THE MONSTER HUNT
Disclaimer: These characters are borrowed from Squaresoft…they aren't mine, and no profit is derived from this whatsoever...so there!
"Tell me again why we're doing this?" Irvine crossed his arms and gazed doubtfully at Balamb Garden's Commander and his friend, Squall Leonhart.
"You remember that business with Master Norg and his cronies, right?" asked Squall.
"Yeah.." said Irvine.
"Well, when things calmed down, and all the monsters from the training center were rounded up and put back in their pens, more than a few had gotten killed in the process." Squall said.
"And...?" prompted Irvine impatiently.
"Well, the monster population in the training center has gotten severely depleted because of that, and the students and instructors are complaining that there aren't enough monsters for them train on." Squall began walking toward the group of SeeDs waiting for them at the edge of a thick forest.
"And I'm involved because...?" Irvine asked.
Squall snorted, "You have to ask? You're here because you're probably the best marksman on the planet," Irvine preened at this. Squall wasn't given to flattery, so this was high praise indeed.
Squall continued, "and because you're my backup. Speaking of which, here." He handed Irvine a satchel filled with large cartridges that had a short, heavy needle at one end and a bright red tassel at the other.
Irvine took it and frowned. "What're these?" he asked.
"Trank darts." Squall answered. "This isn't a trophy hunt, we have to bring these things in alive."
"I kinda figured that when you started talking about replacing the monster population in the training center," said Irvine sarcastically. " I still can't believe you actually managed to kill the last T-rexaur there without even using your gunblade." Irvine shook his head, and continued. "Do you know that you're starting to get as big a fan club as Quistis is? The underclassmen practically worship the ground you walk on, and when THAT story got out...SHEESH! I just wish I got half the attention from the female population that you do without even trying!"
Squall shook his head. He never did understand what the big deal was, and all that attention was embarrassing, not to mention getting on his nerves. Seeing the hero worship on the faces of just about everyone in Balamb Garden frankly scared the crap out of him. He didn't want to be anybody's hero, or savior...but unfortunately he was, and he was having a hard time dealing with all the attention. That was one reason why he spent so much time in the training center. At least there he could count on a good workout to vent off some of his frustrations.
Which was why he had gone to Xu and Cid in the first place about the lack of any challenging monsters there. They had whole-heartedly agreed with his assessment and together they put together a plan to get a team of senior SeeDs to capture some specimens to repopulate it. Leaving Xu to deal with the logistics (he hated that part, and she was better at it anyway), Squall chose a likely area that had a decent population of fairly challenging but not too lethal monsters, and made sure that it was an area most likely to contain a T-rexaur or two. Then he started working on the plans for the hunt itself. It would be difficult and dangerous, and Squall, for one, was really looking forward to it.
Irvine, noticing Squall's look of anticipation, sighed. The guy is nuts. He thought. You'd never know it to look at him, but he's even more of a danger junkie than I am. Thank heaven he's not a near suicidal mess like he was when Rinoa was in a coma. He had hid it well, but having gotten used to seeing through Squall's facade, Irvine knew that he had been dangerously close to losing it. Waaay too much pressure for someone not even used to being around people, not to mention LEADING them.
The group of SeeDs saluted when Squall and Irvine joined them.
"Okay," He said. "You will all fan out in groups of no less than two, and preferably three or more. Don't go for any of the big monsters unless you have enough sleep spells or trank darts to handle them. When you have one down, net it, call the pick up crew and they'll take it away. If you are faced with a monster you don't think you can handle, or get in a tight spot, or get injured, get out of there and call for help. Now, everyone have their radios?" He tapped the small black earpiece with the mike attachment, which he then placed in his ear. The rest of the group nodded and did the same.
"Everyone stay in radio contact, if contact is broken, we will assume the worst and mount a search starting from your last location. Any questions?" He asked. One of the SeeDs, a man a few years older than Squall, raised his hand.
"Yes?" Squall asked.
"What exactly are we looking for? What kind of monsters are we hunting?"
"We need to capture at least two T-rexaurs. The rest is up to you, but I strongly suggest that you run if you see a Marlboro." He gave a slight smile." Good luck and good hunting."
Squall trudged through the forest and sighed. They had been at it for hours now, and hadn't even come across a T-rexaur footprint, much less the creature responsible for it. It was hot, getting hotter; he was tired and sweating like crazy because he was wearing his usual leather jacket and pants. Squall's medium-brown hair was sweat soaked, dirty and itchy as hell. What the hell was I thinking? He grumbled to himself. Sure, leather is tough enough to protect me from some damage, but damn! It's hot! I should have worn my uniform instead.
He hitched the backpack higher onto his shoulders and looked over at Irvine, who didn't look any more comfortable than he was, in his long duster, jeans, and leather chaps. Irvine took off his black cowboy hat and fanned his overheated face with it. His long, golden-brown hair was sweat-soaked and tangled, and the humidity was making it start to curl. If he hadn't confined it into its usual ponytail it would look like a fright wig by now. Pretty certain that Squall would rather drop dead than stop, Irvine took it upon himself to suggest a break.
"Hey, you got any water on you?" He asked. Squall stopped and reached for the canteen hanging from his belt, detached it, and tossed it at Irvine.
"Didn't you bring a canteen with you?" He asked.
Irvine shrugged, "yeah, I did, but I ran out a while back, and we haven't run across any springs or anything where I could get a refill."
"Well, we might as well take a break and have some lunch, I'm getting kinda hungry anyway." Squall said, locating a likely looking log and sitting down. Irvine joined him.
"Huh. I was just gonna suggest that." Said Irvine. "So, what's for lunch, fearless leader?"
Squall gave Irvine an icy glare from his blue-green eyes, and then dug into his backpack, withdrawing a huge paper bag.
"Here," He said. "Compliments of Selphie. She threatened to jerk my earring out if I didn't take this along for you." He continued to glare at Irvine until Irvine, absorbed in examining the contents of the bag, looked up.
"What?" He asked.
"May I have my canteen back?" He asked pointedly.
"Oh, "He grinned, tossing it back to him. "Sorry. So what did Rinoa pack for you?" He asked, happily munching down on a ham sandwich and bag of chocolate chip cookies. He had a sudden, amusing vision of Squall bent over with Selphie attached to his earring, promising mayhem. He suppressed a smile. My favorite, he thought, then reached down into the bottom of the bag and pulled out a soda, not ice-cold, granted, but still, cool enough. Selphie, I love you! He grinned to himself and looked over at Squall, who gave him a sour look and dug into the backpack for his lunch. Pulling out a cereal bar, he took a swig of water and started munching it down. Irvine stared.
"You have GOT to be kidding." He said. Squall ignored him and kept eating. "That's it? Jeez Squall, no wonder you're so skinny!" Squall gave him a droll look and opened the bag so Irvine could see, and pulled out a sandwich.
"Tuna salad." He said, making a face. " I hate tuna salad." He tossed it back in and reached for another cereal bar and the soda at the bottom. "At least she gave me a cola."
"I'd have thought she'd know you hate tuna salad by now." Irvine said.
Squall shrugged. "It's not her fault, I just never got around to telling her stuff like that."
Irvine rolled his eyes. "Squall Leonhart, king of the conversationalists. What do you talk about when you two manage to get together then?"
Squall slanted Irvine a wicked look and a half-grin. "Who said we talked?" Irvine choked on his soda, spluttering until his face turned red. He tried to speak, but nothing came out. Squall helpfully pounded his back.
"You're..." He coughed and tried again. "You're joking, right?"
Squall lifted an eyebrow and said nothing, watching Irvine with a small half-smile, then shook his head.
Momentarily at a loss for words, Irvine just stared.
"Unbelievable." He muttered. " I haven't even kissed Selphie yet. Jeez! I wouldn't be surprised if you had Rinoa's name tattooed on your ass as well!"
Squall studiously ignored Irvine and suddenly stood up. "Ok let's go." He said, too quickly. Irvine narrowed his eyes suspiciously as Squall kept his face averted while he started stuffing the leavings from their lunch back into the knapsack. Then he caught sight of Squall's red cheeks and burst out laughing.
"You DO! When were you gonna let the gang in on THAT little secret?" Irvine held his sides and laughed until he hurt. Wiping mirthful tears from his eyes, and ignoring Squall's increasingly stony expression, he asked him. "When did it happen, anyway?"
Squall sighed and answered, "Remember Zell's birthday party a couple of months back? Zell and I somehow wound up at a tattoo parlor near the harbor. Said something about getting that thing on his face touched up. Still not quite sure how I wound up with MY tattoo...I think there might have been something in the punch." He glanced sourly at Irvine, and then said, "We'd better find some water to fill our canteens with and head back." As Squall walked away, Irvine resolved to figure out a way to convince Squall to go skinny dipping as soon as possible.
After searching for a while they managed to find a clear stream that looked clean enough to drink from. Squall handed a purification tablet to Irvine, and dropped one into his canteen and filled it with the cool, clear water. Tempted beyond endurance by the cool stream, he took off the backpack and his jacket, and the radio as well, and splashed the water on his face and hair, after a moment, Irvine did the same.
After consulting with the rest of the teams, Squall made a face and said, "Everybody else has reported in, so we're the only ones left out here."
Irvine leaned against a tree and crossed his booted feet, then asked, "So what did we wind up with? Anyone get a T-rexaur?"
"No, but one of the teams spotted one headed toward these coordinates, so we'll just hang out here for a while and see if it shows up before we head back." Squall scratched at his dripping hair and sighed, surveying the area. As with all areas with free-flowing streams, the plant population had exploded, with water-reeds and cattails growing a bit downstream where it gradually turned from a small brook to an overgrown swamp.
Stepping away from the stream and picking up his jacket and backpack, Squall noticed the mud sucking at his boots. It wasn't deep, but he figured he'd be better off avoiding the swampy area downstream.
"I'm surprised we haven't run into any bite bugs or ochus, this is the perfect area for them." Irvine commented, examining the end of his ponytail and frowning at the dripping tangle it had become.
Then he asked, "which GFs did you equip? I've got The Brothers with me, Sacred and Minotaur."
Earth elementals, Squall mused, should work well in this area.
"I've got Diablos and Shiva." He replied, "but I've told Diablos to deter only the lower level monsters, so it shouldn't repel T-rexaurs."
Irvine nodded, satisfied, and started loading his rifle with the trank cartridges. Suddenly the ground started to shake and they heard the distant sound of something large crashing through the underbrush.
"About time," Irvine said, raising his rifle and peering through the sight. "I was beginning to think it didn't want to play with us."
Squall snorted, and then asked, "Can you see it yet?"
"Not yet," he replied," the brush is too heavy, but it is definitely coming our way." He carefully scanned the area through the sight on his rifle, and narrowed his eyes in concentration.
The rifle swung toward Squall's direction, and he carefully moved back and out of the way, not bothering to comment while Irvine was concentrating on setting up his shot. As he did so, he stepped near a large plant that vaguely resembled a large, overgrown rosebush.
Suddenly, a pair of woody, thorn covered vines whipped out of the center of the bush and around Squall's legs, jerking him off his feet. He landed flat on his back with a surprised "OOOF!", the wind knocked out of him.
He lay still for a moment to catch his breath, then yelled "IRVINE!!"
Irvine whipped his head around to see Squall lying on his back, struggling with what looked like a rabid rosebush. He started over but was brought up short when, with a final crash and an earsplitting "RRRROOOOOOAAARR!!" the T-rexaur arrived.
"SHIT!!" Irvine swore, "Squall, buddy, hang on, I gotta trank this thing before he has both of us for dinner!" With that, he took a deep breath and drew a bead on the charging dinosaur, and fired off four shots in quick succession. The darts imbedded themselves in the T-rexaurs hide, but didn't slow its charge. Swearing again, Irvine dove to the side, rolling back to his feet and running behind a large tree, hoping that the tranks would do their work quickly, and that the beast wouldn't see Squall laying practically at its feet, trussed up like a roasting chicken.
Squall, meanwhile, realizing that Irvine had his hands full, tried to get his gunblade out, but the large weapon was not suited to the confined position he was in, and when he tried to draw it out, the vines wrapping around his legs tightened and kept it firmly in its holster. The thorns had already pierced his leather pants and were starting to dig painfully into his skin, and the vines were slowly pulling him toward a huge maw that had opened up at the center of the plant. Squall dug the heels of his boots into the soft soil to try to slow his advance, but it didn't seem to be having much effect on the demented rosebush.
Desperately casting about for any idea at all, Squall noticed that his somewhat loose fitting pants seemed to be slipping lower as the monster tugged him closer. Without a second thought, Squall quickly unbuckled his belts, tossed them aside, and then undid his pants and wriggled out of them, gaining some scrapes along his legs from the thorns poking through the leather, but mostly getting free until he got to his boots. With a sigh, he toed them off and grabbed his gunblade and leaped away as the plant swallowed up his boots and pants.
He whipped around with a sleep spell ready to see Irvine playing tag with an increasingly wobbly T-rexaur downstream near the swamp. Finally, the tranks did their work, and the giant T-rexaur fell, landing halfway into the muddiest part of the swamp, sending a huge wave of mud and water right at Squall. Taken by surprise, Squall could only cringe, as he was drenched head to foot in muddy, icy water.
Irvine, for his part raced back to where he'd left Squall struggling with the plant, expecting the worst. Seeing only his belts and a scrap of leather from his pants, he slowly sank down with his back braced against a nearby tree, a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. Resting his head on his knees, he groaned.
"Sorry Squall, I thought I had time to get that T-rexaur out of the way first. Jeez, " he sniffled, wiping at a stray tear, "Rinoa's gonna kill me..."
"Hey Irvine, you ok?" Startled, Irvine jumped to his feet to see Squall, wet, muddy, and wearing only his t-shirt, boxer shorts and socks, but very much alive, staring at him with a puzzled look on his face.
"I'm f- what the he.." he tried, then coughed to try to hide the laugh, and tried again, "wha-.." in the end it was too much and he collapsed into helpless laughter.
"I'm sorry man," he wheezed, "I really am...what I wouldn't give right now for Selphie's video camera! But you look..." he laughed helplessly "...priceless. Absolutely priceless."
As Irvine laughed, Squall folded his arms across his chest and held onto his temper, but just barely.
"Are you through?" He demanded, annoyed. "I need your radio, mine fell off and got crushed when that plant thing grabbed me." Irvine, still laughing, handed it over. As Squall turned away to make the call for pickup, Irvine noticed that Squall's white undershorts, nearly translucent due to being soaking wet, had a piece torn out of them on the left side. As Irvine narrowed his sharpshooter's eyes, he saw the tattoo. "Rinoa" it said, in fancy, flowing script, framed by stylized angel's wings.
Irvine laughed so hard he fell over. Squall, noticing Irvine laughing hysterically again, looked over his shoulder at him and then happened to glance down. Hiding his mortification, he cleared his throat and said. "Irvine, I need to borrow your coat."
Irvine, finally regaining his control, protested, "no way man! You're covered in mud! You'll get it dirty!"
"Not any dirtier than you just got it rolling around in the mud laughing at me." Squall shot back. "C'mon," he said, looking worried, "they're gonna be here any minute with the Ragnarok to pick up that T-rexaur."
"Do you know what a pain it is to clean this thing?" Irvine demanded. "NO, Squall, use your own jacket."
Squall glared at him, seething, then bit out "it's too short." He tried anyway, tying the sleeves around his waist, but the cropped jacket didn't cover much.
Stalking over to Irvine, Squall got up into his face and said, biting off each word, "I. Need. Your. Coat. NOW!"
Irvine threw his hand up in surrender, "Fine, here, take it." He said, handing it over. Squall put it on and buttoned it up completely, then put on his belt and the holster for his gunblade. The other belts he rolled up and stuffed in the backpack, which he then put on. Frowning at his jacket for a moment, he finally shrugged and slung it over his shoulder. Putting on the radio, he confirmed that the Ragnarok was coming, but wouldn't be able to land because of the trees, so they would need to get the T-rexaur ready themselves, and the pick up crew would pull it up with the winch. A giant net was dropped for them to put the T-rexaur in and get it ready for lifting.
Irvine, still nettled about having to give up his coat, asked Squall sarcastically, "I suppose we're just gonna pick it up and wrap it like a present?"
Flicking a cool glance at him, Squall cast a sleep spell first; to make sure the monster stayed down and out, then cast a float spell. While the beast was temporarily weightless they used the ropes provided to maneuver the monster out of the swamp and then spread out the net beneath it. Casting dispel to lower the T-rexaur onto the net, they secured it, and when the winch came down they fastened it to the net. As the monster was pulled up, Squall turned and started to head back the way they had come. Is he really going to walk all the way back? Without any shoes on? Is he nuts? Irvine frowned.
"Squall! Squall!" Irvine hurried to catch up. "Hey, wait up!" Squall continued walking in stony silence in his stocking feet.
"Why didn't you catch a ride with them?" Irvine asked. Squall ignored him and kept walking. It was clear he was through with being social for the day. Irvine sighed and kept pace with him, noticing that when Squall stepped on a stone, the only sign that he had even felt it was a slight twitch of his lips as he suppressed a grimace of pain.
In the end it took nearly twice as long to get back as it did to get out there, due to Squall's inadequate footwear. It was nearly dark when they finally walked out of the forest near where the command post had been; at the point they entered it. Squall had previously thanked everyone via radio and told them all that he was on his way but had been delayed, and to just head home and don't bother waiting for him.
Squall and Irvine were both tired, hungry, and dirty- in Squall's case extremely so, not to mention very footsore as well. The whole way back as Squall tried without success NOT to limp, he had not said a single word. As they approached the area where everyone had assembled that morning, Irvine noticed Xu, Quistis, and of course, Rinoa waiting for them. He could tell they were full of questions at Squall's unusual attire.
Wearing a too-large coat, in only his now shredded socks, caked with mud and bedraggled looking, Squall looked like a flasher that had been dragged through a swamp. Lagging a bit behind Squall, he caught Quistis's eye, and when she opened her mouth to say something he shook his head. "Don't ask." He mouthed to her.
Understanding dawned, though she tried hard to hide her amusement. When Squall walked right past Rinoa without even a glance, Irvine had had enough. All right, that's it! He thought. Rinoa might let him get away with that, but I won't! I don't really care that he ignored me the whole way back, I know how he is, but Rinoa doesn't deserve this! All right then, you asked for it buddy! Irvine sauntered up to Xu and Quistis and, sporting his most flirtatious grin, asked, "How are you ladies doing tonight?"
"We're fine, "began Quistis, when she was interrupted by Rinoa.
"Is he hurt?" she asked quietly, eyeing Squall's slightly limping gait as he walked away.
"Not really, just his pride, a little," said Irvine, motioning with his head for her to go after him. As she ran to catch up, Irvine, unable to resist any longer, called out,
"HEY SQUALL!! NICE TATTOO!"
Squall's reply was a single uplifted finger as he continued on to the Ragnarok. Irvine wasn't sure, but he thought he heard a laugh drifting back on the evening breeze.
Author's note: Squall was NOT amused… as evidenced by this conversation we had after he read this story…
Squall: Was all that really necessary?
Author: what? You didn't like it?
Squall: Well, I didn't mind the mud so much, or getting wet...but why the tattoo? And my pants? I really liked those pants..
Author: Why not? Lighten up Squall, and go back to Squaresoft land. I'll call you when I need you again.