The dancing sea of vivid color seemed to stretch for miles.
All around him were hot, sweaty bodies in garish costumes; skeletons adorned in pink and purple garlands; flowers and fruits in white, green, and yellow; above all, the ubiquitous brilliant orange of marigolds.
The entire spectrum of the dazzling hues registered with him--how could it not?--but there was only one color that caused him to involuntarily snap his head towards it and put him on full alert.
It didn't matter what shade: scarlet, crimson, maroon--and anything in between. Even a flash of it in the corner of his eye warranted investigation. It was a difficult color to get away from, especially in a street parade in Mexico City on The Day of the Dead.
It was no accident that he was here now, during the festival of the dead. He had come to atone for his sins, to ask all the wretched souls he'd so recently transported to the other side for forgiveness.
That they were infected by a parasite that rendered them inhuman was moot, although, there was a time when it wasn't. Throughout the ordeal and for a day or two after, his killing spree had felt fully justified. His survival instincts had kicked in and his training had taken over. Anyone who threatened his life, or his mission, would be obliterated. There had been no thought. Just pure, mechanical reaction.
But now, several weeks later when his adrenalin had been restored to normal levels, the issue was no longer so black and white. He couldn't help wondering if--knowing that--what he, Leon Scott Kennedy, had perpetrated was simply a government-sanctioned massacre.
There'd been a whole lot of red. Too much. He'd been completely covered in it. Even the team who'd been dispatched to pick them up was surprised to see how much of it there was.
"What'd you do, Kennedy? Go at them with chainsaws?"
He'd laughed then. He'd found the dark humor a relief.
"Alimente el calavera! Alimente el calavera!"
The urgent exclamation shook Leon out of his thoughts. He lowered his head to the source of the interjection and saw a young boy in costume thrusting a toy skull half-filled with candies at him.
Leon was prepared. He was carrying a bag of candy in expectation of such an encounter. He knelt down, dropped a handful of candies into the boy's toy skull.
The boy hurried away with a grin.
Leon stood up and rejoined the masses mesmerized by the festivities.
Raven-haired beauties surrounded him in every direction. He'd already traded glances with a few but he couldn't fully appreciate any of them. Every single woman who'd caught his eye underwent an immediate metamorphosis into the phantom who'd been haunting him for the last six years.
There were ghosts, and there was Ada Wong. The memory of her single-handedly overshadowed the horrifying events of the Raccoon City incident and the Los Illuminados incident put together. She was, of course, inextricably tied to both.
It was perhaps her connection to all the horror, to all the red, that made her unforgettable and worthy of his obsession. After all, he didn't remotely know her. What made her seem complete was the fictions he'd created to fill in the gaps. She was his dream woman simply because she was 90% his creation. What made his obsession worthwhile was the fact that every new tidbit he learned about her tessellated perfectly with his construction. And what a feast he'd been fed just last week.
"Detrás de tí, imbécil."
The chill that shot down Leon's spine upon hearing the utterance was quickly appeased by the familiar and sultry voice that had spoken it.
He didn't turn around. Somebody could be watching. He waited until they were side-by-side before he stole a glance.
Her face was covered with a Catrina mask. She wore a crown of marigolds and black, half-sleeved tunic cinched in at the waist with a red belt. It could have been anybody. But as she walked on ahead, her signature sashay confirmed her identity.
And as always, she took his breath away.
She lead him through the parade, never more than ten paces away and never once glancing back. They walked for perhaps five minutes, maybe fifty. It was difficult for him to tell in the stifling heat, in her intoxicating presence. Just after she past a stall selling what looked like pink donuts, she ducked into a doorway and disappeared.
Years of training dictated that Leon never entered an unfamiliar building without checking for alternative exits. In the split second he froze, he surveyed the premises. The building had no sign; it wasn't a commercial establishment nor government property; the upper windows were boarded up but the street level windows were bare.
His razor-sharp senses spat out their judgment: he was walking into a trap.
Logic, however, lost all significance whenever Ada was involved. In her company, things were never as they seemed. A single irrational wisdom beat back his methodical calculations: Trust her.
Leon hurried inside.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust from the harsh glare of the afternoon sun to the indoor shade. He sensed the presence of the four men even before his eyes cleared. Instinctively, his body stiffened in preparation for attack but that proved unnecessary. The lounging men seemed far more interested in the passing parade than in the gringo who'd stumbled into their territory.
Ada was nowhere to be seen. A staircase leading upstairs was ahead. Leon made his way across the room towards it. Nobody stopped him. There was no fight to be had. Yet.
The stairs were even more murky somehow. The light that spilled in from the small window at the top of the staircase only powdered a small portion of each step. Leon imagined unseen insects scurrying away underfoot, seeking safety in the gloom.
Immediately after he crossed the threshold of the empty, dust-filled room, he felt a knife slide up to his throat. It embarrassed him a little to acknowledge it, but he'd never felt more aroused.
"Did I catch you unawares, Agent Kennedy?"
"Every time, Agent Wong."
Ada pulled the mask from her face and tossed it aside, revealing her face for the first time.
Leon took his time to drink her in, relishing every flaw and imperfection that made her beautiful beyond comparison. To some, her beauty was offensive. To him, it was pure art.
"When did you find out?" she asked.
"Took you long enough."
"I'm only human."
"Too much of it, if you ask me."
Leon threw her a sidelong glance. "Imagine my surprise," he said, a dry laugh escaping him. "All this time we were on the same side."
"There were clues all along."
She lowered her knife, freeing him from his stance. He wiped at his neck roughly to ease the stiffness that had suddenly set in.
"So?" he asked, feigning nonchalance. "To what do I owe the pleasure of this meeting?"
He watched as Ada sheathed her weapon in a leg holster.
"I've been asked to put together a task force," she said, pacing around him to close the door. "I want you second-in-command."
To say this woman was full of surprises would be a gross understatement. Leon couldn't help being intrigued. The idea of working alongside her, on the same side no less, left him dribbling in anticipation. He swiveled around to face her.
"What's the mission?"
If she was at all predictable, it was her unfailing secrecy. "I can't tell you. Not until you're officially part of it."
She was confident because she had good reason to be. They both knew he was never going to turn her down. His pride persuaded him not give in so quickly though. Besides, the sooner he did that, the sooner this rendezvous would be over, and he wasn't ready for her to disappear yet.
It was a perfectly acceptable question. Anybody in his position might have been curious. But it meant so much more because it was he who asked the question and her that he had directed the question to. They had a history.
For once, they were alone in a room together, not fighting for their lives, not facing hordes of hostile locals in the name of their missions, and right here, right now, there was no distraction on which she could blame her refusal to tell him once and for all the whole and painful truth.
"Because next to me, you're the best I know," she replied, walking away towards a boarded window.
It was the only kind of response she knew, it seemed, or was willing to risk. But she wasn't going to get away so easily this time. He had waited too long for this opportunity to squander it.
"I have to be at my best, next to you."
Ada threw him a backwards smile, then pressed her eye to a gap between the boards, surveying the street outside.
Leon's professional vigilance got the better of him. He came up behind her and craned his neck to look through the same gap. She was so close he felt the heat emanating from her body. Her delicate perfume almost made his knees buckle. Not so professional anymore.
"Something there?" he whispered, his voice unintentionally husky.
She locked eyes with him, the corner of her red lips curling up mischievously.
"You tell me."
He hated her at that instant. He hated her empty teasing, her flirtatiousness, her loading their interactions with frivolous innuendo. The hate was of a familiar variety. It was exact same loathing he had felt as a young boy when his parents prevented him from getting what he wanted. A loathing borne from frustrated passion.
Leon's eyes darkened with intensity and ambition. Without a word, he wrapped his arms around her, trapping her against the boarded window. He slid one of his hands up her front and caressed the soft skin on her neck, her face. A faint, deep gasp escaped her and he felt her throat leap as she swallowed. He sunk his face into her hair and inhaled.
Ada didn't struggle, but she didn't return his embrace. She stood rigid, allowing him to hold her.
"Let go of me, Leon."
"I'm trying to."
"You're not doing a very good job."
He loosened his hold and spun her around without letting her go. There was a defiant, almost daring look on her face when their eyes met.
"You ruined me, you know that?" he told her.
"I guess that makes us even."
And just like that, he knew everything he needed to know. He had waited so long to have it reconfirmed. His certainty the first time she'd told him was completely undone when he realized she was not dead, but had simply cast him aside. Now, her thinly veiled retort told him he mattered. He had made an impact on her. As she had on him.
Their kiss was sudden and electric. Leon wasn't sure who made the first move. All he knew was it was a long time coming. His pulse quickened as his tongue danced with hers, and their bodies moved in a gratifying and urgent rhythm.
Ada pulled back for a moment. Her eyes were half-closed and her glistening lips were parted. She was positively bewitching.
"Leon," she said in a breathless whisper.
"What?" he mumbled, delirious.
She opened her eyes so he could gaze into her soul. "Don't ever let go of me."
His mind was still muddy with lust and it took a moment for her words to cut through, to reach the part of the plant that processed meaning. Once it did, something fiery, exhilarating and uncontainable filled the cavities of his chest.