Midgar's-Edge had become a little safer in the last years, but Tifa still didn't let the kids go and see the chocobos without an adult for supervision. And she had a bar to run; so when Cloud came home between deliveries, he didn't expect to see his downtime last very long before Marlene or Denzel peeked through the door.
They always looked so hopeful, and, with his mastered Cure, he rarely needed physical rest. Mental rest was another matter, but a visit to the stable soothed the nervous tension of dangerous deliveries just as well, if not better, than a day or two locked up in his room. And so, more often than not, he nodded without a word and holstered a sword -- out of habit, mostly -- and he went.
Of course, they rarely reached the end of the first street before picking up several of Denzel's friends, somehow mysteriously aware of the trip. They seemed to teleport from their playgrounds, their houses, innocently trailing after him as if they'd just happened to be going in the same direction. By now, the parents only offered rueful smiles and promises of pies or other services rendered, a far cry from their initial mistrust of the too-quiet man with the too-many swords. Cloud was still faintly bewildered by the change, as gradual as it had been.
Despite the slow transition from survivor's camp to blooming town, Edge and the old Midgar's slums still bore a few physical resemblances -- especially because most of Edge's construction materials had been cannibalized from the ruins and abandoned houses of Midgar; rust crawled along many gutters, and many walls and roofs sported a distinct patchwork look. But the coats of paint in Edge were fresh, and cheery. It startled Cloud every time he came back -- even now, five years after Meteor, he still caught himself expecting faded flakes peeling off the walls.
But the biggest rift between his memories and the town of today was the smattering of green patches on the gray plain that surrounded it, rippling in the North wind. The stable stood with its back to the wall of Sector Three; a small affair, comparatively speaking, but a thriving one. Up until a few years ago, rare had been the chocobos who accepted to approach the city; and their feed had to be imported -- way too costly after Meteor. But the Planet healed.
Cloud glanced behind him as they left Edge's tight-packed houses, counted the children trailing behind him. Five total, plus Denzel and Marlene. Except that Marlene, of course, was already running ahead to the closest field and trying to peek through the high wall of planks and barbed wire.
"Ooh! There's a pink one! She's so pretty!"
Cloud called her back, quietly; the owner didn't take kindly to people agitating her chocobos. Marlene pouted at him; Denzel gave Cloud a long-suffering, commiserating look and waved at her.
"Oi, Marlene, I'm pretty sure the fence is electrified."
Cloud was less worried about the fence, which was too tall for Marlene to reach the wires on top, and more about the dogs, which he could hear barking. But it wasn't like running after the children would help; he simply started walking toward the gate again. Two of them had started to drift toward Marlene's hole in the fence; but getting to go inside the stables was a lot more tempting, and by the time Cloud crossed the little courtyard and reached the building, he had all seven of them on his heels again.
One of the stable hands leaned out of the grange, blinked at the little troupe, and then nodded in recognition. "Ah, mister Strife. The boss-lady's inside, with your black." He stepped out, giving the children wary looks. Most of them were too busy staring around and inching away from Cloud to notice his suspicion. "Didn't think our word would get t'you that fast, for sure."
Cloud had been starting to move toward the stable; he paused. "... Your word?"
"Well, um, yes." The man grinned, a bit nervously. Cloud frowned and wondered why he seemed to eye his sword with trepidation. "We sent off a message -- this morning? -- with the postman, but you know he gotta do his rounds first and, well..."
"I was just dropping by. Something happened to one of my chocobos?"
Marlene covered her mouth, eyes going wide; another girl gasped softly.
"Ah -- well -- that is... Your black's a smart one, that's for sure, and, well, she's been giving us a hard time with all manners of locks and latches, and getting into things she shouldn't..."
Cloud lifted a hand to stop the man's nervous babble. His black was too fast to be bitten by a dog, and she had a vicious kick; if she had escaped on the plains and gotten mauled by a monster, it had to be a pretty high-level one. Perhaps she had stepped on a sharp piece of junk; it wasn't exactly unheard of around Midgar. "Is she hurt?"
"Your black's fine, mister Strife," a gray-haired woman said as she strolled out of the stable. She wiped her hands on a rag of dubious cleanliness before giving one to shake; Cloud shook it dutifully, still frowning faintly as he waited for an answer. "Just hopin' you ain't planning on goin' anywhere that a green or a blue couldn't go in the next coupla months, is all."
"What's that mean?" one of the girls piped up, suspicious.
The stable hand winced. "Mister Strife's chocobo is, er. In a family way."
"... What's that mean?" another kid -- a younger boy -- protested.
"She's knocked up?" Denzel suggested.
Mrs. Henne chortled. "She's nesting."
Cloud sighed. An egg. Well. He hadn't planned on breeding more chocobos, and some of his deliveries would go faster with a sure-footed bird, but he could deal without. "...I see."
"It's a pretty egg, mister Strife. Decent weight, solid shell. Went through without a hitch. Come on, come and see." Her cordial smile melted away as she gave the children a stern glare. "You are not to make any noise inside the stable. If you disturb the chocobos, I will tan your backsides. Understood?"
The children dropped their heads and mumbled something that could have passed for assent.
"They'll be quiet," Cloud promised, even though he wasn't sure he could trust all of them.
The old woman didn't look too convinced, but eventually she nodded. "Well, alright then. Come along, y'all."
Cloud followed, Marlene taking his hand and sticking close to his side. He suspected it was more so she would be the first to get to the stable than because she really was all that intimidated by the old woman.
"We don't breed chocobos here, so we don't have any nesting stables to make the mother more comfortable. Tried rigging something with pallets, but she knocked 'em down. Think she'd rather have a good view on what's going on."
Cloud nodded patiently, listening with one ear only. The stables looked empty; at this hour, the chocobos were out in the fields. But he could feel something moving, breathing, at the other end of the building.
Of course, the bird waited until one of the kids protested the apparent lack of chocobos in the stable to lift her head over the wall with a warning 'warrkkk' and her crest flat on her neck.
The protesting boy stepped back, startled. Cloud disengaged from Marlene's grip gently. "I'll go alone first."
"She'll peck you if you all come charging at her. Wait here, alright?" He looked for Denzel and gave him a meaningful glance; the boy nodded seriously and straightened up, visibly proud to be asked to watch over 'the kids'.
Sighing once again, Cloud made his way down the line of stalls. His hen's blue-green eyes stayed fixed on him, but she didn't warn again.
The black warbled softly at the sound of her name and stretched her neck, crest relaxing. "Wrrrk."
Cloud reached out and placed his hand atop the door. She didn't try to peck; he stepped closer and took his first look in.
The whole end of the stall was, as he had expected, a mass of dry grass and straw. His black chocobo was perched atop it, regal like a queen on her throne. She deigned to lift herself up a little, stretched her neck toward Cloud, and presented her head. He scritched her dutifully, preening her crest with his fingers.
The egg was pale cream, flecked with darker spots. He didn't know much about eggs, though; Bill had always taken care of that for him. He did recognize the soft bits cushioning the nest as mixes of feathers -- some apparently pecked from stablemates of other colors -- and shreds of utterly destroyed blanket. He just hoped she hadn't stolen it.
"Do you mind visitors, Kall?" he asked softly; she warbled again in response to her name. She seemed calmer than he would have expected; her ancestors had been wild up until very recently, and she had always been a rather nervous and aggressive mount. Perhaps motherhood was mellowing her out a bit. Or perhaps the egg-laying had temporarily tired her out.
The egg itself wasn't all that fascinating; it was egg-shaped and didn't do anything but lay there, and when you'd seen it once, you didn't need to see it again. He still made the trip with all seven children one after the other, in case Kall objected to any of them, and patiently endured the million of questions they were peppering Mrs. Henne with.
Afterwards, he let the woman talk them all into giving a hand with bringing out bags of feed to the pasture; vegetation on the fields around Midgar was still too scarce to fully support a flock of chocobos. Denzel and another boy his age competed over who could go the longest without putting his bag down; Marlene laughed at them and their stumbling a lot, and eventually deigned to lift a corner of it from the other boy's back, helping him about as much as she unbalanced him.
It really was a good thing the food didn't have time to bruise much in between the bumpy trip and the moment the flock of chocobos descended en masse on the troughs, trilling happily and making eyes at the little humans. The children had made the trip for such a moment; he stood back with Mrs. Henne and watched them feed the birds. Seven yellows, three greens, a pink, two purples, and his blue.
"Don't hand-feed this one, still hasn't learned his manners, he'll peck off your fingers," the woman commented gruffly as one of the boys tried to hand greens to a young purple.
Cloud listened distractedly as the woman taught the children the proper way to hold out a hand to a chocobo -- "fingers open, held together, and don't wriggle 'em, else they might think it's a worm" -- the ways to recognize aggressive behavior and curtail it -- "don't run from a chocobo, ever, they'll think you're running from a predator and bolt after you, and you don't want 'em t'step on you" -- and felt the tension of his latest courier run drain away slowly. This was all so... uncomplicated, so pleasantly rural; so far away from life on the road, from all the ambushes and double-deals and mugging attempts.
He couldn't have lived without the freedom of the road, the adrenaline jolts of tight deadlines and sudden fights; but he didn't think he would survive it all very long without anywhere safe to recharge. Edge was it, Edge and his room at Tifa's bar, and Marlene and Denzel, and the neighbors who were actually pleased to see him, and the stable.
His blue warbled plaintively, bobbing his head; Cloud glanced down at the still half-full feeder to ascertain that Sef wasn't still hungry, and leaned against the fence to give the bird a few pats.
"Do you know which male was responsible for the egg?"
Mrs. Henne shook her head. "Didn't any of us see her get friendly with any of the males. 'course, we don't keep watch on them every second of the day either; there's plenty of bushes and rocks to hide behind, out here. Still..."
Cloud sighed. "No matter. What's done is done."
"Well, it'll be a good chocobo anyway. She found a way into our stock of Sylkiss greens, didn't notice for a month," the woman commented prosaically. "Musta downed two, three bags at least."
"... Ah." Cloud sighed again and rubbed his temple. "Please put them on my tab, then."
Mrs. Henne beamed at him, unveiling a gold tooth "Mighty nice of you, mister."
Cloud snorted quietly. It was true that he tended to be overly generous, but haggling got on his nerves. He wasn't exactly poor, anyway -- and having malnourished, nervous or sedentary chocobos when he needed them for a run wouldn't help him earn more money. Being generous was in his best interest.
"Ahh, don't make that face. Tell you what, you're willing to watch over the kids, I'll even let 'em ride around a bit for free. On a lead, mind. But they'll sure find it useful to learn to saddle and ride a chocobo, won't they?"
The other children were still busy babbling up a storm and petting the birds lovingly, but behind them, Denzel was frozen, staring at Cloud hopefully. He'd been born in Midgar, Cloud remembered, and never had any reason or opportunity to go anywhere else. Except that one time, with the three brothers -- but Cloud didn't want it to count.
"...Alright. Thank you, ma'am."
"You can take old Rinn," she added, pointing to one of the yellows who was standing away from the group, preening itself patiently. "And I'd say Elfy, too. That works?"
The corner of Cloud's lip quirked up. "They were overdue for some exercise, weren't they."
Henne drew herself up and looked down her nose at him. "What, you think I'd make you, a honored customer, work my birds?"
"Yeah, you would," Denzel piped up with a frown.
"Why, you little brat!"
Denzel kept frowning sternly. Mrs. Henne couldn't keep up the glare and chuckled, shaking her head.
"You know where we keep the tacks, yes? Old Rinn's name is written on hers, and Elfy fits a size three well 'nough. Well then, I'll go back to work. Mister Strife," she added, nodding politely before leaving.
When Cloud turned back to check on the children, he found them all staring at him. Looked like he was going to skip weapon practice in favor of spending the afternoon walking children on lethargic old chocobos around a parched field.
It sounded like a nice afternoon to him.