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What Was Bound, What Was Loosed

Chapter Text

The young king slept for most of the first week of his reign. He did not seek his bedchambers, though they existed, and in a room not too far from the throne room. But he stayed in his throne, sleeping fitfully, and rising only to weep or shout or scream at nightmares.

It was a good omen. Pariah had not been so peaceful.

It would not have been terribly surprising if the king had slept for a month, for a year, for longer. Remaking, healing, the Infinite Realms was no easy task. The burdens of kingship that now sat upon his slender shoulders were not light. The injuries inflicted on him during his coronation were painful, and those of them that would heal would take time to do so. The coronation itself was an exhausting procedure as well.

But His Infinite Majesty, High King Daniel Janus James Fenton-Phantom, first of his name, known to most ghosts simply as 'Phantom,' was a surprising person. After a week curled, shuddering, between the arms of his throne, he dragged himself up. He made it off the dais steps before he collapsed.

Fright Knight, the sworn protector of the king, hovered, wary. It would not be unusual for a newly-crowned king to lash out at, well, anyone and everyone. Phantom likely did not even know Fright Knight was there, and Fright Knight had intended to keep it that way until the king was rational.

But crumpled on the ground was not a dignified position for the ruler of all ghosts.

The Master of Time did not share Fright Knight's fears. He settled at the side of the king, who was, even now, trying to push himself up.

"Daniel," he said, softly, "is there somewhere you want to go?"

"You're still here?" asked the king, voice rough with sleep. He managed to turn on his side.

"Yes. For as long as you want me to be."

"I thought you left." The king fell silent for several long moments. "I need to see," he said, finally. "Outside. And-" He touched his face, fingers creeping up to trace the petals of the flowers that had replaced his eye. "I need to see."

"I can carry you somewhere that you can look out, if you would like," said Clockwork. "May I pick you up?"

The question was cautious. Delicate.

The king curled in on himself. "You hurt me," he said, voice wavering. "Why?"

"It was necessary," said Clockwork. "The Realms need a king. For the good of both worlds." A hint of regret lurked behind the Ancient's words. "You were and are the best choice."

"I hate you," whispered the king, as vehemently as he had the first time he had awoken after the coronation. He repeated it a few more times, under his breath. "Take me there. I need to see."

Clockwork dipped his head, and carefully maneuvered the king into his arms, cradling him like a small child. The king rested his head on Clockwork's shoulder, on hand tangled in Clockwork's robe.

He tensed when he saw Fright Knight, his breathing speeding to an almost human rate.

"He is here to serve you," said Clockwork. "He is the protector and servant of the king."

The king relaxed, minutely.

.

In past ages, the king's quarters were vast and opulent, adorned with grisly trophies and the relics of conquest. They were no longer so. The changes now being wrought on the Realms at large had been completed in miniature here.

Phantom's chambers were built on cleaner, more elegant lines. They were still rich, of course, the Ghost Zone would stand for no less for its king. Jewels sparkled from murals on the walls and ceilings. The upholstery was dark and intricately embroidered. The carpets were thick. The bath, luxurious. The bed, nest-like. The pillows, numerous. But the extravagance tended overall to the exquisite rather than the overblown.

Clockwork carried Phantom through the sitting room and private dining room and into the solarium. This room lay along the outer wall of the palace's central tower, or it would have, had all the stones in it not been replaced with glass. There were dozens of plants held in delicately painted planters and pots. Some hanging from the ceiling, some resting on the ground in carefully arranged and visibly pleasing patterns.

The king stirred at the sight. "Sam?" he muttered. He blinked, slow and heavy. "No..." he whispered, eye moving blindly over the plants, which began to wilt. "She's not here." Then he noticed the window, the view outside. "Bring me closer," he said.

He saw the blues mixed in with the greens, a thousand shades coexisting. He saw the palace, restored, the black stones filled with sparkling white veins, the glow of the courtyard no longer sickly, but bursting with vitality. On the edge of the palace's island, small stones and bits of dirt were clumping together, extending the ground. Small ghosts flitted and flickered through the air. Flowers bloomed along the walks. A small fountain was building itself in the center of the courtyard.

Phantom reached out, towards the glass, his fingers just barely brushing the surface.

"This is me," he said. The plants in the solarium regained a bit of life.

"Yes," said Clockwork.

The king let his hand drop again. "All the portals are gone," he said. "I can feel it."

Clockwork did not answer. There was no need to confirm what the king already knew.

"New ones can't open, can they?"

"I am afraid not," said Clockwork. "With your ascension to the throne, the Zone has healed and restructured itself. It will be a long time before new portals to the material world can form, naturally or otherwise."

"How long?"

"Centuries."

The sound the king made was despairing. He turned his face into Clockwork's shoulder, the edges of the leaves and petals of his crown digging into the Ancient's ectoplasmic flesh. Something cold ran down his face. Clockwork didn't make a sound.

"Do you still want a mirror?" asked Clockwork.

The king nodded. Clockwork took him to the bedroom. Here, the murals on the ceiling and walls were modeled after the night sky. Diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and other bright gems took the place of the stars. A pale disk of matte-finished silver replaced the moon. Phantom glared at them as if they had personally offended him.

On one side of the room was a large vanity. The mirror cabinet on top of it was closed. A carved chair sat in front of it. Clockwork carefully put the king in the chair, and went to open the cabinet.

Phantom's breath caught in his throat. "You're the one who brought me there, aren't you?" he asked. "You brought me there and put me on that throne."

Danger lay thick upon the air, the light growing dim. Behind the king, Fright Knight tensed.

"There were others," he said, his hand coming up to touch his chest, right where Fright Knight had plunged his sword through him. "I can feel them."

The king half turned in his chair, his single eye fixed on Fright Knight.

"You're afraid of me," he stated, simply.

And it was true. Fright Knight was afraid.

"My king," started Clockwork.

"Don't call me that," snapped the king, taking his eye off Fright Knight. "Just, don't. I want- Call me the way you usually do."

Clockwork nodded gravely. "Of course, Daniel," he said.

The king shuddered. "Show me," he said.

In the moment the king saw his reflection, the whole Zone stilled. The orbits of the islands and doors came to a halt. The ectoplasmic mists froze in place. Then, the moment passed, as if it had never happened.

The king raised his hand to his face, reassuring himself that it was real, that the mirror was true. He ran a hand through his two-colored hair. "Clockwork," he said, "what am I?"

"You are as you were," said Clockwork. "But, as with the Zone, you have been made whole. You are no longer divided."

"I want to go home," said the king, hunching his shoulders.

"I am sorry, Daniel."

"I never got to tell them," continued the king, as if he hadn't heard Clockwork. "I never got to show them. Would it even matter now? It's gone. My other- Both my faces. They're gone. I never got to tell them. Mom and Dad. I never- I should have told them. Why didn't I tell them?"

The king was weeping, sobbing. Soon he would exhaust himself again and fall back into his uneasy sleep.

"I should have told them about me. About Phantom. About me being Phantom. I should have told them." He took a deep shuddering breath. "And I should have told Jazz. I should have told her how much she meant to me. How much-" he gripped the arms of the chair. "How much it meant, that she accepted me, and everything she did... I should have told Sam and Tucker... they were my friends. I should have- There were things I should have said."

For a long minute, the only sound in the room was the ragged breathing of the king. Then the king turned his tear-filled eyes to Clockwork.

"You didn't even let me say goodbye," he said. "You could have let me say goodbye. Even a note. You could have taken me, anyway. I wouldn't have been able to fight you. Why didn't you let me say goodbye?"

Clockwork did not answer. He simply stood, head bowed, at his king's side, until the king had cried himself to sleep. Then he picked the king up, and carried him to the huge bed. He pulled the covers back with a touch of ghostly telekinesis and slid the king beneath them before tucking him in.

"Why didn't you let him say goodbye, before the coronation?" asked the Fright Knight after he was sure the king wouldn't wake. "It seems a simple enough thing."

The Master of Time favored Fright Knight with a bitter smile. "Because he is wrong," said Clockwork. "He could have fought me," he turned his red gaze back to the sleeping king, "and he would have won."

Chapter Text

Vlad was occupied with shepherding along a sensitive reaction in his lab when his portal winked out of existence. Engrossed in his experiment, he didn't notice at first, not for several minutes. But, soon enough, the steadiness of the light, the lack of green in it, began to unnerve him.

Leaving the chemicals alone for a moment wouldn't make them explode. Probably. If they did, well. He had more than enough money to renovate his mansion. Again.

Almost immediately, his eyes caught on the gaping, empty hole in his wall where the portal had once been.

"That- Impossible!" He took several quick steps forward, but did not enter the portal or stand directly in front of it. The portal was gone, but he could see that the containment mechanisms were still working, electricity periodically jumping from exposed wires. He reached for the power cut off switch.

Reality rippled. Briefly, Vlad experienced a sensation akin to being moved through a thick membrane.

He found himself among the treetops of a lavender forest, the green sky of the Ghost Zone swirling brightly above him. Disoriented, he put a hand to his head. Natural portals had a tendency to be turbulent, but he had never been through one that felt like that before. Had his portal somehow escaped its moorings? He would have thought he would notice something like that, something like a portal sneaking up behind him. The did glow, after all.

Then again, he had been distracted by his portal's unexplained absence, so maybe not.

He pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered, "Butter biscuits," under his breath. By the time he got back, his experiment would have exploded, and his lab would be in shambles.

No matter. He could always rebuild. The real issue was where he was. He went ghost and-

Nothing happened.

Wait a moment. He examined his hands more closely. They were mottled, blue on tan. He pulled a strand of his hair in front of his eyes. It, too, had suffered a color change. His individual hairs were alternately dark grey and silver.

He felt his heart speed up. This was a problem. A large problem. He would have to retreat to his lair in the Rockies until he could fix this and return to normal. Until then, he wouldn't be fit for the public eye; his secret would be on display for all to see.

After he confirmed that, at least, he still had access to all his powers, he flew up over the tops of the trees.

The island he had found himself above was large and unfamiliar. Trees stretched out below him in all directions, leaves whispering against each other in the faint ectoplasmic wind. Ugh. Well, he'd find something, or someone, familiar sooner or later. He had traveled through the Ghost Zone extensively while searching for the Skeleton Key.

He scanned the sky, looking for signs of civilization. There, so far away he could cover it with his thumb at arm's length, was a gathering of buildings. True, in the Ghost Zone that didn't mean much, what with all the ruins and the buildings that formed randomly from the ectoplasm, but Vlad didn't have all that much to go on. He'd take the risk.

.

Ellie had been high in the sky over Louisiana, looking forward to eating some of the famous cuisine of New Orleans, when she was briefly plucked out of reality, tumbled around, and redeposited in the Ghost Zone. Somewhat stunned, she merely floated for several long minutes.

But Ellie was nothing if not adaptable, and she quickly recovered enough to look around and try to figure out what had happened. Maybe she'd been sucked through a natural portal? That didn't quite feel right, but it wasn't as if she were an expert on natural portals.

She shrugged to herself and looked around. Cajun cooking would have to wait for another day. In the meantime, she could amuse herself in the Ghost Zone.

If she could find anything amusing, that is. This particular stretch of the Ghost Zone was depressingly empty. Or was it simply misty? It could be hard to tell.

She picked a direction at random and started flying.

.

It took Vlad longer than he would have liked to reach the little city. About halfway there, the wind had strengthened to a gale, blowing him back, away from the possibly-inhabited island. It had died again, just as Vlad crossed the island's shoreline.

At first, Vlad believed that the island was entirely uninhabited. No ghosts came out to greet him or drive him off. There was no movement behind the windows or doors. The streets were empty.

But, then, he discovered that all the island's residents had gathered on the far shore, floating together in a loose cloud. They were looking down, at something far below the island, occasionally pointing.

Not keen on drawing attention right away, Vlad gently pushed himself into invisibility. He approached the edge of the island cautiously, and with no little trepidation. Given the timing, this could very well be related to the disappearance of his portal and his sudden presence in the Ghost Zone.

Beneath the island, a long, slender finger of blue wove through the more typical ectoplasmic green.

Vlad frowned at the sight. A river, perhaps? But if that was the case, why were the locals so excited?

He couldn't get any information like this. Reluctantly, he turned visible.

"Excuse me," he asked a relatively quiet ghost in full Roman legionnaire armor. "I've only just returned to the Ghost Zone, and everyone seems rather excited. Do you know what's going on?"

"Coronation," said the ghost, breathless even for one of the dead.

Vlad frowned. "Pardon?"

"Coronation!" exclaimed the ghost. The other chattering ghosts fell silent, and turned towards the legionnaire.

"Are you sure?" asked a green-skinned young woman in a toga, her pale yellow eyes huge. "Coronation?"

"It could be nothing else!" proclaimed the legionnaire.

"What do you mean, a coronation?" asked a ghost in more modern clothes. "As in, a king? This isn't going to be another one of those things where we all run away, is it?"

"No!" said the legionnaire, wrapping an arm around the man's shoulders. "This calls for celebration! A new king has been chosen and crowned!" He tossed his helmet into the air, and it reformed on his head a moment later. "The Realms shall heal from their wounds, and a new age will dawn!"

Vlad fought down a stab of jealousy. Once, he had hoped to gain that position. Well, he could determine how to turn the Zone's new political circumstances to his advantage later, when he was at his leisure. For now, he had more immediate concerns.

"Heal from their wounds?"

"Yes!" said the legionnaire, excited, his head bobbing. "After a coronation, the King's Grace sweeps through the land. Ghosts are called home! The tears are healed!"

"The tears- Surely, you don't mean the portals."

"I do, at that," said the legionnaire, grave in a way only a ghost could pull off. "That is what happened last time. Oh, that I am so lucky as to see a new king rise. May he be a kind one!"

"The portals have closed?" pressed Vlad. "All of them?"

"Yes, all of them."

"For how long?"

"When Pariah Dark took the throne," said the ghost, "it was a good century, at least."

"No," said Vlad. "I can't be away from the mortal world for that long!"

The legionnaire patted Vlad's shoulder consolingly. "Family in the other world? Friends? It is hard to leave such things behind, but, well, memento mori. They will return to you in time! Be glad instead! This is a happy occasion!"

With that, the legionnaire was borne off by his fellows. Vlad could hear some of the ghosts already making plans for a party.

"Wait," he said, snagging one of them by the elbow. He braced himself slightly, expecting to have to field an ectoblast. Instead, the ghost, a middle-aged woman with an elaborate coif, merely looked at him quizically. "Do you know the way to the Fenton Portal?" he asked, desperately. "The permanent ghost portal, guarded by Phantom."

"Oh, thinking that one might not be sealed?" asked the woman. "Best of luck to ye. It's off that way," she pointed. "When ye reach the Seven Obelisks, bend right, so you're aiming between Red Mountain and Mammoth Island.

"Ah," said Vlad, "I know the place. Thank you." And then he did a double take, because when was the last time he had genuinely thanked anyone?

He shook his head and flew, as fast as he could.

.

Luckily for Ellie, a great wind kicked up shortly after she began flying and blew off most of the mist, letting her see clearly. She did have to take shelter for a moment behind a large floating boulder, to avoid being tumbled head-over-heels by the wind, but that was a minor inconvenience at best.

It did however, mean that she had a chance to look at herself and realize that she was wearing her human clothing. Weird. She had definitely been in ghost form when she got sucked in here, and she could have sworn she had still been in it. She tried to change. Couldn't.

Oh, this could be bad. What if she was destabilizing again? She needed to find Danny. He'd know what to do.

When the wind died back, Ellie peered out, and spotted what looked like a village in the distance. She flew to it, as quickly as she could, though it still took a distressingly long time to reach, nearly an hour.

The people of the town appeared to be in the midst of setting up for some kind of party. Normally, Ellie would love to stay, find out what was going on, and participate in any way she could, but the whole 'I might melt' thing really wasn't conducive to that.

"Excuse me," she said, flagging down a matronly woman. "Do you know how I can get to Phantom's Portal?"

"Why," said the woman, "you're the second person to ask me that today. Ye just go that way until ye reach the Seven Obelisks, then bend right, so you're aiming between Red Mountain and Mammoth Island. Keep on going straight 'til you hit it. If it's still there, you won't be able to miss it."

"Second person?" asked Ellie. "Who was the first? Did he look like me, but a bit older?"

"He had similar hair, aye," said the woman, nodding.

Ellie smiled. Maybe Danny was here and she'd be able to catch up to him.

"Thanks!" she said, brightly, before bounding off.

It was not until she reached the obelisks that she thought to wonder what the woman meant by 'if it's still there.'

Well. It probably wasn't important, anyway.

After a few hours, Ellie had reached more familiar territory, though she still hadn't caught sight of Danny. Her anxiety was building. She didn't want to melt. Not again.

She was so focused on that thought that she didn't notice the myriad tiny and not-so-tiny changes creeping through the Zone. The blue swirls, the more vibrant plant life, the slight alterations in the orbits of the islands, the way the whole atmosphere of the Zone seemed less foreboding, friendlier.

Finally, she reached the stretch of the Ghost Zone where the portal should have been located, but the whole space was...

Empty.

The portal wasn't there.

She reached up to seized her hair in her hands. How could it not be there?

A few strands in her hair fell in front of her eyes. It was striped, white and black. Oh, Ancients, it was spreading.

And then, to her horror, the voice of the person she least wanted to see split the near-silence.

"Danielle?"

.

Vlad sat on an boulder, staring at the space the Fenton Portal should have occupied.

He wasn't despairing. He was planning. If a portal could be made from that side of the veil, surely he could make one from this side. If he couldn't do so with technological means, there were mystical ones. Before resorting to that, however, he should try and find ghosts with the ability to make portals. He knew that some existed, though he had never encountered any directly, himself, with the exception of Pariah Dark.

Speaking of the old king... Perhaps dethroning the new one would make the portals reopen. A fight with the new king, whoever he may be, wasn't something that he would enter into lightly, but if all else failed...

His eyes returned to the former location of the portal, and he clenched his fists. He couldn't be trapped here for a hundred years. He just couldn't. It was unthinkable. Too horrible to contemplate.

A small figure flew into view. A familiar figure.

It couldn't be. But why not? If he had been sucked in here by the coronation of the new king, then why not the other two half ghosts?

He flew forward. "Danielle?" he called.

The girl turned. Clearly, she had been crying.

"Vlad!" she exclaimed, with venom. Her eyes narrowed in something approximating concern. "What happened to you? Are you destabilizing, too?"

Ah, and there was a theory to haunt his nightmares. "Not to the best of my knowledge," he said, adjusting the cuffs of his suit. "I presume you were also brought here by the coronation?"

"The what?" asked Danielle, drifting backwards, hands up, ready to block or deliver a blow.

Vlad rolled his eyes. "The ghosts have crowned a new king. Why now, rather than all the years Pariah Dark slept, I have no idea. Regardless, it has had certain effects on the Ghost Zone, and," he looked at his blotchy hand with distaste, "apparently, us. You aren't destabilizing."

"That's what you'd like me to think," said Danielle.

Vlad scoffed. "Please. I don't care what you think. I don't suppose you've seen Daniel? I suspect he's been brought here as well."

"No," said Danielle.

"And you wouldn't tell me even if you had, hmm?" said Vlad. "I'm not interested in picking a fight with him. For the moment, we have the same goals: return to the mortal world."

"How do you know what his goals are?"

"Have you seen how he dotes on that town of his?" asked Vlad. "Not to mention his dolt of a father. Of course he wants to go back."

"Assuming he's even here," grumbled Danielle. Even so, she relaxed her guard.

"Well," said Vlad. "Where is he?"

"I already told you, I don't know."

Vlad frowned. "Then, if you were he, where would you be? It should be easy for you to deduce. It is, after all, what you were designed for."

Danielle tilted her chin up, defiantly, nostrils flaring, but she reigned in her temper. Doing so was the one thing in which she had surpassed her original. "Knowing Danny and his luck, he's probably right at the center of all this."

Vlad angled himself towards the place where all the blue swirls were radiating from. "Of course he is."

.

The two half ghosts arrived at what had once been Pariah's Keep.

"Wow," said Ellie. "This is different." She craned her head back, trying to take the whole thing in. "Reminds me more of a palace than a keep, now."

"What would you know?"

"Excuse me? I've been to Europe? I know the difference."

Ancients, she wished she wasn't as worried about Danny as she was, but if he was trapped or something she'd need Vlad's firepower to break him out.

Cautiously, the pair moved closer to the palace. It wasn't empty.

"Shades," said Vlad, his voice low. "Not true ghosts. They follow the will of the one who casts them. In this case, most likely the king. I would have expected more of a crowd than this, though, considering how recently he was crowned."

"Yeah, like, a party or something," agreed Ellie. "But this place looks really big, maybe they're all just inside?"

"Perhaps," said Vlad.

"So, do we sneak in, or what?"

"No," said Vlad. He smiled, thinly. "I believe I will request an audience. Perhaps I'll offer my services."

.

The audience was denied, and all other attempts to gain access were rebuffed, firmly, but with a gentleness not often found in the Ghost Zone. The shades only had one thing to say: Return when the king wakes.

Not having many other options, Vlad and Ellie adopted an uneasy truce as they searched for Danny- or at least his allies. They had similar needs, after all, as they both had a human half.

Uneasy was definitely the key word.

Danny's allies had made themselves frustratingly scarce. Vlad was contemplating an attempt to establish himself in a community, or at least make a base of operations.

A week and a half later, one of the shades came to them.

The king wakes, it said.

It was practically an invitation. Ellie wasn't convinced accepting it was a good idea, at this point, but she had to admit that she didn't know where else to look for Danny. He had to have come through. Every other ghost and half ghost had, right down to the smallest blob.

They went back to the palace. A shade led them through perfumed gardens and past tinkling water fountains. Ghostly insects played among luminous flowers. Detailed statues marked turns in the path, and the rest of the stonework was carved just as intricately. A distant wind chime sounded once every minute or so, presaging the arrival of light gusts of air.

They were brought to a small circular paved area that was lined with benches. Two ghosts, real ghosts, stood on either side of one of those benches. That bench was occupied by a small, slender figure. A crown of glassy flowers and silver vines adorned his striped hair.

He turned slightly, slowly, to face them.

Ellie couldn't restrain a gasp. Danny was missing an eye.

Chapter Text

Ellie took to spending her days in the palace library. 

Danny thought he was trapped.  Believed he was trapped.  So did everyone else.  But Ellie didn’t believe it.  All cages had keys.  Danny had opened hers.  It was only right that she return the favor. 

(Of course, she wasn’t happy about being stuck herself.  There were still things she wanted to see on Earth.  She missed the stars.)

The books were old and new.  Some were in English, others were in languages she couldn’t even begin to recognize.  Most of them had nothing to do with what she was looking for.  Like in any library, they were on a wide variety of subjects, all spread out. 

Still, she searched.  The stack of tomes that had to do with ghostly kingship and the laws of the Infinite Realms grew progressively larger.  Occasionally, one of the shades would attempt to put the books back, but they were easily dissuaded, having no will of their own. 

She was making progress.  Not a lot, but some.  Enough to keep her going. 

.

Vlad knew when to quit. 

Oh, maybe it didn’t seem like it, he was easily as obsessive as any ghost, but he did.  Sometimes, a plan just wasn’t feasible, and he had to cut his losses. 

Cutting his losses, in this case, meant getting incredibly drunk on ghost wine.  Fright Knight didn’t approve, but who cared what he thought?  Fright Knight was part of the reason he was in this situation in the first place!

If he had just been warned this would happen, he’d have been able to make arrangements, to find some way to keep his portal open, or to stay in the human world, where his life was. 

But no.  They were all trapped here.  No way out. 

When hundreds of ghosts all said the same thing, Vlad was inclined to believe them.  Danielle, as motivated as she was, was simply experiencing denial.  Or, perhaps, bargaining.  He had to admit he was never exactly clear on the stages of grief. 

Then, there was Daniel, who seemed to be firmly trapped in the ‘depression’ stage, more of a ghost than Vlad had ever seen him as.  He lingered in corners, at the edge of Vlad’s vision, quiet, sad, always flanked by Fright Knight and that other ghost, the one with the clocks. 

There were parts of him, his Obsession reasserting itself, that yearned to reach out to Danny, but… He didn’t even know how to begin.

.

Danny felt like a pale, wandering shadow of himself. 

Most of the time, he slept, exhausted by the demands the Zone made on him and the continuing changes he was undergoing.  The expanding circle of vitality, of rejuvenation, of reconstruction and growth, that so many ghosts were celebrating had to draw energy from somewhere, after all, and even though Danny was absorbing just as much as he was expending, that process made him drowsy in and of itself. 

Pain, too, plagued him.  His missing eye ached, and sometimes it seemed as if the crown was burrowing into his skull, not merely resting on it.  His hand hurt from all his attempts to take off the ring. 

He could hardly care for himself in even the most basic of ways.  Clockwork often had to remind him, or help him, and he was always so excruciatingly gentle. 

Then Vlad and Ellie came. 

Their arrival was a relief.  Ellie was a friend, was family, and hadn’t been complicit in his betrayal and binding.  Vlad had been an enemy, and not even an honest one at that, but essentially everything they’d been at odds over was moot, but he was familiar.

Despite the relief, despite his desire to connect with people who hadn’t hurt him, at least not as badly as everyone else, he hung back.  He didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to bridge the gap. 

So, he lurked and lingered.  When Ellie went to the library, when Vlad moped and bothered the shades that ordered the kitchen, he followed, he watched. 

Clockwork and Fright Knight, of course, followed and watched him in turn. 

At least, this is what happened when he was awake and aware enough to do anything.  Danny was under the impression that being awake and independently mobile at all this soon after being… coronated… was unusual, perhaps even unnerving.  Normally, he’d be curious, excited about new abilities and what they might mean.  Maybe he’d even throw around a quip or two about how awesome he was but… 

It wasn’t the time, and he didn’t have the willpower to reach for even that dubious coping mechanism. 

In the too-numerous times when Danny was both awake and not well enough to follow Ellie and Vlad around, he liked to sit in the garden.  It was almost peaceful there, by the fountain, although the plants had a distressing tendency to reflect his every change in mood. 

Today was one of those days.  He was too dizzy and lightheaded to drift after Vlad or Ellie, even if neither of them moved very much, but he didn’t want to stay in the bedroom, or, worse, the throne room.  His core seemed to pulse, sluggish and painful in his chest.  Or perhaps that was his heart.  He couldn’t really tell with this mixed-up form.  It could even be both. 

Another slow wave of transformation swept out from him, making his extremities tingle.  He watched, tiredly, as it briefly interacted with the walls of the palace and the scattered shades before moving on.  The shades… another aspect of all this that Danny wasn’t comfortable with, but couldn’t bring himself to learn more about.  They were sustained through his power, but what were they?  Extensions of his will?  Aspects of his personality?  Constructs generated by the palace?  By the Ghost Zone itself?  He didn’t know. 

As much as he should try to learn, he couldn’t help but think of them as yet another imposition, another burden he was being forced to bear. 

This wasn’t a healthy mindset.  Jazz would tell him as much.  Jazz wasn’t here. 

“Danny!” 

He looked up, his one eye already searching for Ellie.  Fright Knight stepped forward, as if to protect him, but Danny snarled at him, annoyed.  He wasn’t going to let him get in between him and one of the few people he could currently stand.  Clockwork stayed back, passive, but he looked… worried.  Uneasy.  As if anticipating a disaster. 

“Danny!” exclaimed Ellie again, bursting from a bush, a thick book raised above her head.  “I found it!”

“Found what?” asked Danny, leaning forward slightly as Ellie joined him sitting on the edge of the fountain. 

“A way out!”  She opened the book and started flipping through it, obviously looking for a specific entry. 

Both Clockwork and Fright Knight looked extremely tense, now.  They probably didn’t want him to find this, didn’t want him to leave.  Would they try to stop him? 

He hunched his shoulders.  He might not be well, but he could fight and make it hurt. 

“Here!” said Ellie, triumphantly.  “Look at this.”  She tapped a picture of a bright, spherical object. 

“The core of the Infinite Realms?” asked Danny, reading the legend of the picture. 

“Uh huh.  Apparently, it’s what determines what the Ghost Zone is like as a whole and controls the rules and laws and stuff.  Like, even when it comes to what ghosts act like, and what they can physically do, or how the Ghost Zone’s physics behave.  But the important part is that you can go talk to it and petition it and stuff, and sometimes it’ll listen.  I bet we can get it to listen to you and make it so that the Ghost Zone doesn’t need a king anymore.”

Danny felt a flutter of hope.  The book was old from what he could see, and, ignoring Ellie’s paraphrasing, the language was fantastical and couched in metaphor, but still if there was a possibility…

Near their feet, small, bright flowers began to bloom, each no larger than the head of a pin. 

“Daniel,” said Clockwork, in a careful, soft tone.  It wasn’t pity, not quite, but it was the verbal equivalent of being handled with kid gloves.  “It doesn’t work like that.”

“Then what is it like?” asked Danny, hunching his shoulders and leaning protectively over Ellie. 

“What do you think the King of the Infinite Realms is?” asked Clockwork. 

Danny shrugged.  Clockwork gave him a small, pained smile.

“The King of Ghosts and the core of the Ghost Zone,” said Clockwork, “they’re the same.”

Danny shook his head, unwilling to let this scrap of hope slip through his fingers so easily. 

“Please, Daniel,” said Clockwork.  “Why do you think it was so vital that you be crowned?   The Realms cannot exist without their core.”

It made sense.  A horrible, horrible sense. 

“That doesn’t make sense,” said Ellie.  “The core’s supposed to be the basis the whole Zone is built on.  That can’t just be one person.”

“The library has some books on the subject,” said Clockwork.  “But you can see how Daniel is changing things.”

Danny felt his hope collapse and doubled over, hands on his head, face almost touching his legs.  A scream bubbled up in his throat, but he swallowed it.  All those people, everywhere, his responsibility, his…  Not just the people, everything.  Everywhere.  Not just his responsibility, but relying on him, modeled on him, dependent on him, centered on him. 

He wasn’t just the Ghost Zone’s ruler, nominal or not, he was its heart. 

“Danny?” asked Ellie.  He looked up. 

There were blast lines in the ground, radiating away from him.  The fountain was cracked and leaking water.  Fright Knight had, evidently, grabbed Ellie and leaped away, into the air. 

Clockwork hadn’t left, still leaning towards Danny.  There was a jagged, dripping slice across his shoulder.  Danny gasped, reaching towards him.

“It’s alright,” said Clockwork.  “It’s alright.”

“I can’t be,” said Danny.  “I can’t be.  I’m—I can’t be part of the Ghost Zone.  Not—Not like that.  That’s not—I can’t be what the Ghost Zone is built on, it doesn’t make sense, I…”

“It’s alright,” repeated Clockwork.  “Would you like to go inside?  You may feel better if you eat something.”

“Don’t want to bother Vlad,” mumbled Danny.  Didn’t want another person to see him crumbling like this. 

“We can send something up to your room,” said Clockwork. 

He did feel tired.  The fountain was repairing itself behind and underneath him.  He groaned as the ground beneath him pulled together as well. 

“I don’t want to be the core of the Ghost Zone,” he said, knowing that what he wanted was not and never had been a consideration.  “I don’t want to be king.  I don’t want to be in charge of anything.”  He grabbed the edges of Clockwork’s robe, ignoring the moisture despite the pang of guilt it brought him.  “I want to go home.  And I…”  His words failed as he reached for Clockwork’s injury.  “I don’t want to do this.”

“This is nothing, Daniel,” putting a gloved hand over the wound.  “I have had far worse.”

It started to rain.  Great, heavy droplets of water tainted with just enough ectoplasm to glow. 

It was one way to hide tears, he supposed.