Cloud spends his birthday in most unusual company. Christmas-fic for Kujakku Amano, 2003.
by Mina Lightstar
The Rhinestone Pony was a bar like any other. If Zax and the other boys hadn't made sure to suggest it, Cloud never would have trudged all the way to Sector 3 when he could have gone to any old tavern.
Cloud stared at the plain-looking building. Except for the neon sign bearing its name, it could have been any other establishment. Out of habit, Cloud reached behind his head to fiddle with the ponytail. His hand came to rest against the nape of his neck. Oh. Right. He'd cut it. The "new look" had been his sixteenth birthday present to himself - and from Zax, he supposed. Zax had been the one to actually cut it off. That had been only this morning; it felt like a decade ago.
It was still his birthday, and would be for another few hours. The plan was to spend the remainder of his day celebrating his sixteenth year in the Rhinestone Pony. It was a birthday tradition that many young men and women were eager to participate in. Cloud wasn't so eager to take part in that custom. Somehow, it was a lot less appealing when you knew you were going to be participating in the ritual alone.
"Go, damn it! Don't hold out on our account. Do something fun for a change, and never mind that we won't be there."
Easier said than done. Despite working in Midgar for nearly two years, Cloud had yet to thoroughly explore the immense metropolis on his own. Any time he had ventured into the city during his free time or after-hours, he had been with Zax. The main reason for that was...well, Cloud wasn't really inclined to spend a great deal of time in the city. He did his job, he worked as hard as he could, but a part of him didn't want to get too attached to the huge city - and another part of him missed the lush, cool mountains of Nibelheim.
Oh, man, Cloud sighed. He rubbed his neck. I'm getting pathetic. A long time had passed since he'd last thought of home, and he didn't particularly feel like reminiscing about Nibelheim at the moment. It was bad enough that he wouldn't be spending this birthday with his mother back home; he didn't need to be reminded that he truly was alone tonight, in many ways.
"Go, damn it!"
He smiled slightly at the sound of Zax's voice in his head again. He wasn't really looking forward to spending an evening in a bar he'd never been to before, but Zax would never let him hear the end of it if he went back to Headquarters without even having one drink.
So he squared his shoulders and walked through the door.
When the scissors had started snipping the thick ponytail at the back of his neck, Cloud had flinched. But as Zax worked his way through the blond hair, Cloud found himself growing more and more at ease with knowing that his hair would be coming off.
"Maybe now the other soldiers will stop thinking of me as a dumb kid," Cloud cracked quietly.
Zax snorted. "Don't be ridiculous. No one thinks of you that way, anymore. Maybe when you first arrived at Shinra, but not anymore. 'Sides," he went on, snipping away, "plenty of other soldiers have their hair as long as yours."
"Oh, I know." Cloud let the subject drop, listened to the scissors snip more and more of his hair away.
Zax was trying hard to get the blades of the scissors through the ponytail. "Your hair is really thick," he commented. "It's kicking my ass."
"Thanks, man," Cloud said, out of the blue.
"Doing this favor for me. How many other guys would cut each other's hair off?"
Zax chuckled. "Around here, you'd be surprised... But I know what you mean. Don't mention it."
"No one gives you a hard time because you hang out with a kid who'll never be in SOLDIER?" Cloud asked wryly. That had been an issue back when he had first arrived. Zax was a SOLDIER, and Cloud had been a lowly private - and barely, at that. When Zax had taken Cloud under his wing, the two of them had been the subject of many rumors.
Zax snickered. "Well, I haven't heard anything, but people can think whatever they want."
"Yes, well..." Zax trailed off, and Cloud could sense him shrug. "We're friends, Cloud. And besides Scarlet, it's not likely you'll find many other women in the Shinra army. So, if you want your hair cut, the most obvious choice is to get a friend to do it."
"So long as you don't shave me bald."
"I don't make promises I can't keep," Zax joked. But for all his humorous approaches to the situation, he still treated Cloud's thick, blond hair with care and respect. Once he cut through the hair in the ponytail, he set to work straightening it all out so it would look okay.
"I'm ordering supper from the best take-out restaurant in this sector," Zax said a few minutes later.
"Thanks for letting me know," Cloud whined, feigning disappointment. "Now I'm hungry!"
"It's for you, you dolt," his friend chided. "It's my gift to you for your birthday. The gods know that this company doesn't make a deal out of one of their soldiers getting older, so it's up to the friends to do that."
"Zax!" Cloud cried, feeling both surprised and touched. "You didn't have to do that!"
"Yeah, I did," his dark-haired friend admitted with more than a little reluctance. "I had to make up for the fact that I won't be able to take you to that bar I said I would."
"No?" This time Cloud's disappointment was genuine. Taking Cloud to his first real bar had been something Zax had brought up with his SOLDIER buddies time and time again. It had been planned out already, even though Cloud had no idea what where the bar was. "Why not?"
"Training," Zax muttered angrily. "We can't get out of it - believe me, I tried. I tried damn hard, too."
"After-hours training?" Cloud wondered.
"It happens," Zax snarled bitterly. "Especially when they think they have something new to try."
Cloud's heart had sunk at the first mention of Zax's inability to accompany him, and now he was beyond disappointed. He'd been looking forward to a night out just with Zax and some of Zax's friends. After a fashion, he supposed he could consider the others his friends, too, but they were Zax's first. If Zax had not argued his case, his presence might not even be tolerated among them.
"Well, if you have to go, you have to go." Cloud was surprised that he sounded so practical. "We'll do it another time."
"No way!" Zax protested. "Cloud, when is the next time we're both going to have some free time? And damn it, it's supposed to be your birthday!"
And the debate began.
Cloud shook the memories of earlier that day out of his mind. He was sixteen, damn it, and Zax had told him to have a good time. Hell, over their "I'm sorry" take-out, Zax had insisted that Cloud come home tipsy, at the very least. He'd try. He wasn't sure he'd succeed, but he'd try.
The bell above the door jingled when he entered the bar. The lights inside were dimmer than the flashy neon signs and streetlights that decorated the outside city. The bar wasn't full, really, but it still had a good amount of people in it. Cloud wasn't nervous around others, exactly, but he was still a little uneasy. Honestly, he would have much preferred if Zax had come with him.
But wasn't he a member of Shinra? Hadn't he been taught to defend himself, if anything did happen? True, he wasn't wearing his Shinra uniform at the moment, but that didn't mean he was defenseless.
So, ignoring some of the looks he got from the other patrons, Cloud made his way across the room to the counter and sat down.
The barkeep, a middle-aged, solid man, looked him up and down. "What'll ya have?"
His plan to fit in was shot down as quickly as that. Cloud frowned, no doubt looking a tad foolish. "Well...actually, I'm not sure." To his own ears, that response just screamed, "I've never been to a bar before."
Fortunately, the bartender didn't acknowledge the veiled message his words had no doubt carried. "I think I know what you need," he said - in such a way that Cloud wondered if the man perhaps thought something terrible had happened and he needed alcohol to help him out.
He didn't bother making any clarification.
The drink that the bartender set down before him looked almost like orange juice, but definitely didn't taste like it. It burned as it went down his throat, and his first sip made him wonder why anyone swallowed the stuff. But, determined to at least finish one, he sipped at it again and again. With each gulp, the beverage became easier to bear.
He had just finished his memorable first drink when he realized that he was being watched. The feeling nagged at him, and soon he was glancing around for the source of the watchful eyes.
When he met them, they didn't look away.
Rarely, so rarely, did a gaze entrap him like that. The stranger sitting at a table in the far corner was mesmerizing, staring at him with obvious interest. As for what kind, who could tell? But whatever the nature, the gaze was coming from a person who seemed to outshine everyone else in the room.
Cloud jumped when the stranger raised a hand and beckoned him over. Part of him felt that he should be afraid of this man, while another was in pure awe and wanted to learn more about him.
The stranger beckoned again, and Cloud's curiosity made the decision for him. He dropped some gil on the table, hopefully enough for the drink, and slid off the stool. No one obstructed his walk to the other side of the room.
When he came to the table, the stranger's features became a lot clearer. His green eyes blazed in the darkness with a glow Cloud was certain he recognized. Mako...? His silver hair was long, falling loose and flowing down his back. His black clothing just made his skin and eyes all the more prominent.
"Hello, there," the stranger said, his voice a deep, rich timbre.
"...Uh, hi," Cloud managed. He didn't sit until the stranger gestured for him to do so, and even then he sat stiffly. Cloud had been there for all of ten seconds when he realized that being around this man made him feel a sense of power - and that he wasn't the one with that power.
If the stranger noticed Cloud's stiff sitting position, he didn't comment on it. He waved a waitress over and ordered something that Cloud didn't catch. There was discomfited silence between the serving girl's departure and return, but soon Cloud was presented with another drink.
Cloud wasn't sure he could handle another burning first taste, but when the silver-haired stranger raised his glass in a toast, Cloud had no choice but to oblige. Luckily, this drink was smoother than the last, and it even tasted good.
He said as much. "It's good."
"I'm glad you like it."
Belatedly, Cloud added a bashful, "Thank you."
The stranger shrugged a shoulder. "You looked like you needed it."
Another shrug. "Tell me," the stranger said, leaning over the table just a little, "what's a boy like you doing all alone in a bar like this?"
Cloud lowered his eyes. "Well, it's my birthday," he admitted. He didn't know why he'd said so; it wasn't as though it would matter to the other man. He took another gulp of his drink - a huge one.
"Then where are your friends?"
"Detained, not by choice." The drink got better with each sip, much how the last one had. Cloud suddenly felt as though he'd have a head for alcohol yet.
"Yeah, well, you can't mess with the Shinra schedule, that's for sure."
"Shinra?" The stranger raised an eyebrow. "Are you from Shinra, as well?"
Cloud nodded, not seeing any reason to lie. "Just not in the same group as they are. So, even though we had plans, they couldn't come."
"What's your name?" the silver-haired man asked, throwing Cloud off-balance with the change of subject.
He didn't think he could lie to this man. "Cloud. Cloud Strife."
"Ah." The older man sat back, giving Cloud an appraising look. "You're lucky I decided to invite you over here. The more desperate males here can get pretty insistent once they've had a few."
Cloud blinked, feeling his cheeks flush as he realized what that meant. "Who... What's your name?"
The stranger hesitated for a brief moment, and then simply said, "Call me Seph." He changed the subject immediately. "So, a pretty, young boy comes to a good bar to celebrate a lonely birthday. How heart-wrenching."
Cloud was confused for a moment. Was this "Seph" mocking him? And why did that name sound so familiar...? Perhaps the alcohol was beginning to affect his brain. He didn't think these drinks were really mild. "It's okay," he said, defending his friends. "Their jobs are more important than my birthday. Besides, they wanted me to have a good time."
"Even alone?" Seph mused. "Not right at all."
"I'll celebrate it with you."
"What?" Cloud was dumbfounded. "I can't let--"
But Seph was already motioning for the waitress.
And a few drinks later, Cloud was about ready to let Seph do whatever he wished.
The night had been full of talking, laughing, and Cloud had felt much better about Zax's pushing him to go out.
The night had also resulted in Cloud losing nearly all of his senses, and Seph had taken him home and left him at his door. Zax had given him the third degree while he'd helped Cloud get settled in. The SOLDIER hadn't been able to stay for very long, but had left with a promise to return as soon as he could.
The morning after was awful, and Cloud vowed never to engage in that type of drinking again. He was just glad that he had today off. He spent much of the morning recovering, and when Zax's morning duties were over, the dark-haired SOLDIER returned to visit him.
"And you're sure nothing happened?"
"Nothing," Cloud assured him for the umpteenth time. Although he understood why Zax would be worried about the stranger in the bar taking advantage of Cloud, that just hadn't happened. "He even brought me back to my door, to make sure I got back safely."
Of course, Cloud knew that part of the reason Seph had done so was because he fancied Cloud. Well, Cloud was willing to admit that he fancied Seph, too. He regretted the fact that they hadn't exchanged any contact information. How would he ever see the other man again?
"What was his name?"
"Seph." When Zax was silent, Cloud turned to look at his friend. The other man looked stunned. "...What is it?"
Zax blinked. "You said...that he had long, silver hair, and green Mako eyes..."
"Seph...iroth," Zax uttered. "Cloud, that was Sephiroth."
If Cloud's jaw could have hit the floor, it would have. "What?" Sephiroth?! The man he had always idolized, but never actually seen in person? The great warrior Sephiroth? "I was drinking with Sephiroth?" Zax looked like he had something to say, but kept wisely silent.
Then Cloud realized, "I got drunk with Sephiroth!" Gods, what would Sephiroth think of him? What would he say? Would he tell Cloud's superior officers? He didn't know what was scarier: the fact that Sephiroth had taken an interest in him despite his behavior, or the fact that he hadn't even noticed he'd been spending the evening with someone he'd always wanted to see in the flesh!
"You weren't just drunk," Zax corrected. "You were wasted."
"I was," Cloud groaned. "I was, I was... I must have made such an idiot out of myself." He dropped his face into his hands.
Zax immediately tried to console him. "You're overreacting." "If he really minded, he would have just left." "Didn't he offer to celebrate your birthday because we couldn't be there?" The condolences went on and on, and Cloud pretended to heed them even though he was still worried about what the great Sephiroth must think of him.
He'd been wasted - wasted in more than one sense, too. He'd wasted the chance to try and impress one of his idols. He'd wasted the chance to actually talk to the person beyond the public mask - the person he had seemed to get along so well with; he barely remembered anything that they had discussed last night.
Who knew what Sephiroth had thought of him by the end of the evening? And did it even matter? What would Sephiroth want with a plain soldier like him? Chances were, he'd never see the silver-haired man again.
"Wasted," he muttered as Zax's comforts continued. "Wasted."