Contrary to what a lot of people believed about Bruce, he did still work sometimes. Though he’d long ago handed over most of the power in the company to Lucius Fox, there were times when Bruce had to make the trek all the way to downtown Gotham to the Wayne Enterprises headquarters.
Bruce had brought Damian with him up to the office on the day that he met Duke. Damian was sitting on a blanket on the floor while Bruce was working, playing with a wooden puzzle box that Alfred had gotten for him. He made a loud yelling noise occasionally, but Bruce was used to Damian’s various sounds by then. He knew that most of the time when Damian yelled it meant that he was annoyed, but otherwise fine. Bruce also knew that soon he would have to stop and feed Damian some lunch, and was trying to get as much of his report done as he could before Damian started to cry.
He was so absorbed in this report but that he almost didn’t notice the sound of shouting out in the hall. Then he heard the booming sound of footsteps approaching his office, and he looked up from his computer screen. Somebody was coming—from the sound of it, at least two somebodies—and whoever it was who was yelling was coming his way.
“You can’t go in there!” someone said. That was Thea, Bruce’s assistant.
Bruce was just getting up to pick up Damian when a stranger barged through the door. He stopped short just beyond the threshold, Thea on his tail looking exasperated and embarrassed.
Bruce and the boy stared at each other. He looked away, noticing Damian. Damian had noticed him too.
When the boy looked at Bruce again, he took two steps forward and said, “I need to talk to you.”
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Wayne,” Thea said. “I’m not sure how this kid got all the way up here. He was on the private elevator somehow and when I tried to stop him he bolted.”
She reached out a hand to grab the child’s shoulder. Before she could touch him, the boy shifted out of her way. She lunged forward, grabbing at his sleeve, but Bruce held up a hand and she stopped. Bruce wasn’t worried about him, whoever he was. The boy was a child, maybe Tim’s age, and Bruce could handle a child.
“Mr. Wayne—” she said.
Bruce silenced Thea’s protest with a look.
“I have a moment to talk,” Bruce said, and then added pointedly, “Thank you, Thea.”
She sighed, but turned without protesting and shut the door on her way out.
Bruce returned his attention to the boy. He and Damian were staring at each other again. Damian’s expression was a look of haughty disdain, impressive for a baby, but the boy just looked confused.
“Why don’t you sit down?” Bruce said, gesturing at one of the chairs across from his desk.
The boy shook his head as he walked over to sit in the chair that was directly across from Bruce.
“What’s your name?” Bruce asked him.
For a moment he didn’t answer the question. He was still breathing hard.
“You’re not in trouble,” Bruce told him. “I am curious how you got all the way up here without a badge, but I’m not angry.”
The boy pulled something out of the large front pocket of his hoodie and leaned forward to set it on Bruce’s desk. Bruce picked it up, recognizing one of the Wayne Enterprises employee badges right away. This one belonged to one of the directors over in the Environmental Technology department.
“I took it off a table down in the cafeteria,” the boy said.
“I see,” Bruce said.
“My name is Duke."
“Nice to meet you, Duke,” Bruce said. “You can call me Bruce.”
“Yeah, I—ok,” Duke said.
“What can I do for you?” Bruce asked.
“How much do you know about the Ivy University brain trauma project?” Duke asked.
This was an unexpected conversational detour. Bruce frowned and said, “Very little, I’m afraid. Why?”
Instead of answering, Duke leaned forward and pulled something else out of the back pocket of his jeans. It looked like a folded stack of paper. He reached over and set it on Bruce’s desk next to the ID.
Bruce picked up the stack. The pages were smooth and thin from having been handled many times. He unfolded them to reveal a printout of a news article from The Gotham Gazette. It was a couple of months old.
Bruce started to read. The article was about a partnership between Ivy University's Health Center and the Medical Technology division of Wayne Enterprises to develop robotics for the treatment of brain trauma. Specifically, the project was designed to treat victims of one of Gotham’s newer supervillains, Mad Hatter. After Lucius found out that some of the victims received permanent brain damage from Hatter’s mind control device, he’d arranged the partnership with the university.
Bits and pieces started to come back to Bruce as he read. He could remember all the news stories about Mad Hatter and recalled talking to Lucius about the partnership. He could also remember Lucius complaining about a couple of WE’s board members, who thought that the company had no business getting involved in something with no obvious financial benefit. The article was speculating about what would happen and whether or not WE would pull funding. If they did, the project would fall apart.
“This is about that experimental surgery. The one doctors want to try on Mad Hatter’s victims,” Bruce said, looking up at Duke for clarification.
“Ok, I’m listening,” Bruce said.
“My parents are two of the victims,” Duke said. “They’ve been in comas for over a year. I came because…I read about the surgery. If Wayne Enterprises stops paying for the research then they’ll never be able to have it.”
Though Bruce had been expecting something along these lines, it still stung to hear it.
“I’m very sorry to hear that about your parents. Who have you been living with since it happened? A family member, perhaps?”
“Foster family,” Duke said.
It was January, a school day, and too early for school to have been let out. Duke should have been in class.
“So I suppose they don’t know you’re here right now,” Bruce said. “Are you supposed to be at school?”
Duke looked caught and wouldn’t meet Bruce’s eyes.
“Again, you’re not in trouble. You’ve been through a lot and I don’t blame you if school seems trivial right now. I struggled with it too, after my parents died,” Bruce said.
This made Duke uncoil slightly.
“I just want to make sure I understand the full picture,” Bruce said. “So you’ve been living with this foster family. Have they been helping you seek help for your parents? The Wayne Foundation has several relief programs for victims of criminals like Mad Hatter.”
Duke shook his head.
So the boy had no one advocating for him, and no one to help him advocate for his parents. Hence why he’d come straight to Bruce.
“Well, I’m grateful you came to talk to me, Duke, really,” Bruce said.
He was about to go on, but there was a knock on the door. Damian jumped and Duke flinched, looking over his shoulder at it.
“Just a moment,” Bruce told Duke, then called, “Come in!”
The door opened and Lucius walked into Bruce’s office. He was looking down at his tablet, so at first he didn’t notice that Bruce had company.
“Hey Bruce,” he was saying. “Vivian told me you were in the office today—oh.”
He looked up at last and stopped, looking back and forth between Bruce, the baby, and Duke. He at last settled on Duke, his eyebrows creased in a puzzled expression.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt,” he said.
“You have good timing, actually,” Bruce said. “Lucius, this is Duke. Duke, this is Lucius. He’s the CEO of Wayne Enterprises.”
Duke and Lucius eyed each other again. Lucius said, “Hello,” and Duke said, “Hey.”
“Duke, do you mind if I tell Lucius a little bit of what you told me?” Bruce asked.
Duke shook his head, so Bruce looked over at Lucius and said, “Duke is visiting me today to talk about WE’s work with the Ivy University Health Center. His parents are two of Mad Hatter’s victims.”
“Oh, I see,” Lucius said, eyes widening.
“He wanted to speak to me because he read an article about how Wayne Enterprises might discontinue the funding,” Bruce said.
“Ah, yes,” Lucius said, nodding. “It is a contentious subject for some of the board members, I’m afraid.”
Bruce looked at the clock on the wall over the door. It was 12:53 p.m.
“Perhaps we should go to lunch so you and Duke can talk about it some more. Are you hungry, Duke?” Bruce asked. “My treat.”
Duke shrugged, but after a moment he nodded.
“I have a meeting in an hour,” Lucius said.
“We can get back before then. I know a good place down the street,” Bruce said, and got up to pick up Damian.
* * *
Bruce took Lucius, Duke, and Damian to a deli that was a short walk away from Wayne Enterprises. Bruce sat across from them and let them talk, preoccupying himself with getting Damian to stop wiggling and eat the lunch Alfred packed for him.
Though Bruce didn’t know as much about the brain trauma project as Lucius, he could tell from the questions Duke was asking that he’d done a lot more investigating than merely reading a couple of news articles. It sounded like he’d even gotten his hands on some of the research articles written by the doctors involved in the project, which were much much more technical than anything published in a regular newspaper. He hadn’t understood everything he’d read, and Lucius had to clarify a few things for him, but Bruce still thought that was remarkable. He was only about twelve years old.
“You’re a smart kid, so I’m going to level with you,” Lucius told him. “The surgery is still risky. The problem with the brain is that there’s still too much that we don’t understand about it. There is a chance that the surgery could make it worse, not better.”
Duke absorbed this with a sober look on his face. He nodded. “I know.”
“And you’d still want them to have the surgery?”
There was a pause, then another nod.
“Who is making medical decisions for your parents right now?” Lucius asked.
“You don’t have any other family members in the area?” he asked.
“Well…my cousin, Jay,” Duke said. “But he’s not here.”
“Why not?” Lucius asked.
“He’s in the military. He’s stationed somewhere in Europe right now,” Duke said.
Bruce frowned as he remembered the problem of Duke’s foster family. Thanks to Jason, Tim, and Cassandra, Bruce had several contacts within the Gotham branch of Child Protective Services. He’d made friends with some of the social workers who worked for the agency as well. He was going to have to ask them to look into Duke’s situation.
Lucius and Duke talked for a while longer about Duke’s cousin Jay and some other topics unrelated to what happened to Duke’s parents. Lucius was able to find out that Duke was very interested in poetry and had a soft spot for old foreign films. He hadn’t been paying much attention to his studies lately, but ordinarily excelled in his English classes. He didn’t mind the other subjects, but didn’t have any particular passion for them either.
Because they were eating so late in the afternoon, the sun was already setting. The table they were sitting at in the restaurant was next to a window. Duke was sitting closest to it, and a ray of sunshine was pouring down on him, bathing him in bright light. He didn’t seem to notice or care, but Bruce still asked, “Would you like me to close the blinds, Duke?”
He looked over at Bruce, seeming surprised to find that Bruce was still there.
“No, it's fine,” he said, and went on talking to Lucius as if Bruce hadn’t said anything.
As the time approached for Lucius to head to his meeting, Bruce flagged down their waiter and paid the bill. Duke was acting a little antsy suddenly, fidgeting in his chair like he couldn’t sit still.
“You ok?” Bruce asked him.
Duke’s gaze slid across the deli toward the restrooms.
“I need to use the bathroom.”
“Oh, well go ahead. Lucius and I will wait here until you’re back,” Bruce said.
“Ok,” Duke said. He pushed his chair out from under the table and got up, heading around the crowded tables to the other side of the restaurant.
Bruce watched him go, and when he looked away it was to find Lucius was looking at him. Damian was fussing a little bit in his arms. Bruce bounced the baby absently and said, “What?”
“You sure have a knack for finding troubled kids,” Lucius said. “Good thing you have such a big house. At least you don’t have to worry about where to put them all.”
“That’s not what’s happening here,” Bruce said with a shake of his head. “Duke has a foster family he's staying with right now while his parents are unable to care for him."
“Look me in the eye and tell me you’re not going to turn around and call Jenn at Child Protective Services as soon as we get back to Wayne Enterprises.”
Bruce had in fact been thinking of Jenn, the friendliest of all the social workers he knew. She’d be able to look into Duke’s situation and find out whether or not he had been placed with the wrong family. Bruce hated how easy it was for Lucius to see right through him.
“The other kids are still getting used to having Damian around,” Bruce said. “There are plenty of foster families in the city. Jenn will know of some people who will be able to help Duke with everything he’s going through.”
“Bruce, you are someone who knows how to help Duke with everything he’s going through. Do you really think your kids would care if they knew what happened to him?” Lucius said.
Bruce shot him a humorless look, but they had to drop the conversation because Duke returned from the restroom in record time. Bruce wondered if he’d worried they would leave him there.
Bruce got Damian bundled up again to go back outside and they left the restaurant together. When they got back to the building, their group lingered on the pavilion outside the front doors.
“Here’s my card,” Lucius said, removing one from his wallet and holding it out to Duke.
Duke accepted it.
“If you’re up for it, I’d like to have you come back and talk to WE’s board members sometime,” Lucius went on. “They’d benefit from hearing from somebody connected to the project. Plus I think you might be able to teach them a thing or two about the benefits of the research we’re funding.”
Duke shrugged, but nodded. He said, “Ok. Maybe.”
“I need to get to my meeting now. I hope to hear from you,” Lucius said, and headed inside, shooting Bruce a significant look over his shoulder as he went.
“So…um. I can take the train home,” Duke said when Lucius was gone.
Bruce looked back down at Duke, wondering where he lived. I’m not taking in another kid, he thought to himself, but at the exact same time another traitorous part of him was thinking that Duke would probably get along really well with Jason.