"Has Father ever hurt you?" Damian stood his ground even as Richard startled.
In stark contrast to the rest of Father's acquired wards, Richard loved to pretend he didn't mind Damian's presence. He was the only one Damian would even consider asking such a sensitive question.
"Hi, Dami." Richard gave him a meek smile. "Could you repeat that?"
Damian's mouth curled. "Has Father ever hit you? As," the word 'punishment' wilted on his tongue, "Batman?"
"What?" Richard stared at him. "Bruce would never– Oh!" He laughed. "You mean during training?"
During training. After training. As a consequence of his training. "Yes."
"Sure, loads." Richard grinned. "I didn't know anything about fighting when I started living with him. Had to learn somehow, y'know?"
Damian's heart sank. "Yes. I know."
"Don't worry." Richard tried to ruffle his hair. Damian made sure that he missed. "You're far better than I was at your age. Besides, I'm pretty sure you've had worse."
Damian wasn't worried about the sparring. He was contemplating what came after.
"I will manage." Damian put up his chin. "If Drake was good enough, I couldn't possibly fail."
Richard winced. "That's the spirit."
If Damian was to prove that he was Father's true and worthy heir, he couldn't fall short of what his predecessors had already accomplished. He didn't need to be as good as them – he needed to be better. If he didn't, his coming to America would have been a waste of both his and Father's time. Worse, he would have disappointed Mother.
How was he supposed to prove his superiority as long as his father refused to acknowledge him as a capable disciple?
"What are you waiting for?" Damian snarled, pushing himself off of the sports mat in the Cave. His brow was sticky with sweat. Bruises bloomed on his knees from his numerous botched landings.
Father hadn't laid a hand on him once.
"I have!" Damian snapped. "I've failed. Repeatedly."
"We aren't done practicing."
Damian hurled his bo staff away. He flinched when it clattered onto the ground, feeling ashamed at the childish display of his temper. The action would have earned him a beating in the League.
"Damian," Father said.
Damian refused to look up. His father already thought him an incompetent fool.
"What is this about."
"You're looking down on me," Damian hissed. "You have since you've started training me."
Why hadn't he proven himself worthy yet? What did Drake have that Damian Al Ghul didn't? What did any of Father's entourage of sidekicks have that he didn't?
Whether he admitted it or not, Damian knew perfectly well. While the others had been handpicked by Father, Drake had chosen himself. He'd whittled down Father's defenses and out-stubborned Batman until he'd trained him to be the next in his row of soldiers.
Damian hadn't been chosen, nor had he impressed Father into taking him in. He'd been dropped into his lap by his mother like a disobedient mutt.
No wonder Damian amounted to nothing compared to his predecessors.
"What do I need to do to prove myself?" Damian asked. "Clearly I've been falling short."
"What makes you think you haven't proven yourself?"
Damian scoffed. "You do not think me capable of withstanding your proper training regime." He pushed down a sliver of nervousness. "Whatever it is, I can handle it."
Father's frown deepened. "This is proper training."
Damian bristled. "Do not lie to me!"
"Damian." Father hesitated. He took a seat on the sports mat and jerked his head. "Sit."
Damian lowered himself beside his father, his back ramrod straight.
"What makes you think that we haven't been training properly?"
The question sounded like a test. "You have made no attempts to correct my form."
"I have," Father said slowly. "Repetition and practice are the only ways to improve."
"They are not! I am not a child, Father. There is no need to treat me like I will break. I can handle more than you seem to think I am capable of, and if you allow me to prove it–"
"Damian." Father's tone changed. "Explain to me what my training has been lacking."
Damian was definitely being tested. He couldn't tell whether he was on the verge of failing. "Failure reaps consequences. Punishment ensures that the same mistake is not repeated."
Punishment equaled the unearthing of a personal shortcoming. Punishment meant growth. Every scar Damian had collected at the hands of his instructors was a mark of pride. It represented another flaw he'd bleached off of his person.
Father had gone very still. "What kind of punishment?"
Finally Damian was reaching familiar territory. His tutors had frequently tested him by making him choose his own disciplinary actions.
"I understand that your public image disqualifies discipline that leaves behind visible marks," Damian mused. "They would have to be reliably covered by both formal wear and a school uniform, or else administered in psychological form as opposed to physically."
Solitary confinement would not work due to his public duties. Withdrawal of food would leave undesirable marks that would draw unwanted attention. Although Damian thought his Father plenty capable of administering physical punishment so precise to remain unseen, it was nevertheless risky.
Back with the League, Grandfather had had no reason to veil the marks left by his training. Father lived in different circumstances. He had much to lose, should the nature of his nightly activities leak through to the public.
This was a lot harder than Damian had thought it would be.
"I apologize, Father." He now understood the reason for his father's lack of action. "I had not realized the difficulty that maintaining your cover produces. Allow me to think on the matter and I shall present you with options at once."
Father hadn't said a word while he'd waited for Damian to draw his conclusion. He closed his eyes and frowned.
Damian couldn't believe he'd been so stupid. He'd had weeks to think on the issue. "Forgive me." He dropped his head in submission. "I realize the weight of my error. However you intend to rectify it–"
"Damian," Father interrupted. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Give me a moment."
Damian sealed his lips and waited.
Father's lips thinned. "Am I right in assuming that you expect me to correct your behavior through corporal punishment?"
"As I've said before, the risks of such actions had not occurred to me until–"
"Damian. Please answer the question."
Damian raised his chin and met his father's gaze. "Yes. I'm ready."
"For me to take your training seriously."
Father's expression contorted. He pulled one hand over his face and exhaled deeply.
Damian faltered. "Father..."
"You're no longer with the League."
Damian frowned. "Of course."
"That means that the things you were taught no longer apply."
"Yes. I understand."
Father's brows remained pinched. Somehow, Damian was still failing.
"Listen to me," Father said, sounding weary. "I won't hurt you. Not as a punishment, nor under any kind of circumstances."
"But Richard said–" Damian clamped his mouth shut.
Father looked up sharply. "What did Dick tell you?"
Damian bit his inner cheek. He hadn't meant to get Richard involved. But he couldn't lie to his father. "He merely informed me of the nature of your training regime."
"Which would be?"
Damian tried to recall their earlier conversation. "He said... That is, I inquired whether he'd suffered injuries at your hand."
Father's look of puzzlement cleared. "Dick was talking about sparring."
"Yes. He said–" Damian paused. "Richard referred to... accidental injuries?"
"Damian." Father turned his body until he could look Damian in the eyes. "Accidents happen. I can't pull my punches forever. But with all my partners, I've never broken a bone. I've never broken skin. I've never fought with the intention to inflict pain." He put a hand on Damian's shoulder. "The same goes for you."
"But..." Pain was as much a teacher of Damian's as any of his tutors. Training with no pain – without punishment, without consequences – produced weak soldiers. Grandfather would never condone it. "I don't understand. How can you assure that those fighting under your mantle are worthy of doing so? How do you break them out of their flaws?"
Something flickered over Father's expression. "I help them improve the same way I've been helping you. Through practice. Through corrections. Through repetition."
That couldn't be right. Batman couldn't be this... soft. Batman didn't train weaklings.
"You've given me much to think about," Damian said stiffly. "I shall consider the matter and get back at you."
"What did you do to B?"
Damian paused in his tracks. Drake hovered in the doorway to his room, a tablet clamped underneath his armpit and a steaming mug clutched in his hand.
"He just locked himself in his study with a bottle of bourbon," Drake said.
Damian scowled and resisted the urge to cross his arms. "There has been a misunderstanding. Father has merely cleared it up."
"Uh huh." Drake pushed open the door to his room with one foot. "On second thought, I really don't want to know."
"Drake," Damian called him back. He faltered, the words threatening to shrivel on his tongue. "What methods has Father utilized while training you?"
Drake's brows twitched. "You've been training with him too," he pointed out.
"Seeing as your shortcomings are more numerous than of any other family member, I thought it logical to inquire as to how Father went about rectifying them."
"Wow. Thanks." Drake rolled his eyes and turned.
Frustration bubbled up in Damian's throat. "Wait!"
Drake stopped. He scowled, keeping his door open with the tip of his foot. "What."
Damian loathed asking his predecessor for advice, but he needed that answer. "It has come to my attention that Father's methods differ greatly from those of the League," he said slowly. "I find myself unsure of what to expect in terms of... discipline."
Drake said nothing. He raised an impatient eyebrow.
"You have known Father for longer. You have," Damian pushed through the bitter taste in his mouth, "earned his respect. I would... appreciate... if you shared the experience you've gathered."
There was a brief pause.
"Wow," Drake said flatly. "That took a lot out of you, huh?"
Damian bristled. "Whatever," he snapped, whirling around to storm down the hallway and acquire his information in other ways.
Before he could, Drake twitched his shoulders. "Okay, what the hell. What do you want to know?"
"I've already told you–" Damian bit his tongue. He fought hard not to vocalize his scowl. "That is. I would like to know how Father has reacted to your mistakes."
Drake leaned back against the doorway. His frown looked thoughtful now as opposed to annoyed. "Mostly he'd make me repeat the same drills for hours. I'd do them until he couldn't think of anything else to criticize, and then some." Drake shrugged. "He's a perfectionist. He holds everybody to impossible standards."
Damian gaped at him. "That's it?"
"If I really messed up he'd bench me for a couple weeks or so. Told me I wasn't ready if I still made the same mistake." Drake shifted his weight. "He'd let me back out once I could do whatever got me benched in my sleep."
"But that's nothing," Damian protested.
"It was tedious." Drake shrugged. "But worth it in retrospect. If Bruce tells you you mastered a move, you mastered it."
Damian's thoughts were swirling. He felt numb. He hadn't expected Drake's answer to line up so perfectly with what Father had said.
Damian hadn't thought his father a liar, but he'd expected his perception to differ from that of those following his orders. A little like back home, when his instructor had considered the cane his most lenient punishment, while Damian would have gladly taken numerous other ones before it.
Drake tried to stop Damian from turning on his heel by catching his elbow. He almost dropped his tablet when Damian retaliated.
"Woah, hey!" Drake threw up his free hand in surrender. So needlessly dramatic. Damian's knife had come nowhere near his face. "I was just gonna ask if you're okay."
"Terrific," Damian said flatly.
"Right. Because you look like somebody kicked Titus and got away with it."
"Mind your own business, Drake," Damian snarled before finally storming off.
The last thing he heard was a muttered, "You're welcome, brat."
Damian skipped the next three training sessions. Father neither admonished nor confronted him.
"Due to excessive research," Damian announced upon entering the Batcave on day four, "I now understand the deviation between the League's ways and yours."
Father ceased his typing and turned away from the computer. "Oh?"
"It is a simple matter of strategy," Damian explained. "Negative reinforcement as opposed to positive reinforcement. While the League prefers the former in discouraging mistakes, you favor the latter by encouraging growth."
Father considered this. "I haven't thought of it that way. An astute observation."
"Several of the sources I've consulted suggest that positive reinforcement is the superior approach," Damian continued impatiently. "As such, I am willing to put my past experiences aside and embrace your methods fully."
Damian hadn't recognized the tension in his father's shoulders until it melted away in obvious relief. "I see," Father said. "I'm glad to hear that."
Damian might have exaggerated his claims. He didn't come close to understanding his father's ways, and he certainly did not agree with them. Though harsh, the League's training methods undeniably yielded faster results – although Damian supposed that he hadn't been observing for long.
He would hold out on his judgement until he had collected enough data on the long-term results.
"Well?" Damian raised his chin. "I've been made to understand that dedication and repetition are the keys to improvement. We are wasting valuable time."
Father paused. "You're right," he said in a tone of voice that suggested some layer of his message was flying over Damian's head. "Fetch your equipment and I'll meet you on the mat."
Damian did as he was told.
He may not understand his father just yet, but he could not deny his success. All of his soldiers – that was, all of his children – had been raised into formidable opponents and reliable allies.
If Damian was able to accept that he was one of them, perhaps he would be able to accept being trained like them, as well.
A/N: Beta'd by the lovely To Mockingbird, Igornerd and flyingcat!
Let me know what you think! :)