Piaculum

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Chapter 3

It’s late at night and Aaron’s reading through an article in the local newspaper when he feels a subtle change in the atmosphere surrounding him. Lips twitching, he scrolls through some of the words, reading them out loud. “Based on information from an anonymous tip, police have captured a local man, holding him in suspicion of six degrees of armed robbery. Max Anderson, 21 years old, is being held in...”

Alison shakes her head, unsurprised by his being able to sense her so easily. “Congratulations,” she says, sitting down on the couch and waiting for him to join her, which doesn’t take long. After a couple of mouse clicks and a short burst of typing, he sits down next to her and turns to face her.

“Thanks. I’m surprised they got him so fast...” He frowns a little. “Kind of wish I had more to give them to work on, but I guess it all worked out.” When she nods, nudging him slightly, he sighs, trying to focus on the here and now. “But on we go. Is there another mission?”

“You know me so well,” she teases him. “Yes, yes there is.” He’s about to reach out and touch her, whisk them away to the next town as dictated by Ser, but she stops him. “Wait, a little warning before we go.” He inclines his head at her, lips pursing together, and she takes a breath. “This one is probably going to take a little more physicality than quick thinking. If you need to, I’ll help you access Ser’s other abilities. I think it’s a little early for a mission requiring this degree of care, but it can’t be helped, it’s just how things happened to shake out. This is why I am here, to help you out in the tricky times.” She pauses, takes him in. “Because of this, Ser’s given me a little forewarning so I can help you more effectively. We’re going to do things a little differently this time and go to the town first.”

Before the vision? Worried at just how bad this is going to be, he stares at her.“Alright,” he says wearily, uncertain what exactly to do with that degree of a cryptic warning. Shaking it off anyway, he relaxes at her touch and turns his focus to the undercurrent of warmth that he’d figured out awhile ago was actually Ser’s power thrumming through his veins, like a soft presence just under his skin reassuring him that he was never alone. Once Alison’s fingers slip from his skin, he opens his eyes to find they’re standing in the middle of a copse of trees, everything damp and fresh around them. He stares around in awe before turning to look at her. “Where are we?”

She smiles and rests a hand against a pine tree, leaning over to pick up a pine cone by her feet. Twirling it around, she looks at him with gleaming eyes. “A park outside of Budd.”

“Budd?”

“Budd.” Laughing at his expression, she stands back up and pokes his arm with the cone. “You know what to do.”

He nods, only needing the reminder vaguely because it thrums like a constant force in the back of his mind, that someone out there needs his help and the faster he figures it out, the better. Eyes closed, breathing in the fresh air around him, focus on who needs help, he feels as his surroundings shift again.

Everything’s dark, his eyes wide open but still unable to see an inch in front of his face. “What... what the...?” He starts to freak out, but takes a breath, and another. “Where am I...” Gingerly brushing a hand out in front of him, he comes to a forced stop early on, hand scraping against something rough and ungiving, that seems to go as high as he can reach. “Is this...?” He feels something scatter beneath his hands, startling him, and he struggles to hold his breath, afraid to move even an inch as he realizes what this must be. “Oh no. Rocks?” He turns carefully and feels in the other direction, finding a path leading away from the wall of rocks. The darkness continues, making his path only that much more treacherous. “Ok ok...”

He’s feeling around for another wall, or proof that he’s coming to the end of wherever he’s at, when his ankle snags something and he falls forward, landing against something sticky and cold. “What is that?!” he gasps out, scrambling backwards and only just catching himself at the last moment. “Oh God.” Feeling around on the ground, he shudders upon finding more liquid and... His hand brushes against something, horror only growing when it twitches beneath his fingers. “There’s someone down here,” he realizes, finally recognizing that it’s a foot he’d tripped over. “Oh my God. I need to...” Taking a breath, he tries to focus once more despite all of the distractions around him. “Come on, Aaron, come on. Come on!”

Scrambling to his feet, he proceeds onwards and finds another wall to the side, resting a hand along its ridged surface. What happened here? he thinks, taking a deep breath as he tries to feel his way around. “No exit,” he realizes, disturbed by the utter darkness and silence of the person or-- horribly enough, people-- around him. “Oh God, how am I going to find this place once I’m out of the vision? I won’t even know what I’m looking for, because I can’t see...” He shakes his head, trying to figure out some way to determine-- but he knows, deep within, there’s just no way. Tilting his face towards where he thinks the body had been laying, he takes a breath. “I’ll do my best to find you. Just hold on. Please.”

The vision ends a moment later, leaving him struggling and floundering as a startled Alison grips him by the arm, trying to catch his eye. “Aaron!” she cries, her hands batted away as he fights to catch his breath, the terrifying blackness disappearing in a rush. “What happened? What did you see?”

He groans, leaning over with his hands digging into his hair. “Dammit. I didn’t see anything!” He sucks in greedy breaths and stares at her. “The place I was in was dark, it was... there was nothing... I don’t know what I’m looking for.” She pales and he turns to look around. “Where are we? I know you said Budd, but where in Budd?”

“It... it’s a park,” she admits, unnerved by the look on his face.

“What’s around here? I mean, is it like... just trees and play areas or bigger than that?”

She’s not sure what he means, working through what she knows of this place as quickly as she can. “Um, I think there’s... there’s cliffs nearby, and it used to have mines, but they’re all boarded up now... I’m not sure what else though.”

He swallows and stands straighter, slowly recollecting himself. “Do you know where the cliffs are?” As she nods hesitantly, he wipes at his face. “Point me towards them, and then I’ll need you to do something for me.”

She nods uncertainly and it’s only after a few minutes of conversation later that they split up, him heading into the trees towards where she’d directed him, and her towards the exit of the park. If all goes well, he’ll be able to figure out where his vision had been located at, and she’ll find help and they’ll all just kind of converge on the place and save whoever it was that he’d felt on the ground. It’s not a great plan, but it’s all he can think of right away.

He’s not sure how exactly far he’s been walking, but it’d be hard to miss as his surroundings stop being quite so green and more mountainous, large cliffs soon appearing in the distance. He can’t help but think that his vision could’ve been held here, or in the mines that Alison had mentioned, but for now, he’ll work on the assumption that this is the place he’d been at earlier. There’s not much else he can do, since he’s not even sure where the mines had been. He looks around once he’s at the cliffs and shakes his head. Now what do I do? He rests his hand on the cliff wall in front of him, frowning when he hears something skittering overhead.

He looks up and lets out an almost embarrassing cry as he dives out of the way, a nicely sized rock landing just inches away from where he’d landed. “What the hell?!” he yells out, peering around suspiciously. What if I arrived before those people got caught by what I’m going to take a wild guess on and say is a rock slide? If it hasn’t happened yet, then maybe... He turns in a circle, counting the cliffs surrounding him, and locates another cliff, breath catching almost immediately. “A cave,” he realizes, running towards it. “This has to be it!”

The closer he gets, the louder the voices inside become. He gasps and moves faster, making it to the outside of the cave. He’s about to yell in but decades of TV watching comes back to him and he realizes with a sinking bit of dread that, should he yell, he could cause the very thing he’d seen in his vision. Crap. Crap, crap. What do I do?!

Taking another deep breath, he ducks inside the cave and blinks against the unending gloom. It reminds him of his vision until his eyes adjust, the soft glow of the outside world at night just barely lighting up the interior as he walks further inside. Voices getting louder, he can tell they’re young people-- maybe teenagers slipping away for some shenanigans or just curious kids wanting to see what was inside of this cave. I was not this dumb when I was their age, he thinks, was I? He smiles faintly, realizing that it was only five years ago or so that he was that age... Years go by fast, man. I suspect it’ll be even faster now that I’m a Piaculum. If I’m lucky, he thinks, remembering the conversation he’d had with Alison about injuries caused by this job. I wonder why, he muses sarcastically, picking his way slowly through the cocoon of rocks and dirt that only seems to be growing smaller as he goes deeper, the path sloping downwards as he continues. The darkness only spreads, seems to be eating him alive. He’s glad he’s not claustrophobic. Though if anything would cause it, it’d be this...

He’s almost on top of the voices when he sees a faint gleam of yellow ahead, realizing that someone had the sense to bring a flashlight. Moving a little more hastily, he winces upon kicking a rock and sending it skittering ahead of him. “Is someone else in here?” an uncertain voice asks ahead, the owner a girl who sounds worried and a little scared, like she’s afraid she’s now inside this dark, almost creepy place with a mass murderer or something.

“Don’t worry about it, just keep walking. I think there’s a way out ahead of us,” a male voice responds, Aaron rolling his eyes as he wonders why these two are here.

Breaking through the darkness, he finally ends up in the same place as the two teenagers, the girl letting out a muffled shriek as his shadowy form appears before them. “Shhhh!” he hisses, looking around wildly. He almost expects his vision to come true this very moment as that cry echoes through their surroundings, but everything quiets down after a few moments and he relaxes slightly.

“Who are you?!” the guy demands, stepping in front of his girlfriend protectively. The sudden change in his stance from earlier is almost amusing to Aaron, but there’s no time for such things.

“I’m the guy trying to stop something bad from happening,” he tells them, reaching out towards them. “Listen, this place-- it’s not secure, you shouldn’t be here. There could be cave-ins, rock slides. You need to go. Now!”

“How did you know we were in here?!” she demands, still a little too close to the squeechy side of things for his comfort. “We made sure no one saw us!”

“Well, you did a crappy job of it,” he answers, now growing annoyed with their stalling his attempts. “I am not kidding. You need to go, now.”

Her boyfriend bristles at this and smirks at him, face only slightly visible in the pale glow from the flashlight. “Sure, dude. Are you the park ranger or something? I’m going to guess by the pajama pants look you’re rocking, that that’s a no.” Aaron freezes, having completely forgotten what he’d been wearing when Alison had come to see him. “So go away, leave us alone.” He rests a hand on the small of his girlfriend’s back, about to lead her away, when Aaron presses a hand to the wall, blocking their path. “Dude, what the hell--?!”

“You’re only going one way, and that’s to the exit,” he tells him lowly, warningly. “I’m not letting you continue this little adventure, it’s not safe.”

“How do you know--” the girl is trying to say when the guy moves quickly, socking Aaron right in the jaw and sending him crashing back into the lip of the cave, soft moonlight pouring down across his face as he reaches up and touches his lip, unsurprised to find it oozing blood. She screams, quickly running for the exit and he’s relieved to see her go, though that leaves him now with the idiot before him to save.

“Now look. You just ruined my plans for the evening,” the angered teenager snaps, shaking out his throbbing fist as he approaches to probably take another shot at Aaron, who sneers and stands up to meet him. He’s not planning on fighting him, not here anyway, thinking maybe he’ll grab him by the collar, relieved to have a few inches and a bit of weight on him, and sling him out through where his girlfriend had just run out and maybe, after following him, pay him back a bit for the blood he now feels dripping down his chin.

“It could’ve been-- and will be-- a lot worse for you before it’s over,” Aaron snarls, just barely holding onto his temper. Get us out of this cave first, then... He’s just side stepped the teen’s second attempt at a punch, about to snag his collar, when the ground shakes. “Oh hell,” he breathes, realizing. “I’m too late.”

“What was that?!”

“Shut up!” he yells back, just getting a hold of the guy’s sweater and dragging him towards the lip of the cave, where they can vaguely hear his girlfriend screaming and crying. “Go-- go--” But it’s too late, the ground is shaking like it’s an earthquake and... Aaron can only watch as a stream of rocks cascade down upon their way out, blocking it completely. It’s not done there, however, as they shift and fall inwards, more rocks taking their place before one strikes the angered teenager in the gut, winding him and sending him backwards into Aaron who is knocked off of his feet by the pure force of it and hits his head on the wall behind him. Everything goes black.

Outside, the girl who’d just barely escaped before everything came falling down around them goes screaming into the night, finding it hard to keep her balance due to the rumbling ground from the rockslide behind her. As she wails, constantly mumbling the same few words over and over again, Alison looks up from where she’s standing nearby with the park ranger, who cuts the girl off at the pass before she continues to run blindly through the park and end up in even more serious trouble-- there are unstable mineshafts nearby, and a couple of very busy roads that could end only badly for her if she’d accidentally run out into them.

Alison has no doubt that this is one of the people Aaron had sensed in his vision, has no doubt that the rumbling not far off only spells bad things for her fellow Piaculum since she sees no one else following the girl. She swallows desperately and listens as the park ranger tries to get her to calm down, talk rationally about what happened, but she’s sobbing so hard that only every now and again a word uttered actually makes sense. Impatient and fretful, Alison brushes past the ranger and grips the girl by the shoulders. “Look at me,” she says in a voice both soothing and commanding. When the weepy mess of a creature looks up at her, she tries to calm down herself. “Was it a rock slide?” At her hesitant nod, Alison grimaces. “Alright. Can you take us back there?”

She nods again, wiping at her face with her sleeves. “Good, lead the way,” she urges, pushing the girl ahead of her. As they trek through the park, Alison’s lips thin grimly. Hang on, Aaron. We’re coming. You better not have gotten yourself killed, I really don’t want to have to go through all of this with another so soon... She rests a hand under her collarbone, feeling as her heart races beneath her palm. Sometimes she can understand why Ser keeps himself so separated from them all, surprised by how much the uncertainty of these missions hurt. It had been one thing when it was her by herself, but now that she’s basically responsible at least partially for another, it eats at her.

She doesn’t even know that much about Aaron, his family, his friends. Who she should call if something happens to him. Disgusted with herself suddenly, she shakes her head as they near where the rockslide happened, the changes to the scenery visible even in the pale moonlight. As soon as I get you out of here, Aaron, these are the kinds of things we’re going to discuss. I’ll make sure you’re not forgotten, if... if... She chokes, the thought almost too horrible to finish. If something happens, and you’re in a strange place. I’ll take care of you.

Not willing to dwell on what she’d do if something had happened now, she faces the piles of rock keeping her from seeing him. The park ranger is already on the radio, calling it in, and confirming that there are people trapped inside the cavern. She keeps her face blank as he and his colleague begins complaining about irresponsible punks trespassing and getting themselves in trouble at this hour, resting a hand on the nearest section of rocks. If they only knew, she thinks with a slight eye roll. “Can we move these?” she asks him vaguely, needing to break up the silence with something other than the teenaged girl’s ongoing muffled sobs.

“I’d advise against it,” he tells her. “Good chance we’d just make it worse. Help’ll be here shortly. Just be patient.”

She hates this answer but she’d expected it, so she nods. moving to sit next to the girl who’s now blankly staring at where she’d last seen her boyfriend. They sit quietly for a few minutes before Alison sighs, still exasperated by the silence. “What’s your name?”

The girl releases a deep breath and fumbles her hands together, glancing out of the corner of her eye at Alison. “Taylor,” she sniffs, once more wiping at her face pointlessly as fresh tears streak down her cheeks as soon as her hands are back in her lap.

“Well, Taylor, I’m Alison.” After she nods in response, the two sit in silence for awhile, staring at the pile of rocks. “So, is he your boyfriend?”

“Yeah,” Taylor admits, a small, sheepish smile spreading across her face. “I mean, I think he is. I... I’d like him to be.” She hesitates, remembering the scene in the cave, and sighs. “He’s kind of a jerk at times, but he can be so sweet too.”

Alison chuckles. “That’s usually the way it is with guys. Girls generally aren’t too different, though...”

“True.” More silence until Taylor turns to look at her, pain and more uncertainty in her gaze. “Do you think they’ll be ok?”

“I hope so.” She sighs, staring ahead blankly. “They kind of have to be.”
---------

Someone coughs roughly at his elbow and Aaron winces, trying to sit up as awareness floods back to him. “What...” His body feels weighed down, his head foggy. “What happened...?” He stares around at the darkness, not understanding what he’s seeing... or isn’t seeing. “I thought...” He feels around blindly, coughing harshly when a cloud of something rushes into his face, startling him. “Oh God.” Straining to see around him even a little, he continues fumbling, trying to find anything familiar. His memory starts to come back in flashes and starts, his eyes widening despite his inability to see anything. “Oh God, I’m living my vision,” he groans in horrified realization, collapsing back against the floor with a huff.

There’s another cough a bit away from him and he stiffens, remembering that he hadn’t been alone at the time of the rock slide. “Hello?” At an answering groan, he begins digging around with his hands, trying to feel for whoever’s stuck with him. “Hey.” Finally he reaches him, shuddering slightly as he tastes something coppery around his lips. “Ugh, God.” His whole body throbs, making it even harder for him to focus. Finally he brushes against something human and stops there, shaking it slightly.

“Stop,” a male voice cuts into the gloom, painful and low. “Please...” Aaron listens and lets him go, leaning back as he scrambles to sit up. “What is going on?” His voice sounds weak, worrying the Piaculum all the more.

“We’re going to be ok,” he responds. In hindsight, that probably was a bad response. What is more worrisome than when some guy you don’t know telling you things’ll be fine when you’re stuck in the pitch dark? He sighs. “We were caught in a rock slide.” Now that he can hear the other guy’s voice, he remembers more-- the girl running away screaming, his getting punched in the jaw, all of it. “What do you remember?”

“Nothing,” he mumbles, sounding shaky and uncertain. “A rock slide? What the hell, man?”

“I know.” He looks around. “I don’t...” Pressing his hand against the rocks blocking them from the outside world, he sighs. “We might be here awhile. I hope you’re not claustrophobic.” Oh there you go again, Aaron. Being all comforting and crap. He winces and tries to stand, feeling very discombobulated since he can’t see what direction he’s aimed in or anything else. “I know there’s another exit near here, but I’m not sure... how to get there...” Or if it’s not blocked too... He gives himself a mental pat on the back for having the sense to only think that. Resting a hand on the side of the wall to try to keep his bearings, he begins to turn in a circle, trying to find a path to the other part of the cave that he’d entered from. It ends up being a bad idea, however, as the sound of something shifting is followed by more dust billowing around them, sending both of them into coughing fits.

“Holy crap. Stop, whatever it is you’re doing, just stand still,” the teenager says, sounding more than a little frantic. Aaron hates having to do so but obliges, letting the time pass quietly as they wait. And listen. And expect something-- anything-- else to happen.

“Taylor got out alright, right? I didn’t just imagine that?” he whispers after a minute, shifting slightly as he sits back down at Aaron’s feet.

“Is Taylor the girl that was with you?”

“Yeah. Did you see--?”

Aaron nods, realizing belatedly that that’s no good as the teenager is just as blind as he is in this moment. “Yeah, she got out fine. Don’t worry, she’s hopefully off getting us help right now.” Or Alison is, he thinks plaintively, wondering just how much time had passed since they’d split up. Giving up on finding a way out from this side, he sits back down nearby and idly digs his fingers into the soft soil underneath them. “What’s your name?”

The younger man shakes his head, almost laughing. “Yeah, now that we’re stuck here together, I guess we have plenty of time to be social, huh?” He still sounds more than a little testy about earlier, but Aaron barely blinks in response to it, overly aware that it’s irrelevant right now. “I’m Dave.”

“Aaron,” he responds after a moment. “By the way, I’m sorry about earlier. I just... knew it wasn’t safe here and I didn’t want to see anything bad happen to either of you.”

Dave says nothing for a long moment and Aaron almost expects him to come kick his ass again, darkness be damned, but instead he shifts, releases a long, loud sigh. “I guess I should’ve listened. If something had happened to Taylor because I’m a stubborn jackass...”

Relieved, Aaron shrugs it off. “We all have those moments, huh? Just be glad that she’s fine, and we’ll be too shortly. Just gotta wait and be careful, make sure that no other rockslides happen until we’re out of here.”

“Yeah,” he whispers. They sit there quietly, the darkness and creepy silence not very conducive to starting up any real kind of conversation. Aaron figures it’s just as well, not wanting to get involved in another potential argument considering how things had gone earlier.
--------

Alison and Taylor are still sitting outside, the girl continuing to sniffle now and again as Alison peers desperately between the wandering park ranger and the unmoving rock pile. At some point, she thinks she hears something coming from the cave-in, but no one else seems to notice so she keeps quiet, crossing her arms over her chest partially to keep warm and partially to monitor her heart beats. “Hold on, Aaron,” she whispers after awhile, too jittery to stay still and silent any longer. “Help’ll be here soon.”

When things finally begin to happen, she’s a mixture of relieved and startled, the ground rumbling slightly as police vehicles and trucks begin heading their way. She looks back towards the cliff and hopes that Aaron doesn’t erroneously think that there’s another rock slide happening, when it’s really actually his rescue. The amount of park workers and emergency crew that quickly fill the area and begin working out the best way to delve into the rock slide and unearth those inside amaze her.

Taylor seems subdued and quiet, barely moving, and Alison stays by her, not wanting the girl to become frantic and disrupt the rescue efforts. Thankfully, the workers begin fairly quickly, carefully pulling out rock after rock and piling them up nearby to free up space in the opening. The two remain painfully quiet until a worker calls in, “Hello!?”

It’s visibly Aaron’s voice that responds back a few moments later, “Hey we’re in here!” and Alison sinks back against the stone slab she and Taylor had been leaning against this whole time, relieved. The other girl’s head snaps up and she stares woefully at the small bit of the cave they can see from here, fresh tears leaking down her face. Silence from her boyfriend is a worrisome sign and Alison gingerly reaches over, cupping her hand. Taylor sobs silently and squeezes her fingers, almost collapsing a minute later when Dave’s voice finally echoes out to them too, the words indistinguishable but there.

“Oh my God,” she whimpers over and over again, shaking and crying. “Dave!” She’s on her feet before Alison can even open her mouth to say something, tripping over the uneven ground as she runs back towards where the emergency crew’s at. They hold her back until the last bit of the rocks are pulled away, the two men stumbling out and covered in dirt and soot and who knows what else. As soon as this happens, she’s released and she lunges right at Dave, cupping his face with her trembling hands. “You idiot,” she sobs, burying her face in his neck. “Never do that to me again.”

He holds her tightly and sighs, hating the tears staining her cheeks but so relieved to be able to hold her like this. “Ok, I won’t. I won’t. I’m sorry. Please stop crying,” he begs, growing a little more frantic the louder her sobs become. “It’s ok, Tay, come on...”

As she alternates between hugging him, crying all over him, and slapping him, Alison and Aaron regroup a few feet away, smiling sheepishly at each other. “Well,” Alison sighs, carefully brushing some of the flakey blood from his lips, cringing sympathetically when he winces away from her touch. “Quite the night, huh? But another successful mission. Yay us.”

He smirks at her, catching her hand before she can brush against his wounds again. “May I play the grumpy old man for a minute?” At her confused look, he glances towards the teenagers still wrapped up in each other and sighs. “Ungrateful kids!”

She laughs and overexaggeratedly tsks at him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders as she leads him away. “Come on, let’s go home. Dunno about you, but I need some sleep.”

“Sleep sounds great,” he admits. Upon their return to his apartment, he’s surprised when she doesn’t just disappear like she’d done in the past. Instead she remains and washes his face off, checking him over as quickly as she can for any other cuts or injuries. Outside of a few bruises that will make him a very sore man in the morning, he appears to have thankfully gotten off very lightly and she smiles at him, making one last trip back to put his first aid supplies away. He follows her along, blinking slowly as exhaustion begins overwhelming him anew. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure, what?”

“About... all of this?” She barely blinks at this, taking him by the arm and once more leading him, this time to his bedroom where she helps him out of his shoes and eases him back into the bed, adjusting the sheets and pillows until he looks comfortable.

“What do you want to know?” she whispers, unsurprised as he turns to face her, a sleepy daze overwhelming him.

“Are there many more like us?”

Her head tilts and she smiles, a strange look on her face. “Of course there are,” she whispers, running a finger through his still grimy hair. Wincing, she wipes off the smudges on her fingers onto the pillow directly under his head, knowing that it-- and his whole bedding, probably-- will need washed after this. “There are Piaculum all over America... and in other countries too.” Her eyes softening in sympathy as he falls deeply asleep before she even finishes speaking, she leans closer so she’s whispering directly into his ear. “Struggles similar to yours are felt by hundreds of people around the globe. It is a poor comfort, I know... but you are far from alone. Never forget that.”

When he wakes up the next morning, the echo of her words remain with him and he smiles slightly, blinking against the sunlight pouring into his room. He has many more questions-- about Ser, and about her, but the answers she has provided so far are comforting to him. He’s about to get out of bed and begin his day when there’s a faint knock on his bedroom door and he lets out a not-very-manly squeak, burying himself under his sheets as Alison peeks her head in, blinking at the lump of humanity that she can only slightly decipher as being Aaron. “You’re still here?!” he demands, suddenly unearthing himself as he realizes that, yes, he is decent.

She smiles bemusedly and leans against the door, crossing her arms over her chest. “Well, yeah. You were caught up in a rock slide,” she points out softly. “And we didn’t really have the time or opportunity to get you thoroughly checked out last night before people would become suspicious and we had to get out of there, so I decided to stay. Keep an eye on you, make sure your brain didn’t start leaking out of your ears or something.”

Despite the certainty behind her words, there’s some odd expression on her face and he shakes his head. “Are you sure that’s all?”

She chuckles, looking abruptly sheepish. “It’s becoming that easy for you to read me already, hmm?” She sighs. “Fine. I just... you started asking questions about Piaculum last night.” Meeting his gaze bravely, she straightens her shoulders as she enters his room fully. “I want to give you the opportunity to ask what you’re most curious about. Mind you, I don’t know everything either so I might not be as much help as you would like, but I’ll do my level best.”

He peers at her, surprised at the offer. “Really?”

“Yes,” she says with a small smile. “I’m not sure how much Sci-Fi you’ve watched in your life-- though I’m guessing a lot--, but trouble only happens when people aren’t forthcoming with colleagues or partners. And as I am here to assist you while you learn, that’s exactly what I want to do, and help you understand what this all is to the best of my ability. But... you have to promise me something.”

“Like what?” Aaron asks, suddenly wary as she shuts down slightly.

“I may not be able to tell you some things. I am first and foremost Ser’s right hand person and he trusts me with some sensitive matters that I can’t talk about. So,” she says softly, settling in next to him on the bed at his nodded invitation, “if I tell you I can’t answer something you ask, you have to trust me to know what will be vital to you as a Piaculum and what isn’t. Alright?”

“Alright,” he accepts. When she waits patiently for him to continue, he tries to figure out where to begin. “Alright. Um. Well. What can you tell me about Ser, then?”

“Ooh, a broad first question. Well, alright. Let’s see. He’s as mysterious as they come,” she admits. “When I first met him, I was so freaked out by his temperament and his attitude. I was confused, and not sure what was expected of me, and it was just a difficult time all around. But since then, I’ve come to trust him more than pretty much anyone else in my life. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s helped me through more than I probably am even fully aware of. And you’re luckier than I was, you have me as a buffer to try to help you through whatever craziness gets thrown your way. I think part of the reason Ser and I had issues at first was because the person I replaced wasn’t very good. He was reluctant to trust me, but I proved myself after some time. And look at us now.”

“Do you know how he has these abilities?”

“Honestly, no. I’m not sure even he knows where they’ve come from, just that he wants to use them to help people. And he does. Never doubt that.” She grows solemn, resting her hands on her knees as she stares out of the bedroom window, her teeth scraping across her bottom lip. “Before he created the Piaculum movement, he used to help people on his own... but it became too much, he became too recognizable. So he created the room you’ve seen a few times, you might’ve noticed it has no exit.” When he makes a face, she chuckles wearily. “Yeah. He made it like that so no one could find him and disrupt his peace. He fully plans on remaining there until the end.”

Aaron shakes his head, mind locking on that last sentence. “End of what?”

Alison catches herself, her fingers pressing harder against her skin as if she’s trying to keep the truth from bursting out. “That’s one of those things I can’t explain,” she says slowly, barely able to look him in the eye as she helplessly dodges his question. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything. Are you curious about anything else?”

“This is going to sound a little weird,” he says with a self-effacing smile. “But yeah. You.” Her eyebrows raise into her hairline and his smile grows into pure chuckles. “Like, why? Why did you need replaced? Was it...?”

She looks even worse at this question, her hands wrapping around her chest like she’s cold. “It was just time. I’d been at this nonstop since I was 19, and Ser didn’t want my life to be hindered any longer, so I agreed to help him look for a replacement. From the first moment I saw you, I knew you would be a good fit for the position.”

He’s somewhat honored that she thought so highly of him from the start, but also distracted by her non-sensical answer. A girl like her didn’t seem to be the type to mind if her life was being hindered by helping people, no matter how long she’d been working at this. Despite his growing suspicions, he nods at her and makes a big show of looking at the clock a moment later. “Crap! I’m going to be late for work if I don’t get moving,” he tells her. “Sorry to cut this short but I better go.”

She too glances at the clock. “Of course.” Standing up, she collects her shoes from by the door and slips them on. “I’ll see you later, then. And just in case, if you feel off at all, call someone, ok? I’m not a doctor, obviously, and I don’t know enough to diagnose if there’s a legit problem.” Patting him on the arm, she smiles faintly.

“Don’t worry, I will.” He watches as she disappears as quickly as she’d arrived and takes a deep breath, sinking back against his bed. “Well, she may have been less than forthcoming about everything to do with Ser, but she was even more tightlipped about herself.” He sighs, surprised by just how much it really bugs him.

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