Neodymium [SPG]

Oct 8th, 2017
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  1. >Dig site A is a rectangular pit, approximately 110 by 40 feet and 15 feet deep.
  2. >It represents the work of a 45-pony dig team over the last sixteen days.
  3. >It is also a complete washout. For the entirety of its excavation, your sift team has not found a single ounce of monazite.
  4. >Which means you have wasted sixteen days' worth of food, and most importantly, time.
  5. >When the Feds defaulted on your war bonds, they offered you a plot of mineral-rich conquered land and some native indentured labor instead.
  6. >You really shouldn't have taken that deal...
  7. >You are Anonymous, and your venture into rare-earth mining is going to fail unless something drastic changes.
  8. >You look up from your empty ledger and take your fingers off the bridge of your nose.
  9. >The sepia light of mid-day spills through the window of your ramshackle office, glinting off flecks of dust.
  10. >With a sigh, you get up.
  11. >It's almost time for noon status report with the loverseers, anyway.
  12. >You close the ledger and roll up the sleeves of your khaki shirt.
  13. >Exiting your office and making your way down the path, you take in your surroundings:
  14. >Far off, a small mountain range rises somewhere in the east.
  15. >Closer by, the plateau you are on drops off, leading to a large basin.
  16. >Only a few small hills can be seen to your north.
  17. >There is no green anywhere, except the painted pipe bars of the flimsy windmill that powers the water pump.
  18. >You begin the walk towards your dig site.
  19. >As you beat down the dusty path, you can start to hear the sounds of your wards at work–
  20. >Coarse sand scrapes incessantly against shovels and mattocks, interspersed by grunts.
  21. >Cresting a small dune, you catch sight of one of the dig team's overseers– Apple-something-or-other, an orange earth mare who scoops out shovelfuls of sand towards the corner of the recently-started site B.
  22. >Her mark is an apple, hence why you can remember half of her name.
  23. >Her beige mane and tail are cropped short, as is typical for your workers, and her green, oversized eyes glance focusedly between the dig workers as she goes.
  24. "Hey,"
  25. >You wave and hail her over.
  26. >She eventually looks up and acknowledges you, panting.
  27. >"Yessir?"
  28. >You look down at her.
  29. "How are we doing?"
  30. >"Well, we had a good start, sir, but the sun's slowin' the progress. Older ponies and foals are having' trouble with the heat,"
  31. >That might not bode well.
  32. "How far are you towards today's quota?"
  33. >The mare winces.
  34. >"We still, uh, well... we still have prob'ly two and a half tons to go,"
  35. >You cover your lower face with your hand and exhale through your nose.
  36. "Damn. Get digging, then. Do as much as you can today,"
  37. >You know full well that she'll oblige–
  38. >She needs to earn those extra rations as overseer so she can feed that yellow filly, her daughter-or-sister-or-something.
  39. >Good mare, that one.
  40. >You leave to find the next overseer, your boots crunching small bits of gravel on the path.
  42. >You find the other dig team overseer attempting to replace the wheel on an overturned cart.
  43. >You know him a bit better than the others– his name is Noteworthy, a blue stallion of average stature.
  44. >He manages the carts bringing sand to he sluices from the dig site, and he has been an important liaison between you and your wards almost since the beginning.
  45. >For your credit, you did assign his group the hardest job to screw up in return for his loyalty.
  46. >After dropping the wheel he's working on for the third time, Noteworthy finally notices your presence and stammers out a quick "Can I help you, sir?"
  47. >You respond as he snaps to attention.
  48. "How are the carts, Note?"
  49. >Noteworthy frowns very slightly as he glances toward his team of pullers kicking up dust along the trail to his left.
  50. "Are they holding up?"
  51. >He looks down for a second and paws at the ground with a hoof.
  52. "Note?"
  53. >Just like that, he snaps out of it.
  54. >"Yeah, they're holding up,"
  55. >You'd best be going then.
  56. "Alright then, I nee-"
  57. >He interrupts you as you turn around to leave, somewhat unsure at first, then gaining confidence:
  58. >"The problem's not the carts, though. It's the ponies pulling them. The ration cut is affecting them the worst. They're struggling not to have a backlog of sand, sir,"
  59. >You run a hand through the back of your hair and sigh as you turn around.
  60. >The costs of your equipment have already left you in debt. You're aware you haven't bought enough food to last much longer.
  61. >You were expecting to make back some money as the first dig site was being excavated. You were going to buy more rations when you made the hike to the nearest settlement to sell your ore.
  62. >Without any monazite, you never went into town.
  63. >You have yet to make the first payment on your debt, and you still have no money for food.
  64. >That won't change until you start finding ore.
  65. >"Sir?"
  66. >Note's voice snaps you from your train of thought.
  67. "I'll get something done about it, Note. Soon,"
  68. >With that, you start off towards the sluices.
  69. >"Th-Thanks..."
  71. >The sluices are not far off from your dig site.
  72. >They are, by far, the most expensive and important objects at your mine.
  73. >Threre are two of them, each 20 feet long, and they were carted up the winding path to the plateau in pieces.
  74. >In theory, they should be able to sift away the lighter sand and leave the monazite to be easily collected.
  75. >You wouldn't know if they work, though, because you have yet to find any promising dirt.
  77. >Your train of thought is stopped as you accidentally trip one of Note's cart puller ponies.
  78. >You don't know her name, as with the majority of the non-overseers.
  79. >Talk about a disconnect from your workforce. You only really manage the vast majority of your wards through those three fore-ponies.
  80. >You mumble a quick "excuse me" and brush past her.
  82. >As you approach the sluices, the sift team overseer makes her way towards you. Cheerilee, right?
  83. >Yeah.
  84. >The burgundy mare waves to you, pink mane ruffled by the passing breeze.
  85. >"Afternoon, sir,"
  86. "Afternoon"
  87. >You pause
  88. "Any of that sand looking good?"
  89. >Please say yes...
  90. >You make eye contact.
  91. >She's got that neutral expression, the one all your overseers don around you.
  92. >You wouldn't expect your forced laborers to be concerned about your disheveled appearance and the bags under your eyes, but it reminds you that you don't have any friends here.
  93. >Even the handful of ponies you try to keep close and loyal show a certain antipathy toward friendly association with you.
  94. >You can trust your overseers to keep things running and not kill you, but that's about all.
  95. >"There's some possible ore, yes,"
  96. >You inhale and then exhale an "okay."
  97. >You take a few steps towards the incline that the sluices are positioned on.
  98. "Say, tell me, Cheerilee,"
  99. >"What, si–"
  100. >Before she can finish her sentence, Cheerilee is interrupted by the sound of creaking metal and a resounding thud on the dirt.
  101. >Somewhat faintly, you hear a scream.
  103. >You swivel your head in the direction of your office, and notice the absence of the windmill's tip, which should be poking above the roof of your shack.
  104. >Fuck.
  105. >That windmill is important to the whole operation. How do you pump up sluice water without it? Drinking water? The reservoir barrels will only last so long.
  106. >You hear someone yelling in your direction as you stand there, dumbfounded:
  107. >"Somepony fell from the windmill! We need help!"
  108. >Probably dead from a fall from that height.
  109. >You haven't even thought of where you'll start the graveyard yet– should it be on the hillock by the dig sites?
  110. >"WE NEED HELP!"
  111. >At that, you take off towards your office at a brisk jog, Cheerilee tagging along two yards to your right.
  113. >A small crowd, maybe five ponies, has gathered adjacent to your office-shed.
  114. >At this distance, you can hear pained yelps clearly– from a colt or a mare, though? The voice could be from either.
  115. >What you do know is that you can see an orange leg poking out from under a green steel bar, and it is twisted at an uncomfortably unnatural angle.
  116. >As you come ever closer, you can see that it's a colt, confirming at least one of your suspicions.
  117. >A couple of the ponies there try to lift the fallen windmill off of his legs high enough that he can be dragged out, to little success. He whimpers as they are forced to put it back down on him.
  118. >Apple- Applejack! That was it! Like the cereal– Rushes to the scene with the Yellow Filly hot on her heels- pasterns. Damn horse terminology.
  119. >When the Apple filly sees the colt, she screams out "TENDER TAPS!" and dashes to his side.
  120. >Tender Taps. Strange name.
  121. >"What are y'all waitin' for! Pitch in!", Applejack hollers, and immediately others join her in lifting the steel-framed windmill.
  122. >You stand and watch.
  123. >The group manages to lift it just enough for Cheerilee to drag him away, howling in pain all the while. They let it down soon after.
  124. >He breathes heavily as he gets a good view of his own injuries.
  125. >His hind legs are well and truly broken between the humerus and radius, and from what you know of crush wounds, the bone there is probably fragmented to oblivion.
  126. >If he wasn't sapient, he would be going on the shotgun ride to horsie heaven right now.
  127. >Some deep recess of your mind tells you it might still be the humane route, but you push that thought back.
  128. >Cheerilee and the others begin to load him into a sand cart when she says something that piques your interest:
  129. >"We've got to get him to the infirmary as soon as possible!"
  130. >There is no medical facility here.
  131. >You follow her along as she tails the cart.
  132. "You built an infirmary? How did that work?"
  133. >She continues walking and looking forward, but still replies to your question with an exasperated tone.
  134. >"Not really. You'll see,"
  136. >It turns out the "infirmary" is just a slightly-less-crowded corner of the wards' quarters that has been set aside.
  137. >Entering said workers' quarters, you are hit with a smell not unlike the dried-out thistle plants outside. A pot of boiling rice and what looks to be hay on the woodstove explains that.
  138. >A pegasus mare the color of butter- one of the few pegasi on your estate- walks in behind you and Cheerilee with a bucket of water.
  139. >She directs you to place Tender Taps, whom you had carried in, on a burlap sack in the corner.
  140. >Cheerilee leaves the "nurse" to her business and heads back out.
  141. >You keep your eyes on the colt at your feet, who is staring off into blank space, his pupils dilated beyond a healthy level, almost completely hiding his violet irises.
  142. >That's gotta be shock, right?
  143. >The pegasus begins to dab at small bits of blood on Taps' legs with a wet cloth. You move to his side and kneel on the dirt floor. You feel the side of his face with the back of your hand: cold, slightly clammy.
  144. >His breathing hastens each time the mare touches his legs with the washcloth.
  145. >Scanning the room, you hope to see a blanket of some type. That's the treatment for shock, if you remember correctly.
  146. >Across the aisle in the aisle that divides the quarters, you finally spot one– ragged, cerulean wool with a few holes worn in it. Whoever owns it will just have to live without it.
  147. >You quickly stand and grab it, returning to your spot at his side.
  148. >It's a small blanket, but you cover most of his upper body. He instinctively grabs at it with his hooves, pulling it closer to his chin.
  149. >That would be cute if it wasn't for the critical condition he's in.
  151. >You back off just as the pegasus finishes the splints and bandages on his legs.
  152. >While she looks over him, you ask her:
  153. "Are you a nurse? Something like that?"
  154. >She doesn't respond, and from this angle, her pink mane hides her face.
  155. >You should probably go check the damage to the pump windmill.
  156. "Well, I- I guess I have to go, now. Tha–"
  157. >The mare, still sitting on the floor, still looking away, cuts you off, speaking to you for the first time.
  158. >"You know,"
  159. >You catch the movement of her jaw in your peripheral vision.
  160. >"If you really want to help him, get him out of this building. There are too many ponies packed into one space. If he doesn't get sick, his legs will get infected. I've heard enough to know you have a wood floor and a cot in your office. You're probably hiding a first aid kit, maybe painkillers, too,"
  161. >She turns her head to face you, intense, cyan eyes boring into your being.
  162. >"If you actually care about him,"
  163. >Her stare softens.
  164. >"about him, or *any* of us,"
  165. >Her eyes get watery around their corners.
  166. >"take him there,"
  168. >God damn it.
  169. >It's not as if she's wrong.
  170. >And calling you out turns it into a black-and-white moral situation:
  171. >Try to help, even if you fail, and prove you care.
  172. >Or choose not to and display a harsh contempt for ponies' lives.
  173. >One consideration of many strikes you-
  174. >You hush your voice in case the colt is lucid enough to hear.
  175. "Do you... do you think he'll survive?"
  176. >The mare's eyes soften from the unexpected amount of concern in your tone.
  177. >She rubs one front leg over the other as she glances between Tender Taps and the ground at her hooves.
  178. >A deep breath of analysis later, she responds.
  179. >"I-I think so,"
  180. >She gestures to Taps' legs, now wrapped in rag bandages.
  181. >"Somehow there isn't much internal bleeding. If there was, his legs would be swollen a lot more than that,"
  182. >You know that's a good sign.
  183. >"That doesn't mean he doesn't need a doctor,"
  184. >She replies sternly, probably having heard you sighing.
  185. >"But I think he'll be stable. For now,"
  186. >You are quick to reply, your mind already made up.
  187. "Alright, then. How are we carrying him?"
  189. >Using the burlap sack he was lying on as a makeshift stretcher, you and the yellow mare manage to begin carrying Taps out.
  190. >As she gently latches the front door closed and picks up her side of the "stretcher", you notice just how late it is getting to be.
  191. >It's not evening yet, that's for sure, but the sun seems as if it'll make itself cozy with the horizon in a few hours.
  192. >When you first left your office, it wasn't yet noon. Time flies.
  193. >You can feel the heat of the sand through the soles of your shoes as you take the forty-pace journey to your cabin.
  194. >Crunching over particularly gravelly dirt, you hear the hoofsteps of a pony and look left to see Applejack.
  195. >"Are ya almost set fer the evenin' briefing, sir?"
  196. >She makes eye contact with the pegasus behind you and waves silently.
  197. "Uhh... Yeah. Gimme a couple minutes,"
  198. >She takes off with an "alright" and heads off to instruct her workers to start winding down.
  199. >At this point, you can see that the windmill is still on the ground, but someone has already tied ropes around it for hoisting.
  200. >You'll have to ask about that at the briefing.
  201. >The two of you set Tender Taps down on the stoop and you open the door to your office.
  202. >A short while later, he is in your cot, sleeping soundly.
  204. >While she strokes the side of his face with a hoof, you move to your underwear drawer.
  205. >The yellow mare snaps her gaze over to you, causing her short pink mane to ruffle momentarily.
  206. "Let's see what medical supplies I have,"
  207. >You shift some socks out of the way, finding your prize:
  208. "One band-aid,"
  209. >You chuck it at her, her face follows its flight to the floor in confusion.
  210. "A second band-aid. Promising find,"
  211. >You let it float down right in front of her face. Her neutral expression almost breaks.
  212. >"Damn, where is it? Ah, in the corner! You'll love this,"
  213. >You hold a small pill bottle in your hand, opening it and holding it close to your eye to inspect the contents.
  214. "Five or six? Yeah- five or six aspirin. Use them wisely,"
  215. >This time, you take special care to place the pill bottle on her right hoof, which hangs idly by her chest.
  216. >You turn back to the drawer, finding the last object partially hidden by a pair of underwear.
  217. "Oh, what a find, what a *find*. Check this out,"
  218. >You make a show of pulling the object out of the drawer and holding it between your fingers beside your face.
  219. >You can't keep a blank face and begin to smile.
  220. "A third band-aid!"
  221. >With this, the little mare can't suppress an amused chortle.
  222. >You both look at each other for a second, a smirk upon your lips.
  223. "I think that's all of my 'secret medicine stash,'"
  224. >She begins to smile a bit, too, if not just at your foolish attitude.
  225. >The two of you are interrupted by a knock at the door and, when you crack it open, an "All three of us are here, sir" from Applejack.
  226. >You tell her to "give you a sec" and close the door.
  227. "Alright, so feel free to do your nurse stuff here, just don't mess with the ledgers,"
  228. >"Okay. Thank you,"
  229. >The gratitude is palpable.
  230. >You exit through the door.
  231. >Shit.
  232. >You re-enter through the door.
  233. "Uhh,"
  234. >You chuckle.
  235. "Sorry I forgot to ask this,"
  236. >You grin sheepishly.
  237. "What's your name?"
  238. >With a complacent look on her face, she responds.
  239. >"Fluttershy"
  240. >Fluttershy...
  242. >The briefing with your overseers begins about halfway between the dig sites and your cabin, just as the sun nears the horizon.
  243. >It could be summed up in one sentence:
  244. >You're not absolutely, completely screwed, but yeah, you're still kinda screwed.
  245. >Noteworthy reaffirms that the ration cut is driving down productivity.
  246. >Applejack informs you that her diggers only barely made the quota today.
  247. >The windmill, although fallen, is reparable, and Applejack has already begun the task of figuring out how to lift it back upright.
  248. >More good news comes from Cheerilee: Her team has separated about 14 kilograms of ore.
  249. >Even this comes with a catch, though, as the sifters have yet to find any more other than that isolated patch.
  250. >This find matters significantly to you. With such high demand and some added rare-earth subsidies, you should be able to pay your first payment on your debt.
  251. >Then it just becomes a game of stretching out whatever's left, which won't be much.
  252. >After mulling over this realization, you resolve to head into town tomorrow with a team of pullers. Hopefully, you'll return with enough food and supplies to last until you find more ore.
  253. >Brought to your mind, though unsaid, is the possibility of finding a cheap doctor to look at Tender Taps.
  254. >With that, the meeting is adjourned, and you return to your cabin, quickly falling asleep in your office chair.
  256. >It's sometime before dawn when you wake up.
  257. >Outside, a few crickets chirp, and the wind rustles through the withered sage bushes.
  258. >You listen more closely. It's not a windy night.
  259. >Something crunches on the gravelly dirt, just loud enough to be noticeable.
  260. >The pattern of the sound seems to match that of hoofsteps.
  261. >You dismiss it as a large rodent or maybe a worker going to the latrine. Closing your eyes even harder, you try to get back to sleep.
  262. >The sound only gets closer, and you can't ignore it. When the steps reach the stoop, you hear the distinct clop of hooves.
  263. >Whoever it is knocks on the door. Three distinct raps on the sere cedar.
  264. >You swivel the chair you were sleeping in and reluctantly open your eyes.
  265. >Two more knocks in quick succession.
  266. >Putting on some pants, you call out exasperatedly:
  267. "Give me a sec!"
  268. >This time the knocks start just as you reach the door. You pull it open.
  269. >"Hi,"
  271. >You sigh, glaring daggers at the face that beams at you.
  272. "You. You're Applejack's... daughter?"
  273. >"Sister," she says, without breaking her cheerful demeanor.
  274. >"Ah'm here to visit Tender Taps!"
  275. >A frown begins to form on your face.
  276. "Look, Apple- uh..."
  277. >"Apple Bloom,"
  278. >You pinch the bridge of your nose then move your arm to see the faint glow of your watch.
  279. "Apple Bloom, it's 4:17 in the morning. Could you find a better time?"
  280. >Her look turns to one almost of confusion.
  281. >"N-No, Ah can't. Ah've gotta start work at five-thirty,"
  282. >Your sympathy is doused by your near-comatose state. At this point, you just want to sleep for another hour until you actually have to get up.
  283. >Running a hand through your hair, you pretend to consider your options.
  284. >You look down at her.
  285. "Not right now. Just go back to sleep,"
  286. >She isn't brushed off so easily.
  287. >"Pleeeeeease,"
  288. >You kneel down to her level, summoning all the austerity your sluggish self can muster.
  289. "Does saying 'please' like that right after I said 'no' make me want to change my mind?"
  290. >She nods timidly.
  291. >"Yeah?"
  292. >You cannot physically look more disappointed.
  293. "Wrong answer,"
  294. >She mumbles "worth a try" under her breath and meets your eyes once again.
  295. >"This is the only time Ah can see him; Ah have to help Applejack after work. Please,"
  296. >She becomes increasingly desperate as she begins to realize your answer is no.
  297. >You drag your hand down your face.
  298. "Apple Bloom, please just go,"
  299. >Her expression changes from one of dejectedness to slight anger.
  300. >"Ah don't care if Applejack has to suck up ta you for extra food. She wants me to be nice to ya, but Ah'm gonna tell you the truth– you're just a lazy jerk!"
  301. >Her voice crescendoes as she speaks, her strangely-colored eyes beginning to form droplets at their corners. With that, she runs off.
  303. >Inside your office, you hear Tender Taps begin to rustle his bedsheets, trying to sit upright in the cot.
  304. >Something in your mind snaps you out of your slothful state:
  305. >You begin to feel guilty.
  306. >You eventually decide to call out towards the running form still somewhat visible in the moonlight.
  307. "Apple Bloom! Wait!"
  308. >Your tone is heavy with fatigued exasperation.
  309. >A second later, you see her stop. Her question is somewhat hushed but nonetheless hopeful:
  310. >"Can Ah see him?"
  311. >You exhale strongly from your nose and nod.
  312. >You're not getting back to sleep this morning, anyway. Might as well.
  313. "Yeah,"
  314. >She makes it back to your doorway at an impressive pace and sits on the ground in front of you, facial features alight.
  315. >"Thanks,"
  316. >Not even trying to explain the rapidity of that mood change, you hold the door open for her.
  317. "Come in,"
  318. >Closing the door behind the two of you, you watch as she takes in the interior of your cabin, finding Tender Taps in his place on the cot to her right.
  319. >He is the first to say anything, marking the first time you've heard him speak:
  320. >"Apple Bloom?"
  321. >His voice is a bit raspy and in the higher range when it comes to boys. It's kind of like the sound of a wet rag rubbed back and forth on enameled aluminum.
  322. >Apple Bloom attempts to hug him, but the cot is too high up. He winces in pain as he tries to lean over to meet her advance.
  323. >"Do ya remember what happened to you?" Apple Bloom asks, her front legs pulling her just barely above the level of the cot.
  324. >Taps looks down at himself.
  325. >"I-I fell off the windmill..."
  326. >You butt in, startling him as he becomes aware of your presence.
  327. "Speaking of, what on earth were you doing on the windmill?"
  328. >Tender Taps responds quietly, unsure of your intentions.
  329. >"Uh s-sir, there was a piece of t-tumbleweed in the blades. I tried to get it out. I- I guess it didn't work out,"
  331. >That's an understatement.
  332. >His ears fold back, eyes widening.
  333. >"Am I in t-trouble?"
  334. >You suppress a chuckle and gesture around the room.
  335. "Look around you. This is my office. You're sleeping in *my* bed,"
  336. >Making contact with his anxiety-filled purple eyes, you continue:
  337. "If I was mad at you, you'd be sleeping in the ditch,"
  338. >As the tension begins to leave Taps' features, you turn around to see Apple Bloom has moved to the other side of the room while you were talking.
  339. >"No way! You got one'a them spinny chairs!"
  340. >That chair was one of the few luxuries you brought here.
  341. "If you break that..."
  342. >As she continues to spin herself, ignoring you, you turn back to Tender Taps and sigh.
  343. "Is she always like this?"
  344. >A small smirk gracing his face, he replies:
  345. >"Usually,"
  347. >Time begins to pass faster as the sun just starts to peek over the mountains, giving the sky a light umber hue.
  348. >Apple Bloom heads out a little while before she has to work, leaving you and Tender Taps alone.
  349. >Having reclaimed your chair, you sit a while and listen to the breeze that rustles the dead grass.
  350. >Distantly, your workers begin to stir, the door to their quarters slamming open and shut at regular intervals.
  351. >Tender Taps finally breaks the silence as he turns over towards you. He stops turning as he begins to wince.
  352. >”Uh, sir, excuse me,”
  353. >You idly scratch the sunburn on the back of your neck.
  354. “Yeah?”
  355. >He continues, nudging at a velcro strap on the cot with his hoof.
  356. >”Yesterday, I heard you talking. About me,”
  357. >He makes eye contact, his purple irises pools of worry.
  358. >”Will I be alright?”
  359. >He waits intently for an answer, rubbing his hoof over his foreleg, ears ready to fold back.
  360. >You breathe in to blindly reassure him but stop yourself.
  361. >No use lying to the kid.
  362. “I wish I could say– I wish I could say that I knew. I’m no doctor. I- well,”
  363. >You exhale and meet his gaze.
  364. “You’ll survive; I’m sure of that”
  365. >He pauses, a frown forming on his lips.
  366. >”W-when will I be walking again?”
  367. >He’s hitting you with the hard questions.
  368. >Damn it.
  369. “I think that’s a question of how much you recover,”
  370. >His concern doesn’t fade away.
  371. >”That means...”
  372. >You realize he is asking for clarification and respond.
  373. “Kid, you got, well, majorly screwed up. I don’t know if you’re walking on those legs anytime soon,”
  374. >You then unintentionally add, under your breath:
  375. “If at all...”
  376. >”S-so you’re saying that...”
  377. >His composure begins to break, the corners of his mouth quivering dangerously.
  378. >Are those tears welling up in his eyes?
  379. >”I knew it had to be bad, it hurts, b-but,”
  380. >You were unaware this would affect him so much.
  381. >Damn.
  382. >You let out a hard breath, keeping your eyes on the colt.
  383. >Finally, you make the decision to reach out to comfort him, moving your arm across the small space between you.
  384. >Halfway there, you stop. For some reason, you can’t bring yourself to reach out. You’re torn: you want to, but you don’t.
  385. >You retract your hand, let out a sigh, and look down at your knees.
  386. >With Tender Taps’ choking up filling your ears, you don’t notice the knocks on your door until a yellow head pokes through the threshold.
  388. >Eventually noticing the pink hair in your peripheral vision, you look up.
  389. >It’s Fluttershy.
  390. >Her eyes widen as she stares over at Taps. She turns back, looking at you worriedly.
  391. >You make eye contact for a short moment before you break it, muttering:
  392. “Good morning,”
  393. >Your weary tone contrasts the sarcasm of your words.
  394. >”What happened?”
  395. >You lean down enough to get just within a foot of her eye level, responding in a hushed voice:
  396. “He’s realizing the extent of his injuries”
  397. >It is almost as soon as you finish that she has crossed the room, stroking Tender Taps along the withers and trying to calm him down.
  398. >He continues to shake and breathe raggedly even as you get up to move to Fluttershy’s side.
  399. >”You poor thing...”
  400. >You’re awkwardly situated halfway between your chair and the mare as she changes his bandages– replacing one set of rags with other, less dirt-stained ones.
  401. >He seems to begin to freak out less due to her soothing presence, and after a while, although he’s still shaking, she brings him a small pot of some type of porridge.
  402. >It’s almost beige, and there’s quite a lot of wheat-like chaff still in it.
  403. >He eats the stuff straight from the pot; You almost forgot that ponies didn’t use utensils.
  404. >It’s slightly comical to see his tiny jaws snap away through his breakfast.
  405. >You muse over the fact that you haven’t eaten anything since yesterday as you change out your khaki shirt for your “Sunday best”– a slightly cleaner light gray one.
  406. >It’ll do for just going into town.
  407. >You throw the old shirt into the pile of laundry in the corner.
  408. >When you turn back towards the two ponies, you notice Fluttershy quickly averting her gaze.
  410. >You try to ignore that as you sit back down in your chair, beginning to lace your hiking boots.
  411. “Hey, Taps,”
  412. >You call out as you work the laces into a knot.
  413. >He looks up from his food.
  414. >The smell of dust rolling in from the mountains hits you.
  415. >”Y-yeah?”
  416. “Don’t take this wrong,”
  417. >You turn your head up to look at him, touching a knuckle to your chin, scratching the stubble there.
  418. “But you- well, really flipped out when I told you you might not walk again,”
  419. >You might as well impart some wisdom.
  420. >You sigh, continuing.
  421. “Just, you know, your legs, your ability to walk, don’t define you, kid,”
  422. >He doesn’t seem to be reassured at all.
  423. >He just stares at you.
  424. “O-or whatever,”
  425. >He presses his lips into a frown and crinkles his muzzle, taking a look at his hind legs and breathing in to speak.
  426. >”I’m–“
  427. >There is an uncomfortable pause.
  428. >He starts to choke up again.
  429. >”I *was* a tap dancer”
  430. >He turns over, grunting, moving the blanket off of himself, and points to his flank, emblazoned with a top hat and a triangle of light.
  431. >”It’s my special t-talent...”
  432. >He doesn’t say any more, instead turning over and starting to breathe raggedly.
  433. >You understand enough about cutie marks to know that his legs actually are what defined him.
  434. >Guess you accidentally upset him more.
  435. >Shit.
  436. >Both you and Fluttershy take a moment to let that fact sink in, trading glances with you in the chair while she sits on the floor.
  437. >Fluttershy finally pipes in, moving to Taps’ side.
  438. >She puts her hoof on his shoulder in an attempt to comfort him.
  439. >”It’s all right, Tender Taps,”
  440. >It’s not very effective.
  441. >His ears go back, and he curls himself more tightly on the bed.
  442. >After a few more reassuring phrases, she tries again.
  443. >”Tender Taps, you need to calm down,”
  444. >He shakes his head, which is pressed into his pillow.
  445. >Again a miss.
  446. >Having to leave soon anyway, you stand up and walk over, deciding to give it a try.
  447. >You run your hand through your hair. Fluttershy looks up at you.
  448. >With a huff of breath, you begin:
  449. “Kid, sure; It’s not alright,”
  450. >His ears perk, the sniveling dying down for a second.
  451. >You take it as permission to speak.
  452. “Yeah, things aren’t alright. Listen here, though,”
  453. >He starts to turn over a bit.
  454. “I’m going into town today. I’ll find a doctor. Probably can’t afford one, but I’ll at least search. They might be able to help you. Okay?”
  455. >Taps turns his head around, finally making eye contact.
  456. >Little tears dot his cheeks as he asks:
  457. >”Really?”
  458. >You nod, pressing your top lip down.
  459. “Yeah. Might as well- you know, get an opinion from an actual professional,”
  460. >He looks down momentarily, re-establishing eye contact.
  461. >”Thanks,”
  462. >You consider laying a hand on his hoof, but instead opt to step back.
  463. >You don’t want to be dragged any deeper into this messy, emotional quagmire.
  464. >You stand there for a second in though.
  465. >Fuck it.
  466. >You’ve gone so far as to care about his life, give him your bed, and offer to spend money on a doctor for him. This is no huge step.
  467. >You reach over and give Tender Taps a tentative noogie.
  468. >Damn, pony hair is soft. Even Taps’ dirty magenta mane feels feathery to the touch.
  469. >At first flinching a bit, he settles down and keeps his eyes on yours.
  470. >A small smirk begins to break out on your face. You keep it controlled.
  471. >After a few seconds, you pull back.
  472. >There is work to be done; you’ve got to get going.
  473. “See you,”
  474. >You muster a small wave to Taps and head out the door, Fluttershy tailing you.
  478. >The heat of the day is waning as the sun starts to hide itself below the horizon.
  479. >In the dry grass around you, crickets chirp.
  480. >Your sore feet make the last, mechanical strides to the slab of slate before your shack’s door.
  481. >You collapse to the ground, discarding your backpack and taking a seat against the wall.
  482. >As the parched air stagnates and night sets in, you pry off your boots.
  483. >That red spot on your sock must be from a particularly bad blister. Ugh.
  484. >You’ll have to find some more rags to pad your feet with.
  485. >You lean back, closing your eyes and exhaling deeply.
  486. >Casting your boots aside, you reflect on the day’s trip.
  487. >The entire group sweated out about half its body weight on the way, which was only the slightest exaggeration.
  488. >The fact that you guys only brought one barrel of water didn’t ease things, either.
  489. >It’s a shame that a bank in the middle of a fucking desert can’t be open at a time when you don’t have to trek through the midday sun to get there.
  490. >You sigh, letting your head flop down.
  491. >At this point, you’re just glad to be back.
  493. >Seeing as you don’t want to spend the night on the ground, you rise to a standing position, turning to face the door.
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