Memorial 2 months post Liberation The weather always seemed terrible here. Drizzle pattered the stones, wetting the grass beneath. Maybe they just wanted a drink. Or maybe someone up high was always shedding tears. It’d make sense. Samuel sighed, shifting in position in an attempt to bring his jacket even tighter around him. The cold air still nipped at his body even through this article of clothing, however. Didn’t help that there was a slight breeze, too. Dour weather for a dour place. They seemed to be the only visitors today. Not entirely surprising - the vast majority of humanity didn’t know these people, or had thought of them as little more than organized bandits once. Now they were being named ‘heroes’, people who gave their lives so that the rest of humanity could decide their own fates. This memorial, this graveyard, was a trifling tribute… but it was a tribute, nonetheless. “Could I have done anything?” Lester asked, abruptly. “I never asked if you thought we could have done something differently.” The Russian turned his gaze away from the stones. “No.” “You didn’t think about that for long.” “Did all my regretful thinking two months ago. Came to that conclusion. Decided to never consider the subject again.” “... probably best.” “Only if you want to stay sane.” Samuel crouched, placing the pair of aviators (in a small wooden box to protect them from the elements) beneath Holly’s gravestone. “What’s done is done. Both sides did their best to overcome the other, and we came out on top.” He exhaled. “Might’ve cost us, but we did it.” Lester chuckled grimly. “An arm and a leg, in my case.” “... yeah. Sorry about that.” A shrug from the man with four bionic limbs. “It’s fine. You could’ve killed me instead.” “I nearly did.” “But you didn’t.” Not the only thing that day I nearly did, Samuel thought. “It… could have been worse,” he agreed aloud, turning to the next grave. Samson’s. Another box, this one containing a single shotgun shell. “Could it have been better? Maybe. No use dwelling on it now. Not when the answer isn’t obvious.” “You’d rather focus on the present, then.” “Yes.” Lester nodded slowly, looking off into the rest of the memorial. “How is your present?” he asked. “Still sticking with XCOM?” “For now, and not in a combat role. Had enough of that to last me a while I think.” The Russian chuckled. “Besides which, Stacie would probably kill me.” “And how is she?” “... you know I proposed to her a few weeks back, right?” “Samuel, please. I work very closely with Chloe, of course I know.” Samuel smiled. “You mean she works closely with you,” he noted. “Though I can’t imagine she’s adjusting to the professional atmosphere well.” “If I’m going to run a business left in tatters by ADVENT, I think I’m going to have to let a few unprofessionalisms slide in the name of efficiency, don’t you?” The Russian smirked. “Not like anyone’s going to question her. Not the boss’s girlfriend.” Lester folded his arms. “You’re getting off-track. You never answered my question.” One more wooden cube, containing an eyepatch. Samara’s. “Eh?” “How is Stacie?” Samuel was quiet for a moment. “... you already know,” he accused. “Potentially. Boy or girl?” “We don’t know yet,” the Russian admitted, a sort of dazed grin appearing on his face. “I don’t care, honestly. Either’s good for me.” Lester allowed himself his own smile. “Nervous?” “Of course. Between that and the marriage, I might be more scared than I was facing anything we did during the war.” A chuckle. “Even Carolus was less intimidating than the concept of settling down.” The devil’s advocate took on a grave expression. “You never told us what happened down there,” he said quietly. “And naturally the footage is classified. Did you want to-” “No.” A pause. “... ok.” Samuel placed the last box, this one containing a bandana on which was a skull design. Alan’s. Lester grimaced. “You can’t say this one wasn’t my fault,” he stated glumly. “Oh, don’t start that. You weren’t in control.” “I pulled the trigger!” “At the command of an enemy. Did anyone blame Yakone for the shit she pulled as Ember? What about Marx lopping off his girlfriend’s arm?” “I…” Lester hesitated. “Well no, but-” “No buts,” Samuel interrupted. “Alan died because of Carolus. Not you. Just like you refuse to blame me for tearing off your limbs. Situation left us little choice.” The two were silent, gazing at the now-decorated gravestones. Rain continued to patter down, water sliding off the blades of grass when the weight became too much. Samuel cleared his throat. “Can’t believe Alan had it in him, though.” A raised eyebrow from Lester. “Hmm? What?” “Bonnie told you she’s pregnant too, right?” “Oh. That.” The devil’s advocate shifted uncomfortably. “Yes, I’m well aware. Offered to help her in raising it, actually, since I’ve got the money to lend a hand.” Samuel looked at him, surprised. “You did what?” “It’s my fault the baby will be without their father. I should be the one to lessen that impact.” The Russian chuckled, clapping his friend on the back. “And to think I thought you were a selfish dickhead back when we met.” “I did point a gun at you.” “Ancient history.” After a short walk, the pair reached the center of the monument to death, a statue of an unknown soldier in Warden armor holding the world in one hand and a rifle in the other. There were no identifying marks about them save for the logo emblazoned on their shoulders - the XCOM symbol. The two examined it for a time. “Reminds me of the statues we used to knock down,” Lester noted. “You think they based this one on anyone in particular?” “No. Helmet’s one of the standard issue ones.” “Damn. Wouldn’t have minded one in my likeness.” It was here Samuel procured the final item. He held the image, framed and protected from the elements, in his hands. And he waited for a moment, analyzing it. The whole squad, together for a brief moment before first one was taken, then three more. Now few remained. He placed it at the base of the statue. Lester let loose a weary sigh. “We were lucky to capture that when we did,” he said quietly. Samuel didn’t answer. “I’m keeping mine,” he said at last, patting the original copy in his pocket. “I know half of them are gone, but seeing their faces, smiling like that…” “They’re not gone,” Lester responded. “Just not around anymore. So long as we remember them, their names, their faces, their personality, they’ll never be ‘gone’.” “Not much of a consolation prize for someone who died for the cause is it,” the Russian noted a little dryly. “This might sound cold, but the dead don’t need prizes.” A pause. “... no, you’re right. They definitely get shafted in the deal.” Looking up, Samuel glimpsed a flash of brown and white feathery wing, perched atop the statue, but it was gone as soon as he noticed it. He watched the space for a moment, wondering if he’d imagined it, before shrugging. “Alright, that’s enough gloom for one day. Let’s get out of here. You drink coffee?” The two left the graveyard, talking and laughing, high-spirited even after visiting the ghosts. For that was what the ghosts demanded - not mourning, not sombre pondering of the brittleness of life, but enjoyment of what time was left to the living. Celebration that those ghosts had been alive at all. As Samuel stepped back out into the new Old World those ghosts had brought about, he smiled. The future might be terrifying in its own way, but it was a good terrifying. And no one, no police state, no alien, no psionic god, was going to take that away from them.