A/N: Takes place right after Tifa arrives in Midgar. The guys take her out to lunch.
"So the war is over, and the ink is barely dry on the paperwork, when a SOLDIER walking through an open-air market discovers Wutai had a secret weapon all along." Zack delivered this revelation conversationally, as if merely offering a factual anecdote despite the sheer absurdity of the statement. "Well, two actually," he corrected himself after a moment's pause for thought, holding up the appropriate number of fingers for emphasis (subsequently receiving two sausages from a passing waiter), "but only one works as both a missile and a repellant."
Uncertain how to react to this, Tifa glanced at Cloud, whose response was to cover his eyes with one hand and adopt an attitude of long-suffering embarrassment. As if to say: I cannot believe you are telling this story again. Her own scepticism bolstered by his attitude, she raised an eyebrow at the dark-haired SOLDIER. "Zack," she began, only for him to cut her off.
"No, really," he insisted, "they have this gourd-like fruit that's about as big as a basketball and all," he gestured with his hands, fingers sticking up in all directions around his head, "like Spiky's hair on the outside." Zack deftly dodged as Cloud reached out with the hand not busy hiding his face to whack him in retaliation. "They're heavy," he continued, "and they smell like old gym socks boiled in urine before they're opened. After, it's..."
"A combination of several of the most disgusting things you can think of, times ten, and I'd really appreciate it if you didn't list them right now," Cloud inserted pointedly, despite a faint note of repressed humor in his voice.
The three of them were having lunch at the sector seven churrascaria, a SOLDIER favorite due to the rodízio service. Glancing around the restaurant at the nearby tables and the attendant waiters, Zack grinned somewhat sheepishly and made a placating gesture. "Alright, alright... but the point is it really reeks. The regular grunts were repulsed, so you can imagine what it did to the SOLDIER."
"Wait. Are you saying that Shin-Ra doctored your sense of smell?" Tifa asked, cautiously sampling some broiled levrikon. (To her surprise, it tasted much like chocobo.) She knew – everyone knew – that SOLDIERS had enhanced strength and stamina... but, smell?
Zack nodded. "Hearing, too. Something to do with upping our situational awareness." With a shrug, he happily accepted another serving of sirloin steak. "Luckily, someone realized that beefing up our sense of taste might be a bad idea, so they let that one go."
"Mostly," Cloud qualified mildly. "It's tied to our sense of smell so it's still somewhat improved. More in the range of flavors we can detect than in intensity."
"Oh, I think I saw a memo from Sephiroth on that. Something about SOLDIER verifying that there should be more than 32 flavors of ice-cream, as 32 doesn't cover the entire spectrum." Grinning unrepentantly, Zack ducked another half-hearted swipe.
"Just how strong is your sense of smell?" Not wanting to make another trip to the salad bar, Tifa stole a slice of tomato from Cloud's plate. "Nibel wolves can scent prey something like two miles away. Can you do that?"
"I object to your use of the term 'prey'," Zack replied with mock seriousness, earning an eye-roll from Cloud, "but yeah, we can do that. Especially if the person hasn't bathed, or uses some sort of cologne or perfume."
"Which is actually worse," Cloud chimed in. "Body odor is unpleasant, but it doesn't get all in your nose and head the way perfume does. You'd think that the Shin-Ra receptionists would know better, but it's like they bathe in the stuff."
"Same with Scarlet," Zack agreed, "although whatever she uses doesn't have that eye-crossing chemical undertone. Probably something expensive." He and Cloud shared a smirk. "At least the female Turks are aware."
"True. Cissnei and Elena never smell like anything but themselves mixed with a bit of starch from their uniforms."
A waiter stopped to offer them slices of grilled pineapple dusted with cinnamon. "You know... It always kind of amuses me that Cissnei smells like cinnamon," Zack commented after he left, as if having the substance in front of him had jogged his memory.
"Hey, it's not my fault she has red hair! And I definitely prefer Cissnei's spice to Elena's baby powder. A Turk should not smell like baby powder. It's a fundamental paradox."
"I thought you said they didn't smell like anything," Tifa broke in, interrupting their sidebar discussion.
"Anything but themselves," Cloud clarified. "Everyone smells like something, but natural scents are far less pervasive-"
"Annoying!" Zack clarified.
"–than those that are man-made."
"Really." Tifa eyed both young men suspiciously, half-certain they were playing a joke on her. "Everyone? So what does Zack smell like?"
"Well," Cloud answered, tilting his head thoughtfully, "all SOLDIERS smell sort of the same. Like mint."
"Or eucalyptus," Zack added.
Cloud shrugged agreement and continued: "Mixed with electricity. Even Sephiroth, although his scent is more intense. It's like... comparing mint leaves to menthol."
"I've always thought Seph smelled kind of like one of those dandruff shampoos," Zack commented – partly because it was somewhat true (Seph's scent was stronger and more antiseptic than any other SOLDIER), but mostly because Cloud still took everything related to the 'Silver General' far too seriously. "You know, the medicated type? Or maybe Barbicide."
"But Zack here," Cloud continued, raising his voice to talk over him, "has an undertone of something... I dunno, green."
"Green? Like plants?" Tifa noted that Zack's expression had become a mix of confusion and wary expectation.
"Not really..." Cloud took another bite of pineapple while pretending to consider. "It's more like swamp water," he finally concluded.
"Hey!" Now it was Cloud's turn to lean away from Zack's attempted swat. "Well you smell like... like... like..." he floundered for something suitably insulting, "snow."
"Snow?" Cloud laughed, "Snow doesn't smell like anything."
"It smells cold, Cloud," Zack returned, feigning hurt from under lowered brows, "just like you. Cold and hard and sarcastic."
"Sarcasm doesn't have a smell, either." At Zack's pout, Cloud relented, still laughing. "Alright, you goof, you don't smell like swamp water and you know it. But there is something... earthy about it. Like a fresh-tilled garden under the sun."
"I smell like warm dirt?" Zack's tone strove for disbelieving, but couldn't quite mask the laughter.
"And I smell like cold snow. Kunsel probably smells like lukewarm grass or something."
The bland statement had Zack chuckling freely about how they were a 'carefully coordinated set', from which Tifa could only gather that Kunzel was another SOLDIER. "What about me?" she asked, when the laughter subsided. "What do I smell like?" It was borderline flirting, but she was in Midgar to get Cloud's attention, and the talk of Cissnei and Elena had her curious.
"Vanilla," both men responded, practically in unison.
"Vanilla?" Disappointment must have colored her tone for Cloud's deep blue eyes were suddenly watching her carefully. "Like... 'plain vanilla'?" She frowned a little and bit her lip. "That's boring."
"Much better than baby powder," countered Zack, with feeling; and Cloud reached out to touch her hand while murmuring a soothing: "I don't think so."
Tilting her head, Tifa pushed her pout a bit more, hoping he'd take it as encouragement and curl his fingers around hers. Instead, he blinked and pulled back to fiddle with his napkin.
"I mean," he cleared his throat, witty banter deserting him under her focused regard, "vanilla is sweet without being cloying. And it reminds me of things I'd like to eat." Inexplicably, he flushed faintly red a heartbeat after he said it, and Zack muffled a snort. "Things that taste good," he hastened to clarify, prompting further chuckles. He sighed in exasperation, but continued doggedly: "Like butter cream frosting and sugar cookies. Whipped cream. Caramel." A brief sideways glance skimmed her features before he turned away again, reaching for his glass to take a sip of water. "It's a good thing," he concluded.
Tifa smiled to herself, pleased despite the awkward silence that descended in the wake of Cloud's words. Zack winked at her across the table, no doubt his idea of encouragement; she responded by kicking him in the shin and mouthing: Say something!
Rolling his eyes and reaching down to nurse his wounded limb, he resumed his previous story. "So, like I was saying: it's a good thing the people of Wutai didn't realize what a weapon they had in that fruit. They could've just lobbed a hundred or so among the troops, and everyone – including the SOLDIERS – would've been incapacitated by nausea and retching."
"Right," Cloud drew the word out as long as possible to make his skepticism clear. "Because breaking ranks to toss their cookies sounds like something Angeal, Genesis, and Sephiroth would do."
"Please," Zack retorted, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms. "Genesis would've been having a conniption over his red leather getting manky with stinky fruit pulp." Cloud burst out laughing, knowing Zack was right. "And... Oh!" Zack abruptly sat upright again, grinning from ear to ear. "You weren't first class yet, so you didn't have to go to the president's banquet last month. You should have seen Sephiroth's face when they brought in this soft, runny cheese from Kalm. We could smell it coming down the hall – it was like someone had killed a bloatfloat and left it to rot for three days in an open sewer. I had to excuse myself and run outside to get control of my gag reflex. Angeal and Seph stuck it out, but they were both a strange green color for the next hour." Relaxing into his chair again, he pointed a finger at Cloud in triumph. "The Wutai fruit is supposed to be worse."
"Hmmm." Unwilling to completely concede the point – it was hard to imagine anything that could make Sephiroth or Angeal lose control that way – Cloud let the topic go.
Tifa, on the other hand, was frowning in thought, and suddenly reached across the table to whack Zack in the arm. "Oh my god!" she said, giving him a disapproving glare and completely ignoring his whine of protest. "That's why you never came to dinner with Mrs. Strife!"
There was a moment of silence.
"My mom cooked dinner, and you didn't show?" Cloud demanded, outraged. He, too, reached out to smack the other SOLDIER, this time on the opposite arm. "Jerk! I asked her to invite you to dinner and make you feel at home!"
"Cloud," Zack attempted to protest in his most placating voice, "I don't know what she was cooking, but it smelled like rotting vegetation steeped in sulfur. And that was from outside! I couldn't go in there!"
"She made her special sauerkraut, you idiot," Tifa told him, "it's a secret recipe the rest of the village is dying to know, and you turned. It. Down!"
"That's because I didn't want it to come. Back. Up!"
Sighing, Tifa ran a hand through her hair in exasperation. "You could have at least called her and told her you weren't coming. Or told me, so I could explain it!"
Cloud had become torn on the subject upon realizing what exactly Zack had run from. His mom's sauerkraut tasted wonderful, but he remembered the way the house would smell while it was fermenting. Imagining the effect of that odor on his heightened olfactory senses was somewhat painful, so he could see Zack's point. Still. This was his mom. "You're going to apologize," he told Zack, his tone making it clear there would be no argument.
"Fine." Zack's agreement was wounded and sullen.
"Good." Cloud's was firm, but slightly guilty. The knowledge that he might also have bolted in similar circumstances prompted him to make a peace offering: "I'll explain about our heightened sense of smell."
"Yeah." Smiling just a bit, Cloud nudged Tifa. "He's lucky nobody in town was making Nibel cheese."
Tifa nodded. "That stuff smells like skunk to me. I'd hate to think what it would smell like to you two."
"I don't want to know about anymore weapons-grade stinky foods," Zack declared, waving his hands to ward off further discussion.
"You started it. Besides, you still haven't told us about the other mysterious Wutai weapon," Cloud countered.
"I don't think I want to know," Tifa disagreed. "I think I've had enough of foods that can't be stomached."
"As have we," a Costa-accented voice spoke up from over her shoulder. Two pair of mako-infused blue eyes and one of earthen brown lifted to find the head waiter standing by the table, frowning in disapproval. Beyond him, they could see the red faces of several disgruntled fellow diners.
Embarrassed, Tifa promptly flushed pink and sank down further in her chair, while Cloud merely shook his head and shrugged.
"Sorry," Zack offered, smiling his most winning smile. "Check please?"