When he wakes up in the morning, it takes a moment before he can register how things have turned out. The leg's always the first cruel evidence. Pain. On the worst days it spreads to his chest like fire, lighting up a multitude of miniature blazes in every joint along the way. Spreading out as if his heart is pushing gasoline through every vein. The ache is astounding, but it's when he realizes the worst that he longs for the physical pain. Then he's hollow. A mournful longing latches on somewhere inside, and it's just as dedicated to its duty as he was to his.
Somewhere along the line he's become an octogenarian, lost his father's company, driven away every meaningful relationship he's ever had. He thought he'd die on his crusade before it'd ever come to this. It doesn't take very much imagination to hear his greatest adversary's leering laugh come through the years with every struggle to move, every fighting step, every wish to free himself from this age. It's vivid. He gets out of bed and the Joker is laughing. He limps down the stairs and the Joker is laughing. He's alone in the Manor; his parents stare down blankly from the mantle. The Joker is laughing.
When he's at his weakest he contemplates that it is a psychological trap. The kind of horrific spider web woven by Hugo Strange or the Black Glove or Jonathan Crane. His mind, after all, feels just as sharp as it ever did. But he remembers everything. He pushed Dick too far, lost Jason too young, spurned Barbara, rejected Clark. Selina, Diana, Talia. Failures all. Thinking of Tim is hard. Thinking of Alfred is excruciating. His parents only come to him when he dreams about them. Occasionally there's solace to be found. He remembers his father's hands. His mother's smile. But his subconscious has immortalized them in a pool of their own blood, a dark and morbid memorial wreathed in pearls and acrid gunpowder. The only thing he feels any success in is past victories, but the world's changed so much.
Gotham is nearly unrecognizable. He's been to other worlds more familiar. His feeling of alienation is compounded by the fact that he's given up being Batman. There is no way to relate to it. Long before he gave up his vigilance of Gotham as the Dark Knight he'd cast aside his role as Bruce Wayne. Useless, he'd ruled. Alfred and Dick objected. He gave them as much consideration as he ever did and held onto his verdict. As a result his only identity in this new Gotham isn't truly his. He withdrew as much from society as he could to avoid complications resulting from this unfortunate truth. Bruce Wayne was just another pawn in his war on crime.
It's not until Terry arrives that he feels something other than distain for the entire disgraceful operation. Something's been rotten all along, but here's another chance to set things right. The lesson he never allowed himself to learn is one of failure. If at first you don't succeed, get the hell up and try again. And again. He bled his philosophy out of himself and out of every protégé he ever allowed to wear his symbol or fight at his side. Quitting is not an option if you want to fight for Gotham. Do not give an inch. He does not give an inch.
Still, this boy is different. Why? Is it that he's questioning his ability? No. He is every bit as sure of Terry's capabilities as he was of Jason's at his best. He is teachingTerry. The boy is learning quickly. Terry seems to be a surreal combination of his three predecessors. He has Dick's sense of humor, Jason's street smarts, Tim's incredulity. He lost his father, too. Like Barbara he has some family to protect. Like Alfred he won't allow Bruce to withdraw. Bruce doesn't rank him above any of the old partners in terms of skill- the super suit is doing all the heavy lifting. Still, there's something strange in all of this. The relationship is different. It's not until the boy's injured in the field that he has a revelation about the feeling.
Bruce has been playing the role Alfred always did for him.
Not as well. Never that. Not with the same attention to detail, the absolute selfishness, the seemingly endless fealty. Alfred's devotion was the stuff of legend. Even after years of sober reflection Bruce still can't touch its depth or define it with anything other than an elusive quality that makes his heart (inexplicably) warm. He was always a man of action, not of words. But there is concern there in a way that sometimes became lost in the heat of battle with the others. He cleans Terry's soon-to-be-scar silently, putting a hand on the young Batman's shoulder when he tries to rise in protest. For unknown reasons he feels a need to explicate and decides a palaver is in order. Mostly because he knows the kid needs to hear something. Alfred's conversation was always a comfort he didn't realize he had until it was gone.
"You might need someone to take a second look at this," he's solemn, but not grave. The wound's minor. "It's important to keep your body in the best possible condition." He moves his free hand down to pat his own leg for emphasis.
Terry nods, wide-eyed. "Sure thing, Wayne, but you mind if I ask what the plan is? Or are you a doctor too?" He only briefly flinches as Bruce gives him a liberal coat of high quality liquid sutures.
"I wouldn't worry, if it was serious I could call help in." Internally, Bruce wonders at the force of the blow that could cause such an injury beneath the suit. Terry, surprisingly, is much quieter than Bruce had expected. It could be that he is having the same revelation instead of taking the bait for his usual banter. Another thought occurs to him, but he hides his concern beside a wry smile, and observes. "Are you having any trouble breathing, McGinnis? Or are you just finally too 'slagged' to talk?"
Terry's response is immediate and reminds him painfully of an old chum. "Am I dying or did you just make a joke?" He pales. "No wait, did you make a joke because I'm dying?"
Bruce turns away to hide the sudden impulse to grin. Now Alfred's the one laughing at him.