'The Owl and the Dead Boy (This Night Whispers My Name)'
A/N: Cover art is cut from the issue of Countdown to Final Crisis where the heroic Jokester jumps in and saves Jason Todd and the Challengers of the Beyond from the entire Injustice Syndicate. This is not that Earth-3, nor is it the one featured in Forever Evil, or any of the older versions, but it plunders all of them and the rest of comics canon for things to mirror, with the goal of developing the premise into an independent superhero setting, rather than just a place to get crossover villains from.
Picture this fic as a box of assorted comics found in an attic, mostly out of sequence and from several different titles. Whoever the collector was showed a definite fondness for the Gotham Circus, though, and heroes like Jokester and Harlequin, as well as a predilection for issues in which a Talon appeared. ;-}
In a darkened, barren cell, on the highest security level of the highest security prison in the world, this is what the security cameras would have seen, if they had still been working:
A certain dark-haired man narrowed eyes like ice at the corridor beyond his bars. He was manacled, even here, and wearing only the shapeless grey costume issued to prisoners, but there was no defeat in the set of his shoulders or the cold lines of his readily-recognizable face. Not long ago, he had been the wealthiest man in the world, and had more power than almost any king.
"Show yourself," he commanded.
Silence, for a moment, as though he had been talking to himself. Then out of a thin shadow that didn't seem it could have hidden anyone, there folded a lean figure in a hooded coat of charcoal-grey, faceless in the gloom. With its right hand it leveled a viciously sharp bolt in a small crossbow at the prisoner's heart, and with the other reached up to pull back its own hood.
It was another man, much younger, who might easily have been the first's natural son, though his features were finer and his eyes a far darker blue. His face was nearly as cold as the prisoner's, and even more expressionless.
The man behind bars wasted only a fraction of a second on recognition, and no time at all on surprise. "Talon."
The younger man narrowed his eyes very slightly. "My name is Richard."
"Is that what cowards call themselves?"
A tightness about still lips. "I only wish I'd run from you sooner."
"You ran because you failed."
"I'm glad I failed."
The older man snorted, very softly. "Are you? Wilson will hunt you down sooner or later, so long as he's alive, and he's not the type to show mercy to the penitent."
"I took the life of one of his children and the voice from the other. If he does to me what you did to Joe Chill, I won't be surprised."
Scorn covered the prisoner's face. "Are you going to let him?"
A pause. "No."
"Then are you really sorry?"
"Not sorry enough to die," the once-Talon shrugged. "But sorry enough not to kill him. I'm choosy with my murder, these days."
"You are a failure."
"I am what I am." Richard did not seem to feel the need to say anything more, but merely held his position and watched the man in the cell where he stood, some little way beyond the bars that would electrocute at a touch.
"You aren't here to help your old master escape," the prisoner stated, at length. Glanced from the young man's blank eyes to the sharp, sharp bolt trained on his heart. No sign of anything but calm. "Are you going to kill me?"
The renegade Talon stood in silence for a moment, eyes narrowed again. "I want to," he said finally. "You have no idea how much I want to. But there are a lot of other people who've made claims on your head. It seems greedy to cut ahead of the line like this, when I didn't even help bring you down. You can only die once, after all."
He drifted a little closer to the bars on utterly silent feet, the razor bolt never wavering. "You aren't frightening, Bruce. They've taken your weapons, and your secrets, and your wealth, and your Court, and all your servants who hadn't already turned on you. You aren't king anymore, and you aren't the Owl either. You're only a man."
"And you're not even that," Bruce murmured, poisonous, unruffled.
"Maybe not," Richard allowed. And then, for the first time, the corners of his lips bent up in the least of smiles. "But I'm learning."
"I made you," the prisoner once known as Owlman cut out the words like individual sharp-edged shards of steel. "Everything you are comes from me."
His former student shook his head a very little, not disagreeing but dismissing. "I know you think this is just a setback," he said levelly. "That you'll get out of here and start building up a new power base, and take back your city. But if you ever get out of here, if one of the others doesn't get to you first—then I'll kill you. Yes, you made me. So you know what I can do. If I come for your head, you won't even know I'm there until you're dead."
'Speak not a whispered word of them, or here comes Talon for your head—!'
The Talon darted toward the cell sharply, suddenly, something small cupped in his left hand, and the Owl jumped back, guard up, his hands painfully empty of anything that might serve as weapon or shield, and chained too close together to be much use. But the rogue assassin's hand only slapped against the wall and withdrew, without ever quite approaching the bars. The prisoner glared suspiciously from the back of his cell. His visitor's eyebrows twitched, infinitesimally.
And the tiny device now glued to reinforced concrete squawked out tinnily: "I am the terror that flaps in the night!" A bar of triumphal cartoon music blared, and then silence fell again.
The Owl stared, flat disbelief, and then his face twisted with fury. Talon—Richard—smiled again, a little wider. "I figured there was a reason you always hated the Jokester so much," he said.
"I am the terror that flaps in the night!"
"So I copied his style."
"Talon…" Owlman gritted out.
"Richard," corrected his old protégée, his old servant, the first of his tame assassins and the first to run from him. Ten years gone. "Grayson. There is no Talon anymore. Just a lone old bird in a cage."
The tiny speaker on the wall broke into low, musical hooting; a recognizable pattern. A message, in the Court of Owls' old coded communication, more rarely used in the modern age but still preserved, still taught to its members and its weapons. Failure. Prisoner. Death.
"I am the terror that flaps in the night!" it declaimed happily a moment later. Dun-dun-dun-dah! Bing!
"It's on a randomizer," said Richard. "Good luck sleeping."
He melted back into the shadows. "I won't see you again, unless you get free. And you won't see me at all."
"I am the terror that flaps in the night!" (Dun-dun-dun-dah! Bing!)
Owlman's teeth grated so loudly it was easily audible across the room, and for the first time since he was six years old, as he picked his way out of the deepest dungeon in the world, very quietly, Richard Grayson laughed.
The Owl remained standing in the dimness when his traitorous Talon had gone.
The noisy device was unnecessarily near the cell. Certainly that meant it was slightly louder, but—Talon had specially advanced to place his noisemaker precisely out of reach. Or rather, precisely in the reach of Owlman, if he was willing to endure a little pain.
Unhesitating, unwilling to waste a second of whatever window was left in whatever Talon had done to the cameras, Bruce Wayne dislocated his own thumb, pulled his left hand from its cuff, crossed to the bars, and jammed his arm into the furthest-right gap.
The bars were not really far enough apart to admit his elbow, but he forced it through anyway, crushed overdefined biceps through the narrow space, whole body jerking with electric current, teeth clenched against any sound of pain or effort. Bent his wrist, closed his fingers around the tiny machine. Failure, it hooted. Prisoner.
Somehow he managed not to crush it in his hand. Snaked his abused left arm back inside, crossed stiffly back to the bench, and sat. Still twitching slightly from the powerful shock, he returned his hand to its manacle, resettled the abused thumb, and contemplated the device nestled in his palm.
A few microchips, some wires, the powerful little speaker—this was enough. He could engineer an escape with no more than this. Possibly Talon had counted on that; he had said he wanted very much to kill his old teacher, after all. He would be waiting outside.
"I am the terror—" began the thing in his hand, and he snorted and split open the casing with a thumbnail, ready to start making use of his materials.
Across the room in the patch of shadow, well out of reach, another speaker began to hoot, triggered by the deactivation of the first.
Definitely intentional. And the Owlman smiled, because if it had possessed enough remote signal capacity to communicate even that much, it was going to be even more useful than he'd thought.
A/N: The 'terror that flaps in the night' is, of course, Darkwing Duck. (A Batman parody whose nemesis was his evil self from an alternate universe, hah.)
Chapter edited 3/17.