Carbon
By Moro Turkey
(Moroturkey@hotmail.com)


Note: Some of you may know Teioh’s rider by the name of JOE. This is an egregious mistranslation.^^

You could get a seizure just from being here, thought Raskolnikov "Carbon" Wei as he walked jet-black Teioh across the Gold Saucer Choco Lounge. The place seethed with rainbow hued, high-strung life, as the jockeys rushed to groom their chocobos before the next race. There were tough, wild yellows from north of Rocket Town, elegant blues fresh in from practice runs on the cool rivers, and shimmering greens who learned to gallop on the jagged, snowy peaks of the north. Sparkling under the floodlights there were also pure racers, pinks and purples, who couldn’t stand still for a moment. They danced in place, making as if to kick their jockeys and then swerving away at the last moment, and striking their beaks into the concrete floor.

The jockeys themselves were frenetic. They orbited and hummed around their birds like wasps, trying to smooth down every stray feather or persuade their skittish mounts to take one more helping of Sylkis greens. The riders were careful also to keep a fair distance between their birds and the others, lest a stray beak-blow or kick would crush the bones of their precious steeds.

Carbon tied Teioh to the arm of a beak-mangled, dyed leather couch, and sat down wearily, raising a mothy cloud. He sighed and popped some caffeine pills into his mouth, washing it down with a gulp of Bolt3, Gold Saucer’s official drink. He grimaced at the cloying, too-sugary taste of the stuff. Dio had made some kind of deal with the makers of Bolt3, and now he had to drink it in public places. He’s gone too far this time, he mused, pulling the brim of his black hat down in front. The hat, with Typo’s white tail feather poking jauntily out of it, was Dio’s idea too. The shirtless S.O.B. even disseminated a goofy story about how Carbon believed Typo’s feather to be good luck, to guarantee a sure win. Ridiculous- Carbon was probably the least superstitious person Dio had ever met! But it really wasn’t so bad to wear a zoot suit and be romanticized this way. Certainly, it was better than the alternative. Carbon’s feathery black hair prickled involuntarily under the hat, and he pressed his face against Teioh’s warm neck.

Kirjain and her purple Marie were walking towards him. He groaned inwardly, wishing his old lovers would leave him alone, for god’s sake. He was only 30 years old, and there were so many of them…

"Lotta wierdos, tonight, hmm?" drawled Kirjain. Marie just warked in cheerful greeting.

"Um, how so?" he asked, with (he thought) clear undertones of "please get the hell out of here" in his voice.

"Well, we got some kind of new breed over there, like albino or something, and we got Cloud again over here, and his whole entourage, and- Wow! Look! He has a black too. You seem to have some real competition this time, bud! Better watch your rice-eating ass, he he."

"A rice-eating ass," he mumbled. "What an image."

The cynicism was apparently lost on Kirjain, who replied "Wow! You sound just like my creative writing teacher. He was always saying that. My first lay, you know…Oh, hey! There’s Yuffie, too! Your little girlfriend, he he!"

"Could you please not mention her?" He gave Teioh a secret command to swipe at Kirjain with his bill.

"Jee-eez! I get the message!" she shrilled, and stalked off. Marie shot him a vindictive glance over her back, and when Kirjain was almost out of earshot, he heard her ask the purple chocobo why people had to be so rude while the world was ending.

He glanced over at Cloud’s party. Rude indeed! With Cloud’s black in the next race, Carbon was sure to get a bone-dissolving earful from Dio. And the new black appeared to be a top-quality bird, not just some almost-grey third-generation trash. He could tell from the way it stood, poised to be preened and combed by Cloud’s girlfriend, Tifa. There were good muscles under those feathers. The thing was well trained, too. It didn’t get nervous at the sight of Nanaki’s predatory silhouette, even though Chocobos were one of the Cosmo tribe’s primary foods. Cloud, as usual, was standing several feet away from the bird, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and looking like the world’s prize rabbit, transfixed. Religious fanatics always had some kind of funny habit…maybe it made them more believable. That didn’t really explain why Yuffie was willing to follow that creep, or why she let him run off with Wutai’s most powerful materia.

And Yuffie-

Yuffie was staring right back at Carbon. His mouth dropped open, and he watched, fascinated, as she rapidly turned green and produced a bottle of Dramamine. She took a copious swig, smiled queasily at him, and finally broke eye contact to whisper something in Tifa’s ear. The way they both bowed over in silent, girly laughter suggested that, despite her nausea, Yuffie felt better than he did. He shut his eyes, but was still tormented by a greenish after-image of Yuffie’s smile.

"Let’s go for a little walk, huh, Teioh?" he said softly, running his fingers over Teioh’s beak. The dark bird gave a little chirp to the affirmative. He got up, untied his darling, and started to walk around the many-colored crowd. Dio kept trying to persuade Carbon to get bodyguards, but he knew this was more for Undie-man’s benefit than it was for his.

He and Teioh broke into a little trot.

"We don’t need any nasty bodyguards, do we, Tei? No, we don’t need bodyguards, we don’t need nasss-ty Dio, no, murm, murm, murm–"

A rough hand clamped down on his shoulder, stopping him. Teioh jerked to a halt, almost colliding with a wired-looking basic yellow.

"Murm, murm, murm?" an oily voice intoned mockingly.

"Oh, hi, Dio," breathed Carbon.

"Playing with your bird again, I see."

Carbon winced at the joke, a dirty pun in the Wutai language, which he’d heard from Dio about a million times. He regretted ever telling Undie-man the joke in the first place. Maybe it was better not to let foreigners like Dio in on such things.

"I’ll get right to the point, Carbon. You’re facing a lot of serious competition tonight, and you had sure as hell better win."

"Oh?"

"Don’t ‘Oh’ me, boy!"

He can’t be more than forty," thought Carbon angrily.

"Cloud has a black now, name of Sable. Since he got into breeding a couple months ago, he’s consistently registered good chocobos. Too good, dammit."

"He says he needs ‘em to save the world," Carbon laughed, trying to defuse Dio’s temper.

"It’s not funny. The guy’s a fanatic."

"Don’t worry, Teioh’ll mop the floor with Sable."

"Teioh?" Dio inquired, raising a plate-sized hand to his chin. "Three-dollar Teioh?"

"I bought him when Rufus died," Carbon replied quickly, hoping Dio wouldn’t press the matter too far.

"Hey! Good for you. Smart thinking, my friend- you know how to keep me happy."

"I sure do," said Carbon, ingratiatingly.

"You didn’t need to buy it out of your own pocket, you know. You can ask me for help anytime, right, sonny?"

"Certainly…dad."

Dio apparently hadn’t heard this, which was fortunate. Carbon regretted saying it.

"Rufus was a prick, wasn’t he, boy?" remarked Dio, scratching some itch in the back of his gold-lame briefs. The jockey averted his eyes.

"Uh…I really don’t know about that, but the Sage says he sat on that egg for weeks, so he can’t be all bad."

"Yeah, whatever." In spite of his heavy involvement in the races, Dio had absolutely no love or respect for the birds and the people who raised them. In the last days of the world, under the ridiculous provisional government (the People’s Democratic Republic of Sister Ray,) the man was still single-mindedly grabbing after gil, riding his employees, debtors, and chocobos into the ground. The asshole…

"Which brings us to your other competitor tonight."

"Another one?!"

"Yeah, it’s some kind of special juiced-up military chocobo. It’s called a Diamond."

That must have been the new breed Kirjain mentioned. Carbon spotted the bird at a distance. It was standing in a far corner. Its feathers had a weird opalescent quality, and there was something unsettling about the pale blue eyes, too. He realized what was strange about them- for the minute he spent watching the bird, it hadn’t blinked once. To top it off, the rider was completely covered in white cloth, and sat up stiff as a board.

"Is this legal ? I mean, entering a military chocobo like this?"

"Legal, ha ha…creepy thing, isn’t it?"

"Hasn’t the rider dismounted since he arrived?"

"Don’t think so."

"Dio, I don’t know if I should-"

"Remember your mom?"

Carbon suddenly became lightheaded.

"Feeling okay?" snickered Dio.

"Yeah, just the lights in here."

"Well, you don’t have to worry about a thing." Dio reached into his briefs and pulled out a cardboard box. It was labeled "DANGEROUS MATERIA: FOR MILITARY USE ONLY."

"Put your package away! I won’t hurt Teioh."

"Well, think of it this way, son. Either your bird gets hurt or you both get hurt. Or worse. Give it to Teioh half an hour before the race."

"But wouldn’t it be better for you if, ah, Teioh stayed one hundred percent?"

"NO! I mean…no! Look, don’t argue with me here. Since we have reason to think that this’ll be the last race in history, why don’t we go out with a bang?"

The jockey detected a note of desperation in the boss’s voice and realized that there was probably someone bigger and more sadistic holding a knife to Dio’s metaphorical cojones. It would be impossible to change his mind.

As he handed the box to Carbon, a hysterical, moaning cry mingled with an anguished warking rose up in the far end of the room. Kirjain had apparently trimmed one of Marie’s feathers to close to the quick, and the poor thing was bleeding a little. The sight of blood somehow maddened the Diamond, and the eerie bird was raging toward Marie and her keeper. The Diamond brought the point of his beak down on Marie’s head. Purples were luckily known for their toughness, and Marie turned angrily to face the Diamond. The Diamond’s rider, who thusfar hadn’t done anything to stop the skirmish, finally grabbed the pale bird’s reigns and steered it away from the scene without a word of apology. Kirjain led Marie out, as she was in no condition to race.

"Nasty habit," remarked Dio. "Tilt your hat to one side," he admonished Carbon, and walked away.

With shaking fingers, Carbon lifted the lid of the box. There was a fragment of deep orange ‘Firehead’ materia inside. If he gave it to Teioh, the black would surely win the race- and die or be crippled soon afterward.

"No," Carbon said softly, and put the box in his shirt pocket.

***

"I want to see Teioh and Sable bite their heads off!" cried a wide little boy, no more than five, from out of the throng of people lining the Talon Path. Carbon saw his mother clap her hand over the boy’s mouth and shake her finger, but the rider just smiled and shouted, "I’ll do my best!" No matter what Dio did to make his life hell, he always loved the procession before the race. The crowd threw flowers and gold stars so that the air stormed with prismatic lightning and the thunder of thousands of voices. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a teenage girl creep out from under the velvet rope to grab one of Teioh’s discarded feathers. She held it to her forehead and shut her eyes in rapture.

Carbon looked back at Cloud, who was second in line. He was waving stiffly, still wearing his rabbit look. The crowd, at least, wasn’t giving him such a warm reception, and some of them were actually booing. Sable seemed to be taking it in stride, holding his head up and warking excitedly. The Diamond, whose name had been announced as Asphodel, brought up the rear, as the order of the procession was determined by rank. Neither rider nor chocobo seemed the least bit affected by the heady charge in the air. Asphodel was twisting his neck from side to side very slowly in a most uncanny fashion. The rider, about whom nothing had been announced, kept his hands folded into his white sleeves. He didn’t touch the reins, let alone raise a hand to wave.

When the birds reached the starting line of the long course, all the riders were given five minutes to make a final check of their diving gear. The chocobos had special remote-controlled aqualungs in their capacious beaks, but the riders just had to put theirs on quickly, before they ran into the 1/10 mile Soggy Surprise. In the early years of Gold Saucer, the birds and riders were simply expected to hold their breaths, but too many racers were lost this way, and artificial breathers became mandatory. Carbon’s breather looked fine. Cloud kept checking his obsessively, tapping it and sucking on it. During the breather check, the moogle announcer would start his inane commentary.

"A REALLY EARTH-SHATTERING RACE TODAY, FOLKS!!!"

He always said this. Tonight, for once, maybe it was true.

"IT’S THE BATTLE OF THE BLACKS WITH RASKOLNIKOV "CARBON" WEI’S NEW THREE-DOLLAR TEIOOHHH! AND CLOUD STRIFE’S SAAAABLE! IN THE RUNNING. THIS CLOUD’S A FUNNY GUY! HE DOESN’T SPELL HIS CHOCOBO’S NAME IN ALL CAPS LIKE A NORMAL RACER! IT’S KOOKY! AND SO IS HIS PLAN TO SAVE THE WORLD! LET’S PRAY FOR SABLE! AND FIND OUT WHICH BLACK IS WHITE!-UH, ‘SCUSE ME FOLKS, I MEAN RIGHT! HO HO…

His puns are worse than usual, Carbon thought. He put his hand up and ran his fingers over Typo’s feather, as Dio told him to do. The crowd always roared a bit louder when he did that. They thought it was cute. This time, the first time, he accompanied the good luck gesture with a mental plea to whoever was tuned in to the ether: Please let me win. Much to his surprise, he thought he heard a reply in a sweet, feminine voice that yet had a strange bite: You or the world?

"Smartass," he said out loud.

The announcer went into an explanation of how the audiences’ viewing screens worked. Each seat in the stands was equipped with three little televisions which received live footage of the race from over a hundred cameras close to the track. Then there was a massive globe hung over the center of the course which also showed the race…and ads in the top right-hand corner. And of course,

"IF YOU NOSEBLEED FOLKS WANT TO SEE THE BIIIIG PICTURE, JUST LOOK OVER AND DOWN, HO HO." There were booms and mushroom clouds of yellow smoke on either side of the starting line.

"THEY’RE OFF!"

Carbon gave the snap of the reins that ordered Teioh to run. Five other sets of reins snapped simultaneously and the birds bolted forward like shots from a roman candle. A surge of animal energy coursed through the jockey as Teioh effortlessly took the lead. They flew through a virtual pastoral setting, colored brighter than life. The confident black, who had now gotten them far ahead of the others, lowered his head and snapped up a virtual iris from the roadside garden. Faintly, Carbon heard a ripple of laughter from the crowd.

Carbon was sorry he’d ever doubted Teioh. They moved over the ground like a butterfly searching for nectar. The rider put his hands out, feeling a warm night draft from the open ceiling. Dio ceased to exist. There was truly nothing better than to ride this way at the end of the world.

"WHAT’S THIS?"

The announcer broke Carbon’s reverie. They were nearing the Soggy Surprise- he quickly fitted on his breather.

"IT LOOKS LIKE SABLE IS GAINING! ASPHODEL COMING IN HARD AT THIRD!"

Carbon swore, but gave Teioh a mental assurance that it wasn’t over yet. Then chocobo and rider took the plunge.

Into a cold, shadowy world of phantom sharks, rays, and jellyfish. The ghostly sea creatures were there to spook the chocobo and maybe frustrate it, but the sinister aquarium was second nature to Teioh. He paddled along steadily with his long, powerful toes, holding his head out stiffly in front to reduce drag. At one point, he even swam right through one of the phantasm sharks. Carbon’s hat came off his head, freeing a mess of shoulder length hair to flutter in the current. He secured the knot that tied it to his neck and took a glance behind him. Sable seemed to be tossed a little by the current but was still gaining. Asphodel came after. The pale bird was swimming in a boneless, unbirdlike fashion. More like an eel, in fact. The rider’s white cape flowed out like a ray’s fins. It wasn’t wearing a breather…and the chocobo seemed to have sprouted gills.

In his sudden unease, Carbon let out a cloud of bubbles. Water rushed up his nose- and Teioh was on dry land again. The Dragon Bridge was ahead. The jockey turned off the bird’s breather and pulled off his own.

"SABLE AND TEIOH ARE NECK TO NECK!"

As if understanding the announcer’s words, Teioh gave a great cry and surged forward again- only to be kicked sharply in the side by Sable.

"Why, you- !" Carbon yelled at Cloud, shocked and angry, as Teioh began to falter.

"So-o-o-ryyy! I have to save the wo-o-o-orld!" Cloud called back as he ducked to avoid one of the dragons.

"OOH! THAT WAS NASTY! LEGAL, BUT NASTY! LET’S HOPE TEIOH IS OOOKAY!"

Teioh was most definitely not okay. He had stopped dead and was stamping the ground furiously, warking out for vengeance. A member of the support team in purple uniform rushed out on the track, only to be stamped squarely in the chest by the hysterical fowl.

"Don’t do this!" sobbed Carbon. "Pleeeaase! We can still get ahead…"

The chocobo finally saw the light of reason. The whole fiasco had really only taken a few seconds, Carbon told himself, as Teioh picked up speed again. Then he felt something hard and incredibly heavy jab him in the back.

"What the-"

He looked back and Asphodel was raging after him, beak wide open to reveal a cavernous blue mouth. The pale bird raced out in front of Teioh, cutting them off, then began to pursue them down the track- in the wrong direction.

By this time, Carbon’s mental processes were more or less paralyzed.

"You’re going the wrong way," he moaned to Asphodel’s cadaverous rider, as Teioh and pursuer both crashed into a green who had just come out of the drink. At this, the Diamond finally gave up his pursuit and turned around. Teioh bowed his head, exhausted, and his rider slumped miserably in the saddle, eyes watering. The three other chocobos pranced neatly around the dejected pair.

"AN INCREDIBLE UPSET! SABLE WINS, ASPHODEL AND BOB COME IN SECOND AND THIRD. THREE-DOLLAR TEIOH COMES IN LAST! THAT’LL MAKE HIM THE FIRST CHOCOBO BRED BY CARBON TO LOSE A MAJOR RACE! OOH, I FEEL SORRY FOR MISTER WEI, DON’T YOU?"

The crowd droned in sympathy as Teioh limped across the finish line and fell down on his rump gracelessly. Carbon dismounted, no, slid off with the sheer force of gravity, and nuzzled Teioh’s side. The black put out a wing to shield him from the unfriendly world.

"My dad…my little brother…Dio’ll find a way to get us back, even if he only has three days…" Carbon removed his hat and looked at Typo’s feather, which by now was thoroughly disheveled. There was Cloud, bouncing triumphantly up and down on Sable’s back, like an idiot. Asphodel was carved in ice.

The blonde moron was coming towards Carbon now. The nerve!!

Carbon staggered to his feet. He’d be damned if he let that sonofabitch apologize! And it was better not to even think about Yuffie!

"Ah, Mr. Wei? I was wondering if…if…" stuttered the mental defective.

"YOU BASTARD!" Carbon managed to say.

"O-oh." Cloud skulked off, but he must not have been that sorry, because he turned to the crowd again and started twirling his sword. The spectators were eating it up, the suckers. Tifa, Yuffie, and the whole Cloud Cult came out to congratulate him. Nanaki twirled his fiery tail in delight. Meanwhile Barret fired several shots into the air, until a security guard asked him to stop.

What, Yuffie, did you just forget about me? Perhaps not. He saw Yuffie point his way and say something to Cloud. She started towards Carbon.

Well, don’t expect me to say anything nice, you shuriken-carrying slut.

"AHEM!"

Yuffie stopped dead in her tracks, and the stadium went silent.

"WE HAVE SOME SAD NEWS, FOLKS. THE DIAMOND CHOCOBO ASPHODEL IS GOING TO BE DISQUALIFIED FOR ILLEGAL, WILD, AND PLAIN PSYCHOTIC CONDUCT. WOULD ASPHODEL’S RIDER PLEASE REPORT TO DIO’S OFFICE FOR QUESTIONING?"

Asphodel gave an unearthly squawk.

"HURRY UP, ASPHODEL, WE’D LIKE TO GET THIS CLEARED UP AS SOON AS WE CAN!" rattled the announcer.

Both the Diamond and the rider started to writhe and roll hysterically. Then the bird began to grind the top of its head into the floor. And then, to Carbon’s horror, tangles of translucent green tentacles started to ooze out from between its feathers. The rider, also, seemed to be afflicted with tentacles. Some people in the audience started to mutter and cautiously walk towards the exits, but most of them stayed, mesmerized by the sight.

"UH, WE HAVE A LITTLE SITUATION HERE, FOLKS, WHY DON’T YOU EXIT THE STADIUM? PLEASE? DON’T PANIC!"

The remaining spectators refused to get up. One section even started up a chant. The only words Carbon could make out were "Carnage," "Spectacle," and "Strewn With Bloody Feathers."

Dio, the boss himself, appeared on the scene with a small army of wranglers armed with electric prods. The crowd gave them a warm applause.

"What the hell is going on here?" he roared. The wranglers brandished their prods at the seething mass, which, on its two stick-thin legs, looked like the world’s moldiest lollipop. Bird and rider could no longer be distinguished. There was a hellish wail, and the green mess ran at Dio. A sinewy pseudopod formed out of combined tentacles sprouted from Asphodel’s ‘front’ and seized Dio. It lifted him and pounded him into the ground several times. When the boss was finally dropped he lay completely inert and shaped more like a doughnut than a human being. The wranglers ran for the exit in terror.

"Asphodel!" shouted Cloud. "That’s as far as it goes!"

"YOU TELL HIM, CLOUD!" the spectators yelled encouragingly.

Cloud ran up to the mutant chocobo and tried to strike at it with his sword. The pseudopod grabbed his wrist and twisted the sword out of his hand. Then it snatched Cloud himself, shook him a little, and flung him into the stands.

Carbon found his voice.

"Summon something, you dimwits!"

At that moment, Asphodel sucked Cid up into the mass and appeared to be chewing on him. The monstrosity must have found Cid rather bitter, for he spat the pilot out in a lifeless heap.

"We left our materia in the hotel room!" wailed Yuffie. She was now the only one of Cloud’s party left standing. She ran up into the stands, where some of the spectators had finally developed the sense to start packing up. Asphodel seethed after, mangling several bystanders and entangling them in his tentacles, carrying them rather than dropping them.

The monster was very close to Yuffie now. She ducked under a seat. Asphodel seemed puzzled for a moment. It directed an attack at one of the screens, which pictured the empty track. But surely it wouldn’t be deceived for long.

"You dumb chick, you leave me no choice," declared Carbon. He pulled out the box with the Firehead materia. The heat he generated during the race was causing the materia to glow through the cardboard. He shook the sparking jewel out into his hand, closed his eyes, and popped the Firehead into his mouth.

Instantly he felt hot and fierce. His skin flushed, and then thousands of phantom, ruby colored blades shot out from his arms. Longer, red plume-knives formed a halo around his head. He whirled in his mad adrenaline fever.

"Come on, Teioh!"

He jumped on Teioh’s back and steered the bird up into the stands after Asphodel. The few remaining racing fans gave a collective "OOH! PRETTY!" as the Carbon-comet climbed past them. Teioh must have inhaled a little of the Firehead vapor, because he had become faster and stronger than he had ever been. And Carbon was one with the chocobo.

"Asphodel!" he yelled. "Come over here and be decapitated, you goddamn…CHIA PET!"

Asphodel turned and cocked his head to one side as if to say you must be joking. He retracted his tentacles, resuming the semblance of an ordinary chocobo and rider. Then he jumped up and started running along on top of the seat backs towards Carbon. Carbon braced himself, red knives bristling. Teioh dug his talons into the carpet.

When the pale chocobo reached the end of the row of seats, he launched himself into the air with a convulsive leap. In mid arc the tentacles exploded out from the body again.

Looks like a giant, flying, killer chrysanthemum, thought Carbon, as he willed a thicket of red blades to spring up on his right arm. Holding Teioh’s reins tightly, he held out the knife-arm- and sliced deep into the front of the tentacle-flower as it flew towards his head.

At once he was showered with severed tentacles and slippery green ectoplasm. Something had separated from the body. It landed on a nearby seat and the tentacles dissipated. It was indeed Asphodel’s head. The monster’s body fell into the aisle, thin legs kicking madly. The body’s tentacles also disappeared, and the neck stump flopped from side to side, trumpeting like an elephant. Carbon noticed that there were no bones or sinews visible in the neck cross-section, just a single, yawning windpipe. Instead of muscles, the beast appeared to be entirely composed of homogenous blue-green plasm. Asphodel’s rider didn’t dismount because he seemed to be stuck to the demon chocobo’s back, and it occurred to Carbon that the bird and rider were actually parts of a single organism. He sent out another knife slash, cutting the biological heap neatly in half. The halves began to melt into the floor, giving off a briny, sick odor.

Teioh gave the morass one last kick.

"Yuffie!" Carbon called, steering the bird towards her. At once, the phantom knives disappeared, and he felt sharp pains in his sinuses. Something warm was bubbling up in the back of his mouth. He was suddenly nauseous, and started to cough. A torrent of blood gushed from his mouth and onto his shirt.

The Firehead…it must have burst a vein… he thought, and saw the lights dimming. Teioh sensed his distress and gave a panicked squawk. The jockey became dizzy. In an instant he was sliding off the chocobo’s back and into the carpeted aisle. Before his vision faded, he noticed the carpet was almost the same color as his blood.

***

Carbon felt someone brush his lips with a soft phoenix feather. His consciousness floated to the surface, and he realized he was lying in bed. A girl was holding him and stroking his hair. There was nothing to do but smile.

"Uh, what’s nine times nine?" Yuffie asked him concernedly.

"Eighty-one. Is that right?"

"I dunno. Let me check." Yuffie produced a calculator and punched in some figures. "’ERROR?!’ Whaddya mean ‘ERROR!!’"

"Let me see that," Carbon suggested helpfully. "Maybe I can get it to work."

"Nah, forget it, you need to rest." The girl stared up at the ceiling for a moment. "Ooh," she finally cried. "I missed you so much!" She started sucking on his forehead.

Glancing to one side, Carbon saw they were in an opulently furnished room lined with glass cases. The cases contained hundreds of sparkling trophies topped by miniature gold chocobos. In one corner stood a bronze cast of the skeleton of an Unguloequus solituda, a prehistoric chocobo ancestor.

"Whoa…" Carbon interrupted, trying to push her away. "Where are we? The bed seems familiar."

"Back room of the registration office." Yuffie gave a horrified squeak as she was struck by a realization. "You and Ester!?"

"Well, no," the jockey stammered. "Dio was introducing me to some of Don Corneo’s girls, and…"

Yuffie clapped her hands over her ears.

"Grossness! "

"It’s all over, Yuff. I’ve given up the underworld life…as of a few hours ago. Is your dad still mad at me?"

"Nah…It’s been a year. He never stays pissed for long. Soon you two’ll be sucking down rice wine in the kitchen again, telling endless dull stories…if the planet doesn’t blow up, that is."

Carbon suddenly remembered Teioh. He sat bolt upright in bed, triggering a wave of nausea.

"Uggh," he said, lying back down. "Yuffie! What happened to Teioh?"

As if in answer, the door swung open and the Gold Saucer Head Veterinarian walked in, leading the black chocobo. When the bird saw Carbon he immediately broke loose from the vet’s grip and nuzzled the jockey’s cheek.

"Wah! Is that safe?" inquired Yuffie nervously. She liked chocobos in sort of an abstract way but didn’t feel entirely comfortable around them. The vet, a very stern-looking character with a white moustache, grabbed Teioh’s reins and pulled him back.

"Is Teioh okay, doc?" the jockey asked, holding his hand out to the bird.

"He’s a bit shell-shocked," the vet answered gravely. "He probably won’t race again."

Teioh gave a low remorseful w-a-a-ark.

"But he’ll make an excellent breeder."

At this, the black chocobo perked up considerably.

"Oh, that reminds me," Yuffie chirped. "Cloud wanted me to give you a message, ‘cuz he couldn’t work up the nerve to give it to you himself. Oh, uh, make that two messages. Which one do you want first, the good one or the creepy one?"

"The creepy one?" Carbon asked, rubbing his pale eyelids.

Yuffie misunderstood.

"Okay, I’ll tell you then…God, this is, like, so creepy!" She wiggled her fingers in Carbon’s face in a gesture that was apparently meant to illustrate this.

"Uh, yeah. Anyway, Cloud went up to chew Ester out ‘cuz he was mad that she let Asphodel into the race, and she said, ‘Nuh-huh, I didn’t let that thing into the race, my nephew Chester musta done it.’ But then Cloud talked to Chester, and he said, ‘No-oh, it musta been my dumb aunt.’ So, like, nobody knows who registered it."

"That is creepy," acknowledged Carbon. "Now tell me the good news. Then we can send the vet out of here and have some time alo–"

"Not done! This is the worst part! Tifa says the rider opened his hood at her, and she saw Hojo’s face!!"

"Who’s Hojo?" the jockey asked, signaling the vet to go outside. Yuffie gave him a shocked look, then said, "Well. Now for the good news. Cloud, as you know, has this black chocobo called Sable…a boy."

"I’m fully aware of this–"

"And this really, really, like, dynamite wild chocobo from Icicle. It’s a girl…called Chet."

"Are you saying what I think you’re saying?"

"Well, er, if we save the planet, you know, Cloud doesn’t want to stay in the chocobo-breeding business, so he told me to tell you that, uh, he’ll give you the Gold Chocobo when he’s done, uh, using it. I know you only like blacks, so if you don’t want it we can donate it to a petting zoo or something."

Carbon flushed with excitement. "No, no, I want it!" He turned to Teioh. "Hear that? We can find out what you get when you put a black and a gold together."

Yuffie lay down next to Carbon and hugged him.

"Why don’t I sent Teioh out now?" the chocobo jockey asked the kung-fu master. "We can find out what you get when you put a Carbon and a Yuffie together."