Disclaimer: Religiously not mine.

A/N: This was originally part of the As Deep as the Sky, but grew too big to be appropriate for that project. It has always struck me how, considering the anime makes such a big deal of religion in Valon's flashback, he seems to have lost his faith the rest of the time he's on screen. Plus, he and Mai continue to fascinate me. I think I'm an honest-to-goodness fangirl for them now. Bugger. Yet another occasion of me eschewing popular fandom trends for a pairing nobody else writes. Why do I keep doing this to myself?

Ave Maria

© Scribbler, April 2009.

She was lost in so many different ways,

Out in the darkness with no guide.

I know the cost of a losing hand;

Never thought the grace of God could go so high.

-- Translated from Ave Maria (Bach/Gounod)

"Time to move out."

Mai looked up.

Raphael tossed a cushion at Amelda, who was snoozing on the couch. Amelda reached out and caught the moth-eaten thing before it hit him, tucked it behind his head and then opened his eyes. His gaze wasn't even slightly bleary, even though he'd been sleeping until a few seconds ago. Mai wondered whether that was leftover from a childhood of snapping awake to avoid having a bomb land on you. He'd hissed the truth of his childhood at her the very same day she became his teammate, as if thinking his profound tragedy would drive off her and her little one. Mai had reacted with a level of indifference that would've surprised her before the Oricalchos expunged what little self-consciousness she possessed.

"Where to?"

"Brazil." Raphael thumped on the door to the bedroom. This motel was so cheap Mai half expected it to break under his fist. They could've afforded something better on Paradias's stipend, but this let them fly under the radar. Right now speed and ease of travel were more important than luxury.

"Why Brazil?" Amelda asked, sitting upright without sparing Mai a glance. They were in Bangkok. The question was a valid one.

"Some retired duellist the Oricalchos picked out. World class competitor. Strong soul. Has a thing for underage boys." Another thump. "And knifeplay."

Amelda snorted. Mai was with him. The Oricalchos never chose people who weren't deserving; their souls stained in some deep, distinguishing way that marked them out for divine punishment. Each mission just further justified to her why they did this. Each of them had a need to cleanse the world, and until Dartz ordered them to Domino City, she was content to work out her aggression on regular scumbags and ignore the irritation that she and her Oricalchos Card were being sent everywhere except Katsuya Jounouchi's doorstep.

Raphael banged on the door again. "Valon, come on." His voice never rose above its usual low growl, but he blew air out between his teeth. Without changing his expression he raised a foot and punted the door open.

Valon was on his knees next to the bed. He jumped up like a little boy who'd been caught doing something naughty, and scowled at Raphael with uncharacteristic vehemence. There was a glint of silver in the middle of his chest, which shimmered up to his neck as he moved. Mai was surprised, though she couldn't really characterise why. Valon didn't say anything, which was also unusual. He was definitely the most talkative of them, though amongst this crowd that wasn't saying much, and what he said rarely seemed to have much merit. Valon liked to fill silences even when he was saying the same thing he'd said a thousand times before.

He caught the direction of her gaze as he went past and tucked the necklace back inside his shirt, cursing under his breath like he was embarrassed by it. Mai couldn't understand that either. She didn't ask, though. The less she talked to Valon, the better.

Brazil brought her the answer, and also more questions, when she pulled up at a gas station opposite a church with a familiar looking statue out front. Mai stared at it, wiping sweat from her eyes, until someone coughed behind her.

"Você gostam de alguma gasolina?" asked the attendant.

Mai made gestures that she didn't understand. In addition to Japanese she spoke fluent English, Spanish and French, but no Portuguese. The tutors, nannies and au pairs her parents had employed to raise their daughter hadn't seen a need. Nobody had ever predicted Mai Kujaku, heir to the Kujaku fortune, would cross the border into the kind of poorer society where there would be a need.

"You are English?" asked the attendant.

Close enough. "I can I speak English."

"You would like some gasoline, Senhora?"

Mai indicated that she would. The guys had gone on ahead, Amelda making commenting that her bike's small engine was more hindrance than a useful tool in their fight against evil. Whenever he did acknowledge her existence it was only to snipe at her, as if he resented her presence. Amelda was spiky, like a cactus stuck all over with barbs of bitterness. Raphael was stoically accepting, as he was of everything as long as it didn't interfere with their duty. It was only Valon who seemed to actually want her along – ironic, since his puppyish desire to be near her was the most off-putting part of working for Dartz.

Valon had offered to stick with her when she stopped for gas. Mai had been short with him, and he had gone on with the others with a tolerant shrug. She could probably tell him to bathe in sulphuric acid and he'd react the same way, returning later with the same boyish glee he always reserved for her.

Pathetic, she thought derisively. Amelda might treat her like unwelcome dead weight, but as far as Mai could see it was Valon who had all the marks of the weak link. Why couldn't he be more like Raphael? Raphael kept pretty much everything inside. He had only told her about the shipwreck that took his family because he was the kind of man who laid all his cards on the table the moment he was dealt them.

"You like the statue, Senhora?" The attendant was chatty. Mai bristled, but either she was getting better at hiding it or this guy was oblivious. "Our little town is famous for it. It is our tourist attraction – a symbol of our history. Only a handful of churches in the world use that particular image. You know who that is?"

"The Virgin Mary," she said tersely. Did he think she was stupid or something? Blonde didn't necessarily mean brainless. Mai heard her molars crunch as they ground together and forced them apart.

The attendant wagged a finger. She resisted the urge to snap it off. "Ah, but that version is not just the Holy Mother. That one is Maria Auxiliadora. Our Lady of Christian Help."

"Huh." Shut up.

"Which does not sound very impressive, no? But she has another name to those who keep her close." He leaned toward Mai, as if imparting some great secret. "Many years ago, this town was an outpost in a civil war. It was a very bloody time, but the nuns at the church helped whoever needed ministering on either side. They saved many lives. When the fighting reached here they went on with their work, ensuring an extremely low mortality rate amongst the soldiers. Then they were all killed as traitors by the winning side, and strung up around the edge of town as a warning to those who would challenge the authorities. A tragic story, no?"

"Huh." Go away.

"Perhaps they should have remembered that in our neighbour, Colombia, Maria Auxiliadora is also known as Our Lady of the Assassins."

Mai paused. "It is?" She studied the statue: a woman in a flowing robe holding a small child on her hip, who faced outward and away from her. Mai narrowed her eyes. The child was a little boy. In her hand the woman held a sceptre of some kind, as if keeping it safe for him until he was old enough to hold it himself.

The attendant tried to tell her more about the history of the town, but Mai had stopped listening. She paid and left, zooming up the road until she caught up with the others on the open highway. Their three bigger tanks roared deafeningly, while hers purred. Everything blended into white noise, but she still noticed the change in pitch as Valon eased off on the throttle and dropped back to ride beside her. He cocked a jaunty salute, giving no hint of the anger he'd shown when Raphael interrupted him back in Bangkok. You could almost believe he was incapable of being angry.

Mai spared him more than a passing glance, and for once it wasn't filled with irritation. She couldn't see the necklace, or even the lump of it under his clothes. Valon's posture was one of enjoyment, as if he lived for the open road. Even riding like this, head down and concentrating on not hitting a bump and becoming a bloody smear across the asphalt, everything about him screamed devil-may-care. He was hardly intent enough for 'soldier of the apocalypse' to spring to mind as a job description.

Did he know the double meaning of his necklace? Mai had to admit that, despite spending more time with him than either Raphael or Amelda, she couldn't say a definite yes or no. She knew where she stood with the other two, but suddenly her position on Valon's radar was uncertain – not because the blip that signified her had moved, but because the radar was possibly working on an entirely different system than she'd thought.

When they arrived at their destination she removed her helmet, shook out her hair and, before even allowing him to dismount, demanded, "How did Dartz recruit you?"

Valon blanched. She saw it, if only for a moment. "Well that was subtle."

"Tell me."

His eyes slid left, to where Raphael and Amelda were approaching a high-brow house with big windows and an expensive car in the drive. "Maybe later."

"No." Mai was firm. "Now."

"Now's game time, Mai. You know that. Work before … well, anything." He shot her a grin. It was the same one he'd been shooting her since he found her in an alley and took her to get her pain erased by the Oricalchos: cocky, self-satisfied, and ever so slightly sad.

Mai blinked. She'd never noticed that last part before, not even when he crouched in front of her in the rain and offered her his hand, the way those stupid nuns probably crouched by wounded soldiers. Was she really seeing it now, or was she imagining it based on that necklace and the way his hands had been clasped before he jumped up in that Bangkok motel? The idea that anyone could believe in a benevolent God and still be accepted by the Oricalchos was ridiculous. Their whole motivation for becoming Dartz's soldiers was their exposure to the worst humanity had to offer.


Valon dashed off before she could say another word. For all he kept saying they were alike, and that their misunderstood loneliness made them a matching pair, Mai realised she knew very little about Valon. She'd never wanted to until now. She'd been too focussed on Dartz, the Oricalchos, Malik and Jounouchi to do more than vaguely acknowledge what lay on the fringes of her situation. Of all Dartz's soldiers, Valon was the only one who hadn't volunteered the story of his past. Even Gurimo had told her his miserable tale before Dartz sent him on a series of solo missions so she could take his place in the group.

Valon had been happy about that, she recalled. "You're much better company than that old fart," he'd said, cupping his hand round his mouth like Gurimo could actually hear him, or even cared what a disrespectful upstart like Valon thought of him.

"Mai!" Valon stood by the door, waving to her. "C'mon!" A beam of green light shot through the roof, opened into a circle and settled somewhere inside the house. "Aw, man, they started the party without us." He disappeared through the gaping front door.

Mai thought back to the statue. Maria Auxiliadora. Our Lady of Christian Help. Our Lady of Assassins. The two really didn't match up.

Did they?

Mai felt the touch of the Oricalchos blossoming on her forehead. It was like a cool washcloth on a hot day.

Dartz had promised they were going to clean up the world. Each sacrificed soul was a step on that journey. Nothing else mattered.

Well, except making sure her own demons became steps. What did she care about anything else, as long as that happened? What did she care about swaggering bikers with old grief in their eyes? The revitalising light of the Oricalchos washed through her, soothing her ruffled thoughts and sweeping away her uncertainties. That kind of thing was irrelevant. It was all beside the point, like side-stories that added nothing to the plot of a novel. She didn't need to understand the men she worked with. All she needed to understand was their shared duty, and her own goal.

Mutely, she strode up the driveway and into the stranger's house like she owned the place.