Note: ARGH. I accidentally replaced this chapter while updating. Luckily, I'd emailed a hard-copy to myself! ALWAYS EMAIL COPIES OF YOUR CHAPTERS! Even if they're not quite finished so the last part will be slightly different.

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Needle in the Hay

Parents

To Sazh, and by extension Lightning, it is about as familiar as putting on a coat. Any particular mannerisms had long since been stomped out of their bodies courtesy of their service in the military. They can walk into a crowd and become nothing more than a couple of silhouettes with strangely perfect posture. It helps, too, that their L'Cie marks are easily concealed.

It doesn't help that no one else in their group seems to grasp the idea. Vanille and Hope are too nervous, gazes fluttering while they stick close to someone else like children in the company of very distant relatives for the day. Every now and then Vanille tugs at her skirt, or Hope shoves his hands into his pockets, and no matter how many times Sazh tells them that will actually draw more attention he knows they can't help it. Even Lightning doesn't scold them--she lets one of them walk beside her so she can hide the mark.

Fang is entirely too confident. Being about Lightning's age and height with none of the discipline would be bad enough, but she is a person who is used to showing herself off without even trying. Sometimes Sazh thinks she does try, after seeing her smirk at a man in full view of Lightning. The resulting glare-down hadn't done much to help matters, and neither had Lightning's tirade once they were out of the city.

As for Snow... The guy just wasn't built for blending in.

Today is different. Sazh looks around at everyone in their group while Lightning scans the crowd and decides that he likes what he sees. Snow is keeping his head down and his mouth shut. Fang is not acknowledging any of the interested glances she recieves for once. The two youngest members are relaxed, even if they're a little more quiet than they usually are. After a moment, just to make sure, he follows Lightning's gaze. It roves steadily back and forth, with every tilt of the head choreographed to look natural.

After picking up her rhythm Sazh staggers his so that he's looking left while she's looking right. It's rush hour, about three-thirty, so while all the citizens are too busy to pay attention to them the crush makes their progress very slow going. Since they'll be spending more time than usual here, he thinks about asking Lightning if they can stop by a grocer and restock and finds fruit stalls tucked into a narrow, tree-lined street.

When Sazh reaches out to tap her on the shoulder her gaze is stilled, a little to the right of the market. Speaking quietly so no one else will hear and possibly panic, he asks instead: "What are you looking at?"

"Nothing." How Lightning tears her gaze away from whatever it is directly contradicts this.

"Well, it must have been something if--"

"But Mo-ommm..."

The little girl's voice would have drawn Sazh's attention even if Lightning hadn't been looking there. As it is, the rest of the world blurs into a wash of gray and brown while Sazh watches. A flicker of red in the corner of his eye signals that Lightning is still there as well. The mother cluck in disapproval.

"No, honey, that's loaded with sugar."

"But it's good!"

Sazh doesn't see if the girl's long black hair is in pigtails or a single braid tossed over one shoulder, and the mother's response is lost when Fang stops and calls, "Oi! Something interesting back there?"

"No, nothing!" Even for him, the tone is too bright. Fang narrows her kohl-rimmed eyes at them before shrugging and gesturing for them to speed up. Sazh heaves a sigh and touches Lightning's uncovered shoulder. "Come on, Lightning..."

The muscles snap to attention. She shrugs him off and takes a step in the wrong direction, eyes shell-shocked wide, before the tense energy in her back melts away with force of habit and she hurries to brings up the rear of the group. For once they can do this without worrying about leaving Fang and Snow in the front--it's a welcome change, but something not so nice is how Sazh doesn't feel like talking to anyone. He tries not to freak out over it.

"You're shaking." Lightning controls her voice with the same iron grip that she uses on every other part of her. Sazh can tell without looking at anyone else that the words haven't carried further than his hearing.

He shrugs. "Cold, I guess."

If it had been anyone else, they would have called Sazh out on the ridiculousness of him being the first to feel cold when such people as Fang and Vanille are with them. And, if anyone else had said that to Lightning, he gets the feeling that she would have done that too. Instead she reaches out with the hand she uses to tweak gravity with a snap and grips his shoulder. "Don't let it get to you."

This is not a series of transparent lies but a code, Sazh realizes as she moves to the front of the group. Something has loosened in her stride; her not-quite-covered legs don't escape the gaze of those spurned by Fang this time. To crack the code he lists all the context.

They were both looking at that girl and her mother. Lightning's expression when she told him it was nothing meant the same thing as being cold, and when Sazh said he was cold he'd actually meant that he'd seen himself and his son in those two. But she was way too young to be a parent, unless that sister she was always talking about was the one she'd seen...

Things are suddenly so clear that Sazh stumbles.

"What?" Lightning asks.

"Tripped over a rock or something," he mumbles. That feels like a lie, especially since Lightning looks cranky instead of understanding. She doesn't get to call him out this time either, since Fang beats her to it.

"You two are really clumsy today! What the hell were you two staring at?"

"Nothing." It comes from both their mouths, doubling the skepticism. But Fang shrugs when Lightning glares.

"All right. But if nothing comes back to bite us in the arse, I told you so. And I'm spearing you through the chests with my spear."

"So nice," Lightning growls.

"And incredibly helpful," Sazh adds.

"Hey, you got any other plans for getting rid of back-stabbers?"

They both roll their eyes at her and the rest of the way through the city is uneventful until Sazh smacks his own forehead. "Aw, man!"

"What?" Evidently Lightning's patience and understanding does not extend to people who stop more than twice in a row.

"I was going to ask you if we could restock or something."

Lightning's irritation gives way to a calculating expression, and then she shakes her head. "We don't need anything that badly. But thanks for reminding me anyway." With that one sentence of gratitude Sazh realizes that their leader's sudden niceness does not mean she has changed. It means that she has given Sazh what Snow is so desperate for--Sazh has gained, almost without trying, Lightning's respect and trust.

As if he'd been thinking out loud, Sazh glances over at the blond but sees nothing unusual in Snow's generally cheerful expression. That more than anything makes him feel guilty.

-
"Sazh."

"Ack!" His pistols are out before he can think about it. Lightning jumps up and stays there, hanging upside down under the tree he's using for cover while Sazh carefully returns his guns to their holsters--he hadn't been touching the triggers, but the safety was off. "Damn it, you scared me!"

"Sorry." She flips and lands, hair and clothes settling down with the slow grace of being underwater.

"Also, what's the point of putting people on watch if you're just going to wake up and alert them?"

"Alert...? Oh, no--it's all clear." The fact that she'd scouted anyway grates a little, until Sazh realizes that paranoid people wouldn't be this calm about an all-clear--they'd say it was too quiet, or something. So it must have been out of habit.

"So, if this isn't to alert me then what is it?" Before she can answer Sazh frowns. "Wait a second--are you socializing?"

"No, damn it. I just wanted to ask you something."

"Ask away, then."

Lightning sighs, then sits down under the tree as the last of the glowing energy fades from her body. She stares into the crooks of her arms before asking, "What were you thinking when you saw them?"

"Oh. Well." Sazh laughs a little and takes Hina out. She barely twitches before settling into his hand. "I was thinking about Hina, actually. She used to be my son's pet, Dajh. Now... I guess she's mine."

Lightning pokes at the yellow fluff like a shy cat, and only catches Hina because of her reflexes when Sazh overturns his palm. "Hey!" Her hands are long but slender for all the brass on her gloves, and she cups her hands awkwardly while the chicobo stretches awake. "None of that," she says sternly when Hina gives a confused peep. "I don't like chocobos, no matter how small and fat they are."

"All right!" Sazh retrieves the chicobo from Lightning's uncertain hands and Hina nestles back into his hair. He waits for Lightning to say something, then remembers she isn't the type to fill up silences and asks, "So what were you thinking about when you saw them?"

Lightning is so pale that even in the darkness he can see the tilt of her chin while she stares at her hands. Out of habit she flexes her fingers, even though they're broken in. "I was thinking about my sister."

"You, uh..." Sazh wonders how to ask someone if their parents are dead. "You never talk about your parents. They die on you?"

"Our dad, when we were too young to remember much. It was our mom, when I was fifteen. Serah was twelve." Lightning's grief seems broken in like her gloves but Sazh still feels uncomfortable.

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be." She shifts and runs her hands through her hair. How she doesn't catch it on her gloves is a mystery. "We turned out just fine."

"Oh, yeah?" Sazh doesn't dare use sarcasm--that's Fang's job. Anyway, questioning a young single mother (or big sister) on the way she's raising her kid (or little sister) is grounds for a good mangling at the very least. And getting mangled by Lightning is Snow's job. "What was she like?"

"She got into Eden University."

Sazh whistles. "Did you get in, too?" When her proud-big-sister smile drops he starts thinking about ways to get out of reach before she can stab him, shoot him, or mangle him like she seems to like doing to Snow. Then she shakes her head and he relaxes a little. "What'd I say?"

"Nothing. Just... The way we were planning it..." Lightning might be quiet, but she's not shy. So when her words come out choked and stilted it sounds like an entirely different person. "By the time I would have been done with my service and sent in my application... We would have been in college for almost all four years."

"That's..." Now Sazh feels like a jerk for wasting his apology earlier. There's nothing else he can say right now, and just repeating what he said feels cheap.

"It was my fault," she tells him. "I wasn't spending enough time with her because of work... So I told her, 'Once I'm done with this I'll be around so often you'll get sick of me.'"

If it were anyone else he would have put a hand on her shoulder or something, but since it's Lightning Sazh decides changing the subject is a better idea. "Was she like you? Pretty... independent?"

"No." She swipes at her eyes like a lion, but seems grateful for the shift. "I mean, she wasn't a pushover! I made sure of that. But whenever I was home I'd spoil her rotten. She always had new clothes and friends over, and the bathroom would smell like a peach orchard when she was done. I told her once that her peach perfume annoyed me, and she got a whole product line to piss me off."

"Man--I am terrified of the day my son gets old enough to have friends." Lightning makes a sound mixed between a laugh and a cry, but Sazh hopes it's more of the first. Not getting her angry this time was dumb luck, even though they're... more than just preferred working partners, if not actually friends. Then he looks at the sky and remembers: "Oh--sorry, but I just remembered I should really get back to doing my job, now."

"No, it's fine." Lightning stands up and brushes herself off. "I'll check and see if the others have been killed in extremely silent ways."

When Sazh is finished with the watch and steals back into camp, none of the others are dead--just sleeping. After waking up Vanille, who never seems fazed no matter how late it is, he glances over at Lightning. Her vest, bag, weapon, and gloves are in a neat pile within arm's reach, the way any good soldier would place them.

He tries to focus, but he still can't see what Lightning looks like under all that steel.