Lewis ends up in a telephone booth along the intersections of fuck-all and god-knows-where, stumbling inside with outstretched arms like he’s blind drunk, his palms slamming against the dirty panes and leaving greasy ghostlike fingerprints behind.
Goddamn it, he can’t even straighten up enough to meet his eyes in the reflection of the glass, all he can do is brace himself against the receiver and the little ledge next to the window, suck in breath after heaving breath.
He would have died alone
—get up, you worthless piece of shit, on your feet!—
Father’s voice. Oh, god. Lewis flexes his fingers around the receiver, half-hearted, experimental. He’s supposed to call Mark if he gets like this, but he can’t speak, can barely breathe through the cinching in his chest.
He would have died. He wanted to die.
Brushing limp red curls from Lane’s forehead as the little one climbs into his arms, needy, clumsy, voice high and uncertain: Lewis, I’m frightened.
“Hey!” shouts a voice from the street, jeering, childish. Something small strikes the windowpanes. A can or pebble. It clicks against the glass before it falls to the pavement. “Stop crying, you fucking fairy!”
Lewis pulls his hand away from the receiver, and slowly raises his head.
Stand up straight. Speak loudly.
“Ugh! You gonna come out here and snot on me, faggot?”
Slowly, with purpose, he forces his arms down to his sides, lets out a long, jagged breath and pushes open the door.
Lane’s been pacing through the flat for longer than he can remember, only stopping to glance at the clock on the living room mantle from time to time, although he doesn’t even know when Lewis left, or how long he’s been gone.
Something’s wrong. His brother’s gone back to his hotel, or perhaps—Lane’s stomach sinks—he’s finally gone home.
When the front door finally creaks open and Lewis walks inside, with one side of his face bruised, his shirtfront scuffed, and the knuckles of his left hand scabbed and bloodied, Lane can’t hide his shock.
Lewis hisses out a noise of pain as he eases out of his jacket, lets it fall to the floor in a crumpled heap. “Better than it looks. Disagreement with some chap in the park.”
“The park?” Lane echoes, thunderstruck. “How did—did you get a taxi?”
Lewis shakes his head no, shedding items from his pockets next, and letting them plunk atop of his jacket. A thick wad of cash joins a dirty handkerchief and a few coins in the pile of fabric. “Course not.”
“You walked to the park?”
“Out to west seventy-something,” Lewis scrubs at his eyes with one hand, seems dead on his feet. “Or east, whatever. And then I came back.”
“Good lord,” Lane says. It must have taken hours.
Lewis heaves out a dull sigh. “I’ll—just wash up, then.”
“What? No. You’re hurt, you idiot.”
First thing that pops into his head is fetch some ice, to keep the swelling down. Lane goes into the kitchen and yanks open the icebox, hoping to spy a nice large steak or a full tray of ice cubes. But all he’s got is a small bag of frozen peas.
“I suppose you’ll do,” he says aloud to it, as if the silly thing can talk back. He raises his voice so his brother can hear him. “Haven’t got any ice, Lewis, sorry!”
No answer. Lane sighs, takes the frozen bag of vegetables in hand, and walks back through the kitchen and across the hall. As he enters the sitting room, he takes a few steps, and promptly freezes.
His brother stands behind the sofa, with one tight fist pressed to his mouth, his eyes squeezed shut, and the other hand gripping the back of the sofa so tightly his knuckles strain white and red against the dark fabric.
Lane finds his voice, although it’s tremulous. “Lewis?”
His brother yanks his hand away from his mouth with a raspy sound like a cough, straightening up into some shadow of his usual posture. He clears his throat several times before he speaks. “Sorry. Boy had no business picking fights—practically a child. And yet I won.”
Lane stands motionless, watching one side of Lewis’s mouth twist upward, as if he’s trying to summon his usual winning smile.
“Father would have approved,” his brother continues roughly, with a sort of shrug. His mouth is still pursed in an odd way. “Always liked a fighter.”
“No, he didn’t.”
“No,” Lewis clears his throat again. “Christ.”
Lane puts the bag of peas aside on a nearby table, unsure how to ask his next question. “Are—are you sure you’re all right?”
Lewis tries to shrug. From this distance, it seems like a symptom from a cramped-up muscle, too stiff to seem genuine. “Course I’m—”
He wrenches his face to the right to obscure his expression, but it can’t hide the way his voice wobbles to a stop, and it doesn’t prevent Lane from hearing the bitten-back grunt that threatens to turn into a full-blown howl. Lewis is hunched forward, now, one hand still braced on the top of the cushions, and oh, god, Lane can’t ever remember seeing his brother in such despair. As if he’s defeated. As if all the fight’s gone out of him.
He steps forward, the gesture so automatic it’s practically a reflex, and keeps his voice very even and very calm. “Please, don’t.”
It’s my fault. Please don’t be upset. I can’t bear it.
Carefully, Lane puts his hands against his brother’s upper arm. The second they touch, Lewis actually shudders. He won’t look at Lane. His shoulders are shaking and he’s covering his mouth with his free hand and making this awful choking noise.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” Lane whispers over and over, but the words don’t seem to do any good. Lewis is crying and Lane can’t explain anything about that night without sounding ridiculous. He can’t remember the last time he saw his brother lose control like this, if he ever has. “I didn’t—I never meant to hurt anyone. Only—” he feels water in his own eyes, and doesn’t bother blinking it away, just swipes at his face with one shirtsleeve. “I couldn’t feel anything, and it was all just—horrible. Everything was horrible. How could I have told you that? How could I possibly have explained it?”
The halting explanation doesn’t seem to land, and after another minute, Lane leans forward and presses his forehead into Lewis’s shoulder.
They’re silent for a little while as Lewis tries to compose himself. Finally, after several minutes, his brother lets out a shaky breath, his voice tremulous and raw when he speaks.
“Do you remember wh—what I promised?”
Lane’s stomach drops. He doesn’t know what his brother is talking about. “What?”
Lewis doesn’t answer right away, just gives a wet sniff.
“Well. You used to do this on the worst nights.” His voice is slowly becoming steadier. “Crawl into bed after Father left for the pub, and put your little head just there.” His fingers brush over Lane’s collar. “Frightened by the dark, I think. Perhaps you’ve forgotten. And you’d say it was only for a minute—that you wouldn’t be a bother. But I’d let you stay until you fell asleep.”
Lane tries to cast his mind back. Everything’s a blur except for the view from what he supposes was their bedroom window. Looking out through the dark windowsill, past the large clotheslines and into next door’s back garden, with a blue-striped something pillowed soft and warm under his cheek.
“I remember that,” he says, voice muffled.
He thinks he does. He wants to. It makes him feel safe, just for a moment.
“Darling boy,” Lewis mumbles, and for a moment, Lane swears he feels his brother lean down and press a kiss into the back of his hair. Before he can decide if he’s imagined it, the feeling is gone.
They fall silent again, and stand together unmoving for another minute before Lewis shifts his arm as if he wants Lane off, and Lane has to lift his head in order to stand up and get a better look at him.
“God. What a little fool I’ve b—become,” Lewis sniffs, wiping at his red nose and bruised-up face with one sleeve, and Lane’s not sure if he’s referring to the crying or the lump sum put together. But Lewis doesn’t finish the sentence, if there was ever more of it to begin with; he just frowns at something over Lane’s shoulder, jerking his chin toward the object in question.
“What is that?”
Lane glances backwards and spots a colorful lumpy package that’s now drizzling water all over the end table.
“Oh, sorry. I forgot.” An embarrassed flush heats his cheeks. “It, erm—well, it’s for your—” he gestures toward Lewis’s bruised face. “Keep the swelling down.”
Lewis stares at him with an expression Lane can’t quite parse, but extends one hand in a motion that says to bring it over. “Right. Thanks.”
“Good god,” says Mark, the second he picks up, “how you must enjoy imagining me suffer! I’ve been waiting for you to phone me for hours; where on earth have you been?”
Lewis opens his mouth to speak, but no sound comes out, not even a whimper. He sags forward on the bed, forearms braced on his knees, praying he won’t have to say the words aloud.
“Well, I suppose you’ve been having all sorts of fun. The bars, the boys; tell me what you’re like.”
“Mark,” Lewis closes his eyes, feels shame crawl along his skin.
In an instant, the playfulness has gone. “Christ. You sound wretched.”
Lewis has to let out a breath through his nose to keep himself composed. “And what do you sound like, then?”
His voice is too flat by half, and cracks halfway through the sentence. Mark doesn’t answer right away. Clearly, he’s noticed.
“Spoken to Lane, have we?”
“Right.” A small pause. “So. Worse than you thought?”
Lewis’s eyes fill again, remembering the pain in his brother’s voice. Empty rage crests over him like a wave—he wants to drown in the despair, the terror, the impotent helplessness. You should have been here. You should have done something. You swore to protect him and you nearly let him die.
“I’ve failed him,” he chokes out.
Mark doesn’t say anything.
Joan wakes up almost an hour before her usual alarm, and although she thinks briefly about catching another thirty minutes of sleep, she’s too energized to lie awake in bed and think about her to-do list. After two or three minutes, she just gets up, goes through her usual toilette and kisses a sleeping Kevin goodbye before putting a note in the kitchen for her mother.
By the time she’s caught a cab into Midtown and is walking toward the front doors of the office, shaking water from her raincoat and tucking her damp scarf into her pocket, she feels certain there’s a reason this happened. Her hunch is confirmed once she takes out her keys and realizes the door is already unlocked.
Strangely, the office is quiet. She doesn’t see any of the other partners here, or any of the creatives—serial offenders, who have to be reminded about office etiquette every time they work late—but a lamp glows bright in the creative lounge, and the whole floor smells like cigar smoke.
“Hello?” she calls out. Her voice echoes down the corridor and her heels click against the tile as she walks toward the dim light.
It’s certainly a surprise to see Lane’s brother sitting at the round table directly outside her office, puffing away with nothing but a full ashtray in front of him, but he doesn’t ask her what she’s doing here, and she tries not to seem too curious. Joan is nothing if not discreet, and so she keeps her question short.
“Are you late or early?”
Lewis shrugs one shoulder, doesn’t move. His voice is as muted Joan’s ever heard it, but the amused quality still glimmers somewhere in there, very faint. “Feel free to boot me out.”
“Doesn’t bother me.” Joan loosens the tie of her raincoat; puts her briefcase in the chair opposite him before slipping out of the coat and ducking into her doorway to hang it up on the rack. He watches her with tired, bloodshot eyes as she moves back into the light, and rests her hands on the top of the hardback chair.
As she moves into the light, his face comes into clear relief. A blue-purple shiner darkens his left eye and cheek, and there are red scuffs on his forehead and on his knuckles. She’s not sure exactly where to start, so she decides to be direct.
“Did you and Lane get in another fight?”
“No. Got mugged.” Lewis huffs out a low, sad sound, gaze flitting to the side. His voice is brittle. “Getting gossip, are we?”
“Lane mentioned the letter. That’s all.”
He swallows, once, and as he glances back up, and she notices the split-second flicker in his eyes, absorbs the visceral, skin-crawling fear in that single look, Joan understands exactly what’s happened.
“He told you,” she says simply, and feels a prickle of relief wash over her entire body, like taking the first step into a steaming hot bath. Oh, thank god. She sits down in the chair next to him, hard, before she can stop herself.
Lewis’s jaw is strung tight, like he doesn’t trust himself to speak; all he does is nod his head yes, once. Judging by the earlier tableau, Joan knows how he’ll answer her next question, but asks it anyway.
“Are you all right?”
He lets out another laugh that isn’t a laugh; the sound’s so tremulous it makes the hair on the back of Joan’s neck stand on end. When he meets her eyes again, the usual mask is almost gone completely. His eyes are a little too bright; his mouth purses and his jaw tightens again before he answers.
“I’ve been so blind.”
You were right echoes just behind it, unbidden.
“Don’t,” Joan begins, but Lewis interrupts her.
“No, now, let’s not start being untruthful. We were doing so well before.”
She glances down at the table, tries to force her tongue to say the words that are lodged in her throat. We should have paid more attention. It’s not your fault. I wish we could have done something. I wish I hadn’t been so selfish.
“You’re not the only one who missed it,” she finally manages.
The silence lingers. In the distance, Joan can hear the ticking of someone’s desk clock, click click click, as the seconds pass.
“That’s why he’s seeing Myra.” She glances over at Lewis before pulling her purse toward her and rifling through it for her packet of cigarettes. “He didn’t want to talk to the psychiatrist. Um. She’s a licensed counselor. I didn’t—” she stares at the barrel of her lighter, wills it to give her the right words “—he just needed someone. I didn’t know what else to do.”
I couldn’t help him, she thinks with a sigh.
She grips her lighter in one palm, with a cigarette now poised between her finger and thumb, unlit, and so when Lewis puts a bruised hand over her wrist, covering both of these things from view, it makes Joan jerk her head up in surprise.
His blue eyes bore holes into hers. Joan has to force herself not to look away.
“You have done more than you can possibly imagine.” The soft, intense urgency in his voice makes her feel raw and exposed. “My dear girl—”
Joan blinks back a sudden rush of tears. She hated being teased about her friendship with Lane, before, but she certainly doesn’t want Lewis to talk about it in a serious way now. It only makes her remember the bad things: how cold they were to each other, how alone Lane felt before he tried to die. An unsettled flutter bursts to life in the pit of her stomach, imagining his brother saying all of these impossibly earnest things to her. Things like thank you and I love him and you did it.
Lewis stops talking; his brows draw down and his mouth hangs open a little.
“I know you’re grateful. I do.” Her hands are shaking. He can probably feel that. “But I’m not the one who—the progress is all him. I was just here. That’s all.”
He pauses for a second, seems to choose his words carefully. “That matters.”
It’s not everything, she thinks suddenly, and her brain grinds to a complete halt as she tries to parse that sentence. Where the hell did that come from?
“It’s not enough,” she finally says.
Somehow, rephrasing the thought just makes this situation worse, but Lewis doesn’t call her on how odd it sounds, or on the way she keeps blinking so rapidly, just releases her hand and sits back in his chair. When he meets her eyes again, the ghost of his usual sardonic smirk is on his face.
“Well,” he says lightly, and taps the side of his nose with one finger, twice, as if they’re sharing a thrilling secret. “Still something, anyway.”
She gives him a wan smile. After a few more seconds, she finally puts the cigarette in her hand up to her lips and lights it. They sit in silence until she’s smoked it almost down to the filter.
“Are you staying in town?” she asks.
He stubs out his last cigar. Nods.
“For a little while longer.”
“Good.” Joan takes a deep, steadying breath. “He’ll like that.”
“Doubtful. But I think I’ll stay, regardless.”
One side of Lewis’s mouth twitches up in a smile, and for the first time, she can see the resemblance between him and Lane, clear as day. She watches self-awareness play across his mouth as he dwells on the idea, and not for the first time, she wonders how long he’s been playing this part. How long he’s been willing to act like the annoying idiot to Lane’s put-upon straight man if it means they don’t have to say how much they love each other. If it means that they don’t lose that connection.
A light flicks on in reception, and suddenly fluorescent lights are buzzing to life all across the office. It’s seven o’clock. Time to start the workday.
Joan and Lewis exchange a look of perfect understanding before she gets to her feet, gathers up her coat, and leaves him to the rest of his cigar.
Time to go.
two weeks later
Lane enters the restaurant a few minutes before his usual time, but notices Myra sitting in their usual booth towards the back. As he makes his way past a waitress balancing an obscene amount of full glasses on a tray, one-handed, it takes him a moment to realize that although Myra is here, she is not alone, and Lane’s usual spot is taken by a black gentleman in a charcoal-grey suit.
“Oh, Lane.” When Myra looks up, it’s with a sort of guarded expression. Her eyes are wide, as if she didn’t quite expect to see him here. “Hello.”
“Sorry.” Lane glances at the gentleman across from her. This fellow’s handsomely-dressed with very delicate features, sporting an elegant bouffant of thick, wavy hair and a thin mustache. His suit seems to feature some type of houndstooth pattern. For a second, Lane’s almost jealous at how put-together this person seems. Why would he be a patient? “Am I too early?”
“No.” Myra waves one hand at her companion. “This is my husband, Barry. Barry, this is—one of my patients.”
“Ah. How do you do?” Lane reaches over to shake the man’s hand, and feels an absurd surge of pride when he notices his fingers don’t shake at all. “Didn’t realize—well, that you were—you. Actually, I thought you were a patient.”
The man’s lips curl into a polite smile.
“Nope. Just having lunch.” He turns back to his wife. Lane is amused and surprised to see a flush of color come into Myra’s cheeks. “But, I should probably get back to work, if you’ve got things to discuss.”
“Okay, baby,” she says. “I’ll see you at home.”
Barry sets cash onto the table, then gets up, puts on his coat and hat, and squeezes Myra’s hand with an affectionate look before making his goodbyes, and walking away.
As Lane settles in, and shoves his coat into the corner of the booth, he can’t help but muse over this new bit of information. He doesn’t recall her ever mentioning a husband, unless she had said it to him in the very beginning, and he just hasn’t remembered since.
“I didn’t know you were married.”
Myra lifts one shoulder in a shrug. Quickly, she pulls her wedding band off, threads it onto a delicate chain already hanging around her neck, and redoes the clasp. Her ring is now lying next to the gold figure pendant on her necklace. Lane can’t see what it is from so far away, but it appears to have wings.
“Four years. I try not to mention it in my sessions.”
“Why? Do the other patients get jealous, or something?”
“Interesting way of putting it.” She holds her hand out for his journal, and he quickly reaches into his jacket pocket to give the scuffed black notebook to her. “Let’s see what’s on your mind this month.”
The waitress comes and takes his order, and by the time a steaming cup of tea and a fresh black coffee have been delivered, Myra’s already perused most of the recent pages.
“Saw an ex-girlfriend recently, huh?”
Lane freezes with his mug halfway to his mouth. Happily, his hand stays steady in this position. He’s starting to get more motor control back.
“Oh. Well, yes. Couple of weeks ago, I suppose.”
He has a vague memory of running into two girls in a doorway, and feeling horribly embarrassed, afterward. Perhaps that was it.
“How did that go?”
The mug wobbles slightly in the air. He takes a quick sip of his tea, and then sets it aside before he can drop it.
“You know. It’s always rubbish. And Lewis was nosy. She was—polite, I think, but distant.” A flash of light reflecting off the mirror at the counter brings another memory to the forefront—a detail he’d forgotten. “And she had a wedding band. Or maybe just a diamond. Something like that. I remember being surprised.”
“By the fact that she was married?”
“Not so much that.” Lane pursed his mouth, tried to search for the right words. “Here, let me see what I wrote. I’m sure there’s something else I’ve forgotten.”
Myra hands him the journal, already turned to the correct page. In a thick, messy scrawl, he’d written several sentences about the encounter:
…looked at me with such pity, it was just awful. And she brought up the last time we spoke, which put Lewis in a state. He and I had a row, afterward. I panicked. Migraine later.
“Hm.” Lane studies this paragraph for a couple of seconds before putting the journal aside, back between them on the table. “Well. I suppose I was just upset because nothing had changed for me, really.”
Myra makes a skeptical face. “Your entire life has changed.”
Lane shakes his head no. “I don’t mean—the the breakdown, or whatever. The status of my life. I’m working at the same company, in the same position. I’m not married, although I wasn’t when she and I were together. Or—or I don’t think I was, perhaps that was before Becca sent the papers, but after she’d gone to London. The first time. Anyway. Toni was—much younger. A—waitress at a, erm,” he cleared his throat, “popular gentleman’s club. Just starting out, and all the rest.”
A grin spreads across Myra’s face. “Oh, really?”
“Shush!” Lane ignores the devious gleam in her eyes. “What I mean is, if she’s married, she could very well be in a completely new position. She could have a family, or a mansion, or a starlet’s apartment on—on the—Broadway. That’s the theater district here. Not the West End.”
“Correct,” Myra confirms.
“Toni wanted to be a stage actress.” A surge of pride courses through Lane’s chest as he remembers this. “Like Nichelle Nichols, before she did Star Trek.”
“Hang on. She was a colored girl?”
Myra looks delighted. “Okay, well, we’re definitely coming back to that, but I want you to try and complete the initial thought you had, about the meeting and her new position. Try to circle back. Use the last couple of words as clues. Broadway.”
“All right. Erm. What was I saying about that? Theater, er, distillery. No, district. Oh! The part I meant to tell you was that she’d moved on. Married, happy, what have you.” Lane unrolled his silverware from the napkin with an absurd flourish. “And I’m afraid I’ve stayed rather the same. Even after all this time.”
“Hm.” Myra steeples her hands together as she absorbs the words.
The pride Lane felt earlier is slowly eaten away by concern as he watches her study his face, her expression solemn and serene.
“Would you want to get married again?” she asks.
“Certainly not. I’d never take Becca back now.”
She grins at him. “I didn’t think you would, and I’m glad to hear you say it. But that’s not what I asked.”
“You asked if I wanted to be married again,” Lane argues. “Who else would take me in this state, if not an ex-wife?”
“Plenty of people get married a second time,” Myra says, very slowly, as if she’s trying to lead him toward a conclusion that ought to be obvious. “Or a third, or fourth. Why shouldn’t you expect to have a girlfriend, or a wife, or more children, if that’s what you want?”
“Children?” Lane scoffs, and nearly bursts out laughing. “God, I think that’s a bit much, isn’t it?”
“Is it so impossible? You’re still in your forties.”
“Well—you said it yourself! I already have a child—a teenage child. And given the trouble we had there, even if I did want more of them, there are still certain symptoms which preclude the getting of the children, if you understand my point.”
Everything in the southern hemisphere had been soft as raw dough ever since the incident, and considering how hellish the past few weeks had been, Lane had very little interest in trying to change that. He hadn’t even thought about the absence of sex, really, which probably showed how much he’d missed it. Or how much he’d had before. Either way, the lacking of it was clearly not his biggest problem for now.
“I didn’t realize that was still an issue,” Myra made a quick note on her legal pad, as if he was just telling her about the food allergies again. “Good to know.”
“Oh. Well, I don’t know why I bloody bother telling you about it,” Lane grouses. Not like she could give him anything to fix it. Even if he wanted to fix it. Right now, he’s honestly not sure it matters much. Who’d want to sleep with some forgetful old coot? “Anyway, children are right out.”
“For now,” Myra winks at him.
He rolls his eyes. “Oh, whatever.” As his gaze lands on a bit of newspaper, folded and sitting nearly where the booth meets the wall, Lane decides to glance through it, attempting to find something more interesting to discuss than his complete lack of a personal life.
“Oh, look,” he says brightly, as if it’s all just some hilarious joke, “there’s a Marilyn Monroe double feature playing through next week.”
Myra just laughs. “You like her, huh?”
Lane shrugs. At this point, he’d probably say he liked Eleanor Roosevelt just as well, because at least she’d have interesting Churchill stories to tell him. And they could have tea with President Roosevelt.
“Yes, ha, ha, ha. I’m sure Lewis shall be dragging me to this delightful event very shortly.”
“All right. Let’s move on,” says Myra as the waitress approaches their table with a tray full of lunch specials on robin’s egg-blue plates.
After lunch, Joan spends an hour going over some drafted tactical briefs for Dow, layering in campaign-specific budget information into the pages in slow, careful script, and so when someone knocks on her door and she glances up to see Lane standing there, she’s pleasantly surprised by the interruption.
“How was lunch?” she asks. If she’s got the day right, he had another session.
“Oh, you mean, with Myra? Very good. Lots of conversation today.”
“Well, I’m glad.” Joan gestures for him to take a seat. “Stay a few minutes, if you want. I’m not busy.”
He ambles inside, shuts the door behind him, and takes a seat in one of the blue chairs, twinkling at her in such a contented way it makes her sigh out a breath of relief. When he looks this happy, it’s easy to believe that everything between them can eventually go back to normal. Or at least some version of normal that doesn’t always involve hospitals and doctors.
“Aren’t you going to ask what we discussed?”
She gives him a puzzled look. He’s never indicated that he wants to share the details of these sessions with her, so she keeps her answer careful, but positive.
“If you want to talk about it, we can.”
“Ex-girlfriends,” says Lane with a mischievous look.
Joan’s mouth falls open. A pang of awkwardness bubbles up into her stomach, and makes her shift uncomfortably in her chair. “Oh.”
He waves a hand through the air in a distracted way, as if this topic is nothing special. “Ran into one of mine a few weeks ago. Only reason it came up.”
“Well, that was probably awkward.”
“Very.” Lane lets out a short, sharp laugh, but he doesn’t start talking right away, just settles back into his chair, and regards her with a cocked eyebrow. “What do you think?”
She’s completely floored. “About what?”
“Oh. Perhaps I didn’t finish the whole story.” Lane smiles as he says this, but doesn’t quite look at her. “Myra asked me if I wanted to get married again. I mean, it’s just—ridiculous, isn’t it?”
“Is it?” she asks.
He makes a bemused face, like she just said something idiotic.
Joan shrugs, and glances down at her datebook as if she’s going to open it. Briskly, she picks up a pen, and pretends to be poised to fill in the day and time. “Maybe my invitation got lost in the mail. Where’s your reception?”
“Hilarious.” Lane snorts out a derisive noise. “She’s already married, thank you very much.”
Smirking, she tosses the pen back onto her calendar. “I thought they were just engaged?”
“No. Married several years, I think. Saw the husband and everything. Very nice-looking chap.”
With that, Lane gets up, and wanders over to the glass wall.
“Hm.” Joan watches as he begins inspecting some of the ads and illustrations she’s taped up. She wonders for the millionth time why he would want her input on something so intensely personal. He used to hate when she butted in about his romantic life, even before he and Rebecca divorced. “Was that why the topic came up?”
“Probably. Unless she thought I’d—you know, asked for Toni’s hand, or whatever.”
“Really? Things were that serious?”
Joan doesn’t ever remember hearing about an ex-girlfriend named Toni, let alone one who almost got a ring on her finger.
“If I remember correctly, I was very serious about her. But I don’t think she was. And I don’t think I ever got up the nerve to ask.” Lane traces the edges of an impressionist postcard as he talks. “Or if I did—Father didn’t approve. So the whole thing fell through, in the end. And—I suppose I went back to Becca, at that point. Details are a bit fuzzy.”
“Oh.” Joan’s stomach clenches at the idea of Lane giving up on love because his father disapproved. “Honey, that’s terrible.”
Lane huffs out a noise of agreement, and ducks his head as he keeps talking.
“It’s not that I—want to be alone, you know.”
Joan doesn’t say anything.
“I just keep wondering if anyone would even—want me, after all this.”
She bites down on the tongue that wants to say of course you’ll find someone. You could find someone in a second.
“Why wouldn’t they?”
Lane turns to face her, and although he doesn’t sit down, Joan suddenly feels like he’s sitting right next to her. Her pulse hammers in her throat and her face is hot and she doesn’t understand why the atmosphere in the room has become so loaded, and why he’s staring at her as if this one plain little statement is worth half the poetry in the world.
“You’re always so kind to me.”
Joan rolls her eyes, and a little laugh escapes her lips before she can stop herself. On some level, he’s probably complimenting her to dodge the first question, but the sentiment is nice to hear, even if it’s a lie.
“That’s not true.”
“Yes, it is.”
Their gazes lock. She forces herself not to look away, or crack a stupid joke.
“No matter what’s going on, you’re just—there. And you give me an honest opinion, even when it’s difficult. It’s—I don’t know what I’ve ever done to deserve it, but I-I’m glad to have that kind of friend in my life. And I’ve—missed this, lately.”
The earnest words wash over her like warm sunshine, filling her up with an easy, relaxed feeling, and for a second, Joan is so thankful she can hardly speak. All she can say, when she finally finds her composure, is:
“I’ve missed it, too.”
Lane’s answering smile lights up his entire face.
Before things can get too awkward, Joan motions for him to sit back down, reaching for a couple of thick file folders that await her attention.
“Want to help decide which metrics I should bring to my dinner with Dow?”
“Oh, is that coming up?” Lane’s mouth purses in an intrigued way as he returns to his chair. “Well, let’s have a look.”
“You know, these chaps really ought to run off sooner,” Lewis mutters to Lane in the dark of the ancient theater. Onscreen, Jack Lemmon flits about the dance floor in a sequined dress, tangoing beautifully with Joe E. Brown. “Daphne’s a bit of a slut. He’ll do all right with the pervy old man.”
“Stop talking. You are ruining the comedy.”
Lewis grins to himself in the dark as Marilyn comes back onscreen, necking with Tony Curtis as if she’s going to eat his entire face off. When they finally come up for air – Tony looking bloody gorgeous with those puffed-up lips, the minx – she gives him some patent line about her bedroom skills. All innocence, naturally.
Oh, I used to sell kisses for the milk fund!
God, the straights are such morons when it comes to sex. A woman like her could flash a bit of thigh, get the chap off, and then rob him blind before anyone realized anything was the matter. Lewis tips back his flask for another drink. After a long pull, he offers the flask to Lane. His brother doesn't take it – doesn’t drink nearly as much as he used to, honestly – but when Lewis glances over, it's clear Lane is absorbed in the nuances of Ms. Monroe's performance, staring at the woman with a glazed, open-mouthed gawp.
“You dirty wanker,” Lewis mutters into his brother’s ear.
“Oh, shut up.”
Lane shoves the bucket of popcorn at Lewis' head with a noise of disgust, which showers him in kernels. In retaliation, Lewis tosses a handful of popcorn back at his brother and relishes the frustrated groan this produces.
“Augh, now there's butter on my jacket, you nitwit!”
Someone near the back shushes them. Probably interfering with a hideously premature climax, if the heavy breathing back there is to be believed.
With a humming sound, Lewis picks up the flask from where it's fallen on the sticky cinema floor, then takes out a handkerchief and dusts himself and the canteen off. A piece of corn falls from his shoulder onto the back of his hand. He pops this into his mouth with a smirk, and turns his attention back to the screen.
Pale morning sunshine filters through the hotel curtains, warming the cozy room in all its bland colors, and playing gently across the thick, tangled blankets.
Lane’s sitting up in the middle of this messy bed, his back against the headboard, and Joan’s on top of him, hot and tight and wet and perfect, with her long red hair falling round her bare shoulders in messy curls.
His hands are under her white bikini top—the only article of clothing she’s currently wearing—and as he touches her, she makes a high-pitched noise that goes straight to his cock. He thrusts up fast to hear it again; Joan jerks her hips forward in response. In his arms, she’s strawberries and cream, her lovely face and chest flushed a patchy, picturesque pink. Wordlessly, Lane urges her on, and unties her top before his hands slide down to grip her hips. Her palms trail over his stomach and up to his shoulders as she rides him faster and harder, soft moans escaping from her parted lips—oh, god Lane, yes, yes, yes!
Lane wakes with a start in the pitch dark of his bedroom, clutching his pillow to his chest with both arms as he ruts against it. His mattress creaks under him, and he’s soaked with sweat, but he’s already kicking the covers and pillow aside to grasp himself in one hand, desperate for release.
A few quick strokes and he comes so hard his entire body strains with the effort. His head tips back onto the mattress, and his hand falls away to the sheets as he stares at the dark ceiling and tries to catch his breath. Spots dance in front of his face. My god. Oh, my god. What the hell was that about?
As the pleasure ebbs, the usual jumble of anxious thoughts threatens to take its place. After another few moments of indulgence, Lane sits up, wipes his stomach and palms with the sheet, and skins off his pajamas, along with the pants. Fumbling around on the nightstand for his glasses, he tosses the lot into the floor, and crosses to the door to pull on his bathrobe.
Got to get it all in the wash.
Once he’s decent, Lane throws the comforter on the floor in a separate pile, strips the bed with military precision, and takes up the linens and the other clothes under one arm.
He tries not to feel too guilty about this turn of events, but his stomach flip-flops with anxiety despite his best efforts. Hasn't thought about women in months, so of course he'd lose his head just when he’d decided any semblance of a sex drive was a lost cause. And of course he’d dream about Joan.
But why now—after all this time?
As Lane creeps down the hall and into the pitch-dark sitting room, he stubs his toe on what feels like the leg of the coffee table, and promptly drops half his dirty laundry into the floor.
“Augh! Damn it!”
He fumbles around on hands and knees for a few seconds, quickly gathers up the fallen articles, and makes his way through the kitchen and into the laundry room without further incident. In a flash, he flips on the light switch, opens the machine, and finds the correct box of detergent on the nearest shelf. The green one. After faffing about water temperature for upwards of a minute, he starts the cycle on hot and throws the lot into the top-loading machine. Oh, sod it all.
Far down the hallway, the door to Nigel’s room creaks open, and footsteps begin padding down the corridor. Lane winces at the sound as he pours a rattling stream of soap flakes into the machine. How on earth is that idiot already awake?
Behind Lane, now in the doorway, Lewis clears his throat.
“You're up early.”
Lane takes care not to look at him, painfully aware of the mess on his linens and on himself.
“Just tidying,” he mutters, as he pours a few more soap flakes inside the machine for good measure, then closes the lid. “Is that all right?”
His brother arches a knowing eyebrow, and for half a second, Lane feels like he’s twelve again, facing down an entire dormitory of boys who all know what he’s been doing in the showers, and who are all secretly laughing at him.
“What?” he huffs.
They stare awkwardly at each other for a moment.
“Well, I'm off to the head,” Lewis says brightly into the silence. With that, he turns on one heel, and marches away down the hall.
Lane sighs, not sure if his overwhelming relief stems from not being caught or is just plain gratitude for his brother's usual amount of lunacy.
“Thank you ever so much for sharing that.”