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Chapter 4

Barely a week has passed when he’s trying to unlock his car, arms full of shopping bags and car keys, just to jump back and drop almost everything in his hands as Alison appears before him, dressed snugly in a purple coat that suits her surprisingly well. As he gapes at her, she flushes and drops to her knees, trying to collect his bags as people walking by stare on in almost amused sympathy. “I’m sorry,” she chokes out, trying not to freak out too badly. “I didn’t think you’d be... oh hell.” She collects as many bags as she can while he finally gets the car unlocked, his silence starting to worry her. “Um, Aaron, I really am--” When she leans up to look at him, gloves drenched in slushy snow, she finds that he’s shaking in silent laughter. “Oh yeah, sure, just stand up there and laugh at me,” she huffs, none-too-gently dropping his bags in the backseat before pausing, returning to being horrified. “Um, I hope none of this was breakable.”

“No, don’t worry, it’s fine,” he tells her, finally leaning down to help her get the last few bags, including one that had spilled out under the car. “Didn’t expect to see you here tonight though. What’s going on?”

She looks around uncertainly and shakes her head, “Not here. Let’s go somewhere a little more discreet.”

“Alright,” he agrees with a frown, pushing the last few bags into the backseat before motioning her into the passenger’s seat. Once he’s sure she’s safely inside, he slips into the driver’s seat and puts the car into gear, glancing over at her strangely. She’s not acting like herself, somehow jittery and uncomfortable. “Another mission?”

“Yeah,” she says, seeming uncharacteristically unwilling to explain any further, her eyes locked on the road ahead. “Let’s go.”

He frowns at her but takes the hint, letting the soft rasp of wheels against the pavement of the road fill up the overwhelming silence in the car. Eyes flickering from the passing lines under the wheels to her, he shakes his head. Something’s wrong but hell if I know what. Trying not to overthink what’s happening, he keeps an eye out for the turnoff he has in mind not far away from the store. The silence becomes so all-encompassing that he almost wants to turn the radio on and lose himself in that for the next few minutes at least but he thinks that that’d go badly, Alison so tense that he thinks it’d just succeed at setting her off. Which, maybe, would be better than this horrible silence, help him to at least understand what’s going on with her, but...

Finally he spots the turn off and, choosing to smother his wild thoughts, hits the turn signal, easing to the left. Despite how smoothly he handles the vehicle that he’s had nearly as long as he’s driven, Alison’s hands tighten across her knees and she only releases a soft breath once the car comes to a stop in some gravel. “This is as discreet as we’re going to get,” he tells her tersely and she nods, pulling the door open and getting out with no lack of relief on her face. He follows her, leaning against the side of the car to give her some space as she mimics his position and stares across at him. “So what’s going on?”

She kicks at the gravel a bit and shakes her head, taking another obviously much needed breath. “Ok, well. Yeah, there’s another mission going on. I had to get you to leave the store because I didn’t want to tell you about it there, in case we’d be overheard by the wrong people.”

He shakes his head. “Why does it matter, though? We’re just going to be teleported to wherever we need to be, right?”

“It’s not that simple this time.” She takes a few steps away from him and stares at the ground. “Ser gave me a little bit of heads up, and he never does that. This mission is local.” He’s about to ask what exactly she means when she circles the car until she slides up next to him and rests a hand on the side of his head, green eyes resolute and solemn as she leads him into the vision.

He’s discombobulated when he recognizes the area that he appears on immediately, a side street only a few blocks from his apartment complex covered in rows of similar houses. He stares around at the place he’s driven past almost every day since beginning to work at the grocery store. “What the...” He struggles to make sense of things around him, stepping onto the yard nearest. Almost always worried about running late whenever he’d driven through here, he’d never really taken the time to examine each house on the block, but yet... “I know this house.” Even in only the half glow from a light washing over the porch, something about the place feels like he’d been there many times in the past. “Is that...”

He touches a hand to the porch railing and climbs up, peering into the doorway. The wooden door is open, soft light flowing across the porch from the kitchen just visible through the screen door and he definitely recognizes it as a place he’d played in often as a child, many fond memories of chasing a blonde girl out of the house while giggling insanely, her parents shooing both dirty children out of the nice, clean kitchen. “Nicole Ditra used to live here,” he realizes, eyes widening as he recalls all of the times he’d played with a bunch of his classmates in this yard, the place defacto selected as the local hang out because it had once been a flourishing, sprawling sea of green grass and multi-colored flowers. “I haven’t seen her for years. I wonder if she or her mom is still here. Wow.” He hadn’t heard much about her, one of the many people he’d fallen out of touch with a long time ago, but he vaguely remembers his mother telling him a few months ago that she’d read in the newspaper that her father had died. Once the initial You still read newspapers? shock had subsided, he was overwhelmed by pity for the girl.

Unable to see anything else from here, he leaves the porch and, remembering abruptly that he’s here for a purpose more than just a simple walk down memory lane, begins traipsing through the yard, peering in through what of the windows he can reach easiest where bushes aren’t blocking the path. Most have drapes or blinds blocking his view but one towards the end of the house has a broken strip low enough for him to look through and, as odd as it makes him feel, he creeps closer, peering through it. He would never do such a peeping Tom-like thing in average circumstances, but he needs to know what he’s here for. What’s going to happen to Nicole’s old home, the people within.

Once his eyes adjust to the light from within, he recognizes the blonde haired girl immediately. She is older, of course, her hair much longer and every other part of her showing what the last ten years had brought her, but he has no doubt that she’s the same girl he’d played with as a child. He continues watching as she moves around her room and says something, her voice just audible through the wall though he can’t tell what exactly she’s saying. He blinks when her mother enters the room, recognizing her also from years ago. The two appear to be arguing, voices rising and falling in pitch and passion as more time goes by, Nicole crossing her arms over her chest and looking away as Mrs. Ditra’s eyes reflect rage. He grows more and more uncomfortable as time passes and their argument only seems to be growing more heated, Nicole giving up on whatever she’s doing and confronting her mother more fully in the hallway, where there seems to be more room. Unfortunately he can’t see what’s happening out there from this angle.

He thinks little of it until he hears a startled scream and something crashes roughly, rattling the floor up to the window he’s standing near. A few moments later, Nicole’s limp body falls into the room, blood bubbling and dripping down her jaw onto the floor beneath her, staining the carpet a dark red. “Oh my God,” he hisses, eyes shutting tightly as if it’s nothing more than a nightmare he needs to wake back up from. “No way.” When he opens his eyes again, the vision has ended and he’s by Alison’s side once more. As she tries to steady him, he stumbles away, collapsing to his knees in the gravel while fighting the ill feeling that’s welling up within him.

She looks as startled as he feels and leans down, wrapping an arm around his shoulders as he rocks back and forth. “Nicole,” he chokes out.

“What happened?” She rests her cheek against his neck, disturbed by how he’s shaking, and waits patiently as he struggles to make sense of what he’d just seen.

“I think... I think her mother killed her. There was... was blood, and she was so still...” He digs his fingers into the ground and tries to recollect himself, not wanting to completely lose himself when he can still fix it. “Crap. Crap.” He sniffs. “I grew up with them, you know? Nicole and I went to school together, and I... we kind of lost contact in high school, but I remember spending a lot of time at their house when I was young. You... I can’t believe Mrs. Ditra could possibly do something like that.”

“A lot of people are capable of things we wouldn’t expect. It never makes sense,” she whispers, uncertain and unable to think of anything to help him accept what he’d just seen. “But you’ve seen it, now you can change it. Try to take comfort in that.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m trying.” He rests his head back against her for a moment, taking comfort and warmth from her briefly, before pulling away. Dragging himself to his feet, he helps her up as well and presses a hand to her arm, squeezing gently. “Let’s go.”

Her eyes dulling slightly as she follows him to the car, she says nothing as he gets into the driver’s side and starts the car up before she’s even completely inside. Turning to stare at him, she feels horrible. It’s one thing when the cases are anonymous, it’s a whole other ordeal when it’s someone you know, grew up with. When you’re forced to watch them die... “What are you going to do?”

“I have no idea. But I have to try something. I’ll wing it. For now, we have to get there. Quickly. I’m not sure when it’s going to happen, but something tells me soon.” He drives off quickly and, barely paying attention to the speed limits of the various parts of town, races through the streets, her lips pale and thin as they go. “Hang on,” he tells her needlessly as street by street rushes past them, the surroundings finally shifting from downtown businesses to a more residential area. He bypasses the turnoff to his apartment and finds his way to the road he’d seen in his vision and stops a little bit away from the home, not wanting to alert those inside that he’s there, just in case Nicole’s mother is on the edge already. They sit for awhile and stare up at the house, Alison’s turn now to look from him to the outside.

“Is there anything you want me to do?”

“I barely know what I’m going to do,” he sighs. “Stay here.”

“Alright.” She watches as he unbuckles and get out of the car, walking quickly down the street. I guess he’s decided to take the straight forward approach, she thinks, wincing as he walks onto the porch and knocks on the door with little to no hesitation or preamble.

He shifts against the white wood, listening as footsteps walk towards the door. When it is finally pushed open, Mrs. Ditra staring suspiciously out at him, he tries to remain calm, not let what he’d just seen visibly affect him. “Mrs. Ditra?” he greets her courteously. “I don’t know if you remember me but I’m Aaron Fisk. I went to school with your daughter. Is she here?”

She peers at him silently for a long, tense moment before re-entering the house, not even bothering to greet him. “Nicole! Someone here to see you.”

A bit off-put by her attitude, not remembering her ever being like that years back, he doesn’t feel like he should move from where she’d left him, not wanting to enter the house and risk any further trouble. Finally, softer steps approach the door and he looks up as a blonde haired girl peers out at him, grey eyes wide and a little watery. “Aaron?”

He smiles, relieved that she recognizes him as easily as he’d recognized her. “Hi, Nicole. It’s been a long, long time, huh?” Searching for some plausible reason for his abrupt visit, he grows more somber. “I recently heard about your father, I just wanted to come by and check on you. How are you doing?”

Her eyes welling up even more, she shakes her head slightly and hesitantly opens the door. “Thank you for coming by,” she manages, glancing over her shoulder quickly. Her shoulders straightening slightly, she seems to make an impromptu choice and pushes the door open the rest of the way.

As she slips out to see him, surprising him by wrapping an arm around him, he hugs her back. Taking his own chance, he pulls away and looks her deep in the eye, trying to gauge how well she’d be up for the topic he wants to try to broach with her. “Can we talk?”

“Of course.” He leads her a bit away from the wide open door and looks around, unsurprised to see Mrs. Ditra standing there, staring out at them with an unhappy grimace on her pale face. “What’s going on, Aaron? I haven’t seen you for years-- I’m surprised you even remembered I live here.”

She’s talking low and he takes his cues from her, whispering back just as softly. “I drive by here a lot because I don’t live too far from here. When I found out about your father, I was overwhelmed by nostalgia and just wanted to see the old place. Figured once I got here, it wouldn’t hurt to see if you were still here. I know it’s been a really long time, but I thought it’d be nice to see a familiar face.” As she nods quietly, he leans closer, choosing now as the time to try to get her to confess if she’s noticed anything off with her mother. “You look... I don’t know. Is everything ok?” He knows it’s not, but he needs her to say it, give himself time to think things through, try to find a way to help her.

Her face crumbles even more and he’s relieved that she’s turned away from the door, her expression at least partially hidden by shadows this way. Her mother remains, watching them just as closely as she had before and it’s beginning to weird him out more than anything he’d seen in the vision, or since. “Since my father died,” her voice cracks and he feels even worse for forcing her to discuss this, but it’s necessary, “my mother is... I’m not sure. I don’t think she’s very healthy right now.” Gazing beseechingly at him, she sniffs. “Emotionally, you know? She barely wants to let me out of her sight. As I’m sure you can tell.” He nods and she breathes in, trying to smile through the burst of emotions that just mentioning her father had caused her. “But it’s ok, it could be worse.”

He knows immediately that it’s worse than even Nicole realizes, the haunting memory of the vision replaying over and over in his mind as he looks into her eyes. “Do you feel safe here?”

Her eyes skitter around a bit, her arms wrapping around her midsection as a brisk wind blows over them. “Well, I mean... usually?”

“But sometimes you don’t?”

“She can just get volatile sometimes. It’s nothing I can’t handle, I mean, I have a temper too.” She grins sheepishly at him. “I’m sure you remember.” He can’t help but laugh a little, nodding slightly. A much younger Nicole had liked to throw dirt balls at him in the summer, and ice balls in the winter. He’d had quite a few bruises-- to his body and ego-- and black eyes thanks to her, but now he thinks she probably did it because she liked him when they were both children. At least, that’s how it normally went with schoolyard crushes. “Anyway, I’m glad you came here, but we probably shouldn’t stay out in the cold for too long. She’ll get annoyed.”

She’s already annoyed, he thinks, worried that he’s only succeeded at making it worse. What if I’m the reason they have that big blow up? Oh man, I just went all Sci-Fi on myself again there, this is slowly falling into a chicken and the egg type thing. But yet... it’s possible. Maybe I was the cause of what happened in that vision. He stares at her and shakes his head. I can’t let it happen, I won’t. “Yeah, alright, I can’t stay anyway but I wouldn’t mind staying in contact, if that’s ok with you.”

She looks taken aback by this but nods. “Ok, yeah, sure.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a card that he’d had created a long time ago when he was just starting to send things out to publishers and slips it to her, relieved that 1) he always brings one with him just in case, and 2) they’re shrouded by this much darkness so maybe her mother won’t be able to see what exactly they’re doing. “Thanks.”

“It has my cell number and email address on it. Feel free to call or email at any time.” Smiling faintly at her, he ventures out into the light as she turns back to the porch. “Maybe we can meet somewhere, catch up for real.”

“That’d be nice,” she admits, leaving him at the stairs leading onto the porch, obviously in no hurry to go inside under her mother’s heavy gaze. “I’ll let you know if I get a free afternoon soon.”

“Sure. I’ll look forward to it.” He hates himself as he turns from her and moves as if he’s about to leave, but there’s little more he can do when Mrs. Ditra’s dark gaze remains heavy between his shoulder blades, as if she doesn’t trust him to see himself out. Which, he thinks, makes sense because I’m not going anywhere. He does his best at making a good show of it, however, venturing through the yard and towards the street but, as soon as he looks over his shoulder and the doorway is once more empty, Nicole and her mother both inside, he turns back around and traces along the edge of the house, returning to where he’d seen the vision at.

He’s back at the window quickly, peering through Nicole’s broken blinds into the sheer fabric of her drapes, when he realizes that what’d happened in his vision is happening now. She’s wandering around her room, arguing with her mother, and... turning sharply, goes out into the hallway. It’s a risk, he knows he could get into huge trouble by doing this, but he moves to the opposing window and knocks roughly against it, not enough to break it but more than enough to get attention.

“What’s that?!” he hears Nicole’s mother yell out, his eyes widening as she storms into the room and over to the window surprisingly fast and slams the blinds out of her way to peer out. He ducks aside just in the nick of time, the light from the room washing out over the grass directly in front of him.

“I don’t know! Mom--” Nicole snaps, her words dying as Mrs. Ditra turns to confront her. “What are you doing with that?” Aaron peers up through the window, the blinds still askew from her attacking them, and catches sight of something in her hand flashing against the light-- a knife. Pieces of his vision suddenly coming together, he understands with a sharp, horrible clarity. “Mom...”

“You have been nothing but stress and pain for me since your father died. You were supposed to help me! But what have you done, gone and spent time with your friends and left me to deal with all of the aftermath. I have worked my fingers to the bone for you over the years, and you can’t even help me figure out how to untangle everything he was in the process of doing before his death. What good are you?” She leers down at the girl and shakes her head. “You look so much like him... His eyes, his... His very attitude.” Her fingers tremble against the knife as she corners her daughter against the wall and lifts a hand, brushing her long blonde hair out of her eyes. “Everything about you reminds me of him. It is so... cruel. Why was it him? Why wasn’t it... you?”

Aaron can just hear this through the window, losing track of some of it as he switches back to the other window he can at least see through, and he can’t believe the pain on Nicole’s face as she peers back at her mother and tries to hold herself together, not completely melt into sobs as the knife is held to her throat, her lips parted in shock while Mrs. Ditra presses the sharp blade to her skin, small droplets of blood already dripping down her neck. “Mom, please, I’m sorry, don’t--”

“You’re not sorry. You’re never sorry.” She rears back, looking like she’s about to slash the girl straight through, and Aaron knows he can’t wait any longer. Working quickly and with a strength he wasn’t sure he even had, he forces the storm screen up and, standing on tippy toes to reach easier, slams his elbow straight through the glass, causing it to shatter inwards. Everything happening inside seems to stop as he scrambles upwards, not caring as the shards dig into his flesh, making his hold on the window sill all the more tenuous as blood drips down his fingers. He just barely makes it inside as Mrs. Ditra and Nicole gape at him in shock and horror. “You!” she hisses, approaching him with the blood-stained knife held out threateningly.

He’s just barely made it inside, having no time to defend himself against the weapon, when Nicole acts quickly and, rushing up from behind, knocks her mom onto the bed, Aaron joining her in time to slap the knife aside where it embeds into the wall. As soon as her mother loses her hold on it, she seems to lose all of her fight, sinking onto the bed as broken sobs rattle her form. Nicole looks about as destroyed, sinking onto her knees next to the bed. “Oh my God,” she shudders painfully. She looks back up at Aaron and shakes her head, not comprehending. “Why are you here? Did you--”

He hadn’t thought it through to this point, how exactly he wants to explain his presence for the second time in an hour. I can’t exactly just tell her to be glad I’m here, because otherwise she’d be dead, now could I? “Something felt off,” he admits finally. “I was half-way to my car and just... something was holding me back, telling me to stay here.” Yeah, like the flash I had of you dead. “So I came back, and I saw a light coming from this room so I decided to look. I thought maybe you’d be more willing to talk if I could get your attention without your mother realizing, and I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but your blinds are broken and I could see inside.” He takes a breath. “Then I saw your mother, and the knife, and I knew I couldn’t just stand out there and call for help, then wait until it arrived. So I took a chance.” As soon as he runs out of things to say in a faulty attempt at explanations, he sits there in silence and reflects on how easily the lies are becoming. Lies to the man in the car, lies to the jewelry store salesman, now lies to his very own childhood friend. I wonder where it’ll end. If it’ll end...

She watches him for a moment and shakes her head, realizing just how distrustful she’s being of the man who’d just saved her life, the boy she’d grown up with and had recognized almost instantly. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be so... it’s just...” She runs a hand against her throat, where blood has dried against her skin, flaky and brown. His eyes soften as he finds a Kleenex box and a half-full bottle of water near each other on a table near her bed. Carefully pouring some water against the flimsy fabric, he presses it to her skin, gently wiping off the wound. “Thank you,” she sniffs, reaching up and holding it as he moves aside and looks at the woman still down on the mattress. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Is there someone I can call for you?” he asks softly, resting a hand on her arm as she looks up blankly at her mother, who hasn’t moved since the knife had been knocked from her. He’s more than a little disturbed at how she just lays there, tears pouring down her cheeks quietly. “I, um... Nicole... I think she needs some sort of psychiatric help.”

“I think you’re right,” she admits after a long, painful moment. “I don’t know where to--”

“Call 911,” he suggests, holding his cell phone out to her. “Tell them what happened, they’ll be able to help you.” As she follows his advice, he watches over Mrs. Ditra, wondering just how something could go this badly, this fast. Though, he reflects, I’ve just gotten here, it seems to have been building for a very long time. Realizing that he’s left Alison outside this whole time, he’s tempted to go bring her in, but he doesn’t want to leave Nicole behind with her mother when they’re both still so unstable.

He’d forgotten how impatient Alison could be sometimes and sure enough, he’s barely thought that when he hears the screen door click faintly and... “Aaron?”

Nicole’s head whips up, her mother thankfully barely seeming to notice the sudden appearance of this strange voice. “Who’s that?”

“Alison, we’re in the back of the house. Down the hallway to your left,” he calls out to her. Turning to Nicole, he smiles faintly. “She’s a friend of mine, we were going somewhere when I drove by your house. She’s not feeling well though so I suggested she stay in the car for a bit. I wasn’t expecting this.”

“Who was?” she mumbles, looking up as Alison joins them. “I’m sorry I ruined your evening.” She stands awkwardly, rubbing a hand up and down her arms. “But selfishly, I’m glad I did.” She hesitantly sits down next to her mom as Aaron joins Alison in the doorway, glancing behind them before facing her. She barely says anything, just grips his hands and turns them over, peering down at the cuts and blood streaking from his right elbow down to both palms. He flushes, having forgotten about the injuries and she slowly echoes his earlier action with Nicole, wiping a wet Kleenex across the shredded skin, helping her to see that most are superficial, smiling up at him.

“I’m glad you’re here. She was going to stab her with that steak knife embedded in the wall,” Aaron tells her lowly once she’s fussed over him enough to appease her worry. Alison’s eyes flicker over to it and she blanches, noticing the still oozing wound on the girl’s throat. “We called for help but I don’t feel comfortable leaving her here. Do you mind staying for awhile longer?”

“Of course not.” Alison shakes her head, having done something very similar many a times during her own run as Piaculum for various people. “Nicole, is there anyone we can call for you? Family? Friends?” When she shakes her head, visibly falling into a slow shock, Alison winces and sits down next to the girl, wrapping a comforting arm around her shoulders. It surprises Aaron to see the somewhat socially awkward girl so at ease with such an action but he supposes the girl’s done it many a time during her period as a Piaculum. It warms him to see, though the reason for it is beyond terrible. They’re still sitting there when police arrive, quickly organizing things and separating them to take statements as a female officer sits down next to Nicole’s mother and tries to get her to focus enough for a conversation.

Alison has little to say, since she’d not been there for any of it, but Aaron and Nicole both take awhile. He’s just glad she vouches for him over the broken window that is stained in his blood, explaining that he’d only caused the damage to save her. The police look a little suspicious at his claims that he’d come back merely because things had felt odd but after Nicole’s mother fails to answer any questions sensibly, they seem to be more inclined to believe it. Things move quickly from there, Aaron and Alison standing side by side with Nicole on the porch as the police prepare to transport Mrs. Ditra for observation at the local hospital’s psychiatric wing.

Alison smiles sympathetically at Nicole. “I hope she gets the help she needs,” she tells the wrought girl softly before leaving them behind to give Aaron some time alone with her.

He rests an arm around her shoulders and squeezes, trying to comfort her as she trembles. “I can’t believe this,” she murmurs, leaning against him. “Maybe I should’ve seen the signs?”

“I honestly don’t think you could’ve,” he tells her faintly, desperate to help her feel even a little better despite having no idea where to begin. “She was probably just good at hiding how far she’d fallen. Now listen, I really don’t want to leave you here. Are you sure there’s no one I can call for you?” The police had covered the window and taped off Nicole’s bedroom so even if he’d felt comfortable with it, she can’t stay in her own room as they tried to preserve the crime scene while things are still up in the air regarding her mother’s mental health, just in case.

“No, I don’t want to put you out any further.” She sniffs, wiping at her face. “I’ll be fine, I’ll go stay at the neighbor’s for awhile, call my brother. He... he’ll come get me.”

Aaron still isn’t thrilled with this plan but he has no real choice to accept it as the girl seems unwilling to budge. “Alright,” he tells her. “If you need anything, don’t forget you have my number.”

“Right. I know.” She reaches into the pockets of her jeans and wraps her fingers against the card he’d given her what now feels like years ago, it crinkling in her palm. “Don’t worry, I definitely will. Now go, don’t leave Alison out in the dark alone for so long. I don’t want to cause problems between the two of you or something. You’re cute together.”

He’s about to say something when the meaning behind her words catch up with him and he stares at her, eyes widening. “What? No, no. We’re not a couple... she’s... she’s my friend. That’s all.”

Nicole blinks a time or two and then laughs faintly, running her fingers through her wind-strewn hair. “Oh. Sorry, my mistake. I just assumed...” She looks towards where Alison is still standing, waiting by the car for Aaron, and sighs. “Either way, it’s too cold for her to just stand around and wait while we talk like this. Go. I promise, I’ll be fine.”

He makes a face at her. “You’re still stubbornly annoying I see. But fine, I’ll go.” Releasing her, he eases his way down the porch and turns around to watch as she makes her way across to the neighbors she’d mentioned earlier. “Take care of yourself, ok?” Now that he’s actually leaving, he feels even weirder than he had while awkwardly standing next to her. He’d saved her life not even an hour earlier and now, to just leave her here, well... He sort of hates having to do it. Out of everything he’d expected from becoming a Piaculum, to have it hit so close to home like this had definitely not been on the list.

But as he joins Alison, they stand on opposite sides of the car and watch as Nicole makes it over to the neighboring house she’d pointed out to Aaron, waiting until the door opens and a woman greets her, immediately collecting her and helping her inside as she breaks down in fresh sobs that are audible all the way over to where the two Piaculum are watching her, finally giving into the trauma she’d just endured. Aaron grimaces as the door clicks shut behind them, wishing he could do more. Alison rests a hand on his over the roof of the car, squeezing gently. “Hey. She’ll be ok.”

“I hope so.” He stares over at her and shakes his head, just floored. “I never expected any of this.”

“I know. None of us do.”

“We went to school together. Her parents always seemed so... average. I never sensed...” Alison remains quiet at this, softly squeezing his fingers. Aaron stares up at the stars for a moment before gently easing his hand free and once more slipping into the driver’s seat, relieved to be back in the safety of his vehicle. Even when she takes her place in the seat next to his, neither seem in a hurry to leave, sitting there in the quiet darkness as time slips through their fingers.

“Can I ask you something?” she finally asks, turning to look at him. “I thought about this the last time I saw you, but too much was going on. You were so out of it after the rock slide, I figured I’d wait... but now... this, here. I just think I really need to know.”

“You’re babbling,” he tells her with a faint smile, staring ahead blankly at the row of houses before them and wondering if any of them too are hiding any horrible secrets like Nicole’s. Turning to face her after a few moments, he tilts his head. “What do you want to ask?”

She stares at her hands briefly before looking back up at him. “If anything goes wrong in one of these missions...” Her voice fades away as she looks him dead in the eye. “If I need to contact someone in your life to come be with you, who do I call?”

He hadn’t really thought about it, despite the various injuries he’s picked up the past few weeks. For example, the small cuts on his arms. One slip on any of the cases he’d already been on and things could’ve ended much worse for him... so her question does hold some merit, he knows. Who would be the one to call if I was in trouble or injured and in another town, far away, and... He shakes his head slowly. “I never really thought about it.”

“I know. I never wanted to think about it either. But Aaron, I need to be able to help you, especially if anything bad happens in some strange town. I hope it never, ever will, and I will do my best to make sure it doesn’t, but best to be prepared, right?” She sighs, looking tired and weaker than he’d ever seen her. “Decide and let me know, alright?”

He’s still in no hurry to drive away from this place, his thoughts still wrapped around what he’d just seen with Nicole. Sitting there and thinking about who he’d assign as emergency contact is almost a welcome distraction, no matter how sobering a thought it is. His mom’s out, she gets too frantic, and Reno’s out, he’s always too busy being on call at the hospital nearly 24/7. Ellie, Sandy, anyone else at the store, he’s not close enough to... “Louis Sullivan,” he finally says aloud, glancing over at her. “I’ll give you his number. If something ever goes wrong, call him.”

She seems relieved to have an answer, nodding. “I will.”

They fall silent again and Aaron can barely look away from the police car still parked outside of Nicole’s home. But the longer they sit there, the more he realizes Alison’s breathing sounds off again, her skin more than pale even in the darkness. He suddenly can’t keep himself from speaking, the words pouring from his lips before he can stop them. “My turn to ask something?”

“I guess it’s only fair,” she accepts, turning to look out of the window once more. “Shoot.”

“Ever since I’ve met you, you’ve been... I don’t know. Sometimes you seem fine. Sometimes you seem... sick, like... something’s seriously wrong with you.” He watches as she tenses, shaking her head. “Look, I’m not trying to be nosy, but we’re... kind of partners, you said so yourself, and I just want to help you. If there’s something major that I should know about...”

“You’re right,” she says after a moment. “I know you’re right. It’s just... I don’t like to broadcast it. But yes, you definitely deserve to know.” Eyes still locked on the dark world continuing to spin outside of his car, she finally gives in, sinking into the seat while trying to figure out how best to word what had happened to her, how much she really feels comfortable saying. “About six months ago, I was on a mission. It ended badly and I was too seriously injured to continue being a Piaculum. Ser needed a replacement and suggested you; when I met you and agreed, he suggested I remain on, help him-- and you-- where I could.”

Aaron stares at what of her he can still see through the dark of night and shakes his head, not comprehending all of this. “How bad is the injury?”

“Bad,” she admits lowly. “I almost died. If...” Voice faltering, she rests a hand on her chest. “If I’m not careful, I still could. But it’s not your place to worry about it, so please don’t. Ser takes very good care of me, he wouldn’t allow me to do anything that’s too dangerous.”

He stares at her, eyes widened in horror despite her attempts at soothing him. “You... you could die? It’s really that serious?” He wants to ask so much more, but he has no idea where to begin, or what she’d be willing to answer. “But I don’t understand. If it’s that serious, why do you go with me to these things? I mean, I know I’m a little out of my league on some things but I could learn as I go. Isn’t that what you said you did when you first started out, because the person you replaced just up and left?”

“Ha, I said no such thing,” Alison shakes her head, leaning against the car. “Ser had to bring in another Piaculum to help me in the beginning. I had no confidence in my own ability to become what he had seen inside of me to be, and if he had left me out there to do this sort of thing on my own, I’d probably have been arrested or killed in the first couple of missions. So no, you can’t learn on your own. If nothing else, I’m here to help you trust in your own decisions. So even if all I do is smack you upside the head sometimes and tell you to do what your intuition is screaming at you, that’s what I’m going to do.”

He is still far from thrilled with this but ultimately nods, too worn down after everything with Nicole and also sensing that she’s not going to back down or admit that she’s too ill to help him. “Alright. But one thing?” When she only makes a face at him, silently encouraging him along, he squares his shoulders. “If you ever feel weak or sick or... just anything not normal, you’ll tell me, right? The last thing I need is to be in the middle of saving a person from another robber or something and have you keel over on me.”

She stares at him for a long moment before conceding, lips twitching slightly. “Fine. That I can do. But I still want this Louis Sullivan’s number.”

“I know.” He smiles slightly too. “I’ll give you that very soon.”

“You better.”

Once she’s gone and he’s driving back home, all he can think is all of the things he’s been so curious about since she’d appeared into his life and hadn’t had the nerve to ask yet. About herself, and Ser, the Piaculum movement, and... so very much more. Well, he muses, staring up in relief as the very welcome sight of his apartment complex spreads out before him once more. We hopefully will have enough time for me to ask all of those and more...

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