Four’s nose really itched.
Also, she was way out in the middle of nowhere, dangling her legs off of one of the many Octarian hover platforms that filled their patrol zones, in a valley that looked no different from her usual patrol zone except that there was no Cuttlefish Cabin to drag herself back to for a congratulatory post-patrol snooze. And the only company she had was Cap’n Cuttlefish. But man, her nose was itchy.
The Inkling sighed, hearing the clack of cane on steel that signaled the Splatoon commander’s approach. She stood wearily, turning around and putting a smile on her face as the aged Inkling gave her an enthusiastic peace sign.
“Up and at ‘em, Agent 4!” he crowed. “Octo Valley won’t secure itself! Now what’s the first item on our checklist?”
“Uh… is it to wander around the valley and make sure no Octarians are afoot?”
“That’s the goal, not the method! No, first we need to establish a perimeter and sound off if we find anything amiss! I’ll get the cones, you grab some tape from the shed!”
Four resisted the urge to sigh again, lest she get a lecture from the captain about how sighing would give away her position to the enemy, and obediently walked towards the ramshackle building that seemed mostly comprised of old radios and rusty metal.
She had nothing against Cap’n Cuttlefish. The old guy was pretty enthusiastic about recent trends, in an oblivious and kind of painfully earnest kind of way, and he’d also been learning how to rap which was just about the funniest thing Four had ever heard. She was glad that Eight had warned her about it ahead of time, otherwise she might’ve actually died on the spot when the cap and Callie went at it a few days ago. That said, if she had to considerately describe the old dude in one word, ‘detail-oriented’ sprang immediately to mind. Which was fine! Three and Eight were also crazy detail-oriented, and so was Marie when she couldn’t get away with slacking off.
However, some other words she’d apply to the captain that didn’t apply to her fellow agents were ‘fussy’ and ‘nitpicky’ and ‘boring.’ Cod she was so bored. Bored bored bored! Patrols with ol’ Cuttlefish were nothing but exercises in reading a checklist and following instructions to the plainest detail. If Four didn’t tape off an alley correctly, or if she moved from one kettle to the next a minute too soon, she could expect an earful of complaints from the captain about all of the ways she was leaving them vulnerable to invasion.
Honestly, with how this squid operated, it was no wonder that Three had turned out so serious and devoid of fun after two years stuck with him. At least when she patrolled with Three there might be a few jokes put in here and there, and she wouldn’t feel pressured to stay alert even on their dang lunch break, but no amount of ‘buckos’ or ‘ahoys’ ever distracted her from the fact that ‘relaxation’ was to Cap’n Cuttlefish what ‘restraint’ was to a salmonid.
Tape and cones successfully put in place, Four spun her Dualies idly in her hands, leaning back against the wall as she eyed the nearest kettle -
“Don’t slouch, Agent 4, an Octarian will splat you quicker than you could say ‘invasion’ if you’re not prepared!”
Alright, scratch that. Four stood rigidly and properly next to the wall, Dualies held firmly in her hands and a sense of hopelessness in her hearts at the realization that this was ten minutes into a five hour patrol. The captain’s voice continued to crackle through her headphones, reporting his own position and utter lack of Octarians of any kind. Thankfully he didn’t seem to expect her to reply to his call-outs, maybe a holdover from his time with Three since the long-tendriled girl didn’t speak all that much when on duty.
Which was kind of a shame, since Four wondered how many times she could deadpan ‘Yeah.’ through her headset before Cuttlefish said anything.
Every patrol with this dude went exactly the same. There’d be no jokes or fun, she was supposed to be focused at all times, the captain would tell her all about how the Octarians were going to destroy Inkopolis if they got the chance, and after five or six hours of nothing happening, she would go home too mentally exhausted to do anything else that day.
Patrols sucked, but they sucked extra when she had nothing to do except follow a schedule. Squid was not meant to be so exact and methodical!
It was her first time in Octo Valley, and looking around at the many interconnected structures and hovering platforms which lay throughout it, Four wanted nothing more than to be shooting her ink with reckless abandon and sliding or jumping from place to place, doing tricks and patrolling for octos at the same time. Of course, doing that would punch her a one-way ticket to Lecturesville. This place was huge, so ideally she’d get to come back with a patrol partner who was less obstinate and do some proper exploring.
Really, if anything was motivating her to do a decent job right now, it was the hope of getting out of Octo Canyon and blazing some new trails in the apparently eternal fight against a bunch of octopi whose only method of attack seemed to be ganking a bunch of fish.
Idly, she kicked a nearby rock; it hopped a few times along the ground before falling over the edge of the kettle she was watching, rattling all the way down. Four smiled, giving her fist a little pump, only to be nearly deafened at the captain’s voice screeching in her ear.
“WHAT WAS THAT!? AGENT 4, DID YOU HEAR THAT!?”
Gingerly, the Inkling replied, “Yes, Captain, it was the kettle.”
“The kettle! ARE THERE OCTARIANS OVER THERE?”
“No, Captain - ”
“Did you see an Octarian and head into the kettle to pursue them!?”
Four sighed. “No, Captain, I kicked a rock and it landed in the kettle.”
“By kracken, Agent 4, you’ll make my hearts burst if you’re horsing around out there! It’s our job to keep Inkopolis safe - “
Irritably, the girl switched off her headset, taking a deep breath at the luxurious silence which replaced Cap’n Cuttlefish’s shrill cries. For an old squid who didn’t have enough strength in his legs to get from Inkopolis to Octo Canyon in less than an afternoon, the captain definitely hadn’t lost any lung power. Dude could yell.
After a few moments of basking in the peace she lifted a hand and flicked them back on.
“ - to offer! I know you’ve got the stuff, so keep your head in the game!”
“Yes, Captain.” Four droned. The old Inkling was apparently satisfied, judging from his lack of response, and the girl sagged, shoulders drooping.
It was like talking to her freaking parents. Maybe a bit better, since she couldn’t literally switch off her parents’ voices when they started to lecture her. Some secret agent job this turned out to be. She couldn’t believe she was doing this for free.
Four stood near the kettle, trying to keep her eyes from glazing over, physically feeling the planet turning and time marching on past her while she kept watch over this hole in the ground. After the predetermined time was up, she sighed, stretching her arms over her head and walking to the next kettle. After the next few minutes, she walked to the kettle after that. And the next, and the next.
Kettles as far as the eye could see, standing dangerous and keen in the middle of absolutely nowhere, the premiere place to find nothing happening and everything boring. The greatest war zone known to squidkind, a giant empty valley, and full of the deadliest threat ever - cookware.
Actually, okay, cookware was kind of dangerous - she’d been on enough shifts for Mr. Grizz to feel an uncomfortable tingle running down her back whenever she saw a particularly large cast-iron pot. Even so, she kind of wished she was on a salmon run right now, because at least then things would be happening and she wouldn’t be staring at kettles.
“Report in, Agent 4!”
“Reporting in, nothing is happening.” Four answered the captain’s call, locked in mortal combat with the desire to slump against the nearest wall.
“Oho! It’s the same on my end - good to know we’ve got our bases covered! That’s how you win wars, Agent 4. Nothin’ happenin’ is the best thing to have happen!”
Four lost the battle. She slumped against the wall, sighing and wondering how Three had been able to put up with only Cuttlefish for company for over a year.
Another two kettles came and went before it was time for their break, and Four took a seat underneath a tree which stood near her most recent all-important kettle recon. Reaching into her Hero Suit, she retrieved the small pink box which Callie had put her lunch in - Four wasn’t normally a huge fan of pink, but she’d make an exception for the rad sandwiches that Callie made. She had just popped it open when Cap’n Cuttlefish hobbled over, carrying a green box of his own, and plopped himself down on a nearby low-sitting brick wall.
“Remember, Agent 4 - “ Cuttlefish began, but Four interrupted with a roll of her eyes.
“The perfect time to strike is when the enemy’s off-guard.” she quipped, repeating that tired old phrase that the captain loved to hit her with whenever lunch time came around. “Cap, I totally feel you, but I’m also starving, and I’d appreciate it if we could just eat in peace. Please?”
The older squid raised a bushy eyebrow, but didn’t say anything in reply, merely flipping open the lid to his own lunchbox. Relieved, Four bit into her sandwich, savoring the crispness of the lettuce and the fullness of the meats. It was no piping-hot home-cooked meal, but even something as simple as a sandwich made with care could really reinvigorate a squid after over an hour of staring at nothing. Lunchtime was by far her favorite part of patrols with Cuttlefish.
Between bites, Four found her gaze drawn towards the older squid, who was sitting straight-backed on the wall, sandwich of his own in hand as he gazed out over the valley. She had to admit that there was something pretty dignified about Cuttlefish when he sat like that, weather eye scanning the horizon. Without any raps or shrill nagging in her ear, he looked a lot more like the old war hero he was.
Didn’t make these patrols any easier, but like she said, nothing against the old guy. Four was just a squid that hated to be nagged. Missions with Marie were so much more fun.
Without the rigid alertness normally demanded of her by the captain, Four finished her food a lot quicker than she normally did; she placed her lunch box back into the vest pocket of her Hero Suit and leaned against the tree, eyes closed to heighten her awareness of the wind blowing past her. She stayed like that for a few minutes until she reluctantly admitted to herself that if she relaxed any more, she was gonna fall asleep, and she’d be hearing Cuttlefish’s voice in her dreams if she dozed off while on patrol.
So she stood up, Dualies in hand, and gave a few hops up and down to shake the laziness out of her joints. She stretched side to side, bending low to touch her pistols to the ground, and when she raised back up, Cap’n Cuttlefish had hobbled over to her, one hand stuck behind him and rubbing his back absentmindedly.
“Agent 4, let’s have a talk before we go back to patrollin’.” the captain said, looking her in the eyes. She felt her hearts sink a little bit. How long was this lecture going to take?
“Uh, cap, if this is about what I said before the lunch break, I was just really hungry. I’ll refocus - “
“Ain’t about that, bucko.” he interrupted with a shake of his head.
Uh oh. What was the problem, then?
“Maybe we should talk later? Get back to our lookout?” she suggested, hoping that she might be able to ditch the valley right after patrol.
“Our patrols have been secure, no Octarians are gonna be menacing this part of the Valley while we talk.”
Well squid, there was really no way Four could argue with that second part. She fought the urge to sigh, resigning herself to her fate. “What do you want to talk about, cap?” she asked reluctantly.
His shaky eyes rested on hers as he leaned against his Bamboozler. “It’s no secret to nobody that you’re no fan of my patrols, Agent 4.” he remarked. Busted. “I’m callin’ for a direct Splatoon meeting between you and me, so we don’t fall afoul of any unvoiced concerns that might split the crew. If you’ve got something to complain about regarding my patrols, Agent 4, this is the time to speak.”
Four blinked, shifting uncomfortably under the captain’s stare. Yeah, so on the list of things she didn’t like dealing with, unhappy authority figures were pretty close to the top. Could never be sure that when an adult said you were free to speak your mind, it was actually true.
“We’re burning daylight, Agent 4. Nothing to say?”
Well… might as well try. Wasn’t like she had much to lose.
“I like a little excitement, cap.” Four said, not quite sure how to begin. “I like to think I’m an easy squid to please, but I get bored really easy, and… I dunno. Always being so constantly focused and alert when nothing’s happening kind of sucks, I guess.”
Cuttlefish’s beard twitched. “And so what would you have us do?” he asked.
Not stand around and watch kettles for five hours. “I guess a little variation wouldn’t hurt?”
“Well why do you think we’re in Octo Valley today, Agent 4? It’s been a fairly long time since we’ve patrolled here. The fresh air of a new patrol spot isn’t enough for you?”
Four looked down at the old squid, confused. “I wasn’t exactly talking about the scenery, although it’s pretty cool, I guess.” she answered. “I meant that I get really bored when we’re just staring at holes in the ground and nothing is happening.”
The old squid gave a low hum. “Watching the kettles is an important part of our job, Agent 4, and one that I happen to know best.” he said sternly. “The fact that nothing’s happening means that we’re doing our jobs properly.”
“Yeah, okay, you’re right.” The yellow-headed Inkling replied, trying to keep her rising agitation out of her voice. “But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s crazy dull to just stand at attention and do nothing but stare at kettles all day.”
“Maybe so. But does that make it okay for you to be lax in your duties, or to switch your headset off when your commanding officer’s speaking to you?”
Oh, ouch. Double busted. Four grimaced, rubbing the back of her head. “I… so you noticed that, huh?”
“You bet your beak I did! And a whole boatload of other things, too! I may not have said anything before, but that’s because it wasn’t a problem before.” Cuttlefish said, thrusting his Bamboozler in Four’s face and making her take a step back. “I know how you’ve been lookin’ at me, bucko - it’s the way all the kids these days look at me. Thinking that I’m an old coot whose glory days are behind him, stuck in his ways, unable to change.
“But cod dang it, Agent 4, I was the commander of the Squidbeak Splatoon! I didn’t win any wars by ignoring my soldiers! I mean, for cryin’ out loud, I didn’t start rapping until a few months ago! I didn’t know a single octo I’d trust with my back until I met Agent 8! What made you think I’d be so against changing the patrols?”
“Because you never have?” Four challenged, feeling that familiar biting indignation that always flared up when adults lectured her. “I’ve talked to Three before, cap, and she said this is how you’ve done routine patrols ever since she’s known you! Eight said the same thing!”
Cuttlefish sighed, rubbing at his neck. “That’s true.” he remarked. “And maybe I’m at fault for thinking you’re the same as the other agents. I do have a certain way I like to see things done, but if a plan isn’t working, you switch tactics. It’s basic strategy.”
He thumped Four on the shoulder. “You and I haven’t spent a lot of time together outside of patrols, Agent 4, and I’m guessin’ I know why now.” the old squid said. “But the New Squidbeak Splatoon is a bunch of cephalopods all in the same boat, and we’ve gotta work together if we’re going to do our jobs properly.”
“So… what do you have in mind?” Four asked hesitantly, rubbing the spot where she got thumped.
Cuttlefish chuckled, stroking his beard. “Do me a favor, Agent 4.” he said with a gleam in his eye. “Keep on working with me for today, let’s finish up the patrol, and we’ll try somethin’ new at the end. If you like it, we’re shipshape. If you don’t, we’ll have a sit down and figure out some other way to get the job done without my agent rolling her eyes at me.”
Four winced. Alright, yeah, that was pretty uncool of her. “Uh… sorry about that, by the way.” she said meekly.
“Well, an apology’s all a squid can ask for.” Cuttlefish remarked, turning away from her. “Keep a sharp eye out, Agent 4. Only two hours to go.”
Unsure how to feel about that interaction, Four took her position at the next kettle, though unlike before, her thoughts were all focused on what this ‘something new’ was that Cuttlefish had planned. She wondered what it was going to be. An impromptu rap battle? A coupon for getting out of patrol for a day? A paycheck?
Okay, definitely not that last one, but a squid could dream. Four mostly just hoped it didn’t suck.
The day progressed as slowly as it normally did, the sun cresting the highest point in the sky and starting its downward path again, but even though she was still just watching kettles and occasionally listening to Cuttlefish give advice on watching out for Octarians that sounded like they’d been rehearsed, the thought that something new was waiting at the end of all this tedium kept Four going.
Despite the fatigue she felt once the last kettle had been cleared of activity, feet aching and face yawning, she also felt a certain amount of buzzing anticipation about the end of the patrol. She made her way back to the outpost at the mouth of the valley, finding Cuttlefish standing on top of the transport pipe which led back to Inkopolis.
Well, not only did she not see a ‘get-out-of-patrol-free’ coupon in his hands, it mostly seemed like the captain was just planning on returning to the city. Feeling a little disappointed at the sight, wondering if he’d forgotten, Four approached and asked, “Time to head back?”
“Not quite.” Cuttlefish answered. “Good work on patrol, Agent 4 - you stuck with it, and I’d like to show you something. If you’ve got the extra time, of course.”
Curiosity once again piqued, Four glanced down at the grate which sat underneath the old squid. “...is this ‘something’ in Inkopolis?”
The captain shook his head. “These grates connect a lot of places, Agent 4.” he said. “The Octo Valley kettles are just the easiest route to take. If you think you can keep up with an old squid, though, I’ll show you somewhere that even Agent 3 hasn’t seen.”
Alright, now that sounded her speed. Four grinned, nodding. “Deal! Just don’t go too slow, alright?”
Cap’n Cuttlefish flashed her a peace sign before transforming where he stood, his faded green squid form slipping through the bars of the grate and disappearing down the pipe. A moment later, Four followed, speeding along the ink currents in hot pursuit.
The breeze had a familiar smell to it when Four popped out of the other end of the grate. This one was much larger than the others she’d seen. It almost looked like one of those big anti-flooding tunnels that you could see in the less-developed sections of Inkopolis. Taking a quick look around, she realized they were still in Octo Valley, albeit much further in than before; off in the distance she could see the kettle structures hovering far above them in the sky.
“This way, Agent 4!” she heard Cuttlefish calling to her. She made her way down the rocky path which ran off from the grate entrance, following the sound of the old squid’s voice until she found him standing at the top of a cliff which looked down into a separate part of the valley. The gentler light of the sun which was on its way towards the horizon threw him into sharper relief, and once again Four saw the aged commander of the Squidbeak Splatoon instead of Callie and Marie’s weird rapping grandpa.
“The military marked off this area as a restricted airspace.” Cuttlefish told her as she came up beside him. “A personal favor to old Cuttlefish, so we could leave this alone without having a bunch of kids and reporters squawking at it. But I figure it’s just the ticket to get you more excited about patrols with your captain.”
Four hardly heard the last few lines that Cuttlefish said, her eyes widening as she gazed down into the valley. Crashed into the rocks maybe a half-mile down was a huge Octarian flying saucer - she recognized the shine of the metal plating and the faded grooves along the sides which would’ve shone with neon running lights in its active days. However, the craft was way bigger than anything Four had encountered. A few hundred feet across, easy.
“That’s so cool…” she breathed.
“An octo landing craft from the Great Turf War, meant to rapidly move and deploy their ground troops.” Cuttlefish remarked, easing himself down into a sitting position at the top of the cliff. “You can bet your beak they don’t have anymore of these, not with their current resources. It’s a big old relic of the war, just like me.”
Four sat next to him, still looking down at the enormous vehicle. “Did you fight these things?”
“Who do you think I am?” Cuttlefish asked, a twinkle of amusement in his eye. “Captain Cuttlefish of the Squidbeak Splatoon was one of the most daring members of the Inkling military. No octo craft could scare him; I’d be Super Jumping onto these rust buckets day in and day out, fighting my way through dozens of Octarians to get to the bridge.”
Four leaned in excitedly, eyes sparkling, mind racing at the thought of the battle that Cuttlefish was describing. “Do you have any stories?” she asked.
“Do I?” the captain’s beard rustled as he smiled, raising a hand to rub his chin. “Well, I suppose I might be willing to part with an old memory or two. There was this one time that we found ourselves caught on the front, octos in front and behind, and the only help we could rely on was a busted-up radio tower two miles north...”
As it turned out, the captain was an amazing storyteller. Four felt her weariness from the day’s patrol melting away as she listened, enraptured; Cuttlefish painted pictures of soaring aircraft sweeping across the battlefield, of Octarians and Inklings engaged in fierce skirmishes that moved from open fields to cramped metal hallways to huge battleships that floated on the sea. When he spoke, hands moving precisely to capture the moment, eyes gazing off in the distance at memories of a much older sky, the rickety old man completely faded away, replaced by a grizzled and handsome Inkling soldier who commanded his troops with courage and valor. His worn green jersey became an olive-colored uniform in Four’s eyes, decorated with medals and badges. His crusty old Bamboozler wasn’t just an elderly squid’s walking stick, but a trusty weapon that Captain Cuttlefish held at the ready, snapping it up at a moment’s notice to send a blast of ink into the faces of the Octarian troops.
And when he finished his story, rubbing his neck and giving a reminiscent gaze to the crashed Octarian saucer, Four found that her image of that incredible Inkling veteran hadn’t completely faded away. She could still see the war hero behind that scratchy beard.
The sun had begun to set, and so Four reluctantly picked herself up to follow Cap’n Cuttlefish back towards the transport pipe. As she did, though, the old squid glanced back at her.
“I’ll make you a deal, Agent 4.” he said genially. “I need a squid who’ll keep everything looking proper and patrol with the determination to make an old captain proud, but I’d also appreciate a fresh listener for my old war stories - the Squid Sisters have already heard most of them, anyway. So if you keep your head in the game during patrols, and put up with a little peaceful boredom, I’ll have a story or two to share with you during our breaks and after the patrol’s done. Deal?”
“Deal!” Four agreed enthusiastically, picking up the pace to walk alongside the old soldier.
Alright, so maybe doing patrols with the captain wouldn’t be so bad after all.