Disclaimer: I don't own Alfred Pennyworth or Dick Grayson, who actually
appear in this story, or Bridget Clancy, Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake, Jason
Todd, or Barbara Gordon, whose noses must be itching. They all belong
to DC/Time Warner. This was written after Nightwing 44 and BoP 19
were shipped, but occurs before the events in those books.
I was on the prowl. The thrill of the hunt pounded in my veins; rang in my ears. There was no escape, not tonight. My eyes darted through the shadows, scanned the crevices. I knew who was going to win this one.
There! A split second of glee and then I pounced!
Having successfully flushed out the month-old bag of Cheetos, I turned my attention to the fridge, hoping I still had a rootbeer in there, somewhere. I was in luck. There was one, rolled back against the wall of the fridge. I heard the Star Spangled Banner playing on the television and knew I had exactly 24 seconds to get to my homebase--for this purpose, the couch--and not miss the first pitch.
I would have made it, too, if not for the doorbell. As it was, it caught me with my shoulder tucked under the bottom shelf, and when I jumped, I knocked the entire shelf off it's braces. And, because it was the bottom shelf, it hit the shelf above it, which hit the shelf above it, and all three of them clattered to the bottom. I shoved the door closed, locking all of them inside, and silently prayed it wasn't Barbara or Donna or someone who had shown up, because I'd want her to cook dinner, and well, it would be ugly.
It wasn't Barbara. Or Donna. Or even Kory, who couldn't cook her way out of a paper bag. It was worse. It was much, much worse.
"Master Dick, I trust you're well?"
"Uh...'course I am, Alfred. Um, why wouldn't I be?"
I flashed my best grin at Alfred, hoping he'd, I don't know...just disappear or something. No such luck.
"You have what appears to be grape jelly on your shirt," he informed me, dryly. "I was afraid you might have finally met your match."
"I--huh?" Sure enough, great big ol' blob of Welch's, right on the front of my Gotham Knights shirt. Damn.
Now, don't get me wrong. I love Alfred. He's taken care of me since I was nine years old. Me and Bruce, actually, since despite all his resources and self-discipline, Bruce Wayne didn't know where we kept the peanut butter. Alfred was the one who stitched me up when I got hurt and set out fresh-baked cookies and cold milk when I got home from school. Alfred was the one who listened to my problems and made me come up with my own solutions. Alfred ran more interference than Refrigerator Perry when things were bad between me and Bruce. All that being said, this visit could not bode well. Alfred doesn't visit for social reasons, and I don't exactly share his cleanliness obsession.
"Well, um, c'mon in," I offered, stepping aside to let him in. I didn't want to ask why he had come, partly because it would be rude, but mostly because I didn't want to know.
"Excellent." He moved out of the doorframe and reappeared holding two large grocery bags.
"Alfred," I protested, looking out the door. There were half a dozen more bags out there. "Geez!" I started piling them in my arms. "Alfred, there's only one of me here. I can't eat all this! And how did you get all of these up here? You didn't carry them up yourself, did you?" Alfred was old when I met him. He must be approaching antique by now.
"Of course not," he replied, primly, as I staggered into the kitchen, loaded down with bags. "Your lovely landlady offered her assistance."
I held back a groan. I'd be hearing about this from Clancy, for sure.
"She is a fascinating woman," Alfred continued. "And quite attractive."
"Uh," I grunted, trying to fit all the bags on my counter. There was no way. Two of them went on the kitchen table, and the other three on the floor. I noted, sadly, that my Cheetos were already in the trash can.
"She spoke of you with quite a bit of interest," Alfred was saying when I realized where his voice was coming from.
"NO!" I dove for the fridge, blocking it with my arms and legs spreadeagled. Alfred stared at me as if I had just done something odd. "Always put the freezer stuff away first," I said, innocently. "You taught me that when I was nine." I shot him my most disarming smile.
"Please, Master Dick," he sighed. "You've been using that smile on me since you were still in short pants and it has yet to achieve its desired effect."
Defeated by mention of the short pants, I moved away from the fridge.
"Don't say I didn't warn you," I mumbled.
With a withering look, Alfred released the catch on the door, then turned his attention to not getting creamed by my shelves. I quietly rescued my Cheetos from the trash and retreated to the living room. I looked at the television, already halfway into the game, and my sorry bag of the Cheese That Goes Crunch, and realized I couldn't just stay in here. It wouldn't be right, dammit. I sighed and heaved my lazy ass off the couch, because I couldn't leave Alfred to face my renegade fridge on his own.
I don't know why I worried. By the time I made it back into the kitchen, Alfred had somehow managed to wrestle the shelves into their proper places and load them up with all kinds of healthy stuff.
"Milk. Does a body good," I commented, peering over Alfred's shoulder.
"Yes. A pity you aren't able to digest it without chocolate chip cookies."
"Nah, oatmeal raisin works, too," I told him.
"Speaking of cookies..." I looked in one of the other bags, hoping that maybe some housewife had thrown some of those Oreos with the blue filling into Alfred's cart, thinking it was hers.
"No, Master Dick. I did not purchase anything claiming to be baked by elves living in a hollow tree. If you want cookies, you will have to wait until they come out of the oven."
"There's cookies in the--?" I don't even know how to work the oven. It hadn't been touched since I moved in. I reached for the door. "Ow!"
Alfred silently passed over a potholder.
"Thanks," I muttered, using the fish-shaped glove to ease the door down and sniff at what was baking away inside. "Aw right! Snickerdoodles!"
"They certainly won't be, if you don't close that door and allow them to bake," Alfred reminded me. "Right." I closed the door and tossed the potholder on the counter. "So, Al," I said, hoping to sound casual as I hopped up on the counter.
"Yes, Master Dick?"
"Um..." I searched frantically for something to ask him. "So, you met Clancy?" That probably wasn't the best question to ask.
"Ah, yes, dear Miss Bridget. Quite a lovely, girl, Master Dick, and much more deserving of the attention you've since afforded her, is she not?"
"Alfred..." I jumped off the counter to retrieve the Cheetos that had somehow found their way back into the trash can. "I've taken Clancy out. But things keep...you know...coming up."
"You know, Nightwing stuff."
"I understand completely."
"You know...stuff I couldn't help. Important stuff."
"Of course." Alfred was mixing something in a bowl, his expression unchanging.
"I felt really bad about it." He wasn't even doing anything, and I was experiencing a guilt trip that rivaled Bruce's perpetual guilt vacation. I put the Cheetos aside, hoping that might earn me a glance of approval, at the least.
"I have no doubt that you do." The contents of the bowl were poured in a pan and exchanged with the cookies. "Do not touch them. You'll burn yourself."
I pulled my hand back. "Ok, Alfred, spill. What's your deal with Clancy?"
"I simply implied that Miss Bridget may be deserving of a bit more attention," Alfred answered. "She is a lovely girl and I think she would be a most suitable companion to distract yourself from the rigors of your...hectic nightlife. Perhaps if Master Bruce would allow himself such a distraction, he would be less..." Alfred trailed off, a funny look on his face, and suddenly, I had a feeling I had a similar look on my own face.
"Yeah. I know what you mean." We were both quiet for a minute, thinking of Bruce and remembering those precious few times when he actually smiled freely.
"But I'm not like him, Alfred. If I was like him, well...maybe then we'd still be the Dynamic Duo, huh?"
"No, Master Dick," Alfred said, somewhat sadly. "It was becoming too like him that ended the partnership." He turned then, and started mixing something else, and I took the opportunity to grab a cookie.
"I hate to say so, young sir..."
"Yeah, yeah, I know you told me so." I blew on my reddened fingers and glared at the offending cookie, lying in three pieces on my counter. I wondered if it would be safe to eat when it cooled, then decided the counter probably wasn't the most sanitary of resting places, and quickly pushed the cookie remains into the sink. "I like Clancy," I finally said. "It's not that I don't."
"Why do I sense the word 'however' being the next thing to exit your mouth?" Alfred asked.
"I don't know, because I was going to say 'but,'" I replied. "And I was saying, I do like Clancy, and if I was just a Bludhaven cop, a regular joe, I'd probably ask her out and follow her around like a puppy dog until she married me." I watched Alfred toss what appeared to be raw chicken in his bowl and rub the mixture into it, as I contemplated what it would be like to be a regular guy. "But things aren't that easy."
"Perhaps you are simply making them more difficult that they actually are." The chicken joined whatever was in the oven. "I don't remember you having so many problems finding time to be with Miss Gordon," he said mildly.
"But I was in love with Barbara," I protested.
"Ah." With that, Alfred left the kitchen.
Ah? What did he mean by that? Ah? I hopped off the counter, snagging a snickerdoodle as I went and followed Alfred into the living room, where he had already turned off the television and was sweeping my magazines and newspapers together.
"Whaddaya meaby ah?" I asked around a double mouthful of cookie.
"Please, Master Dick." Alfred straightened from picking up a tie and my jacket from the arm of the sofa. "Have the few short years since you left stately Wayne Manor stripped you of all the manners I spent so many years trying to impress upon you?"
"Sorry, Alfred," I said, after I had swallowed several times. "Guess I'm not used to having anyone around."
"I daresay your association with young Master Harper and young Master West assisted in that lapse."
"Aw, now, c'mon, Alfred," I protested, following him as he headed back to the bedroom, scooping up clothes and other debris as he went. "You can't blame Roy and Wally for everything I do wrong. I mean, hey," I offered, grinning in fond remembrance, "Donna won the Titans belching contest four years straight."
"Really, Master Dick. Blaming your lack of couth on the ever- proper Miss Troy. It's a wonder Miss Clancy even bothers to associate with you."
"Hey, now, that's not fair!" I protested. "I'm not a complete loser." Or are you, Grayson? After all, Bridget Clancy was beautiful, smart, had that adorable accent, and was crazy for me. And what did Dick Grayson, Boy Blunder do? I told her there was someone else, someone better than her. What was I thinking?
Except for the occasional conversation with Oracle, I hadn't even seen Babs since the night we escaped from Pettit and the rest of what was formerly Gotham's finest. And I hadn't even tried. "I am a loser," I groaned, dropping back on my bed, as Alfred deposited his armful of clothes in the hamper.
"I hardly think so, Master Dick," Alfred said, mildly, pulling the pillows off the bed. "You possess a great number of excellent qualities. Unfortunately, you have been a bit reluctant in exhibiting them, of late." "Thanks, Alfred," I said to the ceiling.
"Not at all," he continued. "Now Upsy-Daisy. I simply cannot understand how your bed is still unmade at quarter past six." Only Alfred could get away with a saying like Upsy-Daisy. I scooted far enough down on the bed for him to pull the covers up, and found myself sitting on a book. It was a detective novel I'd been reading before going to sleep the night before.
"Oh, really, Master Dick!"
"It's a good book," I protested automatically. "There's not even any--oh."
Alfred wasn't talking about the book at all.
Instead, he was brandishing, at arm's length, a slightly mashed package he'd pulled out from under the bed.
"My Mallomars..." I protested, weakly.
"And what's this?"
"Haven't I thrown these away three times already?"
"Only twice, I think." I watched sadly as my Mallomars and the bag of Cheetos once more were escorted to the kitchen. I re-shelved the detective novel and touched the frame of one of the nearby pictures. It was the one of me and Clancy at my police academy graduation. And right next to it was the one of me and Babs at the beach.
"'Ah, Spring,'" quoted Alfred behind me. "'When a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love.' An enviable position, to be sure."
"You ever been in love, Alfred?" I asked curiously.
"Every man has been, at one time or another," Alfred said gently.
"I never knew that."
"Well, I certainly wasn't born a gentleman's gentleman," he admonished me mildly. "I had other...ventures to occupy my time until my father died and I was called to replace him at Wayne Manor."
"But you never got to get married, or have a family..."
"Now that's where you are mistaken, Master Dick. I do have a family. A very close, very loving family."
"You do?" I blurted out, unaware that Alfred had any sort of life outside Wayne Manor. "Where are you hiding them? Why don't you live with them?"
For my efforts, I was rewarded a withering look. "I was referring," Afred informed me, dryly, "to raising Master Bruce. And you. For a bit, Master Jason." A shadow cast over his face, as we both remembered the troubled boy who took my place as Robin for much too short a time. "And, of course," he continued, after a moment, "Master Tim."
"And Babs," I added. "You can't forget Babs."
"I would never dream of forgetting Miss Barbara." Alfred sounded scandalized that I had even conceived the notion. Brandishing his feather duster at my pictures, he went on. "When you first came to Wayne Manor, I felt I had two boys. With Master Bruce treating you like a...well, I don't know what, but it was quite obvious he did not have the faintest idea what to do with you, and then had that atrocious habit of calling you 'chum.' I thought I was starting over again, but I soon realized that Master Bruce was the parent, this time. I was so proud to think of you as my grandson. Imagine my delight when I realized my job was nothing but to spoil you!" Alfred smiled fondly at the pictures on the wall. "But now you've grown up, and Master Tim doesn't need or want the attention I was able to give you."
"Do you think I'll ever have a family, Alfred?" I asked, wondering how much Bruce was paying Alfred, and if I could possibly have enough money to lure him away to Bludhaven.
"I certainly hope so," Alfred sighed. "I'd simply adore the chance to see another little boy demolish four batches of chocolate chip pancakes in one sitting." His wistful tone suddenly vanished, and was replaced by the matter-of-fact inflections I was used to. "Of course, that means you'll either have to find an orphan to adopt, or stop making moon eyes those pictures and start paying more attention to the ladies in them. And I hear good, trainable orphans are somewhat scarce these days."
"Is that a hint, Alfred?" I asked, a smile creeping over my face.
"Take it as you will, Master Dick," Alfred replied, primly. "I need to tend to dinner."
"Are you staying?"
"No, no. I must be going. I promised Miss Bridget I would give her a cooking lesson."
"You're going to teach Clancy to cook?" I wondered what she wanted to learn. Eggs rolls and sushi? Cabbage and corned beef? "What's the lesson plan for today?"
Alfred stopped in his tracks to the kitchen and turned to face me. "We are beginning with grilled cheese," he said, hesitantly. "I do hope that won't tax her skills."
"Grilled cheese?" I echoed.
"And Master Dick, go on now and change your shirt, before that jelly sets. It's getting quite late."
"Oh, right. On my way." I turned back to my room and set about changing out of my jelly-decorated top and sweatpants and into pair of jeans and a pullover sweater.
"Have a good evening, Master Dick," Alfred called from the living room.
"Hey, wait!" I called back. "Don't leave yet." I tied my shoes quickly and jogged out of the room, but Alfred was already gone. Well, damn, I thought, looking around my now-spotless apartment. Turning to go in the kitchen, I spotted a small white card perched on the table next to the phone. "What's this?" I wondered, aloud, picking up and card. I smiled when I saw the number etched on the card. I may never be able to understand how Alfred manages to do all he does, I mused as I punched in the phone number, but I'll always know that he does them out of love for his family. "Hello? Gotham Florists? Yes. I'd like to order some flowers."