Note: Military slang is fuunnnn. Google it. Also, there is a Trigun reference and a fair bit of gun research. However, I don't know if there are giant owls in Pulse--if there aren't, I ask you to kindly pretend that there are.
Needle in the Hay
The changes come quietly like dropping pins, so Sazh has to keep his eyes open. He knows he must still be missing things because to keep Lightning from noticing he has to use peripheral vision--as a sharpshooter and pilot he doesn't trust that much. But it surprises him, the things he does see.
He watches her on Pulse as they trek through the tall grass. The stalks bend but rarely break as they do with Fang or Snow, and she doesn't move as noisily as the younger ones. This is stealth training, but something still feels a little different. She never cuts a swath unless it's absolutely necessary, either, which means a lot of bugs and burrs on their clothes. Except for Snow, who's too tall to be inconvenienced much. While the others are complaining, Sazh asks her about it.
"Even if there's no one here, I don't want to leave a trail for just anyone to follow," is the sharp reply. That silences everyone, but Sazh thinks this is almost too practical. She's not that paranoid.
They finally reach a spot with different plants, giant stalks with white dandelion puffs that make it look like they're above a strip of clouds. The taller ones are now at a disadvantage--the soft white fuzz scatters around their shoulders. Vanille and Hope go into the front and bend the stalks out of the way, easily passing under the seeds. Luckily they're going across a narrow part--it takes barely half an hour for them to get out, and by the time they're into some nice regular woods everyone is relieved.
Vanille combs some stray seeds out of Hope's hair and laughs at Fang, now snarling and clawing at her own hair. Sazh had been in the back behind Snow, so he just brushes what little there is on him away from his coat and looks for Lightning. Their leader is a little way off to the side, already finished, and while he watches a ball of seeds drifts in front of her.
She catches it, staring, and it hovers undamaged before a stray gust of wind blows it out of her hands. Vanille shrieks as the seeds blow in exactly their direction, and Snow claps his hands to Hope's ears just in time to keep Fang's loud swear from being heard. In the confusion Sazh forgets about what he'd seen, and when he does remember it's too late for him to bring it up without sounding weird.
- - -
"Sazh! I need help here!"
They're at least thirty, forty feet away from each other in the already crowded hallway, but that's the closest anyone is to Lightning and her Blaze Edge has been knocked out of her hands. Sazh sees her glowing in an attempt to avoid her attackers and get it back, but she can't dodge forever. He reloads a pistol and runs through the enemy crowd--when Lightning hangs upside down and holds out an arm, he throws it to her. With the borrowed gun she manages to retrieve her own weapon in seconds and they're close enough for her to just pass it back to him. Things would be peachy if Vanille hadn't been knocked out trying to revive Hope. Sazh and Lightning take out the surrounding soldiers in a hurry and then drag the two teenagers into a room--Lightning makes quick work of the few troops in there before Sazh locks and barricades the door.
"Guys!" Snow yells. The tall blond and Fang are still out there. Even though it's unfair, Sazh is a little less worried about them.
"Damn it..." Lightning reloads her Blaze Edge with a deep frown and Sazh does the same for his pistols (without the frown). "You'll have to go back out there and get them. I'll hold this end."
"Are they good?"
"They're good," Sazh answers after checking their pulses, which are a little fluttery but strong. "Just--ugh! All the times she could've picked to get knocked out, and she does it right before getting Hope running!"
Lightning sighs. "I know you don't mean that." She stands up and kicks a chair away from the door, holding the knob. Sazh pinches the bridge of his nose before getting up and taking position. "On three. One... Two... Three--"
Sazh readies his pistols when she yanks the door open, then drops his arms as he finds himself aiming at Fang and Snow. "What the hell!"
"All clear, mates!" Fang carols.
Lightning peers out between the two cautiously, but Sazh can see for himself that the hallway is clear. "And how did that happen?" Her tone is very accusing, which is understandable.
"Um." Snow laughs and rubs the back of his neck. "They got orders to retreat, I guess. How are Hope and Vanille?"
"Fine." Sazh finally manages to relax and holsters his guns. "Just out, for now."
Hope stirs and Snow runs over to him. "Hey, buddy! You feeling okay?"
"Y-yeah..." The boy sits up and rubs a spot on the back of his head. His fingers come away smeared with red. "Ah!"
"You'll be fine." It's not Snow who answers, but Lightning as she lets Fang in and closes the door securely. "Once Vanille wakes up, anyway."
"Vanille?" Fang crouches next to her friend and prods at a temple. "I think I broke a couple of ribs back there so it'd be nice if you could, you know, wake up now."
"Hope could have a concussion!" Lightning snaps, although there is a large bruise on Fang's side that isn't completely covered by her sari. "Not to mention Vanille, too."
"Well, it's worth a shot. Oi! Vanille!"
"Would you be quiet for once?" Lightning only barely manages to keep her own voice lower than Fang's. Sazh might be less uptight, but he's no saint and that accent is annoying as hell in times like these. "Just because they retreated doesn't mean they're all gone!"
"Fine!" Fang sits down next to Vanille, winces, and lays her spear across her lap to start collapsing it. They hear her grumbling, "Military people... don't know why I decided... killjoys, all of them..."
Snow and Hope shrink, trying to become invisible as time drags on. Vanille finally wakes up about ten painful minutes later, but once she is the room seems that much brighter. After some concentration, everyone's wounds are healed and when they clear out of the building they don't run into any enemy soldiers. Snow and Fang are sticking close to their young friends, so that leaves Lightning next to Sazh. Once they're in a thinner part of the crowd she tells him, "Good job, by the way."
Lightning rolls her eyes. "I said, you did a good job."
"Is this all from you, or did Vanille--"
"Is it so hard to believe I think you're competent?" Lightning retorts. "I would have been in trouble if you hadn't been that quick on your feet."
"Yes." Sazh shrugs and looks away, which is when she goes on: "For a jock who spent most of his time in the air."
"Well, for a non-com who never shot a real gun in her life you're a pretty good shot!" He holds a hand up against her protests. "And if it doesn't have a working trigger one hundred percent of the time, guess what? It ain't a real gun. So go on and try to shoot me with that over sized penknife of yours."
"You--" Before Sazh knows it, Lightning's laughter rings out like words in a language he hadn't known she could understand, much less speak fluently. Instead of joining in he stares. "You're a--"
"What the bloody hell?" They turn at the sound of Fang's voice to see their entire group has stopped in their tracks. Besides the surprise everyone else is showing, Snow has an expression of absolute terror. "Did you just make her laugh, Sazh? An actual, honest-to-goodness laugh?"
"Yeah," Lightning tells them. "He did." She turns back around and motions for everyone to keep following her.
They obey numbly, except for Sazh. He drops back and taps Snow on one massive shoulder. "What's wrong with you?"
"She sounds..." The blond looks down, still obviously in shock from what's just happened. "Serah sounds just like that when she laughs."
Cliffs make Sazh nervous. This surprises people, but there's a difference between flying over gorges with a solid airship around him and standing on the edge with his own two feet. Being up in the air is pretty much like driving a car--pilots keep their eyes up and ahead so they don't screw up royally. The only good thing about this is the fact that Sazh gets so hyped up he can't fall asleep on accident while on the late watch. Otherwise he's pretty handicapped--he feels like turning his back on the gorge will give it an opening to grow wider. So far it hasn't moved, but someone else gets the drop on him. "What's wrong?"
"Lightning?" He glances over his shoulder to see her, fully dressed and armed except for her gloves. "I could not have been loud enough to wake you up. The camp's too far."
She shrugs. "I couldn't go back to sleep and I saw you pacing. What's up?"
"Nah. I just hate cliffs." He goes further into the safe zone and sits down, fixing his eyes on the edge. He half-expects what she's going to say and tells her, "Before you say something like 'Don't you fly airships for a living?' I'll let you know there ain't no way for pilots to look down." He's a little snappier than usual but Lightning doesn't seem to notice. "Unless they can see through floors or something."
"Still..." Lightning perches next to him, following his gaze to the edge. In a second, she turns back to him with a smoothness Sazh envies. "You go up knowing there's a pretty long fall every time."
"But I can control that," Sazh points out. "I can't control cliffs."
"Ah." She sighs and looks at her right hand. "I wonder why they give these to soldiers instead of pilots. I think they'd come in handy."
"Not really." Now he has to explain another pilot thing to a non-pilot. "I mean, we got parachutes for that--and if you can't get out of the airship you'd still be screwed. There's plenty of ways to ruin an exit."
"You know what happens when a car starts sinking in a lake?" She looks at him like a cat who's just missed a bird. Sazh goes on, "It's like that, but with air instead of water. 'Ships don't always fall right side up, you know, and it's really hard to open the doors by hand. Better to just steer it down and hope it breaks your fall instead of crushing you."
"Fine. Sorry I asked." She rests her chin on a wrist and looks at the moonless sky. "How did you get over knowing you had a good chance of dying painfully every time you went on a job?"
"Same way you did. By being so damn good at it I felt invincible."
That gets a smile out of Lightning. She hasn't laughed since that one time, which doesn't surprise him. But Sazh is surprised by how easy it is to make her smile. "Invincible, huh?"
"Like a god." Right after he says this, some giant owls swoop down on them and whatever Lightning was about to say turns into a scream.
- - -
"She'll be all right in a bit," Vanille says. While she finishes healing up the deep gouges on Lightning's arms and shoulders, Sazh holds a wad of gauze to his own arm. It's painful, but Lightning had lost enough blood to pass out. "I guess they went at her more because she's so visible at night."
"Did she do that thing where she woke up and alerted you?" Fang asks. She'd been the one to drag Lightning back to camp while Hope and Snow chased off the owls, and she seems pretty cranky. Sazh tries to think of a way to answer that won't give her the wrong idea, which leaves his options outside of staying quiet pretty slim. But then the black-haired woman goes on, "She did, didn't she? Those were owls. They're the bleeding ninjas of the bird world. Unless, you know, I'm right and Lightning doesn't sleep at all."
"No, but she heard me yelling when they got in the first shot."
Lightning's breathing settles into a normal rhythm and Vanille sighs. "Okay. Fang, could you take Lightning back to camp? I'm going for Hope and Snow after I heal Sazh."
"Sazh!" Lightning sits up, eyes darting around before settling on him.
"None of that, mate, he's fine." Fang slings an arm over her shoulder and hauls the taller woman up. "Miss I'll-put-you-on-watch-and-then-do-half-the-watching-myself."
"My Blaze Edge," Lightning goes on. "The cloth's in my bag--clean it off before you put it back in the holster."
"Done." Sazh holds his arm out with relief.
"Figures." Fang snarls when Lightning goes limp. "You are not helping, you bloody giant."
"Be nice, Fang," Vanille says, more focused on closing up the gash than her friend's retort that their leader can't even hear her. After that, the healer sends Sazh to the fire after Snow offers to take up the last half of his shift. Sazh picks up the pile of things that Vanille took off before healing Lightning, and digs around in the bag once he's back. Fang looks up at him, grumbles, and rolls over to go back to sleep. He feels extra rounds, Lightning's gloves, a zipper in the back, and something that feels like her wallet before he reaches something thin and takes it out.
It's not a cloth, though. Even in the dim glow of banked coals Sazh can see it's the back of a picture. A small, curly word labels it "Homecoming". Even without the smiley face next to it, he can tell it's not Lightning's handwriting. He turns it around to see two people--a skinny, almost brown-haired girl who has to be Serah. She's waving at the camera in a floaty blue dress with matching slippers. Lightning is in a more dignified white shirt and black knee-length skirt, resting her hands on Serah's shoulders. With the four or five inches Lightning has on Serah and the difference in poses, they look more like mother and daughter.
Sazh puts it back before anyone sees him and opens the zippered pocket to find the cloth for Lightning's Blaze Edge. It's bad luck to talk about family on the battlefield.
For people who've just been ambushed by a pack of hungry wolves, they're doing pretty good. A lot better than the owl thing, at least. Lightning has Hope behind her and she's keeping the wolves off at range--or at least, she was the last time Sazh checked. Just a few minutes after that, he looks back and finds her slashing at the things instead. They're too close and too many for comfort, so Sazh clears a path to her and asks, "What's going on?"
"My Blaze Edge--I don't know what the hell's wrong with it!"
"Should we retreat?"
Lightning gives him a tense nod. "Stay here with Hope--I'll get the others." She snaps, then dashes almost literally over the pack, and they all beat a hasty getaway. Everyone's fine, though.
As a fellow gunslinger, Sazh feels bad for Lightning. He follows and watches through the mind-numbing process of accuracy checking. First she cleans it thoroughly, then carves an X into some unfortunate tree for target practice. She borrows a pistol from him and hits the bulls eye at around twenty yards--he privately takes back what he said, considering hers is more of a shotgun. After that's done, Lightning takes her Blaze Edge to just ten yards and shoots three rounds with at least thirty seconds between them. She halfheartedly moves back five yards before sighing, emptying the chamber, and checking the tree.
"How bad is it?" Sazh asks.
"About..." She squints at the cluster of bullet holes. "Three inches from ten yards."
"Damn." Sazh holds a hand out. "I know this is kind of like... watching a train wreck, but can I see?"
Lightning puts a round back in and gives it to him. "It veers to the left. You want a fresh target?"
"Nah, I'm cool." He takes up a spot ten yards from the tree, sights the battered X, and nudges the barrel to the right before shooting. It hits the center, but that just proves Lightning's point. "Again. Damn."
"Aww, what's wrong with Lightning's gun?" Predictably, it's Fang poking her nose in.
"We don't know," Sazh answers. "You got it tuned up regularly back when you were in PSICOM, right?"
"Yeah, and before I left I got the hammer and cylinder changed. The problems just started today."
"Well, mates, I don't know anything about gun maintenance so I'll leave you two alone." Fang turns around, then turns back almost instantly. "Although... I do know a thing or two about sharp pointy objects with moving bits. Maybe something happened while you were using it as a sword."
Lightning frowns. "But, I always shoot first--"
"Yeah. You always shoot first." The black-haired woman gives a shrug before walking off to camp. "I'm just saying, mate." The scowl is deeper than ever on Lightning's face. Once Fang is out of earshot, she switches the weapon to sword mode and studies it for a long time in the softened afternoon light. After setting it on her arm she lets it hang by her side in a loose grip, then pinches the bridge of her nose with her other hand.
"Is she right?" Sazh asks, even though he knows the answer already.
"She's right. The alignment's off." Lightning holds it up with another long sigh, so Sazh can see a very, very slight bend in a piece near the middle of the blade. "I don't know how we're going to get it fixed, though. There aren't a lot of gunsmiths trained to repair Blaze Edges, and even if we were allowed into a shop it'll be really expensive any... way." When she directs her gaze on him, Sazh instinctively takes a step back.
"Lightning, I'm no gunsmith. And even if I was, you just said it--I don't know a thing about swords."
"No, but you do have an Eidolon who uses fire. And my Blaze Edge is just bent a little, Sazh--it's not rocket science."
"Huh." Sazh takes out his crystal and stares at it for a minute. "Now you put it that way... Let's hope we don't melt it down."
After very careful instructions and an even more careful follow-through from Brynhildr, they wait about half an hour for the Blaze Edge to cool off before Lightning picks it up. She sets it on her arm again, and her expression gives away nothing. Another X is carved into the much-abused tree, then Lightning walks off to twenty yards and fires without adjusting. Sazh checks the bulls eye while she holsters it, since the sunlight's fading fast, but even before he gives the verdict there's relief in the way she stands.
"Dead center," Sazh calls.
From twenty yards away against the sunset, he can't see Lightning smile. But he knows what it looks like by now and that fills in the blanks. "Thank you."