Disclaimers: All Final Fantasy 7 characters are the property of Square Enix.

Summary: Cloud and Tifa are happy and Denzel and Marlene are growing up. Finally, they have the stability they so desperately needed. But when Cloud has a training accident with fire materia, Denzel begins to understand that his hero is not invincible. At the same time, the former "Geostigma Children" have not been left completely unscathed. With unexplained monster attacks and teenage rivalries, the fragile community of Midgar Edge begins to erode. Gen.

Chapter 1: Training

"Watch your feet, Denzel," Cloud called. "You've gotta keep them apart or your balance will be compromised."

Denzel stifled a grunt of frustration. He really was psyched that Cloud was training him how to fight and even letting him use First Tsurugi today, but did he have to be so critical and naggy?

Cloud walked casually up to the boy and disarmed him with an easy swing. Denzel ran after the sword and Cloud grimaced. "Denz, you can't turn your back on your opponent like that."

Gathering the sword with his face turned away, Denzel couldn't keep his mouth shut anymore. "It's just you, Cloud. You're not going to hurt me."

Cloud pushed back blond spikes with his hand and leveled the boy with a stern look. "I thought you wanted to learn for real, Denzel. Otherwise we're just playing."

His young trainee instantly regretted his words. "I know, Cloud. I'm sorry. This is just frustrating."

"Do you want to call it quits for today?"

"No way!" Denzel wasn't sure when or even if Cloud would ever let him use his hallowed sword again, and he didn't want to give it up while he had it. "Can you show me how to split it? I'm just using it like a regular sword, and I can practice that with one of those." He gestured to the plain, worn practice sword in Cloud's hand.

Cloud frowned. Denzel had been begging to be allowed to train with the fusion sword, but he really wasn't ready for it. It was too heavy for him to swing effectively, and as a rule, Cloud didn't like to use it for training – the wear and tear it caused to the blade was reason enough, but it was also incredibly time consuming to clean it up afterwards. He'd agreed to let Denzel use it today, hoping it would be an incentive, because he could see the boy was getting bored and frustrated. But he didn't want him to learn any bad habits, and letting him swing around a too-heavy sword had made it hard for Denzel to pay attention to his stance and grip.

"Not until you get your footwork right," Cloud said. "Let's do it again."

Denzel knew he should feel privileged to have the hero of Midgar training him, and he was, but at the same time he was just Cloud. He'd raised him since he was a young kid, since before Denzel was old enough to understand the things he had accomplished before he was 25. Even so, he had practically worshipped the man who rescued him, who gave him a home and a family and a reason to live.

He loved the way he moved with a sword in his hand. He loved the ease with which he maneuvered Fenrir. Both were like an extension of his body, which he controlled as easily as breathing. Denzel loved the way he carried himself, the quiet way he protected the people he cared about. He loved the look of determination he got on his face, the unparalleled focus in battle.

But over time, Denzel had gotten…well, just used to Cloud. He was a perceptive boy, and he had seen his flaws and his weaknesses. Denzel just didn't understand how someone of Cloud's abilities and accomplishments could still doubt himself so much.

Now Denzel was 12, had been training for months, and Cloud was still treating him like a kid who didn't know the blade from the hilt.

Still, he bit his lip and tried to focus on what Cloud was telling him. He endured when Cloud kicked at his feet to move them into the right position and adjusted his grip. He did want to be as good as his mentor someday, but he was impatient to get to the fun stuff. Why couldn't he just learn that stuff as he went along?

He was relieved when Tifa finally popped her head into the practice room. "You guys hungry?"

Cloud looked up at her. "We're still—"

"Starving!" Denzel interrupted, passing the sword to Cloud as he ran by.

"Denz, you can't just leave it—Ugh. Forget it." The boy was already gone.

Tifa gave the blond a sympathetic smile. "He's still a kid, Cloud. You've gotta cut him some slack."

He slid First Tsurugi into his harness, along with the worn and dented practice sword he'd been using. "He's the one who wanted to learn. If he's not even dedicated enough—"

"I know, I know," she interrupted. She walked over and mussed his blond spikes. "Not everyone can be as exceptional as you." She gave him a lingering kiss, watching the frustration melt from his face and grinning as she walked away. He never could stay angry when she did that.

Even though he hadn't been allowed to split the fusion sword, Denzel could hardly wait to tell his friends about it. After all, even in one piece it was a massive beast of a sword. They would have to be impressed that he could wield it at all.

Walking to school the next morning, he spotted the twins, Jason and Jesse, ahead of him.

"Hey guys, wait up!" Denzel called.

The boys looked back and waited as he jogged to catch up to them. "Hey Denzel," Jason said with a friendly smile.

Denzel only made it three steps before he had to tell them his news. "Hey, you guys remember how I told you that Cloud was training me to fight with swords? Well last night, I got to use First Tsurugi! It's this huge sword, almost as big as me, super heavy, and it can be split into 6 smaller swords. It's so cool."

Jesse scoffed. "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard. Why would anyone even need that? You can only use one sword at a time. Why would you need six? Does Cloud have six arms from all that mako or something?"

Denzel frowned. "Don't be stupid. Of course he only has two arms. He can use them both though, so sometimes he uses two swords at a time."

"Ok, fine, he can use two swords," Jesse said dismissively. "What's he gonna do with six?"

"Well, sometimes he—"

"And who's the sword maker?" Jason interrupted. "Who would even think to make something like that, and who would buy it? No one would! There's no point."

Denzel was frustrated. This conversation was not going at all the way he had expected. "He made it himself," he said, scowling.

Jesse laughed mockingly. "Oh, now he's a blacksmith, too? He must just be a delivery boy for the money, then." Jason cackled like it was the funniest thing he ever heard.

"And what's with his name?" Jesse continued. "Cloud. Is he light and fluffy?"

"It's…just a name," Denzel muttered. "It's not like he picked it out himself."

They finally reached the school, and Denzel was relieved to have an excuse to get away from them. What's their problem today, anyway? They weren't usually quite so toxic, but they seemed to get a little salty whenever Cloud came up.

Because Denzel had run off and left the swords without cleaning or oiling them, Cloud had told him he wouldn't be allowed to use Tsurugi until he 'learned to take care of his things.' He had handed Denzel a beat-up practice sword and went back to their drills. The boy was annoyed and impatient, making beginner mistakes on things that he should have already mastered.

After a short practice, where both boy and man became increasingly irritated with each other, Cloud knocked the sword from his hand with more force than usual and stopped Denzel before he could retrieve it. "Your head's not in this today, Denz. There's no point in practicing right now." With a stern look, he held his practice sword out to the teenager. "You owe me for last time. Clean these up right."

Denzel took the sword with a scowl, sticking his tongue out at Cloud's back as he left the room. He knew it was childish, but he didn't care. He was fuming. He dragged his feet across the soft dirt floor and glared at the worn-out practice sword that had been knocked from his hand. Didn't Cloud remember what it was like to be a kid? He didn't have to be so hard on him all the time.

He swung half-heartedly at the sword on the ground with the one in his hand. It made a satisfying clang sound. Denzel always seemed to be on the receiving end of that sound, usually losing his grip on the handle whenever he heard it. It felt good to be the one sending out the vibrations of the clashing metal. He swung harder, sending the sword flying into the wall. He imagined that it was a real battle, that the battered sword was an actual monster, and he smacked it around the room with his own sword.

The monster roared in pain with each well-placed strike and swatted at Denzel, but the boy easily dodged his clumsy swipes. He rolled between the monster's legs and made another perfect slash on its belly, then pounced on its back, knocking it down with a hard smack of the hilt on its head.

He pounded the thoroughly battered creature to a pulp on the ground with a satisfying cacophony of sound. He raised his arms over his head in victory and danced around the fallen beast.

Smiling at his own imaginary fight, Denzel found that some of his anger had abated. He picked up the swords and took them into the back room to clean them. Despite his frustration, he really did want Cloud to be proud of him. He thoroughly cleaned and oiled the blades as he had been taught. As he was finishing the second sword, his cloth caught on something. Peering closer, Denzel tensed when he saw the small chip in the materia slot in the base of the blade. He swore out loud, knowing that neither of the adults were near enough to hear him. He probably shouldn't have been batting the sword around like that.

Who cares? he thought. Why does Cloud have to be so picky about them anyway? He has so many. I bet he won't even notice. He felt some of his anger returning. And he'll probably never let me practice with materia anyway, at the rate we're going. Even so, Denzel put the sword up on to the rack with the materia slots facing the wall. Just in case.

It had been several months since Denzel had committed his transgression with First Tsurugi. He had all but given up hope of being allowed to use it again when Cloud walked out of the back room with the giant sword in his hand. Denzel watched him hopefully. Cautiously, his mentor offered the hilt to him. His eyes lit up as he took it reverently.

"You're letting me use it today? Awesome! I swear I'll take good care of it, Cloud. I'll clean it up really good and everything." He held the sword up steadily and bounced on the balls of his feet.

Cloud smiled down at him fondly. "I know you will. But remember, you'll have to separate all 6 blades and clean them individually. That's why I usually don't use it for practice."

"Does that mean you're going to teach me how to split it?" The eagerness was overflowing.

His lips quirked. "I suppose I'll have to, won't I?"

Denzel was almost bursting out of his skin with excitement.

"Ok. The first latch is right here. This will let you take off the smaller side blades." Cloud popped it off easily, catching both blades. "See? And then to put it back together –" he snapped them quickly back in place. "Now you try."

Determination warring with excitement, he pulled at the latch he'd seen Cloud use, but it didn't budge. He gritted his teeth, pulling harder. "It's stuck!"

Cloud reached over and snapped it easily. "Like that."

Snapping them back into place, he held it out to Denzel again. The boy tried again, positioning his hands exactly the way Cloud did. He used all of his strength, cognizant of the man watching him closely.

"Maybe you're not quite strong enough yet," Cloud said.

Although he'd said it kindly, tears burned behind Denzel's eyes. Shame ate away at him and he redirected his frustration, suddenly furious at the glowing blue eyes. "Of course it's easy for you!" he spat.

Taken aback by the venom in the kid's voice, Cloud raised his eyebrows.

Denzel's eyes narrowed on his. "I know why your eyes glow the way they do. Jesse told me. He said that people who were in SOLDIER got mako injections to make them stronger and faster. He said they don't do them anymore though, so no one else can even touch those people. I'm never gonna be as strong as you, no matter how much I practice! I shouldn't even bother." He shoved the sword back at Cloud and stalked out of the room, determined not to let him see the tears.

Cloud sat there in silence, staring at his sword. He hadn't thought about the mako in a long time. It was just a part of him, something he couldn't change. Even if mako injections were still possible, he would never subject the kid to that treatment. The mako caused cellular mutation, which prevented the rejection of the Jenova cells. Although few outside of ShinRa knew it, the Jenova cells were actually what gave SOLDIERs their strength; mako was just a catalyst, and the distinctive glow in their eyes was a bi-product of the mako. No one knew what the long term effects might be, but he doubted it was anything good; most people in that line of work didn't live long enough to find out. Besides that, it had been agonizingly painful, like acid eating away from the inside and the outside of his body at the same time.

His heart ached for the kid, though. He knew how it felt to be small and weak. He sighed and stood up, dusting off his pants. There wasn't much cleaning to do, since they hadn't even started practicing, but Cloud took his time putting away the equipment and straightening the room. He needed some time to figure out what to say, and he wanted to give Denzel some time to cool off.

Denzel closed himself in his tiny bedroom, wanting to be alone for a while. At least he didn't have to share it with Marlene anymore. Cloud had insisted on putting up another wall last year, splitting the small room into two and adding a second door from the hallway. He had told Tifa it wasn't appropriate for them to share a room anymore. He had given her that look, and Tifa seemed to understand whatever Cloud was saying with his eyes. Denzel really hated when they did that – communicated without words. They understood each other, but neither of the kids ever did. As far as Denzel was concerned, if they needed to say something private to each other, then they should be talking in private.

Denzel had begged to be given Cloud's office. Cloud always slept in Tifa's room now anyway. But Tifa said they still needed the office, and that adults needed space to themselves sometimes, too. Cloud had given him a little smile and told him he could sleep in there whenever it wasn't being used. It wasn't the same though. It wasn't Denzel's own space.

At least in his tiny room he could have some privacy without Marlene barging in. He plopped down on the bed and grabbed his headphones, blasting the loudest, angriest music he had. It fueled his anger as he thought about how unfair life was. Why was he even bothering to learn this stuff? He'd never use it for real, and there was no way he would ever be as strong or as good as the hero who had saved the planet. What was the point?

By the time Cloud poked his head in the door, Denzel was even more worked up. He ripped the headphones off. "Don't you know how to knock?" he demanded rudely.

From the look on Cloud's face, Denzel knew he had gone too far. Cloud wasn't terribly strict, but he didn't tolerate disrespect. The boy shrank back. "Sorry," he muttered. "I didn't mean to snap at you."

Rubbing his face wearily, Cloud sighed. "It's ok. And for the record, I did knock. You probably just couldn't hear it over…that." He nodded in the direction of the headphones with a scowl. He didn't like it when Denzel listened to that kind of garbage, but he knew he had to choose his battles, so he decided to pretend that his enhanced hearing wasn't picking up every poisonous lyric.

But the music was still blaring through the discarded headphones and Cloud didn't want it as the backdrop for their conversation, so he reached over and flipped it off. Denzel smothered the new tendril of irritation. Why did he have to barge in here and touch all his stuff?

"So…do you want to talk about this?" Cloud asked tentatively, settling on the foot of the bed.

Denzel scoffed. "What's there to talk about? It's not like we can change anything. Even if I train every day, I'm never gonna be strong like you." His stomach burned as he glared up at Cloud. "You have no idea what it feels like to try so hard and always fail."

Cloud looked surprised. "You're not failing at anything, Denz. You're learning fast. But it takes time and practice to get really good at something."

The boy scowled. "Not for you. I bet everything was always easy for you."

The corners of Cloud's mouth twitched. That was a new one. He scratched his head and looked down at Denzel's dark blue quilt. Tifa had spent months making it for his last birthday, and he'd been thrilled to finally get rid of the childish bedspread that matched Marlene's. Tifa showed her love to the kids in a million little ways, but Cloud always struggled to express himself. Did they even know how much they meant to him? He ran his hands over the soft quilt now as he searched for the right words.

Cloud never talked about his childhood. It was painful for him. He couldn't think of his mother without remembering how she had looked when he couldn't save her from the fire. He couldn't think of the kids with whom he'd grown up (excluding Tifa, of course) without feeling the shame and anger he always battled with back then. He had never really come to acceptance with his past, but he had learned how to keep it shoved into a dark corner of his mind. Staying out of the past and living in the present kept him sane.

But now Denzel needed to hear it, so he dredged it out into the light. He started hesitantly. "Did I ever tell you that I used to get picked on all the time when I was a kid?"

Denzel's eyes grew wide. Who would be stupid enough to pick on Cloud Strife? "Did they have a death wish?"

Cloud chuckled lowly. "Nah. I wasn't much of a threat back then. I was a lot smaller than the other kids. I didn't have many friends either. They all…thought I was weird." The look in his eyes was distant as he traveled into Nibelheim of the past. "I was miserable. By the time I was your age, I couldn't wait to get out of town. I wanted to prove I wasn't the weakling they thought I was."

Denzel was still skeptical. "But you made it into SOLDIER! Didn't you have to be like… the best of the best to get in?"

Cloud smiled sadly as he rubbed his neck self-consciously. "Yes, you did have to be the best of the best. That's why…" he took a deep breath and caught Denzel's eye, "I never made it."

Denzel's mouth dropped open. He had always believed Cloud had been a SOLDIER. His and Tifa's friends made references to it all the time. In retrospect, he supposed that Cloud himself had never actually said it, but he'd never made a point to set the record straight, either.

Cloud looked wistful as he traced his fingers restlessly over the quilt. "I worked so hard. I think I wanted it more than anyone else there. I spent so much extra time training while the others were goofing off. I was pretty good with my sword, but I didn't have the strength or size to join SOLDIER." He shrugged. "Maybe if I'd have a few more years, but…"

His eyes darkened for a moment and he shook his head, bringing himself back to the present. "Anyway, the point is, it took me a lot of work and a lot of years to get to where I am. And if you want to get here, it will for you too. I'm not going to go easy on you, because I can see you have potential, but you'll never reach it if you don't push yourself. So…just hang in there, ok?"

Grudgingly, Denzel allowed a small smile. "Ok. I guess so."

After Cloud let himself out of the room, Denzel put his hands behind his head and leaned back on the bed. He tried to imagine Cloud being small and weak, or anyone daring to pick on him, but he just couldn't see it. Was he really telling the truth, or just trying to make Denzel feel better? And if he didn't get into SOLDIER, why did his eyes have that mako glow?

He was starting to feel that itch in his head, so Denzel pulled out his sketchpad. He flipped to a clean page and started a new drawing. It was Cloud, looking as vibrant and powerful as ever, but with a red tinge to his normally bright blue irises. His hands were held out, palms up, with a tongue of flame resting on each one. Denzel smiled, thinking this one was easy enough to interpret. Cloud must be getting ready to teach him to use magic.

After their talk, Denzel felt much better about his training. He didn't mind as much when Cloud corrected him, and he found that it was easier to remember all the details when he let go of his anger.

He was getting much stronger, too, his body developing muscle tone, no longer resembling that of a child. He was 13 and tall for his age, nearly as tall as Cloud. The man who had taken him in had always seemed larger than life to Denzel, but he realized now that he wasn't very big at all. It was just his presence that made it seem so to the small boy.

He could now parry most of his mentor's attacks and he felt good about it. Even better was the day when they sat in the equipment room, cleaning up their swords together.

"You know," Cloud said, considering the boy solemnly, "I think you're ready to move on to some more advanced topics. What do you think?"

Denzel's eyes lit up. "Yes!" he cried emphatically. "Can we…uh, maybe start with materia?"

Cloud looked thoughtful. "Yeah, I think you're ready for it. Tifa should teach you though. She's a natural with materia. Learn how to use it from your bracer, and when you're ready, we can practice with it in our weapons."

"Yes!" He dropped his sword and clobbered Cloud with a hug, the first he'd given freely in a very long time. "Can I go ask her now?"

Cloud smiled into the boy's shirt. "Yeah, go ahead. I'll finish cleaning these up."

With a huge grin on his face, Denzel galloped out of the room to go find Tifa.

Tifa was a good teacher. She was also very patient, which was a good thing, because Denzel was trying her patience already. He was squirmy and unfocused. If he'd been working with Cloud, the session would have ended in frustration much earlier.

To Denzel's annoyance, Marlene had begged to be allowed in on the lessons too. Even though she was two years younger than him, even though he had spent over a year training before they would even consider letting him use it, the adults had decided she was ready to learn. She had accidentally used materia once, healing a cut on her hand when she'd been putting away some of Tifa's Cure materia. Cloud said she obviously had an affinity for healing magic, and since she was so mature for her age, they should start teaching her right away.

"Try again, Denzel." Tifa's voice dragged his thoughts back to the present. They were both sitting cross-legged on the floor of the training room, facing each other, but Denzel had far too much energy to sit still.

"I can't," Denzel groaned. It was a hot day, and the windows of the training room were open, letting in a slight breeze to cool the stifling heat. He could smell food being cooked somewhere and his stomach growled loudly. He heard Cloud working on Fenrir out back and kids arguing loudly nearby. "There are too many distractions to do this right now."

Tifa considered him thoughtfully. "Denzel, you wanted to learn how to use materia in battle. Do you really think your enemy will sit quietly and wait for you to calm your mind? You need to learn to control yourself, especially when you're distracted. In a fight, you may have only seconds between attacks. You may need to cure yourself when you're in a lot of pain. You may need to keep fighting even when it looks like your friends have been mortally wounded. Learn to quiet the noise in your head and listen."

Denzel sighed and closed his eyes, taking up the position she had taught him.

"Your mind should be completely blank, so you almost forget about the materia completely," Tifa said. "When it's that clear, you should be able to hear the voices from the Lifestream."

One of Denzel's eyes popped open. "How do you know when you're hearing them?"

Tifa looked thoughtful as she decided how best to describe it. "To me, it sounds more like a crackle. I don't understand the words, but I know it's them."

So far, Denzel hadn't heard a peep from the Lifestream. He thought he had heard a low murmur once, only to realize that it actually was a low murmur – coming from the bar.

Marlene sat there quietly, presumably listening intently to the voices speaking to her. She opened her eyes and looked at Denzel. "I can practically feel the frustration coming off of you in waves."

He gave her an evil glare, but she was undeterred.

"You know what I do when I need to calm down?" she asked cheerfully. "I think about that day in Costa Del Sol with Cloud and Tifa and Daddy and all of their friends. You remember that day?"

The memory made Denzel smile. "Yeah. We played volleyball on the beach. Yuffie tried to cheat and use magic to coat the ball in ice, and then when she tried to spike it, the whole thing just shattered."

"Yep," Marlene giggled. "Then we buried Daddy in the sand and made a huge castle on top of him and told him he couldn't move because he would break it."

"And Cloud taught us how to swim!" Denzel added. "Or at least he tried to, but he didn't really know how to do anything but doggy paddle."

"And then you and I got on Cloud and Daddy's shoulders and played chicken!" Marlene said.

Tifa joined in, laughing. "Those two were so competitive that they kept demanding rematches, until the two of you got bored and left, and then they kept going by themselves."

By the time Tifa and the kids finally stopped laughing, Denzel had totally forgotten his frustration with meditation. Marlene brought his attention back to it. "Ok, now the important part. I think about that night, when we all sat on the beach under the stars and watched the waves rolling in. The adults were drinking beer and talking, and they let us stay up late with them."

Denzel closed his eyes and remembered. The air was finally beginning to cool after the long, hot day. Cloud had been sitting on the sand with his arms resting on his bent knees, and Denzel sat in front of him, between his legs. The adults' conversation was boring him and the lull of the waves were making him sleepy, and he had started leaning against one of the legs bracketing him. Cloud had leaned forward and spoken softly in his ear. "Getting tired, buddy?" Denzel shook his head and sat up straight, afraid they would make him go inside and go to bed, but after a few minutes, he was slouching against his leg again. Cloud had put that leg down so Denzel could use it as a pillow, and had rested his hand on Denzel's head. The sand under his body had cooled with the air, but Cloud's hand was warm and heavy. It covered his ear and muffled the sound of the adults' voices into a comforting murmur. The last thing he remembered from that night was thinking that there was nowhere in the world safer than he was at that moment.

He smiled gently at the memory. That's when he heard the scratching sound – the voices of the Lifestream.

From that point on, Denzel was able to progress quickly. He had been relieved to learn that Marlene's affinity was really only for curing and support materia. Although she wasn't as competitive as her brother and not particularly bothered that her attack magic was weak – she claimed that she didn't actually want to fight anyway – his confidence was boosted by the fact that he was better than her at something.

On the first day, Tifa had met him in the training room, carrying a yellow stone that was about the size of a golf ball.

"What's that?" Denzel questioned. It looked like materia, but he had never seen one that color before.

Tifa held it up for his inspection. "It's command materia. See, you can tell what type it is because of its color."

Denzel frowned. "Ok, but how do you know what kind of command materia?"

"For that," Tifa explained, "you need to learn to hear the voices in the Lifestream. You can only tell the type by looking at it. That's why you should always stop and listen when you buy new materia. Especially if the store sells a wide variety of products, the shopkeepers don't always know how to listen to it, so they just have to take the word of their supplier. I learned that the hard way once." Tifa grimaced.

Her expression made Denzel curious. "Really? What happened?"

"I bought a Flare materia once," Tifa explained. "It was really expensive, but they're so hard to find that I had to get it. The others were leaving, so I bought it and ran to catch up with them. When we got to the campsite I was so excited to try it out, and that's when I realized it was just Fire. But by then, the marketplace had already closed. I wanted to return it the next day, but we needed to leave early in the morning. The others convinced me that the shopkeeper probably wouldn't have believed me or taken it back anyway." She shrugged. "Lesson learned."

A new thought struck Denzel. "But if you can't understand the voices, how do you know what kind of materia it is?"

Tifa put her finger to her lower lip and tapped it thoughtfully. "It's hard to explain. It's more of a feeling. You just know how to use it, and each element has a different feel to your body. Once you get used to some different kinds, you'll start to recognize them."

Now that Denzel had tried so many different kinds of materia, he knew exactly what Tifa meant. He just knew.

Cloud was also pleased that the boy was making so much progress. He seemed much more focused and committed now, and not so frustrated all the time. Their relationship was much less strained and they both enjoyed the training sessions.

By the time his 13th year was coming to a close, Denzel had become pretty skilled with both the sword and the materia in his bracer. Cloud had drilled the basics into him until they were automatic, and Denzel grudgingly acknowledged that it was easier to focus on sword technique when his muscle memory handled those other details.

Finally, Cloud judged him ready to use materia in his weapon. He came to the equipment room with several of the small stones in his pockets. He tossed a green one to Denzel, along with a practice sword with a couple of slots. Denzel's eyes lit up. "We're going to use materia today?"

"If you want," Cloud said.

"Of course I want! I've been waiting for ages!"

"Good. The first thing you need to learn is Barrier." He showed Denzel how to slot it in his sword. "I want you to put up a magic barrier and I'll shoot some ice at you. It will still hurt a little if it hits you, but not bad. Ok?"

Denzel slumped his shoulders. "I thought I was actually going to do something with magic."

Cloud talked over his shoulder as he walked into the training area. "You are doing something with magic. Just not attacking with it. Even an unstoppable offense is worthless if you never get a chance to use it."

Denzel dragged his feet all the way out to the practice room. It was another one of Cloud's meaningless platitudes of which he seemed to have an endless supply, but didn't seem to actually follow himself. He scowled but said nothing. Once they reached the center, he focused his mind and cast his shell. It took several seconds, longer than he would like, but at least it was up. "Ready."

Lifting the sword behind his head, Cloud's face became a mask of concentration as the metal of the blade glowed blue. He swung the sword down lightly in Denzel's direction, sending a wave of blue along the ground. The ice spell was slow and low-powered, and Denzel was prepared for it, but the amount of the spell that made it past his barrier still stung more than he expected.

"Agh!" Denzel took a step back voluntarily, cringing as it hit him.

"You ok?" Cloud called.

"Yeah, just…that cold really stings." He shook his hands, trying to get feeling back into his fingertips.

His eyes hiding a smirk, Cloud asked, "Well why did you just stand there and let it hit you?"

Denzel blinked at him. "Wasn't I supposed to?"

"Of course not. If you can dodge out of the way in time you won't have to feel it at all."

The boy scowled at him. "That would have been nice to know 5 minutes ago."

"I guess I figured common sense would kick in," Cloud laughed. He quieted when he saw the look on Denzel's face. "No, really, most people instinctively avoid pain." He shrugged and gave him a small smile. "Maybe you're braver than most."

After some consideration, Denzel decided to take that as a compliment.

"Now I'm going to launch several of them at you. Keep your shell up, but try to dodge out of the way if you can." Cloud raised the sword over his head again. Denzel bent his knees into the fighting stance that had been drilled into him.

Cloud's sword came down slightly faster this time, casting three ice spells in a row, a second apart in a wide arc. Denzel easily dodged those, so then he sent out 5 spells, a little closer together. The boy really was pretty quick, and Cloud started to vary the speed and distance as he continued lofting the light spells his way.

Denzel was ducking and rolling, avoiding the worst of the ice, but a few got past his barrier. He was starting to get worn out and losing the feeling in his fingers, so he called "Stop!" and dropped his barrier.

Cloud lowered his sword. "What's wrong?"

The boy's shoulders drooped. "My magic barrier must not be very good. I need to go thaw out."

His teacher shrugged. "Your barrier looks fine, but it's not meant to stop spells completely, only to dampen the effect. The good news is that you don't usually have to depend on shell alone, but it's good to have it up in case you can't dodge or block it."

"Block?" Denzel asked, perking back up. "How do you block magic?"

Cloud smiled at the boy's renewed interest. "Let's take a break so you can thaw your fingers. Then I'll show you."

Denzel bounced around and wiggled his body to get the blood flowing back into the parts suffering from the worst of the ice. By the time Cloud came back and tossed him a bottle of water from the kitchen, Denzel was ready to go again.

"Feeling better?" Cloud asked as the boy tipped back the water.

Denzel took several more swallows before lowering the bottle and wiping his face with the back of his wrist. "I guess so. The thing is, I was excited to be casting magic, not to have it cast at me."

"Hm," Cloud intoned. "So you're planning to do battle with a lot of trees, then?"

Denzel shot him a withering look. "Of course not. I mean, I knew it would hurt, but…"

"But now you're willing to go to a lot more effort to avoid getting hit at all?"

He shrugged. "Yeah. I guess so."

"Good," Cloud said approvingly. "Then you're ready to learn about blocking." He pulled a piece of materia out of his pocket and tossed it to Denzel. "Here. Put this in your other weapon slot."

Denzel caught the stone and listened as Tifa had taught him. "Fire!" Denzel exclaimed, perking up. "This is what I've been waiting for."

"You block by attacking with the opposite element," Cloud explained. "If the spells hit, they will cancel each other out instead of hitting you."

While the teen pressed the stone into the other slot in his sword, Cloud continued. "Now you launch some fire at me, and I'm going to block it with ice. Ready?"

Denzel lifted his sword above his head the way Cloud had shown him. The metal glowed red and he swung it at the ground in Cloud's direction. The red wave moved slowly and the man barely had to flick his wrist to send out the small ice wave. The red and blue waves crashed into each other, sending a small plume of magenta into the air before fizzling out. It was not exactly awe-inspiring.

Scowling, Denzel repositioned himself and launched another red wave, swinging his arm down hard. It was larger this time, but it fizzled out before it even reached his opponent.

"Swinging harder won't make the spell travel any faster," Cloud coached him. "That has to be done with your mind. Hold it a bit longer so it builds up in strength before you bring the sword down. Move your body forward as you release it, not just your arm, and it will move faster."

Denzel nodded and focused on everything his teacher was telling him. He counted to three as he held it above his head, and then lunged forward as he released it.

His eyes widened as he watched the exponentially larger red wave shooting toward the blond man. Cloud flicked his wrist harder, matching the size of the fire spell with his ice. The magenta plume was spectacular that time, shooting high into the air.

Denzel whooped loudly at the brilliant display. When the light had died down and there was only a thin veil of smoke in the air, he looked over at his mentor. Cloud was just watching him with a slight curve of his lips, the tiny unguarded smile that Denzel had learned meant contentment.

The smile was gone too soon, though. Cloud went back into business mode. They continued to practice casting and blocking, with some dodging thrown in when it was possible. He had told Denzel to dodge whenever he could, especially when the spell covered a smaller area, because he had a limited amount of energy to spend on casting spells.

Back in the equipment room at the end of their session, Cloud was explaining how they were able to keep track of how much energy they had left.

"When we were out on missions and fighting all the time, we came up with a number system to keep track of how much capacity we had each day. We called them magic points, and assigned point values to each spell, depending on how much it taxed your system, so that we could pace ourselves and make sure we didn't get too weak to cast when we were only halfway through the day."

The boy looked at him like he was being deliberately dense. "Why wouldn't you just use ether?"

Cloud shrugged. "We did, but it was expensive and we didn't always have it. Even if we did, it was important to know how much capacity we'd used up and how much more we planned to use so we didn't waste it."

Denzel furrowed his brow. "Does everyone have the same…umm…capacity?"

Cloud kept his eyes on the blade he was currently oiling. "No, but we did it so often that we were able to figure out our own capacities. And of course we all got stronger over time so we were always adjusting the number."

"Sounds too much like math homework," Denzel complained.

He earned a quiet laugh from Cloud. "Believe it or not, Denz, you do actually learn some useful things in school."

Later that night, the kids sat at the table finishing their homework. Cloud and Tifa were in the kitchen together, getting dinner ready. Their conversation was a quiet murmur drifting under the swinging door. Marlene had set down her pencil and was staring dreamily into space.

"Uh, Marlene?" Denzel poked her arm. "What are you doing?"

"Shh! Just listen!"

Denzel sat quietly and listened for a few seconds before getting impatient. "I can't understand a word they're saying."

Marlene looked at him like he was being ridiculous. "The words don't matter, Denz, just listen to the tone!"

He closed his mouth and listened again. Their voices sounded happy, and their conversation was interspersed with laughter. It was a bit unusual. Cloud so rarely laughed, and he had never been the type to speak just to hear his own voice. Denzel shrugged and went back to his homework. "I guess they're in a good mood today."

Marlene continued listening, enjoying the warm feeling she was getting. She wondered if her parents had ever sounded like that. She had been too young to even remember them at the time they died, but she liked to imagine that they were happy and in love. Then it got completely quiet. It stretched into minutes, and she decided Cloud must have gone out the back door and left Tifa to cook by herself. Since she would no longer be interrupting their happy conversation, it seemed like a good time to see if one of them could help her with the math problem she'd been stuck on before she started daydreaming.

She pushed open the swinging door and poked in her head. The words caught in her throat before she could make a sound. She was interrupting, but they weren't talking anymore. Tifa sat on the counter with the back of her head against the cupboard. Cloud stood in front of her, between her knees, with his arms wrapped around her. Tifa had one hand on his face and the other in his hair, and they were kissing. Not like a "have a nice day honey" peck, but a real smooch. A pan simmered on the stove, forgotten.

Marlene backed out quietly and returned to the table, smiling. Denzel looked up when she sat down. "How long until we eat? I'm starving."

"I don't know. I didn't ask," Marlene said casually.

Denzel sighed and got up, heading toward the kitchen himself.

"No, wait! Denzel, don't!" Marlene hissed as she chased after him.

She was too late. He smacked opened the swinging door with his shoulder and strolled right in. Tifa banged her head on the cupboard, hard, and Cloud backed up so fast that he was halfway across the kitchen before Marlene even saw him.

Denzel stood there and blinked foolishly at them. "Uh…I was just um…are we going to eat soon?"

Cloud was leaning against the counter on the far side of the kitchen, trying to look casual, and Tifa's face was bright red as she cleared her throat and blinked rapidly. "Yes. Five minutes. Can you guys clear off the table please?"

"Sure…" Denzel said, turning around slowly. Marlene waited until the door had swung shut behind them before smacking him in the head.

Cloud slotted his materia in his sword and tossed one to Denzel. He listened to the stone for a moment. "You're giving me ice today?"

"Yeah," Cloud said. "They all feel a little different, so you should get used to them all."

Denzel shrugged and pressed the ice materia into his weapon.

"Show me how fast you can cast ice, Denz. The fire will hurt a lot more if you can't block it, so…"

Denzel nodded and sent several blasts of ice in Cloud's direction. Ice must be the kid's natural element – it seemed to come easier to him.

Cloud sent a few lazy blasts of fire off and Denzel blocked them easily, his blue waves making it more than halfway between them before smashing into the red. "Good!" Cloud said proudly. "Your casting time is getting better, and that's important because your enemy won't always be so far away. Now take 3 steps toward me."

Gradually, they moved closer together, allowing less time to react with each step forward. Finally they were at striking distance again. Cloud put his sword up in an attack stance toward Denzel and motioned for the boy to do the same. "You can hit and cast at the same time. It's a devastating combination, very hard to block, but you have to be careful not to let the spell be misdirected when your sword strikes. Put up a magic barrier, just in case, and try it on me."

Denzel took a deep breath to steady himself, suddenly feeling nervous. "Are you going to try to block it?"

"No, not when we're this close." Cloud smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry about me."

Denzel held the sword over his head and listened for the scratching noises. He held it for a few seconds longer, letting it build, and then swung it down.

Cloud parried the strike, and Denzel had the satisfaction of realizing that for once he was on the giving side of that vibrating clang. He had also felt the ice leave his sword, and he was pretty certain it went the right direction. He looked up to see his trainer's reaction, but the look on his face was unexpected. It was startled, almost scared – an expression he had never seen on the warrior. Cloud's face was turning red and he dropped his sword, clutching a hand at his throat.

"Hey! Are you ok?" Denzel tried to grab his arm to get his attention, but Cloud didn't even look at him. Instead, he dropped to the ground on his hands and knees.

Denzel dropped down next to him. "Cloud? What's wrong? Cloud!" His eyes were bulging, unfocused. His face was getting alarmingly close to purple now and Denzel suddenly understood – he couldn't breathe! He tried not to panic. How was he supposed to help him? What could have caused it? Surely not his ice spell. Tifa. I have to get Tifa!

Denzel raced out into the bar area where Tifa was rewashing glasses that Yuffie had carelessly swiped at from the night before. "Tifa! Something's wrong with Cloud!"

Tifa didn't ask any questions. She dropped the glass she had been holding, ignoring the shattering crystal on the floor behind her, and sprinted in the direction from which Denzel had come.

He ran behind her, losing ground to her astonishingly fast pace, but it didn't matter. She knew where to find Cloud. As Denzel burst through the training room a few seconds behind her, he heard the sound of Cloud's jagged coughing. Tifa slid to her knees next to him and supported his upper body with her shoulder while he tried to cough up a lung.

Denzel's eyes were huge and his voice shook as he ran up next to them. "I don't know what happened! I think I hit him with some ice, but he said it would be ok…"

Tifa shook her head grimly. "This isn't from an ice spell."

His coughing finally subsiding, Cloud drew in ragged breaths while Denzel watched anxiously. "Denzel, go get him some water," Tifa said.

Denzel nodded and ran off to get the water. When he returned, Cloud was breathing a little easier and his face was almost back to his usual pale color. He gratefully took the water from Denzel and drank it all while the other two watched him.

Tifa was rubbing his back now. "Cloud, what happened? Are you going to be ok?"

"I'm ok," Cloud said hoarsely. "I choked on…" He shook his head. "..something. I finally swallowed it, but it really burned on the way down."

Burning with anxious energy and needing to do something useful, Denzel picked up their practice swords. He popped the ice and barrier materia out of his and then turned his attention to Cloud's. All of the slots were already empty. "Um, did you take out that fire materia? I can put it away. I—I'll clean up in here."

Cloud looked up at him. His eyes were still watering, and the tears magnified the bright blue irises. "I don't have it," he rasped.

Denzel looked back at the empty materia slot. He scanned the ground, looking for the telltale flash of green. It finally caught his eye, and he felt a rock drop into the pit of his stomach as he picked it up. It had split into several pieces, and as he gathered together all he could find, it quickly became obvious that not all the pieces were there.

All three of them seemed to come to a realization at the same time, but at first they could only stare at the fragmented stone in his hand.

Tifa was the one to finally voice it. "Cloud…I think you swallowed materia."