A Grand-idi Day Out Part 3
What the . . .
Zell blinked, stared, and blinked again. When the scene didn't change, he stealthily approached the object that had attracted his attention.
The faintly glowing, crystalline blue blade of an upgraded Lion Heart gunblade was stuck in the ground. Zell closed his hand around its pistol handle thoughtfully.
What was Squall's gunblade doing all the way down here?
Maybe it's not Squall's . . . He chewed his lip, letting his mind work out how many of these rare upgrades there were in the world. Even more exceptional was Squall's trademark Griever chain, hanging from the butt of the gunblade. It had to be Squall's!
But if this is Squall's gunblade, then where the hell is Squall?
Zell looked around him, searching for signs of a struggle. Had Squall been taken by a malboro or three, and left his weapon behind? Maybe the Garden's unofficial headmaster was trapped in one of those cocoons back at the nest. But what had Squall been doing down here in the first place?
Nodding to himself affirmatively, Zell clutched the handle of the gunblade and yanked it with some difficulty out of the spongy ground. The weight of the weapon was surprising, and he staggered for a moment with it before swinging it up onto his shoulders, letting them carry the burden.
Geez, Squall's only a little guy . . . how does he use this big thing so effortlessly?
Squall might not be around, but his gunblade was sharp enough to slice through the material of those cocoons. Zell could free Nida, use Esuna on him, and then they could both set about helping everyone else out. Satisfied with that plan, Zell started to turn back towards the nest, but stopped when he heard a voice.
"Oh, sh -"
A wild rustling of leaves and branches followed that unfinished curse, and, clutching the gunblade fiercely, Zell approached the knot of greenery that was shaking so violently. His jaw dropped when a dirty, dishevelled Squall, minus jacket and one glove, crawled out of the bushes he'd apparently stumbled into. He was so used to seeing his friend pristine and immaculate that it took him a while to accept that this was Squall Leonhart.
"Uh, Squall? Is that you?"
Squall glanced up, startled, but relaxed when he saw who it was. He started to emerge from the bush but his left boot was caught on a vine and he only succeeded in falling flat on his face.
"Here, Squall, let me give you a hand!" Zell stuck the gunblade back in the ground and held out a hand for the SeeD to take. In typical Squall-style, he completely ignored it, scrambled to his feet and leaned against a tree, panting for breath. Being used to such discourtesy, Zell simply stepped back and waited for his friend to pull himself together. The guy looked rough, his usually perfect hair ruffled, with little twigs stuck in it. The shirt he wore under his jacket was both dirty and slightly bloody, especially at his back. He seemed to be favouring one leg.
"Had a bad day?" he grinned. Squall awarded him an icy glare.
"Shitty, really shitty." He slumped to the base of the tree and rested his arms on his knees, his breathing slowing down noticeably. Blinking, he glanced up at Zell. "How'd you end up down here?"
"Our group got ambushed by about a hundred malboros!"
Squall quirked an eyebrow. "A hundred, huh?"
"Yeah! And I got knocked out, and I came to down here, wrapped up in this cocoon thing inside the malboro nest, and then all these little green things were trying to eat my face -"
" -And I wasn't about to let that happen, so I kicked all their asses, and then I realised Nida was in trouble -"
"Oh, you know, that guy you never remember? Anyway, he got poisoned 'cause the malboros somehow can break past any status defence you happen to have, so I tried Esuna on him but the cocoon stuff just nullified the magic, and then I left him there looking for an antidote or something to break open the cocoon with, and then I found your gunblade and then I found you!"
"Very . . . enlightening."
"What about you? I thought you were taking a break!"
"Oh, I fell down the cliff . . ."
"Oh, you . . . fell . . . down the cliff?"
"Yeah. Quistis came back and told us that the malboros were breeding for some reason. We went looking for everyone, but got cornered on the cliff. I fell down there."
"You hurt bad?"
"No." Nevertheless, Squall winced as he struggled to stand upright on one leg. "I'm fine."
"Sure you are. Come back to the nest with me? I have to free Nida."
"Ack!" Zell threw up his hands. "Never mind! Just come!"
"Uh . . . I would . . . only . . ."
"Only . . . I can't walk. I twisted an ankle when I hit a tree on the way down, I think."
Zell frowned. "Hmmmm . . . Well, I guess I'll have to help ya!"
Squall rolled his eyes, but snatched up the gunblade Zell offered him and limped off without the SeeD's aid.
"Uh, Squall? You're going the wrong way."
"Oh? Well . . . I was just testing that you knew the right way."
"Really? Good idea!"
Blood was really quite fascinating. Selphie watched it running in rivulets from her hand, the sticky, viscous fluid sliding down her wrist, welling up around her watch, breaking that barrier and then painting her arm a deep crimson. She was mesmerized by its speed, its deeply rich colour . . .
"Hold it up, Selphie!" Quistis startled her by saying.
Selphie obeyed, her green eyes wide with captivation as the tributaries of gleaming vermilion increased in speed.
She felt Irvine's warm hand on her shoulder.
"I'm sorry about your glove," Selphie said distantly. She glanced apologetically at him, and then at his fingerless accessory lying on the floor. He'd put it on her hand when she'd cut it, to try and stop the bleeding, but the gash was bad and now it was all bloodstained.
"What?" Irvine sounded gobsmacked. "Oh, Sefie, hon, don't worry about the damned glove!"
"But they're your favourite gloves . . ."
"I can buy new gloves! I can't buy a new Selphie!"
"Okay, Selphie, let's see it," Dr. Kadowaki said warmly, carrying a small bag into the passenger room of the Ragnarok. She took her hand carefully, studying the wound with calculating eyes.
Dr. Kadowaki's been the Garden's physician even longer than Cid had been headmaster . . . she must have seen a lot in her time . . .
"You said you were only carrying Cures, Irvine?"
"Yeah . . . well, we didn't plan to battle and I thought that'd be enough -"
Dr. Kadowaki tutted. "Always expect things to go wrong."
"That's Squall's job -"
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Rinoa released another wretched sob. Selphie looked across at her friend dispassionately, feeling light-headed and strangely detached from her body. She wasn't used to seeing Rinoa cry though . . . and felt as if she should be worried about something too, but she couldn't remember what, exactly.
Dr. Kadowaki closed her eyes and waved her hand over Selphie's. Mercifully cold light played over the lips of the messy wound, and the blood that had run so freely before finally stopped flowing. It didn't close completely, though, so Dr. Kadowaki pulled more conventional medicinal items from her bag and began to dress it. The pain was suddenly back with Selphie, and she winced.
"So five of the nine groups are back here safely," Quistis was saying, wringing her hands together. "Four are still missing, we don't know where Zell, Nida or . . . you know . . . are, or even if they're still . . . you know . . . What are we going to do?"
"I have a feeling we'll find them all down in the nest," Irvine said ominously, somewhere behind her now. Selphie tried to crane her head around to look at her companions but Dr. Kadowaki berated her for moving around. "We can look for Squall while we're down there, too."
A heavy silence filled the room.
Squall's fine. He always is! Nothing ever keeps him down for long . . .
But suddenly Selphie wasn't so sure of herself. Now that she could remember the scene coherently, she realised just how far Squall had fallen. She let out a muted gasp.
"Sorry, Selphie, I'm nearly done."
"No, it's not that! I just . . . it's Squ -"
"Shhhh!" The physician shook her head, and then inclined it towards Rinoa, who was slumped in one of the passenger seats, her eyes wide and her face tear-streaked. "I know. But he should be okay . . . I hope." She tightened the bandages on Selphie's hand once more and then patted it softly. "There you go. But take it easy, okay? No malboro fighting today!"
"I can't even hold my Strange Vision like this anyway," Selphie moaned, and started to stand up. Dizziness overcame her and she slumped back into the seat.
Dr. Kadowaki's stare was reprimanding. "Just stay there for a minute! You lost a lot of blood." She handed her a glass of water, which Selphie downed in one mouthful. Grinning, the doctor placed a jug at her feet and left her to it.
Pursing her lips, Selphie flexed her fingers, wincing as the movement pulled at her wound. She turned in her chair, pouring herself another drink as she spotted Irvine, Quistis and Xu in low conversation.
"The five groups who have returned said they couldn't find a single monster," Xu said, bewildered. "I think the malboros have been feeding them all to their young."
"Then we'll have to go down to the nest to find our missing students," Quistis groaned. "But it shouldn't be so bad this time round. We'll gather together all the other SeeDs and take them with us."
"I wanna come!" Selphie cried out, waving her uninjured hand in the air. Irvine fixed her with a pleading look.
"No, Selphie, you stay here and -"
"No! I'm coming and you can't stop me!" Selphie grabbed the water jug awkwardly and drank straight from the spout, swallowing great mouthfuls of the cool liquid. When she'd finished, she dumped it on the floor and stood up, wiping her lips dry. The dizziness was still there, but it wasn't half as bad as before, and she sauntered over to the others.
"You can count me in," Rinoa said stiffly, approaching from behind Selphie, her eyes narrowed with determination.
Quistis bit her lip. "Maybe it would be better if you -"
"No. I'm coming and we're going to find Squall."
No one dared question her as the implications of her tone of voice set in. Selphie stared at her, feeling all her hope cascade out of her body like a waterfall.
What if Squall didn't make it this time? Rinoa will be devastated . . . I'd, be devastated! Oh, come on Squall, you have to be alive!
"Fine," Quistis acknowledged, breaking the awkward silence. "Okay, let's get those SeeDs organised. We've got a lot of ground to cover and we're running out of time."
"Wait," Selphie said abruptly, standing up and grinning. "I've got a better idea."
"What the -"
Nida's eyes snapped open . . . again. He kept drifting off into a restless sleep, but every little sound jangled his nerves like electricity, instantly waking him. He looked frantically around, stretching the limits of his vision, his entire body straining for the cause of the noise.
Nothing . . . again. I could've sworn that this time -
He relaxed, and felt the poison jolt through him once more. Groaning, he strained his ears, almost certain that he'd heard something important. The nest seemed darker, somehow, more ominous than it had been before. Exactly how late was it? He had no idea how long he'd been lying there, or how long he'd been unconscious for prior to that.
Thankfully, the thick forest canopy was still pierced with rays of sunlight, but Nida had no idea as to whether they'd last much longer. It had to be late afternoon . . . and still no one had come for them. A few of the other captured SeeDs and junior classmen had woken up, but they couldn't do anything from their end, and low conversations hadn't offered much in the way of escape plans. They wouldn't be able to break out by themselves - it had to be a rescue operation.
Maybe there's no one left to rescue us. Nida's sudden thought was not reassuring, but entirely possible. If the malboros attacked the Ragnarok . . . no one would be expecting it. But then where's Zell?
Nida wished he had the energy for his own limit break, but the poison prevented him from thinking straight.
"Ah, sh -"
The voice came from somewhere behind him. He hoped malboros couldn't talk, because the only other alternative was a rescue party. If it was one big enough to save them all, it certainly wasn't making much noise.
"Look, just let me help you!" Nida recognised that one as Zell, but the second voice was still too quiet to make out.
"But I -"
"I swear, sometimes you -"
"You let us help you in D-district."
"I didn't have a choice. I was unconscious."
"Yeah, like that made a difference! If you hadn't been, would you have refused then?"
A hesitant pause, and then a sharp, "Shut up." Someone gasped. The sound was followed by a soft thud. "Ah, hell, look what you made me do!"
"It's the spongy ground, Squall."
Squall! Nida bit down hard on his lip, crushing his eyelids together. Oh no, not him! I can't be rescued by him! Months and months of trying to impress him, and he finally notices me like this?
"Damn . . . all right, where do we start?"
"Wait, let me find Nida. Give me your gunblade."
" . . . No."
"Because it's my gunblade."
"Sheesh! Okay, already. There! Follow me!"
Nida relaxed his facial muscles and pretended to be unconscious. Of all the would-be rescuers in the forest, Zell had to find him! Goddamn, this day gets worse . . . I can't believe I've gotta be pulled out of this cocoon by the guy I try the most to impress!
He was surprised to hear Squall's slightly ragged breathing.
Two fingers were pressed against his neck. Nida couldn't tell whether they were Zell's or Squall's but it was the former who had called his name.
"He's okay. Squall, just cut through that stuff . . . there, I think. And please remember that there's a living person inside it who would like to stay that way, 'kay?"
A tearing sound, and movement across his back. Nida slowly opened his eyes, as if coming to, and watched Zell's face swim into focus.
"Hey, man, you okay?"
"Been better," was all he could croak up, not through pain or discomfort but sheer embarrassment.
The weight of the cocoon was off his back, and Zell had grabbed his shoulders. Nida was lifted to a kneeling position, free of his prison, and crawled out onto the spongy ground, wincing as the poison once again shot through him. Sighing, he called on Esuna. The silence spell had long since worn off, but he was as tired as hell. The magic wouldn't be as strong with the caster in such a condition, but it should still work.
Humming light draped over him, sparkling and cool, and Nida actually felt the poison being cleansed from his system, the magic running through his veins and soothing them. He finished up with a Cura spell, and sat up, feeling refreshed.
"Better?" Zell asked with a grin. Nida nodded, and stood up, dusting himself off, ignoring the dull ache of his ribs. Very slowly, he turned to look at Squall.
"Well, what now?" Shamefully, his voice cracked on the last word. Luckily for Nida, no one seemed to have noticed.
"We have to free everyone and wake everyone up, I guess." Zell shrugged, one of his incredibly expressive gestures.
"I have a question," Squall interrupted, shifting his weight irritably. "Where are all the adult malboros? This is supposed to be a nest, right?"
Zell nodded, glancing hopefully at Nida.
"I haven't seen any adults down here," the SeeD said grimly, shaking his head. Squall folded his arms, sitting down on a nearby rotted tree stump.
"That doesn't sound right to me," he said. "What do we know about malboro breeding habits?"
"Not much. At least, not enough to make a difference," Zell said sheepishly. "Let's just make the most of it by getting everyone out!"
Squall frowned, casting his gaze over the entirety of the nest. His lips moved slightly as he counted. "Twenty-eight cocoons. One sharp object." He sighed. "Okay. I'll open the cocoons. You and . . . uh . . . Nida can heal 'em up when you get 'em out. Okay?"
Zell and Nida nodded.
I guess it'd be too much for him to remember me properly . . . even Zell forgets I'm here half the time.
Nida averted his gaze from Squall as he limped off to the next cocoon, using his gunblade to support his weight. It was strange to see the well respected and, apparently against his wishes, well liked, SeeD physically impaired in any way.
"I found the tunnel they used to drag us down here," Zell said conversationally.
"Oh? Did you follow it back up?"
"No. It was too dark in there, and it smelled nasty."
"Zell! Then how did you -"
Another dull, wet crack. Both SeeDs looked over at the offending malboro egg, watching the newborn mal-baby watch them. Irritably, Zell darted forward and grabbed its tendril-hair. Then he pulled his arm back and prepared to slam the thing against the nearest tree.
Nida was aware that a malboro's shriek sounded like spine-tingling laughter. But this one released a low-pitched, pitiful drone, which reverberated around the nest. Eyes widening, Zell threw it on the ground and stamped on it, cursing wildly.
"Zell? What did it just do?"
"What's going on?" Squall yelled from the other side of the nest.
Nida looked at Zell, each of them pinning the other with a 'uh-oh' expression.
Somehow it was still alive, and it moaned again. Zell leapt on it.
"Goddamn, hurry up and die!"
Nida glanced back at Squall, who was staring intently into the trees, his gunblade now held in both hands. He had a nasty feeling that something bad was going to happen.
"There, little bastard!" Zell was saying, finishing up on the little malboro.
"Zell, shut up for a second." Nida felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to rise, a sure sign that something was coming. From the way Squall was slowly backing away from the trees suggested that he knew it, too. Instinctively, Nida reached for his sword, which, frustratingly, wasn't there.
All three SeeDs nearly jumped out of their skins as a blood curdling, shrieking laughter tore through the nest. It was followed by hundreds of similar sounds, echoing around the forest and coming from all directions.
Squall turned and scrambled as fast as he could back to the two SeeDs, almost tripping over himself in his haste. Nida was weaponless, and couldn't risk a Fire- or Ice-type spell in such a confined area with thirty of his fellow students' lives at risk on top of that. Gritting his teeth, he wondered whether it would be better for the three of them to flee the area and return when that baby malboro's big brothers had left again.
And then they appeared. Huge, greyish malboros stormed into the nest from the dense foliage, shrieking and howling, tentacles quivering and snapping trees in half like they were twigs. All of them were drooling acid, which was dropping dangerously close to some of the cocoons.
Barely suppressing a whimper, Nida turned to Squall.
"Well," he breathed. "What now?"
Squall didn't know. There were far too many malboros for them to deal with. He couldn't summon Shiva. Her fierce Diamond Dust attack would freeze the forest floor for hundreds of metres, and that would take the imprisoned SeeDs with it. He and Zell were also the only two SeeDs with weapons. Magic was obviously complete no-go.
"This . . . looks bad," Zell muttered, fists clenched despite the fact they would probably make little difference to the outcome of this fight.
Squall quickly counted the approaching malboros - fifteen already, and more coming through the trees behind them. But, perhaps . . .
"I have an idea," he said slowly. "But if it's going to work, fate's going to have to be on my side."
"It usually is," Zell snorted.
"Really? I haven't noticed it all that much today."
The malboros were closing in.
Come on, come on, any closer and we're done for! Squall was waiting for that familiar burning feeling in his veins, the sensation of someone setting his blood alight with fury, but it just wasn't there.
"Squall, that idea of yours?" Zell prompted pointedly.
"Uh . . ."
The closest malboro was now only eight metres away.
If it doesn't come now, it won't come at -
And then it came, fire streaking through his body, his LionHeart limit break brought on by the proximity of a great risk to his life. Squall raised his gunblade, all pain dissipating, and charged at the nearest malboro. One swipe nearly severed it in two, but he was moving so fast that the battle scene was a blur of colour and heat and sound. Immediately after felling the first enemy, he was beside the next, slashing it to death with his Lion Heart, moving with incredible speed to the others, cutting them all down into pulsating, grey-green heaps that smoked with dark acid. As wildly as he'd started, Squall finished, finding no further opponents to defeat.
The nest was now a violent mess of malboro corpses, all of them leaking acidic blood. A few of the cocoons were smoking as well, but Nida and Zell were taking care of them already. Panting after that last-ditch effort, Squall relaxed his body. Unfortunately, this meant putting pressure on his twisted ankle, which gave way beneath him and sent Squall falling back against one of the cocoons with a pained cry.
"Nice one, Squall!" Zell was grinning, waving a hand at him. Nida looked awed, and Squall realised just how few had seen his most powerful limit break.
It was almost the last time I ever tried to use it, he thought grimly. But at least that's over. I doubt any malboros will come near the nest now with all the dead ones all over the place. They're intelligent creatures . . .
"There's a lot about malboros we don't know," Zell said in a relaxed tone of voice. "It's funny though . . ."
Squall had leaned his head back against the cocoon, closing his eyes. "What's funny?"
"There wasn't a single female malboro among all those that just attacked us."
"How would you know?"
"Oh, I, uh . . . read a book once, yeah? Female malboros have little speckle things 'round their mouths. Not easy to see but I looked for 'em and they were all definitely male."
Squall opened his eyes, blinking them thoughtfully.
"In fact, all the malboros I've seen today have been male. Not one female. Kinda makes you wonder where all the eggs came from, huh?"
A deadly silence followed that last remark. Squall swallowed.
"Are you sure you didn't get it the wrong way around? Male malboros don't protect their young like that . . . it's a female's job . . ."
Nida spoke up for the first time, in very hushed tones. "Maybe they weren't protecting the eggs . . ."
Squall sat bolt upright. "What do you mean?"
"Well, if males don't protect eggs or their young, why would they rush to the nest, and in such great numbers? There'd have to be something here worth protecting . . ."
A low rumble made the ground Squall was sitting on tremble, only slightly at first but gradually increasing in intensity. Eyes wide, he sat up.
"Now what?!" Zell exclaimed.
For the second time that day, the ground burst open beneath Squall. An absolutely massive green-grey tentacle shot out of the spongy floor, accompanied by hysterical laughter. Squall flew into the air, tossed up by the impact. He landed somewhere in the vicinity of Zell and Nida, dazed by the blow, but ignored their attempts to help and turned to look at where he'd been sitting.
What the . . .
Something was rising out of the ground there. Half of the cocoons were hanging on for dear life, suspended by the vines and ground they'd been glued to, their occupants now wide-awake and yelling frantically for help. Tentacles had filled the air, and were snaking across the nest towards the three SeeDs. Squall was already on his feet and running, despite his limp, grabbing Zell's shirt and hoping Zell had caught Nida's.
"Come on! We've got to -"
Something stole his feet out from underneath him. It was cold and wet and slimy and was gripping his bad ankle like there was no tomorrow. Which there wouldn't be, at least for Squall and Zell and Nida, unless they did something fast.
Dropping the gunblade, Squall hit the ground, catching himself on his elbows. Zell had his hand but was also yanked to the floor by the sheer physical strength of the thing dragging Squall back to the hole. He caught a stray vine, straining to keep hold of it, and glanced frantically across at Zell and Nida.
But the two were frozen solid, eyes wide with awed fear, and staring straight at the hole in the ground behind him. Squall craned his neck, and stole a look at the thing pulling him to a nasty death.
"Oh . . . my . . . God . . ."
Zell had thought the other malboros were big. They definitely were, compared to the ones he was used to fighting.
But the one protruding from the floor was tall enough to pierce the forest canopy. It had thousands of writhing tendrils coming out of its body, most of them driving straight towards the stunned SeeDs. It was female.
It also had a grinning, teeth-filled mouth the size of Zell's bedroom.
Wow . . . guess that's where all the malboro eggs have been coming from. That kid I killed wasn't squealing for help, it was yelling to its relatives to come protect its mom!
"Whoa!" Zell ducked as a tentacle whizzed past where his head had been. Squall was still clutching the vine, his face contorted with the effort of keeping it that way. The tendril trying to make him let go was quivering with the exertion.
What could have mutated the malboros this way? The females were never this much bigger than the males . . . Well, at least they weren't when the sorceresses were still around.
It wasn't common knowledge that Rinoa was the current sorceress. But she couldn't control her powers, and didn't want to. The previous sorceresses had all been evil, save for Edea, or at least not directly, and they had proven to hold a certain influence over the monsters of the world. Now that a good person was finally the next generation of sorceress, would the monsters act any differently?
Zell had to move, rolling out of the way of several more tentacles.
What about the Lunar Cry? Could that count for something? Adel came down along with the monsters last time . . . now there was an evil sorceress. Monsters have definitely been on the increase since the last Lunar Cry. That's to be expected, but what if Adel's evil energy somehow tainted the malboros, making them . . . different?
"Damn, I hate thinking," he mumbled to himself.
The mother malboro was shrieking fit to deafen them all. But with Squall down, and Nida and himself out of options, he didn't know what to do.
Suddenly Squall cried out. The vine had snapped away from the tree it had been connected to, and now the SeeD was being pulled at great speed towards the mutated malboro's open, drooling mouth.
Zell didn't think - he ran. Somehow he grabbed Squall's hands, catching him just as he'd been about to get digested. Zell dug his heels into the ground, leaning backwards, pulling with every ounce of strength he had left in him. Nida appeared at his side, raising Squall's gunblade over his head and preparing to strike the tentacle. But something knocked him down before he could.
"This was such a bad idea," Squall moaned. Zell could hear his friend's arms being stretched to their limit, and wondered how long he could hold him for.
"I thought . . . you always wanted to die . . . in battle . . . You should be loving this!"
"I'm only nineteen! I meant when I was older!"
"Why waste time?"
"Well, for a start, Rinoa's birthday's coming up and she'd kill me if I missed it . . ."
"You'd already be dead!"
"Oh, she'd find a way."
They both shut up as a roaring shadow covered the sky above them, searing away the canopy. Zell looked up, startled to see the brilliantly red Ragnarok airship hovering over them. The heat it generated began to fill the nest, and the mother malboro started to scream in fury.
The stairs of the Ragnarok dropped, even in midair, and Zell could see someone hanging out of the exit hole.
He thought it was Rinoa - she always wore blue.
What the hell do they plan to -
Zell yelled in surprise as the malboro's huge evil face was suddenly blasted with laser fire, exploding from the Ragnarok's weapons system at the front of the cockpit. Zell let go of Squall in surprise, and the tentacle bounced up and over the malboro, flinging Squall several hundred metres upwards into the air.
But the Ragnarok's arm snapped down and its metallic claw caught Squall before he could start plummeting back down to the ground. Zell dove out of the way as the ship descended further, its burners nearly setting the forest alight.
"HEY!!! BACK UP! BACK UP!" Zell screamed, waving wildly at Rinoa.
The claw holding Squall had lowered to the ground, and it opened, dropping the dazed SeeD a little more heavily than was necessary. Zell was busy dodging the flying acid that was erupting from the malboro's face as laser fire ripped through it. With a great belch of blood, its head drooped backwards, and it shrivelled in on itself. Zell grabbed a staggering Nida, hauling him away from the hole but sticking close enough to cast appropriate spells on any cocoons that were hit with the deadly acid.
The Ragnarok continued to hover, but now ropes were dropping from the opened gangplank and SeeDs were sinking to the ground, attacking the tough cocoons with their weapons. Zell sat down before he fell down, watching the SeeDs go about freeing their fellow students.
"Man," he grinned at Nida, "will my Ma laugh when she hears about this!"
"I didn't find it very funny," Nida said with a horrified expression on his face.
Rather than find a clearing, the Ragnarok just landed beside the nest area, razing the entire area of trees in the process. There were now twenty-eight very groggy SeeDs and students sitting amongst the remnants of the malboro breeding ground, thirty-one if Zell, Squall and Nida were included. Rinoa rather thought they were, as she dashed down the steps of the airship and threw herself at Squall, knocking the young man off the tree stump he was sitting on.
"Hey, careful! I'm still alive, you know, no need to go all soft on me."
"But I thought . . . I was worried that . . ."
"Well, don't be," Squall smiled at her, somehow managing to sit up with Rinoa clinging to him. But she didn't want to let him go just yet.
"C'mon, that's everyone now." Rinoa gave him a brilliant smile. "Considering how badly things went, nobody got killed and no one was badly hurt -"
"Speak for yourself," Squall muttered under his breath. "You didn't fall down a cliff!"
"Oh, Dr. Kadowaki will sort that out. Come on, I wanna go back to the Garden and get an early night."
Squall caught her meaning and rolled his eyes. "Sheesh, Rinoa, if I have an early night it'll be to get some sleep. I'm shattered."
She pouted. "Awww, you big meanie!" But the pout cracked into a grin, and she climbed off him as he got to his feet. Wrapping her arm around his waist, she discreetly helped to support his ankle, and breathed a sigh of relief when they reached the top of the stairs, where Irvine, Quistis, Selphie, Xu and Dr. Kadowaki greeted them. Zell and Nida weren't far behind them.
"Looks like that's it," Quistis said, and her mouth twitched into a smile.
Something always goes wrong, Rinoa thought, unable to prevent her own smile of amusement, but we always get through it. Always!
"Not quite," Selphie said, still itching at the wound she'd aggravated again by flying the Ragnarok into battle. "We still have one thing left to do."
When everyone was aboard, Selphie sat on the gangplank with Irvine. Squall and Rinoa watched from the top of the stairs, as Selphie summoned Ifrit.
The Guardian Force completely seared away the nest, the eggs and the malboro corpses, as well as half the surrounding tree population. But at least they wouldn't have to deal with another queen malboro ever again.
The four friends were barely back inside when the gangplank sunk up into the side of the ship, closing off the exit. They made their way to the cockpit. Squall's ankle still ached a little, and was awkward to move, but a few Cure spells had eased the majority of the pain and he enjoyed making Rinoa keep up with his long strides again.
As the Ragnarok rose into the sky, preparing for the journey back to Balamb.
"You realise we probably just destroyed an entire new species of malboro?" Rinoa said tentatively.
Squall thought about giving her an intelligent answer, but threw that idea out of the window.
"Who cares?" he mumbled. "Let's just go home."
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