It was at some point on the long trek back through the desert that Vaarsuvius felt the first indication that something was out of the ordinary. A town had finally loomed up ahead, rising above the rolling dunes like a ship on the sea, and the Order had picked up the pace immediately, newly invigorated by the prospect of some fresh water, a comfortable bed, and a good bath. At that moment, V chanced to glance backward and suddenly stopped dead in his-or-her tracks.
Mr. Scruffy, the Halfling’s feline companion, was picking its way over the dunes, lagging behind as it chose each step in that truly picky way that only cats can manage. This was not unusual. What was unusual was the small dark bundle that marred the pure white of the animal’s fur. Vaarsuvius blinked, rubbed his/her eyes, and blinked again, and yet the vision remained. A fat white cat hopping through the soft sand with a raven perched happily behind its ear, squawking animatedly.
Was that Blackwing? Getting along with the Halfling’s pet? Surely not!
“V, come on!” Haley cried. The group was getting ahead. V shook his-or-her head slowly. It was all this sun surely; it heated up the brain and made you see things that just weren’t there.
Things only got more confusing once they made it to the city. The whole party was eager to eat a proper meal after days of bland dried fruit and stale bread. Elan danced past with Haley on his arm and Roy raised a toast, but it was hard for V to get into the festive spirit when in the corner of the pub, a raven and cat sat sharing a pint of ale they’d gotten from who-knows-where.
The raven dipped his beak into the amber liquid, then sat back to shift his little orange feet nervously around the rim of the mug.
The cat licked its paw demurely and let out a coy ‘meow’.
“Why thank you Mr. Scruffy,” Blackwing replied, “You have lovely eyes yourself.”
V hit his-or-her head repeatedly against the corner of the bar and ordered another glass of wine. Or six.
It was Belkar who ended up escorting Vaarsuvius back to the inn once the elf was too sloshed to see past the end of his-or-her nose.
“Not like you to drink your face off, Ears,” Belkar remarked, slinging V’s arm down over his shoulders. With an air of distaste, the elf eyed the fluffy cat that hopped up to wind itself between their legs.
“I asshure you, I could shtill take you to pieces even while Intoxshi…intoxicated.”
Belkar gave a condescending chuckle.
“I’d like to see you try. I really, really would.”
The Elf tottered precariously, and the Halfling’s steadying arm slid securely around his-or-her waist.
Hmm. Belkar and alcohol. Vaarsuvius suddenly remembered that this was not a winning combination.
In the corner of V’s eye, Blackwing fluttered over to an adjacent garden’s neatly trimmed rosebush and plucked one of the opulent blossoms from its stem. Mr. Scruffy accepted the flower with a content purr and began munching on the petals.
Even in his/her hazy state, V made a mental note to start torturing Belkar again – the Halfling seemed to need a touch more discouragement. Plus, the animals were driving V absolutely mad – a little violence could be therapeutic.
Vaarsuvius’ morning perusal of his/her spell book was interrupted by a loud, squawking voice from around the corner.
“Sure, but tulle is classic for wedding gowns, and you’re already wearing a white coat,” said Blackwing.
V stared as Mr. Scruffy rounded the bend, with Blackwing perched as before on top of the cat’s head.
“What I’m really concerned about is wedding cake. I’m not too picky, but I’d prefer if we left bird species off the ingredient list.”
They wandered straight through the room and out the front door into the street beyond, Blackwing’s meandering diatribe on wedding venues punctuated by the occasional ‘meow’ of agreement.
Stunned, V hardly even noticed as Belkar limped by in a state of glowering fury.
“I’ll get you back for this stunt, Ears,” the Halfling growled, “The bananas were one thing, but an entire fleet of medieval-era ice cream trucks? That’s going too far! That second-last coat-rack could have taken my leg right off!”
“Belkar,” Vaarsuvius murmured mildly, “Do you suppose that there is something of a suspicious nature going on between our respective animal colleagues?”
“–And if I ever see another naked postman I’m going to set every building in this wretched town on fire! Fire! You hear me? You’ll rue the day you messed with the Mighty Midget!”
“At first I thought I must be mistaken. How could an associate of mine possibly show interest in a creature tainted by your acquaintance? Nevertheless, the sheer volume of evidence in favour of the idea is becoming difficult for me to ignore.”
“–Oh, I know you’re scared now, but just wait ‘til you see what I’ve got planned! You’ll be quivering in those little Elven shoes when you see what I’ve got up my sleeve. Think poisonous snakes, thumbtacks, and lots and lots of cursed jewelry!”
“Of course, a raven is a highly cultured and intelligent animal, while a cat is on principle a hairy, inarticulate, self-centered egomaniac. Not unlike another pair I know, incidentally. I fail to see how Blackwing could even–”
Belkar blinked. “…Blackwing? Who’s Blackwing?”
Vaarsuvius sighed and left the room.
Vaarsuvius squinted one eye as s/he peered through the keyhole to Belkar’s room, but no matter how much s/he stared, the image remained. Mr. Scruffy was curled up into a ball atop a red silk pillow, and cuddled into his side and using his tail as a fluffy white blanket was a familiar-looking raven.
“What are you doing here?”
Vaarsuvius whirled around to find Belkar coming up the hall, carrying a tin of cat food.
“Are you…spying on Mr. Scruffy?”
Vaarsuvius straightened and smoothed out his-or-her robe nervously. “Well, yes. I find your cat’s apparent relationship with my raven to be incredibly distressing.”
Belkar stood on his tip-toes a poked V in the shoulder. “I don’t know what they let you cat molesters get away with up in Elf-country, but if you keep stalking my pet you’re not gonna like the consequences. Seriously Ears, leave the Scruffster alone.”
Belkar’s revenge didn’t include thumbtacks, but there were certainly a whole lot of earwigs involved. An exasperated Roy had banished the two of them to the town’s local library to search for more information on the region. V didn’t bother to point out the futility of sending Belkar of all people to find a book.
The Halfling couldn’t stop smirking as he leaned over to snatch a stray earwig from the elf’s purple locks.
“You’ve got to admit that was an epic prank,” he said in way that was almost fond. “I didn’t know they even stocked that much industrial strength bleach in a town like this. And I have no idea where all those raven feathers came from!”
Vaarsuvius flipped through a few pages of the nearest book without looking up. “Mr. Scruffy is a terrible influence on my familiar. I’m afraid your devil-cat and my traitorous avian leave me no choice. I must find a way to rid myself of your disgraceful feline.”
“What familiar? Never mind, it’s not like you can do much about Mr. Scruffy. I once saw that cat bite the hand off a little old lady that tried to pet him. A creature after my own heart.”
“Say what you like, you uncouth troglodyte. I can and shall get rid of him if I must!” Vaarsuvius brandished an enormous, leather-bound book of law and jabbed a finger at its contents. “Here it states that city bylaws prohibit the ownership of a feline house pet without an appropriate government-issued permit. A message to the proper authorities ought to have the furry nuisance removed forthwith!”
For a second, Belkar looked a little worried. “Does it really say that?” He snatched the book from V’s hands and skimmed over the page. His brow furrowed in confusion.
“No,” V said, ducking under the table, “Not really.”
Belkar managed to drop the book, but not before it exploded in his face.
There was only one thing left to do – confront the problem at its source.
Late one night, after Blackwing stumbled in with his feathers ruffled suspiciously, Vaarsuvius shut the door and sat down on the edge of the bed.
“We need to talk,” he said.
The bird left off brushing away the long white cat hairs that had tangled in his wing and gave V a questioning glance.
“I know all about this illicit tryst, and it has to stop.”
Blackwing sniffed dismissively and preened his feathers. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I am talking about you and Mr. Scruffy! It is my wish that you cease your courtship of that dreadful cat immediately. I believed you to be an intelligent bird, but your judgment has clearly gone awry!”
“No.” Blackwing crossed his wings petulantly.
“No! I’m going to spend time with Mr. Scruffy if I want to! Have you ever noticed how there aren’t any other animals in the group? I get lonely! You don’t realize how hard it can be, having no one but you for company!”
“But…but consider at the salacious company your beau keeps! What about Belkar?” said V, “How could you be attracted to any companion of that?”
Blackwing shook his head. “I’m not the one attracted to Belkar,” he said wryly.
Vaarsuvius gaped at him, unable to speak, and it was at that moment that Belkar himself burst in, nearly pitching Mr. Scruffy’s tail in the hinges when he slammed the door shut behind him.
“I know what you’re trying to do!” he said, striding in without giving V the chance to recover.
“I-I beg your pardon?”
“I know exactly why you’ve been stalking poor Mr. Scruffy.”
The cat meowed in agreement and leapt onto the bed.
“It’s so obvious now. All of your pretend ‘ravens’ you kept asking me about, the drinking, the sneaking into my room in the middle of the night…totally unnecessary, Ears. All you had to do was ask.”
“Ask you what, pray tell?”
“You want me.” Belkar leered. “I can’t blame you for wanting to get closer to me, but seriously, there’s no reason to use Mr. Scruffy as an excuse.”
“What in the name of the Great Elven Gods are you talking about!?”
“All those pranks? A sad bid for my attention! Vomiting all over me the other night? An attempt to win my heart by playing on my sympathies!”
“You have no sympathies, Belkar. And only you could consider drunken regurgitation to be an attempt at seduction.”
“Hey, don’t knock it. It’s how my Great Aunt Mabel found her second husband you know.”
“I’m sure your twisted relations make excellent role models, but in this case I assure you - you are mistaken.”
Vaarsuvius backed away as Belkar advanced step by step and soon found him/herself crowded back against a wall.
“Belkar, what are you doing!” s/he said desperately.
V froze wide-eyed as the Halfling stood up on the tips of his toes and reached up to curl his fingers lightly around the back of the elf’s head.
“Just stop thinking, Ears,” he murmured, sliding his thumb through the fine silky hairs at the base of the Elf’s neck.
Before the elf had time to compose an appropriately lengthy sentence in response, Belkar tugged V’s head down to his level and leaned in to cross that little space of air between them. The Halfling’s warm breath fanned softly against V’s face, smelling almost of wood-smoke. V’s eyes slid shut and s/he grasped his shoulders for support against a sudden wave of vertigo as Belkar pressed his lips to the corner of V’s mouth. The elf’s breath caught as he lingered there a moment, then swept down to crush their mouths together. And then they were kissing – really kissing – and V couldn’t help but clutch the back of the Halflings head and press deeper into his hot mouth.
This was no sloppy, ale-flavoured smooch on New Years. This was…V had no clue what this was.
The Halfling pulled back carefully and V very nearly leaned in to recapture his mouth before common sense set back in. How had this happened? V gaped at Belkar in pure amazement. His hands were gentle as they cupped the sides of the elf’s face and his habitual smirk had softened, and for a moment Vaarsuvius felt like s/he was seeing Belkar through new eyes.
For a moment. Then Belkar grinned and bit down on V’s lip, and V stamped hard on his foot in retaliation, and suddenly things were back to normal again.
“A pair of bickering children, as usual,” sighed Blackwing, nestling comfortably into the white fur on top of Mr. Scruffy’s head, “but I suppose it works for the two of you.”
Belkar left off pinching V’s arm and craned his back head to see over the elf’s shoulder. He lifted a skeptical brow.
“Hey,” he said, “Where’d the bird come from?”