Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters in the work below. If I did, RE4 would have had zombies instead of bugs!

Synopsis: T-virus, G-virus, T-Veronica virus, Las Plagas. . .you get the drift. (The first two sections are for all of you who missed Leon in CVX.) Beta'd once again by the incomparable Littlehouseinthewoods. Reuploaded from a soon-to-be defunct profile. Enjoy=)

Resident Evil: The Gauntlet

Chapter One: Rockfort Island

It had happened, again, he thought as he clutched his handgun tighter and entered the next door. A long hallway stretched out before him, the large windows on either side giving it an eerie quality. Faint light prodded the darkness unsuccessfully from fixtures in the ceiling, leaving everything cast in shadow. He knew that there was little chance of escape from this place. The windows were more of a tease than anything else. They probably led to a lab where more mutated creatures were lying in wait. He didn't know for sure. He hadn't been allowed to go anywhere but here.

He'd woken up in a empty room, his head ringing, a nasty taste in his mouth. He had no idea where he was, or how he had gotten here. He'd found a gun, some ammunition, and a bottle of first aid spray. The accompanying note had simply read, "Survive". At least, the gun was his own Killer 7, his favorite .45. If he'd been left with his nine-millimeter, he'd be dead right now. The bioweapons he'd come across had been a strange menagerie of familiar creatures. He'd seen Hunters and Sweepers, Lickers and Crimson Heads, Novistadors, and some kind of giant frog. The frog, at least, had been new.

He hadn't found any keys, or extra ammo, or any conveniently misplaced files. All the locked doors he'd found had been electronically sealed, leaving him only one path to take. He had no idea what was going on, and for the first time in years, he was scared. He felt like a rat in a maze, and he wanted nothing more than to kill whoever had set this up, preferably before they killed him.

He started down the corridor slowly, his crystal blue gaze studying each window as he approached. Clearly, they were for observation purposes, and yet he could see nothing but his reflection. The interior of each room was cloaked in darkness, no movement or sound coming from beyond the glass. All he could hear was the echo of his own footsteps as he gradually made his way toward the double doors at the end. The almost complete lack of any sensory input was more than enough to set him on edge. He had survived things that would kill most ordinary people, but he was beginning to think he might not survive this.

Why the hell hadn't anything jumped out of one of the windows? he asked himself with a nervous glance over his shoulder. What was the point of this little game? To give him a coronary? Scare him to death, maybe? Well, if he didn't get a hold of himself, it was going to work. He couldn't let it end like this. He'd sacrificed too much, survived too long, to let some unseen enemy take him out now. He had nothing to live for, but plenty of reasons to keep his ass alive. He needed to remember that.

He stopped before the massive double doors and checked his gun. Only five in the chamber and another seven in the clip in his tactical vest. If he ran into a Tyrant or a Nemesis--or even worse, a Regenerator--he was totally screwed. He had no grenade launcher, no rocket launcher, and definitely no thermal scope. All he could do was draw a deep breath, pray to a god he was certain did not exist, and open the doors.

He stepped through and was immediately blinded. He raised an arm and held it before his eyes, automatically bringing the gun up. He couldn't see shit, and the click behind him told him that the only way out may have just been taken from him. He squinted and tried to search the room, but the light was everywhere. He couldn't pinpoint the source, and he was wasting precious seconds trying to.

"Who are you?" he yelled, flattening himself against the locked doors at his back. "What do you want from me?

A deep, truly evil laugh assaulted his ears, and he knew that he was in deep shit. "You have done well, Agent Kennedy. I didn't think you'd make it this far. Certainly, not past my Hunters."

Leon Scott Kennedy shifted slightly, aiming at the direction of that voice, even as he realized that he was probably locking onto a speaker. That smooth, not-quite-British sounding voice had a metallic quality to it, a small distortion that told him that whoever that voice belonged to wasn't in the room with him.

He focused on the disembodied voice's lasts words and managed a snort. "The Hunters were nothing," he said with a bravado he didn't feel. "Tell me where I am--Now."

"I don't think you're in a position to make demands," the voice said with amusement. "In fact, you seem to be completely at my mercy."

"Whatever," he responded, feigning boredom. "Are you going to tell me who I get the pleasure of killing, or are you just going to talk me to death?"

"Are you truly as confident as you appear--Leon?" That malevolent laugh sounded again, sending a chill up Leon's spine. "I believe you were right, my dear. I'll leave him in your more than capable hands."

The room was suddenly plunged into darkness, and Leon immediately squeezed his eyes shut. He put a hand against the door behind him and moved to the left. Probably a predictable move, but he knew better than to leave himself in a position that the enemy had already marked. He opened his eyes and blinked rapidly so that they would adjust to the darkness that much faster. He still couldn't make out much, but he could now tell that the room was much larger than he'd been expecting.

An indistinct shape loomed out of the shadows before him. "Running again, handsome?"

He went still for a long moment before exhaling harshly. "Ada," he spat, the venom in his voice surprising them both. "Why am I not surprised?"

"Hello, Leon." The lights came on, and there she was, wearing the mysterious smile he had come to hate. "Long time, no see."

"Not long enough." Leon holstered the Killer 7 with careful movements, palming his survival knife as he did so. "To what do I owe this unexpected reunion?"

Ada Wong ignored the sarcasm dripping from his words as she took a step closer. "I needed to see you," she began, only to be cut off.

"You could have just called," he told her flatly. "Or better yet, broken into my apartment, again. Abducting me was not necessary."

"Sorry, but that wasn't my call," she said with a shrug.

Leon fought the urge to plunge the knife deep in what passed for her heart. He'd been forced to deal with her for the past eight years. He'd probably have to endure her for many more. She held his raison d'etre in the palms of her slender, dangerous little hands, and she rarely let him forget it.

"What do you want?" he asked abruptly, unwilling to play her game any longer than necessary. "What's with you and the disembodied voice knocking me out and bringing me here to fight your little army of retro B.O.W.s?"

Her smile changed, becoming colder. "That 'disembodied voice' is the only reason you're still alive, handsome. He's also the reason you were forced to run the gauntlet that led you here. The price of admission," she added cryptically.

Leon fought to keep the anger out of his expression. He had once found Ada beautiful and exotic, a mystery that his younger self had longed to solve. It hadn't taken him long to see her for the cold, self-centered person that she truly was. He wanted nothing to do with her, and she was fully aware of it. She enjoyed forcing her presence on him, reminding him of all he had to lose, of all that she could take from him with a single phone call.

Ada eyed him with wary blue eyes. "What? No snappy comeback?" she questioned with studied casualness. "I expected better from you, Leon."

"Admission to what?" he asked finally, knowing that if he didn't play along, she would make things very unpleasant for him.

"Why, to your life, of course." She sent him another mocking smile and extended her hand. She watched as his clear blue eyes dropped to the file folder in her hand. "Everything you ever wanted is in there, Leon--if you've got the guts to reach out and take it."

Leon took the folder with a sense of foreboding. "Why now?" he asked in a too-quiet voice.

"Because it is time." With that enigmatic response, Ada reached into her supply pack and took out two syringes. "It's also time for another sample. Give me your arm like a good little boy, and no one will get hurt."

He gritted his teeth and slowly, reluctantly, extended his left arm. He barely felt the sting of the needle through his rage. He watched as she filled the syringe with his blood, and then withdrew it. She capped it and put it in her supply pack before taking the cap off of the other one.

"No!" He jerked his arm out of her grasp and took a quick step back. "No more sedatives, Ada."

Ada knew that her sympathy showed as she met his gaze. "I'm sorry, Leon, but this is necessary."

He shook his head negatively. "No, it's not. Just knock me out, or blindfold me. I don't want any more of that shit!"

For a moment, she wished that she could give him what he wanted. Then, she thought of the man who held all of their lives at the end of his leash, and hardened her heart. "I can't. You'd probably end up with a concussion if I did that, again. Now, give me your arm, Leon."

"Damn you!" He thrust his arm at her, grabbing her wrist at the last instant and jerking her close. "Why are you doing this to me? Why can't you just leave me alone?"

She smiled sadly and brought her free hand up to caress his cheek. He jerked away from her, and the moment was gone. "I'm sorry," she whispered huskily and drove the needle into his chest.

Leon gasped as the sedative hit his system. He stumbled back, dropping to his knees as the world went hazy around him. His last sight before he lost consciousness was of Ada, a vision in red satin and black stilettos, a once-cherished dream that had tuned into a nightmare.

He was is running, dodging outstretched hands that tore relentlessly at his clothes, at his hair. The city is dying around him, the unearthly moans of the undead filling the night air. He shivers and tries yet another door. This one is locked, like all the others before it, and he knows that he won't survive. Damn it, why can't he escape? Why can't he find her?

He knows she's here. He's heard her voice more than once, filled with fear as she screams his name. He's failed her, he knows he has, even as desperation fuels him and gives him strength to search. He trips over yet another corpse, scrambling away as it clutches feebly at his ankle. He aims his handgun and puts a bullet in its head. It stops moving and he pushes himself to his feet. They are everywhere, an army of death invading his once-peaceful mid-western town, and he could do nothing to stop them. If he didn't keep moving, he would be devoured, or perhapsresurrected as one of them.

"No!" he tells himself fiercely. He's made it this far. Once he finds her, they will escape together and survive this nightmare. He ignores the mocking voice in the back of his mind that tells him that it's already too late. It can't be. She is all he has left, for all that she hates him.

He frowns as he begins testing the knobs on random doors. Why would she hate him? He gave her a gun to protect herself with, a radio so they could keep in contact. He even helped the little girl she'd befriended in the precinct. He'd done everything he could to keep her safe and whole. Of course, she didn't hate him.

He finds an unlocked door and quickly slides it open. He closes it behind him, securing the lock, though he knows it won't do much good. They can break in if they want to, their numbers are legion and they feel no pain. He turns to find himself in some kind of train car. He takes a step forward when he hears his name whispered.

He turns, and there she is. "Claire!" he exclaims with relief. He rushes towards her, skidding to a halt as she lifts the Magnum in her delicate hands.

"Stop right there," she says, her unforgettably blue eyes narrowing on his.

"Claire?" he questions in confusion.

"Remembered my name, did you?" Claire jerks her chin up in challenge, her red-brown ponytail bouncing with the movement. "What are you doing here, Leon?"

He hesitates at the venom lacing her usually musical voice. "I came here for you. To rescue you. Claire, what's wrong? Why are you looking at me like that?"

"My hero," she mockshim. "My knight in blue Kevlar. How else would I look at you after you deserted me? Eight years, Leon. You left me alone with my nightmares, and took my daughter with you. You broke my heart. Just what did you expect?"

Her words are like a physical blow. He places a hand over his heart as it begins to bleed."Claire, please. I'm here now. I came for you. Doesn't that count for anything?"

"Yeah, it does." She cocks the hammer back on the massive gun. "It means you get a quick death."

She pulls the trigger, and the last thing he sees is her beautiful lips curled into a smile of satisfaction.

Leon's eyes snapped open, his chest heaving as he fought to draw air. He shuddered violently and buried his face in his hands. He felt the moisture against his palms and knew he'd been crying in his sleep, again. The dreams had always varied in intensity, but lately they were getting worse. He didn't know how much longer he could stand the punishment that his guilty conscious was determined to mete out before he went insane.

He realized that he was wearing his brown leather jacket and frowned. He never fell asleep with it on; it was too damn hot to sleep in. What the hell was he doing wearing it, now?

He glanced around the room and went completely still. It didn't help. The unfamiliar room was still spinning around him as he realized that he'd never made it home. Memories of Ada stabbing him with that damn syringe came crashing back to him, and he cursed fluently. He carefully lowered himself back to the bed, knowing that it would be some time before the effects of the sedative left his too-sensitive system.

Damn her, he thought for the umpteenth time in the last eight years. He wished he'd never met the cold, unfeeling bitch. He didn't know if he would have survived Raccoon City without her, but that didn't matter. There were times--too many to count--when he wished that he hadn't. She had taken everything he had ever loved away from him, forced him to live his life in almost complete isolation. He didn't dare let anyone close to him for fear that they would be next on her list of emotional blackmail.

He closed his eyes and once again wondered what was so damned special about him? What was it that had drawn her to him, and made her so determined to keep him alive and isolated and under her thumb?

Once upon a time, he'd had a family, friends even. S.T.A.R.S. had been both family and friend to him, and he had thrown himself into their anti-Umbrella movement with a fervor that had surprised even him. Up until the day that Claire had left he and Sherry behind to search Europe for her lost brother, S.T.A.R.S. had been his life.

His true family had died with Raccoon City, and he had been forced to turn his friends away for their own safety. Even if he and Claire hadn't argued about her decision to go to France without himself and Sherry, he would have been forced to give her up. The government had come to him not long after her departure, trying to recruit him for a secret governmental agency. When he'd refused, they'd taken Sherry away from him, and forced him into the program anyway. They'd kept him there by threatening not only Sherry, but Claire and the rest of S.T.A.R.S. as well.

Leon smacked the mattress with his clenched fists and felt something smooth under his right hand. He opened his eyes cautiously and the blue folder immediately blurred. He forced himself into a sitting position, ignoring the nausea that promptly rose in his throat. He pulled the folder into his lap and fumbled it with heavy fingers. It finally came open, and his breath caught in his throat.

"Claire," he murmured, his voice hoarse with a million unspoken emotions. Her image began to blur and he fought it with everything that he had. She looked the same, he thought with surprise. Her red-brown hair was caught up at the back of her head in a ponytail, her eyes still that vibrant shade of cerulean blue he remembered so well. The S.T.A.R.S. uniform fit her like a glove, and he felt tears well up in his eyes.

She doesn't look as though she's aged at all, he thought with longing. His hand lingered on her picture for a long time before he forced himself to turn the page. Another picture, of Sherry Birkin this time. Sherry was twenty now, and she had grown into a beautiful young woman. Her blond hair was worn long, framing her heart-shaped face perfectly. She didn't look as though she had been treated badly by her government captors, and he prayed that it was so.

Ada had brought letters to him from time to time, and he had used these to monitor Sherry's well-being from an enforced distance. She'd always assured him that she was treated well, but he didn't trust Ada or the government. Every word had probably been censored by them. He truly had no idea how Sherry had fared in their care. He wanted like hell to believe that they'd been kind to her, but he'd seen too much to expect it. Sherry had a natural immunity to the virus her parents had created, and he didn't doubt that they'd used her as a lab rat for their experiments.

He had tried to find her once, only to be repaid with an attempt on Claire Redfield's life. So long as he played ball, and left Sherry's care to them, both she and Claire had been relatively safe. If he were to ever go against them, or if his miserable life ever came to an end. . .

Leon shuddered violently. He was the only thing standing between the women he loved and death. He didn't know why he was so important to the government, and he no longer cared. A few times a year Ada showed up, brought him a letter, and took a little of his blood. He just hoped that they weren't using it to make some kind of bioweapon. Yet, this was the U.S. government, not Umbrella Inc., despite what Krauser had hinted at in Spain. Maybe there was another reason, one that he just wasn't smart enough to grasp.

He tried to read the profiles beside the pictures and couldn't. His eyesight still wasn't up to snuff, and wouldn't be until the drugs had worn off. He hated this little weakness of his, and how easily Ada had exploited it. He'd taken a bullet to the chest in his first year of training. He had nearly died on the operating table as his body's biggest flaw had made itself known. He couldn't take sedatives of any kind, not even sleeping pills. He wasn't supposed to drink alcohol either, although that had never stopped him. Sometimes, it was the only way he got any sleep at night.

He sighed heavily as he folded the papers and tucked them into his tactical vest. He narrowed his eyes to focus them and took a quick survey of the room. The bed was a four-poster deal with heavy red curtains tied to the posts with thick golden cords. A dresser sat at the end of the bed, dusty picture frames gracing the top of it. There was a door at that end of the room, as well as one next to a large, ornate music box opposite of him.

He recognized nothing of his surroundings, and the urge to hurt the woman responsible for this rose up in him. He pushed it down, forcing into a dark corner of his heart usually reserved for Claire Redfield. He hated that they would be together, even if only in his feelings. His hatred for Ada Wong wasn't nearly as strong as his love for Claire, but it was a close thing. If he ever got the chance, he knew that he would take Ada's life and consequences be damned.

He also knew that Claire and Sherry would suffer for his actions. That was what had kept him from killing the bitch so far, but Leon seriously wondered how much longer that would be enough. All he wanted was a way to keep them safe before he finally put an end to his own miserable life. No more nightmares, no more surrounding himself with the death he had once feared so much. No, were the opportunity to ever present itself, he would welcome death with open arms.

Luckily, he had been able to hide his depression from the few people he was allowed contact with. President Graham couldn't care less about his mental state, unless it kept Leon from protecting his daughter. Neither Ashley nor Hunnigan had gotten close enough to him to truly know what he was like. All the people he interacted with in the course of his duties thought that he was either very shy, or just a cold son of a bitch. Most believed him to be a loner, a maverick with no care for the rules. What none of these people realized was that he lived every moment of his life in fear. Were he to let just one person close to him, if he were ever stupid enough to confide in someone, they would be terminated immediately.

Leon wondered almost idly if Ada had ever guessed how he truly felt. She was a sharp woman. God knew, she didn't miss much. If she had, she had chosen to ignore the signs in favor of whatever the hell her assignment was. He thought back to the disembodied voice that had struck such terror into him, and was immediately filled with curiosity. He wondered who it was that Ada Wong worked for, and why they had chosen him as their pet project.

In Europe, he'd discovered that Jack Krauser had brought Ada into he and Wesker's little operation to steal a sample of the Las Plagas parasite. Leon had never met Albert Wesker, but he had heard a lot about him. A former Umbrella scientist turned covert agent, he had taken advantage of the first T-virus outbreak, and sent the S.T.A.R.S. Alpha Team into the Spencer mansion to obtain battle data on the Umbrella B.O.W.s. Rumor had it that he'd been a double agent, playing both sides, but who the second party he'd allegedly spied for was remained a mystery.

Leon truly hoped that he was wrong about the identity of Ada's employer. He'd read enough on Albert Wesker to know that, while the man wasn't quite a genius, he had above average intelligence. He was utterly ruthless, and reported to be immortal. It was said that he had either been contaminated during the Spencer Mansion incident, or that he had injected himself with one of the viruses. No one knew for sure, and Leon would rather not find out if it meant a confrontation between the two of them. As good as he was, he didn't know if he could take the man that everyone spoke of in frightened whispers.

He pushed himself to his feet, grabbing the bedpost as the room tilted wildly around him. He waited for the world to even out and took a shaky step towards the far door. His foot hit something and he found himself sprawled face-down on the floor. His ribs protested as something cut into his mid-section and he dragged himself to his knees.

His attaché case lay before him, and he smiled for the first time since awakening. He opened it and found it fully stocked. He checked all of his weapons, pleasantly surprised to see that they hadn't been tampered with. All of his ammunition was still there, along with a bevy of first aid supplies and a key simply labeled, "Master Key".

Well, that was new, Leon thought, blinking. For once he might be spared having to hunt for jewels, or wracking his brain for solutions to elaborate puzzles. He wondered why Ada--who else would have bothered to arm him?--had left him this. Whatever she'd planned for him, she seemed to want him to succeed. Why, he didn't know, and probably never would. For now, it was enough to negate a portion of the rage that always accompanied thoughts of her.

He pulled the Killer 7 out and considered it for a long moment before choosing the riot shotgun. If he ran into something really heavy, he'd switch weapons. Until then, he was saving the more powerful handgun and its rare ammunition. The riot gun was nearly as powerful, and it did hold a hundred bullets as opposed to seven.

Just to be on the safe side, he mixed some of the herbs and tucked them into his vest. He also put the Killer 7 there, so it would be easily accessible in case he suddenly found himself confronted by something he couldn't otherwise handle. He added several clips of .45 caliber bullets and the Master Key to his pockets. He'd learned the importance of being prepared after the fiasco in Raccoon City.

That thought brought Claire to the forefront of his mind. He smiled again and left her there. She would never know it, but she had gotten him through more rough spots than she could ever imagine. Every time he was forced into a life-or-death situation, it was her voice that whispered to him of practical things, her voice that told him which direction to go, her voice which urged him to survive.

Yeah, he had his problems, Leon acknowledged silently. He was afraid to rely on his own instincts, to listen to that little voice in the back of his mind that tried its best to keep him alive. However, he had absolutely no problem responding to that voice when it belonged to Claire Redfield. Again, he knew he had problems, but he'd never considered loving Claire one of them.

Leon approached the door and tried the knob. It was locked, of course. He thought of the key he had just put away and smiled slowly. He had the key right here, and it was a size twelve. He drew his foot back and kicked the door open. Sure, he'd just alerted everything in a five-mile radius that he was here, but he simply didn't care. Let the monsters come, and eat hot fucking lead.

Adrenaline kicked in and pushed the dizziness away as he stepped into a hallway. Fancy divans and sidebars littered the narrow passage, covered with stacks of books, but nothing jumped into his path. He cocked his head to one side and listened, but he could hear nothing. Whatever Ada had set up for him in this place, it wasn't meant to happen here.

Which was just fine with him, Leon thought as he studied a picture that seemed to flash under the dim light of an oil lamp. He approached it and grinned to himself. What was it with rich people and truly terrible paintings? This one had a picture of a large mansion with a fancy walkway and tall stone walls surrounding it. A dock stood to one side, down a little flight of service stairs, a submarine sitting submerged in the water beside it.

He had to suppress a laugh at that. He looked closer and realized that fine silver lines ran through the image itself. A map, he realized with surprise, and a not-so-subtle one, at that! He smashed the glass with the barrel of the riot gun and withdrew the picture. There was another map on the back of the canvas, this one covered with a cold-looking metal structure out in the middle of a vast snowfield.

A lab, maybe? he mused, narrowing his eyes to fight off a lingering visual haze. Yep, definitely an Umbrella-like laboratory. The black lines on this one showed that it went at least three stories underground, maybe more. Now that his adrenaline level was beginning to drop, the sedative was hacking away at him with a vengeance. He thought he could make out an airplane hangar, but he wasn't sure. He would worry about that later. For now, it was time to run Ada's newest gauntlet and see if his freedom truly lay at its end.

He memorized as much of the map as he could before putting it away. He only hoped his mind would stay clear enough to get him the hell out of here, even if he didn't know where here was.

The hallway hooked around to his right, and he followed it cautiously. There was another turn at the far end, but Leon ignored it. The map had shown that the way out was the red door up ahead to the left. He opened it. He found himself at the top of what appeared to be a grand staircase. Everything was bathed in red; the carpeting covering the stairs, the walls, even the ceiling was red. It reminded him of blood, and he shivered.

He heard the faint sounds of shuffling bodies and deep groans and nearly groaned himself. Zombies, he thought fatalistically. Not only did they haunt his dreams, but now his reality too. He heard a hiss and the patter of too-fast footsteps and brought the shotgun up automatically. He knew what that sound signified, and it was more terrifying than any regular zombie he had ever encountered.

The Crimson Head came rushing up the staircase, fleet-footed and coordinated, as though it wasn't a reanimated human corpse. Leon watched with clenched teeth as it thundered closer, knowing that if he didn't time his shot just right, the enhanced zombie would take his head off with one blow. It finally made its way to the top of the stairs and hissed as it saw him. It came rushing at him, and he waited until the last possible moment to pull the trigger.

Its head exploded in a shower of coagulated blood and atrophied gray matter. Leon used his sleeve to wipe off his face and prayed that there weren't too many more of them. Taking their heads was the only way to make sure that the Crimson Heads stayed dead. Anything else, and it would revive again and again to chase any form of food in the vicinity. God, he thought as he started forward, he hated being food!

Leon spared a glance for the large statue that the staircase wound around. It was a white marble statue of a nude woman, but it was warped and twisted. It was covered in dust and grime, and dull chains held it suspended from several points in the ceiling. He didn't know who it was supposed to represent, and he didn't care. He wanted out of this fucking place--Now!

He stopped at the last landing and looked down. The groans were louder now, the hissing more faint. He watched as at least a dozen undead zombies all turned towards him in tandem. Fuck, he was going to need the .45.

Leon pulled the Killer 7 out and began to take aim as they began to file up the stairs. He was careful to aim only at the head, and he took out the ones that looked to be the fastest first. But he wasn't taking any chances that a Crimson Head might simply be caught at the back of the undead pack, either. He heard a dry click and quickly slammed a fresh clip home. He had to concentrate like hell with his head still swimming, but he didn't waste a single shot.

Soon enough, the stairs before him were littered with bloody, still-twitching bodies. Leon eyed them warily as he reloaded the Killer 7. They seemed to be down, but he'd been fooled before, and he didn't relish the thought of being infected through a bite on the ankle. He wished he had enough ammunition to cut through them one more time, but he knew better. He was in a strange place with no backup, and he didn't know what he might run up against.

Screw that, Leon thought suddenly. He wasn't going to wade through the pile, but he wasn't wasting his damn ammo, either. He backed up a few steps and took a running start. He jumped over them, tucking his body as he landed and rolled to a stop. He sprang to his feet and quickly brought the riot gun up before him. When nothing met his gaze, he turned to the way out.

The five wide stairs before him led to two large, ornate doors. That was his way out, and he was taking it. He jogged up the stairs, spying a small pot with a green plant. He struggled with a sudden, insane urge to laugh. A healing herb. In the midst of all this chaos, some ignorant asshole always left an aesthetically pleasing, incredibly potent potted plant lying around. He didn't get it himself. He wasn't a plant person.

Leon grinned and left it where it was as he kicked the huge double doors open. He found himself at the top of a crumbling stone porch with more damn stairs which overlooked a decaying courtyard. He was halfway down when a faint whistle sent him scrambling back to the top. Something smashed into the stone where he had been standing, sending stone chips flying through the air. He made it to the top of the landing and took stock of the situation.

It was at least seven feet tall, all pasty skin and pale muscle. It walked towards him on two legs, its distorted features completely blank. Its right arm lashed out, missing him by inches, even though at least ten feet separated them. A claw sliced through the air in place of its hand, and Leon knew what he had to do.

He pumped the riot gun and blasted away. Six shells later and it dropped to the ground, undeniably dead. He saw that another waited at the end of the courtyard's maze and sighed. Whatever these things were, they weren't nearly as scary as a simple Licker. He took aim from where he was and fired. It roared and began to limp his way. It had to navigate a maze of broken stone and tangled weeds, giving him plenty of time to blast away from his relatively safe vantage point.

It finally went down, twitched twice, and went still. Leon took the opportunity to replace the spent rounds with fresh shells. Yeah, maybe he was paranoid, but what was the point of having a hundred-round capacity shotgun if he didn't keep it filled?

He made his way through the courtyard and entered the covered wooden passage at its end. He was well into it when the moans started again. More freakin' zombies, he thought as he began to fire. He shot his way through the narrow passage, not taking time to look behind him. This damn thing had to end sometime, and he'd undoubtedly find himself in a room with something much worse.

He ended up in a U-shaped hallway. He crept forward carefully, hating these kinds of passages because you were forced to take the only corner in the room practically blind. He brought the riot gun up before him and rounded that corner. The passage was clear, and he breathed a sigh of relief. He leaned back against the wall for a few moments, waiting for another bout of dizziness to pass.

Once his mind cleared enough to allow him to concentrate, he pulled out the map. Two more rooms, and another grand staircase. Then, he would be out of this place. He tucked the map away and drew a deep breath before entering the next room.

It was some kind of office, and the passage he'd just left had been a secret one. A fancy standing clock with two human figurines stood to his left, the marks on the faded red carpet showing that it had been moved to reveal the passage's doorway. Past it was a large, cherry-wood desk that dominated the room, the bay window at its back lending to its imposing air.

Leon kept his nervous eyes on the window as he backed towards the door opposite of it. He was fully expecting something to come crashing through it, and was almost disappointed when it didn't happen. He grasped the doorknob and opened it just enough to fit his body through. He slammed it closed behind him, listening for the sound of breaking glass. Only silence greeted his ears, and he frowned. So far, this had been way too easy.

He noted the two gun-shaped indentations on the door with little more than a shrug. Even if the guns had been there, he wouldn't have taken them. He had a damn arsenal in his attaché case. He certainly didn't need anything more.

He made his way past two waist-high display cases with glass tops—he didn't see anything useful in either—and was pleasantly surprised when the short hallway opened up to a larger room. There was a desk with an old-fashioned typewriter, and a large trunk behind it. That was all it took. Leon began to laugh, he couldn't help himself. This was all too familiar, and funny as hell.

Leon popped the trunk open and found three six-sided crests. Army, Navy, and Air Force. He spied a brown wheel that eerily resembled a ship's steering wheel, and even though it looked different, it reminded him of a valve handle he'd used in Raccoon City. He grabbed all of it with a sigh, knowing he'd regret it later if he didn't. He went to the typewriter and took the single piece of paper sticking out of it in his hands. What he read chilled his blood.

It simply said, "Claire.", over and over, until the entire page was filled with her name. Leon shivered and crushed the paper in his fist. He knew that he hadn't done it. After all, he had been unconscious in another building. Still, there was a part of himself that was completely obsessed with Claire Redfield, and he had always feared what his feelings for her could drive him to do.

"Forget it, Kennedy. Even you're not this crazy," he muttered aloud. It was probably just a cruel joke Ada had played, something to remind him of what she held over him.

He threw the wad of paper on the floor and made room in his tactical vest for the military crests. He grabbed the riot gun and set out again. He left the reception room and found himself at the top of another staircase. A round table sat to his left, two wing-back chairs flanking it. Again, in red. He was really beginning to hate that color!

He ignored the aged paintings of aristocratic-looking people as he took the steps to a small landing. The stairs continued to right, another door at the end. Leon didn't even want to know what was behind it. He just wanted out.

Keeping that thought firmly in mind, he made his way down the steps into the main hall. There was a desk with a computer, probably for security. Unless the front door was locked, he wasn't touching it. There were two doors to his right, and his mind flashed back to the map. One was a bathroom, something he didn't need right now, and the other led to a hallway with three more rooms. None of them led to an exit, and he wasn't in the mood to go exploring.

He pushed the double doors that should be the exit open with more caution than he'd previously shown. Fresh air greeted him, and he drew it in eagerly. He stepped outside and down the stairs, half-expecting to find more zombies or mutant Dobermans. He reached the end of the walkway and paused. Yeah, there were Dobies, all right, but somebody else had gotten to them first. Two of the mutated dogs lay in a pool of blood, their warped bodies littered with bullet holes. How the hell had somebody taken them out without him hearing the damn shots?

He heard the murmur of human voices and swung to his left. A sleek, feminine form came into view, presumably from the stairs that led to the dock. Her head came up as she saw him, her handgun following suit, and his heart stopped in his chest.


Her misty blue eyes widened, the gun wavering, and the world tilted around him as his concentration was shattered. He dropped to his knees, throwing his arms out to keep his face from hitting the pavement. He heard his name spoken in that unique, musical voice that haunted his dreams, and nearly blacked out.

Sherry Birkin watched the security monitor with a combination of pride and concern as Leon Kennedy made his way through the recreated Ashford Mansion. He had to be terrified as zombies, Crimson Heads, and Bandersnatchers came at him, yet his still-youthful features showed no signs of fear. She smiled as he reached the palace's reception room and began to laugh. His laughter stopped abruptly as he saw the message that had been left for his former lover. Now, he looked worried.

She snuck a glance at the tall, silent woman next to her. Ada's dark blue eyes were glued to the screen, and the man that they showed. A separate monitor showed the S.T.A.R.S. Alpha Team as they explored the exterior grounds, but Ada's eyes were only for Leon. Sherry didn't understand exactly what was between them, but she knew that it wasn't good. Ada was always calm and controlled, but her eyes shone every time she left to see Leon. And every time she returned, she was even colder and more remote than normal, the spark completely gone.

Sherry sighed to herself and turned back to the monitor. Leon was outside, now. Soon, he would run into Claire and the rest of S.T.A.R.S., and she wondered how he would handle it. He'd been kept away from his former comrades for eight years, and he had loved Claire with all of his heart. This wasn't going to be pretty, to say the least.

Then, he and Claire came face-to-face, and Leon's reaction was totally unexpected. He had dropped to his hands and knees, his body swaying as though he'd lost control of it. "No!" Sherry whispered fiercely, knowing that the sedative he'd been given was to blame. She had already drawing her handgun from its holster, and was nearly to the door, when Ada stopped her.

"Take this," Ada said in her husky voice, extending her hand.

Sherry grabbed the gold locket and slipped the chain over her head. She hesitated, her light blue gaze meeting the older woman's. "Thank you, Ada--for everything."

The older woman merely smiled and turned away. "Good luck, child."

She nodded and shot through the door. She took the hidden lift to the surface, ducking as the hedges above it parted, its branches narrowly missed her face as they parted. She found Leon surrounded by his former comrades, Alpha Team's resident medic, Rebecca Chambers, checking his vitals.

Leon was sitting, propped up against the stone wall. Chambers was gently opening his eyes with one small hand. "His pupils are dialated," she was saying. "I think he's been drugged."

"Not drugs," Leon mumbled, his words slurring. "Sedative."

"You were sedated?" Jill Valentine asked him with surprise.

"How long ago?" Rebecca asked urgently.

His head rolled listlessly in Claire Redfield's direction. "I don't know."

Claire's brother, Chris Redfield, glared at him and Sherry had had enough. She jumped down from the lift, her gun trained on Rebecca Chambers. "Get away from him."

The rest of S.T.A.R.S. drew their weapons at her approached, but she ignored them. "Move away from him, Chambers. Do it now."

A tall, dark-haired man she didn't recognize leveled his gun on her with cold cobalt eyes. "Back off, bitch," he all but snarled, and Sherry knew that he'd shoot her without a qualm.

"Billy, enough." Chris Redfield, the captain of Alpha Team, waved Rebecca towards him. "Step away from him, Becca."

"But he's hurt!" Rebecca protested, placing her body protectively before him. "He needs something to counteract whatever sedative he was given--"

"No!" Sherry shouted, her worry causing her to lash out. "Unless you want to kill him, you'll get your skinny ass away from him--Now."

Claire's startling blue eyes widened in shocked recognition. "Sherry?!"

"Yeah, Claire." She waited until Chambers had joined the rest of Alpha Team to kneel beside her surrogate father. She brushed the fall of blond hair out his eyes with a gentle hand. "Come on, Leon. Snap out of it. I need you here."

"Sherry?" His clear blue eyes rolled to hers, and a smile wobbled on his lips. "Is it really you?"

She matched his smile as tears sprang unbidden to her eyes. "Yeah, Dad, it's me."

He reached out and dragged her to him. She held him tightly, knowing just how hard this had to be on him. Ada had told her how depressed he'd become, and how it had forced her to find a way to secure their freedom. She'd talked her lover into this macabre gauntlet, playing on his ego and his hatred for S.T.A.R.S. She'd done everything she could to make this as easy as possible for them, including supplying a master key for every non-electronic door in the scenario.

Leon clung to the slender girl in his arms. Even with the drug screwing with his system, he recognized the young woman that Sherry Birkin had become. "How?" was all he could manage as emotion choked his throat.

"Later," Sherry told him gently as she pulled back. His blue eyes were bright with unshed tears, and she understood. "We don't have time for this, Leon. We have to get out of here, now."

He nodded, and all traces of emotion were gone. Ada hadn't been kidding when she'd said that Leon had changed. He narrowed his eyes a little and pushed himself to his feet. "Do you know where we are?" he asked in a hard voice.

"The Ashford family mansion," Claire answered in a voice that shook. "Sherry, how is that you're here? That either of you are here?"

Leon tore his gaze from her beloved features, focusing on the one person he knew he could trust. "Is this a recreation of Rockfort Island, then?"

"Yes." Sherry ignored the woman who had turned her back on them both. "This is only the beginning, Leon. We have a long way to go."

He flashed her a crooked smile, one devoid of amusement, and pulled a folded piece of paper out of his vest. "I found this inside," he said as he opened it. "It's a map of this place, as well as some kind of lab."

They all gathered around as Leon pointed to the dock. "I think this is going to be the way to the next. . .level." He flipped the paper over. "This is where we're supposed to go next."

Claire wrapped her arms around her middle as memories assaulted her. "Chris. . ."

"I know," her brother said quietly. He cleared his throat and backed away. "We need to use the sub to get to the airport. The docking controls are missing the handle and--"

"I've got it." Leon opened his attaché case and pulled out the brown steering wheel. "I found this in the reception room. It ought to work."

"Yeah, that's it." Claire shuddered and leaned into Chris, who wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "We'll also need three military proofs to get the airport lift to work."

"I've got them, too," Leon said shortly. He pulled the three hexagonal crests from his vests and handed to Chris. "I don't know about any of you, but I want to get the fuck out of here as soon as possible."

Carlos Olivera laughed grimly. "We're with you, amigo."

"Good." He grabbed the riot gun and pumped it once, chambering the next round. "Sherry, you're with me," he said in a tone that brooked no argument.

Sherry just smiled in response to the authority in his tone. "You're the only reason I'm here, Leon."

Leon shot her a look but didn't comment. There would time enough for questions later. "I'm willing to work with you," he told Chris, meeting his gaze evenly, "but I don't take orders anymore. You should know that now."

Billy Coen snickered at the anger on Redfield's face. "You've got balls, Kennedy."

"And then some." Leon flashed him a meaningless smile. "Billy Coen, I presume?"

"The same." He put an arm around Rebecca's shoulders in an unmistakable gesture of possession. "You ready to blow this place, Kennedy?"

"That's the idea." He gestured for Sherry to fall in line beside him, and she did so without speaking. He wondered briefly where she had gotten her obvious training, but he was pretty sure he knew. Another thing to thank Ada for if he ever saw her, again, he thought nastily. He and Sherry walked towards the docks, leaving S.T.A.R.S. to follow.

"God, he's changed," Claire whispered as she stared after the man she'd loved with an expression of shock.

Jill placed a hand on her shoulder briefly. "It's been eight years, Claire. We've all changed."

"Yeah, but. . ." Claire's voice trailed off as she shook her head and began to walk, muttering something that sounded like, "not that damned much."

Chris bit back an angry comment as they followed. To this day, he held a grudge against Leon Kennedy for what he'd done to his sister. Only Claire's insistence that Leon not be hurt had stopped him from tracking the son of a bitch down and beating him within an inch of his life. Now, he was forced to work with him if they wanted to make it out of here alive, and it pissed him off.

They found Leon and Sherry on the small lift, attaching the brown steering wheel to the control panel. Leon stepped off the lift and waved him forward. "This thing's not big enough for us all, Chris. Do you and yours want to go first?"

Chris eyed him suspiciously before forcing his anger away. Leon Kennedy might be an asshole when it came to women, but he had always been a trustworthy ally. "Jill?"

His lover and second-in-command stepped forward. "I'll take Carlos and Claire with me," he told her. "I'll send the lift back when I'm done."

"We'll be fine," Jill told him calmly, then patted the grenade launcher in her hands.

He sent her an intimate smile as Claire and Carlos joined him on the lift. He set his hands of the wheel and hesitated, his gaze cutting to Leon. "Do either of you want to come, now?"

"No," Sherry said immediately, stepping close to Leon. "We won't be separated."

Leon sent her a faint smile and crossed his arms over his chest, leaning back against the cold stone wall. "We'll wait, Chris. Go ahead."

Chris nodded and turned back to the wheel, turning it in his big hands. Claire stood at his side, her sidearm drawn, her haunting eyes locked on him. Leon returned her gaze steadily, all the while fighting to keep the emotion out of his eyes. She held his gaze until the lift came to a stop. When she ripped her eyes from his, he felt the loss like a physical blow.

He put on hand on his stomach and rubbed it absently. The world was slowly becoming steadier, but not fast enough to suit him. He hated that he had this weakness, just as he hated the distance between he and Claire. It didn't matter that he had put it there himself, it still hurt like a bitch.

"Where's Barry?" he asked abruptly, more to distract himself than from any genuine curiosity.

"He retired three months ago," Jill replied with a smile. "Apparently, he wasn't invited to this little soirée."

"Lucky him," Leon grunted.

Rebecca studied him as the others climbed into the submarine. He still didn't seem quite steady, and she was worried about him. "When were you given the sedative?" she asked quietly.

Leon just sighed. "I really don't know, Rebecca. I woke up maybe an hour ago, and it hasn't gone away, yet."

"What's the last thing you remember?" Jill asked in a somber voice.

His hand moved to the spot where Ada had stabbed him. "Being injected with the shit," he answered angrily. "After that, it's all black until I wake up here."

Rebecca frowned. "Do you know the person who administered the shot?"

Leon's angelic features hardened dramatically, although he didn't answer. "Does it matter?" he said instead. "I can function until it wears off. You don't have to worry about me folding at a crucial moment."

"I didn't mean that," Rebecca assured him, surprised by the conclusion he had drawn. "I just thought that if I knew who had given you the drug, we might be able to figure out what they used, and what we could use to counteract it."

Sherry snorted as she smoothed the black weapons vest over her black t-shirt. "I told you that that would kill him," she said with exasperation. "Don't you people listen?"

Billy narrowed his eyes on the ballsy little blond with the big mouth. "Why would that kill him?" he asked in a too-quiet tone.

"Because I'm susceptible to painkillers," Leon snapped in response to that veiled anger. "If it's already in my system, then it's too late. I'll just have to wait for it to wear off."

Jill merely nodded, her dark brown hair falling into her face. She pushed it out of the way and readjusted her green beret to keep it back. "When did you discover this?" she asked in her smooth, placid way.

Leon shrugged his broad shoulders as he watched the lift return. "I think it's your turn," he said without answering. He gestured towards the lift. "Just hurry. I don't like being out here in the open like this."

"Why don't you come with us?' she suggested. "There's enough room for all us if we're careful."

He regarded the classy woman he'd always liked for a long moment. "Alright," he said finally, not wanting to risk Sherry's safety by leaving only the two of them behind.

Leon grabbed the riot gun and used a strap to secure it to his back. He grabbed Sherry's hand and piled onto the small lift. He waited until the others had followed, and turned the wheel. With a creak and a moan, it started to move. It seemed to take forever to reach the submarine, though it was probably closer to twenty seconds. Leon climbed onto the submarine and reached a hand out to Jill, smiling faintly at her surprised look. She took it and climbed through the submarine's small circular hatch. Rebecca was next. She climbed through the hatch, a scowling Coen on her heels.

Leon turned to Sherry and took her hand. "I can see that you've had training," he told her in a low voice, "but I have to know if you're up to this."

Sherry smiled at the man who had sacrificed so much of his life for her and nodded solemnly. "I'm nearly as good as you are, Leon. I promise."

While he wasn't pleased with the statement, a part of him was relieved that she could handle the arsenal currently strapped to her body. "Get going, then."

He helped her into the hatch and followed. He ignored the attached ladder and jumped down the hole. He landed with a hard thump, trying not to smile at the startled expressions the S.T.A.R.S. members threw his way. There wasn't a lot of room on the tiny sub, so he wedged himself in between Sherry and Carlos on one of the benches. He listened to Carlos as he hit on the young woman and opened his mouth to protest. Sherry shut the ladies man down quickly and not too kindly, and he snapped his mouth closed. Apparently, Ada had taught his daughter something more than simple combat training.

The submarine stopped, and everyone rose to their feet. Claire took the front this time and addressed the troops. "The ladder leads straight to the underwater entrance tunnel." She hesitated before adding, "Once you're passed the main tunnel, there's probably going to be a lot of zombies."

Leon threw her a sharp glance. "Crimson Heads?"

"There weren't any last time," Chris said, "but they don't exactly seem to be playing by the rules here. I think we can expect some whenever we run into zombies."

"Great." Leon sighed and checked his weapon again. "I hate those damned things."

"You're not the only one," Jill muttered. "They gave me a hell of a hard time in the mansion."

Rebecca and Chris both nodded, wearing similar expressions of unease. Leon hadn't encountered them personally until tonight, but he'd read the case files the government had gathered on all of the Umbrella incidents. Otherwise, he probably would have left the first one alive, and died after it had revived and gone hunting for him. He definitely sympathized.

"Do you have something more powerful than that?" he asked Claire, gesturing to her nine-millimeter Beretta.

She nodded, her reddish ponytail bouncing saucily with the movement. "I have my Magnum, but I'm running low on ammo."

"Hold on." Leon opened the attaché case and gave her five of his precious clips. "Take these. You'll have to remove them from the clips, but they should fit your Desert Eagle."

"Thanks," Claire murmured, her eyes lingering on him as he put the giant briefcase away. He rose to his feet and she quickly glanced away, popping the bullets out of the clip and stuffing them in her waist-pack.

Leon caught himself staring at her and tore his gaze away. "Anything else we should know?" he asked gruffly.

She shook her head negatively, then verbally corrected herself. "There may be bats inside the hangar. We'll need light to keep them away."

"I've got my lighter," Billy said immediately, patting his front jeans pocket.

"I've got mine, too," Chris assured her.

Leon stifled a laugh. "I've still got the one I got in Raccoon," he told them dryly. "Never leave home without it."

They all looked to Jill, who blinked at suddenly being the center of attention. "What?" she asked in her husky voice. "The three of you have lighters. You certainly don't need mine."

Claire chuckled as she reloaded the Desert Eagle. "The bats aren't nearly as mean as the crows were, but they'll still attack if you get too close."

Sherry shuddered dramatically. "As long as they're not mutated Dobies, I'm good."

Leon smiled at her gently. "I'll protect you, kid."

"My hero," she returned, her voice very dry, as she withdrew a Broken Butterfly from her tactical vest. "I think I've got it covered, Dad."

He eyed the big .45 that he knew kicked like a mule with a shake of his blond head. "Can you really handle that thing, Sherry?"

"Better than you," Sherry shot back tauntingly. "I've seen your scores, Leon. You suck with this gun."

He found himself flushing with embarrassment. "I'm better with the Killer 7 or the Handcannon. So, sue me."

Claire watched them interact with a small smile before clearing her throat. "There's one more thing," she said, waiting until they looked at her. "Once we were in the air, we found that we had a stowaway. It's what was left of Alexander Ashford."

"Better known as the T-078, Tyrant, or Nosferatu," Chris inserted quietly.

Leon frowned as something niggled at his memory. "I thought you caught up to Claire after she escaped from here," he said slowly.

Chris traded an uncomfortable glance with his younger sister. "I did."

Claire dropped her gaze as memories of Steve Burnside came at her in a rush. "I met someone here, a kid," she explained awkwardly. "His name was Steve Burnside, and he was a prisoner here before the bombing. He escaped with me."

Leon felt Sherry stiffen at his side, but his attention was focused on Claire, and the pain etched into her delicate features. "He didn't make it out, did he?"

"No," she murmured thickly, "he didn't."

He fell silent as she brushed passed them. He hadn't found any mention of Steve Burnside in any of the reports he'd gone over from the Rockfort Island incident. Either the government had missed him in the aftermath of the island's destruction, or a certain someone he loved to hate had altered the file before it had reached him. He'd have to ask Ada about that before he ripped her fucking heart out.

Leon followed as Claire started up the ladder, knowing that Sherry would follow. He didn't want to take a chance on being separated from Claire in case something happened. He wouldn't put it past Ada to use Claire to keep both himself and Sherry trapped in her web of deceit. If the others didn't like it, they could shoot him. Otherwise, there was no way they could stop him.

Claire was standing next to the big observation window, clutching her Magnum to her chest protectively. Leon climbed out of the hatch and helped Sherry out. Carlos came next, and Leon was surprised by the change. He'd half-hoped it would be Jill, just because she didn't seem to hate him quite so much. Carlos didn't either, but with him you could never really tell. He'd never taken anything too seriously.

"Thanks, amigo, but I don't think I'm ready to go that far," Carlos drawled as he aimed a look at Leon's outstretched hand.

Leon's lips twitched as he turned away. "Trust me, Carlos, you're nowhere near my type," he said dryly.

"My heart bleeds," Carlos quipped as he joined them.

"Is he always like this?" Sherry asked no one in particular.

Carlos slapped a hand dramatically over his heart. "Ah, chica, you wound me."

"Not yet," she shot at him in return.

Claire rolled her eyes as she walked a few feet away from the opening. "Shut up, Carlos. She's too damn young for you, anyway."

"Hey, I'm only twenty-nine," he declared, batting his big brown eyes at Sherry. "How old are you, chica?"

Sherry cocked one blond eyebrow at him. "I'm twenty," she answered, adding for emphasis, "And I'm old enough to know about guys like you."

A laugh rumbled from Leon before he could stop it. "Looks like my kid's got your number, Olivera."

Carlos just snorted as Billy's head appeared at the top of the ladder. "If she's your kid, I'll eat my--"

"Don't say it," Claire cut in hastily. She shooed him away from the opening. "I know you get action on a regular basis, Carlos, so you're not this desperate. Leave the kid alone."

Sherry shot her a venomous look and Leon stepped in. "You know she didn't mean it that way," he told her quietly.

She struggled to push down the years of suppressed anger she felt towards Claire Redfield. "Yeah," she managed finally, "I know."

"Sherry?" Claire said her name hesitantly. "Why are so angry with me?"

Alarm tightened Leon's gut. "Claire--"

"No, I want to answer this." Sherry looked at the woman she'd once loved like a mother and her hands fisted at her sides. "You never came for us, Claire. You walked out on us when we needed you the most, and then you never came back. You forgot that we even existed. That is why I'm angry with you."

Claire watched as she walked into the walked further into the underwater entrance tunnel with a troubled expression. "That's not true," she said in a quiet, subdued voice. "I never forgot either of you."

"Claire, don't." Leon reached a hand out to touch her before reality set in. He jerked it back and stepped away. "She's had a rough time the past eight years. She didn't mean any of it."

"What about you?" Claire pinned him under her intense blue gaze. "Do you feel the same way?"

He smiled sadly. "No, Claire, you're the last person I'd blame for any of this," he said before walking away.

Billy whistled soundlessly. "That's the ex, huh?"

Carlos shot him a dark look. "You okay, pequena?"

Claire took a deep breath and released it. "Yeah, Carlos, I'll live."

They turned as Chris, Jill, and Rebecca came out of the hatch in short order. Chris frowned at the three of them. "Where are Leon and Sherry?"

"They're up ahead." Claire pointed to a point farther up the walkway, where Leon had his arms around the young girl. "They're waiting for us there."

Jill looked at her with knowing eyes, but didn't comment. "Let's just get this over with," she sighed. "I really want to go home."

Leon looked up as they approached, his hand running over Sherry's hair. "Just how bad was this Tyrant you fought?" he asked.

"Bad enough that I needed a grenade launcher to down it the first time," Claire answered flatly.

He nodded and released Sherry. He dug into his attaché case, trading the gun strapped to his back for the Striker. The riot gun was better for long range shooting, but Tyrants had a way of getting up close and personal really fast, and the Striker was the more powerful weapon at close range.

"What, no rocket launcher?" Jill asked in a dry voice.

"Sorry," Leon grinned. "They're not standard military issue anymore."

"Good thing none of us are military then," former Marine Force Recon member Billy Coen said with a straight face.

Carlos, whose origins nobody knew, laughed at that. "Good one, amigo."

Chris' lips twisted in a half-smile. They were all former military, except for Claire, Leon, and Sherry Birkin. "Screw the military," he said with a shrug. "They certainly didn't appreciate us when they had us."

He'd been court-martialed, Leon remembered suddenly, followed by a dishonorable discharge. He'd always been surprised by the knowledge. Chris was such a strong, steady guy that you tended to forget that he'd once been a badass. "Shit happens," was all he said in response.

"That it does," Jill agreed with a grin of her own.

He checked the Striker to make sure that it was fully loaded--yep, one hundred rounds exactly--and rose to his feet. "Time to kill some undead assholes," he announced. He looked at Sherry and said, "Do me a favor, kid. Stay behind me, okay?"

Sherry rolled her expressive blue eyes and tossed her honeyed hair. "Yeah, whatever," she muttered even as she stepped behind him.

Claire came to his side, standing close in the narrow hallway. "Just like old times," she murmured in a hushed voice.

Leon slanted her a warm glance. "I wouldn't have it any other way, honey."

She blushed at the murmured endearment and looked away. "Come on."

He stayed at her side as they made their way through the steel gray passage. A white line bisected the corridor, presumably to control the flow of traffic, and a bank of large windows showed an interesting view of the ocean. If just one of those broke, they were all screwed.

They came to a door and Leon halted them with a raised hand. He couldn't hear a damn thing through the steel door, he thought with frustration. They were going in blind. He tested the knob and it turned easily in his hand. He traded a surprisingly reckless glance with Claire before pushing it open.

Seven zombies turned their way as they stepped passed the door, and Leon brought the Striker up. He stepped to one side and began to fire, aiming up slightly to catch them in the head. He heard Claire's Desert Eagle boom next to him, and smiled slightly. The sharp retort of Sherry's Broken Butterfly sounded in his ear, and they made short work of the Zombies. Interestingly enough, all but one were missing their heads.

Leon approached it cautiously and blasted its head into pulp. "Try getting up after that," he told it tauntingly.

"Nice bit of overkill there, Kennedy." Billy was shaking his head even as he smiled. "You really do hate the Crimson Heads, don't you?"

"Hell, yes!" Leon quickly replaced the spent shells and looked down the split hallway. "Which side?"

"The left," Claire answered, already heading in that direction.

Leon jogged to catch up to her, not wanting her to go anywhere alone. "Is the lift in there?" She nodded, and he pulled out his trusty Zippo. "Let there be light."

She giggled as he lit it on the second try. She'd really missed Leon's sense of humor, strange and slightly warped though it was. She opened the door to airport's hangar and stepped inside. Leon stayed close to her, using the lighter to keep the bats at bay. He knew they were there by the high-pitched squeak coming from the surrounding shadows. At least, they were keeping their distance.

He followed Claire to the big computer panel, only to find that the power was already on. "This is way too easy," he muttered uneasily.

"Yeah," she agreed, "I was thinking the same thing. Chris, we need the crests, now."

Chris gave them to her and she inserted them into the proper slots on the lift's control panel. The three little lights turned green and the lift began to retract. She remembered the bridge at the last moment and turned to check it. Dread was quickly replaced with resignation. She should have known better.

"We have to raise the bridge," she announced, reloading the Magnum and closing it with a flick of her wrist. "Chris, you'll have to ready the plane for takeoff."

Chris, who was the only pilot among them, swore richly. "You're not going alone," he stated flatly, turning to Billy. "Go with her. Make sure she comes back in one piece."

"You've got it," Billy said soberly. He looked to Leon and raised an eyebrow. "You coming, Kennedy?"

Leon pumped the Striker once. "Count me in."

Chris looked like he was going to protest until his sister nodded. "We can always use another gun," she said, hiding a smile.

"Sherry?" Once he had her attention, Leon handed her his attaché case. "Hold onto to this until I get back, okay?"

She looked down at it before smiling at the implied promise. "Don't take too long, Dad."

"I won't." Leon looked at Claire and nodded once. "Lead the way."

"Wait." Chris stepped forward. "Take the map. Just in case."

Billy was the one who stepped forward and took it. He put it into his weapons pack and gave Rebecca a quick hug. "I'll see you in a few. Do me a favor and stay on the damn plane, alright?"

"I will," Rebecca assured him breathlessly. "Be careful, Billy."

"You too, little girl."

Claire smiled at her brother and took them back the way they had come. This time, they took the shudder on left, Leon and Billy both holding their lighters aloft to keep the bats away. They crossed the bridge easily, and went through the single gray door at the end.

Leon glanced around the room, taking in the large lift on the left, the steel grate covering the door ahead of them, and the small lift to the right of that. "Which way, now?"

"The lift, first," Claire answered. "After we raise the bridge, we'll have to use the cargo elevator in there," she gestured to the grate-covered door, "to get back to the plane."

They piled onto the tiny lift and went to the room above. Claire ignored the panel on their right, which overlooked the previous room. She went to the only other door and went inside. Leon jogged to catch up to her, cursing as her gun fired several times before he reached her.

She stood among a pile of dead bodies, each in varying stage of decomposition, and all missing their heads. "Took you long enough," she said archly.

"Damn it, Claire!" he yelled as fear gave way to anger. "Don't you ever do that, again! You could have been killed!"

Claire's eyes narrowed at him in a dangerous feminine warning. "I can take care of myself, Leon. I don't need anyone to save me. Especially, not you."

He stiffened at the barb, his face going blank. He turned away and went through the door. He heard Billy say something, but thankfully, the closing door cut off the sound. He saw the yellow-and-black striped panel to his left and quickly pulled the switch down. He watched as the bridge came up to his level and stepped onto it. He waited for Claire and Billy, knowing that they would be along as soon as Claire regained control of her temper.

Leon smiled bleakly to himself. And to think, he'd actually missed that part of her! He closed his eyes and leaned against one the bridge's support beams. He'd forgotten just how badly she could hurt him, and with very little effort. She was the only person who had ever had that power over him, and she had never been shy in doing so when she was angry.

The door opened behind him, and Leon slanted an unreadable glance over his shoulder. "The bridge is up," he said unnecessarily.

"Good," Billy stated rather grimly. "Let's get our asses back to the plane before something really goes wrong."

Claire remained silent, her gaze avoiding his, for which Leon was grateful. He had no desire to go another round with her. It had been his fault for yelling at her, and he knew it. Later, if there was time, he'd apologize. For now, he simply let it go.

"We have to go back," Billy told him, "and that lever you just pulled activated the big lift downstairs."

"More zombies?" Leon asked with a tired sigh.

Billy nodded. "Afraid so."

They went back to the room below, and unearthly moans immediately assaulted their ears. Leon muttered, "Fucking zombies," just before they began to fire. There was only one Crimson Head among the ten zombies, but damned if he didn't head straight for him. Leon barely got the Striker up in time to fire in its direction. The force of the blast took its head, and part of one shoulder. Its body shuffled aimlessly for a few seconds, pushing against him, before falling to the ground.

Leon shuddered as he shot at the few remaining zombies. The Crimson Heads would give him a bevy of new nightmares, he was sure. He was quickly learning to hate them. "Shit!" he exclaimed as they all lowered their guns. "I could've done without that."

"What is it about the zombies that bother you so much?" Billy asked, adding, "Besides the fact that they're nasty and smell bad and want to eat you, that is."

He hesitated before answering. "Out of everything I've seen, all of the creatures and B.O.W.s I've fought, the zombies are the ones that scare me most," he said finally. "I had dreams of being turned into one for years after Raccoon City."

"You never told me that," Claire said, her cerulean eyes wide.

Leon shrugged, his youthful features closing again. "It's not the kind of thing you want to admit to your girl, Claire."

Billy nodded his understanding. "I still have flashbacks from Africa," he offered, surprising them both. "If Rebecca hadn't seen me have one, I never would have told her I had them."

Claire watched Leon as he returned the nod and muttered, "Men." She dragged her gaze away, disturbed by the fact that he had hidden something so important from her. What else didn't she know?

Claire drew a deep breath. "We go straight ahead, now. We'll need a key, though."

Billy examined the lock intently. "It's a regular keyhole. We won't need a security card, or anything."

"Try this," Leon said, pulling the master key from his vest.

Billy raised an eyebrow but took it without comment. It looked too slender for the keyhole, but it was worth a shot. He inserted the key and attempted to turn it. It turned easily, and the steel grate began to lift. He eyed it for a moment before handing it back with a shrug. He wasn't going to bitch, or ask any questions. He was just glad it had worked.

Leon entered the room first, rolling his eyes at yet another gold-trimmed brown trunk and typewriter. What the hell was that thing doing in a place like this? he asked himself. Then, he remembered the crests and the wheel and sighed. Of course, there'd be something they needed in there. There always was.

"Another trunk," Claire said, echoing his sigh. "I'm really sick of these things."

"It sounds like I missed quite a party when I left Rebecca in the Arklay Mountains," Billy commented with amusement. At Leon's look, he explained, "Every time we've come across a trunk or a typewriter, someone's commented, or made a joke about it. Even Rebecca," he added as he opened it.

Inside sat two different files, one red, one green. The green file had "S.T.A.R.S." emblazoned across the front in gold letters. The red merely sported Leon's name, and nothing more, but it was done in a woman's flowery script.

"Shit!" Leon cursed as he recognized Ada's handwriting. He snatched it up angrily, ignoring Claire and Billy's surprised expressions. He walked to the other end of the small storage room and opened the file.


I had no doubt that you'd make it this far, but things will get worse soon enough. This was the only way I could keep the promise I made so many years ago and give you the freedom that I was forced to steal from you. You probably won't thank me for this in the long run, regardless that it is what you've always wanted. Keep Sherry close to you. She is the only one you can truly trust in this. She has your best interests at heart, and the only answers you are ever going to get. Good luck, handsome, and watch your back. Things are not what they seem.


He closed the folder with a scowl and tucked it away. Goddamn her and her cryptic bullshit, Leon thought heatedly. He had every intention of questioning Sherry about her presence here eventually, but he resented Ada's insistence that he do so. And to infer that he might regret gaining his freedom?!

Leon was filled with a sense of unease. He couldn't show the file to S.T.A.R.S. without telling them just what had happened eight years ago. And he couldn't risk their safety by doing so. Even supposing that they survived this, there was no guarantee that Ada wouldn't go after Claire once this was done. But, damn it, he had to do something!

He ran a hand through his tawny hair, and jumped as he felt a hand on his shoulder. He whirled around to see Claire standing behind him, looking as surprised he felt. "Sorry," he muttered, stepping back.

"No problem." Claire studied him, her concern growing. He was pale, and there was a pinched look around his too-blue eyes that she had never seen before. "Leon, what is it?"

Leon shook his head, an unwilling smile coming to his lips. "What did your file say?" he asked in lieu of answer.

Her own lips twisted into a smile. "Beware of Hunters," she answered, her voice very dry.

"Great." Leon chuckled and strapped the Striker to his back, pulling out the Killer 7. "Well, any warning is better than none at all."

Billy's dark blue eyes flickered at the obvious evasion. "I'd never seen a Hunter that wasn't a hybrid before tonight," he commented idly. "I don't think I like them too much."

"No shit?" Leon grinned suddenly. "At least they stay dead, once you manage to kill them."

"True," Billy laughed in return. "For now though, we should probably get going."

They pushed the button and the cargo elevator's metal shutter lifted. They stepped onto the lift, which started automatically. Less than a minute later, it came to a stop and the shutter opened. They were in a large, rectangular courtyard, and the snarling he heard meant there were more Dobermans just lying in wait.

"Dogs," Claire said in a low voice, her .45 held out before her.

Billy only nodded and held his enhanced handgun tightly, pushing the stock firmly against his shoulder. Leon brought up the Killer 7 and took aim as the three dogs came rushing towards him. He took his down with two shots, Claire took hers with three. Billy emptied his magazine into the mutated Doberman, smiling with savage satisfaction as it yelped and dropped to the ground.

He took out another clip and slammed it home. "Those weren't Hunters," he said to no one in particular.

"No, those will be out on the walkway," Claire reassured him wearily, remembering the two Bandersnatchers that had ambushed her there. "And probably in greater numbers."

Leon eyed the semi-automatic handgun Billy held with worry. "Do you have enough ammo for that thing?" he asked as he reloaded his own gun.

"Hopefully," Billy said with a shrug.

"I've got extra ammo in my attaché case if you need it," Leon offered.

Billy considered him for a long moment. "Thanks, I'll probably take you up on that later."

"Cool." Leon looked at Claire and a smile came all too easily. "You ready, honey?"

Claire smiled back, her breath catching. "Yeah, I'm ready," she said breathlessly.

"Then, lead the way," Leon told her gently. "I have no idea where we are."

She flushed, punching Billy on the arm when he laughed. "Stow it, Coen," she snapped, reloading and flouncing towards the double doors right next to the elevator.

Leon stuck close to her, determined not to let anything happen to her. Logically, he knew that Claire could take of herself, but emotionally. . .Let's face it, Kennedy. You're a wreck when it comes to Claire Redfield, and that's never going to change.

He told that little voice in his head to shut up as he heard the distinctive click of the Hunters' overlarge nails on the stone bridge to his right. He saw the reflection of four sets of reptilian eyes in the moonlight and cursed soundly. His gun came up and he fired on the first. It squealed and dropped to the ground, only to spring up again. He shot it and pumped two more shots into it.

It stayed down and he quickly took the one Billy was having trouble with. He killed it, ignoring its death-squeal, and pumped a round into the one Claire had just dropped. A poll of liquid spread out on the ground beneath it, just as another jumped over it. Leon dropped to his back and fired. After two shots, the Killer 7 clicked dry, and he threw his arms up to try to hold it off.

Claire had already reloaded and was firing into its side. It collapsed on him, that damned squeal sounding in his ear. Leon frantically pushed it off of him, not wanting to be covered in mutated blood. He scrambled backwards before he regained his feet, doing his best not to let relief take him back down to the stone pavement.

"Fuck!" Leon grabbed onto the ledge and glared at the empty gun in his hand. "That's it!" he exclaimed as he reloaded it with jerky movements. "No more low-capacity guns. I don't care how powerful they are, it's just not worth it."

Claire and Billy were staring at him, and he glared at them. "What?"

"Nothing," Billy said quickly, backing away.

Claire bit her lip as she fought the urge to laugh her ass off. It really wasn't all that funny, and seeing Leon go down like that had scared her to death. "Are you okay?" she managed evenly, proud that she didn't even giggle a little.

Leon drew a deep breath and nodded. "Yeah, I'm good. Come on," he said abruptly and started towards the end of the bridge.

He was walking so fast that she had to jog to keep up with them. Billy, who had to be at least six-foot-two, wasn't having any problems. She had long legs herself, but not that long. "Guys!" she called breathlessly, "Wait up!"

Leon looked down from the top of the stone stairs, his hand on the latch, and paused. Claire was running to keep up with them, and guilt flooded him as he realized that they had almost left her behind. He extended his hand as she approached, loving the feel of her skin against his, even in this innocent way.

He smiled at her almost shyly as they went through the doors. The dogs that S.T.A.R.S. had killed earlier were still there, but no new surprises greeted them. They took the submarine back to the airport and took the lift to the plane. Leon reluctantly released her hand as the boarded, knowing that it would make her brother angry, not to mention Sherry's reaction.

The plane was a tight fit, but manageable. Rebecca sat at the communications console, and Jill in the co-pilot's seat. Carlos was sitting on the small stairs that led to Rebecca's seat. He had to squeeze himself to one side as Billy stomped past him to get to Rebecca. Sherry stood against a panel not far behind Jill, her expression showing her distrust as she watched S.T.A.R.S. Leon send her a smile as he and Claire approached the pilot's seat.

Chris sat at the controls, frowning as he tried unsuccessfully to disengage the autopilot. "We've got a problem here, Claire."

"What is it?" Claire asked with alarm, rushing to his side.

"The autopilot's on and I haven't been able to disengage it," he told her soberly.

"Just like before." She closed her eyes and swallowed hard. "So, we're going back to Antarctica," she stated in a hoarse whisper.

"Yeah, it looks like it." Chris reached out and took her hand in his. "I'm sorry, Claire. I'd spare you this if I could."

Claire squeezed his hand once before pulling away. "Just keep us in the sky, big brother. I'll take care of the Tyrant."

"Claire. . ." He sighed heavily. "Take Leon with you, at least. I don't want you facing that thing alone when you don't have to."

"I'll protect her," Leon assured him quietly. "My life for hers, if it comes to that."

Chris fought the urge to smile at the earnest expression the younger man was wearing. As much as he wanted to beat the shit out of Leon Scott Kennedy, he knew that the other man would keep his word. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that, Leon."

Leon's gaze moved to Claire and he extended his hand once more, suddenly not caring what anyone thought. "Come on," he said in a soft voice. "Let's kill this thing and get it over with."

"This isn't the end," she warned him as she slid her hand into his. "We still have Antarctica."

"We'll worry about that when we get there." He grasped her hand tightly and pulled her to the back of the plane. The words, "Cargo Hold," were painted onto the door, and he paused. "Are you sure about this, Claire? We haven't heard an alarm, yet."

Just then, an alarm sounded through the plane's communications system. "Wonderful," he sighed, his hand tightening around hers before he forced himself to release it. "Jill, would you mind if I borrowed your grenade launcher for a few minutes?"

Jill immediately stepped forward and gave it to him. "Do you need more rounds?" she asked with concern.

Leon just shook his head. "It isn't for me." He pressed it into Claire's hands with a faint smile. "You were always better with this thing than I was."

Claire met his gaze with brilliant blue eyes. "I'm with you, Leon."

He nodded, ducking his head a bit in the endearing gesture she remembered so well, and stepped through the door. The giant monstrosity rose up through the open hatch at the back of the plane. Leon wasted no time in shooting it with the Striker, trying to prevent its slow but gradual approach. The enhanced, steel shotgun boomed loudly, and he heard the quieter thump of the Claire's grenade launcher at his side. After the twelfth shot it finally staggered, stumbling back about five feet. Its head became visible as it lowered, caught in the blinking red glare of the alarm light, and Leon caught a glimpse of something strange.

It had red hair, he realized with surprise. He'd never seen a Tyrant or a Nemesis with hair of any kind--unless you counted William Birkin--and it was fucking weird. He kept shooting, hoping vainly to keep it stunned. He heard Claire gasp, "Steve!", and then she was scrambling back, away from him and through the steel door.

"Claire?!" he yelled, concerned by her uncharacteristic retreat. He continued to blast away as he sought to follow her, only to find the door locked. Claire had locked him out of the only safe place in the plane?! The Tyrant rose to its full, impressive height, and it's alternating red/green eyes narrowed on him with what he'd have sworn was hatred.

He kept firing, desperate now that his backup was gone. Without Claire's grenade's, he wasn't so sure he could take the damned thing. It began its slow approach towards him and he wondered if he was going to die here. He noticed a panel on the wall to his left and realized that it was a control panel for the cargo release. He did his best to keep the Striker trained on the beast as his left hand reached for the button. The shotgun jumped and bucked, and he lowered it to make the most of the recoil. He finally got it to hesitate and hit the button, praying this would work.

The Tyrant swatted its big claw and the crate came flying back at him. Too late, he tried to dodge and was knocked down by the big wooden box. Pain exploded through his mid-section and he sucked in his breath. He pushed it away and kept firing, cursing as he tried to gain his feet and failed. The sedative was still slowing his reflexes, and the pain was threatening to pull his concentration away from him.

He was going to die, Leon thought with fatalism, even as he pulled the Killer 7 from his tactical vest. He'd never get a chance to explain things to Claire, or to tell her that he still loved her. He was going to be killed by a red-headed mutant monster, and there was nothing he could do about it. Except shoot at it in a vain attempt to take it with him.

He blasted away with both guns, no longer expecting to Claire to come back. He finally stumbled to his feet and hit the button again. This time, the Tyrant was pushed over the edge and out of the plane. Leon slumped against the door, closing his eyes as it dawned on him that he hadn't died, despite Claire's desertion.

No! Leon told himself sharply. Claire hadn't deserted him. Even now, he could feel the vibrations as she pounded on the door, could almost hear her voice as she screamed his name. Maybe he was just fooling himself, but he didn't think so. Claire was high-strung, but she was reliable. He knew that something she'd seen in the Tyrant had scared her, and it had sent her staggering back in pure shock. He'd heard the door lock behind her, and he knew that it wasn't a manual lock. He also knew Claire Redfield well enough to know that she didn't cut and run. Whatever had spooked her about this particular Tyrant had been important.

The door opened behind him, and he found himself falling backwards. Strong arms caught him and dragged him back into the cockpit. Billy eased him to the ground, propping him up against an electrical panel. Rebecca crouched beside him and began to run her hands over him. He winced when she touched his left side and she immediately lifted his shirt.

"How does this feel?" she asked, her voice brisk and professional as she probed the area. "You're ribs don't feel broken."

"They're not broken, just bruised," Leon said hoarsely, his gaze moving beyond her to find Claire, whose face was streaked with tears. "Are you alright?"

Claire choked back a sob and rushed to him. She dropped to her knees beside him, her hands shaking as they touched his face. "God, I'm so sorry, Leon," she said, her voice thick with emotion. "I didn't mean to leave you like that. The door wouldn't open, and I couldn't get back through, and--"

"Hey, it's okay." Leon took her face in his hands and managed a crooked smile. "I managed to knock it out of the plane with those huge cargo crates. I'm not completely helpless, you know."

She wrapped her hands around his and dropped her head to his shoulder. "I thought you were going to die," she whispered thickly. "It would have been all my fault. I couldn't live through that, again."

Yeah, so did I, Leon thought and immediately pushed the selfish thought aside. "Don't cry," he told her in a shaky voice, running a hand over her ponytail. "I'm fine, Claire. A little bruised, but whole. See?"

He urged her head up and wiped the moisture from her face with his thumbs. "No more tears, honey. Please," he added pleadingly.

Claire sniffed and nodded. Leon had never been able to handle it when she cried. She'd nearly lost him, she thought even as she attempted a smile. Leon Scott Kennedy, who would give you the shirt off his back if you asked, the young and idealistic rookie cop who had saved her and Sherry's lives one night in Hell. He'd almost died because seeing Steve again, that way, had caught her off guard.

It wouldn't happen, again, Claire swore to herself. Leon might be a highly skilled government agent, but there some things that no one could do alone. Taking on Steve Burnside in his Tyrant form was one of them. She wouldn't let herself be taken by surprise, again.

Sherry watched as Claire threw herself into the co-pilot's seat and attempted to pull herself together. Good old Dad had immediately forgiven her for freaking out and almost costing him his life. Sherry wasn't going to be so forgiving.

Claire had been upset, sure. She'd come in yelling, "It's Steve! It's Steve!" before she'd realized just what she had done. Yeah, she'd picked up the grenade launcher and tried to get back in, screaming Leon's name and pounding on the steel door dramatically, but it hadn't changed the fact that she'd left him out there in the first place. Sherry had seen what the Tyrant-111 could do, and she knew that Leon was damn lucky to be alive.

Leon saw the play of emotions chasing themselves across Sherry's unguarded features with a sense of dread. He'd known from her letters that she was angry with Claire for what she saw as her desertion. He just hadn't realized how deep that anger went. He'd tried to explain Claire's actions over the years, but a part of himself that he wasn't too fond of had agreed. Claire had gone to France to find her brother, the most important person in her life. She'd been looking for him in Raccoon City when they'd met, and he'd always known that he and Sherry had taken second place to Chris Redfield.

Like him, Sherry was an only child. She didn't quite understand the bond that Claire shared with her older sibling. Leon himself understood it, he'd just never experienced it. When Claire had said that it wasn't over, that she still had to find her brother, Leon had agreed. He'd been willing to do whatever it took to help her find Chris. He just hadn't been willing to be left behind like so much unwanted trash.

Leon sighed as Rebecca bandaged his ribs. If only Claire had waited long enough for him to earn the money for he and Sherry to go with her. But no, she'd been all fired up, saying that they could meet her there when they had the money. She hadn't been able to put the family they'd made first, and they had all suffered for it.

"Am I hurting you?" Rebecca asked in her high, breathy voice.

He shook his head negatively, dredging up a smile for the girl who'd always been so nice to him. "I've been through worse, Becca. But thank you," he added politely.

Billy Coen crouched at her back, his midnight eyes watching them both like a hawk. Leon knew from what Rebecca had said that she didn't believe him guilty of the twenty-three murders he'd been accused of. He also knew that he'd been declared legally dead after the incident in the Arkham Mountains on Rebecca's word. Leon knew that he had joined S.T.A.R.S. under an assumed identity. He'd read about their latest member, although he'd had a different name in the report Leon had been given.

Coen had been Special Ops, Marine Force Recon, before the massacre in Africa that had resulted in his court-martial. He'd been a fugitive for eight years, for all that he'd made a home with S.T.A.R.S. in Montana. Although, he was presumed dead, the military was taking no chances. Every soldier and agent in America had orders to shoot to kill if they ever saw him.

Not that Leon cared much what the government wanted. They'd taken his life away from him, and to this day he hated them for it. If he survived this fucking test, he was going to quit. No more insane missions to rural villages in Europe, no more putting up with Ashley Graham's teenage flirtations while he attempted to protect her. And definitely no more fucking Umbrella B.O.W.s!

If Ada went back on her word and denied him his freedom, he'd come clean with S.T.A.R.S. and leave Sherry with them for protection. Then, he'd gear up and go after the bastards that had done this to him. He'd take out as many as he could before they killed him, and he'd die a happy man. At least, his daughter and his wife would be safe.

That was how he thought of Sherry and Claire. It didn't matter that they'd been separated, or that he hadn't worked up the nerve to propose before things had fallen apart. Claire was his wife, just as William Birkin's daughter was his own. Bloodlines didn't mean a damn thing to him, and never would.

Leon tore his thoughts away from his problems. He focused on Billy, who seemed so possessive of Rebecca that Leon half expected him to start grunting and swinging a club at any time. "So, how do you like being a member of S.T.A.R.S.?" Leon asked him curiously.

Billy was surprised by the question, and not sure how to respond. "I'm not running anymore," he said finally. "I've got a roof over my head, three squares a day, and a regular paycheck. It works."

"You'd get all of that in prison," Leon felt compelled to point out.

Those cobalt eyes moved to Rebecca, and Billy's expression softened. "Yeah, but I have a feeling I wouldn't like my roomie so much there."

Rebecca blushed, her gray eyes meeting her lover's. Billy smiled and brushed a gentle hand over her short light brown hair. "What about you?" he threw back, quirking one dark eyebrow. "How do you like being a secret agent for the good 'ole U.S. of A.?"

Leon snorted at that. "I've got a fancy apartment that I never see, and my charge is a nineteen-year-old girl who's convinced that we're perfect for each other. What do you think?"

Carlos shared a laugh with Jill. "Sounds like the perfect job, amigo."

"You would think so," Jill said, her tone mild even as she threw an ammo clip at his head. She gazed at Leon with amused sympathy. "If you're so unhappy with your work, why do you stay?"

His expression hardened as he dropped his gaze and shrugged. "It pays the bills," he said with forced carelessness. "What about all of you? Why did you reform S.T.A.R.S. instead doing the normal thing?"

Jill watched Leon's youthful features shut down with concern. Leon had always been so open and honest. What happened in the last eight years to change him so much? "And just what is normal, Leon?"

He paused at the question. "Hell if I know, Jill."

Chris sat silently in the pilot's seat, listening to the others as they talked. He'd noticed something about Leon, and his instincts told him that it was important. Whenever he was asked his life, or the eight years he'd been in D.C., he either made a joke or changed the subject. Leon had always been a horrible liar, so he didn't even bother to try. He just brushed the subject of his past aside as though it didn't matter.

Claire had become nearly hysterical when she'd realized that Leon was trapped in the cargo bay with the Tyrant. Whatever her feelings for Steve Burnside might have been, there was no questioning her love for Leon Kennedy. Leon's own reactions to Claire hinted that he wasn't over her, either. And still, Leon hadn't offered any explanations for his disappearing act eight years ago.

Damn it, he knew that Leon had loved his sister. After they had returned from Europe, he and Claire had looked for Leon and Sherry. His sister had been frantic, sure that something bad had happened to them, that Umbrella had either killed or kidnapped them. All the neighbors in that rattrap apartment building they'd lived in had been worried by his sudden disappearance, and had remarked on how heartbroken the poor kid had seemed after his girlfriend had moved out. They spent more than ten months looking for them, but they'd simply disappeared.

Claire's life had changed after that. She'd quit college, unable to return to the 'normal' life she'd had before Raccoon City. She'd badgered him until he'd given in and let her join the anti-Umbrella task force they'd formed out of the remnants of S.T.A.R.S. Bravo and Alpha Teams. He'd trained her himself, making sure that his little sister had all the skills necessary to survive the harsh life she'd chosen for herself.

Claire had done exceptionally well, though she was still too impulsive for his liking. She rarely dated, and when she did meet a guy, her forceful personality sent him packing within weeks. She'd told him once that she compared all of the men she met to her big brother, and that Leon was the only one who'd ever measured up.

To this day, she still carried the R.P.D. badge he'd left behind in her waist-pack. She had never forgotten Leon Kennedy, and she had never stopped loving him. If they survived this, Chris was going to corner the bastard and demand an explanation. He'd beat the truth out him out of him if he had to, but he had to know why Leon had hurt his sister so badly.

He ran a hand over his face wearily. He felt a hand on his shoulder and clasped it gratefully. Jill was always there, the one true constant in his life. She was calm under pressure, fully capable of taking command of any situation. And she loved him.

Chris smiled to himself and brought her hand to his cheek. They'd been friends and teammates for years before they'd gotten involved. She was still his best friend, the one person who could talk him out of his temper, and make him feel better without saying a word.

He'd always promised her marriage, once they'd taken Umbrella down for good. Then they'd get another message from their 'anonymous' source, and it would get pushed to the back burner again.

Not anymore, Chris thought as he turned and smiled up at her. After they survived this, he was going to marry her. He didn't care if it was in a church or a judge's chambers, so long as they were joined legally. She could keep her name is she wanted to, though he liked the thought of his love becoming Jill Redfield.

Jill smiled down at him, stroking his cheek with her thumb. "You should try to get some sleep," she told him in a murmur. "You look exhausted, Chris."

"I'm okay, babe." He slid his arms around her and rested his head against her stomach. He felt her hands sift through his hair and closed his eyes. "We're getting married, you know."

She uttered a low, nearly soundless laugh. "Promises, promises, Redfield."

He gave her a warning squeeze. "You want a church, or a courthouse, or a Vegas chapel?"

"Anything but Elvis," Jill said with a shudder. "How about the back yard?"

He frowned briefly. "I'd have to mow it first."

Her fingers yanked on his hair gently. "You'll live, Redfield."

He grunted and reluctantly pulled away. "I suppose I will." He grinned and looked at his sister. "It'll be worth it if I get to see Claire in a dress."

Claire, who had been studiously trying to ignore the intimate conversation, scowled at his words. "You suck, Chris."

Carlos came up behind her and leered licentiously. "I'd pay to see that, Redfield."

"Oh, you will," Chris told him dryly. "After all, I won't be the only one wearing a tux."

"Mierda," he swore flatly. "Your pequena is right, Chris--you suck."

Billy laughed evilly. "I can't wait to see Romeo here in black-tie-and- tails."

"You'll be there too," Jill reminded him with a smile.

"Yeah, so?" Billy threw a wink at her, knowing it would tick Redfield off. "I had to wear a Marine uniform for years. A tux is nothing."

"I think you'll all look very handsome," Rebecca said diplomatically as she put her supplies away.

"And we'll all be equally uncomfortable," Chris laughed, "but if I have to wear one, so do both of you."

Leon listened to them laugh with downcast eyes. It was all so easy for them, he thought bitterly. No matter what happened, they always had each other. He knew that they hadn't had an easy time fighting Umbrella, but at least they hadn't been alone.

Dammitt, you know better than this, he chastised himself sternly. It had been his decision to cut off all contact with them. That Ada hadn't left him with much of a choice was irrelevant. He could have taken that risk and tried to arrange a meeting with Chris. He could have explained the situation and begged for S.T.A.R.S.'s help. Sherry and Claire might have survived Ada's retaliation, even though he probably wouldn't have.

Leon just didn't know any more. He wasn't a risk taker by nature. He was cautious in almost everything that he did. He always had been. He might have been young when he'd met S.T.A.R.S., but he definitely hadn't been reckless. Claire had been different.

He smiled as he thought of her. God, she had been fearless! She had taken on zombies and Lickers and Tyrants without batting an eye. She had saved Sherry's life when even though the child's very presence had to have slowed her down. She'd even gone back into that damned lab to find the cure for the G-virus parasite that William Birkin had infected Sherry with. It hadn't mattered to her that monsters lurked around every corner, waiting to devour anything that crossed their path.

Leon had always been a little in awe of her. He'd been the cop, the one trained to deal with violence. It had been his job to protect her. She had been a regular college student before coming to Raccoon City. A civilian certainly, but Claire Redfield was no damsel in distress. She had protected him too, even if she had insisted on having her own way. She had infuriated him with her stubbornness, and stolen his heart with her courage.

And she had built a life for herself that didn't include him. Claire Redfield was more of a survivor than he would ever be.

Leon looked at Sherry and waved her forward. She crouched beside him and placed the attaché case in his lap. He smiled faintly, still a little disturbed by her military-like obedience, before opening the case. He put the Killer 7 away, and traded it for the .50 caliber Handcannon. He had purchased this from the mysterious merchant in Europe, one of the few Los Ganados who hadn't been controlled by Osmund Saddler. He had paid two-hundred thousand native Pestas for an exclusive upgrade that allowed it to hold as many bullets as he happened to have for it. Hell of a gun to have in a pinch.

He took out the Matilda, one of his favorite semi-automatic pistols, and held it out to Billy. "Give this a try," he told the other man, adding, "It holds two-hundred and fifty rounds, and fires them even faster than the enhanced Beretta you're using."

Billy looked it over and tested its balance. "Any more ammo?" he asked, causing Leon to laugh.

"I guess, I'm not the only one into overkill," Leon said as he gave him two boxes containing thirty bullets a piece.

"Hey, if it works. . ." he quipped, not bothering to finish the old line.

Rebecca shook her head, her pale green eyes locked on her lover. "So long as it keeps you alive, I'm all for it," she said in a soft voice.

Billy looked down at her, his fine features softening. "Here," he said gently, pressing the Beretta into her hands. "For my peace of mind, okay?"

She took it, a blush staining her cheeks. She busied herself with rearranging her waist-pack to make room for it. Leon gave her his remaining box of .9 millimeter bullets and settled back. He gave Sherry's hand a reassuring squeeze before closing his eyes. He was still exhausted, and he hoped to could sleep the effects of sedative away. After all, Antarctica was a long ways away.