brilliant creative campaign—”

Before Joan could chime in, Lane’s buzzer sounded.

“Mr. Pryce, you have a telephone call from St. John Powell.”

Lane’s face actually lit up as he glanced from the blinking telephone line back to Joan, who raised a curious eyebrow.

“Interesting,” she said.

“Well, well. He’s not going to be happy about this. Shall I put it on speaker?”

She didn’t want to spoil his mood, and so she gestured for him to take it.

He nodded, and hit the button. “St. John.”

The huff of breath on the other end of the line made Joan’s heart speed up in her chest. When Powell finally spoke, his tone was clipped and strident.

“You had no right to steal away our client.”

“I believe he’s our client now,” Lane said carefully.

There was a crashing sound, like Powell’s fist just slammed into his desk. Joan actually jumped. Lane’s smile disappeared.

“Pryce, let me remind you of your place. You are a selfish, spineless article whose only useful purpose is to bow and scrape and lick the boots of your betters. And if you persist in annoying us, I shall crush your little business into the ground like a repellent insect. Once I’ve finished, you’ll be so ruined that even your own grubby father won’t dare to claim you. Do you understand me?”

Holy shit. Joan was so angry she was biting her tongue to keep quiet, heat blazing in her face as she watched a taut muscle jump in Lane’s jaw. He’d gotten very quiet, and very still, eyes closed and his face wrenched to one side, staring sightlessly at the wall.

“I said, do you understand?” Powell taunted softly.

Lane choked out the words through gritted teeth. “I heard you.”

Powell hung up.

Joan stared at the receiver with her mouth hanging open. Asshole.

The dial tone kept ringing through the room. After a second, Lane picked up the receiver, slammed it down into the cradle, and bolted around his desk, a high flush in his cheeks and his mouth set in a sour line as he walked past Joan and flung the door open.

“The hell are you going?” she heard Ginsberg blurt, but Lane didn’t even stop to answer as he stormed through the bullpen. A few more seconds passed, and Joan heard the distant creak of the glass door as it opened and shut. His angry footsteps faded into the usual scratch and whisper of pens and paper.

She sat unmoving in her chair for a few more minutes, then got up and closed the door, very calmly, and walked over to the wet bar, pouring a small measure of gin into a gold-rimmed glass and sipping it slowly. Once the warmth of it had spread through her stomach, Joan sat down at his desk and placed her glass in front of the display of tiny gold World’s Fair miniatures.

Keeping her eyes fixed on the Statue of Liberty, she picked up the phone.

 

 

 

Amid the mayhem of the annual pre-bank holiday weekend party, John ripped down the rude signs plastered over his closed office door—one of which depicted him in an obscene act with what appeared to be an anthropomorphized Xerox machine. Inside, the phone was ringing, over and over, with no sign of stopping.

“This is not an appropriate way to treat one’s superiors,” he grumbled to himself, as he fumbled with his keys and rushed toward the jangling receiver.

When he picked up the line, a simpering female voice greeted him—one he hadn’t heard in years. Even her greeting made his stomach churn with horror.

“Mr. Hooker. Joan Harris.”

“Good god.” John felt himself go pale. He blamed the alcohol for his next two words. “Not you.”

She had the nerve to laugh at him. “I hope I’m not calling at a bad time?”

“I fail to grasp why you are calling at all,” he said, and couldn’t resist getting a dig in. “Unless it’s to patch me through to your superior?”

She returned his volley without missing a beat. “Well. I’m glad to see someone’s kept his sense of humor.”

He let out a loud sigh, anxious to drive to the point. “Does Mr. Pryce need something, or are you only calling to aggravate me?”

“We got a personal call from St. John Powell today.”

John felt his earlier dread return full force. Although St. John was not aware that he called Lane Pryce on occasion, regarding a few overlooked details on the management of Putnam, Powell, and Lowe, a personal call was foreboding news. And could mean anything.

He strove for a politer tone of voice. “Ah. What—did he say?”

Mrs. Harris made an unhappy noise. “He was extremely rude to Lane. We expected him to be annoyed, of course, but personal name-calling goes too far.”

Oh, for god’s sake. He was a junior director now, not a bloody clerk!

“Clearly you’re unaware, but I’ll remind you: my position here does not entail taking St. John to task over lapses in his manners.”

“I’m not asking you to talk to him.” She let out a small, almost imperceptible breath. “I want a list of his current sales leads.”

John frowned. “I—I’m sure I’ve misheard you.”

“No.” She sounded positively sunny. “You haven’t.”

“Good god!” John exclaimed, but quickly lowered his voice again. Asking him flat-out for that kind of information was more than unethical—it was downright diabolical. “What on earth did the man do?”

“He was a bully,” she said, her voice strangely prim. “And it was uncalled for.”

John scrubbed the heel of his hand against one eye. Burning Rome to ashes and salting the cinders seemed a clear overreach based on one rude comment. And while he was aware of how badly Mr. Pryce was treated, when he occupied John’s current position, it seemed ludicrous for Mrs. Harris to take this so personally. What sort of insult would warrant such ludicrous behavior from a bystander?

“You understand what you’re asking—”

“It’s a significant risk.“

“Risk? That is laughable! What we’re discussing is mutiny!”

“All you have to do is—”

“I don’t care if St. John called him every name in the book. You’re asking me to break a—a legion of rules!”

She let out a grim laugh. “If it makes you feel better, technically, I’m not firing the first shot.”

“Don’t delude yourself. It’s a personal vendetta, and you know it.”

Mrs. Harris let out a sigh, and John spent several seconds wondering if she was even going to speak again.

“Powell treats people like shit,” she finally said. “And everyone else might let him get away with that, but I won’t. He can’t treat people like garbage. I won’t stand for it.”

Biting off each word. She was angry, and she meant to make an example of Powell, all on behalf of someone else.

For god’s sake, why did she care what Powell called Lane? Powell usually insulted half the building before lunch, most days. Why did this single incident matter?

“So, you’re committed to doing this for,” he hesitated, “people. You want to involve me in a particular scheme and bring down a multi-million pound agency, for people. All without my telling them.”

She was quiet for a few more seconds. “Yes.”

John sunk into his desk chair with a groan, and rolled a few inches to his left. Oh, god, this was bad. This was very, very bad.

“Don’t you want that?” she asked. “Haven’t you ever wanted to stick it to Powell in a way that counts? To show him you’re not spineless?”

He stayed silent.

“Look, I remember how you were treated when we worked together, and I know you’ve been unhappy there. Powell and Ford have never understood the sheer amount of work that you do to keep their company afloat—but Lane and I do, and we certainly value it.”

He still said nothing. She continued.

“If you’re interested in my proposal, I’ll pay you a consulting fee for your trouble, and I’ll make sure that if there’s fallout, you’re protected.”

“If?” he hissed, stung by her recklessness. “Mrs. Harris, if I dare to accept this heinous offer, and if I am discovered—as I am positive I shall be—there shall certainly be fallout! No good ever came from seeking revenge.”

He’d end up blacklisted, or out of the business, or worse: France.

She let out a little huffing laugh, as if he’d just made a noncommittal answer. “We’ll make you our director of agency operations. Is that good enough?”

“Wonderful. More promises you don’t intend to keep.”

“Why wouldn’t I keep it?”

He kept his tone as dry as was humanly possible. “You despise me.”

She just scoffed. “Well, Lane doesn’t. He admires your work. And he’s very loyal to you, personally.”

It was enough to make him strangely flustered. “Wh—that’s—not relevant.”

“If I tell him I’ve made you an offer, he’ll honor it.”

Another beat of silence. John took a very deep breath.

“I’ll—I will—consider your proposal,” he mumbled after a moment.

Meaning she’d won.

“Thank you, Mr. Hooker.” Striving to sound humble, and failing completely; good lord, what a smug little liar she was. “Put me on with your girl. I’ll take down your home address.”

He hung up the phone instead, and didn’t bother to hide his pleased smirk when he saw his public line ring up a few seconds later.

 

 

 

“Oh, Jesus Christ!”

Something fell from her dresser, and Greg’s frustrated howl rang through the house, making Joan jump all the way from her seat at the dining room table. Her first thought was panicked—what did I do? Her second thought was relieved—thank god Mom and Kevin aren’t home.

Seconds later, Greg stormed into the kitchen, with her round china jewelry box gripped in one hand. Without warning, he slung it through the open doorway and toward the living room. Joan heard the china box crash against the wooden floor with a clang, and bolted to her feet.

“What are you doing?”

“Your shit takes up the entire fucking dresser! I can’t even get one goddamn inch of space in my own house!”

Joan couldn’t think. What the hell could she have left on the dresser besides her jewelry box, some makeup, and a couple of diaper pins? “I’m sorry. I’ll move it.”

She tried to rush past him into the hallway, but he wouldn’t budge, and pushed her backwards with one hand, causing her to trip against the chair and stumble into the floor, landing painfully on her rear end.

They stared at each other for a few seconds, unblinking, before Greg reached to his right, grabbed the almost-empty trash can, and dumped out the three magazines that had been part of yesterday’s junk mail as he turned around and stormed toward the bedroom.

Without even a glance toward the scattered jewelry and the broken box on the ground, Joan picked herself up and hurried after him, passing by the discarded garbage can in the hallway as she went into their bedroom.

Inside, Greg was standing in front of their open closet, yanking clothes on hangers out from the back of the closet, then flinging them into the black bag. Tears pricked her eyes at the sheer shock of seeing her beautiful things treated like shit, but Joan forced herself to hold the tears at bay, just stared at him with her mouth hanging open as he ripped the sleeve on one of her favorite sheath dresses as he tore it from a hanger—the purple one with the red and white block pattern. If she cried, it would only make things worse.

“You’re my wife,” he snarled when he was finally through, rounding on her, “and you’re someone’s mother, and I’m not gonna have you stand around and look like some cheap whore.

“Greg, what do you want me to say?” Joan protested weakly, barely able to muster up enough strength to talk, but Greg didn’t even seem to hear her, just swept half her vanity into the bag, and tied it off with a grunt.

Was he drunk? Was he sober? Did it matter?

“Throw it away,” he hissed, and held the bag out in her direction, shaking it roughly. “They belong in the fucking trash.”

Oh, god. When was garbage pickup? Could she keep all of it safe until the trucks came by? Could she take it out of the trash without him knowing, later?

He rattled the bag in front of her face again, making her jump.

“Okay,” she finally whispered, and did what he asked, hauling it over one shoulder and around the house like some kind of demented Christmas elf. When she got to the full trash can, she didn’t even think, just picked up the trash bag on top, deposited the one containing her clothes in the middle of the can, and shoved the other one back on top of it, trying to think past the sour, furious knot of rage in her stomach. Why would he do this? Why would he get worked up over her old clothes, when she barely wore those dresses out anymore, even before they moved here?

When she walked back inside, it was like nothing had happened. Greg was picking up a couple of her earrings from the living room floor and placing them on the end table as he sat down to watch the morning news, all placid calm. Her jewelry box lay in jagged shards next to the bottom of the television.

Joan felt blind rage boil up again; steaming water trapped in a teakettle, and forced herself to hang onto that feeling as she let out a deep breath. Anger was useful. Anger would help her focus.

“I have to go to work,” she said quietly, trying not to dwell on the heap of humiliations she’d just been dealt. In an hour, he’d take a pill and go to sleep anyway and none of this goddamn day would even matter. And she could go to the office and sit down with the door closed and just be somewhere she was wanted.

Greg made a noise that meant he didn’t give a shit. Like he was so forgiving all of a sudden? She felt dizzy with confusion. Why did he pick this morning to throw a fit? Why did he want her to throw everything out? Why did she even care why?

By the time she had walked off-post, past the office, past the university, and into the British sector of Berlin, near where Deutsche Bank was located, she tucked herself into the booth of a hidden pay phone and lifted the receiver with trembling hands as she pulled a scrap of torn paper out of the lining of her purse, where she’d scrawled a single phone number and a word – Charlottenburg.

Placing the paper against the dirty booth wall, Joan scrawled four more words below this, as if she were making a bulleted list. Bank. House. Kevin. Mom.

An English woman answered, her lilting voice brisk and cheerful.

“Good morning, this is the head office.”

“Yes,” Joan said, and swallowed. Jesus. Her voice was actually shaking. “I’m calling about the flat in Charlottenburg I saw advertised—near the museum. Schloßstraße. How—I’m sorry, is it still available?”

“Oh! Yes. And it’s just lovely.” The woman sounded delighted. No wonder—it was one of the richest parts of the city, even though it was fifteen minutes from work, in the opposite direction of the base. “Upper floor, three bedrooms, perfect for a family, in particular.”

“Well, I’d like to see it. Today, if you have time.”

 

 

 

Yet another client dinner—this one with the Peugeot exec and his wife.

At least they were at the coffee and dessert stage. Joan was glad the company’d had so much success recently, but the stress of smiling and faking conversation with morons was too much for her, this week. She honestly didn’t give a shit if they got a car. Especially as Alistair had been giving her the creeps every time he so much as looked at her. Tucked to his right at a long table next to Dominic was not where she wanted to be right now.

“—and Mrs. Harris,” Alistair’s wife was saying, from the opposite end. Was her first name Emily? Joan couldn’t remember. “How old is your son?”

“Oh.” The smile Joan gave Emily must have looked genuine, even if it didn’t feel like it. “He’s very young. Eighteen months.”

“Well. That is a surprise.”

“Stranger things have happened.” Lane seemed like he was trying to draw Emily into his good graces. When he started talking with the wives, he was usually trying to butter clients up. “Mrs. Martin, how are your children these days?”

The woman started rambling on about her son, who was maybe ten or twelve, judging by the school stories. Joan’s attention wandered, and she was on the verge of relaxing when she felt a large hand cup her left thigh, and Alistair’s rough fingers slid over her purple satin hem, calluses catching the fabric as he tried to angle his hand down toward her inner thigh.

Immediately, she kicked at his foot. The toe of her shoe squeaked a little as it caught his shoelaces. He pulled his hand away.

Jesus Christ. Joan felt her face turning red, and had to bite the inside of one cheek to stay calm. Don’t make a scene. Don’t make a scene. Don’t make a scene.

Lane was focused intently on the stupid cow and her story. Joan let herself feel a flash of envy as she watched that woman’s big mouth flap, totally clueless as to what her chump husband was up to, and tried not to focus on the way Dominic was frowning at her. Oh, god, maybe he could tell what was happening, too; he was giving her such a strange look, his lip curling up in disgust, or maybe surprise.

Alistair’s hand was back, fingers fluttering over her bare knee as he reached for his coffee with the other, and Joan didn’t even think this time, just reacted; her foot hit his shin, which caused him to drop the mug over his lap.

“Augh!”

Everyone panicked.

“Oh, honey! Here, let me get some—I’ll find the waiter—”

“I’ll see if they’ve got a first aid kit—”

Emily and Lane bolted from the table in two different directions, and the second they were out of hearing range, Joan scooted her chair as close to Alistair as she could, grabbed the steak knife off the table and pressed the blade to the front seam of his trousers.

Alistair went very still.

Dominic’s eyes were as wide as dinner plates.

“Are you trying to find out how jealous my husband can get?” Joan kept her voice very even, although everyone at the table could still hear her. “Because he doesn’t like sharing. And neither do I.”

“I—you—misunderstood me—”

“Well, let’s clear things up,” Joan said. “There are two options. One: you become intimately acquainted with your silverware, after which I take Emily to the ladies’ room to see if she knows about your wandering hands—”

“You—crazy bitch—”

“She’s got a knife to your sack,” Dominic pointed out, sounding awed.

“Or, option two,” Joan continued, pressing the knife in a little harder, and relishing the drop of sweat that beaded up on Alistair’s right temple, “you give us your business. We retain all creative rights, earn six percent commission, and will be paid ten percent up front. And I forget your indiscretion ever happened.”

“Joan,” Dominic interrupted quickly.

She sat back, pulled the knife away from Alistair’s body, and shoved it down onto an empty square of tablecloth between his empty charger plate and where his coffee mug still sat, dripping muddy brown liquid onto the white tablecloth.

“Touch me again, and it’s option one.”

Emily was already rushing back towards the table, with a glass of club soda in one hand and a wad of clean cloth napkins in the other. Across the room, Joan could see Lane speaking to someone—a manager, maybe; a man in a full livery with very stiff posture. Lane just looked very put out, pushing up his glasses with one hand as he spoke.

She turned back to the table and watched with dark amusement as Emily fussed over Alistair’s shirtfront. When the man himself met her eyes, she gave him a wide smile, which he did not return.

“Dominic,” she said brightly, as if nothing had happened, “can you find our server?”

Chapter Text

“Michael, I said don’t paint the letters! So please do not, under any circumstance, continue on with—”

“Why the hell would you want to wait?”

“—on the wall until—”

“That’s insane! You can’t have the stripes and no letters! It looks stupid!”

“—come to an ideal arrangement!”

Lane cast an aggrieved look in the direction of the graphic wall, where four thick colorful stripes in earth tones traversed across the room to a conversion point in the middle of the wall, where they would eventually form an abbreviated version of the agency name. Pryce and Associates.

Well. If he could get the courage up to ask Joan, he hoped it would be Pryce, Harris, and Associates. Some ideal combination of names, anyway.

Lane squelched the voice in his head that said it already knew the ideal name combination—this was not about his personal fondness for Joan! Yes, he had developed some, well, warm feelings for her, but he was still able to separate the personal and the professional, thank you very much!

No, this was about her success with the business, and the fact that he liked working with her, and he thought she might return that sentiment. Professionally. She’d long since exceeded whatever minor schedule they’d made up for her in the beginning, anyway. And the crux of the issue was that she was currently being paid for full-time work, she was contributing significantly to the running of executive business, and she ought to have a stake in the company.

Selfishly, he also realised that a partnership stake might keep her in Berlin and by his side for a little while longer, even if she did not want to stay forever. Even if he was too cowardly to—

“Jesus! Did you even hear what I said?”

“What? Yes, of course I did!” Lane resisted the urge to say something very nasty. “Just—you can’t do it now, and that’s the end of it!”

 

 

 

 

“Yeah, and he’s being a real prick about it, too.”

Ginsberg had to raise his voice to make sure it could reach the phone; even though it was sitting on his desk and he was only bent over his papers, the speaker on that thing was so small he wasn’t sure if they could even hear him at this volume.

“But it’s just about the letters, right?” Stan asked. “It’s not a logo or design change or anything?”

Ginzo shrugged, although they couldn’t see it. “Ah. What’s the difference?”

“Starts with the letter aitch, buddy.”

A smacking noise—muscle against muscle, hard and quick—and a woman’s voice, mocking. “Don’t give him any ideas.”

“Ow! Jesus, Chief. Some boss you turned out to be.”

Ginsberg snorted even before Peggy piped up again. Those two were always bickering with each other, and if he was being honest, he kind of enjoyed hearing it. You could tell they liked spending time together, despite the massive amount of shit they dealt each other. Plus, it was nice to be in on the joke, and their voices were always so friendly over the phone; real warm and funny, like they actually gave a shit about talking to him instead of just pretending to listen, like Dom and Frederich.

“Well, I think Joan would take a partnership, if he asked her.”

“Come on. You really think he’s going to ask? I give him two months of waffling before he just suddenly hints at the possibility.”

Peggy started cracking up; Ginsberg didn’t know why.

“What’s he doing? Why’re you laughing?”

“That impression is horrible,” she said. Static crackled down the line as she laughed. “He’s making this face. Oh, my god. You should see how dumb he looks.”

“Okay, first of all, it’s spot-on, and you know it. Second: of course he’s going to chicken out. That guy is stupid in love with her…”

“Ugh, come on.” Ginsberg threw an eraser at the phone. Like they could see him. “Peg, this moron ever talk about anything else?”

“No,” she said. “And you love it, so shut up.”

“Shit.” He was grinning. “Well, whatever. I don’t—it’s gonna be a couple days before I hear all this garbage again, anyway. You might as well get it out of your systems now.”

“Ooh. The kid’s going on a big vacation.”

“No, I’m not,” Ginzo huffed, as he erased a stray line from his mockup. “Well, not really. I mean. I won’t be at work, but it’s not—it’s not like a fun trip, or anything.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.” Ginsberg forced himself to breathe past the tightness in his chest. They couldn’t see him, so he’d have to tell them what he was doing, since he wasn’t going to be around for two days. Three, max. He just wanted someone to know about it, since he couldn’t exactly tell anyone here, and he definitely was not going to tell Morris. The man might spend himself into the poorhouse to keep him from trying it. “Um. I’m—well, I’m gonna go, uh, see my ma. She’s—kinda nearby.”

Stan made a thoughtful noise. “Not been back in awhile?”

“No. Well. I mean—I tried to go the last time they—it’s—it’s hard, getting out of the city, you know? The—between the checkpoints, and the papers.”

“I never thought about that.” Peggy had gotten quiet; her voice was soft and melodic, like the patter of rain on a window.

“Yeah.” He huffed out another sigh. “I don’t know. Probably sounds real stupid, huh?”

“Nah, come on. It’s your mom. She’ll be glad to see ya.”

Ginsberg’s eyes prickled so fast he couldn’t control it; one minute he was just sitting there like normal, listening to them talk, the next, he was biting the inside of his cheek, trying not to bawl like a baby. Nobody ever said things like that to him. Nobody was ever glad to see him.

Shit. Fuck. Just—be cool, for once!

“Ginzo?”

“Yeah.” His voice broke a little. He cleared his throat. “Sorry. I—think I’m gettin’ a cold, or whatever. But I’m still here.”

           

 

           

Roger was on a bit of a roll now. He was likely drunk, as they’d been on the phone for nearly an hour. While Lane didn’t delight in doing business on the telephone, after several years, he’d almost got comfortable meeting with Roger like this—sitting in his office alone with the door closed, once a month, late at night.

“And—erm—I suppose that’s it,” Lane glanced around his desk to see if there was anything else he’d forgotten to share, shuffled around a few loose papers on his desk, and nearly knocked his empty rocks glass onto the floor. “Unless there’s—anything you’d like to—”

“Nah. No more shop talk.” It was easy to picture Roger shrugging, or stretching out on his sofa. “How’s Joanie doing?”

“Oh. Well. She’s all right, I think.” He thought for a moment, decided to be more candid. “Or, she would be, if things at home were a bit more, erm....”

Happy.

“Still with the asshole, huh?”

Lane let out a surprised laugh. “I wasn’t going to use that word.”

“Trust me, once that guy’s at the front and the vee cee are shooting at him, we’ll all be better off.”

Good lord.

“Did she say she was getting a—I mean, that—that he was going?”

His stomach flipped in euphoric excitement as he thought about the idea. Joan and her husband were already so unhappy together—of that, he had no doubt—and if the man went away for several months, she might well decide she was better off without him. She might divorce him.

“Don’t know. Guy’s tried to get shipped out a couple times, but last she told me, they kept making excuses. Must have punctured a bunch of lungs on the operating table or something, to get blackballed like that.”

Lane grimaced, and nearly splashed a bit of gin on an old RFP as he poured himself another drink. As he set the bottle aside, and gulped down a large sip, he felt more uncharitable thoughts bubbling up into his mind.

“He’s not good enough for her.”

Roger let out an unamused laugh. “Tell me about it.”

“He should—get down on his hands and knees and—and thank god he should be so lucky, being her husband!”

Roger cackled so loudly it made the phone crackle. “Holy shit.”

“Well, he should!” Lane was nodding his head in an emphatic way, although Roger couldn’t see it. “He’s not keeping her happy. And she deserves—she ought to have that. Don’t you think?”

Roger was still laughing. Lane sighed, and put it down to the man being completely and utterly soused.

“I—well, I was thinking I could ask her if she wanted a partnership stake.”

“Wait. Are you serious?”

“Do you—I mean, if I—how—how receptive might she be to it, do you think? If you had to, erm, pick a percentage?”

“Shit. How the hell am I supposed to know that?”

Oh, god. Lane knew what that meant. His heart sank.

“She wants to go back to New York.” He drew himself up tall, steeled himself for confirmation of his disappointment. “I—of—of course, if that’s the case—”

“Jesus, Olivier. Look, before you get all melodramatic, Joanie hasn’t even talked to me about a partnership. I don’t think she knows that option’s on the table. Hell, she’d probably be thrilled.”

“Oh,” said Lane, and felt a wash of hope break over him like a wave. “Oh.”

Roger did not seem to notice. “Coop and I always started junior partners at ten percent. Where do you want to put her?”

“Well, I—I’m—not sure.”

 

 

                                                               

 

“This was supposed to be finished yesterday.”

Sitting across the room in his own office, Lane winced at the edge in Joan’s voice. Although he could not see her, he could tell by her tone that she was frustrated—and well she should be. Ginsberg had already been gone an extra day and now multiple campaigns were delayed, with looming deadlines falling like dominos, one after the other.

“What do you want me to do? We have no writer!” Frederich protested, but before the conversation could escalate, there was a short rap on Lane’s door.

He glanced up to see a puzzled-looking woman poised in his doorway, glancing from him and back over her shoulder to Joan’s closed door with a little frown. Well-dressed, in a pale green dress and hat, sunlight from the hall window reflected off her coiffed black hair and accentuated the sharp angles of her elegant face, lending her an almost regal bearing. She looked like she ought to be the empress of some great dynasty.

He had no idea who she was.

“I’m sorry,” she said, in perfect, American-accented English—and that was when Lane realized his mistake. She was not foreign, despite her Asiatic looks. “Does Mrs. Harris still work here?”

“Oh. Well, yes.”

Relief washed over her face. “Thank goodness.”

“Her office is just there.” Lane gestured towards the other door.

The woman excused herself. It took him a moment to realize he’d been a bit brusque, but before he could address this error, she’d already opened Joan’s door.

“My goodness. I—I’m sorry, Mrs. Doctor. I didn’t realize you were busy—”

Joan sounded flabbergasted. “Mrs. Martin! No, we were just—having a meeting. Please, come in.”

Who on earth would call Joan Mrs. Doctor? Lane rolled his chair to the right, and peeked around the edge of the doorway just in time to see Frederich excuse himself, and this Mrs. Martin take a seat in one of the chairs opposite Joan’s desk.

Joan was tidying up her papers with an apologetic smile. “Greg didn’t mention you were coming. I would have cleaned up a little.”

“No, no. I was in the area, and decided to drop by. Your mother said it was easier to call on you here. I’m sorry. The end of the day, I just thought—”

As Joan reached for her cigarettes, her smile very tense, Lane averted his eyes for a few seconds, stunned into silence. Why did Joan sound so surprised to have a visit from a friend—or at least someone she was cordial with? Why was this woman acting so formally? Was that nervousness on Joan’s face?

“Do you mind if I smoke?”

“Please,” said Mrs. Martin.

The ladies were silent for a second.

“Excuse me, Mr. Pryce?” Lane jumped a mile as Katya appeared in the doorway, blocking his line of sight. “Your dry cleaner phoned. He wasn’t able to—”

“Shush!” Lane hissed, horrified.

“—get the paint out of your trousers, or your—”

“Has it ever occurred to you that such sensitive information should not be broadcast freely in this office?”

Behind her, Lane could hear Joan laughing aloud, low and warm, and felt a small flush color his cheeks.

“Just—put the message on my desk,” he finally mumbled. “Thank you.”

“I’ll keep the news about your waistcoat for later,” Katya said wryly, and departed without leaving behind so much as a scrap of paper. Behind her, he saw Joan and the woman glancing into his office, clearly bemused, and gave them a sort of hesitant wave.

“Sorry to interrupt. Erm. Hello again.”

“Hello,” said the woman, faintly, as she returned the gesture.

Lane decided to pay her the little compliment he’d thought of before. “Forgive me, but you look like the wife of some…grand Chinese emperor.”

“What?”

The woman did not seem to take it as a compliment; in fact, this remark seemed to confuse or possibly annoy her, judging by her perplexed stare and the way she blinked soundlessly at him. Behind the woman, Joan arched an eyebrow as if he’d just said the stupidest thing imaginable.

He winced, regretting the verbal lapse immediately. “Sorry. I’ll—let you catch up a bit.”

Lane blushed again at the knowing look in Joan’s eyes, and quickly got up to stand at the file cabinet, opening the drawer and fiddling with a few loose papers in a desperate bid to pretend that he was very busy.

Her friend said something he could not hear, and when he finally shoved the file drawer closed and sat down again, he saw Joan walking up to her door.

“Yes, he’s very unique,” she said loudly, and winked at him before she pushed it shut with one hand. “But it keeps me on my toes.”

 

           

           

 

“A dinner invitation from the Colonel,” Joan sighed the next day as they were about to begin an eleven-thirty meeting, staring at her open folder of papers with a rueful shake of her head, as if they alone held the answer to this riddle.

They were sitting at the new conference table in the freshly painted part of the office; although the conference room itself hadn’t been framed out yet, Lane found he rather liked meeting in a space that had so many windows. It made the tasks at hand seem very exciting.

“What an honor,” Lane said dryly.

“Don’t remind me. I think it made Greg’s year.”

“The wife seemed nice enough.”

Joan raised an eyebrow. “Well, she certainly liked you.”

“Yes,” he scoffed, “I’m sure she told your friend the Colonel all about it. ‘Darling, who was that frighteningly odd man at Mrs. Harris’s workplace?’”

Joan was smirking. “Honey, you wouldn’t believe the way he yelled…”

“Oh, honestly. I didn’t yell—”

“...over some fallout with his dry cleaners...”

“That’s enough—”

“...and he kept eavesdropping on us. And he assumed I was Chinese!”

“Oh—she isn’t?” he asked, a rush of horror filling his stomach.

Joan shook her head no in a pitying way, like he was a prize idiot. “Her husband was in Okinawa. Japan.”

“Right. Meeting canceled,” Lane pushed his clipboard a few feet across the conference table, but the corners of his mouth were turning up, despite himself. “Goodbye forever.”

“Lane!”

He took the bit even further; got to his feet and marched off, walking through the plastic hangings separating the two rooms, as if he was beyond embarrassed. Her loud giggle followed him all the way down to his office, where he promptly let out a loud snort.

Katya tracked his movement with alarmed eyes.

“Get back here,” Joan called after him, her voice growing louder the closer he got to the section of the office still portioned off by plastic curtains. “I want to finish these so I can go to lunch.”

Chapter Text

“Welcome news. He’s getting careless.”

Auguste tossed the manila envelope onto Joan's desk with a thump, the same way someone might lob you an extra pack of cigarettes. Although she didn’t care for the man very much—his rangy frame, greasy blonde hair, and disheveled tan suits made up a repulsive little package—he’d come highly recommended. And after a little more than two months of investigation, she’d certainly gotten her money’s worth.

Joan held herself very still before she reached for the envelope, and took out a paper sleeve filled with twenty or thirty photos. Holding the bundle in her hands suddenly reminded her of proofing prints, the kind you’d buy for special occasions—a new baby, a wedding, an anniversary—ordering five-by-sevens and eight-by-tens and adorable wallet sizes to show off. Although she supposed concrete evidence was as good an occasion as anything else she had going on right now.

Without another word, she took out the photos, and felt a strange mixture of disgust and relief when she saw the first one. Jesus. Of course it would be something like this. Of course you would be this stupid.

Greg and an unknown woman were walking through a back alley somewhere in the American sector, judging by the flag and eagle painted sloppily on the side of the nearby dumpster. Greg was in his uniform and the dark-haired girl was wearing a miniskirt. They were holding hands. Auguste had snapped the picture from behind. Judging by the light, Joan couldn’t tell if it was dusk or dawn, but she could see the way the two of them stared at each other. Probably stumbling. Giddy. Drunk.

In the next picture, they were kissing. Greg had his hands on the girl’s skinny ribs, and she had a foot braced out behind her as if they’d already started moving backwards when the shutter went off, as if they were too delirious or turned on to notice that they had just been seen.

She flipped to the next picture. Paydirt. Greg had his pants around his ankles and slim legs wrapped around his hips and the woman was arched against the dirty bricks like a beautiful swan as he mouthed at her, pale face and neck glinting in the faint light of a single streetlamp, her lush, full mouth open in a soundless moan.

Joan tapped a glossy red fingernail against the right side border of the photograph, where joined bodies in the dark were abruptly cut off by severe straight edges. From this angle, you couldn’t even see Greg’s face.

“They upset you?” Auguste asked in raspy, rapid French.

“No.” She shook her head, eyes completely dry. Honestly, at this point, it wasn’t about the affair; the cheating had been extremely obvious, even before they’d moved to Berlin. It wasn’t about the girls, or the bars, or the gambling. She just wished, for the thousandth time, that she hadn’t been stupid enough to marry him. And that was that.

God, she thought, as she flipped to the next photo, saw Greg outside at a house party with some giggling uniformed nurse sprawled in his lap, wasn’t self-pity pathetic?

“I’ll pay for another month,” Joan said in rapid French, and reached into her bottom desk drawer for her personal checkbook. Opening it and seeing her growing list of expenditures in the ledger was still a little boggling; it was so different from the way she had handled money in the past. She still tracked every penny of her spending, but now that the inheritance taxes had been paid, it was like some barrier had come tumbling down in her mind. She could buy a coffee at the café if she wanted to—a brand new toy for Kevin, or a sparkling bracelet that gleamed in a storefront window. And even if she still glued a chipped dish back together or dug out the last of her lipstick from the bottom of the used-up tube for appearance’s sake, it was comforting to let the secret security wash over her like a ripple of heat in the middle of summer. You have enough money. You have enough money. You have enough money.

She wrote out the check without blinking: November, 1969, and another five hundred dollars to ensure her future, Auguste’s discretion, and his complete and exclusive devotion to Joan, his best client. She was sure no one else could match that kind of offer, even in this part of the city, where money flowed freely.

There was another reason she had offered him extra cash. These snapshots were certainly something, but if she could get even a single shot of Greg naked in a stranger’s bed, the court would have to accept her divorce petition immediately. No judge worth his salt could see him in bed with dozens of women and pretend Greg was a faithful man. Look at him. Look how many times he’s been unfaithful. Look how much he cares about his precious American values.

“I want pictures of him in flagrante.” She ripped the check from her book. “Indoors. In someone’s bed.”

Auguste pocketed the slip with only a raised eyebrow. “You surprise me.”

“Can you do it?” she asked.

He huffed out a breath through his broad nose; a gesture that Joan had learned meant yes. More or less.

“That’s all,” Joan said pointedly, and gestured toward the door.

 

 

**

 

“So you have no idea where he went.” Lane gaped at the pale young man who was currently slouching against Michael’s open doorway, clothed only in a pair of dungarees. Even more offensive than the lack of clothing was the sad fact that the poor lad (and the entire flat, it must be said) absolutely reeked, like someone had flattened a skunk and tossed the bloated corpse into their sitting room. Had this person never encountered soap and water? Or a mop? “None whatsoever.”

The boy shrugged.

“But it—it’s been five days. Ginsberg wouldn’t just disappear, for Christ’s sake. He—the lad must have told you something.”

“He told me he’d be gone through Monday, and that he might leave out the rent once he got home. Had to take it from his room instead.”

“I see.” Lane threw the boy a very poisonous look. “And you didn’t feel it was necessary to ask questions beyond that, or inquire into such extreme lateness, given that it’s currently Thursday. How considerate of you.”

“I’m not his keeper. I don’t need to know those things.”

“Well, I’m beginning to wonder if you know anything at all,” Lane snapped, and winced as the boy immediately shut the door in his face.

He trudged down the stairs and out into the shabby hall with a heavy sigh. That was it. The flatmate was the final lead. Dominic and Frederich had been clueless, as had the girls, as had the young students from the stoop. Only one of them even knew who Ginsberg was after all this time. Lane supposed the rest of that crowd had finally graduated.

Günter hadn’t even heard anything, for god’s sake. And the one person Lane absolutely did not want to call was the poor lad’s father. Christ, every time he so much as glanced at a history book, or saw a photograph of those dark days, he could hear Morris Ginsberg’s gravelly voice in his mind again, pictured the red sun sliding under the horizon during that terrible phone call. You will say this seems—how do you English call it—quite mad.

Oh, Christ. He’d have to search Ginsberg’s desk again, see if he could find an itinerary or a map—any useful piece of information to go on. They were running out of time, and Lane was becoming more worried by the day.

Something was wrong. It was happening again.

            

** 

            

Around noon, they did get a reprieve, in the form of a giant package arriving for Ginsberg, from America. Of course Lane did not want to open it, but in certain exceptional cases, action must be taken. This was one of those times.

Joan did not share his viewpoint. Once she saw him carry the box over from Michael’s desk and into his office, she had to make a sly remark about it.

“Isn’t it a little early to be committing felonies?”

Lane glared at her before reaching over to grab the scissors from his pencil cup. “Well, I—I’m sure Ginsberg will understand.”

As he sliced through the tape, and ripped a long strip of it off the top seam of the box, she let out a long sigh.

“Okay. I’m going to take my lunch before you get arrested.”

“That isn’t funny!” Lane called after her, but she did not reply, and after another few minutes he was deep into his investigations again.

The box contained a few packages of American candy, mostly circus peanuts and gummy bears, plus several jars of peanut butter, and a few boxes of Lucky Charms and Kraft macaroni and cheese. There was also a large square object wrapped in paper and bubble wrap, and two thick letters tossed on top of the lot.

Lane decided to open the letters first. One was written on a legal pad, yellow paper folded hastily and shoved into a plain white envelope that had a little drawing on the front left side—a cartoon of a wild-haired boy in a plaid jacket hunched over a desk, with paper stacked high above his desk and loose pages flying everywhere around him. He had a little frustrated squiggle emerging from the top of his head.

No cartoons on the inside. Lane was still surprised to see the name Rizzo scrawled at the bottom, even considering the drawing. And the language was very familiar. He didn’t realize they were close friends.

Hey, kiddo—

This week is boring as hell. I’ve been stuck in a meeting for an hour now, so I’m pretending to take a lot of notes in an attempt to stay awake. Thankfully, Roger hasn’t stopped yapping long enough to draw breath, so I seriously doubt anyone’s noticed….

Lane put that letter aside with a smile, and picked up the other. This one was written on bright blue stationery featuring a subtle floral spray at the top, and placed in a matching envelope. Definitely from a girl.

Dear Ginsberg,

Did you ever finish writing those tags for the British pastry people? Because I woke up early this morning and had a few more ideas. See below. Remember what we talked about—that delicious anticipation before anyone takes the first bite of dessert? The moment everyone stares at it, admiring how beautiful the plate is? I think if you—

Lane flipped the letter over, and saw that there was, in fact, half a page of tags in Peggy Olson’s tight cursive script. Upon examination, they were rather apt. 1) Good to the last bite. 2) Tart. Tasty. Tidewell’s. 3) The baker’s choice for any occasion. And so on and so forth until—

23) This tart’ll treat you right.

Reading the last one, he choked on a laugh, nearly spit out his tea, and swiped the back of his sleeve across his mouth in an attempt to keep from dripping everywhere. Well, he certainly hadn’t expected that. A wry chuckle escaped him as he kept reading. Miss Olson had a better sense of humor than he had imagined.

Stan wants me to tell you the last angle was his idea. Like you wouldn’t have guessed. Anyway, how are you? Are Lane and Joan keeping you pretty busy?

After several more minutes, his amusement had given way to frustration. God in heaven. It was all useless. He’d just gone and opened the boy’s mail for nothing!

Lane shoved at Peggy’s letter with an annoyed huff; it fell closed, and his eyes settled on the last few sentences again.

One of these days, you’ll have to tell us more about your family. I know your dad’s still being overprotective, even from a continent apart, but it seems like he means well, at least. And you’ve heard the stories I’ve told you about Ma…

Wait a minute.

Michael didn’t talk to anyone about his father. Michael didn’t talk about his family at all. The boys had thought he was some tragic orphan for months, until the unfortunate incident had revealed the truth.

If Ginsberg had started confiding in Peggy and Stan about his family, what were the chances that he’d told them what he was up to? Or hinted at some future course of action, whatever that hint might be?

Lane was already jabbing at the extension for his private line.

“Yes, hello,” he said, as soon as he got an English-speaking operator. “I’m placing a call to New York. McCann Erickson. Miss Peggy Olson.”

 

 

 **

 

 

Joan arrived back in the office after an hour at lunch, carrying an extra shortbread cookie for Lane in one hand and her dry cleaning in the other—she’d dropped off her dress for tomorrow night and picked up one from last week.

When she hung up her fresh clothes on the back of her door, and knocked on the door of Lane’s office, a surge of sympathy coursed through her chest as she noticed the deep frown lines on his forehead and the forlorn look in his eyes. An empty rocks glass sat by his right hand, which worried her. If he was drinking before he even took lunch, that box must have been bad news.

She set the cookie onto the middle of his desk, gave him a small smile.

“What did you find out?”

Lane sighed, stared down into the bottom of his glass.

“Well. He did tell them where he’d gone—Peggy and Stan, I mean.”

“That’s good,” Joan said slowly, even as she noticed the way his hangdog expression hadn’t changed. “I know you’ve been anxious.”

Lane reached for the bottle next to his telephone, poured himself another measure of gin, and slung it back in one gulp, like he was taking a shot. He wiped his mouth with the back of one hand and put his glass aside, but didn't even touch the food.

“Sorry. Do you want any?”

“No.” Joan sunk into one chair, fixed him with a no-nonsense look. When he started drinking and not talking, things were very serious. This was the kind of mood he had been in right after Lucky Strike had left—maudlin and morose. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

He let out a heavy sigh. “It’s a long story. And I—I really don’t know all of it.”

She tried again. “We’ve got time.”

He stared down into his empty glass again, and then nodded, as if he’d finally made up his mind.

“Well. You know Ginsberg’s from New York, obviously. And you—I don’t suppose you’ve ever talked to Morris. Michael’s father. Erm. Well, he’s very—protective of the boy, really. Some might say he’s a bit too involved, but it’s a welcome change from—anyway, to my mind, he’s one of the good ones.”

“Okay,” Joan said, and waited for the other shoe to drop.

Lane cleared his throat. “Right. Yes. So, erm—I suppose it was the second or third year after I’d opened. I—well, all the students always gather on the stoop, you know. Smoking and being social and all the rest. One day I was walking over, and I saw a young lad among them: Ginsberg. And—well, let me back up a bit more.”

We’d just stopped working out of an hotel room at the time. Dominic and Frederich and I were taking turns bringing things over here, to the new office. Erm. I had a posterboard under my arm, with a slogan on it, facing out where people could read it. And this strange young man glances over, points to the board and says, bold as you please, ‘Dear god. That sign is’—and you’ll pardon my language—‘total crap.’”

“Sounds like Ginsberg.”

He gave her an amused smile. “Of course, he said he could do better, and subsequently proved it. So I hired him.”

“Where does his father fit into all this?”

Lane turned serious, pursing his mouth like he wasn’t quite sure how to put this next part of the story. “Well. You know how Ginsberg gets. All manic. When he started working, he’d just moved here from America, and his father was—well, very worried. From what I gathered later, the two of them had never really been apart for more than a few hours before he’d come across the pond. And so the lad worked at a series of jobs and he tried to make the best of things, but—you know he’s got a hard time making friends, and ingratiating himself—and so one day, the stress of it became too much, and so he—it—”

Lane let out a sigh.

On an impulse, Joan reached out and briefly put a hand over his.

His mouth quirked up for half a second. “Thanks. Erm. Well. He—had a bit of a breakdown, really. Wouldn’t leave his flat. Got very anxious. Poor lad nearly hurt himself, and had to go to hospital, see a psychiatrist and everything.”

“I didn’t know that,” she said.

“Well.” Lane gave a shrug. “Not exactly something you go around telling people. Least—I didn’t, when something similar happened to me.”

A forgotten remark tumbled back into her head, unbidden, something Lane had said to her the first morning they had met in Berlin. Homesickness fades in time.

“Were you here?” Joan asked slowly.

He shook his head. “London.”

Sympathy flooded her in a rush. “Oh, Lane.”

Joan knew exactly how awful it was to hit rock bottom, how lonely and lost and overwhelmed you could get after the ground was snatched out from under you.

“Anyway. For Michael, things were different. More severe, I mean.” He took a deep breath. “Hospital eventually got in touch with his father. The man couldn’t afford to come over, but he wanted to—to hear that things were all right. They missed each other very much. And—and so I phoned him, and we spoke for a little while, but he eventually told me something very, erm, difficult. Personal. Wanted me to know why his boy was having such a hard time, you know. We were on the phone for hours, and I—I’ll never forget his voice when he told me. How calm he was. It—well, Morris has got quite a thick accent. Have you ever heard him speak?”

Joan shook her head.

“Polish,” Lane gave her a significant look. “Hailed from Warsaw, originally. Before the war.”

A shadow crossed his face. Joan watched in alarm as his eyes darted from his desk to the hallway to the telephone, like he wanted to look anywhere but at her as he continued this story.

“Morris adopted Michael a few years after the boy was born, and they went to America straight away. Michael was living in Norway, but the orphanage knew that his parents—well, his mother, you see—was from Germany.”

She couldn’t tear her gaze away from Lane’s face.

He finally met her eyes. “She was Jewish, also, and so Michael—well, they—they told his father he was born in the camps. Just before the liberations.”

“What?”

She put her hand over her mouth. That couldn’t be true.

Lane’s expression went stricken as he watched her react to this news. “It sounds mad, doesn’t it?”

Jesus Christ. Tears sprung to her eyes, and she quickly blinked them back. She pictured malnourished children being born and living their first few months in such an awful place. It made her skin crawl.

“Anyway. You know better than I do that childbirth is difficult in the best of circumstances. In her condition, it must have—” his voice cracked a little “—I’m not sure how she found the strength to carry on. But she didn’t live long, after. Or so Morris said. He might not have known much about it, himself.”

Joan dashed away a few stray tears with her knuckles.

Lane seemed like he hated telling such a horrific story. “Only reason they were able to track her down at all was because—”

He cleared his throat, and glanced back down at the surface of his desk. Maybe he was just overwhelmed. Whatever it was, Joan wished he would look at her. “Well. You’ve noticed Ginsberg always wears long sleeves?”

It took Joan a minute to parse this. When she spoke again her voice was like a squeak. “Oh, god. They didn’t?”

Lane nodded. She winced again.

“Someone did that to a baby?”

She remembered taking a trip to her New York grocer, once, and seeing a man about her age with the tattoo—dark, crooked numbers stitched into his forearm like an ugly barcode. It had startled and terrified her to stand next to him in line for the duration of the checkout, to think about what he had experienced. To think about the kinds of officers who could kill tens of thousands of people and not care. And now she was thinking about it again, only this time it was crowds of faceless uniformed men marching toddlers to their deaths, yanking babies from their mothers’ arms, pricking their tiny chubby arms with needles and—

She pressed her lips together. Stop.

Lane made a sympathetic noise, his eyes very distant. “I just keep thinking about Nigel at that age. He was so tiny with his little receiving blanket.”

The unspoken thought: can you imagine. Joan sniffed in agreement, and swiped at her eyes, finally breaking the loaded silence.

“What else did his father tell you?”

“Well. They—Morris tracked down the number after a few years. It’s not actually—it was Michael’s mother’s, and the, erm—apparently the documentation was very precise, even at the end. She was from Berlin. Köpenick—the southern part of the city.”

She scrunched up her brow. “That’s not in the American sector.”

“No. It’s southeast.”

Joan’s mouth fell open. This was why he didn’t want to call the police. This was why he was so worried. “East Germany.” She pressed her fingers against her mouth. “Lane, if he gets caught—”

“We don’t know that he’s done it,” Lane murmured, but even as the words left his mouth he looked like he didn’t believe them.

Shit. Joan felt awful. She’d complained for days about the lost time and the lack of notice and how inconsiderate it all was, and apparently she should have been panicking all along.

Lane lifted one shoulder in a helpless shrug. “If he’s not back in the next day or so, I’ll have to phone the police.”

Oh, dear god. “You still haven’t reported it?” She’d been saying this since Wednesday morning. Call the police. Call someone. “He needs to have people out there looking for him!”

“Joan, I have been looking!” Lane scrubbed a hand over his face. “Stan and Peggy were the only ones who knew anything. Everyone else was useless.”

“You don’t have to tell the police where he went. Just report him as missing, for god’s sake! It’s not your job to—”

“No—they’ll call the embassy, and the embassy will—I don’t—I refuse to worry his father if I don’t have to. I’m not—it’s not right, Joan. That boy is all he’s got, and he’s my responsibility, and it—I won’t hand it over.”

Joan couldn’t argue about this anymore; the whole situation was making her too anxious. She stood up, and shoved down the urge to pace. Her stomach was in knots, and the way Lane was staring at her—bloodshot eyes bleary even through his glasses—certainly didn’t help. Even exhausted, he seemed like he was close to panicking. She forced herself to stay as calm as possible. It’s not about the action. It’s about the result.

“Lane, I can’t argue about this.” She expelled a deep breath. “But we can’t sit around and do nothing. It makes me crazy.”

I need you to help me.

“Please call. It doesn’t have to be now, just—promise me you will.”

They stared at each other for a few seconds.

“Tomorrow.” Lane drummed his fingers against a file folder before meeting her eyes again. She saw a bright sheen of tears still reflected in them; tried not to seem surprised by the obvious display of emotion. “I promise.”

 

 

**

 

 

The next day, they took a short detour through the park on their way to lunch. There wasn’t much in the way of conversation. Lane was admiring how pretty the bare trees in the garden looked this time of year, and Joan had her fresh dry cleaning slung over one arm.

Lane was in the middle of adjusting his fur hat to better keep out the wind when Joan grabbed his elbow with one hand and stumbled toward a worn bench nearest the path, dragging him with her.

He watched in alarm as she sat down, swaying a little, still clutching his arm.

“Are you all right?”

After a few seconds, she let out a deep breath, and gave him a tiny nod. Her eyes were now very wide, like this had all been quite a shock. “Sorry. I, um, just got a little lightheaded. But I—I’m fine.”

On closer examination, she didn’t look it. Her face was blanched white, and the hand on his elbow was still a bit shaky.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she said, and got to her feet with a determined huff of breath. Lane saw a little cloud puff into the air as she exhaled. “Let’s go.”

“No, now hang on.” He was not about to march them straight down the avenue after she’d just admitted to feeling faint. The restaurant was at least two blocks away. “My flat’s just around the corner. We’ll take a few minutes before lunch, have a sit-down.”

“Ugh.” She made a face at him. “I really don’t think that’s necessary.”

She still allowed him to lead them in that direction and into his building without hesitation, and by the time he opened the door to his flat, he was fairly sure why, as she was slightly winded, and certainly didn’t seem to be feeling any better.

Thirty minutes later, by the time he’d prepared them a couple of sandwiches and brought her a plate, she didn’t even look hungry, just glanced at the food with a very flat expression, as if its very presence made her tired.

“Let me phone you a cab,” he offered. “Get you home to bed.”

Joan shook her head no. “I don’t want to get the baby sick. Or bother Greg.”

“What? That’s absurd.”

Why would you be a bother in your own house?

She shrugged, and looked away, out through the window that overlooked the back garden and the alleys behind his building.

“Well, you’re not going back to work. You’ll infect all of us.” Lane stared her down when she tried to glare at him. He even put the back of one hand to her forehead in an attempt to be funny, but startled when he realized how warm she was. “Oh, and you’re boiling.”

“Just a fever,” she murmured. “It’s fine.”

Lane knew better than to believe that. If Joan was admitting to feeling even slightly under the weather, she must feel wretched. She’d probably got some flu.

“Here.” He got to his feet, crossed into the kitchen, and rummaged around in an upper cabinet before finding a water glass and some extra strength aspirin. Filling the glass halfway, and tapping three of the pills into his hand, he returned to the sitting room, where Joan was now reclining against the cushions with her eyes closed. “Take these, stay here and rest. No arguments.”

Joan didn’t even bother telling him off, just opened her eyes and reached out for the lot, wincing as she sat up. “Okay.”

Satisfied at persuading her to do something for herself, he turned on the television and began to eat his lunch. After about five or ten minutes of the midday news, he glanced over at Joan and saw that she was already asleep, her head tipped back against the cushions and one hand resting on her abdomen.

 

 

**

 

 

When the phone rang, Joan was so disoriented that she jerked awake with a yelp, and immediately hissed in pain, covering her right side with one palm as she shoved a tangled thin blanket off her lap and fumbled for the phone that sat on the nearby end table. Glancing around, she noticed the apartment was empty.

“H—hello?” she sputtered, still hazy from sleep.

“Afternoon.” Lane sounded like he was purposefully keeping his voice very light. “How are we feeling?”

Joan let out a groan as her eyes landed on the nearest clock. Almost four.

He sounded disappointed. “Didn’t the aspirin help?”

“Sort of.” She noticed, alarmed, that there was a prickly nauseous feeling in the back of her throat. Uh oh. That was new. “Did I—leave my dry cleaning there?”

“What? No, it’s at ho—erm—with you. Hall closet.” Lane shifted the phone to his other ear; she heard it click. “Should you really be going out in this condition?”

“I have to,” she sighed.

“No, you don’t! Call and cancel,” Lane demanded. Like it was just that easy.

She let out a scoff, and shook her head no, although the sudden movement made her stomach churn. “I’m fine.”

“Christ. You’re as stubborn as an ass.”

“Oh, shut up,” Joan huffed, and put down the phone.

The shift in gravity made her actively nauseous, and seconds later, she was sprinting for the bathroom, shoving a door open in a panic seconds before she doubled over and vomited on the hardwood floor, right in front of the basin sink. Two feet from the toilet. God damn it.

Leaning against the doorframe with a soft whine, her face pressed into the jamb, Joan let herself sag into the cool surface of the wood for a few seconds before slumping off to get a roll of paper towels. All she needed to do was make it through a few more hours. Powder her face, touch up her lipstick and mascara, and grit her teeth through the rest of the night. Maybe she could convince Greg to go home early.

After she’d cleaned the mess off the bathroom floor, she forced herself to fetch the dry cleaning from Lane’s hall closet, trying to ignore the steady drip drip drip of bile down the back of her throat and the sickening pulse in her temples. It took her three tries to pull the plastic covering off the dress, and it was almost as exhausting to unzip it. Just another few hours. That’s all.

           

 

**

           

“Isn’t that right, babe?”

“What?” Sitting across the homey kitchen table from Greg, with the Colonel on her right and Susie on her left, Joan summoned up the widest smile she could muster. It felt small and fake and barely conveyed any enthusiasm, even in the glow of the cozy living room, whose warm lamplight bounced off pale yellow walls. She didn’t even know what her husband had said. Her heart was pounding so hard in her chest that she felt like her entire body was shaking. “Sorry, honey. I missed that last part.”

Greg exchanged an indulgent look with the Colonel. The older man was reclining in his hard-backed chair with his hands resting on his slight gut. Both of them were wearing the summer uniform: short sleeve cotton shirts and long khaki trousers, but on the Colonel it actually looked distinguished. Maybe it was because of the full-bird rank insignia above his ribbons, or the silver in his salt and pepper hair. Or maybe just because he was good at his job, commanded respect.

“Well, honey,” Greg put a lot of pointed emphasis on that last word, “I was telling these two that you work too hard. Case in point.”

Joan was already feverish, but Greg’s innocent little comment made a shiver trip down her spine. Oh, god, he was going to get in her face about the long hours again, start complaining nonstop. Why would he throw such a fit if he was just going to be out screwing girls all the time?

“Well, the products won’t advertise themselves,” she managed to say.

Susie guffawed, like this answer was somehow a surprise. “Joan!”

“Probably not what he was looking for, honey,” the Colonel agreed.

Greg was smiling in a forced way, his mouth stretched wide, but the expression didn’t quite reach his eyes.

Before anyone else could speak, Susie got to her feet, extending a hand to take everyone’s plates. “Anyone up for dessert?”

Joan’s stomach lurched again. She handed over her plate to Susie as fast as she could, suppressing a wince as the movement jostled her aching abdomen. “I just need to go powder my face.”

“Sure thing.” Susie sounded concerned. This was probably the third or fourth time Joan had excused herself to the bathroom since they’d gotten here. “Why don’t you use the master? It’s the furthest door on the right.”

The second Joan pushed the bathroom door closed, she stumbled toward the toilet, and retched up whatever bit of dinner she’d managed to choke down. After a few minutes, standing hunched over in this position made her head spin, and so for a second – just a second – she crawled into the floor and lay down, right next to the Colonel’s fuzzy blue bathmat and the mildewed edge of their shower stall. Closing her eyes, Joan pressed her cheek into the scuffed beige linoleum and prayed that she could get through another hour of this. Not even an hour. Just fifteen or twenty minutes.

What she didn’t expect was the sudden knock on the door. She jumped so badly that pain seared down her entire right side, from her lungs to her groin. A gasp of pain tore from her throat.

“Joan? Everything okay?”

Susie’s voice. Oh, shit. How long had she been in here? Had she fainted?

Joan forced herself to stand up; if she had to grab the middle of the shower curtain to pull herself into a level position, that was fine, nobody was watching.

She dabbed the sweat from her face with the tail of a hanging towel and opened the door as quickly as she could, meeting Susie’s worried look with what she hoped was an apologetic expression.

“Oh, honey.” The other woman’s mouth fell open. “You’ve been gone for so long, I just wondered—”

“I didn’t mean to leave you alone. Everything’s fine. I’m sorry.” Joan’s hand had already found its way to her right side, pressing inward against the soft muscle of her abdomen because it didn’t hurt so much when she put pressure on it.

Susie didn’t seem to buy this at all. “What’s the matter?”

“Just my time of the month,” Joan said weakly, like it was as simple as being on her period. “I’ll be fine.”

“Well, I can get you a hot water bottle if—”

Susie was interrupted by a second knock on the door. When it opened, and Greg poked his head into the room, Joan felt her earlier dread come crashing back full force. Oh, shit.

He was all easy charm. “Suz, you mind giving us a second?”

Susie nodded, slipping out of the room, and by the time she was gone, Joan couldn’t even pretend that she was glad to see her husband. It was too much stress; she could barely force herself to keep standing.

His mouth was set in a line, and the second Susie was out of hearing range, his voice became more menacing. “Hey. What the hell is wrong with you?”

Joan shot him a pleading look, tried to keep from crying. “I don’t feel well. I need to go home.”

“Look, I don’t care how much your stomach hurts. This is important to me, and it should be important to you. We’re not leaving.”

“Greg.” She let out a whimper, her hand still fastened to her side. “Please.”

“What are you, cramping?” Greg pulled her hand away from her body; the pain on her right side instantly got so bad that Joan gritted her teeth and ducked her head to keep from screaming. “Quit doing that.”

“It. Hurts.” she growled.

“Well, we’re staying.” He cast a frustrated glance around the bathroom; Joan looked up and saw his scowl reflected in the big mirror as he let go of her hand and turned away. “Suck it up. You owe me.”

 

           

 **

 

 

Dessert turned into coffee, which turned into more conversation in the living room. Joan just sat silently by the arm of the sofa, teeth clenched in silent agony, trying not to sob. She just plastered a vaguely pleasant look on her face and kept her face turned toward the right person as Greg kept telling his idiotic jokes, and Susie and the Colonel kept sharing these long, involved stories about Japan, and everybody just laughed and laughed.

By the time someone started talking about leaving, pretending they were ready to break up the party but not doing a goddamn thing about it, Joan had a terrible dizzying moment. Her vision spun so badly she wasn’t even sure if she could stand up, let alone walk to the car like a normal person. She just fluttered one hand in Greg’s direction as he left the room with Suzie, and made some breathless excuse.

“I’ll just be a minute.”

Oh, god, her stomach was cinched so tight she could barely breathe. She hoped a couple of minutes alone would give her enough strength to make it out the door, because she had to go home. She had to go home. She had to get to a doctor—would Greg take her to the hospital?

“Hey there.”

The Colonel ambled back into the living room with an unlit cigarette in his hand. Joan was so disgusted she couldn’t even glare, just cast a baleful look in his direction as she tried to swallow the constant lump in her throat.

“You didn’t—go with Greg?”

The Colonel chuckled. “Nah. Susie’s out showing him the new garage shelves. Said he wanted to do something like that for you in the next house.”

“Oh.” Why wasn’t he talking to Greg himself? Joan didn’t care, just jammed the fingers of her right hand into her side like a crab claw, let out a tiny sigh. Maybe he wouldn’t see what she was doing, since she was sitting by the arm of the sofa.

He noticed. “Sweetheart, you don’t look well.”

Joan let out a noise that was supposed to be a laugh. It came out like a croak. “Sorry. I’m under the weather.”

“I can tell. You know, you could’ve rescheduled…”

“Yeah.” Holy shit, the pain just kept getting worse. Just breathe through it. She dug her fingers in harder. Put pressure on it, that’s a little better.

“…once he gets the news from the Selection Board. So before they come back in, I want you to hear, personally, that this was not an easy decision.”

Joan clamped her mouth closed to stop a whimper from escaping her lips, as the throbbing got even worse. Oh, god, it was worse than being in labor. What if she was pregnant? Or miscarrying? When was the last time Greg had touched her?

“—swell guy, very enthusiastic, and that’s about all I’m allowed to say.”

“All you—what?” Joan’s brain finally caught up with her ears. “Is this about—his deployment?”

“He put in for a promotion in November.” The Colonel was frowning at her. She forced herself to focus through the red haze, stare into his eyes like she knew what the hell he was talking about. “You didn’t know that?”

“No.” Joan managed to rasp.

“Ah, geez. I really thought—listen, he and I are gonna have a—”

Her abdominal muscles clenched so tight every time she drew a breath, oh shit, it was like someone was twisting long screws straight into her stomach, tightening them by hand until she popped like a balloon. If she could get to the bathroom, maybe she could lie on the floor again and then—

“—have Susie drive you home?”

“So it’s bad news.” Her lips felt numb; she could hardly choke out the words. “For Greg. That’s why he has to stay.”

After a second, the Colonel nodded, sheepish.

Of course it is.

“God.” Joan started to cough, although she wanted to laugh. Each hack felt like it was splintering her apart. “I did” – she was wheezing – “all this—”

For nothing.

“Joan, I really think—”

A flash of white-hot pain lanced through her stomach, like she’d just been stabbed with a penknife. She pitched forward with a strangled yelp and spewed out a fountain of blood onto the sofa, as pitch dark and thick as tar. And suddenly her muscles were jelly; she fell sideways into the floor with no warning, barely able to hear the Colonel’s shout as she collapsed in a heap with her palms braced against the carpet, still coughing.

“MAJOR HARRIS!”

She couldn’t stop puking. There was blood everywhere—flooding over her chest and stomach, her legs, her palms—and her vision was greying out; somebody was screaming these awful long wails and there were hands on her belly—pushing her, hurting her. Stop it!

Another voice, far away: “We’re calling the hospital, just hang on!”

I want my mom. I want Kevin, and Lane, and....

The pain was overpowering. The whole living room spun in circles until her eyes slid closed.

Hang on—hang—

Everything went black.

Chapter Text

Halt!”

Ginsberg’s lungs seared and his shoes pounded loud against the pavement as he tore around the dark alley corner at a sprint, away from the shout, with a map crumpled in one tight fist and the Stasi right on his fucking heels.

Fuck, fuck, fuck!

He stumbled on a loose brick as he raced toward the fire escape, windmilled his arms to keep from falling straight into the rickety metal frame, and launched himself up the bars and onto the creaking stairs, stopping only to yank the ladder a few feet out of reach, so nobody could climb up after him.

Lights flipped on in a couple of apartments and hissed voices shouted at him in German as he sprinted to the top; he batted clotheslines and wet laundry out of his eyes before he finally clambered out onto the roof and raced past a series of chimneys, almost to the lip of the building, where only a couple of feet of space separated Ginsberg from the side of an even taller building—his goal.

Here on the ground, a shitty folding construction ladder lay facedown next to an ugly old army duffel; the ladder had a gyroscope attached to the lowest rung with a snarl of sticky duct tape.

Footsteps on the stairs now. Were they inside? Or on the fire escape? Ginsberg couldn’t tell and he didn’t want to. He yanked up the ladder from the ground, and rushed toward the edge of the roof.

Out to his right, past the concrete rooftop and the city below, barbed wire loomed over both sides of the wall. In the eerie death zone between East and West Germany, standing floodlights and guard stations dotted no-man’s-land like ugly polka dots. Try to run through any of those and they’d light you up like a fucking Christmas tree. He’d been reading about that shit for years.

Ginsberg balanced the ladder carefully against the wall and scaled to the top as quickly as he could, forcing himself to breathe through his clenched teeth as he climbed and the wind whistled through the two-foot gap between the buildings. He couldn’t look down. If he looked down, he was gonna freeze, and he couldn’t stop.

Once he was up, he lay down on his stomach on the dirty concrete and reached for the ladder to pull it up, so no one could follow.

“Halt!”

A shout from below—the ricochet of bullets spraying bricks, rat-a-tat-a-tat—

He dropped the ladder. In the split second before he ducked down with his hands covering the back of his head, he saw it plummet towards the street.

“Fuck!” he spat, and pounded his forehead into the cold gritty pavement a couple of times before sitting up and untying a huge length of rope from around his waist. He’d been wearing it as a belt. His fingers were stiff with cold as they fumbled to undo the knot, but after a second, he got it undone. He re-tied the rope clumsily around his body, looping it through his belt loops twice and around his middle once before tying off the end into a figure eight, then tying another figure eight about two or three feet above it. Yanked the knots once to test ‘em.

Ginsberg was panicking now, a familiar haze fluttered inside his head—what if you die, what if they take you, they’re gonna bury you in an unmarked grave like every other Jew in this shitty place

Oh, Jesus. He touched the metal carabiner in his pocket, ran his thumb over the locking mechanism, and took a couple of quick, shallow breaths. It was gonna work. It had to work. Before he could think about it too much, he threaded the carabiner through the highest figure eight knot, spun the locking mechanism forward a couple of times, then hefted the whole thing over his shoulder, and crawled over to the bundle of steel cables that was still bolted down into the rooftop.

As he sat down next to the anchor and clipped the carabiner to one of the smaller cables, the one that ran out past the eastern wall and out into blackness, past the broken floodlight, he felt a weird surge of adrenaline. If nothing else, he’d gotten to the top.

Nobody would fucking believe it.

He took the metal locking mechanism between finger and thumb and quietly, carefully, screwed it into place until it was tightly secured. After that, he got into a pseudo-crouched position trying to steel his nerves. There was a weird pulling sensation around his navel now that he was hooked up; he hoped he’d left enough length for the jump. If he didn’t start out at a run, he might not get enough momentum to get past the barbed wire, let alone clear the other side.

Ginsberg expelled a deep breath and stared out into the distance toward the patch of nothing that lay beyond the brightly-lit wall. You can do this. You can do this.

Somewhere behind him, a door flung open.

He didn’t think, just started running, angry shouts echoing in his ears as he bolted for the edge of the building with his length of rope wrapped around one hand. The breeze ruffled around him as he leapt out into nothing and fell, weightless, into the dark sky.

 

72 HOURS EARLIER

 

BRRRRING! BRRRING!

The jangling phone woke Lane from a dead sleep. Once he got his glasses on and saw the glowing hands on the clock, he stumbled out into the sitting room to answer it. Two-fifteen. Not good.

“’Lo,” he muttered, barely audible, and had to repeat himself. “Hello?”

Half-asleep, in his pessimistic haze, he’d been expecting to hear Nigel’s voice, or Becca’s, or even Roger’s. Becca’s mother wasn’t well. Roger was worried about Don. It could be anyone.

A woman’s voice answered, high and rapid. “Lane, it’s Gail Holloway.”

“What?” was his first response, followed by an icy rush of fear as his brain caught up with his mouth. Gail. Joan’s mother. “How did you—?”

She huffed out a breath, interrupted him. “I’ll make this fast. Joan’s in intensive care, Station Hospital, and she’s asking for you.”

But that’s where they put sick people, he thought stupidly, unable to make himself understand it. Joan can’t be that ill. She had the flu and took some aspirin.

“Asking for me?” he repeated, almost numb.

“Look.” Gail bit off each word. “Are you coming or not?”

“Yes. Erm. What room?” he sputtered, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. “Where do I—?”

“Four oh eight. Bring your ID for the gate and bypass the nurse’s desk. I’ll be out by the waiting room.”

She put down the phone.

Lane stood motionless in front of the telephone for a second before he realized he hadn’t hung up at all. He’d dropped the receiver straight onto the hardwood. But he didn’t stoop to pick it up, just crossed the room at a near-run and pulled on the first pieces of clothes his hands touched. Trousers and t-shirt and shirt and that was it; he was shoving things into the floor in search of his keys and his wallet, slinging the door closed behind him.

Outside, the wind whipped fiercely, but Lane could hardly feel the stinging cold, even as he jogged nearly a block toward the tourist district in order to hail a cab – even when, after the longest ride of his life, he had to open his window at the front gate in order to get onto the post. He didn’t know what he’d said, or if he’d said a word. Had they asked him anything? Had they just taken one look at his driver’s license and assumed he was the nervous husband of some upstanding WAC?

He didn’t know and he didn’t care. Once the cab pulled up to the curb just outside the emergency entrance, Lane threw a few bills up front toward the driver, not even bothering to count them, and hurried inside, pushing past civilians and nurses with a speed that would have been impressive in his youth. He followed the nearest gurney to the elevators, cursing the tortoise-like speed of the car as it crawled up to the fourth floor carrying a few other people, and by the time the doors opened to let them all out, he was hurrying into the lobby, almost at a run.

Past the central nurse’s desk was a hanging sign that said WAITING ROOM in huge letters—and here was Gail, Lane thought with the tiniest jolt of relief as he spotted the short red hair and the big green coat—thank god, thank god.

When she saw him, she drew herself up, alert, and raised two flat-palmed hands to him as if to say stop at once.

“Tell me what happened,” he huffed, resisting the urge to double over as he gasped for air. He swiped at his mouth with the back of his hand, lungs stinging from exertion, and for a few seconds, they didn’t speak.

“Burst appendix,” she finally said.

Lane’s mouth dropped open.

Gail’s eyes were hard and glassy, her mouth set in a thin line as she lowered her hands. “She came out of emergency surgery about an hour ago. Doctors said it’s touch and go until they can stop the infection.”

I don’t believe that, Lane wanted to say. How did this happen?

“Where is she?”

He glanced right into the open doorway of the waiting room, saw a little blonde toddler sprawled out asleep across two chairs, his head lying in the lap of a familiar woman who stared out across the sea of chairs with distant eyes.

The front of her dress was covered in blood.

“Four oh eight.” Gail tugged at his wrist to get him to move, urging him further down the hall. Lane did not realize how much he was shaking until her hands steadied him. “You have to go now.”

I can’t, he thought first, even as he was putting one foot in front of the other and walking into the room, even as he was walking towards the bed where Joan lay boneless and white against her pillows. I can’t.

She was hooked up to several monitors and intravenous lines, and one of her hands rested near her abdomen, where a thick tube snaked out from under her green gown and pumped out a nasty-looking, brackish fluid into a nearby glass decanter. There was a thin line of blood dotting her hospital gown around that same area, right where the tube was protruding. An incision. Surgery. Further down, dingy white blankets provided her a bit of modesty, covering her legs and feet.

He was staring at all of this in dispassionate, numb horror when he noticed her face crumple in pain, and her mouth open in a little cry. Tears slipped from the corners of her eyes and shone visibly on her face, while her fingers flexed weakly against her middle.

Oh, god. She was awake.

“Shhh, shhh.” Lane rushed into action, smoothing her hair away from her clammy face and then taking her left hand in his; it was so limp she couldn’t even grasp his fingers. “Oh, my darling, there, there. You’ll be all right.”

Joan whimpered again. Her eyes fluttered open, and her chin quivered again before she choked out a few words. But her voice was so raw and slurred Lane couldn’t understand her.

“I’m here,” he said. She was shivering all over, whether from cold or shock he could not say. Her fingers were freezing, and so he rubbed them between his hands in an attempt to warm her up. “I’m right here. I—I came over as soon as I heard.”

“It hurts,” she sobbed, and her face crumpled again; she let out an agonized whine that seemed like it was meant to be a howl. Her chest heaved a little as she blubbered. “It really hurts.”

“I know it does. I’m sorry.” Two quick tears dropped from his eyes. “Oh, my poor darling.”

“You have to promise me.” Her voice was like a broken accordion, harsh and creaky. “If something happens, take Kevin away—”

“No. No. You’re going to be fine.”

She didn’t even seem to hear him, “—envelope on my desk—pictures—”

“Joan, please,” he begged, not wanting to hear this.

“—take Kevin to Roger—”

Whatever Lane was going to say next died on his lips.

“He’s his real—” she let out a groan, shut her eyes. “Oh!”

She couldn’t finish the sentence. She didn’t need to.

Lane decided it was better for him to talk now. Joan didn’t seem to realize what she was saying, and it wasn’t right for him to hear it, not when she was in this condition. “All right. All right. You have my word, just don’t—you have to come through this, don’t you see? You have to come back, because we need you.”

He was still petting her a little, stroking her hair and her cheeks and her shoulders, noticing the oddest details as he studied her wan face and figure. The tacky film of dried-up blood that coated her neck and forearms. The way her matted, damp hair was very blonde at the roots in this fluorescent light. Didn’t look red at all. How chapped and drawn her lips were, as chalk white as the rest of her face.

“I don’t want you to be sick,” he said, and almost choked on the words, the pad of one thumb brushing against her fevered cheek. Tell her. Tell her. “I want you home. Joan, you don’t know how much I—”

She gasped again, clearly in pain, but this time, none of his reassurances were able to soothe her; she went from being limp to being almost rigid with distress, her mouth open in a silent scream.

Instinctively, he reached over her and smashed the call bell for the nurse; so many times he nearly broke the damn thing, shouting at the tinny speaker.

“She’s hurting, she can’t breathe, help her, for god’s sake!”

The two nurses who arrived took one look at Joan and split off from each other; one flipped open Joan’s chart while the blonde one shoved him out of the way in order to check the tubes, shouting numbers and medical terms at each other. Lane glanced over at the doorway and saw Gail hovering there, her hands twisted in front of her, mouth pinched in a worried moue.

“What are you doing? What is that?” he asked the younger nurse, as she pulled out a small syringe from her uniform pocket and uncapped it, then flicked the barrel to release any air bubbles.

The woman didn’t answer, just uncapped Joan’s IV line, inserted the needle, and pushed the plunger down. After a few seconds, Joan relaxed and went very still, her head lolling to one side. Lane tried to swallow the lump in his throat. It was painkiller, probably. She was going to rest and she’d feel better when she woke up.

The grey-haired nurse eyed him in a suspicious way as she scribbled something in Joan’s chart and flipped it closed. “You’re not Army. Who are you?”

“Emergency contact,” Gail said quickly.

The nurses didn’t ask him any more questions; just checked Joan’s IV drip and monitors and left the room again.

Lane’s stomach sank as he watched Joan lying there like a limp dishrag, her normally bright face so drawn and grey. He thought they should at least have washed the blood off her skin so she wouldn’t feel so horrid; within less than a minute, he was running his handkerchief under hot water in the little pedestal sink and returning to Joan’s bedside to dab the cloth under her jaw as gently as possible. The white fabric began to turn a rust-browned red.

Someone’s hand was on his arm, tugging at his elbow. “Here. Give that to me.”

“No, we can’t leave it,” Lane protested. Joan was always so polished; she wouldn’t want anyone to see her covered in blood and scum, even the nurses.

“I know. I’ll do it.”

Gail took the handkerchief from him as easily as if she was plucking away an extra pencil, and within a few moments, she’d got a plastic basin out of the little cupboard, and filled the basin with warm water and a little soap.

“You should get some coffee,” she said a little later, after the silence had lingered for an awfully long time, punctured only by the beeping of machines. The water in the basin had gained a dark reddish tinge. “You look awful.”

Lane shook his head, stopped pacing for a second. The thought of food was sickening. “No.”

Gail wrung out the handkerchief over the basin, in the middle of washing Joan’s arm, the one that didn’t have the IV in it. Muddy water sluiced down her pale forearm, spotting the top of the coarse sheets. “Well, Greg’s going to come up eventually. You can’t be here when he does.”

Lane felt physical pain course through his chest at the mention of Joan’s husband. “Don’t make me go.”

“It’s better for everyone if—”

“I have to know that she’s all right. I can’t just wait by the telephone—”

“What do you need to stare at her for?”

“Then give me something to do. Let me be useful. Please.”

She stood frozen with his handkerchief in hand. He could see the cloth – dingy and dirty now – dripping water down Joan’s arm as Gail stared at him.

Lane let out a breath, put his head in his hands. He heard the cloth swish through the water in a choppy motion.

“I—I feel like I’m going mad.”

He thought about Joan falling asleep in his apartment—was it really only hours ago? She’d looked so exhausted, even then. Why hadn’t he pushed her to go to the doctor? Why hadn’t he insisted she skip that damned dinner? You’re as stubborn as an ass. He thought he was being funny, not encouraging her to do something phenomenally stupid. And she hadn’t said a word. Why hadn’t she said anything? What could he have said to get her to understand? You aren’t fine, you’re in danger, don’t you see that we all need you?

“I’ll need a change of clothes,” Gail finally said, which caused Lane to yank his head up. “And Susie and Kevin need a ride home.”

Lane blinked, and realized Gail was still wearing her green raincoat, with some kind of long cocktail dress underneath. Oh. Yes, she would need clothes. He then latched on to the second part of that sentence—Kevin. Susie. Which one was Susie?

“Did they—drive here?”

“Colonel did. His car.”

Oh. “Does she have the keys?”

She shrugged. “If not, the Colonel’s around here somewhere. Try the second floor.”

“Right.” Get the keys, find the Colonel’s wife, and take her and Kevin home. It was a start, at least.

Gail put down the rag and basin for a second. She wiped her hands on the front of her coat, snagged a notepad and pen from inside one of the drawers, and jotted down a quick list before ripping two sheets off the pad. “Tell Suzie to pack a bag for Joanie, too.”

“Okay.”

Lane cast a longing look over at the bed, where Joan lay still, with one hand resting on her chest. His hand twitched. He fought the urge to rush back to her side, squeeze her fingers tightly and tell her to hang on. Please be all right. Please stay with me.

“Go,” said Gail, not unkindly.

He left before he had a second to doubt himself, fixing those distinct goals in his mind. Get the keys. Take everyone home. Pack two bags. Bring them to Gail.

Lane took the stairs this time, not wanting to bother with the wretched elevator; he got all the way to the ground floor landing before he realized Gail had said the second floor. Before he could rectify this mistake, a door burst open on the landing above him, followed by two voices.

“—stay the hell out of my operating room!”

“Jesus, all I asked for was a favor!”

“Yeah, well, I don’t grant favors that come back to bite me in the ass.”

“I just wanted to assist! Hell, I’d have settled for watching from the gallery!”

“Harris, she’s your wife, god damn it! What kind of moron wants to see their wife with her stomach carved open?”

Lane realized with a jolt that this was Joan’s husband.

“Then let me in on the next one. I gotta have something to take my mind off it all; don’t you understand that?”

“You don’t operate on my patients when you’re distracted,” the second man growled. “You don’t operate on my patients, period.

A soft thump. “Hey, don’t act like you’re better than me—”

The other man had clearly had enough. “Listen, Captain, you want to come within spitting distance of my operating room, then you’d better be the guy on the table, because you sure as shit aren’t killing a patient on my watch. This isn’t New York. You don’t outrank me. Get back in that waiting room.”

Good god.

“Fuck you,” Dr. Harris hissed, and stalked off; Lane heard his angry footfalls as the door slammed open and closed. The other doctor – whoever it was – stayed in the stairwell for a little longer before letting out a heavy sigh, mumbling something under his breath, and exiting through the same door.

Lane’s head was spinning. He knew he had to get up to the second floor, but he didn’t want to run into Dr. Harris, or the other doctor, and have either man see the shock that must have been written all over his face. He couldn’t even force himself up the stairwell. Instead, he walked back through the first floor corridor, and wound through to the nurse’s desk at reception.

Here, several women in uniforms were consulting with patients, filling out paperwork, or answering phones.

“Excuse me,” he said to the first woman who appeared free, as she scribbled something in shorthand on a notepad, “I’m looking for the Colonel. Colonel Martin. Could you—that is, have you seen him?”

She flapped a hand somewhere behind him before rushing toward the nearest ringing phone. “Coffee pot, just there. Hello, US Army Station Hospital, Berlin.”

Lane frowned, turned, and saw a weathered man in profile, more or less his own age, pouring coffee into a bright pink mug he’d clearly swiped from one of the nurses. His light hair was close-cropped in the military style, and he was wearing a green scrub top over a plain t-shirt, tucked into a pair of what appeared to be uniform trousers. Lane walked closer, and took a deep breath.

“Excuse me, Colonel Martin?”

The man turned, gave him a bemused frown as Lane approached the coffee station. “Do I know you?”

“No. Erm—you see, I work with Mrs. Harris. And her mother phoned me about—well, everything, and I came down to see what—what I could do to help.”

“Okay,” said the Colonel, in a voice that said he knew this was not the end of the story.

“And Gail told me that you’d driven everyone over, and I just thought—I offered to take everyone back for the evening so you could stay here with—” he refused to say Dr. Harris’s name “—the family. But I don’t have a car.”

“You want to borrow my car?”

Lane felt his stomach churn with anxiety. What if he thinks I’m lying? How can I convince him? I have to do this or else I’ll—

“Yes,” he sputtered. “I realise it sounds ridiculous, but—Gail needs a change of clothes, and she needs things for Joan, and since you’re taking Kevin, the boy will need something to—”

Remind him of his mother.

For one horrible second, Lane imagined a future in which Kevin could only remember Joan through photographs and baby items, and quickly went to pour himself a cup of coffee, before he could do something horribly embarrassing.

“Sorry,” he said, accidentally splashing some of the hot liquid onto the side table and the carpet underneath it before replacing the pot, and gulping down rather a large swallow. One side of his mouth blistered from the heat. “She took such a turn. It’s—rather a shock.”

“Tell me about it,” said the Colonel. “Wasn’t pretty.”

Before they could say anything else, a woman’s voice floated across the room.

“There you are, sweetheart. Sheila told me you were down here.”

Lane drank the rest of his coffee in one gulp, tossed the cup in the trash with a wince, and glanced around to see Mrs. Martin walking toward them; her purse looped around her wrist like a brace and an exhausted little boy hanging limp across her right shoulder, his mouth open as he slept on, blissfully unaware.

“We need to go home,” she murmured to her husband through a yawn, lightly patting Kevin’s back with her free hand.

“Yeah, Joan’s friend and I were just talking about that,” the man said evenly. “Sue, you’ve met Mr….?”

“Pryce. Lane Pryce,” Lane supplied. “We’ve met—well, briefly.”

“The Englishman,” Mrs. Martin gave him a wan smile. “I remember you.”

“Yes. Good. Erm. Gail asked if I might see you and the little one home, so the Colonel can stay with—well, with everyone.”

Apparently the Colonel had decided this plan was not a terrible one. “If you don't mind, he can drop you off, bring back the car, and then I’ll drive home in the morning.”

“Fine by me.” She turned to her husband. “I’m sure Greg will appreciate the company.”

“Hope so.”

The Colonel patted his wife’s arm as he gave her his keys, they exchanged a quick kiss goodbye, and suddenly Lane and Mrs. Martin were off towards the parking area.

“Are you sure I can’t pick you up at the front?” Lane asked, as they walked through the dark lot. A chilly wind still whipped through the air.

Mrs. Martin shook her head; the motion was barely perceptible since she was holding Kevin. “No, he parked just past that lamp post. That blue Ford under the light. We came in through emergency.”

“Oh.”

Once they got to the car, she passed him the keys; he unlocked the passenger door for her and held it open as she maneuvered herself and the little boy inside. Kevin didn’t even twitch; he was still sound asleep.

“Can you roll down my window before you shut the door?” she asked.

Lane did as she requested, not putting much thought into this until he’d got into the driver’s seat and begun adjusting the mirrors. With the door closed, the pungent copper stink of blood suddenly became so strong it made him gasp.

One glance into the backseat and he understood. The glossy tan seats were splashed black in several places: blood on the leather, blood spotting the floor mats. A couple of ruined towels piled on the floor.

It was from the drive over.

Oh, god. His mind conjured a thousand different scenarios, none of them good. Lane cranked down his own window at once, and let out a shuddering breath, closed his eyes for a second.

She’ll be all right, she’ll be all right, she’ll be all right…

“Are you okay?”

“What?” Lane wrenched his eyes open, started the car at once, and pretended not to know what Mrs. Martin was talking about. “Yes. Sorry. Ready to go.”

He did not glance back at the hospital as they drove away, not even for one last look in the rearview mirror.

 

**

 

Ginsberg was seriously, completely fucked.

Apparently, bribing some shady guy to sneak him over the border in the trunk of his car had been the easy part. The shitty thing was, he hadn’t really thought about what he was gonna do for money until he got across. He’d brought a big hunk of bread and some cheese in his coat for meals, but he didn’t have an Eastern mark on him to save his life. So now, all because some asshole had jumped him on his first night in this fucking place, he’d been stuck filching shit out of the garbage like an animal for the past four days, walking around at night and sleeping rough during the day, pretending to fit in.

There was a reason nobody wrote about Vita Cola and whatever the fuck Fillinchen was supposed to be, he thought sourly. Tasted like cardboard. Glancing down at the torn-open garbage bag in front of him, he decided he’d be better off cutting the rat teethmarks out of that piece of cheese, close to the top.

He’d already pulled out his penknife to do it when somebody tapped twice on the side of the dumpster, quiet, and a woman’s voice spoke, very low.

“Na, du wichser.”

Jerk-off? Ginsberg kept his knife out, glanced around in the dark before answering her question, careful about his accent as he answered her in German. “Who the hell are you?”

“You’re being followed, idyót,” she continued, as if Ginsberg had just opened with a simple ‘hey, how you doin’. “Lucky to have been left alone this long.”

Ginsberg winced, and was glad she couldn’t see his face. “Fuck.”

“You want to meet Stasi or KGB?” She stuck to German. “Stay here. Eat your garbage. I hear prison is nice this time of year.”

“Shut your trap.”

“No. You get taken, you don’t get out. Or are you too stupid to know that, Westberliner?”

Ginsberg shut his eyes, shoved the heels of his hands against his face for a second and cursed every fucking Red in the fucking world for being so paranoid.

“Okay, who are you?”

“Yelena.”

“Great. Yelena. Mikhail. Help me lose them, all right?”

She yanked open the half-door that faced the dirty brick wall; it squealed like a son of a bitch, made him clap both hands over his ears. He was kind of surprised when he got a look at the woman; she reminded him of a darker Rosie the Riveter: tiny and boyish with sharp features and smart eyes, and wearing what looked like overalls, with her hair tied back by an oil-spotted yellow handkerchief.

“Dobrye vecher, idyót.”

Ginsberg bit his tongue to keep from saying something dumb, took a breath, and put away his penknife. “Stop calling me that.”

She held out her hand with a snort of derisive laughter.

He still grabbed it.

 

**

 

Alone in the musty garage, Lane had already found a half-empty box of dish soap, a small metal pail, and a few clean rags; at the moment, he was dabbing a soapy cloth in tiny circles across the back of the leather seat, following this with a swipe of the clean damp cloth in order to rinse away the suds. The blood was almost gone, now. He wished he could do something about the spots on the mats, but this single task made him feel calmer. Made him feel like things would be better soon.

The garage door creaked open.

“Well, Kevin’s down, and the laundry’s soaking in the—”

Mrs. Martin stopped talking.

“You don’t have to do that.”

Lane pretended not to notice how shocked the woman sounded. Blood would stain if it wasn’t cleaned up properly; everyone knew that. Never mind that it was Joan’s blood, and it made him shaky with fear to see it and smell it, to imagine that horrible drive over to hospital.

Sticky dark fluid gushing down her legs, Becca sobbing in the passenger seat—

No. Don’t dwell on it.

Joan choking in the backseat as they sped toward the hospital, coughing and heaving as she clutched her stomach—

“Are you sure you’re all right?”

Mrs. Martin sounded as if she’d already had to ask the question several times. Lane shook his head, came back to himself. Don’t stop moving.

“Yes.” He put the soapy rag back into the pail, shoved at his damp shirtsleeves with the empty hand. He’d got some blood on his shirt, not that it mattered. “Sorry. I’ll just be another minute. I had to—” he didn’t know how to finish the sentence. “I couldn’t leave it.”

Blood on her dress, blood on her neck, he’d even seen the spot where she fell, just inside, where gruesome crimson streaked the sofa and the beige berber carpet. Mrs. Martin had put a couple of sheets over it, but not before the pale outline of a balled-up hand among the mess had stolen Lane’s breath in pure animal fear.

She was so frightened. You should have done more. You should have been here.

“Let’s take out the floor mats, too.” With a sigh, Susie traipsed down the two stairs that separated the landing from the rest of the room. She’d changed into another dress at last, some faded floral thing. “Not sure if it’ll help, but it’s a start.”

Chapter Text

24 HOURS LATER

 

 

Lane stood in the doorway of Joan’s empty office, watching as dappled sunlight from the nearby window played cheerfully across her busy desk.

He’d come here in an attempt to distract himself, but had been completely unable to focus on work. Every time he set pen to paper, every time he so much as blinked, he saw Joan lying in her hospital bed, limp and unresponsive or out of her mind from the pain. All night he’d dreamed of beeping monitors and doctors and surgeries gone wrong—when he’d slept, anyway, which hadn’t been much. He hadn’t even changed clothes; just spent the night lying on top of his unmade bed, staring up at the ceiling with his heart hammering.

Taking a breath, he stepped into the room.

Joan’s desk was full, but neat, and had several personal touches: an elegant gilded pen holder, a round red cigarette dispenser he remembered from her desk at the Pierre, along with a few smaller photos displayed in a wooden frame and a large gold-framed picture of Kevin and Gail. Lane stopped to admire this one. In the photo, Gail was crouched in a standing position next to a large refrigerator, with Kevin walking awkwardly in front of her, holding her hands as he toddled across the linoleum floor. The photo was slightly blurry, but the pride shining in the lad’s face was clear enough, and Gail was laughing as she guided him along. Perhaps Joan had taken the picture herself.

Bursting with a thousand notations in various colors, her desk calendar was buried beneath job folders, papers, post-its, and correspondence in various stages, all stacked and arranged neatly, considering the sheer volume. Lane had no idea what half of these papers were regarding. But he was looking for one item in particular: a large manila envelope whose corner was currently sticking out from the center drawer.

Pictures in my desk.

His fingers twitched as he stared at it, and impulses overwhelmed him anew as he remembered what Joan had said. Surely it was all right to look if she’d told him about it. Surely if he didn’t disturb anything else, just glanced over one or two photos, it would be enough to settle his mind. He would know what she had been talking about, what she had begged him to find, and then he could leave it alone, instead of going out of his head wondering.

Get Kevin to Roger. His father.

What the hell had happened there?

Slowly, barely making any sound, Lane pulled open the center drawer and picked up the envelope with both hands, holding it by the corners as if he was accidentally going to smudge it. The flap was sealed with a metal clasp, which opened easily, and inside was a note in French, from a person Lane did not know, plus a fragile paper envelope of developed pictures. Similar to the kind you’d receive from a pharmacy after developing a roll, although these pictures were much larger, as if they’d been hand-developed. Before he could second-guess his decision, he opened the smaller envelope, and took out a handful of photos.

The first was shockingly pornographic, and appeared to have been snapped through a window, from a balcony or fire escape. Whatever the vantage point, the subject was crystal-clear: in a messy bedroom that also featured an open wardrobe and a dressing screen with several sets of clothes thrown over it, a waifish blonde woman with a pixie cut straddled a dark-haired man in bed. Both naked. The man was sitting up against a headboard. His hands were on her tits. Her mouth was hanging open. The man was grinning.

It was Joan’s husband.

Lane flipped to the next picture. More pictures of their tryst, and suddenly, a different series of photos altogether—different location—different girl. Same man. Oh, god. Lane’s throat tightened as he flicked through the photographs, noting woman after woman after woman, in nearly every location and position imaginable.

You brutish, cold-hearted bastard, he thought as he stared at Dr. Harris’s lecherous grin. How could you do this to her?

Lane returned these pictures to their envelope. There was another manila folder tucked under the first, full of the same types of photos; these were blurrier, not as racy, but they all still featured that blackguard. Who seemed almost proud; smiling, laughing, putting his hands all over these other women, as if he didn’t even care who saw him being unfaithful.

My god, how could Joan bear seeing these? And what would she do with them? Now that she had secure proof of her the doctor’s infidelity, would she divorce the man at last? Would she go back to New York? Would she be with—?

The phone rang, Lane snatched up the receiver before it could even complete a full chime.

“Hello? Oh.” He shifted the phone to his other ear, tried not to seem disappointed. “Roger. No, there isn’t any news. Gail told me to go home, so I—well. Clearly you’re up to speed.” He waited. “Yes.” Another pause. “Course. Erm. While I have you—can you please—have your man draw up the paperwork for the, erm, partnership? Yeah.” He cleared his throat. “Soon as she comes back. I-I don’t want to waste any time.”

After he’d hung up the phone and returned the envelopes to their proper place in the center drawer, Lane reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the filmy blue scarf he’d found hanging on the back of Joan’s bedroom door. With a sigh, he toyed the soft silk through his fingers. He knew better than to take it; he meant to give it to Susie to pack in the overnight bag, but when push came to shove, Lane couldn’t let the damn thing out of his sight.

He just wanted to feel like he had some piece of her with him, he thought as he brought the delicate fabric up to his nose, inhaled Shalimar and roses, and concentrated on the warm feeling that washed over him. The scent of Joan’s perfume lingered for one last moment as he folded the silk back into a little lumpy square, kissed it, and slipped it into his jacket again, as if it were some sort of good luck charm. As if any of the nonsense he wanted would ever come to pass.

God, he was pathetic.

           

**

           

Standing naked under the shower spray, Ginsberg cut off the water and tried not to shiver as the cold air settled around his damp body. The shower curtain was real thin. He could almost see the girl through the dark fabric as she walked around the kitchen, just a few feet away. Damn studio apartments.

“Uh.” He glanced up at the shower rod circling the tub, where his wet clothes were currently hanging, then spun around toward the wall. She’d made him scrub ‘em all down with soap and water. “My clothes?”

“There’s a towel, just there.”

Ginsberg poked his head out, glanced left and saw a brown towel folded on the chipped toilet seat. He snuck an arm through the curtain, yanked the towel inside, and quickly dried himself before tying it around his waist, wishing it was big enough to wrap around his body and not just his hips. Jesus. He felt so weird standing around some girl’s apartment in a towel. None of this was going right.

She flicked a piece of butter into a pan on the stove as he stepped out of the tub. “Why do you want to go so far, anyway?”

Ginsberg almost got back in the tub and yanked the curtain shut after him, but it was too late, he was out in the open, and Yelena’s gaze pinned him to the ground. He shouldn’t have mentioned that. He shouldn’t have told her anything.

“Uh.” His voice cracked, but he was careful to stick to German. “I guess you wouldn’t believe me if I said it was just to visit?”

Nyet.” Her gaze raked him up and down, either curious or just being rude. Ginsberg’s face got hot, and he quickly glanced away, toward the toilet.

“What if I said I had family out here?”

“Nein.” Yelena crossed the room, crouched down and pulled out the bottom drawer of the dark bureau, and grabbed a big t-shirt and what looked like a pair of shorts—white. Pushing the drawer shut with one foot, she walked over, grabbed his hand, and shoved the ball of clothes into it. “That’s why Palace of Tears exists.”

Well, shit. Ginsberg stared down at the clothes in his hand for a second before he felt the towel slipping down his hips, and then all hesitation went out the window. He put two hands over his crotch to keep from flashing her, and hobbled into the nearest corner, between the foot of the bathtub and the toilet.

Idyót.” She just laughed.

“Abkehren!” Ginsberg felt the towel slip again, curved himself forward so he was hunched over. “Bitte.”

She returned to the stove, where the butter was bubbling in the pan. Ginsberg blew out a thankful breath, and scrabbled into the clothes as fast as he could. They were kind of small on him, but they’d work.

“Better than nothing,” he mumbled to himself in English, as he picked the towel off the floor and hung it over the rod.

He thought he smelled vegetables browning in the butter, now, and looked up to see Yelena pouring a little bit of vinegar into the pan from a glass bottle. There was a big pot sitting on the left front eye of the stove.

“What is that?” he asked, hovering around her right elbow.

“Soljanka.” She cocked an eyebrow at his confusion. “Mushroom soup. We have to—” a phrase he didn’t know, “—vegetables together in the pan.”       

He made a non-committal noise.

She pushed a paring knife and half a head of wilted cabbage towards him using a scored wooden cutting board; when she spoke again, her English was harsh and accented. “Chop chop, darling.”

Ginsberg gritted his teeth to keep from screaming. She spoke English. Was she just gonna keep that from him forever? “Oh, fuck.”

           

**

Susie answered the door after only three knocks, clad in a faded green day dress and a flour-covered apron.    

“You should have called,” she said, but let him in all the same. Lane made a vague attempt to straighten his collar as he walked inside. In the kitchen, he heard a skillet spitting on the stove; and smelled some kind of beef, although the aroma didn’t make him hungry, just vaguely smothered. “I’d have set an extra plate. Kevin and I were just about to sit down to dinner before the Colonel gets home.”

“Oh. Well, no—thank you. I—I just wanted to see if either of you needed anything. Just about to stop by hospital and thought I could, erm, make another trip to the house.”

“Can’t think of anything.” Susie scrunched up her brow as if she were going through a list in her head, and sat down at the dining table. After a small hesitation, Lane sat down, too. “Greg checked in a little while ago; I think he was just there.”

“Right.” For some reason, he’d pictured the man just doing whatever the hell he pleased while Joan was in hospital. Drinking and carousing and the like. “Course. Sorry, I—thought he’d still be in the room, or something.”

“No, he said Gail sent him home a few hours ago.” She gave him a pointed look. “Maybe you should go home, too.”

“What? No, I—” Lane sighed, unable to explain why that was so unreasonable. “I just—want to make sure everyone’s settled.”

A loud buzz made her jump – some kind of oven timer, Lane guessed. “That’s the potatoes. Hang on, let me just make sure they’re ready.”

While she was in the kitchen, Lane allowed the gloom of despair to settle back over him. Joan wasn’t awake and there wasn’t anything to be done and damn it all, he was going to lose his mind if he had to sit here and pretend everything was all right. It wasn’t, because she wasn’t, and he didn’t know what else to do.

“Hi.”

Lane startled, glanced around the room, and saw no one. When he peeked under the table, a toddler’s curious face stared back at him, head cocked sharply to one side as if to mimic Lane’s movements, and his little blonde brow furrowed in confusion. Clad in a jumper and some sort of brown corduroy trousers, his hair was sticking up in the back, as if he’d recently had a nap, but on first impression, the boy seemed content. He was just standing there among his little toy racecars.

“Hello.” Lane tried to make his voice cheerful. “What are you doing under there?”

“This my racetrack!” Kevin grinned at him, kicked a tiny green sports car in his direction. “Why you come over?”

“Oh. Well, just…saying hello.” The smile he offered Kevin wasn’t very bright. “Going to visit your mama in a bit. So that—will be nice.”

Kevin scowled, like didn’t believe that for a second. Lane’s smile turned genuine for the first time in days. Least one of them was being honest.

“I don’t wike it there.” The boy sat down and crashed a couple of his toy cars together with two hands, then seemed to think better of this idea, and began clambering out from under the table.

“Feels a bit scary, doesn’t it?” Lane watched as Kevin got to his feet, now standing next to his chair. Surely the boy realized some part of what was going on. Surely he was worried, too. “But your mama is going to—get lots and lots of rest there, and—and then she’ll come home.”

Kevin was watching him very intently, now. Without speaking, the boy stepped forward, reached out, and put his palm over the back of Lane’s hand. The look in his eyes was clear and incisive, as if he knew exactly why Lane was so sad.

“Mama feel better soon.”

Lane’s heart lurched. The lad must have heard everyone say this a thousand times. It didn’t mean anything.

“Yeah.” He tried to smile again, put his free hand to the side of Kevin’s shoulder. “That’s very nice of you. Thank you.”

In the kitchen, an oven rack clattered as it was pushed back into place, and Kevin let out a delighted squeal, clapping his hands.

“Oh! Susie make go bang!”

When Susie appeared with a pot of potatoes, which she set onto a placemat that was in the middle of the bare table, Lane decided that was his cue to go. The Colonel would probably be home soon, and he certainly didn’t want the man asking questions or reporting back to Doctor Harris.

“You sure you won’t stay?” she asked as he got to his feet.

“No, thank you. I’d—hate to intrude.”

“But it’s no trouble—”

“Really.” Lane held up a hand. “I couldn’t eat. Sorry.”

Susie gave him a mystified look at that comment. Lane realized he’d meant to say I’m not hungry, but tried to brush off the awkwardness as best he could.

“Anyway. I—I’ll see you all later, probably.”

“Wait!”

Kevin ran toward him, wrapped his arms around Lane’s right leg, and hugged it very tightly while burying his face into Lane’s hip. Touched, Lane put a hand on the top of Kevin's head, expecting the boy to say something important as he looked up.

“Okay, bye.” And Kevin scampered back under the table.

As Lane said his goodbyes, he left Susie kneeling on hands and knees next to one table leg, trying to coax the boy out again.

 

**

 

“You never answered my question. Why such a long trip?”

Staring out the streaky bus window as squat brown buildings passed by in a blur, Ginsberg threw Yelena a glare that said to shut up. Since it was a Saturday, she’d offered to take him to Köpernick, which was insane, but necessary, as all his maps had been shit. So far, she’d spent the whole trip pointing weird stuff out to him; nudging his knee to get him to look at a new poster or a sign or whatever. Maybe so he could find his way back alone later. He still didn’t know if he could trust her, even after a night spent sleeping on her sofa.

“Oh.” He glanced down at his knees. “It’s stupid.”

She let out a scoff of a laugh; he shot her an open-mouthed, outraged look. What the hell? Why did she make fun of him all the time?

“All this way for stupid?” She laughed again. “Pizdyets Westberliners.”

“Shut up,” he hissed.

She stood up and moved into the aisle as the bus rolled to a stop at a place called Kienappelweg, and motioned him to follow. Quickly, Ginsberg scrambled out into the street after her, too nervous to keep track of all the cross-streets or how close they were to the address he’d written down. Shit, what if he found something? He’d spent so long thinking this wasn’t gonna happen, that he’d never get a lead on his mother, that even the possibility had him shaky and cotton-mouthed.

“I can’t do this.”

Yelena took his arm; not unkindly, just looped her elbow through his like they walked this way all the time. “To walk is easy. Come on.”

Ginsberg was breathing hard from the first step forward, his thoughts a jangled mess of sick excitement, but after about twenty minutes of walking down the sparse, tree-lined two-lane street, when he’d spotted the street sign for Zur Nachtheide and was looking up at the actual goddamn apartment building itself—a square concrete block facing the street, whose ugly beige patios had paint peeling off the front banisters—the panic almost overwhelmed him. And then, almost in a blink, they were on the second floor, walking past real doors and flower boxes and windows trimmed with dark curtains or yellowed lace, and holy shit, it was real, he was here.

When they stopped in front of the corner unit, Yelena dropped his arm, glanced right at him like it was way past time for him to say something.

He shifted his feet, stared at the door. All you have to do is knock. Just knock, and ask the question, and you’ll know.

Fuck! Ginsberg bolted for the stairs without a word, burst out into the stairwell with an angry hiss of breath.

Yelena was right on his heels; the door swung closed behind her, making everything echo. “What the hell are you doing?”

“I can’t do this.” He paced around the narrow landing like a caged animal. “Jesus, this was stupid. Stupid idea.”

He started for the stairs. She blocked his path, one arm braced against the painted metal railing.

“Move,” he told her.

She didn’t budge. He said it again, louder this time.

“Who are you looking for?” she asked, and stepped closer. “Who lives here?”

Ginsberg wrenched his face to one side, too stunned to lie. “How did you—?”

“You dig out of the garbage for days, walking in all directions, never out of sight of Ostkreuz—”

“Jesus! I was biding my time, okay? I had shitty maps!”

Her next sentence made him shiver; her dark eyes bored into his with an expression that said to cut the bullshit. “You have a number on your arm.”

Ginsberg’s hand automatically clapped over his forearm, like she could somehow read the number through his thick jacket. His eyes were squeezed closed. “All right! Shit. I—I’m looking for my mother, and you already get why, and I’m not gonna find anything so I might as well just get the fuck out of here.”

She was quiet for a second. “It frightens you. The not-knowing.”

“Yeah, no shit it does!”

He didn’t even realize he’d switched back into English until he was in the middle of his next sentence.

“My father was so pissed off when I told him I was moving to Germany. He kept screaming at me, why, why, and I couldn’t—I just needed to, okay? He’s never gonna get it; he’s never gonna be able to tell me anything about her that’s not in the adoption papers. But I just thought—if I could see where she lived, if I could find out one tiny dumb thing about her…”

“That’s not so hard.”

Ginsberg glared at her. She shrugged, switched back to German.

“You’re here, aren’t you? That’s more than papers.”

He huffed out a sigh, scrubbed a hand over his face as he walked the two steps right toward the railing, grabbed the black-painted banister in two hands. “Yeah, well, it doesn’t mean anything. The second I knock on that door and ask some stranger if they knew some random woman twenty years ago, then I’m just a fucking moron who did this big dumb thing for no reason.”

My father’s gonna kill me if he finds out.

“You don’t think she’s alive?”

Ginsberg tightened his grip on the railing. Shook his head no.

“She had a baby in a camp before the liberations. How the fuck could she be?”

A tiny part of his idiot brain still liked picturing some big impossible reunion: a forty or fifty-something woman with a mop of unruly hair, blonde, black, red, whatever, staring back at him from the open doorway of this shitty little apartment, tired dark eyes shaped just like his, lit up with a wash of hope. It’s you. It’s you.

“Good not to expect so much.” Yelena drifted up beside him, staring out at the blank stairwell wall like they were admiring a big work of art in a museum. She patted his hand, like this was some kind of progress. “So. Still want to knock?”

“Maybe.” His heart thumped hard in his chest when he thought about running down the stairs, away from the apartment and the only goddamn piece of concrete information he’d ever had. An address in East Berlin he’d had to get from a fucking former Nazi, probably. He tried to swallow the lump in his throat. “Uh, yeah. Yes.”

“Then, we go.” She grabbed his hand, and led him back through the concrete hallway, past the apartment with all the droopy plants and the one with the lacy curtains until they were back at the corner unit.

“What do I say?” he asked weakly, careful to use German this time.

“Whatever you want,” she answered, and rapped twice on the door.

A short, stout balding man answered; rubbing sleep out of his eyes and frowning at them like they were assholes for waking him up. His bristly brown mustache took up half his face, when his mouth twitched down, you could see the corners of the mustache vibrate with the movement.

Ginsberg blurted out his question before he could turn chickenshit again. “Sorry. Did you know a Grete Kauffman? Lived here just before the war?”

Yelena was already speaking over him in rapid German. Ginsberg only caught every few words—you must forgive—my fiancé’s mother was—when he was a boy—

“I don’t know any Kauffman.” The man interrupted, prounouncing the word like it was poison, like he knew exactly why somebody with that name didn’t live here anymore. “Go away.”

He slammed the door shut in their faces.

Ginsberg was so shaky he could hardly stand up straight, but with Yelena at his side, they stumbled down the stairs and out toward the nearest street sign. After a few minutes, he realized this was the street they’d walked in on, Grüne Tilte; it would take them all the way up to the bus stop and then back to the underground.

She murmured under her breath in Russian as they walked, her elbow still linked with his, and her voice low and quiet, meant only for Ginsberg to hear. It wasn’t exactly comforting, but he was glad to have something to focus on besides the shitty feeling in the pit of his stomach, even if he couldn’t understand the words.

           

**

 

“I don’t know what you want me to say.” Standing in the middle of the drab waiting room, Gail folded her arms over her chest. The fluorescent lights hanging overhead made her face look drawn and haggard. Her short-sleeved blouse and her trousers were wrinkled; she’d clearly been sleeping in those clothes since Lane brought the suitcases over. “Nothing’s changed. She's still unconscious.”

Lane knew he didn’t look any better: unshowered, unshaven, with one side of his shirt untucked and four brown drops of blood still spotting the front panels. But he tried to seem unsurprised by this news. “Of course. That—everything being what it was—the recovery must be so—she needs the sleep, she—”

“Stop it,” Gail said tersely.

He fell silent, wrenched his gaze to the ground. “Sorry.”

“I don’t want pity,” she said in a matter-of-fact way. “I want my daughter to wake up. I want my grandson to see his mother. And I want my son-in-law…” she trailed off with an amused huff, one corner of her mouth twitching up. “Well. God knows what I want there.”

Probably for the man to jump off the roof, Lane thought sourly.

“What can I do?” he asked instead.

She scoffed. “Go home. Nothing else for you to do until she wakes up.”

He recoiled from the idea. No, he couldn’t work, he couldn’t eat; if he wasn’t here and he wasn’t keeping busy, what the bloody hell was he supposed to do? Sit in his flat and stare at the walls? He certainly didn’t want to be left alone to think about all of this; it just made him imagine the worst. What if there were more complications? What if she didn’t wake up?

“Please. Can’t I see her?”

“Greg’s there now,” Gail said simply.

Which was answer enough. Oh, god. Perhaps he really would have to go home. He couldn’t even sit in the waiting room for very long, because what if Susie or the Colonel or some other person walked in, saw him, and asked Dr. Harris why the English chap from Joan’s work persisted in hanging about all the time?

“Erm. Will you—could you possibly—give her something for me?”

Gail watched him with narrowed eyes, but she didn’t say anything. Lane’s fingers traced over the bunched-up silk fabric in his jacket pocket for the last time before he produced the scarf, offered it up from an open palm.

“When we,” he felt so stupid saying this aloud, “went to the house, this scarf was hanging on the door. Her favorite. Forgot to put it in the bag, but I just thought, perhaps if someone gave it to her, then—then she would feel instinctively that she had it. And that perhaps it would, erm, remind her of home.”

It smells like her perfume, he couldn’t say. Like the most beautiful garden: sweet and earthy and full of color and life. Perhaps she’ll touch it and remember the sun on her face or the rain on her skin or the chill of a crisp fall air. And she’ll wake up. And she’ll be better again.

“Probably stupid, but there you are.”

He gave Gail the best smile he could manage as he dropped the scarf into her outstretched hand, but she didn’t smile back, just rolled her eyes and snorted out a breath through her nose, as if she had no idea why he was behaving so strangely.

“What the hell is going on with you two, anyway?”

Lane was startled into silence, and could not answer.

She did not let up. “Are you sleeping together?”

“No!” He covered his eyes with his hands; scarlet blazed in his cheeks as he choked out the words. “No. We—we haven’t—everything’s—proper between us. You have my word.”

“But you don't want proper. You want her.”

Humiliation bowled over him in a wave. Lane wanted to sink through the shabby carpeted floor. His heart beat a frantic tattoo against his ribs as he croaked out an answer. “Yes.”

When he looked up again, she was gaping at him like he was the stupidest person in the world.

“Good god. I don’t understand either one of you.”

Surely Gail couldn’t mean she was unhappy about this? “What?”

“You’re an idiot,” she elaborated flatly.

“Ah.” Disapproval was easy to stomach; it slipped down easily compared to the sheer terror he’d felt all weekend. And it was not the first time he’d been called stupid by someone’s mother. Lane wished Joan was here, if only to call out the humor in this situation. She always managed to make the strangest things amusing. Mom says a lot of things. Don’t let it bother you. “Well. I’ll just—”

Go, he didn’t say, and gestured weakly at the door before giving Gail a half-hearted wave goodbye, and slouching out into the lobby.

Tomorrow. Joan would finally wake, and feel better than before, and he’d get to see her, and everything would be all right.

Even as he repeated this over and over under his breath on the way down to the lobby, he wasn’t quite sure that he believed it.

 

**

 

If it wasn’t for Yelena’s arm looped through his, Ginsberg was pretty sure he’d be facedown in a ditch by now. At first, he’d been too out of it to put one foot in front of the other, let alone get from Köpernick back to someplace vaguely familiar. But now it seemed like Yelena was taking them pretty far out from the city center. He didn’t recognize any of the turns, and he kept tripping over the uneven cobblestones.

She tensed, and hissed out a word under her breath as they took another sharp corner, right this time. “Pizdyet!”

That word wasn’t good. “What’s going on?”

“We are being followed.”

He forced himself not to turn around. Could be KGB, could be Stasi, but either way, he was screwed. “Scheisse.”

She lengthened her stride, but they didn’t start sprinting; it probably looked like they were just trying to get home on time for dinner or something.

“You’ll have to trust me,” she said in a low voice, as they passed a red billboard Ginsberg couldn’t read. He thought it was advertising some kind of work program, based on the way the men in silhouette were positioned. “Can you do that?”

“Y-yeah.” He was already spooked; a solid lead lump had formed in his stomach. “Uh. You sure you can lose them?”

When she spoke, her voice was hard, but confident, and that alone made him feel a hell of a lot better. “One hundred percent.” She dropped his arm, and grabbed his hand instead. “Now, the moment I say run, we run, and we don’t stop until it’s safe, and they are gone. Ponimayete?

“Wait, what?” he sputtered.

She didn’t explain it to him again, just took the next left and yanked hard on his hand, as if trying to pull him out of bed. “Run.”

Chapter Text

“Okay, where the fuck are we?”

Ginsberg’s voice echoed down the empty underground tunnel in a creepy distorted groan, are we are we are we. Stuck in the dark with two flashlights to guide them, a halfpipe of musty, damp concrete surrounded them as they walked down a set of rusted, ancient-looking train tracks, set in a deep wooden bed with old gravel lining the ditches. Didn’t even have a third rail. His hands shook like he had palsy and his heart was trying to beat out of his goddamn chest.

Yelena didn’t even seem fazed. She balanced deftly on one of the rails as she walked, casually swinging a flashlight that was gripped in one hand, as if they hadn’t been sprinting through the streets less than a couple hours ago.

“Underground.”

“Real funny. I’m asking a serious question.”

“And I give serious answer. Stop talking. We are almost there.”

“Almost—” Ginsberg noticed a blinking light far in the distance, and stumbled to a stop. “Wh—what is that?”

Yelena didn’t answer, just raised her arm until the flashlight was pointing out level with her shoulder. She flicked it on and off, quickly, four times, then on and off, once, slowly. Ginsberg watched as the light blinked the same pattern back to her. This happened three more times, but the pattern was never the same.

Who the hell was down there?

“Burns all night at the end of your dock,” he muttered to himself as she lowered her arm, the flashlight beam pointing down into nasty gravel.

She just gave him a puzzled look, and hopped off the rail.

“Come on.”

He followed.

A huge, blinding beam of light hit them straight in the face once they got within twenty feet of the signal; Ginsberg threw one forearm across his eyes with a yelp, but just as quickly, the light disappeared, and all he was left with were dancing spots behind his eyelids.

Next thing he knew, he heard a man’s voice, deep baritone.

“Ms. Stachel.”

“Mister Thorne.” Yelena sounded like she was smiling. “You look good.”

Hey! Ginsberg lowered his arm, and wrenched his eyes open to give her shit for being cutesy to some random guy, but when he met the gaze of the royal-looking black man in front of them, he thought better of it. Even in a military-style jacket, a turtleneck and dark jeans, her friend did look good. He was taller than anybody Ginsberg had ever met – over six feet at least, and bald as could be, with a real expressive face: a broad brow and nose, a jawline that looked like it could cut glass, and inky brown eyes, narrowed in suspicion.

Ginsberg sputtered out a weak hello as they stared at each other.

“How—how’s it goin’?”

Royal raised an eyebrow, but didn’t answer. When the guy finally spoke, Ginsberg was floored; the man’s Cockney accent made him sound like a chimney sweep or a flower seller, right off the set of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

“Fink you ought to stop going for the strays,” he told Yelena.

“Hey!”

“Don’t be silly. He’s not a stray.” Yelena winked at Ginsberg, who scowled at her, and then glanced over at Royal again. “Did they clear it?”

“They cleared it.” Royal gave Ginsberg a glare that said it meant him. “But they didn’t like it.”

Without speaking, Royal stepped toward the brick tunnel wall and knocked on the center of a worn metal door that was set into the concrete, just a couple of feet to their right. He rapped on the center of the door with one fist, using a similar repeating pattern as before—Ginsberg recognized the click click click of the fast cadence, although he still had no idea what it meant.

As Royal lowered his hand, the door creaked open to reveal two weedy-looking blonde guys in dark suits, silhouetted by a shock of fluorescent lights that were hanging in the hallway above them. It looked like the inside of an office warehouse, or maybe a public school building: white-painted cinderblocks and dark tiled floors framed out by a plain drop-in tile ceiling.

“You’re late,” one of the weedy guys said, in a clipped English accent that was somehow even more stuck-up than Lane’s.

Yelena pushed in front of Ginsberg with a snort. “Well, I see himself couldn’t be bothered to say hello.”

They started walking down the brightly-lit hallway, without even a backwards glance. Ginsberg looked around, caught Royal’s incredulous stare. Shit. He was probably supposed to follow them in.

“Uh. Well, see ya,” he muttered.

Royal just barked out a laugh. “Better not, Westberliner.”

Ginsberg slipped inside and quickly caught up to Yelena and the two suits. The guys didn’t even talk, barely even breathed, just wound them through a series of dimly-lit, plain-looking hallways whose only interesting feature were a series of solid mahogany doors that spanned from floor to ceiling, without even a crack of light at the bottom. Every doorway looked the same; right down to the color and texture of the wood, or the placement of the doorknobs. Even the spacing between the doors looked the same. It was eerie. He suppressed a shiver.

They turned one last corner, and stopped in front of the nearest doorway. Suit #1 produced a key from his pocket, inserted it into the lock, and opened the mahogany door, then swept through it, with Yelena, Ginsberg, and Suit #2 right on their heels.

The sudden change in design was so jarring it made Ginsberg stumble back a step, almost into everybody behind him.

It looked like a hotel room. Against the wall they faced, two twin beds with yellow cotton blankets were made up real neatly, hospital corners and everything. They bookended a small bedside table that held a lamp, a telephone, and an old wireless. To the left of the beds, a plain dresser faced out, with a mirror mounted on the wall above it. Ginsberg turned around and peeked over his shoulder, glimpsed a sink and maybe a toilet through the half-open door.

“You’ll stay here until it’s time,” Suit Number One told Yelena. The sneer on his face made it look like he’d smelled something really nasty. “Keep at the ready.”

“Of course.” Yelena said sharply. Her eyes darted over the two suits, as if she was waiting for them to come up with something better to say. “Anything else you’d like to say, since we’re stating the obvious?”

“Gypsy bitch,” Suit Two hissed under his breath.

Ginsberg whirled to face the guy, ready to punch his tweedy little lights out – or at least try – but Yelena gripped him by the bicep before he could take more than a step, essentially holding him in place. And then it was too late—the suits were already out the door and locking it behind them.

“Why'd you stop me?” Ginsberg hissed, the second the footsteps outside the front door had faded. “What the hell is this place? Why’d you bring me here?”

Yelena walked over to the bedside table separating the small twin beds, and reached out for the wireless with a face like a cathedral window. She turned the center knob; the radio clicked on with a burst of static.

“It’s safe. That’s all you need to know.”

“The fuck it is! Who were those guys? Why’d you let ‘em talk to you like that?”

“You’ll be leaving soon. What does it matter, as long as you go home?”

“’Scuse me?” Ginsberg folded his arms across his chest, and then uncrossed them. “You drag me around half the city, and now all you have to say is shut up and don’t ask questions?”

“I didn’t say shut up. I said you should expect to leave soon. There's a difference.”

She turned up the radio again. Old-fashioned jazz now played so loudly in the small room it could have drowned out a low-flying plane. The blare of horns and woodwinds set Ginsberg’s teeth on edge.

“Cut that out! I’m trying to talk to you, here!”

“Well, I’m trying to shower,” Yelena said coldly. She snatched up a thin dingy towel from the end of one of the twin beds. “Do whatever you want.”

Ginsberg scoffed as she reached out and turned the radio up again before pushing past him, towards the little bathroom. His first thought was to pitch the wireless straight into the fucking wall, and then he wanted to follow her right into the john, so she couldn’t even shower until she talked to him. And yeah, so it wasn’t exactly polite, but she’d seen him almost naked! Turnabout was fair play.

“Fine! Fair’s fair. I guess I get to make you feel weird for a change.”

She just rolled her eyes. “Oh, so you want to look at me now?”

“What? No!” Ginsberg yelped, even as Yelena waltzed straight through the open doorway into the bathroom. He followed, desperate to make her get it. “This is not about—the thing you think it’s about, all right?”

He slammed the door closed behind them as they entered the bathroom. Everything was blue and white in here, from the tub to the fixtures, and it was pretty cramped, barely big enough for two people. The tub and shower were separated from the chipped pedestal sink by nothing more than a pull-chain toilet and a prayer.

Yelena turned on one of the taps on the sink, ran her hand under what had to be cold water, and then shucked her blouse over her head without another word.

“Jesus Christ!” Ginsberg clapped one hand over his eyes, just as he got a glimpse of her white cotton brassiere. “Quit trying to distract me!”

“No one’s forcing you to watch.”

Ginsberg peeked through his fingers and saw Yelena was standing there wearing only a pair of dark panties, humming to herself as she picked up a bone-dry bar of soap from the lip of the sink.

“You know damn well I’m trying to have a conversation here!” Was she doing this on purpose? “Why are you ignoring me?”

“I’m not,” she snapped. “You should be grateful.”

She crossed the room, stepped into the tub, and twisted the knob above the faucet and the two taps to turn on the showerhead. The pipe squealed like a son of a bitch before water sputtered out of it, erratic at first, and then hard and steady, like a driving rain.

“Grateful? You act like you want to hear about me, about my life, and then the second it’s not convenient for you—the second you want to look good in front of your fucking fancy suits—you bail! Some favor that is!”

She turned the knob for hot water so viciously it squeaked with every quarter turn. “Has it ever occurred to you that when you scream things in the middle of a room, I’m not the only one who gets to hear them? Maybe I’m trying to make sure you don’t get yourself killed in the next ten minutes!”

Somewhere in the wall, the pipes squealed and shuddered for a long moment before the water pressure evened out, and the temperature warmed. Steam rose in waves inside the cramped room.

“What do you—you mean people are—could somebody listen to us?”

She made a face at him that said no shit, genius, and peeled off her wet panties, tossing them towards the center of the room and grinning when they landed right at his feet with a wet smack.

He thought about the mirror in the other room. “Can they see us?”

“Not in here.”

The music. The water. She was trying to drown out their conversation in order to keep it private.

All of Ginsberg’s pent-up anger deflated like an old balloon. He glanced away from her, quick, before she could get the wrong idea.

“Oh.”

I thought you were ignoring me.

“Plus, I did want to wash,” she said cheerfully. Ginsberg glanced back at her as she began to rub the bar of soap between her hands, and worked up a good lather. His eyes tracked the movement of her fingers through the suds, the motions of her hands slick and confident as she traced the lean, strong contours of her shoulders.

“Wait, I can’t talk to you when—Yelena, come on.”

“Why talk? What would it help?” Yelena sluiced the soap from her upper arms, closing her eyes as she tipped her head back against the spray of hot water. “You’re still welcome to join me, you know.”

“Stop. Look, you don’t have to—I get it, all right?”

“Michael.” Her voice was so soft it made him dizzy. “Come here.”

He walked towards the tub, half-dazed, until he was standing under the shower spray with all his clothes on, staring down at her through the blur of water running down his face and neck and shoulders as she took his face between both her hands.

“They’ll take you home soon, babechka. You must be ready.”

“What’s happening? How will they take me?”

“I don’t know.” She pushed a lock of hair off his forehead. “The result is what matters. They get you across the wall, and you’ll go back to your writing, and your art, and your family. Like you’re meant to.”

Ginsberg swallowed as she stepped closer. Those jumpsuits and big bulky jackets made her look skinny as a rail, but standing this close to her, feeling his pulse jump under his skin, he saw the the gentle curves of her small, pert breasts as rivulets of hot water rained down on them, saw the soft swell of her hips and belly and thighs in the dim light.

“Feel. Touch.” She guided one of his hands to her waist. “It’s okay.”

“Is this cause you feel sorry for me?” he whispered.

“No.” Yelena ducked her head, and for a second he saw a flicker of deep sadness in her face, like she was going to cry. But all she did was pull her hand away from his, and bite her bottom lip before speaking again. “Don’t you want to say goodbye?”

He licked his lips, swallowed hard at the thought of not seeing her again. Did this mean she wasn’t going to come with him, when he left to go back across the border? Was he going to have to walk out of this room and into some truck or car or van that would smuggle him away, forever?

“I don’t know how.”

She didn’t ask questions, but Ginsberg knew she got the gist, because without another word, she helped him take off his jacket, pushing it off his shoulders so it landed outside the tub in a wet lump.

As her hands skated deftly over his chest and stomach, he got hard, and his eyes fluttered closed. Yelena didn’t hesitate; she undid his buttons, his belt, any piece of his clothing that she could reach, and when he was standing in front of her in nothing more than his briefs, he was so turned on he could hardly breathe. The second she leaned forward again to kiss him, he gasped, his mouth fell open against hers, and pretty soon she had him pressed up against the wall. Even through the shower curtain, the concrete was frigid against his bare skin.

“Oh, god,” he hissed as she got a hand around him and started to jerk him off. “Yelena, please, I—”

“Shhhh.” She nipped across his neck; Ginsberg let out a whimper when her teeth worried over the shell of his ear. “I’ve got you, Michael.”

She stroked him until he was practically drinking air. He sucked in breath after breath as her hand moved faster. His legs started trembling when he got close, and when he came, he thought he might pass out; he buried his face in the curve of her damp neck with a loud groan.

Steam curled around their bodies and drops of water mixed with sweat kept falling into Ginsberg’s eyes as he rinsed off under the spray of warm water, but all he could see was Yelena, smirking like an idiot as she taught him where to touch and pinch and bite and kiss to make her feel good.

He bit and sucked at her breasts until she whined and curled her fingers in his hair; after a few minutes, he stopped doing that just to kiss her again, so she could show him how to use his tongue the way he’d liked, before.

“Come on, Westberliner,” she panted as he got her on the floor of the tub, one hand sliding between her legs in search of the spot that had driven her crazy a little while ago. Her fingers circled his wrist, showing him what she wanted, one finger rubbing the side of his arm in a soft circular motion.

“Just for that, I’m gonna stop,” Ginsberg whispered. He tried to pretend he was upset, but when his fingers slid up over her slick little nub, and Yelena sucked in a sharp breath, he grinned so big his smile practically split his face. “Unless you need me to hang around.”

“So go.” Her voice was hoarse. Her hips bucked up into his hand. “Blyad.”

“Okay.”

He pulled his hand away, but she gripped his arm with a moan.

“Babechka.”

She grabbed his hips to pull him closer, and once he had her in his arms – was actually inside her, using all his strength to press her up against the side of the tub as they moved together – Ginsberg was completely delirious, focused on getting her there again. All he could think about was how tight and hot her cunt was, how much he wanted to make her come.

This time around, his body had no idea whether it wanted to shut down or finish up; when he finally came it was in these wrenching, awful waves that shook him to the gut, made him shudder and whimper and whine against her, legs shaking like a newborn colt. Pinned under him, Yelena arched against the slick porcelain as she rode him to the end, her thighs trembling against his twitching stomach as her hands scrabbled for purchase.

“You’ll want to rest, after this,” she warned him afterwards, casting him a no-nonsense look as they washed off for real under a shock of cold water. “Perhaps eat, if you can.”

As Ginsberg handed her the bar of soap, his good mood ebbed a little. “Jesus. That soon, huh?”

“Mm hm.”

“How’re they gonna do it? Get me over, I mean.”

“Hmph.” She threaded the soap through her hair, scrubbed viciously at her scalp with her fingertips for a few seconds, and then rinsed out the suds, tipping her head back against the spray and closing her eyes as she threaded her fingers through clean hair. “Well, I know the way I would choose, but maybe they take you without me.”

“Shit.” His stomach dropped. “You won’t even be there?”

“Either way, you go,” she said stiffly, and cut off the hot water, slipping past him and out of the tub.

He realized this meant they were pretty much done talking. “Yeah. I mean, I’m not gonna fuck it up on purpose. I just—wish things were different. You know?”

Yelena’s mouth twitched down, but she didn’t answer, just blinked at him for a couple more seconds before gesturing to the running water. With a sigh, Ginsberg reached over, and twisted the knob to the right until the shower spray faded into a slow drip against the shallow pool of icy water at their feet.

Plip. Plip. Plip.

**

 

The creak of the thin mattress and the sudden rustling of bedsheets made Gail sit up in alarm. Wincing at the painful twinge in her lower back, she peered through the dim hospital room toward her daughter’s railed bed.

“Joanie?”

Damn it. A closer look revealed Joan hadn’t woken up, just shifted a little. Her left hand was up by her face instead of hanging limp at her side, and she’d bent one of her legs; her foot was now sticking out of the tangle of blankets. Gail got up and walked over anyway. Standing by the bed was easier than sitting around.

“There you go. You’re okay,” she said, rubbing the top of her daughter’s hand in a reassuring way, pretending Joanie could hear her. “Least you’re not plugged up to those damn tubes anymore.”

Nothing. She didn’t move.

Gail kept talking. Her hands smoothed the wrinkled hospital gown back into place around the shoulders, pushed wispy flyaway curls away from Joan’s clammy temples and forehead, and readjusted the blankets so they were covering her daughter’s feet. Those toes felt like icicles. Gail made a mental note to ask the nurses about that; maybe the desk had another blanket they could bring in.

“God knows where your husband is. Not that anyone cares.”

Silence.

It was easier when she had just come out of surgery, Gail thought with a sigh. At least then she could change bandages, keep track of medicines, or wash the grime from Joanie’s hands and face the way she’d done a million times before.

Her thoughts drifted back to the first night Joan was in the hospital, and to that weird little Englishman. On a normal day, Joanie would’ve smacked Lane Pryce in the head before letting him see her in that condition. And the idiot had just waltzed in and tried to mop blood off her neck!

Gail laughed out loud before she had time to think.

“Your friend’s an odd duck.” The laugh didn’t last. She huffed out another big sigh; it fizzled through the air in the dark. “I don’t know what you’re doing there.”

The man was clearly lovesick, as plain as the nose on his face. And it seemed to run much deeper than she’d thought. Gail wasn’t a fool. She’d noticed the moon-faced look Lane had worn before he even went into that hospital room, and heard how gently he’d talked to Joanie when he thought no one was listening. Hell, the ten minutes he spent in there was more intimate than anything Gail had witnessed between Greg and Joan in the seven years those two had been married. If Joanie wasn’t sleeping with the man already, it was only a matter of time.

Anyone could notice the pattern clear as day, if they bothered to look.

And she sure as hell hadn’t forgotten the way Joan had begged to see him, either; Joanie had been half-hysterical from the pain, sobbing out frantic instructions while Greg was off screaming at the doctors.

Mom, please find Lane, please get him, I need him, I have to tell him—

Gail steeled her jaw, and let out another deep breath. Relax. You have to relax. She’s gonna be fine.

“All right, baby.” She hadn’t called Joan baby in over twenty years; the last time was when Joanie’d called home sobbing over stupid little Scotty, right before filing for the annulment. God, Gail hadn’t thought about that moron in ages, either. “Come on. Time to wake up.”

Joanie didn’t even flinch.

Gail shut her eyes, forced herself to talk around the lump in her throat as she brushed a wisp of hair away from her daughter’s brow. “We’ll do whatever you need” —bed rest, wrangling Kevin, babying that goddamn asshole husband— “okay? Just open your eyes, baby. That’s all I ask.”

 

24 HOURS LATER

 

Charlottenstraße thirteen Charlottenstraße thirteen Charlottenstraße thirteen

CRACK!

From his place in a nearby alley, Ginsberg heard rather than saw the release of the zip line that was gonna carry him back over the wall, and yanked his head up to stare at the sky, as if he could see the black cable unfurling through the dark. The suits hadn’t said who was firing it over to the other side, or when. All Yelena had told him was that all kinds of silent alarms got triggered by a crossing.

“You wait for the signal, then you run,” was the last thing she told Ginsberg after they’d outlined the plan, hissing it into his ear as two completely different guys led him toward an idling car. “Don’t look back.”

A car drove past, as if someone was just headed home late; Ginsberg didn’t need the dim streetlight to see the spray-painted symbol on the passenger door.

Time to go.

He glanced left, edged cautiously out of the shadow of the building and onto the sidewalk, and saw a dark-haired stranger standing ten feet away, staring at him, poised like he was about to jump the first person who crossed him.

Fuck!

Ginsberg ran.

Charlottenstraße thirteen Charlottenstraße thirteen Charlottenstraße thirteen

Someone was yelling. Ginsberg barreled down the street until he hit thirteen, then made a hard right into the alley and up the fire escape with his legs burning and his lungs searing. Grabbed the duffel bag that was waiting for him, climbed to the edge of the rooftop. Made the harness.

For half a second, he stood crouched on the flattest part of the roof, strung up to the line with his length of rope wrapped around one hand. Then, before he could second-guess this suicidal plan, he sprinted as fast as he could toward the edge, like he was running straight toward the bright strip of land beyond the wall.

The breeze ruffled around him as he leapt out into nothing and fell, weightless, into the dark sky.

As the line caught his weight, the makeshift harness cinched around his waist and legs so tight it almost cut off his circulation. But he zipped down and out over the dead zone like it was nothing, like nobody on the ground had even seen him. The bastards on the rooftop had, obviously, and so had the guards in the watchtowers, but even as a couple of enormous round floodlights turned towards him, as men yelled and guns swung up in his direction, it was too late for them to stop him.

Holy shit. It might actually work. Ginsberg counted the seconds in his head as he sped further away. Three. Two. One.

He passed over the western part of the wall. He was over the barbed wire. On the dark streets below, guys in beige uniforms were screaming in English, pouring out of one of the checkpoints. A crisscross of tiny flashlight beams pointed up at his rig.

Ginsberg sagged against the crude harness with a breath of relief.

The line broke with a sudden crack! Panicked, he pitched toward the ground face-first, and stretched his hands out to catch his fall. Something snapped in his left wrist as he landed, making him howl, and as he rolled onto his side, groaning in pain and fumbling one-handed for the caribiner so he could unhook himself, the metal sizzled against his palm.

“Ow! Jesus!”

Footsteps thundered against cobblestones. Ginsberg pulled out his penknife from his jacket pocket, and sawed frantically at a tiny piece of the braid above one knot until it all unraveled.

He staggered to his feet, shucked off the rest of the useless harness, and started running again, weaving left like a drunken sailor as he staggered forward. It wasn’t much of a run, more of a fast limp, but his heart was beating so rapidly it was like he was sprinting again.

With a hiss of pain, he shuffled into the nearest side street. But he was too slow; boots were already clomping loud behind him as he ran. Maybe thirty seconds after disappearing from the middle of the street, he turned a corner and almost fell into six uniformed men with their handguns up and pointed at his face.

“Freeze!”

“Don’t shoot! I’m American! I’m American!” Oh, god, he was getting real dizzy. “I got—my papers right—”

He was falling sideways before he could even finish the sentence.

 

**

 

The nurses had begun to stare at him whenever he walked onto the floor.

Lane hated their pity and their obvious sidelong looks, but he just tried to ignore the stares. He marched past the desk and straight down to the waiting room, as was his usual custom. Left at the first corridor, and then down the hall toward four oh eight. The door was open; perhaps he could just look in, catch Gail’s attention. How is Joan today? Did she wake? Did she eat? Even a moment of alertness would be all right—

“Greg.” A strained voice, rough with disuse, made Lane stop in his tracks just before the doorway. One hand fumbled against the wall for balance as his knees wobbled under him. “These must have cost a fortune. They’re too much.”

“The hell they are!” Dr. Harris seemed chipper. “Go ahead, babe, put one in your hair.”

Lane peeked through the wide crack between the open door and the hinges, only to see Joan’s husband pluck a lush red rose from a dark wicker basket the size of a soup pot. It was sitting at the rolling table at the end of Joan’s bed.

Joan herself was sitting up in bed against her pillows, so pale and thin, practically ghostly, but she accepted the rose from her husband with a steady hand. A shy little smile had formed on her face. As she touched the full petals with her fingertips, she caressed each one with such care, like it was so surprising for anyone to have thought of her. Like everything up till this point had been a bad dream. Oh, and she was clearly delighted by such a tiny pleasure. She brought the flower up to her nose and closed her eyes as she inhaled.

“Mm. They really are beautiful.”

And she was wearing the blue scarf in her hair; Lane stumbled back from the door at the sudden realization, overcome nearly to the point of tears. He pressed his hand over his mouth in order to keep himself from crying or possibly breathing too loudly and alerting everyone to his presence.

You don’t belong here. You don’t belong here.

His feet had already begun moving long before Lane decided where he wanted to go; by the time he knew where he was walking he’d stalked past several doors and rounded a far corner into another wing of the hospital.

Further down this corridor, another patient was shouting. His Brooklyn accent grated on Lane’s nerves in a very familiar way.

“No, hey! Stop trying to knock me out, all I got is a broken—holy shit. Lane?”

Oh, my god.

Lane stopped in his tracks. Slowly, he walked backwards until he could look into the room he’d just passed.

Ginsberg stared up at him from a messy hospital bed. The lad looked absolutely awful. One of his arms was encased in a plaster cast up to the elbow, set close to his body with a sling, and the other hand was bandaged up with gauze and tape, as if it had been cut or burnt somehow. His arms and legs were peppered with ugly blue-black bruises. His hair and face was showered in dust. A matronly nurse stood next to his bed with an open chart in her hands, clearly fuming.

“I can’t believe you’re here. They said they called you,” Ginsberg stared at Lane with his mouth hanging open. “Jesus. You look awful.”

Lane’s mouth opened and closed. He wanted to scream. Where the bloody hell have you been? He wanted to warn him off. One more stunt like that, and you’re through! God, he even wanted to go over and cuff the boy on the shoulder, as if Michael were a friend, or a brother, or god forbid, his son. I’m so glad you’re safe.

“Listen, I can explain,” Ginsberg had clearly noticed the twitch in Lane’s face, and had probably assumed it was anger. “I didn’t mean to be gone so long, it just—”

“I don’t care what you bloody well meant! We were worried sick!” Lane ran a hand across his trembling mouth in the silence that followed his shout. He wouldn’t lose his composure. Not here, not in front of the boy. But before he could control himself, he was shouting again. “Now you call your father, this instant!”

The nurse gave Lane a smug look, like she had wanted to do this all along. Ginsberg just seemed shocked; his eyes were the size of saucers and his voice came out very small.

“Did—did you tell Pop what happened?”

Lane didn’t even trust himself to answer, just stormed away with his jaw clenched in order to keep calm. He barely heard Ginsberg yelling after him. He didn’t stop walking until he was alone in his office, at which point he fumbled a rocks glass off the drinks cart, and slung back two or three measures of gin, swiping clumsily at his welling eyes and runny nose. Joan was awake and Ginsberg was back. They were both alive. They were safe.

After taking one last dram, he reached for the phone, clicked the button for his private line, and dialed a number he knew by heart. By the time the call was ringing through, he was covering his mouth, trying to keep from howling.

A deep baritone voice answered. “Hello?”

Lane choked on a sob, clutched at the phone. “Joan nearly died.”

“Good god. Lane?”

“She got ill, and I told her to go home and rest, but she didn’t, a-and her—her appendix b-burst.” Lane’s sniveling was completely pathetic, but he couldn’t hold it in any longer. “And she’s been in hospital for days, now, and when I saw her she was in such pain, she was crying from it, and she couldn’t breathe and I—I—”

“Hang on. This is your ladyfriend. The one you work with?”

Lane sniffed, made a noise that meant yes.

“I saw the car they drove her in—there was blood all over the backseat, and—” his throat tightened again. “God, I should have been there. I could have done something—”

“What on earth could you have done?”

“—and now she’s awake, and I have to see her, b-but her husband bought her these ridiculous flowers, and he’s always in the room, a-and I don’t know why they’re still together if she knows he’s a goddamned cheat—”

“Joan’s got a husband?” said a faint male voice on Lewis’s end of the line.

“Obviously,” Lewis snapped. “Keep up!”

“And I lo—I love her. Christ. Lewis, I don’t know w-what to do,” Lane covered his eyes with his other hand, started crying in earnest, hunched over in his chair. “What do I do?”

“Oh, this is pitiful,” mumbled the distant voice.

“Quiet!” Lewis snapped, tone slightly muffled. It sounded as if he were covering the mouthpiece; his voice became louder and a little less sharp once he spoke again. “Now, look here, little brother. Dry your eyes. Your Joan’s on the mend now, isn’t she?”

Lane pressed a shaking hand to his mouth, and squeezed his eyes shut against the hot tears that kept spilling out. “Yeah.”

“Good.” Lewis exhaled a deep sigh. “Now then. Start from the beginning, and tell me precisely what happened.”

Chapter Text

“You know, I don’t like this jello.” Ginsberg scooped two big bites into his mouth, and talked around it as he chewed, voice muffled. He was hunched over in his chair, cradling the cup awkwardly between his plaster cast and his stomach. “Yellow kind’s nasty.”

Joan stuck her spoon into her own cup, determined to eat a little more. It was slow work, but she didn’t feel like she was going to pass out every time she lifted her head up from the pillow. “Well, try the red.”

“Kay.” He swallowed, and then stared at her, expectant.

“I meant get your own.”

Ginsberg just snorted. They ate in peaceful silence until he cleared his throat again; his voice was more subdued when he spoke.

“Lane’s still mad at me.”

Joan didn’t say anything.

“I mean, he told Pop that I just wandered off, but that’s the only real good thing he did, you know? Guy didn’t even stay for ten seconds! No ‘hey, great to see you’ or ‘glad you made it back.’ He doesn’t even give a shit. It was just screaming, and then nothing.”

She scooped up another bite. Red gelatin squelched and jiggled as she gathered it onto her spoon, the brittle bowl slowly scraping over concave plastic. “You should talk to him.”

“Why? He yelled at me!”

“Well, he was worried.” Joan gave him a disappointed look, like Ginsberg should have figured this out on his own. “He looked everywhere for you.”

“Don’t tell me that again.” Ginsberg pulled a face. “If he’s so concerned, he can come talk to me himself.”

“How did you even stay alive over there?” She sliced off another thin ribbon of red from her jello cup; it was almost empty now.

“You know, people keep asking me that.”

She lifted her spoon in a sort of shrug. “Well, it’s a relevant question.”

“How does anyone stay alive when they do something stupid? Mostly—I mean, it was luck, you know?”

“Well, I assume you had help.”

“You assume right.” Ginsberg tossed his half-eaten cup into a nearby trashcan. “And that’s all the useful information I’ve got. Even the Army gave up asking after three days, so don’t bother trying.”

“Why? Were they tired of following every mysterious man in a trenchcoat?” Joan’s teasing smile widened, but when Ginsberg didn’t say anything, she gave him a quizzical look, her brow furrowing down. “Was it a man?”

“What?” His eyes bugged out, and he seemed to choke on the next word. “Ob—obviously. I told ‘em everything.” A hacking cough; his voice became strained. “Big guy. Real tall. Deep voice.”

A devious grin spread across Joan’s face as she set her cup aside. “What did she look like?”

“Will you shut up already?” Ginsberg hissed, glancing toward the open door. “You’re gonna get us both stuck here.”

She laughed, and then groaned as an unpleasant tug of pain spread up her side, and put a palm to her stomach, just above the bandages.

His voice turned low, serious. “You okay?”

“Yes.” She forced a smile. “It’s the stitches. They’re tight.”

“How many was it, again?”

Joan made an irritated noise. “Thirty one.”

“Jeeza marie.”

“Let’s change the subject.” She tried to toss the empty jello cup onto the bedside table. It hit the lip of the drawer and clattered into the floor with the plastic spoon, which sailed under her bed. “Damn it.”

Ginsberg was already on his feet, adjusting his sling as he knelt down next to the bed. “Here, I got it.”

He grabbed the plastic cup and reached under the bed to get the spoon, accidentally knocking into the bottom of the railing on the way up and almost falling on his backside to compensate for the hit.

Joan tried and failed to hide a laugh behind her hand. “Don’t you have anything better to do than sit around here and injure yourself?”

“Still haven’t let me out.” Ginsberg flapped the elbow of the arm that was trapped in a sling. “Gotta go through one last round of tests or something, make sure my head’s on straight. Why? You trying to kick me out?”

She shrugged. “If you’re stuck here, you might as well stay.”

“Jeez. Don’t act so grateful.” He flopped down into the visitor’s chair with a groan. “Next time the jello lady comes by, I’m giving you the yellow one.”

           

**

           

“Mr. Pryce?” Katya sounded very put-upon, even through the crackling intercom. “Your manicurist says she doesn’t have any openings until next week.”

“What?” Lane snatched up the receiver. “No, that is completely unacceptable! This appointment has been put off twice—”

“I understand.”

“—and I absolutely will not be put off a third time! My cuticles are absolutely wretched!”

“Well, I don’t know what you want me to—oh, just a moment.” Katya disconnected the speaker, and assumed a brighter voice. Must be a walk-in. “Hello, how are you?”

Lane huffed out an annoyed breath, but he barely had time to hang up the extension before Katya entered the room, an apologetic grimace on her face as she announced the visitor in question.

“Mr. Harris is here to see you.”

Lane blinked at her, startled. “What?”

Before she could answer, a dark-haired man dressed in full khakis and a green greatcoat peeked around the doorway with a wave. The neat uniform accented his lean, fit frame, and he carried the insignia on his chest with clear pride.

“Hey. She means Dr. Harris.”

“Oh.” Lane tried not to stammer. “Yes, I see. Hello.”

“Will you need anything else?” Katya asked.

Lane waved his secretary off with one hand, shaking his head no.

Dr. Harris gave her a wide smile. “Think we’re good, honey. Thanks.”

Lane couldn’t help thinking of the lascivious photographs he’d seen in Joan’s desk; a spike of hatred coursed through his chest as the doctor’s expression turned fiendish. He probably lusted after every pretty girl within twenty miles of city centre.

“She’s cute, huh?” the doctor asked after the door closed.

Lane shrugged. At this particular moment, he probably couldn’t have picked out a handsome feature about the woman to save his life. “She’s only my secretary.”

They stared at each other for a few seconds before Dr. Harris gestured towards the chairs.

“Mind if I sit?”

“Oh.” Lane put a hand to his forehead. Badly done, not offering the man some sort of hospitality. “Of course.”

“Decent office you’ve got here.” Dr. Harris glanced around with a hmph. “Not big, but I guess there’s still time.”

“I suppose.”

The uncomfortable silence returned. Lane did not want to break it, but someone had to, and apparently the doctor was refusing to speak first. He summoned up his best client smile.

“Well. Best not waste time. Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Harris?”

“Doctor.”

“Right. Sorry.”

He wasn’t.

“Okay.” Dr. Harris leaned back in his chair, and fixed Lane with a stare that said Lane ought to know why he was here. “Obviously, you know Joanie just had her appendix out.”

“Oh, yes. I was—very sorry to hear it.”

“Yeah.” Dr. Harris cleared his throat. “Anyway. Since she’s out of commission for a couple of weeks, I was kind of hoping you and I could, uh, work out some kind of arrangement for her when she comes back. About her hours.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Well. Speaking to you as a husband, I was thinking that with the surgery and all, it’s a good time to help her cut back.”

What the hell are you talking about?

“Cut back?”

“Yeah. I mean, when she and I agreed she could take this job, it was with the understanding that this was just gonna be part time. Couple days a week, max. Not eight to six, the way she’s been doing.”

“So you’re—asking me to interfere with your wife’s schedule.”

Lane tried to keep his voice at a reasonable level, although he was floored by the rudeness of this request. In his entire career, no one had ever sent a husband – or a wife! – into his office as a proxy for this kind of request. Even the idiots were keen enough to realize how stupid an idea it was!

“Heh.” The doctor ran a hand through the back of his hair. “I guess I am.”

“I see.” Lane wagged a finger in a way that made his disapproval very clear. “Well, I’m sorry you came all this way, but the business comes first. No exceptions.”

The doctor didn’t take this as a final answer. He didn’t even seem bothered, really. “Come on. You never had a husband come talk to you, man to man?”

Lane opened his mouth to reply, but Dr. Harris talked over him.

“Joanie’s been working a lot—way too much—and that kind of stress just isn’t good for her health. Especially with a young kid at home.”

Working too much? They’d done more than this at the old place!

“Perhaps you ought to be having that conversation with her, then.”

Dr. Harris lifted his hands in a shrug. “Woman’s got no idea when to quit. Never has. So I figured I’d come and appeal to some common sense.”

Lane had no idea how to respond to that. A cold lump of fear sat hard in his stomach. Why was Doctor Harris suggesting he wanted Joan to leave her position, full stop? Was it the illness? The childcare? She had Gail at home to tend to Kevin, and even if she didn’t, she wouldn’t want to stay home and keep house. Lane knew that much, because she’d said it outright more times than he could count. And although his window into the Harrises’ financial situation was limited, he did not think they could afford to cut down to one salary, even if Joan had wanted to be nothing more than a housewife.

But she’d been lonely without her work; it was why she’d been so eager to get out of the house in the first place. Lane didn’t need to be in her confidence to understand that Joan loved her job. She excelled at it. Why did her husband think it added to her troubles?

And more to the point, why did he think Joan was so stupid? He talked about her the way you might talk about an old dog: stubborn, prone to idiocy, but loyal enough to bother keeping round.

The whole thing left a bad taste in Lane’s mouth.

“I see.” Lane drew himself up as tall as possible in his chair, and fixed Doctor Harris with a severe look that said this type of interference was not to be borne. “Doctor, I don’t know about the military, these days, but rest assured, in the civilian sector, one does not take employees’ spouses feelings into consideration when setting the work schedules.”

He had meant this to be very cutting, but Dr. Harris just smiled as if Lane had made a hilarious joke, and did not seem to be insulted by the scornful words. Instead, the man got up, and began examining some of the personal items on Lane’s display shelves.

An appeal to Lane about the hours was a moot point anyway, because Joan was the one who set the agency schedules. And if Doctor Harris had bothered to ask his wife one damn thing about her day to day work, which he clearly hadn’t, he would know that!

Lane took the opportunity to fume privately about this, as another uncomfortable silence descended. After a moment or two, the doctor broke it.

“Real stickler for rules, aren’t you?”

“Well.” Lane had no idea why this was supposed to be a terrible thing. “After school, and the service....”

Dr. Harris actually turned around to gape at him. He had picked up a cup from Lane’s blue willow tea service, but was gripping it by the rim instead of the handle, as if he were about to take a swig from the top.

“You were an enlisted man?”

“Yes.” Lane didn’t much feel like explaining, and he didn’t like the man’s tone, either. “Forty to forty four. British Army. It was—no, please put that down. They don’t make those anymore, you know.”

Dr. Harris made a face that said Lane was overreacting. “All right. Jeez.”

Another uncomfortable silence descended. Lane concentrated very deeply on not grinding his teeth or snapping at the man to get the bloody hell out of here. Why he wanted to stand there and stare at Lane’s collectibles was beyond all reason.

“They drafted everyone into the army back then, huh?”

“Well, no.” Lane was baffled. “It’s—we all volunteered.”

“Right.” Dr. Harris was grinning again, as if this had answered some pressing and very amusing question. “Needed all types to get Nazis, I guess.”

Well, of course all the services had different strengths. The British couldn’t run an army on gun fodder alone! Lane didn’t know precisely why the doctor found this realization so funny, but he was canny enough to understand when he was being mocked, and decided he’d had enough.

“If there’s nothing else, I’m very busy today, so if you don’t mind….”

“Oh. Sure thing.” Dr. Harris returned the teacup to its shelf; it teetered perilously on the edge before steadying out. “Listen, I was just headed into work, but I appreciate you taking the time. You’re looking out for your business. Can’t blame me for trying to look out for my family.”

He extended a hand for Lane to shake.

Fuck off, Lane wanted to snap, and was surprised at how visceral a reaction the offer had prompted.

“Oh, no, sorry. I don’t.” Instead of shaking hands, Lane pulled both his hands back to prevent a surprise ambush, his fingers curling into loose fists of their own accord as he recoiled. He quickly moved them so they lay flat over his waistcoat pockets. “Lots of germs.”

Well, that remark made him sound loony. But at least he’d gotten out of a handshake. Lane was fairly certain that if he’d tried to clasp the man’s hand with any sort of politeness, they’d come to blows. The man’s smug little sneer—the visible twinkle of superiority in his eye—reminded Lane of the well-to-do lads he’d so hated in school. And especially now that Lane knew just what the doctor was doing, all while spouting off some guff about how he was only looking after Joan? The idea made his hatred burn all the blacker.

God, what an ass. How could she stand him?

“Okay.” Dr. Harris laughed again, sharper this time, as he dropped his hand. “See you later.”

Lane gritted his teeth to prevent from scowling at the man as he left, and when the doctor made some flirtatious comment to Katya on the way out, the anger in his chest only intensified.

“What did he want?” Katya asked as she came back inside.

Lane shook his head. Not worth asking or answering. The doctor’s words kept ringing around his mind. I was just headed into work. Before Lane could check the impulse, a sudden idea took root in his mind.

Go to hospital and make Joan the offer before it’s too late.

His gaze landed on the hands of the desk clock. Four fifteen. Perhaps Gail and Kevin would be eating already. She might be alone.

“Just cover the phone until half past, and then you may go home early.” He was already up, pulling on his coat. “I’ve some urgent business to attend to.”

 

**

 

Joan was flipping idly through a tattered Vogue magazine one of the nurses had brought over, when a quick rap at the door caught her attention.

“You seem very busy.”

She looked up, saw Lane smiling at her from the doorway, and let out a pleased noise, somewhere between a gasp and a laugh.

“Hi! God, I’m so happy to see you.”

Lane’s grin widened so much it showed off the gap in his teeth. A tingling warmth spread from the top of her head all the way through her toes.

“Believe it or not,” she said as he came forward to clasp her hand, “I’m actually starting to feel better.”

“Well, you look marvelous.”

Joan scoffed. “I don’t know about that. Here. Sit down.” She gestured toward the nearest chair. Thankfully, Mom had taken all the sheets and blankets off of it before she left. The only clue left to tell anyone that it had been a bed was the small stack of dirty linens, folded neatly and sitting on the floor on the right hand side. “You’re staying for a little while, aren’t you?”

“If it’s not too much trouble.” He glanced around the room as if he were cataloguing everything in it. “Although, I did have a bit of an ulterior motive regarding the business, so perhaps we ought to start there.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Uh oh.”

“No, no, nothing bad.” Lane sat down and took off his scarf. “We’ve made the best of your absence. You know. Shifted round all the clients, got your usual duties taken care of, but nothing that can’t be put to rights once you’ve returned. Katya is adequate, but I—it will certainly be nice to have you back.”

“I can’t wait to be back,” Joan gave him a significant look. “It’s so boring here.”

“Yes. Quite.” Lane glanced down at his hands for a second before pulling a letter-sized envelope out of his suit jacket. Joan watched as he toyed the thick envelope between his palms. “Erm. The reason I wanted to come and talk to you…I had something very particular to ask you. Before you returned.”

Her heartbeat sped up in anticipation. “Okay.”

“Er. You know how much I admire your work. Professionally, your instincts are always—everyone I speak to holds you in such esteem. And you’ve done so well lately. As a result, I think it’s high time you were recognized for—well, for your contributions to the firm, both as a guiding hand on the senior level, and as someone who possesses a particular acumen for this business.”

“Are we getting Christmas bonuses?” she asked, frowning down at the thick, plain envelope he handed over. “I thought we’d decided to wait.”

He stayed serious. “Open it.”

She did. It was a contract. The first thing her eyes landed on after the opening paragraph was the header at the top of the page. General Partnership Agreement.

Joan’s mouth fell open as she read the first sentence, typed out in neat letters.

This agreement of partnership, formed on the fifteenth day of December, 1969, is between Joan Holloway Harris of Reichshofer Street 11, Berlin [GENERAL PARTNER]; Lane Pryce, Pariser Ste. 40, Berlin [GENERAL PARTNER]; and Roger Sterling, 31 East 66th Street #14A, New York, New York. [LIMITED PARTNER.] Mssrs. Pryce and Sterling will hereafter be referred to as THE PARTNERS, in conjunction with Pryce and Associates, LLC [THE COMPANY].

The letter fell from her hands as she looked back up at Lane.

“You want me to be a full partner?”

He shifted in his chair, but met her shocked stare head-on. “I do.”

Joan was so stunned she couldn’t even speak.

“While you don’t want to stay in Berlin forever – which may well complicate things – this partnership – Joan, a ten percent stake could provide for a mother and child for a lifetime.” He leaned closer, and his eyes slipped closed for half a second before they snapped open again, as if he was remembering something he’d memorized long ago. “You’ve seen all my old plans. And you’ve drawn the recent ones up, for god’s sake. My deepest wish is for you to be able to reap the rewards of our labor in good faith, no matter what happens. A stake in the business is not only your option. That is your right.”

She was still stuck on ten percent. Holy shit. The return on a ten percent stake would be astronomical. And they had arranged all of it in private, as a surprise.

“Roger signed this, too.”

“He did.” Lane inclined his head. “With pleasure.”

Thick, heavy tears swam in her eyes, blurring the typed words, and suddenly Joan was overwhelmed by the impulse to vault over the bed railing, fly right into Lane’s arms, and pepper his cheek with kisses. One side of his mouth was turned up in a soft, pleased smile as he watched her, and his blue eyes burned so bright they reminded Joan of twinkling stars. The sudden wave of affection that bowled over her as she studied his kind face was so powerful it was dizzying. For one strange, terrifying second, she thought he was going to lean down over the bed railing and kiss her. She wanted to kiss him, just to see what it would be like.

You’re in love with him.

“Lane.” She could barely croak out his name. “I—I don’t know what to say.”

“Oh.”

His face fell, and her stomach lurched with guilt as she tried to explain.

“It’s—too much. I—”

Lane held up a palm, waving it through the air in a distracted way, as if to tell her she didn’t need to keep going.

“No, don’t say anything yet. Take—you have time to consider your answer. A—a week or two. After the holiday.” The overwhelming happiness in the air had already dimmed. Did he think she was turning him down? “Just know how terribly you’ve been missed. Whatever you decide, you must understand that much.”

“No. I mean, I’m not saying no,” she blurted. Her voice sounded oddly high and distant to her own ears. Each breath she took was sharp and shallow, like walking outside in the wintertime and feeling icy pinpricks in your chest every time you moved. “I meant that I—I have to talk to my husband.”

“Yes. Erm. As I said before, it’s—by all means, do take your time.”

Joan studied his face carefully. Judging by the tension in Lane’s jaw, he looked like he was trying not to blurt out the first expletives that came to mind. Jesus. He probably felt awful because he’d made this incredible offer – one she’d be a fool to turn down – and the best answer she’d managed to sputter out was I don’t know what to say. I’m not saying no.

She traced the letterhead with one hand. Underneath the contract, there was also a letter on Lane’s personal stationery.

“Sorry. It’s such a surprise. I, um.” For god’s sake, spit it out! “I just never thought I would have this.”

When she met his eyes again, his mouth had fallen open a little, an o of surprise, as if her words had finally hit home.

“Joan.” Lane sat forward in his chair; one of his hands touched the bed railing as if for emphasis. “Whatever you—expected, I assure you that you have earned this. And you deserve to understand—well, what’s on the table. And now you do.”

“Thank you.” She swallowed, tried to tell him how much his offer meant to her. “I mean it.”

“You’ll consider our proposal, then?”

Proposal. Dear god. His blue eyes held hers like a flame pulling a moth into its orbit. Joan just nodded, once; there was nothing else to say. Nothing she could say without bursting into tears and sobbing out a laundry list of the most awful, humiliating confessions.

You’re in love with him. Blood rushed through her ears in a constant, dull thud. You’re in love with him.

“I will.”

“Good.” He cleared his throat, and got up from his chair in a jerky motion. “Well. Sorry, I—I can’t stay, actually. Just wanted to drop that off at once, so you could, er, attend to it.”

“What? Are you sure?” she asked, as he adjusted the collar of his coat. She was going to go stir crazy if she didn’t find someone else to talk to while she was cooped up, not counting the nurses and Ginsberg. “I don’t think my mother and the baby are coming for another hour.”

“No. Sorry. I’ve got to—I forgot that Lewis is coming in tonight, you know, so I’ve got to, er, prepare.”

“Of course.” She summoned up the biggest smile she could manage, although the sting of tears pricked her eyes as he turned to walk away. “If I don’t see you within the next few days, then I hope you both have a merry Christmas.”

Lane stopped at the foot of her bed, and put one hand on the blankets next to her feet. In profile, his expression was unreadable. “The very same to you. My dear friend.”

When he pulled his hand back, and started walking away, her heart was so tight in her chest it felt like someone had wrapped a fist around the muscle and squeezed it.

“Have a good night,” Joan offered as Lane walked out.

He turned slightly in the doorway so she could only see him in profile, and gave her a sort of fake bow before he walked out.

“Good night.”

 

**

 

“Nnnnggh. All she said was that she’s going to consider it.” Kneeling in front of the coffee table in his sitting room, Lane began to bang his head against the wooden top of the table, very softly. The bottle sitting level with his shoulder clattered twice and then tumbled neck over base onto the rug. “Shit. Oh, god. Lewis, I’m an idiot.”

“Yes, and you’re very drunk,” Lewis observed fondly behind him, from his place on the sofa. “But it’s all right.”

Lane groaned, voice muffled. “No, it isn’t.”

“Darling, I can’t cheer you up properly if you’re determined to throw yourself a pity party.”

“Don’t need cheering.” Lane groped for the gin bottle next to his knees, then groaned again when he realized it was already empty. “Need drinking.”

“Right.” Lane lifted his head from the table just in time to see Lewis beckoning at him with an open hand, as if he were about to help him up from the floor. “Then get your coat. We’re going out.”

“Where are we going?” Lane asked, once they were outside. Walking in the frigid cold had somewhat distracted him from the punishing litany in his head. You’ve lost her, you’ve lost her, you’ve lost her.

“Little birdie in your office told me about a gentleman’s club, just down the way.”

“What? No.” Lane was so aghast that he nearly forgot to whisper. One tail of his scarf flapped uselessly in the wind, and he quickly yanked it down, stuffing the end inside his coat. “I don’t want to see any naked girls.”

Lewis laughed aloud, which was so startling it made Lane snap his head sideways to stare at the man. Usually all his elder brother did was strut around and smirk when he found something funny, like a total prat.

“Don’t worry, little brother.” And Lewis laughed again, damn him. “You won’t.”

“Oh, god, it’s not some stuffy thing with ancient card players, is it?”

Lewis waved off the question as if he were shooing off an annoying insect, and set off again, with Lane at his heels. After a few more minutes of walking, he led them left off the main strasse into a small alley, and then another, and then immediately down a cramped set of concrete stairs that adjoined the first floor. The steps were rather icy.

With no fanfare, they arrived at a heavy oak door with an antique brass knocker mounted directly in the center. Two animals were carved in the doorframe in silhouette – a fox with a sleek bushy tail and a sharp-eyed raven, both wearing tuxedos and top hats.

“Lane, you do the honors.” Lewis was pulling off his gloves. “Three times, no more.”

“Right.” Lane pitched forward with his hand outstretched, nearly clocked himself in the face, and quickly recovered, just in time to grab hold of the brass ring and tap it against the door, three times.

A door viewer clanked open in the upper third of the wood, revealing a set of shockingly colored eyes: one blue, one a sort of hazel-green. Lane startled and jumped backwards as the eyes found his face and gave him an obvious once-over.

“Password.”

“I—oh.”

Lane opened and closed his mouth, utterly clueless, but Lewis was unfazed, and stepped forward.

“McBurney. Two for Red Fox, please.”

“Who is that?” Lane whispered. “I’ve heard that name.”

The eyes, and Lewis, just ignored him.

“Who shall I say is calling?”

“Mssrs. Pryce and Pryce.” Lewis turned to smirk at Lane, who just rolled his eyes. Why didn’t he just give first names? “Rather a double special tonight.”

Lane thought he had finally remembered why the name was familiar. “Isn’t that the comedian? Is this a comedy club?”

The eyes vanished, the door opened, and suddenly Lewis was dragging Lane inside by one arm.

“Something like that. In you go.”

Lewis released him, unbuttoned his coat, and quickly began to make his way through the throng of people. Lane was too stupefied by the scene in front of him to make any headway at all.

Stumbling forward, the first small detail he noticed was the floor tile, a large, elegant checkerboard pattern that lent the room an art deco air. The rest of the club seemed completely out of time with such style, because the wild revelers currently making their way around the main floor were dressed as if they’d just come straight from Woodstock. The entire place was very ethereal: dimly lit, with strobes and patterns of rainbow lights playing across the pulsating crowd, giving the room a psychedelic shock of color. On the dance floor – was it a dance floor? – Lane spied several beautifully made-up women in mini dresses that were little more than slips, accompanied by feminine-looking boys in outrageous three-piece suits; men with unkempt hair, colorful blouses, and tight-fitting trousers; shirtless lads in nothing but dungarees and love beads; plus people in elaborate masks, and a few regular-looking chaps in plain suits who seemed to have wandered in entirely by accident. Were they all performers? Were they part of the club?

What a fascinating collection of people!

And, Lane noticed as a tall spindly object brushed up next to his arm, and he turned to face nothing but an elongated striped trouser leg, they had jugglers on stilts. Juggling fire pins.

Lewis was back, tugging at Lane’s arm. “For god’s sake, little brother, keep up. I refuse to be your minder if you’re becoming sober.”

“They’ve got fire up there,” Lane said in wonder, and pointed upwards as the juggler nearest him resumed his tricks. “How can he do that?”

“Practice.” Lewis took his arm again. “Come along. We’re going to the stage. Can’t stand outside and gab all night.”

“Good lord. There’s a stage?”

There was, and it was breathtaking; a gilded masterpiece that seemed best suited to an evening at the opera, not an avant-garde club. Although the stage itself was quite traditional, and mostly hidden by a lush red curtain, the elaborate gold frescos and faded Renaissance-style murals that framed it were complimented by long, sparkling trapezes that hung from the ceiling. These perches were currently occupied by giggling girls in strapless tops and iridescent mermaid tails. Plus, a sleek black baby grand piano sat at one end of the stage.

On the whole, it reminded Lane of the naughty French postcards the lads had used to trade around school. If the pin-up girls in those postcards had perhaps smoked a carton of marijuana cigarettes, ditched their glittering gowns for animal print bikinis, and become mixed up with a lot of strange bohemian types.

When Lane glanced over at Lewis, he noticed his brother had brought a flask into the theater, and automatically reached over for a dram.

On stage, a weedy-looking pianist in a penguin suit slipped out from behind the curtain, sat down at the piano, and struck up a jaunty tune.

“My god.” Lane took a long pull of vodka, gasped at the sharp taste, and wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “How on earth did you hear about this place?”

“Apparently, your boys take clients here all the time.” Lewis accepted the flask back, took another drink. “The dark-haired one told me.”

“Wha—which clients?”

“Just the homos, I think.”

Lane choked, and actually inhaled vodka through his nose, spluttering and coughing for nearly a minute before he was able to recover from the sting.

“Not—funny!”

Lewis gave him a pointed look. “Not joking. Do keep up.”

“But,” Lane motioned for the flask, automatic, and was disappointed when Lewis handed it to him and the thing turned out to be empty. “But that—can’t be right. Our clients are all—Lewis, they’ve brought wives to the dinners. None of them are—well, I—I’d know if they were different! I’d have noticed something! I’m not an idiot, you know!”

“Hello, gorgeous.” One of the beautiful tiny-dress girls – this one in nothing more than a white negligee – arrived at their table. She was olive-skinned, with long dark curls flowing round her shoulders, and the most beautiful athletic legs. Shifting her tray on her hip, she set two clear drinks in pint glasses next to Lewis’s chair.

Lane reached for one immediately. “Oh, thank god. Alcohol.”

“Ta.” Lewis gave the girl a smile, and tipped her a few marks, brazenly looking her up and down. Lane pulled a disgusted face as his brother kept talking. “Love the outfit, by the way. Do you gaffe or tape?”

“Cheeky.” The waitress’s voice dropped nearly two octaves on the first word, shocking Lane into exclaiming aloud and spilling a bit of his drink in the process. But the girl didn’t bat an eyelash as she went right back into her previous trill. “A lady never tells.”

She departed their table without another word, her fingers toying up the sleeve of Lewis’s jacket and up the side of his neck as she went, making him grin like an idiot.

Lane was still gaping after her. He actually turned in his chair to watch her walk away, convinced he couldn’t have heard the voice correctly.

“Lewis, was—was that—a man?

His brother really was laughing now, shielding his mouth behind a loosely curled hand. “Oh, darling. You’re so innocent.”

“Are they all men?” Lane craned his head round the room, now, as if he could pick out each one of the crossdressers by sight alone. None of them looked like chaps in the wrong clothes. They were actually…well, they all seemed attractive! And normal! “But they—she was so—buxom!”

“Oh, some actually are ladies.” Lewis lit a cigarette using the little votive candle from the middle of their table. “Not most of the ones in dresses, mind. And never the stunners.”

“Good god!”

Lane glanced around again at all the theatergoers, at the feminine boys with petite frames and full lips, and the impressive-seeming ladies with big legs and strong shoulders, and suddenly felt as out of place as if he were Alice, tossed straight down into Wonderland and expected to understand everything in sight within an instant. Here you are. Up is down and down is up. Drink the bottle, eat the sweets, and for god’s sake don’t offend Her Majesty.

On stage, the pianist had begun to narrate his playing. His lilting German-accented English gave him the air of an old-fashioned aristocrat.

“….you may call me the Raven. Tonight, we shall entertain you with beautiful noises and shining delights. And now, ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Please welcome my divine emcee….”

“Are we at a homosexual club?”

“By Jove, I think he’s got it,” Lewis said drolly.

“…hails all the way from New York, she puts the fire into Fire Island and injects new marvels into the marvelous. Ladies and gentlemen, I present my counterpart: the Red Fox!”

Lane glanced at the stage just as the red curtains parted, and a single spotlight caught the sequined shimmer of a woman walking on stage in a long, slinky black ballgown. Her short red hair was set into sharp curls, giving her a flapper-esque appearance, and the gown showed off her shapely figure nicely, although she was clearly older than the rest of the ladies waiting tables.

When Lane got a better look at her face—their seats were a decent distance to the front—he gasped aloud, and grabbed his brother’s arm.

“Good god. Lewis!”

“What?” Lewis asked absently as the Red Fox launched into her bit, strutting up and down the stage with her microphone with the relaxed authority of a seasoned performer.

“…for any first-timers here at the Fox and Raven, I’ll have you know that all my girls are virtuosos.” Gail gave the audience an exaggerated wink. “And unless you’ve got money, I intend to keep it that way.”

“That’s Joan’s mother,” Lane hissed to his brother, as everyone around them dissolved into raucous laughter.

Lewis turned his full attention to Lane at once. His eyes gleamed with visible excitement as he glanced back at the stage. “You’re kidding.”

“Why on earth would I joke about that?” Lane wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh or scream. “Oh, my god, Joan never said a word. Christ. Why did you bring me here? I’m not supposed to know this!”

“Shush. Finish your drink, and you’ll feel better.” As Lane downed the remaining gulps from his pint glass, Lewis motioned over their transvestite waitress from before. “Hello again, darling. Can you possibly get us backstage at night’s end?”

Would one call him a waitress or a waiter? Lane had no idea how to ask.

The girl seemed to have lost her patience with Lewis. “Honey, why don’t you ask me a question about the menu?”

Lewis tucked a fifty-pound note into the girl’s – well, the lad’s – hand. “If that’s how you feel. Only Ms. Fox and my brother share a dear mutual friend, the lovely Joan.” He jerked a thumb over one shoulder at Lane. “Longtime mates, you know. We’d love to have a chat with her.”

Dark eyes narrowed and raked over Lane’s face, openly appraising him.

“What’s your first name?”

“Oh. It’s—Lane. Erm. Pryce.”

“The ad man?”

Lane straightened in his chair, eyes widening, as he nodded mutely.

There was a small pause. The doll boy stared at Lane for another minute before his gaze slid back to Lewis, and he tucked the note into his garter belt.

“Let me see what I can do.”

On stage, Gail stepped out of the spotlight, and a large group of androgynous ballet dancers – practically naked, although they were painted and styled to look like downy white swans – began to troupe out of the wings.

 

**

           

“Babe? You still up?”

Joan glanced up from her magazine and saw Greg walking into the room, holding a sealed cup of jello in each hand, with a plastic bag of things dangling from his left arm. He was still in uniform. God, what time was it?

“What are you doing here?”

“Ah. I’m on dinner break, so I thought I’d come by, bring ya some grub.”

She flipped her magazine spine-up on the bed as he walked forward and kissed her flush on the mouth, the bag on his arm bumping against her side.

“Mmph! Greg!”

“What?” He pulled back with a snort, grinning at her like it had been the best kiss in the world. “Can’t blame a guy for wanting a little sugar from his wife, huh?”

“What’s gotten into you?” she asked, trying to keep her voice light, like she was just surprised. Honestly, the pop-in visit had her worried. These days, whenever Greg was nice to her, she was always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“Aw, come on. I haven’t really seen ya in forever—and hanging out in here with your mother and half the surgical staff doesn’t count.” Greg pulled two green tupperware containers out of the plastic bag looped over his arm, and waggled his eyebrows at her like he was Groucho Marx. “Brought you some of Susie’s mashed potatoes. Pork chops. Cooked apples.”

Joan smiled in spite of herself. It did sound good; much better than the slop the Army had been putting on her trays.

“That’s my girl.” Greg pulled off the top of one of the containers, put it on the bedside table, and then handed a juice box to her, along with a plastic spork. “Here. Let me cut yours for you.”

“So,” Joan began about twenty minutes later, after Greg had finished eating. She’d managed about half her entrée, and was picking at the foil corner of her unopened jello cup. Yellow. Really, she was trying to figure out the best way to word her next question without getting instantly shot down. The voice in her head kept screaming protests. He’ll never let you take a partnership. He’ll never let you. Don’t say it. Don’t tell him a thing.

Greg held up a hand before she could even form the sentence. “Hold that thought, babe. Before you say anything, I think we’ve got to talk.”

Joan’s mouth dropped open. She shut it fast, and exhaled a breath. “About what?”

“Well.” Greg lifted his shoulders in a brief shrug that almost passed for casual, and if Joan hadn’t seen him pull the exact same gesture with hundreds of willful bureaucrats, she might actually have thought he was bringing this subject up on the spot, and trying to put her at ease. “That job of yours, for one thing.”

He was still smiling, although the good humor didn’t quite reach his eyes.

An icy rush of fear coursed through Joan’s stomach.

“What about it?”

“Hey, come on, JoJo.” Greg fixed her with a look that said she wasn’t fooling anyone. “You know I don’t like it. Wasn’t what we agreed to, when you told me you wanted some pocket money.”

Oh, fuck. Joan leaned back against her pillows, pretending she was just absorbing his opinion like a vacuous sponge. Shit. Damn it. Is he jealous of Lane? Because I spend too much time there? Does he think we’re having an—?

No. She didn’t even want to say the word to herself, because it would show on her face and Greg would see and he might—

“It’s just too many hours,” Greg said, shaking his head, like he was sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Joan wrenched her attention back to his face. “And it keeps you away from the baby. A kid needs his mother around.”

“Honey—”

“Now, look. Pryce is a weirdo, but he seems like a good guy, deep down. He’s worried about you in this condition. Said so himself.”

This time, her surprise was genuine.

“When did you talk to Lane?”

“This morning. Ran into him on the way home from work.” Greg scratched at the back of his head. “Joanie, I’m just gonna tell you plainly: he doesn’t want to see you kill yourself over this job, and neither do I.”

He couldn’t have run into Lane. Lane walks around the park twice before coming to work at seven fifteen, and Greg doesn’t get done until just after seven. It’s a twelve-hour shift. Even if he drove to the botanical garden going ninety miles an hour, he wouldn’t make it in time.

She folded her hands in her lap, discreetly, as if she was just trying to absorb the shock of it all, and not tease out the bulk of some stupid lie. “Lane told you he was worried.”

“Verbatim.” The look Greg gave her this time was full of pity. “Guy didn’t say this part outright, but it was pretty obvious. He wants you to quit.”

Joan sucked in a breath as the pieces clicked together in her head. Discreetly, she felt underneath the curve of her wrist and pinched the skin there between her index finger and thumb, hard enough to bruise.

A ten percent stake could provide for a mother and child for a lifetime.

This was why Lane had asked her. He’d talked to Greg.

“Hey. Listen. I know it’s fun, getting out of the house, but you gotta consider your health and your family. I mean, let’s say as a hypothetical that you did quit. What’s the harm? You could spend more time with Kevin and your mom, really make good on all those broken promises. And just think, some nice single girl could come in after you, and make a good living. Why would you deny a young kid that kind of opportunity?”

“I’m not. Greg, I—I’m good at my job.” Joan pinched the inside of her wrist again, and let that little twinge blossom through her entire body. As small as it was, the pain centered her.

“Hey, now, don’t get pissed off. I’m not the bad guy here.” Greg huffed out another sigh. “I get that you think some random kid can’t ever measure up to you, but Lane said it himself. They don’t need you that bad. There’s always some other girl who can put away papers, just as good as you can.”

A stake in the business is not only your option, but your right.

You deserve to know what’s on the table. And now you do.

Oh, my god. Joan lay back against her pillows again, closing her eyes so Greg couldn’t see the blind fury boiling in them.

Liar. Liar. Liar.

That’s why Lane came. That’s why he was so panicked. Greg went to see him.

Why didn’t Lane tell her the truth?

“Babe, I’m sorry. I know you’re disappointed, and you don’t want to hear this. But it’s gonna be okay. We’ll get through it together, won’t we?”

With a little grunt, Greg came to stand next to the bed. He reached out, brushed a loose strand of hair away from her face, then took it one step further by leaning down, and kissing her forehead. Joan forced herself not to flinch as his hand kept brushing the top of her pillow. All she could think about was the open envelope lying under the crown of her head.

Don’t move. He’s lying and you can prove it. Don’t you dare move.

“Sweetie, I can’t just quit right away,” she murmured, and opened her eyes. What she wanted to do was claw jagged finger marks into his fat round jaw, but all she did was smile. It was the same snide way she used to smile at Lee Garner Jr. every time he came to the old place. Hi, sweetheart. You’re such an asshole.

Greg’s mouth turned down into a pout. “What do you mean?”

Quickly, Joan averted her eyes, like she was just too overwhelmed to say this correctly. “Do you think—could I please just wait until after Christmas?”

“Wait, you agree with me?” Greg looked floored. “Are you saying yes?”

“It just—seems like it’s for the best.” Joan let out a deep whoosh of breath, and hoped Greg thought it meant she was just tired. All she wanted to do was yank out the partnership offer and sign it in blood right in front of her husband’s ugly grinning face. “But quitting without notice wouldn’t do us any favors. They’ll just keep calling me.”

“Wow. Babe, that’s—I’m really proud of how smart you’re being right now.” Greg tapped the top of her forehead with his thumb, twice, like he could somehow jumpstart her frontal lobe like a dead car battery. Joan tried to pretend she didn’t want to shove his hand away, and let out another breath, briefly closing her eyes.

“Four weeks gives me time to help Lane hire a replacement, finish up a few things.” She shrugged, unable to spin out any more scenarios, and met Greg’s stunned gaze. “And then it’d be over.”

“That’s it?” Greg’s set mouth seemed skeptical.

She refused to let him see even the smallest indication that she might be lying, and met his eyes without flinching. “That’s it.”

You son of a bitch.

Real or not, the idea of quitting made Joan’s stomach churn, but she forced herself to keep looking at her husband, even when she couldn’t meet his eyes anymore. She just stared at the greasy patch of skin between his eyebrows. Let him think she was overheated or had low blood sugar or something. He’d won this argument because she was just too tired to put up a real fight.

“God, I’m exhausted.” She glanced away, and put her hand on his elbow, like she usually did when she was trying to placate him. “I need to sleep.”

“Yeah, sure thing, babe. You rest up, okay? We’ll get all of this taken care of, so you can get back on your feet again.”

Joan swallowed, attempting to mask her anxiousness. Her heart pumped so fast and loud in her chest she was sure it was an arrythmia. She could hear it. Greg must hear it, too.

“Yeah. Okay.”

Greg didn’t notice a thing. He just seemed thrilled that he’d gotten his way after months of screaming. He threw out the trash with good humor, shoved the closed tupperware containers into the grocery bag again, and leaned down to kiss her forehead in a distracted way, greasy lips leaving some kind of crumbs behind in her hairline. She could feel the grit on her face, but there was no way in hell she was going to budge until it was safe.

“Love you, babe. See ya later.” His hand caressed over her hair and rested on the upper part of the pillow.

Joan summoned another smile to her face, even as her heart beat faster, and she felt a muscle twitch in her lower jaw.

“You, too.”

She counted to sixty as he crossed through the doorway and walked out, then counted it again, and as soon as she finished the second set, she sat up and eased herself toward the edge of the mattress until she was within an arm’s reach of the ballpoint pen that lay on the side table.

I’m done, she thought hotly, as her fingers brushed the top of the plastic cap; as adrenaline spurred her to stretch forward even further. Finally, her palm closed around the barrel, and she sank back onto her pillow with a relieved groan, yanking out the envelope and scanning through the papers as fast as she could. I’m done.

           

**

 

“Lovely to meet you. So enjoyed your act.”

Backstage after the show, Lewis clasped the hand of another ballet dancer who was now departing for the evening. As the lad made his goodbyes and walked through the narrow hallway toward the stage door, Lewis made sure to have one last look at his backside. How delicious.

Of course Lane was being such a prude. He’d spent a large portion of the earlier wait squinting up at the ceiling, turning redder and redder as performers passed him in various states of undress, and now he’d begun to wander. So far, in an attempt to get out of chatting with the infamous mother, little brother had knocked into a props table and one of the costumed trapeze girls. Although that seemed like less of an accident, given the size of her talents.

Somewhere behind him, possibly even in the wings, he heard Lane yelp.
“Oh, god, sorry, I didn’t mean to—sorry.”

Lewis watched as his brother practically ran away from whatever he’d seen. Something involving nudity, probably. He had a hand up by his eyes like a shield.

“Catch someone at it, pervert?”

“Nnngh. Co-ed changing rooms.” Lane pulled a face, pouting and huffing the same way he used to when they had to dress for phys ed in front of a room full of strapping boys. He was always so old-fashioned about that, bless. “I just saw someone’s willy!”

“Well, they’re actors, darling. If they got bothered every time a stranger saw them pantsless—”

“Well, well, well.” At the top of the spiral staircase, the grande dame herself had appeared, clad only in a green silk robe and her high heels. “I’m surprised it took you this long to come and find me.”

Lane swallowed with an audible ulp. “Erm. ’Lo.”

Joan’s mother descended the narrow stairs with all the elegance of a screen legend, and held her hand out to Lewis, palm down, as if she were a well-heeled aristocrat asking a gentleman for her favor.

“Who’s your friend?”

Lewis took her hand, raised it to his lips, and kissed it with deliberate slowness, enjoying the way Lane puffed up like a mad sparrow after it happened.

“Lewis Pryce. Elder, wiser, and much more attractive brother.”

Lane snorted in disgust. “Says who?”

“Charmed, I’m sure.” She gave him a wink that was somehow both naughty and knowing, before turning to Lane. “You know, we’ve been giving Dominic the friends and family discount for three months. That kid brings everyone in here.”

“Well, I-I would’ve come sooner,” Lane protested feebly, slurring a bit and looking everywhere but at the woman’s face. “Only it—how was I s’posed to know that—?”

“You’re drunk,” pronounced Gail, with no small amount of glee.

Lane’s eyes widened to the size of saucers. He shook his head no, the gesture almost imperceptible.

“Well, sweetheart, it’s about damn time.” She cackled, her eyes shining with delight, and threw a disbelieving look at Lewis, who just smirked.

Lane didn’t seem to find the humor in any of this. Typical.

“Actually, I, erm—s’there a phone bank anywhere round?”

“Oh, for god’s sake, Lane,” Lewis raised his eyebrows at Gail, meaning that she was going to be hearing about this very soon. “Don’t call the woman now. It won’t end well.”

“Wha—I’m not calling anyone!” Lane folded his arms over his chest, then uncrossed them. “I’m just—” he burped, and put a fist to his chest with a horrified expression “—‘m not phoning her. You dunno what I’m doing, but it isn’t…that.”

Gail seemed to take pity on the man. “Front of the theater, past the dance floor. Left at the bar.”

“Cheers,” said Lane, and beamed at the woman in a sort of manic way, the same way he’d used to grin at Lewis when organizing his toy soldiers. The effect was ruined when he tried to step away and nearly clunked into the wall, but he steadied himself as if nothing had happened. “Gail, you’re an angel.”

Gail started to laugh. As Lane staggered off—sure to encounter some other hilarious kerfuffle before finally making it to the phone bank, if he ever did—she turned back to Lewis with rather a serious face, her mouth pursed as if she were debating just how to put this.

“So when did he mention he was in love with my daughter?”

“Don’t tell me he said it to you first.” Lewis’s outrage was only half feigned. “Why, I practically raised him!”

“Come on.” She motioned him upstairs, past a couple of the sound people walking in the opposite direction, with several meters worth of wires and cold microphones dangling from their necks. “Let’s have a drink. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”

“What on earth gave you the idea for this place?” Lewis asked as they ascended the narrow stairs, and crossed left at the cramped landing into a large dressing room. The interior was old fashioned, judging by the faded eggshell color and the elaborate gilded crown molding, but it was comfortably furnished, featuring a large, drafty window that overlooked the lamplit street. Directly facing the door, a mirrored vanity table framed out in lights took up half the far wall, along with a full-size mahogany wardrobe and a colorful Japanese changing screen with a few sets of clothes thrown over it. On the right hand side, a well-worn sofa was bookended by a sea of bright cushions and beanbag chairs.

“Well, Herschel wanted the Moulin Rouge. I came in and suggested Electric Circus. Turned out we made double the money as a big queer bar, so we just said fuck it, and did both.”

Lewis turned in the doorway, saw what was just behind them: the glass and gold drink cart.

“It’s whiskey for me,” Gail said with a shrug as she plucked a glass and an unlabeled brown bottle from the cart, and made a neat drink. “Pick your poison.”

“Ah. Whiskey’s all right.”

She poured a second and handed it to him, then slipped past and perched in her vanity chair, settling in with a sigh.

“You don’t have kids, do you?”

“No.” Lewis chuckled as he made his way to the sofa. “Not surprisingly, Lane was the closest I ever got on that front.”

“Huh.” She looked intrigued, but didn’t ask any questions. “Well, don’t get me wrong. Most days, Joanie’s the best thing that ever happened to me, but that girl’s always been a real pill. And if she’d been a little smarter about picking her husbands, neither one of us would be here.”

Lewis decided not to engage on that particular bon mot, although it’s long past time for him to hear about the mister to Joan’s missus.

“What’s the husband like?”

Gail raised an eyebrow. Lewis just shrugged.

“Lane’s been annoyingly silent about him. All I know is that he exists, and he’s never round.”

“Hmph.” She took another sip. “Well, no wonder. The man’s an asshole. Whiny. Controlling. Stupid.”

“Has he got money, or something?”

“No, and he’s a doctor. Just drowning in debt. You tell me how smart that is.”

“How thrilling.” Lewis got up and poured himself another generous measure. “Now, tell me honestly, are the looks anything to write home about?”

Gail shrugged. “He’s handsome in a baby-faced way, which I think was the only reason Joanie liked him. But the way he’s headed, that man’ll age as well as a carton of milk. You mark my words.”

They sat in contemplative silence for a second.

“And Joan? What’s she like?”

Gail’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Lane hasn’t told you anything?”

Lewis thought for a moment. “Well. Poor chap’s had mentionitis for months. Every other story’s always Joan this, Joan that. So my understanding’s rather a collection of odd facts. I know she likes the impressionists. Favorite scarf got snagged in the botanical garden once. Hell of a head for maths. Tiny things, you know. To my great disappointment, all the gossip’s mostly about work.”

“But he likes that she’s smart.”

“Oh, god, yes.” Lewis held out a hand to her, palm-up. “Take that partnership thing Lane’s gnashing about. She’s perfect for it.”

Gail sat up, slowly, and put her glass aside. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, dear.” Lewis pulled a face. “He hasn’t told you.”

“Spill,” commanded Gail.

They stared at each other for a moment.

“Well. You see, it’s quite simple, really. He’s offered your Joan a ten percent stake.”

“In the company?

Before Lewis could answer, the door swung open, and the Raven himself stepped into the room; much less presentable, now. His greying hair was disheveled around the ears and his tie was askew.

“Tonight’s takings,” he said gruffly as he handed Gail a thick wad of bills, and gave Lewis a rather curious look as he withdrew.

“Thanks, Herschel.”

She tucked the money into the cup of her brassiere as Herschel excused himself and shut the door, but didn’t stay seated for long; within seconds, she was at the drink cart, pouring herself another whiskey.

“Thought Lane might’ve told you his intentions,” Lewis said, to break the silence. “Drove the Colonel stark raving mad when he courted Becky.”

“Jesus.” Gail huffed out a shaky breath, with the whiskey bottle still gripped in one hand. “Courted. What is this, eighteen fifty?”

“Hardly, thank goodness. Now, granted, I’m not at all sure what ten percent of the business represents, but I should think it’s a decent sum of money. Could turn out to be rather handy, all things considered.”

Gail finally turned, and perhaps it was a trick of the light, but Lewis noticed that her eyes seemed much brighter than before, although her face was stoic, and no tears fell from her lashes. “You don’t go into business with someone if you just want to screw around.”

“No. But Lane’s not the type for a fling, anyway. Look at him.”

She made a considering noise.

Lewis kept talking. “Anyway. You’ll see, if things go well.”

Her mouth twitched, like she wanted to smile.

“You know what Joanie said to me, when she was in the hospital?”

Lewis shook his head no.

“Well, this was after they’d wheeled her out of surgery. That good-for-nothing husband kept bothering the doctors, so she and I were alone. She was in pieces. Covered in blood. So pale you’d have thought she was dead. And we weren’t in there two seconds before she grabbed me by the arm and told me that she needed Lane, and I had to get him down there as fast as I could.”

Lewis’s eyebrows rose in silent surprise.

She lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Mothers have an intuition about these sorts of things.”

“What else did she tell you?”

Gail fixed him with a look so grave it nearly made him take a step back by reflex. “One thing you’ve got to understand about my daughter is that Joanie doesn’t like needing people. Never has.”

“When she was five, it meant she didn’t want Jack to walk her to school, and when she was seventeen, it meant getting the hell out of Virginia before she wound up barefoot and pregnant like the rest of the war brides. Hell, she quit talking to Katie last year because the woman told her to leave Greg, and those girls have been thick as thieves from the time they were kids.” She put down her whiskey bottle, and crossed back to the vanity. “But the minute she thought it was all over, who did she ask for? Your brother. And her baby.” She fussed with a stray lock of hair that had popped out over her forehead, and turned to the mirror to push it back into place. “I don’t know what exactly Lane’s said to you, but I can read him clear as day. From where I’m standing, we’re about a mile past playground crushes, here.”

Lewis didn’t have to ask what else Joan had said, if anything. If the moment had been anything like the tearful phone call he’d fielded from Lane, Joan’s sentiments must have been very clear indeed.

“Well.” Lewis cleared his throat, fidgeted in his chair. “Least she likes the old boy.”

Gail didn’t laugh. “She give him a straight answer?”

He shrugged. “Not sure, but I don’t think so. Lane seemed disappointed, anyway.”

“Jesus.” Gail sat down again with a loud sigh. The stony despair etched into her face made her look older than she’d seemed all evening. “Well, god willing, she takes the leap. If she doesn’t say yes now, I don’t think she ever will.”

“We can but hope,” Lewis said, and raised his glass.

Gail’s mouth twitched again. “Cheers.”

 

**

           

“H-hello?”

“Joan.” Lane sat down, and quickly stood up again, because sitting made the room spin in a funny way. “Sorry. Did I wake you?”

“Lane? No.” A crackle of static. “Um. I was—I was up.”

“‘M using a different phone, so—you—you can hear me, right?”

A long pause.

“Are you drunk?”

“Very,” Lane brayed out a nervous laugh, because he’d meant to say no. “Oh, god. Sorry. I know it’s late, but I just—I didn’t like the way we’d left things earlier. Wanted to talk to you. Is that all right?”

“Yes,” Joan said simply. “Let’s talk.”

Surprised at her frankness, Lane ran a hand over the metal base of the telephone, tracing over the edges of the box with a casual curiousness, as if she could see him through the phone. “All right. Well. Something happened at work before I came by—it was very weird—and I thought I may as well tell you about it now.”

“Let me guess. You saw Greg.”

“Well, it wasn’t just that I—” Lane sucked in a breath. “Oh.”

“He said you wanted to fire me, and that I needed to quit so I could focus on being a better mother. Or did you two have a different conversation in private today?”

“What? No, just—let me explain. I—I’d meant to offer the position to you weeks ago, but then with Ginsberg and then the—”

“No, no, no. I’m not talking about the offer. My husband came to ask you to get rid of my job, and apparently you didn’t care enough to say one word to me about it.”

“Oh, now, it wasn’t—the man dropped in out of nowhere, I couldn’t exactly tell him to hang himself when—”

“So you just let him talk and talk, like it was something you’d actually consider. Man to man.”

“What? Certainly not. I said I don’t take husbands’ feelings into consideration, and I never will, and that was the end of it. I made my opinion very clear.” Lane made a derisive noise. “What gave you the impression I didn’t?”

“You’re telling me you didn’t listen to him complain about how I’m an awful mother because I work too much? Or that I made myself sick?”

“What did he say?” Lane demanded. “Whatever it is—I promise I never—he’s not being honest with you, Joan.”

“I know that. You think I don’t know that?”

Lane did a double-take, and nearly fell over when he took a step backwards. He sat down hard, but was up and standing again within seconds.

“Then why are you angry with me? What’ve I done?”

“You came over here and pretended none of it mattered! You offered me a partnership without even a by the way, your husband’s trying to make you stay home!

“Well, what if he is? You don’t want to!”

How dare you!”

“How—oh, for god’s sake! What should I have tried, then, if pretending to entertain him isn’t up to your standards?”

“Excuse me?”

“Should I have thrown him out on his ear, and told him to fuck off? Because that’s what I wanted to do!”

“Fuck off.” Joan’s voice was tight. “Really.”

“Yes.” Lane set his jaw, and spoke through gritted teeth. “That lunkhead of yours couldn’t have pinned down any part of your work if he’d been given a map, a magnifying glass, and a thousand years to see you in action.”

She huffed out a derisive noise. “Oh, so you think Greg’s stupid.”

“Well, of course I do! The man’s a goddamned imbecile! He thinks you file papers and serve tea, like some airheaded ninny straight out of school. And he’s got no idea how talented you are, and what’s worse, he talks about you like you’re some kind of—erratic pet instead of an actual person! Why’d’you want that? Why stay married to—?”

“No, you don’t get to do this, Lane!” Joan’s voice rose in pitch with every word, a loud, breathless growl, and by the time she’d barrelled through the next sentence, he was so shocked he stumbled backwards into the door of the little booth. “I never breathed one bad word about Rebecca to you, even when she clearly made you miserable—”

“Well, Becca never begged you to fire me in secret, did she?”

“Bullshit! I would never put you in this position; I would never make you choose between your wife and your job!”

“I’m not making you choose anything! You made the damn choice yourself ages ago, the second you told him you wanted to work, he said he didn’t approve, and then you just kept doing it! That’s the whole bloody point!”

“Don’t,” Joan choked out. “Don’t you dare!”

“Tell me I’m wrong,” Lane insisted loudly. “Tell me you don’t want it—tell me the idea doesn’t fill you with adrenaline, planning out the next five years together—planning our company’s future. You know why I asked you.”

“Jesus! How could I possibly—I can’t read your damn mind!”

“No one’s asking you to! For god’s sake, I offered you the job because I wanted you to stay with me, damn it, and because I assumed, like a fool, that you might even want it! Christ! It isn’t my fault your husband’s too selfish to see what’s right in front of his eyes!” Lane let out a growl. “The man’s a sewer rat, he doesn’t even love you, and you bloody well know it! No amount of pride is worth being this unhappy!”

“You know what, Lane, if you’re so—” suddenly Joan broke off her sentence with a low, pained moan. When she spoke again, it was barely audible. “Oh. Ow.”

“What happened?” Lane’s anger fell away as quickly as water sluicing through a clean gutter, replaced by a sharp welling fear. “Joan, are you hurt? Are you all right?”

Another sharp inhale, or perhaps a sniff. Her voice was very breathy, like she was afraid to speak. Was she crying? Had he made her cry?

“Um. Yeah.”

“Please. I’m sorry, I know we’re—just tell me you’re all right.” He pressed his forehead against the wall of the booth, squeezed his eyes shut. “I miss you so much, and I-I want you to come back. That’s all I want.”

“I don’t want to talk to you right now,” Joan said thickly. A hiccup punctured her soft words. Lane’s heart sank at the sound, and how rushed her voice became as she kept talking. “And I’m getting tired, and my nurse is here, so I should just go.”

“Wait. Don’t!”

She put the phone down. Lane listened to the long high-pitched buzz of the open line for several seconds before he finally shoved the receiver back into its cradle and stumbled out of the phone booth.

           

 

**

 

Nearly an hour after he’d wandered off, Lane came back without so much as a by your leave, shuffling through the door with such a hangdog expression Lewis didn’t even have to look twice to know what happened.

Gail still asked the obvious question. “What happened to you?”

Lane plunked down onto the carpet with a resentful noise, and slumped sideways into the beanbag chair while Gail and Lewis just watched.

“I’m an idiot.”

Lewis barely blinked. “What on earth did you say?”

“Phoned her.” Lane seemed not to have heard the question correctly. “Y’were right. We had a row.”

“Good god, you ninny, it’s nearly” —a pause— “one in the morning! Course you had a row!”

“Well, I already saw her earlier, and she was awake, so it’s not like she—” Lane trailed off with a whimper, and glanced around the room. “Oh, I want my drink. Where’s the blasted thing gone?”

“Here.” Gail held out a glass that was full to the brim with a clear liquid. “Vodka. Your ice melted.”

“That,” Lewis pronounced dryly, as Lane gulped down the contents of his glass without even a flinch, “is not vodka.”

“Trust me. If he’s as drunk as I think, it may save him a full day of being hungover.”

Lane gasped as he finished the last of the water, and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand.

“Here.” Gail motioned for him to hand the glass back. “I’ll refill you.”

“Why’re you being nice to me?” Lane asked, squinting up at her as he leaned into the side of the sofa for support. “‘S very weird.”

She fixed him with a suspicious look. “I’m always nice.”

“But you don’t like me.”

Lewis snorted.

“Suit yourself.” Gail handed Lane back another glass of water. Lewis watched as she pulled a packet of aspirin from a drawer in her vanity and tossed it toward Lane’s shoes. Lane was so wrapped up in figuring out how he’d got water on the leg of his trousers that he didn’t even notice. “Here. You’d better take this, too.”

 

THREE DAYS LATER

           
A loud crash in the bullpen made Lane put one palm to his ear. The pulsing and pounding in his head increased to a raucous drumbeat, and the afternoon sun stung his eyes so deeply he thought he was going to have to crawl under his desk for the smallest bit of relief.

“Hell’s teeth.” He settled for putting his head down as he reached out with the other hand to grope for the intercom button. “Katya.”

The resulting buzz and click that followed this summons made him whimper.

“Tell them to quiet down, damn it.”

She sounded amused. “You sound worse than yesterday.”

“I’ll fire them all if they don’t.”

“Right. And are you too ill for—?”

“What? No.” High heels clicked toward the door. Lane sat up in alarm, and immediately regretted it, as the room lurched in a sickening way. “Don’t come in here!”

Two soft taps, followed by Joan’s voice. “Lane, it’s me.”

Oh, damn it.

After a few seconds of glum deliberation, he rose from his chair, shuffled over to the door, and opened it with approximately zero fanfare, revealing Joan on the other side the doorway, wearing her oversized winter camel coat and carrying a large black pocketbook.

Without saying a word, he turned, and left her to follow in his wake.

As he sat down on the edge of the sofa, and rubbed two hands over his eyes, she shut and locked the door behind her. The sound of the deadbolt closing caused him to glance up at her through the gaps in his fingers.

She wasted no time with excuses. “I told Katya we’re not to be disturbed.”

They were silent for another moment, before she came to sit down on the other end of the sofa. Lane watched as she slowly lowered herself into a sitting position, and catalogued the slight twitch of her brow as she got settled.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

The ghost of a smile passed over her face, but her voice stayed flat. “From the looks of it, better than you.”

“Hmph. Probably.”

They sat in silence for another moment.

“I’m sorry,” Lane finally said. They locked eyes as he looked over at her. “I was drunk, and—horrid to you, and you didn’t deserve it. I should never have said any of that.”

Joan didn’t say anything.

“Please say you’ll forgive me.”

She let out a breath through her nose, and sat up straighter, as if she were steeling herself for something very unpleasant. As he watched her gather her courage, he counted to five, and then to ten, before she finally spoke.

“Lane, I don’t have a lot of close friends.”

Oh, god. He must have looked horrified, because she shot him a rather poisonous look as she kept talking, and held up a black-gloved hand. He got the gist. Shut up, damn it.

“At first, I thought they were all just jealous.” She uncrossed her ankles, and then crossed them the opposite way, left over right, knotting her hands in her lap and looking away to stare down at them as she spoke. “Every girl’s supposed to dream about marrying a handsome doctor.”

Lane glanced down at the sofa. The pounding in his ears intensified.

“And when old coworkers suddenly didn’t want to meet me in the city for drinks, or spend a night listening to me talk about Greg’s deployment, I just figured that was natural. People drift apart. They have husbands and families. And I thought I understood what that felt like, why they got so invested.”

He didn’t say anything.

“But then I got pregnant.” She started to take off her gloves, tugging deftly at the fingertips before pulling her left hand free and starting on the right. “And suddenly—it was like I was stranded on an island. All of these so-called friends had just…vanished. All I had was Kevin. Greg was never even around.”

“Joan,” he murmured.

“No. Let me finish.”

Lane snapped his mouth shut. She let out a sort of frustrated sigh.

“And after I had him, I was a mess, all I did was cry and complain. Kate was the only friend left who’d talk to me. Right before we moved here, she came for one last visit, and after spending two days in the same house with Greg, she just—” she let out a hoarse laugh “—let me have it.”

Lane waited a moment before speaking, just to make sure it was all right to ask questions. Clearly, they’d had some sort of nasty row about the husband.

“How badly did it go?”

“She called him a heartless bastard, among other things.” Joan glanced down at her hands again. “We haven’t talked since.”

“Oh.” Lane said.

She did smile this time, but it was such a sad smile that it made him ache.

“And somehow, everything you said hurt even worse.”

“Oh.” The shame built in his throat like heavy, thick bile. Lane put his face in his hands again. “God, I—I’m so sorry.”

Not enough, not by a long shot. The silence that blanketed them now was oppressive. It lingered between them for what seemed like an eternity before Joan finally spoke again.

“Honestly, I don’t know why I’m with him anymore.”

Lane yanked his head up so fast it almost sent the room spinning. Joan must have noticed his reaction, because she glanced sideways for a fraction of a second before returning her gaze to the front of the room. Like she couldn’t even look at him as she said this.

“Most days, I don’t even like him. He’s mean to me.”

Jesus Christ. Lane’s lungs suddenly felt like they had seized up.

“You—don’t say anything, if you don’t want to,” he said feebly, and ran both hands through his hair in an attempt to gain a moment of sanity. Why was she telling him this? Was she saying he was right? Was she saying she forgave him? Was she warning him never to overstep again? He knew he was missing some vital piece of information, but could not for the life of him articulate why that was so. “Truly. I should never have insulted you that way. I’m—it’s just humiliating.”

Joan nodded once. Her voice was very brittle. “I know.”

She leaned to her right and rummaged through her purse for a moment before producing a slim white envelope, slightly bent around the corners.

Lane accepted it in a daze. Without fanfare, he opened the envelope and pulled out the last few pages of the contract, steeling himself to see nothing but blank pages and have his heart broken all over again. Instead, at the bottom of the last page, he saw Joan’s name scrawled in loopy black letters.

“I’m leaving him,” she said softly, as Lane continued to stare at the signature. He flipped back and forth through the entire document, just to be sure he wasn’t hallucinating. Every page was initialed; every signature line was filled. He was so overwhelmed he could hardly speak. She’d actually taken the offer.

Joan watched him stare at the papers for a few more seconds, and then, without warning, scooted closer on the sofa, and leaned her head against his shoulder, as if she were too exhausted to keep sitting up straight.

“He thinks I’m quitting.”

Lane rested his head against the top of hers, savoring the closeness and the peaceful calm for as long as he could. She was leaving her husband. She was leaving her husband. She was actually leaving her husband.

Slowly, trying not to jostle her too much, he put a careful hand on the top of her knee, and closed his eyes in overwhelming relief when Joan didn’t immediately smack it off. She didn’t even move, just sighed, and so there they sat, quiet and still, for several minutes.

In the back of his head, a small thought filed itself away, one that would not cross his mind again until much later.

He’s mean to me.

**

Joan brought a small plate of food over to the kitchen table and sat down. Across the table from her, Greg was in the middle of a sandwich, regailing her mother with the latest stories from the department of funny immigrants.

“…anyway, so Denton had to pat this wispy little guy down, make sure he wasn’t carrying weapons. Swear to god, he reminded me exactly of Joanie’s boss, right down to the three-piece suits.”

Joan scoffed, and gave her husband a dirty look as she picked up her napkin. “Why?”

“Cause they’re both raging homos,” Greg said with a shrug.

Her mother choked, sprayed water onto her plate, and started to cough, quickly setting her glass on the tabletop.

“Greg!” Joan hissed, as all the color left her face.

“Did you really not know? Babe, I wouldn’t have let you work for him otherwise!”

She was so angry she was completely speechless.

Greg barked out a laugh at her open-mouthed outrage, and gestured at her mother with the bottom of the bottle of mustard he was currently holding. “See, Gail gets it. That guy is so fucking faggy!”

Mom was red-faced, basically doubled over in her chair, she was cackling so hard. And Greg was grinning at both of them across the table like he’d just told the funniest joke in the world. But Joan knew better.

Her mother was laughing the way she always did when somebody stupid had just gotten what was coming to them. Vividly, Joan remembered being fifteen and watching Mom’s same hysterical belly laugh ring out in the back room of a shitty little Fairfax diner, when their stingiest, meanest customer had just gotten clam chowder poured all over his front by an incompetent new girl.

Right now, Mom was dabbing at her eyes with her sleeve, still hooting as she sat back up, like one wrong word would set her off again. “Wh—what gave it away?”

“Mom!” Joan snapped.

“Well, the nails, for one thing. Those faggy little manners.” Greg cocked one eyebrow, widened his eyes until they bulged out, and opened his mouth, jutting out his lower jaw, so he looked absolutely grotesque. Joan wanted to pick up her plate and break it across his smug little face. Lane looked nothing like that. Lane wasn’t ugly or cruel. “I d-d-don’t shake hands cause of g-g-germs.”

Mom was clutching her stomach, cackling so hard she was short of breath. “Oh, my god!” She squeezed her eyes closed, and pursed her mouth, clearly struggling to keep it together. “Greg, y—you—r-really figured it out.”

She dissolved into hysterics again.

“Stop it!” Joan hissed, so furious now that her hands were shaking. Shut up! Just shut the fuck up, both of you! “He’s a good person. What’s wrong with you?”

“Jesus, Joanie.” Greg glared at her like she was the one being a spoilsport. “We’re kidding around. It’s funny. Quit being a wet blanket.”

Chapter Text

“Well, if you’d bothered to check in with me before the holiday, we wouldn’t be having this issue. Again.”

“Becca.” Lane bit off the dear that was somehow instinctual, even after five years of being apart. As his eyes flicked toward the east-facing window, he had to shield them from the early morning sun with one hand. “When we last spoke, in November, you indicated you were buying four records, not eight. The other four should have been left up to me, per our usual—” he changed tactics, mid-sentence. “Oh, I don’t think a few duplicate presents ruined Nigel’s Christmas, did it? Wasn’t he happy? He sounded so pleased on the phone.”

“That isn’t the point,” Becca said crisply, after a short pause. “We’re supposed to coordinate. He asked if we'd had another row.”

Was that curiosity in her voice? If this had caused a genuine problem with Nigel, she’d have laid into him over how inappropriate the musicians were to begin with. Historically, Rebecca had never liked any of their son’s music choices, even when, as a child, he’d preferred Mozart to Beethoven.

“Well, we should have spoken, obviously.” The next sentence was out of his mouth before he had time to think. “Tell him it's my fault. I haven’t been—Joan had emergency surgery, and Lewis is here, and it’s just—I’m not—thinking straight.”

As soon as he admitted this, Lane scrubbed a hand over his face, expecting a firing squad to pop up and kill him on the spot. The golden rule of being divorced and getting on was that they did not talk about paramours. Even Becca’s husband had been a touchy subject, in the beginning, until Nigel had started blabbing all about her idiot beau to anyone with a pair of ears. And then they’d all been forced to acknowledge the chap’s existence.

“Surgery?”

Lane was so shocked at hearing Becca ask about Joan in any positive capacity that he couldn’t lie about it.

“Burst appendix. She was—terribly ill.”

“Oh.” A small pause. “How ghastly.”

“Yes, it—really was.” Reason abandoned him entirely. This was the only excuse he could muster for his next few sentences. “She was in hospital several days. Very worrying. And of course her husband was just—”

“Goodness. The woman’s still married?” Becca actually chortled, a brief, hissing sound that Lane had originally found very adorable, and now considered a horrifying signifier of the end times. These days, she only laughed when she was ready to deliver some searing condemnation against him. “You must have given her quite the little reputation by now.”

Lane’s mouth fell open. “Rebecca!”

His ex-wife didn’t seem bothered, and continued in a blithe manner. “Of course you’re in denial about it.”

“No, now, stop this at once!“ Lane fumbled for the right words. Whatever Joan was to him was none of Becca’s business! “You—we aren’t even—”

“I’ll phone once Lionel and I have settled on a replacement present.”

“Stop talking over me, damn it! We are not finished!”

“Oh, yes, we are. Must go. Good-by.”

And Becca hung up.

Lane stared at the base of the telephone for several seconds, torn between phoning back in a fit of temper and leaving well enough alone. You must have given her quite the reputation. And his lame attempt at defending Joan against this horrid remark would have been even more treacherous—

We aren’t even sleeping together.     

With a sigh, he decided not to push his luck, and got up from his chair.

 

**

 

As Joan walked up the stairs of the U-bahn station at Sophie-Charlotte Straße, she checked her hand-drawn map, took a right, and continued down Schloßstraße. It was a quiet, divided street with a little park in the median between the roads, and handsome cobblestoned sidewalks bordering the old limestone and brick buildings on both sides.

This part of the city really was beautiful. Lane’s flat was about a twenty minute walk in the other direction, in Charlottenburg proper, so Joan had been to this particular station before. But before she started looking for a new apartment, she’d never walked this way before—not all the way down to the palace.

When they first moved to Berlin, it had seemed like a silly indulgence. Why would she cross half the city on foot just to see some stupid historical Prussian house? And how the hell would she have justified a visit to Greg? She went over an hour out of her way just to see a dumb baroque garden? What for? Couldn’t she find enough to keep her busy inside the house? He always thought she was too lazy for her own good, especially when all she could do was cry and sleep.

Well, Joan thought viciously, as she checked her map again; who the hell cared what Greg thought about it. All she had to do was get through four more days with him. On Wednesday, he was going out of town for some kind of surprise training exercise with his branch of the medical corps; it was all he’d been able to talk about for weeks.

While he was gone, she’d attend the annual media gala with Lane on Friday, woo a few potential clients, and come home to pack her closet and bedroom. The movers were scheduled to bring new beds and furniture by the new place on Thursday afternoon. Susie was going to let her borrow the Martin car on Saturday—under the pretense of taking things to Oxfam for donations—and everything else from the old house could be packed in a few brown boxes.

If everything went as planned, she’d be free.

Joan suppressed a shiver as she turned onto Neuefertstraße, and caught the estate agent’s eye from a distance. Andrea’s luxurious mink – a spotless creamy white – was hard to miss even in bad weather. Her blonde hair, Romanesque profile, and sharp features made her look very much like like Greta Garbo, although in Joan’s opinion, her agent was much warmer than Garbo had ever seemed on screen.

Andrea waved as she got a little closer. “Morgen!”

“Hallo.” Joan gave her a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Sie haben die papiere?”

“Of course.” Andrea produced a manila folder from her elegant black attache. “I am afraid your landlord could not be here, but that is all right. Alles klar, ja?”

“Yes.” Joan swept a piece of hair behind one ear to hide the fact that she was suddenly close to tears. Her eyes stung, but she refused to let her voice waver. “Alles klar. Um. If you have a pen, I’ll sign them now.”

Her hand trembled so violently she could barely hold the ballpoint, and bit back the apology that hovered on her lips. Don’t say sorry. Nobody cares if you’re sorry, especially since you’re lying about it anyway.

It’s just a reflex, she told herself as she scrawled her name in spidery handwriting, and gave Andrea the check for three months’ rent. You’ll feel better once everything’s done.

That’s it.

 

**

 

Early Wednesday morning, Greg’s bags were already packed and sitting by the door; he was leaving straight from the hospital instead of taking his usual night shift. Joan wasn’t sure where the Medical Corps did their training exercises these days, but she was relatively sure Greg’s unit had to fly a couple hours in one direction or another.

Kevin had already been fed, and was watching TV in the living room, and in the kitchen, Joan was preparing her own breakfast. Unfortunately, her fingers were too thick and clumsy to do anything right. All she wanted was a light breakfast before work: grapefruit and toast, but she was so wound up with nerves she could barely hold the knife without fumbling it.

Even as she silently begged for Greg to leave without making a scene, she knew it was too much to ask. Suddenly he was right there, hovering over her shoulder.

“You’re not even going to say goodbye to me now?”

"Yes." Joan’s mouth twitched before she was able to smooth her expression into something more placid. “I didn’t realize you were ready to go.”

“Joanie, I told you before: Maddox was picking me up at seven.”

“Okay.” Was that her voice—so quiet and raspy? Her arms were lead as she put the knife down onto the cutting board. “I’m sorry. Let me just—”

Without warning, like a toddler melting down after a long day, Greg yanked the grapefruit up from the cutting board and pitched each section toward her head like he was throwing a baseball, one half after the other. The first one caught her on the forearm as she raised her hands to shield her face, and the rind hit her skin with a wet smack. Squelch. The second half slammed into her stomach, flesh-first, and left a sticky dark stain on the front panel of her dress. Squelch.

Rooted to the ground, Joan stared down at the twisted, pulpy husks. Pale juice seeped onto the tile floor, and even from this angle, she was sure she could see thick finger marks wrapped into the rind, like the ghost of the long bruises she sometimes hid under her clothes.

Greg still had one arm poised in the air, like he was ready to throw something else at her face. And behind him, in the living room—oh, god.

A little blonde head peeked out from behind the sofa cushions. As Joan stood there, watching her son, praying he wouldn’t walk over, a creased forehead and two round brown eyes slowly rose up into view.

Had she screamed? Is that why he’d turned away from the TV?

“He saw you,” she finally forced out, and ripped her gaze away from her son's horrified face.

Greg just huffed in disgust. “What? Gonna get on my case about that, too?”

“Stop! I’m sorry,” Joan lifted her sticky hands in a helpless gesture of surrender. She tried not to cry, but the tears welled up anyway, spilling down her cheeks. “Greg, I was just trying not to get your uniform dirty. Can you please stop?”

Greg frowned at her, stunned, before his features suddenly relaxed. The sudden buoyance on his face made her want to vomit.

“Well, you don’t have to get all upset.” He let out a soft laugh. “Joanie, you make yourself crazy. This is why you're so depressed.”

“I know.”

The sudden creak of brakes by the curb, followed by two short beeps of the horn. Maddox must be here.

Greg leaned in and kissed her cheek. “I’ll be back Sunday, all right?”

“Okay.”

Joan tried not to recoil or shove him off with her rind-flecked fingers. She must have done a fairly good job, because he didn’t say another word to her as he went into the living room and waved goodbye to Kevin.

“See ya later, bud.”

Frozen, she watched her husband pick up his duffel, open the door, and head towards the street, whistling as it slammed closed behind him.

 

**

 

Joan had been scattered for most of the morning, so it came as no surprise to Lane when, after nearly five minutes of being alone together in his office, she finally put her papers aside and abandoned all pretense of working.

“Do you want my new telephone number?” she finally asked after a minute or so of silence.

Lane lifted his head to peer at her, not sure he’d heard correctly. “Hm?”

She was twirling her ballpoint pen between two palms; voice a quiet monotone. “They’re putting the new line in my apartment today. Living room and kitchen.”

“Oh.” He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say apart from congratulations. She didn’t seem very excited about it. “That’s good news, isn’t it?”

“Do you want it or not?”

“Well, obviously.” With a half smile, he scrawled a signature onto something Katya had flagged. “In case you haven’t noticed, I do enjoy talking to you on a regular basis.”

He thought that would have been fairly obvious, but Joan was staring at him as if he’d just said something shocking. Perhaps she’d only suggested it for practical reasons.

“And—you never know when it might be needed,” he continued.

“Yeah.” She let out a faint scoff. “No kidding.”

Ripping a scrap of paper off the top right corner of whatever she was working on, she scrawled down the number and folded the paper in half. Lane started to tease her about the destruction of company materials, but the solemn set of her face as she walked over stopped him cold. Why was she so unhappy? What was she dreading?

When she handed him the curled scrap of paper; Lane touched the top of her wrist with his free hand as their fingers brushed.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Joan made an embarrassed noise, averted her gaze. “Not really. I’ll be better Friday.”

“Well, yes.” Lane tried to stay cheerful. “Still leaves today, though.”

“Honestly, I’ll just be glad once all of this is over.” Her fingers twitched in his loose grasp before she squeezed his hand, once. “Um. Did you get your tux dry-cleaned for the benefit?”

“Dropped it off Monday.” He narrowed his eyes, still trying to decide if she was simply hiding her nervousness or if there was something else she wasn’t saying. When she became this tongue-tied about her feelings, Lane considered it a very bad omen. “Really. Are you sure there isn't—?”

A knock at the door interrupted them. “Herr Pryce, are you free?”

Katya’s voice. Blast it.

Anything I can do to help, Lane finished silently.

Joan pulled her hand away and walked back to her seat before he could protest. He tucked the scrap of paper into his breast pocket with a sigh.

           

**

           

“No, you should have the crib, one queen suite, and one full suite included on the receipt. I ordered them over a month ago.” Joan pried the phone away from her ear with a growl. “Fur mein baby und meine mütter. Zwei bett. Und eine—

The intercom buzzed; Joan immediately put the furniture store on hold to keep from losing her temper with them a second time.

“Mrs. Harris?" Katya sounded less cheerful than usual. "I have your husband on line one.”

Startled, Joan quickly answered the page. “What did he say? Is something wrong?”

“Just that he wanted to speak with you.”

“Did you tell him I was on the other line?”

“No,” came the confused reply. “I—told him you’d probably stepped out. You said you were going to lunch.”

Quickly, Joan weighed her options. One: she could answer the call, and rouse Greg’s suspicions if she wasn’t able to come up with a fast excuse as to why Katya kept putting him off. Although, if he was calling her at work when he was supposed to be training, he was probably suspicious about something. Or annoyed because she hadn’t stopped working yet. Why the hell was he even being given access to a phone during the ex—oh, god, of course.

Jesus. He’d probably lied about that, too. He could be anywhere right now.

As she weighed her options, Joan set her jaw. Fuck him. She was through letting Captain Doctor Harris run her life.

“Tell him you just missed me,” she told Katya, and hung up the receiver.

 

**

 

After dinner, reclining comfortably in an armchair with a brandy and his favourite pipe, Lewis spent nearly five minutes listening to Lane grind his teeth and mutter under his breath before he had to put an end to the matter.

“What on earth are you grumbling about over there?”

“I’m not grumbling,” came the answer from the sofa. “I am thinking. There’s a difference.”

Tisn’t, Lewis wanted to snip, but he went another way.

“And what, pray tell, has us so lost in thought?”

Joan, probably.

Lane let out a deep breath. “I’m just—not sure how this event’s going to go off. Joan and I are supposed to be mingling and wooing clients and all that, but it’s just—” he clenched his jaw, as if it took a superhuman effort to utter the next few words “—we’re not in the right frame of mind.”

“Why? You adore that sort of buttoned-down frivolity.”

“For god’s sake, Lewis, it’s a professional reception. And I don't adore them. But they can be—expedient.”

“Has Joan decided not to put in the effort?”

“No, that isn’t what—”

“If you say you’re in the right frame of mind, and Mrs. Harris is the only other senior partner in attendance, there is only one logical conclusion to be drawn.”

“Christ. I don’t know why I bother talking to you.” Seemed as if Lane was trying to be scornful, but he couldn’t achieve more than grumpy pettiness in his condition. “Joan will be there, obviously. But she has got a lot to be dealing with at present, far more than you, I daresay—”

“Good lord, what a hypocrite you are.”

“Will you stop badgering me?”

“Darling, if you’re so set on blindly defending the woman—over a point you brought up, I might add—at least have the decency to tell me why.”

While Lane was visibly fuming, Lewis took the time to exhale a few smoke rings. Finally, little brother found the words that were sticking in his craw.

“For your information, she and Captain Dr. Harris are having problems. Marital problems. And they’re very serious.”

“Oh, dear.” Lewis waggled his eyebrows. “Now you really must spill.”

“Will you stop it? The truth is that the blackguard’s unfaithful, and she—she hasn’t been happy. A resolution is developing. That’s all I’m able to say for now.”

“She throwing him out?”

“I said I’m not saying any more!”

Smirking, Lewis sat back in his chair. Lane had already said quite enough. He was probably going to spend the evening waiting for Joan to fling off her wedding ring and pull him to her very ample bosom.

“Shall I come and serve as your third wheel, then?”

“What.”

“Lost your hearing as well as your head? If you’re not able to put on airs at such a trying time, I could come along to this reception whatsit.”

“Dear lord. You—Lewis, you don’t know the first thing about business.”

“But I do know a little something about charming strangers.”

“No, you don’t.” Lane gave a derisive laugh. “People hate you.”

“Oh, little brother.” Lewis bared his teeth in a perverse grin, relishing the annoyance on Lane’s face when he saw it. “You’ll find most businessmen are quite fond of me when first we meet.”

“Yes, and then you open your enormous mouth to annoy the dickens out of them.” Lane let out a groan. “Oh, god. Fine. Come along, if it’ll get you to stop bothering me. Not as if you’ve anything better to do.”

“Such a generous invitation.”

“Stop it.”

“My devoted baby brother, giving me his express permission to—”

With a drawn out growl, Lane tossed a throw pillow toward Lewis’s face; Lewis batted it aside with one slippered foot before it got anywhere near him.

 

**

 

“Shit! I keep wrinkling this.” Joan set the iron aside on the wooden board for the second time in as many minutes; steam hissed out of the metal pores in a vaporous, angry cloud. “I don’t even know why I’m going. We should stay here. Finish packing. Jesus Christ. I should call Lane; I need to—”

Her mother pulled her glasses down from her nose, crossed the room, and shooed Joan away from the ironing board, toward the sofa.

“Stop. Go sit down; I’ll finish this.”

Joan did sit down, but it didn’t stop her heart from pounding. Each breath was so painful it felt like somebody was sitting on her chest, and her fingers were numb and heavy. She focused on the arm of the couch, petting the ugly plaid threads with the tips of her fingers. They were coarse against her palm.

“Joanie.”

Flushing, Joan yanked her hand back down into her lap. “What?”

When she looked up, she saw Mom was staring at her.

“Only one more day, baby. You hear me?”

She nodded yes, mute.

“Okay. Say it back to me.”

Joan dropped her eyes to the armrest again, and began tracing the thick threads again.

“One more day,” she repeated quietly, as if saying the words out loud would finally make them true. By this time tomorrow, she could start putting all of this behind her. Have a new life with Kevin and her mom in a beautiful new apartment, where nobody screamed or made her cry or put his hands around her throat. She could forget about Greg, and the Army, and eight years of unrelenting ugliness.

All she needed to do was get through one more day, and this would all be over.

Chapter Text

Coiffed to perfection, wearing a brand new black and white-patterned caftan dress, Joan moved through the expansive and still fairly empty ballroom in an almost-manic haze, searching for familiar faces.

When she spotted Lane across the room, polished and proud in his new tuxedo, and with his brother standing next to him dressed to the nines, the cinch in her chest loosened slightly, and she forced herself to slow her steps as she walked over.

Joan Harris does not run. She does not panic.

If she repeated this mantra enough, it might come true.

Lane waited until she was within earshot to say hello, although Joan knew he’d spotted her long before. But the way he stepped forward to squeeze her hand was new, even if the gesture was nothing by European standards.

“Well, you look very smart tonight.”

“So do you. Hi, Lewis.” Joan forced herself to smile, be radiant, even if she felt like screaming. Mom was coming home early tonight, so by the time Joan got home, the baby’s things would be packed and ready to take to the new flat. They’d finish packing her room, grab a few small things from the common areas, and go. “Couldn’t resist one last party before you left?”

“Ugh. Not remotely a party. I’ve seen funerals with more spirit.” A pause; Lewis’s gaze flicked up and down, as he sized her up in an outrageous way. “Smashing figure in that gown, however. Very well done.”

This elicited him a smack on the arm and a mouthed sorry from Lane.

Joan just smirked; she knew Lewis had about as much interest in making a real pass at her as he did the creature from the black lagoon. “Well, if it’ll convince these dirty old men to give P&H all their ad revenue...” Trailing off, she forced herself not to open her purse, to still her hands in front of her body. She was fine. Everything was fine. “Although, I do need a drink. Where’s the bar?”

“Over here.” Lane gestured behind her, toward the back of the room. “I’ll join you.”

Although they didn’t say a word during the walk to the nearest champagne tray, just having him at her side was enough. He took two glasses from the waiter with a mumbled thanks, and carried hers halfway across the ballroom before offering it to her.

“You all right?”

Yes. She bit her lip, suddenly shy. No.

“Overwhelmed.” There weren’t enough people around to overhear them, but Joan couldn’t count on herself to stay calm if she revealed the details. She’d resolved not to tell anyone the full story until she was safe. No. Gone. “I’ll probably duck out a little early, if you don’t mind. Um. I’m really not in the mood for all of this.”

“You don’t have to explain,” Lane said quickly, causing her to sigh in relief. Thank god. She didn’t have to make up excuses, or pull the truth out of her throat like a knife from raw flesh. She could just be here, with him, like it was any ordinary day. “We’ll just stick to business this evening, if that’s all right. Let me lead the conversation.”

“Yes.” Joan gulped down a long drink of champagne, grateful beyond words. “Thank you. I’d like that.”

“Ah – and I meant to ask, before we start chatting up various accounts – how do you think we ought to start the pitch, this time?”

“I guess it doesn’t really matter. Long as we can get two, maybe three principals interested, I think we’d be in good shape.”

 

**

 

By the time she had a second, and then a third glass of champagne, the party was in full swing. Nobody was presenting awards tonight, thank god, but conversation was flowing, and happily, Lane was more extroverted than usual, fielding questions and exchanging dry quips with these old Europeans like he’d been born to do it.

After helping him chat with some high-level manufacturing execs , Joan decided to take a break from her duties with the only other person in the room who could calm her nerves.

“Why is every married perv in this place coming up to you?”

Twenty different men had already said hello to Lewis in the ten minutes Joan had been standing here.

Lewis just winked at her. “Well, like attracts like, dear girl, and more’s the pity. Oh, plus I had that one, there, by the flower arrangement. Ten o’clock.”

He nudged her in the side with one elbow, clearly guiding her gaze.

Joan waited a beat, pursed her lips, and turned briefly to take that corner of the room in. Two or three regular couples. No truly flamboyant ones, although one pair was wearing rather tropical colors for a winter occasion.

“Who? With the ugly wife?”

“No, not them. Thin, weedy chap with the orange blazer. Rubbish shag. Don’t bother.”

Appearing just in time to overhear the last sentence, Lane made a horrified shushing noise as he walked up. “You’re being vile. Make yourself useful or clear off—and stop telling Joan so many horrid stories.”

Horrid or not, Joan didn’t really mind. She was just thankful for the distraction. Instead of losing her head worrying about logistics, she was too busy trying to figure out how Mr. Crazy Blazer managed to get anyone into bed at all, let alone an extrovert like Lewis. But maybe that was the appeal. Some men liked wallflowers, girls with no self-esteem. It was probably just the same with effeminate men.

“You enjoy the delicate ones, don’t you?” she asked Lewis, who just smirked.

“Oh, god.” Lane immediately spun on his heel, waving one resigned hand. “Going back to the bar. Come and find me once I’ve started talking to the biscuit people. Ought to land at least one more follow-up tonight.”

“Sure. Just give me the high sign.”

As Lane walked away, Lewis gave her a curious look. “Why on earth aren’t you the bait? He’s ghastly at selling to strangers.”

“I know.” Joan couldn’t help the little laugh that bubbled up from her throat as she scanned the crowd. “But he’s even worse at closing.” And I’m bringing the room down. I asked him to do it. “I figure he’ll be all right for five minutes of earnest conversation that isn’t about business.”

Lewis seemed skeptical. “Brave of you.”

“No, honestly. If he can practice ahead of time, it isn’t as awful as you’d—”

The rest of her sentence caught in her throat.

Walking across the ballroom, wearing spit-shined black shoes, drab trousers so starched Joan could see the creases folding across the shins, and a crisp olive semi-winter uniform jacket—medals gleaming across his chest—was Greg. And he was staring right at her.

“Oh, god.”

She couldn’t tell if she had said that out loud, but there was no time to warn Lewis, or pretend she hadn’t spotted him walking over. Greg was her husband, for god’s sake, and they were in public; what was she supposed to do? Run? Scream? Cry?

Do it, urged a voice in the back of her mind. Now.

But she couldn’t move.

And by the time Greg got to her, he threaded past her champagne glass like seeing her was the greatest gift in the world, leaning in to kiss her cheek with a loud smack!

“Hi, honey,” he said.

She could hardly force words from her throat. Even opening her mouth to say hello was risky; it cut too close to home. Questions like where the hell were you or why are you here or do you know thundered against the roof of her mouth.

“I didn’t think you were coming,” was all she managed, first, some semblance of a smile ghosting to her mouth. The gesture felt hollow and weak.

Greg just shrugged, gave her a toothy smirk as he patted her cheek with one hand. “Well, that makes two of us. Heard you weren’t home. Thought I’d drop by.”

Get off me, Joan wanted to snarl, but fear fluttered in her chest, thick and heavy and threatening to pull her underwater.

“Sorry. Are you wearing those pins for a laugh, or…?”

In any other circumstance, watching the way Greg’s jaw tightened at the question would have made Joan smile. Right now, she could barely manage to turn a blank gaze in Lewis’s direction.

“No,” Greg said flatly, and finally turned, shooting Lewis a glare of disgust. “Who the hell are you?”

“Greg!”

“Oh, don’t worry about him, darling.” Lewis extended his hand; Joan watched, distantly fascinated, as he clasped Greg’s fingers in a vise-like grip, practically yanking him off-balance as he pulled Greg forward for the handshake. “Lewis Pryce. Pleasure.”

Greg’s petulant frown only deepened as he recovered his balance. “Wait. You’re not—are you related to Joanie’s boss?”

“My, my. How nice to know one’s reputation precedes them.”

Joan could hardly breathe. “Lewis lives in London. He’s just visiting for the holidays.”

“Well.” Lewis gave Greg a very knowing look. “What can I say? The company my dear brother keeps had me quite curious.” He arched one eyebrow. “But I’m certain you wouldn’t know anything about it.”

Greg laughed, but the strained amusement didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I’m a happily married man, Mister Pryce.”

“Yes, so I see.” Lewis grabbed a glass of whiskey from the nearest passing waiter; the boy looked startled and then annoyed to see it get plucked from his full tray. It had probably been going to someone important, at one of the tables. “Ah. But where on earth are my manners? I’m sure you’ve just got back from some very important exercise, hm?”

He glanced at Joan, who gave him a faintly startled look in response.

“Oh. He was away. It—I think it was, um, some kind of—training?”

Her voice faltered on the last word. Greg’s smile turned brittle and plastic as he tried to play it off.

“Jesus, honey. It’s a drill weekend. I only mentioned that about a hundred times.” With a roll of his eyes, he gave Lewis a look that said the other man should understand. “Girls.”

“Well, to be fair, it doesn’t seem very interesting,” Lewis interrupted, flashing a winning smile in response to Greg’s lemon-mouthed expression of outrage. “Although perhaps I’m mistaken. What is it that you do again, Captain?”

“Major Doctor, actually,” Greg said through gritted teeth. “I’m a cardiothoracic surgeon.”

“Ah. And does your Army frequently ask you to practice such laborious cardiac procedures out of town?”

“Yeah. Sometimes. Hey, Joanie.” Greg turned to her, with all the subtlety of a bored kid in the middle of a department store. “Think it’s about time to get home.”

“Not yet.” Joan’s clipped answer was a surprise, even to her. “The party’s just starting.”

He laughed in that tense, awkward way again, hissing out a frustrated noise through his teeth as he rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. The embroidered gold oak leaves on his officer’s cap tilted forward in an alarming way. “You promised you’d be done with this by New Year’s.”

“It’s the twenty ninth,” Joan responded, as light and blandly pleasant as possible. A realization suddenly hit her between the eyes like a hammer blow, hard and fast. Our anniversary was two days ago. We both forgot. “And I told Mr. Pryce I would attend.”

“So you have. Little brother most appreciates a woman of her word.” Without pausing for breath, Lewis stepped closer to Joan’s side, and proffered his right elbow toward her, holding a loosely-clenched fist directly level with his second button. “Now, my dear Major, we’ve business to attend to, I’m afraid. If you get bored, I’m sure there are plenty of housewives eager to chat to you about the weather.”

“Rather talk to my wife, actually.”

But they were already walking away, Joan’s heels clicking rapidly on the parquet floor as they glided just out of earshot.

“Thank you,” Joan choked out in a low voice.

There wasn’t time to say anything else. She could hear footsteps behind them, heavy and impatient, and knew Greg was following them.

“Reggie,” Lewis boomed once they he’d led her up to a small crowd of people; Joan recognized, with a start, the effeminate-looking man he’d pointed out to her earlier, the one wearing a violent orange blazer. “How utterly delightful to find you here. May I assume this lovely creature next to you is your lady wife?”

Reggie looked just as surprised to see Lewis pop up next to them, but played along gamely. “Oh. Well, yes.” He gestured to the severe-looking blonde in bright turquoise. “Hannah, this is Lewis. Lewis, Hannah. He’s, uh, a pal of mine from–from work.”

Peering at Joan, who stood so close to Lewis she was nearly off-balance, and then at a pouting, frustrated Greg, who was practically trying to tug her back to his side.

“Oh, is–Lewis, is this your wife? Sorry, I don’t think we’ve–”

“Goodness, Reg, what kind of mongrel do you take me for? Mrs. Harris is far too lovely and intelligent for the likes of–”

Joan could almost hear the growl in Greg’s voice when he spoke. “She’s with me.”

The entire party turned to stare at him in unison.

If Greg had been thinking clearly, he would have seized the opportunity to say the right thing, or to insert himself into the group, but instead, he stood awkwardly at Joan’s right hand, hovering next to her like a praying mantis poised for the kill.

Lewis just shrugged off Greg’s temper, like a catty twelfth-grader commanding the lunch table. “Major Doctor’s not quite the party type, I’m afraid. But he does so enjoy keeping an eye on things. Namely, me. Can’t imagine why.”

Catching Reggie and Hannah’s gazes with an obvious wink, he let out a low, dark laugh. The entire group laughed with them. Joan was so nervous even she couldn’t help chuckling. It really was ridiculous. Who the hell would assume Lewis belonged with any of these corporate men - or assume that he was a straight man? He was gayer than anyone Joan had ever met. Even the drag queens from the Village managed to have a little less panache in full streetwear than he carried in plain tuxedo pants and a double-breasted jacket.

“Look, I’ve got to interrupt ya. The lady said she wants to go home.”

Oh, god, oh god. In a perfect world, Lane would be here and he’d be able to stop this without seeing the awfulness unfolding in front of her eyes.

“Is that what you heard before?” Lewis didn’t release her arm, but she could feel the sudden way he straightened up, like he was ready for a fight. “Dear Major, if that’s the case, one really must brush up on his conversational prowess.”

“Listen, buddy, she said–”

“Stop it, both of you.”

For the second time that night, everyone swiveled to stare at her.

“You’re talking about me like I’m not even here,” she hissed.

Joan pulled her arm from Lewis’s grasp, even knowing that it was the stupidest choice she could make, it was better than being humiliated in front of every stranger at this party. It was better than looking like an exhausted, desperate fool with an exhausting husband.

“Joanie.”

Don’t you dare, she wanted to scream at Greg. This is your fault.

“I’m sorry. I need some air.”

She walked away. He followed.

Two minutes later, on some forgotten patio that was so dark even the sconces were barely lit, Joan stumbled into the bitter cold in nothing but her caftan, trying to yank her left arm out of Greg’s grasp.

“Let go of me!”

“Tell me what the hell is going on with you two.”

“I just told you. We’re working.”

“Bullshit. How many times have you fucked him?”

Joan took a step back by reflex, mouth dropping open in a surprised huff. “Excuse me?”

“Jesus, Joanie. You really gonna lie to me like this?”

“Look at me. Are you drunk?”

He started pacing, clearly agitated that she’d figured this out. “Don’t do – don’t fucking dodge the question! How many times’ve you fucked him?”

Joan let out a disbelieving noise. All that screwing around, and he wanted to try and pin something on her? What for? What could he possibly have seen?

“We are not going to have this conversation right now.”

She tried to shove past him. He blocked the doorway.

“The hell we aren’t. Answer me. How many times?”

“My god! There’s nothing to tell. Greg, nothing like that has happened. I have – I am faithful to you.”

Mostly.

He stabbed a finger at the closed balcony door. “Well, guys like that don’t give a woman the time of day unless she’s given them a reason.”

“What?” Joan was momentarily thrown. “Who are you talking about?”

“Everyone saw it! You let that cocky son of a bitch put his hands all over you! Calling you darling and pet and all of that goddamn British bullshit!”

“Oh, my god.” A wild, derisive laugh burst out of her throat. “You think I slept with - with Lewis?

Greg’s face darkened when the barb didn’t hit its mark. “Don’t.”

“What? Don’t tell you the truth? Jesus, I can’t believe you dragged yourself all the way over here for this bullshit.”

“It’s not bullshit! You’ve been lying to me, Joanie–”

She raised her hands in a false gesture of surrender. “Oh, no, I haven't. But if you’re so bothered by his obvious masculine charms, let me tell you once and for all: Lewis and I have never and will never sleep together. Jesus!”

“Prove it.”

“I don’t have to! He’s a flaming queer!” Joan shouted back, finally matching Greg’s volume. The knot in her chest had loosened, slightly, just enough to make her bold. “And unless I chop off my tits, have a personality transplant, and grow something else instead, he’s never going to try!”

Greg’s mouth dropped open. He ran a hand through the back of his hair, clearly trying not to show how off-kilter he was, how much he didn’t know.

“No. No, that can’t be right.”

“Well, it is! And everyone–”

“No. You – you can’t have two queers in the same family! That’s not possible, Joanie, okay?”

Joan’s scorn turned to hysterics again. Another raw laugh tore from her throat. “Oh, my god. You are so stupid, do you know that?!”

“What?”

“You’re an idiot,” she snarled, louder this time, cherishing the way the words felt in her mouth, emphasizing each one with a raised finger. “You walk in here and make a big damn scene, acting like everything is my fault, and my problem, when I’m not the one who let his Chief Residency slip through his butterfingers. I’m not the one who assumed moving to Germany would automatically get me promoted. Hell, I’m not even the one fucking every teenage girl from here to Luxembourg! So you can just drop the good soldier act already, because it’s sure as hell not fooling anyone out here.”

His dark eyes pinned her to the wall. “Shut up.”

“The hell I will! You’re not a good man. And you never were, even before we were married–”

The hard slap still caught her off guard; rang through her head like a bell; her cheek and jaw throbbed hot from the sheer force of the blow, and tears sprang to her eyes. Gingerly, she put two fingers to her nose. Her fingertips came away tinged with red, and wet with blood. Her mouth was trembling.

She dug one heel into the ground. Stood taller. “You know what I’m talking about.”

Greg struck her again, harder this time, and the sound reminded Joan of wet cement, heavy and thick, each new jolt of pain rippling through her like a wave. The next few minutes weren’t so clear. She remembered the sucker punch; the blossom of darkness and the shock of total breathlessness as her legs went out from under her. She remembered waking up on her side; the way her fingernails scrabbled against Greg’s uniform and unyielding, searing-cold concrete, animalistic, and how everything in her peripheral vision went fuzzy and dim, except for the shape of his wingtip boots. So sharp. Dusty from this angle.

And for some reason, they were stepping backwards, they were stumbling away.

When Joan glanced up, slowly, Greg was still standing over her. He swiped the back of one shaking hand across his mouth. A trickle of blood rolled down his left pinky and stained the cuff of his shirtsleeve. Standard issue. They were changing the uniforms soon.

“Jesus,” he said–quiet, almost dumb.

“What’re you gonna do now?” Joan tried to croak out. “Rape me? Hit me?”

Had the words even left her mouth? She wasn’t sure.

Greg didn’t answer her, or say anything in response. He barely even looked at her. Like she was the ugliest person alive.

Just turned and strode out of sight, as if nothing had happened.

Alone on the ground, whimpering out each breath, so tense the pain throbbed over her in waves, Joan curled into herself on the hard, rough stone, wrapped one arm around her middle and shook and shook.

 

**

 

Out behind the kitchens, smoking with the staff, Lewis plucked a cigarette from the battered pack the young waiter offered him, thumbing it up to his mouth with a growl of irritation. Although fraternizing with the help didn’t say much for the state of the party inside, it was far better than making inane conversation with a bunch of halfwits.

Not a word from Joan since he saw her last, or even from Lane, who’d been jolly well absent ever since departing for the bar, nearly an hour ago. And no trace of the petty, jealous husband, either. Lewis had walked around nearly every inch of the place to make sure of that.

Yes. He was going to put his fist through that blackguard’s teeth sooner or later. It was only a matter of time.

“What are you thinking about now?” the lad nearest him asked, as he leaned in to light Lewis’s cigarette.

Better to let me show you. The retort was on the tip of his tongue as the flame flickered out between them, but a sudden noise from the dark expanse of grass in front of them made Lewis straighten to attention. Like a rabbit rustling in the brush.

“Red squirrels,” someone suggested in German. “Little buggers.”

Too big for that. And the next noise, a hard click against asphalt, only confirmed it.

Several yards away, under the dim light of a streetlamp, an unrecognizable woman staggered into view. Her thick red hair was in utter disarray, hanging in large tangles around her ears and face, with only the barest remains of an elegant updo sitting cockeyed on the side of her head. Her black and white caftan rippled around her body, trailing leaves and dirt and sticks and other debris in all directions, and a few of the edges seemed too jagged to be the cut of the fabric. Not torn by design.

And when she finally got close enough for them to see her face, her hands, her legs–alternately blackened and bloody and swollen and scuffed–the gut-churning guilt that rushed into Lewis’s stomach was at once horrifyingly new and all too familiar.

Behind him, the young lads were whispering to each other, clearly fearful, not sure what to say or to do.

Lewis wasn’t paying attention to them. He kept his gaze locked on Joan’s, waiting for her to speak, or to say something, or do to anything apart from stare at him, her good eye wide and unblinking, practically unseeing, as she limped closer.

“Help me,” she whispered.

Chapter Text

Sitting at the bar alone, bored and rather dejected, Lane felt a brisk tap on his shoulder and turned in his chair just in time to see Gail Holloway slide in next to him.

“Hey. Where the hell’s my kid?”

Although Lane had searched all over the ballroom, the bar, and the other venues in this wing of the hotel, he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Joan since they parted ways in the ballroom. And that was ages ago. He didn’t think she would have gone home without at least saying goodbye, but when walking around had turned up nothing...

“Thought she was meeting you?”

“She was supposed to. But I waited twenty minutes by the front door.” Gail reached out, grabbed the shot of whiskey that had been sitting on the bar mat, unclaimed, for nearly ten minutes, and drank it without batting an eyelash before pushing the glass back into place. “Something’s wrong. I can just feel it.”

Lane could see why that might be so. Weeks of planning had led up to tonight. Even at the beginning of the evening, Joan had been visibly anxious, which was one of the reasons why he hadn’t minded being left to fend for himself with clients. She wasn’t in the right frame of mind to put anyone at ease, and seeing her practically ill with worry hadn’t helped him do it, either.

Lifting a glass of champagne to her lips, but barely drinking any. Voice low and flat. You’ll feel better if I’m not bringing everyone down.

That’s not true. In response to the quirk of her eyebrow that accused him of lying. I’ll feel better once you’re moved and settled.

It had made her smile: barely more than a twitch, but the sentiment had cheered her. And in hindsight, such a tepid response seemed phenomenally stupid.

Why had he left Joan on her own, knowing what she’d planned to do next? Why would she have gone home alone? Why didn’t she meet Gail?

Only one question to be asked.

“Do you want help looking?”

Gail let out a huff of a sigh as she gathered up her purse. “Well, I’m not sitting around here all night. Come on. Get your coat.”

“Yeah. All right.”

We’ll go and find her.

 

**

 

“You there. Have you got a car?”

The small blonde boy standing nearest the skip bin startled in surprise, answering Lewis in German. “No. But Hermann does.”

Lewis rounded on Hermann, who turned out to be the lad he’d been sitting next to, just before. “Right. Hermann, my lad. Your keys.”

“What?”

A few feet to his left, Joan was whispering to herself; Lewis glanced over and saw her touch her scabbed palm in silent horror. Completely shellshocked, poor thing.

“Keys,” he repeated. “To lend us your car.”

“But – but you can’t –”

“Look here. This woman, my friend, is trying to get away from her beast of a husband before he can finish her off. She’s got a baby and her mother to look after. Now, will you help her, or won’t you?”

By this point, Hermann was practically unmoored, stuck to his seat on the old vegetable crate, gaping at them as if they were speaking Greek. Lewis was through waiting for the idiot to recover his wits.

“Your keys, man!”

Hermann tossed them to him and leapt upright, heading for the door with one last spluttered sentence. “Black Volkswagen. K70. Just around the corner - less than a block.”

“We’ll have it back there tomorrow night.” Lewis pocketed the keyring, gave the lad a decisive nod. “You have my word.”

With that, Hermann and the rest of the staff disappeared inside.

Now that they were alone, Lewis turned to gauge Joan’s condition in more detail. First thing he noticed was that she was shaking so violently he could see the tremor in her hands from this distance. Her eyes were wide, darting from place to place as if she were thinking about running. Terrified out of her wits, probably. The yelling. Damn it.

“Joan.” He pitched his voice a little higher, enough to make him unthreatening, or even kind. Less like a growling roughshod. “Sorry, dear girl. Here. Take my hand if you like.”

Joan wasn’t quite looking at him, now, but she did reach out, if feebly.

“There now. Let’s see where it hurts, hm?”

“Greg knocked me out.” She tilted her head to one side, almost experimental, as she said this, still not meeting his gaze. “I didn’t think he’d knock me out. He never hits with a fist.”

The words sent a chill down his spine. “I’m sure he doesn’t.”

“He’s always been jealous.” Her eyes were distant. “Forced himself on me, once. Brought me red roses and pinned me down in Don’s office. Because I hated French food.”

Lewis bit the inside of his tongue until he tasted blood, to stop himself from reacting in a way that might horrify her. “Did he?”

“Sometimes it doesn’t even feel real. Like it’s happening to somebody else.” A sudden, terrible light came into her face. “Oh, god. Kevin.”

She stumbled forward, panicked, and grabbed at Lewis’s hand in a desperate way. With dismay, he noted that the pads of her fingers were scraped raw.  God almighty. She’d tried to crawl off.

“Greg’s going to – we have to – I need – ”

Unable to articulate what was clearly her deepest fear, Joan’s face contorted with pain, and her breathing quickened at an alarming rate.

Right. Calm her down.

“Come on, Joan. Deep breaths, dear.”  He counted out the beats to her for several minutes before they could speak again.  “Let me see you home. Where do you live? Have you got something with your address on it?”

“No. Um. Yes.” Joan was still wheezing. Least she could speak. “Oh, god, Lewis; he’ll be there. He’ll be there.”

“He won’t be. I promise you.” Lewis had honed an instinct for these things. “He’s going to drown himself in self-pity and whiskey. And in the meantime, we’ll put everything in order.”

“Please, I need my son. I can’t just – ”

She wobbled on her feet, and suddenly sat down, hard, as if her knees had gone to jelly. Lewis really wasn’t sure if she had heard a word he’d said.

“Of course, pet. We’ll go and get the boy. I’ll take you to the car now.”

Joan looked up at him now, and then back down to her lap, her cut, swollen face clouded with confusion and possibly even shame. “My legs won’t work.”

Shit. Lewis shut his eyes for a moment, and summoned all the better angels of his nature before releasing a deep breath. That fucking cur of a doctor ought to be shot on sight.

“Well," he said, in as kind a voice as he could manage, "that’s all right. Will you let me help?”

After a small pause, she nodded.

Satisfied, he bent down, picked her up, and promptly tipped her into his left shoulder in a type of fireman’s carry, absorbing her full weight with a grunt. The keyring in his pocket stabbed into the side of his leg as he adjusted his hand against the back of her thigh. Even with the caftan between them, it was strange. The poor girl was clearly uncomfortable. Though her body had gone rigid with distress, she was oddly silent. But carrying her this way was better than trying to whisk her round like a living doll for the rest of the night. Or, worse, bridal-style.

“Sorry for the cheek.” Once they were balanced and ready, Lewis managed a wheeze of a laugh at this terrible bon mot. Nothing to write home about, particularly given the situation, but least one person out of two wasn’t panicking. “Only way to manage the trick knee. Off we go.”


Black Volkswagen. Perhaps this street, just beyond the trees.

 

**

 

“Gail, she isn’t here.”

They’d trudged up and down every possible path to the ballrooms, checked the front desk, the lobby, the restaurants, the toilets, and all the rest. Lane even kept glancing over at the elevators, wondering if there was perhaps a lounge or even a sitting area on the upper floors where Joan could have gone.

Why would she have gone upstairs?

To hide , his mind kept insisting. But that simply didn’t make sense.

“What are we missing?” he asked aloud, still trying to work through all the possibilities in his head. “Would she have gone home alone, do you think?”

When he glanced over at Gail, he noticed that her eyes were fixed on a rather plain-looking door.  “Where does that lead? Did you try it before?”

“Don’t know.” Lane weighed the likely options. Vaguely, he recalled seeing some sort of tray in front of it earlier in the evening, perhaps at the end of the event. “Service hallway? Not sure if I could get through, earlier.”

She paused for no more than a second. “I want to check it. Let’s go.”

“Well – be careful.” Lane followed Gail as she strode toward this unknown door; although she was shorter, she walked quickly and with purpose, so much so that he was forced to lengthen his stride considerably to keep up with her brisk, hurried steps. “Don’t get into trouble.”

At his mild rebuke, Gail stopped short with her hand on the knob, throwing him a venomous look that was so familiar and yet so alien that the use of it here took him aback. Now he knew just where Joan had learnt it.

“What are you, twelve?”

She opened the door. A blast of freezing air swept over them. Beyond that, the bright light from the open doorway faded gradually into darkness.

It was some kind of balcony. Probably looked out onto a garden.

Lane propped the door open with one foot as Gail hurried past, peering through the marble columns in one direction and then the other. He had just opened his mouth to say something when a slight rustling in the bushes to his left made him turn. And what he saw illuminated by the faint light filtering into the darkness made his stomach turn cold.

“Gail.”

She turned, followed his panicked gesture to its point of origin: a place on the ground perhaps five or ten feet to the left of where he stood in the doorway. It would have seemed ordinary to any other person. Bit of dust, bit of detritus: cigarette butts, a few scraps of paper, et cetera. But tonight, a glimmering article lay on the stone, and couldn’t be attributed to some chance of sediment. Too big. Too out of place.

Lane watched, stunned, as Gail knelt down and picked up the object that had caught his attention: a long, delicate clip-on earring next to a dark patch of ground. Silver strands and small diamonds glittered as they caught the light. Same pair Joan had been wearing earlier. He remembered because they looked like two tiny chandeliers.

Without a word, Gail touched the palm of her free hand to the darkest part of the balcony’s surface, as hesitantly as if she expected it to move under her feet. And then she brought her hand back up to her face – licked the pad of her thumb, experimental, as if confirming a hunch – and sat back on her heels, unmoving.

Neither of them spoke for a moment. And when she finally looked back at him, anguish was written all over her face.

“It’s blood.”

Lane swore out loud. “Oh, god.”

An off-chance remark leapt to the forefront of his mind. He’s mean to me.

Perhaps it wasn’t just spite Joan was worried about.

Mean to me.

Christ almighty. Lane covered his mouth in horror as an answer welled up in his mind. He could barely speak. “Gail, does the doctor – has he – hurt her?”

Gail’s mouth was set in a thin line.

“God damn it.” Lane groaned, hating himself for his own stupidity. “That’s why he wanted her to stop working.” Other bits of information, things he assumed he’d forgotten, collided into his train of thought. “The surgery. The breakdown. All the rows.” He’s mean to me. “Fucking hell. He caused all of it, didn’t he?”

“Joanie told you all that?”

Gail was not looking at him; her eyes were focused out into the brush around the balcony, and the grounds behind it. But she sounded floored.

“Well, no. But when we met again, it was – almost obvious.” Like all the other signs should have been. The veneer of respectability. Joan’s timidity. Greg’s controlling tendencies, all masked under false husbandly concern. “I’d never seen her so sad.” The tears she’d tried to hide as they’d made terrible conversation at the market. How she’d drunk up the smallest drops of kindness, a desert flower dying of thirst. “Like she was just lost. She was desperate for a friend. I – I thought that was all.”

And you missed it, his mind railed. You saw her struggling, listened to all her stories, and you didn’t even think to ask the obvious. You didn’t ask how she came to feel so hopeless. Who in her life had driven her to the brink of such boundless despair, and why.

Gail let out a huff of breath through her nose, quickly changing the subject. “That door lock from the inside?”

He turned; tried the brass handle. Although the cold metal stung his fingers, the door latch didn’t budge. Quickly, he reached for the other side, and fixed the lock, so they wouldn’t be trapped out here by a stiff breeze or something equally unfortunate.

“How did you catch that?”

“Look.” She motioned him closer. He double-checked the door handle to make sure it was unlocked, and, satisfied, joined her at the edge of the balcony. She pointed through the thickest part of the bushes. “Right there.”

Lane noticed she held a small black torch in her hand, which lit a small patch through the darkness. He couldn’t help feeling impressed.

“Do you always carry that?”

“Always be prepared.” She let out a brief, unamused laugh. “Jack was a Boy Pioneer. You see it?”

Adjusting his glasses, Lane peered toward the indicated spot. Between the brambles and thick plant limbs, he finally spotted what Gail’s sharp eyes had immediately noticed: a scrap of black and white fabric snagged amid the web of vines and thorns, and a single white high-heeled pump in the leaves and sticks below that.

Two feet beyond it: a small black clutch purse.

Even with all the clues in front of his face, Lane did not want to believe them.

“That’s got to be six or eight feet.” His mind refused to process it. She’d actually jumped. “Could’ve broken her leg. Or – or worse.”

“When she was sixteen, she snuck out her window every night for a year.” A distant expression unfolded over Gail’s face. “Climbed down the gutters and jumped once she hit the first floor. I could always hear the hinges squealing.”

“Of course she did.” Lane smiled for a moment, before the seriousness of the situation overwhelmed him again. If she’d been badly hurt, and escaped off the back balcony in the dead of night, then what next? He sighed again, more mournful this time. “But where would she have gone now?”

“That’s what kills me.” Gail turned off the head of the torch and stood up; Lane realized, with a start, just how chilly he was. How long had Joan been out here? That flimsy gown would’ve been useless; she’d have been freezing. “Someone had to see her.”

“Right.”

“You don’t just get up and stroll off if your husband beats the shit out of you.”

Gail’s voice was carefully level as she said it, but Lane could see the clench of her left fist at her side, the way her jaw tightened around the last few words. He knew that feeling.

“No, you don’t.”

Gail swallowed, once, and nodded her head, like she was deciding something in her own mind. “Someone would have helped her. They had to. She wouldn’t be alone.”

Perhaps it was wishful thinking, hoping that one’s daughter had found a good samaritan somewhere along the road, but perhaps Joan had asked a stranger for help, if she’d been injured and desperate. Surely she’d have some sense of self-preservation, if not for herself, than for her son. She’d risk everything to get back to him, just as – well, if the lad was older, if he’d recognized everything going on between his parents, he would have tried to protect her, too. He’d have –

“Oh, my god,” Lane breathed aloud, as the first puzzle piece clicked together in his mind. For the first time that night, a surge of relief flooded his chest. “Lewis.”

Gail cast him a quizzical look.

“I mean, he was here at the party. But I haven’t seen him in hours. And before she disappeared, he and Joan were together. If she’d gone to anyone, it would’ve been him.”

“Holy shit. Why didn’t you say so?”

Moving in perfect step, they rushed for the door.

“Think Lewis was suspicious?” She was breathing hard as they strode down the hallway, practically jogging. “My son-in-law’s not exactly subtle. If your brother saw that, he could have fought Greg off. The blood might not be hers.”

“Could have done. Lewis would’ve known just what to look for,” Lane agreed. They turned left, past the ballroom, toward the main lobby. “If he knew that bastard had hurt Joan – I mean, he just wouldn't stand for it. Always stuck up for Mother, time and time again. Father was relentless.”

“Your dad was a wife-beater?”

Oh. Well, he hadn’t meant to talk about that.

“Cruelty was his delight.”

Simplest way to put it.

“Anyway, they might have gone to mine. I don’t know if Lewis has a key, but if he saw Joan in danger, he’d have taken care of her. I’d wager my life on it.”

They were past the atrium, now. Lane was ready to keep on and march straight out the front doors in search of a taxi, but before he could do so, or even get to the door, Gail veered sharply to the right.

Entschuldigen ,” she trilled.

Here, sitting on a stool behind an open window, was the coat check girl, who was clearly the object of address. This girl was not in a rush to help anyone: one finger was wrapped around a long ringlet of blonde hair and the other hand propped open a risqué paperback on her lap.

“My daughter left her coat here.” Gail put on a rather good face for someone who was terrified out of her wits. “And I’m not sure what number she had. Could you check for it, please? It’s a camel coat. Long. Four buttons. Name’s Harris.”

The girl shrugged, and went off to search through the hangers.

Lane must have seemed annoyed by this delay, or very impatient, because all Gail said when she glanced over was a single sentence.

“She’ll catch a cold.”

He nodded without really hearing her, unable to process precisely what that meant. Hours of exposure. But it wouldn’t do to make Gail march outside again. They might see something worse than what they’d already found.

The blood might not be hers.

But it could be. The very idea made his heart race.

“Right. Here, I’ll get the rest of Joan’s things, and we’ll meet here in five minutes. Give me your torch.”

Gail handed it over.

“Back soon,” he told her, and headed for the nearest exit.

 

**

 

“Now, listen.” Behind the wheel, probably not far from Joan’s home, if the road signs and the map he’d nicked from the boot were any indication, Lewis focused on two things, and two things only. One: keeping Joan present and alert. Two: getting her back as fast as possible. “Once we arrive, we must keep calm. Let’s not scare the daylights out of mummy.”

A sign up ahead, and a sharp turn. U.S. Army Base.

Yanking the wheel right, Lewis made the turn by the skin of his teeth, wheels screeching against asphalt.

“Joan, did you hear me?”

No answer. He glanced over.

She was slumped against the window with her eyes open and her hands gripping the armrest, but completely silent.

Damn it. Catatonic was worse than hysterical. At least hysteria meant that you were present. Lane used to have a similar reaction when Father went on the warpath; got all quiet and withdrawn and wouldn’t speak for days. Too terrified to visit the toilet, even. Like pulling teeth to get him to do anything other than hide under the bed.

He reached out, careful to telegraph each movement before putting his hand on her arm. “Need your attention, dear. Are you with me?”

“Don’t,” she choked out.

“I know you don’t want to talk. But you could have a concussion, so you can’t sleep either. Do you understand?” His eyes flicked back to the road; in the distance was some sort of guard house, illuminated by overhead fluorescents . “You can’t sleep, else you might not wake up.”

As they neared the gate, Joan shifted in her seat, and pulled Lewis’s jacket over her face, as if she were planning to sleep anyway. Lewis didn’t scold her for it, this time. Any of these pups saw a battered woman trying to get back onto base, and she’d never make it home before morning.

He pulled to a stop, just in front of the guard house.

Once Lewis gave them his naval ID and mentioned he was dropping off an officer’s wife, they waved him through. Probably thought Joan was some call girl. And, once he thought they’d driven far enough out of the light, he reached over, and announced his action to Joan one more time.

“Pulling this down a bit, dear. Can’t go to sleep.”

“No.” But as soon as she glanced through the windscreen, and noticed precisely where they were, she sat up, immediately alert. As he turned left down a dark suburb, she gasped loudly, and tossed his jacket aside. “Wait. Pull over.”

“What?”

“Stop!”

He slammed on the brakes.

They had not even rolled to a full stop before Joan wrenched the door open and tottered out into the cold, barefoot, limping, weaving like a drunken fighter on the ropes toward the shoulder of the road. Was there even a sidewalk? She’d slice her foot open.

Cursing, Lewis pulled over to the curb, cut off the engine, and rushed to catch up.

Perhaps ten yards ahead, Joan stumbled up the pavement to a yellow house with several lights on in the windows. She was already calling out her son’s name over and over as she grasped for the door handle, voice hoarse and raw.

“Kevin!”

Christ. She was going to terrify everyone on the block.

Seconds later, a high-pitched scream pierced the once-tranquil quiet. On instinct, Lewis rushed inside, bursting into the foyer only to see an Asiatic woman sporting a KISS THE COOK apron over a pink shirtwaist, staring at Joan in open-mouthed horror. Tears welled in her eyes as she turned Joan’s skinned forearm over with two yellow rubber-gloved hands.

When she saw Lewis, she dropped Joan’s arm with another ear-splitting scream, jumped in front of her friend, and grabbed the nearest possible weapons: an empty butter-greased saucepan and a stubby toddler spoon with a green plastic handle.

And then she rounded on Lewis, clearly ready to bludgeon him to death.

“Get out!” she shrieked, and actually walloped him in the thigh with the bottom of the pan. He let out an outraged howl. “Get out!”

“Good god, woman!” Lewis grabbed the nearest inanimate object - a closed umbrella propped up behind the coatrack - to parry her blows. “If you’re going to kill someone, make it the damn husband!” Another sidelong hit; a grunt of pain escaped his lips. “ Will you stop walloping me? That bastard nearly killed her.”

Eyes widening, the woman stopped trying to hit him, and stood up, although she did not drop her frying pan.

“Greg did this?”

“Bloody monster. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.” Lewis tossed the umbrella aside, lifted both hands in surrender. “I’m – well, you probably don’t know my little brother, but he’s a friend of Joan’s. They work together. I was only seeing her home.”

Finally, the woman lowered the frying pan, peering at him as if she could not quite believe Lewis was a real person, and not a figment of their collective imaginations.

“You’re Lane’s brother?”

Lewis relaxed a little. “Oh, you have met. How nice.”

Down the hallway came a small, short cry. Joan was nowhere in sight. Immediately, Lewis and the stranger locked eyes, and hurried to see what was going on.

A tiny duckling lamp blazed bright in the nursery, illuminating everything that was wrong with this picture: the visible wounds on Joan’s dirty legs and bare feet; her ripped gown; her little gasp of pain and fear as she leaned over her sleeping son’s crib and pulled him into her arms. It was not immediately clear if Kevin was awake, judging by his low murmuring, but Joan was clutching the lad so tightly it was a wonder he was able to breathe.

“You’re okay, sweetie,” Joan’s voice cracked over each word. “You’re okay. Everything’s okay.”

It bloody well isn’t, Lewis wanted to point out, but the stranger spoke up first.

“Honey, you’re scaring him. Can you put him down?”

Joan shook her head no. Clutched Kevin closer.

Glancing over, Lewis decided perhaps two people would do better at convincing her to put him down, and to do what must be done. “Dear girl, if you’re to take him somewhere safe, this is your best chance. It’s the middle of the night. Your husband’s not home.”

“Uh uh,” Joan’s split lip wobbled as she tried to talk. “I can’t.”

“You must, my darling. This cannot happen again.”

“It won’t. It won’t. I’ll die if Greg hurts him.”

“I know that.” Lewis cleared his throat, tried to speak through the cinching in his chest. “But you know this better than anyone: your husband is dangerous. He will hurt the boy; it’s only a matter of time. And you cannot protect your son if you stay here.”

“It was gonna be tonight.” Joan cast an anguished look at her friend. She was still clutching Kevin, who had stopped murmuring. “Susie, I was gonna leave him. That's why I wanted your car. I –”

“You still can,” Lewis urged. “There’s time yet.”

Mute and trembling, Joan just blinked back at him as if he was speaking Greek.

“Honey, I think it’s a good idea.” Susie cast a careful glance at Lewis before stepping forward and putting her hand on Joan’s bicep. Joan flinched as sharply if she’d just been burned. “Even if you go away for a few days, or a few weeks, that could help very much.”

“Yes,” Lewis said, although in truth he’d have rather shot the damned husband dead than encourage Joan to return to him. “Excellent point.”

“Let me take Kevin. Or put him in the crib, so you can sit next to him. You’re not feeling well, and we don’t – he had a good day. Let’s make sure you’re all right, too.”

“I’m not leaving him,” Joan finally whispered. A small trickle of blood ran down her left temple and under her jaw, spotting the shoulder of Kevin’s pajamas.

“Of course not, dear girl. You’ll stay right here.”

“Until we finish packing?”

Oh, thank god for that.

“Until we finish packing,” Lewis echoed, exchanging a brief, tense look with Susie. “So. Had you started yet?”

Joan did not answer, just lowered herself very stiffly down into the nearest armchair, cradling her son close, so his head rested just underneath her left shoulder. She did not tear her gaze away from the boy as she lifted one hand and brushed fine blonde hair away from his little face with her scabbed fingertips, humming a tuneless sort of song. The lad’s eyes fluttered open, sleepy and unseeing, and then closed.

Trying not to let on how frustrated he was, Lewis glanced around for any sign of boxes or bags. Stepping toward the crib, he accidentally kicked something quite solid underneath it. Sounded like cardboard.

He shoved the yellow gingham curtain aside. Behind the dust ruffle were two large boxes, filled nearly to the brim with baby clothes, books, and a few toys.

Lewis had never been happier to see this. Least Gail had prepared for the worst. “Well, well. The fox has done it again.”

 

**

 

The second the taxi stopped in front of Lane’s building, Gail jumped out without a word and marched toward the lobby doors. Lane barely had enough time to throw a couple of marks at the driver to avoid being left behind.

Inside, they thundered up the back stairs to the third floor. Lane pulled his keyring out as they approached the door to his flat, and tossed this to Gail so she could go first. No sense getting in the way. When Gail unlocked the door, and pushed it open to reveal a dark, empty entryway, Lane couldn’t help deflating in disappointment.

Everything was just as he’d left it. They weren’t here.

“Joanie?” Gail was still hurrying from room to room, switching on every single light and calling her daughter’s name. “Joanie, are you here?”

“We’d have seen them by now,” Lane grumbled, mostly to himself. Damn it. He’d been so sure Lewis would have gone somewhere familiar.

Slow footsteps clacked down the now-brightly lit hallway, and when Gail emerged, Lane saw the woman was struggling to hold herself together. Her jaw was clenched and she was blinking very rapidly – blinking back tears.

Oh, god. Oh, no. This was very bad indeed.

“What if she’s really hurt?” Gail finally asked.

It didn’t take a stretch of the imagination to wonder what Gail meant. A mother’s worst fear. Joan could be lying in an alley somewhere, unable to move or to summon help. A shadow on the ground. Maybe it isn’t her blood.

The unthinkable.

“No, listen. Gail, we will find her soon.” Lane forced his voice to be resolute, free from doubt. “Just because she isn’t here doesn’t mean she’s – even if she’s injured, there are any number of places Joan could have gone. Good places. All right?”

Gail nodded once, very tightly.

“Let’s – think for a moment. If Lewis is with her, and did not bring her here, she may have wanted to go somewhere else. The office. Or the new flat.”

A hopeful gleam entered Gail’s eyes. “Do you know where it is?”

He shook his head no. She deflated visibly.

“So we – we’ll check the first two.” Make a list. Keep track of everything. “See what we can find, and hopefully that puts us on the quick path.”

Belatedly, he realized something else, as well.

“And we should – if you’re hungry, you’re welcome to eat whatever’s in there ....”

“Don’t talk about food,” Gail snapped. “My stomach’s in knots. I feel like throwing up.”

For some reason, the retort brought a twitch of a smile to his face. “Right. Erm. Sorry.”

“Okay.” Gail let out a deep breath, and seemed to regain a bit of her usual composure. Her face was still very pale. “Well, I’d like to change, and then we can go.”

Lane was about to ask what will you wear before he realized she was gesturing to the rather-large pocketbook slung over one forearm. Oh. She’d probably brought something comfortable to the hotel.

“Do you want to try office or house first?”

She pursed her mouth, considering. “Office. It’s closer.”

Chapter Text

With a grunt, Lewis tied off another black garbage bag, and surveyed the chaotic scene in front of him. Joan’s part of the closet was empty, as were her bureau and night table. No time to be selective about any of it.

Two items in the bottom of the closet, now opened to the light, caught his attention at once now that the rest of her clothes were packed: a large black medical satchel and - next to it - a Polaroid camera. He grabbed both of them and went back into the second bedroom.

Inside, Susie had convinced Joan to put Kevin down on the bed next to her, instead of smothering the poor boy to death, but it was clear she hadn’t made much progress in getting Joan to do much else. Seemed like he’d be finishing the packing for the foreseeable future.

“Here.” Lewis handed Susie the camera, noticing how much Joan flinched when he reached toward them. “Sorry, dear girl. Giving this to our friend.”

Susie didn’t take the camera strap, just stared at him. “What does she need this for?”

He inclined his head toward Joan. “Haven’t cleaned her up yet, have you?”

“Tried to wipe her hands.” Susie’s pinched face clouded as if she were trying not to cry. “She keeps pushing me away.”

“Good.” Lewis gestured with the camera again. “Take pictures of whatever you can.”

“What?”

He was trying very hard not to lose patience with the woman. Helpful as it was to have a compatriot, she’d clearly never gone through anything like this before. Which was probably a mercy.

“Well, if she’s serious about divorcing the man—” and by god, he hoped, he hoped Lane wouldn’t be doing all of this again in six months , “—there’s got to be proof that he’s a batterer. They’ll say anything to pin blame on her, you see. Don’t like unhappy mummies deciding they’re better off alone.”

Mother sobbing on the closed toilet with a giant gash on her cheek and her hands clasped over her split mouth, as Lewis threaded a bent needle with shaking fingers. Got to do it quickly. Can’t wake the little one.

“Did you find the money?” came a thin voice from the bed.

Lewis and Susie turned to gawp at Joan, who let out a shuddering sigh. Oh, dear. Perhaps the shock was wearing off at last. They’d need to move quite quickly if that was the case.

“Mom hid it somewhere, but I …”

Her voice trailed into nothing.

Susie put a tentative hand on Joan’s scraped knee. “Honey, what are you talking about?”

Lewis was already wheeling around, mentally checking off locations in his mind. Not the bureau – he’d searched all the drawers to make sure Gail had got everything there. Not Joan’s, either, nor the closet. There’d been a couple of shoeboxes on the top shelf on her side of the closet with nothing much inside, and nothing important under the bed. He turned one way, and then another, staring at the open door. If he were Gail – and lord, what a picture that painted – and his daughter and grandson were in terrible peril, and he had a frankly impressive amount of cash coming in each month, where would he be absolutely certain of its safety? Where would the bastard husband never go?

Baby’s room. Obviously anything with a handle was out. Under the bed was out, and perhaps under the mattress as well. Too obvious. Too uncomfortable. But perhaps—

“How are the floorboards? Crown molding? That sort of thing?”

No answer. Well, whatever. Given the way Gail’s mind operated, she could’ve hidden the damn cash right in the walls.

His gaze suddenly fell on the ugly handmade pink rug lying in front of the closet doors.

Or in plain sight.

Lewis knelt down, flung the rug aside, and studied the hardwood underneath for a moment before noticing that one edge was rather gouged out, and the side of this joist was split a little, as if someone had stuck a flat blade into it in order to prise it up. Nothing you’d notice until it was a few centimeters in front of your nose—or unless you had the tools you needed at hand.

“Gail, you bloody genius,” he muttered as he pulled out a pocketknife, got up the loose floorboard, and saw a small flour-sack sort of bag hidden underneath. On inspection, this article was filled with cash in large bills, several pieces of jewelry, and what appeared to be important papers: Joan’s passport, birth certificate, social security card, visa, and – he was surprised to see – her partnership paperwork. Plus copies of the same documents for herself and for Kevin.

“Right.” Lewis pulled out the little article with a triumphant flourish. He got to his feet, tied off the flour sack. Looked Susie directly in the eye. “I’ll pack the car. You pack them up.”

As if on cue, the telephone began to ring – once, twice, then thrice – and did not stop.

Joan flinched visibly at the noise, and wrapped both arms around her middle, rocking back and forth in her chair. Every time she leaned back, she whimpered a little.

“And don’t answer that, whatever you do.”

 

**

 

By the time they got to the office, Lane could not shake the instinctive feeling that they had made the wrong choice by coming here first. The higher the elevator climbed, the more he doubted, and when the door opened, revealing a glass partition in shatters, his heart leapt into his throat.

“Oh, god,” he whispered.

Gail grabbed his bicep so hard he felt the iron grip through his wool coat. "No."

Within seconds, they were rushing through what little remained of the partition, shoes crunching through glass and other debris as they made a beeline for Joan’s office.

Her door was slightly dented at the far right corner, and a couple of dirty bootprints were visible below the knob. Bastard had either kicked it in or been furious enough to give it a good thrashing on the way out. Inside, the chaos was worse: her large, colorful calendar had been ripped from the wall, and hung half-torn with a snowfall of neon post-it notes littering the ground below it. Several drawers were yanked from their rails and discarded to one side, while the various folders, papers, artwork, and annotations they held had been thrown absolutely everywhere.

“Jesus Christ.” Gail hissed out a curse through her teeth. "He's such a shitheel."

Lane stepped closer to Joan’s desk. Here, the destruction was less random. The doctor had broken some of her knick-knacks and several framed pictures. Couple of the pictures had been torn up into bits. The bits were piled neatly in the center of her desk calendar. On closer inspection, it seemed as if all of the ripped up photos were ones with only Joan in them. He kept catching jagged glimpses of red hair and wide smiles.

Fucking blackguard.

“I want to kill him.”

He did not realize he’d spoken out loud until the words hung in the air with a terrible, ugly finality.

“Yeah?” Gail did not seem to care that this horrific wish had been voiced aloud; her reaction was as matter-of-fact as if they were discussing the weather. “Well, get in line.”

Lane did not know what else to say. How else did one react once they’d voiced a desire to commit homicide, and not exactly in jest? Morally, legally, and otherwise, it ought to have been blasphemous. But Gail took this heresy in stride.

“Last time Jack laid hands on me, I taught him a lesson.” Her eyes were focused on the torn pictures. “Waited till he got stumbling drunk a couple of days later, tied his arms and legs to the bedposts, and got the Louisville Slugger from our closet.”

An exclamation tore from Lane’s throat before he could censor it. “Good god.”

Gail shrugged in a casual way that belied the vicious nature of this story, her red mouth pursing into a line. “He screamed bloody murder, of course. Told him if he slapped me around again, I wouldn’t be so forgiving.” With a derisive snort. “Joanie was a baby. And all I knew was that she couldn’t grow up like that, thinking a bruise was all she could expect from a man. Especially since she was pretty.”

It was the saddest rationalization Lane had ever heard from a parent – not least because it was true. So many girls had found that out the hard way.

“Did it work?”

“Sort of.” Gail made a face. “Jack never hit me again. But he wasn’t man enough to stick around, especially once the war came. So he left.”

“God, I wish my mother had done.”

Lane winced at how pathetic he sounded. This was not about him. Rationally, he was aware of it. But everything they’d seen so far kept dredging up more and more buried pieces; days and nights he’d struggled so hard to forget. And they were all mixing together in his head with thoughts of the woman he loved.

God, she had to be all right. She just had to be.

He let out a deep, shuddering breath.

“Did – did the cops call you? They said it’d be half an hour.”

As one, he and Gail turned and saw Michael Ginsberg just beyond the doorway.

“Michael.” Even in the dark, Lane could tell Ginsberg was not in a good way. The lad’s face had a greenish color to it. Looked like he was going to be sick. “Why are you here?”

“Working late. Went downstairs to the vending machine, and when I came back – that fucker was stomping around. He went batshit.”

“Did he see you?” Gail asked. “Did he say anything?”

Michael’s gaze flitted to the ground. “No. I, uh, hid. Under the desk. And when he left, I tried to call you – and when that didn't work, I called Günter.” He lifted his head. “What’s going on?”

“We’re looking for Joan,” Lane exchanged a careful look with Gail, whose face was impassive. “Have you seen her?”

“Uh uh. Not since yesterday.”

Lane’s face fell. Damn it.

Michael must have seen the alarm flash in his eyes, because his voice became careful; more hesitant. “Is she okay? Did that fucker do something to her?”

“Are you sure you didn’t hear Greg say anything?” Gail pressed. “If he’d seen her, or if he knew where she was?”

“I don’t know. Um. He was mostly just drunk and swearing. Wait till I come home. That kinda shit.”

“Home?” Lane could have kicked himself. They'd spent so much time checking for safe havens and hospitals that they'd forgotten the obvious: a mother's first instinct. “Gail, she went there first.”

Gail had already picked up the phone on Katya’s desk. Calling for a taxi, he hoped.

“Seriously, what the hell is happening? You guys are freaking me out.”

With a Herculean effort, Lane made his voice as calm as possible. “We’re not certain. But it’s very important that we find Joan. You must handle everything here in the meantime. We’ll be back in a few hours. Can you do it?”

Michael went pale. “Me?”

“Oh, for god’s sake, kid,” Gail snapped, moving toward what remained of reception. “It’s not rocket science. Answer the phones if they ring, let your landlord handle the cops, and tell your coworkers not to show up in the morning.”

Lane clapped a hand to Ginsberg’s shoulder to show the lad that Gail’s outburst was not necessarily his fault. “Something like that. Sorry.”

“Wait – but what if I – ?”

“You’ll be all right,” Lane was already moving for the door. “Phone the service if you need anything!”

 

**

 

“No, please don't.” As Lewis guided Joan toward the front door, she kept looking around, frantic, and tried to limp off toward the kitchen, although she could barely hold herself upright. “My clothes.”

“Already in the car.” He indicated that Susie, standing nearest the door with Kevin on her shoulder, should take the boy to her car and go ahead. “Everything from your room I could find, and all the baby’s things.”

Feebly, she attempted to pull him toward the living room this time. “But my dishes – the books – I brought it all here. I can’t just – we have to –”

“Joan, dear, we simply can’t wait.”

“He’ll throw it away.” Her face crumpled, and she began weeping. Even the act of crying looked painful; she kept touching her split mouth and her left cheek, now fully swollen and blotched with dark bruises. “W-what if I need it?”

She stopped walking, cradled her left arm close to her chest, and broke down into loud, gasping sobs. Lewis was practically helping her stand by this point, one arm braced near her ribs and the other around her shoulder.

“Everything here can be replaced. I promise you.”

Shaking her head no, Joan refused to be comforted.

He exhaled loudly, attempting not to seem hurried although time was of the essence. The sooner they left, the more time they’d have to get away without the devil at their backs. She would have a safe place to stay once the adrenaline wore off, and there’d be fewer prying eyes to see her fleeing in the dead of night. Or fewer who’d admit to seeing anything, anyway.

“Would you trade any of it for your life? Or Kevin’s?” Lewis gestured to the rest of the room; the floral paintings on the walls, the china in the cupboards. Porcelain figurines on tables that she’d likely packed with painstaking care. “The pictures, the books – whatever you love, he’ll try and destroy it. But if you leave now – if you summon all your strength and get out, you won’t be trapped here any longer.”

She pressed one shaking hand to her face, swayed on her feet.

“I can’t.”

“Yes, you can. You’re already doing it,” Lewis soothed. “Think about Kevin, and how happy he’ll be, knowing the two of you have a good home.”

“S-s-safe.”

“Precisely. Safer than ever before. And no matter how much your husband rails and shouts, no matter how he’s hurt you, he cannot keep you here.”

Susie appeared in the open doorway. “There’s a light on next door.”

“Damn it,” Lewis hissed, and waved the woman forward with a suppressed growl. “Here, help me with her.”

“Come on, honey.” Susie slipped under Joan’s left shoulder and wrapped her right arm around the woman’s back, causing Joan to release her iron grip on the chair. Immediately, Lewis could tell how exhausted Joan must be feeling; the poor girl could hardly hold herself up. “We have to go.”

Clumsy and slow, they guided Joan through the hallway and past the front door in a kind of three-legged shuffle, not even bothering to turn out the lights as they left. Joan was whimpering with each step, and still heaving out shallow, shuddering breaths, but at least she was more mobile. Lewis did not want to think about the alternative.

“Do you – have the address?” Susie asked through gritted teeth, as they eased Joan into a seated position in the passenger seat.

Lewis grunted out a yes as he stepped backwards, and let the woman swing Joan’s legs over the seat itself, get her seat belt fastened, and close the door after her, as briskly as if she were preparing a child for a ride to the park.

“Jacket pocket.” Thank god Joan had written it down. He’d found it hidden in the lining of a black purse she probably carried for work, along with a set of two small brass keys. “You and the boy ought to follow in your car.”

“Okay.”

Lewis stopped for a moment; turned back to the woman. The gentleness he’d been so careful to show around Joan faded for a moment. “She relies absolutely on your discretion in this matter.”

Susie straightened her spine, crossed her arms over the ridiculous apron she was still wearing, and stared him down, as if the very implication was offensive. “I understand that.”

“See that you do.” Lewis fished the car keys from a pocket. “Lives may depend on it.”

 

**

 

“Goddamn it,” Gail hissed as the taxi rounded another corner. Streetlamps winked at them from corners, although all the prefab houses looked similar in the dark. It was hard to tell how far away they might be. “Can’t this thing go any faster?”

Lane bit his tongue to stop himself from saying something stupid, hoping the driver understood their unspoken urgency. He was not the sort of person who prayed for divine intervention – or indeed, believed in such a thing; not since he was a boy – but tonight, Lane found that he kept repeating the same phrases under his breath. All he could do was silently beseech some unknown authority for a guarantee of safety.

Please keep her safe. Please let her be all right. Please find her soon.

With a screech of brakes, the taxi pulled to a stop just beyond the mailbox. Gail got out immediately; Lane instructed the driver to keep the meter running before bolting for the house. He didn’t know what he expected to find, but when he got inside, the shock of finding all the lights on stopped him dead in his tracks for a moment.

And then he heard commotion down the hall, in the baby’s room.

He found Gail there, lying on her side in front of her closet, one arm shoulder-deep in a small hole in the floor. Several floorboards had been prised up from the hardwood. After a few seconds, she withdrew her hand, and got to her feet.

Clenched in her fist was a large gold signet ring, diamond-cut. On the face, a large anchor threaded an elaborate crown, while a miniature Union Jack decorated both sides. Engraved, if Lane remembered correctly.

Definitely not the doctor’s.

“Lewis.” For the first time all night, Lane relaxed slightly. His brother was with Joan. If nothing else, she had someone clear-headed looking out for her. “He’s with her.”

“Yeah.” Gail closed her eyes and exhaled a very deep breath, wrapping her fingers around the signet until her knuckles blanched white. After a moment, her eyes fluttered open. She pocketed the ring with shaking hands. “Think they got everything, including the money.”

Must have been what she’d hidden in the floor. Nodding absently, Lane surveyed the empty closet. Joan had her son, she had her things, and she had Lewis to guide her. They’d probably go to the new flat next.

Gail touched his shoulder to get him to move. “I’ll check in here. You get the master.”

Quickly, Lane went into the other bedroom as instructed, and was shocked to see how much the two of them had taken. Joan’s closet doors hung open, with her side of the clothes rod completely empty. Same with the bureau drawers: there was not even so much as a packet of potpourri left.

He had just gone into the toilet and opened the medicine cabinet, checking for prescriptions, when Gail found him again.

“Was there anything under the bed?”

“Not sure.” Was there supposed to be? “Didn’t look.”

“Just like a man,” she huffed, and stalked off at once.

Lane decided to spend one more moment alone in the toilet. Stalling for time, he opened the linen closet, and even pushed the shower curtain aside, as if he were going to grab half-full shampoo bottles or something equally ridiculous.

Here, sitting innocently in the tub, was something far better than toiletries: a plastic drying rack which still held several pieces of clothing: a couple of slips, few brassieres, and two delicate scarves, all slightly stiff and wrinkled from drying in the air.

Familiar blue-patterned silk caught his eye first – the favorite. He snatched both scarves from the rack immediately and put one into each of his coat pockets, leaving the rest behind and making a beeline for the front room, where Gail was now rifling through the kitchen cabinets.

“Two scarves,” he said, in answer to her silent question, as she pushed a lower door closed with the toe of one patent heel. “Plus some other things. Which I didn’t–”

Headlights swept over them. The beams of light were barely visible through the windows, but it was enough to silence the middle of his sentence.

“Go,” Lane ushered Gail through the kitchen doorway at once. He hadn’t heard any car doors opening, but a sharp screech of brakes in the driveway sent his adrenaline pumping. “Take the back way.”

They rushed through the living room and out the patio door, leaving it hanging wide open. Luckily, their taxi was still idling by the curb nearest the trash bins; there was just enough time to hurry inside the taxi and shut the door behind them.

Lane watched, fascinated and horrified, as a military man in khaki walked up to next door’s entrance. Immediately, he was met by a nightgowned woman in a robe. That was all Lane could spot as the car sped away.

“Neighbors phoned the police, I suppose.”

Even though he couldn’t see Gail’s face in the dark, when she spoke, the utter derision in her voice made Lane certain she had just rolled her eyes.

“Idiots.” A pause; she sighed loudly. “God, I just want to see her.”

“Yeah.”

“Even for a minute.” Gail seemed as if she’d barely heard him. “Just long enough to know she’s okay. I need to hear her voice.”

So do I, Lane thought. His mood threatened to turn maudlin. The smallest bit of contact would do. A note slipped under his door. A voice on the telephone. It’s all right, don’t worry, we’re safe in our beds.

Hang on. Telephone.

“Oh, you absolute imbecile,” he hissed to himself, pawing at the inside of his jacket. Left pocket was empty, but in the right hand pocket – “Aha!”

“What?”

“Look here.” Lane unfolded the paper in his hand, held it high in the air so it could catch the light from passing streetlamps. “Joan gave me her new telephone number. Earlier in the week. I think they’ve put the line in, but I’m not sure. Could see if she answers.”

“Jesus Christ.” Gail snatched it from his hand, scanning the scrawl of Joan’s handwriting using the neon signs outside her window. “We could’ve talked to her hours ago.”

“You there.” Lane tapped on the glass partition to get the driver’s attention, redirecting them back to the office. “Can you drop us back in Steglitz at this address?”

 

**

 

Audible arguing could be heard all the way down the hall from the service elevator. By the time Lewis reappeared in the foyer, with two more bin bags of clothes in hand, it was obvious that the shock of the beating had finally worn off.

Slumped against the wall, sobbing and distraught, Joan sat on the bare floor with a floral robe thrown over her dress, with most of the living room entirely bare save for a couple of blankets and pillows around her. None of the furniture had been delivered yet. She clutched a blood-spotted handkerchief clutched in one hand, while her other palm hid her eyes from view. Next to her, Susie tried in vain to tend to her friend’s wounds.

“Honey, I’m sorry, but we needed to wash your clothes. And I have to take more pictures. Will you let me?”

Another yelp tore from Joan’s throat as she curled into a ball, making a noise that sounded like no or please.

Lewis clenched his teeth together to keep from commenting.

Thank heavens Kevin was lying on the mattress in his room with a closed door between him and his mother’s complete breakdown. Joan was too distraught to notice that he wasn’t nearby anymore, which was a mercy, all things considered.

When they were boys, Lane had always been terrified when they heard crying downstairs. He’d cling to Lewis in the night like a little rhesus monkey.

Sighing, Lewis hoped that this would not be the case with Kevin, and that he would sleep through as much of tonight’s events as possible.

Susie was now speaking to Joan in what he assumed was Japanese, low and soft, stroking the woman’s back as tenderly as if Joan were only a child herself.

“Anshinshite. Daijoubu.”

After perhaps twenty minutes of this, Joan sat up abruptly, and reached for an item concealed by the pillows. At first, Lewis assumed she was reaching to turn off the bare-bulb lamp, but her hand closed limply around a blue telephone receiver instead.

“Here. You want to call someone?” Susie helped scoot the phone closer to Joan’s knees. Her voice had gained the slightest nasal accent on the ohs . “Your mother?”

Joan shook her head. “I want Katie.”

“Katie.”

Susie glanced at Lewis, expression stricken.

Lewis just shook his head. No idea who the hell that was. “Does she live here?”

“I want Katie ,” Joan said again, rougher this time.

Ochitsuke. All right.” Susie was clearly at a loss, but took the receiver from Joan anyway, and dialed the operator. After answering a few questions – what was Katie’s last name? Was she in America? Where did she live? – the operator informed them that someone in Richmond was looking up the number, that they’d be charged 10 marks every three minutes and then 5 per minute afterward, and that the bill would be in Joan’s name. “Here, honey. We have to hang up until they call us back.”

When the telephone rang again, several agonizing minutes later, Joan nearly fell forward trying to answer it in time, and yanked the receiver up to her ear. “Katie?” A pause. “I left him.” Another pause. Her face crumpled again. “He hurt me.”

 

**

 

The sun was peeking over the horizon now, dusky reds and yellows fading into a faintly-lit blue sky. Although Lane wasn’t thrilled to still be awake, least the panic of the midnight hour had been left behind.

Slumped behind his desk with his chin balanced in the crook of one arm, he reached out, picked up the receiver again, and dialed Joan’s new number with a clumsy hand. No point looking at the paper now; he’d memorized it long before.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Engaged tone again, rhythmic and high-pitched, lasting no more than a second between repetitions.

He sighed as he pushed the switchhook down, held it in place, then released it. Perhaps if he waited another thirty seconds, the line would be free this time.

“She won’t hang up.” Even all the way from the sofa, Gail’s voice was muffled and thick, as if she’d been dozing again. “I told you. Busy signal’s a good thing.”

I know that .”

“Who knows how long they’ll talk. Maybe she called Roger.”

Scoffing, Lane pulled a skeptical face. Would one really turn to Roger during such a crisis? “Why him?”

“Beats me.” Gail let out a breath. “Could be anyone. Colonel’s wife. Hell, even Katie.”

“S’pose.” After a few seconds, Lane’s eyes fluttered shut of their own accord, but no sooner had sleep pulled him down than someone knocked on the door, startling him awake. He bolted upright in his chair with a gasp. “‘M up. ‘M up.”

It was Katya. Dark circles ringed her eyes, and without her usual makeup and her bright work clothes – instead, she was sporting a pair of slim trousers and a pale smock with a bit of paint on it – she looked very sad. Like an abandoned child left at a railway station.

“Sorry. The constable would like a word before he goes.”

Lane scrubbed his hands underneath his frames with a groan, already a bit loopy. Left eye had started twitching slightly and the back of his neck buzzed with exhaustion.

“God. All right.”

With another huff, he got to his feet, and went out to meet the man.

In the twenty minutes that passed, a blur of signing official paperwork and trying to work out repair details with Günter, he did not even hear the telephone ring. But when he came back into the main bullpen, Katya and Michael were crowding around the door of his office, and inside, Gail was perched on top of his desk, holding the phone to one ear, and writing something on a scrap of paper. One lone clip-on earring, a cluster of gaudy pearls set in a black and gold disc, lay next to the telephone.

“Okay, baby.” A beat; she nodded, once. “Lane and I will be right here.” Another beat. She pressed her lips together. “Yes. We’ll see you then.”

When she put the phone down, and glanced up at the doorway, a feverish light shone in her face.

“They’re taking her to the doctor first. He broke her goddamn arm.”

A tear spilled down her cheek, and then another, and another; she swiped them all away with her fingers, pale and silent.

Immediately, Lane shooed everyone out. “Here. Give her a moment.”

“I’m fine,” Gail said with a wet sniff after the door closed, and dashed more tears from her eyes. In this moment, she looked haggard and pale: every bit her age. And she probably wasn’t much older than he was, so he must look a fright. “Really.”

“No, you’re not.”

Neither was he.

Without another word, Lane handed Gail his handkerchief, and they did not speak again for a few minutes. By then, Gail had dried her eyes, reapplied a bit of makeup, and gone to sit on the sofa again. While he had started pacing by the bookshelves.

“Did she say much?” he finally asked, stopping mid-stride as a new thought occurred to him. Perhaps she hadn’t even talked to Joan at all, only Lewis or Susie. “How did she sound?”

Gail made a face, then tore the wrapper off a Life Saver from the nearby bowl, very purposefully. Lane averted his eyes for a moment, in case she got misty again.

“Tired. Quiet.”

Neither description eased his worried mind. After dashing away from her home and her husband in the middle of the night, of course Joan would be tired. And she was often quiet when she felt sad. But there was no telling how she’d reacted to such a grotesque situation, or the extent of her injuries. And, as ever, Lane wished he’d been able to offer her some kind of comfort. Since apparently he wasn’t good for much else.

He broke her arm he battered her he spent years hurting her and you missed it.

You missed it.

“She’ll be all right,” he said suddenly – fiercely – needing to believe this more than anything in the world. Across the room, Gail’s eyebrows jumped up in shock, but he couldn’t stop talking; the words poured out of him like an unspoken prayer. “No, she will be. We’ll help her.”

 

**

 

“Come on, dear girl. Almost there.”

Lewis shepherded Joan off the lift and into the hallway. After seeing the doctor, Susie had taken Kevin back to the flat; poor lad was so tired he could hardly hold his head up. And poor Joan was certainly feeling the effects of exhaustion, now. With the doctor, she’d barely spoken above a whisper and was as compliant as a schoolchild, even when it had taken three people to reset her arm. Hardly even cried.

Soon as they walked into reception, Lewis knew something was off. The floor had been swept and polished to sheen, but there were several deep gouges in the hardwood where the glass partition had been, and a bin full of glass shards and debris sitting in one corner.

Most of the desks were empty, save for one. The two young things clustered around it, a boy and girl, became as scared as startled deer when they saw Joan’s condition, and did not say a word.

Further back, Joan’s office was missing its door. The room itself was hidden behind a hanging paint-spotted sheet, as well as cordoned off with yellow tape. Meanwhile, Lane’s door was intact but closed.

“All right, all right.” Without warning, this door opened, and Gail walked out, waving a distracted hand. “That's fine. Stop by later.”

They locked eyes after she closed the door; Lewis did not miss the way the older woman tensed, and then went very still, once she saw her daughter.

“Joanie,” was all Gail said, deceptively calm. “Come say hi.”

Without even casting a look back at him, Joan went, and allowed Gail to fold her into her arms. Mother and daughter stood there together, embracing, for nearly half a minute.

Lewis was the only person who noticed the dark fury in Gail’s face before she took a breath, pulled back, and gave Joan an airy, mostly-genuine smile.

“You want to go home, baby?”

Joan didn’t say anything in answer, just nodded, very small.

“Okay. Well, I have your coat, so let’s call a taxi, and hop to it.” Indicating that the secretary should make the call, Gail reached to take her daughter’s hand, visibly startling when her fingers closed around unwieldy plaster. Without a word, she switched to Joan’s right-hand side. “Here we go.”

As they passed Lewis, he felt a hand touch his lower back, but otherwise, there was no indication that she’d noticed him at all.

Just as well, honestly. He was through being responsible for one day.

Once the ladies had gone, he sailed into Lane’s office as easily as if he’d been born to it, sharp eyes taking in the scene: the mountain of paperwork with police sigils, a pipe lying forgotten on the desk, and an ashtray full of cigarette butts by the sofa.

Standing behind his desk, Lane was nowhere near as composed as Gail, which is probably why he hadn’t come out to greet them. His shirt was rumpled, his hair was greasy and flattened to his head, and his eyes were wet and red.

“I saw her from the window,” was all he said, voice cracking a little. "She looks awful."

Christ, where on earth was the liquor?

“Well,” Lewis spotted a bottle of brown on the other side of the room, and made a beeline for the nearest clean glass, “you look rather hideous, yourself.”

Blinking back tears, Lane seemed bewildered by this greeting, and did not speak.

“Anyway, the ladies are going to the new flat.” He poured a generous glass of what turned out to be rum, and knocked this back without batting an eyelash. “Mmph, that’s good. You’ve got the address, don’t you, brother?”

“Yes. But Lewis,” Lane had gone ashen. “You can’t leave now. Not when – ”

“When what?” Another pour, a cube of ice; straight down the hatch. His throat burned from it this time, causing him to gasp as he put down the glass. “Afraid my time at the helm has now come to an end. As all things must.”

Lane was staring at him as if he’d grown another head. “But – but Joan needs you.”

“Highly doubt it,” Lewis demurred. He decided on a third glass, just to be safe. By the time he’d delivered the car back to what’s-his-name, the drink would have kicked in at last. “Be a bit useless at this point, wouldn’t I?”

“But you’re – Lewis, you’re supposed to take care of her.”

“Not anymore. Now that you’re here.”

Putting down the glass, Lewis savored the vicious click of it against the hardwood, and turned to go. Best not overstay one’s welcome.

“Lewis, don't. Just – stay a moment. Did you – do this for Mother? Before?”

Briefly, Lewis paused. In an instant, all the old images began swimming through his mind: Father knocking Mother into the dish rack, as water glasses from their supper shattered all across the counter and down into the enamel sink, or Mother crying in the candlelight as he stitched up her face or her hand or her sides. Joan staggering toward him in the darkness with leaves in her hair and blood running down her neck. Help me. Help me.

“Oh, little one.” Lewis closed his eyes, very briefly, in an attempt to keep the black dogs at bay. “Better not to know.”

Offering Lane a sort of half-hearted salute, he spun on his heel, and strode out of the office, taking the back stairs into the alley until he felt like his hands would stop shaking. Until several cars had pulled away from the curb, and there was no danger of him being spotted by Gail or anyone else they knew. Now blissfully alone, he’d return the car to the hotel, find a place to drink till he dropped, and hopefully have a bit of fun in between. Perhaps blot out the events of tonight, if luck was on his side.

Pulling Hermann’s car keys out from his jacket pocket, Lewis set off toward the street.

Chapter Text

“Hang on, sorry. The gate agent said what?” Lane switched the receiver to his other hand. His neck was starting to ache. “First layover in Dulles, one in Munich, and – oh, god, three? ” He made an outraged face. “Absolutely not. Look, if you’re flying all the way over here, you’re not spending all your time on transfers. Is there a direct one?” Another pause; he listened to the options before deciding on the optimal route. Washington to Frankfurt did not sound too terrible. “Right. Yes, I think that one would be best. Mm. No, please don’t think about all that. Whatever it costs, it costs. Let me speak with my secretary first. We’ll phone you back, and you can give her all your information. She’ll book you a train ticket to Dulles, and then the rest of your trip, Friday to Friday. Yes. Well, I don’t know about that, but we’ll, erm, see you soon.”

After hanging up, Lane quickly rang Katya and filled her in on the plan, then passed along the phone number he’d written down. Once that was done, he decided everything else could wait, and decided to go back out into the kitchen. Perhaps fix some lunch.

Twenty minutes later, he’d eaten half a turkey sandwich while standing at the counter, and had managed to put together a second plate of toast, fruit, vegetables, and cheese. Walking over to the sofa, Lane put this down on the coffee table beside where Joan currently sat in days-old pajamas, hoping that she’d do more than simply stare at the food this time.

“Here, love. You need to eat.”

She’d been silent as a mouse ever since the incident, and ate nearly as much. These days, Lane didn’t know if she felt sickened or hungry or if she’d just forgotten, given all the trauma, that she had to do something as pedestrian as eat to nourish herself. But he couldn’t stop tracking her every movement, just to ensure she was safe and whole and here.

Today, thankfully, she began to nibble at the cheese cubes in an automatic fashion, like a child who’d been given only brussel sprouts for dinner and was figuring out how best to hide them in a napkin before the meal was over. But she was eating, thank god.

“I’ll bring you some tea next. Are you thirsty?”

Joan did not answer, just blinked up at him, face impassive. On closer inspection, he saw how flushed and damp her cheeks appeared in the bright afternoon light, and the realization hit him like a ton of bricks. Oh, no.

“You’ve been crying again.”

Gingerly, he reached out to brush the worst of the tear tracks from her face.

She flinched as sharply if she’d been burned, and pulled back before his fingers could even graze her cheek.

Letting his hand drop, Lane had to remind himself to breathe. “I’m sorry.”

It isn’t you, he repeated for the millionth time that day. It’s him. He’s done this.

Releasing another deep breath, Lane decided to sit down on the other end of the sofa and join her for a moment. Gail always said Joan wasn’t going to feel any better if he worked himself into a frenzy. And perhaps she would enjoy the company of a friend, of someone simply being with her, instead of watching him rush about like a madman.

Glancing over, Lane studied her in profile, letting his gaze linger a little longer than usual. The scrapes and bruises from New Years had nearly faded into nothing, although her color was still very wan. Perhaps she was actually feeling ill; she’d had a fever and various other flu symptoms for several weeks, although not at the same time. Or perhaps it was the arm. Her plaster cast had now acquired a dingy greyish hue, even though they’d been so careful to keep it away from water, as the doctor ordered.

Matched the mood, really. She was nowhere near back to herself.

The stress of it kept him up at night. Even when Joan was not nearby, Lane could not help turning every nuance over in his mind. He was desperate for any possible solution to her melancholy, understandable as it was. Perhaps if they went for a walk, she would feel the sun on her face and be reminded of better days. Perhaps if she put lavender oil in her bathwater, she would feel calmed instead of constantly monitored, like a prisoner under twenty-four hour guard. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

He had no idea what else to do.

Without warning, a throw pillow thumped against the side of his right leg, followed by a sudden weight; Lane nearly leapt out of his skin before he realized what was going on.

A mass of tangled red hair spilled across his lap as Joan tucked herself into his right side and shifted positions, propping the back of her cast just against his lower thigh as she curled into a little ball. Her other hand rested just near his knee. Two trembling fingers rested against the outer seam of his trousers.

He was so damn shocked he couldn’t say a word. A hundred questions flitted through his mind, none of them decent. You want to sleep there? She had never even propped her feet in his lap prior to this, although their friendship had always been affectionate. And he had no idea how to ask her why she had done it now, or what she was thinking.

Before he could speak, she let out a quick little breath, and closed her eyes, still shivering a little. At that moment, Lane knew he would rather walk across a field of hot coals rather than disturb her infinitesimal bit of peace.

Hesitantly, he placed one palm to her right shoulder, and when she did not open her eyes, just curled closer, he began to scratch a gentle path across her arm and upper back using what was left of his bitten-back fingernails. The simple touch said what he could not.

Rest, love. I’ll be right here.

 

**

 

Just before eight o’clock, Gail’s voice filtered all the way down the hall and into the living room. Her words were audible even over the radio, which Lane had taken care to keep at a reasonable volume after Kevin went down for the evening.

“I am not going to play this game all night, Joanie. Get in the bathtub.”

Wincing, he shook his head. He did not envy Gail this duty in the least. Wrangling a twenty or thirty-pound child into the bath was bad enough; sometimes, after she’d tended to Kevin, she emerged looking like she’d been through a monsoon. But wrangling one’s grown daughter in the same way was likely a recipe for disaster.

Musing over vivid images of Gail getting a cup of suds poured over her head – a mischief Nigel had once inflicted on Becca, when he was no more than two or three – Lane nearly missed the creak of the door swinging open.

Agitated steps echoed down the hall as Gail walked out.

“Okay, this is ridiculous. You’ve got ten minutes, and then I’m coming back in.”

Pretending not to notice as Gail stalked into the kitchen, grabbed a pack of cigarettes from the counter, and stepped out onto the balcony, Lane had nearly succeeded in turning his attention back to the article he’d been reading before when a flash of movement drew his eye instead. It was Joan, clad only in a floral bathrobe, peeking out into the hall.

“You all right?” he called out, and got to his feet. “Did you need anything?”

Joan did not answer – nothing was spoken, at least – so when Lane got to the doorway, he wasn’t immediately sure what she wanted.

“Think your mother’s taking a break,” he said first, gesturing to the bathtub, then realized it was only partially full. “Oh. Sorry. Let’s turn the water back on, so you can have yours.” With an awkward laugh, he walked over, turned on the spout, and then grasped the next-nearest object to catch his eye: a garish orange bottle with a cartoon label. Yabba Dabba Bubble. “Pour in some of this, as well. Send you back to the Stone Age?”

After a second of thought, she tilted her head. He thought he recognized some part of her expression; the sly gleam of amusement which usually shone so brightly on her face.

“What do you say? Care to risk it?” he asked again.

One corner of her mouth turned up into an honest-to-goodness smile; Lane broke into an ear-splitting grin as a result, and poured a generous amount of neon green liquid under the running faucet. Under the hard churn of water, clouds of bubbles began to puff up like thick iridescent seafoam.

“Oh, dear.” After a few minutes spent testing the water temperature, and stirring the bubbles so that they were evenly distributed across the bath, he finally turned the bottle around to read the label. Pouring in a quarter of the bottle may have been too enthusiastic. “Says one to two capfuls only. May have overdone it.”

Several inches of bubbles now obscured the surface of the water, like a layer of meringue on a particularly large cake. But when Lane cast a look back at Joan to see what she thought about this mishap, he noticed she was not looking at the water or the suds, but fussing with the loose tie of her bathrobe, one-handed.

Immediately, he turned away and squeezed his eyes shut, just in time to hear a whoosh of fabric and to feel a slight breeze on his face as Joan discarded her robe, walked forward, and stepped into the tub.

The slight ripple that passed through the water turned into a small splash and then a big one. Lane could feel the waves up to his elbow as water sloshed backwards and forwards, but he didn’t dare open his eyes until the water stopped moving – well, nearest his hand, anyway. After a long few seconds, he finally cleared his throat, and tried to make his voice sound normal.

“Settled?”

Joan made a noise that sounded like mm hm , and so Lane cracked one eye open, saw her sitting amid a sea of thick foam up to her collarbone with her cast resting on the left edge of the tub. Apparently it was safe to look again. He didn’t dare let his gaze wander this time.

She did seem content in the hot water, leaning back against the slope of the porcelain and blinking up at the wall, hopefully thinking about nothing important. Lane decided it would be best to go, and withdrew his hand from the water, drying it off on a nearby hanging towel.

“Well. I’ll, er, leave you to it.”

He turned to go, got perhaps three steps toward the door, when movement in the water made him turn back to Joan, who was now leaning against the side of the tub with her good hand braced on the porcelain lip, as if she were preparing to stand up and follow him. Was she going to get out if he left? Why wouldn’t she stay?

“What is it?”

She relaxed slightly, and leaned forward against the porcelain, but her expression pursed into a lemon-mouthed grimace before she finally spoke.

“Don’t leave me alone.”

Oh.

Exhaling a breath, Lane tried to smile at her, to show that she needn’t be ashamed. If she did not want to be alone, he could – well, be present. Although it was going to be a bit tricky, given the circumstances.

“Right. Er. Then I won’t,” he told her, and noticed the way she nodded her head, finally sat up and assumed her earlier position. His glasses had fogged up from the heat, and so he pushed them onto his nose. Probably best if he couldn’t see clearly, if he was going to be in here for awhile. “Erm. Do you – I can be useful, if that’s better. If you don’t want to talk.”

Lane was already rolling up his sleeves, as if she were going to ask him to do something as stupid as scrub her feet or shave her legs. Oh, good god, don’t say any of that nonsense out loud. Just imagine you’re a nurse or something, tending to a patient. No, nevermind, horrible idea. That could make things even more awkward.

“Can you wash my hair?”

His mouth dropped open upon hearing the request, but he quickly closed it.

There was a pause. Lane was thankful he could not see the likely cloud of shame or dread unfolding on Joan’s face as she spoke.

“Mom doesn’t do it right.”

“Oh. Well, I, er, don’t know if I’ll be much better, but – yes. Give it my best try.”

Sleeves rolled up. Glasses on the counter, next to the sink. He put a folded towel down on the floor next to the head of the tub, hoping to save his knees from too much stiffness, and glanced around the cream-and-blue blur that was the steam-filled bath. Seemed like he could spy a yellow bottle on the other side.

“Hand me your shampoo?”

She leaned forward with a splash, and seconds later, her small, slick hand pressed the plastic bottle into his palm.

“Already open,” she told him.

“Good.” He swallowed, once, before squirting a generous amount of it into his hands, and rubbing them together to start the lather. “All right. Erm. Get your hair wet.”

This was how Gail found them, ten minutes later: Lane with streaks of suds up to his wrists, totally absorbed in his work as he administered a vigorous scalp massage using Joan’s floral-smelling conditioner. She did seem to appreciate it, which was why he couldn’t stop even though his hands were getting sore: kept sighing and tilting her head into his fingers.

Looking toward the doorway, Lane couldn’t quite tell from the shadow, but it seemed as if Gail had her arms folded across her chest.

“‘Lo,” he said stupidly.

Joan made an amused noise. “Hi, Mom.”

Gail did not seem like she found this scene very funny. “Okay, Romeo. Get out.”

“Right.” He snorted out a breath that was not quite a laugh, and drummed his fingers against the back of Joan’s head. “Salon closed.”

She groaned in a theatrical way as Lane stood up, stretched a bit, and rinsed his hands off at the sink before grabbing his glasses. However, he didn’t put them on right away, which was why he nearly concussed himself on the doorframe on the way out.

“Damn! Sorry.” He put the frames on; rubbed at his forehead. “Leaving now.”

Grumbling under his breath, he closed the door.

 

**

 

The next night, Joan talked more than Lane had heard her do over the past two weeks, which was a heartening sign.

Tragically, most of what she said was directed at Gail – yelled, really – and it wasn’t especially kind. Even through the door, Lane could not help but notice the tenor of their conversation was deteriorating.

“I’m not a child – don’t need your help!”

Gail’s low huff of laughter, colder than usual. “Honey, you can’t even scrub half your face one-handed. You want to start a kitchen fire with all that grease?”

“Maybe I do,” Joan snapped back.

Lane was torn between being happy that some of Joan’s usual fire had returned and horrified on behalf of Gail, who really was trying to get everyone settled as best she could.

Dithering for a second before deciding on a course of action, he crossed to the drink cart, and put ice in two glasses, pouring whiskey in one and a gin and tonic into the other. This done, he put the two glasses onto a small tray, steeled his nerves, and proceeded down the hall to knock on the door.

“What,” Gail barked, the second his hand touched wood.

He cracked open the door, hoping not to be stabbed through the heart with a scrub brush for his attempt at peacemaking. “Anyone want a drink? Because I’ve… ”

The door flew open: Gail snatched the whiskey from the tray, breezed past him and strode out toward the balcony before he could even finish the sentence.

From the tub, Joan just rolled her eyes; Lane couldn’t help chuckling at the mulish derision on her face.

“Well,” he continued, mouth curling into a smirk despite himself, “I was going to ask which one you wanted, but it seems that decision’s been made for you.”

Joan waved him over; her hand splashed over the surface of the water as she motioned him forward. “I’ll take it.”

“You don’t know what it is yet,” Lane said gently, although he still walked over and lowered the tray down to her level.

“I’ll still take it.”

Grasping the glass, she took a deep drink of the gin, gasping slightly as she brought it away from her lips. Lane noticed how her bare throat gleamed so beautifully under the vanity lights and quickly glanced back toward the hall, pushing his glasses back onto his nose.

“How’s your arm feeling?” He cleared his throat. “Has the itching gone down?”

“Not really.” Joan lifted one shoulder in a shrug, and gave the plastic-wrapped cast a foul glare. “I hate this damn thing. You can’t even clean it.”

“Yes, well.” Lane wished he had something to do with his hands, and settled for crossing his arms across his chest. “Once it’s off, we can throw a parade or something.”

Joan glanced up at him, and wrinkled her nose. “Sit somewhere. You look weird hovering.”

“Oh.” Lane didn’t know how to say he wasn’t sure if that would be the best idea, but found he could not refuse the soft look in Joan’s eyes, and took a seat on the floor next to the tub, leaning back against the white wooden paneling. “Suppose I could stay a few minutes.”

“Great. You’ll make me spend more time with my mother,” Joan said around the rim of her glass.

“Oh, now. Gail’s not so bad, is she?”

“God,” Joan raised an eyebrow, shifted in the water. “You should hear the way you two talk about each other.”

“What?” Lane gave her a quizzical look. “Complaining about me already, is she?”

“Well,” Joan began, but they were interrupted by little feet thundering down the hall. Kevin did not pause before entering the room or, indeed, even seem to notice that there were other people present; just ran to the toilet, pulled down his pajama bottoms with clumsy hands, and began to relieve himself.

As a tiny stream of urine speckled the seat, the floor, and nearly everywhere else save the inside of the bowl, Lane turned and saw Joan was biting her lip to keep from laughing. When he grinned at her, and mouthed the word boys with a knowing look, she did laugh, blurting out a small:

”Kevin!”

Surprised, the little boy turned with a yelp, still in the middle of things; Lane bit the inside of his cheek to stop a hysterical noise from escaping as the lad came to the end of his water, still craning his neck as he stared at them. He did not seem to know what to think about finding two other people in the lavatory.

“Honey, you have to hold yourself when you use the toilet,” Joan told her son in a surprisingly even tone, although Lane could still hear the tremor of laughter in her voice. “Okay?”

Kevin did not answer his mother, just yanked his bottoms and little y-fronts back up, and tore out of the lavatory as fast as he’d arrived.

The dam of cackles that had built up finally burst; Lane spent a good minute or so completely unable to speak before finally calming himself.

“What are you two giggling about?” Gail was back in the doorway; her glass was full again, and some of her usual droll humor had returned.

Lane noticed Gail was now in her bare feet, and swallowed another laugh before getting up.

“Hang on. Don’t – come in quite yet.”

“Why the hell not?” She sounded outraged.

Behind him, Joan was still chuckling, dark and quiet. “Trust us.”

“Hurricane Kevin’s just been through,” Lane explained, still grinning as he went to find some tile cleaner and a rag. “Watch your step.”

 

**

 

Several nights later, Joan was too exhausted to clash wits with her mother or spend any time with him prior to going to bed, so Lane spent the evening tidying the kitchen, and watching a bit of television. By the time the BBC had gone off, he noticed that one of Joan’s patent heels, sitting in the foyer, was a bit muddy from their afternoon walk, and so he’d got out his shoe polishing kit to take care of that pair.

By the time Gail emerged from the bath, and had changed into her own nightclothes and bathrobe, along with her curlers, he had already polished six pairs of heels and was working on a seventh.

“Jesus Christ.” She frowned at him as if he were utterly mad. “Are you cleaning her shoes ?”

“Erm. No?” Lane had a polish-stained rag in one hand and a soft brush in the other, and could not hide any of the accoutrements from her sharp eyes.

“Okay, get up.” Gail shooed him from his task and into a standing position using both hands, as if she were whisking away a swarm of flies. “Go home and get in bed. You’ve done enough for today.”

“Now you’re just being silly,” he complained, and put down the soft brush. “I’m perfectly fine.”

“The hell you are. You’re wearing yourself out.”

“Oh, honestly, Gail.” Lane gave her a dubious look as she piled several pairs of Joan’s shoes into her arms. “I’m a grown man, for god’s sake. I would know if I were overtired. And if I suddenly found myself too exhausted to go on, I think I would be mindful enough to let everyone know in due course.”

 

**

 

Following the faint sounds of the dishwasher and the TV playing some kind of news program, Joan walked into the living room, glanced right, and saw the back stairway door in the kitchen was ajar. Mom must have taken out the trash.

Her heart rate sped up slightly as she imagined being alone in the apartment, but when she heard a faint snore from the sofa, and saw one hand curled limply against the top of the throw pillow, some of the panic receded. She walked around the sofa to confirm she wasn’t hearing things.

Here, Lane was sprawled out on his back in his vest, collared shirt, and trousers, still wearing his glasses, and without so much as a blanket to cover him. She watched his chest rise and fall for a moment, almost spellbound, as he slept. Could she curl up next to him without waking him? Would he be upset if she woke him, just so she could hear his voice? Was it awful to need someone this much, all the time? Was he mad at her? Was she being selfish?

Sometimes, when he came to sit with her during her baths, she had started to wonder if he looked at her; if he kept taking off his glasses or averting his gaze on purpose. It did make her curious. Maybe she was just overthinking things.

Before she could move, she heard a rustling behind her in Kevin’s room, and turned to see her son sitting in the doorway, leaning against the door jamb and sucking one thumb. He’d picked up the habit again after they left. Joan didn’t know why he had started doing that again, or why he’d started to be so shy. He barely said two words to anyone lately, although he’d been speaking in full sentences for months.

“Hi, sweetie,” she said, and beckoned him over. “You want to come in here?”

Kevin shook his head no, and grabbed at the door frame with his free hand. Joan regarded him for a long moment, sighed, and decided it wasn’t important. If he wasn’t crying or screaming or getting into trouble, why should she care how he was acting? Mom would come back and help her put him to bed soon.

She glanced back at Lane, and suddenly wished the couch was much bigger. All she wanted to do was lay down next to him so she could sleep. Just for a minute.

From the kitchen, the door creaked open, and Mom emerged, arching an imperious eyebrow when she saw Joan standing by the sofa, staring down at a clearly unconscious Lane.

“I didn’t want to wake him up yet,” Joan told her, as if things were as simple as that. “He looks tired.”

Mom just sighed, and shook her head no, holding out a hand. “Well, I won’t say I told you so, but he’s been burning the candle at both ends for weeks. Come on. Let’s put the baby to bed, and then you can go to sleep, too. We’ll get Sleeping Beauty up tomorrow.”

“Okay,” said Joan.

 

**

 

“Yes, I do understand, Roger.” Checking his watch, Lane grimaced when he saw what time it was. “Sorry, I’ve got to – I’m picking up someone at the airport. Yes.” He let out a breath. “I was hoping it would help, honestly. No use in me mucking it all up if she can get Joan through it.” A pause; he actually smiled. “Well, if anyone else could do, you could. All right. We’ll speak later, once I’ve had the chance to look over the monthlies. Mm. Sounds fine. All right. Bye bye.”

After Lane got to arrivals and found the correct gate, he kept a sharp eye out for Katie’s flight, but even he did not expect the person who stepped out of the jet bridge: a short, pretty-looking woman in a pale pink coat and a canary yellow suitcase, sporting a wild mane of long, wavy blonde hair, and very colorful makeup over a comfortable-looking pair of slim trousers and a bright collared shirt.

Nothing like he’d expected, and clearly different from Joan.

When she saw him, and the little sign he was holding, she walked over. “Excuse me, but are you Lane?”

“Yes,” he said. "Katie?"

“God, it’s so great to meet you.” Immediately, she swept him into a fierce hug, pulled back, and then hugged him a second time. “You know what? I like you already.”

The compliment made him blush. He quickly took her suitcase before he could say something stupid. “Thanks. You as well. Anyway. Have you got everything?”

They did not speak much during the taxi ride, so it was not until they had emerged from the car and were walking toward the door to Joan’s building that Katie put a gloved hand on his elbow, and guided him to the edge of the sidewalk.

“Before we go in, I have to ask. How is she?”

Lane pulled a face, not sure quite where to start. “Er. Not good.”

“Okay.” Katie took a deep breath. “How not good , exactly?”

“I – well, she’ll probably be glad to see you, but it may not be the most cheerful visit.” He scratched at his cheek in an absent way. “Hasn’t talked to me about much since it happened, really. Erm. Poor Gail’s had the brunt of her temper as she’s, er, started to come back to herself.”

“Oh, I don’t care if she’s angry.” Kate’s voice had gained a slight edge, as if she were trying to stay composed. “I’m just here for her. Whatever she needs.”

Reassured, Lane reached out and patted Katie’s arm before he could stop himself. It really was good of her to come all this way. Only a true friend would have ever taken such pains to ensure Joan’s comfort and well-being at a time like this. He was very heartened to know that Joan’s trust in this woman was not misplaced after all.

“Well, if she doesn’t mention that your presence is appreciated, please know that it is. You’re a very dear friend, and she could certainly use one at the moment. Though I’m sure you know that much.”

Katie blinked at him in response, seemingly boggled, but she didn’t say anything else, just motioned for him to lead the way.

When Gail let them inside, and Katie spotted Joan, she dropped her purse on the floor and ran to her as if they were girls on the playground, flinging herself into Joan’s arms and hugging her so tightly they actually toppled sideways into the back of the sofa. They were both crying; even Lane was a bit weepy, and so was Gail, although she kept pretending otherwise, buzzing off toward the foyer again and again, and hurriedly swiping at damp eyes.

“How did you get here?” Joan asked over and over once she pulled back, grasping at Katie’s hands, her face, her arms. “Oh, god, I just – I can’t believe you’re here – a-and you’re real, and – ”

“I know, honey,” Katie whispered fiercely, as if every bit of this made sense to her. And, in a way, Lane supposed it did. After knowing each other nearly forty years, some things simply didn’t need to be spoken. “Oh, Joanie, I know.”

Chapter Text

Lane unlocked the door to his flat, ready to take a long lunch, and was met with the cheerful sound of Katie’s voice, loud and animated:

“ – so we’re all in the living room. I’m barely decent. Dennis is sweating bullets under that blanket. And my mother-in-law just would. not. go to bed. So finally, next time she got up, I followed her into the kitchen and I told her, look, Colleen, you’re family, and I love you. But if your son and I don’t get time alone in the next twenty minutes, I’m gonna lose my damn mind.”

“God,” Joan drawled. She was wearing her robe over what appeared to be casual clothes: a long-sleeved blouse and trousers. “You didn’t.”

“So of course she immediately thinks I’m pregnant, or that we’re trying again – oh, hi, Lane!”

Lane tried and failed to hide a guilty grin as he hung up his coat. “Don’t mind me. Just back for lunch. Have you two eaten?”

“Oh, no, I’m not really hungry."

“Finish your story,” Joan prompted.

By the time Katie got to the end of her tale, Lane was struggling not to snicker aloud as he put together the last of his meal.

“––so we’re just going at it, right, and all of a sudden Dennis makes this godawful wheezing noise, like – “ a dramatic, pained gasp “– and begs me to stop.” Kate stifles a giggle. “Guess what happened.”

“I assume nothing good.”

“You assume right.” Katie leaned forward, and said something more quietly; Joan broke out into an ear-to-ear smirk as her friend leaned backward, and resumed her normal volume. “So not only did I have to drive Colleen’s car to the emergency room that night, but we had to come back the next morning and explain the whole thing to his parents in horrifying detail. Dennis had to keep ice on it for the next 48 hours. I think he nearly froze to death.”

“Jesus.” A huff of breath. “That story is upsetting.”

Busy mulling over what sort of sex-related injury would require an immediate hospital trip and continual icing – something testicular? God, that sounded distressing – Lane nearly missed the fact that Katie had got up from the sofa, and was moving toward the kitchen.

“Okay. Almost one-thirty. I’ll go wake Kevin, we’ll all head to the park, and then come back in an hour, hour and a half. Sound good?”

Over on the sofa, Joan just nodded at her friend. “Sure.”

“Great.” Katie turned to him with a brilliant smile. “Sorry to rush off, Lane. Gotta tire the monster out before dinner, you know?”

“Course.” Despite her earlier claim that she wasn’t hungry, Lane couldn’t help noticing the way she was eyeing his sandwich, like a starving hyena in the savanna, and immediately proffered the plate her way. “Well, here. Take half. I’m not going to eat all of it.”

“You’re a gem. Thanks.”

Katie patted his arm with her free hand, snatched the right half of the sandwich from the plate, and breezed off before he could blink.

From the couch, Joan just snorted, like she couldn’t believe he’d done something so silly, and gave Lane a significant look. “Don’t fall for that trick. In high school, I don’t think she had to buy breakfast once after freshman year.”

Katie’s voice, from the other room: “And yet I still didn’t get tits until I was nineteen.” Her tone went higher-pitched, slightly quieter. “You believe that, little man? Couldn’t gain a pound back then if I tried, and look at me now.” A sigh. “I know. It’s tragic.”

Clearing his throat, Lane pretended not to understand what Katie meant, and sat down at the table with his plate.

“Are you staying for awhile?” Joan asked, without preamble.

He glanced up, gauged her guarded expression. Well. He really shouldn’t, but he could always work late if needed. Again. Although Ginsberg might murder him if he couldn’t figure out how to give better written direction on the artwork.

“Yes, I think so.” He wasn’t sure how to ask why it was important today; if she wanted him to stay because she had something on her mind, or preferred additional company, or simply didn’t want poor Katie to wear out her welcome. “For an hour or so, anyway. That all right?”

“It’s your lunch,” Joan said neutrally, but she did seem cheered by the response, and so Lane didn’t say anything else for awhile.

 

**

 

That night, after Katie and Gail had prepared supper and had absolutely refused to let Lane do anything save for setting the table and pouring a few drinks, they put Kevin to bed and retired to the balcony for a long smoke.

Joan was taking a long soak in the tub, as was her usual routine. Once the news went off, Lane decided to get up and see if she needed anything.

Outside, Katie and Gail were deep in conversation; their voices drifted down to nothing as he walked down the hallway to the lavatory, and rapped twice on the door.

“May I come in?”

A splash, followed by Joan’s voice. “Sure.”

Lane opened the door, was hit by a thick blast of steam, and decided to close the door behind him so the room wouldn’t turn to ice. Once he’d done this, he realized his glasses had already fogged up from the heat, and pushed them up onto his head. Useless.

“Came to ask if you wanted a drink. Kate and your mother are are still outside, so I’m not sure how long they’ll be.”

“I’m okay, thanks.” Even from the pitch of her voice, low and relaxed, Joan seemed as if she were in high spirits.

“All right.”

“But – I do need help with my hair.”

His eyebrows flew up. Although he had helped her with this several times, it still felt strange to be asked for something so intimate.

Perhaps Joan knew how unusual the request seemed from his perspective. “I don’t want to bother them yet.”

A small hmph escaped him before he could censor it. “Though you’ll happily enlist me, hm?”

She was quiet for a moment. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“Sorry. Only teasing.” He ducked his head. “Bad of me.”

“No.” A shuffle in the water, followed by the thump of a leg or an arm against porcelain. “I like the company, anyway.”

Lane was already rolling up his sleeves. “Well, we’re in agreement there.”

“Plus, you’re better at it.”

A real smile broadened his face. “Now you’re just lying.”

She actually laughed; it had been so long since he’d heard the sound that a burst of happiness rushed down his spine and into his stomach.

“All right.” He waved a vague hand at the tub. “Wet your hair down, and I’ll just – sit on the edge of the bath, this time. Long as it’s dry.”

“One dry washcloth, coming up.” Joan laid out a bright pink piece of fabric for him; even as rubbish as his eyesight was, the square of it still beamed bright against the ledge of the tub. “I didn’t bring a book this time, so no trip hazards.”

Without another word, she dipped under the water, wriggled about for a few seconds, and came back up with a gasp; Lane thought very suddenly of the adventure stories he’d read as a boy, about innocent sailors going mad over beautiful mermaids.

Dangerous. Don’t do that.

“Okay, I’m ready,” she told him, as water sloshed back and forth.

“Right.” He sat down, Joan handed him the shampoo, and he squirted a small amount into his open hand, holding it out for inspection. “That enough, or do you want more?”

She tilted his palm to the left with pruned fingertips, then released him. “No, that’s fine.”

Last time, he’d left his glasses on his nose too long, got a fleeting glimpse of Joan’s knee and thigh as she uncrossed her legs beneath the layer of bubbles, and got so distracted he’d squirted a fountain of shampoo straight onto her hair. As a result, they’d had to rinse it three or four extra times to get all the soap out.

“Good.” A pause. “Ready?”

“Mm hm.”

After lathering his hands up, Lane began his work, starting with the crown of Joan’s head and rubbing down to the nape of her neck in brisk circles, enjoying the relaxed silence.

“What on earth was Katie telling you at lunch?” he asked after a minute, massaging shampoo into Joan’s left temple with his fingertips. “Sounded ghastly.”

“Ha.” Joan sighed out a breath. “Well. She broke Dennis’s penis.”

Lane was so startled he choked, and his hands stilled in Joan’s hair. “You’re kidding.

“Nope.”

“But – it’s just –  how?”

“You heard how. I guess it happened within the last couple of months. Apparently that’s one of the reasons he didn’t mind her being gone so long.”

“Sorry, no. Can we go back to the bit where she broke his willy ?”

Joan giggled again, pitching forward with the motion, so Lane’s soapy hands were poised awkwardly in the air behind her head.

“What? You said it first,” he told her.

“I can’t believe that’s what you call it, is all.”

He touched her right shoulder with his knuckles to get her to lean back again, and tilt her head towards him; automatically, she reacted, and settled back into her earlier position, so he could resume his work.

“Well, I don’t just go around saying that type of thing, obviously.”

“Do all English people call male anatomy that?”

“Can’t say I’ve ever taken a poll on the subject.” He scratched at a particularly tricky spot behind Joan’s right ear, she made a contented humming noise. “I mean, it was one of the words we used in school. Probably not the most popular.”

“Really? What’s the most popular?”

Madam ,” Lane put on a gruff, no-nonsense voice, as if he were a cross policeman about to write a citation, “do you mind?”

She just snorted, and shifted position in the water, so she was nearly facing the back wall with her left arm raised high in the air. “Here, get the left side.”

“Surprised one of those phrases hadn’t crossed the ocean by now.” Idly, as Lane worked soap into the back of her hair, careful not to get it in the shell of her ear, he wondered if there had ever been research on this sort of thing. “Given mankind as a species.”

“Maybe that’s why Arthur Miller used it.”

A pause. “Well, I’ve no idea how Arthur Miller is connected to any of this.”

“Death of a Salesman.” Joan dropped her head forward, so he could scrub the fine tendrils of hair on the back of her neck. “That’s the main character. Willy Loman. Wears these terrible cheap suits.”

Now Lane was the one sniggering.

“I’m serious. That’s his name!”

“Naturally.” He shook his head, trying to rid his brain of the image of a pale cock dressed in a very terrible suit. Double-breasted, obviously. “What did you call it, then? When you were in school.”

“I don’t know. Prick. Dick. Tool. Among other things.”

“Us as well. Though I should think you’re leaving the best ones out.”

She laughed again. “Katie and I had our mouths scrubbed with soap for using those. That girl just didn’t learn.”

“God, I can almost picture it now. The two of you passing little notes all through class.” Lane sectioned out a large lock of hair and rubbed the ends between his palms, keeping the motions gentle although he was starting to laugh. “Hello, Joanie, isn’t biology hideous. Also, so-and-so’s whanger is rather worse for wear today.”

Joan actually guffawed, and suddenly a clanging noise shook the entire tub. She groaned and leaned forward; he let her hair slip from his hands.

“You all right?”

“Hit my funnybone,” she finally gasped, and sat back up with a whine, cradling her right arm to her body. “Ow.”

“Sorry.”

“Yeah.” She was slightly breathless. “Although that was a good one.”

“Suppose I’d have to ask Nigel what the children are really saying these days, if we want to mull over the newest.” He straightened up, and held out both sudsy hands over the water. “Rinse me; I’ll do your conditioner next.”

Joan did not turn on the tap as he’d assumed she would, just poured a stream of water over his soapy hands, straight from the tub.

“All clear?” he asked, once she’d done this multiple times.

“Yes.” She handed him the hard plastic cup they’d been using, already full of warm water. “Let me cover my eyes.”

Once she was ready, and leaning back toward the slope of the tub, he slowly poured the hot water over her scalp, guiding it through her long tresses until the cup was empty. Joan then sat up, refilled it, and handed it back to him. They did this several times, until she carded one hand across her scalp and pronounced it squeaky clean. He then applied conditioner to the ends of her hair. While they waited for this to soak in, they began swapping tales about the rudest things they’d ever read in print.

Several minutes later, Lane was teaching Joan a variant to an old British sea shanty that Lewis had once scribbled onto the back of a napkin, holding a plastic cup in one hand and pretending it was a mug of horrible grog:

 

Now let ev'ry man drink off his full bumper,

And let ev'ry man wet down a moustache,

We'll drink and be jolly

And drown melancholy,

And give th’ pile-driver to a true-hearted lass.

 

“Hello?” came a sudden voice from the doorway.

Lane glanced over, saw a blonde blur. Must be Katie.

“Hello,” he and Joan replied, almost in unison, as a head of built-up steam swept out into the hallway.

“What are you doing?” Kate asked, after a few seconds of silence.

Well, wasn’t it obvious?

“Waiting on her conditioner,” Lane answered.

“He washed my hair.”

“But you’re singing ,” Katie reiterated slowly, as if this bit were more important.

“Yeah. Er. S’pose I’ll stop torturing everyone now.” Lane touched Joan’s bare hand, poised on the lip of the tub, in a fleeting way before he got to his feet. “Off for a drink.”

“Okay.”

Katie closed the door behind him, and murmured something to Joan that he couldn’t hear as he went back into the kitchen.

 

**

 

Even before Lane walked up the last flight of stairs, he could hear a child screaming inside his flat, along with raised voices.

After he opened the door, he was met with the full-blast version: nearest the doorway was Kevin, yowling so hard his face was turning purple, facedown on the floor sobbing and beating clenched fists against the floor. Over what, it was unclear.

Flying out of the sitting room and down the hallway was Joan, possibly tearful herself –

“I can’t listen to it anymore.”

– while Katie was clearly trying to calm everyone down. She barely had enough time to glance at Lane before following Joan into the back bedroom.

“Joanie, hey. Come on. It’s all gonna be – ”

A door slammed closed.

Still prone on the floor, Kevin just screamed harder.

Lane scrubbed a hand across his eyes, debating his next move. Oh, god. All right. How did people do this with small children again?

He decided to ignore the tantrum for now, and pretended not to even see the boy although he had to step very near the lad’s outstretched hands to hang up his coat. Thirty seconds passed. No change. He went into the living room and turned on the television. Another minute passed. Still no change – and the incessant blood-curdling screams now threatened to give him a headache. He actually had to cover his ears.

Out of sheer desperation, Lane decided to keep busy. He turned on the radio to something rather loud, washed dishes with the tap running at full blast, gathered all the kitchen rubbish into a bin bag, and wiped down the counter. After what felt like hours, he realized something very important over the ringing in his ears.

No one was screaming.

Kevin was now lying prone on his belly on the floor, whining quietly and still gasping for breath. His little face and neck and the collar of his shirt were soaked with tears. From the neck up, he was still fire-engine red.

Sighing, Lane got out a plastic cup from the pantry that had been left from the boy’s last visit, poured a glass of cold water, and walked toward Kevin’s prone form.

“Would you like any water?”

The boy glanced up at him, clearly suspicious.

Lane just shrugged, knelt down, and set the cup between them. “It’ll help you cool off.”

After another moment, Kevin sat up very carefully, took the cup in both hands, and drank for nearly a full minute, loudly gulping down every drop.

“Breathe,” Lane reminded him.

With a gasp, Kevin pulled the empty cup away from his mouth. He seemed not to know what else to do once he had finished the water. So Lane went back to the kitchen, got the pitcher from the counter, and brought it over to the coat rack.

He meant to kneel down and pour a bit more into Kevin’s glass, but the second he reached out, Kevin jumped a mile and tossed the empty cup forward, so it clattered into Lane’s feet and ankles. Lane did not know why the boy had startled so badly until the realization hit him like a freight train; the weight of it nearly brought tears to his eyes.

He was afraid Lane would strike him.

Jesus Christ.

“I’m going to sit down now,” Lane finally said, almost a whisper, “and put this right next to me.” He placed the plastic pitcher next to his feet, on the ground, then sat straight down on the floor. After another moment of thought, he shoved both hands beneath his knees.

Kevin did not react to this pronouncement, but he didn’t run away, either. Lane focused all of his energy on thinking about the boy, and what he might have seen at home, and the sort of reassurances he might want now.

“Things have been scary lately, haven’t they?”

He glanced over, briefly. No response. Kevin did not meet his eyes.

“Seeing your mother upset, and moving to a new home. That’s all – very hard.”

Still no reaction. Oh, god, he was ruining everything, it was awful, the boy probably didn’t want to hear any of this.

Lane let out a deep sigh. Better to just spit this out and be done with it.

“Lad, I’ll never hit you. It’s –” shameful, screamed his mind. “Well. I don’t do it. Ever. Even when someone’s done – the worst thing in the world.”

You’d like to knock Dr. Harris’s teeth out, an inner voice piped up, but Lane refused to think about this part of the equation.

“And I suppose I want you to know that,” he concluded lamely. “Just in case.”

Kevin was silent.

Lane tried again. “You hear what I’m saying, hm?”

After several seconds, Kevin reached out, tentative, and poked at the plastic cup with one finger. Lane noticed him sneaking a long, calculated look toward the pitcher of water, as if he were trying to understand how quick he needed to be to nab a bit more to drink.

Oh.

Lane honestly wasn’t sure if the lad would try to bolt if he moved, so he glanced over at the pitcher, and then back at Kevin.

“Would you like to pour some?”

Down the hall, a door opened and closed, very quietly; before anyone else could move, Kevin bolted to his feet immediately and fled into his room.

The empty plastic cup was left behind to spin uselessly on the floor.

Sighing, Lane pulled his hands out from under him, and leaned back, resisting the urge to lie down right here on the ground. His head throbbed, and his mind was racing, and he really wasn’t in the mood to go back to work yet.

It did not surprise him much when Kate walked into the sitting room alone.

“You got Kevin to stop screaming?” she asked.

“Not really. Just – ran out of steam.”

“Oh.” Kate frowned at him, as if she were still trying to piece together the situation. “Well, Joanie took a pill, so I think she’ll try to sleep for awhile.”

“Right.”

Lane couldn’t think over the roaring in his ears. All he could see was the naked fear on Kevin’s pale little face as the boy watched him splutter out the worst, most pathetic sentence in the world. I’m not going to hit you. I don’t do that. That poor lad didn’t feel safe anywhere, perhaps even in his own home, and all because of his bastard father. It was monstrous.

A strange jittery sensation raced through his arms and legs.

“Sorry. I, er, can’t stay, actually.”

Katie looked stunned as he got to his feet. “You can’t stay in your own house?”

“No. It’s not – I’m just – going for a walk. Clear my head. That’s all.”

Terrible excuse, but she did not press for more.

Halfway down the stairs, he went terribly dizzy, his legs nearly gave out from under him, and he got so lightheaded he had to sit down on the worn musty carpet of the landing, shaking all over, sucking in quick, shallow breaths and gripping the cold twisted banister rail tight in one fist.

Several minutes later, he was finally able to calm himself.

That’s not happened before.

His heart was still racing like mad, but all the other sensations had gone. And perhaps best of all, his left arm felt fine. As did his chest. Wasn’t a heart attack if his arm wasn’t hurting. He was relatively certain, anyway.

Tricky thing was, Lane had no idea what had just come over him.

Was it anger? Couldn’t be. He hadn’t imagined anything violent or disturbing, such as thrashing the good doctor into a complete pulp, for example – although this vivid image did buck up his spirits for several minutes.

Yet, although the earlier symptoms did not return, the uneasy feeling remained. Perhaps it was just a spell of nerves, given everything that had happened.

He still had not done enough to help Joan and her family now that she was directly out of harm’s way. He hadn’t properly seen to Kevin’s state of mind, nor considered how trying it would be – for everyone involved – to parent a shellshocked child.

An odd sort of pity washed over him now, as he thought about his mother, and all she had tried to do in service of him and Lewis. Even if he couldn’t recall half of it.

Strange, how much of his own boyhood Lane now wanted to remember in detail, if it meant he could now guide another frightened little thing through a very dark and terrible place. Help him grow up differently. Better. Not like him.

How did one get to the bottom of these things? Where could you – oh, damn it.

The truth hit him like a hammer blow between the eyes.

Psychotherapy. Again.

A headshrinker would be able to tell if this was some sort of genuine health concern, or perhaps the flu, or if he was simply – Lane let out a resigned sigh – overextending himself and getting worried about things that couldn’t be controlled.

God, if Gail was bang on with her stupid fatigue theory, she’d have a bloody field day.

Tentatively, he pulled himself up into a standing position using the banister, and felt relieved when everything seemed more or less normal. He felt tired, and a bit achy, but otherwise just – himself.

Right. Well. Probably ought to find the nearest phone box, schedule the appointment before he forgot about it.

 

**

 

“So,” Kate said into the silence, after several minutes of doing nothing but smoking and nursing a vodka cranberry. Between her jacket and the thick blanket in her lap, sitting out on the patio was kind of nice. “How are you doing with all of this?”

Beyond the row of houses on the opposite side of the street, the last rays of thin sunlight danced across big puffy clouds, as muted blues deepened to vivid oranges and purples.

Leaning forward in the chair next to Kate, Gail lit a cigarette; the tip glowed as red as the setting sun before she exhaled a gust of smoke, and tucked her lighter back into her blouse.

“Other than wanting to stab Doctor Harris in the neck? Oh, just fine, really.”

“Hmph. Join the club.” Kate took another sip, so sour it made her mouth pucker for a second. Her voice come out low and raspy when she spoke again. “Bet Lane’s dying to get a punch or two in first, huh?”

Gail put her cigarette in the ashtray. Her eyes narrowed. It was the look Katie remembered from when she and Joanie were kids, and Gail was trying to figure out which one of them had done something stupid.

“Do you know something?”

“No.” Kate met her steely gaze with an arched eyebrow. “Do you?”

“Honey, my kid doesn’t tell me shit,” retorted Gail, which made Kate snort out a laugh. “But you may as well ask the question while we’re alone.”

Well, hell, she wouldn’t waste an opportunity. “Are they sleeping together?”

“Pfft.” Gail rolled her eyes, tossing her head back like she expected to flip long hair over one shoulder. Although the woman hadn’t had long hair since 1940. “Isn’t that the scoop of the year.”

“So you don’t think she wants – ?”

“Well, he’s in love with her, isn’t he? Don’t be stupid. She always likes that.”

“Yeah. I saw it pretty quick.” A pause; Kate shifted her drink to her left hand. “Not her usual type, though.”

“No,” agreed Gail. “But considering her track record…”

She didn’t have to finish the sentence. Probably not the worst thing in the world.

They were quiet for a few moments. Even through the closed door, Kate could still hear the clink and clang of clean dishes as Lane put plates away in the top cabinets. After another minute, the rustling stopped, and a high, soft voice was audible alongside Lane’s calm tenor. Joan must have finished her bath.

Turning just long enough to glimpse a floral-swathed figure standing in the kitchen, squeezing water from long wet hair with a small towel as Lane set a cup and saucer onto the high counter, Kate turned back to face the street with a shocked noise.

“Jesus. She really lets him see her without makeup.”

“That’s not all she lets him see,” Gail murmured dryly, but she cut off the rest of her sentence when they heard footsteps approaching.

Rapping twice on the closed door, Joan opened it, and stuck her head out. “Aren’t you going to say goodbye to Lane? He’s getting ready to go home.”

Kate was proud of herself for not batting even a single eyelash at this comment. When they were kids, Joanie didn’t give a shit who came and went, long as she still got to be the center of attention. This was new.

“Sure, honey,” was all she said, with a gentle smile. “We’ll say good night.”

Once Joan was out of earshot, Gail gave Kate a wink, and put on a loud, flirtatious purr as she rose from her chair and stepped back into the living room, striding toward the foyer. “Lane, sweetie, are you sure you can’t stay a few more minutes?”

“Mom. He just said he has work to do.”

“Well, there’s no need to snap at me, Joanie. I didn’t hear him say it.” By the time Kate got to the sofa, Gail had threaded the distance between Joan and Lane, and kissed his cheek, like a creepy grandmother. “Call us when you get home, okay? And don’t work too late.”

She patted the side of his face in a fond way and fixed his tie before stepping backward.

“Oh.” Lane didn’t seem to know how to react to an affectionate Gail, glancing down at the hardwood and then back at the front door, as if either one were going to spring to life and tell him what to do next. “Er. I’ll – try.”

“Don’t worry,” Kate offered him a cheerful wave from her seat on the living room sofa. “I’ll just say goodbye from here.”

Two spots of red still colored Lane’s cheeks. “Right. Anyway, I’ll, ah, phone once I’m back at the flat. Erm. See you all tomorrow, then. Good night.”

“Good night,” answered Joan quietly.

Glaring daggers at her mother as Lane walked to the door, Joan was pink with barely-suppressed fury, all puffed cheeks and pursed mouth. His footsteps had barely faded down the hall before she finally hissed out a full sentence.

“Okay, what the hell was that?

“What? I’m just being friendly.”

“You – Jesus Christ, Mom. You practically pinned a sign on him!”

Kate bit her lip to keep from laughing. Even an ocean away from New York, and after twenty years, some things never changed – and watching Gail bait Joan over an eligible man was one of the oldest tricks in the book.

As Gail and Joan kept sniping at each other, breezing down the hall and into the back bedroom, Katie just turned on the TV, and settled into the sofa pillows.

Although Gail wasn’t always subtle with these things, maybe it was for the best right now. Maybe fawning all over her daughter’s boyfriend, juvenile as it was, would finally knock Joan out of her rut and get her thinking about what to do next.

Chapter Text

“God, and the way he looked at me. Like I was going to kill him. I mean, physically, completely....oh, Christ, you’re giving me that bloody look again.”

As Doctor van Pels made yet another notation on his clipboard, Lane curled his fingers around the edge of the sofa pillow balanced in his lap and sat up, wincing as the teeth of the zipper dug into the meat of his palm.

“Well, I already know what you’re going to say. You think I am punishing myself for the model I’ve presented here, when really I should be examining why Kevin thought he was going to be punished just for spilling a bit of water.”

“Clearly the child does not have faith in you because he has been shown such faith is not rewarded.” Doctor van Pels shrugged off Lane’s words. “When he is more confident in the new model you present, and in his own character, he may grow to offer an original kind of trust.”

“Original kind.”

“The sort of trust the parent shows the child, which the child reflects through their character. I have faith in you because you are here. This can only occur once the child knows he or she shall be accepted as a unique being, within the structure of all other expectations.” A pause; the doctor cleared his throat. “And the boy’s mother? How is the friendship there?”

“No, no, that’s—let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” Lane held up a hand to placate this train of thought. “Er. Of course I do appreciate your inquiring after Joan, but I’m not quite—it’s rather—more complex, I fear. And it is nearly quarter till.”

“So it is.” Doctor van Pels gave him a perfunctory smile, and checked his watch. “Well. Do you have other concerns, before our session is concluded?”

Lane sighed, unable to voice the thoughts in the back of his mind. “No.”

“Excellent. As discussed, I shall see you again on the twenty-first. You may make the appointment with Angela now if you wish.”

 

**

 

“Joanie, do you think my stretch marks show too much with this blouse?”

Still brushing her teeth, with her fluffy robe thrown over ratty pajamas she’d been wearing since the weekend, Joan glanced backwards. At the small dresser mirror, Katie was staring at her own cleavage, adjusting her pussy-bow turquoise blouse one way and then another. Chipped pink fingernails fussed anxiously with the tie.

“I don’t think so.” Joan took her toothbrush out of her mouth, and spat foam into the sink. “Not like anyone’s looking anyway.”

Oops. Probably shouldn’t have said that.

Kate just rolled her eyes. “Okay, excuse you. I’m forty, not dead.”

“Sorry.” Turning around, Joan gave Katie a second, more appraising, look. The neckline was so high it wouldn’t matter. “No. You really can’t see them.”

“Great. Anyway. What are you wearing today?”

Joan sighed. She wasn’t sure she wanted to do anything today, much less change out of her pajamas. The thought of putting on makeup felt even more draining. “Oh. I don’t know. Maybe my cigarette trousers. Or those culottes.”

Greg hated when she wore pants, especially after they moved here. Said they made her look dumpy.

“Could be cute with a sweater,” Kate offered. “And a scarf.”

“Maybe.” Joan bit her lower lip as she considered options. She could still taste a faint sheen of toothpaste at the corner of her mouth.

 

**

 

“Shit. Okay, ah.” Ginzo scratched at his hair, which probably looked like an electrocuted poodle coat by now. He fucking hated running meetings. “Where were we?”

“Schwepps,” answered Katya.

“Fuck me. I forgot all about them! What was the – didn’t Dom say they needed – ?”

“Already done.” Katya handed him a storyboard with new copy, along with the storyboarded ad; a video of someone opening a bottle, so you could hear the gas escape. “If Mister Pryce approves, we can present with the clients on Wednesday?”

“Yeah, well, I’m beginning to think Lane’s dropped off the face of the earth,” Ginzo answered darkly, as he inspected the writing. “Gotta be honest, Kat, I don’t even remember pitching this. What was the—why’d we go with the sound thing again? Didn’t they say they wanted a jingle?”

Katya’s mouth twitched up. “It was because you couldn’t remember how to spell it.”

“Shit. Right.” He gave the tagline another once-over. Schhhh… You know who! Not his usual style, pretty subtle, but modern enough for a soda company. It was decent. “Yeah, I think — just send it to Lane, have him mark up whatever’s left.”

“All right.” She plucked the storyboard from his hands. “I will present it in the meeting, then.”

“You’ll—” he carded both hands through his hair, horrified and then embarrassed by how quick he’d gone from liking to hating the ad idea. “Fuck, you know what, sure. I don’t care. I’m fucking dying out here.” He stopped talking. “What am I forgetting now?”

“Revision for Lufthansa. The upcoming 747.”

“Mother fucker, ” Ginzo spat, nearly upsetting the pile of papers in front of him. Those assholes had not been patient about wanting a big campaign, and he’d pretty much forgotten where his Boeing notes had gone. Might’ve left them in Tiergarten, to be honest. “Jesus Christ. You know what, if we don’t get another writer in here soon, or maybe an art director so I can stop taking a bunch of shitty pictures with Lane’s shitty camera, I’m gonna lose my goddamn mind.”

“Seems like you already have,” offered Katya bluntly, and gave him a legal pad with a shit ton of phrases scribbled on the first page. “Our taglines from the last meeting.”

“Great,” sighed Ginzo. “Okay, whatever. Walk me through ‘em.”

 

**


Alone in Lane’s flat for what seemed like the first time in several weeks, Joan was trying and failing to read the latest issue of Cosmopolitan when the phone rang.

After the first two rings, she debated answering it. When it did not stop ringing, and the person on the other end seemed as if they’d never hang up, she finally got to her feet, crossed the room, and picked up the receiver.

“Hello?” She had to clear her throat to speak.

“Oh, for god’s sake,” came a familiar male voice – it took Joan a moment or two to realize the crisp English accent. John Hooker. He sounded absolutely despondent. “Sorry. Just – please tell me Mr. Pryce is in.”

“John, I have no idea when he’ll be here.” Some tiny corner of her brain wanted to parse out the panic in his voice. Why did he sound so upset? “If it’s urgent, I can have the service try the doctor’s office.”

“No. It certainly isn’t—do not take a message. Really doesn’t matter.”

Joan arched an eyebrow at this. He was definitely lying, but she had no idea why he would call Lane in such a tizzy unless it was important. “Sounds like it matters quite a bit.”

“Augh.” He blew out a breath; static crackled down the extension. “Well, if you really must know, this is an efficiency problem, nothing more. I was hoping Mr. Pryce might have a word of advice. Given his time as a former office director.”

Hm. Probably some sort of internal politics situation at McCann. Joan shook her head once to clear out the cobwebs, then sat down at the kitchen counter. A solution had just occurred to her. “You know I am a former director.”

“Yes. Obviously. But it’s really—I only wanted to ask—”

Sighing, Joan reached for Lane’s message book; there was a ballpoint pen sitting on top of the pad of paper. She ripped the entire sheet from the spiral, and turned it over to use the blank side. “Okay. Where’s the inefficiency?”

“What?”

“Look. If you want to keep calling Lane at all hours of the day in a panic, be my guest. But I’ve solved my fair share of efficiency problems over the years. Why not let me help?”

“Because you’ll only—mock me,” John retorted, although it was without half his usual venom. “Send a memo over to half the staff telling them how stupid I am.”

“I promise I won’t.”

Granted, even the idea of helping John Hooker seemed exhausting, but it was better than sitting around watching television.

John was quiet for several seconds before he spoke again. “Right. I may possibly regret this, but I suppose I may as well try. Anyway. Strictly speaking, this is about the speed at which I receive messages.”

“Memos, Telex, or telephone calls?”

“Telephone calls.” 

“Okay.” She quickly jotted this down in shorthand. It took her a second to remember what characters to write. “Are you getting them late, or are they not delivered?”

“Both, I suppose.” John sounded less suspicious. “My new secretary has never been skilled at this sort of thing, of course, but it’s gotten slightly out of hand over the past few weeks.”

“Well, I hope you haven’t said that to her face.”

A long, pointed silence.

“All right.” She decided not to engage on that mistake for now. “Leaving your secretary out of it, are others in your area receiving messages on time?”

“Difficult to say. Not sure how often such topics were discussed at Sterling Cooper, but here, my colleagues do not spend much time debating these sorts of things.”

Joan closed her eyes, and willed herself into a parental level of patience. “Okay. Then the issue could lie elsewhere. Do you have a good relationship with your operators?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Your operators,” Joan repeated. “There should be three or four heads per floor, depending on the size of each company in your building.”

“Oh. Well, I – don’t think I’ve ever had reason to talk to them, before. Is that strictly warranted?”

“Dear god,” Joan sighed, before she could censor herself. A reprimand flew out of her mouth as if she’d delivered it nine hundred times before – and she probably had. “No wonder you never get anything on time. John, if the girls on your floor don’t know who you are, and feel at least positively about you, they’re not going to prioritize your calls.”

“What? That’s absurd.”

“I’m not saying it makes sense. But it can be tied directly to overall efficiency.”

“Why? We’ve never had to make that sort of effort before.”

A rush of excitement buzzed hot at the back of her neck. “That doesn’t matter. Listen to me. Talking to them is about making yourself stand out, and building key relationships. Every time I hired a new executive secretary – every single time – I walked her down to the operator’s room and had her give the girls a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates. Something sweet. And it wasn’t because I cared so much about new hires making friends. It ensured all executive calls, messages, and other communiques got routed to the correct place, on time, and without unnecessary delays.”

“Opening the lines of communication,” John said faintly. Judging by the scratching in the background, it sounded as if he were writing something down.

“Yes,” she confirmed. “Think about it this way: you’re interacting with a team of people who, by design, don’t meet many of their own coworkers. Right? They spend the majority of their workdays trapped in a little windowless room, plugging wires into walls, and catching tiny snippets of conversation. Any morsel of sincere interaction they get from you, especially if you value the work they do, and tell them so, is going to ensure your office runs smoothly.”

“But that isn’t—I understand why such a measure could generate positive feeling, certainly. Only it isn’t very logical.”

“No, but subjective opinion is part of business, too.” Joan lifted one hand in a shrug, put down her pen so she could spin it around on the gleaming counter. “How well you navigate people’s perceptions of you and your work, or how well you use them to your advantage, can mean the difference between failure and success. Think about it. A successful sales pitch is not solely based in logic.”

“Your impression of Mr. Pryce has got terrifyingly accurate,” John said faintly.

“Well.” She let out a breath. “You get what I mean, don’t you?”

“Yes. Quite.” Another pause. “I, er, apologize if you have already mentioned this, but what were you saying about gifts?”

“Not gifts,” Joan corrected. Better not give him the wrong idea. “Do not buy cheap trinkets or jewelry they could find at the drugstore. Do not hand them food from the cart. This is—it represents a special token of appreciation. Confirmation that you’ve noticed the quality of their work, and you continue to respect it, and you intend to recognize that positive relationship more often in the future. With the added benefit that your messages will start arriving on time.”

“A—what would you call it—gesture of goodwill.”

“Exactly. Oh!” Another key detail occurred to her as she spoke. “Since you’re bringing flowers, don’t buy carnations. Any carnations. Girls hate those.”

He sounded flabbergasted. “Why on earth would any woman hate flowers?”

She snorted, but tried to contain her amusement. Clearly, he had never had a girlfriend, or he would know the answer to that question. “Not important. Just stick to the classics. I’m sure the florist can point you in the right direction.”

“And to whom, pray tell, shall I present these, er, illustrious tokens of goodwill?”

God, with that clipped, careful accent, he always sounded so haughty and pretentious. No wonder he drove Lane crazy all those years ago.

“Okay, well, don’t go in there and throw roses at the first girl you see. Each department has their own hierarchy. Give them to the manager if you’d really like to shine, or divide them equally among everybody. But make sure you know how many girls work there before barging in. Don’t parcel out the flowers after you get there. Knock on the door, tell them whatever you’re going to tell them – please keep that short – and then leave.”

“And then…leave,” he muttered under his breath, before raising his voice. Jesus. Was he writing this down word for word? “Right. What, precisely, am I supposed to tell them?”

Joan suppressed a groan through sheer effort. “Use your own words. My advice: don’t joke, and don’t try to be cute. Just — be positive, be complimentary, and thank them for their time. That’s it. If you manage that, you should be just fine.”

He couldn’t screw up something this simple, right?

“Right. Well. Mrs. Harris, I hesitate to point out the seemingly obvious, but it appears we’ve just had our first productive conversation, possibly ever.”

“Hooray,” Joan said quietly, although a twitch of a smile came to her face. “Are you sending champagne?”

“Ha. Very droll.” He cleared his throat. “Must dash off, unfortunately, but I shall let you know how our little plan goes, next time we speak.”

“Sounds perfect.” God, she must have missed work. She was this close to saying something genuinely nice to John Hooker, and frankly, that was just scary. “I should run, too. And I can let Lane know you called, if you like.”

“No. Really isn’t necessary at this point.” Another throat-clearing. Maybe it was a nervous tic. She’d never noticed that before. “Speak to you soon. Ta ta.”

Dear god. Joan choked in horror as the line disconnected, promptly burst out laughing, and couldn’t stop for ten whole minutes. Sometimes, talking to him was like being trapped in a Kipling novel.
This little conversation, odd as it was, put Joan in such a good mood that the accomplished feeling carried her through the rest of the day, and even dinner. Usually she hated watching everyone stare at her as if she were about to explode. Today, they just chatted among themselves, and looked curious whenever they turned her way, as if they were waiting on a good story instead of an emotional breakdown.

“Something good must have happened while we were out,” Lane noted, with a sly grin. Joan could almost see the wheels grinding in his head as he tried to parse out possible answers.

“Oh, I’m just thinking of something from years ago.” She bit her lip, waiting for someone to snap that they weren’t interested, and that she should shut up. No one did. “Remember when you first started at Sterling Cooper? How everyone kept playing little pranks on Mr. Hooker?” She glanced at Mom. “His old secretary.”

Her mother snorted. “Jesus. What a name.”

“Fortunately or unfortunately, I do recall that.” Lane just rolled his eyes. “Oh, god, Gail, it was endless. Lot of idiots doing these completely stupid things. Sending memorandums to Moneypenny by way of Pussy Galore. Think there were a series of urgent communiques from various Beatles. And several tricks having to do with Cooper’s ant farm.” He turned to Mom to explain. “Poor lad had this very vivid fear of small insects. He couldn’t even be in the same room with it most days.”

Her mother met Joan’s eyes with a knowing gleam, the way they’d sometimes looked at each other when they used to wait tables at the diner. “Sounds like there may have been fewer idiots involved in those pranks than you think.”

“Well, it couldn’t have been less than—” Lane stopped mid-sentence and gaped at Joan. “Dear god.”

She pretended not to hear him, although her face was already getting hot. “Hm?”

“You little devil! Were you behind all of it?”

“Oh, it wasn’t that bad.”

“The torrent of messages! All the bloody nicknames. That—horrid petting zoo business! Now, tell me honestly.” Lane raised his eyebrows as he leaned forward in his chair and adjusted his glasses. “Did you or did you not hire that bloody barbershop quartet?”

“Shit.” It startled a real laugh out of her. “I forgot about that one.”

“Joan, they showed up in my office, singing a profane and very blasphemous rendition of God Save The Queen!

“God Save Your Tea,” Joan corrected, a little sheepish.

“Ah ha! And this shocking event occurred because…?”

“Mr. Hooker moved the coffeemaker to a different part of the break room without informing anyone,” Joan folded her arms across her chest, slightly defensive. Mom was smirking at the other end of the table. “What? It was impeding traffic.”

“And did said barbershop quartet threaten to toss every bit of Earl Grey we had into the Hudson, a la the infamous Boston rebellion, should we oppose that machine’s true, permanent placement?”

“Probably?” She snorted out a breath. “I forgot what I wrote.”

How? Dear god. I heard about that for weeks afterward. The poor lad actually phoned my house to complain. Think you nearly even drove Becca to homicide in the end.”

“Really? She hated him, too?”

“Believe the only thing she called him was that odious toad. ” Lane just shrugged; gave Mom a self-deprecating look. “Not the warmest person, my ex-wife.”

Gail just snorted as she dashed more pepper onto her potatoes. “Color me shocked.”

“Yes, well.” He turned back to Joan. “What made you remember that?”

In lieu of meeting his puzzled gaze, Joan reached for the green beans. “I don’t know. Just thinking about work things, I guess. I kinda miss it.”

“Do you?” Lane asked. Although he was clearly trying not to seem enthusiastic, the delighted look lighting up his face told her exactly how he felt about that. Or at least that he didn’t hate the idea. “Well, that’s a, er, very interesting development.”

“He means he misses you,” said Mom in a pointed way, as Lane went to get more bread out of the oven.

Joan stuck her tongue out at her before Lane could come back to the table.

 

**

 

A few days later, Lane arrived at his flat for lunch with his briefcase in one hand and a rather enormous surprise in the other. The TV was on in the sitting room, and two bare feet were visible on the arm of the couch. He didn’t even have to look to know Joan was reclining there. When she was over, that was her usual place.

“You’ll never believe what’s just happened to me at the grocer’s,” was all he said. Still beaming, he set his surprise — a netted bag of oranges — onto the counter. 

Joan sat up, looking puzzled; Lane was pleased to notice she had dressed in something casual for the day instead of pajamas, and had even styled her hair. Was this Katie’s influence?

“Oh. You look nice today.”

Joan gave him a shy, closed-lipped smile, but did not comment further, just walked over to the bar counter and took a seat in one of the high-top chairs. “Fruit in February? Did you rob your grocer?”

The joke, silly as it was, made him smile. “No thievery here. They were a gift. Emrick gave these to me. Erm. It’s rather a long story, and I’m sure you’ve heard it already, but when I first came here, I overheard a few tax questions while he was ringing up my vegetables, gave him some guidance there. One thing led to another, and eventually, he mentioned he’d a cousin who lives in South America. Argentina or Brasil or something.” Joan gave him a very arch look at this, to which he made an understanding face. “I know. Don’t ask.”

“Who’s got a cousin in Argentina?” Katie walked into the kitchen, now with her pocketbook in tow, and brightened considerably when she noticed the bag of oranges. “Ooh.”

“From my grocer, just down the way. Making a very long story short, we’ve got a, ah, sort of standing arrangement. He finds me good produce in the winter, when I need it. I give him business advice every now and again. It’s all very convenient.”

“Hence the swap.” That little smile was back on Joan’s face. “Not bad.”

“Yes.” Lane was practically twinkling as he rolled up his sleeves, and shed his suit jacket, hanging the latter up on the coat rack. “Now you’ve got it.”

Katie still seemed confused. “So do you like all citrus fruits this much, or….”

“Well, no, not really. Just—I was telling Gail a few weeks ago that it was a shame we hadn’t had oranges for the holiday. Love getting them at Christmas.” With his keys, he sliced open a corner of the green netted bag, and palmed a particularly bright sphere in one hand, testing its weight. Satisfied, he brought the fruit to his nose, let the fresh scent of zest and citrus curl all around him. “Rather a tradition, really. Lewis and I always peeled them with our bare hands.”

“You don’t need a knife?” Katie’s brow creased with skepticism.

“Not in the least.” Lane assured her; to prove it, he pressed his thumbnail into the soft, fragrant peel and pierced the skin, tugging off the top of the pith in a quick, efficient way. For a moment, the room was so quiet you could hear the white fibers tearing from their roots. “When we were boys, we always used to see who could get the peel off first without breaking the strip. Take it off in one long go. Said it was good luck for the new year.”

Slowly, for a couple of minutes, he worked his way around the orange in a spiral motion, holding it in one hand and carefully loosening the peel from its hold with the other. His other fingers kept grazing over the swell of the fruit as he went, taking care not to puncture it.

“Wow. Nice trick, huh, Joanie?”

Lane was too absorbed in his work to catch Joan’s reaction or reply, and therefore yelped in surprise when, at the other end of the orange, the edge of his nail accidentally pierced an orange section instead of the fibrous pith, and a sudden spurt of juice drizzled down the inside of his wrist.

“Blast!” He brought his hand to his mouth, automatic, and sucked the juice away. Lovely. “Mmph. Well, that doesn’t usually happen. Hopefully it’s still good luck, though.”

Both hands were all sticky with juice and pulp, but he wouldn’t worry about that just yet. Lane put the long strip of peel aside, dug his fingers into the pliant space between the two halves, and opened the fruit, relishing the sweet fizz of oil in the air as the orange split open.

“God, that’s good. Anyway, after we peeled them, Lewis and I used to toss sliced-up sections at each other instead of eating them like civilized—oh.” Belatedly, Lane realized that his hands, shirtfront, and the counter around him were covered in tiny flecks of juice, stray bits of white rind, and translucent pulp. Looking around, another key fact became clear: he currently had no way to clean himself up. “Damn it. I’ve got this absolutely everywhere, haven’t I?”

When he caught Katie’s eye with a sheepish expression, she let out a raucous cackle. “You look like one of my kids. Let me get you a napkin.”

It wasn’t until Lane had wiped off his fingers and got the rest of the orange slices arranged on a plate that he realized he was being watched. He glanced up only to see Joan quickly look away, ducking her head with a quiet huff of breath.

“Sorry,” she murmured.

“Where’s Katie?” he asked, in an attempt to change the subject.

“Fixing her face.”

“Ah. Right.” He pushed the plate in Joan’s direction in an attempt to draw her out. “Would you like one?”

“Maybe.” 

Her cheeks were very pink. Perhaps she was feeling feverish again?

“Well, here.” Lane picked up a slice and held it toward her; Joan stared at it for a long moment before leaning forward. But she did not take the orange slice from his hand, merely tilted her head up with an expectant look, as if waiting for him to light her cigarette. A shiver ran through Lane’s stomach when he realized she meant for him to feed it to her

Slowly, not daring to breathe, he brought his hand to the level of her mouth. One knuckle brushed against Joan’s chin as she leaned in, parted her lips, and took a small bite. 

The touch lasted perhaps a millisecond, but when her lips closed around the fruit, he felt the jolt in his stomach as deeply as if she’d just grabbed him by the lapels and kissed him senseless. 

Before Lane could react, Joan leaned backwards and plucked the rest of the orange slice from his hand with two fingers. In seconds, it had disappeared.

“It’s good,” she finally said, after she had swallowed.

“Yes.” Unable to form a coherent thought, Lane stepped away and returned to his earlier task of wiping orange oil from the counter till he had a better handle on himself. He was not going to dwell on how soft her skin had felt against his hand, or if her lower lip had grazed his pinky finger when she drew back. “Messy little buggers, aren’t they?”

Thankfully, they were interrupted by Katie as she bustled back in from the loo. “Hey, listen, do you know any good places to get your hair and nails done around here? My roots are coming in real bad, and if I can tell Tina from next door that I got it colored in Europe , she’ll quit talking to me for weeks. It’ll be swell.”

“Assume you don’t want the name of my barber,” Lane said dryly, when it seemed no other answer was forthcoming.

“I do not. Joanie?”

“What?” Joan jumped visibly, as if she’d forgotten they were all still in the room. “Oh. Um. There’s a place somewhere on the other end of the high street. Think that’s where Mom goes now.”

“Okay, so can you and I go there? Like maybe in the next five minutes?”

“What, are your roots changing color as we speak?” Joan threw her friend an irritated look, although she gamely stretched both arms over her head. “Your hair doesn’t grow that fast.” 

Turning back to his plate, Lane ate another orange slice in lieu of staring at the way Joan’s blue blouse now rode up past the hem of her slim black trousers. It was not ungentlemanly of him to notice this fact if he wasn’t staring.

“Don’t even start with me, Joanie.” Katie rolled her eyes at Joan’s barb. “Lane, Kevin’s out with Grandma, so don’t worry about a thing.”

He had his mouth full of orange again, and couldn’t answer right away. “Mmph. Right.”

“We’ll be back before curfew!”

Since he was still eating, all he could do was wave in their direction as Kate practically dragged Joan out the door.

 

**

 

Under the soft whirr of the industrial dryers, with her hair wrapped in foils and a magazine propped open on her lap, Kate tapped the side of Joanie’s bare calf with the toe of her shoe to get her friend’s attention.

“So, you gonna tell me what’s going on with you and Lane?”

Joan shifted in her chair; although they couldn’t make eye contact in this position, Katie saw the way she re-crossed her legs, and flexed her right ankle in a small circle before responding. She obviously heard the question.

“That is not what’s happening.”

“Sure.” The eyeroll was so automatic it was practically habit. “You’re telling me you don’t want him to screw you cross-eyed?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Uh huh.” She put on a high-pitched, girlish voice. “Oh, Lane, tell me alllll about those sweet juicy oranges, peel ‘em apart with your big strong hands and eat…”

Lightly, Joan touched the side of her patent heel against Katie’s ankle. “Stop that.”

“What? I saw you looking at him. Like that time Bruce Meryton climbed out of the community pool in nothing but—”

“I remember,” Joan interrupted.

Who could forget? He’d worn faded blue gym shorts to swim in that morning, because he forgot his pair of trunks. And he’d walked around like a dripping-wet Greek god for five whole minutes before some goody-goody told him the shorts were practically see through and complained about scaring the children . Bunch of wet blankets.

“Jesus. All right, fine. Lane’s good-looking. He’s a sharp dresser. It’s easy to notice. Happy?”

Eh, Lane wasn’t really Kate’s type, but the way Joan talked around her own feelings only confirmed the suspicion. Man, she really had it bad for the guy. “ Thank you .”

“And it is not my fault that I like looking at him, so lighten up already.”

“Wait. What do you mean, it’s not your fault?”

A low huff of breath. “Well, I haven’t exactly had anything else going on lately.”

Hm. That wasn’t very specific. “As in, you haven’t gone all the way in awhile, or there hasn’t been anyone good to notice?”

“It’s not that simple.” Joan was quiet for a minute. Katie let her gaze wander to the front of the salon, where two women were talking animatedly in German, waiting for the hairdresser to call them over to a chair. “Even before things ended, Greg and I just….stopped having sex. Ages ago. Months ago.”

“Months?”

“Maybe. I think that’s right.” Joan sounded like she was almost talking to herself. “Was it last year? Could’ve been the one before.”

“Last year? As in, more than twelve months? Holy shit.”

A long pause. “You’re making it sound stupid.”

“It’s not stupid.” Kate inhaled a breath, winced as she got a big whiff of chemical bleach for her trouble. She should have brought more chewing gum. “I’m just surprised. You’ve never had a dry spell last that long.”

What the hell happened? she wanted to demand, but held her tongue instead. Give it time. Let her talk.

Finally, Joan cleared her throat. “There were other issues. He couldn’t even...”

Thanks to the plastic helmet, Kate missed the gesture Joan made, but the implications of her sentence were pretty clear. “Shit. Are you serious ?”

“Yes.” Joan kicked the bottom of Katie’s shoe again, before she began to jiggle her leg in an absent, fidgety sort of way. Like she did in school when she was bored. “Wasn’t like we had anything to write home about, even before that.”

“Jesus Christ, Joanie. I didn’t know any of this. How are you not dying right now?”

Another long pause; too loaded and careful to be accidental. “I don’t think about it very often. Not anymore.”

Bullshit, she didn’t. Joan had always loved men, sex, and everything in between. And if she hadn’t gotten any from Greg in a goddamn year, and she wasn’t taking care of herself, it was no wonder she kept staring at Lane like he’d just offered to play a round of strip poker, when he was doing something as mundane as peeling an orange or talking about some weird naval history book he’d read. Either that or she had some very specific turn-ons.

“Well, you’d better not turn into a giant prude in the meantime,” Kate finally offered, not sure what else to say. “Because I need a girlfriend to talk to about my sex life, and it cannot be Colleen or my great-aunt Kathy. I’ll go bananas.”

“Talk about whatever you want. Doesn’t bother me.” Joan waited a second before speaking again, lowered her voice. “For the record, I did see Lane without a shirt, once.”

“Wow,” Kate drawled, all acid, although this was more interesting than half the stuff they’d talked about all week. “Did you get the vapors?”

“Ha ha. It was an accident. He was moving boxes in the office one weekend over the summer, and accidentally left his door open.”

“Yawn.”

“Don’t yawn me. He stays in shape. Big shoulders, barrel chest.” Joan let out a deep sigh. “Good arms.”

“Oooooh.” Kate’s laugh came out manic this time. Teasing Joan about the boys she wanted was a cakewalk, especially when she refused to admit she liked them. This was Carl Gundersen and junior year all over again. “Do you think he’ll ask you to prom soon?”

“Shut up.” Joan was laughing, too, and kicked Kate’s shoe with a little more force this time. “You’re awful.”

“Ow! My stocking.” She kicked at Joanie’s toes, although she couldn’t even reach from this position. “He’s soooooo dreamy.

Someone in the back shushed them. 

Without a word, Katie shushed them right back.

 

**

 

Tonight, Joan was all by herself in Lane’s apartment, without even the TV to keep her company. Katie and Mom were at the movies with Kevin: supposedly so they could keep him entertained, but probably so they could be away from her for more than ten minutes. Lane was out, too, which was ironic, considering he was the one who actually lived here. Idly, Joan thought about calling him, or trying to track him down. He could be at work. Or maybe just running errands. At least she never had to worry about him not coming home.

Jesus — when the hell had she started thinking of him coming back to the flat as coming home? This was his apartment, for god’s sake. She didn’t live here.

Propelled by a restless energy, Joan got up from the sofa and wandered toward the back bedroom, letting her fingers trail across the white walls as lightly if she were running her fingers over a rippling pond. This time, she did not turn right toward the second bedroom, where she usually slept or stayed or shook uncontrollably, hunched in the corner on the floor hugging her knees to her chest. Today, she turned left, toward the closed door leading to Lane’s room.

Fingers still touching sheetrock, watching the wind shift the closed door in its frame, Joan reached out and turned the knob, letting herself inside. 

His bedroom reminded her of the office, in a way. Although the walls weren’t painted and the furniture had clearly come with the unit - it was far too fussy for his tastes - there were touches of the familiar here and there. A hideous red tartan blanket was thrown over the plain duvet, complemented by equally ugly tartan sheets. An unlit pipe lay on the night table next to his bed, its beautiful wooden stem worn and bitten from years of grinding his jaw.

She smiled.

On this side of the bed, his pillow was heavily indented, like Lane slept in the exact same position on the exact same side of the bed every night. Joan didn’t know why she was curious about this, but the idea occurred to her as naturally as breathing: his bedclothes would probably smell like talcum and cologne and tobacco. The fleece pillowcase like his styling creme or some kind of sharp aftershave. What kind of aftershave did he use? She didn’t know.

On an impulse, Joan leaned down to sniff delicately at the pillowcase. When she realized she hadn’t put any makeup on today, she took this impulse one step further. Glancing back at the door, sly and furtive, she slipped out of her houseshoes, sat down on the quilt, and then lay sideways, as if she were the one going to sleep. Once here, she tucked her knees up under her and wiggled further into the pillow like Kevin did sometimes, all arms and hands, turning her head to one side and drinking in the smells of spit and sweat and detergent like the sweetest wine bouquet. God. She felt so good here. Safe. Like nothing bad could happen to her. Like this was everything she needed to be normal again.

Keys jangled in the hallway, followed by footsteps, and Lane’s voice calling her name. Joan lay paralyzed with indecision for an agonizing few seconds, until she decided to do either the smartest or the stupidest thing ever.

Reaching down, she yanked the ugly tartan quilt over her bare feet and calves, lay back against the pillow, and closed her eyes, slowing down her breathing and visibly relaxing her muscles just as the door opened, and Lane’s footsteps stopped somewhere near the bureau.

“Oh,” was all he said first, quiet, a little confused. Then, softer: “Oh.”

Like he was relieved.

Joan focused on keeping her face relaxed and her breathing normal as Lane walked closer. With a sigh, he lay something just beyond her feet, at the edge of the bed. Maybe his coat. Then he reached over her. Slowly, as if he were afraid to wake her, he drew the ugly quilt up from where she’d slung it around her knees until it reached mid-shoulder. Then, in a touch so slight it was almost painfully gentle, he cupped her shoulder through her blouse, rubbing the side of her arm with the pad of his thumb.

“There, darling,” he whispered. “That’s better.”

Time passed. It could have been a second. It could have been minutes. Joan was too afraid to open her eyes and see the vivid horror in Lane’s face when he realized she was awake, so she didn’t. She just kept breathing, kept pretending. 

In.

One. Two. Three.

Out.

One. Two. Three.

Some sort of fabric tag under the pillow was scratching against the flat of her palm; Joan wanted to yank her hand backwards, but couldn’t; she settled for twitching against the pillow a little, as if she was about to wake up.

After a few more seconds, Lane pulled his hand away, stood up, and walked toward the bureau; Joan could hear him fiddling with his watch, or maybe his cufflinks. Metal clinked idly against wood. The closet opened and closed, the door to the hallway creaked as it was eased open and then closed. Eventually, his contented shuffling faded into a still, eerie quiet before the TV flickered to life in the living room.

At that point, Joan opened her eyes. When she thought it was safe, and he wouldn’t hear her, she pushed herself up onto an elbow and pulled her hand out from beneath Lane’s pillow. Gripped in her fingers was the half-folded tail of a blue and white scarf she hadn’t seen in six months.

“Holy shit.”