Note: I love Cliff x Ann. It's so freaking adorable…I have no idea why no one else is writing it. If you are, let yourself be known! Or I'll ship all by myself and force you to see how cute it is! Don't think I won't.

Disclaimer: Not mine…again. I'm getting to be repetitive, aren't I?

Stammering Fool

"Kai, what do you know about women?"

The bandana-clad traveler blinked for a second, turning to Cliff with curious eyes. For starters, it was rare to hear Cliff talk at all, and even rarer to see him starting up a conversation on his own. Secondly, he was asking about a topic that did not include the Church, finding a job, or his past travels. Thirdly, he was asking about women, a topic that Cliff usually found so awkward that Kai had started to wonder if Cliff shared any interest in the opposite gender at all.

"Women, huh?" Kai repeated, scratching his head in thought. "Hoo, boy. What do I know about women?"

Cliff watched on innocently as Kai attempted to find a suitable answer to Cliff's baffling question. The chef looked up and gestured towards the chair. "Sit down, Cliff. This'll take awhile."

Kai rubbed his chin in thought. "Alright, let's start with the basics. You see, there's this thing I like to call 'the birds and the bees,' and when a guy likes a girl—"

"I know that part," Cliff murmured sheepishly.

An audible sigh of relief escaped Kai's lips. "Thank the Harvest Goddess. What do you need to know, then?"

Cliff paused, then said finally, "How do they think? I mean, what do you have to do to make them…well…happy?"

"Happy?" Kai laughed. "Oh, that's easier than you think. If you want to go the traditional path, stick with chocolates and flowers. But that's only the tip of the iceburg."

"It is?"

"You, my naïve friend, don't know the half of it," Kai winked. "Say you give her a few gifts and go on a date. Great, right?"

"Right."

"Wrong."

"Wrong?"

Kai nodded. "You have to stay on your guard. You see, women never make things easy. For example, say you two go out to eat. She orders something low-carb. And you, my friend, choose the big ole fashioned steak. That's bad."

"Why?" Cliff persisted.

"Because obviously, the chick is on a diet, and it's rude to eat something like that in front of her face. Plus, the steak is probably more expensive than whatever she's eating, and you're making her feel rude," Kai explained, putting his hands behind his head. "Comprende?"

"No steak: got it," Cliff nodded, furrowing his brow in concentration.

"Okay, next big issue: clothes. Always compliment what she's wearing. Because girls spend an insane amount of time dolling themselves up, and when the guy doesn't bother to say, 'Nice dress,' all that hard work is wasted. And another thing: if a girl ever asks you, 'Be honest, do I look fat?' never ever say she's fat. Even if it's a lie. Her self-esteem is way more important than your opinion of her physique."

Nice dress, not fat, no steak. Mentally filing away this goldmine of information, Cliff questioned, "But how do you ask her? On a date."

"Be confident," Kai instructed him. "Girls like assertiveness. Be polite, though, but don't act too desperate. Desperate is bad. B-A-D."

"So you just go right up to her and ask?"

"It works for me," Kai shrugged. "Who is the lucky girl, anyway?"

But in response, Cliff shut himself up like a clam and shuffled out the door with his face beet red. Passing him as he walked in, Gray cast the brown-haired traveler a quick glance before turning to Kai questioningly.

"What were you two talking about?" Gray inquired.

"Oh, you know, man-to-man stuff," Kai explained, leaning back in his chair. "Women."

The inquisitive look on Gray's face gave way to one of shock, concern, and possibly a flicker of amusement. "What the hell did Cliff want to know about women, anyway? You didn't have to give him the talk--?"

"Psh, we covered fundamentals, but nothing that basic," Kai replied, crossing his arms. "You know, what to say and do to make women happy and stuff. Cliff asked me for advice."

"You?" Disbelief and mockery echoed through the single syllable, turning Kai's grin into a frown.

"For your information, I am in a steady two-year relationship with a certain pink-haired girl, thank you very much," Kai defended himself. "After all that time, I think I've learned a thing or two about women. Actually, I really think my advice helped the guy."

"…You do know who he likes, don't you?" Gray replied softly.

"No, actually. What, do you know who it is?"

Gray smirked. "Yeah. I saw him blushing and stammering at her yesterday. It's Ann."

And with that one word, Kai's face fell. "Oh. Oh, no. Cliff is doomed."

Ann had just finished dish duty when Cliff appeared. She blinked at him as she wiped the sweat from her forehead, seeing him holding a handful of wilted flowers in one hand and a box of melted chocolate in the other. His messy brown hair was pulled back tighter than usual in a futile effort to tame his thick locks, but to Ann it looked like a failed attempt at imitating Won.

"A-Ann, I w-want to ask you something," he began, trembling. Hands on her hips, the red-head waited as Cliff managed to stammer some unintelligible nonsense.

"Ask already!" she exasperated. "I need to go to the bathroom while the shower's still open."

His courage failing at her outburst, Cliff tried again. "W-well, if you have nothing p-planned for later, maybe…I don't know…we could—"

"Oh no he isn't!" Ann shouted, snapping her head towards Gourmet, who was starting towards the bathroom door. "This is my bathroom time, and I need a shower bad, darnit! I've been working all day, and it's my turn! I swear, we need to get our own private bathrooms—I am sick of all these guests using it twenty-four seven."

"I-I'm just wondering if—"

"Cliff," Ann began, taking him by the shoulders. "Listen. I have to go to Mary's house, use the shower, and get back here. Whatever it is you have to say to me, you can say it later, because you obviously aren't going to spit it out anytime soon. We'll talk over dinner, m'kay?"

Cliff could only nod while immobile in her tight grip.

"Good. See you in…an hour-ish."

And she sped off.

Assertive and confident invitation to dinner: failure.

Unintentional being invited on a date-that-really-isn't-a-date: success.

Cliff gripped his fork a little too tightly as he waited for Ann, his other hand shaking as he took in a drink of water. Any second now, she would walk in, and he'd be reduced to a stuttering idiot with just one glance from those piercing blue eyes.

Right on cue, the red-head stormed in and plopped herself down in the seat across from him. "Did I make you wait long?"

Cliff shook his head, and Ann began to look over the menu. "Sorry, though…Mary wanted me to read her latest chapter, and you know writers: always editing and angsting about how bad their work is. So I have to read it, whack the girl upside the head, and say, 'This is amazing, you moron!' You know what I mean?"

Cliff honestly had no idea, but he nodded anyways.

Letting out a little sigh, Ann shouted over to her father, "I'll have the usual, Dad." Turning back to Cliff, she asked, "You want anything?"

"Ah, n-no, I mean, uh, salad."

Beaming, Cliff mentally awarded himself a gold star for remembering one of Kai's tips.

"You just eat salad?" Ann laughed. "I mean, that's okay if you're a rabbit, but come on! You need some meat to fill you up."

And just as quickly as it had come, Cliff's gold star was mentally thrown into the garbage.

"Here's your meal," Doug announced as he placed a plateful of food before each of them. "Eat up."

As they ate, silence descended on the conversation—a silence that Cliff originally found to be a relief, then realized could be a prelude for an extremely boring first date with no promise of a second.

"Ann? I—I—"

"You what?"

Compliment her, you idiot! That was rule #2…or #3. Cliff couldn't quite remember.

"I--I like your dress," Cliff muttered, blushing.

Ann raised an eyebrow. "These are my overalls, Cliff. I wear them everyday."

"Oh."

Another gold star mentally thrown into the garbage.

"You know, Cliff," Ann pried as she swallowed a mouthful of food, "you're acting really jumpy today. Is something up?"

"W-well, the sky is up--"

"You know what I mean!" she snapped. "Honestly, Cliff, your face has turned like fifty shades of red in five minutes. And every word you say comes out weird. Are you alright?"

The truth was, Cliff felt that as soon as Ann had sat down, he'd been sapped of all testosterone. Someone so loud, so outspoken, so beautiful—well, it was laughable to think she'd go out with him. This wasn't even a real date, anyways.

"I—I'm just—I'm sorry, I'm just going to go," Cliff mumbled as he stood up. Unfortunately, he turned and tripped over the leg of the chair, falling face-first into Duke's bowl of chili.

Shrieks of laughter erupted from Manna and the other Inn-goers, while Duke growled, "What are you doing in my dinner, boy?!"

He stood up, beans sticking to cheeks and chili dripping down his chin and hair. His dark eyes turned from person to person, his heart sinking as he saw all the laughing faces surrounding him.

"Oh my gosh, Cliff, are you alright?" Ann exclaimed, coming towards him. "That was a nasty fall—"

But as Ann moved towards him, Cliff sprinted for the door, too ashamed to do anything else.

What an idiot he was…he couldn't even say a single word without stuttering. And all of Kai's advice had been useless, absolutely useless. By now, Ann must've thought he was a loser—falling into the chili like that. How stupid.

"Hey!"

Cliff's eyes widened as he heard the shout from behind him. The footsteps moved faster, and before long he could hear the ragged breath of someone running beside him. "Hey! Slow down!"

But Cliff refused, instead forcing his legs to move even faster.

The girl beside him groaned, her words interrupted by huffs of breath. "Cliff! You loser, I said slow down!"

Their paces increased, each matching the other with exact precision. Sweat dripped down Cliff's forehead, and he turned his eyes briefly to see the freckled face of Ann sweating as well. The path disappeared behind them as they left the town behind, reaching the woods where Kappa's lake dwelled. And still, Cliff wouldn't stop running.

"Slow down right now, Cliff!" Ann ordered. And when he didn't, Ann shouted, "I said slow down, you idiot!"

Gritting her teeth, the waitress tripped him with a quick jab at his leg. Cliff fell forward, tumbling and tumbling until finally the blur of green grass around him gave way to a swirling mass of lake water.

A loud splash sounded beside him as Ann jumped in, and as Cliff wiped the water from his cheeks, Ann smiled. "I told you to slow down."

The traveler, wringing the water from his ponytail, looked away in embarrassment. That was the second time today he looked like an idiot in front of Ann. Or at least the second, if you counted all those dumb stammerings he'd made.

"Now, what's all this about?" Ann demanded, crossing her arms. "Why'd you run? Did Manna's snorts get to be too unbearable or something? Or was it just that you were embarrassed?"

When Cliff didn't respond, Ann sighed. "Look, Cliff. By tomorrow, everyone will have forgotten about the chili thing. Or by next week. At any rate, people will forget. It's no big deal."

"But I…" Cliff coughed as water made its way into his throat, then looked up again. "I ruined it…"

"Ruined what?"

"Dinner," Cliff murmured. "I ruined your dinner."

Ann blinked at him then laughed. "Are you kidding? That was probably the most fun meal I've had in awhile. Did you see Duke's face? If anyone's dinner was ruined, it was his."

"But don't you think that…I'm clumsy?" Cliff insisted. "That I'm too quiet, that I'm weird?"

"You know what I think?" Ann decided, putting her arm on his shoulder. "I think you think too much, Cliff. You're a nice guy. Don't stress over this, okay?"

Cliff nodded sheepishly. "Okay…"

"You still sound stressed," Ann groaned. "I told you not to stress."

"O-Okay."

His weak reply only served to make Ann even more unconvinced.

"…Cliff," Ann announced, staring at him squarely, "this is for your own good."

"Whaa?"

And with a strong shove, Ann sent Cliff sprawling backwards into the water. Again.

The traveler stood up, sputtering, "What was that for--?"

Splash!

"Come on, Cliff!" Ann taunted with a grin. "Your reflexes suck! You'll never hit me just standing around."

And as another wave of water poured down on him, Cliff managed a small smile. It was true, what Ann had just said. Standing around wouldn't do anything. Stressing about what to do and what to say wouldn't help either. Actually, there was really no secret formula to memorize, no blueprint to assure him ownership of Ann's heart.

All he needed to do was smile.

All he needed to do was hear her laugh.

All he needed to do was engage in a splash-fight at ten o'clock at night.

And maybe, over time, that would be enough to make them something more. Something beautiful. Something amazing. Something worthy of the term "love."

And as Cliff shoved a sheet of water at Ann's laughing face, the Kappa shook his head and wondered why people bothering his lake couldn't just stick to tossing cucumbers.