'I may not have gone where I intended to go,
but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.'
~Douglas Adams~

August 31, 12:45pm. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Home sweet home. Somehow Claire did not see it. It was not a home by choice, merely the more convenient living arrangement available to her in her current line of employment.

Her suitcase was once again open, though she was packing only for a few days this time. Following the downfall of Umbrella, they had all went their separate ways but most had striven to remain close to one another. Leon had been almost forcibly relocated to Washington D.C., and Chris and Jill had elected to rent apartments in Arlington, close to the proposed site of the BSAA headquarters while they awaited its activation. The Burtons had followed suit, buying a house in the suburbs while Rebecca secured a position in the pathology department of a nearby hospital. She, on the other hand, had been bound to Philadelphia the moment she decided to join the ranks of Terra Save.

She hoped that one day Terra Save would grow to a size that enabled her to choose which town and which state she was to reside in. So many days were spent alone, away from her friends and family. She simply had no time to visit, despite their relative closeness. Barry's monthly barbecues were the only opportunity she had to spend time with Chris these days and so she, like the others, would drop everything she could to attend.

The doorbell to her small apartment rang and with curiosity and purpose she remotely opened the door, not caring who it was. Nobody listened to her excuses; if they could see how busy she was perhaps they would take their leave. For good measure, she opened her apartment door a crack, waiting until she could hear footsteps down the hallway before she returned to her bedroom.

She slid her flight tickets into an outside pocket of her suitcase, knowing that she would otherwise forget them. She needed this, and did not want her stupidity to hold her back.

"It's not exactly safe, leaving your front door open for anyone to walk through."

The jeans that she held fell from her hands as she turned in shock. Whether it was the sudden presence that surprised her or the voice, she did not know. It was likely that it was both.

"L-Leon?" she stuttered. "What are you doing here?"

She had not seen him since their departure from Texas and a moment that...well, a moment she had dreamed of every night since. She had not known why she had kissed him, or even why he had reciprocated. But no matter how she tried to find some scrap of regret, she could not.

"I've been handed another assignment," he told her, his confidence at a normal level, smile friendly and nothing more. "I have to go away and I don't know when I'll be back. It could be months. I just...wanted to say goodbye before I left."

Four days without a single word and now he shows up on her doorstep, claiming that he 'just wanted to say goodbye'? Leon rented an apartment in Washington D.C., which was more than a short drive away.

"Goodbye," she offered, shrugging her suspicions away. "I guess...I'll see you soon?"

His smile faded, and suddenly his posture was awkward; a far cry from his usual confidence.

Lips parted, breath held as reality slowly returned to the moment. What had she done? What had they done?

She opened her mouth but words did not flow. No regret fell into the emptiness that had consumed her as of late. In fact, what fell in its place was welcome; warm and pleasant, forcing a smile her lips could not seem to form.

"I...I should go," he whispered, nose millimetres from hers.

Those were the only words they had exchanged on the matter. Part of her wished that the situation would never be addressed, but her heart knew where it stood now. She loved him, plain and simple. What she had believed to be an unattainable emotion had instead taken possession of her.

And there was not a damn thing she could do about it.

"Claire, that kiss..." he began, but she could not bring herself to look at him.

"Was nothing," she realised. "I was upset, and you'"

"And what is that supposed to mean?" he countered, affronted. She immediately regretted her words, hurting him without intent.

But they were truthful; he was so much like her brother in the days before he had met Jill, and she knew exactly how Chris worked. A kiss carried the same meaning as a casual greeting.

'But Chris changed,' she reminded herself. 'Maybe Leon has too.'

Her mind could not wrap around this hypothesis. It was love that had changed Chris, and a woman who meant everything to him. Leon was not in love with her and she did not know what she was to him anymore.

"It was just a kiss," she sighed, staving off laughter. "And a damn good one at that."

Leon hummed, apparently flattered by her evaluation. But he made no move to defend himself, to insist that it was anything more than a desperate moment.

"If it was up to you...would you want it to be anything more?" he asked.

Did she? She knew now where her heart lay, but realism beat its message into her skull. So what if she wanted a relationship with him? So what if she wished that his lips would touch none other than hers? Their future was not hers to decide, and she sure as hell did not have time for a relationship.

"Would you?"

He had not expected her to turn the question back on him, and fell stubbornly silent. But she could sense his answer, and knew that it was the same as hers; what did it matter what they wanted? They could kiss again, but that was all it would be. She had already fallen, but there was still time before she fell too deep.

"It's not about what we want," he sighed. "It's about what we can't have. I really like you, Claire, but...this just isn't fair."

To her surprise, not a single tear was shed. Instead, she smiled bitterly in relief.

"It never is," she laughed. "But hey, at least we're still friends. That's something, right?"

"Of course."

When they met for an embrace, it was a friendly one, symbolic of the path they had been treading and would continue to tread until life was a little simpler.

The alarm on her cell beeped furiously and she reached into her pocket, shutting it off without glancing at the screen. The time had come for her to leave, and she knew that Leon must too.

"I wish I could come with you," he chortled. "Tell everyone I said hi."

She assured him that she would as she zipped her suitcase. No matter how packed her schedule became, things were always much worse for him. At least she was able to attend a brief reunion every month. Leon was lucky if he made it to two a year. It was with a heavy heart that she realised this would likely be the case for Chris and Jill soon. Who knew where the BSAA would take them? Wherever it was, she knew that it would be away from her.

"Can I drive you to the airport?" he asked. Drive? She knew for a fact that he would have a driver, and would not even have the need to open the door for her.

"I'll sit in the back of your transport, sure," she laughed. "Just promise to keep in touch, okay?"

August 31, 7:45pm. Arlington, Virginia.

There were many stars out that night, and not a single cloud to obscure them. While the air had cooled considerably as the sun set, there was still a noticeably comfortable warmth on the breeze. Chilled beer, freshly-cooked burgers; it was the perfect end to a difficult month.

Chris deposited another burger onto his paper plate, smiling at Barry as he tended to the barbecue. It was pointless to offer help; he always refused and every mind in attendance knew what happened the last time Chris had been left with a live barbecue. The Burtons appreciated assistance, but appreciated their deck furniture much more.

"It's always strange when you see normal after bloodshed," Carlos commented, startling him a little. "Strange but appreciated."

He held out a cold bottle of beer, condensation dripping down the sides of the glass bottle.

"Can't," Chris sighed, refusing politely. "Jill's still on antibiotics. I know it bugs her when she can't drink with her friends so I'm abstaining too."

Carlos chuckled but shrugged indifferently and raised the bottle to his own lips.

"That's good of you," he told him. "Can't say I'd have done the same."

Ever since that night, something had been different between them, something was there that had not been present before. It was not friendship, not by a long shot, perhaps not even respect, but...something. Appreciation, at the very least. Pride was a difficult thing to overcome, but at the very least Chris had learnt to make a deal with his. Suddenly it was okay for the former mercenary to utter Jill's name, to even acknowledge that he knew her.

He owed the man more than he could ever express for what he did, even if all it had transpired to be was give his fraught and desperate mind a little hope. As he had come to realise, it did not matter what his feelings were for Jill; Carlos was not the man she loved.

"How is she doing?" asked Carlos. "I would have called, but I didn't think..."

"She's your friend," Chris pointed out with a smile. "You don't have to be afraid to call. She's doing fine; still a little sore, but she's going to be okay."

Across the garden, Jill sat alone on a bench by the old apple tree. Its meaning did not go amiss, but he managed to suppress his smirk. He did not want the others throwing questions his way. That kiss may not have been their first, but it had signalled the beginning of a relationship he knew would run deeper than any he had experienced. And he had been right. At times he did not understand it and, admittedly, it scared him a little. But he would not trade a single moment with her for all the peace in the world. He had been unsure of her feelings, insecure in the belief that it was he who was in neck-deep, but now he knew better. They still had a lot to learn, but they would plough through each lesson together and graduate hand in hand, knowing that what they had was the real deal.

'Assuming you don't lose her,' he remembered. 'That was one hell of a close call.'

But he would not lose her. He was her partner now - official in every capacity - and they would have to drag him kicking and screaming into the bowels of hell before he would allow anything to happen to her.

"Listen," he found himself saying as his thoughts drifted and his mind wandered. "I never said thank you for what you did. Not...not just for going after her, but for- I guess I'm trying to say thank you, for being there for me too. I was so angry when they pulled her out...I dread to think what I would have done if you had not been there."

Carlos was silent, perhaps digesting an awkward message of thanks from a man he was sure would have rather scratched out his own eyes than do such a thing. But his appreciation was heartfelt.

"It was nothing," he shrugged. "I'm glad Nicholai's behind bars, that's all. I hope the bastard rots there."

His hope was kind compared to the thoughts Chris afforded the man. Jill kept silent about her nightmares, but there had been a few. She may have blamed her tossing and turning on the medication, but he knew better. He had experienced a fair share of his own, always losing her in those final moments. It was a dark world, one where Nicholai's words had been gospel and there was never much of her to reclaim.

Despite the severity of the situation, he had to admit that the time she had spent as his housemate was perhaps the happiest he had felt since their kiss beneath the apple tree. He wondered if it had something to do with her agreement with his reckless suggestion of marriage. In all honesty, he had expected her to shoot him down, to claim that it was too early...but she had agreed, had smiled so brilliantly that he fought with the rising urge to ask her then and there.

"I still love her, you know."

The admission had been so quiet yet so confident, and Chris could feel his skin flush with underlying rage. He was sure that it had been an innocent declaration, perhaps a test to determine how it sounded aloud without the echo that thoughts often carried.

"And before you punch me - which I can tell from your expression you're about three seconds away from doing - hear me out," Carlos coughed.

The fire could not be calmed, but Chris succeeded in suppressing it for a while, counting to ten in his mind's eye.

"It's my own damn fault," Carlos explained. "After Raccoon, I thought she would give up on you after so long without a word. It was a crush at first, but the closer I got to her, the harder I fell. It didn't take me long to realise that what she felt for you was a hell of a lot more than the silly crush I had first thought it to be. But by then, it was too late. I'd let her open up to me, and instead of letting me in, it was I who let her in. Even now, when I see how happy she is with you- I intend to continue being her friend, and while I realise that you and I probably will never be, I at least want things to be amicable between us. I just wanted you to know the truth. I don't intend to act upon it or in any way come between you...I just thought you should know."

Chris recognised that he appreciated his honesty, but primal instincts flared, and the inner predator thought purely in terms of black and white. But Carlos had been honest, and that was more than he had ever given him. All he had offered was blind hatred with no explanation, and a snap-judgement that he now knew missed the mark by miles.

"It took a lot of guts to say that," he acknowledged, though failed to keep a tone of warning from his voice. "I appreciate it."

A sigh signalled his companion's relief. Perhaps his reputation was overstated; his aggressiveness was more threat than action. It did not matter, he continued to repeat over and over in his mind. He could try whatever the hell he wanted; she did not love him.

"So," Chris coughed, desperate for a new subject. "I heard you applied for the BSAA?"

Carlos smiled, evidently not expecting such a question.

"Yes," he admitted. "South American branch; I'm moving home for a while. Well, Bogotá. I can't be a vagrant all my life, can I?"

It was a good career choice, Chris acknowledged. He was brave and despite being rather liberal with his affection, he had heart and was not afraid to show it. South America was an area of great concern in the field of bioterrorism; the vast majority of uncovered smuggling rings had roots south of the border. Whatever role Carlos took on, he had his work cut out for him.

"It's far from over," Chris sighed. "Five years on and we're still neck-deep in their shit. It makes you wonder if there's any end to it."

"If you could go back, would you find another job?"

He blinked, unsure of his meaning. Another job? He was perfectly happy where he was.

"What do you mean?" he asked. It was a strange question to come from a man who had drifted in the realm of the unemployed since Umbrella's trial.

"If you know what was to come, would you decide against joining S.T.A.R.S.?" Carlos clarified.

Would he? It was a difficult question to answer. When he considered the thirty long years of his life, he rarely thought of those before his relocation to Raccoon City. Those two years had stretched far beyond the twenty-three that had preceded them, and though they felt like a different lifetime now, they carried weight that the last five years had not. He had grown incredibly close to his teammates, had been happier than he had ever been. Did the events that brought an explosive end to those days change his life for the worse? Yes, they had. But that did not change how he felt, did not erase memories he knew he would treasure forever. He would rather have struggled through the past five years of hardship than never have known the S.T.A.R.S. team. He would not trade those two short years for anything.

"No," he sighed. "Some things are worth a short walk in hell."

'If it weren't for S.T.A.R.S., you never would have met Jill,' he knew. 'Maybe mom was right, maybe everything happens for a reason?'

"You see?" Carlos smirked. "Sometimes, the hardest days turn out to be the best of our lives. Nothing in this world that is worth having comes free, remember that."

Jill regretted wearing the spaghetti strap dress as the night progressed and the wind brought with it an uncomfortable chill.

'Like you had any choice in the matter,' she fumed inwardly. 'Damn jeans are still too tight.'

While the wound was no longer painful in itself, the skin remained tender and the pressure of fabric provided more discomfort than she was willing to tolerate. She was still bound to crutches for at least the next few days, and this too became somewhat of an inconvenience. She could walk perfectly fine without them, but the damn doctor continued to insist that she wait at least the initial ten day period to ensure that she did not aggravate healing tissue. Over the past week, she had become convinced that there was simply too much fuss caused over her 'condition'. It had taken every scrap of energy within her to hammer Chris into submission over the fact that he did not need to sleep elsewhere. Though she found his concern heart-warming, his belief that she was little more than a porcelain doll had begun to irritate.

She continued her quiet habit of observation, eyes trained on the Redfield siblings as they conversed, then following Kathy Burton to her husband's side. Sometimes she envied the Burtons, jealous of the life they now shared, free from threat and conflict. The young girls were growing up quickly, and so Barry sought to make the most of his time with them before they inevitably departed to college and the world beyond. Even Rebecca had not quite found the calm she had been hoping for. Her accelerated academic career had reached a head when she enrolled in a medical school shortly before the Umbrella trial and found that she was ahead of the rest of her class; several years ahead, actually. Her internship had been cut short, the board deciding that the years she spent working alongside qualified physicians in caring for injured members of the underground anti-Umbrella movement and the self-guided study she had indulged in over the years brought her to a level where qualifying exams would be a breeze. True to their expectations, she passed with flying colours and was soon accepted onto a residency program, which ate away most of her free time.

The chill brought goose bumps to her skin and with great resignation she realised that she needed to relocate. With trembling arms, she pushed herself to her feet, almost forgetting the crutches she would much rather do without. Nobody bothered her as she traversed the uneven terrain of the Burtons' back garden, almost tripping over her own feet as she lifted herself up the steps and into the house. After so long suspending her weight between the crutches, it appeared that she had forgotten how to walk.

The air inside was far more pleasant, and doubtlessly the sofa offered greater comfort than a hard wooden bench. While her bruises were healing, many were still tender. But she did not make it to the sofa. Though she respected privacy, especially that of her friends, there was a curious side to her personality that drew her to the frames on the fireplace that had been absent on her previous visit.

Laughter was suppressed when she laid eyes upon the obligatory wedding photograph. She had never been able to picture a beardless Barry, let alone her old friend sporting a crew cut. Evidently the wedding took place during his Air Force days; she knew a military wedding when she saw one. There was another photograph from his military days, and another from his time as a S.W.A.T. officer. But it was not these photographs that pulled her interest to the display, was not even the admittedly adorable picture of his two young daughters from the years in Raccoon City. It was the photograph of their old team that stirred something within her, so much so that she reached for the mahogany frame and brought the scene closer to her eyes.

It had been taken shortly before Rebecca's hiring, not long after she had decided to cut the hair she had allowed to grow after her departure from the Delta Force training program. Chris had complimented her numerous times on the change of style, and in moments they spent alone his fingers would often wander to her shorter locks and play with fallen strands. It had all seemed innocent at the time, but now she wondered how she had not recognised his flirting. Had it been because it was a regular occurrence? He had flirted since the day they had become friends, and she had flirted right back; it was all harmless fun, it never meant anything. But somehow she had failed to recognise the transition between play and genuine affection. Looking back, she had acted in a similar manner, suddenly falling asleep on his shoulder as opposed to curled up at the end of his sofa on the S.T.A.R.S.'s traditional pizza and beer nights.

'And who'd have thought we'd end up here?'

It was not without pain that she gazed upon the faces of her friends. Five years later, she still missed them terribly. It was not a loss that she could replace or even attach reason to. For the most part, Umbrella had paid for their role in their deaths, but it was not Umbrella who was ultimately responsible. It was Wesker who had lured them to the mansion, Wesker who had stood by as they were brutally slaughtered. Jill knew that he was the key to everything they sought. Without his demise, the memories of their friends could never truly be laid to rest.

Sometimes it helped to have something to fight for, something to reason with.

"It's hard to believe it's been five years."

The frame almost slipped from her fingers when he spoke.

"Holy fuck!" she gasped, ignorant as a single crutch clattered to the floor. "You stupid bastard, don't do that!"

All Chris could do was chuckle as he plucked the photograph from her grasp.

"Man, I wish I still looked that young," he sighed. "I have to spend an extra five minutes on the treadmill just to keep in shape these days."

Jill laughed and pushed him teasingly.

"If you lay off the fast food you wouldn't have to," she pointed out. But she knew what he meant.

He had not changed to her eyes, but the man in the photograph was different in so many ways. His smile was genuine, his skin fresh, body toned from exercise and not action. The face in the photograph was that of a boy; he who stood at her side was a man. Even in matters of the mind, he was not the same person he had been back then.

"Dwelling on the past isn't good," he frowned as he set the frame back onto the fireplace. "You can't change it; it's better if you learn from it."

And he was right. She was stronger now in many ways, and there was nothing she would do differently if she could take her time over again. You live and you learn.

"You know you shouldn't be on that leg," he complained. Before she could protest and stand her ground, his hands were at her waist and he had pulled her towards the sofa, setting her onto his lap as he dropped down onto the cushions. The one remaining crutch slid from her grasp and joined the other on the plush carpet.

"Will you knock it off!" she scolded, though her point was somewhat challenged by the manner with which she swung her legs over his and fell comfortably into his body, hers supported only by the arm of the sofa at the small of her back and Chris' right arm, attentive in its hold.

The movement hitched up the fabric of her dress, revealing the edge of a clean white bandage, loosely tied against bruised skin. The wound had begun to heal, but again the doctor had insisted that she continued to dress it at least until her check up.

"Are you okay?" Chris asked as she adjusted her clothing.

She did not need to ask the origin of his question.

"I'm fine," she assured him with a smile. "It was getting a little cold outside. What's your excuse?"

"No excuse," he laughed. "I was just worried."

He worried a lot these days. They both did. But Jill preferred to look on the bright side of things. Though she had no control over her dreams, she spent every second of her waking hours twisting her experience into a more beneficial form, drawing from the terror strength that had slowly built over the years. It very well could have destroyed her, and perhaps six years ago it would have, but in the grand scheme of things it was trivial, her mind now adapted to far more terrifying horrors.

"We still have another fortnight off," she reminded him, slipping her fingers into his thick brown hair. "Two weeks before we're called in for duty. I thought that maybe we could...go somewhere. The journey to Texas wasn't exactly a pleasant one."

She could see the idea settling behind his eyes, his mind playing with it, testing its validity. The smile appeared at his eyes before it spread to his lips, and the fingers of his left hand began to play with the hem of her dress.

"Sure," he agreed, serenity falling into his eyes. "I'd like that. How about New York? We could drive there. It''s been a while since I visited home."

It was a feeling she knew all too well. She had not returned to her hometown in years, save for a brief visit to her father's penitentiary several months ago. She missed her old friends and family, but her life was now in Virginia, and she had no reason to return to her birthplace. This was her life, her choice...she couldn't screw it up, not this time.

"New York sounds good," she hummed. "I've been a few times, but never had the chance to look around. I've always wanted to go to a Broadway show."

Chris chuckled as he broke eye contact, sighing when his soft laughter faded into nothing.

"I'm from New York State, not New York City," he told her, voice retaining an amused quality. "Saratoga Springs...upstate."

Jill blinked three times, dumbstruck. Of course, when the words 'New York' were spoken, anyone's mind would jump to the bright lights and Broadway. Perhaps it was his personality? The chain-smoking party boy from New York...upstate had never crossed her mind.

"It's okay," he told her, laughter returning at the sight of her fiercely apologetic expression. "I'll take you to the big city; it makes a good half-way point. But I want to take you home. I haven't… I haven't visited my parents in a while. It would mean a lot to me if you were there."

She did not quite know how to take this admission, and so descended into a state of mild shock. Did he truly mean his words? A grave was a personal monument, and visitation symbolised the eternal bond with its inhabitant. Visiting a loved one was a sacred act, she knew that. During her high school days she would take one day every fortnight to sneak away from her friends and walk to the nearby graveyard, to eat her lunch by her mother's grave. Some may have thought it morbid, but to her it was a strange way of coming to terms with her sudden departure. After her father's arrest, it was one of too few opportunities she had to visit her mother, her aunt and uncle not believing in dwelling on the dead. But one day her friends had followed her, had crept to her side as she ate. She had never been so furious in all her life, had screamed at them, affronted by the invasion of her privacy and the encroachment on her mother's resting place. They had no right to be there, no right to invade the memory.

But Chris wanted to take her to his own private memory; he wanted to invite her in.

'You'd take him to see your mom,' she told herself. 'Why is it so hard to believe that he would want to do the same?'

He watched her expectantly, waiting for her reaction.

"Thank you," was all she could whisper. "It would mean so much to me, too."

His shoulders sagged in relief and his grip on her momentarily tightened.

"They would have loved you," he smiled. "Especially mom."

"Well, you're exactly the kind of boy my mother warned me about," she countered teasingly.

She found that tears pricked at her eyes when her mother's memory rushed forth. Had she not succumbed to an unfortunately aggressive form of lymphoma at a tragically young age, she knew that she would have welcomed Chris with open arms and a platter of home cooking...before sitting him down for a conversation akin to a thorough and often frightening interrogation. She was a kind woman at heart but could not tolerate the thought of a member of her family being hurt in any way.

"Thank God we never listen to our parents," he sighed, and gently pressed her closer to him, close enough that their lips briefly touched.

The moment was broken by heavy footsteps in the hallway, no doubt belonging to the man of the house. They treaded loudly down the hallway, beating against stairs as they carried his muscular frame onto the first floor of the house.

"We should probably go back outside," she sighed.

Pulling herself to her feet proved to be a difficult task, but luckily Chris reached for her fallen crutches before they caught her attention and pressed them into her hands, waiting for her to rest her weight on them before he appeared satisfied.

"Hey, now that we're officially partners," she spoke, the thought suddenly crossing her mind. "What do you think will happen?"

Their final meeting had proven successful, the bigwigs recognising that their relationship held no bearing on their actions. She surmised that Chris's heartfelt arguing had also helped their case, and though she thought it unnecessary at the time, she was now thankful that he had spoken up.

"More of the same," he guessed. "But they are not splitting us up again. That was piss poor judgement."

Jill rolled her eyes, though she stepped closer to him, ignorant to the return of the footsteps and the mingling of two voices.

"I think we've established that I can take care of myself," she smirked.

"Hey, we were wondering where you'd gone," Rebecca called from the doorway, startling them both.

A light blush rose to her cheeks as she observed the two, Chris's hand at his girlfriend's waist, her body leaning into his.

"Barry found some leftover fireworks from the fourth of July," she explained, hanging onto the doorframe as though for dear life. "We thought we'd set them seemed appropriate."

And with that she disappeared, leaving her friends to laugh amongst themselves.

"And what exactly are we celebrating?" Chris asked.

'Do we really need a reason?' Jill wondered. A quiet, calm day was not an easy thing to find in current times. The opportunity to simply kick back and relax did not come often. Surely when it did, it was worth celebrating?

"Getting older?" she suggested, unable to suppress quiet laughter.

"Speak for yourself."

Surely he expected his mark to attract an act of retaliation? Sure enough, she raised her eyebrows, daring him to add to his comment. But all he did was smile daringly, almost pleading her to push.

"I'm not the one who's going grey," she pointed out as she slid her fingers back into his soft hair.

It was something she had not failed to notice, but had not seen the need to bring up. It was but a single strand of hair that carried a different colour to those that surrounded it.

"I'm thirty years old, Jill," he laughed, though she sensed a sliver of insecurity in his tone. "I'm too young to go grey."

"Oh, really?" she challenged. "Then tell me, what is this?"

Stress could do funny things to a man, and she knew she should not laugh; their stress was shared and if she was not careful, she could be in his position when she turned thirty. But she liked to tease, and he knew that she was never truly serious. After all, he was not the only one who had aged. She too found that more effort was needed for the same results.

"Stop it!" he protested, batting her hand away. "I'm not going grey!"

"Oh, did I hit a nerve?"

"It's not funny! I'm not!"

He began to push her gently towards the door, seeking comfort in the presence of the friends that waited outside. Perhaps she had pushed too hard? He did have an ego, after all.

"You're still handsome," she assured him, stroking what she had previously wounded as she dug her crutches into the carpet. "But you know I don't care about that...I just got lucky."

"Lucky?" he repeated, and this time it was his eyebrow that rose.

"Mmhmm," she hummed, amused at where she had led the conversation. "Just look at that body...damn."

"Alright, alright," he laughed, ushering her forward with more haste this time. But that proud gleam in his eye told her that she had succeeded, had perhaps even sewn the seeds for a long, sleepless night.

As steps appeared to be an unavoidable difficulty with crutches, no matter the condition of her leg, Chris helped her down onto the patio, saved from tumbling at the last minute by Claire's arm. A muttered thanks was accepted and she hobbled over to the congregation, Barry's curses drifting over as a match flared and then immediately died in his hands.

"Do you think someone should help him?" Claire wondered aloud.

"We could," Chris sighed. "But isn't watching him struggle more fun?"

No sooner had the words been spoken, Barry jogged back over to the patio and an ear-splitting whistle permeated the air. Red sparks erupted above their heads, blue joining, then white, yellow, orange. The electric palette spread across the dark sky, blotting out the stars with its brilliance. There was something in the explosion of colour that was calming, that brought a smile to Jill's lips.

Claire sighed beside her, and she turned, the display raging on in the background but her mind suddenly oblivious to its artistry.

"Are you okay?" she asked, sensing something amiss.

The younger Redfield attempted a smile, but it fell short and she shrugged indifferently.

"I guess," she surmised. "It's..."

Her words were lost upon the breeze and she shook her head amidst soft laughter, the absurdity of the nature of her problem suddenly striking her.

"Jill, I'm sorry for all the times I teased you about your non-existent relationship with...," she sighed as she cocked her head to the side, indicating to her oblivious brother. "It''s really not that easy, is it?"

And she did not need to speak another word; Jill understood. But it was with a heavy heart that she accepted the obvious. Claire's interest in Leon was no secret, but even she had not known the depths to which her feelings grew. Leon was rarely around, business always taking him where they were not. She did not doubt that it was he Claire spoke of; they were in the exact same position she and Chris had been in barely six months ago, and she knew that it was an awful place to be.

"No," she reluctantly agreed. "But it gets easier. Trust me, something good is waiting for you."

Claire did not believe her words but accepted them anyway, and accepted the arm that was offered, irrespective of the crutch that fell to the grass. Jill swore quietly but left the aid on the ground, irritated by the mere sight of the thing.

The show slowly wound to a close, but not a single soul moved. Was it a moment they did not wish to end? It was in Jill's mind, though it was she who glanced at the others, waiting for someone to make a move.

They all knew what lay ahead, each and every one of them. As they walked through that front door and out to their respective vehicles, they would be walking into uncharted territory, not knowing when or even if they would all meet again. Perhaps they wouldn't, perhaps this was truly the end. The BSAA would steal three of them, a gruelling residency program absorbing Rebecca's free time, Barry's gun shop and family binding him.

Behind her, Jill felt Chris's arm move, hand touching upon his sister's shoulder. Their eyes met for a brief moment, and she smiled, he returning it happily. She could not move, could only feel her grip on them both tightening. She was never good with farewells, and this sure felt like one.

But, from somewhere in the silence, Barry's voice broke through, brought one last smile to each of their lips. She did not know how serious he was, knew that he saw things as she did by the tone of his voice. But it was what they needed to hear, what they wanted to hear.

"So...same time next month?"

AN - Yes, I know that sucked. Aargh, you wouldn't believe how difficult this was to write. Blame underplanning, or maybe just the fact that when it came to writing this I realised that there wasn't really much left to tell. There won't be a oneshot after all. I realised that it would be a little redundant, and what I wanted to show could easily fit into the sequel as flashbacks.

Speaking of the sequel...
Those of you who read and liked The Demon in My Shadow may be pleased to know that the sequel is actually the idea that oneshot came from. It was kind of a practice, testing the idea. It is set post-RE5, and has the potential to be a lot darker than what I have previously written. It has a similar theme to Only Through the Pain at first, but I assure you it's a completely different story ;). There will be love triangles, there will be angst, and there will be action and as it is post-RE5, nobody is safe (oh, I love that ^_^). I'm actually a little worried because it's quite possibly the biggest story/idea I've attempted so far lol. It will be rated M to be safe; though there won't be M content at the start there likely will be later on. There will be returning characters, both from the game and OCs. It will also likely be my last angst-tinged fic. I want to try my hand at something different after this ^_^.

That's about all I have to say, everything else will be covered in the prologue. Hopefully it will be up sooner rather than later. The title of the new story will be At Eternity's Gate, so watch out for it ;).

I just want to take this opportunity to say one last huge thank you to everyone who has read/reviewed/supported me through this story. It has been a difficult journey but we made it and I am truly grateful for all your support! And to everyone who reviewed since last chapter...Valentine Virus, Ninja-Gnome, Black Metalmark, Afro Spirit, Kenshin13, Monkeyman88j, xSummonerYunax, tek, xwittychickx, anonymous, and cjjs. Thank you!