“This is more like it,” Eric said as he surveyed the tables of food, the gaily decorated square, the crowd beginning to form. Once again, they had completed a quest for Dungeon Master, and once again, they had failed to make it home. It was beginning to be an all-too-familiar story. The inhabitants of the good-sized town they had saved were grateful, and wanted to show that gratitude by having a party.
The town also had a bath house, which the six of them had eagerly taken advantage of. Eric had enjoyed soaking in the hot water, and he had been able to borrow another tabard. This one was dark blue with gold embroidery, made of some velvety fabric. It was a little shallow, but he was happy to be wearing something different, even if it was just for the evening.
Eric had realized something when the four of them were dressing – life in the Realm was putting inches and muscle on all of them. Even Presto was no longer skinny, but wiry. Their lives here were definitely more physical – walking around, wearing armor, fighting villains – and it showed. He wondered, not for the first time, how much time had passed since they were brought here – how much time for them, and how much time had passed back home. The Cavalier was relatively sure that he didn’t want to think about it too hard, especially not tonight.
Tonight they were going to have fun.
“I wonder what’s taking the girls so long,” Hank said as he accepted a pair of tankards from a passing servant and handed one to Eric. Presto and Bobby were at the food tables with Uni, chowing down.
“Are you kidding? This is the one of the few chances we’ve had to get really clean. They might still be in the water.” Eric drank from the tankard, relishing the rich smooth taste of the ale.
*** *** ***
The young women of the town had been fascinated by Sheila and Diana. Most of them had never been able to travel outside of their town, much less with a band of young men they were not related to. The hot water of the baths had been incredible, and Sheila had found herself forgetting about her discomfort with being naked in a group as they soaked and talked. Diana, used to locker rooms back home, seemed not to be bothered at all as they lounged in the steamy atmosphere, and fielded inquiries about the handsome young men travelling with them.
“Should we tell them that Hank wins the poll for best catch?” Diana asked with a grin as they dressed in borrowed gowns.
Diana wore deep green with her hair pinned up and for Sheila, they had found a dress of midnight blue and pulled part of her hair back with ribbons and flowers. The dresses were similar in style, if not exactly like anything Sheila had seen in a history book –sleeves that just covered their shoulders, sweetheart neckline, corset lacing up the front in contrasting silver, and full skirts that belled and swished. Sheila had been a little shocked when she saw herself in the mirror – at home, she was more of a jeans and t-shirt girl. On Diana, the effect was especially striking.
“No, I’m sure they will let him know,” Sheila said as she turned slowly.
“Something wrong between the two of you?” Diana asked softly.
“There isn’t really anything to go wrong,” Sheila replied after a moment. When they had gone on their ill-fated trip to the amusement park, they had been on a date. Their time here had changed everything, put the burden of responsibility on his shoulders for their very lives. He’d always been something of a straight arrow, she thought with a laugh, and wore the mantle of Ranger with an assurance she never could. Sheila could still lean on him – and did – but she couldn’t get him to unbend or just relax. She couldn’t help him carry that burden, couldn’t help feeling like another burden on those shoulders. “It’s all right. It’s not like we were engaged or anything, just dating.”
“Do you really mean that?” Diana asked.
“Are you asking because you’re interested?” Sheila countered, not with anger but curiosity.
“I could be…if it wouldn’t upset the only girlfriend I have here.”
Sheila shook her head. “Consider him free game.”
*** *** ***
Hank was starting to worry. Eric was very familiar with the signs, and knew that in his head the Ranger was seeing any variety of bad scenarios. Despite the many occasions on which he and Hank had bumped heads, Eric knew deep down that he had no desire to be the leader of the group, to carry the weight of that responsibility all the time.
“Nothing is wrong,” Eric said quietly. “They’re probably just enjoying some girl time.”
He had no sooner said the words than a group of young women burst into the square. The fashions were different here than some of the others they had seen, but Eric heartily approved of the look. When he saw Diana and Sheila, however, he almost dropped the tankard he was holding. He was so used to seeing them in their usual outfits that he almost didn’t recognize them. Not that he minded their usual outfits, he thought with a smile, but a change of pace was nice. The dark, rich colors suited both of them, and the style was good for both. Thanks to his mother, Eric appreciated a girl with style.
That, and he was waiting to see Hank’s reaction. Things had cooled between the Ranger and the Thief for reasons that Eric didn’t know, but could guess. Responsibility. Sheila might be the literal big sister of the group, concerned with everyone’s feelings, and she was surprisingly strong sometimes, but she didn’t carry the responsibility the way Hank did.
“It’s about ti-“ Hank said as he caught sight of the group, then just stopped, mouth slightly open.
“They clean up pretty good,” Eric said as he waved at them. “Don’t you think?”
Hank didn’t answer right away, but Eric thought he was probably still trying to get his brain back in working order. They might have to fight off a few of the locals – not that Diana and Sheila couldn’t handle themselves perfectly well.
“Sorry we kept you waiting,” Sheila said as they swept up in front of Hank and Eric. “The bath house was just too tempting.”
“It was pretty incredible,” Eric replied. “You both look wonderful.”
“Thanks, Eric,” Diana said with a smile. “Hank? You haven’t said a word to either of us.”
He startled slightly. “Waiting was no problem.”
*** *** ***
It seemed to Sheila that she had barely had a chance to eat before she was swept up in dancing. She could see everyone in the crowd – even Bobby was dancing. It was more fun than any school dance she’d ever been at, dancing in the dusk and then, later, under the stars. The girls’ speculation had been right – Hank and Eric were very popular with the young women of the town. Of course, she and Diana were doing well amongst the young men. She knew it was because they were new and exciting, but it was an enjoyable feeling for the girl who hadn’t been a big hit at dances in middle school. She hadn’t had the chance to go to many in high school, either – and now they were here, and who knew if she’d ever see the inside of a gymnasium decorated with paper hearts and snowflakes? The food was also a far cry from sugar cookies and watered-down punch, and Sheila wished they could put a little more emphasis on sitting down at a table to eat
There were breaks for the musicians to change and for people to eat, but the celebration seemed as if it might go on until morning. As if by unspoken agreement, Sheila and Hank had managed to avoid being paired in any dances, although she had danced with Eric and Presto. Now she could see Hank, standing on the sidelines, trying to look as if he were not constantly on his guard. At least he had the power of speech back around Diana, Sheila thought with a giggle, as the Acrobat approached the Ranger. As she watched the two of them, someone grabbed her hands. She looked up, and saw it was Eric.
“Come on,” he said, “Let’s dance.”
She let him pull her back into the crowd, back into the dance. The Cavalier was light on his feet, and Sheila tipped her head back to smile at him as they spun around. “Enjoying yourself?”
He nodded as he turned them easily, following the pattern on the dance. “It beats taking on Venger or whatever the bad guy of the moment is. Or trying to unravel Dungeon Master’s riddles.”
“I guess I’m flattered,” she teased, and was surprised to see a faint flush of color on his cheeks.
“That didn’t come out the way I meant it,” Eric said quietly, looking down at her.
*** *** ***
She needed a break from dancing, Diana told herself. That was why she had sought out the Ranger. No one would bother her to partner them while she was talking to Hank. That was her story, she told herself, and she was sticking to it. She couldn’t shake the feeling that her brown skin made her something of an oddity here in the Realm – it seemed to be a very pale fantasy land. The attention wasn’t unflattering, exactly, but yet another reminder of how different this place could be. Their leader wouldn’t treat her, even for a fleeting moment, like an oddity.
The frustration lay in the fact that he would treat her as a member of the group he was responsible for. She wanted him to see her as Diana, not as a member of the group or a task.
“You should dance a little more,” she said lightly.
“I feel better keeping an eye on things,” he replied. She turned to see what he was looking at, and saw Eric and Sheila twirling together. The tall dark-haired young man smiled down at the dainty redhead, both of them clad in striking midnight blue. They made a good picture together, Diana thought, and wished they could see it. They looked like they could be a couple, she thought, as something made Sheila laugh and Eric smile.
“They look good together,” Diana said quietly.
“They do,” he agreed. She couldn’t tell if he was thinking about what had existed between himself and Sheila, or if he was thinking about what a complication a romantic entanglement could be. Whatever it was, it put the faintest frown on his face. She just wanted to take the frown away, wanted to help him relax.
“They have the right idea,” she said. “Why don’t we join them?”
*** *** ***
The next time there was a break in the music, Sheila linked her arm through Eric’s. “Let’s go sit down and relax for awhile.”
He noticed that they were far from the only people who had that idea. It was full dark, with lit torches and full moonlight, stars sparkling against velvet-dark sky. Not for the first time, he was struck by the strange beauty of the Realm. Stars were something he had rarely paid attention to at home, before being sent here.
The town square was bordered on one edge by a park, and they moved in that direction, choosing a low bench against a tree that blossomed with white and pale blue flowers. They almost looked like apple blossoms, Sheila realized, and she wondered idly if the tree produced any kind of fruit. She sank onto the bench with relief, leaning back and looking up at the night sky. “This has been a wonderful night,” she said. “It will be something to look back on.”
“The bath house will be a very fond memory, too,” Eric said lightly. “I haven’t felt this clean in ages.”
“It was nice,” she agreed. “Except for the interrogation Diana and I had to go through, it was very relaxing.”
“All the questions about the handsome young men we’re traveling with…that none of us are related to. That’s a very strange concept here.”
“It was a little strange for us too,” he reminded her. The six of them had known each other, shared classes and some social life, but it was a big jump from friendship and not always having to be with the group to being stranded alone in an alien Realm. They had arguments and problems, but in the end, none of them would leave the others. Not even if it meant going home, Eric thought, remembering the times when it had seemed at least one of them could make it. They had come as a group, and they would leave as a group – someday.
The silence stretched between them, comfortable and undemanding.
“It’s beginning to get a bit chilly,” Sheila said, shivering slightly.
Eric reached up to unhook the cape he wore. “It’s not your cloak,” he said, “but it should do.”
She draped it over her shoulders, moved slightly closer to him. “The cloak hardly goes with the outfit,” she said lightly, “Thank you.”
The silence settled back around them. In the square, the dancing went on.
“Eric?” Her voice was a little dreamy. “How did you mean it?”
He tensed. “How did I mean what?”
“You know.” She straightened a little, turned to face him. “What you said earlier.”
He was so quiet that for a moment she thought he would never answer. “I enjoyed dancing with you. I… enjoy being around you, but tonight seems like some sort of dream, and when it’s over, we’ll be back to scouring the Realm for the portal that takes us home.”
“If this was a dream, what would you do next?” She watched his dark eyes, felt the intensity of the moment, and wondered what he would do next.
Eric said nothing, but bent his head to touch his mouth to hers. Sheila leaned closer, felt one of his arms slide around her waist as she opened her mouth under his. The kiss changed from sweet and tentative to demanding, hungry, and… wonderful, Sheila decided as it ended. She rested her hands on his shoulder, surprised at how solid they felt. “It seems like a very nice dream.”
“Glad you think so,” he said quietly. “The problem with dreams is that you always wake up.” He made no effort to move, just wanting to enjoy the moment as it was – sitting on a bench in a pretty garden, with a young woman he found attractive, who had his cape still draped over her shoulders. Tonight might not be a dream, but he was sure he would dream about it.
“We don’t have to wake up yet,” she said, as she slid a hand behind his head, pulling his head down enough so that this time, she could kiss him.
*** *** ***