Leon sat at his kitchen table, his handguns and gun maintenance kit on one side, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey with a half-empty glass beside it on the other. The afternoon sun poured into the room, streaming through the amber liquid and streaking the gray tabletop with a golden glow.
Evanescence’s Bring Me to Life played on the stereo behind Leon, but he scarcely heard the music. He had all but forgotten his surroundings as he stared at one single item positioned squarely before him.
It was a round white makeup compact etched with scrollwork designs around its circumference, a butterfly trailing through its center. That simple-looking little object held a flood of memories and a labyrinth of emotions Leon now endeavored earnestly to untangle.
The makeup compact had belonged to Ada Wong, that mysterious woman who had captured Leon’s affections so long ago.This memento was a remnant of the last case during which he had encountered Ada. Inside it had been an SD card holding vital information on the case he had been working on in Tatchi, China. He had found it on the seat of the helicopter Ada had left for him to escape the city after the viral outbreak. They had been parting gifts left behind before she once again vanished into the shadows. He never quite understood why she sometimes helped him though she wasn’t his ally.
Ada was indeed unpredictable and devious. She had a penchant for manipulation, and had used Leon more than once as a pawn to get what she wanted before disappearing. Despite all that, however, he had fallen for her, much to his chagrin.
As Leon sat staring at the compact, he asked himself why. Why had he wasted so many years on this deceitful woman who had merely used him? The memory of Ada had become a barrier around his heart, preventing him from having a true, healthy relationship. Seductive, darkly beguiling and intelligent, she had haunted him from the start, filling his senses.
Now Sara Rios was in his life, and she differed diametrically from Ada as day did from night. Leon felt much more than just sensual fever for Sara, for she touched his heart and nurtured his spirit. But she also inadvertently enthralled him. Indeed, a simple glance or a heartfelt smile was sufficient to try his restraint.
Now, after eleven months of dating, the million dollar question lay before him in the shape of that damned compact: Was Leon ready to move on and give his heart wholly to Sara?
Leon took a swig of whiskey, toying with the compact and racking his brain for a clear answer. The strains of the song suddenly broke through his feverish meditation:
“Frozen inside, without your touch, without your love, darling
Only you are the life among the dead”
On hearing those lyrics, something snapped inside of him. The scales fell from his eyes. Sara had not only tapped into his passion, she had stirred his deepest emotions. Not even Ada, for all her seductiveness and sophistication, had been capable of that. Before Sara, his life had been solitary and empty, the job being his sole motivation. She had now become the light in his darkness. The choice couldn’t have been clearer.
As his musings concluded, his smartphone rang. Quickly lowering the music’s volume, Leon checked the caller ID. Sherry Birkin. The name made him smile. Leon had practically adopted Sherry as a little sister since the night he had helped save her from Raccoon City, when her parents’ research with the Umbrella Corporation had led to her own infection. Now she was all grown up, and a respected agent within the DSO.
“Hey. How’s my kid sister?” he asked.
“Leon! Hey! I’m great. I hope I’m not interrupting anything. I just wanted to make sure you were still clear for Saturday night?”
“Saturday-- Oh, damn.” Leon pressed his palm to his forehead. “Aah, you’re gonna hate me.”
“You forgot! Leon! You know we only do these reunions once a year, and only if we’re not on missions. This time, we were all free. It means so much to me to see you and the others. And I was really looking forward to meeting Sara,” Sherry said disappointedly.
“Easy, Sherry!” Leon said, chuckling. “I didn’t say I couldn’t go. I just forgot. I’d like to see everybody else, too. It’s been too long since we’ve just relaxed together. I’ve just been preoccupied lately, that’s all.”
“Is everything okay?”
“Yeah. I’m good,” he answered.
Sherry exhaled with relief. “For a minute there, I was worried. You’ll bring Sara, right?”
“I’ll call her as soon as I hang up. I’m sure she’ll wanna meet everybody,” Leon replied.
“Awesome!” Sherry said. She went silent for a moment. “Leon,” she said at length. “I hope you don’t think I’m prying, but... are things serious with Sara? I mean, is it love?”
The question caught Leon off guard. He hesitated, picking up the compact and studying it briefly. He frowned at it then chucked it into the wastebasket. He felt as if a burden had suddenly been lifted from his heart. “Yeah,” he said finally, the realization making him somewhat giddy. “It is.”
Sherry sighed. “Good. I’ve been worried about you. I know you think I shouldn’t be, but I can’t help it. You spend too much time alone, and... it’s not good to be alone with your ghosts, you know?”
“I know what you mean,” Leon answered softly.
“Well, I’ll let you go now so you can let Sara know about the reunion. And do yourself a favor: if you really love her, tell her. Take care of yourself.”
“You, too. Thanks, Sherry.”
Following Sherry’s call, Leon quickly dialed Sara’s number. The sound of her voice warmed his heart.
“Hey, Sara. Are you doing anything Saturday night?”
Sara emerged from her building, smiling cheerfully as she approached Leon. He smiled back, his breath catching slightly at the sight of her. She was dressed very simply in jeans and a crimson sweetheart neckline blouse that became her solid, somewhat boyish figure. A cranberry cardigan completed the outfit. To Leon, she’d never looked prettier.
Sara greeted him with a warm kiss and a hug. Leon breathed in the heady notes of white musk and vanilla from her perfume.
“Mm. You smell nice!” Sara exclaimed, her dark eyes shining.
“I was just thinking the same thing. You look incredible.”
Sara smiled shyly. “It’s just casualwear, Leon,” she replied.
“Well, maybe it’s not the clothes as much as the girl who’s wearing them.”
Chuckling at Sara’s abashed blush, Leon drew a small green box from his jacket pocket and presented it to her. “I saw something the other day that reminded me of you. I thought you might like it.”
Sara opened the box, her eyes glittering. She lifted a pretty silver necklace with a pendant in the shape of an intertwined dragon and phoenix. “Leon, it’s beautiful! I love it.”
“Let me put it on for you.” Leon secured the necklace around her neck then withdrew. “It looks good.”
“Thank you so much!” Sara said.
She dropped a happy kiss on his lips and started to turn away, but Leon wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her against him. He kissed her fervently.
“Wow!” gasped Sara. “I’m not complaining, but what was that for?”
“For setting me free,” Leon replied solemnly. “For saving me.”
Sara looked up at him bemusedly. “Are you okay? You seem more intense than usual today. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. But there’s something I want to tell you. Maybe this isn’t the time, but I need to say it.”
“Okay.” Sara began to withdraw from his embrace, but he held her fast. Her brow furrowed in puzzlement, but she placed her hands on his chest and stood still. “I’m listening,” she said gently.
Leon was silent for a moment, gathering the words. At last he fixed Sara with a decided gaze. “I know I’ve been kinda distant this past month. I’ve been doing a lot of serious thinking.” He paused reflectively. “Do you remember the agent I told you about back on Halcyon Isle--the woman I might have had a relationship with?”
Sara’s eyes flashed briefly. “Yes,” she replied simply.
“Her name is Ada Wong. I met her for the first time in Raccoon City. She saved my life. I don’t really know why exactly, and I probably never will. Anyway, we spent little time together during that nightmare, but in that time, I developed feelings for her even though I found out she was a double agent. I didn’t know who she worked for; she was there to steal a sample of the virus. She disappeared in the aftermath, but she’s woven in and out of my life after that; always turning up during an impending bioterrorism disaster.”
Leon paused, shaking his head. He trained his eyes on her somberly. “For years I let Ada’s memory sabotage every relationship I attempted. I wasted time fantasizing about what it would be like if she were different; if only she weren’t on the wrong side. I knew better, but somehow I couldn’t help myself.”
Sara’s dropped her hands, letting them fall tensely at her sides. Her gaze became flinty, and he felt her grow rigid. Despite her obvious irritation, Leon continued, intent on opening up to her completely.
“Then I met you, and I realized that I didn’t need a fantasy; I’d found the real thing. I also realized that I never really loved Ada; I didn’t even know her. It was just infatuation. Now I know what I really want; I want you. My entire life has been like a graveyard--full of death and haunted by ghosts of the past. But you’ve become my lantern, scattering all the darkness and nightmares. For the first time, I don’t feel alone, and I love you for that.”
At last the words were out. Leon inhaled deeply, looking at Sara searchingly. The hardness fell away from her and she smiled radiantly. She cocked her head, her expression becoming mischievous. “Hm. I’d better wipe that lipstick off you; it really doesn’t suit you.”
Leon was bewildered by her cool jest. He started to speak, but Sara silenced him with a sweet, lingering kiss. She approached her mouth to his ear and whispered. “I love you. You know that, don’t you?”
Leon craned his neck to look at her, exhilarated by the declaration. “I wasn’t taking that as a given.”
Sara regarded him somberly. “Honestly, you made me love you. You saved me, changed me. You helped me believe in myself and realize my worth. You’re so kind and caring. I’ve never met anyone like you; equal parts steel and silk--fierce yet gentle.”
She thrust her hands in her back pockets, her mood changing. “But I suspected you weren’t over this Ada. Sometimes you seemed distant, your mind elsewhere; definitely not with me. I’ve been waiting for you to work things out, but honestly, I wasn’t sure I could wait much longer.”
Leon’s jaw tightened with the impact of those words. The thought of Sara’s absence from his life suddenly seemed as inconceivable as a world without color. He laid his forefinger against her cheek, tracing its curve tenderly. “So I’m not too late?” he asked, his tone hopeful.
Sara smiled up at him softly. “You just made it in under the wire,” she answered. Her eyes widened. “But if we don’t get moving we’ll be too late! Your friends are gonna be ticked off. Let me just take care of this first.” She vigorously wiped his lips clean of her iridescent lipstick. “There. Hey, mind if I drive? I could use the practice.”
Chuckling lightly, Leon tossed the keys to Sara who caught them easily. “Sure. Knock yourself out,” he replied.
Beaming, Sara made her way around to the driver’s side and took her place behind the wheel.
Shaking his head with a wry smile, Leon opened the passenger door. “Women,” he muttered.
The sight of his Raccoon City friends gathered in the restaurant brought Leon a tidal wave of memories. Today, however, they didn’t overwhelm him. With Sara beside him, the burden of his dark past seemed lighter.
The group sat at two adjoined tables at the center of the dining area. Chris caught sight of them and waved them over. The group rose in unison to greet Leon and Sara.
Bright young Sherry Birkin eagerly clasped each of them in a tight, welcoming hug. Chris Redfield and his longtime BSAA partner and now fiancee, Jill Valentine, shook their hands. Claire, Chris’ younger sister, embraced them warmly. For the first time, Leon actually felt like they were a family; united as they wrestled their demons and fought for the same cause.
They ate, drank and talked, sharing stories and personal life developments. Late into the night, the women rose together in a group and headed for the ladies’ room, chatting and laughing. Leon and Chris remained seated at the table.
“So,” Chris said, when the ladies were out of earshot. “Is it serious with you and Sara?”
Leon took a sip of his beer before nodding. “Yeah, it is,” he replied.
“All right! Good for you!” Chris declared. “So what about the Bitch in Red, Ada Wong?”
Leon raised his brows at his friend in some surprise.
“Ah, don’t look at me like that,” Chris growled. “When it came to that bitch, you had a lousy poker face. You wouldn’t have tried to defend her back in Tatchi if you hadn’t been sweet on her.”
“The fact is, I knew she wasn’t responsible for what happened to your unit. Whatever else she may be, Ada isn’t a murderer, and definitely not a bioterrorist,” Leon said.
“Nah. She just supplies them,” Chris rejoined.
Leon scoffed. “Fair point.”
“So you’re finally over her, then?” Chris pressed.
Leon sat back in his chair, toying with his beer bottle. “Chasing butterflies is a waste of time. Took me long enough to figure that out,” he said. “And it’s a hell of a lot more fun flying with a phoenix.”
Chris nodded. “A phoenix! Interesting.”
“I wasted too many years on Ada. I really thought I loved her. But I was just in love with what I thought she could be. Sara’s the real thing. It took meeting her to wake me up.”
“So, do I hear wedding bells?” asked Jill, who had returned to the table unnoticed.
Leon looked up at her and chuckled lightly. “We’re taking things slow,” he said. “But it could happen.”
“Yeah, well, don’t take too long,” Jill said, nudging Chris hard. “I practically had to hit this one with a sledgehammer to get him to realize I wanted him.”
Chris threw Jill a small, sly smile. “Well, better late than never, right?”
Jill chuckled dryly. “Uh-huh. Sure.” She turned back to Leon. “I like Sara; she’s good people. I think she’ll do you a lot of good. Whatever you do, Leon, don’t let her get away.”
Leon looked at her solemnly. “Trust me, I don’t intend to.”
At that moment the other ladies returned to the table, Claire and Sherry debating on who was to be the night’s designated driver. They took their seats, and the conversation once again grew animated.
At length Claire stood up, tapping her glass with a spoon. “Hey, can I get everybody’s attention, please? I want to propose a toast to the newest member of our little family, Miss Sara Rios!” she announced.
The others fell silent, watching Claire intently. Leon glanced at Sara who was looking bashfully sweet and fairly glowing with happiness. His heart swelled.
“Sara, you defied death and you rose from the blood and ashes. You’re a true warrior. I wish you the best of luck as you join us in the fight for the future, honoring and remembering the fallen. Welcome aboard!” Claire said.
The others clinked bottles and glasses, responding in assent.
“Yeah, welcome to the Zombie Squad,” Sherry chimed in.
Everyone chuckled at that then returned to their easy conversation.
Leon looked at all of his friends in turn, his heart full. At last he caught Sara’s joyful gaze across the table. She flashed him a sunny smile. He returned it with a small smile of his own, ardently wishing he could stop time and preserve that happy moment forever.