Freaking hell, it was cold.
Belkar was not, in any sense of the word, a learned halfling. He was concerned with the then and there. Anything that didn't fit he could usually deal with well enough just by using his instincts. Such as having to be quick on your feet when fighting huge monsters, because you could get crushed, or keeping your voice down when on snowy mountains, because the way the sound reverberates really sounds like it could do something nasty if you get too loud.
But this one time, his instincts had led him astray.
It didn't make any freaking sense. How the hell could a place that was so utterly stifling during the day get so cold at night? How did people live here? They'd have to carry shifts of thick and warm as well as thin and loose clothes wherever they went.
He'd heard the others say it would be cold, of course. He'd brushed it off. After all, how "cold" could a desert get?
Well, he sure knew now. Back at the time, the moronic bard had actually asked about it, prompting Ears to go into full-blown lecture mode. Belkar had tuned out immediately, scrunching his face up in disgust and cursing Elan, while the stupid elf had gone on and on about relative humidity, condensation energy and temperature extremes and some guy called Calvin.
Much to his chagrin, Belkar now wished he'd sucked it up and paid attention. The temperature extremes, in particular, could have at least warned him.
Or not. Belkar vaguely remembered hearing a number – again, something about a Calvin, weirdly enough – and registering that it was absurdly high. It couldn't have been temperature.
Who the hell was Calvin, anyway? An old flame of V's? Didn't sound like an elven name, that's for sure. Or did Ears have a thing for humans? Or maybe the elf had just actually cracked? First the raven, now this...
Stupid elf. Wouldn't have done him any good even if he'd listened to him or her or it. Add to that Ears' complete lack of concern for using a Hand spell to dangle Belkar in front of a humongous hungry worm – even after spouting out a percentage number, somewhere in the twenties, of the Hand spell wavering enough for the worm to cause harm to Belkar – and suffice to say there was no love lost between them.
And now Belkar was shivering violently in his tent in the piercing cold of the last night before they reached Girard's Gate, when he should have been soundly asleep, and the sole person to blame was the boring, stupid elf.
Having made up his mind, Belkar abandoned his attempts at warming himself, standing up and stepping out into the cold desert wind whipping at the tent. If he was going to have to steal someone's thicker blanket, it may as well be the elf's. Belkar halted, then briefly went back inside to get his own blanket. He'd stand a better chance of not being busted if he could just switch and run. He left Mr. Scruffy where he was, curled up and asleep in a bundle of the halfling's spare clothes.
Half a minute of careful stealth later – past Roy, who kept watch with his blanket-covered back to the dimming fire, staring dejectedly into the desert night – Belkar lifted the flap and crept into the elf's tent, then froze to take in the surroundings.
He grinned. The elf was trancing on the ground for once, probably to better take advantage of the heavy and very warm-looking wool blanket wrapped around him. His face was blank, set in a shadow of concentration even in rest, eyebrows knitting together ever so slightly, pointed ears sticking out stubbornly through the loose hair that fell down his blanketed back and shoulders in a long purple tangle.
Belkar frowned as he tiptoed around the elf, avoiding the belongings stacked neatly on the floor. While the elf was a heavy enough sleeper that turning him over in the air had been no problem, freeing him from the blanket he was practically tied up in up to his delicate chin was a different matter.
He stared at the stupid elf as if his still features could dispense knowledge and information as readily as they did when the elf was awake. His own blanket was set down at his feet, forgotten for the moment in the face of that problem.
And then, as the halfling – who in his short attention span had more in common with an ordinary house cat than ought to have been possible – peered, scowling in thought, into the elf's face, he gradually forgot what he came for.
While it had felt good, in a familiarity sort of way, to be back with the party, where he could taunt and torment to his heart's leisure, he had also been reminded just why exactly he'd been tempted to kill them all on so many occasions. The elf in particular, and even staring into his resting features he remembered how easily they could morph into that smug, I'm-better-than-you-and-just-made-you-admit-it smile, the corners of his mouth lifting tightly, eyebrows raised and slanted purple eyes narrowed in fleeting satisfaction, chin tilted up and his arms crossed and his spine erect in some posture that could have been and probably had been invented with the explicit purpose of provoking the absolutely biggest amount of infuriation and made you want to just go and bash that delicate face in with a blunt object.
And, more often than not, that smile had been directed at him. He'd be having trouble getting into whatever evil Afterlife was in store for him just for the absurd amounts of restraint he'd grown used to showing since they'd first met.
Belkar's smiled darkly as he remembered one thing he had been genuinely missing, in a sadomasochistic sort of way – the little prank war between him and Ears. What had made the elf so much fun was that he was the only other person who really wasn't a stickler for the rules. Even better, he wasn't a squealer, to the point of seeming to have an outright compulsion of solving his problems by himself. That, and a bunch of other things meant Belkar could prank away as much as he wanted and V would only ever respond in a way he could totally deal with, rather than stir up trouble by involving Roy.
And yet, he hadn't been able to make the elf angry even once since they'd gotten their act together. Disgusted and distasteful, exasperated, sure, that was all fine and dandy, but something was gone. The elf was getting frustrated and disgusted by him, just along with all the others, together with all the others. That little thing that had been so much fun, the way it was personal when the elf called him a disgusting cretin, it was gone. And left in the hollow niche wasn't even what Haley and Beery McTreephobic felt for him, not even hearty disapproval or loathing, it was just...
Indifference. The realisation made Belkar scowl darkly into the elf's face. Ears sure had crappy survival instincts if he could sleep through an angry presence like that hovering just inches away from him. Then again, the elf seemed distracted by whatever it was he was dreaming about, if his slightly tense neck and light frown were any indication.
Ears had grown indifferent to him! It was unbelievable. The hatred, the fear, the grudging admiration – that was something Belkar cherished and nourished. But indifference, not caring – that freaking couldn't be! Not after he'd invested so much in achieving the opposite.
That was going to have to change.
Belkar smiled and sat back on his haunches, eyes narrowed with mischief and a hand propping up his chin, and he studied the elf as his mind went through plan upon plan of ruthlessly amusing revenge.
What now? A bunch of desert beetles to creep into the blankets and bite the elf's tender flesh? A lizard or two? Nah, the animal thing was overdone, anyway. Besides, he was in a desert on a strange new continent. If he accidentally killed the elf by slipping him some unexpectedly venomous desert chipmunk, all his hard work of establishing his new Society-playing identity would have been for nothing.
Besides, the animal attack thing hadn't seemed to have that much of an effect on V, anyway. He'd been annoyed, sure. But annoyed didn't do it for Belkar. He needed some way to get under the pointy eared twit's skin.
Ignoring the goosebumps becoming ever more prominent on his bare forearms and calves, Belkar listened to the whooshing of the wind outside and the elf's steady breathing and thought back to that night in Azure City. If only he could remember what he'd done. Whatever it was, it had made the elf mad enough to exploit Belkar's new-found stupid Mark of Stupidness vulnerability and give him hell with his spells. Yet Belkar couldn't remember a thing.
But he could try to put the pieces together. The halfling's face scrunched up in concentration as his mind – not abused with overuse – tried to pierce the fog over his memory of something that had happened over a year ago. He'd gone with Ears and Beardy to the tavern with those hot lesbian paladins, some guard had stumbled in on him, Ears had ranted him to sleep, and then he'd had a few drinks while the dwarf drank half the ale in the tavern and Ears was just sipping that same glass of stupid blue wine... and then what?
The last he remembered was something about a dwarven tradition, and the sight of about two dozen mugs of beer in front of him, and the countdown about to start. The dwarf was in front of him, while V's voice droned on behind him, something characteristically boring about dwarven livers.
Belkar was not an idiot, and even Elan could probably piece things together with all of that. His best guess was that he'd gotten hugely drunk – what with the loss of memory and all, it made sense – and did something that had offended the elf. Knowing himself, he'd probably tried to cop a feel through the thick robes, or had gropingly clutched at the elf in an attempt to stay on his feet. Unsettling to think about, but anything that made Ears squirm was a good thing in his book.
Slowly, Belkar's features spread into a smile. Of course. Intrusion of personal space. It was so obvious. That's what the elf was most bothered by! The not-saying-what-gender-he-was thing, the physical distance he kept to the others, the Invisibility spells when going for a dump, it all fit together.
And as Belkar randomly remembered something he'd once heard, in passing, in a tavern somewhere, he suddenly knew the absolute perfect way to knock the stupid elf out of his comfort zone.
His mind finally made up, the halfling rose silently, creeping behind the elf. He leaned in, grinning wickedly. Then, one hand placed lightly on the elf's shoulder, he brushed away the uncombed mass of hair and nipped at a sharp ear, running his lips and then his tongue and finally his teeth over the pointed tip.
He felt the response immediately, a shaky intake of breath and warmth rushing in to the smooth skin he was breathing into. The elf shifted under his blankets, the shoulder under his palm tensing, and then the elf muttered something in Elvish, sounding oddly guilty – something the cunning part of Belkar's brain stored away immediately for later abuse.
And only then, when Belkar must have nipped at the ear a bit too hard, did the stupid elf wake up.
He gasped, body spasming reflexively as his eyes shot wide open and his head turned to stare at him.
In the split second before the elf's shocked confusion had turned to seething outrage, Belkar got a decent impression of the dilated pupils, the flushed face – for all of Ears' pale skin, he'd never seen him blush before – and the racing pulse, and knew beyond a shadow of doubt that it was true what they said about elves and their tender ears.
Then, the elf's fair features twisted into the most delightful look of pure undiluted wrath. His slender hands snaked out of the blanket with surprising ease, pink energy crackling, his eyes turned almost demonic in their angry glow and the lips moving to begin an incantation.
His face inches away, Belkar relished the rage and indignation he was putting the elf through. And what occurred to him then was the only thing he imagined could make V even angrier and solve a pending problem with pathetic ease. He grabbed a thin wrist in each hand, jerking the arcane gestures to a stop, and leaned forward to close the gap between the elf's incantation-spouting mouth and his own. The elf's body stiffened. Something made a loud cawing noise, probably a bird outside of the tent.
In the next few seconds, Belkar smugly explored the delicate mouth with his tongue while using his steady grip on the wrists to suppress resistance, and even as he kissed he couldn't help but smile evilly into the delicate lips as he imagined just how furious he'd made the elf with that simple gesture. And then, probably thanks to the preliminary ear-nibbling taking its toll, he could have sworn that for a lingering moment, the stupid androgynous twit was sort of kissing him back.
All at once, Belkar let the elf go, callused hands releasing the wrists and his mouth breaking away from the elf's face, and the wizard promptly toppled backwards as he stepped away. Scrambling up to his feet and free of the blanket, Ears seemed genuinely thunderstruck as he stared down at him, breathing unevenly and his hands shaking a bit, eyes blazing and his pale face as flushed as ever, and the elf's telltale composure was gone like it had never existed.
"Wh...Great elven gods, w-what are you..." V sputtered when he finally regained the gift of speech. Belkar pretended to look around in a surprised manner, then rubbed his head sheepishly.
"Oh, hey, Ears. Looks like I was sleepwalking again. Weird, I haven't done that in years. Must be the change of climate getting to me, eh?"
Incredulity, disgust and – yes, wonderful, also loathing – filled the elf's face as Belkar rambled on. "Except, weird thing is, if I'd sleepwalked into someone's tent I'd expect it to be Haley's or something, or even the bard if I really hadn't gotten any in a while. But I guess your hair is to blame. You know, with all that hair, one could almost think you were a hot chick if they didn't get a look at your face. Though I guess some people are actually into anorexic pointy-eared asexual little twits with an obnoxious attitude. No accounting for taste, I suppose. " He grinned, shuffling his feet in a mock display of awkwardness. "So, good night, I guess. Big day tomorrow. Learn your spells."
He moved for the exit and the elf stepped forward, features contorted darkly with anger. "You insufferable little cretin," the elf hissed, "you truly believe you can simply intrude in my tent with a ridiculous story like-"
"Vaarsuvius? I heard a noise, is everything okay?"
While Belkar marveled at his luck, the elf's hands dropped and the crackling pink energy dissipated again as V looked up in alarm. The tent flap opened, giving way to Roy's hulking figure, his eyes worried and his hand reaching up towards the hilt of his sword. As he caught sight of Belkar, the fighter's dark features turned dangerous, and his eyes shot around at the tent, taking in V's tense posture and the two blankets strewn haphazardly on the tent floor.
"Belkar, what the hell is it you think you're doing here?" Roy growled dangerously, stepping forward to loom over him – and when you're only a few feet tall, the six feet tall guy can pull off quite a decent job at looming. Belkar ignored it and pulled on his best nonchalant expression.
"Hey, don't blame me. We're in a desert and you idiots seem to have forgotten that some of us are actually responsible for another living being. Mr. Scruffy got cold so I figured I'd ask Ears for an extra blanket."
"Putting aside for the moment the staggeringly high improbability of you stooping to actually asking anyone for anything, why would you think Vaarsuvius would be able to give you a blanket?"
"Oh, come on, it's for a worthy cause. Elves like animals, don't they, Ears?" he grinned at the elf, who was staring silently at him. "Besides, I'd heard V mention that he's packed an extra blanket for that imaginary raven of his he's allegedly carrying around. Anyway, I got what I came here for, so I'll just be going. G'night." He reached down to grab one of the blankets on the ground and darted around Roy and towards the exit while the fighter just looked at V probingly for an alternate take on the story. Belkar knew the elf wouldn't say anything, or protest that the extra blanket thing was a lie, because the halfling was giving him an opportunity to leave this thing relatively uncomplicated then and there, and Ears knew better than to turn it down. He'd confirm Belkar's story, probably adding on some spin on how he had just been startled, he'd think and meditate on what Belkar's behaviour had meant, and then he'd execute his carefully planned revenge without involving anyone else, and the prank wars could start all over again.
Shooting a glance at the elf through the closing tent flap over his shoulder, Belkar met his eyes, full of contempt and loathing, and knew for certain that he had just made it personal.
Belkar grinned as he wrapped the new, warmer blanket around himself and made his way back to his tent. He knew that Vaarsuvius would inevitably retaliate and his mind was already on the next thing he would do to further infuriate him. Finding out what the murmured sigh of "Ky-ree" had meant seemed like a good start.
Gods, he loved that elf.