“You should really rest.”
Leon threw a half-hearted glare in Manuela’ direction, where she stood in front of the familiar easel, a small photograph beside it on the table. Leon himself was sat down in a chain a few paces in front of her by the window. Behind him on the windowsill was an inset planter, where the remains of the herbs they’d collected hed been planted. The tentative stalks had begun to show up through the soil, forming a vivid mix of yellows, greens, and reds.
“I’m fine, really. I’m just a bit sore is all,” Leon insisted. Allowing himself a small smile, he watched as Manuela brought the brush across her canvas slowly, with a grace that was strange when compared to the force he’d seen her capable of. Unlike him, she’d recovered quickly from all her injuries on account of her enhanced healing factor, and the fact she hadn’t been saddled with a parasitic hitchhiker on her spine. Nonetheless, Leon was on track for a quick recovery, according to the doctors.
“I’m sure you are.” Leon could see the slight smile on Manuela’s face in the streaming light of the afternoon. Idly, he thought back to their return to the States. The entire transfer process had been very secret and he had seen more secret service in that one time than in his entire life. Manuela had been nervous the whole time, especially since they would be meeting some high up people.
“Are we going to be okay?” she asked, all her previous courage during the mission being replaced with anxiety. It was almost humorous, Leon noted, that she could handle legions of aggressors coming at her, but a bunch of men in suits made her nervous. Then again, as he thought back to the lab Krauser and he had found, uniforms of any kind probably weren’t a welcome sight. The thought of Krauser left a bad taste in his mouth.
“Don’t worry. It’s just a safety precaution,” he affirmed, gently grabbing her hand. He managed to hold back a hiss of pain as she squeezed his not yet completely healed hand. Forcing himself to think of things other than the pain, he realized they had to be getting close to their final destination. He had begun to recognize these halls from when he was first offered the job.
Soon enough, they did come to a room. The metal walls told Leon exactly what this was: a panic room. Several armed men formed a wall astride the man known as President Graham. Leon took in the aspect of the man before him. The President wasn’t a young man, but he still had colour in his hair. He bore a certain roundedness of the face that Ashley lacked, but his blonde hair was certainly passed on. He had a slight lean to him that reminded Leon a little of Nixon, minus the looming jowls. He wore the familiar suit of office, standing rigidly up.
Upon seeing him, Ashley had pushed passed the guards, rushing to her father. His composure let down as he opened his arms, holding his little girl close to him. Through his thick coat sleeves, Leon could see Ashley attempting to bury her fear in her father’s chest, shaking a little as all her pent up emotion spilled forth. Leon frowned as he realized that Ashley was likely going to remember the incident for the rest of her life in a very negative fashion.
After their moment had passed, Ashley gently pulled herself away enough to were she could see her father’s face, tears tinting her face. She opened her mouth to speak, but the President’s deep voice interrupted her. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”
Ashley laughed slightly out of happiness as she brushed aside the tears on her face. “I missed you so much.”
President Graham smiled as he gently ruffled his daughter’s hair before tucking her under his left arm protectively, turning to face the two agents. Straightening his composure, he brought up his business facade. “Agent Kennedy, Agent Hidalgo. I’d like to thank you for rescuing my daughter and for bringing an end to the Los Illuminados threat.”
Leon nodded his head, with Manuela mimicking him. “Just doing our jobs.”
The President nodded in agreement, before continuing. “Nonetheless, you both did excellently out there. Rest assured you have my gratitude for your heroic acts. It is unfortunate that we cannot officially commemorate your success owing to the secrecy of the mission. However, I personally will make sure that, at the soonest opportunity, you will receive recognition for it.”
“That’s alright sir. We’re more than happy to just be home,” Leon stated amicably, managing a smile. The President gave a smile in return.
“I’m sure that you two are eager to return home. If I might be so bold as to shake your hand?” President Graham requested, offering his free right hand. Leon reached out and shook it firmly, knowing full well it was being photographed, likely for some future propaganda. Still, he thought, nothing wrong with a man wanting to shake hands with the person who saved his daughter.
“Really, you should be thanking Agent Hidalgo. Without her, this mission would have been significantly harder, or even impossible,” Leon pointed out as he let go of the President’s hand. The President turned his smile to his partner, a strange look flashing through his eyes. The general air in the room grew more tense as he offered his hand to her.
Leon breathed a sigh of relief as she took it, and the President firmly clasped her hand, smiling with an almost regretful expression behind his eyes. His eyes swept across her arm, spotting the mottled and discoloured midsection of her arm. He turned his eyes to her face, smiling almost paternally. “I’m sorry for what happened to you. It was rather unfortunate that you had to suffer through that, but you took advantage of it in the most positive way you could. America thanks you.”
Manuela nodded wordlessly, a blush rising through her face as he let go of her hand. After the reception, things blurred by. The President and Ashley were taken from the room to be safely escorted to the White House while Leon and Manuela were brought to a car that would bring them back home. The ride was mostly silent, as both agents were tired, and the men driving them had their orders.
Leon spent most of the ride looking out the window, watching the landscape fly by, glad to see the familiar environment. Thinking about the foliage, he had a stray thought and opened his belt. Inside, surprisingly preserved were the remaining herbs the two hadn’t used. He smiled at the familiar plants.
“Looks like we’ve both survived a lot,” he muttered to them. He glanced over at Manuela, who had fallen asleep again. Perhaps I’ll plant them, he thought to himself. He was snapped out of his thoughts as he saw the familiar sign of their town.
“Welcome to Tall Oaks. Population: 66821”
Leon groaned as he moved to stand in his seat. “I think I should move a bit.”
“Not quite yet,” Manuela insisted, frowning at the painting without facing him. Leon raised an eyebrow as he settled back in, a thought forming in his head.
“Finished,” she interrupted, turning the canvas to face him. Leon leaned back in surprise as he beheld the portrait. Instead of being the courtyard on the day they had left, it was a picture of him now, sitting in the chair. The portrait him sat with one leg crossed over the other, leaning against the side of the chair, his face framed by the light of outside. She must have gotten that angle when I looked out the window, he realized.
When he saw the small smile on Portrait Leon’s face, he couldn’t help but mimic it, noticing all the little quirks she had managed to capture on him, right down to the tilt of his head to keep the fringe out of his eyes. The final detail he noticed was the planter behind him. It had full grown herbs in it, including a blue one, which he had only ever described to Manuela from his time in Raccoon City.
Manuela smiled from beside her painting, watching Leon’s expressions. “You like it?”
“It’s amazing. That looks almost exactly like me.” Leon stood up, walking over to the easel. Standing in front of it, he regarded it with a smile. “I thought you were painting the courtyard though.”
“This felt like a better picture. Besides, you were posed just right.” Manuela stretched, looking around while blinking rapidly. “You should really get some rest though.”
Leon sighed in defeat, and his gaze swept across the letter that sat beside the picture. His expression soured and Manuela didn’t have to follow it to know why. Gently, she touched Leon’s arm. “Hey, don’t worry about it.”
“I’m not so sure about that. One minute they want to keep you secret, the next you’re the flag girl for every kind of political propaganda this side of Russia,” Leon scoffed, moving to sit on the bed. Manuela joined him and together they stared at the letter for a time.
“I’m more than happy to do it,” Manuela opined. “If it means I get to go out like everyone else without having to record it down, then I want to do it. Besides, President Graham seems like a good man.”
“It’s not the President I don’t trust. It’s everyone else. The world is hounding after the blood of anyone associated with bioterrorism. All it takes is one nutjob at a rally and things could go horribly.”
“You’re too pessimistic. Things could go just fine, and it would mean that I could have a life for myself!”
Leon nodded in thought. Despite his own reservations, he knew it was all that Manuela wanted. Finally, he breathed out a sigh, trying to cement his own resolve on the decision. “Alright. I’ll be there every step of the way.”
Leon wrapped one arm around Manuela as he agreed. With a smile, she returned it, leaning against him. Dimly, Leon noted the amber light of the room dimming as the last rays of the daylight splashed over the turned painting, and he knew he had to leave soon. Manuela seemed to notice as well, and she stirred from her comfortable position. Gently, she tapped his shoulder.
“You should get home before it gets dark. Don’t want you to crash,” she teased with a light smile, planting a gentle kiss on his cheek before he stood. Leon stretched with a deep groan, his back popping a few times.
“It was one time and there was a zombie in a sixteen-wheeler,” he retorted, flashing a smile over his shoulder. Grabbing his replacement coat off the chair, he took one last look at the painting. “We should go get a frame for this tomorrow. I’ll drop a call once I get home.”
“All right. Drive safely.” Leon looked over his shoulder as he exited the room. Before they had left to Spain, Manuela’s room had been more spartan and she never seemed calm in it. Now, though, it was almost like a completely different room, with vibrant colours of plants and paints breaking the monotony, with an almost familiar smell of the jungle flora in the air that Leon couldn’t place. And as he left, seeing Manuela at ease as she watched him go, he knew she had blossomed.
“Your report has been filed for future reference should we encounter a Plaga-like B.O.W. again,” Hunnigan informed Leon. The agent simply nodded, waiting patiently. Sensing his unasked question, Hunnigan turned to her computer, moving through various files. “Manuela’s report was filed in two formats. One available to our agencies in a censored format and one containing the original content for authorized personnel. Her involvement will be classified until such time where it is safe to reveal it.”
“Other than that, the higher ups have been talking about her a lot. Her name’s getting tossed around a lot in discussions based on the mission. Along with yours, actually.”
“Why would they be talking about me?” Leon quirked an eyebrow, curious about what they wanted him for. He knew that Manuela was important to him, and vice-versa, but he wasn’t sure what level of effect that had on the higher ups.
“As far as I understand it, you two are a package deal. Both or neither, correct?” Hunnigan asked knowingly, a light smile appearing and fading across her face at Leon’s silence. “The obvious question they’re asking is “what do we do?””
“I thought they had that figured out. The letter they sent…”
“That was just an avenue. An option really. What I can tell you though is there’s a good chance that she’ll be declassified.”
“Declassified that quickly?” Leon asked dumbfoundedly. “Who’s pushing?”
“Seems some of the people upstairs hold a bit of ethics. The President advocated for her declassification as thanks for her services. Apparently, Ashley and Manuela got along pretty well and she’s “paying her dues.” On the other hand, Security Advisor Simmons argued that she should be classified indefinitely.”
Leon scoffed, his expression souring. “Simmons, that bastard. He just wants her to be in the Security council’s pocket.”
“That may be true, but he’s got considerable hold amongst the council debating the matter. He is in charge of US security, and he’s bringing some heavy support to the table in the form of damage reports and some scare tactics.”
“What do you think his chances are of succeeding?”
“I wouldn’t worry too much. Since the President himself is advocating for the opposite position, Simmons doesn’t have much chance of succeeding, but it will probably slap some heavy restrictions on her, to avoid “threats to national security.””
“What kind of restrictions?”
“Probably armed escorts at the least. In Simmons’ perspective, she’s a dangerous asset. She’s the only person in the world who has the capability of successfully coexisting with the Veronica virus, and that is something he worries about. From what I understand, he’s worried about that power getting into non-US hands. At the same time, she’s a valuable source of potential research into how to improve soldiers.”
“They already ran tests on her; they found nothing,” Leon growled. Hunnigan nodded in agreement, but directed Leon’s attention to the screen.
“They ran tests to determine the activeness of the virus when you were first picked up, as well as over the subsequent months. The tests he’s proposing are more intensive, trying to find the root of her power in order to replicate the effect.”
“So he wants to harness the virus huh? Has no one told him what happened to the rest of the people who tried that?”
“Simmons is well aware of the Antarctica Incident, but he remains firm in his belief that in US hands, the virus can be properly harnessed to protect the people. In any case, that’s all I’ve got. I know it’s not exactly reassuring, but I figured you’d want to know.”
“Thanks Hunnigan. I know it’s not exactly standard procedure, but it means a lot to me.”
“Not a problem. They’ll probably let you in on the loop once they come to a decision. Besides, we never had this conversation,” she hinted. “Make sure to wish Manuela well for me.”
“Will do. You take care.”
Leon sometimes had to step back and remember that Manuela was a different woman in many ways than the girl he saved back in Central America. Her time so far in the US had helped her grow in so many ways. When he had met her, she had been exceptionally soft spoken because of her isolation, and very unassertive. The only time she had acted in her own interests were when other people were threatened.
The progression to what he saw was one he would not have expected. Leon was currently standing in an observation deck, looking out over a set of rooms, laid out in the style of a house. Outside the structure, he could see Manuela, in full SWAT gear interacting with the team they had assembled. All were fully debriefed and thoroughly background checked to prevent risks to her person. Over the past weeks, she had been put through various simulations, designed to train her for various kinds of deployment. Leon still had to suppress a mild chuckle as he watched her take point with the massive shield.
Leaning back in the chair he had been offered, he thought on the situation at hand. He had certainly not expected this to be the conditions for Simmons’ cooperation. If anything, he’d expected the opposite; forbidding Manuela from ever leaving a room. Once he had seen that there was no way he’d convince the council that she should be restrained, Simmons had bargained for certain indulgences on his agenda that the others were all too happy too agree to.
So Manuela had been training with various tutors brought in by Simmons’ men, and taught to use their tactics. It was a similar process to some of the training Leon had undergone on his own interests after Raccoon City. He even recognized a couple of his tutors amongst Manuela’s own.
Being the pointman, Manuela had to assume the leadership role of the team. It was something she had struggled with at first, Leon remembered with a smile. She was so used to following him that when it came time for her to lead, she had been afraid of the role. Once she had gotten used to it, her feel for people and generally pleasant persona made her easily likeable for the people around her, which lead to a sense of unity amongst the squad.
Leon frowned as he remembered some of the reports he’d managed to get hold of. Some of the scientists wondered if there was some remnant effect of the virus in her presence. It seemed that no matter who she worked with, the groups were cohesive and came to like her, regardless of their histories. One of the scientists had even suggested that because of the ant origin of the virus she might have slight pheromonal effect that increased the general cohesion of a unit. She’d spent nearly a week in a carefully monitored chamber after that one, and the scientists only found trace amounts of pheromones. According to them, it would be enough to maybe affect someone in a long term exposure, but in short bursts, it would do little but make the affected more amiable to the source. Hardly the weapon they’re looking for, Leon thought bitterly.
It had made him think though. As Hunnigan had said, the tests run on Manuela were to determine if the virus was still mutating within her, but did little to show the current effects on her body. There were still many things they didn’t know about her. Many things she didn’t know about herself. Despite them being the last two surviving people from the mission, they still knew hardly anything about the circumstances of what that meant. He knew he was much the same as ever, physically at least, but Manuela was a different story. She was a one of a kind; a species all her own, with capabilities unknown to all but a crazed, dead woman.
In his thoughts, Leon almost missed the end of the simulation. As usual, Manuela’s team had succeeded marvellously. She had really gotten a handle on her commanding skills, and Leon knew no doubt that she was rapidly approaching, or even eclipsing his own skills as an agent. He didn’t mind actually, since it meant he wouldn’t have to worry about having to protect her, but he did worry about what would happen when it came time to put her skills to the test again.
“Mr. Kennedy, there’s something that’s come up.”Knock on wood next time, he thought to himself bitterly before turning to follow the man.
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