[identity profile] halfaustere.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] thedirtyverse
March 1962

Robert had been off all night.

Not off enough to cancel his plans – a relaxing dinner with Alice at a small place by the hospital – apparently, but somewhat less sociable and cheerful than he often was. While Robert was no Sully, he also usually wasn't quite this solemn. Though he was happy to speak and kept a smile on, it was obviously somewhat put upon and he didn't really suggest any topic of conversation on his own.

Mostly because he hadn't wanted to plague Alice with why. He knew if he'd talked about his day he'd just end up crying, and so he kept his mouth shut, and when the tube pulled up and they stood to board, Alice arm in arm with him, he had to actually stop himself from sighing in relief lest she think it had something to do with her.

Truly, Alice was the only thing that day that hadn't been miserable.

But she was certainly paranoid.

At first, she had assumed Robert was tired. He had a full schedule where she had twenty four hours of free time every day. It wasn't unusual for him to be overworked, but this was different than overworked. So Alice was paranoid, because even though she had no reason to be (they weren't dating, after all, no matter how convinced she was that Robert felt the same way about her she did for him), he was still unhappy, and she had kept her worries in for the better part of an hour, but was going to keep herself up all night if she didn't ask him what was wrong.

She just couldn't do it yet.

The time of day meant the tube was full and seats paired together were impossible to find. Standing never bothered her. Nothing could bother her, now, outside of Robert's despondency.

"You know what would be funny," she offered him, "is if I learned to be a stripper and did a pole dance for all of the tired businessmen. Don't you think?"

And, as probably was no surprise to Alice at all, that got an actual smile out of him. A chortle, even.

"You know, I think there are double-deckers that make their money in doing such things after hours! But right on the tube – you'd make a great deal of tips before being arrested, I do reckon."

"Maybe I'll learn," Alice told him, letting go only so she could grab her own pole. She twisted her hips so that her dress twirled out, something no stripper would bother to do, as it wasn't very sexual. But she was trying to be playful, not sexual, because Robert was being funny.

So she went back to him, anyway, when the train started to move, and took his arm in both of hers.

"You'd never be able to watch me doing that, would you?" she asked him, looking up at his face and wishing she could read his mind.

I'd probably like to, said part of his mind.

No you wouldn't, another part corrected. It would be far too humbling. You'd turn white.

Robert blinked once to clear his mind of the internal conversation, and to prepare himself to act as a pole for Alice while still holding onto his own. "I," he said, and then, "I would never be able to watch anyone doing that. Nothing to do with whether I could watch you."

It was true, too: strip clubs during the war were attended in groups, minus Robert. He preferred to stay with Anne and have tea.

"You're so funny!" Alice told him for the millionth time in five months. "I don't know what to do with you."

She let go of his arm after being slightly jolted, and reattached herself to his side, instead. Even if he never bent, never gave in (which seemed more likely every day), she could at least try to get something out of it. Close her eyes and pretend, for example. Pretend he was her boyfriend. Who in this tube would accuse her of lying?

Instead of doing something that would dissuade the pretense, though, Robert sighed quietly and wrapped his free arm around Alice's waist. She was warm and comforting, and he felt hollow and empty and he loved her, even if he couldn't tell her that, and she pulled him out of his internal ghost town a little. So he held her without thinking of the consequence. Without thinking of what it might imply.

"There's not much to do with me, I'm sorry to say," he almost whispered. "I am a lost cause."

He felt like one.

Alice looked up at him again, almost sharply. "What do you mean?" she asked, growing suddenly anxious. "What happened?"

There. She asked.

And his arm was around her waist. She hoped it would never move.

"Well," Robert attempted to save the situation, because he could in fact think of other appropriate responses than the one that was immediately relevant, "I think I have been a lost cause for quite some time. I may have been born a lost cause – an insular, prudish lost cause whose social interaction was left two or so centuries in the past."

"That's not what I meant," Alice said, still watching him in a way that seemed to imply he was announcing his imminent death. "Robert? Did you have a bad day at hospital? Or did too many hypochondriacs visit the office?"

"I – no."

Maybe if he just didn't answer she'd let it go. No, of course she wouldn't. This is Alice, the inner voice reminded him, not your mother.

Alice frowned. It meant business. But it also didn't last, as she hardly wanted to push him. He might get angry (Robert didn't get angry). Or maybe he would let go of her. That was worse.

"Oh."

"It was –" And then the last threads of willful refusal in Robert broke, and he let it all out with another sigh. "A little girl. About eleven. We can't do anything for her at all.

"Why? What's wrong with her?" Alice asked, tilting her head up again. "Can you talk about it?

"In theory." No names, no personal information outside of case specifics (age, sex and economic status) and he could say however much he wanted, but Robert wasn't entirely sure he wanted to. "It's pthi–tuberculosis. That is, I think, still what they're calling it these days."

"Oh." Alice wobbled a little as the car stopped at another station, latching on more firmly to Robert. "I had that."

Robert, disoriented, thought she was talking about the station they'd just pulled into. "What?"

"What?" Alice asked, confused.

"– I'm lost," Robert admitted. "Had what?"

"TB!"

"Oh!" And then it actually dawned on him. Sank in a bit. "Wait, you – really. You look quite good for it!"

Not the best thing to say, the inner voice reminded him, and he ignored it.

"Well, of course. I'm not normal," Alice murmured, as though she had forgotten. "It was awful, though, and even Mum says she thought I was going to croak."

"How charming," Robert said grimly. A bit sadly, too – his expression had softened to the point where he might've been melting. "I can assure you it wasn't possible."

Better to talk about Alice than the child whose name he couldn't even let himself think. He'd cry. He knew it.

"I think my best friend had it, as well. They moved to America and I never saw her again. We moved to Cape Town. I hated it. I hated every moment of it. It was the worst thing ever. But that's how I got my wings!"

Her tone changed a little. Turned bubbly, or a slightly less-fizzy variation.

"I coughed so hard they popped out."

First, Robert let out a laugh – and then hardened a bit, returning his expression to netural, and immediately after that completely unsubtle attempt at trying to hide amusement, looked guilty.

Alice furrowed her brow. "Robert. You look terrible. Won't you talk about it?"

"Well, it – I feel terrible. I rarely handle children at all, I'm an internist – but specializing in infectious disease means I have to see all cases that fall under that bracket, and this one is going downhill fast. She's quite miserable. Almost nothing can –"

And then Robert stopped talking and got thoughtful. So thoughtful one could probably imagine the cogs of his brain turning.

"It is miserable! And I was lucky. My body kept fighting it off and it kept coming back. And then it went away completely. And Charlie got married. At least I was a bridesmaid in his wedding. What are you thinking about?"

"You," Robert replied absently.

Because that was an incredibly helpful answer.

Alice turned red.

Thinking of her! He made it so easy to pretend they were married and going home together.

"What about me?"

"You're hilarious."

Alice looked at the window and stared at her confused reflection. "I know. And?"

"And," Robert said, smile slowly forming, "you understand what she's going through."

"Well, yes, but—what are you on about?!"

"Ever thought of volunteering? Not in patient care, but in cheering up the pediatric ward a little."

"Oh!" That made much more sense. Alice rested her head against his chest. "I could do that!"

Robert practically beamed, comforted further by the idea and by her closeness than he'd been since he'd heard about the case, and his fingertips found her hair, settling in it and running through it lightly. "You could," he said softly. "You'd make everyone laugh and you'd brighten this little girl's day quite a bit, I think. Tell her a little bit about how you survived. Hope is healthy, even when we're fairly sure the prognosis isn't very good."

"I'll do whatever I can!" Alice was so happy to be able to help and to see Robert happier that she didn't take the time to think how it might feel to befriend someone who was likely going to die. But she was Alice. She was resilient.

Except when it came to Robert.

"And you'll make a huge difference, I'm sure of it. Everyone will love you. I just – think about it a little first, all right?" His tone was gentler again, and he held her a little bit closer. "I remember you said you didn't handle patients well as a potential nurse."

Robert was practically talking into Alice's hair.

Alice suddenly wasn't sure what to say or how to respond. She nodded without thinking and closed her eyes because seeing her reflection in the window was worse than anything in the world right then. Because she was still just playing pretend and yet he knew what she wanted and he was treating her as though he wanted the exact same thing. Maybe, if she was very lucky, she could contract TB again and distract herself with that instead of this.

An awful thing to think.

And Robert was lucky he didn't know what she was thinking, because if he had, he'd want to contract it himself.

The tube rolled to a stop. He wasn't even sure where they were anymore, or if either of them were meant to get out there.

Alice wanted to keep holding him, but when the doors opened she focused again and immediately snapped out of it. Momentarily, anyway. Enough to get her to step away from him.

"We'll ride all through London if we stay on. Daddy will get a bit grumpy."

"Oh! Right. I live here, don't I."

Robert was a bit out of sorts and hadn't realized they'd pulled into Vauxhall. He'd been a bit distracted by things he'd rather try not to think about, like how nice it was to hold her, how good she felt close to him, how her hair smelled –

Right. Yes.

"Yeah," Alice said, nodding for extra emphasis. "You don't want Daddy thinking someone kidnapped me. It would be so like him."

"Then I suppose we should go before the doors shut again," said Robert, and did.

Regretfully, as he'd wanted to keep holding her, when he let himself think about it.

Alice nodded and stepped out, maneuvering around the crowd as they made for the way out. "Are you driving me home again or am I taking a cab?"

"Which would you rather? It might be a quiet drive, if I did. Bad day."

Quiet was probably better, she thought. Between an hour ago and now, she had decided that Robert was going to make her lose her mind if she didn't shut it off. Permanently. He wasn't going to give in. Sully had the hots for Dawn. Alice could just go to Don and enjoy sex and possessiveness.

"It's okay. You can drive me."

"All right, then, I think I shall."

At least it wasn't too chilly out; there was just a bit of a biting wind, and Robert's car was parked at the station.

"If you decide you're tired of driving me back, I can always hitchhike." Maybe her true true love would find her.

Or maybe not. She was fairly certain he was already there.

Bastard.

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