Fandom: FFVII AU
Pairing: Zack/Cloud preslash
Rating: PG for swearing
Warnings: Cid's language and Cloud feeling terribly sorry for himself.
Summary: The gang's out for an evening on the town - Cloud just wishes they could have left him at home instead.
"The gang's going out tonight," Tifa had told him over dinner. "You're coming too."
That had made Cloud sigh. They'd had this conversation before. “Tifa…”
She cut him off with a sharp glare and a poke in the arm. “I don’t want to hear it Cloud. You're becoming a recluse; it’ll do you good to get out of the house for a while.”
“But I don’t….”
“No buts, Cloud,” Tifa had said, steely and certain. “You. Are. Coming. End of story.”
And that, as far as Tifa had been concerned, was that. Cloud had thought about objecting, really he had, but arguing with Tifa was like kind of like trying to stop the tide on the best of days – and he’d fought enough losing battles in the last months to know when it just wasn’t worth the effort anymore.
So it was with a distressingly familiar mix of resignation and weary despair that he'd found himself bundled out the door promptly at a quarter after nine, wearing a dark blue shirt he hadn’t known he owned and wilting under an overdose of overly determined cheer from his dubious collection of friends.
Now, stirring one finger disconsolately through the drips of condensation pooling on the polished bar and paying little to no attention while Barret ranted about his foreman and Tifa chatted with a friend from work, Cloud wondered why his friends even bothered with him anymore.
At least the place they’d dragged him to wasn’t as crowded as some he’d suffered through in the past – more than busy for a weeknight yes, but not so bad that Cloud was getting jarred by the jostling elbows of people fighting to catch the bartender’s attention. The band - their drum kit said they were the T&Cs - was surprisingly tolerable, though Cloud wasn’t really sure how to classify the strange intermingling of rock/jazz/metal/pop they were playing. They were between sets right now – the red-headed bassist was sprawled carelessly across the drummer’s lap and the both of them were watching the singer and keyboardist kick back shots – so the continual murmur of the crowd was an almost pleasant buzz in the air, underscored by the clink of glasses on wooden tabletops and the steady thunk of darts hitting the boards on the far side of the room.
And Cid swearing up a blue streak as one of his shots went wide, but that was pretty much par for the course as far as Cid was concerned.
Yuffie was somewhere over by the door, giggling as she tormented the twins from her math class and the blond one’s obnoxiously tall boyfriend made snide comments about everyone within hearing distance. Cloud supposed it was nice to see her having a good time, though he wondered how sensible it was for her to be pink-cheeked and laughing when she had to wake up early in the morning.
Unlike him, a dark corner of his mind reminded, and Cloud traced the next nonsensical shape in the water with rather more force than necessary.
“And as for YOU!” Barret thundered suddenly at his side, loud and righteously pissed off. A broad finger jabbed under Cloud’s nose and he jerked back, eyes crossing in a vain attempt to focus. “Stop mopin’ around like a fool! It’s jus’ a damn job – no need to act like yer damn dog jus’ died!”
Cloud resisted the urge to sigh. It had been more than just a ‘damn job’ and they all knew it, but Barret lived by the belief that enough blustering and angry arm-waving could make anything true if you kept at it long enough. They’d all pretty much given up trying to convince him otherwise.
“Give Cloud a break,” Tifa ordered from Barret's other side, scowling at Barret as if she hadn’t been the one who’d bullied Cloud into coming out in the first place. “You know it’s a hard adjustment to make.”
Barret scowled. “It wouldn’t be so damn hard if he didn’t spend all his time sulking in his room.”
“I ride my bike too,” Cloud shot back, the retort sounding petulant even to his own ears.
The look Barret gave him made it clear that sheer willpower was the only thing keeping him from seizing Cloud by the shoulders and shaking him until he started talking sense. “Y’er a damn fool, Strife – when you gonna go out and do something with yerself?!”
A sudden swell of keys and chords ran roughshod over any attempt on Cloud's part to answer that, the lanky bassist’s ‘let’s get ready to bust this place up, yo!’ prompting a raucous cheer from the patrons that even Barret’s thunderous discontent couldn’t compete with.
He likely would have tried anyway – Barret was nothing if not persistent – but the sudden appearance of a tipsy Yuffie in their midst interrupted him before he could try.
“What’re you all doing standing around here?” the girl demanded, colour high and headband more than slightly askew. She jerked her head unsteadily towards the dance floor. “Let’s go have some fun!”
The mutinous expression on Barret’s face was almost enough to make up for the fact that Cloud had been included in that invitation.
“I ain’t dancin!” Barret said, crossing his arms defiantly across his chest.
Yuffie sniffed. “Fine then. Be boring. See if I care.” She latched onto Tifa’s wrist with a winsome smile. “You’ll dance with me, right Tifa?”
Tifa was doing a decidedly poor job of hiding her grin. “Shouldn’t you be writing your geography paper?” she asked, though mildly.
“Eh, it’s not due till Thursday.” Yuffie batted her eyelashes, endearing as only a half-drunk, impetuous teenager could be. “Come oooonnn, Tifa! You know you want to!”
“Oh, alright.” Tifa paused, half turning towards Cloud with same look of gentle worry she’d been wearing for the last six months and more. It made Cloud want to bang his head against the bartop or maybe apologize for being such a fuckup. “You coming?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” Cloud denied, waving a careless hand. “You go ahead.”
Tifa looked unconvinced and Cloud rolled his eyes. “What, do you think I’m going to bolt for the door the minute you turn your back? I’ll be fine,” he promised, hoping he sounded more convincing than he felt. “I’ll watch from here.”
“Well,” Tifa said slowly. “If you’re certain…”
“You heard ‘im!” Yuffie tugged impatiently on Tifa’s arm. “Let’s go!”
Cloud deliberately waved to them as they headed off and was rewarded with a slight lessening in the fretful creases around Tifa’s eyes. Which, predictably, only served to make him feel even more guilty. He really didn’t want to worry her, not when she’d been so good to him these last months; putting him up in her house when he hadn’t been able to pay his rent and helping him look through the want ads even when it was painfully clear he’d sooner throw himself off a bridge than work an office job. But he just wasn’t… ready to get over it yet. Or maybe not able to. He wasn’t quite sure which.
Barret was giving him a suspicious sort of look and Cloud had just opened his mouth to see if he could stave off another talking down to with an offering of beer when a wide, calloused hand dropped heavily onto Barret’s shoulder.
“Barret!” Cid exclaimed, leaning forward out of the throng. “Fuck man, this where you been all night?” Cid chewed on the end of his unlit cigarette, a tattered pack shoved carelessly behind one ear. “Come on – it’s three man teams on the boards tonight but Vin refuses to play and I’ll be buggered if I’m gonna ask Squall fucking Leonhart – bastard sucks at darts.” He paused, head cocking around Barret’s bulk towards Cloud. “Comin’ Strife? We can add you into the next singles set.”
“S’fine,” Cloud denied, not lying for once. He tried to smile. “You know I’m lousy at darts, Cid.”
Cid’s wolfish grin made him look like a much younger man. “No lie there, kid. Even Yuffie’s better’n you and she hit someone last week.”
“My pleasure hot shot.” He shot an appraising look Barret’s way. “You not moving yet, Wallace? Get the hell up – we’ve got a goddamn game to win!”
The pair of them lumbered away, waving greetings to some of the guys from Cid’s shop on the way. Vincent was already chalking up the score sheet on the far side of the room, cool and smoothly detached even with a drink in one hand and a squeaky piece of chalk in the other.
Alone at the bar, Cloud returned to his water droplet artwork, listening with half an ear to the sounds of other people having fun around him. Music pulsed through the air, bright and energetic, but Cloud couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to care much. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been to a bar – early failed attempts to drown his sorrows in alcohol not withstanding – and wondered what was wrong with him that he couldn’t even convince himself to pretend he was enjoying it.
Barret would have scowled and said he’d forgotten how to be happy. Cloud wasn’t sure he would have disagreed. Not inside his own head, at least. Lying to everyone else was one thing, but he tried to avoid lying to himself as a general rule.
He sighed and hunkered lower in his chair. Life sucked.
A glass clinked down next to his stirring hand and Cloud glanced up to find a tall, dark haired man grinning at him from behind the bar. “Here you are,” the man declared cheerfully. “Enjoy!”
Cloud stared at the full glass. “I didn’t order this.”
The bartender shrugged. “I know,” he said. “But you look like you could do with a drink.”
“R-iight.” Cloud arched an eyebrow. “Does your boss know you do that?”
Another shrug, coupled with a secretive grin. “Eh, he’s a total pushover.” He waved one hand encouragingly. “Go ahead.”
Cloud reached tentatively for the glass. “You treat all your miserable customers this way?” he asked, taking a swallow.
The bartender winked. “Only the cute ones.” He stuck out a hand. “I’m Zack,” he introduced himself, and the sheer unexpectedness of the whole situation had Cloud reaching forward to accept the handshake before he could think better of it.
“Cloud,” he answered in kind. It was a nice, firm handshake, Zack’s pale eyes twinkling in concert with his smile, and Cloud found himself fighting the urge to stammer as he reached again for the glass at his elbow. “Um, thanks,” he said awkwardly. “For the drink.”
Zack waved a careless hand. “Don’t mention it. Hope it helps improve your evening.”
“It’ll take more than one drink to do that,” Cloud muttered darkly and the sound of Zack chuckling was surprisingly pleasant beneath the roll of the drums.
“Yeah? Well finish that one first and I’ll see what I can do from there.”
Someone hailed Zack from the other end of the bar and Zack grinned at him before heading off in response to the summons. Without much else to do, Cloud found himself watching Zack’s hands as the man drew a pint of beer and passed it to the waiting patron, not spilling a drop. They were really nice hands, Cloud decided, wide and competent and as tanned as the rest of him. How different from Cloud’s.
A gaggle of youths stumbled up to the bar, laughing and shouting exuberant, half-drunk greetings. Zack served them with easy facility, cheerful grin never quitting even in the face of their blatant flirtations. One of the girls offered him a kiss in thanks for her toxic-looking green cocktail and Zack accepted it with good grace, laughing at the chorus of wolf whistles that rose up in response. He spent several minutes mixing drinks and trading witty banter with the group, the animated expression on his handsome face leaving no doubt as to the fact that he was enjoying himself thoroughly.
Cloud broke off his staring and peered disconsolately into his drink, feeling suddenly morose again. Why couldn’t he ever fit in like that?
His glass was nearly empty by the time Zack wended his way back to Cloud’s end of the bar, drying his hands on a towel as he went.
“So,” Zack drawled as he came close, propping one elbow against the bar and leaning into it. “Night getting any better yet?”
Cloud shrugged, staring at the ring of condensation around the glass.
“That bad huh?” Zack hmmed thoughtfully. “Anything I can do to help?”
The sound Cloud made couldn’t really be called a laugh. “Only if you know how to fix my life for me,” he said sourly.
“That’s a tall order,” Zack remarked, though lightly. “How about I start by buying you another drink?”
Cloud stared at him. “You can’t buy me a drink,” he objected.
Zack’s eyebrow arched. “Why not?”
“Because…” Cloud flailed around for something to say. “You’re the one selling them,” he finished lamely.
Zack chuckled. “Fair enough,” he grinned. Cloud was really starting to like the sound of his laugh.
Something in Zack’s eyes shifted then, glittering and warm, and he smiled disarmingly. “Then why don’t you give me your phone number and I’ll take you out to dinner sometime instead?”
“Huh?” Cloud blinked, perplexed. “Why do you want my numb…”
Zack was still smiling at him. Cloud’s cheeks felt uncomfortably warm all of a sudden. “Um, I…”
Somewhere between relieved and mortified, Cloud turned to finding Tifa bearing down on him, the smug little grin on her face doing little to soothe his flustered blush. “Sorry to disrupt your evening,” she drawled, eyes flicking unsubtly from him to Zack and back again. “But I just called a taxi for us so we need to go outside and wait for it.”
“Already?” Cloud asked, surprised, just as Zack chimed in with an ‘aww!’ and a devastating pout.
“Come on, Tifa!” the man cajoled, leaning forward across the bar. He fixed Tifa with a mournful look. “You trying to ruin my chances here?”
Tifa looked supremely unimpressed with his display. “Zack,” she said to him. "Do you really think I went to all the trouble of dragging him down here just to haul him off again before you so much as got his number? And it’s nearly two,” she added to Cloud, careless of his bewilderment. “Everyone else left ages ago.” Her eyebrow arched slyly. “Or were you too busy ogling the bartender to notice?”
“Tifa!” Cloud hissed, aghast.
“Was he?” Zack asked, sounding pleased. “Really?”
Cloud groaned, figuring that right now would be a good time for the ground to open up and swallow him.
Tifa was writing something on a napkin. She ripped off the corner and handed it Zack. “This is his cell number,” she told him. A stern glare. “I expect you to make good use of it,” she warned.
“Yes ma’am,” Zack agreed congenially. He glanced over at Cloud, his hopeful smile doing unsettling things to Cloud’s pulse. “If that’s okay with you of, course.”
“Er…” Cloud spared a thought to wonder if he’d had more to drink tonight than he’d thought – it would certainly explain his sudden inability to construct complete sentences. “I, uh…”
“He’ll look forward to it,” Tifa translated, seizing Cloud by the arm and hauling him to his feet. “But we really have to go. See you later, Zack.”
Zack raised his hand in a lazy wave. “Have a good night,” he bid, his eyes fixed on Cloud as Tifa dragged him bodily across the floor towards the exit. Cloud stared back, finding the honest appreciation in that gaze not nearly as unsettling as he thought he ought to have.
The heavy door thudding shut behind them was a shock, the sounds of the bar fading into a muffled thumping of voices and drums, and Cloud sucked in a sudden, startled lungful of night air as he tried to remember how to breathe.
“You alright there?” Tifa asked him, sounding like she was trying not to laugh.
“Tifa,” he said, nowhere near as close to stern as he’d hoped. “Why are you trying to set me up with the bartender?”
Tifa pursed her lips in an exaggerated display of consideration. “Let’s see, maybe it’s because he’s hot, funny, smart and totally into you?” She threw an arch look at Cloud. “You didn’t look like you were objecting to me.”
Cloud’s blush returned with a vengeance and he was morbidly glad the darkness helped hide it.
“And he’s not the bartender, by the way,” Tifa added, peering down the street for the sight of their ride. “Or at least not just the bartender.”
“Huh?” Cloud asked and Tifa sighed.
“Honestly Cloud, did you even notice the name of the bar? Look,” she gestured up at the face of the building and Cloud turned to see a glaring neon sign proudly announcing ‘Zack’s' to anyone within a mile-wide radius.
“Well,” he said after a moment. “That explains why he gave me a free drink.”
Tifa rolled her eyes. “You're hopeless. Come on,” she ordered, as a yellow cab car pulled around the corner, heading their way. “I’ll help you pick something to wear on your first date as long as you promise to actually answer your phone when he calls.”
Try as he might, Cloud couldn’t find it in himself to be mad at her for this. “Sure Tifa,” he said, in his best put-upon voice. It wasn’t very effective. “Whatever you say.”
She flashed him a smile over the top of the cab. “I told you it would do you good to get out for a while.”