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Vs the Midgar Zolom

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“Give it to me one more time, Johnny-boy.” Roche’s mouth was curved into a sort of half-smile, eyes shining in a manner that Chadley supposed could be interpreted as enthusiastic although it seemed to go somewhat farther than that.

They all got off the bike to approach the edge of the marsh – a sprawling wetland that stretched all the way to the mountain in the distance. Chadley had knowledge and data files on such places, but this was the first time he’d seen anything of the like in-person. He’d spent his entire existence in Shinra’s labs, up until he’d found the loophole in his programming allowing him to venture around the city in the name of research. He’d thought when he first observed the slums of Midgar that they were beautiful, but seeing the shining waters and graceful, swaying, grasses ahead he could understand why people thought them ugly, and the marsh wasn’t even a sight most people would classify as anything special. Based on the data he’d consumed, people were more enamored by clear blue waters (the marsh was muddy), vibrant greenery (the tall grasses were a shade closer to brown than the fields they’d previously been riding through), and sunny skies (it was mostly overcast).

Looking out over the wetlands, Chadley couldn’t help but wonder what he would see next on his journey. If they didn’t run into Cloud on the road – which was their goal – they were going to head to Junon. He’d get to see the ocean with his own eyes.

Not that this was Chadley’s first time observing anything beyond Midgar. It had been a few days since he’d lied to Roche – the brash SOLDIER he’d managed to locate while scrambling to arrange his own escape – about his assignment and since then they’d seen rocky badlands, the quaint town of Kalm, and lots of trees and farmland.

As far as the long-haired man knew Chadley had been tasked with locating Cloud Strife – for research purposes – and Roche was along as his protection. In truth, it had been discovered that Chadley had managed to circumvent his programming and was essentially free. He may have tried to use his position at Shinra and secret freedom to aid Avalanche, but being discovered had meant he needed to run before his programming could be adjusted. He couldn’t think of anywhere to run except towards Cloud, who had helped him achieve his newfound free will. Perhaps he could learn something of being a person from him.

Roche was the perfect candidate to help him find Cloud because it seemed – based on what Cloud had said when turning over data related to their battle – the he viewed the other SOLDIER as a rival of sorts and would have his own motivation to complete the mission even if Chadley’s deception were uncovered. That he was probably the fastest way out of town was also a noteworthy asset.

Johnny was also there. This was not by Chadley’s design, per say, although he supposed he had been the one to greet the hitchhiker that Roche would likely have ignored. He had recognized him as the loud red haired man that had run by him numerous times during the night he’d been in Wall Market to collect data from Cloud. He had also seemed to be acquainted with Cloud, and that was why Chadley had thought he might be a lead. He was not, apparently having left Midgar before Cloud and his party did.

Still, Chadley would not have chosen to leave him alone in the badlands under the unforgiving sun. He could decide who he was now, and he wanted to be the kind of person who helped people in need. Like Cloud did. The choice was ultimately Roche’s, though, and there’d been a moment where Chadley had thought he would abandon him before he’d decided to be merciful. The data he’d been able to extract on Roche (when Chadley was still in range to interface with Shinra’s servers over wifi) suggested he was not generally known for being merciful, but perhaps the data was wrong. He seemed nice enough so far.

They were initially going to part ways with Johnny in Kalm, but once Johnny had learned they were looking for Cloud and his friends he had declared that he was coming with them because he had to find Tifa.

“This must be, like, fate or something. Seriously guys. I left Midgar alone, stoically accepting that it’d just be me all alone, totally isolated, forever. Tifa probably thought I was this cool, aloof, bad boy who was leaving her behind for a life of adventure – I give off that vibe – and she probably didn’t know how badly I wanted her to ask me to stay. But now that we’re both out of Midgar, and I met up with people who are looking for her? It’s gotta be fate, right?” Johnny had looked between Chadley and Roche, practically bouncing with excitement. “Now I can find Tifa and let these walls down. Really show her I need her, y’know?”

“Well, I’m not really looking for Cloud to help with Chickadee’s –“

Roche had a tendency to call him Chickadee. Or Chicklet. Or kiddo. Chadley was unsure how to take it and couldn’t quite decipher why the SOLDIER was averse to using his actual name. Roche did not seem to mean offense, however, and so Chadley was accepting it for the time being.

“- research. I guess it’s fine if you come along for your own reasons too.”

“Really bro? You like Cloud? Like, like-like him?” Chadley didn’t understand why Johnny was saying ‘like’ so much.

“Biggest challenge I’ve had in years. Started off as a chase of sorts, and that’s when he won me over. Best night I’ve had in a long time.” These were the facts as Chadley knew them and yet he was still fairly certain he was missing something. Johnny had certainly reacted with more glee than the details merited. He was likely missing something too.

“Dude! Yes! I know people say one night’s not enough, but I think that when you know you know, you know? I knew Tifa was the girl for me right away. So it’s settled!” Johnny had pointed suddenly at Roche, radiating a joy that was infectious even while Chadley hadn’t understood its root. “You’re going to find Cloud and win him over. I’m going to find Tifa and prove my feelings to her. This is a quest for love!”

“I wish you luck in that, but the purpose of this mission is research.” Chadley spoke up, feeling the need to stay on track even knowing it was only pretense. Johnny had smiled oddly at him and made a sound like Chadley had heard a young girl in Sector 7 make at her feline companions.

“Aww, little dude, I guess you don’t quite understand this grown-up stuff yet. Don’t worry, you’ll get there soon.”

Chadley frowned at the implication that he didn’t understand things because he was a child, even if he was perhaps confused. His youth wasn’t the reason for it. Physically he was meant to be in the midst of adolescence. He was not a child. Or a cat, despite Johnny’s cooing and Roche’s petting of his head.

In any case, Chadley was on the run and seeking out Cloud, his sole ally, in hopes of learning more about humanity and life beyond programming. Roche was on a quest for revenge, or at least a rematch. And Johnny thought this was all about finding love.

They’d left Kalm with a lead on the direction Cloud’s party had gone and had stopped in at a chocobo ranch in hopes of learning more. The farmhand had told them Cloud was headed across a marsh – not exactly motorbike-friendly terrain – which was patrolled by an excessively fast serpent that could sense movement in its territory.

The farmhand had tried to sell them greens and teach them about catching chocobos to cross safely. Apparently chocobos were the only way to outrun the ‘Midgar Zolom’.

Roche had seen that as a challenge, and one he was looking forward to. They had turned down the greens and headed directly for the marsh. Roche had had Johnny re-tell him the ‘story’ of the Zolom a few times since they’d set out. Each time, Johnny’s telling got a bit more dramatic, which seemed to get Roche more excited, which seemed to incentivize Johnny to be even more theatrical in his next telling.

Chadley didn’t really understand the appeal, but there was a lot about human interaction he didn’t understand yet.

“Give it to me one more time, Johnny-boy.”

No longer confined to the motorcycle, where his gestures had been limited by whether he wanted to risk letting go of Roche, Johnny climbed a small boulder nearby to accommodate his most expressive re-telling yet and threw his arms out as if presenting the view behind him.

“Behold the home of the beast! The Midgar Zolom – a gigantic snake monster able to cross the entire marsh in mere moments – stalks these muddy waters in search of prey! The Zolom can sense movement from anywhere in its domain, then it’s like wooosh and chomp!” Johnny told the tale with considerably more drama than the initial ‘they say we need a chocobo ‘cuz there’s a big snake’ of that morning. He even wiggled his arm around like a snake and did the ‘chomp’ with his hand.

Roche’s half-smile widened from something that was perhaps smug to something more daring. He stood beside Johnny’s rock, surveying the challenge ahead with pleased eyes. “It’s the fastest thing on no legs, but is it a match for the fastest thing on wheels? Today the Zolom faces the speed demon! The stakes? Pride, glory, and the very lives of the demon and his compatriots!”

Roche was adding to the story now, inserting himself as if they were inside some sort of legend. Fascinating.

“It’s no match at all, right? I mean, bro, we’ve been practically flying. Sometimes actually flying, I think, and I would really appreciate if you could warn me about that when there are big jumps and stuff. Like, anything that could actually kill us. Not that I think your driving’s gonna get us killed! But, hey, while we’re on the topic you don’t think this snake could really kill us, right? It’ll be no match?” Johnny started off confident, but had deflated by the end of his tangent as if the thought that they could face real peril had just occurred to him while speaking.

Honestly, it hadn’t really occurred to Chadley either. Not that he was not logically and intellectually aware of the danger, he just hadn’t given it much thought. His thoughts had never dwelled much on his own life, in the sense of mortality. When he’d met Cloud he had suggested the mercenary kill him if he found himself unhappy with their arrangement, and he’d never thought twice about that either.

Roche patted Johnny’s arm and smiled at him. “The fun is in the challenge.”

“Oh, yeah, for sure! I totally get you. I’m all about challenges. Pushing myself. All that. But, like,” Johnny jumped down from the rock and turned to face the marsh alongside Roche and Chadley, seemingly finding his slight elevation awkward now. “it’s a challenge you know you can win...right?”

“Doubting me, Johnny-boy?” Johnny called himself that a few times before Roche picked it up himself. Chadley had tried it out once and they’d both laughed at him for what he felt was an unnecessary length of time.

“We will be extremely limited in our route options. A chocobo can traverse mud and loose earth, but a motorcycle cannot.” Chadley weighed in, not to argue but to provide relevant information. He could see what appeared to be a footpath of more stable material winding through and it would probably hold the motorcycle, but there wasn’t a guarantee it would do so for as long as they needed it to or even that the path was unbroken the entire way through the marsh. It was clearly man-made, and so it must have been made before the Zolom posed the risk it did today and must be quite old. “The only available path seems indirect and unreliable.”

“Life is about risks, kiddo.” Roche laughed, ruffled his hair, and returned to the bike, petting it affectionately before climbing on. He seemed to be a more tactile person than Chadley had met before.

Chadley followed him, content that he’d reported the information that had seemed necessary, and resumed his usual place on the back of the motorcycle, facing backwards and gripping the seat below him more tightly than a fully organic human would be able to. Johnny hesitated, scratching the back of his head for a moment while Roche started the engine. Chadley glanced over his shoulder at Roche when he saw that Johnny seemed to be exchanging a look with him. Roche’s eyebrows were raised as if issuing a challenge and after a moment Johnny joined them, squeezing awkwardly between them and holding tight to Roche as had become usual. Then they were off.

The path was not built for a vehicle like theirs, but it was also sturdier than Chadley anticipated. It wasn’t collapsing, and they seemed to be making good progress. The valley behind them became more distant and featureless by the second as Chadley watched. There came a point minutes in where the rock Johnny had stood on was no longer discernable, and Chadley felt Johnny himself – their backs were touching due to the limited space on the bike – un-tensing. Perhaps they were approaching the other side already?

Chadley turned to look and saw they were still a long way off. Johnny must have only relaxed because no giant serpentine creature had appeared in their path so far.

Chadley looked back in the direction his body was facing just in time to see the Zolom burst from the mud behind them, looming tall for half a second before diving towards him. It occurred to Chadley that this was the part where most humans would scream, but he had never screamed before and found himself frozen. The beast’s jaws snapped centimeters from his face and he heard himself let out a distressed sound he didn’t have a word for. His heart – one of his completely biological parts – hammered in his chest in a disturbing way that Chadley thought couldn’t be healthy.

“You okay, Chad?” Johnny apparently hadn’t heard the snake’s arrival over the sound of the motorcycle engine, but he did hear Chadley and when he glanced back to check on him “ -holy shit it’s here! It’s here, shit, it’s huge what do we do?”

“Hang on tight!”

“If you have some kind of special rocket mode or something now would be the time to use that!”

Chadley didn’t look to see how his companions were taking the arrival of the monster. He couldn’t. But he did feel an arm wrap around his torso and think – distantly – that it was a big risk for Johnny not to have both hands on Roche while they were going so fast. It was a moment longer before he realized Johnny’s grip was necessary because he was no longer gripping the bike beneath him. Johnny had probably had to move to stop him from falling off, which meant he was probably only hanging on to Roche with one hand pulling on his shirt or something. It wasn’t safe. Chadley should hold on to the bike so Johnny could hang on properly to. But the snake was diving again, and –

Where did it go?

A hissing roar sounded from behind Chadley, in front of the bike. It must have moved through the ground and water again. The Zolom was completely adapted to moving and hunting in this marsh, and they were no match.

Chadley calculated that they were probably going to die. He was also dimly aware that his face was wet. Perhaps the Zolom had splashed him?

“Well hello big boy! I’ve heard a lot about you!” Roche was…he wasn’t worried? Or he didn’t care?

The world blurred with sudden motion and they were flying. Chadley wasn’t sure if Roche had tried to jump the Zolom or hit it with the bike and jump off in the opposite direction. Either way, it hadn’t worked. Chadley found himself face down in mud, one arm bent awkwardly – and painfully – under his body. Only a sprain, his diagnostic system informed him, not that that mattered.

“Oh no, nonononono, this isn’t – crap!” Johnny had fallen somewhere nearby and was quickly pulling Chadley to his feet.

“We cannot outrun it.” It had been faster than Roche’s motorcycle after all. “There would be little point in - We can’t - We will most likely –“ Chadley wasn’t capable of short-circuiting, but he felt as if he was doing it anyways. “We’re going to die.”

“Hey, Chad, no, we’re not gonna – I mean, it doesn’t look good, but Roche is a SOLDIER, right?”

Oh. Right. Yes, Roche was fighting the Zolom now, dodging strikes and lashing out with his sword and Thundara. He was only one person, though. So far they’d had to fight a handful of monsters that had wandered into the road and by ‘they’ Chadley really meant ‘Roche’. Johnny could toss a potion and Chadley could provide tactical data, but Roche was their only real fighter. Chadley had been planning to acquire materia (he did not have the equipment to tailor his own) and prove himself useful with magic, but hadn’t had the opportunity yet. And now he never would.

“Um, little dude? Chadley? You’re shaking. Like, I am too, but you’re – can you hear me?” Worried brown eyes bore into his and a hand waved in front of his face. Chadley could hear him, but didn’t have the will to reply. This was it. He’d spent his entire existence…. Existing. Not living. He’d planned so carefully to change that, to claim a life that was his, and he had. And now it was over before it really started.

“Hey Roche, Chadley’s not doing so great!”

Roche seemed to be on top of the Zolom’s head, attempting to stab it through the skull, but its scales were too thick. Roche was tossed off and landed near them. He tossed a thunder spell at the beast that bought them some time.

“Then get the kid out of here.” Roche dragged his motorbike up from where it had partially fallen off the path and then grabbed Johnny’s arm harshly, dragging him towards it. Johnny hesitantly swung his leg over so he was in the driver’s position and Chadley found himself being picked up and placed behind him. “You gotta hold on, Chadley.”

He wasn’t sure if it was Roche’s use of his actual name or the faint hope of escape that broke through his inability to move, but he fisted one hand in Johnny’s shirt with a steely grip. Roche flashed him a grin and turned to go back to his fight, but couldn’t because Chadley had a similar grip on his wrist.

“Ah, no can do, sorry. I can’t pass up a challenge like this. Man vs beast, clash of the titans of speed – this is the big leagues, kiddo, and I’ve got to rise to the occasion.”

“Um, what? No way, man! We’re not leaving you behind!” Johnny yelled, just figuring out why he was in the driver’s seat. "I barely know how to drive this thing."

“You’ll lose.” Chadley heard himself say.

“Oh ye of little faith. You wound me, chickadee, truly.”

Logically, it only made sense to let him try. If he defeated the Zolom then the path would be cleared. If he didn’t, he’d still be keeping it busy while Chadley and Johnny escaped. Roche was only supposed to be an ally of convenience, after all. His file said he could be cruel. Chadley wasn’t under the impression that they were friends. Using him as a distraction while they escaped was using him as a tool, though. Chadley had been a tool his entire short existence. He couldn’t do that to someone. He also couldn’t stand the thought of one of the only people he was acquainted with who didn’t see him as a particularly advanced appliance just… stopping.

“I do not want you to die.”

“Me either! Just get on the bike, Roche! Please!”

Roche looked shocked for a moment before he was suddenly busy fending off a gigantic snake head with his sword. It reared back as Roche cut it across the eye and Roche hopped into Chadley’s usual spot on the back of the bike. Johnny started off the bike and yelped as it jerked forwards, not prepared. They kept on moving, though, and Roche continually prepared lightning spells to keep the snake just a little bit behind them.

Chadley wasn’t sure how long it took to make it back to their original side of the marsh. He wasn’t aware of when they’d stopped. He wasn’t aware that his face was pressed tightly against Johnny’s back until he felt the redhead trying to pry his arms from around him. Chadley let them fall slack. They had made it to safety, so why didn’t he feel relieved? Why was his heart still hammering like this? Why wasn’t he pleased? Why couldn’t he stop thinking about those powerful jaws snapping in his face?

Johnny was hugging him then and even though Chadley had been clinging to him a moment earlier it felt suffocating. He shook his head and solidly – but not roughly – pushed him away.

“Sorry Chad, you just look like you could use a hug, is all…” Johnny was shaking. His breathing was ragged. He was still affected by the ordeal as well, but he was still coherent. Still functioning. Chadley should be able to do that same.

“I’m alright. We should consider capturing chocobos before we try to cross again.”

Chadley expected Roche, who was hovering in the distance somewhere behind Johnny, to protest as he had initially about not leaving his bike behind. He didn’t. He nodded, uncharacteristically quiet, and gestured for Johnny to get out of his seat. They rearranged themselves into the usual formation with Chadley on the back and Johnny in the middle, and then they were on their way back to the chocobo ranch.

Buying gysahl greens and heading out into the field was all a blur to Chadley, who felt like he was on autopilot while the sound of the Zolom’s mouth closing over the space his head had just occupied played over and over in his head. The life he’d finally claimed could have ended today and he wouldn't have done anything in it.

They’d left Roche’s bike in the care of the ranch for the time being, so the engine didn’t spook any birds they managed to find. They went to the area of the valley the ranch workers directed them to and began encountering monster parties that included chocobos. Johnny would keep the bird happy with greens while Roche took care of the monsters. Chadley was dimly aware that he was supposed to be providing tactical data and that he wasn’t doing it.

They met more monsters that weren’t in the company of chocobos than ones that were, and with only Roche fighting they were struggling to defeat them before the chocobos ran away. The sun was on its way down before they caught one, and they would need at least two.

“It’s been a long day. Maybe we should keep trying in the morning? I don’t know if chocobos even wander around at night like in the day or not.” Johnny was the first to suggest stopping, his last words muffled by a large yawn. Roche, who hated anything that slowed them down and never wanted to stop riding to camp, looked for a moment like he would protest. He glanced at Chadley, though, and then seemed to decide against it. Johnny had been shooting him looks for hours at this point as well.

He didn’t like the thought that he was worrying Johnny, and he hadn’t thought it possible to worry Roche. He didn’t know how to address it, though, so he stayed quiet as they set up tents and started a fire.

It was at that point, once camp was set up and they were just waiting for the beans they’d bought in Kalm to get hot, that Johnny really started hovering. First, he offered Chadley water, which he accepted on the basis that hydration was generally a good idea but did not end up ingesting. Then, he repeatedly asked ‘how are you doing with that water, Chad?’ every few minutes (was it not obvious that he wasn’t drinking it?). Then he tried to offer Chadley his jacket, even though it wasn’t cold. It wasn’t until ‘Are you sure you don’t want a hug?’ that Chadley decided he needed to address his…state.

“I am fine. I apologize for worrying you. I’ve never felt fear like that before and recovering is taking longer than would be ideal, but I should be operating normally by the morning.”

“You… don’t have to be, you know?” Johnny sat hesitantly next to him on the ground and Chadley chose to stare into the fire rather than meet his eyes. “I mean, today was really scary. Like, I’m probably going to have nightmares about giant snakes tonight. It’s normal to be scared by scary things, and you’re what – 15? 14? Nobody expects you to be prepared for everything. I’m still not.”

Chadley was developmentally a teenager, and the actual number of years he’d existed was considerably fewer than what his appearance suggested, but he’d certainly never been treated like a child before and he wasn’t sure it was something he wanted. He was at the age where people generally grew out of that, right? Johnny was right, though, in that Chadley wasn’t prepared. He had hated being bound by programing and he’d been so excited for a life where he didn’t know what to expect that he had never though about how ill equipped he was to handle the unexpected.

“You are not… like this, though. You say you weren’t prepared either, but you put it all behind you so quickly.”

“Well, I’m older than you, and also – I mean – even though I’m a thoughtful reflective type I’m also, not, you know? Ol’ Johnny-boy has layers. Mostly I don’t think a lot about the future. Or the past. I didn’t really put it behind me it just… is behind me.”

“How do you maintain that level of thoughtlessness?” Chadley looked to Johnny then, seriously seeking advice. Roche choked on a laugh from where he was tending the fire. Johnny didn’t seem to see the humor any more than Chadley did and smiled, pleased to have his attention. Chadley supposed he had been distant that afternoon.

“I mean, I mostly just think about now, you know. What I want to eat. If there’s anything fun to do. How I’m happy to see my friends. I guess what I’m saying is you’ve just got to live for the moment! And that’s some Johnny wisdom for ya.”

Live for the moment. That wasn’t something Chadley had ever done before, wasn’t even something he’d been capable of when everything was plans and algorithms. After their encounter with the Zolom, though, Chadley felt truly aware for the first time how easily everything could end. He’d never been ignorant of it, of course, but everything had felt so much less visceral when his life didn’t really belong to him.

“Live for the moment…” Chadley trailed off as he stood, looking to where they’d tied their one chocobo up by a nearby tree. He walked over to the bird and marveled over how, even though it was supposedly feral, it was gentle and pleased to see him. He reached out to pet it and was met with a cheerful ‘kweh!’.

“I was never gonna call you on it, but you’re a little schemer aren’t you Chicklet?”

Chadley’s hand froze in the downy yellow feathers and his eyes shot to Roche – who was standing up from the fire and stretching – in momentary panic. Roche just grinned.

“I knew from the beginning you were lying about the research. Just don’t care. I’ve got my own reasons for finding Cloud, after all.”

“Because you…’like like’ him?” How many ‘likes’ had Johnny used? “Like like like him? Or because you want to fight him to the death?” That had been what Cloud said he said.

“Most definitely.” Chadley had no idea which of his statements Roche was agreeing to. “But you – you’re on the run, right? Just a little chick flying the coop before the farmer can turn you into nuggets.”

“I’m not sure I agree with that characterization of events.”

“I know what it’s like, being a bird on the farm.” Roche continued with his metaphor despite his objection. “The difference is I’ve always been the rooster. Never cared much how the farmer saw me, so long as he let me strut around and make all the noise I want.”

“My coop was more restrictive than that.”

“Thought so. But hey, you’re out now, so now me and this one,” Roche gestured to Johnny, “can teach you how to crow.”

Johnny blinked a few times in confusion before he smiled. “Right! Deep metaphor, bro, but it’s like I was saying. We’ll show you how to live for the moment!”

“How to seize it.”

“How to squeeze it! Get out all that, like, juice!”

“How to turn it upside down and make it yours!”

“How to –“

They were doing that escalating drama thing again, and Chadley found himself feeling a bit more calm. He had been overwhelmed before, but focusing on the moment – focusing on this – did make him feel better and make perils like giant snakes feel farther away.

“So what do you want to do, baby bird? What's the now you want to focus on? That’s where everything starts.”

Was ‘baby bird’ also him? Did Roche add another one?

Chadley returned to petting the chocobo and considered the question. He realized that he didn’t really know, that he’d only been looking for Cloud because he was basically the only person he knew and he didn’t have any real ideas for what else he could do. For most of the time since he’d become self aware the only thing he’d wanted was the ability to choose his own goals, and now that he had that he wasn’t sure what should come next. If he’d still been in Midgar then working against Shinra would have made sense, and maybe it still would some day, but that wasn’t an option right now.

As Chadley stroked the chocobo and pondered over the conversation, he could hear Roche and Johnny resuming camp-life somewhere behind him. He wasn’t sure he really understood what they’d been getting at. Focus on now. Seize the moment. Know what you want….birds on a farm…

Chadley had unhooked the reins of the chocobo before he was fully aware of what he was doing and the bird performed a happy little hop before taking off into the night.

It had taken them hours to catch that bird. He could feel his companions’ eyes on him without turning around.

“Um, little dude, you didn’t just – I’m seeing things, right?”

“I apologize. I was thinking about being a bird in a coop, and wanting self determination, and about how the chocobo was a captive bird and I –“ Chadley cut himself off and cleared his throat. Rambling like that was not like him, even when he was ‘in trouble’. “I suppose that was what I wanted in this moment.”

Chadley turned when he heard laughter and found Roche doubled over his plate of beans. Johnny still looked mostly confused. They weren’t angry with him. Chadley was surprised by how relieved he was.

“So what’s next, kiddo? You’ve got me all invested in this saga now. You gonna free more birds?”

“…perhaps.” The thought would never have occurred to Chadley before, but… yes. Now that he considered it, releasing more chocobos from captivity would be cathartic. “Yes.”

Roche had laughed again and declared that he was ‘in’. Johnny had made some mumbled protests about how the chocobos' owners probably wouldn’t like it, but gave in easily when Chadley iterated that he really did think it would make him feel better. It was the middle of the night when they made it back to the chocobo ranch and set to work.

Sneaking into the barn wasn’t difficult. Roche boosted Chadley up to a window and Chadley let him in once he was inside. The barn didn’t have any kind of alarm.

Johnny was standing watch, ready to distract anyone who might come out to investigate any noise, and if they did get caught they planned to lie that they were just here for Roche’s bike, which was being stored in the barn overnight. Nobody caught them, though.

The challenge was getting the birds to actually leave. Even when the doors to their pens and the barn were all wide open, none of the chocobos being boarded at the ranch seemed to actually want to leave. That made sense, they were all domesticated and likely content to be, but Chadley still found himself disappointed.

Johnny came to see what was taking them, though, and the birds suddenly swarmed him (it was more like being surrounded by a pack of begging dogs than anything). Chadley remembered he had the gysahl greens they’d purchased earlier, and the plan became to lure the birds out with treats.

It worked.

When the sun rose, the three of them were sitting on top of a grassy hill surveying a valley full of free chocobos. Chadley knew it wouldn’t last – the farmers would round them up again, and the birds would probably be happy to go back to comfort of the barn – but despite the mild guilt over the trouble they’d caused it overall felt good. A first act of true agency. Watching the chocobos run and flutter around in the open fixed something in him, somehow, and it was difficult to explain what that even was.

“Thank you. I know that this helping me must seem incongruous. But it does.”

“No problem kiddo, I enjoyed the ride.”

“I still don’t really understand… any of it. But if it helps you then that’s enough for me!”

Chadley might not have a larger goal, but he thought that what he wanted for now was to stick with these two. Maybe he’d learn something more about being a person from them before he even found Cloud. After the day they’d had it seemed like they must like him at least a little bit, maybe even care for him. It would be nice to be around people like that.

“So, I know I’m always the rational skeptic of our group and that’s probably annoying sometimes, sorry, but, like, how are we going to get by that snake now that the people at the chocobo farm hate us?"