Author's Note: This part took me a little longer, because I think Denzel's issues run quite deep and I think that he hides them better. My biggest problem in writing this is that I wrote it as a short piece, and really, I could write a chaptered story about Denzel and his issues. Trying to consolidate them into one post wasn't easy. So hopefully I pulled this off and managed to keep him in character. I drew on Denzel's background from On the Way to a Smile: Case of Denzel. I found it fascinating the first time I read it, and the idea that even two years after Advent Children, he was part of Tifa's family--it just made me all warm and fuzzy.

This didn't go quite like I had anticipated it, but sometimes that happens when you're writing. Hopefully it turned out all right. ;)

Part 2 of 2

I Don't Want to Call You Mom

When Tifa went downstairs, she found Marlene sitting at the bar, drinking a glass of juice, an empty plate in front of her. An empty plate sprinkled with cake crumbs. If that hadn't been evidence enough, Marlene had frosting on the end of her nose.

Tifa shook her head slightly. Of course Cloud would give into Marlene's pleading.

"Hi, Mama! Cloud let me have cake!" Marlene exclaimed.

Cloud, standing behind the bar, threw Marlene a 'traitor' sort of look and shrugged a little guiltily at Tifa. Marlene sighed heavily and said, "But he's making me eat some eggs, too."

A smile tugged at the corners of Tifa's mouth when she saw that Cloud did indeed have several eggs in his hand. She leaned against the bar and watched as he cracked them over a pan. He rarely cooked anything, and so it was always an adventure to see how his menu turned out. Marlene and Denzel had refused to let him make pancakes after several attempts that left their breakfast either doughy or burnt--Cloud could just not make them anywhere in between.

At least, she thought wryly, watching Cloud dig eggshells out of the pan, he knows the names of all the vegetables now.

Marlene was still chattering away cheerfully, her nightmares chased away with the morning's light. Or, if not chased away, at least easier to hide.

"Is Yuffie all right?" Cloud asked.

"Oh, she'll be fine. She was ranting about her father and Wutai, some materia, and I think Vincent got mentioned in there somewhere. You know Yuffie." Tifa stretched and glanced around the bar. "Where's Denzel?"

"He's playing with some of the kids outside." Cloud scooped eggs onto two plates and set one in front of Marlene. The other he placed in front of an empty barstool, holding a fork out to Tifa.

Suddenly realizing that he had cooked her breakfast, Tifa's eyes widened slightly and she moved forward, taking the utensil from Cloud. "Thank you. You didn't have to."

He didn't answer.

"I'm sorry I slept so late," Tifa said, poking the eggs with her fork. "I just--"

"Haven't been sleeping well," Cloud finished quietly, looking at her for a moment before turning his eyes on Marlene. "Marlene, if you don't slow down, you're going to be sick."

Marlene's cheeks were stuffed and she was cramming eggs into her mouth so fast that Tifa was mildly amazed she could even chew. She finally managed to swallow. "But I want to play outside with Denzel." She shoved the last few bites in her mouth, hastily gulped down the rest of her juice, and leapt off of the stool. "Thanks for breakfast, Cloud!" she called, running for the front door, white frosting still dotting the end of her nose.

"You're welcome," Cloud said, but Marlene was already slamming the door behind her and didn't hear him.

Cloud's amused blue eyes met Tifa's, and he nodded down at her plate of food. "Are they really that bad?"

"Hm?" Tifa glanced down and realized she was just pushing the eggs around on her plate. She quickly took a bite. "No, they're good. They--taste like eggs." That got an actual chuckle out of Cloud, and Tifa grinned at him. "So are we doing anything in particular today?" That 'Closed for Business' sign had been the best present Yuffie could ever have given Cloud, because it had started the tradition of closing their businesses once a week and spending time with each other and the kids.

"I told Denzel I would help him put together that model airship Cid and Shera sent him," Cloud said.

So it would be a day at home. That would be nice; she could try to get some things done that she wasn't able to do during the week, and the kids would probably get out the games later.

However, the day didn't go quite as Tifa had anticipated it. When Marlene and Denzel came in for lunch, she knew as soon as she set a sandwich in front of Denzel that something was bothering him. He was quiet and he wouldn't meet her eyes, and seemed very intent on eating his food.

"Denzel?" she asked quietly. "Are you all right?"

Denzel glanced briefly at her and nodded too quickly. "Yes."

Tifa watched him carefully during the afternoon. After several hours of close observation, she finally realized that Denzel got rather squirmy whenever Marlene called Tifa 'Mama' or 'Mom.' He would avert his eyes at those moments, and go on with whatever he was doing as though Marlene hadn't spoken.

Tifa wasn't sure if Cloud noticed this in particular, but he knew that something was bothering Denzel. She saw Cloud talking to him a couple of times during the day, and she hoped that Denzel would be able to talk to Cloud about it. He had always had a much easier time telling Cloud his secrets than he had telling Tifa.

Tifa sighed to herself. Denzel was only nine. He shouldn't feel like he had to take the whole world on his shoulders. He was always so desperate to be grown-up, to take care of himself, but she wanted nothing more than for him to allow himself to just be a child.

Her eyes flickered back and forth between Cloud and Denzel, and she reminded herself that Cloud had not been so different when he was Denzel's age. Sometimes there were similarities between them that were almost scary--but maybe that's why it was right that Denzel was here, with them, growing up in this place. Maybe he could learn from Cloud's experiences so he wouldn't have to suffer through as much.

They all sat down together to eat dinner, and it was during their meal that Denzel's composure finally cracked. It started with a completely innocuous request. "Tifa, can I have more bread, please?" he asked.

As Tifa reached for the loaf of bread, Marlene piped up, "You don't have to call her Tifa anymore, Denzel! You can call her Mama! She said so!"

Denzel froze, and then, so swiftly it left Tifa blinking, he shoved his chair back and ran for the stairs.

Cloud and Tifa both rose to their feet, but at the echoing slam of the kids' bedroom door, Cloud looked at Tifa, his expression silently telling her, I think this one is yours.

Nodding, Tifa headed for the stairs, leaving Cloud to deal with Marlene, who was getting distressed because Denzel was upset and she didn't know why.

Tifa stopped in front of the children's door and took a deep breath. She wasn't entirely sure what Denzel was thinking, but she had some ideas. She knocked on the door before opening it and calling quietly, "Denzel?"

He was lying face-down on his bed, and he rolled away from her as she walked in, facing the wall. She approached, sitting carefully on the edge of his bed. "Denzel?"

She heard him draw a deep, shuddering breath. She gave him his space, waiting until he had composed himself and decided to face her. When he did finally look at her, his eyes burned brightly, but Tifa thought he looked more angry than sad.

"Hey," she said softly. "Can we talk?"

Denzel shrugged, trying to be indifferent and not fooling Tifa in the slightest. "About what?"

"About why you're so upset."

Denzel was quiet for a long moment, and Tifa added, "We don't have to talk right now if you don't want to, but--"

"I don't want to call you Mom," Denzel burst out. He turned his face away from Tifa, blinking rapidly.

For a moment, Tifa wasn't sure how to respond to that. There was obviously a deeper issue here. For Marlene, Tifa suspected that calling her Mama made her feel more secure. Secure in the permanence of her position, of her family. For Denzel…there could be so very many reasons behind this statement.

Tifa took a breath and let it out, gently touching Denzel's arm. "You don't have to call me Mom, Denzel. I don't expect you to, all right? I'm just happy to have you here with us. What you call me--it's not going to change how much I love you."

Denzel pulled himself up so he was sitting on the bed, again turning slightly away from Tifa so that she could only see half of his face. "Marlene's calling you Mom now," he said dully.

"You're not Marlene."

"I wish she wouldn't call you that," Denzel whispered.

Tifa felt a pang of hurt, but she knew it was irrational and pushed it away impatiently, searching for the root of this problem. She always introduced Marlene and Denzel as her kids, and Denzel had never objected. Had he just hit a point in his life where he was struggling with it now? Or had this been building up because she and Cloud had recently left? "Why do you wish that?"

"Because it means you'll go away!" Denzel burst out, swiveling to meet Tifa's eyes. "That's what moms do! They go try to help their friends and then they never come back! They leave you all alone and other people take care of you. And then you finally find a family again but it might go away, too, and you're my mom but if I just call you Tifa, maybe--maybe you won't go away."

Tifa wrapped him in her arms. She knew that what he called her wouldn't make a difference in whether she lived or died, and he had to know that, too, but this was fear, and fear was not always rational. How could she really dispute the sentiment behind his fear, though? Denzel had lost so much, had lost everyone who had ever taken care of him until she and Cloud came along.

"Denzel…" Tifa closed her eyes, feeling his body tremble with the effort of holding back his tears. "I can't promise that nothing will ever happen to me, or to Cloud. I can't promise that nothing will ever happen to you or Marlene. I want nothing more than for you to be safe and happy, and it is scary sometimes, because I know there's only so much I can do to keep you safe. There's only so much you can do."

Denzel pulled back, and Tifa let him go. He tucked his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. "I want to do more."

"I know."

"If I had been stronger, if I had known more, maybe I could have--"

"No," Tifa cut him off and took his shoulders, looking at him firmly. When she saw his eyes, she had to shake away the sudden feeling that she was seeing Cloud in them. Hadn't he always felt the same way? "What happened in the past isn't your fault, Denzel. Being stronger doesn't mean anything would have changed. You're not responsible for the decisions other people have made to protect you."

"I didn't ask them to protect me!" Denzel's face crumpled, and he pressed his eyes into his knees. "I didn't want them to die. I don't want you to die. I don't want--" He shook his head fiercely.

Tifa's heart ached, ached so much that the pain was beyond words. She curled her fingers around his arms and leaned her head against his. "I know," she whispered.

And that was really it, wasn't it? All she could really do was be there for him. She could only hold him through his pain, do her best to guide him on his path as long as she was able. It was like Cloud had told Marlene the night before: they were here now. "I know that anything could happen today, Denzel, or tomorrow or next day or the day after that. But I promise you this: I will always do my best to be here for you. I'll be damned if I go down without a fight. I know that's not much. Loving people--letting people love you--can be really hard sometimes because you don't want to get hurt, and you don't want to hurt them." Again, memories of everything that she had been through with Cloud flashed through her mind. Don't make our mistakes, she willed silently. I don't want you or Marlene to take so long to realize the things that Cloud and I have had to realize.

Maybe this was really what it was to be a mother. To watch your children grow and learn, to watch them fall down and know that you couldn't always keep them from scraping their knees…all you could do was pick them up and bandage their wounds. You couldn't always take away the pain, and sometimes they wouldn't even tell you they were hurting.

That was just part of being a family, though, wasn't it? Accepting the good with the bad, the pain with the joy, the sorrow with the happiness. Accepting the imperfect, embracing it, because after all--wasn't it the imperfections that made them human?

Tifa didn't move, her hands on Denzel's arms and her forehead still pressed against his hair as he fought so hard against his tears, the manifestation of his inner fears. "It's okay to hurt," she told him. "It's okay to be scared or mad. If you're mad at me, I don't mind. I love you no matter what."

Denzel didn't move, but his shoulders shook harder. Tifa wasn't sure how long they sat like that, but ever so slowly, Denzel's shudders subsided and his body relaxed. When he finally lifted his face to meet hers, scrubbing away the streaks of tears with his hands, his eyes were desolate. In them, she could read clearly Marlene's sentiment from last night. Please don't go away.

"We'll do everything we can, all right?" she whispered to him.

"What if it's not enough?"

Tifa was quiet for a moment. "I wonder that sometimes, too, Denzel. Then I think--what if it can be enough? What if we can make it enough? Shouldn't we at least try?"

Denzel was a fighter. He always had been. Even when he had lost his parents, his caretaker, had lived on the streets, had contracted Geostigma, he had fought for his life with everything he had. Maybe that was one difference that set him apart from a lot of people. Even after everything he had been through, there was still a hope, a desire to live, that the world had not managed to stamp out of him. From what Tifa knew of his life, he had once hit a point where he almost reached the brink of despair and given up, but then Cloud had found him and brought him home. It was a thin line, sometimes, the border between hope and despair. As he sat there and considered, Tifa saw something in his eyes--a slight change, a realization, a glimpse of understanding, and he nodded slowly. "We should always try. Right, Tifa?"

"I think so. Some things are worth fighting for. I think family is one of them, don't you?"

Denzel nodded again. "Yes." He looked down again and fiddled with the hem of his shirt. "Tifa?"


"Do you think it would be all right if I call you Mom sometimes?"

Tifa squeezed Denzel in a tight embrace, eliciting a muffled yelp from him. "I think you can call me whatever you want," she told him. "You're stuck being my son no matter what. Got it?"

Denzel's arms came back around her, and she felt him smile against her shoulder. "Yes." And then, so quietly that she barely heard him, he whispered, "Mom."

They were going to be all right, Tifa thought fiercely. They would take it a day at a time, because that was all they could do.

After a long moment, Denzel pulled away and wiped his face again. "Can we go finish dinner now?"

Tifa smiled. "Yes."

"Is there still cake left? For dessert?" Denzel asked as they headed out into the hallway.

"If Marlene hasn't already talked Cloud into giving her the rest…"

Denzel's eyes widened, and he leapt down the stairs two at a time. Tifa resisted the urge to tell him to be careful. He really was still such a child, and that was exactly what he needed to be. Growing up would come soon enough.

And it would come one day at a time.