note: standard disclaimers apply. I think there's a challenge about this
subject, but in any way it just kind of came up and said 'write me!'.
Fluff, friendship, no redeeming value whatsoever.
It was a dark and stormy night…
…just the night for a girly night of pampering. Except something had put a crimp in her plans.
She'd been all snug on her sofa, Ghostbusters on, a bag of donuts next to her, the storm raging against the windows. Nothing like vegging out all warm and comfortable on a January evening when the weather was hell outside.
Then the lights and her television had flickered and gone out. Everything else too, for that matter. Outside, for as far as the horizontal snow allowed her to see, the streetlights were out.
Her car was at Al's for some repairs and Ram would have given her a ride the next morning, so she had no transport. Not that anyone sensible would want to be on the road with this weather anyway. She had a load of candles but nothing to light them, and with the heating no longer working her poorly insulated apartment was cooling down rapidly.
She dressed warmly, navigating her closet with the aid of her maglite, and decided that she could do little more than wait it out. With any luck the power would be back within an hour. From the looks of it the entire neighbourhood was without energy, so they'd fix that quick, right?
Two hours later she was sitting up against the headboard of her bed, wearing so many sweaters she couldn't move her arms properly. She'd made a nest of her covers and an old down sleepingbag, but her teeth were still chattering. Rex was in front of her on the bed, aquarium in a fold of one of the blankets in the hope this would shield him from the cold. He was holed up in his soup can, but she didn't know how warm he could keep himself there. Neither of them were used to the cold.
She felt like an idiot sitting there waiting for the place to get colder and colder, but what was the alternative? The cellphone network was out as well, so even if she had been able to go anywhere she couldn't be sure her parents or Mary Lou weren't having the same problems. She'd just have to wait it out. People went camping in winter, right? Even in tents. And they didn't freeze to death. The walls of her apartment had to offer more protection from the cold than a cotton tent.
She startled from her musings when the door of her bedroom was opened. Before she could click on the maglite to light the darker shape in the gloom of her apartment, Ranger spoke.
"H-hey." God, her voice was shaking. Pathetic. He approached, and she noticed he was wearing what looked like waterproof ski trousers and a thick coat.
"Looking a little cold there."
Of course, HE didn't look cold. Ranger was unaffected as always. She found it a little annoying just this moment.
"Why d-do you always have to drop by when I'm m-miserable?" she said, trying for a glare. Judging by the look on his face, it wasn't working. "You have a r-rescue fetish or something?"
He laughed out loud, the sound booming in the cold apartment.
"Powerline broke, Babe. Looks like it'll take them a while to fix. Thought I'd come collect you now, tomorrow morning I'd have to defrost you."
She nodded, accepting his reasoning. And truth was, any place away from her refrigerator apartment sounded good about now.
"Pack some clothes," he said. "I'll get Rex."
When she looked at him in surprise, he shrugged.
"Gonna get real cold here, best not leave him."
She carried the small duffel to the truck, Ranger following with the hamster aquarium. He handed it to her when she'd settled in and got into the driver's seat. Snow had settled on their clothes and hair from just the few metres to the car, and began to melt in the warmth of the car.
"So where are we going?"
He just smiled and concentrated on the road. She tried to keep track of where they were, but visibility was extremely poor. Horizontal snow and howling wind. No streetlights. Kind of eerie really. Ranger stopped the car in front of a dark apartment building, letting the car idle. She resisted the urge to ask about his actions. He probably liked being mysterious just so she'd ask.
Maybe they were going to the office. She was pretty sure it had generators.
After a minute the entrance door opened and a large someone in a huge down parka came out, the fur-lined hood drawn close around his face. He tossed a bag into a weathered Range Rover and got in. Then he flashed his headlights. Ranger put the car into gear and slowly drove out of the lot, the other car following. Stephanie turned around in her seat to figure out who it was. In the red glow of their taillights she could see he'd taken off the hood to reveal a close-shaven head.
He spotted her looking and raised his hand in greeting.
"Safer to drive together in this weather," said Ranger.
Finally warming up a little in the car, she soon sound herself yawning hugely. Seeing as how this wasn't work where she had to stay awake and she'd just spend hours shivering and worried, she didn't even try to fight the haziness.
She heard a chuckle, and that startled her to awareness. Car. Rex in her lap. Power cut. Right.
"You and Rex go in while I park the car."
What, no garage? She peered out through the windows. Everything was dark. Snow was falling heavily. Clearly not at the office. The car was three steps away from a porch, the house wooden, like a large cabin. When she hurried up the steps the door opened just in time to reveal Lester, in cargoes, a t-shirt and leather moccasins. She gaped at him. She was wearing about 8 sweaters and was still cold. He looked like he came from another planet. He flashed a grin, pulling her inside and closing the door after her. His t-shirt was blue and had the London Underground logo on his chest. It was strange to see him wear anything that wasn't black.
"I'll take him," Lester took the aquarium from her arms and carried it into the kitchen. A wave of hot air washed into the tiny entrance. "Leave your coat and boots in there."
She did as he said, hanging it on a hook with what she assumed was his coat. Several pairs of large snowboots were lining the wall. Then she pushed open the door Lester had gone through.
Heat hit her like a wall, nearly bowling her over. The contrast was so great that she felt light-headed. She looked around, trying to take in everything at once. The smells of food on a wood-stove, the old-fashioned kitchen. Ladles, pots and other kitchen gear hung from a railing overhead. A carved arch lead to what looked to be the living.
"Ya gotta take off a load of those clothes or you'll never get warm," he said, stirring in a large pan. It smelled wonderful. He saw her sniff in the scent and grinned wide.
"And if you're still cold after 10 minutes in this place, I have some Cajun food to make steam come out of your ears."
"Hope you also got something edible for those of us without flameproof digestive tracts," Tank rumbled from the entrance. He was taking off his boots and zipping himself out of his parka. Stephanie moved through the arch to make space for him in the small kitchen.
"Don't worry, I got a special version for any big wusses Carlos keeps hanging about the place," Lester ribbed.
Tank continued that unlike some he was a man, not a fire-breathing mutant. She smiled, listening to their good-natured banter.
The living was centred around an open fireplace. Old, hard-wooden floor and walls lined with shelves and bookcases. There was a huge, overstuffed C-shape sofa that took up about half of the available space and curved around the fireplace. A spiral staircase lead up to the second floor. A rough oak table and six chairs stood on the other side of the room. Here and there were oil lamps lighting the place. There was one door at the back of the room, perhaps to another porch.
The sofa looked divinely comfortable, and she headed for it, started to shed layers of clothing.
"No wonder you didn't pack much," Ranger said from the kitchen, putting down her duffel. "You're already wearing half your clothes."
"I bet it was just barely above zero in that amazingly insulated apartment of hers," Tank noted from behind him. They had both stripped down to trousers and longsleeved thermal undershirts. Ranger had changed into loose grey sweatpants. The sight of them in the clingy shirts helped elevate her core temperature by several degrees. Finally down to t-shirt and the sweatpants she had worn under her jeans, she curled into the corner of the sofa, feet out to the fire.
Ranger shifted the pile of discarded clothes and put it on top of her duffel, then joined her on the couch. He made a little sound of comfort and put his socked feet on the masonry edge of the fireplace.
"I feel I should be making those crackling sounds, like when ice melts," she grinned, leaning closer to the fire. It was radiating heat at her, but inside she still felt cold.
"You guys want tea or coffee?" Lester poked his head into the living.
"Coffee please," she said, still slightly amazed at the idea of Domestic Lester. He saw her look and grinned.
"Hey, if they choice is between driving for two hours in this weather or cooking, I know what I prefer."
"It smells great."
"My parents have a restaurant. Mom runs the business, dad cooks. Nobody could look at him and tell him cooking was unmanly." He sounded proud. As well he should be. She was starting to drift away on a high of warmth and divine food smells.
"Plus it gets you lotta friends in the service," Tank grinned.
"And everybody is real careful of you if you can cook," added Ranger. "almost more than the medic." He mimicked "Don't let him get hurt! Think of what we'll have to eat!"
Lester let out a peal of laughter and went to make coffee.
Stephanie followed the conversation with a smile. She'd never known the men like this. Especially Ranger. Guess he was a whole different person when he was at home. And this was home, the elusive batcave she'd often wondered about. It was completely different than she'd imagined. In her fancies it had been a mansion, full of the latest technology and lavishly decorated like the 7th floor apartment. It had included a butler and a garage full of flashy cars.
She found herself liking reality better. It wasn't luxurious - it didn't even have central heating and as far as she could tell no electricity either. It didn't have Ella, or cable. The chances of a jacuzzi were slim.
What it had was personality. It was undeniably Ranger's. There were photos on the shelves, and favourite books. The sofa was comfortable and obviously well-used. The fireplace blackened by many winters. Like he was now, in sweatpants and t-shirt, it fit him perfectly. Compared to this little house, the Haywood Street apartment was a hotel suite. Perfect luxury without soul.
"Like the place?" he said, watching her take it in.
"Different than I imagined." she answered, eyes on the shelves. Photos of his family, his friends. She thought she saw one of the Merry Man team, with her in the middle. "Better."
"What this place needs though..." she mused, eyes gliding over the room. "A couple of those large wiry-haired hunting dogs. They should, you know, come in with muddy paws and flop down in front of the fire with big doggy sighs."
He laughed at that.
"Dog-free place, remember?"
Oh yeah, she remembered. If his life didn't lead itself to relationships, it certainly didn't lend itself to dependants like a dog. Her spirits drooped a little. She'd always hoped that if she eventually got to see the batcave, it would be because there was more between them.
"I'm not here often enough to have pets," he continued, seemingly unaware of her trail of thoughts. "I do have an arrangement with a couple of neighbourhood barn cats. I feed them when I'm here, and they keep the mice population in check."
The thought of Ranger putting out food for stray cats brought her smile back. Just then Lester appeared with coffee for the three of them and a spicy-smelling tea for Ranger.
"You thawed out yet, Steph?"
"Getting there," she grinned. The cold inside was starting to disappear. He handed out the drinks and settled in on the couch as well, and they were each silent for a while.
"Man, the only advantage to a power cut in a freaking blizzard is that not a whole lot of people go out to make use of security systems being out," Tank said.
"I hope Bobby is having a quiet night," said Ranger. He seemed remarkably relaxed about it. He must have seen her surprised look because he continued. "There is a limit to what you can do when this sort of thing happens. I'm sure Bobby and Vince are doing anything humanly possible… that's all you can do."
The conversation drifted to some mission a couple of years ago when there had been a bad storm, but frankly she was having trouble concentrating. Drawing her feet underneath her, she laid her head on the cushy armrest of the couch and closed her eyes. She was so comfortable that their deep voices began to lull her to sleep.
"…really that bad in her place?"
"Close to zero, yeah," Ranger's voice was close. "You could feel every gust. The owner of that building should be taken out and shot."
"Good thing you went, then."
"She was doing okay with what she had. She wouldn't have frozen to death, but she would have felt like she had."
"What about the others in that building?"
"Bingo night. From what I could tell everybody was at the community centre when the storm started. I bumped into the super, helped him load two gas canisters and a heater into his car to take to the party."
"He didn't think to take the Bombshell along?"
"Knocked on her door and nobody answered. Said he thought she was at her parent's because her car wasn't there."
"Huh. Nothing like sitting on your own through a night of freezing cold."
"Mmm yeah," she murmured sleepily, glad that her neighbours were safe and warm playing bingo, thinking that this was so much better. "Thanks for bringing me here."
The men chuckled and she noticed the soles of her socked feet were pressed against the outside of Ranger's thighs. Nice and warm. He had draped a fleece blanket over her. It was a red and tan plaid pattern. Homey. God, she'd never expected to think of anything about Ranger with the word 'homey'
"Since you're awake, let's eat," said Lester. They adjourned to the table and he brought in two pans and a bottle of wine.
"Jambalaya. Seafood-" he gestured with the corkscrew to the one pan, "and for lesser mortals a milder version with chicken."
They dug in, Ranger and Lester into the seafood, Tank into the chicken. She decided to try the milder version first and was soon reaching for her wine.
"Jesus. You call this mild?"
Tank gave her a look of sympathy and got up, moments later returning with a cucumber. He sliced off a chunk for her and one for himself.
With now and then a bite of cucumber to ease off the burning heat she could enjoy her food more. It was very good. She shook off the cover she had kept around her s and knew her face was flushed. Tank was looking a little warm as well.
They both watched as Ranger and Lester ate the other seafood dish with every sign of enjoyment. Every once in a while Lester would look up at Ranger as if trying to see how the other man was faring. Stephanie got the feeling it was some kind of contest. If Ranger thought it was too hot, he certainly didn't show it.
They were both drinking wine. She briefly wondered if she'd see Ranger inebriated, but figured she'd be dead drunk long before that happened. Just in case, she was going slow on her own wine anyway.
"Man, Santos, you shouldn't bait Carlos like this. You know he's gonna call his yaya for more recipes and you'll regret it next time he cooks. Hell, we'll all regret it."
"Grandmother," Ranger supplied, eyes crinkled with laughter.
"Lady's got a mean hand with spices," said Tank.
"It was very good, I'll freely admit that," Lester said, ladling more jambalaya into his bowl.
"That's when I decided to opt out of their little dick-sizing contest," Tank said to her. "That food was torture. Smelt so good, tasted like chillied lava."
"So that's why I made two versions," Lester interjected. "So that the big wuss has something to eat, too."
"Fuck you man," Tank said affectionately. "At least I can still kiss my girlfriend after I've had dinner."
"She in Seattle man, she don't mind. Carlos here, on the other hand…"
Ranger cut his friend a look that would have made lesser men quail. Lester however, was on a roll. Possibly the wine had something to do with that.
"Carlos don't get to kiss Steph goodnight with those hot lips."
Ranger made a choking sound and quickly put his glass of wine down. His eyes were watering a little.
Silence spread as they each considered that statement. And, if they thought anything like her, took it further. Hot lips. She squirmed in her seat at the thought and felt herself grow bright red. The men were sweating. She hadn't noticed that before. Yup, they thought along the same lines all right. She avoided their eyes, looking down at her food.
"Right! Ladies and gentleman, Lester Santos does it again!" declared Tank after a drawn-out silence. "We've reached our final destination in record time: Roooock Bottom! Airlifts out of here will not be available until tomorrow morning."
"Hey!" Lester tried to sound indignant, but he was grinning too wide. "Was it me who decided to take that to the gutter? Hell no, I was saying something innocent-like about how Steph's lips will be burning if Carlos—"
He didn't get any further because Tank and Ranger had gotten to their feet, taken him firmly by the shoulders, and put him outside the back door. Stephanie had stood up too. A blast of snow wooshed into the room as the door was opened and quickly closed again.
The men looked at one another with wide grins.
"Hey, isn't he going to get ill?" she asked, not wanting to be responsible for a sick Lester. Who knew what kind of ideas would come from his mouth when he was hallucinating.
"He was so overheated, he'll survive a few minutes of cooling down," Ranger grinned. "Think of it as a sauna effect."
"He's lucky I can't be bothered to go out, or I'd dunk him in the stream," said Tank.
"You're all insane," she declared, as if this was some great secret of the universe she'd just uncovered. They gave her identical 'Yes, and?' looks and she cracked up. Guess the wine was working for her, too.
"Can I have a shower? She asked when she'd regained her breath.
There was a thumping on the door and they opened it to let Lester in. Instead of jumping to the chance, he only stuck in his head.
"There's a cat sitting here on your wood pile. Looking cold and miserable."
Ranger looked around and then moved through the archway, returning moments later with a big towel. He stepped outside and Tank closed the door. After a short moment there was again a rap and the two men came back in, Ranger carrying a small, soaked tabby wrapped in the towel. He deposited it on the ground and tried to dry its coat a little.
"I'll do it man, you clean those scratches."
Lester took over and Stephanie noticed there were nasty clawmarks on the inside of Ranger's right arm. He saw her look and smiled.
"Cat didn't like the direct approach."
Tank approached with a first-aid kit and a wide grin.
"Man, don't you know—"
A pained look passed over Ranger's face as he mentally reviewed what he just said.
"If you are going to use the word 'pussy' in any way, shape or form, you'll regret it," Ranger cut him off. Lester burst into laughter, startling the cat. Tank chuckled. He and Lester bumped fists in some kind of brother-victory signal.
Ranger gave them a look of fond exasperation and sat down on the sofa to clean up his arm.
"As I was saying… you can't have a shower, but you can have a bath."
"Why no shower?"
"There just isn't one. This is a take-your-time house. You have to light a fire underneath the boiler to get hot water. And the boiler is downstairs so there's no water pressure, a shower just wouldn't work."
"Why don't we install Steph in the bath with a glass of wine and we get started on that poker game?" Tank suggested.
A while later she was leaning back in the huge, oldfashioned tub. It had those little lion feet. The water was just right – Tank had warned her not to make it too warm, or she'd overheat. Since apparently their solution to overheating was to kick people outside, she took his advice.
There was no bulgari, but she found a jar of lavender-scented bath salt and used that. This was heaven. She could hear someone do the washing up in the kitchen and then the poker game started. Judging by the volume of the calls and laughter it was aided by liberal amounts of wine.
She hoped nobody would try to talk her into joining the game. She did play poker and not half bad, but she suspected the guys played for higher stakes than she could afford. It felt nice that they included her in their easygoing friendship; she didn't want to make them feel like they should change their games for her. Besides, from the sounds of it she would have plenty of fun just watching them play.
She'd brought her duffle into the bathroom and dressed up in comfy blue sweats. No call to impress tonight. That didn't mean she wanted to walk around with Hair from Hell, so she went with the simple solution and pulled it back into a low braid.
There was a pile of bills in the middle of the table and Tank was looking very happy. The wine bottle was empty. Lester was giving it a mournful look. It had to be the second bottle, they'd emptied the first one over dinner.
"Hey guys. Everything going well?"
"Couldn't be better," Tank grinned. Ranger gave him a dark look and went back to scrutinising his cards.
"You're gonna hafta excuse Carlos for being an ass," Tank continued happily. "He's not used to being cleaned out."
She grabbed the empty wine bottle.
"Want me to get more?"
Ranger looked up and gave her the flash of his smile.
"The cellar is the other door in the kitchen. Light is at the top of the stairs. There should be another bottle just like this one."
She opened the door and looked into a dark gap. Cellar. Stairs leading down. No electricity. Feeling around the wall she found something hanging on a nail – a Petzl headlight. It made her smile. Handsfree light; ever practical, was Ranger. She put it on her head and turned it on. The beam was broad.
She took a deep breath and shone down the stairs. See? Not scary at all. Cold, but not scary. She descended the stairs and found a provision room, shelves on one side stocked with non-perishables and tinned food. In a corner she found a fridge/freezer combination, not working. What use was that in a house without electricity? Then she noted the small generator in a dark corner next to it. Maybe it wasn't in use because the room was cold enough right now. On the other side was a smaller set of shelves where fresh goods lived. Milk and greens and meat in plastic containers.
She found the wine and looked around the shelves a bit. To her surprise not all of it was as healthy as she expected from Ranger's house. Perhaps some of this was meant for the Merry Men as they visited. She couldn't imagine Ranger eating from the large bag of potato crisps she found. Next to it were a couple of bags of Japanese rice nibbles. That seemed more his style.
She took a bag of each, got the wine, and climbed back up. Lester cheered when he heard the sound of snack bags. Ranger glanced up when she stood next to his chair. He snaked an arm around her back to take hold of the bottle in her far hand. She stood still, unsure what he wanted, and he grinned.
He gave her his cards to hold, and she was careful to keep her face neutral as she glanced at them. Hmm, looked like he wasn't doing so bad as Tank thought. Lester and Tank were watching her intently, obviously more interested in her reaction to the cards than in the way Ranger was holding her.
He grabbed the corkscrew and with his other arm reached across her stomach to work it into the cork. It was a little strange to be standing like this, in the circle of his arms while he concentrated on the bottle.
Flashing the guys a smile, she pulled out one card and stuck it back in, several cards further back. Tilted her head, checked the cards over once more, and nodded to herself.
She could feel the muscles of his arms work and bunch when he pulled out the cork. The arm around her back was warm and solid as he took the bottle in his other hand and filled the glasses. Possessive? Maybe a little. Mostly it felt comfortable. Intimate. She was in his house and he was touching her and it felt like there wasn't a thing wrong with the world.
Shying away from that thought and the others that were connected to it, she gave him back his cards and moved a bit. He squeezed her a little closer to him for a moment and then let go. Looked over his cards, noticed the change, and raised and eyebrow at her. She answered with a one-sided shrug. He returned a dazzling grin.
She wandered off to see how the tabby cat was doing. It had curled up on the couch, washing itself. Its coat was drying in the heat that was radiating from the fireplace. She offered it her fingers to sniff and when it did not seem to object, gently stroked it. A steady purr started. Its ears were no longer cold as they had been when it first came inside.
She looked around the place with a smile. No rough-haired hunting dogs, but a stray tabby that was welcome to dry itself by the fire. God, if she wasn't careful she could really fall for at-home Ranger.
She hung on the sofa and watched the fire, feeling warm and wine-mellow and utterly comfortable. She could stay like this all night. No problem.
The guys finished their game, with Tank winning, and to her surprise put the cards away. Tank rummaged around in his duffle bag and came up with a small box.
"You want to join in, Babe? Tank brought a new game."
She pulled up a chair and found the game was called Munchkin.
"Ninja gave this to me. She plays it all the time with her cousins," Tank said, shuffling cards for the treasure and the dungeon pile. "I think she's hoping I'll get more practise and offer her some serious competition."
"How is your crazy artist girlfriend, anyway?" said Lester. "She still tell the time by what colour her clock is?"
At her confused look Ranger explained.
"Tank's girlfriend has a clock that shines a different colour light every hour."
"If you ever breathe a word to her about this I swear I'll kill you, but I think I'm starting to do it as well," said Tank, his face a mix between affection and embarrassment. "Last time I was there I woke up thinking 'ah, it's only orange, we don't have to get up for hours yet.'"
Lester laughed like a hyena.
"You're in way deep man, way deep."
Stephanie smiled when Tank didn't look the least unhappy about that assessment.
"So where is she? Not caught in the power cut?"
"In Philly, probably holed up in her darkroom working like crazy. She has an exhibit coming up."
That was definitely pride in his voice. Stephanie wondered what kind of woman could inspire that look in his eyes and hoped she'd get to meet her some day.
She turned to Lester.
"So your girlfriend is in Seattle?"
He looked unhappy.
"Until the end of the month, yeah."
"Poor Les has to do without her for a couple of weeks," Tank ribbed.
"Shut up man."
"Hey, you were the one who wouldn't get off my case when Ninja was in Japan. What was it you said? Pussy-whipped?"
"Okay, okay. I miss her. There, I admitted it."
"You tell her that?" Ranger wondered.
"No. And don't you speak," Lester grumbled, emptying his glass and filling it back up. "You don't exactly have a good track record with telling people how you feel, man."
A tense silence fell, and she suddenly felt as if that last part hadn't been meant for her ears.
"So, how does this work?" she asked Tank, pretending she didn't notice the death glare Lester was receiving.
He explained it, but she wasn't sure she got all of it. Mostly it came down to being 'munchkinly' which apparently meant to lie, stab backs and cheat. This was considered part of the game. Sounded good to her.
An hour later she was squinting at her cards, trying to remember the cunning plan she had just thought our. Oops. Best to go easy on the wine or she'd pass out before she could finish trouncing the guys.
"I kick in a door," Ranger announced with a wide gesture of his arm. Everybody grinned. "And I find…"
He looked down at the card he'd drawn and his face fell. Stephanie giggled at this loss of control. She suspected he was working on a world-class buzz. So was everybody else, for that matter.
"A level 14 Unspeakably Awful Indescribable Horror! However…" he looked down on the cards he had on the table and brightened, "I think I have him beat this time… see, 14, 15 points…"
She silently put two cards down in front of him. Wandering Monster and a Level 10 3782 Orcs.
"What! Babe, are you trying to get me killed?"
"I didn't see you rushing to my aid when I was facing the level 14 Insurance Salesman," she said sweetly. Tank and Lester laughed.
"You could always, you know, run awaaaaaay!"
Ranger shot her a deadly glare, but she was clearly too tanked for it to have an effect. It just made her giggle. And giggle.
"That's it Steph, no more wine," Lester grinned, taking away her glass. She gasped for breath and dissolved into another fit of giggles. Ranger had stopped glaring, since it didn't seem to be doing any good. In fact, he was smiling now. Wide, gorgeous, unguarded smile.
"You wanna share, Babe?"
"Oh my god… you guys… as the knights of…" she wiped tears from her eyes and tried again. "Knights of Arthur, facing the, the… Black Beast of Aaarrrrggh!" she wheezed. Ranger gave her an incredulous look.
"You've watched Monty Python?"
"It's the legendary Unspeakably Awful Indescribable Horror! Run away! Run awaaay! Run awaaaaay!" she mimicked.
"Any of you want to help me beat this shit?" he asked Lester and Tank.
"No man, you're level 9. You beat this and you win. We're not stupid."
"Okay, I'll try to run away." It clearly pained him to say it.
"I'll help you beat it," she offered with a grin, still breathing hard from her fit of giggles.
He paused the hand with the die in it.
"Babe, you just landed me in all this trouble."
"Yup. And I'll help you out of it. For the entirely reasonable price of 3 of the treasure, my pick – and the level."
That would bring her up to level 9 as well. She vaguely suspected it was against the rules because you couldn't barter for a level, but if nobody realised it that wasn't her problem.
"So what exactly do I gain from this?"
"You don't have to run away?" Running away gave him 50 percent chance of losing everything.
He considered this for a moment and then nodded.
"Stephanie helps me beat this scum. Any objections? Right. They're dead."
They divided the treasure and she added her level. It was now her turn, and Lester and Tank did a silent communication thing. Since they were far from sober, it was a rather obvious 'do something! A curse, anything!' 'I have nothing useful' kind of conversation.
"Right!" she announced cheerfully. "I kick in a door! And I find…" she flipped over the card. "A curse!"
The three men breathed relief. She had the power to beat almost any monster and the level that would gain her meant she won, so a curse was good news by them.
"Chicken on Your Head," she read with a giggle. "Minus one to all your die rolls."
"Damn," muttered Tank. It wouldn't slow her any.
"Okay…" she drew out the word to give it at least three syllables. "Now… I go looking for trouble!"
"Uh-oh! That's never good!" said Lester. Ranger had a shit-eating grin on his face.
"Normally you never need to look, babe."
"I know, I know, I know… this time I do. And I find…"
She drew the card from her own hand and tossed it on the table. The three men leant forward to see it.
"A Level 1 Potted Plant," Ranger said incredulously.
"They're ferocious!" she gave him a wide grin. "And I think I can probably beat it… Any objections?"
She knew there would not be, they had used up all useful curses on trying to stop Ranger from getting the 10th level. She let the silence stretch just to watch them squirm.
"Aaaaaand… It's dead! Deaded!"
They groaned and tossed their cards on the table. She'd won!
"I love this game."
"I just bet you do," Ranger grinned, getting up to put more wood on the fire. Tank cleared away the cards.
"Do I sleep upstairs?" Lester asked, rubbing a hand through his hair.
"Yes!" the other men answered in unison. She gave them a bewildered look.
"There's only one bedroom, babe," Ranger said, pulling her down to sit on the couch. "It's not insulated. And—"
"Lester snores like you wouldn't believe," Tank added helpfully.
"Hey!" Lester protested.
"Don't try to deny it. You snore so loud you wake yourself up."
"Okay, okay. I'm going. It's fuckin' cold upstairs."
"So where do we sleep?" she asked when he'd disappeared up the spiral stairs.
"Here." He and Tank were pulling stuff from a cupboard and under the couch. Two thin mattresses and pillows and a couple of blankets. Tank made a bed for himself on the floor on the other side of the fireplace. Ranger did the same in front of the couch.
He grinned and handed her covers and a pillow.
"You stay where you are."
Well okay, that wasn't such a hardship. The couch rivalled her bed for comfort. And she could sleep in her sweats. No problem. Actually, if she just pulled the blanket over herself and took care not to dislodge the cat from the foot-end…
She drifted awake a while later, no telling what time it was. The room was dark apart from the fire. It was burning low now, and the room was no longer as hot. Tank was snoring softly on the other side of the room.
Ranger was sitting upright, his back against the couch. Just inches away from her hand. If she moved her fingers, she could run them through his hair. Her hand seemed to move without her input, stroking the dark strands.
"Hey yourself," she whispered back, staring at the way the banked firelight lit his face.
"Are you okay? Not cold?"
"I'm good," she assured him. "You?"
She didn't prod him, and they sat in comfortable silence for a while, looking into the fire. She felt herself drift, the crackling of the fire lulling her back to sleep.
"Never expected you to be into Monty Python," he said suddenly, smiling a little.
"Had a roommate in college who made me watch it," she shrugged.
More silence. Her fingers were still in his hair, stroking lazily. He didn't seem to mind. She nestled her head back against the pillow.
"Thanks for… letting me into your life a little."
He caught her hand and gently drew it forward over her shoulder to place a kiss in the palm of her hand.
"It was about time."
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