He's elbow-deep in sudsy water and spaghetti sauce when he hears the knock at the door; the sound stops the ill-defined song he's been raspily humming in his throat, half surprise and half just embarrassment, and he hollers, "Hey, Dajh! Why don't you—"
"I let myself in," says her voice from behind him, low and cool and he can hear the smile that's on her face: one part that complete confidence Lightning seems to move through as easily as breathing; plus three parts smug and one part amused at the way his sleeves are dripping tomato sauce. He hopes this hasn't ruined his coat cause it's three weeks until the next merchant ship and he'll be freezing. "Figured you'd have your hands full."
"Look," he begins, turning around as the smile grows on his face – it's good to see her, it always is – and reaching for the towel; "I was not the one who decided to redecorate in here—"
"Lightning!" Dajh barrels down the stairs and slams into Lightning from behind; his arms wrap around her waist and make it look mostly intentional. At least he'd changed his clothes; Sazh isn't sure Lightning would put up with sauce stains as well as he can. "Are you hungry? Dad let me cook, it was awesome, I didn't know cooking was so cool, there was a fire and everything. I wanna grow up and work in Aunt Serah's cafe."
Lightning raises an eyebrow at him, although he doesn't miss how her mouth twitches upwards. Her eyes take in the strands of spaghetti now plastered across the clay walls of their hut-turned-home. "You're already better at it than Snow," she says, completely deadpan, and Sazh can't swallow the snort of laughter even as Dajh says with incredulity, "For real?"
"Why don't you let go of her and come help your old man," Sazh orders, holding the towel out to his son. "Even a future master chef's gotta know how to clean his kitchen."
"Ew," says Dajh, helpfully, although he does go to work spreading the pasta all over the wall.
Sazh watches as the sauce becomes paint and sighs, rolling his eyes upwards before his gaze lands back on Lightning. She looks good: she's more settled into this intermediate life they're leading, out here, in Oerba's ruins. The first couple months she'd been – not broken, but jagged, like something had cracked deep inside her and left her unsteady, something that shook and chafed every time her gaze fell on that crystal pillar. It's a feeling Sazh knows well; he's familiar with mourning, and if he misses Fang and Vanille in a very different way than he misses his wife, it's still the same idea: variation on the same theme, same chords, same old song. But Lightning's grafted herself back together these last few weeks – using what, Sazh doesn't know, because some days he feels like he's running on threads and coffee and willpower, but she's almost back to herself. Enough back to herself that Sazh thinks maybe she's just done gone and changed a little, too, underneath it all. He'd been worrying about her; it's nice to have that energy back, even if all he's gonna do with it now is worry about himself and Dajh some more.
"How would you like to go spend the night with Aunt Serah and Uncle Snow?" The question surprises him out of his reverie. Lightning is looking at Dajh, and her mouth is trying for that soft smile she still gets when she looks at Hope sometimes, the look she gets where Sazh is pretty sure she doesn't even realize she's smiling.
"Can we cook?" Dajh asks, dropping the towel, which ensures the floor won't go unscathed either. He's completely interested.
"Maybe." She gives that tiny shift of her shoulders that's meant to be a shrug. "I'm sure Serah wouldn't mind making some cookies." Aunt Serah's cafe is actually Oerba's only working inn, medical tent, and restaurant balled up in the biggest of the remaining buildings, serving as a rest stop and waypoint for all the Cocoon refugees who've made their way this far. Turns out it's easy to become a business owner on Gran Pulse because rent's pretty low (free if you can keep the monsters out) and there really ain't much competition.
"Cookies." Dajh is now completely sold, and what in the world is Lightning up to? "I totally want to learn how to make cookies. Can I make some for Dad? Will cookies start fires too?"
"Technically," Sazh points out to him, "spaghetti isn't supposed to start fires."
"The fire wasn't all my fault," Dajh says virtuously, pulling himself up to his full height and giving Lightning the most plaintive and serious look Sazh has ever seen on his face, and for just a second he's so full of ridiculous love for his horribly clumsy child that he could burst with it. "Can I still go and do the cookies?"
Lightning nods, and she must see some of what Sazh sees in his son, because that faint glow of a smile is on her face again. "If you're okay watching Uncle Snow all by yourself. I'd like to hang out with your dad tonight."
Her gaze flickers over to Sazh, questioning, and he gives her an easy grin. "I see how it is." She must need his help with something – Lightning patrols the paths the refugees use to work their way through Gran Pulse, because even without her l'Cie gifts she's still uncannily fast and beastly strong, but sometimes she runs into something she won't tackle on her own because she also isn't an idiot.
"Oh," Dajh says, his interest suddenly drawn by the concept of guns. "I could come to that…?"
Lightning shakes her head; her every movement is so subtle and restrained, just a tip of one ear. "But then who's going to keep Snow from burning the cookies?"
"Burning the cookies," Dajh repeats, satisfied at the promise of fire. "Alright. I'll take care of Uncle Snow tonight." His nod is decisive, and absolutely adorable.
Lightning glances over at Sazh. "That okay?"
His grin is a little too quick with relief. "Course it is," he says, "keep an eye on the master chef here while I go saddle up." He leaves his son and the kitchen mess to Lightning and heads back into his bedroom. He's taken good care of his girls even if he isn't spending as much time with them lately; strapping on the holsters is still as familiar as breathing and their weight against his thighs is more comforting than he'd expected. Sazh takes a moment, takes a deep breath. Maybe he has been running himself a little too thin lately – but he's got Dajh, and a house with holes in the roof, and everyday monsters and spaghetti fires and Serah's inn to help out at too, and it's not like any of that can wait: but it doesn't change the fact that going out and shooting a lot of holes into something big and scary (preferably with a lot of teeth) suddenly sounds positively relaxing. Domesticity is hard.
He then bundles Dajh up into his coat (there's a hole in the elbow, dammit, that's another couple hours he'll have to spend patching up Serah's walls so's he can buy Dajh a new one next time the ship comes through) and checks that his boots are tied (poorly, but Serah can deal with that), and then hefts him into the kid's seat on the back of the silly little scooterbike he drives. Lightning got the sweet motorcycle they'd found and repaired, because she's Lightning, of course – Sazh had allowed it because there was nowhere safe for Dajh to sit, although he'd grumbled just a little bit under his breath – and Serah and Snow used regular bicycles, even though it made them look like overgrown children, because they have no need for dignity. He straps Dajh in, and then revs up the bike, and follows Lightning through Oerba down to the inn.
Serah's waiting outside for them, with a basket full of herbs that she's sorting, in an anticipatory way that makes Sazh a little bit suspicious. She stands up and brushes her hands off, and waves at Lightning; Sazh gets a hug, and Dajh gets scooped up and spun around (Serah's getting stronger, with all the work that goes into running Oerba's prime – and only – establishment of any kind) until he's giggling with glee.
"Cookies," Dajh reminds the crowd at large, and Serah gives him a smile so warm and sisterly-motherly Sazh almost wants to stay and bake with them. "Lightning said cookies."
"You two have fun," Serah says, nodding at Sazh and giving Lightning a bright loving smile as she allows Dajh to pull her into the house. Sazh's heart is warmed again to see his kid so happy, so well-adjusted, surrounded by something that's sorta like a family if you don't look too close. It's a strange kind of happy-anxious thudding, because after everything they've all been through it's like he doesn't want to look too closely or they'll lose it all. He still doesn't deal well being separated from Dajh, even though there's some part of him underneath keening for a moment's breather, because he still feels like everything they've all got could get swept away so quick.
"Don't burn the place down too much," says Lightning, deadpan. To Sazh, she adds, "Hop on."
Sazh pushes the scooterbike up against Snow and Serah's place so that it's out of the way, and then yanks the parking brake hard enough that Dajh won't be able to release it even on a sugarhigh. Lightning slides forward a bit, and he braces his hands against the side of the bike and her arm and throws his leg over the little passenger seat in the back, shifting his hold to her hip and the handle once he's on. Lightning kicks backwards, revs the bike, and peels out of Serah's front yard, turning so sharply Sazh feels the cuffs of his pants brush the grass.
It isn't the first time he's been on the bike with her like this – they took out an overgrown infestation this way, him shooting from the back over and over while she dodged poison vines with a mind of their own; she's a horribly terrifying motorcycle driver but he's trusted her with way more, hasn't he, so it doesn't really matter – but she's driving like there's somewhere to be and Sazh wonders where in the world they're going. He says nothing. It's Lightning, she always knows what she's doing, even when she doesn't, and based on their shared history there will be something he can fill with bullet holes before the night's over. Sazh takes a deep breath, and he's surprised to find it exhaling in a chuckle as he relaxes, sinking into Lightning's turns as she hurls the bike around the stretch of dirt masquerading as a road. The evening air tastes like the wilds of Gran Pulse, and a freedom he hadn't realized he wasn't thinking about.
"Finally," she says, and he can hear the low pitch of her voice through the clanky purr of the motor, "it's like riding with a bag of bricks on here with you all worked up." It has that slight hint of derision she uses when she's teasing, the sort of cold-shoulder thing Sazh found affronting until he figured out it was Lightning's version of affectionate.
"Hey," Sazh says, his laughter in his voice, "what else do you expect outta the old man?" He's a better driver than he is a rider, but this is the way things are between him and Light – she steers the course and he just tries to hold on and watch her back.
She says nothing but he can feel the laugh, and see the way her shoulders shake, and he grins again even though she can't see it. "So what's on the menu tonight?" he asks, reaching down real quick to tap his pistols (as if they're not going to be there) before returning his hand to the grip.
"It's a surprise," Lightning says, which does surprise him. To the point where he shuts up, swallowing whatever comment he was going to make that's now dissipating into the growing darkness. A surprise? I hope it has teeth, is his first thought, followed by, no, really, what surprise?
They're taking a path away from Oerba he doesn't really recognize. The roads around here – the dirt trails they call roads – he doesn't know too well; he doesn't really stray too far outside Oerba these days, not with Dajh and all. He's been too busy with – with life, you know: with patching up their roof now that it's colder, and making sure he's got good stuff to feed Dajh, taking care of their garden and learning how to bake (horrible) bread and all of the other things that have become part of this life on Gran Pulse. He tries to not even pay attention, but it's the pilot in him, mentally marking everything they pass until he's pretty sure he has absolutely no idea where the hell they are (but could probably find his way back).
He spots a couple flickers of light on the horizon; Lightning hauls the bike round the bend and points her nose towards them. As they approach Sazh sees it's another small settlement – smaller than Oerba; he spots one long building along the edge that reminds him of a dormitory, and two or three crooked roofs against a flickering fire. Lightning slows the bike and putters into a dirt clearing beside the largest of the structures – he won't call them houses – to park it. Sazh slides off the bike easily, and Lightning executes a half-leap that's full of grace and somehow a completely appropriate dismount.
"What is this?" he asks. It has an odd feeling of transience to it, home-but-not: a campground, maybe, or a crossroads.
"They call it Hunter's Home," Lightning says, yanking her sword-scabbard back into place around her hips. "Those of us who come out this far hunting the big game needed a place to crash that was closer than Oerba or New Palum. We kept running into each other here, and stuff just grew out of what other people left. Then a couple people stopped leaving, and now they do business here instead." She looks up at him, and flashes a grin, with teeth and actual amusement. "It's also the closest bar where we don't know the bartenders."
"The closest bar," Sazh says, slowly and (hopefully) casually lifting his hands off of where they've come to rest, instinctively, on the backs of his girls.
"I thought maybe you'd want to come out for a drink," Lightning says slowly, pronouncing every word carefully; her caution's even more surprising than their destination. "An adult drink, with some adult company. You've been working too hard to spend every night off taking care of a seven-year old." Her gaze on him is hard, but contemplative. "Thought you might like a night off with one of your peers." She gives that small shrug, almost daring him to say something. "With a friend."
He barely knows what to say to this. Of course, single fatherhood is hard: and of course it's harder when you're stuck in a backwater wilderness full of things that want to eat you and your kid – who isn't old enough for a pistol no matter how hard he begs you for one – but Sazh has been so full of grateful appreciation for whoever brought him back, brought Dajh back to him, gave them all this good old second chance, that he hasn't even really thought about the exhaustion: eating at the edges of him, dull grey waves washed over his eyes. He's surprised that Lightning would even notice – although then he thinks about that a little harder, and he really isn't, because she's got Serah back and she's still working herself back into one piece; she probably knows how it feels like. Or something close, because conversations with Serah have to be a little less frustrating, but it's the same principle. He should probably say thanks, at this point, standing here gaping at her like an idiot, but they're not the thank-you type.
"Who would have guessed," he says instead, "you're getting all mushy in your old age, Light."
"Shut up," she says, but the snarl is like a grin and he follows her as she heads towards the door of the closest shelter.
The bar at Hunter's Home is little more than a giant table and some terrifyingly crooked shelves, but there is actually a bartender – the shortest and stockiest woman he's ever seen in his life, he is a little bit instantly in love – and a couple patrons, looking dustier (and in one case bloodier) than they. The bartender nods at Lightning, a quick flash of recognition; she grabs two things that look like mugs and fills them with something that looks like beer. Lightning sits down at the bar-table and Sazh takes the rickety-looking stool beside her. He raises an eyebrow at the drink in front of him. It smells kind of like beer.
Lightning shrugs, and he hears her quick exhale of laughter. "It's alright," she says. "They brew it in the back. Which sounds terrifying, but one of them's an old pubmaster from Palumpolum. It won't kill you," and she punctuates the statement by taking a sip, so that Sazh has two choices: follow her lead or be incessantly mocked forever. The beer is a little bit sour, but the flavor's balanced by a fresh-tasting bitterness he finds he's used to after the third swallow. It's been so long since he's had anything even remotely like beer. He leans his elbows on the bar.
"Huh," Sazh says eventually. It's a nice feeling – comfortable but wild, surrounded by people that would put up a decent fight even against two ex-l'Cie, drinking beer made from Pulse. There's an edge in him, and there always has been – but here it doesn't feel nearly as out-of-place as it does some days in Oerba, when he's doing Dajh's laundry and trying to pretend he'd never faced down fal'Cie over the barrels of his guns, never spat Firaga or called Brynhildr's name. Here he's allowed to be somebody who once shot soldiers in cold blood, and it isn't like he's trying to be anybody else. "I sort of just figured we were going to go shoot holes in something. Never knew there was a place like this out here."
"Oh," says Lightning, nonchalant except for the growing smile she tries to duck behind her mug, "that's tomorrow. Too long of a ride for one day." She throws him a glance, sidelong. "I didn't want you to miss this fantastic beer."
"I knew it," he says happily, and takes another drink.
They end up not talking much; there isn't much to talk about. She tells him a little bit about the foe they're taking down tomorrow (some kind of overgrown Roc, spits Thunder when it gets mad) and Sazh sees in her restless fingers around her glass that she's itching just as bad to throw herself up against a challenge as he is. He rambles on for twenty minutes about the latest repairs he's put into Snow and Serah's home before he realizes that Lightning's laughing at him with her eyes, quietly, because the words he's saying don't really mean anything. He chats at the bartender a little bit after that, and with the other patrons: the casual, meaningless words travelers exchange in a bar. And he feels something uncoiling inside him, a weird sort of tension that's become so much of a part of this new life that he's stopped noticing it – he's only noticing it now in its absence.
It isn't Dajh – he still misses his son, maybe even worse now that he'd lost him and gotten him back, and it's weird to be out here without him: but it's also kind of a flashback, a memorial, remembering the other times it was just him and Lightning sleeping on their threadbare stolen sleeping rolls (and neither one minding: Lightning too focused and hardcore to care, and Sazh much too used to having nothing to sleep on; memories of poverty don't leave you when you leave it), all their other traveling and battling, without Dajh, except that everything's different: this time he knows Dajh is safe burning cookies with Serah and Snow and he's free to have a beer and actually relax if he wants to.
Because they won, and that's an important thing he's been losing in the details of this life they have in Oerba.
They have a couple more beers in a silence that's companionable and, Sazh realizes, appreciated: it's been a long time since he's had a couple spare minutes that aren't peppered by a seven-year-old's chatter and questions. Funny to think that Lightning maybe knows what he needs better than he does himself. He wants to thank her, somehow, but he can't think of a single thing to say that's any better than this silence: not with Light, anyway. So he just catches her gaze over their mugs of somewhat-beer and gives her a nod.
"There's a practice range out back," she says, just as he thinks maybe the night can't get much better.