A/N: Just a little piece of fluff I wrote for the January 2019 prompt for the Cloti Discord server. Occurs a few years after Advent Children. Credit to my fearless beta, Denebola Leo, and to Cloudy for the cover art!

Heat in the Kitchen

"Tifa!" Cloud calls down the stairs.

"Yes?" Tifa sounds a trifle annoyed. She hates when he can't be bothered to come down and talk to her and insists on having a yelling conversation.

Cloud gets the hint and comes running down the stairs, skidding to a stop in the kitchen. His eyes are lit up like a child. "Teef! Do we still have that fang from when we defeated Schizo?"

"What?" Tifa looks up from the onion she's chopping, eyes red and watery. "Who?"

"That two-headed dragon we fought on Gaea's Cliff!"

"Oh. Right." Cloud had a fondness for giving names to all of the particularly rare and difficult monsters they had defeated, but Tifa could never remember all the names. "What do you need that for?"

"I want to show it to Denzel." Denzel adores Cloud, and has recently started pestering him to tell stories about their travels. Cloud is generally not much of a storyteller, but Denzel's excitement is contagious, and Cloud seems to really enjoy reliving the highlights of their long, exhausting chase of Sephiroth with him.

Tifa rubs her eyes with the back of her arm. "Um, I think I packed up most of that stuff in a box in the back of my closet."


He darts back up the stairs and Tifa calls after him, "Don't make a mess in there, Cloud!"

Cloud retrieves a ladder stool from the hallway and sets it up in front of the bedroom closet. "Here, take this stuff," he says to Denzel. "Just put it on the bed." He hands down some spare blankets, an empty suitcase, and several books before coming across an old, beat-up cardboard box. "Ooh, I think this is it!" It's a little too big and heavy for Denzel, so he carefully balances the bulky box in his arms and comes down the steps.

Denzel's eyes are brimming with anticipation. They sit down on the floor in front of the closet with the box between them. It's covered with dust, which Cloud blows off before opening it. Denzel sneezes several times while Cloud rips the tape from the cardboard.

The box is full of memories. They had of course taken out anything that might still be useful to them at home – potions, materia, and weapons – but many of the items they accumulated didn't have much use in a city. The first item Cloud lifts out of the box is wrapped in tissue. He unwraps it to reveal a medium-sized vial filled with some kind of bluish-silver powder.

"What's that?" Denzel asks.

Cloud frowns. He doesn't recognize it. He pulls out the cork and sniffs it. Nothing. He holds it up to his eye and looks closer at the grainy crystals. "I'm not sure. I don't—"

"What's stuck to the bottom?" Denzel interrupts.

Cloud stuffs the cork back in and flips the vial over to reveal a small sticker. "Stardust. Oh…man. I forgot all about this."

"What is it? Where'd you get it?" Denzel asks.

"I won it in Battle Square at the Gold Saucer." Cloud laughs ruefully. "Took me forever to earn that many points, and I never even used it."

"What does it do?" Denzel demands impatiently.

"I don't remember for sure, but…I think it casts a Comet spell. Let's be careful with that," he says with a wry smile, wrapping it back up in the tissue and setting it aside. "The tissue came from Battle Square too," Cloud says casually, "from when we…" *ahem* "…lost badly."

Denzel looks skeptical, as if he finds it hard to believe Cloud had ever lost a fight.

There are small stacks of a few other, more common items – spider webs, bird wings, dazers, graviballs – all of which Cloud explains to Denzel, who soaks it up like they were national treasures.

"What's this?" Denzel asks, picking up a small black book. He opens it to look at tiny, scrawled descriptions of battles. "Cloud, are these your battles?"

He hands the book across to Cloud, who scans over the text. "Not mine, no, these are…." He flips to the front cover of the book and starts laughing. "Combat Diary - A Recording of Master Dio's Fiercest Battles. Why do we still have this thing?" Then he notices the strange gap in the middle of the book. He flips to the page in the middle, and a slip of paper falls out.

Denzel picks up the piece of paper. "What's this? It looks like some kind of recipe."

Cloud looks at the paper in Denzel's hand, upside-down. "Knoephla Soup…oh! This is from..." Cloud takes the paper from him, searching his memory. "We had this in Icicle Inn! Tifa was so excited. She said her mom used to make it for her when she was little, and she begged the proprietor for the recipe. She must have just stuck it in the book so it didn't get lost. I bet she forgot all about it."

"What's this?" Denzel asks brightly, interrupting his memory stream.

Cloud looks up at the giant fang in Denzel's hands. It's so large that he has to use both hands to hold it. The base of it is broken, like it had been snapped off.

"Ooh! That's it!" he says, stuffing the paper in his pocket. "This is the tooth that broke off when we took Schizo down!"

"Tell me the story again, Cloud!" Denzel begs, holding the massive fang to his chest.

Cloud chuckles and starts again, while Denzel's eyes sparkle with anticipation. "We had just climbed the side of the Northern Crater. It was so cold that we could barely feel our fingers anymore…"

Cloud turns on the shower and waits for the water to warm up. It's nighttime at Seventh Heaven, and Yuffie has just reminded Cloud that a very special birthday is coming up – Tifa will be turning twenty five next week. "You have to come up with something sweet and romantic this time, Cloud. Gawd, you're lucky she still talks to you after last year."

Cloud had winced at the reminder. He'd forgotten all about her birthday until the day of, and he'd been on the road with deliveries until that evening. The only thing he could come up with was a coffee mug from the local convenience store, wrapped in newspaper. Tifa had smiled and thanked him, but Yuffie didn't hesitate to point out that Tifa had plenty of mugs already, and there was nothing special about that particular one. Tifa didn't seem to mind – she used the mug quite often, but Cloud still felt like he'd dropped the ball.

And this birthday was a big one. Tifa had jokingly moaned about how she would be a quarter of a century old, an old maid, and her body was going to start falling apart. He wanted to do something to show her she was still as beautiful as the day she stumbled across him at the train station.

He unzips his shirt and drops it into the hamper, wondering what he could possibly do for her birthday. Sweet and romantic? I'm so screwed. He removes his belt and empties his pockets, feeling a small, folded piece of paper. He smooths out the wrinkles on the vanity – it's the recipe he'd found in the box earlier that day. He rubs his thumb on the corner, traveling back to that day once again.

Tifa danced and twirled in the falling snow, sparkling in the light of the rising moon. 'It's so beautiful! When this is all over, Cloud, we should move here. You can learn to snowboard and I'll open a little bed and breakfast. We can see this amazing sight every day! It's so clean and beautiful and, and…pure!'

Cloud was stuck on one word. 'We?'

If it hadn't already been pink from the cold, Cloud could have sworn that Tifa was blushing, but she just crossed her arms over her belly and tucked her hands under her arms. 'Well, I mean, I want to. I guess you could come if you wanted. We all could…'

Yuffie trudged past, huddled into herself for warmth. 'No thanks, Teef. I'd rather not spend the best years of my life as a Yuf-cicle!'

It pulled Cloud from his reverie. 'Right. We should find a place to get out of the cold.' The frigid air was uncomfortable enough for him, but the girls were definitely not dressed for the weather. 'I think I see some kind of inn up ahead.'

By that evening, Tifa's playful glee had evaporated. The scenery was beautiful, but the cold had lost its charm. Even the inside of the inn never seemed to get warm. The girls were curled up next to Nanaki by the giant furnace, but neither the furnace nor the furry animal's body heat seemed to be enough to banish their chill.

Cloud was scouring the maps with Vincent, unwilling to believe that there was no other way to reach the North Crater than through the Great Glacier. 'What if we—"

'Nope,' Cid interrupted.

'But what about—'

'I'm telling ya, kid, I've talked to every local in here, and there's no way to get up to the Northern Cave except through the Great Glacier!'

Cloud sighed and rubbed his head. 'Fine. Let's just go down to the bar and see if they've got something to warm us up.'

That was where they'd been served the knoephla soup. It was soul-warming food, comforting for reasons Cloud couldn't explain. Tifa was the one who remembered. 'My mother used to make this for me when I was a kid!' Tifa exclaimed, savoring the thick dumpling soup. 'Mmmm. Oh, this tastes like home, Cloud. Did your mom make this for you, too?'

'No,' Cloud said, swirling the dumplings around with his spoon. 'Yours did.'

Tifa stared at him, wide-eyed. 'When did my mother cook for you?'

'I—I don't remember,' Cloud lied. It was a rather embarrassing story about a little boy with a crush and the woman who took pity on him when she found him shivering outside her window. Those Nibelheim nights could be cold, but they had nothing on Icicle Inn. Then and now, the soup tasted wonderful.

'I feel like I might actually be thawing,' Tifa sighed happily.

'You wanna get warmed up, girl?' Cid bellowed. 'You oughta try some of this firewhiskey! Whoo!'

They tried to send Yuffie to bed, claiming she was too young to be drinking, but that had about as much effect as anything they tried to tell her to do. 'Hells no!' she hollered, smacking away Vincent's hand. 'If I'm old enough to fight my way across the planet, I'm damn sure old enough to decide what goes into my own body!'

Arguing with her was futile, and eventually they gave up. Vincent seemed to have made it his personal mission to watch over her, though, glowering darkly at any male who even looked in her general direction.

Cait Sith hopped up the stairs to claim his corner of the room and shut down for the night. Nanaki slunk up the stairs after him, claiming that firewhiskey made his tail burn.

'We need a round of shots, bartender!' Barret hollered, smacking his gil down on the bar.

Cloud looked over at Tifa. 'You sure you're up for this?'

Tifa seemed to take it as a challenge instead of a question from a concerned friend. 'Oh bring it on!' she chirped, lining up at the bar next to Barret.

'Whoop, whoop, whoop!' Yuffie cranked her arm over her head like a helicopter and jumped on Cloud's back.

'Yuffie! What the—'

'Don't be a wet blanket, Cloud. Even Tifa's gonna let loose!' Yuffie let herself down and bounced up to the bar.

'I suppose it wouldn't hurt to indulge a bit,' Vincent said solemnly as he passed.

Cloud sighed and rubbed the back of his head. 'Fine, I'm in.'

'Alright, Cloud!' Tifa gave him a warm grin as he joined her at the bar.

It turned out to be a wonderful reprieve from the seriousness of the task they had ahead of them, and the sorrows behind them. They had no idea Yuffie was such a poet. She recited "Ode to Boobs" (even Tifa had loosened up enough to find it funny, although her face was hilariously red throughout the performance) and "Sunshine Vinnie" (They could've sworn that there was some amusement in those dark eyes) in a great dramatic display.

Barret plus firewhiskey resulted in some deep philosophical musings. ('D'you think the planet got upset when I wrote my name in the snow?' 'No, Barret. Things piss on the planet all the time.')

Cid's speech devolved into a mumbling ramble about rocket science that no one could understand except for the liberally sprinkled curse words.

Cloud grew quiet and said little, although his cheeks were bright pink and he became much less subtle about stealing glances at his childhood friend.

Tifa had gotten a little tipsy and had leaned close to Cloud, linking her hand inside his elbow. 'We have to come back here again sometime, Cloud. Just for the soup. It was so amazing,' she sighed.

'Why don't you see if you can get the recipe?' Cloud suggested. 'I bet you could make it yourself.'

Tifa had a look of exaggerated surprise on her face. 'That's brilliant! Oh you're so smart!' She kissed him on the cheek and hurried off to speak to the proprietor.

Cloud smiles at the memory. He had spent the rest of the night trying to analyze what she'd meant by that kiss, finally concluding that she was just a little drunk and happy, nothing more.

The mirror is getting foggy, and Cloud realizes that he's been standing there thinking for a long time. He sets down the paper and strips off the rest of his clothes before getting into the shower.

As he scrubs his hair, he thinks again about Tifa's birthday. He supposes he could give her the recipe as a gift, although that seems a bit weird since it was technically already hers. Romantic and sweet… Wait. What if he actually made the soup for her? He's not much of a cook, but he has a recipe, for Gaia's sake. All he had to do was follow the instructions! Simple!

He feels much better, now that he has a plan.

"Yuffie, come here a sec." Cloud snags her by the arm as she passes him in the bar and drags her back into the kitchen.

"Hey! Cloud! I'm kinda busy here!"

"Shush, Yuffie! I have an idea for Tifa's birthday, but I'm going to need your help."

Yuffie immediately looks interested. "You actually came up with something? Please tell me it's not dishes."

"Well, a dish," Cloud says with a grin, then hurries on to explain the plan before she can protest.

Yuffie has a hand propped on her hip, her foot tapping. "Well…it is actually kind of sweet," she concedes. "But I didn't think you knew how to cook."

Cloud scowls, although he'd had the same thought himself. "I'm sure I can read a recipe," he says. "Besides, Marlene will be here to help me."

Yuffie sighs. "I guess it shouldn't be too horrible. So what do you need from me?"

"I just need you to get her out of the house for the afternoon. I'm going to close the bar for the night so she doesn't have to work, and I'll have everything ready when she gets home in the evening."

Yuffie presses her lips together and finally pats him on the cheek. "Fine. I'll do my part. Do not screw this up, Spike."

Tifa rushes into the department store, her gloves already on. "What is it, Yuffie? What's the emergency?" she asks when she finds her friend behind a clothing rack.

Yuffie grabs her wrists. "Oh Tifa, I'm so glad you're here! I have a date tomorrow night and I have nothing to wear!"

Tifa sighs in exasperation. "Seriously, Yuf? You had to send an emergency SOS text for that? I thought you were trapped in the changing room by a coeurl and couldn't make any noise!"

Yuffie has the grace to look ashamed. "Well I knew you wouldn't come if I told you why I really needed you…"

Tifa's groan is equal parts frustration and weariness. "Yuffie, I can't stay. I haven't finished waxing the floor in the bar and I still have food to get ready for tonight."

"Please, Tifa!" Yuffie begs. "I need a girl's opinion on this. It's really important to me."

Tifa closes her eyes and lets out one long, slow breath. "Fine. But I don't have all afternoon, Yuffie."

Yuffie smiles mysteriously.

"Ok, guys," Cloud says, looking down at Denzel and Marlene. All three of them are wearing Tifa's aprons, looking more or less ridiculous. "Are you ready?"

"Yes, sir!" Denzel says, saluting stiffly.

"Aye aye!" Marlene says with a big grin.

"Ok then, let's do this."

The three of them approach the island in the kitchen. Denzel picks up the recipe. "Ok. It says to make the dumplings first. We're supposed to mix it all in the bowl and then…knee it? And let it rest?" Denzel scratches his head. "Does that mean we have to beat it up and then give it a break?"

"Um…" Cloud scratches his head. "I guess so." He looks at Marlene, who shrugs.

"Sometimes I see Tifa beating things up when she's cooking," she says helpfully.

"Well, ok," Cloud says. "What are we supposed to mix in?" He rummages around in the kitchen for a mixing bowl while Denzel reads off the ingredients and Marlene sets them aside. He finally finds one and brings it back to the island. Eggs, flour, milk, salt and pepper are easy enough. When they get to the parsley and dill wood, Cloud gets a little worried. "Are you sure it says dill wood?" Cloud questions.

"I don't know. Cursive is hard to read," Denzel complains.

Cloud takes the recipe from him and looks it over. "Dill weed," he corrects, handing it back to the boy. "Uh, do we have that, Marlene?"

Marlene frowns. "I think that must be the stuff Tifa uses when she makes dill pickles," she says. "But I don't know where she keeps it."

"Doesn't she have some of those canned in the cellar?" Cloud suggests.

"Yes!" Marlene says, clapping her hands together. "Let's just open one of the jars and use the weed from inside of it!"

"Alright, do it," Cloud says, nodding to Denzel. He takes off to the cellar to get a jar. "Ok Marlene, what about parsley?"

"Tifa grows some in her garden," Marlene says. "I've seen her go out there and pick it!"

"Can you go pick some?" Cloud asks.

"Ok!" Marlene jumps up and runs out the back door.

Cloud picks up the recipe again. "Knee it and let it rest…" he says thoughtfully. He looks down at the ingredients in the bowl. It looks a little too sloppy to hold up and knee it. Denzel returns with a jar of pickles from the cellar and holds it out to Cloud to open. He twists the lid off the jar and hands it back.

As Denzel sets the jar on the counter and begins to fish the little plants from the jar, Marlene returns with some kind of weed in her hands. It just looks like...a weed.

"You sure that's parsley?" Cloud asks.

"I think so," Marlene says.

"Ok," Cloud shrugs. "I'm sure it'll be fine." One weed can't really taste that different from another, could it?

"So, any idea how to knee the dough?" Cloud asks when the dill and weed have been added to the bowl.

The three of them stare down at the unmixed ingredients. "It has something to do with mixing it," Marlene says confidently. "We probably have to knee it to make sure the weeds get all crushed."

"Ooh!" Denzel says, popping up. "What if we put it onto a flat pan, and then we can crush it with our knees?"

"That's a good idea," Cloud says. "If we use a pan it won't get spread out all over the counter."

"Wait a minute!" Marlene says sternly. The boys stop to look at her. "We have to make sure our knees are clean first. Otherwise the dirt and stuff could get mixed in."

The kids rush over to the sink to wash their knees while Cloud digs around for a flat pan. "I think I'll let you guys do that part. I'm not going to get up on the—"

*Crash* Denzel has both of his hands clamped over his mouth, and the scent of dill and vinegar is rapidly overtaking the kitchen. "I'm sorry, Cloud, I didn't mean to! I was just going to get up on the counter…"

Cloud walks over and grimaces at the shattered jar on the floor. "It's ok. I'll clean this up while you two do the…kneeing." He lifts both kids up onto the island to make sure they avoid the glass, then dumps the contents of the bowl onto the pan. Carefully, he picks up the larger shards of glass and scattered pickles, then dumps them all into the trash. He's not sure what to use to clean up all the liquid, so he digs around in the drawers until he comes across Tifa's dishtowels. He uses those to clean up the fluid and the rest of the small glass.

The kids are giggling madly as they crawl all over the ingredients. Cloud drops the fragrant dishtowels in the sink and looks at the kids' work. They don't seem to be doing much except crushing the egg shells and making a mess of their knees. "Um, I don't think this is really getting mixed, Marlene."

Marlene looks down. "I think it is! Maybe it will blend while it's resting."

"Ok," Cloud says, lifting them both off the island. "Let's just let it rest and go on to the soup."

"Yuffie," Tifa groans as she is dragged to yet another store. "Seriously, I have to get home. I have so much to get done before tonight!"

"Wait! You have to try some on too, Teef!"

"Why would I try on dresses?" Tifa asks, exasperated. "I never go out anywhere fancy."

"Well maybe you would if you had a fancy dress. Or maybe we should find one that will look better crumpled up in the corner. You know, because you never make it out?" She's winking like an idiot, and Tifa buries her face in her hands. "You know, because Cloud—"

"I get it, Yuffie!" Tifa interrupts. "I really don't need a dress like that."

"Well, I think you do. And it's going to be my birthday gift to you, so pick one out!"

"My…you know it's my birthday?"

"Ugh! Tifa! Like I would forget my best friend's birthday!"

"Well every other year…" Tifa hedged.

"I don't like to live in the past," Yuffie interrupted. "So let's pick out a dress for the future!"

Tifa sighs and lets her friend drag her into the next store.

To Cloud's relief, the next steps in the recipe seem pretty straightforward.

"Chop chicken, celery, carrots and potatoes into cubes," Denzel reads aloud.

"Ok, I'll do this part," Cloud says. He's not ready for the kids to be playing with knives quite yet. "What's next?"

"Next we make the roux," Denzel says.

"Make what?" Cloud asks, looking at Marlene.

"I dunno," she says, looking confused.

"I thought you'd been helping Tifa in the kitchen," Denzel accused.

"Well yeah, but we don't make anything like this!"

"Ok, ok," Cloud says, shaking his head. "Just tell us how to make it."

"We have to melt butter and fat and then add flour," Denzel announces after reading.

"…what kind of fat?" Cloud asks.

"Bacon fat."

"Oh…" Cloud looks helplessly at Marlene. "Does Tifa have any of that?"

"Um…oh yeah! She pours it from the pan into a little cup after she cooks the bacon!" Marlene runs over to the stove and returns with a cup of solidified bacon grease.

Cloud makes a face. "Really? We're supposed to eat this stuff?"

"Why else would she save it?" Marlene asks with her usual unshakable logic.

"Uh. Ok. Measure that stuff out and put it in the pot, but don't touch the stove," Cloud directs as he chops the vegetables. They come out in all different sizes, but he figures Tifa won't care. They'll still taste the same, right?

He finishes with the chopping and comes over to see what the kids have combined. It looks disgusting. "Now what?"

"Melt it and stir in the flour," Denzel says, "and cook it for two minutes, or until a nice golden color."

"The butter and fat can melt with the flour in it, right? Let's just put it all in together." Cloud dumps in the flour and turns on the stove. "What next?"

"Aren't you gonna cook that first?" Marlene asks.

"We can get the next stuff ready while it's cooking," Cloud says.

"Ok, we need another two tablespoons of that fat," Denzel says, reading off the paper.

"Two tablespoons…wait a minute," Cloud says, frowning at the array of measuring spoons on the island. "Why do some of these have a big T and some have a little t?"

"Some People just like to Capitalize Things," Denzel says sagely.

"Oh." Cloud scratches his head. "Ok. What else do we need to add?"

"The chicken cubes."

"Oh sh….oot," Cloud says, glancing awkwardly at the kids. "I forgot to cut the chicken. You guys measure those out for me," he directs, pointing at the bacon grease while he goes to cut up the chicken.

A buzz from the front alerts them of a visitor. Cloud wipes his greasy hands on the apron and hurries to the front door.

The delivery boy looks up from his clipboard as Cloud pulls the door open. His eyes trace down to the too-small floral apron and he smirks. Cloud crosses his muscular arms over the top of it with a scowl. The smile vanishes and the boy clears his throat. "Uh, I have a delivery for Cloud Strife?"

It's weird for him to be on this side of the door. He's annoyed at the interruption, and suddenly feels a little more forgiving of his customers who are short with him. "Yeah, that's me," he says, trying his best not to sound annoyed. It's not the kid's fault that Cloud tried to tackle a recipe written by a sadistically insane chef. He accepts the package and closes the door, quickly peeling off the tape and ripping into the box. There's a note on top:

Barret will be there to pick up the kids at 6 pm. I'll have Tifa home by 7. Wear something nice. You owe me.

- Yuffie

P.S. Don't screw this up, Spike!

"Nice?" he mutters. "What does that even mean?" He sets the box on top of the bar and pulls out the largest object in the box. It's long and cylindrical and wrapped in paper. It turns out to be a bottle of wine. "Do you not realize that we own a bar, Yuffie?" He sets it on the bar counter and unwraps the remaining items in the package – two tall candles and two elegant wine glasses. To be fair to Yuffie, the wine glasses are much nicer than anything they had in the bar, and the wine looks different than the kind they make there. He chuckles ruefully and picks up the empty box, then realizes it's not quite empty. A CD case rattles around in the bottom. "Classic Slow Dances?" He groans loudly. "You're killing me, Yuf."

"Cloud!" Marlene's panicked voice from the kitchen wipes every other thought from his mind. He drops the box and tears back into the room, which is rapidly filling with smoke. He pushes Marlene and Denzel behind him protectively, grabbing the pan and dropping it into the sink.

The three of them cough and wave their hands around, trying to disperse the smoke. "We forgot about the rucks," Denzel says sadly.

Cloud grabs a spatula and scrapes the burnt mess from the pan into the sink. "It's ok," he says, trying to rally the little boy. "We just have to make some more. Can you read us the ingredients again?"

Denzel perks up a bit and heads back over to the far side of the island to read the recipe. "We have to melt 4 tablespoons of butter and 4 tablespoons of bacon fat over medium heat, then stir in half a cup of flour."

Cloud glances up at the clock. It's already 5:30. They've got to move faster. "Measure that stuff out for me, would you, Mar?"

"Cloud, we don't have enough of the fat," she announces.

"Does she have any more?"

"I don't think so," Marlene says.

"Ok, well just use what we have," he says.

She measures out the ingredients and hands them to Cloud, who hurriedly dumps them in the pan. He flips the burner on high to make up for lost time.

"Cook for about 2 minutes to a nice golden color, stirring frequently," Denzel reads off.

"Ok, Mar, can you measure out the ingredients for the next part while I do this? Barret's going to be here to pick you guys up in twenty minutes."

Marlene claps her hands. "Daddy's coming?"

Denzel frowns. "After all this work, we're not going to eat with you?"

Cloud smiles over at him. "We'll save some for you."

"Cloud, you're supposed to be stirring that!" Marlene reminds him.

"Oh!" Cloud turns back to the pan, but he can't seem to locate the spatula. He scans the stove, the counters, and the island, but it's nowhere to be seen. "Do you guys see the spatula anywhere?"

The kids stop what they're doing and help him look. "Oh, I think I see it!" Denzel finally says. "There's something silver in the crack."

Cloud crouches down and peers into the space between the stove and the fridge where Denzel is pointing. He sees it too, but it's way back there. Cloud tries to reach for it, but his arm is too big to fit in the crack. "Denzel, can you fit your arm in there?" He moves to the side so Denzel can sit in his place. The boy's arm fits, but the silver object is just out of his grasp.

Denzel grunts in frustration and lays down flat on the floor, pushing his arm in up to the shoulder. "Cloud, just find a different one!" Marlene urges.

"Oh, wait! I got it!" Denzel says. He squirms backwards until his arm reappears, clutching a silver fork with clinging dust bunnies.

"That's not even it!" Marlene says, pointing out the obvious.

Cloud stands back up, and another glint of silver catches his eye. "Oh! It's still in the sink!" Denzel and Marlene groan aloud. "Keep measuring, guys, we're running out of time," he urges. He brings the spatula back to the stove and tries to stir the roux. It's stiff and hard to move. "Ok, now what, Denz?" he asks.

"Transfer the roux into a small dish," he says.

Cloud removes the pan from the burner and searches the cupboards for a small dish. He finds a clear glass bowl and scrapes the roux into it with some difficulty. Marlene looks up from her measuring. "It's supposed to be golden brown," she points out.

"It's brown," Cloud says, scratching his head.

"Closer to black," she says, arching her eyebrow just like Tifa always does.

"Tifa won't care about the color," he says. "She's going to be eating it, not wearing it. What's next?"

Denzel looks back at the recipe. "We need another two tablespoons of bacon fat, then garlic and salt and the chicken."

"We're out of bacon fat!" Marlene wails.

Denzel makes a face. "Tifa wouldn't want to eat all that fat anyway. Let's just skip it."

The chicken only has to cook for about five minutes, so he watches it like a hawk this time, determined not to burn this one thing, at least. He pushes the chicken around in the pan. It sticks, picking up some of the burnt residue from the bottom, but it appears to be cooked at the end of the five minutes, so he scrapes it onto a plate.

In the meantime, the kids have measured out the water, salt, and the cubed vegetables for the soup. Marlene delivers them to him one at a time, and into the pan they go.

"Ok! Are we almost to the end, Denzel?" Cloud asks, relieved that at least a few steps seem to have gone smoothly.

"Yep, almost," Denzel says. "We're supposed to divide the dumpling dough into two parts, roll them into logs, and cut then into small pieces."

"Did it get enough rest?" Marlene asks, standing on her toes to try to see inside the bowl.

"I think it got plenty," Cloud says. He dumps the dough onto the pan he'd retrieved earlier for the kneeing step.

The three of them stare down at the well-rested dough. "I…don't think dough is supposed to look like that," Marlene says after several uncomfortable seconds.

Cloud is pretty sure she's right. The pile of unblended mush and greenery immediately spread to the corners of the pan, nowhere near the consistency of being able to be rolled into logs. Her lip begins to quiver, and her eyes fill up with tears. "I'm sorry, Cloud. I know I was supposed to be the one who was learning from Tifa. B-b-but I didn't know any of this s-stuff."

"Hey." Cloud squats down to her height and puts his hands on her shoulders. "You did fantastic, Mar. You know, it's my fault. I really thought the recipe would be in Standard."

The little girl laughs through quivering lips. "What language is it?"

"No idea," Cloud says with a straight face. "But you know what? I think we did a pretty good job translating. And I bet it will taste fantastic, even if the dough isn't doughy."

Marlene sniffles as he dabs at her face with her apron. "Really?"


From the front of the bar, the door slams open loudly. "Hey! Where's my baby girl!" Barret booms.

Her face transforms as she runs out into the bar area to greet him. Cloud looks over at Denzel. "I'll finish throwing all this stuff in the soup. You guys go have fun."

Denzel's face lights up as he runs out to meet the others. The sound of Barret heckling the kids about their aprons and floury, eggy knees is drowned out by the ringing of the kitchen phone. Cloud wipes his hands on his own colorful apron to answer it. "Hello?"

"Cloud!" It's Tifa, and she sounds rushed. "I'm so sorry, Yuffie dragged me from store to store and I lost track of time. Can you get the bar ready to open?"

Cloud leans against the counter. "You know, actually, I don't think the bar is going to be open tonight."


"It's reserved for a private party. I heard it's someone's birthday."

Tifa sounds flustered. "That's really not a good reason to—"

"Sorry. You'll have to take it up with the management."

"But I…we…please don't tell me there's some kind of party, Cloud."

"Just a party for two," he says, lowering his voice in that way that he knows always gets to her.

"Well…I guess that would be ok…" she says a bit breathlessly, but Cloud can hear Yuffie giggling madly in the background. "I guess I'll…see you in a little while," she says, and before the call disconnects, he can hear her scolding her friend. "Yuffie, quit listening in to my—"

Cloud sets the phone back on the receiver and groans. There's no way he can pull this together.

"Come ooooooon, Tifa, you have to wear it home!"

"No," Tifa says staunchly.

"But you heard him! It's just going to be the two of you!"

"Yeah, but this is Cloud. Whatever he's thinking, I'm sure it's nothing like what you're imagining. Trust me, it will not be appropriate to be wearing this!"

"So what! Worst case scenario, he's blown away when he sees you in this dress, and it ends up crumpled in the corner before you change and go do something boring and outdoorsy. Best case, he's blown away and it ends up crumpled in the corner, and you spend the night having hot—"

"Yuffie! Will you please stop talking!"

"Nope. And I really don't think you have any idea about the scope of my imagination. I think I'm going to go into great detail about your—"

"Fine! Gods! I'll wear the dress home!"

Tifa tugs at the hem of her dress as she gets out of Yuffie's car in the parking lot to Seventh Heaven.

"Stop pulling at your clothes!" Yuffie scolds.

"Well, it's just so short!"

"Tifa, with legs like that, you were born to wear dresses that short," Yuffie says dryly.

"I don't know," Tifa says doubtfully. "Maybe when I was younger…" The outfit is simple, a little black dress made of some kind of stretchy material that clings to all her curves. It's low cut with silken spaghetti straps – a little racy for Tifa's tastes, but if she wears it out in public, she will probably add a shawl. And maybe some shorts underneath.

"Yes, because you're so old now," Yuffie says, holding the front door open for her.

"Well I—"

There's a loud thump as Tifa walks through the door. Cloud stands at the single table in the center of the bar. It's covered with a white tablecloth. There are two unlit candles and two pristine wine glasses, and a box of pizza in the middle of the table. He looks down and fumbles for the bottle of wine he dropped when he saw her. Luckily it's not broken, but he still seems to be having trouble picking it up.

Tifa smiles shyly. She feels overdressed, but not as much as she feared. He's wearing dark pants and a blue sweater that makes his eyes pop even more than usual, and at the moment, they look ready to pop out of his head. Yuffie had disappeared without even coming in, but Tifa wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find her lurking in a hiding spot to spy on them.

"You…uh…you're…" His face is bright pink, and she walks slowly closer.

"You look good, too," she says, rescuing him.

He lets out a breath. "Yeah." He tears his eyes away and looks down at the table. "I uh…I cooked." He opens the pizza box, letting the aroma waft out to fill the room.

Tifa giggles, tilting her head to listen. "And music, too? Does that mean you want to dance?"

"Not really," he says with a lopsided grin. "But I will, if you want to."

She holds out her hand. His smile looks an awful lot like a grimace, but he takes her hand and lets her pull him away from the table. "This is…really sweet, Cloud," she says, leaning in to his shoulder.

They sway gently along with the music. He smells amazing, clean with the slightly tangy mako smell that is uniquely Cloud. She inhales deeply and looks up at him. He's staring at her with an intensity that she sees much less often than she used to.

She smiles shyly. "What?"

"I just…I don't think I tell you often enough that you're…"

He freezes suddenly, then releases her and runs into the kitchen. "Cloud?" she calls after him. "What's wrong? Did you hear something?" He doesn't answer, so she follows him to investigate.

As soon as the kitchen door opens, she's overwhelmed by the smell of pickles and burnt food. "Oh! Ifrit! What happened in here?!" The kitchen looks like it was hit by a food tornado. Nearly every surface in the room has been splattered with bacon grease and squashed vegetables, and she's pretty sure there are some items mixed in that aren't food at all.

The stove is sizzling with something that overflowed from the pot, which Cloud has moved to the back burner. He turns around guiltily. "Uhm…we cooked?" Tifa is very possessive of her kitchen, and he's cringing like a puppy expecting to be smacked. "I'll clean it all up, I promise!"

She's still in shock, staring at the disaster that used to be her domain, but a laugh bubbles up, and soon she's laughing so hard that her eyes are watering. Cloud looks relieved, but still a little frightened. "Teef…?"

She makes her way across the kitchen, still giggling, and puts her hands on his cheeks. "What in the world were you trying to cook, Cloud?"

"Uh…" he reaches over and picks up the recipe, wiping some splatters from the front of it.

Tifa takes the recipe from him and gasps. "The knoephla soup! Cloud, where did you ever find this?"

"It was in the box with the stuff from our travels."

"Oh! Oh. This is the best surprise ever, Cloud!" She wraps her arms around his neck. "I would love to have this on my birthday."

He looks over his shoulder at the mess on the stove. "I don't think you want to eat this, Teef."

She laughs and wipes a tear from her eye. "No, let's make it now! We can make it together."

He smiles tentatively. "You want to spend your birthday cooking?"

"To have this? Yes, definitely! Can we? Please, Cloud?"

Cloud scratches the back of his head. "I dunno, I'm still pretty traumatized…how about you cook, and I'll clean this up?"

Tifa laughs. "Deal. Let me go change." She starts toward the stairs, but he doesn't release her hand.

"No, that's part of the deal. You have to wear that while you're cooking." He grins devilishly.

Tifa frowns down at the dress. "I don't want to mess it up." She looks back up at him and his impish smile and laughs. "Fine, but I'm going to wear an apron over it."

He tilts his head slightly as his eyes roam over her. "Fair enough," he says.

Cloud begins cleaning up, watching as Tifa gathers the ingredients on the island. When she begins to mix together the dough, he comes and watches over her shoulder. "What does 'knee the dough' mean? I don't think we did it right."

Tifa picks up the recipe and looks at it. "Oh. Sorry, I guess my writing is hard to read. It should be knead."

He blinks at her, with a look that clearly implies that the correction helps not at all. She giggles and moves over to make room for him. "Come here. I'll show you." She shows him how to work it with his hands, folding it over on itself and pressing it together again.

He moves to stand behind her and puts an arm on each side, awkwardly poking at the outsides of the dough as she continues working the middle.

"This isn't so bad," he says, his spikes rubbing softly against her ear. "I could learn to like cooking." He leans down to kiss the curve of her neck.

"Cloud," she chides, laughing. "I can't concentrate when you're doing that."

"Why not?" His hands move together toward the middle of the dough, where he intertwines their doughy fingers together.

He slides the strap over her shoulder and follows it with his lips.

It can't often be said that Yuffie is right, but in this case, she absolutely is. The dress looks fabulous crumpled up on the floor.

Barret and the kids return around ten the next morning. "Helloooo!" Barret calls, finding the bar empty. To his surprise, Tifa comes down the stairs, still in her pajamas. "Tifa! Were you still in bed?" It's absolutely unheard of for Tifa to sleep in, much less to sleep until ten. "Are you sick?"

Tifa can't meet his eyes. "No, we just stayed up really late last night."

Cloud comes down behind her, also in pajamas, his hair standing up even more than usual. Denzel lights up when he sees him. "How did the soup turn out, Cloud? Did she like it? Did you save some for us?"

Cloud scratches the back of his head, glancing over at Tifa. "Well, actually…"

"It was perfect," Tifa speaks over the top of him. "And there's plenty left for lunch today." She grins over at Cloud. "You guys should really cook more often."