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if inconvenient, come all the same

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thirty-eight weeks // march 1966
sunday

 

Nigel and Lane have been on the phone with Rebecca for over an hour, and it has not gone well at all. Even from her place in the master bedroom, with the door closed, Joan can hear the boy screaming at the top of his lungs.

Lane's voice is agitated, but nowhere near as loud. “Don't speak to your mother that way—”

“I won't do it—you  can't make me—!” The boy's yells turn into sobs. Joan hears frantic footsteps on carpet as a hysterical Nigel runs past the doorway, followed by the sound of his bedroom door slamming, and the record player blaring to life.

Fifteen minutes later, Lane finally gets off the phone, and shuffles into their bedroom with an expression so haggard it's as if he hasn't slept in years. His shirt sleeves are rolled up in a haphazard way, there's a food stain on his sweater vest, and he's forgotten his glasses in the other room. He doesn't acknowledge Joan, who's sitting on the bed propped up against three pillows, or explain the finer details of the argument—just walks up to the right side of the bed and falls into it, fully clothed.

The mattress dips under his sudden weight; Joan snorts in amusement as she bounces around like she's on a trampoline. Lane, meanwhile, makes a noise like a groan as he crawls closer to her side, mumbling something Joan can't hear.

“Are you talking to me?”

Lane curls into his pillow, turning onto his right side and waving a weak hand toward her very pregnant figure. “That one's staying in there.” He doesn't tell her any more about the argument. Joan reaches out, runs a hand over his shoulder. “What happened?”

He doesn't move, but closes his eyes briefly, like the touch is soothing. “He's been expelled.”

“Well, I assumed that,” Joan breathes, shaking her head.

“Becca wants me to send him back tomorrow.” A pause. He shifts closer to her. “Told her no. I want to see him.”

Joan makes a sympathetic noise, continuing to rub his arm and side. After a few minutes, Lane lets out a long sigh that suggests the touch is more than welcome. She raises her eyebrows. Maybe she can take the edge off his stress. Her fingers slide over his left hip.

“Let me relax you.”

As they run across the waistband of his trousers, he startles, eyes opening, and pushes her wrist away, scrabbling backwards on the mattress to put nearly a foot of distance between them. Joan blinks back at him in total disbelief, while Lane gestures toward the open hall door in a frantic motion, as if he's afraid they'll be overheard.

“Have you lost your mind?”

Rock and roll echoes out from Nigel's room, and judging by the mood he was in as he ran inside, Joan's sure eavesdropping isn't going to be an issue. She's still stung by the rebuff. It's stress relief, for god's sake. He always gets wound up after Becca calls. “Lane, I was just—”

“I know what you were just—”

“Jesus! I wanted to make you feel better!”

This earns her a poisonous look and a scoff as Lane gets up from the bed. “Well, don't bother!”

He storms out of the room. Joan huffs out a breath, and tries to return to her book, but she reads twenty more pages without retaining a word.

Lane spends the rest of the evening in the living room. Sulking, she hopes, although in reality he's probably trying to figure out what to do about Nigel. Or making phone calls.

She's asleep by the time he comes to bed.

**

“I don't see why you have to go in,” Joan hisses in a whisper, pouring water from the teapot into a green mug. On closer inspection, it's ice cold, and it's clearly the tea from last night. Didn't she heat a pot of water already? Did she pour it in the sink?

Lane's dressed for work in gray tweed, acting like his behavior is perfectly normal. “It's a partners' meeting; it's a single day—”

“And all you're set up to discuss is the...new account...” she winces as the company name suddenly eludes her, “ugh, you know who I'm talking about!”

“Well, I'm not missing it after last month.”

Joan fixes him with a disbelieving look. “Not even for Nigel?”

Color rises in his face. “Oh, honestly!”

“We only have him for a few days. What the hell is he supposed to think if you just go to work like nothing's changed—”

“Joan, I am earning money for him, and for you—”

“I know that, but he's a kid! He's going to assume you don't want to spend time with him—”

“Why would he—” Lane pinches the bridge of his nose. “Can you please just look after him directly—”

“Lane, I'm saying it would be better—"

Lane's voice rises in pitch. “Oh, for god's sake! Shall I take him to the office, then? Would you approve of that decision?”

**

In the elevator, Nigel shifts on his feet, tugging at the knot of his tie with one hand and making a kind of aggravated groan. He's wearing the same outfit as yesterday, although thankfully the shirt and dungarees are clean.

“Don't,” Lane sighs, already exhausted by the morning's events. Not even eight o'clock and he's got a headache. “You'll muss it.”

“It's too tight. I can't breathe!”

Lane glances over at the boy as he slouches back against the metal railing. He's already gotten very big. Comes up to Lane's shoulder, now, and in another year or two he'll probably be half a head taller. Christ.

“Here. Let me fix it,” he says, in a kinder voice, and Nigel straightens up, ambling over. Lane loosens the loop of his son's tie with ease, then readjusts it, making sure the knot is crisp and straight against the lad's collar.

“Any better?”

Nigel grunts out a noise that must mean yes, and returns to his place at the back wall, tapping the heel of one trainer against the seam where polished metal meets tile. Lane feels as if he's got to break the quiet. Not much time to have this discussion. “Now—you do understand I won't be working through your visit. Just today. And—perhaps tomorrow morning.”

“You already told me.” Spoken in a very flat voice, as he stares at the lit-up elevator buttons. Is he even listening?

“Yes—I—do realise that, Nigel, but I just want you to be aware. There is a partners' meeting, and then your mother and I are going to be spending—a bit of time on the phone—”

More than a bit. Yesterday, there wasn't much in the way of conversation. Besides dressing down Nigel, there were a few rushed calls filled with clipped updates or awkward attempts at reassurance. He senses today will be different. Rebecca hates that he isn't sending Nigel back straightaway. There will certainly be more to come on that particular subject.

The elevator doors open, and they step out. Lane beckons the boy to follow him, although Nigel seems more interested in gawping at the glass doors separating them from reception. How long has it been since he was here? Did Nigel ever see this office?

“Come along,” Lane prompts.

Bridget is sitting in reception this morning, and waves a friendly hello from her place on the telephone. They've been short a secretary for some time; Caroline even approached him about a possible new hire, but he's been putting it off.

Joan had more than enough to say about work this morning. He kept staring at her hands as she sliced an apple into pieces, waiting for the inevitable moment when she cut her finger or knocked something else from the counter. Give him change for the vending machine as soon as you get in. Tell him your timetable, so he's not just staring at the clock—

He'd let his temper get the best of him. I think I know how to handle my own child!

Then don't ask for my help!  She'd chopped one apple slice into two crooked pieces, then gestured at him with the sharp end of her knife, and given the overall temperature of the room he had decided to leave the kitchen for several minutes.

Scarlett does a double-take when she sees them. “Good morning.” A pause. She takes his briefcase and coat, trying to catch his eye. “Is this...?”

“Yes,” he says, distracted. “Scarlett, my son, Nigel. Nigel, my secretary.”

The two of them exchange a stilted greeting, and his secretary disappears into his office to put away his things. Lane takes the opportunity to fish out a dollar in quarters from his trouser pocket.

“Now, I think you ought to start the day in the lounge, just here.” He indicates the round table opposite his office door. “After I'm finished with the meeting—if I'm not on the telephone—then you can sit in with me, hm?”

He'd keep the boy in his office all day, but honestly, he doesn't trust that Nigel won't just pick up the phone the minute Lane turns his back and try to ring Joan or Lewis or—god forbid—Becca. Better he have someone out front to look after him.

“What's this for?” Nigel asks, poking at the money in his hand. “Lunch?”

Lane gestures toward the left side of the hallway, past Joan's darkened window. “No, erm—vending machine's just round the corner, there. You can get whatever you like for a snack. I've just—got to speak to my secretary for a moment.” Bribery's badly done, he supposes, but at this point he's desperate.

Nigel glances in the indicated direction, then back to Lane. “So I'm s'posed to leave you alone now?”

“Oh, honestly,” Lane sighs, hating the frown on his son's face. He'd thought it would make the lad happy to have a few sweets. “After the meeting, you can come in and see me if you need something. I'm not banishing you. I just—want to make sure you're set up for the day, hm?”

He wants to do something silly, like ruffle the boy's hair, but he can't quite get himself to do it with so many people here, so settles on putting a hand on the lad's shoulder. Nigel looks around with a put-upon expression, as if very embarrassed, but doesn't shrug it away.

“Well—I'll just be nearby, if you need anything.” Lane glances to the right, sees Pete Campbell and Harry Crane walking in from reception, and withdraws his hand from his son's arm, gesturing toward the table. “All right?”

Nigel follows his gaze. “All right.” He hefts his backpack higher onto one shoulder, before shuffling into the creative lounge and depositing it into one of the hard chairs.

**

“Busted,” Stan groans, walking back into the lounge and flopping down onto the sofa. Behind him, Megan follows, looking vaguely disappointed. She perches on the edge of the coffee table, adjusting her skirt as she sits down.

“Don saw us looking,” she clarifies, smiling a little. “Nothing's happening.”

“Told you they weren't gonna fight,” Peggy says from beside Stan, not looking up from her notes. He grunts in disagreement. “Roger still looks pissed.”

There's a distinct snicker from the round table. Stan glances over to where Lane's son is sitting with his head bowed over a sketchpad, then back to Peggy, lifting one eyebrow.

Peggy shrugs, and mouths the words I don't know.

“Uncanny,” Stan mutters under his breath, but then starts speaking in a louder voice. “I'm telling you, Lane's gonna kick Roger's ass if he cops any attitude. One, two—” he mimes taking a serious blow to the face, and puts up his hands to defend himself, with Peggy as his opponent. She retaliates by throwing an eraser at his chest.

“What?” comes the retort from the table. “You must be joking!”

Stan just grins like the kid's outburst is exactly the kind of reaction he was hoping for. He's been sitting there for almost an hour without saying anything. Peggy has no idea why Stan is trying to encourage this. “I don't know, man. Lane's got the moves.”

“Dad's never been in a fight in his life, idiot,” the boy scoffs, finally looking up from the table, glaring at them as if this is completely offensive.

Stan pulls an amused face, but turns around to face the kid as if this argument means nothing to him. “What'd you say your name was?”

The boy frowns. “Nigel.”

“Cool.” Gesturing to himself— “Stan. That's Peggy,” nodding to his right—Peggy waves an awkward hello— “and Megan.”

“Don't mind him,” Megan says, rolling her eyes a little but giving the boy a bright smile. “I hope Scarlett showed you around earlier?”

The boy scoffs again, rolling his eyes. “Dad told her to watch me. I'm not a baby.”

Peggy glances toward the secretary's empty desk, suppressing a laugh. Stan, meanwhile, mouths something Peggy can't decipher, then makes a circle with one finger and thumb and thrusts the tip of his pencil through the opening with his other hand, in and out. Disgusting. It's definitely about Harry. She whacks his knuckles with her palm, which earns her an ow! and a flick on the leg.

“Of course you're not.” Megan says to Nigel, as if she can't see the horseplay, and gets up from her seat at the coffee table, taking a small bag of potato chips with her. Peggy's pretty sure those were Ginsberg's, so they're probably never going to hear the end of it.

Megan's colorful heels click on the tile as she walks toward the round table, proffering the chips in Nigel's direction. “Trade for some chocolate?”

“Yeah, all right,” he says with a shrug, as she sits down.

“Bars from the cart,” Peggy whispers to Stan, under pretense of showing him an important document. It's just full of phrases she wrote down while brainstorming. Nothing crucial.

Stan follows Peggy's gaze in time to see Megan as she bites into a broken-off piece of chocolate. “Am I supposed to get that?”

“No,” and Peggy has a little smirk on her face.

**

“Yes—of course, Mrs. Pryce—” Scarlett stutters, the phone pressed to her ear as she talks. Megan can't see the secretary's face from where she and Nigel are still sitting at the round table, but she knows frantic politeness when she hears it. Scarlett's trying to keep the other woman from yelling. “Immediately. I understand.”

Nigel gives Megan a scornful look as the other secretary hurries into the conference room, a message slip clenched in her hand. Megan picks out another peppermint lifesaver from the foil tube, and doesn't say anything at all.

“She just wants me to go home,” Nigel grumbles, looking sullen as he slumps in his chair.

Line two, Scarlett's hissing to Lane as he disappears inside his office and pushes the door closed.

“I'm sorry,” Megan says, not knowing what else to tell him. Nigel doesn't seem to appreciate her sympathy, and scowls. “Why should you care?”

“Divorce is hard on everyone,” she says with a careful shrug.

“Are your parents divorced?” he retorts around a piece of candy.

“No, but they should be.” He stares at her, mouth slightly open in surprise, before she elaborates. “They hate each other. They fight all the time.”

You stupid bitch—you're drunk—you never understood what I—

Then go to her! Go fuck your loud little fool the way you've always wanted!

Nigel's eyes are wide, like he'd never bothered to imagine anyone else in the world being unhappily married besides his own parents. Megan decides to keep talking, as if just to herself. “When my husband and I got married, his ex-wife hated me, too.” She purses her mouth, then tries to smile. “Honestly, I think she still does.”

“Oh,” Nigel says quietly, staring at her wedding rings. He's tearing the foil and paper in front of him into tiny shreds, miniature letters from the logo turning into a shredded pile of alphabet soup. The last piece of candy rolls out onto the tabletop and topples over onto its side.

Don doesn't like her talking to the kids about Betty or the divorce, but they still ask questions. Especially Bobby. Megan keeps thinking about that—how Nigel is Sally's age at least—about growing up watching your parents scream and fight and cry behind closed doors. When everyone else's parents seem to be fine.

“Sometimes people get upset when things change,” is all she tells him.

“She's the one who left. What does it matter?”

“Well, is your dad happy with Joan?”

Nigel's head snaps up to stare at her, but at that point, creative's door opens, and three people pour back into the hallway. Peggy's leading the way, rolling her eyes. Ginsberg is last, gesturing toward Lane's office with an audible curse and a fist full of loose papers. Stan's tugging him toward the lounge by one sleeve of his shirt.

“C'mon, Ginz, let it go.”

“He thinks it's too loud,” Peggy says in advance, giving Megan a warning look as she plunks down into the same seat as before.

“Oh, sure,” Ginsberg growls, slinging a folder into the nearest sofa cushion, “I'm supposed to be fine with the yelling phone calls, it's like living next to a goddamn—”

He stops, stares at Nigel. “Shit. You're still out here?”

“Well, who are you, then?” Nigel retorts.

Peggy puts a palm over her eyes.

**

“—and I had to speak to that woman only to find out you took Nigel to work—”

Lane grips the receiver so tightly he's sure his knuckles are turning white. “Do not bring Joan into this.”

“—now I suppose some imbecile is looking after him.”

“How is it any different from him being at that school?”

Stunned silence hangs over the line, followed by quiet, hissed outrage. “Don't you dare—”

“Oh, terribly sorry I've told you the truth!” Lane retorts. “Nigel is staying through the week. You'll have him back Monday morning, at ten o'clock, as we discussed.”

Rebecca's voice is as brittle as ice. “He should not be rewarded for getting expelled. And I will not have my son spending a week in the company of some—live-in, pregnant tart—”

“Don't speak about her that way!”

“Why not? You haven't bothered to marry the woman.”

Lane growls out an aggravated noise. “Rebecca, I warn you, I will not do this today! I haven't seen my son in two years; I'm not sending him back until Monday—”

Her voice is incredulous, getting more high-pitched with every word. “Don't presume to imagine you can keep him from me, Lane—”

“Well, come and get him, then, if you're so unhappy!” He accidentally knocks his calculator off the desk and doesn't even care. “While you're at it, why not bring your parents along? Then I can finally tell them to shove off!”

“You—”

“Monday morning, ten o'clock, and that's final!” Lane shouts, then slams the phone down into its cradle, and sinks into his desk chair with a growl.

**

“Are you going to tell me what happened?” Joan's rubbing lotion into her hands and wrists as she gets ready for bed, her silk robe trailing behind her as she walks out of the restroom.

Lane busies himself by hanging his bathrobe on the back of the open door, pretending not to have heard her question.

She sounds exhausted, pressing on despite his lack of response. “The phone rang twice during dinner, and you got up and unplugged it from the wall.”

“Well, I didn't—mean to,” he mumbles in a very unconvincing lie, turning back toward the bed. She's standing there staring at him like she's disappointed, and he shakes his head, depositing his glasses onto his bedside table. “I'm just—I'm very tired, darling.”

“I know Rebecca called again,” she says, lifting her hands in a shrug before repeating her earlier question. “What happened? What did she say to you?”

“It's—nothing you need to worry about,” Lane turns off his table lamp, getting into bed in an attempt to dodge the question.

“I don't care if it was insulting,” she persists. “Talk to me.”

“Joan, for the last time, be quiet!”

He feels even more miserable the second the snappish words leave his mouth, but for once, Joan doesn't challenge him on his rudeness. She doesn't say anything at all. She's sitting on the edge of the bed with her back turned to him, motionless, arms splayed behind her to support some of her weight.

“I'm sorry,” he says helplessly, suddenly very aware of the tension between them. Joan is not one for ignoring him, even at her most angry, and he doesn't know how to fill this sudden silence. “I—I didn't mean to—”

“You don't want to talk about it,” she says, lifting one hand in a kind of shrug. The calm words don't seem to be an insult, but they are punctured by a distinct catch in her voice, which she tries to hide as a kind of throat-clearing. Lane feels his heart leap into his throat. Christ, has he made her cry? He's such a fool. And even worse, he can't bring himself to voice the fear that's been bubbling inside his mind, boiling over after every phone call with Becca and awkward conversation with Nigel. I'm not doing enough. I'll never see him again after this. I don't know what else to do.

“Joan,” he says again, voice a little rough, “darling—I'm sorry.”

Her voice is strained and quiet. She doesn't move to turn around, just pushes to her feet with visible effort. “Okay.” She walks slowly past the vanity and into the hallway, and the light of the corner lamp shows clear distress on her face. Lane watches her go with a feeling bordering on panic, but the paralyzing fear lingers, and keeps him from running after her.

**

“Joan, are we almost done? We've been here for ages.”

Nigel eyes a garish display of canned hams with a disgusted face as they walk past, wheeling the buggy to the left and pushing it about a quarter of the way down the next aisle. Cereals and breakfast drinks. They've been here for almost forty minutes, and the fluorescent lights are making her eyes hurt. Joan refrains from putting a hand to her aching temple, and keeps her voice calm.

“Remember our deal? After breakfast, we have to run four errands, and then—”

“—you'll take me to the record store if I don't complain. Yeah. I'm not an idiot.” He pauses, pointing at a garish box on the third shelf. “Can I get this? We don't have it in England.”

Joan eyes the sugary cereal for a second before reaching out and tossing the box into the basket. To hell with nutrition. “Sure.”

At this point, she's doesn't care about good parenting. She's just trying to keep everyone from going off the rails. Suddenly, Lane won't talk to her, but he's so stressed he isn't eating. Last night she watched him pick at his ribeye like someone recovering from major surgery. Nigel, meanwhile, doesn't seem to know what to do with himself other than stay in his room with his records, watch television, or ask a lot of fraught questions. The baby has been sitting on her bladder for six straight days, and keeps making her crave sugar, and to top it all off, Joan's had indigestion ever since she woke up this morning. At 4AM. It got so bad that she ended up in the diner bathroom for almost fifteen minutes during breakfast, while Nigel and her mother sat in the booth alone talking about god knows what.

“Grab the Jello mix,” she says, indicating the small box of chocolate pudding in the middle of the top shelf.

Nigel does, returning to the cart with both chocolate and butterscotch, and giving her a silent pleading look. His mouth is drawn into an exaggerated frown, eyes round and innocent like a pleading puppy. She arches an eyebrow.

“Go ahead.” It's not the face. Thinking about butterscotch is starting to make her mouth water. The boy grins, and puts the two boxes into the cart using an overhand toss, like he's throwing tiny basketballs.

**

“Mr. Pryce, you have a visitor in reception.”

The buzz of the intercom is so sudden it startles Lane into dropping his half-full teacup onto the ground. It breaks into what appears to be nearly a thousand pieces, tea splattering everywhere. Typical.

“Thank you very much,” he says tersely, standing up, buttoning his jacket, and heading into the lobby to see who on earth would be visiting him today. Can't be Joan. Clara's been put out there for the afternoon; she would have said if it was Joan—

Lane opens one of the mahogany door, sees his visitor, and freezes with his palm on the handle. “Oh,” he manages, feeling his stomach turn. “Hello.”

Standing to the right of the glass doors, his father stares back at him with a thin-lipped smile that doesn't reach his cold eyes. Lane forces himself to walk closer, although every instinct in his body screams for him to run. Anger's constricted his chest to the point where he feels like he's fighting for every breath. He keeps his arms down by his sides. Stand straight. Speak up. “I suppose Rebecca sent you.”

Lane mentally curses his ex-wife and every bloody idea that's ever entered her head. She actually phoned him. She knew his father could succeed in convincing him where she never would.

His father's face remains impassive. “I'm here to bring the boy home.”

“Nigel will go back on Monday as my—as she and I have previously discussed.”

“She did not agree to that.”

“And I do not agree to this,” Lane hisses, keeping his voice low although no one's in reception at the moment. Clara's nowhere to be seen. “I  am his father, and he's staying here.”

The old man sets his jaw, but he doesn't even lift his hands from his walking stick, just eyes Lane with an expression that suggests he'd better be thankful they are in a public lobby.

(Sixteen years, and he never told Becca the truth. Not a word.)

“I'm staying at the Warwick through Thursday,” his father says, as if this conversation is perfectly reasonable. “Put everything in order. You'll have time.”

“No,” is the first word Lane blurts—vehement; almost loud—and it is so unexpected a reaction that he feels his hands start to shake.

No,” the elder man repeats, as if equally stunned, but before his father can say anything else, the doors to the office open again, and someone calls Lane's name. He turns around to see Peggy Olson standing in the doorway with what appears to be a job file in hand.

“I'm sorry,” she says, staring at the two men with a guilty expression. “I had a question about the Pond's budget, but Scarlett didn't say you had company out here.”

“Oh,” he says slowly, trying to smile at her in a way that doesn't seem deranged, “yes, of—of course. I'll just—be a moment.”

“Now, Lane, you've not forgotten your manners,” his father says loudly, in a derisive tone that manages to seem almost jocular—and oh, how Lane hates him. He turns to Miss Olson, gesturing for her to walk closer as he speaks.

“Sorry. Erm. Peggy Olson, I'd like you to meet my father, Robert Pryce. Father, Miss Olson, one of my—coworkers.”

The two of them shake hands and exchange pleasantries. Lane's too busy concentrating on the smirk on his father's face. The man is laughing at Peggy and her practical appearance, dressed in her white schoolgirl's blouse and plaid skirt. He thinks she's just some...plain secretary, too stupid to buy a few pieces of jewelry. Lane gets a sudden urge to correct this awful presumption.

“Miss Olson is one of our finest writers,” he says loudly, making sure to smile as he says this. The expression feels like a grimace, and the compliment too much of a brag, but he doesn't care. He's not going to let the old man act so superior.

Peggy blinks at him in a way that suggests shock, and so Lane offers the most sincere compliment he can muster. “Joan always says so, anyway.”

His father's company smile dims temporarily at the mention of Joan, and Lane feels a little victorious surge in his chest as he notices. So Becca's told him about more than just Nigel.

“That's—nice to hear,” Peggy's cheeks are slightly pink as she glances from Lane to his father. “Be sure to tell her hello. I suppose you're all getting together later.”

“In fact,” his father interrupts smoothly, before Lane can say another word, “we were just arranging our upcoming plans.”

“Well, Joan knows all the best places. She's so sophisticated,” Peggy says, still blushing, and grinning at Lane so broadly he can't bring himself to hate her for stepping into this horrible web. “I should let you talk, but it was really nice to meet you.”

She offers her hand to his father, who shakes it a second time. “Pleasure is all mine, dear.”

The second she's out of earshot, his father drops the wolfish smile. “Seven o'clock tomorrow will be adequate. I'll allow you to choose the restaurant.”

Allow me, Lane thinks, feeling blood pound in his ears, and clenching his jaw so tightly he feels his back teeth throb with the movement. He manages to speak after another moment. “I suppose we ought to spend an evening together.”

His father does not seem to care much about the prospect of a family outing. “You may ring once the table's been reserved.”

He doesn't even bother with a civil goodbye, just turns and pushes his way through the nearest glass door, the tip of his walking stick scratching against the slick marble as he goes. Lane clenches one fist by his side to keep calm, so hard he feels his short fingernails dig into his palm.

He's going to take Nigel. He's going to take him away—

**

“...so in issue twenty two they fight Power Man, yeah? And he's working with the Enchantress, who's part of the Masters of Evil, because she's the one who bails him out of jail in the first place—”

Joan's already regretting this. Apparently, Nigel preferred new reading material to forty-fives, and the comic book store turned out to be closer to their apartment. On their walk home, he's been chatting her ear off about his favorite series. She's lost track of all the characters, and blames pregnancy brain for the mix-up. “I thought you said she was working with the superheroes?”

“No, that's Scarlet Witch, Joan,” Nigel huffs, like the idea of mixing up two magical female characters in the same series is the dumbest thing he's ever heard. He sounds just like Lane does when he's trying to explain the impact of trading acts on their clients' financial positions, and she has to smother a smile at the resemblance as they cross the street and onto the block for Sutton Place.

“So the—Enchantress paid this person's bail,” she prompts, trying to keep conversation flowing. Her feet ache, but she can see the front door from here, just past an older man in a navy suit who's leaning against the edge of the building, smoking a cigarette. “Why was he in jail?”

“Oh! Well, yeah, she had done, but before it even happened, right—think this was issue seven—she and the Executioner were banished to Earth by Odin. Anyway, then she hypnotized Thor into turning against...”

He stops speaking mid-sentence. He even stops walking. Joan glances to her right, shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun just in time to see Nigel find the rest of his words. He's staring open-mouthed at the man with the cigarette. “Uncle Lewis?”

She follows Nigel's gaze to stare at the man leaning against the wall, who promptly drops his cigarette, crushes it under the toe of one gleaming brown wingtip, and stands upright. He's taller than Lane, and broad in the shoulders—over six feet at least. His sandy hair is receding a little, and is pale at the roots, either white or blonde. She can't tell in the sun. And although his face is leaner, more angular than Lane's, he's still got the same wide nose as his brother, the same prominent brow.

“Long time, Nigel,” he says, walking forward and eyeing his nephew with no small amount of amusement, nodding at the small wheeled cart behind the boy. “That may fall over, if you aren't careful.”

“What? Bollocks,” Nigel exclaims, flushing red. He whips around to grab for the handle, as if it's already started to fall to the ground.

Joan keeps her eyes fixed on Lane's brother, who's turned his amused look to her.

“Joan,” is all he says, trying to downplay his clear surprise at her condition. She'd bet dollars to donuts Lane forgot to mention how far along she was. “You're not quite how I imagined.”

“That had better be meant as a compliment.” She extends a hand for Lane's brother to shake.

“Of the highest order.” He takes it briefly. “Really is a pleasure.”

“Are you—you're not waiting for Dad?” Nigel asks his uncle, giving Joan a nervous look. “Because he's at work...”

“Let's take this conversation inside,” Joan interjects, before anything else can be said. The doorman has spotted them, and is holding the door open, waving at Joan with a broad smile. She motions for the Pryces to follow.

“Kind of you, allowing me to impose,” Lewis mutters to her as they're getting off the elevator and walking into the hall. Nigel's run ahead with the grocery cart and the key to the front door.

“What makes you think I won't just leave you out here?” she replies in an airy voice.

He smirks. “I'm beginning to understand why my brother likes you.”

Twenty minutes later, the tea service has been set out, Nigel's already torn into the newest box of chocolate biscuits, and Joan's pouring a generous amount of milk into a cup of earl grey.

“Wondered why you weren't at home,” Nigel says to his uncle around a huge mouthful, practically spraying crumbs across the table as he talks. “Tried to phone you.”

The older man grimaces, and tosses a nearby napkin in the boy's direction. “Don't share your food, piggy.”

Thankfully, Nigel takes the hint and starts to chew with his mouth closed. He swipes briefly at his mouth with the napkin, and swallows his food.

“When did you try to call him?” Joan asks, raising an imperious eyebrow.

The boy at least has the courtesy to blush. “Your mum caught me on the payphone.”

Joan actually laughs. Must have been at breakfast. Mom would have a lot to say about sneaking around. Nigel just seems cranky about getting caught, turning back to his uncle. “And before that, your flatmate yelled at me.”

“If you rang him up before noon, you bloody well deserved it,” Lewis pronounces, slanting an amused look at Joan. “Mark's an actor. Very temperamental.”

“He have a girlfriend yet?” Nigel asks, absorbed in dunking his cookie into his tea with what seems like a singular will of effort. “You said he's always talking about that leading lady.”

“Of course he doesn't,” Joan says lightly, with a little puff of laughter. When she sees Lewis' dark eyes fixed on her, as if perplexed, or surprised, she raises an eyebrow, keeping her voice even. “I'm sorry. Am I wrong?”

She thought it was obvious, but maybe Nigel's not as canny as she assumed. Honestly, it doesn't matter right now; he's too busy fishing out a soggy piece of cookie from his overflowing teacup to notice what they're saying.

Lewis clears his throat, almost seeming impressed. “Got it in one, my dear.”

“Well, it takes all sorts,” Joan says, trying to inject as much humor into those words as possible, and deciding a subject change is in order. “Which play are you running? Anything I know?”

The telephone rings before Lewis can answer. Joan glances toward Nigel, who's perked up noticeably. He seems thrilled at the idea of getting a phone call in the middle of the day.

“Can I answer it?”

“Go ahead,” she says, with a little smirk. If it's Rebecca again, Joan does not want to take it.

He runs to the still-ringing phone, and picks up the receiver. “Hello? Oh, hi, Dad. We're all right.” A pause. “Uncle Lewis is here.” Another pause. “I s'pose.” He holds the receiver out toward the kitchen table. “Wants to talk to you.”

“You'll have to give me a minute,” Joan says with a sniff, but the boy shakes his head.

“No, sorry—I meant—for Uncle, first. Since he's here, apparently.”

Lewis raises his eyebrows, but gets up and moves to pick up the telephone, listening to Lane for several minutes and saying little, with an intent expression which resembles a poker face. Joan tries to downplay her own annoyance at being left out of the loop, but when it's her turn to pick up the line, her conversation with Lane is very brief.

“We're having dinner with my father tomorrow,” is all he tells her. “Seven o'clock, no flexibility. I need—” he sighs, then stops himself. “No, just—make the arrangements.”

“What?” Joan says, not sure whether she's more upset by the late notice or by the fact that Lane's treating her as if she's no better than Scarlett. Lane doesn't talk about his father, never mind having dinner with the man. “He's here?”

“Just—take care of it,” he retorts loudly, as if they've already had this argument a thousand times. “Please.”

Joan lets out a sharp breath through her nose, surprised to hear him say that. “Okay.”

He hangs up the phone before she can say goodbye.