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if inconvenient, come all the same

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thirty-seven weeks // march 1966

 

“Now, under current assets following liabilities and capital are the net receivables and short term investments, which form the proprietary bulk of company assets. Taken altogether, these sums function as a double-entry equation which should rise or fall depending on changes in accounts—”

Someone clears their throat. Lane stops pacing, and looks up from his notes, glancing toward the sofa where the two secretaries sit side by side. Clara has one hand raised in the air as if she's in school, a stricken expression on her face. Scarlett, meanwhile, is staring at her stenography pad, giving off a very studious impression although he's certain she hasn't written a thing in minutes. She's just blinking down at the page, mouth slightly open, as if the entire concept of accounting is completely beyond her reach.

“For heaven's sake, Clara, what is it now?” he snaps, put out by the girl's constant questions. He can hardly finish a sentence. It's driving him mad.

“I'm sorry. It's just—I don't understand what you meant before. Can you go back a little?”

He's been explaining the concepts of basic accounting to them for over an hour. How on earth does it take them this long to learn how to undertake an act so simple as bookkeeping?

“What, precisely, do you not understand?”

“Net receivables,” Clara says with a little shrug, flipping through the last few pages of her notes.

Lane lets out a sigh. “Well, what about net receivables?”

“I don't know what they are.” The response is not even phrased as a question.

Scarlett lets out a laugh at the other girl's words, and quickly muffles it by covering her mouth with one hand. When she pulls her palm away a few seconds later, the amusement is generally gone, although her eyes twinkle as if she might start up again at any moment.

He has to resist the twin urges to curse aloud and crumple up the piece of paper in his hand, and lets out another sigh instead, beginning to pace.

“We have been over this twice—”

**

“My god, Joanie, if you get any bigger, I'll swear you're expecting twins.”

“Don't even say that,” Joan groans, leveling her mother with a frustrated look as she shifts her weight in the cushioned booth, in a futile attempt to get comfortable. As of today's doctor's appointment, she's gained twenty-eight pounds. Her back throbs constantly, her joints ache, and—to add insult to injury—her feet have ballooned to the point where she had to buy two new pairs of shoes. One and a half sizes larger than usual. Her fingers are so swollen they feel like vienna sausages. “How the hell could anyone carry two at once?”

One's bad enough, she thinks, drumming her fingers against the top of her belly in an attempt not to say it aloud. The baby's currently pushing its feet into her lower ribs.

Gail fixes her daughter with a reproachful look. “You're going to be late, you know. Babies in our family always are.”

“I don't want to hear this story.”

Her mother drizzles syrup over her french toast, pretending not to have heard. “With you, I went two weeks past my due date. My doctor told me, 'sweetheart, this baby's done cooking, so we'll just have to smoke him out!'” She takes a sip of her coffee. “Then he reached in, broke my water, and we were off to the races. You came along four hours later.”

Joan grimaces at the mental images this connotes.

Gail raises an imperious eyebrow at her daughter's expression. “When your time comes, four hours is going to seem like a godsend. And you'll be in twilight sleep! I didn't even—”

--have any morphine, Joan mentally recites. She's heard this story too many times to count. Unfortunately, her smart-alack behavior does not go unnoticed.

“Mouth off all you want, but at least I'd picked out your name. For god's sake, if he chooses something you don't like, you can always change it.” Noticing Joan's outraged expression. “The baby won't know.”

“We're not changing the baby's name, Mom!”

“So you've finally decided?”

Joan lets out a breath. “Not yet.”

There's a short list. Lane got to pick the boys names, so those are all solid, safe choices: Albert, Edward, Frederick, William. All former kings of England, of course. Joan likes to think her choices for girls are a little more creative: Christine, Madeleine, Pamela, Julia.

When she'd shared these names with Lane, he'd called them elegant, rubbing the side of her swollen stomach with one hand as they sat cuddled together on the sofa. It was one of the few times she'd felt genuinely close to him since her leave began.

Not working together means they only spend a few hours a day in each other's company. Joan isn't trailing around the apartment like a needy puppy in his absence—she has never been that kind of girl—but the sudden change in situation has only served to remind her how much she appreciated the little things. Having tea together in the middle of the afternoon, or play-fighting over who'll finish Harry's expense report. She's trying not to let him see her frustration. He'll only worry if he thinks she's unhappy.

Her mother's voice breaks into Joan's wool-gathering. “You're not going to call it something stupid, are you?”

“Well, we're not naming it Prudence,” Joan snaps, cutting into her sausage links with more force than is strictly necessary. Prudence was her paternal grandmother's name, and Joan was saddled with it for seventeen years before she was able to get rid of it altogether.

**

Twelve-thirty. Lane's been sitting at his desk and gathering up his courage to venture next door for nearly fifteen minutes. Letting out a sigh, he stands up and walks quickly toward creative, where Peggy Olson sits alone at her desk. An untouched sandwich and soda are at her left hand, while a legal pad filled with scrawls is balanced on her lap.

“Miss Olson.” He clears his throat to get her attention. “You look very busy.”

She glances up at him, eyes widening with surprise at the interruption, but puts her legal pad back onto the desk. “Oh. Not really.” There is a slight pause. “Did you need something?”

“Erm.” He steps inside, pushing the door closed with a careful hand. He's not even sure how to begin. The two of them aren’t friendly at all. It would be much easier if Cosgrove were here. “Well, I don't mean to interrupt, but I have a kind of favor to ask.”

Peggy moves to open her soda, using a tarnished opener she produces from underneath a blizzard of papers on the right side of her desk. “Okay.”

The state of her work area is worse than his. He didn't think that was possible. “Would you—that is, if it's convenient...could you possibly ring Joan? At the flat?”

“You want me to...call her,” is all Peggy says after another long pause, gaping at him like she’s very surprised those words left his mouth in that particular order.

Lane feels the back of his neck get hot with embarrassment. He hastens to explain. “Despite the preparations to be done for the arrival, it is rather an adjustment. Her leave.“

Sometimes Joan is excited when he arrives home. She tells him all about what the little one's been up to (mostly kicking her in the ribs), inquires about office gossip (of which he, to his sudden chagrin, knows nothing), or shares news of a media buying mishap she caught between episodes of Perry Mason. But other days she seems subdued when he talks about the office, almost sad. He'll look over in the middle of a sentence and see longing written clear across her face. On the worst days, no amount of talk seems to set her spirits to rights. Her eyes are red-rimmed behind her glasses, and her face is flushed, and after dinner when he asks her if she’s really all right, she just puts a hand on his shoulder, and murmurs that it’s only hormones.

She would kill him if she suspected he was having this conversation. But more than anything, he doesn't want Joan to be lonely. Miss Olson is a pleasant sort, and the two of them seem to get on well enough, from what he's observed.

“Well,” he stammers. “I wouldn't normally ask, but—”

“No,” Peggy says, her pale eyes sweeping over him in a way that says she has probably taken his meaning. “I suppose I should have thought of that. She’s usually so social.”

“Yes.” He's not sure whether he ought to sit down. A brief scan of the room reveals there's nowhere to sit that isn't buried by takeaway cartons, file folders, and scraps of Stan's artwork. Perhaps it would be a bother. “Well. It's very kind of you. Although, please don't say you were asked.”

What if he's not enough? What if he isn't doing enough to keep Joan happy?

“I could probably call in another hour,” Peggy says slowly, before he has a chance to reveal anything too embarrassing. “If she doesn’t mind talking to the boys.”

Perhaps she will find the group of them amusing. “I suppose that would be all—”

His train of thought is swiftly punctured by a loud, high-pitched voice. “Mr. Pryce!

Lane snaps alert with a start, blinking several times and looking up from his abacus to find Scarlett standing just inside his office doorway. She's waving one hand to get his attention, and indicating a third person is standing on the other side of the door. God. He can't remember when she got back from lunch. If she's even gone. It's nearly one o'clock.

Has he been sitting here wool-gathering, all this time?

“Sorry” He shakes his head. “What?”

The secretary wears an annoyed expression, though she tries to hide it behind a quick pasted-on smile. “Mr. Cosgrove's here to see you. He has an appointment?”

“Oh. Erm. Yes, of—of course.” Lane adjusts his glasses on his nose, glancing down to the thick file of papers clutched in his other hand. Something regarding Glo-Coat, apparently. He hasn't even read these over. “Send him in.”

**

“Clah-rah,” Clara intones in the deepest voice she can manage, posture stiff, eyes narrowed. She's wearing Linda's black cat-eye glasses low on her nose, and is holding a napkin in one hand as if it's a notepad, pretending to read from it. Her mouth twitches up as she threatens to grin, but she keeps talking, eyeing the other girls with a superior glare. Around their table, groups of people bustle past. It's the busiest part of the lunch rush. “Why must you ask so many questions? Accumulated amortization plus the net receivables, less the cost of equity equals a very simple approach to finance, as stated by this complex treatise on percentages—”

“Oh, my god,” drawls Linda, with a horrified expression. The exclamation prompts a laugh from the entire table. “How do you girls listen to that all day?”

Clara drops the mannerisms with a laugh, reaching for her soda glass. “Honestly, I don't even think twice about it.”

“It sounds like gibberish!”

“He's not a good teacher,” Scarlett interrupts, taking a sip of her iced tea. She and Clara exchange a long-suffering look. “And he's been in such a mood since Joan left. This morning, he lectured me for ten minutes because I brought him the wrong kind of tea.”

“There are different kinds of tea?”

Scarlett rolls her eyes. “Don't even get me started.”

“Well, he's usually nice to me,” says an airy voice. The entire table turns to look at Bridget, who just stabs another forkful of salad, and gives them a knowing look in return, as if the reason for his bad moods should be obvious. “You know, he and Joan spent every day together.”

Clara slants the blonde a withering look. “Don't they live together?”

“Harry told me they—” Scarlett bites down on the middle of her sentence, but still catches herself too late to stop the faux pas. The table breaks into a chorus of giggles and gasps.

Harry—”

“Ooooooh—”

“I knew you liked him, you kept talking about how nice looking he was—”

“No!” Scarlett waves two hands in a frantic motion. “Stop! It's not funny!”

**

Scarlett! The call from the secretary's intercom is more agitated this time. Scarlett!

Slumped on the sofa in the creative lounge, Stan erases a stray line from the pencil sketch of a Heinz label. Ginsberg is sitting on the floor, flipping through the latest RFP and scribbling all over a legal pad with what passes for decent concentration.

Lane's been trying to summon his secretary for about ten minutes, but obviously no one bothered to tell him the girls were going to lunch, because Scarlett's been gone almost an hour. Personally, Stan's waiting to see the guy come rushing out of that office with steam pouring out his ears, and no one to hear his tirade. It would be kind of hilarious.

“Give you a dollar if you go answer that,” he says to Ginzo, nonchalant, like upsetting Lane isn't something that could get the kid's ass kicked.

Ginsberg doesn't even bother to look up from his papers. “Do I look like a moron to you?”

**

The telephone rings just as Joan's putting dinner in the oven. It's a casserole again. She forgot to buy steak even though it was on her list. Twice. Thank god Lane isn't picky. And thank god she had some frozen chicken on hand.

“Pryce residence,” she says, picking up the line in the living room.

There is a long pause, followed by a strange man's voice, which speaks in silken, English tones. “Have I finally got the pleasure of speaking with the infamous Joan?”

Joan huffs out an amused noise before she can help herself. Lane has characterized his brothers in very broad strokes, but his descriptions were clear enough. Charles is an ass, but we don't speak. Lewis is only insufferable. “You must be Lane's brother.”

“Lewis. Charmed,” comes the light reply. “Now, tell me, dear, has my little brother actually got something important to do, or is he still dodging all my messages?”

“This from a man making transatlantic calls in the middle of the afternoon?” Joan mentally figures the time difference in her head. One or two o'clock, if she remembers correctly.

Static crackles down the line as the gentleman huffs in amusement. “You've got quite the cheek. Lane never said.”

Joan scoffs out a disapproving sound. She has better things to do than flirt with a dandy. “Do you have an actual message for him?”

Lewis sighs out a long breath. When he speaks again, the playful mannerisms are mostly gone. “Nigel phoned me at work this morning.”

“Jesus.” With a sigh, Joan takes a seat on the sofa, pinching the bridge of her nose with one hand. “Why? What for?”

“Skiving off classes, I suppose,” Lewis says, in the careless tone of someone who has played his fair share of hooky. “Though it isn't the first time he's rung. He misses Lane dreadfully. I don't know if you're aware.”

“They've been better about communicating,” Joan says with a sigh, deciding this strikes the correct tone. Lane never mentioned Nigel's been in contact with his brother. “I assume you haven't told Rebecca about the skipped classes.”

Only because there's been a conspicuous absence of screaming phone calls in the middle of the night.

Even the man's laugh is smug: a rich, low chuckle. “My dear girl, hell will have frozen solid before old Becky and I have another civil word.”

It's a relief to hear someone else share her opinion of the ex-Mrs. Pryce, although Joan has willed herself not to be ugly on that subject—not to Lane's face, anyway.

“Well. If you call back in another hour, he should be home. He'll want all the details.”

“Excellent. I will do.” There is another pause. “My nephew also let slip about your delicate condition. Dare I ask how it's going?”

“Pleasure to speak with you, Lewis,” Joan chirps in response, but she can't help smiling a little as she hangs up the receiver. If nothing else, at least he's entertaining.

**

“Why can't I visit? You always say you want to see me and then you never do!”

Lane releases a heavy sigh, leaning into the back of his desk chair as he risks a glance at his pocket watch, as if his son's in the same room with him and able to notice his impatience. Already half an hour late for dinner. Joan's going to be annoyed. “Nigel—”

“But it isn't fair, Dad! It isn't fair!

Now that he and Nigel have started having conversations on a more regular basis, all the boy wants to talk about is coming over to New York. Lane's not sure how to tell his son it isn't the best time for a visit without breaking Nigel's heart. Privately, he thinks Becca would never allow the boy to make the trip no matter how much anyone begged.

“Nigel. This is not an argument about fairness. You can't miss school, obviously—”

“Why not? Mother could bring me!”

“No,” Lane says sharply, then winces, and tries to soften his voice. “Now, we're not going to entertain one of your theories. I do want you to visit, very much, but for the time being—”

You could come and get me, then. It's nearly Easter. We won't even be in school!” Nigel wheedles. He's too old for this sort of whining, but Lane doesn't have the heart to say anything stern about it. Not when all his son wants to do is see him.

“What about August,” Lane says, in a desperate attempt to avoid going down this road. “Wouldn't you like to visit later in the summer, when the weather's nicer?”

The little one will be older, then. Not sleeping through the night yet—he thinks? god, it's been so long since he had a newborn, he can't remember—but at least after a few months, he and Joan won't be completely useless. And the child won't need all of their attention.

Would Nigel be jealous of a new baby? Surely he's too old for such things.

“Uncle Lewis would do it,” the boy says snidely, after a few seconds of silence.

“He certainly would not!” Lane retorts. In lieu of an apology, he offers a compromise. “I'll—speak to R—to your mother about it, all right?”

A long sigh crackles down the line. “Dad, I just want to come over. I really—miss you.”

Lane pinches the bridge of his nose with one hand, closing his eyes against the horrible truth. He hasn't laid eyes on his son in nearly two years. And with the baby's imminent arrival—and Rebecca's fury over that bit of news— who knows when they'll see each other again.

“I know, lad,” he mumbles, feeling like a complete failure. “I'm sorry. I know.”

**

“Lewis, I've enough trouble talking him down as it is!”

Sitting at the kitchen table with an open furniture catalog, Joan tries very hard to ignore the outbursts from the living room. In the past twenty minutes, Lane's conversation with his brother has only grown more agitated. She'd go into the bedroom to have some peace and quiet, except these days, it takes her almost as long to get up from a chair. Easier to stay put.

“I am simply saying that if you were to stop sympathizing with his—no, you—you're twisting my words, you are acting like a complete idiot—”

Joan circles a picture of a handsome mahogany rocker with the black felt-tip marker in her right hand. From what little of their conversations she's overheard, the brothers' main mode of communication is for Lewis to spend half the phone call baiting Lane with inappropriate jokes and comments, and for Lane to eventually get so frazzled that he loses his temper.

It's very childish, but it never seems to last, so she doesn't worry. And, she thinks, concealing another little smile, it also explains why they don't speak very often.

“Children are resourceful? For god's sake, you don't even have one!” Lane blurts suddenly. Joan glances over, very briefly. His face is bright red, and he's pacing in a frantic way that spells trouble. “You're a grown man with a flatmate—you don't know the first thing about—oh, shut up!”

He slams the phone down into its cradle, seeming very satisfied with himself. When he meets her eyes, and notices Joan's surprised expression, he waves one hand toward the receiver in a spastic gesture. “He thinks he can tell me how to raise my son—it's—absolutely insufferable!”

With that, Lane rolls his eyes, and storms down the hall toward their bedroom, swearing under his breath. Joan just shakes her head, blowing out a long sigh as she watches him go. He'll be back in a few minutes. Putting one hand on the table for balance, she rises carefully from her chair, walks into the living room, and turns on the television. Onscreen, a pink racecar has just appeared in the Stephens' living room.

“Augh!” There's a sudden thump from the bedroom, followed by louder curses. “Damned—thing!”

She winces. Judging by the noises, he's tripped over the foot of her vanity chair again, for what's probably the fourth or fifth time this month. Even with the television on, Joan can catch pieces of his grumbling.

“—chair if—push it back in—stupid bloody—Christ—”

She's not dumb enough to respond. He just wants to curse out loud until he feels better. In half an hour, once he's cooled down, he'll come in, tell her about the phone call, and then they'll watch tv until one or both of them falls asleep on the couch.

Joan places a soothing hand to her abdomen, where the baby pushes its foot into her side in an anxious rhythm.

“Daddy's fine,” she says aloud, keeping her voice very light. “Just a little stressed.”

**

“You're going to get caught!” Brian paces between the two twin beds like a wind-up toy, his flannel bathrobe flowing behind him like a naff cape.

Nigel scoffs, and stuffs another pair of y-fronts into his knapsack. “I'll be on a plane by then. You can tell Fletch I ran off in the middle of the night.”

“Never mind him! You look like a first year, and I'm crap at lying. They'll thrash it out of me, and then they'll phone the police, and then they'll phone your mum, and you'll be found at the airport, and we'll be expelled—and then my gran'll murder me!

“So tell him you couldn't stop me, then! Ticket's already paid for. All I've got to do is claim it.”

Nigel consults the scuffed-up envelope in his hand, still containing his father's letter. He shoves the lot into his jeans pocket and mentally recites the return address to himself, even though he'd memorized it weeks ago. 48 Sutton Place, Apartment 12C, New York.

“There isn't going to be any ticket! You'll just be stranded at Heathrow for no reason—why would your uncle even—”

“He was a runaway, you git. Think he knows what he's on about!”

Well. Nigel's fairly sure he was, at any rate. He overheard Father say it once—something about elder brother, on his own at fifteen. To join up with the Navy? Or maybe for acting? Anyway, he left on awful terms—that, Nigel does know for certain, because Grandfather Pryce never talks about Lewis, not even to insult him, and he's never supposed to bring up uncle's name in the old man's company. Not even as a joke. Learned that one the hard way.

Nigel tosses his mostly-full knapsack into the floor, pulls up his thin mattress, and reaches for the yellow envelope folded between the two tightest springs. Mad money. Saved up from America, mostly—crisp pound notes and dollar bills from Christmas and birthdays and a few old wrinkled-up fivers from Granddad. “I only need money for the train and taxis. And—food, I s'pose.”

Uncle Lewis spent over an hour trying to talk him down. If you're trying to get your parents' attention, there are much easier ways to do it. Ones that don't involve you running off in a fit of temper with no money and no connections.

You don't understand, Nigel had clutched the base of the pay phone so hard his knuckles turned white. He was faking sick in order to skive off; everyone else was at first period maths. Mum won't let me see him—they hate Dad's guts—they're never going to let me see him again! And then he'll have the new baby with Joan, and he won't c-care what happens to me anymore, and I've just— his voice had cracked, going very high, and he'd had to mop at his eyes with his shirtsleeve, glancing up and down the empty hallway to make sure no one else was around to see— I' m going, all right? I don't care if I get into trouble!

Aeroplane tickets cost a good deal more than pocket money, you know.

I've got mad money. I can tell the agent it's some awful emergency—Granddad's ill—that's actually true—

What?

Oh. Yeah. Gone funny in the head, or something. He had a fit at the house over Christmas. Mum and Granny won't talk about it. He ran a hand across his neck. They never talk to me about anything.

There was a long sigh. What  I ought to do is phone your father and tell him exactly what you're planning. At your age, you're a goddamn fool to leave school on your own, much less—

Please, I just—I can't just do nothing anymore, all right? I don't belong here, and I'm never going to. Nigel listened to the heavy silence on the other end of the line. And if you won't help, then I'll just run anyway and get—taken by some hook-handed spook! And—and they'll hold me for ransom! Mum and Dad'll have to speak to each other, then!

Christ almighty, groaned his uncle, only  you would aspire to be the next Lindbergh baby.

“Well, you can't hitch, not from anyone in town.” Brian folds his arms across his chest, trying to look stern. The effect's well ruined since he's wearing too-small cartoon pyjamas underneath his tatty flannel robe, and his blonde hair's sticking up in the front in a stupid way. “And you don't have a bike. What're you going to do, walk to the station?”

“Yeah.” Nigel tries to sound more confident than he feels. It's a couple of miles from here. “You know, Premell owes me a favor coz I traded 45s with him and those other fourth years. He's got a ten-speed.”

“But you'll have to get past Toad to nick it. You're going to get caught!”

“Won't,” says Nigel stubbornly, looking around his side of the room. He's thrown everything he's not taking into his trunk, and left the bed made up so Brian can stuff some pillows in it. “I'll tell the station workers I'm going home. Uncle's taking me to the airport when I get to King's Cross. Then I'll say I'm visiting Dad in New York. Family emergency.

“This is the stupidest bloody thing you've ever done in your whole life,” Brian moans. “You'll be grounded until you're at leastthirty!”

“Better than being stuck here with these twats,” Nigel retorts, rolling his eyes.

Brian flushes red at this, glancing away and looking at the desk. But he doesn't say anything, just frowns, stomps over toward an open drawer, and lifts a thin, leather-bound document away from a pile of loose-leaf papers. “You'll still need your passport, idiot.”

He thrusts the document in Nigel's direction with an outstretched arm. Nigel steps forward, grabs it, and puts it into his jacket pocket, next to his mad money. He's starting to feel badly about the twats comment. “Well, not you, obviously. You're—not a twat.”

He extends his hand to the other boy in an attempt to make up for before. After a weird pause, Brian takes it, shakes it once, very solemnly, then frowns, and puts his arms round the other boy's shoulders in an awkward hug. “Just—phone or write, yeah? 'M stuck here till Easter.”

“Yeah, all right,” Nigel mumbles, hesitantly returning the hug. “Gay.”

Brian shoves him off, and socks him in the shoulder, but he's rolling his eyes the way he always does, so it's fine. Nigel grins, and scrubs a hand through his hair, feeling a bit awkward now that everything's done. Been days of mad planning and trying to keep up appearances. “Whatever's left—if you want anything from my trunk, take it. Toad'll just toss it all, I 'spose.”

“Even your comics?” Brian says, raising his eyebrows, and they shove each other round a bit more until Nigel finally relents.

**

“Are you serious? You're taking me to task over ten dollars? It was a few drinks at the Plaza with CBS, plus some food!”

“Has it escaped your notice that everyone in this room is meant to budget their expenses, not just—list them carelessly on three sheets of paper?!”

“Jesus,” Harry groans, “then just give me a demerit, why don't you?”

Lane sets his jaw, and shifts in his chair in a way that makes Pete give him a nervous glance, and roll his chair two inches to the left. Megan and Ken keep exchanging significant looks; Ken shaking his head no, silent. Ginsberg's put his head down on the table, sighing like the tension is killing him, while Clara keeps pretending to read over her notes.

Peggy scrawls three letters on the corner of her legal pad, in thick black Sharpie, and pushes the paper to her left so Stan can see them: S.O.S.

He reaches over with a pen and sketches a little sinking liner next to this, complete with a group of stick figures diving off the top of the stern. One of them has x's for eyes, and floats face-up in choppy water next to a shark.

**

The sound of a key being inserted into the front door lock makes Joan sit up on the sofa in alarm, and cast a surprised look at her watch. Why would Lane be home right now? Before she can ask any questions, the door opens—a full two inches. There's an audible growl of frustration from the hallway. The chain is still on.

“Hold on,” she calls out, suppressing a sigh as she gets up from the sofa, walks to the door, and unlatches it. She doesn't know why she put the chain on in the middle of the day. Dr. Emerson calls this symptom pregnancy brain. She's been extremely forgetful.

When Joan opens the door fully, she sees a preteen boy, with a full backpack at his feet, standing on the other side. The scuffed white toe of one of his sneakers is pushing at an upturned corner of the doormat in an awkward, idle movement. Which explains how he got the key, but not much else.

“'Lo,” he mumbles after a long pause, clearly stunned to see her in his father's apartment in the middle of the day. “Erm. I'm Nigel.”

He's wearing a wrinkled navy blazer with a sigil crest embroidered on the front pocket, paired with stiff blue jeans, a dingy white-collared shirt and a striped necktie that's barely tied into a knot, hanging loosely around his messy collar like a silk bolero. Physically, he favors Lane in the face; he even has his father's sandy red hair, although his pale skin is barely freckled.

“Joan,” she says, extending her hand to him in a gesture so automatic it's like a reflex. He takes it, but they don't actually shake hands, just clasp palms in an awkward way before she releases her grip, and picks a piece of lint from his left jacket cuff. “How on earth did you get here?”

Nigel rubs his free hand over the back of his neck. An embarrassed flush is creeping into his face. “Erm.” There's a long pause. He keeps looking at her enormous stomach with a nervous expression. “B.O.A.C. Came th—this morning.”

Joan takes a better look at him, at the grease on his forehead, his bloodshot eyes, and the dark circles shadowing them. He seems dead on his feet. Before the boy can move, before he can say anything else, she waves him forward, indicating that he should pick up his backpack. “Come inside. You look exhausted.”

Get in here, she wants to hiss, while grabbing his elbow and leading him to the sofa, the way her mother used to do when Joan was a little girl and had done something wrong. Your father will be worried sick!

Jesus. Even in her head, she's starting to sound too much like her own mother. Joan closes the front door slowly, making sure that her expression is calm as she turns around. It's the same type of mannerisms she'd use when interacting with clients at work, softened for this particular situation, of course. Nigel can't see her panic, but she can't be needlessly sharp with him, either. He's not her son. He doesn't know her from Adam.

“D'you live here?” he mumbles, looking around the front hall and living room with a surprised expression, although these are the least changed rooms in the apartment, besides Nigel's. Joan sent two end tables down to storage, and they got rid of the hideous coat of arms as well as some of the wall décor that Rebecca had left, but the rest of it is the same. They couldn't do much more in her condition.

“Yes.” Joan inclines her head toward the kitchen, noticing the way Nigel keeps rubbing at his eyes with the heel of his hands. He's either upset or just tired. Hard to tell. “Can I get you an aspirin? You look like you have a headache.”

After a moment, he nods his head yes, very small.

Joan moves into the kitchen, and pours water into a tall, plain glass, feeling her heart pound in her chest as she mentally rehearses what she's going to say to Lane. Nigel just showed up on our doorstep. You need to call Rebecca. You need to come home.

The baby is kicking her again, in the right side of her ribs, persistent and sharp. Joan ignores this in favor of pressing an aspirin and the full glass into the boy's outstretched hands. He takes the pill quickly, and gulps down the water like he's dying of thirst.

She lets out a deep breath, watching him as he sets the glass on the counter and wipes his mouth with his shirtsleeve. Her head spins with questions. How did he get to the airport? Why would he run away from school? They can't be on vacation. Where did he get the money for a plane ticket?

“Your father's at work, obviously,” she says with a sigh, thinking of the leftover chicken casserole from last night's dinner. Maybe he'll be more forthcoming on a full stomach. “So, we're going to call him, and then I'll fix you something to eat.”

**

Lane has just knocked the entire folder of quarterly reports off the right side of his desk and into the floor, and is surveying the mess with petulant frustration when his office door slams open, revealing Scarlett. “Mr. Pryce—”

“Oh, for god's sake,” he snaps, not at all inclined to be patient with her lapses in manners today, “what is it this time?”

The secretary shakes her head, expression tight with anxiety, gesturing toward his phone with the pen in her hand as if time is of the essence. “Your ex-wife is on line two.”

He glances over, notices the flashing red extension for the first time. Why would she—

Scarlett's next two words make the hairs on the back of his neck prickle in fear.

“It's urgent.”