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Five Mornings After

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Donna is considering the possibility that she’s died and gone to a very special basement level of Hell.

Her skull feels like it’s split in two, the inside of her mouth is sandpaper-dry, and the mere idea of leaving whatever flat surface she’s currently lying on makes her want to weep.

‘Good morning,’ Josh says, from somewhere off to her left.

With no small amount of effort, she cracks one eye open.

‘Oh god,’ she croaks. ‘It’s you.’

‘That’s the greeting I get? After I’ve sat with you all night, made sure you don’t, you know, choke on your own vomit?’

‘You sat with… oh, my god.’ She’s lying on her bed, she realizes. That makes sense. She draws her quilt up over her head as she mumbles, ‘I’m so fired, I’m so fired, I’m so—’

The covers are rudely yanked away from her and she glares up at her soon-to-be-former boss. ‘Not that I’m not grateful for you… doing whatever you did, but can you please put those back and leave me to wallow? And put a note reminding me that I no longer work for you somewhere I’m going to see it, ’cause I’m probably not going to remember.’

Honestly, she deserves some kind of award just for stringing all those words together, she thinks. At the very least, Josh should stop laughing at her.

‘You’re not fired,’ he says.

‘I’m not?’

He shrugs. ‘Happens to the best of us.’

‘Okay,’ she says. She thinks about it. ‘Can I be fired just for today while I sleep this off?’

‘You can have a ninety minute vacation. How’s that?’

‘You’re so generous.’

‘Hey, it’s not like I told you to go out and get drunk on a work night. I think it’s pretty generous.’

‘Yeah, yeah.’ Although someone must have told her to, she thinks. There’s no way she’d put herself through this voluntarily. There will be somebody to blame and as soon as she can move she’ll hunt them down and make them pay. For now, she asks, ‘So you’re not sending me home to Madison in disgrace?’

‘No. We fire you for getting drunk and we’d be getting rid of half the staff, if what I’m hearing about Bonnie and Kathy’s current states is true.’

‘And you’re not going to mock me about this forever?’ It’s worth asking, though she’s not very hopeful.

‘Nope,’ he says, to her surprise, and then adds, ‘Well, not about the drunk bit.’

‘What are you talking about?’ she asks warily.

Grinning, he produces a book from behind his back. She squints at it.

‘Give me that!’ she yelps, when she realizes what he’s holding.

‘I haven’t finished it yet,’ he says, holding it out of her reach. ‘No—really, I’m—I’m intrigued. Is Lady Arabella going to return to her husband and put up with the boring sex for the sake of wealth and stability, or is she going to run away with her—’ he glances at the back cover ‘—dashing but penniless young lover? I can’t tell.’

‘The second one. Now give it to me.’

‘Oh, see, now you’ve ruined it for me,’ he says. ‘I was enjoying it.’

‘I’ll bet you were,’ she mutters.

‘The rich prose, the plot twists, the character development, Donna—’

‘I’m going to kill you,’ she says. ‘I’m not going to be nice about it. It’ll be painful.’

Ignoring her threats, he asks, ‘Do women really like this stuff?’

‘And slow,’ Donna promises. ‘I’m going to make it slow.’

His mouth twitches. ‘See, that sounds like something that Daniel the, ah, charming young peasant lad would say.’

She means to throw a pillow at him but it turns out that requires too much energy. ‘Go away now.’

‘Fine.’ Waving the book at her, he asks, ‘Can I borrow A Touch of Desire?’

Taste of desire, not touch. And no. And you’re depraved.’

‘What? I’m honestly curious about Arabella’s dilemma—’

Depraved,’ she repeats. ‘If you were in one of these books you’d be the notorious rake that all the young ladies avoided.’

‘Huh.’ Josh tilts his head. ‘Doesn’t he usually get the girl? I’m not well-versed the way you obviously are, but—’

‘Get out.’

When she gets to work he presents her with a large cup of coffee and a really good pastry. She’ll kill him later, she thinks.

***

Josh opens his eyes to find himself nose-to-nose with a large gray cat.

He could just push it off his chest, except he’s suffering from a severe case of not being able to move his arms, and when he tries to shift just a little to dislodge the cat, it simply digs its claws in and shoves its face closer to his.

‘Um,’ he husks out to the room at large. ‘Help?’

‘Well, well,’ Donna says, suddenly looming into view above him. ‘How the tables have turned.’

‘There’s a cat sitting on me,’ he tells her.

‘Yes,’ she says, sounding very unconcerned as she scratches the cat behind the ears. ‘That’s Flossy.’

‘That’s great. Could you take her off me?’

‘Him.’

‘You called a male cat “Flossy”?’

‘Not me. My roommate.’

Josh looks at Flossy, who is tilting his head back to let Donna rub beneath his chin. ‘Wow. She didn’t want to give him even a fighting chance with the other cats, huh?’

‘The shelter where she got him said he was a girl, and by the time she realized he wasn’t, she was too attached to the name to change it.’

‘Fascinating. Could you take him off me?’

‘He’s comfortable there.’

‘Right,’ Josh says. ‘Well, I’m not comfortable.’

‘You’re hungover. You’re not going to be comfortable anywhere.’

‘Well, but there are certain degrees of uncomfortable, and you could, you know, help me step the discomfort down a notch by taking the cat off me. Also he’s—I’m pretty sure he’s growling at me.’

‘He’s purring. Actually—’ Donna lowers her head to listen, her silky hair tickling Josh’s nose. ‘Wait, maybe he is growling. I’ve never heard him do that before. Perhaps he’s taken a disliking to you.’

‘Donna—’

‘What with you coming in here at midnight and yelling at him about a bill that he can’t possibly understand. Can you, Flossy?’ she coos, crinkling her nose at the cat. ‘No, you can’t.’

‘Donna—’

‘You’ll want to lie very still,’ she says, straightening up. ‘He could do some damage with those claws.’

‘Donna! Is this revenge for the book thing?’

She smiles sweetly at him. ‘This is, in fact, revenge for the book thing. How could you tell?’

‘I should have known,’ he groans. ‘I always thought you let me off way too easy. But you were just biding your time—’

‘Watching and waiting. Yes.’ She pushes Josh’s legs aside so that she can sit on the sofa next to him. ‘Although I wasn’t expecting it to be last night. You had what, two drinks?’

‘I honestly couldn’t say.’

‘It was two drinks,’ she says smugly. ‘I was counting. You must have a very sensitive system.’

‘I do not.’

‘It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Josh. We all have secrets. I read trashy romance novels; you can’t hold your liquor.’

‘If I never speak of your book again—which, I’ll point out, I wasn’t doing anyway—could you please not tell anyone that I have—what did you say?’

‘A sensitive system.’

‘Yes. That. Could you please not go around telling people that?’

‘Okay,’ she says brightly.

‘Because it’s not true, for a start.’

‘Okay,’ she repeats.

‘You won’t tell anyone?’

‘I won’t tell anyone.’ She leans over and picks Flossy up; the cat gives up its comfortable perch with minimal clawing, though it eyeballs him in such a way that he’s sure things aren’t over between them.

But his ability to drink, he assumes, as he prepares to spend the day getting acquainted with Donna’s couch, will never come up again.

***

It’s cold.

‘Urgh. Why aren’t we under the covers?’ Donna asks, and then shrieks as she realizes that she’s not alone in bed, that she is indeed part of a “we”. ‘Josh!’ she cries.

His eyes fly open and he sits bolt upright, clutching at his hair, which is sticking up on one side. ‘Donna!’

‘We didn’t,’ Donna says, scrambling as far over to her side of the bed as she can without falling off. ‘We didn’t do anything, did we?’

‘We couldn’t have,’ Josh insists. ‘It would be… irresponsible. I definitely didn’t drink enough to be irresponsible.’

‘You see, Josh, you say that—’

‘Definitely not enough,’ he says firmly.

‘But you did drink enough to wind up in bed with me and not remember how?’ she asks, and can’t resist adding, waspishly, ‘Which would have been, I don’t know, half a shandy?’

Josh makes an indignant sound. ‘Okay. Why don’t you tell me how we got here?’

She opens and closes her mouth a couple of times. ‘Well, anyway,’ she says eventually, ‘there’s no harm done. We still couldn’t have done anything.’

‘No, we couldn’t have. We couldn’t have.’

‘I mean, we both still have our clothes on,’ she points out.

‘Yes,’ he says, clinging to a handful of blanket like it’s the tidbit of information she’s just mentioned, ‘and we wouldn’t put our clothes back on, would we?’

‘No.’

‘We absolutely would not. Especially with your dress being all—’ he waves a hand at her ‘—complicated, and my bow-tie—’

‘Right. Absolutely. And!’ She waves a finger in his face. ‘And also, do you know what else? It doesn’t feel like I’ve had sex.’

He frowns. ‘What?’

‘You know. I’d probably… feel different.’ She can see the gears clunking about slowly in his brain, so she helps him along a little, adding, ‘Physically. Down there.’

‘Ah,’ he squeaks. He clears his throat. ‘And you, uh, you can’t—good. That’s… that’s very good. That’s quite a clear sign that—okay. Good.’

There’s a silence.

‘We shouldn’t talk about this,’ Donna decides.

‘Not ever,’ Josh says fervently.

***

What makes it so awful is that she’d known she was going to feel this way. She’d determinedly squashed the thought down these past few days, allowed her aggravation at Josh to reach unprecedented levels in order to cushion the blow, but now, after a long, restless night, it is killing her.

She pulls herself out of bed and paces across the room to her dresser where her cellphone sits.

‘You have no new messages,’ her voicemail calmly informs her.

Right. Of course not.

She picks up the note sitting next to it. YOU HAVE QUIT YOUR JOB, she has scribbled, just in case. DO NOT GO TO WORK, IT WILL BE AWKWARD.

Josh is going to walk into the bullpen to find a temp sitting at her desk. He’s going to be astonished and outraged, because she’s one of a tiny handful of people that he thought would never, ever leave him. He’s going to complain to everyone who crosses his path about his flighty assistant, including the poor temp, probably.

She scrunches the note into a ball and wonders if, in amongst the shock and anger, he’ll think to miss her.

This hurts more than any hangover.

***

Josh wakes with a dead arm.

‘Hey,’ he whispers to Donna, kissing her forehead. ‘Hey.’ He kisses her nose and she stirs. ‘You’re lying on my arm.’

He doesn’t actually care very much that his fingers feel tingly and swollen; Donna could lie on any part of him that she chose to, all day every day, and he’d be perfectly content. He just wants her to be awake and talking to him.

‘Sorry,’ she mumbles, shifting so that he can pull his arm free. Sleepily, she skims a hand up his side and tangles it in his hair before opening her eyes and smiling. ‘Hello.’

He grins. ‘Hi. I love you.’

Her smile widens. ‘So you told me last night.’

‘Yeah, well. I like saying it.’

‘Mm, same.’ She kisses him and says the words that still roll around their mouths in a way that is unfamiliar and delightful. ‘I love you.’

Okay, so they might never stop being delightful.

Donna gives him another kiss, a longer one. Without pulling away, she puts her leg over his hip and rolls them so that she’s on top of him. He returns the kiss enthusiastically, hands roaming down her back, over the curve of her ass. She brings her mouth down to his jaw, pressing her lips against his skin over and over again, and reaches down to graze her nails over his outer thigh.

‘I really love you,’ he gasps.

He feels her smile against him. ‘So you showed me last night,’ she murmurs.

‘Maybe I can show you again,’ he suggests, ‘or are you getting bored?’

‘Oh, I think I could tolerate a repeat performance,’ she says lightly. She kisses the corner of his mouth. ‘Or… several.’ She shifts a little on top of him and moves her mouth round to his ear, saying softly, ‘Hey. Looks like you did get the girl, in the end.’

He blinks, puzzled. ‘Yeah. I—what?’

She looks like she’s just thought the better of mentioning something. ‘Never mind,’ she says, and distracts him by putting her hand exactly where he wants it.

They make love slowly, mostly quiet now after the outpouring of feelings last night, that have built up over nine years of teasing and snarking, of agonizing closeness, agonizing distance, of odd moments they chose to ignore.

After, he rolls them so that they lie facing each other and presses light, sleepy kisses against her mouth.

He smoothes his fingers through her hair and murmurs, ‘Good morning.’