Cuddly Doom (Chapter 5)

Jul 17th, 2017
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  1. >Fifteen minutes
  2. >I figured we’d been waiting about fifteen minutes when I glanced at the steadily moving hand of the small analog clock, its emotionless face keeping time from a lofty spot above the front counter
  3. >My ears twitched, unable to pick up the characteristic tick of its mechanism over the sound of Typhoon Twist’s fearful breaths, her barrel rising and falling with increasingly apparent trepidation
  4. >“He said he’d be coming back… I-I-I thought he’d be back by now…”
  5. >I readjusted the pressure of my hooves on her side, trying to press firmly on a phantom bump that my hard, insensitive hooves were having terrible trouble feeling
  6. “You’re going to be okay – Cobalt and I won’t let anything happen to you, okay?”
  7. >“Daisy, d-does… cardiac arrest… hurt a lot for… for ponies?”
  8. “I don’t know, Typhoon… but I’m not prepared to find out, either. We’re going to get you through this”
  9. >“O-Okay… Daisy, I don’t want to… to…”
  10. “Don’t worry about it, he’ll be back in just a moment”
  11. >She spoke softly, as though her clinical fate were a predator lurking in the dead of night, listening for its prey before it could pounce
  12. >“How… how much longer… do I-I-I have… until…”
  13. >My eyes flicked back to the clock, wrought with fear of the unknown in spite of the fact that I knew exactly what time it was
  14. “It’s… been a bit more than fifteen minutes… there’s… there’s still time”
  15. >I could only lament how desperately I wanted to lie to her, to say that there was more time remaining in the young mare’s life, at the very least to reinvigorate her fading visage of hope…
  16. >Oh, to maintain the lingering fire in her eyes that had burned so brightly after she saved Cobalt from being shot, not even half a day ago in the precariously preemptive assault on the police line…
  17. >But in her final minutes, the last thing she needed from me was dishonesty, even if the reality of the situation was going to be a painful one emotionally… and very soon, physically…
  18. >Typhoon couldn’t make eye contact with me from where she lay, her body eased against the ground with ears flattened to her fearfully trembling head, but she gave a gentle, slow nod
  19. >Her action did visibly little to reassure herself, making little change to the sight except for wiping the small puddle of tears that had formed on the tile in front of her
  20. >Cobalt had repositioned himself to laying in front of her with his head hung low, staring into her eyes while his own outpouring of tears contributed to wetting the floor
  21. >He too quickly glanced at the clock high above the front counter, flinching when he did so, as if he had been branded with a hot iron
  22. >“Typhoon Twist… please don’t go… I… Y-You were the picture of health for all the years I knew you on the force… This wasn’t supposed to happen to you – it should’ve been me!”
  23. >“Cobalt… I don’t… I don’t know what’s going to happen, but please don’t say things like that… Your son needs you… Ever since your wife passed away he’s always-”
  24. >“Stop! I couldn’t do anything to save her, either! I’m not going to let that happen to you! Please… he never even knew his mother, I at least want him to know you…”
  25. >“Cobalt, it’s okay…”
  26. >“I wanted him to know you as more than someone from work… You never needed to attend his football games, but you did… you sometimes did even when I forgot to tell you the start times…”
  27. >“I just looked them up on the website…”
  28. >“Typhoon, you cared when I thought no one else did… you can’t leave… you c-can’t… d-d-die…”
  29. >“I’ve lived a good life… A happy one… and I have you guys to thank because you were, in some ways, the family I never had growing up…”
  30. >A soft sob escaped her mouth with ears twitching in uncontrollable agitation, her mind sparking, almost audibly, with worried thoughts clashing on the boundary of both past and future
  31. >Cobalt turned to me, eyes flooded even though they were wide with dread, and shimmering from what little light was breaking through the rainy clouds
  32. >“Daisy, they taught us CPR at the police academy… is it the same with pony hearts as it might be with humans?”
  33. >Suddenly on the spot, I furrowed my brow and my eyes flicked across Typhoon’s barrel, her hurried rhythm of heartbeats clearly visible against the backdrop of deep, labored breathing
  34. “I… I don’t know…”
  35. >“Oh, ponyfeathers…”
  36. “I’m sorry… I never knew CPR… I’m so sorry, Cobalt…”
  37. >“I’ll… It’ll have to do…”
  38. “Take my place and keep pressure right here; it might make a few minutes’ difference… Hey, anypony found any cupric paraffin yet?!”
  39. >My harried question was answered with a cacophony of pill bottles rattling to the floor, swiping sounds against shelves, clicks of frenzied hooves on tile… and a distinct lack of voices
  40. >Through the commercial labyrinth of aisles, the only pony I could see was a young Pegasus filly with a red bow in her mane, panic written in her face as she scanned the nearest shelves
  41. >Oh, hayseed, I already knew the answer to the question… they wouldn’t delay for a single second once they found it… if they found it…
  42. >With Cobalt’s quaking hooves taking my place at his marefriend’s side, it freed me up to gallop through the aisles in search of something, anything, anything at all!
  43. >Okay, cardiac arrest… that meant a defibrillator could come in handy, right? I think that’s the right situation for which they get used...
  44. >Oh, mercy, there isn’t one in here! I don’t even know where to find one, and even then I wouldn’t know how to use it, and we’re running out of time!
  45. “Does anyone know where there’s a defibrillator, or know how to use one?!”
  46. >The low din of responses were depressingly void of affirmation, save for a soft-spoken unicorn who said the last she saw one was almost all the way on the other side of town
  47. >Looking back at the clock, it had been twenty minutes since that human had delivered his bad news and departed, meaning Typhoon Twist’s heart could stop beating at any moment…
  48. >How far up the road was this house he said he’d need to visit to get his medicine? Sweet heavens, I should have sent a pony to escort him – something terrible must have happened!
  49. >Not only had my failure to act fast enough potentially doomed Typhoon, it might have hurt HIM – someone who could have been a wonderful friend and valuable medical guidance later on!
  50. >And, well, if he got delayed by somepony in the herd acting on good intentions to try befriending him, I swear, I’m going to give that pony a piece of my mind!
  51. >Right after… right after I’d worked through my own remorse… I… I should have been more careful… Their blood was on my hooves, mine alone…
  52. >One step at a time – I need to find the cupric paraffin first, then I could worry about what had happened to our medical friend, whether he was equine or not
  53. >As I galloped through a weaving slalom of searching ponies, my hooves briefly slipped against the tiles, the floor doused in a thin layer of spilled solvents amid all the other fallen products
  54. >There must’ve been a… a coincidentally unchecked aisle somewhere… maybe a hidden door, or a safe, or something, anything! Typhoon Twist couldn’t just die like this; no, it was wrong!
  55. >But the herd had already been so thorough in their inspection of that shelf… and this one… and that one too…
  56. >Drifting around the edge of an aisle, I bumped into a mare with her muzzle buried in a nondescript box of bottled products, briefly upsetting her balance as my hooves struggled for traction
  57. >Sorry, I’m so sorry! There’ll be time for a proper apology later, oh please, just tell me where this search will come to an end!
  58. >Turning into the aisle at the end of the store and sliding to a halt, my winding journey through the disheveled retail canyons, reminiscent of earthquake aftermath, had yielded… nothing…
  59. >A dull thud echoed between the shelves as I dejectedly took a seated position, or more accurately collapsed into one, suddenly tuning out the chaos of ponies around me
  60. >They continued their dutiful search, with unicorns levitating bottles from shelves and Pegasi fluttering atop freezer units to check unshelved stock, all to no avail
  61. >Nothing…
  62. >An uncharacteristically placid calm had come to the dim store, filling the air with little more than the steady trickle of rain outside, and the gentle sobs of two ponies around the corner
  63. >Time had not waited for the human to return, and when I glanced at the portent of Typhoon’s fate over the front counter, its minute hand ticked to the twenty-seven minute mark
  64. >I rose to my hooves, the hard keratin clicking sharply yet softly as I waded around the spilled merchandise, poking my head into the aisle where Cobalt and Typhoon clutched each other
  65. >The Pegasus stallion’s hooves were no longer pressed into her side, but instead he laid on the ground next to her with hooves wrapped in a lovingly tight embrace, the mare returning his hug
  66. >Each shivered with a frightened rhythm of despair, their shuddering breaths almost synced to each other, as one might find among intimate lovers who fancied themselves one of soul
  67. >Suddenly struck by regret, I lamented the fact that I hadn’t allowed them to hug each other for twenty minutes prior – at least now, she would be dying in her darling’s embrace…
  68. >I tried not to beat myself up over it, still steadily watching unseen from around the aisle’s corner as I repeatedly reminded myself of the reality… I hadn’t thought this would be the end…
  69. >I had thought I was doing the right thing, that I was buying time for the human to return… that he would return at all…
  70. >Typhoon clasped one of her forelegs around Cobalt, using her free forehoof to toy with his mane, brushing a lonely blue strand to one side… back… to the other side… back…
  71. >“Thank goodness that, when I need it, you’ll be the handsome stallion giving me CPR…”
  72. >“It’ll be okay Typhoon! The human will be back at any moment with the medicine y-”
  73. >“Sshhh… it’s okay…”
  74. >Before Cobalt could finish his thought, his partner’s interruption cut him off and a hoof on the back of his head pushed him into a kiss
  75. >The pair of Pegasi locked lips for what might be their last intimate opportunity to do so, while Cobalt’s wings fluttered with adoring ecstasy
  76. >Oh Cobalt, for as much as your stunning marefriend takes your breath away, I sure hope you can return the favor by breathing life back into her when the time comes…
  77. >Twenty-eight minutes… If the time was correct, Typhoon was indeed quite lucky to have made it this far, but as a tear rolled down her cheek, she clearly knew this bliss would be short-lived
  78. >As I braced myself for the inevitable and prepared to provide any assistance I could to Cobalt, I was scarcely aware of my own trembling, and even less so of the hoof poking my back
  79. >Momentarily, I swiveled my head and ears away to find Storm Cloud standing to my side, head hung low and out of breath, each exhale resonating with a labored gust of air
  80. >“Daisy… we have a problem… a very very serious problem!”
  81. “StormCloudohgoshpleasepleaseplease… pleasepleasetellme… tell me you saw the human and he sent you ahead with it!”
  82. >As she raised her head, her expression was wrought with a shade of fatigue, but above all, confusion showed through, causing my fleeting vestige of a smile to drape into a horrified frown
  83. “No… But… Typhoon Twist…”
  84. >“I definitely saw him when he tried to come into the same house as me. I was looking for – and found – Sky Meadows there, but he left in a hurry”
  85. >Well, thank goodness, at least that’s one pony that’s safe from his medical practice that otherwise leaves some things to be desired…
  86. “Wait, so he got it?! Where was- did he get lost on the way back to the store or something?! Tell me, Storm Cloud!”
  87. >“Daisy, what’s gotten into you? Is something wrong?”
  88. “Just answer me!”
  89. >I glanced up at the clock, the time now reading an irrefutable thirty minutes, plus a few seconds, just beyond when the window for cardiac arrest was supposed to draw to a close
  90. >Frantically glancing at the Pegasi in the aisle, they were both very much still alive, and having broken off their kiss they were once again engaged in a hug on the floor, ignorant of time
  91. >Typhoon Twist was always a fighter, even before we were friends with her, and whether that was contributing to her tenacity in the face of death… I couldn’t say for sure
  92. >Storm Cloud trotted up to my side and brushed my mane, doing her best to calm my clearly frayed nerves
  93. >“Daisy, if you’re so worked up already, it might be better not to tell you…”
  94. “Please, Storm, I’m begging you, where is he with the medicine? I don’t know what’s going on… I need to know; it’s life or death…”
  95. >“Medicine? Wait, whose… whose medicine?”
  96. “The medicine that human needed to get for Typhoon Twist, because she’s going into feather-fluttering cardiac arrest if we don’t help her!”
  97. >Storm Cloud’s ears pressed against her head, which sunk low as she as she almost imperceptibly tried to take a step backwards
  98. >“I… I don’t… I didn’t know about that… I didn’t think he was… he was…”
  99. “That he was WHAT, Storm Cloud?!”
  100. >“That he was serious about needing to get the medicine! He talked about going to get it, and then when he went upstairs, he was just raising an alarm! I think I scared him off after that…”
  101. >Oh, son of a…
  102. >No no no, Storm Cloud, you featherbrain! You worthless, foolish pony, why did you do that?! I told you we needed to work with him, and you turn around and get Typhoon killed for it!
  103. >I tried to veil my raging emotions, but as Storm Cloud’s eyes widened and her ears pointed back, I was clearly doing a poor job
  104. >“Daisy, don’t give me that look! He wrestled me to the ground with a knife and was yelling a bunch of angry things at me! All I wanted to do was save Sky Meadows!”
  105. >Yeah, maybe at Typhoon’s expense…
  106. “I’m frankly surprised you didn’t find and take a single opportunity to make friends with him… and to think, I feared you would’ve when I specifically told you we NEED him as a human!”
  107. >“And I just might have if I’d had any opportunities whatsoever!”
  108. >I sighed angrily and threw my head skyward, briefly scowling to the heavens before returning my gaze to the purple Pegasus
  109. “Storm Cloud, please tell me he at least mentioned where he kept his medicine – cupric paraffin, we need it now! You can still go back to the house to get it, right?”
  110. >“Uh, he didn’t tell me about… Daisy, what was the name of it again?”
  111. “Cupric paraffin! He said it’s in a purple bottle with a white lid”
  112. >Storm Cloud let out a faint chuckle, which very nearly caused my blood to boil over
  113. >“Cupric… paraffin? Daisy, that’s insane…”
  114. “Stop arguing! Please! I don’t know when her heart’s going to stop – please just go get it… please…”
  115. >“Daisy, I can’t! I’m not a doctor but I took a couple semesters of chemistry right before becoming your friend! Copper bonded to a hydrocarbon as such is… absurd! It has no medical use!”
  116. >My hoof clicked sharply against the floor as I took a step toward Storm Cloud, suppressing a lingering urge to express my frustration with a lunge
  117. “Yes it does! He said we need to give two pills of it to Typhoon, or else her heart was going to stop – I listened to his every word very, very closely and I know exactly what I heard!”
  118. >“Cupric. Paraffin.”
  119. >Good heavens, was this pony just not listening to me?
  120. “Yes, that’s exactly what I said”
  121. >“Okay Daisy, let me humor you for a bit – what was her prognosis; when was this to occur? Because I can try to track some down, but when that time rolls around, you’ll realize I’m right”
  122. “It… it’s very soon… she could probably go into cardiac arrest at any moment…”
  123. >I averted my eyes toward the floor, in part because I didn’t want Storm Cloud to interpret my traitorous gaze, but also because my unexpectedly inadvertent tears were returning
  124. >“I feel as though you’re not telling me everything you could be… Specifics, Daisy?”
  125. “He… He said it’d be between twenty and thirty minutes after he left…”
  126. >I slowly raised my head, rolling my eyes objectionably toward the clock at the front of the store
  127. “It’s been thirty-four minutes…”
  128. >“So in other words, she should be dead, but is very much alive after… how much time again?”
  129. “Thirty-four minutes… plus about twenty seconds, if you want to… want to be… precise…”
  130. >“And Typhoon Twist’s condition suddenly appeared, what, while he was treating her, and with a short but conveniently long enough window for him to escape without raising alarm?”
  131. “Hey, I was just trying to save Typhoon Twist! Wait… What, you think he poisoned her so that she’d go into cardiac arrest?! Oh horseapples, he’d need to have some nerve…”
  132. >Storm Cloud bowed her head, gently shaking it even as I flinched away from the friendly hug she was attempting to offer
  133. “S-Storm Cloud, answer me! S-S-She could still be in grave danger!”
  134. >“Daisy… Typhoon was never in any danger… He set it up as a ruse, and maybe a smart one, but just a ruse – She’s going to be just fine…”
  135. “I… I…”
  136. >I nestled my head into my friend’s neck, a combination of submission to her hug, acceptance that she had a point, and a posture befitting gentle sobbing that allowed her to pat my back
  137. >Whether they were tears of joy for the well-being of everypony in the herd, tears of anguish over the past half-hour, or tears of horror about the human still out there… I couldn’t say which
  138. >A ruse? As in, Typhoon was going to be perfectly fine? Why was… what… how did he…
  139. >With myself incapacitated by a deluge of emotions, Storm Cloud took over my role as newsbearer to the ponies in the store, some of whom were still diligently ravaging boxes for phony pills
  140. >“Everypony, there’s no need to worry! Typhoon’s going to be just fine!”
  141. >Save for the steady fall of a few final pill bottles, the room fell quiet, each pony taking a moment to process the information before contributing to a collective sigh of relief
  142. >The most pronounced, an utterance that couldn’t accurately supplant itself between a cheer and a foalish squeal of joy, came from Cobalt, his eyes, cheeks and ears tinged red
  143. >“Oh, my sweet darling, I’ll never leave your side! I was so worried for you!”
  144. >“I was worried about you too, Cobalt… I… l-love you...”
  145. >Storm Cloud and I suppressed a pair of slight smiles as the Pegasi renewed the vigor of their embrace, leaning close for a definitive kiss in the relatively lacking intimacy of the dim aisle
  146. >Even amid the joyous atmosphere marked by a dull murmur of conversation and the gradually intensifying downpour of rain outside, I found my eyes were still as misty as ever
  147. >Sensing my unrest, Storm Cloud clutched me rigidly in her hug
  148. >“Daisy, you don’t have to beat yourself up over being bested by a human this one time… we almost lost Clementine Breeze’s friend in the woods, but even he was befriended soon enough…”
  149. >It wasn’t that… that wasn’t what was bothering me, and oh, how I wished Storm Cloud could understand…
  150. >So long as we needed him to remain human – to be the medical professional we needed, to perform Jenkins-North injections, to care for the herd’s lifeblood – I wanted him to trust us
  151. >Now, at a time when befriending the town had left hundreds of ponies in distress – even if not all injuries were necessarily life-threatening, though many were – we’d lost him
  152. >We could’ve given him practically anything he wanted, from the nicest home in town, to an endless stockpile of human goods that had been rendered defunct by our hooves
  153. >At the end of the day, what were we going to do with a few hundred pounds of bacon that were slowly thawing out in a downtown burger joint’s meat locker?
  154. >From chefs to carpenters, our herd was represented by a plethora of ponies with skills they could’ve applied to ensure he was treated like a king
  155. >And all he needed to do was save lives… to do EXACTLY what his T-shirt implied he’d done for years prior…
  156. >Even if I might not be able to bring myself to trust him, I didn’t really need to, so long as I kept my hooves off him, and kept everypony else doing the same for the sake of ponies’ health
  157. >We could’ve given him had all this town had to offer… and instead he threw it away out of fear that ponies were going to share a different ‘gift’ that he didn’t yet realize he truly desired
  158. >And to say no in such a despicable, heart-wrenching manner…
  159. >It’s bad enough that our current unicorn medics aren’t equipped to do Jenkins-North injections, or any of the procedures he mentioned as ones that, for all I knew, would save lives
  160. >We needed him… But I guess, in the end… well, I guess I was right not to trust him…
  161. “Storm Cloud, you said you saw him leaving?”
  162. >“Yes, although it was some time ago…”
  163. >Turning my attention to the clock, it was… fifty minutes past? Had I been thoughtfully staring into Storm Cloud’s shoulder for that long, like some kind of schoolfilly?
  164. >Goodness Daisy, get a grip, time is still of the essence here…
  165. “Well, all the same, in what direction did he leave?”
  166. >“I… I didn’t see… It could have been anywhere, but he probably wouldn’t pass anywhere near Carmine Corners again if he were avoiding you”
  167. “Storm Cloud, if he wasn’t planning on following through with his ruse and coming back with… I guess a few sugar pills, he wouldn’t have had ANY reason to go to that house in the first place”
  168. >“I suppose that makes sense, he could’ve just run, but what if he had ANOTHER reason to go there, and maybe never planned to come back at all… Or, at least, changed his mind at some point…”
  169. “But why would he interfere with you going to get Sky Meadows? She was obviously at that house; why not just lie about the address?”
  170. >“Because it was about someone at the house that meant so much more to him than Sky Meadows, or any bottle of fake pills ever could… Not that his warning did any good…”
  171. >Wait, warning for… who? The only souls he’d be trying to ‘warn’ about ponies would…
  172. “Storm Cloud, do you mean… ‘somepony,’ or… No… You’re kidding, right?”
  173. >My realization caused my mouth to hang ajar in shock, the massive implications becoming clear as a smirk spread across Storm Cloud’s face
  174. >“HIS closest friend, once known as a man by the name Alexander, is now OUR friend, the mare Snowfall. I think it’d be downright greedy to ask for anything more…”
  175. “Blooming apples, anything short of Snowfall delivering him right into our hooves!”
  176. >Good heavens, Storm Cloud had done everything to perfection! The human with the medical inclination we so sorely needed hadn’t been befriended, but a close friend of his had been?!
  177. >Once we’ve explained our situation, in the name of helping her new herd, she’d be more than happy to inform us of the current status of... certain members of her former species!
  178. >“I came back immediately upon finding her and Sky Meadows, but solely based on a conversation I heard through a door, they were very close friends; I have to believe they shared plans”
  179. “Storm Cloud, I’m not sure I can overstate how eager I am to meet this pony… what’s she like? Is she bubbly – likes talking a lot?”
  180. >“I’m not sure – I left Sky Meadows to finish up befriending her, although she was the cutest little thing when she cupped her hand over her mouth… her voice climbed, like, two octaves”
  181. “In that case, fly back to the house and invite her to meet the rest of the herd here! Admittedly, it’s a… bit of a mess, but we can scrounge some salads here to make her feel welcome!”
  182. >“Nothing like a good meal to make somepony feel welcome – I’m on it!”
  183. >Giddy about her chance to introduce the new friend, Storm Cloud skipped over the scattered cereal boxes lining the floor until she’d come within a single leap of the storefront window
  184. >Launching through it with a sudden gust of air, her wings snapped outwards, and she soared into the sky before gradually fading into a spot of lurid color on the grey canvas of rain clouds
  185. >I had a brief opportunity to revel in the quest the next hours would pose, but my train of thought was promptly interrupted by Typhoon Twist
  186. >Having finally broken from her embrace with her stallionfriend at some point prior, she remained silhouetted in the shadows of the aisle, surrounded by a pair of now-completely-eaten salads
  187. >Her ears flicked with excitement, as though she were dubiously testing their operation, but simultaneously enthusiastic about any proposed opportunity to put them to use
  188. >“Daisy, I’m not going to stand idly by while the man who did this to us… to our herd… to me… while he roams free through this town, possibly planning to strike at our hearts again”
  189. “Typhoon, are you sure about that? We really ought to get you to a safe location so you can rest…”
  190. >With an abrupt, unwavering fire in her eyes, she rose to her hooves, putting the splint on her hind leg through its paces for the first time, the Velcro straps shuddering in protest
  191. >Admittedly, the aluminum core could move with her broad, sweeping leg motions, but the harried procedure of affixing it to her leg hadn’t included all the steps to allow for natural flexibility
  192. >Even as Typhoon winced and did her best to suppress a yelp, I knew it would have been fruitless to deny her, considering she wouldn’t have taken no for an answer
  193. >“I’m not going to be shut away in some dark corner of town while the rest of the herd is off on some derring-do… I need to see the man who did this… I need to… for Cobalt, for us…”
  194. >My gaze shifted to the Pegasus stallion, and likewise he had risen to his hooves, sporting an expression of determination and posture as unmovingly rock-solid as the floor on which he stood
  195. “Typhoon… I can’t guarantee you’ll be the one to befriend him if it comes down to it, again, if and only if it comes down to it, but I can see the benefit of doing so…”
  196. >“I understand it’s not a guarantee… but let me at least TRY to show him that our herd is more than willing to forgive people who have made mistakes…”
  197. >Her eyes sunk to the floor as she displayed a melancholy half-smile, as though laughing at a joke with an unnervingly dark premise
  198. “Well… I’m guessing Cobalt clued you in a bit on what you did right before you became a pony? At the end of the day, you of all ponies would know a thing or two about forgiveness…”
  199. >“I’m not proud of those things, but joining the herd let me put them behind me. Terrible as it was – what this guy did to me – I want to help him too… to be his friend…”
  200. >My only recourse was to nod my affirmation, doing so slowly and with a bit of hesitation, but still, I sensed the undeniable divination that had led Typhoon to her request
  201. “In that case, Storm Cloud, Sky Meadows, and Snowfall will all be back in a few minutes. Be sure everypony feels welcome among us, as the latter two have been missing us for… some time…”
  202. >“But you’re the one among us who’s been a pony the longest… why aren’t you… wouldn’t it make sense for you to be the welcoming party?”
  203. “All I’d be able to add is convincing Snowfall to help us… and after Storm Cloud’s testament and the presentation of some of the ‘medical work’ this guy’s done, that really won’t be a concern”
  204. >“Well, everypony just wants to help us, after all. So, then, where will you be?”
  205. >My gaze flicked to a looming grey building outside, its blocky, uninspired profile just a block or two away and certainly close enough that I could visit in a jiffy… the local hospital…
  206. “If you’re going to join us while we track this guy down, I’m going to take a detour to look for some more effective painkillers at the hospital. They might have morphine or something…”
  207. >“But the EMT treating me gave us a full bottle of aspirin…”
  208. >Nudging the bottle at Cobalt’s hooves, a faint rattling echoed through the aisle
  209. “Yes, but so long as we don’t know where he is – so long as we can’t use the threat of ponification or promise of reward to motivate his honesty – I would hesitate to trust those…”
  210. I wanted nothing less than the best for her, as she deserved to face the man who had put her through so much, but didn’t deserve to flinch in pain every step of the journey…
  211. >“If you insist, Daisy… In that case, we’ll be right here when you get back”
  212. >I let out a short chuckle to nopony in particular, its tone laced with worry as much as it was humor, considering Typhoon’s statement should have been a foregone conclusion
  213. >I can only hope you’ll all be here when I get back… Even though the prospect of better equipping us to search was too tempting, I still wasn’t comfortable leaving the herd for a moment…
  214. >The last time I’d left them to take care of business, opening the door at the ordeal’s end revealed a menagerie of firearms pointed at us, our trembling hooves cornered in a liquor store
  215. >Teleportation could have gotten me out of the situation, but I couldn’t shake the thought that my zeal could’ve gotten them all killed… just to befriend Typhoon Twist…
  216. >A few errant moves and a bit less luck could have been the end of everypony…
  217. >If we were going to go toe-to-hoof with a human, again, one final time, especially one who knew EXACTLY what we were trying to do to him, the margin for error was going to be even thinner
  218. >An ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure, and I didn’t want to be on the wrong side of the exchange if a few milliliters of morphine was worth a gallon of spilled blood
  219. >Eyeing the hospital on the horizon, I cantered to door at the front of the store and wrapped its handle in a brilliant magical aura, tugging it open with ease
  220. >The faint ringing of a bell overhead heralded my departure as I broke into a gallop, while the sky began to douse my mane with gentle raindrops
  222. >As I galloped around the corner into the hospital’s parking lot, the splash of rainwater from a poorly drained puddle caused me to briefly envy the flighty privileges of my Pegasus friends
  223. >After all, they were able to take to the skies and keep their hooves relatively dry amid the downpour, their glossy wings flicking water away with casual ease as they swooped among the drops
  224. >From a high vantage, one might’ve even caught a glimpse of that double-dealing human somewhere in the streets, but I didn’t trouble myself too much, as his time would come soon enough…
  225. >Once Snowfall met with us and divulged everything she knew, it’d be almost trivial tracking him down, with the time required to do so nearly dependent upon the herd’s trotting speed
  226. >You can run all you want, you unscrupulous featherbrain, but the ponies all around you are rather eager about incurring the logical conclusion of your endeavor, to the benefit of everypony
  227. >Shaking the rainwater from my foreleg and whipping my mane to the side as raindrops continued to pepper my face, I weaved around the abandoned cars filling the parking lot
  228. >My hooves clicked against the wet asphalt as I snaked in and out of the very slowly fading skid marks that had been left over from the previous night
  229. >Taking refuge beneath the overhang that sheltered the main entrance to the emergency room, one obnoxiously lurid vehicle at the skid marks’ terminus inevitably garnered my attention
  230. >The fully operational ambulance’s keys were still in its ignition, the engine sputtering through its final drops of gasoline after it was ditched hours ago and left to idle indefinitely
  231. >A single siren light dimly turned in a slow circle atop the vehicle, silently alerting to those in its lonesome presence that some kind of emergency must be, or mush have been, afoot
  232. >Following the skid marks recalling the vehicle’s frantic stop, I eyed the rear wheels of the ambulance, my gaze slowly rising over the rest of the vehicle’s back end
  233. >A meager cloud streamed and curled from the exhaust pipe, and as the rear door’s handle became enveloped in a telekinetic aura, I rolled one side of it open with an eerie shuddering of metal
  234. >Leerily pacing toward my reflection in the polished chrome of the bumper, I shifted my weight onto my hind hooves and launched into the darkness of the cabin, landing with a hollow thud
  235. >As muddled daylight streamed in, it wasn’t too dark to make out most of the details surrounding me, and the soft glow of my horn further aided my investigation
  236. >If I’d ever been inside one of these before I made any friends, those memories were certainly gone, but it seemed like a pretty standard bedroom setup, just with a lot of cabinets
  237. >Admittedly, the bed frame was an uninspiring mishmash of snaking metal tubes, and the bed’s mattress was little more than a thick sheet of brightly colored foam
  238. >I couldn’t see the appeal of designing the bed this way, especially with its wheels, straps and lack of pillows, and thankfully I had far better places to sleep tonight
  239. >The plastic bags hanging from the tall metal stand next to it downright confused me – much of the bed did – but I could at least remember that these beds weren’t meant for overnight sleep
  240. >Since ambulances were used for unhealthy people, I think a mobile napping center was more apt, although I couldn’t shake the feeling that something else about its purpose eluded me
  241. >Brushing aside the thought, I began to sift through the cabinets’ contents for anything that might help Typhoon Twist or anypony else in our herd
  242. >Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have that human back here so he could at least tell me what’s useful and what isn’t… The last thing I need is for somepony to get zonked out on the wrong meds…
  243. >Amid the varied containers and boxes of bandages clattering to the floor, my spirits elevated slightly when I managed to find one bottle of aspirin, its factory seal still unbroken
  244. >It wasn’t morphine or any other high-strength painkiller, but I could sleep more easily knowing that what Cobalt and Typhoon were taking was the real deal
  245. >Levitating a small zippered bag adorned with a faded cross symbol, I carefully collected the aspirin, a few bandages, disinfectant fluids, and some other simple first aid supplies we could use
  246. >Jumping back down to the asphalt, my hooves landed with a resounding report, considerably louder than the bag of supplies gently subsiding a moment later next to the ambulance
  247. >Casting my gaze in the direction from which I’d originally approached, I briefly considered simply returning to the Carmine Corners convenience store with this stock in hoof
  248. >As my head swiveled to the hospital’s main door, however, it was difficult to convince myself to not spend at least a few extra minutes exploring its interior
  249. >Worst case scenario, the search is a bust and Snowfall has a few extra minutes to get to know the rest of the herd in my absence – it’s not like the human could get far in the meantime
  250. >Best case scenario, we could be really well prepared to deal with any pain, injury, or obstacle the upcoming odyssey would throw at us
  251. >Carefully sidestepping the scattered shards of broken glass littering the ground, my hooves briefly snagged on the torn remnants of an ambulance driver’s uniform left on the sidewalk curb
  252. >If memory served correctly, she hadn’t even made it more than five or six paces from the ambulance’s door before one of the Pegasi latched on to her leg, knocking her to the ground
  253. >At least, I think it was a Pegasus – the long tear down the shirt’s back was pretty consistent with anypony who became a Pegasus when they befriended our herd – I could be misremembering
  254. >And not to mention, it was a group effort by ponies of several different types – after all, ponies are great at working together!
  255. >When I’d caught up to her, I took over cuddling her barrel, which was so much easier once her wings tore out and the shirt slid away – her darn radio had been poking me in the rib
  256. >With the blue fur rapidly consuming her face the more snuggly she became, I’ll never forget the moment I saw her look of horror turned into a smile of pure glee as she shook off her humanity
  257. >Sure, befriending people was sometimes difficult, but it’s the little things that always make it aaaall worth it, knowing that ponies’ lives have been dramatically changed for the better
  258. >Although, my sole regret from last night was how I wish I’d inquired more first, or that I hadn’t brought any knowledgeable ponies with me to address my newly resurfacing questions…
  259. >Before we befriended that ambulance driver, she kept going on about something called the ‘Geneva Conventions’ and how we were ‘attacking a hospital’
  260. >I know I told her that by befriending everyone in the hospital we were saving them from their ailments, not hurting them, but that didn’t seem to do much to sway her stance
  261. >It probably would have helped if I knew what the Geneva Conventions were, and, to the herd’s credit, a few minutes later a unicorn told me they had something to do with ‘prisoners of war’
  262. >I had a pretty good idea what a prisoner is, and I’m still trying to figure out what war is – it’s most likely an acronym, and not the one used in a baseball context, but that’s all I know
  263. >Kicking the tattered uniform away, I approached the front door with an air of curiosity as to whether it would still open automatically after having been smashed open
  264. >Maybe it was the fact that it had been designed for humans, but the sensor yielded no response, prompting me to slip in through one of the smashed glass panels
  265. >Being careful to avoid the sharp edges, I was greeted by a dim hallway punctuated by a series of benches and forsaken administrative desks, with papers strewn chaotically about
  266. >As I walked vigilantly down the corridor, the clicking of my hooves against the tile resonated cavernously, filling the quiet air with its sole disturbances save for a steady drip of rain outside
  267. >I passed row after row of beds, the machines around them having gone dark hours ago and their occupants long gone, the floor now strewn with discarded gowns, scrubs, and lab coats
  268. >In one bed I found a teddy bear that had belonged to a young green unicorn filly who-
  269. >Well… I guess it hadn’t belonged to a unicorn filly originally, but rather, a young girl who had been in the emergency room recovering from a head injury when I found her
  270. >Shutting out all the shouts echoing through the hospital, she’d been positively enamored by all the ponies running about, and she’d been beside herself with excitement that she got to join us
  271. >In a place where most people weren’t otherwise willing to cuddle with us, she’d been a little ray of sunshine, and the fact that we could replace her gashes with a horn was icing on the cake
  272. >Levitating the teddy bear from its entanglement amid the blankets and hospital gown, I tenderly looked at it for a few seconds before returning it to its place
  273. >Arriving at the end of the emergency room’s beds without having scavenged much of interest, I nudged open a few closet doors, only to be greeted by janitorial supplies and papers
  274. >The walls contained a sparse smattering of signs that would have once directed patients to the hospital’s various departments, but I found it hard to choose between the options
  275. >Outpatients, Sonography/ECG, Pediatricians, Nursery Administration… Pharmacy? I guess that makes sense, right?
  276. >If I were high-grade painkillers, where would I be…
  277. >Prodding the bar of the stairwell door and entering its uninspired atmosphere, I mused to myself as my hooves clicked against the concrete, slowly ascending to the next floor
  278. >Carefully shutting the stairwell door behind me, I peered out at a similar nondescript corridor closely resembling the one downstairs, though its rows of beds had been supplanted by office doors
  279. >I should probably check the pharmacy in hopes of finding morphine or anything better than aspirin for Typhoon, and in the meantime I can check some of the other rooms on this floor for-
  280. >My thoughts were abruptly halted and I stopped where I was as a steady rhythm of steps filled the dim hallway, echoing from somewhere around the corner
  281. >I might not have been so intrigued by them if not for the steps’ unique cadence, as the four-beat clicking of hooves with which I was familiar was markedly different than this one-two step
  282. >Well, hello there, I guess you may have evaded our herd before now, but you’ll be our friend soon enough…
  283. >Tucking against the wall and easing down the hallway with the most gentle hoofbeats I could manage, I flattened my ears against my head and peeked around the corner
  284. >Against the backdrop of a window with its blinds drawn, I caught the silhouette of a young woman diligently peering into each room of the hospital as she slowly moved away from me
  285. >With each flick of her head, the long curtain of hair flowing from atop her head further confirmed that she definitely wasn’t the young human male from Carmine Corners
  286. >Still, she WAS a human
  287. >Carefully inspecting her outfit and possessions, I noted a distinct lack of any visible weapons, her hands instead filled with rolls of bandages and a few packs of granola bars
  288. >The grey of the dully lit hallway contrasted with her bright purple examination gloves, while the remainder of her clothes, from her black backpack to her grey coat and jeans, was much subtler
  289. >Weighing the benefits granted by the element of surprise, I considered lunging at her and befriending her before she even knew I was here, but after a moment’s consideration, I hesitated
  290. >Especially considering the setting in which I’d encountered her, what if she were able to do all the medical procedures that the other human could, given those fine hands of hers?
  291. >What if SHE could be the one to monitor our herd’s lifeblood, and ensure that everypony that had been injured last night was taken care of, without shortcomings?
  292. >Not to mention, it always felt good to make a friend willingly whenever that was an option
  293. “Excuse me, w-”
  294. >“Oh, FUCK!”
  295. >With our voices bouncing through the empty hallway, she pivoted to face me, her expression of tempered fear twisting into one of abject horror as her eyes met mine
  296. “I just wanted to know-”
  297. >“No! Oh, fuck! You’re one of the ponies who was here last night! You’re that white unicorn, oh please, not you!”
  298. >Out of focus and just over her shoulder, I noticed a stairwell door at the hallway’s end, and in spite of her terror, I was shocked as she continually defied my expectations of her fleeing
  299. >Whether she was paralyzed with fear or genuinely interested in speaking a few words to me, I couldn’t tell, so I held my ground at the hallway corner, a few yards away from her
  300. >I did my best to speak calmly in hopes of pacifying her racing heart, using dialogue filled with kindness and a gaze that was anything but confrontational
  301. “My name’s Daisy… I wanted to know if you could help us or whether you’d like to cuddle…”
  302. >“Daisy, why… why did you come back? This place has been deserted for hours, why didn’t you just leave with the herd, you know, on to the next town, like all the other ponies?”
  303. >Truth be told, I hadn’t given the question too much thought before now, especially after I’d felt fine leaving a couple prior towns once the ponies had firm control of the situations there
  304. >Nonetheless, at some point I knew I couldn’t keep leaving my friends behind, and I’d want a quiet place to settle down, with this town seeming better than most
  305. >Far from the quiet place I’d anticipated, the few remaining humans in this town were proving to be quite bothersome, with one particular EMT coming to mind…
  306. “It might be a little cliché to say it, but I’m bringing peace to this town”
  307. >With a slow, shaky nod, she reluctantly removed her backpack and set it on the ground, averting her eyes from mine only momentarily as they gradually began welling up with tears
  308. >“Please… Daisy… It’s just you here, right?”
  309. “Yes, as far as I know”
  310. >I slowly began closing the distance between us, if only to help hear the pleas that were escaping her mouth with feeble volume
  311. >“Please, Daisy… Please, just let me go… I don’t want any trouble…”
  312. >Her words gave me pause, prompting me to cock my head to the side as her words sifted through my mind
  313. “Trouble? What are you talking about?”
  314. >“Anything you want, I can give it to you… Food, medicine, tools, you name it, please just… Take it all and let me be – tell me what you want and it’s yours, really…”
  315. “I just… I want to do what’s best for my herd. That’s my sole concern, now and always – maybe… maybe you can help us, but I’d need you to come with me and give me your full trust”
  316. >“Y-Yeah, uh, what… wait, what do you need? You say that as though I don’t need to be a pony for this, is that right?”
  317. “I kind of hate to say it, but to be honest, it’d be better if you weren’t a pony. Did you work in this hospital?”
  318. >Her eyes lit up
  319. >“I-I-I did! I’ve been on staff for eight years now – I know this place like the back of my hand!”
  320. >My eyes lit up
  321. “Really?! Oh my, that’s fantastic! We need someone who can do a few finer medical procedures for injured ponies, say, as you probably know, Jenkins-North injections are quite precise”
  322. >“Jenkins… North?”
  323. “Yeah, as it turns out, unicorn magic is alright at performing most procedures, but that one in particular requires hands on account of… Hey, are you okay?”
  324. >Her head was buried in one of her hands, the tempo of her breathing and heart gradually ticking upwards the more I spoke
  325. >“You want me to perform… what, again?”
  326. “Jenkins-North injections, you know, the fairly rudimentary procedure taught to new EMTs?”
  327. >“Those… what…”
  328. “They involve a syringe drawing fluid from a pill capsule and then injecting it… uh… well, it has to do with cuts that could possibly be infected”
  329. >She dropped her hand and met my gaze grimly, causing me to shift my weight back as a single tear rolled from one of her eyes
  330. >“Daisy, what the hell is this? There’s no procedure by that name – no one would ever take the active ingredient from a pill like that – why are you playing games with me?”
  331. “I… I’m not! I’m not lying to you, it-”
  332. >“You always did like playing games with your prey – you could at least let me go out with some damn dignity!”
  333. “Games? I don’t… what are you talking about?!”
  334. >“I should’ve known you never let me keep my humanity! You’re trying to make me look like an idiot before you turn me into one of YOU, just like you made my coworker look like a coward!”
  335. “I don’t understand! Really! What do you mean by that?”
  336. >“You know exactly what I mean… You busted into the room in which he was working, and when he tried to fight you off with a scalpel, you used your fucking magic to grab it from him”
  337. “And… And why wouldn’t I? He was clearly more than willing to use it against me and-”
  338. >“That’s not all though – you pushed him to the floor and took this domineering stance over him, delaying his transformation just so you could say some speech about stealing his humanity”
  339. “But really, I didn’t mean any ill will by it! I really only had his best interests and the best interests of our herd in mind! I’m not sadistic like you’re making me out to be!”
  340. >That… that may have only been partially true…
  341. >“And yet instead of just hugging him immediately, you needed to break his will first… why, Daisy?”
  342. >My gaze sunk to my forehooves and the tiles in front of me as I carefully pondered the question, my eyes darting back and forth as a hundred trains of thought piled into the railyard
  343. >I didn’t find anything fun about it when I needed to do it… r-right?
  344. “But you have to understand, it’s not an immediate transformation, and I’m responsible for everypony’s safety…”
  345. >“And what difference does that make?”
  346. “I understand that not everyone’s going to be willing to cuddle with us – that’s just how it is – and while we can usually do so by force, whenever I see a human brandishing a weapon…”
  347. >I let out a long shuddering exhale, pausing for what felt like an eternity
  348. >“What, Daisy?”
  349. “I just get so scared that somepony’s going to get hurt… Even if I can take the weapon away, their violent tendencies persist until the pony element of their personality consumes them”
  350. >“I worked with him for years and he never hurt a fly… before you nuzzled his face and spread that horrid yellow fur down his chest, I still have to wonder whether it was truly necessary”
  351. “If it meant that he wasn’t going to punch another pony while resisting, I think a bit of mental anguish that he’d end up forgetting a moment later is worth it...”
  352. >“So it’s okay to take someone’s dignity and masculinity, so long as you also take their memories? I never realized three wrongs made a right with ponies – what’s in store for me?”
  353. “Look, I’m sorry if it was something I said... I wasn’t trying to make you look stupid, honest! I suppose I’m just desperate to find someone why can do Jenkins-North injections”
  354. >“And I’m telling you right now, those procedures simply don’t exist!”
  355. “Maybe it’s just… something you didn’t learn? There was an EMT walking me through how to do one of them, and would he lie about how t-”
  356. >Would he lie about it? Blooming apples, of course he would, Daisy, don’t let yourself get conned that easily… Oh, ponyfeathers…
  357. >With a long sigh, I dropped my head, letting my mane droop apathetically as I wrestled with the fact that I’d been duped in the human’s ruses, not only once, but twice
  358. >Shame on me…
  359. “I… I’d been under the honest impression that Jenkins-North injections were real… I didn’t mean to upset you or lie about them just so I could make you look like an idiot before we cuddled…”
  360. >When I lifted my eyes again, the woman had taken a seat on the hospital floor, and was withdrawing a laptop from her backpack
  361. >The back of its screen was adorned with a logo matching the one emblazoned across the marble over the hospital’s entrance, and featured prominently elsewhere on papers and stationery
  362. >With a soft glow lighting up the logo and bathing her face in a greenish-yellow warmth, the computer came to life as she turned the screen so we could both observe it simultaneously
  363. >“You don’t need to go tackling me. It’s a laptop, not a weapon”
  364. “Yeah, thanks… thanks for the heads-up… so, what are you doing with that? Googling whether a Jenkins-North injection is a real thing?”
  365. >“I wish I could; the Internet’s been down across town since last night and I’ve been preeeetty much cut off with the outside world”
  366. “Oh… right…”
  367. >Last night when Morning Star mentioned that he had an extensive background in IT, I was ecstatic to have somepony who could ensure that no one in town would raise an alarm about us
  368. >It was hard not to start spacing out after he started bringing up all he knew about cables and networks, but it was clear he knew exactly what would be required to ‘cut off’ the town
  369. >I hadn’t fully thought through the ramifications, but this was still a worthy tradeoff for future herds’ success at finding friends with less resistance to their cuddles
  370. >“This computer has all of the hospital’s plaintext records going back about a decade, and if I open that up… just give it a moment to load… there! Thousands and thousands of entries, see?”
  371. >Following where her finger was pointing, I not only noticed the entry directory, but also a small search bar at the top of the screen
  372. >My ear twitched slightly as her hands lowered to the keyboard, a soft series of clicks echoing through the hallway with each key pressed
  373. >“And if we search for ‘Jenkins-North’, it gives us… no entries. Not one. If it were a common thing, wouldn’t it be mentioned in at least one ambulance report? EMT report? Doctor’s note?”
  374. “Okay… it’s just that… the EMT showing it to me said…”
  375. >Why am I still defending him when it’s clear he blatantly lied? Was there any point in dithering about making him a pony now? Did he have ANY special skills as a human that a pony wouldn’t?
  376. >“You seem lost in thought, Daisy… is… is something wrong?”
  377. “I’m okay… It’s just… Are there any procedures that a human would be able to do that a telekinetically adept unicorn couldn’t?”
  378. >It was, evidently, her turn to look distraught as I concluded my question
  379. >“Having seen you grab a scalpel from someone’s hand and spin it about nonchalantly, while in the midst of a monologue… I’m… I’m really not sure… can you bandage wounds?”
  380. “I haven’t done it, but I can say pretty confidently that I’d be able to”
  381. >“Administer injections?”
  382. “Yeah, that too”
  383. >“Use a defibrillator, oxygen mask?”
  384. “Yes, to both”
  385. >“And you can push buttons on a machine?”
  386. “That’s pretty much foal’s play…”
  387. >“Well, I… I hate to say it, but from those I can’t think of any reason why you wouldn’t be just as good of a medical professional as anyone who was walking these halls yesterday…”
  388. “I’m relieved to hear that for the sake of all the injured ponies in our herd… why… why would that ever be a bad thing?”
  389. >My query wasn’t answered immediately, instead being met with the woman removing her jacket and pulling off the shirt she’d been wearing beneath, tossing both on the floor
  390. >”You haven’t showed the slightest interest in anything I have in my backpack, although it’s little more than some gauze pads and bandages, a few tools, and some food... hungry?”
  391. “Not… not particularly… I had an early meal before our herd got… sidetracked…”
  392. >“Right, of course, and since you don’t need to go lurking around in search of food, and even in a pinch you could just eat the hospital lawn”
  393. “Oh, no, grass is really quite yummy as a pony! Try it with something sweet like berries, if you can – I know I sure love it!”
  394. >“I’ll keep that in mind, Daisy… and, well… I don’t have anything of value with which to bargain, and I get the sense you wouldn’t let me just walk away as a human…”
  395. “Life as a pony is just so wonderful – I don’t know why you’d want to want to walk away from that… Are… Are you feeling alright, sweetheart? You seem… upset…”
  396. She sighed, nervously drumming her fingers against her wrist as though she were trying to make up for the all the time she wouldn’t be able to do so, once we became friends
  397. >“It’s just that, well… I guess my time’s up…”
  398. “So, you’re ready to join our herd… just like that? No… no tricks? In a way, I’m… surprised you’re not making a run for it…”
  399. >I glanced at the stairwell behind her, attracting her attention even as she mindlessly continued undressing by removing her wristwatch
  400. >“That wouldn’t end well for either of us... and besides, I’ve been struggling to scavenge for food and water in just these past few hours. I know when I’m deep in the losing corner”
  401. “We’ve got plenty of produce for any pony’s inclinations, and though some ponies lack wings or a horn, they’re known to have incredible green thumbs... er, whatever it’d be for ponies”
  402. >“I’m glad to hear it. And seeing as I can’t offer your herd anything as a human that you couldn’t get from a unicorn, there isn’t much point to you letting me stay human anyways…”
  403. >Unfastening her belt and kicking off her shoes, she slid the jeans down her legs and discarded them with a weak toss, a faint jingle of car keys announcing their impact with the floor
  404. “Don’t get yourself down too much – after all, there is ONE thing that humans are good at that ponies have yet to master…”
  405. >“Oh yeah? And what would that be?”
  406. >While she finally removed the socks, leaving her clothed by nothing more than her undergarments and vivid purple gloves, I rolled onto my back and shot her a friendly grin
  407. “Belly rubs?”
  408. >She met my eager expression with the first smile I’d yet seen from her
  409. >“Daisy, you’re such a silly pony”
  410. >After a moment’s pause, I felt her fingers dig into my chest fur, a slow rhythm of tender scratches commencing from each of her hands as my relaxation started deepening
  411. >I let out a gentle moan of bliss, briefly letting myself drift away in the pure ecstasy of the moment as wave after wave of pleasure rocked my body
  412. >It wasn’t the same magnitude of bliss that accompanied making friends, but it was still incredibly, incredibly nice…
  413. >If not for the fact that I could mimic the sensation quite well with inanimate objects, say, a backscratcher I’d found in the drawers of one house, I’d genuinely want to keep a human around
  414. >With a soft groan, I noticed one of her hands pull away from my chest fluff, only to feel myself joyously gasp a moment later as the hand found itself in the fuzz behind one of my ears
  415. >As the scratches started anew, I couldn’t suppress the urge to melt in her hand, my head gently rocking back and forth with her movement
  416. >“Look at you, you little cutie… you’re not so terrifying when I’m giving you scritches…”
  417. “Ngghhh, that’s the ticket…”
  418. >“And your fur’s just so soft and adorable… I… I know what’s going to happen… but I need to feel it for myself – none of these silly gloves…”
  419. >After a pair of soft snaps causing one of my ears to flick and momentarily eliciting my eyes to slide open ever so slightly, both hands returned to the envelopment of my chest fluff
  420. >The feeling of them scratching my fur spurred a wave of ecstasy unlike any of those that had preceded, the grippness of the gloves having been replaced with the warm skin of her fingers
  421. >It sent me sprawling for a few blissful moments before the texture continued to change, her contact seeming to harden amid a faintly poignant sigh
  422. >“I guess that’s the end of belly rubs, little pony. Although I must say, your fur is very, VERY soft, and I’m kind of looking forward to having an adorable coat of my own just like it…”
  423. >Still dazed by the bliss of the scratches, my eyes slowly began sliding open before the startling sensation of my body being hoisted up and settled into her lap
  424. >I forgave her for overestimating her balancing capabilities as the transformation rapidly progressed, the abrupt protrusion at her tailbone and shifting leg muscles causing us to topple
  425. >Thankfully it didn’t hurt, and as she wrapped her mostly-formed forehooves around me and pulled me into a newfound embrace, it was clear that she wasn’t hurt either
  426. >Far from being battered, she was shivering with ecstasy as dark brown fur raced up her cheeks, her muzzle pressing out with a smile that seemed to stretch ear to ear
  427. >Obviously ‘ear to ear’ was an expression to be taken with a grain of salt, especially once the frontier of fur reached her ears, gently floating them upwards to their new dwelling places
  428. >As they reshaped conclusively into a pair of fuzzy, pointed equine ears atop her head, each flicked to attention and began taking in the previously faint pitter-patter of rain outside
  429. >A dark purple mane with a narrow pink highlight flowed over her dark brown face, veiling it with long, beautiful strands as she let met my eyes amid a merry giggle
  430. >I could only see one of her eyes, but where dark brown irises had once emanated a fearful, downcast demeanor, her vibrant pink irises now shimmered with glee
  431. >I had only a brief moment to glance at the rest of her, taking in her fully equine body from its four hooves to her long flowing tail, before her hooves pulled me into a crushing embrace
  432. >Returning the hug with my own forehooves, a few more waves of ecstasy visibly coursed through her body, shaking her core as she shook off the final trappings of her former humanity
  433. >After a moment, she kicked away her defunct undergarments and rolled onto her back, running her hoof through her chest of newfound fur with a gentle sigh
  434. >“I’ll be honest, I think my fur’s even softer than I remember yours being…”
  435. “Aren’t you glad you decided to join us… um… I’m sorry, dear, what’s your name?”
  436. >“Mocha Swirl… and Daisy, if there’s anything, anything I can ever do to repay you for gifting me with this wonderful new life, you just let me know…”
  437. >I reflected on the scene for a moment, at least waiting long enough for Mocha Swirl to briefly revel in her new fur before her eyes slid open
  438. “There is… one thing. It hurts a lot when one of the ponies in my herd tries to walk. Could you direct me to where I could find some painkillers for her, something better than just aspirin?”
  439. >Mocha Swirl rolled onto her stomach and rose to her hooves, flicking her tail with intrigue as she pondered my request
  440. >“Hmm… well, bute’s no good for humans so I’d hesitate to give that to a human-turned-pony… how about a low dose of morphine? I’m not aware of any adverse effects it’d have with equines”
  441. “Oh, thank goodness, that’s actually what I was thinking of! You can tell me where to find it here?”
  442. >“I can do you one better. Quick question, in terms of dosages, is the mare who needs it about the same size as me?”
  443. “Yeah, roughly, although she’s a Pegasus so she’s a bit less muscular and I reckon she might have hollow bones like a bird would…”
  444. >“Well, I’ll weigh myself and figure she’s just a few pounds lighter. I’ll be back in a jiffy, just hang out here!”
  445. >With a clamor of hooves on tile, Mocha Swirl galloped giddily to the stairwell and disappeared, leaving me alone in the dim hallway with nothing but the laptop’s glow to accompany me
  446. >I briefly considered pulling up a game of Solitaire to pass the time, or even… I could… No, there was no point to that… But maybe… Nah, forget it…
  447. >Using a pencil eraser to traverse the screen, I powered down the laptop and returned it to the backpack, reasoning that there was no use running down its battery amid the blackout
  448. >After a few short minutes, Mocha Swirl returned with a paper bag and gel pen clamped between her teeth
  449. >As I levitated the bag from her grip, I noticed its heft, causing me to investigate the contents, including a sizable array of small syringes, some preparatory materials, and a strange bottle
  450. >“That’s the morphine – I’ve written all the injection instructions and dosage guidelines on the side of the bag. Start with a quarter dose to see if it does the trick, and don’t exceed the max”
  451. >Rotating the bag around, I found her writing scrawled with the evident inexactness of a pony who’d been writing with her teeth, but nonetheless, it was unmistakably legible
  452. >After confirming the dosages with her and running through the instructions, I felt more than ready to give this medicine to Typhoon, hopefully freeing her from the grip of discomfort
  453. “Mocha, I’m so thankful to you for what you’ve done, from the bottom of my heart…”
  454. >“Don’t mention it, Daisy. I wish all the best for you and your herd; I’m going to try to track down my coworkers… well, former coworkers that are now mares and stallions, that is…”
  455. “I haven’t spoken with them since last night when our herd came through here, but you’d best check the edge of town near the rocky river, as that’s where they seemed to be headed”
  456. >She responded with a smile, her eyes glistening with joy after what was undoubtedly a rough half day – not that she was obligated to retain memories of that struggle any longer
  457. >“Thank you again, Daisy… for everything… if I ever come across any other humans, I’m going to do my best to convince them likewise that being a pony is, like, the best thing ever!”
  458. “You’re very welcome Mocha, and if you e- hrk!”
  459. >I was cut off as her hooves wrapped around my barrel, pulling me into a tight embrace before we went our separate ways
  460. >“Sorry! I’m sorry… I just… got excited…”
  461. “That’s quite alright, Mocha Swirl, and for what it’s worth, you’ve convinced me that it’s better off for everyone to be a pony, too… and that truly means everyone…”
  462. >“Mhmm!”
  463. “Take care sweetie, and be on the lookout for humans! Good luck finding your herd!”
  464. >As the excited din of clicking hooves against tile faded toward the stairwell and disappeared with the door clapping shut, I again found myself alone in the tranquility of the empty hallway
  465. >A quick search of Mocha Swirl’s abandoned backpack yielded nothing new of interest in my scavenging quest, and I too began trotting toward the stairwell before slowing to a stop
  466. >I could also… No, no, I didn’t need it… And after all, the rain would be a nuisance in that regard…
  467. >Proceeding down the stairs, I found my way back to the main entrance and the overhang in front of the hospital, the lonely ambulance light still dimly rotating atop the deserted vehicle
  468. >Levitating the morphine supplies into the protective zippered bag and hoisting it in my magical aura, I looked out across the vacant town as the downpour continued soaking its streets
  470. >Once I had a clear line of sight to the gas station at Carmine Corners, I made a beeline for its sheltering overhang, pausing in a brief reprieve from the downpour
  471. >Momentarily setting the morphine and other various medical supplies on the ground against a deserted gas pump, I flicked my tail and mane in an attempt to chase away some of the water
  472. >Most of my body was invariably quite soaked, especially my formerly pristine white hooves that had been tinged a few shades murkier, but above all, at least the medical supplies were dry
  473. >Ensuring that Typhoon Twist’s needs were met was more important than caring for my vain appearances, although as I shook the excess water from my hooves, I clearly wasn’t above the latter
  474. >I kind of figured everypony in the herd looked up to me as a leader, and it would establish a very strange first impression if the pony they’d spoken so highly of were to arrive drenched
  475. >Even though I couldn’t do much about the drizzle out here, being an effective diplomat demanded a certain degree of proper presentation to curry favor, regardless of circumstances
  476. >Snowfall should be more than happy to provide help for her new herd, but given how badly I wanted to track down this blasted human and befriend him… it couldn’t hurt to go above the call
  477. >While fixing the last few strands of errant mane in the gas pump’s reflection, I watched the shifting visages of several brightly colored ponies within the convenience store
  478. >The windows obscured many of the specific details, especially after having been coated in a fine layer of rainy mist, but I could make out the rough forms of several familiar friends
  479. >Breathing a sigh of relief, Storm Cloud stepped to the side and I caught a glimpse of Sky Meadows, her familiar mane style and bobbing head while talking giving her identity away
  480. >While my magnitude of concern for her safety had been nowhere near Storm Cloud’s, I was nonetheless extremely comforted to visually confirm a member of our herd was safe and sound
  481. >I was still trying to discern which pony was Snowfall when a blurry purple mass slid toward the front door, nudging it open to reveal an uptight Storm Cloud silhouetted against the store within
  482. >“Daisy, you silly pony, you looking for a gilded invitation to come join us? Get in here”
  483. “Sorry Storm Cloud, just trying to look good for our guest! How go things?”
  484. >Picking up the medical supplies with a faint twinkling sound and a softly luminescent glow, I trotted toward the store, my hoofbeats on concrete echoing against the ceiling of the overhang
  485. >“Not well… we’ve been wondering when you’d get back”
  486. >There was an urgency in her voice that lacked grimness, but still eased my formerly enthusiastic expression into a slight frown
  487. >Breaking into a slightly quicker canter as I passed through my final few seconds spent in the rain, I came to a halt immediately inside the door just before Storm Cloud let it shut behind us
  488. >Setting the bag on a counter where it wouldn’t be disturbed, I wiped my hooves on the welcome mat precisely as my parents had taught me to do when I was a young, well-mannered filly
  489. >As I cast my gaze across the front of the store, I saw a few familiar faces, including a serenely grinning Sky Meadows, but most notable was the lack of UNFAMILIAR faces
  490. “Snowfall? I’d love to get to meet you! My name’s Daisy… where are you, dear?”
  491. >“That’s… that’s our problem, Daisy…”
  492. “But… Storm Cloud, whatever do you mean by that?”
  493. >“We’re in a bit of a pickle…”
  494. “You’re going to have to be more specific…”
  495. >“Something went wrong…”
  496. >Turning to face my friend, her face was languished with regret that resisted any attempt to divulge the full truth
  497. >I prodded with a firm response, doing my best to rip off the metaphorical bandaid
  498. “Storm Cloud, what happened? Where’s Snowfall?”
  499. >“She isn’t…”
  500. “She isn’t… what?”
  501. >“She isn’t here, okay?! She wasn’t at the house with Sky Meadows! At least, not when I went back to bring them here…”
  502. >Oh, shoot, for the love of…
  503. >Suddenly aware of how many pairs of equine eyes were timidly looking on from the shadows, I tried to ignore them as a cacophony of empty murmurs carried their hushed rumors
  504. >I galloped down the fearfully silent rows of shelves lined by ponies attempting to avert their gazes, eventually coming a halt a few inches from Sky Meadows after a brief slide along the tile
  505. >Her lips were pressed together in a discordant expression that was clearly happy to be in the presence of an old friend, but tremulously skittish about the approaching conversation
  506. “Sky Meadows… sweetie… I’m not mad… I’m so glad to see with my own two eyes that you’re safe, after all this time”
  507. >Wrapping her in a hug that attempted to be as loving as possible amid my own suppressed conniption, I maintained a bit of space between her chest and mine lest she feel my racing heart
  508. >“I’m glad to be back with the herd Daisy… I missed everypony… I missed you…”
  509. >After brushing her mane a few times with one of my forehooves, I pulled away from the hug
  510. “I know… Sky… I know… It’s just, well, there’s a very bad man out there that we want to find so we can befriend him. I’m worried about what he’ll do until he’s a member of our herd”
  511. >“You mean James? I… I guess that must be… who you’re talking about… I haven’t been outside much today but it looked like we’d befriended or chased away nearly everypony else…”
  512. >James… so I finally had a name to put to that buzzard’s face…
  513. “Yes, him. Now, Storm Cloud told me he ran out of the house after seeing that you’d befriended his friend, and I was counting on Snowfall to give us some clues as to where he went”
  514. >“I’m sorry… I should have stopped her… she kept talking about how she had a strong urge to help James, how she thought he needed a hug and reassurance that everything would be alright”
  515. “I want to help him too… in his current state, he’s nothing more than a destructive threat to the herds who didn’t continue beyond this town, and it’s hard to sleep soundly until he’s our friend”
  516. >“And we can’t do that if we don’t know where he is…”
  517. “Right, else we run the risk of him catching ponies off-guard while they’re catching up on sleep tonight – especially given that many of us were active last night, and haven’t slept much since”
  518. >“Daisy… I… I don’t want anypony… to get hurt… just because I messed up… It might not be much, but I followed Snowfall for a little over a block after she went out the house’s front door…”
  519. >Ponyfeathers, so we don’t have a solid idea where either of them went… although they couldn’t have gone more than a mile or two amid the landscape peppered with our friends…
  520. “Nopony’s going to get hurt Sky Meadows, I promise. In what direction was she headed?”
  521. >“Somewhere towards Carmine University – she and James were students there. I tried following her but I couldn’t get past a fence… the planks were digging into my bandages… I’m sorry…”
  522. >Her face had sunk toward the floor, her voice becoming choked as though she were on the cusp of sobbing, despite the lack of tears yet streaming from her eyes
  523. “You did everything you could, dearie… You went above and beyond, and I’m so proud of you… I’ll get you some aspirin to help you feel better, and then we’ll get going, sound good?”
  524. >With a gentle nod, Sky Meadows signaled her affirmation and carefully sunk into a seated position, taking heed not to put any undue stress on her injuries
  525. >A few unhasty paces brought me back to the front counter near the door, my hooves clicking gently against the tile as I snaked around the remains of scattered store merchandise
  526. >Carmine University… now that would certainly explain his ‘Carmine Ambulance’ shirt… I just hope it’s not a large university with too many buildings to search through…
  527. >With absentminded ease, I opened the bag’s zipper and sifted through the medical supplies, ensuring their conditions had held up on the return trip from the hospital
  528. >Leaving the morphine bottle in the bag, I reasoned it’d be wise to use it conservatively, saving it for later until I had a better idea of how long Typhoon Twist’s leg would need to heal
  529. >Levitating out the bottle of aspirin, some disinfectant, and a few bandages, I returned everything else until the time arrived for me to address Typhoon Twist’s ailment
  530. >Sky Meadows’ face filled with slight trepidation as I approached, the glow of my magical aura casting a softly brightening light across her face amid the dim maze of shelves
  531. >Setting the medical supplies at her side, I tried to engage in the best show of inexact eye contact she had to offer
  532. >She rigidly faced forward with subdued discomfort as I began inspecting her bandages, running my hooves over the slightly dreary dressing that had visibly been moldering for many hours
  533. “James did these, right? Are these, still, the very same bandages from when he first cleaned your wound last night? He really should have changed them this morning…”
  534. >For an EMT, I figured he’d have the presence of mind to swap them out AT LEAST every few hours… Wasn’t he worried about her wounds getting infected?
  535. >“I… I guess… I was still asleep when he came to check on me, and he must’ve been planning for him or Alexan- I mean, Snowfall, to change them when I woke up…”
  536. >I managed to catch myself before my body language transmitted too much disdain for James, the pattern of shaking heads and sighs becoming almost automatic at this point
  537. >Oh, yeah, of course, was that before or after he abandoned you to go scrounging for food, leaving you behind with no one to keep monitor the injuries of a viciously lacerated pony?
  538. >I bit my tongue and tried to void my tone of the excessive scorn for his neglect, which would’ve otherwise made me appear bitterer than lemonade short a few cups of sugar
  539. “That’s… optimistic… If it were me I would’ve been keeping a more… careful eye on you… seems kind of… lackadaisical…”
  540. >“He left me water and breakfast… ooooh, and it was the yummiest! With lettuce… carrots… oh, and cherry tomatoes! I don’t know how he knew – cherry tomatoes are just my favorites!”
  541. “Did he leave you any painkillers?”
  542. >“Painkillers? Like… ibuprofen? No…”
  543. “If he had them, would’ve that have been a good idea – here, I found this bottle of aspirin over by the hospital, and it should help with any pain you might have”
  544. >As the bottle became enveloped in a soft glow, it floated to just below my eye level, where I unscrewed the cap and reveled in the sound of the factory anti-tampering seal snapping open
  545. >“But I never said that I was in any pain… well, except for when I tried to hop that fence…”
  546. >As I brought a pair of small white tablets into view, I motioned with my hoof for Sky Meadows to be ready to catch them, dispatching a sluggish motion of her foreleg
  547. “It wouldn’t hurt to take some aspirin, just in case we encounter another fence, or something like that – and none of that stuff from the bottle given to Cobalt, okay dear?”
  548. >With a bit of reluctance, Sky Meadows swallowed the pills, downing them with a resounding gulp as though she were making a point to me that she had, indeed, swallowed them
  549. >Immediately, her gaze wandered from me, even once I began poking at her bandages anew
  550. >“Daisy, you don’t like James, do you…”
  551. >My forehooves slow settled to the floor as an uncomfortable silence filled the room, the sole disturbances resonating from rain dripping outside and the whistling of a gentle breeze
  552. “Sky Meadows… It’s not a problem I have with just him, it’s really not… Look at this herd… look at yourself… look at what happened to you…”
  553. >As a warming light enveloped Sky Meadows’ barrel, I gently peeled back the corner of her bandages, exposing the end of a slender line of buried crimson beneath
  554. >“But… he treated those cuts… if not for him, they might have gotten infected, and I could be… sleeping forever… No, I… I don’t want to even think about that…”
  555. >Her eyes were getting misty, and for the sake of maintaining a stoic, serious disposition, I inhaled deeply to prevent the same stirring of emotion within myself
  556. “I’d never want anything bad to happen to you, Sky… You know that… I’m still crushed that you got hurt in the first place… But please, just tell me one thing… Who did this to you? Who?”
  557. >Motioning toward her gashes proved somewhat fruitless as she declined to follow my gaze, but the intent of my question was still perfectly lucid to the troubled pony
  558. >“I… I don’t know… It was dark and there was loud music and people and ponies and they gave me this drink that burned my throat and… I… I never got a good look at them…”
  559. “Do you think it could’ve been Storm Cloud?”
  560. >Sky Meadows’ pensive sigh was abruptly cut off by a stunned gasp, a fire igniting in her eyes that shimmered with blinding intensity in the face of my accusation
  561. >“What the hay?! Heavens, no! How could you even suggest such a thing?! I’ve known her for years, and she was absolutely anguished when she realized I wasn’t with her herd!”
  562. “Okay, and what about one of the other ponies that you befriended in that room? It was just you and Storm Cloud that went in, but plenty of ponies came out”
  563. >“They wouldn’t have done it either – we befriended them! Why would anypony hurt a member of their own herd?!”
  564. “Well, considering only James and Snowfall were still human, you have to admit, it must’ve been one of the two…”
  565. >“No no no, wait, it couldn’t… I know in my heart of hearts, it wasn’t! Those two are just so sweet and peachy keen, why are you trying to make them out to be the bad guys?!”
  566. “Because this clearly wasn’t an accident – someone intentionally did this to you, Sky!”
  567. >As the tempo of her breathing ticked up, Sky Meadows levelled a hoof at me
  568. >“It was one of the humans, Daisy!”
  569. >Bingo…
  570. >“It was… it was one of the humans… before we befriended them all, a few of them were… a bit… violent…”
  571. >Sky Meadows’ gaze sunk as she realized that, for better or worse, she’d painted herself into a corner, falling tail-backwards into the exact point I was trying to make
  572. “A human did this to you… a human is the reason your sides were bleeding last night… in the same vein, that’s why Cobalt and Typhoon got injured as well…”
  573. >I was certainly glossing over the fact that Typhoon Twist had slammed into a police cruiser, but that it was a small detail in the context of the big-picture argument I was presenting
  574. >“Y-Yes… but James… and even Ale- Snowfall… they were different from the other humans – they would never hurt a pony!”
  575. “That is a reasonable point Sky Meadows… maybe they wouldn’t… but you know who else would never hurt a pony?”
  576. >After a brief pause, Sky Meadows pinched her eyes shut and let out a long exhale, voiding her lungs of most of their air save for just enough to squeak out a faint whisper
  577. >“Don’t say it, Daisy…”
  578. “Another pony wouldn’t. They’d be looking out for their herd. Watching over them. Never abandoning them. Caring for them. Being supportive of them. LOVING them”
  579. >“I know, Daisy…”
  580. “Then why do you seem apprehensive to admit that James would be better off as a pony? Do you think he’s better off as a human?”
  581. >“Daisy… Can we… Can we at least talk about this?”
  582. “Talk about it? What’s there to talk about? He’s out there shivering in the rain, living off what little sustenance there is at the university, missing his home, warm bed, and his friend…”
  583. >“What if, say, his friend weren’t transformed? He’d at least have that, and friendship means the world to some even when everything else is bleak...”
  584. “But what becomes of the world around him? He’s a threat to everypony! If a human was willing to carve you up in a room full of ponies, what would he do to an unfortunate solo one?”
  585. >“James would never do anything like what you’re getting at!”
  586. “If he were a pony, I’d be able to agree with you on that! Think about it, Sky… It helps him, and it helps us… Only good memories, friends, easy living, and nonviolence once he joins us”
  587. >“James is NOT a person of violence! On the contrary, he took care of me and saved me from my wounds getting infected! So tell me Daisy, what kind of terrible person does that?!”
  588. “I’ll tell you EXACTLY who! The kind that doesn’t let his patients leave his sight! I could’ve given you a level of care just as good, if not far better than literally anything James could do!”
  589. >In a flurry of magic that nearly manifested as luminescent sparks, I rapidly removed Sky Meadows’ old bandage, wiped down her wounds, and stuck a new bandage in place
  590. >She barely even had time to wince as the alcohol made contact, its tingling burn still fiercely persisting after the few seconds it took to complete what, likely, took James a few minutes
  591. >The procedure was short on compassion, but I was drawing from a shallow reservoir of sensibility, and my vigor served well at driving home the argument
  592. >“Oooh, look at the speedy unicorn! Why do you say ‘literally anything’ when that’s so untrue? Featherbrain, they told me all about your ‘Jergens-North’ debacle, or whatever it was!”
  593. >I paused, standing with unwavering austerity as Sky Meadows’ chest animatedly rose and fell with her deep breaths, a steadily creeping smile spreading across her face
  594. >She may have thought she’d called out a grand lie amid her war of words, but really, that just was enough name-calling from her for one day… don’t you think so, little pony?
  595. >I cleared my throat, given that even though everypony else in the store had fallen deathly quiet as if enchanted by a game of hide & seek, I wanted to be sure my voice would be heard
  596. “I see… Well, I know who the ponies are that would’ve most likely been talking to you… Typhoon, Cobalt, and especially you, Storm Cloud, could I have a word with you?”
  597. >Sky Meadows’ smug smile quickly evaporated, her expression replaced by one characterized by the unknown – the fear of the unknown
  598. >“Wait… Daisy… They’re not part of this…”
  599. >I remained sternly facing forward, declining to shift even a single strand of mane as I watched Sky Meadows’ suddenly panicked eyes flick between several unseen targets behind me
  600. >Of the three ponies called, my estimation had been that either one or two would step forward at my demand, but the tranquil silence barely even offered a single set of slow hoofbeats
  601. >Sky Meadows’ eyes had shrunk to pinpricks, with ears flattened against her head as she slowly nodded back and forth in disapproving abhorrence
  602. >“Daisy… Please… Daisy, wait… Don’t be mad at them… I… I didn’t mean what I said… Please… I’m sorry…”
  603. “Come along everypony! We’ve not got all day!”
  604. >With a newfound push of urgency, the intermittent clicking of hooves behind me turned into a frantic thunder, with the three ponies arriving in my peripherals a few seconds later
  605. >In the corner of my vision, a purple form with its head sunk low was seeking to make itself as small as possible, trembling as she tried to suppress her wings’ evasive urges
  606. “Thank you all. Now, apparently there’s been some misinformation going around that I’d like to clear up, as I wasn’t the only one to fall for it. Storm Cloud!”
  607. >I swung my head to the side, halting as I reached the flattened ears and shifty expression of the purple Pegasus, her own gaze failing to meet mine
  608. “You and Sky Meadows are quite close, right?”
  609. >She silently nodded her affirmation for a few seconds before realizing that it would play into the cards better if she were to verbalize her response
  610. >“Yes, Daisy… we’re very good friends…”
  611. “I only ask because she might’ve gotten you thinking some silly thoughts. Don’t worry, it’s none of you faults. I just want to clear the misconceptions, that’s all”
  612. >“Uh… s-sure… what do you mean?”
  613. “Just to clarify to both of you, and to Typhoon and Cobalt who I suspect told it to you, and to anypony else who might otherwise be in on the rumor, Jenkins-North injections don’t exist”
  614. >As the general volume of murmuring confusion ticked up a few decibels, I perceived a few ponies tilting their heads to the side ever so slightly while they processed my words
  615. >“But Typhoon said you tried to do one, that James was trying to walk you through how to do it befo- uh, never… never mind…”
  616. “In a way, yes… but he was giving me a rigged test, trying make me, trying to make all unicorns – ponies – look incompetent at taking care of their own kind”
  617. >Storm Cloud grumbled under her breath, certainly loudly enough for me to hear, but not loudly enough for me to think that I was supposed to hear
  618. >“Just because you couldn’t do it doesn’t mean the test was rigged…”
  619. “And Storm Cloud, that’s a fair point. But while I was visiting the hospital, a pony there showed me that there was not a single hint of anything by the name ‘Jenkins-North’ in their records
  620. >Sky Meadows piped up through the fog of confusion drifting over several ponies’ minds
  621. >“But… they said we needed him to do those for the injured ponies in our herd… maybe I needed one… oh, for pony’s sake, is this going to mean my cuts are going to get infected now?”
  622. >Her gaze drifted to the bandages wrapped about her barrel, a faint trembling becoming visible as though she could visualize her wounds growing gangrenous before her very eyes
  623. “We don’t need his ‘special human medical expertise’ any more, Sky. He never had any that any of our medically-inclined unicorns wouldn’t. We’ll be alright”
  624. >“Are… are you sure? That would mean he lied to us…”
  625. “Absolutely positive, Sky – the pony at the hospital confirmed it beyond a doubt. James lied to us, and it wasn’t even a matter of simply doing so once…”
  626. >“James isn’t a liar – he’s peachy keen as could be! At least… I thought…”
  627. “But the reason he went back to you was because he was solely concerned about Snowfall, certainly even more so than the pony he said would die in his absence. All of this…”
  628. >I waved a foreleg through the air at the generally messy state of the store, before lowering my hoof to the ground and deliberately snapping it atop a dropped bottle of random pills
  629. “…This was a panic coordinated by James, causing us to fear for Typhoon’s life. All of it simply because he knowingly gave us a false diagnosis, with fake pills to alleviate it”
  630. >“I thought James was a good doctor…”
  631. “And to be fair to James, that may be true… but he’d be just as good of one as a pony…”
  632. >Sky Meadows’ head sunk low again, as though the roller coaster of emotion through which she’d been put through were finally approaching its conclusion with crushing finality
  633. >“James needs to be a pony…”
  634. >She let out a long sigh and paused, as though the part of her saying the sentence were so far away from anything she recognized, that it took a moment for the sound to reach her
  635. >James needs to be a pony…
  636. “That’s the way it has to be. Otherwise everypony in this town is in danger from a… person… lurking around… and who knows what lengths he’s willing to go to?”
  637. >“You seem to think I’m unconcerned with the safety of our herd – I just want what’s best for James, too…”
  638. “And this is, Sky… he’ll have a role watching over the herd’s health… a warm bed… food… a roof over his head… friends… he won’t need to run anymore, because he’ll finally be home…”
  639. >Sky Meadows fell silent, staring at a random spot on the floor for a solid ten seconds without garnering any response, her blinks coming with a meditative sluggishness
  640. >After what felt like an eternity of listening to the gentle pitter-patter of rain, I felt a faint rumbling in my stomach, my hunger making itself known for the first time since breakfast
  641. >Slowly turning toward the shelves behind me, my hooves echoed with each step against the tile, progressively announcing my approach to a small basket of apples near the front counter
  642. >Enveloping a bright red one with my magical aura, I sniffed it before taking a bite, the crunch resonating through the store over the soft murmurs of returning conversation
  643. >I had almost reduced the apple to its core by the time Cobalt approached me with a question, wincing as though he could feel his marefriend’s pain as she tried to keep up with him
  644. >“Daisy, I’m all for going after James – Typhoon is all for going after him – but please, please tell me you got something to help her leg…”
  645. >Tossing the apple core toward the wall with a well-calculated ricochet into a trash can, I levitated the bottle of aspirin into view in front of Cobalt
  646. >You two are quite in luck, and boy are you going to love me for this…
  647. “Never mind the aspirin that James gave you – I’ve got a bottle that I know is the real deal, which is great because your leg still seems a bit iffy, especially-”
  648. >“Daisy!”
  649. “Sorry… rambling again… here you go!”
  650. >Sheepishly, I tried to suppress the red tint my face radiated while I was unscrewing the cap to the aspirin bottle
  651. >As I cautiously levitated a pair of tablets toward his waiting hoof, Cobalt snapped them out of the air in front of me, quickly swallowing them before I could even respond to his speed
  652. >“There! All gone, now please tell me you got something better for Typhoon Twist – that’s all I’m asking”
  653. “Cobalt, what’s gotten into you?!”
  654. >He sighed, letting his gaze wander to the blue Pegasus mare at his side, her own shimmering eyes fixated on the muddled daylight dancing off the metallic corners of her splint
  655. >“Daisy, you know how much I worry about Typhoon… especially ever since I eagerly did everything I could to help you befriend her, she and I have been inseparable…”
  656. >His voice became quiet and tender as he paused to think about not only the events of the past few hours, but of the past few years of his life
  657. >“The pain of my own injuries is nothing compared to how bad it hurts when I look at that happened to her leg… she and I want to help you so much, but we just can’t in this current state…”
  658. “I understand, Cobalt… I should’ve known”
  659. >Floating the bag of morphine supplies off the counter and gently setting it on the floor, I withdrew a syringe and triple-checked Mocha Swirl’s instructions
  660. >Start with a quarter dose to see if it works…
  661. >In full view of the pair of Pegasi doing their best to relax amid the shadows of the floor, I tested the syringe’s operation as prescribed, finding nothing at fault
  662. “Typhoon, you’re going to feel a little poke, okay sweetheart?”
  663. >She nodded in understanding as I drew a small amount of the clear liquid into the syringe, checking four or five times that the plunger was exactly as far back as I wanted it to go
  664. >With a long exhale from myself and a slight gasp from Typhoon Twist, the needle sunk into her blue fur, and a few seconds later, it returned, voided of its contents
  665. >My greatest fears, of Typhoon howling in immediate agony, or collapsing to Cobalt’s side, proved unfounded as a slight smile spread across her face
  666. >“That didn’t hurt bad at all… I feel nice…”
  667. “Glad to hear it… it’s going to take a minute or two for the full effects to be apparent, then we’ll see whether that’s a big enough dose for a pony like you”
  668. >As the three of us waited for the morphine to kick in, we discussed the best way to get to the university’s center from Carmine Corners, a topic of which Cobalt was quite knowledgeable
  669. >Having worked for years on the town’s police force prior to the advent of modern technology, he could recall the map of each street and house as though it were laid out before him
  670. >He spoke with a savant-like confidence, his string of thoughts flowing quite steadily and interrupted not by any lack of knowledge, but by any aberrant moves by the mare at his side
  671. >Admittedly, every time Typhoon shut her eyes, my trepidation kicked up a notch, but as she blissfully remained conversational, it eased me through the concerns I had about her situation
  672. >It was certainly more relaxed than the last time I’d tasked myself with monitoring her medical condition…
  673. “It’s been a few minutes, Typhoon Twist – how do you feel?”
  674. >With a slight giggle, she grinned at me once again
  675. >“Daisy, I feel like a new mare!”
  676. >As if we’d have any reason to doubt her assertion, she rose to her hooves without wincing, something she hadn’t been able to do previously without the assistance of Cobalt’s wing
  677. >Testily lifting each of her hooves individually, she began walking around the front of the store, a toothy grin plastered across her face
  678. >When I turned to look at Cobalt, he was sharing in her joy, a subdued smile poking through his expression as his eyes welled up with tears of happiness
  679. >With a burly laugh, he spoke up just as she was preparing for a leisurely trot up one of the aisles
  680. >“Don’t wander too far, dear!”
  681. >“I won’t! Love you!”
  682. >After a moment’s pause, she disappeared behind the shelves into an unseen crowd of festive improvisationally cheering for her, leaving me alone with Cobalt at the front of the store
  683. “You know, I’m overjoyed that you and Typhoon are willing to join us – It’d certainly mean a lot to her if… when… she befriends James – but I have to imagine you’d rather, you know…”
  684. >Cobalt sighed and looked to the floor for a way to avoid the conversation, raising his head only after a long search that yielded no answers from the tiles
  685. >“Every hour that passes, I grow more worried… Even though I didn’t find him at home last night… or this morning… I figured he must just be off with whatever friends he made last night”
  686. “He’ll be back soon… Colts – and I guess fillies, if that were his fate – get tired sooner or later and return home…”
  687. >“Eh, you never met him. Yesterday night he had football practice, we went to the shop, made dinner, threw the football a bit more, and he was still full of energy when I left for work…”
  688. “I’m worried to think about what could’ve happened, where he is right now… I’m beyond impressed that you’re able to remain calm… not a… not a nervous wreck…”
  689. >Cobalt let out a weak chuckle even though his situation and true state of mind were anything but humorous
  690. >“I just might be if I still had ALL of my bad memories of what horrid people were once out there… I think being a police officer was a job where I had to deal with a lot of bad apples…”
  691. “And you feel like James needs to be dealt with...”
  692. >“I won’t be able to rest well until he is. It’s all I think I can do. You said it yourself: you’ve given my former name to scores, hundreds of Pegasi keeping an eye out for any foals his age”
  693. “Not to mention, I asked them to tell THEIR friends, too. If they manage to find him, you’ll be the first to know – the fact that nopony in that crowd has already done so… It concerns me…”
  694. >“A part of me wants to still be out there searching with them, but I already checked everywhere he could be… He must just be running around with his new friends… he has to be…”
  695. >Cobalt drew in a long, anxious breath, keeping it stalled in his lungs for a few seconds while his eyes remained clamped shut
  696. >“When we befriend James… and any other human in this whole blasted county… that’s when I’ll breathe a sigh of relief...”
  697. >I put a hoof on his side as a tear rolled forth from one of his eyes, the tightly shut eyelids proving their ineptitude as impermeable dams
  698. >“Unless… well… if the worst comes to worst, there’s nothing I could’ve done anyways…”
  699. “Don’t say that Cobalt. He’s going to be home soon, and he’ll have plenty of stories about all the friends he’s made. You’ll be proud of him. You’re a good, caring father”
  700. >“I hope you’re right…”
  701. >As our ears swiveled to catch the gradually intensifying rhythm of excited hoofbeats behind us, Cobalt unsuccessfully attempted to wipe his tears
  702. >Typhoon Twist trotted to the store’s front while her wings twitched excitedly at her newfound mobility
  703. >A grateful glimmer filled her eyes as she thanked me for my wildly successful scavenging efforts, silently signaling that she was more than ready to proceed with the journey ahead
  704. >“Look, Cobalt! I can walk without it hurting anymore! I mean, I’m probably going to take it easy, just in case, but look at us, we’re unstoppable! Like Bonnie and- Are you okay? Your eyes…”
  705. >Knowing that the jig was up, Cobalt made no attempt to hide the fact that tears lingered in the corners of his vision
  706. >“Some tears of joy, dear… I was so worried that you might be like that for who-even-knows-how-long!”
  707. >“Oh, you know me, I don’t like to stay down for long. Speaking of which, when can we get going to find this human to befriend?”
  708. >As Typhoon turned to face me, my sight quickly surveyed the herd in our midst, taking stock of Storm Cloud, Sky Meadows, and a couple more visible ponies before I raised my voice
  709. “How many ponies are here in total?”
  710. >In the ensuing few moments, a couple dozen curious heads poked out of the various rows of bagged snacks, candy, magazines, and drinks lining the aisles
  711. “Okay, I’m guessing everypony knows what the plan is at this point, so we’ll travel as a group to Carmine University in ten minutes. There’s safety in numbers, after all”
  712. >After a few minutes spent disrespecting the work of an absent chef by greedily wolfing down a delightfully scrumptious salad, I wiped my hooves on the store’s welcome mat
  713. >With an anticipative exhale, I looked out at the vacant town, its appearance unchanged from earlier today, with skies still uninhabited by cheery Pegasi that were no undoubtedly finding shelter
  714. >The bell over the door once again announced my departure as I stepped into the rain, quickly letting Cobalt take the lead as we passed beneath the gas station overhang
  715. >His familiar grey hooves were the first through each puddle as he guided us down the deserted streets, the resolute Pegasus keeping a watchful eye over the rest of the herd
  716. >Nopony was to be left behind or lost, most of all his marefriend whom I closely accompanied, the gentle clinking of her splint and shuddering of its Velcro straps announcing each step
  717. >Every other pair of eyes was fixed on the roofs and windows glistening through the wispy haze of the mid-afternoon rain, and every ear was piqued in search of anything but raindrops
  718. >James was somewhere in town, and we could only hope that he wasn’t planning to strike here on the streets… or, for that matter, strike once we got to the university…
  719. >WE needed to be the ones to find HIM first…
  720. >Following what seemed to be a distressing eternity, we arrived at the university’s main gate, its wrought-iron fence running for hundreds of yards in either direction up the block
  721. >I spent little time staring up at its towering heights – and giving the raindrops a few cheap shots at my open eyes – but one thought ascended clearly into the forefront of my musing
  722. >If we could keep an eye on these gates, James wasn’t getting out without us seeing
  723. “Sky Meadows, Storm Cloud – you two were students here… Do you know how many of these gates there are?”
  724. >Sky Meadows flicked some of the rainwater from her mane as she spoke up
  725. >“It’s not a very large campus… Two on each side, eight total. If you want to have a few ponies keeping an eye on them, the rest of us could search the buildings”
  726. “I think that’s a good idea, although searching will be a large task and it’s starting to get late… how about this: until we can all get some shuteye, just watch the gates”
  727. >“How does that work? All he has to do is stay inside and we won’t ever find him…”
  728. “It’s just for the evening. Until everypony’s rested up for tomorrow. We’ll do a couple of eight-hour shifts, half ponies awake while half are asleep, and start searching around midmorning”
  729. >“I suppose that’d work. You want us to pair up?”
  730. >As if there were any question as to whom she’d align herself with, Sky Meadows’ eyes drifted toward Storm Cloud, the purple Pegasus’ gaze already waiting when she arrived
  731. “Yes, we’ll go in pairs or trios as numbers allow. Everypony get some rest and keep your eyes peeled. I know it’s not even dark yet, but we’ve got a big, big day ahead of us tomorrow”
  732. >When I awoke, it must’ve been about nine or ten in the evening
  733. >I was supposed to still be asleep for another few hours, but I kept having that reoccurring dream with the red filly in it, and I can never sleep when that happens
  734. >Sitting up on the floor, I was greeted by one of the offices on the sciences building’s top floors, its walls and furniture illuminated by the moonlight breaking through the scattered clouds
  735. >At my side, Storm Cloud was softly snoring as she lay asleep on her stomach, tail wrapped around her body in comforting warmth as a brisk night chill peeked its head into the room
  736. >Her wings were intermittently twitching a few inches, no doubt dreaming of flying… or chasing humans… or both – she absolutely loved doing both…
  737. >Sky Meadows had agreed to take the first shift watching the gate through one of the windows, and sure enough, her profile was silhouetted against the glass portal to the night sky
  738. >Hoisting myself to my hooves and gently pacing along the carpet, I tried to close the distance between us so I wouldn’t need to raise my voice above the gentlest of whispers
  739. >Her ears flicked at the disturbance, momentarily turning to face me before I’d even made it halfway to the baseboards beneath her
  740. >“Can’t sleep?”
  741. “Nah, I got something on my mind…”
  742. >“Anything you want to talk about? It’s been really quiet the past few hours”
  743. >I absentmindedly rubbed a forehoof against my other leg, betraying my attempts to veil my inner stirring
  744. “That’s just the thing… I’m not sure exactly what’s bothering me… I have an idea, though”
  745. >“Oh yeah? What’s that?”
  746. >I bit my lip and stared momentarily at the floor, realizing that this would’ve been easier to do if I didn’t have a herd to answer to… but such is life
  747. “I’ll be back before it’s my turn to watch the gate… at least the rain stopped, so I don’t have to worry about that while I’m outside”
  749. >As the back door of the sciences building creaked shut behind me, I quickly scanned the surrounding bushes for any sign of James amid what little moonlight filtered through the clouds
  750. >While it was a long shot that he would be out in the elements on such a brisk night, particularly wearing drenched clothes in the rainstorm’s wake, it couldn’t hurt to step with a bit of caution
  751. >Shaking off the mud that had accumulated on the lower edges of my hooves, I stepped on to a slender concrete path running the length of the fence, my hooves gently clicking in the night
  752. >It didn’t take long to reach the university gate, and once I’d put on my best impression of what I thought a smile looked like, I waved to the unseen pony sitting sentinel in the window
  753. >After taking a deep breath, I passed through the gate, carrying nothing with me but the weight of my own thoughts as I walked a straight line up the center of the road
  754. >If these streets were ‘lifeless’ during the day, then at night they were so devoid of substantive life that their character wrapped back around to taking on a spirit of its own
  755. >The dark silhouettes of lurching trees did their best to strike at the nighttime breeze, shooing its gusts to and fro with swaying clumps of leaves
  756. >Scattered papers, litter, and small pieces of detritus chased each other along the asphalt, spiraling about in the wind as though miming the movements of schoolyard foals
  757. >Moonlight danced off the mirrors and glass of the dozens of cars sitting abandoned at the roadside, putting on a glistening, pale light show to be outdone only by a few faint patches of color
  758. >Here and there, the uninspiring grey of night was broken up by the twinkling blue of a sedan’s hood, or the green of a trash can, or the… or the red mane of a filly poking around a fender
  759. >Dear, shouldn’t young ponies like you be asleep at an hour like this?
  760. >Picking up my pace to a casual canter just as she ducked back behind the shimmering silver curtain of the car’s quarter panel, I spryly closed the distance to where she’d been standing
  761. >Circling behind the car, the filly had vanished, likely hopping the low fence a feet away on the sidewalk’s far side, where a conveniently placed wooden crate provided a perfect step up
  762. >Her mother would probably be none too pleased if a concerned neighbor were to report that her daughter were out adventuring past dark, but foals will be foals
  763. >Shaking my head, I turned back out to the center of the road, taking in the sound of my hoofbeats echoing off the surrounding buildings for a couple steps as I…
  764. >I slowed to a stop and gently cocked my head to the side as I stared at the edge of a deserted van a few yards up the road, the red filly’s head now poking out around its rear bumper
  765. >I briskly approached, but when she once again retracted herself from my vision, I opted not to follow her onto the sidewalk
  766. >No Daisy, you’ve got things to do, places to be…
  767. >There would be plenty of time to play with foals once this town offered a safe place to do so… and preferably not at night… but for now, I didn’t have the time to spend on her shenanigans
  768. >A few more yards up the block, I approached an intersection, walking straight toward it without halting in the absence of a watchful red light
  769. >The blackout had rendered traffic control here impossible, just as the lack of running cars had rendered it obsolete, which was quite fitting for a…
  770. >I halted in the middle of the intersection, my eyebrows slanting in a twisted display of confusion as I stared at the red filly giggling while her head poked through a line of parked cars ahead
  771. >Wait… how… I definitely would have seen you crossing through the intersection…
  772. >You know what, I’ll be honest, that’s an impressive feat of magic, or trickery or whatever, really, and I guess I thought only unicorns could teleport… I don’t know how you did it, but hats off
  773. >I sighed and slowly shook my head, ultimately bringing it to level with the intersection’s cross street, only to freeze when I again locked eyes with her just beyond a couple trucks to my left
  774. >As a rush of wind swiftly gusted through the intersection, her red mane swayed gently with it, a few of the long strands snagging against the thick red fur lining her chest
  775. >“Hi…”
  776. >I lazily raised a forehoof and kicked it against the neighboring fetlock, sending a sharp shock of pain through my limb, but failing to rouse myself from what I’d chosen to believe was a dream
  777. “How are you moving so quickly, little filly… oh… wait, two identical twins, right?”
  778. >I’d been wondering whether humans that were identical twins ended up as ponies with an identical appearances, and this must’ve answered the question
  779. >“No, we’re just regular twins, you know!”
  780. “Well, it’s a very neat trick you two do… maybe a bit creepy for a pony as… on edge as myself, but you two did a very good job pulling it off…”
  781. >What was I doing – every moment I spent entertaining this foal’s playtime was another moment I’d be robbing myself of some hard-earned shuteye once I got back to campus
  782. >Nonetheless, something about the situation felt… off, maybe not in a sinister way, but as though I were missing something
  783. >My hoofbeats resonated off the corner buildings as I tried to proceed along the path to which I’d committed myself, only to be interrupted by a filly poking from a window overhead
  784. >“What do you mean, ‘two of us?’ It’s just me, silly!”
  785. “How did you even get up there so… quickly? I was just talking to your sister for a few moments and… wait, ‘just me?’”
  786. >“You’re such a silly pony, Daisy, I miss you…”
  787. “How did you even climb- How… How did you know my name?”
  788. >I felt my weight shift back on my hind hooves, while my tail instinctively tucked between my legs in consternation as I stared up at the giggling filly
  789. >“Why wouldn’t I know your name, Daisy? I’m surprised you don’t know mine, especially after all the time we spent together…”
  790. >Wait… I’ve… I’ve seen this red filly before… She… She’s the spitting image of the one that roused me from my slumber a few minutes ago…
  791. “No, no, wait, where else have I seen you before… the supermarket? School? Church? I thought everypony that appears in dreams is somepony you’ve seen at one point in your life…”
  792. >“Then what are some of the places you think you’ve seen me, Daisy?”
  793. “I don’t know! All I’m able to remember right now is that you show up in all of my nightmares, and THAT doesn’t count as us ‘spending time’ together!”
  794. >“Nightmares? The Pegasus that befriended you specifically told you that becoming a pony means you aren’t able to have nightmares – there’s no bad memories to base them on, silly!”
  795. >I thought back to the night when I first joined the herd, my thoughts instantly filled with the warm, gentle breeze that was drifting into my room through the uncovered window
  796. >A sprinkling of stars glimmered against the black celestial curtain outside, while moonlight flooded the bedroom, spilling over the furnishings lining its walls
  797. >The window panes had been flung wide open, effectively allowing a friendly Pegasus mare to enter without any resistance, and bestow upon me the gift of a new life as a pony
  798. >The first half of our encounter was still foggy in my memory, but the events became crisp the moment the fur raced up the last inches of my reshaping hooves, relaxing me in her embrace
  799. >With a tight hug, I convulsed in her forelegs as an incredible wave of ecstasy rocked my body, prompting me to let out a moan of gratitude for the benevolence she’d shown
  800. >Tipping backward into the tumultuously scattered bedsheets, I knew that I had finally found a place of true bliss thanks to her
  801. >I remember lying limply in my bed and looking over my new body, my long, purple tail gently flicking in the moonlight, as she began lovingly caressing me with her words
  802. >“There you are, little pony… Doesn’t that feel wonderful? You’re going to do wonderful, wonderful things, my unicorn friend…”
  803. >As I weakly blinked at her with half-lidded eyes and a lingering smile, she tenderly ran a hoof along my side, pulling a winding strand of purple hair with it
  804. >“No more tossing and turning in your sleep like when I first encountered you… Ponies can’t have bad dreams without bad thoughts… Isn’t that wonderful?”
  805. >A soft sigh was the first sound to escape my mouth, the new equine body still taking a moment to respond through the warmheartedness of her gentle brushing
  806. “Mhmm… And… And I can share this with anyone else I meet?”
  807. >“Anyone. I see you’re still a bit tired, so please take a moment to rest. I’ll befriend the others in this house, and your herd can be on its way. How many siblings do you have living here?”
  808. >My ear flicked at the question, considering I was old enough to be living on my own, and for what it was worth, I never had any brothers or sisters anyways
  809. “I’m an only child… although I do have some roommates living in each of the other rooms on the top floor here…”
  810. >With a gentle kiss on my cheek, the Pegasus left me to befriend the aforementioned roommates, her hooves thumping against the carpet as she nudged the door open into the hallway
  811. >I blinked rapidly, bringing myself back up from memory to again meet the gaze of the red filly leaning out the window
  812. “I… I remember her saying that I shouldn’t have nightmares anymore, but if that were true, then why do I keep having nightmares specifically with YOU in them?”
  813. >“No silly, those are just dreams; it’s not like I’m a mean spirit or anything! Sure, you spend a LOT of time thinking about me, but not bad thoughts. Maybe you’re trying to make up for lost time?”
  814. “What the hay, how are you tuned into everything I think about?! You… You can’t be real! I don’t remember seeing you in any herds in this town, I don’t remember you from my hometown-”
  815. >“Well, maybe you should…”
  816. “But I don’t! I must be seeing things right now… I just… made you up… You’re just a figment of my imagination, not a real pony!”
  817. >“And why can’t I be BOTH, Daisy? When you got some shuteye last night, you had dreams with me in them, as well as Sky Meadows, Typhoon Twist, even yourself! Are they not real ponies?”
  818. “They are, but… Stop, stop! You’re making my head hurt! I find it too hard to believe that you’d be a real pony… Could you please come down here and show me? Then I’ll know for sure!”
  819. >The filly wordlessly pulled her head in from the window, leaving the curtains to gently flutter in her wake as I swiveled my head to the building’s front door
  820. >My ears were perked up in expectance of her hoofsteps on the stairs within, or the spinning and tumbling of a lock, but after a minute or two, they flicked nervously as all remained quiet
  821. >While I anticipated her arrival, I shifted on my hooves, a faint chill running down my spine as a hodgepodge of uneasy thoughts sparked across the neurons in my mind’s deepest recesses
  822. >As it reluctantly dawned on me that the filly had vanished, my gaze slowly turned across the sidewalk again, a sharp yelp escaping my lungs when red fur filled the caught of my vision
  823. “Sweet mercy!”
  824. >Stumbling onto my rump next to the building, I found myself at eye level with the filly, who had taken to gently giggling at my reaction
  825. >“Oh, Daisy…”
  826. “Whatdidyou- How?! How… How did you appear next to me?!”
  827. >Leaning forward and halfheartedly swiping through the air with a hoof, I repeatedly swung through arcs that I thought should have made contact with the filly’s forelegs
  828. >Instead, my strikes passed right through the visage of the pony, doing little more than ruffling a few tufts of fur on her chest and forelegs, agitating her otherwise even coat of red
  829. >The more I slowed my movements into a methodical brushing, the more I noticed that each of the hairs I disturbed was actually two-toned, with red on the tips and a light tan beneath
  830. >I was mesmerized by the colors for a few seconds, becoming lost in the way the red turned to tan as I brushed it, settling back to red as the hairs returned to their former positions
  831. >“Why were you trying to hurt me, Daisy? Don’t you think I’ve been hurt enough already?”
  832. “I’m… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that, little… little… uh… filly… what was your name again?”
  833. >“Merriment!”
  834. “Right… yes, yes… uh… wait, you’re clearly not a flesh-and-blood pony, what am I even talking about? How can somepony that’s not even real be hurt?”
  835. >The filly laughed again, shaking her head as she met my flinty expression with a grin
  836. >“Oh Daisy, I’m more real than you think…”
  837. “Come on, Merriment, what is that even supposed to mean?! I want answers, and I want them now!”
  838. >I rose to my hooves, again finding my gaze angled slightly downwards to meet the jovial eyes of the giggling filly
  839. >“You’re silly! If I’m just a figment of YOUR imagination, how am I going to tell you more than YOU already know?”
  840. “Merriment, cut it out! There are a bunch of things I need to know, things that I need you to tell me!”
  841. >“Daisy, Daisy, the answers are out there if you know where to look”
  842. “Merriment, where?! Why did you appear to me? Why are we talking? What are you trying to tell me?!”
  843. >At the end of my last question, her ears pivoted as though distracted by something up the road – as to what it could’ve been, I didn’t know – and her gaze followed suit a moment later
  844. >“Sorry Daisy, I’d love to stay”
  845. “Merriment, wait…”
  846. >“Really, I wish I could stay with you, but it’s my time to leave now”
  847. >The filly broke eye contact, turned and took a couple steps, her red mane lightly bouncing as she began skipping in an unwavering line up the sidewalk
  848. “No, stop!”
  849. >With a few surging hoofsteps, I lunged after her, primed the muscles in my hind legs for action, leaped through the air when she was within my hooves’ reach…
  850. >…And fell on my face as I sailed straight through, letting the harsh, unforgiving concrete suddenly remind me that Merriment had been an unsolid illusion
  851. >Merriment hardly even glanced back as she continued her trot up the sidewalk, and as she did so, I began to see points of light shining through the red curtain of her swinging mane
  852. “Merriment, wait, please!”
  853. >The points of light were growing more brilliantly, and the more I watched, the more I realized that they were twinkling stars in the sky, with Merriment’s body now slowly losing its opacity
  854. “Please, Merriment, please! Come back!”
  855. >My pleas did nothing to recall the fading filly, as the buildings & stars behind her steadily grew sharper and supplanted the increasingly translucent sight of red hair
  856. “I need you, Merriment…”
  857. >A few short seconds after my last words to her escaped from my trembling lips, the last of the friendly apparition disappeared from sight, leaving me alone on the dark street
  858. >With a gentle breeze rustling through the trees, I shakily rose to my hooves, eyeing the gaps between each of the parked cars as though I expected Merriment to playfully reappear
  859. >I bit my lip and unconsciously let out a gentle whine, a titanic lack of confidence now filling my mind as I pondered what I could’ve done to keep her here
  860. “I’m just dreaming…”
  861. >My gaze sunk to look at my forehooves before I sluggishly raised one of them, swinging it back and gently hitting it into the neighboring fetlock with a slight shock of pain
  862. >I sighed upon realizing that it was going to take a lot more than that to rouse myself, and with a slight flinch, I raised the hoof again to line up another strike
  863. “It’s just a dream, Daisy…”
  864. >Thunk…
  865. “Any minute now, you’re going to wake up…”
  866. >Thunk…
  867. “Come on, you’re not crazy, you featherbrain… It’s just a dream… It’s just a dream!”
  868. >Thunk…
  869. “It’s just dream!”
  870. >Thunk… Thunk… Thunk…
  871. “Ow… ow!”
  872. >Thunk…
  873. “Ahhhh! Horseapples!”
  874. >My eyes pinched shut in sharp agony as I collapsed to the concrete, my eyelids sliding open a moment later to find that my clean white fetlock had been stained with drops of crimson
  875. >If the Pegasus said I’m incapable of having bad dreams, then why did this one just go from bad, to excruciatingly bad?
  876. >Staring at my small spot of bloodied fur, I lay where my leg had given out for what felt like an eternity before a faint rhythm of hoofbeats on asphalt began filling the air
  877. >“It sounded like it came from over here!”
  878. >“Well, hurry over there then!”
  879. >“Yeah, I think that’s her!”
  880. >Following a few more blinks, my vision was occupied by the sight of an approaching pair of young stallions, one sporting a muted purple coat while the other was bathed in vivid yellow
  881. >Neither appeared to be a unicorn or Pegasus, but their impromptu leather saddlebags may have obscured a pair of wings, while the yellow pony’s baseball cap could’ve hidden a horn
  882. >I lifted myself into a seated position with my uninjured leg as the yellow pony spoke up, facing me at an angle that allowed me to perceive the white medical insignia adorning his cap
  883. >“Ma’am, don’t worry, you’ll be alright. We had some medical training before befriending our herd and we can help. Now, was it a human who did this t-”
  884. >The purple pony interrupted with a harsh whisper, slowly but firmly turning his friend’s torso using the hoof draped over his shoulder
  885. >“Land’s sake, dude, it’s always… Of course it was a h-”
  886. >“Sshhh, okay, okay, I get it, I just wanted to check how bad the situation was”
  887. >“Yeah well it definitely wasn’t a pony if you want to bet a couple apples on it”
  888. >With the twitch of an ear, the yellow pony shook his head and turned back to me, ineffectively attempting to feign a slight smile
  889. >“Ma’am, is the human who did this to you still around? Did you befriend them, or are they still a threat?”
  890. >I vigorously shook my head in an attempt to clear the mental fog hanging over my mind, reacquiring the yellow pony’s tense gaze a few seconds later
  891. “There’s… There’s no threat… You can… do whatever procedures you need to…”
  892. >While the purple pony retrieved a menagerie of medical supplies for his friend, the yellow one nodded and tenderly offered his hoof so he could raise my injury for a closer review
  893. >“Hmm… doesn’t look too bad, ma’am. We’ll get you sorted out and on your way in a jiffy. A lot of ponies we’ve been looking at today have been a lot less lucky”
  894. >“Pffttt, yeah, you could say that again… All day we’ve been coming across ponies with all manner of injury from those insolent hammerheads doing their best to hurt our friends…”
  895. >I did my best to expedite the ponies’ work, levitating one of their disinfecting wipes in my magical aura as I unwrapped its packaging and gently swabbed over my bloody spot of fur
  896. >As the stinging kiss of alcohol gradually evaporated, I retracted the crimson-stained wipe, placing it into a waste bag the pony had set on the sidewalk
  897. >Both ponies were visibly a tad envious of my magic, but as the yellow one proceeded to wordlessly unwrap a bandage, they were nonetheless more than happy to accept my aid
  898. >“Dude, is this really the best time to talk about how much you dislike the humans? When we’re treating a patient?”
  899. >“You saw what we had to do for that Pegasus filly this morning – the one down on Third Street with all the splinters in her chest?”
  900. >“Yes, I was there…”
  901. >“Not even wood splinters, either! The guy was using his fireworks slingshot to put metal splinters like… three inches into her chest! Sweet heavens, we’re lucky the unicorns got to her!”
  902. >“Yeah, it’s not like I’m saying that didn’t happen, I’m just saying, maybe filter it out of your casual conversation topics?”
  903. >“Maybe it’s better she knew, eh? After all, everypony that goes out walking late tonight is putting themselves in serious danger. I don’t mean any offense, but it’s… not… smart…”
  904. >The yellow pony scratched at the back of neck and readjusted his baseball cap, visibly dissenting from the way his partner phrased his conclusion, but not enough so to rebuke him
  905. >“I’m sorry ma’am – he gets worked up about this. The human threat is, for the most part, under control, and it’s just advisable at this point that you keep your guard up, stay indoors”
  906. >“Yeah, there’s a bunch of ponies that went to track down a guy at Carmine University. Word is they got the most experienced unicorn in the whole town to help out!”
  907. >“Is that so? Huh, I didn’t hear that part. Although I heard the guy pretended to give one pony cardiac arrest, kept another as a hostage, and only escaped after stabbing a couple others”
  908. >My lips twitched as I briefly contemplated revealing myself as the lowly unicorn they revered so admirably, but sometimes, isn’t the rumor better than the truth?
  909. >If it meant generating support toward befriending James, that adage was doubly true…
  910. >“Yeesh, I really hope I wasn’t like that – making it my goal to senselessly kill ponies – before you made friends with me. Can’t wait to hear when they befriend him, then I’ll celebrate”
  911. >“We all will – because, as wonderful as life already is after making friends, it’ll be even better once we can all get on with our lives without that threat”
  912. >Once the ponies patted down my bandage and gathered their supplies, they helped me to my hooves and supported a portion of my weight as I warily took a step on my injured foreleg
  913. >Thankfully, the pain was entirely benign, and while my injury could amount to a faint bruise by morning, it wouldn’t have any effect on my mobility… unlike poor Typhoon Twist…
  914. >“You’re always welcome to visit us and a bunch of the other medical ponies at Seventeen Park Street. We’ve got a nice little community, and you’re always welcome if you’re sick or hurt”
  915. >“Ma’am, keep in mind, it’d be best to stay off the streets, especially around the university, until we hear the all clear. Do you think you’ll be okay making it back to your sleeping quarters?”
  916. >“Yeah, do you want either of us to accompany you back to your sleeping quart…”
  917. >The purple stallion’s face turned beet red as he pursed his lips and intentionally allowed his eyes to wander, suddenly taking an intense interest in the constellations overhead
  918. >“Dude, did you mean to do that? Were you trying to hit on her, Nightingale?”
  919. >“Actually wasn’t… I… I’m sorry…”
  920. >The yellow stallion and I couldn’t suppress our friendly giggles, but the embarrassment worked in my favor if it meant the stallions might hastily leave me to continue my ongoing quest
  921. >“Alright ma’am, have a good night”
  922. >Appearing no worse for wear following his verbal faux-pas, the purple stallion took it in stride, chuckling and nudging his friend with a hoof as they went their separate way down a side street
  923. >The echoes of their hoofsteps gradually faded as the air once again filled with a peaceful serenity, only to be interrupted a moment later as my own hooves clicked sharply through the night
  924. >When I stepped back into the center of the road, I again thought of Merriment, but upon fruitlessly eyeing the cars dotting the side of the road, I let out a long sigh until my lungs were empty
  925. >I probably couldn’t entice her to come back… but I could continue on the path on which I’d already begun…
  926. >With my head hanging low, I was reminded of my bandage and how I’d earned it in my frenetic attempts to awaken from a search for answers that was anything but imagined make-believe
  927. >All I want to do is get to the bottom of some lingering questions… and maybe that surreal filly was right about knowing where to look…
  928. >Stiffening my spine and staring up the same road on which I’d been walking my straight line – before Merriment’s interruption, that is – I bounded over a pothole and set out at a canter
  929. >I’m not exactly sure when the shift occurred, but by the end of the block I realized that I was running at a full-on gallop through the next intersection, the buildings and cars now flying by
  930. >Concerns surrounding my injury briefly flashed across my mind, but they did little to slow the hurried tempo of my gait as a large, blocky building came into view against the night sky
  931. >Silhouetted against the clouded quilt of stars with its unlit seal remaining sentry on the parapet, I easily recognized the distinctive hospital, even from this new angle
  932. >Looping around its spacious lawn to the familiar emergency room entrance, I curiously paused upon noticing that the ambulance’s siren light had given up its final flash
  933. >Granted, the pause was purely a mental one as my hoofbeats continued unabated, but amid the hundreds of thoughts hurtling through my mind, the sight was impressive enough to distract me
  934. >Caution finally returned to my movements as I approached the broken door, taking care to avoid the glass shards littering the ground and to not incur the wrath of the glass panel’s sharp edges
  935. >With my heart still hammering, I was unsettled by just how dark the hallway had become, even given its dim, gloomy state prior to the descent of the sun
  936. >Nonetheless, a faintly hair-raising show of murkiness wasn’t enough to prevent me from pressing forth
  937. >Passing the hospital beds, scattered papers, and abandoned clothes at an apathetic canter, I barely broke stride while telekinetically grabbing a pencil to carry with me toward the stairwell
  938. >After a few short moments and a few dozen steps past the upstairs offices, I found myself staring at Mocha Swirl’s backpack, its dark fabric laying unmoved in the middle of the hospital hallway
  939. >The wind was still whistling somewhere beyond the window at the hallway’s end, but my ears barely registered the clamor
  940. >I perceived my own pulse thumping away in my ears while I stared at the backpack’s dim silhouette, much as an intrepid knight would study a slumbering dragon
  941. >In that moment, there was nothing in the world to hear except my own restlessly beating heart, nothing in the world to see but myself and this backpack
  942. >With the same care of a new mother cradling her foal, my magic aura appeared and I levitated out Mocha Swirl’s laptop, gently setting it on the floor before rolling its screen open
  943. >After a long, pensive exhale, I used the pencil to press its power button, filling the display with electronic illumination that soon spilled its greenish-yellow glow over the hallway
  944. >Following a quick click on the bar bracketing the lower edge of the familiar Sonoma County wallpaper, I was greeted by the computer’s battery dialogue
  945. “Ninety-two percent, six hours of battery life remaining… More than enough for what I want to do… What I… What I need to do…”
  946. >My voice was uncharacteristically timid as I softly spoke to nopony, seemingly as though I were secretly wishing for the laptop to be dead on arrival
  947. >Electricity brimmed the fur lining my spine as I used the pencil and laptop’s touchpad to navigate to the database of medical records that Mocha Swirl had been showing me this afternoon
  948. >I mean, really, nothing good was going to come of this, right?
  949. >Nopony ever goes to the hospital for good things, so why bother looking into it?
  950. >I could always just turn around, go back to Carmine University, and nopony would be any wiser…
  951. >Even after the search bar’s cursor blinked with delighted readiness to process my request, I stared at it for a while before finally resting the pencil’s tip against the ‘T’ key
  952. “T-Y-L-E-R…”
  953. >As I typed, I let my guard down enough to avoid fighting myself at each keystroke
  954. “Space…”
  955. >With a forceful sigh, I steeled myself and prepared to press the Enter key immediately after barreling through the remaining letters, lest I leave myself the opportunity to back out
  956. “E… M… M… E-N-T-S-O-N-Enter”
  957. >As I watched the screen go blank while it perused its thousands of records, I momentarily reflected on the ramifications of what I’d just done
  958. >Blooming apples… I wouldn’t be here right now if that Pegasus simply hadn’t befriended me in my own bedroom… It could’ve been anywhere else…
  959. >Unlike everypony that left their wallets behind with their tattered clothes when we befriended them at work, or on the street, or in the park, I was obligated to recall my past
  960. >Even ponies who could remember much of their past lives were still seldom shackled to their fraught days by a dawdling name…
  961. >I could see no fault in wanting to be proud of the high school diploma I earned just last year, but that was before I knew the manner in which it’d follow me
  962. >That piece of gilded paper my parents had insisted on framing above my headboard was a reminder of the former identity I’d blissfully tried to leave behind for the herd’s sake
  963. >I wasn’t JUST ‘Daisy,’ no, I was ‘Daisy, the unicorn formerly known as Tyler Emmentson’
  964. >Upon realizing that I’d shut my eyes and let my head fall, I looked up at the bright glow of the screen, its banner diligently signaling that it had discovered two results
  965. >Two results… Two results about the person I’d tried to leave behind…
  966. >Earlier, when I took the disinfecting wipe, I winced as it approached my skin because I knew it was going to sting… as the pencil drifted across the keyboard, I did so again
  967. >Everyone’s got their own tragic backstory of sorts… so what was yours, Tyler?
  968. >With a resounding click, the first record filled the screen, its shorthand file name indicating that it had been indexed away at some point in September of last year
  969. >I was surprised to find that the patient in question hadn’t actually been myself, but my blood ran cold as a hauntingly similar name glimmered in a pair of the screen’s boxes
  970. >Mary Emmentson…
  971. >I mulled over the name several times before a soft whisper escaped my lips
  972. “Mary Emment… No… Merriment… Merriment, it’s you…”
  973. >Letting my eyes wander lower, much of the record was medical data in which I couldn’t recognize any aberrations, but a highlighted glow drew my eyes to a paramedic’s comments
  975. >- - - - - - - - - -
  976. >Responding motor vehicle accdnt @ int. of Park & Fifth Sts, dispatched @ 0118 hrs [Sep 23], on scene @ 0121 hrs
  977. >18 y/o female w/ multiple lacerations & blood loss, possible broken bones, ~18 y/o brother in vehicle maintained pressure on injuries before amb. arrival
  978. >Driver of auto could not be found, law enforcement contacted by dispatcher [arr. on site @ 0124 & took Tyler Emmentson statement]
  979. >Sig. arrhythmic heart rate [see notes], blood type A pos / began IV/transfusion, left scene @ 0129 hrs, arr @ ER 0133 hrs
  980. >Patient pronounced dead @ 0210
  981. >- - - - - - - - - -
  983. >Dead…
  984. >With tears filling my eyes, I read the last line over and over again, sorrowfully gasping each time I arrived at the third word
  985. >Dead…
  986. >Over the past few days, my limited understanding of death had become well-rounded enough to understand its consequences
  987. “I… I have… had… a sister?”
  988. >And she’s… she’s…
  989. >With a knot of grief forming in my throat, I backed away from the laptop and collapsed to the ground, burying my face in my hooves
  990. >No… no no no no no…
  991. >Merriment…
  992. >Mary…
  993. >My sister…
  994. >The stream of tears gradually swelled into a river as my breaths became staccato and labored
  995. >Finding myself no longer able to hold back my emotions, a miserable wail of grief echoed through the empty hallway, letting forth my sadness in an unrelenting torrent
  996. >Tears soaked my fetlocks as I sobbed uncontrollably, choking on each breath as I gasped to simply remain lucid
  997. >Most of my breaths were immediately converted into mournful cries, leaving precious little for my weakly trembling muscles
  998. >Merriment… Mary… How could this have happened?
  999. >My own sister… gone? I never even got to know you! How… why… what…
  1000. >So this was one of the bad memories I simply brushed under the rug when I made friends?
  1001. >Sobbing supplanted any attempts at coherent thought for several minutes – although it felt like an eternity – before I reestablished the presence of mind to do so much as right myself
  1002. >Every muscle in my body shivered, but gradually each found the strength to provide a bit of a push
  1003. >Lurching to a seated position, I peered down at my forelegs, which were still bathed in a dim manifestation of the same soft glow the computer had been throwing off earlier
  1004. >Still sniffling, I floated the pencil over the laptop’s touchpad, bringing the screen back to full intensity as though it were challenging me to a second round with renewed vigor
  1005. >I sat motionless for twenty or thirty seconds, simply staring at the static screen before levitating a gauze pad from Mocha Swirl’s backpack to myself
  1006. >A few brushes against my wetted, reddened eyes and the drenched fur lining my cheeks soaked up most of the tears, and with subdued hesitation, I scooted toward the laptop
  1007. >Suppressing the urge to break out sobbing anew, I skimmed the report for any more information of interest before exiting away from the window
  1008. >Finding myself back at the directory with one of the two search results faintly greyed out, I eyed the second one, a slightly more recent record from December of last year
  1009. >The other record couldn’t be worse, right?
  1010. >I could always just leave with the knowledge that I once had a sister, and never delve any further into the reasons why I couldn’t remember her… Why she was gone…
  1011. >Did I really want to find out? Was that really something I wanted to know?
  1012. >I let out a long ragged breath as I pondered the question for quite a while
  1013. >Maybe not… but in a way, I needed to…
  1014. >As I shakily moved the pencil across the touchpad and the screen came to life with a resounding click, the second file filled my view
  1016. >- - - - - - - - - -
  1017. >Referral notice for Tyler Emmentson, psych eval recommendation by Dr O’Brien MD
  1018. >Please forward to Tyler’s current primary care provider
  1019. >Former patient’s suicidal tendencies have become concerning after classmate @ Carmine Univ brought in letter sent by him expressing concerns (see attached file)
  1020. >Please supply primary care provider with my contact info
  1021. >- - - - - - - - - -
  1023. >I only had a vague idea what ‘suicide’ was, but I knew from every context in which a human had shouted the word before being befriended that it probably wasn’t a good thing
  1024. >For those who were adamant about not joining a herd, they spoke about it as though it were an alternative wherein they didn’t need to do so, however that worked
  1025. >Putting away the thought for later, I somberly shook my head and refocused on the options presented by the computer program
  1026. >The cursor drifted toward the attached file the doctor had mentioned in his recommendation, and upon clicking on it, the screen was overtaken by the white glow of a scanned image
  1027. >Upon closer inspection, it was a handwritten letter – or one done by a unicorn with a distinctive style – and something about it seemed… familiar…
  1028. >Didn’t I see this same letter on Storm Cloud’s desk shortly after I befriended her?
  1030. >- - - - - - - - - -
  1031. >Hey man, sorry I haven’t been getting back to you or returning your calls and texts
  1032. >It’s just been hard to even get out of bed some days, even when I can sleep without any issues – every night it’s the same deal – just… all I can ever think about is how much I miss Mary
  1033. >I know, I know you told me I should find a hobby or make some new friends or do something that doesn’t remind me of her, but EVERYTHING reminds me of her
  1034. >It’s kind of hard to explain to someone who grew up without any siblings at all, but trust me man, twins are way closer than even regular brothers and sisters
  1035. >We did everything together – like, everything, from basketball to golf, baseball, swimming at the town beach – all of those just end up reminding me of her, everything always does
  1036. >Any time I try to think back to the memories we had, it just sours them when I remember what fun they were, what a fun person she was… how I’ll never have memories like those again…
  1037. >I can’t eat anything but ramen because pretty much every dinner I could make was something Mary and I once cooked together for the family – she and I just loved to cook together
  1038. >She’s always hated rosemary, and you should’ve seen the look on her face this one time I told her I put it in the chicken we were making – she was livid!
  1039. >I found it funny but she was ready to, like, tackle me…
  1040. >Well, when I was home for Thanksgiving my mother tried to make me feel a bit better by saying that she could give Aunt Clara’s recipe a try, seeing as Mary never liked rosemary
  1041. >My mother was heartbroken when she had to leave my dish in the fridge after I broke down at the dinner table – the fact that she cooked it just reminded me that Mary wasn’t with us
  1042. >I’m so sorry for doing that to her, I promised I’d be strong but all I’ve done is let Mary down when I think about the one thing she asked me to do
  1043. >Every night I hear her telling me to take care of mom and dad, and every night I spend hours staring at the ceiling wondering whether I could’ve done anything different
  1044. >Well, scratch that, I know I could’ve done a lot of things different
  1045. >If I’d known this was going to happen, I would have never come to your school – I’d have turned down the acceptance letter and let her live out her dream of going there, but not with me
  1046. >I just ended up dropping out before the end of the semester anyways… If I’m too distracted to even study, what the hell was the point?
  1047. >And I was stupid, man, I don’t know why I was so eager to go to a raging college party in our first month at Carmine, and I shouldn’t have brought Mary along, I just shouldn’t have
  1048. >And then when Jonathan offered to give us a ride home, I should’ve known he was totally plastered while we’d only had a few drinks
  1049. >We should’ve all just walked home, but at the very least I KNOW I could’ve probably driven everyone without slamming the car into a telephone pole
  1050. >And then when… We were close to the hospital… We were painfully close… But he drunk-panicked and drove off, leaving me and Mary to wait for ambulance, that fucking coward
  1051. >No one should ever leave behind someone whose well-being is counting on them
  1052. >The fact that the grief was too much for him to live with and he… you know… it doesn’t make me feel any better despite everyone trying to tell me fate gave him what he deserved
  1053. >Not a day goes by that I don’t think about trying to wipe the blood out of Mary’s eyes, but there were those massive cuts across her forehead, what was I supposed to do?
  1054. >I’d try to brush the blood away and it’d just come back, the last thing she saw probably wasn’t even her twin brother begging her to hang on for a little longer… it was that red tide
  1055. >Maybe someday I’ll be able to get over the fact that she’s gone, but it’s definitely going to be a long, long time… I just… don’t know what to do…
  1056. >I’m really sorry for being out of contact lately – I’ll try to be better about it next year, if I’m still here and able to respond, God willing
  1057. >I hope you and your folks have a Merry Christmas, I promise I’ll visit as soon as I find something to be happy about again
  1058. >You deserve a visit from me bearing something better than doom and gloom
  1059. >Signed, Tyler
  1060. >- - - - - - - - - -
  1062. >Rather than breaking down in violent sobbing, I found myself idly staring at the letter for the better part of ten minutes as intermittent tears dripped from my cheeks
  1063. >Merriment… Mary… was gone… and while befriending the herd had allowed me to start life anew, it couldn’t do anything to bring her back…
  1064. >Wiping away what I’d hoped would be the final tears drenching my cheeks, I let out a melancholy sigh
  1065. >Maybe it would’ve been better if it turned out I were actually a career criminal…
  1066. >I spent a long time wondering what I should do next – Pay respects? Try to find out more about her? Mourn? – and reading back through the letter offered no concrete answers
  1067. >Nonetheless, my train of thought snagged on one line in particular
  1068. “No one should ever leave behind someone whose well-being is counting on them”
  1069. >I thought of Typhoon’s hastily affixed cast, and Sky Meadows’ dingy bandages, of Cobalt’s questionable painkillers, and all the ponies out there who still needed help
  1070. >And in the midst of all this, James was running around doing who-knows-what, but certainly not providing more solutions than problems
  1071. >After a long, contemplative pause, the laptop’s cursor drifted back to the computer’s toolbar where it powered the device down, plunging the hallway back into near-black gloominess
  1072. >Amid the overwhelming atmosphere of night, I returned the laptop to its native backpack and stowed Mocha Swirl’s belongings beneath a desk just off the main hallway
  1073. >Glancing at a desk clock above, it dawned on me just how long I’d been off university grounds, and my ear inadvertently twitched at the thought of Sky Meadows’ rising concern
  1074. >I figured I COULD teleport back, but without any immediate catalyst spurring my alacrity, I made my way to the stairwell, opting to walk the long, straight road back to campus instead
  1075. >I needed some time to process what I’d read, and maybe the walk back would tire me out enough to get an hour of rest before it was my time to watch the gate
  1076. >Even though my attempts to slumber wouldn’t be haunted by the resonating cries of my dying sister, it would still be difficult to find sleep when I returned
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