Cid, Tifa, and a day at the chocobo races. For Het Challenge 2006.
"Shit," Cid mutters, grinding his cigarette out under his heel before he heads back to the paddocks. Cloud gets cranky if he smokes around the birds, and no sense getting the kid worked up when he's about to ask --
"Just this once," Tifa is saying, stroking Aoi's neck, smoothing the feathers down. "Please?" She's giving Cloud that /look/, the little hopeful smile she has that a dead man couldn't turn down.
Cloud might be funny in the head, but he's got a pulse. "Sure, I guess," he says, shrugging one shoulder and handing off the reins.
"No," Cid says, staring. "No. Freaking. Way." Tifa gives him a look that would make a lesser man shut the fuck up right now before he tastes glove leather, but hell. "Come on, Cloud, this is a big race! We could make class A, if we win this one, but Joe's just registered that black monster of his for it."
Tifa crosses her arms. "And?" she says.
"And our odds are shit if we have a --" he catches himself before he says something really suicidal, like little girl who doesn't know what she's doing -- "jockey with no experience, up against someone like that. I mean, if we had a fucking /gold/, maybe," not that those are anything but a legend, "but this is going to be a damn tricky race."
"And you think I can't handle it?" Tifa says. "Cloud --"
Cloud shakes his head, holding up his hands. "Leave me out of this," he says. "Whoever's racing, you need to be at the starting line in five minutes, or we forfeit." He pats Aoi's beak affectionately, murmurs "Good luck," to /her/, and leaves.
Tifa sighs. "He doesn't have to be such a jerk about it."
"Huh." Cid reaches for a cigarette, remembers he's not supposed to smoke down here, and stuffs his hands in his pockets instead. "Sometimes I think he only races 'em so people won't think he's wasting his time breeding 'em."
"Mmm, not only." Tifa smiles a little. "If you're watching, at the end of a race, sometimes you can catch him getting excited about winning, before he remembers he's too cool for that."
Cid shakes his head. "Dumb kid. Nobody's going to think less of him for having a good time." Aoi is fidgeting, her claws scratching thick lines in the paddock dirt. "So, can I --"
"No," Tifa says, but at least she's not giving him that about-to-smack-you look anymore. "I'm still riding in this race. And I bet you I'm going to win."
"Against Teioh?" Cid asks incredulously. Aoi gives him a very stern /look/, and he takes a step backward. "Okay, fine, I'll take that bet. What's your wager?" Unless Tifa's been practicing in secret, she's got no chance, but hell, he'll play along.
"If I win," Tifa says slowly, like she's thinking about it, "then...next time we're in Costa del Sol, I want you to take me out for a fancy dinner at that nice place down by the waterfront."
"Deal," Cid says. He looks her up and down, figures you only live once, and she's probably too polite to hit him for suggesting it anyway. "If you lose, I'll still take you out, but you gotta wear a fancy dress and heels."
Tifa laughs, and starts to say something, but before she gets further than, "Then you --" she's cut off by the loudspeaker: All jockeys for the next race, please report to the starting line immediately. "Fine," she says, vaulting up onto Aoi's back -- she sits like she knows how to ride, at least. "Better go raise some gil, old man -- I'm planning on ordering drinks and dessert." She smiles again as she and Aoi turn away, and Cid could swear she /winked/.
Well, it's been a long trip, and stranger things have happened.
Cid has to hurry to make it up to the stands in time for the race. He shoulders his way through the crowd and sits down next to Cloud. "Hope your girlfriend knows what she's doing," he says.
"Hm." Cloud doesn't look up, watching the birds jostle and flutter at the starting line. "She's not my girlfriend."
/Your loss/, Cid almost says, but hell, if he's taking her out after this, no point in fixing her up with someone else beforehand.
And there she is at the starting line, a little too far off for him to make out her expression, but her figure would be unmistakable even if Aoi weren't the only blue in the race. Most of the others aren't much competition, some little white bantam that Cid's never seen before, a yellow hen that'd probably be more at home pulling a cart in some hick town. Teioh's the only real threat, and he knows it, strutting and scratching, raising his crest to threaten the other birds, screeching a challenge across the field.
Aoi bristles, shakes her head, and screeches back. Cid frowns. If it were him, he'd be trying to keep her calm right now, trying not to let her get too worked up before the race even starts, but Tifa's just sitting her back comfortably, letting her have her head.
Then the countdown starts, and the jockeys get serious, crouching over the necks of their birds and facing forward. Three, two, one, and they're off.
The birds jostle together in the first dozen meters or so, before Teioh breaks out of the pack -- and Aoi breaks with him, Tifa crouched low over her neck. The white bantam jostles with a pink hen for third, but neither of them has a chance of catching the leaders.
She'd better save some strength for the end of the race, Cid thinks -- Teioh tends to put on a mean dash before the last straightaway, and if Aoi's already winded, it'll all fall apart right there. Tifa races like she doesn't give a damn, swaying with the jolt of Aoi's gait, urging the blue hen forward recklessly.
"Fuck, she's never going to make it," Cid says. Cloud makes a little meaningless noise that's probably about the most sympathy he's going to get. Of course, Tifa losing the race means he'll get to see her dressed up, but winning means making class A and still going out to dinner, so all told, it's probably a better deal. Tifa's easy enough on the eyes in casual clothes, anyway.
And she's getting more speed out of Aoi than Cid would have thought anyone could -- they're neck-and-neck with Joe and Teioh until the second turn, and then when they hit the corkscrew Tifa nudges Aoi in toward the rail, crowding Teioh out. Cid's not the only one in the stands making noise when she heads into the first tight bend in the lead, and the crowd breaks out in a roar when she clears the corkscrew a good three lengths ahead.
Teioh's running hard, too, beak snapping angrily like he'd be tugging on Aoi's tailfeathers if he could just reach. Pissing him off, Cid thinks, is a strategy that hadn't occurred to him before.
They come down the slope and into the next turn, and Aoi's lead looks really solid, a clean five lengths ahead. "Ease up," Cid mutters. "Don't burn her out before the last sprint." And Tifa does, settling back just a little, just enough for Aoi to feel it and slow from a mad dash to a steady run.
They might actually have a fucking chance.
Down the far length of the course, and Teioh's gaining back some of the distance -- Cid tries to keep his cool, tries not to start yelling. Tifa knows how to /fight/, goddamnit, she's got to be aware of what's going on around her. She's got to have a plan.
Teioh's catching up, though, closing in as they come through the final turn and into the weird final straightaway, where the ground seems to drop right out from under the race. Cid's seen birds just seize up there, balking at the crazy terrain, and lose a good lead while they panic. Aoi's too good for that, though, and Teioh's done this a million times. They come sprinting through the last length, claws flashing, and it's not enough, Teioh putting on that burst of speed that seems completely /unnatural/, pulling forward, barely half a length behind now -- pulling even -- pulling ahead.
"/No/," Cid says without meaning to, up out of his seat and leaning on the railing, "come on, run! You got him beat, goddamnit, move!" And Tifa crouches low over Aoi's neck, focused straight ahead, her hair streaming out behind them, and Aoi runs like the fucking wind/: out of the chasm and into the last few meters, and she catches up to Teioh, long neck stretched out forward, her claws barely touching down at each stride, and then she's /done it, crossed the finish line ahead of the black by a head.
Cid's vaulted over the railing before he's even thought about it, and Tifa laughs when she sees him coming, her hair thrown back and her cheeks flushed from the ride. She slides down of Aoi's back and right into his arms, and Cid grabs her in a bear hug and spins her around, whooping with delight -- and then she turns her head, before he can put her down, and kisses him square on the mouth.
"See?" she says when she pulls back, and he's too stunned to speak. "Told you I could do it."
Maybe, Cid thinks, when he takes her out, he should get dressed up.