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invisible smoke (it's getting so old)

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Everything sucks. All of it. Hard.

Adriel being alive and not at all who or what they thought he was. Adriel turning every civilian in what seems like a five kilometer radius into a mindless henchman. Adriel having the power to inflict so much damage with a mere flick of his wrist. The fact that Camila’s already bleeding, that Lilith is covered in so much blood that’s not hers, that she can’t see Mary at all, and especially that she can see Beatrice checking on her between almost every single punch.

And that she’s standing here with this sword, feeling like the controller was just handed to someone who has no idea what they’re doing.

(Who is Ava kidding; she has no idea what she’s doing.)

A week’s crash-course in fighting basics doesn’t prepare one for hand-to-hand combat with a literal horde of possessed, bloodlusty strangers, just like finding enough mobility to flip off your miserable old fart of a caretaker is useless against a syringe of death.

She’s never prepared, never ready—to lose another parent, to wake up on a mattress about as thick as a welcome mat (though not nearly as, y’know, welcoming as one), to wake up on a fucking metal slab, to meet the hottest guy she’s ever seen, to scare him away with all the nun shit, to now be finding this much comfort in someone who’s smart as hell and beautiful and could not be more out of her league.

Ava Silva is never, ever, ever good enough.

What good is this best-friends-for-life system if she isn’t doing jack shit to deserve it?

The Halo crackles with electric heat before she’s even actively aware of the shift taking place in her head, her chest, deep in her gut. She glances at the sword glowing at her hip, beckoning her forward like some kind of celestial traffic signal, but the sound of Adriel’s laughter echoes through the courtyard.

“Divinium does make for a beautiful light show,” he sneers, “but you’re going to have to do a lot better than that.”

Another shitty, evil adult laughing in her face about all the power they have over her. She feels angry tears spring to her eyes, but sniffs them away and sets her jaw. “I should warn you,” Ava calls out. “The last person who tried to kill me? I broke her neck. By accident.” She takes a few slow steps toward him, thinking about how Sister Frances was like a thousand years old and didn’t have any magical Hell powers, but that she’ll keep those details to herself. “So how about you leave my friends alone and come face me like a man.”

He’s grinning, but she definitely has his full attention now. “So you can cower like a child?” He steps through the chaos of fighting bodies with ease. “Ava, we both know you’re no match for me.”

“Physically? No,” Ava agrees. “You’re big, and strong, and fast, and I’m a quadriplegic who’s been bedridden for twelve years. But there is one important advantage that I have over you.”

Adriel couldn’t be more amused by her words. “You’ll have to enlighten me.”

The Halo feels like midday sunlight hitting her bare skin. “Oh, I’m about to enlighten you the fuck up,” she declares. “Because as I’m sure you’re well aware… being stuck in the same room for a long time gives you a lot of pent-up feelings.”

“Is that what the OCS has been teaching you? How to draw blood and break bones with a diary entry?” The smirk disappears from his face when he realizes the ground below them is trembling; he raises his eyes to meet hers again. “I told you, you’re not strong enough.”

Ava ignores him, focuses on the big hunk o’ metal in her spine, thinks about her insides unfolding, untangling, and disintegrating as the Halo’s heat pulses, spreads, grows more acute. There’s already beads of sweat gathering on her temples and the back of her neck, but she keeps breathing, keeps focusing, never once looks away from Adriel as his eyes begin to reflect the brilliant glow emanating from her back.

“Your friends are all going to die today, Ava,” he says then, raising his arms outward as if to indicate the inevitable carnage. “You will be alone, and I will win.”

She’s shaking now—not out of fear, but out of anger, indignance, and exhaustion—and she takes one more step forward. “Hey, Adriel?” (The Halo is vibrating.) “Fuck. You.

It’s like fireworks and sitting directly against a hot tub jet and also maybe like being right on top of an erupting volcano, or at least she thinks so, based on all the dramatized TV versions of those things that she’s seen. The explosion is slow but powerful and her knees buckle almost immediately. She braces herself with her palms against the ground, and then her fingers curl and it’s her knuckles grinding into the cold stone below. And she’s crying, too, because everything in her back is shifting like… like a Transformer, is that it?

Ava, the broken junk car that can somehow morph into an all-in-one hybrid vehicle, when the situation calls for it.

She can’t see anything because all there is is light; it’s her eyes, it’s her ears, it’s—wait, is it even possible to puke light? Because that’s what it feels like when she finally screams. She’s so full, unbearably full, like maybe she overdid this power-up thing, because if anyone’s gonna switch from “not enough” to “too much” at the least opportune time, it’s this chaotic, dumbass orphan right here.

The pressure is consuming, like the grief migraines she got in the weeks after she woke up in the orphanage when there was no body, no funeral, no send-off for her mother, nowhere to put this sudden, violent absence in her life. Ava lifts one shaky hand to her head just to check for herself if there’s any blood or brains oozing out, but then a new wave of white-hot energy bursts from the Halo and knocks her sideways, knocks the air from her lungs, nearly knocks her out altogether.

She thinks she’s still screaming, maybe even sounds like she’s in labor or something, but at this point she doubts this shit comes with an off-button. There’s no concrete wall this time, no specific destination, no finish line, (no Beatrice in her ear,) and Ava suddenly feels utterly lost—in time, in this boiling hot hurricane, in this mission that she has no idea how to finish because she can’t see anything, can’t move—

Fuck, she can’t move. Whatever’s happening is still happening but she’s already numb, has already forgotten what hips and legs and feet feel like, and she screams again for those twelve years of stillness, of imprisonment, of miserable fucking silence.

When her chest refills, she breathes. She inhales and exhales and inhales again, listens and hears nothing, wonders if she actually did manage to kill herself this time and if it’s finally, mercifully, all over.

“Ava?”

Far away. Floating. Real? Ava has no fucking clue and may or may not even have a body at this point that she could use to find out, and so she continues to breathe.

“Ava, can you hear me?”

Yes, she admits silently, but she can hear lots of shit in her head, like useless trivia from Wheel of Fortune reruns and the opening theme to Magnum P.I.

A gentle pressure at her pulse. (Wait, she still has a pulse?) “She’s alive!”

Beatrice, loud and close and saying things that Ava can’t wrap her heavy, throbbing head around. Warmth against her cheek. “Ava,” soft and breathless in her ear, “you did it.”

Ava inhales again, finds her tongue and her mouth and one single word. “Lesbich?” she breathes out.

She feels another puff of warmth from the laugh Beatrice doesn’t manage to hold in. “That’s exactly right,” she confirms, and takes Ava’s hand into both of hers. “We’re going to get you out of here, Ava.”

Lesbich,” she whispers again, before the world around her disappears.

 

🜊

 

At first, the dreams are about quicksand and concrete and not being able to see anything below her shins–no feet, no ankles, no steps forward, no pulling herself free from the opaque abyss stretching infinitely around her. She sinks, loses sight of her knees, feels the darkness wrap around her hips, feels the permanence, the squeeze

(It’s all gone: the walking, the running, the swimming, the almost-drowning—)

She phases and lands in her bed at St. Michael’s, just the way she left it—books dusty from non-use, TV playing some Italian daytime soap, everything reeking of dust and old-ness. She rotates her head to its favorite and most practiced angle, the one spot where she can see Diego, and lets out a sigh of relief at the visible movement of his chest up and down, up and down, up and down.

The warm light of the candle on their nightstand suddenly changes to Divinium blue, growing brighter and more brilliant until she has to look away from Diego and close her eyes to shield them from the intensity. Ava feels more than hears the massive footsteps as a Tarask crashes into the room and approaches her bedside, and rather than bear its claws at her, it raises a syringe the size of a baseball bat and lets out a deafening roar—

(Can’t even raise her arms to defend herself from the inevitable—)

She phases and she’s back in the tomb under the Vatican, boulders and rubble falling all around her, the air thick and suffocating. She takes a deep breath to—what, shout for help?—but only gags on the haze; her lungs keep heaving, desperate for relief, and finally she feels a pair of hands grip her underarms and begin to pull her to safety.

“What will become of you without me?” wonders a wicked Scotish accent somewhere over her head.

Ava screams and uses every ounce of energy she has to wrench herself from Sister Frances’s grip—

(Plummeting down, down, down, waiting to hit the dirt—)

Instead, she lands on something hard.

Cheek and stomach pressed against a rough carpet, arms splayed out on either side, legs…

Her goddamn legs.

She lets out a loud, anguished groan and flinches when she feels a hand on her shoulder. “No!” she yells at the floor below her, hating how weak and rough the word sounds, but she’ll be damned if she lets this monster touch another fucking hair on her body.

“Ava, it’s me.”

The voice is hushed and soft and just for her, and Ava finally remembers to blink her eyes open; Beatrice’s face swims into view from where she’s crouching beside Ava.

“You’re…” Ava pants between gulps of oxygen.

A brief expression of horror. “Beatrice,” she confirms, patiently, but the fear still leaks through.

Ava’s eyes droop closed and she forces them open again, chokes on her own inhale. “Alive.”

Beatrice’s relief is obvious and makes Ava’s chest hurt, even beyond the pressure of her boobs flattened under her body weight. “We all are, Ava. Thanks to you.”

Under normal circumstances a Beatrice compliment would definitely go right to Ava’s head and lead to several thousand puns and self-accolades, but right now her skull is preoccupied with the world’s fuzziest migraine. “Ow,” is all she grunts between gulps of oxygen.

Compassion and worry flicker across Beatrice’s face in unison and she offers her hands. “Let’s get you back into bed.”

Ava’s fingers twitch in her general direction, knuckles raw and bruised, and she’s able to lift the hand closest to Beatrice, but her body feels heavy… and otherwise doesn’t feel like anything at all.

Beatrice notices her hesitation. “What are you able to move?”

She’s been conscious for ten fucking seconds and she’s already crying. “I-I don’t know.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Beatrice assures her soothingly. “This has happened before, remember? Give the paralysis some time to wear off.” (Ava’s not brave enough to ask how much time it’s already had so far.) “Is it alright if I help?”

She thinks she’d much rather the floor just swallowed her up. “Okay,” she forces out instead.

Beatrice nods and braces Ava’s shoulder with one hand and Ava’s lower back with the other. “On the count of three, I’m going to roll you onto your back. One… two…” She waits another beat before she proceeds, making sure to cradle any part of Ava’s body that might be at risk of being jostled, and once Ava is settled in the new position Beatrice gently wipes the moisture from her cheeks. Ava can’t look her in the eye as Beatrice examines her left hand, wrist, forearm, and elbow, then her right, then sets it gently down. “Your bones and joints all seem to be intact. Try lifting your arm?”

She physically looks at it, willing it to obey, but all she sees in response is her hand trembling with the effort of her wrist trying to bend. Ava clenches her fingers into a weak fist and mouths “Fuck.”

“It’s alright,” Bearice insists calmly. “You expended a massive amount of energy. Be patient with yourself.” She slips one arm around Ava’s shoulder blades and the other under her knees and has Ava off the floor in one unexpectedly smooth motion—

(Also, she forgot how soft these combat habits are, and also, Beatrice smells much nicer than anyone in the orphanage ever did.)

—and she’s so wrapped up in her fabric feelings that she forgets she has to go back down. She feels herself pitching sideways, away from Beatrice, and Ava’s arms suddenly cling to Beatrice of their own accord.

They exchange surprised glances and Ava lets go just as Beatrice relaxes her own grip, and Ava falls the last few inches onto the mattress with another grunt.

Beatrice is fussing over her in an instant. “I’m so sorry! Did I hurt you at all?”

(She thinks of Sister Frances standing over her with that syringe.)

Ava shakes her head, and shakes more tears loose with the motion, and is relieved she can wipe them away herself this time. “Y’know, as much as I love the insta-healing and the glowy shit, I could really use some bonus coordination.”

“Well, there is this thing called training,” Beatrice teases. “I may or may not have suggested it to you before.” She waves off her own comment and kneels beside the bed. “Shall we check your arms again?” Beatrice holds out her hands and Ava is able to raise her left arm to meet them, and she wonders if Beatrice notices the goosebumps underneath her fingertips. 

Ava flinches away when Beatrice nears where her shoulder meets her collarbone. “Sorry,” she mutters when Beatrice looks at her in alarm, “ticklish.”

But Beatrice just smiles. “Your nerves are responsive. That’s good.”

Ava looks thoughtful. “Does this mean you’re getting on my nerves?” 

Beatrice’s expression dims briefly, but then shifts to suspicion. “That was a pun.”

“It was,” Ava confirms. “And I’m so proud of you for appreciating that.”

Appreciate is a strong word. I acknowledged the pun.”

Ava rolls her eyes. “Whatever,” she says, then sighs and glances at her fully mobile hands, then at her unmoving feet. “I wish the stupid Halo would acknowledge my legs.”

Beatrice perches on the edge of the mattress, her hip pressed against Ava’s. (Not that she can feel it.) “It will, in time. We know this.”

“Do we, though? I’ve recovered fine from those mini-explosions, but… this was different.”

She nods once. “I know,” she says softly, then folds her hands in her lap. “How are you feeling, Ava? What you did… what the Halo did… It was remarkable.”

(The Halo crackles with electric heat before she’s even actively aware of the shift taking place in her head, her chest, deep in her gut—

Like midday sunlight hitting her bare skin—

The heat pulses, spreads, grows more acute—

She can’t see anything because all there is is light; it’s her eyes, it’s her ears, it’s–

She’s so full, unbearably full—

Knocks her sideways, knocks the air from her lungs—

Fuck, she can’t move—)

“So,” Ava manages past the thick dryness in her throat. “What’s, um…” (Actually, she has a thousand questions.) “...happening.”

Beatrice doesn’t speak right away, probably considering whether to call out Ava’s deflection. “This is a safehouse that hasn’t been used in years,” Beatrice explains instead, glancing around the mostly bare room. “It was a long night, but everyone’s going to be okay, thanks to you.” Beatrice notices Ava staring into space and takes her hand; Ava takes an eternity to refocus. 

“I’m just happy everyone’s safe,” Ava says, sounding a little robotic even to her own ears. “What do we do next?”

You,” Beatrice emphasizes with a small smile, “are going to rest. Get reacquainted with your metal friend. The others and I will take care of everything else, and we’ll all regroup when you’re ready.” She gives Ava’s hand a comforting squeeze. “I’ll get you some water.”

Beatrice leaves the room, goes somewhere beyond Ava’s line of sight, somewhere she can’t follow, and even with all of the complete nothingness happening across her nervous system, Ava still feels something fracture.

(Fuck, it’s hard to be patient when you have no sense of time.)

She already has more than a decade of stationary near-solitude to make up for, but now she’s stuck in this room with no clocks and barely any sunlight; not even a lousy cartoon marathon where the credits roll every ten minutes to help keep everything relative.

When Beatrice finally returns with the plastic bottle, Ava breaks out in a cold sweat, pulse hammering and mouth dry for reasons that have nothing to do with lack of fluids and everything to do with twelve years of being force-fed tasteless porridge by someone who would’ve rather she just choked on it.

“Ava, are you okay? Ava.”

She doesn’t plummet back into reality until Beatrice says her name the second time, and then she sees Beatrice holding out the bottle, and Ava finds her lungs again. “Sorry, I—I kind of already forgot about these guys,” Ava says breathlessly, doing some jazz hands, and reaches for the bottle with a shakiness that’s obvious to the both of them. Beatrice doesn’t let go and for a moment various fingers overlap; Ava finally has the sense to use both hands to steady her grip, and only then does Beatrice relent control.

Ava takes a deep breath, tilts her head back, and drinks, drinks, drinks, downing it all in one go. “How many of these do you have?” she pants when she’s finished, wiping her mouth with the back of her palm.

“Plenty,” Beatrice answers. “I’ll get you another.”

“Oh thank god,” Ava blurts under her breath. “We were getting dangerously close to an Oliver Twist thing and I really didn’t want to have to go there.” Beatrice is staring at her. “Like, the book about the orphan who says—”

“I’ve read books, Ava,” she reminds her, sounding amused. “I’ll get you more water, and then please get some rest.”

Beatrice leaves the room again, and Ava feels the fracture twinge.

(What will become of you without me? she hears again, but the thought doesn’t come from above or in front; it comes from somewhere deep inside her back.)

 

🜊

 

This time she dreams about the pool.

It’s dark. She can’t see the sun, can’t see the surface, can’t even see her limbs, and she tries calling out for help but her voice is only muffled bubbles as she flails her arms forward, up, anywhere.

Her fingertips brush something warm and solid and the water falls away around her; she splutters and coughs her lungs dry, looks up at Beatrice looking down at her, watches Beatrice’s palm drift toward Ava’s cheek, leans into the contact—

—which is suddenly room-temperature and scratchy, because it’s not a hand, it’s her damn pillow.

Ava groans faintly as the dream dissolves around her and she remembers this bed, this room, this whole hot mess of a situation. She glances at the three empty bottles on the small table beside her, then down at her hips as if there will be a blinking neon sign to let her know whether the paralysis is—

Her stomach clenches and her skin gets hot when she sees the dark spot. “No,” she breathes, her hands staying frozen until she’s brave enough to prop herself up just a little—

“No, no, no…” she whispers over and over again as she touches the spot, then curls her hand into a tight fist. “Fuck.”

She wet. The fucking. Bed.

(A few days ago it was gadgets in their ears, a tablet in Beatrice’s hand, and Ava walking through literal concrete, and now she’s lying in her own urine stain. The whiplash is so fucking unfair, and Ava… she’s getting really sick of this one-step-forward, three-steps-back bullshit. She disarmed Sister Crimson’s shotgun, but ended up flat on the floor with her first paralysis scare since leaving St. Michael’s. She buried Adriel under his own rubble, but almost buried herself in the process. She managed to save literally all of her friends, but now she’s back to indefinite bedrest.

For everyone she saves, she has to be saved twofold.)

Her eyes sting with angry tears and she wipes them away because fuck all these involuntary bodily fluids.

“Ava? What’s wrong?”

Every working inch of her body goes into full red-alert mode at the sound of Beatrice’s voice as she enters the room, and Ava rushes to pull the blanket over her hips and hide the evidence. “Nothing! Nothing,” she blurts, knowing it sounds like complete bullshit. Beatrice rounds the bed and goes to sit beside her, but Ava’s arms shoot out to stop her. “Don’t!”

Beatrice studies her overheating face and her white-knuckle grip on the blanket, then gently places her hand over Ava’s and moves it aside. “Ava…”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Ava interrupts in a rush, trying to push Beatrice’s hand away from the sheets. “I-I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.”

“Of course you didn’t mean to,” Beatrice says softly, holding onto Ava’s shaking hands and squeezing until Ava looks at her. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”

Ava shakes her head. “I shouldn’t have drank so much water. I should’ve—I wasn’t thinking. I—fuck, I’m sorry.”

Beatrice notices her start to hyperventilate before Ava notices herself; she squeezes Ava’s shoulder with one hand and rests her other hand on Ava’s chest. “Hey. Focus on me.” Ava’s head dips as she glances down at the sheets again. “Don’t worry about the bed. You couldn’t control that, and that’s okay. But you need to control your breathing.”

(She thinks of Sister Frances standing over her with that syringe.

How she laughed when Ava confronted her about what she’d done, how she tried to kill Ava again, and how Ava killed her.

Ava killed her.)

The sound of her own ragged gasps brings her back to Beatrice’s hands, eyes, calming pleas. “Focus on me,” Beatrice repeats, both of her palms shifting to cradle Ava’s head. “You’re not in the orphanage, you’re not in the concrete, and you’re not in the tomb. You’re right here with me, and I’m not going to let anyone or anything hurt you.”

Ava feels, sees the room spinning, but manages to find Beatrice’s eyes.

“It’s just you and me. Nothing else.”

She sucks in the biggest gulp of oxygen she can, holds it for a beat, then lets it out slowly.

Beatrice nods. “Good. Again.”

Ava struggles to find her lungs, to keep going.

“Whatever it is, don’t let it consume you,” Beatrice instructs. “Follow my voice, just like we’ve been practicing.”

Oh, there they are. She inhales as far as she can, exhales, inhales again before she can forget how, and exhales, finds the rhythm, wonders how long Beatrice can go without blinking.

“That’s great, Ava. You’re brilliant. Keep going.”

She does, and the fuzziness starts to fade, and soon everything is quiet again. Her head tips forward in exhaustion and Beatrice meets her halfway, and Ava closes her eyes as she feels their breath mingle.

“How do you feel?” Beatrice asks quietly, after a long moment.

“Like shit,” Ava sighs, her voice cracking on the curse word.

Beatrice laughs under her breath. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

Red alert, red alert, red alert.

“No.”

Beatrice straightens, looks at Ava questioningly. “Pardon?”

“I don’t want you to… I’ll do it myself,” Ava mutters. “When I can move again.”

She considers her next words carefully. “While I share your optimism… Ava, we have no idea when that will be.”

“I don’t care. I’ll wait.”

When Beatrice speaks again, her voice is tighter than usual. “I know that it can be hard to think clearly when you’ve been through so much…”

“I am thinking clearly,” Ava interrupts. “I’m thinking that if you keep babying me, I’ll never learn how to recharge on my own. And what better motivation is there than… being damp and smelling bad,” she deadpans.

Beatrice’s jaw is clenched. “You’re serious.” Off Ava’s silence, she takes a deep breath and expels it in a loud huff. “Well, I can certainly appreciate your wanting to be independent, but… I guess I just… I wish that you would still let me help you. Without all of our usual OCS resources, there’s only so much I can…” Her words grow thick and she looks away from Ava. “I don’t usually feel so…”

“Paralyzed?” Ava finishes for her, doing an absolutely god-awful job of containing her bitterness.

Beatrice flinches like she’s been stung and takes her time meeting Ava’s eyes again. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

Ava says nothing, just thinks about stumbling out of walls and into steady hands and the safety of that shared embrace, one that she feels so much less worthy of when she’s not moving, fighting, trying.

“I’m sorry, Ava. I shouldn’t be making this about myself.” Beatrice studies her own hands in her lap for an endless moment. “Just know that I’d be happy to offer any level of assistance, should you decide you need it.”

“Fine, whatever. Just—I’ll be fine,” Ava insists, shooing her away.

Beatrice takes exactly one stride away from the bed. “For what it’s worth, baby steps aren’t babying. We started you off with only four feet of concrete, remember? It’s always important to pace oneself, regardless of the exercise.” Her voice softens. “I’ve tried my best to help you with every problem you’ve faced, Ava. I’m not sure why that has to stop now.”

Ava just waits for her to leave.

“Do you mind if I… get on your nerves, again?” Beatrice asks cautiously. “Just to see if your legs’ responsiveness has changed at all?”

“It’s not like I can stop you,” Ava says with a noncommittal shrug.

“Which is why it’s especially important to me that I have your consent.”

Ava decides to look anywhere but at Beatrice. “Fine. Knock yourself out.”

Beatrice nods once and moves the blanket gingerly aside to reveal Ava’s bare leg; Ava watches Beatrice prod her knee, her calf, and then her ankle. “Do you feel any of that?”

Nada.” Ava waits for more poking, but Beatrice just keeps looking at her, and that’s when she feels the first wave. “Whoa,” she mutters, shaking her head to try to clear it, but everything just gets more wobbly.

“Just close your eyes and relax,” Beatrice tells her, and she probably means the words to be comforting, but Ava sees the glint of her tranquilizer ring and only feels nauseated.

Ava leans forward, reaching for the ring as if she has any chance at all of stopping this from happening. “What the fu...?” she slurs, then—

Heavy, dark, nothing.