Chapter 3: Mi'ihen Highroad

As she first came to, Quistis thought she must be at sea. A sense of movement, of rocking back and forth, filled the achy blackness inside her head before anything else. The sensation faded as the rest of her faculties awoke. She didn't remember what had happened, recalling only that she'd been in Luca about to start her pilgrimage. Gradually, she opened her eyes and blinked hard to resolve the watery colors into an image.

A small fire crackled beside her and a heavy blanket lay on top of her, covering her from boots to chin. When she rolled her head to the side, a shadow moved between her and the light. The figure crouched beside her and rested one heavy hand on her shoulder.

"Hey. we were gettin' worried, ya know?"

"Raijin?" she said, her voice raspy and weak.

He sat up a little, cupped his hand around his mouth, and yelled, "Yo, boss! She's awake!"

The shout sent a fresh bolt of pain through her head.

Heavy footsteps approached, crunching across dirt and gravel.

"About time," Seifer said and walked within the halo of firelight.

"What happened?" she asked. She felt like someone had beaten her over the head with a blitzball and then stuffed her mouth with cotton.

"How should we know?" Seifer pushed Raijin aside and flopped down beside her in the dirt. "You tired to ditch us. I found you getting zapped and thrown over some Al Bhed's shoulder like a sack of…well, screws or something, I guess. But I saved you. Not that you'll bother to thank me for it."

"Why would an Al Bhed try to kidnap me?" Quistis had never so much as spoken to one before, let alone had the opportunity to make enemies among them.

Seifer shrugged. "He said something about wanting to take you somewhere safe. Keep you from sacrificing yourself to defeat Sin. Said there were 'other ways.' That Sin could be killed with machina weapons."

"That's crazy."

"I know."

Still disoriented but beginning to grow stronger, Quistis pushed up onto her elbows to take a better look around. The fire beside her marked the middle of of a small camp built in the shelter of an ancient structure, rusty and half buried—a remnant of Spira's past before Sin. The cloudless sky and half-moon above provided the only other light, throwing into relief a silvery track twisting sinuously over the countryside.

"Where am I?"

"The Mi'ihen Highroad."

"How'd I get here?"

"I carried you."

"All the way from Luca?" she asked, astonished. She couldn't see any sign of the city in either direction.

"Yeah. You've been out cold for hours."

As she sat up the rest of the way, she noticed that the blanket covering her was not a blanket at all but rather Seifer's coat. He sat with one bare arm balanced on his knee, the silvery ends of his steel toed boots glinting in the firelight. She ripped the coat off her legs and threw it in his lap.

"You have no right to—" she started, but had to stop and temper her indignation as a wave of dizziness crashed over her, "…no right to take me against my will like this."

"You're kidding. Right? I saved you from being kidnapped by the Al Bhed and taken away forever to some island…and I'm the bad guy? I don't think so."

"I made it perfectly clear to you that I wanted to go on by myself."

"No. You made it perfectly clear that you wanted to go on with Puberty Boy."

She felt her face grow hot. "Where is he anyway?" She couldn't imagine that Squall would allow anyone (either the Al Bhed or her so-called "guardians") to haul her out of the city, unconscious and vulnerable, if he'd still been around to see it.

"Probably off somewhere writing poetry or combing his hair," Seifer replied, contempt thick in his voice. "If you're thinking that he cares too much to let anything bad happen to you, then you're delusional. He doesn't. That's why he's not your guardian. I am."

"For the last time: You're not my guardian."

Seifer scowled at her. "Saving your life and hauling your ass all the way out here was no walk in the park. Some little chicken wuss just about broke two of my ribs, Fujin's yelling even louder than usual because her ears are still ringing from a flash bomb, and Raijin got shot. You could stand to show a little gratitude, Summoner."

She was beginning to hate the way he had of sneering her title as it if were an insult. But with as much as she resented him for his arrogant heavy handedness, he had a point. Raijin stood on the other side of the fire, a white bandage wrapped around his arm, covering a wound he'd apparently received in service to her. She'd seen enough of their relationship to know that Raijin couldn't be held responsible for Seifer's decisions. The poor man seemed to have no interest in being a guardian at all. Yet he'd still taken a bullet for her.

"I could heal that, if you'd like," she told him.

Raijin's head perked up, as if surprised to find her talking to him.

"Come here." She waved him over.

The black expression on Seifer's face made Raijin hesitate. But at Quistis's insistence, he crossed over to her and got down on his knees. She peeled back layer after layer of bandages, some of them still wet with blood and sticking to his skin. The wound underneath didn't look serious, just a graze, but the skin around it had an angry, purplish tint. Raijin winced when she laid her hand on his shoulder. The simple spell she cast worked quickly, a warm blue glow that knitted flesh and muscle. When it finished, she used the bandages to wipe his skin clean.

"There you go. All better." She patted Raijin on the back.

"Wow!" He rotated his arm around once. "I feel even better than I did before I was shot, ya know?"

"That's great. Now you can go relieve Fujin from her watch," Seifer snapped.

"Oh…uh…sure." Ever obedient, Raijin slipped off into the darkness.

"You don't have to be so sharp with them. They're your friends," Quistis said.

"They're my posse," he replied, as if that in any way excused his behavior.

Fujin arrived a moment later and, without speaking, stretched out on the other side of the fire to sleep. Still weak from whatever had knocked her out to begin with, Quistis followed Fujin's lead and collapsed back into the dirt. In the middle of the night, hours away from civilization, she didn't have many other options but to rest up and attack the problem anew in the morning. This time, she thought, she'd try something different. She knew Squall was heading north for Crusader business. And wherever he was, wherever he was going to be, Seifer and his posse could help her get there faster.

Seifer's coat landed heavily on top of her once again.

"Keep it this time," he advised her, his voice soft. "I'll wake you again at first light."

0 0 0

The Mi'ihen Highroad didn't have much in the way of interesting landmarks. The dirt and gravel road snaked through the scattered remains of an ancient city, now reduced to half-buried hulks of rusting infrastructure. Most of Spira contained such relics of the past and Seifer didn't find them particularly interesting. The rest of the landscape consisted of grass prairie filled with flans, flying fiends, and wild chocobos. Nothing to make the day go any faster.

"Who do you suppose is winning?" Raijin asked as they walked, everyone now dirty and hungry and tired. "I bet the Goers are. They always win."

"UNBEATABLE."

"I don't know about that. The Beasts have been training hard this year," Quistis said. "They might surprise everyone and take the cup."

Seifer sensed he had achieved some victory with her. Since waking up on the highroad, she hadn't made a single attempt to escape and had even become friendly with Raijin, who blushed and tittered at her attention like a ten year old boy. But after all the initial trouble he'd had with her, Seifer didn't trust the sudden change of heart. It had come too easy. And he figured she still had something up her sleeve.

By nightfall, they'd reached the travel agency.

The squat building sat along the edge of a ravine, at the bottom of which continued the original path Mi'ihen had followed on his journey to Bevelle hundreds of years before. The new road took an easier, safer route along the top, all of the gaps now crossed by bridges.

An Al Bhed with shoulder length yellow-blond hair greeted them as they walked inside and introduced himself as Rin.

"Two rooms please," Quistis said.

"I'm afraid we only have one free at the moment," Rin replied, his accent thick.

"Why's that?"

"It seems I am full up with Crusaders."

Seifer saw surprise and concern on Quistis's face and knew that she was thinking about Squall. Like always. What the hell had the guy done to earn her trust and affection? Between the girly hair, his sissy two-handed fighting style, and the personality of a soggy two-by-four, Seifer didn't see much to like. Yet Quistis lit up at the merest hint of his presence. Quistis continued to hold out for Squall to become her guardian. She'd probably already even offered him the honor, and he'd turned it down to become one in a lowly legion of boys.

"We'll take whatever you've got so long as we can eat, sleep, and be on our way in the morning," Seifer said.

As Rin punched keys on a piece of machina to process their payment, Seifer heard the skitter and chirp of several chocobos arriving outside. A second later the agency's doors opened and a group of three women walked in. The first—a red head dressed in purple and white armor over a green body suit and a pair of thigh high boots that creaked as she walked—immediately caught Rin's attention.

"Lucil. Welcome back. Done in Luca already?"

She nodded. "There was a bit of an…incident."

"Incident?" Quistis said.

"Fiends attacked the city during the tournament," Lucil explained. "Luckily, Maester Seymour was there. He destroyed them all with his aeon. It was…" She hesitated, her face a shade paler than it had been a moment before. "It was quite impressive."

"Was anybody hurt?"

"Not that I know of. But it certainly underscores the importance of our work here. I rushed back here to get my Chocobo Knights in order. We'll be patrolling the highroad, making sure this sudden surge of fiends doesn't complicate our operation."

Quistis crossed her arms, looking contemplative and concerned. "What exactly is this operation?"

"Operation Mi'ihen. We intend to defeat Sin," Lucil replied.

"How?"

"Through the combined force of the Crusaders and the Al Bhed. We are all gathering on Mushroom Rock Road, between here and Djose. We've been gathering sinspawn and are going to use them to draw Sin in to shore. And when it arrives, we will attack in force."

All the blood appeared to drain out of Quistis's face. Seifer, too, felt a lump form in his stomach. "You're going to try to defeat Sin with machina?"

"We have to do something," Lucil said. "And I think it will work."

It sounded like heresy to Seifer. But, despite his long desire to become a guardian, he'd never been particularly religious. So it struck him as entirely, terrifyingly possible that there might exist some way to defeat Sin aside from the Yevon prescribed final summoning. And if Operation Mi'ihen did prove successful…could he afford not to be there? He hoped Quistis would stick around the area long enough to see. However Sin met its end, Seifer meant to be there. It pained him to think of Squall being the one to drive home the final blow.

As they went their separate ways, Lucil and her knights to their room, Quistis to hers, Raijin lagged back long enough to ask the women, "Hey. Do you know who won the tournament?"

"Oh. Yes." Lucil smiled. "I believe it was the Besaid Aurochs."

For a silent moment, this news washed over them, until, simultaneously, Raijin and Fujin went nova:

"What?"

"IMPOSSIBLE!"

0 0 0

Despite lying in a real bed topped with a fluffy comforter and an abundance of pillows, Quistis didn't sleep well. For a long time, she lay on her side, looking down at Seifer as he slept on the floor beside her bed and wondered how he could rest so peacefully after what Lucil had told them about Operation Mi'ihen. She couldn't think of any way that the maesters in Bevelle would approve of such a thing. It reeked of foolish pride, the same sort of hubris that had brought about Sin in the first place.

How had Squall gotten himself mixed up in such a thing?

More than that, how could he have chosen it over becoming her guardian?

Was it Yevon that meant so little to him, or her?

At least someone wanted to take this journey with her, she thought. It pained her to think of Seifer as her most trusted companion. Still, perhaps she needed to cut him some slack.

In the morning, he roused he from a shallow, fitful sleep by pulling the covers back and saying, "Haul your ass out of bed, Summoner. Time to go."

Didn't take him long to use up his slack, she thought with an exhausted groan.

Her eyes ached. She sat up to rub them and the bed sank beside her as Seifer sat down to pull on his boots. Across the room, Raijin and Fujin were getting ready to go, too. She hadn't been the only one struggling to make sense of the world all night long. Raijin had tossed and grumbled late into the night, as well.

"I still don't know that I believe her, ya know?" he was saying. "I mean…the Aurochs? I don't even remember the last time they scored a goal."

Through the open window, Quistis could hear the chocobos outside in the travel agency's corral. Seifer saw the direction of her attention and said, "I thought about doing that once."

"Becoming a knight?"

"Yeah. 'Till I realized how much I hate chocobos."

"I sort of like them," Quistis admitted. She hadn't seen many growing up in Kilika outside the thick-necked, hardy breed popularly used to power ship engines. The feral, untamed birds she'd seen on the highroad so far seemed a whole different beast.

On their way out of the travel agency, they grabbed breakfast. Quistis picked up a sticky, sweet roll which she peeled apart with her fingers. Outside, they found Lucil and a handful of other knights running drills with their chocobos. All of their mounts wore plate armor which glinted in the morning sun as the riders moved from one formation into another, their coordination staggering and beautiful. They reminded Quistis of a school of fish, their sides flashing silver as they darted and swarmed.

"The machina angle I can sorta see," Seifer murmured to Quistis. "But Chocobo Knights? What do they expect to do in a battle against Sin? The things can't fly or swim or do anything other than run fast, which only does much good if you're…you know, running away."

Raijin and Fujin immediately agreed, the way they always did.

Their voices got the attention of a young girl, no more than fifteen, dressed in a short skirt and green halter top who stood just outside the agency door watching the knights. She pointed and said, "Aren't they magnificent? I can rent you one for the low, low price of two hundred Gil."

Seifer rolled his eyes. "Actually, I was saying that chocobos are—"

Quistis elbowed him hard in the gut to shut him up. "Two hundred Gil to outfit everybody?" she asked the girl with a smile.

"No. Sorry. Two hundred Gil a piece. But it's a great deal. Trust me. You'll get to Mushroom Rock Road in no time. It's the quickest, safest way to travel the highroad."

The idea of riding a chocobo filled Quistis with girlish glee. She turned to Seifer (the self-appointed keeper of their money) and said, "I think we should do it. We don't want to miss out on any part of the operation." Or miss out on the chance to convince Squall to leave the Crusaders behind before they plunged him headlong into heresy and death. Plus…chocobo riding!

Seifer stuffed his hand into his pockets and held them out to show how empty they were. "I don't have that kind of money. I just spent most of it on that room and supplies."

"You could ride double," the girl suggested. "Lots of people do. And our chocobos are big and hearty. They don't mind."

"There. Half-price," Quistis said.

"Sounds like fun, ya know!" Raijin added.

For a few more minutes, Seifer held out, insisting that they could walk (that it would be good for them). But Quistis held firm. And, perhaps bolstered by her unwillingness to bend, Raijin joined her until, together, they bullied Seifer into handing the girl four hundred Gil. She stuffed the notes into a pocket on her skirt, jogged around the back of the travel agency, and then came back leading two tall, lemon yellow birds already wearing their bridles.

"You can return these to our agent at the end of the road," she said and handed over the reins. "Have a nice trip!"

They decided that, hardy or not, the combined weight of Seifer and Raijin would be too much to ask of a single bird. So Seifer boosted Quistis up onto one of the birds and then climbed up behind her. The chocobo's back felt soft and fluffy underneath her and she sank her hands into the considerable poof of yellow around it's neck until she felt the hard ridge of its flesh and held on. The feel of Seifer close at her back, one arm looped around her to hold onto the reins and the other settled on her hip, made her uncomfortable but didn't diminish her excitement.

Apparently, Seifer had some experience. He nudged the chocobo with his legs and it started forward, first at a walk and then, with another nudge, at a swift trot. The bird's back stretched with every step in its long gait. Seifer encouraged her to move with the bird, forcing her forward and back until she got the hang of it.

Once she did, it felt like flying.

Her heart soaring, she forgot to worry about Squall and Sin and Operation Mi'ihen. The rocky terrain whipped by underneath them as they raced along the edge of a ravine, then over a wooden bridge. The clatter of Raijin and Fujin's bird's talons against the wood followed them across and their mounts chirruped at one another. Her grin made her cheeks ache.

At length, Seifer slowed to a walk, explaining that they'd better "rest the old agency nags" for a while since they had so far to travel.

"This is one of the things I really wanted to do before the final summoning," Quistis admitted to him, her feet dangling free and swinging slowly back and forth, like a child who can't reach the floor from her chair.

"Must be a pretty lame list if this is on it," he replied, but his gentle tone didn't carry any scorn and the fingers on his right hand tightened reflexively on her.

That afternoon, right as the dreamy joy of chocoback riding began to dim in the light of something Quistis had never considered (becoming saddle sore), they arrived at a Crusader road block set up under a huge, ancient arch.

A travel agency agent stopped them first to take their mounts. When Quistis slid down onto the ground, she found her legs stiff and uncertain. She walked up to the Crusaders, feeling more like she stumbled than strode with pride and dignity. One of them reached out with one hand to stop her.

"I'm sorry, but you can't pass through."

Seifer knocked the man's hand away before he managed to touch her. "Why? You've got no right to stop us. We're on pilgrimage."

"Sorry. But that's my orders. It's not safe to pass until the operation is over."

Behind the blockage, further up the road, Quistis could see a chocobo pulling a huge cage that had been draped in heavy fabric. Several people, including two Al Bhed, monitored its progress along the narrow, rain rutted track. On the wind, Quistis could smell the ominous scent of sinspawn—like low tide but hot and sharp. How many did they have collected up there?

"We already talked to Lucil," Seifer tried.

"My orders come straight from the top," the Crusader replied. "I'm afraid I can't break them, even for Miss Lucil. I'll be happy to let you through once the operation is over. In the meantime, you're welcome to remain here or to head back to Mr. Rin's travel agency."

Sensing that they'd get no further with this particular soldier, they fell back to confer among themselves.

"This is crap," Seifer said. "Out of all the people up there, we're probably the most qualified. I say we force our way through. Bring down a little hell fire on their asses."

"Seifer…I'm not going to fight them."

"Then I will."

"No, you won't. Not if you want to go on being my guardian."

He smiled at her. "So you're officially claiming us now?"

"Only under duress," she insisted.

In fact, she felt herself beginning to soften toward him and his posse. But she wasn't ready to freely admit to it quite yet.

Raijin propped his big hands on his hips. "Why won't we just sneak through?"

Startled by the idea that Raijin could have a solid, independent thought unrelated to sports or food, Quistis didn't immediately respond. But after a moment, when his suggestion processed, she nodded.

"They're probably just trying to keep out innocent bystanders. It shouldn't be difficult to get past after dark."

Seifer scoffed. "That'll take hours. My way only takes a few minutes."

"Your way could also get people killed," Quistis replied. "I'm the authority here, and I say we wait. So make yourself comfortable."

Seifer spent the rest of the evening brooding like a child. No, worse than a child, Quistis thought as she spotted a couple with two toddlers also get turned back at the roadblock. Their little boy merely laughed and yelled to his father to watch as he balanced a ball on his head while the rest of the family sat down in the grass.

After nightfall, Quistis and her group crowded together under the shadow of a large tree and waited until the guards began to look weary. A cloud shifted over the moon and Quistis signaled Seifer, Raijin, and Fujin to follow her.

It took frightfully little skill to sneak past. The two men positioned there for the night didn't even stir as they slipped by, and no one noticed their presence or moved to stop them as they walked onto the hard, barren waterfront roadway that passed between the Mi'ihen Highroad and Djose—called Mushroom Rock Road after the huge slabs of bare, round rock.

"Oh yeah," Seifer said, "this is a real solid operation. Consummate professionals. I'm becoming less and less surprised that Puberty Boy is involved."

"What do you have against Squall?" Quistis asked. "You talk about him like he killed your childhood dog or something."

"To be real honest, I can't figure out why everybody seems to like him so damn much. Take you, for instance. It's not like the feelings go both ways, or he'd be your guardian. Right? What's there to like? I think everyone assumes since he's so quiet that there's something deep and tragic and mysterious about him. But there's not. He doesn't say anything because he doesn't have anything to say."

"How do you know each other?"

"Blitzball."

Of course. Everything in Spira came back to one of two things: Sin and blitzball. Maybe if one of them went away, people would wake up and realize there was more to life, Quistis thought. She wanted to give them those options—open up the world for people. Being a summoner had quickly moved past avenging her parents' death. The priests had made certain she had bigger motivations than that. But did Seifer feel the same? Or did he just want to become famous where (obviously) blitzball had failed him?

She was about to ask when someone shouted at them in Al Bhed. Quistis didn't know the language, but the person's tone made their meaning clear: Stop right there!

A group of three approached.

"Hey! I know you!" one of them said, a woman. "You're that summoner and her guardians from Luca! You remember, Zell? The one that beat you up?"

In a flash, one of the others launched at Seifer, his fists flying. "You again? I'LL KILL YOU!"

0 0 0

"Explain to me again how this happened," Wen Kinoc demanded. He had his arms crossed and his face screwed up, but he still failed to look intimidating, his small frame and jaunty yellow skull cap giving him a stronger resemblance to someone's aging father than a military leader. Quistis sat before him, squished on a too-small bench beside Seifer, Fujin, Raijin, and three Al Bhed—who she now knew as Zell, Selphie, and Irvine. Most of them were bleeding. Kinoc glared down at them all.

"Ed'c ymm dryd yccruma'c vyimd—" Zell started, still spitting mad, but Selphie elbowed him.

"It was a misunderstanding," she said. "That's all."

"A misunderstanding that led to a fist fight and the summoning of a fire-breathing aeon in the middle of the night?"

Quistis flushed with embarrassment at that.

"Well, sure. But we've learned our lesson now: don't sneak up on a summoner in the middle of the night! Right, Irvy? Zell? It sure was a thing to see though, Mr. Kinoc. Booyaka! Sin doesn't stand a chance!" She pumped her fist in the air.

Kinoc nodded. "Yes. I'm sure it was quite the sight. Because it woke half the camp and every sinspawn we have. It's going to take all morning to settle them down. One even broke out of its cage and had to be destroyed. We'll be lucky if Sin itself didn't see that display."

"Oh, whatever," Seifer said past the ice pack he had pressed against his bottom lip, which was still bleeding and swelling. "You should be glad that you've got a summoner here to send your sorry asses when Sin finishes up with you."

"Seifer," Quistis hissed. "Shut up!"

Wen Kinoc, Maester of Yevon and leader of the Crusaders had lost some stock in Quistis's eyes just by being complicit in this operation, but he still held considerable power both politically and religiously which she didn't want arrayed against her.

"You three," Kinoc said and pointed to the Al Bhed, "report to your commander, whoever that is. If you're here, that means you've got work to do. And Lady Summoner…"—he didn't look at Quistis as he spoke, glancing at Seifer instead—"you should have enough time to reach Djose before the operation begins."

Or, less diplomatically: Get out of my sight.

He walked away, off into the temporary base the Crusaders had set up, little more than fabric walls cordoning off an area at the top of a cliff overlooking the sea, an area high enough to be safe from the initial tidal surge that would accompany Sin's arrival. They'd been brought here—up a ravine that forked off the main road and up two elevators—by a dozen cranky Crusaders who'd noticed their skirmish.

It had been rather difficult to miss.

Zell had pinned Seifer to the ground, pummeling him. Fujin leaped into the fray to try to kick Zell off. And Irvine had leveled his gun at the whole lot of them until Raijin tried to wrestle the weapon from his hands. Selphie, with a rather enthusiastic shout, jumped on Raijin's back and clung there, raining blows down on his head and shoulders while shouting, "BOOYAKA!"

Quistis, at a loss for what else to do and genuinely alarmed for Seifer's safety under the twisting, writhing mass of fists and firearms, summoned her aeon.

Fire, brimstone, and Ifrit's angry roar got everyone's attention.

Including, unfortunately, Wen Kinoc's.

"Whew! I thought for sure he was going to have us sent Home," Selphie said. She had her goggles pulled up, resting against her forehead, and Quistis could see the distinctive swirl in her green eyes. She wore a skin tight yellow suit that revealed more than it covered and brown, fuzzy boots. The top of her head only came level with Quistis's chin. She looked to be about sixteen. So young and already at war. Already, Quistis reminded herself with a shake of her head, a kidnapper.

They had explained their good intentions in Luca to her on the long walk of shame to the Crusader's base. And Zell, despite his short fuse, quickly revealed himself as a kind, naive young man.

"Kinoc's not in charge of us anyway," Irvine said to Selphie. Then he turned to Quistis and sent her a dazzling smile, all smooth charm and good looks. A long ponytail hanged down his back and, like Seifer, he wore a long coat—only his hid an arsenal of machina weapons underneath. "Again, we're real sorry about what happened down there, Quisty. Zell's been pretty testy since Luca."

"Why? Did he think we'd just take the kidnapping lying down? Not try to get her back?" Seifer demanded. "And don't call her Quisty."

"I think it was more…umm…your method," Selphie answered for the silently fuming Zell. "We don't think of it as kidnapping. Summoners are being sacrificed to this thing, and it shouldn't be that way. That's why we got involved with Operation Mi'ihen to begin with."

"Right," Irvine agreed. He slipped am arm around Quistis's shoulders. "So, who knows, in a few days you all might be able to head home again. I'll even give you a ride on my ship. Just let me know."

Seifer pushed between them, the ugly expression on his face enhanced by the recent beating he'd suffered. "Hey, cowboy. Hands off. You're not taking her anywhere."

Irvine took a step back, unfazed, and settled his arm around Selphie's shoulders instead. "Sorry, man. Didn't mean to tread on your terriroty."

"I'm not anyone's territory," Quistis said and rolled her eyes.

From a pouch on her suit, Selphie drew out several bottles and began mixing their contents, swirling them and then holding them up to the early morning sun to examine the contents. Alchemy. Quistis had heard about the Al Bhed's talent with potions and chemicals but she'd never seen it in action. Fascinated, she watched the girl add a few more drops of something, then nod her head and hand the bottle to Zell.

"Tnehg dryd," she told him.

Without hesitation, Zell put the bottle to his lips and downed its contents. Immediately, the bruise on his jaw began to fade and the bloody gash above his eye began to close up. He stuck his tongue out and gagged. "Can't you learn to give it a nice grape flavor or something? Rikku does."

"I've been working on cherry," Selphie said, "but it always comes out tasting more like puke. Sorry."

As Quistis bid the three Al Bhed farewell, she saw Seifer and Zell share a heated look. He glared and muttered something under his breath that sounded like "chicken wuss" at the man's back as they walked off, back to their stations along the cliff edge where row upon row of guns had been set up, including one the size of a shall ship balanced on top of a tower still being worked on by a dozen Al Bhed outfitted with heavy tool belts.

Moody, still grumbling through his ice pack, Seifer walked to the edge of the cliff and stood looking out to sea, the wind billowing his coat back.

"Would you like me to heal you?" Quistis asked him.

"No."

"You'd rather suffer?"

"Yes."

"Come on." She rested a hand on his arm. "Quit being so grouchy and let me help you."

He resisted when she pulled his arm down and hissed in pain. Under the guise of examining his injury, Quistis allowed herself a moment to look at him closely—from the errant strand of blond hair that hung over his forehead no matter how many times he slicked it back, to his green eyes and the way his angry expression pinched the scar between them and gave his mouth a sensual pout. She lifted her hand and rested it against his jaw, close to the angry, bleeding, swollen cut. He felt strong and warm and she saw him swallow hard, his throat working.

Her healing spell cured what ailed him in the space of a breath. But she held on for just a bit longer than that.

"Better?" she asked.

He worked his jaw back and forth and licked his bottom lip. "Yeah."

Never had a spell felt so dangerously intimate. So unintentionally meaningful. Her face warm, Quistis turned on her heel, desperate now for anywhere to look except at Seifer. She glanced back over the Crusader's camp and noticed a familiar face walk out of the command center.

Squall.

A dark haired woman dressed in blue walked beside him, laughing, and in an unguarded moment when she wasn't looking Quistis saw a pale little smile flicker across Squall's face, too.

Seifer heaved a sigh as he spotted the couple, too.

"Oh great."