Cloud looked at himself in the bathroom mirror. He felt like shit and looked it, too. There were dark circles under his eyes, his hair was a limp mess, and his mouth tasted horrible. Add to that a fairly major headache and Cloud just wanted to go back to bed despite the clock's short hand pointing at 11 a.m.
He pinched the bridge of his nose-definitely should not have had those last three shots of vodka.
"Good morning!" a cheerful voice shouted in his ear. Cloud yelled in reflex, swinging an arm sideways, but the target ducked out of his fist's way.
"That hurt!" he complained as loudly as he could manage without making the headache worse.
"Yeah, it's supposed to, idiot," His brother retorted. "Serves you right for last night. What did I tell you about that party drinking?"
"Rub it in," Cloud mumbled, turning on the faucet and sticking his head under the water. "Nee-sum-cahe."
"I need some coffee," Cloud repeated, more clearly this time. He raised his head up and shook it, sending water droplets everywhere.
"Hey, watch it! It's a new tie!"
The headache seemed to dim a bit post-wash, and Cloud finally took a good look at his older brother. Zack had on a bright blue shirt with a pair of dark slacks and was tying a red-and-navy-striped tie while facing the mirror. His dark hair was a mess, but it still looked passable. Cloud frowned. Wasn't it Saturday?
"You got work today?" he asked.
Zack shook his head. "Nope. I'm having lunch with Tseng and Elena. We're going to the Grill downtown. And you, little bro," he added as he ruffled Cloud's hair lightly, "are going to stay home with Denzel."
Cloud scoffed. "What, you just throw this on me right now? What if I had plans for the afternoon?"
Zack paused in his tying. "Do you have plans?"
A pause, then, "No..."
"I'm saying," Cloud answered, reaching over and grabbing the towel, "that you should've given me a heads-up earlier."
"Two minutes ago. Now be good; I'm running late already. Tseng'll do his death glare again if I'm late again this time. Denzel's in the living room. Get dressed."
"Okay, okay!" Cloud called after his brother's retreating back. "Don't pull a muscle running like the last time!"
"That was NOT a pulled muscle, and I was trying to save two hundred grand!" Zack yelled back.
Cloud smiled at that, then wiped his face with the towel one last time before padding back to his own room. Finding a pair of jeans in the junk thrown across the back of the armchair, Cloud quickly pulled them on as Zack's voice came from the other side of the apartment, muted and light. Probably leaving last minute instructions to Denzel, Cloud figured, grabbing a T-shirt from the closet just as he heard the front door slam.
"Denzel?" he called, walking into the kitchen to make himself some coffee.
A "Yeah?" came from near the TV.
He had just turned the coffee maker on when Denzel's small figure appeared inside the kitchen door frame. "Yeah," the boy said, making a face. "But I don't want the leftovers."
"Any particular reason?"
"Daddy put too much garlic in the spaghetti," Denzel looked sheepishly at the ground. "They'll smell bad in the microwave."
Cloud grinned. "That's a perfectly fine reason to not eat things. How much is left? Maybe we can feed it to Rufus."
Denzel scrunched up his nose. "Rufus hates Daddy's garlic, too."
Cloud laughed. "I think I need to talk to your father about his cooking habits. So you wanna order a pizza, or go to Mickie D's?"
"Isn't there frozen pizza in the fridge?"
There was indeed a stack of DiGiorno in the freezer, so Cloud took one out-regular pepperoni and sausage-and preheated the oven. It seemed that Zack had been prepared for the unwanted meal, for the pizzas were not yet two days old, which probably meant that Zack knew people didn't like his garlic. Thinking that, Cloud suddenly realized that Zack only went ballistic on the garlic when he was cooking spaghetti.
It wasn't until he finished drinking the now-bubbling cup of coffee that he realized Denzel was still standing by the doorway. Cloud paused, putting the cup down on the counter, and walked over to the boy, bending slightly to look him in eye.
"What's the matter?"
Denzel wrung his hands together. "Um, what're we doing this afternoon?"
Pausing, Cloud thought for a minute. "I don't know. You got something in mind?"
"Could we maybe go to the park?"
"Sure. That's all?"
The boy nodded, face flushed red, and his uncle smirked.
"Is there someone in particular you'd like to see at the park?"
"The-the oven's hot now."
With that, Denzel quickly vanished from the kitchen, and Cloud stood, grinning openly. Kids these days, he thought, shaking his head. Well, he sure could use some fresh air himself. The coffee had helped, but the headache still lurked behind his eyelids like an afterthought.
The pizza took longer than they had expected, so it was well after two when they finally finished their last piece and put the rest back in the fridge, next to the untouched spaghetti. Denzel fed Rufus scraps of the crust and pieces of pepperoni. Cloud found the leash after a thorough search of the house, collared Rufus up and ushered him out the door, heading toward the local park a few streets away.
It was a high autumn afternoon; the chilly wind was adequately refreshing, and Cloud was only too glad for the icy feel at his temples. Denzel was running ahead with Rufus, throwing a Frisbee along the sidewalk, and Cloud lit a cigarette. His brother had harped on him many times about the harm of smoking, but he never managed to quit-bad habits did indeed die hard.
Cloud had never wondered how Zack, who had been quite a delinquent in his teens, could actually "clean up his act" so completely that not only did he stop seeing his former disreputable acquaintances, even landing a job in one of the city's top companies, but also physically stopped using any of the so-called harmful substances. All cold turkey, for that matter, and Cloud had to give his brother credit for determination.
No doubt it was Aeris's doing. Cloud looked at Denzel, whose light brown hair a ruffled bundle in the wind/. Your mother was a remarkable woman/, Cloud mused. If it weren't for her, Zack probably would still be doing what he had been doing in his teenage years, and that meant Denzel would have ended up in a foster home sooner or later. Cloud himself wouldn't have the will to go to college, not without Zack's insistence upon the matter.
By then they had walked into the Heartmont Park . There was a fairly large group at a shaded clearing with various tents and booths set up-looked like a fair of some sort, sponsored by the local church. Cloud had scarcely stepped in the vicinity before Denzel started to run toward the group.
"Denzel! Don't run too far!" Cloud yelled.
"I won't!" said the little boy without turning.
Of course, the request was ignored wholeheartedly. All Cloud could do was follow behind, using Rufus's eager bark as a beacon so as not to lose the small child in the crowd. Once he caught up, he saw Denzel approaching a little girl with pigtails. Aha/, he smiled to himself. /That must be the core reason behind the visit. Being eight for three weeks and he thinks he's all grown-up.
Keeping a fairly solid eye on Denzel and the little girl with pigtails, Cloud settled on a bench nearby and lit a fresh cigarette. Rufus, after discovering that his former young master had neglected to throw the Frisbee ever since the arrival of the young lady, now circled back to where Cloud sat and started to nip at the blonde's jeans.
Cloud ruffled Rufus's fur. "Good boy."
He looked around to see if there was a stick nearby and found one a few feet away. He reached for it, then nearly fell straight out of his seat when his cell phone rang loudly in his pocket.
"We're fine," he answered, holding the phone in one hand and throwing the stick he'd managed to pick up as far as he could with the other. "We're currently at the park. What's up?"
"The park?" A pause. "Denzel's idea?"
"Doesn't he have homework to do?"
Cloud groaned. "Zack, it's Saturday."
Cloud snickered. "Forgotten the day already? How many glasses of wine did you drink at lunch?"
"I don't drink, buddy, you know this. Speaking of, Tseng's throwing a little thing tonight at The Mansion. You wanna come?"
"He actually invited /me/?"
"'Course not. He invited me, and I'm allowed to bring a guest. I certainly can't bring Denzel. Oh, by the way-how's the hangover?"
Cloud just remembered his headache. As if on cue, his temple flared for a brief second, causing him to wince. "Um, pretty much gone but not quite."
"Well, then you're not allowed to drink tonight."
"Wha - what's the fun of going then?"
Zack tsked on the other end. "Little bro, this is so you can establish some connections. Shinra's a pharmaceutical company. You study chemistry. Can't hurt."
"And you think a party at The Mansion is a good connection spot?" Skepticism tinged Cloud's voice. The Mansion was not exactly a strait-laced business consort.
Zack chuckled. "Well, okay, maybe save the serious talk for some other time, but they'd at least see your face, yeah? Count this as, say, compensation for potentially ruining your afternoon plans."
A smile made its way to Cloud's lips. "Alright, then. I'll be there. What time?"
"Five-thirty dinner party. Well, as much of a dinner party as you can have, considering the place, but I did hear that Tseng made quite an effort to class it up so don't show up in jeans and a T-shirt! And do something about that hair of yours!"
"Okay, okay," Cloud snapped. The old carp didn't get any easier to hear regardless of the number of times it repeated. "What about Denzel? He needs a baby-sitter."
"Zack, it's already three-thirty."
"Then you better hurry. I'll pick you up around five; got something to take care of first. Bye!"
"Hey wait a mi -"
Cloud shouted in vain, for the dial tone was already ringing. He cursed, jammed the phone back in his pocket and kicked the dirt. After a few deep breaths, he noticed Rufus returning with the stick in its mouth. Cloud sighed and re-attached the leash to the dog's collar.
"Denzel!" he yelled toward the church tents. "Come on, we gotta go!"
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