As we started our journey back to civilization, I suddenly realized that, in all the drama and excitement and chaos, I hadn't considered one rather important thing.

"Hey Chris… you know what? I don't have anywhere to go, do I?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, what happened to my apartment after I was declared dead?"

"Oh. Yeah. You hadn't left a will, or much evidence of your intentions regarding the, uh, disposition of your estate. So I found a talented and unscrupulous lawyer, and we broke a few laws to have me declared the sole beneficiary."

"Oh my God, you did not! I can't believe it! How many felonies was that?"

He grinned sheepishly. "Well, uh, several." My partner, the by-the-book crusader, a federal fraudster! I hadn't thought it possible to admire him any more than I already did, but God bless him for proving me wrong. "So, anyway, I took over the management of your estate and affairs. I kept your apartment just as it was for as long as I could, but eventually the landlord declined to renew the lease, so I had to put all your things put into storage. They may be a bit dusty, but they're all there waiting for you. And as far as your finances, I took over all your accounts and investments as well."

"Oh great," I joked. "Please tell me you didn't wipe me out."

"You're actually in pretty good shape. Or, I should say, I am. It is in my name, after all."

I punched his arm. "I don't care what that lawyer of yours says, you're giving it all back!"

He laughed, "Okay, okay."

"Well, thank you for doing all that, but I still don't have a home, a place to go, you know?"

"Don't worry about that. You can crash at my place while you figure out what to do. You can take the bed, I'll be fine on the couch."

"No way! After all you did for me, I'm not kicking you out of your own bed! The couch will be fine for me."

"All I did for you? You dove out a window to save my life! The way my math works out, I still owe you!"

We were kidding. There was no accounting of who owed who what. Partners don't work like that.

"Well, I don't care what you say," I said resolutely, "I'm not taking the bed."

He looked over at me thoughtfully and replied, "Okay. How about this: bedrolls on my hard, cold kitchen floor."

I couldn't help but laugh. "Just like the Ukraine, 2002!"

"Yeah, just like the Ukraine, 2002. Only not quite as cold and with better food." We'd been following up some leads that were taking us closer to Umbrella, and of course we managed to ruffle a few feathers and overturn some rocks whose inhabitants didn't care much for the disinfecting quality of sunlight. So, our base of operations was an abandoned apartment building on a hill. A long-abandoned tunnel took us right to the back door. Secret, unexpected, good lines of sight, plenty of escape options – as tactically sound as we could manage. The kitchen was the most central room of the apartment we'd chosen, which allowed us to create a reasonably secure perimeter. The accommodations weren't great, but it was nothing a little vodka couldn't take the edge off of. Sounds weird, but I looked back on it fondly.

Field agents are kind of odd when it comes to nostalgia, I guess.

"Okay, it's a deal," I answered. Chris nodded, glad to have it settled.

I thought about the Ukraine for a bit, and I looked at the sidearm Chris had given me, holstered at my hip.

For as long as I can remember, all I wanted in the whole world was to be able to stand on my own two feet. I needed to be seen as capable, as independent, as reliable. I worked my ass off, I worked as hard as I possibly could to be the best of the best. It was how I defined myself, how I gave purpose to my life. I told myself that it was okay if others needed me, but I wasn't allowed to need anybody. That would be a sign of weakness.

Now, I knew Chris cared about me. I mean, come on, he moved heaven and earth to rescue me from hell. But what really terrified me, what kept me up nights, was the thought that he might someday realize he wanted to protect me, to keep me safe. Because that would mean doubt, doubt in my abilities as an agent and as a partner. Somewhere inside, I feared that if I lost that trust, everything I had worked so hard for would be gone and I'd lose myself.

But without even thinking about it, Chris himself had handed me that gun at my side, asking me to help him face down a monstrous threat that could have consumed countless lives. And it dawned on me just what that meant. It meant I didn't have to hide anything from him, that in fact it would be foolish to try. Chris knew me for who I was, not who I wanted him to think I was. And he didn't think I needed protecting. It's a funny thing: when a man gives you a gun, he sure as hell isn't telling you he wants to shield you from the big bad world. Actually, it means quite the opposite: it means he wants to share that world with you, both the good and the bad, side by side. It means he might need a little protecting himself from time to time.

And as I put all this together, for the first time in a long time, I felt free. Not just free from Wesker's control. Not just free of bio-terror, of Umbrella. I was finally free from the cage I'd kept myself in for so long. I didn't have to cut myself off from my basic humanity, not anymore. I didn't have to lie to Chris, to pretend to be someone I wasn't. I hadn't realized just how tightly I was clinging to this burden, or just how hard it had been to bear, until I let go at that moment. I felt like I was floating, gently bobbing in the soothing currents of a calm ocean. I thought I could even smell the salty sea air.

"Chris," I said, "pull over."

"What? Is everything all right?"

"Everything's fine, I just want you to pull over for a little while."

Chris pulled over onto the shoulder, put the car in park and looked at me. There was some confusion in his eyes, but mostly he was just ready for whatever was about to happen.

I couldn't hold it in any longer: I started to cry. And I mean full-body convulsions. I collapsed into Chris's arms a quivering mess. I just let it all come out. I relived every moment: the pain, the humiliation, the terror, the innocent lives taken by my own hands. I saw, heard, felt everything. Drills piercing my chest. Mosi's blood stinging my eyes. Necks I'd snapped. Villagers being turned inside-out by Uroboros. I was screaming at the top of my lungs. And through it all, Chris knew exactly what to do: he just sat there quietly, gently rocking me, as an embarrassing stream of tears and snot ruined his shirt. Soon the screams turned to sobs and the convulsions to shivers, and then all turned to silence. I had nothing left in me. I just passed out.

The creeping sun woke me up just after daybreak. I gathered we were still in the spot where we'd parked, only now we were in the back seat. Somehow Chris had managed to transfer me back there without waking me up. For such a musclehead, he sure did have a gentle touch when he needed it. I realized I was half curled up in his lap as I noticed the conspicuous absence of that shirt I'd ruined. I could feel the creases in my face where I'd been pressed against the wrinkles of his pants. A bit of movement and grunting told me Chris was starting to come around too.

"Oh God," I muttered, a bit of unnecessary embarrassment flooding me due to my long habits of perfect self-control. I mean, yes, I'm a woman. I'm not trying not to be. Heck, some of the things I used to wear, I think back and can only conclude I was being dressed by horny nerds. But crying myself to sleep? Come on, that would be girly even for Shirley Temple.

Chris just laughed it off. "Don't worry; I should get the feeling back in my legs in a few hours or so."

I started to sit up and work the kinks out. "Hey partner, could you do me a favor?"

"What's that?"

"Could you smash all the mirrors before I accidentally get a glimpse of how I look this morning?"

He chuckled. "You'd be surprised how not awful you look."

A playful mood came over me from out of nowhere. "Hey, you're not flirting with me, are you Redfield? You know the BSAA has regulations about that sort of conduct."

I'd hoped to make him blush a little, to get the upper hand, but he came back with: "Valentine, believe me, when I start flirting with you, you'll know it."

I just flashed him what I hoped was a mischievous and enigmatic smile. It was really my only play.

"So," he said, keys in hand, "how about some breakfast?"

I realized I was famished. "Breakfast sounds perfect. I'm thinking gypsy skillet."

"Well, let's hit the road then."

He climbed out of his side and I climbed out of mine so we could take our places in the front. He fired up the engine and we were on our way. FOOD AND GAS, 15 MILES. I had a good feeling that the FOOD mentioned on the sign was more than just processed egg sandwiches and factory-pressed potato patties.

"So," he said, shaking off a yawn, "what do you think? About returning to active duty, I mean."

I didn't have an answer for that. Actually, I knew the answer would be "yes," I just wanted to hold onto it for a little while. I guess I was savoring the uncertainly of the moment, or at least the pretense.

"How about we start with that gypsy skillet and take it from there?"

He grinned. "Fair enough, partner."

Partners. Yeah, we're partners, Chris and me. It's complicated.

His right hand found my left. Our fingers laced and we squeezed each other's hand as the bright yellow desert sped past us. I smiled and meant it.

Thank you for reading "No Cage Worse." I'd love to hear what you thought of the story, especially if you made it this far :) Your review is greatly appreciated. - Mr. Penbrook