No smile, unreadable expression, not actively hostile. I can work with that.
Those are the first words Ava thinks about Sister Beatrice. They had met before, of course, that morning, if you can call getting blasted across the room by the untamed power of a holy relic a formal introduction.
"Never went to middle school, but I feel like I just lived it in a matter of seconds."
Beatrice doesn’t meet her gaze, instead staring down at her food. Despite all her training, she has lost her appetite. Grief, she knows. It taints their first conversation.
"Life is coming at all of us pretty hard right now. It might help things along if you didn't treat everything like a joke.
"Yeah, I can't help it. It's my default."
So, that is how their first conversation goes. No names are spoken. They see each other again not long after, under considerably less pleasant circumstances, if their first two interactions were anything to go by. This seemed to be becoming a pattern, even after less than a day. When Beatrice overhears the cruelty that is all but spat from Mother Superion, the words twisting a blade in the Halo-Bearer’s stomach, it takes all of her restraint not to run forward and comfort Ava, or slap the other woman. The latter is an unholy thought, Beatrice knows, but she knew that God would sooner forgive her for thinking such a thing and not acting on it than He would forgive Mother Superion from saying such things in the first place.
It is nobody’s place to judge another; that is between them and God, and Beatrice knows perhaps better than anyone the extent to which words can wound, perhaps even more so that any blade.
Bitterness radiates off the Mother as she walks past her out of the room. Even understanding the context of her words, knowing her own tainted history with the Halo, does not lend her any favours in Beatrice’s eyes. Only then does she step forward, just as Ava tips on the balls of her feet as if her knees are about to buckle. Beatrice places a hand on the younger girl’s shoulder, steading her. For a few seconds Ava does not react, but she then folds into Beatrice’s shoulder like origami, sobbing into her habit. It makes Beatrice uncomfortable at first, for there are only a handful of the other sisters (one less now, she thinks) who she truly trusts to this extent, yet she grants Ava the space between her arms willingly. She wishes that someone had been there to hold her like this when she needed it most. As they stand there, Beatrice holding them both up, Ava’s ribs rattle against her, fighting a losing battle to force oxygen into her lungs. When Ava finally pulls away, the way her lips quiver and fold around words of apology feel all too familiar.
Yet, Ava does not say her name.
In fact, the first time Ava says Beatrice's name out loud is in a some far flung cave in the middle of nowhere, half a day's walk or so from the quaint town of Ronda. To say it had been a rough day would've been the understatement of the century; she'd been attacked by a Tarask, been saved by Lilith and trekked what could only be described as an unholy distance through rocky mountains. Oh, and been kicked off a cliff. All in the day of a Warrior Nun, she supposed.
"Beatrice called me a bitch," Ava tells Mary, who sits on the opposite side of the fire with her injured leg outstretched in front of her.
Well, she didn't quite use those words. Ava is paraphrasing. Beatrice is too polite to use such foul language, but the implication had been there. It isn’t as if it is a lie, either. Beatrice is many things, but a liar is not one of them. Thou shalt not lie. Oddly enough, she and Ava are alike in that respect.
I think you're thoughtless and self-centred. But dishonest? Beatrice had shaken her head. She and Ava had shared a moment after that, or what they would come to think of as a moment; they held each other’s gaze for a little too long, and Beatrice’s voice was soft when she asked what Ava was thinking. To Ava’s surprise, she had told her a little of her past, in the hope that allowing herself to be vulnerable would comfort her.
I wasn’t falling into line, so they shipped me off to Catholic boarding school. I guess it kind of stuck.
There’s more to it than you’re telling, Ava observed.
There’s always more, Beatrice had said quietly, her face half-basked in shadow.
Those three little words carried more weight than Ava would realise for a time. After hearing Mary's story, those words finally begin to ring true. But as realisation dawns, Mary winds Ava up the wrong way, landing her on her back in the dirt.
Getting closer, Mary thinks.
Ava can think of several colourful names for Shotgun Mary that night, but Sister Beatrice was still just Beatrice then.
Being in Ronda, surrounded by people who clearly care so deeply for one another, Ava comes to realise just how much she doesn’t know how to do family, or even friends. She hasn’t had much real-life experience of either.
“And you don’t want to help them.” Mateo doesn’t pose it as a question, but as an observation.
For the first time Ava finds herself hesitating. No doesn’t quite feel like the truth anymore, but the hesitation still makes her sound like a bitch. She thinks of Sister Beatrice then, and their first conversation, as she watches the sunrise breathe life into the town and the valley that stretches out far below them towards the horizon.
It’s not all about you.
When Beatrice hears Ava say her name for the first time, it’s an exclamation of Beatrice is a badass! Not quite how Beatrice had envisioned (not that she had been thinking about it). Ava has blood streaming from her nose, likely broken, staining her teeth in a way that would be comical were it not for the very real threat of Sister Crimson.
Is that what she looks like out of her habit and wimple?
Naturally, as seems to be the case whenever Ava reappeared, all goes to shit a few moments later. Sister Crimson grabs one of Mary's discarded shotguns and for an awful moment it looks like Beatrice’s lesson in comradery is about to backfire. Crimson’s finger is hot on the trigger when Ava leaps forward, unsure of what she intends to actually do, driven only by instinct. The Halo burns under her skin, and before Sister Crimson can even register that the Halo-Bearer has moved, she is flung across Shannon's bedroom with no more care than a rag doll and knocked unconscious. Beatrice, on the other hand, has experienced such an outburst of Ava’s abilities before, just a few days ago, and braces herself this time.
There is no time for Beatrice to process that Ava had just saved her life when temporary paralysis turns Ava’s limbs to stone. Thankfully, this is short lived enough for Ava to later draw her sword when they find themselves surrounded by Duretti’s armed rejects, yelling I will kick the ever-loving shit out of you because I am the goddamn Warrior N-
Then she gets shot in the chest with a crossbow, stumbling into Beatrice and Mary’s arms (again). Beatrice rips the arrow out of her, tossing it onto the stone without any warning, but she knows that it’s the only way the Halo can properly heal her. Perhaps Ava should have thought twice about using God’s name in vain in a house of worship. Maybe then she wouldn’t have been shot in the chest. Maybe. Probably not.
Jesus Christ, Ava thinks as they bundle her into the back of the van and make a screeching getaway from Cat’s Cradle. It’s not even midday. Is there not a limit of how much shit one group of people can have thrown at them in a twenty-four-hour period?
As Camila and Beatrice attempt to stem the bleeding, Camila is the first to notice it. She can always read Beatrice's emotions through her eyes, the changes in her gaze nuanced but plain to see by those who had taken the time to learn her. Ava, meanwhile, is an open book and wears her emotions on her sleeve, but it is the way she smiles specifically at Beatrice, and not Camila (at least not like that), that gives it away. Ava smiles at Beatrice like she is the brightest light in the room, even in the shockwaves of a crisis, even after she's literally been shot, and is bleeding profusely.
These idiots, Camila thinks.
Sometime later Camila calls her fellow sister Bea, out of habit, with Ava still in earshot. Ava’s seeing several new sides to Beatrice today; Beatrice the Badass, Beatrice in Civilian Clothes, and finally Bea. But Ava hasn’t earned the privilege of her calling that yet. She’s still just Beatrice.
I’m sorry for your pain.
Don’t be. Because now we get to tap into yours.
"This wall is your fear, it's your deepest pain. Why can't you get through it? What's stopping you?"
This is what having cement poured down your throat would feel like, Ava thinks. The stone is forcing its way through every conceivable space in her being, between every bone, every fibre, every atom. Pushing harder and harder, squeezing the oxygen from her lungs, crushing her organs; clutching her heart in an iron fist and splitting her skull into more than two. Suffocating her. Is this how Atlas felt when he carried the weight of the earth?
"I don't have enough energy!" Ava exclaims.
"That's not it."
"Yes it is, Beatrice!"
Still just Beatrice, but angry this time. That's a new one.
"That's a physical limitation. It's not what's in your soul," Beatrice tells her.
"Yes, it fucking well is! Because if I drain the Halo I go back to being paralysed."
"That's what you're afraid of.” Beatrice’s words are softer than Ava expects. “Paralysis."
"That's not what scares me.” Ava’s voice on the other end of the comms is smaller now, seemingly further away. “What scares me is being alone. Abandoned in some sick bed with no one to… With no one."
"But that will never happen,” Beatrice reassures her. “It wouldn't matter if you were quadriplegic, festooned with boils or a talking head in a bag. You would still have us."
The you'd still have me goes unspoken.
"And we will never leave you."
"You mean that?" Ava asks.
"You know I do."
Ava has never had anyone stay for her willingly before. Sister Frances had been her caretaker, but she’d made every day of her life a living hell (and killed her). Diego had been her friend, and the closest thing she’d had to family after losing her mom, but that wasn’t quite the same. JC had been willing when he only knew half the truth and ran after seeing the Tarask (not that she can blame him really). But here Beatrice is, on the other side of the stone telling her that, despite everything, they will stay; not just out of circumstance, or duty (though it may have been at first) but because they care.
Ava goes quiet. She believes her, she does. For a moment the silence alarms Beatrice, fearful that she’s just lost her. A sense of powerlessness washes over her. She says Ava’s name, but then the tracker begins to move.
“Sixteen, crossing seventeen. Eighteen… nearly there. Nineteen…”
Ava stumbles out of the stone a moment later and never quite gets her footing, falling to Beatrice's arms (again).
This really is becoming a habit.
"You made it!"
Beatrice cradles her face like she is the most precious thing in the world, and revels in Ava's relief. They are only just beginning to learn what Ava is truly capable of if she were just to believe in herself.
"Only thanks to you."
The look in Beatrice's gaze shifts then, a candle flame flickering into life. A part of her that none of the other sisters know, not even Camila (although she knows Bea well enough to have inferred). Ava feels the shift in herself, too, as Beatrice brushes her thumb across her cheek. Beatrice's eyes dart to Ava's lips for a split second before she catches herself and coughs.
It seems fitting then that on the other side of twenty feet of stone, in the long-forgotten depths of the Necropolis beneath the Vatican, the first word Adriel hears Ava say is Beatrice. The first word he hears spoken by someone other than himself in many millennia is Beatrice.
You would not say the name of just anyone in the suffocating darkness of a purported angel’s tomb. Adriel thinks he knows Ava’s weakness then, before he has even revealed himself to her.
He is wrong.
It all goes to shit. Of course it does.
“He’s no angel; he’s a devil.”
They stand in the courtyard when screams of bystanders alert them to Adriel’s presence. As he strides towards them, and citizens are tossed aside like rag dolls into the dust, time itself slows.
Adriel does not flinch as Father Vincent approaches him, in fact he barely looks the man in the eye even when he addresses him as master. Instead, Adriel’s thunderous glare is fixed on Ava and she can almost see the fires of hell burning behind his eyes. Vincent carries on talking as four other nuns surround the Halo-Bearer; sisters of the Order of the Cruciform Sword, Adriel knows. He whispers in Vincent’s ear, keen to get his lapdog out of his way. His words have the desired effect, disarming whatever fight the man had left in him as he backs away and cowers in the shadows. Then the devil steps aside and approaches the sister warriors, slowly, giving him time to analyse.
Which one of you is Beatrice? he wonders. Is it the black woman with the braids, and shotguns holstered at her hips, whose eyes flicker to the ground momentarily in heartbreak? Or could it be the small girl next to her with the crossbow? The stoic one with the bleeding cut on her cheek? Or… the taller woman at the end, hair streaked with grey, and blood splattered across her face?
It is the latter who steps towards him, after three of them have to hold the first woman, Mary, back. He reasons it likely isn’t her either, she who has been to the other side, suspecting that Beatrice would not leave Ava’s side. That leaves two.
After they think they have knocked him down, Adriel summons a swarm of wraith demons who possess the citizens around them, rising an army of hell against the five warriors. They put up a good fight, but soon they become overwhelmed with the taken. Adriel’s ears prick up when Ava calls out the name of the girl with crossbow. Camila.
That only leaves one.
Adriel weaves between the possessed so he can grab the last of warriors who is yet to be named, trapping her in a choke hold, crushing her windpipe. To his surprise he feels a deep-rooted darkness in her, lingering at the very edges of her soul. Her inner turmoil is almost always well contained, caged in a Pandora’s box in some dusty corner of her consciousness, but as she struggles against him, almost succeeding in unbalancing him, and the weakness of hypoxia begins to overcome her, her mental fortifications begin to crumble. As Adriel coaxes the darkness out from within her, she whimpers, powerless, and he whispers to her the words he knows will hurt the most.
“You’re just not good enough.”
As he commands a nearby wraith to possess her, his actions have the desired effect on Ava, confirming his suspicions. The way she screams Beatrice is nothing short of harrowing. But he doesn’t anticipate what happens next.
The Halo burns brighter than any of them have ever seen, the accompanying ringing ear-splitting. Ava charges towards the devil with a rage hotter than the sun, her form framed by blinding white light and the blue of the divinium sword burning. Ava supernovas, throwing a shockwave across the courtyard that leaves no one standing and rips the wraiths from their hosts in a mass exorcism. The eruption of power renders Ava wholly incapacitated, sprawled unmoving and unconscious a few steps away from Beatrice, who crawls towards her the moment her vision clears, unable to stand.
When Beatrice reaches Ava, she finds her cold to the touch and barely breathing. She sees the warmth slipping away from her lips. Adriel and Vincent were nowhere to be found.
The Halo does not heal Ava as it should as they make a getaway from the Vatican in a stolen van. Lilith breaks every speed limit there is until the city lights grow small in the distance, while Camila tends to Ava as best she can in the back. Mary nurses a head wound whilst Beatrice’s leg bounces up and down anxiously. The usual warmth that radiates from Ava’s back, even when at rest, is absent and without any major visible injuries, no blood or entry wounds, they begin to fear the worst. Ava grows colder and colder, her breaths shallow, but to everyone’s surprise she starts mumbling Beatrice’s name.
“Bea?” Camila says nervously. “I think she’s asking for you.”
Only when Beatrice cradles Ava’s head in her lap and says her name does the Halo begin to glow softly. Only then does the colour start to return to Ava’s cheeks, blood to her lips, warmth to her skin. Her breathing grows stronger with every breath, her countenance less pained. Beatrice can’t help but bury her head into Ava’s neck and sob.
Mary moves forward and places a hand on Beatrice’s shoulder. “I think she’s gonna be okay, she just needs time.”
Beatrice is only bemused, relieved beyond measure, but none the less perplexed. “I don’t understand how… why?”
"The Halo is tied to her emotions, and that link is perhaps stronger than with previous Halo-Bearers,” Camila muses. “I can’t help but wonder if…”
“If the prospect of having lost you was too much to bear.”
“I don’t understand.”
“What she did back there, it was to save you," Mary tells her. "She drained the Halo and lost consciousness before she could tell if you had survived. It's you."
"What is me?"
"From reading a lot of the journal entries, it seems that every Halo-Bearer has a person whom they love more deeply than anyone else. That person is their anchor. Someone who keeps them grounded. Sometimes they have been a fellow sister, a teacher."
“Sometimes a lover,” Mary adds, her voice cracking on the last word. She steels herself before continuing, biting back her own tears. "It was you who helped her learn to phrase through twenty feet of stone. It wasn't me, or Camila, and it certainly wasn't Lilith. It was you who went down into the Necropolis with her. It’s always been you. That means something."
“You helped her in Ronda,” Beatrice tries to reason. They’ve all helped her one way or another. Lilith had sacrificed her life for Ava.
“I did, but you and I both know that’s not the same.”
Mary and Camila get up to join Lilith in the front and Beatrice almost begins to protest, but is silenced.
“Ava needs you,” Mary tells her. “And I think you need her, too.”
Everything after that had passed in a blur, the only constant being Ava. Beatrice isn’t sure in which safe house they end up crashing in for the night, somewhere in the depths of the countryside. She doesn’t remember crossing a border, but that’s not saying much. She isn’t sure how they get Ava into the house, isn’t sure how it is decided that it is best for her to be within arm’s reach of Ava at all times. Isn’t sure how they end up sharing a bed. Isn’t sure how she slept so well and wakes feeling refreshed for the first time in a long time, despite everything that happened.
Until she realises that she and Ava are holding each other, wrapped in a cocoon of tangled sheets. She should want to leap away, recoil from the Halo-Bearer, but she doesn’t. Instead her hold remains just so, allowing herself this moment. Just for a little while, she promises herself.
When Ava wakes, the conversation is tearful.
“I thought I lost you.”
“You didn’t,” Beatrice reassures her. “I’m right here, we all are. As I promised, remember?”
They share a bed the following night as well and wake up together again. That’s when it happens.
“G’morning, Bea,” Ava mumbles without opening her eyes, her voice heavy with the remnants of sleep. She presses her nose into the side of Beatrice’s neck, pulling her closer.
“Good morning, Ava.”
Beatrice presses a kiss into Ava’s forehead, who lets out a contended hum. They were going to be okay, somehow. Maybe far from now, but they would be. They all would be.
Searching for oneself is a journey of a lifetime. Life is what happens in between.
Ava learns much later, many years later in fact when she is writing her wedding vows, that Beatrice’s name means bringer of joy. She thinks that sums it up pretty well.