"Ow!" Paine reeled back; her breastplate was dented, but fortunately her person hadn't sustained any damage. Nearby, she heard Rikku curse in Al Bhed as she tried to dodge wild wolves and rummage for greens in her pack at the same time. The chocobo just warked smugly and aimed a kick at Yuna, who fortunately managed to duck with a swirl of red and white robes.

"Take out the fiends first!" Yuna yelled. "Then we can concentrate on catching the chocobo!"

"Easier said than done," Paine muttered. That was the problem with chocobo-hunting: chocobos rarely showed up by themselves, but instead preferred to travel with packs of fiends for Spira knew what reason. This chocobo in particular was accompanied by a pack of wild wolves, who were fast and deadly.

But not quite as fast and deadly as the chocobo, which came as something of a surprise. They were so. . . cute and friendly-looking.

Rikku yelped as she scrambled out of the way of another Choco Kick. "These guys used to run away from us! What happened?!"

One of the wolves eyed Paine speculatively and lunged. Paine retaliated with her sword almost reflexively, causing the wolf to spin away with a bloody gash in its side, howling. Almost immediately, the chocobo flapped its stubby wings and chirped; the wolf staggered to its paws, slavering messily, the raw tear in its side half-healed.

"You're kidding me," Paine groaned. How in the world did a chocobo learn Cure?

"Ah ha!" A green sailed over Paine's head and landed at the chocobo's feet. The big yellow bird's eyes lit up with greedy interest as its world narrowed to something that looked vaguely like a cross between a turnip and a head of lettuce. The wolves growled in consternation as the chocobo happily settled down, pecking at the Gysahl green.

"Now!" Yuna yelled.

Paine was already moving. She cleaved a wild wolf straight down the middle with her sword; it dissolved in a cloud of pyreflies with an eerie howl. Rikku put a bullet between the eyes of the second, and the third was no match for them combined.

By then, the chocobo had finished its green. The trio approached cautiously, trying to look as friendly and unassuming as possible despite bristling with weapons. Out of her corner of her eye, Paine saw Rikku fish for another green in her bag. The chocobo warked in what seemed like an almost playful manner and flapped its wings again.

A familiar smell filled the air. Paine frowned and inhaled deeply, trying to place it. It smelled like--like ozone and earth, like. . . her eyes widened.

"Get down!" she screamed. "Yuna, we need Protect, now!"

"Huh? But--"

"Just do it!"

Yuna didn't ask any more questions. She raised her staff and murmured a few words; the tip of the staff gleamed and swirled, and a few moments later the air around them shimmered and hardened.

And none too soon, because suddenly meteors came plummeting out of the clear blue sky, still burning from their trip through the atmosphere and pocking the earth with a hiss of steam, bouncing off Yuna's spell. But Protect wasn't perfect; some of the meteors got through. Paine heard Rikku yelp as one bounced off her gauntlet, and she grabbed her teammates and tried to cover them as best as she could. As Dark Knight, she had more armor than both of them combined.

By the time the dust settled, the chocobo was gone.

---

The Potions helped, but neither magic or potions were very good at healing bone-deep bruises. Sore and achy--oh, she was going to feel this one in the morning!--Paine stripped her armor and headed straight for the bath. Let Rikku and Yuna go haring off all over Spira, catching chocobos for Clasko's ranch! She was going to take a nice hot bath and then go to sleep.

Amazingly enough, Paine got all the way through her bath unmolested. It wasn't until she was back in her room, clad in a bathrobe and toweling off her hair, that Rikku burst into the room with all the frenetic energy of a firecracker.

"There's this thing called knocking," Paine said wearily. She wasn't sure why she bothered.

"Hey, not like it's anything I haven't seen before!" Rikku flapped one hand carelessly. "Yunie wants to go look for chocobos in Besaid. Wakka says they're practically half-tame, plus we already know how to deal with all the fiends there."

Paine put a hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. "I am going to sleep."

"What?" Rikku's surprise sounded completely unfeigned. "But it's the middle of the afternoon!"

"I got my butt handed to me by a chocobo. I hurt all over, I'm tired, and I. Am going. To sleep."

Rikku widened her eyes so that Paine could see every curve in her pupils. "Are you hurt?"

Paine sighed. She couldn't tell if Rikku was being serious or not. "No, just kind of sore."

"I could kiss it better," Rikku offered with a grin that was nothing but trouble. Paine felt the back of her neck prickle. Rikku moved an inch closer. Paine tried not to move an inch back.

"You could," Paine allowed.

Rikku shoved Paine onto the bed and wriggled on top of her. "Hold still, then."

They weren't going to catch any chocobos today.



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