"Come on," Tifa said. "It's a Nibelheim tradition." She looked at him cajolingly, the firelight casting gold lights in her dark eyes and making her look entirely too innocent, curled on Cloud's lap.

Zack regarded her with mistrust.

"She's right, it is," Cloud said. He looked not so much relaxed as melted, just enough of his weight against Zack's side that Zack could feel the warmth of his body, counterpoint to the curled-cat warmth of Aeris on the other side. The fitful snowflurries just visible through the window might as well have been as far away as the Icicle Inn.

"See?" Tifa lifted her head. "Cloud agrees. I'm not making this up."

"Either that," Zack said, "or you are making this up and Cloud is playing along, which I wouldn't put past him."

"Would we gang up on you like that?" Tifa asked with wounded dignity.

"Hah. In a heartbeat."

"That's just because you don't fight fair either," Aeris said comfortably, poking the fire without lifting her head from his shoulder. "Anyway, I think you should go ahead and eat it. It was pretty good."

Zack gave her a pained look. "If you're against me too, I'm doomed," he said. "All right, cut me a piece. But I swear, no cake that's been sitting in a cupboard for six months—"

"—marinating in brandy—" Cloud interjected.

"—could possibly still be much good. I like my cake fresh, thanks."

Aeris was closest to the table—well, closest save for Cloud, who was comfortably immobilized by her weight in his lap—and leaned over to slice a piece off the dark loaf. She broke a piece off with her fingers and fed it to him.

Zack took a bite, dubiously at first—but it tasted like molasses and cinnamon and raisins and walnuts and good brandy, and wasn't actually bad. " . . . Okay," he said, "I take it back, this is—ow!"

"Are you okay?" Aeris asked, sitting up a little.

Zack rubbed his jaw. "Yeah, just . . . " He fished around in his mouth and withdrew . . . "Why is there an old dried bean in my cake?"

"It's a good thing," Cloud said, shifting Tifa against his shoulder. "It means you're the year-king."

"Which means . . . ?"

Tifa's smile widened. She leaned over so that she was still sitting on Cloud's lap, but her arms wound around Zack's neck. (With Aeris against one side, Cloud pressed hip-to-hip against the other, and Tifa hanging around his neck, Zack figured he was doing as well as any king, and better than some.)

"It means," Tifa explained solemnly, "that we're all supposed to make sure you're happy and comfortable and, um, satisfied, if you get my drift."

His own smile widened. "I see."

"And then we cut you open so your blood can renew the fertility of the soil," Cloud added blandly. Tifa thwacked him on the top of the head and, in the process, lost her balance and nearly fell off both of them. Cloud reeled her back into his lap. "No more apple brandy for you," he said, and kissed her soundly.

"We haven't killed the year-king in centuries," she said. "Well, a century, anyway."

"Decades, at least," Cloud said, and ducked another swipe.

"You northerners are barbarians," Zack said with no little admiration.

"No bleeding Zack all over my flowers," Aeris protested sleepily. "I have no idea what all that mako would do to them, and I don't want to find out."

" . . . But what about that whole 'make the king happy' bit?" Zack asked. (He definitely considered 'persistence' among his virtues, or possibly 'not knowing when to quit' among his flaws.) "That part sounded just fine."

"I dunno," Tifa said. "Now you mention it, Aeris does more for the fertility of the land and, and, stuff, than the rest of us put together. Maybe we should forget the whole year-king thing . . . ." With surprising speed, given her tipsy state, she lunged for Aeris. The two collapsed with a giggle and a squeak, amid the veil of Aeris' loosed hair, across Zack's lap.

"I'm okay with that," Cloud said after a minute, watching them.

" . . . Yup," Zack said. "Any other good barbarian customs of yours I should know about?"

Cloud's smile reflected the firelight. "Just wait until Beltane."