Hello again! I thought it was high time I posted this story here. It was originally inspired by Sealgirl's idea to write Alternative Episodes to D&DC for The Virtual Realm. I started to run the concept of what could have happened had the others not followed Eric back to the Realm at the end of Beauty & The Bogbeast through in my mind - here's the result, spilling over, as it does, into an Alternative version of a completely different episode by the end!
Thanks, as ever, to Sealgirl.
LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL
He knew the moment he surfaced that it was all wrong. The familiar sounds of the funfair sounded strange to his new ears, and the smell of hotdogs and candyfloss, once so tempting, were now sickening to his non human nose. But what was most telling was the fact that he had managed to reach the surface of the lake at all, and was now treading water competently. Without webbed hands and feet, the armour would have caused him to sink like a stone.
The others were all caught up in their own jubilation, delighted to have finally got home. Nobody had said anything about him yet. Maybe... maybe he had changed.
He glanced down at himself. The same detested reflection that had met his gaze miserably all day still stared up at him from the shifting water. He was still a monster.
He turned slightly in the water to face Sheila. The others had noticed him too, and they were staring at him, their eyes full of wonder and pity. He supposed he was going to have to get used to that, if he was going to have to spend the rest of his life as a freak.
'It didn't work,' he croaked, unhappily. He touched the now distinctly unmagical amulet. 'I can't go through life looking like this.'
He really couldn't. The day he'd just spent as a mutant amphibian had been bad enough - but at least it had only been five people who had stared at him incredulously and made teasing comments about his appearance, five people who knew how far they could push him, five people who he didn't mind trading insults from time to time... five people who, when it came down to it, had seen much, much worse than him in that world, where bizarreness was the norm.
His brain struggled to remember the conventions of Earth. He wouldn't just be an other ugly creature here. He would be a circus freakshow... Is it a toad? Is it a man? Find out after this commercial break... What would they think at school? He could kiss goodbye to ever getting a girlfriend... Oh God! Julie Klien will see me like this! And then there was... Oh God! Dad!Dad'll have me locked in the attic before any of his contacts sees me... Oh God, I'm gonna be the crazy mutant attic boy that kids tell ghost stories about... I don't wanna be Attic Boy!
He couldn't. Just couldn't. Maybe if he just went back real quick, he could change back and still get back in the river before it stopped running upside down.
He gave the others a fleeting glance, held his breath and swam back down.
'Woah!' Bobby swam to the spot that Eric had just vacated, but his sister held him back from ducking down after him. 'What's he doing?'
'I guess Eric needs to be Eric more than he needs to go home,' piped Diana.
'Give him a break...' interrupted Presto, quietly. He darted an apologetic glance at Diana as she blinked at him. 'I mean... I mean...'
'I think what Presto's trying to say is, Eric's hardly had the best day of his life today,' interjected Hank, 'and I'm sure that us teasing him didn't help.'
Presto sighed, gratefully. 'Yes.' He rode the pause, and then, because nobody else had said it yet, added 'we'd better go back for him before it's too late.'
He looked at Hank, who frowned to himself and nodded, thoughtfully.
Sheila let out an audible sigh, watching the revellers on the shore hungrily. 'Sure. We can't just leave him...'
'Except...' muttered Hank, still scowling at the water, 'except... I think that anybody who wants to stay here should take the opportunity. While they've got one, that is.' He looked up, deliberately, at Sheila and Presto.
'Hey,' grinned Presto, 'I'm the one who brought that idiot here in the first place. I think I owe it to him to make sure he gets back in one piece.'
'And I'm not leaving you guys,' added Sheila.
'Me neither,' asserted Diana, before looking at Bobby. 'Bobby, you're the littlest, maybe you should...'
'I'm not the littlest!' exclaimed Bobby, supporting the head of the baby unicorn that had been hitherto treading water quietly.
Hank blinked. Uni. Now there was a problem he hadn't thought of before.
'Uh... Bobby, you know that Uni can't stay here.'
Bobby looked up at Hank with the eyes of a boy that had just been told the kindest thing would be to take Old Yeller out into the yard and shoot him.
'I mean...' started Hank, finding himself beginning to flounder under the child's hurt gaze, 'she doesn't belong in this world. She'd be as lost here as we were back there.'
Bobby sighed. 'Guess so.' He ruffled his fingers through the unicorn's wet mane. 'But I'm taking her back.'
'Then we're agreed,' concluded Hank, 'we all go back.'
'Fine.' Hank back pedalled a little, searching the dark water beneath him for some kind of portal. 'We'd better hurry up.'
He was about to duck down under the water when Diana caught his arm, suddenly.
'What about you, Hank? Don't you want to stay?'
Hank allowed his eyes to wander, ever so briefly, across the happy, normal people at the funfair, laughing, kissing, eating, without a care in the world. 'Of course I do,' he sighed, and then dived beneath the water.
He knew that the others were with him the first time he dived, straining to keep his eyes open against the stinging water, searching for a doorway back into the Realm, amazed that Eric seemed to have found it straight away, even though Eric was an amphibian at the time. He made sure they had all surfaced to catch their breaths before he ducked down a second, then a third, then a fourth time. As he surfaced again, full of panic that he was sure he had now searched the entirety of the lake beneath them, and yet still not found any portal, it struck him that something else was very wrong. The others had gone, and in its place was a small rowing boat. And it was just at that moment, when he was attempting to make sense of all the strange occurrences that were addling his mind one by one, that a pair of large hands reached down from the boat and hauled him up by his armpits. In the rush of movement he could make out the others' despondent faces staring at him from inside the dinghy.
'What the Hell are you kids doing in the damn lake?'
Still waist deep in water, Eric watched the upside-down waterfall dry up as suddenly as it had begun flowing skyward. He'd left it too late. There was no way back. He began to climb the riverbank.
'Wow. I wonder what it will be like... alone...'
Eric trailed off, surprised that that had been his first concern. Surely the worst thing about the whole sorry situation was that he'd found the way home, then had to return to this stupid back-to-front world. And furthermore, he was still a hideous creature. The fact that The Brady Bunch weren't tagging along anymore was surely small fry in comparison...
'You not alone...' croaked the friendly voice behind him.
Eric rolled his eyes upwards. Ah, yes. The Family.
'You have us now,' added the Bogbeast, 'Brother...'
Eric winced against the slimy hug, fond and genuine though it was. Long as it had been since anyone had hugged him with any real affection... These guys are my family now, I guess... and it looks like everybody else has given up on me... maybe I could stay just a little... No. No. You're not one of them.
'Get off.' He pushed the Bogbeast away from him, but deliberately didn't look into the creature's distressed eyes. 'Uh... I mean, I'm... it's just...'
Something small, scarlet and distant caught his eye as he flailed for words.
He was just sitting there, on a rock next to a cliff, the other side of the valley, watching him quietly.
That's not like the little twerp...
He finally found the courage to meet the Bogbeast's gaze. 'It's just that I, uh, I guess I have a job to do here.'
'Then stay here,' smiled the Bogbeast, optimistically.
'No,' sighed Eric. He wondered whether any Bogbeast had ever been so much as above ground. 'I meant here in the Realm.' He looked at down at his shield. All it did was remind him of the fights he had been in. And of Venger. 'And there are.. people... after me. Bad people.'
The Bogbeasts all seemed to gasp in horror as one, then pulled themselves up bravely.
'We protect you!'
Eric smiled sadly. It wouldn't be long before Hell's Transvestite found out he was the only one of Dungeon Master's 'pupils' left and come after him. And if the Bogbeasts tried to help him... Chargrilled Frogs Legs sprang instantly to mind.
'No. I never cared for Cajun food.'
The lead Bogbeast furrowed his slimy brow in confusion. 'Huh?'
'Goodbye.' Eric turned to go, then glanced over his shoulder as an afterthought. 'Thanks for the offer, though.'
He waded along the river until he came to the rock on which the Dungeon Master was perched, waiting patiently. As Eric began to drag himself up to the midget's level, he noticed that his limbs had become slimmer and warmer. He sat silently on the rock, rubbing his newly human face joylessly, and slightly surprised that he wasn't even a little bit glad to have finally changed back to his old self. Still the Dungeon Master waited for him to have the first word.
'I get it now,' said Eric, finally. 'I had to face what I hated most to change back. I had to come back here to Cloud Cuckoo Land, and look at your ugly mug again.' He removed the amulet, and halfheartedly threw it into the river, where it sank with a dull Plop.
The Dungeon Master clasped his hands sombrely, looking out at the underground swamp.
'Not so, Cavalier.'
'What, you think I don't hate this place, or you?' interjected Eric, sullenly. 'That I don't despise you and your stupid disappearing act and your riddles and little half-melted-snowman face? Because right now I'm fighting back the urge to...' he trailed off, clawing strangling fingers towards the little Dungeon Master's throat.
The Dungeon Master didn't react.
'The thing that you hate the most is neither me nor the Realm,' he replied, calmly, 'but loneliness. You returned here without your friends, and then you chose to continue with your quest than stay with those who would call you Brother. It is that which has returned you to your usual form.'
Eric stared at the Dungeon Master, his mouth agape. The tiny mystic finally met his gaze, seriously. They looked at each other in silence for a moment. Then Eric burst into peals of grim laughter.
'Loneliness? You think I can't stand being alone? You really don't know me very well, do you?'
The Dungeon Master just blinked.
'It was your idea to bring us here six-by-six, DM, not mine,' continued Eric. 'It just so happens that under normal circumstances I thrive on my own. You have no idea how much I've been craving a bit of peace and quiet, free from whiny little cry babies and dumb cheerleaders and God's Golden Haired Gift to Everybody, I'll tell ya...'
Eric stood up, suddenly enraged.
'You're gonna say something mushy now, aren'tcha? You're gonna say how I need them more than I'd like to say, or somethin'...'
Still the Dungeon Master didn't react.
'Well, I don't need anyone. I'll show you. Eric relies on Eric. And Eric enjoys the company of Eric. And nobody else. Understand?'
Eric looked up at the climb up to the top of the fissure. It looked tricky, but not impossible. And there was sunshine crowning the top of it. Now there was an incentive. Without another look back to the Dungeon Master, or to the distant Bogbeast village, he slung his shield over his shoulder and wordlessly began to climb.
The Dungeon Master didn't watch his Cavalier as he started to slowly clamber up the fissure. He was watching the surface of the river. He watched, and watched, until the clattering and grunting of the youth had faded out of earshot. Eventually, the old man sighed.
'You've missed it, haven't you?' A silent river was all that answered him.
'Oh dear. This is not how I intended it to happen.' The Dungeon Master looked up at the teenaged boy above him, grappling with a particularly difficult section of the cliff. 'Not how I intended it at all!'
A cheery thought hit him, and for a moment he joined the scowling youth, now several meters up the cliff face.
Eric jumped a little when he found that the jutting rock he was groping for suddenly now had a Dungeon Master on it, but managed to regain his composure quickly and continued to climb, blanking the midget.
'Remember, Cavalier,' advised the Dungeon Master, 'the moment that things are at their worst is the moment when they must start getting better.'
Eric advised the Dungeon Master to do something to himself that the old man didn't particularly understand, and resumed his climb.
The Dungeon Master just sighed. 'Was he ever going to listen to me?'
Bobby did his best to hide Uni behind his legs as they all stood, sodden and sheepish in the Security Guard's office. The little unicorn was being uncharacteristically well behaved. She remained silent, cowering behind the kids, trembling slightly in cold and fear at her bizarre new surroundings. Bobby nudged the foal gently with his heel, trying to soothe her as much as possible without attracting unwelcome attention to her. The Security Guard was not looking down at their legs, thankfully. He was addressing a soaking and highly confused Hank with all the tact and consideration of a Gestapo Officer.
'I mean, what were you thinking? What was it, some sort of fancy dress swimathon? Didn't you read the signs? You kids are gonna catch your deaths...'
Hank frowned, his attempts to interject cut off at every breath. This was something he had become unused to - being talked down to, like a dumb kid. He glanced across at Diana, who was growing increasingly irate at being ignored. He had also forgotten how seldom Diana was able to catch peoples' eye outside of the Realm, let alone get anyone to listen to what she had to say. White people, anyway...
The security guard was trying a new tactic. 'What's your parents' phone number? I'm calling them to pick you kids up right now. And you can consider yourselves banned.'
'What about Eric?' whispered Sheila, behind Hank.
Presto, scowling in a corner, removed his sopping wet hat. 'I'll see to this.'
'No, Presto...' warned Hank from the side of his mouth.
Presto simply glowered at the Security guard, his hand circling the opening of his dripping hat. 'Alakazoom and Alakazickle,' said he, with an ill conceived optimism, 'give us a spell to get us out of this pickle!'
Bobby closed his eyes in despair as absolutely nothing happened.
The Security Officer merely stared from the large, conical hat to the bespectacled, tension screwed face of the teenager holding it.
'What have you kids been taking?'
Presto shot Hank a desperate glance. 'It didn't work.'
Of course it didn't work. They were home. What use did they have for magical hats or bows here?
'So whadda we do?'
Hank paused, licking his lips, suddenly aware that all eyes were on him. All but the Security Officer, who was flipping through his notepad with concern.
'You didn't drink the water, did you? Tell me you didn't drink the water!'
Hank thought. What is our option if weapons are out?
He darted a glance across them all. 'Run.'
And so they ran, and once out of the Security Office automatically scattered. Had the Security Guard decided to chase Bobby or Presto, he might have caught them, but he made the mistake of going after Diana.
Hank stopped behind a tree, watching the distance between the fat guard and the speedy Athlete swiftly grow.
Stupid Redneck. That'll learn him.
He paused for a moment to get his breath back and make sure the coast was clear, and then jogged away. He knew where they would all end up. They had to get back to the ride.
By the time he got to the entrance of the Fairyland section of the theme park, Diana and Sheila were already waiting. Presto, Bobby and a still-spooked Uni were quick to join them. Presto looked up at the sign as they passed it.
'God,' he murmured, 'Eric didn't even want to come into this bit of the park in the first place.' His face broke into a grin. 'He objected to the "Fairy" part,' he explained.
'Why did he come?' muttered Diana.
'Because I invited him,' sighed Presto, 'which I have already apologised for several times since...'
'No,' Diana interjected, 'I mean, he was always banging on about how much cooler he was than any of us. All he did at the park was complain about how lame it was. Why would he even want to hang out with a bunch of losers at a third rate funfair?'
Diana was suddenly aware that Presto was staring at her, sadly.
Presto blinked at her, and sighed. 'Nothing... I don't know. Maybe he just liked us more than he let on.'
'Well, that wouldn't be too hard for him,' chimed Bobby from behind him.
Sheila turned around to her brother. 'Can we leave the Eric Bashing until we at least know he's safe, guys?'
Bobby frowned down at his feet. 'Sure.'
Hank turned the corner to the ride that he had spent months swearing he would never, ever return to, and stopped dead in his tracks.
'Um... where is it?'
Bobby peered around the older boy, his eyes widening at the grassy, unspoiled hill in front of them.
'Woah! Where'd the ride go?'
'No!' Presto broke into a sprint towards the hill. At the foot of it he came to a ragged stop, pushing his hands through his hair in futile desperation. 'Our clothes are here.'
'Huh?' Sheila jogged over to join Presto, closely followed by the others.
Presto stooped, picking up the dry sweater and jeans he had been wearing when he'd got on the ride.
'Our clothes,' repeated Presto. 'They're all here. All except Eric's.'
Sheila clutched her favourite pink Tshirt to herself, looking at the hill, sadly. 'D'you think the Realm wants to... keep him?'
Hank span around to them, his face set. 'Well it's not gonna. It might have got confused or something, because it took six and gave six back, but it's got it all wrong, and we can't stand for that. After all, Eric's not the only one of us who's lost.'
The others gazed at him, blankly. He pointed at the unicorn that was still trembling miserably behind Bobby's legs.
'I'm talking about Uni! The poor thing's terrified!'
Bobby sighed, and petted the unhappy creature's head gently.
'She doesn't belong here, and Eric doesn't belong back there,' concluded Hank, 'so let's just find another way back as quick as we can, OK?'
The others nodded, damply.
There was a pause, broken eventually by Bobby.
'Can we get changed, first?'
Hank looked down at his own drenched leggings. As fun as it would be for any of the guys from school to see him in tights...
They wandered the park for the rest of the day, hiding occasionally from the Guard, but mainly searching for any sign of the ride, finding none. Seven o'clock came and went, and the other thrill seekers began to abandon the park. Bobby stopped first, slumping onto a nearby bench and lifting his petrified unicorn up into his arms.
'It's no good.'
The others turned to him, despondently. Deep down inside, they all knew the same thing. But they also knew that to say so was just another step towards abandoning Eric.
'Bobby...' warned the boy's sister.
'It just isn't here any more!' growled Bobby.
Hank sighed. If he said they should give it up, he knew that they would. And then what would happen... to Uni... to Eric...?
'Bobby's right.' Hank tried to ignore Presto's disappointed gaze. 'We're not doing Eric any favours looking in the wrong place for him.'
Presto looked up at the darkening sky. 'So what do we do?'
'I don't know.' Hank squeezed the bridge of his nose, screwing up his eyes and praying for a flash of inspiration that didn't come.
'...our parents must be worried about us...' murmured Diana. 'Maybe we should...'
'And what about Eric's parents?' snapped Presto.
Diana tugged at her hair in infuriation. 'My God, Presto, we're all worried about him, OK?'
Presto opened his mouth to say something, but Diana cut him off.
'Why have you felt the need to snipe at me about it ever since we got back? You act like it was my fault or something!'
Presto didn't even attempt to speak this time, but turned from her, scowling.
'Geez,' cried Diana, 'Talk about his spirit living on...'
Diana trailed off, biting her lip, as Presto turned, furiously to face her.
'He's not dead!' protested Sheila.
'Yeah,' Diana sighed, 'that was pretty tasteless of me. It's just that...'
'I know,' seethed Presto, 'it's just that we all want to go home. It's just that life would be a lot easier if we could just forget about him, right?'
'Presto...' attempted Diana.
'I mean, he always did OK on his own before the Realm, right? It's not as if he'll miss us, right? And it's not as if any of you guys'll miss him, either, huh?'
'Presto...' soothed Sheila.
Presto was starting to back away from them.
'I mean, it's not as if any of you actually liked him...'
'I quite liked h...' managed Sheila before she was cut off again.
'I saw the looks on your faces when he showed up at this park with me!' yelled Presto, still backing away, 'and you all still think life would be better without him deep down, don't you? That's why you're not trying! You're not really trying to find him!'
Hank took a step towards Presto. 'We're trying as hard as we can, Presto...'
'But you don't want to! You all just want to go home to your families and your beds and forget all about Eric. Go back to it just being the five of us again.'
Presto paused for breath, but nobody tried to interject this time.
'Well go on,' Presto continued, still stepping away from the rest of the group, 'go home. But if you're gonna forget about him, you can forget about me, too, OK?'
'Presto...' began the other four kids in unison.
But Presto turned on his heels and ran from them.
By the time they caught up with him he was already out of the park and rounding a corner towards town. Diana grabbed him arm, causing him to slow down.
'What's all this about, Presto?'
'I can't just abandon him. If I have to find him on my own, then that's what I'll do.' Presto tried to wrench his arm out of Diana's grip, but she caught it again and held him fast. 'It's my fault he came here in the first place...'
'He can make his own decisions, Presto.' Hank was glad to slow down as he caught up with the other two. 'God knows he was always stubborn enough when...'
Presto shook his head. 'I persuaded him to come out that day.'
'Why?' Sheila's question was free of any cruel overtones.
Presto stared at them all, sadly. 'Because he's a sad and lonely guy. I thought, y'know... you guys are all really nice. I thought he could do with some decent friends.' He looked at his feet. 'It certainly boosted my confidence, being friends with all of you. I thought it might do him a lot of good, too.'
A stunned, sad silence fell, broken eventually by Hank patting Presto's back.
'We won't give up, Presto. And we won't let this divide us, OK?'
Presto sighed again, putting his hands into his pockets. 'OK.'
The sky was almost completely black, but a street light fizzed into life, bathing them in its strange orange glow. Hank was amazed at how much he'd missed even simple things like the gaudiness of electric light in the night time. Uni had begun to whimper. Nothing made any sense to her any more. Everything was too bright and loud and fast moving.
'So what do we do?' asked Presto eventually.
'It's getting late,' added Sheila.
Hank nodded. 'And Diana was right about our parents, you know. They'll be worried sick. We should let them know we're OK.'
'I thought we weren't gonna give up...' muttered Presto.
'We won't,' replied Hank, 'but it's night now. Eric's probably asleep, safe in the Bogbeast village. We're all tired. We'll look again tomorrow, after we've rested.'
On the other side of the street, a car screeched to a halt, and a woman began to cry out.
'Can't we look again?' asked Presto, 'just for another hour or so...?'
'Arthur?' called the woman on the other side of the road, 'Arthur!'
'Presto, it's dark,' sighed Diana, 'it's hard to see, and dangerous, besides.'
'Compared to Venger?' Presto spat, 'hardly!'
'Presto, you're doing it again!'
'Arthur!' The woman was starting to run across the street, stopping traffic as she did. 'Arthur!'
Arthur Greene, having not been referred to as Arthur Greene for several months, didn't realise it was his attention that the middle aged woman was trying to attract until she hurled herself at him, wrapping her arms around him so desperately that she lifted him clear off the ground.
'Where have you been, Arthur?'
The magician usually known as Presto, but always called Arthur by his parents, turned in the familiar, plump arms to face the woman that had grabbed him.
'We've been worried sick!'
'I'm sorry...' Presto was struggling to hold back the tears. There had been so many times since he'd ended up in that stupid Realm, so many times that he'd wanted his Momma to hug him tightly and protectively like she was doing now. 'I'm sorry, Mom.'
Hank instinctively took Sheila's hand. He knew she'd be in tears by now, too.
'We... we got lost...' he stuttered apologetically to Mrs Greene, in the attempt to explain the long absence of the woman's only child.
Presto's mother looked up at Hank without releasing her son from her arms.
'You've been lost? All this time?'
'...yes...' replied Hank in a small voice. It wasn't entirely a lie, after all...
'But it's gone half eight!' cried Mrs Greene, turning to back to her boy, 'you said you'd be home by five!'
Wait a minute...
'You kids must've been walking the streets like urchins for hours!' Mrs Greene clutched Presto tightly to herself again. 'You poor things! You must all be exhausted, not to mention half starved!'
'Well, now that you mention it...' muttered Bobby.
Mrs Greene stood suddenly, still without loosening her grip on Presto.
'Get in the car, all of you.'
'Mom, don't fuss...' sighed Presto.
'I mean it, kids,' snapped Mrs Greene over her son. 'You're coming back with me, you're going to get some hot food inside you and you're going to wait for your parents in the warm. Understood?'
Her eyes passed over all of the kids sternly as she spoke, resting finally on Hank. He winced a little at the diminutive, plump woman. He had forgotten how formidable Mrs Greene in full Mother Hen mode could be.