a/n:In this case, the title is less a girl's name and more the Spanish word for 'victory'.
Enjoy! I always appreciate feedback. I know this has some flaws. I started on it a while ago and just finished polishing it - Leon/Ashley was surprisingly hard.
"You were caring, you had honest eyes
You were perfect, the perfect surprise"
- Gregory and the Hawk, "Memory and Honesty"
It's three AM and she's standing outside of his apartment, clutching her purse to her side.
She can hear someone shouting a few doors down, and TV mixed with snoring somewhere else. The maroon carpet crunches under her feet. Five years ago she would have worried about getting raped or mugged in a place like this.
It still makes her feel uncomfortable – the television murmurs in Spanish, a low deep murmur that's almost a chant – but now she realizes, objectively, that this isn't a crime neighborhood or anything. There's no bars on the windows or anything like that.
She glances over at the window.
No bars. Good.
The hallway feels over-hot, the way cheap hallways sometimes feel during the fall. Like someone cranked on the heat too early. Outside the air is balmy, especially for November.
She rings his doorbell again.
He opens the door with a grumble. "What do you-"
She looks up at him.
She doesn't know what to say. This was stupid – coming here and not planning anything. He's wearing sweats and some kind of tight-fitting top and he still looks so good.
(They spoke six months ago, at a dinner party. But she's known where he's lived ever since he moved. She wondered why he rented such a mediocre apartment, when her father would give him practically anything he ever wanted.
He sent her an email a while ago, and it was friendly. She just didn't know how to answer it.
Tonight, he was at the party. The party. She can feel a headache tightening like a vice behind her eyes. Her father had invited him. He'd stayed for a couple hours then bowed out early. He met Ashley's eyes once, and smiled at her, even though she hadn't ever answered that email. She'd come over to be paraded out about her graduation from Yale and then she'd excused herself and Leon had followed her to the bathroom, but she couldn't bear to talk to him, so she'd skulked in the bathroom until she was sure he was gone.)
She guesses she's kind of stalking him, but at the same time she's also avoiding him.
He opens the door a little wider for her. She watches him rake a hand through his hair. "What are you – you know what? Never mind. Come on in." He peeks out.
"No," she said. "I don't have anyone with me."
He fixes her with a stare. "What's wrong with you? Tonight of all nights-"
"Just get off my back, okay, Leon?"
He shuts the door. She lets herself breathe, but then he's walking to his cell phone, sitting on his coffee table. She rushes to him and grabs his wrist. "No!"
He looks at her like he can't understand. "I have to let your dad know where you are."
His voice isn't unkind, and she knows he doesn't mean it as a barb, but she feels it as one anyway. She hasn't slept well the past few nights. She lets go of his wrist and looks at the ratty carpet. It's weird-colored in here, too. She's never seen the inside of his apartment. It's sparse, like a bachelor's. Like someone who travels a lot. Maybe he doesn't even think of it as a home.
That makes her sad.
"I'm sorry," he says. He's the only guy she knows who would be sorry when she came barging into his apartment in the middle of the night. "Look, sit down, okay? You look..."
"You don't have to trail off like that. I know how I look."
She sits down and looks up at him again. She does know how she looks: her foundation is flaking, even though it's the good stuff, and her mascara is smudged under her eyes. She looks like she's been out too long, or maybe crying.
He turns his back to her and goes in and out of his adjoining kitchen. He comes back with a damp paper towel.
"Here," he says, "get that off." She doesn't take it. He looks unsure. "That is how it comes off, isn't it? You don't need something special to get that off your face?"
She rolls her eyes and takes it, but doesn't use it. It lays still in her hand. "Thanks," she says, then, more softly, "Thanks. I mean it. Thank you."
He shrugs and leans back, examining her in the bluish light of his television. He was watching the news, although he must have muted it when he came to get the door.
"So who were you rooting for?" Her voice comes out shaky with fake-cheer.
"Is that even a question? The guy who's paying for my meals."
She bites her lip.
"You've got to be kidding. It's not my dad that pays you, it's tax money. And wouldn't you be important no matter who was in charge?"
She must look upset, because his face clouds. "Is that what this is about?"
Her lips purse. "I hate how everyone treats me," she says. "Do you know what it's like to be twenty-four years old and have some guy following you everywhere? To have parents who treat you like you need to be on a leash?"
He doesn't. He can't. Clearly he doesn't have an answer for that.
Her voice goes shrill. "Do you?"
He looks up at her through his hair.
She wants to kiss him.
"No," she says, "Dad wouldn't ever let me. Not in public."
Maybe she did drink too much champagne.
He stands up and smirks. "You're a bitter drunk. Is that where you came from? The party?"
She gives him a sharp look and hopes it conveys all her annoyance. "Where do I look like I came from, Leon?"
"Oh." His eyes flicker down from her face to her sleek black dress, her heels. She allows herself to relish it for a moment, especially when she notices his eyes linger an extra second on her neckline. "Yeah. That."
She leans back on his couch and crosses her arms over her chest.
"So I'm guessing you aren't thrilled about this."
She looks away. In that moment, she must look a sight – glazed eyes smeared with mascara. "Who would be? Four more years of bodyguards and bulletproof glass in my windows. Lucky me." She realizes how bratty she must sound. "I guess I'm happy for my dad. I just... I don't know. It has nothing to do with me."
His hand rests on her shoulder and she closes her eyes.
(She's heard that sometimes people can't rebound from experiences like hers-)
"Hey," he says, "You want to watch TV?"
She opens them. Face it. "As long as it's not the news."
She can hear her phone vibrating in her purse. It's weird – such a little vibration to represent all her father's anxiety. She thinks of what she just said to Leon and feels bad. She shouldn't be torturing her parents like this. She just doesn't know what else she can do.
Leon doesn't say anything. She appreciates that he doesn't mention how he could lose his job for this. Instead he flips through the channels and asks her with a hint of irony if she'd like to see a special on the world's most haunted castles.
She leans back into his old couch. It smells like him. He must sleep here most nights. (He could have a million beds, if only-) She breathes in deep. The shapewear under her dress makes it hard to sigh.
Ashley doesn't even know what's on. She just knows that it murmurs in a language she can understand and hums like a lullaby. Most of all, she can hear him breathing nearby. That comforts her most of all. It's like those two days she spent with him have amounted to a lifetime. It's stupid, the kind of effect it has on her. She's sure her psychology professor could have written some kind of paper on it: the effects of trauma on her fragile-flower psyche.
It's the whole reason she came here. To hear him breathe. There's some strange comfort in that. "Mm-hm. Yeah. Sure."
She slips off her heels and tucks her bare, swollen feet under her. Leon doesn't even glance her way. She's drowsy, and the champagne she drank doesn't help any. She wonders – would Leon call her dad if she fell asleep? He probably would. He's such a good guy. He would probably never leave his parents hanging like this.
"Can I use your bathroom?"
He glances quickly over at a door in his tiny hallway. "Yeah? I mean, yeah."
She stands up, wobbling a little. She manages to snatch her purse. Its ornaments clink and jingle.
"You okay there?"
"Okay enough. Can you get me a drink or something? My head hurts..."
Leon's bathroom is bare, but clean. She picks up a roll of toilet paper and snorts before putting it back on its pyramid. He's too lazy to even put it in the holder. She looks around, staring, and notes the brand on his shampoo. Dove moisturizing. It's probably why his hair looks so nice.
She's officially crossed into stalker territory.
She laughs out loud at herself, almost a jeer, then puts the toilet top down and sits. She finds her phone in her purse and sobers immediately. She's really not that drunk, she told Leon so. The thought of her father is sobering in itself.
(From her dad, her mom, Tony, Kyle.)
She thinks of calling her dad. Instead, common sense wins out over alcohol's bravado and she calls Tony.
It's a precaution because she's fallen out of contact. His voice is sharp, and Ashley doesn't appreciate it. "The president's daughter, genius. Hello."
"Miss Graham. Give me a moment, I'll get your father-"
"No. Tony, listen to me, do not get my father or I'm hanging up." She pauses to think. "Or my mother. And I'm turning off my phone if you do. Okay? I'll break it."
When Tony speaks again, he does not sound amused. No one ever said that being Ashley Graham's bodyguard was an easy job. "Very well. Where are you?"
Ashley crosses her legs. She feels like she has just won a battle, even if it was through the worst channels possible, and from the top of a bachelor's toilet. "Somewhere safe."
Tony's voice could sharpen knives. He ought to try it sometime; she knows he has a few on him. "Define 'safe'."
"Miss Graham, I know your mother has spoken to you about this, but I have to emphasize just how dangerous it is to go home with young men you don't-"
"What has my mom been telling you?"
Tony pauses and tries to find the right way to word his next scolding. "You drank at the party, and-"
"And I'm fine." Something evil rears its head up inside of her. "And for your information, I am with a guy." Only we won't be having sex. We're going to watch something on the Discovery channel and I'll fall asleep on his couch. I said I was safe, didn't I?
She hangs up, then, and turns her phone off. Then, for good measure, she takes out the battery. There's no way they can track her down now.
She sits on the toilet and stares at her gutted phone. She really, really hates herself.
Then she puts it in her purse and stands up.
She waits for his response.
She tries to breathe in. Stupid Spanx. "One sec."
She takes it off, struggling and grunting against it. Her bare feet arch against the tile and finally it's off. Her gut shows, but suddenly she feels liberated. She stuffs it in her purse, hiding her cell phone from view, and exits the bathroom.
The dim room feels strange after the light of the bathroom, and she blinks. She nearly walks into Leon. Without thinking, she raises a hand to push away, but he grabs it.
"Hey," he says, his voice soft. He sounds like he's talking to a startled horse. "I got you something to drink."
She takes the can and slips her hand out of his. He's warm and smells powdery. Dove, she thinks, now I know. She wonders what it would be like to bury her face in his neck. That's the champagne talking, she tells herself. "Thanks," she says. Her throat sounds dry. "Leon?"
She sits down on the couch and sips at her Coke. He stands there waiting for her to continue.
"What was it like?"
Way to kill the mood. But, something inside of her whispers, you need to know.
It takes him a moment to answer, so Ashley looks around the room. She could count the number of personal items in the room on two hands. No photos. No books or boombox. Just discount-store lamps lying in the dark, with random guns sitting around waiting to get cleaned. So many guns would've freaked her out, four years ago. Now they don't.
He sits down on the far end of the couch. His eyes are stuck on the TV, staring blindly.
"You're asking me if I knew how you felt?"
Her voice comes out very small. Even the TV is louder than she is. Somehow, he still manages to catch it.
She looks down in her lap. She wants to avoid looking him in the eye. "I..."
There's a pause. Her heart sinks.
"You already know," he says slowly. "About Raccoon City. Right."
"Not all of it," she whispers. "I don't know what it felt like. For you."
She could have hit herself right then. Nice, she thinks, and now he's never going to tell you.
She steals a glance of him. His face has gone blank. She can hear some people cheering on the screen, and some deep voice talking about election parties. All she can see is a flicker of something in his eyes.
He turns off the TV. The room goes dark.
"Have you ever smelled something dead?"
Spain, she thinks, everything in Spain died. All the rot in the village, and the maggots, like they were already inside of her -
"It was like that everywhere." You should know where I've smelled death, she thinks, and he does.
"It's different." Her voice wavers. "It's like – everything – everyone – and you, you could've become one of them-"
"Yeah," he says, but he can barely get the word out because his voice is so soft. She's never heard Leon's voice so soft before.
"Please don't cry," she says desperately.
"What? Nah, I'm used to it. People are always asking."
Am I just 'people'? She guesses she is. He always said he wasn't nice to her just because she was the president's daughter, but sometimes she thinks he's only nice to her because he wants to keep his job.
It occurs to her that maybe he doesn't want her to leave tonight and go somewhere else, somewhere he doesn't know. If her bodyguards can't be here, at least he can. This is just a babysitting job for him: Leon's instinct to protect trumps everything else, including common sense.
She touches his arm. It feels a little too familiar, but she wants to comfort him. "Sorry I – brought it up."
He looks up at her. He pushes her away and runs his fingers through his hair again. "Are you sure you want to be here? I could call your dad. Explain everything to him."
He doesn't understand.
"I'm safe here," she says uncertainly. It's her excuse.
He stares at her. "What is it?"
She hesitates. "Nothing."
He's touching her again. A comforting hand on her shoulder, that's it. The woman in red is out of the equation, and Ashely still knows that she'll never get a piece of Leon. This is her former bodyguard, not her boyfriend. This is stupid. She's out of college and an adult now. She should know better.
He's just a person, not an ideal. She knows it, and even so, she wants him so badly that she'll come to his house just to – to do what?
"Leon," she whispers, "I think I'd – I'd better go."
She stands to get up, but he takes her by the wrist. She gets goosebumps. She has a crush on him, like she's twelve years old; when he releases her, she can feel a warm spot where he touched her.
"It's the middle of the night, Ashley. You can crash here. Take the couch."
What a gentleman. He's not better than Kyle, she tells herself, and why do you want him so much anyway? She knows the answer. She's just done trying to pretend she can live her life that way. She can't. He doesn't want her. She has to move on.
She picks up her purse and slings it over her shoulder. "I'm serious – I'd better go - "
"And I'm serious: you can't go out. Not without calling someone."
"Do you think I'm ten?"
A silence falls between them, and Ashley almost regrets shouting.
"I think you're the president's daughter. And I know I don't want anyone to hurt you."
I don't want anyone to hurt you.
Why, she asks herself, the question is why. Why don't you want me hurt?
Leon seems to have no clue what to do when she starts the full-out crying. He puts his hand on her back, but it only makes her crying worse.
She knows that she looks ten now.
She isn't sobbing loudly, at least. It's more like a panic attack. Like the ones she used to get, starting in Spain. She hasn't had one in ages, but it feels similar: strained breathing, muscles too tight, back rocking with the effort of not choking on the lump in her throat.
This time there's tears running down her face and dripping off her chin.
He takes her close and she can hear his heartbeat.
"Breathe," he says, a little awkwardly, "in through your mouth and out through your nose. It works."
They sit like that for a while. His arms start to feel stiff. She wonders how difficult this must be for him.
"I'm sorry about that," she says into his chest. It's embarrassing to admit. She's Ashley Graham. Yale graduate, president's daughter, go-getter. The White House staff makes jokes about her directness, the way she has to have everything just-so.
But she can't be direct with Leon.
Overtime – she couldn't believe she was ever that stupid. Spain made her stupid. Spain showed her that she couldn't control things. Not even herself.
He cups his hand over her cheek. It's too much, too tender, and all for a girl he only wants to protect. Not screw, or care for, or know. "You're gonna be all right" he says. She cradles her head in his shoulder, because she knows he won't move away.
"You're gonna be okay," he murmurs into her ear. He repeats it like a mantra, "You're gonna be okay."
"You think I'm helpless," she says.
There is nothing he can say to that.
She straightens herself and looks him in the face one last time, mascara smudges and all. His mouth is parted slightly, and he leans in as though to fumble for a response.
She kisses him instead.
His bed doesn't smell like him the same way his couch does, so she guesses that he never sleeps here. She lays there anyway and tries to smell some trace of him. The light's not out yet, anyway; if she can hear right, there's a rumble of thunder in the distance. A drizzly fall day, then. She slips her clothes back on and lingers at the edge of the bed, pretending to smooth out wrinkles. She tries to gather her bearings. It's like trying to read a compass that keeps pointing in different directions.
Finally she leaves his room.
She finds him in his kitchen. He's eating some kind of protein bar – not a diet one, she bets, not the kind her mom is always eating. When she sits next to him, at the far end of his bar-table, he slides her cell phone toward her. Its battery is intact.
Anger rears up, but she doesn't say anything. It's still too early in the morning. A part of her feels spent past caring. A part of her wishes he would kiss her again.
"Someone called for you."
"And you picked it up." She already knows the answer.
He chews for a moment, not looking at her. "I thought it might have been your dad."
She freaks out. "And you thought it would be a good idea to answer him at-" she glances at the clock "- nine AM?"
He swallows. "What was I supposed to do?"
Keep my secrets, she thinks. Think of me as a person and not just someone's burden. Instead, she crosses her arms. This time, she does it as much out of anger as of cold. The room has gone chill and she's goosebumping all over. His eyes fall on the mark near her collarbone, but they betray nothing. Ashley knows he regrets everything, and that only makes her angrier.
"Who was it?"
She refuses not to have this conversation. Another bite of protein bar. Chew. Swallow. Avoid making eye contact with the girl you just screwed.
"I didn't know you had a boyfriend.
Ashley bites hard at her lip. "I don't," she says. Not anymore. Kyle's a loser. She knows it now, and she's going to dump him. It's been coming for a long time. It was just hard to admit that she didn't care.
She was supposed to care.
"He thought so. He was a lot more suspicious than your father would've been."
Ashley snorts. "I bet so." That was Kyle, ever on the lookout, never really seeing what she needed. And then, that was her father. Ever in denial. She flips open her phone and checks her messages. Five new ones. The latest, as she expected, comes from her father: We need to talk.
Her thumbs know what to say before she does:
Maybe we do.
She shuts her phone with a snap. "Are you done eating that thing yet?"
He is. Instead of answering her, he rolls his neck until it cracks. Ashley hates the sound.
"Who did you call?"
"Your bodyguard. He was in your contacts."
"Did you tell him you weren't a crazy person?"
"I was calling from your cell. I just told him he'd probably want to know where you were." Leon shrugs. "He didn't ask."
Ashley looks blankly over at his counter. "No coffee?" She rubs her arms, hoping for warmth.
"Didn't have time."
"Between all these calls."
He can't answer that. She's getting good saying things that he can't respond to. She looks down at his countertop and gets angry.
"You think I'm helpless. You know I want your help. You're – you're attracted to it, aren't you? But I don't challenge you. I'm not going to hold your interest, am I?"
He leans toward her, eyes meeting hers. He looks concerned, and Ashley knows she's touched a nerve. Ashley thinks for a moment that he'll collapse. That he'll reach out and hold her and let her hear his heartbeat again.
A knock at the door.
No. He can't answer that either.
Neither of them moves.
Another knock. He goes to his bedroom; Ashley sits at the table and stares down at the counter. She doesn't feel the urge to cry. She feels like something disgusting inside her has swallowed all her feelings.
There's another knock, and another. "Sir?" says a sharp, familiar voice. Ashley knows that Tony is seconds away from threatening to break the door.
Leon returns and hurries to open it. Tony steps in right away, his hand on the gun at his hip. His sunglasses hide his eyes, but Ashley knows that they're scanning the room for her. When he finds her, his body unwinds, at least a little bit.
Ashley knows how she must look, but this time it's the harsh light of day, to a pair of eyes far harsher than Leon's.
"Hey," she says.
Tony doesn't know what to do in this situation. "Miss Graham. You might have told me where you were." She can tell from his voice that he's angry.
She shrugs. "Oh, well, you know," she says, purposefully blowing him off. She stands less than purposefully. She feels like an old woman, with arthritis slowing her bones. She picks up her purse, her shoes.
"Ashley." She looks over to Leon. He tosses something gray and balled up. "Here. Take it. You're going to freeze out there."
His eyes go back to her collarbone.
She tries not to think about it.
He watches them leave from his doorway. Ashley tries not to notice whether or not his eyes are on her, on whether he's nervous or wistful or relieved to see a problem walking away from him.
This was a last.
Tony follows her out of the room quietly. He doesn't say a word until he looks back at the door, suddenly realizing something.
"What?" She has some idea of what, but she asks anyway.
Tony trails off awkwardly. Leon was on TV for weeks after The Incident. He was an all-American hero.
Ashley thinks again of the hickey that her dress doesn't cover. She scrambles to put on the oversized jacket. Leon's oversized jacket. It doesn't smell like him. He must not like it very much. No wonder he gave it to her – she doesn't get the impression he wants it returned. It's warm, at least, and that helps agains the cold. It's funny how much the temperature can change in one night.
She clutches the jacket to herself almost as hard as she clutches her purse, hoping against hope that Tony didn't notice. After another moment of silence, Tony turns to walk toward the elevator. Ashley thinks he's not going to say anything else, but he does.
"I'm surprised that Agent Kennedy wouldn't call us."
Even in Tony's deadpan, Ashley can't miss the disdain. He cares more than you do, she thinks, and she wants to hit Tony. Ashley doesn't like hitting people. She has trouble with it. And Tony's a big guy, twice her size and bald and all muscle. But she wants to hit him then – get him to quit, so that he'll stop sticking around her like a disembodied shadow. A talking, disapproving, never-feeling shadow.
"He thought I'd called you," she defends. She shouldn't have to defend Leon, but she will. To her bodyguard, to her parents. She'll have to defend the fact that she went through horrors that she can't forget, without ever saying the word. Spain. Her father won't even mention it at dinner.
"Kennedy needs to keep track of himself."
Leon's not like that, she thinks, he's not what you're making him out to be. And he's an agent. Don't forget. Agent Kennedy, and he's done more for me than you have.
"He would have called you, if he'd known."
Tony's mouth tightens imperceptibly. Ashley knows she's made his job harder. Too bad, she thinks fiercely, he's made my entire life harder. Maybe it's not fair of her to blame him. It's not his fault, and she's landed him in boiling water.
"It just makes a man wonder how devoted Kennedy is to the presidential family's protection."
"Very. We used a condom."
As they enter the elevator, Tony looks straight ahead and says nothing, but Ashley catches his face going pink.
Ashley considers it a battle won.