"Pssst! Cloud! Clooooooud!"
"Marlene?" he answered, allowing her piping voice to pull his attention away from the partially completed bar. From the urgency in her tone this was either truly important, or she couldn't find Tifa or Barret – which, from the perspective of a four year old, would be a crisis.
Turning his head he could see her gray shirt as a splash of almost-white in the gloom of a nearby alley. Jogging over, he realized her little hands were grimy and twisting nervously.
In fact, a lot of her was grimy. Her dark-colored pants were mud-splattered, while her shoes were completely covered. Hands and arms were liberally decorated as well. Miraculously, her hair was mostly clean, and the only marks on her face were brown-black circles around her eyes.
"What happened?" Kneeling, he brushed her hair back from her face, checked her over for scrapes and bruises. It looked to him like she'd taken a fall into a mud puddle, hard enough to make her cry.
"... Nothing!" The little girl's eyes were wide, taken aback at the concern shown by this usually stoic member of her makeshift family.
Cloud paused, registering that Marlene was nervous, but not hurt or unhappy. "Marlene, you look like a muddy panda," he told her, tone matter-of-fact and not teasing in the slightest. "A muddy baby panda."
"We were making mud-pies!" she announced, clearly delighted with both the activity and the news. "Have you ever made mud-pies, Cloud?"
Unaware that total honesty when faced with a mischievous child wasn't always the best policy, Cloud nodded. They featured in several of his happier childhood memories. "Lots," he elaborated, in his own succinct way.
Marlene threw her arms around his neck. "I knew you'd understand!"
Cloud hugged her back, liking the warm affection she was exhibiting... and his clothes were dark anyway. Then a horrible explanation for her nervousness occurred to him, and he pulled back. "You weren't using Tifa's new pie pans, were you?" They'd searched all over to accumulate decent cook ware; Tifa wouldn't be pleased to find their prizes coated with mud and possibly dinged.
"Uh-uh," Marlene denied, shaking her head.
That was a relief. Cloud absently scratched the back of his head, confused. "What am I being understanding about, then?"
"Cloud," she answered, in tones clearly copied from Tifa, "I look like a muddy panda. You said so yourself!" When he just stared blankly, she began hopping anxiously from foot to foot. "Tifa and Papa will kill me! You've gotta help! Please?"
Her dramatic exclamation managed to coax a smile out of him, and he found himself picking her up almost without conscious thought. "Alright," he agreed, finding the idea of being included in one of her fond childhood memories absurdly appealing. "Let's get you cleaned up, little panda."