'With Word And With Might of Hand'
A/N: Title from the first book of the Iliad, when our heroes are all sitting around arguing about who deserves to be deprived of their slave girl. This was commissioned as part of an injury GoFundMe almost a year ago by the highly tolerant Sheillagh O., who wanted Talon & Owlman interaction set a few years after Cheshire Smile, optionally including the Crime Syndicate. This required me to clear up some very blurry patches in the timeline lol.
At this point Dick is about 13, he's met Roy but Ollie isn't actually in the Syndicate yet just working with them, and Hal and Wally have yet to debut, which is unfortunate for me because they're both useful in group dialogue, and also I'd like them to appear. Barry still doesn't have any lines, stg Barry why will you not speak. What are you hiding.
Talon ducked under his master's elbow and slid the knife in where it belonged, at the base of Owlman's spine.
It was one of three blades that slotted invisibly into the armor plates along his torso, to serve as additional rigid protection as long as they were in place and, when necessary, to offer an extra edge.
Not that the Owl ever even looked unarmed, nor would be harmless if he were. But there was a difference between the menace of jet claws, and the sharp point that could be made with five inches of steel.
Talon ducked back out again, lifted the left gauntlet from its stand and waited for the matching hand to be held out, that he might slide it on. This might take some space of seconds, as Owlman was flipping through the day's reports on an obsidian clipboard, inset with faceted beads of smoky quartz forming the shape of the feather tattoo he gave his fully initiated followers, the footsoldiers of his Court.
(There had been a lecture last month, when the clipboard was delivered, about the choice of materials, and the balance between useful opulence and absurd ostentation. The latter, it seemed, would have been using actual gemstones in the decoration, rather than mere quartz.
Talon was glad it wasn't set with diamonds. Inevitably one would have fallen out and gotten lost, and Owlman would have been in a temper.)
Without looking up from whatever document was making him frown so thunderously, the Owl extended his left hand. Gauntlet on. Flex, to make sure it had settled correctly. Pass the clipboard into that hand, obsidian impervious to the bite of claws, as Talon circled silently around his back.
It was important not to keep his master waiting, but neither could he distract him with haste and rush. There was a balance in this, as in all things. Perfection must brush the fingertips with every movement, though it might never alight within the palm. This was attainable. He had been well taught.
The old Talons had not been trained as squires. He'd been told that by one of the round white masks, old blood who had known Talons before him, in feathered armor, and trained them too. White circle inset with great dark eyes looking down, thinking little of him, in his ragged grey and scarlet. White mask and the voice that issued from behind it familiar, from times when he had been in error, and required punishment.
But the Court had changed, since the days when Talon wore the armor. And the King who ruled it now preferred the personal touch.
He didn't need help arming up, of course. The entirety of the royal raiment was very particularly designed to be manageable by the wearer, without assistance, because Owlman felt that trust was a negotiable commodity but not one he preferred ever to have to rely upon.
A second pair of hands saved time and trouble, however, and the more height Talon put on, the more often it was his service that was called for, rather than that of the old man. He could almost reach the top of the Owl's head now, if he stretched.
Clipboard transferred, the second powerful hand stretched out, and Talon slid the gauntlet onto it. Another flex of claws. Testing articulation. It was unthinkable that this armor could be neglected enough to rust, but something could always have gone wrong. Never assume.
The claws dove toward his neck, and Talon froze. What mistake had he made?
But his throat was not opened. One great knuckle hooked carefully under the edge of his jaw. The armored inner pad of the vast thumb pressed against his lower left bicuspid, through the thin flesh of his face. The very end of the thumb's black claw pricked at the corner of his mouth.
Firmly, the heavy hand turned his face up, into Owlman's where he knew better than to look unless instructed. Pale blue eyes punched into his own sharply enough it felt they should have punctured, and oozed down his face blindly. (He hated when that happened. The slime stayed even after he recovered, and blindness in the interim was awful.)
"Talon," said his king, as softly as he ever said anything that was not a threat. Deep, smooth, and just a step shy of gloating. None of the cool sharp edges of his anger. Talon had done nothing wrong. The band around his heart loosened. "Focus."
The hand withdrew from his chin, and Talon dipped his head in contrition. How could he always tell, somehow. What carelessness crept into his movements, when his mind began to spin away behind his eyes?
"Good." The Owl reached out and lifted the feathered mantle from its stand himself, swinging its weight around his shoulders to settle there, doubling his already great size and casting shadow over the gleaming-dark surface of his breastplate.
Reached up to draw the mask down over his face, and tipped his chin back as he did, throat bared, so that Talon knew to step close, reach up, and hook carefully along the the gorget the row of fastenings that kept the great cloak in place.
A twitch of broad armored shoulders brought the feathers into line, and they were ready to depart.
The meeting was on an island in international waters. Waters, however, that were within a convenient distance of Gotham by small watercraft, a thing ensured by the simple expedient of Owlman having donated the location to the cause.
Not that he didn't still own it, technically speaking, through a network of shells. (Talon knew vaguely that these were legal entities, but always pictured tiny curling conches and delicate oyster-carapaces strung on chains, swinging with every breeze.) But it was used for only this, and was treated for Society purposes as common ground.
The other members maintained just the narrowest thread of awareness that they were on his territory—enough to incline them to defer, but not enough to make them feel trapped.
It was a careful balance his lord maintained, over these titans of the world. Talon knew the delicate power of it because he was one of the most mobile weights on the scales, but also because he imagined anyone would, watching power flow back and forth amongst the mighty. The unstoppable force of alien or amazon curbed and redirected to a common purpose.
Or was that only anyone who had been watching Owlman all their life. Talon could not say.
The Court had been this restive, once. When Talon was new. Had still required delicacy, though never quite so much, because no one in it had had a fraction of the strength gathered here. Now all the Courtiers had learned to bow their round white faces and avert their staring Tyton eyes, and the King had turned his gaze beyond Gotham, into the greater world.
The waves broke black about them as they raced eastward, leaving the lights of Gotham far behind. It was low in the water, this small vessel, but fast and quiet as the wings of owls in the night air. Owlman steered, very upright in the only seat.
Talon crouched at his left hand, one bare knee steadying him against the inside of the hull. It was cold. Thin steel between him and the ocean's depth.
He could drown for a very long time, before he stopped waking up again.
Sometimes when the boat was caught by a rise, he jostled against his lord's knee. The Owl took no notice.
"Listen closely to the others," he instructed, at length, as the shore of the little island and the tower's height came into view. As though Talon might have forgotten. "I will be expecting a detailed report at the end of the evening."
He didn't glance toward Talon. Verbal confirmation was required. "Yes, my lord."
"Good. I intend to avoid conflict tonight, and in addition to the question of expanded membership, the political situation has expanded the agenda, so we may run late. You may speak to whatever hangers-on the rest have brought as necessary to extract information, but be subtle."
"…yes, my lord."
"You have doubts?"
"No, my lord."
"Obviously they'll be suspicious if you act out of character." Yes, exactly. "Don't."
Well. That limited the options. A challenge, but the better kind. The more choices he was given, after all, the more likely it was he would make one that was wrong.
Talon tipped his head back a little to catch the flash of the stars. They said you could use them in place of a clock, if you knew them well enough. There would be a clock in the meeting-hall, to time his mission by. Owlman always made sure that business could be conducted according to schedule, so that if it was departed from it would be a conscious decision, and not the careless creep of accidental waste.
There were few worse things than error.
The ocean spoke, and the stars were silent, and he understood neither.
The prince of Atlantis was leaping lightly up onto the dock when they drew alongside it, casting the reins that bound his dolphin mounts aside into the cold March water. He had no need to hitch them in place; they would come when he called.
Careless, artless display of power. All the more effective for its lack of calculation.
"Orin," Owlman inclined his head minutely as he stepped across from vessel to pier. Talon knelt at his heel, lashing the boat in place against the dock—unliving things could not be counted upon to remain obediently where they were left, if something wished to carry them away, nor to come back when called upon, and the ocean did not bow to the Owl-king's will.
"Owl," the prince replied, return nod almost lost in the way he swept his pale hair back, scattering salt droplets against the rising moon, glittering even brighter than the golden scales of his armor. "Lovely night."
"Mm." Disinterested agreement. Claws loose. No offense taken. The embossed patterns of his armor caught the moon in them far more subtly, a spider's web over polished night. "Shall we go up?"
"You take the open sky too much for granted, my good bird," smiled His Highness, voice light as sun on water. "But surely. I sent my squire ahead to ensure the provisions would be suitable, today."
No staff was kept on the secret island, for security reasons, and thus catering was limited. The speedster Dash had been in charge of the food at the previous meeting a month ago, and his contribution had been dozens of cheeseburgers in paper sacks, whose scent had made Talon's idiot mouth water, even though last time he'd eaten anything of the kind (spoils from a target's home) it had sat in his stomach like stone, until he lost it into a gutter.
Superwoman had been entirely amused by the cheeseburgers, and Ultraman had only gotten annoyed once he saw that Owlman was, and realized his own standards should be higher. Atom, who was the most recent addition to the cohort, had seemed indifferent, as much as the mood of a man six inches high could be read from any distance.
But Hydrolord had almost walked out in offense. Surface dweller food, he said, was suspicious to begin with, fast food was beneath his royal dignity, and cattle were disgusting.
The fact that he'd known what it was at a glance had not gone unnoticed, even by Talon. His Highness went ashore incognito; this was known. Whether he'd eaten Burger King before or only seen it, or watched the advertisements, had mattered less however than the general calumny cast by all upon Dash's entirely unconcerned head.
It had been hypnotic, that unconcern. The fragile mortal man with nothing but speed to protect him, surrounded by the most dangerous people on Earth, so sure he could not be touched that a mocking smile played at the corner of his mouth even as Ultraman fumed and Owlman's lip curled in disgust; as Hydrolord made the sea crash against the rocks outside as though it would swallow the fortress whole.
Dash was terribly powerful or very foolish, and either way he was brave.
Perhaps he had given the offense purposely, to show how little he cared for his colleagues' anger, or perhaps he hadn't cared enough to concern himself with what they might want. He had simply sat back in his chair at the high council table and eaten cheeseburgers almost too quickly to see the motion of hand to mouth, and yet with no great hurry, and smiled, and let the empty paper wrappers pile up at his elbow.
The meeting had ended early and with everyone but Dash in ill temper, even Superwoman, who'd gotten fed up by then with Atlantean and Kryptonian sulking.
If the Dash had been waging some kind of war that day, Talon thought he might have won.
But this was a new night, and the ocean prince seemed in good spirits as he led the way up the winding gravel path, toward the stone turrets of the refurbished old fort. Pirate-hunters had sailed from this island, once. Never pirates.
The Superwoman intercepted them all in the entry annex. "Orin! Owlman! Just barely on time!" She was wearing a cape today, a great billow of cloth-of-gold that trailed behind her like smoke as she swept forward across black tile, but still fell heavy about her whenever it hung still.
"Diana," the prince greeted the princess, all careful courtesy. His armor glimmered a slightly paler shade than her mantle. "A fair moon for you?"
"Lovely. I fought some sort of prehistoric flightless dragon in a magical cavern. It was delicious. Have you bested that Kraken yet?"
"It's learning to fear me."
She leaned in and patted his cheek, a condescension he accepted with a tight-lipped smile. "Well done," she said.
"Thank you." His bow was stiff. "Excuse me." Prince Orin stalked off toward where his squire was carefully adjusting the placement of silver domes over platters on the long sideboard, his good mood dispelled.
Silver corroded rapidly in seawater. Those domes were not an Atlantean affectation. Talon had seen something similar in Owlman's home. Wondered if asking about them would be a believable opening to conversation.
"Oh, and you brought your cupbearer again, I see!" Superwoman exclaimed to the King of Owls, the full weight of her attention falling onto Talon, and immediately claiming the whole of his focus. (Not quite the whole; some was still reserved for his king.) "I like this one," she announced, tapping a thumb against the bronze armor plating along her upper arm with a noise like rain on tin roofing, mouth curling up. "He doesn't flinch."
Flinch? Well. No. It wasn't that she wasn't terrifying, of course. Talon simply had very little energy to waste on feelings like fear. He'd been trained better than that.
"Your Highness," he murmured, ducking his head. A hand came down upon it. Not quite as large as Owlman's, and bare.
"Hm," she hummed. "Courteous little creature you've trained, Bruce. Your way is so dismally slow, though." Long fingers that could crunch bone like dry leaves toyed with his hair.
Owlman's hand clamped down on Talon's shoulder. "But effective."
"I think you'll find my methods are entirely efficacious, thank you." The sharp note in her voice promised pain, but the hand that slipped from his hair, curled down his face and under his chin was merely firm.
Talon's breath threatened to stutter in his chest. He was supposed to defer to her. He was not supposed to allow liberties. How to resolve these dictates. Was this a test.
If Owlman objected to having his right hand pawed at, he would say something. The hand on his shoulder had tightened, but not in threat. Not as a message. There would be claws in that. Talon submitted to the touch.
The Superwoman's skin against his face seemed to burn. As though with perpetual fever. They said she had been created in divine fire. Talon knew his own body temperature was low. A side effect of the electrum in his bones.
Owlman touched him barehanded, sometimes. That was never so hot as this.
She tilted his head up with a firm pressure, and he stared vacantly into her forehead.
"Why the mask?" she murmured.
"That intangible mystique." The Owlman's voice was heavy with impatient sarcasm. "Diana, if you're finished inspecting my possessions..."
Superwoman swiped the pad of her thumb over Talon's lips. The pressure struck like a bolt of lightning, raced up and down his spine, wrenched at his gut and left his whole skin tingling, chilled. He didn't quite manage to suppress all reaction; his master certainly felt the twitch through the hand still clasped tight around his shoulder. It tightened.
"Chapped," she observed. "You should look into an oil or wax for that, boy."
"Diana." Exasperation. There were very few beings in the world Owlman would bother to show exasperation without menace, but the Superwoman was beyond his power to control, or to readily annihilate. He seemed almost a man, with her. Merely mortal.
The Owl would not let the Superwoman take Talon. He would not. It was too great a loss of face. The practical inconvenience of losing him could be weathered, if necessary, but politically—
"Oh, very well." The Superwoman took her hand away. Talon had never been so grateful to belong to Owlman. "Do drop fifty cents on a tube of chapstick for the boy, though; it can't be efficient for his lips to be constantly splitting, no matter how fast they heal, and it's poor aesthetics."
"Thank you," Owlman said, withering. "For your input."
"Always happy to help, Bruce." She winked at Talon. "See you around, pretty boy."
"Isn't he too young for you?" the Owl grumbled, falling into step with Superwoman and leaving Talon where he stood, the turn of his head and slope of his shoulder indicating absent dismissal. The edges of their capes brushed together, hard sunlight and soft shadow.
"But showing such potential. You do have nice taste, and they're so delightfully moldable at that age."
"Must you always interfere with my things."
"You're so generous with them. I only trashed your beach house a little, and I took care of the bodies myself. Anyway, I'll let you play with my next acquisition if you like."
"I'm not much for games."
They were out of earshot, then, and approaching the great oval table that took up one whole end of the hall, raised up on a dais with a single beam of light pouring down onto the center, reflecting from the polished surface enough to light the faces seated around it, though the spotlight did not quite reach them.
Ultraman was already in his chair, its high winged back blazoned with the crest of his house on a gilded field. In the smaller chair facing his, Dash sprawled comfortably back against his sigil of lightning.
As he, Superwoman, and Hydrolord all reached their places, Owlman flicked the particular sign of dismissal that meant commence duties toward Talon. At the table, Atom expanded abruptly into being to fill his seat, and in the shadowed hall beyond, Talon fell away toward the lesser table that lay along the far wall.
Where Garth of Atlantis had, in his master's absence, been cornered by Donna of Themiscyra.
She loomed over him with only a slight advantage in height, and though she seemed unarmed but for the coiled whip stored on one hip, and was smiling, the threat implied in the way she stood far too close for courtesy was very clear.
Prince Orin's squire was his master's opposite: stockily built, and thus solid even for an Atlantean, but only half a head taller than Talon despite being the eldest of the three, with ringlets of dark hair and purple eyes, and in place of the broad smile or frothing rage most common on His Highness of the Seas, Garth's expression alternated between brusque bare-courtesy and poorly hidden resentment.
He seemed a very poor courtier and was a mess of defensive vulnerabilities, but had clearly been selected for his loyalty over all other concerns.
The Superwoman's right hand, in contrast, was her mirror image—"My sister, Donna," she had said absently the first time she brought the girl with her, and the resemblance was strong; stronger than his had ever been to the Owl, and they'd been mistaken for blood relations more than once, the few times he'd been deployed at his master's side outside of uniform. And yet there were differences, ones Talon had catalogued at once, and watched still for any change.
Her balance was less perfect, and when she lashed out the loss of control was far less calculated, far likelier to leave her vulnerable. The fire in her stare was different, full of sparks and a snapping pride that spoke to doubts which could undoubtedly be targeted, if it came to a fight. Owlman had estimated her age at fourteen, with the caveat that Amazons did not age at the usual human rate.
Talon had spent three meetings with them already, without having been forced to fight. He was sure it was only a matter of time.
Today seemed likely to be the day, by the set of each of their shoulders. He might welcome it—pain was a small sacrifice for the clean certainty of violence, even against those he must not kill without a clear command. Certainly it would be easier than any other interaction.
But in combat he would have no luck subtly extracting information from their conversation. No good. He had a mission to complete. And Owlman planned to avoid conflict tonight.
"Careful, Amazon," Garth cautioned, as Talon drew near. "To insult me is to insult my master."
Superwoman's protégée flicked the long tail of her hair out dismissively. "And I should be scared of your prince? What power does he have, besides the right to go crying to his mommy?"
"He is knight of the seven seas and the prince of Atlantis, who holds the trident of Neptune."
"And what is that to the Queen of the Cats? Face it, he's only here to pretend to be relevant outside his goldfish bowl."
Garth's hand strayed toward his waist, though there was no visible weapon there. "You insolent—"
His teeth snapped shut on word and possibly tongue as the heel of Donna Troy's hand slammed up under his chin.
In the disorientation this created she yanked his gut onto her fist with a handful of curls, then flipped the triple human weight of an Atlantean's dense muscle and bone casually over her shoulder.
He hit the ground on his face and had only time to break the fall before she was on him again, twisting his arm tight against his spine so that any struggle might tear it from its moorings—an even more serious injury for a boy who swam everywhere than it would be on the surface.
She dragged his head back with a loop of silver whip around his throat.
"Insolent," she said, her face hanging just above the back of his ear, though she spoke loud and clear enough that Talon had no struggle to hear, "is a word for your inferiors. I am no such thing.
"I am the Lady of Ilium, carrying the legacy of the Titans that stand beyond the world. Troy fell because it trusted too well in the guardianship of Poseidon. Learn from them.
"Because if you continue to cross me I will challenge you to a duel of honor, and throw you down again with my lady and the gods to witness, and shackle your will to mine. And do you think your prince will still value your service, if he can't trust you not to obey me, instead?"
The squire's short breath and silence were answer enough, and Donna Troy smirked and let him go, standing up and not offering to help him to his feet. The long half-second it took him to rise spoke volumes to those who knew how to look, and the Amazon flicked the long tail of her hair again in scorn.
She flicked her eyes toward Talon with the gesture, and he realized she was gauging his opinion, his reaction to her violence and her successful threat. She wanted his approval? Or his respect. Or his fear.
He didn't fear her. Genuinely. There was...very little she could do that could threaten him, really. Up at the high table, her mistress was smiling sharkishly at his master, looking for a weakness. She would not find it. She would never find it.
Lady Ilium dismissed the squire of Atlantis and tried her own sharkish smile out on Talon, assured of his attention. He showed his teeth in return. It was not a comforting expression, but he didn't think it would be taken as a threat.
Could she break his will, with her magic? What would that be like?
"Anything to say, Birdie-bye?" she asked him.
Perfect. An opening.
He tilted his head. "Your queens don't know about this meeting, do they?" It was a question for both, if Garth wanted to seize the floor.
"Tch." Donna rolled her eyes and looked away, up at the table where the adults were indulging in intrigue. "Hippolyta will come around." She shot him a look. "Anyway it's not as though your government approves."
Owlman owned the city and state governments. The federal was proving a little more challenging. Talon shrugged one shoulder in carefully calculated indifference. It wasn't the same thing. "My king," he said, "is here."
"And you think being the lord of a made-up Court with no realm of his own is somehow of more account than heir to an empire covering two thirds of the world?" Garth demanded.
Talon regarded him without expression, and the Lady Ilium burst into snorting laughter at the sight, and leaned forward to backhand Talon's arm—a gesture that seemed almost friendly meant, though he felt blood vessels burst at the impact, and immediately begin to mend. "You're chatty today, aren't you shorty? Don't worry about Diana, she knows what's up. Her mom's old-fashioned, we just have to work around her for now.
"Lots of Amazons want in on the outside world, letting you men control it just because it would be a huge chore to change things is such a drag."
She wrapped an arm around Garth's neck, too quick for him to evade, but rather than choking or cracking his spine she just dragged him sideways, until his head was conveniently positioned to violently tousle his curls. "And don't worry about Atlantis, gillsy. We're not gonna mess with your soggy system, that's what allies is all about. You're getting us onside, Atalanta's gonna owe you."
Donna Troy, Talon decided, was not originally from Themiscyra. Valuable intelligence, if he could support it with evidence. As a first step he would have to find a way to get her to touch him again, and confirm the impression of a hand far too cool to be a thing like her sister-mistress, of earth and holy fire.