The tires crunched into the leaf-strewn driveway with all of Leon's usual, efficient punctuality, pulling in behind a Volvo that looked as though it had seen better days. Looking around, Claire couldn't help but feel a bit awed – tempered perhaps with a pang of envy as she took in the large, sloped corner lot with its well-kept Victorian house snuggled up amongst a collection of mature trees whose leaves have all turned the colours of autumn. Someone had set out a display of pumpkins and gourds, and a large harvest wreath of dried, braided wheat adorned the front door. It was warm, friendly, inviting… this would have been one kickass place to grow up. Out on the veranda, pacing in front of a scarecrow propped up on an old chair, was a tall, dark-haired man, one hand cupping a cellphone to his ear.
Leon put the car in park and switched off the ignition. "You ready?"
"Born ready, baby," Claire quipped back, flashing him a smile that only just failed to cover her nervousness. She was ready to take on a full-scale bio-terrorism attack any day of the week, but meeting her boyfriend's parents still sent a few butterflies fluttering through her stomach – she had a lot more recent experience with the former. Leaning over the console, Leon pressed a quick kiss on her lips in one of those sweet little gestures they were both still adjusting to indulging in.
The man on the veranda had snapped his phone shut shortly after the ignition cut out and made his way down the drive, his feet kicking up little plumes of orange and red as he approached. Leon stepped out of the truck and the other man's solemn features split into a smile that creased the corners of his eyes in a way that Claire recognized as a familial trait.
"Liam," Leon said affectionately, grasping the other man's outstretched hand as Claire lighted silently out of her side of the jeep. "I'm surprised you managed to get any time off at this time of year."
"I could say the same to you," Liam said, the intonations of his gruffer voice familiar. Then he turned his attention to where Claire stood near the fender of the vehicle. His features were only vaguely similar to his brother's, the jaw squarer and more prominent, the lips and nose narrower, framed by neatly kept dark hair instead of the silky bronze-gold locks she knew well. But the eyes, the same stormy, intense blue, made the genetic connection unmistakable. "And you must be Claire."
She stood up a little straighter and smiled warmly, her hand grasped in his, his fingers slightly cool from having been outside. "Good guess. Intuition must run in the family."
"Something like that," he said, his eyes crinkling at the corners again. It was hard not to feel scrutinized under that grayish blue gaze, but his hand on hers was firm and sincere. There was a slam behind them as Leon closed the back door, shouldering one of their bags. She tried to protest as Liam hefted her own bag up to his shoulder, but he raised a hand to silence her. "Please, allow me – I'd be in for an earful if I let a lady carry in her own luggage."
The trio trekked back up to the house and in through the door to the warmth and noise within. Voices young and old could be heard throughout the house, and the smell of a roasting turkey washed over them as they stepped over the threshold. Through the commotion it appeared as though no one had really noticed their arrival – a fact that Claire, not anxious to be trotted out for scrutiny, was secretly thankful for. Liam offered to take their bags up to their room, leaving them alone for a few brief moments in the entrance-way to remove their shoes.
"Nice place," Claire said as Leon hung their coats in a large armoire, the names of the three Kennedy boys still visible, hand-painted above three hooks at the back. Out of tradition or habit, Leon's had been left empty for them.
"Thanks," Claire almost jumped out of her skin as an unfamiliar arm settled around her shoulders. "I find if you sprinkle just a hint of cinnamon over one of the stove burners just keeps the whole place smelling so lovely."
Claire looked over at her assailant, who merely winked one of his blue-grey eyes playfully at her. He had the build Leon had had when they'd first met – tall and wiry, with the same broad jaw and dark hair as their eldest brother.
"Almost as lovely as you," he added, sugary sweet, for effect.
"Lucas…" Leon said, with equal parts mock and genuine disapproval.
"Lucas!" An older, female version said from behind them, smacking his free arm with a tea towel. "The grocery store is closing in twenty minutes – there will be plenty of time for your antics when you get back, but those cranberries are on a tight schedule. Now hop to it."
"Yessir!" He spun away smartly, catching the keys she tossed him and snagging his coat off its hook in one smooth motion before stepping out the door.
"You'll have to excuse him dear – he gets a little over-stimulated on holidays. You think he didn't have a mother who ran herself ragged trying to teach him some good sense and manners." The older woman said with a sigh, stepping over to Leon. "Not like this one here – come give your mother a hug young man."
Although Leon was night and day from his brothers, it was suddenly obvious which side he got his good looks from. His mother was a tallish woman, with the same blondish-red hair still shining through a healthy amount of grey. She had the same smile that shone between full lips, although her eyes sparkled a clear green above a light dusting of freckles. She left a smattering of flour on his shirt which she dusted off with the tea towel before turning her attention back to the newcomer in her home.
"They all call me mom, but you can call me Maggie. Or mom. Or really anything said in that particularly nagging tone children use with their parents when they really want something."
As if to illustrate her point, a tumbling crash echoed out of one of the other rooms, followed by a high-pitched scream, followed by a prolonged call for "Grandmaaaaaa!".
"That's my cue," she said ruefully before bustling out of the room once more, tossing back over her shoulder a quick "make yourself at home Claire!"
And it was hard not to feel at home in a place so full of people and homemade food and comfortable furniture, and so by the time everyone had squeezed in around the heavily-laden table and started to tuck into their Thanksgiving fare Claire did feel as though she fit right in. Mostly. A whirlwind of more introductions had prefaced the meal, and Maggie had done her best to come up with a seating arrangement suitable for everyone. On her left was the irrepressible Lucas and his sunny girlfriend Annik – the same one Leon had been told to keep his tux in good condition for nearly a year ago. Directly across was Leon's youngest nephew Tomo – a sweet, chubby toddler who seemed to think that Claire was the most fascinating thing he had ever laid his huge brown eyes on. He stared at her with his cranberry-stained mouth slack and open as she pulled a silly face for his benefit and his mother tried valiantly to put more food on his mouth than on the tablecloth. On her right, Leon remained as stoic as ever – he and his father seemed to compete for the title of Most Reserved. He had seemed slightly uncomfortable the entire day, like a man performing in a role he wasn't sure he remembered the lines for. He didn't make many of his patented smart remarks, and although casual displays of affection was something that they were both still adjusting to indulging in, he seemed to hesitate over even the smallest touch. But this was his territory, for now, and so she was willing to let him call the shots. His lives pre- and post Raccoon City had never intersected before - and normally he preferred it that way. His current, jaded self was as out of place in his childhood home as his former, eager, childish self was in his new life. But Claire was different – if anyone could bridge the gap, he was hoping it was the vibrant redhead by his he could count on to stay by side.
"Claire, can you pass the gravy down here again, please?" Lucas said on her left, motioning to the gravy-boat in front of her. Fortunately, although his brother was in familial lock-down mode, the youngest Kennedy sibling was more than happy to chatter away at her side, divulging an ongoing account of the most entertaining and humiliating stories of their childhoods – complete with startlingly accurate impressions. As he took the boat and its saucer out of her hand he caught sight of a telltale sparkle on her finger. "Whoa bro, did I miss the memo here or something? When's the big day?"
There was a lull in the dinner conversation as all of the remaining sets of eyes turned in her direction, Tomo still gaping gleefully at her, a huge glob of mashed potatoes landing – appropriately - on his turkey-themed bib. Leon sent a glare over at his brother, who flinched as his girlfriend gave him a slap upside the head.
"I'm sorry," she said apologetically, "he really doesn't know any better."
They had originally planned to wait until after dinner, when everyone was stuffed and content and a little more familiar, to break the big news. But the best laid plans had never really worked out in their favour.
There was a prolonged, awkward, deafening pause while everyone searched for something to say, and wondered if they should be the first person to say it. Tomo squealed at the adult's sudden confusion and Claire smiled gratefully at him, which seemed to please him even further. At the head of the table the stately Leonard Kennedy, sire of the piercing blue-grey eyes that denoted any member of his lineage, cleared his throat.
"Congratulations son," he said, reaching over to pat Leon firmly on the back. When he smiled his eyes crinkled up at the corners and it seemed to break through the inherent sternness of his features. "And of course to you too Claire."
At the other end of the table Liam was trying to discreetly pass his mother a crumpled up kleenex but she waved him away, dabbing at her watery eyes with a clean corner of her napkin.
"C'mon ma, don't act so shocked," he stuffed the tissue back into his pocket. "You've been eyeing that ring all day."
She cleared her throat, albeit more delicately than her counterpart, and ignored her eldest son, raising her glass.
"A toast then – to everything there is to be thankful for – like wonderful surprises, and every new day."
Underneath the table, covered by the tablecloth, Leon reached over and squeezed her hand, a crooked smile on his face as he looked over at her. All around glasses clinked together and the bright glint of her ring was lost amongst the sparkle of the crystal.
Later that night, as everyone found their rooms, Claire snuck out of the back door, shutting it behind her as quietly as possible and turning the knob slowly so it wouldn't latch too loudly. She tugged her jacket closely around her, taking a few steps out into yard to where a two-seater bench was nestled between burlap covered flowerbeds that had been bedded down for the winter. In the summer it would have been a nice place to sit and look out at the rest of the yard, a large maple tree providing some shade and privacy. Claire swiped a few of the colourful autumn leaves off the seat of the bench and sat down, pulling out her cellphone and hitting the speed dial for her brother's number. The line rang a few times before a familiar voice picked up.
"Hey Claire," it was Jill's voice who answered. "Happy Thanksgiving."
"Happy Thanksgiving, Jill. How's the football game?"
"It is what it is," the other woman sighed. Tradition dictated that the household spend at least part of the holiday watching the nearly non-stop football coverage. In turn, Claire knew, Chris was forced to indulge in a few Christmas traditions later on in the year. And although she suspected their discomfort became less noticeable with each annual passing, each party was determined to maintain their disgruntled façade for appearances. "How goes it out east?"
"It's good. They've got a gorgeous place here and everyone's so sweet."
"Did you finally get your turkey dinner?"
Claire laughed – it had been years since either she or Jill – or her brother for that matter - could be convinced to undertake the assignment of preparing a full-out Thanksgiving dinner with all of the trimmings. They usually just ordered in – thankful not to have to spend a day off in the kitchen. She could hear the masculine rumble of her brother making some remark in the background. "Yeah, I finally did. With homemade pumpkin pie and everything."
"Homemade? So what you're saying is – you're never coming home."
"I might consider it, but it's going to take a lot of convincing. And bribing."
"You better talk to your brother then – bribes are his department."
"Thanks Jill. And hang in there – it must be getting close to the fourth quarter at least."
"Middle of the third, but I'll try. You have fun and a safe trip back. Say hi to Leon for me."
"Will do." There was a rustle and a murmur of conversation as the phone was passed from one side of the couch to the other.
"Hey, kid," her brother's voice came over the line. "What's this I hear about homemade pie?"
"From scratch. Even the crust."
Chris made a sound like he had been seriously injured – with envy. "Leon doesn't have an available sister does he?"
"'Fraid not. Only brothers."
"Damn. Well, I'll have to think about that one – maybe I can knock off his dad. He's got to by past his prime by now."
"I wouldn't try it – I hear his son has friends in high places."
"Good point. How'd they take the big news?"
"Really well. It went really well. His mom offered to help out with all the planning and everything, which is kind of a relief." Once the initial shock had died down, the focus of the women of the family had turned to serious wedding planning. Having only had sons, Leon's mother had simply beamed at Claire's offer to enlist her in the process – personally she wasn't really the floral arranging, venue-picking, colour-palette choosing, centerpiece-designing type. Still, there was something in her tone that set off Chris' concerns. Claire brought her feet up on the edge of the bench, wrapping her free arm around her legs.
"That's good then," he dropped his tone a little. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm okay," she shrugged even though there was no one else around to see it. "I just… I suddenly feel really overwhelmed right now with everything and I… I don't know…" She trailed off, uncharacteristically defeated.
Chris didn't say anything, giving her the time to finish her thought. In the background there was an excited cheer as some crucial play was executed.
"It's just that… all of a sudden it's a little bit terrifying. I'm so used to being on my own – to just hanging out with you guys and all that."
"I know kid – it's a big change. But I think you're up for it."
"And I feel horrible questioning everything like this… but I… I don't know" Her words disappeared on her again.
"Do you want to talk to Jill about this? This kind of thing might be more her department."
She could imagine all too well the concerned look they would exchange on her behalf. "No. You're my big brother and I want your honest advice."
"Alright, just give me a sec here." In the background she could hear a creak of couch cushions and the soft tones of Jill's voice in the background. Then the sounds of her brother moving through the house, grabbing a jacket, and opening the door to sit out on the porch. Now, thousands of miles apart, they were both sitting out in the cold. "Okay, what's going on? You were on cloud nine when I saw you at the beginning of the week."
"I know – I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm not usually afraid of commitment like this. But what if this is all just a big mistake?"
"Yeah. What if everything just falls apart after everyone has put so much into it for us? What we have now is good – what if asking for more is asking for too much? What if we're just riding high on excitement and ignoring the facts?"
"Claire," she could hear a rustle, like he was rubbing a hand over his face. "I thought this was what you wanted. What you both wanted."
"I thought so too," emotion rushed out through her words, fear tugging at the image of the bright future she'd dared to allow herself to envision, clouding it. "But what if I just wanted it because it's something you're supposed to have?"
"Is that really what you think?"
"I don't know. I didn't feel this way before. What if we get married and once the honeymoon is over I realize that it isn't right for me?"
"I don't want to hurt anyone…"
"I don't want all of these really nice people to hate me for hurting someone who has already had to deal with so much." It had been years since she had been anchored to anyone or anything other than her brother. For her entire adult life she had come and gone on her own whims and desires, fighting the good fight and never having to worry about leaving someone behind if she never came home again. She had given her whole life, the one she had been spared by a mixture of fate, luck, and sheer, fierce will, to helping others who had suffered as she had and never asked for anything in return. Because what if asking for anything was asking too much? If her life was a house of cards, adding another ace could be a killing blow.
"Claire." Chris said, sharply, to get her attention.
"You deserve to be happy." As her older brother he had watched survivor's guilt eat away at her from the inside out, driving her in ways he wasn't even sure she knew about.
"I know that," she responded quickly, off the cuff. But her voice was small, and strangely tentative.
"Sure you do." Chris took a deep breath and she could hear the rasp of him exhaling against the receiver's microphone. "Well let me ask you this then – do you love him?"
"Of course," she answered quickly, immediately.
Chris sighed, "it's a serious question, do you think you could at least spare it a moment of your precious time to think about?"
"Fine," Claire answered with an eye-roll and closed her eyes. She thought back to the Sunday morning when Leon had first proposed to her, laying warm and content nestled in between her worn flannel sheets. She'd been reading an old, secondhand paperback novel, propped up against her pillows waiting for him to wake up – when they spent so little time together it seemed like such a waste to get up and leave him in bed alone. So involved in the – admittedly fairly weak – plot she hadn't noticed that he'd turned over to watch her until she reached the overly dramatic conclusion of the chapter and looked over.
"You're pretty cute when you read, you know that? Your nose wrinkles up at all the really romanc-y parts."
Hitting him on the head with the spine of her book, she hoped he hadn't been reading too long over her shoulder – there had been some pretty sickly romanc-y parts. "Compliments this early in the morning? What do you want now? It better not be breakfast in bed."
"Just to be with you," he stroked the back of his fingers along her bare shoulder above the sheets. His smile had been soft, but his eyes had been dark.
"You are with me," she had intentionally played dumb, curious to see where he would take it.
"No I mean... always. I need you Claire – I need this. This is… it's good for me." He had reached one long, sculpted arm over to the nightstand where, expertly hidden under an assortment of bedside junk, was an exquisite solitaire engagement ring. "I want the world to know that you are the woman who has always stood by me. I want to know that I can come home and have this," his arm swept open in a motion that encompassed their entwined bodies underneath the coverlet. "And not just nothing. You asked me once what kind of life it was to just hate and fight and kill without reprieve – well it's a shit one and I'm tired of it. You asked me to look for something beautiful in the world and I found it." He placed the ring in her palm, closing her fingers around it, her paperback discarded by her side. Sitting up a little she opened her fingers to look at the glimmer of silver and diamond in her palm, her heart pounding in her chest, her throat closed.
"If you don't want to – I understand. I do. It's okay." His words had sounded normal, casual even, but she knew that years of government training had left him with the ability to maintain his composure regardless of any circumstances.
She had known him since she was nineteen and never once in those years had she ever know him to need anything. To ask for anything for himself. Like herself, he just fought, and sacrificed, and never complained because things could be so, so much worse if they wanted to. But she knew him, knew the kind of man that he was, and knew that he deserved so much more from life – even if it was a feeling she wasn't quite sure she could extend to herself.
And now he was asking her to be a part of that hopeful 'something more'. To take the Sunday mornings in bed, and the private glances across the room, and the feel of him next to her – inside of her with his breath ragged in her ear and their hearts beating against each other – and make it as permanent as the fight that had brought them together in the first place.
Of course she wanted to.
"Of course I love him," she replied again after a minute, cold in the November evening, light years away from that warm Sunday morning. "And I love what we have together."
"And I know that Rookie is nuts about you so I won't even bother asking. If this is what you want kid, you don't have to be afraid of reaching out and taking it. It won't always be a walk in the park, but I've never known you to back down from a challenge."
"Thanks Chris," she said with a smile, feeling bolstered again.
"If it doesn't work out – it's not the end of the world."
"I know – I've seen what that looks like, remember?"
"Yeah," Chris said with a tired chuckle. "Me too – remember?"
"As if you'd ever let me forget. I've gotta run though – these roaming charges are going to kill me."
"You can always pawn that blinged-out engagement ring – that might cover it."
She flipped her phone closed, standing up straight and tall from the bench and heading back inside. As she closed the door quietly behind her and bent down to unlace her boots she caught sight of movement from over in the corner of the kitchen – whoever was sneaking down for a midnight snack hadn't noticed her crouched by the door. The light from the refrigerator illuminated a stark section of the kitchen – and Maggie Kennedy's robed form poking around in its depths. Claire cleared her throat a little to alert the other woman of her presence, lest she be mistaken for an intruder in the darkness. The older woman turned as Claire stood up, caught red-handed with what was left of the pumpkin pie.
"I won't tell if you won't," she presented the dish as a peace offering Claire was in no position to refuse.
"Sure – no one's going to want day old pie anyway, right?" she wrinkled her nose in mock disgust.
"Exactly!" Maggie closed the door with her hip, taking her prize over to the counter and switching on the range hood light. She served them each a generous slice, topped it with what remained of the homemade whipped cream, and set them down at the kitchen table. "Everything alright at home?" she asked after the first few bites, motioning to Claire's outerwear.
"Everything's good, thanks."
"You should have just used the landline – it's freezing outside."
Claire shook her head, "it's long distance – I didn't want to run up your bill."
"Nonsense - it's never long distance for family. Next time you should just bring them along and we wouldn't have to worry about the phone bill either way." Maggie had traded in her contacts for a pair of glasses, her hair a little wild after having been bedded down.
"Thanks – I think they would really like that actually."
"Leon told me that your parents both passed when you were still quite young," she spoke a little tentatively around the delicate subject. "But I want you to know that you and yours are always welcome here."
"Thank you," Claire said genuinely, scraping up the last few crumbs of crust. "I know my parents would be grateful for your generosity towards us. They missed out on a lot of worry and heartache."
Maggie nodded, solemn, stacking their plates and forks. When she spoke again her voice was quieter with reminiscing.
"I couldn't sleep for weeks afterwards. I would just lay awake at night and think about how he had gone to that horrible town, where no one even knew his name, where there wouldn't be any familiar faces to help him if he were hurt, to make it easier for him. How he had died alone in that lonely place. And I used to just cry until I fell asleep from exhaustion."
She pauses for a moment to take a deep breath.
"And then, of course, he came back, and he told me about how he hadn't been alone – he told me that you had been there from the very beginning. And I was so happy, so overjoyed, to see him that, well, of course I cried again" she says with a little self-depreciating laugh. "But after the initial shock I saw how different he had become – so reserved, so distant, so… locked up inside of himself, behind all of that training. And I've worried about him ever since – worried that he might never find that simple happiness in life that is all a mother could wish for her children. I could read every article about what happened in Raccoon City, about what it did to the people who lived there… I could read about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and military training and what that does to a person… I spent hours in the library trying to learn how to reach out to him and I came up with nothing every time. I thought I might never really get my son back." She reached across and took Claire's hand, her fingers warm and strong despite the faint quaver in her voice. "But I see him when he's with you – just little glimpses, but he's there. Thank you for bringing him home again."
Claire nodded and gave a little squeeze with her fingers, a watery smile gracing her lips. There was nothing to be afraid of here. Their best laid plans might not have ever worked out in their favour, but the long road had finally led them home.