He does wonder, sometimes, why it had to be them. Why Dungeon Master picked him and Hank and Sheila, Diana and Presto and Bobby, of all the people in the world. Was it just luck? Were they just in the right – or wrong – place at the right time? Would that ride have taken any six kids who got on it at that exact moment? He knows that they weren’t the first group to try.
He tries to imagine some other kid wearing his armour, carrying his shield, but the idea makes him vaguely uncomfortable in a way that he doesn’t examine too closely.
He doesn’t want to miss anything from the Realm.
They fought tooth and nail to get back here, after all. He can still remember the rush he’d felt when the light had swallowed them up, and they’d opened their eyes to find themselves strapped back into that same old amusement park ride. Dressed in their old clothes, in their old bodies. He hadn’t realized how much his time in the Realm had changed him physically. The ‘him’ he’d come back to had been a couple inches shorter, a weedy kid who hadn’t had the time to build up any muscles from lugging twenty-plus pounds of armour and a magical shield across a seemingly-infinite stretch of hostile terrain day after day. None of them had had any real idea how long they’d been gone for. More than a few months, at the very least. After Bobby’s birthday, they’d stopped keeping track, as the days that piled up only reminded them of their continued failure to get back home.
Eric had had whole speeches planned for when they got back, and a relatively plausible explanation involving kidnappers, because he knew what was true but he really wasn’t eager to get committed to an asylum any time soon, either, thanks. They’d even gone over their stories together. Only Bobby had objected, but Eric was pretty sure that Sheila could spin his perspective as a sort of game they’d played to keep the dark reality from getting to him. It’d been foolproof… and completely unnecessary, because no one even noticed that they were gone.
Part of him had been disappointed. He can admit that, if only to himself. He’d been kind of wondering how his parents would react to his disappearance. Maybe on some level he’d been hoping it would… change things, somehow. Get them to appreciate having him around more. Get them to pay more attention. But they didn’t even know he’d been through anything, and that realization had stung, and still kind of throbs with an old, familiar sort of pain whenever he thinks about it. It’s almost funny, in a way. All the school plays they’d missed, the holidays, the big developmental milestones, all of the times he’d gotten an apologetic note and an envelope full of cash on his birthday instead of a cake and some stupid songs and badly-wrapped parcels like other kids – all of it has culminated into this.
Eric has spent what feels like a lifetime in a whole other world, fighting monsters, running for his life, living off of dumb luck and his initially-non-existent survival skills, literally battling the forces of evil (he’s looked the living manifestation of supreme evil in the eye, and he’s not sure how he feels about that, either) and his parents didn’t notice. And he knows he’s not really being fair, because it’s not like anyone else’s parents noticed, either. It’s not like they had a chance to.
It still feels suspiciously like the last straw.
He is back in his old life. But his old life is just a little bit off, his clothes hang strangely on him, even his own skin doesn’t fit right anymore. It’s like he’s trying to cram his feet into shoes a pair of shoes that are two sizes too small. It had been surreal, leaving the amusement park. Waving goodbye to the others and getting into the car that’d been sat there all day, waiting for him. He had felt kind of like he should apologize to his driver for making him wait so long. The city blurred by through the tinted windows, and he’d kept waiting for something to yank him back. To close his eyes and blink them open again to find that it was all just a dream. He flexed his hands, and his muscles had felt sluggish, clumsy. His palms were too smooth. There’d been no chainmail weight to his shoulders, no solid leather and metal around his calves, and it had made him uneasy.
They get back to the manor, and it still hasn’t worn off.
This is stupid, he tells himself.
As soon as he can, he spoils himself silly. He orders pizzas from the first delivery place he can think of and ransacks the kitchen to the point of worrying the staff, grabbing soda pop and ice cream, bags of chips and crackers, chocolate, candy, basically all the junk he can get his hands on. He piles it all up onto the dining room table and stares at it. It looks like too much food for one person. Without really thinking about it, he’d grabbed enough to spoil seven. He thinks, well – he doesn’t have to celebrate alone. He grabs the nearest phone, puts the receiver to his ear, and stalls.
He doesn’t know anybody’s number.
Heck, he doesn’t even remember his own number – none of the numbers, actually – but he’d never had anyone else’s number to forget, either. He doesn’t go to the same school as any of them. He used to go to the same school as Diana, when they were younger, and he’d seen the others around on and off, at the mall or movie theater, through friends of friends. Enough that he’d known Presto’s nickname and that Bobby and Sheila were siblings. But that was it. In this world, in this life, he has different friends. The kids at his private school. Rich kids, like him, whose parents work with his parents, who make one-upmanship a competitive sport and don’t really spend time with him outside of school and special events.
Carefully, he hangs the phone up again. He forces himself to shrug, thinks, oh well, at least I can pig out, and goes back to the table, and does just that. He eats until he gives himself a stomach ache, and then eats until he gives himself another one.
No one tells him to stop. No one makes fun of him when he’s so stuffed that he can barely move. The food comes in neat, orderly little packets that don’t need to be skinned, butchered, carved, cured, or cooked over an open flame. Nothing has scales or eyeballs. He doesn’t have to take a turn cleaning up the aftermath, or setting out the hides to tan so they can trade them at the nearest town for supplies. It all tastes sweet and salty and overpowering on his tongue, and weird, like the food in his memory is still better than the stuff on his table, even though it all looks perfectly right and he knows it’s all perfectly right. It’s almost enough to convince him that this actually is some kind of freaky illusion or dream. Maybe that hydra poisoned him, and he’s lying in a swamp somewhere, delirious with fever and hallucinating everything.
At the strange lurch of something suspiciously like hope in his chest, he pushes away from the table, and rushes into the bathroom to empty his too-full stomach.
He watches movies in the mansion’s private theater. (They’re boring.)
He sleeps in a mountain of pillows in the middle of his gigantic bed. (It’s too quiet.)
He wakes up at dawn and lies in his bed until his alarm clock buzzes. (There’s nothing else for him to do.)
He goes to school. (He can’t sit still.)
He does his homework. (He can’t remember what they were studying.)
He talks to his mother on the phone. (She talks; he listens to her voice and can’t think of anything to say.)
He eats dinner. (It tastes wrong.)
He goes to sleep again. (Still too quiet.)
It’s stupid. He’s being stupid. He knows he’s not the same person who left, even if it seems like no time has passed at all for the rest of the Earth. He’s glad he isn’t, and yet he’s miserable about it, too. The Eric who left never had any problem filling his day, never felt himself straining under his own skin, never languished like a caged animal in his beautiful house with its beautiful things. That Eric knew how to have a good time, how to appreciate the life he’d been given, even if he wasn’t always happy with it. Who was always happy with their life anyway? But the old Eric had been a mess, too, just a different kind of mess. The old Eric hadn’t known what it was like to make camp in the mud, in the rain, with only a cape or a conjured blanket to keep the elements away. The old Eric had no idea how to catch his own food, or keep his armour from rusting, or sleep sitting up. The old Eric never went hungry, never had to parse his whole future together out of a handful of riddles or learn how to make friends when he couldn’t just buy them instead. The old Eric had no idea what suffering really felt like, or how terror tasted when it crept up the back of his mouth as he held his shield against some monolithic foe or impossible weight, wondering if this would be the one time its magic failed him at just the wrong moment.
He kind of hates the old Eric.
Which is ridiculous.
The next morning, he changes things up a little bit. When he wakes up at the crack of dawn, he digs out an old set of loose clothes in the back of his over-sized closet, and he goes jogging.
It’s not quite right. The clothes feel way too light, and his arms and legs don’t want to move the way he tells them to, and he nearly trips over his own feet a couple of times. He gets tired too quickly, and it seems kind of like cheating, running when there’s no terrifying monster chasing after him. There’s something else missing, too, and it takes him a minute to realize that it’s the solid weight against his arm, the press of two leather straps against thick gauntlets.
Not having his shield is kind of terrifying. He tries not to think about it, because when he thinks about it there’s this part of his brain that goes ‘what if we get attacked?’, and that’s stupid, because it’s not ‘we’ anymore, and he’s back in his own world, where random attacks aren’t really as much of a thing. But even when he’s not thinking about it, it’s still there; that instinct that got beaten into his head through dint of terrible experience, the one that says that if he doesn’t have his shield then Venger has his shield, and terrible things are going to happen and he needs to get his shield back because he doesn’t have his shield and if he doesn’t have his shield then he needs to get it back because he doesn’t have it…
In his English class the teacher accidentally knocks a book off her desk. It hits the ground with a loud thud, landing spine-first onto the smooth flooring. Eric is out of his seat and halfway across the room before he realizes what’s happened.
The whole class stares at him. The teacher blinks.
“Everything alright, Eric?” she asks.
“Uh,” Eric replies. “Just… gotta use the bathroom. You know. Sometimes you really gotta go. So can I? Go, I mean?” he asks, shifting from one foot to the next. She raises a skeptical eyebrow at him, but lets him go all the same.
He practically races down the hall, his blood pounding underneath his skin, his nerves jangling. He wonders if he has that thing in the movies where people go to war and see horrible stuff and they come back and have flashbacks and hallucinations and can’t stop jumping at shadows. He goes to the bathroom, and splashes cold water on his face, and wonders how he can feel more nervy in the world where he’s safe than in the one where everything was trying to kill him.
“Crap,” he says to the reflection of his younger self.
When he gets home, he doesn’t do his homework. He leaves it in his room and goes and drags out the Yellow Pages.
He doesn’t know Sheila’s last name. Or Hank’s.
He doesn’t even know Presto’s real name.
How stupid is that? How is it possible that in all of their conversations, that information never came up?
He knows Diana’s mother’s full name. Remembers it from the time when she volunteered to help out with one of their school plays. He finds her number, even gets it right on the first try. She sounds really chipper and sunny on the other end of the phone. He asks for her daughter, and listens as she calls to some other room in the house. There’s a pause, then the familiar jostling sounds of a receiver changing hands.
“Hello?” Diana asks. It could be his imagination, but he thinks she sounds irritated.
“Hey, Diana,” he greets.
“Eric!” she exclaims, and wow, that’s a turn around. She’s never said his name that way before. Like she’s actually glad it’s him and not somebody else.
“Careful. You sound too excited and your mom’s gonna get the wrong idea,” he warns.
“I can’t believe you phoned me,” she says. “I don’t know why I can’t believe it, but there you go.”
“You’ve got a talent for underestimating me,” he replies.
“Maybe it’s just surprising that you remembered how to use one of these things,” she quips back. But it is weird, he thinks, talking to her on the phone.
It shouldn’t be. They’re both from this world, they both know how to use these things way better than any magical weapons. He’s been having telephone conversations ever since he was old enough to manage it. There’s nothing weird about it, the only thing that’s off-kilter is the way his brain’s still picturing her in her fur boots and bikini, standing in a vaguely-imagined suburban kitchen like some displaced warrior queen. As if part of him can’t help but thinking she belongs in the Realm, because that’s where he really got to know her.
“Are you picturing me in my gear?” he guesses.
There is a suspicious pause from the other end.
“It’s… possible,” she admits.
“Well at least I’m not the only one.”
Diana laughs again. It sounds tinny and distant.
“Listen,” he says, trying to shake off that weird feeling. He’s starting to think that this really might not be a dream, because dreams usually feel too right, even when they aren’t making any sense at all, and this is the exact opposite of that. “I know this great burger place downtown, and I was thinking… maybe we could meet up there. You and me and the others. My treat. Whaddaya say? I think it was my turn to catch dinner anyway before that hydra came at us and everything went crazy.
It had been Presto’s, actually, but who’s counting?
“I don’t know, Eric,” Diana says, lowering her voice to a whisper, and his heart sinks. “I’m still getting used to being able to see my folks. And I’m still trying to remember my old schedule, too. It’s a good idea, and I want to, but – maybe just give me a couple more days?”
“Sure,” he replies. “Sure, I get it. Say, do you have contact information for any of the others? They, uh, they weren’t exactly in my address book before we, you know.”
Diana gives him Sheila’s number.
“Are you alright, Eric?” she wonders.
His hand clenches slightly around the receiver.
“Pffft,” he scoffs. “Me? I ate three whole cavier pizzas in my in-home theater last night, I’m better than alright. I am golden. Do you know how many pillows are on my bed? It’s like a freakin’ sea of softness, a satiny ocean of comfort-”
“Alright, alright, I get the picture,” she stops him. “Call me again sometime. Maybe we can meet up for the weekend.”
“Yeah. Sure. Or you could call me,” he suggests, and then he has to scramble around to find what his phone number actually is before he gives it to her. She hangs up on him with another chuckle.
He stands there for a minute, in the big, empty foyer of his parents’ house, staring at the light dappling on the elegant mahogany fixtures and the marble flooring. Then he dials Sheila’s number.
It’s Bobby who answers.
“Hank?” he asks, sounding just a little bit breathless.
“Yeah, nice try short stuff, but your princess is in another castle,” Eric replies.
A huge, disappointed sigh crackles across the line.
“It’s just Eric!” he hears the little pipsqueak shout to someone else – he can guess who – and still, he pictures him standing there in his barbarian’s get up, Uni right next to him, the phone an incongruous addition; like Joseph’s fighter plane crashing into the ragged mountainside. There’s the sound of something shuffling around, and then Bobby’s voice is replaced with Sheila’s.
“Eric? Is something wrong?” she asks, just shy of frantic. He wonders if he’s not the only one who keeps expecting to wake up someplace else.
“No, no,” he says. “Nothing’s wrong. I’m just…” it seems weird, somehow, to suggest the burger joint when Diana’s already turned it down, so he switches tactics. “Just, you know, checking in. Making sure nobody’s fallen into any rogue portals or gotten kidnapped by dream demons while I wasn’t looking. I mean, no offense, but you guys are kind of hopeless without me.”
“Oh. That’s sweet of you, Eric, but we’re all fine,” Sheila assures him. “Well… I’m sure we are, it’s just…”
He hazards a guess.
“You haven’t heard from Hank?”
There’s a pause. She clears her throat.
“No. I called him twice, but there was no answer, and we didn’t see each other at school. But it’s only been a couple of days. It’s nothing, really. I bet he’s just spending time with his family, and… getting used to things again.”
“Gimme his number,” Eric suggests. “Maybe if there are two of us trying to call him we’ll have better luck.”
“Sure,” she agrees, and after another brief shuffle around, she rattles off his phone number and address for some reason. Eric’s not sure why she gives him both, but he isn’t complaining.
“What about you, Eric?” she asks after he gives her his own in return. “Are you okay?”
“Are you kidding? I am way more than okay,” he replies. “I spent last night swimming around in my heated pool and eating Chilean Sea Bass off of the floating bar. And then I took a shower, just because there is hot running water here and I freaking could. Heck, just thinking about it, I might go take another one right now. My shower’s almost as big as my walk-in closet, you know.”
“Actually, I do know,” Sheila says, exasperation chasing some of the anxiety from her tone. “I think I could find my way around your house and your vacation houses blindfolded, you’ve described them so many times.”
“Yeah, well. You should come over and see the real deal some time. Then you’ll get what I’m talking about.”
From somewhere further from the phone, he hears a man’s voice calling something.
“Just a minute,” Sheila replies, a little muffled, as if she’d turned her head away from the receiver. Then she comes back clear as a bell again. “I gotta go, Eric, my dad needs to use the phone.”
“Oh. Okay. I guess I’ll call you guys again sometime?”
“Sure. Take care of yourself, and let me know if you hear from Hank.”
There’s a dull ‘click’ in his ear. Eric thinks, too late, that he should’ve asked if she knew Presto’s number, too. He hangs up, and then calls Hank’s place. The phone rings a couple of times before an unfamiliar voice, older and male, answers it.
“Hi,” he says. “Is Hank around? This is his pal Eric.”
“Sorry, Hank’s out right now,” the man replies.
“Oh, well, couldja tell him I called? And that a girl named Sheila’s trying to get a hold of him too? It’s about important stuff for…” he fishes around in his brain for some idea of Hank’s hobbies. He knows that the guy’s been in a lot of clubs and sports teams, but he can’t really remember which ones. Archery club? Or, no, that was something he quit before they left, maybe. Or was that football? “…school.” he lamely concludes.
There’s a gusty sigh, and the crinkling sound of paper, a soft clack that could be someone clicking a pen.
“What’s your name again?”
“Eric. I should probably give you my number, I don’t think he has it.”
The guy on the other end of the line grunts in assent, and, while he lacks the same chipper professional courtesy that his dad’s secretaries always have, he at least writes down the message. Eric hangs up again when he’s done and just stands there for a minute, alone in the silence. He looks at the front door, at the sunlight streaming in through the faceted glass accents, and then walks over to it. It’s warm outside, the late spring day lingering into a long afternoon, but nowhere near as hot as he’s used to. Only one yellow sun hangs in the sky overhead. A pleasant breeze curls across the yard, carrying the scent from the garden’s flowerbeds. He remembers Zinn’s garden, and the blooming yellow dragon, and his near-miss with marriage. But none of the topiaries or little, artfully arranged patches of flowers really make much of a comparison for the tall, sprawling chaos of that place.
It’s pleasant, though, and he feels a little bit better, being out of doors. He makes his way towards the front gate, trying to ignore the absence of any weight against his arm, and heads onto the sidewalk. The neighbouring estates are neatly kept islands of privacy, large hedges and cream stone walls, winding driveways and fences that are taller than his head.
He starts walking. It’s easy to start walking. He’s not afraid of getting lost, because he’s been lost further than he ever thought possible, and he still got back anyway. He doesn’t even think about having a car take him somewhere. At first, he’s not even thinking of going anywhere in particular. He just walks like he always walks, like he knows where he’s going and he’s in a hurry to get there, even though he doesn’t and he’s not. His sneakers are too light, but he’s wearing his heaviest jeans, and that helps, a little.
The sidewalk is quiet. The kids and pets who live in this neighbourhood practically (or literally, sometimes) have their own fenced in playparks to mess around in, and virtually everyone drives everywhere, so he’s mostly got the world to himself as he ambles along. Eventually the houses start to get smaller, and the traffic increases. High fences are replaced with mid-sized hedges, and driveways that he can actually see the end of, and he passes a couple of people out walking their dogs or riding bikes. He nudges a pebble along with him for a while, kicking at it gently with the toe of his shoe, and just follows the road. At one point he passes a small convenience store, nestled on the corner of a busy intersection. He slips inside and buys himself a bottle of water, almost opens his mouth to start haggling before he catches himself, remembers that it’s just a lousy buck and a quarter and that he really doesn’t need to worry about it.
He swings the water bottle gently while he walks, and feels even better for having something to carry.
By the time the daylight’s starting to fade, his muscles are aching, and he figures he should probably turn back now if he wants to make it home before his dumb old legs quit on him, just like they always used to do in the early days. He’s ended up near the parking lot for some shopping center. Overhead, a big, brightly lit sign advertises the place, and he wonders how he never noticed before just how blinding all the light here is; how it makes it hard to see anything else, or even to know what to look at in the first place.
He blinks, and turns, and almost doesn’t recognize the kid standing on the sidewalk behind him. The hair and the glasses are right, but he’s too short, too scrawny, and his red t-shirt and purple shorts just look strange on him, bearing a pair of knobby knees and bright white tennis shoes to the world. An orange watch is strapped to one of his wrists, and he’s holding a couple of grocery bags in his hand, and wow, Eric had forgotten that Presto used to dress like a kaleidoscope before Dungeon Master had started managing all of their wardrobes.
“What are you doing here?” Presto asks. Eric blinks again, and then he notices the mark on the other boy’s cheek – a red welt, just below his glasses, purpling at the edges.
“What the heck happened to your face?” he counters.
Presto shrugs, raising his free hand to rub at the back of his neck.
“Uh,” he says. “Some guys at school tried to give me some trouble.”
“Just guys. Don’t worry about it, Eric, I took care of them,” he replies, with enough confidence in his voice that Eric (not that he was really worrying in the first place) lets it drop. “But like I asked before, what are you doing here?”
Eric glances sideways, fishing around for an explanation that doesn’t sound weird.
He can’t find one.
“Just out for a walk,” he says.
Presto’s face scrunches up a little bit.
“I didn’t think you lived around here.”
“I, uh, don’t.”
“It was a long walk.”
“Yeah, musta been.”
They shuffle awkwardly across from one another for a couple of minutes. Which, again, is stupid, because it’s just Presto, but there it is. If Eric’s learned one thing in all of this mess, it’s that stupid behaviour is pervasive and inevitable, and even, on some rare occasions, not really stupid at all.
“Do you…” Presto pauses, fidgeting awkwardly with the straps on his grocery bag. “Do you want to come over to my place? It’s just around the corner.”
Eric raises an eyebrow.
“You sure your folks won’t mind?” he wonders.
“Are you kidding? They’ll probably have a parade. My mom’s always trying to get me to bring friends over, it’s pretty much a preoccupation of hers. She’s making broccoli casserole,” he says, adding the last point like it’s supposed to be some kind of enticement. Although who knows, maybe Presto’s mom is like the grand champion of making broccoli casserole or something. Maybe he hasn’t really lived until he’s tried it.
“Sounds good,” he agrees, and Presto grins, and that’s kind of weird, too, because it’s not like Eric was ever the favourite of anybody in their little group. But if Hank’s gone and started ignoring calls and the others are still dealing with their family reunions or whatever, then maybe he gets it. Maybe it’s not that it’s him, but just that it’s anyone.
They fall into step alongside one another. Presto heads down past the far side of the shopping center, and across the street, where the sidewalk gives way to gravel instead. They don’t talk, but the silence isn’t exactly uncomfortable, either. The houses they pass are small but neatly kept. They stop outside of a two-story brown brick place, with a blue sedan in the driveway and a backyard lined with tall, narrow trees that sway gently in the wind. Yellow light spills out of the windows, along with the dull murmur of noise from a television set.
“Home sweet home,” Presto says, a soft little smile on his face.
“It’s nice,” Eric replies. “I mean, it’s no four-story mansion, but I guess a guy could do worse.”
There are wind chimes hanging by the front door. Little bronze fairies dangle from the strings, and he stares at them for a minute, until Presto nudges him with his elbow while he’s pressing the latch down. They both wipe their shoes off on a prickly welcome matt.
“I’m back! And I brought a friend with me!” Presto hollers, while Eric shuts the door behind them. His first impression of the inside of the house is warm wood and peach carpet, and a little white side table holding a wooden bowl full of keys and loose change. Pictures of butterflies and colourful landscapes dot the walls, with what looks like one of those ‘Home is Where the Heart is’ style poems hanging over an L-shaped staircase. A delicious scent wafts in from the kitchen. Blue television light flickers from the opposite room.
There’s a flurry of footsteps, and suddenly a woman appears in the kitchen doorframe. Eric kind of stares at her for a minute, because she looks a lot like Presto. Wavy brown hair surrounds her face, frizzing at the edges and greying at her temples. He guesses that she’s a fair bit older than his own mother. She’s barefoot, with a splattered rainbow-coloured apron on, and worn out jeans, and an aggressively lime green sweater. A pair of thick-framed glasses rest on the tip of her nose, and she’s holding pair of kitchen scissors in one hand. For a minute she just stares right back at them.
Then she grins. It’s a really ‘Cheshire Cat’ sort of smile.
“Preston!” she exclaims delightedly. “Who’s this? Alan, come see! Preston’s brought a friend home!”
A man saunters into view. He’s tall and skinny, maybe even skinnier than his wife, with wispy blond hair, and a loose, powder blue shirt practically hanging off of him. His glasses are, if anything, the thickest of the bunch.
For a minute or two the resident adults just blink at them, as if a wandering zoo exhibit has somehow turned up on their doorstep, and not just their son and his friend.
“Uh, Mom…?” Presto starts, right around the same time Eric clears his throat. He takes a step forward, and extends his hand.
“Hi, I’m Eric. Presto’s friend,” he greets.
There’s an awkward pause, and then Presto’s mom grabs his hand and shakes it, maybe a little too vigorously. He gets it back to find that a sticky coating of something pink – fruit juice, maybe, by the sweet smell of it – has been left behind, and can’t help pulling a face at it. The suddenly-enthusiastic woman follows his line of sight and then flushes bright red in embarrassment.
“Whoops! Sorry about that. Um, why don’t you come on in and wash your hands in the kitchen?” she says. “Preston, why didn’t you say you were going to bring somebody over?”
“We just bumped into each other at the store,” he says, gesturing to his grocery bags. “Do you still want the cheese whiz, or are you going to kidnap Eric and leave me hanging?” he asks, looking torn between amusement and mortification. His mother reaches over to take the bags from him and swats lightly at the back of his head.
“Smart aleck,” she says, though she’s smiling all the while.
Then Eric finds himself swept into the kitchen, which… looks pretty much like a disaster zone. He’s seen how orcs eat, but this mess almost takes the cake. Dishes are stacked haphazardly in the sink, sloping like the Leaning Tower of Pisa toward the countertop, which is covered in white gunk, and some flecks of orange gunk, and a cutting board that’s clearly seen better days. Gingerly, he washes his hands, and then tries not to look too relieved when Presto physically reclaims him from the curious clutches of his mother and then pretty much drags him upstairs, loudly declaring that they’re going to ‘hang out’ until dinner’s ready. His dad whistles happily to himself while he heads back to the T.V. room, but his mom practically glows at the both of them.
“Sure, honey! You two have fun! Oh, you aren’t allergic to anything, are you, Eric?” she calls at their backs.
“Not that I know of,” Eric throws over his shoulder. He opts not to mention those little purple and yellow berries that had sent him running to the bushes that one week when they were traversing through the Forest of Endless Darkness, just on the principal that she probably doesn’t have any and he wouldn’t know what to call them, either. Just thinking about that incident still makes his stomach churn. Presto keeps a grip on him, dragging him through the first door at the stop of the stairs. It’s white, with a square patch in the middle of it that’s lighter than the rest of the wood. Like there’d been a poster hanging on it for a really long time, but someone had recently taken it down.
The bedroom inside is only slightly bigger than Eric’s walk-in closet, and only slightly smaller than most of the peasant hovels they’ve been in. To one side there’s a narrow bed covered in a star-patterned quilt. To the other there’s a desk, and everywhere else, it seems, there’s books. One corner of the desk, like the door, is sporting a lighter square, as if something that had been there for a long time was recently moved. There’s a fine scattering of dust on a few of the bookshelves. Eric can see little imprints, like marks where various stands or knick-knacks might have been. Some of the shelves have obvious gaps. In the far corner, just behind the door, Eric can see a stack of loose books piled up there.
A quick glance at the spines reveals that they’re all magic trick books.
He looks, and then he tries not to look like he’s looking, but judging by the way Presto glances at him, he’s not doing such a great job. They stand there for a minute, and then Presto shrugs.
“Just seemed kind of silly to keep up with the card games and slight-of-hand when I’ve done the real thing,” he says.
“Hey, you don’t have to explain it me.”
“Yeah… I guess you always thought it was a dumb hobby anyway,” Presto agrees, his lips thinning a little bit.
“That’s not what I – aw, forget it,” Eric decides, setting his half-empty water bottle onto one corner of his desk. Then he sinks into the chair, and Presto settles onto the edge of his bed. They sit in silence for a while. It’s sort of like all of those times when they had to share a room at an inn, except not, because no inn ever came this close to resembling a library, and Eric had never felt this strapped for things to talk about. If nothing else, he could always just start listing the things he missed from home.
In the end, it’s Presto who breaks the silence.
“It’s weird, isn’t it?” he says.
Eric almost falls off his chair in relief.
“It is! It really, really is!” he agrees, and Presto sags.
“Thank god, I was worried I’d be the only one who thought so!”
“Oh c’mon, it feels like we jumped back in time!” he exclaims, gesturing between them for emphasis. “We spent who knows how long wandering around that stupid Realm, fighting monsters and getting our butts kicked, and now we’re home, and it’s like nothing ever happened. Everybody’s just carrying on like usual, and we’re just supposed to forget that there’s a whole other dimension out there where Dungeon Master and some magically redeemed Venger are running around doing… whatever it is they do when they don’t have random teenagers to persecute. Weird doesn’t even begin to cover it.”
“I know!” Presto agrees. “I think waking up in the morning and having to go back to school was one of the strangest experiences in my life. I just kept sitting in that classroom, staring at the back of Diana’s head and thinking about how strange it is that nobody else knows.”
“Man, that’s nothing,” Eric counters. “I was in English class and one of my teachers dropped a book, and I swear I shot halfway across the room, like I thought Venger was going to drop down out of the ceiling or something.”
“I don’t blame you. When those bullies came after me this morning I kept reaching up to my head, even though I knew my hat wasn’t going to be there. I must’ve looked like an idiot.”
Eric frowns, and turns the chair a little bit, settling himself more comfortably into it.
“So how did you handle them, anyway?” he wonders.
“We got into a fight,” he admits. “I don’t think they were really expecting me to know how to throw a punch. I mean, it wasn’t a good punch, but I still remember how. Then I tripped them and hit them with my books a few times, and I guess they decided I wasn’t worth the trouble.” There’s a note of pride in his voice, and Eric doesn’t blame him for it.
“Nice going,” he says.
“Highschool kids aren’t really that scary when you’ve had to face down a few orc armies,” Presto points out.
“I dunno. Some of those football players can get pretty big,” Eric replies.
“Can you imagine an orc football team?” Presto suggests.
“Heh. Bet you anything the ball would win that game,” Eric replies.
“Orcs do seem to make anything they’re trying to catch like a hundred times more competent, somehow,” Presto agrees, and then grins. “Guess that explains how you managed to survive them.”
“Hey!” Eric protests. He’s not really offended, though. He’s gotten so used to being insulted on a regular basis that all the professional courtesy and politeness at his school and house had been starting to unnerve him.
A soft thumping sound draws both of their attentions towards the door, then, and it opens a crack. Presto’s dad leans into the room.
“Dinner’s ready, you two,” he says. “Hope you like broccoli, Eric.”
“Don’t worry, Dad,” Presto says, before he can reply. “Eric can put away anything just so long as it’s cooked.”
“Ha! I’ll cook you, you magical hack!” Eric quips back, without thinking, and grabs the other boy into a loose headlock. Presto chuckles and elbows him in the side, not really hard but enough to make him let go. His dad’s eyebrows fly up, and Eric has a minute to maybe think that insulting and accosting his son in front of him wasn’t a good idea, but hey, too late now.
“Back off, you big dummy, you know it’s true!” Presto says, unconcerned, and then darts through the door and past his dad. Who’s still looking at them like they’re a couple of aliens. “C’mon,” he says. “Don’t stand there all day. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m hungry.”
Cautiously, Eric follows after him. His dad takes up the rear.
“’Magical hack’?” the man asks, when they’re almost at the bottom of the stairs. Eric seizes up a little bit, but Presto just waves an arm dismissively.
“It’s just part of a game we play sometimes, Dad,” he says, glancing back at Eric and throwing him a wink. “Dungeons and Dragons. Eric’s a Cavalier, and I’m a Magician.”
“I thought you said you were getting too old for magic?” his dad asks, gently.
“Magic tricks, Dad, I’m getting too old for magic tricks,” Presto replies. “Nobody’s too old for magic.”
“Oh, I see. Too old for magic tricks, but not too old for fantasy games with real magic in them. Gotcha.” There’s a joking note to his voice, but Eric can’t help but notice that the guy also seems a little bit relieved. He wonders what Presto said or did to make him worry. Must be nice to have parents who actually notice when you’re not acting like your usual self.
“Trust me, dad. The magic in this game is waaay more complicated than card tricks,” Presto declares.
“You can say that again,” Eric fervently agrees.
The house, as it turns out, doesn’t have a dining room. Or, well, it does, but apparently it’s being used as an office instead. They eat in the living room, off of wooden fold-out trays. The food isn’t anything like the fancy stuff Eric gets at home, or the junk food he eats in restaurants, or the rough fare of the Realm. There’s broccoli in some cheese sauce with something crunchy on top, and chicken, and spinach in a creamy white sauce, and plain macaroni noodles. It’s the kind of thing the old Eric would have turned his nose up at, just on principal; but it doesn’t taste bad, and it’s warm and good, and it almost reminds him of when Varla’s parents fed them that swamp lizard stew. He remembers how Varla’s dad had freaked out on him over that, and feels a familiar curl of residual shame in his gut. People had called him a spoiled rich kid plenty of times, but he’d never, ever felt like one as much as he had in that moment.
“So Eric,” Presto’s mom says. “Do you go to Preston’s school?”
“Uh, no,” he admits. “I go to… a different school.”
“Oh. Well then how did you two meet?”
We both got kidnapped by the same crazy old guy who needed us to redeem his son, who also happened to be the supreme evil overlord of this other universe. You know. That old story.
“Amusement park,” he blurts. “Um, I mean, we sort of met at the amusement park. We’d seen each other around before then.”
Presto nods emphatically.
“Yeah. They’ve got this Dungeons and Dragons ride there, you know? It’s pretty, uh… intense.”
They share a glance.
Presto’s dad frowns.
“But you only went to the park a couple of days ago,” he says.
Presto shrugs awkwardly.
“What can I say? We made for fast friends.”
Eric has to hide his snort in his glass, and takes a sip of juice to keep from giving himself them away. Right. Fast friends. He’s only ever known one person who’s learned to get along with him easily, and Lorne had still hightailed it off to live with a band of nomads at the first available opportunity. If his friendships with the others were anything, they definitely weren’t ‘fast’. Although maybe they were, since as far as the planet Earth knows, that all happened in just a handful of minutes anyway.
“This, uh, this broccoli casserole is really great, Mrs… Presto’s Mom,” Eric says, scrambling to change the subject. “What’s in it?”
There’s a tiny voice in the back of his head that goes please don’t say rat, even though he knows the odds of that are very low right now.
Presto’s mom beams at him, and starts listing off a string of normal-sounding ingredients.
“It’s Preston’s favourite,” she says. “If you want, I can give you the recipe for your mom to make at home.”
“Uh, that’d be great,” he replies.
Presto gives him an odd look, which he pointedly ignores. His mom seems happy enough to share, and who cares if Eric’s mom would never be found within ten feet of a stove? He’s not really sure why, but he doesn’t want to talk about his parents’ money. He doesn’t want Presto’s folks to know that he’s rich, that his dad has limos and drivers and vacation houses, that he lives in a fully staffed mansion with a dozen employees whom he almost never sees. He’s not sure why. He just doesn’t.
“So, Eric,” Presto’s dad says. “What do your parents do for a living?”
He resists the urge to clutch at his hair in frustration. What is this, the freaking Spanish Inquisition? Is this normal? Do normal parents interrogate their kids’ friends over food and stare at them like they’ve just sprouted donkey ears or something?
Not that he wants to think about sprouting donkey ears. God, that had been awful.
“My dad’s in real estate,” he says, keeping his fingers crossed that they won’t ask for anything more than that.
“Does your mom stay at home, then?” Presto’s dad wonders.
“Um. Yeah,” Eric replies, because she’s usually at one of their homes, even if it generally isn’t the same one as him.
“Should I give her a call? Are they going to be wondering where you are?” Presto’s mom asks.
“Nah,” he replies. “They’re out of town right now.”
The two adults exchange a glance.
“But then who’s looking after you?” Presto’s mom wonders, and Presto himself gives him another odd look, although this one’s also got a definite air of concern to it. Eric internally kicks himself. He’d forgotten how weird it’s supposed to be for a bunch of kids to be left without any adult supervision in this neck of the woods. Not that he really doesn’t have any adult supervision, there’s the household staff, and they probably will start to get worried about him if he doesn’t turn up soon, but somehow he doesn’t think ‘the maid will notice if I don’t sleep in my bed’ would go over very well.
“Well, it’s only for a little while, so I talked them into letting me look after myself,” he settles for answering. “Plus they asked one of their friends to look in on me.” There. That’s not entirely a lie, although it would be a stretch to say that his parents are friends with any of their staff, and ‘asked’ is maybe a funny way of saying ‘paid’.
Presto’s folks exchange another set of glances.
Presto clears his throat.
“Hey,” he says. “Do you think, since he’s alone right now, maybe Eric could spend the night here?”
Eric does a double-take.
“What?” he asks. “Oh, no, no way, I couldn’t-“
“I think that’s a great idea!” Presto’s mom interrupts. “It’s been such a long time since you had a slumber party!”
Presto’s cheeks colour.
“Mom, it’s not a slumber party,” he protests. “It’s just Eric. One person isn’t a party.”
But it’s pretty clear that his mom isn’t listening at this point. Somehow, several minutes later, Eric finds himself standing in the train wreck of a kitchen again, phoning his ‘parents’ friend’ (read: head housekeeper) and informing her that he’s spending the night at a friend’s, so please don’t report him missing in the morning. The scent of homemade cookies fills up his nose, and Presto’s mom chuckles at him while she pulls them out of the oven. However much of a disaster the kitchen might be, he can’t criticize the results.
“Do you like cookies, Eric?” she asks, at the look on his face.
“Are you kidding me? Who doesn’t like cookies?” he replies. Presto and his dad are upstairs, rooting around in some closet in an attempt to find a sleeping bag.
“These are Preston’s favourites,” she tells him. “Chocolate chip and cranberry oatmeal.”
“Sound like Presto’s kind of cookie,” Eric agrees. He reaches out and snags a hot one off the rack, which makes Presto’s mom huff in irritation and smile at the same time.
“Preston’s seemed kind of down in the dumps the last couple of days. Or at least, I thought that was what was wrong. He got rid of his magician posters and his old magic kit, and I wondered… but I guess if you just met, you don’t know a whole lot about that.”
Eric swallows around the hot bits of melting cookie in his mouth.
The older woman raises an eyebrow at him, and he feels kind of like he’s just walked into a trap. Of course he did. These cookies taste way too good; any minute now she’s going to transform into a horrible spider beast and try to drink his blood.
“Presto’s a great guy,” he says. “I think he’s just… you know… well. I think he just doesn’t want to settle. I mean magic tricks are great, but they’re not really real magic, and I think that Presto would probably prefer to do real magic rather than just tricking people. Not that there’s real magic. That’s not a thing. But hey, a person’s interests can change, right? So, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Especially not with delicious cookies like these around.”
Presto’s mom’s eyebrow stays up, and she carefully folds her arms.
“Did something happen to Preston?” she asks.
Danger alarms start going off inside his brain. His left arm twitches.
“Not in the past couple days that I’ve known him,” Eric hedges.
He’s rescued, then, by the return of Presto himself and his dad, who’ve unearthed an enormous blue sleeping bag from the closet. Presto drags Eric upstairs to help spread it out, and to loan him a spare set of pyjamas. He tosses him a pair of soft grey pants and bright yellow t-shirt. Eric stares at the vibrant colour.
“Oh brother, are you trying to colour code me again?” he asks.
“It’s weird seeing you in red,” Presto replies. “I keep remembering that time that Dungeon Master gave you some of his powers, and that was not a fun time, Eric.”
“But yellow is better?” Eric wonders, considering all the times they regularly got their butts handed to them when he was just a plain old Cavalier.
“Yes,” Presto says, without offering any further elaboration.
“Well fine, but if I’m wearing this, then you’re wearing green. None of this ‘oh look someone dropped a painter’s kit into my closet’ multi-coloured stuff,” he decides.
Presto frowns down at his outfit.
“What’s wrong with colour?” he asks.
“You look like a store mannequin that’s been dressed by a pack of kindergarteners, that’s what.”
“Says the guy who spent how many days traipsing around the realm in a banana yellow tunic and a bright red cape?” Presto quips back.
“At least I wasn’t wearing a dress.”
“Those were robes! And you wore them too, for a little while, remember?”
“Yeah, but… shut up,” Eric eloquently concludes, sticking his nose up into the air as he marches into the bathroom. It is, thankfully, a lot cleaner than the kitchen had been, and way less smelly than anything the realm ever had to offer. One thing he will never stop being grateful to have back is indoor plumbing. He glances at his reflection and can’t help wincing at the weird sense of disorientation it gives him. He keeps expecting to see himself, not – not someone he used to be.
Or is the other reflection he’s had the ‘someone he used to be’ now?
It’s threatening to give him a headache just thinking about it. He slips on the pyjamas and folds up his clothes, and crosses the hall back into Presto’s room. The floorboards creak a little under his feet. Presto’s sitting at his desk. He looks up at him awkwardly for a moment, and Eric hesitates, because he’s never really done the whole ‘sleeping over at another’s kid’s house’ thing before. The only guide he has to go off of is movies, and no way are he and Presto giving one another manicures and playing Truth or Dare. After a beat he puts his clothes down in a corner, and glances towards the long rows of shelves.
“So what are all these books about, anyway?” he asks.
“Way too much stuff for me to list it all right now,” he replies. “Some of them used to belong to my parents. Most are just mine. I’ve got books on physics, astronomy, folklore, Arthurian legend, the occult, plenty of fiction-”
“Wow. I always knew you were a nerd, Presto, but I didn’t realize you were king of the nerds,” he interrupts.
“I’d rather be King of the Nerds than King of the Jerks,” Presto fires back without missing a beat, pointedly raising one hand to straighten his glasses.
“Alas, there we part ways,” Eric notes with an affected sigh. “Alright, Magician, recommend me something. If we’re going to be stuck upstairs avoiding your nosy parents, I’m not going to spend the whole time admiring your wallpaper.”
A strange look flits across Presto’s gaze, there and gone again, swiftly replaced by a grin as he springs up out of the chair and towards the shelves. He taps his lips with a finger, hmm’ing and haww’ing over the spines of various books before he finally pulls out a short, thick paperback. On the cover, blue and black mountains stretch up over green trees, while some birds soar around the title.
“The Hobbit,” Eric reads. “What the heck is a hobbit?”
“You know, it’s kind of amazing that someone who got transported to a place like the Realm has never even read this,” Presto replies, before reaching over and handing it to him.
“Why? Is it like some kind of guide to surviving a crazy world where everything is out to kill you?” he asks.
“Um… kind of?”
In spite of himself, Eric is vaguely intrigued. He flips the front cover open.
“’In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…’ well that still doesn’t tell me what the heck a hobbit is.”
“Just keep reading,” Presto advises, settling back down at his desk. “I’ve still got some studying to catch up on. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget algebra when you’re running for your life.”
“Yeah. I’m probably going to have to pay one of the other kids at my school to do half my assignments for me if I want to pass this year,” Eric agrees.
“Must be nice to be able to afford to buy your grade,” Presto grumbles a bit.
“Don’t I know it.”
Eric props himself up in the sleeping bag with the spare pillows that have been unearthed for him, and turns his attention back towards the book. For a long while the room fills up with a steady kind of silence, broken only by the occasional rustle of paper or scratching of a pencil, and the distant murmur of activity downstairs. Every now and then a car rumbles across the road outside. After a few minutes, he stops reading and glances at the book’s cover again.
“So… you think this Tolkien guy went to the Realm?” he wonders.
“I dunno. Maybe. Maybe he went someplace else like it.”
Eric nods, sagely, and then carries on.
He stops again after a while.
“This wizard is an asshole,” he concludes.
“Hey,” Presto protests, his head snapping up from his desk. “Gandalf is not an asshole.”
“Yes he is.”
“No he’s not.”
“Yes he is.”
“No he’s not!”
“Okay, in what way is he not an asshole?” Eric demands.
Presto crosses his arms.
“He helps his friends get out of all kinds of trouble, and he guides them on their quest, and he battles the forces of darkness. How does that make him an asshole?” he replies.
Eric gestures towards the book.
“He just invited like thirteen dwarves over to some other guy’s house without telling him! You know what kind of a person does something like that, Presto? An asshole.”
Presto gives him a distinctly imperious look.
“I’m going to forgive your misreading the situation right now because you’re still at the beginning,” he says.
“By which you mean there’s no possible counter-argument to my point, so you don’t want to fight about it anymore,” Eric concludes. “I win.”
“Not everything is a contest!”
“That’s true. But if it was, then I would win.”
Presto reaches up towards his head, as if to tug on the edges of his hat in irritation. For a few awkward seconds his fingers clutch at nothing, before settling on his curls instead. He swallows hard. Eric looks away.
The playful mood broken, he goes back to the book. After a few more minutes slip past, he feels the vibration of footsteps on the landing. The door squeaks open a crack, and once again, Presto’s dad peers in at them. He looks at Presto at his desk, and Eric reading on the floor.
“You boys don’t get too rowdy now,” he says, wryly.
“Sorry, I guess we should probably simmer down. Maybe settle into some nice, moderate comas or something,” Eric quips back. A little line appears between the older man’s brows.
“Are you bored, Eric? I guess there’s not really much to do…”
“Nah,” Eric scoffs. “I was just kidding around. Me and Bilbo Baggins over here are doing just fine.”
Surprisingly enough, that’s actually true, he realizes, as Presto’s dad leaves them be again. He’s never really been big on reading, but this book is definitely relevant to his interests. He puts his thumb in place to hold it open to the page he’s on, and flips through towards the back.
“What are you doing?” Presto asks.
“Just checking to see how it ends,” he replies. Then he blinks, because suddenly the book his being tugged free of his grasp.
“Don’t do that,” Presto admonishes. “You’ll ruin the experience.”
“The experience?” he skeptically parrots. “C’mon, there’s supposed to be a dragon in this thing. I want to find out how these little guys manage to kill it, or run it off, or talk it into leaving or whatever. It might be useful information in the future.”
Presto’s expression turns concerned. He keeps his hold on the book, but drops onto the floor to sit next to Eric.
“What do you mean?” he asks, warily.
“No, no, nothing,” Eric assures him. “It’s just… well you never know, right? We got sucked into a magical world once. I mean, who’s to say it couldn’t happen again someday? That’s all.”
Presto doesn’t say anything to that. He tucks his knees up, resting the book on top of them, his features smoothing out into a kind of quiet solemnity. Eric lets out a frustrated breath and leans back against the wall, barely avoiding crashing his own head into a corner of the bookcase.
“Your folks figured out that there’s something up with you,” he says, after a few minutes.
Presto runs a hand down the side of his face.
“I know,” he replies. “When we got back… I wanted to tell them so badly, you know? It feels so weird, trying to act like nothing’s happened. I’m not fourteen anymore, Eric. I don’t know how old I am, but it’s not fourteen. And at first I went a little bit crazy, just trying to deal with it and figure out what to do. I know they’re worried. But I don’t know how to explain it all so that I don’t sound crazy!” He lets out a frustrated sigh. “I’m glad they didn’t spend all of that time worrying about me or wondering where I was, but part of me can’t help feeling like we got gipped by being sent back to the same time we left. At least if we’d had to use your crazy kidnapper story, they’d know that something happened.”
Eric stares up at the ceiling, and nods slowly.
“Yup,” he agrees. “That about sums it up.”
“I’m sorry,” Presto says. “At least I got to see my parents right away. I didn’t know yours were on a trip.”
“Hey, don’t sweat it,” Eric replies.
“But… you must really want to see them, right?” Presto prods him, and he can tell by the look in his eye that he’s figured out that something’s up. “When we got back, I could hardly even think of anything else except seeing my parents again.”
Eric shifts uncomfortably.
“Sure. Hey, you don’t have anything better than this old sleeping bag around, do you?” he asks. “I mean, I kind of thought I’d be through with the whole ‘uncomfortable camp-outs’ phase of my life when we got back here. No offense or anything, but this sack of lumps definitely looks like it’s seen better days. And those better days were when Dungeon Master was a kid.”
Presto sighs, and hands the book back to him.
“Forget it,” he says. “It’s too late to go rummaging around for anything else, anyway.”
“Hmph. The things I do for friendship,” Eric gripes, trying to disguise his genuine discomfort. “I guess I am getting kind of tired anyway.”
Presto takes the hint, and a few minutes later he’s in his bed, and the lights are out. The sleeping bag actually isn’t bad at all. Once, Presto had managed to produce six premium, heat-sealing sleeping bags from his hat. It’d been a warm night, so they’d mostly been overkill, and they’d disappeared in the morning, but man, Eric had almost slept well that night. The old thing he’s got now isn’t quite up to those standards, but it’s still way better than the nights when he’d had to huddle under his own cape, bunching up with the others for warmth. Or the nights when they’d had to rest while still being ready to get attacked at any moment. Nothing says ‘comfort’ like a chainmail tunic digging into your butt.
He doesn’t touch the little ghost of a thought that says that this is better than being back at the mansion, too, with its open and exposed halls, and it’s dark, silent bedroom, where the bed is right there in the middle of a huge empty space, as if to say ‘look at me! I’ve got a sleeping person right here! Why not come slit his throat?’.
“Talking is not sleeping, Presto,” Eric replies. There’s a shuffle of blankets over by the bed.
“What do you need?”
“Nothing. I just… if you wanted to come over and hang out sometimes, that would probably keep my parents from worrying about me so much. If I had a friend around, then, maybe it would distract them from the other stuff. So you should. Come over again sometime, I mean. Or lots of times. If you want to.”
Eric swallows past the sudden lump in his throat.
“Sure,” he says. “I think I could help you out.”
“Hey. You know me. I’m a giver.”
“Practically a saint,” Presto snickers.
The room goes quiet again. Eventually Presto’s breaths even out into the familiar rhythm of his snores, and Eric drifts off in the quiet, wrapped up in a cocoon of sleeping bag and pillows.
He wakes up at dawn, and for one disoriented moment, looks around for his shield and panics when he doesn’t see it. But then memory comes back, and the room makes sense again, and he slumps back down onto the floor. Presto’s still snoring in his bed, one foot sticking out from under the covers, pretty much invisible apart from that and a single tuft of brown hair. Eric’s not too surprised. Through a string of unfortunate circumstances, he’d somehow trained himself into being an early riser in the Realm. Before, he’d slept in as much as any teenage boy did, if not more. But when they’d been traveling, he’d learned that he needed to get up early in order to get his gear on by the time everyone else was ready to go. The others had started threatening to leave him behind if he kept taking so long, and after a couple of times where they’d sort of made good on that threat, he’d started getting up as soon as the first bleary dregs of consciousness began easing into his brain. Eventually he’d learned how to put on his mail and boots at record speed, because monsters generally weren’t polite enough to wait until you’d finished cinching your belt before they started trying to eat your face. But by the time he’d been able to yank on a chainmail shirt while barely conscious and running, getting up with the sun had already become a habit. And then, of course, because he was the first up, he was usually the one who made breakfast, too.
Not that anyone had much appreciation for his culinary skills.
Presto was usually the last one up, still yawning and blinking back sleep by the time they were underway again.
Eric lies there for a few minutes until he just can’t anymore, until he starts to feel too sedentary and bogged down by his own quiet inaction, and then he gets up, changing quietly back into his own clothes and sort of half-heartedly folding up the sleeping bag again. He considers reading some more of that book, but his nerves are jangling, and he doesn’t want to hold still enough for that. So instead he eases the door open and then tiptoes downstairs.
The house is quiet and still. One of the other doors on the second floor is open a crack, and he can just barely see the corner of a bed and the light from one of the windows. Presto’s parents’ room, then. He makes his way into the bathroom, and then heads downstairs to be nosy and poke around for a while.
There’s a lot of stuff, but there’s not really much to see. The living room is basically a line of bookcases leading up to the small central stage of the television and couch, and while he glances at some of the books, they all just seem to be more of the same nerdy intellectual fare that’s cluttering up Presto’s room. The kitchen is still a disaster zone. It looks like someone made a cursory attempt at tidying it up the night before, but then either gave up or got distracted, and mostly left the mess to its own devices. Eric takes a closer examination of it more out of morbid curiosity than anything else.
“What a pig sty,” he mutters to himself.
Alright. No. He is by no means a clean freak, but there are standards, and he’s pretty sure this would be a health code violation or something even in the Realm. A kitchen that produces such delicious cookies should not look like the breeding ground of some kind of interdimensional garbage monster, even if Eric has to do something about it himself.
It’s been a while since he was on clean-up duty anyway; besides, he’s kind of learned that it’s polite to offer to help with the mess after someone feeds you.
He finds a bottle of soap and a sponge under the sink, and gets to work.
“Ugh. Ew, ew, ew, grosse, ew, yuck,” he chants as he tackles the sink first, pulling out dishes that look like they’ve stagnated for so long the food particles on them have petrified into stone. “Oh, gross. What even is that? No, wait, I don’t wanna know.”
He scrubs, and soaks, and manages to clear up the counter and sink space one square at a time. Finding a clean dish cloth proves to be a particular challenge, and one he solves by checking all of the drawers and then the hall closet and then, finally, in a fit of desperation, the tiny drawer next to the sink in the downstairs bathroom. He finds a clean face cloth, which he’s pretty sure isn’t a dish cloth, but it’s absorbent and available and that’s good enough for him. After all, a cape isn’t a blanket, but it can do the work of one in a pinch. He clenches his find in a triumphant fist and returns to the kitchen, and by the time he hears the distant sounds of stirring upstairs, he’s scrubbing the last square of countertop clean.
It’s mostly whim that has him opening up the fridge and digging out a carton of eggs. They’re tiny and white and man, he’d forgotten what normal chicken eggs are supposed to look like; not fist-sized and covered in speckles, but pristine and small. For a couple of seconds he finds himself inexplicably suspicion of them. They’re perfect.
Stop being weird, he tells himself, and retrieves one of the frying pans he cleaned and then stares at the stove for a couple of minutes.
Fire, while not an ideal cooking source, is generally kind of simple. You light the fire, you stick the food near it, you turn it around a few times, you eat it when it’s not raw but hasn’t burnt yet either. If you happen to have a pot or tin handy, you can fill it with water and boil stuff instead. Stoves are kind of a different animal, with all the dials and whatnot, but the basic principal can’t be that different, right? He turns on the wrong burner at first before he figures out which is the one he wants, and then he cracks the eggs into the pan. It takes a while to heat up, and he thinks he probably should have waited until it did before he put the eggs in, but it’s too late to go back now. There are a pair of salt and pepper shakers in one corner of the counter – he’d found them cowering behind a pot with something congealed and red and slightly terrifying glued to the inside – and he adds fair amounts of each, and scrambles the eggs once they start cooking. The yolks look too pale to his eye, but they cook more or less the same.
When they’re finished he retrieves a bowl and dumps them in, and then goes to grab a loaf of bread that he’d seen sitting on top of the fridge.
He turns around, and there are Presto’s parents, both standing in the open doorway kitchen. Staring.
“Uh…” he starts. “Good morning.”
He’s struck by the sudden idea that maybe the etiquette for house guests in the Realm is different for the etiquette for house guests on Earth.
It probably is.
Damn. With his luck, he’s probably just gone to the trouble of cleaning someone else’s kitchen and now they’re going to get mad at him for it.
He hastily picks up the bowl of scrambled eggs and extends it towards them.
“Eggs?” he offers.
The two adults glance at one another.
“The kitchen is… clean,” Presto’s mom says, like she can’t believe she’s saying it.
“Must’ve been some Kitchen Fairies, I’ve heard that they hang around these parts,” Eric replies a little desperately, and then kicks himself, because he’s back home and back home if you suggest that magical fairies have done something, that is not a viable excuse, that is at best a disgusting degree of silliness and at worst utter insanity.
Presto’s mom blinks, and then she laughs, and, okay. There are worse reactions. Her husband reaches over and gently takes the bowl of eggs out of his hands.
“Eric,” he says, with a surprising degree of severity considering that his hair is currently sticking straight up on one side. “You can stay over any time you like. I mean it. Absolutely any time.”
Eric blinks, and it takes a minute for his brain to shift gears. So he’s… not going to get kicked out for crossing some sort of invisible cultural divide and accidentally offending his hosts by getting rid of their gigantic mess.
He smiles, and Presto’s dad claps him on the shoulder. They eat the eggs with some toast and cereal that Presto’s mom pulls out of the cupboard. Eventually Presto himself wanders downstairs, zombie-like, tying a bathrobe belt around his pyjama shirt and wearing a pillowcase on his head. Eric hands him a plate of eggs and a slice of bread, and he sinks onto the couch next to him, and starts munching blearily at his food. He stares at Eric, and then at his mother and father, and then at Eric again, like he’s trying to put together the pieces from two separate puzzles and they just aren’t fitting. After a couple minutes of this, Eric takes pity on him.
“You invited me to spend the night at your house, remember?” he says.
Presto makes a vaguely revelatory noise around his mouthful of eggs, and otherwise maintains his semi-vegetative state throughout the rest of the meal. He’s mostly got it together by the time Eric heads back to the shopping center and uses a payphone there to call for a car to come and take him to school.
He’s feeling pretty good when he pulls up to the old stone building, but by the time lunch roles around again, he’s back to slogging through the day, weirdly jumpy and anxious and nebulously frustrated all over again. It’s just so… so tedious. He sits in his classes. He listens. He takes notes. He gets assigned homework. He sits with kids who compare their parents’ most recent successes and brag about who got the most expensive what last whenever, and no matter how he tries, he can’t make himself care about any of it. What does it matter? He could fail all of his classes and he’d still be set for life. He could pass them all with flying colours, and it still wouldn’t get his father to look twice at him. When success looks exactly the same as failure, it’s hard to care about either one.
He slumps into the mansion, and thinks about going over to Presto’s house again. Is it too soon? Is this like the thing with calling girls, where you have to wait a couple of days or you seem desperate? He’s almost forgotten about the others until one of the maids tells him that he missed a call from a girl named Sheila last night.
Once again, he nobly forgoes doing his homework in favour of heading into the study and calling her back.
“Oh thank goodness,” she says. “I was worried you’d disappeared like Hank!”
“He still hasn’t turned up?”
“No, and it’s really starting to worry me. I looked for him in school today, but Becky Ashton, who has classes with him, says he wasn’t in any of them.”
“Maybe he played hookie,” Eric suggests, but he knows that’s a pretty slim possibility.
“This is Hank we’re talking about here,” Sheila replies. “It wouldn’t be like him to cut classes.”
Eric sighs. It’d figure that they’d get back, and trouble would still follow them around. Sheila’s voice drops to a whisper again.
“There’s so much stuff out there, Eric. What if something targeted him? What could we do? We don’t have our weapons in this world, or Dungeon Master, and no one here even knows about half the stuff that’s out there…”
“Hey, hey, you’re forgetting who you’re talking to,” he soothes. “We might not have any magical weapons in this world, but we aren’t helpless. You’d be amazed at what throwing a little cash around can do in an emergency around here.”
“If it’s a normal problem, sure,” Sheila replies. “But what if it’s something else? Or… or what if he’s gone back?”
“You’re getting ahead of yourself,” Eric insists. “Let’s just pretend that it’s something normal until we’ve got a reason to think it’s not, okay? We can cross the crazy bridges when we come to them. Have you tried going to his house?”
“No,” she admits. “We kind of came back in the middle of my mom’s spring cleaning week, and she keeps cornering Bobby and me with chores.”
“Yeesh. You sure we need to be worrying about Hank and not you two?”
The comment earns him a small, strained laugh.
“It’s not too bad. I’m actually enjoying spending so much time with her. It’s just…”
“Hank. Yeah, I got it. Well, we’re in luck, because it just so happens that I’ve got the rest of my afternoon free. I’ll take a car down to his place and see what I can find out.”
“Oh, thank you, Eric.”
“Pfft, don’t thank me. If he’s slacking off then I might have to take over group leader duties, and even in this world, I’m not exactly thrilled at the prospect of wrangling you bozos.”
“Hey! You could at least try and take this a little more seriously,” Sheila scolds.
“Yeah, yeah, sure,” he replies. “I’ll let you know what I find out.”
“Maybe I should try to sneak out and go with you,” she offers a little doubtfully.
“Let’s just see what I can find first, then we can start planning the espionage and the getting-in-trouble-with-authority-figures levels of misbehaviour,” he suggests, and after a few more half-hearted protests, she relents. He hangs up on her and heads outside, and has one of the drivers take him to the address she’d given him before. He almost has to stop himself from just trying to walk there. But this is kind of important, so his crazy new whim for using his own two legs will have to wait. He grabs a jacket and an umbrella, because he’s been smelling rain on the air all day.
The driver doesn’t try to make small-talk, which is a little atypical of him, but Eric appreciates it right now. The address brings them to an apartment block not too far from downtown. Nice, but old, with a few drooping trees in the front and a slightly overgrown hedge along the sidewalk. There’s a small park across the street. He sends the car back and makes his way up towards the glass double-doors, checking the address for which apartment to buzz. He tries it, and then tries it again, but doesn’t get an answer.
With a frustrated sigh he plants himself on the concrete steps in front of the doors, and checks his watch. Quarter to four. It’d still be reasonable to guess that Hank was maybe at some club or team practice or something like that, even if he’d skipped some classes in school.
Sheila’s words creep into his head.
What if he’s gone back?
He scoffs at himself, fiddling with a stray twig that’s landed next to his shoe. After all they’d gone through to get home, what kind of a chump would want to go back? Sure, maybe Hank hadn’t been willing to listen to Venger to do it, but he’d still wanted to get home just as much as any of them. And even if he’d been a little bit more preoccupied with getting the rest of them home rather than himself, it’s not like he’d just up and leave without a word. Maybe he wouldn’t say anything to Eric, but Sheila? Bobby? Presto and Diana? Abandonment just wouldn’t be like Hank.
Eric mulls over the possibilities for a while. Dimension-hopping monsters. Rogue portals. If the universe opened up and showed Hank an image of someone getting attacked back in the Realm, or someplace else, he’d definitely charge through to help. Or, heck, maybe it is something normal. Maybe he got hit by a car or maybe there was some family emergency and he’s cooped up in a hospital somewhere. It’s not like anyone would know to tell the rest of them.
After a while the sky starts to darken. Not with nightfall, but with clouds.
“Oh, man, that’s just perfect,” Eric declares, as the first few raindrops start to come down. He reaches behind himself for a cape that isn’t there, and then remembers his umbrella. After a couple minutes of watching the pavement speckle and darken, he stands up and looks at the building behind him. Hank’s apartment is on the second floor. Maybe…
Well. There are fire escapes, and he’s climbed up worse things.
He’s got no idea how to figure out which of the many windows will lead into Hank’s apartment, and the sinking suspicion that he’s going to look like a burglar and get shouted off a long drop at some point settles itself into his head, but hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained. He walks around the building until he finds a place where a retractable ladder is low enough for his umbrella handle to reach, and then starts climbing. The fire escape wobbles ominously, but a one-story drop has got absolutely nothing on a bottomless abyss or sheer mountainside, or a crumbling staircase being accosting by a gigantic ring-toothed wyrm in the depths of the Underworld. It’s almost kind of fun, climbing again, and he crouches low and peers through the first window he sees.
It’s a kitchen. An empty kitchen, with the lights darkened and apparently nobody home. It could be Hank’s kitchen, but Eric can’t see anything that would give that away. Not that he’s even sure what he’s looking for. It isn’t as though there’d be a bunch of bows and arrows lying around underneath some photos of the guy. There are some pictures magnetized to the fridge, but he’s too far away and it’s too dark for him to do anything but squint at them in futility.
“This is crazy,” he grumbles to himself. “I’m gonna slip and fall and break my neck, and then it’s gonna turn out that Hank’s just off visiting his grandma or something. Thanks a lot, Sheila.”
The fire escape goes up of course, rather than around, which means his options are either getting back down or climbing the building by hand. The walls are rough and uneven, and decorated with a kind of exterior stone wainscoting that juts out a little bit. He presses a foot experimentally against it, and while it’s extremely narrow, it holds. But the toe of his shoe doesn’t have much traction. He weighs his odds for a minute, and then bends down and unlaces his sneakers, rolling his socks up into them and then setting them carefully aside with his umbrella.
His bare feet grip a lot better, even though the rough surface bites into his freshly callous-free toes. His fingers grip the wall and he edges his way across, wishing fiercely all the while that uneven stonework and mortar had come back into style. Or that Hank’s parents had decided to live in a house instead of an apartment. He gets to the first window and this is dark, too, and tinted; probably the bathroom window for whatever apartment the kitchen belongs to. It gives him something a little bit more substantial to grip as he makes his way along.
Things go on like that for a while. He scrapes his toes raw circling the second floor, peering into windows, failing to find Hank and trying to figure out if anything he sees could plausibly belong to him. It’s hard because even though he knows Hank, he’s looking for clues that tie into old Hank, and Eric frankly has no idea what Hank was into before they all started traipsing through the Realm. He probably could have picked Presto’s room out of a lineup, or Diana’s, and maybe even Bobby’s, but Hank and Sheila had never been overtly forthcoming about their hobbies and interests back home.
Luck’s not with him, it seems, and by the time his arms are ready to quit on him, he’s gotten pretty much nowhere. He mutters angrily to himself as he drops onto the nearest patch of grass, landing butt-first, and then picks himself up and goes to retrieve his shoes. His feet sting, and he’s not looking forward to dumping alcohol on them later. He’ll probably have to break into his parents’ stash to get any, too, because he’s still too young to buy that stuff in this world.
Although it suddenly occurs to him that there are probably better disinfectants he can use.
Stupid, he berates himself. This is the world of modern medicine.
The rain has slicked off of his jacket, soaking in at his collar and making his jeans dark and heavy. He yanks his shoes and socks back on and opts not to unfurl his umbrella; he’s already wet anyway, it seems kind of pointless. He’s still grumbling to himself as he circles back towards the front of the apartment building, debating the merits of waiting some more versus trying to find a phone somewhere. He could probably walk home, but his feet have already been through enough for one night. Idly, he scans the park across the street, and then freezes.
“Oh, you have gotta be kidding me.”
The few kids that had been playing in the park are gone, deserting it in the face of bad weather. Rain slicks down a red plastic slide and drips off of yellow monkey bars, gets soaked up in the sandbox, puddles in growing pools underneath the swing set. And there, like the lonely figure out of some dramatic television movie, is Hank. Sitting on one of the swings, his hands gripping the chains, his hair plastered to his head and his clothes hanging off of him like a bedraggled second skin. Eric stares at him for a full minute of furious silence, nearly incoherent with rage.
He crosses the street almost on autopilot, jumping the hip-height fence around the places rather than walking around towards one of the proper entrances. His scraped palms and tired muscles object, but he ignores them. In what seems like no time at all he’s standing in front of the swing, looking down at Hank, who’s looking down at the ground. And then at his shoes. And then the blond boy’s gaze slowly trails up until it comes to a stop on Eric’s face.
“If you tell me you’ve been here all day,” Eric says, “I will punch you in the neck, I swear.”
“What the heck are you doing?” Eric demands, his anger breaking free in a flurry of demonstrative arm-gestures that he’s almost too tired for. Dammit. He misses his old body. “Sitting in a park? Getting rained on? Don’t you know that Sheila’s been looking for you? Don’t you know that I’ve been looking for you? What, did you forget how to use a phone while we were spending all of that time wandering around getting lost? Because it’s actually pretty straight-forward. You pick it up, you dial my phone number, or Sheila’s phone number, or anybody’s phone number, and you put the receiver up to your stupid face, and you say ‘hi, it’s Hank, I’m not dead or kidnapped or stuck in a hospital somewhere’ and we say ‘oh good’ and then we avoid any scenarios wherein anybody calls Eric up in a panic and convinces him to spend an ungodly amount of time sitting outside a strange apartment building or scaling walls and peering into windows like some kind of creeper. You see?”
Hank just sort of stares at him like he’s grown another head, and for one horrified instant Eric thinks oh crap, what if he has amnesia?
“Eric? What are you doing here?” Hank then asks, which puts a dent in the ‘amnesia’ theory before it can really get off the ground. Thankfully. Eric lets out a gusty sigh and drops into the swing next to him.
“What do you think, dummy? I’m looking for you,” he replies, and some of the befuddled distance eases away from Hank’s face.
“What for? Did something bad happen?”
“That’s supposed to be my line,” he says. “Sheila noticed you weren’t in school, and you didn’t return anybody’s calls. She thought something might’ve happened to you.”
Hank looks less different than most of them do, by comparison, except for maybe Diana. He hadn’t gained much in the way of height in the Realm, or muscle. Which isn’t to say that he’d ended up small. He’d had plenty of muscle before they left, and while he isn’t short, it seems like he’d gotten most of growing out of the way before they’d gone, too. His face is softer. Rounder at the edges. His hair’s a little more evenly cut than usual. Most of Hank’s growth had happened in that sort of indefinable, on-the-inside way, and that stuff seems to carry over pretty well. It’s mostly in the eyes, Eric knows. Maybe there’s something to that whole ‘windows to the soul’ saying after all.
“I’m sorry,” Hank says. “I didn’t mean to worry anybody. I thought you’d all be busy with your reunions and getting back to your lives.”
“We are,” Eric replies. “Doesn’t mean we’re not gonna notice when one of us suddenly drops off the face of the planet, though. Especially since that’s a legitimate risk.”
Hanks flinches, like he’s been struck, and Eric’s outrage deflates like a balloon. It’s impossible to stay mad at Hank. It’s one of the most infuriating things about the guy. Nobody else could ever beat him up as much as he beats himself up, and he doesn’t even give them a fair shot at it, looking all like a wounded golden retriever that doesn’t even understand why it was wrong to chow down on the neat-looking leather thing with the funny laces on it.
“I’m sorry,” Hank repeats.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Eric sighs. “So what is going on? Why’ve you been avoiding us?”
“I haven’t,” Hank objects.
“Wow. Colour me convinced. What a foolproof argument against all of my evidence to the contrary. Have you ever thought about becoming a criminal defense attorney? With skills like that, you could go far.”
The sarcasm earns him an annoyed look, which is much better than the forlorn one. He pretends not to notice.
“Listen,” he says instead. “If you’re just sick of our faces, I get it. I mean, there’ve been a few times when I’ve wanted to just, you know, abandon you all to your stupid fates or lock you in some convenient pocket dimension or just hit you. But next time maybe leave a note or something-”
Hank’s hands clench around the swing’s chains.
“I’m not sick of anybody,” he insists. “Except myself.”
There’s quiet for a minute. The rain makes tinny impact noises where it hits the slide. Eric’s toes sting.
He reaches down and opens up his umbrella, swinging it idly for a second before reaching over and propping it up on Hank’s shoulders. It looks ridiculous. But it keeps the rain off him.
“You remember what Dungeon Master said, right?” he asks. “Don’t doubt yourself so much.”
Hank stares at him for a minute, and then looks back down at the ground.
“I tried to shoot you out of the sky,” he says.
Eric lets out a surprised bark of laughter.
“Is that what this is about?” he wonders. “Because I seem to distinctly recall accidentally deflecting one of your arrows into an active volcano and nearly doing a great job of getting us all killed, so…”
“I fired that arrow,” Hank insists. “I fired it at you and Sheila and Presto. You were just defending yourself. You couldn’t have known where it would go.”
“Neither could you.”
“But I fired it.”
“Listen, you idiot, if it wasn’t for you I’d have thrown that key off of the edge of the Realm,” Eric finds himself snapping. “I’d have tossed it there and then and ruined any chance anyone ever had of saving Venger, or driving the darkness out. If I’d done that, we would’ve lost. And not just us, but every other person who’d ever been trapped in that place. So don’t go talking to me about near-misses, okay? You shot at us, yeah, but you had a reason for it, and you weren’t trying to hurt us. And we came out of it alright. All of us. So let it go.”
Hank, if anything, only seems to hunch lower into the swing. One of his hands moves to clench the handle of the umbrella, closing around the dark, polished wood.
“I’m not sure I did,” he admits.
“I’m not sure I came out of it alright.” He stares down at his shoes. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we got back. But after I saw my family, all I could think about was what Dungeon Master said. About how there was still evil in the Realm for us to fight. And I just… what if it’s selfish?” he wonders. “Everything’s so easy for me here. I don’t have to worry about where my next meal’s coming from, or where I’m going to sleep, or whether or not my friends are going to be killed if I don’t know where they are. But back in the Realm, everybody’s just struggling to get by. I could help them. I know I could. So am I being selfish, staying here where it’s safe? I… I know it’s not really logical, and I didn’t want to drag you guys into it. You all fought so hard to get home, you’ve earned the right to enjoy things without having to worry about the other stuff. I guess I was avoiding you all because I was afraid I’d say something, or do something, and it would spoil things...”
Eric snorts. Hank glances towards him in surprise.
“You think this has been a cake walk for all of us?” he asks.
“No,” Hank immediately replies. “No, I know it hasn’t been, and we finally got home, and that’s why-”
“I’m not talking about the stuff in the Realm,” Eric interrupts. “I’m talking about coming home. You think it’s been easy on us?”
Hank gives him a slightly consternated look that tells him he’d thought exactly that. With another snort, Eric leans over and pokes him the shoulder.
“You think you’re the only person who thinks about going back?” he asks, and then almost swallows his own tongue, because he hadn’t meant to say that. He hadn’t even meant to think it. In fact, he can grudgingly admit that he’s been avoiding thinking it to the best of his abilities for a while now. Maybe even since that car ride home from the amusement park.
Hank boggles at him.
“You… you…” he tries, his mouth opening and closing silently a few times. “You?” he finally asks. “But you wanted to get back more than any of us!”
Eric shrugs, and can’t really find a decent response for that. Maybe it’s just one of those ‘the grass is always greener’ type of situations. Maybe he just needs some time to readjust. He’s not sure, and he’s kind of afraid to examine it any more closely and figure it out.
“Right,” he finally says. “Right, so if I can be messed up about it, don’t you think that everyone else is, too?”
“Why would you want to go back?” Hank presses, still looking gobsmacked.
“I don’t know,” Eric insists, irritation making him snap. He stands up off the swing, folding his arms and pacing a couple of steps. “Forget I said it. It’s not important. What’s important is that you remember that just because you’re going through something, doesn’t mean you have to go through it alone. There’s nobody in this world who understands what’s happened to us better than we do, after all.”
“You don’t have to play the Fearless Leader here, Hank,” he interrupts. “We’re home. We can afford to split the weight a little more evenly now.”
Hank stares at him until he starts to feel uncomfortable about it.
“Just… talk to Sheila,” he concludes, and then turns on his heel and marches off, ignoring the voice calling at his back. He vaults over the fence again and then takes off down the sidewalk at a clipped pace, crossing the street and rounding a corner before he starts to slow down again. Eventually he finds a payphone next to a bus stop and calls for another pick-up, wondering idly just what his parents’ staff is making of his new tendency to wander off into weird neighbourhoods and turn up again at odd hours. He wants to go back to the mansion like he wants a hole in the head, but he goes anyway, stomping through the foyer and heading straight for the nearest phone.
He calls Sheila.
“Hank’s fine,” he says, as soon as her mom hands the phone over.
“Oh thank goodness,” Sheila breathes. “You saw him?”
“Yeah. I think it was just a misunderstanding. He’s kind of having a tough time adjusting to being back, and he didn’t want to bug us with it or something. I told him to call you.”
“That sounds just like him,” Sheila agrees, with a slightly aggravated sigh. “I’m glad it’s nothing serious.”
“Nope. Just good old fashioned melodrama,” he says.
There’s a pause.
“Are you okay, Eric? You sound kind of funny,” Sheila notes.
“Yeah, well, you try walking around in this weather looking for some dumb ranger in a haystack. Do you know how sore my feet are? Not to mention my clothes are all wet, and I dripped all over the leather upholstery on the ride back-”
“Okay, okay,” Sheila interrupts. “Geez. It’s like complaining is a competitive sport with you.”
“Hey, you asked.”
“I’m sorry I did,” she replies with a chuckle. “But thanks for going and checking anyway.”
“You’re welcome,” he says, and then lets out a long breath after she hangs up.
He replaces the receiver and then looks down at himself, pulling a face at the mess he’s made of his clothes. Ugh. Sweat, rainwater, and grit in equal measure. After peeling off his jacket he goes and ransacks the master bathroom, drawing himself a large bath and rummaging around in the drawers until he finds a tube of polysporin. His nannies used to put that stuff on his scrapes and bruises all the time, back before he’d been deemed too old for nannies, and too old to be getting scrapes and bruises, too.
He soaks in the tub, and yeah, it is about nine million times better than dousing himself in a cold river or even paying someone to bring up buckets of hot water at an inn. But there had been something weirdly satisfying about being able to scrape together enough coin to buy a bath at the inn, or earning one by saving some village or another from a terrible fate. Now, he just sits there, and it’s pleasant. He can take as many baths as he wants, he doesn’t have to worry about it anymore, and that’s pleasant, too.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, he thinks.
Not that he’d ever thought much about what it would be like to get back home, past things like ‘eat a whole pizza’ and ‘sleep in my own bed’. But it still shouldn’t be like this. Like he’s a ship without its moorings, cut loose and left to drift across a calm and settled sea that doesn’t even have the decency to try and sink him. Not that he wants to be sunk. He lets out a long breath and then drops low, dipping his shoulders under the water and staring up at the smooth ceiling overhead.
What am I thinking?
He blinks, and it comes to him in a rush, crashing over him like a gentle wave.
They were there for too long.
Eric had been fifteen when they’d left, is fifteen again now, and if he has to guess (and he does) he’s pretty sure he’d been physically closer to eighteen when they got back. Bobby had grown a lot, had gone from eight to nine and then onwards, the best marker for time amongst them; though Eric thinks that even more of it might have passed than the others would guess. People age differently in the Realm. He’d noticed that, although he’d kept the observation to himself. Sometimes they’d meet wizards or witches who were hundreds of years old. Sometimes they’d come across villagers who looked fifty when they were thirty. Mostly he’d been able to chalk it up to magic and hard living, but the Realm had never been a particularly consistent place. Seasons changed on a whim, and sometimes days and nights together passed at all the wrong speeds. One morning there’d be four suns in the sky, and the next there’d just be two. There’d been an entire day that had only lasted for a couple hours, at most, and then a night that seemed to stretch on for weeks. However long they really spent there, Eric’s not entirely sure it would show in all the obvious ways.
Inside, it feels like the longest stretch of his whole life. Like his life before was just the blink of an eye.
He’d spent too long away, and he’d learned to live in that space, in that world. He’d learned it well enough that now he has to re-learn how to live in this one, even though it’s supposed to be his home.
The longer you stay away, the harder going back will be.
He lets out a soft curse and gets out of the bath, reminds himself firmly that he doesn’t want to go back, no matter what some contrary, traitorous voice in his head might say. He’s not like Hank. He doesn’t feel any guilt at all over leaving, and that’s the truth. There will always be evil out there. Bad things will always happen to good people. Evil is everywhere, and if Hank wants to fight it, he can find it just as easily in their own backyard as in the Realm. It might come in different forms, but in the end it’s not any simpler either. Venger’s living proof of that.
The others tend to look at what happened as sort of like lifting a curse. Like there was an evil spell on Dungeon Master’s son, and they got rid of it. Eric doesn’t. Eric knows that the strange, solemn man who appeared when the light show died down is a man who pledged himself to the service of evil. Maybe by accident. Maybe he thought he could handle it without becoming corrupt. Maybe he was just really angry, or really sad, or too ambitious, and made a bad decision at a bad moment. But he’d still done it. They didn’t trade a demon for a saint. They just turned back the clock a little bit, gave someone as fallible as anybody else a chance for a do-over.
Huh. Funny thought. He wonders if Venger had been caught as flat-footed at being restored as Eric himself has been at getting home.
He wonders if he did this to them on purpose. Did to them what they did to him, both the good and the bad of it.
His brow furrows a little at thought, because he doesn’t know. What’s ‘good’ Venger like? They’d only met him briefly, and he’d been silent for most of it. Dungeon Master had done the majority of talking. As a villain, Venger had been a strange guy; terrifying and loathsome and reliable and weirdly familiar by the end of it. Eric had spent most of his time around him trying desperately not to get fricasseed, or let anyone else get fricasseed, either, and he hadn’t really cared much about understanding Venger’s motives or goals. But in a weird way, when he hadn’t been actively trying to kill them, Venger had almost reminded him of…
Well, of his father.
Not in any creepy or overt sense. He’d reminded Eric of some of his father’s business partners, too. They were the men who made power their life’s goal. Eric’s father is the proud owner of a massive international business corporation, plenty of cars, two boats, and more than his fair share of prize real estate, including the main manor and three vacation homes. Everything he has is luxury, and has been for as long as Eric has known it. But he hardly ever uses it. It had been a puzzle to Eric when he was younger, why his father would brag about his new cars but never drive them, or build a vacation house and never go there. His father didn’t take vacations. His father worked, tirelessly, endlessly, constantly seeking to expand his income, to build his empire to ever greater heights.
When he’d been six, his father had left the door to his study ajar by accident. At the time Eric had been allowed to go into the study just so long as the door was open, and so he had. He’d climbed into one of the large leather chairs while his father yelled into the phone, and he waited until he was finished yelling, idly swinging his legs back and forth and listening to the steady stream of foul language.
“Who was that?” he’d asked his father once he’d finally hung up. The man had looked over at him in surprise.
“That was business, Eric. I’m working.”
‘Business’ and ‘working’ usually meant that Eric had to leave, and he’d frowned, because that had conflicted with the invitation of the open door.
“Why?” he’d asked.
“To make money,” his father had said, striding away. He’d leaned out of the room and shouted for Eric’s nanny.
“But we have lots of money,” Eric had argued. “Why do we need more?”
“Because there is never such a thing as enough money, Eric,” his father insisted.
For a long time afterwards, Eric had assumed that he understood that. He had thought that he liked money. That he and his father were not so different, even as his father seemed to lose more and more interest in him, as their conversations grew ever shorter and further apart. He had assumed, back before, that one day he would grow into a man whom his father could have real conversations with. That they would achieve a mutual understanding, if not the ideal father-son relationship that he witnessed elsewhere. But even the fifteen-year-old boy who had anticipated that day had never really been like his father. Eric had never really wanted money or power for its own sake. What he’d wanted was comfort. The things money could buy. He had actually lived in the opulence his father had used as a status symbol, had slept in soft beds while his father paced in his office, had run around at beach resorts while his father left him for long meetings in gleaming office buildings.
Eric had seen something of that in Venger. A man who was constantly climbing a never-ending staircase up into infinity, striving for some absolute dream of power that could never quite be attained. Venger had had a whole realm under his command, and he’d still hounded six untrained kids ceaselessly for the small bit of power that they held. Because it was there, and he didn’t have it.
Carefully, Eric towels himself off, and changes into his pyjamas, and goes and lies in his huge bed in his huge room. He stares at the moonlight seeping in through his windows, and wonders if this is how terrible men are made; in the shape of someone who is incapable of finding contentment.
He wonders if he will ever be content again.
It frightens him to think that he might not be.
It’s after midnight by the time he finally rolls over and falls asleep. In his dreams he stands at the Edge of the Realm, staring at the place where the universe cleaves downwards into a vast reach of nothingness, the place where Hank nearly fell off and died. He’s himself again, in his sturdy armour and with his shield strapped to one arm. There’s music in the air. It’s soft, and half familiar but half alien, too, like someone’s taken an old tune and tried to play it to a new beat.
After a span of time that feels longer than he thinks it is, he looks over, and Dungeon Master is standing beside him. The old man looks lighter than Eric remembers. There is a small smile about his mouth, and his eyes are distant but glad.
“You should follow your own advice, Cavalier. Do not doubt your heart,” he says.
“That’s your advice,” Eric replies. “Besides, my heart’s not like Hank’s.” He looks back out towards the distant sky, where the stars seem to crash and churn and dance in some infinite play. “If it wasn’t for Hank, I would have done what Venger wanted.”
“True,” Dungeon Master agrees. “But if it wasn’t for you, then none of you Young Ones would have come here in the first place. The Ranger would have simply dismissed the entire notion of coming here as the machinations of evil, had you not forced his presence. And you would have flung the key into the abyss and destroyed any last hope for my son’s redemption, had he not staid your hand. Sometimes even the keenest eyes can see only part of the road to victory.”
“Yeah, that sounds like something you’d say,” he decides.
They stand in peaceful contemplation for several moments, and Eric marvels that he doesn’t feel angry, even if this is just a dream. He’s usually mad at Dungeon Master, even when he’s kind of worried about him, too.
“I’m not happy,” he says. “I thought I would be happy.”
Dungeon Master’s face falls, and some of his gladness slips away.
“I am sorry, Cavalier,” he replies.
“Did you know?”
“The future is difficult to know. But I will not say I am surprised.”
Eric looks for something. He’s not sure what. His eyes scan the skies, but they don’t seem to hold any answers.
“How do I fix it?”
Dungeon Master sighs.
“Each man’s happiness is his own to attain.”
The comment earns him a chuckle, and he turns to find the Dungeon Master regarding him again.
“Happiness lies in many places. If it is not where it used to be, then look for it somewhere else.” He reaches out and clasps Eric’s hand in both of his own. “What is done is done. Though I must answer for the greatest portion of guilt, in the end I have reaped the highest reward as well. It was an unfair bargain at your expense, and I knew it would be.” A weary sigh escapes him, and it reminds Eric uncomfortably of when his power had been almost spent, and he’d nearly died. All because Eric had opened some dumb box.
He kneels down, pulling his hand free so he can rest it on the old man’s shoulder instead.
“Don’t beat yourself up about it,” he says.
Dungeon Master gently shakes his head.
“Cavalier,” he says, fondly. “When did you become so gracious?”
Eric swallows back the rush of warmth that washes through him. Even in dreams, he’s not sure he’s comfortable with feeling so much of it.
“Obviously I’ve always been pretty great. It just took everybody else a while to notice, is all.”
“Indeed,” Dungeon Master chuckles. “I’m afraid we haven’t much time left. But if you forget all else when you wake, remember this – that which you put aside is not the same as that which you have lost.”
“Oh man, and here I thought we were done with the crazy riddles,” he gripes, though it’s tough to do it convincingly when he’s still kneeling down.
“You forget who you’re talking to.”
When the dream fades away, it happens all at once. Eric opens his eyes to find one of his pillows mashed against his face, and sunlight streaming into his room, and for a moment he’s hopelessly disoriented. Up is down, left is right, and he’s squashed into limbs that are too short for him again. He blinks back at the brightness, hissing a little bit, and nearly topples off of his mattress in his haste to reorient himself. When he finally succeeds he lies still for a moment, just breathing in and out.
“’That which you put aside is not the same as that which you have lost’?” he repeats to himself. “Jeez. Even in my dreams that old loon can’t afford to be straight-forward.”
A glance a clock reveals that he’s slept in, sort of. It’s not the crack of dawn, but it’s still early enough. He dresses and opts to go out for another run.
With practice born of habit, he finds the dream version of Dungeon Master’s words turning over in his head. It seems kind of like a jerk thing to say. Of course the stuff you put aside isn’t the same as the stuff you lose. When you lose something, you meant to keep it but something else happened and you didn’t. When you put something aside, you do it on purpose.
His thoughts turn to his shield, and the phantom sense of loss drifts back in. Today he lets it, slowing down his run slightly, his gaze drifting towards his arm. It hadn’t been hard to put it aside when they’d all walked through that last portal. He thinks maybe it’s because, after so many failed attempts to get back home, part of him hadn’t really believed that it would – that it could – finally work. Even though, at the time, he’d had absolutely no logical reason to doubt it. In a way, he had fully expected to see it again.
Maybe part of him still does.
What’s the difference between losing something and putting it aside?
When you put something aside, you can pick it back up again.
Eric looks back at the tall, opulent manor waiting behind him, with its easy comforts and empty spaces and utter absence of purpose. He never really made his choice, he realizes. Or, well, he made it long before he realized what it would actually mean. So it’s still there, a door that’s not-quite-closed, and maybe he can turn around and go back through it; and maybe he can also head forward, and make whatever he can of what he’s got now. He’s had such a wealth of choices his whole life, he realizes, that he’s never properly made one before. He’s lived like a contestant on a quiz show, offering whatever he thinks the ‘right’ answer is supposed to be, like there’s some trick to living and if he gets it just right, he’ll win the prize.
But there’s no prize, is there?
His gaze drifts down to his empty, skinny arm. Whatever he decides, he knows one thing for sure – he can’t stay where he is now. The life he’s come back to doesn’t fit him anymore, and it won’t ever fit him again.
Letting loose a breath that seems to take a million pounds of weight along with it, Eric turns towards the road again, and takes off running.