43: Epilogue - Friends Reunited

Friday 2nd October, 1998

Tumbleweed was a one-horse town. At least, it had been once; after some thought, Renée had concluded that the horse in question had died of acute boredom.

According to the weathered wooden sign that had been erected beside the dirt track, Tumbleweed had a population of one hundred and fifty-one people, although it was unclear where they all were; Renée's theory was that they had all gone to the horse's funeral and not bothered to come back. Dr Harlech's rather more plausible theory was that the population had once been one hundred and fifty-one but had since declined with the town's dwindling fortunes, and that the sign simply hadn't been updated in some time.

Most people would have dismissed the little town as nothing but a collection of weathered buildings in the middle of a dry, barren wasteland. It consisted of a gas station, a diner - imaginatively named "Earl's Diner" - a few wooden houses bleached white by the burning sun, and a large saguaro cactus, which was probably the most lively thing in the whole town.

To the weary group of survivors, however, Tumbleweed was heaven on earth. Hot water, clean clothes, food and sleep had taken away the filth and fatigue of the past few days, and before long, Lisa, Jack, Amber, Renée and Dr Harlech started to feel quite at home in the little town. After three days, everyone in town knew who they were, and their ordeal had earned them a certain amount of celebrity, which meant free food and drink from the locals in return for stories about their escape from Raccoon City.

It was just after dawn now, and the five of them were still sitting in Earl's Diner after another late night of story-telling. The diner's regular clientele had long since drifted away, heading back to their little sun-bleached houses to sleep; only one, an elderly man, had since returned, and he was sitting at the counter on one of the red leather barstools, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the newspapers. Earl himself was asleep behind the counter, his head nodding gently, while around him, neon signs buzzed and the ever-present waitresses scurried back and forth across the diner, wiping tables and carrying away dirty dishes.

Amber and Renée were currently sitting in one of the booths near the dusty plate-glass window. Paperwork was spread right across the table, and Amber was poring over every scrap of evidence that they'd collected on their travels, occasionally sipping from a rapidly-cooling cup of black coffee. Renée was in no mood for reading at this early hour; instead she was shovelling food into her mouth at the slow but quietly determined pace of someone who intends to go on eating for several hours.

Dr Harlech, who never ate anything until at least 10 a.m. and was heartily sick of studying reams of paperwork, had decided that now would be a good time to improve on the sickly white pallor of a skin tanned only by fluorescent lights. She was sitting outside on the dusty ground outside the diner, sunning herself and making polite conversation.

"… oh no, I couldn't agree more," said Dr Harlech pleasantly. "You're quite right; the weather's lovely. A lot of people would say it's too hot, but personally I love the sunshine. I grew up in Arklay, you see, and it's hardly ever sunny there. And of course I've spent most of the past three years working in an artificially-lit environment, which means I haven't seen much of the sun. It's no wonder I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder… what's that? I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that. You're awfully quiet, you know. Then again, that's probably my fault, I'm always talking and never letting people get a word in edgeways. Just tell me to shut up if you think I'm talking too much. No? Oh, all right - but do tell me if I'm annoying you. My sister always told me that I talk way too much for my own good…"

Amber glanced up from the late Dr Morton's journal and looked out of the window. She stared at Dr Harlech for a moment, then broke into a broad grin. Dr Harlech was chatting away contentedly, completely undeterred by the fact that she was carrying on both halves of a conversation with a particularly unresponsive member of the community.

"Do you think she knows that she's talking to the cactus?" said Amber, turning to Renée.

"Probably not," replied Renée, in between mouthfuls of eggs and bacon. "She left her glasses on the table."

She nodded towards the pair of spectacles that had been placed carefully on top of a pile of papers and then forgotten by their absent-minded owner.

Amber picked them up, looked out of the window, then put them back down again.

"Do you think we should tell her?" she said.

Renée considered this option for a moment. She looked briefly out of the window at Dr Harlech, still talking earnestly to the cactus, and then returned her attention to her breakfast.

"Nah," she concluded. "She's happy. Best to just leave her alone, I think."

"Okay."

Renée drained her coffee cup. When she was sure that Amber was once again fully absorbed in her paperwork and unlikely to notice, she reached over and drained Amber's coffee cup too.

"Hey, Arlene! Can you get some more coffee over here?" she called.

Instantly, one of the waitresses appeared at the table, smoothing down her short red dress and white cotton apron. She was a moderately attractive girl with high heels, a low neckline and golden hair piled up on top of her head. Her modest charms, however, were entirely wasted on the two women sitting at the table. Nevertheless, she smiled brightly. She quite liked the new arrivals from Raccoon City, even if they were a little strange.

"We're all outta coffee," she said. "Sorry 'bout that. I'll go make some more for y'all."

"No problem," said Renée. "Take your time, Arlene. It's not like we're in a hurry to go anywhere. Oh, and can you fetch an extra cup over here?"

"Sure thing."

Arlene headed for the kitchen door, limping slightly. Amber glanced up again and frowned.

"She really shouldn't be wearing those shoes," she said, shaking her head in disapproval. "Not for a waitressing job. They're no good to walk in and they're murder on your feet."

"A former waitress speaks, huh?" observed Renée.

Amber nodded. "Yeah. I got my first job as a waitress when I was still in high school. I worked in a place called J's Bar. You know it?"

"Nope. I'm from out of town, remember?" said Renée.

"Oh, yeah, of course you are. I forgot you weren't a local girl," said Amber. "Anyway, I worked at this smoky little place in downtown, and it was called J's Bar. It wasn't exactly a high-class establishment, but it was always pretty busy and they paid the floor staff quite well. I remember wearing high heels to work on my first day and regretting it about ten minutes after I stepped in through the door."

"How long did you work there?" said Renée.

"Two months," admitted Amber.

Renée looked surprised. "Just two months?"

"Well, two months and eight days. Then I got canned."

"Canned? What for?"

"There were a couple of other waitresses working there," Amber began, and Renée leaned forward slightly to listen to the story. "Most of them were sweet girls, really nice, but there was this one girl called Cindy Lennox. She looked all sweet and innocent and pretty, but between you and me, she was the biggest bitch in the whole wide world. All the other waitresses hated her guts and I know for a fact that the bartender wanted her dead."

"So what happened?" said Renée.

"One day we were really busy in work - the place was packed and the rest of us were working our fingers to the bone, but what does our resident Barbie lookalike do? She sits right out on the floor with paying customers, pouring herself free drinks and flirting shamelessly with everything wearing pants," said Amber.

Renée tutted.

"Now," continued Amber, "After two hours of watching her sitting on her lazy ass doing nothing while the rest of us were working our asses right off, I'd finally had enough, so I called her a skanky ho who ought to take her Playboy bunny act somewhere else, and I poured a pitcher of iced tea over her stupid blonde head. Then I hit her with a tray and she ran off crying to the boss. Now, when the boss heard my side of the story he was actually quite sympathetic, but because I'd poured a perfectly good order of iced tea over another employee's head in full view of the customers, he told me that my conduct was inappropriate and I'd have to go. The truth is, he would have kept me on if I'd done it in the kitchen instead of out on the floor."

"Well that sucks," said Renée. "Is she still there?"

"One can but hope," said Amber tartly.

"You know what I mean," said Renée, grinning.

"Yeah, I know. Well, I went past the place on patrol before the outbreak and she was still there. Her car was parked out front too - in a "No Parking" zone, might I add," said Amber, smirking. "So I slapped a parking ticket on the windshield as I went by. Such a shame about the car accident, though…"

"What car accident?" said Renée.

"The car accident in which I saw a close friend of mine driving to the precinct and waved to him, thus causing him to accidentally run into the back of Cindy's Corvette and accidentally shunt it out of a parking space and into a "No Parking" zone," said Amber, grinning wickedly.

Renée laughed.

"Wow," she said. "For a cop, you've got one hell of an evil streak, Amber."

"You would too if you'd spent two months working alongside Cindy Lennox," said Amber matter-of-factly. "It's enough to try the patience of a saint, believe me. If I never, ever see her again, I might just be able to die a happy woman."

"I wouldn't worry too much about seeing her again," said Renée. "She's probably dead by now."

"Yeah, probably. Guess the bartender got his wish after all…"

Arlene reappeared with a steaming pot of coffee and an extra cup. She poured fresh coffee into Renée and Amber's cups, then set the extra cup down on the table and filled it to the brim.

"You want me to take this one to your crazy friend out front?" she said, nodding towards Dr Harlech, who was still talking to the cactus in the mistaken belief that it was one of the townsfolk.

"Who, Dr H? Nah, she's not crazy, just a little short-sighted," said Renée, getting up. "Don't worry about bringing it outside; I'll take it out to her now. Oh, and by the way, my friend here thinks that you should change your shoes."

"Ain't nothin' wrong with my shoes," retorted the waitress, glowering at Amber.

"It's not that there's anything wrong with them," said Amber, flushing. "I think they're very pretty shoes. But you might want to consider something a bit more practical if you're going to be on your feet all day, or you'll be in agony by the end of your shift."

"Oh," said the waitress, her indignation subsiding. "You think I oughta wear some sneakers instead?"

"If they're more comfortable, yes," said Amber. "Of course, you're the one who's going to be wearing them, so don't let me tell you what to do. But you might want to consider it. Little piece of advice from an ex-waitress."

"Oh, okay. Thanks."

"I bet you twenty dollars she doesn't listen to you and ends up with blisters tomorrow," said Renée, after Arlene had drifted off to wipe down a table at the far end of the room.

"Well, it's not like she wasn't warned," said Amber, shrugging and returning to her paperwork. "Not my fault if she decides to ignore good advice."

"Yeah. Anyway, I'm going to take this out to Dr H," said Renée, picking up the spare coffee cup. "See you in a minute."

Another waitress, a pretty brunette who went by the name of Pearl, was mopping the floor near the door. She stopped mopping for a moment and watched as the dark-haired girl in combats and a white vest top picked up the spare cup of coffee. Leaving behind the strawberry-blonde woman in jeans and a grey t-shirt, who was quietly reading through the small pile of books and papers on the table with an air of deep and profound concentration, the dark-haired girl went outside and headed towards the crazy-looking blonde woman in the blue print dress, who was still talking animatedly to the town's main distinguishing feature.

"Morning, Dr H!" she heard the dark-haired one call. "I know it's not 10 a.m. just yet, but I brought you some coffee anyway. Thought you might like a little refreshment. Bring the cup back inside when you're done talking to Mr Saguaro, okay?"

"Sssh! Don't interrupt!" said the blonde woman, frowning deeply and waving her away.

"Sorry. I'll go now," said the dark-haired one quickly, handing the cup to the blonde woman and hurrying back into the diner.

Pearl shrugged, and carried on mopping the floor. The newcomers were nice enough, she thought, but boy, were they weird. The only normal ones were the boy and the girl, and they hardly ever said a word. Their names, apparently, were Jack and Lisa; right now they were sitting at the far end of the diner, huddled together on the threadbare couch where the locals sat to watch the town's only television set. They were staring at the screen in complete silence - she didn't know what they were watching, but they both seemed utterly engrossed in it.

Well, it's not my place to comment on the customers, she thought. And if they're from Raccoon City, like everyone in town says they are, then they're probably allowed to be a little strange and subdued. Sounds like they've been through a really tough time. I wonder what happened to them?

Jack and Lisa sat and watched the battered old television set in silence, unable to say a word as the words "Live & Exclusive" flickered across the screen. They already knew, or at least suspected, that the headlining item would be about Raccoon City; they only wondered what news today would bring of their former home.

"Good morning, Raccoon County, I'm Pat Callaghan with an exclusive report on the horrific events unfolding in our county," announced the grave-looking newsreader, who was appropriately dressed in sober attire, including a plain black tie. "In response to the massive outbreak of a lethal mystery virus in Raccoon City, the President announced at dawn today that he had authorised the launch of a nuclear missile to destroy the city, in order to contain the outbreak before it spread to neighbouring towns. The missile has since been launched, and we can now confirm that Raccoon City has been destroyed, with an estimated death toll of 100,000."

Lisa gasped.

"Destroyed?" she said faintly. "No - no, that can't be possible! There must be some mistake; they can't just destroy a whole town with a nuclear weapon! They can't do that!"

"They just did, Lise," said Jack, staring absently at the computer graphics onscreen depicting the path of the missile and the destruction of the town. "Raccoon City ain't there no more. They wipe it right off the map."

"But there must have been people still left alive somewhere - people like us, people who survived the zombies," persisted Lisa. "There must have been!"

"I dunt think so, Lise," said Jack, although part of him wondered if Lisa could be right. He thought of huddled groups of weary, bloodstained survivors trudging through the bleak, burning city and searching for a means of escape, then suddenly being vaporised on the spot by a nuclear explosion. It could so easily have been him and Lisa, he thought. If they hadn't escaped in time there could so easily have been another two names listed among the dead.

He thought too of Dr Harlech, who had hidden for days in the Umbrella building and waited for someone to rescue her. How many people had barricaded themselves inside their homes, waiting for a rescue that would never come, only to be engulfed by fire and radiation which wiped them and their homes away in an instant?

"And what about the radiation?" said Lisa, who was almost in tears. "It's going to make people sick right through the county - maybe the whole state, maybe even a whole bunch of states! People who weren't even in Raccoon City are going to get cancer, and radiation sickness - it's not fair! How could they do this to us?"

Jack didn't even know if there was an answer to the question. He said nothing, and Lisa fell silent again, unable to think of anything else to say. Not really knowing what else to do, they kept watching the television, all the while trying to make sense of what had happened.

Their town was gone, just like that; wiped from the face of the earth by a nuclear weapon that had scythed away buildings, trees and everything else that had made up Raccoon City. Even when there were zombies all around them and their home had turned into a veritable hell on earth, right at the back of their minds had been the hope that, one day, they could come back home and things would be normal. Now that hope had gone, disappearing as suddenly and abruptly as Raccoon City itself. Thanks to Umbrella and its evil machinations, they could never go home again.

As footage and photographs of the old Raccoon City appeared on the television screen, Lisa started to cry. Her home, the only home she'd ever known, was gone. Her school, her bedroom, her beautiful house, her mother's prize-winning flowerbeds; all of it had been reduced to a pile of radioactive dust. Her entire past had been erased, just like that, as if it had never existed at all. As if it didn't even matter. All that remained of her life in Raccoon City were memories and a few possessions - the photograph of her parents, her mother and father's diaries, a stained and travel-worn backpack, her favourite bracelet and a few spare clothes. Everything else was gone forever.

Jack was too shocked to even cry as he watched the footage of the victims' families being interviewed in towns across Raccoon County. He thought of his school, his aunt's apartment above the record store, the skate park and all the other places where he'd hung out with the Street Rats, swept away by the nuclear blast, and felt nothing but a terrible emptiness deep inside his heart.

Worse still was the cold realisation that any chance he might have had of a normal life had been obliterated along with the town. After his parents had suddenly vanished from his life at the age of five, and after having spent a decade in Mexico being cared for by a prostitute who just happened to be his aunt, Raccoon City had been his last chance to be normal. Now he had nothing except a handful of belongings and Lisa, who had also seen her life destroyed in an instant.

There would be no normal life for either of them, not any more. No more classes at Raccoon City High School. No more hanging out with the Street Rats. No more ice-cream sundaes at Fiorelli's, or chatting to Mr Ziegler about punk and ska at Raccoon Records. As for future hopes of a normal adolescence, those were gone too. There would be no walks in Raccoon Park, no high school prom, no horror movie marathons at the movie theatre with Lisa, no first dinner date at Grill 13, no late-night kisses stolen on the corner of Lisa's street. There would be nothing but the odd state of existence they'd now found themselves in - stuck forever in a curious sort of limbo as they wondered what would happen to them next, all the while hoping desperately for even the briefest period of stability in their lives.

At least he had Lisa, and she had him too. They had no idea what was going to happen next, but at least it would happen to them together… wouldn't it?

Suddenly seized with terror at the prospect of being separated from the one important person he had left in his life, Jack grabbed Lisa and held her tightly, clutching her to his chest as if afraid that someone would snatch her away. Still crying, Lisa held onto him as tightly as he was holding onto her.

Neither of them noticed the slightly erratic sound of helicopter rotors that was coming from outside the diner and was rapidly increasing in volume.

"… reports of two unmarked helicopters leaving Raccoon City at the time of the blast have yet to be confirmed by officials, but if eyewitness reports are to be believed, the first helicopter is heading for Rose Bay City," continued the newsreader. "The whereabouts of the second helicopter are currently unknown, but the helicopter is believed to have been affected by the aftershock of the blast and may be having trouble remaining airborne - "

As if on cue, the sound of rotors cut out, to be replaced with a whining sound that was getting louder and louder.

"What in the world…?" said Amber, frowning as she looked up from her paperwork and looked out of the window. "What's going on out there?"

xxxxxxxxxx

Dr Harlech was sitting outside on the warm, dusty ground, drinking the coffee that Renée had brought out to her. At least, she thought it had been Renée - everything had been rather blurry.

She wondered vaguely why Renée had called her new friend "Mr Saguaro". Wasn't a saguaro a cactus of some sort?

She shrugged lightly, and turned back to her companion, who had remained absolutely silent throughout her attempts to make conversation. He really was rather rude, she thought irritably, not even having the basic decency to say anything to fill the increasing number of awkward pauses in the conversation. Still, that was some people for you - stubborn and prickly.

Although she couldn't see very much, and was beginning to curse herself for having put down her glasses in the first place, she was nevertheless aware of something approaching her.

"Do you hear that?" she said to her newfound friend. "Sounds a bit like a helicopter. One that's having engine trouble."

There was no response from the cactus.

"Hmph. Please yourself," she said, sipping the last of her coffee. "Anyway, for the third and final time, do you want me to go in and get you some coffee? Perhaps I can get my glasses too. I knew I shouldn't have put them down after I cleaned off the dust this morning…"

A dark shadow descended on the little town, growing larger and blacker.

"Look, I'm asking you a perfectly simple question," said Dr Harlech, frowning. "The least you can do is give me an answer."

The cactus stood completely still, soaking up water and nutrients from the ground without a sound.

"You know, you're very rude," Dr Harlech said crossly. "I'm not sure if I want to talk to you any more. In fact, I might just go inside right now and - "

A shadow fell over both woman and cactus. Dr Harlech glanced upwards to see what was blotting out the sunlight, and dropped her coffee cup in surprise.

xxxxxxxxxx

As the occupants of the diner watched in astonishment, an unmarked helicopter fell right out of the sky and crash-landed right in the middle of Tumbleweed's only street, just outside the diner.

Earl woke up with a snort, and saw the wreckage of the helicopter outside his diner and the shocked faces of his staff and customers.

"What's goin' on 'round here?" he said suspiciously, looking around. "Who left that danged helicopter parked outside my diner?"

"Uh… not us?" said Renée hesitantly.

"Oh, well," said Earl, with an indifferent shrug. "Long as they move it when my wife brings the pick-up truck back from Willowherb, I don't care. That there's her parkin' space."

With that, he closed his eyes and went back to sleep again.

Jack and Lisa looked at each other, amazed. Surely that couldn't be the same helicopter that had been mentioned on the news - or could it?

xxxxxxxxxx

Dr Harlech blinked. Exactly two inches in front of her nose was a large helicopter, unmarked and badly damaged, surrounded by a field of what was probably debris.

Her mysteriously silent friend had inexplicably disappeared.

"What's going on?" she said, suddenly frightened. She had no idea what was happening, or why, and the situation wasn't helped by the fact that everything was a blur without her glasses.

Without warning, a blurry figure emerged from the wreckage of the helicopter and collapsed onto the ground beside her with a long, low groan.

Blurry figure. Helicopter. Debris. Groaning.

She reached a conclusion.

xxxxxxxxxx

"AAAAAAARRGGHH!"

Dr Harlech burst into the diner with a scream, startling the already shaken occupants even more.

"Zombies!" she gasped, clutching Amber's shoulders. "The zombies are coming to get us! They've learned how to fly helicopters and they're hunting us down! There's no stopping them now! We're doomed! Doomed!"

"Clarissa - what?" said Amber, trying without success to disentangle herself from the shaken scientist. "What are you talking about? Zombies can't fly helicopters!"

"That's what they want us to think!" said Dr Harlech shrilly. "But they can, I'm telling you! We're all doomed!"

"Uh, Dr H? You might want to put these on," said Renée, handing her the pair of glasses.

Dr Harlech squinted hard, then put her glasses on clumsily and saw the world suddenly come back into focus. When she looked out of the window, she could see a helicopter outside the diner which had landed on top of a cactus - now Renée's earlier comment made perfect sense, and she went red as she realised that she, a woman of science, had spent a considerable amount of time talking to a large piece of vegetation.

Lying on the ground outside was a man, groaning but clearly alive, if a little dazed. There were no zombies in sight, especially not ones which flew helicopters.

"Oh," she said feebly. "I think that man out there might need some help."

"He's not the only one," muttered Pearl, dipping her mop into the bucket and swabbing the tiled floor with lemon-scented water.

"Well don't just stand there," said Renée, grabbing Dr Harlech by the hand and pulling her out of the door. "You're a doctor, Dr H! Go and help him already!"

Amber rushed out after them, if only to see what on earth was really happening outside. Lisa and Jack, however, opted to stay on the couch; they'd already had enough insanity for one day.

xxxxxxxxxx

The young man lying outside on the ground near the diner opened his eyes. He wasn't sure what had happened to him, or why there were three attractive young women staring curiously down at him, but after the longest few days of his life, he was long past caring.

"Hi…?" ventured one of the women, blonde, bespectacled and possibly in her late twenties or early thirties.

"Are you okay?" added another, a pretty woman in her mid-twenties with bright green eyes and a mass of tight strawberry-blonde curls.

The man groaned and sat up.

"I guess so," he said slowly. "Where am I? Who are you? What happened?"

The third woman, who looked younger than the others and had short, slightly spiky dark hair, gave a sudden shriek of recognition as she saw his face.

"Carlos!" she screamed, hauling him to his feet by the scruff of his neck and then throwing her arms around him, almost knocking him backwards again. "Oh my God, you survived! I can't believe you're alive!"

"Renée…?" he said disbelievingly. "You - you made it out? But how? How did you survive? What about the others? Did they make it too?"

"Christina's dead," said Renée immediately. "Boris is dead too, and so is that guy they called Campbell. I don't know about anyone else. What about Sarge and Mikhail? Did they make it?"

A look of bitter distaste crossed the young man's handsome Latino features.

"Mikhail - I mean Lieutenant Victor - he died tryin' to save us from the Nemesis. As for the sergeant," he spat this last word out as if it was poisonous, "Nicholai tried to kill us all. He got away in the other helicopter and left us to die."

He shook himself.

"Never mind him, what about Jill and that other guy? Did they make it?" he said, looking towards the helicopter.

"The other guy made it," announced a man, crawling out of the glass-strewn cockpit and landing on the floor. "But he's feeling a little beat up right now."

"Barry?" gasped the woman with curly hair, rushing over to the helicopter pilot and picking him up. "Barry, oh my goodness, are you okay? What happened?"

"Amber? Is that you?" said Barry, who looked shocked to see the curly-haired woman. "I didn't think you were alive, kiddo. How did you make it out of that hellhole?"

"I'm kind of unsure about that myself," said Amber. "Barry, what happened to the rest of the STARS members? Are you and Chris the only ones left? I know Rebecca went off somewhere, but I haven't heard from her for months. I'm not even sure if she counts herself as a part of STARS any more. Did Brad make it out?"

"Brad? No," said Barry, looking slightly downcast. "Brad's dead."

"Oh no," said Amber, her face falling. "Poor Brad. I liked him. He was such a nice guy. And with Jill dead and Rebecca still missing, I guess that only leaves you and Chris."

"What?" Barry looked confused. "Amber, Jill isn't dead. She made it out too."

Amber's jaw dropped at this unexpected revelation.

"What?" she gasped. "Jill - she's alive?"

"Yeah," answered a female voice from the depths of the helicopter. "Can someone help me out of here, please?"

Still reeling with the shock of hearing her best friend's voice again, Amber reached into the helicopter and pulled out a slender young woman of about her own age, with short brown hair, blue eyes and an interesting outfit - a black leather miniskirt, an iridescent blue tube-top, a white sweater tied around her waist, and knee-high brown boots. It was indeed Jill Valentine, the same woman that Jack and Lisa had seen in the clock tower and mistaken for a zombie.

Jill and Amber stared at each other for a moment, unable to believe that they were actually looking at each other again, when for some time each had firmly believed the other to be dead. Then, laughing, the two friends hugged each other tightly.

"I can't believe you're alive, Jill!" exclaimed Amber. "I really thought you were dead…"

"Me too, Amber - I'm so glad you made it," said Jill. "It's good to see you again…"

"Is everyone okay?" said the blonde woman, who was starting to look a little left out amongst all this friendly affection.

"Yes, we're fine," said Barry, brushing some dust from his pants. "Thank you, miss. Where are we, by the way?"

"A little place in the middle of the desert called Tumbleweed," answered Dr Harlech. "Population supposedly one hundred and fifty-one, though I highly doubt it, judging by the size of this place."

Barry nodded.

"Me too," he said, looking around. "Oh, well. At least we made it here safely."

"You call that gettin' here safely?" said an indignant Carlos, pointing to the remains of the helicopter.

"Look, don't blame me, buster - it's not my fault that the EMP from the blast damaged the helicopter," said Barry, his brow furrowing. "Under the circumstances, this was the best I could do. I'm sorry it wasn't exactly a smooth ride, but we got here alive and in one piece, and that's what matters."

"I guess you're right," said Carlos, dragging his foot in the dust. "But we're still stuck here."

"Don't worry, Carlos, we'll find a way out of here," said Jill reassuringly. "After escaping from Raccoon City, getting out of Tumbleweed should be a picnic. There aren't any zombies here, are there?" she added, with a glance at Amber.

Amber smiled and shook her head.

"Nope. No zombies. The scariest thing here was the cactus, until you squashed it."

"Oh," said Jill, taken aback. "Did we?"

"Yes, you did," said Dr Harlech sulkily. "I liked that cactus."

"Oops," said Barry, with a slightly guilty look at the helicopter. "Sorry."

"Anyway," said Amber, ushering Jill towards the diner and indicating that the others should follow them. "Let's go inside. We have an awful lot to catch up on…"

xxxxxxxxxx

Lisa and Jack glanced up again as Amber and the others entered the diner. However, they now appeared to have company; there were three other people with them, two male and one female.

The first person was a stocky, bearded man easily in his forties, with brown hair that was receding slightly. He was rather gruff-looking, but he smiled and nodded when he saw them. Jack noticed that there was a STARS insignia on the sleeve of his shirt, and wondered who he was.

The second man was much younger, probably about Renée's age or slightly older. He was Hispanic in appearance, quite attractive by most people's standards, with brown eyes and dark brown hair that was worn slightly too long. He wore the now-familiar UBCS uniform, but without the beret that they'd seen Renée and Christina wearing. He and Renée seemed to know each other well; they were laughing and joking together like old friends.

And then there was the woman. Jack noticed Lisa staring at her in incomprehension.

"Jack," she murmured, so that the woman wouldn't overhear her, "Isn't that the woman we saw in the clock tower?"

"Yeah, that be her," said Jack, after a moment's thought. "I remember her outfit. Kinda impractical for escapin' zombies. How come she be alive? I thought she turn into a zombie."

"Me too," said Lisa, starting to frown. "I don't understand it - she looks just fine now. Still, I'm glad she made it out okay. And Amber looks happy too."

"Well, she would be," said Jack. "Ain't she Amber's best friend or somethin'?"

"I think so," said Lisa.

The woman must have overheard them talking; she turned round and looked straight at them. Lisa blushed and looked away, embarrassed at having been caught gossiping about someone. She hadn't meant to cause offence. However, the woman smiled suddenly.

"Hi," she said. "Have we met before? You two seem to know me from somewhere, but I don't remember you."

"No, we haven't met," said Lisa. "Well, we have," she corrected herself, "because we saw you in the clock tower, but we thought you were a zombie and we ran away. You're Jill, aren't you?"

"Yeah," said the woman, slightly surprised. "How do you know my name?"

"She find your identity card," answered Jack, before Lisa could think of a reply.

"Oh, really? I was wondering where that went," said Jill, retying her sweater around her waist. "I don't suppose you still have it, do you?"

"Amber's got it," said Lisa.

"You're with Amber?" said Jill, and her face brightened at the mention of her friend. "You were in safe hands in Raccoon City, then. I'm glad she managed to save somebody."

Jack and Lisa exchanged slightly uncomfortable looks.

"Uh…" said Jack. "Actually, we rescue her."

"A zombie was attacking her when we first met," supplied Lisa, by means of explanation, as Jill's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "We managed to save her, and we sort of helped each other escape. Same with Renée and Dr H, and Christina too, I guess. We all worked together, really."

"Oh," said Jill, and her eyebrows returned to their normal position. "I see. Who's Christina?"

"She died," said Lisa. "But she wasn't a very nice person. She tried to kill Amber."

Jill's expression darkened.

"Then whoever she was, I'm glad she's dead," she said shortly. "I've lost enough of my friends in the past few months."

"Same here," Jack agreed wholeheartedly. "All my amigos be dead now. Same with Lise, she lose all her uptown friends too, an' Umbrella kill her best friend an' put her in a tank."

"Oh no," said Jill, startled by this. "I'm so sorry… but you're not alone, sweetheart, because Umbrella killed an awful lot of people. They killed most of my friends too. I used to have a lot of friends once, but they're all gone. All apart from four - well, five. I think I made a new one."

"All our friends are dead," said Lisa. "Our families are dead too. The only people we have are each other, and maybe Amber and Renée, and Dr H. They're the only friends we've got now."

"You could be looking at another one," said Jill, smiling. "Anyway, let me introduce myself properly. I'm Officer Jill Valentine, formerly of the STARS Alpha Team. Over there is my old friend Officer Barry Burton, also from the STARS Alpha Team, and the other guy is my new friend from the UBCS, Corporal Carlos Oliveira. Nice guy, if a little bit of a flirt. He saved my life in Raccoon City, and I guess I helped him out a couple of times too."

"I'm Lisa Hartley," said Lisa. "I'm nobody special, really. Just a tenth-grader from Raccoon City High. And this is - "

"Jack Carpenter," interrupted Jack. "Lise an' I go to school together. I ain't anythin' special either, but we look out for each other."

"Hmm. Well, it's nice to meet you, Lisa, Jack. If you don't mind, I'm going to go over and talk to Amber now. There are a few things we'd like to discuss in private."

"Okay," said Jack. "Nice meetin' you, Jill."

Jill smiled again, then she headed over to the booth where Amber, Dr Harlech, Renée, Carlos and Barry were sitting. She watched as the two teenagers returned their attention to the television before sitting down next to Barry, who moved over obligingly to give her some more space.

"I see you met Jack and Lisa," said Amber, from across the table.

"Nice kids," said Jill, with a curt nod. "Who are they?"

"Survivors," said Amber. "Lisa's mother and father worked for Umbrella. They made something called the L-Virus which, according to their journals, was meant to be some sort of immortality serum, but Umbrella incorporated it into their bioweapons programme and transformed into a virus. Her parents died after being infected by the T-Virus. As for Jack, I don't really know so much about him, but from what I've gathered, he used to live with his aunt somewhere in downtown. I think his parents died when he was younger."

"I overheard them saying they weren't anything special," put in Renée. "Don't listen to them. They're the two most remarkable kids I've ever met. If it wasn't for them, we'd all be dead now."

"Renée's right," agreed Dr Harlech. "They saved our lives. Jack's a very brave kid, and as for Lisa, she might look too delicate to hold her own in a fight, but she's smart and she's got real guts. She went through a whole lab complex full of monsters all on her own to save Jack from the L-Virus, and she worked out how to beat Lucifer."

"Lucifer?" said Carlos curiously. "What's that?"

"Long story," sighed Renée. "A really long story."

"Well, start from the beginning," said Jill. "I want to know everything that happened to you, starting with how you all got together in the first place. A mercenary, a cop, an Umbrella scientist and two kids make for quite a team."

"All right," said Amber. "Well, for me, it started when I escaped from the police station. I was running low on ammunition and then I was attacked by a zombie out in the streets. Suddenly out of nowhere comes this car, and it runs the zombie over. I look up and these two kids, Jack and Lisa, are driving - they picked me up and we made our way over to Umbrella headquarters. On our way there, we…"

"They picked up Christina and me," put in Renée. "The car broke down shortly after that, and we got attacked by crows, so we escaped into the sewers, but then we split up…"

Bit by bit, Amber, Renée and Dr Harlech related the story of their escape, interrupting each other with their own versions of events and arguing over different sections of the story. Jill, Barry and Carlos listened intently, paying particular attention to the L-Virus, Lucifer and the Lucifer Project, and to Jack and Lisa's involvement in the whole thing.

"… and we have all the evidence to prove it," finished Amber, pushing forward the books and papers. "We'll have photographs too, once Renée's fixed the camera we found in the labs, and we'll see what Umbrella has to say to that."

"They won't be saying anything for a while," said Barry gruffly. "There won't be a trial over this, you can guaran-damn-tee it. They'll weasel their way out of things just like they always do. We still have a lot of work to do before we can bring those scumbags to justice."

"Yeah," said Carlos. "We were thinkin' 'bout headin' over to Europe to join some guy called Chris Redfield."

"Chris and his sister are meant to be in France right now," agreed Barry. "The last time I heard from them, they said they'd located another top-secret Umbrella facility and they wanted us to help take it out. It's a major site; destroying it could completely shut down the Nemesis Project and all the European offshoots of the bioweapons programme. What do you say, Amber? You wanna join us?"

"Do we get to blow things up?" said Renée eagerly.

"Oh yeah," said Carlos, grinning. "We're gonna blow the whole place sky-high! Just you wait, Renée. You're gonna love it."

"Well you can count me in," said Renée firmly.

"Me too," said Dr Harlech. "The good thing about me is that I can work undercover - Umbrella already employ me, and if we fake a covering letter from the company explaining that they're transferring me to the Parisian facility, or wherever this place is, I can work there and maintain my cover for a few weeks, while passing on information to you until it's time to take out the facility. I'll have insider knowledge and I'll be able to help you."

"Sounds good," said Jill, nodding. "Good plan, Dr Harlech. We could definitely use your services."

"And mine!" said Renée, who was practically bouncing up and down in her seat with excitement. "You can use mine too, right?"

"Definitely," said Carlos. "We always worked well together, and you know all kinds of useful stuff. Yeah, you gotta come with us, Renée."

Renée beamed.

"Anyway, are you in, Amber?" said Jill.

"Absolutely," said Amber. "Though we still need to clear up a few things before we leave. First of all, there's Renée's family. Her sister is extremely ill and currently being treated by Umbrella in return for Renée's service to the company. We need to get Thérèse Lavelle away from Umbrella and have her treated elsewhere in private. The treatment's expensive, but we'll work something out."

"I'll pay for it," offered Dr Harlech. "I said I would. My parents were extremely tight with money, but when they died a few years ago, Linda and I inherited all their assets. Linda got most of it, of course, but the money I got should just about cover the cost of the treatment."

"Okay, so we just need to get her somewhere safe," said Amber.

"We can do that," said Jill right away.

"My wife and daughters are in Canada right now," Barry told Renée. "Before I came back to look for Jill, I sent them to stay with an old friend of mine there so they'd be safe from Umbrella. Renée, I can arrange for your family to stay there too. There's a hospital nearby - a good one - and if your friend Dr Harlech can arrange the financial stuff, your sister can be treated there. She'll be safe."

"Thank you," said Renée gratefully. "That's a big weight off my mind."

"All right," said Amber. "Now, about the evidence against Umbrella. Jill, Barry, do you or Chris have duplicates of the mansion incident files?"

Jill nodded.

"Yes, we've got copies kept in six or seven different places around the country. The originals are still locked away in a safe at a military installation in Colorado. A close personal friend of Chris is looking after them, and he's under strict orders not to release the papers to anyone except Chris, Barry or myself. I've gathered some more evidence to add to the file, so I'll need to make copies before we leave. We'd better do the same for the Lucifer Project files."

"I agree," said Barry.

"Same here," said Dr Harlech.

"Okay, so that just leaves us one problem to deal with," said Amber, leaning in closer to talk to the others. Her eyes darted surreptitiously over to the couch where Jack and Lisa were sitting, and she lowered her voice. "What are we going to do with Lisa and Jack?"

"They can come with us," said Carlos. "They'll be safe with us, right?"

"No, absolutely not," said Barry, glaring at Carlos. "It's far too dangerous for them to come with us. I think I should give my wife a call and ask her if she can look after them. I know Moira and Polly could do with the company."

"No, Barry, that's a bad idea," said Jill gently. "I know they'd be safe in Canada with your family, but Kathy's been under a lot of strain lately. She doesn't need the extra burden of two strange kids to look after, as well as your girls. She needs to rest."

"And what do you mean, too dangerous?" argued Renée. "Back in Raccoon City they saved us all - hell, those kids eat danger for breakfast! Let them come with us and do something useful! I know they'd enjoy helping us get back at Umbrella, especially Lisa, after what happened to her parents!"

"Renée, I'm sure they would appreciate helping to destroy Umbrella," said Amber tactfully. "But this will be a very risky operation. Zombies and mutant bioweapons are one thing, but armed Umbrella guards trained to kill on sight? No, there's no way we can take them with us. I'm not prepared to put them at risk again. If they got shot, I'd never forgive myself."

"Well…" said Renée reluctantly. "I guess that's true. Umbrella marksmen are lethal - a lot of those guards will be ex-Death Squad recruits, so they'll be trained to the same level as Christina, and you saw how good a shot she was."

Amber nodded.

"So what do we do with them? We can't take them with us, but they have nowhere else to go, and it's not fair to foist them off on Barry's family. I feel responsible for their welfare, what with being their friend and all. I just wish I knew what to do…"

Dr Harlech had remained silent throughout this part of the discussion. Deep in thought, she had been quietly nurturing an idea, which seemed to have more and more merit every time she re-evaluated it. Finally, she said:

"Amber, Renée, you remember I told you about my second home in Arklay? Look, I know it isn't exactly an ideal situation, but I have a few old family friends still living in Arklay, and they can help us, I'm sure of it. I say we send them both to live in Arklay, and they can stay in my apartment. They'll be safe there."

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" said Renée doubtfully.

"Positive," said Dr Harlech, her eyes gleaming. "With the Spencer mansion gone, Umbrella doesn't have any ties to the place any more, so they'll be basically ignoring Arklay, particularly after what's just happened to Raccoon City. Jack and Lisa can stay in my apartment, go to the local high school, make friends with the other kids, and my family's friends will keep an eye on them. When we come back, we can sort out something more permanent for them, but in the meantime, they can have a normal life. After all they've done for us, I think we owe them that much, don't we?"

Amber inclined her head in agreement.

"You're right, Clarissa," she said. "I think that's the best thing to do. After all, they're only kids. They've been through enough already, and it's not fair to make them fight Umbrella all over again. Let them be normal teenagers again, if only for a little while."

"Then that's settled," said Jill, satisfied. "Good. Now we can start making arrangements to join Chris and Claire back in France. But first of all, we need to get out of this place and back to civilisation."

"Yeah," said Carlos. "How we gonna get away from here?"

"I have friends," said Barry enigmatically. "Let me give them a phone call and I'll have everything sorted out. They can get us to the nearest town, I can copy these files and send them over to the base in Colorado - in person, I might add - and Jill can get in touch with Chris in the meantime. You, Dr Harlech, can sort out the arrangements for Thérèse Lavelle's medical treatment and her transport from, uh, wherever she is now, to the place in Canada where my wife and kids are staying. Amber, Renée, Carlos, you can help us with all this stuff, and then when we're done, we'll get someone to take the kids up to Arklay. Agreed?"

"Agreed," concurred the others.

"Very well then," said Amber, "We've got a plan. Now, before we do anything else, Jill, I think you and Carlos have a story to tell. How did you manage to get out of Raccoon City alive?"

"Well now, that's an interesting story," said Jill, smiling. "All right, I'll tell you. By the time martial law hit Raccoon City, it was too late for me to just walk out of town, so I started preparing my escape. I left the apartment I was staying in and made my way over to the precinct. When I got there, I ran into Brad and then suddenly this huge monster showed up - it was called the Nemesis, and it looked just like the picture you showed me of Lucifer, Amber - and before I could stop it, it killed Brad. I was absolutely terrified, and I ran into the station, but then it came after me, and…"

The others listened, enthralled by the story of Jill and the Nemesis. The old man at the counter and Earl, now awake, were listening with great interest; even the waitresses stood agog, captivated by the story despite their vaguely nagging sense of guilt about eavesdropping on other people's conversations.

The only two people not listening, in fact, were Jack and Lisa. Worn out by the grief of seeing their home destroyed, the two teenagers had fallen asleep together on the couch, still holding onto each other tightly. Despite their heartbreak, however, Lisa and Jack were sleeping peacefully; soon, they knew, things would be better. They would be moving on to a new town, to find a new home, new friends and a future free from nightmares. Life would be normal again, and with any luck it would stay that way. And in spite of everything else that they had lost during their escape from the city of the dead, they knew that they still had hope. Hope, and of course, each other.

The End

A/N: Well, that's it, folks. After two and a half years, it's finally finished. Regular readers and reviewers need not despair, however – a sequel is already underway! It's called "Resident Evil: Fallout" and although it's still in its early stages, I hope you'll enjoy following the next stage of Jack and Lisa's journey through the nightmarish world of survival horror.

Amber fans will also be pleased to know that I'm currently working on a prequel about her time in the RPD, from the aftermath of the Spencer Mansion incident, the events of the outbreak and the police station siege, right up to her final escape from the precinct. It's called "Resident Evil: Double Amber" and I hope you'll enjoy following the events of that story too.

I'd like to thank all my readers and reviewers, past and present, for their encouragement and support. I'd especially like to thank DarkKnight7 (my first ever reviewer), jkb, Pinguicha, kikoken, Tinkies, Corpasite, Nick Blackford, David Madison, Shortey, Reece1, DemonDoor, Metal Harbinger (formerly EZ-B), noctorro, DesertCross4, Shakahnna and Hello Captain for dropping in (pleasure to be reviewed by you both!).

Lastly, I am very pleased and proud to announce that I got engaged to a fellow author and longtime reviewer (whose username has changed several times!) during the course of writing this fanfiction, and by way of update, we remain happily married to this day. We're very grateful to all of you for supporting this story over the years, because it was this story that brought us together, and that means a great deal to both of us.

Thank you for reading "Resident Evil: Project Lucifer", and I hope to see you on the review pages of the aforementioned sequel and prequel. Until then, I wish all my fellow writers the best of luck with their own stories. Keep writing, and keep reading, everybody!

Sincerely yours,

HHOD