Disclaimer – I wish they were mine but, sadly, they're not.

A/N – I'm still very new to this fandom, so please be gentle with me. That said, reviews are appreciated. This fic is set in an indeterminate time during KH2.

Birds of a Feather

© Scribbler, March 2008.

"What the heck is that thing?" Sora sounded panicked, Keyblade held ready and body low in his favourite combat stance.

Aerith wanted to laugh. Yuffie actually did, pointing and holding her stomach at the sight of Sora facing off against a giant yellow bird.

"One of your relatives?" she guffawed, tugging her own thin hair upwards to make her meaning clear.

Aerith had to admit, the similarities were striking. What was it about saviours of worlds looking like feathery backsides? Perhaps it was some great cosmic joke and they were the punch line.

"It's called a chocobo. I didn't think any had survived when our world vanished. It must've been wandering the wilderness all this time, looking for the rest of its flock." She advanced on the bird, murmuring softly to try and easy the tension zinging through its sturdy frame. Chocobo were big anyway, but this one was bigger than most. It flapped its wings and fluffed its feathers, making itself appear even larger.

The chocobo reared back, eyes wide and feet pawing the ground in obvious agitation. It swung its massive head from her to Sora, as if unsure which was the greater threat, and made several uncertain 'wark' noises. It apparently didn't consider Yuffie a threat at all, which struck Aerith as very stupid.

"Sora, put the Keyblade away."

"What? Are you kidding? Have you seen the claws on that thing? Not to mention its beak." Sora rolled a shoulder. "That thing's powerful and it has a bad temper."

"So does Leon, but you don't go threatening him with a weapon when he's cranky. That goes for you too, Donald. Show it you're not an enemy."

Donald was as reluctant to let go of his staff as Sora was to relinquish the Keyblade, but they exchanged glances and, in unison, made themselves look as harmless as possible. They trusted Aerith to know what she was doing, though their apprehension crackled in the air like static electricity.

Goofy was already way ahead of them, gazing anxiously at Aerith as she took step after slow, measured step towards the creature that had scaled the motte and leapt clean over the bailey walls. He watched its claws leave grooves in the stonework and called, "Be careful, Miss Aerith!"

"Aren't you going to help her capture it?" Donald enquired of Yuffie, whose agility had flipped her right over the creature's head when it charged her.

"Ummm…" Yuffie made a great showing of thinking about this; tapping her chin and screwing up her mouth. "Nope."

The chocobo gave another 'wark', less fretful this time but no less hostile for it. It fluffed itself even bigger and bobbed its head up and down, beak snapping open and shut.

"But-"Sora began.

"Just watch and learn, little man."

Aerith resisted the urge to glance at Yuffie. Looking away now would be a mistake, but she knew the young ninja had also noticed the slight depression to the bird's spine, as though its back muscles had developed to compensate for extra weight. Likewise, Yuffie must have noticed the hardened skin at the corners of its mouth where a bit had rubbed. It also had the remains of a ring around its left foot, though months running pell-mell through the wilderness had removed any words or identifiable symbols. This chocobo had been tamed, once upon a time.

"There now, don't be nervous. We won't hurt you. Shhh, shhh," Aerith soothed. "Have you been all alone this whole time? Poor thing. Being alone's no fun, is it? You want to be with others. Do you have a name?" The words themselves weren't as important as how she said them. Her voice sank into a restful purr, of the kind used to comfort warriors with flat, wounded blue eyes and crying babies at three in the morning when their mothers had fallen asleep. "My name's Aerith. That loudmouth over there is Yuffie, and then there's Donald, Goofy and Sora, who's very sorry he tried to stab you – though you shouldn't have pecked him after you almost squashed him. That's not the way polite chocobos behave."

The chocobo looked at her like she was a new species it'd never run across before. It turned its head, blinking one black disc of an eye, then turned and repeated with the other. Its feet moved constantly, hopping this way and that, and it emitted even more nervous 'warks', but it didn't try to ram her or run away. Aerith took that as a good sign. Chocobos were naturally social creatures and didn't do well on their own. Loneliness provoked atypical behaviour from the kindest soul.

"There now, that's the way," she murmured, holding out her hands so it could see she held no weapon. "See? I come in peace." Trying an old signal she'd picked up years ago, she flattened her palms and pressed downward against the air a few times. "Down."

The chocobo brought its head up, neck arched and beak wide. "WAAAAAAAAAAARK!" Chunks of stone flew up where its claws raked, skittering over Aerith's bare-toed sandals. Leon had told her many times that she never dressed like they were at war. She told him that was the point.

The familiar hiss of the Keyblade materialising reached her ears. "Sora, no. Put it away," she said sternly, not raising the volume of her voice but filling it with iron.


Aerith repeated the downward jerk of her palms. "Now."

"Do as she says, short stuff," Yuffie advised. "Watch and be amazed."

The chocobo eyed Aerith. Aerith stared right back. For a moment they were locked in a bizarre tableau, delicate human girl and formidable brute fighting for power with nothing but their eyes.

Then, slowly, the enormous bird turned sideways, presenting its exposed flank to her, and crouched. It stretched out its neck and laid its head on the floor in the most vulnerable position possible, cawing softly. Aerith went to stand beside it, paused for a moment for it to get used to her presence, then swung her leg over its wide back. It took a moment for her to distribute her weight and get her balance right, not to mention adjust her skirt so she wasn't flashing anyone.

When she was reasonably happy she wouldn't fall off she clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and said firmly, "Up."

The chocobo raised itself in a single, fluid motion. When she gave the command to move forward, it slid into an easy gait, increasing its pace and slowing again without breaking its stride, and cornering like a dream at the lightest touch from her. Through a combination of pressure from her knees and touches to its neck, she steered it in circles and even managed to make it hop backwards a few steps. This was a very well-trained bird. It compensated for her lack of saddle or bridle and kept its body in perfect form as they completed a circuit of the bailey like they'd done it a thousand times before. Aerith clicked her tongue again, pressing its sides to halt, which it did immediately.

"This one must've belonged to a noble or something before," she commented, looking down at her friends. "Its been primed for combat. Hair-trigger reflexes and it keeps its head high to protect its rider, like a shield. I'll bet it was a war-bird back home – you can tell by the grooves in its feet where the metal claws have been attached." At their expressions she smirked. "What?"

"You're … riding that thing," said Sora. "And it's … what happened to the bloodthirsty monster?"

"It was just frightened and in an unfamiliar place. It's been well-trained. It'd just forgotten its training. It's testament to its nature how quickly it went back to normal." Aerith reached forward to stroke the spot just beneath its chin. "You're an old softy really, aren't you?"

The bloodthirsty chocobo gave the bird equivalent of a purr.

Yuffie slapped Sora on the back, knocking him forward a few paces. The chocobo cawed at his advance and he backed off again double-pace. "Toldja you'd be amazed," Yuffie grinned. "Didn't know our Aerith could ride like a pro, did you?"

"Hardly like a pro, but I do know a thing or two about chocobos. Finally, my skills can be put to better use than just keeping house, cooking meals and darning old socks." It wasn't that the rest of the Restoration Committee didn't respect her but … Aerith wasn't a warrior and being around them made her acutely aware of this shortcoming. She couldn't hit a bull's-eye with shuriken at a hundred paces, she didn't wield a blade, could recite no spells, knew enough about computers to also know she hated them, and her hand-to-hand skills were negligible.

But she could ride a chocobo.

And this was a war-bird.

"This sounds like a bad idea to me," Donald muttered, folding his arms and glaring up at the much bigger bird. "Don't give me that look, feather-butt. I'm still sore from you trying to stomp on me. You put so much as a wingtip out of line and I'll-" He didn't finish, for at that moment the chocobo gave a disapproving 'rawk' and snapped its beak shut with an audible 'click'. Donald dived behind Goofy, who stumbled, grabbed Sora, and the pair of them landed on top of the mage. Donald squawked and they hastily removed themselves, helping him up between them.

"Sorry, Donald."

"Are y'hurt?"

"Only his pride, I think." Yuffie was back to holding her stomach with laughter. "Oh, this is priceless. And I didn't have to do a thing!"

The chocobo twisted its head enough to meet Aerith's gaze. It no longer looked as agitated as it had when it arrived. Its shoulders felt more relaxed, the frantic aura had smoothed and there was something almost like … humour in its eye.

Aerith gave a fierce little smile. "I think I'll call it Zack."