[r]ating: PG13/R, your call.
[f]andom: Resident Evil, 4 specifically.
[p]airing: Ashley/Leon... ish.
[s]ummary:The perfect life for the perfect girl. Ashley Graham had everything,but lost it all in Spain. And as Whitehorse Christian College turnssmoggy and grey, she finds she can no longer turn to her friends—especially when things turn bloody and undead.
[n]otes: I HAD A BRAIN, BUT THIS THING ATE IT.
Chapter Two: A Forasaken Garden
16 January 2005
Senator Threshing, the head of the investigation, peered at her over the edge of her glasses. That incredibly pale blonde hair, those piercing blue eyes, hidden behind perfectly round glasses with tiny, nearly invisible, frames— it was all reminding her of her mother.
"The transcript indicates that you were informing us of your first meeting with Mr. Krauser."
Ashley nodded. "Yes. That's— what I telling you about."
"Now, after your fiancé told you to go with Mr. Krauser, what did you do?"
That was about the dumbest question she'd ever heard. What had they expected her to do, go tell him to shove a carrot up his ass? She stared at Senator Orange. "I went with him. Sat next to him for the entire trip."
She'd hated every minute of that flight.
"Did he say anything that made you... uneasy?"
"Aside from calling me 'muffin' and all the other sexist cracks?"
Senator Orange stared at her like she was an idiot. "...Uneasy about your safety?"
"No. Never once."
"Mr. Krauser, your alleged kidnapper, did not once make you uneasy on a six hour flight?"
"He made me plenty uneasy. But he never threatened me, or gave me any sort of hint that he was going to kidnap me!"
"Please explain," Senator Orange asked, smirking. "You disliked him, but he didn't make you feel unsafe?"
"No, he didn't. He made me feel like shit, but I never felt unsafe."
That had come later.
"And yet you have no doubt as to the identity of your kidnapper?"
"No, I don't."
Senator Orange glared at her. She glared back, her mind spinning with anger. How could be this cruel? Why didn't he believe her?
"Senator Ishikawa, that's enough." This came from Senator Threshing. "Miss Graham, would you please tell us how he kidnapped you?"
Ashley nodded and took a sip of water. When her mouth didn't feel like cotton— oh god, like cotton, like her insides had felt during that entire horrible time— she began to speak.
- - -
"I'm taking a night trip— into London," she announces.
Her sweater is on. She has the warmer socks on under her cowboy boots. Her skirt is thin, probably too thin, but she'll probably be okay. London, despite England's natural climate, is a heat-lamp. It's all the cars and air-conditioners and heaters and people, can't forget the sheer mass of people who live in this city. Town, as they like to pretend it is, even though it's a full-blown fucking city big as fucking New York.
She intends to stay mostly in the shops, where it will be warmer than the outside. That's the trick to walking around at night in not enough clothing: don't walk around as much. She's gotten used to it. It's the only way she can wear half her wardrobe back at Whitehorse.
She looks up, too far up, at Krauser and his big goddamn hands. Are big hands like big feet? She doesn't know, but she's growing more and more convinced that big hands are actually a sign of an asshole that has grown to encompass the whole of a man's body. As she looks at him, knowledge of his assholery growing and burning cold inside her, she feels her anger and hurt and contempt for him solidify.
It all hardens and hardens until she finds herself spitting out, icy and bitter, "Or do I need to ask your permission?"
He laughs. She hates that laugh. It is loud, impossibly loud, and rolls from deep in his gut. Every time he laughs— not a chuckle, not a snicker, but a laugh —it is this too-loud, too-long laugh. "Yes, you do, and yes, you have it." He pauses, smirking at her, something shining cold in his eyes. "I'm coming with you. So are the other agents."
"Then let's go."
And so she leaves— her purse and photocopied passport with her. Krauser hurries her out of her hotel room, his waist sometimes colliding with her ass in his rush to get her out. It doesn't occur to her that it could be anything more than an accident— none of that will occur to her until later.
- - -
Senator Threshing looked intently at her. "Are you saying he sexually harassed you?"
"She does seem to be casting him in a horrible light, doesn't she?" Senator Orange reached for a glass of water. Apparently, heckling made people thirsty. Who would have guessed?
"Glen, shut up." This from another senator, she has no idea who. But from his voice, she could tell he likely worked for a southern state. "We know you don't like the lady. You made your point last week. But hers is the best story we're gon' get. So just do us a favour and go eat a spit ball."
Senator Orange glared at the man. "I'm sorry, Zech, I'm not from fucking—"
"Senator Ishikawa! Senator Millard! You will both control yourselves or you will leave this room and we will find somebody to replace you in this investigation!" Senator Threshing looked to her. "Miss Graham, what happened after you left?"
The expression on Threshing's face made it clear: she'd had more than enough. And the woman's history of litigation made it clear that pissing her off too badly was something nobody wanted to do.
Ashley swallowed, took a sip of water, and began to talk. Again.
- - -
Ashley walks the brightly-lit streets, searching for a building— any building: shop, club, or bar; she doesn't care— that looks worth the overheating she'll do as soon as she walks in the door.
She turns to look at Krauser while she moves.
He looks distinctly smug. A self-important smirk curves along his lips, lingering along his face. That cold gleam in his eyes is still there. It makes her nervous. But what makes her even more nervous is that he taps his tiny earpiece and murmurs to the other agents, "She wants to check out the third shop from the right. Matthews, Thompson, Stabler, Cabbot— you run tail, I'll play sniper."
She doesn't know exactly what that means, but she can guess. Her other security agents are going to go inside a shop, tailing her— and this is the only place where they can get away with that. They're all Americans, they must be tourists sticking together— and Krauser is going to stay behind.
But she doesn't know what Krauser is talking about. She has no intention of going into an underwear shop. Shopping for clothes in London is a pain in the ass. But before she can tell him that she doesn't want to head into that shop, he is grabbing her by the arm. Within moments, he has tugged her off the main street. One too-large hand briefly collides with her ass as he drags her.
Just as she opens her mouth to protest, he removes the hand, instead with drawing something from his back pocket. With inhuman speed, he forces that something— a cloth— over her mouth and nose.
The rag is damp and smells sickly-sweet. But before she can register or identify that scent, the world goes black.
- - -
"I woke up in the back of a van. It was crossing the border from France to Spain."
Senator Millard looked interested. Perhaps even engrossed. "Do you know what the substance on the rag was?"
"Could you make an educated guess?"
Senator Orange opened his nasty mouth again, and Ashley wanted to punch him in the face.
"May I ask why Mr. Krauser would have identified himself as a dead man... considering that Secret Service records show that the team leader assigned was Special Agent Mesinni?"
"I don't know."
"May I remind you that you are just as obligated to tell the truth here as you would be in a courtroom?"
Ashley found her voice coming out in a hiss as she clenched her jaw and spat every word. "I. Don't. Know."
"Senator Ishikawa! That is enough! Stop harassing Miss Graham." Senator Threshing rounded on Senator Millard, saying, "Zech, kindly do not say a word!"
"I suggest we end this session for the day. We know how things started. That's enough for today." This came from Andrea Bales, a senator from California. Somebody— possibly Jared Evans— apparently agreed, saying, "I move we recess the session until nine-thirty A. M. tomorrow morning, Thursday, January 17."
"Seconded," Andrea said, with an expression on her face that said she wouldn't tolerate people getting off topic. "All in favour, say aye."
"Aye," almost the entire room chorused, including, she noted with a small smile, Leon's voice in there somewhere.
They were all tired of Ishikawa and Millard's constant bickering, weren't they? She wouldn't have been surprised. She had no idea how such an un-personable person had ever been elected to his position. Maybe it was because he was a minority.
They found Julia Graham talking to a reporter in the First Lady's Office. Ashley ducked in, waved silently, and ducked back out. Her mother waved back, briefly, but then turned her attention back to the reporter.
That was just how things were. Ashley had long gotten used to the fact that her mother wasn't a stay-at-home mom anymore. After her father's third election to the Senate, and Ashley's entrance into high school, her mother had gone into lobbying. Returned to lobbying. However you wanted to say it.
After leaving the First Lady's Office, Ashley headed over to her own suite of rooms. Right next to her room was a room full of art supplies. Easels, canvases, charcoal and graphite pencils and paint and seriously everything she could ask for.
She pulled the door open and and went inside. Even though her mother had prepared her for the room's contents, her jaw fell open.
Ashley moved to an easel, clamped a canvas to it, and moved around, grabbing the things she would need. Pencils, erasers, and, if she got that far, charcoal. At the last minute, she changed her mind. She picked up two pencils, an eraser, and a notebook.
She sat down on one of the pillows they'd tossed in the room-- pillows that had come from her art room at home, she knew-- and began to scratch the pencil against the paper. She'd heard of freewriting, where one wrote anything and everything that came to one's mind. This was going to be similar. She'd just let her hands and fingers do the drawing for her.
On a whim, she tossed away the eraser.
On a whim, she closed her eyes.
Her hand moved, just moved. She was framing something, reinforcing lines she couldn't see. What was she sketching? She didn't know. She wouldn't know. It might have been a bunch of reinforced lines, it might actually be a coherent sketch. No way to tell; she'd never been good at remembering the lines she drew.
Ah! She was drawing something round. Now, to shade it, randomly. Okay, shading something else. Diagonal lines, thick and dark, and now to reinforce them.
She kept the pencil moving. The sound of scratching filled the room. Soon, it was all she could hear, aside from her own breathing.
The silence was starting to get to her. She kept going, just to finish, just so she could get back into the swing of drawing and painting. She kept going until the the curiosity and the silence were driving her truly crazy.
She set the pencil down, took a deep breath, and opened her eyes.
Faces. Faces and fruit: something round, a peach, maybe? No, not a peach, it had an incredibly broad stem, making it look more like a muffin. It was sitting on a scarred, upturned palm-- no, look away from there, look away. Look at the faces. God, so many faces. Who had she sketched?
Angry, dim faces. Their anger was palpable, but their skin and their eyes had gone slack. Bad teeth. Wrinkles. Dark hair, almost to a one.
Ganados. She had drawn the faces of ganados.
She'd drawn Mike, too, the way she remembered him. His expression was hurt, serious, but that quirk of his lips--ohmigod, such a wry, tiny smile, it was breaking her heart all over again-- and the arched eyebrow told her that he was trying to be comforting and funny. This was how he had looked on the plane.
With a finger, she traced the shading on his lips. Almost, but not quite, reverently. Her thumb brushed cheekbones that had been incinerated an ocean away.
She burst into tears.
God, she was never going to see him again. Ever. It was nearly enough to drive her crazy. Maybe she was already crazy. It'd drive her crazier. Craziest. Whatever. She'd long given up on it all being a dream. Given up on waking up and still being at Whitehorse Christian College, with Inanna snoring and Tracy and Lacie in the other room and Mike at drill somewhere. Everybody safe and sound and alive, and no cotton, no cotton.
Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god. There-- in the middle of everything-- in Krauser's scarred, upturned palm, lay the round thing. It was definitely a muffin. Sitting in Krauser's motherfucking hand was that goddamn, fucking, muffin.
Son of a bitch. In that moment, she hated Krauser more than she'd ever felt anything in her life.
- - -
"Just a little muffin. You gonna beat on me with those little muffin fists of yours? Gonna seduce me with those pouty pastry strip lips of yours?" He licks his own lips, and she makes a terrified, breathy noise. He continues, pressing close to her, backing her against the hot metal wall. "And what if it works, Pillsbury Dough-girl?"
- - -
Screaming in frustration-- she wanted to draw, damnit, not remember-- and pent up memories of bottoled anger, she tossed the goddamned notebook across the room. With sounds that fell somewhere between sobs and screams, she knocked the easel aside and snapped the tainted pencil.
She stood in the centre of the room and crammed her fists into her mouth. She tried not to think about Krauser's words, or any of the thousand horrifying things she'd seen, or the cotton that was threatening to come back. Around the salty, metallic taste of her graphite-smeared fingers, she screamed.
The door slammed open and Leon made his way in. He stood there, gaping, for a moment. And then he moved toward her, pulling her into a hug.
"You're an artisit. Your dad never said--"
"--No. I'm not. I'm not anymore."
"It's found its way into your art, hasn't it?"
She nodded. The cotton was coming back. God, she didn't want to be cotton. She wanted to be blood and flesh and real. But the cutton-- it it just kept coming back. She couldn't pull it out.
And that gave her an idea.
But Leon was grabbing her notebook. He peered at it.
"Whose hand is that holding the cupcake?" He asked. "It's weird. Surreal. But it's kind of funny, too."
"Krauser's. And it's a muffin," she replied.
His face and spine went taut. He was stiffening, retreating into his own head a little. "Why is Krauser holding a muffin?"
She sobbed again. "That was what he called me. A muffin. It started as just an insult. When I tried to fight back, in the van, but then he kept using it."
"You tried to fight back?" Leon was moving just a little closer to her, now.
She nodded. "Somebody was dumb. Left a car jack in the back seat. In reach. Nobody tied me up. Because they thought I'd stay out, I guess. So I picked up the jack and--"
"--and you hit somebody with it."
"Three people. Three men. Two in the head, one in the shoulder. Krauser shot all three, pulled the van over, and--"
She stopped. She looked at her hands. She curled her fingers into fists, then uncurled them.
"And he pulled it right out of my hands. And he told me-- he told me I was a freaking muffin, and--"
Leon grabbed her, pulled her into a hug again. She sobbed against his shirt, but he just rubbed her back. He murmured dumb things like "everything's going to be okay", and hushed her, and it was almost okay again. The cotton was going away.
"What did Mike look like?" He asked when she was quiet again.
She sat down at his feet, grabbed the notebook from his hand, and used her feet to pull a pencil toward herself. She began to sketch feverishly. Tracing down the side of his nose. The tip. The nose's high bridge that got that little furrow when he was thinking. The pencil brushed out his cheekbones and his chin, the deep-set eyes that always seemed to twinkle. Perfect, kissable lips. A simple blond crewcut-- though, thanks to the pencil, it was gray and black. Ears with lobes she loved to suck and nibble. And god, he'd loved it when she did it.
When she was done, she showed him. "That's him," she said.
Leon nodded, looking serious. "Did he like to drink?"
"He had a couple of beers every now and then. Usually with friends. He liked to have fun." She traced that chin up to the cheek, smiling at the memories that all came back. "And he loooved to laugh."
She began to cry through the smile. "Always joking around. He was never really serious, you know? You could tell him anything, as long as it was funny. And everything was funny. Because he was Mike."
Leon sat beside her. "Were you going to have any-- did he have any brothers or sisters?"
"One sister. Amanda. They have the same cheekbones. On him, they're just kind of there, but on Amanda, those cheekbones are killer. She sings, you know. Music major. They both sang, but he wasn't all that into it. And it was always like his whole voice changed when he sang, you know? You'd never know it was him. It's all low, baritone, really, not bass, and throaty and jazzy and it's just gorgeous to hear. He did a jazz cover of Scarecrow's song in The Wizard of Oz. It was hilarious."
That whole Halloween had been hilarious. Inanna had gone as What Dorothy Would Have Looked Like If She Had Been A Goth, so Tracie had been the Tin Man (or, in this case, The Knight in Rusted Armour), Lacie had gone as Glenda the Just-a-Little-Too-Good Witch, and Mike had been the Scarecrow. Except he was a zombie lounge singer. He'd worn a cheap sequinned suit, a raggedy top hat, and zombie make-up. Ashley had been the Wicked Witch of the West. That costume had been fun to make-- a wickedly short black dress with an asymmetrical hem. Red and white novelty fishnets, black stiletto heels-- gawd, it'd been too fun.
Mike had taken her home with him. That Halloween had been the night she'd lost her virginity. She'd been two weeks from eighteen.