Joan stopped mid-sentence. Michael Ginsberg was looking out the window, leaning his head against his hand. Next to him Stan doodled something vaguely Mucha-inspired on a legal pad, and Peggy went woolgathering with a far away expression in her eyes. The view inside her head must have been better than the one outside conference room B; she was almost smiling. Not one of them heard a word Joan said.
She put the report down and folded her hands on top of the table. “Excuse me,” asked Joan, crisply, “but am I boring you?”
They jerked into motion like automatons that had been suddenly turned on. Clumsy but filled with purpose.
Peggy shook her head as though clearing out the cobwebs. “Sorry, Joan. We had a long night -”
Stan raised his eyebrows. “Really long.”
Peggy shot him a quelling look. “Which was -”
“Ginzo’s fault, primarily -”
Michael turned on Stan. “Me? I wasn’t the -” A cautious glance back at Joan, now, and then he continued. “- the instigator, thank you very much.”
“That’s not how I remember it.”
“We were having issues with a pitch,” Peggy interrupted, before her team could descend into further confusion. “It won’t happen again.”
Joan sighed and waved them away. “We’re done, anyway. You’re on task more or less.” Which was more than she could say for Harry Crane, whom she was meeting with next. If he tried to expense a strip club one more time -
“Joan?” Peggy asked.
“Nevermind,” said Joan. She rubbed her temples. “And here I am blaming you for the same behaviour. Go, we’ve covered everything we need to.”
They filed out of the room. Stan threw his arm around Michael’s shoulders and ruffled his hair, laughing when he protested.
She was in the lunch room making her morning tea when Michael walked in and started digging around in the drawers for coffee.
“Cupboard to your left,” Joan said.
He took out a can and pulled the lid off. It was Nescafe instant, which Joan disliked but they got it for free because the company was a client. “Thanks. So, were we useless to you earlier?”
“No more than everyone else,” Joan said. The highlight of her day so far had been watching Lane’s face go stiffer and stiffer as Harry tried to justify his spending.
“You guys have it hard,” Michael said, stifling a yawn. “Nobody wants to think about the numbers because they’re so boring.”
She glared at him for a full minute but he went about spooning coffee into a mug like nothing was wrong. “I suppose,” she said, finally, and decided to be generous and hold his lack of sleep responsible. He did look tired, and Joan knew that Peggy had a habit of pushing her staff too hard and at all the wrong times. She had never learned there was a more subtle way of getting the job done.
“You know,” Joan said to Michael, “you’re allowed to tell her no.”
Michael’s brow furrowed. “Uh. What?”
“If she has you up all night doing god knows what,” said Joan. She took a sip of her tea. “It won’t affect your job. Peggy’s a demanding girl, but she’s not that bad.”
He dropped his spoon. It hit the counter with a clang and then the floor, both of which escaped his notice.
“You know about us?” he asked.
Joan was good with words, and not often at a loss for them. This was an exception. What on earth was he referring to? She felt like she’d been dropped into the middle of a conversation.
“Know about who?” she asked.
He leaned against the counter in the most pathetic attempt at nonchalance she had ever seen. “What?” he said. “Nothing. I - I didn’t say anything,”
“You did,” said Joan. “You absolutely did.”
He picked the spoon up from the floor, avoiding her eye. “I have a lot of work to do,” he said. “I better, uh - I better go.”
“Wait a minute,” she said. “Do you mean that you and Peggy -”
“Bye, Joan.” Michael bumped into the doorframe on his way out, blindly feeling for the edge. “It was real nice talking to you. We should do this more, or something.”
“What?” she said, but he was already gone. His coffee sat forgotten by the sink. He hadn’t even added the water.
The smart thing to do would be to leave it alone. Joan was fully aware that her interference had never been appreciated by Peggy before and certainly wouldn’t be now. But if Michael was going to let the cat out of the bag every time someone came within fifty feet of the subject -
“‘Morning,” she said as she strolled into Peggy’s office and locked the door behind her.
“Hi,” said Peggy. She didn’t look up from her typewriter until Joan started twitching the blinds shut. “Is there a problem?”
“Not exactly.” Joan pulled a chair over and sat down. She crossed her legs and looked in an amused way at Peggy’s wary face. “I had a very interesting conversation with one of your coworkers just now.”
“Is this about Megan and Don?” Peggy asked. “Because I told Megan I don’t want to hear it anymore.”
“…no,” said Joan. “It was about you, in a roundabout way.”
“Me?” Peggy said. “Why?”
Joan decided to be as blunt as possible. She had found that delicacy didn’t get through to Peggy very often. “Listen,” she said. “I know you like to do things your own way. But if you’re going to dip your pen in the company ink, it pays to choose someone with a little more discretion.”
Peggy shut her eyes slowly. She sank back into her chair with her arms crossed over her chest. “Crap.”
“That’s one way to put it.”
“I’m going to kill Stan,” she said. “He has such a big mouth.”
“Stan?” Joan asked. “I was talking about Michael.”
They stared at each other for a long, silent moment. Peggy’s cheeks started to go terribly red.
“Oh my god,” said Joan.
“No!” Peggy said. “You - look, You’ve got the wrong idea -”
“Both of them?” Joan said. “Even Don didn’t stack his affairs side-bye-side. Do they know about each other?”
“None of your business.”
Joan persisted. “Do they?”
Peggy was roughly the color of an apple. “Yes,” she said, strangled. “They do.”
Joan went back to her office after Peggy extracted repeated promises that she wouldn’t tell. It was so unfair. The best piece of gossip the office had produced in years and she had to keep it all to herself.
Lane came in just as she was pouring a healthy amount of brandy into her tea. He was holding a folder under his arm. “Bad day already?” he asked.
“No,” said Joan. “No, I wouldn’t say so.”
“Then what would you say?”
“I can’t say anything.” Joan sighed mournfully. “I’ve been sworn to secrecy.”
“Must be a big secret,” Lane said. “If you need a stiff drink at eleven in the morning.”
“Oh, trust me,” Joan said. “I deserve every drop.”