"Hey cutie! Nice rack!"
Beautie's face doesn't change expression, and her body doesn't stiffen--of course not--but Mike can tell she heard it. Next to him on her flowered beach towel, his sister Cara shoots him a concerned look, then gives Beautie a quick pat on her inflexible hand.
"Hey, why doncha smile, huh? You'd be prettier if you smiled--I bet you got a nice smile!"
Beautie (who cannot smile, whose face is permanently frozen in its state of wide-eyed quiescence) re-arranges her designer beach throw across her shining thighs and asks Cara another question about her job.
The yelling man adds something under his breath that Mike can't hear clearly, but he suspects that Beautie can. Cara scrambles to her feet, her fists bunched. "Now listen up, you--"
"It is all right, Cara," Beautie says, her lovely voice even. "I am used to it. I appreciate your concern. Truly." She tilts her head to the side, a motion that is her equivalent of a smile. "But I am made of ferrostyrene on a omnitanium frame, and not so fragile that the taunts of an insecure little man can harm me."
The yelling man shuts his mouth and slinks off, looking annoyed and chagrined. But there will be others, Mike knows it.
"Coming to the beach was a bad idea," Cara says. "We should have stayed in and watched movies." Lately they've been working their way through the classic MGM musicals; Beautie loved the array of glamour and glitz, the elaborate dance numbers, sparkling bodies arranged into a spectacle.
"But I do not always wish to stay inside, and neither do you, my friends," says Beautie. She stands up, rising gracefully to her tiptoes as always, feet slanted in a permanent ballet-dancer's pose. "Shall we throw a frisbee to each other? That seems standard beach behavior." Several men turn to stare as she brushes sand from her legs, and Cara throws Mike another frustrated look.
"I have an idea," says Mike, and is annoyed with himself that he didn't think of it sooner.
"Much better," says Cara, stretching out on her towel. "This beach is prettier anyway."
One of the men passing by stops. "Beautie!" he says in delight, then gives her a high five before going on. She's still getting looks, but they're different here: admiring and colluding. She's generally given her space.
"I am afraid that you will be uncomfortable here, Mike," Beautie says.
Indeed, he's getting attention from some of the male sunbathers, but he shrugs. "I'm not that fragile."
Cara and Beautie are talking about shoes--nothing makes Beautie more animated than talking about shoes, unless it's talking about stopping evil and saving lives. Mike asks questions that elicit disgusted looks at his cluelessness (which is part of the fun of hanging out with them) but mostly just relaxes in the sun and lets thoughts of the Honor Guard get washed away in the sound of the ocean.
"I remember that!" Cara says as Beautie describes her work with a local hospital and dressing up as Beautie Fashion Nurse (With Bandaging Action!). "I had a--"
She stops talking and looks away for a moment.
"Did you have a Beautie doll, growing up?" Beautie's voice is curious and polite.
"I...yes, I did. For a little while," says Cara. "I was never that into them, though."
Mike remembers his mother's anger when she came home from work to find Cara had cut the doll's long, silky blond hair off at the roots. "And after you begged me for a Beautie!" she had fumed.
"I hate her, I hate her!" Cara had yelled.
"You're just mad 'cause your hair is--" Mike had started, and Cara had hurled the doll at him and burst into tears before running out of the room, and he had never finished the sentence, and he remembered being glad about that even then.
Beautie's voice brings him back to the present. "I have sometimes considered having my frame altered," she says. "It would not be that difficult." She gazes out across the rolling water. "But for each...annoyance, I remember I have children who trust me because of my appearance. I do good in this form that perhaps I could not in some other form. I used to think I should make my external appearance match my internal self, but what is that self? It is, in part, shaped by my experiences of being built in this shape. No, I would not change it." She stirs the sand with one hand, looking down at it. "I do wonder sometimes why I was constructed in this way. For what purpose?"
Mike finds himself remembering the letter he received a few months ago. It came to Honor Guard headquarters, addressed simply to "MPH," and began:
I will make no attempt to discover your alternate identity; I feel rather certain the daughter of a notorious super-villain seeking out an Honor Guard member's home address would raise some unwelcome flags.
I wanted to thank you for being a friend to Beautie. My relationship with her is...complicated. But there are times I am glad to know that something I created is doing good, for no other reason than because it is the right thing to do. There are times that is a comfort: that I created something strong, and brave, and good.
Someone strong and brave and good.
Eventually she will seek me out again. An error in my programming, perhaps--too much loyalty, not enough obedience? Or perhaps my own commands to forget me have not been wholehearted enough. I wanted you to know that I've been thinking about it. That maybe when she finds me once more, if I'm in the right mood, I won't turn her away. No promises.
And I wanted you to know that I'm very glad that she has friends like you.
Sincerely, Elaine Girbachs
"Welcome to the human race," says Mike, and Beautie looks at him with one of those abrupt, birdlike motions that are charming and unnerving at the same time. He smiles at her. "About wondering what your purpose is, I mean. We all have the same question."
"Welcome to the human race," Beautie repeats thoughtfully.
"Make yourself at home," Cara says with a laugh and a mock-bow.
Beautie looks out at the ocean in silence, her expression as always alert and vacant at the same time. Then she tilts her head at them--the angle manages to express wryness and resignation, something like laughter--and says, "Perhaps I shall after all."