Playing With Fire
Hank stared into the crackling fire and tilted up his mug for another swallow of the now-cold cider. The inn's common room was all but empty now, the last barmaid sleepy-eyed as she wiped down the counters and straightened the rough wooden tables and chairs. His friends had long since gone upstairs, eager for a good night's rest in real beds. He knew he should follow their example, but the black mood that gripped him more often than not lately wouldn't let him go. So instead he sat and watched the logs turn to ash while he counted over his mistakes.
He remembered being pleased to be chosen as the leader. Not that any of the others had really wanted the job, except maybe Eric, but it was still the same kind of approval that he'd been going after all his life. Class president, captain of the baseball team, honor student--those were the labels that meant Hank Grayson, even to him. So of course he had to be the leader. Anything else wouldn't have fit the picture.
Of course, neither did being a total failure at it. Too bad nobody told the rest of the world that, he thought bitterly, draining the last of his cider. He slammed the mug down on the table next to him, making the barmaid jump and look over at him with startled eyes. Mutinous against his own better instincts, he deliberately didn't apologize and just slumped a little deeper in his chair. Petty, sure, but damn it, it made him feel good to be a jerk for once.
The creak of the stairs warned him, but he didn't turn around. He scowled at the fire and hoped that whichever of his friends had come down would take the hint and leave him alone.
No such luck, he thought sourly as Eric dropped jingling into the chair next to his.
"What're you still doing down here?" Eric asked, covering a yawn with the back of his hand. He'd taken off his plate and gauntlets, leaving only the leggings and chainmail shirt he wore beneath.
"Nothing," he answered shortly.
"Right," Eric drawled the word out. "Looks like you're training for the Olympics in world-class brooding to me."
"I'm just not tired yet. Why don't you go back up to bed?" Hank didn't even try to hide the irritation in his voice. "I promise I won't wake you up when I come in, if that's what you're worried about," he added coldly.
"Ooh, I'm wounded," Eric said mockingly, pretending to swoon against the back of the chair.
"Look, I'm really not in the mood for this, okay?"
The Cavalier shrugged. "I'm not tired either. Guess I'll stick around for a while." He hooked another chair with his leg and dragged it across the floor until it was in front of him, then propped his sock-clad feet up on it.
"Whatever." Hank just sat back and did his best to ignore him. Silence spread around them, and as the minutes slid by and Eric didn't make an attempt to drag him into a conversation, he gradually relaxed again until a clatter drew his attention over to the bar as the barmaid set the last stack of dishes on a shelf.
"Will either of ye be wanting anything more?" She was rubbing her eyes even as she asked.
"No," Hank said.
"I could use a beer," Eric said unexpectedly. Hank stared at him while he added, "If it's not too much trouble."
The woman pointed at a nearly-full pitcher sitting on the counter. "That's the last of the ale the barkeep pulled tonight," she said. "Two pence for it--we won't be pouring it back in the keg."
"Yeah, why not." She brought over the pitcher and two clean tankards, and Eric tossed her a couple of the local copper coins.
"Take 'em upstairs when ye're done and bring 'em down t'morrow," she said, then tucked the pennies in the pocket of her smock and slipped out of the room, leaving them alone with the slowly dying fire.
Frowning at the heavy smell of the alcohol, Hank watched Eric pour himself a mug. "What are you doing?"
Eric took a long pull from the glass, apparently unfazed by the fumes. "I'm drinking, what does it look like I'm doing?"
"We're not going to wait for you to get past a hangover tomorrow morning," Hank warned.
"Will you lighten up? I'm having a glass of beer, not pouring a keg down my throat. And it's not like we've got anywhere to go tomorrow."
"Dungeon Master will probably--"
"Oh yeah, Dungeon Master," Eric interrupted. "He'll probably show up the minute we leave town, send us off on another wild goose chase, at the end of which we'll either be dead tired or just plain dead, without being any closer to getting home. Yeah, there's something to really hurry up for." He took another swallow.
"If you've got any better ideas, I'm ready to hear them," Hank snapped, his fists clenching.
"If I did, you'd have heard them a long time ago," Eric said. He put down the mug and met Hank's eyes with a suddenly serious gaze. "Look, do you still think we're ever going to get home?"
Hank stiffened. "Of course we're going to get home."
"You really believe that?" Eric stared at him a moment longer, then shrugged and picked his tankard back up.
"Are you trying to say that you don't think we're going to make it back?" Hank demanded.
"I don't think the odds are good, no."
Stunned and trying not to show it, Hank reached over to the pitcher and poured himself a drink. The cold ale was coarse and dark, burning down his throat like thick smoke, but he welcomed the distraction, his mind running in frantic circles. He took a deep breath, about to speak again, when Eric forestalled him with a raised hand.
"Don't patronize me, okay? I don't need to be told everything's going to be okay." Eric's voice was intense, almost angry.
"I'm not--" Hank stopped, realizing that he had been about to do pretty much just that. "Sorry," he said instead.
"It's okay," Eric said, more calmly. "The pep talks just get kind of annoying after a while."
Hank looked down into his tankard. "Try giving them," he muttered, taking another pull of the smoky ale.
Eric snorted. "Not a chance."
Silence fell again, but companionable now, and Hank's mood lightened a little with the pressure of constantly pretending to be cheerful now lifted by Eric's blunt words. A warm glow spread through him from the ale, letting the tension he hadn't even realized was there seep out of his muscles. Near-dozing, he jerked back to wakefulness with a start when one of the logs in the fireplace collapsed in a flare of sparks, and he glanced over at his friend.
Eric was leaning his head against the high back of the chair, the flames mirrored in his dark eyes while he sipped from the mug. The shadow of a beard made a noticable line across his jaw, mingling in the hollows of his cheeks with the darker shadows cast by the leaping fire, adding years to his face. Hank had the sudden prickly sensation that he was seeing into the future, looking at the man Eric was only starting to become.
"You need to shave," he said, the words coming out sharper than he intended.
Raising a hand to his chin, Eric rubbed over the stubble. "Oh, goddammit. It's only been two days since the last time."
"You're shaving that often?" Hank involuntarily checked his own face, but his beard was still light.
Eric banged his head back against the chair a couple of times in evident frustration. "Yeah, at least twice a week lately, and it's only going to get worse. My dad shaves twice a day sometimes, if he's got a big meeting."
"Well, at least Presto can get shaving cream pretty reliably these days," Hank said, wondering why Eric seemed so upset.
"It's not the shaving that bothers me."
Hank looked at him questioningly.
Eric blew out a sigh and stood up. "Get up," he said, gesturing.
Reluctantly getting to his feet, Hank spread his hands and prompted, "And...?"
Straightening his shoulders, Eric looked down at him. "Notice anything?"
Hank looked up at him in blank confusion for nearly a solid minute before realizing that he was, in fact, looking up. "You got taller," he said numbly.
Eric thumped back into his chair. "I've got a couple inches on you right now, looks like," he said, leaning back and closing his eyes. "And I haven't got a clue how much you've grown. Do you?"
Sitting down slowly, Hank shook his head. "No idea," he said. "It never even occurred to me..." He stopped as the ramifications began to hit him.
Eric was watching him with a dry, unamused smile. "Getting the picture?" he asked. "We spend too much more time here, and finding a portal isn't going to be our biggest problem anymore, unless you've got any bright ideas about how to explain the fact that we got a couple of years older overnight."
"We can't have been here that long, can we?" Restless with concern, Hank got up and paced the floor, trying to tally up the chaotic stretch of their days in the Realm.
"Who can tell in this crazy world? Sheila took a guess for Bobby's birthday, but we've had more important things to worry about than what month it is." Eric leaned over the table and topped off both their mugs, then picked his back up to take a long draught.
"And we move around so much we can't tell by the seasons, if those even work the same way as they do back home," Hank finished grimly, walking back to the table and grabbing his tankard. He gulped down nearly half and slammed it down hard enough to send a few drops sloshing over the side. "Shit," he said flatly.
Eric saluted him sarcastically with his tankard. "Amen to that."
Sitting back down, Hank propped his elbows on the table and put his head in his hands. "What the hell do we tell the others? The only thing that keeps us all going is the hope that we're going to get home eventually and everything'll be fine."
"So why tell them?"
"How can we not tell them about something like this?"
Shrugging, Eric lifted his glass for another drink. "What good would it do? It's not like we're going to start trying harder just because of this. Why make them worry?"
Hank found that he couldn't argue with that, but the idea of yet another burden to carry for the group hit him like a ton of bricks, sparking a sudden furious desperation. Nearly lunging away from the table, he took two steps and slammed a punch into the polished wood of the wall, welcoming the simple burst of pain across his knuckles.
"Hey!" Eric yelled and jumped up, grabbing his arm before he could throw a second punch. Hank angrily tried to jerk free, but Eric hung on and half-wrestled, half-pushed him against the wall. Almost hoping that Eric would take a swing at him, Hank shoved him back hard, sending him stumbling into the table.
Eric did come up with fists clenched, but stopped after taking one step, his arms dropping to his sides. "What the hell is wrong with you?" he demanded.
"Maybe I'm just fucking tired of dealing with everything for everyone!" Hank snarled, his own hands still white-knuckled and tight. Some part of him knew he was being unfair, especially to Eric, who'd been carrying this latest piece of knowledge for who knew how long, but the white-hot anger was too liberating--he didn't want to let go of it. "I'm tired of having to follow Sheila and cheer her up every week when she sneaks off to cry, I'm tired of dealing with Bobby's tantrums every few days, I'm tired of hearing you and Diana bicker like five-year-olds all the time--"
"Wow, you're a mean drunk," Eric commented snidely, crossing his arms over his chest.
Speechless with anger, Hank jumped him. They crashed to the floor hard, and Hank was meanly glad to hear the breath whuff out of Eric's lungs. He held his friend down by his shoulders, but Eric pushed back with surprising strength and rolled them over so fast that Hank's head hit the floor with a bang, sparks skittering across his vision. Dazed, he lay still for a few moments, giving Eric enough time to pin him down firmly. He struggled to get up futilely for a minute before giving up and just glaring.
"You could've given me a little warning before deciding that this was a good time to go nuts," Eric panted, raising one hand to wipe a little trickle of blood away from the corner of his mouth.
Hank tried to use the opening to get loose, but Eric leaned on him with his full weight, increased by the chainmail. "Get off me," he gritted.
"Are you going to try to slug me again?"
"Probably," Hank snapped.
"Bzzt, wrong answer," Eric said, folding his arms across Hank's chest and giving every evidence of planning to stay right where he was.
"Eric, I swear to God, if you don't get off me right now--" Hank shoved furiously, but Eric's body remained a solid weight across his chest and legs, and it was being forcefully brought home to him that his friend was no longer the skinny guy he remembered easily tackling in casual football games.
"I hate to break this to you while you're having so much fun," Eric said, "but walking around 24-7 with about thirty extra pounds of solid steel on really does something for a guy's muscles."
Finally giving up, Hank just lay flat and glared up at Eric, who stared right back down at him, his mouth twitching slightly. Another moment, and it was obvious that Eric was fighting back a grin. Suddenly, it hit Hank how ridiculous the whole thing was, and he choked down a spasm of laughter for almost three full seconds before he met Eric's eyes and both of them started to laugh helplessly.
They were still laughing when Eric climbed off him and pulled him to his feet. Gasping a little, Hank sank back into his chair and tried to catch his breath.
Also panting, Eric sat down across from him. "You okay?" he asked quietly after a few moments.
Hank looked away, suddenly embarrassed. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine," he said awkwardly. "Sorry for--for all that."
"Don't be sorry. You've got as much right as any of us to freak out once in a while," Eric said. "You have to cut loose sometimes, or you really will go nuts." He pushed Hank's mug over to him and took his own back.
"I just don't feel like I can," Hank said, idly tracing circles on the tabletop with a finger. "I mean, Bobby acts like I've betrayed him if I so much as say I'm tired. I don't even want to think how he'd react if I started falling apart in front of him."
Eric shrugged. "So do it in front of me. I promise, I won't pitch a fit just because you demonstrate that you're a human being instead of the embodiment of leadership."
"Right. 'Embodiment of leadership,' my ass," Hank said, some of the bitterness returning. "If I'm such a great leader, how come we aren't home yet?" He picked up his tankard and gulped down the rest.
"Being a good leader doesn't mean carrying us home on your back."
"I've made so many mistakes," Hank whispered. Not wanting to meet Eric's eyes, he stared into the now-empty mug.
"Oh, for--" Eric stopped and rubbed his forehead. "Look," he said firmly, "We're a bunch of kids whose idea of a tough day used to be back-to-back math and english exams. We got dumped here with weapons we didn't know how to use, Venger on our backs, and our only pal is a midget who talks like Yoda. And you know what? You've kept the six of us alive, together, and reasonably sane. Considering the situation, that's pretty fucking amazing." He poked Hank's shoulder. "Are you listening, here?"
Hank looked back up and found only sincerity in Eric's direct gaze. "Yeah," he said softly, feeling suddenly better.
"Good," Eric said, grinning. "'Cause I'm not repeating any of that mush." He stood up, the muscles in his back cracking loudly as he stretched. "Come on, what do you say we go upstairs and get some sleep?"
"Sounds good," Hank admitted and got up.
The two of them carried the pitcher and the mugs up the stairs to the room they were sharing. With only one tiny window, the room was so small that even the low fire on their hearth filled it with glowing warmth. Hank sat down on the bed to heel off his boots, then pulled the leather armor over his head and hung it over the footboard. He stood up and stretched, enjoying the rare opportunity to take the heavy leather off, while Eric unceremoniously dumped his chainmail shirt on the floor with a sigh of pleasure that told Hank his friend was as glad of the chance to take off his armor as he was.
He found himself studying Eric while the cavalier undressed. He wasn't joking about the effect of wearing all that armor, Hank thought, startled to see how different the body beneath the mail now looked. His own muscles had improved on a respectable start thanks to the months of hard travel, but Eric's had gone from flabby to vividly defined. Limned with ruddy firelight, the heavy muscles of Eric's thighs rippled as he crossed to the fireplace and knelt to bank the flames, and his biceps moved sleekly beneath the skin with the motion of his arms.
Feeling a little flushed, Hank poured himself another mug of ale, needing something to do with his hands. His tongue seemed to have gotten numb to the bitter taste, and the cool liquid slid down his throat easily. Eric joined him at the table and filled his own tankard, then carried it back to the bed and sprawled over the coverlet. "Man, it's nice to be inside for once," he said with a sigh, lifting the mug to his lips.
Climbing onto the bed, Hank propped himself up on some pillows. "Yeah," he agreed, trying not to stare as Eric's throat rippled in a swallow. He shook his head, trying to clear it. and wiped sweat from his forehead. "Is it just me, or is it hot in here?"
Eric glanced over at him. "It's pretty warm, but you're also still wearing half your clothes," he pointed out.
Setting aside his mug, Hank pulled off his undershirt, pretending to himself that the color rising up the back of his neck was from the heat. He had no idea why he was now feeling shy around Eric--they'd bathed together often enough over the months of wandering. But he was suddenly aware of his friend in a totally different way, and the sensation was discomfiting to say the least. His fingers fumbled with the drawstring of his leggings for a minute before he finally managed to get them off.
Eric was watching him with amusement plain on his face. "Maybe you'd better lay off the alcohol. This stuff is pretty strong."
"I don't see you stopping."
"I drink more than you do. Now that I think about it, I don't think I've ever seen you drink before."
"I don't, usually," Hank said, realizing he wasn't sure just how much he'd drunk and that things around him were starting to take on a fuzzy glow. He set the tankard down on the small bedside stand. "But when have you had a chance to drink since we've been here?"
"Well, it's been a while," Eric admitted. "Not since I spent the night with Zinn." He sighed, sounding almost regretful. "She gave me this incredible stuff -- like peach schnapps, only better...man, that was one hell of a night."
Hank stared at him, taken aback by the tone. "Tell me you didn't," he said warily.
"Didn't sleep with her!"
"Are you kidding me?" Eric demanded. Hank started to sigh with relief. "Of course I slept with her."
Hank nearly choked. "You slept with that-- Eric!"
Eric sat up, looking indignant. "I was supposed to marry her the next day, you dummy! Why wouldn't I have sex with her?"
"She was a witch!"
"We didn't know that at the time. Besides," Eric shrugged, "she was hot."
Hank groaned and covered his face with a pillow.
"Hey, it beat jacking off in the woods." Closing his eyes, Eric sighed dreamily and rolled onto his back, one hand drifting down to rest on his abdomen. "The things she could do with her mouth..."
Aglow with the effects of the alcohol, Hank found his breath coming more quickly. Eric's voice had gone husky and low, and the firelight lingered caressingly on his skin, pooling shadows in the curve of his hips and casting the chiseled muscles into sharp relief. Hank licked his lips and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to push down the sudden hunger coiling inside him.
He opened them again to find Eric propped up on one elbow, looking intently at him. Treacherous color flooded his cheeks instantly, and he scrambled desperately for something to say. But before he could get anything out, Eric shifted forward and deliberately put one hand on his thigh, thumb tracing the barest caress on his skin. The light touch flashed through him, setting every nerve on alert, and he shivered, closing his eyes to amplify the sensation.
The stirring air warned him before the first touch of Eric's lips, warm and surprisingly soft, and he leaned into the kiss without opening his eyes. Reaching up to cup Eric's jaw, his fingers stroked over the rough stubble, tilting Eric's head slightly so he could deepen the kiss. He was already achingly hard, his shaft full and heavy against his thigh.
Eric tugged the pillows flat, and they slid down together, limbs intertwining. Eric's thigh pressed between his, and he thrust up against it, shuddering with pleasure as his cock glided against firm muscle. Wrapping his arms around Eric's chest, he pulled him close, their chests rubbing against each other while his hands explored the smooth ridges of Eric's back.
With a groan, Eric nudged his head back for access to his throat. Hank gasped for breath as Eric's mouth traveled over the tender skin, licking and biting, and he jerked almost frantically when Eric suckled the juncture between his neck and shoulder. "Please," he said incoherently, fingers digging into Eric's shoulders.
In response, Eric shifted further onto him, the weight pressing him into the softness of the bed, and kissed him again, hard, sucking on his mouth almost fiercely. Eric's cock lay like a hot brand against his hip, and he reached down to align them, cupping the rigid shafts together. Eric moaned wordlessly and thrust into his hand, reaching down and lacing his fingers with Hank's. They pumped together, working into an awkward, blissful rhythm, their sweat-slick bodies moving easily, faster and faster, and Hank suddenly fell over the edge, shaking as his cock pulsed between their hands, semen slicking their fingers. Above him, Eric arched and followed him over, his head flung back tautly as he came.
Afterwards, they lay in a tangled, sweaty heap, their heavy breathing the only sound audible over the crackling of the fire. His head thick and dazed with afterglow, Hank stared at the ceiling, one hand absently stroking the back of Eric's neck, and did his best not to let anything resembling thought get near his brain.
Eric finally groaned and pushed himself up. "Figures. We need a shower like anything and we're stuck in a world without indoor plumbing," he said, looking down at their bodies.
Stirring reluctantly, Hank followed his gaze and grimaced at the streaks of sweat and semen crisscrossing their chests and abdomens. "Ugh."
"Hang on." Eric managed to climb off the bed without dripping onto the sheets and got the small washcloth and ewer of water from the bedside table. Hank lay back and let Eric clean him off, drowsily enjoying the strokes of the nubby cloth. Already half-asleep, he barely noticed when Eric finished and crawled back into the bed, only aware enough to wrap an arm around Eric's shoulders and nuzzle into his warmth before slipping completely into slumber.
* * *
He woke the next morning with a throbbing headache and an equally throbbing hard-on, and he groaned as they started competing for his attention. Next to him, Eric gave a muffled version of the same groan and rolled away onto his back. "Why did I think drinking was a good idea?" he moaned.
"I told you so," Hank muttered, throwing an arm over his eyes to block out the painfully bright sunlight.
"I'll get you for that...later." Eric pulled one of the pillows loose and covered his face with it.
"We'd better get up," Hank said half-heartedly. His body was giving him signals very much to the contrary.
"Tell me you're joking. I'm not moving an inch before lunchtime."
A loud knock rattled the door. "Hey! How long are you two lazybones planning to stay in bed?" Diana's voice called from the other side.
They both groaned.
"Are you guys sick or something?" Sheila's voice came through. "Should we come in?"
"No!" Eric and Hank shouted at the same time, nearly falling over each other as they scrambled off the bed and started grabbing for their clothes.
"You sure you're okay?" Sheila asked, sounding concerned.
"We're fine! We'll be out in a minute!" Hank yelled, yanking on his leggings and pulling his shirt back on.
"Okay, well, we'll be downstairs getting some breakfast," Diana called. "See you down there."
The sound of footsteps moving away from the door cut their panic short, and they both flopped back onto the bed, half-dressed. "I bet they did that on purpose," Eric said darkly.
"We should go down and drink some water to get over the dehydration," Hank said, making no move to get back up.
"After you," Eric said.
They both lay there and stared at the ceiling, neither of them moving. "So what--" Hank stopped and cleared his throat. "So what is this...exactly?"
"A bed?" Eric offered. "Ow!" he said, raising a hand to block the pillow Hank tried to whack him with. "Come on, what is that supposed to mean?"
"You know what I mean," Hank said, sitting up and looking anywhere but at Eric.
Eric sighed noisily. The bed creaked as he pushed himself back up. "Look, I'm not a blushing virgin, okay? So we screwed each other's brains out last night. I'm not lying here expecting you to go down on bended knee and vow eternal love."
Hank laughed in spite of himself. "Damn, and I had this great speech all set."
"I'll bet," Eric said. "Seriously, it's whatever we want it to be. If you just want to chalk it up to too much ale and too much stress and forget about it, that's fine."
"Is that what you want?"
"What I want? No. I'm pretty sick and tired of making do with my right hand and the occasional evil sorceress who wants to seduce me," Eric said. "I haven't been celibate this long since I was 16."
"Tell me about it," Hank said. "At least you've had the occasional evil sorceress."
"Speaking of alternatives, tell me something--why haven't you and Sheila hooked up?" Eric asked. "I kind of got the feeling you two were heading towards being an item back home."
"We were," Hank said. "We'd already made our first date for the next weekend."
"So what happened?"
"This happened," Hank said, waving his arm around. "We spent the first couple of weeks just trying to survive. By the time things calmed down, I'd decided it wasn't a good idea to get involved. I mean, can you imagine what it would be like for the group if we got together and then broke up?"
"I see your point."
"Not to mention that I haven't exactly seen condoms growing on trees around here," Hank added.
Eric shuddered. "Talk about things that would be tough to explain back home."
Hank nodded and shuddered with equal fervor.
"Well, look. It's not like that's a problem for us. And I'm not looking for a 'relationship' with hearts and flowers and all that crap." Eric paused. "I'll take chocolate, though, if you can find any."
"I'll keep that in mind," Hank said, grinning again. "So...nothing serious?"
"But if we just happen to have the opportunity..."
"Right," Eric said again, smirking.
"Works for me," Hank said.
They shared a slightly guilty grin, then finally dragged themselves off the bed and went downstairs to rejoin the others.
~~~ The End ~~~