Chapter 1: Guilt
‘‘Does it ever go away?’’
The sudden question jerks Bruce out of his thoughts. Placing the book he was attempting to read on his lap, he looks at Duke, patiently waiting for him to clarify what he means.
‘‘The guilt. I can’t help but feel that what happened to my parents was my fault.’’ Gingerly moving away from the doorway, Duke sits on the armrest of the couch, nervously glancing at Bruce, while waiting for the man to respond.
However, Bruce doesn’t say anything. For what feels like the longest two minutes of Duke’s life, the older man just looks at him, as if he was trying to decipher an incredibly advanced riddle. Eventually, he places the book on the coffee table as he slowly rises from the couch.
‘‘It wasn’t your fault, Duke.’’ To say that Duke was both relieved and surprised by Bruce’s response would be an understatement. Though simple, those words actually seemed to wash away all of Duke’s guilt and apprehension at once, but as reassuring as they were, those kind words also managed to confuse him more than ever.
‘‘I will see to it myself that your parents will receive the best care possible.’’ Deep down Duke knew that he wasn’t the one at fault. No one could have predicted what happened that day. The Joker was the only one to blame for what had happened to his parents. Yet, as relieved as Bruce’s response had made him it wasn’t enough. Instead of guilt, now, a nagging sense of regret seemed to have invaded his mind and heart.
‘‘But does it go away? Bruce, please, I need to know how to go on from here.’’ Again, Bruce seemed to only stare at him. A soul-piercing kind of stare that would prompt even Superman to look away, but Duke needed to know. At last, a tired sigh left Bruce’s lips and he motions for Duke to follow him down to the batcave.
Once ingulfed in the familiar darkness of the cave Bruce seems less tense. Strange. Duke had never been too interested in capes and the world of heroes and villains and now, suddenly, he is placed right in the middle of the eternal struggle between good and evil. As The Signal he now serves besides Batman as a defender of Gotham. Bruce, Alfred and the rest of the Bats have made Duke feel both welcome and accepted. With them he feels needed and wanted. They have trained him, taught him how to juggle his different identities, but most importantly they have given him a new home.
‘‘The guilt you are feeling is natural. Something very traumatic happened to you... But despite that you have chosen not to give in to the darkness. Instead, as The Signal you have turned the darkness into a shining light, into hope for Gotham’s citizens to prevent something like what happened to your parents to happen ever again.’’ Digesting Bruce’s answer Duke found himself humbled when reminded of his origin, the origin of the great Bat. If anyone knows loss, guilt and regret it’s Bruce Wayne. Still, he didn’t answer the actual question though.
‘‘But does it go away?’’ Yet again, Bruce just looks at him before something changes in his eyes. For a split second he looks almost mournful. But as soon as Duke had registered the emotion it had gone away, replaced by an unreadable expression.
‘‘No.’’ Slightly taken aback, Duke feels a knot form in his stomach. Would he have to live with this guilt the rest of his life then? Of course, guilt and regret are what fuels most of the heroes in Gotham. It’s a source of their determination and strength as they power through the hurt and tragedy to protect others. To prevent others from becoming like them.
‘‘You have to let go of the past and move forward, Duke. It’s all any of us can.’’
Chapter 2: Red shoes
Even after all this time, Duke still had a hard time getting used to the extravagant lifestyle of Bruce Wayne. Growing up in the Narrows, he had long ago learned that money could be hard to come by and that it had to be spend wisely. His family had actually been pretty well off, all things considered, and he never lacked anything. But this? This kind of money made his head spin. How does one even comprehend the amount of money that Bruce Wayne makes on his days off alone?
Grabbing the tailored Armani suit, Duke couldn’t help but marvel at its quality. It even smelled expensive. Resisting the tempting urge to Google what it costs, he begrudgingly gets out of his hoodie and jeans to put on the suit. Somehow, he would have to pay Bruce back for his generosity. When Izzy had asked him to accompany her to a cousin’s wedding, he had panicked. He had never owned more than one suit and the only suit he had ever owned seemed to have mysteriously disappeared after he had told Damian about his situation. Strangely enough, a few hours later, he had returned to his room only to find a brand-new suit on his bed.
Adjusting the last few details on the suit, Duke finally took the time to look at himself in the mirror. He looked good. The suit fit his body in ways he didn’t know were possible. It almost felt like a second skin, clinging to his body and showing off his athletic built while also giving him room to move. As nicely as it fit him though, he couldn’t help but feel slightly guilty for wearing it. It’s not like his old one couldn’t have done the job. As worn and tattered as it was, it still had its charm. Momentarily banishing those thoughts, he looks back at the mirror and is, yet again, greeted by his own reflection.
‘‘Man, I look fly as hell.’’ Spinning around in the suit, he fails to notice the bedroom door opening.
‘‘Indeed, Master Duke. However, may I suggest you wear another pair of shoes?’’ Startled by the sound of Alfred’s voice, it takes everything in Duke not to jump at the sudden interruption.
‘‘Jesus Christ, Alfred! You almost gave me a heart attack.’’ Embarrassed to have been caught checking out his own reflection, Duke unceremoniously slumps down at the foot of the bed, his ears practically burning.
‘‘What’s wrong with my sneakers anyways?’’ At that Alfred simply shakes his head.
‘‘Nothing, except that they might not fit today’s theme is all.’’
Looking down at his old red sneakers, Duke wistfully smiles. His mom had bought them for him a long time ago, at first, he had hated them. Well, they were just so red and so flashy, nothing seemed to go with them either, but as time went by, he couldn’t imagine life without those sneakers. They had been with him on his most amazing days, like when he had his first kiss and on his most terrible days, like the day his parents had been kidnapped. Those shoes were more than just shoes at this point – they were a part of him.
And now they served as a fond reminder of his parents, of simpler times that he had taken for granted.
‘‘True, Alfred. But I feel comfortable in them.’’ Noticing the wistful look on Duke’s face, Alfred couldn’t help the surge of emotion that went through him. Duke was another innocent youth that had been victimized by the city’s demons. Just as with the other boys, Alfred had made it his responsibility to care for the young man, but he still seemed so awfully lonely – especially when Bruce and Damian were away on patrol. The night seemed to make him restless as well, and he would often wonder through the halls, eventually finding his way to the kitchen to keep Alfred company.
‘‘Then that is all that matters, Master Duke.’’ Placing a comforting hand on the young man’s shoulder, Alfred gently squeezes it before picking up the dirty laundry he had come for. Duke had many times thought about how Alfred had been a big factor in making him feel at home in the big manor. But it was moments like these that cemented that fact.
A vibration from his phone on the nightstand quickly jolted him out of his thoughts. Izzy. Right, if he didn’t leave soon, he would be too late to pick her up. Combing back his hair and applying some cologne he hastily made his way down the stairs. Hopefully, Bruce wouldn’t be too upset that he was going to borrow one of his cars. Preferably, one of the Lamborghinis.
‘‘Duke.’’ Speaking of the devil. Walking through the front door, an exhausted Bruce was carrying a box filled to the brim with what looked like old case files.
‘‘Bruce, you’re back early. Weren’t you needed for some kind of emergency at Wayne Tech?’’
‘‘It’s been handled.’’ Duke couldn’t help but smile at that, of course it had been handled. Was there anything the freaking Batman couldn’t handle anyways? ‘‘Go figure, right. Well, I have to go man, Izzy is waiting.’’
‘‘Right. By the way. You look… Nice.’’ Momentarily stunned by the comment, Duke barely had time to process the complement before Bruce was gone. Headed for the cave no doubt.
Yeah, Duke definitely had to pay him back one of these days.