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  1. The virus hit the water system first. People were dying by the dozens, so it was assumed that the river up on the mountain at the edge of town had been contaminated. By who or what nobody knew, although the strange people clad in black that started showing up in sparsely populated areas were suspicious in their own right. An alert was put out by the city's leadership, hoping to limit the public's exposure, but the panic hadn't set in yet. Even though nobody could have predicted what would happen, it didn't make the aftermath any easier.
  2.  
  3. It wasn't until the previously dead began to rise that they brought the quarantine gates, called in the BSAA and the U.S. Government. By then, it was too late. Legions of infected had taken to the streets and the city's darkest day had already begun.
  4.  
  5. ---
  6.  
  7. The banal domesticity of Sherry's morning was shattered by a phone call. It was funny that sometimes, that was all it took. She glanced up from her breakfast preparations, leaving the slices of grapefruit on the cutting board and wiping her sticky hands on her pink plaid pyjama pants.
  8.  
  9. "Who's that-" Jake leaned over the other side of the counter, leaving the bowl of batter and the waffle iron for a moment. He tried to reach for the phone, but Sherry got there first, smacking his hand away and pulling the earpiece to her cheek. Jake huffed in annoyance and propped his elbows up on the counter, making the shirt he was wearing strain across the chest. She really didn't know why she'd let him borrow her pyjama top- it was a little big on her but much too small for him. His stomach peeked out the bottom and it stretched tightly over his chest. He was probably ruining the elastic. The pink rhinestones across the chest had mostly fallen off, but they still clearly read 'BABY GIRL.' She was sure she'd gotten that shirt as a joke a long time ago, and Jake seemed to find it endlessly hilarious.
  10.  
  11. "Shh." She eyed him seriously and put a finger to her lips. Jake rolled his eyes but made a motion like he was zipping his mouth shut.
  12.  
  13. "Hi. Sherry speaking." Sherry smiled as she spoke into the reciever, listening to the quiet fizz on the other end of the line.
  14.  
  15. "Sherry. Good to hear your voice." A man's voice came through clearly, sounding slightly harried but still fond.
  16.  
  17. "Leon! Wow, it's been a while-" Sherry's smile threatened to crack her face in two. It'd been months since she last spoke to Leon, in the aftermath of Lanshiang, staring at the burnt-out husk of buildings as the plane lifted off the ground. It seemed like it was so far away now, so different from the apartment tower she was now standing in. Her feet felt cold on the kitchen tiles. Jake was across from her, pouring batter into the waffle iron. He kept missing the corners, and it was messing up the counter. She fixed him with a sharp look, but he ignored her. Jerk.
  18.  
  19. "Yeah... Sorry about that. I've been really busy." Leon sounded tired and sad and rushed all in one. He sounded like he missed her, and she knew how he felt. Maybe it was better this way, though- whenever she saw Leon it was always because there was trouble. It came with the job.
  20.  
  21. "Of course-"
  22.  
  23. "But I didn't call just to catch up, even if we really need to do that- Me and you and Claire." Leon said evenly. Sherry sighed deeply, twirling the phone cord around her index finger. She'd known it as soon as she heard his voice on the other end of the line. Trouble.
  24.  
  25. "Something's happened." Sherry said slowly, like speaking it aloud would help it sink in.
  26.  
  27. "I always knew you were a smart kid." Leon laughed quietly.
  28.  
  29. "I'm not a kid anymore-" Sherry started huffily, but she quickly changed tack. Now wasn't the time to remind him that she was nearing twenty-seven. She recalled the news broadcast she'd seen last night. Jake had been switching channels rapidly, trying to find a movie to watch. She was flipping a pot full of popcorn on the stove, watching idly. He stopped on the local news station, and she'd seen everything. "And besides, everyone's heard. The outbreak is all over the news."
  30.  
  31. "It's happened again, yeah. Just like Raccoon. The BSAA's already established a quarantine, but we need you for something special."
  32.  
  33. "Oh... me?" Sherry blinked. Leon was requesting her specifically for this mission? Maybe all those times she'd given him grief for treating her like a child had paid off.
  34.  
  35. "Yeah, our superiors really liked the work you did with Muller in Lanshiang. I'm sure they've already told you." Leon said quickly, like it was a given. Sherry felt her chest swell with pride. "Sherry, it's bad there. They're thinking it's C again, but a new strain. Lots of dead, lots of... un-dead." Leon chuckled darkly at his own joke, but there wasn't much humour in it.
  36.  
  37. "If you need me, of course I'll come."
  38.  
  39. "You have no idea how relieved I am to hear that. I don't like putting you in danger, but-"
  40.  
  41. "I can handle it. Like I said, I'm not a kid anymore."
  42.  
  43. "Hopefully you won't have to handle it alone. We were actually hoping you knew how to contact Jake Muller- he sort of dropped off the radar after China. He's got all sorts of governments looking for him right now."
  44.  
  45. "One second-" Sherry pressed the phone to her chest to muffle the reciever and fixed her gaze on Jake. He had the batter spoon hanging from his mouth, and he looked back at her. His blue eyes were wide and round, purposefully trying to look innocent. She didn't buy it for one second.
  46.  
  47. "You told me you had all that stuff with the government sorted." She narrowed her eyes at him. He shrugged and pulled the spoon from his mouth with a pop.
  48.  
  49. "I did! They obviously have no idea i'm here, so I hid my tracks pretty well." His attitude was so quintessentially Jake, convinced everything would work out in the end. If she didn't love him so much, she'd say it was deeply arrogant.
  50.  
  51. "That's not what I meant, and you know it, Jake." Sherry sighed and crossed her arms over her chest. Of course it had been too good to be true when he showed up at her doorstep, fresh off his three-month stint across Europe. It was Jake, so nothing was ever easy.
  52.  
  53. Of course you can stay, Jake. Oh, you've settled everything with the US government instead of dodging all accountability like you always do? Great!
  54.  
  55. "Why, what's he saying?" Jake gestured with his pointer finger in the general direction of the phone.
  56.  
  57. "The government wants you for a project." Sherry sighed. Best to just sort it all out when they went for their briefing. If they were requesting his help, they would have to be forgiving.
  58.  
  59. "A science experiment, more like. Look what they did to you!" Jake scoffed. He didn't seem to see it that way at all. Sherry flinched slightly at his harsh words, and she saw a flicker of concern flit across his face. She knew they'd always seen things differently, and it was true that those 6 months trapped in that Neo-Umbrella facility in China had reminded her too much of the cold labs she'd grown up in. But as always, his approach was too harsh. That was why she was the negotiator and he was the muscle. He seemed to realized what he'd done, because he rounded the counter and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. She relented easily enough, leaning until she could rest her cheek on his chest. A pink rhinestone flaked off the shirt and landed on her shoulder, and for a second she almost laughed.
  60.  
  61. "No, it's-" Sherry took a deep breath in and out, listening to Jake's heartbeat, knowing he was listening. "It's Leon. He wants help with that outbreak we've been hearing about- the one we saw on the TV last night."
  62.  
  63. "And you trust them? They're blackmailing you, Sherry. You shouldn't have to choose between working for them for the rest of your life and being a fucking lab rat-" Jake's voice started soft, like he was trying his hardest not to upset her. That didn't last very long, and it quickly grew in tempo. By the end, he was nearly spitting the words. She tried to summon the same anger she'd seen in him, and she just felt a bit hollow. Maybe he was right, but it didn't matter. If she could help people, she would. Jake wasn't the only person with a father's actions to repent for.
  64.  
  65. "I trust Leon, okay? And if what we saw on the news is true, it's bad. I..." Sherry tilted her head up, looked at Jake firmly. "We can't just turn our backs on it." Jake took a long time to respond, just staring down at her with a complicated expression. Maybe angry, maybe scared. Probably both.
  66.  
  67. "I'll go where you go." He said finally, reaching up to tuck a piece of hair behind her ear. She smiled at him softly and raised the phone back up to her ear.
  68.  
  69. "Sherry? You still there?" Leon said into the phone, confused.
  70.  
  71. "He's here, Leon. I can put him on the line if you like." Sherry said hesitantly, wincing as she waited for Leon's response.
  72.  
  73. "No, that's- What? He's just... there?" Leon sputtered.
  74.  
  75. "Yeah..." Sherry paused, bit her lip. "We're making waffles." She finished sheepishly. All those people out searching for him, and he was just sitting in her apartment, eating raw pancake batter.
  76.  
  77. "You're making waffles- okay." Leon sighed deeply, and there was a pause. If she knew him at all, he'd be pinching the bridge of his nose. Like when she'd call him to tell him about her latest bad test mark or failed boyfriend and he'd react with brotherly frustration. "I'd like you both to come to a meeting later. Say, noon? I'll send you the address." He finished weakly.
  78.  
  79. "We'll be there." Sherry nodded, though Leon couldn't see.
  80.  
  81. "Thanks, Sherry. Really."
  82.  
  83. ---
  84.  
  85. On the evening of the city's fourteenth dark day, Sherry Birkin ducked under a tattered awning to shield herself from the rain. Her denim jacket wasn't doing a great job of keeping her dry, she was already soaked to the skin. She tried to huddle against the wall, wrapping her arms around herself, but it didn't do much. In the distance, a single bolt of lightning sliced across the dark sky. The thunder followed on its heels, and she could feel the soundwaves rattle her bones. They really needed to get out of this rainstorm. That last bolt was too close for comfort.
  86.  
  87. "Where's the safehouse?" Jake stepped out of the darkness behind her, rounding the corner. It only took him a few strides to reach the awning, and they both crowded under it. Tiny droplets of water rolled off his jacket, dropping onto her. Though the night was pitch-black, the lamp from underneath the awning was still casting a weak light. His red hair glowed with the heat, the bulb nearly brushing the top of his head. It cast his face into deep shadow, outlining every crease and making the scar across his cheek look dark as ink. From beneath the darkness shone two angular blue eyes, watching her very carefully with the sort of fondness she'd come to expect. His mouth was pressed into a thin line, waiting for her response. There was a soft, metallic click as Jake worried with the lid of his lighter, pulling it open and shut. He was nervous. The sound used to annoy her, a long time ago. Now it just filled her with concern. In his other hand, he idly twisted the handle of the dark metal briefcase, holding the two tiny vials that might overturn this city's doomed fate.
  88.  
  89. "We still have to walk another half a mile." Sherry bit her lip, glancing out behind her. They were maybe ten feet from the street. So far, it was abandoned.
  90.  
  91. "In the dark." Jake fixed her with a level look. She knew that expression well, could almost hear him say, 'You're really going to make me run around in the fuckin' dark?"
  92.  
  93. "I know. We don't have much choice but to try and get there." She sighed, pulling the damp city map from her pocket and spreading it against the wall, checking the red route in pen.
  94.  
  95. "We can't find someplace around here-" Jake started, gesturing out at the street. Sure, it was lined with shops, but that was where the looters had gone first. Most of their windows and security gates were smashed in. They'd have virtually no protection if an infected found them.
  96.  
  97. "Nowhere defensible." Sherry shook her head. Jake huffed in annoyance, shaking his head almost mockingly in response. But she knew he could tell she was right.
  98.  
  99. "Yeah, I'd rather not wake up to a zombie chewin' on me. Might ruin my mood." Jake relented easily enough, rolling his eyes. The lighter in his hand clicked shut, and he deftly stowed it in his pocket.
  100.  
  101. "Okay, Supergirl. Safehouse it is. Stay behind me." Jake looked down at Sherry, a slight smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. That nickname had always amused him. Sherry wasn't sure what about it tickled him, but she was just glad to see him happy about something. It was a welcome change from the past couple days, when she'd looked up at her best friend and seen nothing but worry and exhaustion. The sooner they got to the lab, the sooner this would be over. Then they deserved a vacation, someplace sunny.
  102.  
  103. Another bolt of lightning crackled nearby, and they both jumped. Yeah, definitely somewhere sunny.
  104.  
  105. Jake hopped off the stoop into the heavy rain, glancing back and forth down the alleyway. His heavy boots dropped into the veritable river filling the bottom of the alleyway, sending up twin sprays of water. at another time, Sherry might have been annoyed, but she was already so soaked it barely registered. Jake seemed satisfied with what he saw out in the street, because he gestured for Sherry to follow. They continued like that in silence, guns drawn, watching each other's blind spots. It was a natural rhythm by now. Sherry was glad it was Jake with her on this mission. A lot of time was saved when words didn't have to be exchanged.
  106.  
  107. After a few blocks, she instructed Jake to turn down a side alley. She intended to cut across a few streets, save them the time and the energy. It was barely an alley, though, just a thin gap between buildings. Normally, there were trash cans piled behind the businesses' back doors, but they had already been knocked onto the ground. Sherry and Jake stepped over and around the trash cans and the strange, cloth-covered mounds next to them. Scraps of fabric and bits of garbage lay in drifts on the ground, scattered from the mouth of the bins that lay open. Or so she thought.
  108.  
  109. In hindsight, it was a stupid assumption to make. They should keep clear of all suspicious areas, but she was so tired and so cold and she just wanted her and Jake to get to shelter and pass out in their sleeping bags somewhere.
  110.  
  111. It was almost karmic when the scraps of fabric stirred and she realized there were corpses beneath. Corpses of the walking variety, that rose to shaky legs right between herself and Jake.
  112.  
  113. "Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck-" Jake cursed, fumbling for the gun at his shoulder holster and finding it slick with rainwater. Sherry stumbled back a few paces, nearly slipping across the wet cobblestones. There were at least seven or eight of them, twisting their rotting heads on unsteady necks and focusing their yellowed eyes right on her. She felt her stomach drop, bile rising in her throat.
  114.  
  115. "Jake, run!" She called out to him, not caring about what consequences the noise would bring. She saw his face, flashing in between rotten limbs and heads. He was quickly backing up, the space between them growing wider.
  116.  
  117. "What about you?" He yelled back, eyes wide with worry. She cupped her hand around her mouth and answered,
  118.  
  119. "I'll meet you at the safehouse!" She was sure he heard her, but he was still standing still in the middle of the alley, looking right at her.
  120.  
  121. "What are you waiting for? Go!" She called one more time, then spun on her heel and dashed back the way they'd came, turning the corner and disappearing into the darkness. She glanced back just once, but he was already gone, his black coat swishing out of sight.
  122.  
  123. ---
  124.  
  125. By the time she made it to the safehouse, it was late. Maybe ten in the evening, maybe later. It had taken her an hour or so to lose her pursuers and finish her journey. She tilted her head and looked to either side, but Jake was nowhere in sight. Instead, she looked up at the row house above her, at the dark windows and the blood splattered across the front porch. Normally the sight of the well-kept brick facade would be comforting, but it made her feel sick to her stomach. There was supposed to be a light. Why wasn't there a light?
  126.  
  127. She knew the answer, but she didn't want to believe it.
  128.  
  129. Slowly and gingerly, Sherry stepped up to the front porch. Her shoes stuck slightly in the gummy bloodstain on the front stoop. She pressed her palm to the worn wooden door and pushed gently, hoping it wouldn't give. If this safehouse was functioning, she was supposed to knock. The door creaked open, confirming her worst fears. Something horrible had happened.
  130.  
  131. There was more blood leading from the door, dripping over the doorframe and making it slick. The blood trail stopped a few feet from the door, but luckily enough there was no corpse. Or perhaps, unluckily- it could have risen. Sherry took a shaky breath in and clicked her flashlight on. She flashed it over the floral wallpaper on the walls. There wasn't much to see beside crooked photos and peeling plaster. The house was at least a hundred years old, and she could smell dust and splintering wood under the heavy copper scent of blood. She made it to the end of the hallway and leaned to peek around the corner. Before she could move, a hand shot out from the darkness, wrapping its fingers around her wrist. Sherry couldn't help but yelp in surprise and fear, wrenching her hand back. The fingers that were clinging tightly to her arm were a little less rotted than she was expecting- the skin was smooth and pale. She glanced up as she tried to tear herself away, trying to see the person across from her.
  132.  
  133. "Stop- don't scream! Please!" A woman moved forward, catching Sherry's flashlight beam. She saw her in perfect clarity for a fragment of a second as the beam roved over her face. She had shoulder-length brown hair that framed her face, currently looking slightly dissheveled. There was a bloodstain across her cheek, obscuring part of her features, but Sherry still caught a glimpse of her dark, sharp eyes and her heavy eyebrows. Her round, pink lips were shaking slightly as she spoke, as though she was just as frightened as Sherry was. For some reason, that relaxed Sherry a bit, but not enough to keep her still.
  134.  
  135. "Then let go of me!" She retorted, pulling her arm back. The other woman glanced down at her tight grip on Sherry's arm and looked sheepish, quickly dropping her hand and bringing it up to her chest.
  136.  
  137. "Sorry, sorry- I didn't mean to scare you." She sighed, reaching her hand up to brush her hair away from her face. It fell in soft waves over her shoulders as she tossed it back. Sherry's flashlight beam focused on her face again, and she closed one eye to block the glare. Now that Sherry was a little more calm, the woman across from her looked achingly familiar.
  138.  
  139. "I know you-" Sherry bit her lip, quirking a brow. It was on the tip of her tongue. She remembered a sweltering night, stars above their heads, the smell of metal tinging the air. The woman seemed to perk up at that, eyes shining just a bit.
  140.  
  141. "You're Sherry Birkin. We met in Lanshiang." She nodded, and her mouth turned up in a tentative smile. That was where it was! Lanshiang. Sherry remembered meeting Leon and... some cool, mysterious lady he'd partnered up with. She'd been too busy trying to rein Jake in to get familiar, and then Ustanak had decided to crash their party...
  142.  
  143. "Oh! You're Helena. Leon's friend." Sherry smiled, tapping a finger to her temple. Helena Harper. What was she doing in a place like this? Didn't she have other, cooler endeavors to be off on?
  144.  
  145. "Yes. God, you have no idea how long I've been waiting for someone alive to come through here-" Helena breathed out heavily, glancing back and forth. There was a bit of a frantic edge to her motions, and one of her hands reached uo to brush at the holster of the pistol. It occurred to Sherry that she might actually be scared here by herself, and she felt a twinge of empathy. Good thing she had shown up. Now if only Jake would make an appearance...
  146.  
  147. "What happened here?"
  148.  
  149. "I was posted as a guard, started a few days after the outbreak. A couple hours ago, I got trapped upstairs when some infected broke through the back window. I've boarded it up now, but it didn't matter. Everyone..." Helena's eyes dropped from Sherry's face, as if she suddenly found the floorboards riveting. The tone of her voice was quiet and measured, like she was trying very hard to keep her composure. Sherry's hand twitched at her side, fingers opening and closing. She wanted to reach up and comfort Helena, but that was far from appropriate.
  150.  
  151. "Is there a radio here? I have someone I need to contact." Sherry bit her lip and tucked her hand into her pocket instead. Across from her, Helena slowly shook her head.
  152.  
  153. "Maybe, but no guarantees it's working. The power's been out in this whole block for hours. We've got a whole backlog of messages that won't get sent until it gets restored. "
  154.  
  155. "It's better than nothing. I need to make a call, and then I need to go."
  156.  
  157. "Hold on. You can't go alone. Don't you have a team?" Helena's angular eyebrows gathered together as she spoke, looking at Sherry like she'd lost her mind. Maybe she had, but she couldn't stay here. The safehouse wasn't safe anymore, and she couldn't even risk the time to wait for Jake. They'd have to meet up later.
  158.  
  159. "I had a partner, but we got separated. I'm sure he's fine, but I need to keep going. The mission's too important." Sherry tilted her chin up, looking Helena square in the eye and giving her best stoic face. Helena's dark eyes met her own with a searching look, like she didn't really buy it. Indecision was showing clear on her face, and for a moment she didn't respond.
  160.  
  161. "I don't suppose I can stop you. Leon said you were the stubborn type." Eventually, Helena sighed, raising one hand and running her fingers back through her shiny hair and tucking it behind her ear. She looked resigned, a long-suffering look Sherry was sure had been directed at Leon many times. At the mention of Leon, her heart skipped. She was dying to know what he'd said... and what Helena thought of her. Something good, she hoped.
  162.  
  163. "Leon's right." Sherry laughed quietly. "Don't tell him I said that, though. He'll get a big head."
  164.  
  165. "Then I'll come with you. Fill me in on the details later." Helena nodded firmly, like she'd made up her mind. Somehow, Sherry could tell there wouldn't be any arguing with her.
  166.  
  167. "Okay. Show me the radio."
  168.  
  169. ---
  170.  
  171. Sherry flicked through a booklet, running her finger over a list of BSAA operatives by location. According to their coordinates, the outpost that was closest was manned by one... Piers Nivans.
  172.  
  173. Oh, God.
  174.  
  175. Jake was dead.
  176.  
  177. "Contacting Operator of BSAA Outpost 332." Sherry breathed in shakily, collecting herself and trying to stave off the anxiousness that threatened to smother her."A missing operative was spotted near your location. He is carrying extremely precious cargo. It must not fall into the wrong hands. He must not fall into the wrong hands." She paused for a moment, wondering how to stress her point.
  178.  
  179. "Piers, we've met before. I don't know you well, but you're going to put your perceptions about Jake aside. If you trust him he'll learn to trust you. Jake needs to get those samples to the lab near the West Quarantine Gate on Charles and Main as soon as possible. We can save lives." She finished, stressing the last word as much as she could. As much as she hated passing Jake off on someone else, it had to be done. With the help of Helena and Piers, they were going to beat this outbreak.
  180.  
  181. No matter the cost.
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