AN: Okay, everyone, your ride is slowly coming to an end. Please remain seated. I hope you enjoyed this. Thanks for sticking with me to the end.
And disclaimer, I still don't own "Level Up" or anything except my own characters. *sigh*
They had been on the school bus. Angie remembered that much…then a big blank spot where her memory of returning to school after the field trip should have been. The next thing she knew, the bright light was gone and she was back in Never Fail's warehouse H.Q.
Okay, fine. Weirdness happened every day when you lived in a town where video game avatars leaked into the real world. Angie could deal with weirdness.
But someone had better have a damn good explanation for how and why she ended up kneeling on the floor, hovering over Dante with her mouth on his.
Equally baffled, he mumbled, voice muffled by her lips: "Angie? What are you doing?"
She jumped back at least a foot. "Ohmy god! What the hell-? You-?" Her mind was going too fast to form coherent words. She glanced from the boy lying on the cement floor to Wyatt and Lyle, who were standing nearby. The latter had his cellphone and snapped a photo of the whole thing with a grin that was pure evil. She stammered at them, trying to ask for an explanation. All she could squeak out was, "What the hell?"
Wyatt was so grateful just to see them both that he couldn't help smiling. He tried to get her to settle down so he could explain, since it was obvious she didn't remember anything about the Grimferno. "Angie, it's not what you think-"
Lyle cut him off, "No, no…let's see what she does..."
Angie was completely oblivious to everything else-to the fact that their headquarters were more trashed than usual, to the piles of Skelhawk bones that littered the warehouse and the furniture overturned and broken during the fight, and to the medieval-looking bottle of elixir that Wyatt held in one hand. "That did not happen! I don't know what's going on here, what sick Leak trick this is, but that did not happen…" She dashed to their sink, turned the water on, and stuck her mouth under the stream.
"When are we going to tell her she wasn't really kissing Dante?" Wyatt asked Lyle.
Lyle shrugged. "As soon as it stops being fun watching her freak out. Two, three days…a week, tops."
Not that they blamed her. They'd been more than a little freaked out, too, when the images fed to Wyatt's computer by the Seeing Eye abruptly stopped…mostly because the Seeing Eye would have only stopped if Dante…well, stopped. For two or three minutes that felt like two or three years, Wyatt and Lyle had stared at the darkened computer screen in pure, gut-wrenching dread.
Wyatt had been in the process of re-opening their wormhole into the Grimferno-the genie's warning be damned-when the Grim Djinn's portal had opened and dumped Angie and the unconscious Dante into the warehouse.
Dante sat up, trying to piece together the gaps in his memory. He felt awful. His stomach was unsettled like he'd just eaten another car seat and every bone and muscle in his body ached. He surveyed the wreckage of their headquarters. Then he looked at Wyatt and Lyle. The computer geek had a goofy grin on his face. Lyle merely nodded in welcome. His face and arms were covered by dozens of tiny bird bites.
"Guys? Did I miss a fight?" Dante asked.
The next thing he knew, Wyatt was squeezing the stuffing out of him. "Dante! Are you all right?"
"Dude, we talked about this. You're only allowed two hugs per year. And I'm counting you tackling me in that football game as one."
Wyatt let go. "Sorry. I'm just glad you're alive…and that you aren't purple anymore."
Dante had no idea what that was supposed to mean. "I was purple? And I missed it?" he asked in disappointment.
Lyle saw that Wyatt was right-there were no more purple welts on Dante. Even Angie looked clear of the contagions (though it was hard to tell, since she was still bent on scrubbing her mouth with any sort of soap she could get her hands on at the moment). "No more poison. The Grim Djinn must have healed him."
"I missed a fight with a Grim Djinn and being purple?" Dante was really unhappy now. His memory was a complete blank between being on the school bus and waking up in the warehouse. Did he wipe out on the skateboard and give himself a concussion again…? Barbara would take his skateboard away if… "Wait…how'd we get here? Where's my stuff? Where's my skateboard?"
"I think you left it in the Grimferno," Wyatt answered.
"I missed being purple and fighting a Grim Djinn and being in the Grimferno?" Sulking, he slumped onto their battered sofa.
"You don't remember?" Lyle asked him. He looked at Wyatt. "Why don't they remember?"
Wyatt had a theory. To confirm it, he clicked on the television. The newscaster cheerfully babbled, "…and today's top story is sweet indeed: A local bakery makes the world's biggest strawberry tart."
"What happened to the missing school bus story?" Lyle wondered.
Wyatt called up the text message Angie had sent him, the one that outlined the terms of the whole battle in the Grimferno. When he did, the answer became apparent. "It's right here: When Dante negotiated the terms of engagement, he said that when Grim Djinn released the players, he had to restore them exactly as they were before he took them."
"So the school bus is where?" Lyle asked again.
"Well, if the Grim Djinn put everything back as if nothing ever happened, then the bus never went into the Grimferno. It would be back at school by now, and everyone on the bus would have gone home for the day. Dante and Angie would have come here…and here they are. Like it never happened. Right down to not remembering. Just like they were when the Grim Djinn took them. No cuts, no bumps, no bruises…and no poison."
"But a heck of a hangover, though," Dante complained, rubbing his aching neck.
"With seven players in seven battles, there was no way someone wasn't going to get hurt, and there was a pretty good chance they were going to lose at least one fight. With the terms Dante set, a player who was injured would have to be healed. A player who was killed…would have to be brought back to life." Wyatt was following the train of game logic to the end of the tracks. "But, Grim Djinn couldn't release Dante and heal him until Dante kept his word to stay in the Grimferno until he died. They both had to honor the terms of battle first. Pretty clever actually."
Lyle raised an eyebrow. "Clever? What if Dante hadn't been poisoned? He would have had to stay in the Grimferno as Maldark's slave forever. What if they'd lost more than one fight? Angie might have had to stay."
Wyatt shrugged. "Every game plan relies on a certain amount of dumb luck."
"Why does that sound familiar?" Angie asked around a mouthful of toothpaste foam.
"So… Dante would have been healed just coming back through the portal? Sneaking into Bolbard's Garden and the Skelhawks trying to peck my eyes out and using our one and only cheat code…we did that for nothing?" Lyle supposed he shouldn't be upset. The important thing was that their friends were back home, alive and well.
Wyatt stared at the bottle of elixir. "I wouldn't say that."
He remembered seeing Dante bite the Grim Djinn in the arm and the Grim Djinn starting to turn purple as the poison spread into his blue body. It was the last thing that they had seen on the computer before the Seeing Eye spell was broken and the screen had gone dark. Dante poisoned the Grim Djinn. You had to love irony.
Wyatt picked up one of the pieces of paper that had been scattered all over the room during the fight. He penned a note and taped it to the bottle of elixir. Then he keyed open the wormhole into the Grimferno and pitched the bottle through the portal.
Lyle gaped. "You gave the antidote to Grim Djinn? Why did you do that?"
"Grim Djinns can't make wishes to cure themselves of Cockatrice poison, and I'm guessing Maldark doesn't care if he lives or dies after he let Dante and Angie go," Wyatt answered
"Wyatt, I know you think that you're explaining everything, but again, why do we want him cured?" Dante asked.
"We need him to owe us a favor…well three favors, actually. Wait for it."
The answer wasn't long in coming. A full minute hadn't elapsed before the Grim Djinn emerged from the wormhole. Dante jumped behind the couch, putting the furniture between himself and the massive genie. Lyle scrambled to grab his scepter. Angie backed up to the wall. Wyatt stood where he was, partially out of necessity and partially because his frightened feet wouldn't move.
Wyatt craned his neck to stare up at the blue-skinned monster's face. Dante and Angie went seven rounds with this guy? "Holy nuts…he's a big fella…"
The Grim Djinn gave the warehouse a disdainful quirk of his eyebrow. He bowed to the teenagers. "Black Death, Wizza, Sir Dante…Lady Methane."
Angie forgot to be frightened of the Leak when it addressed her with that god-awful title. "'Lady Methane'? Wh-" Her eyes narrowed, glaring at Dante, the only one who could possibly be responsible for giving her that disgusting name. "What did you do?"
The Grim Djinn offered the bottle and the paper to Wyatt. Lyle and Dante snatched the note away first, reading what had been written there: "By accepting the Elixir of Nightfrost, the Grim Djinn will grant the clan Never Fail three wishes in return."
"I agree to your terms," the genie said. His concession would have been obvious from the fact that he was no longer purple and the bottle of antidote was now empty. "Make your requests."
Wyatt was ready for the question-he'd been preparing for this since the moment he'd found out the genie had taken Dante and Angie. "Um…okay. First, you make Maldark and all his goons forget everyone's real identities. That includes you, too."
The Grim Djinn inclined his head. "Agreed."
Lyle jumped in. "And from now on, you fight on our side, you know, if Maldark comes after us again. No more capturing us or trying to destroy us."
The genie had to give that some consideration. To betray the Lord Maldark in such a way would make him a fugitive in his own realm. Maldark was a man of no honor, but he was still a man of great power. The genie might have refused, if he had not foolishly taken the antidote before asking for the terms. It was too late now. "Agreed," he said finally.
"Good idea. Ooh, and I want my skateboard back," Dante asked.
"And Angie's glove," Wyatt hurriedly added.
"Agreed." That was a simple request. The Grim Djinn snapped his fingers, and the skateboard was back in Dante's hands. At least, it had been his skateboard. Now it looked like Darth Vader's skateboard.
Dante grinned at the new board. "Awesome."
"Sir Bickle, Lady Methane…" The Grim Djinn bowed one last time. "I look forward to sharing the field of battle with you again one day."
With those parting words, he was gone and the portal to the Grimferno winked into nothingness.
"You know you can't ride that thing in public," Angie reminded Dante for the twentieth time since the genie had returned his amped-up skateboard.
"Worth it." Dante's hand ran over the board, which was concealed from view beneath a beach towel until he could get it home. He still insisted on carrying the thing around for the last week since they'd escaped the Grimferno.
Wyatt and Lyle had told them what they could of the fight in the arena. Since their knowledge was limited to what they'd seen through the Seeing Eye and what Angie had texted from the fight, there were still gaps that could not be filled in. Angie and Dante could not help. With the gaps in their memory, they knew even less than Wyatt and Lyle.
Angie had found an email that she sent herself from the Grimferno…well, it ended up in Wyatt's message board in the game, but he was polite and did not read it, since it was addressed to her. Well, to Lady Methane. Angie made Wyatt delete that awful name right away.
Grimferno Angie told her-Future Angie-to be sure to suggest that Big Joe ask Ella to the upcoming Spring Formal dance. Angie didn't understand it. Neither did Joe and Ella. But, sure enough, he had screwed up his courage and done so. The two of them were quickly becoming something of an item.
The second part of the note was an order from Grimferno Angie to Future Angie that she make damn sure Dante stuck to his tutoring sessions with Fred. The fact that Dante hated every minute of the sessions only added to Angie's fun.
The third part of the message instructed Future Angie to nag Future Dante until he tried to sort things out with his ex-best friend, Julio. To Dante and Angie's mutual surprise, he had found an email from Grimferno Dante in his own message board telling himself the same thing. Since Dante flat out refused to talk about what had happened between him and Julio and was less receptive to the idea of making amends than he was to the tutoring sessions…well, Angie was filing that task under "Work In Progress".
The final part of the message had suggested she speak to Shayne about giving Dante a chance. For some reason, that idea was giving Angie a knot in the pit of her stomach. Angie had filed task that under "Save For Later".
Three out of four wasn't bad, was it? Angie reasoned.
Unfortunately for Future Dante, he hadn't stopped with the note about Julio. They'd discovered a couple of days later that Grimferno Dante had sent one more message, probably when he was dying from the Cockatrice poison.
This was the reason the rest of Never Fail clan was walking him home from school that afternoon. Wyatt and Lyle walked to the right of him. Angie had linked her right arm through Dante's left arm just in case he tried to make a break for it. Them calling this a 'side quest' wasn't helping. The closer they got to his house, the slower Dante walked, until Angie was tugging him down the sidewalk.
He didn't actually stop and dig in his heels until they rounded the corner and Dante's house came into view—along with the figure standing on the porch with his mom.
Whatever had gone down in the Grimferno must have been bad on an epic level to make Grimferno Dante send a text message agreeing to see his Dad.
He shook his head and tried to retreat. Angie's grip on his arm tightened, holding him in place. "Can't do it. He bailed on me and my mom. I ignore him; he sends me cards full of money Christmas and birthday. I'm fine with our relationship the way it is."
Angie slid her hand from Dante's elbow down to lace her fingers through his. Lyle raised an eyebrow at the gesture and Wyatt shrugged. He figured the two of them were entitled to be a little more protective of each other than usual after their ordeal in the Grimferno. They'd be back to their normal relationship-whatever 'normal' was for them—before long.
"Come on, Dante. If I can survive having to give you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, you can survive a couple of hours with your Dad," Angie persisted.
There was a bark and a large cream-colored Labrador dashed from its spot beside Dante's father and ran to greet the boy, practically jumping into Dante's arms.
"Hey, Sir Bickle." Dante scratched the dog behind the ears. The dog wagged its entire body in response. The commotion the animal had created had alerted his parents to Dante's return. They were both looking in the direction of the teenagers now.
"What am I supposed to say to him? Thanks for taking the dog and leaving me? Thanks for screwing up my entire universe?" Dante asked.
"Yes," Lyle said. "And then hear what he has to say. If it doesn't work out, at least you get a chance to tell him all this crap that's been eating at you since the divorce."
Wyatt added, "We'll be right here if you need us." He took the skateboard out of Dante's hands and gave him a gentle shove in the general direction of his house.
Still apprehensive, pushing down months of pent-up anger, Dante trudged up the sidewalk. The dog led the way, bounding back and forth between the teenager and his parents until the boy finally stood at the bottom of the steps.