Chapter Six: Breakfast at Alfred's
The next morning comes faster than Jason would like. Tim's at the police station on time, and after twenty minutes of sitting silent in the car, they're parking on the side of a street in northern West Harlow.*
It's a pretty quiet area, far away enough from the riverfront that it's not yet crowded out by skyscrapers and office buildings. It allows barely enough space for restaurants and stores, and the twisting roads are lined with cars, parking not an option for most places. But it's quaint, trees canopying the thin streets with their leaves waving gentle hello.
Jason spends a moment in the driver's seat, watching sunbeams sprinkle through the natural awning above. They'll probably come back to find leaves in the windshield wipers, but that's normal for a Saturday morning here. There's something relaxing about that.
Tim is fidgeting a tiny bit in the passenger seat, though, enough that Jason notices. The kid knows he was just joking around about the hazing thing, but the more they lounge in the car, the more uneasy Tim gets, eyeing the road outside like he's half-expecting it to break open and devour them. Jason almost lets the silence drag on a while longer, but he pops open the door (I'll cut him some slack today.) and steps out onto the pavement.
It doesn't take long to realize what they're really doing here, as Jason pulls back a door and enters one of the street-side shops.
The restaurant's bell jingles cheerfully.
Weekly breakfasts were Dick's idea, naturally, and it's a long-held tradition, one that emerged around the time Cass joined their unit. She was quiet (even more so back then), Jason was busy dishing out sass and reorganizing whatever crossed his path, and Bruce? Well, he was in desperate need of being dragged out of "The Cave." Thus, Dick took it upon himself to arrange gettogethers, and five years later, here they stand at Alfred's, the only restaurant Bruce would agree to—for whatever reason.
That confidence is a mystery Dick's been trying to solve every week for years. He's convinced Alfred must be someone special for Bruce to trust him so much, and the old man (Bless his soul.) plays along, offering up scraps of his own past intermingled with fiction. Dick takes whatever he can get, though, trying to parse truth and fantasy; it's a game the two play.
So, Dick is here, early as usual, hunched forward in his chair as he digests whatever thing Alfred has decided to share today. "I think this one's true, Alf. If you were an MI-7 operative, it would explain a lot of things." Dick nods. "Yeah, I think it's true."
That's the craziest one yet, Jason scoffs, making his way over to the cozy table at the end of the diner.
Alfred has posed many bizarre reasons for how he ended up here in Jersey: He's claimed to be everything from a field medic in the British army to an aspiring actor, teacher, butler—The list goes on. None of them have ever been proven (Dick has used up an embarrassing amount of resources trying.), and at this point, the man's convinced Alfred has changed his name somehow to lay low, covering by running an antiquated diner in the middle of nowhere West Harlow, Gotham City…
Actually, that MI-7 bit is sounding more possible by the second.
But Alfred only proffers a noncommittal raise of his eyebrow as he sets down another platter at their table. (Dick always orders for everyone. It's likely to buy more time with their ever-elusive restaurateur.) "Perhaps, Master Richard," Alfred offers cryptically, eyebrow still raised, "you may be onto something…."
The encouragement only makes Dick more stumped, scrutinizing Alfred like the answer is hidden somewhere beneath the man's lapels. However, before their silent battle can go any further, Jason and Tim have the pair's attention.
"You made it!" Dick chirrups.
The man was looking stressed a minute ago, but the expression is already gone, back to his chipper grin and easy vigor. It helps Tim feel a bit more at ease in the new environment.
A restaurant was the last place he was anticipating, but it's the best of all the possibilities that kept him up last night, so Tim's not going to complain. If nothing else, it explains why Dick was so interested in learning his favorite breakfast foods three days ago, as there are plates already lining the table. It all smells comfortably familiar, the homey scents lazing a bit before settling in the bar-stools that lead up to the cash register.
Overall, the restaurant seems like a quiet place that doesn't get much traffic; there's hardly anyone here, although there's a certain appeal to that: It adds a sweetness to the simple wood tables and well-loved booths that sleep beneath the window, soaking in the sun rays like content cats. Everything is amazingly tidy too, Tim notices, not a speck of dust hidden in the grouting of the tile floors. The cleanliness is something Jason would respect, but Tim knows the culprit is likely someone else, as there's an unfamiliar face standing beside Dick. The person is English from the nine words Tim overheard upon entering, and he seems nice enough, grandfatherly with a glowing kindness in his eyes—despite the deadpan.
The stranger's attention is immediately drawn to Tim. "Am I to assume this is the new detective you mentioned, Master Richard?"
"Uh huh," Dick answers, chatting with the Englishman like they're old friends, "first-grade and everything. Can you believe it? For someone his age." He shakes his head in disbelief.*
"That's quite the accomplishment, I hear," comes the tactful reply. Whoever this man is, he's smooth, easily following the compliment with an introduction, "Alfred Pennyworth. I hope your stay in Gotham is enjoyable—however brief."
"Thanks. I'm Tim. Tim Drake."
"It's a pleasure," Alfred voices with a faint smile, turning to the other newcomer, "and Master Jason is here as well, I see. We sorely missed having you last Saturday."
"Yeah, Roy was in town for the week, so I had to take him to the airport that morning," Jason explains, shrugging off his jacket and hanging it on the back of a chair.
Tim's not sure what else to do, so he takes the adjacent spot—a bit reluctantly. But Dick's across from him if things get uncomfortable, so Tim tells himself it's fine. Besides, Jason is his partner for the next eight weeks, and as much as Tim would rather melt into the restaurant's floor, Jason's someone he has to get to know.
In the time it takes for them to get settled, Alfred has wandered back into the kitchen, and the silent girl, the one Tim has seen around the office, has percolated in to replace him, claiming the last of the four seats at their table.
Dick has yet to notice.
"Wait, you mean Speedy was in town last week?! Why didn't you tell me, Jay?!"
Deciding this is a conversation he best not contribute to, Tim peels the napkin off from around his silverware, the utensils already on the table. "Speedy…?" he echoes dubiously to himself, and just like that, the whole group's eyes are on him like the plague.
"Dick, don't…" Tim hears Jason groan next to him, but whatever's about to happen is already well underway, Dick instantly giddy as he scoots his chair closer.
"That's right!" he gasps, "you haven't heard the story! Oh boy, is it a good one!" If Dick could look more excited, he would be, and Jason is analyzing Tim's silverware like he's wondering if the butter knife is sharp enough to do Dick in.
"He's Roy Harper by day," the man starts with dramatic flair, "road terror by night."
Dick's voice drops a smidge, and he's moving his fingers to mimic snowflakes, visual aids. "It was a cold, winter night in Gotham—back when Jay and Roy were still rookies. I was on my way to interview a suspect, innocently driving down a stretch of snowy highway when, all of a sudden, VOOM!"
("Not sound effects too…" Jason works out from where he's got his head in his hands.)
Oblivious, Dick continues. "It's not my job to ticket people, but I was driving one of the police cruisers that night, right? Just to put some pressure on my suspect when I pulled in the drive. Anyway, I'm sitting there thinking, 'Man, that car could've done me in right there on the 95 and not even noticed,' so I turn on the siren—" Dick looks like he's considering reenacting the noise, but thankfully, he leaves it up to imagination, "—I eventually catch up. The car's pulled over, and I've hopped out—you know the drill. And just who do I find when the window rolls down?"
It's not hard to guess.
"None other than Mr. Roy Harper, rookie blue and racer extraordinaire! I'm already shocked, as you can imagine, but I come to find out our hotshot's not alone. Nope, far from it," Dick waggles a finger at the person seated next to Tim. "Jay's right there with him, looking like he's suffering from whiplash and having teatime with death."
As if to save the man some dignity, Dick turns his attention back to his main audience, namely Tim, "Jason's a fussy driver—You've probably put that together by now.—so usually, he's pretty adamant about being the one behind the wheel. But that night, by some divinely-righted stroke of bad luck, Roy convinced Jason to let him take his car for a spin, and with that very decision, the legend of Speedy…was born."
Dick leans back, looking satisfied that he's raked Jason's self-worth over the coals, and Tim's trying to stifle the laugh building in his throat—just so he won't get chewed out by his partner later. So that's why he's so protective of the car…
"Roy's bad, I get it," Jason grumbles when he's recovered, "but I'd rather die than drive with you or Black."
Tim glances at the silent girl sitting beside Dick, and he guesses "Black" must be her. She's wearing only that color clothing—and it's not the uniform for once—so it makes sense how she earned the moniker.
"I don't think I'm that bad of a driver, Jay. You're just picky," Dick pauses as he sends a look to the girl next to him, "but I guess I get your point about one of us… Remember how Duke down at the M.C.S. got his nickname? Poor guy's never gonna drive with you again, Cass," the man snorts, "not unless you start turning on your signal instead of just ramming head-on into the other lane."
The girl—Cass—doesn't say anything, but she smiles for the first time since Tim's been there. There's something slightly evil about it, though, like she knows perfectly well she's a monster behind the wheel, and Tim decides he's just fine having Jason chauffeur him.*
"So, you've all got nicknames?" Tim poses instead, leaning forward a bit over his drink.
"Oh yeah," Dick agrees, "better study up, kiddo. But I guess some intros can't hurt in the meantime." The man glances at the other two at the table, Cass apparently indifferent to the idea while Jason has a dark look on his face that Tim can't place. He suddenly seems drained, scrutinizing the ice melting in his glass.
"I was Bruce's first," Dick begins with a hand over his heart, like the name's something solemn that he's greatly proud of. "I'm also the best of us, so I'm 'Goldie.'"
"The jury's still out on that title, actually," Jason interrupts with a grim smirk. He hasn't looked away from the glass. "I'm still routing for 'McMullet' myself."
The remark earns an eye roll from Dick (Had he had longer hair at one point?), but he continues, "Bruce is 'Bats,' cause he's always stuck in that cave of his, you know. And this here's 'Black.'" Dick sticks a thumb in the girl's direction, and she gives a short nod of agreement.
"Don't think you two've met yet," Jason offers blandly, although Tim's smart enough to have figured out who she is, "her real name's Cass."
"Cass," Tim repeats, trying to ascribe it to this new person, testing the way it sounds and the way it's familiar. "I've got a friend back home with that name."
The sentence slips out before he can stop it. It's one of those knee-jerk statements Tim thought was only in his head, an observation solely for him, but it's out there in the open and he'd pull it back if he could. The comment's a dumb one, he realizes belatedly. There are thousands of girls named Cass in the world, not just the one he knew growing up, but by now, he's only thinking of those times spent mucking around in high school with her and Bart and…and Conner. It'd been the four of them back then. Things haven't been the same since.
No one at the table's taken a jab at Tim over the remark, though, and Dick covers harmlessly with a, "do you now?" as he cuts into his pancakes. It's the first time Tim's mentioned anything about himself, and he's betting the man's curious. "What's she like?"
"She's nice…" he answers smally, folding his napkin into squares like it's the most interesting thing in the world. It's something Jason would do, he thinks, and suddenly Tim feels like he understands the man a whole lot more.
"Damian," comes a new voice, and everyone's attention is drawn to the previously-silent girl sitting among them. Cass is busy looking at Dick, though, and it revives the conversation.
"That's right! I didn't finish my list," the man grins, seeming grateful for the transition, and he elaborates, "Damian is Bruce's kid. He's grown up a lot since I was first here, and he's pretty serious nowadays. Anyway, he's got a thing for animals, watching birds and stuff, so he's 'Robin.' But don't call him that, though," Dick twists his mouth to the side, "he's not very on board with the idea yet, but one day…"
Dick takes a thoughtful bite of his food, apparently done with his explanation. Evidently, he's convinced Damian is the only person he missed before, and Tim's silently wondering why Jason was left out. Maybe the man doesn't have a nickname outside of "Jay." Now that Tim thinks about it, Jason would probably knock Dick's teeth out if he tried to force something stupid on him.
"You're gonna be here for a few more weeks. Right, Tim?" Dick's back with cunning in his eyes, "we should probably get to working on one for you too. Got any hobbies? The weirder, the better."
Tim shakes his head with a faint smile. He's pretty normal. Maybe too much so.
"He's like Damian." Tim's attention shoots to Jason, who's taken to swirling his ice around in his glass instead of just staring at it. "The kid likes watching birds too—even when they're none there."
It's a strange thing to recall but only cause it's personal. To be honest, Tim's shocked the man remembers.
"A Robin Jr., huh?" Dick shrugs. "Well, Damian's not super fond of his nickname. Maybe he'd be willing to share—"
"No." Everyone's eyes snap to Cass. Anything she utters is suddenly biblical, a voice from above.
"He's Red's…" she continues vaguely, observing a spot somewhere between Tim and Jason. "He's Red's Robin."
The weight of the comment is heavy, like God has spoken and the air has suddenly thickened and swallowed them all. Tim doesn't look at the person beside him, and he's pretty certain Jason doesn't look at him either. It's a silly thing, the nickname, but it pulls at the invisible string tying them together.
It's been a week, and the gravity is only just setting in. It means their each other's best friends. It means they've got each other's backs.
Tim knew Conner for years before they were ever officially teammates, before he could say he trusted him so fully, and now he's supposed to have the same thing with someone he hardly knows. It's a deep thought, and it sits dense in his chest.
All at once he's returned to so many different places: He's back in the cottonwood with Conner, talking about life and the world, back walking the dirt paths with him outside the farm and turning over stones like it made some kind of difference when it didn't.
And he's back at the funeral, staring at the coffin and telling himself it should've been him instead…
Although Dick's efforts that morning are noteworthy, the remainder of their time at Alfred's passes in gloomy silence, the jovial mood dead.
Tim doesn't speak for the rest of the day.
Jason doesn't either.
*I have a street map of Gotham I try to reference when I can, and the streets on the north side of West Harlow do look pretty confusing, true to Dick's claim last chapter.
*There are three levels within the detective rank. These distinctions are gained by recommendation and are usually awarded to senior detectives who have the most experience. Third-grade is the lowest while first-grade is the highest.
*Our folks in blue are typically very safe drivers. Roy just got a little too excited, and Cass... Let's be real: the image of Cass perpetually convinced she's in Gran Turismo 5 while Duke is shrieking about the turn signal, because if he's gonna get killed, it's not gonna be over a minor traffic violation... That's a headcanon I'm gonna cherish.