"Claire!" Chris tore free of Jill and Barry's restraining grasps, lunging for the fiery inferno.
"Chris, no!" Between them, the two STARS managed to wrestle their friend to the ground and hold him as flames devoured the lab below. All around them, the remnants of their mercenary team salvaged what remained of their dignity, taking stock of injuries and damage. Leon stood to one side, jaw slack, fire reflected in the pupils of his eyes.
"Jill," said Mitchell, an old army contact. She climbed off Chris reluctantly, ensuring that Barry had him in hand before joining the surly looking war veteran near one of their three choppers.
"I know," she replied.
"It ain't like I'm blaming you, Valentine. But what the hell'd ya expect us to do here?"
She shrugged helplessly. "She's his sister, Mitch. Wouldn't you go after your sister if someone like Wesker got his hands on her?"
"If I had a sister? Maybe I would. Doesn't change the fact you led us into a death trap there."
"You're exaggerating. No one died." Her words faded into the chill air, and she realized how false she may have spoken. Still no sign of Wesker, of Ada... of Claire.
Mitchell didn't seem to notice. "No thanks to you. You and Redfield grossly underestimated this guy. That or you mislead us deliberately."
He towered over her, vicious and deadly. Jill glared in response. "Maybe both. Don't beat around the bush like this, Mitch. Come on and say what you're thinking."
His gaze traveled towards Chris, softening slightly. "Look, I get why you did it. But this was a hopeless situation. Maybe now you can get him to accept that Claire ain't coming back."
Jill's stomach clenched. She followed Mitch's gaze to where Chris hunched in the snow, Barry bent over him and speaking softly. "You're asking for the impossible, Mitch."
"Well, you better do something fast, Jill. Speaking as a friend. That guy's right on the edge and no mistake. See it enough times and you get to recognize the look."
Jill bobbed her head. "Mitch, thanks. Even if things didn't work just the way we planned..."
"Hey, like you said -- no one died. But in case I forget to mention it, you can consider our debt repaid."
She inclined her head in acknowledgment as Mitch whistled and waved a hand to the rest of his crew. A few muttered farewells, and those not associated with Mitch hung around a little longer, but before long Jill found herself alone with Barry, Chris, and Leon.
Leon still hadn't said a word. Jill glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, taking in his preoccupied expression, the slightly alien strain on his muscles -- a tense pose that looked vaguely familiar. She'd seen Wesker stand that way before.
She hesitated a moment before moving to Chris, crouching by his side. "Hey," she said softly.
His gaze was still blank. She gently tipped his head onto her shoulder, and he let himself be held, neither speaking nor crying. She exchanged worried glances with Barry.
"We can scout around," he told Chris quietly. "See if there's any sign of her. She still might have escaped."
Slowly, Chris nodded. Barry glanced at each of them in turn, then holstered his magnum and jogged off into the snow.
Chris drew in a few shaky breaths and turned to face Leon. "What the hell happened in there?"
Leon continued staring into space. "I don't know what to tell you."
"Well, you could start with why the hell you're suddenly Superman."
"I'm not Superman, I'm Virusman." Leon smiled, his own joke falling flat. "What can I say? He injected me with something. I don't know what."
"I don't think so. She seemed the same as always."
Jill tightened her grip on Chris' shoulders as he trembled violently. "Why?" he demanded, seemingly of no one. "What the hell was she doing?"
Leon hunkered down beside them. Jill leaned against Chris' shoulder, trying to ignore the cold damp snow seeping through her clothes. "I'm not sure," Leon explained slowly. "I keep thinking of something she said to me, a long time ago -- that he didn't seem happy."
"At the time I thought she meant Steve. But now I'm not so sure. I think she might have been talking about... Wesker."
Chris straightened, blinking. "You mean you think she went back for him? But... why..."
"It's just a guess. I can't think what else she'd go back for."
"She gave her life for that monster?"
"Chris, calm down," Jill cautioned, stroking his arm. They watched Barry emerge from the valley, the expression on his face telling them his search had been fruitless. For a long time the four of them stood in the snow, staring at the smoking lab that had become Claire Redfield's funeral pyre.
"Let's go," said Chris at last. He turned to the chopper and walked away without a backward glance.
Barry followed. Leon and Jill remained, standing side by side. "What now?" Jill asked softly.
Leon shrugged. "We go on. I'm not sure she's dead, Jill. I just... I can't believe it."
"Don't say that in front of Chris," she advised.
Their eyes met and they shared a genuine smile, one of the first Jill could remember. "Come on," she said. "Let's go."
"Wherever life takes us. Wherever Umbrella is." She reached out and squeezed his arm. "We're going to need each other, Leon. We have to be a team from now on. None of this would have happened if we'd just trusted each other in the first place."
"You mean if I'd..."
"No, that's not what I meant at all." She slid her hand down to his and squeezed again. "Come on, Leon. Walk away."
And at last, he squeezed his eyes shut and did.
Jill followed, the scent of smoke still heavy on the air. This isn't over, she thought to herself, jogging to catch up to her men. But it will be.
Because we're going to finish it.
End part two. Part three (of three) coming soon!