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a little brown haired bride

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1.

Margaret Olson has a week to herself, between graduation and her first day at Miss Deaver's Secretarial School. Her mother talks about it like it's another step she has to go through, to find a man, as she pieces together a new dress, this one in blue plaid with buttons on the front. Maybe it will take a few months, maybe a year, but she will catch some successful man's eye, and then there will be another wedding. Anita and Gerry, Peggy and... and her mother trails off, studying Peggy's mousy brown hair like she can already see the white lace cap pinned on top.

Peggy smiles and nods and on the first day she doesn't know what to do with herself; she has a patent leather pocketbook instead of her grammar and math books. The blinds are brittle and the sun falls in bright bars over a dead fern and last year's magazines. The main room sounds like a hail of rocks on a tin roof. And she can spot the girls who are here to find a man and the swift, efficient girls who will be doing this forever, and she feels like neither.

There is a tired quality to it all, really, but there is a man in charge of Miss Deaver's Secretarial School, and he is the first one Peggy really falls for. There were boys in high school, even the one who invited her to the backseat for an evening of timid fumbling that still turns her hot with shame at the memory, but she is eighteen and she is just barely unfurling for the first time. It is senseless, ridiculous even. He's too old for her. His fingertips are always stained and his glasses leave a pink smooth indentation on the bridge of his nose, and his hair is starting to thin. He reminds her of the stern physical education teacher at her high school, with the bristle-brush mustache and close-cropped hair, but she doesn't know why.

He doesn't quite taste of ink and it starts when she's five minutes late, finishing up her indexing assignment, and he murmurs something about regulation when he tugs the hem of her skirt down.

(His handkerchief and tie coordinate and that's how she knows he's married, even though there are no pictures on his desk and he brings a plain paper bag to his desk every day, to slowly devour a sandwich, to fastidiously brush the crumbs away, and she looks at the carpet and thinks of mice, timid little mice.)

At Holy Innocents, at first, she feels like she's waiting for something. Not forgiveness, because she cannot ask for it. There is no curious lightness waiting on the other side of a confession, and there are no burdens on her soul, because that would be to admit that this is wrong. But it can't be.

She doesn't ask him to leave his wife. She doesn't ask him anything. For a month after her graduation, for a month after she sees him for the last time, she can still feel that spot on her upper thigh where his hand stopped, and she knew there was more, but never with him.

She never really feels like she's lost anything.

But there's one thing, one small thing. When Anita was married and Peggy walked up to the cake table and stood eye-to-eye with the miniature bride and groom at the top, she imagined herself. Anita had always passed down everything. A little brown haired bride and a little brown haired groom and Peggy, when she was swept off her feet, he would be better and more handsome and everything, everything. Everything Gerry wasn't.

Except when she imagines it, she just sees that faceless groom.

--

2.

Peggy doesn't fall in love with Don Draper.

She kind of wants to, though. When she sees him walk through life the way he does, fresh white shirts tucked in the bottom drawer and a full tumbler of scotch during the afternoon meetings, she wants to be part of it. And then she touches his hand and he tells her he's not her boyfriend and this isn't love she feels swelling in her when his eyes meet hers. There are no words for it.

(if her emptiness touched his, she's afraid she'd never be able to climb back out.)

And part of her, distantly, for a while, envies Betty Draper for what she has, but then she realizes that all Betty has to wrap her hands around is a lie, and a flimsy one at that.

Besides, Betty's isn't the life she wants.

--

3.

(she has always thought there would be tenderness, but there's more when there is none.)

She never puts it in words but part of her kind of wants Pete to say that he's only known her for a few hours but that's enough. She wants to put her hand on his arm and gaze very sincerely up at him, and tell him that she's flattered but she won't do this to his fiancé.

She never puts it in words but part of her kind of wants Pete to kiss her all the way through the tiny apartment she's sharing with Marjorie and kiss her all the way to the bed until it hits behind her knees and kiss her until she falls, because now it's all right, her mother will never know, no one will ever know.

It's safe, it's powerful, to not be tied down this way.

(she has always thought that she does not ask for much, but she sees pete's postcard from niagara falls and her heart falls and she doesn't even know what she wants so much that it leaves her feeling hollowed out and brimming with sour tears.)

--

4.

Peggy likes the idea of Karen far more than she actually likes Karen. She liked the idea of being the girl Joan described in the ad, even though it wasn't hard to realize that Joan was describing herself and Peggy, maybe, would have enjoyed living with Joan, but Karen is miles away from being in Joan's league.

Peggy kind of hates Joan, a little, because Joan can turn on and off, with a switch, what Peggy doesn't even understand how to pretend. And because Joan could do anything and she's with a man who wants to put her in a little house in the country, and she wants to give up all this.

"Oh. Then why are you with him?"

Peggy blinks and imagines Duck's face on that faceless little groom and it won't stay there.

--

"Where is this going?"

The words are easy to say if you don't think about them, if you don't talk yourself out of it. She has a feeling that some of the impact is lost if you're naked.

"With you in a corner office at Grey, working under me," Duck says. A smile crinkles up the corners of his eyes, but he's not really in it. He flicks a bit of ash from the tip of his cigarette and turns his gaze back to the wavering television screen, but his face is still angled toward hers. He knows this isn't over.

Peggy begins to draw the sheet down, watching Duck's gaze gravitate back to the movement, but it doesn't give her the usual burst of pleased warmth. She finds her underthings on the floor and picks them up, and Duck rolls over to set his cigarette in the ashtray before he turns back to her.

"Where do you want it to go?"

In her slip, Peggy pours two fingers of bourbon into a glass and sips it, unable to stop the wince at the corner of her pale eyes. Even inheriting Freddy Rumsen's liquor cabinet hasn't given her the same stomach that Don has, but his tolerance is inconceivably high.

Don. The thought of him galvanizes her again.

"Let's talk about starting salary."

Duck smiles that indulgent smile and beckons her. "As soon as you take that slip off."

And as Peggy slides back into the bed, on her knees, her hair loose and Duck's warm hand drawing her down, she thinks again about that groom, that faceless groom, and the life she's always wanted.

"So why are you with him?"

Peggy closes her eyes as Duck murmurs in happiness at the bourbon on her breath.

She's not sure what it is, but she still isn't there.

--

5.

Peggy hasn't heard from Duck in thirteen days. She's irritated that she knows the number.

In a cramped three-room rented space on the other side of town, barely bigger than the apartment she shares with Karen, Peggy keys in, still shivering from the cold in her wool coat and knit cap. She looks down at her gloves, a little sadly, already thinking of how she won't be able to afford a new pair for next season, given the way things are going.

"Daddy, it's cold in here."

Peggy draws herself up short before peeking through the open door. The miraculous secondhand couch in the makeshift Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce client area holds two miniature Drapers, Sally and Bobby, their winter coats, a tumble of tin toys and coloring books and Barbie dolls.

"Hello." Sally looks up at Peggy with solemn eyes.

"Hello," Peggy replies, unwinding her scarf, then wincing and changing her mind. She nods in the direction of the partners' office. "He's here?"

"Merry Boxing Day, Peggy," she hears, and follows the voice to see Don, in his shirt sleeves, bent over his wobbling desk.

"You're here? And they...?" She nods her head, faintly, in the direction of the children.

Don shrugs. "Didn't think they'd be bothering anyone. So, between the turkey and stuffing, did you get a chance to think about the new Lucky Strike campaign?"

She hesitates, for a second, because the memory of his set jaw and flashing eyes hasn't yet faded, but he just sounds a little tired, a little distracted. The sound of a tin toy crashing into something else and Sally's admonishment echo off the walls.

Hershey bars off the cart, Peggy.

"Let me call the sandwich shop downstairs and I'll give you a little presentation. With tin soldiers and Barbies."

Don gives her a half-smile and looks down at his ledger again.

Peggy consults Harry's stained, scrawled list of restaurants and finds the number, as Sally chatters some fairy tale to her Barbies and Bobby rams a toy into the coffee table, the snow falling thick and lazy outside.

--

6.

For once in Peggy's life, it matches, what she sees in her head and what she sees in front of her.

She asks to meet him in Central Park, and he mumbles and talks about meeting somewhere more inviting, intimate, warm, but she says that if he can afford to take four-hour "lunches," he can do this.

It doesn't give her the same rush of trembling exhilarated victory that finally telling Don off gave her, but she'll take these triumphs as she can find them.

Peggy (wearing last year's coat, black, ivory knitted cap, ivory knitted gloves, small pocketbook, Belle Jolie in Winter Maiden) sees him from the park bench, where she is very nearly freezing to death. All breath turns to clouds in this cold, like visible words (she thinks she will save that, somehow, and find it again later when she needs it, after the fourth pot of coffee and Don's rousing speech and Roger with his glasses on, as they try and fail for a new campaign one fall night).

Duck climbs out of a yellow cab halfway down the block, hat on, scarf knotted tight around his neck, and immediately begins the smooth practiced rhythm of finding the cigarette case, plucking one out, and then up comes the lighter in a swift arc, the case disappears and the hand cups against the wind and he's squinting a little as he comes off his first drag (and this is better, this perfect familiar ritual, because the only word in visible breath is cold, cold, save me).

He always looks so dignified.

But he knows, and no prolonging of the cigarette lighting will change that.

Peggy bunches her hands to tight fists around the purse strap on her lap and doesn't rise to meet him. He looks almost bemused for a moment before he sits down beside her.

"Beautiful out here today."

There is a speck of ash on the tight knuckle of his otherwise immaculate brown leather glove. He doesn't bother to sit where the smoke will drift away from her. Knees wide apart, shoulders down.

She wants to say the least you owe me is this but that isn't true, is it.

"I'm going to keep the scarf." Peggy clears her throat and almost says if you don't mind, but that isn't true, either. She doesn't care if he minds. And it is a beautiful thing and it is a way to remind Pete of what they could have had, at Grey, together, and what they have instead.

(When she wears it to the office a month later, once the sight of it no longer makes her stomach lurch, Don notices it for the first time and his lips get thin and he slams the door on his way to lunch, but that is all he says, and all he needs to say, and she does not wear it again, not around him.)

"It is a beautiful scarf." Duck says, squinting up into the white sky.

"Thank you," Peggy says, looking at him, as he doesn't look at her, and he finally turns his head.

"You could have had so much." He exhales in another impatient cloud and stubs out his cigarette on the side of the bench. "And you stay for what? Draper? Who doesn't appreciate you?"

"I am equal now," she says, her voice a low, dangerous hiss. "I am part of something. And all you wanted me to be—"

"Was what? You," he stumbles a little, almost sputtering, and she sees a hint of that same anger that sent him out of Sterling Cooper before. "They would worship you."

Peggy keeps her gaze steady on him, until his falls. "As your acolyte?"

"For what you are. You are so fresh and young and wide-eyed. You see what we can't."

That brown-gloved hand is on her knee.

(she feels a little jolt when it reminds her of Miss Deaver's and she can't, not now, can't remember his name, and she wonders if they'll all eventually become faceless, like that little groom.)

"The pitch is good," she tilts her head, "but I've heard it before. Better."

Just before she slides into the cab (it is an extravagant expense but this is her picture and this is how she wants her last mental image of him to be), she glances back at him, sitting to one side of a cold wooden bench, knees apart, cigarette butt still between two gloved fingers, his gaze almost clear as he looks back at her. There is no conciliatory farewell nod because that is not how this is going to be, not here, not ever. There is no tender parting embrace to warm her because that is not how this is going to be, not here, not ever.

Pete, his scarf still around his neck and his hat still on, faintly ridiculous next to Don's standard fedora, is eating lunch at his desk when Peggy returns. Trudy packed it. There was probably a note, like a lunch from a mother.

Peggy doesn't like to like Trudy, but not liking it has never changed anything.

Pete blows on his fingers, making a face at the taste of his cup of cocoa. "Meeting," he jerks his shoulders at the inner office, which may at least be slightly warm from the accumulated breath of the four partners, and the shrug may mean anything from a pitch meeting with Don to a new strategy from Pryce, "in thirty. Tell me what you had for lunch so I can be jealous."

Peggy loosens her own scarf, slowly. "A bourbon."