A/N: Hello everyone! Not what you were expecting from me, I know, but the Earth-3 universe kind of... ate my muses. There's more about why down at the bottom, but accept my not-really-sorry apologies, this universe is way too much fun.
Notes about that all-important word, continuity: This story is equal parts taken from the Crisis on Two Earths movie, what little canon there is about Earth-3 in the new 52 (mostly the Forever Evil storyline), my own head-canons, and the head-canons of TrisakAminawn's Earth-3 world! Here are the important things:
1 — Bruce Wayne is Owlman, because Thomas Wayne is a cheap cop-out to not muddy Bruce's name, and that's just bad as far as I'm concerned. Bruce has all kinds of villain potential, so he is!
2 — Harley is alive and well as 'Harlequin', the hero and partner of the Jokester, as well as having her normal Arkham Asylum psychiatrist background.
3 — There are a lot of minor differences, but I'll put them at the bottom. Read, enjoy, and let me know what you think!
It's remarkably difficult to look at what will become my own corpse, actually surprisingly so. Outside of the occasional moment brought on by my mentor — though perhaps the better word might be captor, the way I'm beginning to think — this tight feeling in my gut, dangerously close to fear, isn't something I'm used to.
Then again, I should be afraid. Regardless of what my mentor has beaten into me, and out of me, I would still be beyond insane not to fear him at least a little. Which, I guess, means that I crossed the line of sanity a long time ago. Right up there with the likes of the Jokester, or his Harlequin girlfriend, how perfect. Or is it wife, now? I'm fairly certain I saw a ring on his finger last time I nearly dislocated his shoulder, though usually 'Jay' doesn't let me close enough to Harlequin for her to try hitting me, or the reverse. Probably a good decision.
With what I'm about to attempt — and it's such an insane idea, I'm almost convinced the Jokester will go along with it just for the sake of madness — it's probably best that neither Owlman nor I have gotten close enough to seriously hurt the woman. Mad as he is, the Jokester might have tried a little harder to truly kill us if that were the case. He'd certainly never dream of doing me the favor I'm about to ask him.
Though how could I ever claim to know what that clown dreams of?
The thing blinks, looking at me with wide blue eyes, and the reminder is uncomfortable. Is this what I would look like if Bruce had never gotten ahold of me? Would my eyes be that innocent?
"Like I originally told you, I couldn't give him the evidence of your past injuries," the man standing against the wall says softly, and both of our pairs of blue eyes turn to him. "Will that still work for you?"
"I planned around it," I answer, equally softly. If anyone hears us — and there are so many people that could — this will go wrong far too quickly for either of us to recover. There's a mixture of disapproval and something tight, something understanding, in Luthor's equally blue eyes — though his are a shade paler than either me or the innocent thing lying before me. He doesn't like what little I've told him of my plan — just enough to get him to create a clone — but he knows why I'm doing it, and I think that, even grudgingly, he agrees there's no other option.
"Do you know what you're doing, kid?" he asks, arms crossed over his chest, and I flash a thin smile. There's no emotion behind it, most of that was destroyed a long time ago, but it's an ingrained reaction as Talon.
"Does Owlman?" I counter. "That's the important question." We're both silent for a few moments, and I see the tightness in his jaw that speaks to his wariness. He might be fighting someone a lot stronger than my own enemy, but Ultraman is not nearly as crafty, or as intelligently vicious. My existence is proof enough of that. "I'll pick it up when the time comes," I promise, turning on my heel.
"He's not a thing, Talon," Luthor says, in the sharpest tone he's used this whole conversation. "Maybe that clone doesn't have a fully working mind, but he's more than just an animal. Can you live with sacrificing a life for your own survival? Never mind, why did I even ask?"
I catch the frustrated edge to Luthor's voice, but I don't bother answering his question, rhetorical or not. Leaving Owlman isn't the same as joining the heroes, and as far as I'm concerned they're fighting a losing battle. I'm planning to get out of my death sentence of a life; why would I join up with them and put myself back in the same situation?
Getting out of LexCorp is easy enough, despite the tight crawl spaces, and soon enough I'm out, no one in the building, but Luthor, ever knowing I was there. Bruce will know, of course, but he's the one who'd sent me down to Metropolis to spy on Luthor, so my foray into the corporation won't raise any alarms for him. Luthor doesn't know — though he'll piece it together pretty quickly when the inevitable attack comes — but I retrieved enough information, before meeting with him, to satisfy Ultraman and, more importantly, Bruce. I can only hope that Luthor is good enough to keep my commissioned clone out of anyone else's hands until I need it. If not, I suppose it can always be explained away as one of his inane plots, though choosing me as a subject might raise some suspicion.
I find a dark alley, easy even in the shining city of Metropolis, to make my call.
The communicator hooks into my ear easily enough, activated with a touch of my finger. "I'm done," I say, without preamble, leaning against the dingy walls of the alley. Rooftops are my normal hideout, but those are significantly less safe in the hometown of Ultraman. Alleys aren't much better, but at least they're a little more shadowed. "Heading back."
"Understood," is all the answer I get, Bruce's voice as gruff and cold as always. It's hard to tell if he's being short because he's out on a patrol, making sure that none of the heroes get any bright ideas, or the gangs have any intent to step out of line, or just because Bruce is nearly always that way. Probably the former, but Bruce is one of the very few people that I can't read with any real consistency, especially based on just his voice.
I take a moment to consider my different methods of getting back to Gotham. The easiest ones are also the ones that will garner the most attention — that is, traveling back as Richard Grayson — which is always something to be avoided, especially where Bruce is concerned. I didn't come to Metropolis as Richard, so I can't leave as him either.
It's one of the more obvious signs of my mental instability, how I consider my real name to be the false one. Another thing I can attribute to Bruce's training. I am Talon, I know I will never be anything else, but at least I can choose not to be his Talon. I can pretend to be someone else, though considering how deeply I'll have to be in hiding, even with my plan, my options will be pretty limited.
It's a long way to go just under my own power, so I'll have to hitch a ride on something. Bruce will expect me back before the night is over.
It's twelve more serious fights with various heroes, mainly Jokester and the rest of his group, before I get a chance to speak to the clown. The nearly two month span doesn't bother me; patience has always been easy. One of the first traits Bruce ever instilled in me was the ability to wait, to patiently study a target from every angle before even considering moving. It took a lot of bruises, and more nights spent crouched on a rooftop than I care to remember, but I took that to heart more than any other lesson he ever taught me. I've been thinking this particular plan through for years and years, long before I ever consulted Luthor about the possibility of it.
I watch Owlman chase after Enigma for a moment, knowing that can only end one of two ways — a dead Enigma, or a rescue by another group member — and swap my attention back to the lean form of the Jokester. I know Harlequin and a few of the others are around the back, the direction that Enigma is running, so that should keep Bruce occupied for at least a few minutes. That's enough.
I leap down from the shadows of the roof, getting between Bruce's back and the Jokester's dart gun, knocking it out of his hand with one foot as I come down nearly on top of him. The dart wouldn't have gone through Bruce's armor anyway, but attacking will still give me enough of a reason to stay behind. He reacts quickly, just as used to this particular dance as I am. He ducks out of the way of my first grab at his arm, incessant laughter spilling between his lips, his movements as sharp and jerky as usual.
"Bird-boy!" he says in what sounds like delight, skipping backwards and throwing some kind of capsule that bursts into purple gas on the ground beside me. I dive away from it, holding my breath in my lungs until I'm safely clear of the likely toxic gas. I catch him on the second try, flinging him up against one wall of the building. The laughter cuts off as he hits it, so it's probably harder than I should have thrown him to make a good first impression.
I drive my forearm into his chest — not as hard as I normally would; I don't want to break his ribs to start this conversation — and pin him against the wall by it. I press my weight against him, but stand carefully to the side, outside of the range of the nastier tricks on the front of his costume. He recovers fast enough to make me wonder, not for the first time, if the chemical bath Bruce gave him didn't make him better than a normal human in addition to his disfigurement. I take the surprisingly strong blow to my side with only a clench of my teeth, glaring up at him. I've had Bruce beating on me since he chose me to be his Talon, and the Jokester might be wiry, but he's definitely not as strong as Bruce.
I hold up my other hand in a placating gesture, keeping my mouth shut, and at the brief light of interest, and confusion, reach up to pry the communicator from my ear. I drop it to the ground and, very deliberately, crush it under my heel. Bruce won't be happy, but I need this chance.
"I need your help." My voice is a quiet hiss, hopefully enough so that I'll get a few seconds of warning before Bruce can hear me, if he comes back around the corner.
The Jokester's green eyes narrow, though the grin doesn't leave his face. "Bird-boy wants help from me?" he cackles, and I thank whatever sanity the clown still has that his voice is just as quiet as mine. He might be insane, there's no questioning that, but he's also smart. Not the genius that Bruce is, but he's clever enough.
"I want out. Help me, and I'll disappear. You'll never have to deal with me again."
The Jokester looks at me for a long few moments, enough that I have to curb the urge to tell him to hurry up and make some kind of decision. If I do, I know it will only drive him to keep quiet for even longer, just to spite me. "Tempting! What do you want from me?" His voice is the same tone, like he's one step away from bursting into laughter, but the look in his eyes is sharp, focused.
"Talk to Luthor," I state simply. "Be careful. If you get intercepted-"
"The little bird is roadkill?" he finishes, grin just a little nastier than usual. I admit, this is the least predictable bit of my plan. It could have been done without Luthor, but the Jokester is integral, and he has no reason I'm aware of to want to help me. Even worse, he's got quite a few reasons to want me dead. Unfortunately, that's part of why I need him.
"Distrusted," I correct. He might not get the full meanings of that word — then again, he's smart enough that he might — but I know what will happen. I'm an investment, and if Bruce thinks he can fix me by putting me back in the brutal early days of training, he will. I'm only dead if he decides I'm too much of a liability to even risk retraining, and that's the more unlikely possibility. Still, it's viable enough that I'd rather not test it. "Will you do it?"
He laughs, the one that's loud and pitched at just the right level to make my mentor's teeth make that very distinctive grinding clench, the clench that only the Jokester can inspire. I'm sure that if Bruce is anywhere close enough, within earshot of the carrying cackle, he's making exactly that expression. At this point, it's enough to make me give a miniature version of the same face. My mouth tightens into a thin line, and my eyes narrow slightly. It's not quite aggravation, but irritation might describe it.
"Awww, bird-boy, that's adorable!" His voice lowers after the initial proclamation, thankfully. "Worth it for the laugh," he says, his words interspersed with a low giggle.
I tense for a moment, loosening my pin a little bit. "Make it look good, Jokester," I demand.
The clown doesn't disappoint. A feint towards my right side, that I release my pin to block, and he hits me with a nerve strike from his opposite hand just as Owlman comes skidding around the corner. I reel, pain spiking down my left side, and a foot to the underside of my jaw completes the take down. Jokester runs, cackling, away from Owlman, who spares me little more than a glance before running after the hero. Granted my nerves are close to dead — being a sociopath's living punching bag will do that to you — and my pain tolerance is miles above most people's, but it still takes me a bit to recover. Long enough for both of them to disappear from view.
Bruce will lay into me later, both for losing my communicator and for allowing the Jokester to escape, but I will handle it as I always do. With patience, with tolerance, and with the knowledge that it won't be long until things end, one way or another.
"So?" the Jokester asks, legs swinging back and forth as if he's a kid on a swing. He's perched on the closed dumpster as comfortably as he might be in an armchair, and I'm hidden in the shadows beside it. Regardless of appearance, I know that at least three other heroes are scattered within a block's radius, just in case this is a trap. I'm not an idiot, I noticed all of them on my way here, and if I thought it would do any good I might berate the clown. The only thing those heroes will do is make it easier for Bruce to notice our whereabouts.
"Did you talk to Luthor?" I ask, taking another glance at the com system in my hand to make absolutely certain my half of it is disabled. For the sake of paranoia, and because it's a healthy habit to have when it comes to the business of betraying Owlman.
The tracker in my suit is working, as it always is, but I'm on patrol. Standing still, even if I stay here for a while, will be nothing strange. Bruce may monitor my position, but doesn't generally question what I'm doing unless the movements seem abnormal. If he does, I will tell him precisely what happened. That I ran into the Jokester and three of his sidekick heroes, and decided to see if they had any plans before interfering, or calling for assistance. Bruce isn't particularly likely to punish me for self-preservation unless it goes against his orders, and besides, if Bruce isn't out on patrol with me, that means he's busy. He wouldn't appreciate being called out to assist me unless there's actually some plan to stop. You don't interrupt a busy Owlman, without good reason, unless you enjoy having a broken jaw. I've learned.
"Oh yeah! We shared some donuts, coffee — man's addicted, you know — talked about your plans to get yourself killed. Pleasant chats!"
"It seemed the best option," I reply neutrally. He's above me, perched as he is, and the clown is significantly taller than me anyway. Six feet, Bruce's height, though I've got far more muscle on me than he does.
"Well, kid, walk me through what you think my part of this is. You didn't tell Lexy much, but he's a downer so I get that." He's actually behaving fairly seriously, for the clown, and if I wasn't used to the Jokester being all but completely unpredictable, it might unnerve me.
"There are, flaws," I admit, slowly, "and Owlman is thorough. He may not look too closely, but if he does, I need assurance he won't discover the problems with my clone."
"What're those? You give it a beard, or is it missing all the right parts? Oh! I know, I bet-" He continues, theories bouncing left and right, and I let him speak for a time before interrupting.
"I cannot break all the bones necessary to display previous injury," the Jokester goes very quiet, "not unless I wanted to spend another ten or so years under his heel."
"Jeez kid," the clown says after a moment, "that says a lot of things I don't think I wanted to know. How much of that was us?" In a reversal of our roles, he almost sounds flat, and I almost laugh.
"Very little." I see him flinch. "What I'm asking will likely disgust you," I warn, "though you may find some measure of satisfaction in the task."
"Just tell me, kid. You're going to fake your death, so you got Lexy to build you a clone, what's my part?" He lets loose a cackle of laughter into the dark alley, and I glance down either way to make sure no one is nearby. "Want me to throw you a party when you're free? I can do that!"
"Hardly," I say dryly, managing a tiny smirk. "I need you to kill me." His head cocks towards me, green eyes — that nearly glow in the dim light — narrowed in a mixture of confusion and curiosity, the ever present glint of insanity in the background. "You are one of the few heroes who has true reason to hate Owlman, and me, and whom he would deem morally capable of the task I need from you." He waits, and I expand on it after a moment. "If he sees the bones, notices the lack of previous breaks, he will know the corpse isn't me. I've devised a method of death that should adequately hide that imperfection, though naturally I will take on the burden of killing the clone myself."
"Just say it," the Jokester requests, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees.
"Very well." I pause for a moment anyway, but at the next sharp glance of his eyes I speak. "The most efficient method to suitably destroy the clone is two-part, though I only require the first from you. To hide the lack of breaks will require that the skeletal structure be shattered near beyond recognition. A violent beating with a crowbar should do the trick rather well. After that, the corpse should be exploded, to minimize the chance of finding a piece large enough to properly examine for more than a DNA sample."
The Jokester shoves himself off the dumpster, landing on the alley floor with a thud of his booted feet, turning on me. His mouth isn't a line, it's not capable of that anymore — not since I helped pin him down while Bruce gave him the grin he's now famous for — but his narrowed eyes broadcast all the anger I need to see. As expected, the suggestion isn't something he wants any part of.
He steps closer, shoving me back against the wall by my shoulders. I could break the hold, or his wrists, in any number of ways, but I choose not to. The Jokester certainly has some form of morals, of honor, and I doubt that he'll do me any real harm in a peaceful meeting like this. I do have a mild desire that he stop pressing quite so hard on my left shoulder, however, as it's only been a little over a week since our first meeting, and I haven't quite healed from Bruce's punishment yet. I wait to see what he'll say instead of using any of my more violent options, ignoring the comparatively minor pain.
"How old are you?" he demands, seemingly out of the blue.
"Fifteen," I answer easily, and it's not even a lie. His laugh comes out broken, humorless, as though wrenched from his throat by the insanity.
"You want me to beat a fifteen year old kid to death with a crowbar, before I blow him to bits, for your sake? So you can pin me with the blame of your death and disappear? Hah! Hahahahahaha!" He devolves into giggles, shaking in front of me, and I'm fairly sure that it's not truly out of amusement. Something in the clown's head is broken — I don't blame him for that, knowing what we did to him — and everything comes out a laugh, regardless of emotion. "They call me insane!"
"It's a clone, and I'm sure Luthor told you that it isn't capable of being fully aware. I thought that might make the act easier for you, knowing it wasn't truly a person. It seemed to help Luthor reach his decision." His grip on my shoulders tightens, and I'm sure he looks up in time to catch the tiny wince that I can't fully hold back. "I'm asking you to beat a corpse and claim responsibility. I'll handle killing it, and everything else."
"Why don't you do your own dirty work?" he asks, in something dangerously close to a snarl. I didn't know he could speak in a voice that didn't have some kind of laughter in it.
"I," I swallow, the same unnerved feeling in my gut as when I'd looked at my clone, with its huge blue eyes. "I am incapable of randomness, my work would be obvious." It feels like an excuse, but it's true. "If I was capable of performing this entire deed myself, then I would, but I cannot mimic you."
"There's a relief," the clown says with an iron-edged laugh. "Thought I might be getting rusty, only doing shows in alleys like this." He releases me, and I resist the urge to raise a hand to my aching shoulder. "Why me, kid? There are dozens of us, you singled me out. Why?"
I thought I'd said it, but I guess I'll explain again. "He has to believe it. Can you imagine any other so-called hero killing me, especially in a way so public and violent? You are the only one with a reason serious enough to justify a murder like that, and the insanity will help fill in any doubts he may have. Owlman knows that you would probably kill either of us, if you got a true chance at it on a bad day. Any other hero, and he might look too closely to be deceived. I need you."
The clown looks almost sickened, but gives a small nod. "Fair enough," he admits, with another broken laugh.
"Also," I begin, and I actually have to clear my throat to force the rest of the words past. "I believe you are the only hero I can truly trust to keep this a secret, even if you don't agree to help." Green eyes widen, and I keep my face carefully neutral. "If the hero I told, told Owlman, even if he didn't believe it, it would go very badly for me." I don't think the Jokester will tell Owlman, they're both too embittered for that, but that's no guarantee that he'll help me, either. He may hate Bruce, but he has almost as much reason to hate me, too.
"The grumpy bird's got a mean streak alright," the Jokester says, almost cheerfully. "Alright, kid, I'll do it. Tell me exactly what you need."
Some tiny, hidden part of me eases, relaxing into relief, and I take a moment to force it back into being cold and hard. The last thing I need is to stumble, now that I've finally gotten all my players together. "When we're ready, I'll bring the clone to you. Once it's dead, work it over with the crowbar — I'll bring that, too — and I'll have the equipment set up to broadcast. It will just be a body in my suit, and I'll need you to publicly claim my murder. I'll take care of the bombs, the broadcast, everything. All I need is a little hands-on work from you, and a little acting. You'll have to take me down in a fight, get Owlman distracted long enough to haul me off. I can show you where to hit to break the tracker in the suit, that's happened before. For now, just wait. I have to have a reason to go back to LexCorp, and that could be a long time."
"Sounds like fun!" The Jokester's voice has an edge to it, but I don't comment. "I guess it might be therapeutic to let loose on something that looks like you, Harley's always telling me I need therapy. Like anything can fix me now!"
"You're not the only one who can't be fixed," I offer, almost like the two of us could actually be called more than enemies, and his grin gets a little smaller.
"No, kid. I guess I'm not."
It's months before Bruce sends me back into LexCorp, I guess what I gathered last time was enough to keep Ultraman busy for a while. I know that these trips are only to appease the superhuman who calls himself Bruce's equal, to make sure that his interference in Gotham is minimal. Bruce might tolerate Superwoman's presence, but her Kryptonian husband isn't welcome. Gotham is Bruce's playground, filled with all his favorite toys, and woe to anyone who enters it without his permission. He probably has enough information on Luthor's projects to distribute for years to come, but the big man won't accept just being handed scraps of information. Sending me is an easy way to make it seem like Bruce actually cares at all for the others' desires.
I collect my information easily enough, shipping details and other such things, things the Kryptonian won't need to think about to take advantage of. The clone is harder. Even with all of my planning, and my knowledge of every blind spot in this week's version of our security system — the Jokester's gang does a good job of destroying surveillance, I admit, though Bruce never will — it's still a close thing getting the sedated clone back undetected. Owlman is off in Star City that night, helping Red Archer — Queen has never shied from asking and/or demanding help, just to make life simpler for himself — with one of his nastier heroes, and that's probably the only reason I manage it.
However, with that done, and the clone safely in the Jokester's hands, the hardest part of my plan is done. If, that is, you don't count the actual need to escape from Gotham after this is done.
I set everything that's needed up in one of Gotham's many abandoned warehouses, over the course of dozens of solo patrols and another couple months of time. The warehouse I choose is one that's well known among Gotham's underground, and heroes, as one that Owlman's patrol route regularly takes him over. Bruce checks it, or sends me to check on it, once every four months or so, and we've never found anything in it. It isn't a stretch to think that the Jokester would make his statement in a building so obvious, that's so direct a challenge. Gathering the supplies is easy enough, and the Jokester's group takes good care of the clone in my absence. I don't bother warning the clown not to make an emotional attachment to the creature; I know it's pointless.
Bruce's mood gets gradually worse as the months pass, and I'd be tempted to think he knew what I was planning, if I wasn't absolutely sure that if he knew, I'd be dead, or so deep in agony I might as well be dead. That does leave me in the unenviable position of having to ease around Bruce like he's a bomb set to a pressure switch, with the same quality of exploding at the slightest provocation. Even worse, I don't know why he's like this, and that's a dangerous thing to be unaware of.
The cave is dark when I slip into it, only the dim glow of the large computer screens lighting the huge space. My footsteps are silent as I cross the darkened area, shadows never anything but a comfort to me, and head up to change out of my suit. It's nearly dawn, and I have maybe an hour to sleep and fix my appearance before Bruce will expect me to accompany him to the Wayne Enterprises headquarters for some huge business breakfast. I'll probably get the chance to sleep for a few more after that, but patrols and corporate business schedules don't mesh particularly well. It's just a fact in the dual life of a villain's living weapon, and adopted son of the billionaire Bruce Wayne. Not that being his 'son' means anything outside of the spotlight.
"Talon," comes the sharp voice, and I halt in my tracks. I turn my head, fixing the white films hiding my eyes onto the one darker shadow hidden almost perfectly among the others. Bruce doesn't move from his chosen spot, and if I wasn't so well trained it would be easy to lose him again, even knowing where he is. He's in the suit of Owlman, the dark grey metal painted in dark shades of matte black and grey, nothing shiny to betray him.
I stay where I am, in one of the brighter spots of the cave, waiting for some hint of what my mentor wants from me. Eventually he takes a step towards me, his metal boots whisper-soft against the equally metal floor of the cave. Spandex and reinforced body armor only worked for so long, until Bruce needed a suit that made him capable of standing up against the super strength used by his rivals. It's not enough against Ultraman, but it does well enough against Superwoman.
"Jokester and his group are planning something," Bruce says quietly, standing perfectly straight. "They've been too quiet recently. I'll make your excuses, go back out and figure out what that something is. I don't like this silence." Ah, that explains the mood. I guess I've been too busy walking on my knife's edge to notice that the Jokester hasn't been causing as much chaos as usual.
I bow my head, giving an equally quiet, "Yes, sir." I glance up the long row of stairs, at the hidden entrance to the manor. I should still really catch at least a half hour of sleep, my equivalent of a normal person's nap. "Now?"
The gauntleted fist crashes into my cheek, and I remember, too late, that Bruce is still in a very dangerous mood. I fall, rolling and coming up in a low crouch, ignoring the feeling of blood gathering at the corner of my mouth. Adrenaline is a hell of a drug, and as my heart rate picks up some of my exhaustion falls away. I have no idea how much sleep Bruce has gotten recently, but obviously it's more than me, because I can't even pretend to keep up with him. His booted foot crashes into my ribs, at least one of which I can feel crack, and the impact sends me skidding across the metal floor and into the base of the computer.
He approaches, in no particular hurry, and I get to my feet with the ease of practice. My breath is slow and even, and it stays that way even as he grabs me by the front of my suit — the claws at the end of his gauntlets leaving small puncture holes in the fabric over my armor — and slams me down over the console below the screen.
"Now," he hisses, and I can imagine the narrowing of bright blue eyes even if I can't actually see them. He releases me, and turns on his heel to stalk up the stairs to the manor.
I let out a low breath as soon as I hear the distant click of the manor entrance, and raise my hand to wipe the blood off my face. It's still wet, and probably now smeared across my skin, but it blends right in with my red gloves. I stand and, with a last glance up the stairs, head back out. Generally, neither of us work in daylight, but it does happen sometimes. With me especially; Bruce hardly ever does. The police know better than to hassle Bruce or me, but it still minimizes some of the 'terror of the night' that we both rely on.
I spend hours on the rooftops, the sun struggling vainly to break through the thick clouds hovering over most of Gotham, trying to ignore the yawning pit in my stomach and the faint tremors in my muscles. The last time I slept more than an hour was five days ago, and while I can handle two or three – and still be active – easily, this much work with that little sleep is pushing the boundaries of my tolerance. It isn't particularly unusual for Bruce to disregard my human needs, but he usually doesn't take it to this kind of extreme either. After all, I'm significantly less capable when I'm this sleep deprived, and my mentor prefers when I'm useful.
Then the question becomes, is this on purpose? Is Bruce so distracted, and frustrated, by the Jokester's silence that he's forgetting I'm still human, or is he deliberately overworking me to curb that same frustration? I, honestly, really wish I knew. If it's the former, a few carefully picked words should be enough to get him to allow me to rest, but if this is intentional then those same words will earn me a lot of pain that I'm in no condition to handle. I suppose there's no point in risking it. I'm going to collapse soon enough; Bruce won't have much choice but to let me sleep after that.
Eventually, after watching two separate gang fights — nothing I need to fix — I do stumble across Harlequin. She's not anywhere near where we suspect the Jokester's hideout is, but she is in full costume. So, others must be nearby. The Jokester doesn't let any of his gang go anywhere alone, not in our city. It's a good decision.
I drop down onto the street in front of her, with significantly less grace than I am accustomed to having, and her hands snap to one side of her costume to grasp the mallet there.
"Who else is here?" I demand, as she hefts the mallet threateningly.
If the Jokester is here with her, than this is a prime time to set my plan into motion. Bruce will be busy for at least a few more hours, and more importantly my already weakened state will make it more likely that this time, of all times, the psychotic hero could manage to take me down.
"Aw, sweetie, I don't remember sending you an invitation!" The exhaustion in me is irritated, but at the same time I appreciate her discretion. She has no idea if Owlman is nearby, and I'd rather she be too cautious than not enough. I really did pick a good group of accomplices.
"None of you goes anywhere alone," I hiss, watching from the corners of my vision as the street around us mysteriously clears. "Who else?" I can't be too careful either, not without knowing who's with her. I've only had direct contact with Jokester about this, and I only taught him exactly where to hit to crush the tracker in my suit.
I get the answer to my query in the form of a roar, and a monstrously sized hand crashing into my side and flinging me into the store front that Harlequin and I are standing in front of. It's a fairly nice cafe, I notice, as I crash through the glass window and slam into the counter at the cash register. Unfortunately, the side I impact with is the side that has my recently broken rib, and the pain is enough to prevent me from doing anything more than sliding to the floor in a puddle of black and red.
I must be seriously riding the coattails of exhaustion if I didn't notice Croc, of all the heroes, behind me. He's not exactly subtle.
I try to push myself up, but my head spins, and my arm won't support my weight any farther than a few inches. I look up, and my strained nerves relax a bit at the sight of three figures, not two. Croc, Harlequin, and there's Jokester, right in the middle. He's backlit by what little sun there is, but it's hard to mistake his scrawny, brightly colored form for anyone else's.
I give him the tiniest of nods, a small dip of my chin that could easily be dizziness, and fight a little harder to get to my feet. This will be easier if he can get a clear shot at my chest, and I'd rather not have anyone kick the other side of my ribs. This is going to be bad enough as it is.
"One broken little Talon," the Jokester says with a laugh that sounds vicious even to my ears. Now wouldn't it be interesting if he just decided to kill me here and now, damn the show? It should probably scare me that I honestly can't guarantee that the Jokester won't do it, but it doesn't. "Where's the Owl you came from, little thing?"
I bare my teeth at him, managing to get far enough up to clutch at my injured side with one arm, and use the counter to support myself with the other. This actually couldn't have gone much better. I'm in no condition to fight off even one of them, let alone three. I'll fight for real, to make this as realistic as possible for whatever cameras might be in here, but the takedown won't be an act.
The Jokester holds his hand out, and Harlequin gives him her mallet with a grin eerily similar to his, and a small giggle. He holds it with one hand, spinning it. "Croc, hold him for me, will ya?"
I reach into my belt, flashing out several of my projectiles, hooked and deadly sharp metal, and they dive out of the way. Croc, always unnaturally fast for his size, grabs my right arm before I can throw any more, as Jokester and Harlequin circle to my other side. I push pain to the back of my mind, flipping against his hold and slamming both feet into his chest, but he doesn't do more than grunt in pain, grabbing my other arm in the second I take to steady myself and dragging me closer. His scaled forehead slams into mine, and my world flashes a mixture of black, white, and red from the pain. I'm pretty sure my nose is broken.
I get spun, pinned back against Croc by arms roughly the size of my torso, and it's only that grip that keeps me standing. Dimly, through the spinning mess my vision has become, I see Jokester step in front of me, and the mallet swing to one side in preparation. I give some semblance of a kick upwards at him, but it doesn't come close to connecting, and the mallet crashes into my chest with a heavy 'whumph' that drives all air from my lungs. I hear a crack, and it takes me a moment to realize it's the plastic of the tracker, and not another of my ribs going.
I hang limply in Croc's grasp, as the Jokester laughs, in no way as an act. If this was real, or is real, this is the end of it.
"Talon," snarls a voice in my ear, Bruce's voice. I feel nails scratch along the outside of my ear, and then the communicator is pulled from it.
"My feathery friend," the Jokester exclaims, "how are you?!" I can't hear Bruce's reply, but the Jokester gives a loud cackle of laughter. "Bird-boy? Oh I'm sure he's fine, though now you mention it he does look a little tired. Have you been abusing your pets again, Owly?" The voice is unusually mocking, and a few moments later he gives one of his more vicious laughs. It's probably sad that I know this lunatic's laughs well enough to differentiate between them. "Best come find him, feather-brain. Owls should be nocturnal, you know?"
The crunch of plastic barely reaches my ears, but the impact of the Jokester's fist against my cheek comes through loud and clear. I really, really would like them to stop picking the parts of me that are already injured to punch. Is that accidental, or is that the Jokester just choosing to be nastier than he has to? I suppose that will make this more believable, when Bruce inevitably views whatever cameras are in this cafe.
It's all in the Jokester's hands now.
I'm almost surprised that I wake up. I start to shift, to rise, and immediately decide that it's probably not a good idea.
"Easy, kid," a man's voice says, the Jokester, without a doubt, and a hand clasps over my left shoulder. It's one of the few bits of me that doesn't ache, and he's probably right anyway. Moving, as much as instinct and training insists that I should, likely won't do me much good.
I flick my eyes open instead, finding my vision still covered by my mask, though the area around my left eye seems fairly badly swollen. I tilt my gaze to the side, finding the Jokester in a chair next to me, book open on his lap but his eyes fixed on me. "How long?" I ask, roughly. My voice is more nasal than usual, but that's a result of the ache that is my broken nose.
"A couple of hours," a woman's voice answers, and Harlequin steps into view behind Jokester, winding arms around his shoulders as she leans down. "You were all beat to hell, sweetie, you get in a fight with one of the gangs or somethin'?" I think she's mocking me for a few moments, until I read the legitimate compassion in her eyes and tone. She must be talking about what they didn't do to me, the things that Bruce is responsible for. It's strange, having concern like that aimed at me. "The Owl?"
"We're at the warehouse?" I ask, instead of answering her, and Jokester nods. "Clone too?" Another affirmative, though his eyes narrow a bit. It hurts to speak, but I've spoken through worse injuries. My jaw isn't broken, I'll be fine. I push myself up, ignoring both the pain of my beaten form and the hand trying to gently push me back down. "We probably have three hours, if I've been out for two, more if you were very careful, and lucky, but we shouldn't count on it."
"Woah," Harlequin says, as I manage to fully sit up, "Doc said you've got one broken rib, three fractured, and all the beginning signs of sleep deprivation and starvation. You shouldn't be moving around, sweetie."
"I'm not you," I counter sharply, shrugging off the Jokester's hand, "and I want this done and over with as quickly as possible. It's too late to hide anything now, either he catches us or he doesn't. Show me to the clone, and bring me the blue duffel bag that's beside the camera."
The Jokester snaps his book shut, setting it on the ground, and brushes his legs off as he stands. "Alright then, time to kill you, eh bird-boy?" Harlequin looks none too pleased, something like a pout on her lips, but she doesn't argue. "Need a hand?" He offers me one, regardless, and I pause a moment before taking it. He helps me to standing, and I have to stop for a moment once I'm there to quell the dizziness in my skull. "Overdid it, didn't I?" he says, seemingly cheerfully. "Sorry, I guess, but you're a pain to knock out." He laughs, as though he's told the funniest joke, as I breathe through my teeth to overcome the pain.
"I know," I answer, once his cackles have died down, "it's how I'm-" I halt on the edge of saying 'built', because that's not right. "Conditioned," I settle on.
Harlequin winces, but Jokester only lets his natural grin transition to an actual one. "Should be over now, right, kid?"
"If we stop wasting time," I almost snarl. "The clone, and the bag. Now." It almost surprises me, and I can tell by the way Harlequin and the Jokester flinch it surprises them too, how very close to Bruce I sound, saying that word. "If you don't mind," I add, in some effort to ease the uncomfortable knot in my stomach.
They scatter, and soon enough the Jokester returns with my bag, the one I've put some civilian clothes into, and a minute later Harlequin leads the clone over. My gut tightens at those wide blue eyes, and the little smile on its lips. I ruthlessly cut the reaction down. It's just an animal, no matter that it shares my looks, and it needs to die for my survival. I will not feel guilt for that, or I risk having to feel guilt for every other thing I've done, or been forced to do.
"Excuse me," I say curtly, shouldering the bag — despite the pain — and taking the clone with me, to a corner safely away from the two of them. I strip the clone down first, as it watches me, and then retrieve my clothes from the bag before I begin to remove the suit. I leave the mask for last, pulling my aching, bruised, body into normal civilian clothes — including a dark blue hoodie, that I pull up to hide my face, and a pair of black gloves — before I haltingly peel the small domino mask from my face. It feels strange, nothing like stepping into the persona of Richard Grayson, but I swallow it down in favor of completing my task. I pull the clone into my suit, finally placing the mask on its face to complete the illusion, and grit my teeth despite the sharp flash of pain.
Suddenly, the clenching in my gut is gone. This thing isn't me. I've never looked like this thing does in my suit. His posture is anything but perfect, and that stupid little smile on his face is nothing that I have ever worn, or ever will. This is meat in a suit, I am a weapon. I am the Talon of the Owl I served, and I will never feel anything over killing, least of all guilt.
I reach out and snap its neck.
Harlequin looks on the verge of horror when I drag the corpse over and throw it at the Jokester's feet. "Your turn," I say coldly, nodding to the center of the warehouse, where the camera is set up, and the crowbar lies beside it. It's such an unassuming piece of metal, but Harlequin looks at it like it's a bomb — those are on the opposite side of the warehouse, to be hooked up beside the corpse later — or some equally dangerous weapon of mass destruction.
"Jay," she says quietly, almost pleading, but he only gathers her into a hug and gives me a sharp grin.
"Promised the boy, didn't I?" he says, and I know it then and there. The Jokester will never forgive me for asking him to do this, he will always hold resentment in his heart for what I'm about to force him to do. It's nearly enough to make me wish that I still had more than the barest traces of emotions left in me, that Bruce had left me with more than that. To make me wish that I could feel sorry for making a moral, if insane, man participate in something like this. But only almost.
They share a quiet conversation, as I tune out and sit back down on the metal bench they initially laid me out on. One hand goes idly to my side, and I allow my eyes to close. Being unconscious isn't quite like sleeping, but it has helped, marginally, with my exhaustion. It should be enough to get me out of Gotham, get me to somewhere safe enough that I can hole up for a night. I've done some research on where it might be safe to go to ground — it's best to act like I'm hiding from Bruce, even if he falls for this — but from here on out it will be more reactionary than planned. It would have been far too dangerous to do any true research around Bruce.
I open my eyes as I hear the soft footsteps, Harlequin's slipper-like shoes, as opposed to the Jokester's boots. I watch her leave the warehouse, slipping out a side door with barely even a creak of hinges, and take a moment to pray that she'll stay out of sight, wherever she's going. I get to my feet, feeling short beside the lanky form of the Jokester.
"They're going to hate me, you know," he says cheerfully, but beyond the glinting madness in his eyes is a sadness. "Anyone who doesn't know."
"Yes," I admit, "I considered that outcome." The Jokester's gang, at least whoever he's shared this with, will know what's going on, as will Luthor. But the rest of the heroes will not look kindly on one of their own committing an act like this, even if it is on a villain. "Can you handle that?" They likely won't act against him; it's well known that the Jokester is one of the only things keeping Owlman in check — and every hero knows to be at least wary of my creator — but he'll certainly lose a lot of whatever kind of sway, or respect, he has in those circles.
"People, hating moi?" His grin still has those sharp edges, and his head is cocked sideways. "Gee, that's never something that I've dealt with before. How will I manage?" He leans down, grasping the clone by the back of my suit, dragging it behind him as he strides towards the center of the warehouse. If the weight bothers him — the clone is, after all, just as heavily muscled as I am — it doesn't show. I follow him, circling around to stand behind the turned off camera and out of the way of any potential blood splatter. He drops the clone, and catches the crowbar when I toss it to him.
His white hands clench around the metal, green eyes staring down at it. He spends a few moments just looking at it, before hefting it and bringing it down on the clone. The crunch of bone is audible. Collapsed as it is, the clone looks much more like me, with no inaccurate posture or smile to give it away as an imposter. Beat it badly enough to give it at least some semblance of my current injuries — or cover it with enough blood that it won't matter — and Bruce shouldn't be able to tell the difference without an examination, one that he won't get.
The second blow comes down at a strange angle, the hook at the edge driving into the corpse's throat, and when the Jokester pulls it back the flesh rips open. Blood sprays from the violent wrench, scattering over the floor and onto the clown's costume. He freezes, and for a moment I think I'll have to goad him back into the act, before he begins to laugh. He goes back at the corpse with a violence I didn't think he was really capable of, and loud, cackling laughter fills the warehouse. Blood slowly covers the floor around the clone, and most of the front of the Jokester's costume too.
I try very hard not to think about the psychological implications of killing myself, to save myself.
Eventually he stops, though he's still giggling to himself, and turns to me. His green eyes are wide, fevered, and the manic grin stretching his lips doubles as violently bared teeth. It's probably the most unhinged I've ever seen him. "Enough?!" he asks, as something in between a snarl and a shrieking laugh.
I glance down at the corpse, taking it in, and give the clown a nod. He immediately drops the crowbar, the metal clang of it hitting the cement floor not at all lessened by the pool of blood it falls into. I reach for the camera, and the laptop set beside it. It's a gift from Luthor, with a few modifications of my own. It's set up to hijack nearly every signal in Gotham, including some of Bruce's less sophisticated ones. It won't hack the Owl computer, but nearly everything else should be affected. It's also very traceable, so we'll probably have about ten minutes once I turn it on before Bruce finds us. I can only hope that he isn't on top of us, and we get those ten minutes.
I click it on, and turn on my heel to retrieve the bombs stored against the wall. From behind me, I hear the Jokester give a truly psychotic laugh, his voice rising in both pitch and volume. "Owly! You missed the party, my friend! Where were you?! Bird-boy and I had so much fun with party games, but I think I wore the poor little thing out!" Another laugh, and I turn around, the constructed bomb in my arms, in time to see him run a bloody left hand over his face and through his purple hair. It leaves a bright streak of red across the white skin of his cheek and forehead, and a demented giggle falls through his equally red lips.
"Guess it's the day to declaw you, Owly," he shifts aside, letting the camera's gaze fall on my supposed corpse, "I already got one!" He bursts into the same howling cackle from earlier, as I halt behind the computer, taking a brief glance down to make absolutely sure that it's broadcasting. It is. There's probably a lot of newly traumatized people, but I can't find it in me to feel much of anything about that. This is Gotham, after all. We aren't Metropolis, or Star City, or any of the other dozen major cities that hide behind shining steel structures. Gotham is dark, gritty, violent, and every once in a long, long while, the heroes win. Usually in ways that they don't like. Anyone who doesn't believe that doesn't belong here, and probably won't survive very long.
I let the cackles continue for a minute or so before shutting off both the camera and the laptop, moving forward with the bomb. I set it up as close as I can get without stepping in the blood — last thing I need is anything linking me here — before straightening up. The cackle has turned into giggles, as the Jokester stares down at his hands. I'm starting to realize that giggles are very likely the Jokester's version of grief, a broken version that he just can't stop.
I was right. Bruce and I destroyed this man, tore his world apart; it could only make sense for him to do this.
"We've got three minutes until it blows," I remind him, and he stutters into action. He follows me, leaving a trail of bloody prints, as I cross to the warehouse's backdoor exit, where Harlequin vanished. He's still spitting out little fits of giggles, but otherwise he's quiet. The Jokester takes the lead from there, slipping under the torn chain fence surrounding the abandoned building, down a back alley, and three buildings down to an equally abandoned apartment building. It's got recent evidence of someone kicking down the boards to get in through the alley door.
The Jokester shoves his way in, and I wince as the door screeches against the floor. Harlequin is there, sitting against the wall, and she dives for the clown as soon as he's all the way in. Their embrace is tight, and she doesn't seem to care that the blood from my clone is getting all over her costume.
"Is it done?" she asks, and for once the Jokester doesn't do more than nod.
I take a step forward, and both their gazes turn to me. "Thank you," I offer, bowing my head a bit. "He'll come after you, be careful."
The Jokester takes in a deep breath, and lets go of Harlequin to fully face me. "You could help here, kid," he says quietly, seriously. "There's always room in the family." I pause, but don't even truly consider the offer. I am not a hero, I will never be a hero, and I'm certainly not the kind of person to join up with Jokester and his group. What would I do with a family, anyway? Since my original one was murdered I've only been part of Bruce's, and that's not a legacy that could ever be considered to be a 'family', in the common sense of the word.
But I really do owe the hero, without his help this would have been much harder, probably impossible, and I'd still be under Bruce's heel.
"The names you need to know are: Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Hal Jordan, and Oliver Queen. Those are some of the big ones, the ones who even bother having secret identities, anyway. That should give you somewhere to start. I'll send contact information when I have it. If there is no other option," I stress that part significantly, "and you need me, I'll come. But don't expect me to be anything but what I am."
They don't ask, and I don't say, but the words ring in my head as I turn and leave, pulling the hoodie more securely over my head.
I am Talon.
A/N: Thanks for reading! So, first things first, if you enjoyed this please go read TrisakAminawn's story 'Cirque De Triomphe', I can honestly say it's pretty much the only other Earth-3 story I've run across that is just fantastic. She, and that story, are the reason that this ever made it out of my head, even though I had the idea in my head for months beforehand. She's awesome and, also, she doubled as an absolutely wonderful beta for this story. Go, read her things (they are, seriously, so good)!
Secondly, the specific continuity notes! Alexander Luthor is just Lex, he's not the crazy backwards-Shazam from Forever Evil. (That was a strange thing.) Enigma is the hero version of the Riddler, and of course Croc is Killer Croc. The Jokester is not quite the match for his psychopathic mirror, Joker, but he's still definitely not 'sane' by any stretch of the imagination. Owlman's suit is the one from Crisis on Two Earths, where it was proved that it made him more than a match for Wonder Woman's strength (that suit, mmmm, it's so good). And yes, that is Jason Todd's death from the normal universe, I repurposed it for Dick's use.
Thirdly, why this instead of Bleach, you ask? Well, it ate my muses. Some things happened in rapid succession here. I read the first three volumes of Red Hood and the Outlaws, and fell in love with Jason Todd as a character. I loved him before that, he's my favorite DC character, but those comics really cemented my love of him. Two, I read the main storyline of Forever Evil, and Owlman made some interesting comments that spawned story ideas in my head. Three, I read Trisak's story, and that idea became a full fledged thing. Four, the charger for my laptop died, and I got stuck on nothing but my phone and a tiny, old Dell that struggles with internet. Five, I got a job (dance!) housecleaning at a motel, and this murdered my free time. If I wasn't working, I was exhausted.
Thus, all my muses refocused on the thing, this story, that I'd started working on. This was supposed to be a one-shot story, made purely to satisfy my own head-canons. Then the muses took control. Now, I have five additional parts, ranging from 6k to 14k, as well as a sixth in production, and ideas for at least three more. I don't know what happened.
(Also, when I first made this, I really wanted to call it 'And Then One With the Crowbar!'.)
tl;dr — TrisakAminawn is awesome, read her stuff; Earth-3 has eaten me.