Masks 30.3 - Riding Herd [Cutscene]

“Agent R…”

Nono Rodriguez pauses, staring at the screen. The words glow back, defying her to continue the sentence.

Nobody cares about Agent R.

Objectively, her fans would tell her otherwise. They do, weekly, through notes, reblogs, likes, and the other amazing new verbs that social media platforms have invented for us. But sometimes, she forgets all that, and the mental effort to believe it again is beyond what she can give.

Downstairs, she hears the warm-up to another shouting match. They tell her they love her, they always tell her it’s not her fault, after it’s done. She knows better. It is her fault. She’s an awful, useless child. She’s trapped in a dark room, and there’s a tiny rectangular escape hatch right in front of her, but she can’t fit through it to the world beyond.

School used to be comforting and familiar. She’d go to the same building, see the same people, do the same things, say the same words. It was a ritual, and it fit her and warmed her like an old jacket.

Now everything’s different. She can taste it, like a bitter cancerous ughiness in her mouth. It revolts her, sends her skin crawling, makes her want to cry. She can’t cry, not with the shouting going on downstairs, or they’ll bring it up here.

Everyone’s so amazing at Gardner. They’re all so pretty and rich, and they have powers. And Jason Quill is there, and his friends, and Harry Gale, and now ugh, even that boy, Leo, he’s a superhero too and he didn’t tell me, or invite me, he kept it a secret, I know he was right to, now people are going to hassle him, but he’s secretly got this amazing life and I don’t and I’m stupid and ugly and useless and it’s so unfair–

Nono realizes she’s covering her face in her hands, holding her eyes shut. She opens them, feeling hot tears come away on her fingertips. She knows what she needs. She won’t get anything done on this story, but that’s okay, she’s bad at it anyhow.

She opens Netflix. It’s their stupid 4K video channel, with stupid weird Japanese food shows and stupid TV shows about superheroes she’ll never get to meet, only look at from afar, but it does have something else. Against all reason, Netflix decided they’d run not one, but two, 4K demos of a fireplace with a burning log. She queues them up with easy familiarity. On the screen, flickering red firelight starts to dance, in perfect visual clarity. The flame reflects off her glasses, off her pupils, and she feels that perfect inner calm descend on her. The shouting downstairs is still there, but she’s lost the ability to mind. It’s easy to just lose yourself like this, and at times like this, she does.

She’s surprised to see messages on her chat app. “Hey girl, wake up,” says the latest one. Belatedly, Nono realizes that someone has been trying to get in touch with her.

“I’m here,” she types.

“That girl that started at Blintzkrieg. Summer. She promised she could get members of the Menagerie to show up more. She’s asking me for mobile #s so she can stay in touch w/ people. Can I give her yours?”

Why would an amazing girl like that want my number? She’s close to Leo, somehow. What does that mean? She’s super gorgeous, and super nice, and so graceful and cute, why would that girl with a pretty name like Summer Skye care about Nono Rodriguez?

“I don’t mind,” Nono types back.

“Cool. She sez you should come hang out there more, she said thanks for taking care of Leo at school too.”

I didn’t do anything at all. I’m so embarrassed now, I must have looked like a fool to him. He’s a superhero!

“I didn’t do anything special.”

A text arrives on her phone. It’s from a strange number. Nono stares down at it.

“THX for everything U do for Leo, he sez U R awesome. Txt me anytime U want to hang or talk, Summer :sun_with_face: :heart:

author: Bill G.

@DuskshineMLP doesn’t like the name she was born with, and even the name she chose to replace it is a compromise to make the family happy. We won’t remember if it’s not similar. Fuck you guys. Well, that whole conversation could have gone far worse, so all things considered, she feels lucky.

“Duskshine” is one of those names that works better in text. The two “S” sounds tend to compete for time on the tongue when spoken. Still, it’s too late to pick something else. And anyway, who cares? She prefers life online.

For example, when you’re on the Internet, it’s easy to let out a shriek of frustration aloud at the latest idiocy, then collect oneself and go back to typing normally. She’s seen Maury do it, and the effect is that of a reliable older sister rather than an irritable woman who’s being pestered by annoying gits. This is a useful skill when you’re giving fashion and makeup advice too. For example, Nono is asking her, right this minute over text chat, about changing her hair style. There’s some gel, some lipstick, some something, that this girl found online, and of course she wants the expert’s opinion.

What you really want, you stupid bint, is to feel beautiful, and you think you can’t do it without changing everything. You look great already. God!

The next batch of Amazon affiliate links and dubious website URLs pour in. Duskshine balls up her fists and silently rages at the heavens. Lord give me strength.

“Just… ugh, just comb your hair a little more, smile, make eye contact, it’s so easy, why are you complicating it!” she shouts, to nobody in particular.

She goes back to the computer. “The products you are looking at might not be a good combination, even if some of them look interesting individually. The overall effect on the face is key, rather than how highly rated each product is. There are some color synergies you can take advantage of with remarkably cheap product.” This all sounds very intelligent, and Duskshine is proud of it. It’s also meaningless - it just means, “buy stuff that works well together”, which is yet another way of saying “just try stuff until it looks nice”. Which is what she’s been saying for the last three days.

Why the hell is she so fired up to look nice now? I mean, I won’t say it’s a bad thing. Maybe there’s somebody she’s interested in? Ohhhhmygod, Halcyon High closed, that’s what she said, she’s going to school with Mr. Quill now, isn’t she. It all makes sense.

Duskshine lets out another frustrated sigh. The next couple of weeks are going to be rough. That’s the price of friendship, and the Ponies wouldn’t give each other up for anyone or anything in the world.

I wish there was a product that let you see yourself the way the rest of us see you, Nono. If I had that in a bottle, I’d force it down your throat.

author: Bill G.

“… And then she said …”

Maury looks back at the screen. Has Duskshine switched topics? Nope, same shit as always.

This time it’s Nono. The current gossip is that she’s attending Gardner Academy, along with the #1 Ponies crush, eligible bachelor, well-known rich kid, and thoroughly unreachable Jason Quill. From the last twenty minutes of scrollback, Duskshine surmises that Nono has built up enough residual confidence to actually improve her appearance, perhaps in an attempt to make a move on Jason. Going to different schools put him solidly out of reach before, but now…?

All this would be great, and Maury would be happy to listen to this high-school melodrama on any other day. But today she’s wrestle with YouTube’s changes to monetization - a significant source of income - and this who’s-dating-who bullshit is just … argh.

Maury finally loses patience. “Tell Nono she could date anybody she wanted if she would just ask - them - out. She’s cute and interesting. ‘Hey guy, wanna go to the movies?’ ‘Hey girl, there is a nice place to get milkshakes, wanna come with?’”

I know it’s not that easy. I regret saying it immediately. Nono’s problems are real. But, come on, so are mine.

The answer is surprising. “Do you really think Mr. Quill would be satisfied with such pedestrian dates? I have to do something special with her. I’ve blown her off for this long, I feel bad now. I’m going to give her a total makeover after all.”

Maury sighs. Something feels amiss here. She types back the obvious question. “Did Nono actually tell you she’s interested in Jason Quill specifically?”

There’s a pause long enough to confirm her suspicions. “Not in so many words.”

“Well maybe before you make her over, find out who you’re making her over for.” And stop bugging me with this nonsense!

“You’re right. I’ll get right back to you.”

Maury loses it. “Argh!” she shouts, looking at her screen, hoping her frustration will manifest psychokinetically and shut the whole app down - or reach through it to dope slap Duskshine on the other side. “Stop! I don’t wanna hear it!”

All the Ponies are My Little Ponies fans. But they have two other traits. First, they’re almost all superhero fangirls (and a couple of fanboys, too), an interest they discovered only after forming. Second, they’re all either smart, or dedicated enough to pass for it. Nono Rodriguez is actually an amazing science buff. Duskshine does makeup and costuming, but she’s sharp at all kinds of color coordination, and could design super-costumes professionally. There’s only one other girl as good, that cosplay chick on Pinterest.

Maury feels responsible to each and every one of them. Some have troubled home lives, others labor under anxiety, depression, or similar conditions. None of them will ever have a conventional good-paying job. They might find themselves in a dead-end retail job, at the mercy of the hiring and firing practices of large chain stores, or under the thumbs of supercilious and controlling small-store owners. They could be so much more. They just… need someone to hold them together.

Being a vlogger and superhero podcaster makes a bit of money. It’s not enough to hire a whole staff. There’s sites to find jobs online, resume advice sites, career counseling, online training like, so much. And these girls are wasting time with makeovers and dating.

Well… Even if you think it’s a waste, maybe they don’t.

Maury rubs her hands across the ever-present wheels of the chair, one of the few things that helps her feel free. Just because you sometimes feel trapped and unlovable, don’t put them in your cage.

Still. It would take some kind of miracle to give everyone the sort of happy life Maury desperately wishes for her friends. There is one thing that keeps her locked on as a My Little Pony fan, and keeps her glued to these people, no matter how annoying they sometimes are. The hope, however faint or remote, that friendship really is magic.

author: Bill G.

As with a couple other posts, there’s no deep plotting or PC significance here, just shining some light on our supporting cast. Although if anyone has theories about who Nono is trying to dress up for and thinks it’d be fun to see, take up the reins (so to speak) and go for it.

author: Bill G.

This is great stuff though. I love these guys.

author: Doyce T.

1. Jason can’t legitimately look over his shoulder when people say “Mr. Quill” (since everyone would say “Dr. Quill”), but it sure feels artificial to him right now. Give it a couple of years actually moving and shaking in the business world, though …

2. Jason being aware of being the focus of so much female attention would be simultaneously gratifying and terrifying. Which, I suppose, says something about crushes on celebrities-qua-celebrities.

3. It’s an interesting observation on celebrity in a world of super-heroes that they actually end up mingling with the rest of the populace (not all, probably, but there’s a greater geographical dispersion than Hollywood celebs sending their kids to specific private schools in the LA Area, or ditto on DC government movers/shakers focused on specific institutions), and thus are much more the focus of fangirling / fanboying by their academic cohorts.

4. I am loving this, Bill.

author: *** Dave H.

*** Dave H. said:

3. It’s an interesting observation on celebrity in a world of super-heroes that they actually end up mingling with the rest of the populace (not all, probably, but there’s a greater geographical dispersion than Hollywood celebs sending their kids to specific private schools in the LA Area, or ditto on DC government movers/shakers focused on specific institutions), and thus are much more the focus of fangirling / fanboying by their academic cohorts.

From what I’ve read about the real world, it can go a few different directions, but in general, it sounds like kids are often extremely cool about respecting the celebrity kids in their midst. That said…

There’s a certain amount of distance that people like Nono had to people like Jason Quill, that permitted her to shape him as an idea in her mind. Now that this distance has been erased (you’re in the same sex-ed class with the guy you used to write fan fiction about…), things could turn extremely weird for her. Part of her anxiety might be reconciling her interests with her new reality, the same way we have Telekinetian being very weird around Jason after writing articles tearing apart the AJQ show’s subtext. But, it might also let her see Jason for who he really is, if she takes the time and he gives her the chance.

As a general note, I wanted to leave some hints here that the Ponies, as a group, could be an amazing Mission Control and support team for any superhero or super-team. Nono can keep up with Leo in chemistry, and he’s a freaking genius, for example. It might be that, given time, the Quill Foundation finds ways to sponsor them. I leave that to Doyce and Dave to figure out. :slight_smile:

author: Bill G.

Well, that’s precisely the kind of thing Jason wants to get into doing, if he’s not running around saving the world all the time. Work, of course, expands to fit the time available …

Jason would have also been jazzed about Leo wanting to come to work at the QF, probably handwaving aside for the moment the questions of “Do I really want to have a friend be an employee? Will that get weird?” For him it would be a chance to divide up some of the work, get fresh eyes on stuff (or another pair of eyes for stuff that even Jason has never been exposed to), and be able to hang with someone (which, ultimately, has always been one of his challenges, certainly since he lost his brother).

author: *** Dave H.

I feel like I’ve done a shit-ton of writing around characters in this game (NPC supporting cast or more remote third parties) that follow a pattern: female characters who tend toward the girlier end of some hypothetical tomboy-girly-girl continuum, with their own lives and hopes, and hopefully with plenty of agency and independence. That’s Aria, Summer, and now the Ponies.

But we have more NPCs than just them. Is there interest in seeing (and do I have license to write) fiction for JHHL or Irregulator members, the ones who haven’t had much spotlight but seem like cool people? If so, who would we like to see thus illuminated?

author: Bill G.

I’m very curious about the Lucius/Jaycee/Armiger relationship.

author: Doyce T.

I’m certainly okay with any of that. It arguably generates more Stuff that we’d like to do, but that’s a good problem to have.

author: *** Dave H.

*** Dave H. said:

I’m certainly okay with any of that. It arguably generates more Stuff that we’d like to do, but that’s a good problem to have.

I promise that this will be relevant to our ongoing plot. :slight_smile:

author: Bill G.

It’s time to give this story the conclusion it deserves. Just who is important enough for Nono to start looking nice?

Maury can make rent this month. Oh goodie. That gives her a few fucks to give as well, and it looks like she’ll be spending them on more of Duskshine’s rendition of “The Ballad of Nono Rodriguez”.

Things seem to be different. Duskshine is no longer taking another chat conversation and punching it up for maximum drama. This time, she’s just reposting it, word for word. Maury peers at the screen, and feels a twinge in her back for the effort. Of course.

There’s a long list of beauty products, recommendations, URLs for purchase, and more. Oh, here we go. Duskshine is offering Nono the chance to do some catwalk style modeling at… Blintzkrieg? What? Who the hell does this at a coffee shop? Oh, right, there’s nowhere else, and the staff is friendly to the Ponies. But what are the other patrons going to say? This is sounding like a terrible idea already.

Maury feels a headache coming on as she scrolls further. Gardner has some kind of dress code and Duskshine likes it, but wants to spruce it up a little. Naturally. She included some sketches, which to be fair look amazing as usual. But some of these look like they’ll attract plenty of the wrong kinds of attention from boys, the principal, or both. This is high school, not a Britney Spears music video, you ditz.

Oh, here it is. This is what I wanted to know about. Why didn’t you just get to this bit to start with?

Duskshine is asking Nono who she’s trying to dress up for. Maury covers her mouth in her hands and lets out a gasp. She starts to smile, wider and wider the more she reads.

D: So who is it, girl? Tell me. Who’s worth all this work?
N: I’m dressing up for
D: … yeah?
N: myself
N: Gardner is weird and new, it’s terrifying. But my friends are here
N: A superhero apologized to me. To me.
N: He forgot my name
N: I thought it meant I wasn’t worth remembering
N: We were walking away and Taz asked me “if you aren’t worth remembering, see how he greets you next time”
N: I did, I said “hey Leo”
N: He said “Hey Nono” and smiled at me
D: That’s wonderful
N: Him, and Jason Quill, and Harry Gale
N: They are all here. But they are all pretty normal people
N: I mean, they have powers and stuff
N: But other than that
N: They do homework and they have classes and play lacrosse and stuff
N: They are like me. Well. What I realized is, I am like them.
N: I want to feel nicer. HHS was boring and drab and I thought I could just sink into it and disappear
D: sooooo
N: Gardner is different
N: But good different this time
N: That pretty girl at Blintzkrieg wants to be my friend too
N: So maybe I am worth knowing after all
N: And I want to look like it
N: So please help
D: sweetie I will move heaven and earth to give you the look you want

Maury sniffles. She checks her bank balance again - just in case - and types back at Duskshine. “I can chip in a little bit, if there’s anything expensive on your list.”

The response comes back immediately. “I’ll let you know. Thing you can do for now is show up for the modeling, bring that sweet camera. I want to get a photo album going, and I want it to look perfect.”

Maury nods, though her chat partner can’t see it. You bet I will.

author: Bill G.