Alternate Universe! I really wanted to write a Western, lol.


~ kittykittyhunter ~

It was a handsome creature, with a decided beak, agile neck and dark feathers, but he did not care for these qualities: his life depended on the chocobo's powerful claws. It was galloping, and for good reason – behind them, a sandstorm was tearing through the desert.

He tugged the reins. The chocobo cooed. It leapt, gliding through the heavy air – then they landed on the sand, waves of heat rising around them. He slid from the saddle, yanking the bird; they huddled behind a wedge of grey stone.

The whipping winds hurled debris and cactuar. Once or twice the chocobo pawed the ground. He patted its beak, whispering soothing words. Slowly, the animal relaxed.

After the sandstorm had passed, Cloud Strife stood up. He mounted the chocobo and they were off.

"You're late."

Cloud wordlessly threw the woman a leather pouch. She caught it in one hand. Though her hair was light pink, curling around her face in frail tendrils, it contrasted with her severe expression. Everything, from the confident tilt of her hat, to the light clink of her boots, whispered power.

He raised and lowered his shoulders. She passed the pouch to a young girl waiting nearby; the teenager scampered away at once.

"I suppose you still want your payment." When he made no reply, she went on, "You don't know what you were carrying, do you?"

"I'm just a delivery boy."

She scrutinised his shock of blonde hair, his broad shoulders. "Hardly a boy." She stalked away.

Leading his chocobo, he followed.

Once Cloud had received his gil and made sure that his chocobo was taken by a groom and fed the best greens, he went to the inn. The price was higher than expected, but included meals. He decided that in such a small place the people depended on travellers for financial survival.

He began to work through the food. It had been some weeks since he'd last sat at a table.

A few metres away, three youths took their seats: the eldest sported a scar that crossed his brow; Cloud recognised the wiry blonde from a WANTED poster; the second blonde grinned at his companions, folding his hands behind his head. Cloud glimpsed the hilts of their swords.

"I hear Sheriff Lightning's finally got the medicine she needed," said the scrawny teen. "Thank goodness."

"She's sick?"

"No," this came from the scarred man, "her sister."

"Hmm…" the relaxed boy leant back in his chair. "I understand why you respect her," he said to the eldest teen. "After all, her weapon's the same as yours."

"Just owning a gunblade doesn't mean anything."

Cloud turned. He had heard of gunblades in the northeast – but they had a limited clientele. That explained the strange sheath that had hung from the woman's waist…

The third boy bobbed his head at Cloud, saying, "We're setting out in two days, just after dawn. Why not join us?"

"I'll think about it."

The apothecary had dingy windows, and as Cloud entered the small shop, ducking to avoid a string of bones hanging from the ceiling, he found that the interior was dark. He glanced around, trying to locate potions – he saw the Sheriff, examining something at the counter.

"You're still here." Her voice was cool.

Cloud nodded. "My chocobo needs a rest."

"Your chocobo." The Sheriff paused, then probed, "You tamed it?"

"That's right."

She switched her focus to dried herbs, but her voice betrayed a hint of admiration. "Black chocobos are the hardest to capture. Stick around. I'll introduce you to Sleipnir."

Sleipnir was a palomino stallion, and even though Cloud knew little about horses, he could understand the pride that flooded the Sheriff's face as soon as they entered the stables. The horse's mane and tail glistened.

At the Sheriff's nod, Cloud advanced and raised one hand to pat the horse's forehead. She watched him for a few moments, then without preamble, announced, "Your eyes."

"What about them?" Cloud ran the heel of his hand along Sleipnir's shoulder.

She sighed. "How does an ex-SOLDIER become a delivery boy?"

Cloud looked at her. Few people knew about SOLDIER all the way out here. But… there was a vivid tinge to her blue irises.

"The same way an ex-SOLDIER becomes a Sheriff."

Her mouth tightened. "I was in the Guardian Corps. Yourself?"

"I wanted to be First Class," he said, "but I didn't make it."

She was about to say something more – they were interrupted by gunshots.

Cloud drew his broadsword as he ran – the Sheriff's gunblade folded into form. A triad were waiting outside: a man with long red hair stood in the centre, flanked by a bald, dark-skinned man and a blonde woman.

The redhead inspected his nails before glancing up. "Ah, Sheriff," he began. "We were wondering where you were." Tumbleweed rolled across the dry ground – he laughed. "Cute. Real cute."

"What do you want?" The hostility in Lightning's voice was clear; like Cloud, she recognised the suited group.

The man laughed, spreading his hands welcomingly. "What kind of tone is that between old friends? We wanted to invite you back for a chat."

"I don't want to talk to you – any of you." Her sword was pointed dangerously; light travelled along one edge, glinting where the blade curved. "Leave."

The taller man leant forward briefly, whispering something. The redhead nodded, and acknowledged Cloud. "How nice! A two-for-one. Cloud and… Claire."

The Sheriff took aim.

"Do NOT call me that!"

Cloud dashed, swinging his broadsword – Lighting fired four times, then closed in.

But the trio weren't idle: the blonde drew a pistol, shooting left, right – the redhead thumped Lightning's shoulder with a staff –

The bald man rushed forward, landing one fist above Cloud's jaw. He spat and swivelled, and momentum sent the hilt of his sword across the man's face – the man staggered backwards and Cloud slashed. Blood soaked through the man's blazer.

The first man gave a furious cry – he raised his staff – but Lightning fired and he clutched his arm: his shoulder was hit. Lightning whirled, addressing the blonde woman, who shook as she held the pistol.

"You have a choice," said Lightning, "you can go, saving your comrades. Or you can die."

The woman mumbled, "This – is goodbye."

Lightning shook her head. "No, not often," she replied. "This town is a way station – all types pass through, finding new destinations. And then they're followed by their enemies. This place is always teeming with strangers. No one makes any real friends."

It was difficult to process Lightning's words as he fed the chocobo. It pecked at Cloud's hand eagerly. "What about you?" he asked. "How long are you planning to stay here?"

"This is home."

"You look after your sister, right?"

Lightning sighed. "Serah doesn't need me to take care of her. She'll be married soon, and she's strong. She can handle herself. I…"

Cloud placed the greens on the ground and studied Lightning. She was rubbing a brush across Sleipnir's flank.

"It's a beautiful world," said Cloud. "That's not something SOLDIER lets you appreciate. It's not something you discover by hiding in one town, either. You can help people."

She met his gaze. "Is that what you do? Help others?"

"I try," he answered. "I love this planet, and I love the people who inhabit it. One day, you have to start your own journey too."

"I went on a mission," she said quietly, "and I lost... many."

"Not forever."

Her face softened. "We have too much in common. We're still seeking redemption. But you're right about one thing." She paused, looking out through the stable door. The air without was still swirling with heat, but above the roof of the inn, they could see the uninterrupted blue sky. Not even the desert haze could disturb it. "It's a beautiful world."

"Not everyone here is an enemy," said Cloud. "I'm your friend."

Lightning smiled. "I'm glad to hear it. I imagine that this won't be the last time we see each other."

He agreed.