Disclaimer: I do not own The Listener or any associated characters.
Toby required a certain finesse to get through the day. The barrier he had painstakingly constructed in his head over nearly twenty years was more of a constant negotiation than a wall. Barbarian hordes met his diplomats, and occasionally he was able to get them to shake hands and return in the other direction, with minimal overflow over the border.
Occasionally he couldn't. Occasionally they burned his cities and stole his women - usually the latter - and once in a while, they sacked the capital and left him a quivering wreck of a human being.
Getting through the night was an even more complicated matter - it was one thing to deal with the thoughts of others, but his own were simply burdensome. There were memories with ragged edges - a woman with eyes like his, a burning trailer, sneaking out of a building the purpose of which he couldn't quite remember.
There were questions. Was there anyone else out there like him? What did silence sound like? (He had vague ideas, like a blind man fantasizing about color.)
The day it started was the day he actually asked it. He adjusted the collar of his shirt, and waited a moment to see if dispatch might distract him. Oz hummed along to a song in his head, which Toby tried to shuffle towards the back of his own thoughts.
"What's it like, anyway?" he asked.
Oz stopped humming and glanced over. "What's what like?"
"Quiet. You know, getting in to bed and just . . . silence."
Oz pulled his bottom lip over his teeth, then adjusted himself so he was facing Toby. "C'mon, man."
"No, I'm serious." Toby swiped the bottom of his nose. "If there's no noise out in the real world, my concentration just gets pulled toward the, you know. Thoughts."
"I thought you could block it out."
After a moment where Toby stared at the dashboard (they just didn't talk about this kind of thing, what was he thinking?) and Oz stared at him, Oz opened his mouth. "Ah, well, you know. It's just - no sound."
Toby looked up. "I have no idea what that sounds like."
"It doesn't sound like anything," Oz started, but Toby shot him a look, so he paused. "All right, fine. You know when you walk into a room that no one's been in for a while and everything's all still? Nothing moving but the air going in and out of your lungs? I guess that's kind of what silence is like. 'S'hard to explain."
After a beat, Toby said, "Okay."
"Seriously, though, man, you've never been alone?"
Dispatch crackled, and Oz started up the rig. Toby shrugged. "Sure. In a room, in my apartment. Maybe even a building. But there are always people out on the streets, or in the next building over or something."
"Hmm," said Oz. The ambulance wailed. They made a right turn. Toby tried to fill the void, to think of something to say.
"That was rather eloquent, you know," he said.
"Maybe if they make me prime minister you'll see some more of that."
Toby snorted, and angled himself to grab his bag and open the door. The moment they stopped, both men swung out and retrieved the stretcher. They jogged up the steps to the apartment building. Before they even had to buzz, a couple pushed open the gate. Oz caught it and they dashed through and up the stairs.
The door to the apartment was already unlocked. It didn't take them that long to find the two women, one hunched over the other. The other appeared to be seizing, and stopped just as they reached her. Toby gently pulled the first away, and Oz began to work. "What happened?" Toby asked.
"She just - she fell and started shaking. They told me to keep her still, so I tried to hold her down - Is she going to be okay?"
Toby glanced at Oz. Oz straightened out a bit. "We're going to have to get her to the hospital, ma'am." He jerked his head towards the waiting stretcher. "Toby, help me out here."
They moved the woman up onto the stretcher, then carried it as delicately as possible down the stairs. The other woman followed them, staying a few steps behind. Once they reached the bottom landing, she walked next to them until they loaded her girlfriend into the rig.
This was when it happened.
It started with the woman:
Dear god is she going to be okay she doesn't have epilepsy does she only kids get that don't they I can't remember dear god dear god dear god Marie . . .
Toby gritted his teeth and tried to renegotiate his barrier without breaking his concentration on Marie. Then Oz's thoughts joined the chorus.
I hope she didn't just have a grand mal but that would be kind of sudden must be something else aw what the hell I'm not a doctor hey Toby doesn't look so good . . .
The couple from earlier returned up the sidewalk. Upon seeing the paramedics, they stopped and stared, as people tended to.
Hey those are the EMS guys from earlier that couldn't be Marie and Val from downstairs could it I just saw her yesterday . . .
Geez I wonder what happened Marie didn't get hurt did she Garrett said he saw her at the gym yesterday I'd be worried if she wasn't gay lord Val looks worried . . .
Toby breathed in, steadied himself. He pulled up every method Ray had ever taught him, and found they weren't working. "Toby?" Oz asked. "You all right?" Val was annoyed - whatever was wrong with this guy couldn't possibly be as important as what was happening to Marie.
"Uh," Toby began, and then it really hit.
First, it was everyone on their side of the apartment building, then it was the building across the street. Thirty, maybe forty voices swarmed like bees inside his head and there was nothing he could do to keep them out. He fell back against the ambulance, clutching his ears like he was nine years old all over again.
Suddenly Val was less annoyed - she realized this was serious, but she wanted them to hurry it up and get Marie to the hospital, and the couple was secretly pleased to be getting a real spectacle. Several people were watching from their windows, and a man was rushing from the inside to see what was the matter.
"Toby," Oz said, kneeling, "you getting a hit?"
What the hell's a hit this guy doesn't get migraines does he why would they let him be a paramedic what about Marie . . .
"No," Toby breathed out, proud of himself for even managing to comprehend Oz's question. "It's something else."
Oz swallowed. He was uncertain about what to do; this wasn't something he ever thought would happen . . . Toby was not reassured by his partner's train of thought. "All right," he said. "We'll get you up in the front, and, uh - you. Ride in the back. Call if something's wrong. I'll get us to the hospital as fast as possible and everything's going to be okay, yeah?"
Val blinked several times, uncertain. "Yeah, okay," she said after a beat. Oz helped Toby straighten out, then helped Val into the back. He followed behind as Toby staggered towards his seat, then rushed to get into his own.
Thankfully, nothing happened with Marie on the way. Toby grunted every time they passed a crowded area or a large building. By the time they handed Marie and Val off to the doctors, Marie was beginning to come to.
"Hey, look, something happened while we were picking that girl up," Oz explained in a rush. He, Olivia, and a male doctor Toby vaguely remembered as being named Zach carefully moved Toby from the passenger seat.
"I'm -" Toby started to say 'I'm fine' then realized how incredibly ridiculous that was. The noise from the hospital was worse than the noise from the apartment buildings. These people were injured, dying, some of them even comatose, and couldn't they just be quiet for a minute or two and let him hear himself think for once? "Call Ray," he told Olivia, and was rushed off.
Everyone else engulfed him.
Ray arrived in a flurry of cold. He stuffed his gloves into his coat pocket, and rushed up to the front desk. "I'm looking for Toby Logan," he said.
The receptionist looked up at him. Her cheeks were pockmarked, but her lips were precisely the right shade of red. "And you are?"
"His psychologist," Ray explained. "Dr. Fawcett called me in."
The receptionist stroked a few keys before looking up again. She told him the room number. Ray ran as quickly as he could in the appropriate direction.
Olivia intercepted him. "Dr. Mercer," she said quietly. "Toby wanted me to call you, but we don't actually know what's wrong with him yet. Do you have any idea?"
Ray breathed in, and reminded himself that while Toby was considerably more than just another patient, his obligations here required him to be calm. "I'd have to see him," he said. "He didn't mention anything the last time I spoke with him."
Olivia bit her lip. "He's very upset. We've tried talking with him, but he stopped responding about half an hour ago. He just keeps covering his ears. I really hope you'll be able to help."
The corridor suddenly seemed very small, very confined - or was that his chest? Ray could very clearly remember the little boy that had been brought to him. The only other doctor Toby had seen thought he was severely autistic; such was the severity of his condition. Every hour, every year, every setback they'd moved past - that couldn't just be wiped away in half an hour.
Something else had to be happening.
"I hope," Ray agreed. "I have to see him. Alone."
Olivia looked at him for a moment. "Certainly," she said.
She led him the rest of the way to Toby's room. Gingerly, she opened the door, but their appearance didn't seem to have any effect. Ray swallowed, calmed his thoughts, and moved in. "I'll check in in a bit," Olivia said, and closed the door behind her.
Toby was hunched over his knees, hands clasped over his head and palms pressed against his ears. He groaned weakly, but it was obvious that he had mostly given up.
Ray pulled a chair from the other side of the room over to the bedside, and eased himself down. "Toby," he said gently. "It's Ray."
Toby tilted his head to the side slightly. His eyes weren't those of his nine-year-old self. They still belonged to a grown man. For this, Ray was grateful.
"Is this a problem with your control? Just nod for yes."
Ray cursed under his breath. "You've tried everything, then."
"All right. We're going to go through that first exercise I taught you, okay? We'll start from the ground up. If we have to start all over again, Toby, we'll do it. I'm going to get you back to normal."
Toby nodded. He turned his face back between his knees, and Ray could see him beginning the exercise.
"Pick out my thoughts specifically," Ray murmured. "It's just like picking out a noise in a crowded room. Listen to what I'm thinking, ignore the rest."
Toby worked silently for at least a minute. Ray kept his thoughts steady and repetitive, all the easier to latch onto. Finally, Toby breathed in shakily and looked up. There was still a pained expression on his face, but things were calmer.
"Okay," he said after a beat.
"That took you twenty minutes the first time we tried it. Things aren't as bad as they used to be."
"Okay," said Toby.
"Are you ready to move on?"
"Keep concentrating on my thoughts. Try to block out the rest. Don't just ignore them. Get rid of them. This might take a bit longer, I'm sure you remember . . ."
Both of them did.