The first Talon Jason had tangled with had been good, a challenge, but not so much of one Jason didn't end up flinging his severed head into the river. Regenerate that, fucker.
The second Talon the court sent after him was different. Where the other was built like a tank and moved like a fighter, this one was slim and moved like a predator. And he was good. Better than Jason, which was proving to be a problem. He had not intended to get sliced into ribbons when he had left his apartment earlier that night. In fact he hadn't intended go out at all – he was midway through a hideous cold, and it was making it difficult to focus. But when he intercepted a distress call for Gotham's vigilantes to help deal with the plague of Talons that had started attacking the city, he felt honor bound to assist. Although his intense dislike of the Court of Owls may have also given him a boost in the desire to get out there and kick some ass. So he took a couple of mild painkillers and pulled himself out of his sick bed to hit the streets.
That had probably been a mistake.
Two hours later he was bleeding from a dozen cuts from the Talon's knives and was attempting to beat a dignified retreat. It was not going so well. The freak was playing with him like a cat with a mouse. He wasn't being subtle about it either, and his creepy laugh was following Jason over every rooftop and through every back alley.
Jason had made his way to the familiar streets of crime alley and dived into the open doorway of a crack house. He knew this place, spoke to informants here. There was a hidden cache of weapons and medical supplies in the unused attic space and he was hoping to catch his breath and lose his pursuer.
There was no sign of immediate pursuit, so he made a dash up the stairs. His wounds stung and his chest ached. Not to mention that his nose had started running behind his helmet, and it was gross.
Once he reached his hideout, he cleaned up as best he could, but then reluctantly replaced his red hood – he didn't want to be unprotected if the fucker caught up with him.
Then he set about tending his injuries. As he bound his arm and in between sneezes, he berated himself for all the sloppy mistakes he had made over the course of the evening – starting with getting out of bed in the first place. He couldn't believe he had let the Talon get the jump on him like that. It had been a series of stupid, rooky mistakes, and that had almost cost him his life.
The Talon had just been so distracting, and there was something familiar in the way he fought, like an echo of Jason's own moves; it was disconcerting. So much so that he had misjudged a kick and left himself open to a severe blow. The Talon had spun back, away from the strike zone and watched him try to recover, masked face cocked curiously to one side as Jason tried to stem the bleeding and collect himself. His right arm was temporarily out of action and his gun was under the Talon's boot. It was not a good situation.
"Why don't you run, little mouse?" the Talon asked.
"Little mouse? Is that some reference to owl food?" Jason asked. He had started to suspect that this Talon was a few sandwiches short of a picnic.
The Talon said nothing. Watching and waiting. It was unnerving.
Jason had used the breather to plan several escape routes and ways to take the Talon down — in theory at least. When he attacked, it was a brutal assault to compensate for his wounded right arm. But the Talon moved like liquid silk, sliding aside and slicing a hot line across Jason's neck – aimed perfectly to slide between Jason's helmet and jacket. It could have been a killing blow, it should have been. But the Talon had just watched him with apparent interest as Jason cussed, sneezed and reassessed the situation.
He was seriously off his game. And he was going to get killed. It was about that point he had taken the Talon's advice and run like hell.
He didn't think he had ever been so grateful for a crack house before. He sat on the floor to bandage himself up, shotgun beside him, one eye on the locked hatch and the other on the tiny window. A small amount of light from the city outside was the only illumination, but it was enough to see by.
Then a lot of things happened at once; a shadow obscured the light from outside, Jason reached for his gun, and the glass from the window shattered inwards, exploding from the impact of a dagger. A second knife followed a moment behind. The first struck Jason's shotgun, knocking it aside, and the second hit him in the palm of his left hand as he reached for the weapon. It pinned him, glove and all, to the wall. Motherfucker.
"Tut tut, little mouse." The Talon said. "If you move the next one will cut it off." He twirled his dagger in his fingers, casually threatening.
"Fuck's sake, you're going to kill me anyway, why not just do it?" Jason snarled through the pain. He was trying to figure out the damage to his hand, and if he could risk just jerking out the weapon.
"I haven't said my lines yet," the Talon said, a certain amount of glee in his voice.
Jason boggled at him from behind his mask. "Your lines? This isn't a fucking play!"
The Talon ignored him. He seemed to be having fun. "Red Hood. The Court of Owls has sentenced you to die."
"Red Hood? Don't you mooks even know my name?"
"Your name means nothing to me, little mouse."
"So basically, you're killing a vigilante persona? I'm not the first Red Hood you know. And most likely won't be the last."
The Talon cocked its head again – the action reminded Jason of the velociraptors in Jurassic Park: curious, assessing and about to disembowel and eat you.
"Talons are the same, right? You're just some dead guy with the name of your predecessors. And all the ones that come after you will just be more murder drones." Although engaging the assassin in inane conversation seemed completely insane, Jason was very aware of the fact he was still alive and talking. It seemed as good a plan as any.
"I'm not dead," the Talon said indignantly. "I'm the Talon."
"How long have you been 'the' Talon?" Jason asked, sarcastically. "You seem a bit young, if you're not dead."
"About 36 hours. Your Bat decommissioned my predecessor. I got an early promotion." he said the word 'Bat' with extreme distaste.
"Well bully for you. And when someone takes you down, and they will, then you'll just get replaced. Kind of a pointless existence."
The Talon stalked closer, his knife held casually, unthreatening. He slid onto Jason's lap– a move he had not been anticipating. The motion jarred his hand and the pain spun through him like jagged spikes. But he remained quiet, with his left hand still pinned to the wall and his right arm still bloody and numb, there wasn't much he could do but wait and hope for an opportunity.
"You're talking, but all I can hear is 'squeak, squeak, squeak," the Talon said, examining the wound his knife had made in Jason's hand. He prodded it with gloved fingers and Jason bared his teeth as he tried not to react. This Talon was completely nuts, but he was curious. That was something Jason could use.
"Jason," Jason said. It was a common enough name.
"My name. If you're going to kill me, shouldn't you at least know who you're killing?"
The Talon shrugged, a sinuous movement that would have drawn Jason's approving eye in other circumstances. As it was, having a lap full of bat-shit crazy assassin was not even slightly fun.
"Names mean nothing to me, I am above such things, " the Talon stated confidently, but he was examining Jason's helmet curiously. Jason willed him to try and remove it, for his obvious interest to overwhelm his training.
"Like what you see?" Jason taunted. And he realized the mad bastard did like what he was seeing; he was fascinated, and that was the reason Jason still lived. Jason's heart sped up again with a spike of adrenaline. He wasn't out of the game yet, this was something he could exploit.
"If you were not the first 'Hood, or the last, who will replace you?" The Talon asked after a moment of examining Jason's wounded right arm. He wasn't gentle, but Jason didn't object to the rough, probing touches.
"Don't know, someone who's pissed enough at Batman, I guess."
The Talon flinched again at the word Batman.
"Not keen on old Bats are you?" Jason asked, his own curiosity rising. The previous Talon had been indifferent to anything but his mission. Perhaps this one's promotion was too early.
The Talon went back to examining Jason's helmet. Running his inquisitive fingers over it.
"I don't like this," the Talon told him, "it looks like you have a tomato on your head."
Jason suffered a sudden, inappropriate burst of indignation - he liked his helmet, thank you very much! Still, this was the chance he had been waiting for. Even as the thought entered his head, the Talon apparently couldn't resist any longer and his clever fingers started searching for the catch. Jason let him and as soon as the helmet hissed its release, and before the Talon even started to pull it off, Jason began to tap out his defense code using the tiny sensors on his gloved right hand.
The Talon looked at his face as it was revealed – what he could see of it behind the domino, and the millisecond before the Talon discarded the helmet Jason finished the detonation code. He turned his face quickly to the side as the red hood exploded in the Talon's hands, sending him flying backwards with a surprised yell.
Jason pulled the knife from his left palm as quickly and carefully as he could. The sensible thing to do was to run, nurse his wounds, get backup if he had too. But he was sick of being chased all over the goddamn city, sick of being beaten by this owl-ninja whack job.
Ignoring the throbbing pain in his hand and arm, Jason lunged for the downed Talon. His opponent was recovering fast and Jason unlashed a series of moves that Bruce had taught him – they had in fact been one of his earliest lessons from the Bat, a way to take down an opponent bigger and stronger than you – knock them off their feet and give yourself a chance to run. It was achingly familiar – he didn't even have to think about it. Even after all this time, those lessons felt like they were carved into his bones.
The Talon began to respond, to match his blows in a perfect, unbelievable counter. Then things took a turn for the strange. As Jason backed off to regroup, the Talon let out a pained moan and clutched at his own head. Jason hadn't even punched him in the face yet. Maybe it was the owls doing something nasty to him, maybe the small helmet explosion had rattled up his brains, perhaps it was something else. Jason didn't give a shit, he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth and he attacked, raining down crippling blows to the head and legs. If the Talon wasn't dead, he might not have those nifty regenerating skills yet.
If he was to be honest with himself, it was the messiest attack he had ever executed. He was fairly sure at least half his kicks missed there their mark entirely, but he was angry and this little feathery upstart had nearly killed him. When the Talon finally stopped moving, Jason took out his custom made zip ties and bound him hand and foot. He wasn't even sure the damn thing was still alive, but he wasn't taking any chances. He was also not just going to chuck bits of him in the river like he had the last time. He wanted some answers, and even if it was dead, he suspected the assassin would be alive and kicking again soon enough.
The trip to his eastside safe house was an ungainly one. He was exhausted, both arms and hands were hurting and bleeding and the Talon was a lot heavier that he had anticipated. The eastside safe house was in a disused warehouse near the docks. It was the place he used for his more unsavory jobs. Wetworks, if you will. He didn't like torture, or causing people pain, but he would do it if he had too, and there were some folks he had zero sympathy for.
Mad Talons were definitely on that list.
He strapped his prisoner firmly to the chair bolted to the floor in the middle of the room. It was illuminated by a single bare bulb hanging directly above, leaving the rest of the large workspace in shadow. Jason had become a master at extracting information using mostly fear. He enjoyed scaring the crap out of criminals far more than he liked pulling out fingernails.
Prisoner secured, he went to the fridge he kept stocked in the corner. He needed a fucking beer and a couple of painkillers. His hand felt like it had been crushed in a vise, the pain was an intense aching throb and he was almost scared to look at it. And on top of that he figured he was running a low grade fever. The Talon remained still, head hanging limply, so Jason tended his own injuries.
Astonishingly, the knife hadn't broken the delicate bones of his hand. Whether that was luck or incredible aim by his enemy Jason wasn't sure. The injury still hurt like a son of a bitch though, and if the bastard had done any permanent damage he was going to do the same in return. With interest.
Wounds dealt with, Jason slipped on an insulated glove and goggles to begin the process of removing the Talon's mask and armor – if he had defenses in his suit he wasn't going to take any chances, a lesson he was fairly sure the Talon had now learned too. With some cussing and an ineffectual electric shock from the armor, Jason managed to get the gauntlets and hood off.
The Talon had roughly cut black hair and olive skin – he looked a little pale from lack of sun, but he definitely did not have the pallid dead look of the other Talon Jason had dealt with. He was still limp, blood dribbling onto the floor from his down-turned face. Jason checked for a pulse and found it strong. Tough little bastard.
The Talon raised his head, shook the hair out of his eyes and glared at him.
The beer slid from Jason's hand and exploded against the concrete floor, sending fizz and glass scattering across his boots. He paid it no heed.
He was looking at a ghost.
He blinked, in case he was hallucinating. He even went as far as poking his wounded hand to jerk himself out of the sleep he surely must be in. But no, he was staring at the somewhat bloody, somewhat more mature face of Richard Grayson, the first Robin, Batman's obsession and missing these last six years. The nemesis Jason had never even met – and yet knew almost as well as he knew Bruce.
"Well, fuck," he said.
Things made more sense now. His ability to meet and mach Jason's nifty moves, moves Bruce had taught him. The strange familiarity when he fought. He figured the Talons were all brainwashed into servitude, so it was even possible that the Talon recognized Jason's fighting style and that tripped some defense in his mind, leading to his eventual melt-down and collapse. Okay, it was a working theory.
But still, he couldn't quite believe it. He lifted the Talon's head by the hair and examined him closely. The Talon spat and snarled like a beast, but Jason ignored him. The resemblance was uncanny. Either this was the missing Robin, or it was his fucking doppelgänger. He wouldn't know for sure, not until he did some tests, but he knew in his gut he was looking at the real deal.
"What's your name, Talon?" Jason asked.
"I have no name."
Jason leaned back in his chair. Pondering the miserable creature in front of him. The words were very Talon-like, but the spitting temper tantrum was nothing like the cold indifference of the other servants of the Court. They'd had him for up to six years – more than enough time to brainwash him- even someone as strong willed as a Robin had to be.
So why if this was the Talon, their current assassin, had he been sent after Jason and not Batman? He might be all fresh and new, but he was fucking deadly. Jason thought it might be something to do with this Talon's unpredictability. For a brainwashed murderer he seemed to have an excess of personality.
He had several options. He could return him to Bruce, get him to run some tests, watch him get all stiff and emotional if it was Grayson. Or he could call the cops and lock him up with the other captured Owls. Alternatively, he could always kill him, and fuck Bruce and his habit of losing Robins. Or he could go along with his original plan and try to extract some info out of his new pet killer.
The Talon seemed to be following his thoughts somewhat and cocked his head like a raptor again, grinning nastily with bloodstained teeth. "Are you going to kill me, little mouse?"
"Seeing as you're the one tied to the chair, can we stop with the obnoxious nicknames?"
"Just because I'm currently incapacitated doesn't mean you're any less of a mouse."
Jason ignored him. "So, you've been the big bad Talon for less than two days and you're already out of the game? Not too good huh?"
The Talon scowled. There was something almost childlike about him – if a brainwashed assassin who had spent a fun evening poking holes in him could ever be considered in such a light.
Jason got himself another beer, taking a few moments to think. He was going to have to do a DNA test to be sure. Getting a sample of Grayson's blood from Bruce without alerting him was going to be hard. Even mentioning his poor lost Robin was enough to send Bruce into an angry funk for days.
He sat opposite his captive and took a thoughtful tug on his beer. "Name Dick Grayson mean anything to you?" he asked.
The Talon flinched. "No."
"Not much of a liar, Robin." Another flinch and a hiss that sounded more animal than human. Jason took another swallow. "Thirsty?"
The Talon just looked at him flatly when Jason offered him the beer. "Water," he said, eventually.
"You get beer or nothing."
"Trying to get me drunk, little mouse?"
Jason snorted. "Nah, just don't fancy walking all the way over to the fridge again. Some asshole beat the crap out of me and I'm tired." He yawned to illustrate his point.
The Talon smirked and tilted his face up so Jason could dribble some beer into his mouth. Then he screwed his face up. "That's gross!"
"Never had a beer before? It grows on you."
"Can we cut the crap? If you're going to kill me, get on with it. If you are going to interrogate me, you shouldn't bother – I know nothing, and there is nothing you can do to me that will turn me. If you are going to feed me more disgusting beverages hurry up and get it over with."
"Sassy thing, aren't you? I've got questions."
"I won't, I can't reveal anything about the Court. So you may as well go straight to the nasty stuff and save both of us some time."
"Forget them. I want to know about you."
There was that head tilt again. Jason was starting to find it strangely endearing – the way a trained attack dog could still look cute before you overstepped the line and it ripped your throat out, tail wagging happily for a job well done.
"There is no me. Only them."
"There was a you, Dick."
"No" He sounded bleak, broken. "No me, I only serve the Court of Owls."
"Do you want to?"
"Want?" The Talon looked at Jason like he was speaking in tongues.
"Yeah, want. Do you want to serve them? Did you choose to serve them?"
"I serve the Court." He looked pained, like something was coming undone inside him. "Red Hood, the Court of Owls has sentenced you to die." He flexed his muscles, but didn't struggle.
Jason felt something like pity for him. It was not a comfortable feeling.
"So," he said. "You tell me torture doesn't work – and having dealt with brainwashed freaks before, I am inclined to believe you. Some folks could probably break you that way – but I don't have the patience." He looked into the Talon's battered, pretty face. "Let's do an exchange of information. I'll ask a question and if you answer, you get to ask one in return."
"You have nothing I would be interested in," the Talon responded, but Jason knew he had him, just from his earlier observations. This was a creature that had seen too much and not enough, someone who was curious and strangely desperate for interaction. He was desperate for something, anything.
"First question, birdie. What do you remember before them? Before the Owls?"
"Are you sure?" Jason lowed his voice, softened it. "Do you remember the circus?"
After the petty argument that had sent fifteen-year-old Dick storming from the Wayne house, he had been seen heading towards Haly's Circus – his old home, back in town at last. Jason knew that Bruce had questioned them – terrorized them, he suspected. But they had denied Dick had ever reached them. He had just disappeared, and nothing Bruce or the Bat had done had uncovered what had happened. That hadn't stopped him hunting for his lost son, and obsessing over his own failure to find him – To the detriment of everyone else who had ever loved him.
The Talon shuddered at his question, a full body wince.
Jason leaned forward, his voice still soft and rhythmic. "The smell of popcorn, candy floss and trampled earth. The sound of children laughing, the cheering under the big top?"
"No!" The Talon shook his head violently. "No I mustn't!" He looked distraught.
Jason sat back. "Your turn, owl boy."
"Mine?" he asked, still shaking. "You have nothing I want!"
Jason made a sound in his throat. Alfred had told him Dick was a stubborn one – when the old man spoke of him his face had been lined with pain, but unlike Bruce, there was also fond remembrance, memories of a cheeky little boy who delighted in raiding the fridge and cheating at cards, but could never let his conquests go unnoticed – so he always gave them away in order to revel in his victory.
"You can ask anything. About me, about stuff I know, or you can ask for food and water. You can ask what I know of you. Or, if none of that appeals, you tell me something about yourself."
"I would like water," the Talon said. "And–"
"Uh-uh – a question for a question." Jason heaved his tired body up and fetched some water. The Talon maintained eye contact as he drank. And Jason reminded himself he shouldn't find crazy assassins attractive, even in a purely aesthetic sense.
"My question then," Jason said, still holding his gaze. "What is the first thing you remember?"
The Talon leaned toward him, half threatening, half seductive. "Pain."
That wasn't a surprising answer, but the look in the Talon's eyes was… intense.
"I want to rest." The Talon said, sending him a sly look from under his lashes.
Jason couldn't deny the fact bed was calling him as well. His eyes were heavy and gritty and his body ached from the numerous beatings he had received over the course of the evening.
"All right we'll postpone this shit until morning." He needed to sleep to shake off his cold, and to deal with whatever tomorrow was going to chuck at him.
The other useful thing about this safe house was the reinforced cell Jason had constructed in the basement area. It was as secure as he could make it, and contained an impressive amount of restraints.
The Talon was obviously as exhausted as he was, and he only tried to escape once before Jason fixed electro-manacles to his ankles. He wasn't a total asshole though, and he left a bottle of water, a blanket and a bucket for his overnight guest. Then he set the alarm and staggered off to his own bed.