Okay, so I lied, and this isn't the last chapter. There is one more after this one, already started, with a title and everything. So, thanks for sticking with me/this. Hopefully it/you is still going strong.

Chapter 6- Survival

It was amazing, Leon mused distractedly as a punch from Krauser knocked him against a far wall and drove all the air from his body, how much a simple emotion could be powerful enough to keep you on your feet, even allow you to fight when your stomach felt like it was attacking itself, your head pounded in an alarming counterpoint to your pulse and your vision was shaky at best.

Leon threw himself forward with a hard punch that was deflected as he expected, but the tip of his knife managed to catch a glancing blow on his former comrade's arm.

Like now, he thought, anticipating the retaliating strike but going down hard nonetheless, tasting blood in his mouth. If I didn't hate this bastard so goddamn much— he lashed out with a violent kick, buying himself enough time to struggle to his feet— I'd probably be dead by now.

Krauser leapt forward and Leon braced himself to meet him, knives sparking together, blood blossoming between them. Leon felt the warm heat of it wash over his arms and hands, unknowing and uncaring if it was his.

The realization that it was Krauser, his former comrade-in-arms, now a traitor possibly working for the company Leon hated above all others, who was responsible for bringing Ashley into this mess had filled Leon with a white-hot rage he wasn't sure he'd ever experienced before. It made him almost oblivious to the pain racking his body, to the blood spattering his clothing, to the dead body of Krauser sprawled glassy-eyed and openmouthed at his feet.

Leon stood there gasping for a moment, adrenaline coursing through his veins like an electrical current. He knew he should feel something about the murder of his former comrade, but with the hate and anger slowly leeching out of him he only felt empty, his body humming with a faint buzz, like drinking beer on empty stomach.

Leon thought he might have passed out then for second or two, though he realized with disconnected surprise that he couldn't fall over because he was suddenly already sitting down. Blank confusion set in, followed quickly by the clutching hands of panic; he didn't know where he was, what he was doing there, or why he was doing it.

Fragments of speech from his fight with Krauser filtered back to him, Krauser shouting "What is it that you fight for, comrade?" and Leon answering "My past."

He may have repeated the words aloud then. They sounded right and solid, and he knew they meant something. "My past," Leon said to himself, deftly twisting his body so he could empty the meager remains of his stomach onto the unforgiving metal floor; mostly just stinging acid laced with dirty ribbons of blood. "My past."

Images were flashing through his head like a scratched DVD, skipping from scene to scene. Arriving in Raccoon City, eager and full of woefully inadequate determination; arriving in Spain, grim and full of comically misplaced confidence. Moaning creatures with exposed brains and rotting skin. Spitting villagers with glowing eyes and filthy clothes. Meeting Ada for the first time, feeling awed and amazed and aroused; seeing her again, feeling rueful and jaded and cold. And a little aroused. Watching her fall; recognizing her gun; tracing her lips; flinching at her touch.

Then it was Claire, bloody hands loading a shotgun while her mouth curved into something like a smile; calloused hands on his sweat-drenched skin while her eyes screamed with fear; shaking hands on the controls of the train while she intoned reassurances to Sherry, him, and herself. Claire's voice on the phone, her take-out containers in the trash, her spot on the sofa.

The images hurt and Leon tried shutting his eyes or else opening them before realizing that he couldn't tell the difference, everything remained dark. Feelings and ideas began to attack him, slick and smothering; murder, hate, guilt, self-pity, self-loathing, and the frantic, desperate, consuming need to disbelieve. . .

Another image suddenly pierced through the deepening gloom in Leon's mind like a ray of pure winter sunlight, cool and clear. It wasn't a particularly special image, not a memory of a great moment nor a recollection of a stunning epiphany. It was simply the vague feeling of a head resting trustingly on his shoulder, a warm hand slipped into his own, and unclouded hazel eyes blinking slowly closed.

Ashley. Her name came back to him, along with the context of the image. It was the first time they had stopped for a rest. Though she was finding it hard to put one foot in front of the other, Ashley had blanched at Leon's suggestion of stopping for the remainder of the night. Her panicked pleading to keep moving had turned quickly into exhausted, terrified hysterics and Leon had sat her firmly next to him and held her hand and spoke soothingly to her about any insignificant thing he could think of; the latest movie he'd heard was good, the way his friend's newfound allergy to dairy didn't stop him from ordering a milk shake every time he went out to eat and developing a spectacular skin rash he'd bitch about for weeks, the time his pipes burst and flooded his apartment with ice cold water. Eventually Ashley calmed down enough to smile a little and participate some in the conversation, then all the tiredness she'd been denying hit her at once and she'd dropped off mid-sentence, head falling on Leon's shoulder, breathing steady and even.

He'd looked at her, nestled obliviously against him like a cat or a small child, and had thought, This is why I'm here.

Sweet and pure, Ashley was the embodiment of everything Leon fought for. The reason he'd joined the police force in the first place, one of the main reasons he returned after Raccoon City, was to protect people like her from all the horrors he knew existed in the world, horrors that only seemed to grow every day.

This thought finally brought Leon back to his senses, and he realized he'd been lying on the blood-soaked metal floor next to Krauser's body for who knew how long. He was covered in cold sweat and small shudders were chasing each other through his body, but he was able to stand, a sense of purpose filling him like strength.

He had become a police officer to protect people like Ashley. He had gone through months of training to become a special agent to protect people like Ashley. He had come to Spain, fought Ganados, watched Luis die, stood up to Ada, all for the sake of protecting Ashley. And now she had been taken from him, taken for a third time to some where he couldn't protect her, couldn't defend her innocence while secretly drinking it greedily in like a recovering alcoholic vicariously watching other people get drunk. Ashley had been taken from him when the only thing that kept him sane anymore was protecting her. Her own safety aside, he was going to do everything he could to get her back or he himself wasn't going to make it out alive.

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He found Ada before he found Ashley. He didn't know what to feel about her anymore. He was too tired to feel anger or betrayal, too disenchanted to feel hope or affection. Then Las Plagas took over and he didn't feel anything at all until Ada plunged a knife into his leg and the sharp pain brought him back to his senses.

He retched once, but with nothing to bring up it turned into a painful cough, and he was able to croak, "I'm sorry."

Ada just looked at him, an unreadable expression on her face while her hands unconsciously massaged her throat. "We have to get that parasite out of your body," she said at last.

Leon tried to manage a nod, but his throat was so swollen that every movement sent waves of pain through him. "I have to rescue Ashley," he said.

"We should split up then." Ada continued to look at him, blinking almost bemusedly. "You. . . she means a lot to you, doesn't she?"

Leon wiped blood from his mouth and met her gaze, trying to focus enough to formulate an answer to her question. He couldn't quite read the expression on Ada's face— confusion? contempt? worry? hurt?— so he decided to answer truthfully.

"Yes, she does."

Ada nodded once, tight and sharp, though her eyes looked warmer than Leon could remember seeing them in a long time. "Okay," she said, then turned around and disappeared into the deepening dusk, red dress swaying like an army standard.

Leon pressed on, fighting Ganados and his own body until finally, finally he entered a room, saw Saddler, then saw Ashley and nothing else mattered. He hardly noticed Saddler's attack, didn't react to Ada's sudden presence, couldn't think of anything but getting to Ashley. Cursing wildly he worked the controls with shaking hands, hands that suddenly held Ashley's, and as much as he wanted to hold her and touch her to draw a confirmation of life from her there was no time. They ran for the exit and he looked for Ada, catching her eye and trying to let her know. . . he was grateful and he was sorry and he was sick and he was dying—

Ashley tugged him from the room, and they stumbled down a hall. Her eyes were bright and her breathing even, and she was supporting Leon as he mumbled directions and tried to remember what right and left meant when the whole hallway was blurred and shaking. Ashley shouldn't be forced to be strong one; she shouldn't be holding him up; she shouldn't be the one urging them to keep moving when he stumbled and went down—

She screamed once as a Ganado lurched around the corner towards them, body jerking erratically from Las Plagas already worming a hole through it's neck. With a strangled yell, Leon yanked her behind him and surged to his feet in the same movement, firing an entire clip from his gun into the Ganado, knocking it to the floor and making very sure it would never get up.

Then he turned to Ashley, and with ashen skin and eyes so red the overabundance of wetness in them looked like blood he fell to his knees at her feet.

"Ashley." His tainted lips struggled to form her name. Standing above him, pale and beautiful, she looked like the image of some sort of gloriously fractured angel. His next words were drawn out like a knife from a stab wound. "I'm sorry."

"Oh, Leon." Ashley lowered herself to his level. The symbolism of the act was not lost on Leon and he began to thrash, trying to get her to rise. Ashley placed her hands on either side of his face, stilling him with the steady stare of her warm hazel eyes. "None of this is your fault," she whispered.

He twitched again, trying to protest, trying to stand, trying to be the protector she needed him to be, but she held him still.

"It's not your fault," she repeated. "And we're going to get out of this." Her hands slid from his face to around his back and she hugged him tightly, her lips against his ear. "Luis' laboratory is near here, Leon, and it's operational. We can get Las Plagas out."

She pulled back and her eyes were filled with something so bright it seemed to burn into Leon, raging through his insides like an inferno, electrifying him like a piece of metal stuck into a socket. It took him a few long seconds of shaking, gasping awe to recognize what it was.

Hope. Glorious, shining hope. Ashley sparkled with it like a diamond in the sun. The sight of it was so wrenchingly beautiful Leon felt his breath catch and his heart stop. Then when Ashley leaned forward and brushed him with lips that were smiling, he felt it start again with a painfully exquisite jolt.

He pushed his lips against Ashley's, stealing her breath with a deep, soul-searching kiss. When he finally pulled back, he was able to hold her gaze without wavering.

"Let's go," he said.

And then they were up and moving; Ashley pointing the way and supporting Leon, his arm slung across her shoulders and their hands entwined, while Leon fought off Ganados and the darkness he couldn't bear to return to now.

After what surely was a couple of long, twisted years they reached a plain gray door with a fading plaque reading
Laboratory
Luis Sera

It seemed far too anticlimactic to Leon, that their moment of salvation should be found in a room hardly different from any of the others in the run-down complex. The science equipment that set the room apart looked as though it hadn't been used in years; both Leon and Ashley grimaced at the sight, but Leon stepped resolutely forward.

"I'll go first," he said, his attempt at suppressing a cough turning it into a wet splutter. He limped his way to the closer chair and with a tremendous effort pulled himself into it. Ashley hovered anxiously nearby, hands fluttering between Leon and the controls but not touching either.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

His position was highly uncomfortable; the angle of his head pressed on his neck and made him feel like he was suffocating. Still, he ground out a reasonably assured, "Yes."

"They gave me a shot before, something to suppress Las Plagas. . ." Ashley wasn't giving up, hazel gaze tight on Leon. "Maybe it's in here, and we could give it to you and then get to a real medical—"

"No time," Leon groaned, his body shuddering under a sudden wave of pain and dizziness. His vision blurred, making Ashley's frantic face glow like a faraway star. "If this doesn't work for me then you'll know, and you'll still have a chance to get out—"

"I don't want to get out without you." Leon could hear the tears beginning in Ashley's voice, and her hands finally settled on his shoulders. "I couldn't."

"Ashley." Her pleading voice and gentle touch were starting to break Leon's resolve. Another shudder went through him; his control was slipping. Remembering what happened to Ada, he spoke with as much command as he could manage, while also trying to be as gentle as possible. "Please, sweetheart, push the goddamn button."

Unable to hold back a sharp, tearful giggle at Leon's utterly mixed words and tone, Ashley removed her hands from his shoulders. He let out a sigh, thinking she had moved away and he could relax just a little, then he found her lips on his.

The kiss was chaste and sweet with an underlying hint of fear and desperation. It tasted of sugar and almonds mixed over the bitter smack of coffee. It was everything Leon thought of Ashley; it was her essence contained in a single kiss. She pulled away after only a moment, moving her lips to Leon's cheek instead and whispering,

"I love you."

Then before Leon could answer, before he could even think, she was at the controls and the machine was whirring and a fierce pain ripped through his entire body. His head was exploding while his body was imploding, he was disconnected, or maybe hyper-connected, he was sinking while flying, gasping while suffocating, drowning while being sucked dry.

A sudden flashback lurched its way to the front of his mind; a grizzled older man staring down at the mangled body sprawled before him, raspy voice saying callously,

"Only way to stop 'em is shoot 'em in the head. Or else take it clean off. Gotta ruin the brain, see? It's the only thing keepin' them going now that their heart's stopped."

The pain tore at Leon again and he spasmed, feeling one, two, three pulses slam through his body; whether it was his blood or something else he couldn't tell. His vision went white with spots of black bursting like fireworks, and he thought he couldn't possibly have died but done something much worse.

Another second of sheer agony and it was over. The sudden absence of pain felt almost like a physical blow in itself, and for a long moment Leon could do nothing but gasp and twitch. Gradually, he became aware of a small hand clinging tightly to his own, and after a few deep breaths he managed to open his eyes and find Ashley's face. It was very close, it's expression an all-too-familiar one of frantic tearfulness bordering on nausea.

"How do you feel?" Ashley asked anxiously.

Leon took a moment to fully appreciate the sight of her hazel eyes wide with worry, her lower lip snagged between even white teeth, her pale skin flushed from the tension.

"Wonderful," Leon answered. A beautiful smile of relief spread across Ashley's face, but she turned back to the machine before Leon had a chance to reach for her. Her fingers stabbed hesitantly at a few buttons, then she let out what sounded like a long-held sigh.

"It says you're clear," she reported, thrilled and triumphant. "No more parasite."

Leon slid from the chair with a groan, his body weak and aching but feeling more whole than it had almost since his arrival. He moved to stand behind Ashley, looking at the controls, unable to keep his hand from tracing a slow path up her arm to her shoulder.

She shivered lightly, then pulled away. "My turn," she said.

"Right." Leon could understand that she was nervous to undergo a procedure which she had just watched turn out to be rather painful, but there was more to the sudden wariness of her gaze and the limpness of her hand as Leon helped her onto the chair than that.

Before she had pressed the innocently blinking Y button to start the procedure, she had told Leon she loved him. He could see tiny hints of rejection and embarrassment beginning in Ashley's eyes, and though he despised causing her to feel two negative emotions she had yet had little cause to feel in Spain, he couldn't repeat her sentiments to her. Not there. Not then. All he could do was take her hand and bring to his lips, kissing it twice with a prayer and an apology in between.

Then he hit the button and Ashley screamed.

It was a short cry of surprise more than pain, but the sound tore at Leon nonetheless. He held tight to Ashley's hand, flinching at every miniscule toss of her head and every gasp that left her mouth. Watching her go through the procedure was far worse than going through it himself, though it was a small consolation that hers didn't seem quite as bad.

When the machines powered down and the screen blinked to a simple Procedure Complete. Repeat scan for parasites? Y/N. Leon hit Y and after a few agonizing moments in which he hardly noticed Ashley's hand slipping from his, the screen read Scan complete. No parasites detected and he took what felt like his first real breath in years.

"Clear?" Ashley asked, sitting up with only a small wince.

"Clear," Leon confirmed. He and Ashley looked at each other for a brief moment, both a little wide-eyed and breathing irregularly. Then Leon reached out tentatively and laid a hand on Ashley's cheek. He wasn't accustomed to touching people in such an intimate and gentle manner, but with Ashley it felt right. It felt easy. Far easier than what he wanted to say.

He began with the highly original "Ashley—" but she stopped him, putting her own hand to his cheek, just as shy and unsure and somehow making it all okay.

"I know, Leon," Ashley said quietly. She managed a small smile, warming the sadness in her hazel eyes to bittersweet. "I understand. It's. . . it's not me, or you. It's all of this—" she took her hand from his face to wave it at the room, the feeble gesture somehow managing to encompass the whole complex and experience of Spain as well. "It's everything that's happened here and that happened before, in that other city. And that other woman—"

"This is not about her," Leon had to interrupt, brushing a thumb across Ashley's cheek for emphasis.

"I know," Ashley said again. The smile was back, and she placed her hand over Leon's. "You're in survival mode. You have to be, or we wouldn't be alive."

"I guess that's something then," Leon replied, a very halfhearted attempt at a joke to disguise his mixed regret, relief, and profound gratitude that Ashley was completely right, completely comprehending. He slid onto the chair next to her and drew her into his arms. Ashley settled against him with comfortable familiarity, like a key fitting into a lock. Both of them shut their eyes— though Leon, still in survival mode, kept a hand firmly on his gun— and took deep breaths to confirm that for now, it was enough just being alive.


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Review please. I really love parts of this chapter, and I would like to hear what other people think.