In the Name of the King - HistoricallyInnacurate (2024)

Chapter 1: The Story Begins

Chapter Text

Tim's head reeled from the events of the past twenty minutes. His captor was kind enough to let him get his bearings.

"I promised you a deal," the massive creature on the throne promised. "Guess my real name, and you will be returned. Until then, consider yourself an honored guest."

Tim was only able to figure out a few emotions from the alien, scarred face under the flaming crown, but the main one was pity.

He hated that- but could maybe use it. If even half of the information the Watchtower had on the Ghost King was true, he needed as much leverage as he could get.

"How many tries do I have? And how long do I have?" If it was unlimited, he'd just throw as many names at the King as he could think of.

The King raised one clawed hand to tap at his chin. "The Fenton portal is closed for now, and Plasmius' has been broken. I don't want to kill you," he mused, "and it gets boring around here sometimes. I'll give you until your human lifespan ends, and you'll have one try per day."

Relief mixed with fear sent chills down his spine. If the King was confident enough to give him a lifetime, he had a rare name indeed- and possibly one a human mouth couldn't pronounce.

"Pariah Dark?"

There were gasps around the room as well as titters, and the King raised his other left hand. "Enough. I kept the news of a new King quiet for a reason, and I'm pleased to see my efforts worked."

To Tim he said, "tomorrow."

-

He was given a journal to count his attempts, though he was informed by the Royal Head of Scribes he could use it for anything. He was also informed he would be attending court daily after breakfast, and his first name to the king would be his guess.

Other than court, he was free to roam if accompanied by a guard.

When he opened the journal, it said 'Pariah Dark' in scratchy calligraphy. Below it, it said 'The old king's name isn't mine'.

"He's got jokes, huh?"

The ghost woman in rather revealing armor with a spear lodged in her chest shrugged. "One must have a sense of humor, with as much as King Phantom has gone through over the millenia."

"Your name is Octavia, right?"

She scowled. "You may call me Gladiatrix. Only those who have defeated me in battle may call my by my given name."

"Sorry. Have you known King Phantom for long?"

She chuckled, likely guessing the game. "I was given the privilege of meeting my King some 3,000 or so years ago, as you would count it. Though I only met him again a few years ago."

"Wow. Was he already King back then?"

"It was a great shock back then, his defeat of the ghost who called himself Plasmius. It would not be so now, but at that time, he was dead only three years," she replied.

"His appearance was that of a prepubescent boy, a waifish one at that. And yet, though Plasmius tore down every obstacle our empire set up to declare himself Caesar, my king tore him nearly to pieces."

3,000, Gladiatrix- female version of a gladiator, and a young boy at the time.

"He must've started out powerful, then."

She pursed her lips. "The power of a ghost directly responds to the pain of their death, and the challenges they face while their core develops. He was merely powerful, then. I caution you the best way to leave this place is to enjoy his mercy and solve his game. You cannot defeat him in battle."

"I never intended to," he answered, "but thank you for the warning. Can I ask you something else?"

Gladiatrix shrugged, briefly dislodging the spear in her chest. "You may ask."

He swallowed. "Why didn't- or couldn't," he hesitated, trying to find a way to phrase his question that wouldn't turn the only friendly person he'd met so far hostile.

"You and the other were sent as a sacrifice. Because of the loophole implying singular, he was allowed to refuse one. The two of you chose who would stay, and out of generosity, my king decided to sacrifice you to his boredom rather than his hunger."

There were a multitude of ways someone could stop boredom, and Tim was grateful it was just a guessing game. "Wait- what happened to my brother?"

Her face scrunched into a formidable scowl (not quite as good as Bruce's), for only a second. "Perhaps you should define 'brother' more effectively. Now come, the midday meal is food from the mortal realm, which you may eat safely."

She ignored his other questions, except for those about the castle or the "infinite realms."

-

Tim didn't try to sleep, too busy playing the last few moments with Damian in his head. ("You're only a replacement anyway!")

-

Day 2

-

He was still awake when Gladiatrix came for him. He was required to change- interestingly enough into modern human clothing- and had the joy of a shower using completely unidentifiable liquids before getting breakfast (fruit and heavily seasoned porridge) and being taken to the King's court.

The fact that his weapons weren't taken from him added a tally to the host section in his mental debate of 'host vs captor'.

He was then escorted to a throne room, occupied by all manner of creatures, some which looked as human as Gladiatrix and others that gave him a headache to look at. Tim was instructed to sit facing the court at one of the long tables in front of the throne. He would've preferred to be at the back so he could keep everyone in sight.

Tim whispered, "where's the King?"

Gladiatrix replied in a whisper of her own. "Least to most important. The King is last."

Slowly, other ghosts floated, walked, crawled, or slithered in to their seats before a group of four floating eyeballs in extremely fancy robes flew in.

They looked to the dias, spoke among themselves briefly, and tried to leave, stopped by a pair of guards- a centaur and what had to be a theropod dinosaur. Not a T-Rex, he was reasonably sure, but possibly a cousin.

"No one leaves court until the King grants leave," she whispered to him.

So they'd made an unintentional social gaffe, or maybe the people scheduled to go in before them were late. The next few ghosts marched up to the dias, behind Tim. He wondered if there were rules to where everyone sat, but before he could ask, the guards near the door stamped their feet and roared.

Absolute silence. No more whispered conversations and even twitching and fidgeting stopped, until one of the eyeballs grumbled, earning glares from everyone assembled. A moment later, the King's form- mostly starry void with bands of stark white- twisted in the air.

Four arms, each ending in white hands (interestingly, two had claws while the others were squared off) reached upwards. "In the name of the Infinite Realms and the Zone, I greet you and invite you for petition."

Then, the King rose to his throne and settled. With nothing else to do, and unwilling to break the pattern of grievance, inquiry, law, return grievance, solution until he had a reason, Tim jotted down notes- on the laws, how ghosts reacted, how the King handled things- anything that seemed important at the time.

As cases were handled, giants that seemed to be made of too many arms and an even worse number of heads struck out old laws and wrote new ones on massive tablets. Each change clearly upset the eyeballs, though everyone else in the court was happy (or at least not as angry).

Page after page went by, and Tim felt the urge to sleep- an odd sensation to say the least.

Shortly after he switched hands, the king rose again, and ordered court adjourned until the '80th cycle', whatever that meant.

Petitioners left in the same order they entered in, meaning he got the pleasure of leaving literal monstrous giants and definitely hostile eyeballs at his back. "Wait," Gladiatrix ordered.

Though the eyeballs didn't have faces per se, there was undoubtedly strong disapproval, and possibly outright hatred. They scattered before the next group of ghosts, more eldritch monstrosities than anything recognizably human, and finally the king left, flanked by the two door guards.

"I hope you rested well," the king said with something resembling a smile. "What do you think my name is?"

"I'm told you met Gladiatrix a few thousand years ago, and fought an emperor. I'm just going to throw out: Spartacus."

The king laughed, surprisingly human. There seemed to be a little disappointment there, too. "Good reasoning, but not it."

"Do I get a clue?"

The king considered him with green and white eyes, too big for his face. "Can I see what you wrote down?"

Interesting- he hadn't been ordered. Tim handed over his notes (though not the shorthand coded copy he made while waiting for the massive hall to leave).

The king considered them, flipping through with the squared-off fingers. The taloned hands laid still at his side. "My name," he said finally, "doesn't have an S."

That wasn't very helpful, was Tim's first thought- then realized just how many names he could rule out. Julius. Augustus. Remus. Romulus. Jason.

(Would Jason possibly know how to find him, with the whole undead thing he had going on? Would he even try, or be equally as grateful as Damian that 'the Replacement' was gone?)

"Thanks," he said absentmindedly, choosing to work on a mental list of names rather than dwell on... everything.

-

Day 3

-

A cycle was roughly 15 minutes according to the extremely disturbing talking lamp, which meant he had about 20 hours until his next chance, if his calculations were correct.

There was a problem here he hadn't foreseen: no coffee. No redbull, no energy drinks. There was purified, super-concentrated, electrified ectoplasm, but that would have the unfortunate affect of killing him.

This meant, about six hours after court ended and his next meal (something called Zamzaganu, which was incredibly strange but tasty), he actually slept. Alfred would be equally shocked and proud, Tim thought in amusem*nt.

It quickly died, choked by morbid questions he couldn't answer: what did Damian tell Alfred, and the rest of the family? Alfred would try to find him, he told himself quietly in his room. Even if no one else, Alfred would.

There was more doubt in his voice than he liked.

Tim found his original clothes- the Red Robin suit- had been cleaned and had a slight scent of ozone and pumpkin pie spice.

After changing, Gladiatrix was again his guide, letting him have a tantalizing but brief look at a massive library called the Trillion Book Athenaeum. The many floors of the building stretched farther into the green and purple sky than his human eyes could see- and lower, as well, into gangrenous depths.

There were seemingly- endless fields of garbage, which shifted before his eyes, becoming lost toys, forgotten but cherished books, all of which carried the scent of his father's cologne. The kind his dad brought out on good days, when he acted like he really loved Tim, like everything would be ok. Before he burned the last bridges and Tim ran off to Bruce to drown himself in solving mysteries.

"Red Robin, it is time to move on," the now-familiar voice of Gladiatrix commanded. "The fields of nostalgia have many pitfalls, and it is time to attend my King's court."

With difficulty, he took his eyes away from the mountains which, from his peripheral vision, were nothing more than piles of broken toys, rotten food, and trash.

On the way, the female gladiator cleared her throat. "You have my apologies. Most ghosts find this place lovely, much as a museum or garden. I forgot how it impacts the minds of mortals lacking a core."

"It's okay," Tim said, more of a rote response than an honest one. "What’s a core?"

Classic. Picking a question instead of confronting emotions to avoid backlash. Jeez. Maybe he shouldn't have read so many psychology textbooks while profiling and tracking serial killers.

"It is an organ which develops over time in ghosts," she explained, eagerly taking the peace offering, "and allows us to filter and consume ectoplasm. But more importantly, it is the seat of the combined mind-soul. Beyond that, most knowledge is instinctual."

As before, they reached the massive court hall after the supplicants, though Tim noted the faces of those who spoke in court yesterday had changed. The eyeballs (though 'Observants' were the correct names, apparently) came in before the group of 6 so-called 'Ancient' ghosts again, and again made a fuss.

This time, he took notes on purpose, aiming for another clue. As before, after court the ghosts in the lower area began to file out, though now he noticed an interesting quirk. They would leave by group, but always one- the same one all three days- would stay until the last had filed out, then the next group to leave seemed to have their own pattern as well.

This time, too, he noted down questions on a separate piece of faintly glowing paper.

Who determined who was most or least 'important'? Was there a way to move up or down in society? How did they get human food? How could he get coffee? Or Red Bull, he wasn't picky.

How did-

"How did a human gain a seat beside the King," one ghost demanded. Judging by the gasps and hisses, speaking out of turn- or maybe just speaking ill of the king- was a taboo.

He almost turned to see the king's reaction until Gladiatrix's hand clamped firmly on his shoulder. The Observants tittered for a moment, but quickly subsided.

The king didn't answer. The silence now was almost as oppressive as that time Mr. Freeze destroyed Alfred's favorite tea shop.

The ghost shifted and every hair on his nape rose to attention when the king let out a bloodthirsty hiss. He let the silence after that drag on for several more minutes- a full cycle by Tim's count.

"I received a sacrifice from the mortal realm," King Phantom said, low and menacing. "And you dare to police what I do with it?"

The ghost shivered, it's leonine mane bristling even as it ducked and tried to make itself smaller.

"Even Poindexter had the guts to fight me when he disagreed with me. And you stand here shivering like a rat in the rain. Sit down. Shut up. Think before you speak. These hands," he continued, "are rated E for everybody. Understand?"

The ghost squeaked out an affirmative and sat down hurriedly. The ghost beside it, a manticore if he wasn't mistaken, smacked it behind the ears with a meaty paw. The manticore in question then rose to its feet with a bowed head.

"Chief of the Lions Guild. You may speak."

"I apologize on behalf of my Fright, your majesty. This insubordination will not be tolerated."

"I am glad to hear that, Lord Pisthirió. Otherwise, your presence at this court would be sorely missed."

The threat wasn't subtle, yet if anything there was an ease in the tension as the manticore ghost settled back down with a strangely pleased expression.

He now had more questions: what just happened? And what was a 3,000 year old king doing with modern phrases? Also, was he an 'it' now? f*ck that.

Tim Drake was nobody's 'It'.

Still, he wasn't sure it was a good time. After all, if he was just a thing to this King, he probably would react worse than he would to someone who worked with a creature he evidently knew by name.

The court moved on. Again, the multi-headed multi-armed giants carved edicts into glowing stone as quickly as his pen moved. And again, after the king dismissed court for 80 cycles, they filed out in their strange order.

"Red Robin," the king said when he exited the hall after the ancients (again, the observants seemed none too happy.) The king held out a hand for his notes, which he read- despite Tim having written them in Greek.

"Your majesty," he replied.

"Have you seen the Caves of the Mountain King yet? If not, you should."

That threw him for a loop. "I just got here," he said slowly, "so no. Do I get my guess?"

The king nodded.

"You know Greek, and there aren't any S's. I'm going to throw out Alexander."

"A mighty King, I'm flattered. But not my name."

"Do I get a hint this time, too?"

"There's an A in my name," he said finally. "And for your questions, the head of each guild and each fright stay behind a little longer. It's a sign of respect for me, acknowledging I'm dangerous, and for their family, a way to say they'll give up their life if needed."

He hummed a little as he tapped the next one. "Importance is derived by status, but it's not really something you're born into here. It's more-"

The impromptu culture lesson was interrupted by a messenger, a little girl with bright blue eyes and vibrant butterfly wings. "King Phantom, the halfa Plasmius wants to speak with you. He sent the message through the Warden of Bleak Gales."

The King sighed heavily. "Thank you for the message. Please inform the Warden that I-"

Gladiatrix kicked the king none-too-gently, a thud echoing.

He cleared his throat. "Please inform him that I expect him to continue holding the prisoner. I will pay him a visit with a gift on his Ascension ceremony, and may choose to visit the prisoner Plasmius afterwards."

"Okay! I- I mean, yes your majesty!"

The king reached out a hand and formed a condensed ball of bright blue. "Okay is fine with me. Here, for your troubles."

The ghost kid- couldn't be more than 6 or 7- looked between the ball and the King's face several times. "Um, the Warden already paid."

"Take it as a bonus, or tell the warden I paid for your next message. Your choice. Ok?"

"Thanks Mr. King!"

The butterfly girl moved too fast for Tim to follow, gone with the ball and her wings trailing blue and purple light.

"Your majesty," Lord Pisthirió began, "if I can interrupt, I would like to speak with you regarding the trade agreement and the incident today."

"Very well," he replied. "Gladiatrix, please continue your assignment. I'll speak with you soon, now that we know this isn't a temporary affair."

"I am pleased to serve, your majesty. Come, Red Robin."

To her credit, she waited until out of earshot to complain. "If he visits that fool, I'll challenge him myself."

"Who's the fool?" Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea for someone to challenge the king- then again, according to Constantine, the last king decided to celebrate his reign by nearly sending humanity back to the stone age. Maybe this current one wasn't such a bad ruler.

Bad guy, maybe, but at least keeping the worst in check.

"Plasmius," she snarled. "Time and again my king has given that-" he didn't understand what she said then, but it made his ears burn regardless- "chances. Time and again, he has spurned the offer and bitten at the hand that fed him. Four times that I know of in the last year alone, he's tried to kill my king! And he killed the emperor in life!"

"Wait, that's the same Plasmius? The one with the portal?"

Gladiatrix fixed him with a gimlet stare. "Even if his portal was working, you would much dislike the cost for use of it. Perhaps you do not yet understand what a boon my King has offered you."

Was she indirectly calling him a brat?

"Maybe no one has explained it to me."

She observed him for a moment, then continued walking. "Follow me, and I will give you a lesson perhaps more relevant to the situation."

Chapter 2: That looks messy

Summary:

That skeleton needs a bath.
Also, plot happens!
Also forgot a few tags. Hey should I tag this identity p*rn, since Tim has to guess Danny's name, and Danny only knows him as Red Robin?

Ten and six refers to Tim's 16th birthday, which is when Brucey-bear convinces him he can't trust himself. You know. After leaving the team he trusted and depended on for mental health?

As Ari said- he does bad things for good reasons and wonders why things blow up.

Chapter Text

Day 3 (Part 2)

He was led through a hall with many branches and offshoots that slowly sloped downwards. It led them to a pit filled with black ooze, and Gladiatrix rung a bell. From one of her pockets, she drew a pair of glowing purple flat stones covered in runes.

The stinking liquid bubbled slowly, viscous enough bubbles took minutes rather than seconds to reach their zenith and pop. An elevator, of all things, eased upward through the foul muck, black ooze dripping from the metal walls.

A cheerful 'ding' sounded before opening to reveal a skeleton in a burnt bellhop uniform. The gold buttons shimmered in firelight Tim couldn't see.

"Going down?" Burbled the skeleton, black ooze dripping from its ruined throat.

"Bottom floor. I have payment for our safe descent and safe return."

"Two, then," gurgled the monster.

"I am not so easily decieved, Son of Charon. You will get payment for safe descent now, and payment for safe return upon our safe return."

The skeleton laughed, splashing the filth everywhere, and beckoned them in. "What floor?"

Gladiatrix entered so Tim, without any other option to get real answers, followed. "The 11th."

The doors closed with a rusty creak and the ghost used a lever to move them downwards. Tim's stomach rolled as the clear glass top darkened, leaving them in near-complete darkness, lit only by the skeleton's buttons, the purple tablets, and Gladiatrix's glowing red eyes.

There was a distinct bobbing sensation, a sinking ship giving a last ditch attempt to rise once more, and for a brief moment even the ghost light was extinguished.

Tim took deep, steady breaths, conserving whatever oxygen they had left, and then with a reverberating thud, the elevator found its mark. The doors opened revealing blessed light, and he again followed Gladiatrix out. He didn't look forward to the ride back up.

"Welcome to the Archive of Law," Gladiatrix said with a wave of her hand. Every few feet there was a massive perfectly squared block with neat carvings in the strange runes ghosts seemed to be fond of, surrounded by a ring of golden light.

"These are the tablets the giants carve every day," Tim said, trying to calm himself down. A thought rose unbidden as he failed to decipher the alien language.

How did the king read his notes? Unless he wrote English as well as spoke it. Gladiatrix spoke the language but didn't read it- still, it wasn't impossible.

These hands are rated E for Everybody, though. That was distinctly modern- modern enough he couldn't picture Alfred saying it.

It was one of Steph's favorite sayings. So somewhere around his and Steph's age, or at least friends with someone that young.

"These are carved in ectoranium, which most ghosts can't even touch. Only by the will and strength of the Hekatoncheires can this art be done. And even they do not take it as an easy feat."

"Wait- the Hekatoncheires? Like, made the world before the Titans according to Greek mythology Hekatoncheires?"

"Indeed! The very same. Their first carvings were made before this universe, this branch of the multiverse was even a vague imagining. The Infinite Realms is truly infinite. Come and see them."

He followed her on still-wobbly legs across the white marble floor. After several minutes, they reached a back wall, made entirely of ectoranium. "These laws govern the basis of all interactions in the Infine Realms and its branches, including your own. Mortal laws may change, but not even the King himself would dare touch these."

"What do they say?" Tim asked, breathless with awe despite his determination to be unmoved.

"Here is a bit about our current situation: it is the duty of those of strength to offer hospitality to those who ask for it within reason. It is the duty of the King specifically to ensure the resources of the Infinite Realms are not overly wasted. And it is the duty of any existing in the Infinite Realms, particularly in the Ghost Zone, to follow the word of a deal they enter into."

Tim considered it and came to a conclusion. "He can't just send me back, then. It's a waste of resources unless someone here gets something out of it?"

She nodded. "That is the first issue. Luckily, he made a loophole so instead of eating you, he can let you play a harmless little game."

"He didn't ask for sacrifices though. Did he?" It seemed out of character for someone who'd made it a point to send back Damian and make sure he wasn't forced to eat the leftover.

"Never," she replied. "My king asks for loyalty by demonstrating it. The control you have seen is more respect than fear."

"Ok. And I didn't ask for hospitality, so I assume that throws in some sort of issue?"

"Correct, you impress me. You did not ask for hospitality, yet the King named you an honored guest. Your status here, then, is in...shadow, I suppose you could say. In a place where nothing is free, you have been offered quite a boon."

"Hospitality," she then added, "to us is a goal-oriented thing. It would be good to offer hospitality to a child who might grow powerful or to an injured party to ease a war. It is rarely random chance."

Tim frowned, thinking back to the humanoid lion ghost. "They want to know the price."

"Perhaps they wonder even now if killing you might earn the King's favor. Rid him of a tick."

He mulled it over in silence, which she allowed him to have. "What’s so special about those caves?"

"Plenty. Arms, armor, forges that never cease churning out priceless works of art...and they're well known as a romantic destination."

"...oh. But he's a ghost, so..."

The way the warrior looked away clued him in that there might be something wrong with that, but Tim couldn't figure out what.

"His royal highness is friends with several humans, to the point of claiming them as kin. Is it truly so strange he would want to court one?"

That answered his question on how the King learned English writing and slang, but brought up still others. "So you're saying I should date or court him?"

"No," she replied, "I expect you to pretend to be both receptive and grateful. It matters not this is a farce on all our parts so long as it is a believable one. This ensures your protection except from those who seek to kill the king anyway, and it's traditional for the more powerful party to handle the courting till the end, so it will be all the more believable."

"What happens when I guess his name?"

She snorted. "What do you think? You mourn a broken heart, same as he. Of course, if something comes of it, you could stay."

Tim snorted. "Right. So tell me what I need to know to be properly romanced in ghost society."

"Well first, stay for longer in his presence than it takes to guess a name," she laughed.

-

It was easier to escape the Cult's clutches than to infiltrate it, Damian thought with disgust. How dare they be so incompetent and still manage to trap him?

Damian checked his watch with a frown. They'd been in the courtroom for at least half an hour, yet only a few minutes had passed.

He ducked down when the cell door opened. "The table is empty, it's a success!"

Damian slipped away while the cultists celebrated and rubbed at his chest. It hurt for some reason.

Must've been something in the misty green air.

-

"This is Robin, checking in," Damian said into his communicator once he reached an area he deemed safe.

"Robin," his father replied, relief clear in his voice. "Good. Were you successful?"

"The leader escaped," he replied, "I must gather more intelligence."

There was silence for a moment, almost long enough for him to wonder if the device failed somehow. "Where is Red Robin?"

Ah, there was that odd pain again. Wait. "We were sacrificed to a monster called the ghost king. It chose to keep him and return me," he said. "I'm not sure why."

There. It wasn't like everything was a lie.

"Stay where you are. Sending backup."

"Understood," he replied, now worried. He had to delete the recorded data, and now before it synced up- he probably only had a few minutes before it happened.

And done.

He wasn't sure why he was so worried- he was the true son, not the replacement. Even if his father found out somehow, there would be little to no consequences. There never had been before.

Yet, for some inexplicable reason, his eyes burned and chest ached. "Bah, the air from that other world is too much like the Pit!"

-

Day 4

"Octavia? 'M I late?"

The king stirred on the slightly floating bed, in the form he only took around his closest friends these days- a slightly older version than the child who saved her country when she yet lived.

"No, Danny. I've come to speak with you about something I'd prefer your little bird be asleep for." It still felt odd, almost like a betrayal, to call him by his given name.

White-gloved hands rubbed at his green eyes, then over the scar tissue on his face. Lichtenberg scars, he called them. To be forced to bear the mark of your death was no kind thing, she mused, reaching to the spearhead lodged inside her heart.

"Please. C'mon in, make yourself at home."

She sat after a moment in her usual spot, on something called a "bean bag."

He sat across from her and stared at his empty cup with a sigh. "Do you thirst?"

"Mm? No, sorry. Just miss coffee. Is there anything you miss from back then?"

She thought for a moment. "After my last battle in the ring, they bought us to the emperor's table. Such rich things I had never seen, only heard of, like flamingo's tongue or whole roast oxen covered in gold," she stated with a chuckle. "And yet what I miss most is the pulsa my mother would make before she died and I was sold. Nothing more than barley, cheap garum, water, and a little salt if we had it. Strange, is it not?"

Her king was silent for a moment and she worried she had overstepped. When he spoke, his mournful voice sounded far too young.

"Before I died- before the portal- my dad would get us all to the kitchen and he'd get us to help him make fudge. I don't even like it much, tried to get out of it sometimes. But when they started their project, suddenly there wasn't time anymore."

He cleared his throat. "Sorry. What did you want to talk about?"

"Ah. Red Robin has accepted the proposal you put forth. I have concerns, however, of the Lions Guild. Their master was dethroned by a young usurper."

"Lord Pisthirió? He's a ghost I'd have second thoughts about fighting," he replied in evident shock.

"He never made it to his challenge duel. What was left of him had traces of blood blossoms," she replied with a scowl.

"Any idea if it's the Silken Vipers again?" That was the band of assasins Vlad had paid so handsomely to take his head- and they were infamous for their use of blood blossoms and corrupted ectoplasm.

"I doubt it, after you destroyed their leaders. The Bleak Warden's army have kept the dregs in check. If I had to wager a guess, it was an inside job. I cannot be certain until we can investigate."

"Where was this?"

"Halfway between Lions Pride Keep and the palace. 'Tis on the way to the Caves of the Mountain King."

Danny frowned. "You're way too excited about this. It couldn't be one of your schemes to get me married off again, could it?" The question was asked in such a dry, sarcastic tone she knew it was rhetorical.

"As your loyal servant-"

He raised his eyebrows. "Stalker."

"Ah. Well, I did not know he was Skulker's brother," she objected.

"Kieran the Red."

"To be fair, you are also of Irish descent."

"Green Lady."

"I really think she likes you."

"She literally just wants to be called Queen. Remember that time you set me on a quest that turned out to be a blind date with Plasmius?"

She flushed a little- a hard trick for a ghost. "He called himself Vlad, not Plasmius."

"He's blue with plasma powers," he returned dryly. "Ooh! How about that time you tried to set me up with Undergrowth?"

"Your majesty, it may be time to start getting ready for court," she deflected.

"We have 10 more cycles, try again," Danny laughed.

Laughter was a relief- he wasn't too angry with her at least. "Can you tell me what is so wrong with the idea? It is not as if he could kill you."

Danny sobered and groaned. "He's part of the Justice League, Octavia."

She stared blankly at him for a moment and he sighed. "They're supposed to be heroes- and I guess they are. But so many people in Amity Park have been hurt because they're selective ones. When we asked for help... Tucker, Sam, Val, Jazz, and I were the only ones."

He pressed his hands to his face, trying and failing to supress the anger that came from being unable to check on his mortal fright, his haunt. "They didn't even teach us how to fight evil. We had to figure it out on our own."

The gladiator made a quiet little noise and the next thing he knew, his face was buried in the hood of her cloak. "For anything it may be worth," she said softly, "you and your friends are doing an excellent job. Believe in them more, my king. Believe in them as they believe in you."

As I do, she thought, but didn't say. It didn't feel quite right for it.

-

Day 4 (continued)

"I just detected a power surge matching Danny's signature," Tucker said from the converted factory floor. They- well, Sam- had bought it as a remote location for a new portal, and Tucker had quite literally moved in.

Temporarily, at least. His parents thought he won a contest for some no-contact science summer camp, and he'd been at the factory since the first day of summer break. They'd been nervous about it, but he was legally an adult.

Sam wasn't so lucky, being 17 still, but Fenton Phones had an amazing range.

"There's no way to speed it up, is there?" Sam asked from her greenhouse across town. "Safely, I mean, two people already died when portals were turned on. I don't want a third unless I'm there with you."

"You're being dramatic, Sam," he said with a snort.

"Can you blame me- no, mom! I haven't left the house- the greenhouse is still the house!"

He couldn't make out what Mrs. Manson said, but he did hear the slamming door. "Still grounded?"

"Yeah. Apparently I offended her when I wore purple to my cousin's wedding."

Tucker sat down his wrench and puzzled that out. "... The theme was purple and gold, right?"

"Yep."

"So why is she..."

"Being a bitch? She wanted me in yellow."

"You don't look good in yellow, Sam."

"I know that, it's why I got a purple dress. Anyway, I'm free in two days. How's it going with the portal so far?"

He picked the wrench back up. "New and improved stabilizers and security systems are up and tested. Give me about a week, and we'll be up and running. I'm going slow and safe thanks to this thing's track record."

"Good. Anything you need from me?"

"Doordash from NastyBurger?" He asked hopefully.

She laughed a little. "One heart attack special coming up."

-

"Hey, B? I'd like to get some equipment upgrades, can we go to a private channel? I think it might help us find Tim."

"Of course, Barbara. Dick, do you have that map ready?"

"Working on it," he replied, "the dimensions are crazy."

"Good. Where are we on the translations?"

Cass shrugged.

"Get Tim to help you, he's-"

The light murmur of ideas being tossed back and forth ceased. Bruce cleared his throat. "Call Alfred. He's good at languages, too."

"Can you come over," Barbara asked when they were on a private channel, "I have something you need to see- and come alone."

"Do you think this is-"

"Something you need to see," she reiterated. "Alone. It might be... B, we might have a ten-and-six."

It took a few seconds for him to connect that to Tim's... eventful 16th birthday, which Bruce still hadn't lived down. Not that he necessarily deserved to. "Yes, I can see why you wouldn't want Jim to see that. I'll be there shortly."

To cover his lie, he grabbed a toolkit and a replacement signal jammer. "I'll be back soon," he told the others, "since I'll be out, one of you might contact Jason- he might know something if I'm not there."

Chapter 3: CODE 13

Summary:

Batfam: WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO?!?!
Tim: I am *loving* this vacation...and a mystery, to boot!

Also Tim: I- I am not blushing. I am not developing a crush. I refuse to think so. I-
Well sh*t.

Notes:

It has become clear to me that 1: according to Reddit, it is reasonable for Robin Teen Titans (2003) to be Tim because they took so many of his personality traits and basically made Tim and gave him another name AND gave him Tims signature weapons BUT; eventual Nightwing suit
And
2: I am going to burn in hell like the moron I am for DARING to imply Robin in Teen Titans (2003) was in any way, shape, or form similar to Tim Drake. (Per Reddit)

So uh... I did not realize this was so controversial. Sorry?

Edit: BEFORE YOU MAKE THE FREDERICK COMMENT: I have had a few very nice comments who were just curious and a few very rude ones, the rude ones were mostly deleted.

Yes, he knows there is an A in the name. Yes, he guesses Frederick anyway. Tim does not plan on being correct, he has a mystery to solve AND a distraction from a traumatic event!
Frederick also let's him narrow down a lot of consonants. So no, he is not being stupid. No, I am not being stupid.
Tim is doing what Bats do and burying hurt in favor of mysteries.
Tim is doing what TIM does and multitasking.
If you have a name question that is NOT answered by that, please let me know!

Chapter Text

Day 4 (continued)

Lord Pisthirió was missing from court today, Tim noticed, his spot taken by a woman with the head of a lioness and the wings of an eagle.

She and the others in her section wore heavy manacles on their wrists and feet.

Aside from that, the only change was the Observants came in after the Ancients this time, and seemed quite pleased with it.

"Fredrick," was his guess today.

"Another historically important king," he replied, "but not my name."

"Your majesty, can I ask what's with the handcuffs?"

The king, too, was wearing them on all four wrists and his ankles. He'd ensured not to turn his legs to a tail, either, so they stayed on.

"Mm? Oh, it's a sign of mourning from Pisthirió's culture. Basically, you're shackled by grief for a few days- sort of like now in the states, people wear black."

The states- that too was a very modern way of referring to the US.

The king seemed to debate something. "You're famous on Earth for being a detective. Are you actually any good at it?"

"That's insulting," Tim said without thinking, "I didn't manage to find the identity of the World's Greatest Detective and trick him into teaching me by the time I was 9 out of luck."

The king grinned, one massive bear-like canine slipping out. "Forgive me. How about a trip to the Caves of the Mountain King tomorrow to make up for it? Who knows, someone might even let my name slip."

"That sounds fun," Tim agreed, thinking more of the not-so-subtly hinted investigation than anything else. "I can't wait."

Finally, a chance to do something.

And, never one to let a secret identity go to waste, he smiled warmly as he said it, even daring to touch a cold hand. The king, amusem*nt clear in those supernaturally green eyes, took his hand and gently brushed inky purple lips against his knuckles.

-

Day 5

Gladiatrix had a certain hop in her step when she entered the Royal Kitchens. "We will need a few day's worth of human-safe food and drink for the trip."

"Nothing is free," hissed a woman with the lower half of a giant spider. "Not even for someone pretty as you."

The Head Cook clacked the chilicerae ripping through her cheeks in amusem*nt at the Royal Bodyguard's flush.

"Could I bribe you with a little gossip, oh lovely one? Fairer than any-"

"Just don't compare me to a Goddess my little firebird, I know how that ends. Come, come, spin a tale for me."

Gladiatrix laughed and obediently sat before one of the counters. The kitchen staff- all at least somewhat human except for a rat- were adept at the art of paying attention without seeming to do so, and were the best way Gladiatrix had found to spread rumors.

"Now do not tell a soul, but our king actually likes this one."

"Oh come now, you said that about every human who comes through these parts. Remember the Constantine debacle, my dear?"

Gladiatrix's flush deepened a little when one sharp-clawed foot tapped her teasingly on the forehead. "W-well, I. Ah. I was saying....what was I saying again?" The last she muttered more to herself, but Arachne heard and laughed.

"What makes you say our king likes his sacrifice?"

"Mm. Yes, well, he has planned a little detour on the way to the Caves, a little excuse to spend a while with him."

Arachne tapped her fingers, spidery even on the human section, against her chin. "I'm not so convinced. Tell our king he should grow four more arms."

Gladiatrix frowned in confusion. "And why is that?"

With a sudden motion, she was quite trapped between two sharp forelegs and the angelic beauty of Arachne's face. According to the king, it was 'Biblically Accurate', whatever that meant.

"It certainly worked to catch you, didn't it?"

Gladiatrix's mouth worked for a moment before she caught her senses and met the ghost's mouth with her own. "You should stop teasing me, wife."

"And you should come home more often, it's been a week."

"I have duties my dear, you knew that when you married me."

"To a mostly-absent king who needed your attention a few times a month," she griped. "Tell Danny he's coming for dinner and games, and to bring his mortal, when he comes back. I'll have you home for at least a few hours this week."

"I will invite him," she replied.

"You will tell him," her wife argued, "and let him know without my wife I might forget the recipe to those fish tacos he so enjoys."

-

Bruce put his head in his hands after the explanation and subsequent video. "Damian managed to fry the audio completely, but I was able to pull out what the King said, since the system recognized it as glitches instead of words."

Barbara was hesitant and Bruce could understand why. "What did you pull?"

She started the recording with audio, this time. "Two lives are too many. I can return one of you- but you must choose."

The abnormally grainy footage didn't allow lip reading, but body language transmitted well. There was Tim stepping forward, and Damian- he said something, had to from the way Tim flinched painfully. There was a back and forth between the two before Tim took another step to the king.

"Some heroes," the king said, "I see only one here. I'll return you, as promised."

To Tim, he said, "a hero was sacrificed, so I must accept," he said, sounding almost apologetic, "but there is a way out. I'll offer you a deal."

Tim fell to one knee. There was a binding light, and then Damian was in the sacrificial room once more. Alone, this time.

"I want to know what was said between Damian and Tim," Bruce said, "and how to get Tim out. I need you to focus on finding any way to get to him without sacrificing someone."

"I've done all I can on the audio," she said apologetically. "I can't make it clearer."

"Can you send it to me?"

Barbara gnawed on one knuckle for a moment. "Yeah. Why? You can't just confront Damian about it, he'll lie if it was bad."

"I think you're underestimating the rest of the team. I'll show it to Alfred first, get his opinion."

-

*UndeadAsshole*: Hey I have a weird question.

*UndeadAsshole*: Why did Joker’s crew get beaten up by two losers instead of 3?

*CircusBird*: Perfect timing, if hypothetically someone was sacrificed to the Ghost King but you are reasonably hopeful they're still alive

*CircusBird*: is there a way to get to the land of the dead and back?

*UndeadAsshole*: this better be a f*cking hypothetical bird brain. Where's Timberly? I'm the only one who gets to f*ck with him.

*CircusBird*: ok but hypothetically?

*UndeadAsshole*: hypothetically, I'm coming over get ready to talk or I WILL beat it out of you

-

Dick looked at his phone with apprehension. "Everyone, we have a Code 13!"

"What’s a Code 13," Kate whispered.

"Jason's coming and he's pissed," whispered Steph.

"Wait, didn't he try to kill Tim?" Cass asked.

"He tries to kill everyone, it's a right of passage. Then he turns into an angry momma bear every time someone hits you," Steph answered. "It's great. One time Killer Croc punched me, Jason showed up and beat the sh*t out of him, then carried me back to the bat cave. He walked so he could yell at me longer. And he bought me pancakes."

Damian looked at her as if she was mad, but Duke nodded sagely. "He said I'm his favorite after I almost killed the fake Joker guy and bought me ice cream. Mama Jason is great as long as he's not mad at you."

"And we're happy he's coming here...why?"

Steph snorted. "He's mad at Bruce, Dick, and possibly Damian. We're getting pancakes."

-

"You motherf*ckers," Jason snarled, low and dangerous. "Here," he said in a completely different tone to Steph, Duke, Damian, and Cass, "I got tacos, kiddos, eat something."

"Where the f*ck is Tim?"

Damian's communicator chose that moment to beep with a message to join his father upstairs. Jason's eyes slid to him with predatory intent. "Demon child, where's the old bat?"

"Upstairs," Damian answered immediately, unnerved by his sudden and inexplicable raw terror. "I've been summoned to speak with him."

"Want to lead the way?" It wasn't really a question.

-

"So....think I get to eat Damian's tacos?"

"Nah, they're mine," Dick said as he stole them. "Besides, Damian was the last person Tim was with. Time to see if he survives the murder attempt."

-

"Oh Brucey, I'm home," Jason sing-songed, low and dangerous. "Hey, Alfred! How are you? Did you get that tea I sent?"

"Indeed master Jason," said Alfred, used to the emotional fluctuations, "and I found the Gunpowder Grey a delightful mix. Thank you."

"Sweet, better than the chocolate matcha?"

"I didn't quite find that as agreeable, no. And the foccacia I sent from master Dick?"

"Capital D Delicious, fantastic as always. But Old Bat," he said, fixing Bruce with a deranged stare, "where's Little Bat?"

"That's what we're trying to find out," Bruce said. "I have a video Oracle was partially able to restore. Maybe you can join the others until we're done with Damian?"

Damian felt as if the bottom of his gut dropped to the floor- and it became worse when he felt Jason's malice land upon him. "Oh? Where's Timberly, Demon Child?"

Alfred cleared his throat. "I have a few questions for Damian before you...get started, master Jason."

"Ooooh, just Damian now. The f*ck did you do?"

"Jason," Bruce said, and before Jason or Damian could react, Alfred jerked the man by the ear.

"Master Bruce," he said in a voice that was entirely too much like Jason's malice-filled one for Damian's taste, "you are not too old to go over my knee."

Bruce cleared his throat. "Right. Damian, have a seat. Jason...let me know if you recognize anything."

-

Gothic Lit 201 Group Chat

*OfTheArgonauts*: Hi, @ShellyDidntDieForThis, are you on?

*ShellyDidntDieForThis*: Yes....class is in session, we are all online.

*Mrs.Paulson*: Let's keep the discussion on Poe's The Red Mask of Death.

*OfTheArgonauts*: What’s your number?

*Mrs.Paulson*: We're on page 3

*ShellyDidntDieForThis*: Why?

*OfTheArgonauts*: I want to talk about Amity Park and ghosts.

*HOreilly767033*: ooooh

*HOreilly767033*: is that what they're calling it these days?

*ShellyDidntDieForThis*: call (XXX) XXX-XXXX and hold for 10 seconds.

*Mrs.Paulson*: We are in class!

*SpiritedHere*: Yeah they both show away Mrs. Paulson I'd give up the ghost.

*HOreilly767033*: I see what you did there.

-

"Is this Shelly Didn't Die For This?" A low voice came from the Fenton Phone- hacked just a little so Tucker could listen too.

"Depends," she returned, "is this Of the Argonauts?"

"Yeah. Your bio says you're in Amity Park, Illinois. But that town doesn't exist."

"Trust me," she said with a snort, "we know. Try getting Superman to help with a natural disaster when the shields make it so he can't hear you scream and every map tells everyone else in the world you don't exist."

"I'm guessing Amity Parkers don't like the Justice League, then?"

She laughed, a little bitterly. "Would you, if you had to watch them help people all of the world and act like kids getting crushed under buildings doesn't matter because it's in your town?"

The line squeaked, as if someone was crushing a phone. "Master Jason," she heard an elderly man say.

"Jason. Should've guessed from the username," she said. "Name's Sam. What do you want to know about ghosts?"

"f*ck," the man whispered. "Well Sam, if two members of the league were kidnapped, would someone in Amity Park hate them enough to sacrifice them to the Ghost King?"

"Is that what happed to Red Robin?" Tucker asked.

She cursed. Jason cursed. Tucker laughed. "So why are you calling from Wayne manor, man?"

"You had this call traced?"

"I don't trust people outside Amity Park. Last time we did... well. That's a long ass story and they're gone and their boss is a ghost. Are you Batman?"

"I don't trust Batman," Jason replied.

"So? One of my best friends didn't trust himself all that much either."

Jason inhaled sharply. "I'm not Batman. He's here though, if you'd rather talk to him."

"Tell him we said to go f*ck himself," Tucker said, "and that we want his tech."

"Gladly," said Jason, and did so.

"Now. Two cults actually would, but one of them actually could. We have a portal we're working on and should be able to get him in a few weeks."

"That's not f*cking fast enough," he snarled.

"Who is he to you?" Sam asked, "more than just a local hero, clearly."

"He's my little brother," Jason snarled, "and the only person who gets to f*ck with him is me. Now where is Amity Park and what do you need to get that portal going faster?"

"....he did tell Batman to f*ck himself," Tucker defended.

"Allegedly," Sam griped. "Tuck, give him the list. Jason, I'm texting you directions. Crazy as it sounds, you're never going to find us if you focus on the destination. You have to focus on the journey."

"And don't bother with planes, that never ends well," Tucker added.

-

Day 5 (continued)

Tim stared wide-eyed at the massive red and gold bird with two heads. "What is this?"

"Your steed," Gladiatrix returned. "Never rode a pheonix?"

"I can safely say I haven't," Tim agreed. "I thought we were talking about motorcycles or horses."

"A...motorcycle?"

"Johnny 13 rides one," the King replied, making them both jump. He carried a green spotted puppy which wriggled in his upper set of arms, trying to lick his chin. "You should ride with me, Red Robin," he said and slid his eyes across a definitely not-watching crowd.

"Are you riding the Pheonix?"

"I probably should, seeing as it's on my kingdom's crest, but Cujo and I are old friends," he replied and sat the dog down. "Want to go for a ride, buddy?"

The dog barked and zoomed back and forth in wide arcs for a moment before he suddenly exploded into a massive red-eyed snarling hound. It fell to its chest to lick the king in his face, to great laughter.

Tom shook his head when the king grinned at him. "A boy and his dog, huh?"

The ghost co*cked his head to the side as if trying to remember something, then smiled. "I've heard that before."

His voice was a bit like Alfred's, Tim thought, whenever he or one of his adopted siblings asked about England. To break the tension, Tim pet the dog gently on one massive paw, earning a slimy tongue across his...everything.

"Hey, he likes you! Come on, let's go," the king said, seemingly just as eager as he was to move on.

"Your majesty, perhaps you should carry him to the saddle," suggested Gladiatrix.

Oh hell no, he wasn't playing damsel in distress any more than he needed. He took a few steps back, mentally calculated the angles, and did a jump even Dick might be proud of to land on the wide piece of...was the saddle a giant scale?

No, he realized, a series of very large ones, connected by some metal he couldn't recognize. It was silvery, but seemed to glow a bluish hue, lit from within by some strange force.

"Dragon scale and mithril," the king supplied, floating upwards lazily, only to settle before the reigns. "Better sit down. When he shakes, you'll feel it."

Tim did so hurriedly, and reflexively grabbed the nearest steady thing- the King's lower left arm- when the dog rose to his feet. "Sorry," Tim muttered with a flush he couldn't understand.

"You... you have a heartbeat," the king said slowly, a tone of awe that made Tim distinctly uncomfortable.

"Uh. I hope that's not a problem?"

The king shook out his mane of white hair, covering Tim with the pleasant scent of...something. It made him think of winter break at school, when he'd run back into the manor, Alfred calling to take off his boots for goodness sake, and here, young Master Tim, take these cookies to Master Bruce and Master Dick, one of them is for you, don't ruin your appetite, we're-

The King's shaky voice pulled him from the painfully nice memory. "Far from it, actually. I forgot, somehow. What it was like to have a heartbeat."

Tim was uncomfortably reminded that the Ghost King had just been...some guy. Maybe named Paul, or Jack, or Charlie. Maybe had someone who told him to come out from the snow, who made him dinner, and cookies.

Maybe he was a William, but everyone called him Will, because his dad's name was William, come on.

He didn't let go, though. For safety, he decided. Just safety, not mourning for someone who could've very well been a little kid when he died.

"Hang on tight. Cujo- let's go for a run!" The animal left forward in a sudden burst of speed and Tim held onto the broad shoulders in front of him, trying not to inhale. He was only partially successful, dipped in and out of snowy memories. There was Dick trying to wrestle him into a snow jacket despite only a light dusting of frost.

There was his mom, humming a tune as she stirred a pot while Tim stared out the window to the harsh blizzard beyond the safety of the thin glass.

Bruce, the first time Tim ever heard the words "I'm proud of you," from the man, bleeding and covered in slush, but successful.

He blinked tears away as Alfred scolded him gently for not trusting him enough with... f*ck, his sixteenth birthday was awful. Hell of a gift, and the man he called father had the audacity to wonder why he moved out on his seventeenth.

Come to think of it, that was the first time he'd seen Jason lose his sh*t on someone besides Tim- he really wondered if his sort-of brother would murder Bruce, but Alfred kept making him look at the sky, Master Tim, your father is only getting what he paid for over Jason's screams.

He wouldn't want to be a cultist right now, that was for sure.

Chapter 4: On the Hunt

Summary:

IN THIS HOUSE, GHOSTS PURR!
-haha yes Tim IS keeping that sample bag of blood blossoms.
- Tim is Constantine's favorite birdie, hence why he knows what dragon hunting equipment looks like- more on that later.
-Tim, sassmaster extraordinaire. Careful, Timmy, you might make a certain halfa devolp a *real* crush on you.

More seriously: Tim and the king find Pisthirió's murderers and move to defeat them. Tim finds some distressing information about the king and the price of opening portals. Tim also finds out why his rescue isn't here yet- 5 days here?
1 day on Earth.
If Tim wants out, he'll have to do it himself.

Chapter Text

Tim ended up burying his face into the almost spandex-like material covering the King's upper torso to escape the hair, which he now realized was basically the Fields of Nostalgia in miniature.

He'd heard about it before, from Gladiatrix of all people- powerful ghosts often pulled up old memories, completely unintentionally. "Most," she'd said, "have no more control over it than you do of your heartbeat. 'Tis the ghosts who do, and bring up the worst memories, you need to watch for."

She'd given him a list of things to look for on these ghosts as well, the prime one being usually made entirely of shadow. Somehow, a dark purple guy covered in constellations and black and white patterns didn't seem too shadowy.

And nothing about those memories were patterns, except for the cold- if Gladiatrix was being honest, which he had no reason to doubt thanks to the cold hands, the king was an ice core. Ice core, ice memories. The moment he made sure he wasn't smelling the king's hair, too, it went away, which pointed to it being unintentional.

He had to wonder if he was explaining away perhaps too much. It could've been an attack, and Gladiatrix was undoubtedly more loyal to a king she'd served, or at least admired, for 3,000 years, than to a random human.

"Red Robin," he pointed forward, "look!"

The dog stopped suddenly, pressing Tim further into the Ghost King, though the man didn't complain. Tim lifted his head to whistle lowly at the mountain range far ahead. It had to be higher than the Himalayas, he thought, with the levels of clouds. Then again, he was in a different dimension.

Ice and snow shimmered brightly in the green-tinted sun. "Is the Cave of the Mountain King there?"

"Yes, and the Far Frozen is at the top of the range, stretching far back. One of my friends lives there, he'd love to meet another human, if you're up for it."

"Sounds interesting," Tim demurred politely, and the King laughed.

"Don't worry, I won't make you. Frostbite can be a little much, even if he means well. And knows my name," the king said. "But on to more serious business- Cujo! Down, boy!"

As quickly as the animal had grown well over twenty times its size, it shrunk again, leaving Tim at the ghost's mercy. The descent was smooth but quick, and the ghost moved forward heedless of Tim's weight in a way that suggested muscle memory.

He'd done this before, to other people or creatures that couldn't fly, Tim realized. He'd said his friend wanted to see another human- had others been sacrificed here? Tim realized, as a group of dragons swooped down, caught a Brontosaurus and ripped it apart midair, he was exceptionally lucky he landed in the court of King Phantom, and not in Pariah Dark's or in the middle of a forest.

He was set down a few hundred feet from the forest's edge. "This is where it gets tricky," the King said, "they used blood blossoms. I touch that, I die. For real, this time."

The smell hit Tim first- in a place that always carried a faint scent of citrus, the clear sweet scent of honeysuckle and fresh raspberries shocked him as much as it drew him in.

But he wasn't here for sightseeing, and he already saw signs of a struggle. The neon green grass was crushed in places, and a brighter green ooze clung to the blades of grass. Tim was careful- both to avoid disturbing the crime scene and in case the blood blossoms were anywhere near as deadly to people.

Not that he would know what they looked like, he mused, until he crested a small hillock and was surrounded by bright blood red flower petals and the corpse of what was once probably a lion- if only lions had humanoid faces.

Lord Pisthirió, no doubt.

The breeze tossed a few of the blossoms into his face, and he was relieved to find he didn't die instantly. "I found him! I thought you said they use these as poison on knives!"

The king came a little closer, but judging by the way not even the plentiful grass grew here, he was safe from ghosts. "We can't handle them," the Ghost King called, "even a little sap or nectar kills us."

"So," Tim said to himself, walking a little closer to the body, "if someone had a bunch of loose blossoms, it definitely wasn't a ghost?"

When he reached the front of the dead manticore ghost, what was left of the face was almost melted, bright red petals pressed delicately into the skin. He saw something shiny inside of the ruined jaws and hesitantly pried them open.

Tim removed a few sample bags from his utility belt- though he'd worn the travel gear provided, his boots, weapons, and belt came with him- and filled one with the red flowers, carefully removing any air to better preserve them. The cracked but shimmering orange gem he placed in another, and as if the body had been waiting for permission, it collapsed in on itself.

He crept forward carefully, only to find a massive bolt- the kind Constantine had showed him a picture of, used to hunt dragons, which had a torn bag of thin cloth tied just under the head.

Tim rose to spin around slowly, trying to find where someone could've fired such a device. His eyes lit upon the mountain range again, but he disregarded it. There were no rockets, no guidance systems on the bolt, it would've had to have been closer.

Would a dragon have been able to bear the launcher? Not with deadly blood blossoms, Tim reasoned. He turned again, even slower, and spotted something out of place. It took a moment for him to recognize what was wrong- in a world of alien organic shapes, why were there straight lines?

He stepped away from the ring of red and through the tall grass until he could see the King once more. "Are there other humans here?"

The king's somber expression grew darker as Red Robin settled the massive bolt on its bottom. "That wasn't made by a ghost."

"I found what might be a rail, I want to check it out. Stay here."

The king raised a snowy white brow. "Remind me who the King is, again?"

"Remind me who the crime scene expert is, again?" He retorted, "and the one who's immune to blood blossoms?"

The Ghost King grumbled a bit, but made an orb of bright green energy and tossed it to him. "In case it gets too dark."

Red Robin nodded and slipped it into one of the pockets of his borrowed cargo pants. He tucked the hems into the tops of his boots and slunk off, bo staff extended to poke ahead for traps, but at the ready in case he needed to crack some heads open.

Whoever set this up wasn't experienced covering their trail- or correctly assumed no ghosts would bother trying to hunt down a trail that smelled heavily of blood blossoms.

The forest was thick and dark, but nothing compared to a Gotham night. He resisted the urge to take out the ball of light, and was glad he did when he heard voices.

They didn't have the odd static echo ghost voices did, and he ducked behind a tree just in time to see the arc of a dull yellowed flashlight slide along waist-high.

"I thought I heard something," came a muffled man's voice. He sounded elderly to Tim.

The reply was from a younger-sounding man. "Can't see anything anymore, agent O. Let me go on ahead, I want to see if it's decomposed enough."

"Old ghost like that, it might take a few more days," warned Agent O. "That's why I keep telling you lot, smaller prey!"

"This core might be big enough to set off a portal, O, we have to try it."

"Time and again. How many times do we have to tell you kids, the bigger and stronger the ghost, the more likely we are to be found?"

"I haven't seen my family in 15 years!" Shouted the young man. "15 years! Because you and mom decided to get into the business of hunting ghosts and got used by one!"

"Quiet, A3, you don't know what we'll attract," warned the older man.

"My name is Jeff! That's my name, dad, do you even remember it?"

"It's just policy," the old man soothed, interrupted by Jeff's next outburst.

"That's the problem. Nothing is personal with you. Now I'm going to check the body, and you're going to watch my back. Or," he asked sickly-sweet, "is that against policy, agent?"

The two argued some more before Agent O buckled under the pressure. Red Robin watched them from his perch for a moment, stomping loudly through the underbrush in hazmat suits that had been repaired multiple times. The argument was a familiar one- a little too familiar for comfort.

Red Robin used the trees to launch himself deeper into the forest, following the increasingly obvious trail, until he reached a base covered in leaves. People in similar white hazmat suits walked around, but his attention was grabbed by a large semi-circle of metal and dangling wires.

It was dotted with crystals, most small green dots, but some half the size of Pisthirió's.

He had a choice, now. Perhaps if he helped these people, he'd be able to get out.

He watched for another few minutes, long enough to see an accident happen- a piece of machinery piercing a suit.

"She's contaminated," the crowd began to shout, and before he could interfere on behalf of the woman struggling on the ground, another white-hazmat-suited person pulled out a gun.

The silencer was out of shape, he decided as the shot echoed around. And he was no longer in friendly territory. He'd eaten, drank, bathed, breathed in this green air- if a little leak was contamination, he'd be shot on sight.

That in mind, the hero slid silently through the treetops, the branches seeming to aid him, past the pair of agents who'd fallen into another argument, and out to the tall grass alongside the clearing.

"Get down and get quiet," the young man hissed when he got close to the King, effortlessly floating in the night sky, with only the bands of white, bright green eyes, and snowy hair to distinguish him from the wheeling cosmos.

Something must've shown on his face, because Phantom slid silently down through the air like some predatory fish. "Wipe down with some grass," the king ordered quietly, "I'm not interested in dying from blood blossoms."

"Are you calling Cujo?" Tim asked, cleaning off as best he could.

"Too big and too loud," the ghost replied. "I'm a hell of a lot faster and quieter."

Before the young man could object, he was grabbed tightly against the black and white starry spandex that made up the king's top, and silent as an owl but nearly quick as the Flash, they were gone.

They stopped again far enough away that he could only barely make out the forest- and was unable to do even that once set down. "What did you find?"

"There's a facility," he answered immediately, "in front of a big metal arch in the forest. The people there were human, I think, and I overheard them saying they were close to getting the portal reopened."

He scowled and sighed. "I should've stationed guards outside the portal after what happened with Plasmius."

"You said when I came that Plasmius had a portal- was that his?"

The bright green eyes settled on him warily. "Yes. It was destroyed from the outside though, years ago. Portals like the Fenton and Plasmius portal need insane amounts of energy- think a mini-nuke- to start up."

"Gladiatrix told me a little about ghost cores. If enough were in the same place and set off at the same time, could that do it?"

He frowned, then purple skin paled to a mottled green. "It could. Yes- when the Fenton portal opened, there was a- well. Let's just call it a sacrifice with lethal results. I don't know how Plasmius opened his, but his first portal had a live human dying as well. Knowing him," he added, "killing someone to open his other portal wasn't out of the picture."

"Tell me about the people," the king ordered.

"They wore white hazmat suits, head to toe, and called each other agent. When one got exposed to the air, they were killed," Red Robin said with the cold logic he often escaped to when emotions rose.

"We were so worried about the Amity Park portal, we didn't check the Wisconsin one," he sighed. "They're called the GIW- or Guys in White. Technically, Ghost Investigation Ward, but that gave them too much power.

"They were obsessed with two things: destroying all ghosts and all traces of ecto-contamination."

Tim thought back to the conversation he'd overheard. "Plasmius tricked them somehow, I'm guessing."

"Yes. He has- had- a trick. It wouldn't work now, probably, but he looked human. Was human enough to even touch blood blossoms now and then. I used to be able to that too, but I was always more ghost than anything."

How did that work? If it was true that ghosts died if they touched blood blossoms, then-

"Is it possible to be both human and ghost? At the same time?"

The king was silent long enough Tim started on his next question. He stopped himself when the ghost began to speak. "When I was 14, my parents finished work on the Fenton portal. But it wouldn't open. 9 years- most of my childhood- they practically neglected my sister and I, and then the machine wouldn't work."

"My friends and I went to check it out," and suddenly Tim had an awful feeling he knew how this story would end.

The ghost king grinned, showing off massive fangs once more. "Sam wanted to take pictures, I remember. I thought it'd be cool. Maybe it would look like I was an astronaut or something. But I tripped. I tripped, and the machine turned on."

He looked at Tim once more. "And the portal had its sacrifice. A willing, virginal, child sacrifice. What could be better? So it gave me a gift. Want to see?"

He didn't. Really f*cking didn't. But he found himself nodding anyway, curiosity getting the better of him. "I don't know if I still even can," the king muttered, and then there was an eye-searing flash.

When he managed to clear his vision, there was either a teenager or young adult human. His sea-blue eyes were oddly reflective and he looked as if he'd forgotten to shave for around a year or so. Thick, curly black hair draped in a tangled mat across his shoulders, the points of knife-like ears barely poking through the mane.

The young man's right hand twitched, and he realized scars trailed over his shoulder, to his face and chest. Tim shot his eyes up.

"This is crazy and all, but I don't guess you have clothes?"

"Oh. Huh. Breathing is weird," the naked man said. Tim carefully didn't look at him. "Let's try this. Better?"

He dared to look down to find a ghost nearly as human as Gladiatrix, with one set of arms. He had the same scarring- though it glowed a sickly green- as the young man did on his face, though the rest of his body was thankfully covered by a black and white hazmat suit, sans the helmet. There was a large spiky 'D' printed on it, with a small cutout on the bottom.

His face twisted and he grunted, before the road was filled with the sound of crunching bones. "Bright light," the king grunted, and Tim had the sense to look away.

"I can never look like I used to for long," the king said mournfully. "My family wouldn't recognize me now. Except Sam and Tucker, maybe. They have big enough cores to recognize someone the ghost way."

Sam used for a girl and Tucker were both modern-ish names, and spandex was relatively new- Tim hated himself for thinking of getting out of here. And then hated himself for letting emotions in the way of the mission- survival and escape.

"I'm sorry. For what happened to you," he said instead of asking if his name was David.

"It's ok," the king said after a long moment. "I'm not really human anymore. But that's what happens to people who die in portals. They become what's called a halfa- half human, half ghost."

"Still," Tim said, "15 years without your family. It's been 5 days and I'm missing mine."

He shrugged. "I wouldn't worry about them forgetting you. It's only been a day, maybe less, for them."

"What?"

He looked honestly confused, as if he hadn't just thrown a game-changing wrench in. Tim couldn't expect rescue, at least not anytime soon. He remembered Gladiatrix's advice to enjoy the hospitality and play the game because he wouldn't be leaving otherwise.

It had been more true than he'd known. If it took 5 years like the king's parents- 4, on a harsh timeline- Tim would be here for 20-25 years. He'd be in his 40s, Bruce's age. And that was assuming once they figured out the whole 'human sacrifice or nuclear bomb' thing, they'd be willing to save him.

He took a deep breath in and let a slow breath out. "Do you age here?"

"When I was human, what did I look like to you? It's relevant, I promise," the ghost added at Tim's look of disbelief.

"Younger than me. 17 to 19 year old caucasian male, black hair, blue eyes, approximately 5'5"- what else do you need?"

"Thanks, officer," he said sarcastically, then hummed. "Ghost-wise, I've aged 15 years. Human wise, if you're right, I aged 2 or 3 years. So you'll probably age at the same rate you would outside," he mused. "But assuming anything based on my biology would be risky."

Tim had a thought- an admittedly stupid one. "Would one of those GIW people give you a better idea? I overheard one of them saying they'd been here for 15 years."

The king mulled it over. "We have a meeting in a few hours with the Mountain King. But I think Dorathea would forgive me if it meant getting rid of some ghost killers."

"How good are you with a hairbrush?"

-

The king- and he seriously needed to figure out his name, because King Phantom was getting old- was able to "borrow" his hazmat suit from his ghost form. That still left Tim hacking off the hair he couldn't get a brush through with his combat knife, to an annoyed series of whines.

"You should have brushed your hair," he griped.

"I have been!"

"Your human hair, Donald!"

"It's not Donald," the king grumbled, "no O's."

"William?"

"You've had your guess for the day, nice try though," he replied, and oddly enough started to purr.

Chapter 5: A Choice in the Dark

Summary:

Tw: off screen suicide by GIW agents

Steph and Duke worry, but Tim doesn't have the time: he's too busy sneaking through a forest and ambushing GIW agents.
Tim learns why the king wants him to stay.

As always, thank you so much, Ari, for your beta-ing and advice!

Chapter Text

Day 5- night 6

The king sitting cross-legged before him didn't seem very...kingly. More like one of Gotham's more wretched orphans, the ones who got caught up in the webs of the more sad*stic villains.

Tim tried to keep his focus on making sure the king was mostly neat until closer to dark, when the comfort of night would hide them in her shadows again.

He sent a prayer to Gotham- he didn't want to owe any gods any favors, but Red Robin had surely spilt enough blood in her defense to earn her favor.

But the scarred and twitching person in front of Tim didn't seem particularly helpful in a fight. What he wouldn't give for Cass, Kate, or Duke right now!

"That's as good as it's going to get, I think," he said finally, and eyed the reflexive twitch of the monarch's right hand with concern.

Was the Ghost King ok? Obviously not, but- could he even function in this form, or was it like the other ghost form, something the undead creature could squeeze into for a few minutes?

Person, he mentally corrected. Undead person. "When I was 14..." rose to his mind unbidden, and he fought a shudder.

"Thanks," the king replied, and Tim was struck by the odd echo, as if something was talking at the same time, lower than he could hear. The odd static sound in the king's voice was still there, like a radio host from one of Alfred's old recordings from the 30s.

He may have taken human form, but no observant person could mistake him for human.

The king rose to his feet mainly using his left in a way that told Tim he was well-experienced in covering for the weakness, at least in day-to-day. He sighed when he shook out his still-long (but nowhere near what it had been) hair, the sound crackling quietly like a bird landing in new-fallen snow.

"I'll follow your lead," he rattled at an octave higher than Batman with none of the strain Bruce had to put on his throat for a growl- this was natural, then. "Sure you don't want me to fly us closer?"

He'd certainly feel safer a few hundred feet up. Concern hit- and not the reasonable 'my only key to getting home might die' worry, but something more personal Tim didn't like. "And give the GIW a big starry target? It's probably safest to walk," he replied.

Phantom nodded- he didn't feel right, calling him king like this- and gestured with his left to take the lead. Tim debated his next question, hating himself just a little, though as Red Robin, he knew it was necessary information.

"Can you- like this, can you fight?"

Those dark blue eyes flashed a familiar green, but seemed more dangerous here than when accompanied by four massive arms and a jaw full of teeth.

As quickly as the flash of rage began, it ended. "I can," Phantom replied evenly. "Maybe not as well as you, but I know what I'm doing with ghost cores and portals. I won't hold you back."

Tim slowly released a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. "Alright. So here's the plan."

-

"It's been 24 hours," Steph said suddenly.

Duke rubbed his eyes and fought the urge to gag as the scent of old, burnt coffee hit his nose. "Huh?"

"It's been 24 hours," the normally cheerful young woman said again, a note of panic Duke had never heard from her in her voice. "In most cases, the window between a rescue and a- a body recovery is 24 hours."

She ran her hands through her blond hair and sniffled.

"Hey, it's Tim," he said over Kate's 'mission complete' over the radio- she, Cass, and Dick were doing the jobs of the entire Bat Team right now, Dick alternating between playing Red Robin, Batman, and Nightwing.

Jason was somewhere so off grid the Batcomputer couldn't locate him, having left after a sudden call, and Bruce was interrogating Constantine with a desperation he'd never seen from the man. Alfred was doing the job none of them wanted- keeping Damian locked up for now. (Jason's nickname never felt so accurate- Demon Child indeed).

"It's Tim," he repeated with a false hope. "You know how resourceful he is. He's probably living it up in the lap of luxury right now."

She nodded, red-faced, though tears continued to fall. "Do you think- if I broke his kneecaps after he cheated on poker night-"

God post breakup friendships were weird. Or maybe just Steph and Tim's post breakup, which was alarmingly similar to when they were dating.

"Don't do that, Steph. Just- Tim is fine. He probably got into a fistfight for coffee, but he's fine."

-

Phantom's breathing was a little too irregular for Red Robin's taste. For a few minutes, it would sound like he was being trailed by a snowy breeze. Then, there would be complete silence except for the other man's footsteps.

When the hairs on his neck grew too stiff to ignore, he would glance back only to find a pair of eyes with green reflective pupils staring at him. Then, he would move forward again, and the steps would continue, just a hair quieter and slightly behind him.

It was unnerving- but helpful- when Phantom made their agreed-upon signal, the sound of a territorial Nightstalker, plentiful in these parts. He froze, the footsteps moved ahead of him, and then a shadowy beast with more eyes and mouths than he cared to count on the body of a tiger slipped from the darkness, tail between its legs.

It was a necessary reminder: there was more than a group of bad men in these woods, and he was lucky to have their king at his back.

Phantom clicked in the back of his throat, ice trapped between panes of glass, and the monster bolted. Despite his human form, the ghosts knew their king.

Soon, Phantom made another low chittering sound, and Tim was shocked to see 8 electric blue eyes slide open. The thing made the most fake meow he'd ever heard in his life and lept before them, low to the ground.

The king made a few grumbling sounds, and the creature answered with a little chuff of its own. In the thin light, he could barely make out the shape of a cat before the beast slunk away.

Red Robin found himself blind as a bat in the oppresive darkness of the canopy, so Phantom led them now, one twitching hand on his left shoulder.

Sometimes they paused, when Tim noticed something out of place in a rare clearing, or when the cat thing turned back to communicate with Phantom in subharmonics that were sometimes high enough for Tim to pick up, just barely.

He realized suddenly how the GIW had hidden so well as they stepped into some brush near their clearing. It was lit with bright white flood lamps and the distinctive scent of blood blossoms wafted from the bushes around what looked to be a modified aircraft hanger and barracks building. Over the entire clearing was a camouflage net in the bright greens and purples that made up the forest.

The 8-eyed cat sniffed distainfully, but sat steadfast at the king's right. The king gave him a nod as if to say, 'your turn'.

He quickly found the rail line system he'd followed earlier and watched a group milling like ants nearby. That was where he came in. Red Robin dropped to a low crouch and crept along the undergrowth until he reached it- the first bush.

The king said he hadn't dealt with this plant for nearly 12 years- hopefully, what he remembered was correct, as his plans centered around being able to first burn them easily and second have the smoke not carry any of the oil.

Plans A and B, anyway. Plans C through F varied wildly.

The vigilante slid his emergency lighter carefully from his pocket, and held the flame to the base of the first bush, hiding the light with his hand.

He needn't have bothered; the blood blossom bush went up as if it were made of dry newspaper and kerosene. He darted in a crouch to do the same to the second, and at the sound of screams and gunshots, abandoned all stealth to light the third and fourth, before leaping into the underbrush and hauling himself up a tree.

He was just in time, too, as screams of "my eyes!" echoed from behind him. He extended his staff and leapt upon the closest and most unfortunate GIW agent.

Red Robin shattered kneecaps and broke shoulders of anyone foolish enough to aim at him, while the king bellowed a challenge and buried the bushes and weapon rails in walls of ice.

Their new friend tripped up anyone foolish enough to run for the treeline, teleporting in a flash of magenta as new prey appeared.

He heard gunshots before him, turned, and-

He was too well-trained to vomit, though the churning in his stomach told him it was only a matter of time. He focused on getting to the next agents, and disarming them, this time.

Usually, when an assailant went for a gun, it was to shoot him, not-

He'd never heard a roar so loud. The closest thing was Black Canary's shriek, but even that paled in comparison. He found himself on the ground, hands on his ears, teeth ripping into his shirt, dragged into the pitch-dark treeline. The sound tapped into the lizard part of his brain, stuck suddenly on flight. He overcame it with effort and moved further into cover.

He looked at the cat, its teeth still in his shirt, wondering if his face showed his shock. The cat's too- human eyes looked at him in utter amazement. They then looked back to where the king- with nothing but his voice- had taken the roof off of the hangar and destroyed both the rail system and half the barracks besides.

A teal blue glow like sea ice starting his gut spouted upwards, emitting light with such energy it became sound. Then it went dark and silent, leaving Tim with constellations in the shape of a chest below a crown of burning green flames as his only light, and the ringing of his ears the only sound.

sh*t- was he deaf now?

5 things he could see- crown. Stars. The cat's glowing blue eyes. Fires from the bushes. Sparks from a downed generator.

5 things he could feel- grass. Monster fur, oddly slick. His pants. His hair. His staff- at least his training had kept him with his weapon, despite the chaos.

5 things he could hear- his own breathing. His heartbeat, pounding in his ears. Ice cracking. Screams from downed agents. Gunshots. The shriek of metal on metal.

The action soothed the oncoming panic attack and confirmed he could, indeed, hear. The cat leaned into his touch with a whine, seemingly equally in need of comfort.

This hadn't been a fight.

Maybe at first, but- this was a full-on natural disaster. Earthquakes, avalanches, hurricanes all at once- hell, might as well add a tsunami.

Shakily, he rose, taking the shivering cat with him. Red Robin fumbled with the buttons on his pocket before pulling out the ball of green light he'd been given earlier that day.

What he found was utter devastation. Carefully not looking at the king, who was busy with the portal, Red Robin checked for pulses. He found a few, but so weak and thready he knew they wouldn't make it through the night.

To his horror, he realized Phantom's attacks had been aimed at infrastructure, not the people. Their wounds had been self inflicted. He remembered the panic from earlier that day, when the woman had been contaminated.

She hadn't struggled. Squirmed in pain, certainly, but hadn't seemed scared of the agent with the gun.

These agents- these people- had killed themselves out of fear of the atmosphere. He took a deep breath, fell to his knees, and dropped the cat in favor of vomiting.

The animal didn't leave, just rubbed itself along his legs and forearms, purring all the while. After a few minutes, he rolled back onto his haunches and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The whirring of machinery made him turn to the portal.

The king, he saw, was facing him, a somber expression on his face. "I'm sorry you had to see that," he said, "the GIW- they're not enemies sane people can understand."

He stood and the cat jumped from the ground to his shoulder, draping itself leisurely about his neck. "What’s happening?"

"I turned on the portal," the King replied. "You still have Pisthirió's core- I can feel it. Hold it in your hand and walk through, the portal will activate, and you'll be somewhere in Wisconsin on Earth. You'll be mostly unchanged."

"What’s the price," he asked warily.

"You have to go to a place called Amity Park. Tell- tell my family and friends I love them. And tell them I'm dead," the king replied. "Maybe the GIW will stop if they think we're all gone."

Tim frowned. "What do you mean? We just stopped them."

"The ones here," he confirmed. "What if there are more still on the other side? I want to see my family- but I'm a king. I can't think about myself."

Tim thought about it for a moment. "I've been sacrificed- to you, specifically. What happens when I go back and haven't guessed your name?"

"You'll owe me a debt. One I'll call paid, for tonight."

They stood in silence, staring. Debating, perhaps. "What happens if I choose not to owe that debt at all?"

Slowly, as if carefully considering every word, the king spoke. "I would owe you, I think. You make me remember- what it was like, being human. All the things I tried to forget. Our deal would remain unchanged," he warned, "but when you go home, you'll go with gifts that can't be made on Earth. And I'll tell you anything you want to know, so long as it doesn't endanger my people or violate any oaths or deals."

"I'm going to check out the hangar. If you're still here in about an hour- that's as long as the portal can be safely open." His piece said, the king forced his tail into legs and stepped into the hangar.

Red Robin stared into the bright swirling vortex, one hand on a bright orange core gem.

Chapter 6: A Coffee Quest

Summary:

Damian starts to get an idea of the level of the hole he dug himself into.

A rare Danny POV! He's remembered some more things, and he and Tim find common grounds- as in, the coffee. Jason and the Amity Park crew work to find the best place for a portal.

(I am SO tempted to drop everything I have, but I can feel Ari's disapproval from here. Don't worry, Ari, I'll keep my 10 chapter lead!
Thanks as always for beta-ing!)

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

"Wes, where's Leah?"

The redhead eyed the group warily and tightened his grip on his backpack. "I don't know what you want my cat for, but no," he replied, then yelped when Valerie put him in a chokehold from behind.

"Here evil ghost kitty," she cooed, "I know it's bright out, but we need your nose baby."

Jason jumped a little when a black cat with 3 bright blue eyes popped its head out and chuffed. It batted the air at the young black woman, who picked it up.

"Hey! Leave Leah alone!"

"Uhhh. Doesn't that guy hate ghosts?"

Sam shrugged, too busy trying to decipher a text in a foreign language. "No, just mysteries he can't prove. Ghost cats are everywhere here. They're good luck," she replied.

"And we need to steal his cat why?"

The woman plopped the creature down unceremoniously. The cat grumbled until the redhead picked it up, holding it under his chin protectively. "Wes, put Leah down!"

To Jason, she said, "they're particularly good at finding portals. And we're going to find a good portal to put this on- makes it need less energy to punch through."

The young man grumbled but opened an umbrella to shield the cat, made seemingly of pitch, from direct sunlight. "Ok, Miss Leah," he baby-talked, "show me your favorite snack spot!"

Ugh. At least Tim, wherever he was, had more sense than to keep a ghost cat.

-

Danny felt a rare spike of guilt as he ripped the remains of the hangar door away. If he remembered correctly, the news always said that Batman was non-lethal. Red Robin had said he was willing to disable the GIW's ability to murder ghosts and destroy the blood blossoms.

He'd said fight, not kill.

And Danny, who knew damn good and well the GIW were fanatic enough to do almost anything, that 15 years of isolation would make nearly any survivor a fanatic, had led him here, let him think he could beat them into submission.

The GIW were like ghosts, in their own way- driven by obsession.

Perhaps the new generation could've been saved.

What he had said to Red Robin was equally true, however. He was a king now- and not of the mountains, the Badlands, or the Far Frozen, or even his home dimension. He was king of it all.

And that meant he had to think of them all.

The GIW were killing his people of multiple Realms. They'd killed people and imprisoned them on Earth for little to no reason and with no consequences.

The corpses of his people implanted in the walls of the portal made his choice clear.

They needed to be stopped, and he wasn't Batman. He couldn't send out a new team every time one of his prisoners escaped.

It was why he'd offered to let Red Robin go free, despite not fulfilling their deal- a king must honor his word, true. But he must also pay his debts.

The portal continued its rumble, then shut down. He released a breath of cold air and tried to ignore the strange sensation of hurt that lingered. Red Robin had been his first entirely human contact in 15 years; there were painful memories, true, but good ones too.

Jazz had always thrown a fit over his hair every morning, attempting to tame it with little success. Until the human had spoken, he'd been able to pretend his sister was fussing over him yet again.

"You're going to be late for school, Danny," she'd gripe. "What do I do with this? You could at least-"

"You won't find much with your eyes closed," came an amused voice from behind him. Amused- but strangely sympathetic.

He turned to find Red Robin, ever present M-shaped domino mask off. "I'm not telling you my name. It's only fair if you have to guess too."

Danny laughed a little. "Is it Spartacus?"

The man wrinkled his nose in distaste. "I thought you were an ancient Roman emperor at the time, excuse me."

He grinned, then co*cked his head to the side. "Why did you stay?"

The man mirrored the gesture and huff a laugh. "My brothers and exes all have one thing in common- they say I'm the stupidest genius they know."

Danny sincerely doubted that was the reason and raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

Red Robin looked away. "Those are bodies. The cores, I mean- and I counted them. I'm not Batman," he said, meeting his gaze evenly. "I don't kill- but I've made exceptions before, with Ra's and the League. We killed 30 agents, and most of those killed themselves. There were 800 cores."

"You got sick over them."

"Just because I'm firm in my beliefs doesn't mean I'm not shaken by them. And I can't use the lives of 800 to save my own," Red Robin answered immediately.

It was such an Amity Parker thing to say- not Before the portal, but After, when the Infinite Realms and its many dimensions started leaking over. It was....

"Thank you," Danny said, resolving not to think of it. Red Robin was different from the Justice League- or maybe they too would've taken the same actions in the same circ*mstances.

There were a grand total of 10 humans who could stare him right in the eyes, after the Accident. His sister, Sam, Tucker, Valerie, Paulina, Star, Dash, Kwan, Wes, and now Red Robin. The hero from Gotham had changed now- he certainly hadn't been able to do so in his first few days.

"You should think hard on names. We're not the fae, though both Seelie and Unseelie courts have kingdoms here."

The young man blinked, and just like that, the incredibly serious Red Robin was gone again, replaced by a mask. Danny knew masks a little too well, and recognized a fellow actor putting on a well-loved character.

"I'm sure it's fine, for just a while. Anyway, I've got a few hints, I can narrow it down. What were you looking for in here?"

Danny looked away and felt one of his arms twitch- a psychosomatic gesture, as the nerve damage wasn't present in this body. "It sounds bad," he warned, "but I was going to see if they had any human food. Mostly coffee."

There was a sharp inhale and Danny looked upon the face of a fellow addict, lusting for a fix. "Red Bulls."

"Monsters."

"Venoms."

"Bangs. Or even C-4s. Especially the skittle kind."

"Aren't those explosives?" Danny asked.

Red Robin looked him up and down and nodded. "Before 2020. But after Venom started hitting the market so....hmmm. I have some name ideas for tomorrow."

Something told him the vigilante wouldn't take long to guess, but Danny found himself suddenly hoping for a delay. "You're right about 2018, but I've been on Earth longer than you think. And with all the heroes you know who look like humans," he snickered, then froze. "Nevermind, I've said too much."

Red Robin frowned and Danny turned to start looking for coffee to hide his grin at the muttering. "Can't believe I didn't think Krypton," the man muttered. "Not Martian. Could be from Earth but not human. Human letters, but- f*ck, he never said he was using human letters" he continued.

Danny carefully didn't react through the next few rooms, letting the human dig himself deeper. Maybe he'd tell him it was a red herring in a few hours.

"Could just be illiterate," he heard the man whisper under his breath. Danny flushed, grateful this form was alien enough to cover it.

"I'm not illiterate," he snarled, then realized the glow of a Ghostly Wail was building.

"First, I have a bad habit of talking to myself when I think I'm safe. Second, there are thousands of perfectly intelligent illiterate people and cultures. I did not intend offense," the man stated firmly and calmly.

If Danny hadn't been able to hear his heartbeat, he'd have been fooled.

Further offended, though he knew it was his fault, Danny interrupted whatever else he was going to say. "You are safe, at least from me. I promised not to kill you, and I won't."

"To be fair, you just said you didn't want to, not that you wouldn't," he argued, then paled. "Not that I'm suggesting-"

Danny felt the tension leave him in a laugh. He knew what he was dealing with, now- the unholy love child of Valerie, Wes, and Tucker.

"I still don't want to," Danny said, far more warmly than he'd intended. "And I promise, you can make me mad, but it takes a hell of a lot worse than that to make me kill someone."

Red Robin relaxed until Danny grinned. "Come on, bird brain, let's go."

"Hey!"

They found a decent selection of dried fruits and vegetables, a small amount of medication, and- jackpot. Red Robin reached the cans first and pulled the top off, only to find a selection of magnets.

Danny pulled open the second, full of screws. With trembling hands, Red Robin reached for the third, final can. After a few minutes, Danny placed one of his non-clawed hands on one of the vigilante's and pulled open the lid.

Red Robin swallowed, then whispered, "how could the gods be so cruel?"

Danny grabbed a handful of the expired Starbucks coupons and crushed them in his fist. "Why," he hissed. The other man groaned, and Danny echoed it. "I guess it's time to go. I've got to recover those cores for funerary rites. Camp here, or do you want to go straight to the mountains?"

"Let's just go. And I'm bringing Charlie."

"Who?"

"Charlie. The cat? I named it Charlie."

Danny looked and found the man staring at him in complete defiance. He shrugged, not seeing a problem- plenty of ghosts had pets. "Ok. Grab Charlie and we'll go."

The gratitude made him suddenly miss the calculating stares from a few days ago. "Just remember a few things- direct sunlight will kill them, so keep her in your jacket during the day. And they're curious, just like real cats, so expect your belongings to be misplaced."

"I will," he promised.

"So is it a purple one? They're hilarious."

"Charlie's black," he replied with a smile. "And very cute, William."

Phantom snorted. "No W's."

-

Damian sat on a bed in the servants quarters- not that there was much else to do. Alfred brought him food at irregular intervals, had provided a room with a restroom, and absolutely nothing else.

"What am I to do in here?"

Silence. Damian could see at least one bug, they should be able to hear him. "Alfred. Why am I here? My talents would be better put to assisting in Gotham's defense."

A speaker crackled, and his father's servant spoke. "They would be, if any of us could trust you. As it is, you shall sit here, think upon your actions, and inform me if you have any bright ideas regarding the rescue of Master Tim."

He curled his hands into fists but didn't strike. This was the room Kon usually stayed in, Kryptonian proofed so to save the mansion should his powers act up. Hitting the furniture here would be nothing more than an easy way to break his hand.

"Alfred. I did nothing wrong, the Replacement chose to-"

"For your sake, boy, you will not refer to Master Tim by that moniker. And for your safety, you will not speak ill of him. There are many people in this household who are perfectly content to kill- and Master Bruce is not here."

Suddenly, Damian felt ice slide down his spine. His father had left him in this pit of vipers alone? "Where is he?"

"I should think it would be perfectly obvious. He is searching for one of his missing children, Damian." After a moment of silence, the butler added, a little kinder this time, "like it or not, Master Tim is your brother. Think on that, as well."

Alfred didn't speak again, even though Damian threw out his worst. Perhaps, and this utterly terrified him, the butler included himself in the 'happy to kill you' category. Perhaps, his father even knew.

Notes:

I lied about the coffee muahahahaha

Chapter 7: Guilt and Dragons

Summary:

Gladiatrix: make them match
Royal armory: shouldn't we give him the same as the guards? Or a recreation of his current-
Gladiatrix: Make. Them. Match.

There were about 50 plot holes in this, please go thank Ari for helping me trim them down. It was a Whole Entire Thing.

And for timeline sake, Tim has been gone a little over 1 Earth day

Chapter Text

"Thank you for joining us tonight on Pretty Gotham, I, of course, am your wonderful host Candy Crush, with our co-host Ginger Pop!"

The two girls- one candy themed and the other in reds and browns leaned forward to kiss the camera. "Tonight's show is all about one of Gotham's pretty boys," Ginger said, "Red Robin."

"Yummm! Oooh, I could just hug him and kiss him and eat him up!" Candy squeaked, crushing the life out of a stuffed pink teddy bear.

"Bit hard to do that, Candy," Ginger said to the camera. "Rumor on the streets is our favorite bird is missing. And before you at me, Nightwing is Bludhaven- or is he?"

"You're right, now that I think on it. The butts don't match."

Ginger looked at her incredulously. "Their fighting styles and general behaviors are different, Nightwing is taller and has different hair, and you want to go with the butt theory?"

"I've stared at Nightwing's fantasstic butt enough to know what it looks like," she sniffed.

"Oh my goodness Candy, I- you know what? Sure. Butts don't match. Anyway, he was last seen- the real Red Robin, I mean- investigating one of the Joker’s hideouts. Someone needs to bring our Red Robin home!"

"And give me his number!"

"Candy!"

"What? Just because I haven't seen his face doesn't mean I don't know he's hot!"

Pretty Gotham was mostly a gossip vlog, with plenty of information on what suit Bruce Wayne was wearing- and how he should really go back to Armani because they flattered him more. They had hour-long rants on which Gotham villain was the hottest, and oddly enough self defense tutorials from Ginger.

It was normally ignored by anyone not in the target demographic of teenagers and college kids. And older people who liked to stare at Candy and Ginger's...assets. Now, with the rumors circulating, Pretty Gotham was rated #1 locally for a whole day.

And just like that, Dick was playing himself and Batman- letting the spare Red Robin suit stare judgingly at him. Dick rested his head on the glass case.

"Hey."

"Cass?"

"Mm."

The former assasin stepped up beside him, analyzing the suit. Dick knew better- her eyes weren't on kevlar, steel, and leather.

"I know what you think."

"It's true," he said. "I was supposed to go with him, and then the gym's pipes busted- I stayed home."

"Tim and Bruce told you to," she stated, eyes still on the red and black suit. "Not your fault."

"That's where you're wrong, Cass. I'm an adult, I could've refused and hired someone to watch the gym. Instead, I suggested Damian."

The assasin looked at him in disbelief.

"Yeah. I said he needed to bring someone, and Damian was the only one without an active mission."

She didn't say anything, and he took a deep breath before speaking. "Cass, I made the decision not to go. I made the suggestion for Tim to bring someone. I knew we were all bogged down with missions, except Jason and Damian, both of whom tried to kill him. How is it not my fault?"

Silence.

Dick stepped away, grabbing the Batman suit. He was stopped by wiry arms around his waist- strange only because Cass didn't handle physical touch well. She didn't handle verbal speech well- he was frankly shocked by the number of words she'd spoken- but she tightened her grip.

Dick sniffled a little, and before he knew it, was on the floor, bawling into a 13-year-old girl's hair. It was like hugging a warm rock, no give, all sharp corners and edges. She held onto him for a few more minutes, until the computer sounded an alert.

"Thanks, Cass. I needed that."

The girl nodded. "Sound like Batman."

Dick snorted and whiped his nose with his undershirt. "Guess so," he agreed in a voice rough with exhaustion, rage, grief, and a whole host of other emotions he didn't have time to analyze. "I'm going to go brood on a rooftop. I'll be Batman until 3, then Nightwing."

She nodded left him to change in privacy. Dick took one more look at the costume in the case and placed a black gauntlet over the bird. "I know you're not dead. I'm not being haunted by a coffee ghost yet."

The suit didn't answer. Dick left, unsure if he was being honest or comforting himself.

-

Day 6

-

"Ivan."

"No. Ivan the Great? Nerd."

"Are there any I's?"

"In some spellings," the King replied easily.

Tim grit his teeth against the wheeze that wanted to escape and feinted a right hook only to switch to a roundhouse kick. Frustratingly, the king dodged easily. "Is your name Dustin? You look like a Dustin."

He barely resisted the urge to pull out his staff or a knife- right now, the king was dodging, occasionally batting a paw at him. If he took the spar seriously, he'd probably be wounded.

That wasn't what this was for. Last night, he'd moved embarrassingly slow, and without the king's attack, he would be dead. Six days of laziness, without even a workout, hadn't done him any favors, and besides, he wanted to be able to hold his own even against a hostile ghost.

"Nope," he replied, trying not to betray his exhaustion. "There's an I in it though."

"Sweet! Hey, did Octavia ever tell you how kings are chosen?"

Tim dropped into a roll to evade a low swipe and twisted to sweep the leg. Which might've worked if the King had legs.

"Never got there."

"Defeating the previous king is step one, and the reason I don't get a lot of challenges is I'm probably one of the best in a fight. You're not going to beat me in one like that," he said, "but I can get you lessons."

Red Robin huffed and rolled to his back, staring at the bright green sky. "That would be nice. It's still a good workout, though," he panted.

"We'll talk about it more when we get home," he promised.

Tim wondered how his people were doing- 6 days here meant a little over a day there if his math was right.

People might've noticed by now. He held a little guilt, as well. While they were likely worrying, he was basking in the sunlight in a meadow, his new cat hidden under his cloak, making plans for supernatural self defense lessons.

How long before the news leaked out to his old team, the Outsiders or Young Justice?

And somehow, he doubted the cultists' intentions were a week-long vacation.

Once the sun reached its' zenith, the three headed out, and Tim fervently wished for Cujo. The dog's saddle was easy to hold onto, but the purple-black starry void that made up the king twisted and undulated irregularly. To make matters worse, he had to hold the monarch in a chokehold just to stay on because he couldn't gain any traction.

When they arrived at the base of the mountains, he could barely open his arm to release the king, and had to hang onto one of his forearms until his legs stopped shaking.

It'd been more like riding a rabid eel in heavy riptide currents than a horse. He regretted not letting him go for the Superman carry now- a little, at least. Superman looked cool doing it, but whoever he was carrying?

He'd take soreness over the embarrassment.

Tim's heart lept into his throat when a massive blue and green dragon took flight and dove towards them, flanked by a pink and green one to the left and a blue and purple to the right.

The king stood his ground, and largely unable to move, he did so as well. The first two landed while the third banked and circled overhead. Tim was struck by how quiet they were, especially considering their size.

"Phantom!" Bellowed the blue and green dragon, largest of the three, "you are late, my friend!"

The king grinned up at the monster and laughed. "I have to keep you on your toes, sister. Red Robin, this is King Dorathea of the Scaled Mountains, my oldest friend here," he said. "And yes, I know that probably isn't translating right, but she isn't a queen."

The dragon- Dorathea- turned her head to the side to look at him. The eye- just one- was half the size of Killer Croc. "This," the king continued, "is Red Robin. He is staying with me temporarily as an honored guest."

Interesting- no mention of a sacrifice or a deal.

"Our friend Gladiatrix told me a little," she said, amusem*nt coloring her tone. "I know she desires a queen for you, but kidnapping a human is... a little much, don't you think?"

"She wasn't the one who kidnapped him," the king explained. "But yes, she is a little one-track minded."

"I do certainly understand that," the dragon said, "but you must forgive her. You've been ever-so lonely since the portal was closed. We simply want you to be happy."

He sighed. "Red Robin, Dorathea is also one of Octavia's co-conspirators."

"I have siblings, I get it," Tim said, trying not to think about the sheer number of dates he and his brothers had set Bruce on for the same reason...and then watched from the rafters because it was hilarious how bad he actually was at flirting.

They were grounded every time- and then did it again next week.

Most of Tim's exes were if not chill, at least not jealous. Dick's were quite the opposite, and after the Jenny from the League of Assasins vs. Melanie from Starbucks who was secretly Illuminati incident, they were left with irritating Bruce for fun.

"I have a reason for my lateness, sister. Tell me- of late, has anyone from your realm gone missing?"

The dragon's lips curled. "There is a reason my guards have come with me. Several- most of them young, less than 10 years of age."

Tim swallowed. 10. A bunch of 10 year old kids- or hatchlings- had been murdered. He wasn't prepared for the sudden whiplash as a beam of light burbled in the king's chest. "And you never thought to tell me?!"

Dorathea roared a challenge back. "This is my kingdom!"

"And it is mine! You are King of the Scaled Citadel and the mountains. But who is your King?"

"You are," she snarled, no longer sounding so pleased to see him.

"I am. So why did I find 800- and I counted them- 800 cores on my way here? Why did you not see fit to ask for help?"

Just like that, the dragon pinned back her wings and bowed her great head. "The war you wage on the Observants is important, your majesty. You are the only one who can fix what they and Pariah Dark have broken. And- 800, truly? There are only 15 missing."

The king made a sound not unlike the rumbling of a brewing storm, then sighed. "I want to know. Not just when the court session is over for a week, when it happens. It just so happens you can thank Red Robin, here. The group was using blood blossoms, and he is immune, as a human."

That was playing it up more than a little, Tim thought. It also reminded him uncomfortably of his family- how many times had they hidden things from one another in the name of protection, only for it to backfire?

It had led him, ironically, to his current predicament- Dick had asked if he could go with Damian. Knowing everyone wanted the tension between Damian and himself over with, he had agreed.

Now, he was stuck pretending to date a dead man in the Infinite Realms.

The dragon arched its back and began to shrink, bones twisting and popping until a young woman, who couldn't be more than 20, replaced it. Her skin was the same shade of blue as the dragon's scales, her eyes the same green, but her hair was like spun gold and her dress was solid white.

"What you have done is something we could not. I do thank you, and name you an honored guest of the Caves of my Citadel and of Scaled Citadel above. Have you the cores?"

"I do," Red Robin said hesitantly. "What should I do with them?"

"This happened on my territory," Dorathea explained, "it is therefore my duty to attempt to revive them."

"Blood blossoms, Dora," the King said, "you know with blood blossoms, they don't come back."

Come back? Did he mean to life?

"I have the sacred duty to try. The cores, please."

The cores had been stowed in a massive white bag stolen from the facility, not unlike Tim's new bloodstained white backpack, and he handed it over. "Good luck with whatever you'll be doing."

"Perhaps you might like to rest after an arduous journey, my King, Red Robin. Should you follow the Lady Azaveraith, she will take you to the assigned quarters."

The pink and green dragon stepped forward and laid her head on the rocky soil. "Come. You may call me Aza, and I am a far smoother ride."

"Hey!"

"You fly as if you're performing evasive maneuvers. Good in a fight, not so for your passengers."

Aza flicked dirt at him with her tail, blissfully unbothered by the ensuing growls. Tim climbed aboard and they took off. True to her word, she was far slower than the king, who frequently had to double back, but was only a little rougher than an average motorcycle ride.

When they landed, she didn't give him a chance to clamber off, instead letting him marvel at the space he found himself in.

The hall was large enough Tim could only faintly make out sparkling gems in the ceiling. The walls were covered in massive murals, some as large as skyscrapers, and the floors were a mosaic made of stones, glass, and other gems no bigger than the tip of his pinkie. They were covered in a glistening sheet, which must've been the way they kept their place under the dragons claws and size.

There was music, too, from a group of merfolk situated in a bubbling fountain.

"I will ask you stay out of the pools here, at least unless the High King is with you. Some of the aquatic residents can get a little rough," Aza warned.

Aza kept them around 50 feet back from Phantom and Dorathea, who had their heads together about something. They came to an agreement, Tim figured, when Dorathea nodded to them and started her way down again, cores in hand.

The king turned to them. "I have to deal with some business. Lady Ava, can you please help Red Robin get settled in?"

"Of course, your majesty," she rumbled. "You will be staying in the usual suite."

"Thank you," he replied, and left.

Tim stayed in the bath probably too long, but the bubbling hot springs and cool stone felt amazing on his skin and sore muscles. When he left, he was surprised to find the ragged clothes he was in mended and smelling like fresh apples instead of sweat, blood, and muck.

The white bag had been cleaned somewhat, but the black bag and cloak were clear indicators the staff didn't approve of it. That was fine- the fewer pieces of GIW gear, the better.

Next to it was another outfit of black leather- not the skintight stretch kind, either. This was meant to stop a knife if needed.

Beside it was a note- the new clothes were for a state dinner. Interestingly, pieces of the leather had been died red- the gloves, neck piece, boots, and belt- in a way that mirrored the king's. The red bird-like shape was the same, minus a stylized flaming crown- a match to the one on Gladiatrix's armor and floating above the king's head.

That was one way to make sure everyone knew who they'd be messing with, he supposed. Batesian mimicry, was his next amused thought.

Chapter 8: Fairy Tales and Gilded Cages

Summary:

Chapter 18 is over 6k words. Sorry for the delay in this one! Ari and I had a hell of a time and I ended up needing to edit 3 chapters for plot holes.
Also my 14 year old cat just died so I'm having A Bad Time right now.

For reference, Tim has been got for a little under a day (time moves a little more slowly than Danny thinks)

Chapter Text

Day 6

Tim wandered the room- which turned out to connect to another room with a dragon-sized sliding door- and couldn't quite keep his hands from the walls, just as intricately decorated as the main hall.

Charlie followed him with her cheerful little meows as he absentmindedly told her about the person she reminded him of so much. How was Dick, anyway?

"They tell the story of the first Dragon King," Phantom stated. Tim jumped, though he'd later deny it.

"Can you tell me about it?"

"Even better. Tonight is when the comet Drakosies crosses overhead. You'll get to hear it from a professional."

That was pretty exciting, Tim thought. "And Qu- sorry, King Dorathea is fine with a human?"

"She is, especially one who got rid of blood blossoms. I'm sorry it took so long, I had an apology to give."

Tim frowned. "To who? I mean, you're the king?"

Phantom shook his head, an amused little smirk on his face. "I forgot how much human politicians love to avoid fault. Maybe I should explain- you heard her say court season is over for a week, right?"

The king gestured to the low bed, and he sat. "Right."

"Well, this place is a tourist hotspot- the weather is great, everything is beautiful and so on. Some people really don't like the tourists, so they leave every year, and come back when the tourists leave. 10 people- 3 adults, 7 children- left," said the king as he sat down beside him.

"And it wasn't weird, because tourist season was about to start," Red Robin repeated. "How did they know there was a problem?"

"Dora sends scouts pretty regularly, and dragons like any excuse to fly. So one scout comes back and says there isn't any travel, which is weird this time of year," the King explained, "and then two messengers go missing."

Red Robin nodded. "12 people missing now, and now it's a problem," he surmised.

"She sends out 3 scouts, and expected to hear back yesterday- for all she knew, it could've been nothing, until the scouts and messengers."

"So it wasn't a problem worth bothering you about, basically?"

The king shrugged. "Why would she need to let me know about the usual tourist season travel being light? She didn't know about the other missing ghosts, so while my reaction was understandable to her, it wasn't fair," he explained, "especially not in front of her servants. A public transgressions needs a public remediation."

Tim nodded. "And you're telling me why?"

The king raised an eyebrow. "I promised I'd tell you anything you wanted to know, with a few caveats?"

That made sense for the dragon story, but not- "You can't read minds, can you?"

Phantom laughed and took human form in a flash- thankfully in the black and white suit this time. "Read my face, if you want," he offered. "You didn't discover Batman's identity because you hate questions and think inside the box. I'm willing to bet you're twice as curious as Charlie on a bad day."

Tim flushed a little, feeling just a touch embarrassed at being read so easily.

"It didn't hurt you ask questions about ghost society pretty regularly, according to Octavia."

"Speaking of," Tim began, deciding to embrace his need to know everything, "Gladiatrix said you could call her that after beating her in a fight? But King Dorathea calls her Gladiatrix."

"Size isn't everything, to ghosts- to dragons, and some others, but not most. Gladiatrix is one of the best there is. To my knowledge, they're 10 to 0, in Octavia's favor. Names mean a lot to ghosts."

"So if everyone knows her as Gladiatrix, doesn't that cause confusion?"

"Walk with me," the king said with a smile, "or we'll be late. If you say Batman, do you usually mean the one you work with or a guy who really likes bats?"

So the bodyguard was famous. He took the king's extended hand- always on the right side- a habit they'd been working on since Gladiatrix mentioned many were doubting they were actually courting.

Fair enough, since it was true.

The ghost king made another ball of green energy and rolled it along the ground, Charlie happily pouncing on it. "Don't be surprised if she shows up. Doors aren't much of an obstacle. That should fill her up, though."

"So Charlie is a her?"

"Blue eyes means a girl, yellow means a boy. Anyway, Gladiatrix just means female gladiator. It's a title, not a name. Like calling me king."

He puzzled that out. "So by calling her Octavia, you're reminding everyone you beat her in a fight. That's good for you, but not Gladiatrix."

The King made a thoughtful noise. "Not really. If a king is strong enough, he should be able to beat nearly anyone in a fair fight. So it's not really embarrassing for her. On the other hand, it makes challengers less likely, because if they can't beat the King's Gladiatrix..."

"Then why try the king? And she said she's usually your bodyguard, so she's fine with you getting in fewer fights," he reasoned.

The king nodded and led the way down four flights of stairs. Tim didn't mind- the walk let him look at more of the bright, colorful carvings and mosaics. "Why do people challenge you?"

"Same reason people run against an incumbent president, I suppose. They think they can do a better job." The king suddenly laughed. "I had one challenge me at the beginning of court a few years back, and told him to sit down. We'd fight after. Well, after court, he asked me if this was an everyday thing. I said yes, while court is in session 10 months out of the year. He decided he didn't want the job."

Red Robin snickered along with him, all too able to imagine it.

"That was Lord Pisthirió, believe it or not," Phantom added quietly. "He was a good friend, after that."

Red Robin looked back to the wall, suddenly grateful he didn't use the core to leave this place. "What did the king mean to 'try' with the cores?"

"That's an interesting bit of biology right there- the mind, soul, everything is stored in the core. Bring a core to ectoplasm, soak it, purify it, and the ghost might be able to repair itself. It's why we fear blood blossoms so much- they dissolve the outer shell and make cores just balls of energy."

"That's why you were going to let me use the portal," Tim realized.

He nodded. Tim followed him down another flight of stairs, and was then stopped by the gentle squeeze of a taloned hand. "There's no good way to play this. I've talked you up as much as I can without seeming disingenuous. Remember how I said most ghosts are good with humans?"

"So some aren't."

"Especially since those cores were cracked by blood blossoms, and there were kids involved."

It didn't take much to put two and two together, and make four. "It had to be humans, for something that big, and there's a new human shaped target."

"My thoughts exactly. If you go in before Aza, you're somewhere mid-hall. If you go with me, they won't try anything- or I'll be well in my rights to shut it down."

Unsaid but understood was the obvious- if he went in before Aza, he would be entirely dependent on someone else. And even if King Phantom noticed a problem, he wouldn't be able to do much. Still, he was a little confused.

"And why would I want to go before her rather than with you?"

"There's going to be some assumptions. Octavia would be pleased by it, but I'm not sure you would."

Ah. "I agreed to play along. I see no reason to back out now, unless there's a reason I should. Angry ex?"

He snorted. "Not on this realm. The people who are looking for a fight with humans might say some offensive things."

"Remind me to tell you about my birth family. Do I walk in first, you, or-"

"Same time, in this case," he said, and released his hand to offer an arm. Tim took it, careful of the sharp ridges on his new gauntlets.

"Who do I thank for the armor?"

"Octavia, actually. She thought you needed something a little more...ghostly."

"And if I match the king, all the better?"

"Precisely."

"Why?"

The King considered him for a moment and then looked forward. "Do you like fairy tales, Red Robin?"

"Sometimes," he said, fondly remembering the times he was sick and Alfred, or- after the worst of his pit madness wore off- Jason would visit. Jason would forever deny it, but he absolutely did voices.

Alfred's visits had stopped mostly, after he was 15. Jason still did, usually long enough to gripe at him and rant about whatever villain did this to him, then would open a book. He always denied he was reading to him- said he just liked reading aloud.

Tim had spied on Jason in the library enough to know that was a lie, but he never called him on it.

"You're in one, in more ways than the obvious," he said cryptically. "Ask Octavia when we get back."

The pheonix motifs on his greaves and shin plates, which matched hers though in a different color, gave him a clue, though he hoped he was wrong.

("You listening, Timbo? We're getting to the good part. So the woman grabs her daughter's hand, and nearly pulls her off the fairy horse, but the father snatched her hand away, shouting, 'that is the changeling! I would know my daughter!'

But he was wrong, and the changeling turned all their gold back into broken glass, and left to follow the fairies home. And leaving, she cried, 'your Bridget can never come home again! For she has been changed by the Unseen!'

At that point, it's AK-47 time, but these parents are built different. There's a lot of crying and sh*t and- ooh! Mom murders dad, good for her!")

'Your Bridget can never come home again, for she has been changed by the Unseen', Tim thought uneasily. The GIW had been obsessed with 'contamination'. Despite their madness, did they have a point?

Phantom had forgotten he had a human form. Would Tim eventually forget he was human? He didn't have time to puzzle it further, as he caught the sliding tip of king Dorathea's tail inching through the massive doors. They waited until she was announced, then stepped forward. The announcement was made in a hissing language Tim couldn't comprehend.

Phantom used his other right arm to lightly tap his before moving forward. Tim followed, grateful for the hint.

Meals at the castle were very much cafeteria style for the most part, and most ghosts there were friendly and familiar enough with humans that, besides rampant curiosity, he wasn't in any real danger should he be left alone for an hour or two.

This was an entirely different atmosphere. There were hisses in that strange language, and words in English, heavily accented enough Tim knew they were for his benefit.

King's whor* ran rampant, and ironically it was the skillset of Tim Drake, son of playboy Bruce Wayne, rather than Red Robin he called upon to keep his cool- and remember the faces.

Other phrases were only a little less hostile- King's Pet Human was a little more tolerable, King's Mate was completely incorrect but considerably better than 'whor*', and Ally was possibly the only completely positive one he heard.

Neither monarch addressed the comments, but Dorathea let out a roar that silenced things well enough before turning to her humanoid form. After the roar, several still had hands over what passed for ears, and out of the corner of his eye, Tim noticed a bright white-green glow along the king's throat.

What followed was a story that had him single-handedly taking down the GIW, destroying their base, burning the blood blossoms, returning cores that could possibly be re-animated, and possibly stopping an invasion.

Not...quite how it went, he mused, thinking on how he'd huddled in the dark with a ghost cat for most of the time. Still, it made the worst of the whispers stop.

Not all, though, he thought, tracking a lizard-person from the corner of his eye.

He stiffened when something touched him under the table, glanced down, and tried not to laugh when 8 eyes looked up at him. For whatever reason- likely the king's bared fangs- the lizard person made a last-minute decision to sit back down.

Under the table, the king offered Charlie another, much smaller, ball of light, which the cat took happily. Tim hid a smile, despite the situation, as a group at the end of the hall began hissing and snarling a story which the king leaned over to translate.

He'd always loved pets, though he never adopted one. And stories were always interesting to him, no matter the subject.

-

Anyone who didn't know Bruce Wayne would assume he was calm- after all, why wouldn't he be? Business was booming, he was on a vacation to L.A., and his third son was on a European backpacking tour to 'find himself'.

If Tim really had been on a backpacking tour, he would be overjoyed- finally, one of his children decided to enjoy the high life and relax!

But Tim was gone, and not in a place Bruce Wayne or Batman could reach him. "Any news, Constantine. Please," he begged.

The blonde bedraggled man rubbed his face. "It's not good."

"Bad news is better than no news," he said immediately.

Constantine sighed. "Was afraid you'd say that. What if I told you Red Robin was in a place way beyond what any angel, demon, faerie, or witch could reach?"

He heard his knuckles crack and forcibly relaxed his fists. "Are you telling me Satan and God can't do anything? What about whatever's left of the Greek pantheon?"

"Nah, Bats. Tim is being held by the High King of the Infinite Realms. He's beyond heaven, hell, Hades, the Field of Reeds, the Seelie and Unseelie courts. There's no deal we can offer to them to get them to even try."

"Not even for a soul," Bruce asked raggedly.

"Backfire. Souls are his domain- they'd just be used against anyone who opposed him," Constantine said. The man's voice was uncharacteristically gentle, and he clasped Bruce's shoulder. "Bats- Bruce. Bruce, go home to your family. It's up to Red Robin to get out now, and even if he can- well."

"What does that mean, John?" The man didn't answer, and Bruce dropped his head to his hands, "please. John, as a father, I need to know."

"The Infinite Realms cater to obsessions and desires, sometimes ones we don't even know about," he said eventually. "If he wants to solve a mystery? If the Infinite Realms likes him, there'll be a new one every time he turns a corner. If he wants a mother, I promise you, one'll find him. If he wants a lover, the Infinite Realms will move time and space to get him set up with the best one for him."

"Does he want a different team, a father who'll love him better than any human could? He'll get it," Constantine promised. "It's up to him- he negotiated a deal, that much we know. But if he looks away from that goal for even a second? It's not that he can't. He just won't want to."

Bruce felt the inky wings of a panic attack fluttering at his face and forced himself to breathe through it. "Go home, mate. Your other kids are going to need you."

Chapter 9: Alone and Forgetting (but not forgotten)

Summary:

Tim: ugh I ate so much I'm going to explode. Better curl up in my massive fancy bed in my soft fluffy robe (and miss my family)
Batfam: day 2 has just dawned and we are already combusting

Quick note: Tim doesn't mention the whole Steph betrayal on his 16th thing here- he will later, but lots of ghosts are putting out fuzzy, happy nostalgic feelings.
If you are curious: Tim doesn't *like* to think about it. He understands Steph's reasoning, they've made up, and he Does Not Want To Talk About It. Steph wasn't thinking, really. Bruce went: here's the mission, and she did the mission, left for another, and came back just in time to see a mental breakdown.

Notes:

If you noticed: yes, Bruce, Alfred, and Dick don't really join them for their little Christmas adventure, with different reasons.
Bruce- is Jewish, but also thinks he's doing a Good Thing by patrolling instead of joining them. (Before you @ me, Ari and I discussed this for a LONG time before we decided on this for reasoning, and she is Jewish) (also nicer than me because I was just going tor make him go- nah, have fun bit it's not my religion)
Alfred- is happy the kids finally have their own thing that *isn't* fighting. He encourages that with plenty of snacks and spending time with them after.
Dick- is usually in Blüdhaven. Like Tim, he isn't religious. Unlike Tim, he has other things he wants to be doing- which is fair.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Night 6/Day 7

The story of Drakoseis- both the comet and the king- took them through three courses, with King Dorathea leaning over to translate while King Phantom ate, then switching out.

There was some spicy fried noodle dish with filets of fried fresh Argentinosaurus (which was replaced with some sort of fish for him), a half-cooked egg dish that was made with some sweet and sour sauce, giant scorpion in the shell (which tasted so much like Alfred's braised lobster it made him homesick), and after the celebration was finished, when he was absolutely certain he couldn't eat anymore, roasted caramelized nuts and figs of a now-extinct breed of chestnut and even older breed of fig. From the coloration, he was fairly certain he was served the non-ghost version.

Each was served with a drink of purified ectoplasm, which he avoided, and was provided with water instead. Tim was grateful for that- while others quickly became drunk on the stuff, he kept a clear head.

He was frankly surprised at his indulgence, though he supposed it wasn't everyday one got to eat things not seen on their home planet for millenia. Charlie, thankfully, was happy to steal some from his fork- though not the spicy fish.

She went particularly wild over the egg.

After dinner was a long walk over to the nearest family or flight home, for the attendees who didn't directly live in the Caves of the Mountain King. "We're going to watch the comet. After that, pretty much everyone goes home or to a friend's home- think about it like a Christmas party," King Phantom explained quietly.

"And what are we doing, after?" Tim asked just as quietly.

"I like to watch the stars a little, usually. Then we'll go back to the suite. Everything is closed day after, so we'll probably just sleep in, then there's a tour."

The human nodded, content to follow along for now. One of Cass's few non-violent memories had been Midnight Mass at a Catholic church. Granted, she'd been there to spy on and eventually kill the priest, but it was such a rare positive memory she wanted to go back every year.

Tim, who slept rarely anyway, was usually the one who joined her deapite his lack of faith, along with Steph. Duke would frequently join in, and whenever Constantine was in, he would say he was too superstitious to avoid it. Jason, griping until they reached the cathedral, at which point he'd always become dead silent, often came as well in later years.

Alfred would meet them in the foyer in his striped pajamas instead of his usual suit and load them down with snacks. He always looked so pleased, even though he was up after he finally got some rest. Bruce would see them off at the door before donning the Batman suit.

Neither Bruce nor Alfred would drive them; that was Tim's job, and he was happy to do it, listening to the echoes of his motorcycle's engine on nearly empty streets while Cass hung onto him and encouraged him to do tricks Alfred certainly wouldn't approve of.

When the others joined, they made possibly the best-dressed and most dangerous motorcycle gang in Gotham, Jason roaring down the streets with whichever gang member he managed to con or bully to come with, Duke holding onto Steph like a lifeline as she matched Tim stunt for stunt, and sometimes, rarely, Commissioner Gordon and Babs would join them in a car.

They made an odd group, but even when everyone else was on missions, Tim and Cass always made time for Midnight Mass. It was where the 'Tim Drake is Catholic' rumor started, and amusingly, the 'Tim Drake has an illicit lovechild' one did as well.

That mostly ended when Bruce claimed her and Tim announced they were siblings, people, he was only 9 when she was born, but they were known to use it on and off missions, to get into family only events.

The hand in his was not warm, callused, and deceptively strong- it was cool to the touch, callused in places that suggested frequent fights with both fist and pen, and deceptively gentle.

A few days ago, he'd seen the ghost tear apart solid metal beams like they were paper. Now, he doubted there would be so much as a hint of a bruise.

Still, it felt a lot like walking to Midnight Mass, an act that had been a chore becoming a comfort. Safety, though he shrugged off that thought- the king had a reason for suggesting a fake dating thing through Gladiatrix, one he wasn't privy to.

Drakosies raged overhead, leaving a bright ice trail and casting out waves of golden-red fire as it crossed the distance. As it crossed, its' path caused an aurora to appear, first in bubbles like a stone across a pond, then in long waving streaks of gold, orange, red, purple, blue, green, and back to gold once more.

It took everything in him not to cry when he looked around for the young former assasin, and instead found ghosts in her place.

Phantom squeezed his hand in reassurance, soft and oddly warm, and slung his other right arm around Tim's shoulder in a sort of half-hug. Tim was grateful for it, mind reeling with emotions he wasn't entirely sure were his own.*

Others walked, floated, or flew off, leaving them nearly alone before the king spoke. "Before the Fenton portal closed, I would bring my friends from Earth here," King Phantom said quietly, shocking him.

"Sam didn't like the feast much, as a vegetarian, but Tucker would load down so much he'd sleep through the comet."

Tim laughed quietly. And then, "my little sister liked to go to Midnight Mass. I was usually the only one who'd take her in the beginning- our dad is Jewish. It sorta became a family thing, even though none of us are Catholic."

"That's a nice memory."

"It really is," he agreed softly. After the comet sank away, even King Dora and her ladies left. They remained for a few hours, though, Phantom pointing out constellations and telling abbreviated versions of their stories.

"Can I ask you something?"

"Of course," the king replied.

Tim hesitated before asking, "why did you bring me here?"

The king licked one of his canines in what Tim had realized was a nervous gesture, not a threatening one. "I don't like being alone during it," he said finally. "Gladiatrix is with her wife for things like this- which is good! The whole point is being together for it. Since the portal closed, though..."

Tim leaned into the king a little. "I'll stay with you for the holiday," he promised. After all, in his world, he'd only be gone for 2 or 3 days.

Finally, when the sun began to rise, chasing away the purple night sky, they left to the suites. The king instructed him to wake him if he needed to leave for any reason, but to otherwise sleep well, and stepped into the far chamber.

Red Robin came out of the armor with some difficulty and changed into the provided robe. The heavy food and lack of caffeine (and lack of stress, added an inner voice that sounded suspiciously like Alfred) led him to falling asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Waking up was not so kind, however, as he stared at the brightly painted ceiling. Somehow, he just knew it, Steph was about to do something stupid. Even before they started dating, they had a sort of connection he couldn't quite explain- and they both knew when the other was about to do something dumb.

Now, in another dimension, his Steph senses were tingling.

"Please make Duke talk sense into her," he whispered to the ceiling. "Or Kate- no, Kate might encourage her. Alfred. Alfred, make her see sense."

The ceiling didn't answer.

-

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Tick.

The only sound in the manor's main library was the echoing clicks of the old grandfather clock. Bruce stared- and tried not to- at the spare Red Robin suit. Someone had set it up in Tim's chair, and pulled it to the table, so that when Bruce called the meeting and sat, he was forced to lock eyes with a domino mask duct taped to a soccer ball.

Jason's chair was conspicuously absent as well, though Bruce knew that didn't mean much. The boy would come and go as he pleased, even in times as hard as this.¹

Steph glared at him with murder in her eyes, giving him a clue as to who might've done it. Dick was absent as well, but the faint sound of grunting, gunshots, and kicks and fists landing from the coms told him he was acting as Nightwing. Or Batman, possibly.²

"What’s the news on Tim?"

Duke broke the silence, and Bruce looked to him in gratitude only to find him uncharacteristically stone-faced.

"Constantine says he's safe," Bruce finally said. "The current king isn't likely to try anything unsavory, either, so as long as Tim solves whatever deal he made, he'll be able to come home."

"So what fairy do we have to make a deal with to make a rescue happen?" Oracle asked over the phone.

"That's the bad news," he replied. "He's being held by the High King of the Infinite Realms. The Seelie and Unseelie courts, as well as heaven and hell, are under his jurisdiction. They're not going to try anything that might put them out of his favor."

"And that includes taking his toy," Steph drawled. Bruce flinched. "Did you forget to mention this guy is known for bringing humans into the Infinite Realms? Or that there's an entire town that got sucked into that dimension, spat back out, and no longer officially exists?"³

"Steph-"

"Hold on," Cass interrupted. "An entire town?"

"Yeah. Jason's there checking it out and called us. You know. From the site. And not from LA, when he could've talked to Constantine over the phone," Steph said. She didn't take her eyes off of Bruce and hoped the venom hit its mark.

Bruce looked away first.

"Jason sent me some schematics, too. They're working on re-opening a portal. He's staying there for now, apparently there's need of physical defense," Oracle said, "or maybe he just didn't want to sit at a table with a lying hypocrite, you can never tell with Jason."

"Oracle!"

"What?" Steph drawled. "Does that hit a little too close to home? You baby Damian until he thinks murder is cool, meanwhile you made Tim go through remedial training after he was mind-controlled by Slade. You didn't go hunting for Jason, and you're not doing sh*t for Tim now!"

"Enough!"

Steph slammed a fist into the table, hard enough to crack the dark oak. "Say what you will about my dad, Bruce! He was sh*t person, he was always a f*ckin sh*t person. He was a murderous crazy supervillain, but he always had my back! That's what dads do, Bruce! They have your back!"

"If anyone had done to me what Damian did to Tim, he would've killed them! Killed them dead, but Damian is sitting there, grounded. You grounded him for attempted murder!"

Duke didn't stop the tirade. Didn't say anything, just held his hands in tight fists in front of him and watched the armor as if desperate for it to move.

"I'm sorry, Steph. I truly-"

"Don't f*cking call me that. I'm not your daughter, I'm not dating your son, and I'm not your friend. I'm Spoiler, to you."

"Duke," he said, trying to hide the desperation-

"Signal," Duke said, his first word since asking about Tim. "You should probably call me Signal."

Cass pushed away from the table, flipped him off, and ran upstairs. Likely to her room, he thought sadly, unaware she was running to Tim's. She would bury herself in the smell of minty aftershave, coffee, and off-planet snacks until she felt a little better. Or until Orphan was called to rescue Batman or Nightwing or whoever else Dick was playing tonight.

She felt like an Orphan, she mused. Curling up in a bed that wasn't hers for comfort.

The door opened, shut, and Steph flopped down beside her.

"Boots."

"Nah. Tim wouldn't care."

"Alfred washes."

Steph hurriedly kicked off her boots and dusted off the end of the bedspread, hoping Alfred didn't look too deep into it. "You know, Cass, I think I might move out."

The young girl shook her head rapidly.

"Not because of Tim- he's going to come home. Just, I don't think I can watch everything go back to normal."

"Me either."

Both girls jumped at the voice. Kate was curled into Tim's favorite hidey-hole. "I thought there might be a clue," she said apologetically.

"No. It wasn't that kind of kidnapping," Steph said. "Here's what happened-"

-

"Are you alright, Craig?"

"My name's not Craig. I'm fine," Tim answered. "I'm just about 100% sure one of my friends is about to do something stupid."

"Weird, usually that's my sister talking about me," King Phantom joked.

"I think you may have given up a little too much info. The whole navigating by the stars thing and the tail. Is your name Davy?"

The King choked and Tim sat up, only to find the ghost stifling laughter. "No, I'm not Davy Jones. And for your hint, it doesn't rhyme with Fredrick."

"If that's not the most off the wall bullsh*t- oh sh*t, sorry, I'm half asleep."

The king laughed harder and joined him on the bed. One claw gently tapped him on the forehead. "Go back to sleep, Red Robin. There's nothing for us to do today."

He reflexively grabbed the arm. "Don't do stupid sh*t, Steph."

"I won't," and did Steph have a cold? She sounded really gruff. Whatever, he thought, he was on vacation. He deserved to take a nap.

"You do," Steph rasped gently. Cool hands brushed hair away from his face and Tim slept on, for a rare uninterrupted, 3 hours with the sound of falling snow in one ear.

It felt like the nap before Midnight Mass, with Cass draped over him so he didn't get lost in a mystery and forget.

He was forgetting something, he was sure.

--

Cass bodily dragged Dick to the Batmobile and packed the gunshot wound with the emergency kit before driving home.

'Idiot,' she wanted to scream. She didn't. Instead, she reached behind the seat and slapped him, hard, until he woke up- and one more time for good measure.

Alfred helped her haul him out and down to the infirmary. "I'm afraid I must ask a favor, Miss Cass."

"Mm?"

"You'll likely disagree with it."

She narrowed her eyes at him.

"We'll be decorating for Christmas and Hanukkah soon, and I need you to pull out Master Tim's for under the tree. Including Damian's."

Cass grunted a negative.

"Trust me, Miss Cass. I am well aware of how to hit where it hurts. When master Tim returns, I'd like to ensure something like this doesn't happen again."⁴

Notes:

* Tim is right, he is absorbing a lot of other peoples emotions which is actually pretty common for ghost celebrations
¹- Bruce is very out of touch with Jason. He doesn't even know Jason and Tim are sort of friends now, just assumes everything is just not-tense enough to be ok.
²- for the entire 8-day mission and last night, Dick has been Red Robin and Nightwing. For the past 2 days he's also been Batman. Dick is very tired.
³- Steph found out from Babs who found out from Jason
⁴- this may seem like a non- sequitur, but Alfred knows what he's doing. And remember, for them Tim has only been missing a little over a day, and they know he's a resourceful guy. Alfred has a Plot.

Chapter 10: A Gilded Cage

Summary:

For reference, Tim has been gone a little over a day.
Per request, guess & hint list added

Notes:

Guess list:
Pariah Dark
Spartacus
Alexander
Fredrick
Donald
William
Ivan
Davy

Hint list:
Not Pariah Dark
No S
Yes A
No O
Doesn't deny he shares a name with a king
No W
I in some spellings
Doesn't rhyme with Fredrick
Confirmed he shares a name with a famous king

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Day 7

Tim woke alone, unsure why he felt as if someone should be there. He rose, tilted his head back, and sighed heavily. He loved it here. Really, honestly loved it.

But he missed Cass, Alfred, Steph, and the others. He missed Kate's quiet confidence and Duke dragging him to concerts.

He missed Bruce, even. Maybe he'd make him proud.

No, he thought angrily, no he'd never do that. How many times had he tried and tried, and ended up with remedial training? When he left his team and came home, he thought he'd made Bruce proud, finally.

Instead, he was met with Damian.

He dug his fingers into the soft bedspread, then stood and stepped into the bathing area, nearly as large as the bedroom he'd been in last night. It was set up much like an onsen, with an area to use for restroom purposes and something much like a shower.

Phantom was already in the larger pool, in human form nonetheless, when he slid in. "Can I ask what makes this water so awesome?"

The king shrugged. "You can, but I don't know. This feels nice, though."

Tim leaned back and rested his head on a towel. "This is amazing."

"Just wait till tomorrow."

"What’s tomorrow?"

"Just wait," he replied, and Tim splashed him with water. The king laughed and returned fire. They played around like kids for what felt like twenty minutes at least, before finally Tim's stomach betrayed him and they sought food.

It turned out that when King Phantom said there was nothing open, he meant it. "What are you doing," Tim finally asked the king, as he stared, dumbfounded, at the pile of raw vegetables.

"Maybe it would make a good salad?"

"Or maybe I should cook something," Tim offered, suddenly glad of Alfred's lessons.

("A man should always know three household skills, whether he marries or not, Master Drake. He must cook, for he will need to eat, learn to mend clothes less he be rendered naked, and proper etiquette, for there is always someone to impress.")

He desperately missed Alfred.

His combat knife was hardly proper, but the fire in the grate made a good stove, and the heavy stone bowl made a decent pot. Tim looked over to find Charlie and the king watching him intently, the ghost cat with curiosity and the king with more complex emotions.

It always was a shock, to see him in a human form. He looked deceptively fragile like this, rough-shaven, barefoot, and what skin he could see on the king's right side covered in scarring.

"Are you remembering something?"

"My sister cooked. She tried to teach me, but I think I was too unsteady after the accident."

After a moment's hesitation, he invited the man closer. "So what I'm doing here is garlic and onions first. Nobody likes raw garlic, so you have to cook it first," he explained.

Phantom didn't interrupt his explanations as he went along, for which he was grateful- all he could think of was how appalled Alfred would be, cooking for a king with scrounged tools and a combat knife.

The soup wasn't bad, but it certainly wasn't ideal. The only spices included were salt, garlic, pepper, and some glowing purple powder he was told would be toxic to humans.

"What is it?" Tim eventually asked.

"Lithium, a little mercury to hold it together, and just enough ectoplasm and lead to make it sweet and sour," the king replied, dumping a full half of the jar into his bowl. "It's my favorite- but it would definitely kill you."

"Let me guess, you eat cyanide, too," Tim asked, thinking of The Addams Family.

The king laughed. "Not really, it's a little too bitter. I've been known to eat ricin, though- it's why you've been eating a little bland."

"I appreciate it," Tim replied. "I'd rather not eat the wrong ghost spice and become one myself." No, he would be happy to stick with boiled root vegetables for tonight, though the spice certainly looked interesting.

"If you tell me about your sister, I'll tell you about one of my siblings," Tim offered. "I'll even let you choose which."

Phantom stared at the bowl with a pained expression for a moment. "Our parents weren't very good at the whole parenting thing. She would have to cook, clean, manage our schedules- she was a mom by age 10," the king recalled. "I tried to make things easy for her, but at the end, I was an asshole teenager."

"I'm sorry."

He shook his head. "I- I tried to remember my mom's face under the mask," he said with panic in his voice, "but all I can see is Jazz. I don't- I don't think I remember my mom right. They had different eyes, I know, but..."

Tim remembered his birth parents. They were notably bad parents, but he remembered them*. Did Bruce remember his, outside of a dark alley? Or was it Alfred's face?

"That's something to watch for, here," the king said after some time. "Just about everyone and everything here can feel emotions, at least a little¹, and memories are usually tied to emotions. If you're here long enough, things might get...distorted. Not so much for you, but- I'm still trying to remember why it affects me so much."

It was a sobering warning and a reminder he wasn't technically on vacation- his job, until he guessed Phantom's name, was to try waking up as many memories as possible.

If he stayed too long, would he just be parroting facts back and forth? Until he even forgot how to get home? Or worse, would he forget them completely?

"Which sibling are you closest to?"

"The little one," he answered quietly. "She goes by Black Bat, or Orphan. She mostly uses sign language, speaking is pretty hard. We always-"

He spouted off as much as he could about Cassandra without revealing her identity, terrified he might not remember her when he went back.

He had to go back.

-

It took Tim a while to calm from his almost panic attack. When he did, grateful the king hadn't just left him, the man was quietly sketching something beside him. A young woman, two teenagers, and a third teenager-sized person without a face.

The faceless one wore a crown.

A spider-woman and Gladiatrix stood to the side, these sketches in such perfect detail he wondered if they might come back to life. A hooded floating figure with a staff ending in a clock was as enigmatic as the king's self portrait.

"Are those your friends?"

"My Fright," he explained quietly. "This is my sister, Sam, Tucker. Octavia, Arachne- I haven't done Wulf yet. Clockwork- I call him grandfather. He visits fairly often."

"Can you tell me about them?"

And with a tone of wonder, the king replied, "you know...I think I can. At least a little."²

-

"Hey, Babs."

"Holy sh*t, Jason, how did you get the phones to work?"

"My new friends," he replied from the warehouse. Rooming with Tucker wasn't so bad, the guy pretty much had stuff tricked out the way he wanted, and other than being really freaking loud when he talked to everybody, he didn't disturb Jason much.

And he let him try out ghost weapons, which was a giant plus.

Sam was terrifyingly competent and he would pay good money for Bruce to show up, because her size 9 combat boots would be so far up Batman's-

"That's amazing! I want to talk to the tech people," she said, then more carefully asked, "how's finding Tim going? Or should-"

"They know. You can't hide sh*t from Amity Park people. Spotted me over the damn phone, then called me out in person. They're human, but maybe...."

Jason trailed off, watching two kids chase one another in the street. The one behind sprouted glowing wings to shouts of, "no fair!"

"Maybe?"

He made a split-second decision. "They're human. Just don't share this place with Batman, I don't want them to be a victim of a contingency plan."

"Understood," Babs said warmly. "It's a good thing Amity Park doesn't exist."

Jason snorted. "Yeah. Crazy place, but nice," he said aloud, watching the kid tease the one on the ground. The one on the ground started throwing a ball up and he huffed a laugh.

"You sound...good. Like, really good," she said hesitantly. He could read in between the words- like before he died.

"I'm not on Earth anymore. Don't ask me to explain, I don't get it, but this place is...in between somehow. And also I have cats."

"I- wait, cats?"

"So ghost cats eat ectoplasm. They really like corrupted ectoplasm," he said, "and according to Sam, the Lazarus Pit is a big pool of stagnant ecto."

While she puzzled that out, he sighed. "Please stop trying to eat my hair." The ghost cat batted him on the nose for his impertinence, meowed, and went back to it. ³

"The f*ck was that?!"

"Ghost cat," Jason said.

"That was not a cat, Jason, I know what cats sound like!"

"Hey Tuck, got anything that does pictures?!"

"..."

"No, I'm not saying cheese. No, the cat is not saying cheese either."

"..."

"Because ghost cats can't talk, Tucker. Thank you. Did you take the picture? Babs, why are you so quiet?"

Jason heard a sniffle from the other end. "Barbara?"

"You sound like you," she sniffled. "You sound like you again."

He huffed. "Well, don't go crying about it."

"I'm not," she argued, watery-voiced.

"Jesus. You better be eating, Babs, you know you don't eat enough. And if one of those f*ckers- specifically Dick, don't know what you see in him- has been messing with you, I can kill him. I'd like to kill him, even!"

Babs laughed, which was admittedly his goal. "God, mama bear Jason strikes again. How goes the search?"

"We found where he was. Not where he is- Sam says it's likely he just got close enough to whatever it is he had to do, the spell almost let him go⁴," he explained. "We're still trying to get the portal up, but the Fentons aren't making it easy."

"Who are they," Babs asked, all business.

'An uncomfortable reminder of what denial can do to people', he thought. "That's a long story."

"I have time."

-

Night 7

Tim was not the only human in the Infinite Realms. He'd figured as much, as everyone seemed to know what human-safe food was and there was indoor plumbing, but there were a few consequences he failed to expect.

Such as the actual, literal, honest-to-god were-eagle.

Were werewolves not enough anymore? Was King Dora a weredragon? Was-

"Craig?"

"I already said it's not Craig," Tim said, staring while trying not to stare. "What do you mean that's human?"

King Phantom looked at him, nebulae bursting into existence on his cheek. He licked his teeth. 'Nervous', Tim thought, followed by, 'I'm not supposed to know this.'

"She, actually. I mean were-eagle, and eventually she'll probably be an eagle themed ghost."

"How did she become a were-eagle?"

The king looked away, though Tim was experienced enough now to read the way Jupiter descended down purple-black plane of his torso meant guilt.

"I offered to let you use the portal," the king offered, much like Dick when he was caught stealing cookies by Alfred. His tail whipped back and forth in twisting circles.

Tim took a deep breath. Exhaled. Reminded himself that choosing not to walk on the bodies of dead children was a good thing.

"Your Majesty," he began, and the tail flicked a little faster, the Crab nebula exploding a riot of color onto his side. "How did the nice young lady become a were-eagle," he asked, sickly-sweet.

It couldn't be as simple as getting bitten by one, or he wouldn't try to hide it. "I don't suppose you noticed that people here are... I guess amalgamations would be a good term? Of different ideas, obsessions, goals...animals."

"I did."

"Ectoplasm is a funny thing- it won't kill you, not immediately. It takes years, maybe even decades. But we've been making sure the water is filtered and the food is human safe!"

Tim stared at the King, good will forgotten. "Explain."

"You know how strontium is so dangerous because the body thinks it's calcium and stores it in your bones?"

He didn't, actually. "I take it ectoplasm is similar?"

"Right, only...it reacts. The Infinite Realms is made of ectoplasm. Everywhere is, but as it gets used and converted into magic, it gets less concentrated," the King explained in a rush, "so the human body can accept ectoplasm, everything can! Which is good, because that means you didn't suffocate to death."

"Go back," Tim demanded. "What do you mean by 'reacts'?"

"So cores develop by reacting to events, right? Bear with me, I'm going somewhere with this."

Tim stared the four-armed giant down. "Continue."

"So what if you're in a place where the air is hard to breathe? Even without a full core, the ecto might make adjustments like air sacs or bigger lungs. It can't make big changes with just a proto-core, though, just little things."

"Right. How far off am I from being a were-eagle?"

"You could be a were-robin?"

Tim stared and the king licked his teeth again. "Maybe 10 years or so? I was already half-dead, I had a full core, so changes hit way faster than it will for you. And anyway, you're smart! You'll guess my name way before you get anything more noticeable than fangs and claws," he reasoned, then made an odd face. "Hopefully."

"Hopefully."

"Or you could- nevermind."

It didn't take a genius to figure out what the King was going to say- 'or you could stay'. King Phantom had been largely alone for 15 years. A Fright was a ghost's main way of keeping sane, and most of his were both human and in another dimension. He reasoned this, but still felt rage bubbling up.

And then, he took another deep breath, in and out. "I promised to stay through the holiday, and unless one of my guesses are right, I will. That's all I can promise."

"I know," the king said miserably. "You have a sister, too. If I had a way to just go home, I would too. I said my name didn't rhyme with Fredrick, when you guessed Davy."

"Right."

"The whole kings of the past thing you've been going off of isn't entirely wrong."

"A king then, or something close to a king's name?"

The king shrugged. "I shouldn't even give you that."

The king darted up into a green sky before he could ask more, twisting and turning into patterns he would've loved to record.

It was sad, really f*cking sad, that being used as a reminder by a ghost was probably the best week he'd had in a very long time. And it was even worse said king understood him more than his family, despite only knowing him a week.

Tim took another breath of the tangy green air and sat under the bough of a tree he'd only seen in paleo-art. He took a deep breath, held it, let it go. In, hold, out. In, hold, out.

He would miss this peace, but he had to miss it- otherwise, he would never see his family again. He could burn the sight of the king under a green moon as the sky grew purple and constellations he'd never see on Earth twisted and spun, orbital mechanics made art.

He would make a few more guesses, narrow it down, and after the holiday, have the name down for certain. He would apologize, he decided, it was the least he could do for the inconvenience. Alfred would approve of that. Constantine maybe wouldn't.

It would've been too easy, though, to kill him, or assign an impossible deal, or any of another thousand things Phantom could've done. And no one said he had to be treated so kindly, either.

Yes, he would apologize. And then, he would guess David.

Notes:

*when I say notably bad, I mean before age 7 Tim's parents would leave him alone for weeks on end, no sitter, no security. It's canon.
¹- for those of you who said Tim was picking up on other people's emotions, you're right! It's the ecto.
²- Danny has not forgotten his Fright, they're a little different. But features, personalities, powers get mixed up. Try to remember someone you haven't seen or talked to in 15 years.
³- The cat is named Asshole Larry, and he has claimed Jason as *his* pet
⁴- Davy was very close

Chapter 11: Cracks in the Family Portrait

Summary:

Please go thank Ari for beta-ing and Ciss for angst help!

Yes, Tim guessed Frank mostly as a joke- he promised to stay during the holiday, but he still likes hints!

Do you like the little asides and notes on the bottom?

Guess list:
Pariah Dark
Spartacus
Alexander
Fredrick
Donald
William
Ivan
Davy
Frank

Hint list:
Not Pariah Dark
No S
Yes A
No O
Doesn't deny he shares a name with a king
No W
I in some spellings
Doesn't rhyme with Fredrick
Confirmed he shares a name with a famous king
No K

Notes:

Discord:
HI: Danny "haymaker" Phantom didn't help his case when he did the ghost equivalent of getting into a drunk fight at Denny's at 2 AM and, to their horror, beat the everloving crap out of Aragon.
Ari: he deserved it.
HI: And Aragon went- "I can fix this, I'll force his friend to marry me!" Only for a human to beat the crap out of him with an ecto guitar on his sisters back
Ari: so many options!
HI: What are they gonna run into next? Another mythological creature? A Dragon Ball Z battle? Two vampires arguing over the last can of sunspray, only to find out it's bottled sunlight and not sunscreen?
Who knows?
Ari: Badlands ghosts!
Skulker!
Especially since Tim has Bats on the brain!
Skulker Batson agenda!
HI: Skulker's going to show up screaming about how Phantom broke his brother's heart, and Tim is going to have *so many* questions

(It was ultimately cut, but please note that on Danny's list of failed dates, Stalker is a name not a verb. Specifically, Skulkers brother)

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

"How shall we proceed, Master Bruce?" Alfred asked.

The man he'd raised from childhood took a deep breath, released it, and the butler was fondly reminded of Master Tim, who started imitating the gesture until it became second nature. Gathering his determination, no doubt.

"There's nothing we can do."

Alfred was certain he had to have misheard. "If we cannot expect Constantine's assistance in this matter, we must take care of it as a family. He has been gone only a day and a half," he replied with mild reproach.

"I've been thinking about what John said," the younger man said without any reaction to his words.

"Yes, we cannot expect help from any dieties, fae, angels, or demons, or what-have-you. It doesn't mean-"

"Tim doesn't want to come home," Bruce said softly, sending ice down Alfred's spine.

"Young man, I will need quite the explanation. Why would you say such?"

"If the Infinite Realms likes him, it'll give him anything he wants," the man replied. "The best trap for Tim isn't money or power. It knows that- knows every move we might make before we even decide according to Constantine. If Tim doesn't want to-"

"Good lord, man!" Alfred snapped. "What's gotten into you? If he can't get out, we will help him. Master Tim wants family, we are his family! So get up, look through those books, and-"

"Enough, Alfred!" He snapped.

"You always reminded me of your father, Master Bruce," he seethed.

Bruce took another deep breath. "And now?"

"And now," he said darkly, "you remind me of mine. It's my fault as well, of course. I allowed you and Master Dick to baby Damian and have no consequences. I know of at least a dozen times I could've ensured Damian wouldn't have access to Master Tim. Rest assured, you are not alone in your guilt. What concerns me, beyond this popyco*ck about Master Tim not wanting to return is the lack thereof on Damian's part." ¹

"I don't understand it, Alfred, I know they fight, but-"

"Master Bruce, let me stop you now," Alfred said firmly. "Master Tim fights and attempts to defend himself, and what few attempts he has made to fight back that might injure Damian more than a scratch have been put down. Damian does not fight. He is an assasin, he assasinates."

The man he raised froze, jaw suddenly clenched. Alfred knew that look- he was facing something he didn't want to.

"Alfred, can you get me the number of the repair company that worked on Dick's gym?"

Alfred fought the urge to snap and allowed the man to continue. "I want... no, I need to know if there was any foul play. He wants so badly to be a killer. Let's look into him like one." ²

-

Day 8

-

They visited the Serpantine Library after a tense, awkward breakfast of slow-roasted goat and hummus. The library was considerably smaller, though still larger than any he'd physically visited on Earth.

Their guide, who'd met them at the entrance to the Royal levels of the Caves of the Mountain King and began the tour immediately, had been sure to point out it was finer than any living library could hope to be.

Outside the entrance, Phantom spoke, loud enough the ghosts pretending not to listen in didn't have to try. "I owe you an apology."

Why was he-

Oh. Public transgression, public apology. ³

"In Amity Park, most people want a core. It gives them greater physical and magical capabilities, so they can defend themselves and their families. But you are from Gotham, not Amity Park," he stated, "I should not have expected you to know what was happening, and furthermore should not have expected you to want it to happen."

After a moment of shock, Tim answered, "I appreciate that." And for lack of a better response, added, "you're forgiven."

He was frankly embarrassed at how red he'd gotten, and a tiny voice, the same one he'd felt urging him to stay, wondered how long it'd been since he heard an apology that didn't blame him?

It would've been easy for the King to say, 'but really you should've asked after you saw how paranoid the GIW were'. He would've even been correct- sure, he was still shaking after the display in the woods, but if he'd just put his fear to the side-⁴

That would've been Bruce or Dick's reasoning. It was even Tim's. How long today had he berated himself for not asking a simple question?

The king seemed to understand, though- understand Tim specifically. He never would've used all that energy, dooming 800 people, some of whom had been able to be saved and were still in recovery, to save himself. But he would've liked the ability to have an informed decision. ⁵

And he was not going to give anyone any ammunition against him, especially knowing they already hated him. After an awkward moment, their guide resumed their tour.

It was an official tour- something Red Robin had been looking forward to, and still did a little, though the frank disrespect was ruining his trip.

Their guide droned on and on, seeming to expect silence. "If the High King should want a rest while he is here, he may adjourn to the arboretum, or we shall be happy to escort him. As for his pet-"

The temperature dropped several degrees, and the male lizard-person ghost stilled. "Not that-"

"You can refer to my honored guest by his name, Red Robin. If you are unable to do so, perhaps- no," he stated suddenly. "No, I'm rather finished with you. I've been here before. You are dismissed."

Every word was annunciated sharply, cracks and pops of a frozen lake not quite frozen enough. "And spread the word- next person I hear use the words 'King's Pet' or 'King's whor*' deal with me directly."

The malice in the threat was palpable. The ghost stuttered an apology and flew off as fast as he could. Tim couldn't blame him.

Still, Tim flushed a little, at the sudden defense or the way King Phantom suddenly raised his voice, he wasn't sure. "If there is anyone else, I'd prefer to get it over with sooner rather than later." ⁶

There were no challengers, and Tim was left confused by the interaction. "The people you've met at the castle are more like the people you'll meet everywhere else," king Phantom said, making no effort to lower his voice. "Some people, however, are quite backwards."

Spines and tails bristled, but under the harsh green glare of the king, they were silent. Phantom opened his mouth, likely to say something else unwise, and hissed instead.

"Red Robin," he began, suddenly perfectly polite, "I'm no longer in the mood for a guide. Would you prefer me to show you around? Or go somewhere a little more friendly?"

He liked to think he made the obvious choice, though judging by the scandalized looks, ghost society would've demanded he stick around through it. ⁷

-

The town at the base of the mountains was a lively place, and Tim was relieved to be in a more hectic environment with a populous more busy looking at the performers or shop stalls than a human.

"We'll be heading to Robot Chimera. Be warned, it's a little...odd," the king warned. "Not bad, but odd."

Robot Chimera was an interesting name for a marketplace. Tim revised his opinion immediately upon seeing the market owner- a traditional chimera, excepting the lion head was a robot lion.

"Phantom! Come in, come in boy, too skinny by far, that's what I'm always telling you," bellowed the dragon head in a thick Scottish accent. "And you bought another skinny fellow!"

"Oh do shut up," the goat head returned, "you're much too loud, you'll give us a baaaaaaaad reputation."

The lion head made a pleasant beeping sound.

"Red Robin, these are friends of mine," Phantom laughed. "Amorata is the goat, Zaza is the dragon, and Beeps is the lion."

"Yes, yes, old friends! Since that boxy fellow stole King Pandora's box- that's how Beeps became a robot, you see," explained Zaza.

Beeps made a cheerful celebratory sound.

"He...likes being a robot. We're not entirely sure why, but we respect his decision," Amorata added. "And it's nice to be able to turn him off now aaaaand then when the rest of us are trying to sleep." ⁸

The noise coming out of the robot could best be described as apologetic, Tim thought, then questioning.

The king flushed bright purple. "I did not just get into a fight!"

The robot made a blender sound.

"Did not!"

"Enough, enough, you there- your name?"

"Red Robin," he answered. "Nice to meet you...three?"

"Aaaaand you," Amorata replied. "Did Phaaaaantom just get into a fight?"

Tim hesitated. "Well- not a physical one?"

The goat head bleated out laughter while Beeps made high-pitched, cheerful noises. "As we thought," Zaza roared, "you can take a ghost out of the Badlands, but you can't take the Badlands out of the ghost! Not that it's a bad thing- the prissy nobles up there like to take offense to anything."

Phantom grinned, lopsided, at the chimera and scratched his head. "I may have almost gotten into a fight."

Beeps made a cheerful noise and opened his mouth to reveal a small TV screen, upon which a clip of Green Martians laughing played. ⁹

"Don't take aaaaanything a noble saays too seriously," Amorata advised. "It's not you they're maaaaad aaat, but you make an easy target."

"Can I ask why? Is it because I'm human?"

Beeps made a negative-sounding trill. "No, no- they wanted Aragon to be High King, you see," rumbled Zaza.

"Bloody minded conqueror," Amorata griped.

"Yes, yes, and that failing, they wanted king Dorathea to be king of the Infinite Realms. And that still failing, well..."

Phantom sighed heavily. "They wanted her to be High Queen. Which wouldn't have worked."

"Certaaaainly not! A prissy ghost like that and a Baaaadlaaaands fellow? Not to mention, she doesn't haaaave the right personaaaality to be Queen."

"What do you mean?"

Phantom huffed. "Queens have a very different function."

The robot lion head shrieked out rapid beeps and Tim abruptly realized it had a pattern.

"Sorry, can you slow down a little? Something about her being too weak?"

He raised an eyebrow when all eyes turned on him. "You don't know Morse code?"

Phantom looked between him and the lion head, which had shut its mouth.

"What? Morse isn't exactly hard," Tim stated. ¹⁰

Beeps released a peal of repeating HA HA's, followed by DUMBASS.

"I will turn you into scrap metal," Phantom said without any heat.

FRIEND?

"Yeah, yeah, we're still friends, you big puss*cat," Phantom said warmly.

DORATHEA NOT STRONG TO BE QUEEN.

Tim considered this with a raised brow. "Huh. I don't know, she seemed pretty tough- or is that just the whole 'dragon' thing?"

"We drakes are made of strong stuff!" Zaza cheerfully agreed, "but Beeps is talking about her personality, I fear. 'Tis easy to rage against anything and everything! Far harder is peace, for a ghost." ¹¹

Amorata nodded. "Yes, no doubt you've seen our love of fighting. Aaand you may have noticed we don't inherit titles outside of the Citadel, no need for heirs. The word didn't used to be Queen, or King for thaaaat maaaatter, but languages change."

Tim frowned. "I think I'm getting the picture."

"You're probably right, but there's another layer to it," Phantom said. "Frights aren't just for fun- ghosts need them to be sane. Every part of the Fright plays a role, usually two or three ghosts support it, even, because every part is just that important.

"Guilds are just groups of multiple Frights, and a King or a Queen is over multiple Guilds. If you wanted- really wanted- to start a war. Knowing that there are very few Queens, and every member of the Fright plays a purpose, how would you do it?"

The three heads looked at one another, then at the king. "Your maaajesty," Amorata began, shocking Tim with the sudden formality, "perhaaaps this isn't the best place for such a discussion?"

Dorathea said he was trying to fix things, specifically power bases. The answer, then, was clear enough. "The Queens aren't- or weren't- very powerful ghosts, were they?"

"No, but way smarter and better at keeping a cool head. You're onto the right track," Phantom agreed. "Out of respect to my friends here, let's pick up this conversation later."

All three heads were visibly relieved, though Beeps added: COWARDS. SORRY.

"It's okay, Beeps. I'm not here all the time. Hey Zaza, do you still have that old game, I'm showing Jeremiah here some ghost stuff."

"No J's, Frank."

"No K's," the king returned easily as Zaza argued with his...siblings? Bodymates? About the rules to a particular game.

If he knew Queens were necessary to keep peace and sanity, if Queens were usually smarter but less powerful, and he was the kind of psycho who wanted to destabilize an entire dimension, then he knew who he'd be going for.

He sipped at the provided orange juice as a few other ghosts joined in on the arguing. It would take someone insane to go after an organization that big and powerful. Or, he reflected, a Badlands ghost with a temper. ¹²

"Hey, what's the Badlands anyway?"

"Picture this," said a relatively new ghost- she had an axe in her head and a Taylor Swift shirt- "You're at a Waffle House, everyone is drunk, at least half of you are on drugs, and you just want some damn waffles but the cooks are fighting, and you get dragged into it. It's 3 AM. You want to go home. Also it shares a parking lot with a Walmart. Also you're in Dawn of the Dead but you don't have plot armor. That is what the Badlands are like."

"I understood none of that," stated the ghost next to Tim- and if the pirate ghost wasn't named Davy, he'd be very sad. "But it feels quite cozy, if you're into assault, murder, and a little robbery on the side."

"Hey, are you famous?"

Phantom blinked at the girl, then smiled. "Yes, I guess so. I'm-"

"No, no, not you," she said, causing the chimera and several other ghosts to howl in laughter, "you," she said. She was pointing at Tim.

He co*cked his head to the side. "In Gotham, I guess."

"I saw you on the news! Before I died," she added a little more soberly. "But anyway, how did you get here from Europe?"

"From Europe? I was in the states," he replied.

She frowned. "That's so weird, a bunch of people were asking about you, your family was there, and they were just like 'he's in Europe backpacking'. Sorry!" She said at seeing his face, "I was being murdered at the time, so I'm a little fixated."

Tim tapped the rim of his glass gently. "I've been here for-" he looked outside to the darkening countryside, "we'll say 9 days, so a little under two there. But they hadn't heard from me for 6 Earth days before that," he muttered, thinking of the miserable week of radio silence.

"That's so weird. Cause I follow Pretty Gotham, right? And every time you or your brothers go missing- which is like a lot, now that I think of it, there's like this huge news thing on it."

"Red? You okay, there," the king asked, placing a chilly hand on his shoulder.

All this time, in the back of his head, he'd been thinking his old team was going to pull a stunt. But if they didn't know he was missing- their monthly video chat had been a few days before he was assigned the mission with Damian- would they look?

Raven, the only one who might be able to punch through dimensions, was off planet with Kon, and if Wally or Aqualad didn't know to deliver a message...

"I'm fine," he replied, still lost in his thoughts.

Another ghostly hand patted his other shoulder. "I'm sure they're just not wanting to panic people," the young ghost woman tried, "they're probably looking really hard."

They didn't notify Young Justice or the Outsiders. She probably would've remembered an an angry half-Kryptonian or a katana-weilding assassin crashing the conference. They might have reached out to Constantine.

It depended entirely on what Damian told them and what they were able to pull from the logs. "I'm fine," he repeated.

If he'd been in charge of this, he'd be going through to see when, exactly, the victim had went missing, he'd be interrogating the cultists in Wisconsin, he'd-

He would be at the site. Or near it. Not in Gotham. The glass cracked, just a little in his clenched hand.

Maybe he should guess something off-planet this time.

Tim took a deep breath. They were probably following the Mirror protocol. If Tim Drake and Red Robin went missing at the same time, there would be questions. Questions he wouldn't be able to answer when he came back. ¹³

It would be fine, he decided as he stared at the crack in the glass while a chimera, a pirate, and a Swiftie argued about the rules. It would be fine.

--

"I trust everyone knows I owe a debt to King Phantom," Dora said lightly. The Official Royal Tour Guide hid behind the Royal Librarian.

"I help him out now and then, but a week away from the capital is hardly worth the price of a kingdom and, if you recall, our lives? As Aragon liked to gamble with them?"

There was no response, but the king didn't seem to expect one. "He wants a Queen- every King does, really, but not any ghost will do! Imagine my excitement when the Gladiatrix herself tells me she's found a candidate!"

"What is a dragon to do?" She wondered aloud. "Of course, I thought, what could I do better than to give my dear, lonely friend a proper mate to help him with his kingdom. Isn't that a lovely way to settle a debt?"

"I plan a lovely, romantic weekend, complete with tours of the loveliest places the Caves and the Citadel have to offer. And then, imagine my surprise, the tour guide CHASES HIM OFF," she roared, a gigantic blue dragon taking her place.

The librarian skittered to the other side. The Royal Tour Guide wondered if it was too late to escape to Elysium. "YOU WILL WISH THE KING HAD FOUGHT YOU WHEN I'M DONE!"

It was...definitely too late. ¹⁴

Notes:

¹- Alfred is NOT HAPPY. Bruce is being an idiot, here- but also, in a day and a half, his family has torn itself apart. He will not STAY an idiot- this is The World's Greatest Detective, but he's allowed to have an off day.
²- Alfred knows assassins.
³- the halfa is about to make Tim start acting unwise! Luckily (for Tim, not Danny), Danny has a gift for putting his foot in his mouth.
⁴- no Tim stop gaslighting yourself.
⁵- so at this point we all had a good Discord laugh bc we realized Tim doesn't know Danny is a modern U.S.A. hero. Hints but not sure.
⁶- is OK Tim, you're allowed the warm fuzzies. And yes, Danny did just try to initiate a brawl.
⁷- no they were being jerks (why shown later).
⁸- Beeps is that friend who goes "Hey are you awake?" At 2 am and pokes you until you are.
⁹- you'll notice Danny's Badlands (or pre-king) buddies will absolutely call him out on things. Beeps is a *delight*
10- go back to the beginning notes to see our feedback on that!
11- if only you knew Tim's real name, Zaza!
12- Timmy, there are no Badlands ghosts without tempers. And they are all, Danny included, a little crazy.
13- spoiler: they are! It's literally to prevent 1- being declared dead and 2- being found out.
14- Dorathea did NOT approve.

Chapter 12: Hope and Loss

Summary:

To make it easy, towards the end, the // marks where the dream sequence begins and ends. This chapter features a rare Danny POV! (And I think he has a crush on Tim, don't tell anybody)
It is a distinct possibility that Tim might like him back but shhhhh he'll be mad I told you.

Also Bruce and Dick are realizing they done goofed.

We are now approaching Day 2 post sacrifice!

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Night 9/Day 10

Charlie had- somehow- joined them when they left the marketplace, loaded down with gifts for the Badlands version of Christmas. It wasn't celebrated too often here, the king told him sadly, but in the Badlands, the holiday was sacred. The only day when there wasn't any fighting.

The marketplace was a series of log houses in an octagon shape, vendors in every section and out in the uncovered areas. It was loud, messy, and uncomfortably crowded, and Tim fervently wished they'd been able to take a room at the already over-crowded inn.

There, he wasn't the only human, though most of them were dead, and he was treated as a friend of 'that old rascal, Phantom' more than anything else. King Phantom, too, seemed relieved to be just another ghost, nothing particularly interesting other than the fiery crown hovering a few inches over his head.

He'd never seen a king get into an arm wrestling contest with a twelve-headed Hydra, certainly. Or heard stories of a king writing the lyrics to Chingy's Right Thurr in an Egyptian tomb on a dare from the pharoah's younger brother.

"Robin- I mean, Red Robin!"

He turned, Charlie leaping from his shoulder to Phantom's at the movement. "Jessie, right?"

"Right," said the girl with the axe in her head. "I- um. This is super awkward, you probably don't even remember, but there was this guy who kidnapped a bunch of kids and he was going to melt them alive in acid."

"The Dissolver," Tim said in distaste, "I'm not sure I could ever forget him."

Jessie nodded, rocking the axe back and forth. "I definitely didn't. It was a while back, and I thought we were all gonna die, you know? Then this guy in bright colors breaks in, and suddenly we're safe. I always felt kinda bad- you literally saved us from being melted, and nearly got arrested for it."

"Good ol' Gotham PD," he said lightly. "With a few exceptions. I'm glad you're- well, that you were safe."

He was surprised by the strength of the sudden hug. "I just wanted to thank you. And- you were always my favorite Robin."

"You're welcome," he replied, setting the bags down so he could better hug the girl back. "I'm happy to hear it."

"Um. Anyway- my grandma said I had like two minutes, so I've gotta go, but- thanks, again. And even if you changed your name and outfit, you're still my favorite."

Jessi ran off to an older woman who'd developed dragonfly wings sometime during her afterlife, the older woman fussing over the axe. They were just far enough away that he couldn't hear the words; the loving tone, however, carried well.

Tim waved at them and took a step backwards into the darkness after picking the bags back up. He missed being Robin- the bright colors had been a symbol of hope, a light in the dark.

Red Robin was- well. It had grown on him, it was him now. Less a light in the dark, more a bloody fist. But anytime someone called for Robin, always, without fail, Tim would look.

And see Damian answer that call.

"Red Robin?"

He swallowed. "Sorry, Phantom," he said, and picked up the bags.

"No need to be sorry," the ghost replied, and there was something...knowing in those unnaturally green eyes. Something that made him feel like a bug under a microscope. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," Tim replied.

"If you're not," the ghost pressed, "it's okay. Ancients know my sister beat that into my head often enough."

Tim shrugged and pasted on a smile. It nearly broke at the king's next question, though the tone told him it was innocently meant. "Why aren't you Robin anymore?"

"It doesn't matter. Got too old, I guess."

The king's green eyes watched him carefully, disbelief apparent. Still, he didn't press, and for that, Tim was grateful.

The climb up was nearly silent, minus a few words before Phantom flew them up. The king seemed as distracted as he was, and Tim was grateful for it. When they finally landed just outside (while he could take them directly in, it was incredibly impolite to phase through occupied areas, he was told), he noticed something odd.

So far, every square inch of the Cave of the Mountain King and the Scaled Citadel was covered in artwork, from the largest murals to the delicate inlaid carvings on doorknobs.

There was an archway a few feet from them, with 9 glowing green stars, completely unadorned otherwise. "What's that?"

"It's a tomb, and one of the reasons I'm not too liked by the nobles here. It belonged to the previous king, Aragon."

"Tell me about him?"

"How about a trade. I'll tell you if you tell me?"

Tim frowned, a little amused. "I don't really know anything about him?"

"Not him," the king said in amusem*nt, "you. Or the Dissolver, if that's easier."

This was new ground, to put it lightly, but Tim supposed it was only fair- he had been asking a lot of questions. "This was before I started working with the Outsiders or Young Justice," he began, "back when I was Robin. It was...maybe a year and a half after the previous Robin died, so I was 10 or so. It was my first big official case- nasty, though, are you sure you want to hear it?"

Phantom held out a hand, and Tim took it, figuring the king probably noticed someone he didn't.

"What's the case you're proudest of, oh hero of mine?"

For some reason, maybe the look on the king's face, maybe the way he said 'hero', maybe just the warm breeze, it made him flush.

Tim bit his lip and began, "did you ever hear about a man named Ras Al Ghul?"

"Only from his victims. Tell me about how you defeated him," the king said gently, still watching him with that warm stare.

"It started after a kidnapping-"

-

Bruce sat next to Dick in the medical bay, looking at the wounds- both scarred and still fresh. He'd never wanted Dick to join him, had discouraged it at first, then enabled it. Dick was supposed to be a tightrope walker, a doctor, or with his head for justice, maybe the next uncorrupt DA.

When he found Jason stealing the Batmobile's tires, he'd wanted to give a street kid a chance to go on to do something besides fight and scramble for crumbs. He'd wanted Jason to be a writer, with his love for literature and history, maybe an archeologist or a teacher. Jason wanted to help, and he discouraged it. Then, enabled it anyway.

Tim found him at only 7 years old; he wanted to help him. Specifically, help Batman. He hadn't discouraged him, made him into a playwright with his love of convoluted storylines, or an actor, or a veterinarian.

No, he did just enough that he could justify to himself he wasn't really encouraging it. But he needed that sharp mind, that kindness so freely offered from a boy desperate for a father who really, truly loved him.

He saw Dick and saw his father's dreams for him. He saw Jason and saw his own dreams for a son. He saw Tim, and saw The Dark Knight. A boy who would become his legacy.

And when Damian- almost completely trained Damian- tried to kill him...

Bruce buried his face in his hands. Damian had been alone nearly two days, but he wasn't sure how he could face the boy.

Because Tim was gone. Not gone as in moved out, but Bruce would see him for dinner and patrols, but gone. If he'd been just a little harder on Damian, pushed less for Tim to be the adult in the situation and make peace- would he still have his third son?

It would be easy to blame Dick- he put them together on this mission after all, but why? Because Bruce wouldn't stop harping on them all about having peace in the household.

He lived every day with the guilt of Jason's death, made worse by his refusal to let the Joker break him, turn him into a murderer. Now, he faced the prospect of burying another son.

Half-covered by a bandage was a tattoo on Dick's rib. He'd been incandescent with rage- first, because it was an identifying mark, second because he'd gotten it done in a back alley. Why?

Because Jason didn't turn 18 for six weeks, and Tim was only 15. It was a week after Jack Drake's death, six weeks after the last time Jason had tried to kill Tim with any real intent.

Each had a reapers scythe. Below it were the words Mother and Father. Dick had the numbers 27 and 29. Jason had 28 and Unknown. Tim had 28 and 42, and another set, 34 and 39.¹

The life expectancy in Gotham was notoriously low.

He rubbed a thumb over that 29, and jumped at Dick's voice. "Outlived ma. No idea on pa, yet."

"You'll outlive them both," he promised, despite knowing the difficulties of their night lives.

Dick grunted. "Don't make me laugh, old man. Tim back yet?"

Bruce swallowed. "No."

Dick's voice was quiet and broken when he whispered a soft, "oh."

"Yeah."

"Damian say anything?"

"No," he said, "I haven't talked to him."

The young man huffed, then grunted when the movement pulled. "Bring him here. If you can make sure he won't kill me, that is."

"Dick, that's not-"

Dick groaned as he sat up so he could look Bruce in the eyes, teeth gritted from pain, blood spots reddening his bandages. "We have both made excuses, Bruce. Too many. And now Tim is gone. Jason is trying to find him, so are the others, and so will I. But this is one step too far. We can't trust him."

Bruce opened his mouth, only for Dick to kick him viciously in the knee, only to fall back with a groan. "f*ck, Bruce, I thought it would be like with Jason, but that kid wants to be the only child. And he'll kill any of us. I trusted him too much, and now Tim is dead! Or in another universe- I don't know, I was too busy playing you!"

Bruce swallowed rapidly. "He was sent to a place called the Infinite Realms. It's not somewhere we can get to."

"How did he get there, Bruce? If there's a spell to get him there, there's a spell to get him back, or at least let us communicate."

"Constantine-"

"f*ck Constantine! He loves Tim, Bruce. Ever notice how when something comes up, he always asks for Tim first, and only works with us if Tim isn't free? John probably knows something and thinks it's a great vacation for his overworked little buddy. I'll talk to him."

"John thinks Tim might not want to come home," Bruce said finally.

Dick lowered his hand to the tattoo. "No," he said with a tear-tightened throat. "No. He's going to come home. He'll miss us."

"He'll come home," he heard Dick say to himself when he closed the door. "He'll come home."

---

Danny rubbed his temples with a sigh, rings chiming gently against the jeweled chains twisted into his hair. He used his second set of hands to remove all the trappings of being the High King- the multitudes of earrings, the ice-phoenix feather cloak, the necklaces, the ceremonial gorget of white mithril- steel.

It was probably close to thirty pounds in all! He could remember, 12 years ago, the barely- hidden terror of being forced by The Infinite Mother to leave his home in the Badlands to rule not just his monster- infested archipelago on the edge of the Ectoplasmic Sea, but everything.

The Infinite had told him she'd given him those first 3 years to come to terms with his loss and learn to rule. It hadn't considered the sheer amount of cultural differences.

Or maybe it had; after all, the past few High Kings had all been nobles at least, if not already royalty, and they'd caused nothing but misery.

The Infinite Mother sent a disjointed series of images- trees rotten to the core infecting new growth. A cleansing fire, leaving only the new and the good.

"It's never easy with you, is it?"

To soften the words, he focused on protecting fond exasperation. It returned, oddly, an image of Red Robin. (Helpmeet- you)

"Most people just get invited to send in a resume, you know. Not kidnapped."

It sent back, (bored), and he laughed quietly, careful not to disturb his new 'helper'. It wasn't wrong, though he disliked the method It used to bring the Justice League member here.

Brain damage², was all Frostbite could say. How or why, he didn't know, stating the situation was entirely unique, and he'd still been one of the living back when the most recent High King was just put to sleep. Pariah was infamous for killing anyone with information on him- especially healers who would know his weaknesses- so there wasn't anyone to ask.

Grandfather had assured him though his vision was clouded by The Infinite Mother in the matter, so long as he did what was asked of him- so long as he remained a good, just king, who brought peace- everything would work itself out, regarding his memories.

And less than two weeks ago, Red Robin appeared and seemed to make it his mission to help a halfa from the Badlands regain his memory.

That was no coincidence. He didn't believe in those, anymore.

Danny had thought he was going to lose his mind with it, was already losing himself to his role, and then there was a self-sacrificial young man who refused to cower before the High King of the Infinite Realms.

He respected that, and more importantly (to him, at least), remembered it. Hadn't he been terrified of Pariah? Hadn't he stood his ground, regardless?

Danny stretched, far more than any human ever could, tail twisting about his shoulders, and finally laid down. He stared at gemstone mural above him and wondered which color matched his mother's eyes until he fell asleep.

//

"Get off me!"

"Back off, Fruitloop!"

The woman in blue managed to get her hands free, and that was all the distraction Danny needed to capture Vlad in the thermos. "Are you alright?"

"Don't touch me!"

It hurt, he remembered now, the way his mother... Maggie? Mollie? No, Maddie. The way Maddie aimed her laser pistol at his head.

"I'm going to put him in a ghost jail, okay? He won't be getting out for a very long time, mom'-"

"You and your kind are nothing but monsters! I am not your mother, and you don't deserve one."

He flinched. "There are plenty of human monsters just like him," he shot back. "Now I have to go make sure he can't get back here before he breaks out like always."

The portal was shutting- wait, when did he get back home to the Badlands? That wasn't important. He dropped the thermos and slammed into the closing doors. "No! Mom, please!"

Maddie brought the emergency axe down on the control panel single- mindedly, and in desperation, forgoing his secret identity, he resumed human form. "Mom! Please don't do this, Mom, it's me! It's Danny!"

Her eyes were finally filled with recognition and horror, but it was too late. The portal simply disappeared.

Her eyes- his mother's eyes- were purple.

This was his punishment, for the deceit, for not killing Vlad with the cruelty he so deserved, to be trapped, to lose his family, and he heard a voice- his voice, but lower, full of fire-core rage- laugh.

"I am inevitable."

The voice roared in mocking laughter, Dan in all his psychopathic glory, "you were always going to become-"

"Phantom! Phantom, wake up. You're having a nightmare."

That voice was familiar, but still new. A sacrifice, much like himself- ("You can't have my brother. But you can have me instead if only one can return. ")- another twist in the cogs of fate-

//

Something smacked him in the head and he was blessedly removed from his memories. "Red Robin?"

He was embarrassed at how shaky it sounded. Right now, the scruffy, scarred vigilante seemed to be nothing less than an angel.

"Yeah. Sorry, I had to throw my boots at you."

He sat up with difficulty, shaking like a leaf. "'S okay. Sam used to- anyway. Thanks for waking me up."

The vigilante slunk forward, the hiss of silk on silk and the faint pull off ectoplasm finding a good spot at Red Robin's throat oddly grounding against the memory of Dan and his last night in Amity Park. "You're welcome. You were talking about your mom."

It was carefully not asked as a question. An option, then. He was grateful for the lack of pressure.

The pistol was at his head, nothing but hatred in his mom's face, and- "if you sit down with me, I'll tell you a story. I just remembered it myself."

The press of Red Robin's shoulder against his own was reassuring, but the heartbeat he could hear was soothing. "My mother's name is Maddie. I came home one night to find Plasmius trying to wrestle her to the floor- but mom, man, she's tough. I don't think he noticed me come in."

Danny continued, words falling as fast as he could think them, until the whole sad affair was out and then some, until finally the vigilante's mostly silent presence led him to rest.

"Will you be okay by yourself?"

"Yeah," Danny said. "Thanks- sorry to have kept you up."

"Well, wake me up if you need anything. It goes both ways."

"I will. Good night."

"Good night."

"Red? I think I get why you're Jessie's favorite Robin."

Thanks to the way his vision worked in this form, he was able to see the faint flush. "Go to bed, Phantom."

Pity this whole thing was a ruse. He might look like some sort of monster to Red Robin³, but the young man was quite nice, really. Danny was dumb, but not unobservant. He knew how the mortal flinched away when there wasn't some 'mission'.

There was nothing to be done about it really, Maddie had been right. Nothing but monsters, and a face not even a mother could love.

Notes:

¹- not a typo! There are two sets for a reason, you'll see later.
² 15 years plus brain damage can do some bad things to memories. More on that later.
³- Danny has a vaguely human face so pith a leonine nose, giant sharp jaw with massive fangs, and odd markings. add a hominid upper body, and there the human resemblance ends. Wow hair, purple skin, glowing green eyes, constellations and planets forming and changing in his skin and clothing, 4 arms, long twisty tail instead of legs. In his old form, he hit that uncanny valley. Now? Full eldritch merman.

Chapter 13: A Call to Arms

Summary:

After 2 (Earth) days, Bruce comes to his senses. And Tim may be in more danger than he knows, as Danny prepares to wade into a war.

In the words of LL Cool J: "Don't call it a comeback, I've been here for years."

Just as the Batfamily gets serious about a rescue, the Infinite Realms throws a wrench in the plan.

Notes:

Bruce had taken Tim. Molded him, given him a mask that echoed the cowl as closely as he dared, even given him a cowl eventually that he rarely wore. Taught him how to have just enough mercy for everyone but himself.

Alfred had taught him how to cook- though most of those expiraments failed, how to be kind, how keep reaching out again, and again, and again.

"We can't depend on any gods or fae or superheroes. But when have we?"

"Never, sir."

"And when have we left a man behind, Alfred?"

"Never," and he could hear the hope, barely hidden in the older man's voice.

"Tim's late for dinner, don't you think? It's time we go get him."

Alfred's hand was gentle on the back of his shoulder. "Very good, sir. And where shall we start?"

Bruce removed his emergency com system and put it to his ear, tapping three times in succession- a pattern that would notify everyone on the system. "New mission updates. It's important, and it's for Tim. Everyone listening?"

Chapter Text

Day 10

Danny felt it when Red Robin woke up, smushing his face into his side. Charlie yawned and snuggled in further. This was nice- he hadn't felt this close to someone since his Fright was all together. 15 years was a long time- sometimes he forgot what they sounded like. But never the sensation of being used as a mattress on especially warm nights.

He rumbled a little Ghost- the equivalent of (everything-is-fine, you-are-safe, rest, safe)- which had helped put the man back to sleep when he'd been moved and through Gladiatrix's griping. No small feat, that.

This time, however, the vigilante sighed and pressed into him a little more, then became stiff as a post. "You can go back to sleep Red Robin," he said gently in English, "You've got to be tired."

The man untangled Charlie from his hair and pulled her to his chest, where she made a soft grumble sound and flicked all six of her tails half-heartedly. Red Robin, still looking more asleep than awake, sat up, only to lean against his shoulder.

There was something about having such a paranoid man trust him enough to close his eyes that made him almost purr. "David, why am I in bed with you?"

It said something, he thought, that the man's first reaction wasn't to start hitting and screaming. "Not the right king, but close. There's a D," he praised quietly. "You're in bed with me because I wouldn't subject anyone to sharing a room with Gladiatrix and Arachne."

The man sat up, listened, then settled back down with a frown. "Why are they here?"

"For the fireworks, but mostly because they don't trust me to go to the Ascension Ceremony," he explained quietly. The way Red Robin scrunched up his face was familiar somehow. Dad, he thought without any warning. His dad did that face- not exactly, but close- when he was working on a confusing problem, or it was too early.

He had black hair. Short. Gray at the temples, little gray strands in his eyebrows, too. It burned in his chest, the sudden memory of Jack Fenton. Danny blinked away tears as Red Robin's face softened into almost-sleep.

Why did he want to leave so badly, he wondered, what could he do to keep him, to keep the thoughts that were spinning away?

Orphan- his little sister in all but blood. Danny had two sisters and a brother too, only one of them related. He knew what it was like to want to go home, thinking of the miserable first few months in the Badlands, pushing himself nearly to death to reopen the portal.

Give him something he can't get on Earth, whispered the Voice of the Infinite. Red Robin finally surrendered to the siren call of rest, no doubt assisted by The Infinite Mother, and Danny swallowed, leaned back.

It was always a trip, communicating with the Infinite- some called it the Mother Core, the Center of the Zone. When he died, it called itself the Infinite Mother, and so that would be what Danny called the consciousness that maintained the balance between all the realms, worlds, and associated dimensions.

The Infinite understood Ghost best, so that's what he used. To a human, it might sound like rumbling and popping. To the undead, it was much more.

'Infinite. Red Robin must be allowed to return home. We made a deal for this.'

It rumbled back at him, pleased with his response. 'I gave to you a gift! Never did I say you could not return it, my beloved sacrificial son. Give him something he cannot have.'

'What do you mean', he rumbled back hesitantly.

'I know what he wants. The one thing that would get him to stay. You want to know.' It wasn't a question; the Infinite Realms knew everything about its denizens. It knew he wanted Red Robin to stay, and why- even the reasons he wouldn't admit to himself.

'Do not tell me, please. I do not want to be tempted to use it.' He returned. Reality warped just a little, the Infinite power of the Infinte Realms becoming barely tangible- just enough to brush the hair from his face without demolishing mountains.

It buzzed at him, (sad-proud-good king-sorry), and he acknowledged it back. (Understanding-care-not mad)

He caught the faintest hint of doubt. 'Why would I be mad?'

It hesitated- rare indeed. But a good caretaker could turn ashes and dry seeds into a blooming field. A bad caretaker could return it to ashes and grind the seeds away. 'Wake up time, beloved son-king. War between Seelie and Unseelie courts.'

He sighed heavily and fought the urge to scream. Again? Why could they never get along?

'I will take care. Tell them I come.'

'They will know,' it replied, and he felt some of the vicious pleasure of the Infinite. It enjoyed chaos, true, but there must be some sort of stability. The ones who threatened that order?

What mother liked to see her children pushing each other to the ground? When that mother's interference could destroy both dimensions, however, it was time to call the nanny. It was how he liked to think of it, anyway. Plus, calling himself their nanny pissed the stuffy Seelie and Unseelie off like nothing else.

Maybe your sacrifice- no, no, not sacrifice, Infinite- his hero would like to join him. Danny let his eyes close as well, trusting to his Zone-attuned inner clock to tell him when three more cycles had passed, and kept his ears and other senses trained on the vigilante next to him, just in case he woke some other buried memory up.

-------

Damian had been excited to see his father, to finally explain his side (again), perhaps change the man's mind. The mingled disappointment, anger, disgust, and grief that showed on his face for a brief moment before being covered with a cool, remote mask ruined that.

"Damian. We're going over what happened again. Tell me everything you noticed about the cult, what they were using, any locations they said, and about what you, Tim, and the king said. Leave nothing out, no matter how small."

"Father, I-"

His father swallowed, a little of that grief and pain shining through again. "Dick was shot six times last night. He's going to make it, but he'll be injured for a while. Tim is in the Infinite Realms. Jason is chasing rumors. Do you know where that leaves us?"

Damian shook his head slowly. "No, father. But I can help with patrols."

"But can you not kill anyone? Dick doesn't trust you anymore. I'm not sure if I do. You'll stay here until Alfred, Tim, or I say differently. And I'm sure you know the likelihood of Tim forgiving you."

Damian carefully didn't clench his fists, though he wanted to- he was on Tim's threat list as well! Instead, he replied, "I won't kill anyone."

"Else," his father insisted. "I saw that recording, Damian. You didn't exactly try to stop Tim."

"He offered, and he's the one who put me on his threat list. It was never truly discouraged or punished before," he said, more than a little sullen.

His father's eyes blazed with rage for just a moment before the emotion was again hidden behind that cool mask, and he regretted his words immediately.

"Call for me when you're ready to talk," he said, and left the room, locking the door behind him. Bruce meandered through the halls and saw the Hanukkah decorations all up. He hesitated to enter what he'd always thought of as Tim's study; it had once been his father's.

Tim hadn't known- couldn't have- when maps and books of languages long dead and new replaced old tax codes, the threadbare rug replaced with a thick one with a checkerboard pattern.

Settled on that was a Christmas tree.

Bruce and his family had always been Jewish. The holidays were full of beloved traditions he'd shared with Dick, with Jason, and Tim- but Jason had fond memories of Christmas.

His mother didn't believe in anything, but for the two weeks before the holiday, and usually a week after, she was clean and sober, able and willing to be a loving, kind mother. He still remembered Jason telling him about it as a child, too melancholy for his age.

"The Christmas tree came up, everything would be ok for a while. And when it came down- business as usual."

The year after Jason's death, it stayed in storage.

The year after that, there was a hyperactive genius in the residence, and he'd broken down in tears when he'd seen the thing in the study.

"Batman? A-are you ok? Alfred said it was fine- but I can take it down!"

"No. No, it's good," he'd choked out, flooded with memories of Jason. "Leave it up, Tim. And- you don't have to call me Batman."

He'd sought a son from Dick, and another from Jason. Tim? Tim, he'd molded. He'd wanted another Batman, to carry on the legacy, and he'd turned a curious young man into a paranoid, suicidal, depressed miniature of himself, and had the gall to be upset when he did what Bruce would do in a situation.

He trusted Tim more than the others, trusted him to value being a part of this loving family, putting the mission above all else, and-

"You could be part of my loving family, Bruce. Don't you want someone to love you? As I do, as the League would," Ra's had said. And later, shoving a gun into his head, barking a kill order he'd never follow, all for the sake of the Mission.

The doorjamb cracked under his hand.

"Tim, you can't be scared of the night. You have to-"

"Become the Bat, Bruce. Become what you fear, and-"

"And nothing can scare you again."

Ra's had told him, more than once, they weren't so different. He'd always denied it, but-

"You're showing too much mercy, Tim. One wrong move-"

"And all that's left is a body, Bruce. Now do it again. And-"

"Don't ever let me see you pulling your punches like that outside of a spar again, Tim. This world has no room for it, and you're not Superman."

In, hold, out. In, hold, out- a pattern Ra's had taught him, a pattern he'd taught his sons, but particularly drilled into Tim, until there was no hesitation. He had to be better than his brothers. He had to be better than him.

Bruce heard the hesitant cough. "Master Bruce, are you alright?"

"Batman! A-are you okay?"

He let his head rest on the doorjamb. "What is it you always say, Alfred? It's not how you fall."

"It's how you get back up," but that was all Tim, taking mercy on a child assasin. Tim had taken years to develop his relationship of mutual love and respect with Cassandra. They'd all made the girl prove herself, earn her place. Bruce never made Damian go through that journey.

Bruce had taken Tim. Molded him, given him a mask that echoed the cowl as closely as he dared, even given him a cowl eventually that he rarely wore. Taught him how to have just enough mercy for everyone but himself.

Alfred had taught him how to cook- though most of those expiraments failed, how to be kind, how keep reaching out again, and again, and again.

"We can't depend on any gods or fae or superheroes. But when have we?"

"Never, sir."

"And when have we left a man behind, Alfred?"

"Never," and he could hear the hope, barely hidden in the older man's voice.

"Tim's late for dinner, don't you think? It's time we go get him."

Alfred's hand was gentle on the back of his shoulder. "Very good, sir. And where shall we start?"

Bruce removed his emergency com system and put it to his ear, tapping three times in succession- a pattern that would notify everyone on the system. "New mission updates. It's important, and it's for Tim. Everyone listening?"

He was treated to a chorus of yes's and a 'f*cking finally' from Stephanie. "Oracle, Nightwing thinks Constantine might be hiding something. Get Constantine here or on the horn in the infirmary, and I don't care how you do it. Hack the CIA if you have to."

"Got it! Anything else?"

"Stay tuned, you'll be a very busy woman tonight. Spoiler, get in touch with Red Hood. Find out what he and his new friends need to make a portal happen. Tell them to ignore the cost," he ordered.

"First good decision you've made all week, Bats," she retorted cheerfully.

"Batwoman, Signal, Orphan, Spoiler, I need you to hold the line in Gotham. Batwoman's in charge. I'm going to the site. Agent A, handle coordination, we don't know how tech will work out there. We're getting Red Robin back, and now."

"And team? Be prepared- I don't know where I'll need you. Tell Red Hood to stay in the Illinois site for now."

"Anything else?"

He took a deep breath. "Let's get to work."

Chapter 14: Time Out

Summary:

Here's where our nice, clean 5:1 time ratio starts breaking down. Also, some of you are getting *very* accurate with your guesses in the comments. Keep 'em coming, it's very fun!

If you're a nerd like me, yes Tim is wearing a gambeson, then (another) set of new leather armor (the fancy one is for fancy places, not battlefields), and then the new plate mail. It's mostly scale mail, actually, but has a solid chest plate because I think it looks cool.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Day 10 (Continued)

When Tim woke again¹, Phantom was speaking quietly to Gladiatrix in that strange language he was starting to pick up slowly- whatever it was, it was far more tonal than any human language he'd heard.

Gladiatrix nodded, fist over her heart, and bowed for a moment before stepping away. She was more severe now than he'd ever seen her- even during court sessions.

"Well, Red Robin," he said after Tim sat up, a little embarrassed at using him as a pillow again, "there may be three more weeks of vacation, but I fear it's over for me. You've time to get a get a quick shower in, and I'd recommend the armor after."

Tim rose, quick as always to a call to action. The metal and leather armor sat on its stand next to another set, far larger, of mithril, some black metallic material, and green-tinted teal ghost metal. The king slipped on a ring, which turned the ever-present teal flames a vibrant green, and his large green eyes a fierce blood red.

Tim left to get a shower, leaving the sounds of a body changing sizes with horrible snaps and squelches behind him. When he returned, the king was gone, Arachne in his place. He'd never seen her beyond a picture, but a massive armored spider-woman with the pheonix crest on her breasplate and white bands along her neck and shoulders could be only one person.

"Good, you are out. The king prepares to prevent a war, but there are always ways for that to go wrong. He bid me give you a choice: return to the castle, stay here until his return, or come with him, knowing you will be dealing with the fae."

"Seelie or Unseelie," he asked, though he knew that meant little. Constantine always said, as different as they claimed one another to be, their behavior towards humans was nearly identical.

"Both. They seek to start a war again, and our king seeks to prevent that- they both start calling in their allies, and it usually breaks out into the equivalent of one of your world wars."

He considered it. "Would it be totally offensive to bring a weapon laced with cold iron?"

"What do you think my armor is made of? The king's negotiator has been killed, he does not seek to resolve this peacefully."

"I can be ready in a cycle. I'll go with you," he said.

"Less than a cycle if I help. Come, put on the underclothes," she said, and started taking off the myriad pieces that made the full armor set.

Something about the king's red eyes worried him, and as he dressed, he asked, "that ring. What is it?"

"'Tis called the Ring of Rage, and called so for a reason. He loathes to wear it, but every realm fears it. It gives him greater power," she explained.

That's what his eyes reminded him of, then. "Like red kryptonite. I'm going to guess he's going to be a little emotionally unstable?"

"You are not to tell him that," she warned, "at least not until he takes it off."

Just like Superman or Kon with red kryptonite. This would be fun- but staying here without the very visible king to offer protection would be suicide, and if it went to a full scale war, there was no telling how long it would last. What if he ended up dying of old age behind castle walls, waiting to guess something else?

"And Red Robin- I know the nature of your deal, but we would be grateful if you do not share any of your guesses in front of the fae. I am sure the king will allow you as many guesses as you missed, or something else equivalent," she asked, feet clicking as she shifted nervously.

The idea of a king as powerful as Phantom, the High King of the Infinite Realms, controlled by petty fae was nerve wracking. "I won't," he promised, "unless there's a good reason."

If Tim had learned one thing over the years, it was to always keep an out.

"Can you tell me anything about that ring," he asked as he put on the domino mask. It felt right, somehow, bringing a little more Red Robin into the scenario. "It may have been glowing green with a skull, but something didn't seem very ghostly."

Ghosts were fond of organic shapes, the more non-euclidian and twisting, the better. Simple ghost jewelry existed, he'd seen it, but for a king? When every stitch of Phantom's clothing reflected the cosmos, when the black spires of his crown moved of their own accord, and the light blue of his gauntlets and belt shifted with the white in wave patterns that sometimes looked like mountains?

Even on Tim's new armor, the black pieces shifted and moved with him, so it felt less like armor and more like a second skin, and the cherry red two-headed pheonix on his chest plate sometimes flickered with gold feathers.

No, he didn't buy it for one second.

Arachne ushered him out, and he followed at a fast clip. "You would be correct. The Ring of Rage was given to one of the high kings prior to Pariah Dark, allowing him to access and even exceed the upper limits of his power. Like many fae gifts, it is a double-edged sword."

Tim nodded. "Makes him angry. Off balance."

"Indeed. While the Crown of Fire is bound to him, proof he was chosen by the Mother Core, he chooses not to wear the Ring of Rage."

He wanted to know about the Mother Core, he decided, but would ask after his current line of questioning was finished. "Do you know why he's wearing it now?"

"The fae refuse to treat with him unless he wears it," she answered, and they stepped into the teal light of early morning.

Tim spotted the king immediately, a four-armed giant that dwarfed Cujo, in black armor with faint blue-silver lines. He wore a cloak of pheonix feathers, flames licking at the hems even as snowflakes fell from the drops of a steady drizzling rain when the liquid came too close.

"You and Arachne will ride Cujo. From now on, until we reach the castle walls, Red Robin, address Arachne only as Lloth."

He nodded. "Understood. And no name guessing until it's over, unless necessary."

The king raised one snowy eyebrow at the wording, and Red Robin thought he might have seen a familiar flash of green. "Very well. We move shortly."

'Shortly' meant enough time for Phantom to heavily armor the hound, especially about the head and neck, for supplies to be delivered, and for Lloth, a werewolf ghost named Wulf (who he was only to address as Amico), and himself to climb aboard.

"Amico," he finally ordered after Gladiatrix arrived, heavily armored including a pheonix-feather Roman-style helmet and riding a two-headed phoenix, landed on a cliff not too far away.

"Jes?"

"Malfermu la vualon. Alkonduku nin al la limo de la fea mondo."

Something about tearing a veil and fairies, if his rusty Esperanto was accurate. He used to be fluent, but hadn't had a reason to speak it in years.

The werewolf stood in the saddle and swiped down with his claws, opening a massive glowing portal. Likely suspecting his interest, Arachne told him, "it only works in the Ghost Zone. He could get you to the portal sites, but not across. Years ago, he could cross all the realms; about fifteen years ago, though- something happened I must confess I do not understand."

"Is that Esperanto," Tim asked instead of pressing further when Arachne armitted she didn't know much. He'd heard some of the languages, and wouldn't be surprised if that was just...werewolf French or something.

"I believe so. Amico also speaks ghost at the same time. A talented fellow, and an old friend of the king's. You are likely to see him around fairly often, whenever he visits from the Badlands."

A fellow Badlands ghost, then. Pity they were going into a potential war zone, he'd love to know more about the place from someone who wasn't terrified of it, a step from supervillainy, or an amnesiac with unreliable memories. The unnatural green glow brightened, then Cujo (or 'Good Boy' for now) stepped through behind the king, Gladiatrix bringing up the rear.

Every square centimeter of the Infinite Realms was full of life or undeath or art, an explosion of chaos and color. Everything any civilization could or did imagine had a fair chance of being here. He'd seen plains of Durham wheat growing alongside blue-grey flowers more animal than plant, mountains that moved, creatures of myth and legend, and he'd only been here 10 days.

Therefore, he felt his disappointment at a perfectly ordinary (albeit car-free) tollway was understandable. Wulf patted him on the shoulder and said something conciliatory in Esperanto.

"If you stay after this," the king ground out, barely-checked rage still apparent in his voice. "I'll take you to the Ascension Ceremony with me. I think you'll like the Bleak Gales. Prettier than they sound."

The king grunted, eyes turning red once more, almost as if the brief peaceful interaction had taken all his energy.

"A side effect of the Ring of Rage, I'm afraid. They won't treat with him unless he wears it, but Badlands ghosts are angry enough. He doesn't need it to be made worse," she whispered into his ear.

He shuddered at the sensation of giant chilicerae at his nape, but didn't let that stop him from his next question. "Can he at least take the thing off?"

Arachne clicked for a moment after. "Only the current High King can wear it, or an equal. It takes a while to work down the anger enough to take it off, if someone cannot remove it."

"Who's equal?"

"He has no High Queen, so the point is moot. What I worry for is the timing."

Tim didn't have a chance to ask his next question; with a warm bronze glow, the center tollway began to open, king Phantom leading them through.

It was nauseating, being in a place so...real. The trees were mostly pines, oaks, and chestnuts with a few fruit trees here and there. The trees were in mostly straight lines, the road neat and paved with bright cheery sunflowers and daisies lining the path.

The greens were wrong, almost distressing- until he realized why. Nothing was glowing, and the sky was an ordinary pale blue.

Constantine had told him, more than once, magic always smelled faintly sour. He'd been living in an ectoplasmic world made of magic for nearly two weeks, and now the magic-heavy fae world smelled bland, for lack of a better term.

A fox crossed their path, and it had only two eyes. His gut instinct was to dive headfirst into it, feeling an angry buzz in his chest that spread to his teeth, his eyes, his hands, and-

"Calm."

The order stilled the progress completely. "I-what just happened?"

"Ectoplasm withdrawal," the king informed him kindly, "bit painful. But it'll get better."

Tim raised his hand to touch his still-tender jaw, and was simultaneously horrified and soothed by what he found. Even as his rational human mind screamed 'humans don't have fangs, what's wrong with me', a small portion felt relief that he would have some means of hunting in this barren world.²

Perhaps this was how the were-eagle woman started- a few feathers here, sharper eyesight there. And speaking of sharper eyesight, he caught movement far down the road, two very different fae walking along. They seemed to be in a sort of race, yet refused to run or acknowledge one another, as if half the rules centered around looking like they weren't racing.

He'd seen goblins before, with Constantine, and the fae on the left looked much like a cross between a human and one of the creatures. It wore long black robes embroidered with geometric patterns in silver.

The other might have come from the set of Lord of the Rings, with robes of pure white embroidered in delicate golden leaves and flowers.

"Greetings your majesty," they said at nearly the same time, glaring daggers at one another. He saw a catfight in the making, but the two managed to control themselves.

None of the ghosts said anything, and Tim, familiar with watching and waiting, found himself oddly comfortable joining the dead in their silent staring contest.

Begrudgingly, both knelt- the one in the white robes a half-second later than the one in black- and only then did the king speak. "Your greetings are welcomed. Where does the council of the Sidhe meet?"

"Your royal majesty, perhaps you might join us, the Unseelie, to meet in the Underdark. Doubtlessly, you would be more comfortable."

"Or perhaps," the fae on white robes interrupted, "his majesty might prefer the open air and lovely sights of the Seelie court."

"Or perhaps," the king growled, "the High King of the Infinite Realms has more to do than play your games, and if he and his entourage are not taken to a neutral location immediately, he will force both your kings to kneel in the mud and hold court in the prison of Bleak Gales as punishment for the murder of his ambassador and their retinue."

The two looked at one another in a panic, and Tim almost snickered- that power play hadn't been remotely subtle. "Please, your majesty, follow me," asked the one in white.

"And have you lead him off a cliff! No, no, your majesty, allow me, please, and I-"

"Enough," the king stated. "Perhaps a demonstration is in line."

He snarled and crackled something in Ghost and Arachne shivered against him. Cujo shook his massive head. The pheonix screamed from where it circled overhead, and then a moment later Tim felt something from the same spot in his chest screaming 'danger! Danger! Something big!'

The earth rumbled and the massive ghost dog whined, prancing a few steps back. The king raised both hands, green power blazing bright as a second sun, and in complete silence, with no warning, a courtroom, still with three of the four walls, appeared before them.

The anxiety-inducing sensations stopped as the screaming from the fae began. "Your servants are incapable of working together even so long as to escort the High King to a courtroom. You may thank them for the aggravation," he rumbled. "And let it be known- upon my request, the Master of Time has stopped time outside this realm. You will deal with me, and no others shall interfere."

"King Phantom, surely-"

The king's burning red eyes set upon the face of the fae who spoke. "Seelie King. Surely, you do not seek to drag the realms into a war. Or offend me with unpermitted use of my name."

The Seelie King's eyes widened, and he squeaked out an apology before kneeling- and made a disgusted face when blue and cream robes were covered in mud. "Unseelie King. Do you refuse to bow when the Seelie King has enough sense to appease his betters?"

The Unseelie King's catfish-like whiskers twitched and he let out a rough grunting sound before kneeling, likewise making a disgusted face.

"Good. Now that you are both equals in my eyes, speak the issue. Oldest first."³

The Seelie King made to rise, but King Phantom growled at him. "I think not. The last time we sat and spoke, issues took weeks to air out. Perhaps kneeling in filth will inspire a quicker tongue."

"Your royal majesty, our courts have finally come to an accord. We have agreed on a way to determine which is the better court, but we require your assistance!"

Phantom's eyebrow twitched. "You require?"

"Request, then," the Seelie King amended reluctantly.

"You will tell me what this determination involves, and all of it. Then, and only then, will I deliberate and decide whether I am willing, able, and remotely interested in accepting your request. Taking in account, of course, the murders of my loyal servants," he decreed.

"And, of course, to honor fae customs, my assistance shall not be free, and my fee shall adjust according to my accounting."

Both fae kings scowled at that, and the king shrugged. "Very well. Perhaps the Unseelie court might look better in the sky, and the Seelie cout underground."

Both fae kings shrieked objections, and Phantom raised one of his left hands. "Now keep in mind, time is paused elsewhere- very expensive, but all for your benefit, otherwise how should I be here? Make your requests with no delay, the longer we wait, the larger the bill- split evenly, of course."

Tim fought the urge to grin, instead keeping his face as hard and cold as he could. Someone had been taking notes from mafia movies, or the Penguin. Darrell, Darnell, maybe, or Darren? Or, no, he mentioned kings- Vlad the Impaler?

Unlikely, seeing as "Vlad Plasmius" was his worst enemy, and the D on his other costume. King Daniel, maybe? He never said it was a historical king, after all. Dietrich, Duncan...now that he thought about it, if it was a synonym, it could be Don.

Wait, no O. Not Don, then. Did Dietrich rhyme too closely with Fredrick? Maybe that little off-hand clue wasn't so useless after all.

Of course if the cutout was supposed to indicate a P, that started a whole new set of options.

Even if Dietrich did rhyme too much, it might get a consonant or two out of the way.

Finally, the Seelie King started laying out the rules and goals of the decision, and Tim started paying attention again.

------

A dragon's maw froze, flame in its throat, just above a competitor. A Tamaranean aimed a kick at a training dummy, foot frozen half a centimeter from impact. A raindrop sat on the edge of a leaf, almost entirely on its way to the ground, yet frozen.

The ball still hovered at the quarterback's fingers, indents in the ball nearly touching the tips of his gloves. Superman held a car above a child, one hand reaching down as the girl reached up. The tears did not leave her eyes, Superman's hand did not quite touch hers.

The Flash’s right foot froze a millimeter from the surface of the asphalt, his left high in the air, unmoving for once, not even a breath stirring in his lungs.

Bruce Wayne's right foot touched the step into the Batjet, his left hand frozen as he pulled on the cowl. Alfred's lips were pursed tightly as gloved hands held the flesh of Dick's gut closed and he reached for a needle. Dick's pained, embarrassed grin at being caught limping out of bed stood frozen on his face.

The Ancient Master of Time yawned and stretched. It was rare he got a break, he mused. Perhaps he'd take a nap, force his grandson to visit him at Long Now when he was good and ready to resume time again.

Or, he thought a little guiltily, perhaps he would unfreeze his pet Gorganopsid Inostrancevia and take it for a walk.

Notes:

1- yes, Tim does not sleep like that normally. But when The Universe tells you it's naptime, it means it.
2- Tim is going to have to bite back a lot of vampire jokes. But, you know, he could be a were-robin one day. Don't worry! He doesn't have a full core, he isn't a ghost or halfa. He's just starting to become a little liminal.
3- Danny is a little out of character here because of the Ring of Rage and because he's playing a role.

Chapter 15: Blood on the Risers

Summary:

We finally get to see the fae's trick! Tim bites off more than he can chew with the Ring of Rage, and thanks to that temporary insanity, inflames (get it? You will) an already hostile interdimensional conflict.
Also, let me know if you guys want a short explanation of the event Tim refers to with Starfire, Dick, Kon, and Steph on Tamaran.

Notes:

This chapter is a little early, but Happy Birthday Ari!

(Also friendly reminder, Gladiatrix is a Octavia's title, not her name. It's covered more in the first few chapters)

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Night 10/ Day 11

They set up camp on the road, the king unwilling to inadvertently choose a side, and none of them, Tim included, willing to risk losing the delicate balance of power the king had established.

They slept in a tent made from Arachne's webs and Phantom's ice spikes used as poles and roof. None of them did much sleeping, particularly Cujo and Wulf, who regularly sat up to growl in various directions. Whenever they did, the king would take a deep breath and Tim would hear yelps and cracks outside of their sealed cocoon. The pop-pop-pop of rapidly freezing skin and bones cracking was enough of a warning not to try and sneak out.

By some unwritten and unspoken rule, they didn't speak much. Cujo spent the night in his smaller form, shivering in the king's arms between barking fits. Wulf paced, would settle in the king's other side, then pace some more.

Charlie alternated between licking at the king's rightmost hand- the one with the Ring- which oddly enough returned the green to his eyes and seemed to calm him- and batting around little feathers, teleporting to get better angles with flickers of magenta.

At one point, the king pulled something out to show the ghost cat, but it was replaced by an ordinary ball of ectoplasm a moment later.

Arachne sat and knit, face creased in concern. At some point, she put together a meal from their rations, using smooth stones, a pot, and the hot spot under the phoenix's wings.

Gladiatrix had affixed a mithril set of blinds for the massive bird, affixing a pair to both heads. It kept the creature calm, for the most part. She and Tim groomed the beast till it shone, Arachne picking up stray feathers to weave into a cape.

A few hours into an uncomfortable night, Gladiatrix ordered him to rise. "Footwork first- you step too solidly. Good for the living, not so much for the dead."

After a few exhausting hours spent mainly going through the first three sections of Nightstalker-style combat, which was mainly about avoiding blows and using an enemy's strength against them, he managed a few hours of rest.

At some point, the king rose and ordered them to pack up. They would remake the tent nightly, and eliminate any cause for the fae to argue about any fees- not that they wouldn't try, the king had warned him.

They were immediately offered food and drink, and instinctively Tim picked Cujo up while the king spoke. That dog was just a little too curious. He wondered what happened to Charlie. She'd been in his bag last night, but this morning had been nowhere to be seen.

It worried him.

"Are you well, Red Robin," Gladiatrix asked while King Phantom argued with the Seelie and Unseelie Kings about minutiae in the contract.

He nodded. "Fine. I just can't find Ch- the cat."

Gladiatrix looked at him, an unholy look of glee on her face. "My King! We may have misplaced Red Robin's Nightstalker."

The Unseelie King fainted. The Seelie King broke into tears. King Phantom mirrored Gladiatrix's look of evil joy. "Nightstalkers go where they will, everyone knows that. But perhaps I could be of assistance- if, of course, this contract were complete."¹

Tim looked around in confusion at the panicked screaming and crying. Multiple groups started running down the road to the portal. "Nightstalkers," Gladiatrix cheerfully explained, "are apex predators. Even weaker ghosts tend to be nervous."

"The king said it was a ghost cat! And that I could keep it," he exclaimed.

She raised an eyebrow at him. "He is a Badlands ghost, Red Robin. His sense of danger is ...skewed."²

The king's blood red eyes glimmered in satisfaction, though with little warning, he lashed out both physically and verbally at the other kings.

Every time he did, the Ring of Rage would blaze just a bit brighter, his purple face a bit plainer, his teeth a bit sharper. The contract was finished by nightfall, and despite desperate pleas, the king spread out his ice and ordered the tent remade.

-

Night 11/Day 12

-

"Are you going to be alright, Phantom?"

The twisted face of the king looked at him in cruel and mocking curiosity, a look which was common enough on the Joker’s face- but one he'd never seen on the king's. Suddenly, green flashed in the blood-red eyes and his face twisted in pain. "Don't...talk," the king managed. "Worse at night."

There was no sparring that evening, after a meal the king refused. Tim saw the helpless, pained look Gladiatrix and Arachne shared and wondered if the king would keep his sanity for one more day.

If the king was gruff last night, he was downright vicious in the morning. That was when the fae finally announced their little game- and didn't look as frightened as before. "Aeons ago, your majesty, the High King before Pariah Dark, before Křüzchva the Bloody-Handed, and before ßuvþïg the Golden, a High King rose named Ĥæmring the Enslaver. That High King took a bride from the Sidhe, and gained the Ring of the Heart³ as a bride-gift. We ask, like Ĥæmring before you, to choose a bride. And the side you choose shall win- quite simple," the Unseelie King stated.

"And quite fair," added the Seelie King. "Of course, once all is complete, there will be no need for you to bear the Ring of the Heart, as your bride can do so for you, quite safely. The effects are only enhanced with your power."

"And of course, any damages, the Infinite Realms shall pay for with their might."

Tim's blood ran cold. As desperate as Phantom was to not hurt his Fright, he might just be foolish enough to pick- not that he had much choice. After all, if the effects were-

If they were enhanced with power... what would it do to someone with almost no ectoplasm? The smell of raspberries and honeysuckle filled the air as light built around the king's throat, and even knowing he might pass through uselessly, Tim tried to knock the king away.

As predicted, he slid right through, though the arrow laced with blood blossoms hit its target on the king's shoulder. "Four encouragement to think quickly, the Seelie and Unseelie courts have prepared a gift for his highness," shrieked the Unseelie King.

Phantom fell.

Tim's first move was to haul Phantom, surprisingly light, backwards into their still-standing tent, and shout for Lloth to shut them in. His second move was to pull out the arrow carefully as screams and laughter echoed from outside.

"What treats blood blossoms?"

There was no immediate answer, but Gladiatrix rolled the man to his front. "There is no treatment, but if he would just return to human form, all we would need to treat is an arrow wound. Lloth, get the bird here!"

Gladiatrix had the phoenix settle at the king's side and blast heat at him. "The one way to guarantee an ice core will leave an area. Heat."

After a few tense moments, Tim looked away from the bright flash. The king was human once more, and the three stripped him of his clothing. He hadn't worn the armor today- ironically, the Ring of Rage had made him too hot.

Wulf snarled and Tim looked over to see the ghost maul a fairy that managed to dig its way in. Whatever they did, they wouldn't have much time to do it. "Gladiatrix, how likely is a war with this place?"

"After this? If the king survives, at least a quarter of the dimension will be razed to the ground whether the king wills it or not."

He nodded. "So if someone set a few fires, it's fine?"

"What are you thinking, Red Robin?"

"You dye your silk, right, Lloth? So you have paints or something?"

"What does that have to do with- yes, 'tis hardly the time," she hissed.

"Keep your voices down," he ordered. Gladiatrix bristled, but he ignored her. "They want the king, they'll get him. Or they'll get someone who looks like him. Lloth, I need you to dig out some colors that would get pretty close to Phantom's scars."

"They will know, clever as it is, without the Ring of Rage," Gladiatrix hissed. "And the Crown of Fire-"

"Look at him! He doesn't have it in his human form. He's still glowing, though. Why?"

Another fairy screamed as Wulf prevented another incursion. "Just help me into his armor, alright? I'm going to borrow the fancy jewelry for just a minute or two, ok? Nobody has to know."

Gladiatrix shook her head. "If one of us touches that, we will bear what afflicts him- both the rage and the blood blossoms. We would die, and worse, as our bodies could not absorb the infection, he will die anyway."

"That's cool and all, but I don't have ectoplasm. Or at least, not a lot of it."

"You do not understand," Gladiatrix hurried to explain, "if you do this you would have to be Queen, for the Ring will only acknowledge one capable of being high king or queen. And you will share the backlash from its use. As you have no ectoplasm, the backlash would mostly be physical."

They stared at him, Lloth about to ask something, when he made an executive decision and slipped the ring from the king's right hand to his own. "Let's get this show on the road."

"All hail the Queen, I suppose," Lloth said lightly, "now hold still as you can."

Eight legs, two arms, and telekinesis were certainly more effective than two at getting him into the king's armor while smearing a mixture of ash, rust, chalk, and water onto his face and hand. "Never have they seen the king's hands, so we will not waste too much time."

"Red Robin- or, I suppose I must call you Phantom for now."

He looked over to Gladiatrix as Arachne fixed his greaves. "Yes?"

"Do not promise everlasting peace or anything of the like. This place will burn, even just a little."

He nodded. Arachne affixed a final piece- a massive mithril neck guard- and handed him the king's helmet. "Do not put it on," she said quietly. "It causes ice and snow- the moment you do, this ruse will be over, your majesty."

Arachne's face hardened. "And tolerate no disrespect from these quarrelsome fools."

He nodded. She ripped open the tent and Gladiatrix followed him out, one hand on the hilt of her sword. "A rarity indeed it is, to see the halfa in that pathetic little form," the Seelie King laughed. "Even like this, you do not have long. Come, which do you choose?"

He gestured to two fae women in veils, dressed very finely. Curiously, they had no reaction to the chaos, and a theory began to brew. Tim felt rage that wasn't his bubbling up. "War," he stated simply. "I choose war. Gladiatrix! Burn everything! Kill no one if you can help it- perhaps Ĥæmring had a point."

The ghost warrior bared massive razor-sharp teeth and shrieked out a high- pitched cry. The phoenix took off without her and began circling the treetops, spreading fires. He was rushed by a Seelie who caught the full force of Gladiatrix's gauntleted fist. "Besides, the brides aren't even real!"

"How dare you!"

Because it was exactly the kind of trick he would pull in a similar situation, mostly. And had pulled, actually, that one time with Dick, Steph, Stafire, and Kon on Tamaran. Pity he'd promised not to talk about that, but it wasn't his fault Dick had the best ass for that dress out of all of them. Instead, he darted forward with his combat knife and sliced the veils away from two wooden dummies.

"Your entire deal was false! Nothing more than dead leaves and a little glitter," he returned, and ducked a sword. The king's weapon- a massive scythe on one end and spear on the other- required either supernatural strength or a way of wielding it he'd never seen due to the weight imbalance.

That meant he had to extend his bo staff, though thanks to all the work he did with Constantine, he'd added cold iron tips. "That's not the king! That's Hellblazer's apprentice," a fairy shouted.

"Run! The Hellblazer is here," some shouted, "get the king," came from still others, and he felt something cool slide down his spine.

"5," he roared, but Tim realized with horror it wasn't his voice.

"4," he screamed, and his limbs moved on their own in too-fluid arcs.

"3," Tim shouted, and heard a familiar voice in his head. ("Reinforcements are coming. Good job.")

"2!" He could hear singing from the area of the portal, /he jumped into the icy blast, his static line unhooked, and he ain't gonna jump no more! Gory, gory what a helluva way to die, gory, gory what a helluva way to-/⁴

"1," and the sky was on fire, machine gun blasts echoing as undead paratroopers wearing everything from Korean Conflict-era camo to modern BDUs lept from the wings of fiery phoenixes, led by a white one that shed ice instead of fire.

What the everloving f*ck made the king think he had any right to- ("take off the ring.")

Tim shrieked out laughter as he saw red, red, red, bones crunching and screams echoing as he targeted anything stupid enough to make noise- or worse, move. He would kill them all, drown himself in their guts, make statues of gore and offal in their-

In. Hold. Out. The pattern, beaten into him for years, helped clear his head, listen to the screams of, "Red Robin! The Ring of Rage, remove it," and the voice in his head, growing ever-weaker, ("you did well, Red Robin. Take off the ring!"), and finally his own panicked thoughts of, 'this isn't me, I've never wanted anything like this, something's in my head!'

He ducked and rolled under the next strike, removed the gauntlet with forced icy calm (In. Hold. Out. We do not kill. In. Hold. Out. We harm only in the name of justice. In. Hold-)

The Ring didn't want to move, so with the laconicism typical of the Bat Team, he simply dislocated his ring finger and yanked the ring off. Immediately, his head spun and he fell to the ground, /the canopy became his shroud, he hurtled to the ground, and he ain't gonna jump no more/⁴ echoing.

--

Clockwork, Ancient Master of Time, threw the stick once more for the proto-mammal with an indulgent look on his face. His pet darted between the beach goers, and he frowned at a tug at his powers by The Infinite Mother.

Well then, perhaps- he was promptly scolded by Mother. (*let the son-god-king do his work, son of mine.*)

/*But Mother-*/

(*he is your son as well. You trained him well enough.*)

He scowled, but Mother was Mother and would do what it willed. He released his hold on that particular section of multiverse and leaned back in his stolen beach chair. "He will be visiting later, whether he likes it or not," he grumbled.

The Infinite Mother poked at him, amused but understanding. (*all Little Ones grow up sometime, my son. Enjoy your vacation.*)

He grumbled again, mostly for show, though The Infinite wasn't fooled in the slightest; It knew he was proud and concerned in equal parts, torn between trust and the parental and ghostly instinct to step in when a member of your Fright, your child, might be harmed.

"I suppose I might catch up on some sleep," he mused to himself, and leaned back in the beach chair. He'd hear from his boy the moment it was over.

Notes:

¹- remember when Danny said there were bad rumors about Nightstalkers? Bit of a speculative biology bit here: Nightstalkers attach themselves to weaker creatures (in this case, a powerless human) because they attract more suitable prey. Tim is bait. Tim just walked into a Nightstalker's buffet because Nightstalkers are infamous for eating magic. They have a particular enjoyment for corrupted ectoplasm. It's also why they're "good luck" in Amity Park.
²- Badlands= Ghost Australia. Danny: WOW, that thing probably eats people. Yeah, you should definitely pet it. I'll get it a snack.
³- the Fae called this the Ring of the Heart, in classic make a cursed item sound pretty fashion. To be fair, it also doesn't do much to weaker fae. Ghosts call it the Ring of Rage.
⁴- the song here is Blood on the Risers, a song about what paratroopers had to face during war. It's specifically about men who never made it out of the helicopter, and I encourage you to give it a listen. It's something that made people start reconsidering the war in Vietnam.

In the Name of the King - HistoricallyInnacurate (2024)

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