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One Diagonal Scar

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Cloud crosses the Bailey, meaning to head for the Dark Depths. The sun is up - it's one of those endless summer days that Cloud, maybe a little less than half drawn to the darkness, maybe a little more, feels like a blight - and it's already hot. The sky is a burnt blue, empty and endless, and nothing under it is moving. The claymores are humming quietly to themselves, idling in the late morning stillness, and nothing else disturbs the rare calm.

Or not quite nothing. As Cloud crosses the Bailey he hears the steady chink-chunk-clink of someone working in the Restoration Site. Almost without thinking, he changes direction.

It's Leon, down among the fallen masonry and splintered timbers, his hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, his jacket hanging on the rough end of a beam jutting drunkenly out of the skewed ruin. Cloud squints into the light, watching the shadows gather in pools under the muscles behind Leon's arms as they swell with the strain of lifting the blocks of rubble. It's hot, and as Cloud watches Leon drags the back of one big hand across his forehead, smearing aside the stray strands of hair that are plastered there, the back of his white t-shirt dark with sweat. His hands are coated with dust, and he balls the front of his shirt in his fists, wiping his hands clean on the thin cotton before pulling it off over his head.

Cloud is meaning to call out to him, meaning to head on into the Dark Depths, meaning to not stare. But he's remembering the feel of Leon's back against his; the susurrating rattle and clatter of the heartless massed around them; the broad swell of flesh and muscle behind him as he readied himself to fight.

Down in the Restoration Site, Leon stretches, and wipes at his front with the balled-up t-shirt before shaking it out and hanging it over the beam alongside his jacket. Cloud is meaning to not stare, but the muscles in Leon's back are sliding over each other as he moves, and across his shoulders - tanned to the colour of cherry wood - is a spatter of freckles. When he was a boy, Clopud had lain with Tifa in the forests outside of Nibelheim, and they'd talked into the night about how one day, somehow, they'd not be here anymore, stuck in a dead backwater that wasn't even in the middle of nowhere, staring at the stars smeared across the vault of the heavens until the afterimage was burnt into their eyes. And that's what Cloud is seeing now, constellations dancing across Leon's back; galaxies spiralling across his shoulders.

Cloud is strong, but his strength has been forged in suffering and disappointment. A poisonous strength for which he is more conduit than container. Cloud's strength flows through him, and it takes as much as it gives and leaves him hard, and narrow, and as taut as a drawn string.

Leon's strength is different. Cloud doesn't know too much about his history, but he knows there was a boy called Squall, and he has a suspicion that that boy is still there, wrapped up inside the armour that Leon has built to protect him. Leon's strength is a shield, a warning, a barrier between Squall and the world, thick and tough and impervious, built to hide the boy inside the man.

Below him, in the Restoration Site, Leon turns, straightens up and stretches, and Cloud - still meaning to not stare - sees the sheen of sweat glistening on his skin, the swell and roll of the muscles in his chest and shoulders, the jump and twitch of his midriff. Cloud swallows heavily, feeling a little churn of something uncomfortable wriggling in his gut.

Back in Nibelheim, the streams jumped and tumbled down the mountain, rolling boulders over their rocky beds, and in the summer, when the rivers started to dry, heaps of wet boulders would lie gleaming in the sun, their honey colour fading as they dried. Round and wet and every surface curving into the next, dark pools of shadow nestling between them, and Cloud looks at Leon and feels the velvet drag of his fingers over the wet rocks, the smooth hard arcs beneath his palms, the comfort of something solid in a world that wouldn't stay still. Remembers the sensation of Leon's broad back pressed against his own narrow shoulders as the Heartless gathered around them.

Below him, in the Restoration Site, Leon turns back to his work, hesitating for just a moment as he squints into the sun, peering up towards the parapet Cloud has ducked behind as if he's not quite sure if there's something there. But everything is still, the Claymore's idling in the rare early afternoon calm, and with a shrug he turns back to his work.

Cloud stills the tremor of his heart and for the Dark Depths, very badly needig to fight, hoping for Sephiroth.
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