A/N: Takes place sometimes shortly after the final scene in 5.11 "The Other Woman."
I don't know if I entirely like the way this piece ends, but I don't think it would be in character for the two of them to take it any further than they do, and I have too much respect for the canon of this show to be cavalier with the characters and their motives, so I let it be. But convince me I'm wrong! If you disagree, I'm amenable to any and all suggestions!
"Every agency on Madison Avenue is defined by the moment they got their car."
He's half a bottle gone when she knocks; of course he knows it's her from the way her shadow darkens the gap under his door. Don takes great, inebriated pleasure from the fact that he still notices little things like that.
But it's not like it used to be. He was, once upon a time, more than what he was defined as—more than simply a boss, a "creative type," a husband, a father, a cheater—and more than what he was defined by—more than his choices, his birth.
He was great once.
Better than great.
It wasn't that long ago that he'd have known what direction a new client would want to go by the cologne he wore or the style of his suit. He'd know what words to use, what line to sell and which one to back off from, after thirty seconds' conversation. He'd have anyone at any company eating out of his hand based on his reading of the way they sat—whether they leaned back in their chair or eagerly pressed their elbows to the table top—or walked—quick, uneven gallop or smooth, steady strides—or especially what kind of drink they preferred.
That Don certainly have known that Peggy was thinking of leaving, probably even before she knew. He would have known before he walked out of Pete's office what Joan was going to do... .
Ever since Megan—no, let's be fair, it was before Megan...—he's been slipping. And the real kicker is he doesn't have the faintest idea how to claw his way back.
The second set of raps on his door jolts him upright. He rubs his eyes, downs his glass, finger-smoothes his hair.
She has always owned every room she's ever walked in, but that fact is never more true than in the moment she enters his office, a living, breathing simulacrum of Aphrodite, lithe curves and epidermal alabaster in emerald tightly bound.
No. He shakes the rye from his brain. The colour of her dress is an insult, a poor man's imitation, a mockery of what it contains every time she slips it on, fastens it, lets it embrace her. He smiles inwardly, feels like he's making a pitch, but for his money, there's never been any doubt about it: She is the jewel, not the dress.
Don can't look her in the eye. But Joan reads him like a book—reads him the way he used to read everyone else—and, ever the professional, she shushes the door shut behind her.
"I saw Peggy leave," she sing-songs.
He plays it cool, close to the chest. "She quit," he replies. It's the first time he's acknowledged it—the finality of it hitting him hard in the solar plexus—and the words sting a bit, getting stuck somewhere between his second and third rib and wrenching at him a little in the sundering, the coming out. He hauls himself up on shaky legs—I'm not drunk, he tells himself, because I'm not a drunk—to pour himself another. When Joan doesn't immediately start talking, Don coughs. "She starts at CGC on Monday."
If she's shocked or saddened or indifferent to the news, Don can't tell; Joan's silence is hard to read. But he ignores it. He doesn't really want to talk about Peggy anyway. He focuses instead on the clink of the ice in his glass, the satisfying glugluglug of the whiskey, the way it burns the taste of the back of her hand from his lips.
He turns to face her—correction: to face his body toward her; his eyes remain glued to his glass—and the room spins a little bit farther, faster than he does. It's all he can do to keep steady. But it's far from enough; as the glass in his hand tips and spills rye over his fingertips and his ears struggle to make sense of his distorted equilibrium, his slightly-off-centre of gravity, he knows he's going to fall.
Joan's shoes step into his line of vision and he feels her hands bracing his shoulders. "Don," she says, not worried or anxious; even-toned. He forces his left foot forward and pushes himself to his full-height while Joan's hands hold him still.
He rolls his shoulders twice, cocks his neck to the left, then the right, then rolls his shoulders a third time, eyes squeezed shut. His hand is wet and he's not holding his glass, but he doesn't remember dropping it. All he can smell is rye. He wrinkles his nose against the scent and tries to inhale past it, to get to her. He can feel her—her hands on his upper arms, fingertips pressed into his flesh through too-many layers of fabric, heat from all the wrong and all the right places—and from the way the sound he makes clearing his throat a second time is muffled and softened before it's barely left his lips tells him she's standing close, closer than perhaps she's been since god-only-knows-when.
No, scratch that, he thinks. Because he knows when. He remembers.
"Don, would you look at me?"
There was a time when a directive from Miss Holloway/Mrs. Harris/What-Is-She-Going-To-Go-By-When-The-Divorce-Is-Finalized? would have snapped him to attention with breaking-the-sound-barrier celerity. Now, he shakes his head, lets his chin drop a little, and slowly drags his eyelids up and over his tired eyes.
Fuzzy at first, he takes in the sight, her body a muddle of red hair, white skin, green dress. A Christmas ornament. Seconds pass before he focuses, and sees the shadow of her clavicle, the delicate line of her jaw.
Red, red lips. Lust-red. Sinful.
A grotesquely obese man with pock-marked skin, a body odour problem, and fingers thick-as-cake-donuts pawing at her dress, kissing those lips…
His words cut through the rye-soaked stillness around them. "I'm sorry, Joan."
She pauses, as if wondering the same thing he's wondering, because what is he really apologizing for?
He nods so slowly but with such deliberation he fears his neck might snap.
"Are you okay?" she asks.
Don stiffens; mental and physical faculties, once lost, blast on overdrive. He hears his heartbeat pounding in his ears as he locks eyes with her for the first time since she came into his office.
The facade decays. She's not so strong; he can see that now, inches away from her, eye-to-eye. She blinks twice, a fluttering of her eyelashes that reminds him of the way his favourite of Betty's chiffon night gowns used to tremble as he tossed it to the floor... and damn it why is he thinking of that? His erection presses against the fly of his suit pants and he hates himself because now he's thinking of Megan, at home, and all the trust she's put into him and how hard he's tried to earn it even though—Clearly!—he hasn't.
Joan, for her part, seems oblivious. She's lowered her eyes to the four-in-hand-without-the-dimple knot in his tie, and her lower lip is trembling.
It's a warning, a low rumble from just above the low swell of her larynx and—Jesus Christ!—Don thinks he can almost see the paleness of her throat vibrating as she lets go of his name. And he loves it, the way it sounds in her mouth, full and round, the delicate way her tongue bounces against the back of her teeth to start the 'D' and end the 'N.' She lets go of him but doesn't step back.
"Joan, I need you to know—."
"It's done, Don," she says, lifting her eyes to meet his. They're changed. Not scared. Sad. But resigned. But—Come to think of it...—when was the last time he'd seen Joan the Head of the Steno Pool, or Joan the Office Manager, Joan the Army Wife and Mother anything but sad, and resigned?
She's standing so close and he can't smell the rye anymore, or if he does, it's masked or mingling with the scent of her perfume, and he wonders if this is what she wore the night before—or was it? Maybe two nights? A week? How long have they been standing there?—when she paid for her partnership.
Don can't help himself. He sees red—in her hair and her lips and the inside of her mouth and the inside of his eyelids—and he wonders why but only for a moment. He hates that the partners decided this without him. He doesn't like that he'll never know now if he won the account because of his campaign or hers, but deep down he really does know, and he's pissed about that, too. About what it means for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, how they'll define themselves and be defined now that they've got their car...
No, he's been fighting back nausea since she walked into Roger's office that morning and it's because he knows what she sold and he knows what it cost. And if he's sick from simple jealousy or because of lust, he'll accept the punishment, guilty as charged. But with insight into himself he has never known himself to be blessed with, Don believes in that moment that his desire to possess her—No, wait, bad choice of words…—be with her began before the test drive and the bar with the jukebox. It began long before he arrived on her doorstep, hat in hand, to tell her it wasn't worth it. Before she pressed her hand to his cheek and quieted his anxiety. It began before Megan, before Betty. It came from somewhere deeper and older, borne out of an endless procession of flowers at reception. Or perhaps even earlier. With a mother raising her daughter to be admired.
Don had always admired her.
Because above all else, Joan is Joan, and he doesn't want to imagine a world which isn't, at least in part, defined by what she brings to it.
Her name is rendered reverential by his tongue as he whispers it into the space between them, and even there, it barely has room to exist. He reaches for her, rests his hand on the swell of her hip, splaying his fingers along the curvature of her lower back, in a move so oddly familiar and yet totally foreign in its intimacy.
He feels her body shiver but she doesn't pull away.
Don doesn't have to incline his head far before the crest of his browbone is resting against the cascading fringe of Joan's hair, an ocean of crimson swept across her forehead. He sighs, inhaling her as he leans a little to the side, and even then, as he presses his lips against her temple, he doesn't believe it's happening until she breaks, beautifully. His arms encircle her as she weeps into his chest.