Characters: Hank, Diana
Genre(s): Friendship, Angst
Word Count: 2845
Story Summary: The Young Ones have come home, but Diana and Hank are discovering that life can’t go back to the way it was.
Notes: Written for Gaialux for Yuletide 2016; “Giants in the Sky” written by Steven Sondheim. Recorded by Ben Wright on the Into the Woods original Broadway cast album (BMG, 1988)
Disclaimer: Dungeons and Dragons Cartoon is jointly owned by TSR Entertainment, Marvel Productions, and Toei Animations. I am receiving no financial remuneration for this work of fanfiction.
And you think of all of the things you’ve seen
And you wish that you could live in-between
But you’re back again, only different than before
After the sky
—Steven Sondheim, “Giants in the Sky”
Back Again... Different than Before
It was weird to be back in school after all this time. Or maybe it was weird that ‘all this time’ had really taken next to no time at all. Yesterday—Sunday—they’d gone to Loonyland Amusement Park. One last day to have fun before the park closed for the season and schoolwork started to really pile up. They’d decided to let Bobby pick the first ride—he was the youngest, after all. Eric had groaned, of course. He’d declared aloud that Bobby would be sure to pick something dorky, like the carousel or the Ferris wheel. (Not the big wheel that must have been three stories high, but the one half its size over in the kiddie part of the park that didn’t have a minimum height requirement.)
Diana smiled a bit at the memory. She’d watched Sheila make a frantic grab for her little brother’s arm, sure he was about to launch himself at Eric. Bobby probably could have taken him, too. Eric was more than five years older, but skinny, weedy, and more likely to run from a fight or pay off an assailant than stand his ground. Bobby was small and wiry, quick to start fights and more than willing to stay around to finish them. He excelled at contact sports and never cared how badly he was hurt, so long as he was the last one standing. For once, though, Bobby hadn’t attacked. He’d pointed to an attraction behind Eric, caught Sheila’s hand, and started running. “Hey, look! The Dungeons and Dragons ride!”
Depending on how you looked at it, that had either happened yesterday… or over three years ago.
She was so caught up in her musings that she almost bumped into the three girls talking in front of a bank of lockers. They weren’t exactly blocking traffic, but Diana was walking closer to the side than to the center of the hallway. “Sorry!” she exclaimed, stepping quickly past them. They nodded acknowledgment and went back to their conversation.
“…I mean, if my mother had come in right there,” one exclaimed, “I would have absolutely died!”
No, you wouldn’t have. If you’d run into a band of orcs set on making a meal of you, maybe. Venger, probably. Tiamat? Definitely. But your mother bursting in on you right when your boyfriend was making a move on you? Please. Diana shook her head and moved on, wondering why the cafeteria had to be at the very end of a very long corridor.
Another group of kids were clustered at the next bank of lockers, agonizing over some test or other that they had next period. “I can’t flunk this one,” somebody moaned. “If I do, my dad’s going to send me to math camp this summer. With all the nerds! It’ll be the worst thing ever!”
Really? The worst thing ever? Try spending three years in a crazy world with no way out. No, wait… a zillion ways out, which you keep missing by a split-second. Try facing your greatest fear and wanting to turn and run, but not having anywhere safe to run to. Try finding the person you want to spend the rest of your life with and having to choose between getting home and saving his life but knowing that, no matter what happens, you’re going to lose him. Sure, Dungeon Master had promised her she’d meet Kosar again one day, but how many years would she have to wait? How old would she be then? She kept walking.
“Hey, Diana!” a voice called from behind her. “Don’t forget practice today!”
She whirled to see her coach striding toward her and she slapped her forehead. “Thanks for the reminder,” she replied with an embarrassed laugh. “I’ll be there.”
“Diana?” Coach Miller sounded concerned, all of a sudden. “Are you all right? It’s not like you to let something like this slip your mind.”
“I…” For a moment, Diana wondered how he’d react if she told him. He'd been coaching her since she was six and taking after-school gymnastics. She'd looked forward to attending Gygax High for years, ever since she'd discovered that he taught here. She’d always felt like she could talk to Coach Miller about anything, even if it wasn’t gymnastics-related. Somehow, though, she had a hunch that this was different. “Sorry, Coach,” she said, looking down at her sneakers. “I’ve just had a lot on my mind.”
“Well, don’t let it affect your focus,” Coach smiled. “Just because you’ve taken first place for the past two years doesn’t mean you can afford to get complacent. You’re in high school, now. There’s more at stake than ever.” His smile grew wider. “University scouts are going to start noticing you—if they haven’t started already. How you perform at the next few meets will probably shape your whole athletic future. You can’t lose sight of how important it is.”
Is it really that important? When you’re flipping and tumbling and cartwheeling, because if you’re a second too slow, you’re an ogre’s supper, that’s important. When you’re throwing your javelin at a fish leaping out of the river, because if you miss, maybe you don’t eat today, that’s important. But these meets? I’m not so sure anymore. She couldn’t say that to him. He wouldn’t understand. And if she tried to explain, he’d either think she was out of her mind, or losing her drive, or getting cold feet or… Or he might call her parents and tell them that something was wrong with her.
It was hard enough already trying to act normal around her parents. And it wasn't working out very well; they were already concerned. Just last night, she’d made the mistake of taking a second chicken breast and a helping of fried rice, in addition to her usual baked potato. She hadn’t tasted her mother’s cooking in three years and she couldn’t get enough of it now. Except that gold-medal gymnasts with their eyes on athletics scholarships needed to follow a strict diet. Until now, she’d stuck to that without protest or complaint. She’d mumbled some excuse about skipping lunch because she’d been worried about losing it on the roller coaster. No point in mentioning that after their first ride, they’d all left Loonyland, gone walking along the waterfront until they found a secluded part of the beach, and just tried to process what had happened. How they’d been away for years and somehow, they’d returned at the precise moment—and the same ages—as when they’d left...
“I’m going to turn ten again?” Bobby had moaned.
“Hey, look at the bright side, short stuff,” Eric had grinned. And if there had been some mockery in the smile, there was far less malice than might have been there earlier that morning. “At least you hadn’t hit puberty, yet. That’s hard enough going through once." Two elbows, one dark, one fair, collided with his ribs. "OW!” He’d retreated several steps and glared at both her and Bobby. “No fair both of you ganging up on me at once.” Then, surprised, “Hey!”
It had taken Diana a moment to realize what had startled him. Then her eyes widened. Eric might be fifteen again, but the muscles he’d developed through hard walking, fast running, defending them all… probably just wearing that plate mail—it wasn’t exactly as light as her fur bikini had been—had stayed with him. The same held true for all of them, even Presto. Diana had to admit that her changes weren’t as dramatic; she’d been in near-top physical condition already. But even in her case, she thought she was a bit more toned. And she felt stronger and faster than she’d ever been.
They’d spent the next few hours talking over what had happened and debating whether they could tell anyone, and how much they could safely relate before someone started suggesting counseling. Eventually, they’d decided it was just too risky.
“We’ll keep this between ourselves,” Hank had said firmly. “And if one of us needs to talk about anything that’s happened, let’s just… try to be there for each other, because we’re the only ones who can be.”
“We can write down stories about it, too,” Presto had suggested. “Maybe even publish them one day. I mean,they'll get filed under fantasy instead of autobiography, but…”
Sheila had laughed. “I guess it’d be easier to explain writing a story about fighting orcs and golems than it would be explaining we got pulled into another world and had to fight them ourselves.”
“Don’t forget Kelek,” Bobby grinned.
“Or Lolth,” Hank shuddered.
“Queen Zinn,” Eric winced.
“Venger,” Diana spoke the name they’d been avoiding. They glanced about nervously for a moment, just to make sure that he hadn’t followed them here.
Hank looked at his watch. “Guess we’d better get moving if we’re going to catch the bus,” he said. “And I’m… kind of looking forward to seeing my folks.”
“I think we all are,” Diana nodded. She’d reached into her pocket and been only slightly surprised to find her wallet there, returned intact with her t-shirt and jeans.
Eric hadn’t been as lucky. “Uh… guys? I kind of lost my allowance in the Realm. Could anyone lend me some change?”
Hank tore into a rectangular slice of pizza, not caring that it had the texture and taste of tomato-soaked rubber on damp cardboard. He hadn’t had pizza in years, not since Presto’s ill-fated attempt to pull some out of his hat. It wasn’t until he was on his third bite that he remembered that the hat-pizza had actually tasted better than this.
It was the sausage. We didn’t recognize the taste and we grossed ourselves out debating if we were eating smoked dragon or pickled chimera or something else with scales. Too bad. We were enjoying it until then.
Come to think of it, Marinda's swamp lizard stew had tasted better than this, too, even if he wasn't sure he'd want to admit it out loud.
He thought he’d flunked his first-period algebra test. For a moment, he wished his parents were more like Diana’s, always pushing him to keep his marks up. That wasn’t fair. The reason they didn’t push him was because he’d been pushing himself since third grade. Nobody usually had to remind him to study. It was just going to take him a while to get back to thinking that GPAs and SATs mattered. He hated to fail at anything—always had. But a short while ago, his decisions had determined whether he and his friends ate or went hungry, fought or ran, raced through the portal home or stayed behind for the greater good, hoping there’d be another chance. Lived or died. After three years coping with that kind of stress, who cared what 2x squared minus the cubed root of y equaled? His parents would when they saw his test score. Right. Time to try to forget about the Realm—unless Mr. Kilroy suddenly stopped assigning English Comp topics like “The person I admire most” or “The country I’d most like to visit one day” and started giving them ones like “How to survive in a wilderness with no modern technology.” Presto had been right: the things they’d been through would make great stories, now that they weren’t living them.
At the table next to his, Hank could hear Brad Johnstone and Darryl Vaughan talking about baseball. A week ago, he might have joined them, but somehow, he couldn’t get excited about baseball now. Not yet, anyway. What he really wanted to do was find out if there was some sort of archery club in the neighborhood that he could join. The summer camp he’d been going to for the last couple of years offered a wide range of activities—archery among them—but Hank realized he wanted a place where it was more of a focus. It wasn’t that he expected to need to use a bow again any time soon—or ever. But he had trained hard to get to the point where, the last time Venger had stolen their weapons, Hank had grabbed an ordinary bow and quiver off of a townsman, started loosing arrows—and discovered that he was doing so with almost the same level of accuracy. He didn’t want to lose that.
“Hey.” Diana sat down across from him. “I wasn’t sure if you’d still be here or if you’d finished eating.” She set a brown paper bag down on the table and pulled out a Tupperware container. As she lifted the lid, Hank caught a whiff of tuna, probably stronger from spending a few hours in a room-temperature locker. It still looked and smelled better than cafeteria pizza.
“Hey,” Hank grinned, reflecting how, just last week, Diana would never have joined him if Sheila hadn’t been there. One of the unspoken rules of high school was that freshmen didn’t sit with sophomores unless they were either a couple, or friends with at least one half of said couple. It was a stupid rule and one he was glad she’d chosen to break. “How’s it going?”
Diana opened another container, which proved to be half-full of lettuce and tomato. She unceremoniously plopped the tuna on top and started mixing it in with a plastic fork. “Oh, okay, I guess,” she sighed. “Just getting back into the swing of things. You know, school, practice, gymnastics meet next week… How about you?”
“Uh… the same, I guess,” Hank chuckled. He took another bite of pizza and made a disgusted face. “Would you believe I forgot about an algebra test first period?”
“Oh, brother,” Diana shook her head. “I mean, I forgot about practice after school, but at least I ran into Coach Miller on my way here.” She slapped her hand to her forehead. “My leotard! I left it at home. What am I going to do?”
“Can you go back for it?”
Diana shook her head. “Only if I cut my last two classes.” She shrugged. “I guess I could…”
“No,” Hank leaned slightly across the table and laid his hand over hers for a moment. “Don’t. You’re in better shape now than you ever were." He withdrew his hand and kept talking. "Missing one practice isn’t going to hurt you. Getting caught cutting class, on the other hand…”
Diana nodded . “I could handle the two-day suspension, I guess, but not the part where they call my folks.” She rolled her eyes. “Kind of silly to punish you for cutting class by making you stay home for two days, when you think about it, isn’t it?”
Hank’s lips twitched. “Is it just me,” he asked slowly, “or has a lot of your day so far seemed… kind of silly?”
All at once, Diana laughed. “It’s just so… I dunno. Everyone seems to be worried about the dumbest things and treating every little setback like it’s the end of the world and they’re all so… so…”
“Young?” Hank suggested.
Diana nodded emphatically. “Young! Yes! Thank you. I mean, I think Bobby’s probably more mature now. But last week…”
“We were just like them,” Hank nodded back.
“Yeah.” Diana sighed. “And, I guess, part of me wishes we still were.” She smiled sadly. “Remember the Lost Tower of the Celestial Knights? My biggest fear was growing old?” This time, her laugh sounded more forced. “I feel old. Way older than the three years we just lost.”
Diana thought about that for a moment. “Sort of. Not like I was in the Tower. But…”
“I know,” Hank nodded. “We may have gotten those three years back, but now, I feel like a grownup dressed up like a kid and I don’t know how long I can keep it up.”
“Yeah.” She looked around the cafeteria. “I wish the others had lunch this period. And I miss Bobby not being here with the rest of us. I wonder how he's taking it. Elementary school. Not having us around, I mean.”
Hank nodded again. “It does feel strange to be separated after all this time.” He shook his head and flashed her a wistful smile. “I guess we’ll get used to it.”
“I don’t want to get used to it,” Diana protested. “But,” she added, “I guess we will. Somehow.”
"Together," Hank replied, laying his hand flat on the table, palm down.
Diana covered it with her own. "Together," she repeated, smiling back.
Just like they'd gotten through everything else. A lot was different, but some things weren't. The camaraderie the six of them had shared was still intact. The bonds they'd forged in the Realm still held. They were going to keep helping each other, just like they had for the past three years. They were still together. It was going to be okay.