If Leon had come here expecting to find closure in some thread of familiarity he would be sadly disappointed. It reminded him of photographs of the Belgian town of Passchendaele after World War I – all the landmarks of the area had been completely obliterated; from arial photographs it looked like the surface of the moon. The difference was that it had taken months to destroy the quaint Belgian village; it had only taken a few seconds to wipe Raccoon City off the face of the Earth.
But Leon didn't come to this overcast little mountain clearing to find closure, because he knew he wouldn't find it here or anywhere. For him, it was not a place that you could walk to, drive to, or fly to. For him, closure would come with the knowledge that all of the people who orchestrated that nightmare were gone, wiped clean off the planet by methods much cleaner, much more satisfying than mass destruction. When the world 'bio-terrorism' was scrubbed from the lexicon, then he would let himself think about closure.
He came because he was tired of phone calls from planning committee members begging him to make an appearance. As 'the only surviving member of the R.P.D.' his 'presence would be very greatly appreciated by the surviving families…'
This great honour could have been Jill Valentine's if she hadn't resigned her badge shortly before the event. Personally, he didn't understand why anyone would appreciate the presence of the man who had personally pumped their undead relatives full of enough lead and blued steel to put them down for good. They must be the same type of people that found comfort in the grotesquely appropriate phoenix memorial that has been erected on the edge of the ashy crater, currently facing off against rows and rows of white plastic chairs. If he saw anything rising out of the ashes behind it, he would put a few rounds between its eyes and call it a day. Standard Operating Procedure.
He would have liked to have never come back; there was nothing here to lure him. The whole area was so saturated with the stench of death that no inferno, no empty decades could wipe it clear. The flowers and wreaths piled against the base of the monument only served to cover it with a sickly, cloying smell that made Leon want to spit. Even after ten years the forest had barely dared to take back the devastated area, kept at bay by the intimidating fence now maintained by the U.S. Government.
Approaching the maze of chairs, some already filled with figures dressed in their finest mourning garb, Claire could recognize Leon immediately. Nobody brooded quite like the tall, lean government agent she'd met exactly a decade ago. And there were few people, aside from her brother, who would accessorize the most expensive suit they owned with ratty steel-toes. She broke away from the group of former S.T.A.R.S. and slid into the chair next to him.
"Well, if it isn't little Red Riding Hood."
These were old endearments, just a little younger than their acquaintance.
Leon was always taken aback by how good Claire looked, every time he saw her. 'Radiant' he thought, was the word. With her blunt, stylish bangs laying thick across her forehead, subtle make-up, and cute but appropriate black dress she looked like she'd just stepped out of the pages of a beauty magazine. He looked like someone who lived almost entirely underground in a labyrinth of brushed stainless steel and soft-bellied government employees because, well, he did.
"I didn't think you'd come," she said, pulling her sweater a little closer around her. She had thought it would be warmer – it had been warmer the last time she was in town. Leon shrugged, his arms still crossed over his chest. She had been able to see the outline of his holster under his jacket when she'd come up from behind. Of all the survivors she knew, she was the only one who left the house unarmed; even Rebecca carried a little Derringer in her purse.
"And miss all the excitement? Not on your life."
"They guilted you, didn't they?"
"They tried that on Chris too. Took them a good couple of weeks to figure out the only thing that works on him is flattery," she grinned and motioned with her head to the line of former S.T.A.R.S. a few rows behind. Chris was unmistakable as the anchor of the group, enormous and intimidating as ever. One huge arm was thrown over the back of Jill Valentine's chair in a passive, yet resounding, gesture of possession. Jill herself was turned in her seat, gesturing in conversation with who must be Rebecca, although the sophisticated brunette seated to Jill's right barely resembled the nervous young medic Leon remembered. Barry was seated on Chris' other side with his family, looking much greyer than the last time Leon had seen him, but content to have his family by his side. Chris caught Leon's look and nodded, a gesture that Leon returned.
"What'd they use on you?" Leon asked, turning back around. "I know for a fact that flattery does not work on the likes of Claire Redfield."
"They didn't even have to ask me; I wanted to come."
She ignored his incredulous expression.
"I wanted to see what it's really like," she explained. "It's never the same in pictures or in your imagination. I'm tired of remembering it only the way it was that night."
"And? How does it stack up in the flesh?"
Claire paused, taking another long look around the clearing. They were far enough away from the blast zone to be surrounded by tall trees on three sides. Up ahead was a clear path to the monument and, behind it, the wasted landscape stretched out along the horizon, as grey and dismal as the sky overhead. All around people were clustered together in small groups, talking quietly, or sitting off alone, just taking it all in. For the majority of people, this was their first opportunity to return to the wasteland that had once housed thousands; for years it had been quarantined under lock and key, first by Umbrella and now by the Government.
"It's quieter than I remember. Things were so hectic that night – the fires, the alarms, the blood pounding in my ears…" she didn't mention the screams or the hungry groans that still haunted her dreams from time to time. "It's more peaceful now – you can hear the birds if you listen for them."
"It's not peaceful," Leon disagreed, shaking his head. "A graveyard is only peaceful if everything in it stays at rest. They're still in there, doing whatever it is they do, not thinking, not even looking up at the nightmare landscape that's around them. It's quiet, but it's not peaceful."
"Good God, you sound just like him."
"Yes - and both of you are going to work yourselves into an early grave. Do you really think you'll find your peace there, Leon?" The question was pointed and frank but not harshly delivered.
"I'm not sure, but I have to do something. I don't know what else there is."
Before Claire could reply someone cleared their throat up at the podium and the last of the stragglers took their seats. The ceremony began much as any of the other hundreds of similar ceremonies Leon had been present at as part of his duties to the President. First one committee member got up to say a few words, then another got up to say a few more, then a tearful widow or bereaved mother was asked to say something and so on and so forth.
The major highlight of the event was the unveiling of a massive marble wall which had been inscribed with the names of all who had perished with the bombing that had taken place a decade ago. It was a massive landmark filled with a hundred thousand names and it served to block out a segment of the depressing landscape beyond. It was not something Leon would return to visit; it weighed too heavily on his conscious to think of the walking, ravenous, zombified corpses as people with names and families.
After the white sheets veiling the wall had been pulled down Leon was surprised to see Jill Valentine make her way up to the podium. Usually she stuck to the shadows, happy to work out of the spotlight and let her more aggressive partner take stage. But Chris hadn't been there that night ten years ago, and so Jill was left to tell her own story. It took her a moment to unfold the crumpled note she'd written for herself and adjust the microphone down to her height. When she began her voice was clear but tight, and Leon could detect a slight waver from time to time, although if it was from emotion or just nerves he couldn't be sure.
"Ten years ago, when I used to tell someone that I was a cop in Raccoon City, nine out of ten people had never heard of the place. Today, everybody knows the story of what happened here that September night, and the name of this small, sweet little town has become synonymous with what can happen when greed and corruption are taken to an extreme…"
As Claire grew older she found herself becoming more and more emotional, more empathetic, less capable of forcing everything below the surface. It was as if the consequence of spending so many years holding her emotions in was that now they just bubbled out whenever they felt like it. Listening to Jill's frequent pauses to clear the tension in her throat Claire could feel her eyes start to burn. Reaching out, she grasped Leon's hand where it was stuffed under his arm, twining her fingers tightly into his. Of all the people close to her, his experience was the nearest to her own. Leon had always been the one most able to understand what she had gone through and what it had done to her. It didn't matter that they sometimes went nearly a year without speaking; when they finally saw each other again the rapport returned instantly.
Leon glanced over in time to see a single tear snake its way down her cheek. Instinctively, he wrapped his other arm around her shoulders, pulling her into the warmth of his embrace. It was just enough of a gesture to comfort her without making her feel worse. It felt nice to have a shoulder to cry on. For Leon it was nice to be able to help at least one person amidst the sobbing audience.
When the ceremony had finished Claire pulled her fingers out of their grip with his and drew slightly away to swipe at her eyes.
"No, no, no, you're doing it all wrong," Leon said, gently catching one of her wrists. If there was one thing he had learned in his service to the President's family it was: "Jesus Leon! I already look like shit from crying – don't make it worse by smearing my mascara!". He pulled the black silk pocket square out of the breast pocket of his jacket, shaking out the elaborate folds. Catching her chin, he dabbed delicately at the moisture on her cheeks and under her eyes.
"Is this how they do it in the Presidential suite?" Claire asked with a short sniffle.
"It is indeed exactly how we do things in the Presidential suite," he assured her. He held the pocket square against her nose like a mother to a young, sickly child. "Now blow."
Claire rolled her eyes, still a little red, and snatched the silk out of his hand, turning away to give her nose a couple of good, loud blows. When she was finished she folded it back into a neat little square and looked at him a little shamefaced.
"Don't worry about it. You okay?"
Claire felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up into Rebecca's concerned features.
"Yes," Claire answered again, a little embarrassed.
"Alright alright, just checking. We're going to look around a bit – you two coming?" She smiled her greeting to Leon who quirked his lips a little in reply.
"Yeah sure, we'll catch up in a minute," Claire replied.
Leon watched Rebecca join up with the rest of the group who moved off along the memorial wall, no doubt looking for any names they recognized.
"I miss you Leon," Claire admitted plainly. "It's been ten years and I feel like we've barely seen each other since those first few months."
"I miss you too. I'm sorry for being such a poor correspondent. You always made the effort for both of us and I always drop the ball."
"And I worry about you."
"Why?" Leon, as a grown man more capable than most of looking after himself, was a little startled.
"Because you're like a wraith, and every time we see each other you have faded away a little more," she can feel herself tearing up again. "You and Chris are the same – you've fought so hard to stay alive but you never stop to appreciate how beautiful the world around you is. You just hate and fight and kill and… what kind of life is that, Leon?"
Having given up his pocket square, Leon had to use the pads of his thumbs to wipe away her tears. He wanted to say something to reassure her, but she was right and he couldn't bring himself to lie to her face. His life was an endless repetition of empty tasks that he completed only because he felt that eventually they might, somehow, make a difference. At this point in his life that bland routine was all he knew; it was comfortable in a damned sort of way.
"It's a life, and sometimes that's enough," his hands were cool against her flushed face.
"I don't want you to fade away. What would I do without you?"
"I'm not going to fade away, I promise you." He pulled her into as tight a hug as he could in their awkward seated position. She smelled like tea with honey and fit like a missing piece. "You don't need me, but I'll always be here for you anyway. Just in case."
"Will you look for the small things Leon? Just something small to make you happy so that the next time I see you there's something more than government-funded blasé in those pretty blue eyes?"
"You make me happy, Claire," he said, firm hands stroking her back. "Maybe I don't know how to show it properly, but I am always glad to see you."
Claire pulled back a little, her striking blue eyes fixing him with a look. "Leon Scott Kennedy – you know flattery will get you nowhere with me." Sometime since he'd last seen her she had mastered the art of looking down her pointed nose at him while actually having to look up.
"We'll see," he said with smirk, pulling her up from her seat. "Now c'mon, I want to see if they put my name up by mistake."
They walked hand in hand toward the rest of the group, Claire occasionally taking advantage of the difference in their gaits to not-quite daintily shoulder-check him.
Some things never change.