Title: Afternoon Tea
Notes: Written for 2009 Yuletide fic exchange.
Summary: Allison's world is never empty.
Allison's mysteries aren't always loud or flashy. The quietest 'experience' he ever has with her - outside the random moments where she'll quietly disclose something that's happened over the previous few days, or allude to something completely separate to him – was on a sunny afternoon in late October.
They'd stopped at an outdoor café for lunch. They rarely shared meals, but the unexpected warmth of the day and the desire to stay outside for as long as possible kept him from refusing when she asked to stop. It was blurring a doctor/patient line, but no more than had happened before, and if he wanted to wring psychological theory or backing for it, it was a good way to observe Allison in a new situation and setting.
Mostly, he'd been hungry, and a baguette and a pot of tea had sounded fantastic, especially in the warm air.
"You know, it's something of a curse, living here." Allison said around a bite of her sandwich.
Distracted with paraphernalia for the tea, it had taken him a moment to process what she'd said. "I'm sorry? Bristol is cursed?" Allison seemed in a good mood, so he'd played for smiles rather than serious. It, like a lovely day in October, was allowed to happen on occasion. "And you're just bringing this up now?"
She'd set down her baguette and laughed then. Genuinely laughed. It'd been an odd thing; a spot of bright were there was normally gray. Shaking her head she'd reached for the shared pot of tea. "Not Bristol, specifically. It's just, me. Living here."
"How do you mean?" He'd waited while she'd taken a few sips of tea before inquiring again. "You living in Bristol is a curse?"
Another chuckle and shake of the head and she'd leaned back into her chair, staring out across the buildings. "No, living here in England. The UK. Hell, even Europe. We've so much history just lying about." She'd waved her free hand out, vaguely gesturing towards St. Mary Redcliffe and all the various and sundry buildings in between. "We grow up in our own history. Roman walls and Norman buildings repurposed as parts of pubs or common houses."
"It does give the place a bit of character."
"Pffft." Allison'd rolled her eyes at him, putting on the high, mocking voice he very much hated. "'Bit of character', he says." Her tone dropped and she paused, something catching her eye in the distance. Quickly, he'd turned, trying to see what had paused her, but there were only squat Tudor buildings and the rush of normal foot traffic.
She'd started talking before he'd turned back around. "Yeah, there's character. But there's history and death and ghosts, and while all of that is great for tourists and telly programs, it's a bit hard to take for people like me."
"So, you'd want to move away? Because most of the world has historical dig or archeological sites."
"Never said that, did I? You and your conclusions, Robert." She tsked her tongue and leaned back in the metal cafe chair. "Might want to try something for that. No, I just got here. I'm not going again. I just..." She shrugged and reached for her tea. "It's just hard being here. Bein' around all this, all the time."
It was such an odd and weirdly open thing to say, Robert couldn't let it die. Later, he'd think back on it, trying to puzzle out why he'd not let it go. Right then, he put it down to curiosity and a comfortably empty afternoon. "Isn't that why you moved here? To start over?"
"Fat lot of good that did me." Allison made a face. "But that's different than what I mean. That was distance and getting out of my own story a bit. This is about history and the fact that even the most psychically blind person on this planet is never, ever quite alone."
"Because of ghosts."
"Mmm." Carefully, obviously gathering her thoughts, Allison picked at the paper sleeve on her takeaway cup. Worrying the edge with a fingernail. "Sounds like something you'd say; ghosts don't have to be metaphysical to haunt people." The look she gave him was piercing; one of those occasional glances that shot right through his professional distance – what little left of it there was – and made him honestly wonder who was counseling who.
He leaned forward in his chair, deliberately engaging rather than backing off. "Specters of the past?"
She laughed again, startling one of the children at the closest table into staring. Allison didn't notice, just kept smiling at him. "Something like that."
"So, you don't like Bristol because you're surrounded by history and the past?" He leaned back in his chair, unconsciously mirroring her relaxed pose. "Something you're aware of at all times."
Allison shrugged. "Fishing for another angle for your book there? I don't hate Bristol. It's just a place like any other. Only place I'd probably be able to go would be the middle of nowhere, and I like my takeout options a bit too much to make that kind of sacrifice."
Robert laughed at that. "So you're not phobic, but living in 'old' places makes you uncomfortable."
Allison rolled her eyes then. A much more familiar expression. "I'm explaining this wrong."
"How so? I thought you seemed clear."
"That's because you're looking for what you want to hear in what I say." Allison huffed. "I'm saying that sitting here, in this perfectly modern square, surrounded by all these cars and technology and modernness, there's always more. There're people who've died and lived here for centuries, always pressing in. Always near. Always present, if just in peripheral."
Robert found himself nodding. "All true. But I don't know what this has to do with ghosts. This seems more like a crisis of philosophy. Being a speck of a speck in the scope of the universe, rather than something paranormal."
The look she gave him was blistering and conveyed the fact that she not only found him thick, but suspected he couldn't tie his shoes without supervision. "Are the words coming out of my mouth in French? Dutch?"
"What? No, what's-"
"Robert. Stop." Allison ran a hand over her face, pulling it to a stop over her mouth. She stared for a bit, tilting her head and just considering him over the edges of her fingers. Calmly, he crossed his hands over his stomach and waited. The heat of the sun was nice on his face, leaving him warm and a bit drowsy. As comfortable and relaxed as he could be in Allison's presence.
"I want you to do something for me," she finally said. Folded her hands on the table and waited.
"What do you want me to do?" He asked, suspicious.
"Nothing hard. You don't even have to move."
"All right. And what would I be doing while not moving?"
"Just." Allison paused, holding his gaze. "Just close your eyes, Robert."
"I want to try something."
He thought his raised eyebrow said it all.
"Nothing weird! Just. Just close your eyes and listen."
"I don't know," she snapped, losing a bit of her patience. "The world? Just close your eyes and focus on the people. Listen to them walking and talking."
Figuring it couldn't really hurt, he closed his eyes and tried it. "Okay. I'm listening to people walking. And the men two tables over talking about one of their girlfriend's body."
"Typical." He heard Allison grunt. "But not just that. Can you hear the cars across the square?"
He listened. Sure enough, he could hear the rubber on cobbles, thumping along. The children at the next table chatting about a television show. Dishes clattered in the outdoor dish station. "Yes."
"Keep listening. There're people everywhere. You can hear them walking and talking. Their clothes moving. The buzzing of their voices."
He kept at it, less entranced and more curious to where she was going with this. Yes, he was in good conditions for hypnotism. He was warm, comfortable, and full from their recent lunch. Still, Allison's voice wasn't monotone, nor was he feeling the urge to do anything other than just listen to people sounds. It was something he hadn't really done for years. Just let the world happen around him while he listened.
There was someone nearby, humming. A strange little tune that was more nonsense than melody. A bike bell rang, a strange clang against the hum of conversation and chewing around them. He listened to the hustle and bustle of Bristol; her denizens and streets.
Eventually, he blinked his eyes open; squinting at the brightness of the afternoon light. "And what was the point of that little exercise?"
Allison's smile was sad. "To hear the world. We're surrounded by humanity at all times, Robert. People that are alive and living their lives. Moving about their days, completely oblivious to the thousands of other people around them, going on about their days. So many people within touching distance, but we go through our days alone. Stuck in our own heads, eyes forward. And it's something I envy deeply."
He blinked then. Bits and pieces of the conversation rearranging themselves in his brain. "You wanted me to be aware. To connect?"
"Mmm. Something like that." She shrugged, going back to peeling cardboard off her to-go cup. "For a few minutes, you were listening to everyone else. Not participating in the world, but just experiencing it. Letting yourself hear. I don't get a choice about that awareness. And my world is a lot bigger than yours."
"Because of the dead people." He smiled then, a quirk of the lips to try and salvage the earlier cheer of the afternoon. And to try and quash the flash of pity for the woman across from him. That wouldn't help anything, and would likely piss her off.
She snorted, appreciative of his attempt and, hopefully, unaware of his motivation. "Because of the dead people."
"I'm sorry, Allison." He hadn't known who was more surprised at his words, he or Allison.
"Why, this time?"
He shrugged, looking out over the semi-crowded tables and chairs that surrounded them. At the humanity he'd just listened to. Watched as they moved and lived.
"I just am." He said, finally, not really sure why he meant them as much as he did.
"Fair enough." Allison just smiled, leaned back in her chair, and closed her eyes.