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Chapter 5

A few more weeks pass by peacefully, work keeping Aaron busy as New Years goes by so quickly that he almost wonders if Ser has the ability to speed time up as well, quickly laughing the idea off as a customer comes up to him to ask about when Valentine’s Day cards will be in and he directs her to customer service, turning his focus back to manning the self-check out lanes once she heads in that direction, calling a quick thank you over her shoulder.

He’s just about to trade off with Sandra and clock out for the day when a familiar arm slings across his shoulders, holding him in place. He tenses defensively before his mind catches up with his body and he turns enough to come face to face with Louis Sullivan. “Oh, Louis! Hey, man, what’s up?”

His cheerful neighbor laughs slightly at his reaction and squeezes him a little tighter before moving aside, letting Aaron breathe normally once more. “Funny you should ask that,” he says. “That’s exactly why we’re here.”

“We’re?” he echoes, glancing around. “Did you multiply when I wasn’t watching or what? Is there something you’re avoiding telling Reno about?”

“Oh, funny,” Louis smirks back at him. “No, nothing like that. Actually Reno’s here with me... Somewhere,” he mumbles, looking around with a growing smidge of annoyance. “He’s probably off pricing sandwich supplies. I swear, he doesn’t see a discount on lunch meat that he doesn’t like.”

“Guess we all need a hobby,” Aaron laughs, more than used to both of his best friends’ eccentricities by now. “And yet he still keeps his girly figure.”

“Lucky jerk,” his boyfriend says fondly as finally Reno makes an appearance, sliding through stands of candy and snacks strategically placed close to the cash register lanes. “Hey, look who managed to pull himself away from food long enough to say hello to his best friend.”

Aaron laughs at the disgruntled look on the older man’s face as he loosely wraps an arm around Louis, tugging him closer. “I would think you of all people would be glad if I try to find what is necessary to keep me fed and happy at a cheaper price,” he points out before turning his focus back to Aaron. “Hey.”

“Hey man. What are you two doing here? It’s not often I see you when I’m at work.” He steps aside as Sandra takes over finally, walking off to talk briefly with his friends by the stairs leading up to the office. “Everything alright?”

“Oh yeah,” Louis speaks up. “Everything’s fine. We just... realized it’s been awhile since we last talked to you, and we wanted to make sure everything’s good with you.”

Aaron stares at them for a moment, trying to think. His life had been so overwhelmed with Piaculum and holiday ridiculousness in and out of work-- the drama surrounding his family somehow always seems to multiply by at least a million around any holiday, no matter if it’s something slightly more low-key like Memorial Day or the biggest holiday of the year, Christmas-- that he could barely find a minute to write before he was ready to just sink into bed and sleep until the sun returned to the sky, much less take the time to say more than a quick hi to his neighbors. “I guess I hadn’t really thought about it but yeah,” he admits, feeling horrible as they stare at him expectantly. “It has been longer than I realized since we actually hung out.”

Louis nods sympathetically. “You look like you could use a break from it all. How about this, we’ll order some pizza tonight and meet up at our place, that way you get a break from your apartment, we can catch up and all have some lazy, yummy food before the aftereffects of the holidays smack us upside the head for real?”

Aaron smiles, nodding back. “That sounds great, Louis. Just what I need after the last week or so. I just have to wrap up a couple minor things here and then I’ll meet you there and we can all argue over what to put on the pizzas. Alright?”

“Sounds great.” Pinching his boyfriend’s side, Louis laughs as Reno gasps and swats at him, lips tightening warningly. “What do you say, doctor? Does that sound alright to you as well?”

“Yeah, sure. See you there, Aaron. And don’t take too long, I know exactly what kind of pizza I’m getting,” he says before untangling himself from Louis and heading to the grocery store’s exit with no more preamble than that.

Both Louis and Aaron sigh, then laugh. “And yet he’s still more sociable than when I first met him,” the sandy haired man says with a put upon expression on his face. “I hear tale that he was much worse before that.”

“Ah yes,” Aaron nods, remembering the days when he’d first moved into the apartment complex and came face to face with a surly, distant, easily angered Reno Olmstead, a faint smile spreading across his face. Back then, the very thought that the man could be anyone’s best friend, much less his own, or Louis Sullivan’s boyfriend, had been laughable at best. “Be glad I was so determined to get along with my neighbors that even he couldn’t quite shake me. Between the two of us, he almost resembles a human... sometimes...”

Louis grins. “Yeah. Well, I should go before he drives off and leaves me here. Don’t take too long though, you know how he gets, especially when it comes to food. He will eat both pizzas if he thinks you’re stalling.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t. See you soon.”

“See you.”

He does try to hurry, it’s his every intention. Except that one of the new girls keeps screwing up her codes, Aaron eventually being the only one patient enough at the time to stay by the register for a few extra minutes and recite them to her, even marking a few of the more regularly used ones on the plastic run off sheet they have nearby just for this purpose. Once done there, he goes to collect his things from the small room off of the customer service desk, just to spot out of the corner of his eye as a teenager stands up from the floor where he’d been rustling through a large backpack.

He sighs and follows the boy, unsurprised when he doesn’t even glance at the cash registers, going straight to the exit. Great, a shoplifter... He notifies the closest manager and remains until the situation gets resolved-- which the kid hadn’t been shoplifting, in the end, and seems pretty rattled by the time he is allowed to leave... which makes Aaron feel even worse as he walks back towards the door, but it’s his job to make the manager aware of such things, so he tries not to dwell on it as he finally heads for his apartment and the company of his closest friends and a warm, gooey pizza.

He’s just gotten out of his car and headed upstairs, his eyes already locked on Louis and Reno’s door, when he hears footsteps behind him and a now familiar sound of throat clearing. He freezes immediately and closes his eyes, fingers tight around the railing of the stairs. “Alison,” he greets the girl with a pained grimace.

“Good evening to you too, Aaron,” she says with a bemused expression. “Did I catch you at a bad time?”

He lowers his head, trying to quell the angry, selfish comment that he wants to respond to this with. Remember Nicole, he tells himself. Remember the other people you’ve saved by taking the time out of your oh so important schedule to help. And also remember... time basically stops when you go on these missions. You can help whomever and be back here before a second has even passed. You won’t miss a thing. But if you don’t go, someone will get hurt seriously or die. Unable to have that on his conscience on top of everything else today, he turns back to Alison. “No, just a long day. What’s going on?”

She glances up at the windows overlooking the parking lot and motions to the side of the building, away from any prying eyes. “Come on, let’s move somewhere a little more private.”

“Yeah, it’s not like you to be so indiscreet,” he teases her, following her.

Neither of them notice as the narrowed eyes of Reno Olmstead watch on suspiciously from his apartment window, taking in every moment of their discussion until they’re out of sight. “What are you up to, Aaron?” he mumbles, an odd look on his face that only fades slightly when Louis inches up behind him and wraps an arm around his shoulders, peering out of the window too.

“Aaron is taking his good sweet time, huh?” he asks, pressing a faint kiss to the back of Reno’s neck.

“So it seems,” he says stiffly, tapping his fingers against Louis’ arm thoughtfully. Either he has a new girlfriend, or something... else is happening... Not wanting to think like that, he smiles faintly and turns around in his boyfriend’s arms, pressing a quick kiss to his lips. “Well, I guess it just means more pizza for us.” As Louis continues to talk, Reno’s eyes narrow even more as a strange sensation shudders through his thin form, leaving him feeling uneasy. This is definitely something else...

“Oh please, I know if I did give you the opportunity, you would eat that whole pizza all on your own... We can at least wait a little longer for Aaron, it’s no big...”

Aaron blinks, coming back to himself with a rush as the vision forms, groaning faintly. He’s now standing outside of a house and the sun is burning just so into his eyes, blinding him. Staggering backwards to get some clarity, he peers up at the shadowy edge of the siding. It looks peaceful enough here but he’s learned early on with these missions that peace never lasts and so he holds his breath while waiting for something, anything to happen. It only takes a few moments, as an explosion rattles the building before him and sends him clear back instantly when he lands on some grass and peers up, elbows stinging from the harsh landing he’d taken. “Holy hell,” he whispers as the nearest wall collapses on itself, revealing the charred, destroyed interior of the house to him. “What was that?”

Scattered fires are burning at different strengths and sizes all over, here and there, and he wonders about how many people may have been inside at the time of the explosion, a creeping feeling of nausea building up within him as the wind chooses then to pick up all of a sudden and billows smoke right towards him, carrying with it the scent of burnt things of which he has no clue and probably wouldn’t want to know what exactly they all are anyway.

He scrubs at his face, rolls over onto his side, and takes deep, desperate breaths of slightly more fresh air, trying to recollect himself before returning to Alison to explain what he’d seen. Finally allowing the vision to slip away, he flushes slightly upon returning sprawled on the ground at Alison’s feet... Guess I should’ve stood up before doing that, he thinks. His only relief is they’re still not next to his apartment complex, now standing by the downtown area near where he’d seen that building burn and explode, thus only Alison herself had witnessed his latest embarrassment. “What town is this?” he asks, trying to distract her while he scrambles back to his feet and dusts himself off, humiliation only multiplying as he spots just how close to laughing she is.

“Irving,” she finally answers, covering her smirk with a small cough.

He blinks. “I’ve never even heard of that town. What is it with all of these smaller towns?”

She shrugs, turning to face the downtown area. “No idea, but there are many more small towns in Illinois than there are big ones. You should get used to it, you’ll end up seeing a lot of them during your time as Piaculum. Trust me, it becomes second nature after awhile. Now what’s the story?”

He grimaces at the memory of the explosion, the heat on his face, the force of it all. Enough wasting time, we gotta move. I have no idea when it’s going to happen, but guessing by the position of the sun, I’m gonna say too soon. Painfully mindful of her admitted health concerns, he walks as quickly as he dares but keeps her close by to listen as he tells her as many details as he can in a short amount of time. “It looked like an explosion, I’m not sure what exactly happened or how many were involved, I just appeared next to this building and a minute later, it was blowing up. It was hot and loud, and I didn’t see much else.”

To her credit, she keeps up with him despite his having almost a foot on her, and stares up at the building alongside him. “What do you plan on doing?”

“Hell if I know,” he admits wearily. This easily his least favorite part of the job, he brushes past her and hovers by the front door. “It looked like a business by what I saw. Wouldn’t they be closed by now?”

She shrugs. “Not necessarily. Some people stay later to wrap things up, or they might be having a party for the holidays. Or maybe your job is just to rescue an unfortunate janitor who hadn’t finished his rounds yet.”

He groans. “Why was I sent into the vision so late? If I had been given some more time, I could’ve scouted things out a little better, figured out how the explosion happened and saved the people inside...”

She pats him on the back, sympathizing with his plight all too well. “Unfortunately, it comes with the territory of being a Piaculum-- sometimes we have a cushion of time to work around, and sometimes we’re kept on our toes with little to no time to see anything. All you can do is your best, and not beat yourself up too badly if things don’t go perfectly. In the end, we’re all merely humans too.”

“With a strangely powerful backer,” he mumbles. “Maybe you should talk with Ser about stuff like this.” She smiles faintly, not addressing the comment, and he turns to stare at the building. “Ok. Here we go.” Steeling himself for whatever may be coming, he circles the building and approaches the entrance. He freezes when the porch creaks under his weight but nothing comes of it so, after a short glance over his shoulder at Alison, he continues on his way to the door. Knocking against it, he steps back and waits, only looking around enough to notice that she’s slipped out of sight now. Great. Alone again, he thinks, despite being glad that she’s done so-- explaining her presence along with his own would only be more complicated, take away more time to getting whoever’s in the office away from here.

To his worry, there’s no answer to his knock and he wonders if maybe someone’s already in danger already and that’s why there hasn’t been a response. Knocking louder this time, he shifts anxiously from one foot to the other, and wonders if maybe Alison should be up here with him, handling this after all. If someone’s in there working alone, they might be reluctant to answer to some strange man after hours, but a distressed looking female might be a little bit of a different story. His thoughts are derailed, however, when he notices the blinds at a side window shift slightly. “Is someone in there?” he calls out, hoping he’s loud enough to be heard through the wall.

“We’re closed! Sorry!” a male voice yells back at him, leaving him almost breathless in relief that so far things seem calm inside.

“Look, I understand this is after hours, but my car died down the road and I don’t have any cell reception here. Can I just--” In retrospect, he kicks himself for going this clichéd route but he had been working on very little time to think up anything better, not blaming the worker inside for his response.

“Sorry, buddy, I’d help if I could, but I’m not allowed to open the door to non-staff after hours. I’m just maintenance, I’d lose my job if I did this for you.”

“Look, I get it, ok? This is a bad day and age to trust anyone, but I promise, I’m on the up and up here.” Silence from the other end and he closes his eyes, not liking how this is going. “Are there any staff inside that you can ask for clearance to let me in?” He hopes to God that the answer is no, that the only reason he’s here is to save this very man stalling before him.

“They’ve all gone home,” he admits reluctantly. “And no matter who I asked, I still wouldn’t be allowed. It’s company policy.”

Overwhelmed with relief at this response, Aaron takes a breath, getting a sudden flash of genius for a possible plan B. “How about this, I won’t take a step from this spot on the porch. You open the door, hand out your cell phone-- as long as it has some sort of reception-- and I’ll just make my call right here. You can listen the whole time, and if I end up lying, than you can use a phone in there to call the cops and get me kicked off of the property. Then, after you see I’m honestly stranded here, I’ll give the phone back to you, and I won’t have even stepped foot into the building, your job will be secure still and I’ll get a tow truck to come give me a lift and be completely out of your hair within the next ten minutes. Is it a deal?”

He holds his breath until finally the door clicks, his heart skipping a beat as an arm reaches out through the crack with the phone stretched towards him. He moves quickly, bypassing the phone completely and gripping the wrist securely, using his free hand to push the door open the rest of the way and pulling with all of the strength in his other hand until finally the startled janitor falls out onto the porch, wide eyed and sputtering in disbelief at what had just happened. Aaron well aware of how much time he’s wasted just to get this far, he spins around and all but tackles the slightly heavier man-- just as a wall of fire takes over behind them, knocking them the rest of the way off of the porch and onto the hard grass below.

He somehow lands on his back, Aaron staring up at the reddening sky, blinking dazedly. His breathing is hard and shaky, even as an overwhelming buzzing sound takes over his hearing, and it’s all he can do to not throw up right then and there. So close... it was so close. He feels numb, his whole body almost weightless against the ground, but he barely gets to worry about that before darkness overwhelms him. He just vaguely hears his name being called by a familiar voice through the unending ringing in his ears before he’s completely gone. Alison...

Beep... Beep... Beep. Be-beep. Beep. His eyes flutter as he tries to feel around for his phone, stop that annoying repetitive sound. He just realizes that it’s not his alarm clock-- the ringer unlike anything he’d ever heard before-- when something catches his hand and holds on gently, stopping him from moving. A washcloth rubs against his face and he breathes in deeply, finally successfully opening his eyes enough to see around him. The room he’s in is dark, the only light coming from a muted TV nearby, and he grimaces. Though he’s never seen this room before, it’s not hard to figure out he’s in a hospital, his eyes locked on the door, a window peering out into the hallway as nurses in various colored scrubs rush back and forth, the repetitive action sometimes broken up by doctors in white coats moving at a slightly more sedate pace.

Finally remembering the soft fingers wrapped around his wrist, he rolls his head against his pillow and watches as Alison stares back at him, her lips twitching slightly. She looks like she’s not sure whether to laugh or cry, finally settling for a simple whisper. “Well, there he is.”

He blinks tiredly at her, annoyed by the buzzing in his ears that makes her voice sound a bit distorted. “Wha... what happened?” Worse than his hearing is the fact that he can’t remember what had led him here, just a horrible flash of heat and a glimpse of the darkening red sky overhead filling up his last memories. “Why am I here?”

“You were caught in an explosion,” she says softly, her hand trailing up to rub at his arm absently. “Do you remember?”

“I...” He grows more frustrated the harder he tries and the longer his memories seem to evade him. “I don’t.” Distracted by her lingering touch, he glances over at her and she smiles faintly. “Please tell me what happened?”

“You saved Robbie Todd’s life,” she finally tells him. As he blinks, not comprehending this short sentence, Alison stands up from a brutal looking chair and sits next to him, her touch remaining on the bare skin of his arm. As she settles down against him on the bed, he realizes that he’s trembling, though he doesn’t feel necessarily cold. “It’s ok. Relax, just take deep breaths.” Easing him against her side, she cards a soft hand through his hair and sighs. “Adrenaline freefall,” she explains to his unspoken question. “Maybe a little bit of shock. You’ll be fine, I promise.” The more she talks, the more exhausted he feels, but her voice is familiar, soothing, so he doesn’t complain.

“There was an explosion,” she repeats as he clings to her, breathing through his body crashing slowly. “You risked yourself to save a janitor in the building, that Robbie Todd that I just mentioned. He’s down the hall getting examined right now, but he’ll be fine, just a little battered and bruised. You’ll be ok too, they just want to keep you overnight in case you have a head injury.” Her voice fails her slightly and she swallows heavily, holding him close. “I was pretty damn scared, you know. The rock slide was one thing, but this I could see happen-- watch as the flames tried to engulf you, and the force sent you clear to the ground. Then once I could get there, you were both so still and pale... I was sure you were...” She shakes her head, too wrapped up in her own thoughts to notice as he falls asleep again. “I wonder if that’s how it was for Ser when I...”

Words dying in her throat, she looks down to find his eyes shut in peaceful rest, his nose still pressed against her shoulder. “It’s ok,” she whispers, face softening. “Just rest. You’ll feel better in the morning.” As helpless as she feels, she knows there’s not much she can do. He hadn’t given her Louis Sullivan’s contact information yet as she’d requested, though in hindsight, that’s probably just as well. He’s dazed and sore but there’d be nothing relatives could do for him right now anyway except disrupt his rest with too many questions about why he’s in a hospital this far from home and what happened and...

She’s not sure how much time passes, her thoughts going in circles, but it’s well into the morning hours when her eyes grow too gritty to stay open much longer and she curls up close to him again. Despite how worn down she’s feeling, her body reminding her stubbornly that she needs rest as well, she can’t stop thinking about this evening. And her own health... and everything. He’s so deeply asleep, she doubts that it matters as she begins to talk to him, speech slurred with exhaustion and emotions. “You know, it’s easy to forget how quickly things can go badly in situations like these.”

His skin is warm and soft under her touch and she’s so tired she fails to notice as he opens his eyes a sliver, listening to her words. “When I was injured, I thought my whole world was crashing down around me. I was in so much pain physically and emotionally, and worried that I was going to die at any time. This all might be too new to you so far to realize, but it has a way of getting under your skin. And I don’t mean just the high of surviving another close call. I mean looking back at each case and knowing that you made a difference, that you saved people.” She yawns and snuggles closer to him, losing all her rigid inhibitions while on the cusp of sleep. “It’s been months and I still miss it.” The tickling brush of her fluttering eyelashes against his arm leaves him fighting not to squirm and make her aware that he’s been awake for awhile now. “But being here and helping you continue where I’d left off helps. Together I think we can see Ser’s mission through to the end. I just hope I can last long enough.”

He frowns as she finally gives in to slumber, knowing that soon enough he’ll need to start demanding answers from her on the true status of her health. No matter what she says about how Ser takes good care of her, he’s some sort of omnipresent being, so how would he know what a human’s limitations are? I’m going to demand answers and if I don’t like what I hear, well... she probably will hate me for it, but I can’t allow this to continue any longer. He stares down at the top of her head and sighs. I also get the feeling Ser’s mission has more to do than merely saving people... What did I get myself wrapped up in now?

When she wakes up in the morning, he’s wide awake and staring at her. It unsettles her, his quiet intensity, but she supposes maybe he’s feeling odd with how she’d draped herself across him while he was asleep, working through her fog quickly to get untangled from him. “Sorry,” she mumbles, wiping at her face with heavy hands.

“I heard you last night,” he finally says with no preamble. She’s half of the way to the bathroom but freezes mid-step when his words register with her. “Last night, when you were talking about your health and Ser. You keep talking like you’re going to keel over dead at any minute and I can’t say I really like the thoughts of you following me around from place to place if your health is really this suspect.”

She looks horrified as she turns to face him, swallowing compulsively like she might be sick at any moment. “I, um...”

“Don’t try to lie or sugarcoat it, I won’t believe you and this partnership or whatever between us will really be over then. I just want to know the truth, so I know how bad it really is, and if you should really be alongside me all of the time or not.” He stares at her, determination and certainty in his gaze. “And before you say Ser wouldn’t send you out on these missions if he thought there was a problem, I highly doubt he with all of his abilities and a super special secret place closed off from all but a select few would be a good judge.” And he can sense the sarcasm just bleeding out of every pore but he can’t say that he cares, knowing that Alison also seems to be a pretty bad judge of her own health, if she keeps pushing herself over and over despite also insisting that she could drop at any moment. If his being a little rough with things that he says to her pushes her into actually facing what’s going on, then so be it.

She shakes her head at him, almost laughing. “You think you know my body better than I do? I admit, I didn’t want you to hear that last night. I really, really didn’t. But my body’s shortcomings have nothing to do with my ability to help you from a distance in these cases, and my not telling you my deepest, darkest fears has nothing to do with my thinking you’d not allow me to come if you knew. The way you’re talking, I’ve done something to risk my health but really, what have I done? Stood on the sidelines and watched while you got caught up in a robbery, a rockslide and an explosion? It’s not like I was digging you out with my bare hands, or taking on the guy at the jewelry store, or even close enough to feel the heat yesterday. I have been nowhere near danger since this all began, so for you to sit there all high and mighty in your hospital bed and tell me you know what’s right for me, when we’ve barely known each other three months... It’d be funny if it wasn’t so sad.”

She glares at him, her breathing loud and a little raspy as once more her hand goes to her chest. He watches and wonders on the repetitive motion but her words are too overwhelming, her expression so full of pure disdain that he loses the train of thought too soon to think it through. “Ser has known me for years. If anyone would know what I could handle better than myself, it’d be him. Not some rookie Piaculum like you who can’t even have visions unassisted.” He’s about to argue this point when she storms towards him and leans over the bed. “In fact, let me help you a little further.” Pressing her shockingly cold hands to his throat, she closes her eyes and focuses.

When he opens his eyes once more, he’s back in his own apartment, still dressed in the gown that the hospital had so thoughtfully provided him upon admission. “Oh hell no,” he mutters. “She did not.” But indeed she did-- it’s early morning and he stares out of the window, frowning at the familiar view from his apartment complex. “Dammit. Now what?”

A moment later, he curses even more fluently as he remembers what he’d been dragged away from the night before, that apparently Ser had allowed time to continue normally after he’d been hospitalized. “Louis and Reno are going to kill me!”

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