The first time Beatrice wakes up, the only thing she notices is the smell. As she pulls in a slow inhale through her nose, she is met with stagnant air, old fried food, and the distinct false freshness of sheets that have been washed hundreds of times but still carry the sourness of sweat. If she could, she’d open her eyes to see where exactly she is, but at the moment her eyelids feel glued shut and she doesn’t have the strength to open them. She doesn’t have the strength to do much of anything except remember, for a short moment, the last thing that happened before everything went dark; a searing pain in her side, and a blinding white light. She has just enough presence of mind to think maybe I’m dead, before she slips back into unconsciousness. It’s not until much later that she realizes heaven probably doesn’t smell like fried food and old sweat.
The second time Beatrice wakes up, she decides she is most likely not dead. Dead people don’t get thirsty, and at the moment her throat is so dry and rough it could be used to soften sharp edges of wood. She manages to pry her eyes open, acutely aware of the crust that has formed at the corners of her lids but still unable to lift a hand to wipe it away. She’s lying in a bed with sheets pulled up to her waist. She has a black t-shirt on, which she supposes is not entirely out of the ordinary, but for some reason she was expecting to see her armor. Beatrice rolls her head to the left, looking out the small gap in the closed curtains, and sees a strip of parking lot outside. Suddenly the smells make sense. She’s in a motel room.
Beatrice considers calling out but decides against it. She can’t remember how she got here, or more importantly, who brought her here. It may be smarter to feign sleep until she has the strength to defend herself. She wiggles her fingers, then her toes, taking stock of her current capabilities. Before she can get too far though, her entire body seizes up as a sudden tidal wave of sharp pain erupts from her left side, between her last rib and her hip. It crashes against her whole body and she can’t help the whimper that escapes her scratchy throat. She feels like vomiting but nothing comes of it. Instead, she brings her right arm over to assess the damage. Her fingers reach under her shirt and graze against a hasty first aid job; what seems like several gauze pads taped down on all sides. When she pulls away, the red on her fingertips lets her know she’s bled through them.
Again, for only a moment, she flashes back to a searing pain and a blinding white light, but this time she remembers something else tangentially important. It was a blade that did this to her, though the wielder still remained a mystery. She could, however, remember that she got in the way of the blade on purpose. She sinks back into her pillow and lies there for a moment, blood on her fingertips, body aching from her wound, and wonders why on earth she would do something like that intentionally?
A small groan comes from her right, and it’s then that she finally becomes aware of the body lying next to her. She rolls her head to the right and struggles to hold in a gasp.
She’s lying on her stomach, facing Beatrice, but her eyes haven’t opened yet. Beatrice notices the faint glow coming from under Ava’s sweat-stained shirt and realizes the Halo, or whatever it is, is still working to heal her. But it seems like they’ve been here for hours, and it has never taken Ava this long to heal from something. What could possibly have happened to her?
As she watches Ava’s face and listens to her breathe slowly in and out, Beatrice starts to put some things together. In their fight against Adriel, Beatrice had gotten stabbed, that much is obvious. Now though, she remembers one more thing before the blinding white light. She remembers stumbling and falling into Ava’s arms, remembers looking up at Ava’s tearstained face and thinking there were much worse ways to die. Then whiteness. Then nothing.
Before Beatrice can stop herself, she brings her right hand up toward Ava. She can still see the grime on her cheeks from the explosion in the crypt, can see the trail that her tears carved through it. With a touch as light as a feather, she brushes the back of her knuckle over Ava’s cheek once, twice. Ava starts to stir from the contact so Beatrice pulls her hand away and waits. Slowly, Ava’s eyes flutter open, and Beatrice feels another sudden tidal wave, but this time it’s decidedly not pain.
“Bea?” Ava whispers, her voice so small Beatrice almost misses it.
“Hey,” she replies in a similar whisper. She’s not sure her dry throat will allow her to speak at full volume.
“Where are we?” Ava asks. She makes no attempt to look around, just keeps her eyes steady on Beatrice.
“A motel, I think. I don’t know how we got here,” Beatrice answers honestly.
Ava takes some time to think about that. Beatrice stays silent, watching the gears turn in Ava’s head as she struggles to remember what lead them here. A minute passes before Ava’s brow furrows.
“You were hurt,” she says, and she must remember something specific and terrible because her eyes get wide and her voice gets louder. “You were hurt,” she repeats. Ava’s breathing evolves into something rapid and despairing, and before Beatrice can think of what to do Ava speaks again. “Why? Why would you do that?”
She sounds almost angry and Beatrice can’t for the life of her understand why. It stuns her into silence. She wants to close her eyes so she won’t see the hurt on Ava’s face but she can’t make herself do it. Her lips part and she begins to stumble through some sort of apology, though she doesn’t even know what she’s supposed to apologize for. All she knows is Ava is starting to cry and she wants to make it stop.
“Seriously Beatrice, what the fuck were you thinking?” On the last word, Ava pushes herself up off her stomach, filled with fury and pain and something not too different from heartbreak. They have only a moment to look at each other from this new angle, all wild eyes and heavy breathing, before Ava’s body starts to go slack.
“Whoa,” she gets out, before her eyes fall closed and all the energy drains from her body. She slumps unceremoniously back onto the bed and is unconscious in less than a second.
Beatrice stares in horror, but the longer she looks at Ava the more her eyes start to fill with tears, so she fixes her gaze on the ceiling above and tries to steady her breathing. She suddenly feels incredibly small, trapped here on an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room, her weak, shuddered breaths fighting their way in and out of her chest. She pulls her arms around herself, left arm held tight over her lower ribs, right hand coming up to grab her left shoulder. She can feel herself trembling but she doesn’t know how to make it stop.
What had she done to make Ava react that way? Why was she so angry at Beatrice for getting hurt? They’re warriors, it comes with the territory. Ava knows that. So then why did she look so… betrayed? The thought of causing Ava so much pain fills Beatrice with shame and guilt. She needs to think. She needs fresh air. She needs to get out of here, but the large wound in her stomach prevents her from doing any of that, so she settles for falling asleep.
Beatrice is awoken for the third time by the feeling of tape getting pulled from her skin. She opens her eyes to see Camila in a chair next to her, gloved hands carefully removing the bloody gauze on Beatrice’s stomach. The horrible feelings that plagued her dreams dissipate at the sight of Camila’s soft features and focused gaze.
“You have no idea how good it feels to see you,” Beatrice croaks, throat still dry as sandpaper.
Camila breaks her concentration and rips off the last corner of the bandage. Beatrice winces, but after everything she’s been through, it doesn’t hurt all that much.
“Beatrice! Oh, thank God. We weren’t sure you were ever going to wake up,” Camila says, the words rushing to get out. “Let me finish this and I’ll get you some water.”
Beatrice waits patiently as Camila cleans her wound and covers it with fresh bandages. After she finishes taping it down she says, “Can you turn over? I need to see the other side.”
“The other side? Did I get hit in the back as well?” Beatrice’s brow furrows. The pain was so widespread she didn’t realize she had another wound on her back.
Camila tilts her head. “You don’t remember? One of the Swiss Guard got possessed by Adriel. He stabbed you with his halberd, it went all the way through,” she explained.
Beatrice blinks. She hadn’t remembered that at all. “Did it hit anything important?”
“If it did, you’d probably be dead by now. So I don’t think so,” Camila says with a sort of airy nonchalance that only she could muster at a time like this.
Beatrice turns over like she’s told, only to realize that puts her face to face with an unconscious Ava. She distracts herself by asking, “Did you see it happen? Was I preoccupied or something? I can’t imagine I couldn’t have defended myself, it’s very hard to be taken by surprise by the Swiss Guard.”
“Well he was aiming for Ava. She was focused on Adriel and didn’t notice he was behind her. You got in the way at the last second,” Camila explains.
Suddenly everything makes sense. She recalls Ava’s face from before, the pain and anguish, the frantic what were you thinking? The truth is, Beatrice wasn’t thinking. She saw that Ava was in danger and her body reacted. In hindsight she realizes that Ava would probably be fine if she were stabbed with a halberd. After all, she was shot in the chest with a crossbow bolt and recovered in less than an hour. For a moment it makes Beatrice feel a little stupid until she rationalizes that Ava getting stabbed could have given Adriel the opening to do something much worse.
She watches Ava’s face while Camila replaces the bandage on her back, and she allows herself this moment to really look at what’s in front of her. Her eyes take their time sweeping over the features of Ava’s face; her brow, wrinkled with worry even in her sleep, her lashes, twitching slightly as her eyes move beneath her eyelids, the curve of her nose, her lips, parted slightly in a soft sigh, the smear of dirt across her chin. It becomes clear to her then that it doesn’t matter if Ava will heal, Beatrice will always stand in the way of someone who wishes to harm her, no matter the cost. In her heart she knows this to be one of the truest things she’s ever felt. And it’s terrifying.
“Okay, you can turn back over now,” Camila says, finishing up. “I’ll grab you some water.”
Beatrice shifts onto her back and feels the haze of emotions start to clear. Something about Ava had a way of pulling her in without her realizing, like a riptide pulling an unassuming swimmer out into the open ocean. If she wasn’t careful she’d get lost at sea.
Camila comes back with a cup of water from the bathroom and Beatrice sits up in order to gulp it down.
“I remember a white light after I was stabbed. Was that real?” she asks Camila.
“Yeah. Nobody really knows what happened, but we’re pretty sure it came from her,” Camila nods toward Ava.
“Was there an explosion? She’s done that before, it took a lot out of her.”
“No explosion, just a bright white light. So big and bright that I couldn’t see a foot in front of me. When it finally died down Adriel was gone and all the possessed were back to themselves, either dazed or unconscious. We found you two on the ground in the middle of it all and carried you to the van,” Camila says.
Beatrice remembers something that Camila left out; Ava’s gut wrenching scream that accompanied the white light. She hears it again in her head and the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She reaches for Camila’s hand.
“Thank you,” she says firmly. Camila nods. Her soft smile and unwavering gaze make her response obvious without needing words. They will always be there for each other.
“And Mary? Lilith?” Beatrice asks.
“Banged up, but not as bad as you two. They’re next door, resting. And you should be, too,” Camila says, getting up. “I’ll go find some food, if you need anything just bang on the wall behind you, one of them should be able to hear. This is a very cheap motel.”
Beatrice sinks back down into the bed, and once Camila is gone she turns onto her side to look at Ava once again, ignoring the thudding pain in her gut. For the first time since she woke up originally all those hours before, she feels completely at peace. She is alive. Ava is alive. They made it out of Vatican City. The five of them are okay, and they’re together. It feels like a miracle.
Beatrice feels the riptide begin to pull her in but can’t bring herself to do anything to stop it. She inches closer, overwhelming relief bubbling over and expressing itself in a wayward hand that reaches up to brush Ava’s hair behind her ear. They’re alive. Her hand rests on Ava’s neck, feeling her steady pulse against her palm. They’re okay. Her thumb glides back and forth through the grime on Ava’s cheek. They’re together.
“Feels good,” Ava mumbles into her pillow.
Beatrice panics, pulls her hand away with a sharp intake of breath. “I didn’t realize you were awake,” she says.
Ava looks at her, eyes soft. “You don’t have to be afraid to touch me."
Beatrice decides that’s not true. She is afraid to touch Ava, and she will likely remain afraid, because Beatrice hasn’t felt like this in a long time, not since before she took her vows, and she’s afraid of what it might mean if she lets herself get pulled too far in.
“You weren’t too happy with me the last time you were awake,” Beatrice says in her defense.
“Oh, right,” Ava says. She shifts to mirror Beatrice by lying on her side, and lets out a groan as she does. “Ugh, everything hurts.”
“Do you remember what happened?”
“Sort of. I remember a lot of chaos. Facing off with Adriel. I’m pretty sure I was getting my ass kicked but I didn’t die, so score one for me,” Ava says with a smile. It falters when she continues. “Then I heard you yell behind me. It threw me off because I thought you were further away. And I turned around and you fell into me,” she looks away, “you were bleeding. Like, a lot. I didn’t know people could lose so much blood so fast. And when I looked up at who did it, I saw one of those Swiss Guard soldiers. He looked just as confused as I did,” Ava takes a shuddered breath in. “After that everything gets kind of blurry.”
“I expected as much,” Beatrice says, trying to find the right words to tell her what she did next. Before she does, Ava speaks again.
“He was aiming for me, wasn’t he?”
“And you got in the way.”
Beatrice could fill a book with the answer to that question, but she has a feeling Ava is searching for something in particular. She studies the look on Ava’s face. It’s a look that suggests she already knows the answer, but is waiting for confirmation. Beatrice could say a safe answer, like that’s what we do for each other, but she has been pulled well out to sea by now and something that vague would feel disingenuous.
“Because I couldn’t stand to see you get hurt. Especially if there was something I could do to stop it,” she says eventually.
“Even if it means getting stabbed and almost dying?” Ava’s eyes shine with tears but the corner of her mouth lifts.
Beatrice breaks into a smile. “Even then,” she says, “which you didn’t seem too happy about earlier.”
“I was just scared. I don’t want to lose you.”
“You haven’t. You won’t,” Beatrice says, resolute.
“I know you can’t promise that. But it’s nice to hear you say it,” Ava says.
Ava reaches out for Beatrice’s hand and interlocks their fingers in such a casual motion that Beatrice almost forgets to be afraid. Almost. She can’t help the racing heart, or that ache in the back of her throat that lets her know she might cry soon.
There must be different kinds of bravery. Beatrice has always thought herself brave, for enduring her neglectful parents, for learning how to take care of herself, for fighting against the evil in the world and for protecting her sisters. But Ava’s bravery looks different. Where she first interpreted Ava’s escape from Cat’s Cradle and the shirking of her newfound responsibility as cowardly, she now sees it through a new lens. She understands in this moment that that was Ava identifying what she wanted, reaching out for it, and holding on for dear life. It’s more than Beatrice could ever hope to do. Sure, she’s identified what she wants, but reaching out and holding on? That takes a special kind of bravery, one that she doesn’t have, and as her eyes find their intertwined hands resting between them on the bed, she’s glad that Ava does.
“God, my whole body hurts. Do you have any idea what happened to me?” Ava says suddenly.
“Well I was busy almost dying so I didn’t catch the whole thing,” she smiles when Ava rolls her eyes, “but Camila told me there was a blinding white light, and everyone thinks it came from you. After it faded Adriel was gone and the possession had ended. Nobody knows how you did it.”
Ava considers that for a moment. “I think it had something to do with you,” she says softly.
Beatrice’s frowns. “Me? I was bleeding out in your arms.”
Beatrice is once again stunned into silence. Does Ava know the effect she has on her or is she really just saying everything that comes to mind? Beatrice can’t imagine Ava as the calculating type, but the thought of her making Beatrice feel so loved simply by being so completely honest sends her reeling. The ache in the back of her throat gets harder to ignore, and she blinks several times to keep any tears at bay.
“Do you think Adriel is really gone?” Ava asks.
“No,” Beatrice collects herself, “I think he realized he was underprepared and he disappeared to regroup.”
Ava hums quietly. It seems like the answer she was expecting but her face still drops.
“Does it scare you?” Beatrice asks. “The Halo, I mean. Now that we know it’s not actually a halo?”
Ava laughs. “It scared me way before that. Everything about this scares me. I’ve been constantly terrified since the second this thing was forced on me.”
That’s fair, Beatrice thinks, though she doesn’t know how to respond. After a few moments of silence Ava softens.
“But yeah, I guess. It does scare me. It feels…” Ava purses her lips and averts her eyes. “I don’t know, it feels like I’m suddenly an embodiment of this big betrayal, of his lie. I almost feel like it would be better if we just took it out and destroyed it.”
Beatrice squeezes Ava’s hand reflexively. “Ava, if we do that you’d—”
“Die, I know. That’s why I said I almost. But this thing is evil isn’t it? It came from a devil. What if destroying it is the only way to make things better?” Ava’s voice starts to shake near the end of her question.
“It’s not,” Beatrice says with a confidence she admittedly cannot back up with facts.
“How do you know?”
“The Halo, or whatever it is, is just a tool. The nature of a tool isn’t inherent, it depends on the nature of its wielder,” she tugs on Ava’s hand to get her to meet her eyes. When Ava finally does, she continues. “You’re a good person, Ava. That’s all that matters.”
“If you say so,” Ava sighs.
The ache in the back of Beatrice’s throat starts burning as silence falls. She’s glad there’s nothing else to say because she’s not sure she’d be able to get through it without her voice wavering. By now she’s so far out in the middle of the ocean she has no real hope of making it back to shore, but for now she doesn’t really mind. Maybe that’s another kind of bravery.
Just then, however, Ava pulls Beatrice’s hand up to her lips and places a soft kiss on her knuckles. It’s just enough to tip the scales in Beatrice’s heart that she has kept so carefully balanced her entire life, and her chest starts heaving with barely contained sobs. She curls into herself as the tears pool on the bridge of her nose, then roll off onto her pillow.
Ava looks terrified. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—” she moves to pull her hand away but Beatrice gives her a reassuring squeeze.
“No, it’s not you. It’s just—” It’s the most she can get out before her throat clogs up with everything she’s made herself swallow down. The uncertainty of her future with the Church, her nervousness at losing Ava in Adriel’s tomb, the blindsiding betrayal of Father Vincent, the sheer terror of brushing so closely with death when she has so many sisters worth living for, the overwhelming relief that they all made it out of there alive, the love she feels for Ava, because that’s what it is, she decides. She doesn’t know what kind of love, but she knows with her whole body that that’s what this feeling is. It all comes spilling out and she doesn’t know how to put it in words in a way that Ava will understand.
So she cries, and Ava holds her hand.
The fourth time Beatrice wakes up, she finds their fingers still loosely intertwined. The corners of her lips lift into a soft smile, and she goes back to sleep.