Thursday, September 31st, morning
He had wanted nothing more than to hold her as she slept, be the sentry that guarded her rare moment of reprieve within a sanctuary she'd share with no one. He had wanted her to spend as much time as she could at that shelter, so that she would not be tainted with the horrors, lies, and deceptions that painted the Devil's mural. But, the vile colors bled through the frail borders of reality and began to stain the empty slate of her unconsciousness, rousing her till she was fully reminded why she could not afford to lose another second, while they still had time.
He had not been sure how long she was asleep for before they left the warehouse, but just knew it was not even a fraction of the time she deserved. Rebecca had said that the government was planning on launching a missile at the city by dawn tomorrow, but the gravity of that warning did not sink in then, and it still didn't faze him now. There was too much on his mind, too many demons his psyche had to ward off. Even though Regan was now dead, he still couldn't shake away that wicked man's presence, the stench of his death trailing closely behind him.
He swore he could smell the foul scent even now, at least a mile away from the decaying corpse.
"You okay?" Rebecca asked quietly.
Billy nodded, but he could still see her looking at him sharply from the corner of her eye. Under the pretext of scouting the area, he quickly tore his eyes away from her the same time she averted hers from his gaze, probably thinking the same thing he did. The trek from the warehouse to this point had been mostly silent with just a few commands and words of agreement that were needed to get rid of the nuances in their way, but the silence wasn't one that was uncomfortable and stifling. It felt almost like an entity, a mediator that was there to observe and slowly help mend the fractured partnership. It was there to keep a distance between them for space, but the moment danger was evident, actions spoke for them.
They had been walking toward Downtown for almost two hours. Fortunately, they were in a neighborhood that was rather isolated from the heart of the city. Few residents meant fewer undead to deal with. The streets were nearly barren save for some disheveled heaps of trash and pipes, but nothing out of the ordinary that one would not find on an ordinary day. In fact, this neighborhood was so unlike the rest of the city, as it bore great semblance to normalcy: the grass on the lawns were still fresh and green, starkly contrasting the white picket fences that proudly stood their ground, windows of the houses remained intact, flowers still lay in bloom in the gardens. The only thing missing from the scene was a cherry pie sitting on a windowsill, as a family of four and a dog wait for their dessert to cool. Yeah, then it'd really look like a scene straight from one of those 'American Dream' movies he so despised.
The sun casted an almost artificial-looking sheen on the houses, giving them a very plastic-like appearance that made him feel he was walking through a toy set. The sheer novelty of this milieu was beginning to unnerve him ten times more than Raccoon's warzones at night.
It didn't click to him until now that the roads were wider in this part of the town too, with hardly any obstacles in the distance ahead. Like the bright beams of the sun poking through the clear morning sky, the path seemed to stretch on infinitely without disturbances in sight.
He took quick glances around him, noting several damaged vehicles, but none seemed to be terribly defective. Rebecca stopped, and he couldn't help but wonder if the same idea hit her too. When she turned to face him, her eyes glimmering glossy excitement, he knew she was thinking the same thing.
"This will save us hours," she said, already walking toward a black Ford.
Seeing that Rebecca had dropped her defense, he followed her and continued to support the weight of the shotgun in his hands as if their lives depended solely on that weapon. It would be far too reckless for them both to remain unguarded, even if this part of town did seem too perfect. She stopped in front of the car, and before he could even suggest that he should take a look at it first, she popped open the hood, her eyes quickly roving about to scan whatever it was she was looking for. He knew exactly what they should be checking for, but apparently so did his younger companion when she faced him with a small grin.
"We can definitely hotwire this car," she announced from her assessment.
Once again, the intelligence beneath her innocent façade impressed him. "Oh?" he challenged. "Care to set things up then?"
He expected her to give him control and make him feel slightly like a sexist—as she had done a few times in the past— but she tucked her Samurai Edge into the waistband of her shredded leather pants and rubbed her chin. The sharp, critical glare reflected from her eyes almost seemed to gleam, and he was sure it was not simply the sunlight playing a trick on his vision. By the time he traced her sight to the coil wires at the back of the V-8 engine, she was already staring at the battery.
"I can handle this part here. You just break into the car."
He lingered for a few seconds longer before convincing himself she knew what she was doing. "Don't mind if I do." Without even a hint of hesitation, he rammed the stock of the shotgun through the window of the driver's seat and unlocked the vehicle from the inside. He pulled the door opened and smoothed away the glass before seating himself before the wheel. "I don't suppose you want to drive as well?"
"I don't know how to drive. No license yet, just a permit," she stated in a tone that made her sound like she was listing a fact about herself at an interview.
"Yet you know how to hotwire a car. Interesting…" he muttered under his breath. A slew of witty jokes ran through his head, but he clamped his lips. He normally would have blurted out something inappropriate to tease her, but now there was an urge to keep his mouth shut. Again, things felt different…no, things were different, but at least he didn't feel it was necessarily a terrible thing, or so he hoped.
Billy placed a hand on the wheel, his thumb running over the ridges as he thought about their plan again. It was simple: move from point A to point B. They were still heading for the docks near the University on Good Street. Then they would get out of the city via sea, but what about after that? Yes, they had to expose Umbrella, and that could be done in a number of ways. The best method would be to regroup with the remaining S.T.A.R.S members and perhaps gather some reinforcements to fortify their claims, but the more he thought about that idea, the more he felt he did not belong. True, he was a victim and sought his own personal revenges, but—
He thought hard, and was hit with the memory of tagging along with his friend Todd on a family vacation in the seventh grade. Todd's family was going to Nebraska to visit some relatives during summer vacation, but Todd was hell-bent on not going unless his family allowed him to bring a friend along. Out of everyone Todd could have chosen, he selected Billy to accompany him. He remembered the plastic smiles Todd's parents gave in their son's presence and the cold shoulders and scowls when Billy was alone with them. He was just a kid then, and so those menacing gazes frightened him even more than nearly being carried away by rough tides on a particularly windy night at the beach during Todd's vacation. Though he was no longer in seventh grade, the same fear and discomfort struck him.
But the ill feeling did not linger for too long. Unlike that time, he was in a position to make his own decisions now, and the answer to what needed to be done was quite an obvious one to him.
He was further calmed by the roar of the engine and the sound of the hood being slammed down, revealing almost a devilish smile from Rebecca on the other side of the glass.
He unlocked the door of the shotgun seat for her, eyeing her as she slipped into the car with easy grace. "Nice job," he complimented.
"Thanks," she replied, staring at him slightly longer than what was considered customary. "So, you gonna drive?"
He smirked and stepped on the gas. "Wherever the lady wants."
Having done almost nothing but shooting and running the past few days, driving felt relatively surreal to him. The car provided a certain defense that was far greater than what their guns could grant, but it was the fact that they were not using their limbs for the arduous journey that made him feel slightly removed from the apocalypse and a tiny bit closer to the real escape. He knew it was best to not hold on to this thread of hope too tightly, for it was a flimsy one that would snap the harder he clung to it. Still, it was hard not to feel excited when he increased the speed, the car zipping down the streets, hitting the undead in its way like bowling a strike.
Rebecca unfolded the map and went over the directions. So far so good. There were no immediate blockades in sight.
"Turn left and take the path of the trolley," she instructed, her eyes shifting from the map to the road ahead. "If you don't, we'll just end up in the more urbanized sectors of Raccoon."
Driving over the tracks was bumpier than he'd thought, but if it meant a quicker exit, he did not mind. He just hoped they would not be meeting a runaway train anytime soon.
"If you keep going down this route, we should be able to hit the harbor, as it's one of the stops of the trolley," Rebecca said, tucking the map away.
He cast a quick glance in her direction, saw that something else on her mind was agitating her breathing. Her eyes searched the surroundings beyond the glass, the certain hope to find a particular someone so strong that even he shared her disappointment when nothing but rows of debris and corpses lined their views.
"She's out there," he reassured, not just for the sake of comforting Rebecca. He truly believed Jill was still alive, and perhaps she had already left the city. The latter would be more ideal.
"And that little girl, Sherry?"
He didn't comment about Sherry, and Rebecca could tell from his lack of encouraging words that the little girl's chances of survival were significantly less.
He suddenly didn't like the 'downtime.' While it was much needed for the sake of their bodies, their minds were now going through exertion. Relying on the relative security of the vehicle, they could afford time to let their minds wander, allowing strange and depressing emotions to inundate their spirits. Rebecca looked as if she was going to add something else but changed her mind and turned her head, her noticeably longer hair shrouding every perceivable feature of her face. He decided it was for the best to not question what else lingered in her thoughts. It wasn't like he had no inkling.
He tried to focus on driving, but the linear road was causing him to become quite lax. Since the night of his mother's death, he was exposed to a new feeling that was like a disease, festering inside him, preventing his will from creating immunity toward it. There was more to this feeling than just pain and anger. Had it only been Regan involved in his mother's death, this sentiment would have been nigh on impossible to contain inside him without letting it consume him entirely. Because Rebecca's actions had also played a part in the outcome of the tragedy, this ill sensation was a bit more tolerable, for his forgiveness acted like the balm that soothed the scorched fractures of both heart and soul. He knew his mother's death was inevitable, but to know that her life ended for the right reasons, at the hands of someone with the right motives, was infinitely more acceptable than her dying for Regan's sick pleasure. He wasn't sure if relief was the right word. Maybe acceptance…but then he wouldn't feel this yearning in his heart, the urge to chase something that was separated from him by life.
"Something on your mind?" Rebecca suddenly asked, her eyes still glued to the window pane.
It hit him that she could see his reflection through the glass.
"Sorry, of course you have things on your mind," she amended, and then struggled to find another apology.
"It's fine," he reassured. "You got a lot on your mind too, I know."
The silence was really starting to bother them, so he fumbled for the dial of the radio, surprised to find that there was a hazy channel playing drowned out music. It was jazz, or so he thought. The piano dominated the rest of the instruments that were overwhelmed by static. As strident as the chords were, he could already feel the tension lifting.
His second moment of shock stemmed from Rebecca's giggle. Confused, he raised an eyebrow and quickly glanced in her direction, keeping his general sight on the road. "What's so funny?"
"Hearing this sorta reminds me of the time I tried to play the piano in Arklay," she said, returning his gaze with a small grin. "That was pretty bad, huh?"
Billy agreed with a chuckle. "Sounded like your were playing by ear."
"Huh? But I was reading off the sheet-"
"By banging your head against the keys," he finished, his own lips widening into a smile.
Rebecca frowned, but then her eyes widened and he felt a punch against his bicep.
He laughed this time. "Sorry, bad joke?"
"Yeah, it was a bad joke, and just what I'd expect from you."
"But I bet what you didn't expect was seeing a guy like me play piano, huh?'
He saw her attempting to find the right words to her defense and simply shrugged off the comment with a chuckle. "I had some friends at West Point who also played, and sometimes we'd get together and enjoy some music—just to take our minds off of stress, you know?"
Rebecca gasped. "West Point? But I thought you said you joined the Marines right after school."
He nodded. The years he had spent at the military academy after High school had been some of the best and worst days of his life. It was the latter that made him kept his mouth shut about the prestigious school. Even so, in retrospect he was grateful for those horrid days that had prepared him well for the cruelty of the battlefield. He thought he had seen it all until this apocalypse emerged, and now he wished he had gone through even more malicious tortures just to face today's reality. "My High school fucked up my transcript, and it wasn't until after graduation that my true grades were finally shown. West Point somehow found out about my grades and offered me a full scholarship."
"And as soon you graduated, you became Second Lieutenant," Rebecca finished. "Wow…and you say I'm impressive."
"Girl, you're a genius."
"Yeah, but they don't just let anyone become Second Lieutenant. I had always thought you worked your way up the ranks. Sorry, I'm not sure how the military runs."
He nodded. "Good. Trust me; you don't want to know what goes on."
The road ahead still appeared to be smooth, so he opened the way for another conversation. "Now there's something I want to know about you."
"Your tattoo," he pointed out. "Back at the bar, you told me there's a story behind it. Since we have some time to kill, why don't you tell me about it? I'm curious, because you don't really strike me as a tattoo girl, no offense."
"Oh this butterfly?" She looked at her arm, a flush rising to her cheeks.
"Yeah, there's gotta be a story behind it right?" he urged on.
Rebecca sighed. "You'll probably think it's stupid."
"Only if the story really is stupid, but I doubt that."
She hesitated for a few seconds but finally gave in. "Fine. I was bullied a lot when I was younger, mostly from kids at school. Being the brightest in all my grades, I always stood out, awkwardly. I became notorious throughout my school, was called a bunch of names."
He frowned. "Really? I never would have guessed that. You strike me as the quiet but popular girl."
She laughed softly. "That was me in college, but from Elementary to High school, I was always picked on. In High school, I became friends with this girl. She was really tough…no one messed with her. However, she wasn't the brightest student. One day, she approached me and told me if I helped her with her studies, she'd get people off my back."
"Ah, so I wasn't your first bodyguard then."
"I didn't really see her as my bodyguard!" Rebecca protested.
Billy didn't comment further, a feeling of contentment rising in his chest when she didn't dispute the idea that he was one of her guards.
"She was more like an acquaintance," she continued. "But I changed a lot when I hung out with her. I even went through a 'bad girl' phase, you can say."
One of his eyebrows arched upward. "Okay, now that's something I want to know more about. Do tell."
"Umm…I helped her steal some stuff at a mall, forged some notices for her teachers to explain missing absences, cut classes with her. I met some of her other friends, one of whom taught me how to hotwire a car."
His eyes widened, a jolt of shock leaping to his chest. "Oh, now it makes perfect sense. Wow, out of everyone, I didn't expect Little Miss Perfect to do all that."
Rebecca twisted her arm around, a glowing smile lighting up her face as she looked at the butterfly. "That friend later went on to become a tattoo artist. She's the one who did this for me. I'm grateful to her because she allowed me to change. I became a lot stronger after meeting her and began to stand up for myself. I've always been interested in butterflies, especially metamorphosis in the science curriculums in school."
"And it resembles you too—the change you went through," he concluded.
"Right. I've always been this quiet and shy girl, but I want to be reminded that I am capable of looking out for myself, too. It's one of the reasons I enjoyed S.T.A.R.S.—I wanted to prove that I have what it takes to be one of them. But wow, when I saw how talented everyone on the team was, I began to have some serious doubts again."
"Well, you definitely did stand your ground with me when we first met."
Rebecca scoffed and rolled her eyes. "Yeah, and how did that turn out? You ended up ignoring me and walking away."
Billy winked, momentarily taking his eyes off the road. "Well, I'll admit that I was definitely surprised you even approached me. Not a lot of people do that. Guess I got that scary vibe going on."
"You're…intimidating," she admitted, "but not so much once you start opening up."
He agreed with her, but took a few moments to welcome the swell of warmth embracing his heart. He had not expected to talk to her so easily, as if nothing had come damaged their relationship. The feeling was at once familiar and foreign, calm like gentle waves upon sand and turbulent like the real force hidden beneath dark waters. At first, he thought that the emotion had imploded, the destructive burst shattering every last bit of stability in his body and clutching his windpipe. But then he saw the world before the windshield disappear with a blurry streak of colors—blue, black, red and orange—like smoke and fire catapulting into the sky. He was flying through the air—no, not just him…the entire vehicle was. He instinctively turned to face Rebecca and sensed that she wanted to scream, but he never heard it.
When he hit land again, only deafening silence filled his ears; the sweltering pain came seconds after.
A/N: I apologize for the time I took with this update (and it's not even that long of a chapter either ^^;). Real life got in the way yet again, ugh. Next chapter will be filled with more action, which is practically non-existent here, but we got to know another bit about Rebecca's and Billy's past. As always, thank you for reading and supporting this story. Please review!