not all deserts
He had forgotten how badly the sewers reeked.
That was the thing about living next to things like that - you forgot how much they might appall or worry some newcomer. He had been used to it once, to the rats and the lice and the stench of the last attempt at resistance, the reek of shame. Once you get used to the wound, you don't really realize how bad it is until someone else gasps and asks you if you can, in fact, feel your fingers.
He had gotten used to being oppressed. It was easier that way, to just let go, unhinge, free fall, instead of constantly worry the sore and remember the knife. That was how they all were. That was how Deeq's father kept laughing, how Penelo kept dancing, how he kept his sky-pirate-freedom dreams alive. Turn a blind eye to the moment and keep your eyes on the goal.
He has something of a debt to pay, which is why he's here. Not really a money debt, or one of those you-owe-me-your-soul debts that so many of the Imperials claim the townspeople owe them (for letting them live, apparently). It isn't really a debt, because no one's going to hold him accountable, but...
There's a secret place deep in the sewers, past all the rats and bats and into where the fouler monsters breed. It's just before where the sewage opens up to the river, and it's supposedly some sort of spawning ground. When he was younger, it was legend among the kids.
One of his friends - he's dead now, thanks to an Imperial officer and a misunderstanding over bread - had claimed that Vaan wouldn't dare go find that part of the sewers, and bring back a certain item that his brother had placed there so many years ago, something good. Reks heard about it, and immediately forbade him to go (you'll get yourself killed, and then I'll have to go in and find your body and explain to Mother exactly how much of an idiot you were), so he went at night.
Penelo had wanted to go with him, but the idea of little Penelo wandering around the sewers with a blunt dagger and a trash-can lid for a shield made him cringe, so he told her that he was going a different night, and rushed in alone, headfirst and dumb.
Fourteen hours later, Reks dragged his unconscious form out of the sewer, crying and pleading and cursing and apologizing and berating, while a healer worked for almost two hours straight to save him. His mother and father were torn between fury and terror, half the city was muttering about that stupid Vaan child, went and got himself killed under the palace, while Penelo sat on the couch with her brothers, crying.
He woke up to a hug, a shout of joy, and the chew-out of a lifetime.
But he didn't make it to that place. He hadn't even gotten halfway, when he'd been waylaid by a pack of five Malboros, bad-breathed into submission, then beaten beyond senselessness. His friend only sort of apologized (three weeks later, when Vaan was allowed to speak to him again), and asked him if he was gonna try again.
Someday, he'd said, when I'm stronger.
And he's stronger. It's something of a debt, something of a rite of passage - if he can find this place and bring back this item, then maybe he can change the world, maybe he can do something about that complacency. He tells everyone that he'll meet them at the Sandsea tomorrow morning, there's something he's got to do. Penelo starts to ask, and Basch offers to come with him, but he claims that it's boring and kind of stupid, and there's no reason for them to get themselves involved. He goes at sunset, because it's almost a ritual that he has to go at night (every other attempt was at night, too, though all those times he had the sense to run).
It's creepy, and dark, and cold, in the waterway, and he had forgotten how bad it smelled. He's forgotten a lot of things about street life, he realizes. Like how to haggle a Seeq into paying him for goods, or how to pick just the right shadow where the vendor won't see him. He trips over bones and wanders past. Respect for the dead only matters when they're recognizable.
He figures it must be hovering around midnight when he finds himself at the supposed monster breeding ground, and is disappointed. He'd somehow expected to see some sort of gaping hole into the underworld, with monsters spewing forth fully-formed and violent. But it's just a little platform in the wall, a little damp, a little bloody, and nothing there. He'd hoped to at least find some strong creature out for blood.
The item his friend's brother supposedly left there is hanging from a hook (whose purpose he neither knows nor wants to find out) in a thick, brown sack.
It's a box. Inside are seeds, with a note written in a completely unfamiliar hand (which means his friend was lying about the brother) which reads because not all deserts are made of sand. He stands still, on the platform, clutching the box in one hand, the note in the other, the sack on the ground at his feet, and doesn't move for a long time.
He remembers hearing that from an old woman - she leaned close and whispered those words in his ear, and handed him a Galbana Lily. That had been just after he found out that Reks was dead. He had waited for the woman to get out of sight, and then thrown the lily to the stones, crying and angry, and ground it into the road. He regretted it almost immediately, but there was nothing to be done.
He pockets the seeds, but leaves the note, adding his own little bit, before taking the long way back to the Sandsea.
Because not all deserts are made of sand.
Some are made of regret.
(A/N: I started this in an attempt to write for rokukami's challenge, but got to the end and realized that this had absolutely nothing to do with faith. I liked it, though, so I went ahead and finished it. I think I've become addicted to writing Vaan and Penelo. There's so much to play with in their characters! Review if you like.)