There are thirty-seven chocobo-related songs in Final Fantasy music.
I HAVE BEEN LISTENING TO ALL OF THEM. ON LOOP.
In other words: Beware toxic levels of sap, fluff, and general cute. And this isn't even the one where I'd been planning to pull out all the stops on the ubercute... just the prequel to it...
see, I was already going to write OMG-baby-chocobo-chicks-SQUEE for #27, but then one of the older chocobos started chewing on my head and batting eyelashes and going "you love us too right?" and I had to come up with something cute to give back to ciceqi for having written the third part of her incredibly adorable Mascotverse fic for me (♥♥♥) so here's what I came up with.
Have I mentioned the "cascading failure on short" thing enough yet? 'Cause yeah, 20 pages of PREQUEL... mutter grumble kick self upside the head...
Title: Wark With Me, Kid
Theme: None - prequel to #27 "fluffy things"
Fandom / pairing: Final Fantasy VII, Cloud/Zack/Sephiroth
Table of contents of all 30 fics (plus some)
Cloud's knees barely held him up when Zack lifted him down from the chocobo they'd been riding for the past twelve hours straight. He leaned hard on the bird's shoulder until he was sure he wasn't going to fall on his face. The chocobo whuffed for a moment, blinked, and then began chewing on Cloud's collar.
"Cut that out, Corbie," Zack said, cuffing the big black bird amiably. "He doesn't hide greens back there either. --You doing okay, Spike?"
"Yeah," he managed, because his knees were slowly negotiating a truce with gravity. "It's been a while since I rode, that's all."
"You could've warned me."
"I knew you were already doing me a favor I shouldn't have let you get away with," Cloud said, a little embarrassed. "I wasn't going to complain."
Zack paused in his rummaging through the saddlebags, leaning over the bird's back to look at him curiously. "What do you mean, a favor I shouldn't have gotten away with?"
"Bringing me along when I'm not in the right division for mounted troops, letting me get out of that stinking city for a while..." Cloud shrugged a little.
Zack reached across and scruffled his hair. "No favoritism at all, I swear. Helms and I grabbed people from all kinds of divisions, based purely on 'the scrawniest cadets who can double up behind a trooper on a chocobo's back and won't fall off the other side.'"
There was a certain amount of truth in that -- since they were going to retrieve a new fleet of chocobos from the chocobo farm, more riders were needed for the return than for the initial trip. So half the troops in the camp were Soldiers from Helms' mounted chocobo division, but the other half were... well, Cloud looked positively tall in that half of the squad, particularly when his hair was taken into account. But Cloud still stared harder than he needed to at the catch of the bird's saddlebag as he said, "You didn't have to let me ride with you."
"'Let?' You seem to think there was generosity involved here! Corbie's a glutton, a shameless flirt, and he shakes you down for munchies if you smell tasty at all. ...Including shampoo. Don't use any coconut or fruit-scented shampoo if you know what's good for you --don't laugh, I'm serious!"
Corbie clearly knew when he was being laughed at, and who to blame for it too. He gave the chuckling Cloud a nonplussed expression, head tipping back and forth as he studied the situation, and then warked at Zack and munched on a beakful of his shirt. Zack ruffled his crest feathers amiably and fished out a handful of dried apricots for him.
"Yeah, yeah, stow it, ya big mooch. --And besides, Spike, I couldn't let you out of teasing range for whole hours at a time, could I?"
"Now you're protesting too much," Cloud said, scratching the soft spot behind Corbie's wing. The big bird's head swiveled around fast, and Cloud stopped scratching, startled. "...Huh?"
"Now you've done it," Zack said, not helpfully.
"Kweeeeeeeeehhhh!" Corbie sidled up to Cloud and scrunched down, rubbing his wing against Cloud's chest, clearly begging for more attention. Surprised, Cloud gave a tentative scratch, and Corbie pushed against the scratching hard enough to stagger the boy, trilling in the back of his throat.
"I did mention the shameless flirt part, you know," Zack said, grinning from ear to ear. "Scratching that good spot behind his wing is like offering an alcoholic the keys to a liquor store."
"Uh... Zack..." Cloud was trying to back away slowly, except that Corbie kept sidling right along with him, making little plaintive warbles and fluffing at him.
"Nope, this one's your own fault, kid; I did warn you."
"Zack!" None of the rest of the riders were having this kind of trouble with getting their mounts settled in for the night. Corbie had decided Cloud had gone far enough, took a good solid beakful of his collar, and hung on, grumbling to himself.
"Have fun, Spike!" Zack said, getting the saddle unstrapped and hoisted under an arm, then heading back toward the center of the camp with a casual wave over his shoulder.
Corbie had sidled him up against a tree and was leaning, very gently but very unarguably, rubbing his head against Cloud's shoulder and making little warbling sounds. With as much of a sigh as he could manage through lungs partially compressed by a warm, feathery, and very solid bird-side, Cloud started scratching again. Corbie began crooning loudly enough to rattle teeth.
Seeing that enormous pointed beak from up close and personal was a sobering reminder, even if the bird's eyes were half-lidded and dreamy with sheer fluffheaded rapture. It was like being purred on by a tiger with fewer fangs but much bigger claws. Cloud gulped hard and kept scratching.
Lieutenant Helms' expression was admirably close to under control, though there was a faint twitch of a grin struggling to make itself known as he walked over. "Would you like a hand there, Private?"
"Yes, sir," Cloud wheezed with the last air in his lungs, and gasped as much as he could. "Please, sir--"
Helms pulled a fistful of greens out of his jacket pocket and waved them under Corbie's beak, getting a good grip on the reins in the process. "Come on, let's give the kid a break; you know you weigh about three times what he does, big guy..."
Corbie was a cheerfully greedy hedonist, but far from stupid-- in fact, the bird was entirely too much like his master, in Cloud's jaundiced opinion. Instead of going for the greens in view, Corbie promptly shoved his beak into the Lieutenant's vest pocket and mumbled around, searching for the mother lode.
Helms heaved a sigh, cuffed the bird's beak out of his pocket, and ignored the soulful eyes with long-practiced willpower, pulling steadily on the reins until the big bird whuffed and took the two steps needed to free Cloud from his position as resident tree-prop and captive provider of scritchings.
Corbie rolled big blue-green eyes toward his former victim, with an inquisitive little warble. With both hands shoved firmly in his pockets, Cloud said indignantly, "Not a chance, you overgrown featherduster!"
Corbie absolutely drooped, trudging along behind the Lieutenant and making tragic, mournful little burbling sounds; Helms was struggling not to laugh at either of them.
"It's usually a good idea to get them tethered before you try grooming them," Helms said, eyes admirably close to straight ahead and crinkled just a bit at the corners. "This big lout likes taking advantage wherever he can get it."
"Yes, sir, I'd noticed that."
Helms chuckled, and Corbie nudged him between the shoulderblades with his head, the very picture of woebegone abandonment. Despite himself, Helms reached up to ruffle the bird's crest. Corbie warked happily and leaned into the hand, but kept moving along.
"Completely shameless," Helms said with a rueful grin, "just like his rider. Sorry for saddling you with both of them at once, Private, but I've seen you talking with Lieutenant Zack before, so I figured you'd have built up some resistance to the plague of his sense of humor."
"Yes, sir," Cloud admitted, sheepish. "Thank you for letting me come on this exercise, sir."
Helms blinked, surprised. "You don't mind? Most of the city-boy conscripts are bitching about how being the littlest in their platoon doesn't mean they should get picked on for sleeping on rocks and twigs, out with bugs and mud and big smelly overgrown hens and ichor-dripping monsters oozing in the night."
"I like it out here," Cloud said. "I'm not much for cities, really. But out here where the sun actually touches you... running through the grass like you're trying to chase the wind with this big happy bird who wishes he could fly too..." He shrugged a little, embarrassed to admit something so unprofessional in front of a battle-hardened soldier.
Corbie gave a warble, because his hand had hesitated in the scratching; with a grin, Cloud patted him in apology and kept smoothing his feathers.
"I like chocobos," Cloud admitted. "When they're not trying to break my ribs, that is. But... I mean, I know they're war-trained and everything, but this big fluffball reminds me so much of my neighbors' pets." He shrugged again, rueful. "I miss having animals around. --The kind of animals that are more civilized than drunk troops, that is."
"Huh." Helms was taking a more appraising look at him. "Have you ever thought about transferring to a mounted division? It's hard to find halfway decent recruits among all those city boys; and the birds like you, which goes a long way too. And with your build, anything you rode would have a speed advantage right from the outset."
"...That's the politest way anyone's ever found of calling me scrawny, sir. Thank you, I think."
Helms chuckled. "Yeah, well, seriously. Ever thought about it?"
"If I can't make it into Soldier, I might, sir, but..." Cloud's eyes found Zack unerringly, almost through instinct; the tall young man was laughing by the fire, and some other victim of his sense of mirth was in Cloud's usual position of humiliated sputtering and flailing, but Cloud had no doubt the circle of teasing would expand to include more victims with the faintest nudge. He wavered over whether he had the nerve, or the masochism, to give that nudge.
Helms looked back and forth between them, and something shifted behind his eyes, something Cloud wasn't quite sure he could put a name to; but all he said was "Ah, I see."
"Well, I'm not about to wish you bad luck just so I can recruit you for the mounted squad, am I?" Helms said, oddly gentle, and almost as indulgent as he was with the chocobos. "So good luck with your dreams, Private; and I'll have some birds spare if you ever change your mind."
"Thank you, sir," Cloud said, and was almost drowned out by Corbie's indignant kweh. "...Yes, featherhead, I'm still scratching. I only have so many fingers, you know."
The lieutenant tied Corbie beside his own sturdy, broad-shouldered red, and dropped casual tips almost like comments on the weather as they groomed the birds side by side. Rein-ties were better than hobbles out here, because anything that came through that was big enough to panic the birds was probably too slow to catch them at an unfettered run; they could snap the reins if they needed to, but not the hobbles. When Corbie got too pushy about being petted, the best thing to do was to get a hip just behind his wing, toward his tail, and lean on him until he stepped forward. Grooming went faster when they were busy eating or drinking, so they were too occupied to pester you for more petting or treats. The best way to lead them without having a big claw run down the back of your leg by accident was to keep either ahead of their beaks or an arm's length out from the shoulder. Some of the birds were absolute suckers for sweets -- Cloud wasn't at all surprised to hear that Corbie was one of them, or that Zack always kept dried apricots in a shoulder pocket for him when out on a ride. The strangest food-craving the lieutenant had ever seen from a chocobo, though -- that had been from a short, talky blue that had seen action in Wutai and had come back all but addicted to bags of a particular Wutain snack food made of wasabi-coated peas, seaweed, and tiny, crisp-dried fish...
Corbie was beak-high in greens by the time Cloud finished grooming the mud and dust of the day's travel out of his feathers; he burbled in his throat when the attention stopped, but clearly the greens were more interesting than his personal petting servants. The lieutenant had finished grooming his red several minutes earlier, and chuckled at Corbie's snub.
"There's gratitude for you."
"At least he's not trying to eat my head," Cloud retorted, stretching until his back creaked. "At this point I'll take whatever favors I can get."
"There is that," Helms agreed. "By the way, any kind of fruity shampoo--"
"Yeah, I've heard. Thanks for the warning, though, sir."
Cloud looked back toward the fire; Zack was holding court as though it was his birthright, in the middle of some story that involved a lot of wild gesticulations with a bottle of something that probably wasn't regulation in one hand, and several of the Soldiers were egging him on. They all outshone Cloud in everything -- age, rank, height, experience, strength, confidence, everything -- and Cloud couldn't imagine himself just walking over and shoving his way into the group, because both of the places by Zack were taken and he'd just be intruding awkwardly if he tried to push himself in by anyone else's side...
The lieutenant was watching him again, with a little too much sympathy in his eyes. "Come on, kid," he said, one hand light on Cloud's shoulder, without pressure, just invitation. "You're just as welcome there as the rest of us. More, even; he chose you, after all."
Cloud flinched at that despite himself -- what had Zack been saying about him? Or else was his face really that pathetically obvious to read? He found himself backing away from the lieutenant's hand as though it might burn him if he stayed.
"Thank you, sir, but -- I -- think I'm going to go for a run or something, all that time riding -- I want my own feet on the ground again -- but thank you, sir--" He sketched a quick salute, and then all but fled.
He was cursing himself for a fool even as he ran -- stupid, STUPID, offending a superior officer like that, it's not like he had any reason to be as nice as he was to start with -- and yet he didn't want to think about turning around and going back, either.
Individual Soldiers were fine, he'd learned -- one at a time, they could be kind, friendly, fairly normal -- but when there was a group of them, things got out of hand quicker than he could handle. Too loud, too bright, too much laughter and too much shouting, too fast, too strong; even simple things like armwrestling becoming things that could break bones in a non-Soldier if they forgot themselves for just a moment, and even the regular troops banged him up more than he wanted to admit when someone hit him soundly in training. He could deal with them one at a time, or a few at a time, but in concentrations like that -- they grew into something he couldn't touch, like leaping flames, swift and beautiful and perhaps never intending pain, but you couldn't help getting burned if you weren't one of them.
Zack was like that all by himself, sometimes, though for entirely different reasons. Cloud had the feeling that even before he'd been a Soldier, Zack was the sort of person whose exuberant optimism shone so brightly that he lit up an entire room just by walking into it and smiling. Zack was the sort of person who made the world pause and take notice.
...Almost like the General, really, except that the General's shining was both more remote and simpler -- brilliant as starfire, pure and honed as steel, his entire life spent crafting himself into a thinking, breathing weapon, barely sheathed in the gestures of civilization. The blaze of Zack's life was more like a bonfire -- dancing with mirth and unpredictable, to be gathered around, to be huddled close to, to warm and comfort the people around him...
He had no place among people like that, really, and he knew it. It was only Zack's welcoming indulgence that had gotten him this far, and he couldn't spend the rest of his military career clinging to Zack's knee like a little brother. Zack wouldn't have minded, of course, but Cloud himself did. Zack couldn't pass the Soldier exams in his place. Having Zack as a friend was wonderful, overwhelming, more than he'd ever have imagined -- but there were still things he had to do alone. Things he had to become alone. Because he wanted to stand with them on his own merits, not just through Zack's teasing affection. He wanted to be somebody worth their time, worthy of their attention...
Cloud's lungs were burning by the time he stumbled to a stop, palms braced on his knees as he gulped for breath, cursing himself again for not having had the wit to at least bring a water bottle. He knew better than to stop moving entirely, so he straightened with an effort and convinced his shaky knees that walking really was a better idea than falling over in a heap. He could hear water nearby -- not that drinking anything unfiltered was a good idea this close to the city, but at least he could stick his head in the water to cool off.
It was a little stream, shallow and babbling over the places it hadn't worn away yet; there was a bit of a grassy bank undercut for a few inches by the rush of the water, and Cloud stretched out flat on the grass in order to shove his head under.
Something rustled behind him. Cloud jerked his head back out of the water by reflex. Even though he recognized the sound of chocobo feathers fluffing, there shouldn't have been a chocobo all the way out here, which meant either it was wild or it had gotten away, and...
...and there was a big bony bird foot between his shoulderblades, careful of its weight but inarguable.
"Uff..." Cloud wheezed.
"Kweh," the bird informed him gravely, and took a mouthful of his dripping hair, and settled down, more than half sitting on him -- as lightly as a hen sat on eggs, feet braced on either side of his body, but the warm soft weight pressed against his back wasn't going anywhere.
Twisting his head around awkwardly, he could see a lot of black feathers. "Aw, dammit, Corbie, get off -- I haven't even got fruity shampoo!"
The bird pecked him on the back of the head crisply, and took another beakful of his hair and tugged, and with a sinking feeling, Cloud realized the bird wasn't eating his hair -- it was preening him.
Oh, gods, Zack was never going to let him live this one down. Getting himself sat upon and preened like a chick who'd been silly enough to fall into a puddle was not going to help his protests that his head didn't look like a chocobo.
Cloud braced both hands on the ground and tried to push up, but his hands just sank into the damp earth instead; the bird pecked him again, and fixed him with a sharp golden glare of reprimand before returning to its preening.
--Wait a second, Corbie's eyes weren't gold like that...
Scratch his earlier assessment. Nobody was going to let him live this one down if a wild chocobo had just decided he looked like a wet chick in need of drying and grooming.
This one had reins, though; he could see them dangling. Good. Not a wild chocobo, then.
On the other hand, he was still being sat upon by a bird that was wilful enough to have broken its reins and wandered away from camp. While it certainly wasn't as bad as tripping over a nest of monsters while essentially unarmed and incommunicado, it was a little worrisome to think that the big dumb bird might have every intention of nesting on his backside for the night.
Surely Zack would wonder where he'd gone sooner or later... or if Zack was still chattering away, surely someone would count the birds and notice that one was missing. Hopefully. Maybe.
He had a pocket knife, but he wasn't about to poke the bird with it in an effort to make it move. The stupid thing was babying him; he couldn't be that harsh with it.
"Come on, bird," Cloud muttered, feeling as much as hearing the bird's contented crooning as it fluffed itself against his back again and settled in to thoroughly groom his head. "If you're trying to make my hair lay down flat, you've got a hell of an uphill battle. Let's take you back to camp and get you some nice greens, okay? ...Greens? You know greens, right? ...Dammit, Corbie knows when people say 'greens'..."
"That would be because Zack has spoiled the beast shamelessly."
Cloud's flinch smacked the back of his head into the bird's beak; he yelped, and the bird warked and flapped at him.
Please don't let me recognize that voice -- I'm going to die right here if that's who I think it is--
Black boots were common enough in the army, of course, but the swirl of that long black coat was as unmistakable as Masamune's sheathed length at his side, as unmistakable as the ripple of that long silver hair in the evening breeze. Sephiroth looked down at him with no expression whatsoever on his face.
...And the hell of it is I can't even blame Zack for this one; no, here I've managed to make an absolute idiot of myself all on my own. Oh gods...
Cloud wiped the mud and grass off his hand before he saluted. ...Well, before he put his hand to his forehead in approximately the right configuration, because no salute in the handbook involved being face down in the grass with a chocobo sitting on you and preening your head.
The corner of Sephiroth's lips quirked a bit at that. "At ease, Private. ...For a given value of 'ease,' that is."
Snapping a salute didn't work when his elbow couldn't physically move through the space he needed air to be, so Cloud gave up any last pathetic scraps of an attempt at dignity. "Yes, sir," he managed. "I, um, I suppose this is your chocobo, General? --Does it usually introduce itself to people like this?"
"...You appear to be a unique case."
Sephiroth was sitting on his heels watching the bird preen his head, and Cloud wasn't sure whether to label the faint tilt to his head as 'fascination' or 'bemusement'. Frankly, he couldn't blame the general for either, under the circumstances.
"Zack warned me about Corbie and fruity shampoo, but nobody said anything about being sat on and preened, sir."
"Corbie's attentions may have something to do with it," Sephiroth replied, still observing his bird's crooning affections with a steady, unblinking regard. "Raven is his sire; you may well trigger instincts in him, between his chick's scent upon you and your... unique form of resemblance."
Cloud groaned and let his head drop forward against the grass; he wished briefly it was hard enough to knock his head against. "Not you too, sir, please! Zack's going to tease me for the rest of my life as it is."
"I apologize," Sephiroth said. "Usually he is much better behaved than this. The dilemma -- well. Under ordinary circumstances, when he has a human immobilized, the commands he expects to hear from me are lethal. Don't whistle, by the way."
"...Right. Yes, sir. Um. Shit..."
Sephiroth studied his happily-preening chocobo for a long weary moment, then said, "Keep still."
"Not a problem, sir."
Sephiroth nodded and stood, brushing the grass off the hems of his coat; he leapt across the stream and strode to the top of the small rise beyond it, standing with his back to them both. When he drew Masamune, all of Raven's cheerful burbling stopped abruptly; Cloud could feel the sudden coil of the big bird's muscles, trembling as he waited for his master's command.
The General lifted his free hand and whistled a sharp, rising trill; Raven leapt forward and landed at his side, bristling all over, balanced on one claw with the other ready to eviscerate something. Another staccato command and a flick of his wrist had the bird sprinting straight for a large tree. Cloud pushed himself up on his hands and knees, cautiously, ready to duck.
The tree wasn't nearly as large when Raven was done mauling it. Most of its lower branches were torn off and flung by that sharp beak, and the claws gouged out great swathes of bark and heartwood. When the tree had been thoroughly beaten into submission, Raven looked back at his master; Sephiroth let his hand fall and whistled a fall with a double-stop as he sheathed Masamune again.
The deadly warbird vanished into the big happy fluffball as though nothing at all had happened; Raven trotted back to his master's side, eyes bright and looking around for another game to play. Unlike Corbie, though, he didn't lean or nag or snuffle around for treats; Cloud could see the difference in their training even at rest. Sephiroth rested his hand lightly on the bird's shoulder, and its eyes went half-lidded in happiness, with a small delighted trill.
"Wow," Cloud said, and then clamped a hand over his mouth in case he wasn't supposed to have moved yet. Sephiroth led the bird back toward him with nothing but a hand on its shoulder; when they crossed the stream Raven looked at his hair with bright eyes, but glanced over at his master for permission first.
"Raven, no," Sephiroth said, and so the bird carefully looked away from the temptation of Cloud's head.
"He's amazing," Cloud said reverently. "How long have you had him, sir?"
"Since Wutai," Sephiroth said, and then smiled faintly. "And I have never seen him preening a human in all that time. You do seem to be a favorite of theirs, between this one and Corbie's enthusiastic mauling."
"...You saw that, sir?" Cloud asked, sheepish.
"I've been trailing your squadron since Midgar," he replied, his voice flattening in a way that spoke of military business. "You're riding valuable Shinra property across lands where those birds are more commonly perceived as walking monster bait. You'll be eagerly targeted by both monsters and by the bounty hunters who would love to take them. Despite this, your forward riders were a pair of hotheads who decided to race, no one trailed to take rear guard, and neither of your lieutenants arranged any perimeter watches through the ride, or any alert system. Even if Helms is accustomed to leading pure Soldier squads, it is a thoughtlessness I had not expected from him. Half of them may be Soldiers, but the other half are not as unnaturally enhanced, and even Soldiers can be caught off guard by monsters with inherent magic. Or by humans with materia. ...Or by myself, obviously. Someone should have noticed my shadowing by now. I'm rather disappointed in Zack as well."
"...Oh. Um." Cloud gulped, hard. "I'm sorry, sir."
Sephiroth quirked a brow. "Why would you be? The mission commanders' decisions are hardly your responsibility."
"But if I'd been thinking, I should've realized the need for a perimeter and alerts too... I was just too busy enjoying the sun, the fresh air, the chocobos..." He looked up suddenly. "I'll take rear guard tomorrow, sir, I promise; I'll ride with someone else and..."
"No, you won't." The set of his mouth betrayed a struggle between sternness and amusement. "It defeats the purpose of an unannounced inspection when one of the observed acts upon inside knowledge."
"But you're right that somebody needs to post watch while traveling as well as in encampments, sir..."
"And the point is for them to realize that for themselves, without 'prompting.'"
"...Oh. Right." Cloud paused for a moment, then said, "What about you, sir? Shouldn't you have someone with you as well?"
Sephiroth blinked. "Why?"
"If we can't tell the lieutenants without compromising your surveillance, you should at least have a Soldier with you for guard, in case any of the monsters come after Raven or something."
"I assure you I am more dangerous than any of the monsters on this continent, Private," Sephiroth replied, mildly -- no censure, no bragging, just a simple statement of fact.
"Yes, sir," Cloud said, "but I don't think anybody would've told the monsters that, and--"
Sephiroth actually laughed; it startled Cloud so much he stumbled, and Raven hunched down to put its shoulder under him with another wistful look toward his in-need-of-preening head.
"You're actually worrying about me, aren't you," Sephiroth said, both surprised and amused. "Of all the traits to have learned from Zack... I suppose it's better than having acquired his sense of mischief, but still."
"I'm sorry, sir," Cloud said, shoulders hunched up around his ears in embarrassment.
"Don't apologize," Sephiroth replied. "When it comes to ordinary, decent human beings, I do recognize that the Shinra military fails to provide an abundance of role models. You could certainly do worse than Zack. ...But please don't tell him I said that, or he'll be insufferable for weeks."
"Yes, sir," Cloud said, daring a glance up. "I hate to ask, but... could you maybe... not mention...?" He gestured toward Raven and his head; Sephiroth waved a hand idly.
"Of course. You should head back to camp soon if you want your absence to go unremarked."
"I... er... oh. Right. Yes, sir." Of course the General isn't going to come back, not if he's keeping surveillance, but... it's going to be dark soon, and with all the clouds there'll be less visibility, and more things come out at night, and he's going to be alone... --stop it. That was one breath shy of an order and you know it. The General knows what he's doing. Salute and go already.
The salute wasn't a problem, but his feet kept wanting to drag as he walked back toward the treeline.
Maybe if I kind of hung around out here... no, because if a monster sneaks up on me, I didn't even bring tactical materia. Stupid. I can't stay out here to try to guard the General and then make him have to rescue my sorry ass. Getting my head chewed on by his bird wasn't my fault. Insubordinate stupidity would be. Just go...
"Strife," Sephiroth said from behind him, and Cloud turned around quickly.
"You look as though I've struck you." The frustration was clear in his voice even though his expression was neutral, and Cloud gulped hard.
"I'm, er... I'm not very good at not worrying about people, sir. I'm sorry. I'll go..."
"Private," Sephiroth said. "I have several materia equipped, Raven is a weapon in his own right, and this place is hardly a war zone."
"Yes, sir." Cloud stared hard at the arch of the General's cheekbone, because he couldn't meet his eyes.
"I would not begin any surveillance operation without proper equipment. I have a shelter that will cover Raven and myself, and I set wards when there is no second to share watches with. This is a simple, standard procedure."
"I know, sir."
"Strife -- there is a good chance I have known combat for longer than you've been alive. Your... distress... is not necessary."
"Yes, sir, I know. I'm sorry."
Caught at an impasse, Sephiroth stared at him for a long moment, as though his thoughts would become more easily understood if he just looked hard enough for the key to unlocking the puzzle of Cloud's mind. Cloud stared at Sephiroth's jaw, or the lock of silver hair that drifted across his cheekbone, or anything that gave him an excuse to not quite meet those eerie eyes.
With a soft sigh, Sephiroth touched Raven's shoulder, and led the bird straight toward him.
"...Sir?" Cloud asked, and squeaked high, and cursed his not-yet-settled hormones.
"I suppose I have observed enough," Sephiroth said, indicating for Cloud to follow with a hand-sign that had become worn into instinct over the years. "If I debrief Helms this evening, he'll have the opportunity to correct his oversights, and I can join one of the organized teams of lookouts. Will that please you, Private?"
"...What? I mean -- er -- uh -- General, um... what...?"
Sephiroth glanced back at him. "You were concerned that I would be alone outside your camp, and out of communication. Does this alternative ease your fears?"
"I'm sorry, sir!" Cloud yelped, feeling his face burn with shame. "I -- I didn't mean to be questioning your decisions or anything, there's no way I'd have any right to -- I'm sorry -- it's going to break your surveillance, I should stay here and-- no, wait, they already know I'm here -- I'm sorry--"
"Don't apologize, little one," Sephiroth murmured. "You share Zack's generous compassion, and simply lack his confidence. My plans caused you distress, and so I changed them." Then the corner of his mouth quirked upward. "I presume I am allowed to change my plans."
"Y-y-yes, sir!" Cloud gulped back the desperate need to apologize again, because the General had told him not to.
"Good. Come, then."
If it hadn't been for the way the moonlight caught in the silver icefall of his hair, the General and his dark warbird would have entirely vanished into the forest's darkness. Cloud trotted along, trying to keep up with the tall man's longer strides, and he wondered why on earth the brilliant, cold, flawless warrior who'd subdued Wutai would change his mission simply to ease a no-name private's irrational worries.
Corbie was actually the first to greet them at the camp. Most of the birds had settled down for the night, heads tucked under wings, but Corbie surged to his feet and warked a welcome, wings flapping happily. Raven rolled pleading golden eyes toward his master; Sephiroth unfastened his saddle and pulled it off, then patted his shoulder in a quiet dismissal.
Raven rubbed his head against Sephiroth's hand in gratitude, then charged over to the rest of the herd. Side by side, Corbie was actually taller and heavier than his sire, but he scrunched down and nuzzled close with little chirps of delight, and Raven put his wing over him and began preening his crest feathers as though Corbie were still a tiny cheeping fledgling.
"I wondered when you were going to admit you were out there!" Zack called cheerfully from the fire, waving a bottle. "Come on, come warm up, General; it's getting chilly out here. Though not as chilly as the atmosphere around Headquarters; I don't blame you for playing hooky!"
"I am hardly 'playing hooky,' Lieutenant."
"Sure you're not," Zack said, grinning. "Whatever you say, boss."
Rubbing two black-gloved fingertips hard against his temple, Sephiroth said, "Later. Just -- later, Zack. Lieutenant Helms, if I may have a word..."
Cloud was gratified to realize he wasn't the only one who tended to flinch a little in surprise when the General addressed him by name. Helms jumped to his feet and saluted, then had to struggle to find a path out of the crowd of soldiers around the fire -- at least half of whom were trying to figure out if they should stand and salute as well, or if they were already too drunk to manage the standing part of the drill.
Sephiroth glanced at Cloud, who suddenly realized what the conversation would be about, and that the General wasn't going to correct a superior officer in front of a kid who'd just happened to get his head chewed on by the wrong chocobo at the wrong time.
"I'll go groom Raven, sir, if that's all right. --I owe him a grooming anyway."
"Yes, I suppose he is currently one up on the scorecard of who has groomed whom," Sephiroth replied, with an admirably straight face.
"...Right, sir." Cloud dug a hand through his hair by pure reflex, to make sure the drying mess was still standing up rather than preened flatter than usual, and took off toward the flock of chocobos a little faster than was strictly necessary.
Fortunately, Corbie was quite happy being crooned at and clucked over by his affectionate father; he blinked sleepy blue-green eyes at Cloud, but made no particular efforts to wake up enough to be a nuisance. When Cloud patted Raven's shoulder with a brush, the bird glanced up for a moment, then went back to his contented nibbling on his sleepy chick's crest feathers.
He should have thought to get a flashlight out of his pack, really; it was much darker than when he'd been grooming Corbie, and Raven was just as solidly glossy black, which made it harder to see if he'd missed a spot. Eventually, he put the brush aside and groomed the chocobo with his fingertips instead, so that he could feel for any twigs or leaves or scratches. There were quite a few wood chips caught in his feathers and claws, from his mauling of the tree earlier; Cloud sat down cross-legged beside him and coaxed free one foot at a time, checking for chipped or cracked claws or any injuries on his feet.
Obviously, though, the tree had fared much worse in the confrontation than Raven had. Cloud could feel occasional ridges from old, long-healed scars beneath the chocobo's sleek plumage, but the recent encounter with the tree didn't seem to have left any bleeding scratches, or any bruises to make the bird flinch. He was careful with his hands anyway, just in case.
Corbie had fallen asleep with his head tucked beneath his sire's wing and was snoring, a little whistling sound; Raven waited politely for Cloud to put down his claw before he fluffed himself and settled. With a smile, Cloud reached over and scratched the good spot behind Raven's wing; the bird blinked at him, content, and it was that very contentment that gave Cloud no warning at all.
Raven stretched out one foot and closed the claws delicately about Cloud's thigh, leaving sharp pointy bits entirely too close to areas he didn't want to think about puncturing. And the bird shifted forward a half-hop in order to rest his warm, soft breast-feathers in Cloud's lap, crooning in the back of his throat as he lifted his beak to preen Cloud's head. Again.
"Oh, dammit," Cloud muttered around a faceful of feathers, holding very, very still lest Raven decide he needed a better grip on Cloud's leg and associated anatomy.
The partial lack of his father's warm soft side woke Corbie, who made a drowsy, inquisitive burble. Raven clucked around a mouthful of Cloud's hair, and apparently the big dumb bird took this as an invitation.
Corbie hopped closer to his sire and his sire's victim, tipped his head this way and that, made a warbling sound that was entirely too much like a chuckle, and started preening Cloud's shirt, because he'd long since learned that food came out of pockets.
Something ripped, and Cloud bit back hard on a yelp, because the only thing more humiliating than being frisked by a chocobo with the munchies was being frisked by a chocobo with the munchies while his insanely overpaternal sire was preening one's head in full view of the two men in all the world one most desperately wanted to not look pathetic in front of.
If Lieutenant Helms had asked his question again right then and there, Cloud suspected the poor man would have gotten a much less enthusiastic answer about how Cloud felt about chocobos.
...Dammit, Lieutenant Helms had noticed. His eyes were just a little too wide and white around the edges, and his focus kept wandering past the General's face and over his shoulder toward the birds, and eventually Sephiroth asked something that had Helms start to point. The General caught his wrist quickly, and stood a little too still, as though hoping that refusing to acknowledge a situation would make it resolve itself without his interference.
But even that partial gesture was enough, because Soldiers were as curious as cats, and they'd all been watching their leader's face like hawks as the General spoke with him, and so they followed that gesture past the General's shoulder to...
It sounded almost like everyone in the squad had decided to open a beer at once, with the sudden explosion of pffts and snorts and gurgling. Someone choked on the first guffaw, and then the sounds changed from beers-opening to cackling-henhouse.
Raven actually paused in his preening long enough to cast a glance at the inexplicably noisy assortment of people his master associated with, then settled his feathers and resumed his parental attentions to Cloud's head.
Corbie paid them no attention at all, because sudden explosions of laughter were more than common around his master, and Corbie hadn't yet found the stash of greens he was positive every human in uniform was required to carry for the appeasement of hungry chocobos.
Zack had an unholy grin on his face as he strode over and crouched down on his heels beside the evening's entertainment. "That," he said gleefully, "is just too damn adorable for words, Spike."
"Your stupid bird is shredding my uniform looking for greens I haven't got," Cloud growled. "It's not that adorable from here."
"Just give 'em a shove--" Zack stopped, his eyes widening as he realized exactly where and how close Raven's claw was gripping, and he clamped a hand over his mouth. But the snort-and-wheeze was just as embarrassing as the laughing would have been.
"Okay," he gasped, "maybe not...!"
"Shut up. --No, better, go die in a hole somewhere. You got me into this, you bastard."
"No, I just brought you along!" Zack corrected gleefully. "Your chronic case of short-little-cuteness and fluffy-yellow-chickness obviously took care of the rest for me--!" He stopped and shook his head, overcome by laughter again.
Cloud shut his eyes tight and buried his face in Raven's soft shoulder, utterly humiliated. Raven stopped chewing on Cloud's hair long enough to give Zack a warning wark and bristle, because clearly the black-feathered human was upsetting his adopted chick. Zack just started laughing harder.
Corbie, meanwhile, ripped the sleeve of Cloud's uniform off and stuck his beak in the hole, nosing around his shoulderblade; all that kept Cloud from flinching was the fact that at least half of his brain was paying rapt, fixated attention to the position of Raven's claws.
"Over here, Corbie," Lieutenant Helms said from behind him, shaking something that smelled like greens, and his voice only shook a little with his attempt to swallow back laughter. Cloud could have kissed his boots, either for the attempt at self-restraint or for the sudden withdrawal of Corbie's ticklish whuffing around his bare shoulder, because tickle-stricken squirming and thrashing were both very, very low on his list of good things to do at the moment.
Of course, if Helms was there, that meant that there was probably someone else standing behind him too. Cloud tried very hard not to think about that. On the bright side, he hadn't heard any snickers from that direction. On the other hand, he kind of doubted the General was capable of snickering. In either case, being rescued from his chocobo's overactive paternal instincts once in a night was bad enough -- once in a lifetime was bad enough -- but twice in an hour? He was never going to be able to meet the General's eyes again...
"Raven," Sephiroth said from right behind his shoulder, "I said no."
The bird blinked woeful golden eyes up at his master, then heaved a sigh and put his head on Cloud's shoulder, his crest feathers drooping. The big bird didn't seem inclined to move, though, and Cloud craned his neck as far as it would go, catching just a glimpse of steel and black leather out of the corner of his eye.
"Um... sir... please don't startle him....?"
The firelight glinted off the metal of his armor as Sephiroth shifted. "I see," he said, in a tone of voice that said if he were any other man, he would be swearing. "If I order him to stand, he'll crush your femur. If we try to lift him, he'll tighten his grip. --Zack, stop laughing and help me."
Zack scrubbed the heels of both hands across his eyes to try to rub away the laugh-tears, still wheezing. "Relax...! Both of you... just relax... he's a big ol' softie! A big ol' lethal softie who fought in Wutai, aren't you, birdie?"
He scratched under Raven's chin; Raven regarded him with a dubious golden glower, because the chick was still upset and this one was still laughing.
"If you have any worthwhile ideas, Lieutenant, this would be the time to mention them."
"O ye of little faith!" Zack flashed a wild white grin in the moonlight, then ruffled Cloud's hair and said, "You trust me, don't you, Spike?"
"Help," Cloud said, and then hoped it hadn't actually sounded that much like a whimper.
"It's okay, Spike," Zack said, cheerful and gentle. "Hurting you's got to be the last idea on his fuzzy little brain. I mean, he thinks you're his chick..." And then he bit his lip to keep from laughing again. Cloud would have punched him if his arm had been attached the other direction. "Right, right, sorry! But you've gotta admit it's damn cute."
"Zack," Sephiroth said, taut-voiced. "Please."
"Yeah, I know." Zack kept scratching under Raven's chin to keep the bird settled, thinking. "It's too bad you're so straight-laced you squeak, boss; if this was Corbie, there's a dozen stupid tricks I taught him... ah, what the hell, somebody's got to have gotten bored and drunk in Wutai, right?" He patted his way down Raven's shoulder and along his leg, then did a quick double-rap on the back of the bird's claw and said, "Shake hands, buddy."
Raven blinked at him, then at his master.
"Come on, birdie," Zack crooned, tapping the back of the bird's claw. "Shake hands with Uncle Zack."
"You have got to be kidding me," Cloud said.
"Don't see you having any better ideas, do we, squirt?" Zack looked up at Sephiroth assessingly. "Exactly how well have you got him trained?"
"Not as well as I had thought, obviously."
"Yeah, well. Come on, you try. He already thinks I'm a suspicious character for making Spike all embarrassed and wilty like that."
"I can't say that I fault his judgement," Sephiroth replied wearily, kneeling in the dirt in front of his bird.
Raven looked at him for signals, and Cloud squeaked when he felt the bird's muscles tense; immediately, Sephiroth put a hand on the bird's shoulder to still him, and Raven settled down again. Cloud wasn't the only one who breathed a sigh of relief.
Sephiroth's shoulders were tense. "Raven," he murmured, and tapped the back of the bird's claw. "Shake hands."
Raven tipped his head to one side and then the other, eager to please his master but utterly baffled.
"Hey, Helms, give the big idiot another foot of slack on his reins, will ya?" Zack asked, reaching into his pocket for some apricots. "Come on, Corbie, let's teach your dad a new trick. Shake hands."
Corbie warked at Zack, stretching his beak down for the apricots; Zack pushed his head away firmly. "Treats afterward, dumbass. Come on." He rapped firmly on Corbie's foot. "Shake hands."
Muttering to himself, Corbie made a sound suspiciously like a raspberry, then lifted a foot and held it out for Zack to grasp. Zack held onto his foot solidly, reaching up with the other hand full of apricots to keep the bird's beak busy. "Good boy," he soothed, "stay right here shaking hands 'til dad gets the idea, okay? Seph, your turn again."
Sephiroth tapped on Raven's foot again, and said, "Raven, shake hands."
Raven looked at Corbie, who was halfheartedly trying to get his foot back from Zack, and then at his master, and then he let go of Cloud's leg to lift his foot toward Sephiroth's hand.
Zack let go of Corbie and flung an arm around Cloud's waist to haul him out from under Raven faster than was humanly possible. Raven wasn't the only one to squawk in surprise, but Sephiroth's motionless hand on the bird's shoulder was a command that had withstood worse than Wutain death squads without disobedience.
"Good," Sephiroth murmured, keeping that stilling hand on his shoulder, and scratching with his fingertips. "Good, Raven. --Zack, apricots. Something. Anything."
Zack promptly dropped a handful of apricots into Sephiroth's upturned palm, and then hauled Corbie's head away before he could mooch them. "You've got more over here, you greedy leech."
Cloud was still getting his breath back, because being jerked around by the belt at near supersonic speeds wasn't all that good on the lungs, but Raven looked so utterly delighted to have pleased his master with his new trick that Cloud just couldn't bear a grudge.
The bird was even ignoring the handful of apricots in favor of rubbing his head against Sephiroth's shoulder and crooning. The General dropped the apricots and cradled the bird's head to his chest, eyes closed. Raven gave a delighted little trill and crouched down in the same gesture of adoring submission to an elder's preening that Corbie had shown earlier.
"Spike," Zack said, leaning all his weight on Corbie's reins to keep him from poaching Raven's apricots while both bird and master were preoccupied. "We have got to find some kind of flavor birds hate. And then wash your head in it. A lot."
Ordinarily, he would have protested this idea, because Zack was likely to follow it up with suggestions along the lines of hot peppers or garlic or something else pungently unpleasant.
But right then, with one of the best-trained and most dangerous animals in the Shinra army snuggling its head under General Sephiroth's coat as though it were an oddly shaped wing, happily chirping to itself as the General smoothed its crest feathers with a hand that wasn't quite as steady as usual, still ignoring the apricots in preference for the attention from its normally stern and distant master -- right then, all Cloud could come up with was, "Yeah. That sounds good."