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an island in your arms

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Dawn steps off the elevator and drags her floral scarf out of her hair, stifling a yawn as she checks her watch. Barely six in the morning, and she’s already gotten two emergency phone calls. Michael Ginsberg had better be laid out dead on the floor right now.

As it turns out, the first person she spots is Andrew, the head of the night cleaning crew. Dawn’s ready to push the door open with one gloved hand as she walks up, but Andrew hurries over to help, and opens it for her with a smile.

“Hello, Miss Chambers.”

“Mister Cook.” He’s got too much mischief in those twinkling eyes. Boy trying to gleam at her like Solomon Burke, even in that ugly old uniform. “Lot of phone calls for this time of morning.”

It’s nice that the crew has taken a shine to the office—Joan was very pleased by that development—but if Dawn had known going in that one little welcome gift was going to get them this much attention, she might have written a less cheerful card.

“Sure are.” Over Andrew’s shoulder, Dawn notices Michael sitting slumped on the sofa, his mouth set in an unhappy frown. “You know me, though. I always watch out for my favorites.”

This provokes a reaction out of Ginsberg for some reason. “Come on, man, I’m the one who called her!”

“My name’s not man,” Andrew snaps back.

Dawn raises a shocked eyebrow. You really want to mouth off to a white boy like that? Even one as chicken-legged as Michael?

She must look pretty irritated with him, because Andrew lets out a breath before he says anything else.

“Sorry. I’m not trying to get into it. Thought this fool had robbed the place, that’s all.”

Ginsberg looks outraged. “We got here at the same time!”

“Anyway, it’s in a state.” Andrew ignores Michael, and meets Dawn’s eyes with a knowing expression. “Figured one of the girls would want to hear about it before everyone else did.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Dawn says automatically, although her first thought is oh, hell. “Well. I’ll put up my coat, and then you two can show me what all the fuss is about.”

“Looking forward to it,” says Andrew, and punctuates that sentence with a wink. Dawn pretends not to see it. That old boy is too much. “Let me finish up the floor in here first, so Bruce won’t get on my case.”

Before she can take more than two steps toward the door, Michael jumps up from the sofa to dog at her heels, stomping next to her in his clown shoes as the floor polisher drones to life out in the hallway.

Those shoes are at least two sizes too big, Dawn thinks uncharitably as the door to reception creaks closed behind them. Somebody ought to take Michael aside and give him a few tips on how to dress. Maybe his father, or Stan. Somebody.

He’s already halfway into some diatribe.

“—why would he think I did this? Why would I trash this fucking place?”

It is too early in the morning to be fielding questions from this crazy man. Dawn lets out a brief sigh.

“Don’t say the f-word to me. I hate it.”

“Sorry,” Ginsberg says, but he doesn’t stop following her.

When they get a clear view of the lounge, Dawn gasps.

It really is in bad shape.

The sofa cushions are missing, first of all. A forty-five is spinning aimlessly on the turntable, and piles of records are strewn from here clear across creation. The round table’s been moved; one of the chairs is overturned and three others are unaccounted for. A baseball and wooden bat lie in front of the open door to Joan’s office, there is a hole in the plaster between Mr. Pryce’s office and the creatives’ office, and down near the conference room doorway, a big bike tire is lying on its side on the floor—without a bike to accompany it!

“Good lord,” says Dawn, completely flabbergasted.

“Yeah, it’s bad.” Michael scratches at his head. “Um. That guy—”

“Andrew,” she says absently.

“Yeah, Andrew. Uh. He wasn’t wrong about it looking like a robbery.”

She stares out at the sea of junk for a second, stunned almost beyond words. This is worse than some nasty house party.

“So you really have no idea who did this.”

“Dawn, I swear it wasn’t me.” Michael throws her a pleading look, like a kicked puppy, all big eyes and turned-down mouth. “I wouldn’t f—mess everything up like this. I just work early. Makes me concentrate better. That’s it. I swear.”

Dawn actually believes him. He’s still pretty pale, and judging by his reactions, the mess genuinely upsets him. Maybe he thinks he’s going to get blamed for it – and he wouldn’t be wrong about that.

He’s still talking a mile a minute. “Listen, I get that you have more important things to do than clean up other people’s garbage, but I didn’t want to call Joan in here, get you in trouble. I figured this was better. Is it not better?”

Dawn laughs before she can help it, peeling off her plaid scarf, and setting it down on the tabletop.

“Calling me in at five thirty. Sure. It’s dynamite.” With a huff, she throws her gloves on top of the pile. “You know if these morons got into any of the offices?”

Ginsberg pulls a shocked face. “I didn’t look.”

“All right. Well, shake a leg.” Dawn decides to start with the closest door. Producing her keys, she unlocks Mr. Crane’s office and peeks inside. Everything looks like it’s in place. She gives the room a quick once-over before closing and locking the door again. Well, that’s a mercy.

“What are you even looking for?” Ginsberg asks as they amble up to Mr. Pryce’s closed door.

“I don’t know.” Dawn tests the knob. Unlocked. That’s odd. “We’ll just—”

Know it when we see it.

She pushes it open, gets the barest glimpse of two clothed people lying on top of each other in the middle of the floor—long red hair spilling over a mussed white shirt—and has to clap one hand over her mouth to stop herself from shrieking.

Behind her, Michael crashes into her back with a wordless, panicked noise.

Quickly, they scuttle backwards and pull the door closed.

Dawn circles her free hand around Michael’s wrist and yanks him down the hallway into Mr. Draper’s office. Once the door shuts behind them, he lets loose.

“Holy shit. Oh my god.”

For once, Dawn doesn’t reprimand him. She just lets out a whine of frustration, mostly talking to herself. “It’s six in the damn morning.”

All I wanted to do was stay in bed. Why couldn’t I have just stayed in bed?

Ginsberg finally rounds on her.

“Are they sleeping together?” he demands first—and why that is his first question, Dawn has no idea. “Did she tell you about this?”

“Oh, of course,” Dawn retorts with a scoff. “We gab on the phone about it every night.”

“Come on. Joan likes you. She tells you stuff!”

“Lord! Michael, she doesn’t say that much.” Dawn hugs her middle and rubs at her arms in an absent-minded way, although she isn’t cold. What the hell is she supposed to do now? “And she never breathed a word about Mr. Pryce.”

Ginsberg gapes at her.

“Oh.” Dawn bites her lip when she realized she’s said this out loud. What is wrong with her? “Shouldn’t have told you that. Don’t say anything.”

“No shit.” He scrubs two hands through his hair with a growl. “Ugh. Why would anyone in this place want to go out with each other?”

Dawn has to clap a hand over her mouth to stifle a loud guffaw. He realizes that’s how half these idiots got married, right?

“I mean, you’d have to see each other all the time. And dress all fancy and stuff every day so they didn’t know you had clothes with holes in them.”

She blinks at him, startled. “I don’t think that’s how that works.”

“Whatever. You know what I’m saying. Am I talking crazy, here?”

“No.” She breathes a sigh of relief. “I don’t approve of it, either. My friend Val is always trying to get me to find a beau from my desk.”

Michael lets out a short, clipped laugh. “Does she know they’re all assholes?”

Dawn pretends not to have heard that word, but she can’t help smiling at the broad characterization. Most of them – the men her age, especially – sure aren’t gentlemen. “Well. I’m the only one in our circle without any prospects. I guess she thinks she’s doing me a favor.”

“Why? You don’t need any help.”

She stares at him.

“Uh. I didn’t—my old man is always trying to set me up, too.” Ginsberg clears his throat. “I just meant I get what it’s like. Or whatever. People trying to tell you how to be normal.”

She relaxes. That’s nice of him to say.

“Well, least you’re not telling me to fling myself at Mr. Draper, unlike Val.”

“Jeeza marie.” He rolls his eyes. “No wonder it ticks you off.”

After a second, the mood turns serious again.

“What should I do?” She has never had to make a decision like this. Most of the time, the hardest part of her job is getting Mr. Draper off the sofa come six in the evening. “Everyone will be here soon.”

“Uh. Could wake ‘em up, I guess.” He pulls a face. “Kinda risky.”

“I don’t know about that.”

Dawn prays for a moment of clarity. Maybe she can wake Joan up without getting her head bitten off? But then she’d have to actually go back in there. Oh, lord. She doesn’t even want to look at them. It’s too embarrassing.

“I guess I’ll tell Andrew to keep on with the floors, if you’ll pick up what you can in the lounge.” She pauses, and forces herself to admit that she needs his help. “If you can spare the time, I would appreciate it.”

“Yeah. Uh. No problem. I’m not—I got a few minutes.” He lets out a breath. “Who knows, maybe what’s-his-face’ll finally believe I didn’t do it. Might quit scowling at me like I just kicked his sister.”

Dawn shouldn’t laugh at this, but her mouth twitches up before she can help it. She just bites the inside of her cheek, and shoots Ginsberg a Look.

“Don’t say that to Andrew if you know what’s good for you. He’s got four sisters.”

And why he felt the need to share that with her was a mystery.

Ginsberg just smiles like he’s real pleased with himself.

Before he can wander off, Dawn taps his elbow with one hand, very quickly, to reinforce how grateful she is. “Thank you for helping me.”

“Oh, uh. Sure.”

After she nips out to the lobby to make sure Andrew knows he can finish up the floors, she steels her nerves, raises her hand, and knocks on the door of Mr. Pryce’s office. When she doesn’t get an answer, she opens it, and tries to look anywhere but at the makeshift pallet on the floor.

Thank god – thank god – it looks like Joan is already stirring.

Dawn still keeps her voice very, very quiet. 

“Joan?”

When she hears her name, Joan yanks her head up from Mr. Pryce’s shoulder to blink blearily in Dawn’s direction. Her makeup is smeared under her eyes, the sleeve of her dress is bloodied and in tatters, and there are deep fabric creases all down one side of her cheek and the front of her neck.

Dawn keeps her face as neutral as possible.

“Are you awake?”

Joan doesn’t say anything, just nods, very slowly, and sits up. Wrinkled chiffon rustles behind her as she tries to untangle herself.

“Okay.” Dawn lets out a quiet breath, and decides she’s intruded long enough. “Let me know if you need anything. It’s quarter to seven.”

She steps out, closes the door behind her, and sags against the frame for half a second before opening her eyes and pushing to her feet.

There’s still a lot of work to be done before the day starts. And Lord knows Michael and Andrew can’t do it for her.

 

**

        

Myra barely taps the door of Lane’s apartment with her knuckles before he yanks it open and practically drags her inside.

“Hi,” she says as she hands him her dark wool coat. He hangs it up for her, turns toward the living room, and then stops in place, mumbling to himself before heading into the kitchen. She pitches her voice a little louder as she follows him. “I’m glad I could fit you in. You seem worried.”

When she walks into the kitchen, he’s already pacing behind the counter, up and down in front of the stove.

“I—I don’t even know where to start.”

It’s the start of a panic attack, if Myra had to guess. But she doesn’t want to scare him. He’s not hyperventilating. He could still cut it off at the pass.

“Wiggle your fingers,” she says first. “Do they feel numb?”

Lane frowns down at his hands, and flexes them in an experimental way before answering. “No.”

“Good.” Myra gives him a sunny smile as she gets out her stenography pad. “I’m sorry. Would you mind getting me a glass of water? I walked all the way here from my last patient.”

“Oh. Sorry. Of course.” After a short pause, Lane crosses to the cabinet, takes a sturdy-looking mug from the cupboard, and pours water from a pitcher into it before handing it back to Myra.

“Get yourself one, too,” she urges gently, and watches as he pours the water. Steady hands—and the fine motor skills have gotten much better. That’s a good sign. It’ll help with the writing.

“Maybe some tea,” he mutters, and throws the tap on at full force before filling a water-spotted silver kettle.

Myra waits and watches him as he goes through his routine. Once he’s got the stove on and the teapot on the correct burner, she decides to start asking him questions.

“You having any suicidal thoughts?” she asks as she pulls out her notebook from her purse.

Lane sighs loudly. “Nothing worse than last time.”

“Okay. That’s good.”

Suicidal ideation is routine at his stage of recovery. And given his history of depression and internalized reactions to stress, passive ideation is above and beyond what anyone would expect.

“And how are you sleeping?”

“All right.” He seems to be relaxing, since she’s asking him the standard questions. “Some insomnia. Lying down earlier’s helped a bit.”

“Great.” Myra writes that down. “And your eating?”

“Less red meat.” Lane looks embarrassed, this time. “I’m not giving up all of it, so you may as well stop hounding me.”

“Didn’t think I’d turn you into a vegetarian. But you know how I feel about it.” Myra gestures toward his water as she lifts her glass. “Here. Make sure you’re hydrating.”

Lane takes a perfunctory sip, but it looks like the water barely touches his lips. He’s clearly wrapped up in thought as he puts the glass down.

“Want to tell me what’s going on?” she asks.

A visible ripple of stress practically pulls him upright like a marionette.

“I don’t know where to start.”

“Okay. Take me through the cliff notes, if that helps.”

A muscle in Lane’s jaw twitches as he considers what he wants to say. “Well. I, erm, saw Joan last night.”

Oh boy. Myra puts on her best patient face.

“Erm. She’d been out with some clients, and—gave me a ring, afterward. We met up at the office. I was working late. Trying to get some things done. And don’t lecture me about that, please.”

When Lane has something difficult to admit, he talks around it. Myra noticed this verbal tic early on, but it’s more obvious when he has to discuss personal feelings—particularly his love life.

“How did the work go?”

He ducks his head on a grimace. “Not well. Erm. Lost the papers I was preparing, found them again, and then Joan arrived not long after. She was very cheerful. Well. Tipsy. And we didn’t—there wasn’t any work, after that.”

What’d you do, make out? Myra wants to joke.

But she just takes another sip of water and waits for him to speak.

Lane’s still staring at his hands. After a second, he stutters out a short breath, like he barely believes the words that are coming out of his mouth.

“Lewis says that—that I’m in love with her.”

Honey, your brother has intimacy issues the size of a Chrysler, Myra wants to say, although he’s got a decent read on Lane for the most part. Given how close Lane and Joan are, she isn’t surprised that Lewis noticed something out of the ordinary. Or that Lane’s attachment to Joan made his poor brother insecure and jealous.

Lane keeps staring at her as if she ought to be able to solve this little riddle for him—as if he fakes ignorance for long enough, she’ll vocalize his feelings out loud so he won’t have to.

Uh uh. He’s gonna have to work for this one.

“And what do you think?”

Wordlessly, Lane puts his head in his hands.

Well, that’s something. At least he’s not in denial, unlike some people.

“Come on. Look at me. Tell me what happened.”

He lifts his head, but still won’t meet her eyes, and after a second, he digs his journal out of his jacket pocket, and thumbs through it until he gets to a specific page. When he traces one fingertip across the page, his eyes soften a little.

“It was only—“ he clears his throat “—we kissed. Erm. That’s really it.”

“Is it?”

“Mm.” He’s already pink-cheeked. “Sorry. I suppose it’s stupid to—I’m making a fuss out of nothing.”

He trails off.

Myra decides to encourage him. “When you’re divorced, starting over’s a big deal. Kissing is a big deal.”

“Yeah.” Lane’s mouth twitches. “Right.”

“But it makes you anxious.”

He shrugs. The stiffness returns to his shoulders.

“Well, it’s—before that, we just listened to music, had a little food, walked around the office. Being silly. Erm. And then we—after we—the two of us just started talking. Can’t remember everything that happened, but I—“

He bites off the end of his sentence, thinks for a second, and finally slides the journal across the table.

“Here. You can—if you want.”

        

**

 

Standing in his pitch-dark office with the door closed, Lane surveys his handiwork with the desk lamp as best he can.

Not perfect, but it’s comfortable enough.

His red leather wingback chair sits in front of the sofa. The poor coffee table has been shunted over to the shared wall so the entire area between his desk and the furniture is free. He’s also draped a couple of strings of fairy lights all along the front edge of the sofa and up over the wingback chair, to give the room more ambiance. One blanket covers the top of all that in order to hide how shabby the bare sofa looks.

On the floor all around the chair, the cushions are arranged in as comfortable a lounge area as he could make, with a second blanket spread over the lot for good measure. If he could find a third blanket for warmth, they’d really be in business.

When he decides it’s finally ready, Lane calls out toward the lounge.

“Joan!”

She snorts out a laugh. “What?”

“You can come in now.”

“But you said you wanted me to close my eyes. I can’t do both!”

“God, you’re difficult.” Lane pretends to be cross, but he still goes out to get her. She’s sitting against the wall with her head tipped back against the glass, and when he’s within a couple of feet, her eyes flutter open, and her face lights up as he extends her a hand. “Come on. I’ll take you in, long as you don’t peek.”

“I won’t.”

Slowly, he walks her across the dark floor to the doorway of his office, with Joan giggling in a nervous way every few steps. By the time he guides her safely into the room, and closes the door behind her, his heart is hammering.

“Can I look now?” she asks quietly.

He nods, and then realizes she can’t see this. “Go on, then.”

As she opens her eyes, and takes in the scene, Lane savors the surprise dawning on her face. Her impish eyes shine in the low light; she squeezes his fingers tightly, and her mouth opens in a happy curve as she whispers “Oh, my god.”

“Well, it’s not just for looking,” he tells her, when she makes no move to sit down. “Sit wherever you like.”

She’s staring at the fairy lights in a dumbstruck way, a moth drawn to a flame. “If you’re trying to seduce me, it’s working.”

A sharp laugh tears from his throat.

“Think that’s—pushing my luck.”

“Maybe,” she says with a shrug and a sly smile.

Lane’s heart stutters in his chest.

“I wanna lay down,” she says, and plops down onto the cushions with a satisfied noise before stretching out on her back. Filmy green fabric billows across the pallet like gossamer wings as she flings her arms up over her head. “Don’t you?”

“Okay.” He moves to join her, lowering himself down to his knees first—trying not to think about everything they could do this way—and then lying next to her.

Once he’s settled on his back in a comfortable position, Joan rolls over and puts her head on his chest. After a moment, she begins to stroke one hand up and down his bicep, idly tracing lines just above his elbow.

“Your arms feel good.” An impressed note filters into her voice. “Are you going to the gym?”

“God, no. Put me in the pool for my physiotherapy.”

She makes an amused noise. “You hate swimming.”

“Not as much now,” Lane protests softly. “Start of it was bloody awful, but if the vertigo doesn’t flare up, it can be—it isn’t too bad. And it’s not all laps, anyway. Lots of—” he flexes his ankles in a circle “—aerobics and things.”

“Is it kind of like walking? Does it clear your head?”

“Mmm.” He puts an arm around her back; she shifts closer as he begins to trace an idle pattern up and down, up and down with one hand. “Less fun, though.”

They fall into a companionable silence.

“I could go to sleep here,” she admits.

“Me as well.” Lane smiles even though he can’t see her face, and lowers his voice to a playful pitch. “Wouldn’t mind cuddling up for a bit of a nap.”

“Cuddling,” Joan says dryly, and pulls back to arch a skeptical eyebrow at him. When she huffs out a low laugh, the vibrations reverberate through his entire body. “You know we could just make out, right?”

He had thought of that, too, but didn’t dare ask.

“Well, if you want to kiss me, you’ll just have to do it first.”

With a smirk, she leans forward and plants a kiss almost in the center of his chest. A bright pink lip print stands out bold against white cotton, next to the slick dark fabric of his waistcoat.

Lane’s entire body flushes hot as she does this again, and then strokes her thumb across that same spot. Staring down at his buttons, she traces her fingertips over his pectoral muscles in a studious way, and then flattens her palm against his chest, spreading her fingers wide. Her other hand comes up to rest on his shoulder. He’s sure she can feel his heart racing under her palm, but he doesn’t understand what she wants him to do, although her touch feels lovely.

The flirtatious silence suddenly turns serious and heavy. Lane’s sure if he says anything, Joan’s going to pretend it’s some trick of the light, act like it isn’t important.

He reaches up and cups her face with one hand in an attempt at encouragement.

“All right?”

Joan meets his gaze, startled, but relaxes a little when she realises what he’s doing. She lets him stroke a path from her temple to the apple of her cheek, over and over for nearly a minute, before she finally breaks the silence. One side of her hair comes undone, and tangles in a messy heap down her left shoulder.

“Do you still think about killing yourself?” she finally asks.

Her eyes hold his, unblinking, even in the dark.

Lane’s careful not to stop moving his hand, although she probably feels him tense up underneath her, and slow his movements.

When he doesn’t answer right away, Joan averts her gaze, and takes a deep, shuddering breath.

“Oh, god.”

Lane forces himself to be calm, and quickly puts his other arm around her.

“No, it—it’s different now,” he says first, and tries to keep his touch as gentle as possible. Don’t scare her. “I don’t—I can’t say it never happens, strictly speaking, but it’s just—not like it was before.”

“How?” she asks in a low voice.

“Well.” He clears his throat, and concentrates on explaining it the way Myra does, in a way that’s more clinical than terrifying. “Obviously when I—I tried it, in February, it seemed like there wasn’t another option. My state of mind was—very hopeless. And—that decision will always affect me, obviously. No going back.”

“Okay.”

“Mm.” Lane lets out a breath. Her intense stare is boring holes into his head, and the scrutiny is making him tongue-tied. “Sorry. Can—can you not look at me for this bit?”

Silently, she nods, and puts her head back down on his chest. He cards one hand through the side of her hair and says nothing for at least a minute before he can find his words again.

“I can still feel why I wanted to. If that makes sense. But it’s not as urgent anymore. Er. Sometimes it feels like it’s all happened to someone else. Far away.”

When Joan speaks, her voice is tentative.

“So you just—always have it inside you? That feeling? The sadness?”

“S’pose so.” He tries to put a name to this sensation. “Erm. Myra says it’s like an echo. You know. When you shout at the top of your lungs inside the right room, it has—immediate effects. You feel it. And hear it. And of course, after one second, two seconds, whatever, you’ll still understand why you shouted, whether it was for fun or to call out for help, but after a while you just hear your own voice coming back at you, smaller and smaller. Distorted. Erm. If you’re lucky, the sound disappears; you open the door and go on with your life. And if you aren’t—”

He breaks off. Clears his throat. Realises this may sound bloody depressing.

“Sorry. I don’t think I explain it as well as she does.”

Against his chest, Joan nods her head as if she understands, but even in the dark, Lane thinks she’s gone too quiet.

“Poor thing.” He rubs her shoulders a bit. “Sounds horrible, doesn’t it.”

She doesn’t answer. The silence stretches on for so long Lane almost says something else just to fill it, but before any words can leap from his mouth, she finally breaks the quiet.

“You’re so important to me.”

The shock is like plummeting into ice water.

“And I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you. That’s what upsets me.”

Above him, Joan keeps talking, and taps his chest with her fingertips like she’s mimicking the rhythm of his heartbeat. “When I found out … I thought that I’d hurt you. It made me – um. Well, I stopped eating. Cried all the time.” Her voice cracks. With a prickle of shock, Lane realises she’s close to tears. “And I missed you too much.”

He remembers that she visited him in hospital. And that she was worried. But he has never heard her talk about it this way. Like the fear consumed her.

“What?”

“Every day.” Her jaw twitches against his shirt, but he can’t tell if she’s frowning or smiling. “Sorry. Um. I know you’re doing better, and you don’t need my help, but if you asked, I would. Anything in my power. I’d do it.”

“Joan.” He can hardly speak. “I—”

“Please.” She sits up very suddenly, grabbing one of his hands in hers. When her face catches the light, twinkling fairy patterns sparkle over her pale skin like little translucent stars. “I just need you to be happy.”

All Lane can think now is that he’s got to kiss her. He leans up and captures her lips over and over in a fierce, yet oddly fraught embrace.

Joan curls her fingers into his shirtfront with a desperate noise, but she doesn’t push him off, or pull away.

She kisses him back.

“You’re so lovely to me,” he tells her between kisses, petting her face and her hair and brushing thin tears from the apples of her cheeks. Is she the one crying? Is he? Lane can’t tell in the dark. “So, so lovely.”

He’s too afraid to tell her the last thing on his mind.

I think I could face the world if you were with me.

Eventually, Joan pulls away with a loud sniff, and puts her head on his chest again. As they lie there in the dark, catching their breath under the soft glow of twinkling fairy lights, they don’t say a word.

Lane stares up at the little lights, one hand brushing up and down the middle of Joan’s back, until exhaustion overtakes him, and his eyes flutter closed.

        

**

 

“What—what do you think it means?”

Myra studies the journal in her hand for another moment; regards the confident swirls and loops of Joan’s handwriting, just below Lane’s slanted letters, and the shocking pink lip print in the bottom right corner of the page. She moves her thumb, just slightly, as she adjusts her grip on the notebook. A little bit of wax smears across the ink and onto the tip of her finger.

“Honey, if you don’t know, I don’t know.”

His face falls.

“I’m serious,” Myra puts the notebook aside, watching how he tracks its every move. She’s going to have to make him dig deeper. “Only one of us is fluent in Joan. And I’m getting all of this secondhand.”

This coaxes a very thin smile out of him. She jerks her chin toward the open journal.

“You going to talk to her about this?”

“I don’t know.” He’s staring off into space. “God. I’m not even sure how to—I can’t—lose her.”

“Well, let’s look at it another way.” She fixes him with a significant look; his eyes dart to hers. “You care for her.”

Lane nods once.

“And she—based on what she’s said and done—cares for you.”

He nods again, but seems less sure this time, judging by the way his mouth thins into a line before he answers.

“And if you don’t talk to her about these feelings, you’ll never know what could happen.”

“Well, she—she might be open to it,” he argues. “I think she could.”

Lane has a surprisingly optimistic streak for someone who’s been chronically depressed for most of his life, and it honestly doesn’t take much for him to encourage himself, given the right frame of mind. All you have to do is shake him out of the decision paralysis. Or provoke him a little so the stubbornness kicks in.

“Sure. But she could also say no. And she won’t say squat until you two talk about it.” Myra lifts an eyebrow when he turns a withering glare on her, and enjoys being the devil’s advocate for a minute. “Don’t give me that look. A negative answer is a potential outcome. There are plenty of reasons people say no to good things.”

“But it could—see here, you’re being too pediatric. Christ. Pedantic. It could work. I know Joan, and—you agreed. You said you think she cares about me. And if she does care about me, if she—kissed me, then we can work things out together.”

“That’s a very healthy attitude to have. I’m not trying to discourage you. But you have had trouble addressing these things in the past—”

“Oh, don’t pretend you’re doing me a favor. You don’t even approve,” Lane snaps, and starts pacing behind the kitchen counter. “It’s one of your stupid bloody rules, isn’t it? Don’t have any relationships until you’re better.”

Myra’s mouth drops open. She quickly scrawls down a note in shorthand. “When on earth did I say that?”

Behind him, the teakettle starts to whistle.

“At the very beginning!” He fumbles for his notebook, carefully turns down the page featuring Joan’s message, and then flips to a page almost from the very beginning before showing her a laminated index card that’s taped to the inside of the notebook. “That. Your—ridiculous card thing.”

He quickly moves the teakettle from the burner, and turns off the stove.

As he’s pulling out a spoon from the silverware drawer, Myra takes the time to survey the index card. Typed in small, neat letters are three little dictums. She already knows these by heart. They’re guidelines for all of her patients who undergo a major health crisis.

  1. Challenge your circumstances; don’t ignore them.
  2. Give yourself permission to fail.
  3. For at least a year, make your mental and physical health priority one.

Next to the third rule, in frankly awful script, is a notation in Lane’s handwriting that takes a second to decipher. What about moving forward? And an answer in her own handwriting: Let yourself heal first.

“You see!” Lane’s forgotten all about the tea, and has turned a smug expression on her now. He jabs a finger at the notebook. “It’s right there. You said you didn’t want me to try any of this until I was better.”

The conversation is coming back to her now, although it’s fuzzy.

Lane sitting across from her in his living room in a messy collared shirt and rumpled suit pants, pale and sickly and with burst blood vessels reddening his eyes, wheezing after every sentence. Demanding why he couldn’t just fix things with a pitiful apology letter, so that he could pretend the whole affair never happened.

Like that was going to help him move past a suicide attempt.

“My advice was for you to wait a year before putting everyone else’s needs first. You wanted to send a typed form letter to half your social circle; including your ex-wife and your son, with no explanation or context other than ‘hello, I’m alive, don’t call me.’ Which I still have; you can read it if you want.”

Lane scoffs, but she can tell she’s struck a chord, because he just folds his arms across his chest and stares balefully at the clock on his stove.

She ticks off a small list off on her fingers. “Know what else you had trouble with at that point? This was maybe April. You could barely tie your shoes in less than two minutes. Or eat anything spicier than chicken and potatoes. Why would I tell you to throw all of that onto the back burner in favor of—?”

“All right, all right.” He rolls his eyes, and unfolds his arms. “You’ve made your point, haven’t you?”

“No, I haven’t.” Myra looks him dead in the eye. “I never said you would get better. I said you might adjust to a new life, whatever that meant. And right now, today, you’re very close to accomplishing that goal. What I don’t want is for you to lose all your progress in one fell swoop, because you get distracted by a woman.”

The churlish anger melts from his face. He blinks at her, owlish, as she keeps talking. She gentles her voice, so he understands that this isn’t an attack.

Whatever he decides, he needs to know that setbacks are not only a possibility, but also very probable. Especially once you bring a romantic partner into the picture.

“Look at the amount of work you’ve done. Whether you liked it or not, known it or not, you have made significant progress. And you’ve been honest with the people you care about.” Mostly. “I know patients who are still struggling to get out of bed every single day.”

Worry flashes across his face. “They don’t have anyone to help them.”

“Some don’t, some do.” Myra just shrugs. “You’ve been very fortunate.”

He doesn’t say anything.

She clears her throat. Time to get back to the subject at hand. “The reason I have that third rule is so people don’t lose themselves in lust, or love, or maybe something that they just think is love, six months after the fact, and bury their real problems.”

“Oh.” Lane frowns at her in a way that says he hates how her reasoning makes sense. “Well, I—see why you would encourage people to wait, but it’s different, with us.”

It’s not so different, but he’ll need to work that out on his own.

“No?”

“It isn’t,” he insists. “I mean, I do—she is—“ two pink spots appear in his cheeks “—desirable, but we’re not—I’m truthful with her. I’m not just flouting your rule for no reason.”

“But you’d still want to break it, even if you were.”

His eyes flash in a determined way behind his glasses. He meets her steady gaze across the counter without hesitation. “Yes.”

“Okay,” Myra begins, but Lane interrupts her.

“You don’t even like her, do you?”

A sharp laugh escapes her before she can stop it. “Who says that?”

“Erm.” He deflates a little, because she’s clearly so taken aback. “Well, you—the two of you got in a fight, or whatever.”

“Really?” Myra tilts her head to one side, curious. She had not expected Joan to talk about that. Being confronted with the truth had stung pretty hard. “What did she tell you?”

“Only that it happened, I think.” Lane looks surprised. “Why?”

Myra waves a hand in an it-doesn’t-matter gesture to conceal her disappointment. If Joan had gotten up the courage to admit that she was jealous, it would have been quite a step. That poor woman has been in denial about her feelings for a very long time.

“Well, then, you’re just going to have to discuss that, too.”

His surprise shifts into apprehension. “Oh, no.”

“Look, if you can’t even be honest about your feelings—”

“No, this is not about my bloody feelings! I am not walking up to her in the middle of the day, and blurting out a confession ten minutes before our next meeting.” He sets his jaw. “That’s—I’m not a schoolboy, damn it. It deserves—I get too—tongue-tied. And I can’t do it in the office. I won’t.”

“Okay. Then take another route.”

“Like what?” He slides two hands into his hair. “Notarized forms in bloody triplicate?”

“Talk to her outside of work. Write her a letter—a good one. Hire a blimp. Send her a telegram.”

“Ugh.” Lane puts his head down onto the table. “You’re horrible.”

Myra starts to laugh as she picks up her water glass. “And to think, you’re my favorite patient.”

He scoffs again. “Liar.”

“Ah.” She takes a sip of water. “You’re not so bad.”

 

**

 

Prodding gingerly at her throbbing right temple with two fingers, Joan actually jumps in her chair with a gasp when Meredith buzzes in from reception.

“Joan, you have a call on line one! Tony Blake.”

Oh, shit. Joan forces herself to stay sitting upright, instead of sliding underneath her desk the way she’s wanted to do all afternoon.

“Thank you,” she replies glumly. “I’ll take it.”

Two seconds later, the connection clicks to life. Joan winces as Tony’s voice booms through the earpiece.

“Hello, Joan?”

“Hi.” She tries to sound happy, although it’s not convincing at all. “This is a surprise. Um. I didn’t expect to hear from you.”

Since you didn’t call.

“Yeah. Listen, I’m sorry about that. I, uh, was kind of nervous about talking to you again.” He laughs, strained and awkward. “Kept putting it off, you know? Wasn’t really sure what I was gonna say.”

“Sure.” She presses her fingertips to her forehead with her free hand. Oh, god. He’s going to yell at her. Or even worse, he’s going to forgive her—and then she’ll be up shit creek without a paddle. “Um. I’m sorry things happened the way that they did, but you should—you should know that—you were right. What you said about me. And Lane.”

Tony sucks in an audible breath, but when he speaks again, it’s careful.

“Damn.” He exhales. “I was afraid of that.”

“Yeah.” Joan flushes all the way down to her toes. “Um. For the record, I do like you. I just—he and I—”

How the hell is she supposed to explain why it happened?

“Hey. Come on.” He’s forcing cheer into his voice. “Sometimes things just… don’t go the way we planned, you know?”

“I’m so sorry, Tony,” she says weakly. “I really am.”

“No.” He’s letting her down easy. Joan hates herself so much for dragging a nice man through the mud like this. “We, uh. You know. We tried it, things didn’t work, and now we…. well. Don’t worry about it.”

“Okay.”

Is it terrible that the only feeling coursing under her skin is a sickening relief?

“Anyway, I, uh, gotta go. But I just wanted to call and—you know. Check in, I guess.”

“Sure.” Frantically, she searches her brain for words other than yeah. “Thanks—thank you for calling. I mean it. You’re—” oh, god, why can’t she think of a compliment to save her life “—it’s so kind of you. Really.”

God. She can’t even come up with anything better than you’re so kind. Men hate that. How stupid can she be?

Meanwhile, Tony’s returned to as much professionalism as he can muster. “Yeah. Uh. Listen, you take care of yourself. Goodbye.”

With that, he hangs up.

After a second, Joan shoves her handset next to the receiver. She slumps forward, slides out of her seat with a low whimper, and sits down right in the middle of the floor, hidden by the front of her desk. After another second, she puts her head on the seat of her chair. Around her, the room spins and tilts like a fairground funhouse. She places one hand against cold tile in an attempt to slow it all down.

Why does thinking about last night make her stomach clench?

You’re so important to me.

Why does admitting the truth terrify her so much?