Pietro Mancini is a teen genius. At age 14, he sold his design for a plasma conduction and confinement system to a major corporation - his mother's, in fact. The invention has saved manufacturers around the world hundreds of millions of dollars. Well worth it. Since then, he has done an excellent job convincing his peers that he's made other inventions of similar consequence. One of these days, he knows he'll do it again. Thanks to his father's shrewd financial advice, he's invested his earnings and able to live off the interest in the meantime. One of his projects has been the Plasma Power Suit. It can't fly (the confinement fields interfere with the suit sensors), but it can make rocket-assisted jumps. It's heavy, and it's gonna have spikes, and he solved the excess plasma leakage by venting to the helmet. It heats up the helmet pretty fast, but he can take it off to let people see his face, and it forms this totally sweet flame crown. That's metal. He's also got plasma-venting weapons in the forearms, so he can shoot flamethrowers, and he can vent plasma all around the suit to burn up anyone or anything that grabs him. He built the suit, hired a small staff to maintain it, and put out a press release. He was confident that one of the teen super-teams in town would snap him up. Since then, he's waited. And waited. And waited. In the meantime, he's found popularity comes naturally to people with his accomplishments. At Gardner Academy, the women are practically throwing themselves at him! ---- Angelica isn't particularly interested in Pietro Mancini personally. He's like an overeager puppy dog that isn't licking your face only because you threw his favorite chew toy across the room. When she and her closest friends want to go somewhere, they get him to pay for it. His buttons aren't hard to push - just flatter him, or suggest a new place he can show off his inventions or his money. Still, she feels bad for him. There's a legitimate earnestness, a neediness at the heart of him, that touches her heart as a child of privilege. He's not a boyfriend, not a friend, not an ally, but a project. Some of this is self-defense. Pietro insists on inflicting his personality on the group during a classy social occasion. It would be nicer to have a gentleman escort with both means and taste. Angelica researched men's style advisors in Halcyon City. She's asked him to come to "her usual sources" of haute couture, made sure he arranged the appointment first, and then quietly explained the arrangement to the clothiers and asked them to play along. And to her credit, she's made some progress on him. She watches with amusement as he approaches Leo Snow at lunch, swaggering the way only a sophomore does. He actually stands there, waiting to be recognized like royalty. When Snow doesn't respond, he actually introduces himself as "the Plasma Prince". Oh my god. Has he made no progress after all? Was he just been bottling up all this gauche masculinity? There's a perverse satisfaction at seeing Leo Snow give him as little regard as he gave Angelica herself. She can hear snatches of the conversation, and fills in most of it with her imagination. Here's how it goes in her mind. Pietro: "Hey there. You're on the Menagerie. Well, I'm the Plasma Prince! I'm going to join your team." Leo: "Uh, hi. Nice to meet you. I don't think we're looking for anyone else right now." Pietro: "But I have a sweet suit of power armor!" Leo: "So do I." Pietro: "But I have a bunch of money! I crap Benjamins!" Leo: "Well I have these two hot girls sitting next to me, and they're Menagerie groupies who'll do anything we say, so I don't need your money." Pietro: "Damn you! Well, I have a classy girlfriend!" Leo: "You mean that chick whose name I forgot, the one you're about to run off to? I don't care." Pietro: *cries* After that scene, Pietro wandered his way around to Angelica's table, and sat down in a huff. "That impudent would-be. Who does he think he is?" "Leader of the Menagerie?" ventures Angelica? Watching his face, she realizes this was the wrong answer. Pietro pounds a fist on the lunchroom table. The silverware doesn't budge. "I'll show that punk!" Angelica feels an opportunity. She remembers things she's seen, heard, and surmised. Snow is on a team with Jason Quill, Harry Gale, an alien, and a ghost. Snow has been observed acting like a team leader, though the team seems to headquarter at the Quill compound. The white-haired twins who always sit by each other, and near to Leo, are clearly sisters. Summer and Aria Newman. Angelica heard something that sounded quite damning, about one of them and Jason Quill. Later, one of her clique reported seeing Jason waving awkwardly but eagerly at the girl with the long hair - Summer. So it's her. And Leo had abruptly approached one of the new girls, the pretty Chinese transfer student, and just sat down with her. Prior to that, nobody had seen them speak. Angelica knows she's not a Halcyon High South transfer, either. Angelica's source said they seemed sort of combative-flirty, like two people sparring with each other, and she watched him for several moments after he walked away. And at lacrosse, there's been two girls who seem to be watching Leo play, specifically. So in short, Leo seems to have two groupies, one of which has a thing going on with Jason. Plus, he's got these other girls that he'll just shamelessly flirt with and acquire. It's positively scandalous. Angelica has already been talking to her clique about the situation. She was quite unhappy with Leo's cavalier dismissal, and maybe some of that resentment has bled out in her conversation. And maaybe some of those girls have been telling stories about the Newman girls? Given the choice of Pietro - dull, but well-heeled - and Leo - uninterested and clearly not a man of means - Angelica reluctantly realizes she'd rather stick with Pietro. How, then, to avenge this insult to the dignity of both people Leo has ignored? She smiles sweetly across the table at Pietro. "I think I can help you." More to come soon.
Summer's not stupid. Aria knows this. She just seems more tolerant of people doing annoying or questionable things. Maybe it's the coffee shop job. But it's still a little frustrating to have to be the one to point out the gossips, whispering behind their hands, tittering as the girls walk past, and watch Summer's open and trusting face react to the news. "But we haven't done anything," Summer whispers, during a quiet conference in the hall. "We don't have to. People will talk for any reason or none," Aria points out. "Well sure, but is it just because we're new? There's been more directed at us than other transfers." Thank god she noticed. She's just.. being super nice about it. Aria smiles gently. "I see your point. Okay, let's do a little digging." Aria finds an opportunity during indoor volleyball. The teacher is elsewhere, so the class is playing practice matches. There's one particular girl who's been whispering and gesturing, with what must be the poor creature's idea of subtlety. Now, she's on the other side of the net. With a bored look on her face, Aria spikes the ball directly into her, every - single - time. It's not even fair. At the end of the match, the young lady, wounded in spirit if not in body, marches angrily over to have the inevitable confrontation. Aria is prepared. She bought a Hydro Flask water bottle specifically for this occasion. It was 23 whole dollars. What it will hopefully buy - peace of mind - justifies the expenditure. "What's your fucking problem, you bitch?!" the girl demands. At that moment, the conversation takes a decided shift in tone, for two reasons. The first is that Summer has stepped up behind Volleyball Girl, visibly positioned to cut off her escape. The second is that Aria effortlessly crushes the stainless steel bottle in one hand. The rasp of tortured metal, and a girl squeaking in fear, are the only two sounds for a moment. "I think that's our line," Aria declares flatly. ---- Volleyball Girl is ready to listen to reason. She even gave up a name: Angelica. It's vaguely familiar to both sisters. They have a brief chat in front of their thoroughly cowed informant: "That one who came over to Leo that one time?" "Yeah, Miss Anything-I-can-do-for-you." The Newman sisters turn back to Volleyball Girl, because she's saying something else. "Listen. Listen, please just don't hurt Angelica." She sounds plaintive, helpless. The girls look at each other. "We don't want to hurt anyone," Aria says sincerely. "We just don't want people talking behind our backs." Volleyball Girl looks doubtfully at the crushed canteen. Maybe that was a little gratuitous , Aria thinks. Summer steps in, with those customer-service skills she's been practicing, and with Pneuma's natural charm. "It's okay, I promise my sister won't do anything. We're going to talk to Angelica, and ask her to stop talking about us. So please, won't you help us?" A thought occurs to Aria. "What is this story that is going around anyway?" Volleyball Girl tells them. The two girls stare at her, open-mouthed in shock. Then they look at each other. Back to her. Back to each other. And simultaneously, they start to laugh. Like a fresh mountain stream bubbling down a hill, the whole idea is a font of irrepressible amusement. Volleyball Girl is increasingly weirded out. "What? Stop that! That's creepy, you guys! Why are you laughing? That's not supposed to be funny!" Aria glances back at her, tries to stop the laughter for a moment, and utterly fails. She and Summer collapse back into peals of gaiety. Thanks to Volleyball Girl's willingness to narc, the sisters have a few more names to get to first. After a few more interviews, they have learned two things. First, the rumors are pretty consistent, supporting a single source rather than a long grapevine. Second, the girls all have the same things to say about their idol. The two sisters have heard just enough to feel confident that Angelica is the sort of girl who'd both get presents from boys, and be flattered enough to keep them around for awhile. Summer pitches a plan, which Aria finds bizarre at first, but finally approves. ---- Angelica walks into her club room to find a curious gift. It's some kind of metal oval, gently floating in place. Honestly, it mostly looks like someone somehow turned a flower vase inside out. But there's a collection of glowing roses, hovering freely in the air, slowly orbiting a central shaft that juts from the top of the oval. Angelica touches them experimentally and finds her hand going straight through. A holographic bouquet? It's the sort of gratuitously high-tech gift a Gardner boy would build. It's not from Pietro - he would have presented it personally, and waited for praise. There is, of course, a note. It is, of course, unsigned. The handwriting is nice, neat - a steady hand. Well, they have that going for them, she thinks. She reads the note itself, then reads it a second time. It's clearly somebody's fumbling composition, not something with actual polish and talent behind it. It's hokey, and forced, and touchingly earnest. Good, they didn't just plagiarize something off the Internet. I was worth an original, if awful, poem. Classes are over. Club isn't happening today. Angelica has nothing else going on at school. Now comes the moment she dreads. Glowing vase in hand, she walks to the front of the academy, and waits. The car that pulls up is nice. Angelica shares her taste for the finer things in life with her parents. Unfortunately, that's where the resemblance ends. She opens the door and climbs in quickly, before Mom can embarrass her, the way she did in middle school, with that braying "AAAANGIEEEEE!" The ride home is as embarrassing as it always is. Angelica holds the the vase in her lap, and clutches the sweet and stupid note, as her mom just goes on and on and on. It's all real estate and "your aunts" and pointless prattling about family business. Angelica hates what her mother does, and what it's done to her mother. Halcyon City's real estate market is like some cutthroat gladiatorial arena. People move here for the opportunity to cash in on the high-tech industry and bustling culture. People move out after the first couple super-battles in their neighborhood. Sometimes they stick around, and their neighborhood or workplace is damaged and things have to be rebuilt. In the meantime, they need a new place to stay… The story is always the same, and Angelica is so tired of hearing it. But Mom keeps telling it, because Mom loves being a gladiator. Mom wants Angelica to become another her - a perfectly coiffed sales droid, someone who'll bend over backwards for the buyer, kissing ass for commission. Of course, actual helpfulness is only for the customers. Sales is cutthroat. Mom always smiles, always, even when she's plotting to steal leads from her coworkers or sabotage someone else's attempt to close. And the worst part is, it works. Mom makes good money. Angelica swore to herself she'd never be this woman, no matter what it took. Even if it took spending time with boys like Pietro, rather than accepting Mom's financial help. "Angie, sweetie, that's a lovely bunch of roses, but oh my, did somebody make that thing in shop class? I mean honestly, what is that? But it's so sweet if some boy did that for you, isn't it sweetie? Angie, honey, do you know who gave it to you? Oh, there's a note isn't there, I hope they signed it. When I was your age, boys would always do sweet things like that for girls they liked, there was none of this 'bae' and 'side piece' silliness, kids were proper boyfriend and girlfriend, and that's how I met your father, he was such a hopeless case but he meant well, Angie, are you listening? Angie, Angie, Angie…" Angelica is near tears by the time she gets home. Life is hard, and unfair. ---- Angelica's room is her sanctuary. None of her friends have ever been here, and no one ever will. This is the one place she can really feel at ease. The mask of princess she wears at school, the polite face she shows her mother, can both be hung up when she comes home and shuts the door. She goes through her routine. Bathe, look after her hair, read her magazines, check things online. Her phone is glued to one hand, letting her stay fully connected to her social networks. Time passes. Day becomes night. She finally slips into bed, leaving her computer on. The glow of the monitor is like a night light, keeping the darkness away, a comforting reminder that there's a world beyond the stifling nouveau riche atmosphere of the house. Only when Angelica is fully asleep does the vase start to levitate. The flowers flicker into nothingness, replaced by an image of Summer Newman. She approaches the still-active PC. Thank god I didn't have work today. Now let's see what we have here... ---- Angelica finds the twins waiting for her the next morning. "What can I do for you ladies?" she asks, innocently. Aria is ready. "The Prince and the Angel," she says. Angelica's face loses color. Aria begins to recite. "The young Mr. Gale raised his hand to my face. His fingers were strong, but supple. For a man who could move as fast as he did, he was patient--" Angelica screeches. "ShutupshutupSHUTUP." Her voice lowers. "How did you get that?" Aria shrugs, and beckons. "Come with us." The three girls find a side room, somewhere they won't be disturbed. "It seems like you making up stories. Like that fanfic. And like this business about Summer, and Jason Quill." Aria shakes her head. "Why would you tell people this stuff?" Angelica looks uncomfortable, and stays silent. Aria answers for her. "I think you gossip because it gives you a group. It gives you something to all be together. Which is a shame. Every girl we talked to spoke about you in glowing terms, like you're a princess. You help them with homework, fashion, boyfriends. You give them good advice, and it works out. You actually are a kind, loving person, except for spreading rumors about people who did nothing to you." Angelica looks away. Aria isn't sure what's going on in her head, but it's clear that nobody's ever really said this to her before. Summer chimes in. "Jason and I are friends, but only friends. There's a girl that he likes, and even if I was trying to date him, I wouldn't stand a chance. Neither would anyone else. If you asked him out, and he didn't seem interested, I don't think it was you." That's more polite than I would have been, reflects Aria. Summer goes on. "We took some of your secrets, to get your attention. But I'd rather be friends. So, we're going to share one of our secrets with you." She holds up her shirt, exposing her bare belly. Aria sees Angelica's eyes widen and zoom in - looking for a bump, or scars, or something, maybe? But certainly she does not expect to see what actually happens. Summer's drone undocks from her body, floats free for a moment, then reconnects. To her credit, Angelica connects the dots quickly. "You…. You're… That vase? You're a cyborg? A robot?" Leo Snow, the Menagerie robotics expert, is associated with these girls... "Ah! He - he - he built you! Are - are both of you..?" Summer smiles. "We're both artificial humans. But we're still people. We think, we speak, we have our own hopes and dreams." Her voice grows softer and sadder. "And we have feelings that can be hurt. Angelica, you're hurting us. Why are you doing this?" Angelica is silent for long moments. Aria can read thoughtfulness, regret, and anger on her face. "It's your - it's your boyfriend?" She's suddenly uncertain. "Is he your boyfriend? He was rude to me and my friends." The girls smile at each other. Aria speaks up. "He loves us. And we both love him. But only one of us is dating him right now. It's…. It's complicated. He's got quite a lot on his mind as well. I don't think he was intentionally being rude. You can ask him to apologize. I'm sure he'll understand. But what you did was not the right way to make things right. I think you know that." Angelica's pride is still visibly hurt. Aria guesses that she wants to associate herself with people of privilege and power. That includes the known teen supers at Gardner. And when they shut her out... Aria lays a hand on her shoulder. "We'll help you talk to him, if you want. I know you can keep secrets… 'Angie'. Now you have a real secret about us. We're trusting you to keep it. So please, will you stop spreading these stories about us?" Pride speaks for Angelica, but it says what the Newmans want to hear. She regains her poise, puts her game face fully on. "Well, I certainly don't know who might have spread such horrid stories, but if I hear them repeated, I'll put a stop to it immediately. Is that satisfactory?" Aria smiles warmly. "That would be wonderful." Summer chimes in. "You know, if you want to talk to the guys in the Menagerie, please just.. just talk to them normally. You don't have to pretend. Just be yourself. Your friends think you're a real sweetheart. And if you don't see the boys at school, come to Blintzkrieg! I've been trying to get them to show up there more often. Okay?" "Okay." A thought occurs to Angelica. "Um. This sounds weird, but.... which one of you wrote that note?" Aria and Summer look at each other. Aria grins. "Leo did, actually. A long time ago. Well, not that long, I guess." Angelica blinks. Words come, and she considers them before speaking. "It was... It was terrible." "It was. It really was," admits Summer. The three girls smile, and then begin to laugh, together. ---- Angelica walks away, examining her feelings. Those two got one over her on her, in a big way. She doesn't resent it. In fact, she's grateful for it. What real estate is for Mom, gossip turned into for me. It made me a gladiator in a bloodthirsty arena. It made me what I hate. They said I was a princess. They said my friends think I'm a princess. They showed me kindness too, after I said those things. What have I been doing all this time? She's not sure she has an answer yet. But there's a warm feeling in her heart, that maybe she's not fated to be her Mom after all.