Ashes to Ashes

Author's Note: Scenes and dialogue from the game were changed for artistic reasons. I know many people do not enjoy this pairing but it is a work of imagination and only that.

(The shrieking of nothing is killing)

Ashley scratched idly at her arms, long red marks marring her once flawless porcelain skin. Her fingernails turned an unnatural shade of ruby with each stroke. She followed behind obediently, ducking down when Leon aimed his firearm, her hands crossed over her chest, fingers absently moving up and down her biceps.

Small streams of blood ran down her skin and it was hard to tell which marks were fresh and which had been scabbing over. She looked like a girl who had gotten into the habit of locking the door to her room, plastered against the wall and cutting herself with the blade out of a Lady Bic when the going got a little too tough.

Leon worried about infection, slapping her hands away on several occasions but she looked at him solemn eyes and went back to shredding the skin apart.

"I can feel it." It was all she had to say. He didn't feel anything out of the ordinary but he could hear it. A constant swishing in his ear drum, almost like a second heart beat, reminding him that there was something abnormal in his blood stream. It was taking over and making itself at home, his central nervous system the kitchen and his heart the bedroom.

Thinking clearly was becoming difficult. He spoke a little too loudly, trying to hear himself over the thumping in his ears and sometimes what came out his mouth made little sense. At times his language had almost been reduced to word salad and Ashley looked at him oddly, eyebrows raised, concern etched on her delicate features.

Gibberish would spill from his lips and then he'd shake his head, wipe at his mouth with the back of his gloved hand like he could wipe away the nonsense. His mind would return to him after a few moments and Ashley would beam in relief, blood stained teeth smiling at him.

"You had me worried," she'd say each time, her hands reaching out and touching his arm, leaving scarlet fingerprints behind on his skin.

The fingerprints washed off in the rain but sometimes, in the heat of the day, he'd have sets of dried prints running down his arms, like a strange tribal tattoo temporarily scarring his flesh. At night, when Ashley slept by his side and the oil in the kerosene lamp was running low, he'd trace the patterns and notice how his marks almost matched the ones on her arms.

Leon didn't know much about parasitic activity. He knew the basic shit everyone saw on 20/20 specials. He didn't like the idea of something crawling around in his veins, forming a symbiotic relationship with him. He liked to have a say in his relationships and this was one he'd end with a "it's you, not me" speech.

He knew that most human parasites affected the intestines in some way. Tapeworms and hookworms and every creepy crawly he could imagine feeding off of his GI tract. But he'd never seen anything that attached itself to the central nervous system and made him convulse like he had a severe case of epilepsy.

The convulsions affected them far worse than Ashley's scratching or his word salad. It happened at the worse times and once he barely avoided getting his head taken off before he passed out on the floor. He couldn't save himself or Ashley when he was blacking out for hours on end.

When he came to, he slid open his eyes to find that the world was tilted, an out of focus movie the projectionist didn't know how to fix. His head was swimming like he had been on a bender for a week and the second heartbeat echoed loudly in his ears. He blinked to fine tune his vision, his stomach lurching forward as muted colors blurred together, the bitter taste of bile burning the back of his throat.

The world finally upright, he found Ashley cowering near a corpse, his knife clutched in her small fingers. Her colorless face stood out brightly against too red lips and dirty yellow hair. Shit. Her eyes were saucers, empty and staring unconsciously at the cavity at the top of the body where the head used to be. What had happened?

His handgun was strewn onto the floor haphazardly and he stretched his arm out, fingers scrambling along the dirt floor until he grasped it, checking the clip to find it empty. Bullet holes riddled the flimsy wooden plank walls and faint daylight streamed in through the damage, creating dancing patterns of dust in the air. He could only imagine what had happened.

Pushing himself up onto his elbows, he edged closer to her, propelling himself forward with his forearms. He took the knife out of her shaking hands, sliding it back into the sheath on his chest. "You okay?"

Ashley didn't look hurt, just dazed and frightened. "I thought you were dead," she told him, her hands moving back to their seemingly permanent resting place on her arms.

"Sorry. I didn't do it on purpose." He sat up, every muscle aching from the effort, and reloaded the gun, keeping it clutched in his right hand tightly in case anyone else was lurking outside. Cautiously, he put his arm around her waist and pulled her close.

Ashley whispered "I know" into the crook of his neck, her breath hot against his skin. She trembled against him and for a moment, he was certain she was crying but instead of finding tears on her face, he saw her mouth turned up in a smile. "You should've seen me."

For a split second, Leon thought this was it. She was finally cracking up. She wasn't the numb, desensitized asshole he was. Any normal person who hadn't seen what he'd seen, hadn't lived through the deepest levels of Hell, wouldn't be able to stand the pressure of the situation. Ashley had reached her last straw and he had no straightjackets on hand.

"I shot everything besides him…the walls…" She was laughing, a soft giggle that made the corners of his mouth lift involuntarily.

Relief washed over him and he stopped thinking of ways to fashion handcuffs out of herbs and scraps of soiled bed linens. He leaned in close and pressed a kiss to her temple, chapped lips ghosting over soft skin. "Sometime I'll have to teach you to aim."

He holstered the gun and hauled them both to their feet, his fingernails digging into her shoulder to pull her up. "We should keep moving."

She leaned against him for another moment, her eyes closing, the smile dropping from her lips. "Right." She let him go and they were off to try to find their way out of this god forsaken village.

They had been moving for what seemed to be forever. Leon didn't know just how long. Could have been weeks, days or just hours but it felt like years. He kept looking down at his watch, as some sort of anchor to time, to measure how long they'd been in this particular level of Hell. Unfortunately, his watch had stopped working after his run in with Del Lago. Waterproof guarantee, his ass.

They only stopped and sought out shelter when they needed to eat and sleep or when the rain came pouring down in sheets and the mud caked around their ankles, gluing them into the terrain, molding them into another dead, heartless thing in the landscape. Even then they did so with one eye open and a hand wrapped around a weapon

The cabins were all alike, no distinguishing features to set them apart. Sometimes, Leon swore they were running in circles, finding the same cabin over and over again. Same old, rotting shack with worn down foundation and dilapidated, crumbling walls. Windows boarded up with rusty nails, shards of broken glass left shattered carelessly on the dirt floor. Maybe, if they were lucky, they'd find a mattress that wasn't stained with bodily fluids.

Ashley tried to make the best out of the little time they had in each wayward cabin. She moved around, taking in what she had to work with and Leon always watched her with curiosity, wondering how hard the wheels in her head were spinning. He'd sit with his back against a wall, ignoring any furniture in the place, his pants soaking in the dirt and dust from the floor. With his hand firmly gripped on his gun, he'd watch her.

She'd pace for a while, quiet, hands absently on her biceps as always, her lips moving but her voice absent. Then she'd open all the cabinets, pushing aside anything that wasn't edible. "This'll do," she'd say eventually, her arms full of canned goods. She was pretty good with a can opener.

Leon ate whatever she prepared and it always tasted kind of decent. If she had a heat source and maybe something that wasn't vienna sausages, she might've been a whiz in the kitchen. A regular Sandra Lee or some shit.

"What do you think happened to the children?" she asked, in one of the numerous same shacks, her fingers wrapped around a can of tomato soup.

Leon looked up from his can, his eyebrows lifted in question. "What?" Ashley could be so random. If he could open her skull up and look at her brain, watch the way the blood flowed and the electrical impulses jumped across the synapses, maybe then he'd get her.

"The children in this village. We haven't seen any. What do you think happened to them?" She lifted the can to her mouth and took a sip, her lips turning cherry red.

"I don't know." Leon didn't know. He hadn't given much thought to it. Hadn't had the time. He was kind of busy with the shooting and staying alive aspect of life at the moment. "Maybe they ate them."

"Leon!" She giggled and it was all he was really looking for out of her.

Making her smile was one of the rare things that could make him forget he was in Spain, that he had blood and shit on his clothes, mud on his boots, stab wounds freshly bandaged on his chest. She almost muted the second heartbeat. She made him think they were roughing it in the woods somewhere, on some camping trip to the mountains. When it faded, so did the façade he created in his mind.

Clearing her throat, she wiped at the corners of her mouth with her fingers, wiping away the tomato soup and leaving behind her own prints. "I think they were all given away. You know, to good families. Before the parasites took over." Good old Ashley. Naïve to a fault.

"Yeah. Maybe." He reached his hand out hesitantly, his thumb sticking out as he wiped the smudges from the side of her mouth.

Ashley caught his hand quickly, exhibiting the kind of lightning fast reflexes neither one of them knew she possessed. Her pale, small fingers wrapped around his larger gloved digits. "Why are you so nice to me?"

Leon's first instinct was to pull his hand away, like he had been burned in a fire and his flesh was falling off into a pile by his feet. Instead, he let her hold it, the grip strangely comforting in this shit hole. He couldn't feed her the "it's my job" line. Nobody would want to hear that in this sort of situation. "You're a good kid," he settled on, shrugging the question off nonchalantly.

"I'm not a kid," Ashley argued, letting his hand go as quickly as she had snatched it out of the air. Her lower lip slowly protruded, the lines on her face deepening as her mouth turned down into a childish pout.

"Can you drink legally?" Leon asked, eyebrows raised in amusement. He remembered being that age, innocent and immature, too eager to be older. Now he looked for ways to reverse the clock and one day she would too.

Her face scrunched up and the faintest flicker of ruby red tongue slipped from her lips. She must have deemed sticking her tongue out at him a bit juvenile. "In a year. No, six months."

Leon gulped down the contents of his own tin can, bean and bacon soup. It was disgusting, cold and congealed but nourishment nonetheless. "Talk to me in six months then." He could have used a drink at the moment.

"Buy me a drink in six months," Ashley prodded him, the smile returning to her face. She had found a way to goad him, to try to complete the hidden agenda she had that wasn't so secret.

Leon could read her like an open book. He hadn't known her too long but he could already tell what made her tick. It was all written on her face. "Sex on the beach?"

Her eyes widened, a small cough escaping her lungs. "What?" If she had been drinking her tomato soup at the time, she probably would have shot red out of her nose.

Crushing the can between his fingers, he tossed it to the ground. No need to clean up after themselves; the natives had already let the place go to the shitter. "It's a drink. You seem like the type to like girly drinks."

"Oh. It sounds good," Ashley spat out, shifting a bit in her place against the wall, brushing some dirt off her already filthy skirt. She looked as if she was trying to collect herself so she wouldn't look like the sheltered girl she was.

Nodding, Leon wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand, his chest starting to ache, his eyesight darkening in the most unnatural way, as if he had put on a pair of sunglasses. "Yeah. Fruity and shit." He leaned his head against the wall, clenching his gun to his chest, just in case they had company during the frostbitten night.

Ashley pushed a strand of hair behind her ear and grinned at him, unaware of the blood stains on her usually pearly white teeth. "It's a date then!"

This was the opportunity for Leon to turn all of this around. Turn her down, set her straight, stop with the touches and comforting gestures. Instead, he closed his eyes, his head swimming, the world upside down again. "Sure, Ashley," he breathed out, his mind already lost somewhere in his skull.

He was gone before he could hear the excitement in her voice, all the tedious plans she was working out. What time he would pick her up, what she would wear, what he would wear, where they would go, what they would do after. She talked herself hoarse and never seemed to notice the abnormally slow pattern of Leon's chest rising and falling.

Leon woke to the sound of Ashley shredding at her arms, long nails scratching at already angry skin. He weakly slapped at her hands and got to his feet, swaying a bit to regain his footing. "Time to go."

Ashley nodded, her fingers quieting for the moment. "Right." She never argued with Leon, just followed his every command. He was the only way she'd make it home alive.

The day was already gone, slept through and passed by without consequence. The sun slumbered beneath the horizon and a blanket of black nothingness covered the earth now. They navigated through the terrain, seemingly blind, the flashlight on Leon's belt dimly lighting the way. Everything looked alike. The sway of the trees, the crumbling foundation of the cabins, the people who were trying to kill them with dynamite and pick axes. Leon wasn't sure they'd ever make it out.

A steady rain began to fall, plastering his hair to his face, large droplets falling into alert eyes. "I'm so sick of rain," he muttered, his hand clutched tightly around his firearm. He was low on ammunition again and he wasn't going to find any in the bushes.

Ashley ran after him, trying to keep up with the pace Leon set. One step for him was three for Ashley and she was constantly fighting to not fall behind. "It's cold." She hugged her wet sweater around her shoulders as if the heavy, soaked fabric would give her some warmth.

Skidding to a halt, boots sliding in the mud, Leon turned to look at the girl. "Yeah. It's winter." He had nothing to give her, his own jacket having disappeared some time ago. There was no being a gentleman in this situation.

His eyes skimmed the horizon, stopping on something in the distance, something that looked promising. An old, rickety bridge loomed in the distance, towering over the landscape, looking about as safe as anything else in this country. Maybe that would lead to the way out. "Come on," he urged, grabbing her small hand to pull her along.

"Leon!" Ashley lurched forward, her feet stumbling over each other. The dirt road beneath her was slick and murky from the downpour and her boots were more for fashion than function. "Slow down," she demanded, her fingers digging into the smooth leather of his glove.

He tugged on her hand again, trying to keep her close when he felt a shift in weight distribution. Her small frame brushed against his back, her soaked through chest pressing against him for the slightest moment before she bounced back and stumbled to the ground. He almost wanted to laugh, glancing down to see her pouting in a pile of mud.

Ashley slapped her hands in the muck, droplets flying up to rest on her forehead and cheeks. "It's not funny!" Her face was wet, distraught; her legs coated with dark, congealed mud.

Leon managed to keep a straight face, biting on his lower lip hard enough to draw a drop of tainted blood. "No. It's not." Holding out his right hand to help her up, he heard the faintest ring reverberating from his hip. He pulled the hand back and turned away, answering his communicator as Ashley smacked at the mud crossly again.

Ashley rested her hands in the dirt, blowing a limp piece of hair out of her face. "I can't believe this." Her skirt was ruined, her innocent white panties underneath discolored and saturated. Dark shadows fell over her face as Leon leaned over her, tucking the communicator into his pocket.

"They were sending a chopper." He reached out a strong hand again and helped her up, pulling her upright and to her feet with ease. Planting his hands on her shoulders, he steadied her before letting go.

Suddenly smiling vibrantly, Ashley brushed at her skirt, wringing the plaid material to dry it out. "That's great!" She didn't seem to notice the mud or the cold anymore. The goosebumps on her arms faded away and she stood straighter, with purpose.

Leon shook his head, adverting his eyes to the bridge beyond. He was about the moment, not about the past. They needed a way out and he was getting sick of running in endless circles, even if his map told him he was making progress. "Were. It was shot it down."

Her bright eyes faded quickly, the smile sagging on her face. "I just want to go home," she muttered, her fingers pressing against her pale face, stiff against her bruised eyelids. Her shoulders slumped and her head hung forward in defeat.

"I know. I'll get you out of here." His words were empty, almost meaningless. He didn't know if he was telling the truth anymore. He wasn't the kind of guy who gave up in tough situations. He wasn't that asshole in the movies who sat on the floor and refused to move, deeming the plot fruitless, impossible to overcome. But the weight in his chest, the second heart drumming in his ears made him wonder if this was the end of the road.

"Come on. Let's get going." Leon took her hand again, holding it limply in his this time, slowly leading her along to cross the bridge, the rotting, notched wood creaking beneath their feet with each step.

Her hand pulled sharply at his as they neared the other side, barely across the presumably infinite chasm below. "Look," she whispered, her hand tightening in his. Nodding her head, she pointed out a faint glow in the distance, fire lighting up the midnight sky, dancing against the horizon. "They know we're here."

Shaking his head, Leon followed her line of sight, spotting the torches through thick hair hanging in his face. There were too many of them to count, the whole fucking village was on their tails now, angry and chanting in something in Spanish neither one of them could make out. "Shit," he murmured, tugging harshly on her hand.

There was no time to devise a plan. Leon scanned the landscape, noticing yet another indistinguishable cabin in the distance. "Quick! In that cabin." Lightning shot through the night sky, illuminating his form against the dark background as they ran for cover, boots sliding hazardously in the dense mud.

Breathing deeply, the world beginning to spin again, Leon pushed Ashley through the threshold first, his hand leaving a dark print on the back of her sweater. He couldn't afford to lose it now. They would never survive. He slammed the door shut, the sound echoing inside his skull, and pressed his damp back against the wood.

The world swirled in front of his eyes, thick and heavy like pea soup, his tongue wide and parched in his mouth. He noticed they weren't alone. "Call it you," he demanded, word soup spilling from his lips. The parasite had the worst timing.

Luis stepped out of the shadows, a slab of splintered wood in his hands. "Leon!" Pushing the American aside, he barricaded the door, his fists banging down on the plank until it was securely in place.

"Up. Ashley, you up." Leon managed to mutter, his fingers pinching the bridge of his nose, his sinuses clearing for the briefest moment. He watched her nod and run up the stairs, her mud drenched skirt swaying against her legs as she moved. He was glad she still understood him.

"They're coming." Luis, long and lean, stood tall before Leon, an empty magazine clip falling to the floor by his feet. He pushed another clip to the gun and jabbed at Leon with two fingers. "Get yourself together."

Leon couldn't help the status of the world, the dark tint and the spin of the atmosphere. He stared at his gun, shaking his head clear. There was a job to do. He had to overcome. "Right," he spat out, lips moving even when he wasn't speaking anymore.

Bracing himself against the door, Luis stared at Leon with dark eyes, bruised and sullen against his olive skin. "Ay, dios mio." He sprung into action, gun aimed in a flash as one of the windows exploded, glass slicing through the air.

Eyes jumping open, the tilt of the planet straightening itself, Leon wiped at his face with a heavy palm. He steadied his weapon and went to work, supporting himself against the staircase to make his stand. Short on ammo and even lower on herbs, he braced himself for the worse. Breathing heavily, he aimed carefully and one by one, the mob began to fall.

Luis was a good companion and an even better shot. He held his own and Leon didn't want to think of what would have happened if he wasn't there. With Luis' quick trigger finger and seemingly unlimited supply of ammunition, the mob receded. The torches retreated, fire fading away as they moved away from the cabin.

The situation was over and Leon sighed in relief as the last ganado fell to the ground. "What now?" he asked, tired of thinking on the fly, plans swarming around in the rest of the mess of his mind.

Luis shrugged, throwing his hands in the air. "I need to go. I'll catch up with you later." He headed toward the door, the wooden plank now split in half, a smug smile fitted across his lips. "You should be safe here for a while." He disappeared out the door before Leon could even throw a word of thanks his way.

Rolling his eyes, Leon turned to find Ashley now sitting at the table in the center of the room, legs strewn apart like an old rag doll, her head hanging down, already filthy hair skimming across rotting stew or what used to be stew. Gun holstered for the moment, he sank into the chair next to the girl, the wood creaking under his weight. "I think we're okay for now."

"No," Ashley muttered, lifting her head, wet strings hanging in front of her monster eyes, "I don't think we're okay."

Leon reached out, his hand hanging in the air like dead weight. "I know." He brushed the hair out of her eyes and dropped his arm to the table, his elbow upsetting a glass, stagnant water spilling out of tumbler and dripping onto the floor.

"This isn't how it's supposed to go." Looking at Leon through heavy eyes, Ashley smiled, the corners of her mouth slowly turning up.

"What isn't?" He was too tired to think, to wonder what was going on in her mind anymore. He couldn't keep up with the wheels.

A violent cough wracked through her body, hacking and spitting out fresh blood. The blood trickled down the corner of her mouth, completing the sinister look of an innocent girl. "Life," she said quietly, sitting up straight, breathing too harshly for a normal girl.

Leon sighed, reaching out to wipe the blood from her chin. He didn't want to see her marred this way. "We'll make it out of here. You'll live a long life and forget all about this, Ashley." He looked at the stain on his fingers languidly.

Ashley pursed her lips, reaching out to grab Leon's hand, rubbing her fingers against the red on his skin. "I don't think so, Leon. It's okay though. I'm ready for it. I've done a lot of things other people only dream of." She was lying and he could see right through her bullshit.

Leon could only imagine what Ashley's life was like. Dinner parties with foreign dignitaries, mid-afternoon classes in the quad right underneath the maple trees that shade the Kentucky bluegrass with patterns of dancing sunshine, college guys shamelessly hitting on her at the bookstore. Starbucks lattes and dark seedy clubs where she could lose herself amongst writhing, faceless bodies on the dance floor. He could almost see her, books held tight to her chest, wearing something colorful and appropriate for her standing. A skirt, not too short, a button down shirt and a sweater tied around her neck. Surrounded by classmates, throwing back her head and laughing. Not having to care about surviving, only about grades and what dress to wear to the party that night.

Her life wasn't supposed to be about handguns and parasites, dirt and blood. She wasn't supposed to be that pale, have clumps of mud hanging in her hair and unclean hands. She wasn't supposed to look at him with demon red eyes. Ashley should have been in clean, bright light. Freshly showered hair smelling of strawberries or maybe vanilla. Soft skin brushing against silk and cashmere. Eyes so brown they would blend right in with the trees.

Ashley wasn't supposed to die like this. Neither was Leon. But sometimes, life threw curveballs and the situation was rapidly falling away, out of his hands.

He stared at her hand in his, somewhat accustomed to having this comforting touch. "We aren't going to die here," he told her, lifting his head to look her in the eyes, swollen as they were.

Her lips curled up, the creases around her eyes deepening as she bared the faint white of her teeth. "No. We won't die. We'll live. We'll just lose our souls." Her voice was hard, accepting, like she would swallow a bullet if given the opportunity.

Leon almost wanted to lift his hand to her face and smack her, right across the cheek. He wanted to tell her to stop being dramatic, that their souls and whatever else were intact and safe for now and always. But besides the overly dramatic phrasing, Ashley had a point. They would live. Their hearts would continue to beat, blood would rush through arteries, lungs would expand and fill with air, just as they always have.

Their minds would be lost, helpless and vulnerable in a foreign land. Autonomy would be gone forever, controlled with the slightest wave of a hand, a simple flick of the wrist. Bending to every whim of a devious, malevolent foe. They would do whatever they were told and never know of the life they used to have. Living and breathing, yet trapped in the dark, lost eternally.

"I'm not going to become someone's puppet," Leon demanded, dark purple circles surrounding his changing eyes. He needed sleep but it wasn't a luxury he could afford for long. "You might be ready to die, but I'm not. I haven't lived yet."

Tightening his fingers around hers, Leon idly wondered if Ashley had a boyfriend, someone back home who was anxiously waiting for her. A guy with big hands and a nice face, decent build but not ripped. Rich and Ivy League educated. Harvard or Yale. They probably met at some political function and their eyes locked across the room, one of those love at first sight sort of deals. He wore expensive clothing, smelled like old books and leather and lived in a brick house so big the dog got lost on a daily basis. He was everything Leon wasn't and couldn't be. If this guy existed, Ashley didn't talk about him.

"We'll find a way," he told her, letting go of her hand finally. He had to find a way because this was a mission he couldn't afford to fail. "You need to sleep."

She tilted her head, rolling her eyes in a 'I know more than you do' sort of way. The action made her look younger than she was. Defiant and immature. "You do too."

Leon ignored her, taking her upstairs and nodding to the only bed. It looked fairly clean and he ran his hands over the fabric, checking for dirt and bugs. Nothing to report. "Here. Lay down. I'll keep watch."

"I'm not tired," she protested, her eyes drooping with each word. Such a liar.

"I'll keep watch," he repeated, pushing her gently down onto the bed. "Sleep."

Ashley coughed into her hand, bright blood splattered on her pale fingertips. "What if I don't wake up?" She looked at her fingers in quiet anxiety, like she knew something that he didn't.

"You will."

She curled her fingers around the frayed edges of her skirt, blood smearing against dirty green plaid. "How do you know?"

Leon grabbed a burlap sack laying in the corner of the room. He shook it out, brushed at it with her hand and then draped it over the girl. The material engulfed her, making her seem much smaller than she was. "I'll make sure of it."

Ashley bit down hard on her lip, indentions of her teeth left in the plump flesh. "What if you don't wake up?" She asked so softly he almost didn't hear her.

This was a girl who wasn't as dumb as Leon wanted to think she was. He was far worse off than she was, progressing faster. He would be gone before she was. "I won't sleep," he told her, settling in on the floor next to the mattress. He leaned his back against the wall, a rogue nail digging into his lumbar.

Ashley pulled the burlap up to her chin, only her head and delicate fingers exposed. "What if you do?" Her eyes were wide, afraid. She would be left to fend for herself.

He shook his head, not knowing what to tell her. "Then you better start praying." He fingered the gun at his belt and slipped it from the holster, placing it next to Ashley on the mattress.

Tracing a finger over the gun, Ashley closed her eyes. "If I never get the chance to say it again...thank you." She looked almost peaceful, ready for whatever would happen when she opened her eyes.

Leon waved his hand. "Ashley. Shut up." He meant it in the nicest way, really. He didn't want to listen to this shit. This was his job. He half expected her to start crying, well up in tears and bury her head in the pillow.

Instead she laughed, a small almost choking laugh. "Well. I said it. Take it or leave it."

"I'll leave it." A sudden, sharp pain in his chest forced him to close his eyes, his fingers digging for something to hold onto but all he had was a dirt floor to scratch at. He knew he didn't deserve the thanks. No matter how hard he tried, how determined he was, he couldn't fight biology. He was going to fail the mission.

The second heartbeat thumped loudly in his ears, overtaking the sound of Ashley still talking away a few feet from him. He tried to pry his eyelids open and scramble to his feet but he was immobilized, stuck. Numb from head to toe. Tints whirled and faded in front of him, leaving him a sea of black. Some degree of darkness was all he'd ever see again. This was it.

The house was filled with ghosts, shadows lingering, planning, waiting. Creeping in the darkness, grabbing at their souls and pushing them toward the bright light. Revenge for all the death they've caused, for trying to survive in a country they didn't belong in. They called for him, longed for him. "Leon." They reached out and pawed at him, floated across the room like shadow puppets on the wall. Vivid colors of red and yellow flashed in front of him. Eyes and teeth stared at him, pleading with him. Hot moisture against his lips, a press of skin against skin. They stole his breath and stored it in a jar, pushed it into a corner and cackled at his misfortune.

He could feel clammy hands on his chest, digging into the flesh and tearing down to his core. Sharp knives slicing into his heart, pulling it out and throwing it on the floor. It pounded in front of him, bloody and muscular, alive like it was inside a person with a soul. He reached out, fingers grasping at air, the light too bright to see anything else now. It was too late.

(Hitting an all-time low)

The front door of the cabin was wide open, dust and dirt flying out with each sweep of the broom. Ashley had been sweeping the same floor for too long, the same patch over and over. It was never clean enough.

Leon was out front, chopping firewood, the ax gleaming in the faint sunlight with each intense swing. He had been at it for hours, a pile of wood large enough to last them more than one winter stacked against the side of the house. The faint hum of a helicopter buzzed from above, the wind pattern shifting ever so slightly, dirt flying back through the threshold, leaves swirling around his boots. Leon heaved the ax into the tree stump and lifted his head, shielding his eyes from the overcast skies with his hand. He could barely make out the anomaly in the air, rotating wings hovering in the distance.

The bell in the tower began to ring, the call for work to cease for the day. Ashley set her broom aside, leaning it up against the wall. She didn't bother to shut the door, just walked out to Leon and stared at him with bright, expecting red eyes. Her bloodied blue dress, scavenged from a corpse, swayed softly in the harsh current. Her long, dirty blonde hair flowed over her shoulders, the tilt of her head forcing the hair to fall in her face.

Leon grabbed his ax, lifting it to his shoulder again. He nodded at Ashley, watching as she grabbed the nearest pitch fork. It was heavy and awkward in her hands but she was dangerous, nonetheless.

They walked together toward the church, shuffling their feet along the dirt road. Squinting against the setting sun in the horizon, the buzzing echoing louder with each careful step, he put his hand on the small of her back.

(I'm happy, hope you're happy too)