Seated at his desk in his office on a Sunday evening, Lane takes another sip of his water, then sets the glass aside to pick up the next item in his tray. Ten o'clock, and he is going over paperwork. There's no reason he has to be here now. Everything in the inbox could have waited till morning. But he felt a bit mad, wandering through his empty flat, watching horrible television and poking at the prepackaged meal he had prepared but wasn't hungry enough to eat.
Meanwhile, at work, there were billings to be examined, and time left to get ahead on next month's budget report, and so he is here, marking up papers and writing notes for the girls to look over in the morning. Feeling a bit stiff, Lane stretches in his chair, running a hand over the back of his neck. Invoice number six zero three two. Issued for Bird's Eye's last media purchase.
Just as Lane goes to initial it, there's a loud crash just outside his closed door. He startles, splatters ink all over the paper in front of him, and throws down his fountain pen, jumping to his feet in search for the culprit. Who the hell would be in at this hour? The front door is locked, and the cleaners aren't due for ages. He marches out into the dark hallway, squinting through his glasses to see more clearly. A very dim light issues from the open lounge, accompanied by a slight rustling. When Lane moves closer to investigate, the sight is a shock.
Joan Harris kneels next to the sofa, a small lamp askew on the floor at her side. The lampshade has popped off and rolled several feet away, near the legs of the table he's standing beside, but the bulb still gives off light. Had she tried to turn it on, then knocked it over? Has she fallen? Good lord.
Lane can't see her face, and so he steps closer. “Are you—all right?”
He begins to kneel down next to her, attempting to help, when he realizes she hasn't said a word in reply. Not a hello, not an apology. Nothing at all.
It worries him, and causes him to examine her more closely once they're level. The sight only heightens his anxiety. Her skin is paper white, expression pinched. Her red dress is dirty, and she's sitting back on her heels in her stocking feet. Where are her shoes? Is that—blood—on her knees? And she's trembling so violently Lane's afraid she might be ill, or in shock, or both.
On instinct, he reaches out to take her hand. Her palm is skinned, and slightly gritty, as if she's fallen on the pavement. Staring fixedly at a spot in the distance where light from the bulb casts a long shadow onto the tile floor, Joan appears not to have noticed the contact.
Lane keeps his voice calm, attempts to draw her out. “Tell me what's happened.”
Her voice is a whisper. “I was walking over, and—a—a man—took my purse—h-he had a gun—”
God almighty. She's been mugged. His grip on her hand tightens as he pictures a shadowy figure lurking in an alleyway, listening for the click of high heels on pavement, waiting to strike. Before he asks the next question, Lane forces himself to breathe deeply. “Did he hurt you?”
Joan is silent for an awfully long time, her mouth twisting in an alarming way. Lane can actually feel his face bead with sweat in anticipation of her answer, imagining the worst possibilities. After what feels like years, she finally shakes her head no.
“He—he shoved me down. I fell. That's—that's it.”
He can't help exhaling a breath of relief. “Thank god.”
Without even thinking he puts his free hand on her upper arm.
Suddenly, Joan looks up at him, eyes wide as if in fear or recognition. Her hand twitches in his grasp, and she grasps his fingers tightly, as if she's just realized he's holding hers.
“He wanted my w-wedding rings.”
It takes him several seconds to realize her third finger is bare against his palm.
She begins to cry in earnest, slumping forward slightly and covering her eyes with her free hand in an attempt to hide her tears. Lane makes a sympathetic noise, attempting to briefly withdraw his hand from her grip, to pull out his handkerchief. But she does not let go. The movement jolts her forward instead, and suddenly her face is buried in his shoulder.
She is crying too much to speak. His right hand twitches against the middle of her back. After a moment, realizing she will not be moving anytime soon, Lane leans awkwardly against the end of the sofa, drawing her as close as he can. Held up at gunpoint for a wedding diamond and the contents of her purse. People have been killed for far less.
God, perhaps she thought she might be. Poor dear.
His fingertips brush a few stray curls away from the nape of her neck. Joan lets out another sob at the gesture. The sound of her crying is so pitiful his skin crawls with the need to make it stop. Lane makes a kind of shushing noise. He's still holding her left hand. The pad of his thumb brushes over her fingers in a back and forth motion. His other palm strokes her hair as he babbles out the first words of comfort which come to mind.
“There now. You—just—have a cry.”
They sit on the floor of the darkened lounge for god knows how long after Joan stops crying. Lane just keeps silent: keeps holding her, stroking her hair. He only stops when she lifts her head from his chest without warning and pushes herself away, into a seating position; mumbling something that sounds like water and restroom. Once she gets to her feet, moving quickly down the hall, he feels he ought to let her go.
She probably wants time alone. Not that he can blame her.
In her absence, he rights and fixes the lamp from the floor, and turns on two others. Her shoes and overcoat are strewn across the tile near Campbell's doorway, and so he takes these and puts them in her office, hanging the coat carefully and placing the shoes next to each other at the foot of the rack.
There is a tatty fleece blanket hanging on the back of the green sofa in creative, and Lane lays claim to it, brings it back to the lounge, in case Joan might want it. In case she's—cold.
What else can he do? What might calm her?
He puts the kettle on.
Even the routine of preparing tea is reassuring. By the time he's carrying a tray out into the lounge – bearing a pot of earl grey, two cups on saucers, the sugar bowl, and a tea strainer for the leaves – Joan's returned from the toilet. She's sitting on the sofa, feet drawn up under her, the blanket from creative wrapped around her shoulders. Looking utterly wrung out, and still very pale.
“Oh,” is all she says as he approaches.
Lane isn't sure if she's disappointed by this development, and so his reply is a possible peace offering. “We can—spike it with gin, if you'd like something—stronger.”
Why on earth did he say gin? Whoever heard of such a thing?
But she offers him a sort of nod at the comment, and so he puts down the tray and goes to fetch the bottle from his office, unscrewing the cap and pouring a generous measure of liquor into both cups once he returns. He's about to ask how much sugar she takes when she grabs the handle of her cup and downs the contents without a word.
Ought to have seen that coming.
Lane still pours her a second, but follows it with tea this time. When he asks her opinion on sugar, she gives him a shrug, so he puts one spoonful into her cup, and one into his. They sit in silence for several moments. He feels he's got to ask her one question.
“Do you want me to phone the police?”
“No,” she retorts, sharp. He bites his tongue to keep from telling her she really ought to, though he doesn't like police himself, never has. And he doesn't know how to broach the subject again, is debating whether he ought to speak at all when she mumbles, appropriate of nothing:
“I got dinner from a deli on sixty-seventh.”
He puts down his cup, and turns to look at her.
She slants a rueful glance at him, speaking in a flat voice. “That's why I was out. I ran some errands, and then I stopped to eat, because I didn't want to cook. It was because of a sandwich.”
There is nothing appropriate he can say apart from I'm sorry or how awful, so he settles for putting his hand on her arm again, a silent attempt at commiseration.
“I don't like cooking, either,” he tells her, in an attempt to cheer her up with what is probably the worst joke in existence.
She scoffs at this pronouncement, glaring at him as if he can't possibly understand what she means. “Says the man with a wife.”
It takes him a moment to realize the implication of her words. Quickly, Lane backpedals, pulling his hand away. “Oh. Well—you are right, I suppose it isn't the same—or it wouldn't be if...my wife were...here. But I, erm—cook for myself, these days.”
Her unamused expression shifts into something he can't quite decipher – not pity, it isn't sad – but something like recognition. Still, she doesn't speak, just reaches out for her cup, clasps her hands around the china as if attempting to absorb every bit of its warmth through her palms, and takes a tentative sip.
There's a tightness in his chest that threatens to keep him from talking about it further – he hasn't mentioned the situation to anyone but Don, and even that was because he was drunk – but now that Lane's started, he feels he ought to keep speaking. Perhaps it will distract her.
“Nine months now.”
There is a very long pause. Joan's watching him very closely over the rim of her cup. “Is she in England?”
He nods once, making an affirmative noise. She clears her throat. “Are you getting divorced?”
A question not many people would have the courage to ask aloud. Lane exhales, considering his answer carefully before giving a sort of shrug. He doesn't want to file papers. But if Becca...did...he's not sure if he'd fight it. They argue constantly, even now. Sometimes he thinks she hates him.
“I—don't know, actually.” He risks a glance in her direction. “I think it's—over, but I'm not—sure. Isn't that strange?”
Joan does not laugh, nor does she press him any further, just takes another sip of her tea.
“We should think up a name for this,” she murmurs after a minute, mouth pursing into a considering expression as she examines the contents of her cup. “The drink, I mean.”
He huffs out a noise that is not a laugh, but manages to come close enough. “You go first.”
Joan's curled up at the end of the sofa, in a half-seated position, legs tucked up under her and her cheek pillowed on the top of the cushion. Lane's sitting next to her. The blue fleece blanket's just long enough that it extends past her feet and covers part of his legs.
“Honestly? You're not—having a laugh?”
He doesn't mean to doubt her word, but on the surface it sounds like the type of prank someone might have played on him a year ago. Didn't you know Mrs. Harris plays the accordion? Go on, ask her about it, make an idiot of yourself.
Joan shoots him a somewhat exasperated look. “No. I took a music class in college, which is where I learned.” A small pause. “Your turn.”
They've long since finished their pot of tea – Lane also had a second measure of gin, to catch up – and shortly after the tea had gone, the ensuing silence had threatened to lapse into awkwardness. Clearly, Joan didn't want to go home, so he'd tried to keep her talking, but eventually they'd run out of conversation topics that didn't circle toward his looming divorce, her terrifying evening, or something equally depressing. Almost as a last resort, he'd turned to her, and said, with absolutely no preamble:
“Tell me something I don't know about you.”
She'd stared at him with an expression that suggested he might be insane. “What?”
“Well,” and his resolve at making real conversation had weakened at her reticence, “I only meant – we've worked together for—awhile, but—don't—actually know much information about the other. Not really.”
Joan had snorted out a short, amused puff of air. “I know plenty about you.”
The nerve of it had irked him, and so he'd countered:
“Oh, really? Go on, then. Surprise me.”
She did. Shocked him, to be honest. Joan knew pieces of information he never imagined she'd heard, let alone retained in detail. For example, she remembered the date of his birthday and Nigel's (Nigel's! How?), the year of his wedding, his particular brand of pipe tobacco, that he has two brothers – one older, one younger – about whom and to whom he rarely speaks, that he writes up his own spreadsheet of baseball statistics each season, and even keeps it in the same drawer as the financial paperwork. She remembered that he prefers earl grey above all other teas, gin above all liquors, and—strangest of all—that he likes snow.
“How the hell do you know that?” he'd responded to the last pronouncement, taken aback. It's an utter inanity, it's not something you just tell other people.
Joan had pulled the blanket tighter around her arms, glanced back at him to gauge his expression. “It was at the Pierre, about a month after we opened. We were alone. I was at my desk, you in your chair, and I noticed it was snowing. Normally we didn't speak, but for some reason I pointed it out to you. Look. So you did; you put your things aside, and went to stand by the window.”
Listening to her description of such a small moment, unsure what in the world had led her to mark it as important, to recall it after two years, had almost made him wistful.
“What made you...remember that?”
She had just looked at him, blue gaze so steady, leaning into the cushions. Her voice turns quieter. “You called it peaceful.” With a little shrug. “That's how I knew.”
He's not sure when it turned into a sort of game, but now they take it in turns. They've been playing for hours. What would you like to know. How much are you willing to say. No questions are asked, no answers are demanded. All crumbs of information are given willingly and without guile. Surprise me. I dare you.
“Your turn,” Joan says again now, and he huffs out a sigh.
“All right. Hang on. I'm—thinking.”
There is something he's considered sharing several times now – a truth no one else knows, save for the...woman...involved – but it's rather—messy. Joan will likely judge him for it, but he can't—think of anything else to tell her this round. Damn it.
“Right.” Nothing for it, he'll just have to start. He feels himself flush. “Well, I—erm, told you about—the separation, with Rebecca, but I—never said what happened—after.”
Lane feels sheepish admitting it, as if he's too weak to keep his own company very long. (He is; he knows this.) Joan's raising a curious eyebrow at him, as if she knows what he's trying to say, but is waiting for him to confirm it aloud.
“I—well, I—had a sort of—lady friend,” he says slowly, running a hand across the back of his neck. “We went out for several weeks, but then it—erm, ended.”
(Well. She ended it with him.)
He takes out his wallet from his back pocket, turns it over in his hands before opening it, pulling out a small strip of photographs, and handing this to her. It's from a booth on the boardwalk, four for a dime, done up on a long, narrow sheet of photo paper.
Joan's eyes widen when she sees the woman in the picture. Even in the lamplight, it's a study in contrasts. “Where the hell did you two meet?”
She's breaking the rules by asking a question, but clearly he's surprised her. Lane can't help but laugh a little. “Toni's—a waitress. At a, erm—club downtown.”
God, doesn't that just make him sound pathetic. Like he's stalking the city for young women.
“You liked her,” Joan says in response, voice soft. She clears her throat, smiling at the pictures and then at him in a small, secret way he can't quite decipher.
“Mm,” Lane replies just as quietly, inclining his head. He did. Very much.
What is she thinking? What might she want to know?
He can just glimpse the pictures from his place next to Joan. Toni's jet-black hair is done in a sort of flip style. Very modern. Chocolate-colored skin luminous, set off by the red lipstick she favored. It had suited her. Lane had noticed that the day they met.
The first photo is posed: him in a dark blue suit, glasses on, sitting next to Toni on a very small, nondescript bench. She's wearing a bright pink dress. They're looking directly into the camera. She's smiling, teeth and all. His expression is serious save for the small upturned quirk of his mouth.
The second, candid: her right hand is on Lane's shoulder. She's turned her brilliant smile on him. He's slanting her a bemused look, brow drawn down in confusion, mouth slightly open, as if he's talking. Can't even remember what he was saying to her.
The third: his favorite. Her lips graze a spot somewhere between his cheek and the corner of his laughing mouth. Her palm splays open on his chest. His glasses are askew, blue eyes wide as he laughs.
The fourth: a few seconds before he'd kissed her. Her eyes are closed, he's pressing a hand to her cheek, heated gaze dropped to her full lips as he leans closer.
Joan's fingertip traces the edges of the last picture. Why is she doing that? What must she be thinking? He wants to hear her opinion – she's been so quiet – and at this point Lane feels he really must break the silence before he goes mad.
“Always hated being alone.”
Oh, and it's just awful, it's not what he meant to tell her at all. It's possibly the most mortifying thing he's ever said in his life. He can't even look at Joan now – he meant to say something about how he and Toni met, why they took up together – god, why would he tell her something so utterly stupid?
After a moment, Lane can feel her shift on the sofa next to him, and because he can't help it, he glances over to see what she's doing. She's sitting up slightly, arm braced against the top of the sofa cushions. The blanket has fallen into her lap, and the soft glow from the lamp on the table behind her makes her red hair look like the embers of a slow-burning fire. She's staring in his direction but not at him, as if she's lost in thought. One hand tugs gently at the base of her left ring finger, where her wedding bands usually sit. Does she always do that—twisting motion, when she's mulling something over? He's never noticed.
Joan does look up now, offers him a smile that doesn't reach her eyes. When she speaks, it's almost a whisper. “Feels like being invisible.”
He feels like he can't breathe for the shock. She understands what he means. It's why she was running errands on a Sunday evening—why she stopped for take-away rather than cooking, why her first instinct was to come here after being mugged—and why she refuses to go home now.
Joan Harris is a beautiful woman with a prominent husband and a good job and she is lonely. My god. Why didn't he know that? He wonders how long she has pretended to be fine, how often she's attempted to push it aside in favor of her usual briskness. Lane wants her to talk to him; he wants to tell her that she's right. He does understand. Walking around your flat day after day with no one to keep you company, no one to talk to. It's awful. How does no one else seem to see it?
But he is tongue-tied, and the words won't come as well as he'd like, and the hand he reaches out to cover with his own is pulled away from the cushions at the last moment.
“I need a cigarette,” she blurts suddenly, and gets up from the sofa, the blanket getting crushed underfoot as she walks quickly out of the lounge and into her office. Through the window, he can see her switch on the standing lamp behind her desk.
Joan smokes two cigarettes in the end, but the stress of the evening seems to be catching back up to her. She's agitated, now, almost angry. Lane sits in one of the blue chairs opposite her desk and watches her pace back and forth in front of the other door, wondering what's best to say. Wondering how he can help.
“Can I get you something?”
“No,” she snaps, pushing past his chair to perch on the front of her desk in a half-standing, half-sitting position. She shoves her desk lamp toward the edge, along with her pencil case and cigarette holder.
As if he's going to dispute her actions, she fixes him with a glare. “I don't want another drink, or a pill, or tea. It's not enough. I just—I can't go home and lie awake in the dark for—” she checks her watch “—four hours. I can't do that. I'm too keyed up.”
She exhales a frustrated growl, muttering something under her breath he doesn't quite catch. He shifts in his chair, casts his mind around for possible suggestions on how to relax.
“You could—have a bath.”
Given her incredulous expression, it's as if he's just told her to get up and dance a Highland reel. Lane's about to apologize for possible offense when she bursts out laughing. Not the polite laugh he's used to hearing – a single huff of amusement exhaled through the nose – but a full-out, genuine cackle. It's so unexpected he can't help but tease her, pretend to be offended.
“All right, laugh if you must. How else are you supposed to get to bed?”
Her laughter gets quiet, goes low in her throat, and the look she grants him – the gleam in her eyes – seems to contain both fondness and amusement. As if he's dim for not divining the meaning of her laughter, as if it's something he ought to know on instinct.
“In a perfect world? Not by myself.”
Lane startles visibly at the last sentence. His neck flushes hot, and he tugs clumsily at his collar with two fingers. She—and now he's picturing—all sorts of things—and she's still looking at him, expression serious now.
“I'm lonely.” With a shrug of one shoulder, as if it's unimportant, as if it shouldn't matter. But there's a question in her eyes. She crosses her ankles the opposite way, then uncrosses them, and leans back into her hands. A pink flush stains her cheeks. Her fingers curve around the lip of her desk.
Lane swallows, already hard, and feeling suddenly lightheaded. God, he can't help himself, if she doesn't look away he's going to lose control, he's got to touch her—
Joan's gaze lingers, and it compels him to move. Slowly, watching her stare follow him as he does so, Lane removes his glasses, puts them in his front pocket, and leans forward in his chair. His outstretched hand cups her thigh, just under the hem of her skirt, and splays there for a moment, thumb tracing across the upper seam of her stocking.
She sucks in the smallest breath at the touch, her eyes fluttering closed. As he moves his hand a little higher, she threatens to pitch forward from her perch on the desk. He practically lunges to catch her. For a moment, one of his arms is wrapped around her waist. Her body is pressed against his, one hand braced against his right shoulder, his thigh between her legs. He forces himself to breathe, kissing her neck as he murmurs for her to move backwards, to lie down.
His palms rest gently on her thighs, pushing her skirt up over her hips. Her black garters are still fastened – taunting him – and so Lane moves one hand from her thigh to release one of them, to draw a gentle line up the reddened imprint the elastic leaves behind on her skin. She squirms under his touch, breath quickening, and he exhales a little satisfied noise.
He inclines his head to press a firm kiss to the inside of her leg, following this with the soft brush of his fingers. She shivers. He does it again, nudging his mouth down her thigh until his lips graze the edge of her satin knickers. After he's repeated this with her other leg, her muscles are taut and shaking against his hands. When he finally plants a kiss onto the thin fabric, Joan jerks into him with a gasp.
Lane moves away for a moment to pull her underwear past her hips, yanking it down her legs with such force the satin rips down one side. It falls away as he grabs her legs again, puts his mouth on her, letting it work hot and open against her most sensitive spot until she's making a choked noise that borders on a whimper, hands clutching at the back of his hair and thighs spasming against his hands.
He uses his tongue and fingers and teeth and lips to bring her to the edge, and when she comes her hips buck against his mouth in a way that makes him painfully hard, until all he knows is her body arching into his touch, all he hears is her half-scream echoing above the pounding in his ears.
When it's over, he pulls away to look at her. She's lying boneless across the desk, papers scattered all around her body, head tipped back against her stenography pad. A bright flush trails up past her exposed stomach to her face.
“Again,” she gasps, scooting backwards a bit and pushing some of the papers to the floor as she moves. He's already on his feet, throwing his jacket aside, then fumbling to undo his braces and zipper. Now. When he's inside her, it's all he can do to keep breathing, his hands gripping her hips with something close to desperation. Joan clenches around him when he thrusts up again, eyes fluttering closed, and it causes him to make a strangled noise in the back of his throat. She groans in response, and together they set a rhythm. The way she shudders and gasps underneath him drives him wild, makes his breath hitch as he watches her. Beautiful.
“Faster,” she blurts, voice high and rushed. He obeys, and eventually his legs shake so badly he has to settle some of his weight onto her, brace his forearms on either side of her body as he ruts into her—harder—so close—oh god Joan yes
He comes so hard his vision whitens, and after several more thrusts Lane feels her tighten around him, her fists clutching at the back of his shirt. He drops his forehead to her shoulder with a groan, gasping for breath, feeling the last few tremors run through their bodies as he tries to collect his wits. Soon, her fingertips are brushing damp hair away from his forehead. He exhales a sigh, his mouth widening into a grin, and lifts his head a little. His fingers trace over the clothed swell of one breast, heavy and full and soft under his hand. God. He wants to see it, touch every inch of it.
Joan's hand cups his jaw, gentle. He likes that, likes the way she says his name, too.
He meets her eyes. “Hm?”
“The letter tray's digging into my back.”
It's like being doused in cold water. Oh—she wants him to—yes. Of course. Quickly, Lane eases his weight off of her, pulls his hands away from her body, and stands up, all with poorly disguised reluctance. He averts his eyes from her for several minutes, tucking himself back into his pants, zipping up, and fixing his shirt and braces.
When he looks back to Joan, she's sitting primly on the edge of the desk, legs crossed. Her garters are fastened, she's smoothed down the rucked part of her skirt, and is now folding her ruined underwear into fourths. For an odd moment he feels as if he ought to look away again, so he stoops to pick up his jacket from the floor, suppressing a grunt as he stands back up. His lower back aches, but as he remembers the way she fell apart in his arms, Lane decides he isn't bothered. He's got aspirin somewhere.
A drawer opens and closes as he puts on his suit jacket. He feels her breeze past him, toward the coat rack. Soon, her high heels click on the tile—perhaps she's going to leave—but no, her hand's suddenly on his arm. He glances over. Before he can react, she kisses him soundly, pulls away to wipe lipstick from his mouth with the pad of her thumb, then withdraws.
He's too stunned to speak.
Stepping away, she produces a gold compact from her coat pocket, which she opens, quickly examining her reflection. “I should go home.” A small hesitation. “Will you walk me down?”
Tracing at her lip with one fingernail to fix her makeup.
Lane nods in a faint sort of way, blushing, very distracted by the movement of her finger around her pink mouth. “Oh—of course. And I—I'll get you a taxi. If you don't mind.”
Joan raises her eyebrows, sliding him a surprised look over the edge of the small mirror, but she just tucks a bit of hair behind her ear. Breathes out a sigh as she closes the compact. “Okay.”
He's grateful—relieved, really—that she doesn't put him off.
“Right. Off we go.” Lane gestures for her to exit first. He'll follow.
Her heels are brisk against the tile as she sweeps into the hallway. Gingerly, he shuts the office door behind him. They stop once, to put the tea tray in his office, and afterward, walk together toward reception in silence.