Piaculum

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Chapter 2

Days pass and he sees nor hears anything from Alison or Ser. He’s stuck in a vicious cycle of waking up, going to work, returning home and sitting. Waiting. Wondering when exactly something will happen. He’d had a taste, the energy still rolling throughout him, and all he wants to do is go somewhere. Help someone. Learn how to control the constant vibrations in his body that feels like it wants to explode out of his core any time he sits still for too long.

He has dinner with Louis and Reno a couple nights after Alison’d left, just to get out of the house for awhile, and even that feels wrong. The conversation stilted, he can’t help but notice Reno is staring at him oddly, yet not saying anything and finally he makes a weak excuse and leaves, leaning back against his apartment door as he stares at the living room. “Did they forget me?” he mumbles. “Leave me feeling like there’s little insects crawling under my skin, and just go away? What the hell is going on?”

In desperation, he’d even tried calling out for Alison, screaming out for her when nothing had come of it. She hadn’t appeared, only adding to his turmoil. Dropping to his knees, he tries to breathe normally and shakes his head. “Why are they ignoring me? Alison!” he yells out again, demanding her presence. “Please...” Scraping his fingers through the carpet where she’d stood only days earlier, he shakes his head. “Why...”

Just like that, the air around him changes and he hears a faint little gasp, looking up to find the girl who’d changed his world so suddenly just to leave him twisting in the wind standing before him, her green eyes locked on the wall before him as she wavers. He’s on his feet, fingers digging into her shoulders, before he can even piece together a thought. “Where were you?” he demands, shaking her slightly. “What the hell took you so long to return? I’ve been waiting for you to come, you said you would, and nothing! Why not!?”

She collects herself, ignoring the pain stabbing up her arms at his abrasive touch, and rests her hands on both sides of his face, forcing him to look at her. “Breathe, Aaron. Breathe. It’s just beginner’s jitters. Can you focus on me?” He’s shocked and a little scared to find that his eyes are darting this way and that, finally using all of his strength to look right at her. “That’s it. That’s better. Now breathe, ok?”

He nods, struggling to do as she’d ordered. “Why... why is this so hard?” he pants, his fingers slowly loosening around her arms as he comes back to himself, realizing with some horror what he’d been doing to her. “I don’t... I don’t know what happened.”

“You’re new to all of this,” she reminds him calmly. “It’s all going to take some time to grow accustomed to. Don’t worry too much, that’s why I’m here.”

“But you weren’t,” he tells her, somehow feeling betrayed as he peers up at her. “I waited and waited and nothing happened. I was left here with this... this...”

“This what?” Alison asks, eyes dark with worry as she supports him over to his couch, helping ease him down to rest against the cushions. “What’s going on, Aaron?”

He shakes his head, scrubbing at his face. The only thing keeping him from feeling like he could float away from this world is her hands on his arms, grounding him. “I-- I, it’s like... butterflies under my skin. Some... sort of crawling energy that... just won’t go away. I feel it when I’m trying to sleep, when I’m at work... everywhere. It just won’t stop.” He sniffs and tugs at his hair, his distress coming and going as she shifts to sit down next to him.

“Listen to me,” she whispers, cupping his jaw and making him look at her. “That is normal, alright? I’m so sorry I wasn’t here, it’s been a very long time since I went through what you’re going through right now and I forgot how bad it can seem if not addressed quickly. You’re going to be fine, I promise.” He begins to tremble and her eyes soften, hands moving to rest against the back of his head and ease him down against her shoulder, comforting him as he breathes against her.

“You went through this too?” he wheezes, hands hesitantly resting against her shoulder as he tries not to touch her inappropriately but needing some sort of connection with something, anything.

“All of us do,” she admits. “I had help through it and you will too, now that I’m here.” Her hands warm against his back as he remains resting against her, she sighs. “Again, I’m so sorry. I know this is a horrible start to our working together, but I’ll be better from here on out. And if I fail or you have any other problems with my attempts at helping you, you let me know, alright? We can go to Ser and work this out so you get a different person in to help you. It’s only right.”

He shakes his head, still scratching idly at his abdomen as the feeling persists, only slightly eased by her presence. “It’s ok,” he says quietly. “I trust you to help me.” She smiles at him and rests a hand on his forehead, staring into his eyes. “Wha... what are you doing?”

“Helping you. It’s too late for us to really get into anything tonight, you look wiped out and I need some sleep first too. But I can help ease what you’re going through a little.” She smiles as he stares from her hand to her face, looking so uncertain and young that it kind of hurts to watch him. “Ok. First things first, I want you to relax.” Their eyes locked, she rubs soothing circles along his brow, murmuring softly until tension begins to slowly leave him, his body relaxing inch by inch. “That’s it.”

“Now what?” he whispers, the horrible sensation only a little more minimalized. He’s startled when she takes his hand and rests it on her chest, leaving it there as she breathes in deeply and thoroughly, quietly encouraging him to mimic her rhythm. Even though he can sense something about this whole thing seems a little off, his body takes over and follows along, the calm that follows almost overwhelming here. She doesn’t answer for a moment, slowly standing and pulling him up with her.

“Just keep breathing,” she tells him softly, leading him through his apartment to the bedroom. She guides him inside and, turning on a soft light nearby, eases him to the bed. As he sits down, she kneels by him, leaving his hand pressed against her cool skin, unblinking while he follows along with her inhales and exhales. “That’s it.” As he grows more and more relaxed, she gently pushes down on his shoulders, until his head rests against the pillows. Once his eyes are closed, his body thoroughly enveloped by sleep, she sets to work on getting him more comfortable. Dropping his shoes onto the floor at the foot of the bed, she turns back around and watches as he breathes on, barely even twitching. “Good night,” she tells him softly, smiling.
---------------

The next day dawns bright and cheerful, his whole body feeling weighed down by a kind of calm that he’d not felt since the night he had met Alison and Ser. He blinks up at the ceiling a time or two before turning to find a note written in a scribbled handwriting on the table next to his bed. He stares at it, not understanding, until the night before comes back to him with a wild rush. He sucks in a breath and scrapes his fingers through his hair before gingerly reaching out to it.

Aaron,
I’m sorry I couldn’t stay but I will be more help to you if I’m well-rested also. I know you have work today, go, distract yourself. I’ll meet up with you afterwards, I promise. Just keep breathing like I showed you, you’ll be fine.
Alison

He sinks back against the pillows, grimacing slightly as the note crinkles in his palm. He does feel somewhat better, if a little shaky still, but his senses seem to be at an all-time high. Every noise bites through his head like a drill, even the sheets underneath him feel... more. More scratchy, more... in need of being washed, more... Even the sunshine slipping through his drapes feel like laser beams stabbing into his eyeballs, and he thinks he can smell a neighbor preparing coffee for breakfast. Great, I’m supposed to work like this, when I feel like I’m suffering ten hangovers all at once.

Forcing himself to breathe in and out steadily for a few moments, he sighs when some of the overload fades away, his focus now on keeping his breaths regular. “Ok,” he mumbles, rolling out of bed and landing awkwardly on the floor. “Let’s get this party started.”

Work seems to last longer than it usually does, every customer’s attempt at conversing with him grating at his every nerve. How he doesn’t lose it on someone, he’s not sure, and by the time his break comes along, he’s relieved to sink down on a bench outside and dig into the deli food he’d mindlessly bought for lunch. It’s one of those rare 60-degree temp days in November that’d lately become less and less uncommon and he enjoys being able to feel the wind on his arms and not want to dive under a coat and not move for another six months until it’s spring again.

Thankfully he gets put on stock detail after a few hours, not having to deal with any more customers as he hangs around in the freezer and refills the milk cooler, moving on to mark items that are minorly damaged or nearing expiration dates for manager specials once he can’t stuff any more gallons in the cooler. So wrapped up in the minutiae of placing little orange stickers on each item, he’s surprised when the door is pushed open and Ellie joins him, raising an eyebrow. “You’re still here?” she greets him, smiling somewhat teasingly.

He blinks at her a time or two before pulling out another strip of the stickers, about to set on another pile of items. “Yeah, of course I am. Why are you back here, shouldn’t you be manning a register?”

She shrugs. “Maybe I would be except that it became store-wide knowledge that you’re still here, even though your shift ended about fifteen minutes ago. Sandy,” she continues on when he scrambles to find a clock, not fully believing her about the time, smiling a little bit when she remembers the look on her manager’s face as she’d ordered Ellie to find him, “is busy with a troublesome customer who can’t take yes for an answer, so she ordered me in here to see if you were still alive.”

He stares blankly at the clock hanging on the wall, shaking his head. “What do you know.” He had been so busy with working, and trying to focus on his breathing, that he’d completely lost track of time. He sighs and looks up at her. “Thanks, Ellie.”

She shrugs it off, leaning her hip against the cool wall of the freezer. Most hate how cold it is in here, but she seems in her element, as if she enjoys the chill. “No problem. But this isn’t like you, what’s going on?” When he frowns at her, she tilts her head at him. “You haven’t seemed like yourself for around a week now. I normally don’t want to nose into others’ business, but I draw the line when I begin worrying about people. And I have to admit, I’m worrying now. So anything you want to tell me?”

He smiles at her, somehow even that feeling forced and probably looking as fake if the look on her face is anything to go by. “I’m ok. It’s just been a long week, you know? If anything, I’m probably just suffering from a little SAD.”

“Oh c’mon,” she tells him. “I saw you earlier, you looked like a gleeful little boy sitting outside in the sunshine.”

“Well, holidays bring it out in me too,” he insists, sometimes hating how observant she is. “All of the commercials and stores filling up with Christmas stuff, it’s just all a bit much.” An annoyed look passes over her face and he wonders if she’s figured out that, no matter how hard she refutes him, he’ll just keep going down the list of easy made excuses until her shift is over or she tires of the game.

“Fine,” she concedes, holding a hand up. “Just know that if you do ever really want to talk, honestly tell me what’s going on with you, I’m here. In the meantime, get out of here or Sandy will kill both of us gladly and leave us in this very freezer.” When Aaron laughs and brushes past her to go get ready to leave, she rests a hand on his neck, following him out. “I just want to help you if I can, you understand that, right?”

“Of course I do, Ellie. You’ve made that known since day one,” he tells her, his smile growing slightly as he realizes. Once he leaves here and goes home, Alison should be waiting for him... and he can finally start to feel like himself again, his trust in her promise to help him through whatever weirdness he’s going through resolute. “Thank you.”

She releases him after squeezing his neck a little more, returning to her post at a nearby cash register. “See you tomorrow, Aaron.”

He waves as he goes, relieved once he’s out of her sight. She’s too observant for her own good. Once clocked out and on his way home, his anxiety grows. Work had been better today than it had the past few days-- spending the last few hours of his shift in the freezer having helped a fair amount in allowing him to turn his attention to his breathing, making sure that he doesn’t lose it further, but right now all he wants is to return to normal. Be himself again, get this never ending squirming sensation to just go away already.

Pulling up to his parking spot, he looks up at his apartment windows and frowns, disheartened at how dark it is inside. Alison doesn’t seem the type to sit around in the dark and just wait for someone, and he knows that she can get into any place she really wants-- had proven that the night before, much less the first time they’d met. Did she forget again? he wonders, starting to feel overlooked and unimportant. “Ugh, where are you, Alison?” he mumbles, pulling himself out of the car and slamming the door hard enough to rattle the vehicle.

Ignoring it, he walks up the stairs to his apartment and fumbles with his keys, opening the door about as roughly as he’d treated his car minutes earlier. As he stares into the dark emptiness, he locks the door behind him and leans against it, finding and flipping the nearest light switch. Once the room is flooded in light, he nods. No Alison. “Why isn’t she here?” Struggling to concentrate on his breathing, he scrapes his fingers through his hair. “Ok, ok. This worked last night. It might work tonight too, right?” He paces back and forth, trying to maintain his patience, and utterly failing. “Alison!” he finally calls out, peering around with a frown.

Nothing happens and he groans, storming over to the couch and dropping down on it, pulling at his hair as he tries to focus on his breathing. “Ok, Aaron, easy. Easy. She probably has a life of her own-- you can’t... can’t lose it whenever she’s not there at your beck and call. She did say sometime after work, right? Not right away.” He jitters, knee bouncing up and down while looking around wildly. “Is this how addicts feel? God...” He snarls, rocking back and forth against the cushions as the feeling building within him intensifies once more to a nearly unbearable level. He’s not sure how much time has passed before he realizes he’s on the floor, digging tracks in the worn carpet with his fingers, repeatedly mumbling her name over and over again.

Hands are resting on his knees, a soft voice trying to break through the fugue he’s in and finally he looks up, locks eyes with her, and can’t stop himself before he has her by the shoulders, shaking her viciously. “Where were you?!” he screams in her face, almost snarling in his anger.

She seems unaffected by his actions, resting her hands on his. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she repeats until he relaxes, really looks at her. She’s pale, looks weak and tired, and his anger is overwhelmed by brief worry. “I meant to be here sooner.” Her grip shifts in time with his as he lets her go, falls back against the couch and cups his face, breathing raggedly. “Look at me, Aaron.” He refuses, shaking his head desperately, but she doesn’t give up, kneeling forward and cupping his jaw, forcing him to do as she’d requested. “It’s ok now. I’m here.”

He cracks for the second time in two days and buries his face in her shoulder, shaking and desperate. “Please help me, I need this to stop,” he begs, digging his fingers into her shirt. “Please, please.”

“I will,” she promises. “I will.” He feels a subtle shift in the air around them but doesn’t move, feeling comfortable for the first time in what feels like forever as she holds him. “Aaron, look around,” she finally whispers, pulling back slightly from him. When he tries to hold onto her, she chides him softly. “Look around at where you’re at.”

This attracts his attention and he slowly pulls away, looking at their surroundings. His apartment had disappeared again, that room he’d first met Alison in all that he can see yet again. “This... this is...”

“This is Ser’s room, yes,” she nods, smiling as recognition passes across his face. “We will be working on ridding you of this sensation here. Alright?”

He nods, wiping his eyes. “How... how will we do that?”

She takes a breath and stands, examining the wall that Ser’s screen had been sprawled across the last time they’d both been there. “Well, for one thing, we need to get you desensitized to the new sensations you’re going through.”

He doesn’t move, content to stay on the cool tile floors. Absorb the lack of stimuli around him. The only thing he has to focus on is the dark walls surrounding them and Alison herself, which somehow doesn’t bother him-- in fact, her presence calms him. “New sensations?”

She nods. “Yep. When you agreed to become a Piaculum, new things were awoken in you. Do you remember my telling you that?”

“Vaguely.”

“Human body isn’t conditioned to endure all of Ser’s power. You haven’t experienced much of it, because, well, we’ve only done a little bit so far, but it’s enough to tell it that something weird’s going on. So you’re kind of in hyper drive right now.” She takes a breath and presses a hand against the wall, barely blinking when a loud clicking noise echoes through the room, Aaron flinching away as she puts more strength into her push, finally causing the tile to shift and fall back, revealing a faded button. Pressing this, she steps back over to Aaron and smiles, barely reacting when the lights fade away to near nothing, allowing just enough for them to see each other.

“What are you doing?”

She tilts her head, holding a finger to her lips. “You’re over stimulated, right? So we’re doing away with anything that’ll distract you from focusing on what I need you to do,” she whispers, kneeling down next to him. “Means leaving everything quiet, dark. Simple.”

“What do you want me to do then?” he asks, surprised to find that he too now is whispering.

“We’ll start with breathing,” she says, laughing slightly when he groans. “It’ll be ok, you’ll see. We won’t spend much time on it, because you’ve already done it for awhile now.”

He colors slightly but nods anyway, though it’s obvious he’s uncertain how exactly much help it’d been for him when he hadn’t lost himself to his impatience and temper. “Alright.”

She keeps her word, however, only making him focus briefly on the deep inhales and exhales that she’d encouraged him to try back at his apartment, before moving on to the next thing. “Now what I want you to do,” she tells him quietly, “while still breathing like we’ve practiced, is focus on something inanimate. The wall, the floor, the switch I pressed earlier. Whatever strikes your fancy.”

As he follows this command, his eyes locking on the tile that she’d pushed from the wall, she slides up to him and rests a hand gently on the back of his neck. His general discomfort at people he barely knows touching him nowhere close to the forefront of his mind for now, he breathes in softly while she runs her fingers across his skin, eyes closed. Pretty soon the uncomfortable squirming under his skin fades away to a simple warmth, the distracted man barely aware of its presence. Alison hums in relief, seeming to be pleased with this small development and she opens her eyes, taking a breath of her own. “Ser,” she finally says out loud, nodding when Aaron doesn’t react to her voice.

A glow overwhelms her and she shifts her hand to his forehead, ignoring her own discomfort as the power flows from her fingertips to him, his body almost vibrating with the sudden rush of energy streaming through him. He doesn’t move once and she nods again, repeating Ser’s name over and over and over again until finally there’s a shift, the power filling him to the brim before throwing her aside, leaving her sprawled against the ground as Aaron rises up, his body thrumming due to the light rushing through him. She gingerly pulls herself up to one elbow, watching quietly as he hovers there for a few minutes, the gleam finally fading away as his body eases back down to the ground next to her.

She blinks tiredly and sits up the rest of the way, grimacing as her body throbs in protest to the rough treatment it’d suddenly endured. “Aaron,” she calls out quietly, wanting to make sure he’s on the right track before she begins to test his senses. He looks towards her, breathless and confused, and her heart goes out to him. When she’d become Piaculum years back, she hadn’t remembered this exact moment, waking up from the sudden surge of power, either. “Can you hear me?”

“Alison?” He reaches out for her and she smiles, taking his hand softly and cupping it between her palms. “What... what happened?”

“I helped you,” she says vaguely, biting back her laughter as he narrows his eyes suspiciously at her. “How do you feel?” She can tell already just by looking at him in the dim light that he’s better, his body not a mass of tension and anxiety like it’d been earlier. His breathing is steady, clear, his hand in hers calm and free of all twitches. Even so, she gives him a minute to deduce for himself, his eyes constantly shifting from her to the tile in the wall that had held his focus through all that she had done to get him just to this point.

“I... I feel normal,” he admits. “I... Kind of like someone shut the switch off inside of me that was making me feel so ridiculous?” His eyes once more rest on her suspiciously but she doesn’t rise to the bait, just smiling at him in relief. “What did you do?”

She tilts her head at him, her smile slipping only slightly. When she’d become a Piaculum, her predecessor had been here one minute, and gone the next. He hadn’t wanted anything to do with the cause once he’d lost his position as Illinois Piaculum, only staying around long enough to pass on what she’d needed. As she had just done for Aaron. Since he had not explained to her, she decides quickly to not weigh Aaron down with what she’d just gone through, the aftereffects of the release of power on her body. “I have no idea what you mean,” she says, standing quickly and switching the lights back on. As he recoils, she watches him quickly, relieved to find that his reaction is ordinary with anyone in the proximity of such an abrupt change in brightness, instead of how it would’ve been in the midst of his frenzy. “Define normal.”

He stares blankly at her, visibly unamused with her attempts at brushing aside his questions. “I don’t know, I just... I feel normal,” he shrugs, blinking away the flashes in his vision from the unexpected flood of light. “Like myself. Voices, the light, the feel of this stone under me, none of it bugs me like it had even ten minutes earlier.” He hesitates. “At least, I think it was ten minutes ago...”

“Alright,” she nods, deciding to take his word on the matter. “What do you say? Ready to go back to the real world, then?” When he hesitates, she approaches him and rests a calming hand on his shoulder, surprised and a little humbled when he doesn’t even flinch away from her. “I promise you, if these problems persist, I’ll bring you right back here and we’ll try again.” She doesn’t expect him to have any further problems but when his eyes clear, nodding in acceptance, she smiles up at him. “Good. Let’s go.”

His eyes close for a split second, and when he blinks them open once more, he’s back home, standing in front of his couch. He looks around until noting that Alison is standing nearby, blinking the disorientation away as well. “Home sweet home,” he finally mutters, sinking down into the cushions of his seat in relief. It’s the first time he’d seen it in days when he hadn’t felt like he’d explode with one wrong move, and he gleefully absorbs it all, breathing deeply. Turning to look a still lingering Alison in the eye, he smiles. “Thank you,” he tells her sincerely.

She looks as surprised as he feels but nods, coughing faintly. “You’re welcome.” She looks really bad in this lighting, pale and almost like a correctly timed wind could blow her over. He’s about to suggest she stay for awhile until he thinks she won’t fall over just standing there when she turns towards the door. “I’m glad you’re well,” she says, sounding more herself. “Just so you know, we might not see each other for awhile. Piaculum duties come and go, it’s hard to tell when they’ll happen, so if you don’t hear from me or Ser, don’t worry about it.” Turning back towards him, she smiles wanly. “No news is good news, right? Just live your life, and we’ll let you know when you’re needed.”

He doesn’t understand what exactly she means but there’s such a certainty behind her words that he nods anyway, taking a breath to say something when-- he blinks and she’s gone as quickly as she’d arrived, his eyes widening. “I will never get used to that,” he mutters, unable to keep himself from dwelling on the unknown that’s now surrounding him as he forces himself off of the couch and to go get ready for bed, despite the somewhat early hour.

Even so, Aaron listens to her directives. He lives his life, he goes to work, he looks through his story ideas. He spends time with Louis and Reno. He thinks. He wonders about that period of time when he’d felt so different, when nothing had made sense. He still feels... changed, but not detrimentally so. Not like before. This is more manageable, somehow... natural. He feels whole, for the first time in his life. Like he has a purpose outside of stocking shelves, bagging groceries, and reading rejection letters over and over again.

He becomes more active, his body still thrumming to see things, do more, live. Walks through streets he’d never really stepped foot in previously, learning more about the town he’d lived in all of his life with each bit of forward motion. Days turn into weeks turn into nearly a month and he hasn’t heard from Alison but unlike the time before, he takes it as it comes, taking her words to heart. Despite how he’d reacted the time before, he has no doubt now that once he’s needed, she’ll come to him, and until then, he’s perfectly content with how things are.
------------

“Ser,” Alison calls out, her hand held to her chest as she struggles to breathe normally. “Ser!” She barely flinches as the wall returns to normal, its tiles returning to where they’d been prior her moving things around for Aaron. Once done, a screen appears out of nowhere, his dark eyes peering out at her. “Why do I still have access to your powers? I... I thought...”

His voice, rarely heard or used, washes over her like a comforting rain fall, smooth and soft. “I do not wish you to leave the mission. I have need of you yet.”

She shakes her head, not understanding. “But...”

“Your frailty is inconsequential to me,” he tells her, undisturbed by the sudden flush that spreads across her cheeks. “Loyalty means a great deal more. If you will agree, I would like you to assist me in a matter of great importance.” She listens quietly, lips parting in shock at what he explains to her.

“Yes,” she agrees finally, hands bunched into fists at her side. She can feel her pulse, as uneven as the rest of her, but ignores it as she focuses on what he’d just told her. “I agree, I will continue on as a Piaculum.” In the end, it’s a decision as simple as breathing, no matter how much it may hurt. Her shoulders are steady as she stares up at him, her eyes gleaming. “Thank you, Ser.”

He says nothing.
-----------

Aaron is at work, elbows deep in canned vegetables and fruit, when he feels eyes on him. He finishes with the current box he’s on before turning to see, almost expecting some bored kid or ridiculously patient person waiting for him to notice them. “Can I help you--?” he’s asking when he stops short, surprised. “Alison!”

She laughs at him, tilting her head. “Well, now that you ask, yeah, Aaron, you can help me out.” She walks towards him and smiles slightly, crossing her arms over her chest. “Almost surprised you still recognize me, it’s been awhile, huh?”

Playing along, he nods and meets her halfway, leaning against one of the walls as he examines her. She looks healthier than when he’d last seen her, though that’s not saying much. “I was starting to think someone slipped me something, and that Piaculum stuff was just a bad acid trip.”

“No such luck,” she teases back, smirking a little. “Sad to say, you’re stuck with me.”

The memory of her touch when he’d been at his lowest a few weeks back echoes against his skin and he eyes her with a new kind of respect, deciding that that’s probably not a bad thing, if they’re going to be working together. “So what’s going on?” he asks after a minute, sensing that she’s waiting for him to make the first move. As he straightens up and leaves the wall behind, returning to his job, she eases up behind him and watches him push can by can onto the shelves around them.

“You know I shop at East Peoria’s equivalent of this store,” she tells him randomly before snapping her fingers, a strange sensation passing through him that makes him shudder slightly. He looks around, somehow unsurprised to find that the customers have stopped in mid-movement, a woman nearby interrupted in lecturing her surly teenage son and, just down the lane, a manager frozen while walking towards them, a clipboard in hand. “I may start coming here more often though, if only to bug you now and again.”

He shakes off the oddness of their frozen surroundings and turns to look at her, all teasing gone from his expression. “We have a mission?”

“You have a mission,” she corrects him softly. When he looks confused, she takes a breath. “There has only ever been one selected Piaculum for each state. You are Illinois’ new Piaculum. Technically, I cannot take on anymore missions.” He frowns at her, somehow sensing there’s more to the story than that, but hesitates, not sure how to broach the subject. She is astute enough, however, and pats him on the arm. “I know, you’re probably wondering if I’m not going to be any help in this mission, then why am I here?”

She walks away from him and takes a breath, her face turned so he can’t look at her while she explains. “Ser graciously opted to keep me on, as his right-hand, pretty much. So,” she says, eyes shining with some emotion he fails at recognizing, “I will be your advisor, basically. I probably won’t be much help with the hands-on stuff, but I will be there to explain things or give you suggestions if you get stuck. Is that ok with you?”

He nods, wondering distantly if her acceptance towards all of this is an act, or if she’s honestly fine with him taking her job. Yet again, he wants to ask so badly, but he’s reluctant to do anything to insult or hurt her feelings. After all, Aaron, he tells himself as she waits for him to say something, anything, you just met her a couple weeks ago, and this is the third or fourth time you’ve seen her, all in all. Don’t be a jerk. If she wants to tell you, she will.

He smiles at her and holds a hand out. “It’s fine.” She smiles too, faintly, and reaches out, their hands clasping for a moment as they shake on the agreement. “So what do we do?”

“Breathe,” she tells him. “Focus. I know you’re an old pro at that by now. From there, just do what seems natural.”

He’s so wrapped up in the breaths filling his lungs that he barely notices her hand still curled around his, the feeling of her palm against his somehow so natural and calming that he welcomes it, his eyes fluttering as his lips move silently. “Ser,” he finally whispers. “Ser!” Another empowering sense of something tugging at him and he releases a shaky breath, Alison’s hand in his the only thing keeping him from completely losing focus.

He’s still standing there, eyes closed, when she squeezes his fingers. “Aaron,” she calls out softly to him, guiding him back. “Open your eyes, please.” When he obliges, deep green gaze locking on his new surroundings, she smiles. “You did it,” she says quietly.

“Did what?” he asks, still dazed and confused. She rubs his shoulder before he looks over at her, focusing a little easier on her face.

“You channeled Ser’s powers,” she tells him with a soft smile. “You’re getting leaps and bounds better at relaxing, listening to your body’s cues. Before long, it’ll be second nature.”

He shakes his head, still barely following her. “I don’t even know what I did.”

Her touch still secure and warm against his sweaty skin, she winks subtly at him. “That’s half of the battle right there.” When he still looks uncertain, she laughs. “You allowed the unknown to happen. As Piaculum, you’ll find that we end up doing that a lot. Trusting in Ser, I admit, isn’t easy, because many of us barely know him or how most of this happens. But I promise you, it’s definitely worth it. Like when you saved that guy, Ser’s abilities were at the crux of that. Without him, you wouldn’t have arrived there in time, or been able to resume your life without raising suspicion afterwards.”

He’s about to say something about that, unable to ignore all of the days he’d spent unable to do much more than try not to lose his mind, but bites his tongue, aware that she’d already felt bad enough about that as it is. “Ok, well, if we’re here... wherever here is... What now?”

“First things first, in case you talk with someone and it somehow comes up in conversation, we’re in Athensville.” He repeats it under his breath and she smiles, remembering how it’d all felt for her, when she was new to all of this. “Repeat it to yourself, take the time to memorize it. You’ll only raise suspicions if you sound awkward or confused when talking about it. You’re supposed to at least know the city you’re currently standing in, after all.”

He winces at the sense that this makes, remembering shows he watches sometimes where something strange happens and a person arrives in another place, another time, visibly different from where they’d come from, just to thoroughly put their foot in their mouths by asking dumb questions of the people around them, leaving everyone thinking they’re insane or dangerous. Or both. It’d always irked him, though he’d never been certain if he’d handle it much better. “Great, guess I get to find out now,” he mumbles. When Alison looks at him curiously, he shrugs it off, not feeling the need to repeat his mutterings. “So...?”

“Oh.” She shakes her head, remembering his original question. “Right. Continue breathing like you are,” she tells him softly, and he realizes with a jolt he’d been breathing in and out steadily since appearing here, the habit rapidly becoming second nature to him to the point that he barely notices it anymore. On top of that, her fingers are still curled around his and as he looks down at their joined digits, the world melts away around him. This time, however, he doesn’t panic, the ghost of her warmth remaining with him even as a building reforms around him, filled with shelves of various items and soft piano music.

He bites his lip, looking around. This feels suspiciously like the night he’d saved that guy from getting hit with the car and he doesn’t want to miss anything just in case something innocuous ends up being important, turning in a circle to keep an eye on as much of the store as he possibly can. A jewelry store, of course, he thinks with a grimace, his discomfort only growing. There’s a man around Aaron’s age behind the counter, looking bored as he stares at the wall opposite of him, and the rest of the place seems empty, calm. For now.

Aaron is about to turn his attention to outside of the building, in case what he should be focusing on is out there, when the door dings, someone entering. The worker looks up briefly too, turning his gaze back to the wall before him a few moments later though it’s obvious he’s keeping an eye on the man out of his peripheral. Though the shopper looks average enough, something about it is wearing at Aaron, and he follows him. It only takes a minute or two before he slips behind two aisles and begins pocketing things too quickly for the Piaculum to catch, slipping them into the folds of his jacket.

He’s about to slip back towards the front and make what he probably thinks is a smooth get-away when he catches the young man’s eye and notices a subtle movement from behind the counter. “What do you think you’re doin’?” he asks suddenly, staring a hole straight through him. “Hands up, cowboy. Or else.” And just like that, there it is. A well-maintained looking gun in one hand and a menacing glower spreading across the thief’s face and Aaron has to fight base instincts to raise his hands in submission too, though he’s pretty sure he’s invisible in these visions.

“Ok, ok, everything’s ok--” the employee lifts his hands agreeably and the thief smirks at him, eyebrows raised.

“Did I tell you you could speak?” he wonders idly, wandering around the counter to look. Sure enough, the retail worker’s hands had been hovering near a red switch under the wooden paneling and the man looks up at him, tsking softly. “You shouldn’t have done what I think you did,” he whispers.

“No, wait please--” the younger man tries again, his voice quickly dying away when the gun is lifted, pressed against his forehead. “No, no...”

Aaron barely has a second to prepare as the gun goes off, the look on the man’s face biting into his memory forever and ever, before everything turns white and he returns to reality, standing next to Alison. “Oh. God.” He blanches and scrubs at his face, desperately clinging to the fact that it hadn’t happened yet, that... that he could stop it still. Blank green eyes lock on Alison’s face and he shudders. “Do you ever get used to that?”

She winces and rests a hand on his arm, her warmth cutting through the clammy sweat coating his skin and soothing him slightly. “Not really,” she admits. “Well, I mean, you... it gets easier. Or you have no choice but to let it be easier. I’m not going to look you in the eye and tell you that you’ll be able to watch one of these visions and not feel a little ill afterwards, but with time, you’ll kind of become... used to it.” Being a Piaculum means becoming desensitized to more than just Ser’s powers, unfortunately.

He takes a breath and releases it in a blustery sigh. “I guess it makes sense.” As she runs her hand along his arm, he turns to look at the town. “Ok, by the vision...” He moves in a circle, raising an eyebrow as he takes in the various businesses surrounding them. It only takes a few minutes before he realizes. “Oh no. Dammit!” At her confused glance, he shakes his head. “Dammit, dammit. I only saw the building from the inside. I have no idea what to look for.”

Her fingers dig into his arm slightly and he looks down at her. “Focus, Aaron,” she tells him quietly. “Try to think. You might’ve seen something and not even realized it.” Glancing back up, he takes in the area surrounding them. “Even just a small flash of the sidewalk could help.”

It wouldn’t be a problem except that there are at least two stores that he can see from here that looks like they’d be about right for what he’d seen. He listens to her, however, examining the sidewalk and trying to remember what he’d seen the brief moment he’d looked out of the window before the thief had entered. “I... I think...” He walks towards the nearest one when something-- someone-- across the street catches his eye. “Alison,” he hisses, turning away from him sharply. “The thief is over there, watching the other building.”

She turns to look in the window too, her hand returning to its place on his upper arm. “Are you sure it’s him?”

“Very.” He glances over, taking in the other store. “I’m going to go over there. You stay here, watch for him. Be careful.”

She fails at saying anything before he pulls away from her and walks towards the other store with average lengthed strides, relieved that he at least knows that much, to not put more attention on himself. “You too,” she finally mutters before turning to walk a bit away, not wanting to seem suspicious either as she window shops at the other places in the range of sight of the man Aaron had noted.

He pushes his way into the store, unsurprised by anything he sees inside-- the same, bored looking man behind the counter, various, sparkling pieces of jewelry on the shelves and under glass containers all around. If he hadn’t remembered having the vision itself, this would so be the very definition of deja vu. He nods faintly at the worker before venturing towards the back, remembering the path taken by the thief. Not wanting to raise the man’s suspicions, he returns to the front of the store after a minute and approaches the counter.

“How may I help you today, sir?” the shrewd salesman asks, taking in Aaron’s appearance with a quick, dismissive glance before looking back into his eyes.

Feeling abruptly uncertain and out of place surrounded by all of the expensive jewelry, Aaron gives himself a once over as well. Black slacks, a dark blue shirt covering the concert t-shirt for some band he’d seen nearly ten years ago, and worn black shoes comprise his fashion statement of the day, specially picked out for work, and his hair is spiked up with just a touch of cheap hair gel. Well I guess if I was here about the merchandise, that would matter, he thinks with a vague smile as he gives the man behind the counter a similar glance, taking in his name tag-- William-- and other minor details. “Alright if I call you Billy?” he asks after a moment of thought.

“I suppose,” he responds, eyebrow raised. “Sir, are you looking for anything in particular?”

The first thing he knows he needs to do is get Billy out of the way of the soon-to-arrive thief, but he’s not sure how to do this exactly. He knows one wrong move could lead to very bad things-- he could raise suspicions and get himself escorted out of the building by police or security, or whoever, and then what? Or worse, he could be fighting to get him to leave and take so long that the man he’d seen in the vision could arrive and kill them both with no preamble.

Deciding just to wade in and see what he could manage to do quickly, he nods. “Yeah, actually. Um, see, I’m planning on proposing to my girlfriend but she’s very frugal so I have to be careful with how much I spend. I’m on a break at work, this is pretty much the only time I have to go engagement ring shopping without her fretting over the bills. I know money’s tight but I want to splurge on her a little bit. She deserves it, after all. So... do you think you can help a guy out?”

Billy relaxes at this, nodding. “Of course, sir. Let’s see what we have.” To Aaron’s relief, he’s led to the opposite side of where the thief had disappeared to in the vision, the salesman kneeling down by the shelves to unlock the glass cases, pulling out a selection of rings. “What is your budgetary limits, sir? So I have an idea of what to pull out for us to look over.”

Aaron licks his lips and stares at the vest with his store’s logo clearly written upon it, not wanting to make the range he’s about to spit out seem too farfetched or too low. “Around $1500,” he finally says, closely watching the other man’s face as he nods, not looking too surprised by what probably seems low to a man working in a place like this. “Is that too low? I’m not sure, I was just looking--”

“No, sir, you’re fine, we have some rings around that price range in the back. I’ll be right with you.” Aaron nods, relieved as he slips into the storage room off to the side. He’s just disappeared behind the door when there’s a soft chiming sound and the newly appointed Illinois Piaculum shifts, quietly moving behind the shelves so he can see but not be seen while the thief that he’d seen in his vision, unencumbered by William’s watchful gaze, looks around the shelves, hands moving quickly as he first uses a wedge to break into the cases quietly and then lifts whatever he can-- gloved hands slipping across earrings, bracelets, necklaces.

It’s strangely hypnotic, watching this guy steal in broad daylight, without a care in the world. He seems a little tense, probably listening for any employers in the seemingly abandoned store, but for the most part appears to be in his element. I wonder if the store has cameras, Aaron wonders quietly, holding his breath as he waits and watches, inching closer to the storage room that is the only thing keeping Billy from meeting the fate that Aaron had seen in his vision. I doubt it. Eye still on the man robbing the place, he sits down in front of the doors and positions himself so that they can’t be opened from the inside nor can he be seen from where the thief is standing, shelves placed just so to block him-- at least he hopes so. He can only see a bit of the thief from here, so he thinks he should be ok...

Tiring of the jewelry now lining his pockets and folds of his jacket, the man moves over to the register and examines it, mumbling under his breath. Aaron’s eyes widen at the sound of a drawer being forced from its tray, the device beeping in protest as money is forced out of its dividers and stuffed in with the various pieces of jewelry. Aaron’s horror only grows when there’s a rough knocking on the door behind him, Billy apparently cluing in that something off is happening back with the jewelry.

He braces himself as the thief looks up, eyes wild and breathing loud as he quickly moves away from the register and takes off at a run, the loud bell at the door chiming repeatedly as he slams out of the building. Aaron closes his eyes, relieved that, no matter how many products had been removed, how much money had been stolen, Billy remains alive and yelling behind this door. Pissed and freaked out, but very much alive. Biting his lip, Aaron slips aside and crouches down by the floor, eyes still tightly shut as Billy slams out of the storage room, looking left to right wildly.

“No, no,” he mutters desperately, immediately noticing the trashed register, the still partially opened door, and warped case drawers lining the various shelves before him. It takes a little bit before he notices Aaron and ducks down by him, gripping his arm and trying to shake him awake. “What happened! What did you see?!”

Acting as best as he can to feign unconsciousness-- Leave it up to him on rather I’ve been knocked out by the thief or just passed out... either way, I just saved your life, idiot. Be a little more courteous, huh? Shaking a dude who for all you know may have a head injury... hmph!-- he groans, eyes fluttering as he swats uncoordinatedly at the man. “S- stop,” he mumbles, peering around with a dazed expression on his face.

“What happened?!”

Ugh, that again. No ‘are you ok?’ or ‘should I call for an ambulance...’ Shaking himself from these thoughts, he takes a breath and tries to sit up, Billy actually helping with this until he’s leaning against the wall, taking in the damage himself. He can see Alison through the window, standing across the street and watching on. Relieved that she’s ok, he nods discreetly her way to say that they’re both ok and watches as she pulls out her phone, probably calling for help. “After you went into the back room, this guy came in and... I don’t know,” he groans, gripping at his head. “Something-- I think... he hit me with something, I don’t remember anything after that, until you woke me up.”

Billy paces back and forth, running his fingers through his sandy hair. “Oh God,” he whines, all professionalism officially by the wayside. “They’re so going to fire me. This is what I get for letting Leslie take an extended lunch break so she could go look in on her aunt.” He scuffs his feet against the floor, mumbling to himself.

“Do you have cameras?” Aaron asks, finding that the status of the jewelry and money doesn’t really bother him. The fact that a man so easily willing to kill someone in a botched robbery being loose on the street is, however, more than a little troublesome. Cameras could direct police on who to keep an eye out for, post bulletins and alert the media who could in turn warn the local residents.

His hopes, however, are dashed when Billy shakes his head, hands now pressed against his face. “No, no cameras. We’ve been trying to get the owners to outfit the place with more updated security measures but they refused, saying there was no place in the budget as of yet.” He sniffs and looks around with desperate eyes, obviously trying to cling to anything that would give him hope about saving his job. “Did you get a good look at his face before he knocked you out? Maybe...?”

“No,” he mumbles, unsurprised that he’s slowly gaining a true headache now. Is it always like this? Clinging by your fingertips to keep a story going... Fighting to not get killed yourself... He grimaces, already knowing the answer. He gets the feeling that the turnover for this job is pretty quick, if Alison’s any indication. But it’s a worthwhile cause, he finally concludes, glancing back over at Billy. Even if the people we rescue are a bit obnoxious?

The police arrive quickly, Billy startled that they’d even been called-- and muttering even more viciously when he realizes that he’d utterly forgotten to call them himself, so freaked out by the state of the store that that had slipped his mind. On the other hand, Aaron is stuck, Billy standing just a few steps away, and police about to slam into the store and... I can’t be here, he realizes with a flood of dread. Ok, Aaron, think. His opportunity finally comes when Billy goes to the door to look outside and... his eyes fall on a beat up old door at the back of the building, an EXIT sign flashing over it.

“Sir, I need you to--” Turning around, the salesman’s words die away to nothing as he realizes he’s alone in the store once more, his jaw dropping. “Oh my God. Why is this happening to me?”

Alison greets Aaron in the alley leading outside of the store and grips his arm, smiling confidently as he once more focuses on his breathing, the soft brush of her warmth against his skin. Ser, he thinks determinedly, head swimming as they’re once more transported back to his place of work. She supports him as he swallows deeply, trying to recollect himself. Once he seems more conscientious of things around them, she releases him and takes a breath of her own. “So, Aaron, how was that?”

He glances around, somewhere between freaked out and amused when he finds the area frozen just as it had been when they’d left, customers and coworkers alike still unmoving. “It was... different,” he admits. “Um. Difficult. I’ve never... done anything like that before. But I knew it wasn’t a good idea to hang around and talk to the police.” He picks at his hand and sighs, staring at her. “They can’t know my real name, can they?”

She shakes her head. “It’s generally easier if you remain anonymous, or at least as much as you can. But in the cases where we end up with information we think would be helpful to the police, or anyone else, it’s not difficult to pass it along.”

“Oh yeah?” He blinks as she smiles, pulling out her phone and holding it out to him, whispering to him exactly what to do. After finding the number for the local police station for Athensville, he dials it and turns away, taking a few steps from her as it rings in. Once it’s answered, he doesn’t even wait for polite small talk. “I have an anonymous tip for you. That robbery earlier, at that jewelry store downtown. The guy was medium build, had blue eyes and blond hair. Looked to be in his late teens, early 20s. He wore torn up jeans and a sweatshirt with a jacket on over it, it looked like there was some kind of sports emblem on it.” Unable to think of anything else, he hangs up quickly, somehow feeling like eyes are on him even though he knows only Alison is around. “How’d that sound?”

She smiles as he turns around, eyes sparkling. “That sounded really good. I think you’re going to be a natural at this.”

He smiles faintly. “I have a question for you.” As she inclines her head, encouraging him on, he hesitates, wondering if maybe this would be just a little too painful for her to address. “Were you... um. How long did you do this? I mean, be a Piaculum?” he rambles, unsure how exactly to word it to not hurt her feelings or make her dwell on bad things.

She considers the question for a moment, her eyes dimming slightly. He’s about to brush it off, encourage her to move on, forget he’d even gone there, but she beats him to the punch. “I was 19 when Ser found me.” She rests a hand on her throat idly, fingers trailing down towards her chest and he wonders what she’s thinking about, the look on her face distant, reflective. “I’m 23 now. So almost four years.”

He’s somewhere between impressed at the amount of time she’d spent doing what one afternoon of had worn him down and sad for her, the look in her eyes eating at him. “Is... is that a lot of time for someone to do this sort of thing?”

“It can be,” she admits. “Some just aren’t cut out for this, and some... well, some get too hurt to continue.” An odd look in her eyes, she takes a breath. He watches as she moves her hand away from her skin like it’d burnt her and straightens up, trying to seem strong and unaffected by the subject they’re discussing.

He closes his eyes, somehow knowing without asking that it was more of the latter than the former as for why she’d needed replaced as a Piaculum. “Do... you miss it?” he asks faintly.

She hesitates, staring at her feet as she seems to think through the question, her answer, everything. “Aaron, I’m going to guess that being a retail worker isn’t quite what you were planning on spending your early 20s doing, right?” At his uncomfortable nod, she smiles, trying to gentle her response. “But even if you got another offer right now and quit this job, you would miss parts of it, right?” He nods again and she laughs, poking him. “You can respond vocally, ok? I won’t bite.”

Licking his lips, he finally speaks, “Yeah, I would.”

“Your coworkers and some of the customers, right? And the comfort of knowing what you need to do, where to go, all of that.” She takes a breath. “That’s how it is with me a bit. I miss saving people, and actually being useful. But,” she continues, her face lighting up a bit, “I can now mentor you into becoming a kick-ass Piaculum so you can save people too.” She smiles more sincerely this go around and rests a hand on his upper arm. “It helps.”

He smiles too, resting a hand on hers. “I’m glad, then. I’ll... try not to let you down.”

She chuckles, rubbing circles in his skin with her thumb. “I don’t think you could, Aaron. But for now...” She looks around with a slightly louder laugh and gently retracts her hand, looking around at the frozen store surrounding them. “I think you need to resume your life as it stands for now. What do you say?”

He too looks around and cringes, wiping at his face. “I guess you’re right.” Laughing faintly, he takes a breath. “What do I do? More breathing?”

“Yep, that’s usually it.” She smiles. “Focus, breathe, and concentrate on what you want, pay attention to Ser’s energy.” She watches as he closes his eyes and breathes in deeply, releasing it just as thoroughly.

When time begins moving again, the people resuming what they were doing like nothing’d happened, Aaron opens his eyes, briefly overwhelmed by the music over the intercom and the soft droning of the people in aisles around him after a period of only having himself and Alison to listen to. The sensation only grows when he finds she’s gone as well but, remembering her most frequently repeated advice, he takes a deep breath and releases it calmly, continuing the now-familiar motion until tension leaves his body.

He’s not sure how long he’ll be able to continue being a Piaculum, if their shelf-lives are as short as Alison had made it sound, but he’d do his level best, confident in the knowledge that he’d helped save at least two people in the last month, and live his life as normally as possible in the meantime until his services are called on again.

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