Title: Christmas at Zack's
Fandom: FFVII AU
Warnings: fluuuufffff OMG
Word count: 6051
A/N: This takes place about three months after the events of Zack's.
Summary: Zack invites Cloud to a party at his bar - on Christmas Eve.
The building looked different in the daytime.
Cloud paused on the sidewalk, hands jammed in his pockets and breath steaming in the winter air. The bar loomed silently before him, the faded bricks looking very orange against the madly swirling snow. There was a big red 'closed' sign on the front door. Cloud stared at it for a moment, then turned to peer up at the massive sign scrawled across the side of the building. It was off. Cloud squinted at the dark letters with a deep sense of misgiving, trying to remember if he'd ever seen them turned off before.
The steady puff of snow against metal in the quiet drew Cloud's attention away from the sign and towards a rickety fire escape ratcheting up the side of the building. He traced its upward path, blinking when it ended beneath a tinsel-decked window in the apartment above the bar. Gift-shaped decals clung to the frosted glass, bright and cheery against the winter drab. Cloud stared at them for a long moment, wondering absently whether the room on the other side was as festively decorated as the outside was. He was willing to bet probably yes.
And he was stalling.
"Come on, Cloud," he muttered to himself. "You can do this."
The 'closed' sign was still there when he turned back to the door and Cloud flicked a quick glance at his watch, just to be sure. Five minutes to six. Right on time. He hesitated with his hand on the handle for a small eternity, then gave himself a swift mental kick and yanked the door open before he could think better of it.
The smell of pine washed over him as he stepped inside and Cloud's pulse spiked in instinctive panic before his brain caught up enough to realize that he couldn't possibly have walked into the wrong building. Even if it sort of looked like the north pole had just exploded over every available surface and he was pretty sure none of the bar's new… embellishments had been there the last time he'd been inside.
At the very least, he figured he would have noticed the tree.
The massive fir was stood on one side of the space where the dance floor usually was, taller than Cloud by a foot or more and wide enough around that he'd probably need three friends with long arms to cover the distance. Tinsel sparkled on every bough in star-bright shimmers of silver and blue and gold, while soft lights winked amid the pine needles. A gaggle of the bar’s employees were clustered around the tree, laughing and giggling as they hung glass balls from the heavy branches. The top of the tree was still bare but Cloud could see a lanky server he didn’t know wobbling precariously on top of a tall ladder, a gold star bigger than Cloud's fist clutched desperately in one hand. Several other staff members were carting tables around in the near vicinity, laughingly providing an entirely unhelpful commentary for the man on the ladder as they worked.
The tree wasn't the only new addition to the décor. Glittering snowflakes dangled from the ceiling, sparkling brightly and sending light dancing through the air as they spun. Green and red tinsel was twined festively up the poles of the bar. Red cloths covered the tables, vases full of red flowers set neatly in the centre of each. Cloud didn't think he’d ever seen so much red and green confetti in his life.
He stifled a sigh. Why hadn't it occurred to him that Zack would be having a Christmas party?
“Hey there handsome,” a voice at his side purred just then and Cloud started in surprise as a pretty girl with green eyes latched proprietarily onto his arm. Her cheeks dimpled as she smiled up at him. "You're right on time."
“Aeris!" he exclaimed. “I… I didn’t know the bar was closed."
Aeris winked at him. “Christmas Eve tradition,” she confided and Cloud didn’t bother resisting as she dragged him away from the door, her slim hands neatly divesting him of his coat and scarf on the way. “It takes us the whole day to get ready. Is that a new shirt?”
“Yes,” Cloud admitted, smoothing one self-conscious hand down the dark green fabric as Aeris gave him an embarrassingly thorough once-over. “Tifa said…”
Aeris was already nodding, an approving smile in her eyes. "I figured it was something like that." Her head cocked. "You're very lucky to have her, you know.”
“Yes." Cloud nodded, even though he wasn't sure what it said about him that he was better off not dressing himself. "I…"
Cloud’s head jerked immediately towards the sound of that voice, the rest of whatever he'd been about to say flying clear out of his head between one breath and the next.
Aeris giggled at him. "I'll go hang this up for you," she decided, not waiting for a response as she hefted his coat and headed for the staff room.
Cloud hardly noticed, too busy staring slack-jawed as Zack Fair - bar owner, bartender and self-proclaimed Cloud's boyfriend - backed carefully out of the storeroom, one end of a long table in his hands and laughter in his voice.
If Cloud had been harbouring any last hope that this wasn't going to be a Christmas party, one look at Zack's clothes would have quashed it completely. Zack was dressed for the occasion in an obnoxiously red and green sweater that didn't look nearly as ridiculous on him as it ought to have and a pair of comfortable-looking black jeans that were haphazardly tucked into the tops of heavy black boots with shiny red ribbon woven through the laces. A red Santa hat completed the ensemble, its rakish tilt making Cloud think of those Christmas cards that had pictures of attractive, mostly naked men on them. Except, you know, Zack was wearing actual clothes.
And now Cloud was picturing Zack in a pair of white-trimmed Santa briefs. Perfect.
Aeris materalized again at his side while Cloud was trying without success to rid himself of that particular mental image, a charming pout on her face as she looped a friendly arm through Cloud's and snuggled in close.
“It’s not fair, is it?” she demanded, gesturing at Zack. “No one should be able to make a Christmas sweater look that sexy.”
"No kidding," Cloud agreed, then froze, abruptly horrified. "Er, wait, no - I didn't…”
Aeris flashed an impish grin at him. "Keep making that face," she instructed and tightened her grip. “Hey Zack!” she shouted, waving enthusiastically with her free hand while Cloud stared at her in horror. “I found the Christmas present I want this year!”
"Hmm?" Zack glanced over distractedly, a smile lighting his whole face as he caught sight of Cloud. “Sorry sweetheart!” he yelled back, grinning fit to burst. “I get first dibs on that one!”
The room laughed and Cloud flushed, Aeris' hold on him the only thing keeping him from bolting.
"Hey now." She gave his arm a reassuring squeeze. "None of that. We tease because we care." She ducked her head to peer up at Cloud's face, the look in her green eyes very sincere. "So stop trying to sink through the floor in embarrassment, okay?"
"Easy for you to say," Cloud muttered back, though he made a decent effort at relaxing the rigid line of his shoulders.
"Alright you comedians!" Zack told his staff, a grin escaping round the edges of his mouth. "Back to work!" His eyes flicked over to Cloud. "You're going to have to entertain yourself for a bit," he apologized. "Think you can survive without me?"
Cloud rolled his eyes in a reasonable facsimile of normal. "I'm sure I'll manage somehow."
Zack winked at him. "Someone get that man a drink!" he instructed as the staff turned back to their work and aimless chatter filled the room.
"You heard the man," Aeris said to Cloud, dragging him towards the tinsel-decked bar. "Come on."
"Can I help with anything?" Cloud tried.
"Nope!" Aeris said cheerfully, depositing Cloud on his regular seat at the bar. "Just sit here and look pretty. That'll be more than enough to keep Zack motivated."
Cloud's blush returned with a vengeance. "Aeris!"
Aeris patted his knee fondly. "Just take it as a compliment," she suggested.
"Aeris!" Jesse's head popped around the kitchen door, flyaway strands of hair sticking to her red cheeks. "Can you give me a hand?"
"Be right there!" Aeris called over her shoulder. "I'll send Xigbar over to mix you a drink," she told Cloud.
Cloud shook his head. "Don't worry about it," he told her with a passing attempt at a smile. "I'll get something later."
Aeris' answering grin was devilish. "You just want to drool over Zack's hands while he mixes something for you. Now try to have some fun tonight, okay?" she added in an undertone as Cloud spluttered. "This is his favourite part of the whole year."
"I…" Cloud swallowed hard. "I'll try."
"Good. You're much too hard on yourself." She placed a quick peck on his cheek and spun away with a merry little laugh. "Let me know if you need anything, okay?"
She was gone before Cloud could answer, hair swinging as she bounded across the room to help Jesse. Cloud watched her go, a sharp twist of guilt tightening his chest. Of course Zack liked Christmas - how could he not? It was the perfect holiday for someone like him.
Cloud slumped down onto the bar with a sigh. He'd never been much of a holiday person - his family hadn't celebrated much of anything and there hadn't seemed much point to starting when he moved out on his own. He ate Christmas dinner with his friends, but only because Tifa's very sincere threats of bodily violence made it less than wise to do otherwise. Last year he'd even missed that, too preoccupied with the intensive training for his brand new job to pay any attention to a calendar.
And what a waste of time that had been.
The familiar sting of that lodged itself between his ribs, though maybe he was just getting used to it because it didn't hurt like it used to. Or maybe that was the influence of a certain happy-go-lucky bartender who seemed to have a talent for attracting strays and giving them something to care about.
Cloud's eyes tracked automatically across the room, watching as Zack snapped a red cloth across a long table while Xigbar rolled his eyes and reached out to straighten it when it skidded. Zack laughed good-humouredly as they smoothed it into place and Cloud made a mental note not to do anything that would ruin that good mood. Just because he didn't care for all the tinsel and lights and crowds didn't mean he wanted to spoil it for Z- anyone else.
The front door banged open, a swirl of snow and a raucous greeting heralding the arrival of the evening's entertainment. Cloud half-started off his stool as the T&Cs tromped inside, figuring they probably needed help with the heavy equipment they were carting, and nearly fell over in shock when Reno, the bassist, looked over at him and grinned like he'd just won the lottery.
“Strife!” he exclaimed, big flakes of snow brilliantly white against his red hair as he stalked over. “You just made my whole damn night, yo!”
“Um… that’s good?” Cloud hazarded, wondering why on earth a member of the T&Cs knew his name.
Elena came forward at a more sedate face, smiling as she set down her keyboard and combed a hand through her damp hair. “He bet Rude that you’d be sat there when we arrived.” She threw an amused glance at Rude, who was looking vaguely sheepish behind his ubiquitous sunglasses. “And now Rude has to pick up our bar tab tonight.”
“Oh. I guess Zack usually invites people to watch the set-up, huh?” Cloud tried, trying for nonchalant and failing miserably.
A lanky arm draped familiarly around his shoulders. “Nah,” Reno denied with an amused grin. “But the way he’s been going around looking like someone just killed his fucking dog whenever you’re not around made it pretty damn obvious that he wasn’t going to let you skip out on his big Christmas do.”
“Oh,” Cloud said again, for a very different reason, and Reno laughed at the expression on his face.
“You’re a good kid,” he declared, the arm around Cloud's shoulders tightening briefly before Reno stepped back with a wicked grin. “And watching Zack Fair all goopy in love over you is the best entertainment I’ve had in months, yo.”
“Come on, Reno,” Tseng said as Cloud’s blush threatened to set fire to his hair. “Less talking and more setting up. You can torment him later.”
“Promise?” Reno asked cheekily. “Kidding, yo. Later Strife,” he said over his shoulder and Cloud mumbled what hopefully passed for an appropriate response as the four of them gathered up their equipment and struck out across the room, calling greetings to the staff as they went.
Cloud slumped back onto his stool, feeling kind of like he'd just been run over by a steamroller. From what little he knew about Reno, it seemed like a fairly normal response.
The next hour or so passed peaceably enough, Cloud slouching at the bar while the tree got decked out and food got heaped on the red-clothed tables. Tseng and the others filled the air with a comfortable jumble of notes and snatches of songs as they checked their equipment. Cloud spent most of the time watching Zack, admiring the easy economy of his movements and trying not to stare at the way his ass looked in those jeans. The smugly fond lift to Zack's eyebrows whenever he glanced over at the bar suggested that Cloud wasn’t doing an especially good job on that score.
It put a dangerous, fluttery feeling in his stomach when he realized that he didn’t really mind all that much.
Finally the last ornament was hung, the last table in place, and everyone quieted with an anticipatory hush as Zack surveyed the riot of decorations with an appraising eye.
“Perfect!” Zack approved, hands on his hips and a grin on his face. “Looks like it's time for the finishing touch.”
He made a quick gesture and a handful of the men fell in at his back, tromping en masse into the storeroom. The anticipation in the room was almost palpable by the time they reemerged, lugging several heavy-looking black garbage bags behind them. Cloud leaned forward curiously as they carted them over to the tree. Zack opened the first bag to reveal a massive pile of identically wrapped silver packages, a splash of red ribbon curling neatly around each.
Then Zack started hauling gifts out of the bag, his voice a low murmur of instruction as he passed them out and the rest of the staff starting stacking them under the tree in neat, even piles. The other garbage bags opened to reveal more of the shining packages, enough to fill all the space under the huge tree and then some. It was an impressive sight, to say the least.
“There,” Zack declared as the last gift went under the tree. “That’s the lot of ‘em.” He wadded the empty garbage bag into a ball and pitched it to a waiting Wedge. He canted his head towards Xigbar. “How we doing for time?”
“Bout 15 minutes to spare,” Xigbar told him and Cloud could feel the satisfaction in the room as everyone grinned at each other, bright-eyed and exhilarated.
Zack grinned. “Just what I wanted to hear. How about you guys?” he called over to the bandstand. "Ready to get this party started?"
Reno grinned sharkishly. “Just give the word, yo.”
“Five minute bathroom break," Zack directed. "Then we'll open the doors."
“You’d better get to your place then,” Aeris told him, giving him a not-so-subtle push towards the bar. She arched an eloquent eyebrow. “Get that long-suffering boyfriend of yours a drink.”
Zack laughed. “Yes, ma’am."
The group dispersed and Cloud clenched his hands in his pants, feeling strangely nervous as Zack let himself behind the bar and wandered down to where Cloud was sitting.
“So stranger,” Zack drawled, grinning. “What can I get you?”
Cloud shrugged, digging out a shy smile of his own. “Surprise me.”
And Zack chuckled. “My pleasure.” His hands started reaching for bottles in a way that would have looked random if Cloud wasn't well aware of just how attentive Zack was when it came to bartending. Cloud fixed his gaze on a curl of tinsel, not wanting to get caught staring at Zack's hands after the way Aeris had been teasing him earlier. The bustle of the room was growing louder by the minute and Cloud bit back a grimace, wondering how insane the place was going to be when there were actually customers in it.
“And violà!” Zack placed a full glass down in front of him with a sly little wink. “Something festive for the occasion. So,” he said, propping his chin against one palm as Cloud took a swallow of something smooth and richly minty. “What do you think of the place?”
“Looks good,” Cloud answered, licking the taste of peppermint off his lips and watching Zack’s eyes follow the motion. “Very Christmassy.”
A pleased chuckle. “Well, we’ve had a lot of years to practice.” Zack paused for a moment and when he spoke again it was with a teasing amusement that Cloud didn’t trust in the slightest. “Though I really think the mistletoe is the perfect touch.”
“Mistletoe?” Cloud frowned, glancing round. “I don’t see any mistletoe.”
His grin now approaching terrifying proportions, Zack flicked his eyes significantly upwards. A feeling of foreboding in his stomach, Cloud leaned obliging forwards, craning his neck to see the plump sprig of mistletoe nestled firmly against the dark wood of the bar directly above his head. If Zack hadn't told him, he'd never even have known it was there.
He glanced back down. “You mean you've strung mistletoe along the entire b-”
“Mmm," Zack murmured against Cloud's mouth, lips curving into a smile as he kissed him. "Yummy." He drew easily back, eyes bright and fond. "And no, just the one - why do you think I wanted you to come early? Couldn't risk having someone else sit in your spot, you know. I'd have to go around kissing strangers!"
Cloud shook his head, lips still tingling. "You're unbelievable."
"Only sometimes." Zack glanced over Cloud's shoulder to the rest of the room. “Alright lords and ladies," he announced. "Time to let in the ravening hoards.”
Aeris giggled. “One ravening hoard coming right up. Hope you’ve got people guarding the presents.”
“Eh, Lex can handle it.”
Cloud glanced at the big man looming next to the tree. “Zack?” he asked.
He gestured vaguely towards the huge stack of gifts. “What’s with all the presents? Are they real?”
Zack winked at him. “Oh, they’re real alright. Everyone who comes into the bar tonight gets one."
"What's in them?"
"Who knows?" He grinned crookedly. "Even I don’t know which one’s which - that's part of the fun.”
“…Why?” Cloud demanded, amazed that even Zack could be that generous.
An easy shrug. “Because it’s Christmas,” Zack answered simply and Cloud was still gaping at him as Aeris threw wide the door and a surge of people poured in, their cheeks bright with the cold and their eyes glowing with enthusiasm.
Christmas Eve at Zack's, Cloud was more than a little bemused to realize, seemed to be a local tradition for a good third of the city. It wasn't long before the room was packed to the rafters with holiday revelers, many of them on their way home from spending the evening with friends and relatives (some of whom they'd evidently brought with them). Cloud stayed in his place at the bar as tables filled and people pressed in on every side, laughing and chatting like they didn't have a care in the world.
The T&Cs had launched into their first set as soon as the door opened and were keeping the crowd entertained with their standard mix of rock/jazz/whatever while people helped themselves to food and beer. They looked to be enjoying themselves immensely and even threw in the occasional Christmas song, though some of the lyrics they came up with seemed awfully… bawdy considering there were children laughing and playing around the tree not ten feet away.
Aeris and the other servers were busier than Cloud had ever seen them - darting neatly through the dense crowds with drinks and platters. Their progress was somewhat impeded by the way they kept stopping to trade smiles, hugs and greetings with the regular customers. No one really seemed to mind the delay, which Cloud thought was pretty amazing in and of itself.
Zack was in top form tonight, his smile bright and his hands never faltering even though he had to be roasting in that ridiculous sweater. He had Xigbar working the taps next to him – an unseen occurrence at any other time of the year – and Cloud could only imagine the grief the busboys were going through trying to keep the bar stocked with clean glasses.
The relentless press of people all around him was making Cloud feel vaguely ill after little more than an hour but he stayed stubbornly at the bar, not about to spend the rest of the evening lingering uncertainly by the door if he couldn't find another seat. He kept his attention on Zack, centering himself in the breathless joy radiating off the man and doing his best not to blush whenever Zack’s eyes cut his way and smiled, just for him. His drink got refilled several times, not enough to get him drunk but enough that he let himself get dragged into another handful of kisses. That made people start laughing and hollering for their own turn – with Zack, Cloud figured they must mean – and by the time he remembered that mistletoe was only supposed to work once, it hardly seemed worth the effort to object.
Of course, Cloud was too busy being overwhelmed by the hot, hungry look in Zack’s eyes each time they drew apart to pay much attention to what anyone else thought of it anyway.
The evening dragged on and the crowd was starting to get restless by the time Xigbar finally grabbed Zack by the back of his sweater and dragged him bodily away from the taps. “Come on, you fool. Stop teasing everyone.”
“Oh, is it that time already?” Zack asked innocently and laughed when Xigbar cuffed him on the arm. A pack of children was already waiting impatiently by the tree and Zack sprawled in their midst with a charming smile.
“Time for presents?” he asked and received a flurry of nodding heads in response. Zack grinned. “Alright then.”
Cloud craned his neck as Zack leaned over, Santa hat threatening to slide right off his head as he picked a gift out from under the tree. A shy little blonde girl accepted it with wide, avid eyes and Zack smiled fondly before reaching for another. The sound of silver paper crinkling was loud in the sudden silence and Cloud dragged his eyes away from Zack’s face to find that most of the rest of the room was watching as well, nostalgia, excitement and fondness scrawled openly across every face. Reno and the others had set aside their instruments and Cloud could see a few adults squirming impatiently in their seats as they waited for their turn.
Zack had said he didn’t know what was in the presents, but it didn’t take Cloud long to figure out that that couldn’t possibly be true. The children all received children's gifts; dolls and trucks and stuffed animals. There was a round of enthusiastic hugs from little arms and then Zack picked himself up off the floor and headed into the crowd, armed with stacks of silver gifts and a smile that could probably power an entire city block.
He ranged through the room seemingly at random, shouted thanks and the sounds of tearing paper following in his wake. Ribbons and chocolates and liquor spilled out into the hands of waiting patrons and Zack seemed just as pleased to watch people swap gifts with each other as when he got someone right. Several gifts were obviously meant for certain people and Cloud had to smile at the look on Aeris' face when a pale, rose coloured shawl spilled through her fingers, at Reno’s delighted laugh when he uncovered a bag of fire-roasted coffee beans from an overpriced bistro down the street.
Cloud did his best not to fidget as Zack drew closer to the bar, unable to remember the last time he’d been so excited or nervous about receiving a present. Xigbar gave him an understanding nod from the other side of the bar and Cloud could see how avidly the big man was watching the proceedings.
“I should make you all fight to the death over them,” Zack joked as he came near, shifting the stack of presents into the crook of one arm so he could hand them out. He dropped Cloud’s gift into his lap without a word, but Cloud decided to pretend that the private twinkle in gray eyes was meant for him anyway. The paper came away easily beneath his trembling fingers and Cloud gaped like an idiot at what lifting the box lid revealed.
A pair of tickets for the regional motorcycle show in January and a reservation for dinner.
“You are free, right?” Zack’s voice murmured in his ear, and Cloud jumped to find the man still standing there, arms full of silver boxes and his expression hopeful.
“It’s a Saturday,” was all Cloud could think to say. “You have to work.”
Zack grinned in fond exasperation. “Hey, even I can take days off sometimes. Now come on.” He replaced the tickets in the box and set it on the bar, his hand warm as he tugged Cloud to his feet. “You can help me hand out the rest of these.”
“But…” Cloud managed and then his arms were full of beribboned boxes and people he’d never seen before were smiling at him like he mattered before he’d quite realized what was going on.
Handing out the rest of the gifts took the better part of an hour, the crowd starting to thin a bit as evening dragged on into night. Cloud didn’t know how he ended up sat beside the Christmas tree with Aeris, laughing and singing along as Zack joined Tseng in the raunchiest version of ‘Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ Cloud had ever heard. His drink migrated over to join him at some point and Cloud didn’t resist too hard when Zack gave him another kiss without the excuse of the mistletoe to back it up.
“What?” Zack demanded, with an innocent expression that wouldn’t have fooled his own mother. “I called dibs, remember? Got to make sure I enjoy my present.”
And Cloud blushed but even that didn’t seem like such a bad thing anymore, not when he was warm and happy and content, surrounded by people who actually seemed to want him there.
And really, who could complain when Zack Fair looked at you like you were the reason Christmas sparkled?
It was very late when Xigbar announced the last call, though it wasn’t until Aeris attacked him with a fierce hug and a ‘Merry Christmas!’ that Cloud realized it actually was. He made his way back to the bar while the staff called cabs for those too drunk to stagger their way home and found his gift sitting untouched beneath Xigbar's watchful gaze.
“You need a cab too?” the big man asked him.
Cloud shook his head. “No, I’m fine. Can… can I help clean up?”
“You don’t need t…” Xigbar started, then his eyes cut across the floor towards the practically empty buffet table. Which, coincidentally, was the last place Cloud had seen Zack standing.
Xigbar shook his head and reached under the counter. "Here," he said, handing Cloud a garbage bag. “Go help pick up all that godforsaken wrapping paper.”
Cloud nodded thankfully and headed off to do just that.
The clean-up didn’t take as long as Cloud had expected. They left the majority of the decorations, – “Otherwise we’d just have to decorate again for New Years,” Zack joked, – and most of the tables were more or less where they were supposed to be already. The band packed up their gear while Cloud helped fold tablecloths and lug the extra furniture back into the storeroom, Reno and Elena taking a malicious delight in sending Rude up to the bar to settle their tab.
Cloud found his coat tucked into the corner of the narrow closet and he slipped his present carefully into the pocket before pulling it on. He and a handful of the others helped the T&Cs pile their equipment into their van, Elena behind the wheel as they trundled slowly down the street. The snow had mostly stopped, a thick layer of glittering white lying quietly over everything and Cloud bade goodnight to the last of Zack’s staff, shyly accepting hugs and handshakes from each of them.
And then Zack locked the front door with himself on the wrong side of it and turned to Cloud with a smile that made Cloud's heart skip several beats.
“No ride tonight?” Zack asked, pocketing the keys. Cloud shook his head and Zack's smile spread. “Come on, I'll walk you home.”
"I don't want to be a bother," Cloud started and Zack's quiet laugh made puffs of frost wreathe around his face.
"Don't worry about me," he said. He gestured upwards, towards the apartment window Cloud had been staring at earlier. "I have the world's shortest commute."
That seemed to be that, as far as Zack seemed to be concerned, and Cloud didn't figure it was worth the effort to argue. He nodded and started off down the road with Zack at his side, snow crunching under their boots.
The world was still with the breathless hush of the very early morning, the glittering snow blanketing everything until it felt like they were the only two people in the world.
“So,” Zack said as they walked, his smile flashing in the dark. “Now are you glad you came?”
Cloud nodded. “Very.” He darted a glance towards Zack. “Thank you for inviting me.”
Zack shrugged. “Wouldn’t have been the same without you.”
"So you do this every year?"
"Absolutely. And it's always worth it." Zack grinned suddenly. “Though I must admit I usually spent most of Christmas catching up on my sleep afterwards.”
“You don’t do anything for Christmas?” Cloud asked, surprised.
“Not really.” Another shrug. “My folks live on the other side of the country so I usually spend a good hour or two on the phone with ‘em, but I haven't done the turkey and presents thing since I moved here." He smiled softly. "This party is enough Christmas for me though."
Cloud bit his lip. “Y-you could come to ours,” he blurted. Zack glanced over at him, surprise clear on his face, and Cloud stared at his boots. “Tifa does a big dinner for everyone. And she’s already told me that I’d better as hell be there after I missed it last year.” His tone was embarrassed as he added, "I think she's convinced I'll spend the day moping in my room or writing bad poetry and contemplating suicide or something if she doesn't make me come."
“I should thank her for watching out for you then.” There was a moment's silence and then, "So I'm guessing things aren't going to well on the job front?"
Cloud sighed. “No. It's my own fault, really, but… I don’t want a job I’m going to hate. Which isn’t fair when I’m living in Tifa’s house, but I just…” He shrugged helplessly. "I don't know."
“You could come work for me," Zack offered. He tilted his head towards Cloud with a smile in his voice. "You can be a bouncer."
"You don't need a bouncer," Cloud pointed out.
"I need you," Zack answered simply. His grin arched. "And it'd be awesome watching you throwing out guys three times your size."
"Zack." Cloud sighed, huddling deeper into his coat. "I appreciate it but..."
"Not for you huh? Oh, well," Zack dismissed, not sounding at all put out. "Figured I'd ask." He paused then, the hesitation so brief that Cloud wouldn't have noticed except for the unnatural stillness of the night. "Though I do have something else for you, if you want it."
"You don't have to," Cloud started and Zack cut him off with a gentle smile.
"Hey, I made a promise didn't I? And I like giving you things." He reached into his pocket and fished out a small white square of paper. "Here."
Cloud took it curiously. "A business card?" he asked, squinting at the neatly typed letters in the pooling streetlamp light. "S-h-i-n …" He glanced sharply at Zack. "Shinra Inc?"
"Biggest electronics company in the world," Zack confirmed. He gestured at the card in Cloud's hand, his expression unreadable. "I know it's not on the same level as protecting the President, but you've got an interview if you want it."
"An..." Cloud stopped walking, staring at Zack. "Are you serious?"
"The head of security's a friend of mine," Zack explained, as serious as Cloud had ever heard him. "And he's always on the lookout for good men."
Cloud was at a loss for words. "I... you... I can't... really?"
Zack chuckled, warm and fond. "I take it that means you're interested?"
Cloud nodded wordlessly, completely staggered, and Zack's grin went decidedly impish.
"Good. Cause I already told Seph all about you."
And Zack just chuckled, bending down to claim a quick, soft kiss. "Merry Christmas Cloud," he murmured, breath gusting hot against Cloud's skin. "Now come on," he beckoned, urging him into motion again with a gentle hand at his back. "Let's get you home before we both turn into snowmen."
"Thank you, Zack," Cloud said as they started walking again. "For... for everything."
"My pleasure," Zack said simply, and Cloud stopped again in the snow, staring up into Zack's eyes and thinking of all the little pieces of happiness Zack had given him since the moment they'd met.
"Cloud?" Zack asked and Cloud found a smile for him that was more genuine than any he could remember giving in years.
"I just realized," he said. "It wouldn't be safe for you to walk home alone after this. Who knows what could happen?"
Zack arched an eyebrow, bemused but playing along. "I see. What do you suggest then?"
"I'm going to walk you home," Cloud answered primly, looping his arm with Zack's and starting them back the way they'd come. "It's only fair."
"Uh huh. And what happens when you get me safely home? I'm not about to let you walk alone in the dark either."
Cloud shrugged, deliberately nonchalant. "Guess I'll just have to stay overnight," he said, heart thumping double time. He darted a shy glance up at Zack through his bangs. "You have a couch or something I can borrow, right?"
"Or something," Zack agreed, a radiant smile spreading across his face as he shifted to wrap one arm around Cloud's waist and pull him close. "Of course, you realize this means that you'll have to stay for breakfast - I couldn't let you leave without eating something first."
"I think I can manage that," Cloud said, knowing his expression was ridiculously goofy and not caring in the slightest. “Especially if you’re coming home with me for dinner.” He snuggled up against Zack's side, sighing contentedly as Zack hugged him tighter.
It might not have been what he'd been expecting of Christmas this year, but Cloud couldn't imagine himself ever wanting anything else more.