Piaculum

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Chapter 9

There’s an odd surge in the air. Aaron ordinarily wouldn’t put much stock into such things, but something had changed. Changed drastically. He can’t recall when it began, exactly, just that it was fairly recent. Wondering if he would’ve noticed such a thing before becoming a Piaculum, he stares through various files he’d made for the novel he’s still currently stuck on and tries to distract himself, however thoroughly he’s failing. He hadn’t heard from Alison in weeks and it was well into the start of summer now, plants turning greener more and more before his very eyes, the air much less frigid. Resting his hands on his desk, he stares out of his apartment window and reflects grimly on what all had happened since he became a Piaculum.

“And yet I’m sitting here, surprised that I feel different.” He shakes his head with a morose little smile and stands, slapping the laptop lid shut. “Ok, that’s it. I’ve been cooped up more than enough.” He knows that Alison can find him, no matter what, so, mind made up, he grabs a thin blue jacket from where it hangs by his door and ventures outside. He doesn’t get many days off from the retail grind, so he knows better than to waste the ones he does.

After going through a few blocks of residential housing, he crosses one of the main streets in town and through a DVD rental store’s parking lot before he finally reaches the park. Big enough for him to get lost in but small enough that there’s no danger of, oh say, a rockslide or anything ridiculous like that, he’d grown to enjoy the place since living on his own. He wanders by various buildings for tourists and the ice rink before finding the lagoon. Ducks and other birds are wandering around, squawking and chirping and he smiles, sitting down by a bench to look over the sparkling blue water that only some of the wildlife seem brave enough to even attempt just yet. Parts of it are still frozen by the late-season frost from the night before and he smiles vaguely. Gotta love Illinois weather.

He idly watches as joggers go this way and that, getting their daily exercise in, before resuming his own walk through the grounds. Passing by a field for sports and a couple of swing sets, he weaves aside to dodge some kids running past him recklessly and loses himself more thoroughly in the copse of trees. Despite the beautiful scenery around him, his thoughts are still scattered, all over the place. Not that thinking cohesively had been at all simple since Ser and Alison had become a permanent part of his life, but still, it hadn’t been that bad until recently.

Things had been moving so fast, even with all of the time he’d spent between missions waiting for Alison to come to him again, he hadn’t had the energy or wherewithal to consider it all too thoroughly. But now here, somehow his mind clears enough for him to do just that. He had watched or read science fiction enough over the years to kind of ponder things that he’d been weighing for years on a fictional scale. Not that reality could be considered the same way fiction could, of course, but he can’t help it, this being the only possible guideline he has to focus his very muddled thoughts around. Various shows over the years had worked on themes that had always made some sort of sense to him-- a person’s death was predetermined and something that ordinarily couldn’t be avoided unless something else was happening to even the balance proceeding it. Of course that was a bit of a slippery slope, again, with that whole reality vs. fictional thing he was struggling with, but... How could they play God so loosely here? Not that he would take back a single life he’d saved over the last seven months, but yet... How did Ser have the ability? How did he know that these people were about to die, how did he know they deserved to live... what exactly had he gotten involved in?

On top of that, he also had Alison weighing on his thoughts often. Not that he regretted her telling him about her health issues, but... she had been so quiet about what exactly was wrong with her that he’d often watch her for little signs and signals on what exactly was wrong with her, but see nothing. She clearly had gotten so good at playing it off and showing no weakness that he’s not sure how to feel about it, especially with her constantly on missions with him. If something ever goes wrong, he’s not sure if he could help her since A: she doesn’t seem to care too much about her own wellbeing, and B: he wouldn’t know where to begin anyway. Since it had been serious enough for a dedicated person like her to agree to Ser finding a replacement, he knows it has to be bad.

Rubbing his forehead, he realizes that, while lost in his thoughts, he’d walked even further into the tree strewn part of the park, one he’d rarely been to prior. Sighing, he turns around and tries to reorient himself to find his way back home. By the time he escapes, it’s time for supper and he’s just outside of the burger joint near his apartment, considering what he could possibly order with the few dollars he’d had on him when he’d abruptly left for the park, his thoughts disrupted when he feels an odd shift of air behind him, hears footsteps approaching. A sense of dread creeping down his spine, he turns slowly and stares at the person watching him curiously. “Reno?”

His neighbor chuckles as Aaron joins him, the strangely blank look that had been on his face disappearing once their eyes lock. “Yeah, hey. I was heading out for something for Louis and saw you here, thought I’d come see if you wanted to come over for dinner. Louis is going on and on again about how long it’s been since we’ve hung out.”

He smiles, nodding. “Sure, that sounds great. Let’s do it.”

“Great. Call us later, we’ll work out when.” Smiling, Reno turns back to his car and watches as Aaron slips into the restaurant, his face immediately returning to a quiet emotionless mask. Soon, my friend. Soon.

After returning to his apartment and eating a quick burger and some fries, Aaron’s dozed off at his laptop, hands poised over the keyboard, when a soft touch ghosts across his cheek. He sputters and gasps awake, almost knocking the computer off of the desk until gentle hands press against his, keeping it in place. “Alison?” he whispers, recognizing her without even looking.

“Yeah.” She stands over him, watching, until he wakes up enough to focus on her. “Good morning, sleepyhead.”

He shakes his head, glancing over her shoulder at the window. “Morning? Really?”

“Well,” she hedges, sitting down next to him on the couch once she’s sure the computer will be spared any potential clumsy moments. “It’s about 3 AM. I haven’t slept yet so it still feels like night to me but you have, so I figured for you it can be morning.”

His eyes narrow as he examines her. “Why haven’t you slept yet?” She does look exhausted, her eyes dull and lifeless as she shifts uncomfortably. On top of that, she looks somehow frailer than she’d had the last time he saw her.

“It’s just been one of those nights.” She stares at him, an eyebrow raising. “Don’t worry, Aaron. I’m fine. Now aren’t you curious why I’m here?”

He sighs, eyes narrowing. “I always am,” he mumbles finally, giving up on trying to determine what’s going on with her now and if he should try to talk her out of accompanying him. It had never ended well and just took away valuable time he’d have to scope out missions. Shaking the vague discomfort away from him, he faces her. “So what’s on the agenda tonight?”

“Well, let’s find out.” Hand slipping off of his cheek, she smiles slightly at him and waits as he eases into the vision, slowly growing more comfortable doing so for himself since the one time she’d allowed him to attempt it, which he’s relieved about as he sinks into the potentially tragic world that hasn’t yet happened and hopefully won’t even come close to. She’d always seemed even more weak and breathless after any period of time that she’d had to access Ser’s powers herself, and if his slowly learning to do so himself helps her, he’s all for it.

He opens his eyes to a brilliant sunrise, squinting against the bloody orange horizon while trying once more to collect himself. It’s worse this time, however, as he’s nowhere near any part of his hometown, but finally his brain catches up with his surroundings and he relaxes before the hurried senses he’d gained over the last few months of being Piaculum. Glancing around for anything worrisome, he spots a teenage girl leave a house and toss some garbage into the bin before ducking quickly back inside, running her hands briskly up her arms.

He’s growing bored with nothing happening, anxious to get going on completing this mission as well, when there’s a strange creaking noise nearby and... a light pole just crumbles into two, half of it collapsing onto the house he’d just been glancing over at. He blinks a time or two in shock before realizing that that’s what he’d been looking for. “Holy hell,” he mumbles before concentrating on the current reality. As soon as he’s back by Alison’s side, they’re a few feet away from where he’d appeared at and it’s still dark out. He breathes. There’s plenty of time.

“What did you see?” she asks, unnerved by the look on his face and how tense he’s carrying himself.

“That light pole,” he says, pointing down the street at the offending object that had collapsed in his vision, grimacing as she turns to look as well. “It collapses in two and lands on that house.” Finger shifting to point yet again, her gaze following his distinction, he takes a breath. “This is pretty... big. I’m not sure how to handle it.”

Resting a hand on his upper arm, she smiles. “You’ve been through a lot of ridiculous missions considering you’re relatively new to this. I have no doubt you’ll work your way through this as well. Just think it through.”

He nods, takes a breath. “Any suggestions?”

Her smile fades into something sad, his brows furrowing in response as they stare at each other. “No, I think you’re going to need to do this one on your own, Aaron. I’ll help you as much as I possibly can, but you have to learn and you can’t do that if I’m holding your hand every step of the way. Trust me, you’re already gaining that Piaculum instinct, I see it in you more and more every time I see you. Just let it blossom naturally. You will be fine.” Her hands grazing against his face, she tries to force another smile. “Trust me.”

“I always do,” he whispers, another strange sensation creeping down his spine as he watches her turn away from him. No matter how he’d like to dwell on her, he has no choice but to turn his attention to the mission before him: The dark night sky is already fading to grey, which means that soon the sun will be rising and then his vision will come true. He can’t sit around and worry over Alison, ponder her words, however tempting it is. There will be time for that later, when he’s back in the safety of his apartment, trying and failing to get some decent sleep in his bed before work.

As their surroundings get brighter and brighter, birds and insects growing louder, his thoughts go in circles. “Maybe... maybe a...” Pacing back and forth on the sidewalk, he bites his lip. “Ok.” They’re still standing there when a car pulls out of the driveway of the house he’d watched the roof of partially collapse under the sudden weight of the light pole.

“I’m going to guess that’s the girl’s parents heading to work,” Alison says, breaking into his thoughts. “So now she’s probably alone. Have you decided what you’re going to do?”

“I... think so,” he nods, his plans only becoming easier with her parents gone to work. He watches worriedly as finally the sun breaks the horizon, lighting up his path completely. Following the sidewalk to their driveway, he ventures up it and stands on the porch, about to knock. His hands are lifted, about to form fists to pound against the solid wood.

Before he can, however, the girl he’d seen get caught up in the mess pulls it open and stares at him oddly, backing up nervously. He remembers then that she’d been in the process of taking the garbage out when he’d first seen her. “Um. Hello? Can I help you?”

He pauses awkwardly, staring down at her. Sell this, sell this. She’s counting on you... as is Alison. Don’t let either of them down. “Are your parents home?” Ok, that could be misconstrued. Hell. I’m not good at this. He feels like he’s being to sweat while the girl looks at him suspiciously.

“Um, they’re busy with my siblings,” she lies, side eyeing him pretty severely. Despite how blatantly she’s lying, she doesn’t flinch once and he thinks if he hadn’t seen the car drive off only a few minutes ago, he might’ve believed her.

Smart girl. He takes a step back to encourage her to relax. “Look, that’s fine, I’ll tell you and you can tell them, ok? There’s been a reported gas leak on this street, I work with the city and we’ve been urged to quietly evacuate people just as a precaution so we can try to figure out its origin and cap it.” She still doesn’t look impressed but he waits, not looking bothered in the slightest by her disbelieving gaze. “I can call my boss, prove it to you--” He has his phone in hand, waiting while hoping that she’ll let it slide, not call his bluff but she’s already reaching out for it like she’ll call his boss for him and...

“Hey, Aaron, are you having problems?” Alison asks, coming up behind him with a teasing lilt to her voice. He cringes but turns to look at her, eyebrow raised. Turning her focus away from him, she smiles at the teenager. “Hello, miss.” She hesitates and tries to smile comfortingly. “My name is Alison, and this is Aaron.”

The girl still looks suspicious but as his fellow Piaculum holds her hand out to shake the teenager’s, she gives in slightly. “I’m Mara.”

“What a pretty name.” Alison smiles at her before turning to glance at Aaron, eyes gleaming. This is how it’s done, she seems to be saying and he fights not to roll his eyes at her when she focuses back on the girl. “As my associate here just explained to you, there’s a gas leak on this street. We’ve been advised to clear all residents from the area. Is there anyone else in the home with you?”

Pale eyes moving from side to side, the girl takes a breath, considering them and their words, if she can possibly trust in it, before finally shaking her head. “No,” she admits lowly, glancing only temporarily towards Aaron. “Is it... is it really bad?” She still seems reluctant but something about Alison seems to be calling out to her, soothing her uncertainty and distrust.

“It could be, if we don’t move,” Alison says, smiling comfortingly at her. “Please, follow us.” The girl is still hesitating, glancing from inside her house to them and back again. Aaron grows more and more anxious the higher the sun raises in the sky and Alison knows they have to move. “If you’re thinking about grabbing something from inside, I’m sorry to say we can’t let you risk it. Now please?” She’s about to consider using force when the girl’s shoulders finally slumps and she gives in, closing the door behind her reluctantly and following them across the street and down the sidewalk.

“Oh yeah, of course, she trusts you,” Aaron mumbles only half-seriously as they walk shoulder to shoulder with her in front of them, ensuring that she gets a safe distance away from the danger that they know is about to befall her home. Alison only smiles vaguely, her eyes gleaming, as they continue on their way.

They’ve just arrived when Aaron hears that sound again, so familiar from his memories of the vision, and-- Alison stiffens next to him as there’s a rough crashing noise and the girl stops abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk, eyes wide. Before either of them could say or do anything to stop her, she spins around and stares. Aaron expects a scream but she only stands there, her hands fluttering around her lips. “No. No way.” Chanting these words so lowly, over and over again, that they can barely hear her, she takes a step towards her now half-collapsed home, taking in the shattered light pole with the wires scattered all around it, and shakes her head in disbelief. “Oh my God.”

The Piaculum turn to see what had happened, though both already know-- and Alison winces at her first sight of the partially destroyed home. Aaron stands stone-faced and listens as the girl sniffles and whispers next to him, obviously in shock. Once more taking his cues from her, Aaron watches as Alison approaches the teenager and wraps an arm around her, pulling her close in an attempt to comfort her. “How... how did this happen?” she chokes out, turning to look at Alison. “I don’t understand. Was it from the gas leak? But how is that possible?”

Shaking her head, the brunette girl brushes her fingers through the soft strands of red hair beneath her hand. “I’m not sure myself,” she admits, trying to keep to the original story so as not to raise suspicions. “All I know is that there was a gas leak reported here. I hadn’t heard anything about...” She flounders, all feigned professionalism leaving her as she struggles to think of how to describe what they’re looking at. “...This.” It’s a cheap conclusion, she knows, but the girl barely seems to be listening to her words anyway.

Aaron and Alison exchange glances as neighbors begin pouring from their houses, whispering and gawking at what had happened. The people who’d come from the house next to hers recognize Mara and head their way, Alison and Aaron standing their ground side by side as they know if they try to escape now, things have the potential to start going south rapidly. Not to mention the people around could probably give a decent enough description of them to police, and they’d given their first names... Alison knows things can snowball quickly from that alone.

Luckily she keeps her cool, much better than Aaron, and takes over, gently handing over attempts at comforting the distraught girl to the woman who approaches first and starts talking softly to her, pressing warm hands to her shoulders. “Oh God, Mara, I saw what happened from the kitchen window as I was preparing the kids’ breakfast. Are you ok? Thank God you weren’t inside!” Intuitive green eyes lock on Alison and Aaron as the neighbor leads the girl back towards their street, listening as she explains.

“There was a gas leak reported,” she chokes out, still lost in her confusion and horror at seeing her house in such a state. “If they hadn’t gotten me out of the house when they did, I would’ve been...” Her voice failing at a fresh wave of tears streaming down her cheeks, Mara shakes her head grimly.

“Have you called your parents? Or 911?”

“No, they’re at work, it just happened, I don’t...” she chokes out before the emotions overwhelm her once more.

“Ok, ok, darlin’, we’ll call them for you. Don’t worry.” Removing one hand from the girl’s shoulders, the neighbor turns to face a still following Alison and Aaron. “I’m Mrs. Dunham, what’s this about a gas leak?”

“It was reported a little bit ago, we were coming to alert and evacuate people,” Alison says, obviously trying to find a way to use Aaron’s story to their advantage and think steps ahead in order to expect anything that Mrs. Dunham would possibly have to ask them from here on out, spin it in a way to ease their upcoming exit.

“Who reported it?”

“I wasn’t given a name, just following orders, ma’am.” Alison barely blinks at the neighbor’s still suspicious gaze, continuing slowly behind them as they approach the house.

“Why did you start with this house? It’s not even on the corner of the street,” she points out, gazing over at the neighboring brick house that does stand at the edge of the corner. “Wouldn’t it be simpler to start from one end and go to the other?”

Alison smiles and nods, impressing Aaron with how easily she’s hiding her dislike for the nonstop questions and observations that she has to spin a story around quickly. “Yes, of course, ma’am, and that’s why Aaron and I split up. I was going to start with the brick house you’re looking at, then go across the street and we’d meet in the middle. But I realized quickly that Aaron was having difficulties convincing Mara here, he’s new to the job, so I went to provide assistance. We’d just gotten her away when the pole for whatever reason split into two.”

Mrs. Dunham glances at the girl who nods weakly at the story, some of her tension fading away in response to this. “So I see.” Her suspicion seems to be easing off of Alison and Aaron, to their extreme relief. “Shouldn’t you be going around to warn the others though?”

“You have a point,” Alison nods, wincing to herself but having no true choice if she wants to keep the cover story going and not raise more suspicions. She looks over at the neighbors still grouped around watching, raising her voice as she leaves the other three and heads their way. “Excuse me.” Aaron watches for a moment, almost amused, before he realizes that Mrs. Dunham’s sharp gaze is now locked on him. Uncomfortable, he quickly follows Alison and nods in all the right places as she explains to them what she’d been “told”.

He takes over when she pauses, winging it in what he hopes is a believable manner. “Take your cars if you can and leave. Work, school, a friend’s place, anywhere to get away from here as we try to contain the leak. We have yet to alert the next block over, so please, don’t dawdle.” Alison nods subtly at him as the crowd quickly disperses, some heading for their garages and some heading to warn other neighbors who hadn’t been outside to hear the warning. “How was that?”

“Good,” she acknowledges with a faint smile. “So once they’re gone, we can leave without being spotted.”

“What happens when they realize there’s really no gas leak or evacuation notice and call the city?”

“They’ll figure that we were either working on a bad tip and quietly slunk away afterwards in embarrassment, or they’ll guess that we really aren’t with the city of Fancy Prairie.” Whatever thought Aaron had at this seems to disappear as he stares at her, eyes wide. “What?”

“Fancy Prairie?” he repeats, lips twitching. “Seriously? I supposedly work for Fancy Prairie?”

“Keep your voice down,” she hisses back, visibly struggling to hide her own smile. “Yes, you do. For now. Now come on.” He looks up to find Mara still standing nearby with Mrs. Dunham and they approach them, Aaron quickly sobering up in the face of Mara’s distress. “Hello, Mara,” Alison greets the girl with a patient smile. “Are you leaving soon?”

“Yes, ma’am. Mrs. Dunham and I are going to where my parents work to tell them face to face.” She wipes at her eyes once more before holding both hands out, one towards Alison and one towards Aaron. “Thank you so much, if you hadn’t been here, if I had been stuck in the house...” They quickly take her hands and squeeze gently, Alison seeming much more natural with the motion than Aaron.

“You’re welcome,” Alison tells her quietly. “But you really should go now, this is too risky and more workers are on the way to figure out the origin of the leak and cap it.” She notices once more Mrs. Dunham peering at them and tells her, “Most of the workers live a fair distance from here. That’s why we were sent ahead of anyone else, we’re nearby.”

“Yeah, it’s not even my shift, I usually work the afternoons,” Aaron adds in, trying to underline Alison’s story well enough that the woman will believe them and stop trying to stare holes through their foreheads.

“Yes, and he won’t stop talking about how he hates his sleep getting disrupted,” she sighs, shooting an exasperated look his way. “Anyhow, we’ve taken enough of your time. Please, go, and be safe. And Mara, I hope your house isn’t too badly damaged and that everything gets sorted out quickly.”

“Thank you,” the girl murmurs, still shaking. As she finally walks off with the neighbor lady, Alison and Aaron exchange glances. It’s a horrible thing, having to make the girl leave believing that, on top of a pole collapsing down on top of her life, it could also blow up due to a non-existent gas leak but there’s not much else they can do about it.

Thankfully with them gone, the neighborhood slowly goes quiet, only the sounds of the partially destroyed house’s groans and animals chattering and squawking surrounding them. “Is it time?” Aaron asks quietly, peering around at the lifeless block.

“Yeah. We can go.” They’re both exhausted, from the nighttime hours spent not sleeping and from running in circles to keep their story going, if not completely believable. Alison just hopes by the time neighbors clue in and call the city that their recollections of their appearances will be faded enough, allow them to not be targeted by police or any other law enforcement. She’s not sure what the charge would be-- fraud, impersonating a city official, not even counting what they’d try if they suspected they were at all involved in the mysterious collapse of the pole-- but she’s pretty certain it’s not good.

She herself is so wiped out, her heart pitter-pattering unevenly in her chest yet again, that she ends up back where she began-- at his apartment, and they stare at each other. Aaron cracks first, laughing awkwardly, and she joins in a moment later. “Dammit, why am I here?” she finally wheezes, her laughing spree only making her chest hurt more while she labors for each breath.

“I was wondering the same thing.” He smiles and runs a hand through his tousled hair before moving his laptop to a more secure part of the table, resting his feet where it’d once sat. “I need to get some sleep before work. But I’m too keyed up to sleep.” He groans, staring at the clock hanging on the wall over her head. “Damn.”

She thinks it’s a subtle hint that she should leave soon, let him go do that, but her mind is racing and her chest is throbbing with an intensity that she thinks, should she try to return to her apartment now, she’d just pass out in a lifeless puddle on his carpet. He frowns over at her but says nothing as she stares ahead at the wall. She had been so in the moment back at that girl’s house, she hadn’t had the time to mull it all over, but here... now... sitting on Aaron’s couch, watching the clock tick steadily towards 6 AM, she can’t help it.

“Are you ok?” Aaron finally asks, lips twisted into a deep frown. “Do you... I mean, are you thirsty? Hungry? Maybe we can have a quick something before you go back home...” He’s trying so hard, he’s been trying so hard since she’d fallen into his life, dragging him into this mess with absolutely no warning, that she’s not entirely sure where to begin to tell him what she needs. She’d seen him at his lowest, at his highest, and yet there still feels like a large canyon between them. And she knows it’s mostly because of her, her innate reluctance to tell anyone whose name isn’t Ser about her condition, but...

Swallowing heavily, she reaches forward and grasps his hand, holding it in her palm with a pensive grip. “Ask me again,” she tells him faintly, running her fingers along the lines crisscrossing his skin as he squirms under her, a bit ticklish.

“Wha-- what?” He’s floored, the girl usually not one for needless contact, nor unexplainable questions. “What do you mean? Ask what?”

“About my injury. Ask me again.”

He stares at her, his expression unchanged as he shakes his head back and forth in confusion. “I don’t understand...” She doesn’t say or do anything from here, just lets him watch her as she slowly shifts his fingers until they rest on her wrist, right above her uneven pulse point. It takes him a minute to piece together what she’s getting at, his pulse and hers falling in and out of sync as hers speeds up and slows down despite his remaining a constant rhythm the whole time. It frightens him and he tears his hands away, staring at her in shock. “What...”

She remains resolute, her gaze unwavering. “Ask me again.”

Since feeling her pulse, he’s not sure if he still wants to, but he tries. Attempts to figure out how to word the horrible thoughts racing through his mind. This is what she was so reluctant to tell me? It’s her heart? “What happened?” he finally whispers, the only words he can think of to spit out. “What happened to you?”

She nods, taking a breath. As if ashamed to face him, she turns back to the wall and swallows. “I had been a Piaculum for just a little over four years, and I’m not going to lie and say it was never dangerous or full of turmoil. Like you, I had to learn and learn quickly. My need to be perfect didn’t help matters. I was usually able to complete a mission, but sometimes it was impossible.” She pauses, her voice cracking. “Sometimes the people I was trying to help made things worse. Sometimes they died anyway because I wasn’t good enough.” He opens his mouth like he’s about to argue but she lifts a hand to curtail this. It’s her story, she is merely stating things from her perspective, and nothing he says now will dissuade her opinion of the sequence of events surrounding her time as Piaculum.

“So one day, a summer day a little like this one, it started off sunny and warm, but you know Illinois weather. By night time it was storming and chilly. Midday, I had a vision. I was working at a nearby restaurant-- in those days, I was a waitress-- and time froze for me, as it’s supposed to do, and when I opened my eyes, I was in the middle of a street not far from where I worked. Before I could even figure out anything more than that, it happened. A car was driving by and there was a lightning strike, it hit the nearest electric pole and just split it in pieces. I could only watch as it fell forward, the wires zigging this way and that... It hit the car with an impressive thud and everything just stopped. The car rolled to the edge of the road and just sat there, the wires were still going all over the place, crackling as the rain struck it, and I woke up.”

He’s on the edge of his seat, listening intently, and she smiles faintly. “I was standing on that road, night time was quickly approaching, and all I could do was wait in the rain, far enough into the trees that no one randomly driving by could see me and question my being there. Soon enough, it started thundering and lightning... and I just wanted to get inside so badly, but I couldn’t turn my back on the guy I’d seen in the smashed car. So I did the only thing that made sense to me at the time-- I went up the road a ways and, making sure to be very careful, started working over the trees that were nearest. I wasn’t much stronger then than I am now, considering, but I finally got a few large branches loose and returned to the road, placing them strategically on the side I’d seen in my vision so no one could make it through.” She sighs and smiles wistfully as he looks on in anticipation of the conclusion of her story.

“Unfortunately my attempt backfired-- the guy I was trying to save was in such a hurry, he didn’t see the mess in the road until it was too late. He hit it at a ridiculous speed, I heard one of his tires blow, and then he lost control, just as quickly as that-- through the guardrail and almost into the very trees I was hiding in.” Aaron’s eyes are almost comically wide now but her smile is long gone, remembering what happened next as she continues to talk, voice faint and low with unimaginable pain. “Well, I freaked out-- I’d tried to save him but I only made things worse. So I rushed over to try to pull him out of the vehicle, somehow, but then it happened. Lightning struck the pole only a few feet ahead of us and it crashed to the ground, immediately electrifying the puddle of water. The puddle of water I was still standing in.”

Her voice failing again, she only opens her eyes when Aaron shifts closer and gently grips her hand, squeezing slightly to encourage her to continue if she wants. She finally does, her skittish gaze locking on their interlocked hands. “Um, yeah. So I don’t really remember much from that moment on, just a sharp burst of pain before everything went dark around me.” She pauses again before looking out of the window. “When I woke up once more, I was in a hospital.”

He watches quietly as she gets up and walks over to said window, peering out at the peaceful morning unfolding before them. Vastly different from the turmoil dwelling within the four walls of his apartment. “What happened then?” he finally asks, needing to know the rest. Not willing to let go with her for once so forthcoming. He wonders if she’ll regret this moment later on, when she has the time to sit and reflect, ponder how she’d worded things to him. He hopes not.

“A nurse was in the room with me,” she explains lowly. “It had been her bustling around that had woke me up. I was groggy and in pain, could barely move my hand much less concentrate on what had happened. I just knew I was in a strange place, surrounded by strange people, and my heart felt like it could stop at any moment, it-- it was going so slow and unevenly. I think she tried asking me if there was any family I wanted called, a next of kin there to sign forms or whatever else might come up while I was there. But I could barely keep my eyes open, much less speak, and I think I fell back under.”

She returns to his side and takes another deep breath, hand on her chest. “My phone must’ve somehow survived everything because when I came to, my mother was there. She took one look at me and broke down, repeatedly telling me that everything was going to be ok, I would pull through. Not to worry, she’d take care of me.” Her face tenses as she removes her hand with a grimace, dropping it in her lap. “I felt better at that time. My heart was beating steadily, my lungs were clear, I could even lift my hand without problem. I thought maybe the time before it was the drugs, I had just been given too much painkiller or something. But I knew deep down inside something was still wrong.

“The high volts of electricity coursing through me had caused a massive heart attack, and a couple of minor ones on the way to the hospital and in the ER. They were all amazed I lasted that long, and I’m still not sure how I managed it.” Aaron says nothing, just watches as she stares at her hands. Something in her eyes hints to him that perhaps she knows more than she’s letting on about that particular part of the situation, but he doesn’t let on that he suspects, remains quiet as she wraps up her sobering story. “They placed me on a pill and diet regime, and helped me regain my strength with physical therapy and... I basically had to learn everything all over again.”

“That’s why it took six months for you to be well enough to help select a replacement,” he realizes.

“Right. They had to put a pacemaker in and play around with drug protocols until we found the right balance for me to live a somewhat normal life.”

“The mission this morning,” he whispers, the realizations just keeping on coming for him. “It brought it all back for you, didn’t it? That’s why you wanted to tell me.” He licks his lips, shakes his head. “Were you... were you scared? I couldn’t tell, you seemed... you seemed as unflappable as ever.”

She smiles slightly at this. “Well, thanks for saying so. I didn’t feel very unflappable. All I could think was what if we don’t get there in time and that girl suffers what I did-- or worse... or what if we’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you get hurt by it? I’m kind of surprised it went as smoothly as it did, really. Don’t get me wrong, I feel horrible for that family’s home, but... no one got physically hurt and I can’t help but feel like I finally made up for where I went wrong last year.” At Aaron’s confused look, she smiles faintly, the pain in her eyes moving far beyond the physical. “The guy in the car I was trying to save... I did the opposite of what I was meant to do. He died on the side of the road, alone and with no one the wiser until we were found after the storm passed. And I survived. I don’t know why, I don’t think it’s fair-- I agreed to risk my life to save others, and when the time came, I got to live and his family is off somewhere mourning him now and wondering why out of everyone on the road that night, it had to be their father... their brother...”

Her hands digging viciously into the denim of her jeans, Aaron leans forward and scoops them up, holding them close to him. Both are freezing, and he wonders if it’s a side effect of her heart issues, poor circulation or something like that. “It wasn’t your fault,” he tells her lowly. “You did the very best you could, it was just one of those things.”

Her eyes dull as she stares down at their interlaced fingers, she nods. “See, I’ve convinced myself of that over the months. Deep down inside I know I did everything I could. But on the same token, I look back and I think of what I could’ve done differently. Instead of blocking the road, I could’ve jumped out in front of his car and flagged him down, gave some sob story about how I needed a ride in the opposite direction...” She laughs mirthlessly and looks up at him. “You know that old saying, hindsight is 20/20? I’ve pretty much lived it in gory detail every day since and it seems like it’s far from letting me go.”

He feels horribly for her, all thoughts of his own responsibilities far from his mind. After a story like that, sleep and preparing for another exhausting day at work seems unimportant. “I wish I knew what to say, or do, to help you,” he finally mumbles, gingerly squeezing her fingers.

She looks down, lips twisting downwards in anger and suddenly shakes her hand loose, pointing at him. “That. There’s something you can do.” At his confused look, she glares at him warningly. “Never treat me like I’m weak or an invalid just because of what I’ve told you here today. Despite my health, I’ve been able to help you become the kind of Piaculum you need to be. No matter how long my heart holds out or even if it gives out completely tomorrow, I’m still capable of doing day to day things right now. I needed a replacement to handle the majority of the job. I do not need pity.”

Her words unnerve him. More than that, however, the look in her eyes freeze his insides until he thinks he can barely catch a breath. “Of course,” he agrees. He watches her as she prepares to leave, still looking like a wrong wind could knock her over if it hits just so. He flexes his hand, dwells on the horrible feeling of her uneven pulse beneath his fingers, how cold her skin had been, and ponders. How would I react if I was injured so badly and couldn’t do what I’d been doing for years? Would I... would I just give up, become bitter and suicidal? Or would I handle it like she does, and keep struggling to make it day by day, no matter what, trying to help more people, ensure that the Piaculum duty is upheld for this state?

He’s not sure of the answer and it kind of worries him.
--------

Returning to her home feels like a revelation as Alison’s legs give out as soon as she catches sight of her familiar furniture, the worn tartan couch that always greets her after journeys such as this. Unfortunately she doesn’t even feel strong enough to make it the few feet to it, her vision dotted and breaths labored. She had told Aaron nothing but the truth, but even she can’t deny that she’s left out the most vital parts. Letting him feel her pulse in such a manner had been possibly the biggest risk she’d taken since, yeah, she’d let her anger and pride overwhelm her and she’d insisted on working alongside him in missions instead of watching from the sidelines.

And God, had she paid for that one. She doesn’t need a ten minute exam with her doctor mostly just standing over her and tsking at her vitals and a monumental bill that she probably won’t have the means-- physically or financially-- to pay off to tell her... What she had done, accessing Ser’s power so frequently in Parkville had affected her already flimsy health to the point where she could feel herself deteriorating by the day, if not the hour.

Sprawling out on the floor and not moving for hours at a time had become a sad common status of her reality as she struggles just to breathe, keep her heart beating in a somewhat normal rhythm. The pacemaker had lost the war in keeping her pulse steady a long time ago and she’d not had the time or strength to go back to the hospital and see what they could do for her, if anything. Aaron-- and in effect all of the people he’d saved-- had needed her on her feet, ready to give advice and explanations, not holed up in some hospital for who-knows-how-long for yet another temporary fix. Every day was a miracle and she’d treated it as such, doing all she could to help various people around Illinois targeted by him.

“Ser, I’m sorry,” she breathes, desperately digging her nails against the fibers of her carpet as she once more tries inching her way back to that couch so she could maybe gain the strength to pull herself up, lay down on the soft, worn cushions instead of the hard floor. “I wish... I wish I could be of more use to you and your cause.”

She is unaware that he is listening to her through the shield of telepathy. As the last of her strength fades away, leaving her unconscious on the floor and laboring to breathe, he appears by her side once more. Reaching out to touch her, his hand hesitates over her forehead as he thinks about what had happened last time, how his power had been taken from him. He can’t remember how or why, but he remembers all too well how long it had taken him to regain it bit by bit, enough to even do such simple things as teleport his Piaculum from place to place to rescue people. Swallowing down his hesitation, he finally touches her soft hair as she whimpers in her sleep, locked in one of the many nightmares she’d had since that fateful night. “And I wish I could be more use to you, Alison,” he whispers, eyes shadowed even through the bright mid-morning sunshine streaming through her curtains. “I apologize for my weakness.”

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