Zachary Black leaned on the bar, smiling as he slid a glass across the smooth surface. That smile, if anything, broadened as the vole woman it was intended for picked it up and brought it to her lips, the canid’s white-furred tail wagging. She didn’t even spare him a glance.
The outside of the glass sported a faint pink mark when the vole lowered it, still two-thirds of the way full. “I don’t date carnivores,” she said, dryly, without even looking up at him. “Or men. Don’t you, like, have a job to do?”
The African wild dog bowed his head in acknowledgement, accepting the rejection for what it was. “I won’t even ask, then. Let me know if there’s anything else you need, alright?”
Now the rodent looked up, one side of her mouth curling into a smile. “As though you needed to ask; you have quite the reputation. I’m fine for now, thank you.”
“And I try to make sure it’s deserved.” He winked, earning a chuckle from the woman. “Enjoy yourself.”
A few new arrivals at the bar kept him occupied for the next while, mixing drinks and, especially in the case of one melanistic large cat, quite blatantly flirting. He wasn’t just leaning on, but across the bar, grinning open-mouthed with the end of his muzzle close enough to the panther’s for their whiskers to brush together, when he felt a tap on his shoulder. His ears tilting back, he turned his head to look at the owner of the hand that had touched him.
“Snap out of it, Romeo,” the tall, flat-chested kangaroo standing behind him scolded. “That bloke at the end of the bar was taking his seat when I went out to smoke.”
“I’m on it,” he promised, then turned his head towards the panther he’d been flirting with. The chair was already empty, its feline denizen heading towards the dance floor in the company of another guest. “Aw, damn it.”
“Look on the bright side,” his marsupial coworker chirped, turning him towards what looked like a large dog or possibly a bear huddling against the wall at the end of the bar. “Removes the temptation.”
“You are such a cockblocking bitch, Daniela, you know that?” But he was grinning, laughter in his voice and eyes as he headed towards the next customer. Years of plying his trade had taught Zachary to read people, and it barely took a glance to convince him this man wouldn’t want to flirt or joke. Talk, possibly. So he schooled his expression, and approached the stranger with compassionate professionalism. “Sorry about the wait, sir. What can I get you?”
“Just… water or soda or something, I guess. Can’t come home smelling like drink; my girlfriend would be furious.” The dog looked up – he was definitely a dog, a Saint Bernard who no doubt would turn heads with only a bit more confidence in his posture. When his soulful, brown eyes met Zachary’s pigmentless red, his floppy ears gave the impression of perking, and his eyebrows rose. “Zack?”
Zachary blinked, looking at the large dog and failing to come up with where they might have met before.
“I’m sorry, your name is Zachary Black, isn’t it?” When the albino canid inclined his head, still puzzled, the dog continued. “We went to high school together. You probably don’t remember me; we weren’t mates or anything, but I took a couple of punches for you. You… stand out a little more than I do.”
The bartender had told himself not to laugh, that this man wasn’t in the kind of mood that would make laughter a good idea, but he couldn’t help chuckling at that remark. “You could say that.” Then he paused, thinking. Had he known, even loosely, a Saint Bernard dog in high school? He’d come out, then, and he’d not filled out until college, so a couple of boyfriends – and a girlfriend, though that had blown up in their faces soon enough – had taken blows for him during those years. None of them had been dogs of any breed, though. But something about the dog’s words nagged at him, and suddenly it struck him. He’d not had much of anything to do with the boy, who’d been many of the things he wasn’t (including straight), but there had been one kind, athletic youth who’d stepped in on more than one occassion for no more reason than because it was the right thing to do. The name of that white knight still lingered on the tip of his tongue, without quite coming to him. “Coke alright?”
“Coke’s fine,” the dog replied, his voice calm and patient.
Maybe it was his tone of voice that jogged Zachary’s memory, maybe it was just that he could relax enough to recall it by doing something as automatic as grabbing a glass and a curvy glass bottle and setting them on the bar. Either way, he could suddenly remember the jeering voices asking the dog if he was into Zachary. “Patrick, right?”
It might just have been his imagination, but he thought the dog’s tail stirred, and a smile twitched at the corners of his mouth. “That’s it. Looks like you can take care of yourself these days.”
Zachary glanced around, making sure nobody was trying to catch his attention, then leaned one elbow on the bar, making a weighing gesture with his free hand. “I can hold my own. And you; something changed that I should know about? I hadn’t expected to run into you here, of all places.”
Patrick shook his head, the corners of his mouth twitching again. “I haven’t changed that much, and neither have you. I just… needed a bit of time for myself, and this isn’t the kind of place my girlfriend would think to look in.”
“Well, in that case, hide out as long as you need to. And if you need to talk, listening is part of my job.”
“Oh, she isn’t that bad,” the dog quickly protested. “Just, you know…? Could do with some ‘me’ time.”
“If you say so.” Zachary grinned. “I should get back to work before Daniela thinks I’m trying to talk you into coming with me into the back. Chin up, hmm?”
The smile fit badly on the Saint Bernard’s muzzle, but at least it was a smile. “I’ll try. See you around.”
With a final smile and nod, the bartender turned back to his work, sauntering up to the closest patron to provide him with his desired liquid fuel for an evening at the club. As more guests arrived, he found himself busy mixing drinks; while he took the time to exchange a few suggestive lines here or there, there was simply no way he was going to get any honest flirting in as long as the bar was full and he operated under his coworker’s watchful eye. That didn’t mean he didn’t try to make the best of it, though it certainly didn’t seem to be his night – any contact he made turned out to be for nothing as his prospective contacts went onto the dance floor with other patrons.
An hour or so after midnight, the crowds finally started thinning out. Many guests left in pairs or small groups. Some left alone, heading home to sleep or off to try their luck elsewhere; Zachary could make an educated guess in the case of a few of the regulars, but he didn’t know every soul in the club. A quick glance was all it took to find that Patrick was still sitting over at one end of the bar, huddling against the bar and still nursing the soda he’d been served hours prior. The white-furred bartender knew he hadn’t refilled the dog’s glass, and was fairly certain that if his coworker had done so, she’d only been in a position to do it without Zack noticing once or twice in that time. His old schoolmate certainly hadn’t come to All Stripes to drink. The Saint Bernard didn’t show any indication that he wanted Zachary’s attention, either, so he went about his business, giving it no further thought.
“And what can I get you, miss?” the African wild dog smiled at a lean black-and-white filly who’d just clopped over from the dance floor, her thin, flat coat of fur gleaming with sweat.
“Your friend added peach liqueur and something else to my Screwdriver earlier tonight,” the pinto panted back at him, shaking her hair out of her eyes with a toss of her head. “I could go for another one of those, and like a pint of water.”
“Mmmh,” Zachary purred, smiling a bit wider and leaning in towards her for a moment. “I’d be glad to give you a Sloe Comfortable Screw.”
“Oh, really, now?” The horse laughed and raised a hand to shoo him along. “How about you start out fetching me some water, Snowball?”
“Your wish is my command.” With a bow of his head, Zachary turned to fill a tall glass with ice and cold water, his tail wagging as he placed it on the bar in front of the filly. “Your drink will be coming right up.”
He continued half-flirting, half-bantering with the horse girl as he mixed her drink, and purposely lingered by her once it was done, only reluctantly leaving to quickly fill someone else’s order before returning. He thought he was halfway in; she laughed and joked with him, and touched his hand when he passed her another glass of water. Then, as Daniela announced last call (emphasizing its significance to Zachary with a swat to his ass), the horse didn’t place a last order, just chirped something about it being late and how she might see him some other time before she hurried out the door.
“Oh, spare me. You have a job to do until we’re closed down, remember?”
He rolled his eyes. “I’ve been here longer than you. I think I’d remember something like that, yes.”
By the time they finished serving the last few customers, the music from the dance floor had gone silent, and the doormen were heading in to herd any stragglers off the floors and out of the smaller lounges beyond them. Anticipating the next step, the turning up of the lights, Zachary reached for the sunglasses hooked into the neckline of the mesh top he wore under his jacket and placed them on the bridge of his nose. Daniela made a quip that he barely twitched an ear at about it; she knew as well as he did that he was using them to protect his eyes from the harsh lights that came on as the cleaners went on their shift.
Well, it wasn’t the first night he’d completed without having someone waiting to go home with him after he got off his shift. With a dramatic sigh, mostly for Daniela’s benefit, he started cleaning up the area behind the bar, wiping down bottles and counters, and, as they were emptied and the people who’d drunk from them left, loading glasses onto a tray to be taken out back to the dishwasher. He was checking over the taps when the kangaroo came and nudged his shoulder.
“Would you please tell your boyfriend we’re closing, now?”
“My boyf-?” He followed her gaze, noticed the large Saint Bernard still huddled against the wall at the end of the bar. “Oh. Oh, no! Patrick’s an old schoolmate of mine; he’s straight as an arrow.”
“Likely story; he’s been watching you all night. Look, whatever he is, he needs to run along home now.”
“I’ll tell him.”
Never had the prospect of approaching a patron felt so awkward, and Zachary was certain that his coworker could tell, but there wasn’t much to be done about it. A deep breath, and he was headed toward the dog, who looked to be completely absorbed in thought. It wasn’t until the bartender reached out and gently touched the larger man’s arm that Patrick’s gaze rose from his half-empty glass, the look on his face somewhat dazed. Didn’t make things less awkward. “Hey, Patrick? Look, I’m sorry; it’s three in the morning and we need to be closing, here. Could you-?” He finished the sentence with a gesture towards the half-finished soda.
“Oh, sorry. I guess I was woolgathering. I’m done with that, really. Nice seeing you again.” The Saint Bernard started to get up, automatically shaking hours’ worth of stiffness out of his joints with enviable ease.
“Yeah,” Zachary agreed, without quite knowing whether he was being truthful or polite. It wasn’t until the dog turned to leave that he realized what he really wanted to say; what he’d been given a second chance to say. “And Patrick? Thank you.”
The dog’s head turned, his brow furrowed. “What for?”
“Oh… you know. Back in high school… I don’t think I ever said anything, but… I know you got shit for what you did for me then.”
“Don’t worry about it. I only did what anyone should have done.” Patrick once again started to leave, casually tossed a last sentence over his shoulder. “I’ll see you around.”
Zachary smiled, his tail wagging slowly, and whispered a reply: “I’d like that.”