Andrew Branch, a nurse at the New Hope Private Hospital, went about his rounds. At the moment he was cleaning the level three quarantine research lab, waiting for the lights to go out.

This gig paid alright. Not nearly enough, though. He had a ton of student loans to deal with, and he wasn't able to live as comfortably as he'd like with all those monthly payments. It came from switching his major three times. First neurobiology, then he'd tried straight biology, then he'd gone into medicine. That had panned out, he'd done pretty damn good, and having connections never hurt, but he'd really been waiting for a lucky break. With luck, that break would be coming along in…

He checked his watch. Seventy-three seconds.

As his heart sped up, he started whistling a tune to mask his growing excitement, but stopped quickly as his lips were too dry to carry it. This was gonna be wild. A really wild ride. Hopefully nothing would go wrong.

There were a couple other people in the room, but he could deal with that. He'd set it all up. Frayed some wiring on the scanner in the next room, linked up a little battery to it. The remote was in his pocket. And as soon as the lights went out, he'd have his distraction.

His boss and her main assistant were discussing the Graham girls' cases, and how lucky they were to have survived, how great it was that they were okay, that the family was back together again, yadda, yadda, yadda. He'd never been much of a family guy himself. Didn't have the bug for it.

With fifteen seconds to go, a jolt of alarm went through his mind. He'd almost forgotten – the doors were all about to power down, as they were automatic down here. He needed the one to the scanner lab to be open before then.

He set his cleaning supplies down. Just as well, he shouldn't be doing drudge work like this anyways, and hopefully he wouldn't be for much longer. Bigger and better things, baby. He went over to the door. As he pressed the button to open it, Doctor Ryce said,

"Need something from the scanner room, Branch?"

Her tone was level, not accusatory at all, but it set him breaking out in a sweat anyways, and he grasped for an explanation. "Uh, no, I just thought I—"

Thank goodness, the lights went out, giving him a viable excuse to stop talking.

The room went silent as the red emergency lights went on along the flooring and upper walls, and Andy took his chance. He stepped back from the door, reaching covertly into his pocket and saying, "Woah, blackout? That's pretty uncommon. How long do you think it'll last?"

"Not long," Ryce said shortly but confidently. She was right, of course, but she didn't know that. Before she could elaborate, though, she was distracted by the sound of a very small electrical explosion in the scanner room.

Andy let her and her assistant run through, satisfied that they'd be distracted for the thirty-or-so seconds he'd need to accomplish his task. His lucky break.

This really wasn't a bad gig. He'd hardly been employed two years, and he was already working in one of the government's top secret research labs. This branch was dedicated to largely unknown B.O.W. samples and specimens, two of which were in the lab right here. He only needed one, though, and his boss-to-be had been very specific about which one.

The sample from Miss Aurelleah Graham is what I require. The others are worthless to me. Bring me the Sample, and I'll make you a very successful man, Mr. Branch.

He put the battery detonator back into his pocket and swapped it for the biosample containment capsule. It was only a temporary stasis tube, too small to manage long-term storage, but small and short-term were all he needed. He went over to the glass cylinder containing the Sample and unscrewed the top, reaching in with the long pair of forceps he'd covertly set aside for just this purpose earlier.

He tried to grab the Sample, but his hands were shaking, and it was difficult to maneuver it out without scraping it against the sides. He couldn't risk making a sound, nor leaving an obvious sign that he'd moved the thing, but he couldn't keep himself still. If he was caught with this shit, he'd be facing a life-sentence. Maybe an end-of-life sentence if the wrong people caught him. He knew one of those wrong people was on the clock today.

He heard Ryce and her assistant monkeying around with the scanner wiring he'd frayed and sent an electrical surge through. Just as he got the Sample out of the tube – a single leg segment of the Plaga corpse that had been removed from the president's youngest – he heard Ryce call, "Branch, do you have a flashlight with you? There's one in the supply closet in there, right? Bring that in here."

He began sweating more heavily as he sliced a tiny piece of meat from the dead parasite before him. "Yeah, sure thing, one sec."

His voice came out high and shaky, he was certain of it. And wouldn't they notice that his voice was coming from the side of the lab with the Sample in it? Wouldn't that make them suspicious?

He put the sliver of flesh into the mini containment tube, a pod made of some synthetic materials that mostly weren't metal, about the size of a very large pill. It came online when he opened it, and the stasis equipment, which would only last for about four hours, activated when it closed on the little piece of meat.

He grabbed the full Sample roughly, multitasking and using one hand to wipe up the smear it left on the tray with a wet wipe from his pocket, and as he tossed this and went to return the Sample he reminded himself that it could not show any clear signs of damage. As he was positioning it back over its platter in the tube, he loosened his grip a bit.

His heart jumped into his throat as the Sample fell. It was heavy, meaty, chitinous, would make a sound when it hit, and if it smeared against the edge then Ryce would immediately know it had been tampered with, and if it landed upside down or facing the wrong way she'd know, too, and—

It landed in almost exactly the right position. As it hit the tray with a sound that was partly a thud and partly a clack, the speakers overhead started up, drowning out the small but incriminating noise and saving him from the repercussions of it.

"Attention all New Hope personnel and patients: Our apologies for the blackout. The cause has been located, and the power should be coming back online within a few minutes. There is no emergency. Please remain calm."

Andy wanted to laugh. No emergency. No emergency! Ha! Hahaha!

He screwed the lid back on. Ryce called, "Branch, that flashlight?"

Now for the unpleasant part. He took the pill-like stasis tube, eyed it unpleasantly for a moment, then tossed it down the hatch.

His throat had to really work at it, dry as it was, but he got it down quickly enough to reply – from the side of the room containing the storage closet, which he'd opened before the announcement could even finish – "Sorry, it's hard to see in here. Oh, found it!"

He had indeed found it, and he pulled it out and took it into the scanner room just as the lights came back online.

Ryce and her assistant were standing around the wiring he'd sabotaged. They looked over at him as he came over, Ryce waved the flashlight away, and she said, "Weird. Looks like it was damaged by pliers or something."

"Intentional?" her assistant asked, obviously disconcerted.

Ryce considered, and Andy tensed mentally…but then she shrugged. "Hard to say. This cord has been damaged a couple of times. Could be that someone was just trying to fix it and didn't notice they'd made it worse. Might have been the blackout that triggered some kind of power surge. Branch, are you alright? Your face is red."

Of course my face is red you stupid bitch, I'm committing a fucking federal crime—!

"Uh," he said, tugging at his collar to loosen it a bit. "Mighta just gotten a little worked up over the blackout. You know some crazy stuff can happen in this field. Heh."

Ryce and her assistant continued to stare at him for a moment…then the doctor smiled, laughing lightly. "Tell me about it. I once nearly had a panic attack when I was daydreaming about one of those things Redfield had told me about, and the microwave went off in the break room. The new one, with the awful beep? Slopped cold coffee all over myself. Whaley just about laughed her ass off."

They all laughed at this, and even Andy's was genuine enough. Stupid bitch. She didn't even know.

They all finished checking out the wiring, and when Ryce and her assistant went into the other room to check that everything was okay and to phone for an electrical engineer, he brought a piece of paper and a sharpie in, left a big note warning everyone that the scanner wiring was badly frayed, and quietly removed the surge battery he'd hidden at the outlet earlier, tossing it carelessly in the trash when he was done. Easy-peasy.

He finished his cleaning and said he was going to take his lunch early today, if that was alright. Ryce said it was, and told him to enjoy it, and that she'd see him later to go over the photospectrometry results from the Plaga, which were sure to be exciting, blah-blah-blah. Bitch.

He started upstairs, which got his slowing heartrate going again. He'd need to go through a big scanner and decontaminator before gaining access to the elevator, but if the boss-man was right – he really hoped the boss-man was right – that little capsule in his stomach was nearly undetectable. And he'd been taking some special pills for the last four days to build up a special stomach lining that would make it even harder for the scanners to see what was in there. He was set.

He stepped into the pre-exit chamber, trying to look super-calm as the machinery started up. He closed his eyes as the decontamination started, and kept them closed when the scanning equipment came to life. It went over him once…twice…

And stopped. Ha. He hadn't even triggered a third pass, which happened whenever it noticed anything at all odd, which was about one in every five times. Bracers regularly set the third scan off. Dumb machine.

He stepped out, trying to keep a grin off his face, and pushed the button for the elevator. From here he didn't even need to have a body search done on him. He was home free.

He punch the button for the ground level, three stories up, and the elevator closed and slid into motion. He leaned against the wall, sighing in relief.

It stopped after one floor to admit another passenger. The door opened up, and Andy opened his eyes to see his worst nightmare stepping on.

As Chris Redfield, the scariest guy in the B.S.A.A., took up a spot opposite him in the elevator, his mind started jabbering at him. Oh, God. Oh, God, he saw me. The security cameras didn't short out, or maybe there was a hidden sensor on the tube, or maybe they've been tracking me ever since I stole that enzyme sample from the upper lab, and now he's gonna – he's gonna—

Agent Redfield looked up at him from the papers he was studying, frowned, and said, "You alright?"

Andy's mind went in about a hundred directions at once trying to come up with something to say, and he ended up blurting out, "You're Chris Redfield!"

The hulking man, who was dressed in combat apparel that didn't look like it had seen use – maybe it was new – rolled his eyes. "Yup, that's me."

Andy went along with the admiring line of conversation. It only needed to last another two floors, and the elevator doors were already closing. "Wow. It's, uh, cool to meet you. I mean, you're kind of a hero, right?"

Redfield winced. "I wouldn't say that. I've just seen some ugly shit and happened to survive it."

Andy fell silent, grasping for something else to say, but as the elevator reached his story he figured he didn't really need anything else.

Then he realized that Redfield hadn't hit a button, and this was because they were getting off on the same floor. They stepped off together and started down the hall to the exit. Fuck! Fuck, will you leave me along you big fucking jagoff?

"Well, I mean, still, you've saved a bunch of people. And you kill B.O.W.s and stuff. So, uh, kind of a hero. I mean, you know, to bookworms like us, anyways. After all," he laughed nervously. "If anything were to happen here, any kind of breakout, you'd kinda be the guy everyone turned to, right?"

You're talking too much, shut UP!

They were still heading in the same direction, towards the main entrance. "Afraid not," Redfield replied brusquely. "I'm out of here. Got some reports to bring back to HQ, and anyways, it's obvious that those Plaga specimens aren't gonna be a problem, so you'll have to rely on your good old vanilla security."

Oh, thank GOD.

"Thankfully," Redfield went on as they stepped outside at last, "They know what they're doing. Any security for labs that deal with stuff like this knows how to handle at least a basic outbreak. You're in good hands. Anywho, I've gotta run. See you around…"

He looked at him questioningly. "Branch," Andy supplied.

"See you around, Branch."

The man split off, heading to the VIP ground-level parking, and as Andy watched him leave, he thought with wild elation,

Chris Redfield. I just duped Chris Redfield! I JUST SMUGGLED A FUCKIN' BIOWEAPON PAST CHRIS FUCKIN' REDFIELD! HAHAHAHAHA!

He felt high. He felt fine. He felt like he was on top of the world as he made his way through the shitty parking garage and pushed the beeper on the key to his Tesla, following the chirp to where he'd stashed the shiny blue vehicle. He slipped in, slumped in the seat, and took a few minutes to calm down. He was jumped up on nerves right now, and he did NOT need to be driving high. Not with his precious cargo.

When he was calm, he pulled out his phone and sent a quick text to his new employer. With the little prize in his stomach, he was officially a researcher for Umbrella. Or whatever the leftovers of Umbrella was called. He didn't really know or care. All he cared about was the salary, which was quadruple what he'd been getting paid at this dump. And the payment he'd be getting for the capsule in his gut, which would more than finish off his student loans. The text read,

Got it!

He received a reply promptly.

Delightful. Meet at the rendezvous point in thirty minutes.

He started the car immediately. The rendezvous point was thirty minutes away in average lunch hour traffic. He'd need to move, and hope he didn't hit any roadblocks.

He carried himself carefully out of the garage – he didn't need to get pulled over for any tickets now – and took care to go five or less over the speed limit as he made his way to his first face-to-face meeting with his new employer. Every red light he hit made him want to scream, but none of them delayed him too long. And he'd gone on an early lunch, so traffic wasn't bad. He got there with six minutes to spare.

He'd pulled off the main road onto a wooded backroad, and now into a small parking lot that belonged to a park that used to be popular but was now defunct and overgrown. Not that kids didn't still ride up here on their bikes to play sometimes. Mostly it was deserted, though. Rusted red and yellow slides stood to the left of the area, while dark blue, chipped-paint swings took up the right, the protective rubber covers on the chains mostly eaten away by years of abuse. Those things would probably scream with rust if someone tried using them, so he was double glad no kids were here. Frayed weeds and the beginnings of several pine trees stuck up through the grey bark chips. Nothing cast a shadow in the overcast day.

He spotted the point where they were to meet, a tall-ish bridge spanning a now-dry creek – the water for it had been redirected to the city years ago – and as he didn't see his boss waiting over there, he pulled out his pocket hairbrush and gave himself a quick comb. Then he took a swig of the Rockstar he'd had stashed between the seats, which he'd been sipping all the way here. Then he pulled out a dusty old water bottle, poured some water on a paper towel from the glove box, and mopped his brow. He'd probably caked a ton of sweat up there. Then he tossed a piece of gum in his mouth, quickly chewed it to get rid of any bad breath he might have had from breakfast, and spat it into the paper tower. Minty fresh. He wanted to make a good impression on this guy.

With three minutes to spare, he got out, locked the car behind him, and headed over to the creek. He carefully slid down the dry, rocky slope, which was covered in a mat of oak leaves, and went under the bridge, which was only about a foot and a half taller than he was. He sure hoped there weren't any spiders under here. He fucking hated spiders.

He kept looking back and forth, waiting for the man to arrive, but two minutes and fifty seconds later, there was no sign of him. Shouldn't he have been here by now? Hell, shouldn't he have been early? Oh, God, what if this was a setup? What if—

"Mr. Branch, I presume."

Andy whipped around, heart hammering, and saw a tall-as-sin man standing just in the shadow of the bridge, a few feet away. Where the fuck had he come from, and how had he gotten down there without rustling any of the damn leaves?

Ugh. Nevermind. Andy smiled broadly and held out a hand for a shake. "Yes, sir. Andrew Branch, at your service."

The man did not offer his hand in return, merely kept his own tucked behind his back in a polite, nearly military pose. He was, as Andy had noted, tall as sin, closer to seven feet than six, and dressed all in black. His golden hair was slicked back to perfection, not a strand out of place, and his posture was superb. And he was wearing black sunglasses, even though they were in the shade and it was overcast and had been all week.

You know who wears sunglasses indoors, at night, or on cloudy days? Douchebags. That's who. My new boss is a douchebag.

He shoved this thought aside. It was just a spike of anger from the jumpscare. He forced this out of the way as he casually withdrew his hand, trying not to look or feel snubbed, and as he did, he couldn't help but notice one other article the man was wearing. A handgun, not the least bit concealed, on his right hip.

As he eyed this, the man, whose expression had been stern up until then, broke out in an easy smile. "Oh, don't worry about the gun. I won't be using it, scout's honor. I just like to have it handy. Now, then, you have the Sample we discussed?"

Andy relaxed. This guy seemed alright. Nice accent, anyways, and he was smiling, after all. "Yes, sir," he said, patting his stomach. "Everything went perfect, just like you said. The blackout and everything. Oh, and you'll never get this – I ran into Chris f—" he cut out the swear, which wanted to rise naturally to his lips when he thought about the big, muscular galoot he'd duped— "Redfield on the way out."

His boss looked extremely interested in this development. "Oh? And did anything come of that?"

Andy grinned. "Nah. Dumbass didn't suspect a thing. Funny, right? Guy's all high and mighty about stopping this kinda thing, didn't even bat an eye when I was smuggling this puppy out right next to him."

"Hysterical. And you swallowed the capsule, yes? Just to be clear?"

"Yup," Andy said. "So, uh, where to now? I mean, will I be starting with you guys rightaway, or is there going to be some kind of delay? And how do you want to get this capsule out? I guess it'll be a bit of a wait before it comes out naturally."

"Hm. I don't really have time for that. I thought I'd just go ahead and get it directly. My thanks for arriving so promptly, Mr. Branch."

"Yeah, no problem," Andy said, frowning as he mulled over what 'getting it directly' meant. The man had pulled a hand out from behind his back, plucking the black leather glove off fingertip by fingertip and rolling up the long sleeve to his shoulder. "So, what exactly do you—ungh."

Andy doubled over, stunned, as a piercing pain tore through his stomach. He found himself grasping his new boss's shoulders, and wondered how he'd gotten so close.

He looked down and saw something that didn't make any sense. It was an arm, but it was sticking out of his gut just past the wrist. That would mean the hand was imbedded in – in his—

He shuddered and coughed, tasting blood in his mouth. There was something moving inside him. Fingers, it felt like. Fingers, probing around, poking through whatever was in there, looking for—

"Ah, ha!" the man exclaimed, satisfied, and the pain tripled as the hand was abruptly yanked out. Andy fell to his knees, clutching his stomach. He could feel the blood leaking out from between his fingers, and he looked up to see his new boss, arm red halfway to the elbow, holding a tiny white capsule. The casing was hydrophobic, so the blood hadn't stuck to it.

Oh my God, is this really happening? Andy thought as he looked back down at his stomach. The red was pouring through in the shadows under the bridge, dribbling down to soak his pants, which were khaki going on crimson.

"I…don't…understand," Andy gasped, groaning in pain and toppling backwards.

"You do not need to," the man said. His fist wrapped around the little white pill that contained the sample of the Plaga. "All you need to do is die. Of course, I did assure you that I wouldn't be using my gun. And, as I am a man of my word, I'm afraid I'll just have to leave you to it. Good day, Mr. Branch. A pleasure doing business with you."

He turned to go, and promptly vanished in a black blur. A steak of darkness rushed up the bank to the right, just out from under the bridge, and a few leaves came fluttering down in its wake, leaving Andy to bleed out.

He thought about this. If he called for help, he'd be found out, no doubt. But life in prison was still life, so he pulled out his phone.

He almost dialed 911, then realized that it would take longer for an ambulance to get here than it would if he dialed New Hope directly. Actually, given that he was starting to feel lightheaded, he'd probably be better off calling someone he personally knew at the hospital. He hit Dr. Ryce's number, which he had on speed dial, and hoped she picked up quickly.

He held the phone to his ear and listened as it rang once, then twice, then,

"Andy, what's up?"

"Help," he croaked.

Sharp alarm. "What? Andy, are you alright?"

"No, hurt bad, please—"

It happened so fast he didn't even process it. One second his hand was next to his ear, the phone in it, the next all he saw was a black boot. And his hand was now firmly embedded, with the remains of his phone, in the cold ground.

He tried to scream, but he couldn't manage it. He looked up and saw the man staring down at him disapprovingly, head nearly scraping the underside of the bridge. "Now, now, no tattling, Mr. Branch."

He said the first thing that came to his hazy mind through the shock. "It's overcast…douchebag. Why are you…wearing sunglasses?"

The man quirked an eyebrow and said, "Well, if it so offends your sensibilities…"

He took them off, and a small, breathy scream finally escaped Andy's lungs. Snake eyes, cat eyes, fucking demon eyes, bright orange and dancing with cold mirth, sat in the sockets of the otherwise human face. They watched him for a moment, then the man's own phone chirped at him. He pulled it out, looked at the screen, and said, "I must be off. Have a nice…few minutes…Mr. Branch."

And once again he was gone in a black blur, leaving the loan-riddled nurse behind to die. As predicted, it didn't take long, and it wasn't until hours after he'd gone cold that the kids who had come up there to enjoy the overgrown, mostly-deserted park for a while before night fell stumbled across his body and rode home, screaming, to tell their parents.


Albert Wesker drove north. He'd transferred the Sample from the capsule to a more reliable stasis container, and could now proceed with his research. He was thoroughly interested in what this little parasite could do, and with a Dominant strain Sample, he'd be able to recreate and study as many as he liked.

Ada's betrayal had annoyed him, but it had not really surprised him, nor set him back in any meaningful capacity. He'd suspected foul play the moment she'd reported failing to kill Leon Scott Kennedy, and all the video footage he'd gathered of her sparing him, bantering with him, and even saving his life had confirmed it. Still, he'd believed he'd be able to make some use of her before terminating their relationship. Then she'd scampered off with the Dominant strain Plaga mere hours after touching ground, leaving him with only the recessives. Such a tiresome woman.

At this point he'd contacted a partner in D.C., who had put in him contact with young Mr. Branch, and the rest was history. A somewhat messy history, which he'd washed off his arm in the first drinking fountain he'd come across, not bothering to scrub the traces of red away from the scene. Let Chris make what he would of that.

He wondered, would his old friend come to suspect who was involved in this mess? Would he be called in at all? Surely he would. A young man being so brutally killed, and not an hour after leaving a highly confidential lab containing a brand-new bioweapons sample? Yes, Chris would likely be on the scene shortly. But by the time he was, his nemesis would be many miles away.

It really was a frightful stroke of luck that he had this sample at all. What in the world were the odds that his enemies would be so incompetent as to accidentally allow a pawn of their plans to be infected with such a powerful and dangerous specimen? And no doubt Ada had destroyed all the other samples of it on the island. Salazar, Saddler, and Mendez will all have been annihilated in the blasts. He might have had to send a fleet of submarines down in an attempt to comb the ocean floor for Krauser's corpse…but for Aurelleah.

He chuckled lightly to himself as he continued along the interstate, cozy in his deluxe ride. Such an oddity that girl had been, but a charming oddity. With the Plaga's removal, she was no longer of professional interest to him, of course; but had she kept it, he would simply had to have added her to his ever growing collection of subjects. What fun she would have been.

But no. She'd have preferred death. Death over power. How utterly strange.

This still perplexed him to some degree, and perhaps it always would, but such creatures as that were beyond his ability to sympathize with. He would content himself with understanding their motivations from a rational perspective. It would suffice, so long as he was able to adequately predict their moves. Chris's, for instance, were never difficult to foresee. The man read like an open book.

Wesker reached out and flicked the music player on to a mellow symphonic tune. He had his Sample. He was well funded. His partnership with Tricell was coming along nicely, and no one was the wiser to those plans of his in the making, except possibly for Ada, about whom he could presently do nothing. All, for the most part, was well.

And yet, there was still something. Always something. That trepidation. The possibility that there was yet a greater scheme at work that he knew nothing of.

His fingers tightened slightly on the steering wheel, then loosened. Nevermind. It was true that he did not know the ultimate original goal of the Umbrella corporation, but did he really need to? He had everything he needed to forge his own future. And what a future it would be. He was certain that the new world he envisioned would be secured for him within the decade. After that, nothing else would matter but building it up, shaping it, perfecting it.

Uroboros.

He turned the music up a single notch, then lowered the car visor as the sun came out from behind a silvery cloud. He pulled a bottle of chilled spring water out from a small cooler set between the seats, twisted off the lid, took a sip, and mused.

Uroboros. This particular vision was still in its early stages, not yet within his grasp, but it would only be a matter of time until it was. And once it had been achieved, nothing else would matter. But in the meantime, what other forces were out there, acting on the world? What motivations existed that could parallel, or even oppose his own?

Spencer, what were your plans?

He shook his head, just slightly. It didn't matter. Oswell E. Spencer was long-gone, anyways, well removed from Umbrella's daily operations. In all likelihood the old goat had holed up with his millions to waste away in the lap of luxury in some secluded paradise while the world fell apart around him, courtesy of his own creations. A weak, greedy fool like the rest of them.

The man would have no bearing on his plans. None. He did not matter.

Assuaged for the moment – as he had been for many moments before, though he didn't care to think on that – Albert Wesker sank back into his mood of contentment. He would return to his new Tricell lab, start work on the Plaga, and see what he could make of it. He had several designs already in mind, and was eager to get cracking on them. The future was his, and his alone. He need only claim it.

Utopia. Perfection. A new balance.

Uroboros.

On he drove.


Leon walked down a dark street in D.C., happy for the reprieve he'd gotten from the White House event. Big, flashy thing with a metric ton of amazing security, rendering him pretty much unnecessary. He'd shown up, smiled and nodded for some of the foreign dignitaries who had specifically been interested in meeting him, but had taken off before the dinner could start. Upon mentioning to Graham that he wanted to meet up with a friend before they headed back to the estate tomorrow, the man had very kindly insisted he take the rest of the night off, catch dinner with his buddy. Some people would think he was crazy for taking bar food over the kinds of delicacies they served at a White House event, but the superior company more than made up for it. No White House chef could hold a candle to Elleah's cooking, anyways. Those deviled eggs, man.

He paused outside a well-lit store to get his bearings, pulling out his phone and checking the directions. He'd been there several times before, but he'd had to park about a mile away because of some big protest going on nearby, so he was a little lost on foot. Not that he minded. He enjoyed the walking, and he wasn't the type of man who was worried about going it alone in the city at night, even dark as it was. That didn't mean he wasn't on his toes, though.

He checked and saw that he'd taken a wrong turn on the last street, but he could make up for it by taking the back road up ahead. He thumbed his concealed carry, making sure it was easy to draw if he ran into any trouble, and took off down the crummy street.

He made it about five steps before some seedy figure stepped out of the shadows of an alleyway. He checked behind him to make sure he wasn't being surrounded – he wasn't – then nodded politely to the man, hand nonchalantly resting on the grip of his Red under his jacket. "Evening."

"Welcome!" the man said in a voice that was both exuberant in tone and subdued in volume. Leon would wager that voice wouldn't carry ten feet, though it was just as upbeat as a vendor at one of those bright, cheerful street fairs Ashley always loved going to. Were it not for the extremely coarse Australian accent, overall appearance, and seedy setting, Leon would nearly be tempted to put his guard down. "Got a selection of good things on sale, stranger."

This guy was five kinds of weird. Long, bulging black trench coat, huge backpack, and a deep purple patterned bandana covering his face from the nose down. Fingerless brown gloves. Heavy boots. He gave Leon the impression of a foreign arms dealer rather than a drug peddler.

He was sure he was about to get offered the best smack on the street, but he wasn't in the mood to go on the clock for something like this, so he flipped his badge and said, "Anything legal to sell to a Federal Agent?"

He fully expected the man to quail, scowl, look contrite, turn and stalk off, apologize for bothering him, or any number of other things, but instead the man just grinned widely behind his mask. "Absolutely, stranger! I hope you didn't take me for one of these misfits who illicitly peddle death to any fool who walks past? Not at all. Aside from any number of lovely trinkets I've accrued during my travels – I've been far and wide, stranger – all of my death is peddled completely legally! Take a look at this beaut."

He whipped open his trench coat, and Leon shook his head in disbelief at the dozen or so guns he saw dangling from the inside. How he was able to stand up straight if the other side of his coat looked anything like that, Leon wasn't sure. But his attention was diverted by the handgun that was very daintily selected from the menagerie of munitions.

"She's called the Blacktail, and she handles like a dream. Got 'er papers with me, too. Care to step inside my humble shop, give her a better look?"

Only when the man stepped back and gestured towards the door did Leon realize that he hadn't stepped out of an alley, but out of a heavily recessed doorway. The sign hanging above the door simply read The Merchant.

Leon checked his phone. He still had twenty minutes, and the bar was only ten away. And it was a nice-looking gun. "I guess I could spare a second," he relented.

The Merchant – assuming he wasn't talking to The Merchant's assistant, or advertiser, or something – stepped inside first. Leon followed, looked around, and his eyebrows quickly came to resemble the Gateway Arch. The half of the room that wasn't completely filled with every kind of weapon he could imagine, was filled with – there was no other word for it – treasure. Shining chains of gold studded with jewels, shimmering idols that looked like they could have come out of an Indiana Jones movie, and articles of finery that would probably even make Elleah, who was not fashion-conscious at all, lift her head. Trinkets and trivialities adorned many of the shelves, everything from a gold-and-ivory chessboard to a glass case lined with a collection of jeweled African beetles.

He frowned at one article sitting just above head height on the wall behind the cash stand. "Uh, is that a machine gun?"

"The Chicago Typewriter! A lovely weapon, an absolute masterpiece. Fitted for powerful .45 rounds, and the magazine holds more than it looks. Or it would…if it weren't just a replica," the Merchant finished, grinning a grin that was too playful to be really sleazy.

Leon just shook his head and reached out for the Blacktail, which had been set on the counter for him to examine. He looked it over, and found himself liking the feel of it instantly. "How about the magazine size on this one?"

"Holds 30 rounds, per state regulations, though I have 35 round mags for out-of-staters. You from out of state, stranger?"

"As it happens, I am. How's the trigger?" Leon preferred a lighter trigger. Made quick, consecutive shots easier, and he liked to be able to shoot in a pinch even with a broken trigger finger. It had happened before.

"Very light. But don't take my word for it. Why don't you try her out in the shooting gallery? A full one, on the house." He handed over two magazines.

Leon took them and whistled. "Nice of you. Where…?"

He trailed off as he saw the door in the back with the target painted over it. Probably that one. He walked over and poked his head in to see a legit, one-man shooting gallery. Clearly this was a guy who liked to make sure his customers were satisfied with their purchases before the money traded hands.

"This all up to regulation?"

"Of course! Have the papers for it if you want to see them, Mr…?"

He didn't really have the time. "Kennedy. Leon Kennedy. And I'll take your word for it," he said, and stepped inside, readying the Blacktail. He grabbed the ear protection that was sitting on a small table just inside the door and equipped it, checked the first mag – half full, and the one in his pocket was as well – made sure everything else looked fine, loaded up and switched off the safety. As he did, a target came up on the far wall. It was a small one, definitely not a beginner's target, and Leon snorted. This guy knew a trained gunman at a glance.

He took aim and fired, and instantly decided he was buying this gun. She fired smoothly, she was smaller and lighter than his make, and the look of her was just fine. He could tell she didn't pack quite the same punch as the Red, and he wouldn't be able to get the same accuracy due to the lighter weight and the shorter barrel, but she was still a damn fine gun.

When the next target popped up he took six quick shots at it, hitting his targets every time within half an inch. Great aiming, easy to fire fast…but how did she reload?

The other half-magazine was in his pocket, ready to go. He appreciated the two halves rather than a whole. The Merchant wanted to make sure his customer would be able to get a feel for the reload speed as well as the firing rate. Leon set a mental timer, fired three more rounds, then dropped the mag and reached for the new one. He slid it in, cocked the gun, and was ready to fire in just under a second.

He fired a few more shots and lowered the gun. He wouldn't take up all of this guy's ammo, even if it was on the house.

When he went back into the main room, the Merchant was standing behind the desk, peering at a big, bulky computer, and when he walked over the man grinned up at him. "Ha! You weren't kidding when you said Fed, stranger. So? How's that Blacktail suiting you?"

"Suits me just fine," he said. "Price?"

"Four-sixty." Leon rolled it around in his head. It wasn't bad, not for a really nice gun like this, and he wasn't strapped for cash.

He nodded. "Alright. Sounds good."

"Just jot ya address down right here, stranger. I'll send it over once the checks have cleared."

"I've got my certification, and I'd be happy to pay with my card to take her home right now."

Leon pulled out his certification – normally a background check for buying a firearm was three weeks, but he'd had his extensive one done recently – as well as the monetary sort of check when the Merchant waved off the card and pulled out a box to wrap up the Blacktail in. Leon wrote out the specified amount, and a little more, and passed it over with the papers.

The Merchant checked the check, raised an eyebrow, and Leon said, "Tax and state fees included. Plus a tip for the great service. Say, got any slingshots?"

The eyebrow quirked up a little more, and to Leon's surprise, the guy instantly turned around and pulled on a long, flat drawer off to the right near the bottom of the wall. Going by the squeal of old, dusty wood on old, dusty wood, he'd bet that drawer hadn't been opened in a while. A moment later, a selection of five slingshots lay on the table before him. The bands were all wrapped in what looked like oiled silk to keep them fresh.

He spotted something that he literally hadn't been able to find anywhere. "Shit. That's a Zinger."

The Merchant looked up from his papers, a pleased expression poking out from behind the bandana. "You know your stuff, stranger. That's a rare one, that is, and one of the best you can buy. Went out of production a nearly a decade back after the production plant went sky-high. Freak smelting accident. Killed the owner and designer. Sad, sad story. I'll ask sixty for 'im."

"Done," Leon said. "I know how lethal those things can be. I'm only a beginner with mine, but I happen to know a girl who blinded a B.O.W. with one exactly like this. Killed a few, too."

The Merchant's eyes popped, and he laughed, loud and rough. "You're pulling my leg, stranger."

"Nope. Take a look at the trophy she brought home."

He pulled out his phone and showed him a picture of the Novistador arm that was mounted on the Graham family wall. The Merchant looked at this, narrowed his eyes, and looked over at his computer screen again. He grabbed the mouse and clicked a few times, and Leon leaned forward just far enough to catch a glimpse of the instant background check the man had been running on him. No doubt it was showing him some interesting stuff.

He shook his head as Leon slid him the money, then pulled out two boxes and took the Zinger out of the case. He wrapped it up and put it in the box, did the same for the Blacktail, slid them over to him, and said, "Is that all, stranger?"

"It'll have to be. I'm running late. Don't suppose you have a bag?"

The Merchant pulled out a plastic bag and loaded the stuff up. He also scratched his chin under his mask, then reached into his coat and pulled out a small brown bag. He reached under the counter and came up with a fistful of ball bearings, which he loaded generously into the pouch. He also pulled out a small plastic bottle and tossed that in. "I'm sure you'll be able to handle the Blacktail's ammo yourself – I recommend Red Hawk for her – but here are some bearings for the Zinger, on the house. And that bottle, too. That there is the best kind of oil for the bands. Keep 'em clean and oiled, stranger."

Leon grabbed the bag and mimed tipping his hat to the man. "Much obliged. Got a business card?"

The Merchant slid one over to him. It was nothing but a phone number and a generic-looking email address, with no decoration besides a blue medallion-like circle off to the right. Leon pulled out a pen, wrote down THE MERCHANT. GOOD GUNS, GOOD SERVICE, on the back, and put it in his wallet. He got the feeling that he had a new gun supplier, so long as the Blacktail held up. "Pleasure doing business with you."

"Likewise, stranger."

As he headed for the door, someone else stepped in, some young man who looked like he didn't know where exactly he was and wasn't sure if he was entering the right shop. The Merchant, on spotting him, boomed, "Welcome, stranger! Got a selection of rare things on sale…" Going by the kid's startled, confused, and curious look, Leon was pretty sure his wallet was going to be a lot lighter leaving than it was right now.

He walked briskly down the street and checked his conscience for buyer's remorse. Nothing so far, and it had usually hit by now if he'd made a bad purchase, so he was reasonably certain that he had not allowed himself to be duped. It had happened to him before. He checked his phone and saw that he really was going to be late, so he set off at a light jog.

He got to the bar, an Irish pub named de Vere's, only a few minutes after he'd agreed to be there. He walked up to the door, but before he could walk in, he was called out.

"Ey, Leon! You know what we call bein' 'fashionably late' in the Big Apple?"

Leon turned around, smiling, to see Mike. He'd been leaning against one of the trees lining the street outside the pub, smoking a cigarette, and was now stalking towards him with an irritable expression. "Hey, Mike. Been a while. I dunno, what do you call it?"

"A dick move. You land yourself a quickie with a hooker on the way here or somethin'?"

Leon laughed. "I'll be honest, I may have just dropped a nice chuck of cash on a beautiful lady. Want to give her a gander?"

Mike's scowl morphed into curiosity, and he pulled the cigarette out of his mouth, put it out on a nearby ashtray, and dropped it down the tube. "What kinda lady we talkin' about?"

Leon pulled out the Blacktail and handed it to Mike, who took it with an appreciative whistle. "Oh-ho. Now that is a lady worth bein' late for. Please excuse the rough language, ma'am."

He handed it back and they both chuckled. Leon stowed the gun and they headed inside. It was a weeknight, not terribly busy, and they were able to snag one of the couches in the back. Packs of cards sat on the table in front of them, and books lined the shelf to Leon's right. It was a cozy little place, this, one that he liked very much. He hit it every time he was here, Mike or no, but it was always nicer to have some company.

The waitress, a tall, sturdy blonde college-age girl who's makeup was on just a smidge too thick and whose gages were a tasteful, looping silver, came over. "Evening, boys. What'll it be for you?"

"Bacon burger, medium, extra bacon, Colby jack, onions fried, and loaded fries on the side. Tall glass of water with lemon, and a Moscow Mule."

The girl jotted all this down fast, not batting an eye. When she was done she repeated the order back to him correctly, he confirmed, and she said, "I love a man who knows exactly what he wants. And you, sir?"

Mike glared at Leon and said, "I'm on a diet. Doctor's orders. Wife's, too. Hell, even my oldest is on my case half the time. So I'll stick with the salmon salad, olive oil dressing. Water with lemon. Double of Wild Turkey. Booze with the food. And bring out some of that roasted garlic hummus, too. Good stuff, that. For rabbit food."

"Make that two orders of the hummus. It is good. For rabbit food."

The girl finished getting their order and walked off, hips swaying nicely, and he and Mike both took a moment to appreciate the sight. Then they leaned back, and Leon asked, "How's the family?"

That was always the golden question. Mike's normally half-dour expression lifted slightly and immediately, and the effect it had on his overall appearance was like night and day. He was a shortish man who had been very stocky when they'd first met, but who had lost a fair bit of weight thanks to his long stint in the hospital and a few long-term medical issues. His hair was buzzcut and brown, his eyes black, and his chin had a bit of a jut to it that made him look like his jaw was always clenched. To be fair, it often was. He was an ornery sort of guy when he wasn't flying. The real downturn on his features were the three massive, puckered scars that stretched from the bottom of his right eye to his lip, from the middle of his forehead to his upper left cheek, and from the bridge of his nose to his left ear. They were pretty damn noticeable, and would be for the rest of his life. Some people had the kind of skin that healed from scars pretty easily. Some people didn't. Mike was one of the latter.

When he was angry, those scars deepened and made him look downright scary. But when the topic of his family came up, you could almost see them shrink away…or at least become less important. "Kyle just graduated high school, Magna cum laude," he said. "Going into trade school. Engineering. Cool stuff, right?"

"Very. And Katie?"

Katie was his five-year-old daughter. He pulled out a picture of her and held it up. "Springin' up like a weed. She turned six last week. I was out of town, but I'll be makin' it up to her when I get in. Whole weekend. The park, the zoo, might even be able to drag Kyle down to that mini golfing place we used to love, do a family outing. I think she's old enough to hit a ball, yea?"

Leon considered the kid in the picture, and said, "Yeah, I think so. Might have trouble on the loop-de-loop, though. And the anthill will be killer."

"That's alright. We'll go down when it's not busy, and Kyle will have his phone to keep him happy while she's takin' her eighteen swings. Got himself a girlfriend he's pretty wild over. Can't stop texting her. Ey, did I tell you Jessie got another ulcer?"

"Damn. She okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, got it out just fine, and the doc thinks he knows what's causin' it. The new doc, that is. Old one couldn't have told the difference between cancer and a head cold."

The waitress came back with the double order of hummus, as well as their waters, which they drained promptly and got refilled almost as promptly. Leon popped a hummus-laden celery stick into his mouth. He wasn't a rabbit food man, but the flavor really made up for it.

"And what about your girls? How they doin' eh?"

Leon rolled his eyes. Mike was always asking after 'his girls'. "Ashley's grades just came in. She did great, a lot better than she thought she would, but I had a bit of fun with her. Made a big show of reading them before handing them over, frowning, shaking my head…"

"How'd she like that?"

"She threw an orange at me."

Mike chortled, crunched down a carrot, and asked, "And how's the little spitfire doin'?"

"Elleah's doing great. She's been teaching me how to use a slingshot. Oh, check out what else I picked up on the way." He pulled out the Zinger and showed it off.

"Tch," Mike scoffed, eyeing the unassuming little weapon. "Still blows my mind, thinkin' back on how she handled that thing. I remember when I first saw her takin' those Ganados down with it. Couldn't believe my eyes, that little speck down there on the ground fightin' those monsters. She's really doin' okay? I mean, after all of that?"

He always asked this at least twice, and he never quite believed Leon when he told him that both of the girls were recovering way better than they had any right to be. "She has her quiet times, but she still laughs a lot," he said. "Cracks jokes, enjoys life. And above all, she works. Works at school, works at home, works around the town; and you know when someone has the energy to work, they're recovering just fine."

Mike nodded. "Yeah, I guess so. Good kid. Both of 'em are. I'm glad they're doin' good. So, you hear about that fuckin' bullshit that went down in Libya?"

They got to talking about the news and recent events until the food came, at which point Leon was too preoccupied to say much. All of his focus narrowed down to his burger. He groaned in sheer bliss when he bit down on the meal, and he thanked God he wasn't sitting around some fancy table with a bunch of fancy people eating some fancy lobster dish. This was a million times better.

Mike flipped him off with one hand while drizzling his dressing on the bed of greens with the other, then mixed it up and dug right in. They'd pretty much be silent until the food was demolished, then they'd pick up the conversation while they worked on their drinks.

Mumford and Sons was playing mellowly on the speakers overhead, one of their catchier songs that Leon didn't know the name of. There weren't any T.V.s in here to remind everyone exactly how much the world was going to hell – not that it was, but the press wouldn't be making too much if they didn't constantly spin it that way – and his phone was set to emergency calls only. The burger was perfect. The waitress was cute. The conversation was excellent. And no place in the world made better Moscow Mules than these guys did. He had a new gun in his bag, and a new slingshot. There hadn't been one bioterror attack in the last month, and there was nothing major on the horizon. He'd be heading back to the Graham estate tomorrow, and the family would have another week until Christine got back. She'd extended her vacation. Overall, things were going well. Actually, Leon couldn't remember a time in the last fifteen years when they'd been going better.

He knew things would change. They always did. Some new, hideous threat would rear its ugly head. He'd get reassigned to some hellhole in the Middle East, or posted as the bodyguard for one of those nutjob politicians who treated their guards like shit. Maybe someone he knew would catch a bullet. Maybe his folks would pass on. They hadn't been looking too hot the last time he'd visited them in Acireale. Something always happened.

But that was then. This was now. And now was a pretty damn good time to be alive.

"Eh, by the way, who's turn is it to cover the drinks again?"

"Drinks are on me this time."

"Ay, waitress, another whiskey!"

Leon laughed.


OoO


And that's it. The absolute conclusion of Heroes. Now, to address my last few reviews. If anyone wants to leave a final chapter review, I'll update this story and add replies at the end, and I'll thank you kindly in advance for your feedback!

Dear Guest, I hope you appreciate that Christine got ratted on and chewed out by her favored child ;) And if it interests you to know, I hear she got a nasty case of Montezuma's Revenge on her trip down south. Rumor also has it that she took a dark, swanky, virile lover in Puerto Vallarta which may ultimately result in another divorce, this one permanent. No tears to shed there. Everyone's better off without her, and frankly, Jonathan deserves better.

Oh, and Uzu, I think Krauser and his new friend are going to end up pretty happy together. She seems like a good match for him. Bring a little non-violent passion to his life.

Relyt, you are too kind. Thank you very much for the offer! I'm wavering on whether to get RE7. I watched a Let's Play of it when it first came out, well before I even knew what Resident Evil was all about, but that was a while back, so I'm sure I'd enjoy playing it. In the daylight. With lots of people in the house.

I don't handle scary very well. I could only play Amnesia: The Dark Descent in thirty-minute increments. You have no idea how long it took me to finish that game...

Anywho, I was mulling over the absolute end to the story, how to work in Leon and Mike grabbing drinks and all, and I got a kick out of the idea of Leon running into a shady dealer on an evening in D.C., so I decided to take your critique to heart. One shifty merchant man, coming up ;D

I'm leaning more and more heavily towards an RE5 fic. I wrote out a short sequence chart of how it would look the first few chapters, and it's already flowing very smoothly in my head. I'd have to replay the whole thing or else watch a Let's Play of it to get the details down pat, though. Sadly, my favorite RE gamer, Dude Longcouch, longest of the couches, has not done a playthrough of five. Woe is me. Maybe I'll go ask him to do an RE5 LP, just for funsies. He probably won't, but it's worth a shot. Heck, if he did a Let's Play for me, I'd definitely write a fanfic for you.

Well, that about wraps things up. I had a lot of fun with this story, even if it was getting difficult near the end. Seeing a new review has been the highlight of many a day in this lockdown, and I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for each and every one. Love you all, and I'll see you all down the road, in some way or another, I'm sure.

Best,

The Topaz Dragon


OoO


Hey! Here's that update to reply to my final commenters!

Relyt - I say it again, you are too kind! Thank you for the offer! I still have a bunch of games in the wings from the summer sale, including 2 and 6, and until I decide for sure on a 5 fic I'm not going to get into either of them. They'd be too much of a distraction. So 7 isn't on my roster at the moment, but thank you so much :) And I'm glad you enjoyed seeing the Merchant at the end, and I'm extra glad you've enjoyed the story so much :D

Steele - Given that you've been there for the whole story (not to mention my previous one!) it really means a lot to me that you were happy with the ending. Endings are really tricky, and I worked this one over for nearly two weeks before time came to post it. I'm big on giving everyone a happy ending while still leaving the door open for a story's continuation in some form or another if it seems appropriate. I'm glad that this one accomplished that! Thank you for the umpteenth time for all your support. It's been great having you along for the ride, and if I need any advice or direction on future fics, you will be the first person I ask. :)

Evolution - You are a damn sharp tack! Yes, work on project Uroboros does not start until after the confrontation at the Spencer estate; but my reasoning for having him musing about it so early is this: Basically, because of the way Wesker was raised, with a contempt for the problems that come along with humanity's overpopulation and a general desire to cull and improve the species - a eugenics upbringing, in short - I decided to interpret this as meaning that he's had the general idea of forced evolution through viral infection (Uroboros) for a long time, the building blocks of it ingrained since childhood. It's just been a long-term, down the road kind of goal. His encounter with Spencer, in my mind's eye, merely drove him to want to accomplish it as soon as possible, as he acquires the understanding that this ideal was one that preexisted him, and if others who worked under Spencer shared this ideal, there could be others in the world working towards that goal. Were any of them to succeed, he would effectively be usurped. To this effect, he accelerates his work following his encounter with Spencer.

Anyways, I really wanted to toss a reference to RE5 out there early, in case I decide to go on with the story.

But I absolutely love that you caught that. The attention to detail you've paid throughout the story is one of the things that has made your support so important to me. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all the commentary and appreciation! I'll see you around - hopefully in the next story!

UzuRunner - I'm glad you got a kick out of the Merchant! I did too, to be honest. My mom's big on guns, so I got her feedback on some of the legal aspects of purchasing, and when I came back to her with a few excerpts from that chapter she just howled with laughter. Anywho, thank you for your support and commentary! :)


I hope to see all of you guys again some time or another. I check my account often (less so when I'm not uploading regularly, but at least periodically) so feel free to PM me if you're ever looking for someone to talk lore with, or just want to pop in and say hi! ^_^ I'll see you guys around. I wish the best for all of you guys. And if there are any additional questions from here on out, I'll PM you with an answer when I see them! Thank you!

Lots of love,

The Topaz Dragon