It was a dreary day in Gotham City—as it often was. The smog and fog mixed with the weak drizzle to cast the streets in darkening shades of gray despite the late-afternoon sun somewhere overhead, and the mud mixed with rubbish on the streets to form a bad-smelling, sucking mire that coated any shoe that stepped too close to the gutter.
Tim Drake, hood up and hands shoved in his pockets, slogged through it all unseeing. Bruce was dead, except he wasn't, and no one would believe him. Weren't families supposed to be built on trust? Why did everyone speak condescendingly to his face and whisper and tut around corners instead of helping him search?
Tim kicked a rock, hard. It skittered against the uneven cobblestones, glanced of the base of a busted lamppost, and got stuck in the mud in a wad of something that did not bear further investigation. Sighing, anger suddenly draining out of him, Tim leaned against a cinderblock wall covered with obscenities. He tipped his head back and closed his eyes.
Across the alley, a gentle creaking caught his attention.
Tim straightened, taking a step closer and blinking his eyes open to squint through the fog. An old-fashioned wooden pub sign hung from a wrought-iron cross-bar, lit by lanterns that flickered almost as though they worked by fire, not electricity. Rock and a Hard Place read the block lettering, the stylized outline of a glass of something amber-colored over ice suggesting the source of the name. The lighted windows were covered inside by sheer curtains, providing a glimpse of warm wood tones and patrons moving around but nothing distinct. The brick walls were notably free of graffiti.
Drawn to the place by a subtle mental suggestion, Tim cautiously advanced. He knew enough of magic to mistrust auras of enticement, but he also remembered what Bruce had said once, years ago, late at night high over Gotham.
"Robin, if you ever need something, help or advice or just a place to rest for a while, and you see the Rock and a Hard Place…" Bruce had paused a moment, weighing words, "it's a good place to find allies. Be cautious," he laid his hand on Tim's head, "because allies aren't always friends, but it should be safe."
Tim had asked questions but got no further information from Batman. Never seeing the place, he had nearly forgotten the long-ago advice. Now, standing under the swinging, creaking sign, he decided to take Bruce on his word. He slowly pushed open the door.
The jingle of a silver bell announced his entrance, and he stepped in warily. The warm tones seen through the curtains coalesced into a heavily scarred but well-polished hardwood floor, a collection of mismatched tables and chairs, and the soft light of wall sconces and torch lamps. A wood fire crackled in a stone fireplace, and behind the bar a large creature with four arms, heavy jowls, and coarse brown skin called out a hearty greeting.
"Welcome to the Rock and a Hard Place!" the creature boomed. "Come in, kid, come in, don't be shy."
Tim was being cautious, not shy, but nevertheless closed the door behind him and made his way to the bar.
"What'll you have?"
Tim, who was, after all, only seventeen, began to weigh his desire for something stronger than soda against the likelihood of being carded when his eye caught a notice on the wall behind the bartender. It was one of those metal red-and-white bar signs that originally read "You must be 21 years old to purchase alcohol" except the words "21 years old" had been tacked over to read "alive," and "purchase" was corrected to "drink free." You must be alive to drink free alcohol. Tim grinned.
The bartended glanced behind him and gestured with one huge hand. "Yep!" he said, laughing. "No age limit here, and no prices. Might cut you off after one, though, if you look young. Bartender's discretion." He winked.
"I'll take whatever you recommend," Tim said. After a moment of thought, the creature grabbed a large mug, filled it with a light brown foaming drink and slid it over the bar. "Butterbeer," he said. "Not from my world, but kids your age tend to be rather fond of it no matter where they're from. Warm you up, too." He nodded at Tim's damp hoodie.
Tim sipped the drink. It was warm, light, smooth, and faintly sweet. He nodded in approval.
"Take a load off," said the bartender, leaning his lower arms on the bar and stroking his great chin with his upper. "Name's Dexter Jettster, by the way," he stuck out one meaty hand, "call me Dex."
Tim hummed in acknowledgement, shaking the hand and pulling up a barstool. He scanned the room. A collection of oddities—trophies, art, weaponry—covered the walls, much of it clearly not of Tim's time or place. The patrons fit the same description.
"We get all sorts here!" Dex said, following Tim's gaze. "Those two," he nodded to a pair of brawny men in bronze armor talking animatedly at a table near the door, "best friends, see 'em in together all the time. Though it's said," he lowered his voice and leaned closer, "in their own world they're on opposite sides of a war. Oaths and fealty, you know, though they'd rather not be fighting at all. The first time they came in, there was drawn swords in the smoking room, and almost bloodshed—or so it's said, I wasn't here myself—and the bouncers couldn't just throw one of 'em out 'cause they both have clearance. But," he leaned back, "they decided 'neutral territory,' started talking, and now they're inseparable. Till one is killed in the war, I guess," he muttered.
"And, of course, the Kings in Disguise club is meeting in the smoking room right now. Second Tuesday of every month. Don't suppose you're here for that?"
Tim snorted into his butterbeer in surprise, shaking his head.
"Ah, well, you can never tell. If you need someone to talk to, lemme know what about and I'll hook you up with the right person. If you just wanna sit awhile, that's…"
Dex was interrupted by the door flying open, bell jangling furiously. A young man in a black suit skidded into the room, slamming the door behind him and glancing around, clearly looking for a place to run. Immediately, the two friends by the door jumped to their feet, laid hands on sword hilts, and stood poised to act should the door open again. A tall stranger with golden hair and beard appeared in the open archway to the smoking room just as the young man headed in that direction while calling a frantic "Sorry!" to Dex, doing a quick double-take at his appearance.
"Peace!" said the golden-haired stranger, catching the young man by the shoulders and giving him a gentle shake. "You are safe here. The door is being guarded. Who is chasing you?"
The young man took several deep breaths. He quickly glanced behind him at the self-appointed door-guards and slumped, not attempting to shake himself free. "Thank you, sir. It's just those protestors again, sir. Shouldn't have been out so late alone." He shook his head, twice. "Sorry…sorry."
"Nothing to apologize for. Hoy, Dex, something stiff for the lad." The golden-haired man gently spun the other and propelled him toward the bar. "I am Arthur of Camelot. Hector and Odysseus are guarding the door, and the bartender here is Dexter Jettster."
"Thank you," said the young man as he slid onto a stool and knocked back the glass Dex set in front of him. "I'm Phillip Carlyle, of the, uh, Barnum Circus." He glanced around more calmly, taking in the eclectic environment. "What is this place? And did you say…" he turned suddenly wide eyes to the golden-haired man, "Arthur of Camelot? As in…King…Arthur?"
Arthur laughed. "Yes, lad, that is I. And, to answer your question, you are in the Rock and a Hard Place. Only those granted clearance have access; no one else can find this place, unless he is particularly powerful, discerning, or determined. And then we will all lend the bouncers aid in throwing him out. Anytime you have trouble or need help you might end up here, and here can come heroes from every world, and every time."
Tim listened closely. I wonder how it works, he thought, I wonder if anyone even knows. But King Arthur! Hector and Odysseus! He grinned down into his butterbeer.
Phillip Carlyle shook his head again and then grinned. "I've seen many odd things and been many odd places, but none quite like this!" he said, delighted. "Who else is here?"
"Well," drawled Dex, "Arthur's buddies are the Kings in Disguise club." He gestured toward the group that now stood around the doorway to the smoking room. "Peter and Edmund of Narnia, Aragorn of Gondor, Eugenides of Attolia, Richard of England, Thor of Asgard, Finrod of Nargothrond." Each king nodded at Phillip as he was introduced. "Mr. Spock, Chewbacca, and Gamora are over there," Dex pointed at a table on the other side of the room, "and this here is…" he paused, addressed Tim. "Didn't actually get your name yet, did I?"
"Timothy Drake," Tim said, standing up and walking over to shake hands with Phillip Carlyle. "Nice to meet you."
"If either of you need anything," Dex continued, "let me know. Otherwise, there's a library upstairs, or if you prefer there's always someone willing to spar downstairs."
"Thank you, but actually I should probably be getting back to the circus. I'm sure the way's clear by now, and Barnum will worry if I'm not back soon. Maybe I'll see you all again?"
"'Course!" said Dex, cheerfully. "Next time you come in there'll be other people for you to meet, but I'm sure we'll cross paths again at some point. Good luck!"
Phillip tipped his hat around the room, especially toward Arthur, who smiled at him. He walked to the door, stopping to thank Odysseus and Hector for their vigilance, and popped his head out. "Looks clear," he said, and stepped through. "Thanks again!"
Tim retrieved his butterbeer, smiling a bit. What a place this was! He wandered around, looking at the multiple matching dragon-like heads mounted above the fireplace, the spaceship blueprints tacked on the wall, and the parrot-headed umbrella in the umbrella stand that squawked at him indignantly when he accidentally bumped against it. Along one wall, a fold-out writing desk stuffed with everything from paper scraps and feather quills to holographic projectors and some state-of-the-art tablets drew Tim's attention. Laid out prominently on the desk was a guest book. His name was already recorded in swirling calligraphy, with the "cleared" column marked off. Curious, Tim glanced over old entries, flipping back. He found some where "intruder" was marked instead of "cleared"—often these were accompanied by angry or smug notes detailing how the villain had been removed from premises.
Then the name "Bruce Wayne" caught his eye. His heart rate kicked up and his eyes widened. There were no dates, nothing to tell him when Bruce had last been here, but Bruce's small, precise handwriting filled the block for patron notes in the Bats' shorthand.
"Met some time travelers and compared notes. Good camaraderie but poor assistance. Captain America counsels patience. Glad R&HP is still available."
Tim stared at the words, stunned. Here, at last, was a bit of proof that Tim's conviction had some foundation. Bruce had visited the Rock and a Hard Place to compare notes with time travelers. It wasn't conclusive, but…
More hopeful than he had felt in weeks, Tim flipped back to the last page of the guest book and wrote in the note block by his name, "First time here. I think my father is still alive. I will find him." For a moment, he leaned on the desk, breathing. Then he turned, waved perfunctorily to Dex, and strode out the door.
He had work to do.
A/N: I hope to write more crossovers like this...would you be interested in wandering into the Rock and a Hard Place again?