Chapter 2: Unwilling Emotion

He was exhausted.

He felt the exhaustion to the core of his being even as he knew for certain that he had to maintain control of the situation for a bit longer. He could almost feel his body becoming more and more dehydrated as the sun beat its unmerciful gaze onto his shoulders and exposed skin. The salty air that had been so refreshing after the battle now abraded his burned flesh and chapped his lips to the point of bleeding. His wounds no longer stung from contact with the water but each wave they bounced over sent a fresh spray of saltwater into his face, slapping him awake.

He had been holding the throttle down for close to two hours by his estimation and his wrist had gone numb not too long into the ride. His hands and arms ached from fighting with the ocean currents, but he held on tight as he looked down at the fuel gauge. There wasn't much gas left and he hadn't seen shore yet. A dart of worry speared through him, but he ruthlessly shoved it down. It had to be close now. They would make it.

"We must be close." he said over the roar of the engine to reassure Ashley. She had gone noticeably silent not too long into their ride home and he hadn't minded it, not because he didn't care what she had to say, but because he didn't know what to say in response. He could hear his words echoing back to him and he shook his head to dismiss the thoughts, focusing instead on his actions, specifically what he was going to have to do next.

Ashley was going to be handed over to the agents when they arrived and they would both be going into quarantine, he knew that. The coastline was nearby, it had to be, and once they got there, they would be recovered by the agents that Hunnigan had dispatched at their last radio contact. If that compass on the dash was correct, he was going in the correct direction to the coast. A straight shot clear of the island was the best route to take to conserve as much gas as possible.

"Can you hear me?" he asked over the sound of the jet ski, his voice raised to be heard over the noise. "Ashley? Ashley!" he yelled with more insistence.

He could have sworn she had fallen asleep if not for the sudden jerking motion on his abdomen as her fingers sought to hold tight to him. The sensation was unmistakably sluggish, and he realized that she was fading fast. They were both going to have to hold on until they could connect with secret service agents on the coast and maybe even longer than that. He couldn't remember the last time he had truly slept, not in weeks—and certainly not since coming to Spain. He had many sleepless nights since arriving on that island.

She isn't going to be prepared for the life of quarantine, he thought, as he recalled the experience of quarantining after Raccoon City. There had been a constant deluge of blood work, tasteless food, and sleepless nights in those three months he had been stuck in that box. He wasn't sure what awaited him at the end of this adventure, but he knew that he was far more prepared than the woman who was barely clinging to his back.

"Ashley!" he said more forcefully, his mind resting on the future that awaited them despite his desire to reassure her. He couldn't have predicted what had happened in Spain, but he knew that when they were both in quarantine there would be no privacy and no opportunity to prepare her for what was to come. There would be no time to process or dissect the experience and worse—they would both become lab rats of a kind if he didn't handle his briefing correctly.

From behind him he heard a faint reply. Ashley's voice sounded dreamy and far away to his ears and he felt a bolt of concern go through him as he fought to hear her words. She sounded exhausted, as exhausted as he felt perhaps or worse. She wasn't used to the requirements of the situation or the physicality and mental fortitude that was necessary to survive under such pressure. He hoped she could hang on for just a bit longer.

"Hold on for a little longer!" he yelled; his voice hoarse but strong. When she didn't answer him, he reached down with one hand, flexing his fingers, and grabbed onto hers to secure them around his waist. She jerked from the contact, and he pressed her hands to his abdomen even harder. He fought with one hand to hold the throttle and knew he couldn't hold onto her for long.

"I will." She said over the waves, her voice a bit stronger now, as he felt her fingers intertwine between his, "I promise." He felt a surge of warmth as their fingers meshed and he was reminded that being with Ashley had kept him going. She was the reason he had been to this hell and a big reason why he had persevered when things were hopeless.

"Save your strength" he said after a time, thinking that perhaps words would be enough to fortify her strength, and returned his hand to the handlebars to control the jet ski. He needed her to stick it out for just a bit longer and they'd be clear of this situation.

In his profession it wasn't good to get attached. Objectivity was essential in survival situations if you were to accomplish your mission and stay alive. He had a mission when he arrived in Spain, with very little intel and only limited support, and it had been to find Ashley. Armed with a pistol and a photograph he went out into the domain of the Los Illuminados and found himself attached despite his best efforts.

After Raccoon City he had learned exactly what he wanted from his life. He had devoted himself to training as a special agent and when he was assigned to the President's daughter as her guardian, he felt confident that he would be able to attend to his duties and keep his objectivity intact. He had always been stoic, but it was an unfortunate lapse in judgment that had landed him this job and he was determined to make the best of it.

He had assumed that Ashley would be a typical assignment for a college girl of her age. He remembered himself at 20, a green-eyed man training to be a cop, and realized Ashley had subverted his expectations. He had imagined babysitting her at drunken parties and following her around school as she attended to her education and lived her life. He wasn't exactly thrilled about the prospect of doing this, but he had been assigned and fate had stepped in, bringing them together in Spain instead.

Ashley had proven she had strength many times throughout their journey, and if he was honest, he hadn't expected much from the girl when he first met her. She seemed like a prissy princess- how he'd imagined her to be. Spoiled, entitled, and naïve. The naivete had been true, but her innocence was quickly spoiled as they spent more time delving into the Los Illuminados and infiltrating the island to find escape routes.

What he knew of Ashley extended to the limited exposure that she had as the future president's daughter during his campaign for the presidency. He hadn't paid much attention to her at that time and had chosen instead to devote himself to training.

He had been surprised by her actions in Spain. In fact, she had proven more than once how strong she could be by helping him survive in situations that had appeared hopeless on his own. His mission was to get her home but without her help he would never have been able to remove the parasite—he would have ended up just like the rest of them. Thinking of it now made him shudder.

She hadn't been unbearable or utterly useless during their battles though she added a complexity he hadn't experienced before. She had, at several times, fought herself to escape from danger and to help him. Of course, she was not a trained professional so he couldn't hold her to Ada's standards, but she had managed to surprise him several times with her courage and fortitude.

She wasn't perfect and he knew that more than anyone probably ever would. She did act irrationally at times, like when she ran away from him. That had made him furious. He couldn't believe how she had fled the room and gotten captured. She didn't get hysterical at every chance, but it had happened. He had expected worse to be honest when he had first met her, but she had challenged his assumptions at each hurdle.

As his thoughts began to drift, he remembered the look of deep pain and fear in Ashley's big wide eyes at so many points. He had wanted to comfort her, had tried in so many ways, and had succeeded to the best of his ability. They had needed each other to survive and when her eyes fell upon him, he could feel his heart ache from the shadows he saw within them. Those eyes had threatened to blow his objectivity out of the water. If he was honest, they had.

When he had been given the picture of Ashley, he had memorized every feature and was surprised when his first thought was, "cute". He had shaken his head, remembering himself at that age and knowing how naïve he had been before Raccoon City. He had no interest in "cute" girls, they hadn't lived through the nightmare of biological terrorism. He had respect, instead, for women like Ada. As he travelled with Ashley, he realized she was also a survivor and deserved his respect as well.

Ashley had stirred him, despite the grime and dirt that had covered them both. He hadn't had a proper shower in so long he couldn't remember. He had dunked in the lake on the island and had taken the chance to rinse as much dirt off himself without getting muddy or taking his clothes off. Ashley had done the same and when she had come out of the water her clothing had stuck to every part of her. She may not be considered exotic like Ada, but she stirred him, nonetheless. He remembered with a quirk of his lips the way Ashley had admonished him for looking. Even as he remembered this, he realized he had done more then look—he had imagined.

The only excuse he had for himself was just the sheer amount of time they had spent together and the bond that had formed through the trauma of their experience. His heart had taken many tumbles when he'd lost her, and desperation consumed him when she screamed. He had developed feelings for the girl, ones he couldn't and wouldn't examine, not if he wanted to get them out of there alive. Now that they were getting closer to safety, he felt the uncomfortable realization that his reprieve from those thoughts was coming to an end.

A particularly strong gust of wind sent the jet ski lurching over a wave and slamming into the water, his teeth snapping together in a shock of pain. He felt Ashley's hands scramble to grip him, and he gritted his teeth against the shocking pain and fought for control. The pain snapped him from his thoughts, and he searched the horizon. Could he see the shoreline?

"It isn't much farther!" he yelled, feeling her nod against his back. His hair was whipping into his eyes, and he squinted into the sunlight searching the horizon. He regretted not finding a boat as he looked down once again at the gas gauge. It was nearing empty.

An unwelcome feeling curled in his stomach as he felt Ashley reposition her hips in the seat. Despite the numbness he felt in his own body, he could clearly feel the press of her body as she shifted in her seat. He had been this close and closer- so close the even he knew how far his desires had taken him—well past the point of professionalism he prided himself on. Thank God the worst of those moments were behind him.

He knew enough about psychology to know that the feelings they had were complicated by the trauma of their experience together. His overwhelming feeling of protectiveness and yes, possessiveness too, had been unleashed thanks to Sadler's diabolical plan. It wasn't an emotion he was accustomed to feeling, not ever. Those feelings were dangerous, yet he found himself unable to turn them off at times. His instincts were sharp, and he knew he wasn't the only one confused about their relationship, his instincts didn't have to tell him that though—only his eyes when she looked at him.

Those same eyes that had held wild fear at the sight of blood on her hands. The eyes that shone with fear and hope alternating between each other in different moments of rest and chaos.

He had certainly misjudged her. She had shown her intelligence and courage at different times when it didn't look like there was any hope in their situation. She had, amazingly enough, been a great listener and followed his directions whenever he gave them—for the most part. She had been brave. If he told her to hide, she hid. If he told her to run, she ran, although not like a marathon runner. He couldn't blame her lack of speed considering the state they were both in.

Of course, she wasn't perfect by any means. Sometimes she'd follow him even when he'd tell her to stay behind which made his job harder. He trusted his instincts when he sensed danger ahead and would direct her to safety. She listened most of the time and when she didn't it was because she was driven by either fear or worry for him. She sometimes crept into danger from out of hiding unaware of the danger he had her hide from. Other times he would desperately need her help and she rose to the occasion…

'Leon!' she had cried, running to his side as he shut the heavy oak door, locking the las plagas in the other chamber. He knew they would open the door, he had to find something to brace it as fast as possible. He searched frantically for something, anything, to keep the door wedged shut!

"Ashley, we have to find something to brace the door, find something!" Leon cried as he felt the force of who knows how many people pushing at his back. He bore down with all his might, his legs shaking with effort as his feet slid on the dirt covered stone. The door opened a peak and fingers sprouted from the crack.

"Hurry Ashley… HURRY!" he grunted and felt the door start to slip forward just as Ashley gave a cry of surprise and relief. His eyes quickly sprang in the direction she did and saw the huge log she had found on the floor covered in bloody sheets and empty barrels. Seeing it, he knew that she wasn't going to be able to lift it over the door to lock it in place. He quietly cursed his decision to go into this room.

"Leon!" she yelled as she scrambled on top of the pile of junk and crying out as the splintered wood sank into her delicate hands. He tried to answer back to her, but his body was focused entirely on keeping the door as shut as possible. He watched as she threw things to either side, finally unearthing the massive log and grabbing it with both hands under her arm. She started to drag it towards him on trembling legs as his feet slid another inch forward.

She came up to his side and with relief he watched her drop the log right before the outstretched arms of the las plagas. The sound of the log hitting the ground echoed through the room and time seemed to stand still as she just looked on into the squirming mass seeping through the door.

Her hands, so small and delicate were at her side, her fingers splayed in the effort to catch her breath and her chest rose and fell quickly, trying to earn a little extra energy with each ragged rush of air. In his mind, he had been screaming for her to move forward- She wasn't Ada. She couldn't protect herself. She needed his protection. She needed him just as much as he needed her.

In the moment before she started kicking the Las Plagas at the door, trying to get them out of the way so they could slam the door shut, he realized that the only thing stopping him from dropping down and letting the monsters swarm inside was the fact that she needed him. He could stomach the monster growing inside himself until they found a cure if they were together. It was a small comfort in this disgusting, wretched world to know that he wasn't alone. She must have felt the same.

None of that would matter if they didn't survive this. Just because they shared a strange, unknown bond, didn't mean that he would have the opportunity to explore it.

As the last hand was crushed under Ashley's booted foot, the door slammed shut. Leon turned quickly and with her help they heaved the heavy wood branch up and onto the doors open hooks, securely locking it in place.

He put his hands against the door and gasped for breath and watched as Ashley's hands, still gripping the wooden frame, started to slide with her body to the floor until she was on her knees, shaking and gasping for breath. He turned to look at her just as she looked over at him and the tears in her eyes didn't seem like tears of weakness but of relief. She wasn't a whining child; she was brave and had just saved them.

"I guess this was the right door after all…" she said, and forced a shaky smile on her dry lips, a few tears streaming down her face without hindrance as she did so. He couldn't speak as he looked over at her, a new respect brewing for her in his heart and as hard as he fought it, he couldn't deny that something was there, something powerful…

Whether it was the pest that was growing inside them or just the time spent together, they both were changing. Even if neither of them realized it yet, there was something between them. It was obvious that this was something neither of them had expected of their future, but it was certainly their reality- and they had to get out of this… hell… before either of them could begin to understand the feelings and emotions that had brewed and spewed forth from between them.

"Good job, Ashley."

She really had saved them that time, he wouldn't have survived on his own. That time and many times after she would rise to the occasion. That time he had wanted to sweep her off her feet and spin her in a circle with happiness if you could call the feeling happiness. He had resisted the urge, settling instead on telling her she had done a good job which had admittedly dimmed his own relief.

When they had finished the final battle, he had felt so much elation but that hadn't lasted long. He had been stunned into silence by Ashley's question.

"Overtime." She had said. Jesus, had she really?

He hadn't had sex in… he didn't want to think about it. He never had the time while in training and he had an aversion to women in general and had ever since Raccoon City when he, Claire, and Ada had to fight for their lives to survive. Letting Ada die had haunted him, he knew this, and so he'd never been able to connect with any women in all that time. It was no surprise that the first time he encountered another woman who needed him to help her, and he'd be… what? Willing?

Sex with Ashley was out of the question. He wasn't going to lie to himself and say he hadn't thought about its multiple times during their ordeal. If he was being honest with himself, it would have been more than a couple times. Under such strain and stress, he had no outlet for his tension and hadn't been able to release any of it because of the high-pressure situation they found themselves in. Sex was a release he didn't accept for himself.

"After you take me back to my place how about we do some… overtime." She had said.

He was shocked to the point of choking and simply managed a "sorry" before he said something he shouldn't. He couldn't believe the words that had come out of her mouth—so unexpected and so surprisingly out of character that he nearly choked.

Her place? Did she mean the White House? Where exactly did she think he was taking her now? He'd be so naïve to think he could withhold the truth of what awaited them on that beach. More than that, what did she think he was going to say—they hadn't talked about anything like that the entire time they had been together. The offer had struck him completely off guard. Her sudden outburst had made him want to choke because despite everything that had happened, he hadn't expected it. He didn't think she was also so… willing?

He respected her too much to just sleep with her. Of course, he would respond that way—of course she knew he would reject her. What did she expect? Apparently, a lot more then rescuing, or at least that's what her offer led him to believe. He was supposed to be protecting her, not abusing his position to take advantage of her when she was actively being traumatized every minute. It was his responsibility, his duty, to protect her and he would fulfill that mission regardless of what lay between them.

That was another thing—her feelings were based in trauma. He knew this—he knew that they had nothing in common outside of this one experience together. He didn't, after all this time, even know who he was anymore. Whatever emotions she was feelings were spawned entirely from their situation and not validated or based in reason. Instead, it was instinct that drove her offer and maybe something else that he refused to acknowledge.

Every time he caught her from a high height, he let his hands linger on her body just a split second longer then necessary. It had just happened. Anytime they touched it was in desperation and those feelings were powerful—he knew that they were building trust but something more as well. What kind of impact would their joining have on her mental state—doing anything with her now would simply be inappropriate and could at it's worse, confuse the situation more than it already was.

Still… he was a man. He had thought about it. He came close—too close for comfort. There had been so many times where they had been huddled together for warmth when he had felt her pressed against him just for the heat. There was a different kind of heat that brewed inside him during those moments, more so than what he experienced at any point in his life.

Yes… they'd become dangerously close.

Yes, he'd thought about doing more, but only for moments- and even then, it was a matter of sheer lust, and he hadn't accepted the temptation- or had he? With so much adrenaline fueling them, there was bound to be some mutual attraction between them driven by instinct. He had longed to touch her but had only settled on a few occasions to linger his hand along the small of her back or to hold her close when he caught her from her fall. He had touched her to smooth her unruly knotted hair as she wept against his shoulder from fear when they were alone.

Yes… overtime at this point was an impossible suggestion even if it was also impossibly frustrating. He knew it and because of his duty, his training, and his mission- he had refused the offer and intended to keep it that way. As soon as he got back into the states, he was going to have to find some way of relieving his frustrations, by whatever means necessary. It didn't help when her hands were wrapped securely around him, her fingertips just barely touching over the width of his chest.

The vision before him jerked him from his memories—the coast! He could see it across the horizon, stretching in an arc of white foam. The thought of finally reaching land amidst the busy beachgoers brought him a mixture of relief and dread. When they got home there was going to be a lot of questions and interrogations that he wasn't looking forward to. There would have to be answers to questions he hadn't prepped Ashley to answer.

"I see the shore!" he yelled to her, and she didn't respond immediately.

"Ashley," he commanded, "look!" he demanded, shaking his thoughts from his mind. He could see what looked like the gentle sway of the beach shoreline. As they got closer, he could see the faint lines of colors, beach towels and bodies sprawled out in a multitude of colors. His eyes blurred from the glare of the sun on the water, but he could still see the lines. He heard her heave a heavy sigh as she peered over his shoulder to see the land.

They hadn't talked on the way back, it had been best to preserve their strength and he certainly needed it to get back home, together. Mission accomplished? Not yet, but almost. Then he'd immediately get the hell away from her and save himself the mental and physical battle. There was no longer a need to worry about lust and proximity to a young, beautiful girl that was probably traumatized…. But he'd saved her. They'd made it.

But getting away would be the healthiest thing he could possibly do for them both. He had a lot of unanswered questions that he wanted to investigate, not to mention he had to deal with the rebirth of the dead woman from his dreams- Ada. She had survived the fall- how? How did she survive that kind of fall? What was she doing in Spain and how was she involved in Ashley's kidnapping and the Los Illuminados? Where was her end game?

Plus… it was Ada that captivated him, and it was Ada that he longed for more than anything for as long as he'd remembered. He had to face it, she had been the woman who occupied his dreams. That woman… who seemed a part of him that he could never let go of- he never could forget her. She seemed to always be doing the saving while he was in Spain but that hadn't been the case during Raccoon City. It hadn't always been so. He thought she was dead, and he'd already locked those feelings away since that time in their first hell. Now that she was alive his nightmares seemed irrelevant but the agony behind them hadn't ceased.

'She's like a part of me I can't let go of…'

Ada existed in his mind as a memory and had become something more then the woman he met all those years before. He had been tormented, he knew now, from the memory of her for so long. He had failed her. He hadn't been able to see that or understand it fully until now—until understanding the desperation behind his commitment to Ashley. It was in this moment, with the coast in reach, that he realized he'd been living in the breath it had taken to rip Ada from his grasp for years.

But she hadn't died. Ada was alive and the confusion of the moment when she'd appeared at first was too much to process right now. He had to focus on what he could understand—which was what was to come next.

He could save Ashley. He was going to do that and then he'd redouble his efforts on his elusive companion from the past. This woman that was such an enigma that she seemed more like a ghost fading into the mist- appearing under strange and peculiar situations. She didn't seem real. Maybe because his memories of her were so limited and the only thing he clearly remembered about her was her death and mixed in with those memories were new ones.

"You'll be home soon." He said again as the jet ski crashed onto along the shallow waters of the beach, onlookers screaming and yelling in a foreign language, standing, and pointing, their hands rising to their faces to see what the commotion was. It was a good thing that they were both mostly cleaned off by the water… at least he was. As he jumped off the Jet Ski, he automatically turned out of habit to help her down as the jet ski tipped forward unsteadily.

He watched her face, which was devoid of emotion, ripple with surprise as she started to fall. He reached out instantly to catch her as the wave crested and she toppled face forward into the water. Shocked, he called her name, feeling the jet ski smash into his side as he reached under the water to grasp her by the arm, pulling her to the surface

"Ashley, are you okay?" He said as she came to the surface sputtering and coughing.

"Here, let me help you." He said, holding her upright as the current rocked them. She was struggling to stand upright, he could tell, and he did his best to anchor her with his arms. He tried to steer her away from the jet ski that was just rocking unhindered in the current so it wouldn't hit them, but she stumbled in the water almost face planting again.

"Ashley," he asked, concern edging into his voice, "are you okay?"

She nodded just as a wave crested behind them, almost melting into the wave. He jerked her roughly around, catching her around the shoulders with his arms. Her gaze met his and he froze, the dazed looked catching him off guard. Her eyes were unfocused but held an expression he couldn't understand and maybe didn't want to. It was too vulnerable for him, too open.

"Are you okay?" he asked over the roar of the ocean but was stopped short of shaking her when her focus sharpened, and her gaze became defiant. She swatted his hand away and the absence of her in his arms made him feel slightly deflated for some reason.

His throat burned as he watched her press her hands against her chest, stepping away from him unsteadily in the current. The movement felt like a rejection, and he didn't know what to make of it. Why was she withdrawing from him now?

"You don't have to keep taking care of me." she said, looking up into his face with a look of defiance. He stared down at her, the wind catching in her matted hair, framing her face in chunks of blond that obscured her features.

"What are you talking about?" he asked, his hands instinctively reaching out to steady her, but she stepped backwards away from his grasp.

"I'm saying that I'll be okay from here on out." She said, her voice barely above a whisper. He had to lean closer to hear her and what he heard he did not like. She didn't need him anymore. She was trying to tell him that she was fine on her own but that wasn't true—they weren't home free yet.

"What are you talking about?" he said, wondering if this was about what he had said about sleeping with her—about overtime.

"I meant it Leon." She said, her voice small and soft, "I don't need you to- "

"Stop it!" He yelled, moving towards her again, returning his hands to her shoulders to pull her close. "You aren't fine!" he yelled as she collapsed against him weakly, looking up into his eyes with a hazy gaze. She tried to resist the pull of his arms, but he held fast. In his mind her words echoed, and he wondered to himself if she truly didn't need him anymore. That was a lie, they weren't safe. Not yet.

"Leon I can't- "she started to say but he squeezed her close, stopping her words. He knew something was off with her, she wasn't well. She didn't sound like herself.

"Stop arguing." His words were harsh, and his tone was rough. It was a mistake to touch her this way, he knew that, but she melted into his arms sending electricity sparking through his fingertips where he touched her.

Forgetting the jet ski, forgetting the mission and the people watching, he wrapped both arms around the curve of her back—pulling her close. She breathed into his chest, and he held her there safely in his arms. He couldn't think past the heat he felt radiating off her body wondering if she was sick or had a fever in the sun. He regretted not talking to her this whole time—not reassuring her or preparing her for what was next.

"Leon…I?" she whispered; her voice pathetically low. She sounded like a child and felt very small in his arms.

She looked up into his face, her eyes shaking. For a horrible instant he was terrified of whether they had removed her parasite from within her, but he saw her eyes focusing and un-focusing on his face. Despite the heat of the day, her skin was oddly pale. Her lips trembled and she shuddered. He knew she was going to faint, but she seemed to want to say something. He leaned in closer to her face as her eyes widened- words slipping from her lips unknowingly.

And just like that, she passed out.

3-23-2022