It was something like hell.

-

Back in the beginning, Dad-just-died-no-time-to-think, when he found the Batcave and then swiped the suit like some kind of twip (he hadn't known what he was letting himself in for then, now had he) and then run off with all sorts of pretensions to being Batman

Back in the beginning, when he was still high off adrenaline in the sort of way he hadn't been for years (but for the right reasons this time, that was the difference now), going back home for the first time since putting on the suit and still shaking from having almost just died, and then almost having just died again and again — about 12 near-death experiences in under an hour; it was ridiculous, it was exhilarating, it was insane, it had to be some kind of record—

Back in the beginning, when Bruce Wayne, who'd been Dad's almost-boss back when Dad was still alive (didn't quite count because Mr. Wayne was retired, but he did still own about half the company and that counted for something), had made his offer and stretched out his hand with a challenge in his eye and a smile on his face and Terry had reached back before considering because honestly, who would need to consider—

Well, back then, Terry maybe hadn't thought things through.

The idea that there was more to being Batman than running around Gotham in some animal-themed costume wasn't one that had occurred to Terry at first. The suit was part of that — it was a miracle; black and cherry red and amazing, still cutting edge even after 20 years collecting dust. It had felt, that first time when he put it on, as though it could do anything — the suit was Batman and he was just along for the ride, or something like that anyway. Everything had been so easy. He could fly, he could listen to conversations through walls, he was unbelievably strong — everything had been so slagging easy. But that wasn't the point, the point was that no matter how incredible the suit was, it was still only some piece of hardware, and here he was proposing to be Batman; the Batman. And he hadn't known what he'd let himself in for.

It wasn't that he wasn't used to cuts and bruises. He'd run with a rough crowd in his younger days — he was lucky that he hadn't broken any more bones than he had, never dislocated anything, hadn't had any teeth knocked out — and the suit had absorbed a great deal of the force during the fights he'd gotten involved in that first night out. As a result, even after receiving his pounding from the guards when Bruce had frozen the suit, he wasn't that sore, which had left him with a false sense of confidence. Sure, he'd thought, it was easy. He'd had worse. This was nothing. And that, of course, was where he was horribly wrong. Ironically, if he'd had to handle nothing but the job itself he would have been right nine times out of ten. It wouldn't have been that hard. He would have had worse. And hey, when that one time came along where it was more than he expected and more than he could handle, at least he'd have been out of his misery probably pretty quickly, so that would have worked out too. But that's the thing: it wasn't just the job he had to deal with.

It was Bruce.

-

"You're late, McGinnis."

Day one. Or, at least, the first day he'd had Bruce's sanction to try his hand at this Batman stuff. Terry was off to a wonderful start.

"Sorry," he said as he jumped off the last few steps and trotted over, "you locked the clock. I opened it by accident before, I had to figure out what to do this time." The old man's steely expression seemed thoroughly unimpressed with this reasonable explanation. Terry resisted the urge to shrink down, and reminded himself that he wasn't suddenly twelve again and in trouble with his folks. Even if it kind of felt like it.

"Doesn't change the fact that you were late."

"Well yeah," Terry tried, "but—"

"I don't need excuses."

The teen ground his teeth and declined to comment.

"Taking that much time to figure out what should have been a simple riddle will get you killed in this business, McGinnis."

This was when Terry lost his temper for the first time. "Simple—"

"Yes. Simple, McGinnis."

"I didn't know—"

"If you want to do this job, that shouldn't even come close to stopping you for so long. Now come on. We've got to make up for lost time."

So he went. Around a minute later, he found himself unceremoniously tripped and shoved face first into a little waist high pool that was hiding in the corner of the Batcave. And, as he automatically inhaled water for the beginnings of a yell that he never got out and tried to surface and couldn't he started to think that maybe this was a mistake, maybe Mr. Bruce Wayne was just nuts and they'd be announcing his corpse on Wednesday's 7:00 news and probably think it was just a suicide too, after all his Dad had just been murdered and anyway what was really happening was just too fragging insane

Things were starting to go black when that pressure disappeared and Terry erupted back into the air, where he coughed and choked and swore, water pouring out his mouth and nose and "—the fragging hell, Wayne?"

"Quiet. You're wasting air."

Terry tried to tell Bruce just what he thought of that statement and of him for making that statement and of him in general but found himself unable to, as the next second he was forced under again. He inhaled water instead of air again, choked, and maybe a year of wild struggle later blacked out. When he came to he wasn't underwater any more, which was good, and he didn't seem to be dead, which was better. Okay. That sorted, he turned over to cough up several gallons of water and tried not to throw up.

"What was that?" he asked, when he could speak again and trusted himself to do so. His nose and throat felt somewhat raw, he noticed distantly. He wouldn't have expected that being mostly drowned would do that to a person.

"Pay attention next time," Bruce growled from somewhere behind him. "And learn to hold your breath. You barely broke a minute." Terry, to his credit, managed to keep himself from saying any of the multiple things he felt like saying in response. Instead he just thought them as he struggled to clear the last of the water from his lungs.

-

Next day. Still sore from the day before (being forced to fight from the top of a giant moving ball? After being drowned until he would have traded a leg for a pair of gills and gunfire and Bruce sitting there lecturing, he must get some kind of twisted pleasure out of all of this) and God, he had school, he could have slept for about a week but he couldn't because he had Spacial Relations and Genetics and Trigonometry to learn. He managed to wake himself up enough to get through the day with coffee; he wished he could shake the hand of whoever it was who invented coffee — discovered, whatever — because it was an amazing thing, and then after school back to Wayne Manor again, where it seemed like Bruce had changed the lock on the Batcave.

With some effort, Terry managed to keep from just finding a baseball bat that he could take to that slagging clock.

Today it was the ball again, but this time out came the robots, and he couldn't dodge all of them, and one of them had knocked him off and pinned him so hard that he was pretty sure a few ribs were broken or at least cracked, whatever McGinnis, tape them up and go on, what if this was the streets, you wouldn't even have that luxury.

Somewhere between rounds 3 and 16 Terry had begun to ask yeah about that, what about the streets, crime wasn't going down while Bruce was back here killing him—

-

Next day.

It was just humiliating to be beaten up by someone about the age of his great-grandfather.

"Technique always wins out over brute force. Remember that, McGinnis." Terry didn't move, he just lay on the floor for a few moments as he struggled to breathe properly, Bruce's cane still resting on his breastbone, and silently ran through every curse word he knew. He wouldn't give up. He could do this. He'd said he was and now he was going to and anyway he could do something for everyone if Bruce would just—

-

Next day.

Terry was beginning to seriously contemplate a study of psychology just to see if he could figure out what the frag was fragging wrong with Bruce Wayne.

-

Next day.

-

Next week now.

What felt like about 38 pots of coffee wasn't enough to keep him awake through Recent History, apparently. Dana had reached out and poked him worriedly to wake him up several times throughout the class. She'd hit a nasty bruise about two thirds of the way through the class, which was certainly enough to wake him up. He only just managed to remember himself in time to keep from yelling in pain.

That day after school she'd asked in sweet, slightly confused concern about the bandage wrapped all around his wrist and hand, and he'd smiled at her in this carefree way because he didn't want her worrying.

"Oh, that's nothing. I was just stupid, that's all. Sprained my wrist. It's a pain, but hey, hopefully it won't take too long to heal."

She'd given him a skeptical look at that. "Doing what, Ter?"

"I, uh, tripped. And listen, sorry, I gotta run — work, you know." And she'd pulled an unhappy face but he kissed her on the cheek and said that he'd hopefully have some time off soon, soon, and then they'd do something together, he promised.

"I miss you."

"I miss you too, babe. But look at it this way — I'll be able to afford to take you to nicer places. It'll be schway, but that means that right now... Anyway, I'll talk to you later, all right?"

He had stood in front of his bathroom mirror that night after he got home and had showered, so exhausted he could barely think, and after a minute actually started looking at himself. More of his skin seemed to be red or blue or green or yellow than the color it should be, sorta tan. Then he looked at the bandages and the tape and the red marks that the tape left and everything else, and decided, as he looked at himself, that he was actually glad he'd been kicked off the wrestling team. If anyone had told him that he'd be thinking that a few weeks ago when it had happened he might have punched them, or at least been tempted to, but now he was glad. Because really, that uniform didn't hide much, and there was no way he'd be able to keep all of this out of sight if he was still a member of the team. Without wrestling he had a chance. After all, he'd long since developed the habit of always wearing his jacket, and thankfully there weren't many marks on his face and neck and hands.

So. Being kicked off had apparently been a good thing. It seemed vaguely comforting as he collapsed into his bed for not-enough-sleep before he had to get up and do this again.

-

Next day.

People could probably hire Bruce as a torturer, he'd be great at it. And Terry had to keep on reminding himself why he was putting up with this willingly, but that was getting hard to remember.

-

And the next day.

-

And the next day.

-

And the three days all blurred together, he was pretty sure he'd gotten a mild concussion that time. He'd stayed home from school for a day and slept like a dead man.

-

Next day.

-

The day after that, or maybe the day after the day after — it was getting harder to keep track of exactly how long he'd been doing this, since it kind of felt like forever — Terry had broken into the Batcave for the 800 thousandth time and there was Bruce sitting there, glaring and steely-eyed and never happy. More training, Bruce said. Poison this time it sounded like— And once again, Terry lost his temper.

"Go find someone else to torture, let me go out, do you know how many people get mugged every night in Gotham?"

"You want to be Batman, McGinnis?" Bruce roared. The old man rarely lifted his voice; when he did, he was terrifying. But Terry was sick of it, sick of everything, and Bruce could yell all he wanted, Terry would only yell back.

"If I didn't, do you really think I'd be putting up with this slag?"

"Then stop complaining. If you can't handle half of what I did then get out and go home. Take away the suit and then try going out on the streets. See how long you last, a punk kid like you. You wouldn't even make it as Robin—"

This time Terry was the one who cut Bruce off — or maybe you should say that finally this time Terry was the one cutting Bruce off. His voice was level, but still thrummed with some kind of controlled anger, or controlled violence, or something; he looked as dangerous as just about anything somehow. A 16 year old had no business looking like a grizzly about to chase you up a mountain and then tear you to shreds, but somehow Terry managed it. "Mr. Wayne. You've got it wrong. You started all wrong, and that's why, but you've got it all wrong.

"See, I'm not a Robin. That's not what I signed up for, that's not what you hired me for. I'm sure Robin was great, but I'm not the fluffy animal sidekick. I'm not a sidekick at all. You brought me here to be Batman, Mr. Wayne, and that's what I'm here for. And Batman doesn't belong in his cave. That's not the point. He belongs out putting the bad guys in jail and keeping the good guys from getting their asses handed to them and to keep moms from getting their bags grabbed when all the creds they've got for food are in that purse and there's nothing left in the fridge and keeping drug dealers from finding new kids to turn into crackheads and keeping gangs from driving through the bad neighborhoods with good families with plasma guns and keeping whatever psycho decided to start sticking up banks this week from doing that. That is what Batman is for, Bruce. So just tell me if you're gonna let me do that, or if it's just gonna be more of this slag until you finally manage to kill me. Cause if it's the second, it'd be nice to know that I shouldn't waste any more time here. It's not like I don't have other things I could do.

"If I'm going to be here, I am going to be helping people."

-

That night, for the first time in four decades, Batman pulled back on his mask and took to the rooftops and skies.