Strength Through Wounding
AN - Well, here we are. Two stories in one year; it feels kind of surreal. This is the final chapter, the epilogue, the end, whatever way you want to put it. It is pretty much Chris and Jill's 'epilogue', so hopefully those of you who were fans of the other characters won't mind too much :). It was a lot harder to write than I had anticipated.
Anyway, about the sequel. I will be taking a short break before I move on to it, but my definition of 'short' varies from day to day. When I claim I'm taking a break I often get bored and end up going back after a day or two, so it may be up in a couple of weeks. The title is currently 'Blindside', so keep an eye out for it :). It is set at the beginning of the BSAA as we know it, and the main characters this time will be Chris, Jill, Leon and Claire. Action, horror, drama, romance, zombies; there's a bit of everything in it. But that's saying enough for now.
A huge thank you goes out to everyone who has supported me over the course of this story by reading, reviewing, and adding it to favourites and alerts lists. To everyone who reviewed last chapter - Ultimolu (number 100, thank you!), MathiasMatt, /k/ommando, .-SnipingWolf, Ivilith, Rock Lees Lotus, KT324, cjjs, Sparkle Valentine, Kenshin13, xSummonerYunax and J.L. Zielesch - you rock! Thank you so much for sticking with me, there is no way I would have found the motivation to push myself this far if it wasn't for all your wonderful feedback. I promise to try my best not to disappoint with the sequel.
January 3, 1999. 7:30pm
The streets were different here in winter. For one, the French did not seem to fear the cold. Though temperatures had not yet fell to obscene levels, they were still low enough to push Chris into using the internal heater of the car. He had been lucky to find that it was exactly where he had left it, and that he was still in possession of the keys.
"Should I be worried?" Claire asked quietly. The silence was unusual. At the very least, they should be bickering like children by now. Instead, not a word was spoken and Chris remained deep in contemplative thought.
He had not quite been the same since the days of Raccoon's destruction and in all fairness did not believe that he would see the world in the same light ever again. There was no way of knowing if she had escaped, but if the death toll was anything to go by then she was little more than a statistic these days.
'She could have made it out,' he told himself - his nineteen-year-old sister had been lucky enough to survive all that had occurred; a fact for which he was eternally grateful. But made it out into what? Umbrella's presence in the French capital was far greater than he had anticipated. Driven out in a simple matter of days, how could he be sure that her fate had been any kinder? Claire's sure as hell had not been.
He did not know if Claire would receive the letter he posted, but he allowed it to slip into the postal box nonetheless. Paris felt strange, so isolated without a familiar face nearby. He had never holidayed alone in his life. Not that he would consider present days as a holiday.
"Non!" a small voice pleaded. Chris turned to observe the struggling figure of a small girl, her tanned skin and deep brown curls so out of place, even with the black beret she wore proudly above the mass of hair.
A man he assumed to be the girl's father tugged at her wrist almost violently, but she stubbornly refused to be moved. There were very few others in the quiet square, but her cries were barely audible above the cheer of a nearby street band, playing to those seated at a quaint though likely rather expensive café.
He coughed into a closed fist and turned to leave. Wandering in a strange city when he could barely order a beer let alone ask for directions was not the best idea.
It was as he passed closer to the wrestling family that he noticed another man, clad in a suit almost identical to the first, rush to the girl and pull on her other arm, this time their endeavour proving successful. The girl continued to struggle, her expression now quite plainly one of fear. She could not have been older than seven, and though he did not have an ear for accents upon foreign words, he was sure that she was not natively French.
"Lâche-moi!" the girl cried, though the men paid her no attention. Chris changed the direction of his stroll, anger throbbing in time with his pulse.
"M'aider!" she screamed. "M'aider!"
"Hey!" Chris called, now close enough to grab the arm of one of the suits. "What the hell are you doing?"
One man looked to the other and all the while the girl continued to struggle with their iron-tight grip.
"Help me!" she pleaded. "Not my papa!"
He had expected the men to refute this claim, not to push against him and move to flee. What they had not anticipated was that Chris was far stronger and much more skilled at maintaining balance than they had anticipated. A well-placed punch and several rather brutal kicks later and it was his hand that the girl grasped. He wasted no time in raising her in his arms, holding her tightly as he took them both far away from the stunned would-be kidnappers.
The poor girl was terrified, and clung to his T-shirt desperately, tears streaming down her cheeks. He had never seen an attempt at child abduction in such a public and well-lit area, especially not in the hours of daylight. Whoever the perpetrators were, they had obviously not expected the child to put up such a tremendous fight.
"Are you okay?" he asked the girl, attempting to loosen the grip she had around his neck. If anyone attempted to snatch her now, they would have to take him with them, as the boundaries between adult and child became uncertain even to him. He could have held his hands in the air and she still would have hung from his frame.
"Oui," she nodded. "Oh, sorry...you Americano?"
"Yeah, kid," he answered, searching their surroundings now that they had come to a halt. "Where are your parents?"
"Papa is bad man," she insisted. "Mama rescue...she help me. I don't know where she go."
It was obvious that English was not her first language, and neither was French.
"It's okay," he hushed. "My name is Chris. I won't hurt you, I promise."
At this assurance, she rested her head against his chest, stubborn still in her desire to be under his protection.
"Gabriella!" The voice called out to him before he laid eyes on the woman, frantic in her sprint towards the girl.
"Mama!" the girl exclaimed and finally relinquished her painful grip, allowing Chris to lower her to the ground. She was in the arms of the woman a moment later, affection showered down upon her in what must have been a smothering display.
The woman was obviously mother to the girl; the similarities were undeniable. Olive skin, healthy brunette curls framing a slender and attractive face. She could not have been older than early-thirties.
"Mama, this is Chris!" the girl declared. "Chris help me. He American!"
Hazel eyes met cold blue orbs, and though she rose to her feet suspicion remained etched into every twist of expression. It seemed that her gratitude far outweighed whatever suspicion she harboured, and she extended a hand.
"Alejandra," she smiled. Her accent was not as prominent as her daughter's, and he could not distinguish it from French. "Thank you, Chris. I cannot begin to explain the depths of my gratitude. If there is anything I can do..."
"No!" he gasped, suddenly. "No...no. Ma'am, you're daughter is safe, that's enough for me."
As she altered her posture, he caught a glimpse of pale skin beneath her plentiful hair; a scar that ran from her left cheekbone down to the very edge of her jaw, just beneath the ear.
"Chris..." she murmured, snapping him from a momentary reverie. "Thank you."
It seemed that interest had suddenly been found in both his features and in his name. Had he not known it were impossible, he would have thought that she recognised him.
"Please try to pay full attention to the road," Claire urged. "I know you're depressed but I have no intention of dying before I can legally drink."
"Legally?" There was something in her tone that told him what he had feared; while he himself had been heavy on the alcohol since he could open a beer bottle, he had no desire for his little sister to fall into the dark world of intoxication.
"I think this is it," she laughed, pointing to a lone house up ahead. There were no vehicles on the driveway, no children in the garden and certainly no vile lawn ornaments, the likes of which decorated the gardens of many other houses on the street.
He had yet to see the dwelling Barry had successfully obtained for himself and Rebecca, and the only information he had pertaining to their whereabouts was obtained through the small circle of contacts he had gathered since leaving Paris all those months ago. They had told him that he was foolish to return, but he refused to listen. Plain and simple, he missed his friends. At the very least he could quiz Barry on his attempted rescue mission; if Jill's body had not been found then she was still alive, she had to be.
"Four five two," Claire read, squinting at the number on the front door as the car rolled onto the driveway.
Chris fumbled in the glove compartment, searching for the cigarettes that may or may not have been smoked already.
"Chris," Claire whispered softly. "You need to relax. I'm sure that Jill is alright, but this is bigger than her. You'll be no good to anyone if you're an emotional wreck. If you need to talk, I'm here, but please don't fall apart in front of the others."
He scowled in her direction, partly because he knew that she had a very good point. The emptiness within his chest would not be filled by anger or the wounded provocation of fear, no matter how good it felt to lash out. The pain was on him, every action that hurt her and drove her away due only to his insecurities. He should never have acted so unfairly in the first place; he would deal with the pain, because it was all on him.
"Hey," she hissed with an awkward smile. "She hated the ass side of your personality. You think she would want it to take over full time?"
Laughter escaped his throat at this. If it were not for the 'ass side of his personality', he would perhaps not be in this position. But would the loss be less significant if they had reconciled in time? No, no it wouldn't. Because she would still be gone.
'But there's hope,' he told himself. 'There's always hope. This is Jill Valentine we're talking about; she would have found a way to survive.'
Chris threw open the car door, ignoring the bags in the trunk of the car. There would be time for that later; friends awaited.
The house was old in design - far more antique than he had seen in the States - though was surprisingly not in a state of disrepair. Paint flaked from the window ledges, and the sturdy wood of the porch had begun to rot in the damp condition of the season, but it appeared to be just another average family house, and not the hiding place of Umbrella's most wanted.
"Come on, loser," Claire joked, hooking her arm into his for all the comfort and irritation it offered.
He braced himself, breathing deeply as he raised bruised knuckles to rap sturdily on the front door.
Chris jumped, upright in a bed that had proven far too comfortable. Had he been dreaming?
Again, a rapid succession of knocks against the door.
Switching suddenly to a mode of defensive aggression, he reached for the knife at the side of his bed and lowered himself quietly to the polished floorboards. It was two thirty in the morning, and nobody knew who the hell he was, let alone where he lived; there was no reason for an early-morning call.
The corridor outside of the apartment was dark, casing shadows over his visitor as he peered through the peek-hole. Left with no other option, he began to unbolt the door, knife held tightly behind his back.
"Chris Redfield?" asked a deep, masculine voice before the door had uncovered the face of its owner.
Chris did not recognise his features, though his words were coated with a thick British accent. It was not smooth or even friendly, and neither was the voice that spoke his name.
Without further pause for thought, he reached for the collar of the British stranger, pulling him inside the apartment only to slam his lean frame against the wall. He could better see the lines of his face now; late twenties, perhaps, nose twisted at an angle that suggested a recent break, dark brunette hair parted by a thin scar that extended roughly two inches into the hairline. It was clear that he had seen his fair share of action.
"Who the hell are you?" Chris demanded, pressing his trusty knife against the throat of the struggling man.
A slender hand appeared suddenly on his bare arm, tanned skin striking chords of familiarity within his mind.
"Chris, he means no harm."
"Alej, get 'im off me," the Brit demanded. With an inconvenient thud, he fell to the floor. "Fuckin' yanks."
"Matthew, I warned you..."
"That's ace, that is," he groaned, rubbing his irritated neck. "Knew you'd side with 'im."
Chris watched the exchange in confusion. The woman - Alejandra, was that her name? - he recognised from earlier that day; the mother of the girl he had saved in a simple act of kindness. This was the first occasion upon which a spontaneous act of kindness had led to him being roused in the middle of the night, answering the door in nothing but his boxers and a knife he was more than prepared to use.
"I'm sorry," Alejandra apologised in her soothing accent, which Chris had decided was far easier to understand than the angry man's. "We did not think it safe to come in daylight. It will be safer if we talk inside, may we come in?"
Was he in a position to refuse?
"Sure," he relented.
"You are Chris Redfield, right?" asked Matthew when the apartment was safely locked and a shirt now covered his bare chest. "S.T.A.R.S. and all that shit?"
"Yeah," he answered. He tried hard not to be offended by the mention of 'S.T.A.R.S.' and 'shit' in the same sentence; this man by no means spoke the Queen's English and he assumed that it was a dialect issue and not an intention of offence. "Can't say I'm familiar with either of you."
"Matthew Stockard," he introduced, holding out a hand doubtlessly for mere formality. "This is Alejandra Benítez-Romero"
"Benítez," Alejandra corrected. "But names are not important. We are here because we think you can help us, Chris...and I know that we can help you."
Chris felt as though he had missed a large part of the conversation. He had little doubt that half of his mind was still sleeping, and the limited number of brain cells that were at his disposal at that particular moment in time were having difficulty in grasping the particulars of her explanation.
"Alej, let me do all the explaining," Matthew offered, obviously sensing the other man's confusion. "We're members of...well, I guess you could call it an anti-Umbrella group."
Suddenly, he had the attention of every available brain cell, and a few more that had woken at the mention of 'anti-Umbrella'.
"We're a sorry little gang," he continued. "Only 'bout six of us at the moment, but it's enough. We heard about what happened at that mansion; read all the stories an' everything. Alej here, she came to us yesterday babbling about how one of the Americans we'd read about saved her kid and...well we 'ad to look into it."
"Wait a minute," Chris interrupted. "Anti-Umbrella? How?"
Alej turned from them both, and Matthew looked to her with concern in his eyes. All of a sudden, Chris regretted probing; the subject of the mansion was still a sore one to touch upon, and he it only made sense that the others had likely faced similar horrors.
"Some of us used to work for Umbrella," Matthew explained. "Some of us are family of people hurt by what they've done. Alej here...she used to work for the evil-"
"I was a researcher," she was sure to emphasise. "Back home in Argentina. It was legitimate work in pharmacology. My husband also worked for the same research facility, as head of their legal department..."
As she turned back to them, she touched her left forearm tenderly.
"One day, I was approached by the head of section," she continued. "I was offered a promotion, which I soon found out was to take charge of a portion of their illegal research. I was appalled by their actions, as were many others, and I declined. I left the company with the intention of reporting them to the government... Then they took her, my little Gabriella."
Chris was sure that his heart did not beat. His throat ran dry and his extremities tingled; all signs of a fear response, though he was not in immediate danger. It was the girl, he assumed...Umbrella had begun to experiment on Lisa Trevor when she was little more than a child. They did not discriminate on the grounds of age, race or gender. A test subject was a test subject.
"My husband did nothing," she sobbed. "He told me to give in, to work for them. They threatened me with my little girl, but I still refused. Then they...got violent."
Slowly, she pulled back the thick material of her polo neck jumper. A thick sliver of scar tissue ran from just below her wrist to the elbow, curving around her forearm. His eyes flitted automatically to the scar at her cheek, and suddenly the story was complete.
"I don't know for how long they beat me before I found the strength to fight back," she breathed. "But I did, and I found Gabriella and I ran. Soon after, I found out that I was a wanted woman; my husband claimed that I had kidnapped our daughter. I had heard stories about kidnapped children being taken to Japan, so that's where I went. The authorities wouldn't help me, not in any country I fled to. Perhaps that was their plan. After a few weeks of lying low, I came to Europe, and I met another with a similar story to tell. I vowed that I would not let that corporation get away with what they have done."
He dared not break the silence that fell. Though he was childless, he could imagine the pain she must have suffered witnessing her daughter being used as a pawn against her. What he could not imagine was the limits of his fury if Claire was used in such a way.
"So you see," Matthew spoke quietly. "Umbrella have been hurting people for years. My uncle used to work for 'em, few years back. Was the only family to leave Liverpool in a decade; kind of ironic. He found out what they were doing, tried to expose 'em. So they had 'im killed...but not before he sent all he'd found to someone trustworthy; me. The police wouldn't do nothin', nobody would. So I decided to take things into my own hands, kind of like what you lot are doing."
It made sense that Umbrella had hurt more than those in Raccoon, but he had never anticipated meeting any of these so-called 'anti-Umbrella operatives'. They were more than a campaign group, but less than a guerrilla faction. They were freedom fighters; hearts aching for justice.
"We want you to join us, Chris," Alej pleaded.
"Honorificabilitudinitatibus?" Jill read, unsure if she was reading the word from the correct end. "That is not a word."
"I think you'll find it is," Leon insisted with a smug grin that was beginning to grind on her patience. "If Shakespeare used it, it's a real word."
"Shakespeare, huh?" She did not know if she was more amazed that the strange man read Shakespeare or that he could quote such a complex word from the Bard's work.
"Love's Labour's Lost," he drawled. "Act five, scene one. Honestly, Valentine, I'm extremely underwhelmed by your vocabulary."
There was no point in fighting a battle she was sure to lose and so she awarded him points that rendered his position unbeatable. He had effectively won.
"Remind my why I'm playing Scrabble with you?" she asked with an amused sigh.
"Because you took advantage of those of us who do not have English as a first language," Carlos reminded her, not even bothering to glance up from the magazine he pored over.
Leon chuckled as he cleared the board and met her eyes as though to ask if she were ready for another round. Ready to be thoroughly embarrassed twice in one evening? Put simply: no.
She suppressed the urge to demand that he return to America and leave her to her reigning title of Scrabble Champion, but decided that the pleasure of his company was worth the occasional reminder that her intellectual spirit was being challenged on an almost daily basis. There was something about Leon Kennedy that she found easy to connect to. He understood her in ways the others did not, and provided conversation that was both intellectually stimulating and pleasurable to engage in. It felt on many levels that she had found the male equivalent of herself. A terrifying thought in it's own right, but it pleased her for now.
His entrance into their rather small group had occurred quite by chance. Upon arriving in Paris, Barry had succeeded in making contact with two members of an anti-Umbrella campaign group. Two members were all they had, the others having been apparently driven from the city days earlier. As the weeks passed, more and more members joined their cause; survivors of Raccoon, friends and families of victims alongside those who believed that something was not quite right about the 'pandemic'. It was not long before members with power had joined, several of whom had current, usable ties to the US and French governments.
A few days before the evening they currently slogged through, Leon had approached them with the claim that he knew the younger of the Redfield siblings. He was under government care, but did not appear to be in their employ. All that he would disclose was the receipt of an SOS from Claire Redfield, and the attempts to contact her brother that he hoped had been successful. He had hoped to find that Chris was amongst their group so that he would learn of Claire's fate, but alas he was not.
Jill did not know why he remained with them when he would often mention the need to return to America. She could not help but wonder if he waited for the same reasons as she; the Redfield siblings.
Three months had passed since Chris's apartment had been found ransacked, and in that time there was not a whisper of his whereabouts. With every dead end that they stumbled upon, she found that the hope of his survival slipped further through her fingers. What had once been healthy optimism now bordered on plain delusion. If he was truly out there, would she ever see him again? She hoped so; her well of tears was steadily running dry.
A hollow knock echoed throughout the entrance passageway, and suddenly silent alarm bells rang. Living in the shadows sure took its toll on the nerves.
"Stay here," Barry instructed as he appeared at the foot of the stairs, tucking his oversized firearm into the waistband of his jeans.
She began to help Leon pack the contents of the game that had prematurely ended into its badly beaten box. Entertainment was scarce, and it seemed that Scrabble was now on her list of 'games not to play with Leon'. When she considered the fact that Monopoly was missing several property cards, snakes and ladders had only one pawn and the only deck of cars they owned was missing three aces and the King of Spades, she felt that they had an extremely boring wait ahead of them.
Because wait was all they could do.
Voices hummed in the hallway past the living room, friendly conversation unintelligible but there nonetheless. Of course, the only individuals who knew their whereabouts were the other members of their so-called 'group'. It seemed that the conversation dried up in a short matter of minutes, and Barry stepped back into the living area with a more relaxed posture and cheek-splitting smile.
"You are not going to believe what just dragged its ass in," he laughed. It was strange to see a smile through the thicket his beard had become.
Curious now, Jill watched as a young girl stepped into view, seeming to push stubbornly past a much larger frame that remained out of view.
It had been almost a year since she had last seen Claire Redfield, but the woman who seemed to find her appearance rather hysterical was definitely the younger of the Redfields. Those bright blue eyes were unmistakeable, and she had envied the tone of her silky hair long enough to recognise the girl it belonged to.
Claire's eyes snapped suddenly to Leon, who had quickly risen to his feet upon her arrival.
"A phone call would have been nice," he scowled, though Jill detected the same relief within his words that she felt in her heart. Having known of Claire's predicament, she too had worried for the girl.
As realisation seeped through the happiness of her thoughts, she weighed the meaning of Claire's return against what she knew to be true.
'That would mean...'
There was no mistaking the face of the man who followed, even before those cold blue eyes met hers.
"Chris..." His name came as little more than a whisper, and she was sure that he had not heard her utterance.
He was a haunted man in that moment, expression frozen somewhere between casual nonchalance and relieved disbelief. The moment was too surreal to contemplate; in many ways she felt as though they were meeting for the very first time. Something crackled in the air, something potent and unforgiving but completely nameless.
"Would the three of you like to show me the rest of the house?" Claire asked, catching what the others had failed to see.
"Oh, yes...yes," Carlos hurried, casting his magazine carelessly aside. Jill was vaguely aware of the emptying of the room, of the severing of souls from the moment, but she could not bring herself to care.
"You...you made it," Chris gasped, a smile finally breaking through the shock. He stepped forward, long legs carrying him hastily to her. "You-"
She did not know what made her raise her hand to him, only that her palm throbbed terribly from the impact. Her entire body shook; from rage or relief, she could not tell. She was sure that the tremors measured somewhere on the Richter Scale.
Her assault had silenced him. Would he speak again? She could not find the nerve.
"Still holding back," he chuckled humourlessly. "I deserved a closed fist at least."
Hands covered her face, trembling fingers sliding past her hairline. Words caught within her throat, sentiments suddenly amounting to naught. How could she tell him all that she felt in one breath? There was a side of her that wanted to throttle him for making her worry, another that wished the same but for his actions prior to his departure, but there was a softer side that simply wanted to express her unending gratitude to whatever higher force had brought him back to her.
As usual, her body seemed to be one step ahead of her mind, and she was in his arms, startled to feel them wind tightly around her. He smelled just as she remembered; tobacco and familiarity. It was strange how something as simple as a scent touched upon levels than her emotions had yet to reach. There was comfort in his arms and she sought it out greedily, convincing herself that he owed her that much.
He pulled back before she became dependent on his comfort, reaching up to place a hand on each cheek. Somewhere between slap and embrace, she had shed tears, though she could not recall the sensation of crying. His lips fell next, kissing away the salty liquid, bringing warmth to her frozen skin.
His desperation was matched only by her own and eventually lonely lips found one another. Whatever it was she felt that he needed to know, it was evident in what ensued. The kiss was not gentle, not by any means. It was the kiss of two individuals who knew that the moment was soon to end; desperate but loving, exchanging everything that was needed in the sensuality of the moment.
Then, it was as though her mind suddenly snapped, and the moment was pulled from her.
"I...can't," she gasped into his open mouth as she pulled away, putting more distance between them than was perhaps necessary.
"I'm sorry," he apologised hurriedly. "About everything, Jill. Hell can't be half as bad as what I've been through."
"What you've been through?" she asked incredulously, trying not to dwell on the narcotic taste of his kiss that still lingered, it seemed, within every corner of her mouth. "Did you think I would shrug off your leaving without saying a word? I tried to find you, Chris, but you left...you-"
She had tried for far too long to suppress the memories of that day, but found that they all came rushing forth at once as she confronted him. It had never been her intention to dive straight into an argument, but events appeared to have turned in that direction.
"You didn't even call!" she cried out. "We found your apartment, completely destroyed, your knife covered in blood on the floor...and you didn't even call!"
There was no breath to carry her words and she recognised that she sounded confused, dazed and perhaps unsure of what she intended to say. Looking into her surprisingly empty mind, she found that this was truly how she felt and not simply the manifestation of surprise.
"I'm sorry," he repeated, and she could tell that he had never forced so much meaning into those words as he did now.
It seemed to be enough, at least for her heart. She finally felt able to listen to reason.
"I never should have left you," he stated. His hands slid up her arms, injecting soul into his words.
There was a bang again on the door that night, more forceful than that which had woken him several days earlier. Late night visits, it seemed, were commonplace within his adopted group. He was sure to pull on the clothes he had prepared for the following morning before turning to the visitors he made note to shoo away were it not important.
He unchained the door, pulled the lock- and flew backwards, colliding painfully with the frame of the bed.
There was barely enough time for him to regain his balance before he fell again, struck by a blow powerful enough to stun but weaker than he knew how to deal with. His assailant was ironically masked, moving so fast it did not register immediately that there were two intruders, each one striking him at every available opportunity.
Fists collided with the coils of the mattress as he dodged a particularly heavy blow, leaping up to catch a masked figure off guard whilst delivering a series of powerful strikes to the ribs. Stunned, they fell to the floorboards and with a sudden spin, he slashed at the arm of the second in time to deflect a strike from the assailant's own weapon.
Arms held his back, knocking the knife from his grasp. He could not move, restricted in a position he was simply not flexible enough in pain to free himself from.
All fell as something painfully hard collided with the human restraint.
"Run!" shouted Matthew.
"I'm not leaving you," Chris insisted, wrestling a black figure to the ground. He was not given an opportunity to consider the implications of Matthew's sudden arrival.
"Alej's in the van wi' the others!" he grunted. "Outside. I'll follow, now go!"
Chris obeyed. The men were eager but weak. He had sparred with Matthew several times in the past few days and had a series of nasty bruises to show for it; he was more than capable of handling himself.
Slinging a nearby duffel over his shoulder, he raced to the bottom of the complex, darted across the parking lot and jumped into the familiar blue van, pulling inside the small child that had leaned out to wave.
"Stay safe," he reminded her, tousling her hair amicably.
"Where is Matthew?" asked the driver.
"I'm here, go, go, go!" cried the man in question, feet still touching the tarmac as the van began to move. They were clear in a matter of minutes, no one on their tail and nothing in the way.
Chris wasted no time in demanding to know what had happened.
"Édouard," Alej explained. "He sold us out. Umbrella have been observing us all for the past two days, and when we discovered that he was a traitor, they began to attack. We lost Étienne; we were scared we would lose you, too."
"We worry," Gabriella whined as she left her mother's side to hold his arm. She had been rather fond of him ever since the day he had met her mother, relying on him perhaps a little too much. He did not mind the attention, and quite liked the company of the child. She was wise beyond her years, though her English was limited. On the quiet days he would teach her useful words and she in turn would school him in French and Spanish. Though, as pleasant as every moment with her was, it only brought home the depths of his desire to one day be a father, and the disheartening truth of the reality that it may no longer be an option.
"I'm alright," he assured her, holding onto her small frame as a sharp bump rocked the van. "I promised I would be, didn't I?"
She nodded happily, though remained by his side. The scene brought a smile to Alejandra's thin lips and appreciation could be sensed in the intensity of her gaze. Alej was another member of the team he had grown to be quite fond of, in more ways than he would like to admit to. She was smart, attractive, strong...she reminded him so much of his absent partner. Yet in the same way, she was not Jill, and somehow that made all the difference.
"Where are we going?" he asked, suddenly aware that said partner could in fact be landing in Paris at that very moment.
"Belgium," Matthew informed him. "It's small, Umbrella's presence there is limited-"
"Whoa," Chris interrupted, halting his friend's speech. "I can't leave Paris."
"Why the hell not?"
"My friends, they-"
Matthew groaned audibly, frustrated already at his forthcoming excuse.
"Forget about yer mates," he explained. "Umbrella have got tabs on us all. If we don't leave, they'll kill us, simple as."
Death was not a suitable reason to flee, not when they would be here any day. Something told him that Matthew would not understand this; he had left a family behind in England, all for the sake of the fight.
"No, you don't understand," he pressed angrily. "My friends are my teammates, they are here for the same reason we are. I can't just leave them."
"Ah, give yer chin a rest," Matthew groaned before his expression turned serious. "Umbrella have their eye on you, nor' on them. They don't know they're here."
"Matthew is right," Alej agreed, cutting off their Scouse friend. Her manner was far softer than the males of the team; perhaps she believed that she could appeal to him on another level. "If you contact your friends, Umbrella will likely find out. You will lead the enemy right to them. The farther from them you are, the safer they will be, at least until we shake their attention."
"A few months lying low should do the trick."
Reluctant though he was to accept their assurance, he knew that they were right. His feelings did not come into this, but their safety did. He would rather die than needlessly risk the lives of his friends.
"I'm sorry," he repeated, as though the quantity of the sentiment would increase its value. "I couldn't risk exposing you all."
She fell into silence as she contemplated his story. He made no excuses for his actions, spoke only of the realities he had faced; he was being honest.
The warmth of his fingertips travelled up her arms, strong hands gripping her shoulders. Then the right fell away, exposing the skin of her left shoulder to the cool air.
"What-" he began. "What is this?"
She made to cover her scar, though the damage had already been witnessed.
"Don't change the subject," she defended. Memories of what occurred in the final days of Raccoon City were still painful to remember, and her reluctance to speak of those events would likely cause further argument between them.
"Jill, what happened?" His voice was firm this time, demanding in a way that called every one of her senses to attention; was she on trial?
"It's nothing," she insisted, shrugging away his hand as it traced the pink outline. Phantom pain still festered beneath the skin and every single memory that came with the reminder of that monster was unwelcome. It was not the monster itself she had feared; it was the feeling of being hunted, of knowing that no matter where you ran to, evil would find you and it would hurt you.
"You were there?" he whispered when the obvious dawned upon him. "Jill..."
"Stop saying my name!" she hissed. She did not truly mind, but the way he spoke the word brought a false sense of guilt down upon her and she knew that she owed him nothing.
"Yes, I was there," she snapped. "I stayed because no one else was helping those people! You have no idea what it was like, Chris. I watched my neighbours turn into those monsters, I saw people turn their guns on themselves when they weren't even infected! I watched one of their bioweapons cut Brad down."
Her words brought pain to his eyes, and though it was not a sight she relished, she found that she could not help but to push forward.
"What?" Chris gasped. "No, he-"
"He's dead," she growled. "The thing that killed him; it came after me. It killed one of the men who tried to help me, and then it infected me. That is how I got this scar."
Speechless was not a state she had ever expected to find Chris Redfield in. He always had something to say about everything; a complaint, a joke, even a compliment he liked to pretend was not heartfelt.
"You can't imagine what it was like." Her voice cracked as she choked on the bitter memories. Pain, confusion...death. "To...to feel your body slowly dying, and your mind decaying with it. The pain was bad enough, but the hallucinations... It's not an experience you want to live through."
"Are you cured?" he asked quietly, expression horror-stricken. He was not quite reacting the way she had expected him to. This was not what she had prepared for in the few seconds she had allocated for logical thinking. Comfort was silently offered to her and his seemingly empathetic approach to her ordeal made it so that she wanted nothing more than to accept and forget all that she had learned during their time apart.
"Yes," she confirmed, losing the will to shout or scold. "Carlos - the man with dark hair that was in here before - he, uh- he found a prototype vaccine Umbrella were working on at Raccoon General and luckily it worked. He saved my life."
A grateful smile was misinterpreted and she witnessed a flicker of jealousy in his otherwise concerned eyes. Inwardly, she smiled. Jealousy was a difficult emotion to provoke in this man, she knew that well. If he cared for her enough to feel this hideous emotion, then he cared enough to enable her to open her guarded heart just a little.
"Carlos?" He spoke the word as though it were something despicable.
"He's a very good friend," she enthused. It was perhaps best not to poke a sleeping dragon in the eye, but she could not help herself. If he truly felt for her then this was her in; he would never admit to it of his own accord. To her delight, the flicker became something more substantial and this time did not fade.
"That's all we are," she laughed. "Friends."
"Friends like us?"
Somehow her attempt at diffusal failed miserably, serving only to fuel the fire she wished she had not lit.
"Don't start with that," she groaned. Frustration drove her to pace the carpet, brought to a standstill only when she collided unintentionally with a wooden chair and dropped into it to mask her mishap.
"Did you get my message?"
Should she admit to it? It frustrated her that she could not identify her true feelings amidst the flurry of defensive reasoning within her mind. She knew what she wanted from him, and what she was willing to offer in return; where she stood in the matter of her affection for him and how she wanted to react to this. But the underlying emotions remained cleverly disguised, as did all other harmful thoughts.
"I did," she breathed. "Thank you, but..."
Could she go through with it? Her chest constricted at the very thought of admitting her innermost feelings to him. On any other occasion she would have lied, but she was ready to bare her heart and soul and admit just what she felt.
"I can't do this anymore." Tears pricked at the corner of her eyes, the edges of her lips twitching dangerously downward. "I know that I am not blameless, but I have spent far too long nursing feelings that you have hurt. This isn't me, Chris, this isn't what I do! I don't cry over men, I don't lose my mind because some guy is talking to me one moment and ignoring me the next. You know me, I roll with this stuff...but it's different with you, and I can't explain it."
"I-" he began, close enough to her now that she could feel his body heat. Still, she did not rise, and though she waited for him to join her at the table he continued to remain standing.
"Just listen," she begged. "If you care as much as you claim you do, then just listen."
He heeded this request with the obedience of a lap dog. The distance between them increased as he moved away to rest against the back of the sofa, hands shoved into the front pockets of his naturally-distressed jeans. She could tell that he was safeguarding both himself and her, creating space between them so that he would not be tempted to interrupt.
"I don't care what your reasons for leaving were," she admitted. "Whether or not it was your intention to make me feel as though you just didn't give a shit, that's what you achieved. I really don't care what you do now. I don't care what you say, because nothing could possibly hurt me any more than-"
The first tear escaped, and though she could sense in his body language that he desperately wanted to speak, he remained respectfully silent. If she had thought that complete obedience would make this task any easier, she was wrong. It only showed that he was willing to do whatever she asked to repair the damage they had both caused to their friendship and to each other. Sad though it was to accept, she did not want him to obey; she wanted him to argue, to fight, and she would get angry and they would kiss and somehow it would all work out.
'But that only happens in the movies,' she realised with a disappointed heart. It was wounded, and required the protection of a mind that worked hard to remain resolute.
"I don't want you to be sorry, so please don't say that you are. We both know that the blame is shared. I've exhausted myself worrying about you and about us, and I just don't have the energy to keep up with this anymore."
She rose to her feet, hoping that it would provoke him into forgetting what she had requested and making a move of his own. When he did not move other than to return his gaze to hers, she boldly stepped up to where he stood. She could feel that her admission had hurt him, but sensed that the pain did not surround her words or what they had implied.
Her proximity startled him at first, but he adjusted to the unnatural warmth and reached for a clammy hand. The reflexive action to hiss when he felt just how cold her fingers were dissipated when he saw light return to her eyes. He did not blame her for what she had said; how could he when she spoke only of her feelings? It warmed him considerably to watch her fight once again, to assert herself and stand up as the Jill Valentine he knew and loved and defend herself against something that he had simply not yet learned how to express without inflicting pain on at least one party.
'If she cares enough to be honest...'
"I've never felt like this before," she laughed. "I've felt joy and overwhelming happiness, and pain and despair. But nothing compares to this. It's overwhelming and I can't control it. It's terrifying. But somehow, I don't want to control it or even fight it; I don't think I could breathe without it."
How could he tell her that he agreed? He was too afraid to speak, lest the truth come tumbling from his tongue. The truth was too dangerous in its current form. Understanding was all that they could ask for.
"Let's wait until Umbrella is finished," he suggested. "We can deal with all of this when that happens. You are my friend above everything, Jill, and I don't want to lose that."
She nodded in agreement and allowed him to pull her towards his body, enveloping her with arms that he promised himself would find their way back around that body some day.
"For what it's worth," she whispered, the sound muffled by the thick fabric of his sweatshirt. "I can't wait for that day."
"No more emotional drama?"
"We both know that isn't going to happen."
Her rigid body relaxed against him as she finally released the tension he could feel radiating from her the moment he stepped through the door. It was as though a great invisible burden had been spirited away and she could finally stand up tall and be at ease with herself and with him.
Ease was never a place he expected to find himself returning to, but what he felt could now be described only as such. It was up to him what happened next.
"Have you seen le Louvre yet?" he asked.
She pulled back just enough so that she could observe his expression, perhaps to gauge his seriousness.
"Not yet, no," she replied. "Why?"
"I'm taking you tomorrow."
Naturally, she laughed. He despised art, and she knew this better than anyone. Even the Mona Lisa could not sway him her way.
"Did you hit your head or something? You hate art."
"But you don't," he pointed out. "We need to spend some time learning what normal is before we have any chance of finding our way back there. Besides, I have just as much fun mocking art as you do appreciating it."
She considered his point, though had agreed with it almost instantly. Ruminating over the idea did not seem as eager to her and she did not want to appear desperate to find their way back to where their world used to stand. Slow was the only speed that ensured that their friendship survived intact.
A day at le Louvre could be fun. The realisation that they had few tastes in common had hit her not long after they had first met, but somehow had not prevented her from falling for him. That was the beauty of it in her eyes; what she felt could not be explained, there was no logical reason for attraction. In the end, she surmised that either it was honestly true love that she felt, or that cupid had very poor aim.
"We would make such a strange couple," she mused aloud.
Horrified, she drew a sharp intake of breath and leaned into him again, hoping to disguise the furious blush that rose to her cheeks.
'Speak words, think thoughts,' she scolded herself. 'You're blushing now, fool. How old are you?'
Rather than pull away in fear, he moved his hands in a friendly motion against her back.
"Yeah," he agreed with a deeply appreciated chuckle. "I don't think the world is ready for us...not yet."
And with those two simple words, he offered up a world of hope. Umbrella would fall, she knew that for certain, and when it did... Well, she did not quite know what would happen. Life had taught her to predict nothing, because it always had a funny way of surprising even the most perceptive of people. But she had sensed an unspoken promise in his words, and an admission that he had perhaps not intended to reveal. Whatever happened, she knew that it would be wonderful and this small glimmer of hope gave her strength to push forward and rise up to the woman she needed to be.
She realised now that nothing had truly changed, not with her life, with her work or with her partnership with the one man who could both drive her insane and provide her with incomparable comfort simply with his presence. Beneath all of the confusion, it all remained the same; only now it was more complicated. But complications had a tendency to unravel. With the presence of newfound hope, they all knew that one day they would find their way back to normal.
That is the beauty of faith; it can be misplaced, but never truly lost.
AN - Please review :)