A/N: Apologies for the unexpected delay in getting this chapter out. It has been kicking my butt for a while. (Plus I spent a few sick days not working on it and discovering Battlestar Galactica instead!) Hopefully the next one won't take quite as long. :)

Chapter 4: Djose

Relief mixed with disappointment and dark curiosity as Quistis started across the Crusader camp toward Squall. She could tell that the unfamiliar woman with him held all of his attention, though he refused to make eye contact with her. His lack of feedback didn't appear to deter her; she rocked onto her toes as she talked, and then, with a big smile, waved and walked off toward a red and white tent set up in the shelter of the cliff-face. Squall merely stood and watched her go as Quistis advanced upon him. Seifer's footsteps crunched along behind her.

"I'd really like a moment alone, if you don't mind—" she started, but glanced over her shoulder to find Seifer heading off after the girl.

Frowning, she redoubled her focus on Squall. Whatever Seifer was up to could wait.

"I was hoping you'd be here," she said to get his attention.

"Oh," he said when he spotted her. "Were you the summoner who caused the trouble this morning?"

The question stung. "Um…yeah. That was me."

"You should move onto Djose before the operation," he told her. "It's not safe here."

"That's all you have to say? Aren't you at all happy to see me?"

He looked down to the side, his long hair hiding most of his expression. "You're a summoner. I didn't expect to see you again."

With as heartless as his statement sounded, Quistis had known Squall long enough to read more into it. Growing up with him had meant that she'd gotten good at completing the thoughts he refused to and of predicting what he'd been about to say when he closed up. Right now she supposed that feared losing someone he cared about again and that it gave him no great reassurances to see her here now, in Sin's path. It was a weak thread of hope, but she clung to it.

"This operation," she started. "I know all about it."

"Then you know how important it is," he said. "Especially after what happened in Kilika."

A knot formed in Quistis's stomach. "Kilika?"

"You haven't heard?"

She shook her head.

"I got word as I was leaving Luca. Sin attacked, not long after we left. The waterfront was destroyed."

"Do you know if…?" Her heart raced. "My parents? Or your dad? Ellone?"

"I didn't get details."

A terrible numbness fell over her. After that first long ago attack by Sin, she'd cleaved to the reassuring thought that what remained she could feel secure in keeping. Fate would not take two sets of parents from her. Lightning did not strike the same place twice. Now she imagined her home washed away all over again, floating as driftwood among the bodies. She remembered the sending from ten years ago, her mother and father among the wrapped bundles arranged in Kilika's tidal pool. The image had long haunted her dreams and now resurged fresh.

Squall rested one hand on the end of his sword and said, "I want to kill this thing for good. Not just for then years."

"Even if it goes against all the teachings of Yevon?"

He shrugged. "What's it matter so long as Sin's gone? Right or wrong, the results are the same."

"I know you've got good reasons to be here. But this is taking a big chance. This operation might not work. What if Sin kills you instead?"

He gave her a look she interpreted as: You, of all people, shouldn't ask me that. And he had a point. Her willingness to give her own life to defeat Sin rested on the presumption that doing so mean no one she cared about would. So she couldn't reasonably deny Squall that same logic. Especially if their families had somehow survived the attack in Kilika and he still had someone left to fight and die for.

"Will you be on the front lines?" she asked, her heart heavy.

"As close as I can get."

Full of fear for him, she bowed her head. Since Maester Kinoc had ordered her to move on to Djose, she couldn't stay and watch over him during the operation. All she could do, she realized, was pray. Though she wasn't certain what to pray for: that their plan might work, or simply that Squall might come through it unscathed.

"I understand," she said.

"Looks like your guardians are waiting for you." He gestured over her shoulder at Raijin and Fujin. "Did you manage to ditch Seifer?"

A fragile smile crossed her lips. "No. He's still around here somewhere."

Squall nodded. "Good. He's…competent."

With that, he awkwardly dismissed himself and walked away. Quistis found a nearby bench and sat down, needing to catch her breath. Like all of her disappointing conversations with Squall, this one would take some time to process. After a moment, a large shadow covered her feet.

"Want me to go beat him up? Cuz I could, ya know," Raijin said.

"BASTARD," Fujin agreed.

"No. He's not as bad as he seems," she told them. Just guarded and stubborn. An acquired taste, she supposed.

"It just seems like every time he talks to you, he hurts you, ya know?"

"He gave me some bad news is all. Where's Seifer?" she asked, eager to change the subject.

"I think he went to talk to Rinoa," Raijin said.

"That woman? Does he know her?"

"Sure. She's his—OWW!" Raijin howled and grabbed the back of his leg where Fujin had kicked him.

"QUIET!"

Quistis wanted to explain to them that, as her guardians, they could trust her—that she ruled this posse now. But she suspected their most basic loyalty would always rest with Seifer. She'd have to dig up her own answers.

With that in mind, she got up and started toward the tent she'd seen the woman walk inside. A mouth-watering scent met her as she ducked through the flap. Her stomach rumbled and the sight of a group of Al Bhed serving food out of big, shiny pots—helped by a group of insect-like robots that stirred, baked, and fried—almost made her forget why she'd come into the tent in the first place. In the long breakfast line, she spotted Rinoa and Seifer.

"This is just the sort of thing the Forest Owls have to be involved in," she was telling Seifer. "Can you imagine if it works? The changes we could see in Bevelle?"

"You, Zone, and what's-his-face aren't soldiers," Seifer replied.

"Maybe not, but we're fighting for what we believe in."

Rinoa saw Quistis elbowing her way through the line up to them and reached past Seifer to offer her hand.

"You must be Lady Quistis," she said. Rinoa's fingers wrapped warmly around Quistis's wrist and tugged her forward so that she stood between the arguing pair. "I've heard a lot about you."

"It's…nice to meet you. Rinoa, is it?" Quistis replied.

She smiled, her already pretty face softening into real beauty. "So, you've heard about me, too?"

"Oh. No. Actually, Raijin told me your name. Are you a Crusader?"

The breakfast line ticked forward and Rinoa clutched her empty plate against her chest.

"Sort of," she said.

At the same time, Seifer growled, "No. She's only here to make her dad angry."

"Her dad…?"

"Maester Fury Caraway," Seifer supplied.

"I know," Rinoa said, apparently registering the shock on Quistis's face. "But that's not why I'm here. Not really. I care about Spira. And I want to do what feels right in my heart. I have nothing but respect for summoners and the work you do," she assured Quistis, "but I don't think the teachings of Yevon are as black and white as my dad makes them out to be. My group, The Forest Owls, fight for reform in Bevelle."

"You can want to do what's right all you want, but you still don't have the training for it," Seifer snapped. "You're going to get yourself killed. Ever think maybe that's part of somebody's plan? To get rid of your little group? Let Sin swat you like a bunch of flies?"

Rinoa shook her head. "Maybe I'm more capable than you think. I've changed a lot since you last saw me."

"You mean since last summer?" Seifer scoffed.

"A lot can happen in a year." Rinoa had reached the front of the food line now and held her plate out to receive heaping portions from the Al Bhed servers.

"How exactly do you two know each other?" Quistis asked.

"I guess you could say we dated," Rinoa replied. "In fact, he gave me this." She pulled a necklace out from beneath her shirt, a plain silver chain with a ring on the end. "Right before he left."

With his acerbic wit and arrogant manner, Quistis found it difficult to imagine Seifer had ever been in a committed relationship, let alone with a soft, pretty (if politically radical) woman like Rinoa. It made Quistis wonder whether he reserved his hostility for her alone, whether he wasn't merely a jerk as a state of being but genuinely disliked her. Or maybe he became a different man around Rinoa. Maybe he loved her. And maybe now that he'd crossed her path he would redirect all of the passion and effort he'd been putting into being a guardian into getting her back again.

The thought made Quistis's mouth go dry.

"And…how long have you known Squall?" she asked. "You two seem close."

"Squall? I just met him this morning."

The desire to slam Rinoa's face into the the food counter suddenly assailed Quistis. She'd known Squall her entire life, had been in love with him half that time, and had never gotten him to smile the way this woman had in a matter of hours.

"He told me about what happened in Kilika," Rinoa continued. She reached out and gripped Quistis's hand, squeezing her fingers tightly. "I'm so sorry."

Just like that, the pendulum of Quistis's emotions swung back the other way, leaving her dizzy. Rinoa would have been easy to hate had she been more like Dona—scheming and fully aware of how to leverage her sex as a weapon. But Rinoa possessed a generous heart. Her goodness attracted people. And that was difficult to begrudge her.

"Seifer always told me how much he wanted to be a guardian," Rinoa continued. Her plate full now, they made their way back out of the tent. "I'm glad his dream has finally come true. How did you two meet?"

"Serendipity," Quistis replied.

Rinoa lifted her eyebrows. "Must be meant to be then."

"Sure," Seifer said. "It's a real bonding of souls and alignment of the stars sort of shit."

Rinoa stuck her tongue out at him. "Meanie! Are you still mad at me?"

"Yes. Sin is going to kill you."

"Well…" she said, pausing to take a bite of her food and chew it slowly. "I knew when I started The Forest Owls that it wouldn't all be rainbows and sunshine."

"No one is going to jump in and save you at the last minute, Princess."

"Good." Rinoa lifted her chin a notch. "I don't expect anyone to."

With a pleasant smile and a shallow bow so as not to tip her breakfast off her plate, Rinoa told Quistis how nice it had been to meet her, then cast Seifer a stubborn glare before turning to go on her way, explaining that she had work to do once she finished with her meal. A muscle twitched in Seifer's jaw as he watched her leave. Finally, he breathed out a long sigh and looked down at Quistis.

"How'd your conversation with Pubes go?" he asked. "He finally come around? See the error of his ways and agree to become your guardian?"

"No. He's more committed than ever to being a Crusader," Quistis admitted.

"Dumbass."

She agreed under her breath.

A group of chocobo knights had arrived, Lucil among them. She recognized Quistis and rode over.

"Good morning, Lady Summoner." She nodded to Seifer, as well. "Maester Kinoc has asked me to provide you an escort to Djose. It is too bad that you are not planning to remain in the area, but I am honored to be of service. Which is why I'm assigning Xu, my best knight." She waved forward the woman behind her.

"We don't need an escort," Seifer said.

"Maester Kinoc seems to think that you do," Xu replied. "So don't argue with me. Let's just get out of here."

0 0 0

Watching Rinoa with Squall hurt, not because Seifer regretted leaving her behind in Bevelle but because he hated to see the hint of joy on Squall's face corresponding to the misery on Quistis's. He got the feeling that she'd been ass-over-teakettle for the guy since she'd been old enough to start thinking about such things. And even now, when he'd fallen for another woman…she still cared.

He grabbed her hand, ready to get the hell out of the Crusader camp.

"Raijin! Fujin! Get over here! We're leaving!"

The chocobo knight Lucil had assigned to their case, Xu, followed close on their heels, her bird's beak level with the top of Seifer's head so that he could hear it breathing and the soft, guttural kweh it made whenever Xu petted or praised it. Although he knew she was only following orders, Seifer resented Xu's presence. Kinoc obviously didn't trust them to leave the area as he'd asked. But Seifer had no intention of sticking around. Not anymore.

After seeing the Crusader camp, their forces, and their plan, Seifer had serious doubts that any part of Operation Mi'ihen would succeed. If they managed to lure Sin close in the first place, the Al Bhed up on the cliff face and the Yevonite upper crust in the protected commander center might survive the encounter, but the men on the ground—the Crusaders and the chocobo knights and the foolish girls rebelling against their daddies…they didn't stand a chance. It might have appealed to him once. He'd always been eager to risk life and limb for fame and fortune. But as a guardian, he couldn't allow Quistis to wager hers. He wanted her safe, deep inside Djose temple when Sin arrived here.

As Raijin and Fujin ran across the camp to join them, Quistis's hand tightened on his. He found her looking up at him, her blue eyes narrowed in a way which let him know that she was attempting to peer through him, to all the motivations and the secrets and dark thoughts he kept locked beneath the surface. He didn't know whether she saw anything but she continued to hold tight. He wanted to pick her up and shake her and tell her that she didn't need Squall anymore.

They all piled onto the elevator together, space tight to allow for the chocobo.

"So, Xu," Quistis said, "you're really the best knight here?"

"Yep. Right behind Miss Lucil," Xu replied, sounding reverent when she said her commander's name. "I grew up in Luca and learned to ride before I was even tall enough to reach the stirrups. I've spent every second of my life working to get here."

Seifer could easily imagine Xu as a butch little thing wearing a semi-permanent milk mustache and playing war games.

"I know this must be a frustrating assignment for you," Quistis told her. "I'll do my best to make sure we don't keep you from your duties for long."

Xu smiled. "Thanks. I appreciate that."

With Xu around to ride point, flushing out fiends and finishing the smaller ones off on her own, the trip along the top of the ravine leading from the command center back to the main road went quickly. A group of Crusaders and a huge robot guarded the entrance. No one but the robot noticed their group approach. Everyone else stood shading their eyes, peering south toward the highroad.

"What's going on?" Quistis asked.

"Dunno," one of the Crusaders said. "Looks like somebody important just arrived."

Down the road, towering over the heads of everyone, Seifer made out the blue form of a Ronso—small for his race, but still a monolith among his companions. His horn had been shorn off at some point and he carried with him a dangerous looking halberd.

Also among the group, Seifer spotted a blitzball player her recognized: Wakka, team captain of the Besaid Aurochs. Coming off a successful run for the cup, if the rumors were to be believed. Next to him walked a woman who appeared to shop in all the same stores as Squall. (And, judging from the cold expression on her face, Seifer thought they might even be related.) Her fur lined, many belted outfit barely covered her ample breasts.

"Wow," Raijin said, his mouth hanging open. "Seifer, check it out. That lady's got one hell of a—OWW!"

Fujin and Xu had both smacked him.

Quistis, who apparently didn't care whose breasts Raijin ogled, stood up on her toes to see past everyone. "Is that Maester Seymour?" she asked, sounding scandalized, as a wild-haired half-guado stepped to the front of the group.

"Maybe Bevelle has decided to support this operation after all," Seifer suggested. He'd spent enough time in Rinoa's company to know that Yevon's priests did not always practice what they preached. Maesters most of all.

"Just Maesters Kinoc and Seymour are with us," Xu replied. "We've been expecting him."

A shout rang out from among the gathered crowd as he stopped and acknowledged them: "All hail Maester Seymour!"

He held up his inhuman, long-fingered hands. "Brave Crusaders of Spira!" he began, his voice more feminine and light than Seifer had expected. "Protectors of all Spira, believe in the path you have chosen!"

"I don't believe this," Quistis muttered under her breath.

Xu didn't appear to hear. She nudged her chocobo to one side and pointed. "See the girl with him? In the dark skirt with the yellow bow? That's Lady Yuna…High Summoner Braska's daughter."

Which would make the motley crew her guardians, Seifer supposed. He sized up the competition and decided that (aside from the Ronso and a man dressed in red bringing up the far rear of the group) he was unimpressed. Lady Yuna had a hell of a pedigree and had certainly gathered a following, but she looked delicate and naive. She reminded him, he decided, of Rinoa.

"Is she here to help with the operation, too?" Quistis asked.

Xu shrugged. "Maybe. I hadn't heard that any summoners would be involved. But perhaps Maester Seymour was able to convince her."

"Better them than us," Seifer said.

Rather than wait around and listen to the rest of Seymour's speech, they headed out. Ahead of them, the road turned to bare rock banked on one side by ocean stretching forever to the horizon. Only sparking elemental fiends and scrabbling lizards made their home here.

Xu kept them moving at a blistering pace.

"Keep up!" she barked back at them. "I've got to make this whole ride back before the operation starts!"

"I'm going as fast as I can! You can't just whip me 'til I run like Nida there," Seifer shouted, reading the chocobo's name off the embroidered patch on its saddle.

Xu leaned over and ran her hand down her chocobo's neck. "One of the many reasons I continue to prefer Nida here to all other men," she said. The bird preened happily underneath her.

They encountered huge groups of fiends on the road, all of them unusually aggressive, perhaps made bolder by the nearby presence of sinspawn. None of them gave the group much trouble. Quistis could take out a flock of flying fiends with her aeon and whip alone. Still, the encounters did slow them down, and Xu pushed them even harder.

"Are you worried about Rinoa?" Quistis asked him along a relatively quiet stretch of rock.

"Not really."

"You care about her. Don't you?"

Seifer's relationship with Rinoa had encompassed a single summer. He'd been seventeen. She'd just turned sixteen and had seen him as a whole new way to rebel against her father. So he'd promised to take her far away from Bevelle, kissed her along the promenade leading toward Macalania Woods, and then left her behind when the ship arrived to take him back to Luca. Since then, he hadn't thought about her much. They'd never been a great match—her too sweet and needy, him too focused on his dreams. But he didn't like seeing her participating in Operation Mi'ihen. Of course, he didn't have any power to change her mind either.

"Rinoa's got a way of getting rescued in the nick of time," Seifer said. "I'm sure Pubes and the Al Bhed Super Squad will keep her safe."

At that, Quistis bit her bottom lip and nodded.

The tide came in as they walked, the waves splashing against the rocks and washing up over the road. Xu's chocobo, Nida, didn't like the water flapped and chirped every time a rogue wave wetted his talons. "Finally! Thank Yevon!" Xu said when the bridge leading to Djose appeared in the distance.

Seifer drew in an amazed breath as they crossed into sacred space.

Djose Temple looked like it had been built from the pieces of a hollowed out mountain. Aside from the door, the entire building sat covered in huge slabs of rock, all of them trembling and humming as sparks crackled through a haze of dust and marine fog. The ground rumbled under his feet and the air smelled how he thought the inside of a thundercloud might. Small, cat sized monkeys scampered along the bridge and up into the surrounding rocks, their grasping hands and long tails allowing them to perch even through the disconcerting ground tremors.

"The outer shell of the temple is made from a special type of mushroom rock," Quistis explained. "When a summoner is inside praying to the fayth, they fly apart and swirl around the whole temple."

The ambient charge made the hair on Seifer's arms stand on end.

"I like it," Raijin proclaimed. "Seems homey, ya know?"

Quistis gave him a puzzled look. "Are you serious?"

"Raij is a lightning fan," Seifer explained. Aside from a blitzball game, Raijin liked nothing better than a bone rattling thunder storm. He stood looking up at Djose Temple as if he'd finally found his god, the electricity reflected in his big, brown eyes.

"If you no longer need me…" Xu said, her chocobo sidestepping underneath her, the both of them ready to get back to their mission.

"Of course. I'm sorry." Quistis bowed. "Good luck. I hope we'll see each other again."

Xu grinned. "I'm sure we will. Once Sin is dead!" She waved and took off at a gallop, throwing up a plume of dust in her wake.

Djose had a travel agency of its own, but Quistis walked right into the temple so Seifer followed. Inside, other than the blue balls of electrical energy perched on pillars, the temple looked much the same as the one in Kilika—a round room filled with statues of high summoners and sooty wall sconces that spread just enough light to create long, dark shadows. A priest approached them, young and pale.

"I am Lady Quistis." She bowed to him. "And these are my guardians."

He bowed back. "Welcome to Djose. If you would like to rest, we have room available," the priest told her.

Aside from their short break at the Crusader camp, they'd been traveling non-stop since leaving the Mi'ihen Highroad travel agency, so Quistis told the priest they would accept a meal before continuing on. For the priests, who apparently had grown accustomed to feeding travelers with a long road behind them and an even longer one ahead, this translated into a veritable feast. Raijin ate himself into a stupor and spent the last half of the meal lying prone on the floor, groaning and rubbing his belly.

"IDIOT," Fujin said and jabbed at him with the toe of her boot.

"Ohh man. Don't do that, Fu. You're gonna make me sick, ya know?"

"GOOD!" She jabbed him again.

Across the table, Seifer saw Quistis smile at the two, the expression half hidden behind her hand as she chewed on a piece of honeyed cake. Her tongue darted out to clear some of the sweet substance from her lips and she licked some off her thumb as well. It made Seifer's stomach tighten.

When they finished eating, Quistis stood up and stretched out her back, her lithe body bending like a cat's.

"I'm going to go through the Cloister now. I'd get some sleep first, but I'd like to be done by the time…" She drifted off, not completing her thought. Seifer knew she had to be imagining Squall's head separated from his body by some sinspawn and her not being there to magically fuse it back on. "You guys don't have to come with me," she finished.

Raijin got to his feet. "No way. We're guardians, ya know? We're going with you."

"DUTY," Fujin agreed and crossed her arms.

Seifer leaned back in his chair, pleased. "You're not leaving us behind this time, Summoner. And you sure as hell ain't doing this alone anymore."

"Okay." She looked away so he couldn't see her expression. "But stop calling me that."

"What?"

"Summoner."

"Why? It's what you are. It's accurate."

"Yes. But it's also so…oh, for Yevon's sake. Never mind. Just…come on before I change my mind."

0 0 0

The fayth at Djose Temple proved more agreeable than the one in Kilika; Quistis took half the time praying as she had back home before the aeon consented to come at her bidding. She learned his name, Ixion, and said it to herself, exploring the taste of it on her tongue, as she got to her feet and rejoined Seifer, Raijin, and Fujin in the antechamber. Again, lightheadedness overcame her and she had to pause, gripping the doorframe.

"HELP?" Fujin asked.

"No. I'm fine." Quistis dabbed sweat from her brow with her sleeve.

Raijin stood yawning and rubbing his eyes as if he'd slept the entire time. And though he hid it better, stifling his yawn so that his jaw trembled, so did Seifer. Lack of sleep and days of travel hadn't bothered her until before. Now, suddenly, she wanted to curl up here, deep in the temple where it was quiet and safe.

"Ready to go back?" Seifer asked.

She nodded.

Raijin led the way out of the cloister. He looked back fondly on every room and heaved a dramatic sigh when they went to exit into the temple again. "I'm gonna miss this place, ya know? I might come back here after Sin and everything and stay a while. You wanna come with me, Fu?"

"NO."

"What? Why? I mean, there's not bound to be a cooler place on the whole pilgrimage. Whoa! Except, ya know—shit, I almost forgot about it. The Thunder Plains? Right, Fu? Yeah. You're right. That's definitely going to be better."

Raijin shoved open the doors to the temple, and they found the priests greeting another group of travelers: two men and a boy, the oldest of which wore a summoner's bow around his middle and a high, short ponytail. "Ah," he said and gestured expansively toward Quistis as she descended the cloister steps, "you must be the reason the mushroom rocks were circling as we arrived. Lovely to meet you. I am Isaaru and these are my guardians, Pacce and Maroda."

Pacce looked about eight years old. He gave her a gap-toothed grin and an enthusiastic thumbs up. "Isaaru's my big brother," he told her. "We're going to defeat Sin!"

"Not if we get there first, pipsqueak," Seifer said.

Isaaru laughed softly. "Yes. I suppose that's true. We were just making arrangements to stay here for the night. Are you going to be moving on right away?"

"Not immediately," Quistis replied.

"That's good. We heard some frightening rumors on the way here."

"Rumors?" she asked, curious if he meant Operation Mi'ihen.

"Yes. Of summoners mysteriously disappearing on pilgrimage," Isaaru continued. "Almost as if they'd been snatched up."

Seifer laughed and crossed his arms. "You don't say? Well, no need to worry about us. I've got Quisits covered against anything that might try to snatch her up in the night." He sounded both cocky and threatening, as if he had concerns that Isaaru himself might attempt something untoward in the night.

"Thank you for the warning," Quistis told him. "We'll be careful."

The temple had limited space. Isaaru and his brothers had already settled in to the visitor's quarters, leaving just an empty priest's cell available for Quistis. She didn't mind, but the tiny room left no space for Seifer and his posse, even if they wanted to sleep on the floor. Reluctantly, they agreed to stay at the travel agency outside. She knew the arrangement bothered Seifer and she heard him grumble under his breath as he left, but her exhaustion caught up to her and she collapsed onto the foam-mat bed on the floor without even bothering to take her boots off. She heard Pacce laughing in the room next door as she fell asleep.

Later, a shout roused her from the dark abyss. She rolled over in the blackness, groggy and heavy and confused.

"What happened?" she heard Isaaru ask. "My goodness. Are you okay?"

Someone cried out in pain. "No. Please…help me. It was Sin!"

In a blur of motion, Quistis got to her feet and grabbed her whip off the floor. It slithered along behind her as she ran out of her room and out into the temple, the electric light searing onto the back of her retinas a picture of Isaaru standing over a young Crusader, the man's arm hanging at an odd angle—both dislocated and broken—and a black, bloody gash running up the side of his face.

The door flew open and several others rushed in. All of them wounded. Some hauling along those unable to carry themselves, Al Bhed mixed with Crusaders.

"Sin's here? Right now?" Isaaru said as he pushed his sleeves up, magic humming at the end of his fingertips.

Quistis pushed against the flow of incoming wounded to get out the door. The sun not yet set, and the lurid yellow light stung as she ran out into it. The air smelled thick with Sin just like Kilika had the day her parents died and she could see sinscale glinting in the waves washing up to shore. She swore, blinked back the tears welling up in her eyes, and ran headlong toward the bridge until something snagged her hard around the waist. Her boots scraped to a stop.

"What do you think you're doing?" Seifer yelled in her ear.

"Sin's attacking! I've got to help! Let me go!"

"No."

The back of her head struck his chin as she struggled against his grip and it only made him hold her tighter.

"There's nothing you can do," he growled, his hand forming a fist in her shirt. "They've already lost."

"I can help. I've spent my whole life preparing to face Sin. Let me go!"

"No. I won't let you die for this."

In the distance, she saw the flash of an explosion and the resulting black cloud billow up into the sky. She knew by the time she got there, even running as fast as she could, Sin would be gone…fate's dice already cast. Was Squall already dead? She sank against Seifer and he ran one gloved hand over her hair, smoothing it back from her face and cradling her head against his chest.

"Lady Yuna and Maester Seymour are both up there," he told her. "Whatever a summoner can do to help, they've got it covered."

"I can't just sit here and do nothing."

"I don't think you'll have to wait long."

Another explosion made the ground vibrate under their feet and drew terrified screams from the handful of injured Crusaders inside the temple. Squall remained out of her reach, but she could at least help them, she realized.

She told Seifer her intentions and he held her hand all the way back into the temple, where Isaaru crouched tending to the worst injuries while those not on the verge of death suffered under the untrained hands of the priests and their comrades. They'd been caught in a tidal wave, she learned as she knelt beside an Al Bhed with a mangled leg. The water had dashed them against the rocks, sucked them out to sea, and then washed them up again.

Seifer, Fujin, and Raijin did the best they could with salves and bandages while she worked. By the time she and Isaaru had everyone stabilized, her arms ached from casting. He smiled at her from across the temple and blew a wisp of auburn hair out of his eyes.

The sun sat halfway in the ocean when Quistis walked outside to wash her hands. Raijin worked the pump for her, bringing up a stream of ice cold ground water that turned her fingers red.

Straggling survivors of the Operation had been trickling in over the past half hour. So far, Squall had not been among them. Nor had Rinoa. But as Quistis dried her hands on her skirt, she spotted Lucil coming toward the temple, on foot but in one piece.

"Lady Quistis. I am glad to see you made it here safely."

"Do you know how many survived?" Quistis asked.

Lucil shook her head. "Not many. When Sin arrived it…sent out a charge that vaporized everyone on the beach. And when we opened fire on it, it brought up some kind of shield. All of the guns were destroyed. None of our chocobos survived. Everyone still alive is coming here. Lady Yuna has sent the rest to the Farplane."

Quistis's fingernails bit into her palms as she clenched her fists. The Crusaders fell under Maester Kinoc's purview, which in her eyes made him culpable for every death. How could the priests in Bevelle allowed him to do this? Did they even know? For the sake of her soul, she hoped not.

"Are the priests willing to take in survivors?" Lucil asked.

"Yes. But only for a short time. They're saying you'll all be excommunicated," Quistis replied.

"I see." Lucil turned and gestured back up the road. "I know you had friends in the operation. The road is clear if you want to go back and look for them."

Quistis thanked her for the news. Then Lucil continued on toward the temple with the two bedraggled knights accompanying her.

The squawk of a chocobo startled them all, and a flash of yellow screamed past Quistis, skidding to a cloudy stop in front of the gathered knights.

"What the hell was that?" Seifer said though fits of coughing.

"Miss Lucil!" shouted a familiar voice. The dust settled enough for Quistis to make out Xu on top of the chocobo, both of them wet with sea spray. Xu dropped her mount's reins and swung out of the saddle in one fluid movement. "You're alive! I looked everywhere for you! Sweet Yevon…I thought you were dead."

Xu grabbed Lucil, hugged her, and then (much to Quistis's surprise) kissed her commander hard on the mouth.

"Whoa…" Raijin covered his eyes.

Quistis turned away, afraid the knights' sparking emotions might light hers as well. She needed all the control she could muster for what the rest of the night would surely entail.

"I'm going to go find Squall," she announced. "Or…what's left of him."

This time Seifer didn't stop her.