So, inspired yet again by Advent Children's incredible soundtrack (specifically Divinity II), I write anew. The setting is simple: Tifa decides that Cloud hasn't come around enough to her liking, and Marlene isn't satisfied either. So Marlene and Tifa hatch a little scheme to get the spiky blonde to come around… (no connection to my other one-shot). Not a lot of in-your-face fluff, but I needed a break from writing my other story and I wanted to practice writing some straight-up action... not that I'm giving away the plot or anything...


"But First, He's Getting a Lecture…"

"Tifa! Tiiiiiiiifa!" A young girl's voice echoed through the humble abode above the 7th Heaven Bar.

"What!? What is it, Marlene?" Tifa asked breathlessly, having rushed to the room upon hearing the young girl's cry. Old reflexes die hard… sometimes not at all.

"Where's Cloud?" she asked petulantly, a look of disappointment marring her youthful features. Tifa sighed.

"Cloud's out on a delivery; he'll be back so-"

SLAM

"I'm back," Cloud remarked taciturnly, removing his jacket and sword holster, carrying both to the stairwell behind the bar where Tifa had nailed sturdy hooks into the wall away from potential thieves and the occasional ambitious drunk looking to acquire a souvenir.

"He's home!" Tifa announced somewhat anticlimactically. Marlene pouted cutely, waiting for the sound she knew would come next. Sure enough, soon after Cloud's return, the ex-never-really-was-SOLDIER started up a much-needed shower.

"Sure, he's home now, but he's just gonna leave again!" Marlene said finally, now that Cloud was safely out of earshot. "He came back to live with us, he even smiles every now and then, but he still hasn't come home yet!" she continued.

Tifa closed her eyes, fearing that the young girl, far too wise beyond her years, would catch the tell-tale signs of sadness all to visible in her brown irises. Her adopted daughter was right; Cloud was back, but something didn't seem right. It was almost as if he was creating just enough of a bond to try and create the illusion of family, but one that could easily be broken if he needed a quick getaway. He probably had convinced himself that this was for the best, that this way Tifa, Marlene, and Denzel, who was out playing with his new friend (Marlene liked to tease him by calling the moogle-carrying Kara his 'girlfriend', but after awhile Denzel stopped complaining), wouldn't be hurt if he never came back for one reason or another. Tifa was sure that to Cloud he considered himself sparing them the pain of losing him, but the elite fighter was just too dense to see what he was missing.

As Tifa opened her eyes, Marlene was pleased to see some resolve behind them. "Alright Marlene, I think I know what we can do. But I'm gonna need your help, okay?"

"OK!"

And a thumbs-up settled it.

Later in the day, when the sun began to dip below the horizon, Tifa brought forth her latest attempt at a home-cooked meal, though perhaps calling it an 'attempt' was selling her short.

"Tifa, who did you get to make this for you?" Cloud asked innocently. She shot him a glare, blushing slightly at the veiled compliment.

"So you like it?" Tifa replied just as innocently, playing along. Cloud shook his head and moved in for the kill.

"I didn't say that. I asked who made it," he pointed out seriously, a dark look coming over his face as his chewing slowed to a deliberate grind. "I'm not sure where you got this from, but I think it needs work. Your meals are much better."

Tifa couldn't take it. "I made it…" she muttered through clenched teeth.

"Oh!" Cloud replied in mock surprise, a very small grin forming on his lips that somehow was delivered more through his eyes, which seemed to dance with merriment. "Tifa, I'm…"

Denzel and Marlene stopped eating, watching the drama unfold. Would Cloud finally push Tifa too far? Finally, Cloud finished his sentence, adopting a more serious tone.

"…only joking. This is very good, you've got a knack for cooking!" he finished as he took another bite, and another.

Tifa fumed and ate rapidly, trying to gorge the feelings of satisfaction and relief she felt at his approval. I'm supposed to be mad at him! Not grateful! AAARRRGH! You're almost more trouble than you're worth, Cloud Strife! She slowed her pace lest she choke and watched as Cloud fended off questions from Denzel about his delivery and smiled.

Almost…

She was so lost in thought that Marlene's opening move caught her by surprise, and she had to gather her wits quickly in recovery when:

"Cloud, are you going to be busy on Saturday?" Marlene asked nonchalantly. Cloud stopped eating and appeared to be seriously considering the question.

After awhile, he blinked in surprise. "No, actually, I won't be!" Cloud said after a moment's thought. "Why? Was there something you wanted me to do?" he asked, wondering what Marlene would ask of him.

Check… Tifa thought hopefully.

"Well, I wanted to go back to Aerith's church and pick some more of the flowers to bring back here! The ones we got from the Cleansing have started to fade, and I was hoping…" Marlene trailed off, trying to look as cute as she could. Tifa could sense Cloud's will being crushed by the innocence of a child.

"Hmmmm… I guess it's alright. Tifa, is it okay if I take her on Fenrir?" he asked the martial artist.

Tifa was so shocked that he agreed so readily that it took her a moment to respond. "Uh, I, uh, don't know if that's such a good idea," she replied, not actually having a problem with it – Cloud would die before letting Marlene get hurt – but was dropping the lines she and Marlene had planned out beforehand.

"Please, Tifa? I'll wear a helmet, and Cloud will drive real slow, right Cloud?" she asked in a perfect imitation of a child using every ounce of cuteness in their body to get what they wanted, something Marlene never had to do – she was much smarter.

"I guess it's alright. Cloud, this isn't like you; don't you have extra deliveries on Saturday?" Tifa asked, honestly confused. Cloud was the only deliveryman who would accept deliveries on Saturday, a ploy recommended by Reno, ever one to capitulate on a good advantage and something which Tifa had vowed revenge on the red-head for. That Cloud was so easily bending to Marlene's request made her wonder if their plan was necessary.

"Yeah, but I just have this feeling that if I refuse, you two would just badger me until I did it," Cloud replied, taking a sip of water from his glass. "Might as well give in now."

Mate… Tifa thought, her intentions towards Cloud flaring up with renewed vigor. Big, insensitive oaf… time to meet your maker.


"Weeeeeeee!" Marlene howled happily as Cloud tore down the highway on the way to Midgar. After they were out of sight of the bar, Marlene insisted that Cloud drive as fast as he could, and while Cloud would most certainly not risk a top speed adventure with Marlene in front of him, he would oblige and raise the speed to give Marlene a thrill. Besides, he got a kick out of it too.

Finally, they arrived at the lip of the 'crater', the steep incline that replaced the outer circle of the Mako reactor ShinRa once built.

"Hold on," Cloud instructed, placing one arm around his adopted daughter as he steered the motorcycle down the hill and into the desecrated streets of Midgar. Before he even realized it he had steered them straight to the abandoned church. Through the slightly ajar doors he could almost see the lake and the flowers that grew around it.

"Come on, Cloud!" Marlene said happily, freeing herself from Cloud's hug and her helmet. Before Cloud could follow, she dashed inside.

"Especially energetic today," he muttered as he followed her in, leaving behind his precious sword, the First Tsurugi.

Now, it is well known that almost all 1st Class SOLDIERS preferred a weapon of some sort, the most famous preferring some variant of a long blade manufactured with the finest materials and techniques to give it a light-as-a-feather, strong-as-diamond quality. Cloud was no exception. What is less known is that the SOLDIERS earned their names and titles. A 1st class didn't achieve it without being proficient in all forms of weapons and armaments. This included unarmed combat, and while most SOLDIERS chose weapons over pursuit of the finer techniques of the martial artist, it would be a grave mistake for anyone to assume that a 1st Class SOLDIER couldn't hold his own against a master.

Again, Cloud was no exception. Watching his old friend Zack in action was enough to convince him of the worth of fighting unarmed, and while fighting alongside Tifa he decided it would hurt a lot to go up against someone of her caliber unarmed and untrained.

Cloud pushed open the doors of the church and stopped. Marlene was nowhere to be found. After all the children had been cured the members of AVALANCHE had cleaned up the church, making it a shrine to the Lifestream as a sign of their gratitude. The debris and old pews had been cleared away and the wooden floor around the new lake was pulled up, allowing the flowers to magically bloom once again. The result was a sacred place relatively free of obstacles, and Marlene was nowhere to be seen.

Cloud walked into the church, inhaling the scent of the flowers and the pure, healing waters. Then he detected another scent. The doors opened, then shut behind him, and he turned around to see Tifa, staring at him and smiling coyly.

"Remember when you found me here, after I fought Loz?" she asked suddenly, advancing towards Cloud. He nodded; he would not – could not – ever forget the fear he felt when he cradled the near-death Tifa in his arms.

"Well, didn't you wonder why I was there?" Tifa asked, still advancing. Cloud subconsciously took a step back. He nodded.

"I came with Marlene because she wanted to see you. She loves you Cloud, like a father." She answered for him. Not letting him respond, she continued, her grin beginning to widen in a way that made Cloud back away quicker. "She refused to leave until you came back, so I decided we would wait for you, then all go home together."

Cloud's heart warmed at the thought, and he found himself unable to shake the feeling.

Then Tifa was standing so close to him their noses were almost touching; Cloud marveled at how quickly and silently she closed the twenty-foot gap that had still separated them.

"I agreed… but first, you were going to get… a lecture!"

Cloud buckled forward, bending around Tifa's outstretched arm. Vaguely, Cloud was aware that her right palm was buried in his gut and that he no longer held any air in his lungs. That vague awareness allowed him to recover clumsily and block Tifa's left hand as it came in to club him in the head. He then went flying, suckered into the feint and victim to Tifa's right boot. He slammed into the newly reinforced wall, but managed to balance himself on his feet. He stared at Tifa, still in what doctors term 'shock', and noticed that Tifa was already wearing her gloves and settled into an inviting fighting stance.

A set-up! He thought suddenly. Well, if Tifa was going to try and whale on him, she had a thing coming. She rushed in again, but this time Cloud was ready. He ducked under her spinning roundhouse-sidekick combo and blocked her one-two palm strike, deflecting the blows to the side of his body with hard edge of his forearm.

"Why?!" Cloud yelled as Tifa continued the assault.

Tifa grunted. He's a lot better than I thought… freakin' SOLDIERS… Aloud, she replied, "Well, I thought I had made that clear. I'm giving you a lecture!"

Cloud's eyes narrowed. "Quit mincing words! What do you want?" He lost his temper, yelling his reply and throwing a fast, unavoidable right cross at Tifa's jaw.

Reacting with the speed and strength of a thousand repetitions and innovations, Tifa smoothly turned aside the strike to her left and gently pulling Cloud with the blow, off-balancing him slighty. Brining her right palm up, she cupped his face gently and in the span of a millisecond she locked eyes with his, letting him see how much pain she bore, for Marlene, Denzel, and herself, how much they wanted Cloud to finally come home.

Then the split second was gone and Tifa finished the move, pulling Cloud with her left and rolling his head left with her right, pivoting on her right foot and dropping her left foot back. Cloud's body slammed into the ground and bounced, rolling twice from the force of his own redirected momentum.

"Atama makikomi…" Tifa whispered, not realizing what she had said. Cloud groaned as he pulled himself up, wiping an arm across his mouth and settling into a stance. He looked at Tifa and smiled, and Tifa knew it was an honest one.

"You could have just told me, y'know," he said lightheartedly. It was as if his collision with the unyielding ground had knocked something loose, or back into place. Gone was any trace of the stoic young man that had been sleeping in a room above a bar, and his place was a man Tifa remembered from her childhood, one that had promised that he would protect her if she was in trouble. Her eyes moistened, but she refused to let the tears fall… not yet. She smiled instead and leapt at the spiky blonde. He charged towards her as well, stepping to the side at the last minute and, placing both hands on the ground as leverage, kicked out with the heels of both feet. He caught Tifa in the side and launched her across the room, but the force was insufficient to send her into the opposite wall, and she hit the floor and rolled up into a crouch.

"I'm supposed to be winning. I told Marlene I could beat you without your swords no problem!" Tifa complained. Cloud shrugged.

"I was a 1st class SOLDIER, or at least I have the skills of one." He shrugged again, beckoning. "Besides, this is getting kinda fun," he added with a grin.

Tifa acknowledged his skill with a grin, then vanished. Cloud smiled and tilted his head to the right, allowing a palm thrust to sail past his head. He grabbed the arm as it went past and pulled down, popping the arm up across his shoulder; ducking underneath it, he tried to twist her to the ground, but Tifa managed to twist free as Cloud ducked. Clutching his collar, she placed a foot forward and set herself firmly. Twisting mightily, she flung Cloud in front of her.

He turned his fall into a roll, and came up with a lunge towards Tifa, who saw the feint for what it was. When Cloud went down for the leg sweep, she jumped and snapped her foot towards his head, but Cloud simply tucked his head in, completed the sweep without hitting her, and used the momentum to push himself up into a helicopter kick, which Tifa accepted into her side, curling her arm around it and trapping the leg around the ankle. They froze for a moment, each considering the stalemate they were in.

Cloud grinned. Without warning he pulled on his trapped leg with all his strength. Tifa's reaction was perfectly predicted, and she clutched it for dear life. But Cloud pulled with enough force that he actually yanked himself towards Tifa. Hugging one of her legs to his chest (and banishing all naughty thoughts that flew unbidden into his head, he planted his free foot on the ground and, from the very uncomfortable stretch he had gotten himself into, straightened to stand up. Tifa's leg came forward, and her body followed like a lever, her back on a one-way train to the ground.

She bridged at the last moment, palms striking the ground. Unable to resist the target, she kicked out. Cloud received the kick to his derriere and again rolled forward, this time coming up and holding his place. Tifa charged, and Cloud did his best to block and counter the lightning-fast strikes targeting his chest, head, and shoulders, every now and then attempting to counter-attack. But Tifa was, if anything, incredible at evading her opponent's attacks and would continuously draw them aside in such a way that took her opponent's brief advantage away.

Finally, Tifa found the opening she had been trying to create and caught Cloud's arm that struck her in the shoulder.

That stung… she thought as she grabbed the belt that crossed Cloud's chest. She let herself fall backwards, bringing her foot up and burying it in his stomach, which was unyielding. Tifa fell on her back and kicked up and over, holding onto Cloud as he catapulted over her head. Finally, she used her momentum to pull herself up into a backwards roll which placed her in a rather compromising mount.

"I win!" Tifa said, pinning Cloud's arms with her knees and flashing him the victory sign.

Cloud raised an eyebrow. "You know that I can break this, but you're gonna claim victory?"

Tifa grinned. Cloud saw something glimmer in her eye.

Then his vision went black.

But he was still conscious…

Vaguely, gradually, he became aware of a very soft sensation on his mouth which he could only identify as Tifa's lips. Before he could return the kiss, she was pulling away.

"There; now you're stunned," she whispered. Cloud nodded dumbly, and Tifa laughed, getting off the blonde and extending a hand to help him to his feet, one he normally wouldn't have needed but took anyways, given the circumstances.

"So what have we learned today?" Tifa asked once he was on his feet again, getting as close as she dared to him.

"Never trust a too-sweet little girl, no more deliveries on weekends, and, to quote, 'wise the hell up?'" he asked hopefully.

Tifa smiled. "You forgot something," she replied, and leaned over to whisper in his ear.

Cloud, known amongst their friends for his ability to hide his emotions, blushed.

Tifa pulled away and grabbed his hand. "Come on; I asked Barret to pick up Marlene, but we've still got to get home. You're driving."

Cloud shook his head. Like an old married couple, he thought, amused.

Strangely, the thought was not an unpleasant one…

Actually… I could get used to this…


So y'all be tellin' me whatcha think! I had a lot of fun writing that, it was a lot of work and it helped me get back into my writing!

Ja!