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Chapter 10

Aaron is beyond relieved to see Alison again, almost fearing that the conversation they’d had in his apartment that morning weeks back would be the last just because her words had somehow seemed so... final. But he reins his emotions in as quickly as he can, aware that she wouldn’t appreciate his writing her off so easily, especially after how strongly she had demanded he treat her no differently, show her no pity. She appears to notice anyway, her smile carrying just a little bit of danger in it as she greets him with a faint nod. “Hey,” he says, barely responding to her sudden arrival. After almost a year of this, he’d come to expect her random appearances, almost disappointed when they don’t happen.

“Hey.” As she falls in place next to him while he walks out of the bank, he turns to look at her. “You ready?”

“I was born ready.” She rolls her eyes at this and presses a hand to his chest to help ground him as he focuses, making like she’s about to push him away. Instead, he turns his attention to accessing Ser’s power for this vision, despite how much he wants to concentrate on her palm against his chest, their varying heartbeats once more counteracting against each other.

He opens his eyes after a moment to find he’s now standing in the middle of a tall building. Based on the various art pieces scattered around, it’s an art museum... an impressive, well renowned one too, if the amount of people lurking around looking at the various works are any indication.

Alison had warned him a long time ago that the larger a place is, the more difficult it makes their roles. The longer he spends as a Piaculum, the more he understands. Smaller places, or individual houses, are quite simple to figure out where the problem lies and the easiest way to correct it. When missions happen in businesses or even monstrosities of a building like this one, that can seem dwarfing and nearly impossible. But they never really have a choice, they have to get in, figure it out, go back to real time, and do what they can.

He hadn’t lost anyone yet, and he knows not to get egotistical about something like that, especially so soon after hearing Alison’s story, but he’s determined to not tarnish that record thus far. Especially here, now. His thoughts are shattered abruptly as a window behind him cracks inward, then breaks fully, women screaming as the lights immediately die as well. A security guard runs up and gets a chest full of lead for his troubles, dropping at Aaron’s feet while blood pools around him, the frantic screams only growing in length and desperation as dark clothed men appear and hold their guns at waist level on all of the people scattered around in the hall. He thinks the broken window was probably just a diversion of some sort, to make it easier for them to breach security and storm the place.

Unsure what to do exactly, Aaron waits and listens as one of the men-- presumably the leader-- begins to speak. He knows without delay what this is, his throat bone dry, but he waits anyway, hoping for some sort of clue. While the thief’s voice washes over him, he examines the door. The windows. Takes in what he can of the people around him. Tries his damnedest to remember it all so he and Alison can form some sort of a game plan. As soon as he feels confident that he’s done all he can, he closes his eyes.

Alison’s hand rests on his arm as he staggers forward upon returning, feeling like he had the first time he’d done it. “Whoa there,” she tells him. “Are you ok?” His first thought is that she looks pale, her breathing loud and a little raspy, but nothing will stop her from asking his condition to his amazement and discomfort. He knows better than to comment on this, however, and nods. “Good, I’m glad. What’d you see?”

Almost amused by her going right to business, his humor completely disappears as he remembers. “An art heist I think,” he tells her, turning to look at the street they’d appeared on as soon as the vision had ended. “One of the huge museums around here. Thieves broke in, took a shot or two, and were just directing traffic when I came back here. A security guard was the first victim, he died at my feet.” He glances down at his shoes, relieved to find them untouched by blood. He hopes that can remain true throughout the evening.

She smiles sympathetically at him before turning to look. “Ok, could you tell which museum it was?” Following him down the street, they examine the buildings on either side of the street, Alison not sure what to keep an eye out for but also not willing to let Aaron out of her sight. He had come leaps and bounds since first becoming a Piaculum, but this only being his tenth mission, she has a lot more she wants to teach him or help him to grow accustomed to before she leaves him to handle all of the responsibility on his own.

His eyes trailing from side to side, he worries his lips. Tries to remember what he can of the outside from the broken window he’d examined in the vision. “I saw a bakery of some sort,” he admits, looking up at the various signs of businesses surrounding them. “Um...” She follows his gaze, looking for any kind of bakery business around, but neither of them see it. “It can’t be far, right? I hope we have enough time...” They both move faster, walking down the sidewalk as quickly as they dare. As always, they want to avoid raising suspicion, but they also really just need to find this place and get settled in before the vision starts to come true and find them unprepared. For some missions, that’s ok, but when there are multiple assailants and numerous people to save, well... Every second counts, in a big way.

They’ve just turned the corner when Alison grips his sleeve and tugs. “A bakery,” she points out the building in the middle of the line of shops across the street from him. “And...” Turning slowly, she stares ahead at the line of buildings on their side of the street and nods viciously. “There it is, that has to be it, right?” She swallows. “Chicago Museum of the Fine Arts. So catchy.” But despite her slight sarcasm towards the unimaginative title, she knows this is bad. It’s one of the more popular museums, filled to the brim with people of all walks of life at all hours of the day. “Ok, let’s go.”

They stop outside of the museum, Alison thinking quickly and pulling out her phone as they pretend to access maps on it, relieved when he catches on to what she’s preparing for. “I don’t know, I think we should turn left,” he tells her in a snappy tone, making sure to sound just pissy enough that the average bystander will walk on by but also not bad enough that he’d encourage anyone to get involved to defend Alison.

“I’m telling you right,” she says, peering over his shoulder at the museum behind him. Shaking her head, she roughly gouges at her phone again and he reaches out for it, huffing.

“Keep piercing that thing with your talons and it’ll break, then we’ll be stuck in the middle of the city with no idea where we’re at or where we’re going.”

“Oh, I know where you can go,” she mutters, trying not to laugh as his lips twitch as well. Holding her phone well away from him, she looks up and takes in just how many floors there are, the line of windows heading up to the roof just adding to her discomfort with this whole situation.

“You know what? I don’t care about any other museums, this is good enough for me,” he says once they’ve examined as much of the outside of the museum as they can. The back of it and the sides are still something of a mystery but they’re more worried with what’s going on inside for now anyway. Before she can say or do anything else, he storms inside and quickly pays the admission fee. She follows him in with a highly annoyed grimace on her face, only pausing long enough to pay her way as well, and once they’re together again, they resume putting on a big show about directions and the museum being wrong until Aaron nods discreetly at her. This is it.

The window, for now in one piece, the various people mingling about, and even the security guard he’d seen die. She takes it all in alongside him and sighs. It still seems nearly impossible, figuring out how to keep all of these people alive, but they’d found their way out of bad scrapes in the past... They just need hope and a fair amount of luck. For now it seems the first step is just ensuring that the security guard stays out of the line of fire. Totally doable... yeah.

To her credit, Alison takes the first swing at it and approaches the security guard. “Excuse me...” As she asks him a question, seemingly continuing on from their argument prior about the directions, Aaron approaches the window and peers out of it, examining those in the immediate area outside. No one seems to be paying attention, much less intending to cause any harm to the building... but he knows that that doesn’t mean much right now, especially since he has no idea of a timeline. It could happen at any time...

As always, not wanting to raise any suspicions, he pulls his phone out and makes a show of texting someone-- just to hit the end button and pocketing his phone before venturing back over to Alison, deciding he’d stalled for enough time. “I swear, stop bugging the poor man, I know where we’re going, even if you don’t.” He takes her by the arm, trying to lead her away but she glares at him, stopping him in his tracks.

“Well maybe I don’t want to go anywhere with you now.” Ooh, she’s good, the vitriol in her voice almost makes him want to take ten steps back... but he knows she’s acting, her eyes are gleaming with something other than annoyance or disgust and he’s pretty sure she’s fighting not to laugh. Trying to keep her on course, he tightens his grip on her arm and tries once more to pull her away, mumbling discreetly under his breath as she finally gives in and goes with him a couple of steps, just to pull free and turn back to the security guard. “Are you married?”

The man looks truly floored, various other patrons of the museum growing more and more uncomfortable with each passing moment. “Ma’am... I don’t--”

She huffs at him and narrows her eyes, glaring back over at Aaron. “I honestly hope if you are-- or even if you’re just dating someone-- that you treat her right. None of this dragging her into the city and not having a clue of where you’re at. Leaving her to walk around and hope to God that eventually the dunderhead sees something familiar, or else you might end up sleeping on a street corner somewhere!” Some of the people look scandalized, others are tittering behind their hands, and Aaron isn’t sure whether to put a stop to this or go hide behind one of the large drapes cascading down from the ceiling.

The security guard coughs and turns away, thankfully now completely not focused on the window. The timing is beyond incredible that, just as he’d done so, the window shatters and Alison, still acting excessively like the drama queen that Aaron had never seen her be until this moment, lunges for him and clings to his jacket, already babbling fearfully. It slows him down just enough that before he can even shake her loose, the men Aaron had seen in his vision are on them, guns drawn as the nearest man forcefully removes the security guard’s weapon and pockets it. He looks angry as finally Alison lets him go, staring down at her with a grim distaste for what she’d just allow to happen. She seems unaffected, however, and Aaron knows that she has no qualms with allowing the break-in to occur, since their job was to always make sure people survived, not safeguard the sanctity of private property as well.

The hostages-- because yeah, that’s what they are now-- are separated, some forced further up the hallway away from the broken window, where a door is slammed securely so none of the people attempt to escape, and others dragged into one of the side show rooms. More join them, other captors forcing them along with their guns and threats and to Aaron’s utter annoyance, they separate him and Alison. She only catches his eye for a moment before they throw her into the side room with a few of the other people he’d seen wandering around and slam the door shut behind her.

He grimaces and sits down close to the security guard, who’s now slumped down on the floor with his arms hanging loose between his knees, watching blankly as the captives and captors alike bustle around him, people frantic to follow the sharp commands thrown their way. A gun is trained warningly on said guard and Aaron thinks he shouldn’t get too close to the man just in case the criminals get suspicious and think they’re planning something, but in the end the guard is the one who he’d seen the vision about and he has to hang around and protect him.

“That was your girlfriend?” he asks after a minute, glancing over at Aaron. He’s not being discreet in talking, almost daring the man watching them with dark, beady eyes to do something about it, but he says nothing, simply shifting the gun so it’s more centralized between the two as an obvious threat.

“Yeah,” he finally admits, cluing in quickly that the security guard means Alison. “Spitfire, huh?”

“That’s one word for it,” the guard chuckles. They sit in silence for awhile longer before he speaks up again. “Name’s Luke. I’d shake your hand but I don’t think either of us considers that worth getting shot over.”

“Aaron.” He wholeheartedly agrees with the last bit of the man’s comment, smiling slightly. “My girl’s name is Alison. She’s usually not that hyper, she just hates being in a strange place without knowing where she’s at or where she’s going.”

“I get that,” Luke responds after a moment. “Where you two from then?”

“Peoria,” he says with a pensive glance towards the thief still watching them, a glazed, bored look in his eyes. “I brought her up here to have a bit of a break from some crap we’re going through down there, but... yeah, not going how I’d hoped it would.” He pauses and stares at his hands. “But what does, right?”

“Man makes plans, God laughs,” he agrees with a faint chuckle. “But things tend to work out in the end. Just gotta do the best you can, yeah?”

“Yep.” Aaron sighs, staring at his hands. “If you can.”

The security guard shakes his head at this. “Can’t think like that, man. We’ll get out of here and be fine, you’ll see. Just gonna have to be patient and let them get on with it, so they’ll let us go sooner. Make no trouble for ’em, and everything’ll work out. Hopefully your girl’ll be doing the same in the other room.”

“God, I hope so,” he mumbles, despite not worrying an iota about how Alison’s handling the hostage crisis. If anything, her volatile health is more of a worry for him.

Her chest is aching, heart racing and slowing, yet again. It’s hard to catch her breath and she’s a little sweaty but there’s nothing she can do about it here. Trying to get medical attention in a hostage crisis never goes well or easily-- not that she’d do it even if she was in the middle of her own town, randomly shopping--, so she keeps her mouth shut and tries to steady herself with deep, slow breaths while sitting down across from the door so she can watch the gun toting men entering and exiting. They all have dark ski masks on so there’s no way to identify them, which she’s relieved about. As long as no one does anything stupid regarding said masks or attempt to humanize their captors, they have a better chance of getting out alive. She just hopes that all of the others around her have come to the same realization, and won’t pull any of the things she’s seen on too many TV shows in an attempt to get out.

She has no earthly idea what they came for-- ransom, the various priceless pieces of art scattered around, or a bit of both, but she hopes that they find it quickly and release the hostages. She is far from strong enough to deal with this situation and she knows that things can go badly at the slightest provocation. If she’s not ready for it, well...

“Are you alright?” a woman asks nearby, her hands shaking as she clutches to her purse. Alison looks over at her, blinking a time or two, before her words register and she nods slightly. “You don’t look well.”

Alison treads carefully, knowing that if one of them falls, the others will panic. “Just anxious,” she admits. “I... um. I’m not good in situations like this.” It’s a stupid thing to say because, really, who is? but the woman barely even blinks at the statement. “I just want to get out of here and see my boyfriend again.” If there’s one thing she can cling to, it’s her and Aaron’s story. And cling she does, desperately. It keeps her mind on her mission and off of her failing health.

“You will,” the woman says softly. “I’m Jan, by the way.”

“Alison. Hi.” They sit there awkwardly, aware that the men with guns are still watching them. Her breathing trick finally seems to be working as her heart rate stabilizes for now, and she closes her eyes in relief. When she opens them again, Jan is watching her with a worried look on her face. “I’m ok. Just needed a minute.” She knows it won’t last, knows they need to move things along now, but there’s not much to be done-- they’re not on their timeline anymore, they have to abide by these men’s wishes in order to not make things worse. So she sits, and she waits, and she hopes that things will go along swiftly.

In the main hall, Aaron watches as the captors discuss quietly amongst themselves. They have walkie talkies, using them to contact who-knows-all, and the guns and not a whole lot else. Except for vague threats and warnings now and again, they’ve barely paid attention to the people scattered around on the floor, sitting and waiting anxiously for something to happen-- death or freedom, or... He can just see the doorway that Alison and the others had been pushed through and he hopes that they’re all ok. That Alison’s heart had held up. She had looked pale and ill the last time he’d seen her, so now he worries and he frets and he shakes his head at the unfairness of it all. If he could’ve, he would’ve left her outside-- not that she would’ve allowed that anyway, but he would’ve found a way somehow-- but then the hostages in the other room would’ve been all alone... at least now they have her calming force with them, to ensure that no one does anything rash to get injured.

Everyone in the room tenses as a loud voice-- police, over a megaphone, he imagines-- begins yelling into the room, their voice only amplified thanks to the broken window that one of the thieves had been positioned at with guns aimed unwaveringly at its sill. “This is Captain Samson of the Chicago Police Department, are the captives alright?” The criminals seem as unsurprised by this development as Aaron is and he glances over at the security officer who is also keeping his cool. No one seems that surprised when the thieves order them up, force them into a room opposite of where Alison and the others had been closed up.

Once they’re settled in this new room with a couple of the gun-toting men, Luke nods subtly at him and listens to catch as many of the demands slowly being issued back and forth between the two disagreeing parties. “What do you think? They gonna storm the front gates?” Aaron asks quietly after a few moments, wondering about the potential loss of life should that happen.

“They try not to,” Luke tells him. “Too risky, puts too many people in danger. They’ll try talking them down, and other than that... it’s just a waiting game. We’ll see how it goes.” It had been the answer Aaron had been hoping for and he nods slightly, listening as the list of demands grow longer than his average grocery list. “There is no way these cops would be able to afford half of that, even if they’d want to,” Luke half laughs, half cringes.

“I hope Alison’s ok,” he vocalizes his main worry, flushing when he realizes he’d said it out loud.

Luke smiles slightly and tilts his head. “By what I saw of that girl, you don’t have a lot to worry about. She looked like she could carry her own.”

“Ha, that is definitely true,” Aaron admits. It’s still only a subtle comfort to him, however. He has no doubt that, in any other situation, she could carry her own quite well... but with her heart issues... that’s a whole other matter. He finds himself wondering how exactly she’d been when healthy and vibrant... I wish I knew her back then, I bet she was incredible as a Piaculum. Even now, after everything she’s been through, she’s always so on top of things. You wouldn’t know she came so close to dying...

His thoughts are disrupted suddenly when the security guard stands up, hands held at chest level. One of the captors waves him over and he approaches him hesitantly, the gun finding a new home between his shoulder blades as he’s slowly walked to the door separating them from the area where the window had been broken. “No funny stuff,” another man in black snaps at the remaining people staring up at him in horror, turning in a slow circle and waving his gun at them. “Stay where you’re at, and no one’ll get hurt.”

Aaron abides by his commands, despite how desperate he feels to follow Luke and make sure that his vision doesn’t come true after all. His eyes are locked on the floor, listening for anything-- a gunshot, a struggle, whatever-- but nothing happens, everything remains calm. He swallows when the door finally opens yet again and Luke is pushed back into the room, slowly taking his place once more by Aaron. They wait until the original man is back where he’d been initially, the second walking off to talk with a third captor down the hallway. “What was that?”

“The police wanted to talk to a hostage. They chose me, probably because they knew I’d keep my head and fall back on my training, do what I had to to not cause harm to the other hostages. It was mostly standard stuff, they didn’t let us converse long. I just managed to tell ’em we’re all ok so far, and I was sorta tempted to tell them about the second room but they cut us off then.”

Aaron nods, relieved and a little annoyed all at the same time. He’s glad that Luke hadn’t been injured or killed while out of his sight, but yet he can’t help the irritation of things not changing an iota. They’re still sitting there when one of the captives walks over to them and kicks Aaron aside, staring up at the wall he’d been leaning against, where one of the many pieces of rare artwork is hanging. There’s a hungry look in his eyes and both men exchange glances, not sure what exactly he’s doing.

“66, back to your position,” one of the others snap suddenly, the man next to Aaron tensing up in response to the command. He doesn’t move and there’s the undeniable sound of a gun clicking as its safety is released. “I said back to your position. Now.”

“Why should we listen to you anymore? We got you in here, and I’ve changed my mind, I want a bigger cut of the--” He’s just turned around, gearing up to argue with the man that appears to be the leader, when the gun goes off with a deafening bang and he drops to the ground, cursing and yelling as he grabs at his blown knee. Screams echo out, from both the people around them, and from the room Alison had been pushed into, and Aaron bites his lip as the bleeding man scrambles and struggles next to him.

Storming over, the leader of the group kicks him violently, sending him sideways into Aaron’s lap where he stains his jeans with still oozing blood from the wound. “When I tell you to do something, do it. Idiot.” He snaps his fingers and points at the heavily breathing man before storming off as two others scramble and rush, grabbing the mouthy hostage taker under the arms and drags him ruthlessly back to where he’d been originally.

“Show’s over,” the man who’d just shot one of his crew like it was nothing declares, glaring at all of the other shadowy figures watching him from various parts of the room. “Back to your positions now, or one of these has your name on it as well.”

“I’ve worked here for almost ten years and we’ve never had anything like this happen before,” Jan says softly, her words catching Alison’s attention after a few moments.

“You work here?”

“Yeah. I know the place like the back of my hand...” Alison’s eyes light up as, realizing what this means, she whispers to the woman. They’re still talking softly when shots ring out from the main corridor-- screams follow-- and all but one of the masked men stream from the room to see what’s going on. The only remaining one, however, looks uncomfortable-- seems to be perhaps the youngest of the group, his eyes flittering back and forth anxiously under his mask. Alison feels slightly bad for doing this when he’ll potentially get into serious trouble but she has to do something so when he turns his back, staring at the door behind him as if he can see through it to the hallway outside, she gingerly makes it to her feet and walks quietly over to one of the drapes hanging from ceiling to floor.

Everyone watches her but no one says a word and she’s never been so thankful for utter silence in all of her life as she ducks behind the wall of fabric, closing her eyes. It’s dark and dank, the drapes in obvious need of being aired out, but it’s still better than sitting on that floor with guns aimed in her direction for hours. She listens as the silence reigns in the room, though she knows it won’t last for long. She stares at the window and winces. It’s tall, and clean, but there’s no police on this side for her to gain the attention of. Resting her hand against it, she kneels down and feels for the grate that Jan had told her about, finally finding it.

It’s creaky and aged, but still screwed into place. She pats her pockets and tries to think of something to quietly pry it apart with, coming up short. Suddenly something clicks with her and she remembers-- moving slowly, she pulls the lanyard wallet she keeps her medical information in out from under her shirt and begins messing with the metallic piece that fastens it to the pink strap that goes around her neck. It’s a horrible process and she’s sure she’s going to get caught, the noises amplified under the thick drapes, but the one remaining thief doesn’t seem to notice as he talks lowly into his own walkie talkie with his fellow captors, his voice relaxing as he’s given the all-clear regarding the gunshot from in the hall.

She’s just unfastened the silver hook that holds it all together, pressing it into the space between the wall and the grate, when the voices of the returning captors distract her. Breathing as deeply as she dares, she resumes her work and just manages to get the beaten up thing away from the wall when the already raised voices turn into shouts-- she knows now that they’ve noticed her disappearance. Holding her breath, she pries it the rest of the way before slipping inside, only taking her lanyard with her. She can’t waste time with the grate cover, so she doesn’t, leaving it behind on the floor covered by the drapes-- the grate is only so big, she knows, so none of the thieves can fit inside of it, to her utter relief. As it stands, even she finds it a little complicated to wiggle around inside and figure out where she’s going, since she doesn’t know the layout of the building to begin with.

Her strength is already fading anyway, so she almost wants to cry when she makes it to the end of one side and sees flashing red and blue lights gleaming off of the silvery surface around her-- a cop car? She scrapes together the last of her strength and begins banging on the grate, staring down at what she can see of the ground and police vehicles surrounding the museum. She thinks it’s taken her to the side of the building, because she doesn’t remember seeing this before. Voices grow nearer, the grate is removed a couple minutes later, and two sets of hands reach up, helping her down safely. She holds onto their arms, trying to reorient herself. “Damn.”

“Ma’am?” one of the police asks, staring at her. “Are you one of the hostages? How did you escape?”

She swallows and looks away for a moment, still struggling to recollect herself, before staring at the building. “There are these drapes. Long, thick ones... Going from ceiling to floor, I hid behind one when a worker at the museum told me there were vents behind them that lead to other parts of the museum and could be used to escape through. I managed to loosen it from the wall and crawl through.” She looks blankly at her hand and lets the stripped remains of her wallet slip through her fingers to the ground, too tired to really care as a thoughtful police officer picks it up for her and holds onto it while they guide her away from the building. “They hadn’t noticed by the time I left the room, but they probably have by now. I hope... I hope I didn’t get anyone in danger.”

The police have no answer for her on that matter but they quickly move over to the vent she’d exited from and begin examining it.

“No offense,” she says faintly. “But I barely fit in it myself... none of you will be able to.”

“Not necessarily,” the nearest police officer says, already on his radio calling back to the station.

Aaron watches through half-lidded eyes as another of the captors leaves the main room, looking anxious and annoyed. Whispering with the boss for only a moment, he quickly leaves like he’s trying to avoid the man’s wrath and, based on the look in his eyes, Aaron can’t blame the underling. When the police calls again, he storms off into the main corridor, his voice echoing through the door back at them nonetheless.

Luke whistles faintly. “Someone’s pissed.”

“Yeah, wonder what happened.” He thinks he has a good idea who is behind the leader’s bad mood, if nothing else. Eyes rolling towards the side door, he takes a deep breath. Please be careful, Alison.

The leader is still in the other room when there’s shouting and sounds of a struggle in the side room. Even when the others go to see what’s going on, the noise doesn’t stop, only grows louder. Aaron and Luke exchange glances as they’re left with a handful of hostages and two of the men but it doesn’t matter when the door slams open and large, police trained dogs run out through the hall and quickly leap onto the men with guns, forcing them to drop them in fear and an attempt to defend themselves. Behind them are two women police officers with guns of their own trained on the men they’d collected from the side room, whistling sharply at the dogs who are in risk of mauling the criminals to death as the more they struggle, the harder the dogs latch on.

Luke and Aaron stare on in amazed shock as the two officers quickly subdue the men still held to the ground by the large dogs. With a few shouted commands, soon enough the dogs release the men so they can be handcuffed and hauled out of the building with the others, which, Aaron finds out as he leaves the building awhile later, feeling overwhelmed and somehow subdued at suddenly being free of the tension and horror of what was going on in the museum, had also included the leader-- once the all clear was given that the side-rooms had been cleared, and three of the men caught, the captain had given the go ahead to enter the main area of the museum and take him out too.

His smile is only dampened when he doesn’t see Alison exit the building, nor lurking around in the crowd of people surrounding it. “Where are you, Alison?” he mumbles, turning in a slow circle to re-examine everyone. He still doesn’t see her.

Her heart is beating fast, then beating slow, then barely beating at all, the nauseating pain throbbing up her chest and down her arm so all-encompassing that all she wants to do is fall down and die, right here, right now. Since she knows this feeling, as a fleeting, distant memory, she thinks that that’s happening right now anyway. But she trudges on anyway, because she’s a Piaculum, and Piaculum don’t give up in some strange alley outside of an art museum in Chicago. Alison laughs through a wheeze and closes her eyes as she almost loses her balance on uneven pavement. Never liked art... she thinks faintly. And now I guess I’m gonna die trying to preserve it in a way...

She falls to her knees and stares up at the darkening sky overhead. “Almost nighttime,” she whispers, eyes fluttering. “Huh.” Tears form in her eyes and she groans. “Ser, I wish... I wish you could help me... but I don’t blame you, I know... it’s the-- it’s the one ability you weren’t gifted with, the power to heal completely. It could kill you if you try too much... and that can’t happen... Your endgame is, after all, much more important than mine.” Her weakening whispers to thin air hold no bitterness, just tired acceptance. “And even though I told you over and over again not to bother, that I always knew I was just on borrowed time anyway, I know you still kept coming after missions... and tried to help me, keep me going. And it worked... for awhile. I just didn’t have the heart...”

She pauses and laughs, and if there’s a little bitterness in the sound now, well, she figures she’s entitled to that much since she’s about to die here all alone. “No pun intended...” Wavering on her knees against the harsh concrete, she takes a breath and continues. “.. To tell you that I was growing so much weaker with each case, that even if you had poured all of your power and strength into me, it probably still wouldn’t have been enough. I’m sorry that I allowed you to continue wasting your abilities on me. I didn’t want to admit... that I was so weak... I guess... in a way, we were both in denial...”

Fingers digging into the pebble strewn ground beneath her, she sighs heavily. “I hope Aaron will find another person to help him learn how to be a proper Piaculum... It probably won’t take long for him to get where he needs to be. He has so much strength within him, I’m glad you selected him, Ser. Even though you’re losing me, he’ll be a great Piaculum for you. I could tell from pretty much the first moment I saw him, and it only was cemented further when he pissed me off so bad over my health. He’s just too good of a guy sometimes. I hope it doesn’t get him into trouble.” Her soft words turn into faint mumbles, barely discernible over the city noise beyond the museum and it’s through squinted eyes that she sees a shadow looming by the dumpster. It looks familiar, and it almost feels familiar. She’s confused and weak, her heart slowly giving out, and all she can piece together to say is... “Ser?” But when the dark form approaches her, she knows immediately that she’s wrong.

Her eyes widen, her already feeble heart struggling to beat faster as one last faint bit of adrenaline surges through her veins. “You,” she gasps out. But she has no strength left and, as the mysterious person’s pale hand reaches out to her, she goes dreadfully still before collapsing lifelessly at his feet, eyes staring blankly ahead.

Aaron is still wandering around, trying to find his fellow Piaculum as evening rapidly descends upon Chicago, but he’s having no luck. Until, that is, he passes by police talking about the case and overhears. “Yeah, well, we might still be stuck out here trying to get everyone out if that girl hadn’t escaped and helped us find a way in.”

“Sure, I just don’t think civilians should--”

Aaron is caught between scoffing at Alison being listed a simple civilian and needing answers so he’s sure he’s got a very odd look on his face as he moves closer to them, shamelessly interrupting their conversation. He’s normally respectful of law enforcement but the longer he’s gone without seeing Alison, the more he’s sure something’s wrong, an uncomfortable feeling deep in his bones. “Excuse me.” When they look over at him, all talk stopping between them, he shifts forward on the balls of his feet. “This girl you’re talking about... she has long brown hair and is about this tall?” He holds a hand out to his shoulder to demonstrate her height, almost sagging in relief when they nod. “She’s my girlfriend,” he says, only blinking a moment afterwards at how easily the term had slipped from his lips, despite the need for the tale they’d been passing off on those in the museum long gone. Oh well, too late to fix that now. He swallows, hoping that she never hears about that slip of the tongue. “I’ve been looking for her, do you know where she’s at?”

“Sure kid, saw her going down the side of the building, towards the alley. Looked like she needed a minute.”

Aaron’s feeling of dread only grows even as he quickly thanks the men and heads in the direction they’d pointed. The side of the building is bustling, the grate to the museum still laying on the ground as police wander around and take statements, but the alley is completely the opposite. It’s quiet and dark, and he shudders slightly as a chilly wind comes from seemingly nowhere and trails across his spine. He sees no Alison.

He takes a few steps towards a dumpster, trying to see if maybe she’d passed out or fallen asleep-- considering how pale and ill she’d looked when he’d last seen her, it wouldn’t surprise him any-- but there’s absolutely no sign that anyone has been there in quite awhile. Dejected, he’s about to turn around and leave when something loud and grating pierces the calm, its tune familiar to him. Turning back around, he sees a faint glow coming from the wall and jogs over to it, breath catching in his throat as he recognizes both the device on the ground and the music. “No, no. She would never...” His heart sinking, he lifts Alison’s cell phone from the ground and stares at who’s calling. “Chelsea,” he chokes out, tears pricking at his eyes.

Even someone who only knew Alison for a few minutes could tell her whole life was in her phone, the girl basically attached to it like it’s a lifeline, unless it would distract her during a mission. And even then, it always remained safely in her jeans pocket. She would never leave it behind, no matter what was going on. Something bad happened...

For the first time ever fully alone, he closes his eyes and he focuses with the determination he’s never quite found for such things in the past. It’s surprisingly draining and he wonders if Alison had ever taken some of the pressure off of him somehow in the past by taking some of it upon herself whenever he attempted to access Ser’s power in her presence. It wouldn’t surprise him in the least, and it only adds to his inner turmoil as he opens his eyes and finds himself once more in that exit-free room. For whatever reason, Ser is actually waiting there in the flesh for once and they stare at each other quietly, the mysterious creator of the Piaculum movement not responding in the slightest to his arrival, and Aaron unsure where to begin.

Finally he just spits it out. “Alison is missing. She left this behind.” He shows the phone to Ser and even the immortal being who seems like modern technology would be confusing to knows immediately, his eyes darkening as his already pale face turns a shade greyer.

Despite this visible reaction, not a word is spoken between the two men beyond that. Ser turns away from Aaron and examines the walls like they contain the answers to every conundrum in the universe. A faint whisper in the air and Aaron takes a hesitant step forward, almost scared to make noise and ruin the soft soothing sound, but that little bit of movement is enough for him to see the side of Ser’s face, find that he is the one whispering. He wants dreadfully to say something, maybe even shake the man that Alison had spoken so highly of repeatedly in the past, but something stops him.

He faces the wall as well and just gapes as it begins to move, shift. Becomes something more than simple granite slabs. Screens, similar to the one Ser had been in when Aaron had met him but much, much smaller, form and spread, make room for more until every inch of space is taken up by them. He has no earthly idea what is going on until a blinding flash of light fills the whole room, causing him to flinch away in alarm and a bit of pain as his eyes sting at the sudden bright surroundings.

Once he can half way see, he hesitantly turns back around and faces the wall yet again, all thoughts rolling around in his overactive mind skidding to an abrupt stop as he takes it all in. Each screen, once blank, now contains a different face, a different gender, a different nationality.

Ser chooses that moment to speak, his words as enigmatic as ever. “Aaron Fisk, meet your fellow Piaculum.”

To be continued...

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