Bridgette had spent the past day and a half cloistered in the kitchen, the oven constantly pre-heated despite the sweltering heat of late July. There was something therapeutic about the concentration baking required, the measuring and the mixing. She couldn't fixate on the fact that it had been three days since she'd heard from her fiancé if she was too busy rolling out pie crust. Baked goods piled up higher and higher on the countertops with no end in sight.
Richard had left on a call Thursday evening, so she hadn't been overly concerned when he hadn't been around the next day. Often times when he was working late he would head back to his own apartment so he didn't disrupt her sleep. She had slept a little uneasily Friday night, having grown accustomed to the security of his warmth beside her. By late Saturday morning the niggling fear in her stomach had grown into something larger. Now it was Sunday evening and the only thing keeping her feeling sane was the rhythmic sound of a knife chopping through the crisp flesh of fresh apples.
In their time together there had been the occasional situation that required him to be at work far past the normal duration of the workday. But, although they were elite, S.T.A.R.S. was still just a branch of the Raccoon City Police Department – surely something that required that much manpower would have made the news? And if it were too sinister for the news, she wasn't sure she wanted to picture her soon-to-be-husband caught in the middle of it.
So she chopped and rolled, measured and dusted with sugar, a radio chattering aimlessly in the background. When Richard got home he was either going to find one very angry young woman in the kitchen with a knife, or a blubbering mess under a goopy coating of flour and sugar – she hadn't yet decided which.
Out on the porch, Chris Redfield was trying to channel Barry Burton as much as possible. Occasions were few and far in between when he wished he could switch places with the big man in red, but this definitely qualified. Although he knew why Jill had dragged him out here – who else was left? – they both knew he was ill-suited for this kind of work. Chris Redfield didn't know how to comfort people. He knew how to get pissed off, how to be nearly blinded with rage and guilt, he was even learning how to live under the appearance that things were normal despite the fact that nearly everyone he'd worked with had been brutally murdered. But he didn't know how to stand on Richard Aiken's fiancée's front porch and tell her that her lover was dead.
Barry was a dad; he was just instinctively better at these types of things. He would probably just grab her up in a bear hug and let her cry her eyes out and somehow everything would be a little better afterwards. Richard had been good at it too, in fact. Chris almost wished he could switch places with the dead communications expert so at least when Jill had to drag someone along to comfort his sister it would be someone a little more capable.
As much as she tried to hide or deny it, Jill was, hands down, the best at it. She resented the stereotype of being the compassionate, female member of Alpha Team, but Chris reassured her that since she had always been able to kick most of their asses, she didn't have much to worry about. He'd even let it slip about how Joseph had been terrified of her his first week with S.T.A.R.S. – after all, he was dead now so what did it matter? Whether or not it had anything to do with the fact that she had to shower in a separate locker room, or maybe it was just because she was a considerate person by nature, but Jill always knew the types of things to say and do to reassure people.
She leaned forward and rang the doorbell, the chime audible through the wood and the open windows. Coming out here had been her idea. There were proper channels for this kind of notification, next of kin and all that. But Jill found it increasingly difficult to believe in and uphold the system which had allowed so many of her friends to die. Truth be told she had almost forgotten about Richard's quiet fiancée until she'd found a sloppy, handwritten copy of the wedding vows he'd been writing stuffed inside the drawer of this desk.
The process of clearing out the other S.T.A.R.S. members' desks was mainly a tedious one. They told themselves it was to ensure that any personal belongings were returned to the appropriate parties, when in reality at least some small part of it was to ensure that there were no further secrets buried with their fallen comrades. Jill had never realised what an intimate look at a person's personality their desk could reveal. Kenneth's had been so neat and organized it almost rivalled Wesker's; Joseph's had been a sprawling disaster defined by a roadmap of sticky-notes; family pictures had competed for workspace on Enrico's. Richard's had been fairly straight forward, a little messy, but for the most part everything in its place. The scrap of paper had almost slipped under Jill's radar before she caught the edge of ruled paper hidden under a stack of equipment sign-out forms.
They weren't the most poetic vows she had ever heard; something more fluid, more superfluous could be pulled out of any of a hundred wedding books. It was obvious that he had struggled with what to say, the page half covered in frustrated scratches of ink. Towards the bottom of the page, penned out in Richard's half printed, half handwritten scrawl and surrounded by an uneven border, were the most earnest, heart-wrenching vows Jill had ever read. Which was why she was standing on the front step of a woman she barely knew, a box full of the papers and clothes of a dead man under one arm.
Bridgette almost jumped out of her skin at the sound of the doorbell, turning off the oven and untying her apron to drape it over the back of a kitchen chair. She grew more anxious with every step, knowing full well Richard wouldn't have bothered to ring the bell, but promising herself she wasn't going to jump to any conclusions. The painted door swung open to reveal a man and a woman in a blue beret, both dressed in the mismatched uniforms that were the S.T.A.R.S. norm.
"Can I help you?" asked the petite brunette, bracing herself against the doorway. She would have barely reached Chris' shoulder and looked like she might blow away in one of the stiff winter winds that sometimes came roaring down the mountains. Richard had not been a large man – average height and frame, though well built – but even he must have nearly towered over her.
"Are you Bridgette Murphy?"
"I'm Jill Valentine and this is Chris Redfield. We're from S.T.A.R.S. Alpha Team."
These are both names Bridgette recognizes from writing out addresses on the envelopes of wedding invitations. Low in her belly, her intestines start to twine themselves into knots.
Jill remembers meeting the other young woman a few months ago at a barbeque Barry had hosted for both of the teams. Bridgette had brought some delicious, layered dessert, blushed at all of Forest's innuendos, and spent most of her time in the kitchen with the other wives.
"Is there some kind of…problem, Officers?"
For just an instant, Jill hesitated, unsure of how to explain. Chris jumped in, willing to be the callous one if it helped Jill be the kind one.
"I'm sorry to inform you, but Richard Aiken was killed two days ago on a mission in the Arklay Mountains."
"What? No…" Bridgette's fingers were white knuckled where they gripped the doorframe, her delicate features struggling not to twist up with shock. "There must be some mistake."
"No, there's no mistake," Jill said quietly, glancing down at her scuffed boots.
"No...no…" The break in her voice mirrored the one in her chest, and Chris could see her start to physically crumple like a house of cards. Jill passed him the cardboard box she'd been holding on one hip.
"C'mon, let's get you inside."
One arm around her shoulders, Jill ushered the other woman inside, sitting her down on a well-worn couch in the living room and directing Chris to the kitchen for a glass of water. Bridgette was trying her best to keep it together in front of these near-strangers, but it was hard not to sob and gasp for air when it felt like someone had just punched a hole in your chest. Sitting a little apart, Jill kept one hand lightly on her back, ready to push her head between her knees in the event she started to hyperventilate.
Chris found the kitchen and almost slipped into a diabetic coma on sight. Some lingering, prepubescent part of himself had finally died and gone to heaven at the sight of sugar and dough on nearly every available horizontal surface.
It was a standard kitchen underneath all the confections, nothing out of the ordinary in the aging appliances and wood veneer cabinets. Stuck to the fridge with a series of mismatched magnets were an assortment of photographs and congratulatory notes. Richard smiled back at him from several of the photos, his cheery smile overlaid with the vivid slashes of crimson Chris had last seen him with. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs, opening the cupboard above the sink and fortunately finding a neat selection of cups.
Back out in the living room Jill was trying to walk the line between too much and too little information with varying degrees of success.
"Do I have to identify the body or something?" Bridgette's words came out stilted in between hiccupped sobs.
"No, it's okay. It's already been taken care of." The self-destruct system of the facility had generously provided cremation services for all of the fallen S.T.A.R.S. members.
"I just…I can't…" Bridgette took a deeper breath, turning to look Jill in the eye. "What am I supposed to do without him?" She asked, then covered her mouth with one shaking hand. Jill rubbed her shoulder in a way she hoped was comforting and not at all reminiscent of the way Richard might comfort her.
"Do you have any family you can stay with? Out of town maybe?"
"I can't just quit my job and leave…"
"Just for a few weeks," Jill glanced up as Chris stepped back into the room, a full glass of water in his hand. "Once the media gets some of the details, it's going to be a big mess. It would be better if you laid low until it blows over."
Judging from the reaction of Chief Irons, it was going to be a circus if they had to go to the media about it. Jill had to admit it all sounded pretty crazy, and knew that Umbrella would use that fact to drag them all through the mud. Crouching down next to the couch, Chris passed the glass of water into Bridgette's shaking hands, taking it back to set it down on the end table after she had choked back most of its contents.
"Can't you at least tell me what happened?"
Jill faltered, unsure of how much to tell. Would it be too far a stretch to say that he had been killed in a helicopter crash? Would it be too unsettling to say that it had been a group of deranged individuals with biological weapons? Or should she just go for broke and explain how he'd been bitten by an enormous, venomous snake and lived through it only to be devoured by something straight out of a nightmare?
"Well…" she started, but found she had to take a deep breath before she could continue.
"Look," Chris said for her, taking one of Bridgette's clammy, trembling hands between both of his. "A lot of people are going to be talking about what happened. A lot of things are going to be said, and not all of them are going to be true. But we were there, and we know what happened." He paused to lick his lips. Jill could see he was nervous, but he didn't look over at her for support, just kept his eyes trained on the red-rimmed, blood shot gaze of Richard Aiken's almost-widow. "Richard died a hero, protecting his team mates – his friends. No matter what anybody else tries to tell you, you remember that, okay?"
Her fingers gripped into his, a fresh wave of tears spilling out of eyes that were already raw.
"It's important," he added. "So if anybody tries to tell you any different, you tell them to go fuck themselves."
Bridgette's nod of agreement was shaky, but a little braver underneath all the tears and puffiness.
"Thank you for coming out officers, but I think it's time for you to leave," she managed without a hiccup. Jill and Chris rose and allowed themselves to be ushered out the door.
Walking back into the living room, half in a daze, her eyes finally lighted on the small cardboard box Jill had left on the end of the sofa. She sat down heavily into the cushions, pulling out the contents onto her lap. The first few layers were the clothing he'd worn to work on Thursday, the simple white t-shirt still smelling of his aftershave. Covering her face with the fabric, she allowed the raw, racking cries to finally claw their way out of her chest. All of the anger and frustration, grief and helplessness, all of it came pouring out onto a shirt that should have been filled by a man.
She cried until she didn't have the strength to keep it up, half sitting, half laying across the couch. Her eyes burned, and her sinuses were thick and uncomfortably clogged with mucus. From the neck down she felt totally numb except for the splitting ache inside her rib cage.
Staring out at the empty house around her, Bridgette wondered exactly how she was supposed to go on living. She didn't know she only had a little over sixty days to account for.