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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.

Chapter Text

Ava doesn’t dream.

The more aware she becomes of how simple and quiet and easy this nothingness is, the quicker she’s pulled out of and away from it, and she keeps her eyes squeezed shut as if her eyelids will shield her from the world.

When she rolls over, purely out of habit, she realizes three things in rapid succession.

One: her clothes and sheets have been cleaned.

Two: she can move her legs.

Three: one of those things makes her feel righteously angry, and the other makes her feel nothing at all.

(She thinks of Beatrice standing at the foot of her bed, watching, waiting.)

Beatrice, who asked permission to touch but not to fucking sedate, who had an entire conversation with her about Ava not wanting any help and completely ignored every fucking word she said, and who refused to allow Ava the one morsel of personal agency she had left.

Her lungs start to heave as she thinks about her unconscious body being maneuvered just to dispose of the soiled linens, and about how bedwetting isn’t nearly as gruesome as boils or dismemberment, and yet Beatrice was so disgusted by that version of Ava that she had to take matters into her own hands.

(When Beatrice had described the support of the Sisterhood, it felt like unconditional love, but now Ava wonders if it just means that someone will always be trying to fix her.)

Her vision blurs and she holds the pillow against her face to muffle the sobs she can feel preparing to burst at any moment; already feels her hands trembling on the other side. Ava remembers her legs and pulls them into her chest, until she’s just a tiny, crying ball of…

What will become of you without me?

Sister Frances killed her (twice), JC ran away from her, and Beatrice… Ava chokes on her own air trying to finish the thought. Something about always needing a caretaker, and that caretaker always—

(“Mommy, I can’t do it.”

“Looks like you almost got it. Just a twist a little harder. Come on, use those big-girl muscles!”

“Help please?”

The faint plastic snap of her mom opening her chocolate milk.

The deafening metallic CRASH of—)

She sobs into the pillow until she sees stars.

 

🜊

 

The only way she stops herself from throwing up is realizing she has nothing to throw up into, and God forbid she makes any more of a mess in this room, in this bed. Instead she dry-heaves her throat raw and cries until there’s not a single drop of moisture left in her face, until her eyes are bleary and everything else is just… numb.

Not numb in the literal paralysis way, but like her whole body is on strike. Even with the Halo working its magic on her spine, and even with her brain thinking about how she could go sit in the corner just for fun or shift the blanket this way or that, nothing translates to actual physical movement. She just stays, and wonders why she isn’t relieved as fuck to have her legs back, and why she isn’t rushing to find Beatrice and tell her that the tranq did a hard reset or something—

And then she remembers that Beatrice sucks and she’s mad at Beatrice and It’s especially important to me that I have your consent and she wonders if Beatrice thought of her plan before or after she said that, but also doesn’t want to know, and she hopes that Beatrice doesn’t check on her ever again because—

“You’re awake.”

Her brain flinches at the sudden intrusion, but it doesn’t translate anywhere outside her skull.

“Ava?”

What, she asks silently, opting to continue staring into space rather than give Beatrice any sort of visible attention.

“How are you feeling?”

Fuck you.

“I’m sorry for the dramatics. But you should know, I can be just as stubborn as you are.” She says it like it’s a joke. Ava doesn’t give a shit. “It’s normal to feel drowsy even after you’ve woken up, but it should wear off soon.”

Is that what this is? Drowsiness? Ava thinks that word doesn’t feel big enough.

“Just wanted to check in,” Beatrice says after a long silence. “I’ll let you rest.”

Is that what she’s doing? Resting? 

Ava thinks that word doesn’t feel tired enough.

 

🜊

 

In the nightmare, she runs.

The highway is dark and empty except for the smoldering wreckage ahead of her, seemingly not getting any closer no matter how hard she pumps her legs.

“Fifty feet,” says Beatrice’s voice in her ear. “Sixty feet. Seventy feet. You’re nearly there, Ava.”

The car still looks so far away. Her lungs are straining. She’s so tired.

“Ava, can you hear me?”

She wants to call out to her mom, to tell her she’s coming, to tell her to hang on, but there’s not enough oxygen.

“What are you afraid of?”

There’s a tiny prick of pain near her ankle, and then she’s falling, and she can’t see the car anymore, and she hears the faintest voice calling her name—

“Ava, wake up.”

She opens her eyes and it’s Beatrice at her side and her skin burning and her lungs heaving and—

“What did you see?” Beatrice asks gently. “Was it Adriel?”

Ava hates both the question and the guess enough to laugh between gulps of air, but there are tears in her eyes too, and Beatrice looks just as overwhelmed by the whiplash as Ava feels.

“Ava,” she murmurs, resting her hand on Ava’s shoulder, “you need to calm down.”

“Or what,” Ava retorts breathlessly, “you’ll tranq me?”

Beatrice removes her hand. “Or you’ll pass out,” she answers sincerely, then pauses. “You’re upset with me.”

Ava says nothing.

“You weren’t being reasonable. I thought that would be the best way to—well, the easiest way—”

“Get out.”

Beatrice freezes midsentence. “Ava…”

Her bottom lip is trembling and she can’t stop the tears from falling down her cheeks. “Get. Out,” she repeats slowly, quietly, and without emotion.

Beatrice swallows hard, nods, and leaves the room.

Ava has no idea how long she cries.

 

🜊

 

She’s decided that she doesn’t deserve this stupid Halo after all.

Because after the second chance at life, after all the training and saving her friends and saving the world, after all this surviving, Ava Silva does not want to move.

She knows that she can, and she’s been twitching her big toe every so often just to keep tabs on the situation, but she hasn’t sat up or rolled over or moved any significant amount at all in… a very long time. Ava imagines The Big Guy somewhere above her, warily checking His watch as He waits for her to do something worthy of His attention, of His love.

To be honest, Sir, she doesn’t fucking feel like it.

Why would she, when everything she’s ever loved has been taken away? Her dad, then her mom. Her body, then her life. JC’s trust in Ava, and Ava’s trust in Beatrice. She just wants it all to stop. No more choices, no more changes, no more pain, no more heartbreak; she’s done.

(She’s so, so tired.)

 

🜊

 

Her foot is stuck in the wall again, but rather than struggle with the plaster or get her phasing to work properly, she just lies on her back. She’s staring at the ceiling, although it’s dark enough that she can’t actually see it, and isn’t sure there’s even a ceiling up there at all.

Mother Superion isn’t here to taunt her, and Father Vincent isn’t here to interrupt, and Beatrice isn’t here to offer comfort and support. Somehow she knows that there’s no one in this whole building, or on the Cat’s Cradle grounds, and she basks in the absolute alone-ness of it all. No one to disappoint. No one to lose. Nothing and nobody.

She can’t believe this is what she used to worry about in the concrete.

There’s a new pressure at her ankle; she glances down her body and realizes the wall is closer than it was before. Before she can react it begins to swallow her calf, inch by inch, until it finally reaches her knee—

Ava awakes with a start and Beatrice’s hands fly away from her leg like she’s been caught doing something wrong.

“I’m sorry,” Beatrice relents immediately. “I tried to wake you. I just wanted to check your—”

“Don’t touch me.” Ava’s still trying to catch her breath as she settles back into her pillow, tries to settle back into the nothingness, but there’s another gentle prod behind her knee. “I said—”

“You can feel that?”

Ava stays absolutely still, like she’s trying to walk past a wild animal without provoking an attack; like maybe if she blends into her environment, the threat will forget about her and go away.

Beatrice rounds the bed, crouches until her face is right in front of Ava’s, and folds her arms along the edge of the mattress. “When did your legs come back?” she asks softly.

The question isn’t accusatory, but the air rushes out of Ava’s lungs and her whole body rattles like she’s lying naked in the Arctic tundra.

Hesitation flickers across Beatrice’s face and then her warm palm is cupping Ava’s cheek. “You’re not in any trouble, Ava.” Her hand drifts to the back of Ava’s neck—no needle this time, just steady, solid warmth—and tears begin to flow across the bridge of Ava’s nose. “Talk to me,” Beatrice begs like she’s sharing a desperate secret. “Please.”

Ava thinks about being stuck in places and about running as fast as she can but not getting anywhere at all, and how that one word that keeps popping up feels like a gigantic spider trying to crawl its way out of her mouth. “Tired,” she finally croaks. Beatrice doesn’t react, doesn’t seem to get it. “Really… tired.”

Beatrice thinks for a moment, and then Beatrice looks angry, and Ava buries her face in the pillow again. “No, no, no, Ava, stay with me.”

“I’m sorry,” she breathes into the fabric.

“Don’t be.” Gentle fingertips brush some hair behind her ear, and Beatrice’s hand rests itself on Ava’s temple now. “This is my fault. A glaring misdiagnosis.”

Ava continues to breathe.

“The Halo isn’t what’s drained, Ava. You are.”

Drained. Empty. Un-working. Useless.

“Broken.”

Beatrice’s fingertips dance around the back of Ava’s ear, then along her jaw, then return to her cheek. “Of course not. You have a very ordinary problem, but not every problem has a clinical solution.”

“Broken,” Ava repeats as Problem echoes through her head over and over again. “Pathetic.”

“Neither,” Beatrice replies calmly, presses her forehead to Ava’s, and gives Ava a few moments to process the contact. “Forget about the OCS,” she whispers. “Forget about Halos and demons and institutional conspiracies. Let’s just focus on being human. Do you think you can do that for me?”

Shaky breath in, shaky breath out. “How?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Beatrice answers her, “but I’d like to stay with you for now, if that’s okay.”

(She’s already said so many words. She doesn’t think she has any more.)

Beatrice seems to sense her communication fatigue. “Raise your middle finger for yes. Keep your hand still for no.”

The finger? That old thing? She knows where that is. Ava focuses all of her draining energy on that middle knuckle, hating how much strain she feels in return, but then she finds her thumb too and uses it to push her middle finger from the other side.

Beatrice’s palm covers Ava’s fist and Ava lets out a breath of relief as her hand goes limp, but then Beatrice’s goes away and she can’t feel her or hear her or see her and Ava’s next inhale sputters so loudly—

And then there’s a hand on her back, and a dip in the mattress behind her, and that endlessly patient voice in her ear, just like old times. “I’m right here with you, Ava. It’s just you and me, until you feel better, for as long as that takes.”

“Waste of time,” Ava chokes out, thinking about the hand on her back and how there are so many other, far more important things it should be doing than babysitting a useless piece of shit. “I’m,” she manages between erratic breaths, “a waste of time.”

Beatrice doesn’t say anything for a long moment, and Ava’s whole head pounds with the possibility that she agrees — “That’s simply not true,” Beatrice declares, her words matter-of-fact. “Your value to God, to the Universe, to me… it has nothing to do with this,” she continues, tracing the outline of the Halo through Ava’s shirt. She grips Ava’s shoulder and slowly repositions her so she’s lying face-up; Ava’s lungs heave and her eyes dart around the room because she feels too vulnerable, hates not being able to shield herself from the world— 

And now that same hand is pressed flat against her chest, over the spot where her heart is pounding inside her rib cage. “This is what makes you valuable, Ava. So long as you live, you matter.”

Each individual word feels like she’s prying Ava open with a crowbar, and she sort of can’t remember how breathing is even supposed to work, and she watches her trembling hands find their way to the one on her chest. Her fingers touch Beatrice’s knuckles, her wrist, her pulse point, and her eyes finally meet Beatrice’s. “I’m—” An extra gulp of oxygen. “I’m still—really mad at you,” she wheezes.

Beatrice nods. “I understand, and I’m sorry for what I did.”

Ava makes her choice, then, planting her hand on the mattress and elbow wobbling something fierce as she props herself up, barely enough to hook her other arm around the back of Beatrice’s neck. Just as Ava’s elbow collapses, Beatrice’s arms bracket tightly around Ava, supporting all of her upper-body weight.

“I’ve got you.”

It’s the first thing Beatrice has said to her since she woke up in this room that she actually sincerely believes—and so Ava lets go.

Not physically—she’s clinging to Beatrice has best she can—but, just for this moment, she lets go of her anger at Beatrice, her frustration with her body, her fear of endless loss and grief, and her millions of questions about what the fuck happened at the Vatican and millions more about what the fuck happens next. The sheer volume of her list feels like the light exploding out of her all over again, except this time it’s just sound and air in her chest, her leg muscles contracting up and in, and Beatrice automatically shifting her grip until she has all of Ava in her arms.

She’s been offered hands, had her arms draped across shoulders, and even been thrown over a shoulder or two, but she hasn’t been held like this since her mom died.

The realization makes her dizzy, makes her nauseous, makes her almost forget about everything else except for that one impossibly unfair fact, but it’s like Beatrice can feel her slipping. While one arm stays wrapped firmly around Ava’s lower back, the other hand drifts up to cradle the base of Ava’s head, Beatrice’s fingers entrenching themselves in Ava’s hair like tree roots buried in soil.

Like maybe, just as much as Beatrice is anchoring her, Ava is also anchoring Beatrice.

“What if,” Ava begins, her throat dry and raspy from crying. “What if it takes forever?”

There’s a careful movement near the top of her head that feels a lot like a kiss. “Then I guess it’ll have to be you and me forever.”

The second thing that Ava sincerely believes.

 

🜊 🜊 🜊

 

She has no idea how long they stay intertwined, or when she falls asleep, or how Beatrice gets them horizontal.

All she knows is that she dreams about long stretches of sunlit road with no broken cars in sight, and that waking up is slow and quiet, and that every part of her can feel some part of Beatrice.

Her mind drifts to faraway places and her hand drifts across the warm body beside her, and she only stays awake long enough to feel a careful movement against her cheek that feels a lot like a kiss.