The sound of small talk seemed cacophonous when there were roughly 400 people adding to it. The clinking of champagne glasses and the tap-tapping of shoes on polished marble only added to the volume that a group of upper-class people could make.
The gala tonight was the spring gala of the Martha Wayne Foundation, held on every second Sunday in May. All proceeds donated tonight would go towards the maternity wards of hospitals in order to provide the utmost care possible for single mothers or victims of abuse.
Bruce knew that this was a very important night, both for the hospitals of Gotham and for network making for Wayne Enterprises. He knew this very well, but…
Honestly, he’d rather be down in the cave, going over cold cases from decades ago.
“Ah, Mr. Wayne!” a smooth voice greeted from behind. Bruce kept himself from tensing, but only just. Whoever was behind him had snuck up so stealthily that even his battle-honed senses hadn’t been able to pick them up.
So that meant it could only be…
“Mr. Masters!” Bruce replied with an eager, open smile. “Or should I say Mayor Masters? It’s good to see you at my gala tonight!”
“Oh, you know I would never pass up an opportunity to rub elbows with other politicians and multi-millionaires.” Vlad offered a hand in greeting. “Though it’s not going to be Mayor for much longer I’m afraid. I’m abstaining from this next election.”
Bruce kept his smile from tightening through sheer practice. “Heading for something higher up? Governor? Senator? ... President?”
“Oh, heavens no!” Vlad waved the idea away. “Can you believe what Luthor would do to me if I trampled on his turf? No, I’m staying out of politics. Too much work, no recognition, you know.”
He didn't and didn’t plan to, but having a villain out of the running for President was always good in his book. “So, I take it you’ll be busy with the company then?”
“Quite so,” Vlad answered, eyes skimming the crowd. “Along with teaching my apprentice.”
Bruce couldn’t help a stiffening of the muscles. He hadn’t heard anything about an apprentice from any of the League’s sources. Yes, Masters was rather low on their priority list, all things considered, but he thought he would have heard something. “Oh? This is news to me! Have you found someone to leave the company to?”
“It’s a fairly new venture in itself. Though, whether he inherits my wealth or not has yet to be seen.” Vlad took a sip of his wine, evidently displeased with who he found in the crowd —or rather, who he didn't find. “How is your heir, by the way? Has he become a respectable young man yet?”
“Oh, Dick is wonderful! He’s top in his class at Gotham Prep and helped his math club win the regional award,” Bruce boasted, meaning every word of his parental rant. “He’s shaping up to be quite the social butterfly too!”
“And to think he came from the circus,” Vlad grumbled into his glass. “Though I can’t say mine is much better.”
The grumbled remark came as a surprise. Vlad had made his disgust at Dick’s heritage clear in no small way. The fact that he was hinting at taking in such a child was interesting to say the least.
“Where did you find him? If you don’t mind me asking,” Bruce added to curb the social taboo of gossip.
“His parents and I go way back, to our college days. Unfortunately, with them, he’s never had a normal childhood.” Vlad glared over his glass. “We still don’t see eye to eye most days.”
“Dick and I still run into problems every now and then, but that’s part of being a parent,” Bruce said encouragingly. All the while he was planning to do some digging and possibly save the boy from Master’s plan, whatever it was. If he could get a name…
“I suppose that’s what it looks like from your view, but I assure you, our situation is vastly different.” Vlad perked up suddenly. “Is that the Duke of Manchet? I must go pay my respects before the night is out. Ta!”
Bruce watched him go before reaching up to the small, unnoticeable comm device in his ear. He clicked it twice, then made his way to the grand staircase to wait. It only took minutes for his ward, Richard Grayson, to appear before him.
“What’s up, B?” Dick asked, head tilted curiously to the side. “I thought the signal was for emergencies. No one’s running and screaming though.”
“It’s not an emergency, but it is a time sensitive mission.”
Dick’s face grew serious.
“Vlad Masters has an apprentice,” Bruce said lowly to his ward. “Young, from what I can tell. See if you can’t find someone new around here, one that doesn’t quite fit in. We made need to do some recon on them.”
* * * * *
“Got it, B,” Dick replied, the serious edge of Robin dipping in before he was all smiles and pre-teen quirks. Mission in mind, Dick quickly made his way through the crowd, thankful for whoever it was that livened up his night. He wasn’t sure how he would have made it through the gala without it.
Kids were pretty easy to find, at least around Dick’s age. They either stuck around their guardian or migrated to the food table to pick through the hors d’oeuvres. Given that Bruce hadn’t seen the kid there when he spoke with Vlad Masters, Dick was betting on the latter being true.
He was right.
The teen was older than him by a year, two at most. His suit was off the rack, that much Dick could tell, meaning that he wasn’t used to these social gatherings. He was also picking at the food like he was hungry but wasn’t sure if any of it was actually edible —much like Dick had done at the beginning (and still occasional did).
“Not to your tastes?” Dick asked, already knowing the answer. The boy startled, whipping around to face Dick and nearly dropping his plate in the process. He reclaimed his balance just in time to avoid a nasty spill, though the look on his face forced a laugh from Dick himself. “Sorry about that! Didn’t mean to sneak up on you. You okay?”
“Dying of a heart-attack, but fine otherwise,” the boy drawled, looking over his shoulder at the food. “And the food’s good, just…”
“You have no idea what it is,” Dick finished.
“I have no idea what it is,” the teen agreed.
“This one here is mainly thin crust and cheddar cream cheese,” Dick said, pointing to one of the platters. “And this over here is caviar.”
“Yeah, I’m going to avoid that one.” The teen wrinkled his nose.
“I don’t blame you.” Dick shrugged. “I hear it’s an… acquired taste.”
“I think most things are. The host here has weird tastes.” The teen offered his free hand. “I’m Danny Fenton, you?”
“Richard Grayson,” Dick replied. “Ward of the host with weird tastes.”
“Oh, shoot!” Danny sputtered. “I didn’t mean to—! The food is —I mean—!”
Dick laughed, high and cackling. “Dude, chill out! I know for a fact that Bruce avoids half of this stuff on his own. He won’t get made that you insulted his hors d’oeuvres.”
Danny deflated with a relieved sigh. “Sorry, I’m just… not used to this, the whole… rich people thing.”
“No offense?” Dick grinned. “I could kind of tell. That suit does not look like you spent upwards of 10 grand on it.”
Danny looked down, fingering his suit jacket self-consciously. “It was this or have Vlad buy a new one for me and there’s no way I’m putting myself in his debt.”
Dick honed in on the name immediately. “Vlad? As in, Vlad Master?”
Danny cringed, which was… interesting. “You’re not a groupie, right? Do rich people even have those? Is that a thing?”
“Depends,” Dick replied. “If you’re free with your wealth and aren’t a part of some diabolical trade like human trafficking or underground drug ring, then you can get quite a following.”
“For real?” Danny looked one part mystified, one part disgusted. “Anyway, that didn’t answer my question.”
Dick laughed. “No, I guess it didn’t. I’m not a groupie of his, just informed. It pays to know those of high status and who will potentially stab you in the back.”
Instead of being alarmed or defensive about the slight to his mentor, Danny seemed relieved. “I’m sure that will come in handy.”
You don’t know the half of it. Dick thought to himself. Before he could continue his subtle interrogation of the other teen, he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Ah, Richard, so this is where you ran off to. Who’s your friend here?”
Danny seemed to fold in on himself in the presence of an adult, but Dick just turned with a bright grin. “Hi Bruce! This is Danny! He’s here with Vlad Masters.”
“Masters?” There was a question in Bruce’s eyes, but Dick just kept his smile bright. Bruce turned to Danny with an equally bright visage. “Oh, you must be the apprentice he spoke of then?”
“What?!” Danny squawked, dropping his plate of food.
Oops, looks like this was news to him.
“Ah! Daniel! There you are!” Vlad materialized form seemingly nowhere. He wrapped an arm around the teen’s shoulders good-naturedly. From Danny’s expression, it was nothing but restraining. “And you found Bruce Wayne and his young ward. How… nice.”
“Can it, Fruit Loop!” Danny shoved his arm off, heedless of the scene he was making. Wow, he had quite the temper, didn’t he? “What’s this about me being your ‘apprentice’? Is that how you’ve been introducing me to people?!”
“Now, Daniel.” Vlad’s expression darkened. “This isn’t how you behave in public.”
“Why shouldn’t I?” Danny threw his hands up in aggravation. “You don’t seem to care about how I feel being called your apprentice! Why should I care how you look in front of your friends?!”
Dick raised his eyebrows. Perhaps he and Bruce had been hasty in their assessment?
Vlad glanced around at the looks and mutters they were gaining. He glared at Danny for a long moment before taking a long, slow breath. “You’re acting like a child, Daniel. What would your mother think?”
The question stung Dick, but it appeared to not affect the teen.
“To be honest?” Danny crossed his arms. “Pretty dang glad I’m standing up for myself. Especially to you.”
Vlad was the one to flinch at that.
Before the elder man could continue their back and forth, Danny turned away. “I’m going back to the hotel. I’m done with this.”
Dick watched as the teen stomped off, the crowd parting around him. No doubt he would be the talk of the gala for the rest of the evening, but Dick knew Danny didn’t care. It was one of the joys of not belonging to the upper class —you didn’t care what these people thought of you. You would never see them again.
After a minute of silent stewing, Vlad turned to them with a politely strained grin. “I do apologize for Daniel’s actions and behavior this evening. He isn’t used to these kinds of events.”
And if Danny had his say, never would be —Dick was sure.
“No apologies necessary,” Bruce replied, that dumb PR smile on his face. “I remember several times in the beginning when Richard wasn’t quite used to these fairs. I’m sure everyone will lay it to rest sooner or later.”
“Not quite soon enough for me,” Vlad muttered darkly as he scanned the crowd around them.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what is his story?” Bruce asked. “It doesn’t seem like you to adopt an apprentice out of the blue.”
“Apprentice, yes. Adopt? Hardly,” Vlad scoffed and place his empty wine glass on a passing waiter’s platter. “You couldn’t pay me to live with that boy. I would go mad within a day. Trust me, I’ve tried.”
Dick’s mouth twisted down at the corners. If Vlad couldn’t stand Danny and likewise Danny to Vlad, then why…?
“Then… why call him your apprentice?” Bruce wondered aloud, voice pitched to polite curiosity and adorable idiocy.
“Because I have no children and have recently felt the burden of the years I have lived.” Vlad gave him a sly side-eye. “And Daniel and I… well, we have more in common than it first appears. Much more in common.”
Before Bruce could ask any more leading questions, the man disappeared into the crowd, a dark look on his face.
Boy Wonder and Dark Knight exchanged a glance.
Looks like they might need to look into this more than first planned.