Birds of a Feather

August 16, 2017:

A week after the incident involving mutagen spilled into the East River, Red Robin tracks down one of the metahumans involved in that day's events — notably, the one that caused a massive, oversized pigeon to explode before it could crush anyone as it fell out of the sky. Due diligence suggests that Xiaoyi Chen may be a good candidate for the Titans project he's overseeing…

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Zatanna Zatara, Impulse, Superboy, Reader, Fairchild

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

It was just over a week ago that Iso was standing in the middle of a street near the East River, facing against the flow of panicked pedestrian traffic as a massive shadow circled overhead. Classic superhero fare: one lone, vulnerable-looking figure standing steadfast against the onrushing chaos of unfolding tragedy, citizens fleeing all around them.

…Or would have been, anyway, if the threat had been something more ominous to recount in casual conversation than 'an enormous pigeon crapping on everything.' Down by the water she gathers things were more overtly sinister, things with sharp fangs emerging from water that most New Yorkers already thought of as inherently evil before any kind of mutagen went into it. And, sure, the pigeon had been legitimately dangerous; the plummeting body had weighed enough to crush citizens, destroy vehicles, send them scattering down the street like so many Hot Wheels (do they still make those anymore, even?).

It's just not the kind of thing you can pin your name to when you're a nobody. 'Oh, yeah. I'm Iso. I blew up a pigeon with severe gastric distress.'

So there's been very little about her, ultimately, and that's a thing she has conflicting feelings about. A few clips of her standing in the street, hand out; one shot in which there are spangles of light on her arms and legs, but nothing in the neighborhood of a solid link. Not enough to draw anyone's attention — or so she thinks.

The library is usually a place of much-needed respite for Iso. Her busy schedule is stacked high with lectures, commutes, and physical training. The peace and quiet here, and the opportunity to focus on books, and work, are usually soothing.

The last week or so, that hasn't been the case. The material she's usually ravenous for is stale and underwhelming; the papers she needs to write all tedious, redundant. She sits now with her face cupped lightly in one hand, staring at the pile of texts in front of her without really seeing them.

Yeah, it was just blowing up a dead pigeon. But it was exciting.

—-

True anonymity is difficult in the modern world.

There are always cameras, people taking pictures, taking video. Rubbernecking at the site of an accident or disaster in the 21st century now involves immortalising the object of your macabre interest, making it viral. And in a world where clashes between heroes and villains border on commonplace, where people with astouding abilities save the day on the regular, it's not surprising that for all the people sensibly fleeing for their lives from the ravenous monsters and dangerous mutants that emerged from the East River the other week, there were still those videotaping it.

It was the same with the incident at the Central Park Zoo; if it hadn't been for cellphone-armed civilians, the Titans might've been able to leave without anything to connect them to the attack except for word of mouth. It was a reminder to at least one of the heroes involved as to why they sensibly worked at night in Gotham. Imagine how many cellphones in Metropolis have at least one selfie with the Man of Steel.

But it comes in handy, too, when you're trying to find someone. A double-edge sword. Red Robin knew that someone had dealt with that pigeon, had kept the already dead mutant bird from crushing innocents, but in the initial press of things it had been difficult to get any concrete leads. A few viral videos later, though…

"Did you know that on one forum, they're calling you the Pigeon Girl?" says a voice, the confident tones of a young man, not far away.

Seated near Iso is a young man whose longish dark hair has been pushed back and tucked under a hat - some trendy hybrid of a baseball cap and a newsboy cap - his eyes hidden behind a dark pair of Wayfarers. Neither of these things are particularly unusual, guys in their twenties being almost pathological about wearing hats indoors, and sunglasses too at times. Jeans, sneakers, and a black t-shirt that reads 'RESISTANCE IS NOT FUTILE - IT'S VOLTAGE DIVIDED BY CURRENT' round out the 'I'm a perfectly normal college student, honest' look. Maybe just another student who happened to recognise her in the video…?

"I mean, speaking as a someone with a bird-themed codename myself, welcome to the club, but Pigeon Girl isn't very… Evocative."

Or maybe not?

—-

What.

Tension snaps through Xiaoyi's shoulders, drawing them inward, hiked up a matter of degrees. Somewhat reticent most of the time to share any excess of emotion with strangers — it's a cultural thing she has yet to shed — the comment still manages to take her off-guard enough that her lips part and a shadow nicks itself into the smooth skin between her brows. After two beats to gather herself, she lifts dark eyes, fixing them to the figure nearby, lowering the pencil she hadn't been using anyway.

It wouldn't require the observational skills of one of the world's best detectives to discern that she's guarded. More, maybe, than strictly makes sense for someone who didn't hesitate to put her abilities on display in a public forum. Not frightened, or at least not yet, but wary. The looking-over she gives him is careful, and ends when she reads his t-shirt with a puffed exhale of a breath. "Cute." A remark on the shirt, not the individual wearing it. Given she doesn't even crack a smile, it'd probably be impossible to mistake one for the other.

The silence is long enough be slightly awkward, but she seems unperturbed. She's thinking. Deciding. Her heart's already in it, skipping along at a beat at all odds with what she was studying: something about whole exome sequencing.

Eventually, her brows knit. There's something slightly defensive about the look. "Which forum?"

Seriously, Pigeon Girl?

"And who are you? Not Penguin. Black Condor? Don't tell me you're Flamingo." Her expression never changes, but there's an undercurrent of something like humor in those sharp eyes. "If you are, can I get a ride in that pink plane?" Again, her brows knit. "It's a plane, right?" She's had access to a lot of information at Xavier's, but several centuries of catalogued metahumans is a great deal to take in all at once.

—-

One thing you learn when you're a basically normal human who operates in a world full of various sorts of metahumans is to be careful. Not every superpower out there is a physical threat - some of them are downright useless, there's an X-Man out there whose mutation is just that he has a really lock neck - but somebody who can make a pigeon blow up could be very dangerous if she decided to be.

Another thing you learn is to never show that you're being careful. Never let them see you sweat is basically one of the core tenets of the Bat-Family.

"Super-Fans dot com," the mystery man answers, since she asked. "They had a few threads about what happened on the East River the other day… Some of the comments were kind of gross, though, you might not really want to read them." Seriously, guys on the internet, get it together. "As for me, well, if I was the Penguin we'd be having a very different conversation, and I'd be trying to blackmail you or something. At the very least, menacing you with a gimmick umbrella. He's not a very nice guy. One time he had me tied to an iceberg and was gonna feed me to a shark if—You know what, that's not important. You can call me Red Robin. I'm with the Titans." Or Teen Titans, if you believe some of the newspaper headlines. Fair enough, most of them are teenagers, but still… "I was there that day, saw your handiwork. You saved lives, people who would've died if you hadn't been there. I guess you could say I'm here scouting you out."

He pauses, briefly, before:

"I do have a plane, though. It's not pink, but it's pretty cool."

—-

At risk of erring on the side of understatement: Xiaoyi Chen is a quick study.

Not that there would have been a lot to take in on that count, save a few months — two, tops — of academic records, during whatever extremely thorough due diligence Red Robin decided to perform before going so far as to corner her in public. (Spoilers: they're stellar. She tested out of more courses than most people take in their first two years.)

It's not a struggle to comprehend what he's saying that leaves her sitting there, staring, an exquisite look of bewilderment finally modifying the contours of her face, but instead the helpless impulse to marvel over the strange twists and turns her life has taken lately. Less than six months ago she was still in Wulingyuan, essentially shackled to her family's farm, locked into a seemingly inescapable feedback loop of resentment with parents that really could not, well beyond the usual failure to communicate involved in teenaged relationships, understand her. Had she lingered long enough, she'd have been a bargaining chip for a marriage — assuming they'd ever gotten up the nerve to try forcing the issue.

That had changed for her overnight. Her life had become something else, and then at the intervention of Ennilux something else again, tumbling end over end into different forms, the horizon changing shape so often that she'd begun to lose all sense of where she was and where she was going. Two months at Xavier's had offered her some relief, but it came with its own difficulties, not least of which the fact that she doesn't have the X-Gene. She's grateful for the shelter she's been offered there, and no one had ever made her feel unwelcome, but…

And here it is, happening again.

From rural China to trading quips with a member of Batman's — Colony? It's 'colony of bats,' right?

Her chair squeaks quietly as she sits back into it, and she can't help it: she breaks into an incredulous laugh that promptly earns her one 'shhh!' and more than a few irritated looks, the latter of which she answers with a sheepish shrug, and then promptly ignores.

She shifts seats, then. Slides down several. Nobody pushes their chairs in when they leave. Animals.

Closer, it's easy to make out the constellations of freckles, faint and fading now that she isn't spending all of her time out in the sun. Easier, too, to see the minute changes to her expression that don't read from any kind of more considerable distance away. She's not expressionless, after all — just very restrained. The look of curious, anxious interest she's wearing couldn't be more eloquent. "I read something about that recently. Something at the zoo?" Concerned, she studies his expression even though most of what she can see is her own distorted image in the lenses of those sunglasses. "Wasn't there something about you teaming up with that crazy guy? Spider-Man? You are heroes, right?"

The Daily Bugle strikes again.

—-

The incredulous laughter isn't really what Red Robin had expected from a response, but under the circumstances he can't really blame her. It's not every day that somebody shows up out of the blue claiming to be a superhero, even in New York… And to have gone through the sort of whirlwind of changes that Iso had, to the point where according to much of his investigation into the young woman she might as well have simply sprung into existence from nothingness a few months ago, well, he doesn't hold the laughter against her the way the other occupants of the library might.

He wouldn't discredit the possibility that she did simply spring into existence within thge last few months, either, but that probably comes from one of his best friends having been grown in a tank over the course of weeks, and another's accelerated metabolism having turned him into a teenager in a handful of years.

It's not, you know, a completely outlandish explanation in the world Red Robin operates in.

She moves closer, close enough to let some of what she's thinking and feeling show through her more reserved mien; behind those dark lenses, the vigilante's blue eyes study her curiously… While the augmented reality HUD displayed on the backside of the sunglasses picks out and highlights details. He might not even own any normal sunglasses, given his propensity to tinker with things. Besides, you never know when you might run into trouble while your heroic costume is uselessly distant.

"Well, the Titans have always been about helping young people with exceptional abilities who might be on a dangerous path," is the explanation he offers for noted menace Spider-Man's presence on the team, rather than actually trying to correct the impression any Daily Bugle propaganda might've given Iso. Mostly because it's funnier. "So I'd like to think we're heroes, otherwise we dress up in costumes and hang out in a building shaped like a T for no good reason at all. What about you, Miss Chen? Obviously you've got some kind of powerful metahuman ability… What was it, anyway, telekinesis? Can you just influence things to explode, maybe suddenly turning potential energy into kinetic energy?" He had a whole list of theories he was working on, while his computers did the heavy lifting of investigating the young woman herself - among the other projects he's got running. "Have you gotten much training with it?"

—-

Among the typically-indiscernible details that a pair of highly advanced sunglasses might pick out would be the divot scars beneath the short-cropped hair on the right side of her head. It passes off readily enough as an undercut, mercifully popular in the last five years, but it looks as though it may have been an inadvertent style. There isn't much more about her to prise out of the readily-visible whole, though. No strange hardware, no bizarre energy signatures while she's at rest. Not even the little crystalline flakes have any kind of markable presence on the skin where they appear, whenever she's doing…whatever it is that she does.

Red Robin paints the Titans as having a hand in the correction and possibly rehabilitation of young supers gone astray, and it's difficult to view that as anything but a worthy goal, though it hardly offsets what she read. Her skepticism is, much like the rest of her, subtle. "You probably have some distance to go with him if he's picking fights with children," she says, and makes an obvious effort to be gentle with that criticism.

And then he wants to talk about her. That's harder, for many reasons, but she holds whatever she imagines are his eyes as she subsides into momentary silence, teasing through the tangled threads of it all in search of where to begin. "As far as I or anyone else can tell, it's all related to pressure. Sensing it, controlling it. It seems to give me some strange insight into systems. Mechanical or biological. Reader — "

This is the first pause that seems inadvertent on her part, something she stumbles over in her own mind. She closes her mouth, biting the inside of her cheek uncertainly, and then visibly pushes her way through that, impatience rising to shove something difficult aside. "The man who found me after the Terrigen mists swept through my village brought me here. We were being pursued by — " Another stumble. This pause is shorter, almost expected. Her gaze drops down to her jean-clad legs as she crosses them. "It's a long story. He stashed me at Xavier's. They've given me space to experiment, but I'm not technically a student there."

—-

There's a wry smile from the disguised young man when Iso brings up the now-infamous battle between Spider-Man and a group of ten year olds. Of course, the footage had picked up the crying childen, and not the way the Brain was creepily talking through them while they were under his control, and honestly things had come out looking awfully bad for the webslinger, but…

"He's a project, all right," Red Robin agrees, bobbing his head in a short nod. "But I think there's a good heart under there."

He really shouldn't be doing that, of course. It's not professional, especially since he's leading the team and asked Spider-Man to join. Zatanna would probably frown at him. But it's an indication of how comfortable he's gotten with the other masked vigilante's presence that he can bust his chops by proxy like this.

And anyway, what's the worst that could happen?

The explanation of Iso's metahuman ability is of course fascinating to someone like Red Robin, who leans slightly towards the young woman as she speaks, already considering angles, possibilities. It fits with what he saw, anyway - a catastrophic buildup of pressure inside the giant pigeon, fast enough that it just popped like an overfilled balloon.

But there's more explanation. Things he should pay attention to.

"I know all about long stories," Red Robin confirms, dryly. "Only a little bit about the Terrigen mists, though. In Gotham, the Joker was… Experimenting on cocoons." Because of course, the Joker would find a way to do the most horrible thing he could with an already difficult situation. Spoiler was also investigating the incidents when they were attacked by Ravager… Maybe that had something to do with why she and Deathstroke had been hired…? He gives a faint, nearly imperceptible shake of his head. Not the time.

"Seems like you've done pretty well, though, for being left to fend for yourself like that, being stashed away in an unfamiliar environment, building a new life here. I guess it makes sense that you'd be good at handling that kind of pressure, though."

Yes, he thinks he's very clever.

—-

The Joker was experimenting on cocoons.

No one without the benefit of their own personal HUD would be able to sense the breath that Xiaoyi locks in her chest for a moment longer than is strictly necessary, though the way her collarbone and the dip of her throat hollow out with silent, compressed tension might be enough all on their own: that thought strikes a nerve. A raw one. Looking at Red Robin, what she sees in her reflection is sufficient to turn her head off to the side, the slim fingers of one hand rising to slide up behind the hinge of her jaw in a light rub too casual to be natural after all of the preceeding 'eye contact.'

It's the joke that succeeds in pulling her gaze back, because without looking at him she can't possibly deliver the full weight of the flat-faced judgement it deserves. False and yielding; it softens quickly enough to alleviate any worries about having actually offended her, but her tone is every bit as dry as the facade. "Is that your side thing? Puns? Because if so, I'm going to have to weigh that against whatever proposition you came here to make." Beat. Softer, "Which…you did come here to make, right? That's what 'scouting' means?" She tilts her head over and lids her eyes, and the corner of her mouth turns upward for the first time. Amused, but rueful. "My grasp of English was a side effect of being temporarily connected by the brain to some virtually-immortal asshole called the Capo, while his cronies tried to upload his personality? Sometimes I have to double-check these things."

—-

A horrified reaction would only be natural - after all, there had been people inside those cocoons. People who, before they were exposed to the mists, were perfectly normal in every way. People who, because of their reactions to exposure to Terrigen, were after a fashion kin to Xiaoyi Chen. People who were vulernable, helpless, and became more names on the list of the Joker's victims. Even the ones that survived his tinkering were never quite the people they were before.

But perhaps there's something else there, too. Red Robin notes it, files it away. It's not really the right time to start poking at what might be deep traumas.

He's trying to make friends, after all.

The joke gets a Look from the young woman, which is a relief under the circumstances, intentionally bad jokes being something of a universal language of human experience.

The explanation for how she learned English is definitely a unique one, Red Robin's brows visibly lifting behind his sunglasses.

"Is it weird that this isn't the first time I've heard about a virtually immortal old guy trying to take over the body of a young woman? Sometimes I really can't tell what's strange and what's normal anymore… Still, at least you got something out of the experience, and don't have some creeper running around in your body."

Really, though, what an origin story. Red Robin had honestly been assuming she would've had a relatively normal life experience so far, and here she is having already escaped the clutches of a supervillain.

"But yeah, you're right on. You've clearly got the drive to use your abilities to help people, and maybe we'll be able to help you in the process."

"And wordplay is a useful mental exercise," he adds, in what is frankly a completely bullshit explanation for his joke about pressure. "Helps keep you sharp and flexible."

—-

Is it weird? He asks. It's meant to be a toss-off question, darkly amused rhetoric, but Iso gives it actual thought, dark eyes wandering away, upward and on an angle. It's a habit that, should they spend any amount of time together going forward, he'll come to expect as rote: she considers even the most preposterous question with the full and not-inconsiderable weight of her focus.

"Yes, and no? Given the breadth of what I've come to understand is possible through modern technology, there's very little depravity that would surprise me anymore."

One slow blink later, she tugs her gaze back to rest on the only-half-disguised young man beside her, her smile small and apologetic, most of its sentiment in her eyes. "That sounds pretty grim. If I'm honest, for every person to treat me like a commodity since leaving home, there's been someone else who went out of their way to help me. Sometimes more than one."

The silence after that needs very little translation, looking at him the way she is: she doesn't know yet which camp he falls into, nor does she know where the Titans fall on the sliding scale. Is it an entirely benevolent invitation, meant to offer her a way to, as he says, build a life on a foundation of good use? Self-improvement echoing back into the world as an improvement of everything around her? Is it a means to keep an eye on a new and unknown quantity? Is it conscription for the sake of utility only — another pawn or soldier to throw into the field, +1 to organization strength alone, all other aspects of who she is a distant second?

As it happens, it's his tendency to run his mouth just a little bit that heads off most of those still-wary voices of justified paranoia before they can become a full-blown chorus. Irreverence is a good sign, she thinks. Someone up to something would probably be more determinedly earnest.

"Mmhm, I bet. Sharp so you can keep on the lookout for punches to the shoulder, and flexible so you can lean out of the way." Beat. He'll see her answer in the tilt of her mouth, before she ever says a word. "Alright, Birdman. I'm interested." And flattered, though she decides against displaying quite that much enthusiasm. It's probably hinted at in the way she straightens, squares her shoulders, and preoccupies herself with closing the books she'd been studying, busying her hands to keep her eyes elsewhere, where they're likely to be more difficult to read. "What's involved?"

—-

There are disguises, and there are disguises, after all. Red Robin maintains a few backup identities just in case - there are situations where he simply can't operate in costume, but where the mere fact of being the adopted son of Bruce Wayne would be more of a hindrance than a benefit. Tim Drake might not wind up in the gossip pages as much as Dick Grayson, but it's still a face that gets recognised.

Still, it would be a nuisance to have those identities connected to Red Robin. Thus, his hastily assembled 'disguise' in a cafe near the Triskelion, what sometimes seems like a million years ago. Thus, the dyed hair and contact lenses and small prosthetic appliances that created a generic nobody to be Red Robin in Germany.

And here, a hat and sunglasses. Hardly the most impenetrable disguise he's ever worn, but hiding the eyes can do a lot of the work, and between the Ray-Bans and the hat, the lines of his face are broken up. It wouldn't trick anyone who knew him, but a stranger would find it hard to connect his features to much of anything.

Behind those sunglasses, dark blue eyes watch Iso curiously. Studying her. In the vast memoriae regis he's created inside of his head, a version of his now-demolished childhood home with corridors that go on forever, with an infinite number of rooms, he's decorating a new one. Filing away the things he's learned about Iso since he first learned of her existence, things he's discovered on his own and things she's revealed apurpose.

"I wish people just tried to punch me in the shoulder," he remarks, wryly. Iso hasn't even tried that much so far, which only helps to portend her admission that she's interested in his offer. And then, she's closing her books. Tidying her space. A sudden change in body language, keeping her face turned away from his. Still, 'Birdman' is a step up from 'Bird-boy'. The Robin costume - neither the one he inherited nor the second in his own colours - didn't provoke much respect.

"In the short term, what's involved is getting you set up. There's space at the Tower for everybody, so you can keep a room there if you want. Um… Do you have a codename? Costume? It's fine if you don't, there's a few others on the team who don't either." In one case, it's because being a six foot five orange space glamazon is kind of hard to hide. "We can get you a whole Pigeon Girl suit…"

—-

Saying his actual handle out loud in the library seems too reckless. It's quiet, granted — her moment of incredulous laughter aside — and they've been talking about personal details of her own metahuman realities, but that's different. She hasn't invested much in hiding what she is. He, on the other hand, is sitting there with at least a token effort to dissemble in place, and while 'Birdman' may not treat his identity with any kind of deferential awe…it seems safer than saying the words.

She's angled away from him again, tucking the books into the mostly-empty messenger bag beside them as he outlines the answer to her question, but that last quip puts an effective halt to her tidying. She freezes, then rolls her head back and to the side, fixing him with a wedge of a deadpan look. "What would my codename be then? How about 'Columba livia?' We'll just ignore the way it makes absolutely no sense for me to be dressed as a pigeon after blowing up a dead pigeon. Unless I start exclusively using pigeons for ammunition — " By now she's turned her attention back to packing her bag, " — and that, to be honest, is not ideal. Aside from the fact that I'm an animal lover at heart, pigeon detonations notwithstanding, the maximum brisance of c. livia would be completely ineffective for most applications." She flips the flap of the messenger bag closed, wraps the strap around one hand and drags it nearer on the tabletop, and then pivots in her seat to face him again. "Measurable 'element of surprise' factor would probably be pretty high, though. And at least in New York, I'd never run out." Pause. Expectant, almost. "I think I'd like to see this tower."

Does she mean now…?

The way she's looking at him, it sure looks like 'now.'

—-

If Red Robin is surprised by the fact that the young woman has already casually calculated the actual usefulness of an exploding pigeon, he doesn't show it.

It's not that he's ever really had the cause to consider it… But, he doesn't have the metahuman ability to make that sort of thing just happen. With a power like Iso's, that sort of understanding could very well mean the difference between life and death. It draws a grin from the young man, a slash of an expression that widens a little, at the nearly-expectant pause, and the statement that follows it.

"Sure, okay," he says, rising from the seat he'd borrowed instead of letting an actual student use it. "Is there anybody you want to get in touch with before you wander off with a mysterious stranger?" He's got his phone out, though not for quite the same purpose. The rugged black case protects what is definitely not an off-the-shelf piece of technology, interfacing with the HUD in his sunglasses, as he leads the way out of the library.

And then, off campus, about two streets over, and… Into an alleyway.

In the alleyway, an engine purrs so quietly as to nearly be inaudible: Red Robin grabs what appears to be thin air, and pulls it, the refracted image of the dark alley coming away like a sheet (because it is, sort of) to reveal a sleek black car with a metallic-red tinted windshield that fully wraps around the front of the car like a cockpit, its shape suggestive of a bird in flight.

Branding is important, in the Batman Family.

"Couldn't really bring the plane," he says, as the windshield shifts, and the top folds back. "Too conspicuous."

He says, settling into the driver's seat of what is definitely a multi-million dollar custom built car.

"Don't forget to buckle up. Safety first."

—-

She looks pleased when he consents so readily. Not that she'd suggested an immediate detour to throw him for a deliberate loop, but it still strikes her as a good thing that he isn't thrown, anyway. The pleased look is what initially merits a small smile, but it's her answer to his thoughtful question that bids it stay where it is: "You mean in case you're dangerous and up to something?" One of her brows arches as she slides from her seat, lifting the strap of her bag to slide it over one shoulder. Her expression levels out again, wry but in that subtle way that would be easy to miss for most: "I'm sure you're at least one of those things, but I don't think calling anyone would improve on my odds."

Which may be because it would take them time to reach her, or could in theory be because he's that dangerous, or — and this is more likely the case, given she doesn't once look hesitant as she follows him out of the library afterward and into an alley — it's because she has no greater faith in anyone's ability to handle it than she does her own.

She is capable of feats of expression. Witness the soft thump of her bag on the pavement beside her sneakers as she rounds the corner and finds herself face to face with the Redbird, mouth a round and undisguised 'o' of surprise, eyes widened to match. She half-covers the former, then advances on the machine with rapt enthusiasm and soft footsteps, as though it might startle and hare off into the concrete jungle.

In the quiet within herself, the muscle of her gift flexes just enough for her to sense pressure differentials within it: this is how she plays her mental fingers across its elements. This is how maps of machines form for her, a kind of tactile echolocation — but pressure, not sound.

The sound of the door closing as he gets in snaps her out of what could have become a lengthy trance. She starts for the passenger side, stops, reverses — left your bag on the ground, dumbass! Smooth! — and after retrieving her things finally slides into the seat, setting her bag down in the footwell. She places her hands to either side of herself on the exceptionally nice seats, fingers splaying on leather, sensing the outrageous rumble of an engine capable of feats most other vehicles can only dream of.

This is the most expensive thing she has ever touched in her entire life.

Don't forget to buckle up.

"Right," she says, stirring. Typically self-assured gestures fumble slightly as she reaches for the buckle, for which she chastizes herself: it's just a car. In spite of an outrageously sheltered upbringing in one of the most rural, far-flung (and beautiful) parts of China, she's not intimidated by too many things she's run into in the west, and thinks of herself as beyond petty things like status, celebrity, wealth, and the like. Her interests lie in other directions.

Just.

It's a really lovely piece of engineering.

The buckle snaps in, finally, and she clears her throat. "Is this legal to drive on the street?"

—-

It would be foolish to assume that Red Robin hasn't already considered the dangerous applications of Iso's metahuman abilities - abilities which might, on the surface, not seem like that much. Exploding things might be flashy, but there are all sorts of other ways something like that could be plied against a living being. After all, being a squishy bag of fluids held up by bones means pressure is important. Altered blood pressure, or the pressure in select internal organs causing ruptures… Internal hemorrhaging, death. Rapid manipulation of pressure causing Bends-like symptoms, death.

Of course, because he's been trained since he was fourteen years old by the Batman, he's also considered countermeasures. Without much time to work with, he's settled on 'immediate incapacitation' if it became necessary.

He'll run some simulations later, once he knows more about Iso's abilities - both superhuman and mundane. It's a thing he does.

"I think you've got a fangirl," he tells the Redbird quietly, sliding his work phone into a dock on the dashboard. The car doesn't have an AI in it or anything like that, though, so it bears the teasing and Iso's admiration alike with mechanical equanimity.

Once Iso's in the car, the roof and windshield canopy close and seal, and the windshield lights up, the soft blue glow of a holographic projected HUD showing various vital information about the car, and tagging objects around it.

The question about the car's legality makes Red Robin laugh.

"Not really, but the police don't make a fuss as long as I keep to the rules of the road. No pushing it to 300 miles per hour unless I really need to."

And of course, that's when he accelerates out of the alleyway, turning onto the street.

But Red Robin is a thoroughly trained and conscientious driver, and despite the flashiness of the Redbird he does indeed keep to the rules of the road - except for the occasional shortcut down other alleyways. Eventually, the car pulls up to a building; there's a quiet pulsing sound from the Redbird, conversing with the security of one of the hidden entrances to Titans Tower: The building's garage door opens, and in they go… Into what soon turns out to be a ramp downwards, into the dark. Then, Red Robin starts accelerating. He knows where he is, where they're going. He knows the interior of the tunnel so well he could do this with his eyes closed. The spedometer ticks upwards, over 100, and the literal light at the end of the tunnel grows closer and closer, until the Redbird bursts out into a cavernous motor pool, or what would be the motor pool if there were other cars present, turning and coming to a screeching-yet-precise halt.

"Of course," he says, as the car opens up to let them out. "It's fun to put the pedal to the metal a little when there's nobody around to start a car chase. So, welcome, Xiaoyi Chen, to the… Basement of Titans Tower. Elevator's over that way," Red Robin explains, climbing out of the driver's side.

—-

She takes it all in from the moment the HUD appears. Not just what kind of feedback the car gives him about its varying systems, but what kinds of objects in the environment it's interested in. A person can infer a great deal from that kind of information if they're sharp enough, and Xiaoyi Chen is nothing if not sharp.

It leads in its own roundabout way to the knowledge that she's comfortable in silence even in mixed and unfamiliar company. She has none of the awkward need to fill the emptiness while he drives that many people would. It isn't a passive, absent, distant silence, but an engaged one, full to brimming with clear and undisguised interest on her part, and nothing is off of the table. Not the car, not the young man driving it — how he drives it, which routes he takes — and not the world beyond it, either, as they whip through areas of New York she has only passing familiarity with. The first week she spent here she spent an evening on her stomach on a lumpy mattress and traced out the lines of the streets with a fingertip on a paper map, reading the names, internalizing the landscape in spite of the queer knowledge that the actual geography of the city would be quite different when she'd come to know it herself. A place is never just its roads and landmarks. There's another map to compile, one that fits over the top of the actual.

For Xiaoyi, that map is still largely empty space, festooned with leviathans: everywhere there be dragons.

And she's appreciative, too, that he's a responsible driver…

Even if she's also a little bit disappointed.

As though able to sense that no introduction to the Redbird would be complete without a demonstration of some small part of what it can do, he does finally consent to show it off a little bit. The moment he gives the car any amount of rein she feels her stomach push back into her spine and instinctively presses one hand to the curvature of the roof over her head, feet braced in the footwell and a breath sucked into her chest, compressed by sudden momentum. It is difficult to strive for reserve in that situation, but she manages with aplomb — right up until the car hits that calculated spin, at which point she crumbles, something not quite like a scream that breaks apart into a laugh yanked out of her as though by the steering wheel itself. It whips her hair over her shoulder and then she settles with a jostle back into the ergonomic cradle of her seat. She turns her head away from the driver, palms her face. Waits for the wide, helpless smile to check itself, which it does, though it leaves behind a residue of something brighter in her eyes and cheeks. She puffs an exhale that stirs a strand of slid-free hair as the car origamis open again, then spends a moment reclipping her hair behind her head and collecting her things. "It's probably fun to do that when there's a car chase, as well," she muses, and extricates herself from the car with no little regret. She closes the door, and then having warred with a moment of impulse and lost, reaches out to pat it twice before hoisting her bag over her shoulder and lifting her eyes toward the elevator.

"Iso," she says, as they walk toward it. "I realized I didn't answer your question earlier, about code names. …It's Iso."

—-

It's probably fun to do that when there's a car chase, as well.

"Are you kidding? Car chases are half the reason I stay in this business. Like having to figure out an elaborate puzzle at three hundred miles an hour." Red Robin sounds like he means it, too. He might not be the borderline suicidal thrill seeker his adopted brother is, but he's hardly immune to the excitement of some of the riskier and more dangerous aspects of his exploits are. But, given his general temperament, of course he phrases it in the terms of problem solving, of challenge.

Once they're out of the Redbird, the car - thusly patted by its new fangirl - seals itself up and winds itself down, the engine growing silent and its computer system slipping into a sleep mode, until the vigilante calls on it again.

"Iso," the young man repeats. "Short, easy to remember. International Standards Organisation? You really like ripping DVD images? Your favourite movie is Tron Legacy?"

The elevator, large enough for a small group, closes. Red Robin presses the button for the lobby; it's actually several floors up, the Tower extending further belowground than it does above… But the doors open soon enough. The lobby is a tall and open area, with greenery all over in low planters… A suspicious mind might wonder if it was designed to offer little to no cover to anyone trying to break into the building by force, the doors opposite the elevators wide and transparent as well. There's a reception desk nearby, but it looks… Well, chronically uninhabited.

"We don't have any support staff… Everything around the Tower, we take care of ourselves. And…" He leads the way outside. The island, entirely manmade, is lightly forested, with trees thick around the outer edges to give some privacy from the outside world. But there's a surprising amount of space, below the T-shaped tower, like a small park… In the middle of the river, with Manhattan towering to one side, and Queens on the other. "…Out here, too. Most of the basic maintenance is automated, but, you know… Cleaning and similar tasks foster group connections and make people feel more invested in the place." When he can actually get Superboy or Impulse to do any of them. You'd think a farmboy and a kid from nowhere, Alabama, would be used to chores by now.

—-

That's probably the first moment that Xiaoyi begins to suspect she and the individual she only knows as Red Robin, hat-and-glasses-guy, might have things in common. Not because he finds the prospect of a car chase fun — most young men his age would in theory, if not in practice, and everybody loves an action sequence — but because he does frame it that way. As a logistics issue that requires swift solving. She glances at him sidelong, but of course, she stops shy of smiling or in any other way signaling the little note of approval that follows. Some things just take time.

"No," she says automatically, standing and waiting for the elevator. "Isobars, it's — "

She realizes too late that he probably knows already. Blinks, flicks him a look that almost seems to fault him for baiting her. It's not a look with any teeth to it, though. "Yes, ha ha," she murmurs, and the door slides open. As she steps in and turns around, curiously: "What's Tron Legacy?"

She knows the genus and specie of the common pigeon, but nothing about Tron. Her education is, it's safe to say, patchy in the weirdest way.

Another wave of displacement hits her when they arrive in the lobby, and she steps out into that airy space. It makes her feel small. She slides a thumb beneath the strap of her bag and casts her gaze up and upward, trailing along slightly behind and to one side of him, slowing when she pivots around in a kind of walking circle. Silent, until they pass through the doors and she's confronted with the view.

Four months ago she was —

And now, she's —

It's another reminder of the distance she's come, hitting the ground hard and at full speed in what feels like someone else's life. The nagging feeling that she doesn't belong in it isn't constant, but it surfaces with surprising frequency, and usually at moments like this. Raised on a farm in the middle of nowhere, no contact with modernity, really, and what can she possibly offer to metropolitan sophisticates..?

She shoves that aside. "It's…really something. I didn't realize secret identity public service paid this well."

—-

Given that, as far as most record keeping is concerned, Xiaoyi Chen was spontaneously willed into existence a few months ago, maybe Red Robin shouldn't be surprised that she isn't familiar with quasi-successful science fiction movies. No doubt she's had better things to do since the events she'd let slip earlier that resulted in her relocation to Xavier's School.

And maybe they don't watch movies, there. He's certainly never been, they don't have a lot of call for Gotham vigilantes out in Westchester.

Not enough tall buildings with gargoyles to brood on.

"I get the studying physics related concepts, but you missed out on a movie about a guy getting trapped in a computer so you could learn the scientific classification of pigeons? Though I'm glad you didn't point out that American robins are turdus migratorious," he adds, offhandedly. Yes, of course he had to study that sort of thing. You never know when it might come in handy, with the sorts of weirdos who get up to villainous shenanigans in Gotham.

And since he was fourteen at the time, he was both amused and horrified to find that particular factoid out. Like the bright costume wasn't bad enough!

But Red Robin gives Iso her space and the silence to acclimate to her surroundings. He's careful, in the way he almost always is - people are, in a way, just another thought problem. Patience and thoroughness handles that better than haste, better than carelessness.

There's another laugh from the former Boy Wonder, at Iso's thoughts about the island, and the Tower.

"Technically, the island and the Tower are the property of the people of New York City… They're just lending them to us. The original Titans saved the city from a villain while the Justice League and the Avengers were busy elsewhere, so this was kind of a 'thank you'. Our operations as the Titans are funded by the Titans Foundation, which is a nonprofit organisation whose backers enjoy a certain anonymity. Of course, since we get to have the big shiny tower and a certain level of official approval, we have to play by the rules. One rule in particular is more important than the rest: We don't kill people. We're the good guys."

He looks at Iso directly, though of course with the sunglasses the effect is perhaps a bit blunted. Most people don't kill people, as a rule. Fear of the consequences, or feelings of empathy, or a hundred other reasons. But for metas it's more complicated. When faced with the sorts of abilities many metahumans possess, humans are… Fragile.

That knowledge keeps him from envying his friends who have powers too much. Knowing that Conner or Cassie always have to be careful with their strength, surrounded by mere mortals and a world built for the same. That Bart needs to keep himself at the same speed as the rest of the world, lest he accidentally turn someone into a proverbial bug on the windshield. That Zatanna could tear reality asunder if she lost control of her power.

He could do so much more, he knows. He could think of a thousand thousand ways powers would let him do his job better. But at what cost?

"So, what do you think? There's no blood pact, if you decide it's not working out you don't have to stay on the team. Apparently giving everyone RFID implants was 'creepy,'" he makes air quotes here, though it's difficult to say how sincere he is about his mild, frustrated disgust at other people not seeing how much easier a mild violation of their privacy would make security at the Tower. "So all you'll have is the Titans ID that'll let you in and out of the Tower, and your own room. And you don't have to give away your secret identity if you don't want to. I'll keep it as closely guarded as my own." Closer, really, since a good chunk of the people he recruited already knew who he was. "Although, are you gonna wear a mask, because without it you'll be easy to recognise, it's a distinctive haircut…"

—-

Turdus migratorius.

Xiaoyi blinks, eyes widening; the glance she gives him says she had no idea. She looked up pigeons because they everywhere around her in the city; red robins, it seems, are slightly more difficult to come by in metropolitan settings.

Well. Save this one, one supposes.

She has the good grace not to laugh, but the way she presses her lips down into thinner line may not be much better.

While the details of how the Titans are funded — and to whom they are ultimately responsible — are important for the reasons he outlines, there are other reasons to fuel her interest. Lacking contacts or a local support network, whomever she finds herself publicly bonded with will have a lasting impact on her life here. It's hyperbolic to wonder who would own her if she said yes, but the question isn't without its buried grain of truth: nothing, she knows, is free. The price of benefitting here won't just be paid in chores on the grounds or even the expenditure of blood, sweat or tears on behalf of the citizenry to whom they're ultimately obliged — it'll be inextricably bound up in the mores of the people keeping the coffers full.

So, what do you think?

Looking out over the grove cultivated to resemble a wild forested space against a backdrop of gleaming metal, concrete, and glass, it's easy to feel centered peace slide in, ready to fill the spaces hyperaware of everything in the noisy, busy surrounds of the city proper. Feeling it, she experiences a sudden tug of longing so poignant knits her brows. It's not a good reason to say 'yes.' It's a building. A person she barely knows, and other people she knows not at all. But none of that is a reason to say no

It's a distinctive haircut.

She blinks, turns her head to look at him as her fingers come up automatically, fingertips slid back through the shorter crop of hair on that side. Whatever thoughts attend the reminder, she keeps them very close to the chest, and instead asks, "Do you think I should?"

Wear a mask, that is. And she means it, when she asks: she doesn't know. All of it is new to her, whatever air of capability she tries to project.

And that's as good as a 'yes,' anyway.

—-

The truth is that most of the people Red Robin has recruited were, in one way or another, already in the business as it were. Perhaps not as long as he has, though he's pretty sure Spider-Man is close, but Superboy and Wonder Girl and Impulse he'd worked with before, and Fairchild already worked with the Justice League. Zatanna, well, that was a bit of a different situation, but she had at least already know him, already had cause to trust him.

In that sense, Iso is something of a test case. She has no prior connections to him or the Titans. She has no real experience with superheroics, even if she has used her powers to save lives.

She might not be 'at risk' in the sense that she seems like she's about to start using her powers for villainous or selfish purposes, but likely she could use the guidance. She could use the peer support.

A reminder of that is the way she responds to his question about whether or not she'll wear a mask as part of her costume.

Do you think I should? she says, looking to someone more experienced for advice.

The weight of this project suddenly becomes very palpable for Red Robin. The 'helping new heroes' part of the Titans had been largely theoretical, thus far. Here was the reality of it: Someone whose career, and potentially whose life, he would be an influence on.

"Not everybody does. On the team, it's basically just me and Spider-Man who do so far. Tell you what, we'll work on some ideas, see if we can't come up with a costumed look that you like. No cape and no pigeon feathers, I promise. In the meantime, though, let's show you the rest of the Tower…"

For now, he'll call it a qualified success.

Hopefully, Impulse doesn't drive her crazy.

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