"You said you had a dead cert for me." Cloud crossed his arms, trying to appear calm and self-assured and only succeeding in looking dubious. He'd seen better-looking birds eating wild greens out on the plains in the middle of nowhere. Granted, he was hardly an expert; most of those birds proved lazy, or skittish, or prone to balking leftwards no matter what Cloud's knees were trying to convey. "And this is... him?"
"Her." Ester ruffled the yellow's tailfeathers affectionately, apparently unconcerned by Cloud's lack of faith, or the chocobo attempting to eat the ends of her hair. Maybe all racing birds were skinny, Cloud considered. After the hard looks he'd gotten from the lean and wiry guys drinking down their sportsfizz in the racing lounge, Cloud was starting to think that everyone in the trade had to be thin and bitter. At least Ester seemed pleasant enough, if she did smell strongly of eau de gysahl. "And I think you two'll get along just fine."
The big bird swung her head at Cloud, who didn't manage to sidestep in time and got a face full of feathers for it. Ester laughed, sizing the two of them up with a keen gaze that made him vaguely uncomfortable. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. So what if he was a couple of pounds heavier than the pro jockeys out there? "See? She likes you."
"You mean she likes my materia." Too late, Cloud tried to hide the pink globe of lure beneath his collar, but the chocobo nibbled happily at his shirtfront all the same. "I've never met a chocobo that was particularly partial to me."
"Queenie's different, young man, you'll see. And don't fret." Expertly she hauled a saddle across the chocobo's shoulders, and Cloud couldn't hide a wince at the tiny size of the thing. Queenie warked in happy anticipation, her crest wiggling contentedly; more feathers in Cloud's face. "You have riding experience, don't you?"
Riding chocobos across marshes in a pinch was one thing. Why didn't they teach anything useful in the army? Cloud opened his mouth, shut it again. He couldn't seem to remember anything helpful, these days. "Yeah," he said.
"Well, there's not much time before your race, you know. But you might want to do a few deep knee bends to get your legs ready," she said, and winked.
And before Cloud had time to reflect that racing really might not be his cup of tea (or his bottle of Gold Saucer Race-Ade [tm], whichever), he found himself sitting astride the slim and eager chocobo, his center of balance laughably wrong, and the clock ticking down to the startgun.
His hands must have been cold on the reins; the bird warked her displeasure, backfeathers quivering under Cloud's amateur touch. "All right, Queenie," he breathed through gritted teeth. "Get us out of here."
Tuck your knees in, kid, and relax. For an instant, Cloud saw white, only his hands clutching the reins keeping him in the saddle. If you wanna go faster, put your damn spikey head down.
Then he blinked, unconsciously heeding the advice-- and Queenie between his calves filled her lungs full and ran.
Later he would shrug it off, when Tifa grabbed his hand (in gratitude or disbelief, he couldn't tell) and Aerith grabbed Cait Sith's megaphone to exclaim, "You did it!" Barrett, though he might have grumbled that the race seemed pretty rigged, admitted he was grateful.
And when he crossed the finish line it would be forgotten, in the belated adrenaline rush and Queenie's trilling kwehs; in Ester shaking her head at his attempted thanks, taking up Queenie's reins and patting the ecstatic bird.
But for the length of the racecourse, seeming far longer than the thirty-second record time he'd set, there was something. Something he couldn't explain or put words too, something more than his balance feeling like a warm weight in the small of his back, or the rhythm of Queenie's powerful legs, or the brightly-colored breeze against his eyes as he and his bird left the pack far behind. Something like a hand on his shoulder, or a laugh--
Or a name he couldn't remember.