"Charlie Foxtrot" is a euphemism for "This operation is not going quite as we'd hoped." A Charlie Foxtrot is never pretty.

On occasion, however, it can be shiny.

-Schlock Mercenary

Chapter IV: Charlie Foxtrot

He could hear the sound of gunfire and see the fires in the distance, and felt it though the waters that lapped against his body as he stood waist deep in the ocean, just off the shore of Island Two. The sea was complaining about the sudden and alien violence being waged on its surface, and he could understand its feelings. Naval battles were never pretty, but thankfully, this one was very short.

He waited, listening to the voice of the water, as those who lived through the initial assault plunged into the warm embrace of the salty waters, and smiled.

Captain Victor Crowe hoped a few of them made it ashore. Nature was disrupted by their presence, but if any managed to survive, they would be worth the time to hunt down.

In the ordinary progression of a mission, developments and complications generally followed a logical progression from SNAFU to FUBAR, with many variations in between, ultimately climaxing at Charlie Foxtrot when the entire mission went out the window.

In this case, though, as Alpha Platoon's Salamander exploded, and burning hot shards of metal dug into his back while he was being hurled from the ship, Squall realized that things had jumped straight to Charlie Foxtrot in a couple of seconds, just before warm green ocean swam up into his mouth and he went several feet under the water. Training and instinct kicked in, and the SeeD Commander pivoted his body back toward the surface, snapped his legs out, and brought them together, pushing back up toward the surface. His head burst above the ocean surface, and he took a quick gasp of air as gunfire greeted him, along with the chopping rotors of attack helicopters, beating against the ocean surface.

To his left, thirty feet away, was the burning wreckage of the Salamander, rapidly being consumed by the ocean waves. Overhead, circling, were the fat-bodied forms of UH-89 Albatross helicopters as they swept across the ocean, their chainguns blazing at targets unseen.

They're killing any survivors they can find.

"Ghost Wire," Squall shouted as he began to tread water for an instant, and pressed a hand to his ear and the radio hidden within. "Go under! All Ghost Wire personnel, go under, they're shooting survivors! Repeat, they are shooting survivors!"

Squall waited for an acknowledgement, but got none immediately. One of the helicopters started turning toward him, and he went under, plunging beneath the surface. He felt the rapid, small shockwaves from a dozen and more bullets cutting through the ocean as he dove.

Standard issue weapons on Dollet helicopters include 5.56mm rounds. They fragment several inches after contact with solid or semi-solid bodies. Three or four feet under water is safe.

That thought from his survival training flashed through Squall's mind as he pumped his arms quickly, his Guardian Force enhanced strength propelling him through the water quickly and tirelessly, despite the weight of his gear. Though they had prepared their weapons before the landing, Squall had not been carrying his rifle or grenades on him, only his armor, gunblade, sidearm, knives, and radio. However, he knew that not all of the group was so lightly armed or armored, nor did they all possess Guardian Forces. The Black Eagles and the demolitions crew, and Irvine . . . .

Worry later, get to shore now.

Everyone knew to do that if they had been compromised going in. Squall could only press forward, his arms pumping and legs kicking just beneath the surface, only momentarily rising for air before going below. With each ascent he heard the beating of chopper blades less and less, and saw the shoreline of the islands up ahead. He had no idea if he was heading for the right island anymore, and he didn't care. He needed to get to ground, reunite whoever was still alive, and then get on with the mission as best they could.

Reuniting survivors. That seemed to be a casual and callous reference to the possible deaths of his comrades, people he'd fought and bled with, whom he'd seen die once already. Irvine, Selphie, Zell . . . he didn't know if they were alive or dead anymore, and he couldn't help but feel like it was somehow his fault, that they should have waited, should have taken everything into account. He had planned the operation, and they had been relying on stealth to get inside the complex, and now they were ambushed and swimming to shore while being fired at from every direction.

As Squall pulled his arms back, he felt his hand momentarily brush his gunblade's handle, and enraged resolve cut across his features. If the enemy knew what was good for them, they would pray someone survived, because the last thing they would want was a Squall who had lost his friends and set loose on their island.

He rose for an instant above the ocean's surface, and saw beach directly ahead, the morning sunlight brightening the approach. No enemy soldiers were waiting for him to arrive, and it almost didn't matter if there were, considering the anger that was working its way through Squall at that moment. His arms pumped, propelling him toward the shore, and seconds later he hit wet sand, the waves propelling him onto the shore. Wasting no time, Squall scrambled forward into the comparatively chill air over the beach, sand clinging to his armor and fatigues as he rose on the beach. He drew his gunblade immediately, as he spied the thick jungle no more then fifty feet away, and the SeeD's legs pumped as he dashed for the jungle. Somewhere behind him, the thump of an approaching helicopter could be heard, and he wasted no time moving into the darkened safety of the foliage.

Pain struck Irvine's left leg as he struggled to swim toward the shore. The helicopter overhead was firing wildly into the water, and he could hear men cry out as they intercepted bullets. The helicopter was dipping low, almost within ten or so feet of the ocean surface, and the men inside were firing rifles at the survivors of the explosion. The Galbadian SeeD pumped his arms as he cut through the ocean water, and reluctantly reached up to release the straps on his armor. The heavy ceramic and kevlar gear slid off, lightening his load, and Irvine swam harder and faster toward the shoreline.

His firearms training and knowledge told him to stay low under the surface, but he surfaced for a moment, looking around for any survivors on the surface. He saw no one, and heard one of the helicopters swooping toward him, and thus dove under. He could only hope anyone else was alive and were making their way toward the shore, including-


Irvine surfaced again, his already pounding heart racing as he looked around for Selphie.

"Selphie!" he shouted, turning in the water, arms flailing as he treaded water. He glanced around, looking for any sign of-

Blood erupted from his torso as two rounds slashed through his body, and pain flashed through Irvine's body. He fell back, plunging under the ocean surface, salt water flowing into the wound. He tried moving his left arm, but found it no responding as his right pumped, bringing him back above the water, gasping for breath. The roar of the overhead helicopter and its blazing machineguns filled the air, and the water exploded around Irvine as the chopper continued blasting away at the survivors. The ocean rose up to swallow the sharpshooter once again, and he slid beneath the waves before the helicopter could shoot him again.

Not abandoning Selphie!

His working right arm pumped as he dropped beneath the waves, and Irvine ignored the pain in his shoulder as he pushed toward the wreckage of Selphie's Salamander. His lungs rapidly began to burn as crimson flowed into the seawater surrounding him, and Irvine began to rise back up to the surface. His head broke above the waves and he gulped down air, and went back under, just before his right leg exploded in agony just above the knee.

His arms flailed and his legs pumped, but the strength within his body was fading. The water began to darken and deepen as he felt himself sliding beneath the ocean despite the frantic flailing of his body. Irvine opened his mouth to shout in defiance, reaching up toward the ocean surface with his right arm, air bubbles escaping from his mouth as blubbed Selphie's name one last time. Water flowed into his lungs, and darkness swam up into his perceptions, consuming his mind and body.

"Okay, I think we're done!" shouted Leon Doppel over the Albatross' intercom. He stood up, hefting his rifle as he peered over the wreckage. Unlike other Asp troops, he preferred the contoured grip and sleek design of an AUG bullpup rifle over the utilitarian M4. "Swing us down low, check to see if anyone survived and bring them in!"

"Sir?" asked one of the Asp troopers, raising an eyebrow. Doppel shook his head.

"We're dealing with SeeDs," he shouted. "This was necessary! The Colonel didn't want us to take any chances."

The Albatross helicopters swung low, spotlights flashing over the ruined Salamanders and the dozens of corpses strewn about the waters. Fires blazed in the remains of the transports, but there was no movement among the bodies. The helicopters moved around slowly, checking each ship to make absolutely certain that everyone was dead.

A minute later, with negative reports coming in from each helicopter, Doppel shook his head and pointed to the pilot, before nodding. The pilot began to turn the Albatross around, when one of the mercenaries shouted something. Spotlights shifted to center on the broken husk of one of the sinking Salamanders, and at a single figure on the bow of the ship. For a moment there seemed to be no movement, but Doppel narrowed his eyes and leaned out the side of the transport, and spotted a slight bit of motion in the figure's chest.

"Clear to fire, top?" asked the helicopter's gunner, but Doppel shook his head.

"Bring us closer, get him on board," he replied. "Colonel wants survivors interrogated." Doppel left out the fact that the Asp mercenaries had been the ones to choose the gun down any survivors from the Salamanders, mostly because they didn't want to worry with capturing survivors. Still, the Colonel would be suspicious if they killed everyone.

At his order, the Albatross swung over, descending so low that the landing gear nearly touched the ocean surface. Doppel and another Asp mercenary leaned out and grabbed the wounded man as the Salamander began to finally slide beneath the waves. They hauled him on board, surprised at how heavy he was, and the Albatross began to ascend.

"One survivor," the pilot was reporting, as Doppel flipped the wounded man onto his back, even as another mercenary opened a medical kit. The man was bleeding from three ragged holes in his torso; Doppel didn't think a normal person could have survived that much abuse, and when he checked the man's face, his questions were answered.

"Dincht," he grunted, chuckling as he saw the semi-conscious brawler's facial tattoos. "Zell fucking Dincht. They sent you out here with this group? If that's the case . . . ."

Doppel rose and put on a radio headset, and switched over to the command channel.

"HQ, be advised, we have captured SeeD Zell Dincht. Let the boys know we may be dealing with Leonhart and his crew out here. I'm sure Crowe and his Magi buddies will be interested in hearing that."

"We have to go after them!"

Quistis knew that look on her friend's face, and she knew it would be hard to put some sense into Rinoa when she was like this, especially when she looked like she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her hands were shaking, and she had a wild, desperate look in her eyes as she pleaded with Quistis and Xu.

"We can't, Rinoa," Xu explained, for the tenth time. "Anti-ship defenses are-"

"Are you saying we should just abandon them?" Rinoa demanded, glaring at Xu, as if she had been the one to fire the missiles that sank the Salamanders.

"No," Xu replied firmly, crossing her arms over her chest. Beside her, Quistis glanced outside the conference room, and at the officers and technicians scrambling in the ops room. She certainly understood Rinoa's feelings - for Hyne's sake, four of her best friends had possibly been killed - but she needed to remain cool and detached.

It was hard to do, seeing the long range radar contacts and the enemy helicopters strafing the wrecked ships. Quistis wished she had the icy veins of her colleague.

"Rinoa, we have to be realistic here," Xu explained. "Amorris Island is too well-defended. They caught our stealth Salamanders, and its in the middle of the morning now. There is no way we can get a rescue team out there fast enough, not without them getting killed too."

Quistis could see the pain welling up in Rinoa's eyes at Xu's blunt explanation, and sympathized; the SeeD officer's words his her hard too. She didn't want to admit the odds that anyone was even still alive, but . . . .

"But . . . . We're SeeD! Garden! Nothing can stop us! We have to . . . ." Rinoa trailed off as she saw the honest, sad expressions on the faces of her friends, and realized that they were just as distressed as she. The Sorceress could see that they understood the consequences of launching a rescue operation, and how hopeless it really was.

She wanted to cry. Helpless anger filled Rinoa as she looked down at the table, and in a sudden burst of white hot fury, she pounded both hands on the table. The was a flash of light, and the table shook under the blast of anger, followed by a high-pitched crack as the bullet-proof windows of the conference room fractured under the power of her blow.

She glanced to the damage she had just done, and Rinoa turned her gaze down toward the floor sheepishly, realizing what a fool she was making of herself. Shaking her head, Rinoa sank into one of the chairs, and Quistis stepped around beside her, draping a hand over her friend's shoulders.

"Xu, contact Cid," the blonde woman ordered, looking up to her colleague. "We have some bad news. Lag . . . President Loire won't be happy to hear this." Xu frowned and nodded, and knew that Quistis would be better at comforting the emotional Sorceress. Without another word, Xu stepped out of the conference room, and began shouting orders.

Something pounded against his chest, and he felt fluid burst from his mouth. The pounding repeated once again, and then a third time, and he felt something warm and soft press against his lips. Hot breath dove down his throat, and filled his waterlogged lungs. The pounding repeated again, four times, and the lips touched his again, blowing down his windpipe. He instinctively knew that the lips were soft, small, and feminine.

"Come on, Irvine," he heard a voice whisper urgently, and the pounding repeated on his chest. His mind connected the voice to someone he cared about, and at that moment the semi-conscious sharpshooter realized he was laying in coarse, wet sand.

The familiar lips pressed against his mouth again, and in his clouded mental state, Irvine did what came most natural to him. His right arm shot up, closing over the back of her head, his fingers threading through her soft hair, and pulled her down as he kissed her.

He heard her muffled exclamation of surprise as he held her close, and she started to pull back. His arm was thrown aside by her instinctive retreat and her unnatural strength, and in the back of his mind, he cursed Balamb Garden's Guardian Force policy. Irvine opened his eyes, and then closed them again as he looked up into the bright morning sun.

"Irvine, you . . . ." he heard Selphie mutter in surprise and slight anger. The sharpshooter managed a laugh, and then felt small hands thread under his armpits.

"You are so lucky I found you as you were going under," she muttered as she easily dragged the Galbadian cowboy up the beach, and under the comforting shade of the jungle. Irvine opened his eyes again and looked up to her as she dragged him for another minute, before stopping under a large tree and propping him up against it. Selphie stepped around in front of him and crouched before Irvine as he felt his strength returning. Pain shot through his body, especially from where he'd been shot during the swim. He grunted, and looked up to Selphie's concerned face, and momentarily marveled at her pixie-like beauty, even as she focused and cast a healing spell over his wounds.

"How did you find me?" he asked as the white light played over his injuries, and the pain subsided. The bullet had gone clean through, so the wound sealed easily, and the sharpshooter leaned forward as he felt his strength returning in full.

"They were using tracers," she replied with a shrug, her face shifting to a smile as she saw Irvine recovering. "I swam toward your ship, and when I saw them shooting at one particular spot, I swam toward it. I saw you go under, and dove after you. I thought you were dead . . . ." The concern returned to her face along with what Irvine knew were painful memories of fear for his safety. He reached forward, grasping her shoulder and squeezing.

"But thanks to you, I'm not," he replied, and flashed her his best grin. "And now we're both alive. You did good." Her smile returned, and Irvine knew he did his job; a frown on Selphie's face was a tragedy for the whole world, as far as he was concerned.

The moment together was suddenly cut off by the roar of a helicopter's chopping rotors. Both SeeD rose to their feet, and Irvine reached inside his coat, checking for his weapons. Thankfully, most of his guns had made it through the swim, and his Valiant rifle was strapped to his lower back, where it should have been. He drew it out, and wiped off the sand that had gotten on the barrel, even as Selphie gripped her nunchaku tightly.

A thought struck Irvine, and he quickly looked down, before blanching. He had been bleeding from his leg wound, and a trail of blood led through the woods, right to their position.

"Selphie, we have to move!" he hissed, and she followed his gaze, to the blood trail.

The SeeDs then heard the growl of a heavy engine, and recognized the sound of a light assault vehicle, no less than a mile away, coming from the direction of the beach. Without another word, the two broke and ran deeper into the forest. Colonel Ellis' troops owned this island, and they were closing in.

It had been less than an hour after the SeeD force had been ambushed, and the rugged four-wheeled Dollet light assault vehicle rolled to a stop on one of the sandy beaches on eastern side of the island. Soldiers poured out the sides of the vehicle, clad in body armor and loose, light fatigues appropriate to the jungle. Among them came the huge, heavyset bear of Captain Crowe, who sniffed the air as his boots hit the sand. He set the sniper rifle he carried on his shoulder as he furrowed his brow, and stepped away from the vehicle. The Asp mercenaries fanned out as they searched the beach.

Crowe dropped to one knee and ran his left hand through the sand. He closed his eyes, and nodded, before standing and glancing to the soldiers as they moved across the beach, looking for any signs of passage.

"they definitely came ashore here," he said as he walked down the beach, sniffing the air, his movements reminiscent of a bloodhound. He glanced down at the sand, and started up the beach, looking left and right, but his focus was not on the sand itself, but on something else -

"Captain!" came a call, and Crowe looked up, to see one of his troops waving a hand. He moved toward the man, but well before he reached him, Crowe caught a faint scent in the air: blood.

Moments later, as he reached the soldier, the bearded officer could see a thin trail of crimson cutting through the sand, and nodded. His left hand touched his ear, and the radio.

"Colonel, we've got confirmation that at least one came ashore here," he declared. For a moment there was silence, before he got an acknowledgement.

"Understood, Captain. Hunt them down. Try to take some of them alive, but if you have to, kill them."

"They're SeeDs, Colonel. Unlike my boss, I don't differentiate between one SeeD and another," Crowe replied curtly, and cut off the transmission, leaving things at that. It was annoying that the Colonel didn't trust his judgments, but then again, it was understandable, coming from a soldier who didn't know much of or trust magic, particularly magic that was . . . unorthodox. But that didn't make Crowe any less accurate, as this had just shown.

"Keep searching," Crowe ordered to his men, and then he touched his ear-mounted radio once more. "Doppel, I need more men. We've definitely got at least three SeeDs on shore, probably more."

"You're certain?" came the reply from Doppel, and Crowe grunted as he looked to the water.

"The ocean doesn't lie," he replied. "It told me at least three people came ashore somewhere along this beach. It already told me where their little boats were, too, remember?"

"Okay, understood. Diverting two companies to your sector. You're leading the hunt?" Crowe laughed out loud at that question.

"The forest is where I'm the most dangerous," he replied, and a predatory grin spread across his features. "They're in the woods, I can feel it. And when prey goes into the woods, it doesn't escape a shaman's eyes." He lowered the rifle from his shoulder, and started toward the edge of the forest, waving a hand to catch the attention of his troops. They moved away from the beach as Crowe neared the treeline, where the blood led into the woods. He paused, touching one of the trees, and nodded.

The hunt begins, he thought, with savage hunger, and he plunged into the forest after the escaping SeeDs.

Gasp! An update?

Yes, this chapter is a wee bit on the short side . . . at least as far as my stuff tends to go. I got a bit distracted while writing this thing . . . .

Anyway, next chapter, we should expect a bit more jungle hunting and a few new, freaky twists on the story. Hee . . . .

Until next chapter . . . .