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.
Author's Note: Here it is, the last chapter of my not-so-epic tale=). This was my first attempt at writing Leon, and it's still my favorite version of him. I hope you liked it, as well. Now, on with the show!
Resident Evil: The Gauntlet
Chapter Seven: Home
Leon was jerked awake by the sound of a gunshot. As his frantic gaze searched the corners of the darkened room, he realized that it was only another nightmare. He had fallen asleep on the couch, again. He swiped at his eyes and reached for the pack of cigarettes lying on the coffee table. He lit one and took a deep drag, holding the smoke in his lungs before finally releasing it. He knew that smoking was supposed to bad for him, but fuck it. He had no intention of giving it up. He'd take whatever crutches he could find, so long as they helped him deal with the fucking pain.
He poured a drink from the bottle sitting open on the table and downed it in one gulp. Another bad habit, one that he worked hard to control. He had to be careful with any kind narcotic or downer, and alcohol was no exception. His body had taken quite a beating, and it needed time to recover. His early retirement was something he welcomed, but it had its drawbacks. It gave him way too much time to think, and time to find ways not to. The little man with the jackhammer that was currently pounding away inside of his head was one of the reasons he usually didn't drink much.
Coen had been right, Leon thought, sighing deeply. Gaining his freedom hadn't stopped the nightmares, or the depression. If anything, they had both worsened. Now instead of just Claire, he had Barry and Steve crawling through his head, taking their revenge for his failure to protect them. Logically, he knew that it was only his conscience wreaking havoc with him. It still didn't stop the nightmares, or the guilt that was his constant companion.
Leon glanced at the cloak and groaned. It was three in the morning, and he had five hours before he went to the S.T.A.R.S. office for his physical. He hadn't been asked to join Alpha Team, but Chris had known that he couldn't go to any ordinary doctor, not with the government still angry over Wesker's loss. Leon couldn't trust them, so Chris had offered Rebecca's services as Alpha Team's medic. His first test had come back negative, but he'd put off the return visit for nearly three months, and he really needed to go in and make sure that damned Tyrant hadn't infected him. It didn't matter that he was supposed to be immune; After all, Steve had been, too.
He dragged himself up to his bedroom and into the adjoining bath. He took a shower and two aspirin, hoping the banging in his head would at least lower in volume. He threw on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and went back downstairs. He quietly let himself out of the house he'd bought, pausing as he saw Luis sitting on the porch.
"Hey," he greeted, taking a seat in one the lawn chairs.
Luis nodded at him from across the small table. "Couldn't sleep, eh?"
Leon merely shrugged, only grateful that he hadn't woke up screaming tonight. "What about you?" he asked.
"The same." The Spaniard lit a cigarette, the tip glowing in the darkness. "Sherry went right back to sleep, and she seemed peaceful. I didn't want to wake her, so I came out here."
Sherry had had nightmares since they'd returned, Steve's name on her lips as she woke. About five weeks after they'd settled here, he'd woken to her screams and ran to her room, only to withdraw when he saw that Luis had beaten him to it. They'd been nearly inseparable ever since, and Leon hadn't said a word. Sherry was a grown woman, and she seemed happy with the Spanish man. He wasn't going to ruin that for her by playing the part of the overprotective father. She deserved better than that, and so did Luis.
"She's going to give you hell when she smells the smoke on you," Leon pointed out as he lit his own. "You know how much she hates living with three smokers."
"Si." Luis smiled briefly before looking away. "Are you sure you're okay with this, Leon?"
Leon's own smile was crooked. "You make her happy, Luis. I can't ask for more than that."
The Spaniard stared off into the distance. "I was married once," he said abruptly, taking a long drag off the cigarette. "There was an Umbrella chemical plant just off of the coast of Portugal, on this little island that was nearly uninhabitable. I remember how we all laughed when they bought it, sure that they'd made a horrible deal. Then, the rumors started, and I was sent in undercover as an Umbrella researcher."
He paused to take another drag, and Leon kept his mouth shut. "To make it look real, my wife and my son were sent there with me. She took a job as a secretary in the island's main office. There was another 'incident', this time due to an attack on the facility."
Leon drew a sharp breath as he remembered the file he'd seen on the Rockfort Island incident. "Wesker?" he questioned in a low voice.
"Probably. He was certainly our main suspect." Luis shifted in his chair, running a hand through his short black hair. "I ran home during the attack, only to find Manuel near death, crushed beneath the remains of the house. I couldn't find Helena. I tried to get help, but those damn zombies were everywhere. I managed to drag my boy to a house up the street, one that hadn't been destroyed in the attack."
Leon winced as he imagined what had happened next. "The house wasn't empty," he stated flatly.
"No, it wasn't." Luis crushed the cigarette out in the ashtray with an angry motion. "I had the Red 9—I'd grabbed it before I went for help—but there seven of them in there. I killed all of them, thinking that my child might survive, if I could just find a damn doctor."
"He died before I could even leave to look, within seconds of the others," he continued, his voice hoarse. "Wesker must have hit the chemical plant first, because the T-virus had already infected the citizens of—"
He broke off, rubbing his arms as though cold. "I had to kill my son, Leon. Even though he had just died in my arms, I had to put a bullet in his head, because he turned into one those things."
"I'm sorry," Leon told him inadequately.
Luis just nodded, his expression harsh. "I buried him in the back yard, and went looking for my wife. The main office was completely destroyed, nothing left but rubble. I thought she was dead, too."
Leon looked away. "I take it she wasn't?"
"Oh, no. Not my Helena." The Spaniard's eyes narrowed. "I caught sight of her coming out of the chemical plant, a sample of the T-virus in one pretty little hand, and a gun in the other. Apparently, she'd made some kind of deal with one of the Umbrella supervisors. He had a helicopter waiting to take her off of the island."
"She left my son alone. She saw how badly he was injured, and she left him there to die alone." Luis crossed his arms over his chest, shaking his head slightly. "I couldn't let her get away with that, Leon. I couldn't."
"What did you do?" Leon asked with dread.
"Not what you're thinking, cop." Luis smiled, and it wasn't a pleasant sight. "I disarmed her, and left her there to fend for herself. The streets were crawling with zombies. I doubt she even got close to that chopper."
Leon hid a wince at the satisfaction in the other man's voice. "How did you get off the island?" he asked at length.
"I stole a boat at the marina," Luis answered with another shrug. "When I went back to Madrid, I told my superiors what I had witnessed. But I had no proof of what Umbrella had really been doing in that plant. I was put on leave, and the island was 'destroyed' when the chemical plant exploded the next day."
He laughed, the sound bitter. "When I came back, I saw a sample of the T-virus in the lab, and I immediately requested a transfer. Told them I couldn't carry a gun anymore, that my nerves were shot. That's when I met Ada," he added, shrugging his thin shoulders. "She said that the U.S. government knew what Umbrella was up to, but couldn't prove it. Then, she told me about the Los Illuminados being resurrected, and asked if I would like to help the people in my hometown by going in as a researcher again. I accepted," he finished simply. "The rest, you know."
Leon put his cigarette out and rested his elbows on the table. "Have you told Sherry any of this?"
"No," Luis replied with a heavy sigh. "This thing between us. . .it's not going to last. She doesn't love me, Leon. She still loves Steve," he added awkwardly.
"And she probably always will," Leon said with a frown, "but he's dead, Luis. Eventually, she'll get over him. When she does—"
"Like you got over Claire Redfield?" the Spaniard cut in the with first signs of anger. "No, mi amigo. I'll take what she gives me gladly, but I will not bear my soul to her. I do not want the woman's pity."
Leon listened to him and heard echoes of his own conversation with Billy Coen back on Antarctica. "Yeah, I know how you feel," he said finally. "Billy noticed how depressed I was after we found Steve, and he called me on it once we were alone. He told me to get some help, to talk to someone, and I told him that I didn't want anyone's pity. Especially Claire's."
"Si, you understand, then." Luis sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. "So, do you want company when you go to see S.T.A.R.S. today?"
"Not really." Leon leaned back against the house, closing his eyes briefly. "I don't think Sherry's ready for that, and where you go, she goes."
"What about Jack?" the other man asked. "He's getting bored just twiddling his thumbs, waiting for all of the supplies to come in."
Leon smiled at that. He and Jack had decided to start their own security business, and had just ordered the first of their electronics supplies. Not to mention, the small plane that would help them service out-of-state clients. That's what was really driving Jack Carver crazy. He might take the boat Leon had bought out every day to fish, but what he really wanted was to be up in the air again.
"He'll live," a voice said dryly from behind him. He looked up to see Sherry standing in the doorway, wearing his old R.P.D. sweatshirt and a pair of shorts. "What are you two still doing up?"
"Couldn't sleep," Leon told her, shooting Luis a grin as they both hid their cigarette packs.
"Smoking, I'll bet." Sherry arched a blond brow and went to sit on Luis' lap. She lowered her nose to his hair and said, "Yep. You are so busted."
He shrugged and wrapped his arms around her, hugging her close. "It is the only vice I have, nena."
"What, I don't count?" she asked him teasingly.
He made an exasperated sound and looked up at her. "You are not a vice, Sherry. Though I could always be wrong about that," he added under his breath.
She laughed and laid her chin on top of his head. "Jerk," she said with obvious affection. Her eyes met Leon's and the troubled look in their pale depths told him that she had heard Luis' tale. He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. She might still be grieving for Steve Burnside, but she had real feelings for Luis. Now, all she would have to do was convince him of that.
She tilted her head to one side. "Are you okay, Dad?" she asked, her concern obvious.
He nodded slowly, realizing that she had heard everything. "I will be, honey. Once I get back to work, things will get better," he assured her. "I'm just not used to having all of this free time. It's kind of freaking me out."
Sherry merely nodded, pressing a kiss to the top of Luis' head. "Isn't your appointment with Rebecca today?" she asked.
"Yes," he answered with a sigh. "I suppose you want to go?"
"Only if Luis here goes with us," she returned, ruffling his hair with her fingers. "What do you say, hick?"
Luis looked up at her, his lips thinning with mock displeasure. "Mujer, I am not a hick," he told her with a stern frown.
She snorted and slid from his lap, taking his hand and tugging until he rose to his feet. "Come on, hick. We have to be up in a few hours."
"My appointment's not until eight," Leon pointed out, adding, "And I don't need a babysitter, honey. I'll be fine on my own."
"Yeah, but I was hoping you'd cook breakfast," she said, pausing to press a kiss to his cheek. "Are you sure you don't want someone to go with you?"
He nodded, relieved that she was willing to relent so easily. "I'm sure, Sherry."
"Okay." She sent him a smile as she straightened. "Good night, Leon. Try to get some sleep."
"I will," he lied, returning her smile.
The door closed behind them, and the smile disappeared. He knew that he wouldn't sleep again tonight. He'd never been able to go back to sleep after a nightmare. Even when he'd been with Claire, it had been the same. More often than not, he'd spent the rest of the night curled around her, watching her as she slept, wondering what he'd done to deserve her.
Leon's smile returned at the memory. She'd always insisted on talking about the dreams, as though that would help them both deal with them better. It had helped, just not as she'd hoped. It had always kept the images fresh in his mind, making further sleep impossible. But he'd learned to function on two or three hours of sleep, and it had given him more time with Claire.
He still missed her terribly. She lived not more than ten miles away, and he never saw her. Billy and Rebecca had stopped by twice already. Hell, even Carlos had popped in, just to see how a secret agent really lived, he'd said. But Chris, Jill, and Claire had stayed away. Sure, Chris had called to confirm his appointment with Rebecca, but he'd hung up as soon as he could. Leon Kennedy was persona non grada with the Redfield's, and he probably always would be.
Not that Leon blamed them. He didn't. After all, Barry Burton had died because of him. It didn't matter that Wesker hated them all, and had probably killed Barry himself. Ada had set up that damned test to give Leon his freedom, and that made him culpable.
He closed his eyes and concentrated on relaxing his muscles. It was hard, with all the thoughts that were circling crazily through his mind, but he'd spent years perfecting this. Besides, if he was going to be out here for the next few hours, he might as well try to get comfortable.
"So, Leon," Rebecca asked as the examination room door closed behind her junior medical assistant, "How have you really been?"
"I'm doing better," Leon responded with a small smile. True to his word, Billy had told Rebecca about his depression. But he couldn't be angry. Rebecca was one of those rare people you could truly trust with your secrets. "Our first shipment should be coming in any day now, and I think we're going to get the land for the airstrip fairly cheap."
"Leon S. Kennedy, security specialist." She checked the three wounds on his abdomen one last time. "These really are healing well, Leon. Have you given any more thought to having a plastic surgeon look at them?"
He shook his head negatively. "I'm fine with the scars, Becca. They don't bother me."
She nodded as she turned away, retrieving a capsule from a nearby tray. "Okay, we should have your test results ready in a few days." She saw him cringe and felt a jolt of sympathy. "I can understand why you're worried, but I really don't think you're infected, Leon. Your wounds are healing at a normal rate, and Sherry says that you're not showing any of the signs that Steve did."
Leon nodded, his smile dimming at the mention of Steve Burnside. "You're one of the few people she trusts, you know," he told her, still surprised by how quickly Sherry and Rebecca seemed to have bonded.
She blushed a little at his words, slipping the capsule in her pocket. "She's a nice girl, Leon, once you get past her guard. With everything she's been through, it really surprised me."
"She's a survivor," he said simply, his pride in her obvious.
Rebecca smiled at that. "Aren't we all?"
Leon avoided her gaze as he pulled his shirt over his head and combed his fingers through his hair. He hopped off the table, reaching for his jacket. It was made of plain black leather, with a detachable lining so it could be worn year round. Sherry had helped him pick it out, rejecting the more conservative coats he would have chosen. It made him look like he should be on a motorcycle, but it was comfortable.
"Why don't you come over this weekend?" Rebecca asked suddenly. His head jerked up, and she explained, "Billy bought a new grill, and he's dying to try it out. He says he needs a test subject who's not so biased in his favor."
Leon chuckled at that. "Should I bring anything?"
"Just your family." She paused, her green eyes narrowing slightly. "Ask Jack not to flirt with me so much. Billy nearly hit him the last time we visited you."
"I know." Leon shrugged as he opened the door for her. "I'll talk to him, but that's just the way that Jack is. Sherry's the only woman I haven't seen him hit on, and I don't know if it's because he's afraid of me, Luis, or her."
Rebecca laughed as they entered the hall. "No offense, but I'd put my money on her."
"None taken," he returned with a grin. "I'm well aware of my daughter's temper."
"I know. She kind of reminds me of Cl—" Rebecca bit her lip as she looked away. "I'm sorry, Leon. I didn't mean to—"
"It's alright," Leon told her gently. "I've noticed the similarities, myself."
Rebecca nodded, tucking her light brown hair behind her ears. "Have you talked to her at all?"
He shook his head negatively, his blue eyes dark. "I was hoping she'd call," he admitted in a quiet voice. "For Sherry's sake, if nothing else."
Rebecca sighed. "I don't know what's going on with her, Leon. She never talks to me anymore. She spends all of her time with Chris and Jill, or off on her own. She's more closed off than you are," she added worriedly.
Leon flinched as guilt flooded over him. "She's grieving, Becca. Give her time."
"We're all grieving," she said in return, her youthful features reflecting her own sorrow as she laid a hand on his arm. "None of this was your fault, Leon. Wesker would have come after us, eventually."
He ducked his head, taking refuge behind his hair. "Barry might still be alive if I'd hidden my depression better," he said in a low voice. "If Ada hadn't noticed—"
"No." Rebecca shook her head, her expression stubborn. "Chris blames himself for Barry too, and it's wrong."
"Why?" Leon asked with surprise. "None of this was his fault."
"Because he didn't warn him," Rebecca explained quietly. "It was rumors of Wesker that sent us to that island. We didn't want to worry Barry, so we told him that it was a regular rescue mission. He thinks that if Barry had known the truth, he might have been able to protect himself from Wesker."
He was shaking his head as she spoke. "Wesker wasn't human, Becca. He wasn't even sane. Barry never stood a chance. Chris should know that."
"And so should you," she replied earnestly. "Wesker hated us, and he wanted all of us dead. You and your immunity were just a bonus. Otherwise, he wouldn't have drawn S.T.A.R.S. there in the first place."
"And Steve?" Leon asked bleakly. "How will you absolve me of his death?"
"Oh, Leon." Rebecca sighed and gave him a hug he didn't return. "You didn't fail him, you know. You did everything you could to keep him safe. Sherry told me how grateful she was that you accepted him, that you treated him so well, even after . . ."
"It wasn't his fault," Leon said with shrug. "He didn't ask to infected with the T-Veronica virus, or to be brought back to life. All he wanted was to see Claire, again."
She nodded as she stepped back. "Sherry said that he wanted to know why Claire never came for him."
"Yeah." He cleared his throat and shoved his hands in his pockets. "He, uh, thought it was because of me."
"Well, at least he and Sherry had each other," was all Rebecca said in return. She tucked her arm in the crook of his elbow with a smile. "Come on. I'll walk you out."
Leon returned the smile as they walked towards the front of the building. He saw Chris break away from a group of recruits, looking angrier than he had ever seen him, and groaned aloud. "Shit, I do not need this," he muttered under his breath.
"I want to talk to you," Chris said without preamble.
Leon sighed. "Chris—"
"Alright." Leon sent Rebecca a reassuring smile before following the other man into what looked like a conference room. He waited until the door had closed behind him to speak. "Look, Chris, I—"
Chris' fist lashed out, catching him in the face, and sent stumbling back a few paces. "I warned you," he rumbled, rubbing his knuckles as he advanced. "I told you that I would kill you if you didn't go to Claire and make things right."
Leon kept his hands at his sides, even as every instinct he possessed screamed for him to retaliate. "She's grieving for Burnside," he replied, unable to keep his own anger hidden. "I won't take advantage of her like that, and I refuse to take second place to anyone. Not her dead boyfriend, or her precious brother!"
"You son of a bitch!" Chris grabbed him by the labels of his jacket and jerked him forward. "You said that you loved her!"
"And I do," Leon hissed in return. "But it goes both ways, Chris. It's been three months, and Sherry is still waiting for her to call. If we're so damn important to her, why haven't we heard from her?"
The other man shoved him away, his lip curled in disgust. "We've had government agents crawling up our collective ass for the last three months," he spat, enraged. "We weren't just debriefed, we were invaded. I don't suppose you've had that problem, have you?"
Leon looked away. "No," he said quietly, his anger gone, "I haven't heard from the HMC since I faxed them my final report, along with my resignation."
"That's what I thought." Chris cracked the knuckles on both hands in warning. "You've earned this, Leon. Fight back if you want, but you're going down."
He drew a deep breath and braced himself. The next punch hit him in the stomach, and he dropped to his knees. He'd let Chris take a few shots, but no more. He wasn't going to end up in some government hospital for anyone, not even Claire's overprotective brother. As miserable as he was, he valued his freedom more than anything else.
Leon made only a half-hearted attempt to protect himself. Guilt stayed his hand when he would have fought back. He blocked the worst of Chris' blows with defensive moves, which only served to enrage the other man. Chris landed one particularly vicious blow, and he heard a felt a rib crack.
"Enough," he gasped, holding a hand to his side and backing away.
The other man wasn't listening, too caught up in his rage to see just how much harm he was doing. He lunged, his expression murderous, and Leon had had enough. He sidestepped him, wrapped an arm around his neck, and pulled Chris into a stranglehold. He applied pressure to the jugular, not enough to do any permanent damage, but enough to cause the larger man to lose consciousness.
Chris was pulling at his arm, his movements gradually becoming feeble and uncoordinated. Leon was lowering him to the floor, preparing to release him, when he heard the unmistakable sound of a bullet being chambered. He looked up to find Claire standing just inside the door, her handgun drawn and trained on him.
"Let him go," she said in the coldest voice he'd ever heard her use.
"Claire?" His clear blue eyes widened dramatically. "Claire, it's not what you think. I was just—"
"I don't want to hear it. Let him go, now!" She took a step towards them and stopped, her cerulean eyes narrowing, their depths filled with antipathy. "You've already taken enough from me, Leon Kennedy. You might have my daughter, and you've already taken Steve, but you won't have my brother too. You leave Chris alone, or I swear to god, I will fucking kill you!"
Leon felt something inside of die with her words. This was his worst nightmare come to life, looking down the barrel of a gun, and realizing that it was the woman he loved about to pull the trigger. Claire's hatred was a palpable thing as he released Chris and slowly rose to his feet. Claire rushed to her brother's side, keeping the gun on him, even as she began to check her brother for injuries. Chris was gasping for breath, unable to speak, his hand covering his throat in an unconsciously protective gesture. Claire's voice was shaking as she spoke to him, but the gun in her hand never wavered.
"I wouldn't have hurt him," Leon said quickly, desperate to reassure her. "I was trying not to when you came in."
"Liar!" Claire swallowed her tears as she tried to help her brother to his feet. "You've changed, Leon. I don't know you anymore, if I ever did! Get out of here, and don't come back. I never want to see you, again!"
Pain threatened to suffocate him as he spread his hands in a supplicating gesture. "Claire, please—"
"I said, get out!"
His shoulders slumped, his hand curling into fists at his sides, as he turned away. He gave them a wide a berth as he went around them, and Claire looked up long enough to track him with the .9 millimeter. He paused in the doorway, his blue eyes dull, his battered features drawn. "I'm sorry," he told her quietly, then walked away.
Claire blinked back tears as she helped her brother to his feet. Chris leaned on her heavily as she led him to one of the chairs. "Sit down," she told him in a uneven voice. "Let me look at your throat."
Chris coughed a little as he shook his head negatively. His head was pounding like mad, and throat hurt like hell, but he was okay. "He wasn't trying to hurt me," he said, wincing at the raspy quality to his voice.
"Ssshhh, don't try to talk." Claire managed a smile as she touched his throat with gentle fingers. "There doesn't seem to be any permanent damage, but I'm not a medic. Let me get Rebecca, and she can—"
"No." Chris grabbed her wrist as she turned away. "I want you to listen to me, Claire."
"Of course." She grabbed a chair and sat directly across him, taking his hand in hers. "I'm listening, big brother."
He sighed and pulled his hand away. "Leon didn't start this, Claire. I did. I'm the one that cornered him, I'm the one who threw the first punch."
"I don't care," Claire replied stubbornly. "He could have killed you, Chris. He almost did," she added heatedly.
"Damn it, would you just listen to me?" Her mouth snapped closed, her blue eyes narrowing a bit, and he bit back a laugh. That was his baby sister, all fire and spunk. "Leon let me pound on him, Claire. He blocked me when I would have hurt him, but he never once tried to hit me back."
"Then why did he have you on the ground in a chokehold?" she demanded coldly.
"Because, I finally hurt him too much." Chris looked at his sister with a combination of exasperation and shame. "I thought I heard a rib crack with that last punch. That's why he put me in the chokehold, to keep me from hurting him too badly. It's one of the first things they taught me in the Air Force, how to disable a man without killing him. Leon's had similar training, and he knew what he was doing. I might have been unconscious for a little while, but there would've been no permanent damage."
Claire crossed her arms under her breasts, her fine features taking on an obstinate cast. "Why are you defending him?" she asked angrily. "After everything's he's done, you should be first in line to kill the son of a bitch!"
"I never wanted him dead, Claire." Chris sighed again, running a hand through his spiky hair. "I wanted to beat the shit out of him for what he did to you, but that's all. He knew it, and he let me do it. Otherwise, I never would've taken him."
"And now," he added, his eyes narrowing slightly on hers, "I have to apologize to him for doing it."
"Why?" Claire asked at length. "This isn't another one of those stupid guy things, is it?"
Chris smiled slightly. "I guess, you could say that. I let my temper get the better of me, and I took it too far. I may have seriously hurt him, Claire," he said, the smile dying. "A cracked rib can be serious, especially since he had a similar injury after fighting the Tyrant in the plane."
"I hadn't thought of that," Claire murmured, her eyes downcast. "He took quite a beating during that gauntlet, didn't he?"
"Yeah, he did." Chris rose to his feet and set a hand on her shoulder. "He's been through a hard time, Claire. After Barry—" his voice broke. He cleared his throat and continued, "After we found Barry, I didn't treat him very well. And after we saw Steve change, we all let him down by not insisting that they stay with us."
She rubbed her arms as an image of Steve becoming a Tyrant flashed through her mind. "We couldn't take that kind of chance," she whispered with remembered horror. "He was still infected with the T-Veronica virus. What if he'd changed and attacked us? Leon did the right thing by going his own way."
Chris shook his head. "We let him down, Claire. If they'd been with us, that zombie might not have bitten Steve. We would have been there to stop it, and he might still be alive."
"Even if Steve had lived, he couldn't have lived a normal life," Claire said, blinking back tears as she thought of Steve's brash smile, and his final moments. "He wasn't human anymore, Chris."
"Maybe not," Chris acknowledged in a quiet voice, "but he would've been alive, Claire. Leon was outnumbered and outgunned—because of us. None of them should have survived. It's a miracle that they did."
She covered her face with her hands, her tears pouring over at the thought of Sherry and Leon dead. "Oh, God, Chris. What are we going to do?" she cried. "They're never going to forgive us."
"I don't know." He pulled her close, resting his chin on the crown of her head. "We'll apologize, and see where it goes from there."
As he watched his baby sister cry her heart out, the image of Claire's gun trained on Leon haunted him. Coen had taken him aside shortly after their return and told him what he suspected about Leon's mental state. The other man had been worried, and frankly, so was he. All of S.T.A.R.S. had nightmares and flashbacks, but they'd had each other to go to for comfort. Leon had been alone for eight years, and Chris doubted that Wesker had provided any sort of psychological help for him.
He knew that Leon had spent their years apart hoping that Claire would find him on her own. He was still in love with her, and he hadn't been able to hide it, or bothered to deny it when asked. Now, he had gone and screwed things up by putting Claire in a position where she had to protect her only family from the man she loved. He'd seen Leon's face before he'd left, and the younger man had looked devastated. Leon probably believed that he'd lost any chance of being with her, and Chris was afraid of what his reaction to that loss would be.
He'd call Billy and see what he had to say. Neither of them were shrinks, but Billy had been through this once already. He would have a better idea of what to expect than Chris himself would. Then, he'd figure out a way to fix this mess they all found themselves in, before something irrevocable happened.
Leon kept his head down as he left the S.T.A.R.S. building, not wanting anyone to see him like this. He went straight to the battered old Jeep that Jack had bought and climbed behind the wheel. He pulled the seatbelt across his chest and fastened it. He hissed in pain as it dug into his side, and quickly took it off. If he got pulled over, he'd just have to take the damn ticket.
He started the car and turned onto the street, wanting nothing more than to go home and find a way to hide his bruises. If Sherry saw them, he'd be protecting the Redfields from more than Ada Wong!
He pulled up to the house, relieved to see Jack alone on the front porch. He parked in the driveway and approached the other man. "Is Sherry home?" he asked without preamble.
Jack shook his head slowly, his hazel eyes on Leon's battered features. "Shit, Leon, what the hell happened to you?"
"Chris and I finally had it out," Leon answered as he reached for the doorknob. "I think he cracked a rib. Would you help me bandage it before Sherry comes home?"
"Yeah, sure." Jack lumbered to his feet and followed him to his room. "You want to tell me how Redfield managed this?"
Leon remembered Chris' words and smiled grimly. "I had it coming, Jack. I just didn't think it would be so bad."
The other man snorted. "You let him beat the crap out of you?"
Leon shrugged, using his right hand to lift his shirt over his head. "It's no big deal. I just don't want Sherry to know how bad it was."
"You look like you fought Tyson and lost, except that you still got your ear," Jack grunted. "I don't think you're going to be able to hide it. You got a first aid kit in here?"
"Yeah." Leon pulled one out of the nightstand, flinching involuntarily as he straightened. He tossed it on the bed, grabbed a bottle of scotch off of the dresser, and sat down with careful movements. "I'm not mad at Chris for this, Jack. He was only protecting his little sister."
Jack unrolled a bandage and began to wind it around his chest. "And what did she have to say about this?"
He raised one shoulder in a half-shrug. "She caught me using a stranglehold to control her brother." His smile was crooked and bitter as he took a long drink. "She pulled her gun on me, Jack. She told me to get the hell out of her life."
The other man paused. "The little redhead pulled a gun on you?" he asked with surprise.
"Yeah," Leon responded bleakly. "Jack, she almost pulled the trigger. I don't think she's ever going to forgive me for Steve's death."
"Christ, Leon! You have worst luck with women than I do!"
"That he does," a low, husky feminine voice drawled from behind them.
Leon's head whipped around, his eyes narrowing as Ada Wong came in through the open window. "Ada," he greeted, his voice as even as he could make it as fear surged through him. "What are you doing here?"
"What do you think, handsome?" Ada cocked her head to one side, her sapphire eyes moving to Jack. "It's definitely good to see you again, lover."
Jack's smile was indecent, even as his eyes remained guarded. "You too, babe."
Ada walked confidently through the room, her high heels clicking against the hardwood floor. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave me alone with Leon," she said, running one hand up his chest. "It's business, you understand?"
Jack cleared his throat and stepped back, uncomfortable having her touch him in front of other man, whom he knew hated her. "Yeah, babe, I've got it." He shot Leon a questioning look, wanting to assure that it was all right with him.
Leon sighed and nodded. "Go ahead, Jack. I'll see you when I'm done here." He waited until the door closed behind him to speak. "I thought that I'd earned my freedom, Ada?"
"You have." Ada approached him with a small smile. "I'm not here to take that away, Leon. I just wanted to see how were doing. I've missed you," she added sincerely.
He watched with tired blue eyes as she sat on the bed beside him. She crossed her legs, the slit in her red dress sliding away to reveal the creamy skin of one thigh. Eight years ago, the sight had driven him wild, even as his heart had cried out for Claire. Now, she was no less beautiful for being older, but she left him completely cold.
He didn't even bother to protest as she picked up the bandage and finished what Jack had begun. "You wanted me once," she said almost casually, and his whole body stiffened. "I could have had you then, you know. You wouldn't have been able to resist me if I'd set out to seduce you."
"Then, why didn't you?" Leon asked wearily. "It's not like I could've fought you, then."
"Because that's not how I wanted you." Ada met his gaze, her own expression stark. "I wanted you to come to me of your own free will. You never did."
She clipped the bandage in place and rose to her feet. "Why did you let Redfield beat you so badly, Leon?"
He looked down, focusing on the black stilettos he had come to hate. "I had it coming," he said almost absently.
Ada's lips tightened as she looked down at the top of his head. She didn't agree with him, but she let it go. It was enough that he hadn't pulled a weapon on her, or tried to toss her out on her rear yet. She went into the bathroom and grabbed a washcloth, dousing it with cold water. She rung it out and took it back into the bedroom. She resumed her seat and began to clean the blood from his swollen face.
Leon closed his eyes and let her have her way. So far, she hadn't threatened him, or the people he cared about. He wanted desperately to throw her out on her pretty little ass, but he feared the consequences of such an action. Albert Wesker might be dead, but Ada Wong was still alive and well and completely obsessed with him. He didn't trust her not to go back on her word and lock he and Sherry up again.
"Why me, Ada?" He raised his lackluster gaze to hers. "Why am I so important to you?"
"Leon. . ." She shrugged delicately as she dabbed at a cut on his bottom lip. "Do you really want to know?"
Leon hesitated before nodding. "Please," he murmured, "I need to know."
"Because I care for you," Ada told him with complete honesty. "That is why I've spent the last eight years protecting you and Sherry. Do you remember Raccoon City, when I first told you that I didn't want to lose you?"
"Yes," Leon muttered with distaste. "After you were wounded by the Tyrant."
Ada smiled coolly at his obvious revulsion. "I'd already realized what a good man you were, and then you tried to save me after Annette Birkin shot me, when I had already double-crossed you. Wesker had been watching the entire time, and he knew how I felt about you. I had enough strength left to throw a rocket launcher to your precious Claire, and then I died. When Albert brought me back, he made me a deal. If I would work for him exclusively, he would entrust your care to me. If not, he was going to give you to Krauser permanently."
"You knew Krauser back then?" Leon asked with surprise.
"Only by reputation. That was enough," she said with a shudder. "I couldn't allow that animal to sink his claws into you. Unchecked, Krauser would have ended up killing you. I couldn't let that happen."
"And then," she continued, "you were shot during that damned training exercise, and Wesker found the anti-body in your blood after the surgery. I knew he'd never let you go, then. I had to find a way to release you on my own."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Leon questioned in a quiet voice. He grasped her wrist, stilling her movements. "Why didn't you tell me that that I was immune, Ada?"
She didn't answer for a long moment. "I didn't trust Wesker," she said at length. "He might have lied to me about that, Leon. For all I know, he could have been wrong. He wasn't the genius that Birkin, or even Alexia Ashford, was. Had you believed yourself immune, you might have taken unnecessary chances with your life. I couldn't risk that."
Ada dropped the cloth and cradled his face in her hand. "I'm so sorry, Leon. I did the best that I could, for you and Sherry both."
"And Claire?" he threw out in challenge. "Did you hate her so much that you cut the brakes on her bike yourself?"
She jerked her hand away, her exotic features hardening. "I was very careful with that. I made sure that she would have some warning before they failed completely."
Leon laughed bitterly at that. "And I'm supposed to thank you for that?"
"No," Ada replied calmly, "I know all too well how much you hate me, Leon. Though I could argue your reasoning with you."
"You told Luis she was my wife," he all but spat.
"Because I knew that you saw her that way." Ada cocked her head to one side as she considered him. "After her rejection of you today, do you still feel the same?"
Leon closed his eyes as a the memory of Claire pointing her gun at him merged with the nightmare he'd had for eight long years. "It doesn't matter," he answered despondently. "Claire will never be a part of my life, again."
"Can you live with that?" she asked. She knelt before him, concern etched into her cold, beautiful face. "Can you truly live without her, Leon?"
"I don't know," he whispered hoarsely, unsure why he was being this honest with her. "Before, I thought that we might be friends again, someday. That gave me hope. Now. . ."
"She blames me for Steve's death, Ada." His eyes opened, their crystal-like depths filled with torment. "She loved him, and I let him die. Barry, too."
"No!" Ada told him fiercely. "Their deaths were not your fault. Not even I could talk Albert out of including them. He wanted his revenge on Redfield, and that included taking those he loved away from him. It had nothing to do with you."
"Steve was bitten on my watch. That makes his death my responsibility." Leon dropped his head into his hands, fighting back the bitter sting of tears. "Sherry loved him too, Ada. I failed them both."
Her lips tightened at that. She had never liked Steve Burnside, and only Wesker had kept her from killing him after he'd seduced Sherry. "She's wrong, Leon. You did the best that you could. You were the only thing standing between your precious Claire and certain death," she reminded him heatedly, standing as she added, "You still are."
His eyes snapped open, the fear in their crystalline depths piercing her heart. "Don't hurt her," he said quickly, one hand coming up to capture her wrist.
"Please, Ada," he pleaded, willing to beg if it meant Claire's life. "If you ever truly cared about me, you won't hurt Claire!"
Ada echoed his earlier sigh, frustrated at being thwarted. "Damn it, she's done nothing but hurt you, Leon!"
"I don't care!" Desperation surged through him as he sought to keep the woman he loved safe. He reached out and pulled Ada to him, striving to hide his loathing as he looked up at her. "I'll do anything you want, Ada, be anything you want. Just promise me that you won't hurt Claire?"
She gazed down at him with troubled eyes. "You'd be willing to become my lover?" she asked slowly, raising a trembling hand to his golden hair.
"Yes," he told her, swallowing hard even as he attempted a smile. "Let Claire live, and I'm yours."
"And what about S.T.A.R.S.?" Ada questioned, her voice husky despite her best efforts. "They'll never forgive you if you take up with me."
Sorrow flitted across his features, and then was gone. "That part of my life is over," he murmured, resting his forehead against her stomach. "I should have put them behind me years ago. I've clung to them for far too long as it is."
"Leon. . ." Her voice trailed off at the hopelessness in his own. She ran her hands through his hair once, reached behind her, and pried his hands from her waist. "You've got your freedom, lover. Use it well."
Leon's head jerked up, his surprise obvious. "What do you mean?" he asked sharply.
"Just what I said." Ada smiled the mysterious smile she knew he hated and sauntered towards the open window. "See you around, handsome."
"Wait!" Leon surged to his feet, his too-blue eyes wide. "I thought you wanted me?"
"Not like this." She shook her head negatively, her midnight eyes darkening. "If you ever change your mind, I'll be waiting. Otherwise, goodbye, Leon."
"But what about Claire?" he asked frantically.
"I'm not going to hurt her," she told him in a flat, bored voice. "Claire Redfield has nothing to fear from me. Your wife is safe."
Leon searched her gaze anxiously, unable to believe her words. He saw the truth in their midnight depths and nearly wept with relief. "Thank you," he said hoarsely, a combination of hatred and gratitude coloring his words.
She smiled sadly. "I'd like permission to visit Sherry every once in awhile," she said as she turned away. "I told her I would, and I'd like to keep my promise."
"I-I want you out of my life," he told her helplessly.
Ada nodded once, her back ramrod straight. "You won't even know I've been here, Leon. I'm asking out of respect for you, nothing more."
His hands clenched into fists as he fought his dislike of her. "Fine," he bit off at length. "I know that Sherry. . .cares for you. If she wants to see you, I won't try to stop her." He gaze bore into her back, his too-blue eyes hard. "But I don't ever want to see you again, Ada. I'll kill you if I do."
"I understand." Ada pulled the grappling hook out of its holster and shot it at the roof of the neighbors house. She shot him one last look over her shoulder, her expression vulnerable in a way he'd never thought possible. "I love you, Leon."
Leon blinked as she pulled the trigger and flew out of the window. She landed on the neighbor's roof, and then disappeared from sight. He shuddered and got up to close the window. He locked it securely, knowing that it wouldn't stop Ada if she chose to return. He closed the curtains and went into the bathroom, using the mirror as he washed the blood off his face.
God, but he looked like shit! Leon thought with a shake of his head. And it wasn't just the alcohol he'd been using to push the darkness back. He had lost weight, and his eyes had a haunted quality to them that even he could see. His depression was only getting worse, and he had to find a way out of it.
Not that Chris hadn't done a number on his face. He had. He wasn't quite so pretty right now, which was probably a blessing in disguise. Maybe, it had helped keep Ada from taking him up on his stupid, self-destructive offer. On the upside, neither his jaw nor his nose had been broken. He'd be bruised all to hell for a few weeks, but there was no permanent damage.
Sherry was going to be pissed, though. Maybe, he shouldn't have been quite so reticent in hitting Chris back. He'd feel better about the whole thing if he knew that the other man was going to be hurting, too. Well, it was too late now. He'd blown his chance with both of the Redfields.
Leon inhaled sharply, and then moaned as his ribs protested. He had to stop thinking about Claire, or he was going to drive himself insane. He was no longer a prisoner, clinging to memories of a lost love to keep his sanity. He was a free man now, and Claire Redfield wanted nothing to do with him. If he didn't remember that, he'd never find a way to fight this depression.
Strangely enough, having Ada's promise helped. Wesker was dead and couldn't hurt any of them, and the HMC was being very quietly shut down. He and Sherry were free, and S.T.A.R.S. would never again be put in danger because of their ties to him. Luis had the life Osmund Saddler had stolen from him, along with a woman who loved him as much as he loved her. Hell, even Jack was a welcome, though exasperating, addition to their little family.
Life was good, Leon realized with a jolt. He might never again love a woman, or have the children he'd once hoped for, but he wasn't completely alone. He had a home, a fledgling business that actually made him look forward to going back to work, and he had all the time in the world to do whatever he wanted. The best part of it all was that he'd never have to anything alone, unless he chose to. He had more than he'd ever thought to have again after losing Claire. He was suddenly determined not to throw it all away by doing anything self-destructive.
With that thought in mind, he went into the bedroom and grabbed the bottle of scotch. He put the cap on it and took it downstairs, tossing it to a surprised Jack. "So, when are we going to go fishing?"
Jack blinked at the unexpected question. He'd been trying to get Leon to go fishing with him since they'd bought the boat. "Whenever you want," he said, shrugging as he eyed the younger man. "Why are you in such a good mood?"
"I finally dug my head out of ass," Leon said with a self-deprecating smile.
"It's about damn time," the other man grunted. "There's a lot more to life than redheads with asshole brothers."
He laughed at that, then winced and grabbed his side. "No more jokes for a while, Carver. I don't think my ribs can handle your brand of humor."
Jack flipped him off as he set the bottle aside. "Did I just lose my drinking buddy?" he asked in a more serious tone.
Leon nodded somberly. "I'll have a beer with you now and then, but no more heavy drinking. With my condition, I shouldn't be drinking at all," he added. "I've just been lucky enough to pass out before I did myself any serious damage."
"You always were a light-weight, Kennedy." Jack looked relieved as he palmed the remote and turned the TV on. "You had me worried for a while there, Leon."
"I know." Leon eased down on the other end of the sofa, propping his booted feet up on the coffee table. "Thanks for not trying to talk me out of it."
"You had to stop on your own," the other man said flatly. "But if you'd ended up in the hospital, I'd have dumped every bottle in the house. Sherry would've helped me. Luis, too. They're both worried as hell about you."
Leon tipped his head back against the cushions. "I just wish it hadn't taken an ass-kicking for me to see just how serious my depression was. God, I hurt everywhere. Chris has got a serious right hook!"
Jack smiled a little at that. "Can I ask what Ada said to you?"
"I think she was saying goodbye." Leon shrugged. "I told her she could see Sherry, but to stay the hell away from me. She told me she loved, and then jumped out the window. It was. . . weird."
"I bet." Jack surfed the channels until he found a soccer game and settled back. "So, you're going to be okay without the little redhead?"
Leon smiled, though it was tinged with sadness. "I'll miss her, but yeah, I'll be okay."
"Good," he stated with relief. "Once your ribs heal up, I'll take you out on the boat. Teach you how fish like a real man—without bait."
Leon groaned at that. "No grenades, Jack. That's illegal here the States, you know."
"Smart ass." Jack grinned and punched him lightly on the arm. "I meant, with a fly pole. It's a lot of work, but it's relaxing as hell. What do you think I was doing when you met me."
"Sleeping," Leon returned, deadpan. "I didn't know you could fly fish from a prone position."
Claire hit the punching bag before her as hard as she could, focusing all of her unsettled emotions on beating it to a pulp. She kept seeing Leon's face, battered and bruised, blood trickling from a cut on his lip, as he begged her to listen to him. And then her own voice, as she blamed him unjustly for Steve's death.
She knew that Leon had done his best to protect Steve, just as she knew that he hadn't really taken Sherry away from her. She had just been so hurt after they'd returned. Three months and no phone call. He hadn't even tried to see her when he'd come in for his blood tests. He'd told her that he loved her back in that hell, and then he'd simply walked away.
Then she'd come into the S.T.A.R.S. conference room, her home ground, to find Chris on the ground, nearly unconscious, with Leon's arms around his neck, and she had lost it. She had lashed out at Leon, saying such horrible things, determined to hurt him the way he'd hurt her.
And she had, Claire thought, blinking against tears as she pounded the big bag. God, she'd threatened to kill him! she thought incredulously. How the hell could she have pulled her gun on Leon? Leon was one of the nicest, most honest people she had ever known. Deep down, she knew that he wouldn't do anything to hurt anyone. Yet, she'd still let her anger get the better of her.
What would she do if he refused to forgive her? How could she explain to Sherry why she reacted the way she did? Hell, how was she going to explain it to Leon? Sherry was angry enough with her as it was. Only Leon had stopped her from leaving S.T.A.R.S. and going her own way during Wesker's little test. She thought the world of her adoptive father, and Claire had nearly shot him because she was mad at him at him for hurting her.
"Son of a bitch!" Claire whirled away from the swinging bag and threw the boxing gloves against the wall. She grabbed a towel from the bench and buried her face in it for a long moment. What would she do if he refused to accept her apology? What if, after all they had been through, he simply couldn't forgive her?
She whirled around, her eyes narrowing on the stunning Asian woman standing in the doorway. "How the hell did you get in here?" she asked furiously.
"I have my ways." Ada sauntered into the room, her eyes cool as they appraised the woman Leon had been willing to sell his soul for. "Do you know who I am, Claire Redfield?"
Claire's slim body went still as Raccoon City flashed through her mind. "It's you!" she gasped with disbelief. "You're the one who threw that rocket launcher to me on the platform in Raccoon!"
Ada nodded condescendingly. "That's right. I'm woman who gave you the means to defeat William Birkin, and save his daughter's life."
"Ada Wong." The other, more sophisticated woman smiled again, but it was an empty gesture, and it sent a surge of outrage through her. "You're the one who took them away from me, the one who cut the brakes on my bike and stole my mother's ring!"
"The same," Ada admitted calmly. "And you're the woman who won Leon's heart."
Claire eyed her uneasily as she took a step towards the bench. Her gun was in its holster, not more than a foot behind her, lying innocently on the plain wooden bench. The too-beautiful woman tracked her as she backed up, her sapphire eyes flicking to the gun, then back to Claire. Claire stopped moving, suddenly certain that going for her handgun would be a life-ending decision.
Ada nearly laughed as she watched comprehension dawn on the younger woman. "Smart girl," she said mockingly. "I promised Leon that I wouldn't hurt you, but I would be forced to defend myself if you pulled that on me."
"What do you want?" Claire asked her, her voice trembling slightly.
"I wanted to see the woman that Leon spent eight years in captivity to protect," came the sardonic answer. "I must say, I am not impressed."
"Fuck you!" Claire flared, her temper getting the better of her.
Ada's expression hardened dramatically. "Watch your mouth, Ms. Redfield. I've wanted to kill you for a long time, and I'm not at all happy about being denied."
"You're crazy," Claire whispered, realizing that Leon had told them the truth. This beautiful, sexy woman was obsessed with him, and she wanted nothing more than to eliminate what she saw as her competition.
"Perhaps, I am," Ada said with a graceful shrug. "You left Leon and Sherry behind, as though they were nothing, to chase after your brother. You had Leon's heart, and a beautiful daughter who worshipped you, and you were still able to walk away. You left them at the mercy of Albert Wesker—of me. To me, that makes you the crazy one."
Claire lowered her gaze as regret tore through her. "I didn't know," she whispered, half to herself. "I didn't know that I would lose them. I thought Leon loved me enough to wait."
"He did," Ada told her, her voice revealing her anger despite her attempts to hide it. "He waited eight years for you to come back to him, and you never did. Yet, you spent all that time looking for a boy you'd known less than a day."
Claire's head came up, her misty blue eyes widening slightly. "You're talking about Steve," she said dumbly. "It wasn't like that with us. He was a survivor, like me. But he was just a kid, and I let him die," she added starkly.
"Leon feels guilty about him, too," Ada said with a shake of her head. "What neither of you realize is that Steve hated you both. He wanted nothing more than to take you away from Leon. He believed that Leon was responsible for you not coming for him. He took his revenge by seducing your. . daughter."
Claire flinched at that. "I knew he had a crush on me, and although I liked him, I didn't return his feelings."
Ada watched her closely as she said, "No, of course you didn't. You were in love with Leon." The younger woman's eyes closed, pain etched into her pretty features, and she knew she'd been right. Claire Redfield had loved Leon, and obviously still did.
"Why didn't you try harder to find Leon?" she asked bluntly. "Why did you give up when you were so close?"
"Because of this." Claire kept her hands in plain sight as she reached for the waist pack lying beside her handgun. She pulled out a plain black wallet and flipped it open. "Ten months after I returned from Antarctica, a man named Ark came to see me. He said that he was a friend of Leon's, and that Leon wanted me to have this. Then he walked away. He wouldn't answer any of my questions, he just left me standing there, with this damned thing in my hand, and my heart broke all over again."
Ada drew in a sharp breath as her gaze lingered on Leon's R.P.D. badge. She hadn't known about Ark Thompson's visit to the Redfield house. She should have known that Leon would find a way to communicate with the woman he loved. He'd ensured that Claire knew he was thinking of her, that he hadn't forgotten her. The girl's reaction was what completely mystified Ada.
She and her brother had come so close to finding Leon that Ada had fully expected to have to kill them to keep them from freeing him. Then, they had inexplicably stopped looking for him, sparing her a deed that would have finished Leon. If it had been her, she would never have stopped looking. Instead, Claire Redfield had taken it as a rejection, and responded by funneling all of her efforts into searching for Steve Burnside.
She cleared her throat and tore her gaze away from the badge. "It wasn't a rejection, Ms. Redfield. It was the only way he could let you know that he was all right, and that he was waiting for you."
"And I never came," Claire murmured sadly. "God, it's a wonder he doesn't hate me."
"Yes, it is." Ada's full lips firmed into a line as she wandered over to the punching bag. She traced a hand over its bulky lines as she spoke, determined to give Leon what he so desperately needed. "I've wanted Leon since I first met him in the R.P.D.. He's scorned my advances for eight years, because he loves you so much. Today, he offered to trade himself for your safety."
Claire clutched the wallet to her, feeling the sharp edges of the badge cutting into her midriff. "How do you mean?" she asked, her voice wavering precariously.
Ada laughed humorlessly. "He told me he would become my lover, if only I stayed my hand, and let you live."
Jealousy flashed through her at the thought of Leon with this beautiful, cold-blooded killer. "Are you here to kill me, then?"
"No, I'm here to make you a deal," Ada told her cryptically.
"What kind of deal?" Claire asked warily.
Ada met her gaze squarely. "Go to Leon and make things right between you, and I will guarantee the safety of you and all you care about."
Claire blinked, surprised by the answer. "What do we have to be afraid of?" she asked. "Wesker's dead, and the HMC with him."
"No, you're wrong." Ada shook her head, amazed at the other woman's naiveté. "Wesker might be dead, but there will always be other scientists willing to sell their souls for bioweapons research. The HMC hasn't been disbanded, merely suspended pending further notice. Once a new scientific staff has been assembled, it will start anew. None of you will ever truly be safe, so long as you live."
"I will protect you," she continued. "I will assure the safety of S.T.A.R.S., but you must keep Leon from succumbing to his depression. He needs you, child, more than you will ever know. Go to him, and give him something to live for."
"What depression?" Claire watched with consternation as the other woman walked towards the door. "Wait! What the hell are you talking about?"
The other woman didn't respond. She merely left the room and disappeared into the bowels of the building. Claire stared after her for several moments before fear spurred her into action. She grabbed her gun and her waist pack and rushed into the locker room. She didn't bother to shower or change. She just threw on her jacket, shoved her stuff into her bag, and ran to her bike.
Leon sat on the front porch, his clear blue eyes watching the activity up and down the suburban street. Husbands in khaki shorts and polo shirts mowed their lawns and washed their SUVs, while children ran around, howling like banshees. Their mothers scolded them from the stoop, or chased them around the yard, all pictures of domestic bliss.
He still felt uncomfortable living in this kind of neighborhood, but Sherry had fallen in love with the house, and Leon hadn't been able to refuse her. Right now, he was wishing he'd stood his ground and took the place in the mountains that he had wanted. Nearly every one of their neighbors had stopped by with a dish of food or a bouquet of flowers, their curiosity as evident as their goodwill. They'd all heard of the beating he'd took at the hands of Chris Redfield this morning, and they were all dying to know what had happened. Leon wasn't used to having such unrestricted contact with others, and he still wasn't sure if he liked it.
Luis and Jack's presence in the house still raised a few eyebrows, though no one had been impolite enough to ask about them, or Sherry's connection to them. She and Leon were both blue-eyed blonds, so everyone had made the assumption that they were brother and sister. Luis accompanied Sherry everywhere she went, their bickering a source of constant amusement to the populace of this small Montana town, as well as an explanation in itself. Jack, on the other hand, wasn't well liked.
Leon grinned as he remembered the first time one of the neighbors had come over to find Jack, bare-chested, a beer in his hand, and several empty bottles littered around him, kicking back on the porch. Leon had been with him, discussing their security business. The young couple had looked horrified, especially when Jack had openly flirted with the wife. The couple had beaten a hasty retreat, and they had both laughed just as soon as they were out of hearing distance.
Leon sighed and opened another bottle of root beer. He winced as the soda stung the cut that was still healing on his bottom lip. He probably looked like a lowlife with all of his bruises, not to mention the bandages that crisscrossed his chest, but Leon found that he just didn't care what anyone thought anymore. He and Jack might have to work for it, but they were going to be wealthy men someday, and all of these people could kiss his ass.
The front door opened, and Jack stepped onto the porch. "Mornin'," he mumbled around a yawn.
"It's still Friday," Leon informed him with a smile. "You only slept for a few hours, Jack."
"Yeah, whatever." He plopped down in the cushioned chair and lit a cigarette. "You got another beer over there?"
Leon rolled his eyes as he grabbed a bottle out of the cooler at his feet. He passed it to the other man, who promptly twisted the lid off, taking a large swig. Leon watched him scrunch his nose at the taste of the soda, when he had obviously been expecting alcohol. Leon just grinned at him and turned his gaze back to the neighborhood, the corners of his eyes crinkling with amusement, as their neighbors hurriedly went into their homes.
"I think you scare them, Jack."
Jack's hazel eyes went the empty yards and he snorted. "Fuck 'em," he said succinctly. "I've got just as much right to live here as they do."
"And drink on the porch at all hours of the day and night," Leon commented humorously.
"Damned straight. At least I would if you hadn't just handed me a root beer." Jack scratched his stubble-covered jaw as he yawned again. "Did you hear back from that Hunnigan chick, yet?"
"No, not yet." Leon had offered Hunnigan a position in his new company. She'd asked for time to think about it, and he'd given her a week. Today was the last day. "Hunnigan's solid, Jack. She'll call, either way."
"Mmmm." Jack raised his hands over his head and stretched. "So, is she still off-limits?"
"Unless she says otherwise, yes." Leon frowned as he opened his own soda. "She was really broken up after Mike's death. As far as I know, she hasn't dated in the last two years. So—"
"No hitting on her," Jack finished with a sigh. "Got it."
Leon laughed at that. "There are plenty of women around here, Jack."
"They're all married," Jack said with a scowl. "Even I have morals, Leon, low as they are."
"Getting bored, are you?" he said dryly.
"Nah." Jack grinned again. "They do have a nice little bar downtown. You should come with me some time."
"Not my scene, Jack. Thanks anyway."
"You don't have to drink, Leon," he pointed out. "Just hang out, shoot a couple of games of pool with me, maybe hit on some women."
Leon shot him a dark look. "I'm already going fishing with you Sunday. Don't push it, Carver."
Jack shrugged, raising the bottle to his lips. He paused as he watched a yellow sedan pull up to the curb, then smiled wickedly as he saw who got out of it. "Untouchable babe at one o'clock," he said, pointing towards the curb.
Ingrid Hunnigan was stepping out of a taxi, and Leon smiled as he jogged down the walkway to meet her. "Why didn't you call?" he asked, reaching for the bag hanging from her shoulder. "You didn't have to pay for a cab. I would've picked you up at the airport."
"It's good to see you, too, Leon." Ingrid smiled and gave him a quick hug. Leon Kennedy had to be the nicest man she'd ever met. She stepped back and eyed his bandaged chest. "What the hell happened to you?"
Leon flushed, shrugging awkwardly. "I had it out with an old friend," he admitted.
"Uh-huh." She looked at him with a skeptical expression. "Was his name MAC?"
Leon grinned at that. "Nope, Redfield."
Hunnigan's blue eyes widened at that. "Not that S.T.A.R.S. captain?" she asked, incredulous. "That guy's nowhere near capable of taking you!"
"I kind of owed him," Leon said, leading her up the stairs. "Do you have any more luggage?"
She shot him a knowing look and let the subject drop. "It's coming," she answered. "My things will be here in a few days. I gave the movers this address. I hope that's still okay?"
"Of course," he assured her. "Luis isn't using his room anymore, so he offered to give it to you. It's a good-sized room, and I already put a TV in there, complete with cable. Just in case," he added, suddenly hesitant.
"Don't worry," she said in a dry voice, "I'm here to stay. The HMC has been officially disbanded—unofficially , of course."
"That's good to hear. And we can always use more furniture," Leon said humorously as he offered her his hand. "Welcome aboard, Hunnigan."
"Thanks." Ingrid shook it with a fond smile. "Now, why don't you offer me one of those cold drinks. I had a screaming infant in the seat next to me, and it made for a long flight."
Jack laughed at that, digging out a bottle and handing to her. "Good to see you again, babe."
She snorted as she twisted the cap off and took Leon's empty seat. "Call me babe again, and I'll—"
"Jack." Leon crossed his arms over his chest and leveled a glance at him.
Jack merely grinned and said, "I said I wouldn't flirt, Leon, and I didn't."
Leon shook his head, trying not to smile. "That's probably the best you're going to get, Ingrid."
She shrugged and pushed her glasses to the top of her head. "I'll break him of it," she promised, opening the soda and taking a drink.
"Good luck," Leon told her sincerely.
The other man was laughing so hard he nearly fell out of his chair. Jack wasn't a chauvinist, but he was set in his ways. Leon had to agree, although he wasn't stupid enough to laugh. He honestly didn't know Hunnigan well enough to know if she had a temper or not, but he certainly didn't want to find out. He had enough hot-tempered women in his life as it was!
Ingrid leveled a warm smile at him. "So, how have you been, Leon?"
"I'm good, believe it or not." Leon set her bag at her feet and settled back against railing. "We got the land for the airstrip today, and we're going to convert the old barn out there into the main office, and build a hangar out in the field."
"Eventually," Jack inserted dryly. "We're kind of running low on funds, right now."
"Not anymore, you're not." Ingrid straightened in her seat, looking solemn and studious. "Cut me in, and I'll pay for the conversion."
Leon tilted his head to one side consideringly. "You want to be a partner?" he asked, just to be sure.
She nodded, her dark hair tumbling around her face. "I want job security, Leon. I want to know that I'm not going to be fired again in the near future."
"It's going to be expensive," he told her seriously.
"I have savings, not to mention excellent credit," she said with a sniff. "I'm sure I can get a loan from the local bank. What do you say?"
"I'm not the only one to consider here, Hunnigan." Leon looked at Jack questioningly. "Do you have any objections to taking on another partner?"
Jack shook his head negatively. "So long as she stops giving me shit about calling her babe, she's in."
"Oh yeah, that's fair," Ingrid drawled facetiously.
Leon chuckled. "Welcome to the exciting world of home and office security, Hunnigan."
She shook his hand with a satisfied expression. "I've always wanted to own my own business."
Jack sighed at the memories. "Yeah, long lunches, naps between customers. . ."
Ingrid shot him a startled look. "He is kidding, right?" she asked hopefully.
"Yes," Leon assured her, "he's kidding."
"I'm not wearing a tie," Jack said suddenly.
Leon shuddered at the thought. "No ties," he agreed hastily. "The quality of our work will more than make up for the fact that we don't wear suits."
"I'll wear the suits," she told them with a smile. "I'll even keep the books, so long as I don't have to do any of the system installations."
"Deal," Leon said promptly.
"Cool." Ingrid stood and shouldered her bag. "Now, show me to my room, so I can try to get rid of this travel dust."
"I'll show you," Jack said so quickly that Leon laughed.
"I've got it, Jack. But thanks, anyway." He led her up the stairs and took her to Luis' rarely-used bedroom. He pushed open the door and stepped back. "The bathroom's at the end of the hall, or downstairs off of the family room. If you need anything, just ask."
"I will." Ingrid stepped into the room with a smile. "It's perfect, Leon. Thank you."
"You're welcome," he told her, backing away. "I'll, uh, see you later, then."
She laughed at his uncomfortable expression and closed the door in his face. Leon uttered a low laugh of his own and went into his bedroom. He grabbed a t-shirt and threw it on. He went back downstairs and picked up the living room. It wasn't messy, but it definitely looked lived-in.
Which was nice, Leon thought as he opened the curtains. It reminded him of the home he'd grown up in. His mom had always kept the place clean, but it had rarely been spotless. Especially, after he and his friends had torn through the place. Mom had always gone into a cleaning frenzy right before his dad was due home from work, and he'd done his best to help.
Leon smiled to himself at the memories that had once brought him so much pain. To this day, he didn't know how his parents had died. He didn't know if they'd been attacked by the zombies that had filled Raccoon City, or if they had survived long enough to die during the bombing afterwards. He'd always brooded about that. He'd damn near driven himself crazy imagining their deaths. Now, he was teaching himself to remember them as they were, and he found that it didn't hurt quite so badly.
He went back downstairs and joined Jack on the porch. Luis and Sherry had come home, and were currently bickering as they came up the walkway. He smiled at them, wondering what Luis had done this time. The blasé attitude he liked to project drove Sherry crazy, but in the best possible way. Despite the ten-year age difference between them, he made Sherry completely happy. Someday, Luis would trust in her feelings for him, and he would feel the same.
He lowered his head slightly, hoping his hair would hide the worst of the damage. "How did it go?" he threw out as they stepped onto the porch.
"He got the job!" Sherry exclaimed before Luis could speak, giving the man in a question an enthusiastic hug. "I told you you would. Leon's got the best contacts in the business, after all."
Luis shook his head as he returned the embrace. "It's a good thing, too," he joked. "I think Sherry would've have shot the guy if he hadn't hired me!"
"Damned straight." She pressed a kiss to his lips before turning to her father. Her smile died as she saw his bruised face. "What happened?" she demanded, rushing to his side. "Who did this to you?"
Damn. Leon straightened and smiled as much as his battered face would allow. "I'm fine, honey," he told her in a gentle voice. "It's just a few bruises."
She snorted and pushed his hair out of his face. "You didn't answer my question," she pointed out with irritation. "Did Claire's brother do this to you?"
He sighed and pulled her hands away from his face. "He was angry, Sherry, and he had every right to be."
"And we don't?" she asked hotly. "Claire left us, not the other way around."
"I didn't say that, honey." Leon squeezed her hands gently. "He wasn't angry about that. He was mad because I haven't tried to contact Claire since we came back."
Sherry was shaking her head, scattering her blond hair. "No, that's wrong, Dad. Claire has to come to us, or it won't mean a damn thing."
"I know, honey." Leon smiled crookedly and set a hand on her shoulder. "Chris is a little hot-headed, but he'll understand eventually."
"I don't think Redfield's going to be a factor in this," Jack said suddenly, pointing to the yard. "It looks like the little redhead figured it out on her own."
Leon rose to his feet slowly, one hand coming up to grip the column near the stairs. Claire was coming up the walkway, her expression more uncertain than he had ever seen it. He swallowed hard, unable to take his eyes off her as Sherry came to stand at his side. Her auburn hair was caught up in its usual ponytail, baring her slender neck and most of her shoulders. She wasn't in her S.T.A.R.S. uniform either, she was wearing normal clothes. Tight white bicycle shorts and a blue tank top, with plain white running shoes. She looked as tired as he felt, but damn good.
Claire came to a stop at the bottom of the steps, her cerulean eyes swinging back and forth between he and their daughter. Sherry moved closer to Leon in an unconsciously protective gesture, and Claire's expression changed to one of determination. She marched up the steps and drew Sherry into an unreciprocated hug.
"I'm sorry," Claire told her, unable to make herself pull away. "I'm so sorry, Sherry."
Sherry's arms slowly came around her, and then she was clinging to her. "Claire," she whispered, her voice barely audible. "You finally came."
Claire squeezed her eyes closed briefly. "I'm here, sweetie. I'm not going anywhere."
She lifted her head, her eyes shimmering, as she pushed a strand of her daughter's hair out of her face. "Can you forgive me," she asked in a quiet voice, "for hurting you both so badly?"
The younger woman smiled shyly, reminiscent of the twelve-year-old she had once been. "I've missed you, Claire."
"I've missed you too, Sherry." Claire kept an arm around her as she stepped back, her misty blue gaze going to Leon. She reached out and grasped his hand, smiling grimly at the confused look in his oh-so-blue eyes. "I owe you an apology, too."
Leon looked down at the slender hand wrapped around his and slowly shook his head. "You don't owe me anything," he denied, his voice raspy despite his best efforts. "It's enough that you're here for Sherry, now."
Claire's eyes narrowed slightly at his words. Was she too late? she asked herself as she dropped his hand. Had she waited too long, hurt Leon so much, that he'd stopped finally loving her?
"I'd hoped we could talk," she said quietly, unable to hide her disappointment. "I can understand why you wouldn't want to, but—"
"It's okay," Leon cut in quickly, not wanting Sherry to hear the details of their earlier confrontation. "Why don't you spend some time with Sherry, and we can talk when you're through."
She hesitated, the fear Ada's visit had stirred in her at odds with her need to make amends to her daughter. "I had a visitor today," she said finally, training her eyes on his. "We need to discuss what she told me."
Fear flashed through his too-blue eyes, and then was gone, replaced by the hardness she was quickly learning to hate. "Sherry, would you mind?" he asked in a neutral voice.
Sherry shook her head, scattering her long blond hair, her eyes wide as she realized just who it was that had visited Claire. "I can wait, Leon. We have time, right, Claire?"
"All the time in the world," Claire told her with a smile. "Give me a little while with your father, and then you can tell me all about your new boyfriend."
Instead of the blush she'd been expecting, Sherry slanted a wicked smile over her shoulder at the man in question. "You hear that, Luis?" she said in a purr. "My mother wants to hear all about you."
Luis' eyes widened as he took an involuntary step back. "Sherry, nena, you wouldn't!"
Sherry laughed and sauntered over to him, putting arms around his neck. "I could probably be talked out of it," she told him a slow, suggestive drawl. "Do you think you're up to it?"
Jack began to laugh at the Spaniard's horrified expression. "You'd better go easy on him, kid. He looks like he's about to have a coronary."
Leon laughed with him, shocking Claire with his lack of concern. "I think he'll survive, Jack," he said in his driest voice. He touched Claire's arm, his smile dimming slightly. "Come on. We can talk upstairs."
She nodded, tearing her eyes away from the man Sherry was currently plastered to. She followed inside, her eyes taking in every nuance of the home Leon had made for himself. The furniture was a little on the sparse side, but she knew from talking with Rebecca that most of his money had gone on the house, and the business he was starting. Other than that, the house was clean and obviously well-cared for. He had a home now, and she could only imagine just how much that meant to him.
He led her up the stairs and into what was obviously his bedroom. She tensed up as he closed the door behind them, but Leon didn't attempt to touch her. He went straight to the computer desk at the far side of the room and rolled the chair close to the bed.
"Have a seat," he told her, sitting on the edge of the bed. He rested his elbows on his knees and watched with veiled eyes as she seated herself. "Did she threaten you?" he asked without preamble.
Claire looked down at him from her slightly higher vantage point and shook her head. "Not really," she answered with a shrug. "She said she wanted to meet the woman you. . .She wanted to make a deal with me."
Leon drew a deep breath, the only outward sign of his fear. "What kind of deal?" he forced himself to ask calmly.
"An exchange," she answered, blushing a little. "Safety for all of S.T.A.R.S. from the HMC. In return, she wanted me to come to you and fix things between us."
"Shit." Leon bowed his head, rubbing the sudden ache behind his eyes. "I should've known that taking out Wesker wouldn't be enough. When they accepted my resignation, I really thought it was over."
"She said that there would always be another scientist eager to take Wesker's place and continue Umbrella's work." Claire paused, and then slowly reached down to take his hand. "She was beautiful, Leon. Exotic, even."
Leon laughed, but it wasn't a pleasant sound. "Not beautiful enough," he said with obvious bitterness.
He withdrew his hand and stood, stalking over to the window. "I'll talk to her," he said abruptly, throwing the window open for some much-needed air. "You don't have to sacrifice yourself for S.T.A.R.S., or anybody else. I'll get her to back off."
"Sacrifice?" Claire surged to her feet, doing her best to control the famous Redfield temper. "Since when has being with you been a sacrifice?"
"Since you stopped looking for me!" he snapped, unable to help himself. He whirled around, nailing her with a hot glare. "Ada told me when your inquiries stopped, Claire. I didn't believe her, so I looked into it on my own. Did you think I wouldn't find out?"
Claire was shocked by his sudden change in mood, much as she had been the first time she'd seen his temper. "Yeah? And what the hell was this?" She pulled the little black wallet out of her waist pack and marched over to him.
"You send some anonymous man to my front door, with your damned R.P.D. badge, and no message for me?" She shoved it into his hands, her own expression showing fury. "He told me that you wanted me to have it, and then he walked away without answering any of my questions. How dare you break up with me that way!"
"I wasn't breaking up with you!" he hollered, shoving the badge back at her. "I sent Ark to you so that you would know I hadn't forgotten you. I was waiting for you, Claire! Why the hell didn't you come for me? Why was it so damned easy for you to leave me behind?"
"You think it was easy for me?" Claire felt tears gather in her eyes and quickly blinked them back. "I spent ten months looking for you, and just when I was getting close, you sent me that damned badge. I thought you were trying to leave Raccoon City behind you, and everything that went with it—including me!"
"Never," he stated, his voice suddenly flat. "You and Sherry were my world. Everything I've done, I've done for the two of you."
Claire turned away as tears escaped her tightly-closed lids. "Why didn't Ark have a message for me?" she asked huskily, wrapping her arms around her middle. "Why didn't he tell me that you loved me, or that you missed me, or even that you hated me? Why, Leon?"
"I thought that the badge would be enough," Leon said quietly, setting his hands hesitantly on her slender shoulders. "It was me, Claire. That badge represented everything I'd always believed in, everything that I was. I thought you'd understand that, and come for me."
"Oh, God." Claire leaned back against him, drawing strength from his very presence. "You must have hated me when you learned that I'd stopped looking."
Leon shuddered at the contact and folded his arms around her. "I could never hate you, Claire," he told her with quiet honesty. "It hurt like hell, but I thought I understood. After all the horrible things I'd said to you the night you left for France, I was humbled that you'd looked for me at all."
"Leon. . ." Her words ended on a sigh as she wiped her tears away and turned around. She raised her hands to his battered face, her bright blue eyes darkening with emotion. "I should have waited for you. I shouldn't have taken off without telling you exactly how much you meant to me. There are so many things that I wish I'd done differently."
His smile was crooked as he pulled her into a hug. "It's alright, Claire," he told her unevenly. "I wouldn't trade the time I spent with you for anything. I have never been as happy as I was those three months with you, and I never expect to be again. I did love you, Claire. You'll never know how much."
Claire closed her eyes, laying her head on his shoulder. "I've missed you, Leon."
"I've missed you, too," Leon returned, thinking that she would never know just how big an understatement those words were. "I want to apologize about today, Claire."
"No," she told him firmly, raising her head. "Chris told me what happened, and I'm the one who's sorry."
"I didn't mean any of those things I said," she cut in urgently. "I was hurt because you hadn't come to see me, and I wanted to hurt you in return. My God, Leon, I pulled my gun on you!"
"Don't, honey." Leon pressed a kiss to the smooth skin of her forehead and stepped back. "You had every right to be angry with me. After Barry and Steve—"
"Stop right there." Claire's brilliant blue eyes narrowed on him menacingly. "You are not responsible for their deaths. I've read your report, Leon. I know how Steve got wounded, and it wasn't your fault."
"It should have been me," he argued in a weary voice. "I should have insisted on going with them. I should never have sent them into that city alone."
She shuddered at the thought of Leon suffering Steve's fate, especially since he'd confessed to having nightmares of being turned into one of the undead. "Leon, don't—"
"Steve was my responsibility, Claire. I told you I'd keep him safe. I failed you," Leon said miserably.
Claire inhaled sharply as she saw the depression that Ada Wong had so casually mentioned. Leon wasn't nearly as calm as he'd first appeared. He was drowning in guilt over events he could neither have controlled or changed. The eight years he'd spent as a virtual prisoner had done more damage than she had ever imagined.
"Why don't you blame S.T.A.R.S.?" she asked him, her eyes searching his for any nuance of reaction. "We were the ones who let you go off on your own, without one word of protest. Didn't it ever occur to you that if we'd stayed together, Steve would still be alive?"
"Yes, it's occurred to me," Leon said on a heavy sigh. "Believe me, as soon as the gates closed behind us, I was regretting my decision to split the groups up. If those doors hadn't been locked, I would've gone back to you and begged you to accept us. I would've personally taken responsibility for Steve, and whatever might happen had he transformed after that. I would have done anything to spare you and Sherry his death."
"Son of a bitch!" Claire swore softly. Ada Wong wasn't the only one who believed that she had been in love with Steve. "I didn't love him, Leon. Not like that."
He flashed her an achingly sad smile. "You don't have to spare my feelings, Claire."
"I'm not," she told him urgently. "I liked Steve. He was a good kid. I felt responsible for his death on Rockfort Island, but I was never in love with him. How could I be, when I was in love with you?"
He ducked his head in the endearing gesture she remembered so well, his blond hair falling to shield his eyes, and Claire felt like screaming in frustration. He was hiding from her again, damn him! He withheld so much of himself now, unlike the painfully honest young man she'd once known. How was she ever going to reach him?
Claire reached out and took his face in her hands, forcing him to meet her gaze. "I was completely and totally in love with you, Leon S. Kennedy."
She said this so fiercely that Leon couldn't help but smile. "Were you?" he asked, utterly serious now as he remembered her brother's words, and the hope they'd given him so briefly. "After you left, I'd wondered if your feelings for me weren't merely a by-product of our shared nightmare in Raccoon."
"Leon, no!" she cried, throwing her arms around him and hanging on tight. "Damn you, don't ever say that, again! What I felt for you was real!"
Leon clutched her to him, desperately wanting to believe her words. "Then, why did you leave me behind?" he asked, knowing how revealing the question was but unable to stop himself. "I would have done anything for you, Claire. You were my world. Why didn't you wait for me?"
"I made a mistake," Claire told him, terrified that he wouldn't believe her, and that he would walk away. "If I'd known that I would lose you, I wouldn't have gone to Europe. I would have waited until you'd made enough money to go with me. The last thing I wanted was to lose you and Sherry. You were part of my family, too."
He shuddered violently and buried his face against her slender neck. "I nearly went crazy waiting for you," he whispered, his arms tightening around her convulsively. "After they took Sherry away, my memories of you were all I had. They were the one thing Ada couldn't take away from me, no matter how hard she tried."
"Oh, Leon." Claire held him to her, running her hands over his hair, across his shoulders. He trembled against her, his heart thundering between them, and she shook in return. "I know that I hurt you, and that I let you down, but I'm here now. Would you be willing to give me another chance?"
He froze, certain he had misunderstood her. "Claire?" he questioned, lifting his head hesitantly.
"You said that you loved me," Claire whispered, her heart in her throat. "During that damned gauntlet, you said that you'd always loved me. Did you mean it, Leon? Do you still love me, even after all I've done?"
"I never stopped," he confessed in a whisper. He raised one trembling hand to her face, hope and dread battling for possession of his heart. "What about you, Claire? Is it guilt that sent you to me? Pity, maybe? Fear for your brother, and the rest of S.T.A.R.S.? Or do you—"
He broke off, unable to ask the question that mattered to him the most. If she told him no, his world would end. He knew himself well enough to know that. He could exist without Claire Redfield, but he couldn't truly live without her. If she rejected him now, it would finish him.
Claire's chest tightened at the bleak look that stole into his beautiful blue eyes. "I came here today because I love you," she told him passionately. "Eight years apart is long enough, Leon. Please, let me back into your life. Forgive me for leaving you the way that I did."
Leon blinked rapidly as her image blurred. God, didn't she know he'd forgive her anything? "Claire—" his voice broke as nearly eight years of pain and longing came rushing to the surface. He hauled her into his arms, crushing her body against his as his mouth found hers.
His head spun as she responded to his kiss. Her arms encircled his waist, her soft body pressing against his own, her delicate hands clutching eagerly at his back. He groaned and deepened the embrace, his mouth moving over hers with increasing hunger. She tightened her hold and took a step back, dragging her with him as she backpedaled towards the bed.
He laughed breathlessly as he raised his head. "God, how did I ever survive eight years without you?" he murmured, half to himself.
Claire smiled as she reached up and dragged the scrunchie out of her hair. "The same way I did," she said softly, shaking her hair until if fell in a fiery mass around her shoulders. "Half-alive and wholly miserable."
Leon tunneled his fingers through the soft mass and tilted her face up to his. "I love you, Claire Redfield. You'll never know how much."
"I love you, too, Leon." Claire's smile widened as she gasped the front of his shirt and pulled him down to the bed with her. "Now, shut up and kiss me, again. We've got a lot of time to make up for."
Leon laughed as he lowered his body to hers, the happy sound ringing through the room. "Yes, ma'am!"
Ada crouched on a hilltop three houses away, her binoculars trained on the open window of Leon's bedroom. A small device that fitted discreetly in her right ear provided the sounds to accompany the scene playing out before her. She watched as Leon lost his temper with a small smile. The Redfield bitch might be surprised, but she wasn't. God knew, she'd had that volatile temper turned on her many times, no matter how hard Leon had tried to control it. Yes, he was a genuinely good person, one of the nicest she'd ever known, but he was still a man. Why people equated niceness with weakness, she would never know.
Now, Claire was trying to convince him that she hadn't loved Burnside. Poor Leon, Ada thought with a rush of sympathy. He had always been so insecure when it came to the girl's love for him. It was the reason she herself had never him told about Steve, and his presence on Rockfort Island. It would have killed something in Leon to discover that the woman he loved had met someone else so soon after leaving him.
And she was relieved that Leon's wife hadn't been taken in by the boy's selfish desire for her. Had Claire Redfield spurned Leon for the younger man, Ada would have killed her herself. It would have slow and unbelievably painful, and Ada would have enjoyed every second of it.
She watched Leon grab the younger woman and kiss her passionately, and Ada had had enough. She tucked the binoculars away, working hard to ignore the pain tightening her chest. A few moments later, she heard them exchange vows of love, and the creak of bedsprings. She drew the receiver out of her ear with a silent curse, but couldn't escape the sound of Leon's laughter. It rang out through the open window, and she smiled despite the tears that were threatening to fall.
"Are you all right, my dear?"
She felt a hand on her shoulder and shrugged it off. "I'm fine," she said shortly, blinking the tears away. "I thought you were going to wait back at the hotel?"
"I wanted to see how our Mr. Kennedy had turned out." A tall, thin man hunkered down beside her, his black trench coat flaring out around him. "He is doing much better than I had expected after our last conversation. I believe you may have underestimated him, Ada."
"It was close," Ada said, turning to face him fully. "If I hadn't gone to the Redfield bitch, he might not have survived. He was trying, but you can't battle something like that alone."
"We did," he pointed out, a sparkle in his dark eyes.
She snorted inelegantly. "And look how we turned out."
"We did the best that we could, my dear. Were we not instrumental in forcing Umbrella to go underground?" He brushed an imaginary piece of lint from his Armani suit and rose to his feet. He extended his hand to her, smiling slightly at her expression of distaste, and helped her to her feet. "We are almost there, Ada. Soon enough, they will pay for all they have taken from us."
"And then, what?" Ada looked over her shoulder, her eyes on the house that held both the man she loved, and the daughter she'd never have. "After we've destroyed Umbrella, and their collaboration with The Agency, what will we do?"
His smile hardened. "We will watch them fall into disgrace and despair, and one by one, we will watch them take their own lives."
She smiled a little at that. "And those that do not?" she questioned silkily.
"Those who are not smart enough to end their own misery will be yours."
Ada tilted her head, her midnight eyes meeting his dark ones. "What do you think our father would say if he could see us, now?"
"I think that he would be properly horrified," the dark man replied wryly. "I do wish I could've met your mother, Ada. She must have been quite a woman to tear my father away from my mother and his work, even if only for a short time."
"She was," Ada responded in a quiet voice. "And I would have liked to meet James Darius myself, to see just why his death devastated my mother so badly."
"Aren't we a pair?" he said, his voice soft. "Both of us longing for we can never have."
"The life that Umbrella has stolen from us." She glanced behind her one last time, thinking absently that she'd have to remove the bugs she'd planted soon, before Leon found them. "I wish that things had turned out differently, Trent—for both of us."
"As do I, my dear. As do I."
Leon awoke to the feel of a sleek, feminine body pressed against his own. He felt a momentary sense of panic before the memories of his reunion with Claire came rushing back. He smiled slowly and ran a hand over the thigh thrown across his own. She stirred against him, her own hands coming up tangle in his hair.
"Good morning," Claire purred, pressing her lips to his throat.
"That it is." Leon hugged her to him, one hand coming up to cup the back of her head. He felt the sharp edge of her teeth and groaned deeply. "God, that feels good!"
She laughed wickedly as she raised her head. "So, have you given any thought to my proposal?"
His breath caught at the glint in her brilliant blue eyes. "I don't think I'm ready to join S.T.A.R.S., honey. I have my own business to run, remember?"
"Ah, come on, Leon." Claire pressed her lips to his own. "Think of how fun it would be, kicking ass together, just like the old days."
"Yeah, that's gonna convince me," Leon said dryly. "I'm my own man now, Claire. I don't take orders from anybody, and Chris is definitely head honcho down at S.T.A.R.S. headquarters. It just wouldn't work."
She sighed, pushing her bottom lip out. "Leon. . ."
He gave into temptation and kissed her thoroughly. "I love you, honey, but I have to stand my ground one this one."
"But you'll be traveling all the time," Claire said in a quiet voice, "and S.T.A.R.S. is always going out-of-state on missions. We'll never get to see each other."
"Yes, we will." Leon rose up on one elbow, cradling her face in a loving hand. "I spent eight years without you, Claire. I won't let anything keep us apart. You can come with me sometimes, when you're not on duty, and I'll travel with you whenever I can."
Her lips curved into a hopeful smile. "You mean it, Leon?"
"I mean it, honey." He brushed his lips across hers in the softest of caresses. "Someday, you're going to marry me, Claire Redfield. I plan to spend every waking moment with you until you say yes."
Claire raised one fiery brow. "And after I say yes?" she asked haughtily.
"I'll dedicate all of my time and energy to knocking you up," Leon grinned, splaying his hand possessively over her stomach. "I can't wait to get you pregnant, Claire. I want a little girl just like you."
She snorted and rolled her eyes. "I want a boy," she stated, just for the sake of argument.
Leon laughed, happier than he could ever remember being. "You've got to marry me first, honey."
"I'm thinking about it," Claire told him, her voice husky as she snuggled closer. "Are you sure you don't mind waiting to get married?" she asked, as she had several times during the night.
"I'm sure," Leon assured her with a happy smile. "It's enough to be here with you, like this, knowing that you really do love me."
"I do, Leon." Claire closed her eyes as he stroked her hair. "That feels so good. Do you think that Sherry will be angry that I spent the night with you, instead of talking to her?"
Leon thought that over before shaking his head. "Sherry knows how much being with you means to me, Claire. She's probably waiting for us to get up so she can tease us about last night."
"Oh, God!" Claire exclaimed, her eyes popping open. "I hadn't even thought of that. There are three other people in the house. I wonder if they heard us?"
He merely laughed and pulled her beneath him. "Who cares?" he said, nuzzling her neck as he spoke. "And Hunnigan's living here too, now. Though I really don't think she'll say anything. Jack and Sherry are the ones to watch out for."
Claire frowned and pushed on his shoulders until he raised his head. "You've got another woman living with you?" she asked, her eyes snapping with blue fire. "Since when?"
Leon's own eyes widened at the anger in her musical voice. "She got here yesterday," he said cautiously, trying to pinpoint the source of her anger. "She lost her job when the HMC was shut down. She's going to invest in the business, become a partner. She'll be staying here until we make enough for her to get her own place."
She dragged the sheet over her, crossing her arms over her chest to keep it in place. "And just how long will that take?" she threw out angrily.
"I'm not sure." He sat up slowly, trying not to smile as he realized why she was so angry. "Hunnigan's a friend, Claire. Nothing more."
Claire sniffed, her eyes narrowing on his. "And you've never been interested in her?" she asked with skepticism. "I remember her, Leon. She's gorgeous."
Leon shrugged, unable to lie to her. "I asked for her number once," he said on a sigh. "It was right after I'd escaped from the Los Illuminados. I asked more to make a point with Ashley Graham than anything else. Ashley asked me to work some 'overtime' for her when we got back. It was all I could think of at the time. Hunnigan understood, and accepted my apology later."
"I'll bet, she did," Claire scowled. "So, you never went out with her?"
"I never went out with anyone, Claire." At her disbelieving look, he sighed again and explained, "I didn't want anyone but you. Even if I had, Ada would have killed whoever I chose. I couldn't take that kind chance with someone else's life."
Claire gaped at him as she realized just what he was telling her. "You spent the last eight years completely alone?" she asked, incredulous. "What about sex?"
"I definitely missed that," Leon said with a dry smile. He reached out and ran his knuckles over the soft skin of her cheek. "You were worth waiting for, Claire."
"Jesus, Leon!" She thought of the four guys she'd had sex with since losing him and cringed inwardly. And he knew, she realized, seeing the truth in the depths of his bright blue eyes.
His smile changed, turning sad, even as he leaned forward to kiss her. "I'm glad you weren't completely alone, honey. I hope they made you happy, even if only for a little while."
"They weren't you," she whispered, tears gathering in her brilliant eyes.
Leon inhaled sharply, gathering her close. "You don't owe me any explanations," he told her solemnly. "You thought I'd left you. You were free to do whatever you wanted. It's not your fault I was too scared to come to S.T.A.R.S. for help."
She was shaking her head negatively, her expression anguished. "I used to measure all of boyfriends against my brother," she whispered thickly. "After you left, I only dated men that reminded me of you. Everyone noticed. Even Carlos teased me about my blond boyfriends, and Chris offered to hunt you down and kill you for me."
"Claire. . ." his voice trailed off as he realized just how much he had hurt her. "I never meant to hurt you. I was just so afraid. I couldn't chance your safety by going after Sherry, and I couldn't risk hers by going to you. I wish I'd been braver, honey. If I'd gone to S.T.A.R.S., things might have turned out differently. I just don't know anymore."
"You did the best you could," she told him, knowing how much it went against his cautious nature to take risks. "If it had been me—"
"You would've shown up, guns blazing, and to hell with the risks," Leon cut in with evident admiration. "I always loved that about you, Claire. You were so impulsive, ready to tackle any situation, no matter what the consequences. I wish I had a little of your spark. Maybe, we wouldn't have spent the last eight years apart."
"It doesn't matter, now," Claire told him firmly. "We're together now, Leon. That's all that matters."
Leon grinned, glad to see the tears gone. "Then, you'll be the one to explain to your brother why we're not getting married right away?" he asked hopefully. "I don't think my body can take another brawl with Chris Redfield."
"You got it, baby." Claire let the sheet fall and pulled him down to her. "No more talking, Kennedy. We need lots of practice if we're ever going to have that kid."
"You got it, Redfield!"