By Alma Heart
Sephiroth looked at the last statement on the memo for his next mission. The report had been unsurprising up until that point; he was required to take a squadron of men across one of the battle zones in Wutai, as escorts for a supply caravan. It wasn't unusual for even well concealed supply convoys to be attacked, and it was vitally necessary for their troops that the rations and medical supplies got through. This mission would probably last several days at the shortest.
However, it was the miscellaneous note at the bottom that threw him. The last part read:
Due to the jungle undergrowth in Wutai, supply trucks have
not been able to pass unnoticed through no man's land.
Therefore, for this mission, chocobo mounts will be a
requirement for all SOLDIERs. Report to the stables before
departure to find a suitable mount.
Then, below that, Director Lazard had put a personal note to Sephiroth.
This mission will last for between several days to two weeks.
Therefore, make sure you and your men all have chocobos
that they can work with for that duration of time. The birds
can sometimes be temperamental, and I know you've never
had to deal with them for so long before. Just be careful of them.
Good luck, General.
SOLDIER Director Lazard
Sephiroth blinked at the words for a moment. He had ridden chocobos before, to be sure, but Lazard was right; he had never done so as more than a means of transport from one place to another, after which he left the bird and moved on. This would be different, and required a more careful selection of a mount. If he couldn't deal with the chocobo's personality, he would be stuck with the ornery bird for weeks. Additionally, the other pressing matter was the chocobo's military experience. If they were to be attacked, the general wanted to be certain he would have a bird who would not run away. Apparently it was time for a visit to the stables.
Being outside of Midgar was refreshing. There was actually grass around here, and trees, something he didn't often get to see at the Shinra building. If it weren't for the stern looking grey buildings he knew were the administrative buildings and the helicopter he had just disembarked from, he would have felt as if this couldn't be a place controlled by Shinra.
He walked towards the main entrance building, where arriving Shinra personnel were received. This brought him on a path between various pens of birds. They looked up at him quizzically, feathers of every color jostling along fences to get a look at him. Blues, yellows, greens, eyes of all colors searching him, many coming over to see if he had food. He let his eyes move over them, automatically looking for the attributes he wanted, strength, speed, intelligence, and also size; he was a relatively large load for a bird to carry. None of them struck him as the one he wanted; some too flighty, some scared, shying away when he looked in their eyes, others overly friendly, and all of them looked young, goofy, as if they had never seen anything dangerous in their lives. Naively trusting, easy to work with, and sweet, to be sure, but not the creature he wanted to ride when he was attacked by Wutain ninja and needed it to follow his directions.
Then something caught his eye and he saw a mass of sleek black feathers, a ways away from the others. The bird was all alone in a paddock that was even removed from the other chocobos. She was ebony black, the color of night, right down to her beak, with dark grey scales on her clawed feet. Black was a color he was partial to, but what really caught his eye was that, unlike the others, she did not come towards the fence as he walked by. Instead, she raised her head and regarded him with the darkest, deepest blue eyes he had ever seen in his life. For a long moment she held his eyes, taking him in, as if staring him down. Her eyes, though not hostile, were certainly not friendly and held a sharp, intelligent light that immediately caught him. This was a smart and proud bird.
After that moment, she released him and moved away, towards the other side of her paddock, not deigning to look at him again. Surprised, he watched her walk, her movements, read the strength and sureness there. No limps, no weaving, smooth and sure movements, and even better, she was big enough for him. He carefully memorized the location of her paddock, then hurried towards the administration building, a surprising amount of excitement driving him to increase his speed. He wanted to get on her back, to see what she was like under the saddle, to see if she could be his. It was slightly absurd; he hadn't looked forward to something this much in quite a while.
There was a burly looking man in the administration building who looked like he should be more comfortable with the animals than in this building full of paperwork. The mane of dark brown hair around his head almost was reminiscent of the plumes on the birds that he looked after.
And he did not look surprised as Sephiroth approached him. "Good morning, general," he said, putting down an massive pile of papers. "I was told you would be coming to me for one of my birds."
Sephiroth nodded, handing the authorization order to the stable master. "I will be requiring a war trained mount for an extended period of time in Wutai, as will all of my men."
The stable master nodded. "Yes, sir. The battle trained chocobos are in the lower 1/2 of the paddocks to the right of the main path, back until you get to stable 3. You've ridden before, you have an eye for the birds, correct?"
Sephiroth nodded. "I have, yes."
The stable master looked into his eyes for a moment, then nodded. "I suppose you would wish to select your own, sir? I'll help your boys, especially if they've never ridden before."
Sephiroth nodded. "They should be arriving in the next hour." Then he got to the topic at hand. "What about that black who is isolated close to this building? Is that one a war mount?"
The stable master jumped at the specific reference. "The one in the back?"
Sephiroth nodded. "Is she trained?"
The stable master seemed to hesitate. "Well, yes, sir, she is. It's just..." Sephiroth raised an eyebrow and utilized his "general-has-little-patience" look. The man immediately stopped stalling. "She's a vet, general, just like you. Heck, she was probably there before you were, sir. That's what a fighter she is. Probably the best creature I've seen, back before she got shipped back here. Strong, fast, smart; she was even kind, though never sweet. There's just one problem." Here he looked genuinely sad. "Her last rider got killed by those Wutain bastards almost a year ago. Seems like the ninja did quite a number on her at the time, too. We brought her back hoping she could be given to someone else. But she's gone savage. She attacks any man who goes in her pen. If you stay outside, she's fine, though she'll fix you with those eyes and stare you down. But go inside, and she'll shy away and then come back and barrel you down. I haven't had the heart to get rid of her; she is such a strong, proud bird. But she's unrideable."
Sephiroth listened to the description of the bird he had seen thoughtfully. She's...been over there before? he found himself wondering. And suddenly he understood. You got hurt, didn't you? he asked sadly.
Pulling himself out of his reverie, he lifted his head and said with authority, "She's the one I want."
The stable master's eyes popped. "But, sir!" he protested, "I told you, she's unsuitable for riding at all-"
Sephiroth gave him the look that he was famous for in the Shinra building, the look that could make behemoths cower. The man subsided immediately with a sad sigh. "Yes, sir," he muttered, and fished a file out of a multitude of filing cabinets. "Here's her information. Good luck with her..."
Nodding curtly, Sephiroth took it and left.
She was watching him when he came. Sephiroth could feel her eyes on him even before he rounded the corner and saw her there. Blue as dark as the evening sky bored into him as he slowly came towards her. She really was a beautiful animal, he realized as he came closer to her. Even more so than he had thought from the path. Her body was unmistakably strong, her muscles sleek, and her feathers smooth and shining. But her eyes were definitely the most piercing eyes he had ever seen on a chocobo, not just because of their color, but because of the way they stared defiantly at him.
She watched him as he came up next to the fence of her paddock and knelt down. Carefully, Sephiroth removed the harness for his sword and pulled it over his head, setting the blade off to the side. He didn't want to unsheathe it at all, lest the sound surprise her. War trained she might be, but she had probably been attacked by blades as well. He had read it in her file; badly injured when her last master was killed, requiring extensive emergency care, stitches, drugs, IVs, nearly the entire veterinary contingent's attention. It would be better if he didn't have anything sharp on him when approaching her. Now that he was closer to her, he make out the telltale irregularities of scars running across her body. He was almost reminded of his own, until he automatically repressed the unpleasant thought. So you have been hurt, then, and you have fought, just like he said. I believe I may understand you.
Several other unnecessary things were discarded on top of his sword; the files he had been given about the SOLDIERs he was bringing, memos, his gloves, so she could see his hands easily. He wished he could discard his armor and jacket; it would improve his range of motion, but he still had an image to uphold even out here. This would have to do.
Satisfied, he stood and leaned against the fence, looking at her. Your name is Kalya, then? He tried it out. "Kalya?"
She hadn't taken her eyes off him for an instant as he had approached, but she had been moving around, watching him out of the corner of her eye, stealthily almost. However, at her name, her head came up slightly and she turned her head to face him squarely. The expression of surprise in her eyes was almost human.
Sephiroth smiled slightly. "Has it been a while since someone spoke to you?" he wondered aloud, keeping his voice gentle.
She cocked her head slightly, as if pondering him, then warked at him dismissively, turning away. Sephiroth remembered what the other man had told him. I'm outside your pen, so I don't require attention, then? He watched her eat. You feel safe, as long as I stay outside. As long as there are barriers between us, you feel I won't do anything to you. His eyes fell to the grass. So these walls that keep you in also keep you safe.
Giving her a silent apology, Sephrioth vaulted easily over the fence. He landed softly; it wasn't that tall. He tried to keep his movements smooth, but either way she would become angry with him, he knew. He was infringing upon her safety, her buffer zone. It was only natural.
Kalya whirled the moment she heard his feet leave the grass and the fence creak with his weight. She saw him land inside her protected area and her eyes went narrow, dangerous. Sephiroth straightened slowly, watching her. Are you going to attack me? Is that the first way you defend yourself? That could actually be easier to deal with than some alternatives.
But, no. She didn't attack him. She looked as though she might for a moment, but, instead, she shied away from the corner in which he stood, putting as much distance between the two of them as possible.
Sephiroth stayed where he was, following her with his eyes. I see. If I come in, then move away. Maybe I'll get the message; you don't want people. Maybe I'll leave you alone if you're cold to me. Kalya was watching him intensely, dark blue eyes boring into him like daggers; he felt their sting. You've been hurt; you've seen what men can do; how they can hurt others. Sadness at the thought made him sigh softly. If I get close, I could hurt you. So you withdraw even after your barriers are broken.
"It's ok," he murmured, looking at her. "It's alright." Normally, a few words helped chocobos, though it wasn't his usual style.
To his surprise, Kalya stood up at the words and snorted, warking at him in almost a hissing fashion. The look in her eyes turned dark.
Sephiroth stopped, blinking at her. Then he sighed. That's right. That's what they said when they held you down and put needles in your skin, isn't it? You didn't know anything except that they hurt you, just like the ones who attacked you, and you knew were attacking you. So we're all the same to you now. All humans can hurt you. You don't know how to tell what a friend is anymore, so you don't.
"Very well," he said, letting his voice change slightly, more towards the way he normally spoke. "I won't say that again. I promise."
Kalya looked at him, again seeming confused at his change of voice. This was different than she had had before.
Slowly, carefully, Sephiroth began walking out towards the middle of the paddock. He made sure not to look at her as he moved, so that she wouldn't think he was making a beeline for her. He wasn't. He would only stop halfway there. No sense in rushing at her, then she really would spook and lash out.
Seeing him move, even so smoothly, Kalya warked in anger and pinned her crest back flat against her skull. But she still didn't charge at him or attack, instead trotting uneasily back and forth along the small section of fence that led in and out of her corner.
You're confused, Sephiroth thought as he watched her. You don't understand why I'm here, why I want to come close to you. I don't even have a bridle with me. You don't understand what I want; to you it's impossible that I could care about you, that I would want your trust and nothing else right now. So you watch me, trying to decide. Trying to find my motive, and how it will harm you, so that you can make sure I don't attain it.
He stood still for a long while there, watching her fidget. I understand, he told her silently. I know the frustration. I know the fear.
When Kalya stopped pacing, instead backing into her corner, Sephiroth walked towards her again. What now?
His answer was a swift explosion of speed as Kalya darted away from him, into another corner. Sephiroth turned to watch her, but didn't follow. Evade me. Be somewhere else. Put distance between us again. If you keep me away long enough, I'll lose interest. I'll find a better chocobo, one who doesn't go to such lengths to keep me away, and you'll be alone again, right? Show me what a bad mount you can be, and I'll lose the desire.
That thought was furthered as Kalya warked at him darkly and gnashed her beak, a warning against coming closer again. She was obviously becoming tense, defensive, at the fact that he hadn't lost interest already.
Sephiroth kept watching her dark blue eyes. I'll stay here for a while; give you a rest. But I won't leave. And he did, standing there still in the off right corner of the paddock for long minutes. Kalya seemed to become even more confused, shifting agitatedly from foot to foot, watching him. Her crest remained pined back flat and her eyes stayed narrowed. He would have to be careful; since she was war trained, she could possibly actually hurt him pretty badly if she got him under her clawed feet.
After a long time, however, he began walking again. This time, though, he walked away from her, back towards the place he had entered, and stood over there for a moment, leaning against the fence and tying his long hair back in a ponytail. It was getting hot wearing all of his leather uniform, and he really couldn't take it off.
Turning back towards her, he was unsurprised to find her still watching him. You expect me to leave now. But I haven't forgotten about you, and I still want to get closer to you. They always come back. I would know. Two pairs of bright blue eyes, both belonging to faces he knew, flashed across his mind. Both were covered by black hair, one pair by uncontrollable spikes and the other much tamer bangs. Both, predictably, were smiling. But the fact that you haven't attacked me yet means you don't hate me, even with what humans have done to you. You're just protecting yourself; you're defensive, not malicious. You just want to be left alone because it's safer, less dangerous that way. You can't get hurt emotionally if you have no emotional attachments. You use all these cues to get me to leave without hurting me.
He began walking towards her again. But what if I don't leave? What if I come back? Again, faces flashed momentarily across his mind, two with black hair and smiles, but different smiles each. One was wide and expansive, the other quiet and gentle. And there was one other face that was there for a moment, all auburn hair, flashing blue eyes and flamboyant, red leather. What will you do then? He watched her warily as he came closer.
Kalya hissed and gnashed her beak as he drew towards her. Ignoring the threat, but mindful of it, he kept going, watching her scrape her feet against the ground angrily. You're trying to frighten me away, now. You're wild, and you know people know it. Show me that and I'll be frightened away by your strength and the danger you present. Being near you could get me hurt. You know that, and you know I know that, would be a fool not to know that. By making sure I know, you think I'll leave, to protect myself.
Sephiroth looked at her, shaking his head slightly. But I won't go. So then what? It's not important to me if you hurt me, it's alright. But I won't say that to you, because you hate those words and won't believe them anymore. Because you've seen otherwise; you've seen those who are not kind, and you've been hurt by those you thought looked after you.
Her dark eyes were on him again. Sephiroth didn't flinch, looking at her instead. She looked angry, yes, but he knew also that she was scared that he wouldn't leave. Sorry to frighten you, he sighed quietly. But I'm not afraid of you, and I won't go.
Kalya seemed to realize that at the same time, that he wasn't afraid of her pawing and snapping. He was still moving towards her. She hesitated a moment, watching him with those inescapable blue eyes. Then, without warning, she charged, shrieking at him.
Sephiroth had been preparing for such a reaction and he was able to dodge to the side. Barely. Gods, but you are fast! he thought with appreciation as she surged past him. She didn't give him much time to reflect on how superbly agile she was, either, because she made a tight spin and came back towards him full tilt, forcing him to actually jump to the side to get out of the way. He felt her fly by, a flurry of dust and feathers.
Kalya stopped a little ways in front of him, whirling around and watching him with narrowed eyes, as if trying to see if that was enough to make him leave. Sephiroth regained his balance and looked back at her. No, Kalya, that won't scare me off. I'm fast, too, and I know you don't mean it. After a moment, he dusted himself off and walked back towards her.
Kalya watched him, then tossed her head and warked loudly at him, almost like a dog barking. It was a warning, and louder than any of her others had been. Sephiroth ignored it easily and kept going.
After giving him one more chance to back off, Kalya suddenly darted forward, beak wide open. Sephiroth instinctively raised his hand in defense, and winced as her beak bit down on his palm, hard. The sharp edge of her beak caused a shock of pain as it cut into him.
No, Kalya, he assured her as he gritted his teeth against the pain. I won't get angry at you. You lash out because when you hurt someone they either back off or become angry, and you know how to deal with that. It's a defense mechanism. You expect me to be angry. Kalya hesitated as he didn't move, even as the sharp edge of her beak cut into his skin.
I won't be angry, I won't retaliate, Sephiroth promised her silently as he looked at her with calm, determined eyes. You hurt me, so what? I'll heal. You only did it because you don't know what else to do, and you don't know how else to make me go away. That's right, isn't it? As a last defense, you lash out. If you hurt me enough, I'll go away.
Kalya gazed into his eyes for a long moment, still holding his hand in her mouth. Sephiroth didn't move as she did, waiting to see what she would do. Blood was dripping down his fingers, and he could feel her tongue tasting it curiously. The injury stung, but that wasn't important to him right now, and he had a lot of practice phasing out minor discomforts.
"Kalya," he said softly, the words barely audible. "I understand."
After a moment, she finally released his hand, looking at him warily. Sephiroth glanced at the cut, seeing that it was actually two, one on each side of his hand. There was blood on his fingers. Dismissing that for the moment, he looked back at her. And now you don't understand why I'm here. Because I didn't get angry that you hurt me and I didn't run away; I wasn't scared. Now you don't know what to think. You don't understand my motives, or why I'm still standing here in front of you.
Watching her, looking for a reaction, he stepped towards her again. Kalya shied away a step, but she still looked at him with confused eyes. She didn't skitter back into her corner. You don't know what to expect from me because you have no idea what I want from you. Nothing you know has worked, and now you don't understand why I didn't leave. If the world were like that, if I were just like some of the others, you could get me away easily. And yet you spilled my blood and I did not leave.
He took another step forward. "Kalya?"
Blue eyes watched him closely, but she didn't back away this time.
Sephiroth smiled. But some people are harder to predict than others when you think like that. Some people won't just run away, no matter what you do. They keep coming back. Angeal, Zack, and Genesis again flashed insistently through his mind. I didn't learn that until not that long ago. But I know now. There are people who still won't run away when you do those things, Kalya. Even if you lash out and intentionally hurt them. They're just too strong or too stubborn. The thought of eternally bouncing spikes of black hair came up again then. Or too stupid, he added with slight amusement.
Very slowly, Sephiroth extended his hand to the chocobo. Kalya watched him, her eyes confused and curious. She didn't shy away.
So when you meet one, you don't know what to do the first time. I certainly didn't. They're different than you've seen before, and you don't have anything in the book for those. So what do you do?
The two of them regarded each other for a long moment. Sephiroth stayed still, his hand held out to the bird in front of him. It was only belatedly that he noticed it was the same hand with the still bleeding injury. Not ideal, but it would have to do. He wasn't going to move now. I don't want to scare you away. What will you do now? You can bite me again, if you want; or back away, if that's what you want. But that's up to you.
Kalya cocked her head, her crest relaxing slightly from where it had been pinned back against her head. She looked at him puzzled.
Sephiroth met her eyes steadily. "What now, Kalya?" he asked her gently.
The chocobo stood still, looking at him for a long time. The only sound was wind as it tossed black feathers and silver hair. Sephiroth stayed perfectly still, still offering his bleeding hand to her.
Then, Kayla warked softly, inquisitively. Very slowly, she reached her head out, still watching him with intense eyes. A hard beak suddenly touched his palm and rubbed against it. Wary blue eyes pinned him, asking him in turn what he would do.
Sephiroth smiled slightly, just slightly. Very gently, very softly, he moved his hand up and touched the feathers on Kayla's forehead. When she didn't run away, he tentatively rubbed her head.
Kayla blinked at him for a long moment. Sephiroth watched her just as carefully, passing the right of reaction back to her. Do you like that?
Blue eyes fixed on him. Then after a moment, Kayla warked quietly and craned her neck, pushing against his hand so his fingers dug under her feathers. She looked up at him through her eyelashes, questioning again.
Sephiroth stepped forward, continuing to rub her head. Will you trust me, Kalya? he asked silently, reaching his other hand up so she could see it.
Kalya reached forward and looked into his eyes. Her beak was right in front of his nose; she breathed him in. The warmth of her breath shifted his hair. Gently, Sephiroth put his other hand against her neck. For a moment, Kalya tensed and Sephiroth froze. Then another breath and she relaxed, looking at him with ever curious blue eyes. And there was a rustling of feathers and she suddenly took a step forward, so that he was right in front of her, her neck curved so she could look at him.
"Kalya," he whispered in her ear, so that if there was anyone around, they couldn't hear him speak gently. "I won't leave and I won't hurt you. That much I promise you." She breathed on his hair and looked at him with those blue eyes. Sephiroth reached up and rubbed her beak. "When you find someone who won't leave, do you know what you do?" As she breathed on his hand, his eyes sparked. "They won't leave. So what to do?"
Kalya warked and shook her feathers, still sniffing him.
"They ask to stay with you. And you won't trust them, for you fear trust," he told her, shaking his head. "But they still won't leave." Without really thinking, he chuckled softly. Angeal taught me that. Then he looked up at her.
Blue eyes again, watching him closely. She was waiting, it seemed.
"You stay with them. Because they are the ones will truly not want to hurt you," he told her, a hand absentmindedly scratching her chin.
Kalya blinked at him. Then, uncannily, she ducked her head and pushed her head against Sephiroth's chest, her feathers soft against his skin. Warking and purring softly, she nuzzled against him.
Sephiroth blinked. Then his eyes softened and he rubbed her neck, letting her nudge him. "Good girl," he told her with a smile. "I'll stay. Don't worry. I'll stay." Leaning down so that his head touched hers, he smiled as he felt her brush up against him. "I will not let you be hurt again. I promise."
A low wark made her neck vibrate against his cheek. Before he noticed, his arms automatically found their way to black feathers and without realizing it, he was embracing the bird as she nuzzled against him, his fingers still rubbing against her neck. She was warm against him, her breath was warm, her feathers warm, and it was as if that transferred to him. He felt unexpectedly, intensely protective of her, of the fact that she was willing to trust him. That's better than I ever could do. The thought came unbidden to his mind, but it's weight didn't diminish the fierceness of his desire to keep her safe. I will look after you, Kalya. I'll protect you.
He didn't even consciously realize that he was hugging her for a full minute. And Kalya didn't seem to mind in the least, warking and cooing and nuzzling gently against his shirt.
After he realized, however, he gently untangled himself from the bird, not wanting to frighten her by confining her head. Kalya didn't seem frazzled at all, despite his worry. She blew on his neck as she straightened up, playing with his hair.
"Do we understand each other, Kalya?" Sephiroth asked with a nearly unhidden smile.
Her dark blue eyes regarded him for a moment, measuringly. Then they softened and she cooed softly, reached forward and began preening his hair, fussing over him like a mother hen.
Sephiroth paused, startled at first as he felt the gentle pull on his hair. Then he relaxed and reached up, rubbing her cheek. "I'll take that as a yes," he murmured, restraining the urge to laugh at the sudden joy he felt. Reaching up, he pulled out the hair-tie, freeing his hair so she could play with it.
Kalya, I understand you. I understand it. He chuckled very quietly as she blew into his hair. So I'll teach you why you don't have to be like me. I...I think I know what you fear, and so I can protect you from it. She rubbed her head against his cheek and he breathed in as she blew on him, a sign of affection that warmed something inside him. You won't be hurt and cold anymore. I swear it.
The sound of a helicopter landing far off pulled him back to the fact of the mission. Which inevitably brought up the thought of one certain SOLDIER Fair. Which then brought up the concern about how Kalya, who was probably still was somewhat people-shy, would react to such an exuberant and loud presence. "Kalya," he asked, cocking his head slightly as she fussed over his hair. "How do you feel about hyperactive 2nd classes?"
Perhaps it was just coincidence. But Kalya gave a derisive snort as if in answer to the question, her breath stirring his hair. Then, as if that were answer enough in reference to such people, she busied herself with his hair again.
Sephiroth could not help but let a quiet chuckle escape. This was perhaps the best thing that could possibly have happened to this mission.