Her ponytail moves like it has a life of its own. There's a beautiful desperation in every move she makes, a frantic pulse of life. I saw it in Raccoon, the wildness of her eyes, the color of the storm.

Those eyes. She can just about talk with them. She puts on her moods and wears them like clothes, and her eyes give her away. The first time I glimpsed those eyes, flashing in the dark of the alley, I almost heard her frantic heartbeat, repeating steadily, I cannot die, I cannot die, I will not die.

She did not die; she's here now, sitting on the edge of a sagging hotel bed, humming softly to its only occupant. She's got her back to me, the tail of hair gleaming against the dark of her shirt as she sings a formless lullaby to the sleeping child. I have a terrible urge to wrap my arms around her from behind, to feel that she's there, to hear the song resonate through her body.

She's stroking the little girl's hair with one pale hand. Her gloves are on one of the room's two chairs, and her hands look small and soft without them. I know better. I know the strength in those small hands.

She sighs through her nose, rising from the bed. There's a careless grace in her movements as she loosens her holster, shrugging her thin shoulders out of the straps. She rotates one shoulder, making a small sound of pain.

I'm up before I realize it, reaching for her. She turns her head as I begin to massage her shoulders, giving a small moue of surprise. She sighs pleasantly, arching a little. I dig my thumbs in, and she laughs softly, the ponytail shaking, brushing my hand, almost too soft to be believed.

Finally I'm just rubbing her shoulders, very gently, feeling her breathe beneath my hands, feeling her warmth, her life. We're both here. We're both alive.

She moves away from me, moving in an achingly lovely turn to give me a smile that sheds rainbows. "Thanks."

"Anytime." I mean that.

She fixes her stormy eyes on me, and I see in her what Sherry Birkin must have seen in her, to instinctively trust her. Right now, we're stuck in a tiny, dingy hotel room, and down the hall some other inmates have woken us up fighting, and she's tired and hurt and dust is smeared across one pale cheek, but she's beautiful. She smells of blood and orange blossoms and gunpowder, and her shirt is wrinkled from the crisscrossing straps of the shoulder holster, but she's beautiful.

She's young, and frightened, and brave, and exhausted, and she's beautiful.

She blinks at me, eyes like candles in the rain, and asks, "Are you all right?"

I can't help but give her a watery smile. She can't possibly possess more energy than it's taking her to stand, and she's asking me if I'm all right.

I shrug, pulling up the other chair and slouching in it. "Okay, I guess. You?"

She rolls her shoulders and smiles. "Better, now. You've got good hands."

I look down at them and the smile slides from my face, like the light slipping from the sky on a summer day. "You'd like to think that, wouldn't you?"

She notices my change in mood; like radar, nothing gets past those rainy eyes. She comes closer, forcing me to look at her. "What is it?" she asks, in the same voice she used to sing the little girl to sleep.

I open my mouth to say, nothing, and instead hear the truth spill from my lips and fall at her feet like an ocean breaker. "I...couldn't hold onto her. I had her-I HAD her...but then..."

Like an echo, I can hear the spy telling me not to bother, feel her hand let go of mine. She let go...

I shake my head, to clear it. She let go. It was her action. Her choice.

Claire pulls up the other chair, tossing her gloves and holster aside. It's an invitation, and one I accept.

I'm not paying attention as I tell the story, my voice absent and detached, tired.

"And then...and then..." A lot like that.

Claire knows exactly what to say-nothing. She just listens, no change of expression, no advice, no judgment. She is simply there, and when I am finished talking, I ask her, "Why am I telling you all this?"

Even as I ask it, I know why. It's the same reason I gave her the gun in the glove compartment, the same reason Sherry Birkin hugged her tight when we got on the train, the reason I can't take my eyes off her now. It's her own sheer goodness, the way she makes the cheap hotel room shine, for just a minute.

(It's the light,) I think. (It's the light that shines in you.)

A flash of pink catches my eye; the little girl stirs on the sagging hotel bed, shifting in her sleep, still wearing the vest, as if it were armor.

I turn my head back to the one who gave her the vest. She still has her eyes on me. I doubt she even blinked.

Made in Heaven, the vest says. How fitting.

She smiles at me, then, just a little, and says, "Leon. It wasn't your fault."

Deep in my heart of hearts, I know that she's right. But I can't help feeling guilty. It's my job to protect-at least, it was. Would have been...

And so my gaze drops back to my hands. "I should have..."

"You did all you could." She takes them in her own, suddenly, and without her gloves the feel of her hands on mine is a soft surprise. Her hands are blessedly cool.

She raises my closed fist in her small hands, as if we'd both kiss it. "I've noticed that about you, you always close your hands so tightly."

I meet those stormy eyes and tell her, "If you hold on tight, you won't lose things."

She answers, "But then, you can't reach for anything, either."

I narrow my eyes amusedly. If she's going to make this a game, I can play, too. "If you keep your hands closed, no one can take anything from you."

She's ready for me. "But you can't give anything, either."

I can't help but laugh. How is it she can make me laugh, even now? I try once more. "If you keep your hands closed, you're always ready to defend against an attack."

Her eyes go soft as kitten fur, and she says, "But then...you can't hold hands with anyone."

Suddenly it's not a game anymore, and I'm drowning in her flooded eyes. She's got her hands on mine now, gently working my fingers loose so she can slip her hands into mine.

"Claire?" I stare down at our intertwined fingers. One of my hands could swallow both of hers. She gives my hands a little squeeze.

I look at her, at her smudged face, the shadows beneath her eyes. Her holster lies forgotten on the floor; without it her shoulders seem thin, too small to bear the weight she's had to bear. With her hands in mine, I can feel her vulnerability, how crushably small she is. I could take her in my arms, squeeze her breath from her.

She knows my strength, knows her own, yet she's got her hands in mine, stroking so, so lightly with her thumbs. The movement snaps me from my daze, reminding me of the life in her, in both of us-the friction of her skin against mine.

She's been through hell and back, and she's trying to comfort me, and it's working, and she's beautiful.

I grip her hands a little tighter in mine, and I can't stop my lips from curling into a smile. She returns it with her eyes first, then her lips follow. She raises our linked hands up once more, as if to show them to me.

"Don't worry," she says, just above a whisper. "I won't let go."


Author's note:

Leon is rather capricious when it comes to actually setting down a story. For some reason I can hang out with him and know I love him and he loves me, but actually getting him down on paper is a task for me. This story began when I saw my old crush in town, progressed rapidly when I heard my beloved winter vacation spot was being sold, and finished when we all pronounced in favor of the knee boots, which I bought for nine dollars, even.

I love the Leon/Claire pairing; I am not an Ada Wong fan. She may be a cool character, but she used Leon for her own evil gains; therefore, she sucks. But I couldn't bring myself to be mean to her in this story. Maybe in the next one, unless people read this one and tell me to quit before someone gets hurt *^_^*

Please read and review; I accept reviews of all kinds, just please be constructive. Thank you.