Disclaimer: I do not own Resident Evil.
A/N: Unbeta'd, so excuse the mess.
O O O
The first time Ashley saw this merchant man, he was shrouded in the pale blue light from a flame that burned in a melancholy, familiar manner.
It had been on their, "their" referring to Leon and herself, of course, trip back from the church, and she hadn't let the agent out of her sight for a second. He was trustworthy and honest, brutally so sometimes, and those were features that she valued. He harbored many secrets and boiling, morose things better left untouched behind that handgun of his, and she never pried. She never asked where he came from or if he was plagued by nightmares at night, too. Their relationship had always stayed surface-level, never delving any further past the emotion he rarely, rarely let slip.
And so, when the merchant man had instantly trained his gaze upon Leon and opened his cloak, revealing a plethora of weapons and First Aid materials and other marvelous and marvelously expensive things, she was understandably unsettled. Who was this man? How was he still alive? Did he work for the enemy?
The merchant never spared her a glance, always doing his dealings with Leon in a dry, English-tinged voice and a few snide remarks. Leon rarely spoke with the man other than to voice his thanks or ask the pricing of any particular object. And for a while, Ashley was quite content with hanging back and watching the exchange with wary, careful eyes.
Soon, though, she really began to wonder. The merchant man began showing up everywhere, in the most convenient of places, ubiquitous with his heavy coat and calming blue glow. He never carried any battle scar, not that he showed much skin with his outfit, and he never sounded harmed or fazed at all. If he was doing black market dealings, he should have been reproachful or worried, perhaps even paranoid. But he was ever-confident--almost annoyingly so.
How could he speak with such ease when from all corners approached the enemy? She and Leon couldn't turn their backs without stepping into a claptrap or getting a stray axe or flaming arrow thrown at them.
Over time, still observing the merchant man, still keeping quiet and never asking a question to Leon, Ashley began to despise him. He was always graceful in a scruffy sort of manner, as if he'd lived to see it all. But his eyes told different; he couldn't have been much older than Luis. He was wizened, but he was not aged. He was slouchy and sluggish, but she'd seen him straighten the pack on his back and, consequently, his spine. And at these times, he stood taller even than Leon. Not by much, mind, but it was enough.
So Ashley watched the merchant. And Leon watched Ashley.
"Are you worried?" he asked her one day, both of them tired from running, both of them breathing a sigh of relief when the lick of dull blue danced from through a nearby open window.
"About what?" she asked, only mildly surprised by the question. She'd been expecting it, after all. It was his job to watch her, and he'd more than likely noticed her recent fixation on the merchant man.
"The merchant," he replied simply, and he glanced from her to said blue light as they neared it.
She took a long time to answer, but finally, "A little." They had no time for dodgy games. If she had trepidations, and if he asked, she would tell him. "It seems odd that he's never hurt and that he's always around when we need him." She furrowed her brow and looked up at Leon, who was staring straight ahead. "Don't you think? I mean…it almost seems like he may be in cahoots with…you know."
A haughty grin stretched across Leon's face. "The bad guys?"
"Yeah," she breathed. "The bad guys."
In a move that made her go rigid, Leon put an arm around her shoulder. He was hesitant, though, and wasn't resting all of his arm's weight on her. He was awkward, uncomfortable with the situation; he was unused to this sort of thing, but he was trying, and Ashley gave him double brownie points for that. He was always trying to calm her down or soothe her fears, and she appreciated it. Leon was never mean to her. He was forceful sometimes, a little too rough when he grabbed her, or his voice a little too bitingly commanding when he told her to wait or hide, but if she showed any outward signs that it bothered her, he'd immediately apologize.
She patted the gloved hand that rested right on the curve of her shoulder, and his index finger flinched against her. "You get to see a lot of this sort of thing when you're so close to the President," she remarked, though there was no remorse in her tone, nor disgust. The world was not black and white; people were not simply good or simply evil. She was learned, herself, and she'd seen her fair share of crooks and criminals try to finagle their way into her father's good graces. Not that any of them got any farther then the White House's front lawn, but still. "So I can't help but suspect him of foul play, you know?"
"He's been around for a long time," Leon said, removing his arm in favor of pushing open the house's door. "But believe me, that doesn't mean I trust him. He sells things and I buy them; I can't see a way that could be harmful to us."
"He could be giving away our positions," Ashley argued quietly, for they were rounding the corner and the merchant man was standing at the far end of the room.
Leon shook his head. "The bad guys know our positions anyway. They always know. They're always going to know. It's just our responsibility now to keep on running." He huffed gently. "And I have no problem with that."
Ashley sat down on a barrel and sighed.
The merchant man, seeing that his customers' conversation was well over, opened his coat and bit out a raspy, "Welcome."
Leon made the general selection: checked for a First Aid Spray, which the merchant did not have, upgraded one of his guns, and then tuned the firepower another. When the dealings were finished, the merchant closed his cloak and stepped back. "Come back anytime."
Leon nodded to Ashley, who stood up and began following him out of the house. She kept her eyes on the merchant for a while, though, who watched her as well, eyes hooded and mysterious and utterly frustrating..
Finally, unable to take the pressure of it all, she allowed Leon to continue on ahead and stalked toward the merchant angrily. Leon noticed the abrupt loss of her presence, though, and doubled back. "Ashley," he commanded, but she paid no attention.
"How are you always around?" she asked, stopping so that she was almost nose-to-nose with the merchant, and she put her hands on her hips. "And you're never hurt. Just whose side are you on?"
The merchant glanced from Ashley to Leon, who was attempting to round the girl up by tugging on her arm and nudging her forward with the butt of his handgun.
"Well?" Ashley demanded, and she cocked a hip obstinately.
The merchant man suddenly seemed awfully tired. His eyes lost that dark luster, fading to a dim sort of annoyance. He chuckled behind the cloth, locking gaze with Leon, who was almost growling at Ashley to get the hell going already.
And then he said something that had Ashley absolutely fuming.
"This little devil belong to you, Stranger?"
Leon shot him a look that translated to "Unfortunately," in men-speak, and Ashley turned on her heel, storming out of the room.
"Ashley," Leon called, all alpha-male pretenses dropped, and he followed her out, the merchant chuckling behind them all the way.
Later, when Ashley had forgiven Leon for his sudden, unwarranted display of ridiculous testosterone, she huffed and crossed her arms. "I don't trust him. I don't trust him one bit."
"You can't just not trust someone because they called you a little devil."
"Oh," she mock-laughed, glaring at Leon incredulously, "so now you're agreeing with him, are you? I'm just a little devil?"
Leon rolled his eyes and habitually reloaded his gun.
O O O
It was probably fate that decided for Ashley on this certain occasion, she figured. A group of those delirious Spaniards had attacked she and Leon from all sides, some throwing sticks of low-grade dynamite while others continuously stabbed at Leon with pitchforks, pickaxes, and the occasional hatchet. One woman even wielded a butcher's knife, if she recalled correctly.
But Leon had kept her safe. He always did. He'd ordered her to wait on a dilapidated house's roof, and she sat there stiff, hiding behind a chimney and praying that none of these crazy people knew she up there.
And as luck--or fate, rather--would have it, Leon had forgotten one stray man who smelled particularly rotten and didn't hold the appearance of much better.
She did what she was best at doing when said man hauled her over his shoulder: She screamed. She screamed loud. "Leon, help!"
She'd almost stopped trying to get away from her captors at this point. They were inhumanly strong, and she had faith that Leon would rescue her in due time.
Still, when he didn't show soon enough and the Spaniard began moving farther and farther away from the proverbial dogfight, she screamed again. "Leon!"She wanted to add, "You lazy bum!" but that would have been overkill. Besides, he was doing his best.
And then she felt something fast and small and sharp and mind-numbingly painfulbrush the exposed, meaty part of her calf before it embedded into the Spaniard's hip area. The man dropped her immediately and Ashley crumpled to the floor, crying in agony. He had shot her! He hadactually shot her!
Leon appeared upon the scene, shoving a knife into the Spaniard's chest when he tried to climb to his feet.
When all was said and done, he knelt in front of Ashley, who was nursing her newly acquired wound. "Are you okay?" he asked, putting a hand on her knee.
"Of course I'm not okay!" she shouted back, tears filling up in her eyes and blurring her vision.
Leon looked mildly panicked. "What did he do to you?"
"You shot me!"
His panic evolved into a distinct "Oh shit," type of gig. "Oh shit," he said, and Ashley started to cry.
"That hurt!" she whined, cradling her injured leg. "You…you jerk! I can't believe you did that!"
"Sorry," he said, reaching to pick her up, but she shooed him away. "I…sorry," he said again, apparently unsure of what else to say. He set his jaw. "Shit."
She was mad at him, but she was more thankful that he had saved her. "Thank you, though," she amended, still fighting back all those tears. Blood was staining her boots even more than they were already and her entire leg was throbbing in agony. "You saved me. Again."
He shook his head and successfully picked her up bridal style, as it was called, minding her leg injury.
"I don't have any herbs left," he admitted, "but I think that merchant is around here somewhere. He should have some First Aid supplies by now."
Ashley said nothing, secretly dreading their meeting. She did not want the merchant to see her injured. She did not want him to witness any sort of weakness in her. It would kill any iota of pride that she had left.
He was there, as expected, hiding out in another house near a sheer cliff. His trademark blue lamppost flickered unnaturally gaily when they approached.
He said not a word, but he watched Ashley this time instead of Leon, when she was set on the table, when Leon apologized again, when he bought the supplies and the merchant greeted him with the customary "Welcome."
Leon, however, always vigilant, noticed the straying of the merchant's gaze. "She's hurt," he said, as if divulging some great secret.
"So I see," the merchant mused, eyeing the wound on her leg. Ashley covered it, frowning. "Rifle wound?"
Leon grinned. "You know your weapons."
The merchant's eyes narrowed into what could be assumed was a grin of his own. "Been around them a long time, Stranger."
Ashley refused to make eye contact with him. It was bad enough that he was so smug about it all now, more so than he may have been before, but she didn't want to give him the satisfaction of her submission. She kept her gaze locked firmly on the window before them.
Something caught her eye in the distance, coming around a corner. She thought it might have just been some dust in the wind, but when the object neared, its form was frighteningly clear.
She saw that Leon was about to speak, but she shushed him with a finger to first her lips and then pointed in the direction of the window. Both Leon and the merchant glanced outside, Leon cursing under his breath and the merchant retrieving a canteen from his hip.
He unscrewed the lid and dumped what appeared to just be water over the blue flame, extinguishing it. Leon pulled out his shotgun and cocked it as quietly as possible, instructing Ashley to flee to the upstairs.
She nodded, tried to stand on her leg, failed, and began to limp lamely toward the stairs. She could hear the soft clamor of the mob outside, as well as faint flickering from their torches. The scrape of metal on metal gave her a little jolt of fear.
She gripped the railing and hauled herself up to the first step, then the second. When she reached for the third, she felt an arm steady her around her waist.
"Leon," she whispered, barely able to see in the darkness of the house. "But what about those guys?"
"Quiet now, little devil," the merchant breathed, and Ashley felt the beginnings of rage bubble in her throat. She tried to remove his arm from her waist, but he held her tightly, helping her up the stairs at a surprisingly quick pace. She stopped resisting when they neared the top, barely glimpsing a gleam from Leon's knife when she glanced down toward that window below them.
The merchant pushed her up to the second floor in front of him, following close behind.
"Quickly," he muttered, pushing a bookcase in front of the only open window. It was loud, but she doubted that anybody but them could hear it.
She leaned heavily against a table, watching him warily. "Aren't you going to help downstairs?" she asked in a whisper.
"Stranger's asked me to assist you here," he answered just as quietly, moving to stand beside her. "In case any slip past his line of fire."
The distant sound of a window shattering and a muffled groan, followed by the distinctive shot of Leon's shotgun, made Ashley cower.
She crouched in a corner, eyes now adjusted to the dark, and watched the merchant set down his massive pack, as well as remove his cloak. Weapons of all shapes and sizes were stuck in it, and he pulled them out, lying them neatly on the table.
"Hide under that little table," he told her, motioning toward what appeared to be a tall nightstand beside her.
She did as instructed, curling her knees tight to her chest. Once she did so, the merchant threw his dark cloak over the table, completely obscuring her from view.
He knelt before her and lifted a portion of the cloak a bit. The material around his mouth and nose had been a long scarf, she realized, wrapped double around his neck and jaw. Purple, with an argyle-like print. She wondered if his mother made it for him.
"Stay safe, little devil," he muttered, and he winked directly afterward, eyes holding a certain familiar blue glow.
She waited for a long time after that, listening to first the merchant as he loaded guns and then to Leon as he grunted, cursed, and fired shots from somewhere directly below her. Her stomach flip-flopped every time she heard him gasp in pain.
Quite a large number of the men barreled their way up the stairs, all flocking together and shouting things in Spanish. And then a deafening whistling sound filled the air, followed by a boom that rocked the very foundation of the house. Floorboards creaked and support beams groaned, dust falling from the rafters and littering everything with bits of wood and dirt.
She heard the click of him loading some sort of magnum, and then the firing, the multiple shots until there was naught but silence.
She was shaking at this point, intensely frightened that the merchant had either rushed downstairs and left her alone or he had been killed. She didn't hear anything from Leon, either, no rustling or shuffling about, which unnerved her ever more.
The cloak was torn from the table, and she winced, expecting the worst.
"It's safe now," Leon said from above her, and Ashley opened her eyes. She sighed and her shoulders slumped when he held out a hand to help her up.
The merchant lit a gas lamp hanging on a wall, surveying the damage. There were flecks of golden-brown everywhere, staining virtually everything, remnants of the battle. It was the bodily excrements that were released when parasites had emerged from the heads of their enemies, as well as the fluid that the body disintegrated into.
She sidestepped over a particularly large pile of the muck, claiming a spot near Leon, glancing about nervously.
The merchant began restocking his cloak, and Ashley caught a flash of short, dark brown hair that she hadn't noticed the first time before his head was hooded once more. He slung his pack over his back, adjusting it and standing to his full height, before returning to his slouch.
"I have to relocate, Stranger. You can follow me if you make sure and stay quiet."
Leon shook his head.. "We can't. We have our own path to follow."
The merchant nodded his understand, and the three trekked down the almost-destroyed stairs. He retrieved his unlit lamp, which he began to use as a walking stick.
Finally, he spoke. "I'll be seeing you around, Stranger." He brushed past Leon, but when he came to Ashley, he stopped in front of her, setting down the lamp momentarily.
Ashley frowned, and she saw Leon turn his full attention on the pair from the corner of her eye. "What?"
The merchant pulled down his scarf, revealing what appeared to be a rather typical mouth. His lips were a little chapped and he had a bit of stubble growing around his jaw and chin area, but otherwise, it was completely normal.
He took her bare hand in one of his, and then pressed his lips to the top of it in a soft, quite surprising kiss. He released her, straightening to his full height once again. Ashley's chin barely reached to his shoulder, and she took in that bright, wicked grin as he pulled the scarf back to cover half of his face once more.
"It's been a pleasure, I assure you." He had the most amused expression on, from what she could see. "Here's to seeing you again, my little devil," the merchant said, and he slouched when he picked up his lamp, making his way out the door.
He closed it behind him gently, and Leon stepped beside Ashley, crossing his arms over his chest and pulling his face down into a very sincere frown.
Ashley couldn't quite shake the stars from her eyes.
"I don't like him," Leon said, dropping the guarded stance and sweeping an arm around Ashley's shoulders to help her limp along.
She smiled, even if her leg throbbed a bit when they started to walk. "Oh, I don't know. I think he's rather…enjoyable."
Leon made a proud display of glaring daggers down the path she assumed the merchant had taken his leave.
Ashley giggled. "When can we see him again?"
"I'm so throwing you into the next claptrap I see."