Notch screamed. Chole reached over, easily batting aside a flailing hand, and peeled skin from his forehead like wallpaper. Trying to scramble away, the rehomed Corneo enforcer winced as his sunburned back scraped across his scratchy bed of hay. Toppling from the hayloft, he landed on his back on the floor of the stable, and sneezed.
Chole eyed him. "You're not adapting very well, are you? You were outside for five minutes on an overcast day, and you're shedding like a Kalm Fang at spring moult."
"I'll...manage." said the subject of this observation, between sneezes. He had quickly learned that leaving Midgar was more than a matter of being snuck into the back of a truck.
It wasn't that he hadn't been expecting differences, and dangers, but in all the stories he'd heard about the world beyond the gates, no one had ever mentioned that light, not condensed into lasers or directed by materia, but just normal light, could hurt. His nose had begun to run soon after his arrival, which had something to do with grass dust in the air. The day was blinding if he took off his sunglasses outdoors, and unexpected breezes on raw skin could cause violent twitches at inopportune moments.
Contrary to popular belief, there was such a thing as night in the Midgar slums. At certain times, Shinra turned off most of the floodlights in the lower plate to save energy. But Wall Market had been a place of neon signs and lit up windows, so Notch's night vision was not as good as it could have been. The muggy heat of the endlessly recycled slum air had been replaced by milder but tangible heat from sunlight that could be felt on the skin, the temperature dropping at night to shivering levels.
And Chole, Bill, and Billy didn't feel a thing. After much grumbling and beard stroking, Bill provided something like a dull grey grim reaper robe to wear out of doors, together with a surgical mask, gloves, and his sunglasses, which made moving outdoors more tolerable, if not exactly pleasant. The farm had had a few slum labourers before, it seemed, and Notch was able to begin work three days after his arrival.
His first surprise had been that there was no Mako Reactor on the premises. Anything that damaged the fertility of the local land threatened the quality of Bill's Chocobos, so the farmhouse and barns were lit and heated by wood and coal burning generators, with a couple of windmills and solar panels on the roof to take advantage of any good weather that came their way. There were no external power sources, as any lines that were laid would be chewed to pieces by monsters within a week.
The actual work, so different from anything in Midgar, was truly fascinating. Much of his time was taken up actively preventing certain kinds of plants from growing in the chocobo corral. The Chocobo farm was a tightly monitored, well run operation, devoted to creating high ranked, top quality racing birds, and their environments had to be kept as clean and ordered as possible. Taking care of passing travellers' birds was a sideline, mostly a charity operation because casual wanderers were often neglectful in their day to day care. If a Chocobo was brought in in particularly bad condition, Bill (or possibly Billy, it was easy to throw the wrong name at father and son.) could be reduced to incoherent rage.
Once he actually started working for his keep, the Farm became a lot more palatable. Chole was bafflingly, paranoia inducingly friendly from the beginning, helpful and eager to answer questions. Given the Corneo reputation, this was a little puzzling, but Choco Billy (the son?) was reassuringly overprotective, rarely moving out of view unless Chole was inside the house or gone hunting for new stock to bring in, while Bill was rarely seen outside the farmhouse, spending most of his time dealing with management or negotiating with customers. Notch was burnt, blistered, and bleeding from thorn scratches, but he was alive, which was more than he had any right to expect at the moment.
Jimmy Demetrios, Don Corneo, leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms above his head. He'd finally gotten rid of the weak link in his chain of command. A shame that he'd just bolted like that, the kid was fast on his feet and not a bad survivor, but just wasn't seasoned enough. Appointing his replacement had been a struggle, with Dillon having roughly equal support in the clan, but Jimmy's nearest rival knew that an outright power struggle would be suicidal given the city's current conditions. Highfield's Civil Guard had quickly grown rebellious after being told to actually do something, and now the streets were once again clear of white uniforms. The only problem that remained was Shinra. After 'Notch' inexplicably murdered a Shinra employee on the trains, the guards became much more heavily armed and strict about who was travelling. Seven Massacci enforcers taking a circuit of the city had been arrested simply for taking the train to the slums. Two Corneos had similarly disappeared, having taken journeys for personal reasons.
All routes to and from the Plate were sealed. Which meant one thing.
Jimmy stood, and went to speak to his men.
"You know, gang fighting is nothing like people think. Most of it's just politics; do enough favours for the locals so they don't sell you out, brutalise them enough that they do what you tell them. It's gotten messy as fuck lately because no one knows exactly how weak or strong the Corneos are, including us. We haven't been really tested in sixteen years." Notch paused. "You're not some kind of Shinra plant or something, are you?"
Chole smiled. "Witness Protection Programme." He dropped his hayfork, right hand twitching towards the holster he wasn't wearing before reigning himself in. "Really."
Blink. "Of course not, you idiot. My Dad runs this place." She took a step back, out of his immediate reach. Better. Still...why so nice? Why?
The stall rattled as a Chocobo threw an irritable kick through the bars. Chole jabbed with the handle of her fork, rapping the bird on the front of its beak until it retreated.
"Easy, girl. Trying to kill strangers is bad for your reputation, you know." Sideways glance. "You might want to keep away from this one."
"Reactor Explosion, tag no. 217. She's in heat at the moment, we've got to keep her in for a couple of weeks. Can't breed a bird without express permission from the owner."
"Canyon stock. Agile, quick. The hens make better racers, overall, so more of them are bred. Means they get angry for a couple of weeks a year, though. If you're ever betting, watch for two birds nipping at each other. The jockeys will have to spend a lot of their time keeping the two apart, so they're not likely to win."
Huh...I'll actually try to remember that.
" Chocobos are easier to manage than a lot of things −they don't lactate, and they're not born live, but they do have their headaches. Out of heat, you can only make'em breed by feeding special kinds of nut...but that causes em to go crazy, so you've got to be really careful not to get in the way."
"Tell me something...does anyone eat Chocobo?"
Chole stared at him, mute.
"...Uh...sorry I asked."
"Don't even think about it! This isn't a farm that slaughters; we breed quality racers, mostly for Dio−"
"Runs the Gold Saucer, big muscly guy. Sure, you can get a few restaurants that serve Chocobo, but not from racers. Most of the jockeys get much too attached, even when their ride gets too old to run. And anyway, once they're plucked and boned, pretty much all you get is tough, stringy thigh muscle, so it's all very expensive and wasteful. It's against the 'Way of the Chocobo', too."
"What? That's real?"
"Uh-huh. I'm a third level initiate, Dad's a grade 2 black master, and Grandad's a level three Gold. Rumour has it there's a Chocobo Sage up north started the whole thing."
"Chole. I don't want to crush dreams, but there is no old guy on the Northern Continent who flies around the world once a year giving materia to people he meets. It's. Not. True."
"If you want to think that, it's your loss."
He could only turn away, trying not to smile.
Three bullet impacts came through the plywood door, ripping through Mepho, who sank to his knees. Jimmy knelt beside him.
Bloody grin. "I'll live. Go get em, boss."
The door imploded. Jimmy caught the first bullet on his metal bracer, driving forward to pitch the nearest Fujeo enforcer out through a boarded up window. No glass −in Fujeo territory, that was too much luxury. His other hand snapped across to cave in the skull of another guard, and then he drew his guns.
At least thirty Fujeo rushed Don Corneo, causing him to retreat outside. Where, now that they were exposed, the other Corneos opened up on the pursuing mob with their automatic weapons. That done, two Corneo enforcers stepped inside, returning with a struggling figure, who Jimmy regarded.
"Don Emilio Fujeo. Where?"
The man smiled. "You'll never find him, and you're an idiot for trying. You'll have to shoot me."
"The Great Sephiroth is being ridden by a Wutai Ninja today, folks, and neither of them look pleased about it. Wutai Pride is also in the running, making for an interesting line up."
"Sephiroth was raised here. Shinra funded, he's a good runner. Little violent, but he knows what to do."
"And they're off! Don Corneo is moving pretty quickly right from the start, but with Negative Equity, Karma from the Cosmos, and Angry Hooker on his tail, who can blame him? Sephiroth and Pride are a little behind, but they're moving smoothly and clearly in for the long haul, Corneo is slowing down already, by the looks of things, the guy riding him knows not to waste breath early on,
But it looks like Karma is about to catch up with him, which probably isn't a good thing at this stage. Corneo's a fighter though, he's not out of the running yet. Sephiroth has put on a burst of speed as Hooker tries to close, but− Oh, and he's given her a kick, and it looks like she's down for the count! Sorry girl, that's what happens when you close on a champion when he's in a mood! But he's broken stride, and suddenly Pride of Wutai is surging ahead, Sephiroth is trying hard but Karma is catching up with him too as they enter the final straight. Corneo and Equity are well out of the running by now, but neither has given up. Sephiroth is close, but it's going to be Pride of Wutai that takes the crown today, Pride that outlasted all the other contestants and the deserved winner of the Silver Cup. Join us after the break for reaction and analysis from our pundits."
"Dad bribes the commentators."
Idly sitting on a swing, Don Dillon, left hand man of Don Corneo, rubbed his forehead. The Fujeo were striking in force, and Sector Five had proven indefensible. It'd always been a peripheral area of the Corneo sphere of influence, with nothing much of value there but Aeris' frustratingly well protected flowers, but the shattered road to sector six was an impassable bottleneck for any attacking force. Jimmy had for once chosen to take a break with that dressmaker who was always hanging around HoneyBee Manor these days, leaving defence of the approach to Dillon...who ultimately was not a man of action. He could handle himself competently, but not brilliantly.
Still, with Hell Houses and Whole Eaters being driven against them, the Fujeo would not easily break through to Corneo heartland. Two flying columns were buried in sector five, making trouble for the occupiers without staging a stand up fight. They were completely cut off, but gunshots echoing from the sector now and then gave evidence that they were still alive and working hard. Strategically, given the might of their opponents, the Corneos were doing well.
There was just one problem. That same shattered road was currently blocked to any other travellers... and something like that drew attention. It was a matter of time.
Some time into his service, Notch was finally allowed to work with the birds themselves, after multiple lectures and dire warnings as to what would happen if he injured either himself or the birds (which, naturally, were the priority). He had arrived at the farm armed, but had surrendered the weapon on arrival, and now he was provided with a long barrelled, two handed shotgun, and a battle trained Chocobo called Breeze, one of the farm's own stock. Most Chocobo would flee from battle, but not these. Once she was satisfied that he would not shoot himself or break his collar bone from recoil firing the weapon, Chole took him out into the grasslands, mounted on her own bird, Bleed Or Cry. A client's mount had gone missing, and they had to find it before the owner came looking. This was the only reason he had been allowed to leave the farm at all.
The grasslands were dull and featureless, but Chole seemed to know where they were going, as did the birds. If in doubt, Notch had been instructed to give the command 'Home' and trust his mount to oblige.
"Tell me something...how does a two foot fence stop 600 kilo chargers from escaping?"
"Up to 1,000kg for the male cavalry mounts. And it doesn't, really, that's why we microchip them."
"You do that?"
"Of course, there's a thousand square miles of open grassland around the farm, if we didn't we'd never find them."
"Then why do they stay?"
"They're well cared for here, and they know it. You pick up a wild bird, it bolts the first chance it gets, but not if it knows we have a stable waiting for it. Most of the time. The really wild ones we keep in the barn until they break."
Chole glanced groundward mid sentence, and her mount stopped, close to a large taloned footprint.
"We're close. Catch."
He caught the glass ball she threw at him. "What's this?"
"Chocobo Lure Materia. I've already got one equipped, but it's supposed to be lucky. There's slots in the handle of your shotgun."
"How do I use it?"
"You don't. Now, make some noise. Just shout. Anything."
"This is a diversion!"
Something fast and angry burst out of long grass. Surprising himself, Notch levelled his weapon and fired, but the blur didn't slow, leaping and bearing him from his saddle. Landing hard on his raw skin, he screamed as jaws closed on the weapon in the weapon in his hands, trying to rip it free.
"Fire3!" Heat washed over both him and the Kalm Fang from a nearby detonation, diverting the monster's attention enough that Notch could force it backward. Landing just past his feet, the creature sprang again.
Breeze's beak impacted behind the Fang's shoulder joint, momentum enhanced strike tearing the target in half in a burst of arterial spray. Spitting tufts of fur, the mount folded its wings again and docilely waited to be remounted as Notch climbed to his feet.
Her own attacker ashes, Chole looked down at him.
"Well, we've caught a Chocobo. Luckily, our client is an idiot, he'll never know the difference. So...do you miss Midgar yet?"
Notch spat grass. "Right now? No. Give me another couple of weeks."