Zen and the Art of Bomb Disposal

July 05, 2018:

Three exhausted Titans discuss the Hell's Kitchen bombings. Ms. Marvel brought sandwiches.

The Mud Room, Titans Tower

Thanks to science nonsense, the room can look like anything!


NPCs: None.

Mentions: Daredevil, Impulse, Nico Minoru, Spider-Man, Zatanna Zatara


Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…


Some jerk blew up most of Hell's Kitchen. It has not, generally speaking, been great for anyone else.


The Titans, as a superheroic group with ties to New York's emergency services (and let's be real even if the authorities weren't keen on it, a certain someone would've been illegally monitoring emergency bands anyway) have of course been doing everything they can to help, from the night of the incident itself to the recovery operations in the days since. There's been a lot to do, but surely it's helped keep the already terrible number of dead from climbing higher still. Several of the more pathologically self-sacrificing members of the team have probably worked themselves ragged, by now… But probably Spider-Man is still out there slinging webs and trying to save anybody he can. Probably Zatanna is still out there using her tremendous magical power to heal those who can be pulled back from death's door.

Red Robin, on the other hand, is in the Tower. Specifically, he's in the Mud Room, currently modelling PS 35 in Hell's Kitchen, the same school he and Spider-Man saved thanks to a fortuitous bomb threat. He stands in what is clearly the dingy boiler room of an underfunded public school, in front of a bomb.

It's okay, it's not a real bomb, but a silicate recreation of the device currently fully disassembled in one of the labs downstairs. Because, since the cops seemed preoccupied with other things, he stole it.

As you do.

"Now, they had it set up here, so…" he mutters to himself as he paces around, rebuilding the crime scene from the data his suit recorded during the incident as well as his own prodigious memory. All in the hopes that he might find something that he missed before, maybe. Maybe.

Nearly everyone in the Titans is in some way or other inhumanly capable of going on for far too long without food or rest. The Inhumans and mutants and metahumans and the rest tend to come with extra stamina in the package.

There's plenty of rumors about Red Robin and his intensive training, but Kamala Khan is pretty sure he's pretty human and needs sleep and sandwiches as much as anyone else. Today and tonight? She's been up and moving for hours, running herself as ragged as the rest, but on the firm advice of her mother she is taking a little rest. 'Better that you get a full night's sleep and start fresh in the morning than work when you are so tired you make mistakes.' This is the sort of advice mothers give. It's probably pretty true.

So here she is. She spent the last hour in Hell's Kitchen delivering sandwiches to the heroes she could find as well as one of the food stations, and she's bringing the half-dozen rest to the Tower for the reinforcements to devour. She strides through, a satchel full of subs and Doom Dogs and water bottles at her hip, and when she hears where Red Robin has holed up, she heads for the door of the Mud Room.

Giving it a quiet knock, Kamala pushes the door open and peers around it into the modeled room beyond. The aroma of toasted bread follows her.

"Brain food?" she calls, stepping a little further in. "I'm making food deliveries before I crash." And she looks like the latter can't happen too soon. She's grimy and sweaty and in clear need of a shower and a sleep, or possibly falling asleep in the shower.

Like many of the others, Xiaoyi Chen — she's made it clear that she doesn't want people to call her that anymore, though; she's fully embraced her new name, Iso — has been in Hell's Kitchen for days. But unlike the rest of them, she hasn't been involved in any last-minute rescues, and she isn't using the powers she has to fix things, for very good reason in both cases.

For the most part, that reason boils down to this: she's still learning how to control what she does. When she isn't buried in textbooks, tearing her way through a collegiate curriculum at lightspeed in an effort to make up for an entire lifetime without free and easy access to information about the world around her, she's in the mudroom, or the gym, or watching footage of herself in both of those places, trying to get a handle on a very in-theory straightforward ability that, in practice, is not very straightforward at all.

She doesn't trust herself with it, yet. Certainly not in a disaster area like Hell's Kitchen, where some buildings gutted by detonations are precariously teetering on the brink of collapse. Too many things could go wrong. Too many people could go hurt.

So she's been helping in the only way she knows how: record-keeping for survivors and the dead, assisting government agencies in reuniting and relocating families, distributing supplies, feeding people. Shoveling things, today. With her bare hands, and a shovel. Whatever's needed.

She did eventually need a shower, though. Her hair is still damp when she rounds a corner just in time to spot Kamala disappearing into the mudroom, and that fragrance makes her stomach growl, a reminder that she's not eaten in- god. How long?

So she follows, hopeful.

It's always fascinating to someone like Red Robin - ever an observer of people, ever keen to study something new - how different people respond to the idea of of the superheroic alias. For someone like himself or, say, Spider-Man he's pretty sure, the concept is a matter of necessity, creating a safe distance between themselves and their heroic alter ego. Others, like Impulse or Superboy, don't play so strictly with that division… Others, like Zatanna or Nico, don't bother with it at all.

But then you have the case of Iso, who has rebranded herself entirely, leaving behind the Xiaoyi Chen she'd never really wanted to be back in her native country.

It's still the name on the fake paper trail Red Robin helped create for her though. The DMV probably wouldn't license 'Iso', no matter what her (new, fake) birth certificate said.

Perhaps it's an Inhuman thing, he's considered. Shedding her human name with her human life. But then there's Ms. Marvel, who gamely tries to keep a secret identity even if she maybe isn't always the best at it.

The thoughts flit through his tired mind as first Kamala and then Iso enter the Mud Room, watching them with his eyes completely hidden behind the white lenses of his domino mask. It helps other him, distance him. It hides any of the tiredness there.

"Food's probably a good idea," he allows. He's pretty sure he ate a few hours ago, probably. It was definitely today. "Better give Iso some too, I can hear her stomach from here." He can't. Probably. Right?

Ms. Marvel is good at lots of things. Keeping a secret identity is not one of them, but it might be because… well, she wants to have these people in her life. Maybe not showing up on her doorstep to frighten her folks, but… as much as she knows it's sensible to keep her heroics at a strong remove from her personality, she's never been great at deception.

One sandwich half — it's supposed to be a 'six-inch' but this thing is ten inches if it's one — wrapped in butcher paper is lobbed toward Red Robin. "I get mean when I'm hungry," Ms. Marvel says, "and I really don't want to see you mean."

She turns then, brightening when she sees the other Inhuman. "Hey, Iso! What flavor sandwich would you like? I dunno if you're vegetarian or not; either way, the roasted veggie is really good."

The cheerful facade is a little cracked, though. She's seen some stuff today in Hell's Kitchen that she never hoped to. Iso too, probably. They were able to save many, but not all could have been saved, not even if she'd been there when the bomb went off. Coping. Being practical. That's the structure helping her today. But she watches Iso with concern nevertheless; how's she taking all this?

"You're being creepy again," Iso tells Tim offhandedly, when he mentions her stomach. Without much in the way of accusation, it ought to be said; like she is, at this point, just in the habit of calling him out on it when he does that thing that he does — inferred from trace evidence or actually the product of monitoring, who knows? Either way.

"You're-" A lifesaver, she almost tells Kamala, and then draws up short. Too soon. Way too soon. "You're my favorite person right now," she says instead, words that have a ring of authenticity. "Roasted veggie sounds great."

By comparison with Tim and the others, Iso looks practically unphased by the recent catastrophe, though that could mean anything. She tends to look unaffected by most things.

Someone else might dance around the issue. Iso, after she reaches the other two and gives a curious sidelong look at the mud room's present configuration, turns her attention to them, instead, assessing openly. "How are you guys holding up?"

The suggestion that he's being creepy produces a helpless shrug from Red Robin. Though he doesn't actually try to defend himself from the claim, either. Some people just don't like you noticing things like that. Or just guessing and making jokes about it.

He's not about to say which, though. Gotta protect the mystique.

The tossed sandwich is caught, though he honestly has difficulty picturing Ms. Marvel as 'mean'… Though one supposes that if anything could manage it, it would be getting hangry.

"I'm fine," is the automatic answer from the Red Knight, when Iso asks how they're holding up. It's unlikely that he'd give any other answer, even if he was laying on the ground bleeding to death: It's his job to worry about other people, not vice versa. Besides, where he comes from, showing weakness can be extremely dangerous.

"Just keeping busy," he hedges, looking around at the silicate-created replica of the boiler room of PS 35 while he unwraps his sandwich. "Something this indiscriminate, of this scale… It doesn't happen a lot, even in Gotham. Whoever's behind it is a complete monster."

Roasted vegetable is handed to Iso, along with a bag of potato chips and a bottle of water. For the truly hungry and thirsty and exhausted, the first few bites might just make them feel like their blood's flowing again.

"That's everyone, then," Kamala says, "and just in time, because if I had to carry these sandwiches around any longer without eating them it was going to be… really… bad."

Brain functions fail. She starts on a Doom Dog and heads over to offer chips and water to Red Robin. "I'm beat," she admits. "And I'm not going to lie: I always feel like a real jerk when I leave. Like I'm not carrying my weight, like there's people who can do ten times what I can. The secret is working so hard and so long that you just can't think anymore come bedtime."

She looks Tim over. Looks over at Iso. In a glance: of course he's lying, but what can you expect? A mild shrug.

"Why Hell's Kitchen, though? Someone with a vendetta against the people who keep bases there? But this is just like you said: entirely indiscriminate. Not remotely subtle. Beyond messed up."

Iso's expression of relief as she accepts what she's given is more theatrical than she's usually given to being, often so outwardly reserved. She clutches it against her chest. "Thanks, M."

Red's working, but Iso seems prepared to picnic in the basement of a school riddled with undetonated bombs, because she sinks down to kneel, then plants a palm and twists around to sit on the floor, delicately picking at the tape on the sandwich wrapper. Fastidious, always. Except with pigeons, one supposes.

She glances up in time to catch that look, and smiles blandly. "Yeah," she agrees, an out-loud answer to an unspoken exchange. "It's really more about how he says it than what he says."

No preserving her own mystique, clearly. If she has any. She probably doesn't.

She's chewing when that question gets asked, but she seems more interested in whatever thoughts the team leader might have about it, anyway, and ticks dark eyes up that way, expectant.

Microsleep. Esoteric meditative techniques. There's a variety of methods Red Robin knows for curtailing his need to waste precious hours properly sleeping, though of course even those just delay the inevitable. After a few days, even those techniques can't stave off the deleterious effects of lack of sleep. He made it two weeks, once, in a particularly trying situation the previous year.

Incidentally, having your ex-girlfriend literally force you to go to sleep on threat of violence isn't something you ever want to have happen.

"That's the problem with the job, it never feels like enough," he agrees around a mouthful of sandwich, his back towards the two young women as he looks curiously up at some seemingly random point on the ceiling. "But somebody once told me that you're not going to be able to help anyone if you get your brain bashed out in an alley somewhere." For the curious, he's very fond of double standards like that. Of course he can work himself to death, but heaven forfend anyone else do it.

No prize for guessing who he learned that one from.

Why Hell's Kitchen, though?

"That's a big money question. Why do it? A terrorist organisation would've taken credit for it… That's the whole point of a terror bombing. No, this was… Thorough. Someone expended an enormous amount of resources to wipe an entire neighbourhood off the map. The bombs, the manpower to set them all up, to keep anyone from noticing… It's not a statement, it's just…" He gestures, vaguely, with one hand. "A means to an end. Unfortunately, nobody's been very forthcoming about what end."

"Well, once we rule out the impossible…" Kamala shakes her head. "Which we can't, because we don't know what's impossible. For all we know, they were all set by one person who can be in five places at once."

She subsides into chewing for a while, washing down the last mouthful of Doom Dog with a swig of water. "So if it wasn't a terror bombing, then maybe the targets were specific. Or meant to send a message, but not one for everyone to understand. Or…"

She shrugs a little with a tired smile. "You have the brain for this sort of thing." She goes to sit down next to Iso, looking to her: "Any thoughts?"

Still chewing, Iso's been moving her attention from one of them to the other, back and forth, as she efficiently puts away bites of the sandwich in her hands. She tracks Kamala's approach with a faint smile — just friendly — but it wanes when she's asked directly.

Once she hasn't got food in her mouth anymore, she draws a long breath, exhales slowly, rolling her thoughts over the possibilities. "Plenty of theories," she says, only for her expression to tilt into apology. "Too many, though. And I've only been in New York for a year. There are a lot of factors here that I understand only in an academic sense. It takes time to develop context."

She lets her brows knit, reaching with one hand to sift her fingers through the short-cut, dark hair on the undercut side of her head. "It's a shame. I understand that neighborhood was one of the last bastions of affordable housing in the city. I doubt the people living there have the money to rebuild."

There's a quiet grunt from Red Robin at the suggestion it was handled by someone able to be in multiple places at once. Teleportation, maybe. Superspeed, perhaps. The scope of it though…

"We need more to work with than just this. I'm trying to trace the bomb components, there'll probably be a lot of records to look through. Searching for purchasing irregularities, weird bulk orders…" It's not the sort of thing that's fun, even for someone trained as a detective like him, but that's the job sometimes. Sometimes it's big and exciting investigations, and sometimes it's combing through enormous amounts of data to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. It would be far simpler if somebody had taken credit for it. A proper supervillain speech, holding the city hostage if their demands aren't met, that sort of thing. No, it seemed more like someone just trying to get a job done.

I doubt the people living there have the money to rebuild.

Red Robin goes still. Completely, eerily motionless. He remembers, a year ago, essentially bribing Jessica Jones' landlady to ensure that the PI was able to avoid eviction. Paying for some simple repairs to the building through a shell game of companies so nobody would ever know Tim Drake had any interest in some run down apartment building in Hell's Kitchen.

Slowly, he turns to look at Iso.

"I must be going loopy from sleep deprivation," he says. "The idea of gentrification by mass bombing just popped into my head." He scrubs one hand over his face, before shaking his head. Who would do something like that? Who could be that cold blooded? "Could be somebody in Washington trying to manufacture excuses to throw their weight around, with how fast the DEO got here…"

When you've eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however completely insane and monstrous, might actually have happened.

"Wipe it all clean and start anew," Ms. Marvel says. She shudders. "People say that about Jersey City all the time. What they always mean is 'get rid of the poor people and make things shiny and cost two and a half times more.' I mean, if it's anything like the rest of the city, most of the people who actually live there don't own their own property. They rent. And those properties get sold around all the time, and half the time or more, nobody living there knows anything about it. I guess, if someone owned a bunch of property and then blew it up, they could claim insurance and also not have to deal with the messy business of evicting people from rent-controlled apartments and forcing them to move. But it would have to be someone _seriously_ monstrous."

A beat. "…Not unlike many of the people who own property in Hell's Kitchen," she admits.

"The usual forensics," Iso agrees glumly, of all of those backtraces on bomb components. It's standard procedure. In law, and for Red, too. He's just so much better funded than the police.

When he says what he says about gentrification, she actually laughs. It's a full heartbeat before she realizes he wasn't kidding, and Ms. Marvel backs him up on that, the combination of the two putting a very solid crease between Iso's brows. "You're serious," she says, in a tone of wonder. And then, as is usually the case, she stops to think about it, and tilts her head. "There are so many problems with that, though. If somebody owned everything, the numbers would totally work out, no doubt. As expensive as that was to do, the real estate…" Impatient, she leaves that end of things abandoned half-stated, waving a hand. "But nobody owns all of Hell's Kitchen. How would you guarantee you could be the one to profit in the aftermath? Who has enough shell companies and holding companies and-" Another impatient wave of her hand, "-to snap it all up without the government, which is definitely very angry, from noticing? It would be like holding up a sign that says, 'I did this.'"

"Gotham, too," Red Robin concurs, when Ms. Marvel admits the sorts of things that are said about Jersey City; Iso's laughter isn't surprising, he finds the idea fairly ridiculous himself… But it's not impossible, just incredibly unlikely. And 'not impossible, but incredibly unlikely' is pretty much where he lives, so maybe he shouldn't be in a rush to dismiss it.

"It might not be one person, if that's the case. A cabal of landowners banding together in hopes of replacing the dive bars and bodegas with Starbucks and artisanal crepe shops. But no, you're right, Iso. It's a lot of moving parts. Maybe too many moving parts. I mean…" His free, non-sandwich-bearing hand tilts palm up and wobbles slightly from side to side, as though he were weighing something. Too many moving parts. Too many missing parts for them to go fabricating a motive out of whole cloth. But the bombs were clearly designed to render the buildings unusable. Not just to damage them, not just to kill the people inside, but to demolish them. But what about the bomb threat? Was it a coincidence? Did someone have an attack of conscience? He needs to get a copy of the threat.

"Of course, there's somebody else who can profit from this than just landowners raking in insurance," he muses out loud. "Somebody's going to get paid a lot of money to rebuild Hell's Kitchen."

"I was just thinking that. Right—you get, say, four or six rich jerks together in a room with, I don't know, do they still do cigars and cognac? Either way. Just bomb the heck out of it, blame… blame Daredevil, probably, or gangs, or us, or something, but you don't have to go through city hall to get your demolition orders because it's all already gone. Rake in the insurance money, then pay yourself to rebuild. By the time there's a fusion diner on every corner, nobody's going to be looking at you because you brought Hell's Kitchen back from the dead, and you'll have plenty of cabbage to spend on quieting down the investigation."

Kamala shakes her head in disgust. "Oh jeez, I hope it's not that. I'd like to have a little more faith in humanity."

Silent now, Iso has that look on her face, gradually edging out the horror and distaste of actually considering what they're talking about — not as a thought-problem, but as a possible reality. The pensive, problem-to-solve look is slowly winning out, pushing the reality aside. After a beat, she dusts her hands and folds the sandwich up in the paper again, rising in one smooth movement. "I'm going to go look up some numbers," she says, words as vague as words can be, but she reaches out as though to lightly touch Ms. Marvel's shoulder in passing. "Thanks again for the food. I owe you one."

And with only one backward glance at Red — probably meant to signal something like, keep me posted — she disappears without any fanfare or further farewells.

Do they still do cigars and cognac?

"Sometimes," is the absent response from Red Robin, who probably knows from a long history of busting up mob meetings when he was the Boy Wonder. It's not all murder clowns and various themed weirdos, after all. There's still plenty of old-fashioned crime in the City of Yesterday, even if it's been largely crowded out by the never-ending Halloween.

"It's just a theory," he assures Ms. Marvel in the end, though what resonates more to him these days is the way Iso approaches it as a problem, something distant and manageable instead of a visceral, immediate reality. As a younger man, he would've gotten caught up in it the way Ms. Marvel has, to be sure. But time and tide have made him more like some of his more aloof role models. A necessity of the job, maybe.

"Guess it's caught Iso's imagination, though. All we can do right now is work the details… Follow the threads without worrying about if we like the answers or not. But if you're worried about faith in humanity, well, look at all the people out there helping. Which includes yourself," he adds to the stretchy superheroine. "Might not feel like it in the moment, but you're doing a lot. If even one person is better off because of what you're doing, that's a win."

"I know," Ms. Marvel says, but she's quick to add: "But I need to hear it sometimes. Thank you."

She gets up, stretches — which is quite the show — and rubs her face.

"Hey, here's a really weird question," she continues, heading back to stand next to her teammate. Team leader. Next to Red Robin, who she has a little plastic figure of in her still-existing toybox. "Can you show me how to defuse a bomb? I feel like it's regrettably going to be useful information for me."

Why? Why now? Maybe because working on something that _can_ be solved, can be known, is comforting when there's so much that can't.

'Really weird question' could mean a lot of things. There's plenty of really weird questions that Red Robin would of course have to just brush off because they probably have extremely dangerous answers. Maybe it's something personal. What if she's going to ask him if like… Bart has a girlfriend, or something?

Can you show me how to defuse a bomb?

Oh, thank god.

"That's not a weird question," the vigilante replies, which is the simple and frankly unsettling truth. "We can cover some of the basics, at least. One of the nice things about the Mud Room is we can easily make practice bombs. Honestly, you'll probably be good at it, you can get into tight spaces a lot more easily than most people, after all. Did you want to start now?"

He gestures at the mockup of the bomb from the school.

"Though you might wanna be better rested, first."

That's not weird. Yeah. It's not weird at all.

Kamala sighs, rubbing her face with one hand. "You're right, I know. But I want to at least watch, if that's okay. If you can just talk through what you're doing, I might not actually understand it all but…" But it'll occupy her brain while she falls asleep, and it's a healthier brain-occupier than other more likely ones.

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