Life after Paradise

by Chai

Author's Notes: This was first posted on JDFF in September 2007, as a quite-seriously-belated post-ep for "Transition." There had, at that point, been a lot of post-eps for that episode, and I undoubtedly owed something to everything I'd read. But I was conscious as I was writing that I owed even more than usual to a few stories in particular: the episodes about Colin Ayres' gallery show in the Fantasy Virtual Season Eight (Shelley's "Pure and Useful Living" and Jen Wilson's "Rain") and Sally Reeve's "Unspoken."

Sally's idea that Josh and Donna might not have spent as much of that tropical vacation as they should have actually talking about their relationship and working out its kinks was one starting-point for me; her inspired thought that Colin might have asked Donna to write text to accompany his pictures in a gallery show was another; and I realized to my chagrin when I re-read her story some time after first posting this that I had echoed her more closely than I had intended in other ways as well. So if you feel as you read this that parts of it seem less than original, I'm afraid you're right. If you still want to keep reading, think of this, as I did as I was writing it, as a response of sorts to her story and Jen's, one that imagines a series of events quite similar in some ways to the ones Sally and Jen described, but I hope quite different, too, in others.

I'm also indebted to Aim for thoughts about Josh and Donna that she expressed while writing "Forgive Us Our Trespasses," and to Liz and Mistletoe for all their encouragement and help: Liz in particular researched many points for me, and both of them read it over and urged me to keep going whenever I was ready to quit. Without them this would never have been written, and it's a much better story than it would have been without their input, but its faults are, of course, entirely my own.

Life after Paradise

Part 1—

"Hello, Donna."

Louisa D'Amato smiled with professional welcome at her visitor, who was folding up her umbrella and balancing it awkwardly in the corner behind the coat-rack, trying to find a way to keep it from leaving a wet mark on the wall.

The woman turned towards her and tried to smile in return.

"Hello, Louisa. How are you?"

"I'm fine, thank you, Donna. How are you?"

The slim blonde made her way to the chair facing Louisa's desk. She was slimmer than ever, Louisa noticed: thin, in fact. Thin enough to look as though she might break when she bent at the waist to sit down—though, to Louisa's mind, she'd never been far from looking that way, anyway. She'd lost weight—not a lot of weight, but then, she hadn't had any she could afford to lose. Her cheekbones stood out painfully in her white face, and her eyes looked dark and shadowed. Loss of appetite, lack of sleep—Louisa ticked the symptoms off silently, her mind already forming the diagnosis and deducing the probable cause.

Donna forced a brighter smile, and ignored the question.

"How's Robbie, Louisa?"

"He's doing well, thanks, Donna. Working harder this semester, getting some good grades. He's fine."

"Great. That's great. And Katie?"

"She's fine."

"That's great. And Megan?"

"Just fine, thanks, Donna. We're all very well. But how are you?"

Donna's smile dimmed.

"Me? Oh, um, well. . . ."

"It's been a while since you were here last," Louisa offered, neutrally. She was used to having to break the ice to get the occupant of the chair opposite her to start talking.

"Two months," Donna said, automatically. "Or a little less. Six weeks, I think. And a couple of days."

She had a head for detail; it was one of the most striking things about her, Louisa had always thought. That she still had it suggested that, whatever the problem was that had brought her here so suddenly this afternoon, it hadn't been going on very long. Physical appearances could be deceptive: with that fair skin and slim figure, even a few bad days were bound to have a visible effect. But it wasn't like her to call at the last minute the way she had today; something was obviously bothering her quite a lot, even if it had just come up recently.

"It was before the show, wasn't it?"

"Yes." Donna hesitated. "I called you afterwards, though, I think."

Her tone suggested that it was really Louisa's memory she was unsure of, not her own—another sign that she was not, in fact, as close to the brink of a crisis as someone with less experience than Louisa might have guessed from the urgency of the woman's voice when she had called an hour ago and asked if Louisa could possibly fit her in today. She had had the good sense to come in early, before things got out of hand—something else Louisa remembered about her from the first time.

She'd been tense and nervous then, too—obviously unhappy and off her stride—but she hadn't been anywhere near a breakdown. Louisa had talked to her about trauma and its natural effects, the importance of early intervention, and the difference between post-trauma stress and post-traumatic stress disorder, and while Donna had seemed glad to be assured that she was not yet showing any signs of having developed a serious psychiatric condition like PTSD, and was unlikely to, as long as she dealt intelligently with her feelings about what had happened and looked after herself, Louisa had had the distinct sense that she was only confirming what Donna had already known. She was the type who would have researched her symptoms on the internet, perhaps more extensively at a library, before ever walking into a therapist's office. And she had come in early, before things reached a crisis.

"That's right," Louisa said, reassuringly. "You said the gallery exhibit had gone well."

"It did. It went very well. Much better than I was expecting. I came through with flying colors; everyone said so. They said I did great. They all said they were proud of me, even—"

She broke off without saying who in particular had been proud of her. Louisa raised an eyebrow and settled back in her chair as Donna continued, rather breathlessly:

"Yes, well, what I mean is, I was proud of myself. You were right; I was able to do it. I don't know why I was so worried about it; it wasn't nearly as hard as I'd thought it would be. They're just pictures, after all. Like you said. Just"—her voice trembled, as though the word was hard for her to say—"pictures. Of me. There's blood on my face, but blood has never really bothered me that much. Not—" Her voice wobbled again, and she paused for a moment. Louisa could see her struggling for control. Finally, though, she took a deep breath and went on: "Not my own blood. I've always had a pretty strong stomach for that. I guess most women do, don't they? We're used to seeing it. Not like men. Not like—"

And she broke off again.

"You haven't been sleeping well, have you, Donna?" Louisa asked after a moment or two. Donna shook her head.

"No," she admitted. "No, not very well."

"Are you having trouble getting to sleep? Or waking up in the night and not being able to go back again?"

"Both, really."

"Bad dreams?"

Donna nodded. Louisa wasn't surprised. It was what she'd been expecting, from the moment the woman had walked through her door.

"It's the pictures, isn't it?"

Donna looked startled. "How did you—" she began, then faltered, broke off. Her surprise puzzled Louisa.

"It's not uncommon, you know," she said, gently. "We talked about this, remember? It was always a possibility, that your mind would take a while to react to what you saw at that show. It doesn't mean you shouldn't have gone, or that you didn't do well, or you've failed—it just means you've got more work to do."

"Oh," Donna said, sounding genuinely surprised. "Oh, no. Oh, no—that's not it. That's not it at all."

Louisa blinked.

"What is it, then?" she asked.

She did a pretty good job, she thought, at keeping her skepticism out of her voice. It was important not to let the patient think you were two steps ahead of her, even when you were.

Donna didn't answer. She was staring down at her hands—which, Louisa could see, were shaking a little. She squeezed them tightly together in her lap, and the trembling seemed to stop.

"What is it, then?" Louisa repeated. And then, when Donna still didn't answer, she spoke more sharply, "Donna?"

"I'm sorry?" Donna said, looking up at last.

Her face was paler than ever—as white as a sheet, Louisa thought. Louisa wasn't much given to examining her thoughts for cliches; if she'd ever thought about it, she would probably have said that phrases only became cliches because they were the most efficient way of expressing a common idea, rather the way labels like "acute stress disorder" or "PTSD" were the most efficient way of talking about a variety of symptoms and causes that might otherwise take far too long to describe.

"I asked what you were saying, Donna," Louisa said, frowning a little.

"What I was saying?" Donna sounded startled, as if she hadn't realized that she hadn't finished her thought. "I'm sorry." She was obviously embarrassed. "I guess I'm a little—abstracted today."

Louisa raised an eyebrow at the unusual choice of word.

"'Abstracted,'" Donna went on, loosening her hands a little and starting to twist something—a kleenex—that she was holding in them. "That's a strange word, isn't it? I looked it up once; it means 'lost in thought.' But it also means that something's been reduced, doesn't it? Condensed, boiled down, like an abstract of a book or an article. I used to do a lot of that at work: Jo—" She broke off, paused a split second, and then started again, still with a touch of hesitation. "My—boss—back then—was always wanting me to make up abstracts of documents for him, articles on this or that, you wouldn't believe the subjects, everything under the sun."

She smiled, a little tremulously. There was a touch of wistfulness in her voice. Louisa knitted her brows together: that boss again. He had been a problem before—at least as much of a problem as the explosion that had killed three men and injured Donna at Gaza. She wondered why he would be surfacing in her client's thought again now; surely everything the woman had achieved since leaving that dead-end job in the dust should have immunized her against thoughts of her old, toxic boss.

"That was tedious for you," she said, helpfully, remembering Donna's concerns about her job then. But Donna didn't respond the way she expected.

"Oh no," Donna said, seriously. Her hands stopped fiddling with the tissue. She clasped them together earnestly, almost pleadingly. "Oh, no. It was very interesting, really; I learned so much that way. It was really quite an education."

She paused, and looked down at her hands for a minute. Louisa waited, curiously. This was very different from the way Donna had spoken about her old job before. It had been a while, of course—almost a year and a half since Donna had left it and joined the Russell campaign. She'd gone from there to the Santos campaign, and then to the White House as Mrs. Santos' Chief of Staff.

Louisa didn't follow Washington politics much—she was Army, through and through—but she'd been pleased by everything Donna had told her about her successes. She'd had to deal with the old boss during the campaign, too, Louisa remembered. He'd been a prick, of course, but somebody else—a woman, naturally—had recognized Donna's abilities and given her the job she'd deserved, and he'd simply had to put up with it. Or that was what Louisa remembered. They hadn't talked about him at all the last time Donna had been here. Clearly something had changed.

"Of course," Donna said, rather vaguely, "'abstracted' has other meanings, too. I looked it up once, just so I could argue about it with—with my boss—and it can mean that something's been removed or separated from something else. . . ."

And her voice drifted away again.

"Donna," Louisa said, patiently. "You were saying?"

Donna looked up, blinking.

"I'm sorry," she said again. "What did you say?"

"Can you finish what you were saying, Donna? Come to your point?"

"Come to the point?" Donna asked, absently. "I think I was. I think that was the point."

Louisa suppressed a slight sigh. There were days when she felt better equipped for this sort of thing than others, and this wasn't one of them. But she had the time—her only other appointment that afternoon had cancelled—and Donna was, after all, paying her for it. That was one of the advantages of private practice; you didn't have to worry about keeping to a schedule determined by the Army or the VA. She made a note or two on the pad of paper on her desk and said, "Why don't you tell me some more about it, Donna? Take your time. Tell it however you need to."

The woman in front of her nodded and settled back in her chair. Her voice wavered a little, and she started to twist the kleenex again, picking at it as she talked, until the legs of her dark pants were covered in fine white dust.

"I guess—I never told you—about what happened last year, at the end of the campaign. About—about me and—" She hesitated again, her lips trembling. There was a long pause.

"And what, Donna?" Louisa asked, evenly.

The pause continued for some time. When Donna finally answered, her voice was almost inaudible. "And—Josh."

Louisa's eyes widened with surprise. She didn't follow the gossip columns in the press or read "People," or she might have picked up on the stories that had started to circulate after the President's inauguration. They had all been short pieces accompanied by small photos—just footnotes, really, to the much larger spreads about the First Family that had appeared at the time.

"No," her therapist said carefully, after a few moments. "No, you didn't."

Donna's pale face turned a delicate shade of pink.

"Well," Louisa said, after another short pause. "Why don't you tell me now?"

The rain slashed against the windows with a hard, rattling sound as Donna started to speak, and a rumble in the distance announced the arrival of the afternoon thunderstorm. They'd been having them all week. Everyone kept hoping they'd clear the air, but they didn't; by evening the sun would be baking down and the sticky heat would return, unabated.

It seemed too early for this sort of weather—it was more like July or August than May—but this, the newscasters kept telling people, was something they could expect to see more often now that all that carbon build-up in the atmosphere was disrupting the weather patterns. Dump enough toxic waste into any system and you changed it, and then you had to live with the consequences. If you could.

A lot of people were clamoring for the government to legislate serious environmental regulation in an effort to reverse the changes, but Louisa herself was of the "learn to live with it" school on global warming. She had a very comfortable income, didn't own any waterfront property, and couldn't imagine turning up the thermostat on her air-conditioning or taking the Metro in to work instead of her Mazda SUV. She could learn to live with warmer weather and stronger storms. She thought of that as adaptation.

TBC. . .