The village didn't have a sauna, but after everything had been explained, the young man that had been left in charge of the inn while the innkeeper was gone had proven more than happy to haul up bathwater for them, heated until steaming hot. A fire roared in the corner of the room. Recalled from where he and Diana had been searching to the south, Presto was recruited to make sure neither he nor Eric fell asleep and drowned as they soaked. Diana, Sheila and Bobby took a set of the pseudo-horses and went out with a contingent of the village elders to fetch back the two attackers.
Satisfied that things were well in hand, Hank scooted down as far as he could in the too-small tub, letting the water soothe away his aches and pains and the lingering chill. His chest still hurt, but the steam seemed to be easing the coughing a little. They'd been fed, too, a quick selection of leftovers from lunch that they'd torn into like starving dogs. The food had been cold but it had still been the best thing Hank had ever tasted.
Eric had tipped his head back against the edge of the tub and was staring at the rafters overhead, eyes lidded and half-asleep. The cut on his cheek had mostly stopped bleeding. It curved just under his eye, and made him look rather rakish. Other miscellaneous cuts and bruises were visible on the bits of him that he hadn't quite managed to fit under the water; red skin on his knees where he'd scraped them, scabbed-over knuckles from punching the blacksmith; a pattern of circles on his upper right shoulder where a blow had cut chain mail into his skin. Hank pressed a hand to the center of his own chest, feeling the deep ache of bruises just starting to turn black and blue, and the matching ring around his neck. They were quite the pair, alright.
Seated on a stool in the corner, Presto was fiddling with his hat, mumbling spells under his breath. Hank wasn't quite sure what he was trying to produce; there was a small pile of objects beside his stool, including a pair of thick woolen mittens, a Cabbage Patch doll, six scarves of various colors and fabrics, and a Cyndi Lauper cassette tape. Hank debated asking, and then decided he didn't care that much. Instead he sank down in the tub, propping his feet up on the end, and let himself fall into a light doze.
Every once in a while someone would come and top up the bath with fresh hot water, but otherwise they were mostly undisturbed.
Some time later, a commotion sounded from the direction of the street. There was shouting, and what sounded like a horse whinnying.
"What the...?" Presto stood up from his stool- the pile by his side had grown to include a jar of face cream and a tiny, peeping yellow chick- and threw open the shutters of the window facing the street. A blast of cold air swept into the room; this town hadn't yet learned of the wonderful invention of glass windows. Hank slid out of the tub, moving like an old man, and pulled on a pair of pants to go stand next to the window and see what was going on.
The first things he noticed were Diana and Sheila riding at the head of the group of pseudo-horses. Just behind them, the two men had been tied up (with more prosaic rope instead of Hank's arrows) and were riding thrown over the back of a horse. One of them was shouting something- his voice was muffled by the back of the horse, so from this distance Hank couldn't tell what he was saying, but Sheila had gone scarlet red with fury and Diana was shouting back, much more audibly. "You're a creep! What idiot in their right mind would think you could win us like- like we were some kind of trophies?!"
The blacksmith wiggled and slid off the back of the horse, landing on his feet. Still shouting- something about "uppity wenches"- he made a break for it, running towards the bakery across the street.
"Think we should help?" Eric asked. Hank glanced to the side, startled; he hadn't realized Eric had joined them. Eric had taken the time to pull on his tunic and cloak, and held it closed tightly in front of him against the breeze from the window. He looked like he was still feeling the chill.
"Nah," Hank said, turning back to watch as Diana and Bobby sprinted after the fleeing blacksmith. "I think they've got it in hand."
"Man, Diana sure can run," Presto said admiringly.
Diana extended her javelin and leapt, using it as a fulcrum to vault herself forward in a perfect arc at the runner's back. He stumbled forward under her blow, faceplanting into the slush, and was struggling to rise when Bobby caught up with him and just plain sat on his back, club tapping pointedly on the ground.
"Hey!" Sheila shouted. Hank turned back to the group of riders to see that the innkeeper had taken advantage of the commotion to push himself into a seated position on the horses's back and nudge it into a gallop, guiding it forward with his knees.
Sheila immediately pressed her horse to follow. Passing by Diana, she reached down and caught Diana's hand, pulling her up behind her on the horse. Together they caught up with the innkeeper, who was having trouble going at any real speed with his hands tied behind his back. Somehow they managed to corral him into a dead-end street off the side of the main road. Sheila and Diana both descended from their horse; Sheila pulled up her hood and disappeared, and Diana spun her javelin menacingly.
Sensing an opening, the innkeeper tried to charge past them back onto the main street. Diana sidestepped the horse and in one graceful motion extended her javelin into the man's stomach as he passed by, knocking him off the horse into the snow.
He made it up to his hands and knees before he seemed to run into some invisible force- presumably Sheila- that kept him from rising any further. He struggled for a while, then seemed to realize he wasn't getting anywhere, and with a series of curses that could be heard all the way from the inn, he finally gave up.
Soon enough several of the local constabulary came to collect him and take him off to the village jail, where his partner awaited him.
Sheila pulled back her hood and reappeared. She glanced up at the inn and waved at Hank and the others. Hank flashed her a thumbs up. With a grin, she and Diana went to talk to the village elders.
Eric snorted and shook his head. "Man, I wish we'd've had them with us earlier," he said. He reached out and closed the shutters, clutching his cloak tighter around his shoulders. He eyed Hank, who was still standing there in pants and not much else. "You're not cold?"
Hank shook his head, suppressing a cough into the crook of his elbow.
Eric frowned. "It's freezing in here," he said. Presto nodded in agreement.
Hank shrugged. "I'm closer to the fire," he said, and it was true. The heat from the fireplace was actually bordering on oppressive; he could feel sweat trickling down the back of his neck.
"Not that much closer," Eric said. He narrowed his eyes. "You're still feverish." He sounded almost offended, as if having made it back to the town, all of Hank's problems should have immediately gone away. But things never quite seemed to work that way in the Realm, did they?
Hank sighed. "Probably." He turned and grabbed a nearby chair, sinking down into it, abruptly exhausted. He coughed again, wetly, and then couldn't stop.
Eric's frown deepened. He turned to Presto. "Think you can magic up some cough medicine or something?"
Presto waved a hand at the pile of random objects sitting next to his stool. The chick had wandered over to their discarded plates and was pecking away at the leftover scraps of gruel. "What do you think I've been trying to do?"
"Cure cancer? Find the Holy Grail? How should I know?" Eric snapped, then visibly reined himself in when Presto flinched. He didn't apologize, but his voice was less strident when he said, "Well, keep trying." Hank didn't miss the way Eric's eyes kept flickering over to him, even as he struggled to get a good breath. "I think we'll need it."
Things went a little hazy after that. Hank found himself back in his room with no clear recollection of how he'd gotten there. The fire burned in the grate, and the room was stiflingly hot. His chest hurt like someone had kneeled on it- which was perhaps not the best metaphor, considering that had in fact actually happened, but he couldn't think of anything better- and his throat felt like it had been rubbed with sandpaper.
Hank curled up under his blanket and tried, mostly futilely, not to cough.
"Here, drink some of this, would you?" Hank blinked open heavy eyes to see Sheila holding out a cup; he recognized the stout woman behind her as the village herbalist. He took the cup and sat up against the wall. The drink's bitterness was not quite masked up with copious amounts of honey, but the steam cleared his sinuses, and it seemed to help a little with his breathing.
Time passed; his fever rose. He tossed and turned, unable to quite get comfortable. Every few minutes another coughing fit would hit him, and he'd be left shaking and weak when it passed.
Sheila was there with him, with water and teas and soups, and for some reason so was Eric, leaning back in a chair by the fire with his feet kicked up on a stool. The room was lit with lamps, though he was sure it had just been daylight; how much time had passed?
Voices, nearby; Hank kept his eyes closed, too tired to find out who it was and what they wanted with him.
"He sounds awful." That was Sheila, voice low; she sounded like she was standing just outside the doorway. "What do you think's wrong with him?"
"It's not just a cold, that's for sure," Diana said.
"You said he swallowed a lot of water, didn't you, Eric?" That was Presto.
"Practically the whole lake," Eric said darkly, tone implying that that had somehow been Hank's fault. Hank scowled to himself, shifting on the bed. There was a pause in the conversation as the others turned to look at him. Someone jabbed an elbow into Eric's side and hissed, "Not so loud!"
Hank let his breathing even out, pretending to be asleep, and soon enough they resumed their conversation.
"Pneumonia then, maybe?" Presto's voice was lower this time.
"Why are you asking me? What do I look like, a doctor?" Eric snapped. He was trying to be quiet, but quiet was not Eric's natural state.
"I don't think anyone would ever mistake you for a doctor, Eric," Diana said.
"What, like you're any better-"
"Do you think Dungeon Master could help?" Sheila put in hastily, cutting off the brewing argument.
"What's the point? He'd just tell us this is 'nature's doing' again, like he did when Bobby got hurt," Eric said bitterly. Hank cracked open one eye to see him lounging against the door with his arms crossed over his chest.
"He's right," Presto said. "And besides, how would we even find Dungeon Master? He could be anywhere."
There was a depressed silence as they acknowledged his point.
"Well, maybe we could-"
Hank curled up on his side and pulled his pillow over his ears. He didn't want to hear anymore.
The next couple of days were a miserable blur of, well, misery. Hank spent most of the time sweating and feverish, tossing and turning on his bed trying to find a comfortable position that would both avoid aggravating his bruises and allow him to breathe. Sleeping was difficult and erratic; every time he felt on the verge of real sleep, something would conspire to wake him up- someone would arrive with water or herbal remedies or food, or he'd start coughing so hard he'd throw up, or the room would be too hot. Every once in a while he'd close his eyes and when he opened them again it would be hours later, dark where it had been light, or light where it had been dark, and the people around him had come or gone.
The others took turns watching over him, Sheila or Diana or Presto, and Eric was there as often as not, though Hank wasn't quite sure why since he wasn't being of much help. Feverishly, Hank hated the attention- why wouldn't they just leave him alone to be pathetic in peace? He felt compelled to try and pretend he was alright while they were around, and that took precious energy he didn't have. It was a little easier when it was just Eric- at least with Eric he didn't have to worry so much about putting up a front, since he was less likely than the others to be hurt by the proof that their leader was only human.
Finally, on the third day, there was a quiet knock on Hank's door, which opened before he could respond. Presto slipped through the door, carrying one of the thick stoneware mugs the inn had provided. The village was being good about putting them up and keeping them well supplied- residual guilt, Hank suspected, because two of their citizens had tried to kill them.
"Hey, Hank," Presto said quietly. "Got something for you." He held out the mug, and Hank pulled himself into more of an upright position, hating everything about his life. His chest hurt, his head was fuzzy, and fever burned under his skin. He took the mug. There was only a little dark liquid at the bottom of the mug, and it didn't smell like any of the herbal remedies he'd been handed so far. He sipped gingerly at it.
The taste was shockingly familiar, an unexpected slice of home, and he jerked his head back to stare at Presto. Presto grinned at him.
"NyQuil? Seriously?" Hank's voice rasped in his throat. On closer look, the liquid in the cup was dark green.
Presto pulled the bottle out of one of his pockets and waved it in demonstration. "The hat finally decided to cooperate," he said, cheerfully. "And that's not all." With a little flourish, he pulled an orange bottle of pills out of his other pocket.
Hank took the bottle, reading the tiny text on the back. "Amoxy-" he squinted, then looked up at Presto. "Antibiotics?"
Presto grinned and made jazz hands. "Ta-da!"
"Very nice, Presto," Hank said, sincerely. Popping one of the pills out of the bottle, he washed it down with the rest of the Nyquil. He grimaced. "God, that stuff is awful." But he tipped his head back and finished it all.
He got a little more rest that night, medicated into a deep sleep, and he dreamed about home.
The next day or two were lost in sleeping, sleeping, taking medication, and more sleeping, and by the time Hank woke up on the third day, he was starting to feel somewhat improved. His chest still hurt, and he was still coughing as often as not, but it was no longer the deep painful hacking that had felt like it was tearing him apart.
He opened his eyes and fumbled for the meds and the glass of water on the nightstand, and it was only after taking them that he noticed Eric sitting on the other side of the room, staring into the fire. Eric turned at the movement, and Hank narrowed his eyes at him.
"You're still here. Why are you here?" he asked. Had he been there the entire time? Hank tried to think back, and in fact the only real length of time he could remember Eric not being there was during the night.
Eric shrugged. "This is the warmest room in the whole inn," he said, pulling the cloak he was still wearing around him pointedly. Which was a little odd, now that Hank thought about it; they'd been back four days, he ought to be feeling alright by now.
Hank squinted, examining Eric. Someone had loaned him cotton pants and a long-sleeved tunic in dull green; he looked odd, soft and defenseless, without his armor. His shield was propped up against the far wall, next to Hank's bow. It was hard to tell in the flickering light of the fire, but he thought Eric seemed a little pale. He recalled thinking in the cave that Eric seemed congested, though he'd mostly forgotten it due to the ensuing events. If he listened closely, there was a rasp to Eric's breathing that hadn't been there before.
"You are sick," he accused.
"Sick of the Realm, maybe," Eric groused, crossing his arms across his chest.
Eric scowled, then immediately betrayed himself by coughing.
Hank raised an eyebrow.
Eric sank deeper into his chair. "...I can't seem to get warm," he admitted. He sniffled thickly, and made a face. "Really wish they had kleenex here."
Hank grimaced in agreement. Something tickled his throat, and he spent the next minute coughing his lungs out. When he was done, he leaned back against the wall and sighed, feeling the air in his chest rattle. "So, what, the others exiled you here?"
"Something about germs spreading," Eric grumbled. "You and me, plague victims or whatever. It really is the warmest room in the inn, though." He kicked his feet up on a nearby stool and leaned back in his chair, looking pale and sweaty, though every once in a while he would actually shiver.
Hank settled back in his bed. "There any food around here?" he asked. For the first time in the last few days he could remember, he was actually legitimately hungry, stomach growling.
"They probably have something down in the kitchen, I'll ask," Eric said, and disappeared out the door for a few minutes, clutching his cloak around his shoulders. When he came back he was bearing two plates, piled high with leftovers- ham, and hot soup, and the thick crusty bread they made around here. Hank fell to with a will, and for several minutes the room was filled only with the sounds of eating.
Finally Hank finished, and he sat back in his bed feeling much more human- he almost had energy, even. On the other side of the room Eric pushed back his plate- though Hank noted he'd barely touched his food- and ran a hand over his face and up through his hair, leaving it all over the place.
Eric noticed his funny look and raised his eyebrows. "What?"
"You need a haircut," Hank said. Which was putting it mildly.
Eric scowled. "Seriously? I just cut it, I swear to god." He made a brief attempt to flatten it down. It was at least vaguely respectable by the time he finished.
"Sheila still has that pair of scissors, I think," Hank said. "She'd probably cut it if you asked."
Eric crossed his arms across his chest and just scowled deeper.
"What?" Hank asked, though he honestly wasn't sure he wanted to know. Still, if there was an issue with Sheila and Eric, he probably at least ought to know.
Eric slumped even further in his chair when he realized Hank wasn't going to let it go. "...I don't think Sheila's speaking to me right now," he admitted.
Hank rolled his eyes so hard he thought they might fall out, utterly exasperated. "Are you serious? What'd you even do this time?" Sheila was hard to anger that badly.
"Nothing." Hank waited for a minute to see if he'd elaborate, but Eric was doing a great impression of a stubborn mule, and Hank was too exhausted to hold out very long. Fine. He'd get it from Sheila later. She'd be happy to complain to him, anyways. Hank sighed, coughing a little, and lay back against his pillow, throwing an arm over his eyes. The light was starting to hurt.
"What is even with you lately?" he asked, not expecting an answer. "You've been being a jerk ever since we left Zorm."
Eric was silent again, but the quality of the silence was different this time. Almost... guilty? Hank rolled over to face him, moving his arm.
Eric had dropped his feet off the stool and was leaning forward with his elbows propped on his knees, staring abstractly into the fire. He was still scowling but it was an unhappy scowl rather than angry.
"Seriously, Eric, out with it already," Hank said, raising up onto his elbow and putting a little bit of command into his voice. "Whatever it is, it can't be all that bad."
Eric rubbed his face, looking away. "You don't want to know, trust me," he said.
Hank frowned. "Eric, if there's a problem, then yes, I do need to know."
Eric shot him a scathing look, and Hank collapsed onto his back, sighing up at the ceiling. The firelight flickered across the criss-crossing wood beams. Someone was clearly very careful to keep it well dusted, for there wasn't a spiderweb in sight. "C'mon, Eric," he said, quieter. "You're my friend, and whatever this is, it's making you miserable. Keeping it to yourself is clearly not helping." He paused, a worry at the back of his mind making itself known. "It wasn't- nothing happened in Zorm, did it...?"
"What?" Eric's eyes widened and he waved his hands. "No! No, nothing- nothing happened. Not like that."
"Then what, Eric?"
Eric sighed and rubbed a hand across his face. Then he said, all in a rush, "It's been a year. We've been here a year. Pretty much exactly."
There was a beat of silence as Eric stared at Hank, waiting for his reaction. Hank realized belatedly he should probably have acted shocked, but by then it was too late; Eric was frowning thoughtfully.
"...You don't seem surprised," Eric said.
"That's because I'm not." Hank sighed and leaned back against the wall. The wood was pleasantly cool against the back of his neck; the antibiotics were working, but not quickly, and he still had a fever. "Three hundred and sixty-two days," he said, to the ceiling. "That's how long we've been here, give or take a couple. I'm still not sure how exactly time passed in the Nightwalker's dimension, or in some of the other places we've been."
Eric watched him quietly. "You've been counting?" he asked. "This whole time?"
Hank nodded. Fishing in one of his pockets, he took out a small, battered notebook and tossed it to Eric, who opened it and started flipping through the pages. The first eleven pages were made up of miscellaneous notes, mostly for school, but page twelve was covered in tick marks. So was page thirteen. So were pages fourteen through nineteen. They were fairly well spaced out at first, when he'd thought they'd be back home soon, but as the pages went on they got smaller and smaller as he'd realized he might conceivably run out of paper.
"Where'd you get this?" Eric asked, weighing the notebook in his hand as if he could feel the weight of all the time and energy Hank had spent on it, on marking their time. "Most of our stuff disappeared when we came here."
"Why did Presto's glasses come with him? Why did your wallet?" Hank shrugged, then took a moment to cough into his elbow. "I had it in my pocket."
Eric snapped the notebook shut and tossed it back to Hank, who just barely managed to catch it out of the air. "I tried counting in my head at first. Lost track after the first month or so," Eric confessed.
Hank nodded. "I think everyone did lost track after a while." He tilted his head. "So what was it about Zorm that tipped you off?"
Eric sighed. "The Festival of Corin," he said.
Hank blinked, thinking back. "Wasn't that... the festival with the guy who dresses up like an orc and everyone takes turns pretending to beat him?" It was a yearly festival, and had happened the day they left Zorm the first time. It had been somewhat baffling at the time- now, though, Hank could see where there would be satisfaction in it, especially for a group of people who were regularly menaced by Venger.
"But that didn't happen while we were there this time," Hank said.
Eric shook his head. "No, but Helena's daughter buttonholed me after dinner one evening to tell me all about how it was coming up in a couple of weeks and that we should definitely stay for it." He colored faintly. "Apparently, er, there's a tradition that goes along with it of spending the night with the person you're interested in..."
Hank blinked. "And you said no?" Helena's daughter was very good looking, albeit nearly twenty years older than them.
Eric blushed even harder. "She said she wanted to settle down and have kids! I'm only seventeen, I don't want kids!"
There was something missing from that statement. Hank frowned. "But you do want to settle down?"
"I-" Eric hadn't expected the question, and in his shock his expression was suddenly raw and open and deeply unhappy. He had to look away and clear his throat to continue. "No? Not really."
"But?" Hank asked.
"But I'm tired," Eric said, voice cracking. "I'm tired of fighting Venger, tired of always having to scrabble for food and a place to sleep, tired of trying to find a way home just to have it snatched out of our hands at the last minute. And the worst part of it is-" he paused, and rubbed his face in his hands, "-I can't seem to remember why we keep trying."
He came to a halt, mouth parted, seemingly shocked at the bitterness that had just come out of his own mouth. His fingers were clenched in his cloak, pulling it tightly around him, and he was shivering.
And here, Hank realized, was the real reason Eric had been so miserable ever since they'd left Zorm. Not because he'd realized it had been a year since they'd been in the Realm, not really- but because he'd been tempted by Helena's daughter's offer. Tempted to take it, and stay.
Eric's eyes were fixed on Hank's, waiting for Hank to respond. He looked like he expected Hank to lash out, or maybe to give a lecture about how they would certainly make it home, and that Eric's fears were foolish.
Instead, Hank merely pulled out his notebook again and opened it to page seventeen. He held it out and pointed to a series of tick marks that stretched across the bottom line, twenty of them. "That," he said, "is the other reason I'm not a hundred percent sure about the exact number of days we've been here."
Eric studied the marks, but they were indistinguishable from any others on the page. "I don't get it," he said dubiously, looking back up at Hank.
"Remember when we went to the Dragon's Graveyard to defeat Venger?" Hank asked. It still hurt to bring it up, mingled regret for having put the others into that position in the first place, and, at the back of his mind, the creeping suspicion that he'd made a mistake, that he should have had done with Venger once and for all. It wasn't something he really believed, but it was there all the same. "Afterwards, I kind of..." gave up, really, "stopped caring, I guess. Stopped counting, stopped putting effort into finding a way home. I figured I'd just blown our best chance at getting home and we'd be stuck here for the rest of eternity. I was kind of a mess. I ended up having to write those in afterwards, and it's really just an estimate."
Eric ran his thumb over the pencil marks, still frowning, but less like he was still unhappy and more like he was thinking. "I didn't realize," he said finally. "You never said anything."
"I was pretty careful not to," Hank said. "Bobby and the others- you were all so unhappy about losing our way home at the glacier, I guess I didn't want to show how... pointless I felt like it was at the time."
Eric handed the notebook back. "How did you get over it?" he asked, quietly.
Hank shrugged. "I had to, so I did?" he said. At Eric's glare, he said quickly, "I'm not being flip- that's really what it was. Everyone else wanted to go home, and even if time does run differently between the Realm and home, my parents are going to start wondering where I am eventually.
I couldn't let you guys down. I couldn't let my parents down. So I made myself start caring again, and eventually it stuck." He smiled a little, trying to lighten the mood. "We have things to go back to, Eric- even if it does mean we have to attend school again."
"You do," Eric said quietly, ignoring Hank's- admittedly poor- attempt at humor, crossing his arms over his chest and refusing to meet Hank's eyes. "You've all got parents that give a shit, you've got families, friends..." He shrugged, looked up, met Hank's eyes and saw the horrified sympathy there, and quickly looked away. "My parents probably wouldn't care if I never came back." He smiled without humor. "Maybe the housekeeper would, but then again, she'd probably be just as happy there was one less person to clean up after."
"Eric-" Hank started, and Eric threw up a hand, cutting him off.
"Don't try and tell me I must be wrong," he said, anger and frustration all tangled up in his voice. "It's been true for so long there's no reason to even argue about it anymore. It's just a fact."
"I thought you said your dad wanted you to go to that camp? That doesn't sound like someone who wouldn't care," Hank asked, not arguing, just trying to understand.
Eric's mouth twisted. "I guess I should say, he told his secretary he wanted me out of his hair for the summer because he was going to Germany for business for two months and he didn't have time to find me a babysitter, so a camp would do. I think the secretary must have picked the specific camp."
Hank sat back, feeling sick to his stomach. He'd been aware that Eric's home life wasn't the best, just based on things he'd said- and the things he hadn't said- but he hadn't realized it was that bad. "I'm sorry, Eric," he said. "That- sucks." Which was putting it mildly, but he couldn't think of anything else adequate to say.
"Whatever." Eric waved his hand sharply, dismissing Hank's sympathy. "It's just life. I don't usually care, it's just... the Realm, I guess, and always having to find a way home."
Hank was silent for a minute, trying to regroup. He breathed in, coughing on the exhale, then waited until Eric met his eyes. "It's not true, though," he said.
"Yes, it is, I said-" Eric snapped, and Hank interrupted, "Not that. I can't argue with you about your family when I don't even know them."
Eric crossed his arms over his chest defensively. "What, then?"
"It's not true that you don't have anything to go back to," Hank said.
"Oh? What is it, then?" Eric snapped. "Tell me, oh great master, what exactly it is I have to go home for? Because I sure as hell can't think of anything."
"Us," Hank said.
Eric frowned, searching for words. "That... doesn't make any sense," he pointed out, as if Hank were slow. "What are you, trying to imitate Dungeon Master? You guys are here, not home."
Hank resisted the strong urge to roll his eyes, instead focusing on Eric so he would know for certain that Hank meant what he was saying. "But we will get home," he said, with all the force he could muster. "I don't know when that will be, I don't know how- but it's going to happen. And when that does happen, we'll be your reason to go home, because we'll be there. And Eric? We are not leaving you behind."
Eric was shocked into stillness, mouth left hanging half open as he tried and failed to find a response. Finally, "So what you're saying," he said slowly, working through the logic, "is that I should keep trying to get home because when you guys find a way home, you will be my reason to go home, because you will, in fact, be home." He paused again, and then finally said quite sincerely, "That is the most backward reasoning I've ever heard, and Hank, that is saying something."
Hank frowned; it had made more sense in his head. "It's possible I'm still a little feverish," he said, and shrugged. "I guess what I'm saying is, I don't want you giving up just because you think there's nothing waiting for you at home. Because there will be." He stretched out and nudged Eric with his foot. "Heck, you can come over to my house, if you want. Borrow my parents. I'm sure my mom will be more than happy to shower you with all the maternal affection you could want." She'd have to get used to Eric's unique personality first, admittedly, but Hank was pretty sure that once she realized how badly in need of parental affection Eric was, there would be no stopping her. "And you could come camping with my dad and me."
Eric made a face. "Eurgh, camping? After all this?" he shuddered. "Don't you have it out of your system yet?"
Hank shrugged. "Well, maybe it'll take a little time before we work up to that," he said. "We still have to do that sleepover first- you know, the one with the fire, and the hot chocolate, and the cider-"
Eric threw up his hands. "Alright, alright, enough!" he said. "You don't have to keep listing out all this stuff, I get what you're trying to say!"
Hank grinned and leaned back in his bed; the blanket draped around his shoulders nearly fell off. "Alright, I'm done, I promise. But I think the important question is, is it working? Do you want to come back home now?"
Eric's mouth worked as he thought, and he looked a little surprised at the answer he came to. "Uh. Kind of? Maybe? Yes? I dunno."
Hank sighed, and leaned back against the wall, suddenly exhausted. "Good." He waved his hand. "I'm not asking you to be all suddenly gung-ho again, mind you," he said. "It'll take time. Just... come with us. Don't give up quite yet."
Eric ran a hand through his hair, and though it left his hair a mess again, Hank refrained from mentioning it this time. "Okay," he said.
"Okay, I'll keep coming with you. Okay, I won't give up. Geez, good enough?" Eric rolled his eyes, exasperated, but underneath it all Hank thought he seemed a little lighter, a little less unhappy. Like he had something to look forward to. Hank relaxed fully, feeling much better himself.
Eric, though, was still clutching his cloak around himself as if he were freezing, and it occurred to Hank that he had a solution to that, too. "Still cold?" he asked.
Eric frowned, then looked down at his clenching fingers as if he'd forgotten. "Yeah."
Hank stood, a little wobbly, dragging a blanket behind him. Stepping up to the foot of Eric's chair, he said, "Scoot."
Eric blinked at him uncomprehendingly. "There is nowhere enough room for the both of us on this chair," he said.
Hank examined it; it was a large, plush chair, nearly a love seat, and Eric was clearly wrong. "Sure there is. Now scoot."
A myriad number of expressions crossed across Eric's face. Finally he seemed to realize that Hank was being entirely serious, and was in fact not going to move until he got his way. Heaving a great sigh, he shifted over into one corner, automatically pushing his cloak back so Hank could slide in. Hank sat down next to him, and wrapped the blanket around them both.
Gradually Eric's shivers abated, then stopped. He leaned against Hank's side, looking relaxed for the first time Hank had seen him in weeks.
"See?" Hank said, grinning wryly. "Body heat helps. I had a friend, he said he saw it in a movie once."
A week later, Hank was feeling mostly back to normal, and as much as they'd appreciated the down-time, the others were starting to get restive, too. It was time to be moving on.
"Ready to go looking for a way home?" Hank asked Eric quietly, as Diana and Presto loaded up their pseudo-horses with the supplies the villagers had provided. The entire village had turned out to watch them go- apparently they'd grown quite attached while Hank and Eric had been recuperating. Hank had even heard someone claim he would miss Presto's magic tricks.
Eric sighed dramatically, but there was a fond undercurrent to the sound. "I suppose so," he said, rolling his eyes. "I hear I have a reason this time."
Hank grinned. Together, the six of them rode out.