Roy pricked up his ears and then took off at a run through the tent city, the sand still glowing warm under his boots. He could hear the crying coming from somewhere just up ahead — was there a child in trouble? Had the thieves he'd seen operating earlier in the day given up their pick-pocketing and attacked some innocent? Or even worse — oh no, what if Belkar been messing with Elan's puppet collection again?
He skidded around a corner, down a blind avenue and, locating the source of the noise, stuck his head through the gap between the flaps of what he recognised as one of the Order's own tents.
In the course of months of scrying on his former companions, he'd seen many things he had never expected, and a few he'd never have wanted, to see — Haley's underwear-washing habits, Elan's nightly ritual of rock-star poses in the mirror, and Belkar's habit of singing endearing little songs to Mr Scruffy when he thought no-one else was listening were just a few of the more disturbing ones — but he'd never seen anything like this.
Vaarsuvius hadn't cried for Roy when he'd died on the battlefield, nor even for Haley when she had been thought lost to Xykon's evil clutches. V had been beaten pretty badly by Miko too, humiliated and gagged and hauled across the landscape along with the rest of the Order, and hadn't so much as whimpered then. But the elf was crying now, thin pale hands clasped over the dirty face and long, dark-violet hair tumbling loose around hunched shoulders, rocking back and forth out of time with the deep, hacking sobs.
'Um. V. You alright?'.
The elf didn't look up.
Roy clambered the rest of the way through the tent flap, sealing it carefully behind him. 'Nothing doing.' He plonked himself down on the cushions his team-mate had ignored for the bare tent floor. 'V, that's the fewest amount of words I've ever heard you use to express a simple concept. I figure something's got to be seriously wrong.'
The hands came down, revealing red-rimmed eyes with pale-pink irises and a pinched, dirty face. The elf reached into a pocket and removed a scroll, placing it wordlessly before him. Roy unrolled it and read:
Drawmij's Instant Summons
On the grounds of abandonment and probable alignment shift, the elf Inkyrius of Ivyleaf does hereby petition to dissolve all matrimonial bonds with the elf Vaarsuvius, and to sue for full custody of their two children…
Eek. 'V. I'm - gah. Who sent you this? This is your, um, your wi- your, er, mate, right?'
'I'm so sorry, V. Do you want to tell me what happened?'
The elf sat up, regarding him somewhat unsteadily. 'Thank you, Sir Greenhilt, but I do not wish to discuss it at this time. I saw Inkyrius briefly while I had access to a significant power source, immediately before your resurrection. My mate was apparently not pleased with my decision to rejoin our company in order to try to prevent the — unravelling of the —- .'
The rest of the sentence was lost in a long, ascending wail that appeared to involve the phrases 'dragon and shewasgonnahurttheCHIIIIIL…', a long string of extremely bad words in High Elvish, and something that sounded like 'fieeeeeeeeends'.
Well, this was awkward. Not knowing what else to do, Roy placed a hand on the elf's shoulder, half-expecting a stinging rebuff. When none came, he slid his arm around to pull Vaarsuvius into a hug. Tiny bird bones — he'd known V was small, of course, but he hadn't expected the elf to feel quite so light, so fragile. During the the semi-regular 'Is-V-or-isn't-V?' arguments that descended upon the Order in times of extreme boredom, Roy had always been a staunch supporter of Team Masculine (along with Elan, while Durkon tended to flip-flop — Belkar, for some reason, had rabidly insisted that the elf was female ever since Azure City, and Haley had always simply smirked and announced that she wasn't about to tell the others where her friend kept his or her Crystal Orbs). But just now, he could see the other side of the argument too, dwelling on the delicacy of the elf's tiny wrists, the wet, clinging length of the lashes around the painful-looking eyes as he pulled the elf closer and waited for V to breathe again.
'Gods, you're a skinny bit, V' — the words tumbled out idly, almost unbidden — 'I feel like I could snap you in half, you know.'
He was rewarded with a slightly soggy pink glare. 'I may point out that my current physical condition — sniff — somewhat deleterious as it may be, is nonetheless an improvement on your own until extremely recently, Sir Greenhilt.'
Roy grinned. 'OK, you got me there'. Discreetly, he fished a blue silk handkerchief - a gift from Hinjo that last New Year in Azure City - out of his tunic and passed it to the elf, waiting until the ragged breathing grew somewhat more steady under his arm.
'Divorce papers. That's rough, V, that's really rough.' He tightened his arm, squeezing V closer, and the elf did not pull away. 'But you know the team is here for you, whenever you want us'.
Eyes cast down to the tent floor, a long, half-ragged breath. 'I had observed this. I thank you.' Eyes flickered up to Roy, a small smile. 'Indeed, particularly in the case of the bard and the halfling, I find that the team is frequently present when I do not wish it, also.'
'Admit it, V - you'd miss them if they weren't there'.
'Indeed - upon whom else could I practice my now-redoubtable skills at crafting Exploding Runes?'
Roy accepted his handkerchief back, slightly crumpled and more than a little besmirched with High Elven snot. 'We're all back together again now, and we're going to do what we have to do and get through this. You may have lost one family, V, but —' he felt himself blushing furiously. 'Aww, it sounds stupid, and for the love of all that is holy don't ever repeat this to Belkar, but you've got another one right here.'
V pulled away from Roy's hug and turned to face him, still kneeling on the floor. The elf placed both delicate hands in his and looked up at him, an oddly formal pose. 'Again, you have my thanks, Sir Greenhilt'. The eyes went down again, once more closely examining the floor. 'And I must apologise for this most embarassing display of excessive emotion.'
'Vaarsuvius,' Roy smiled. 'I do have a teenage sister, you know. I know about over-blown hysterics —' he reached out a hand and gently forced V's chin up until the elf met his eyes once more 'and trust me, this wasn't it.'
Without really meaning to, without ever really knowing what he was doing, Roy leaned slowly forward and kissed the elf gently on the forehead, where the gold circlet no longer lay these days. The elf's thick coarse hair smelled of sunshine and dry heat, and something else, something not quite human, and then V's arms were around him, fine and spiky and clinging-desperate and the bones in the tiny shoulders ground together under Roy's hands.
When Belkar came barrelling through the tent flap in search of his tin opener to serve Mr Scruffy's dinner, several hours later, Roy and Vaarsuvius were sitting fully dressed, quietly consulting a map of the desert they were soon to cross and discussing military tactics. He considered asking why Roy had a rune-trimmed cloak slung about his shoulders and V appeared to be wearing a chain-mail tunic, but decided that there were some things halflings were not meant to know.