I'm hoping to do a chapter for each of the areas of FFXII. We shall see how it goes. This chapter is the Westersands; Basch is still with them because I usually run around with the four characters for a bit before returning to Rabanastre.

Vaan keeps glancing at the good captain when he believes no one to be looking. Unfortunately for both Vaan and Balthier's nerves, the churl is far from subtle, once going so far as to trip on a rock whilst gawping. It is beginning to grate on what few nerves the Dalmascan sun hasn't fried.

"Vaan," he snaps when the boy almost flattens a wandering cactite, "If you would be so kind as to scout ahead for danger?" He wants him out of his sight, and fon Rosenburg out of Vaan's. This seems to be as good a way as any.

The look Vaan slides him from under his eyelashes is not nearly as clueless as Balthier thinks it should be. "Alright," he says, "But I'm taking any loot I find, then, and I'm not sharing it."

Balthier waves him away. Frankly, at this point in time he's much more likely to kill the whelp for the water skin at his belt than he is for any wolf pelt. "The spoils of war are yours."

"Awesome," Vaan murmurs. He turns away. A piece of still wriggling flesh falls off his shoulder and splatters against the sand.

The fact that his nose does not wrinkle is merely the result of very good breeding. He hadn't known he had any particular squeamishness in him until he watched Vaan grimly hack the head and arms off a zombie so he could take its armor.

He steps over the bit of festering flesh, cursing the feel of hot sand against his heels. If he had but known he'd be trekking through the desert, he would have worn more sensible footwear.

Balthier catches Vaan glancing at his feet with something like amusement and begins to calculate where he can shoot the whelp without incapacitating him completely. The boy's eyes narrow in a sudden smile before he scrambles up over the nearest sand dune and disappears from sight.

"A mistake, that," Fran says.

Balthier dabs at the sweat on his upper lip with his last clean handkerchief. "I am rather hoping he is eaten by a wolf," he confides, "Or at least pecked unmercifully by a cockatrice."

fon Rosenburg gives a breathless laugh from the rear. Balthier does not spare the man a glance; the way he's breathing makes him wonder whether the man will make it to Rabanastre at all, but there isn't a thing to be done for it. He's certainly not going to carry him.

That would be unsightly.

The damned Dalmasca sun continues to beat down on his exposed skin. Balthier can feel a sunburn prickling his flesh even through his (very fine) shirt. Nightfall could not come quickly enough.

By the time Vaan dances back into view, Balthier is much too tired to ask where he could have possibly picked up the massive bow strapped across his back. Vaan doesn't offer anything so mundane as an explanation, instead pressing prickly green fruit into his hands.

"Here," he says, glancing up at the sky with a squint. "We should probably stop soon. It's gonna get dark. And I think I saw a Gnoma forming a couple of miles away, so we should find cover before the sandstorm hits."

Balthier has met entites before. As long as you let them go about their business, they were more than happy to do the same for you; however, he was willing to bow to greater wisdom even if it fell like pearls from a swine's mouth. He had never been caught in a Rabanastran storm.

From the startled, wary way fon Ronsenburg suddenly holds himself, the man had. And hadn't particularly appreciated the experience. That was more than enough for Balthier.

Still, there was the matter of the fruit in his hands. He turns it over to examine all angles, rubbing the dusty imprints of Vaan's fingertips away with a swipe of his thumb. "I thought you were refraining from sharing your spoils?" he asks.

The fruit is surprisingly giving, lush with water when Balthier presses an experimental finger into its soft flesh.

Grey eyes drag down from the sky to regard him frankly. Vaan shrugs and hesitantly gives both Basch and Fran two a piece. "You guys aren't used to the desert," he says, "The fruit'll help. You're almost out of water, right?"

"Cactus fruit," Basch says wonderingly, "It has been long since I had this treat." He digs his fingers into the fruit and pulls off its skin in one easy motion, discarding the green peel on the sand in favor of the deep red flesh.

Balthier observes him and critically thinks that the juice will stain his sleeves as red as Vaan's mouth. "And where did you get these?"

Vaan draws his lower lip into his mouth to deliver a contemplative chew. "You probably don't wanna know, okay?" he finally says. "You Empire guys get kind of weird about some of our food."

Which is as good an admission that the familiar shape is, in fact, what Balthier thinks it is. He's eaten much worse, though, and he grits his teeth at the thought of the liquid in the fruit, pricks it with his perfectly manicured nails, and stains his cuffs.

"Oh," Vaan says when they've begun to move again and the first breath of wind flutters Balthier's red stained sleeves, "Here, Fran."

He hands over the bow without the slightest hint of hesitation. Fran takes it and runs her fingers over the red curves of it, eyebrows rising behind her snowfall of hair. "You give this to me?" she asks.

Vaan shrugs his shoulders and scratches at the back of his head. "I don't know how to use them," he says, and, "I think I kind of ruined the string, but I figured you'd know if you could use it or something."

Balthier is no archer, but even he can see the surprisingly perfect symmetry of the weapon. It's curved length is more powerful than the small bow Fran usually carries on their adventures and he, very grudgingly, allows approval to shine through his eyes for a few moments.

Typically, Vaan has already turned away and does not see.

The path Vaan leads them down ends in a cavern pushed into the sandstone cliffs. It is a simple dead-end, perhaps a dozen feet deep, dark and cool when Balthier pushes in. Vaan shakes sand out of his hair from the sandstorm even Balthier can now see brewing, dirt and grit and sand swirling through the air gently.

"We'll need to block the entrance," Basch murmurs.

Fran pauses in the act of running her claws against her scalp. "We've no cloth to spare," she says, "But the pelts should do."

"The sandstorm will ruin them," Balthier warns even as Vaan shakes them out from the tight bundled roll he'd had on his shoulder.

"Yeah, well," Vaan says, "You ever seen what a sandstorm can do to a person? I know a guy who doesn't have a face anymore because he got caught in a really bad one. This is small stuff compared to that."

They manage to jury rig a door on their little slice of stuffy, cool heaven using bits of sharp metal wriggled from Vaan's pocketful of iron scraps. Basch leans against the wall to stretch out what must be a terrific leg cramp after years of inactivity, seemingly not minding being plunged back into the dark.

Fran's eyes catch and reflect the bit of light filtering through the musty dampness of pelts. "A sky pirate in a warren," she says, "Like a dreamhare, hiding."

Balthier catches her eye and scowls. "Please, Fran," he murmurs back, eyes straining. "This is a temporary setback."

"Sometimes the sandstorms last for a day or two," Vaan offers, unsolicited. He is absently eating whatever else he'd been carrying around in his pouch, taking a swig of water every now and again. "The Gnoma was kind of small, though, so it should be gone soon."

"You know much of the desert," Basch offers into the silence.

There is a sound like a peasant chewing with his mouth open and swallowing ungracefully. "I grew up here," he says. "Why wouldn't I?"

"I've been lead to believe that Rabanastre is protected from these minor inconveniences," Balthier says. A particularly strong gust of wind pelts their fur door until it bows in obscenely. "Quaint."

"After the Empire came, there was never enough food in the city for us," Vaan mutters into his knees. He tilts his face in the gloom, dusty cheek resting on equally dusty knee, and rolls one shoulder back. "A lot of the kids started scavenging out in the desert for food. Fruit and stuff, wolf meat. The rats taste better, though."

That statement certainly gives Balthier a better idea of what Vaan has been snacking on. He is suddenly very glad he did not demand a share when his stomach rumbled a handful of hours ago. "That does seem to be the way of the Empire," he says vaguely.

He can make out Basch in the darkness, palms pressed flat to the ground as he leans forward. "The people are starving?" he asks like he doesn't have signs of starvation written all over his too thin face.

"Nah," Vaan says after a moment. "Just some of the people in Lowtown. The ones that can't go up and work 'cause they're not pretty enough or something. The orphans. The old people. We kind of band together to get everyone mostly fed."

Mostly fed is nowhere near the caliber of fed to health, Balthier knows. Vaan has a perpetually hungry look to his face, pinched around the eyes, slightly too much whipcord muscle and not enough of the baby fat that should still be clinging to his cheeks, Dalmascan legal or not. Such is the plight of orphans in war.

They wait out the storm.