It was the last thing he heard before being swallowed up by the blinding light as it started to wash over everything in his vision, turning it a bright, frightening white. He couldn’t tell who shouted his name, but he reached out in the direction it came from, fingers splayed desperately outward as the last patch of his vision was drowned out by the white.
And then there was nothing. He stayed in that white limbo for a few minutes, hours, days. He felt weightless. There was a swooping feeling in his stomach, like in the moment before his grappling hook catches him and he drops towards the ground.
And then he did drop towards the ground, tumbling towards the stone floor of the Batcave when before he’d been on the roof of an apartment in the east end of Gotham. The white disappeared around him just as quickly as it had swallowed him up.
It took him a moment to reorient, but the echo of sound throughout the cave, the smell of it, somewhat musty, but with the faint tang of metal, all centered him.
He rolled to his feet.
It was definitely weird to be in the Batcave, but it wasn’t by any stretch the weirdest thing that had happened to him or any of the rest of his family. Still… there was just something that felt off. Like everything in the Batcave was shifted just two inches to the left, though from where he was standing by the entrance, it all looked the same.
A few pebbles caught in the mouth of the cave scattered under his feet as he started jogging towards the center, sighing. If he was already at the Batcave, he might as well start up the written mission reports for the Batcomputer’s log while he was here, and try to figure out exactly how he got here. His siblings weren’t in any danger where he’d left them, and Batman was there, too.
It’d be better to keep out of the way until he could figure out exactly what had brought him to the Batcave. TheHe tapped the side of his helmet, trying to activate the comms to reach out to the others and check in, but cursed when the only thing that came through was a crackling static. Well. He was in the cave somehow, where the main setup was, and the faster he could contact them by comms to let them know that he was fine and where he’d ended up, the better.
If the comms in his helmet were down, at least he was close to the best option for communication.
He made his way further into the cave, and the feeling that there was something wrong intensified. He glanced around, looking for what was making him feel so unsettled, but nothing was obviously wrong. He picked up his pace. If he could just get to the comms a little faster, he could get in contact with his family. After the light, they’d be worried. Hell, he was worried. Back in the cave with no clue how he got there? It was more than a little concerning.
A silent shadow flitted past him, just barely visible on the cave walls. He went rigid, tracking the shadow in the corner of his vision.
And then he dropped to the floor, just in time, as a familiar black gloved fist passed overhead. He just barely missed being hit by the punishing blow that would have landed right on his temple for a sure concussion if he hadn’t dodged.
“ Batman ?” Duke yelled. He somersaulted forward, just barely avoiding another strike. “B, what are you doing?!”
“Who are you,” came the growled response. A shiver crawled down Duke’s spine at the grim hostility in Batman’s voice that promised violence, and something tightened in the back of his throat. None of this was right. What was happening ?
Duke’s voice cracked. “What do you mean, Batman, it’s me! It’s Signal!”
“I don’t know anyone by that name.” Batman kept attacking, fists and feet just missing Duke by a hair, almost too fast for Duke to keep ahead of as he desperately tried to dodge them. Duke, seeing that he wouldn’t be able to get out of this, lashed back. He struck out, aiming for one of the weaknesses in the Batman armor. The only way he’d ever be able to even survive a fight with Batman is by taking advantage of the weaknesses that he knew and hope Batman wouldn’t have already turned him to paste.
And this Batman wasn’t his Batman. This Batman was angry. Violent. It felt like he wanted to hurt Duke, and that thought was terrifying.
Duke flinched as one of Batman’s kicks landed on his ribs, but that was fine. He’d fought Batman before, even though it was just sparring. He knew what to do; they’d literally gone over a new way to react to this a month ago.
Batman didn’t even react when Duke threw another punch at him, just let it glance off his armor, and Duke cursed under his breath.
“Please, Batman,” Duke tried again. “You know me! We were just on a mission together, out over the East End, you have got to snap out of it!”
The only response was a punch that rattled his brain and sent him sprawling to the ground.
He breathed deep, holding in the pain, putting aside his fear for now. A stomp came down, but he rolled aside, avoiding a blow that would have broken his ankle. He winced when he saw a small patch of blood smeared on the stone floor where he’d just been laying, but wasted no time in getting to his feet. He was one of Gotham’s heroes. He wasn’t going to go down like this.
He started holding his left arm a little higher than it needed to be to block properly, like he couldn’t work through the pain in his ribs well enough to bring it down to block any more of the punches or kicks targeted there, and then he listed a little to the left. Every desperate thought in his head was hoping that Batman would take the bait. That he needed Batman to take the bait. His eyes glowed a dim gold underneath his helmet’s visor, letting him see just far enough ahead that he could twist slightly out of the way to miss Batman’s more crippling blows.
His thrown together plan wouldn’t work on Batman if he were in his right mind, but if Bruce had all his faculties online, this situation wouldn’t even be happening.
Duke just had to be patient, and get ready to take the bait. He just had to wait it out until then. He could do that. He could .
His precognition worked well; he was staying on his feet a lot longer than he anticipated with the force and aggression of blows coming at him. He wasn’t an idiot though. This fight had to end soon, or he’d be far worse for wear by the end of it.
It took a while––longer than Duke was hoping for, but shorter than he expected. He would never say that Batman was careless, but this was… probably the closest that Batman would get to it. After a few more good knocks, with Duke returning some of his own, Bruce targeted the weak spot that Duke was faking. It cost Duke a heavy kick to his ribs that he’d definitely feel later, but it gave him the opportunity to grab Bruce’s leg and heave , dragging Batman off balance and rolling the both of them to the ground.
Duke tried to pin him, reaching for the handcuffs in his utility belt, hoping that he’d be able to take this chance to incapacitate him.
It didn’t work. Batman lashed out with his leg, slamming it into Duke’s chest again, and using the leverage to shove Duke off him. It only took Batman another moment to flip to his feet, and Duke grimaced and twisted to the side, avoiding another kick. In between hits, Duke managed to rise to a standing position as well. He threw a punch at Batman, then tried to sweep his feet out from under him. Batman absorbed the impact of the punch and dodged the sweep and Duke grimaced, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to last much longer.
He had to do something . If he didn’t, he’d be turned into paste right then and there.
Duke gritted his teeth. “I don’t know what sent me back here or what made you lose your mind, but we have to fix it. Please, Bruce,” he choked out, “we have to fix this.”
The fist stopped. Duke could see the stitching in Batman’s glove, barely two inches in front of his face. “What,” Batman said, “did you just call me.”
“You’re Bruce Wayne. Batman. You took me in, I work with you. You’re my-” Not dad. Not when Duke already had a dad, not when Duke was just waiting for a way to help his parents get better. “...family.” He said. Then, stronger: “We’re family. There are eight of us; you, me. Agent A. Nightwing, Red Hood, Black Bat. Red Robin and Robin. I don’t know if you remember them.” He took a deep breath, encouraged by the fact that Bruce’s fist dropped from its immediate threat, and continued. “I don’t even know if you are my Bruce, much less if we exist here or not. This isn’t the world I know,” he said, shaking his head. “My Batman wouldn’t do this. You’re not him, and I’m not where I belong.”
Batman finally, finally, withdrew his fist, backing off just the barest bit. “You fight like me.”
“You trained me. We still train together, and with the others, too. You said it was important that we keep evolving, that we never get complacent with how we fight because complacency is going to be first in line of what kills us.”
And Bruce–flinched. There was no other word for it, the way he tensed suddenly, drawing back even if it was just a few millimeters. It was unsettling. Duke had never known Bruce to be anything but a paragon of self control. This was a display of anything but that, and it felt wrong .
“Batman?” A small voice called out from deeper into the Batcave.
“Robin, stay back!” Bruce warned gruffly. But the kid dressed in the iconic red, green, and yellow uniform ignored the orders and stepped just into the edge of sight. Duke stared. He was dying of curiosity to know who would be the Robin for a Batman who was this darker, more violent version of what Batman should be. He took in the cowlick at the front and center of the kid’s hairline, the snub nose, the shape of the jaw just beginning to emerge from underneath the baby fat, and there was just no way, it couldn’t be-
The world went blurry as Duke was whirled around suddenly, shoved back as Batman put himself in between Duke and Tim, blocking Duke’s view of the tiny, young version of his older brother.
Duke leaned over to try to catch a glimpse of Tim. Bruce’s bulk, made even wider by the Batman armor, was hard to see around, especially as Bruce shifted to keep Tim out of sight, but Duke caught another glimpse of him, confirming that yes, that really was Tim, and yeah, he was about the size and age of a middle schooler.
“...what year is it?” Duke asked faintly.
Bruce’s eyes narrowed.
“Are you trying to say you’re from a different time?” He sounded skeptical.
Duke, despite himself, threw him an offended look. “You go off traipsing into space fighting aliens and extradimensional monsters all the time with the Justice League, but time travel is too much for you? Seriously? I know the Flashes have already established that they can do time travel.”
Tim piped up from behind Bruce. His voice was so much higher than Duke was used to, and it cracked twice. “Time travel’s just a lot less likely than alternate dimensions. As long as you discount the Flashes,” he added. “They’re more of an anomaly than the norm.”
Bruce continued glaring at Duke. “We’re running some tests.”
Throwing up his arms in exasperation, Duke said, “At least we’re getting somewhere. We can do whatever tests you need to, but I need to get back to my Batman, because you’re definitely not him. This place is so weird,” he grumbled under his breath, trying to calm his pounding heart down. It wasn’t really working, but who could blame him? He was supposed to be closing a case right now, not here . Wherever “here” was.
“You’re free to leave Gotham,” Batman said, half dry and all threatening, apparently deciding that Duke wasn’t lying to him when he said he wasn’t dangerous to them, but still actively hostile. Duke’s skin crawled. He probably wanted Duke to take him up on that so he’d have an excuse to pound him into the ground. There was no way he was going to turn his back on his enemy; that was one of the first things Bruce taught him.
He sighed, the exhale coming out just a little shaky. Batman could probably detect that he wasn’t going to attack them through some ninja method of reading body language or something, but still wasn’t going to relax the clear animosity he held for Duke. No one could detect lies from the rest of the family like Bruce could – with the obvious exception of Cass, who was hands down the best – so he had to know Duke wouldn’t even try to hurt them (much less actually be able to). And still Duke was being held at metaphorical gunpoint. Suddenly exhausted, Duke looked at this aggressive, violent, and unreadable Batman, and found himself wishing that Cass had gotten sucked into wherever he was with him.
Any one of his newfound siblings would have been nice, honestly. Just to not feel so out of place, or so alone in what should have been a familiar environment. What should have been home .
“Let’s just get these tests done and hopefully we can figure out how to get me back to my own Bruce and Tim,” Duke said, stepping towards Batman and Robin. Batman tensed, and subtly slid himself in between Duke and Robin. Duke groaned.
“Are you serious, B? I thought we already established that I’m a friendly. I’m not going to do anything to Tim. I am so glad that you’re not like this with me, I think I’d go crazy and rather take my chances being trained by Red Hood.”
Bruce swept forward, stalking further into the cave. “Robin, upstairs. Now.” He looked back at Duke. “And you, follow me. If you touch anything, I will not hesitate to treat you as a hostile. Consider this your only warning.”
Tim vanished into the dim lighting of the cave, heading towards the stairs, Duke assumed. He knew that some of the others would chafe under Batman’s orders, but this Batman’s voice didn’t allow for any of the pushback that his own Bruce usually tolerated to an extent. He wouldn’t disobey a Batman like this if he were Tim either.
But he wasn’t Tim, and he was really sick of being treated like a threat in his own home. He gathered up his irritation, letting it briefly overtake his anxieties. This was uncharted territory for him, but he wasn’t just going to take it lying down.
“I’m not ‘you.’ It’s Duke Thomas, or the Signal,” Duke snapped, standing his ground. “You’re not the only one here who knows this place, or Gotham, like the back of your own hand. I’m asking for your help because it’ll get me out of here faster, which is something that we’re both interested in.”
He stood proud as Batman turned to face him. “Gotham is mine, too, and you might have been the one to teach me what I know about defending it, but make no mistake, the ‘you’ that taught me? He’s the better you. So I guess we just have to figure out where I measure up, and from where I’m standing, it’s not looking good for you.” Duke pointedly wiped at the blood trickling down from a cut on his cheek.
Batman’s face darkened, a snarl just making itself visible under the façade of his control. “You are no ally of mine. Gotham isn’t for those who have only ever played at being hero,” he spat out. “What you are is some kid who thinks he knows what sacrifice looks like.”
“You can’t tell me anything I haven’t already thought. I have my own share of sacrifice and loss, but you’re right that sometimes I look at what the people I fight alongside have faced, and it feels like it’s only a drop in the ocean compared to what they experienced. It’s just too bad for you that Batman has come up with any argument you could have come up with even if you did know what I’ve gone through.”
Head held high, Duke strode forward, past Batman and towards the medbay. Long used to Batman’s procedures and paranoia, Duke first disarmed himself, stripping himself of his utility belt, his escrima sticks, and released some of the catches in his suit, ones that he knew were mirrored in Batman’s armor, that revealed small tools. Placing all his weapons to one side of the medical tray that waited next to the bed, he then gathered all the necessary equipment and settled onto the familiar hospital bed, taking all the needed blood, skin, and saliva samples himself.
Batman didn’t say anything. He just stared at Duke impassively as he finished taking the samples and put them on the other side of the tray. Duke waited for Batman to take them. He knew full well that Batman wouldn’t trust him to run the tests himself in this world, and he’d done enough pushing for today.
Bruce grabbed the tray, samples and weapons both, and turned to the door. He showed his back to Duke for the first time. Duke knew it was less a sign of trust than it was a sign of knowing their respective strengths and capabilities, but. It was a start.
Batman couldn’t see him and it wasn’t a request, but Duke nodded anyway.
He sat a little more than three hours while Batman was running the tests, left with nothing to do but watch the clock on the medbay wall tick with each passing second. There was a heaviness in his bones that was weighing him down now that the initial shot of adrenaline had worn off.
Duke slumped forward.
Slowly, aching, his hands came up and scrubbed at his face, pulling his helmet up and off. A tiny part of him had hoped that it was going to be a quick thing. That there’d be a time limit, and once he’d been away from his own world for ten, fifteen minutes, he’d be swallowed by that blinding white light again and plunked right back down from where he had disappeared from.
But three hours and forty eight minutes. That was how long he’d been here.
Duke let out a humorless laugh. He should have figured that it wasn’t going to be so easy. It never really was, not for any of their family; the universe just liked to put them all through the wringer, like it had a personal vendetta against anyone who’d taken up the bat symbol. That there was even protocol for interdimensional travel and time travel was testament to that. He knew full well that he wasn’t the first to be transported somewhere other than the time or place he belonged, and Duke knew that definitely wouldn’t be the last, either.
He forced his breath out through his nose and leaned back to stare up at the bright, sterile lights in the ceiling instead, fingers clutching at the helmet resting in his lap for something solid to ground him. It made the hot itch behind his eyes burn a little less, and gave him something to focus on other than the stones that weighed heavy in his stomach.
He was here now. The only thing he could do was try to find a way home, and he would. There was no other option.
A flash of movement just outside the medbay doors caught Duke’s attention, and he glanced over to the entrance.
Batman filled the whole doorway, making the room seem smaller than it had just a minute ago. Sometimes Duke forgot how intimidating Bruce could be, why he could terrify criminals with just his name. It was easy to forget, when Bruce always softened around Duke and the others, shoulders relaxing, any tenseness he’d been carrying easing from his posture when he turned to them in the private moments in their own space.
This Bruce carried himself like he was a spring being wound as tight as it could be, but a spring would either release the tension or break. Duke knew that Batman wasn’t the type to do either.
Batman stood there, cowl still up and expression inscrutable, just looking at Duke. After several seconds of silence, he stalked into the room, grasping a sheaf of papers tightly in his hand but he made no move to read them, or hand them off to Duke so he could read them.
He was still just… staring. Right at Duke’s exposed face.
Duke shifted under the full intensity of Batman’s glare.
“You’re young.” The words came unexpectedly, and caught Duke off guard. That was not what he’d been expecting. His brows furrowed in confusion.
“...I’m not even the youngest?” he offered, wrong-footed and not knowing what else to say. “I’m not that young, anyway,” he added.
“Seventeen,” Duke shrugged. “Though I’ve been in the business for almost two years.”
“And your Batman let you out.” Weirdly, Batman’s tone sounded angrily disapproving and Duke was, yet again, incredibly confused. He knew he’d seen Tim, which means that Bruce had already had Jason and Dick as his partners, and Duke knew for a fact that they had both started younger than he did. Unless maybe they hadn’t been Robin in this world?
Duke made a noncommittal hum and wiggled his hand back and forth in a so-so motion. “I was already involving myself before I even met him. It was this whole Robin–” Duke narrowed his eyes as Bruce tensed at the codename “–thing, a bunch of us were involved, but you––my version of you––ended up taking me under your wing and training me after that. That’s when I became Signal.”
Batman didn’t say anything in response, just kept staring silently at Duke.
“Okay, what is going on!?” Duke blurted.
Still silence. Then, “You came from a future timeline. It’s not the same dimension as this one, but they’re very close; probably why you haven’t noticed any particularly glaring differences yet.”
“One, you totally avoided the point of my question. Two, no glaring differences? Batman, there has been nothing but glaring differences.”
Batman pulled his cowl back, revealing his face for the first time to Duke. “Bruce Wayne is still Batman. You haven’t remarked on the Batcave, which means that it’s mostly the same where you are, and that it’s under Wayne Manor, you recognized Tim, but you asked what year it was right after that, so you knew him, but he was either older or younger than you expected. However, I’ve never met you or even seen you before, which means that you’re likely from the future. The tests came back with indications of both time travel and dimension travel, which confirm it. There are differences between your dimension and this one, but not enough to be immediately remarked on, and almost all of them seem to be a factor of time.”
“You’re telling me that my Bruce was some angry, violent, gloomy bastard, and then what- became a more or less well adjusted mentor just like that?” Duke said in disbelief.
Bruce’s lips pressed into a tight line. “People change.” He turned away from Duke. “Things happen. Grief shifts your priorities.”
That caught Duke’s attention. “Grief?”
“Robin.” Bruce’s voice was clipped, like it would kill him if he said another syllable.
“Yeah?” Duke asked, immediately. He got that Bruce wasn’t talking to him a split second after the word left his mouth, and he could feel his face heat up in embarrassment as Bruce turned to him, glaring. “Hey, you have to specify! I might not have been one of your Robins but I still was Robin,” he said, shoulders drawing in defensively. It wasn’t usually something he got embarrassed about––all six of them who’d been Robin at some point in their lives still answered to it occasionally, after all. It was just hard to keep that in mind when there was a whole new Batman there and no other Robin in sight to back him up.
“I’m talking about Jason.” Bruce’s glare was even more intense now, and Duke got the uncomfortable feeling that he was missing something.
“Okay… what about Jason?”
Bruce’s expression grew thunderous, and Duke stiffened as the full intensity of Bruce's icy blue eyes turned on him.
Duke gulped. This was fully a Batman who Duke could believe was capable of killing someone. A bead of sweat dripped down his back and his jaw hurt from clenching it so hard and so quickly.
“What do you mean ‘what about Jason? ’” Bruce growled. “Jason’s dead.”
Duke’s stomach dropped out from underneath him. “I think we might have found the big difference between my dimension and this one,” he distantly heard himself say.
Bruce’s eyes narrowed again, but they were less of a glare and more like he was hunting down information. “You didn’t say anything about the memorial.”
“The glass case with his Robin suit.” The words came tightly, like Bruce had to force them out.
Suddenly, a lot of things clicked for Duke. The glass case with Jason’s tattered suit set apart from where they kept the rest of the iterations of their uniforms. The dark jokes that Jason always made that made Bruce tense up and get that guilty look on his face. The way he ribbed the others who’d been assumed dead or faked their deaths for not being “authentic.” Things were adding up, and in this case, two plus two somehow equaled Jason getting better from being dead . His throat closed up at what that had to mean for Jason, and the wall between Jason and the rest of the family, why he’d separated from everyone at some point, was making so much more sense .
“Oh,” he said simply. His thoughts were scrambled, still trying to slot everything into place.
He should have figured earlier on that someone literally coming back to life was possible. The words he threw at this Bruce earlier came back to haunt him. They dealt with fighting aliens, extradimensional monsters, and time travel. What made him think that death would be as finite as he’d grown up believing?
“He comes back,” Duke offered up weakly after a prolonged moment of shock. “If this dimension really is almost the same as mine. He comes back. I didn’t know that he was even dead, actually, nobody talks about it, but there are jokes he makes. They would make a lot more sense if he-” Duke swallowed around the lump in his throat. “-if he did actually die.”
He flinched back as Bruce struck out, grabbing him roughly by the shoulders and jerking him forward.
“ What are you saying.”
“I know him, he’s my older brother. He’s been back for longer than I’ve been with the family, and I don’t- I don’t know the details,” Duke looked at Bruce helplessly and he would have gestured towards himself if his arms weren’t trapped against his sides by Batman’s bruising grip. “Obviously. We’ve already established that this is news to me too. Reanimation isn’t everyone’s first thought and man, those zombie jokes make so much more sense now.”
Bruce released him, and took a few steps from Duke, but didn’t leave. Duke sat still as Bruce breathed in deeply a few times, wary of saying or doing something to set him off, not knowing where he stood and hating how vulnerable that made him feel.
After another few seconds passed with Bruce just standing there not saying anything, Duke asked the question that had been itching to be asked the second Bruce came back into the medbay after running the tests.
“How do I get home?” He wished he didn’t sound so desperate.
“It’s not simple. Unfortunately.” Bruce’s mouth twisted down. “Your dimension has to reach back in time and across the multiverse and we have to meet them halfway in order to open a gate for you to go back. The one upside is that with time travel, the timing isn't important. The downside is that we don’t know how or when they’ll be able to reach back; or if there will be something that inhibits finding their reach as we put ours out.”
“Great.” Duke tipped his head back and gazed at the ceiling again. He stared straight into the sterile lighting.
“I have my sensors reading for any anomalies or spikes, but they weren’t set up for this. There’s no guarantee for accuracy, and it will take time. For now, you stay here.” It wasn’t a question or an offer. It was an order.
Duke’s teeth clicked together as he fought against saying something. His best bet was to stay here and he knew it, even if it seemed like the least attractive option at the moment.
“Fine,” he said instead.
“Does him staying here mean the manor or the Batcave?” Tim’s voice came from outside the medbay.
“I told you to go upstairs,” Bruce said, not turning away from Duke to face him. If anything, Bruce became more focused on Duke, which made his skin itch with irritation.
“But you didn’t force me up the stairs even when you knew I stayed down here, which is just as good as permission to stay.” Tim smiled, coming into view in the doorway. “Besides, it’s not every day we get another vigilante thrown through the space-time continuum and they’re on our side.”
Bruce glared harder at Duke. “We can’t know that.”
“I know your identities, your secrets, and exactly where we are,” Duke said, internally begging himself for patience. It wasn’t very forthcoming. “I wear a bat across my chest. You can’t exactly get any of that without being an ally to Batman at the very least .”
“We don’t exactly know what the situation is like in the future, Signal,” said Tim. “But in terms of probabilities, you’re most likely one of Batman’s partners.”
“Less a partner, more just one of the clan. Batman trained me, took me in, and I’m one of the bats, but we don’t work side by side. I handle all the daytime stuff in Gotham,” Duke offered. “I never really worked with him as his partner like you did. Do, I guess. How old are you?”
“So I really do become Robin,” Tim noted with satisfaction at the same time that Bruce tensed up at Duke’s words.
And that left a lot of questions, especially because he was staring straight at Tim who was dressed in the traffic light colors of the Robin uniform at that very moment. “You’re not Robin yet?”
“Not exactly. Bruce wo-”
“That’s enough.” Bruce’s voice cut through Tim’s, steely and brooking no argument. “It’s best if we don’t ask any questions about the future.”
Tim gave Bruce an extremely unimpressed look, and Duke suspected that he also knew full well that Bruce himself would be asking as many questions as he felt was necessary––but only if Tim was out of earshot. It made Duke genuinely chuckle for the first time since arriving though. Tim’s unimpressed expression was exactly the same one that Duke saw him leveling at Bruce and their siblings (and sometimes at Duke himself) whenever one of them did something Tim disagreed with. The only difference was the baby fat still present in Tim’s cheeks, making him look far less intimidating than Duke’s Tim did. The side effect of Tim’s baby fat cheeks was that they made Duke want to pinch them. He’d never quite gotten to have the role of older brother (Damian was the only one younger than him, and he couldn’t treat Damian like that unless he wanted to lose an arm) but he definitely understood how Dick treated the rest of his younger siblings now.
Duke cleared his throat, drawing attention back to him. “Tim had a good point earlier,” he said. “Does me staying here mean staying in the manor or in the Batcave?”
“You’ll stay in the Batcave.”
“Quarantine zone?” Duke asked halfheartedly, already knowing the answer.
Duke sighed. The quarantine zone sucked , a makeshift place for any of the family to bunker down if they came into contact with anything contagious or unknown. It had all of the most basic amenities, including a rock hard mattress, and locked from both the inside and the outside. The outside locks were there just in case; Duke had never seen them actually used, but Preparation and Paranoia were Bruce’s middle names.
He just wished Bruce’s safety measures didn’t end up making him feel so… alone. Which was a dumb thought to have, this Bruce wasn’t his Bruce, this Bruce didn’t even know him. It was just easier for Duke to remember that when Bruce was wearing the cowl. He’d seen multiple people be Batman, and it was easier to separate his Bruce and this one when he couldn’t see that they had the same face, the same expressions.
Duke amused himself by thinking about the outcome if one of his siblings was the one thrown here to this alternate dimension instead. Imagining this Bruce having to deal with Tim, who had long since started doing his own thing when it was necessary, and who hated to be corralled, was hilarious. Even better was the idea of Cass being the one sucked into that portal; she was by far the one who was least beholden to Bruce and the most independent from him, and they all knew it. If she were here she’d probably give Bruce an ulcer because, both in fighting and in regards to strength of will, there wasn’t any way he could really subdue her.
He got up from the hospital bed with these thoughts cheering him up and telegraphed his movements as he started heading towards the quarantine zone. It wasn’t too far from the medbay for obvious reasons; it stood just slightly off to the side, a tall cube of clear bulletproof glass with a small cot pressed up against one of the cube’s walls and a bathroom, all kept behind a fortified door.
Bruce unlocked the door and waited for Duke to walk through it before closing and locking it, and soon enough Duke was sealed behind a biometric scanner, a number pad lock, and two sliding deadbolts, one at the top of the door and the other at the bottom.
He sat on the cot with the rock hard mattress which apparently hadn’t been replaced in at least four years if his guess was right about how far back in the timeline he’d traveled, and he scrubbed his palm over his face. “Well,” he said to himself after a moment of silence. “This is disheartening.”
Some privacy would have been nice, but the clear walls didn’t just mean that people in the rest of the Batcave could see him, it meant that he could see them, too.
He watched idly as Bruce pulled his cowl back up with only one glance back to make sure Duke was securely trapped in the quarantine zone, got into the Batmobile, and drove off. Patrol, Duke figured, which was actually helpful. Given that he’d been sent back through time, he had no way of knowing even the time of day back in this past alternate dimension, but if Batman was going out on patrol, that meant it was at least late at night, which narrowed it down.
The Batmobile roared out of the Batcave, the tires somehow not leaving a mark on the stone floor even as it leapt forward, having gone from zero to one hundred in almost no time at all.
All Duke could do at this point was wait. Unfortunately.
Unable to just sit there and do nothing, a trait he shared with most of his family, Duke started running through the potential scenarios of being in this alternate dimension. He sat on the edge of the cot, leaning forward, fingers folded together as he let his thoughts run wild.
Bruce–his Bruce–would come for him, he had no doubts about that. There wasn’t anything ambiguous about his disappearance, he was pretty obviously taken and not dead. The bright white light that had swallowed him up and brought him here wasn’t something they’d encountered before (unless they’d dealt with it before he was brought into the family) but it was something that pretty obviously displaced him, and they’d start trying to track him down even before they got back to the cave. Which they’d probably already done, if the linear progression of time was the same, or at least similar, between this dimension and his.
The only question was how long would he be stuck here?
He swallowed around the lump forming in his throat. He would be fine, he promised himself. They’d find him. They always found each other, and history had shown that assumed deaths, dimension travel, and distance weren’t going to stop them. Or actual deaths, apparently, and Duke was never going to get over that. Seriously, what the hell?
There was a scuff further along into the cave, near the stairs, and Duke’s attention snapped towards it. He relaxed when it was only Alfred and moved to stand up to greet him, relieved, then tensed again because right, that’s not his Alfred, even if he looked the same and moved the same and acted the same.
Alfred turned his attention to Duke in the quarantine zone, and sighed. Duke stifled a laugh. He could hear how aggrieved it was, and apparently this was something else that never changed.
“Batman has failed to keep me informed again, I see,” he said half to himself, dryly, and it was only just loud enough for Duke to be able to hear. He bit his lip to keep himself from giggling.
“Hey Alfie,” he called out.
Alfred looked at him with a sharp eye at that, taking in his slightly battered appearance and the bat on his chest. Good man, assessing before thrashing on him. Duke could appreciate that. He ran his fingers over the swollen cut on his cheek at the reminder. It wasn’t too bad, which was really all he could hope for after fighting Batman . Really, he was lucky he managed to make it out of that altercation with only the scrapes and bruises he’d received.
“And who might you be?”
Duke waved at him. “I’m another kid that B picked up, just from the future and a different dimension, according to Bruce, at least. It’s a bit complicated,” he added.
“And why are you in the quarantine zone, might I ask.” Like Bruce, Alfred had a talent for asking questions that weren’t so much questions as they were an assumption that you’d just answer. Alfred was probably where Bruce had gotten it in the first place, but the way Alfred tended to ask felt very different from Bruce.
“Bruce doesn’t trust me,” Duke shrugged, and this tiny interaction with Alfred made him feel just a tiny bit more settled. It wasn’t his Alfred, but it was still Alfred . “I get it, I’m an unknown variable, he doesn’t know my intentions or capabilities or anything, so I’m in here for the foreseeable future. We don’t know when I’ll be able to go back home.”
Alfred hummed thoughtfully, sharp gaze still focused on Duke. Threat assessment.
“I take it I don’t have to tell you what would happen to you if you attempted to escape quarantine?”
“Knockout gas, a mild electric shock if I continue to try after the knockout gas, and a brief sonic blast aimed to temporarily disorient after that. I know,” Duke assured him. Despite how weird the conversation was, it was still nice to just talk to someone who wasn’t all kinds of wrong. After Bruce had left, Duke had figured that’d be the last bit of company he’d get for the night, and that he’d be on his own for several hours.
Alfred raised an eyebrow at him, but decided that was enough for him, and walked briskly over to the Batcomputer and sat down in the chair in front of it. Duke couldn’t see him anymore because he was turned away, but his presence was soothing. The knowledge that it wasn’t his Alfred was the only thing that kept him from actually falling asleep, but the exhaustion from the absolutely batshit day he’d had set in, and he found himself sitting against the glass wall on the stupidly hard cot in a half asleep state, the occasional familiar clicking of the Batcomputer’s keyboard lulling him into a sense of security and home .
He must have sat there for a handful of hours before jerking into alertness by the sudden return of the Batmobile.
Batman got out of the Batmobile, and Duke’s eyes widened and his hand involuntarily clenched the edge of the stupidly hard mattress as Bruce limped around the car and into view. He looked… bad. Really bad. Duke had never once seen him come home like this before, and it was jarring to see the blood seeping through his armor and dripping onto the cave floor.
The number one patrol rule in the Batcave was that you always, always came back. It meant sometimes making the hard decision between continuing on your own or calling someone to relieve you. Except, it dawned on Duke, this Bruce didn’t have anyone to relieve him of his patrol when he hit a hard spot, and if this is how Bruce patrolled every night, Duke was surprised that he was still alive.
Seeing it was a little heartbreaking.
Especially with the way Alfred sighed, rising from his seat to accompany Bruce to the medbay, grumbling at him in what looked like a steady routine. The blood, the limping, it was all apparently normal .
At the rate this was going to go, this Bruce was going to run himself ragged, and he wouldn’t have the energy or the control to make the one dodge that would save his life, or have the reflexes to subdue Gotham’s many villains before they got to him and took Batman out for good.
And Duke wasn’t going to let it continue. This Bruce was angry, violent, and nowhere near the Batman he knew, but it was still Bruce. He sat back against the glass wall, closed his eyes until they were only the barest bit open, and began to plan, his eyes glowing a bright gold under his eyelids.
He spent that night sitting slumped but upright on the cot, gaze flicking around the quarantine zone as he took in all the parts and pieces of the security system, lining it up mentally with what he knew of the cave’s technologies. The version of the security system he was familiar with was some odd years more advanced than this, but hopefully he could work that to his advantage. Outdated technology was easier to get past than the cutting edge stuff, and though even in his time this would be considered top of the line security by the average civilian, it had nothing on what was set up in his Batcave.
Finally, with some idea of what he needed to do cemented in his head, he let himself doze off, allowing both his mind and body some of the rest that they desperately needed after the long and painful day he’d had.
He woke up all at once, a habit that predated even before he’d met Bruce, but one that had been cultivated to perfection after. He could hear the soft sounds of Alfred moving around the cave, and strained his ears to hear any other movements. There were none. Which wasn’t a guarantee that there wasn’t anyone else there, but it lowered the chance of it. Like all of them, Alfred walked inaudibly, but Duke had long since learned the skill of identifying his family by the rustle of their clothes.
He sat up, groaning internally at the unforgiving cot. “Good morning, Alfred,” he said through a yawn.
“Good morning, Signal.”
“Bruce filled you in, huh?” Duke asked, folding his legs under him as he sat up and turned to look at Alfred. He rubbed at the sleep in his eyes, wincing as it pulled at his cheek, the scabbed over cut vividly reminding him of the short, brutal, and terrifying fight with Batman the night before.
“He did,” Alfred answered evenly.
“What do you think about it all?”
Alfred’s lips turned up at the corner with a hint of humor, though not enough to really call it a smile. “While certainly unusual, I would hesitate to say that it’s something I’m unused to.”
He puttered around the cave, arranging and fixing things, sitting at the Batcomputer and scanning files for what Duke assumed was the latest case, though he was too far away to really tell, and he always kept Duke in the corner of his awareness.
Duke watched him right back from behind the bulletproof glass of the quarantine zone, though he was more obvious about it than Alfred was. He didn’t need to keep watch, and in the quarantine zone he was as safe as he could be from any sudden action from anyone in the cave. His skin still crawled just a little at the confinement, though. He was the newest of the family, and the least practiced at staying entirely collected when he was trapped.
He might have to show his hand a little early, just to escape the insanity of confinement, even one that offered visuals and company.
It was then that Tim descended the stairs into the Batcave, and Duke waved good morning to him, too. Tim waved back as he went to stand by Alfred, and the two of them had a quiet conversation, mouths turned away from Duke so he couldn’t read their lips.
It was much like all of the night before, which wasn’t unexpected. His Bruce had common sense rules about not engaging unnecessarily with unknown variables. It just sucked that Duke was the unknown variable in his own home and among his own family.
With nothing to do and no one to talk to, Duke sat in the quarantine zone, glancing around what he could see of the Batcave again, as he took in the visible differences.
There weren’t many, and it was only that he was deliberately looking for the little things that started to give any hint. The Batcave really didn’t change a lot, and Duke wasn’t sure if those changes were due to being in the past or being in an alternate dimension, but it made the differences that much more wrong , the uncanny valley feel of it grating and putting him off just enough where the more the looked, the more tense he felt, despite the fact that the cave really was largely the same.
The Batmobile was different, but it was one of the few differences that wasn’t making his skin itch. Bruce upgraded it all the time. The design of it was different, the doors pinching in at the tips and the hood a different shape, but those things were different last week, too. The most wrong thing about it was that it was parked in a completely different area of the cave, further away from the entrance than he was used to.
The location of the medbay was shifted slightly, which was such a weird change to make, until Duke realized that it wasn’t actually shifted––it was just about two feet narrower in both width and length than his medbay was. Which made some sense, given how crowded he knew it could get even with that extra room that the medbay from his time had. He wondered when Bruce decided to expand it, between which kids had he decided that they needed more space?
There were some other odd things that had switched locations in his time, like where all the extra batarangs and other equipment were stored, or the training mats were set out.
He sighed. Too bad the cot he was currently sitting on wasn’t one of the differences he was noticing. Duke shifted, trying to settle into a more comfortable position and grimaced when he was just left in an almost more uncomfortable one then he’d been in. At least it might change which leg was getting pins and needles. He would have gone for a softer and more comfortable option if he’d had the option, but this was Batman he was talking about. The man may be obscenely wealthy but he really wasn’t one much for creature comforts, especially not in the Batcave.
He turned his attention back to Alfred and Tim just as they broke their conversation to look at him. Duke raised both eyebrows as Tim started walking without hesitation in his direction, and his gaze flicked over to Alfred who was watching him like a hawk tracking prey, not once taking his eyes off Duke as Tim got closer.
“Are you supposed to talk to me?” Duke asked as Tim came closer, knowing that the microphone in the high corner of the ceiling of the quarantine zone would pick his voice up and project it outside the thick bulletproof glass.
“Batman said no, but Agent A and I decided that there needs to be a little more clarification than we were given.”
“As long as Agent A also listens in,” Duke guessed.
“As long as he listens in, yeah,” Tim agreed.
Duke leaned back, armor clinking dully against the bulletproof glass behind him. “What do you want to know?”
“What are things like when and where you’re from?”
“Better than this.” Duke couldn’t keep some of the bitterness from his voice. He shrugged, trying to soften his words. “Batman is… happier, I guess. There’s a whole bunch of us out there every day, we provide backup for each other, help out when we’re needed. It’s nice, even though the bickering can sometimes drive a person crazy.”
“Where do I fit in?” Tim asked, curiosity filling his voice and unconsciously coming closer to the glass.
And, well, in for a penny, in for a pound. “You’re kind of my older brother,” Duke said. “It’s Dick, Jason-” Duke kept going, self consciously ignoring Alfred’s soft inhale at Jason’s name “-Cass, Steph, then you. I’m the second youngest, but the newest to the family, and then after that it’s Damian. You, Jason, Steph, and Cass are all really close in age to the next one up though.”
“And they’re all in Gotham?”
“Yeah–well, mostly. Dick’s made a home of Blüdhaven even if he does come back to Gotham sometimes, and Cass, you, and Jason mostly stick to Gotham but are a little more flexible about where you work. Steph, Damian, and I pretty much remain active in Gotham with Bruce.”
“Sounds crowded,” Tim observed thoughtfully, a finger plucking at his lip.
“Yeah,” Duke said fondly. “It can be.”
“How does Gotham do with having a whole team of Bats in town?”
“It’s really, really good,” Duke said. “The number one rule is to always, always come back home, and having everyone there makes it easier. In a lot of ways. There’s no pulling any sacrificial stuff for the good of Gotham when you have backup who is just as good at what you do, if not better. B always made sure that we knew that, and it apparently took the others a while to get him to see it went the other way, too, but that’s the way we work now.”
“I knew that Batman worked better with a partner, but I never would have guessed he’d gather a whole…” Tim trailed off.
“Family?” Duke, supplied, amused. He knew it was unusual the way they did things, but it was still funny when people couldn’t really understand that the way the Bats worked went so much further than being a team.
“Are you guys really like a family?” Tim asked. His brows were furrowed in confusion, like he was trying to put together all the pieces he had together with all the new information he was receiving, and it just wasn’t fitting together.
“Bruce adopted most of us in some way, but a lot of it’s by choice, too. Steph isn’t adopted, and she doesn’t need a parental figure so Bruce doesn’t fill that same role for her, but she’s still part of the family in a way. Like a close family friend, I guess?”
Alfred spoke up from where he was listening in. “And Gotham crime and recidivism rates? What is the impact of Batman and the rest of you on the city?”
Duke made a considering noise. “B’s driving recidivism rates of crime way down with a bunch of the initiatives he’s created to help with the impacts of addictions, unemployment, and health issues as Bruce Wayne. There’s still a lot of crime; it’s Gotham after all, and it’s not like that’s going to be changing anytime soon, but we help keep the normal rates of successful crime down. As for the big players like Joker, Penguin, Poison Ivy, there’s still a lot of them.” His mouth twisted down unhappily. “We do what we can though, and that counts for a lot when we live in a city like this,” he added, feeling the determination for his cause and his love for Gotham rising in his chest. “We count. We matter. Some days, we’re the only thing standing in between Gotham’s citizens and a catastrophic event and we do our best to make sure that our number one rule counts for every citizen in Gotham.”
Alfred nodded, like that was the answer he expected. Duke figured it was probably comforting to get confirmation of all the good that Batman was doing, and to know that he doesn’t get swallowed up by Gotham’s darkness. Especially with how close to it he seems to be in this time, and Duke is still shaken at the thought that Bruce, his Bruce, had been this close to that edge. That he used to be violent and angry and terrifying in a way where you didn’t know if you would survive an encounter.
Everyone knew that Batman had a no kill policy, but even Duke had thought that this one would break that. Clearly something happened that brought Bruce back from that brink, but without interference, maybe he even would have.
Tim plopped himself down in front of the glass, distracting Duke from his thoughts, and reminding him of a question that he’d wanted to ask.
“Why aren’t you Robin if you wear the uniform?”
“Oh, that ,” Tim said, some exasperation filling his words. He lowered his voice, glancing back at Alfred somewhat guiltily. “It took a while, but after Jason died, Batman changed. He’s a lot better now-”
“This is him better?!”
“He used to be really bad. Bruce was really caught up in his grief, and it was making him angry and he kept taking risky actions that were putting him in danger. Gotham needs Batman, but that made me see that Batman needs a Robin, so I found him. I tried to become Robin for a while but he wouldn’t let me, he only gave in eight months ago, and said I’d need a year of training first. So I train with all the equipment, with the uniform, and I have the name, but I’m not really Batman’s partner yet.”
Duke nodded in understanding. “I had a training period too, even though I was already fighting before Batman folded me into the family.”
“I just want to get out there,” Tim said, half whine and half resolution, and Duke could only think about how young this Tim seemed, and yeah he was kind of a hypocrite about this seeing as he’d started when he was fifteen and only a year older than this Tim but wow, fourteen years old was a lot younger than he’d thought it was when he was that age. It was different for Damian, who was the youngest of them all by a handful of years, but who’d been raised for this kind of work. This Tim was just a normal kid.
Which meant that his Tim had been just a normal kid, Duke supposed. It was just hard to think of Red Robin as anything but the extremely competent and experienced hero he’d become, and Duke was having a hard time matching him up to this young, inexperienced, enthusiastic version of him.
Duke really wasn’t ready to deal with what these past alternate versions of his family were making him come face to face with.
They sat there chatting for a few more hours, Tim on the floor and Duke on his cot and a glass wall between them as Alfred continued to listen in the background. The longer they chatted, the more Duke could see the ways that he’d grow up into being the Tim he knew, rough unpolished aspects just waiting to be discovered and honed after Tim became more settled in his own skin. It was exciting, seeing a version of Tim from before he became seemingly so far above Duke in skills that his level was untouchable, like the rest of their family. It was comforting, too. Duke knew that he harbored some anxieties about never being able to reach the level of Bruce or any of his siblings, but he’d never come so face to face with the fact that everyone had to start out somewhere before they got to the level of skill and precision that all of his siblings were at.
They were interrupted by Bruce coming down the stairs. His eyes zeroed in on Tim and Duke, caught in conversation. “Tim,” he growled, eyes flashing, “I told you to stay away from him.”
“Master Bruce,” Alfred interrupted Bruce before he could work himself up. “Tim and I made the decision that they would be able to talk under the condition that I was there to supervise their conversation. Tim has received a lot of information simply by asking questions. You should be proud of him,” he said in a no nonsense tone.
Bruce’s mouth thinned, but he didn’t argue.
Duke could see the irritation in his posture when Tim turned back to Duke and continued talking, but he didn’t stop them, and Duke could tell that he was listening in, too. He didn’t let it bother him though. He refused to let this Bruce bother him.
He kept chatting with Tim, sharing tips for various techniques, talking about books that had just come out for Tim that Duke had read years ago, anything that really came to mind. Behind Tim, Duke could see Bruce, holding himself so tightly that if Duke hadn’t known better, he would have assumed he was just a well sculpted statue. Every so often, Bruce would cant his head towards their conversation, but Duke never found a pattern to it, whether it was him checking in on them over timed intervals or because they’d mentioned something that piqued his interest. Tearing his attention forcefully away from Bruce, he threw himself into the conversation with Tim instead.
Tim was the kind of person who waved his hands around wildly when he was excited, and this younger Tim was one who was so much more excitable than the Tim he knew. It was adorable , and Duke found himself matching the movements to old stories that Dick, Bruce, and Alfred told about Tim in his younger years.
The rest of the day continued more or less the same as that morning. Tim and Duke eventually stopped talking, having run out of topics to cover. Duke found himself aching for the contact after their conversation was over and Tim had walked away. He’d gotten used to the typical chaos that came with having a big family and he hated to admit it but he was kind of lonely. Bruce was resolutely ignoring him when he wasn’t glaring suspiciously in his direction, Alfred was moving around the Batcave, completing various tasks, and Tim, the only person there who’d really talk to Duke at all, had gone home to the Drakes’ manor.
Duke sighed, stretched his back until it cracked, and leaned down over the edge of the cot, snatching a pouch of water and one of the protein bars from a paper bag stored underneath it. It’d settle the rumble his stomach was making, even if the taste was bland.
This was one of the wildest situations he’d ever been in, but he could admit it. Duke was bored out of his mind. He eased back until he was lying down and stared at the ragged ceiling of the cave that hovered several feet above the glass ceiling of the quarantine zone. He really was going to go crazy if he had to stay trapped here for much longer.
There wasn’t too much to do for now though. And especially not with both Batman and Alfred within both sight and earshot, so Duke set himself to scrutinizing the security measures that he could see. It was a challenge, trying to analyze each of the systems, which were wired independently from each other, all at the same time he was trying to look like he wasn’t doing anything. Luckily this was an area where his powers could help him out. Duke let his eyelids fall almost all the way shut, hiding the golden glow as he looked towards the top left corner of the quarantine zone, where the camera, microphone, and speakers were.
Light bent around the technology letting him look at the system as if he were seeing an x-ray of it. His eyes traced the path of wires, sorting out the ones that were integral to keep it running, which would trip more alarms, and which were just decoys.
Shifting on the cot unobtrusively, Duke glanced at the door when Bruce had his back turned and Alfred was out of sight, and grimaced. That’d be the hardest part to circumnavigate if he needed to break out. There was a good chance he’d just end up setting the whole system off anyway, he thought, staring at the mass of triggers buried in the door and its frame despairingly.
Maybe Batman would see he was being overly paranoid and let Duke out?
He scoffed even as the half joking thought crossed his mind. Yeah. There was no chance of that.
He’d just have to manage it on his own if it came to it. Duke settled back down, closing his eyes for real and taking advantage of the relative quiet. There was only the brief shuffle of movement every once in a while, the familiar sounds of some of his family moving quietly throughout the cave, and with a desperate pang he thought of the background noise of his family back home. All of them, right down to Jerry the turkey.
His family would find him. They were looking for him, he knew that. As he turned over on his tiny, back breaking cot, tears started to well up in his eyes. He just wished they were here already.
With that thought echoing in his mind, his breathing evened out and he dropped into a light sleep, tears cooling on his cheeks.
Duke jerked awake, ripped away from dreams of warmth and home and family by the whine of urgent beeping coming from the Batcomputer. He was instantly alert and on edge, teeth gritting as his mind went into overdrive. That was the alarm when there was a mass breakout from Arkham and Duke cursed, his heart thundering in his chest.
He whipped around wildly, looking for Batman, but the Batmobile was gone.
He must have already gone out on patrol, and Duke felt the pit in his stomach grow, casting a sense of dread over him.
“Alfred?” he called out. “Alfred!”
There was no response. “Tim?!”
The cave remained silent except for his own harsh breathing. Duke pressed his hands into his forehead. If he could just calm down for a second , he could handle this. “Okay, Duke,” he murmured to himself. “What do we have on hand.”
He’d removed all of his own equipment under Bruce’s watchful eye, but he still had his armor. It was armor that Bruce made for him, so his past self knew most of his tricks of hiding weapons and tools, but there were a few that he missed that the Bruce that Duke knew must have developed within the last five years. Duke unhooked a tiny hidden compartment that was hidden in the outline of the bat symbol stretched across his chest and pulled three razor thin knives out.
He only had these three to work with for now, so he had to make them count.
He just had to take the security defenses one at a time. No big deal. He could do that.
The alarm pulsed insistently in the background and if it could just stop for one second , Duke would be golden. If only things in life were that easy.
“I should work backwards,” he told himself, working out his plan out loud to combat the anxiety of the alarm pounding through his head and the thought that Batman was out there, alone, and more a risk to himself than Duke had even thought was possible. “First the sonic pulse, which is… right. By the camera, and not at all conveniently near the rest of the security system which I need to take care of as quickly as possible. Okay! New plan.” He used one of his knives to rip up the seam of his pants, just above the boots. There was about an inch of seam allowance tucked into the side and while he used to think it was irritating and a waste of fabric to have that much extra seam sewn into the suit, he was thankful for it now. Cutting a length of two inches out of it, he tucked the seam he’d opened back into place as well as he could, holding the scrap cloth in his other hand.
Moving quickly, he dropped down to the floor and grabbed one of the pouches of water and ripped into it, dousing the fabric he was holding and then squeezing them so they were more damp than soaked. He tore it in two, and stuffed the two parts into his ears. His face screwed up in disgust at the wet, cold, almost slimy feeling as water seeped from the fabric, but sucked it up. It wouldn’t do much if the sonic pulse went off, but not doing much was better than not doing anything.
The door was next.
He knew that as soon as anything on that door was tampered with, an incapacitating gas would be released to knock him out. It was by sheer luck alone (and maybe a sign of this Batman’s exhaustion) that one of the other things Batman had missed was a mini rebreather built into a pocket on his hip that was usually concealed by his utility belt. He pulled it out and held it between his teeth, but continued to breathe in and out through his nose. It was a small one that would stand up to emergency use, but anything prolonged only made its period of usefulness that much shorter.
Then he set to work, eyes literally blazing with a stunning golden light as he carefully used one of his knives to start scoring a square into the metal of the fortified door frame to access the wires that lay underneath.
He’d only gotten a few scratches deep when the hiss of the knockout gas being released became audible, if only barely, due to the bunched up fabric in his ears. His teeth clamped down on the rebreather as he started to breath through his mouth alone, the knowledge of his now limited time hurrying his actions.
The knife started dulling quickly with each strike against the metal, but it worked for long enough to weaken it, and Duke slammed a fist against the door frame. He felt it start to give, just a little, and when he pulled his fist away it was bent inwards, but none of the sides had broken away yet.
He punched it again. And a third time.
On the fourth punch one of the edges broke, and he reached in and pulled at it, trusting that his gloves would protect his hands from the sharp ragged edges of the metal. It broke off one of the other sides, and he yanked at it again, roughly tugging it off a third side, exposing the wires in the frame.
The door itself was already heating from the small charges of electricity that were running through it; one of the reasons he’d gone through the frame rather than through the lock itself.
Keeping carefully away from the door, Duke looked at the wires, trying to remember which one would cut off the electricity. Right then, a wave of hot pressure rose in his ears and a painful itch thumped insistently in the back of his head. His thoughts scattered.
He cursed in his head. If he tried to slice the right wire now there was a good chance he’d get it wrong.
He thumped against the wall just to the side of the frame instead and counted down the seconds. The blast couldn’t be too prolonged, unless they wanted to risk damage to anyone who had tried to escape quarantine because they weren’t in their right mind. The security measures were just there to temporarily subdue, not to permanently disable.
Duke’s head pounded in time with both the sonic pulsing and the Batcomputer’s alarm, and he could already tell that he was in for a nasty tension headache. Finally, only the alarm was audible out and he quickly set to work, gathering his thoughts as best he could before the next round of the sonic weapon went off.
He located the correct wires and sliced through them with one of his knives. He heaved a quiet sigh of relief through his rebreather as the door went quiet and the low hum of electricity cut off. He’d still have to be careful, it hadn’t cooled yet, but that was one more obstacle he’d overcome.
Just the locks now.
He reached up to the top of the door, where one of the deadbolts was, and carefully wiggled his knife into the tiny gap between the door and its frame. If he could just try to saw into it like he’d done to the frame he might be able to weaken it enough to break.
Duke began to sweat, trying to ignore both his pressing time limit as the gas continued to release into the air and the blaring alarm. By his mental clock, it had already been eleven minutes, and that was too much, especially on a night of a mass Arkham breakout. A lot could happen in eleven minutes.
He got about a third of the way through the deadbolt before he deemed that good enough for now. If he had to, he'd just come back to it after getting the other one. He crouched down and set to work on the other deadbolt. It took another minute, but he got enough through it that he thought it would break if he shoved enough pressure against the door.
Only the biometric lock and keypad to take care of. Duke smirked around his rebreather. This part, at least, would be kind of fun. He took a quick glance at the wiring of the locks with his powers letting him see through the metal, but neither of them were connected to the wiring in the door. He’d figured as much. It was still disappointing that it couldn’t be the easier way of just cutting the wires to them and being done with it, but not surprising.
Instead, he turned back to the panel he’d cut into the door frame and started pulling out the wires and cutting them to length, stripping the ones he’d need, carefully avoiding the ones carrying the electric charge. When he’d collected enough of them to stretch to reach the lock, he connected all of them together until he had two long cobbled together wires and passed them through the gap in the door like he had his knife, only this time his goal was the much thicker deadbolts of the biometric scanner and the number pad lock.
Once he’d jammed one end of each wire into the deadbolts and was certain they were well wedged in there, he took the other ends and brought them over to his impromptu wire panel. He eyed the wires carrying the electric charge that he’d severed with apprehension. This was going to sting.
Duke cringed back preemptively even as he connected the wires. He yelped, the rebreather dropping from his mouth as the electric shock raced up his arms. Slamming his jaw shut, he held his breath before he could breathe in any of the gas and hoped that his plan had worked. He really didn’t want to get up close and personal with all the gas drifting over the ground if he had to try to find his rebreather.
He peered at the locks through the slim gap of the door, and gave a silent cheer. The locks were disengaged. His guess that Bruce would have the locks automatically retract if something cut power or shorted them out was a good bet. After all, the whole quarantine room was designed to incapacitate, not do damage, and not to permanently trap. It wasn’t really meant to be a holding cell, especially not for someone who was in complete control of themself, only as a quarantine room just in case there was a bad reaction to Scarecrow’s Fear Gas, or Poison Ivy’s toxins, or if someone had been hit by an attack that could spread through contact.
In other words, Batman had built in safety releases just in case, just like Duke had hoped.
He brought a foot down on the wire, the rubber soles of his boots protecting him from another shock as the electric charge disengaged from the lock. He backed up a few steps, then quickly rammed the door, throwing his whole weight at it. It shuddered and groaned, and he could hear the protesting of the sliding bolts. Just one more, he thought, breath tight in his chest. One more.
He took another couple steps back and charged again. This time there was a screech of metal as the deadbolts snapped in half, and the door slammed open at the sudden lack of resistance holding it back.
His head was still pounding, and he felt jittery from the electric shock, but he had to keep going. Gotham needed him. Batman needed him. Sometimes that meant the same thing.
Pulling the scrap cloth from his ears, glad to be relieved of it and shuddering briefly in disgust at the cold, wet feeling it left behind, Duke rushed towards the Batcomputer, which had automatic satellite tracking of the escaped inmates. The Riddler, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Two Face, and Mad Hatter. Five. Not the worst it could be, but definitely not the best, either. No Joker, at least.
He grabbed his equipment from where Batman had stored it when it was confiscated from him. He clipped his utility belt around his waist, patted the pockets to make sure that everything was still in place, and slid his helmet over his head. Patching the comms in his helmet into the cave’s comms system was simple, the tech integrating easily, just like it was meant to do.
“Please don’t let this go wrong,” Duke murmured to himself.
He ran over to where the extra vehicles were and mounted one of the Batcycles, turning it on and taking off in quick order. He raced down the Cave’s tunnel. He could hear his heart beating wildly in his ears, almost drawing out the roar of the engine and moan of the wind as it whipped past him.
In no time he broke out into the cool, dark air of Gotham, only the light of his own headlights guiding him as he pushed his motorcycle faster, desperate to get to the heart of the city.
The closer he got to Gotham proper, the more the gloomy, cracked roads were striped in the glow of streetlights. It felt just like it normally did, and for a minute Duke let himself pretend that he had never been thrown back into this bizarre reality five years back in time from his own. He let himself pretend that this was just a routine reaction to an Arkham breakout, let himself pretend like the thought of his parents being not only alive, but sane , and loving and just as they always had been hadn’t been weighing on the back of his mind since he’d first had the thought that he was in the past.
And then he stopped pretending, because when you didn’t leave room for bleak reality you left room for the mistakes that would take their place. Mistakes, Duke knew full well by now, drilled into him by experience and by Batman’s lectures, led to deaths.
Keeping his mind focused on what lay ahead of him, Duke took a deep breath, and tapped into police scanners.
Immediately the harsh static crackled into his ears. Calls for backup were coming from the north, east, and south sides of the city. The garbled shouts about Mr. Freeze, Two Face, and Poison Ivy came in, and Duke cursed under his breath. It was too much to hope that only one of them would be active just after breakout, but Mr. Freeze acting out right after a breakout was a surprise.
It seemed Batman thought so too. Quick reports started coming in about Batman’s arrival on the scene, the calls for immediate backup to the north end of Gotham becoming less frantic, less urgent.
Knowing that Batman would have that under control, Duke took the roads heading to the south end of the city, where Poison Ivy was.
The closer he got, weaving in and out of what little traffic there was this late at night, the easier it was to tell exactly where she was. He winced as large chunks of what used to be a bulldozer flew straight up into the air several blocks in front of him, making a graceful arc in the air before being reclaimed by gravity. The ground shook beneath him when they smashed into the ground, but he kept steady, hands tightening their grip on the handlebars.
The air was filled with the scream of police sirens that only grew louder the closer he drew. Duke sucked in a breath at the thin vines crawling up the sides of buildings; it was a dead giveaway to exactly where Ivy was. Well, at least he didn’t have to comb through the streets listening to the positions of police officers to triangulate her location. She seemed pretty settled where she was. He winced again, more chunks of shredded machinery being tossed into the air as his bike took him closer. Duke burst onto the scene, one of Gotham’s small hidden parks, this one overrun by thick vines that speared through and cocooned around construction signs and traffic blockers that had once been placed carefully to direct traffic but were now strewn around the field. Duke jerked his motorcycle to the side, narrowly avoiding the bucket of an excavator as it flew past him, launched with deadly force by a particularly large vine.
There, not far from him, in the writhing epicenter of destruction, was Poison Ivy. She looked the same as she always did, vibrant red hair coiled through with thin vines, her green skin wrapped with leaves, hiding the exact positioning of her body in the mass of greenery she stood on top of.
Her attention snapped towards him, the noise of the Batcycle signaling his entrance, and the police, seeing a bat was on the scene, backed off, dragging their wounded with them. Ivy raised an arm towards him, and Duke leaped off the motorcycle at the last possible second, the ground underneath the bike being swallowed by the roots of the park’s trees which reached further up and wrapped around the bike itself. He vaulted over the various thin, flexible branches that wove around him like a particularly deadly net, trying to ensnare him.
“And who are you supposed to be?” Poison Ivy said coldly. Her attack against him didn’t waver.
Duke grinned, baring his teeth, eyes blazing as he saw the path each vine, each branch, each root would take, and neatly flipped, jumped, and leaped over each one in quick succession. “Wouldn’t it be too easy if I just told you?”
He kept his gaze towards Poison Ivy. Getting to her was his goal. Any ranged attacks he could pull off would be entirely useless against her with her vines there as a shield, so he had to bring the fight to her.
“You just got out of Arkham; I can’t imagine you’re so ready for another stint!” he shouted to her, subtly digging for information. If that failed, a good bet was to press at what made her so angry in the first place. It was dangerous, and reckless, but she tended to get short sighted when she was furious, and with how powerful she was, it was sometimes the best option available.
He thought he had a good guess at what it was anyway. The ground was torn up by the plants, but there was a larger field of destruction that was clearly intentional. And with the construction signage and heavy machinery, it was pretty obvious they were digging up the park; there was an endless amount of initiatives petitioning to bulldoze smaller parts of the city for more property, memorials, condominiums, and this particular one had apparently set their sights on the park. There was always a fight against it on the public level, but it seemed that Poison Ivy was making that a more literal fight than Duke bet whoever was driving the initiative expected, and with a lot more vengeance and anger than the people of Gotham could bring to it.
Each careful step Duke took forward had him taking two steps back to avoid the razor thin vines aiming for his throat, the bright yellow of his suit making him an easy target in Gotham’s gloom.
Despite his advantage with seeing where the plants would be, he couldn’t get away from them all. A thin branch snagged his foot, jolting him backwards. He lost his balance, stumbling back, arms flung out to gain some semblance of balance, or at least a brace against the ground.
He needed neither, the vines drawing him up into the air. He dangled there upside down, jerked back and forth, his face growing hot with the sudden rush of blood to his head as the vines brought him closer to Poison Ivy. Her lip curled in disgust as she scrutinized him, her glare focusing on the bat on his armor for just a second longer than the rest of him.
“Batman picked up another one of you?”
“Eh.” Duke moved his hand back and forth, in a so-so motion as he swung upside down like a pendulum. His head was pounding, but he grinned winningly at her through the bloodrush. “It’s complicated. I’d tell you about it, but I’m a bit tied up at the moment.” With his other hand, just out of Ivy’s sight, he released a catch on his utility belt, letting gravity drop a batarang into his grasp.
Moving quickly, he lurched upwards, towards where the vine was wrapped around his foot, and sliced through it in one smooth motion. He started falling headfirst as soon as it was severed, and there was an instinctual moment where his heart was in his throat. A split second before hitting the ground, he twisted his feet under him and landed solidly.
It gave him enough stability to leap forward, and he tumbled forward, rolling easily from a somersault to a low, ready crouch. It was just in time, too. The ground just behind him crumbled as several thick tree roots shot up and out it. They writhed in a roiling mass as Poison Ivy screamed in rage, furious at the damage done to the plants.
“You’re just like the disgusting humans who were going to tear up these innocent plants for their own selfish desires. Degenerates like you who don’t respect the only precious lives on this planet deserve to get a taste of your own contempt!” She flung her hand out, a silent command to her plants. Several roots that had been laying dormant at her feet burst forward, kicking up dust and rubble, providing a small smokescreen for themselves. Duke trained his eyes on the dust cloud nervously.
Before, Poison Ivy had seen him as largely just a nuisance who was in her way. Now though, Duke had no doubts that she now directed the full wrath of her fury on him, regardless of how much or little of a threat she thought he was to her.
He grimaced and swallowed back the thin twist of apprehension that was rising in the back of his throat. While the best way to make her slip up was to make her angry, it was never fun. It always ended up with its fair share of risk, that was for sure.
Duke’s vision flashed gold, and he ducked his head, but he wasn’t fast enough. He flinched as the pointed end of a tree root shot out of the low hanging dust cloud and the razor sharp tip nicked his ear.
“Trust me, the last thing I have is contempt for plants, especially when they’re under your control,” Duke said, mostly to himself, still slightly rattled about the near miss. Talk might be a useless thing during battle, but there were definitely times it helped him more than anything else. So, he’d always had a handwritten note about talking too much during class on his elementary school report cards, sue him.
He breathed out slowly and centered himself, keeping his gaze on Ivy. If he could just stay calm, keep his head in the right place, he could end this. He dodged another vine that flew past him.
Each step he took got him closer to Ivy. Each step he took also had him on increasingly unstable ground, a bed of roots seething under his feet, almost more of a danger than the vines targeting him at head and chest height.
He kept stepping towards Ivy, moving left, forward, right, right again. Left again. Duke hissed at the sting on his cheek as a vine whipped past, leaving a thin slice and a trickle of blood.
Each jerky movement he made had him barely avoiding the various vines and branches that were sent after him, but he wasn’t fast enough. Trying to outmaneuver a woman who had chlorokinesis admittedly wasn’t his smartest plan, he thought, clenching his jaw. But it was his only option right now if he wanted to end this quickly.
“You know,” Ivy said, voice turning from enraged to sickly sweet cajoling and Duke didn’t have to sniff the air to tell that she was using her pheromones as an attempt to lure him into becoming plant food. “There are better things you could be a part of. More important, a way to live forever, even.”
“I know you can see my helmet, Poison Ivy, you know, the one that covers my whole face? And I’m not taking it off just so your pheromones can work. I work here, doing big things that don’t involve ending up as fertilizer, and I kind of prefer it that way!” he grunted as he sidestepped another swipe from a vine.
He sank into a sturdier position, and kept his attention mostly focused on the ground, shifting his weight with the twisting roots and dodging the vines that snapped for his head, eyes still glowing brightly, his world awash in pale golden hues. He shuffled forward carefully, dancing two steps to the side and ducking as another branch went sailing over his head. This was taking way too long. Ivy looked down on him from her mound of flora, less than ten feet away, and yet her plants were keeping him too far to really do anything to her.
Duke grabbed another batarang. He tapped the top off it, three short consecutive taps, and flung it, watching as it arced towards Ivy. She kept her glare trained on him, mouth frozen in a snarl, not even glancing towards the batarang as one of her branches snapped it out of the air.
In his distraction, Duke failed to notice one of the vines sneak behind him, and his eyes bulged in surprise as it hooked painfully tight around his waist, yanking him back and smashing him into the ground, the air forcing itself out of his lungs with a cough and his jaw impacting against a rock.
He groaned. The vine unwrapped itself from around him, the momentum sending him rolling. He sucked in a deep breath through his nose and settled right back into a battle mindset, ignoring the pain of what was definitely a busted rib.
But there was definitely a chance. He smiled grimly. The taste of iron was thick in the back of his throat and he could feel his injuries slowing him down, but he could end this, and it wouldn’t take long.
Duke threw his weight back and awkwardly flipped to his feet, aching ribs protesting at the stretch.
Poison Ivy’s face twisted into a snarl, and she urged her plants faster, seeking him out as they shot towards him like missiles. But Duke twisted to the side, and danced out of the way, gracefully weaving around the vines and roots that targeted him. Any that came too close were sliced by the batarangs he held in his hand like short knives. There was always a brief pause when he cut them, only about a quarter of a second where they reared back before striking at him again, and Duke took advantage of that, flinging a batarang towards Ivy in the space between attacks.
It didn’t hit her. One of the vines that was curled up behind her rose up and snapped it right out of the air. It constricted around the batarang, which crumpled slowly, folding in on itself until it wasn’t anything more than a twisted hunk of metal.
“Is that the best you can do?” Ivy arched an eyebrow boredly. “I wasn’t expecting to be amazed when you showed up, and yet somehow you’ve only left an underwhelming impression. I’d say that you should try harder, but that won’t matter in a moment.” And with a sadistic smirk, a wave of vines welled up behind her, towering over the two of them, blanketing the whole park in shadow as it was hidden away from the closest streetlights.
“Oh crap,” Duke couldn’t stop himself from verbalizing what his every thought was shouting at him. He had to move, and fast.
He twisted around and ran, trying to put some distance between him and the actual deadly wall of plants. This technically was what he signed up for when he forced his way into the vigilante lifestyle, but come on.
Every few steps he turned, desperately whipping batarangs into the oncoming mass of flora. He could stick to the off the cuff plan he’d thought of. It just needed a small adjustment. No biggie.
Each of the batarangs found their targets. And in turn, each one of them was swallowed up, ineffectual against the oncoming wave.
“You already tried that. The least you can do in your last moments is provide some entertainment; my dear plants deserve dinner and a show.” Poison Ivy mocked, and wow, he was getting really tired of this.
Duke’s next batarang flew straight towards Ivy’s head. She ducked it easily, and it, too, disappeared into the mass of green behind her. It still felt a little cathartic anyway. He slipped his hand back into his utility belt, finding by familiar touch the tiny detonator to all his active batarangs.
Duke put a little more spring into his next steps, leaping forward into a rolling dive right as he pushed the button.
The blast sent him crashing forward, but he was prepared for it, up on his feet immediately. Ivy wasn’t so lucky. The explosions had separated her from her tiny army of plants, and she was lying on the ground, groaning.
Duke didn’t waste time. He knew how quickly Poison Ivy could recover.
She was just stumbling to her feet when he reached her. Wild eyes fixed on him and she snarled, “I’m going to kill you. ” Raising her hands once more, the grasses at her feet began to stir, but Duke didn’t let her have much more than that. He rushed at her, coming in low to knock her off balance before she could do anything more than that.
She growled at the lack of response from the plants, unable to communicate with or control them so soon after being knocked around like that, Duke bet. He wasn’t exactly one to advocate for head trauma, but sometimes a good concussion was the exact thing that turned a fight in his favor.
The fight wasn’t over yet though.
Duke winced as her fist made contact with his bruised jaw. She took advantage of his flinch and followed it up with a sudden tackle, Duke finding himself suddenly subject to gravity while his feet lost contact with the ground. Instead of fighting the tackle, he grabbed her arm and let himself drop under her weight even as he pulled her forward, and he managed to turn her movement against her and used it to throw her so she landed further away from him.
Scrambling to his feet, he darted after her, feigning a punch to her solar plexus just as she was rising to her feet. She sloppily dropped her arms to guard her stomach as a reflex. But there was nothing to guard against there. Duke struck out with a swift, weighted punch to her temple with his other hand instead, and she dropped to the ground like a rock. At the same time, every plant that had been writhing weakly under her control as she tried to reconnect to them went still, unable to be manipulated by the unconscious villain.
He sighed in relief and cuffed her quickly.
Turning to face the edge of the park while keeping Poison Ivy within the periphery of his vision, he hailed the police officers. Like how he was used to back in his time, they had stayed on the fringe of the park while he fought Ivy to let him do his job. Gotham City police were long used to Batman by this point, knowing that they needed Gotham’s vigilantes, even if some of them weren’t happy about it.
They managed to get Ivy into the back of a police car for transport to the station. From there, Duke knew, she’d be immediately transported straight back to Arkham by way of armored prison transport. It was out of his hands for now at least, and he was glad for it. He’d done his job, now he could trust the police to do theirs. For a given value of trusting when Gotham’s police department was as corrupt as they came, but at least it put Ivy back in the hands of the legal system for now.
Some of the police were staring at him. He nodded in their direction and they set back to work, securing the scene. Some of them were already leaving the scene now that the emergency had been handled.
Duke glanced around the park. The whole thing really was torn up. The construction crew wouldn’t even need to use too much of their equipment to finish the job after this fight; the ground had been ripped up, settling into uneven piles of broken land. The trees were listing to the side, roots pulled up from the ground and unable to return to it without Poison Ivy’s help. There were piles of vines, laying in clumps, completely limp now. And there– the dull gleam of the Batcycle, trapped under one of the clumps.
Duke uncovered the bike from the pile of the unresisting vines it’d been under and sighed in relief to note that it was largely undamaged. There were only a few dents and scratches, all cosmetic. Thank god. He did not want to tell Batman that, not only did he escape and damage the quarantine room, but that he’d trashed one of the Batcycles too.
The man may be richer than god, but he’d be pissed beyond belief–
Well. More pissed than he already was going to be at least. And yikes, Duke really was not looking forward to this.
He sighed and clenched his teeth. His jaw ached, the pain of Poison Ivy throwing him against the ground reminding him of its existence, but the night wasn’t over.
Batman would be able to handle Mr. Freeze, had maybe already finished handling Mr. Freeze, but the reports about Two Face were still coming in over the police radio. Taking his new found liberation to rob a bank apparently.
This was going to be a long night.
Duke set off, motorcycle rumbling under him as he wove through traffic that was due east. The streetlights streaked past him, and he hunched closer to his bike as he tried to push it faster as he closed in on his destination.
Duke’s whole body ached. He was used to the exhaustion of spending the night (or, more usually, the day) fighting Gotham’s crime, but there was just something about being in this Gotham that’s just this side of unfamiliar to him that pressed hard on his shoulders, weighing his whole body down.
But this was the life he chose. And it was still the life he’d choose if he got to do it all again. He pressed onwards, signs flashing past him as he sped through the streets leading him from the south end of Gotham to the east.
When he arrived on the scene, three police cars were spread out in a circle around the bank’s entrance, the officers standing behind the cover of their open doors, armed and ready for Two Face to leave the bank. The bank’s alarm was ringing, almost obscuring the two gunshots that rang out, the sounds echoing off the massive glass skylight the building boasted. Duke’s stomach sank. He hoped those were warning shots.
Dismounting his bike and leaving it hidden in an alley a half block down from the edge of the police perimeter, he snuck around the police undetected, and made his way to the office building that sat next to the bank. Some things required more subtlety than his fight with Poison Ivy, especially when the situation involved hostages.
Climbing to the top was easy, the rough brick offering more than enough purchase to make his way to the fire escape ladder, which was locked into place a floor up. From there it was only the work of a quick leap onto the bank’s roof and he could see down into the main lobby. Two Face had somehow collected some goons between his escape and deciding to rob a bank and there they stood in the lobby, the three of them armed and brandishing their guns in a threat to the six guards they held hostage, tied up and thrown on the floor.
Duke scanned the guards. He sagged in relief at seeing none injured or dead. They weren’t out of the woods yet, being right in the center of the lobby. Easy targets for any stray bullets if a firefight were to happen. The lucky part of it was that he didn’t have to worry about any more than six people, and the six that were there were all grouped in roughly the location.
Duke unhooked one of his escrima sticks from his belt and brought one crashing down on the glass of the skylight, shattering it. In almost the same motion he threw out the other to hook on the edge of the roof and grappled down, dropping down behind Two Face and his goons, forcing them to turn away from the hostages.
This left him open to be shot at, but it had the benefit of drawing any fire away from the tied up guards. He rolled out of the way of the bullets and charged forward, quickly dropping the henchman on the left. He was about to lunge for the second henchman, but Two Face grinned, the twisted corner of his mouth lifting up in a sadistic smile as he raised his gun, pointing it at the wires of one of the hanging light fixtures.
Which was positioned right over the guards.
Two Face raised his other hand, which held that ever familiar coin. He nodded towards the bat symbol on Duke’s armor. “I see you’re one of the bats, but since you’re new, I’ll tell you the name of the game. See this coin? It lands heads, I shoot and bring this lovely fixture down on these guards. Tails, I leave. The coin decides.”
Before Duke could say or do anything, Two Face flipped the coin up into the air. Just as soon as he’d tossed it up, it was coming back down. Two Face caught it in his open palm, and glanced down at the result.
“Hm,” he said, sounding disappointed. “Tails.” He turned the gun from the suspended light fixture towards the guards instead, an open threat. “I’ll be leaving then. The coin decides.”
He started backing away, his remaining henchman edging out behind him. Each step Two Face took, Duke took one too, towards the guards, trying to get between them and the gun pointed at them. He couldn’t make any moves towards Two Face while the guards were being targeted, or he’d risk one of them being shot, but it left him sucking on a sour taste just letting Two Face leave.
Suddenly the bank dropped into darkness. Duke sprinted the last few feet to stand in front of the guards, and kept his guard up.
He had no need to. There was the sound of impacted flesh and Two Face grunted, then the quiet sound of a cape snapping as it’s wearer moved quickly.
The lack of light was a surprise, but with Duke’s powers, it caused no obstruction. He saw Batman, clear as day, as he laid into Harvey and the goon, bringing them down with swift vehemence. He winced. Some of those hits had been unnecessarily vicious, and a few of them had been delivered after they were already out cold.
The next thing Duke knew was Batman stalking towards him, having already restrained the villain and henchman and he gulped. Batman was furious . It was easy to read it in the way he was almost charging towards Duke, and even easier to read in the set of his jaw and scowl.
Duke thought he was going to take a swing at him, too, but Batman just whirled around to handcuff the henchman Duke had taken down. As soon as that was taken care of, Batman stood up to his full height, towering over Duke, and hissed, “I will deal with you as soon as we’re in the Batcave. You’re coming with me to the Batmobile.” He shot his grapple towards the hole the skylight. It didn’t escape Duke’s bitter notice that he kept an eye on him to ensure that he was following.
Nevertheless, he followed Batman dutifully to the roof, crushing down the ache at the mistrust Batman had for him into a tiny space under his breastbone. It didn’t matter how this Batman felt about him. It wasn’t his Batman.
He stewed in the oppressive silence as Batman led him around the back corner ally of the bank, where the Batmobile was parked haphazardly.
He hesitantly opened the passenger door as Batman gestured irritably to hurry up. “What about the Batcycle?”
Batman’s lips flattened in displeasure and he growled through gritted teeth, “Agent A will retrieve it. Get in.”
“Don’t touch anything.”
The ride back to the Batcave was silent. There wasn’t any room for the usual breakdown of the fight, or the concern, or the pride that Bruce expressed to him when they worked cases or missions together.
It was uncomfortable, and Duke felt like he was going to go out of his mind with the way his thoughts were turning over every possible outcome, every action and spat word he’d have to face when they did get back to the cave. He didn’t know which one it was going to be. He couldn’t even begin to guess, and that really hit on the worst part of it. He didn’t know this Batman, and yet he had Bruce’s face and his role, and it felt like he should.
Time dragged on, going slow despite the Batmobile leaping through traffic. Too soon they arrived at the cave. Duke’s knuckles hurt from clenching his hands so tightly. As soon as the Batmobile stopped Duke tore open the door and almost tripped in his hurry to get out. It didn’t stop the fact that Batman had yet to deal with him, but it was a relief to get out of the claustrophobic space of the Batmobile with Batman’s heavy presence and seething disapproval bearing down on him.
Batman rose from the driver’s seat, each muscle visibly tensed and tightly controlled. He strode over to Duke, his pace even, his footsteps wearing heavy on the cave floor.
Duke knew it was intentional. An intimidation tactic, used by a man who walked silently by habit, just to strike that extra bit of fear home.
Batman was always a darker hero. He knew how to use fear and intimidation tactics against criminals; it was what made him so effective when he was just known as an urban legend, but that was it. Bruce used fear tactics against criminals. Not his kids.
Duke swallowed around the suffocating lump in his throat. It was good to know where he stood at least.
Batman spared a glance at the quarantine room and seemed to get even angrier at seeing the damage Duke had done to it in his escape.
Duke lifted his chin and stood proudly, squared shoulders filling out his frame. Gotham was his home. Even Wayne Manor was his home, even if it wasn’t yet in this time. He would not be ashamed or repentant. He was done with defending his actions. This Bruce wouldn’t understand him, but Duke didn’t need him to. Where was Bruce going to stick him, the quarantine room?
“Explain yourself.” Came Batman’s voice at last, promising dark threats if it wasn’t a satisfactory explanation.
Duke met Batman’s gaze evenly. “The Batcomputer had emergency reports of an Arkham breakout. I did what I needed to help. I neutralized Poison Ivy and arrived at the bank to secure the safety of the hostages before they could be hurt while you were dealing with Mr. Freeze. Gotham does better when she has more than one vigilante to defend her, especially when that one is burning the candle at both ends for some kind of self inflicted punishment.”
“You endangered civilians when you interjected in situations you aren’t familiar with.”
Duke couldn’t help the incredulity coloring his voice. “Not famil- Bruce, I have fought each and every one of Gotham’s rogues, some of the nastiest, most disgusting of them, up to and including the Joker! Sometimes by myself, sometimes with help. This is what we do. This is our job! I wasn’t just going to stand by and let people get hurt because you can’t pull your head out of your ass enough to see your own mistakes!” By the end of his tirade, Duke was shouting, the frustration and the fear and the anger he’d been keeping ticked away bursting out.
He took a deep breath and brought his voice down so he wasn’t yelling anymore. “You don’t want me here. I get that. I don’t want to be here! But I am. That won’t change until my Bruce finds the signal being transmitted out and reaches back to complete the connection to get me home.” He sighed, the anger draining out of him, leaving behind a bone deep weariness, compounded by coming down from the adrenaline driven by that night’s fighting.
Batman just narrowed his eyes. It felt different, more considering, than the anger he’d been projecting.
This was the moment. Duke could tell. He had to make his case here or be locked up in whatever extra crevice prison Bruce had hidden away until he left this dimension and timeline. No better place to start than assuaging the paranoia.
“Bruce, I got out of the quarantine zone. I could have done anything from there. I could have left the cave and started revealing your identity to your worst enemies. I could have hurt Alfred, or Tim. I could have destroyed the Batcave or changed the codes or stolen weapons or technology. But if you check the cameras, if you follow my path through Gotham, I grabbed my equipment and left here. I went into the city to take down Poison Ivy, and then Two Face.”
“I had Alfred monitor you when I realized there were reports coming in through the police radios saying Poison Ivy was being handled.”
“So you know I’m telling the truth then.”
“This could be a ploy-”
“Oh come on, Batman.”
Bruce held up a hand. His face was twisted like he was chewing over something that disagreed with his taste buds, but he forged on. “But you did a good job tonight. You’re right that you had many opportunities to reveal my identity or harm those close to me. You didn’t. You chose to help Gotham instead.”
There was a pause and Bruce pulled back the cowl. “Your story checks out. You’ve corroborated what you told us of the life you live with your actions. If you continue to prove yourself, I could be… willing… to allow you to accompany me on patrol every once in a while. You will not be allowed on your own, however. If you can’t agree to that, then you’ll remain here and your equipment will not only be confiscated, it will be destroyed.”
Duke stared at Bruce, shocked by the turn of events. He’d been half thinking Batman was going to murder him, and he got an offer of partnership instead?
“Well?” Bruce demanded.
“No, yeah, I agree to that,” Duke said, still stuck in his disbelief. He paused and squinted at Bruce. “Are you sure? You’re never this compromising when you’re being extra paranoid.”
Batman turned away from Duke to face the Batcomputer. Duke knew full well that Bruce could take him down if he even started to make a move, either as a threat or as a flight risk, but he took the show of trust for what it was, despite Bruce’s still tensed shoulders and stiffness. “I trust Alfred. He made several of the same points you did while I was en route to the bank Two Face was robbing. And he’s right.” His voice dropped into a sudden growl. “But if you even think of hurting Tim or Alfred, or betraying Gotham, you won’t have to worry about getting back to your own universe. You will be locked away in the darkest corners of Arkham.”
Duke held up his hands in a placating surrender. “Easy there, B. I know. I have no plans to, trust me.”
“Against my better judgement, I am. Don’t make it the wrong choice.”
Duke nodded tiredly, exhaustion still chasing him doggedly, but he matched Bruce’s serious demeanor. He met his gaze, eyes blazing with conviction. “It won’t be.”
He bit down on a yawn, then, trying to hide it from Bruce. He wasn’t known as a detective for no reason though, and though Duke gave it a valiant effort, Bruce still saw through him.
“It’s been a long day,” Duke admitted slowly. It definitely felt a lot longer than that, but it really had only been a little over a full twenty four hours from the moment he’d been sucked through that portal of white light.
Bruce turned a pinched look on the quarantine zone, which was now thoroughly wrecked, every lock on the door either neatly broken or shorted out. The sawed out panels in the doorframe weren’t visible from the outside, but Duke found himself thinking guiltily of them anyway.
“That’s probably not going to be usable for a while.”
Duke winced. “Sorry.”
“We’ll talk about that later. You can use one of the rooms upstairs for now.”
“Okay, I do not understand what is going on. Are you or are you not going to trust me? I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth,” Duke interrupted himself, despite the fact that was exactly what he was doing, “but I am getting so many mixed signals here.”
“Don’t mistake this for trust. Tim and Alfred are gone, you’ve ripped apart the second most secure cell in the Batcave, and I’m not putting you in the panic room, which is the most secure. You’ll be in the room right next to mine.”
Duke was already nodding before Bruce had even finished speaking. It made sense, and it was the most logical course of action when dealing with a semi-unknown variable.
Bruce had been the one to train him, and he’d only been at it for a little more than a year. There wasn’t much that he knew how to do that Bruce didn’t already have in spades, with twenty odd years more than Duke to hone it. If he tried anything in the middle of the night, there was no doubt that Bruce would be there, lying in wait for him.
It wouldn’t be his room, with his bookshelves and writing desk and photos taped to the wall next to his bed, but he’d get to sleep in the manor part of the manor, and he’d even get a real bed.
On reflex, Duke went to one of the cupboards built into the side of the cave, just to the side of the Batcomputer, and opened the one beneath the shelf of extra medical supplies. He grabbed one of the oversized Gotham Knights t-shirts and sweatpants that everyone used after they needed a little comfort after a tough patrol, and stood, turning back to Bruce.
He stopped short when he saw the perplexed and unsettled look on Bruce’s face.
He flushed, feeling the heat rush into his face and ears. Right. This wasn’t his Bruce, and he wasn’t holding the communal comfort clothes that had been stolen from Bruce over the years. These were this Bruce’s clothes.
He groaned in embarrassment and wished that his meta power was one of invisibility. Or maybe even one that made the ground swallow him up. That one would work too, he thought miserably, feeling every inch of the keen embarrassment of the situation. Being in such a familiar environment was hard when the rest of the situation wasn’t just unfamiliar, but was a hundred eighty degrees from normal. He couldn’t believe that he’d forgotten that.
“I’m just… going to put these back,” he said, slowly pivoting back to the cupboard.
“...It’s fine,” Bruce said slowly. He was still giving him that weird look, and Duke stood there, feeling dumb with the clothes still bundled in his arms, mildly panicking because he did not know how to handle it. It wasn’t like there was etiquette about what to do when sent back into an alternate past where a parental figure ( not parent ) wasn’t anything they were supposed to be like!
Bruce walked past him and went to the cupboard too, pulling out his own shirt and sweatpants to change into.
When Duke divested himself of his uniform, he watched Bruce take it and lock it away, weapons and all, far more secured than they’d been when he’d stolen them back to go deal with the Arkham breakout. Which admittedly was fair.
Batman changed out of his uniform too, and into the sweats. Duke was struck with a sudden pang of homesickness, the sight of Bruce in familiar lounge clothes making it harder to separate his Bruce from this one. It didn’t last too long, which Duke was grateful for. Bruce brushed past him brusquely, saying, “Follow me.”
Duke let him lead the way up the stairs to the actual manor part of the property, shutting off the main lights in the Batcave as they went, leaving the cave in the dim, eerie emergency lighting that was always activated when all other lights were out. They made their way into the much more homely lighting of the manor, and Duke followed Bruce up to the floor where most of the bedrooms were.
Not needing prompting or a nudge to direct him to the right room, Duke opened the door of the bedroom next to Bruce’s and paused for a brief moment.
“Goodnight,” he said awkwardly, not looking at Bruce. He shut the door without waiting for a reply. He wasn’t even sure if he’d get one.
He was left alone in the pitch dark of the room and for the first time since he’d gotten to this world, he had time to think about how he was completely, utterly alone.
Duke scrubbed a hand over his face. He’d just go to bed. Sleeping would pass the time much faster than stressing about his situation would, something he knew from ample experience. Walking over to the side of the bed, he sat for a moment, taking the opportunity to parse through the last day as he inhaled deeply, held his breath for a count of five, and slowly released it.
It wasn’t the worst it could be, he thought, hands curling in the familiar weight of the comforter. It was the one that became Tim’s when he moved in, forest green, with stitching that’s just a shade darker than the color of the fabric.
It wasn’t the worst. But it still really, really sucked. Duke sighed and pulled the covers over him. He curled up under Tim’s comforter and in the Knights comfort clothes. Bruce had bought them loose for himself; on Duke they were so big that he was practically drowning in them. The familiarity of them helped somewhat, but.
He missed the photo of him, Izzy, and Riko hanging out at one of the parks in downtown Gotham that he had taped to the wall next to his bed, or the photo with him and all his newfound siblings, all squished together so they’d fit within the frame. Most of all though, he missed the photo he had on his parents he had on his bedside table. It was a photo of them on their anniversary, both his parents smiling broadly, his mom’s dimples deepened by her grin and his dad’s eyes crinkling with laughter at the corners.
It took a while, but eventually Duke fell asleep, hand clenched around the edge of the comforter. He dreamed of being with his family–his whole family, his parents, Bruce, all his siblings, in a place where his loved ones all knew him, where he fit right in, where things were familiar and safe.
Duke woke up slowly. He blinked, which was really more of closing his eyes for a minute before opening them again, repeated for ten minutes until they stayed open for longer than they were closed.
Finally awake enough that he had to contend with the day ahead of him, he groaned and turned over. Last night’s patrol had put him through his paces, apparently, and he shoved his face back into his pillow and pulled up the covers almost over his head, starting to settle back in.
The green of the comforter caught his attention and Duke jolted upright, suddenly remembering where he was. When he was.
His muscles ached. He felt exhausted, but it was better than the bone weariness he’d been feeling the night before. It had tasted bitterly like defeat, despite the fact that not only had he not been defeated, he’d done pretty well for himself, especially with his fight against Poison Ivy.
He pushed the covers back and stretched and yawned until his jaw cracked, and ouch, right, that fight with Poison Ivy . He rubbed lightly at his jawline ruefully. That’s what he got for forgetting his injuries, he supposed.
The light was coming in through the large windows, the sheer curtains only partially obscuring the sunlight, which meant that it was long past time to get up. Probably 10 or 11, if he had to guess. At least he had no school to miss while he was in this dimension. It was one upside, albeit one contrasted with many downsides.
He swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat fully up. There was no use in getting back to sleep, not now, and he might as well find himself something to eat if he was going to be awake. He padded over to the door, yanking his shirt and pants straight and untwisting them from how they’d wrapped around his body when he’d turned over in his sleep. One of the hazards of sleeping in clothes made for a giant.
He twisted the doorknob and peeked out of the door. Bruce was standing there, leaning against the back wall, one arm crossed against his chest while he used his phone, no doubt taking care of business for Wayne Industries. Duke ached at the familiar sight.
Bruce straightened at seeing him pop his head out into the hall, and the normally warm smile he would send Duke while waiting for him was replaced with a stern, blank expression.
“Come on,” Bruce said shortly, turning around and leading Duke down the stairs. Presumably to the kitchen, which Duke already knew the way to, thanks, Bruce.
But he also knew that Bruce wasn’t taking him on a tour or making sure he didn’t get lost so much as performing guard duty. It made sense. Hell, Duke would probably do the same himself if he were in this situation. Trust but verify, and all that, except Bruce hadn’t even quite crossed the threshold into the “trust” part of that.
Duke would be the least self aware person on the planet if he tried to deny that it still rankled. This was supposed to be his home.
He followed Bruce anyway. Bruce led him down the stairs, where there should be several pictures of all of them hanging, on their own or together. The last picture was the rare one where everyone was present, from Damian to Jason to Alfred. Taking that picture was a disaster in the best way possible, one of those photos that would be labeled number one on those lists of “Top ten photos taken just before disaster strikes.” Duke stifled a grin at remembering the sheer chaos of it. It really was a picture that embodied the sheer untameable energy of the family he’d found himself a part of.
That picture was gone, too.
There were a few of Dick, and two with Jason, but other than those, the only familiarity he had were the stiffly set shoulders of Bruce, striding down the stairs in front of him. His brief good mood curdled in his stomach.
Bruce kept leading him through familiar hallways and Duke just wanted to shout I know where we’re going! at his inscrutable back. He kept his mouth shut tightly, though. He knew when and how to pick his battles.
The kitchen was the same as it always was, at least. It made sense for it to be that way; although they all wandered in and out of it, the kitchen well and truly was Alfred’s domain, and Alfred liked to keep things in consistent order. To balance out all the crazy of everyone living in the manor, he always said.
Bruce fixed them a quick and easy breakfast. It was bird’s nests, an egg fried into the cut out middle of a piece of bread, which was just another taunting reminder of being back home. Duke was tired of feeling like the rug was constantly being pulled out from under his feet.
They sat at the kitchen counter and ate in silence, the only sound being the crunch of toasted bread and the scrape of Bruce’s fork and knife against his plate as he cut into it despite not needing to use silverware to eat what was basically toast with an egg embedded in it . Another familiarity to back home. Duke stared over Bruce’s shoulder at the garden out the window placed right above the sink and wondered how much more he could take before going crazy.
Suddenly Bruce drew himself up tighter, which Duke hadn’t even known was possible, and Duke glanced at him laconically, feeling every inch of the exhaustion he’d woken up with.
“What are you doing here, Alfred,” Bruce said, voice flat in its intensity, and that got Duke twisting in his seat to look over his shoulder.
It was Alfred. Which was exactly who he expected to see, seeing that Bruce had said his name, but it was still worth it to check.
“Hey, Alfie,” he said, after carefully chewing and swallowing. He’d heard enough lectures from Alfred to know better than to address him while in the middle of eating.
“Good morning, Master Bruce, Signal.”
“You can call me Duke,” Duke offered, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “I’m not in the armor or on duty.”
Duke spared a wan smile at Alfred. It still felt coolly distant, but it was a start, and a start was what Duke needed right now.
“And to answer you, Master Bruce, I have duties that need to be attended to,” Alfred said, raising an eyebrow at Bruce. “You cannot expect me to stay away and neglect them.”
Bruce shot a glance at Duke. “We’ll discuss this later, Alfred.”
“Oh, good,” Alfred said dryly. “For now, though, why don’t I get some fruit to wash down your breakfast.” He turned to Duke, briskly, like he was all business, but there was something about it that reminded Duke of his own Alfred. “Do you have any food allergies or intolerances?”
Tears sprang up in the corner of Duke’s eyes. He valiantly ignored them and smiled at Alfred again, this time a little more broadly and a little more genuine. “No, no food allergies.”
Alfred smiled back at him, gently. Duke had no doubts that this was a man who could and would take him down in a very small amount of time, but the verbalized threat of that was gone at least and it felt… nice. A little like finding an unexpected piece of home.
The man set to work, chopping all manner of fruits and throwing them together to make a fruit salad. Scooping two generous bowls full of the fruit salad, he slid one in front of Bruce and the other in front of Duke.
“Thanks, Alfred,” Duke said, and grinned again, enjoying some of the only positive attention he’d gotten since he’d arrived. It might not last, but there was nothing stopping from basking in what he had now.
He looked up and accidentally caught Bruce’s gaze. There was a moment where he and Duke just stared at each other. Duke broke their unplanned staring contest first, looking away from Bruce’s flat, analytical expression.
Duke could tell there was something more unsettled, maybe more surprised about it than usual, but making direct eye contact with Bruce when he got that intense was always a little uncomfortable. There was one perk of dealing with Bruce though, which was that his blank expressions weren’t really that unreadable. Being able to read into his expressions was a skill that admittedly few possessed, limited mostly to Duke, his siblings, Alfred, of course, and Superman and Wonder Woman.
They were the only ones Duke knew of that could read into Bruce’s facial expressions and body language with any kind of reliability. It didn’t always work even for them, but it was a skill gained through familiarity, and Bruce being willing to open up to them all in the first place.
There was no way to figure out what emotions he was experiencing if you didn’t already know what it looked like on his face, after all.
It kind of felt wrong to be able to read this Bruce, one who would never bare his emotions to Duke, so easily. Or, well, at least easily enough, considering that it was Batman he was talking about.
While he was contemplating Bruce’s expression, Duke was well aware of the silent conversation being held over his head. The rest of them might have better luck than anyone else at reading Bruce’s expressions, but Alfred had raised the man through most of his life as a dependent. He and Bruce basically spoke their own language through half dropped gestures and even the tiniest twitch in facial expression. He knew he’d never follow both sides of the conversation, so Duke just sat there, eating his fruit and watching Bruce while he and Alfie discussed something in a way totally outside his scope of understanding. He would just wait for them to finish. If it involved him, he was sure he’d be told at least something .
Bruce’s lips thinned, and for the first time in at least four minutes, he said something out loud. “We’ll discuss this further in the cave.”
“Very good, sir.”
Duke was already standing by the time Bruce turned to him, already anticipating what he was going to say. “You’ll come with us. Don’t touch anything.”
“You got it, Bruce,” Duke said. His thoughts were already three steps ahead, thinking about what they needed to be in the cave for, though he didn’t know if his thoughts were heading in the right direction or not.
It turned out that Bruce just wanted him in a place he could control while he and Alfred continued whatever conversation they’d started upstairs. It was apparently the kind that needed words, Duke thought glumly, sitting in the middle of the training mats where Bruce had told him that he couldn’t move an inch or else .
So he was sitting cross legged in the middle of the floor, watching as Alfred and Bruce had a rather animated discussion. It felt like an argument, given the harsh set of Bruce’s shoulders and the thin line of Alfred’s pursed lips, and given the aborted gestures that were really similar to the ones they were using silently upstairs while they had a conversation over his head – both literally and figuratively – Duke would bet everything he had that it was about him.
Not that he had much. Byproduct of interdimensional and temporal travel and all.
After a few minutes of Bruce and Alfred discussing whatever it was about him, Alfred broke away from the conversation and started heading towards Duke. Bruce looked unhappy, like he lost whatever argument they were having. Duke and literally every other person who knew them could have told Bruce that would happen. When Alfred was adamant about something, he never lost an argument.
“Duke,” Alfred said, extending a hand. Duke took it, and Alfred pulled him to his feet. “There will be some changes in regards to you staying here. You must always be with myself or with Master Bruce, but beyond that, you will have slightly more freedom than you’ve had. You will remain in the guestroom next to Master Bruce’s, even after repairs are made to the quarantine room. I expect you will abide by house rules, of which,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “I am assuming you likely know the vast majority.”
Duke felt a trill of relief flood through his body. “Yeah. I think I got most of them down by now.”
“Good. If there are any differences to them between your time and this one, I will inform you of the ones you seem to be unaware of. Generally, however, I find them to be fairly simple and mostly based on the rules of common sense.”
“You got it, Alfie,” Duke smiled at him.
“Come on then, we shall leave Master Bruce to his own business.” Alfred turned away from Duke, to lead him up the stairs to the actual house part of the manor, but Duke didn’t miss Bruce tensing at seeing Alfred’s back exposed to him.
As unused to having Bruce’s paranoia pointed at him he was, and as odd as it felt to have him be so completely paranoid, even above the normal levels, Duke also knew that this was just Bruce. He always got stressed when the people he loved were in potential danger, even if they could handle themselves.
Duke would just have to make this Bruce see that he wasn’t a danger, not to them. Not to his family.
He followed Alfred up the stairs.
And, he thought, somewhat guiltily, it would be nice to get away from this Bruce for a while.
Alfred’s organization priority that day was the library, so he pulled Duke along behind him as they made their way to the many, and massive, shelves of books in their private library. The first time Duke saw the library he was shocked. The whole thing was more than big enough to be a small public library, and it looked like one too, one of the old brownstones with tall bookshelves that covered most of the space, leaving a few open spaces decorated with chairs and coffee tables for spending time in. Though it was, admittedly, much more high class than a public library, with mahogany bookshelves and a beautifully intricate carpet covering the floor.
Since being taken in by Bruce, the library had become one of Duke’s favorite places to relax when he needed some time alone in a quiet space.
“I’ll be working in here for a few hours,” Alfred told Duke. “You can take a seat in the back of the room while I tidy the library and work on the catalogue. If you wish to read any books while we’re spending time here, you may; just put it on that table when you’re finished,” he said, gesturing over to a table in the back corner, near the bank of windows in the back of the library.
“Want any help with the catalogue?” Duke asked. He knew what the answer would be, but there was no sense in not offering. He’d get Alfred to accept help one day.
“No, thank you for the offer.” Alfred declined firmly but politely.
“If you’re sure. I’ll be over in the chairs in the back, then.” He wound his way through the shelves, stopping by the fiction section and grabbing a book at random. He wasn’t really reading to be engaged with a story, but to kill time instead. Pleased to see that his favorite overstuffed armchair was still there–it was objectively the best chair to curl up in and read, so he wasn’t surprised–he dropped into it, toeing his shoes off and tucking his feet underneath him.
It was a bright day, the sun out in full force, so although the library wasn't in the right spot to get sunlight streaming in through the windows at that time of day, there was more than enough light filtering in to brighten the whole room. The only shaded spaces were those created by the shadows of the bookshelves, so Duke enjoyed the cheerful light coming in through the window behind him while he cracked open the book. It was some collection of sci-fi short stories, and Duke huffed a laugh when he realized that the first one in the collection was time traveling. Maybe he could get some tips.
He settled in with it anyway, half more out of the humor and irony of it than an actual desire to read a story about time traveling, and soon found himself sucked into a story about the youngest son of a tight knit family, struggling with the gift of time travel he’d inherited from his great aunt. Alfred’s comforting presence, made audible by the sounds of him shuffling around the library, faded into the back of Duke’s attention as he read.
The next stories in the book were just as engaging, and Duke buried himself into the story, curling up further into the plush armchair. When he next looked up, Alfred was sitting in the chair across from him, paging through his own book. Alfred noticed him looking and smiled. “I like to enjoy a good book every once in a while myself.”
Duke smiled back and sat up, letting the book fall closed in his lap. “What are you reading?”
“Just an old favorite,” Alfred said, holding up a well cared for copy of King Lear.
“‘I do profess to be no less than I seem—to serve him truly that will put me in trust, to love him that is honest, to converse with him that is wise and says little, to fear judgment, to fight when I cannot choose, and to eat no fish.’” Duke quoted. He smiled, amused. “I should have guessed that’s what you’d be reading.”
“Another fan of Lear?” Alfred settled back into his own chair for a good discussion about plays, somehow making the obscenely plush chair look proper.
“Not really,” Duke said honestly. He wasn’t going to lie. “I mean, it’s okay, but we read it last year in English and they made us memorize a scene so we could take turns reciting them until we’d basically performed the whole play, one scene at a time. You helped me with it actually. I think the great Alfred Pennyworth even almost shed a tear the day I finally got the whole thing down,” he joked.
“I can believe that,” Alfred said kindly, in response. “I always have been proud of the accomplishments of those in my household.”
Duke heard what he wasn’t saying through the semi-professional distance Alfred liked to maintain in speech. Alfred was extending to him an unsaid, warm acceptance of him into his family, and that was not what he was expecting. This was an Alfred from four years before they even met, at a time where there was still heavy grief in the family. Duke hadn’t even been in this dimension long enough to build even just the start of any kind of relationship with Alfred, Tim, or Bruce, much less a familial one. And yet, here was Alfred, accepting him with the warmth and sturdy kindness Duke often got from his own Alfred. The feeling of it was… indescribable. This Alfred wasn’t his Alfred, but he felt the same. He had the same actions, the same inflections. It felt like being accepted by his own Alfred, and that… wasn’t what he expected here. Giddiness over the acceptance warred with anxiety in his stomach over the idea that he could be replacing his Alfred with this one, but mostly he just felt confused. And conflicted. Some of what he was feeling must have shown on his face, because Alfred spoke again.
“You are familiar enough with us to the point where you almost slot right into life at the manor, if only we’d give you enough space to. Not to mention that I raised Master Bruce for several years; I know the kind of man he is, and though he’s going through a difficult time, he is a grieving man. I can easily imagine that when he is able to step into acceptance of his grief, he will once again be the man that adopted Richard when he saw him standing there, or when he came across Jason, both lost and alone, albeit in very different ways. It is no stretch to imagine that he might take on many other children. He’s already halfway into signing the adoption papers for Tim, after all,” Alfred said, an amused lilt coming into his words.
Almost as if on cue, Tim poked his head into the library. “Alfred?”
“In here,” Alfred called out, reaching out and patting Duke’s hand, as if for physical reassurance on top of what he’d just dropped on Duke. Duke warmed in the knowledge that at least one of the past versions of his family accepted him for who he was, and he settled back into his chair
Tim rounded the bookshelves, already talking “Have you seen Bruce? I was looking for him and-” He stopped short in surprise when he saw Duke sitting in the chair next to Alfred’s, and not in the quarantine zone like he had been the last time Tim had seen him.
“It’s a new development,” Duke said, with some humor. “I may have forced Bruce’s hand just a little when I broke out of the quarantine zone,” he admitted.
“So you did break out of it,” Tim said, satisfied. “When I saw the reports of a new hero on the scene taking down Poison Ivy I thought that you must have, because I knew there was no way Bruce was going to let you out voluntarily.”
Duke snorted. “Yeah, there was no way. But he needed help, an Arkham breakout has always been the kind of ‘all hands on deck night,’ and there was no way I was going to let him handle it alone, not when that means people could get hurt because Poison Ivy and Two Face were on the loose for longer while Batman took care of the others. The quarantine zone isn’t really usable for now though, so Alfred’s keeping an eye on me while Bruce does all of the things he does in a day.”
Tim walked over to him and sat down in front of Alfred’s chair with his legs crossed. “How’d you do it?” he asked curiously. “That’s supposed to be almost impossible, and extremely difficult even for Batman or someone with the same training.”
“Oh, Batman could’ve easily gotten out of there, with just a little thought and effort. He’s always been on a different level than us–than anyone else, really. But I had a little help Batman wouldn’t have access to or know to take into account. I’m a meta,” Duke said easily.
Neither Tim nor Alfred looked surprised, and Duke hadn’t expected them to.
“What are your abilities?”
“It’s all a fairly new development, but a lot of stuff to do with light. I can see the way light refracts around my environment, which can give me something almost like x-ray vision.” Duke started counting on his fingers to keep track of them as he listed them, though he didn’t mention the pre- or retrocognition. Bruce always cautioned him to never show his hand after all, and that was just as smart to stick to here as it was anywhere. “There’s also telescopic vision and microscopic vision, but honestly my control over those is… well, it’s not great, but it's, you know, fine. I can also see the whole electromagnetic spectrum. And there’s something else, an uncontrollable aspect–at least uncontrollable for now–that often enhances other metahumans’ powers when they’re around me. We have a few guesses but don’t actually really know why that happens.”
Tim’s eyebrows were raised. “That’s not like Superman levels of abilities, but that’s a pretty good range. How do you manage the ability boost for metahumans when you’re fighting them?”
“It’s not that much of a boost; it only gets really bad if I’ve been fighting them for a while, and you know one of Batman’s main things in training is how to finish a fight fast. We’ve been working on honing that in particular, and it’s helped some. It’s not usually too much of an issue though.”
“And you still took down Poison Ivy?” Tim asked, fascinated.
Suddenly embarrassed, Duke rubbed at the back of his neck. He wasn’t used to this kind of attention from another member of his family. Or anyone really.
Pretty much everyone he associated with could do everything he could–minus the meta powers–and most of them could do it better.
“You’ll be able to take her down on your own, too,” he offered. “I think you might have even gotten that down for her specifically before the rest of us did, milestones-wise.”
Tim settled back against the base of Alfred’s chair, looking both proud and abashed, and Alfred reached down to gently muss his hair. “All that training will someday pay off, Timothy. Just keep listening to Master Bruce.”
The words were encouraging, and it counted because Tim couldn’t see Alfred’s face, but Duke saw his quietly solemn expression. They all knew that Alfred didn’t really want them out fighting Gotham’s demons like Bruce did, but he tried not to let them know that as much as he could, beyond a dry remark or two. He knew that this was something they needed, something that they’d end up doing even if Bruce wasn’t there to take him under their wing.
It was better for them all that Bruce had taken them in. That was one of the quiet certainties of the world that Duke knew. For everything that Duke had gone through, at least, he couldn’t imagine doing it without Bruce being there for him.
Tim grinned. Alfred gave his head two quick pats, and got to his feet. “I have duties that I need to attend to. I’ll be moving about the library; if either one of you needs me, it is as easy as calling out to me.”
As soon as Alfred had disappeared back into the stacks, Tim plopped himself right into the chair he’d been occupying and balanced his chin on his fist over the armrest, grinning at Duke.
“I know Bruce told us that we couldn’t talk about the future, but he doesn’t have to know what you tell me. What’s it like for you? You started telling me a little about it before, but Bruce found us that time.”
“I remember,” Duke said, raising an amused eyebrow. “I was there too.”
“Right.” Tim flushed, embarrassed.
His ears were a bright red, and Duke, in all his benevolence of being a perfect sibling, decided to let it go. He could always use it to tease his Tim later, when he got back home.
“You were asking about the family before. There’s not too much to say about it, other than that they’re my family, and they will be your family, and I miss them.”
“There’s gotta be more than that! Who are they all? And how many are there?”
“There’s six of us kids, and then Alfred and Bruce of course. In age order, there’s Dick, Jason, Cass–but they’re basically the same age, I don’t think we actually know which one is older for sure–you, me, and then Damian.”
“Who’s Cass? And how’d they get adopted?”
“Cass is our sister. She’s the daughter of Lady Shiva and David Cain, and there’s a whole lot that went on there that’s uh, not really my business to talk about. But she’s awesome, and the best fighter in the family, and also the best one to hang out with if you don’t mind getting pulled into some wild schemes every once in a while. She will make you her accomplice if you’re not careful, though.”
“And Damian? And what’s Jason like, after he comes back to the family?” Tim was leaning forward, over the edge of the chair’s arm, intensely curious to hear anything DUke could tell him about his future siblings.
“Damian is the baby of the family, but if he thinks you’re treating him like it, he’ll threaten to murder you, just a heads up for the future. Pretty much only Dick can get away with expressing any kind of open affection with him.” Duke shrugged. “They bonded when they were working together for a while there,” he said vaguely. He did not want to get into the whole issue of an attitude that came from being the son of Talia al Ghul and raised in the League of Shadows who then came to work with Batman after being fed propaganda his whole life. “Dick was really the first one to accept him into the family, so Damian lets him get away with a lot.”
Tim’s got a weird, barely there expression on his face that Duke realized was jealousy . He grimaced a little. There were no stories about Tim being anyone’s immediate favorite, or settling into any really close bonds with anyone right away, because it was just fact that Tim had come into the family at the most contentious time. By Duke’s time, they’d all settled into their roles both as family and as vigilantes, but it had taken a while to get to that point.
No one said that he had to only talk about what the family was like when they came together for the first time though.
“It was really hard to adjust to having so many people around all the time,” Duke said, “because it was just my parents and I when I was growing up, and I was the last to become a member of this family, so it was kind of like going from zero to one hundred. But you helped me out a lot. The others would either get overzealous or wouldn’t care enough to slow down when it started to get too much for me, but you’d always pull me away from the main areas and we’d just chill in some forgotten corner or alcove of the manor, and you’d be doing graphs or something to relax, and I’d be writing, and it’d be exactly what I needed in those moments.” Duke reached over and ruffled Tim’s hair. “The family can be difficult, and complicated, and it won’t always be nice, but you make a pretty good big brother.”
The next few days passed much like the one in the library, with Duke being careful to remain mostly inoffensive to Bruce and spending all his waking time with Tim and Alfred. He knew that he was still under watch, but being able to spend time with his family, especially the members of his family who accepted him even though they really didn’t know him, made it chafe a little less.
It had admittedly taken some time to adjust to being back in the common spaces of the manor. Everything was just a little off, and it was freaking Duke out a little bit; he had to remind himself that all the differences were supposed to be there.
There were definitely a lot more decorations around the house than he was used to. Especially breakable ones.
He could pretty easily imagine what happened to all of them over the years.
It was easier to adjust to the differences when Tim was around to act as a buffer and as a very constant visual reminder of everything that had changed and would change, and Duke made sure to spend as much time as he could with his younger older brother. Both because fourteen year old Tim was an adorable version of Tim, and because Duke had filed Tim’s presence as family, but he was so incredibly different from the older version of Tim that he was familiar with so it was almost impossible to get blindsided by unfamiliarities when Tim was around.
So, Tim it was. Besides, hanging out with Tim actually was fun, and it felt incredibly nice to enjoy just being with someone for a while. Alfred was usually busy with keeping the mansion in working order, which left Duke and Tim to their own devices; always in the same area as Alfred and shifting locations with him, or, more rarely, with Bruce watching over their shoulders from the back of the room.
There were times where he was still so aware of where (and really more when ) he was, but they gentled under the times he spent playing games or just chatting with Tim, or gardening, cooking, or baking with Alfred. Though the reminder that he wasn’t supposed to be there came back up when Bruce had gotten angry at Alfred for allowing Duke near the food, which Duke admittedly didn’t find wholly unreasonable. Kitchens could be a very vulnerable place, and if Duke had any sort of inclination to do it, it would be pretty easy to slip something poisonous into the food. But Alfred trusted Duke because of who he was, and Alfred was not an unintelligent man. There was no doubt in Duke’s mind that if he had any plans against the family he’d be summarily and neatly executed. After all, Bruce might have a code against killing, but Alfred had made no such promises. It was part of what made him both kind of terrifying and also very trustworthy.
They’d resolved the cooking situation by Alfred firmly telling Bruce that he was in charge of the kitchens in a no nonsense tone. He did compromise a little though, and soon food preparation had Bruce joining in, keeping a careful eye on Duke.
Which wasn’t totally unwelcome, Duke thought, taking the mixing bowl full of egg whites that Alfred offered him and starting to whisk away, being careful to keep everything in the bowl. It was definitely awkward, having Bruce stare at him all the time, but even the feeling of constant surveillance that Bruce was practically manifesting at Duke’s back couldn’t replace the somewhat foolish contentment Duke couldn’t help but feel when surrounded by more of his family. Even if they weren’t his versions of his family.
It was getting hard to separate them, as time went on. The more they time spent together led to figuring that this Bruce also ate his hamburgers with a fork and knife, or that this Alfred hummed the cadence of lines from various plays while he was working around the house just like his did, or that Tim was still a giant nerd who liked to talk his head off about the various theories he had about anything and everything under the sun when he had someone willing to listen.
And, well. They were the same people. Just also not in the most complicated way to process emotionally.
Duke sighed. He was really bad at trying to detach the familiar emotions from these versions of them, and even the rest of his family would be able to tell him that, despite many of their own failings in that same area. Must be a family trait.
Bruce probably had a seventh sense that automatically oriented him towards anyone with the potential for unhealthy attachment issues that only reared their head when combined with the absolute insanity of vigilante crime fighting. It only worked in conjunction with Bruce’s sixth sense, which went off whenever there was an adoptable kid nearby who had a need to get involved in Gotham’s darkness.
Alfred tapped the counter in front of him, the noise breaking Duke out of his thoughts. He started carefully folding the egg whites into the cake’s wet ingredients that Alfred had already prepared, and Duke couldn’t help but joke about the sheer amount of it.
“Are we feeding an army or something? How much cake do you think two kids and one giant bat can eat?”
“Two growing kids and one giant bat, Duke. I’ve seen enough young men nearly eat me out of house and home that I know better by now what quantities to make.”
Alfred blithely ignored the disgruntled look that Bruce shot towards him, and grabbed the mixing bowl that had the dry ingredients for the cake that they were baking.
“Good, now hand me the wet ingredients bowl, please.”
Alfred combined the two bowls, and the batter immediately became more appetizing, especially with the smell of cocoa drifting up from it. Duke watched the batter fold in on itself as Alfred distributed it between two large cake pans and then smoothed them out.
The oven was already heated up, giving the kitchen a warm and homely feel that Duke had a hard time finding anywhere else in the manor. Alfred deftly slid the cakes in, closed the oven, and set a timer.
With the cakes done as they can be for the moment, Duke finds himself shifting his weight from one foot to the other, feeling like he’s in the way, but not knowing where to go to get out of the way. Alfred probably had more chores that he needed to do, so Duke would have to follow him as he goes about them. He’ll help him out as much as Alfred lets him, but even that would leave him just flitting around the manor as Alfred’s shadow.
He liked having things to do but there wasn’t all that much that he was allowed to do.
Like Alfred was reading his mind, he nudged Duke, saying, “There’s nothing else to do. Why don’t you go and find Timothy? I’m sure he’d welcome any time you spent with him.”
“Sounds good. Is he in the library?”
“I believe he’s in the main lounge.”
“Thanks, Alfred,” Duke said, turning to leave the kitchen. He walked out, orienting himself towards the lounge, humming tunelessly to himself. And then he stopped and ducked back into the kitchen. He shot Bruce and Alfred a look, because the frequent movements of either Bruce or Alfred that accompanied him wherever he went weren’t following him.
“Hey, which one of you is coming with me?”
“Neither,” Bruce said gruffly.
Duke looked at Alfred, and then towards Bruce, who was staring intensely from the corner of the kitchen.
“...Don’t I need to have someone with me?”
Alfred answered him. “Master Bruce and I came to an agreement this morning that you can move around the manor without a permanent escort. You’ll be allowed to visit the library or any other location you wish to in the manor without having to wait for me to be cleaning in that room or for Master Bruce to accompany you there. You still may not leave the building. Goodness knows that there’s more than enough security measures to deter even you,” he said, a hint of steel to his tone. Duke had no doubt this was the same voice he’d badgered Bruce into agreeing to this with––because even if Alfred said it was an agreement, Duke knew better. He totally chewed Bruce out over his paranoia in not letting Duke out of sight.
“You got it,” Duke nodded sharply. This was, honestly, an incredible amount of trust being put in him. Literally incredible. Duke could not believe he was being given this much freedom, especially with Tim in the manor, but he supposed that he’d proved himself over and over that he was worth at least a little of their trust.
It still felt weird to not be in the same vicinity as someone else for the first time in several days though.
He made his way to the main lounge. Tim was slumped over on the couch, head thrown back and snoring softly. There was a journal by his side and ink smudges on his fingertips, an uncapped pen lay on the ground by his feet. He must have been writing something down before he accidentally passed out.
Duke quietly made his way over to the couch and slipped the notebook out of Tim’s limp grasp, bending over to grab the pen and re-cap it before setting both off to the side.
He slipped a book off the coffee table in front of them–one that remembered from his freshman year of high school, which answered what Tim had been doing, at least–and settled in next to Tim, grabbing a blanket off the back of one of the nearby chairs and draping it over both himself and the snoozing kid next to him.
Tim shifted in his sleep, leaning closer to Duke, head nestled against his shoulder. Duke wrapped an arm around Tim, settling them both in and getting a good grasp on the book, holding it so that if he accidentally dropped it, it would brain Tim or anything.
His eyes skimmed over the words on the page, the story coming alive in his mind as he read, the quiet warmth of his brother tucked into his side quickly fading into a comforting glow in the background.
Against his will, Duke’s eyelids started to take a longer time to open after he blinked, and he found himself sinking back down against the couch until he was slumped to the side.
The book, previously held with care so it didn’t drop on his younger brother, slipped out of his tired hands, bouncing against the couch and onto the floor.
Just before he was fully gone, his eyes, trying their best to stay awake, were cracked open just a sliver, and he could make out the blurred form of Bruce, watching them from the doorway. He mustered up enough energy to feel dry amusement. He knew that, even with his newfound, Alfred-enforced ability to go wherever he wanted in the manor without an escort, Bruce wouldn’t be able to shake off his paranoia about letting him go where he liked without supervision. Bruce was way too jumpy for that. It was with that thought that he closed his eyes, neither having the energy nor the will to open them back up again, and he drifted off to sleep.
It was some time later that Tim stirred awake, shifting slightly, jostling Duke groggily into the waking world.
“Duke?” Tim asked, picking his head off Duke’s shoulder and squinting at him, voice rough with sleep.
“Mmm. No,” Duke groaned. “Sleep.”
“What time is it?”
“No idea. Go back to sleep.”
“No,” Tim said stubbornly. “I have an assignment due. Overdue. I have to get it done.”
Duke groaned, sensing the losing battle, and roused himself. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. “What if I help you, and then we both go back to sleep,” he compromised.
Tim grimaced at the school papers scattered on the coffee table. “If you think we can get it done, sure.”
They spend the rest of the afternoon going over Tim’s homework, Duke helping him catch the errant thoughts and formulate them into answers when Tim was clearly as uninterested in getting it done as possible. From what Duke understood, the assignment snuck up on him, and even though Tim had said that it was late, it wasn’t actually overdue; he’d gotten an extension on it for missing a few days of school due to being sick, but felt that if he didn’t turn it in on the actual deadline set for the class, then it’d be late, and not worth it for the teacher to grade.
Duke shook his head fondly at Tim. He always did put one hundred and ten percent of himself into everything he did. Even, it seemed, when he was fourteen, and the most important deadlines he had in his life were for keeping up with schoolwork.
When they finished and Tim had added the final touches to it and wrote his name at the top of the paper, he dropped right back into sleep, snoring as if he hadn’t been awake in the first place. Not the first time Duke would have seen one of his siblings doing something impressive while almost totally asleep, but he was pretty sure that Tim had been lucid there.
That was a kind of superpower he was envious of.
Once Duke was awake though, he was awake, and nothing could get him back to sleep. He leaned down, being careful not to accidentally shuffle Tim off the side of the couch, and grabbed the book he’d been reading earlier. He settled back in with the text, picking up from where he left off when he fell asleep with it.
He got absorbed into the book for a little while, only breaking his attention away from it when the feeling that he was being watched crawled its way into his thoughts. He glanced towards the door, and sure enough, there was Bruce again, just standing there.
At least Duke was all the way conscious this time.
He stared at Bruce.
Bruce stared back at him.
“If you’re going to come into the room, you might as well sit, or maybe start a conversation even,” Duke said, keeping his voice low so he wouldn’t wake Tim up. Not that he really needed to keep his voice down. Tim could probably sleep through a natural disaster if he wanted to.
Bruce just raised an eyebrow at Duke, but moved to sit in one of the nearby chairs.
They sat in silence for another few minutes. Half the time it seemed like the only interaction that happened between him and this Bruce was just stares and pointed silence, maybe with an extra judging furrow to Bruce’s eyebrows, for some spice.
The only sound in the room was the occasional soft snore coming from Tim.
“I mentioned before that, so long as you continued to prove yourself, I would allow you to patrol with me. Alfred believes that you have done enough to fulfill that promise.”
Duke raised his own eyebrows, surprised at the new development. He hadn’t actually taken Bruce seriously when he said that. “Are you inviting me to patrol with you?”
“Once. On a trial basis. If you break the rules I set, then you’ll have bigger things to worry about than not going on patrol,” Bruce growled, and the threat in his words was clear.
Duke nodded sharply. He could hardly believe that Bruce was being serious, but one look at his face was all Duke needed to know that he was being one hundred percent serious. Not that he thought this Bruce was one for joking anyway.
“Good. The rules are simple. You follow me, you listen to my orders, and you do exactly what I tell you to, when I tell you to do it. If you fail to do even that much, the consequences will be immediate and they will be unpleasant for you.”
And, well. The rules were clear, even if they were vague.
“Understood. When are we doing this trial patrol?”
They both froze for a brief second when Tim shifted in his sleep, snuffling quietly. After a beat where they both realized the other was trying to make sure they didn’t wake Tim up, they continued, a little more quietly than they had been.
“At the end of the week. Don’t expect anything to be happening. The streets have been quiet after the Arkham breakout and I’m not taking you on a night when I think you’ll be a liability.”
Duke felt like rolling his eyes. “I’m pretty sure I’ve already proven that I’m not a liability in the field with my fight with Poison Ivy, and I was controlling the situation with Two Face until you arrived,” he pointed out. “I have the ability to back up my right to be out patrolling.”
“You do good work alone. That proves nothing when you have to work under the command of someone else.”
Duke’s lips thinned. This constant whiplash of Batman extending even the tiniest bit of trust only to immediately go back and make it clear that he was pretty much rescinding that trust was getting irritating, but he smoothed his expression out and agreed easily enough to it. There wasn’t ever the chance of turning it down; even the few days that Duke had been here, he was already feeling the itch, needing to get back out there and do his job in protecting the city and her people.
It was almost worse than usual, because this Gotham only had Batman, and not the full team of vigilantes that shared the burden. He needed to be out there.
Somehow, Batman was willing to give him a trial. Duke would pass it, because he had no other option but to be out there. Even if he failed the trial, Gotham needed him. The only problem in that was that he really didn’t want to make an enemy out of Batman. Neither of them could afford it, not when everything was like this, the world against them both in very different ways.
This chapter's got a bit more of a graphic part concerning a nightmare, check down at the end notes for more specific warnings
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Duke was hanging out in the library with Tim, the last vestiges of sunlight creeping in through the windows from the setting sun. They’d turned on the lights a while ago, when it had gotten too hard to read. Duke was curled up in the chair that he’d claimed, Tim laying down on the floor surrounded by the pile of books he’d picked out. They both looked up when Bruce’s deliberate footsteps came from just around the corner of the stacks. Tim rolled to a sitting position, and Duke sat up in his chair, letting the book he was reading fall to his lap.
It had been a few days since their conversation about a trial patrol, but the feeling of anticipation in his stomach told him that tonight would be the night.
Tim knew it too, and he tapped at Duke’s ankles excitedly, but tried not to draw too much attention to the action with Batman in the room. They’d been talking about his trial since after Batman left after proposing it, and while it was pretty obvious Tim was a little jealous that Duke got to go out on patrol, and if everything went well during the trial, would get to continue patrolling with Batman, he was also so excited for any kind of perceived trust towards Duke.
And Batman actually taking him out on patrol was a much higher level of trust than Duke had ever expected from him.
“The trial patrol will be tonight,” Bruce announced, voice gruff. “We leave in three hours.”
“Sounds good,” Duke said, voice even. It was only once Bruce had left the library that he heaved a sigh and slumped back down in his chair. He grinned. He was finally going to be able to patrol again.
Tim sat up, staring at Duke with all the intensity a fourteen year old could possess. “You have to tell me how it goes,” he announced.
“Absolutely,” Duke agreed. “You can’t try to sneak out and follow us, though. Don’t think I didn’t notice that you were going to, Tim. I can see it in your eyes,” he laughed. “Also you left your camera in the front room. It was a dead giveaway. Bruce probably noticed, too, so he might have hidden it for tonight.”
Tim groaned. “I figured that might happen,” he said glumly. “Now that I’m on his radar, it’s almost impossible to sneak out around him.”
“You can always pick up feeds from street cameras and watch from the Batcomputer.”
“Yeah. Alfred’s probably going to be watching from there anyway; I just wanted a closer look.”
Duke ruffled his hair. “Sorry Tim, better luck next time,” he said, not without sympathy. He was inwardly relieved that Tim wouldn’t be able to follow them; it was nice to have his younger older-brother around, but he did not have the mental capacity to balance worrying about Tim and how he was doing on the trial. The anticipation was already buzzing under his skin, making him feel restless.
“It is what it is,” Tim sighed.
They both went quiet for a minute. Duke tried to get back to reading, but he couldn’t focus on the words, and had read three more pages of his book, only to actually look at the text and realize that he had no idea what passage he was at.
He closed his book. “I’m just going to head to the Batcave now,” he decided. There was no sense in waiting, not when he couldn’t focus on anything anyway. Three hours was a long time to get ready, but if it let him be in the cave and moving around, he’d stretch it out into however long he needed to.
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“Nah. It’s okay, you can stay here and keep reading for a while. There won’t be too much to do once I get down there, I’ve just got some nervous energy,” Duke said, waving Tim off as he got up and left the library.
He made his way down into the Batcave. Bruce was already there, running tests and calculations that Duke knew had to do with existing cases and not with the patrol they were going to go on. Bruce had made it very clear that this was going to be the easiest and most boring patrol Duke had ever been on. He didn’t say it like that of course, but Duke could paraphrase.
With another three hours to kill, Duke went to the training mats in the back of the cave, doing a light warmup, and running through some forms. He was careful to just do enough to take the edge off of his nerves without tiring himself out. Eventually, it was time to head out. Duke slipped his armor on and checked to make sure that his equipment was all in place. He fussed with a few of the extra things just to kill another few minutes. Finally, seeing Batman begin to get ready for patrol, he started towards the Batmobile.
And then he stopped. The case with the Robin uniform, standing apart from all the rest of their displayed suits, was just in the corner of his vision, and he turned to look at it. How many times had he passed by it without ever once realizing what it actually was?
Duke stood in front of what he now knew was Jason’s memorial, staring past his reflection in the glass at the ragged and torn suit, looking like it was tearing apart at some of the seams. And it was. Because Jason had died. Died died. Died in the way that there should have been no hope of coming back, not “died” like Duke had thought, still terrifying, but with medical care or resuscitation to bring him back from the brink.
Jason had been dead and buried.
Was still dead and buried here, Duke thought, and bile crept up his throat at the thought.
Fifteen years old.
Duke was just two years older, but he felt the weight of those two extra years weighing heavily. Fifteen was so young.
He… he’d always thought the memorial was just like all the other cases of ruined and battered armor, uniforms destroyed in harsh battles, but set aside for an improved version. He hadn’t known.
How could he have? The many jokes that most of his siblings made ran through his thoughts. There were a lot of them, most of them lighthearted, some competitive. Some were darker too, which was usually the category Jason’s jokes fell into, everyone getting a little more somber whenever he lightly said something about “being under a rock” for a few years, or when he made a “when I’m dead and buried” joke. Duke had always thought that the quiet solemnity that usually followed was just because of who Jason was, his personality, and maybe a little bit his more fragile position in the family, too.
He’d been wrong. Really, really wrong.
As he stood in front of the memorial, looking at the tiny uniform of a small kid who died, who laid in the ground with no pulse and a body long since grown cold , he thought that he understood this Bruce a little more.
Jason was just a kid. Duke knew all the pictures, saw them pretty much every day; including Jason, who seemed tiny even for a kid his age, but with a large grin that could light a city even as dark as Gotham. With a sick, unsettled feeling in his stomach, Duke’s gaze traced over every torn seam, every jagged hole and pockmark, each blackened corner of the uniform that hung, limp and motionless, in the glass case.
There was a small step, barely audible, and Bruce stepped up behind Duke in full Batman regalia. Duke knew the step he heard was for his benefit, letting him know that Batman was there.
If it had been his Bruce, he would have leaned back against him for a sense of that stable solidity that he provided to everyone he took under his wing. Duke felt unmoored without something to weigh him back down to earth. But this wasn’t his Bruce, so he just stood there, eyes tracing over the faded and burnt edges of the suit.
“He’s not dead.”
The words jolted Duke out of his reverie. He didn’t quite hear them at first, all tied up in his own thoughts, but he caught them just as they started slipping away from comprehension and grasped their meaning.
“No,” he said. “Not for us.”
Duke paused. “...I don’t know. He rejoined the family before I came into the picture, and he came back… to life, I guess, even before that, I think. He’s talked about spending time in the League before, but we. We don’t… really get into the specifics of the more traumatic stuff. There’s jokes sometimes, but none of us are the most emotionally open people out there, you know.” He turned to face Bruce, but looked off to the side instead, unable to meet his eyes. “I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful.”
“I have more than I had to go on before. Did your Bruce never mention it?”
“He did, in a way. It was early on, a couple weeks after Bruce had picked me up.” He kept his hands carefully at his sides, keeping his feelings still. Calm. Stable. “He talked to me about understanding what Joker took away from me, said that Joker had taken someone away from him, too. He talked about Jason, what he was like when he was a kid, before Joker got to him. I don’t think he ever said that Jason had been killed.” Duke smiled, bitter and small. “Given everything I’m learning now, he might have just been careful because of me. I thought maybe Joker did to Jason something like what he did to my parents.” His breath came out in a small, shuddering exhale, trying to stay in control.
He was silent for another minute.
“What happened to your parents?” Bruce said, awkwardly gentle, like he wasn’t sure how to ask what was clearly a question with a difficult answer, but knew he had to be more careful than he had been treating Duke since the very moment he arrived.
“It-it wasn’t something Joker did to them specifically. They were just regular people that caught up in it all. He did it to a lot of other people, too.” He took a deep breath. “A little while back, there was a lot of really crazy stuff that was happening, the kind that makes you wonder if this is going to be it for Gotham, even though it never is. And then my mom and dad just... disappeared. They were missing and declared dead because there was no sign of them anywhere. I didn’t stop looking though. Eventually I found them.”
His hand curled tightly, only the gloves of his uniform kept his nails from digging little crescent bruises into his palm as he remembered them, grimy and giggling uncontrollably, faces twisted in a rictus grin. “Mom and dad… they- they’re not really there anymore. Too much of Joker’s toxin that ran through their bodies. When-” His voice broke. “When we were talking, and you- Bruce brought up Jason. He didn’t say too much about it, just that he had lost his son, his family to Joker, too. We talked for a while about them, about missing them and mourning them. But Jason was still there, and he got better . He’s alive, and he’s fine now. That was the first time where I thought that if another victim of Joker had gotten better, then my parents had that chance, too. But if he died, that’s not something normal people recover from. He got better, but not from being too close to the edge. He got better because something weird happened, and that’s not… That doesn’t happen to people like my mom and dad.”
Bruce placed a comforting hand on Duke’s shoulder, and Duke felt tears welling up in the corners and threatening to spill down his cheeks. This wasn’t his Bruce, but in the moment, it felt like it could have been. They stood like that for a long, awkward moment as Duke tried to pull himself back together. It felt equally good and bad to have voiced his fears; freeing in the way telling hard secrets was, but also like the thought was more possible now that it was spoken out loud. He was scared to be right.
“I’ll do everything I can to help your parents, Duke.”
Duke startled at hearing his name. It was the first time this Bruce had said it. He managed a smile, even if it was still a little watery.
“You already are, Bruce. You built a facility in the manor for them to stay and be monitored and taken care of while a team of doctors, psychologists, and scientists you funded personally are trying to create a cure.”
“I’m glad.” Duke could almost make out the ghost of a tiny smile on Bruce’s face as he spoke, even though his face gave no sign of it. “Are you ready to head out on patrol?”
“Can I…” Duke hesitated. “Can I have a moment?”
Bruce simply nodded and turned around, walking soundlessly to the Batcomputer. Duke looked back over to the memorial. It felt weirdly real and surreal at the same time. He knew now that Jason was dead. Had been dead, for his Jason, and was still probably dead for this Bruce’s Jason.
His mind juddered and stalled every time he had that thought, not really able to reconcile this memorial for a kid, killed before he even hit sixteen, with the older version. He could only think of Jason as he knew him. Full grown and just as tall as Bruce at twenty two years old, so far from the tiny kid who would have fit into the shredded Robin uniform.
He knew that there was a reason Jason was distant from the rest of the family, knew that there was something behind the almost tangible wall that sometimes came up between them all. He never guessed that it could have been something like this.
But it made a lot of sense.
The strained relationships between them all, while at the same time Bruce was quietly pleased when Jason chose to trust them, spend time with them outside of cases and missions. Or when Jason would agree to hang out with them all for a sibling movie night.
Duke didn’t know for how long Jason had been torn away from the family, or how long he’d been dead for, but it had clearly done a lot of damage, and now that he knew a little bit of what had happened, Duke would bet anything on the fact that whatever way he came back from the dead was… rough. Though that felt like an entirely inadequate word, Duke thought, grimacing. He found himself imagining how it happened, and none of the scenarios were pleasant.
He sent one last glance at the memorial, thinking about the man who had become somewhat of an older brother to him, then slipped away to join Bruce by the Batcomputer.
“You ready, B?” Duke asked, hovering over his shoulder, looking at the info he’d pulled up on the Batcomputer. It was a lot more than he’d looked at on the computer while Duke was there before, and he felt a little relieved by the signs that Bruce was starting to trust him. As much as he respected and looked up to the man, he didn’t need Bruce’s trust, but he’d be lying to himself if he said he didn’t miss it.
“Yes,” Bruce said, rising from his chair and pulling his cowl up and over his head. “Let’s go. Make sure you stay in my line of sight if you want to keep patrolling.”
“You got it, Batman.” Duke felt warmth stirring in his chest as he hopped into the Batmobile. This wasn’t his Bruce, and it was still awkward between them, but it had been a while since he’d patrolled just with Bruce. They usually worked during opposite times of the day, and when Duke was on call during the night, it was because everyone was out for a high alert call. No time to enjoy a regular night’s patrol.
Bruce took off, the Batmobile eating up the ground underneath them as it raced through the Batcave’s tunnels and streaked out onto the street near the hidden entrance.
Batman steered them to the east side of the city and hid the car in an alley between two warehouses, the thick black paint of the car blending in with the darkness that crept around Gotham at night.
Bruce shot Duke a stern glance, a reminder of the rules he had to follow while out on patrol. Duke met his eyes evenly and nodded. He’d have no problems following the rules; they were actually pretty similar to the ones that his Bruce had set out for him when he first started taking him out on patrol, so he knew what to expect.
Batman shot his grapple, hooking it onto the rooftop ledge of one of the massive warehouses nearby, and Duke followed just as quickly. He grinned as he was pulled into the air, the wind whooshing past him, the chill of Gotham’s air settling in. The nights he didn’t have to worry about the biggest threats, when he could just focus on traversing Gotham’s rooftops and alleyways for those that needed help was the best. There was something freeing about them, he thought as they made the jump to another rooftop, the quiet, familiar snap of Batman’s cape in the background as he followed just a few steps behind him.
Gotham nights were never quiet, but every once in a while, usually in the lull of days after a mass breakout or after mass arrests of any of Arkham’s regulars, she was just quiet enough.
A scream broke through his thoughts, and without a word, he and Batman shifted directions, automatically orienting towards where the scream had come from. They vaulted over the gaps between buildings until they reached the right one.
An older, scruffy man was holding a knife threateningly towards a young man probably somewhere around Duke’s age. Batman dropped soundlessly into the alley, just behind the mugger and loomed up behind him. Duke waited a beat before dropping into the alley himself, fully visible, and there to calm the victim. He held himself with an easy friendliness, hands out so he didn’t spook him, sure that Batman had already restrained the mugger behind him.
“Are you alright?”
The frightened look the young man had been wearing was starting to fade into a startled exhaustion.
“Yes- yeah. I’m okay,” he said, glancing between Duke in his bright Signal armor and Batman, who was no doubt blending in with the shadows.
“Do you need help getting to wherever you’re headed?” Duke asked gently, drawing the young man’s attention back to him.
“It’s- uh, it’s just around the corner. I’ll be okay,” he said, gesturing weakly towards the left side of the alley’s entrance.
Duke started herding him past Batman and the quailing mugger he was holding by the scruff, making sure to stay in between him and the mugger, providing a barrier of safety. It didn’t matter that much because Batman was right there, but there was no reason to not do it. It was a simple thing and it would put the young man’s nerves a little more at ease.
Duke saw him out the alley’s entrance and watched him as he hurried towards his destination, stealing quick glances back every few feet, and then he turned back towards Batman, who was looming over the mugger.
It was always fun to see Batman do his usual routine of intimidation to petty criminals. It never worked on the worst of the lot, but for the average mugger or thief, they almost always folded the second they saw him. There wasn’t any further threat there.
Batman leaned in close to the mugger’s face and made a few quiet threats. The mugger immediately blanched, face going pale.
Duke started walking out of the alley, knowing that Batman would cuff the man and they could drop him off at the police station. It really felt like the early days of being under Batman’s wing, and Duke turned around to make a comment just in time to see Batman shove the man against the brick wall of the building they were next to. Duke froze in shock at the dull thunk that the man’s head made as it collided hard with the brick, at seeing Batman do that to a petty criminal who was more likely down on his luck and taking what felt like his last option out than anyone that had any even inkling of intention to murder or cause harm. They were supposed to arrest these people, not throw them up against brick walls!
“Batman! What are you doing, ” Duke demanded, the pit of his stomach dropping out from underneath him. He’d… he’d thought that maybe he was just starting to warm up to this Bruce, and that this Bruce was starting to warm up to him but this hit harder than anything else could have that this wasn’t Bruce. He couldn’t forget that. This was not who Bruce was, and it was not what Batman stood for.
Batman ignored him, still holding the man by the collar against the wall, and Duke winced at the red lines that were already starting to appear on his neck, his t-shirt collar pressing harshly into his skin.
Duke grabbed Bruce’s wrist, and he squeezed. It wasn’t nearly enough to get Batman to let go, but it was enough for him to glance at him. Duke almost took a step back at the anger and hate in Batman’s face, mouth contorted in a snarl and jaw set hard.
Duke held on, and tried to keep his voice even. The freakout could come later. “Let’s take him to the police. They’ll take him from there, that’s their whole job.”
Bruce’s mouth twisted down into a displeased frown, but he didn’t say anything and his grip loosened. Duke breathed a quiet sigh of relief, and reached for the handcuffs in his utility belt, moving forward towards the mugger both to cuff him and to get in between him and Batman. If Batman was going to edge more on the side of unnecessary force again with this guy, he was going to have to go through Duke, and Duke was a far better match for Batman than this guy.
The whole encounter left Duke on edge, even after dropping off the guy at the police station without any other mishaps or excessive use of force, and he took back to the rooftops, following the rules of patrol and staying on Bruce’s heels as they leapt from building to building.
He had to be perfect. He had to follow every rule to the letter.
He couldn’t risk Bruce not letting him patrol with him anymore, if this was what happened. He had to be there to stop him before he went too far.
They continued their patrol, the earlier freedom that Duke had felt completely gone now, replaced by a rigid and stretched feeling. The air that had felt so open before felt like it was stinging against open nerves. Duke stretched his senses out, letting his vision stay just a split second ahead of reality. Having his attention split between his vision in the future and his body moving in the present was disorienting, but if it got him to the next petty criminals before Batman could step in, it was worth it.
As the night continued, they ended up stopping a break in, a robbery, and two more muggers. Duke got to each of them first. He could feel Bruce’s eyes boring into his back, and he knew that Bruce knew what he was doing, but he wasn’t going to stop, not when people were at risk. The rest of the patrol went by quickly, Bruce issuing orders to Duke and Duke following them, gritting his teeth but without complaint.
Out of the corner of his vision, sharpened and visible in the dark only due to his powers, Duke saw a brief swirl of black fabric. It was there and gone again, just as quickly as it had come, and Duke cursed under his breath. Generally, shadowy and unknown figures that stalked him and tried to disguise their presence weren’t among the people Duke counted among his allies. And yeah, Duke knew the irony to that, given that minus the “unknown” part of that description, any one of the people he considered as part of his second family fit that description for at least some amount of time.
Glancing at Batman, he silently gestured towards where he saw the movement, and they immediately shifted directions, Batman still wary of Duke but letting him lead them to whatever he’d seen. It was good that there hadn’t been any hesitation. Their quick movement, on top of Duke’s slight advantage timewise, meant that even Batman, who had no enhanced vision, was able to see the black clad figure traversing through the shadows of Gotham’s buildings.
“The League of Shadows,” Batman growled. He took off after the assassin, Duke leaping after him.
They chased the assassin, managing to keep him just within their field of vision as he slipped ahead, dropping between the levels of buildings and turning corners. He’d just turned another corner, unexpectedly, and when Batman and Duke threw themselves around it to continue the chase, there was no sign. Batman’s lips thinned, and he settled himself on a nearby rooftop.
“I can-” Duke started, but Batman cut him off.
“No. It’s unlikely that we’d get any information from a League operative anyway. We can research what Ra’s might be after using technology in the cave.”
Duke nodded slowly. He carefully shoved down the tight, angry feeling still in the back of his throat where it had settled like heartburn. He didn’t need it getting in his way; with the League assassin showing up, there were clearly bigger things happening that were more important than his anger at Batman and his frustration with this whole world.
Batman led the way back to the Batmobile and they took off, heading back towards the manor.
The Batmobile screamed into the cave after a silent, tense ride, Batman smoothly pulling it to a sudden stop in its normal parking place. Both Alfred and Tim were in the cave waiting for them to get back, and as Batman got out of the car, Alfred called out to him, “How was patrol, Master Bruce?”
“It was uneventful, for the most part.” Batman answered, even as Duke watched him stride past Alfred towards the Batcomputer.
“The most part?” Alfred asked with a raised eyebrow at the same time Duke blurted out an angry “Uneventful?!” unable to hold it in anymore. The rage simmered in his stomach and his skin felt hot and tight.
Bruce ignored Duke, and turned to Alfred. “We saw one of the League towards the end of patrol. He got away without engaging in combat, but I’m going to start looking into what Ra’s wants in Gotham and why now.”
Duke stared in disbelief at Bruce. He felt like he was a million miles away, and the anger that he’d been quietly shoving down bubbled up, taking over. The words burst out of his mouth, harsh and angry, and he didn’t bother to hold them back as he yanked off his helmet. “Are you serious, Batman? That’s the only part you consider eventful. I know you’re hurting and I could tell that you’re some-” He broke off with a noise of frustration, the words sitting heavy on his tongue. They didn’t feel like the right words. They were too inadequate to express what he was feeling, the frustration, the loneliness, how absolutely out of place he felt in this messed up world that apparently used to be just like his. “-some angry, violent, bizarre version of you! I thought that maybe you still had some morals! Some integrity! That first guy tonight, Bruce, that mugger––he was just a regular guy! He didn’t have any powers, he wasn’t a mass murderer out for some fun! And you could have hurt him!”
Bruce didn’t even turn around. Duke scoffed. Of course he didn’t. He just kept working on what he’d pulled up on the Batcomputer. Duke could vaguely make out past reports on the League of Shadows.
“People like that don’t learn, Signal. That man had priors of armed assault. He’ll just get out of prison and do it all again; next time he might have a gun instead of a knife and that young man he was mugging would be dead.”
“That’s the whole point of what we do, Bruce!” Duke realized that he was almost shouting, and he took a breath in order to pause and calm himself down a little. “We arrest them, they serve their time, and we do what we can, both as civilians and vigilantes, to make sure that next time they don’t have to mug people to have enough money to pay medical bills or buy food or make their rent! We aren’t the judge or the jury for these people, and we definitely aren’t the executioners, either. I can’t even believe I have to say that to you, of all people,” Duke finished, feeling sick at how far Bruce had fallen from what he used to stand for. Where was Batman now? Where were his ideals, the ones he stuck to in order to ensure that every Gothamite was as safe as they could be?
“Don’t preach to me!” Bruce roared, rising from his seat and turning to face Duke. Duke took an instinctive step back and his pulse drummed in his ears, a sudden shot of adrenaline running through his body. This wasn’t his Bruce. This Bruce didn’t care about him; wouldn’t listen to him. He couldn’t keep forgetting that. “I do what needs to be done! This is what is stopping crime, this is what’s keeping people safe, keeping Gotham safe. You’re an outsider here, don’t think you know what’s best.”
The words were rankling. Duke kept his jaw clenched to stop himself from yelling again. “This isn’t what Gotham needs and you know it, Bruce. Are you going to throw away everything you worked towards all these years? Because a Batman like you isn’t what Gotham needs!”
Bruce growled wordlessly and stalked off, heading back up to the manor. Duke sighed. That was not how he wanted that to go. Unfortunately, he thought dryly, there also weren’t too many other ways for that argument to have taken.
He looked at Alfred, who was still standing off to the side and looking rather disapproving. Duke offered him a grimace and a half apologetic shrug. He was sorry that it happened, but he wasn’t going to even insinuate an apology for what he said.
A rustling sound came from over by the training mats and Duke winced when he remembered that Tim was down here, too. He padded softly over to Tim under Alfred’s watchful eye, all the aggression drained from him.
“Hey,” Duke said, sitting down next to where Tim was doing cooldown stretching. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”
“Why are you apologizing?” Tim asked, brows furrowed in mild confusion while he folded his arm behind his head and reached for his back. His face was so young and round; none of the baby fat had melted off yet, and seeing one of his older brothers like this was never not going to be weird. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I wasn’t even a part of it at all.”
“Maybe not directly, but you were here, and it’s kind of hard to avoid two people yelling at each other when they’re right there.” Duke sighed. “Just by being here, we got you involved in that, and I’m sorry.”
Tim frowned. “...You didn’t exactly say anything I haven’t already thought, or tried to talk about with Bruce,” he offered hesitantly. “After Jason died, he got really bad. He’s a little better now, but better isn’t enough. He’s more aggressive, more prone to hurting the small-time criminals that he used to just arrest.”
“Do you follow him on patrol?”
“Nah, sometimes me and Alfred watch the security cameras while he’s out. We did tonight, too,” Tim said, looking away from Duke to lean forward and grab the bottom of his feet. “Thank you for getting ahead of him to get to the rest of them first. Bruce says otherwise, but you were right when you said that’s not who Gotham needs, and it’s not what Batman is supposed to be.”
Leaning back, Duke pulled off his glove to rub at his eyes. “No,” he said into his palms. “It’s not.”
Tim grinned lopsidedly at Duke as he shifted into a different stretch. “You said that your Bruce isn’t like this though, so that means he gets better. That’s good.”
“Yeah.” Duke smiled back and ached for his own Batman. “He’s who Gotham needs Batman to be: a symbol of hope for those that need help, and a warning sign for those who would hurt others. And he’s there even for the people who are a little bit of both.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” Tim said suddenly.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he repeated. “Batman needs someone to brighten him up so that he can be the Batman that Gotham needs. I was going to be that, but Bruce is still training me, and I can tell he’s really nervous about letting me out there, so he’s not letting me help him. But you are. Not in the same way,” he added hastily, seeing Duke open his mouth with a skeptical expression. “But you’re stopping him from going too far, and that's what he needs, even if he won’t admit it.”
Duke nodded slowly. “I guess so,” he said. “But it’s not a permanent solution. Even if I stayed here-” His heart was already freezing up at the suggestion that he’d be stuck in this world that wasn’t his. “-I wouldn’t be the person he needed; we’d just butt heads all the time. If anything, I’d probably just make him angrier, and I don’t… I don’t think Bruce can afford that. If he keeps going like this, sooner rather than later he’s going to get himself killed. But Tim, if this is how it went in my dimension too, you’re going to be the one that helps him.”
“Who do I grow up to be?” Tim asked.
Duke winced at that, because that sounded kind of tentative and maybe putting the idea onto Tim’s shoulders that he was going to be the one to help Bruce step away from being consumed by his grief was not the smartest thing. It was true, but that wasn’t what a fourteen year old needed to hear.
“Well,” he started carefully, intent on not making any more slips. “My Tim always does everything he can to help other people out, and he’s a really loyal person.” Duke warmed up to the topic, because if there were people that he loved to talk about, it was his friends and family. “He’s the kind of person that you want on your side, not just because he’s strong and smart and will follow you to the ends of the earth if you need him to, but because he’s fun, and he knows how to make you laugh, and he makes sure to remember what movies or TV shows are your favorites to watch when you’re upset. He’s a good older brother, too, even if he is sometimes irritating about it––I think that part comes from being a middle child though.” Duke rocked back on his heels. It hurt to think of Tim as he knew him, to know that he wasn’t there, and it only made Duke feel more lonely, more detached, but he looked down at tiny Tim who looked like he needed to hear it, and he continued.
“He likes having younger siblings he can pick on, but we give it back to him just as good as we get, and that sometimes starts out a competition that lasts for weeks! He’s really competitive, but in the kind of way that’s more fun than aggravating. He’s a little calmer than you are, and he really settled into his skin when got a bit older, but Tim, he’s everything you are.”
Tim grinned at him then, almost in awe of his older self Duke just described, and Duke grinned back. He’d be alright, he thought. This was Tim, after all. His older brother who could handle anything that got thrown at him. Even if this version of him was tiny and fourteen, he still was exactly the same as the older version in all the ways that counted.
Tim was still grinning, his cheeks flushed pink with embarrassment and pride and Duke had never been faced with the idea of a younger sibling other than Damian, but he totally got the appeal of squishing their cheeks now. And from experience on the other end of it, it had the added benefit of irritating them for no good reason, which was a quality that he was always willing to indulge as a “middle child” of the family he’d been absorbed into.
He slowly reached out with both hands, half expecting Tim to move away, but Tim just sat there bewildered. Duke shrugged. He’d given Tim ample time to move away, so Duke took his chance and quickly grabbed Tim’s face in between his hands, squishing it. Tim sat entirely still, face squashed and looking like a very bizarre chipmunk. Between the squished cheeks and the look on his face that told Duke Tim had no idea how to handle what was happening, Duke was going to break down into laughter.
His shoulders shaking and lips trembling with the effort of suppressing laughter, Duke started to move his hands, dragging Tim’s cheeks in different directions. Tim’s very squished and extremely unimpressed expression was what set Duke off. He hunched over, shaking with laughter, completely unable to look at Tim anymore.
“Come on,” Tim complained, face still squished between Duke’s hands. That only made Duke laugh harder, and it echoed throughout the Batcave, loud and bright.
Tim yanked his head to the side, managing to dislodge Duke’s hands, and threw himself at Duke, intent on getting revenge. He successfully knocked him down, but all Duke had to do was twist to the side to get out from underneath him. He didn’t manage to fully escape; Tim kept clinging to him stubbornly, making grabs for Duke’s face as they rolled over the training mats, giggling and laughing.
Duke slapped another one of Tim’s grabs away with one hand, then reached around with his other to tweak at his nose. He moved his fingers out of the way just as Tim’s teeth snapped shut in the space his fingers used to inhabit.
“Did you just try to bite me?” Duke said, still laughing. In answer, Tim just grinned wide through his giggles, showing off his teeth. “Oh, I’ll show you, you menace.”
He pushed himself onto his knees, and lunged at Tim, who dodged to the side, bringing up a knee to act as a barrier, and shunting Duke off to the side. He couldn’t avoid Duke forever though, and soon enough Duke had grabbed him around the waist. He yelped, the sound broken up by laughter, as Duke flung him over the mats and sent him rolling. He recovered quickly, and leapt at Duke again in a desperate tackle. It succeeded in taking Duke down, but the two of them were in constant motion, shoving each other and wrestling as they continued to slap each other’s arms away, ending somehow in a deranged version of patty cake.
Duke was almost sobbing with laughter, and a glance at Tim showed him that he wasn’t any better. They were practically falling over themselves laughing, and the high energy wrestling spat was the kind of very much needed fun that Duke had been missing.
Any retaliation being planned was interrupted by the scuff of a shoe just off to the side of the training area and Duke looked up to see Bruce standing at the edge of the training area. He was staring at the two of them, still giggling quietly as they tried to calm down, and Duke had no idea what he was thinking. Duke wondered how long he’d been standing there as he shoved Tim away with a palm straight to his face, still chuckling lightly.
“Tim, go upstairs,” he said after a short pause. “Check in with Alfred.”
Tim rolled to his feet, shooting Duke an apologetic glance. He walked past Bruce, and Duke found himself irrationally jealous when Bruce reached out and ruffled his hair as he went by. He wasn’t that jealous, but he hadn’t had any of the casual signs of affection for the last week and he ached. It was hard to not really have all that much positive physical contact, especially not when it was something that he used to get multiple times a day, every day. Bumped shoulders, pats of approval, high fives, and goofy secret handshakes that changed every time because they were secret handshakes so much as a mini exercise in improvisation as well as an exercise to confuse Bruce because he knew that Duke and Cass hadn’t seen each other for enough time to come up with a new one.
His tussle with Tim smoothed over some of the edges of that ache, but it didn’t replace it, and it didn’t fix anything either.
Bruce stepped onto the mats, striding slowly towards Duke. He moved to stand up, but before he could, Bruce folded his legs underneath himself and settled down onto the floor next to Duke, looking out into the main area of the cave.
Duke waited awkwardly for Bruce to say something. No way was he going to be the one to break the silence. Bruce was the one to instigate whatever was going to happen here, he could figure out how to deal with emotions long enough to start this conversation.
They waited in silence for a few more minutes, the time ticking away, and Duke could feel the awkwardness intensify with each passing second. At this point he could not look at Bruce even if he wanted to, because then he would have to acknowledge that he and Bruce were just stewing in the most awkward silence for several minutes.
What would he even say? Nope, this was Bruce’s problem to resolve.
Another minute passed before Bruce said anything. “You did a good job out there on patrol earlier, Signal,” he said finally.
“...Thanks,” Duke replied. His brain was working at a million miles an hour to figure out why Bruce had come to him after their argument, only to compliment him, and then the answer hit him. Alfred had disappeared somewhere in between his and Tim’s conversation and this smacked of an Alfred intervention.
“You have good eyes, and a good sense. You’re an asset out in the field.” Bruce was still staring resolutely forward, avoiding eye contact with Duke.
Despite himself, Duke chuckled. It didn’t come out nearly as bitter as he’d thought it might. “I hope so,” he said. “You trained me, after all.”
“I did a good job then,” Bruce said, and it felt a little like forced levity, like a joke that fell flat, but it was a start. His posture, even sitting down, was still lined with tension, but Duke decided to give him a break. Bruce was clearly trying, and that counted for a lot, especially with the way they’d gotten off on the wrong foot. Which really was mostly Bruce’s fault, but Duke couldn’t fault a grieving man. After all, he knew what he had been like when the thought that his parents might have died took over his thoughts whenever he had an idle moment, the niggling doubt there even as he searched relentlessly for them.
“You really did,” Duke said honestly, trying to rein his thoughts back in. His parents were alive, and they’d be fine. They would be.
It didn’t help him to worry about them back here, in this past time, when they were completely fine. He’d be lying to himself if he said he hadn’t thought about sneaking out to go see them almost as soon as he’d processed that he really was back in the past. Or a past, since it wasn’t actually his own, just close to it. If he thought it would help anything, he would go to see them without even the slightest bit of hesitation, and damn Bruce’s rules. But he wasn’t sure that it would help at all, and he knew enough about time travel and dimension travel to know that he’d already messed with things quite a bit. Even if this world had been like his, it wasn’t going to stay that way, and each minute he spent here changed the future of this Bruce and this Alfred and this Tim. For his parents, too.
“I did some research into the League’s recent actions.” The words interrupted Duke’s thoughts. “Their presence has been a little more active here since the energy anomaly that happened when you came here, and in the last few days since you’ve become visible, his assassins have been here almost every night. Signal- Duke.” He corrected himself, remembering Duke’s preference when he was out of uniform. “I think Ra’s is looking for you. It’d be foolish to think he didn’t connect the spike in energy when you showed up on the night of the breakout; he knows I mostly work alone, and after Robin-” died, he doesn’t say, but Duke hears it all the same. “-I haven’t had a partner. But you came here, already trained. You fight like me. Ra’s is smart, and even more than that, he’s cunning. It wouldn’t be too hard for him to put it together, and he’ll want to use you for whatever he can gain from this.”
“When it rains, it pours,” Duke sighed, pressing the heel of his palm into his eyes. “I do not like that guy.”
Bruce laughed, and Duke was startled by the sound. He looked over to Bruce, who met his gaze. “I don’t care all that much for him either,” he said. He sobered. “These reports mean that it’s important you stay in.”
“What? No! Bruce, I’m not staying in, you’ve seen me fight, and it’s not like Ra’s himself would come after me. I can handle a few of his assassins. And if we’re out on patrol together, which we have been, and I’m assuming you wouldn’t allow me out on my own anyway , there’s slim chance of him getting his hands on me.”
Bruce frowned. “There’s too much risk.”
“It’s not that much risk, and you’d be there to help mitigate it. I can’t just stay in indefinitely; not when there’s a whole city out there that needs help and I have the ability to help it.” Duke folded his arms across his chest. He was not going to budge on this one.
“No. That’s final, Signal,” Bruce growled.
Duke jabbed a finger at Bruce, getting more and more frustrated with his stubbornness. Why couldn’t he just see that Duke was more than capable of taking care of himself! He didn’t need to have someone there to hold his hand or protect him. He had been doing just fine on his own, and he wouldn’t even be alone; Bruce would be there just in case something happened anyway. “I’m going out Bruce, whether you want me to or not. You can’t hold me here, and I’m needed out there.”
Bruce’s lip curled into a snarl, and his spine straightened, all previous good humor gone. “I’m not going to let you go out there so you can- what, monitor me? Because you don’t ‘trust’ me to do the job that I have been doing for several years now? To do the job that keeps thousands of Gotham’s citizens safe.”
“It’s not about trust!” Duke shouted. “You keep pushing yourself more, and I don’t agree with what you’re doing or how you’re doing it, but Bruce, you’re going to get yourself killed like this! You are going to die in some ditch or sewer and no one will even know what happened to you until someone finally finds your rotting body months later!” And like it was just waiting there in the corner of his mind, the floodgates burst and his eyes burned with scalding tears as every fear he had during those long months of searching for his parents rose up vividly in his thoughts, mixing with ones of Bruce, all of them face down in the sewer, or a gutter, or the landfill, broken bodies tossed aside like dolls, decaying and lifeless. “Bruce, you can’t keep Gotham’s citizens safe and okay and returning to their families if you don’t stay safe and okay enough to get back to yours.”
Duke just felt angry, and numb, and betrayed and his breath hitched with it all, even though he really didn’t really have a reason to be this upset over a Bruce that wasn’t even his.
But he will be, a little voice said in the back of his mind. He gritted his teeth and tried to ignore it. It was a very unhelpful thought to have, and if he let himself think more about it he would definitely be diving headfirst into a mild breakdown. He could handle one, but he would really, really prefer not to. He did not have the time to indulge a breakdown.
He glanced over at Bruce again, and almost did a double take. Bruce looked absolutely devastated, his face gone pale, the contrast between his skin and his hair even more pronounced. Even more than devastated, he looked… defeated almost.
Bruce ran a hand through his hair, pushing it back from his forehead. Even though he was visibly younger than the Bruce that Duke knew, only the barest hint of wrinkles and none of the thin gray that threaded through the hair of his Bruce, he looked so worn that Duke would easily believe he was looking at a man ten years older instead.
“I never-,” he started, and sighed, cutting himself off. “I didn’t mean to…” He couldn’t find the words, and Duke watched as he grappled with how to say what he needed to. “...I need to do what I’m doing. Batman has to exist, has to fight to make sure that the city makes no more orphans of its children.” His voice stopped short, like there was something else he couldn’t get out.
“And no more bereaved parents,” Duke followed up quietly.
Bruce nodded, his expression pinched and his eyes slightly glassy.
They let that settle between them, the silence brittle enough to shatter at the next movement. Duke forced himself to be completely still. He held his breath. He didn’t want to be the one responsible for disturbing the quiet between them.
Finally Duke shifted, unintentionally breaking it, unable to hold entirely still. The rustle of his clothes and the slight crinkle of the mat underneath them sounded louder than he thought they could, but they broke the tension that sat heavy in the air. Not in a good way, but not in a bad way either. Even broken, it felt like it was palpable enough to cut.
Bruce had said what he needed to say though, so now it was Duke’s turn. Gathering his courage, he said, “For my family, we have our most important rule. You always, always come home. We do our best to make that rule extend to every person in Gotham, but no one can help those people if you work yourself so close to the edge that you end up breaking that rule, Bruce.”
Bruce's voice was rough when he said, “You’re a good kid.”
It wasn’t an apology. It almost had the feeling of one, but Duke also knew when to hold firm, even for half apologies.
“You can’t go out alone,” he said.
Bruce looked exhausted, but he nodded. “Okay,” he said agreeably. Duke found himself narrowing his eyes at Bruce in suspicion. It was never that easy, even after an emotionally charged conversation that Bruce wanted to escape from. “But you only go out on nights when there’s a breakout or a higher volume of reported crime,” Bruce negotiated.
Duke considered it. Honestly the fact that Bruce was even willing to concede that much was so much more than what he was expecting. He decided to push it a little anyway. “Deal, if I get three nights of regular patrol per week.”
Bruce narrowed his eyes at Duke, and Duke could practically see the exasperation and frustration of dealing with a teenager he could tell without a doubt was going to do what he could on his own terms. Duke wasn’t going to apologize for that; Bruce completely brought it on himself when he adopted a bunch of impulsive, justice seeking kids. “Two,” Bruce said.
“I can live with that,” Duke leaned back in satisfaction.
Deal struck and the more business side of the conversation done with, Bruce got to his feet, and offered a hand to Duke. Duke grasped it, letting Bruce tug him to his feet. It felt a little like sealing a deal.
Bruce patted him on the shoulder. It was awkward, like Bruce was trying to show affection but didn’t know how, and Duke wondered if this was a product of his grief or if he was always like this until he’d just had so many kids it overwhelmed his natural awkward instincts. It was definitely something to ask Dick and Jason about when he-
When he went back home. Which he would be doing. It had only been two weeks. His Bruce would find him, they’d set up something to get him sent home. It didn’t matter that the chart that was tracking fluctuations that responded to their signal they’d put out; the one that basically screamed that he was here.
Duke was traveling through the sewer system, wading through knee high watery muck in the almost pitch black concrete tunnels. He grimaced when his foot hit something mushy. He was almost glad he couldn’t really see anything in the murky water, because he’d rather not make any guesses as to what it was. Ignorance was bliss, when you were walking down in the sewers.
He frowned. Why was he in the sewers? It was to find something, he knew that, but what?
“I’m looking for…” he said out loud, like maybe if he started saying what he was looking for he’d suddenly remember exactly what it was. “...something important?”
It was definitely important, he knew that much at least. So he had to keep going, wading through the sewer water, but why?
Something to do with Batman. Finding evidence for a recent case, he thought, but even that didn’t sound right. He kicked out at some more mushy things and grimaced, a shudder running down his back. Gross.
The whole tunnel was cold and clammy, and the whole feeling of it was making Duke uneasy the further he went. Killer Croc was in Arkham, and he was really the biggest threat to look out for in the sewers, but there was always something going on in the dim tunnels beneath Gotham.
He just had to be on his guard, and with the way even the splashes of his own footsteps echoing off the walls were putting him on edge, that wouldn’t be hard. If only it weren’t so dark.
He turned around a bend in the passage, and sighed in relief. There must have been a dislodged manhole cover up there or something, because a portion of the tunnel was lit up just ahead of him, a small ray of light bouncing off the sewer water and reflecting onto the walls. It’d be easier to find things in the sewer with light to help him, that was for sure.
A bead of sweat dripped down his back.
He still didn’t want to know what all the mushy gunk was though. There were not enough showers in the world to help him feel clean after this mission.
He headed towards the light. If he couldn’t find what he was looking for, or remember what it was, it was high time to get out of the sewer anyway. No sense in sticking around if he didn’t really know what he was in the sewers for in the first place.
His mood started to lift the closer he got to the light, but even with that comfort of light, the tension of the tunnel grew thicker, and sat heavy like iron on the back of his tongue.
Finally he got to the circle of light left by the manhole cover. He still couldn’t remember what he was looking for, only that it had something to do with Batman, and maybe one of the cases they were trying to solve.
Batman would be disappointed that he couldn’t find it, but he’d look at the case specs and head back down into the sewers a different time, after making sure he’d remember what he was looking for. It’d be fine.
He stepped forward into the lit section of the sewer tunnel with some relief. It was good to be in the light again.
He reached for the ladder that led up to the manhole, but startled as his foot hit something. It felt a lot more solid than everything else he’d accidentally kicked or stepped on in his trek through the sewers, and despite himself, he looked down.
Bruce’s face, pale and bloated, lay half submerged in the murky water. Duke felt like his voice was ripped from him and his chest seized up, every bad feeling that he’d had rushing in all at once and filling the space in his lungs until he couldn’t breathe. He stumbled back and tripped over something else in the water behind him. He couldn’t regain his balance and tipped over, throwing his hands out to catch himself, but only succeeding in splashing water all over himself.
He sputtered as the sewer water got in his mouth, and he spat it out, coughing. The acrid taste of it sat heavy on his tongue, and it reminded him uncomfortably of iron. Of blood. His thoughts turned to what he tripped over, and his body tensed at the possibilities running through his mind.
He didn’t want to look, but his head turned involuntarily, and he was helpless to stop it. Slowly, his head turned, and his gaze met the sightless eyes of his mom. Just behind her, his dad lay face down, bobbing in the shallow sewer water.
Duke screamed, and lurched forward, tearing himself away from his parents’ bodies.
He jerked upright, the force of the movement almost throwing the covers off his, bitten off scream shredding his throat.
He breathed harshly, eyes not processing anything as he stared, unseeing, into the darkness of his room, his chest heaving, and the acidic feel of bile at the base of his esophagus. He took in deep, ragged breaths, trying to get his breathing under control.
A nightmare. It was just a nightmare.
He managed to slow his breath down, and force it to stay more or less even.
Duke rubbed a hand across his face, then pulled his hand back, grimacing at the sweat he’d just rubbed into his skin.
The nightmares he’d been having for the last year or so weren’t ever exactly the same, but ever since Bruce had taken him in, but they were always similar enough. He still got them at regular intervals; could probably graph them out alongside other variables like stress, or certain anniversaries. But while they might not have become any less frequent than when they started, they were usually a little quieter these days, less… graphic than the one he’d had tonight. The less graphic ones meant that he could sometimes even sleep through the night, which was definitely something he was grateful for now, being in a strange house with a strange Alfred, and an even stranger Bruce, and none of the usual comfort coming whenever he’d had a nightmare loud enough to wake the others.
Most of the time, he didn’t even see Bruce or his parents’ broken bodies anymore in his nightmares. Which, it figured that his mind would pull this on him now of all times. It had been months since he’d last had one like that. His parents’ bodies, broken and cold. Bruce’s body, too. It brought back skin crawling memories of sloshing through Gotham’s sewer systems, desperate to find his parents, and terrified that they’d be there, right around the next bend of the sewer, bodies sprawled in the water.
The anxiety still sat thick in his throat, but being awake and being able to focus on the room around him, the feeling of the comforter bunched up in his hands, the mattress underneath him all helped him center himself in reality, in the present.
Well, the past, technically. Just… the past in his present?
He reached over to the lamp on his side table and clicked it on, the light chasing the darkness out of the room. He really didn’t want to be imagining what could be in the shadows, not after a dream like that.
Still, he wasn’t going to get any more sleep. Both because he didn’t think he could get back to sleep and also because on the off chance that he could, he didn’t want to think about what the rest of his dreams might look like.
He slipped out of bed and padded over to the bookshelf. It was mostly just there to look nice; hardly anyone read the books in the other rooms, because that was where they put all the books that no one was interested in actually reading, but he grabbed a book off the shelf without looking at the title.
He didn’t need a good book. Right now he just needed something to focus on, something to keep his mind occupied and away from thoughts dragged up to the surface of his mind by the nightmare. He gathered up all the blankets around him and made a large lump of all the pillows he had and settled in, cracking open the cover of the book. He glanced at the title page. He’d apparently picked up a riveting copy of Rationally Predictable: How Over-Leveraged Equity Causes Collapse. Great. None of those words even made sense together.
But it was still something to occupy his mind and his time while he sat in bed and waited for the sun to rise.
Duke has a nightmare that involves seeing the dead bodies of his parents and Bruce, the manner of which could be reminiscent of drowning (but is undefined cause of death - the deaths themselves are not actually described)
Fun fact! most of the Tim and Duke interactions are based off of my own sibling interactions!
It was a cool night in Gotham. Duke crouched on the edge of a building next to Batman and a gentle breeze circles around them. Batman was clearly thinking about something, muscles coiled like he was ready to spring into action at any second.
Despite his readiness, patrol that night had been slow. They’d only had to take care of a small team of would-be burglars so far, and while it was still earlier in the night, it was downright strange to have so little crime to deal with. This was Gotham . Crime was supposed to be a 24/7 kind of deal, and Duke was happy that there wasn’t crime because, you know, there was no crime, he felt even more awkward with nothing to do. Which was a good thing in their line of work, but was unusual for the average hero or vigilante, and basically unheard of for vigilantes operating in Gotham.
They sat on the edge of the rooftop, keeping watch over the city in silence.
Duke was used to the silence; anyone working with Batman was, but without anything to keep the space between them, with nothing to focus on or work towards, it felt more oppressive than it usually did.
So he broke it. It wasn’t the best question to ask, but it was one that had been at the back of his mind for most of the time he’d been trapped in this universe.
“How do you keep going like this? Like you’re working at a hundred percent all the time and you never stop to recharge.”
Bruce didn’t answer, and the silence stretched out between them, making Duke’s skin prickle.
Finally, he spoke. “I started doing this for my parents, and for Gotham,” he said, and Duke hadn’t expected the honesty. He didn’t even know if he was expecting an answer in the first place. “Then I started doing it for Dick, and… for Jason. Now I do it for their memories and their efforts, in the hopes that everyone that comes after has a better Gotham.”
“That’s why I started too. My parents.” Duke looked at his hands. “I told you that there’s…” He stopped, and started again. “I mentioned that something big happened– happens, I guess, in a few years. It’s bad. Really bad. I told you that my parents got hurt, and that they never really got better. On the worst days, sometimes I wonder if they ever will.”
“I’m sorry.” If it were anyone else saying that, it would feel like an empty platitude. But Bruce could relate to him more than most.
“They’re the reason I got into all of this. I started looking everywhere for them. I didn’t find them at first, but looking for them got me involved in protecting the city, and I kept doing it because it was the right thing to do. Because it meant that kids came home to their parents and parents came home to their kids. That’s how it started, and it’s still one of the reasons I do it, but now I have a few other reasons. I do it for my family, and to make sure that every one of Gotham’s protectors comes home, too. I do it so that saving Gotham doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of one person.”
The silence fell between them again, though it was less uncomfortable than it had been.
This time, when the silence was broken, it was Bruce who did it. “Do you want to see them?”
“Your parents. Nothing has happened to them yet.”
Duke hesitated. “I… I don’t know.”
“Okay,” Bruce said simply.
Warring with his own conflict, Duke felt like he had to explain it, like he had to justify maybe not wanting to see his parents who were alive and well to Bruce, who Duke knew would have given almost anything to see his own parents just one last time.
“I want to see them! I do. I miss them. So much. But Bruce, that’s the problem.” Duke looked down at the streets far below them, people as tiny as ants going about their night. “What if… what if seeing them here, in another dimension, in another time, just proves that they’ll never be okay again? What if I get back home after seeing my parents sane, and okay, and healthy, and living , and I realize that they’re never going to be able to return to that? That they’re too far gone?”
“You don’t have to see them, Signal. And you don’t have to explain it to me. It’s okay.” Bruce’s voice sounded stilted, like he wasn’t used to giving much comfort to teenagers anymore. Duke missed his own Bruce, who would have known exactly what to say. Or if he didn’t, would have still managed to convey to Duke everything that he needed.
He curled his feet up underneath him, the edges of his boots poking over the roof’s edge. “I want to see them. I just don’t know if I should,” Duke admitted, feeling sick with guilt. He wanted to see them acting like themselves so badly that it hurt, but even the thought of it felt like a betrayal of his parents, who weren’t okay, not in his time or dimension. And he was scared. What if they were too far gone? What did that mean for them? What did that mean for him ?
But most of all, he didn’t want to come face to face with the fact that he might have to let them go. That they weren’t his parents anymore. That they’d never be his parents again.
There was a warm touch on his shoulder. Duke looked over to Bruce, who despite sharing a face and a past with his own Bruce, he hadn’t really thought capable of physically comforting anyone. It wasn’t anything really, but the effort made Duke pull himself together.
He breathed out, slow and controlled. He couldn’t afford to fall into a spiral of ‘what if’s. Seeing them again might just give him new ideas, new motivation. It didn’t have to take everything away from him, and they’d be as vibrant here in real life as they stayed in his memories. It was just his parents as they always were. As they would be again.
He could see them happy again. Really, truly living.
“Actually,” he started, hesitating. “I think I might want to see them.”
“Are you sure?” Batman asked. Duke knew that he was taking in his body language, could probably read volumes with the complex emotions and thoughts that were running through his head.
“No,” Duke said honestly. “I’m not. But I think I’d regret it if I didn’t, and I don’t want this to become another thing I regret.”
Bruce stood, and Duke followed suit. They started running across rooftops, making their way to the narrows, Bruce leading the way even though Duke hadn’t told him where he’d lived. Which really wasn’t that much of a surprise that Bruce looked up where his address was in this time, that he’d confirmed his identity against the tiny twelve year old version of him. He was just surprised that Bruce had remembered it so easily.
They came to a stop on the apartment building across the street from the one Duke had lived in for the majority of his life. That he still technically lived in, in this time and this universe.
A lump rose up in his throat.
The curtains that they had hanging were the same ones his mom and dad had playfully argued over, his mom critiquing his dad’s taste, saying it was too bland, while his dad teased her for the vibrantly clashing colors she’d wanted to put in.
Duke had walked past his old place just a few months ago. Someone else had moved in since he’d been put into foster care and then adopted by Bruce, and they’d changed the curtains to blank white venetian blinds, and it felt so wrong.
Seeing them back the way they were supposed to be was heartbreaking. It reminded him of everything that he could have had. Everything that he was supposed to have.
He glanced through the window, the lights on inside illuminating the room enough to see the silhouettes of his parents through the curtains. His mom threw her head back in laughter that he couldn’t hear, and she drew his dad in close. Dancing, Duke realized as they began to sway gently back and forth, making turns around their living room.
He watched them for a moment as they danced out of and into view of the windows, waltzing around the room. They were both laughing, and they leaned into each other close enough that their foreheads touched. Dancing to a song that Duke couldn’t hear and wrapped up in each other, it all felt like they were in their own little world.
They were happy. That was more than easy enough to see.
The twelve year old Duke who belonged here in this world was probably fast asleep in bed, the sounds of the song his parents dancing to filtering into his dreams, never imagining what could happen in the blink of an eye. Never imagining what he could lose.
“Can you save them?” he asked suddenly, feeling the desperation swell up in the back of his throat. “It’s too late for my parents, but this Duke… he doesn’t have to lose them, he doesn’t have to grow up without them. They could be happy again! Sane, and living their lives, able to be a family. Able to be there for each other.” He didn’t know about his own parents. Didn’t know if it was possible to ever have them back again, the way they used to be. But it wasn’t too late for this Duke, for this version of his mom and dad.
“I will. Tell me what I need to know to keep them safe, and I will do my best to make sure that Gotham doesn’t orphan another child,” Bruce said solemnly.
“I’ll give you the timeline when we get back to the cave,” Duke agreed, eyes still firmly fixed on his parents. Even just being able to see their silhouettes, his mind was filling in every detail. His mom’s dimples when she laughed, the way his dad’s eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. The silver that had started threading through the hair in his dad’s beard and the way his mom insisted on being barefoot when she was at home, even when it got a little cold.
“What are they like?”
Duke smiled, and his voice came out thick, trying to speak past the lump in his throat. “They’re the best kind of people. My mom always wanted to see the best in people, even when she knew she couldn’t. She was a social worker, and spent every day at work trying to bring real change into people’s lives. My dad did construction. He worked a lot as part of shadow crews—you know, the construction crews that would work at night so skyscrapers could be built faster and cutting OSHA corners? He did those a lot, so he could be at home with me most days. They taught me to always do what was right, and they always tried to show me the good things in life. They cared so much. About me, and each other. About our neighbors and the crossing guard we saw on the way to my school. They cared about everyone.”
“They sound wonderful.”
“They are.” Tears started to burn at the edges of Duke’s vision, blurring the swaying silhouettes of his parents until their shapes were indistinguishable from each other. “They’re really, really amazing.”
They sat there in silence, Duke quietly sniffling and wiping his tears away, until one of the silhouettes reached towards the lightswitch near the front door and turned it off, making both his parents vanish from sight.
His eyes glowed a bright gold, illuminating the tears that spilled down his cheeks, and he used the light reflecting from the streetlights to continue watching his parents after they disappeared from normal visual sight. They went to his room and tucked their sleeping son in tightly, pressing one last kiss goodnight to his forehead before heading off to sleep themselves.
He didn’t know how long they sat there for before he finally got to his feet, his legs stiff from not having moved in so long. “We should get going,” he said to Bruce, voice cracking. “I just– I needed to see them.”
“Was it the right choice?” Bruce asked.
“I think it was,” Duke said quietly.
Duke was in the library again. It had just enough familiarity to be comfortable, but he didn’t feel so unsettled as he did when he spent time in the mansion’s main rooms, which probably had to do with his own associations more than anything else. He’d never really spent that much time actually hanging out in the library in his own universe. He would always grab whatever books he wanted and then head back down to the main floor to read them instead, where he could be around the general living space with his family going about their lives just the next room over, or even on the opposite side of his favorite couch to read on.
But here, it was easier to settle into the library chair he was starting to see as his spot. It wasn’t like it was uncomfortable; it was in fact the perfect size and plush levels to curl up in and spend a good afternoon reading away. It just felt… weird. It wasn’t something he was used to doing.
Even feeling weird though, it was where he found himself at least at some point during the day, because it was definitely less weird than being anywhere else in the house. Tim really was his main buffer, but between him living in a different house and attending school and all the things that came with it, it left Duke on his own more often than not.
Not that Duke minded too much. Having his own space was nice.
The only downside was that having time to run through all his most feared scenarios wasn’t.
There was always a little doubt, right in the back of his mind, that kept wondering what would happen if he never made it back. If his family never found the signal that led to him, the signal that was his only chance home. Did they even know what happened? Duke was certain they would have run tests on the area, would be looking out for whatever it was that brought him here, but what if it didn’t leave any hints?
Would they think he was dead?
Would they stop searching for him?
And the one thought that snuck in even though he tried to shove it away whenever there was even an inkling of it popping up. That white light swallowed him up and brought him here, but what if he wasn’t the only one taken and flung into the past? What if there was no one to look for him, because they were all trapped in some other dimension, some other timeline, just waiting for one of the others to reach back and bring them back home?
On days like that, when the worst thoughts started popping into his head, he always went and found Alfred. His Alfred and this Alfred were almost the same; this one was just a little quieter sometimes, just a bit more withdrawn than Duke’s own Alfred.
The similarities were disconcerting sometimes, because they made it easy to pretend like he was just in a bad dream, and he didn’t want to conflate his Alfreds. Neither of them deserved that.
But it still stood that either Alfred was the best person to go to when the thoughts became a little too insistent, or he couldn’t distract himself enough to drive them away.
Even Duke could admit to himself that it wasn’t exactly completely healthy to use the library as a barrier against the discomfort of his current situation like he had been. Sure, it worked short term, but avoidance tactics never ended well if they kept being used, so Duke stood up and went out in search of Alfred.
He found him in the garden, kneeling over the bed of dirt and weeding what looked like an already near spotless garden.
“Can I join you?”
Alfred sat up, and smiled warmly at Duke. Gardening was one of his passions, and he was always glad to share it with his family, even if he was more reluctant to let them help him with his other duties.
“You may,” he said, patting a patch of grass by his side.
The sun was shining through light cloud cover, making the day just nice enough without being oppressively hot. Duke settled down on the grass, and set to work, following Alfred’s lead and plucking out all the tiny sprouts of weeds starting to poke through the top layer of dirt. Alfred kept a sharp eye on him at first, but once he was satisfied that he knew what he was doing, he turned his full attention back to his weeding.
Duke basked in the comfortable silence, the fresh air and good weather already starting to help clear his mind.
“What brings you out here, weeding with an old man?” Alfred asked after sufficient time had passed for Duke to be totally at ease.
“You’re not that old,” Duke protested.
Alfred raised an eyebrow. “Do you know how old I am?”
“...Five years younger than my Alfred?” Duke said weakly, because he actually had no idea how old Alfred was. To be fair, he didn’t think any of them—except maybe Bruce—knew Alfred’s age. At his last birthday celebration, the candles they had for the cake were just two large question marks, so the only thing that Duke knew for certain was that Alfred was in his double digits.
Alfred started laughing, loud and open. The sound of it settled something in Duke’s mind, and he felt the tension that had been building up release. He grinned crookedly at Alfred. “Eternally youthful?” he offered up instead.
Alfred swatted at him good naturedly, eyes twinkling with amusement. “Far older than that, I’m afraid.”
“You don’t look a day past thirty, Alfie, I promise.”
“I appreciate the compliment,” Alfred said wryly, “but you never answered my question.”
It was too much to hope that Alfred would let it go; he had some kind of power that let him know when his family was carrying angst around. Duke sighed, feeling some of the weight of his anxieties come back, and studiously continued looking for more weeds to pull, avoiding Alfred’s gaze.
“...What if I can’t get back home?”
Alfred turned his attention away from the flowerbed and towards Duke. “That question has a very simple answer, Duke,” he said gently. “If the signal fails, or no one can reach it for whatever reason, then we try again. And if that doesn’t work, then we’ll find another way. There are countless ways to traverse the universe; rest assured that we will do whatever we can to get you home. You are an amazing young man, and I would be more than glad to bring you into our family, but I bet that your own family misses you very much, and if your Bruce is anything like my son, he will walk through hell to get you back home, safe and sound. One way or another, you’ll be able to go home. We’ll get you there.”
Duke couldn’t really say anything, a lump in his throat blocking his voice, but he managed to croak out a garbled “thank you,” bringing his arm up to awkwardly wipe away the tears gathering in his eyes without getting dirt on his face.
Alfred reached out and patted his hand softly. “You’re welcome, dear boy.” He got to his feet, gently pulling Duke up with him. “Now, why don’t we head to the kitchen? I’m sure we could both do with a biscuit or two and I have a few tweaks to the old recipe I’ve been meaning to try.”
Duke let Alfred help him to his feet and followed him into the manor to wash hands and start baking cookies from scratch.
Alfred was right. He would get home. One way or another, they’d find a way for him to return to his universe, his family.
He was also right about the cookies; Duke definitely needed one right now. He was the type to eat his feelings, and while Alfred’s cookies didn’t make everything better, they did come pretty close to it.
He washed his hands and gathered ingredients, Alfred bustling around him, grabbing the mixing bowls and measuring spoons. Every time he passed by him, Alfred sent him a smile, which Duke returned.
Kneading the cookie dough helped take even more tension out of him, and by the time the cookies were cool enough to eat, Duke was feeling a little more like himself again, the constant stress and fear taking a backseat in the face of Alfred’s perceptive care.
When Bruce got home, he even managed to spare a small, if somewhat distant, smile in Duke and Alfred’s direction. It wasn’t much, but it still counted, and Duke went to sleep that night feeling so much lighter than he had been.
Whenever Bruce let Duke into the Batcave, he always ended up hovering around the Batcomputer, watching the little ticker always pulled up in the corner of the screen as the numbers and lines fluctuated. There was never any change in the greater scheme of it.
Predictably, Duke found himself bee-lining towards the Batcomputer, unable to pay any more attention to the training he’d been doing to try to keep himself occupied. He came up behind the chair and stood at Batman’s shoulder, eyes drifting to the data recording the signal they’d sent out.
It was the same range as always. His family hadn’t found it—him—yet.
He stared at it for a few seconds more.
“It’s not going to change just because you keep looking at it.”
“It might,” Duke said, just to be contrary, eyes still fixed on the corner of the screen.
Bruce sighed. “You’re wasting your time.”
“It’s not like I have all that much to do instead.”
Bruce stood up, pushing the chair back. Duke moved backwards a few steps, uncertain at the sudden motion and still uncomfortable, not really knowing where he stood with Bruce.
“If you don’t have anything to do, you might as well do something that actually helps you. Staring at a screen and waiting for something to change isn’t it,” Bruce said, making a gesture that said that he wanted Duke to follow him.
The thing Duke hated most about what Bruce was saying was that he wasn’t wrong. It was useless to stand around and hope that something would change if he wasn’t going out and enacting change himself; the problem was that he couldn’t change anything in this situation. They’d done what they could. Now they just had to play the waiting game.
Bruce led him over to the mats and turned around, settling into a battle ready stance, and that was when Duke realized what Bruce wanted him to do.
“You want to spar? ” he asked, incredulous.
“It’s beneficial to both of us, and it stops wasting time,” Bruce said in answer.
Duke threw his hands up into the air in exasperation. “You know what? Fine. Why not!” He took another minute of just standing there before giving up and sinking into a crouch, arms up and weight shifted to the balls of his feet. “I can’t believe I’m just going along with this,” he grumbled to himself.
In that moment, Batman struck out, fist whipping towards Duke’s head. Duke’s Batman didn’t waste time saying when the spar was going to start either—something about always needing to be on your guard—so he wasn’t surprised. He ducked beneath it, pivoting to drive a punch into Bruce’s ribs.
Bruce brought an arm down to block the punch and stepped into Duke, lessening the force of the blow. It also brought him close enough to sweep his leg around and behind Duke’s knees at the same time he pushed forward against Duke’s chest with his forearm. It was only a quick twist that allowed Duke to slip out between the shove and the attempted leg sweep, but that twist landed Duke right in front of Bruce, just in time to receive a quick jab to his solar plexus.
With just the two of them sparring in regular clothing, there was no armor to break the force of the blow, even one gentled for sparring. Duke bent over breathless as his body heaved at the pain that felt like it was radiating out from the center of his abdomen.
Bruce backed off, allowing Duke some room.
It took three seconds for his body to remember how to breathe again, but Duke straightened up despite the pain radiating out from the center of his abdomen. He put his hands up.
Bruce made the first move again, but Duke expected it. He dodged the first strike, and swung around the follow up, trying to maneuver himself to get around Bruce. Bruce was a brick house of a human being, and attacking him directly from the front only had a small chance of working, and it opened up Duke to harder attacks himself.
Fighting Bruce was easier in a spar where he had to control his strength, but that didn’t mean it was easy .
Duke got in a solid few blows, but nowhere that could end a fight if he put enough force behind it, and Bruce was the kind of person to eat up pain like it was breakfast besides.
Bruce kicked out, foot arcing up and towards Duke’s head. He ducked beneath it, and his eyes flashed gold, warning him just before Bruce’s foot came crashing down on his back. He rolled forward and popped right back up, aiming a kick high, at Bruce’s upper back.
Bruce ducked under it, and Duke let the momentum take him forward, pivoting until he was in front of Bruce and turning around in the same motion.
“Your powers… what do they do?”
“Haven’t Tim and Alfred told you what they are already?”
“They have. I want to hear it from you.”
So Duke answered, knowing that this wasn’t a point to push even if Bruce did know everything about his powers that he’d told Alfred and Tim. Pushing when Bruce was on edge and paranoid, the way he’d been apparently living his day to day life in this time, would be a really dumb thing to do. The whole spar was so Bruce could get a feel and understanding for his abilities anyway, and that included his metahuman abilities.
“They’re vision related. I can see the whole electromagnetic spectrum, and I can also process the way light refracts, what paths it takes. Kind of like x-ray vision. That’s how I scanned the quarantine zone and figured out where all the wires and systems were underneath the metal casing. I can kind of zoom out or zoom in, too, which helped a little when I was evaluating the security measures.” He still kept his precognition and retrocognition close to his chest though. There were some things he wanted to keep close to his chest; a tactic that Bruce had often emphasized as being the difference between a close call and being dead.
“Must be useful for seeing your opponents’ before they can see you, or for being able to register their movements in the split second they make them,” Bruce acknowledged, sending another punch Duke’s way. Duke blocked it, feeling the force of it rattle up his forearm, but swiftly struck back, managing to hit Bruce just below his collarbone.
“Can be,” Duke returned, ducking under another swipe. They exchanged a few more blows, conversation done with for now, and the spar ramped up as they both hit harder and went for take-downs more seriously, though Duke knew that he was putting a lot more effort into it than Bruce was. Even with using flashes of his powers, he was still not even close to being a match for Bruce. The exchange ended with a final, bruising kick straight to his ribs that knocked Duke flat on his ass.
Bruce stood over him, arms folded, though he didn’t look disapproving. Duke just watched him from the ground, judging if it was going to be safe to get up or if he was going to be punched down again the second he did. This Bruce was frustratingly hard to read. He wasn’t anything like Duke’s Bruce, even though any of the Justice Leaguers that worked with Batman would laugh if he called his Bruce open with his emotions. Didn’t change the fact that he was way more emotionally available and was so much easier to understand than this Bruce was.
“Precognition abilities must come in handy, too.”
Duke spluttered. “Wh- I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he protested weakly.
Bruce smirked at him, and it was almost friendly. Duke knew what Bruce’s friendly smirks actually looked like though, and this felt like a twisted up version of that. “You reacted to my movements even before I started to make them, and your eyes flashing gold makes it obvious that you’re using your powers in those moments.”
“It was worth a shot.” Duke sighed. He hadn’t thought that he could totally get away with it, but he’d known there was a small chance that he might. But Batman was known as the world’s greatest detective for a reason. Bruce still didn’t actually know the extent of his powers though, and if he was careful, maybe he could keep it that way.
He rose to his feet, keeping a wary eye on Bruce to scan for any of the attacks he tended to do as a lesson to never put his guard down around someone he’d just been fighting. Thankfully there were none incoming, and Duke relaxed his guard.
“You shift your position often, and keep your weight balanced. Good technique around a larger opponent, but the second you drop into your opponent’s blind spot, you lose some of that flexibility in your stance, which makes it harder for you to move if they shift towards you,” Bruce said out of nowhere, and Duke looked at him, eyebrows raised. He was not aware that this had been going to change into a training critique.
It was still good information though. He knew he had some problems with it, but most of the people he faced who were larger than him weren’t as fast as Bruce or Jason, the bigger members of the family. It never came up as much of a weakness in the field as it did while training in the cave, so he’d always put it off to work on directly more dangerous weaknesses in his fighting techniques.
If it was being pointed out (again) though, there was no sense in not working with it now. He didn’t have all that much to do with his now massive amounts of free time.
Bruce swung a fist at him, and Duke instinctively dodged to the side. Bruce stopped.
“There. Look at your feet, where they’re planted. You need to open up your range of motion more when you’ve put yourself into this position, because it would be easy to swing my body around to face you, where I could make two quick attacks or use a feint.”
“Oh,” Duke said, understanding. “I’d be able to escape the first one, but not able to get out of the way of the second.”
“Exactly. Somehow you’ve managed to fight enemies who haven’t taken advantage of that, but never assume you know what tricks and techniques your opponent knows. Complacency is what gets you killed.”
“That’s what my Bruce says, too.”
Bruce went silent. As the silence stretched, Duke wondered if he’d said something wrong, or something that he shouldn’t have, but Bruce gave no indication of being angry. His expression was just a blank wall. After another moment of prolonged silence, Bruce said, “Let’s spar again.”
Duke moved first this time, swinging out a kick towards Bruce almost as soon as the words had left his mouth, glad to leave the silence behind and not knowing what was going through Bruce’s head.
Bruce ducked under the kick and came in close, thrusting an elbow in Duke’s face. He stepped to the side, getting out of its range, and sent a punch towards Bruce’s extended shoulder. He wasn’t fast enough, and Bruce struck out with his extended arm. Duke managed to duck beneath it, but had to give up his attack in the process. In that moment, Bruce twisted, putting Duke at his front again instead of at his side, and grabbed his arm before he could react. Bruce yanked on it, sending Duke flying past Bruce’s hip.
He hit the ground in a roll, groaning.
“Again,” Bruce demanded.
And, well, Duke wasn’t a quitter. He got to his feet.
Bruce gave him the generous breathing room of two heaved breaths before he was on him again. Duke lasted just a bit longer this time, trying to stay conscious of where his feet were, and where he was balancing his weight. Paying that much conscious attention made it worse for a few rounds, distracting him enough that he went down quickly, but by the time both he and Bruce were sweating (him admittedly more so than Bruce), he was starting to get it.
“Stop,” Bruce said at long last, and Duke lay there on the ground where Bruce had just thrown him, panting and feeling disgusting from the sweat that was literally dripping off his body. “Better. You still have work to do, but we’re done for today.”
Duke did not have nearly enough energy to respond to that, so he just raised his forearm off the ground instead, giving Bruce a weak thumbs up. He and Bruce didn’t share a lot of the same schedules, so it had been a while since he’d sparred with him. He forgot how wrung out it made him feel.
And how satisfied, too. Bruce was the most experienced fighter in their family; he could always beat them, but when they sparred, he always taught them. Sparring with Bruce was more about instruction than it was about practice. Seemed like it was that way even for this Bruce, too.
Bruce walked off the mats, grabbing one of the towels they kept near to it to wipe off sweat and heading back to the Batcomputer. Duke watched him go. He’d be staying on the floor for a little longer. He deserved it.
He turned his head back until he was watching the ceiling instead, and the clicking of the Batcomputer’s keyboard started up as Bruce did whatever research he needed for his latest cases. The ceiling of the cave looked the same it always did, the craggy ceiling above him, and Duke could pretend that he was back home again, except for the fact that he couldn't . Even lying on the same mats he was used to, hearing the familiar sounds of someone working in the Batcave, looking up at the same ceiling he always did when he got knocked on his ass in the name of training, he couldn’t pretend he was home. Not with the noticeable emptiness of the manor and the cave, not with hardly anyone talking to him like he was family, not with patrolling at night when he was supposed to be out during the day. And not with the constant beep of the sensors trying to monitor the signal that had yet to be found.
This wasn’t home. But, he thought, staring at the ceiling and thinking about his spar with Bruce, the way that he’d taught him instead of ignoring him and letting him get hurt in the field because of his own mistakes, maybe it didn’t have to be as bad as he’d been thinking. He’d get out of here and back to his own dimension, but he didn’t have to hate his time here. With this Alfred, and Tim, and even with Bruce.
He’d go home to his family, that was his main drive, and he wouldn’t trade his home for the world, but this Tim was enthusiastic, and smart, and a riot to have as a younger brother figure, and Alfred was just as warm and caring as his own, providing a home for Duke when he didn’t have to do anything at all. Bruce wasn’t so bad either. Rough around the edges, and hurting, but the way that he interacted with Duke sometimes made him think he could see bits of the parent that Duke knew in his own time shining through.
Duke slipped his Signal armor on, the routine of it comfortable. The patrols they’d been on had gone easily, even if he and Bruce were still wary of how the other would react to whatever they came across, and Bruce was finally starting to relax a little more around Duke.
There were still some sightings of League assassins, but they were always few and only ever at the very edge of sight, not making any moves towards them. On those nights, Bruce stuck to Duke so closely that Duke was almost tripping over him.
But it was getting better, and Bruce was starting to trust that Duke could take care of himself, too. They still didn’t see eye to eye on their methods of crime fighting, but since their conversation where they’d negotiated their new deal, Bruce had eased up just a little. It was hardly noticeable, and only when Duke was actively out on patrol with him, but it still meant something .
And patrolling again felt good. Duke had a purpose again, he had something he could do to actually help. This was Gotham, and he belonged to Gotham just as much as she did to him. The city he grew up in was a part of him, right down to his blood and marrow.
They were in the industrial district, the smog and trash providing a foul smelling cover for any criminal activities that were going on. It was hardly the big fish who were in this area. They’d already worked their way up the Gotham Villain Hierarchy; they had no need to utilize the trashier spaces. The low end criminals, however, were a different story altogether.
Almost as if on cue, there was a small scuffle coming from one of the warehouses. Raised voices, a crash, like someone was throwing half rotten furniture across the room. Batman raised a hand up to Duke as a signal to be quiet, that they’d stop here and bust this location. There were still several hundred warehouses, and emptying this one wouldn’t make the whole area suddenly devoid of criminal activity, but many criminals wouldn’t return to it for a few months at least.
Batman sightings themselves were almost like a criminal repellent in a way. No one wanted to get on Batman’s bad side. That was true for his own Batman, Duke thought, but it was likely doubly so for this one. He grimaced at the thought, remembering the fear in the would-be mugger’s eyes at encountering Batman.
No one knew if the next sighting was also going to report a death toll after all.
Well, there wouldn’t be, not if Duke could help it. And he thought that Batman was getting a little better. Maybe. He did let Duke step in to resolve situations before they could get unnecessarily violent most of the time now, so maybe there was some hope, even if it was just the barest amount of it.
Duke kept his footsteps quiet as he moved towards the roof of the warehouse and the activity within it. Batman was just in front of him, leading the way in through a broken window near the very top of the building. Batman slipped inside soundlessly, Duke following suit. Both of them held stock still, listening to the conversation below.
There wasn’t much to make out. Any shouting that might have happened in any other situation was replaced by low threats, one of the men in the middle floor of the warehouse grabbing another by the front of his shirt, several others standing by. None of them were recognizable, and from the dust of fine white powder that surrounded them, and the already bagged supplies, it wasn’t hard to tell that their main operation was drugs.
Duke glanced over to Batman, half out of habit and half out of acknowledging the man’s lead. Even if he’d been letting Duke make the final calls for the crimes they came across while patrolling, he was still in charge of calling the shots, and they both knew it. It was part of the reason Bruce let him come along on patrol. Not that Duke needed Batman to let him do anything.
Bruce gave Duke a nod. Duke climbed over the railing and onto one of the ceiling supports of the warehouse. He scaled the side of it, inching towards the group in the middle of the warehouse’s floor.
He observed them from directly above for a moment, and then dropped. He landed right in between all the members of the group and grinned.
“This doesn’t sound like law abiding behavior to me,” he said mock regretfully, looking around at all of the equipment and supplies they had scattered across the room. He shook his head, ducking beneath a swung pipe. “Hey!”
He turned around to face the woman who’d just tried to brain him with a pipe and neatly grabbed it from her, using it to sweep her legs out from underneath her. As she tumbled to the ground, Duke turned and jabbed out with it, forcing the man approaching him with a knife back. He snapped out some one liners, not really focusing that hard as he took him down.
They were all just small fry; career criminals whose careers never went anywhere.
There was a hairy moment when someone brought out a gun, but he knew how to deal with guns. He dealt with way more dangerous things on a daily basis; when he’d faced the whole host of Gotham’s rogues, guns, while still dangerous, were a lot easier to handle.
In no time, Duke had them all out, flat on their backs and groaning weakly. They’d be smarting and would need bandages for broken noses and scrapes, and the person who’d pulled the gun out would need a cast for their broken arm, but that was the worst of the damage dealt.
He turned to Batman, who was testing the drugs. It looked like just regular cocaine, but it was always safer to check that there wasn’t some new wonder drug they had to keep an eye out for.
From his expression, Duke was pretty sure that it wasn’t anything unusual, which meant that he could officially count tonight’s patrol as having no setbacks. Which was good, because he was ninety percent sure that Batman was testing or observing him. Not a super unusual feeling these days, but it was still good to know that Batman wouldn’t be able to find fault with his actions tonight.
“You talk too much when you fight. You’re distracting yourself.”
Except for that apparently.
“I hate to break it to you Batman, you picked up a bunch of chatty kids. Hasn’t gotten in the way of any of us yet, either.” Despite the fact that maybe it used to, just a little. It was fine, he’d long since learned how to not get distracted by his own mid-fight conversation, and it wasn’t like he was going to tell this Batman that it used to be a minor problem.
Batman just turned away from him without another word to secure the site, and it felt like a dismissal.
Duke sighed. Every time he thought they’d taken a small step forward, Bruce turned into a stone wall that made Duke think that maybe what he saw as a step forward, Bruce saw as three steps back.
To make matters worse, both he and Bruce were on edge from increased sightings of League assassins. It was never a good sign when Ra’s started poking around.
They never did anything, but it had Bruce cutting into the time Bruce took Duke out to patrol; and Duke knew that Batman went right back out into the city afterwards, because he might cut Duke’s patrol short, but would never take even a couple hours off his own schedule.
Over the next few days, Duke noticed Bruce hanging around more, but it lacked the looming qualities that he had in the beginning, and the intimidation factor he had when he would hardly let Duke out of his sight eased up. It was decidedly weird, but it also felt nice. Like his Bruce, who would often just stand off to the side and watch all his kids interacting for a minute or two before either joining in or walking away to do whatever he had to do that day.
Still just a little weird, with a grown man the size of a brick house just looming from the corner, but it wasn’t actually all that different from Duke’s Bruce.
Probably just protective parental instincts, with Tim right there.
And since Tim was hanging out with Duke more often, it meant that Bruce was inevitably there as well, even if it was just to check in for a few minutes.
Today they were playing chess on the antique set tucked away into the corner of the living room. They were both smart enough to make it a challenge for the other, but Duke had to acknowledge that it was just an amateur game. Neither he nor Tim were all that much of a chess player, and given Tim’s grimace at a missed opportunity as Duke captured his knight, he knew it too.
They both had the strategy down, but the sheer amount of possibilities and their inexperience in chess made it harder to make the quick calculations that would bring the game to a decisive end.
“We can play slap next if we can find a deck of cards,” Tim laughed. “Our reflexes have got to be better than our chess skills.”
“Only if you cut your nails,” Duke teased him. “I still have the scratches from the last time we played a reflexes game. Look,” he said, showing Tim his hand. There weren’t any marks on it, and while he had gotten scratched by Tim’s nails, it was hardly enough to even raise a small welt. They’d disappeared even before the game had ended, but Duke was never going to give up the ability to tease Tim about it. His nails weren’t even long, but one of them had a ragged edge from where it got caught on something, and that was what made it sharp enough to make a brief red mark.
Tim sputtered. “There’s nothing even there anymore! And I said I was sorry!”
“Actually,” Bruce interrupted, walking over to them and standing behind Tim. “I’d like to play the winner of this match, if you’re up for it.”
He was looking straight at Duke, and while Duke knew that he currently had a slight advantage on the chess board, he raised his eyebrows at Bruce’s certainty that he would win.
“Sure,” he said.
“Fine by me,” Tim agreed cheerfully. “Won’t be much of a match though. You’re way too good at chess to have any kind of challenge from us.”
They played out the rest of their game, which didn’t last particularly long. Duke won, the advantage from earlier carrying out through the rest of the game. It didn’t hurt that he was also a few years older than Tim, even if they had about roughly the same chess experience. He was usually more of a checkers kind of guy.
Tim relinquished his seat, and Bruce took his place as Duke reset the board.
The following game was swift, brutal, and ended with Duke’s sound defeat.
He wasn’t surprised in the slightest; even his Bruce wasn’t known for taking it easy on his kids, preferring to use each lost game, failure, and mistake as a teaching moment instead.
Duke started to clear the pieces from the board, moving to put them away, but Bruce stuck out his hand, halting the movement.
“Leave it. Let’s replay the match.”
Bruce started to reset the pieces instead, placing them all back in their places at the start of the game. Then he started to replay their match, moving piece by piece in a replay of their game, explaining the moves, and what the better moves would have been in certain defenses and attacks.
It was exactly the kind of thing that Duke’s own Bruce would do for him, and just like with his Bruce, he paid careful attention to what he was showing him.
Bruce’s positive attention was always something that he and all of his siblings sought out, even if they denied it, and it was a precious commodity in the household, what with him spread between being Bruce Wayne, Batman, and parent to several children.
Getting that attention from this other Bruce felt almost like a betrayal of his Bruce, which was ridiculous. They were the same person–or they would be, anyway. And Duke couldn’t help but feel happy that this Bruce was teaching him. That he, at least in some way, started to think of him as a hero under his wing.
It felt like an apology, too, even though Bruce never said the words out loud, and Duke took it for one. He could see Bruce’s shoulders relaxing just the tiniest bit as they continued the teaching game and that made Duke feel more comfortable in turn. This Bruce had a lot of rough edges, but he wasn’t really that different from the Bruce that Duke knew.
Afterwards, when Tim asked Bruce if he wanted to join in on a card game, Duke even saw him smile a little, though he declined, and he looked so much like his Bruce that Duke’s heart ached even as the tiny smile made him feel a spark of warmth and home.
Later that night, he and Bruce were on patrol again, a fact that was becoming increasingly common. This officially marked it as the third patrol that week, and the week wasn’t even done yet; a lot more than the two patrol days per week Duke had originally bargained for. Even if the patrols were being cut shorter than they usually would be, Duke let himself feel cautiously positive about the whole thing. They were still getting used to each other, but the longer Duke was here in this world, the more he and Bruce found a dynamic that was at least amicably tolerant of the other. Sometimes Duke even found himself feeling reluctantly fond of this bizarre version of Bruce. He didn’t know how much of that fondness was from conflating the two Bruces, but conflation wouldn’t account for the way this Bruce would sometimes awkwardly pat his shoulder in stilted semi-parental affection. Like a parent who forgot who their kid was, but knew they were supposed to care about them in some abstract sense. It was a bizarrely nice gesture towards someone who’d suddenly dropped, unwelcomed, into his life. As far as this Bruce had the ability to be nice or do things like feel emotions that had nothing to do with guilt or anger, anyway.
Even the patrols had started to become easier. Bruce was still letting Duke take the lead when taking down smaller criminals, which was the only kind of fighting Duke got into on patrol, since there hadn’t been another Arkham breakout or city wide catastrophe since the first one. Batman always insisted on taking care of anything else on his own, despite Duke repeatedly making the point that helping out when it was more serious was the exact reason he was there.
Nonetheless, Bruce refused to let him out on the nights that it did get more serious. Nothing so far was nearly as severe as an Arkham breakout, so Duke let the issue lie. He’d press it if it got worse, and if he was here for longer, but there wasn’t too much point right now, when Duke knew he’d just be met with stoicism and point blank refusal.
That night’s patrol was going easily; the streets of Gotham quiet for once.
Which maybe should have been a tip off that things were going to go awry, but hindsight is 20/20, and Duke had fallen into a false sense of security by Gotham’s streets being mostly empty of anyone but the petty criminals.
The first sign of it starting to go bad was when the League assassins struck. Duke had been lulled into a wary confidence by the way they’d mostly been standing by for the last two weeks, far enough away to be barely visible even to Duke’s sight.
This was not how the night was supposed to go, he thought bitterly as he caught a glimpse of Bruce’s whirling shadow on a rooftop about three blocks away from him. He dodged a sword swipe, turning his attention back to his own fight. He grimaced. One on three, especially three super assassins, wasn’t the best odds. He could do it. But he wasn’t looking forward to how badly he’d be injured at the end of the night.
The assassins had managed exactly what he’d promised Bruce they wouldn’t do and Duke found himself on a rooftop three blocks away from where Bruce was and out of reach with three assassins squaring off against him.
Duke ducked as a blade whistled right over his head, shifting his body to kick upwards, targeting the assassin’s blade arm.
This was not how the night was supposed to go, he thought bitterly. As two other assassins near him struck out, aiming for his extremities, he dodged, twisting to the side to avoid the blows and catching a split second glimpse of Batman on the other building’s rooftop, a tightly controlled shadow ripping into assassin after assassin. Batman was seeking him out too, and their eyes briefly met. Duke was startled by his expression; it was clear to see that Bruce was furious, but underneath the fury he looked… scared. Scared for him , Duke realized.
Then he couldn’t look any more, attention stolen by the weighted end of one of his opponents’ chain-sickles as it wrapped around his arm. Its user tugged him forward, trying to unbalance him, but Duke didn’t resist the pull. He leaned into it instead, letting it carry him forward and out of the way of the other two assassins. He had to play this one closely.
The sickle flashed against what little light there was in Gotham’s smog at night, but it was more than enough for Duke, who could see like it was daytime out to easily see it, and he brought up his forearm to guard against it. It bit into his armor, but was stopped easily before it could even get all the way through, and Duke exploited the opening he’d created for all he was worth.
He smashed his fist against the assassin's temple, then tugged down on the chain that connected him to the assassin. He winced when it tightened uncomfortably around his arm, but it did exactly what he wanted and brought the assassin closer to him; close enough to sweep one leg out and trip the assassin, leaving him falling in that split second vulnerability that gave Duke the advantage as he brought one of his escrima sticks crashing down on the assassin’s head.
Almost as soon as he was down, another had taken his place. Duke squared up, holding his escrima sticks at the ready and keeping steady on the balls of his feet for quick and flexible movement. His eyes darted between the assassins he still had yet to take down. They were standing still almost like they were waiting for something.
It didn’t take Duke long to figure out what they were waiting for.
“The bat’s protege has some bite to him after all,” came an unwelcome voice from the shadows, chuckling in blasé amusement.
A chill went down Duke’s spine.
Ra’s al Ghul stepped forward from the shadows. He must have taken advantage of Duke’s distraction with his assassins to step into the vicinity undetected. Everything about the man set Duke’s teeth on edge. This wasn’t someone he could cross paths with easily, and Duke tried to back away, but every direction he turned to only had assassins blocking his path.
It was only supposed to be the assassins that would come into Gotham; Ra’s himself never did unless he had something personal to gain from it. Something he couldn’t get from his lackeys…. or something he thought was best handled by himself.
Duke cursed up a blue streak, biting his lip nervously as his stomach sank. He was separated from Bruce, fighting off Ra’s al Ghul and three assassins, with more probably waiting for the command. This was bad. This was really, really bad.
Assassins he could handle. A centuries old megalomaniac who had used those centuries to hone his body and mind? He was out of his depth. He was swimming in the middle of the ocean with no boat nearby and not even a life jacket to help him float kind of out of his depth.
And yet right now he had no choice. He was already in the ocean. He just had to find a way out of it.
He jumped back, putting distance between him and Ra’s. It brought him closer to the assassins just behind him, but he wasn’t one of the bats for nothing. Bruce had long since drilled into him how important it was to keep aware of his environment, especially in a fight. He knew that the assassins behind him would strike as soon as they got the chance, and prepared for it. His eyes flared gold as he ducked the sword blade that would have been thrust into his shoulder. He executed a small half turn that brought him face to face with the assassin that had just attacked him and he tackled from his lower, crouched position, throwing a shoulder into the gut of the assassin that had just tried to stab him.
For good measure he drew out his batarang and stabbed it into the hand she’d been carrying her sword in, flinging two other batarangs at the other assassins that were trying to corner him.
Duke caught a brief glimmer of interest in Ra’s eyes. He didn’t know if that was from the show of meta powers, or the fighting he was doing, but either way, Ra’s al Ghul's interest never boded anything well.
Conscious of the heavy weight of Ra's' gaze on him, he glanced around wildly for Batman. Bruce was still on that rooftop three blocks away from Duke’s, surrounded by what seemed like an unending wave of assassins. He was tearing through the assassins, and Duke felt a brief glimmer of hope that it would be over soon, but that hope died out as each assassin that went down under the onslaught of Batman's fists down was replaced immediately by another.
Duke lost sight of him as he dodged a strike from one of the assassins that he was facing and he was forced to look away to face his own small horde of them. He retaliated at the one who had just tried to hit him, lashing out with one of his escrima sticks and landing a solid blow. When she staggered back, the one behind her seamlessly flowed into the space she’d been in, closing the small gap that had briefly opened up.
The assassins just kept coming, and Duke felt like he was drowning in them. It was a constant blur of punches, kicks, and dodges as he lashed out at the army of assassins around him. Quick thinking and keeping on his toes let him maneuver past several hits, but he couldn’t avoid all of them.
There was a sharp jab to his ribs, and Duke’s breath caught in the back of his throat at the pain. He had no other option than continue to fight though, and gave as good as he got, striking out against the many arms and weapons reaching out for him.
He laid two more assassins low, eyes blazing as he used his powers to read his opponents’ movements, taking by force every possible advantage he could have over them.
When there were that many enemies, though, even all seeing eyes couldn’t help him. He cried out at the searing pain in his right shoulder, twisting around and kicking away the assassin that had speared him through. The pain rippled through him, but it was quickly chased by a numbness that spread even further than the area localized to the wound. A paralytic, he realized as his body started to deaden.
The harder he tried to fight off the assassins, the heavier his limbs became and the harder it was to stay upright, the adrenaline driving up his heart rate and spreading the paralytic through his body that much faster. He continued to strike out relentlessly, even though his arms felt like they were starting to fill with lead and he could barely move his legs to dodge the oncoming blows. The shoulder and arm where he’d been stabbed were the first to completely be paralyzed.
His only apparent saving grace was that it only affected his body. He couldn’t let himself lose awareness now, not if he wanted to have the chance to get out of this in one piece.
Luckily whatever concoction they’d drugged him with wasn’t forcing him to unconsciousness. Knowing Ra’s that was less of a coincidence and more of a planned side effect. He couldn’t answer Ra’s' interrogation if he was unconscious after all, and a full body paralytic would typically be shutting his brain down too. Usually for good. So yeah, it was lucky that his focus was as sharp as it always was, because dying in the middle of a fight because of a drug was not the way he wanted to go, thanks.
Despite the heaviness and numbness weighing him down, he gritted his teeth and powered through the haze. The paralytic was––somehow––non-lethal, and each strike from the assassins surrounding him was meant to incapacitate, and to maim, but none were aimed to kill. It seemed like what Bruce had thought about Ra’s wanting to study the anomaly–– him– –was true.
Duke grimaced as he barely brought an escrima stick up with his good arm, just in time to block a blow that struck him with so much force it vibrated through it and up to his shoulder, almost totally numbing what little feeling he had left in his hand, and sending pain shooting up the rest of his arm. He couldn’t even tell where it came from, each of the assassins blending into the pitch black of Gotham’s night and into the backdrop of vivid black that the other League assassins provided, and his response time was too slow to catch even what direction it came from. He flinched as he tried accessing his powers, the world burst into a streaky gold that dominated his vision and drowned out all details, leaving only a head splitting, pulsing golden glow.
Great. The paralytic affected his powers too, apparently.
He was no good to Ra’s dead. At least he’d be kept alive until Ra’s decided it was time to move to the autopsy kind of evaluation. He wouldn’t risk him dying, but, Duke thought as the numbness oozed throughout his body, he wouldn’t risk him escaping either. Ra’s was playing for keeps this time, careful of what happened to Duke and trying to control every factor. After all, even if he could bring him back to life, there was no telling what the Lazarus Pit would do to the results if the League tried to get any kind of readings from him.
It took one last close strike from one of the assassins and Duke shifted his weight, trying to move so that the blow would barely graze him, and even through all his training with Batman, even with all his experience in the field, he still failed. He managed to avoid the worst of the hit, but it came at a cost, and he cursed as his legs buckled under his shifting weight and finally gave way underneath him. He didn’t even feel any pain as he hit the ground head first, even though any other time he’d hit the ground that hard his head would be bruised, the helmet unable to absorb all the impact. His brain felt rattled, but he couldn’t tell if that was from the impact or the terror that was coursing through his body because this was it. He was dead in the water.
It was like there was some unspoken signal as soon as he dropped like a puppet with cut strings. The assassins all backed off, and Duke could see their feet as they stood, upright and with a careful stillness in a circle surrounding him. There was silence then, but Duke only had to wait a moment before black armored boots stood just inches in front of him. It was all Duke could see with his limited field of vision and he didn’t need the intricate designs etched into them to know that Ra’s was looking down at his paralyzed body lying limp on the rooftop. Bile rose up in his throat at the thought of Ra’s getting his hands on him, like he’d gotten to his brothers, and there was a pit of yawning fear that started to drag at his thoughts.
Maybe fear made the outlines sharper, but Duke could see every swirl etched into the man’s boots, could see the threads in the cloth of his vibrant green cape that trailed on the ground behind him. Ra’s stood over him and between his frantic thoughts Duke could feel the burning contempt he had for Ra’s’ gloating––because that was totally what he was doing. He was such a smug bastard.
Ra’s reached down towards him and grasped Duke’s chin in his hand. He raised his head up and Duke growled at the strain on his neck as Ra’s tilted his head back and forth, like he was trying to evaluate Duke’s worth through his helmet. Ra’s smirked, and Duke would have really loved to have any kind of movement back, just so he could punch him right in his smarmy face, but all his efforts netted him was the weak flop of an arm and a half roll to his side as he clumsily shifted his weight against the cold, hard concrete rooftop.
Ra’s laughed at him, rough and condescending.
Fortunately, Duke thought with no small bit of satisfaction as a massive, ragged shadow came out of nowhere with a guttural growl, he was just the right kind of condescending to take too long indulging his own ego. Batman, having apparently finished dealing with all the assassins that had been left for him, immediately started in on Ra’s with a brutal strike to his ribs that Ra’s slid out of the way of, taking it to his shoulder instead. The quick turn of events meant that Duke’s head hit the sidewalk again as Ra’s dropped his grip on Duke’s jaw, but Duke caught enough of a glimpse to see that Bruce’s fist slammed into Ra’s’ left shoulder; the same one that Duke got stabbed in, and he felt petty vindication, the two engaged in a high speed exchange of blows, striking and twisting around each other in a violent dance.
Duke forced his arms underneath him, fighting the paralytic every inch of the way. Barely keeping his numb body from collapsing under its own weight again, he painstakingly peeled himself off the ground and lurched to his feet, escrima barely managing to stay in his hands through his weak grip on them. Break time was over. He bared his teeth at the assassins that surrounded him and forced his limbs to obey him, raising his escrima sticks up to attack.
They clearly weren’t taking him seriously, lax enough about him rising to his feet, as battle ready as he could be, but that was their mistake. Duke set in with clumsy fury, throwing himself at them, technique useless to him in his weakened state. His own response time was so slow he couldn’t tell who he was hitting or where, just aiming for the more vulnerable parts of the assassins’ bodies, trying to make it count with just brute force above precision, even though both had abandoned him more now. Through each hit he got in, there were six that struck him. One of his escrima sticks was ripped away from his grasp. He reached for a batarang instead, using it to slash at his opponents, a live blade keeping them further from him than his sticks did, even if it wasn’t by that much.
The fight was going past in a blur, one blob of black indistinguishable from the next, but he wasn’t one of Gotham’s vigilantes for nothing, and he felt the thrill of hard won victory at each takedown he did, leaving the assassins on the ground behind as he pushed forward. They weren’t down for good, and definitely not even for more than a minute, but if he could thin their forces even just for a minute, that would be enough to help. That would be enough to distract them, to make himself less of an easy target, even though Duke knew how vulnerable he was. What damage he was doing was mostly up to luck and the burning drive to not be taken down, not now and not here, but his luck and ferocity couldn’t last forever, and Duke’s teeth rattled, head snapping to the side and vision going black when one of the assassins smashed the hilt of their sword into his temple. Duke dropped like a stone, head ringing with the force of the blow.
Shapes moved in and out of the corner of his vision, flying past him, all black and all moving frantically. He felt his eyes start to close involuntarily, like he was blinking really, really slowly, his already heavy body made worse by the knock to his head. When he opened his eyes again, there were more dark forms lying prone on the rooftop than there had been before. He forced his eyes open. He had to stay aware. He didn’t think he could get up again, but as long as he was in control mentally, he still had his own control to rely on.
Whirling through the remaining assassins was a dark shadow. His focus was fuzzy and his head still ringing, but he would know Batman anywhere, the cape, the cowl, and the way he moved were all distinct enough that he was able to tell immediately. In no time, the remaining assassins were all lying prone on the rooftop.
“What ‘bout Ra’s?” he croaked out as Batman approached him.
“Being taken care of.”
There was something in the back of Duke’s mind that latched onto something, but the second he tried to follow the trail to it, it slipped away, further from where his thoughts could go when his head was pounding like that. The clang of a fight in the background seemed important. And then a flash of green was quickly chased by a long black cape into and then out of the corner of his vision, and the pieces started to fit together.
“What? By who?” Duke looked over to where the sounds of a continuing fight registered. Ra’s was still there, engaged in battle with… Batman.
Still with extreme difficulty due to the paralytic, Duke turned his head around to look at the person he’d just been talking to, who wore the cape, wore the cowl, and who fought the exact same way that Batman did. He had recognized him immediately when he fought all the League assassins. Duke sucked in a breath, eyes wide, staring straight at Batman–– his Batman––unblinkingly, like he was afraid he’d disappear if Duke looked away too long.
Batman just carefully reached down and gathered Duke’s limp body up, hoisting him into his arms and cradling him against his chest. Duke could feel the warmth of another human body even through both their armor. It made it real .
“Oh. B!! Oh my god B, it’s you, you’re here. ” He laughed in stilted, numb, giddy relief and clutched weakly at the arms holding him up, fingers twitching with the effort of fighting to function through the paralysis. This was Bruce. His Bruce. He could have cried, Bruce came for him, he found him. He could go home .
Bruce stood up, still supporting Duke, one arm tightly wound around him and pressing him close, half hiding Duke under his cape and holding him like he’d never let go of Duke again.
His other arm was held out, ready to combat anyone who tried to fight him. Besides Ra’s, already occupied by the other Batman, there was no one. The assassins were all laid out on the ground, whether put there by Duke, or either of the Batmans. Batmen? Duke thought, head still woozy. What exactly was the plural of Batman?
Duke’s head lolled back, rolling into Bruce’s shoulder. Bruce kept his guard up, knowing full well that some of the assassins that were lying prone on the rooftop had either woken up or were never quite fully down in the first place. There was always the chance that they would pop right back up the second that Bruce let his guard down to fulfill their leader’s orders.
The leader that was, at that moment, entirely engaged by the Batman of this dimension as they exchanged punches and kicks, fighting styles extremely similar, but Bruce having that slight edge over Ra’s. Despite how close it was, Batman’s incorporation of and flexibility in including other martial arts and fighting styles–ones Ras’ often saw as beneath him–gave him an advantage.
Unfortunately, experience in a fight counted over almost anything else, especially when both fighters already knew each others’ fighting styles. And Ra’s, thousands of years old, had more than enough experience. There was a lot of give and take, and when Batman had been burning the candle at both ends, getting sloppy with his technique because he was taking unnecessary risks and movement, Ra’s was doing a lot more of the taking the longer the fight went on.
He needed help, and Duke wasn’t in a position to give it. But there was someone here who was. And who better to help someone protect Gotham and her people than Batman? The assassins were all down anyway, and though Duke knew better than to assume they were all actually unconscious rather than waiting for an opportune moment to strike, Duke could handle himself. He was already regaining motor control, enough to stand and move his arms, though his whole body still felt filled with lead, and he pushed away Bruce’s arms.
“Go,” he said through numb lips, his voice coming out slurred. He frowned and made a disgruntled noise in the back of his throat at the lack of control he had over his body, but met Bruce’s eyes evenly. “I can handle myself.”
Bruce nodded once, just a dip of his head, and turned around to face Ra’s. Duke’s heart warmed at the sign of trust between them; that even when he was slightly impaired, Bruce trusted him to know his limits and respected them, trusting his son.
Duke watched him throw himself into battle, sharp, controlled movements always so mesmerizing to watch. The way Bruce fought, there was hardly any wasted movement, just blunt power carefully coiled just under the surface of his skin and bursting to come out. His actions were mirrored by the same power as the Batman from this timeline, and though there was less restraint shown in his punches, it mirrored that same grace that was so familiar to his Bruce, and for the first time Duke was neither seeing them as two totally separate people, unable to reconcile them or, contradictorily, seeing them as one and the same. He saw the Bruce that could evolve into the Bruce that he knew. He was so different in so many ways, ways that made it seem impossible for him to become the Bruce that Duke knew, and yet. It really was all right there, under the surface.
Ra’s had been keeping an even playing field with the Bruce of this dimension, exchanging blows with equal power and deftness, but all that changed with two Batmans (Batmen? This was not a possibility that Duke had ever considered, and the pluralization felt awkward even in his head).
Watching them, not knowing the situation, it would have been easy to assume that they had been fighting together for years, or that they had a mental link which connected them and allowed them to communicate.
The way they attacked was quick, Batman – Duke’s Batman – getting in a quick, strong hit and then withdrawing just in time for the other Batman to strike from a completely different angle and hitting just as hard.
Duke stayed crouching by the wall of the rooftop access that Bruce had leaned him against; clutching a batarang in his hand. None of the assassins were moving towards him; the few that Duke had seen move disappeared into the shadows along the edge of the rooftop. They could see the difficulties that Ra’s was having too. It was smart to wait for his orders when any kind of victory that he’d hoped to grab was not only uncertain, but unlikely.
The fight was satisfying to watch. Duke could see the grimace on Ra’s' face as he battled between his pride and common sense, could see the sweat beading on his forehead as he tried to keep up with two Batmans.
And Duke could see the exact moment that Ra’s decided to retreat. Reaching into one of the folds of his cloak, he pulled out a smoke bomb and threw it at the ground, melting away under the cover of the thick white smoke cloud.
At almost the exact moment he did so, every assassin that was conscious also disappeared into the shadows, taking with them the assassins that were out cold. Duke, with all the knowledge of someone who’d taken a peek at the future, didn’t move beyond a slight shift in position that would be better to defend himself from if one of them did decide to fulfill their leader’s goal and try to snatch him, too, as they made their escape.
His Bruce tensed, but that was it, eyes on Duke and taking his cues from him. The other Bruce leaped forward, jumping into a defensive crouch in front of Duke, batarangs clutched in his fist. He didn’t have anything to worry about. The smoke cleared from the rooftop, pushed lazily away by the slight nighttime breeze, revealing rooftops that were entirely bare of any sign of the fighting that had just occurred.
“Hey B,” Duke said, rolling his foot over to tap lightly at Batman’s ankle. “Help me up?”
Batman clasped his forearm tightly against Duke’s pulling him gently to his feet and stabilizing him once he was standing. Duke’s Bruce looked on in amusement. There must have been something that Duke was missing because he didn’t see any reason for Bruce to be amused, but he figured that it was probably fair of him to analyze whatever was going on in the other Bruce’s head. They were, after all, kind of the same person.
Once fully standing under his own power, both the Batmans moved to flank him. It was Duke’s turn to be amused. “I’m fine, you know. I don’t need any hand holding to get back to the cave, and the paralytic is almost completely out of my system.”
“Indulge me,” his Bruce said, and Duke flashed him a small smile. Seeing his parent, his family, after being so long apart was one of the best feelings in the world and he felt giddy, and just a little lightheaded. Which hopefully wasn’t a sign of any other symptoms of the paralytic.
The three of them made their way back to the Batcave as quickly as they could. Duke’s stiff muscles stalled them a bit. His legs were a little slower to respond to him. It wasn’t by that much, but compared to the long strides of both Bruces, it was more than noticeable, but they still made it back pretty quickly. Duke’s footsteps sent out echoes into the batcave with each scuffed step as they walked in his feet dragging just a little heavier than they otherwise would have.
They’d traveled in silence. The only communication that any of them was attempting were the concerned looks that both Bruces were sending him, and at least they had something in common already, Duke thought good naturedly.
“Master Bruce, it is a relief to see you back safe. Both of you, and you as well, Duke,” Alfred greeted. Just behind him was a swirling portal, white edges swirling with color. There was a gauzy haze covering it like a film, but through it Duke could make out another version of the Batcave. His version.
Seeing it brought back so many emotions, and he blinked away the tears that started welling up in his eyes. He sniffled a little.
A large hand came down to rest comfortably on his shoulder and he relaxed into it, leaning into Bruce’s side as he drew him closer. Shifting slightly to the side, Bruce carefully and slowly, like he was trying to not attract Duke’s attention, drew his cape halfway over Duke’s shoulder. Duke laughed. The tears started to come harder, and he let himself sink into the sheer relief, laughter and tears bubbling up together.
He shuffled closer to Bruce, further underneath his cape. The thick fabric draped itself over him and almost swallowed him up as Bruce tucked the edge of the cape further around him.
The whole cape thing had started as a joke mostly, when Dick and Barbara made jokes about being the first to be taken under Bruce’s wing, but it had long since morphed into something that they all took comfort from. It wasn’t unusual to see any one of them huddled up under Bruce’s cape (whether he himself was there or not) when they were having a bad day.
In his cave back home, he could see his siblings. Each one of them was waiting, almost vibrating with impatience at the edge of the portal. Even Alfred was right there, waiting on the edge, almost hidden behind Jason’s hulking shoulders.
Duke tore his attention away from them when the other Bruce spoke to his Bruce. “I assume you were able to connect to our signal. He’s a benefit to our dimension, but it’s well past the time he should be returned to where he belongs, in his own home and with his family.” He offered Duke a small smile. It was really just a tiny twitch of the lips, but since spending so much time around him (voluntarily and involuntarily), he knew exactly how rare it was for this Bruce to genuinely smile.
He impulsively stepped out from underneath his Bruce’s cape and quickly hugged the other. It was over quick, just a short squeeze before he immediately let go. He and this version of Bruce hadn’t seen eye to eye for most of Duke’s involuntary stay in this dimension, and it was awkward due to that, but even with how brief the hug was, Bruce managed to snake an arm around Duke and give him a quick squeeze back. It was uncomfortable, and felt kind of like being crushed against a brick wall, but it was still nice.
He stepped over to Alfred next. “Thank you, Alfred,” he said warmly. “For everything.” And there were volumes in what he didn’t say. Alfred was the first one to really welcome him home, the first one to accept him, for all that it wasn’t really his home or his family.
Alfred was the one to reach forward this time, and he grasped Duke around the shoulders. “No, thank you .” He turned to Duke’s Bruce. “You should be proud of your son. He’s a very fine young man indeed.”
“I could not be any prouder of him,” Bruce responded, voice open with raw honesty, and Duke knew that Bruce was proud of him, but he’d had such a long few weeks without that reminder. And it wasn’t exactly fair to the other Bruce, struggling to stay afloat in his grief as he was, but it was hard to not only not receive pride and love from his parent, but to be met with disapproval and rejection from the person that shared his face.
Duke glanced over at the portal, itching to get home, but there was one last goodbye he had to make.
“Tim’s at his house,” Bruce said, checking his watch. “His parents are coming in from traveling for a business trip, and he wanted to be there to greet them.”
There was the sound of pounding feet as Tim came careening down the stairs to the Batcave, proving Bruce wrong almost as soon as he’d spoken.
“I heard reports of Batman in two differe–oh.” He cut himself off, pulling himself up short, blinking at the two Batmans standing in the cave. Duke stifled a laugh as his brain seemed to reboot before connecting the two dots. He turned to Duke, cracking a weak smile, “Is that Batman yours?” he asked.
Duke nodded, grinning at Tim. His grin fell a little as he took in Tim’s strained expression, though he could tell that he was trying to cover it up with faked happiness. And oh. He almost forgot that Tim was losing some of the only peer companionship he had at this age. He’d grown to like the kid too, over the time that he was here, but he was able to go back right to his own Tim, dumb jokes and ready hugs and all. This Tim wouldn’t have anyone he would connect to like that for a while. And this world’s version of Duke wouldn’t be around for at least another three years, maybe more, if Bruce could help his parents.
“Oh, Tim.” Duke reached out and gathered Tim into his arms. “I’m gonna miss you, too.” He could hear Tim sniffle into his shoulder, and wrapped his arms around him tighter. “It might not be the same me,” he said after a minute, pulling away from the hug to look Tim in the eyes, wet and rimmed with red. “but this world’s Duke Thomas is still here. And I can guarantee you he’s a precocious little brat who will get involved in all this sooner or later, so when that time comes, you’ll have the chance to get a really awesome younger brother. He’s the best younger brother. And your favorite,” he finished, with a cheeky grin.
Tim grinned back up at him, still watery, and gave a weak push against Duke’s shoulders. “You keep talking like that and I’m going to think you’re lying.”
Duke shifted his hold on Tim until he was in a headlock, body trapped under Duke’s arm. He ruffled a yelping Tim’s hair. “I’ll have you know I’m the best little brother you could ever ask for,” he declared, grinning down at Tim even through the continued assault. With a handful of inches of difference in their heights, and the fact that Duke had been trained and active in the field for longer than Tim, it was easy to keep him trapped there. Tim was laughing though, so Duke counted it as a good deed, glad to see the tears gone and the strained smile replaced with a bright grin. He put on an exaggerated theatrical voice, “I am absolutely perfect. People have thought that I was born with older siblings, even, no one ever guessed that I used to be an only child. You’re going to be a very lucky person when you find me.”
Duke knew himself, and with his track record, he was pretty sure that it was going to be a matter of “when” and not “if”. He didn’t know for sure, but this world’s version of him was still him after all, and if he knew himself at all (and he did like to think of himself as being at least a little self aware), he knew that he’d be sticking his nose where it didn’t exactly belong during times of crisis.
Give Tim’s hair one last ruffle, he let go of him. Tim immediately stood up, sorting his hair into its rightful place and making a face at Duke. Duke pulled him into a one armed hug. “You’re going to be okay,” he promised.
“I’ll miss you,” Tim said, curling into Duke’s side. “But you have to go. It’s probably not great to keep the portal open for this long.”
Bruce–both of them–walked up to the two. Tim’s Bruce kneeled in front of Tim, putting a hand on his shoulder in comfort.
“We’ll have to go through as soon as we can,” Duke’s Bruce said gently. “Kept open too long, it’ll destabilize both universes.”
Duke squeezed Tim closer into his side, and then let go. He and his Bruce moved towards the portal. Towards their family. Duke felt tears well up in his eyes at seeing them again. It had been far too long. The tears were a little bittersweet though, and Duke glanced back over his shoulder at the Tim, Alfred, and Bruce of this dimension.
He gave them one last smile, and then he stepped through the portal and into the waiting hands of his family.
The instant he was all the way through the portal, everyone surged forward. Jason grabbed him first, dragging him into a crushing hug, squeezing the breath out of Duke’s lungs. “Never,” he said, “do that again. You really had me worried there.”
“You had all of us worried. It’s good to have you home again,” Dick said warmly, reaching over Tim’s head as he crowded behind Duke to place a warm hand on Duke’s shoulder.
Tim just said a simple, very relieved “Missed you.” His arms reached around Duke and he hooked his chin over his other shoulder. He squeezed, and Duke’s ribs ached from being solidly sandwiched into a hug between two of his siblings.
Damian started wedging his way into it too, shoving his way past Tim and Jason’s arms to grasp Duke’s side. He didn’t say anything, but Duke’s shirt stretched, pulling at the collar with how tightly Damian had curled his fingers into it. He hid his face against Duke’s shirt, and Duke wiggled an arm free from the hug to throw it around Damian, pressing him closer.
“I missed you guys, too.” That was an understatement. Coming home to his family was like finding everything that he’d ever lost, all at once. And in a way, that was exactly what it was like.
Cass climbed up Jason’s back and kneeled on his shoulders, reaching down to drop an arm around Duke’s neck, and gave a loose hug.
Steph stepped in, too, just a beat after everyone else, but that didn’t count for any less, not when she wrapped her arms around Tim and Dick and squeezed them together so hard that they got squished into Duke to give him a hug by proxy. “Sorry we took so long,” she said.
“Hey, no,” Duke protested. “You guys got me back, and I wasn’t even gone that long. I’m here,” he said firmly. “I’m home.”
Bruce came up then, and wrapped his arms around all of them, folding Alfred into the hug too.
Duke breathed in deeply, centering himself, his emotions taking him on a wild ride after the night he’d just been through, but so, so happy to be here, home again, and surrounded by family.
Bruce squeezed tighter, eliciting some grumbles from those less inclined towards hugs, but no one moved from the mass of bodies they’d become, all piled up on each other like that. Duke grinned into Jason’s shoulder, his eyes tearing up as he was hugged within an inch of his life.
“Welcome home, Duke.”
Man, I can’t believe it’s finally at the last chapter!! I also can’t believe that I thought at first this fic was going to be a 10k oneshot LMAO
Sorry for the week of delay! I've had a lot going on, so posting got postponed a bit, but here you guys are!! Finally at the end!! I'm also super sorry if there were any moments that didn't make sense; I wrote this in a haze, going right up to the sleepless deadline of the Duke Thomas Big Bang oops!
Shoutout to [REPACTED], who encouraged me to keep going even when I hated writing because I’d never written anything over 18k words before and just wanted to be done with it all, and who also were there to see me go unhinged when I accidentally fell asleep while writing. I somehow kept writing WHILE ASLEEP, accidentally and briefly turning it into a Star Wars crossover fic with pirate captain Solo 😂
I hope you all enjoyed the story!