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Loosening the Valve

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"With Lane...well, it was a shock." Joan leaned back in her chair and lit two cigarettes, before handing one to Peggy. "Just a shock."

Peggy took a deep drag off her Virginia Slim and let the tingle of nicotine fill up every corner of her lungs. She held onto that feeling for as long as she could before releasing it slowly. "Was it though? You probably knew him best, but he never stuck me as a particularly happy man."

"If that's the baseline, Peggy, then I suppose you wouldn't bat your eyes twice if half the office throttled themselves at their desks."

Peggy snorted into her hand before reaching for her mug of whiskey. "Point taken."

Joan crossed her legs at the ankle and sipped leisurely from her own glass. "You suspected this was coming though. Didn't you? Well, not this," she twirled her cigarette in the air, the smoke twisting into the kind of abstract swirl that Ginsberg would probably find deep meaning in, "not the mutilation, obviously. Nobody could have predicted that."

Peggy's eyes were drawn to a clump of papers thumb-tacked to the cork board just behind Joan's head, each one decorated with a series of cut-out circles, like the world's most ominous pop art pattern. 

How long had they been up there?

"I should have known he was in trouble." Peggy glanced at the circles one last time before forcing her gaze from them permanently.

"Honey, Michael was never what anybody would consider normal." Joan drew her cigarette hard between her lips and exhaled aggressively. "It was only a matter of time with that one. Trust me."

"What the hell is it with this place, making everybody lose their minds? Lane...Don...and now Ginsberg." And me.

Peggy would be remiss to give herself a pass. Maybe that was why she was having so much trouble shedding the dread that clung to the frayed edges of her nerves like cat hair on an overcoat.

It could have been her. Years ago, it was her. And one day, it might be again.

"Men." Joan swallowed and sighed into her drink. "They crumble at the slightest provocation. If they only knew what we had to deal with on a daily basis. If Sisyphus were a woman, he would have gotten that boulder to the top of the hill."  She set the bottom of her glass on the table a little too loudly, causing both of them to jump at the noise. "While wearing heels."

"Jesus Christ." Peggy brought her hand to her chest and an unladylike guffaw erupted from her throat.

As usual, Joan managed to make giggling sophisticated, causing Peggy wonder what the hell she was doing wrong with her own life.

"Apparently, you've started without me." Stan appeared in the doorway, holding up a brown paper bag with a bottle inside of it. "Not going to hold it against you this time. Not unless you ask nicely." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively, and Peggy's cheeks flared up at the innuendo.

"If I want you to do something, Stan, I'll just put it in a memo. And I won't ask nicely." 

The right side of Stan's mouth curled up in amusement. "Yes, mistress."

Peggy had missed lunch due to the Ginsberg situation, and didn't really have much of an appetite after that. The whiskey was starting to go to her head in a way she'd pay dearly for later.

Joan's brow raised in question as she looked between them. "Am I interrupting something?"

"Shouldn't I be asking you that?" Stan placed the bottle in the center on the table and scratched at his beard with both hands, trying to wake himself up. "I'm just the delivery boy."

"Well," Joan said, smoothing her skirt down as she rose from her chair, "with Michael gone, you probably have a lot to talk about, so I'm going to..." She gestured to the door and hesitated a moment. "Hang in there, you guys."

Joan smiled sadly in a way that could have easily been either genuine or condescending and left the room, handbag in hand.

"Great. We've become those people now." Stan pulled up a chair and sat on it backward, then leaned it to grab the new bottle of whiskey off the table. "Better dust off my mantilla."

Peggy scowled and stared absently at Ginsberg's empty chair, as she had been all afternoon. "It's not funny."

Stan drank from the bottle directly before tipping some into Peggy's glass, amber liquid sloshing over the sides of the tumbler in a sloppy mess. "That so? Well, I'm not sure I have the energy right now to rend my garments."

"You're an ass."

He lifted the bottle in a gesture of acknowledgement and took another swig.

"Is he...settled?" Peggy bristled at her unfortunate word choice as soon as it left her lips.

Stan's brow quirked upward, his lips pursing to hold in what was sure to be a doozy of a sarcastic comment.

"Forget it." She lifted her glass and tilted the rest of the contents down her throat, welcoming the burn that accompanied it. Anything to distract herself from how she was feeling.

Stan refilled her glass again without asking. "What happened in there anyway? You shoot down his margarine pitch about Communist Martians again?"

Peggy shook her head. 

Every time she closed her eyes she could still see the bloody flap of skin resting on a bed of cotton like a prized cut of meat. 

She felt stupid for thinking he'd gotten her an apology brooch. If only he actually were crazily in love with her, instead of just plain crazy.

"I don't want to talk about it."

Stan tilted his head to meet her eyes. "Sure you do."

She cocked an eyebrow and wondered how he always managed to do that. To read her intentions when even she was unable to. "I said I didn't."

"Then why are you getting soused in Ginsberg's lair instead of at a filthy bar somewhere, like normal people do when they want to forget something traumatic?"

She shrugged her shoulders. No use in arguing against the obvious. "Maybe I was waiting for you."

"Now, there's a change of pace." There was a hint of bitterness in his voice.

Before she could untangle what Stan meant by that, he was out of his chair and circling around to where she was seated on the counter.

Without asking, he perched himself next to her and his shoulder gently brushed hers affectionately. The heat from his arm against hers was a comforting presence.

Peggy rested her head on his shoulder, sagging as it relaxed under the weight of her head.

"He told me he had feelings for me. Strong feelings." Her nose scrunched up at the memory, and she tilted her head to catch Stan's reaction. Nothing about Michael's declaration had screamed romantic or heartfelt. Probably because it wasn't.

Stan's eyes widened, and she wasn't sure whether or not to be offended by the measure of surprise in his eyes. "Okay."

"And he told me he had feelings for you, too."

Stan dropped his head back against the wall with a dull thump and exhaled loudly. "Fuck me."

"Actually, he wanted to fuck me. He thought it might cure him of his impure thoughts about your...about your shoulders." She buried her face into his chest to stifle a laugh, which set Stan off as well. 

It wasn't funny. It wasn't. But this was her life. The absurdity of it all was beginning to hit hard.

Stan look down at her, thoughtfully, and a wave of heat licked through her body the way it always did whenever she allowed herself to stand this close to him. The whiskey only made everything more intense.

"Do my shoulders really inspire impure thoughts?" His gaze pinned her so hard she had trouble catching her breath.

Peggy rolled her eyes and tried to laugh off the tension. "Michael seemed to think so."

"What about you?" 

His warm breath ghosted the side of her face and she let the sensation wash over her like a baptism. His arms looped around her waist and tightened, locking her in place.

By this point during their little 'moments' - he would have usually let her squirm away - which always made Peggy feel both relief and irritation. Now, however, he was squeezing her so hard that the only way she could draw air was to lean into him.

She had no idea why he was choosing to blow up the structure of their carefully choreographed flirting so easily this time. They'd never wanted to talk about before. Well, she hadn't. And he'd always been nice enough to pretend he didn't want to, either.

It's what friends did for each other - she told herself many times - so as not to upset the balance.

But she wasn't too proud to admit how good it felt to be held by a man like she was something precious.

Stan's fingers dug desperately into her hips like she might slip away. This made her feel anchored, like she wasn't the piece of emotional driftwood Ted called her during one of their more heated spats.

Maybe it wasn't her? Maybe Ted was just to weak and feeble to get a firm enough hold on her?

Stan's fingers were thick though, and his grip strong. He wouldn't let her go unless she wanted him to.

The force of his embrace made her skin ache, but Peggy didn't mind. It distracted her from her grief, because this pain had nothing to do with computers or severed nipples or that wild look in Ginsberg's eyes when he called out to her as he was wheeled out of the office on a gurney.

"What are you doing, Stan?" Peggy whispered, afraid to break the spell.

"What are we doing?" Stan said, correcting her in a low drawl that vibrated against her chest.

And she had no answer to that. It was the first time he'd posed the question - directly at least - though it always hung between them like a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked.

Perhaps she could let herself have this? Perhaps she should? Ginsberg never let himself have anything nice and it probably only accelerated his deterioration.

But she was bad at relationships. So so bad. Not just with romance, but office romances in particular. And Stan wasn't inconsequential, like Pete Campbell or even Ted Chaough. He mattered.

Stan wasn't somebody who would buy her bullshit lines or let her play mind games with him. He knew the way her brain worked intimately. Thousands of hours of just watching somebody think will do that.

"You're going to hurt yourself." Stan brushed his thumb against the wrinkle in-between her eyes and tried to smooth out her brow. "I propositioned you with sex, not an animal sacrifice."

"Maybe, I'm more in the mood to kill something." She smiled tensely at him and his eyes lit up at the taunt.

"Maybe, we can do a little of both. I could be convinced." He waggled his eyebrows at her.

Peggy rested her head against the wall of Stan's chest, still well defined despite the layers of soft padding he'd acquired on top over the last five years. Everything about Stan had softened over time, much to her surprise.

"Stan, when you first met me, did you think I was crazy?"

A large hand cradled the back of her head and tugged playfully at her hair. "Of course I thought you were crazy, Peggy. I still do."

She peered up at him with an exaggerated pout. "That's not nice."

"Oh, you're a girl today? You should have warned me. I would have pulled your chair out for you earlier in the break room."

"Stan." Her mouth slid into an unimpressed line. 

"What do you want me to say?" He held her face in his hands and forced her to look at him. "Yes. You're a little crazy, but we're all kind of crazy. We wouldn't be in this line of work if we were well-adjusted human beings."

"Oh." She had no idea why normalcy was suddenly so important to her. Being 'crazy' and being crazy were mutually exclusive concepts. It's not like she could catch one from the other.

"Oh?" He said, mocking her flat tone. "Come on, don't look so disappointed. Why the hell would you want to be like the proletariat, anyway?"

Her brow furrowed. "What's wrong with the proletariat?"

Stan's hands slid down to her neck, leaving goosebumps in their wake. "You sound just like Ginzo."

Peggy tried to keep her voice from cracking. "I'm going to miss him."

"He's not dead," Stan protested weakly, and they both looked away. 

Being locked up in a state mental health facility, he may as well be. He might even be better off that way.

A sudden pang of sentimentality tugged at her heart and she pushed it away by leaning closer into Stan. "Now, about that animal sacrifice..."

He had her pressed against the counter before she finished getting the sentence out, firm hands holding her body tightly against his. "I would have suggested we choke a chicken years ago..." he said between wet kisses, his soft beard tickling her neck, "if I knew that was all it would take to finally get you into bed."

"You're so tacky." Her fingers fumbled with the buttons on the front of his shirt. "And you haven't gotten me into bed, yet."

"...says the woman currently unbuttoning my shirt in the creative lounge of our office building." He pulled his shirt off over his head in one motion and tossed it to the ground in a heap.

"Shut up, Stan." She pressed up onto her toes and buried her face into the curve of his neck to taste his skin.

"Nope. You like it when I talk." He abruptly lunged forward and razed the contents of table with a long swipe of his arm. "You have no idea how long I've thought about fucking you on top of this conference table."

"Yeah, I do." Peggy's skirt bunched around her waist as she laid back onto the cold, hard surface and wrapped her legs around his thighs. "You tell me about it every time we get blitzed in here."

"Yeah? I'm probably too stoned by that time to remember." He slid her underwear down her legs and then held them up to the light. "Peggy Olson, you are a girl," he said with faux-surprise.

She knocked the panties from his hand and went for his belt buckle, where she wrestled valiantly with the complicated fastening. "For a guy who likes to get laid a lot, this isn't a practical piece of equipment."

"Most of the chicks I'm with concern themselves more with the equipment laid therein." With one hand, he unsnapped the belt and yanked it free from the loops of his trousers, then immediately began to blindly grope the area on the back of her dress. "Speaking of practical...this thing doesn't have an exit strategy?"

Peggy sat up and awkwardly reached for the zipper, failing several times before catching the edge of it with her fingers.

He smirked at her amateur fumbling. "Elegant."

"You're not here because I'm elegant."

"No. You're more Baby Jane than Jane Birkin. But for some reason, I totally dig it." He reached behind her and lowered her zipper slowly, letting the back of his knuckles slide down the column of her spine, watching brazenly as she shivered at the contact. 

"Just get on with it."

"Always gotta be the boss, huh?" Stan grabbed her hips and pulled her flush against his exposed length, pausing only for a second before pushing into her. "Oh, fuck."

Peggy gasped into his mouth as he bottomed out.

It was probably reckless. Of course it was. But at the moment, she wasn't thinking about shock treatments or missing appendages, only the feeling of Stan inside of her, filling those empty spaces  that had been echoing loudly in her ear all day.

He met her eyes and smiled at her in the kind of boyish way that made her insides clench.

She couldn't help herself. As much as she fought it, she smiled back at him. It would have been impossible not to. Before she could say anything stupid, she pressed her lips against his and kissed him deeply. "Keep moving, Stan."

He obeyed her order immediately, hips thrusting forward in a punishing rhythm, but his eyes never left hers.

Peggy's fingers traced the lines of Stan's ribs, following the planes of his chest all the way up to the vulnerable part of his throat before placing a kiss there. "Just keep moving."





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