Isaaru is greeted by Paine and Baralai in Bevelle -- but not welcomed.
"Paine?" Isaaru said. "Nay, that is Juno, Captain of the Guard of St. Bevelle."
"That's all we need," said Elma.
"Lemme go, you big lunk!" Rikku yelped, squirming under Auron's coat. "They've got Pops!"
"Rikku, he's right," Maroda said. "They're bluffing. But they might shoot /you/."
By the orange glow coming from outside, they saw that some kinder god than Yevon had kept anyone from tumbling through the gaping rent in the floor. The only serious wound among them was a deep bloody gash in Maroda's forehead. Isaaru was already patching up the mess and providing a patient ear to his swearing. A burst of static from the intercom suggested that someone, at least, was still alive on the flight deck, but whatever Gippal or Shinra had to say was unintelligible.
Auron released his grip on Rikku's arms and stood, shouldering away fallen gratings and pipes. "Wait here."
"Sir Auron!" Isaaru said, attention divided between white magic and wayward guardian.
"Let your guardians handle this," Auron said. The hover shifted under his weight as he vaulted over the railing, giving Maroda something else to grumble about.
"I'll go too. Captain Juno knows me," Elma said, shaking off the stupefied terror that had reduced hardened soldier to rigid knot of limbs wrapped around one of the hover's seats for the last three minutes of the descent. "We'll get this sorted out, Rikku, don't worry."
Despite her greater agility, the Crusader lagged behind, laboring over the alien landscape of bins and crates and fallen struts reduced to confusing heaps of shadow. Auron hopped from one precarious foothold to the next, careless of jagged metal. For a moment he stood at the buckled edge looking down, then he put out a boot and stepped off. They saw his coat fly up, flapping, then he dropped from sight.
Hitting the ground hard, Auron crumpled to his knees in a semicircle of warrior monks he had spotted from above. The muzzles of their rifles lowered like booms, tracking him as he came down. So far so good. The hiss of drawn steel on his blind side, less good. That meant another gamble. Auron froze, resisted the urge to draw and parry. A sword almost as large as his own flashed out in an arc that ended with the sharpened edge resting against his collar.
Finding his head still attached, Auron played out his hand. "We surrender," he said, smirk concealed behind his collar. Once, he would have died to avoid saying those words. "Where's Cid?"
"Who's we?" the swordswoman demanded, setting her left hand under her right and doubling her grip in a silent message whose language he well understood.
There was a crash and spray of sparks on the pavement behind her: a section of the tower's upper parapet had tumbled down, shattering on impact. Other burning heaps, piled up like Macalania's midwinter bonfires around what he perceived to be a plaza, provided the only illumination. Warrior monks scattered like startled pigeons, dodging flying embers. Their leader did not waver.
"Auron," he said. "Guardian to Summoner Isaaru. We've come to stop Cid."
Crimson eyes narrowed behind the slit of the woman's helm. That minute gesture threw him off-balance as the sword had not. The world flipped inside-out: for a moment he was a Guadosalam ghost gazing up (or was it down?) at one of the living. Monk's armor masked her features, yet the lean woman who spoke with a sword could have been a child of his own loins challenging him with Lulu's calculating gaze. There was even a silver ponytail curled on her shoulder, mirror to his. What was it Nooj had said? /Fate toying with us/. But no, this was no girl-child of thirteen; her voice was an adult's. Scowling, Auron purged his mind of ridiculous regrets before the pyreflies came nagging.
"On an Al Bhed ship?" she said.
Several rifles swung away from him; Elma had used the brief distraction of falling debris to cover her own jump. She rolled and came up in a crouch with her hands raised. "Tell your men to hold their fire, Captain," she said. "He's telling the truth. Let us pass. Bevelle's safety depends on it."
"Commander?" The captain's shock was subsumed in a frown; her sword did not budge. "You were last seen at Djose, presumed dead, leading a forbidden operation against Sin. You return in an Al Bhed ship, wearing Al Bhed issue, on the eve of an Al Bhed attack. I repeat, who is 'we'?"
"Lord Isaaru, his guardians, and Cid's people, who aren't any happier about this attack than we are," Elma said. "Come on, Captain. You know I'd never sell out my own troops."
"We don't have time for a debriefing!" Elma snapped. "Look. We got caught in Sin's backwash, chucked out in Al Bhed territory. Lord Isaaru opened negotiations for aid against Sin, but Elder Cid went berserk. He shot us— even shot his own daughter— and took off for Bevelle. He's not in control of his actions, Juno. Some kind of spirit's possessed him. I know it sounds crazy."
"Yes," the woman said, voice and mouth going flat. "Yes, it does." She stepped back, lifting her sword up and away. "Cid's in custody. Tell Isaaru to get down here."
"You'll vouch for his safety?" Auron said.
She shrugged. "That's up to Maester Baralai. He'll be here shortly."
Stalemate, but at least it was one step further long. Auron waited until her followers had lowered their weapons, then turned and raised a fist.
"Whoa, whoa!" Rikku's voice drifted down from above. "Lemme get the emergency chute open. We don't all have to be stupid."
There was a brief delay while an inflatable ramp popped open and unfurled, to the consternation of the palace guards. Rikku bounded down first, running smack into Auron's arm as the row of rifles came back up.
"Pops," she said, going white.
He had already seen it. On the opposite side of the plaza from the palace, lying at a slant across the tiled roofs of the College of St. Bevelle, a great black hulk lay smoking like the bones of a whale carcass against the ruddy sky. Green flames danced over the ruptured bulbs of exploded fuel tanks. An acrid reek of burning fuel, paint and metal hung in the air, reminding him of Zanarkand's death-throes. Fate had finally caught up with a thousand-year-old-relic from that ancient city. Both, for a time, had been his home.
"He's alive," Juno said. "We found Cid unconscious on the street. No sign of other survivors."
"Yeah, he took off without the crew." Rikku exhaled. "Look, I know you've gotta be pretty pissed at him and all, but he's still my dad. I've gotta see him."
She might just as well have petitioned a street-lamp. Juno had gone rigid, staring at the awkward figure disentangling himself from the ramp's fabric, which had snagged on his artificial leg. Eying her, Auron stepped back to shield Isaaru.
"Paine," Nooj said, meeting her icy glare with a melancholy smile. "Good to see you're all right."
She stared at him, doubt chipping at her steely frown, then turned to address the rest of the party. "Lord Isaaru. If you and your guardians would come this way, please."
"Juno, wait!" A young man with startlingly white hair had emerged from the palace gates along with a string of priests and soldiers. Some were stumbling; six were supporting one another. He passed off the young acolyte he was carrying to two others and jogged towards Juno's squad. "We need to get the injured to safety. Can you spare some of your team?"
She nodded. "Mifurey. Biggs. Guren. Rand. Escort the wounded to Yuna's Cloister." Four monks saluted and shouldered their rifles, moving off to join the evacuees.
"Good work." Baralai halted beside Juno, breathing hard. His face, hair and clothes were soot-stained, and the hem of his heavy coat was burnt. "Is this all of them?"
"There may be more on the ship."
"Maester Baralai." Isaaru bowed deeply in Yevon's salute. "Are you hurt? Please allow me to—"
"/Summoner/ Isaaru." His right hand dropped to a compact sidearm, twin to the one that hung unused on Juno's left hip. "I must compliment you on a brilliantly-executed pilgrimage... or, should I say, coup?"
"Baralai, you misunderstand—"
"Do I?" He took a step to one side, smiling grimly as Auron moved to mirror him. "A mock pilgrimage to win the people of Spira to your side. A new Operation Mi'ihen, expressly against the oath we swore when we took office. The southern Crusaders and Maester Lucil neutralized at Djose. Orders sent to Bevelle for mass evacuations, ensuring that Shelinda and I would be distracted, the city plunged in chaos. And Sin, after two years in which it was a threat to no one, targeting vital centers of Yevon while sparing the Al Bhed. I'd like to know what you're using to control it."
"/Neutralized?/" Elma said, facing off with Juno. She and Maroda were shoulder to shoulder with Auron now.
"Hey!" Rikku said. "For your information, Sin just attacked us!"
"So you say." Baralai gestured to the palace complex behind him, whose roofs were starting to catch fire. "But this isn't Sin's doing, is it? You probably thought we'd be evacuated by now. The perfect cover for Isaaru to seize Vegnagun with his Al Bhed friends."
"Baralai!" Gippal called. He was skiing down the ramp, nearly crashing into Nooj. "Come on, man. You think I'd go along with that kind of double-faced Yevon crap?"
"You tell me," Baralai said. "Three weeks ago, I entrusted you with classified spheres to deliver to Elder Cid. Now he launches an attack. You arrive right behind him with /Nooj/, of all people. Something doesn't add up."
"That's what we're trying to tell you!" Rikku said, waving her hands in frustration. "My Pops is out of control! We've got to stop him!"
"Baralai," Isaaru said. "I understand your doubts. But something has happened to Elder Cid. The same thing that happened to your friend Nooj, thirteen years ago, in that cave where your whole squadron was destroyed by something that seized their minds."
"He's right," Nooj said, stepping out from behind the wall of guardians. "If you want to shoot someone...shoot me. But let them pass. If Cid reaches Vegnagun, Spira doesn't stand a chance."
"I don't take orders from you anymore, Nooj," Baralai said. He raised his gun. "But maybe I'll make an exception, for old time's sake."
Gippal made an abortive move towards his own weapon, scanning the ring of warrior monks with rifles at the ready. "Not cool, Baralai. You know that's what he wants."
"Is it?" Baralai said. "Whose death are you seeking, Nooj? Yours...or ours?"
Nooj gave a thin smile and raised his free hand slowly, palm outward. His left was braced against his cane.
"Don't." Juno flicked her sword upwards, blocking Baralai's aim.
"He shot us in the back, Paine," Baralai said. "He shot you in the face."
"Paine's dead," she snapped. "But I still think they're telling the truth."
There was a growing commotion from the far side of the plaza: shouting and gunfire. "What now?" Baralai sighed and lowered his weapon. "All right. Lock them up, Captain."
"Maester Baralai!" a soldier shouted, running towards them. "The prisoner's escaped! We're searching for him now, sir!"
"What?" Baralai turned, squinting in the smoky air. "Juno, have your men seal off the—"
"Don't breathe!" Rikku shouted.
A handful of small pellets showered down, exploding in bright yellow flashes. A few rifles went off too, but their bullets skipped harmlessly against the pavement when the arms holding them slackened. In surreal unison, the entire circle of warrior monks slumped to the ground along with Baralai and Juno. Most of Isaaru's party managed to stagger clear, eyes streaming from the sting of Funguar pollen.
"Yeah!" Rikku jabbed her fists in the air. "Oh, whoops. Remedy on Isaaru and Machina Man. Hang on, Maroda, let the dust settle a bit, or you'll need one too. Gippal, is Shinra okay?"
"Mm-hm. He's just minding the shop. Yo, Elma, gimme one of those." Gippal took a phial from her and waited for the cloud to dissipate, then trotted back to rouse Nooj while Elma and Maroda tended Isaaru.
Leaning on them, Isaaru peered groggily at the semicircle of prone monks. "Oh, dear. I do hope they're—"
"No time," Auron said, turned towards the palace. "Look."
Weaving in and out between heaps of smoldering wreckage, a blocky figure was running towards the rear entrance which Baralai had exited a few minutes before. Armored soldiers came charging out from one of the avenues radiating away the palace. All but one of them balked outside the gates, staring upwards and pointing at the flames and smoke curling over the roofline. One kept on, disappearing through the open doors on Cid's heels.
"Come on!" Rikku said.
"Hey, Nooj, you comin'?" Gippal held out an arm. "Ferry's leaving the dock."
"No," Nooj said. "I'll slow you down. Get going."
"In that case, I'm staying too." Gippal waved a hand at the others. "Remember what I said, Auron. Cid'll take it out of my hide if you kill him."
"Understood." Auron jogged Rikku, who was already pelting towards the gate. The others hurried to follow.
"Good luck," Elma called over her shoulder.
"You too, babe. Hey, after this is over, I know this great restaurant in Luca—"
Nooj gave a soft snort. "Save your breath."
"What?" Gippal retrieved his cane and set it under his hand. "Okay, so, Vegnagun and Sin are about to play mash-the-trash with Bevelle, and we're all gonna get recycled. But just in case—"
"Forget it." Nooj sighed and looked down at the sprawl of bodies around them. "Nightcap. About ten minutes, right?"
"You sure you wanna be here when they wake up?" Gippal nudged Baralai with a foot. "This isn't gonna be pretty."
"Juno." Nooj pronounced the name with care.
"Yeah, I noticed." Gippal stooped to pry Baralai's pistol out of his fingers and tossed it away. "Your call. I could still use a navigator, after all."