Dressing the Part

September 06, 2017:

With Iso having moved fully into Titans Tower, Red Robin helps her get outfitted with a proper superhero costume. It is, fortunately, not pigeon-themed.

Titans Tower, NYC

The T-shaped headquarters of the Titans. Red Robin keeps building weird rooms in there.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Batman, Beast, Fairchild, Impulse, Reader, Starfire, Superboy, Wonder Girl, Zatanna

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

You'd be surprised at the sorts of things you can find in Titans Tower.

With the advent of 3D printing technology - a technology which, for some reason, Wayne Enterprises leapt on with alacrity back when it was first introduced - there's much less need to rely on getting some kind of weird alien manufacturing devices on loan from the Justice League or whatever. Indeed, with a few prototype next-generation 3D printers that where apparently provided by one of the Titans Foundation's well-connected but anonymous patrons, there's all sorts of interesting things that can be built by enterprising young geniuses.

Naturally, at least some of this manufacturing ability has been earmarked for what is possibly the most important piece of equipment in any superhero's arsenal: Their costume.

On the operations level, nestled amongst the other work spaces - much of which remain, as of yet, unused - there's one room just for the purposes of outfitting. It's not even a locker room (there's one of those in the underlevels, near the hangar, for easy deployment), though there are transparent storage cases around the room, several of which are labelled with the codenames of the current Titans. More of them sit unmarked. But really, only a few of them - Red Robin, Wonder Girl, Superboy, Impulse - actually have spare suits in them.

Wonder Girl's does not, however, have a spare wig.

Red Robin still thinks that's silly.

In the middle of the room is a table, which is currently being used as a holographic projector. Red Robin, fully dressed in his own costume as he pretty much always is around the Tower (rumour is he might even sleep in it, though there's another rumour that he simply doesn't sleep, both rumours were probably spread by Conner) is sitting on a stool at the table, using a stylus to 'sketch' what appear to be some costume designs in the projected field above the table, waiting for the Tower's newest resident. Of course he has costume design ideas for Iso. He's a professional.

Also, despite his comments about her distinctive haircut, none of them involve a cowl.

It was an uneventful move for Xiaoyi. She had very few belongings to speak of, only whatever she'd needed and found the funds to pay for after her clothes-on-the-back escape from Ennilux — the bulk of things she's responsible for are related to the classes she's taking. One trip that didn't even require an outsize uber, needed instead only a yellow New York City cab, deposited her close to the Tower, and a quick jaunt in a cleared vehicle later, she was…

Home?

It took no time at all for her to unpack those things into the modest but perfectly adequate space she was given, and that left oodles of time to sit around and feel strange about her life. Electing to push back against that creeping sense of dislocation, she's spent a lot of time since then being busy: when she's not studying she's in the gym or abroad in the city. She comes back to the tower only to collapse, when she's sure that sleep will come quickly. She's not unhappy…but she does need to short-circuit her tendency to overthink every last thing. This will be good, she's decided. Tells herself, every time she wakes up and stands in front of the mirror in her bathroom, weirdly sure that the person she's looking at is a stranger — or maybe more like someone she thinks she ought to know, an old acquaintance she can't remember the name of, cornered by them on the street.

Moments like this help, of course. Being actively part of something. She arrives on the ops level and is preceded en route to the space in which Red's set up by the sound of her own humming, thumbs slid into the back pockets of her shorts while she meanders up to the spot just behind to the side of his stool, gaze turned up to the webs of light he's scrawling in the air.

"Do you ever get sick of being surrounded by all of these amazing toys?" She asks the question as though it isn't rhetoric, and her expression is just neutral enough to make it very difficult to tell whether or not she's serious.

"I don't think I'd know how to cope without them, at this point," is the offhanded response from Red Robin, without looking from what he's doing. "Had to work with practically stone age kit in Germany a few months ago… I just about went nuts."

After a moment, there's a wry twist to his mouth, as he turns to look sidelong at Iso. Rhetorical question or not, he just had to give it a slightly smartassed answer that seems, well… Just believable enough, doesn't it? He's the gadgets guy these days, with all that fancy technology at his disposal and a seemingly limitless mental list of ideas on how to use it.

"'course that just means life will conspire to dump me in the remote jungle or somewhere in the Himalayas with nothing but my wits to get me out alive. Or Batman will," he adds in an undertone. The Dark Knight would surely never suffer one of his proteges becoming cripplingly dependent on their gadgets and gear. One day he'll probably wake up in a cave in Tibet and have to fight his way past an army of ninjas armed only with a sharpened stick.

"Now… When you use your abilities, do you have to do anything? Are you projecting energy from your hands, or something that needs a clear way out? Because I'm thinking," he taps the nonfunctional end of the stylus on one of the sketched images in midair: The sort of superhero bodysuit that explains why people like Red Robin have a carefully coordinated diet and exercise plan. "Something with a bit of armor to it. I came into possession of a lightweight nanoweave armor, it's a lot better than kevlar or other similar conventional aramids. Probably as good as what SHIELD uses, if not even better. I can make more, but it's a bit expensive to produce, so superhumanly tough types like Wonder Girl and Superboy can live without. Maybe some lightweight ceramic plates for the vitals."

"We get shot at a fair bit," he explains, his tone meandering into apologetic.

"Stone age?" One of Iso's brows climbs slowly upward, and eventually she tilts her head enough to match the glance he finally gives her. Her expression says it all without her ever having to open her mouth: She has a feeling his idea of what constitutes primitive technology may be more than a little bit skewed.

"This, coming from the guy who said he appreciates a car chase for the high-pressure puzzle-solving element." Pause. Faint frown. "I suppose malaria and frostbite are less exciting high-pressure problems to solve."

When he begins to ask her questions about what it is that she can do, she starts to pivot to face him, intending to dock her hip against the side of the table, but he gestures at the display, arresting the shift halfway through. "I don't think my hands are necessary, but they give me something to concentrate on, a point of focus. It…helps. There are physical changes that accompany any active use of my abilities. They're not subtle." She slants him a look, then returns her eyes to the display, the lines of which are printed in the dark mirrors of her irises. "You probably noticed." Dry humor.

What she thinks, looking at the suit, is that she's going to have to watch her diet, and the parts of her that have recently discovered the gastronomic delights of the melting pot that is New York City feel a faint twinge of regret. If only her suite of skills came with an absurd metabolic requirement, like a few heroes that shall remain nameless.

What she says is, "Armor would be good. There's debris sometimes. Shrapnel. When I'm better at this I can probably generate a buffer against that simultaneous to the other things I'm doing, but sometimes, particularly when it's a tense situation, that kind of finesse is beyond me. I'd be grateful for the extra protection." Pause. "And it's pretty," she adds. She strives to keep her expression the same, but her tone is just a little bit abashed, as though that sort of aesthetic interest is supposed to be beneath her attention.

After a moment, she bows a smile and turns her head to look at him. "Bullets on their own, though, I'm good at handling those."

The 'physical changes' Red Robin had indeed noticed, thanks to the same bystander footage from the incident at the East River that had allowed him to find Iso at all. That's part of why he'd thought a similar shade of blue would be good for the primary colour of her costume… She wouldn't, after all, want to wear something that was going to clash with her glowy things, would she?

Xiaoyi Chen might be kind of a strange young woman, but she is after all still a young woman.

"Looking cool is as important as functionality when it comes to the costume," the masked young man assures her. There's no way he missed that hint of almost-embarrassment when she admitted her aesthetic approval of the basic idea of the suit. "It's important that it doesn't restrict your movement, and that it provides at least basic protection…" The idea that she could use her ability to manipulate pressure to protect herself didn't even occur to him, and mentally he's kicking himself for it… While also considering the potential applications. It just gets added to his mental notes about her, alongside the still-unexplored questions of just how much pressure she can generate, how quickly, over how much of an area.

"…But you also need to like wearing it. You don't just wear a costume to elicit a particular reaction in the people who see you, or to create a sense of team identity… It also needs to affect how you think about yourself. It needs to make you feel strong and awesome."

He proffers the stylus towards Iso, an unspoken offer to let her add her own ideas. It's her suit, after all.

"I had to eyeball your approximate measurements," he says, because sometimes Red Robin has no sense of self-preservation whatsoever. "We should probably get one of the girls to help you get accurate ones, before a final build. These sorts of things end up fitting like a glove, so if it's off a bit, well… You'll notice."

The way he talks about the suit, projecting all of its intended purposes, is another of those small things that drives home the reality of what she's signed up to do. If she weren't such a deeply logical person, grounded firmly in reality, she'd spend a lot of her time wondering if this weren't all just some sort of fever dream. If her consciousness hadn't been hoovered up out of her head by the technicians at Ennilux and spit into a pity jar meant to keep it entertained until her brain tissue failed or — whatever.

She tries to stay with what he says, thinking ahead. Thinking about wearing it. Will she feel ridiculous? Maybe a little. Maybe right up until the first time something that would have killed her is stopped by prescient design, or she's able to keep someone else from being killed for the same reason. Or maybe it'll happen as soon as the first time she does laundry after a messy outing: she still has nightmares about the smell and sticky mess on her clothing after that incident near the river.

I had to eyeball your approximate measurements…

She blinks, predictably, and levels a look at him that's several degrees more thoughtful than it needs to be for any reason other than weighing the implications of that statement. Ultimately, she chooses a smirk. "You could have just asked. We could have done that. Taken measurements. It wouldn't have been weird, it's practical and necessary. But now it would be weird, so…"

Not that having Caitlin-god-only-knows-what-her-measurements-are-Fairchild taking her measurements won't be weird, too, but that's for wholly different reasons. There's nothing quite like being reminded that the people you're working with aren't just costumed superheroes, avatars of (insert appropriate moral quality here), but instead people just like you. Young, human, fallible people under the constant assault of hormones, because it's possible to genius or brute force or magic your way around almost anything except your own biology.

It's really not a thing worth lingering on the subject of. She lifts her hand to take the stylus she's offered, but when she applies it to the holographic field it's an experimental swirling gesture she draws first, off to one side, because she's never seen this technology before and it's beautiful. The swirl turns into a scribble back on itself, the scribble slowly into a cartoony dust cloud, out of which begin to stick various limbs and costume bits that suggest she's decided Impulse and Fairchild are having a row.

Her talents may be many, but she's definitely not an artist.

"When do we get to — ? How long does prototyping take? When do we get to field test it? We do get to field test it, right? How would we do that? Would it be something moderately dangerous?"

That right there is the sound of cabin fever.

One thing that's probably become very obvious about Red Robin in the short time Iso has known him, is that he has a certain tendency to act… Unilaterally.

But at least he only went and got approximate measurements without saying anything about it first. Though they are probably fairly accurate.

"Well, we'll just get Fairchild or one of the others to help you with it," the masked young man says, apparently unbothred by the assertion that it would only now be weird for him to be directly involved in that. "Or we could rig up one of the scanners… That actually might be more accurate, but I've never really used them to measure somebody who was alive before…"

He's off in his own little world, now. That strange and slightly macabre world that comes out of learning from the World's Greatest Detective.

It's only when he notices Iso doodling in the air with the hologram system that he snaps back out of it, a brief moment of mild surprise turning into a quiet chuff of amusement.

"Well, we could have a mockup version done in about an hour," he says, already moving towards the manufacturing equipment, fiddling with the controls there. "Just something to get you used to the general fit, and you can see how you like it. As for doing something dangerous, I dunno if there's anything happening out there right now we can throw you into… But the Mud Room should be operational enough to give you a bit of a workout. Plus, you can help me bug test the room. Two birds with one stone."

Bart looks like he's losing the doodle-fight. Given his set of particular skills, he'd probably have to want to be caught, though.

"Sure, scan me. Like the backscatter machines in the airport? Or a millimeter wave scanner, possibly?" The sterile, non-judgemental intervention of advanced technology comes to the immediate rescue. Non-judgemental only because — and she checked — there doesn't seem to be an AI of the type she's heard Stark Industries employs, one with enough sentient awareness that it may as well be a person. She'd probably find it weird to let JARVIS take her measurements, too.

The boundaries of what constitutes 'personhood' have been rapidly expanding for her since her introduction to the phenomenon of Inhumans.

"Mud room?" Her brow goes up again. There's a glance his way, but his back is to her. Behind contemplative eyes, she searches her inherited understanding of English. "That's a foyer? But only regionally. It's a room full of mud, then?"

She tugs her focus back to the sketch, and finally evaluates its contours with a more critical eye. In the end, his vastly superior experience with this sort of thing is one she decides to trust, and she sets the stylus down without making any adjustments save the suggestion of an attachable hood.

Getting pigeon bits out of her hair was no picnic, either.

While many of the people Red Robin deals with on a regular basis are highly intelligent, there's something refreshing about someone who speaks his language, as it were. Fairchild has a brilliant scientific and engineering mind, but her focus often seems very particular. Spider-Man, too; perhaps appropriately, the webslinger's main area of interest seems to be on the micro-scale, while the towering redhead likes large-scale mechanical engineering. Red Robin has always been more of a generalist, out of the simple necessity of needing to have as wide a foundation of knowledge as humanly possible.

Depth of knowledge can be worked on more easily when you don't have to start from scratch.

"Something like that. It's actually a forensic scanner, used to quickly and accurately 3D model rooms and objects. I have a simpler one in my suit's computer, tied in with this," he taps his domino mask. "Part of the, uh… Well, we call it 'detective vision'. It's kind of an inside joke."

They probably don't call it that around Batman, though.

"There's a handheld version, too, but we'll use the one in the forensics lab and just patch it in here."

The confusion over the topic of the Mud Room produces another grin from the young man, who turns away from the manufacturing equipment at last and back towards Iso.

"It's not quite mud, really. It's a malleable silicate whose physical properties can be manipulated through the use of electrical current. It'll probably be easier to just show you, though. But first…"

Since Iso seems roughly satisfied with the design as-is, Red Robin will lead the way out of the workshop and over to the forensics lab, which is currently not seeing much use, Red Robin's more sensitive projects being confined to his own workspace, or the Nest in distant Gotham… Or maybe one of his other boltholes in the New York area.

Look, he likes to be prepared.

Despite the general lack of use, the systems whirr quickly to life with minimal provocation, and he indicates the scanning bed.

"I'd offer to check your blood pressure while you're laying there, but I guess you probably have a handle on that. Just close your eyes. And, uh, maybe hold your breath."

Well, he did say he hadn't used it on anyone who was currently alive before.

"I read something about that. It was in relation to accident reconstruction, though," murmurs the young woman still staring at the outlines of the suit. The fact that they'll be able to realize this design in approximately an hour is astounding to her — and deeply exciting. One of the chief frustrations of her life has been that the world she inhabited was incapable of keeping up with the interior of her skull. She lacked resources. She lacked opportunities. She lacked access to the information she needed. Now, very suddenly and seemingly all at once, the boundaries of that fishbowl have been shattered, the horizons around her expanding into what seems like infinite distance, unfettered by limits. Contemplating that causes a flutter in the cage of her ribs, her pulse hurrying along, fuelled by a single drop of adrenaline. There's a pang of excitement, of eagerness, in her stomach that's so acute that her breath catches for a moment in her throat.

The things she might one day be able to do

The gleam in her eyes is still there in some part as she turns to look at him again, while he describes the nature, and purpose, of the Mud Room. The description does nothing to diminish it. "Which physical properties? Manipulated how much?" Nevermind his 'but first,' she peppers him with those questions even as she follows him out of one room and to another.

By now he ought to expect the kind of look he's going to get when he cracks a joke like that one — her head tilted, eyes angled up beneath her brows, the one-sided smirk that braids together good-natured chastisement with affable, amused exasperation — but this time it doesn't last long. She plants a hand on the cot-shaped platform and hops up onto the side of it, legs still dangling over, and she's about to lift them up and pivot around to lay down when he gets to the words hold your breath.

"You mean because breathing will alter the measurements, right," she says, not quite as a question, as she sloooowly settles back, one skeptical eye on him.

…Right?

It's a feeling that Red Robin understands, better than most: The frustration of stymied possibility, of being able to see something in your head but having no way to realise it. And the exhiliration of the moment when you can. As Robin, he was suddenly presented with exactly that… Though as a genius from a wealthy family, surely he would've had plenty of chances to exercise his visions on the world even if his life had taken a different path. But as Robin, suddenly he had an unlimited budget. Suddenly he saw solutions to problems he hadn't even known existed before. Somewhere in his extremely secure personal hideout in Gotham City, there's an old notebook. One he'd been working in since he was nine years old, since he first successfully deduced the identity of the Caped Crusader. Pages and pages and pages of ideas, notes, sketches, that only became more elaborate once he took up the mantle of the Boy Wonder. Ideas for a larger base in Gotham, more centrally located than the Batcave, or his Nest, or Oracle's Clocktower. Ideas that, maybe will never be realised.

But, of course, he saw something else there too, in those solutions, in that infinite possibility. Something deep and dark and terribly tempting.

The ultimate solution to all of Gotham's problems. The world's, maybe.

Absolute control.

"Because breathing will alter the measurements," he agrees. "I told you, it's not really calibrated to expect somebody alive, it might not compensate for the breathing properly…" The controls, of course, are behind a bit of what might possibly be a lead-lined blast shield. But millimeter waves aren't ionising radiation, so surely…?

"It's a short hop from accident reconstruction to crime scene reconstruction," Red Robin says, maybe trying to distract Iso from any worrying as the machine starts, an arch of metal and plastic humming quietly up to where her head is located… And then there's another quiet sound as a sheet of red light emanates downwards from the emitter, slowly drawing down from the top of her head. "The portable versions are designed to do a sort of omnidirectional scan, to create an interactive 3D model. They can also locate structural issues, it's a good way to find hidden compartments if you've got the time to make a scan. There's another device similar to this one that actually does full internal imaging, then you can sort of blow up the whole model of somebody… Check their bones, their muscles, circulatory system… Not so good at the brain, though. You still want specialised equipment for that. This shouldn't penetrate more than one millimeter beneath the skin. The most we'll see is if you have any embarrassing secret tattoos."

It would be a dirty, bald-faced lie to say she was comfortable with this process, but not because the only people to lay here, where she's now laying, were cadavers. Not because he seems uncertain about the degree of exposure involved, either.

It's just very, very familiar.

It was a table like this one, in a room not wildly different from this one, that she was strapped to only a few short months ago. Drugged, dragged into Ennilux by a man she'd trusted, who'd turned out to be a bounty hunter of all things — stupid, stupid. Unable to speak their language then, she nevertheless remembers what was said, and with hindsight they became clear to her.

'Very good. I was concerned that we would //never find a suitable candidate. It is unsettling that she was not produced from our in-company breeding programs, but at this point, I will take what I can get.'//

Asking them, all the while, what they wanted. Asking them to talk to her, or trying to, around the device wedged in her mouth for intubation during the procedure. There had been a needle in the throat, and then…

It's not the same.

Her fingertips tighten on the edge of the platform, and she wills them to relax. She chose this. It matters. It's the only thing that matters. It wouldn't be happening if she didn't want it to.

" — locate structural issues," he's saying, and she tunes back in, ignoring the rush of her own blood in her ears and remembering, only just in time, that she's supposed to hold her breath. All of his chatter, giving her a thread to focus on, a through-line to follow while the scan happens. She ought to be interested in the machine — what it's doing, and how. More than she is. She will be, later. For now she focuses on that stream of words and suppressing the temptation to compare the present with the past, until finally at the last she's able to crack a small smile.

"Not yet," she says, of embarrassing tattoos.

Her throat clicks when she swallows. Her voice is steady, though. "Is it done?"

Though he can't immediately fathom why, Red Robin can see that Iso is agitated under the scanner. It's hardly the sort of thing to trigger a claustrophobic reaction, he thinks to himself… But there's some tingle of awareness, of dots connecting with previously admitted facts.

Someone had tried to upload their consciousness into her mind, the vigilante remembers. That would probably instill a certain anxiety about weird lab equipment in most people.

The engine that drives the sensor arch continues to hum quietly as it traces down towards the young woman's feet, the red light moving over her like a curtain. It doesn't feel like anything, of course, it's just light… Any shift in temperature is so mild that most humans wouldn't be able to sense it even subconsciously.

Is it done?

"Just about," Red Robin assures her, though he keeps a reassuring tone out of his voice. He makes it sound like he doesn't notice any discomfort on Iso's part at all, in fact. It's not long later, a few seconds really, that the light shuts off, and the arch continues down to the foot of the examination table, to its resting position.

"All done," Red Robin says, already sending the information to the suit workshop, letting the computer there incorporate it into the production process. He emerges from behind the blast shield, and behind those instructable, featureless white lenses on his mask, he's watching to see how well the young woman continue to handle her earlier discomfort. "Costume's already started cooking. Should take about an hour for the manufacture and final assembly, and then we can test you out a little bit."

It's a canny student of human behavior that chooses not to let her know he's noticed she's uneasy. The full breadth of her need for self-control hasn't made itself evident yet in the short period of their acquaintance, but it will. Framed that way against the near-theft of her agency in the most fundamental of ways, it probably won't arrive as a surprise.

…All of which means she gets to erroneously pat herself on the back for keeping that moment of weakness to herself. She pops up off of the table maybe a little bit too quickly to pull off looking casual, but she turns it into evidence of her enthusiasm for what they're about to do. Completely genuine enthusiasm, as it happens. "I can't decide if I want to watch it, or wait to see the whole thing. …Only an hour. You said nanoweave? Is it carbon-based? …Can we touch on this Mud Room again?"

She's not Bart. The questions aren't rapid-fire, stumbling one over the next. In time, they may slow to a trickle — may being the operative word — but for now she's encountering new and fascinating things at what feels like breakneck speed, and it seems as though nothing is outside of the scope of her interests. Red Robin has had to become a generalist because of the exacting role he's been groomed to fill; Xiaoyi seems poised to become one sheerly for the sake of curiosity.

Still though: there could be an entire hour of this without deliberate intervention.

"It's probably not all that exciting to watch," Red Robin says of the actual process of the machine 'printing' the parts of the costume that will need to be assembled. Admittedly, the first time he got his hands on a 3D printer he watched it do its thing, like, ten or twenty times. Okay, maybe fifty. A hundred, tops.

"If you want to see the Mud Room already, though, c'mon," the vigilante says, heading for the door back out into the corridor. It's not far to the elevator, and from there only a few moments to reach the training level.

There's an 'old fashioned' holographic training room, of course - as though advanced light projection could somehow be considered behind the curve, now - which hardly has the sort of angry robot technology that you might expect around the X-Men's headquarters, for example. It's been a bit finicky ever since two particular Titans decided to mess with it a little for entertainment purposes. And there's the actual physical gymnasium, specially designed to handle both individuals in the normal spectrum of human strength, from average up to 'trained to the peak of unmodified human ability' like certain former Boy Wonders, and also their friends who can throw freight trains around. But it's a third, as yet unexplored, area that Red Robin leads Iso to, a large room that mirrors the holographic one.

And it is, indeed, covered in 'mud'. The floor, the walls, the ceiling all covered by a brown silicate muck roughly the consistency of cookie dough, except for some lighting up on the distant ceiling.

"Activate test protocol," he says. "Priority: Red Robin. Code 489."

Something about the room… Changes. Iso, with her peculiar sense, would definitely feel it. A nearly imperceptible shift as the Mud Room comes to life. The young man continues working, his right hand typing on a haptic, holographic projected keyboard above his left gauntlet, fiddling with the room's settings, until some of the mud starts to bulge upwards, forming a rough human shape, that slowly fills in details as though they were being carved there by an invisible artist. Iso would, surely, recognise it even before the brown of the silicate gave way to colours.

It's her. A copy of herself, but wearing the costume currently manufacturing a level below them.

"The Mud Room's a prototype. It's based on… Well, there's this criminal in Gotham, Clayface, he was turned into a substance similar to this, allowing him to manipulate his appearance, even his size by controlling the density of his mass. The room can replicate the appearance of pretty much anybody, though obviously it can't mimic supernatural abilities, really. It can run all sorts of scenarios, and unlike holograms the clay golems have weight and substance. Safety protocols should keep the room from causing anyone more than minor harm."

Should, he says.

She takes him at his word about the 3D printer. Sort of like the way she took him seriously when he let her think Spider-Man is some kind of high-risk case. One day, she's going to learn to stop doing that. Today is not that day.

Once inside the room, she's immediately touching things. The wall interior first because it's easy to reach, but then the floor as she drops into a limber crouch, slender fingertips pressing into the yielding substrate. It's satisfying in the way that Play-Doh or clay are satisfying, catering to that very human urge to shape and reshape, impressing some part of themselves on some external thing.

It's evident that she notices the change in the air. In a t-shirt, the goosebumps on her bare arms are entirely visible when she folds them over the plane of her middle, shoulders hiked up and in. "It reminds me of — "

And then she forgets to say what it reminds her of, because she's too busy watching material rise up seemingly endlessly out of the floor. They cross into Uncanny Valley territory long before she begins to realize there's something strange about the facial features. Long before they become hers, and she lets her lips part, the rather reserved Xiaoyi equivalent of a jaw-drop.

She closes in on her simulacrum because she can't do otherwise, but it's an almost tentative final approach. Her hand lifts and her fingers hover for long uncertain moments over brown material that takes on a sudden and shocking blush of life, enough to cause her to draw back just a little. Just for a moment.

It's a strange picture she must paint, standing there and delicately, finally, touching her own face. Only it's not hers. It's fake. But what a fake.

"Can it change density quickly? Can it replicate the tensile strength of other materials? Their elasticity, for instance?" Softly murmured, almost as an afterthought. Curious, she prods at the stuff with more force, testing. "The use of pressure to achieve certain effects depends a great deal on the material involved."

Then turning, realizing none of this communicates the overarching sentiment of the moment, she flashes him a wide smile that has some of that earlier percolation of bewildered excitement in it. "This is remarkable!"

It feels, rather alarmingly, like skin.

It would be difficult to tell at a quick glance that the Clay Iso wasn't real, but of course there are those signs… There's no motion of breathing, nor does it blink; it would almost seem like a photograph of the young woman, remade in three dimensions. It's also not warm.

It's not cold, either, having a slightly-above-ambient temperature courtesy of the energy being expended to make it exist at all, but it's still lower than the body temperature you'd expect from a flesh and blood human, even one who seems to have had someone hit the pause button on them. Even under Iso's prodding it feels real, the soft give of skin and flesh, and while there's no skeletal structure, even one wrought of that curious silicate, different density and hardness of material deeper in the simulacrum gives the feeling of something like a cheekbone under her fingers.

"As long as the computer has the processing power to focus on what it's simulating, yeah. Once you get over a certain number of golems they start losing detail, though, since it needs to constantly adjust and compensate."

Remarkable, she calls it, a wide smile cracking through her usual reserve, and Red Robin grins as he inputs a few more commands, and then the room itself changes. The clay underfoot becomes asphalt street and concrete sidewalk, the walls become brick, old and cracked and faded from once-vibrant red, with decades of posted bills and signage layered one on top of another. The ceiling projects a night sky, a fat full moon and a scattering of stars visible through the light pollution of the largest city in the United States, the City of Yesterday.

It's Gotham. Crime Alley.

A place known to only a bare handful as the spot where the Batman was born.

"I've had this place in my head for a few years now. It's only with the Tower that I've had the space to actually build it."

It feels like there's bone. Buried bone, beneath skin. The computational modeling necessary to achieve that kind of reactive resistance is staggering; surely the room isn't modeling whole internal biological systems when they're not constantly required…?

But there's no reprieve for her feverish eagerness to prise apart the workings of it all. As rapt as she is on the uncanny authenticity of the image in front of her, she can't help but feel the tide of transfiguration before it even truly begins in earnest. And it happens fast — as it would have to, if the room is intended to be a training resource for individuals human and so much more than human — but not fast enough that she can't watch it happen, some silent signal from a gauntlet interface catalyzing this. Transforming this pocket of space, drab and brown, into a living, breathing slice of metropolis, narrow in scope but vast in detail.

It doesn't occur to her in the moment to wonder why he elected to show her an alley, of all places or things. She's too busy taking it all in. Watching static planes and angles swell and flow into other contours, immense shapes hoving up out of nothing. Buildings, feathered with leprous posters long since blanched by weather and time. Her hand falls away from her own forgotten face, and she steps past herself and into the midst of a still-forming world. It all crystallizes around her the way an image comes into focus through the lens of a camera, and somewhere in there she looks up, and there's a sky, and that's when she covers her mouth with a loose splay of fingers.

Immense things move in her chest. She's quiet for a long stretch of moments, staring up at celestial lights that seem somehow veiled with smog (how is that possible?). Long enough that some of the tells begin to sink in: the lack of the smells she'd expect, or the sounds, but if this is possible, nothing seems beyond reach. The facade is convincing enough that her mind is supplying half of those other impressions all of its own volition.

The moment she recovers from that soaring, coasting moment of awe, all of the possibilities come rushing in with tidal force. She spins in place, the hand that was over her mouth clasped at her throat instead, her eyes just wide enough to emanate intensity. "Red Robin — " Still his full nom de guerre, possibly a cultural holdover she'll find difficult to shed. " — you must understand what you have here. This technology — imagine the applications, in medicine, in — everything! The ability to practice radical surgeries and other procedures with no risk of harm to a patient, or…" Her mouth opens, closes.

Sometimes, the thing in the world that has difficulty keeping up with the inside of her skull is her own mouth. Her torrent of thoughts bottlenecks, and so she stands there feeling like a struck tuning fork, buzzing from the potential of it all.

The thought that Iso gives voice to is one that Red Robin has naturally had more than once himself… And it lies adjacent to other thoughts that he'd had, over the years.

Most pointedly, perhaps: Was he wasting his potential, doing what he does?

There was hardly a shortage of people willing to do the job of superhero, after all. Even in Gotham, there were a surprising number of exceptional individuals inspired by the Batman's crusade against the corruption that had nearly destroyed the city to take up arms themselves and push back against the dark. New York seemed to spit up new heroic individuals every other day.

And yet, there he was. He'd turned down the offers of acceptance from some of the best universities in the world, left the letters sitting in a box hidden in his townhouse as a kind of self-torturing keepsake, and gone to a second rate state school so that he could stay in Gotham, instead of going to Ivy, or Harvard, or Stanford, or Cambridge, or, or, or.

With his mind and his resources, honed all the further by the sort of education that opens doors all on its own, with the Wayne family name to swing around… How much more good could he do in the world than just fighting ninjas, or murderous clowns, or evil wizards?

Ah, but he has to explore all those mental paths. He can't let himself not. What about those times where, if he hadn't been around, there might not have been a world to do any good at all in? Would someone else have been there instead?

"I know," he says. "Something like this is too useful to be kept jealously locked away. Unfortunately, not a lot of places have the computing power to run it, even on a smaller scale… But once I have more of the bugs worked out, I have a few ideas on how to filter the concept out to where it might be needed."

Even if he didn't accept those university admissions, that doesn't mean he doesn't have contacts in various science departments. Probably better to let the concepts behind it out into the world that way, rather than through Wayne Enterprises. Easier to avoid uncomfortable questions.

"Still, I'm impressed… You saw that quickly, you're already seeing all sorts of ways this could be used. Most people don't think that way. Impulse or Superboy would probably be thinking about how we could turn it into a game," Red Robin muses, though he speaks of his friends' way of thinking with an amused fondness. That had always been the way of it, anyway. There was an innocence to them, probably because of their accelerated aging. It had always come down to him to think about things in more practical terms. To be the one with his feet on the ground.

"I almost worry I'm wasting your potential by recruiting you to the Titans, but… No, you can do a lot of good here, too." A thought that could apply to himself just as easily as her, really. A fact that he doesn't miss. "Just… Do me a favour, okay? Whatever you do, don't lose that way of thinking."

She can't possibly know what sort of labyrinthine introspections follow her helplessly awestruck response to what is, to err on the side of understatement, an incredible feat of engineering. Those are the kinds of heavy questions she's never had to ask herself, because her answer would be, up until this point, an emphatic, frustrated YES. She thinks of every sweltering summer and biting cold winter that she worked herself to the bone on that family farm as having been wasted. It had been so remote that even getting her hands on books concerning subjects she was interested in had never been a sure thing. All of the boredom, the outrageous injustice of it all, the blistering fights with her parents…

The assurance that he intends to propagate this technology arrives as a needed reassurance. Ethically speaking, she would probably have had problems with any other response — because ultimately, she's still new. Still hasn't had the shine scuffed off. As traumatic as her encounter with Ennilux was, it was galvanizing, too. He's caught her in transition, shedding one skin and still puzzling out the other, and all of those eerie moments of feeling she doesn't recognize herself in the mirror will fade eventually, once she understands the new shape of who she is. Whos he's going to be.

It's there in the amused, puzzled look she gives him when he tells her that most people don't think that way. "How can they not? Imagine being able to physically interact with someone long-distance, imagine — remote classrooms but real, physical things, hands-on experience. Bomb defusal! Is it proofed against water? Spacewalk simulations, if you could fill it, or…" She could never in a thousand years list every possible thing it could be used to improve.

His affectionate humor concerning a few of the other Titans inspires a milder mirror of those things in her, though she arches a brow his way, even as she trails a hand over the grit of a brick wall smeared with old adhesive and crumbling paper. "Games are a good use. I like games." The thin soles of her sneakers tell her as she walks that they're moving over cold concrete. "Someone once told me the surest way to tell if — " Pause. Said pause stretches out like taffy while she wrestles with herself over whatever realization clipped her sentence off, a thought process that ends with a short exhale that might have been a laugh or something like it.

On an evening full to brimming with the unexpected and incredible, it's what he says to her at the last that somehow manages to top it all. It leaves her standing under the glare of a fluorescent bulb bolted into the side of an alley wall in a wedge of light that casts her in harsh, sharp shadows and too-bright highlights, looking at him the way she looked at him when he first dropped into her life at the library of her university. The kind of looking with a lot of thinking happening behind the eyes, sharp as a peregrine's and equally opaque.

Those things say almost as much about him as they do about her. More, maybe, from the point of her perspective. Because it's not about intellectual agility, is it? Yes, no. Broad thinking, imaginative recombination of elements, sure, but she's more interested in the bit where he frames it as a favor. In the bit where the words broke apart, the small silence between 'just' and 'do.'

She knows nothing about him, really. Likes him anyway, has decided that she does, but still — he may as well be a cipher to her, as intended. So it's a first for her, that moment, to stand there and wonder what kind of life he's led, that he'd say that, in that way.

Her answer is much more straightforward. Her smile is modest, but confident. "I don't think I could if I wanted to." Because she is new, still shiny. The blithe confidence of the untested.

Turning back to face him, she moves back in the direction of her inert doppelganger enough to leave that sterile puddle of bleaching light, and she points at him, with emphasis. "You're crazy if you think that. About recruiting me. What you're doing here is — I have a great deal to learn. From you. From them. This?" She tilts one shoulder away enough to gesture the display behind her, so perfect a mimicry. "You created this. I don't have that kind of knowledge." Yet. "You want to improve the world. Where better for me to be? Me, or anyone?"

They need that, though. Or Red Robin does, at least.

His recruitment pitch to Spider-Man, contrary to his jokingly allowing Iso to believe that the webslinger was part of the team to keep him on the straight and narrow, was that they needed his perspective. Someone who knew, down to their bones, the responsibility that came with being exceptional. Who could help make sure that the rest of them don't forget it… Because forgetting it is a step down a dark and dangerous path.

Similarly, it's becoming clear that Iso's continuing shiny newness, the way the world hasn't worn her down, can help to provide a counterbalance to the healthy(?) cynicism Red Robin has gained in his career as a costumed crime-fighter. There are lines he still won't cross, of course, one big one in particular… But he's not as idealistic as he was when he first took up the mantle. He's become more pragmatic.

Which is both good and bad.

Red Robin isn't really sure what it is about the subject of games that makes Iso pause, though it's clear she's had some kind of realisation, perhaps made a connection that's obvious only to her, but the young woman's brief amusement is followed by her watching him with an expression nearly as inscrutable as his own masked face. Her reserve is really quite remarkable. Not quite aloof, really, just… Playing her cards so close to the vest that there's barely room for air to get between them. A contrast from the more brash personalities that populate the Tower, definitely.

"There are lots of ways to improve the world. Probably wouldn't need body armor, working in a development lab at MIT or Stanford… But, hey, who says you can't do both? Believe me, I'm not thinking about kicking you out, or anything like that. It's been a while since I've worked closely with anybody who knows about millimeter waves or would think about the communication possibilities of the Mud Room. It's refreshing."

He tilts his head slightly to one side, watching Iso still, considering.

"How's your hand to hand combat, anyway? Working out in the gym with Fairchild is gonna be one thing… I'm not sure she's the right person to teach you technique."

Refreshing, he calls it. She knits her brows as though she finds that premise dubious — that he's not surrounded by peers equally as driven to peel back the layers of the world to have a look at the mechanisms underlying — but lets the corner of her mouth turn up a little, anyway, enough to say she appreciates the sentiment. Being wanted for something other than body-theft is a change of pace. Her parents loved her…but they didn't want her. "I'm happy to discuss technology with you at any time."

Less warm as a response: the look on her face when he asks her that last question. She winces. It wouldn't read from across the room, but at proximity it's enough. Lashes tighten, lips as well. "I don't know anything about it." Pause. "Reader taught me how to punch someone, how to follow through, but most of the time we had while traveling he spent trying to teach me how to…be deliberate with my abilities. He believed anyone we'd meet who meant us harm would be ill-prepared to deal with me." Another pause, this one complicated. She slants her gaze away for a moment, off on a downward angle. More quietly: "Us, I suppose."

When her eyes lift again that beat of whatever-it-was has passed. "Beyond that I never had any reason to learn."

I don't know anything about it.

It's about what Red Robin had figured, from his observation of Iso. There are just certain tells when a person is trained in combat, tells that are difficult to hide unless they're also thoroughly trained to do so. The vigilante himself, naturally, is: It would punch a pretty clear hole through the whole 'secret identity' thing if people in highschool had noticed that computer nerd and D&D player Timothy Drake moved with the palpable menace of someone trained by the likes of Batman and Lady Shiva.

Honestly, it was already trouble enough avoiding questions about why he'd gone from 'mildly fit' to 'built like a cross between Bruce Lee and Tyler Durden' in the gym locker room. To say nothing of the accumulation of scars and bruises.

"You've got reason to learn, now. Your abilities are amazing, but you don't want to be completely dependent on them… After all, you never know when you might run into someone who can suppress them somehow. Maybe I'll set up a hand to hand course for you and Zatanna… A little Krav Maga, some Brazilian Jiujutsu…"

Yes, he knows both of those.

Obviously.

"Could make practice dummies in here, that way I don't have to convince Superboy or Wonder Girl to let you guys punch them for an hour."

There is a decided lack of palpable menace about the way Xiaoyi Chen holds herself, to be sure. That probably changes in a hurry when she lights up like blue phosphorous and begins distilling immense forces out of nothing at all, but in the day to day she doesn't read as being anything more than a young woman with good posture and a respectable dedication to physical fitness.

The pragmatism they share means there's only one way to respond to his suggestion she take up learning some sort of martial art: she nods. Diversifying ways to protect herself isn't just logical, it's attractive for all of the same reasons that she was uneasy on the scanner table and bristles when she's told she can't do something. "Alright." And then, with knitting brows, "I imagine this is going to involve…sparring." She says the word the way someone might hold something dangerous out at arms' length, wary. It's obvious enough why; she doesn't want to hurt anyone. Nevermind that she may be the least groomed person on the whole of the team when it comes to combat situations. The thought of trying to hit the dark-haired young woman she met over pizza not long ago strikes her as bizarre.

Moving on, she rolls her shoulders and permits herself another half-smile, once more sliding her thumbs into the back pockets of her shorts. "I doubt I'll ever be strong enough to be dangerous in that way." She pauses. Tilts her head to reconsider. "Maybe I can learn how to use pressure in combination with more physical techniques." Because what the world really needs, obviously, is for Xiaoyi Chen to turn her fist into a pneumatic hammer.

"It'll definitely involve sparring," Red Robin agrees. "I'll program some simulacra in here that you can practice against, but even adjusting as your skill level improves they won't be quite as good of practice as another person. Humans will make unexpected and illogical decisions, even in a life or death battle, that a computer can't really replicate. Maybe a true artificial intelligence, but that's the last thing I want to start messing with."

It's not, of course.

Messing around with a real AI would be pretty neat.

It's just that he knows better.

Of course, he wouldn't just have Iso and Zatanna slug it out and expect them to get better that way. They'd have to spar with people who are better than them, too. Red Robin's own varied martial skill, or Impulse's speed, or the strength and toughness of Superboy, or Wonder Girl, or Fairchild… Or even the not quite as great as all of those but a devastating combination of each that Spider-Man would present. Variety will keep them on their toes, he thinks to himself, already calculating. And it could help the stronger teammates practice fighting comparatively breakable humans safely.

But he's not the only one thinking about things, as Xiaoyi muses aloud about the possibility of using her ability in concert with physical strikes to make the latter more effective.

That line of thinking brings a grin to Red Robin's face, a boyish expression with his teeth clipping lightly into his bottom lip.

"There's a lot of kinds of dangerous," the vigilante affirms. "And that's a great idea. After all, if you can't be stronger than the person you're fighting, you just need to be smarter. And, when all else fails, cheat."

"As long as the simulacra don't…look like me," Iso says, with a glance over her shoulder at the still-extant copy of herself. She'll feel that cheekbone in her sleep, she knows, when she finally turns in for night. The way it felt like flesh sliding over bone. Curiosity and amazement may have acted as a buffer to the more visceral reaction to something like that, but the uncanny valley is a place built for dreaming about.

Maybe a true artificial intelligence, but that's the last thing I want to start messing with.

She glances at him sidelong there, for another beat of time during which it seems she's keeping her own counsel. Whatever that counsel is, she presses the curve of her lips into a thinner line. Stays silent.

She would love to get her hands on genuine artificial intelligence. And would not, she knows, hesitate, if she could.

But he would. There's responsibility writ large all over that statement. She likes to think she's responsible, careful, methodical. Their thresholds for that are not located in the same place. Lines in the sand are not drawn in the same way. Food for thought.

Related not at all, one hopes, to the tenor of the smile she has for him in the end, the pressed line of her lips released from temporary imprisonment to bow in a way that pushes sharp light up into dark eyes. Sharp, and maybe a little — something. Not dark, not really. Hard? Something with an edge. "I want to be dangerous."

It lasts only a moment, ends in a laugh as she turns away from him and toward the expanse of the mud room, as though finding her own assertion ridiculous. It wasn't a charade, though. She meant what she said. There was no lie in the way she looked at him then.

"So that I can work in peace." Humored, exasperated. "It works for Dr. McCoy. No one set foot in his lab if he didn't want them to. What a luxury." She pries with her fingertips at the various details of the armored plating on her false self. Difficult to believe she'll be wearing this — or a mock-up of it, at any rate — in almost no time at all.

Reponsibility, yes: Red Robin knows himself, knows that he could, and probably would, lose track of everything else if he had something like that to work with. He'd want to learn everything about it, understand it more completely than it understood itself. And then, what could he do with it? Make the Tower a thing alive? Why stop there, though… Why not create robots that could do the Work, could rescue people from disasters and stop the bad guys all without ever putting a flesh and blood human in harm's way?

And why stop there? Extrapolate further. AI-controlled robot drones enforcing peace the world over, and him sitting like a spider in the middle of that web of absolute observation, absolute enforcement.

Responsibility, yes: The way an alcoholic keeps himself away from an open bar.

I want to be dangerous.

It doesn't take a keen observer of human nature, or a trained detective, to see that sharpness, to hear the edge in Iso's voice when she says that. It's hardly an uncommon sentiment, especially in a world where veritable - and literal - gods have occasional dust-ups that most people can do as little about as they could a tornado. He watches from behind those white lenses as she laughs, as she looks away, but he knows she wasn't putting him on, there. He knows, too, that her followup explanation, about being able to work in peace, isn't the whole truth, either.

It doesn't seem like anger, or a desire for revenge… Just not wanting to be helpless. Not wanting to be in a situation again where some weirdo could try to transfer their mind into her body, and her a helpless guinea pig.

"The labs do have locks on the doors, you can just shut yours when you don't want to be disturbed," he says, half-jokingly. Admittedly, locks could stop precisely none of the rest of the Titans if they had a mind to get into the room. "But… If you want to be dangerous, Iso, I'll show you how to be dangerous. With your powers, without… You'd be surprised what you can do to somebody who's got superhuman strength or toughness with just regular strength. If I'm going to teach you, though, I need you to promise me that you'll follow the Rule."

He'd told her before, the day he brought her to the Tower: The Titans don't kill. He's worked with others who do, and he's done what he could to keep them from doing it, not always with much success, but this… This is different.

"Even without your ability, the things you're going to learn could take lives if you aren't careful. So… This is important."

If you want to be dangerous, Iso, I'll show you how to be dangerous.

Words loosed from his lips like an arrow, the point of which punches straight through her chest. A bullseye. She looks over her shoulder at him and it's all there in her subtle face: he could buy a great deal of loyalty from her for something like that, because there are some things she wants even more than to be cautious.

It would be easy to mistake the way that look changes — when he asks her, very reasonably, to promise something it should be easy to promise — as evidence of some buried, sinister nature. The way her expression turns suddenly neutral, watchful. The way she turns.

It's not sinister, though. Her tentative tilt backward against the line of her own recreated body is anything but wicked. Shoulders straight enough to level a painting by bend, her middle hollowed out as her spine curves forward and she pins her gaze to the ground.

"I did," she says, finally. She sounds every bit as collected as she did in the moments before that, whatever her body language might say to the contrary. "In Italy. Reader had second thoughts about selling me off…" For the first time, something unpleasant surfaces in her face. Not a sneer, but something chilly. Too little, too late, Reader. "Helped me escape, but they were chasing us down. They had these…" She gestures with one hand, meaninglessly. "Hoverbikes? Something like that. We made a bad choice, turned down the wrong side street. There was a dead end." The silence is a busy one, full of remembering.

Eventually she lifts her eyes, and there's something almost plaintive in that look, an expression foreign to so much else about her that it stands out at radical odds with the rest. Like she needs him to believe, even as she describes what she did, that she didn't want to. "I could feel hydraulics. Fuel lines. I…squeezed…" The urge to look away is powerful. Break eye contact. Only defiance keeps her from doing that. Defiance of the weakness that doing that would imply. "So they died."

With the barb plucked free by confession, the rest comes more easily. "Reader reversed time. Ten minutes, only. Enough that they weren't dead anymore, and we could…do something else. Find some other way. I never caused that explosion, in this timeline." She pushes an exhale through the faintest suggestion of a smile, but the smile is one of disbelief; there's nothing happy about it. "The world has become a very strange place for me in the last few months. Time travel. Mind-swapping…" Pause. "I don't think it changes what I did. It didn't happen, but I remember doing it."

There have been many times in his life where Red Robin has used the precise application of a pointed question or statement to provoke a deliberate response from someone. Words, carefully applied, can bring all sorts of artifice crashing down to expose the truth, to bring a target to confession, or realisation.

This is not one of those times, but in the interest of cultivating the right mystique, he keeps any surprise at the change in Iso's manner, and the subsequent admission, completely internal.

Most people, after all, would probably make that promise easily. Most people would abhor the idea of hurting someone, let alone killing them. Even in extremely stressful situations, it's just not something the average person's psyche is geared to do, in the modern world.

I did.

Despite her normal reserve, Iso becomes more demonstrative with that confession and the explanation that ensues, moving between visible displays of emotion. That touch of frost over Reader selling her to the Capo's men, the need to be understood, to be believed in her eyes when she looks up at him again, her eyes fixed on the featureless white lenses of his mask.

He can see it, there. The way it hurts her to admit it. To remember it. Even when she tells him of how Reader altered the flow of time, letting them go back to an earlier moment and make different decisions, go down a path that didn't lead to the deaths of those men.

There's something… Grim about Red Robin as he watches Iso while she speaks. Something implacable, as though he were entirely right to sit in silent judgment of her. Someone who had met the Batman would probably recognise it: Hidden behind the lenses of his mask, his dark blue eyes are as cold, as inhuman as the mask itself.

But he thinks about his conversation with Spider-Man, about blood on their hands, and the weight of the responsibility of it. He thinks about the icy burn of the cold, premeditated urge to kill he'd felt, at the things that had been done to Zatanna, his own private fear that he'd break the Rule in Ozone Park, and that he wouldn't care if he did… And the uncontrolled rage that had once, years before, led him to beat a man to what would have been death, were that man capable of dying.

Does he have any right to judge, really?

"It doesn't change it," Red Robin agrees. "Not for you, at least. You have to live with it, even if those men never remember. It means… It means you know what it's like, you know the danger. The consequences of power applied incautiously. So… Let's start from there."

The consequences of her power. Applied incautiously.

Leaned back in the most existentially bizarre way against an almost perfect imitation of herself, she looks at this inscrutable figure she's chosen to cast her lot in with and just…nods. Because what else can she do? She doesn't want to kill people. She made the choices she made about that disgusting pigeon incident explicitly because she wasn't sure she could control what she does enough to shepherd the kind of forces necessary to do what needed doing.

But…she meant to kill those men.

She said she didn't. The split-second afterward, when Reader grabbed her and threw them both to the side, horrified by the significance of what she'd just done, she said so, in Mandarin: I didn't mean to…!

But she did. She must have. What else could possibly have been the result of her decision, after all? Can she, of all people, claim ignorance? Swear she didn't know what an explosion of that magnitude would do…?

Well beyond the fact of what happened, it's knowing this about herself that lingers, goading. That she made that choice in a moment of terror, yes, but also wrath. She had good reasons to be that afraid, and that angry. And that's the worst of it: that something like that could ever feel justified.

"I promise." It seems important to actually say the words.

A few fraught moments of silence pass, after which she folds har arms over her ribs and tilts out of her lean again. She wasn't sure what to expect when she picked up the note asking her to check in on this floor, but a rambling detour through a series of surprisingly personal exchanges was certainly not on her list of guesses. Thinking about that causes a swell of self-awareness that makes her uncomfortable. Too much talking about herself, too quickly. Has it been an hour? It can't possibly have been, right?

"What's it like?" Barring the opportunity to begin a trial run of her costume concept, the best alternative is to turn things around on him, obviously. "Being a Bat…person?"

There is intent, Red Robin would say, and then there is intent.

The white-hot, desperate need to defend yourself against those who you know would do you harm… It's difficult to really blame someone for that. The path is a perilous one, and even the Dark Knight has faltered, surely, has come close to breaking the Rule, to crossing the line that should never be crossed. Even Nightwing, perhaps the purest heart among those who follow in the footsteps of the Bat. Even… Okay, Red Hood would be a bad example.

For all that they try to be a quasi-mythological symbol, to be a source of terror for the wicked and hope for the innocent… They're still only human, after all.

Silently, the vigilante watches Iso, too seasoned at investigation and interrogation to not let her stew a little, in case anything else shakes out. He's not upset with her, or even disappointed, but he is reevaluating her a little. Reconsidering exactly what she needs out of her experience in the Titans. How he can help her keep that promise.

The question that eventually follows provokes a wry grin from the masked young man. As redirections, perhaps not the smoothest… But he can't really blame her for the attempt.

"That's a very complicated question," Red Robin remarks. But, still… "Most of the time, it's a job of work. Batman's kind of a lot to live up to. Constant training, a carefully controlled diet… No super-metabolism or anything, and these costumes are not forgiving, as you no doubt noticed. It's pretty rough on the social life overall, too. Half the people I hang out with these days wouldn't recognise me if they walked past me on the street out of costume," he adds, half-jokingly.

"But, aside from that, and all the people who want to kill me, which is… Uh, a lot… The weird hours, occasionally getting mind controlled or stuck in a deathtrap, and the constant awareness that any mistake I make is going to cost lives… It's pretty good."

He says it's complicated, and she arches her brows in an eloquently amused expression that says, 'oh, really?' Facetious — because of course, it's complicated. Asking someone to sum their life up on the fly is difficult even for people whose day to day consists of the same things as everyone else, never mind someone whose life experiences are probably not fathomable to more than a few.

It may have been a deflection, but the curiosity that chose that question to deflect with is genuine, and the answers he gives her are weighed, each on their own merits, because although she may not have signed up to become a Batling…

One arm unfolds from over the other, the fingertips of that hand hovering near her lower lip and the dip of her chin just below it, a pensive posture. "I don't think I could do it," she decides, thoughtful, subdued. "Having a completely secret identity. The sacrifices someone in your position makes are for people — other people. It would be too difficult for me to sustain that dedication if I couldn't know them. As myself." Never satisfied with the easy answer, she directs her gaze toward the transfigured floor, dark eyes wandering spidering cracks in the pavement the way her thoughts wander branches of possibility. "I suppose it could make other things more difficult. But it's all difficult, isn't it? It's only a question of which problems you prefer to have to solve."

Eventually, her eyes lift again, her smile small and rueful for no immediately apparent reason. "At least you have the Titans, now. To see you." As though being seen mattered, in some way; as a real entity, and not a shadow or a myth that emerges from shadows to menace wrong-doers, evaporating into nothing again when the job is finished.

I don't think I could do it.

"It's difficult," he agrees. "I've lost friends, even in a few cases more than just friends, because of the mask. But they're alive. Nobody's come knocking on the doors of my loved ones because I foiled their evil scheme, or because they want to send a message or make a name for themselves." He's lost his family, yes - his mother, his father, his stepmother - but none of those were because he was Robin. The Obeah Man didn't care about the Boy Wonder when he kidnapped the Drakes to sacrifice them. The gunman who killed Jack Drake and Dana Winters-Drake had no clue they were connected to the Batman's sidekick.

"I imagine Spider-Man keeps his identity hidden for the same reason. I know that's why Wonder Girl wears the wig in the field. Impulse, Superboy, Fairchild… They've got their own reasons for not being as strict about it." Less to lose, he doesn't say. "And if we run into anybody who's a threat to Zatanna's family, we're in deep shit."

"But yeah, you're right," Red Robin says, with a small smile of his own. "The original Robin, he started the Titans with his friends, other sidekicks. People he didn't have to just hide in the shadows with. I used to have the same sort of thing, with Superboy and Impulse and Wonder Girl. Guess I kinda missed it."

Iso fits under that umbrella. 'Less to lose.' He doesn't say it, and she doesn't think it about the others, but she's aware in that moment of how it applies to herself.

Other people might find that solitude frightening, depressing. To have cut ties with everything she knew, letting her parents believe she'd perished in the detonation of their family home. But Iso — in spite of the very quiet twinge of guilt she feels and won't admit to — it feels like freedom. Finally.

Maybe that makes it more to lose?

"It seems like a good time to mention that I came here as a refugee in search of asylum because Ennilux still exists. The Capo was dying, and that's what made him so desperate to find a new body to inhabit, but he didn't die. It's very possible that Ennilux might one day discover where I've gone, and attempt to collect what they lost. Ennilux is…" Her mouth closes. She blinks slowly, watching him all the while, but her expression is impassive. "Powerful."

Two heartbeats later she turns her head to look behind her at the design for the costume still printing away in a nearby laboratory — one that very notably lacks a mask. "If you want me to, I'll wear a mask until Ennilux can be dealt with. …There's no guarantee they won't recognize me anyway, of course."

The description of Ennilux draws out something of a more pensive expression on the masked face of Red Robin, his head tilting slightly to one side as he considers this information. Obviously, aside from the Capo's need to inhabit a new body - still creepy - the group has resources and advanced technology. Their leader being called Capo is of course definitely suggestive of what kind of organisation it is. Unless it's actually the guy's name, he supposes. A rare surname, but not unknown.

Still, it's of a piece with everything else. Ninja mafia, wizard mafia. Why not an Inhuman mafia?

"The glow caused by your powers is pretty distinctive," he agrees, and once Iso has turned to look at the simulacrum of herself, he shifts so he can type on the projected keyboard in his left gauntlet again. The clay figure changes, the glow of those marks appearing over its face, the bare right arm. But also, the golem moves, lifting its hands to take hold of the hood of its costume, tugging that up over its head for cover. The motions are smooth, lifelike… But there's still that unshakable sense of strangeness, because unlike a person, it doesn't make any other movements. No shifting weight, no subtle changes of positioning, no breathing.

"We could try a more completely covering design, but do you want to wait for them? Alternatively, we can try luring them out. If this Capo still wants you, then not hiding, being yourself as one of the Titans, could force Ennilux's hand, and once they move we can deal with them." Confident, certain. Not in the typical way of youth… Not bluster and bravado, but the calm certainty of someone who knows what he's capable of, and what the people closest to him are capable of.

I'm pretty sure you can do anything you set your mind to, Tim, he'd been told, a few months ago.

He really hopes she was right, otherwise a lot of people are going to die.

"But it's up to you. If you want a mask, we can get you a mask. I promised you I'd teach you how to be dangerous… And you're a Titan now. You're one of us. We won't let them have you, Xiaoyi."

And yeah, of course he pronounces her name properly.

After offering to use her as bait.

It occurs to her for the first time, watching pale blue lights emerge across the bone structure of 'her' face and the line of 'her' exposed arm, to wonder just how it is that Red Robin is able to — seemingly on the fly — model her in such alarmingly acute detail. She had assumed the room used her present appearance to generate its model from, somehow; taken its readings of her and used them to put together that recreation. But the appearance of her — what are they, really? She's not sure; still doesn't know. Her lights — when she's not presently lit up that way throws her assumption into question.

It's probably not hard to infer that, given what he knows about her now, and the way she casts a thoughtful look at the gauntlet interface he used to call up the changes.

All of her speculation to that end is set firmly aside when he begins to speak again, because everything he says tugs at her heart. She's protective of those emotions and keeps them close; holding the Titans warily at arms' length seems prudent, all things considered, everything being so new and different. Moderating her expression is easy.

Mitigating her feelings is not. Everything he says means the same thing to her, in the end: you belong here. To have a place, and for it to fit well, amongst people she has things in common with?

"I just don't want anyone hurt for reasons that had nothing to do with them. You didn't know about any of this when you made your offer…maybe you would have thought twice before asking, if you did know." All of which is a long-winded, meandering way to express another sentiment entirely, and one he might have anticipated, as it's not uncommon to her culture of origin: "I won't be a burden on the Titans."

Like most things, it's more complicated than it first appears: The scans done in the forensics lab formed an excellent basis, along with the design work in the suit workshop. But there's also the multiple sources of footage from the East River incident, extrapolated on and synthesised into something more useful by the Tower's computers and Red Robin's own tinkering.

The details are probably not perfect. But they're good enough to be getting on with.

The Tower's computer is another toy that Iso will get to play with, now that she's on the team… And hopefully she won't accidentally start to give any of the systems a certain will of their own and feed them stacks of bad sword and sorcery fantasy fiction.

Maybe you would've thought twice before asking, if you didn know, she says. A reasonable assumption. I won't be a burden on the Titans.

That draws another chuff of amusement from the masked young man, who shakes his head ever so slightly.

"You'd better not be. It was harder to track you down than you think, with just some cameraphone videos to go by. Hate to think I went through all that to pick up some dead weight," he teases her, gently. "But, no. If I'd known you were in that sort of danger I would've made the offer just the same. That's what the Titans are for. You should ask Starfire about it, next time she's on Earth."

Again, the gauntlet interface… And the Mud Room starts to wind itself down into standby mode, the city surroundings turning back into the undifferentiated silicate mass, the simulacrum of Iso herself sloughing away to join it, which might be a bit macabre from her perspective.

"Now, let's go check on your suit. Then we'll run some mobility tests with you in it… See how you are with your physical conditioning while we're at it."

He smiles, but it's not that boyish smile, or the more reserved, small upturn of the corners of his mouth, or even something rueful. It's an expression that promises trouble.

"I know just the thing."

Next time she's on earth.

The notion that life exists beyond the surface of the earth is not precisely new, given what Reader was able to tell her about the Inhumans — specifically the royal family — during their time traveling together, before he left her at Ennilux. It still provokes a sense of muted wonder, though; marvel at how much wider the world is than she understood it to be even a handful of months ago.

Watching the Mud Room unmake itself is as fascinating as the reverse process, for entirely different reasons, and watching herself dissolve is disconcerting for predictable ones. It's the tone of his voice that arches her brow, dark eyes finding him to confirm what she thought she heard. The look on his face is more than enough.

Her expression flattens.

"I just bet you do," she says, suspicion laced through every word.

…But she still joins him, anyway, when he starts back the way they came. Game, at least, even if she appreciates that anything capable of making him look that cheshire is probably going to be ridiculous in at least one dimension, and by at least one definition of the word.

She does pause at the threshold of the room and look back into its now sedate, uniform depths, not without a stirring in her stomach, like the wings of a bird. That's a long way from the last time she's going to see what the Mud Room can do.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License