Famous in Infamous Lands [Abandoned]

Feb 24th, 2017
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  1. “For the absolute last fucking time, Damien, yes! Yes I am sure!”
  2. >It was a relatively warm fall morning, and as Rainbow Dash packed the last of her meager belongings into a suitcase, she could still hear his feet shuffling outside the bedroom door.
  3. “Dash, I really don’t know about this. It’s not too late to call this off, you know. We can set the price higher, o-or I can spend some time making sure-“
  4. “Fuck off, Damien,” Dash interrupted. “I am completely, positively, one hundred percent sure this is how I want it, you cum-soaked faggot. Unless this guy is some disheveled madman or something, it’s final.”
  5. >With reluctance, Damien backed off and walked back down the hall. He’d worked for over four years for the one thing all his money could never buy him: the love of his life. He’d spent countless hours doting on her, fulfilling her whims and wishes, but to no avail.
  6. >When the ponies had first entered the country, there was only one pegasus he ever looked for. Finding her at a high-profile auction in Dallas, he outbid the nearest competitor by seven figures. Really, it was a steal given the mare in question.
  7. >But his hopes and dreams soon proved difficult to realize. When he’d first told her of his uncompromising love, she was “creeped out.” When he followed up that claim for years, tirelessly trying every play in the book to help her grow on him, her reaction never changed.
  8. >He never tried to force himself on her, or even play mind games to force love to spawn. Those would be impure, false forms of love, and he’d never be able to live with the great Rainbow Dash if she couldn’t honestly, truly love him back. He was a waifu purist, if you will.
  9. >Finally, she’d had enough and asked one final favor: release. Not full, free release, because that’s not legal in Alabama, but resale under a false name and very generalized description at an exceedingly low price.
  10. >Most people buying “budget ponies” were prepared for what they were going to take in. Bruises, scars, psychological issues, rebellious attitudes, histories of crime, and severe injuries were all common among them. They were usually only bought in bulk by industrial companies or individually by the poor.
  11. >Aiming to sell to the latter, he agreed to put up a listing on Craigslist. After only a few hours, a few replies had worked their way into his inbox, and he selected the one with the most promise for normality. And today, a warm Alabama Tuesday in November, she would finally be leaving the sprawling mansion they’d both called home for the past four years or so.
  12. >As he miserably slunk down the hallway and descended to the bottom floor, Rainbow Dash had very different ideas of his advances. Unrelenting and constant, and always somehow more disturbing than the last. Perhaps Rarity might have been enamored with some of the fancier efforts if Damien wasn’t so damn fat, ugly, and sweaty.
  13. >Not to mention his restrictions. For one, he put a fucking shock collar on her. And he claims to want love? Nice way to build trust. She hadn’t left the property in the entire time she’d been here.
  14. >Even if she had to be on a leash, damn these state laws, it would have been preferable to being cooped up here. But Stockholm Syndrome couldn’t take hold of the mighty Rainbow Dash. Instead, she fought back where she could.
  15. >He would make kindhearted advances and do her favors, and she would scorn them with glee. He would make her a meal fit for Princess Celestia herself, and she would complain there was too much salt and ask for something else. He would buy her an imported set of luxury bedsheets on her request, and she would soak them in the bathtub overnight while sleeping on a bare mattress.
  16. >He never let her use electronic media, but she would sneak down at night to watch television just to learn human curse words. It bothered him to no end when she swore like a sailor.
  17. >Little things like that, to show her unwavering dissatisfaction with him. And finally, he’d had enough and agreed to her one final request: release. Not full release, unfortunately, but to some random person out there looking for a pony. No mansions, no creepiness, and hopefully no abuse. The final two points would be a gamble, but she was willing to roll the dice.
  18. >The clock read 10:46 AM. Fifteen minutes until this guy was supposed to be here. Damien had told her nothing, just that he seemed like a “decent guy” so Rainbow really didn’t know what to expect.
  19. >A few more minutes ticked away, and finally she got up from her bed for the last time and grabbed her suitcase. The one thing about this place she thought she’d miss is the bed. It was an incomprehensibly comfortable piece of furniture, providing a better surface even than cloud bedding. Hopefully, this new owner would have some of this “memory foam” she can use.
  20. >She flew downstairs with her bag, landing in the front room near the door. A room over, she saw Damien seated alone at the two-seater kitchen table. He tried to feign interest in a book, but she could see the tears flowing down his face.
  21. >Holy hell, was she ready to get out of this place. As if on cue, a vehicle can be seen through the front stained glass windows pulling into the long, U-shaped driveway. Damien slowly rose from his seat, grabbing the documents certifying him as the owner of Rainbow Dash’s indenture. Rainbow, on the other hand, blasted through the front doors to look upon her new owner and new life.
  22. >She knew little of human automobiles, only what Damien had told her and what she’d seen on those late-night television shows. Despite that, she knew this particular vehicle was an absolute shitbox. Its paint was faded, its windows grimy and worn, and it had scratches in more than one location. Its front bumper was lopsided, and the back one had simply fallen off at some point in the past.
  23. >It was a five-seater vehicle, but all but the front two seats had been filled up with cases, boxes, and just plain junk. The back seats were a mess to rival Rainbow’s back in Equestria. But, the man who stepped out from the driver’s-side door didn’t fit the same image.
  24. >He was a young African-American man, with a round face and even rounder belly. He wasn’t terribly overweight, but few would ever classify him as thin. He was of average height, with deep brown eyes peering out over a thick nose and a warming smile.
  25. >His attire was surprisingly formal, especially given the state of his vehicle. He wore a stain-free white button-down shirt, tucked into a pair of well-pressed and equally immaculate brown pants. Keeping them aloft were an inoffensive but still stylish black leather belt, and at their roots was a pair of black leather dress shoes without laces. A light blue tie wrapped around his neck and extended down his chest, with a fitted and well-constructed trilby atop his head to finish out the look.
  26. >He was better dressed than most Equestrian business-ponies. And while the formality might have been off-putting on someone else, his stance and demeanor helped to ward any second-guessing off from Rainbow.
  27. “Ah, so you must be the pony! Cloud Puncher, that’s your name, right?” he asks with a wide, genuine grin and a voice deep as the furthest cave in Equestria but smooth as sweet caramel. Of course, Rainbow thought, Damien had to choose the lamest name ever for your alias.
  28. “Actually, well, wait,” She said, dropping her own excited grin and putting on a mask of cynicism. “Do you recognize me? Know who I am?”
  29. >Despite her glare and sudden hostility, the man kept his cheerful smile and shook his head.
  30. “Nope, reckon I don’t, aside from your name. I’m assuming that’s what you’re asking?”
  31. “Well, actually, it is! Because believe it or not, Mister, you are looking at the one and only-“
  32. “Rainbow Dash,” Damien finished, entering the front yard with a paperwork packet in his hands.
  33. “For fuck’s sake, Damien! Can’t you go the last five minutes I ever see you without pissing me off?” she burst out, turning to face him with an expression betraying extreme irritation.
  34. “I… right. Sorry.” He looked away in shame to the front yard’s third occupant. “You’re Buster, then?”
  35. “That’s right, sir! Came all the way down from Forrest County.”
  36. “Ah, nice place, I used to go there on hunting trips with my father. Was the trip enjoyable?”
  37. He gave a deep but amiable chuckle, “It was fine, but hopefully this fine lady can make the ride back better. That your only bag?”
  38. “Yeah, it’s packed full though,” Rainbow replied, already enjoying conversation with the man more than her soon-to-be former owner.
  39. “That’s fine, just throw it in the back. Now then,” he said to Damien, “I’ve got the money and a pen if you have the paperwork.”
  40. >With only mild difficulty, Rainbow succeeded in opening the car’s back door and throwing in her bag with the other containers. They were a curious arrangement, with many different shapes and sizes but almost always sealed shut with unlocked latches. But despite her curiosity, she didn’t open any of them. That would simply be rude for a first-time meeting.
  41. “Ten grand,” Buster proudly proclaimed, holding up the money for Damien to see. “Can’t imagine why you’re letting such a decent pony go for that price. But hey, to each his own.”
  42. Damien sighed, “Keep the money. I’m sure you need it more. Maybe spend it on Dash for me?”
  43. “Now hold up, you ain’t saying this deal is off, are you?”
  44. “No,” he replied wistfully, looking at the blue-coated mare inspecting the run-down car’s interior. “This isn’t about the money. Just about, well, making sure Dash has a better home. A better caretaker than… me.”
  45. >An awkward moment of silence passed between the two, before Buster finally lowered his stack of bills and carefully replaced them in his pocket.
  46. “So, you’re gonna just let me sign them there documents and go with her?”
  47. “I guess so. It’s what she wanted. If I wanted money, I would’ve given out her real name.”
  48. “She famous or something?” Buster asked, genuinely surprised at the statement.
  49. “I suppose you could say that. Just be careful, and if I were you, I wouldn’t let her out of my sight. She’s pretty easily identifiable with that beautiful rainbow mane.”
  50. “Hey!” the pegasus interrupted, already seated in the passenger-side seat of the vehicle. “Are you guys gonna sign the papers or what? I’m dying to get out of here!”
  51. >And so, without any further fanfare, the papers were handed over and Rainbow Dash’s contract of indenture was formally transferred for the grand price of zero dollars, zero cents. With a shine in his eyes and spring in his step from being ten thousand dollars richer than expected, Buster quickly returned to the driver’s seat and started the vehicle.
  52. >The last Damien ever saw of his beloved, fantasized pegasus was her head turning to face him as the wheels began to turn. Her lips parted, and a final message sprang toward him.
  53. “Thanks Damien! You may be a creep, but sometimes you can be pretty cool!”
  54. >The car rolled back down the U-shaped driveway, and Damien watched it as it ambled down the long, straight country road until a thicket blocked it from view. Then, making sure the letter explaining his last requests and motives for what he was about to do was placed securely inside his shirt pocket, he removed a scarcely-used .44 magnum from his pocket.
  55. >His last thoughts were of Rainbow Dash, and the happiness she might finally have in this world.
  56. >…
  58. >The birds were buzzing, the bees were chirping, and Rainbow Dash was a very happy pony. Her head protruded from the passenger-side window, tasting the autumn air as it whipped through her mane.
  59. >In the other seat, Buster smiled as he watched the road before him, content in both his wallet and his heart. Whatever had happened between the pony and her prior owner, she certainly seems happy to be away from him. And to receive a perfectly fit, fine, and happy pegasus not only for a fraction of a normal price but for free – it’s more than a poor man like him could ask for.
  60. >For a few minutes, the two didn’t speak to each other, Rainbow Dash preferring to enjoy the sights and smells of a world virtually unknown to her and Buster willing to let her do as much uninterrupted. But the high of the moment soon wore off, and Rainbow suddenly felt obligated to find out whose vehicle she’d just entered, and what life laid ahead of her.
  61. “So,” she said, pulling herself back into the vehicle. “I guess we should probably, like, get to know each other or something. I’m Rainbow Dash.”
  62. “Nice to meet ya, Rainbow Dash. I’m Buster. Buster Freedman.”
  63. >She mouthed the name a few times to make sure she remembered it. It had been years since her last contact with anyone but the mailman or Damien, and she didn’t want to ruin it without good cause.
  64. “Okay, Buster. So, umm… wanna, like, tell each other about ourselves, or something?”
  65. “Sure thing, sugar. Want me to go first?” Seeing the mare’s nod in the corner of his eye, he summarized himself, “There’s three things that make me tick: jazz, blues, and street music. See all them boxes and cases in the back? Those are my instruments.”
  66. “All of them?” Rainbow asked, looking to the massive pile behind her.
  67. “Yep. Usually I play the sax, but I know more than a few others. It ain’t a huge living, performing at bars, sporting events, and on street corners, but I’d say it’s a right enjoyable one.”
  68. >Rainbow paused for a moment, considering Buster and his chosen line of work. It took some work to get Damien to talk about ponies around the country, but as far as she could tell, they were basically treated as either slave labor or pets. But Buster’s profession doesn’t seem to need any labor, and judging by the car and what she knew of street musicians, he probably doesn’t have the money for such an expensive pet, either.
  69. “That’s really cool, actually. I knew a pony kind of like that in Equestria, her name was Pinkie Pie. She had a ton of instruments, even saved the town once or twice with them.”
  70. “Saving the town with instruments? Sounds like a darn good friend.”
  71. “You bet. But, uhh,” she started, unsure of how to euphemize her question. “If you’re a musician, why did you, you know, get me?”
  72. “Asking that question already? Guess if I was in your position I’d want to know, too. Tell you the truth, I mostly just wanted someone to help me with publicity. Hold some signs, get calling on a megaphone. You know, help draw people to my performances.”
  73. “And you needed a pony for that?”
  74. “I thought a pegasus would be a good idea, since you guys can fly and all. You, uhh, you can fly, right?”
  75. “Can I fly?” Rainbow Dash scoffed, amused at the mere prospect of being grounded. “Then you really haven’t heard of me! I’ll have you know I was THE best flier in all of Equestria!”
  76. “Like hell you were.”
  77. “I was, and I’ll prove it! Watch this!” she said, getting ready to leap out of the car window for her first unrestrained flight in years.
  78. “Hey! Whoa!” Buster shouted, grabbing her hind leg with one arm before she could do anything. The car veered and Rainbow tumbled back into her seat, allowing him to get his grip back on the steering wheel. “What are you doing?”
  79. “Trying to fly?”
  80. “Use your head, c’mon! I know you pony folk aren’t as dumb as some people say. First of all, we’re in a moving car, you could hurt yourself!” he said, in a hurried but genuinely concerned tone. “Second, this is Alabama. Pegasi got to have a GPS collar on whenever they’re flying.”
  81. “A collar? You’re kidding me, right?” Rainbow asked, sitting back up in her seat.
  82. >Damien had used a shock collar on her, and she’d hoped that particular restriction would be long gone with this new owner.
  83. “I wish, honey. Law’s the law. We can swing by the store later, get one fitted and colored.”
  84. “We have to?” she groaned with unconcealed displeasure.
  85. “I ain’t about to break the law, sorry. But I don’t plan on making you wear it when we don’t have to.”
  86. >Instead of responding, Rainbow Dash turned her attention back to the countryside rolling past her window. It had been three years since she was last outside her little window of this world, and remembered little of it from before then. What she saw now wasn’t unpleasant at all, and she found the landscape rather pleasing.
  87. >The isolated homes and odd business they passed by also piqued her interest, since the human dwellings were so different from pony ones. The ones she saw through the window were smaller, less regal but somehow more genuine than the home she resided in and the ones occasionally seen on television.
  88. >Rivers and creeks passed under mammoth concrete and steel bridges. They were feats of engineering unheard of in Equestria. Forests and thickets were plentiful, but obviously cut and logged in many places through no natural means. The forestry sector in Equestria would be far smaller and far less efficient.
  89. >The more she looked out, the more signs of humans and their machinery she saw. Farms passed by, irrigated by complex and enormous sets of pipes and sprinklers. An open barn revealed not hay and plowing tools, but instead a collection of machinery and vehicles mostly unknown to her.
  90. >Despite being vast and at first glance wild, this world bears the marks of development in far greater amounts than Equestria. That’s not to say that the ponies developed any less of their world: the humans simply lacked the magical means to replenish their resources quickly.
  91. >Several larger towns passed by, but no stops were made in them. These, Rainbow knew, were small by standards both human and Equestrian. It was a comfortable contrast to the incomprehensibly large cities mentioned by Damien and seen late at night on the television.
  92. >It was beginning to seem that the television, once perceived as an oracle and answer to questions about this world, was instead a tiny window into its realities and subtleties. She had much to learn about this place.
  93. >But how could she see any of its sights on a leash and collar? Rainbow hoped her new owner traveled, and would be willing to take her with him.
  94. “So,” she said, breaking the long period of silence. “Where are we headed, exactly?”
  95. “Home,” Buster replied, leaning back in his seat. “We’re going to Cottontown, Alabama. Ain’t the biggest or best town, but it’s where I was able to get myself a nice plot of land for a good price.”
  96. “What’s it like? Are we gonna be there soon?”
  97. “Hold your horses, horsey,” he said with a grin. “Ain’t anything special, really. Seventh or eighth most populous town in Pickens County, or something like that. But yeah, we’re only about ten minutes away.”
  98. >Shortly, the town did come into view. Much like other towns they passed through on their journey, this one was centered around the main road they’d been travelling on. Old brick buildings housing stores, offices, and other businesses lined this main street, and behind them wound roads leading to homes both new and old.
  99. >In terms of size, it wasn’t very large, but certainly much bigger than many of the other hamlets Rainbow Dash had seen. Its size was comparable to Ponyville, the town she’d once called home in simpler times. On both sides the town was cornered by large hills and small mountains, and Rainbow could see bridges arching over a river to the east of the commercial center. The view upstream, however, was blocked by thickets and buildings. A much longer bridge crossed a much larger river immediately in front of the town. The former stream would likely be a tributary of this one.
  100. >As opposed to the patchwork landscape she’d previously seen, with squares of trees cut into by squares of cleared land and vice versa, the landscape here was decidedly wild. In fact, beyond the furthest houses she could see, the woods appeared to be mostly unbroken.
  101. >The car cruised through the main street, and Rainbow got a clear view of the businesses and pastimes of the village. Signs were welcoming but dated, colors were prominent but faded, and buildings were maintained well but often occupied only by a ‘For Rent’ sign in the window.
  102. >In the center of the town and to one side of the road was a moderately-sized public park. But, on closer examination, Rainbow discovered that its grass had grown feral and its concrete had not only cracked but in many places shattered. But nonetheless, children and adults both spent their late morning leisure time basking in the sun’s warming rays, playing sports, with each other, or with pets.
  103. >Eventually, near the end of the town, Buster turned off the main road and down a side street. But rather than pulling into one of the irregularly-spaced driveways that connected onto the street, he instead kept driving down its path. Before long, the driveways had stopped appearing, the surroundings had become more densely wooded, and the road began sloping upward onto the mountain.
  104. >At last, he pulled to a stop in front of a small home nestled between the pines. Only a small section was cleared for the tiny structure and its driveway, and it was far from pleasant on the eyes. Its roof was almost flat, its porch was small, the walls appeared thin, and Rainbow briefly wondered if the actual home was somewhere else, and if this was but a storage shed.
  105. “Here we are,” Buster said, dispelling any illusory notions Rainbow may have had about her new home. “Heh, you don’t look too excited.”
  106. “What?” she blurted out, the slight burn of embarrassment touching her cheeks. “No, no, I was just taking in the scene, that’s all!”
  107. “Ahh, don’t be afraid to call it what it is. It’s a dump. But it’s my dump, and I guess your dump now, too.”
  108. >He turned off the car and got out, leaving Rainbow alone inside it for a moment. It really did look like a dump, but at least it didn’t have the artificial, groomed, prepared feel of Damien’s property. This home, by contrast, was a home. It looked lived-in, and bore the marks of its owner’s habitation.
  109. “You wanna come out?” Buster asked as he opened the back door, picking up her bag and slinging it over his shoulder.
  110. “Yeah, yeah sure.”
  111. >Buster started walking up the long dirt pathway to the front porch, Rainbow matching his steps closely behind. She was tempted to lift off the ground and fly alongside him instead, but it had been too long since she’d had an honest ground beneath her hooves. The feel of pebbles, loose earth, vegetation, and the occasional puddle from a recent rainstorm were welcome reminders of how life had been when she actually had a chance to live it.
  112. >Around them, the landscape was alive. Rainbow couldn’t help but think of Fluttershy; she would be far more suited to this environment. Birds chirped from the trees, squirrels scurried across the ground and between bushes, and the hoot of an owl could be heard from far off. The pines were still green, but deciduous trees had either changed to shades of red and yellow or shed their leaves entirely. Leaves of brilliant, fiery colors littered the ground. As they neared the home, Rainbow could also identify the sound of a babbling brook somewhere nearby.
  113. >Buster produced a set of keys from his pocket, and quickly unlocked the door. Despite the obvious age and weathering of the building, its interior was surprisingly well-maintained. It was clean, tidy, organized, and had few offending odors. Unlike in Damien’s palace, however, the occasional mistake, overlook, or failure made it clear that this was the work of an unprofessional and imperfect hand. It was a refreshing observation.
  114. >But more apparent than the tidiness of the place was its size. If it had looked small from the outside, that effect was only compounded once she was in the door. There was a single main room that served as a kitchen, dining area, and living space. The television was placed in front of an old, cracked sofa, but it could be seen and heard from anywhere in the room. The entire area was probably smaller than Rainbow’s bedroom at Damien’s house.
  115. >Only five doors connected to the area. Two connected to the outside, one back and one front door. The other three were already left open, revealing a single bedroom, bathroom, and coat closet. None of those rooms were any more spacious than the one Rainbow stood in.
  116. “Wait,” she said inquisitively, “there’s only one bedroom.”
  117. “Ha, that’s your first observation?” Buster replied with a wide smile. “No ‘Wow Buster, nice job cleaning!’ or ‘Nice place you got here’? You sure got your priorities straight!”
  118. >The touch of redness returned to Rainbow’s cheeks, only causing Buster’s grin to broaden.
  119. “Don’t worry, Rainbow. I can call you that, right? Okay, yeah. I know it doesn’t look very appealing, but there’s the couch.”
  120. >Rainbow Dash looked contemptuously at the cracked, stained, likely decades-old couch.
  121. “You sure you don’t have anything else…?”
  122. “I had a dog up until last year. Might still have his pet bed somewhere.”
  123. “Right, the couch it is, then,” she said, flying up and plopping down on it for effect.
  124. “So, my bedroom is there, bathroom is there, and that’s pretty much it. I, uhh, didn’t plan up until recently to have anyone here with me, so it’s just a one-man gig. Wanna check out the backyard?”
  125. >Eager for another freeing taste of fresh, wild air, she happily followed him out the back door. There was no porch on this side of the structure, and instead a set of stairs descended directly into a small meadow perched between the door and the tree line. Sunlight streamed in, lighting and warming the area with an almost magical effect, before it cut off abruptly in the dense woods.
  126. “So, not sure of how much of an outdoors-pony you are, but everything you see is good for you to use. The trailer is small and we’re in the middle of nowhere, but twenty acres is twenty acres.”
  127. “You’ve got twenty acres of land but no mansion?” Rainbow asked with some incredulity.
  128. >In Equestria, land was owned either in small plots in towns, or in wide tracts by the government and wealthy individuals. By valuation, the Apples were actually the wealthiest ponies in town, but they never flaunted it. Having so much land without wealth was unheard of, and Buster obviously didn’t have much money to his name.
  129. “Mansion? Land’s cheap. Hilly terrain’s no good for growing anything, and we’re a pretty long drive from any big city.”
  130. >Rainbow paused to consider. The vehicle they were in had been going pretty fast, faster than most pegasi could fly in normal conditions. And it had taken hours to travel from Damien’s home, with nothing but rural areas in between.
  131. “Also,” Buster continued, “on three sides of the property there’s a wildlife preserve. Two thousand acres of wilderness. If you wanna go flying or something through there, I don’t think anyone’s gonna stop you.”
  132. “Two thousand – how big is this place?”
  133. “What place, the town?”
  134. “This whole region, I guess.”
  135. “Well… we traveled up through about two-thirds of Alabama, on the long border. So that’s about two hundred miles. Then Alabama’s like the thirtieth biggest state in the Union, or something like that.”
  136. >Rainbow had always imagined the land as about equivalent to Equestria in size. But it had to be far bigger. The longest train ride one could take in Equestria was from Appaloosa to the Crystal Empire, but even that took less than a day to complete. This country must have been so many magnitudes larger.
  137. “Dang. This is a big place.”
  138. “For you, maybe. I’ve been all over, traveling to music festivals, performances, all that like. I’ve been coast to coast, border to border.”
  139. “What does that mean?”
  140. “It means we’re gonna get to travel,” he remarked cheerfully, ruffling her mane playfully.
  141. >Rainbow recoiled slightly at the touch. Damien, while entirely different with his intent when trying to pet her, had still tried to do it enough to make her wary.
  142. “Hey, whoa, hands off?”
  143. >Buster quickly brought his hands up in front of him, suddenly concerned by her alarm.
  144. “Sorry, sorry. I won’t do it again, promise. You’re just waist high, and where I come from we do stuff like that all the time.”
  145. “Where is that?” she asked, lifting off the ground to get a better view of their surroundings.
  146. “Place called Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Even more of a swampy, humid, buggy mess than it is around here.”
  147. “I think it’s pretty nice,” she said honestly, still peering into the woods that surrounded them for miles.
  148. “Right here maybe, but the rest of ‘Bama ain’t no luxury destination. But you’ll see that plenty, like I said we’ll probably be traveling a whole lot.”
  149. >The prospect of travel excited Rainbow in ever increasing amounts the more he talked of it. If this country was truly so massive, there would be more to see and do than she could ever hope to accomplish.
  150. >She’d never gotten a chance to see this world before that day. Only a tiny sliver of it was visible from her windows or over Damien’s well-trimmed hedges, and that sliver was nothing more than an average upper-class suburb.
  151. “Well, ain’t much else to see out here. If you want, we can go hiking or camping or something. But for now, how’s about we head in, unpack your stuff, and go into town to buy you some goodies?”
  152. >…
  154. >Unpacking Rainbow’s luggage didn’t take long. She’d only left with the Wonderbolts outfit she’d brought from Equestria, some of Damien’s admittedly fantastic wines, cheeses, and imported candies, and a few trinkets.
  155. >Consequently, Buster’s hastily-scrawled shopping list ended up becoming much longer than expected. The two would need hygiene products, a GPS collar, a leash, extra food, and other supplies.
  156. >With the money he’d expected to pay for Rainbow, Buster could afford everything they thought of and more. He pledged to put every dime of it toward things and costs that benefited Rainbow or them both.
  157. >But Cottontown, Alabama wasn’t very diversified in its commercial establishments. It had little more than a grocer, a general store, a small hardware store, a mechanic’s shop, and a few small businesses. They’d need to travel farther for some items on the list.
  158. “So,” Buster said, looking over the list they’d compiled. “We can get some of this stuff in town, but we’re gonna have to go a ways out for other things. A long ways.”
  159. “How long?” Rainbow asked.
  160. “Stuff like the GPS collar we ain’t gonna get in any town smaller or nearer than Tuscaloosa, so might as well head out there tomorrow. Probably an hour drive each way, so no going tonight.”
  161. “Okay, you’re the boss.”
  162. “Hey now,” he softly remarked. “I know we ain’t gone over everything just yet, probably gonna do that tonight, but I just wanna let you know I ain’t like that. I don’t wanna work you or hurt you or nothing like what’s-his-face was doing, alright?”
  163. “Yeah, I think I figured that out pretty quick. Wasn’t planning on calling you ‘master’ or whatever the fuck anyways. So, more driving tomorrow?”
  164. “More driving tomorrow,” he reaffirmed. “We can probably get a lot of the other stuff in Tuscaloosa too, like maybe some custom collar or something so you don’t have to see or feel it all the time.”
  165. >The leash laws were loose enough for Pegasi. So long as the owner had the mandatory GPS collar, leashes could be kept stowed in a pocket or bag. Unfortunately, that collar wouldn’t be available until the next day, and Rainbow would have to be leashed for their outing today.
  166. >Buster didn’t think much of the law, and hated to degrade Rainbow on their first day together. But he wanted even less to pay for the hefty fine violating the law could entail. So, he grabbed a cheap collar and leash he’d picked up from the local dollar store, and attached them to the irritated pony.
  167. “Agh! Dude, don’t you have anything else? This is so uncomfortable!”
  168. “Too tight?”
  169. “Too everything!”
  170. “Look,” Buster said, rubbing a hand down his face. “It’s only for a day, alright? I promise our first stop tomorrow is to get you a custom-fitted one. And only for when we’re out in public. That’s gonna be, like, two hours tops.”
  171. “Fiiine,” the blue mare agrees with obvious disdain. However, her eyes widen again when she sees the next item Buster brings from his bedroom. “A leash? I thought you said I didn’t need that!”
  172. “You won’t when you got the good collar on. But look, it’s either one day of using this stuff or a big ol’ fine biting into our cash.”
  173. >Soon enough, Rainbow was convinced to wear the leash on the promise of goodies from the store. Damien had only ever served her food that would be considered fancy even by Rarity’s standards. She’d not had a bite of candy since she left Equestria.
  174. >They piled back into Buster’s old car, still laden with dozens of instruments and boxes. A few turns of the key later, the engine puttered to life. A quick turn-around through the grassy front yard later, and they were headed back down the woodland road to town.
  175. >Buster parked his car in one of the many open spaces along the main road, and made sure to attach Rainbow’s leash before getting out. With only moderate vocal opposition from her, the two started their walk down the street.
  176. >The first stop would be inside the town’s small grocery store. While Buster went to get the essentials and some extras he imagined a pony would enjoy, Rainbow occupied herself with the small candy section. When he returned, he found the mare sitting happily and perhaps hungrily over a shopping basket filled with at least one of every box.
  177. “I only got two hands, so you’re gonna have to carry that,” he said as he picked her leash back up.
  178. >She obliges, picking up the basket with her teeth. Then, Buster makes a horrific observation.
  179. “Rainbow!” she jumps slightly at the sudden exclamation, jostling the contents of her basket. “What do you think you’re doing? Why are there no Swedish Fish in there?”
  180. >She spit out the basket handle, and the container clattered to the floor. Several candy boxes and bags slid off the top onto the floor.
  181. “You do know ponies don’t like meat, right? That includes fish.”
  182. “It’s not real fish, sugar.” He grabs three boxes and throws them onto her pile. “And trust me, it’s not something you want to miss, either.”
  183. >With another few days’ meals secured in his basket, Buster takes Dash to the checkout counter. To his dismay, the usual cashier sits behind the register: Loretta. She was an aging Black woman, more than a few shades darker than Buster. Her seemingly permanent scowl contrasted with Buster’s eternally jovial features.
  184. “Buster,” she said, feigning a smile. Buster knew it was insincere; the woman probably hadn’t had a real smile in decades. “Glad to see you back. But, oh Lawd! What in hell is that you got in tow?”
  185. “That’s Rainbow Dash, Loretta. And you could-“
  186. “Boy, ain’t you forgot where our ancestors came from? I ain’t forgot! And plus, them ponies be nasty! You better be handling that basket, because I ain’t touching it, mm-mm.”
  187. “Stuff a sock in it, Loretta. Just check us out. I bet you remember slavery personally.”
  188. “Aw, now you done it! Didn’t your momma ever tell you how to talk to a lady?”
  189. “I don’t see no ladies in here!”
  190. >While the two bickered, Rainbow looked on in shock. She’d never seen humans fight outside of television shows. On those programs, the fights were for good reason and perhaps unsurprisingly well-choreographed. But this argument is over nothing, and the two are far louder than any ponies she’d ever heard arguing.
  191. >The comment about slavery intrigued her as well. Was there slavery among humans? Damien had never talked to her about such matters, instead preferring to “keep the focus on lighter topics.”
  192. “That’s it, Buster! You ain’t getting no more discounts here!”
  193. “When’s the last time you ran a discount?”
  194. “Today! We got a half-off order of ‘get your ass outta here’ with every purchase!”
  195. “Ms. Loretta, do you think we could maybe check out and go?” Rainbow asked timidly.
  196. >Loretta’s expression didn’t soften any, but she bit her lip in acknowledgement of Rainbow’s words. Without another sound, she started swiping each of the items from the two baskets. Any concern of pony spittle residing on the candy basket’s handle seemed to have been forgotten.
  197. “Sorry you had to see that,” Buster apologized as the two walked out of the store. “Loretta’s just a mean, nasty old woman, and has been ever since I moved here.”
  198. “Ssfin,” Dash mumbled through the plastic bag she carried in her mouth.
  199. “Hey, take a load off, drop the bag. We got time.”
  200. >She spit out the bag, allowing it to drop to the ground.
  201. “It’s not a big deal, really. Honestly, it was kind of interesting seeing human conversations.”
  202. “What do you mean? It’s been years since y’all showed up here.”
  203. “Stupid Damien, the jerk you bought me from, kept me under lock and key.”
  204. “Aw, I’m sorry. Don’t worry, like I said you’ll get to go lots of places with me.”
  205. >Rainbow started to pick up the bag, but stopped halfway through the motion.
  206. “Hey Buster?”
  207. “Yeah?”
  208. “That lady and you said something about slavery? Is that, like, for humans?”
  209. “Hm! Was wondering when you’d ask something like that. Long story short, up until about a hundred and fifty years ago, us Black folk had it a lot worse than you ponies. We come from a place called Africa, half a world away. White folk caught us, shipped us over, and made us slaves.”
  210. “Why? Was there some kind of crisis like the ponies had?”
  211. “Nope. They just needed somebody to work their fields, and they weren’t about to do it. If you want, we can go to the library or fire up Wikipedia and read some more about it.”
  212. “Huh. I’ll think about it.”
  213. >…
  215. >The other visits to stores failed to produce any further incidents of interest. They did, however, prove interesting to Rainbow Dash, as she finally had a chance to see how this world worked. In some ways, it was much like home, with many of the same amenities and features. Other details, however, were remarkably different. Food was frozen instead of fresh, objects were powered with mechanics and electricity instead of magic, and clothing was ubiquitous instead of exclusively formal.
  216. >The sun was beginning to set as they carried the last few bags of goods back to the car. Buster might have been part unicorn, as Rainbow could determine no way other than magic for him to manage to fit all their goods into the already-loaded car.
  217. >But rather than going straight home, Buster opted to take Rainbow through the nearby park. The sidewalks were coated in fiery leaves, children bustled about in winter wear that was always too heavy or too light, couples fed pigeons, and others, like Rainbow and Buster, simply stopped to watch them.
  218. >Almost totally lacking from the scene, however, were fellow ponies. Rainbow knew they’d been brought to this world by the millions, and given the moderate population of the town, she’d expected to have seen at least a few other equines. But now she looked on the only other pony she’d seen in years, a yellow unicorn mare happily occupying some young human children.
  219. “Hey, Buster?”
  220. “What’s up, little pony?”
  221. Her muzzle contorted into a slight scrunch. “Okay, first of all: you’re cool so far, but lay off the pet names, okay?”
  222. “Okay, whatever you say,” he replied with a chuckle.
  223. “But anyways, why aren’t there any other ponies around here? That one’s the first one we’ve seen all day.”
  224. “Well that’s Acousta. She’s owned by that old gentleman over there, Clyde. See how they play with the children? That’s all either of them live for, playing and performing with the little ones.”
  225. “That’s… nice. But, my question?”
  226. “Hmm? Oh, well that’s pretty simple. There just ain’t a whole lot of ponies around here. Not compared to some other places, at least. You go west of the Mississippi, you’ll find ponies everywhere.”
  227. “What? Why?”
  228. “Y’all just all appeared in that part of the country. Sure, people are free to bring you out east, but of course there’s a lot more ponies that just stay in the west.”
  229. >That disappointed Rainbow somewhat. She’d hoped to find ponies to befriend or at least talk to in this new change of scenery.
  230. “There’s only about a dozen ponies in the whole town,” he continued. “Acousta and Freddy, her owner, you can find them out here all the time. Then there’s a couple more that get out sometimes with their owners, and a couple more working in some of the stores we didn’t visit. The rest just stay home.”
  231. “Sounds boring.”
  232. “Not like there’s a ton to do out here. This ain’t New Orleans, folks around here don’t even have booze to drink.”
  233. “No booze?” she asked with some curiosity. Damien had only allowed her wine, but had plenty of drinks for himself. She’d have nabbed a few for herself, but he kept the fridge locked.
  234. “Pickens is a dry county. Means they don’t sell alcohol anywhere but in Aliceville and Carrollton.”
  235. “Then what in Tartarus to people do around here all day?”
  236. “I suppose there’s the park. Community does events every now and again. But between that, they just stick around at home or play sports or go out shooting targets, really.”
  237. >The two stood there for a few more moments in silence, watching Acousta play with the children. She was an aging mare, likely well into the middle of her life when she’d been plucked from Equestria. The children danced around her, played catch with magic, and even rode atop her if they were small enough. It was only mildly ironic that her cutie mark featured a banjo.
  238. >The park-goers slowly began to trickle out, returning to their homes as the sun hung low in the sky. When the shadow of the park’s west brick wall finally hit the east one, Buster decided it was time to go. Rainbow wanted to give a brief acknowledgement to the yellow mare before they left, but decided it would be best to leave her alone with the children. They all seemed to be enjoying their tomfoolery, so why butt in?
  239. >By the time they were back at Buster’s home, the sky had turned a dark gray and no more shadows danced through the woods. The front of his home was dimly lit by a porch light and the glow of fireflies. He took his steps carefully to avoid tripping over stray roots and bumps in the dirt, while Rainbow happily hovered alongside, several shopping bags dangling from her mouth.
  240. >He unlocks the door, and presses his weight against it when it catches. After a few pushes, the door swings inwards, and the two are allowed to rest their bags on the counter.
  241. “Alright Rainbow, you know how to cook?”
  242. “I guess I can try, if you want. Never really did, though.”
  243. “Naw, that’s okay. I’ve got culinary skills, yo. Maybe I can teach you sometime, but for now just flick on the TV and let me work my magic.”
  244. >As he set to work in the kitchen cooking up some unknown delight, Rainbow somewhat excitedly found her way to the aging couch. She’d never been able to use their televisions before, and the only glimpses of it she had were of Damien’s strange late night shows. She didn’t really know what to expect from it, but her hooves tingled with anticipation nonetheless.
  245. >Working the remote control wasn’t easy. The buttons, while thankfully easy to press down, frustrater her as she tried to push them with first her hooves, then her muzzle, and finally her wingtips. But to her dismay, she couldn’t figure out to turn the device on. Begrudgingly, she had Buster come over and show her the correct buttons.
  246. >The television flared to life, flooding her senses of sight and sound alike in a sudden burst. She quickly turned the volume down before focusing on the scene playing out before her. Two humans, one male and one female, sat together at a desk. They weren’t acting, or singing, or telling jokes or doing anything entertaining at all. They instead sat staring at the camera, talking monotonously about jarringly violent topics.
  247. >Rainbow was decidedly opposed to the notion of watching nightly news. So reached once again for the remote and started scrolling through channels. Would she watch more news? Definitely not. Everyone likes celebrity drama, right? Not her, at least. Hey, pony, want to watch some informercials? Rainbow did not.
  248. >Finally, one channel caught her eye. It was refined yet lively, and humorous yet complex. Its characters were deep yet believable, and its style was developed yet novel. Better than anything she’d ever seen Damien watch, and better than most books she’d ever read, the channel and show she’d tuned into may have created an impact to last a lifetime.
  249. “Hey, when that Spongebob episode’s over, dinner’s ready,” Buster called from the kitchen.
  250. >But the episode had just finished, and she was hungry. So, she reluctantly turned away and went into the small eating area. Luckily, the small dining table was still within view of the television, so she could still pay attention to the show while eating.
  251. “So,” Buster prompted, pulling her attention away from the screen behind him. “First day. It go good? Not so good?”
  252. “Good. Definitely good,” she said through a mouthful of expertly-seasoned cheese ravioli.
  253. “Hoped so. Gotta be honest, you’re a whole lot happier about all this than I was expecting. Thought you’d hate me at least a little bit.”
  254. >Rainbow snorted slightly in laughter, almost choking on her food. She quickly swallowed her bite before offering up a response.
  255. “Dude, I would’ve done anything to get out of there. Like, hard labor or something, I didn’t care. And frankly, you’re just pretty cool, and that probably won’t change unless you’re secretly evil or something.”
  256. “Cool? I don’t know about that.”
  257. “Sure you are. You took me out and got me stuff, let me do kind of what I want, and even made me dinner today! Damien just kept me locked up like a doll or something.”
  258. “I need to know. Did he ever, you know, hurt you? At all?”
  259. “Hurt me? I don’t think so,” she answered as she put a hoof to her chin in thought. “But he just never left me alone, or let me do anything. He wanted to marry me or something, but whoa, that is definitely not how you do it.”
  260. “Dang, that’s creepy.”
  261. “You bet your ass it was. You’re not like that, though. You’re cool. And then you say we get to travel around, that’s honestly what I’ve wanted most all this time.”
  262. “Well, thanks. You don’t know how relieving it is to know you’re happy.”
  263. “Sure, sure. Also, this is the best ravioli I’ve ever had.”
  264. >…
  266. >After finishing dinner, the duo watched another two hours’ worth of Spongebob reruns before going to sleep. The couch wasn’t comfortable by any means, but somehow Rainbow Dash found it more fulfilling than sleep in the silk sheets of Damien’s amenities.
  267. >Buster woke up early in the morning, at least by Rainbow’s standards. At six, he was not only dressed and ready to get going, but also incredulous that the mare wasn’t of a similar mindset.
  268. “What the hell do you mean, ‘get up’? It’s like three in the morning.”
  269. “It is 5:57 and that is plenty late! C’mon, we got like an hour drive into Tuscaloosa!”
  270. “It’s not even light outside yet!”
  271. >But, reluctantly, she gave up her position on the couch to go get cleaned up. But first, she decided to resume the morning ritual she’d been forced to abandon years ago.
  272. >When she was still her own mare, Rainbow started every morning with a burst of exercise, usually acrobatic or distance flying. With limited time and space here, however, she had to settle for laps around Buster’s property. She’d have loved to rocket across the sky and once again show the world her skill, but Buster made her agree to wait one day until that would be legal to do so. Making turns quickly and cleanly, she was delighted to discover her muscles still taught and her form still excellent even after so much time out of practice. Perhaps the strength exercises she’d done in all her spare time had paid off.
  273. “Well I’ll be,” Buster remarked with a whistle as she set down on the front porch. “That’s some fast flying if I’ve ever seen it.”
  274. “That’s nothing,” she bragged. “That’s just a warmup after years of no practice. I used to be, not even kidding you, THE best of the best. All of Equestria, not one pony could hold up to the standards I set!”
  275. “I’d believe it.”
  276. “You better! I was with the Wonderbolts, the greatest flying team ever known.”
  277. “You’ll have to teach me some of your techniques,” he said with a grin and a pat of his round gut. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not exactly the healthiest man alive…”
  278. “Pfft, don’t worry about it. If you can keep up with a quarter of my pace, you’ll be a runner worthy of the Equestria Games in no time!”
  279. >Shortly after, the two once more entered the rusting, clunky old car that seemed to befit Buster so well. He’d spared few words in complaining about it to her, but she was beginning to suspect that he actually liked the old thing. An item like this had history, and its sentiment wouldn’t easily have been forgotten.
  280. >What followed was much more of the same driving they’d done yesterday, through a landscape dotted by stray homes, tiny hamlets, the occasional moderately-sized town, and thousands of acres of forest. It wasn’t an unpleasant sight, but Rainbow started to wonder if this world had any other ecosystems. The scenery changed in far smaller distances in Equestria, could these landscapes be all there is to this world?
  281. >In those few fleeting days before she’d been auctioned to Damien, the only view of the world she’d gotten was of a similar landscape along the western bank of the Mississippi River. It similar in character to her current surroundings, albeit with more farmland.
  282. >But at last, the road rounded a hill and gave a partial view of their destination. Spread before them was Tuscaloosa, a mighty city indeed. It sprawled across the land like no city Rainbow had ever seen, although most of its carefully-planned streets and neighborhoods were far more loosely packed than any city in Equestria. Perhaps it was smaller by population, but it was certainly larger than all but Manehattan in spread.
  283. >Its skyline was almost disappointing, being dominated by buildings of only a limited size. However, unlike the skyscrapers of Equestria, these were also matched by equally massive buildings of metal, rust, and industry.
  284. “That’s Tuscaloosa?”
  285. “Sure is,” Buster replied cheerfully. “Ain’t it just the prettiest blight on the landscape you’ve ever seen?”
  286. “It’s not a blight! But, I guess it’s not really pretty either…”
  287. >As they entered the town, Rainbow was able to get a better look at human architecture. It mirrored the style seen in some Equestrian cities, but lacked many of the equine accommodations and themes seen throughout them. The wide road they traveled on was maintained relatively well, but many of the streets below were in a state of disrepair.
  288. >The closer she looked, the more apparent problems she saw. Not only were the streets cracked, but also many of the sidewalks. Plants grew unabated both in yards and in the streets, and boards covered the windows and doors of some houses she saw.
  289. >But, thankfully, by the time they left the main road the scenery had brightened somewhat. Replacing the almost dismal residential areas was a bustling commercial center that looked more like a blown-up version of Cottontown’s main street than anything else.
  290. >Buster parked in a massive concrete field filled with other vehicles. He explained it was a “parking lot”, a designated area to temporarily store vehicles. Travel by carriage was rare in Equestria, so such a huge portion of space devoted to these vehicles was somewhat surprising to Rainbow.
  291. “They got strip malls in Equestria?” Buster asked as he helped Rainbow out of the car, leash in hand.
  292. “I don’t think so. Is this all one store?”
  293. “Nope, it’s a whole bunch of stores. That one in the middle is where we’re headed, so I don’t need to use this garbage ever again,” he grumbled, swirling the leash in his hand.
  294. >Their destination, Phong’s Pony Palace, was newer and noticeably well-upkept compared to most other locales around them. Its sign was clean and not yet bleached by the sun, and its windows were covered not in grime or dust but in freshly-printed posters and advertisements.
  295. >Inside, the store’s target demographic was well catered to. Inoffensive music played softly through overhead speakers, and white lights illuminated displays of hobbies, toys, clothing, and other necessities for ponies. Manning the counter was a cheerful young Asian man, and a pegasus stallion hovered nearby, reading through the most recent issue of Equine Monthly.
  296. “Hey there, welcome,” the man said with a Southern drawl thicker than any Rainbow had yet encountered. “Anything I can get for you today?”
  297. “Yeah,” Buster replied, letting the leash slip from his grasp. “We’re looking for a custom fit GPS collar. I read online y’all have them here?”
  298. “Sure do. And in a range of colors, materials, and thicknesses to make sure they’re as comfortable as possible.”
  299. “Take a look at mine if you’re not sure,” the pegasus commented without raising his eyes from the magazine. Upon closer inspection, Buster and Rainbow discovered a textured white collar fitted around his neck. It blended well with his coat, and neither would likely have noticed without prompting.
  300. “Wow, that looks real good,” Buster commented. “Comfortable?”
  301. “Don’t even feel it. I even sleep in the thing, since it would just be a hassle to take it off.”
  302. >Buster and Rainbow Dash exchanged a glance. Regardless of the truth in his statement, a collar like the one the stallion wore would inevitably be far more comfortable than the one-size-fits-all one fitted around Rainbow’s neck.
  303. “I guess I’m convinced, and I know Rainbow can’t wait to get out of that ugly one she’s got on. What’s it gonna cost me?”
  304. “Depends on the material, but most are between three-fifty and four hundred dollars.”
  305. >What followed was a lengthy but rewarding fitting session, where a range of sizes, materials, thicknesses and weight patterns were tweaked and toggled. Finally, they reached an option that fit Rainbow perfectly, a thin elastic collar colored exactly like Rainbow’s sky blue coat. To her delight, it neither hung loose nor dug into her skin in the slightest, and she felt confident that it would hold up well mid-flight.
  306. >As Buster filled out paperwork for the device, Rainbow browsed through the store to find any specialty items she might want. They had all sorts of pony “specialty” products, and Rainbow collected a small bundle of things she suspected couldn’t be found anywhere else.
  307. >When it came time to check out everything they’d bought, the pegasus stallion approached Rainbow midair with a paper held between his hooves.
  308. “So, I gotta ask, are you THE Rainbow Dash? Like, Element and Wonderbolt Rainbow Dash?”
  309. “You bet your ass I am! Glad to see ponies still recognize me,” she said with obvious pride.
  310. “When you walked in I didn’t want to make a scene or anything, and then your owner called you Rainbow, just didn’t want to embarrass myself.”
  311. “All good, dude. I’ve been, uhh, away for a while. You think other ponies remember me?”
  312. “It’s hard to forget somepony who’s both an Element of Harmony and a Wonderbolt. But, anyway, I wanted to give you this, see if you’re interested?”
  313. >He turned the paper around, revealing an advertisement for a local event. They were promoting a set of races, it seemed, for local pony athletes.
  314. “I bet you’d get a lot of fans if you went out there and showed your stuff. Talk it over with your human, it’s like a ten-dollar entry fee for each race.”
  315. “Huh, I will, thanks.”
  316. >She grabbed the paper and stuffed it into the new saddlebags she’d picked off the shelves. They were built to last, through time, weather, and duress. They were also going to cost Buster a pretty penny.
  317. >She turned back to him in time to catch him laying out seven or eight of the hundred-dollar bills he’d had stowed in his pocket since the day prior. If her understanding of money in this world was correct, he’d just put down a substantial sum for her goods.
  318. “Alright Rainbow, ready to go?” he asked, picking up the bags holding the rest of her items.
  319. “Sure, let’s head out.”
  320. “And the collar’s good? Like, ‘you can’t even feel it’ good?”
  321. “I can’t even feel it.” It was true, the collar neither weighed on her neck nor constricted it.
  322. “Alright then, let’s go get some lunch. There’s a real nice chicken place around here, and I know they have some great mac and cheese for you, too.”
  323. >As they walked out of the store, Buster chucked the old collar into a nearby trash can with vigor. The leash stayed in his pocket, but he didn’t seem to have any intention to take it out. And, for the first time in a long time, Rainbow walked out in public unrestrained.
  324. >She felt ready to take on the world.
  325. >…
  327. “You alright with me ordering for you? I know what’s good here, you can trust me.”
  328. >Rainbow looked up from the menu at a Buster studying his with equal intensity. He almost seemed to care more about getting this meal right than the collar.
  329. “Uhh, sure. But no mac and cheese, okay? We had that last night.”
  330. >He muttered something about never being able to have too much mac and cheese, but gave her a nod in the affirmative. He studied the menu for a few more moments before closing it and setting it aside.
  331. “So,” he prompted, “what you think of the city?”
  332. “It’s… bigger than most cities in Equestria, at least by area. But I think it’s a lot less densely packed.”
  333. “Not really what I was asking, but all right. Interesting to know. See anything interesting?”
  334. >Rainbow remembered the flyer she’d stowed in her bag, which laid closed next to her with a few other items now stowed inside. She quickly got down to grab it before resuming her position at the table.
  335. “Actually, that pony at the store gave me this. I don’t know if you have any plans, or don’t want me to do it, or whatever, but hey.”
  336. >Buster pulled the paper closer. “The Great Alabama Pony Races” was boldly emblazoned across the top in fiery red text. “Ponies, owners, and fans of racing all, come down to Tuscaloosa on Saturday, October 28 for the first race of its kind in all of Dixie! Throughout the day, ponies of all races will be able to compete in swimming, running, and flying races to claim the title of Alabama’s Best. Purchase tickets online or at the door, or register your ponies by Friday, October 20. Winning ponies will receive a custom-made medal, and several events come with a trophy. Betting is authorized and offered…”
  337. “You wanna sign up for a race?” Buster asked, putting the paper down.
  338. “I’m telling you, I was world-class in Equestria! And the pony at the store it’s only ten bits, or dollars, or whatever.”
  339. “Saturday the 28th, huh? I do have a gig then, but I can probably cancel or reschedule. But only if you promise me you’ll bring home a medal.”
  340. “Just one? Not happening. I’d be more likely to take a clean sweep,” she boasted.
  341. >At this, the waiter finally came by. It occurred to Rainbow Dash that service had taken an extraordinarily long time to arrive, despite there only being a few other patrons in the restaurant.
  342. “Hey y’all, welcome to Big Dip Chicken, I’m Rohandra. Can I get you drinks? Ready to order?”
  343. >Buster ordered their food, and a root beer for himself, being careful to hush his voice to ensure Rainbow’s food would be a surprise. Rainbow hadn’t specified a drink, so he prompted her to order for herself.
  344. “Uhh, do you serve beer to ponies?” she asked the server somewhat hesitantly.
  345. “Only if the owner approves,” she replied, looking to Buster.
  346. “Naw,” he said, shaking his head. “Get you a Coke or lemonade.”
  347. >Somewhat surprised by his denial, she instead ordered a Fanta after inquiring as to what each brand tasted like. The waitress took their menus, and once again they were alone.
  348. “So, I guess if you say no then that’s that, but why no beer? I’m no fucking lightweight.”
  349. “Well, you better learn to sober up,” he said in a distinctly somber tone. “It’s a personal thing, I don’t like booze. If dad’s words didn’t cement that belief, mom’s hangovers sure did. Alcohol ain’t gonna do you any good anyway.”
  350. >Rainbow didn’t try to hide her disappointment, but Buster remained unmoved. One of her principal hopes from her new owner was alcohol, both to bring back memories of her drinking binges in Equestria and to temporarily shove away any remaining nostalgia for the place. But with how well he’d been treating her, she didn’t feel right to complain about such a small issue.
  351. “I’d also appreciate it if you toned the language down just a teensie bit,” Buster remarked after a few moments. “You might’ve noticed I don’t cuss if I can help it. I just think it ain’t helping nobody when you do it, so best not to in the first place.”
  352. >Foul language was used sparingly if ever in Equestria, but Rainbow had started using it regularly just to spite Damien. But now she realized that it had formed into a habit, and one that might get her in trouble if she didn’t heed his advice.
  353. “Yeah, sorry about that. I didn’t cuss a whole lot before, but my last owner just… gah. Made me mad enough way too often.”
  354. “That’s alright. Long as you’re making an effort, I’m happy.”
  355. >If their first wait on service was unexpectedly long, this second intermission was jarringly short. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes since they’d placed their orders, but out of the kitchen came their server with plates and drinks for them both. She placed a brown, bubbling glass of Coke and a plate of long, golden chicken tenders in front of Buster, before setting down Rainbow’s orange beverage and a plate of something she didn’t recognize. A big basket of fries was put in between them, and the waitress scuttled off back to the kitchen.
  356. “Buster? What, uhh, what are these.”
  357. “Ain’t you ever had fried mozzarella sticks?”
  358. “Don’t think so.”
  359. “Try ‘em.”
  360. >She was about to bite off a morsel, but instead downed half the stick at once. Her eyes widened slightly in surprise. It was just deep fried cheese, but…
  361. “I think they had these in some places in Equestria, but I never got any. Is it always this good?”
  362. “Nope,” Buster answered with a chuckle. “This place has some special batter they use, I come here just about every time we’re in Tuscaloosa. And if you ever decide you wanna try chicken, this is the place to do it.”
  363. “Why does everywhere in this world have good cooking?”
  364. “Hah!” Buster laughed, slapping a hand on the table. “That’s just the South. Soul food’s crafted by God himself, and oh my, in my opinion it’s a fine compensation for all we Black folk been through.”
  365. >…
  367. >To Rainbow’s surprise, Buster informed her after they left the restaurant that they would not be leaving the city. Instead, he said, he would be showing her the ropes of how he earned his meager living. He would find a busy street corner somewhere in town, set up some equipment, and play to his heart’s content. Tips weren’t often and weren’t much, but they helped to sustain him between formal gigs and spread his name.
  368. >As she helped Buster to take out a few instruments from various spots, doors, and cavities within the car, she welcomed the sun’s warming rays on her back. The weather, while warmer than it would have been in Equestria at this time of year, still carried a bit of chill. But it was made better through her ability to actually do something with her time, rather than wasting away within Damien’s enclosing walls.
  369. >While he was finishing setting up, Buster even allowed her to take flight freely around the city. Careful to stay well above any pedestrians or vehicles, she felt liberated as she zipped around skyscrapers and over smaller stores and homes. Unexpectedly, she heard a sudden noise of crackling static just below her right ear, and Buster’s voice immediately after.
  370. “Calling Rainbow, Rainbow do you copy? Just say something, I should be able to hear it!”
  371. “I… hear you? How?” she asked, not slowing her flight.
  372. “Nice! It’s the collar, got some built in radio stuff, I can call you up mid-flight. And vice versa, you ever need anything, it should come through to my phone.”
  373. >Normally she would be startled by an intrusion on her flying time, but she oddly found herself unaffected and perhaps even glad to hear Buster’s voice. Did she really enjoy his company that much?
  374. “Alright, sounds cool. How does my flying look?”
  375. “Like a million bucks. But, c’mon down here, I think I’m all set up.”
  376. >Being only a few blocks away, it took barely ten seconds for Rainbow to return to Buster’s side. In the few minutes she’d been gone, he had his saxophone out and slung over his shoulder along with few other instruments still packed in their cases nearby. The sax case was propped open with a small ‘Tips Appreciated!’ sign hanging inside.
  377. “By the way, keep forgetting to ask, you play any instruments?” he asked as she descended.
  378. “I did percussion for a year or two in secondary school, but I don’t think I remember any of it.”
  379. “Hey, that’s great! If I can teach or re-teach you the ropes, that’d make a mighty fine addition to my act!”
  380. “You want me to try now?”
  381. “Naw, sugar, you just hang out and watch the show. Ever do acrobatics and tricks? Could help draw some attention.”
  382. “Are you sure you haven’t heard of me before? Like, you’re not yanking my chain?”
  383. “I swear I ain’t heard a word about you before I picked you up yesterday, I’m sorry!”
  384. “Because, Buster, not only am I the fastest flyer in Equestria, but also one of its greatest daredevils! I don’t think THE greatest though, the rest of the Wonderbolts could challenge me on that one.”
  385. “Normally I’d tell someone he’s full of himself for saying something like that, but I think I believe it with you. Gimme a little show of skill?”
  386. “Oh man, you don’t know how much I wanted you to say that!”
  387. >With a brief windup, Rainbow took off like a rocket, rainbow trail streaking behind her. Apparently without an ounce of her old skill lost, she looped, cartwheeled, and spun back and forth across the street. She shot up high in the sky, before rocketing back down pushing her wings in the same direction as gravity. By the time she finally came to a stop by Buster, her panting was only drowned out by applause from stopped spectators on both sides of the street.
  388. “Well fry me up and call me a corn dog, that’s real showmanship, Rainbow! Gimme a fist bump, or hoof bump or whatever it’s called.”
  389. >Tiredly, she picked up a hoof and bumped it against his clenched hand, glad that such a gesture wasn’t lost across worlds. The spectators she’d so enamored began to gather around, some crossing the street and doubling back just to come up close. Not willing to lose such a strong crowd, Buster began playing on his sax, but at a volume low enough for the people to pepper her with questions.
  390. “That was the best flying I’ve ever seen!” one man remarked excitedly.
  391. “Are you an acrobat?” a little girl asked with equal vigor.
  392. “Pegasus, what’s your name? Are you performing in town?”
  393. >Suddenly overwhelmed by the crowd, she quickly darted up above their heads to avoid any claustrophobia. But before she could answer any questions, an earth pony at the back of the crowd gasped and answered the last one asked.
  394. “That’s Rainbow Dash! She’s one of the best pegasus fliers we had in Equestria!”
  395. “Rainbow Dash?” a woman asked, as though she’d just reached an epiphany. “I think I’ve heard that name before! There’s, like, a whole Wikipedia page, I think!”
  396. “Yes! I’m Rainbow Dash,” she proudly proclaimed, all at once remembering the thrill of a cheering crowd. “I’ve, uhh, come out of retirement to start performing again! Any requests?”
  397. “Do a spiral around that building!” exclaimed the little girl, pointing to a nearby skyscraper, perhaps the tallest one in the city.
  398. >Wordlessly, Rainbow took off again, this time pushing with all her might to spiral around the building at maximum. More than a couple office workers must have been startled as the pegasus passed by their windows at over a hundred miles per hour. As she reached the top of the building, she allowed her upward velocity to carry her, before gliding back down to the crowd.
  399. >When she reached them, they were not only applauding but openly cheering. A few more pedestrians had also joined them, Rainbow observed. As she passed overhead, she noted Buster’s instrument case rapidly filling with coins and paper money.
  400. “Thank you! Thank you! Now, ha, just let me get a quick drink,” she said to the expectant onlookers as she reached for the remnants of her soft drink. If this was to keep up, she was going to need more to hydrate her: she’d not packed nor prepared for a proper performance of her own.
  401. “Need me to go pick you up some energy drinks?” Buster asked, as if on cue.
  402. >Seeing her nod her head without hesitation, he set the saxophone aside and began jogging down the street to a convenience store. In the meantime, Rainbow started hastily signing autographs for the still-growing crowd of new and old fans.
  403. “Rainbow Dash, are you going to be competing in the pony races at the end of the month?” one teenager asked.
  404. “You bet I am! I’ll try to skip a few events, though. It wouldn’t be very interesting if I took every medal they had, would it?”
  405. >This got the crowd laughing, and shortly thereafter Buster returned with a bag full of energy drink bottles. Rainbow didn’t recognize the brand, something about alligators, but the sugary neon appearance of sports drinks would catch her attention anywhere.
  406. “Alright, enough signing stuff! Who wants to see some tricks?”
  407. “Do a big loop!”
  408. “See how fast you can go to the river and back!”
  409. “Can you punch through a cloud?”
  410. >She was going to enjoy the rest of the day.
  411. >…
  413. >By the time the sun finally started setting, Rainbow was exhausted, but nevertheless had to pry herself away from the cheering crowds. Their street corner had quickly proved too small to accommodate the throngs of spectators Rainbow attracted, so Buster moved to a local park as the center of their operations.
  414. >As they started the drive back to Cottontown, Buster leaned back in his chair with a huge grin stretched across his face. Not only was Rainbow proving to be enjoyable company, but also a strong supplement to his otherwise weak income.
  415. “Tell you what, Rainbow,” he commented. “I really, really did not expect to end up coming home with more in my wallet than we left with.”
  416. “Oh, yeah! How much did you collect?”
  417. “We. We collected. This is a team effort now, ‘cause you’re part of the act. And for the dollar total, somewhere around nine hundred dollars, give or take a few.”
  418. “And that’s a lot, right?”
  419. “It’s enough that I’m getting you a proper bed soon as I can, that’s for sure!”
  420. >Rainbow pumped her foreleg at hearing this, relieved to not spend any more nights than needed on the decidedly uncomfortable couch. It was big enough, really, but the main problem was its age and shoddy construction…
  421. “Or we could just drop some cash on a fancy new couch, if that’s more your style. Fall asleep watching TV each night.”
  422. “Only if it’s a really good couch.”
  423. “For real, Rainbow! I’ve been doing streetside performances like that for four years now, and I’ve never had a day even close to that! Also, soon as we get home, I’m hopping online and signing you up for as many races as you want. You’re going places, hear me?”
  424. “Do I ever! Tell you what, dude, getting back in the groove feels good!”
  425. “Preach!”
  426. “I just, I dunno. I was just kind of dead inside for years, and I didn’t even realize it. And now all of a sudden I feel like climbing mountains!”
  427. “I’m glad, Rainbow. Just don’t forget me when you get big and famous.”
  428. “Forget you?” she asked, somewhat aghast. “Okay, first of all, I’m the Element of Loyalty. I wouldn’t just leave you if I got famous! Second, I don’t think I legally could even do that. And most importantly, you’re my friend! I wouldn’t leave behind the whole reason I feel so alive again!”
  429. “You really mean that?” Buster asked, his voice suddenly soft.
  430. “I do. You remind me of some of the best friends I ever had in Equestria, really.”
  431. >He was silent for a moment, before letting out a big sigh and sinking further into his seat. In the dim evening light, Rainbow thought she saw streaks of tears shining off his rounded face.
  432. “If I weren’t driving, I’d hug you, you know that?”
  433. “How about settling for a hoof bump?” she offered, raising her hoof across the glove box.
  434. >Buster reciprocated, starting off a very friendly, very enjoyable car ride into the night.
  435. >…
  437. “Now, see, I still ain’t getting how you’re able to even hold the drumsticks.”
  438. “It just works, okay? Focus on my rhythm, would you?”
  439. >With two more days until Buster’s next planned gig, he’d decided to spend the time showing Rainbow the basics of several percussion instruments. First on the list was a snare drum, to establish rhythm. If she did have any rhythm, it surely wasn’t any good.
  440. “You’re, uhh, making good progress!”
  441. “Uh-huh. You know, I said I played when I was a filly, that doesn’t mean I was any good at it.”
  442. “Hey, don’t count yourself out yet. How about we move on to some other instrument in the meantime? How’s a xylophone sound?”
  443. >But that didn’t work out, either. Nor did a full drum set, tambourine, bongo drum, set of maracas, or even a simple triangle. The pony just didn’t have an ounce of rhythm in her body.
  444. >The repeated failures left Rainbow more disappointed than anything else. Not a day before she’d been on top of the world, once again in front of a cheering crowd. Now, her audience of one looked on with pity as she laid down the last instrument.
  445. “It’s no use, Buster. I just don’t think I’m a musician,” she said sullenly.
  446. “No you ain’t, err, sure you are. Just gotta practice more.” Seeing that his words did little to improve her mood, he then offered, “How about you teach me instead? Show me how to work off this gut I’ve been growing?”
  447. “I mean, if you grow a set of wings I’d be more than happy to show you the ropes.”
  448. “C’mon, you know I don’t mean that! I mean start getting my lazy butt off the couch and working out! You’re an athlete, and boy do I need an athlete.” He slapped his stomach for effect, sending it bouncing for a moment.
  449. “Oh! Right, sure. I guess I was – am – a pretty good athlete in general, too. What were you thinking, wanna go on a run?”
  450. “Actually,” he mused, “I was thinking maybe we could hike out through the woods behind the house? I got some old backpacking gear I’m not sure I ever used, and an extra tent somewhere.”
  451. “Well, it has been a long time since I’ve spent any real time in the woods,” Rainbow thought aloud. “Do we have enough daylight?”
  452. “It’s like one o’ clock. Could probably make it to the river before sundown.”
  453. “Then alright! I’ll load up my saddlebags, you go find your gear.”
  454. >Soon after, the two set out for their new adventure. Rainbow was elated and ready to explore under every rock, behind every tree, and through every gulley the woods had to offer. Buster, on the other hand, was starting to have some regretful thoughts as he started the hike, but it would have been far too late to call Rainbow off.
  455. >In truth, he’d not once gone more than a few hundred feet into the natural expanse behind his home. There were paths, sure, but he never used them. Part of it was his aversion to exercise, part of it was an unwillingness to go alone. But now, at least one of those restricting factors was negated.
  456. >They made impressive progress, due in no small part to Rainbow’s pacing and encouragement. She never allowed Buster to rest for too long, or to go too fast, or too slow. For her own part, she refused to let herself dash ahead or outpace him. It was more entertaining to walk alongside him and talk, anyway.
  457. >The autumn air was chilly, but easily countered by Rainbow’s now grown-in winter coat and Buster’s layers of clothing. But the cold still pressed against exposed faces, hands, and hooves. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling by any means, and reminded the two of winter months to come.
  458. >As she hovered and walked through the woods, Rainbow began to appreciate yet another part of her life she’d lost while trapped in Damien’s house. The feel of reality, of life, and of nature was invigorating. The past few years were already starting to fold in on themselves and condense into a single unpleasant memory. After all, not much of note had happened during them aside from when she’d finally been released.
  459. >They reached the river in good time. It was well before four in the afternoon, leaving plenty of time to make camp and build a fire. Buster’s tents were obviously dated, as were the sleeping bags he packed, but it would be better than sleeping in the open. He made a note to pick up some proper outdoors gear when they were next in town.
  460. >When the tents were at last erected and a fire flickered softly between them, Buster produced the sole instrument he’d brought with him for the trip: an old harmonica.
  461. “This is the first proper instrument I ever owned,” he explained. “I wasn’t even nine years old when my auntie got it for me for Christmas. I played that thing ‘til mama’s ears bled, but no matter how much she complained I just kept going. Eventually got a job, got some money, and started getting more instruments.”
  462. >He played out a few wordless tunes for her, some based on old marching songs or hobo tunes but most made up on the spot. Regardless, Rainbow was enthralled. The man knew and loved his instruments, and she couldn’t help but admire his talents.
  463. “Well, you’re obviously pretty good at it!” she complimented as he replaced the harmonica in his pocket. “I wonder what your cutie mark would be. You know, if you were a pony.”
  464. “That’s what the butt things are called, right?”
  465. “Heh, ‘butt things’. But yeah, that sounds about right.”
  466. “What’s the point of all those? They’re about showing what you’re good at?”
  467. “It’s an expression of a pony’s special talent or deepest purpose,” Rainbow Dash explained. “Mine’s of a lightning bolt since I’m, you know, the fastest pony ever. But yours could be, like, a saxophone or something. Or maybe just a music note since you’re so good with everything.”
  468. “Not everything,” he laughed. “Even after all this time and effort I still can’t play an accordion. Maybe someday, though.”
  469. >The rest of the night proceeded warmly, with the two sharing stories of their pasts, tall tales, and straight-up ghost stories. Rainbow pulled out all the stops, but Buster just laughed at the scariest part.
  470. “THAT is what passes for a scary story where you come from? Oh, sugar, do I have a few tales for you…”
  471. >The next hour was characterized by a shaking, terrified Rainbow Dash, and an incredibly amused Buster struggling to restrain his laughter every time her terror worsened.
  472. “Holy hell, your human stories are terrifying,” she said at the final one’s conclusion.
  473. “Hah! Little pony gonna be alright?” Seeing her shake her head nervously, he patted the earth next to him. “Then come hang out by me. I won’t bite.”
  474. >Rainbow picked herself up and went to lie next to Buster. The eternally smiling, rotund man was a comfortable reminder of the nicer things in life if nothing else. She found the proximity soothing, although Buster was careful not to repeat prior mistakes and refrained from holding her closer to stop the trembles.
  475. “How about we keep talking?” he said after some time. “Might get the nerves down.”
  476. “O-okay. Uhh, so why, really, did you get me? I mean, I know the money you were going to pay would have been an awful lot to you, and you don’t even want a whole lot from me.”
  477. “I don’t put a whole lot of value in money,” he said with a sigh. “Just makes life worse most of the time. But promise you won’t laugh or whatever if I tell you why?”
  478. “Well, sure. Is it embarrassing?”
  479. “Probably not, but it’s still kinda funny saying it. I got you ‘cause I wanted a companion. Someone to live life with me. And not no dog or nothing, but someone who can actually laugh at my jokes and tell some of their own. Not a whole lot of young folk doing the kind of business I do, and even less women ready to settle down with some worthless musician always out playing music instead of working. So, I figured a pony wouldn’t judge me as much.”
  480. “And so you got me?”
  481. “I took the chance on you. Your old, uhh, caretaker-“
  482. “Owner. Just say it, it’s fine.”
  483. “Right, owner. He didn’t put up a whole lot of information online, not even any clear pictures. But people just don’t sell ponies at that price, especially you winged ones. Figured even if you hated me, I could sell you to someone better for a profit.”
  484. “I thought you didn’t care about money?”
  485. “I don’t. That probably would’ve gone towards another pony, maybe one that could like me. After all, most at those prices don’t really have a lot to lose in a new home, might score me some points with the Lord if I helped one out.”
  486. >Rainbow was silent for a moment, first waiting for him to continue then contemplating his words. They made sense, and she couldn’t help but feel proud of Buster for having such noble reasons for his investment.
  487. “Guess you don’t have to worry about that, though. Because I like you, and I’m the awesomest pony around!”
  488. “That’s right, you rascal!” he laughed, ruffling her mane without thinking. Almost immediately realizing what he’d done, he shot his hand back. “Oh, damn, I’m sorry Rainbow I didn’t mean to-“
  489. “No, it’s okay! And don’t beat yourself up, okay? You’re not the fuckwit who made me hate that, and the more time I spend with you the more I realize that. I think I’m getting more fine with it.”
  490. “You sure? It’s only been like a day.”
  491. “Just being out here, being cheered on yesterday, getting to do all these nice things again makes the past few years seem like a lifetime away. I bet I won’t even remember his face in a week or two.”
  492. “Well then,” he said, replacing his hand and ruffling her mane once more. “Glad you’re having a good time. The bad home and care don’t bother you much?”
  493. “I’d trade a thousand mansions for what you have,” she said only half-jokingly.
  494. “Glad to hear it. Now, how’s about some shut-eye? We’ve got a hike back tomorrow, then I gotta make ready for Friday’s gig.”
  495. “And don’t forget, we still need to sign up for the races.”
  496. “Oh, right! I need a picture for that, mind if we take one now? Might make a nice first photo of us, sitting by the campfire.”
  497. “Okay, yeah! Sounds like an awesome setup for a picture.”
  498. >Buster set his phone camera on a timer and positioned it against a rock, facing them so they were illuminated by the fire’s orange glow. The camera flashed, the shutter snapped, and their first photo together was taken.
  499. >Little did either know the extent to which that same photograph would be reproduced in coming weeks.
  500. >…
  502. >To her surprise, Rainbow Dash awoke the next morning before Buster. She felt rested, but the sun was only just beginning to creep over the horizon. It failed to pierce through most of the trees around them, giving only an indirect glow to their campsite.
  503. >The campsite was set up about a hundred feet from the Tombigbee River, and throughout the night its smooth, constant sounds soothed them as they slept. Rainbow went down to briefly wash up in its cold waters, before returning to find Buster stirring within his tent.
  504. >Finding his harmonica resting on a nearby rock, she giggled fiendishly and picked it up between her hooves. She hovered next to his tent, careful to keep away from any windows and her shadow on the ground, and blew into the instrument with all her might. Buster startled, hitting his head against the soft fabric of the tent roof.
  505. “Rise and shine, Buster!” Rainbow laughed with glee.
  506. “Consarnit, I thought you were a late sleeper!” he complained with some anger, none of it genuine or imbued with malice.
  507. “How could I sleep in and miss a day like this? Get your butt out here, or else I’ll sound the horns again.”
  508. >Buster hastily unzipped his tent, quickly shuffling out to prevent the pony from starting her cacophony again. He went over to her and stuck out his hand for Dash to place the harmonica on.
  509. “Aw, gross, pony spit on my harmonica!” he exclaimed with mock disgust.
  510. “Pfft, I don’t slobber. That’s just the river water; I’m still wet.”
  511. “What?”
  512. >Instead of answering, Rainbow instead shook herself off, lightly showering Buster before he could clamber away. He looked down at his shirt, now soaked in patches across the front, and back up to Rainbow with incredulity. She, however, couldn’t see his disappointment, instead being too occupied with doubling over in laughter.
  513. “You know, I brought instant mashed potatoes out, I might just have to cut someone out of the picture for playing jokes like that.”
  514. >But, after many apologies and a perhaps unnecessarily drawn-out session of pleading, Rainbow was of course served up a plate of the white foodstuff once it was prepared.
  515. >With breakfast completed and little desire to hang around, the two quickly packed up their belongings and left the campsite. Halfway through their hike, the skies began to threaten, prompting them to hasten their pace back through the woods. With less weight to carry and more knowledge of the trails, they made it back to the home just as the first raindrops began to fall.
  516. “Alright!” Buster said as they hurried through the back door. “Now that was a workout! I feel lighter already!”
  517. “Practice makes perfect, dude. Can’t expect to be a top-tier athlete like me in one day.”
  518. “Oh, right, almost forgot! We gotta get you signed up for the races, tomorrow’s the last day. What did you say you wanted to enter again?”
  519. >The event organizers seemed to know what they were doing in preparation for the events. Offered were burst speed events, endurance flying, stunt competitions, maximum speed challenges, and other events central to Equestrian pegasus athletics. Trophies were offered in the former three categories, with other races allowing contestants to compete for ribbons and first-place medals.
  520. “Everything in the air. Let’s do it,” Rainbow said confidently.
  521. “Everything? Sure you won’t get tired?”
  522. “I’ve been tired before, fighting monsters and stuff. This is nothing compared to Tirek!”
  523. “Who?”
  524. “Long story. But come on, sign me up for everything on this page! I need to bring home as many prizes as possible!”
  525. >Using the picture taken the previous night for identification, Buster obliged and enlisted Rainbow for each and every pegasus-specific event on offer. She chose to forgo ground events, more out of consideration for other contestants than anything else.
  526. “Got to have someone other than me winning something!” she explained confidently.
  527. >Once that was done, Buster started working on his preparations for the following night’s gig. The saxophone got polished, his suit got ironed, and his face got shaved. His hat was brushed free of dirt, grime, and pony hair, and other relevant belongings all got their own touch-ups as well.
  528. >The locale wouldn’t be terribly interesting – just a new bar in town likely doomed to mismanagement and failure. But while it remained open, it needed entertainment, and Buster offered a flexible performance for an even more flexible price. He and Rainbow would be staying overnight in Tuscaloosa, as he had another performance booked for the next night and preferred to room in a cheap motel as opposed to making the drive again.
  529. >A quick phone call to the client made sure that Rainbow would be permitted to the establishment, but once again spared of any alcohol. Overhearing the conversation, the mare wasn’t happy about that decision, but this was one point Buster wouldn’t budge on. She relented after he pledged to supply soft drinks throughout the night.
  530. >For her part, Rainbow Dash spent a little time reorganizing her saddle bags and a lot of time watching Nickelodeon on Buster’s grainy old television. Despite his disdain for its poor quality, the technology was still wonderful to Rainbow, and the animations portrayed enthralled her. Unfortunately, Buster had neither satellite nor cable, and she had to content herself with the twenty-odd channels coming in by antenna.
  531. >The rest of the day passed quickly, the two eventually settling down to watch television and play board games. Although he failed to match the quirks, excitement, and general badassery of her old clique, Rainbow couldn’t help but feel her affinity for Buster growing with each hour spent with him.
  532. >The next morning, Buster allowed the mare a few hours of extra sleep before setting off for the city. Once there, they only needed to visit stores for a few stray items before checking into their motel. Equestrian hotels were always either in a traditional inn or upscale hotel format, so the budget, cookie-cutter room assigned to them was a new experience for her. It pained Buster to fend off her inquests about each stray stain in the faded red carpet or amazed comments on the composition of Styrofoam cups.
  533. “It’s white, light, solid, and tasteless! What is it made of?”
  534. “Rainbow! Get that outta your mouth!”
  535. >Late into the afternoon, they again piled into their heavily-laden vehicle and set off for the main purpose of their trip. The bar was supposedly new, but its cheap facades and aged location made it seem decades older. Rainbow couldn’t decide if its condition made a good aesthetic bad or a bad one worse.
  536. >It was still an hour before opening, so the owner welcomed them with a bright face into the otherwise unoccupied building. The lights flicked on, revealing a surprisingly well-decorated interior for the outwardly shoddy establishment. Buster quietly mused that perhaps a New York or California crowd would have appreciated the aesthetic and culture more than the average Alabaman.
  537. >A few practice songs and Rainbow’s loud encouragement were all he needed to get ready for the night, and all the establishment’s owner needed to convince himself he’d made a worthwhile investment. Within an hour, the doors opened, and customers started trickling into the place to drink away their sorrows and perhaps fill an empty belly in the process.
  538. >But as more and more patrons filed in, Rainbow and Buster alike couldn’t help but notice where their eyes fell on the stage. They looked not to Buster and his music, but instead to the blue mare laying quietly at the edge of the platform. Some even produced smartphones and cameras, snapping pictures of either Rainbow and Buster or just the former alone. It was the first time in her life Rainbow felt truly uncomfortable in the face of attention. This was supposed to be Buster’s performance, damn it!
  539. >She would have slinked to the backstage, but there wasn’t one. So instead, she remained at her place by Buster’s feet until the glaring stage lights parched her throat and warmed her coat to a near boil. When she could at last lick her lips and leave no moisture on them, she stepped down and went to the bar for a drink. Of course, the hardest liquor she would be served was Coke, but it was welcome nonetheless.
  540. “Hey,” a man said as she received the bubbling, sweetened drink. “What’s your name?”
  541. “Fuck off, not interested,” she responded bluntly, irritated that this particular cliché had crossed over dimensional boundaries.
  542. “No, no, not like that,” the man said with a laugh. “Just thought I recognized you. You Rainbow Dash?”
  543. “Oh, yeah! The one and only!”
  544. “Aww man, Chuck is never gonna believe this one. Here, I got a card full of signatures, add yours onto it?” he asked, producing a paper laden with innumerable samples of cursive handwriting and a pen.
  545. “Oh, sure! And, uhh, if you don’t mind me asking: exactly how famous am I here? Like, in this country?”
  546. “Well, you are one of the most famous ponies from that old show,” he explained as she wrote out her autograph. “You know, the one from before the dimension shit happened? And then, as soon as you ponies all actually appear, the six of you just – poof – go missing. It’s like seeing a ghost.”
  547. “So pretty well-known, then?” she asked, setting down the pen and signed paper.
  548. “I mean, probably not a household name, but I’m not the only one at the bar who recognized you.”
  549. >She exchanged a few pleasantries before taking her drink back to her prior spot at the stage. When she returned, Buster finished his current song and elected to take a break. He moved over next to Dash and took a few gulps of water.
  550. “What’s that, Coke?” he asked, sitting down.
  551. “Yeah. It’s got a good taste, the bartender recommended it. Seems like it’d be a good mixer.”
  552. “Don’t even start, you know what I’m gonna say.”
  553. “Yeah, yeah, just thinking is all, don’t get so worked up. But I talked to a guy at the bar over there-“
  554. “My, my, you’re certainly jumping into the club scene full swing!” he interrupted mirthfully.
  555. “Quiet, you,” she responded, poorly stifling a laugh of her own. “But, have you noticed how they’re kind of paying attention to me instead of you?”
  556. “Yeah?”
  557. “Apparently I am pretty famous here, there were, like, a few people over there that recognized me.”
  558. “Explains all the pictures, then,” Buster said with a sigh. He pulled out his own phone and started tapping through a few apps and pages. “Yep, seems like this place is lighting up on Facebook and Twitter tonight. ‘Rainbow Dash lives!’ is what one dude said, and another posted, ‘Rainbow Dash apparently lives in Tuscaloosa’.”
  559. “Facebook and Twitter?”
  560. “Know what the Internet is? A little bit? Good, these are social media sites, places that basically let people share stuff with each other and talk from around the world, instantly.”
  561. “So like a phone?”
  562. “Kind of, except you don’t need to know these people to get your message to them.”
  563. “Whoa…” Rainbow mused. “So, then, are there, like, a lot of people seeing what they’re saying about me?”
  564. “Oh, well damn, yeah they are. See that little icon? That means this one post’s been shared by two thousand people.”
  565. “Is that a lot?”
  566. “Yeah, when you consider how many people are going to see when each of them share it…”
  567. >Rainbow took another sip of her cola, but Buster slapped her on the back endearingly. She nearly choked on the straw, but couldn’t stay angry at Buster’s knowing smile.
  568. “Rainbow, I think we may start getting a bit more attention…”
  569. >…
  571. >If Friday night was busy, Saturday was packed. Instead of the quick fill-up the night before, the bar was immediately filled to the brim with patrons who started lining up over an hour beforehand.
  572. >It didn’t take long to figure out that Rainbow Dash was the reason for their appearance. The crowds swarmed her, asking questions, demanding autographs, and even attempting to set up more formal interviews for local publications. Quickly realizing she couldn’t hope to respond to each person, she hurriedly told them to just attend the races next weekend. She was no stranger to the press, but preferred to meet it on her own terms and with preparation.
  573. >There were some questions she made a point to avoid, especially the flood of inquests as to her whereabouts for the past several years. But when asked about Buster, she made sure to put in a good word for him every time. It wouldn’t do at all to have any lunatic fans coming after a perceived abuser.
  574. >But after a time, the night settled into a rhythm, and Rainbow could once again take up her spot at the edge of the stage and cheer on Buster between songs. The odd interrogator was either told to buzz off, or was directed to the nearby tip bin.
  575. “You think this is gonna be a regular thing when we go to gigs now?” Buster asked, sitting down tiredly for a break. “I mean, the attention and tips I’m getting is great, but you sure seem to have your hooves full.”
  576. “I don’t know, Buster,” she said, sighing and resting her face between her forelegs. “I just hate it when the cameras come after me during ‘me time’. Like, can’t they just wait for when I’m not trying to hang out with my friends?”
  577. “This a problem in Equestria, too?”
  578. “I guess it depended on the city. Somewhere like the Crystal Empire, heck no, they’d leave anyone alone except for poor Spike. But in Canterlot, or Las Pegasus? You’d never get a break!”
  579. “Man, I just hope it’s just some hype or something. If you’re getting this kind of attention in little ol’ Tuscaloosa, I can’t imagine what would happen in Birmingham. Heck, I get jobs in Atlanta and New Orleans, we’d probably get swamped there!”
  580. >A bar patron approached them, but Rainbow rather rudely brushed him off and pointed to the tip case. He raised an eyebrow and shook his head, but nevertheless removed a five-dollar bill from his wallet and placed it in the bin.
  581. “Thank you, sir!” Buster called out, not wanting to appear as an ingrate. He pulled the case over and started slightly at the pile of money within. “Sweet sarsaparilla, Rainbow! How’d you get all this?”
  582. “At some point in the night I stopped telling them to fuck off and started telling them to tip.”
  583. “I see Benjamins in here!” He dug around in the case for a moment before producing two hundred-dollar bills. “These fools and their money is soon parted, tell you what!”
  584. “I thought you didn’t care about money?”
  585. He laughed, “I really don’t, sugar, but if you keep this up we might be able to get a real car or a real house. After all, what else would I do with this? You can only buy so much Coke and pony accessories before it gets excessive.”
  586. >The night continued on and the tip case filled higher and higher. Eventually, Rainbow took the initiative to just close the overflowing container and bring out an empty one, which also filled up nearly halfway with scattered bills and coins. One man even tried to tip with a bottle of beer, but Buster made him take it away before Rainbow could grab it. Thankfully, the reporters left early, save for one man who decided to drown himself in drink with the other patrons.
  587. >Having woken up early and lacking anything better to do, Rainbow soon found herself dozing off to the tune of Buster’s quieter, smoother late night melodies. When he started packing up for the night, Buster found her fast asleep on her usual perch, curled up around an empty soda can.
  588. “Hey,” he whispered, nudging her slightly in the side. “Earth to Rainbow, do you copy?”
  589. “Hmmmm?”
  590. “Show’s over. You ready to go?”
  591. “Pack up without me,” she mumbled, turning to face away from him. “Just… just come wake me up… when you’re done.”
  592. >In a few moments, she’d fallen back asleep. Buster chuckled to himself and packed up his equipment, careful not to disturb the tired mare. He then thanked the locale’s owner and accepted a moderate bonus from him for the increased business. At last, once all his gear was loaded back into the car and the establishment was about ready to close, he went back for Rainbow.
  593. >But, try as he might, he couldn’t get her to budge an inch. If she’d woken up at all from his prompts, she didn’t offer any indication of it. The soft rise-and-fall of her sides was the only thing indicating whether or not she was even alive. Not wanting to disturb her, he picked the mare up around her middle and carried her back to the car.
  594. >She didn’t move a muscle, because that would’ve made Buster look down at her. If he did that, he might have seen the comfortable smile stretching across her face.
  595. >…
  597. >When Buster again woke her early the next morning, she wasn’t the soggy, slow mare desperately rubbing sleep from her eyes that he’d seen for most of the prior week. Instead, she was bright and energetic, ready to take on another day. But the first item on their agenda didn’t interest her at all.
  598. “We’re going where?” Rainbow asked when he first brought up their schedule.
  599. “It’s called the North Tuscaloosa Great Lord’s Baptist Church. Your old owner ever take you to church?”
  600. “He just lounged around every Sunday trying to trick me into playing board games with him.”
  601. “Well, then you’re gonna learn what it’s like. This is the church I go to every time I’m in town over the weekend, so I know they allow pony folk just fine. You know what you’re in for or should I tell you?”
  602. “I think Damien said it was just people sitting around on benches listening to some guy read a book? Doesn’t sound very fun.”
  603. “I don’t care if you think it’s fun, we gotta go. Pop took me every week, even when mama couldn’t roll out of bed in the morning, so I think you can do the same.”
  604. “Do people fall asleep in these places a lot? Because I have, uhh, some history with sleeping through lectures.”
  605. “Not at this church,” he replied with a wink. “You’ll see, I bet you’ll have fun. And how’s about this: you be good during services, and we get some cookies or something from the store when we’re done.”
  606. >The first thing Rainbow noticed about the congregation was its constituents. Every human in attendance was Black, including the minister, choir, and pianist. The only breaks in this pattern were the occasional ponies scattered throughout the crowd, usually but not always accompanied by their humans. She wasn’t aware that religion differed along racial lines in this society.
  607. >Once services were underway, she found herself struggling to remain awake. She was saved only by the vigor with which the minister spoke; the man punctuated his sentences with emphasis and overall preached with a great spirit.
  608. >But when the singing started, it didn’t seem to stop. The people praised both their deity and his supposed gifts with a fervor, in many cases rising to their feet in celebration. Rainbow Dash didn’t entirely understand the scene, but the air was energized. Equestrian religious organizations were rare, and typically of a much more somber tone. By contrast, she found this congregation to be far more enjoyable.
  609. >Buster appeared to be enjoying himself, too. He sang with the crowds, stood and danced with them on cue, and (unlike his equine companion) paid close attention to the biblical readings. But he was also more reverent than Rainbow, closing his eyes and clasping his hands during prayer-time while she simply sat and looked around.
  610. >After perhaps an hour or a bit more, the service ended, and the two filed out with the rest of the church’s attendees. Rainbow Dash waited in the car as Buster made small talk with one or two familiar faces, before he too finally said his goodbyes and went to the vehicle.
  611. “Thanks for being so well-behaved,” he said as he started up the car. “I saw you starting to doze at the beginning, but you kept it together real good. Means a lot to me.”
  612. “I don’t think anypony could’ve slept through that. We have a kind of, well, natural tendency to break out in song, and a whole lot of that happened today.”
  613. “So, we gotta take a quick visit to a couple stores. And I ain’t forgot my promise: you want cookies, donuts, what?”
  614. “How about some apple cider? I guess it doesn’t have to be alcoholic, it was just one of my favorite things to drink before everything happened.”
  615. “Hmm… I guess they probably have it at Wal-Mart, since they got near everything at Wal-Mart. But if they don’t, what else?”
  616. “Just some cookies or something then.”
  617. “Aight, Rainbow, sounds good. We got a couple stops to make first, if you don’t mind.”
  618. >The first visit was to a place called ‘Sportsman’s Warehouse’. It was a store far, far bigger than any Rainbow had seen in Equestria, and was exclusively stocked with an array of camping, fishing, and hunting supplies. Lines of sturdy tents were matched by shelves of sleeping bags and pads. Rows of rods and legions of lures were laid out not twenty feet away. Together, they picked through and replaced the aging equipment they’d been forced to use on their past expedition with newer, pricier, and more comfortable items.
  619. >But when they’d gone through every item on their checklist, Buster told her to stay put while he made one more purchase. She watched as he disappeared into the hunting section, an area they’d largely avoided both to avoid any discomfort for Rainbow and simply because there wasn’t anything they’d needed there. About fifteen minutes later, he returned and started for the checkout line.
  620. “So, what’d you do over there?” Rainbow asked, curious as to why he came back empty-handed.
  621. “I’ll show you in the car, but for now, let’s just get this stuff checked out.”
  622. >Their purchases rang up a startlingly high total, but Buster paid for it all with a few of the many hundreds he still carried on his person, originally intended for Damien’s pockets. Getting everything into his packed car was a challenge, but the task was, miraculously, accomplished.
  623. “Alright, so here’s the deal,” Buster said as they settled down into their seats. “Don’t freak out or nothing, okay? But this is what I got while I had you wait with the cart.”
  624. >He unzipped his hoodie and shrugged it off his left shoulder, revealing a small handgun strapped across his chest in a leather holster. The gun wasn’t chambered and its safety was kept on, but two additional full magazines were strapped below its holster.
  625. “Am I supposed to know what that is?” Rainbow asked, puzzled.
  626. “I guess not, maybe. You know what a gun is?”
  627. “Not really, what’s it for?”
  628. “Well, sugar, I have a feeling we’re gonna be getting a lot more attention after next weekend. And when you get attention, you also gotta get protection. This is a Ruger, a type of gun. It’s a weapon, basically you pull its trigger and a tiny metal thing shoots out, fast enough to kill.”
  629. “So you’re, like, a body guard?”
  630. “For both of us, yeah. You ever get someone threatening you or me, just gimme a holler. Who knows, someone might come after me just ‘cause I’m technically your owner,” he explained, stressing the word technically.
  631. “I guess that makes sense. The Wonderbolts, my old flying crew, we always had at least one unicorn hidden nearby ready to act as a body guard. It’s just the price of being famous, I guess.”
  632. “Oh, glad you get it,” Buster said, relieved. “I thought you might get a bit freaked out or something, most pony folk aren’t as tough as you, no offense.”
  633. “Oh, I get what you mean! I’ve always been tough, it’s just who I am. They called me Rainbow ‘Iron Will’ Dash!”
  634. “They did?”
  635. “Nope, but they could’ve!”
  636. >Buster broke into laughter at her silly assertion, and was soon joined by Rainbow as well. They laughed together, the master and the slave, the guardian and the protected, the musician and the athlete, the friend and the friend.
  637. >…
  639. >The following week rolled by with ease. Having easily made enough money to cover the costs of rent, expenses, and a new couch for Rainbow, Buster and Rainbow passed time with television, recreational activities, and general tomfoolery. A daily exercise regimen was drawn up with the intent of getting Buster in shape, and they took off on another overnight expedition into the woods.
  640. >Buster doted on his companion’s curiosity, showing her the wonders of technology and interesting quirks of the human world. Touchscreens, plastics, machines, and appliances could be examined, tried, and in the case of the microwave, destroyed.
  641. >Of course, Rainbow spent some hours each day training, too. She’d be competing in a full regimen of events, meaning her practice had to be varied and well-rounded. Buster could only sit and watch as she darted between trees, shot overhead at nearly supersonic speeds, and dazzled with shows of tricks and acrobatics unlike any he’d seen before.
  642. >For her part, Rainbow was almost equally in awe of her ability. Her muscles felt defined and practiced, and her skills were not only free of rust but almost unchanged from the shows she’d done in the past. She had expected at least a slight amount of resistance from her own body, at least the tiniest bit of strain in her muscles, but none was to be found. She was in one of the best shapes of her life.
  643. >Perhaps Damien’s fancy, thoroughly-planned meals had done her some good after all. He’d even mentioned hiring a certified dietician once.
  644. >After an especially long practice session, they once more piled into the car late in the Friday afternoon and set out for Tuscaloosa. They wouldn’t be staying in the ratty motel from the prior week: instead, Buster had spent more for quality lodging and beds that wouldn’t creak in the night. But before they could check in, they had to first pay a visit to the event facility.
  645. >The location wasn’t much – just a massive field bordering the river. Portable grandstands were set up along one of its sides, and portable toilets were the only other amenities offered. Spaces had been outlined for the awnings and booths of vendors, along with a dedicated space for contestants to set up shop. Not a costly or intricate setup, but the scene didn’t feel lacking in any way.
  646. >The moment they parked and turned off the engine, a man in a navy-blue hoodie came up to them. The sun was almost set and Buster couldn’t get a good view of his visage, but a thick beard came down from his chin and a set of glasses reflected what little light was left off of his eyes.
  647. “Well I’ll be damned,” the man called out as he approached. “When I saw your name on the sign-up list, I had to do a double take. Then, I still didn’t believe it! Rainbow Dash and Buster, I presume?”
  648. “The two and only!” Rainbow proudly proclaimed.
  649. “So, we need to do anything special before tomorrow morning?” Buster asked, eyeing a clipboard in the man’s left hand.
  650. “Nope, I’ve just got to check you both off on the list. And, there we go, that gives us full roster of contestants. So, you going for a clean win tomorrow? Ten events, ten first-place awards?”
  651. “If I can,” Rainbow answered with confidence. “But there’s going to be plenty of competition, I hope?”
  652. “Ha! With you around, sure is! Word spread real fast that you’d signed up, we doubled our contestants on the last day accepting ‘em. Every pony south of Virginia wants a chance to beat a legend, it seems!”
  653. “Sounds like you got your work cut out for you, Dash,” Buster suggested.
  654. “I mean hey, winning’s not as fun without competition. All this means is I’ll get to have fun while kicking ass and taking names!”
  655. >The lineup of opponents was impressive, especially for a localized event. There were no names Rainbow knew or recognized, but that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be any new stars. Some contestants were indeed traveling, with a few coming from as far away as New Orleans, Richmond, and Miami.
  656. >Rainbow also appeared to be a central aspect of the event. Her odds were the only noticeably different ones on the bet slip, reaching 1:1, 1:2, even 1:4 odds in various events with over a dozen opponents. On the way out, Buster spotted a promotional poster hanging from a nearby tree, proudly emblazoning a cartoonish image of Rainbow across the page header.
  657. >He was initially concerned that she might feel the effects of pressure, but her upbeat attitude not only remained but intensified in the face of challenge. Even if the odds were shorter for each event, the opportunity to have some real competition reignited a fire long put out inside her. When they got back to the hotel, she insisted on some last-minute practice, even though night had long since fallen.
  658. >It was during one of these practice sessions, with Buster sitting on a bench outside the hotel while Rainbow danced through the air above him, that the first of their competition made themselves known. Perhaps spotting, perhaps hearing the commotion, a tall, redheaded man with strikingly green eyes approached Buster with his companion: a white pegasus mare whose dazzling red mane was matched in color only by her yellow eyes and cutie mark of autumn leaves blowing in the wind.
  659. >Buster saw them approach from the corner of his eye, but elected to wait until either Rainbow came down or one of the two started conversation before acknowledging them. A minute or so passed in silence, the three quietly looking up and tracing Rainbow’s shadowy form through the night sky with their heads.
  660. Finally, Buster said, “So, y’all just gonna stand there all night?”
  661. “No, no, just admiring a star,” the man said, not taking his eyes away from the overhead show.
  662. “It’s overcast tonight.”
  663. “Oh, you know I don’t mean those stars. Are you the lucky guy who managed to find her?”
  664. “Who’s asking?” Buster asked cautiously, aware of the weight of the firearm hidden beneath his coat.
  665. “Name’s Carter, Carter Goldberg, and my pony here is Autumn Winds.”
  666. “Howdy,” the mare remarked, her heavy Southern accent noticeable from only the single word. “Never thought I’d get the chance to fly ‘gainst her, but here we are.”
  667. “Contestants? Well then, good to meet ya! Name’s Buster Freedman, and it’d seem I don’t need to introduce my friend up there.” He pulled out his phone and radioed the still-airborne Rainbow Dash, “Come take a break, got some competitors for you to size up.”
  668. >In a few moments, she broke from her acrobatics and came down to hover by Buster’s side. Carter and Autumn Winds briefly exchanged a look before returning their attention to Rainbow, smiles renewed on their faces.
  669. “So, what, you two just gonna stare or something?” the Rainbow-maned mare asked, wiping sweat from her brow.
  670. “Oh, no!” the human answered, his trance broken. “It’s just hard to believe you’re actually here! Just a couple weeks ago, everyone assumed you and all the others from the show were, uhh…”
  671. “Dead or worse,” Autumn Winds finished, earning a slightly aghast look from all parties.
  672. “Sorry about that,” Carter quickly added, “she can, at times, be just the slightest bit-“
  673. “Blunt,” she finished, cutting him off this time.
  674. “Hey! How many times-“
  675. “Have you told me not to do that? A lot?”
  676. >The two started to bicker, going back-and-forth on who should say what when addressing an acquaintance. In the meantime, Rainbow and Buster just sat and watched, careful to keep several feet of distance between the two groups in case their argument came to blows. But, the curious strangers seemed to resolve the argument as quickly as they started it, resuming their cordial attitude toward Rainbow.
  677. “Right!” Carter exclaimed, breaking suddenly from his prior tangent. “So, yes, the competition! We are in it!”
  678. “Oookay, cool,” Rainbow responded, still slightly perturbed by their conduct. “What events will I be seeing you in?”
  679. “The 40-mile flight, the circuit around the city, and the high-altitude 10-mile,” Autumn winds responded, poorly masking her excitement at each prospect.
  680. “Oh, an endurance flier, eh? You ever compete in Equestria?”
  681. “No,” the mare answered, shaking her head. “But me, mom, and pop all lived about fifty miles from the nearest town, so at least two or three times a week I had to fly the whole distance. Mom was a unicorn and pop lost his wing in an accident.”
  682. “And she flew the whole way here from Miami, too!” her owned proudly proclaimed, clapping her on the back. “Like eleven-hundred miles in one trip!”
  683. “Heh, yeah, I reckon it was the longest flight I ever done,” the mare remarks with humble pride. “Bet it’s nothing compared to what you can do, though. Betcha been practicing this whole time nobody knew where ya were, huh?”
  684. “Not… practicing,” Rainbow replied, biting her cheek. “But I stayed in shape. Buster’s a new owner, and he’s way cooler than the last one.”
  685. “I bet, if’n he’s letting you practice at night like this. Y’all know about the ruckus you made all over the internet after your little concert last weekend?”
  686. >Word had spread quickly in the small but rapidly growing pony athletics scene of Rainbow’s appearance on the competition roster, but the news didn’t start circulating widely until their more public appearance later that week. Regional newspapers, blog posts, and even a short segment on Birmingham nightly news reported on her return, and any remaining tickets for the competition sold out shortly after. The crowd would be likely be packed and cheering, and it was probable that a larger group would gather along the river banks and at the edges of the woods to watch.
  687. >The competition all wanted to see Rainbow’s performance even more than the crowds. These ponies had not only seen her in her prime, but also by and large long awaited her return to the spotlight. Now, out of the blue, it seemed that their wish would be fulfilled. Even better, they had a chance to beat her and rise to stardom.
  688. >Press coverage would be massive. Originally, only a print reporter or two had taken interest in it, but with the buzz it had been generating the event was now planned to feature on all local and regional television stations, a variety of radio broadcasts, and internet streams.
  689. >But there was no telling what that kind of coverage could lead to. This relatively small, local, and poorly organized event was still one of the first and largest of its kind. Ponies weren’t seen in an admirable light, and were mostly relegated to the shadows of society. With broader media coverage, more interest would come, and more importantly more prospective athletes.
  690. >To her knowledge, Rainbow was the only Wonderbolt brought from Equestria. Most other teams and solo competitors resided in Equestria’s larger central cities, and would presumably have avoided the disaster. Only one other competitor in the event had even tried out for the Equestria games, and he’d not even come close to qualifying for Appleoosa’s relatively poor team.
  691. >When the hour had grown late and they’d gleaned every bit of information they could from Carter and Autumn Winds, Buster and Rainbow finally retired to their suite for the night. As she sunk into the comfortable sheets, thoughts of competition and competitors alike raced through Rainbow’s mind, and the thrill of victory already took root in her heart.
  692. >…
  694. >It was cold the next morning, colder than any preceding it in the season. To make matters worse, the first event of the day was the high-altitude 10-mile race, plunging conditions from cold to freezing. Rainbow Dash was thankful for the proper albeit bland and poorly fitting flight suits provided for all contestants, making the temperatures bearable. She made a mental note to have Buster buy a properly made one in the near future.
  695. >High-altitude flying wasn’t an easy feat for any pony, and relatively few even tried to compete in it. Although pegasi were built for the low pressures and temperatures consistent with extreme heights, athletic competition under those circumstances was an entirely different matter. This race had the fewest contestants of the day, with no more than five ponies competing. Of course, with the Wonderbolts, Rainbow had spent copious amounts of time training under similar and even more extreme conditions. This might have been her easiest win of the day.
  696. >The starting pistol fired, and Rainbow arced up into the sky with her four competitors. A fast, vertical ascent was one of her trademark moves, and she easily gained position early on with her expert opener. The other contestants rather lazily sloped upwards at or near the minimum required angle, costing them precious cruise time at the required altitudes.
  697. >By the time the five-mile halfway mark was reached, Rainbow had carved out a lead of over 1000 feet ahead of her closest competitor, Autumn Winds. Behind her, the race was much closer, and the contestants largely seemed to be competing for second place.
  698. >When the grandstands again came into view, she suddenly bolted downward with a final rush of speed. She was too out of practice for a sonic rainboom, but the thought graced her mind as she felt the rush of incoming air through her mane. She arced between the wide victory poles, as cameras flashed behind her in the desperate pursuit of a prime photograph.
  699. >It would be another twenty seconds before Autumn Winds reached the finish line, followed closely by three more competitors. Rainbow hovered nearby, careful to keep her muscles stretching after exercise. If anything, she was impressed by such a strong showing from amateur fliers. If not for her strong start, the race might have been far closer.
  700. >Still, ‘amateur’ was the only word to describe her opponents, at least compared to Rainbow. None had the experience, none had the skill, none had the technique, and none had the sheer athletic ability that powered her victory. Of course, this was to be one of the least competitive events of the day; she’d probably face stiffer competition, especially in the challenges outside of her normal practice routines.
  701. “Rainbow, sweet Lord have mercy, you won by a mile!” Buster shouted as she meandered over to the contestants’ area. “I’d feel bad for the other ponies if I weren’t so happy for you.”
  702. “Thanks, dude, gimme hoof,” she said wearily, holding out her hoof. Buster balled his hand and bumped it before pulling her into a hug.
  703. “Aw, gross!” he exclaimed, suddenly breaking the embrace. “Pony sweat!”
  704. “I really don’t know what else you were expecting,” Rainbow responded with a laugh.
  705. >The other four contestants trickled in in the next few minutes. Despite performing to their best, none could rest too much: each was competing in at least one more event that day. A few would have hours until their next race, and correspondingly shrugged off their flight suits.
  706. >Autumn Winds chose to keep hers on, and after a brief conversation with her owner, the two started over toward Rainbow and Buster.
  707. “Hey, nice stuff out there,” Rainbow called out once they were within a moderate distance.
  708. “Thanks, but weren’t much to compare to you,” the white mare replied, her voice coated in a thick Southern accent.
  709. “Seriously, though, if that’s your first time competing you did really good! Your time would’ve qualified for the Equestria Games, you know.”
  710. “Yeah, she did do pretty good, huh?” her owner, Carter, responded in her stead. “I figured something like this would happen. That’s why we agreed second would be fine, right Autumn?”
  711. “Yeah, second in everything,” the pony answered with a tone almost akin to disinterest. “Ain’t gonna be too hard from what I’ve seen. Competition’s flabby, most’re probably just out to see you, Rainbow Dash.”
  712. >A loudspeaker interrupted their conversation to broadcast the ten-minute warning for the next event, a judged stunt and daredevil show. It would be the first trophy event of the competition, and likely one of Rainbow’s strongest showings.
  713. “I know what you mean,” Rainbow answered belatedly. “I can see you’re at least fit. Most of the other ponies here probably can’t even do a wing-up.”
  714. “What’s a wing-up?” Buster asked, scratching his head comically.
  715. “Wing push-up. Point is, there’s a few athletes here, but I was really hoping for something a bit more…”
  716. “Challenging?” Autumn winds offered.
  717. “Damn it, now you’re finishing her sentences, too!” Carter fumed.
  718. “Can we do this another time, Master?”
  719. He looked away from his pony to Rainbow and Buster. “I suppose, yeah. Know what, I’m going to get a beer, you stay here and chat about pony shit or something.”
  720. “He doesn’t seem too happy for a guy whose pony just won second place in her first big race,” Buster said with some confusion as the man walked away.
  721. “He’s just always like that. Think he’s bipolar or somethin’, just flips like a dime. ‘Least he lets me drink with him most of the time. Then again, we’re both fighting drunks…”
  722. >The ponies exchanged small talk and congratulations for a few minutes until the five minute warning was called out. Rainbow flew over to the starting line, leaving Autumn with Buster.
  723. >As the other ponies collected, Rainbow noticed a distinct attitude change in some of the contestants. Instead of the timid and inexperienced demeanor of her previous competitors, these opponents bore stronger wills and more surety in their movements. One or two also looked not only fit but also extremely well-built. If any of them were well-practiced, she could conceivably face some real opposition here.
  724. >There would be a single round of up to 60 seconds graded by three judges. Points could be added for speed, agility, precision, bravery, advanced technique, acceleration, stylistic additions, and a host of other factors. She’d been careful to study their grading rubrics in the days leading up to this competition, but thankfully one of her old routines would do fine.
  725. >The first contestant was a rather unremarkable pegasus who could barely do a wide corkscrew and double loop in the sky. He scored a 4.0 for his efforts. Next up was Rainbow, ordered second in a lineup of fourteen contestants.
  726. >She opened her act with an explosive ninety-degree vertical ascent, likely surpassing the previous stallion’s score with this single move alone. At approximately 3000 feet, she broke the ascent and began a corkscrew dive downward, putting all her effort into the descent. Once again, she felt the wind whistling past her ears, but no sonic rainboom could be reached. But that didn’t matter: the performance didn’t necessitate such a feat anyway.
  727. >Timing would be critical for the next step in her routine: she would break her descent at no more than ten feet from the ground, turning sharply into a horizontal run. A fraction of a second too early, and the special effect she was aiming for couldn’t happen. A fraction of a second too late, and she would almost certainly be killed.
  728. >As she came ever closer to the ground with no intent of pulling up, the crowds gasped. Breaths were held as she seemed almost certain to crash headfirst into the ground. But, as in countless past performances and practices, the hard turn was pulled off flawlessly, and the tall grasses of the unmowed field were flattened in her wake. Leaves, stems, and entire branches were pulled off of nearby trees, and the crowds cheered as she arced back into the sky in a wide but fast half-loop.
  729. >She pulled off a set of three fast, tight corkscrews before setting up for the final act, a difficult but powerful whirlwind maneuver. The hardest part would be exiting out of the move and escaping the powerful air currents it generated. But, like with the rest of the performance, her faculties did not fail her, and the crowd gave a resounding cheer as she finished the act.
  730. >Within moments, a LED board lit up above the judging booth. 51.5, an excellent score when the raw maximum was 60. Excited from a flawless victory, she took a victory lap in front of the crowds, making sure to give the cameras excellent angles and material for tomorrow’s headlines.
  731. >But soon enough, attention shifted away from her to the remaining contestants. Each revealed him or herself to be far more skilled than Rainbow’s sole predecessor, but none managed to overtake Rainbow. By the final performance, she was starting to become ever surer of her first trophy.
  732. >The last pony to perform didn’t call too much attention to himself. He bore a coat of very light blue, far lighter than Rainbow’s, and a golden mane with a sole purple stripe coursing through it. He was small, smaller even than any mare in this event, and little about his build suggested athleticism as a talent. A few contestants had cutie marks related to flight or performance, but his was only of a plain vanilla ice cream cone.
  733. >Some of the other participants and members of the crowd were already beginning to look away, convinced that they’d already seen the best performances on offer. But Rainbow Dash wasn’t so hasty, and indeed she’d seen more than a few ponies achieve great success when they wouldn’t otherwise demand even a passing glance. Her attention remained fixed on the last contestant, eager to see either her assured victory or an interesting array of stunts.
  734. >The starting pistol sounded, and the stallion took off with an unusual running start. Rather than taking off once he reached a critical speed, Rainbow watched with fascination as he instead kept up his charge toward the nearby tree line. Her hunch was starting to appear correct: this might have been an interesting show after all.
  735. >At the last moment, he broke his run and jumped into the air. Clearing the treetops by mere inches, he soared across them at dangerously low altitudes leaves whisked up from below him, and birds darted out across the sky as he came barreling toward their homes. He made a wide half-circle turn across the treetops, careful to dodge and evade any tall obstructions, before dashing out across the field.
  736. >Loops, corkscrews, zig zags and a host of other advanced stunts were performed in front of the newly-reinterested crowd, and the stallion demonstrated a control of his form rivaling the practiced technique of Rainbow. For a moment, she feared that he might pose a serious challenge to her score. But, as his time wore through, it became apparent that he wouldn’t be able to match the speed or daring she’d achieved.
  737. >At last his routine finished, and the crowds turned their heads to the judging booth’s bright yellow LED sign. It flashed a 46.0, giving the stallion a 9-point lead over his nearest competition. But of course, the trophy would still go to Rainbow Dash.
  738. >Buster whooped and hollered in congratulations for her victory, but praise wasn’t what she was seeking. Instead, she sought out that final competitor, the only one she’d seen with even a chance to beat her score. She eventually found him near the edge of the competitors’ area, being held affectionately by a grotesquely overweight woman.
  739. “Hey!” she called out, interrupting their celebrations. “Yeah, you! Where’d you learn to fly like that?”
  740. “Just been practicing,” the stallion answered in a meek but clearly happy voice. “Read some books, and Miss Susie lets me practice every day while she’s at work.”
  741. “Yep!” the woman followed up in a voice far too high-pitched for the thick jowls surrounding her neck. “And now my little Big Scoop’s gonna be a real star, I just can’t believe it!”
  742. “Yeah, dude!” Rainbow exclaimed in agreement, flying over to the truck bed the two were sitting in. “That’s not just talent, that’s real skill! I wanted to see some real competition today, and so far, you’re the only pony around who’s got any!”
  743. “R-really? You mean that?” he asks, as if dumbfounded that she actually found his performance impressive.
  744. “I mean, you’re no pro – yet – but dude! You. Are. Going. Places.”
  745. “I – wow, Rainbow Dash! Thank you, that means a lot!”
  746. >She would have continued the conversation, but Buster put through a quick message on her collar to meet back with him for a surprise. She patted him on the back once more, this time literally, before flying back to her owner. As she flew away, she overheard the stallion’s quiet voice from behind her, “Yes, Miss Susie, she’s the famous one!”
  747. “Alright, what’s the big deal?” she asked, setting down from her brief flight.
  748. “Thought you might want one of these,” Buster replied, holding up the can in his hand. On its side was printed a simple but clear label, ‘Old ‘Bama Apple Cider’. He cracked open a can and put it on top of his car.
  749. “You got me cider?” Rainbow asked with glee, quickly snatching the can and taking a deep swig.
  750. “Of course I did! Now, Old ‘Bama ain’t alcoholic, but I’m sure you’ll appreciate it anyway.”
  751. “Ohhh man,” she half-moaned as she downed the beverage with haste. “You have no idea.”
  752. >Suddenly, the ten-minute warning for the next event sounded. Buster was startled and spilt some of his drink across his lap, but Rainbow was unfazed and continued her long chug of the beverage. Finishing it off, she smirked at Buster and crushed the can against her forehead.
  753. “Gimme another.”
  754. >…
  756. >The day proceeded in a flurry of camera flashes, lighthearted contest, cider chugging, and occasional musical renditions from Rainbow Dash’s very own jolly jazz negro. What her brief practice sessions failed to restore was mostly brought back by the invigorating atmosphere surrounding such events. She signed autographs, posed for pictures, and even accepted a gift or two from her newfound fans.
  757. >It wasn’t until the very end of the day that her clean sweep of victories was stopped short. The final event was also the longest: a 40-mile flight through clear skies, any elevation. Whether through her own fatigue from a full day or her opponent’s surprising endurance, Rainbow Dash settled for a narrow second place only seconds behind Autumn Winds.
  758. >Predictably, the other mare was ecstatic. Not only did she defeat a legend, but this win was for a trophy event, as well. She would walk away with a real reward on her hooves and perhaps the start of a career.
  759. >In a way, Rainbow was glad to lose at least once. A loss meant that competition – real competition – would not only grow in this world, but was in fact already present. And besides, nine out of ten victories claimed would be more than enough to emblazon her name across any headlines to come of this event.
  760. >A few other potential rivals had emerged, as well. There was Big Scoop, the stallion who nearly pulled an upset in what should be Rainbow’s star event. But he only competed in that single sector: a few others had consistently scored well across a range of competitions, and she grew increasingly sure of their presence at future competitions, most likely more motivated and prepared than ever to claim her crowns.
  761. >Perhaps she might lose the cloud-busting competition to that gifted mare, Sky Slicer. Or perhaps her lead would narrow or even disappear entirely over Whispering Wind in the gliding runs. The prospect of rivals, competition, and the drive to improve her gain fed the growing fire of her old attitude and ways.
  762. >Once the awards were all handed out and her trophies had been stowed deep in Buster’s car, she spent a solid hour or so catering to the whims and demands of reporters. Their crowd had grown since the morning: now, dozens jostled for opportunities to broadcast her words far and wide. Pony races were going to be the next big thing, they said, and she was the shooting star heading their rise.
  763. >Only when the sun was beginning to settle beyond the horizon did she break from their questions and meet back with Buster. He sat on the hood of his car, playing a soft, smooth melody on his treasured harmonica. She sat down beside him and waited for the number to finish before initiating conversation.
  764. “So,” she said cheerily once he deposited the instrument in his pocket. “I think that went pretty well.”
  765. “Says you,” he replied, arching an eyebrow. “Second place? Really, sugar? C’mon, you got more than that in you.”
  766. >The two exchanged a serious look for a moment, before both faces cracked simultaneously into deep smiles. And they laughed, Rainbow’s high, scratchy laughter mixed with Buster’s smooth baritone bellows in a song loud and beautiful enough to reach up through the clouds and touch God’s ears.
  767. “For real though,” Buster said, still struggling against chuckles. “What do you say we get the heck outta here? I’m half-starved eating nothing but cider and vendor fries all day.”
  768. “You think you’re hungry? I’m the one who’s been busting her ass all day! I could probably eat two whole pizzas all by myself!”
  769. “I think we can arrange that. I know a great place that ain’t too far.”
  770. >As they were about to get into the vehicle, they were held out by a faint ‘Wait!’ shouted from a distance. Looking up, they spotted a young man barreling toward them wearing a curious combination of a pressed shirt and tie with jeans and a beaten baseball cap.
  771. “Hey! Hold up!” he shouted again, slowing his sprint as he realized they’d stopped in their tracks.
  772. >As he came closer, Rainbow could spot a blue satchel flopping behind him and a pair of white sneakers on his feet that were even more beaten than his hat. Stubble dotted his chin, and a pair of spectacles sat delicately on his youthful features.
  773. “Hi, hey, thanks for waiting,” he gasped, doubling over as he reached them. “Sorry, gimme… just a moment. Not in the best shape…”
  774. “Aw c’mon, even I don’t get that tired from a quick run!” Buster commented, shaking his head. “Anyways, if you’re a reporter or something, beat it, ‘cause we’re heading home now.”
  775. “No, no. No reporter,” the man said, catching some of his breath. “I, well, I guess I should just introduce myself, huh? I’m Gus Stevens, a talent manager!”
  776. “Oh, hell, a businessman. Go on, scram, we don’t need you-“
  777. “Well hold on,” Rainbow interrupted, putting a hoof on Buster’s shoulder. “Let him say his stuff, dude. We can wait here another couple minutes, it’s fine.”
  778. Gus nodded his thanks to Rainbow before continuing, “Right, yes. A talent manager. Look, you’re no newbie to this sort of stuff, you know how things work, right? Getting sponsorships, getting placed in all the big competitions, getting publicity, it’s a hell of a job. And I know these sports are going to get real big, real fast, so I’m here to get things going early and make sure you’re ready for when things start to blow up.”
  779. “Yeah, I get you,” Rainbow replied, well acquainted with managers and their responsibilities. “But you probably know that I know not to hire any random klutz for the job. Why you, the first guy to come up to us, and not the next?”
  780. “Thought you’d say that. Well, first off, I’m pretty sure I’m the only guy looking to do anything like this so early. I mean, this event’s going to be by far the most publicized one of its kind, and it’s only going to make local TV news at best! Just not a whole lot of veteran managers interested in untested sports. But I’m young, you know, and I gotta take risks while I still can!”
  781. “That’s not a good reason to hire you,” Rainbow spat back, unconvinced.
  782. “I mean, I have experience, too. Up until about a week ago, I was Freddy Chong’s manager. You might know him from the 2020 Olympics, he got a bronze in the Men’s 800-meter run. Got the papers to prove it, too,” he said, quickly producing a set of contracts from his satchel.
  783. “Dash, can we speak aside for a moment?” Buster asked, motioning to a spot about twenty feet away.
  784. “Go ahead,” Gus said cheerfully. “Take all the time you need.”
  785. >Once they were out of the man’s hearing range, Buster let out a deep sigh and wiped his face. He readjusted his trilby, revealing a layer of sweat that had built underneath it.
  786. “I don’t like these types, Dash,” he said, putting the hat back on his head. “Fast talking, contract waving, good-for-nothing city kids. I’ve had to deal with a few of them, but I don’t wanna sign no contracts when he’s still speaking at a hundred miles an hour!”
  787. “Easy, Buster, I’ve dealt with them, too. And I don’t like it, either. But he’s right, we’re going to need an agent or manager or whatever eventually, and it’s always better to get things set up earlier than later.”
  788. “Alright, I get that. But this guy? He looks like he’d be better fit in some loan shark’s office.”
  789. “I mean, the Olympics are a big deal, right? If he’s actually managed someone from that, it probably means he can get the job done. I think.”
  790. “But do we gotta pay him? Because much as you helped me make last week, I really don’t think we got enough for a private manager like that.”
  791. “No, no, they always just take a cut of prize winnings and sponsorship money. That’s another thing to look for, by the way: a good manager wants a lot of sponsorship money and not a whole lot of winnings,” she said, recalling prior contracts she’d later regretted signing.
  792. “Know what, I don’t got any idea on this sort of stuff. You ever hired people before? ‘Cause I ain’t even had a real job.”
  793. “Are you kidding? I was practically a Pony Resources expert in Equestria!” she said, recalling the great success she’d had in sorting through Rarity’s employees. “Well, kind of. But yeah, I think I know what I’m doing.”
  794. “Alright then, sugar, you just tell me when and where to sign. I’ll trust you.”
  795. >They made their way back to Gus, who was idly going through some more papers he’d pulled from his satchel. He probably wasn’t getting too much done, since the sky was growing progressively darker by the minute.
  796. “Alright, we can talk more,” Rainbow said as they approached. “Buuut, we should probably go somewhere first. It’s getting dark out.”
  797. “Oh, sure!” Gus replied, hastily stuffing his papers back into the bag.
  798. “You ever been to Gary’s? The pizza place?” Buster asked, conscious of his growing hunger.
  799. “I’m not from around here, sorry. Lived most of my life in San Diego.”
  800. “Well, just follow us then, I guess.”
  801. >…
  803. >A well-made pizza had always been one of Buster’s most critical weaknesses. One could hold sway over him like no other person, place, or thing could even hope to. And yet, the greasy, cheesy goodness of Gary’s Deluxe Cheese Special was almost ruined by his disdain for the fast-talking big city agent across from him. Almost.
  804. “So, thanks for taking me here to talk more,” Gus finally commented after sipping his drink. He’d not elected to take any food for himself. “I know negotiations for this sort of thing can be sort of, eh, daunting for a lot of people, but I’ll try to keep things as simple as possible.”
  805. “Yeah, alright, we get it,” Rainbow Dash answered, interested more in her meal than any conversations to be had. “So, the important stuff first. What’s your take?”
  806. “You mean of profits?”
  807. “No, of the last Ponyville real estate auction. Yes, what kind of percentages are we looking at?”
  808. >She didn’t really have any sort of education or skill in statistics or financials, but Rainbow wanted to put on a show for her guest. These types were known to swindle, but perhaps they’d think twice with a character exuding confidence.
  809. “Well, if we’re getting right into that, it’s pretty simple. I get 20% of any sponsorships, commercials, dealios I arrange like that, and just 5% of anything you win in prize money. Won’t be a whole lot to start, but I think we both know you’re gonna go far, kid.”
  810. >The pegasus squinted her eyes for a moment in consideration. For her home world, those rates would be excellent, even implausible. But here, the job was probably a lot different with the strange computers and internet devices these humans seemed to rely on so much. Would those even be good rates?
  811. >But then, Buster’s words against money came to mind. Did she even really care? Buster certainly didn’t: he’d long tuned out the conversation to focus in on his caloric apocalypse of a meal. Besides, ponies didn’t have any rights to speak of, and any financial dealings would have to go through her owner.
  812. “Um. Alright, I think. What kind of deals do you have in mind?”
  813. “Well, the sky’s the limit! You’re, like, the perfect advertising persona, at least for a pony. You’re flashy, you’re cool, and you’re already kind of famous. We’d probably start small, but I can see it already! TV ads, billboards, videos of your image playing in Times Square! You feel it?”
  814. “I guess,” she responded, shrugging. “As long as it’s not too intrusive.”
  815. “Oh, it shouldn’t be. I’ll make sure to ask you about everything in advance.”
  816. “So what would you be doing for us, exactly? Where I come from, we had agents that did anything from simple business arrangements to controlling ponies’ entire lives! I remember one time, a friend of a friend needed Applejack’s help to get rid of some douchey manager, and that dude just-“
  817. “I know what you’re talking about, there was an episode on it in the TV show. And no, I wouldn’t be like that guy, don’t worry. Heck, you probably wouldn’t even see me most of the time!”
  818. >His words were sweet, but something about them made Rainbow Dash uncomfortable. Perhaps it was the eagerness he exhibited, or maybe the raw speed with which he talked. But if the contract held up, there would be no reason not to take his word for it.
  819. “I… alright, I guess. I think all that’s left is to look over a contract.”
  820. “I was thinking to sign on for one year, that sound good? So that way, it’s not too big of a commitment for you, and if things don’t pan out like I think then I can-“
  821. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll look everything over. Just get one typed up, printed out, and sent to us soon, okay?”
  822. “Oh,” he replied with a chuckle, reaching into his bag. “I’ve had one ready to go all day. My signature’s already everywhere it needs to be, you just sign it whenever you feel good and come back to me. Also, editing anything with pens or whatnot invalidates it, so don’t try to do that.”
  823. >He slid over a stack of papers, with his name scribbled in hasty cursive in various places across the document. Buster looked up from his plate and raised his eyebrows at Rainbow. The message was clear: ‘you really want to do this’?
  824. “I, uhh,” she stuttered, sliding the papers closer to her. “We’ll look them over, get back to you in a few days, alright? Just want to make sure everything’s good.”
  825. “Oh, uhh, I’ve actually got to leave tomorrow evening. If this falls through I have a skateboarder in Atlanta interested in a contract… But hey, you get that to me any time between now and tomorrow, and we’ve got a deal.”
  827. “Tomorrow?” she asked, suddenly worried about staying up into the night to look over the document.
  828. “Now hold on just a cotton-picking minute,” Buster interjected, slamming his palm on the table. “I seen you say a lot of sweet words tonight, but you must think we’re both dumber than a sack of rocks if you think we’re gonna go signing stuff with only one day to review it.”
  829. “I know it’s a hard timeline to deal with, but I think-“
  830. “Naw, you shut the hell up. Rainbow, I’m sorry, but I know a bad guy when I see one. We don’t need no sponsorships, we don’t need no advertisements, and we don’t need no slimy city White folk coming in and giving us a bad deal.”
  831. “If it’s such a big deal, I can put off my trip. I don’t think he’ll sign with anyone else, and-“
  832. “Shut your bastard mouth!” Buster shouted, enraged. “I don’t care how much time you’re willing to give us! You’ve already dug your grave, might as well lay in it. Now get the hell outta my table, and leave that damn soda I paid for!”
  833. >He snatched the contract from under Rainbow’s nose, and with great dramatic effect tore it down the middle into two halves. He slammed the now-destroyed sets of paper down onto the table, and glared daggers at the man before him. Rainbow simply slouched down in her seat, surprised by the sudden change in character.
  834. “I… well, alright, then,” Gus murmured, shoving the ripped sheets back into his bag. “You, uhh, you have a nice night. I’ll leave a business card on the table if you change your mind.”
  835. >He quickly left his seat and went for the door, bumping into a woman and her child on the way out. Buster slouched back in his seat and wiped the sweat from his temple. Rainbow sat and stared wide-eyed at the recovering man before her. Suddenly, one of the doors behind the restaurant’s counter burst open, and a large mulatto man with an afro three decades out of date marched through.
  836. “Buster, that you I heard?” he shouted, his voice overtaking the hushed eatery.
  837. “Yeah, Gary, it ain’t anything too bad. Don’t trouble yourself none.”
  838. “I know you don’t get worked up like that over nothing,” Gary said, shaking his head. “Some nigga’s giving you trouble. Where are they? I’ll handle ‘em. It that pony you got there? I hate ponies.”
  839. “He ran back out the front door like the cockroach he is. And naw, the pony’s mine, her name’s Rainbow Dash.”
  840. “Rainbow Dash, huh?” the man said, turning his attention to the startled pegasus. “Listen, I ever hear you’re giving my boy Buster trouble, you’re gonna answer to me, you got that?”
  841. “Aw chill, Gary,” Buster said with a wave of his hand, some of his usual mirth returning. “She’s cool. Right, Dash? You’re cool, right?”
  842. “Y-yeah, I’m cool,” she squeaked out, still terrified of the hulking figure. He couldn’t have been shorter than eighty inches in height, and no less than 250 lbs of pure muscle. “You make good pizza.”
  843. At Buster’s reassurance, his expression softened, “Yeah, guess I do make good pizza. Speaking of which, I see you’s two are just about done with that one. Want me to send out another?”
  844. >Buster looked down to their table to find only a single slice remaining on the platter between them. Rainbow’s stomach growled; after all, Buster had eaten all but one piece of the pie on his own.
  845. “Yeah, Gary. Make it a double cheese.”
  846. >…
  848. “Hey, Rainbow?”
  849. >Buster looked over from his hotel bed to the one Rainbow Dash was currently lounging on, her attention cycling between the television and activity out her nearby window. She rolled over onto her side to face him.
  850. “Yeah?”
  851. “I, uhh, wanted to apologize. For having you see me like that earlier.”
  852. “At the restaurant?”
  853. “Well, yeah. It just ain’t like me. I don’t get worked up like that often, really. I’ve known Gary since we was just little kids, and even he’s only seen me like that one time before. Hear me out. I don’t like getting angry, I really don’t, but that fella was no good for nobody. I wasn’t about to let him weasel us into no bad deals or anything.”
  854. “It’s okay, Buster,” she said, sighing. “I get angry like that way more often. You’ve seen it, like when I hit my head on the bathroom doorframe three times in a row.”
  855. “Four times,” Buster chuckled.
  856. “Right, whatever. But, do you think it might’ve been just the teensiest overreaction? I don’t think he had it out for us, he seemed like a pretty decent guy.”
  857. Buster shook his head, “I get the feeling you pony folk are just more honest than humans. But a character like that, I could tell from a mile away he was trouble. I was just gonna go with you, but when he tried that crap with us signing by tomorrow, I wasn’t gonna have it. No good’s coming from a deal with a time press like that.”
  858. “I guess so… Honestly, I was never really good with legal stuff. Two of my friends usually handled any paperwork for me. One was a businesspony, one was a literal princess.”
  859. “A tycoon, a superstar, and a royal,” Buster commented with a whistle. “Some clique you had, huh?”
  860. “And Fluttershy was a supermodel, too. But when we met, we were all just young, average ponies, except for Twilight. She was another princess’s private student.”
  861. “And now you’re stuck here with some fat Black dude who plays a mean sax,” he replied with a loud and warm laugh.
  862. >Their conversation continued lightheartedly, but Buster’s words played on Rainbow’s mind. She was stuck with him. Legally, in fact. The friendship she’d shared in Equestria was real, pure, and natural. They’d come together through circumstance and only grown closer in their bonds over the years. All six had a great many differences, and perhaps even more quarrels, but the strength of their bonds never faltered in all the time they’d known each other.
  863. >She felt that same magic, the Magic of Friendship that Twilight always rambled about, with Buster. He was kind, he was funny, and he was more supportive than anyone Rainbow had ever known, pony or human. But was her perception of him altered by the nature of their relationship? Did she just so desperately want a good owner that she’d created an idealistic image of him in her head?
  864. “Hey Buster, did we bring the cider in from the car?” she eventually asked, her throat parched from long conversation.
  865. “Nope, still out there in the trunk.”
  866. “Oh, well, if you give me the keys, I could-“
  867. >Her offer was cut short as he donned an unbelievably smug grin and removed his hat. There, resting atop his shaved head but underneath the cap, was a full can of cider.
  868. “Surprise!” he laughed, throwing her the can.
  869. >Yeah, he was a friend. A real friend.
  870. >…
  872. >Little of note happened for the next several days. Buster nailed a shelf onto the wall for Rainbow’s trophies, and the two spent a great deal of time practicing stunts and instruments. After learning of the remarkable dexterity of her hooves, Buster convinced Rainbow to let him teach her to play a guitar.
  873. “See, Rainbow, it ain’t too hard. Just takes time, that’s all.”
  874. >Even if she could only put out a few unique chords, the fact that she was making progress at all and at any pace excited Rainbow Dash. She began to look forward to their daily lessons, as did Buster, who finally had a reprieve from learning from this pony. Instead, he got a chance to teach her.
  875. >But late Wednesday night, an email surprised Buster. It was from a fellow in Idaho, a successful entrepreneur who owned and operated a farm powered by ponies. Buster had already resolved to disregard any offers made on his pony – and there were more than a few – but the man’s claims were bold, almost implausible.
  876. “Hey Rainbow,” he called into the living room. “You know a pony called Apple-Jack?”
  877. “Well, yeah, she was one of my best friends in Equestria.”
  878. “Come on in here.”
  879. >The pegasus painfully removed herself from her spot in front of the television and lazily flapped into Buster’s small bedroom. She sat herself down on the bed, not even bothering to look at his computer screen.
  880. “So, what’s this about?” she asked, somewhat disinterested.
  881. “Got an email from someone all the way across the country, says he’s got that Applejack pony and she knows you.”
  882. “Wait, what?” she almost shouted, suddenly perking up.
  883. “He’s got a picture included. That her?” he said, pointing to a photograph containing a young, sun-beaten man’s face next to Applejack’s, as hearty and dedicated as the day Rainbow first met her.
  884. “Holy shit!” she exclaimed, ripping the laptop from his hands. “Oh my gosh, yes, this is her! I thought they were all dead, or somehow still in Equestria!”
  885. “Well, hold your horses. Might as well read what the fella’s got to say!”
  886. >’Hello Mr. Freedman,’ the letter started off. ‘I’m writing to you today because several news articles on you and your pony have alerted several longstanding search algorithms of mine. That is, I’ve been looking for Rainbow Dash and her friends for a very long time, and her recent racing accomplishments have allowed me to make contact with you. Under my protection is Applejack, one of Rainbow’s closest friends and a very dear pony to me, as well as her family (and, more recently, one Starlight Glimmer). She has expressed the same enthusiasm as I toward our newfound ability to contact you and Ms. Dash. I know not of your relationship with her, but please inform her of our correspondence, and she will be able to confirm my claim that she has a very dear connection with the ponies on my farm.’
  887. >’Furthermore,’ the message continued in another paragraph, ‘I am prepared to offer you a large sum of money in a single lump sum, should you so desire to sell Ms. Dash. Money is not an object, I will beat any nearest bidder twice over. As an initial offer, I have ten million U.S. dollars on hand for this purpose. If this is acceptable for you, email me without delay and I will charter a plane to arrive within hours.’
  888. >’Yours truly, Charles “Anonymous” Finn,’ the letter finishes. ‘P.S. Rainbow, if you’re reading this, it’s AJ! Give us a call, send us an email, just do something so we can get back in touch! Hope you’re doing okay! Also, Scootaloo sends her love. She’n Sweetie Belle are here with us too.’
  889. “And that’s it,” Buster finished, having read the message aloud. “And they got pictures, more pictures, even a video to prove it.”
  890. “I can’t believe it,” Rainbow trembled, her tone rivaling Fluttershy’s for its quietness. “For years, he told me they were all dead or gone. That FUCKING CUNT Damien lied to me!”
  891. “You alright, girl?”
  892. “Oh, I am more than alright! I’m fucking ecstatic! She’s like family to me, and he has a bunch more ponies I know, too! Scootaloo, Big Mac, Starlight Glimmer, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, I even see Lyra in the background in one of those pics!”
  893. >Buster watched in silence as she excitedly scrolled and re-scrolled through the photographs attached in the email. The ponies in question were very close to Rainbow, there was no doubt. And, from the pictures and video, they seemed to be exceptionally well-treated by this man. It would probably be a dream come true for Rainbow.
  894. >But not for him. He’d enjoyed the mare’s company since the minute he got her. He doubted he could find another pony to make such good company, and he certainly couldn’t go back to having a dog. The selfish part of him wanted to close the laptop and yank it away from her. But that was a very, very small part of Buster Freedman.
  895. “So, Rainbow,” he said, his voice quiet and calm. “You, uhh, you want me to take his offer, then?”
  896. “What?” she said, having been distracted by the email.
  897. “He said he could fly down and bring you over there within a day or two. You could be back with your old friend by Friday.”
  898. “I… I guess he did, didn’t he?”
  899. “So? What should I tell him?”
  900. >This time, it was Rainbow’s turn to stop and ponder in silence. But it was, ultimately, a much shorter period of consideration than Buster had taken.
  901. “Nah.”
  902. >The single word, spoken casually and humorously, was nevertheless a heavy one for both. When he scooped an arm around her to pull her into a hug, she didn’t fight it, barely restraining herself from returning the gesture.
  903. “But we’re totally going to see them, right?” she asked, breaking off the embrace.
  904. “Yeah, yeah ‘course we are. ‘Course we are,” he said with a sniffle as he wiped away tears.
  905. “Alright, alright, enough sappy stuff. What should we reply to them with?”
  906. >…
  908. >Things were going well for Rainbow and Buster. They’d quickly set up a meeting with Rainbow’s old friends, set to occur within a couple weeks, and Buster’s shows had new life and new vigor with his pony companion. Sure, the restaurants, bars, and events from far and wide wanted Rainbow’s presence more than his, but it was still a nice opportunity for Buster to expand his audience and get better recognition.
  909. >Whereas before he would only play as far away as Birmingham or Mobile, Buster was now pulling in requests for locales as far away as Atlanta, Chattanooga, and even Jacksonville. He happily accepted most of these, as Rainbow was eager to get out and see more of the vast country she’d not been able to explore in the past. The only place they wouldn’t go was Mississippi.
  910. “Pegasi gotta be on a leash at all times? What kind of hooey is that?”
  911. >But despite his inhibitions, the duo soon found an opportunity to explore to the west. Another pony competition, this one much larger and more well-organized, was being held in Little Rock, Arkansas. It would feature a much longer list of events, with a national-scale campaign to recruit potential contestants. The event would be televised, also nationally.
  912. >Evidently, someone with the right connections and the right capital thought pegasus sports were going to take off. And of course, the stars from the only other major competition thus far would all be featuring: Rainbow had received a personal invitation to compete, and she presumed that other major competitors had as well.
  913. >It would be held right after the turn of the new year, meaning there could very well be snowy or icy conditions during the event. But, Little Rock wasn’t far north enough to cause weather problems big enough that top-quality pegasus athletes couldn’t handle it. But, there was still the question of clothing.
  914. >Although the past event had provided flight suits, they encountered the same problems that general-issue flights suits always seemed to: the fit was either too tight or too lose, and some part or another had to be stretched or scrunched to keep a tight fit. Pegasi in Equestria had them tailored for a reason: it was difficult to create high-performance, lightweight, and sturdy full-body outfits without specific measurements.
  915. >Buster was prepared to spend a small fortune to get her some proper outfits, but before he ever had a chance to, the problem solved itself. Within a few days of their accepting the invitation to compete, Buster and Rainbow Dash received a phone call.
  916. >EquiTech Gearing, a startup pony-focused outdoorsman and athletic gear company, offered to not only provide full tailoring services, but pay them to do it. The only caveat would be the large, bright orange company logo displayed alongside Rainbow’s cutie mark on each side. But without any reason to decline, they met with a representative and signed on.
  917. >With one successful sponsorship secured, other companies quickly jostled to find their own place. Suppliers of everything from goggles to protein supplements to mane beauty products caught word of EquiTech’s success in securing a deal, and within days, Buster had opted to shut off his cell phone entirely due to the offers that seemed to never stop pouring in.
  918. >A few essentials, such as flight goggles, mane treatments to reduce air resistance, and between-race energy supplements found their way into contracts. The rest, however, found themselves calling an unresponsive line. Buster just didn’t see the point in taking contracts that would gain Rainbow nothing but cash profit.
  919. >To their mutual surprise, however, another pony did seem eager to capitalize on his success. Autumn Winds, the only other mare to claim a title from Rainbow Dash, had managed to work her way into several advertisements and sponsorship deals. The first time they saw her image published, it was in an advertisement on the Arkansas Event’s website. The next time, she had a half-page advertisement in Equine Monthly, a magazine Rainbow had opted to subscribe to.
  920. >But before that event could come to pass, Buster had numerous activities planned for them. Between his ever-further shows and future events for Rainbow, the two had ample opportunity to get out and see new places. In their down time, they stayed much closer to home.
  921. >In the wooded, rural part of Alabama in which they lived, there wasn’t much in the way of public amenities. Cottontown could scarcely be called a town; Ponyville was much larger even before Princess Twilight had made it her permanent residence, and that village was small by Equestrian standards. And, unlike the dense settlements of her homeland, Cottontown looked much like population centers around the country. That is, spread out and with ample natural space in between buildings.
  922. >Any remaining broadleaves soon shed, and the forests were reformed into a curious mixture of pines and dormant plants. Having been on tour, she’d seen landscapes like this aplenty in Equestria, but it was still a big break from her usual stomping grounds in Cloudsdale and Ponyville. The wind rushed between grey and brown trunks, and the cold air was carried over stumps and fallen logs. But, thankfully, the many creeks and rivers in the landscape would remain unfrozen. Some nights, Rainbow Dash liked to go out and rest atop a tree branch, listening to the soothing sounds of rushing water and chirping crickets as the season’s last few fireflies put on their final shows.
  923. >Any days they had off were spent watching television, a habit Buster gladly introduced to his mare, and various nature hikes and expeditions, a habit in turn sponsored by Rainbow Dash and learned by the musician. In the few years he’d owned the house, essentially since he set out from home to find a place of his own, he’d rarely ever done anything in those woods. With someone to sing songs, play games, and just talk to on those excursions, he now had ample reason to.
  924. >And, naturally, his health improved correspondingly. With her mind now once again firmly set on competition, Rainbow Dash budgeted herself a strict diet. Buster was inevitably wrapped up in a similar program, albeit with significantly higher calorie counts. But it was nevertheless much lower and much healthier than what he’d consumed in the past, and in a few weeks’ time he was surprised to see his weight go down by double-digit figures.
  925. >But where cardio helped him the most, Rainbow needed strength training above all. With a single call to the same company tailoring Rainbow’s flight suit, he obtained a full set of pegasus-oriented weightlifting and strength building equipment. Custom-sized dumbbells and complex machines arrived at their doorstep one day without any mention of price. The company only asked for a few photos of the gear in action.
  926. >Buster cleared out space from his already-cramped living room to give her a proper training station. To fit everything, both the back door and kitchen entrances became a tight squeeze for the still-rotund man. But with unpredictable and often rainy Alabama weather, he refused to put her equipment outside. So, he made do, entirely content to let his pony slowly overtake his home. It wasn’t anything to look at before, anyway.
  927. >But just a few weeks before they would meet up, Buster got a phone call from Anonymous in Idaho. Something very, very grave for their farm had come up, and they’d have to put off any get-together indefinitely. Good-natured as he was, Buster thought nothing of it, and politely responded that they would be happy to come visit whenever Anon, Applejack and company were ready.
  928. >With their agenda now focused solely on the upcoming competition, Rainbow doubled down on her training. For long stretches of car rides between gigs, she flew alongside the vehicle instead of sitting comfortably inside. Instead of sitting and signing the occasional autograph as Buster played his music, she trained with wing-ups and push-ups. Time previously spent lazily sitting in front of the television became a rigorous training routine; she was most pleased when she found a way to turn her treadmill toward the screen.
  929. >And so, for weeks and at a steady pace, Buster’s waistline trimmed and Rainbow’s limbs bulged with reinvigorated muscle. She’d not trained so hard in a very, very long time. The last time she’d been so focused was prior to her elevation to full membership in the Wonderbolts.
  930. >But before the competition rolled around, a day far more important to Buster came into view. Long a religious man, Christmas held a deep meaning and purpose for him. His past few had been spent alone; he was determined to make this one memorable.
  931. >The ponies, he learned, had their own version of the holiday – a celebration of their civilization’s founding that coincided with Christmas in general date and attitude. But there was never any religious aspect to it, as the ponies had far weaker and far less prominent religious tendencies before their introduction to this new world. As such, Buster was determined to at least teach Rainbow of the specific significance the holiday held for him, and perhaps even get her to appreciate it as well.
  932. >Much like every weekend he took her to church services, Rainbow largely feigned her interest in those specifics. She’d long ago learned to space out of conversation while appearing engaged, and had nigh four years to practice it on an unwitting and detestable dummy.
  933. >The practice of gift-giving would have to be one-sided. It wasn’t as if Rainbow could head out to a store and find something for Buster. But he didn’t mind, as there wasn’t much he could want for in life (except perhaps that new trumpet…). Instead, he decided to assemble a set of goods he knew Rainbow would not only appreciate, but likely jump at the chance to get.
  934. >When Christmas morning rolled around, the skies were overcast and the temperatures cold. To their mutual dismay, no snow fell, and instead a downpour started up outside as breakfast was made and Rainbow not-so-subtly eyeballed the packages marked for her under the room’s small Christmas tree. Unlike the many presents Rainbow had received and flushed down the toilet, unopened, in the past few years, these felt special and valuable to her without any knowledge of their contents.
  935. >And so, with that sentiment in mind, she sat down as Buster was preoccupied with breakfast clean-up and opened the first of her gifts. Nervously, she began tearing away at the wrapping paper.
  937. “Hey, you opening presents without me?” buster called, putting down the last of his newly-scrubbed dishes. “Oh, that one, good choice. Yeah, go ‘head and open that first.”
  938. >With his approval backing her, she quickly tore away the remaining wrapping paper to reveal a slim black case. Opening it revealed a shining, slightly oversized harmonica, similar in style to the one Buster played regularly.
  939. “Can’t really share a harmonica, so I figured I’d get you your own. That’s a nice one, it’ll last a lifetime and more. I know you ain’t had the best luck with instruments yet, but I think this is a good place to really start learning. That, and your pony hooves can somehow play the darn thing, if those internet videos are legit.”
  940. >She picked up the instrument and gave it a tentative blow. Producing no sound, she then puffed into it with all her might, eliciting a loud and raucous noise from the device. She considered it for a moment more before nodding her head in approval.
  941. “I would hug you and all that, but I’m not really big on sappy stuff,” the mare laughed. “Will a ‘thanks’ cover it?”
  942. “Sure, sure. Now get to opening the rest of ‘em!”
  943. >Following the harmonica were a set of bootleg Rainbow Dash slippers, a guidebook on reading music, the complete collection of Daring Do books, a set of Indiana Jones films, and four cases of apple cider. It wasn’t the biggest haul she’d ever received, even from friends, but the act nevertheless inspired her to give Buster numerous hoof-bumps.
  944. >Shortly thereafter, the two went out in the pouring rain to attend Christmas day church services. If Rainbow normally enjoyed the cheer and singing of the congregations on a regular Sunday, that morning was twice as appealing. The songs were louder, the faces brighter, and decorations on par with the fanciest Canterlot had on offer during Hearthswarming buoyed her spirits. At some point during the service, the rain stopped pitter-pattering on the church’s metal roof.
  945. >There were many more attendees, as well. The building was usually moderately busy – now, many had to stand along the back wall and aside the pews. Thankfully, Buster had prepared and gone early, and the two were seated comfortably in the second row.
  946. >When services ended, they emerged from the building to a light sunshower. Where the rain was pouring and meddlesome before, it was now a welcome refresher in the cool, late-morning air. But of course, the day was only half over, and Buster wasn’t about to let the rest of it go to waste.
  947. “Growing up, my old man always had this tradition,” Buster explained as they got into their car. “He’d always take me out for lunch on Christmas day to some burger joint. Different place every time.”
  948. “Really? No repeats?”
  949. “Not once, long as I can remember. By the time I was eighteen and ready to move out, we near had to drive halfway ‘cross town just to find somewhere good to eat.”
  950. “That sounds pretty fun. And man, it’s been too long since I’ve had a hayburger!”
  951. “Well, here’s the thing,” he said, scratching his head. “Ain’t a place in the whole county serving pony burgers. Beef patties only. Only like half a dozen burger joints in the first place, so I guess that ain’t surprising.”
  952. “Oh,” Rainbow lamented, not hiding her dejectedness. “Then, whatever you want, I guess.”
  953. “Now hold on, I didn’t say I’d be breaking that tradition, did I?” he remarked calmly as he started the car engine. “Just saying you’d better buckle up and get ready for a long ride.”
  954. “Wait, what?”
  955. “We’re going back to Tuscaloosa, sugar. Get you some darn-good pony burgers!”
  956. “We’re going all the way to Tuscaloosa just for some burgers?”
  957. “You got any better ideas?”
  958. “We could do a 5K run, or something.”
  959. “Heavens, no. I ain’t getting that worked up on Christmas! You been working so hard to get this gut down, I gotta do something to put it back out!”
  960. >So they drove, for hours, out to the city for little more than a fast food meal. Despite being cramped in the car seat for the ride’s full duration, Rainbow Dash found the trip far from dull. With Buster’s constant encouragement, she had a blast with the harmonica he’d given her. Some of her more cacophonic renditions tested his focus on the road, but the duo nevertheless arrived in Tuscaloosa unharmed.
  961. >Although eateries across the Western half of the country commonly catered to ponies through vegetarian or even pony-specific menu options, those were still few and far between in the American Southeast. Ponies were rarer, food was cheaper, and people generally chose to forgo vegetarian alternatives in their diets. So, in the entire city of Tuscaloosa, only one restaurant served the hayburger, a cornerstone of Equestrian cuisine.
  962. >Evidently, this sole restauranteur was a smart man. Upon arriving at their destination, Rainbow and Buster were dismayed to find a line quite literally out the door as ponies and their owners flocked to the joint for Christmas celebrations. In a town with perhaps a few hundred ponies, tops, dozens were crammed into the small establishment waiting for their food to come.
  963. >There was even a group of ponies idling about outside the restaurant, their leashes tied around a bicycle rack while their owner went in alone to fetch food. Evidently, this was a violation of some law or another: a police officer approached the group, wrote up a ticket, and unceremoniously slapped it on an earth pony’s back.
  964. >But despite the business of the place, Rainbow and Buster didn’t have to wait long for their food.
  965. “Hey, hey!” a rotund man with an apron called out from the side of the building. “You two, c’mon over here. Yeah, you!”
  966. “Can we help you?” Buster asked politely, approaching the man but leaving sufficient distance between the two parties.
  967. “You’re her owner? The pony that won that race?”
  968. “That race? Try nine,” Rainbow boasted, ignoring or unaware of the man’s unwillingness to address her.
  969. “Yeah, she’s mine,” Buster replied, somewhat more diplomatically. “Why, want an autograph or something?”
  970. “No, no! I’m the owner and chef here, and I can get you two past that big line. Just come on in through the back, we’ll get you a table A-S-A-P. Unless you were coming for takeout?”
  971. Rainbow and Buster exchanged a glance. “You’re gonna have us just skip that whole line?” the musician inquired, not wishing to step on any toes.
  972. “If you like, sure. Probably don’t have enough ingredients to serve ‘em all anyway.”
  973. >Before Rainbow Dash could voice an objection, her stomach rumbled loudly. Suddenly aware of the complete lack of food she’d had since her small breakfast that morning, she instead quickly voiced her agreement and dashed inside the restaurant ahead of the two humans. Although Buster still held reservations about VIP treatment, he exchanged a laugh with the chef and followed her in.
  974. >After settling the small tumult Rainbow had created by darting into the kitchen, the owner quickly seated them at a booth near the door. They expected at least a few dirty looks from other hungry patrons, but those expectations thankfully fell through. Instead, they only found admiration, awe, or excitement in the ponies, and all of the above plus disinterest from the humans.
  975. >Three hayburgers and a double-decker bacon burger later, the two were stuffed. Buster had scarcely eaten meat since buying his pegasus, and such a rich helping of it did well for his soul if not his health. Rainbow truly didn’t care about his dietary habits, having seen plenty of meat consumption in Damien’s home, but appreciated the gestures nonetheless. Hayburgers had roughly the same smells, flavors, and nutritional content anyway.
  976. “Did you find everything to your liking?” the owner-chef said as he once again materialized at their booth. “All good, or would you like some dessert?”
  977. “We’ll just take the bill, thanks,” Buster said, rubbing his temples. “I’ll have to remember this place next time we’re in town.”
  978. “Oh, don’t worry about that, it’s on the house,” the man said dismissively, waving his hand.
  979. “Oh, none of that,” the musician replied, suddenly unwilling to accept more of the man’s generosity. “I ain’t leaving a meal like this without proper paying. How much do we owe you?”
  980. “Look, don’t worry about it, alright? Or, how’s about I take a photo with y’all? That’s payment enough.”
  981. “That ain’t no way to pay for a meal!”
  982. “If I post it on Facebook or something, it’ll bring in a lot more than whatever I lose from you two. So, how’s about it?”
  983. >Ultimately, despite Buster’s protests, they left the restaurant with full bellies and fuller pockets. The experience was a first for them both: Buster had never had nearly enough fame to receive anything gratis, and Equestrian businesses rarely made monetary concessions for fame. Even Twilight had had to pay full price at any shop in town.
  984. >But of course, this could only be regional fame. The events had created quite the stir in Tuscaloosa but had yet to catch on nationally.
  985. >But it was only a matter of time before that status quo changed.
  986. >…
  988. >The next competition came fast, but not without anticipation and impatience from Rainbow Dash. This event would have actual qualifiers and, in some cases, brackets. It would have grandstands, and corporate sponsors, and a massive media presence, and a massive audience watching. It was going to be the greatest show she’d put on since her days in Equestria.
  989. >They arrived early to watch the qualifiers (Rainbow had been invited to every event) but were nonetheless delayed for two days by exceedingly poor weather. In that time, they met up with Autumn Winds and toured the city of Little Rock. With nearly constant downpours and no indoor sporting facilities willing to lend their services to the equine athletes, their group had little to do in those two days.
  990. >By the time the rain stopped late into the second night, Buster and Rainbow had both grown tired of their company. Autumn Winds was a perfectly agreeable mare, but her owner was distinctly less enjoyable company. At first, neither could identify what was off-putting about him. But by the end of two full days, his pride and high expectations of Autumn had soured any impression he might have made on them before.
  991. >With the after-dark skies clear and expected to stay clear, the two hastily said their goodbyes and set out to find an open strip of sky to get in some practice. Ultimately, they settled on the swelled river. Rainbow had ample width and length to practice, little fear of a serious crash, and Buster got the chance to idle his time away with a round of night fishing.
  992. >After affirming that her wait had not, in fact, had any major impact on her physical fitness, the two quickly retired to their hotel. A far cry from the modest accommodations they’d seen in Tuscaloosa, the event organizers had provided the two with a luxury suite in one of the city’s tallest hotels, gratis. From the top floor balcony, they had an excellent view of the artificially lit town.
  993. “Human cities sure are pretty at night,” Rainbow commented as she sat on the outward edge of the thick guardrail. “Even Manehattan, our biggest city, it never had lights like these. It was so much darker.”
  994. “Yeah, and this here’s a nice view. Don’t think I’ve ever had a room or lookout so nice.”
  995. “I don’t think anything can match a view from Cloudsdale. But yeah, this is pretty awesome to look at.”
  996. “Well then what you hanging out here for? Why not go out there and get a better view from above the building?” Buster asked, curious. He playfully nudged her forward, although not strongly enough to actually push her off the edge.
  997. “It’s a pegasus thing, I guess. A view from a balcony is just, well, it’s just better than in the open air. Plus, you don’t get the company up there.”
  998. “I get the company, I guess, but how’s the view any better from here than up there?”
  999. “My friend Twilight actually did some research on that,” she said with a sigh. “Don’t think they ever found out, though.”
  1000. >The two were silent for a moment more. On the streets below, a siren roared to life as a police car took off from its roadside stop. The two watched it drive into the distance, its sound fading long before the piercing red and blue lights.
  1001. “You miss ‘em, dontcha,” Buster remarked, more as a statement of fact than a supposition.
  1002. “Even after so much time to try and let go,” she muttered, frustration tinging her tone, “I still can’t stop thinking of them. All of them. And now that I know Applejack is alright, that’s only made it worse! They say we can’t go see them yet, but why?”
  1003. “I’m sure your friend wants to see you just as much, Dash. Gotta be something super important to keep you apart.”
  1004. “I guess.”
  1005. >Another moment passed before a chilling breeze swept between them. Buster, unused to cold high-altitude winds, retreated to the warm safety of his luxuriously spacious hotel room. After a moment, Rainbow followed him, closing the sliding glass door behind her.
  1006. “Probably time to get to bed, anyway,” the mare said with a shrug, diving for her sheets. “I want to wake up a bit early for a 30-mile flight.”
  1007. “Not before you shower, stinky pony.”
  1008. “Oh come on, I barely even worked out today!”
  1009. “And that’s the same line you gave me last night,” Buster said, firmly but lightheartedly. “Now go get your blue butt in the shower or I won’t tell you where the extra case of cider is.”
  1010. >Not willing to risk her precious beverage, the mare hastily clambered into the bathroom to get cleaned. Although the faucet controls were difficult to work with naught but hooves and teeth, she managed to get a good stream of water going. It was certainly more pleasant than the subpar plumbing at Buster’s home. Her expected three minutes of showering turned to ten, and then soon to thirty as she let the perfectly-heated water splash across her.
  1011. >When she finally left the bathroom, she found Buster sleeping soundly on his bed, the television turned to some news segment and a fresh case of cider cans resting on the table next to him. But as she grabbed a can and settled into her own bed, careful not to disturb him, his voice rose quietly from the opposing bed.
  1012. “Go brush your teeth, stinky pony.”
  1013. >’That better not be a new nickname,’ she mused.
  1014. >…
  1016. >Qualifiers started at eight the next morning, but Rainbow was up and exercising by five. With the morning still shrouded in darkness and even some fog, she set out for a number of long, tiring exercises. She practiced distance flying, ascents/descents, endurance gliding, high altitude laps, and a full retinue of cardiovascular routines.
  1017. >Upon returning two hours later, she found the hotel room empty save for a note – ‘Dash: They got free breakfast buffet downstairs. Bring whatever you need, we ain’t coming back.’ A short flight down to the ground floor discovered Buster happily eating away any weight loss he’d observed in the past week through bagels, sausages, eggs, and other fattening breakfast foods.
  1018. “I leave you alone for one meal and you do this?” she said, somewhat incredulous at his meals of choice.
  1019. “Hey, c’mon, I gotta get back every once in a while! I swear, I paid all the money and you got the slave!”
  1020. “Gotta get you slim before I can put you to work,” she replied, playing along with his banter. “I demand you cease this meal at once.”
  1021. “You ain’t White enough for that!”
  1022. “What?”
  1023. “Never mind, never mind. Just go grab a plate of whatever’s healthy over there and come sit down,” he said, emphasizing and putting air quotes around the word ‘healthy’.
  1024. >As expected, the hotel buffet had zero accommodations for ponies in its breakfast display. Oh well, two bananas and two apples would probably be nutritious enough. At least it was better than the kibble she saw a leashed earth pony eating in the corner of the room.
  1025. “Anyone in the qualifiers you’ve got your eye on?” Buster asked before wolfing down a sausage.
  1026. “There’s a few names I’ve seen before, this time around. Most are from the Equestria Games, but at least one pony was in some other flying team full-time. Should be interesting.”
  1027. “But you were the best of the best, right?”
  1028. “Damn right I was the best of the best! Competition or not, I sure hope we have room in the car, because we’re going to have to fit a few trophies in there.”
  1029. >In her sudden excitement, the mare had risen from her seat and was now hovering over the breakfast table. She looked around and blushed, having immediately seen the many heads turned her way. Buster just chuckled and pointed his thumb down, as if she needed any further encouragement to retake her seat.
  1030. “Just make sure you keep that excitement up for tomorrow, aight?”
  1031. >…
  1033. >Forty-five minutes later, the two were happily seated in their VIP box, watching the first contestants take their places. They weren’t even aware they had a private area until they arrived; Buster had just assumed they’d get in through general admission or perhaps an athletes’ entrance.
  1034. >But their accommodations merely matched the overall grandeur exhibited before them. The facility was new and shining and was perfectly suited for the various events. It was a professional race track, completed not a year before, now rented out and temporarily converted into a general-purpose open-air arena. With no grandstands on the thin ends of the track, the facility was perfect for the kinds of low-altitude and high-speed finishes that many pegasi would be making.
  1035. >The event was privately organized, but exceedingly well-prepared. Even in the qualifiers grandstands were largely packed, with vendors easily meeting their quotas as they skittered up and down the stairs hawking their food and wares. Seating was thoroughly pre-planned as well: there were integrated sections, human-only sections, and a large pony-focused (but not exclusive) area. Overseers staffed the latter area so that owners could leave their equines alone, either to enjoy the pony-restricted stands or simply to go elsewhere for the day.
  1036. >Few had so good a view as Rainbow Dash and Buster. They’d been given the only unoccupied press booth, giving them an unobstructed view of as much of the competition area as possible. As they looked out over the balcony, they spotted large, expensive television cameras flanking them on either side.
  1037. >By the time they had finished settling in, the final call rang out for contestants to approach the starting line. A simple event, the 100 meter fly, would start the day. Out of sixteen contestants, the top seven would qualify to compete along with Rainbow Dash. She could only recognize one pony among them, a stallion who’d failed to medal in the Equestria Games after being injured in a freak bird collision.
  1038. >The starting pistol popped, and before they knew it, the race was over. Rainbow’s eyes widened in response to their speed and acceleration, both easily at professional levels of fine-tuning. These ponies had been training, and they seemed ready to win. The stallion she recognized didn’t even qualify.
  1039. >The two lead times, in fact, would be no easy feat to overcome. But, Rainbow mused, she had expected this. This was a national-level competition, and interest was only growing by the day. To be unprepared for serious, professional opposition would be foolish.
  1040. >Within a few hours, she had a pretty good idea of how she would be stacking up in these races. Pure speed likely wouldn’t be an issue: even with the full roster of Equestrian competitors against her, Rainbow was the unopposed champion. Acrobatics and stunts would likely paint a similar picture. The ponies here were just lacking in the hardcore training of a professional performance crew.
  1041. >But endurance flying, specialty events, and gliding might provide too much challenge for her to beat. One stallion flying the ten-mile loop even posted a time within two seconds of the old Equestrian record. The closest Rainbow Dash had ever gotten to that score was five seconds off.
  1042. >The dress of ponies in those races was telling of their performance. Every one of them bore a flight suit of some kind, and the majority clearly had custom fits. These ponies had trained to win, and their owners had spent to win. It made sense; most events had a cash prize of some sort.
  1043. “You think these ponies got bought just for this competition?” Rainbow asked Buster after the forty-mile loop, where two stallions posted times she probably couldn’t hope to beat.
  1044. “Some of them, maybe. I remember seeing some article online about some guy who’s making a fortune selling athlete ponies. Goes around looking for signs of strength or something, buys ‘em, trains ‘em, and sells ‘em to rich folk looking to win.”
  1045. >She was silent as she watched another group of contestants take their places at the starting line. Again, they confirmed an observation she’d been making all day.
  1046. “Lot of stallions.”
  1047. “Well, they’re bigger,” Buster responded. “Guessing they’re usually a bit faster, too?”
  1048. “No,” she responded, shaking her head. “Earth pony stallions are usually stronger than mares, but not pegasi. It’s about equal. Which is why it’s weird that we’ve seen, like, three in four contestants being stallions.”
  1049. “Well, don’t look at me for an answer. I’m just here so you can do your thing. Probably gotta ask the stallions themselves what the deal is.”
  1050. “Maybe.”
  1051. >…
  1053. >Ultimately, even if Rainbow Dash had decided to inquire about her observation, she wouldn’t have had the chance to. Shortly before the final qualifiers were completed late into the afternoon, the event host personally came to their booth. He was a massive, muscular man, with hands that betrayed hard work but eyes that shone with refined intelligence. From an oversized pocket he produced two postcards, with tickets to an exclusive dining event that evening.
  1054. “Been an honor having you two here,” he remarked in rough voice, dripping with New York accent. “Turnout’s been great, and a big part of that is just because you’re here.”
  1055. “Can’t say I blame them, coming here with their everyone but the kitchen sink,” Rainbow quipped, waving a hoof. “Even when I’m not out there in the skies, I’d say I’m a pretty great show!”
  1056. “But what a wonder when you are out there. Honestly, it ain’t about the profits for me, although we’re probably going to see plenty of that with these crowds. I just like the sport and the spirit, and if you’ve got anything, it’s that.”
  1057. “Oh come on, you haven’t even seen me fly yet. Save the praise for when praise is due!”
  1058. “Haven’t seen you fly yet? Of course I have, I was in the stands at the Tuscaloosa race! Wouldn’t have funded something of this size if I didn’t know there was real talent out there.”
  1059. >Rainbow was taken slightly aback by this claim. The man had a strict business air about him. She just couldn’t imagine him in jeans and a hoodie, hollering at the amateurs competing in that little Alabama race.
  1060. “Came all the way down from Manhattan to see it.”
  1061. “Manhattan?” Buster interjected, his eyebrows slightly raised. “Pretty big trip for a little event and, I say this with utmost courtesy, you don’t seem like the type with oodles of free time to work with.”
  1062. “I just wanted to see the show. Had the tickets even before I knew you’d be there. My daughter, she has a pegasus of her own, and that pony’s got her head all full of stories about racing and stunts.”
  1063. “So you took your daughter down to see the race, saw what you liked, and decided to turn it big?” Rainbow asks to herself more than the man, her brow furrowed in thought.
  1064. “About right. Oh, hope you don’t mind meeting her tonight at the dinner, if you come. I bet she’ll want to meet you.”
  1065. >Suddenly, the man’s smartwatch started beeping. He glanced at it, sighed, and tucked it back into his sleeve.
  1066. “Well, I suppose I gotta run,” he said, almost in a groan. “So damn busy with putting all this together I barely have time to watch the show! Well, nice meeting you two, hopefully we’ll see each other again tonight.”
  1067. “Hey, wait,” Buster called out to him as he went out the room’s only door. “You got a business card? Just in case we need ya?”
  1068. >The man quickly removed a business card from his back pocket before turning back and jogging down the hall. Buster gave the card a good look-over before tucking it into one of his own pockets.
  1069. “Never got his name,” he explained to his pegasus companion. “And guys like that always got a business card.”
  1070. “Well then, who is he?” Rainbow demanded, suddenly curious about their busy benefactor.
  1071. “It says, ‘J. Nazario, Brokerage Services’. Must be some Wall Street type.”
  1072. “Wall Street?”
  1073. “Place way up north in New York. Lots of big business fellas up there, and lots of rich folks too. We’ll go there some time, I bet you’d like the skyscrapers.”
  1074. >…
  1076. >The dinner was hosted at a nearby ballroom. Grand and gorgeous, it held hundreds of small, round tables elegantly covered by finely-embroidered eggshell tablecloths. Given the scale of the event they’d seen so far, Rainbow Dash and Buster weren’t surprised in the slightest by the expenses obviously taken to put on this show.
  1077. >If anything, it was more surprising that ponies constituted a substantial portion of the crowd. Throughout the ballroom, some of the best athletes of the past day talked, laughed, and even drank alongside their human company. It was far from an equal ratio of species, with perhaps one pony for every four humans, but Rainbow nonetheless expected to be largely alone in here.
  1078. >Once again, there were few faces either recognized, even counting those only seen from afar. None of the ponies she’d met and talked to at the prior event had outperformed the crowd before her, and this sort of crowd was entirely new to Buster. Sure, he’d been to dinner parties before, but never with company so high on the social ladder.
  1079. >Most of the attendees seemed to have nothing more than a financial tie to the whole scene. Suits, ties, and the occasional briefcase or light duffel bag covered the mostly-male humans. The way they talked, the way they laughed, the way they drank, it was all more refined than the ponies doing it with them. They held themselves with an air of wealth, this more likely than not being an entirely founded air.
  1080. >The two shuffled about a bit by the entrance, unsure of where to go or whom to talk to. They were recognized plenty and greeted by passers-by, but these greetings were only superficial. Past a wave or a nod, none attempted to converse.
  1081. >At last, they were saved by their host, the same burly man who’d hand-delivered their invitations just a few hours earlier. He’d made a complete change of clothes, but the collar of his shirt was still stained with sweat. It only matched the rest of his appearance: his eyes strained with newfound tiredness, stubble poked out across his neck, and Rainbow swore he’d developed a few new gray hairs since they’d last spoken.
  1082. “Ah, here they are! The stars of the show!” he said, approaching with an obviously strained grin. “Glad you’s two could make it.”
  1083. “Wouldn’t miss such a fancy-pants gig, Mr. Nazario,” Buster replied courteously, motioning to the room around them.
  1084. “Ah, just call me Jimmy. Much less of a mouthful, eh? Especially for you ponies, your names make a whole lot more sense, don’t they?”
  1085. Realizing he was addressing her, Rainbow hastily responded, “Oh, I guess so, yeah. But humans don’t have a cutie mark, and that usually goes with the name, so I guess it’s not too weird for them not to make sense.”
  1086. “Sure, but I guess it’d make more sense if they called me Big Business, or something like that. Anyway, you’s two got a table already?”
  1087. “No, actually, we just got here.”
  1088. “Oh, great! Been saving you a spot at our table. If you’d like to join us, that is. My daughter would really appreciate it.”
  1089. >With little else to do, their group meandered across the room to a slightly larger table tucked into one of the corners. Seated around this table were a girl no older than nine or ten conversing with a pegasus mare, another man in an expensive suit, and a woman in a dress that would impress even the snobbiest of Canterlot crowds.
  1090. “Folks,” Jimmy began, “I’d like to introduce you to our guests. This mare is the one and only Rainbow Dash, and the fine fellow is her owner, Mr. Freedman.”
  1091. “Howdy,” the seated man said with a smile.
  1092. “From right to left, we have Mr. Perkins, the owner of this venue, my dear wife Alyssa, my beautiful daughter Rose, and her pony, Caramel Cube.”
  1093. “Daddy, that’s Rainbow Dash?” the girl shouted, suddenly rising from her chair.
  1094. “Sure is, sweetie. Why don’t you see if the nice mare would be willing to chit-chat with you?”
  1095. >Rainbow suddenly found herself being almost dragged away by the bubbling youngling and her equally-excited pony. It didn’t take long for them to coax her into launching into a story-telling of some of her most exciting endeavors in Equestria. Buster, on the other hand, got to talk with the adults.
  1096. “So, Mr. Freedman, you’ve certainly got a lucky find in that mare,” the table’s sole female occupant opened with a silky, smooth voice. “How’d you get her?”
  1097. Buster shrugged, “Guess she drove her old owner bonkers and made him sell her off to the first taker. I just needed a pony to help me with my music gigs, had no idea I was getting a superstar.”
  1098. “Blind luck then, eh?” Jimmy asked, stroking the stubble on his chin.
  1099. “Had no idea she was an athlete ‘til she told me. But hey, I ain’t gonna get in the way of nobody’s dreams. So, I guess my music’s the side show now, and she’s the big star.”
  1100. “Must be profitable, I imagine?” asked Perkins.
  1101. “A bit, but I ain’t really a man for money. Got my tiny little home, got my music, got my pony, and life’s good. Being here, doing this, it’s mostly about making her happy.”
  1102. “I’d have thought EquiTech would be paying you something handsome to use their equipment so publicly.”
  1103. “No, but they did give us the stuff for free. That was nice of ‘em.”
  1104. >The two businessmen at the table exchanged a curious look, one that Buster couldn’t determine. But it was over in a moment, and Perkins again turned back to Buster.
  1105. “Alright, enough talk of money, then. I bet we’re all about tired of it by now.”
  1106. “Oh, shoot, it ain’t really a bother for me. I’m not exactly comfortable at big-room gigs like this anyways, unless I’m up on a stage.”
  1107. “I can get that. You live in the country, right? Well, not sure if you’d been able to tell by the accent, but I ain’t exactly from a big city either. I come from Prattsville, little town south of here. You come to Arkansas much?”
  1108. “Not since I was a kid, growing up in Baton Rouge.”
  1109. “What you think of Little Rock?”
  1110. “Nice town, nice people. I think Dash likes it more.”
  1111. >The table looked over to Rainbow Dash, who was still engaged with the entranced child and pony not ten feet from their group. Evidently, they were at an important part of the story, as Rainbow pulled up into the air and took a few different martial arts poses.
  1112. “She likes the human cities?” Jimmy asked, returning the group’s attention to each other.
  1113. “I think she’s just surprised how big they are. Tuscaloosa ain’t such a big town, but the first time we drove in there, I practically had to pry her face off the car window with a spatula. Kept going on about how wide the city stretched. Lord help me when I take her to Atlanta.”
  1114. “Hah, that’s about how Caramel reacted the first time we brought her to New York. Up until a couple years ago we lived on an estate in New Jersey. Going from there to a Manhattan penthouse was a big change for all of us, especially that pony.”
  1115. “She ever get scared of heights?” asked Perkins.
  1116. “A pegasus?” he remarked, raising an eyebrow. “Well ‘course not.”
  1117. “Speaking of which,” Jimmy’s wife interrupted, “Honey, think we should discuss…”
  1118. After a brief moment of silence, Jimmy’s face lit up in understanding, “Oh, right, yeah. So, Mr. Freedman, you like your pony quite a bit, yeah?”
  1119. “Don’t think I’ve ever had a better friend.”
  1120. “And you ain’t a man of money, yeah?”
  1121. “Long as I got a roof over my head and food in my belly, I don’t really mind it, no.”
  1122. “Well then I won’t bother asking to buy Rainbow from you. But if you ever do deign to sell her, be sure to give me a call, I’ll be sure to give both a better price and a better home than anyone else can.”
  1123. “I ain’t selling her.”
  1124. “Right, ‘course. But I did have something else in mind inviting you here.”
  1125. “Yeah?” he asked out of courtesy, already weary of any business talk to come.
  1126. “Well, you two need a sponsor. If the swindle those EquiTech people pulled on you isn’t proof of that, then I don’t know what is. I’d bet my whole fortune they were ready to send you a hundred thousand or more just to get her wearing that suit.”
  1127. “Thanks, but we ain’t looking for an agent. Already had a run-in with a bad soul, and like I said, we really don’t need the money.”
  1128. “Well if you don’t, then think about who might! Rainbow’s friends, I bet she’s told you about ‘em, right?”
  1129. “Plenty.”
  1130. “Well, before she showed up, nobody even knew if any of ‘em but Applejack were even still alive! Now that you’ve got Rainbow, there’s still four of ‘em left to find!”
  1131. “And?”
  1132. “Don’t you think millions of bucks in private investment might go a long way to finding them?”
  1133. “You think I should get these deals and spend the cash looking for Rainbow’s friends?”
  1134. “I think that’s what Rainbow would want,” he said, raising a finger to Buster’s right.
  1135. >He turned around in his seat, to find Rainbow now hovering silently and listening in on the conversation. The girl and her pegasus were happily chatting by the wall, likely discussing the tall tales they’d just heard from the cyan mare.
  1136. “I think it’s a pretty good idea,” she said slowly, aware of the attention placed on her. “But Buster’s right, we’ve had to get rid of a snake already. Why should we trust you?”
  1137. “Because I ain’t looking for profit, I’m looking to help you’s two,” Jimmy answered, his voice growing a bit more serious, his New York accent growing a bit more pronounced. “Believe me, I know there’s a lot of folks out there looking to get rich off your fame, but I ain’t like that. I’ve got a place in some very important hedge funds, my wealth is secured. And after seeing the competition today, and the interest people got in it, I want nothing more than to see this sport blossom into a beautiful flower.”
  1138. “And y’all are right in the center of that sport,” Perkins added.
  1139. “Look, I ain’t even offering to be your manager or whatever. I can hire somebody for that. What I’m offering is to be a benefactor. Give you a nice place in Manhattan, pay all your plane tickets, set up some charities or whatever you want. It’s what rich guys do. Carnegie built libraries, Vanderbilt made himself a university. I wanna help the ponies.”
  1140. “How much would you be willing to pledge to us?” Rainbow asked, her interest growing. “You know, to help find my friends.”
  1141. “Well, I bet that can be done with just a few million. But I was thinking we could do more. Lot of ponies out there don’t have owners as good as yours, Rainbow. Could set up rescue homes, charities to help ‘em out when they need it most.”
  1142. “So, again, how much?”
  1143. “Let’s put it this way. I had about a hundred million set aside, ready to both buy you and turn you into a global superstar. How’d you like to tell me where that money’s gonna go, now that I ain’t buying you?”
  1144. >…
  1146. “You know you gotta be up in the morning for your races, right?” Buster asked the mare a bed over from him, not removing his eyes from the television.
  1147. “I know, I know.”
  1148. “So why ain’t you asleep yet?”
  1149. “Because you still haven’t given an answer,” Rainbow Dash replied, rolling over to face him. “About what that guy was offering.”
  1150. “Can’t make a decision like that without thinking on it,” he retorted with a grumble. “Manhattan ain’t Alabama, or Little Rock, or even Atlanta. It’s a whole different world. Plus, no telling if we’re going to get conned by this guy.”
  1151. “But you heard what he said, it’s free money!”
  1152. “Nothing’s free, Rainbow. Not in this world,” he stated matter-of-factly, grabbing the television remote and shutting off his show. “Look, girl, I ain’t saying no. But I also ain’t saying yes just yet. You just focus on your races, alright?”
  1153. “It would be easier to focus if I had an answer…”
  1154. >Buster finally turned to face the pony, only to find her visage now buried into her pillow. As if to further betray her conflict, a hoof vigorously ran through her mane, making it even more unkempt than usual.
  1155. “How’s about this, then: you bring me three first-place prizes tomorrow, and I’ll say yes.”
  1156. “That’s it?”
  1157. “Three wins, sure. That’s all there is between me packing up and leaving for that big city and taking some more time to think on it.”
  1158. >Something clicked within Rainbow Dash. Her desire to achieve, to compete, to win; it had, up to this point, been fueled only by her own ambition. But now, she had a goal and ample motivation toward it.
  1159. “Tomorrow only,” Buster followed up. “Just because I’ll probably decide in two or three days anyway.”
  1160. “Three out of eight events…”
  1161. “Can’t be much trouble for a legend?”
  1162. “No,” she agreed, her voice firm. She reached a hoof over to the lamp between their beds and shut it off. “But I’m making sure I get my sleep anyway. ‘Night!”
  1163. “Good night, Dash,” Buster responded with a chuckle, slowly rolling over in his bed.
  1164. As his soft snores started to rise, Rainbow muttered a final mantra before falling into a sleep of her own: “For my friends…”
  1165. >…
  1167. >When Buster awoke, the room was empty save for him. Nothing out of the ordinary, of course: Rainbow rarely woke up later than he on any competition or training day. He shook his head with a smile as he noted how difficult it was to rouse her before ten on any other day.
  1168. >A quick glance about the room soon revealed her customary note, carefully scrawled out each time she left despite the effort needed to do so with her mouth: “Gone practicing. Meet you at 7 for food.”
  1169. >Buster peered over to the room’s digital clock to find their scheduled lunchtime rapidly approaching. He hastily shaved, brushed his teeth, and donned a set of comfortable but stylish clothing before heading for the door.
  1170. >When he reached the ground floor, Rainbow was already in the lobby waiting for him. The two quickly grabbed their morning meal (with a much more conservative portion for Buster, at Rainbow’s urging) before setting out to the races. As they drove down the bustling city streets, the pegasus practically shook in her seat.
  1171. “Excited?” he asked as she impatiently tapped on the window during a red light.
  1172. “That. And determined.”
  1173. “Not nervous, are we?”
  1174. “What?”
  1175. “The great and powerful Rainbow Dash isn’t nervous, is she?”
  1176. “Great and power- no!” she snapped, offended by the implication. “I’m just ready to go!”
  1177. “Alright, alright,” Buster laughed, waving off her indignation. “No matter what happens, I know you’re gonna make me proud, Dash. So just have fun and know that I’m always here if you need me.”
  1178. >In truth, the pegasus was indeed very nervous, although she’d never admit it even to herself. In addition to the fresh offer Buster had given her, which weighed much more on her mind than his, she’d begun realizing that this even would likely be more important than any she’d yet competed in. Nights of relaxation with the television had made her acutely aware of its reach and impact on people and ponies alike, and she knew all too well how many would be watching her performances here.
  1179. >Even the largest crowds in Equestria never numbered more than a few thousand. The photographers would only capture the best moments, so newspapers around the country only showed her at the victory podium. But now, every fraction of a second would be captured forever and broadcast to an even wider audience, and she worried for the first time of her audience. It would be hundreds to thousands of times larger than she was used to, and might be unforgiving of any mistakes she could make.
  1180. >Buster’s new proposition created even more pressure for Rainbow. Nazario’s offer introduced an opportunity to put money, time, and effort into the search for her friends, something she’d desperately wanted for years. While she understood Buster’s reservations toward upending his entire life for what could be a fruitless search and faulty business relationship, she couldn’t think of any better way to find them.
  1181. >But pressure had always made her fly better. Her will was steeled, her gaze determined, and suddenly the event had lost its innocent air of friendly competition and become a firm challenge. She would have eight chances today to earn three first place ribbons, medals, or trophies. By her estimates, she’d likely be unable to win the fourth, fifth, and eighth events, leaving her only five realistic shots at victory.
  1182. >As they pulled into the event’s contestant gate, their vehicle stood out from the luxury cars, extravagant RV’s, and wide trailers common for most other contestants. It seemed that most had opted to take home with them rather than hole up in a hotel room. But Buster could neither afford those accommodations nor care for them, so he looked on with little envy.
  1183. >They’d scarcely left the vehicle before a horde of reporters descended upon them. While Rainbow easily escaped their grasping questions and microphones, Buster succumbed and reluctantly answered many of the inquiries launched at him. Seeing little chance to rescue him from the media attention, Rainbow instead took her place at the starting line, easily ten minutes before the first race was due to start.
  1184. >The first even would be one of her best – a one-mile race along a straight, unblocked path. Comparable to a hundred-meter dash for humans, it relied only on raw strength and burst speed for success. Even with the admittedly impressive times she’d seen yesterday, there was little chance of anyone overcoming her record-breaking times when she was in such a focused mindset.
  1185. >Ten minutes of mantras and mental steeling later, the rest of the contestants had lined up beside her. Save for the sounds of their breathing and hooves occasionally tapping the ground, she barely registered their presence. She was totally focused, totally peaceful. Only once the final countdown began did she even open her times.
  1186. >As the starting pistol flared, the contestants took off like rockets, but one missile easily soared ahead of the rest. They flapped their wings and strained to get ahead, many likely creating personal bests in the process, but none could hope to catch up with the rainbow streak growing further away from them with each passing second. She finished wide ahead of the rest, easily claiming her first victory of the day.
  1187. >Flashes and clicks of cameras large and small greeted her as she returned to the stadium, her victory evident through both the times posted above her and the dejected faces of her competition. When she finally looked up to the board, she almost stumbled backward: she’d beaten her own previous record – a world record! – by over three-tenths of a second.
  1188. >Even the shut-down opposition lightened up at this sight. After all, none of them expected to beat her prior record, let alone such a competitive time as the one posted here. This was a trophy event, and she proudly presented her gold-plated prize to Buster upon returning to the contestants’ parking lot. There was over an hour before she was next due to compete, and in the intermission, she celebrated heartily with Buster and Autumn Winds, who had navigated through the parking lot to find their vehicle.
  1189. >She almost missed her second event of the day as she’d opted to take a nap after half an hour of downtime. When the five-minute warning was called, Buster had to frantically look around for her, only to find the mare quietly snoring inside of an uncased tuba. He flipped the instrument upside-down, dropping her onto the concrete ground, before frantically ushering her to the starting line.
  1190. >Her next two events proved much more difficult than the first. The second overall event – solo, freestyle acrobatics – was an especially troubling second place finish. She’d lost by less than a point to a handsome young stallion who appeared to have every Wonderbolt routine and more memorized twice over. The fourth and fifth events, both endurance races, didn’t even produce a top-three finish from her. But this was expected: she was surprised even to take fourth place in the 40-mile loop.
  1191. >Her sixth race netted her second win of the day in an event new to her. It was a test of control at high speeds: contestants were required to maintain a minimum speed and perform complex, daring, and difficult turns and acrobatics without losing velocity. Rainbow proved to be a natural, although her victory was much closer than the blowout she’d seen earlier in the day.
  1192. >The seventh race, she predicted, would be an easy win. A five-mile dash, this event was mostly speed and very little endurance. It was one victory she rarely failed to secure in Equestrian circuits. But to her dismay, at the four-mile mark, a challenger started to pass on her right. She struggled and strained, pushing her performance to the limit, and as they passed the final distance marker the race was neck-and-neck.
  1193. >It being a lap-based event, the contestants whirled around as they passed the finish line, desperate to see the victor. Her opponent cheered at the same moment she felt her heart fall into her stomach: he’d beaten her by seven-thousandths of a second. Suddenly, her prospects of a three-victory day had greatly diminished.
  1194. >Her eighth event – the last one for the entire event’s schedule for the day – would be far more difficult to medal in, let alone secure a first-place finish. High-altitude endurance racing had never been her strong suit, and she often gave up a position in such races to other Wonderbolts when possible. But as she looked down to Buster, who gave her a cheerful wave from the parking lot, she suddenly grew dim.
  1195. >Although there was a fifteen-minute break between events, she opted not to return to him. Instead, she went straight to the starting line, setting down and focusing her mind on the challenge ahead of her. Her gaze locked onto the skies above her, tracking cloud movements to analyze wind patterns and estimate atmospheric pressure. Such factors hardly had an impact at the speeds she’d be flying at, but she wasn’t going to leave anything to chance.
  1196. >A few minutes later, Autumn Winds took her place beside Rainbow for the only event she’d qualified for. But she quickly became frustrated as her attempts to initiate conversation met a brick wall as Rainbow Dash kept up her focus on the race. In truth, the mare barely heard her friend at all: her attention was so far removed from the present that words scarcely began to process in her mind.
  1197. >Once again, it was only the clock’s countdown that snapped her out of her focus. Her brow furrowed, her muscles tensed, and the pegasus prepared to fly harder than she’d ever flown before. The starting pistol sounded, and she quickly ascended, giving herself a head start over the competition. She knew it would probably impact her pacing, but was willing to gamble on her physical fitness allowing for an increased pace.
  1198. >As ten miles turned to twenty, Rainbow began breathing heavily in the oxygen-light atmosphere. Her muscles started to strain, and she grew more tired. But with only ten miles to go, she still had a sizable lead over the rest of the competitors. A quick look back revealed Autumn Winds in a dead heat with another mare for the second-place spot.
  1199. >But as her distance to the finish dwindled to five miles, the two began to catch up with a burst of speed Rainbow couldn’t match in her exhausted state. As they entered their final mile, the two mares were only ten meters behind Rainbow, and still gaining.
  1200. >But ten meters was all she’d need. With the final mile began the race’s period of descent and, mustering all her energy, Rainbow descended as she’d never before. While the others started to angle themselves down gradually and gain speed as gravity claimed them, Rainbow unleashed the last of her energy and blasted down at a nearly ninety-degree angle. She rode the rapid acceleration nearly into the dirt, before leveling out at the last moment and coasting along the route scarcely ten feet above any obstacles in her path. While she’d lost ground descending at such a rapid rate, her sheer speed allowed her to rapidly catch up with those above her.
  1201. >The two front-runners looked down at the rapidly-approaching mare and put in a final burst of speed. But their efforts were too late to make any difference: the race would come down to whether or not Rainbow’s gamble had paid off.
  1202. >She closed to within ten feet of them… then five… then three. As the finish line approached, she channeled the last of her willpower into a final, explosive burst, tearing across the threshold as the crowd cheered on her reckless efforts.
  1203. >Exhausted, she could barely direct herself into the grassy area off the track before crashing into the dirt. She raised her head to look at the scoreboard, to know whether her efforts had succeeded. But before she could get a glance, she collapsed back down, passing out from exhaustion of body and mind alike.
  1204. >…
  1206. >A thousand suns pierced Rainbow Dash’s eyes. Just as soon as she had started to open them, they slammed shut with a groan of discomfort. Cautiously, slowly, she started to work them open once more, allowing the flood of light to quickly fade into a manageable picture of the room.
  1207. >She was in a hospital room, the only sounds coming from the quiet hum of an air vent and the soft snoring of a rotund Black man seated opposite her. Suddenly recalling the crash, she checked herself over, finding casts on her left foreleg and wing. A quick touch to both stung with pain, so she let them rest and instead turned her attention to Buster.
  1208. “Hey,” she called out, jarring him from his sleep. “Good morning.”
  1209. “Dashie!” he exclaimed, rushing to her bedside. “You’re awake! Oh, Lord, when’d you get up? How long was I conked out? I tried staying up but after two days I just couldn’t-“
  1210. “Hey, slow down,” she interrupted, laughing. “I just got up. How about me? How much did I miss?”
  1211. “Well, uhh, what’s the last thing you remember? ‘Cause they had you on anesthetic for a while, and you woke up, but you ain’t exactly conscious when that happens.”
  1212. “I just remember the crash, and then you came to pick me up, and then I blacked out,” she said, struggling to recall more and fearful of how long ago that may have been. “How, uhh, how long ago was that?”
  1213. “Just a couple days. They had to do a bit of surgery on your wing so they had you on anesthetic for an extra day.”
  1214. “And did you stay up that whole time?” she asked, touched.
  1215. “As best I could, but I can’t help but doze off sometimes.”
  1216. “Hey, I feel fine, you’re here, that’s what matters, right?”
  1217. “Yeah. Oh!” he said abruptly, a wide grin forming on his face. “I got something for ya. Check it!” he proudly proclaimed, holding up a gold-plated medal. “You may have hit the ground hard, but you won the race first! It was tighter than the one you lost, but you got it.”
  1218. “Alright, hell yeah!” she shouted, snatching the medal from his grip and placing it around her neck. “So, we move to New York, then?”
  1219. Buster’s smile fell. Instantly, Rainbow’s cheer evaporated, and a hundred questions swirled in her head. “He rescinded his offer, girl.”
  1220. “What?”
  1221. “Well, the doctors said you ain’t gonna be ready to race for at least six months-“
  1222. “Six months! It takes an Equestrian hospital three weeks-”
  1223. “-so Mr. Nazario decided to revoke his offer, as he needs an investment sooner rather than later.”
  1224. “I thought he just wanted to support us!” she raged, briefly trying to rise against the pain in her wounds.
  1225. “Take it easy, girl. I guess he lied, then. Just another shark looking to eat us.”
  1226. “He can’t do that!”
  1227. “I seen it a million times before,” Buster sighed, hanging his head. “It ain’t anything new. At least we ain’t been trapped in a bad deal yet. All my life folks’ve asked me how I dodge bad deals, well, I guess it’s mostly luck.”
  1228. “I wouldn’t call this luck, that was a lot he promised us!” she cried out in despair, tears welling in her eyes.
  1229. “Hey, girl, it’s alright. Past’s the past, think of it this way: we’re alright now, we got each other, and ain’t nothing gonna change that. When you hit the dirt the other day, I thought I’d lost that for a moment.” He tipped her chin up to meet her eyes before saying, “Even losing all the cash in the world wouldn’t be worse than that.”
  1230. “So just… forget about it?”
  1231. “What else can we do?”
  1232. She thought for a moment. “Nothing, I guess.”
  1233. “Here, gimme a hug,” he offered, embracing the mare. “You got two more of those golds and two silvers, too, by the way, just wanted to give ya the last one first.”
  1234. “Well, where are they?” she asked, excited again.
  1235. “Put ‘em in a lockbox at the bank, figured it would be safer than carrying ‘em around. We’ll grab ‘em before we leave town this week whenever the doctors release you. Should be a day or two at most.”
  1236. “Okay. And what then? How am I gonna keep showing my awesome with a bad wing?”
  1237. “For now, I guess the plan is I just keep doing gigs. We got some prize money, but all of that and more is gonna go to the hospital bill, so things might be a bit tight for a while. Maybe we can get you playing music so we can have a proper duo.”
  1238. “Alright, I guess that’s alright, for now.”
  1239. “Oh, almost forgot. Them fellas out in Idaho, your friend AJ and her bunch? They called when they heard the news and want to bring us over there ASAP.”
  1240. “Really? So, we’re going, right? We’d better be going.”
  1241. “Of course we’re going,” Buster laughed. “Probably sometime in the next couple weeks. Whenever you’re ready.”
  1242. “I’m ready right now, call them up!”
  1243. “Hey, you ain’t ready at least until the doctor says you’re ready. Then we can get home and get talking about the trip, alright?”
  1244. “Fine, but you call them and tell them I can’t wait to come!”
  1245. “Alright, alright,” he conceded, chuckling. “You hang tight, I’m gonna go find the doctor and have him come in now that you’re awake.”
  1246. >Within a few hours, Rainbow Dash was cleared for release, and Buster went out to treat the mare to a nice meal. Rather than their standard fast food fare, they opted for a more high-class and expensive inner-city eatery. Thankfully, Rainbow wasn’t the only pony in the place: plenty of wealthier city dwellers preferred to take their companions and pets with them to such places. It was, however, somewhat jarring to see a mare laughing and drinking just a table over from one on a leash.
  1247. “Order whatever you want, girl,” Buster said, taking a seat at an open table. “You deserve it after being jammed full of hospital food for a few days.”
  1248. “I’ll try to keep it cheap,” she offered.
  1249. “Girl, you’re worth more to me than money. You know that.”
  1250. “Of course I know! But I understand that we’re a bit light on funds, for now.”
  1251. “Oh, pft,” he replied, waving a hand, “don’t you worry about that. I’ll take care of it. One nice meal for my best friend ain’t gonna make much difference.”
  1252. >Regardless of her intentions, Rainbow Dash soon found it impossible to maintain any amount of frugality with her order. It seemed as though every single ingredient and recipe was sourced from some luxury foreign producer and blew through typical pricing standards with reckless abandon. In the end, her order tallied a price she would have been uncomfortable with even before the accident and hospital fees, and it somewhat sullied the day for her.
  1253. “Hey, girl, don’t worry about it,” Buster softly spoke, sensing her feelings on the outing. “Stop worrying about money, alright?”
  1254. “Alright, I’ll try. It’s just so frustrating! He talks big numbers and then yanks it away when one little thing goes wrong!”
  1255. “Girl, I’ve been screwed outta deals before,” Buster sighed. “Nothing like this, of course, but it ain’t new to me. That’s part of why we’re here: good food, good talk, and time to take your mind off of it. Talk about something else, alright?”
  1256. “Sure. How did the rest of the event go?”
  1257. “Well, it wasn’t quite the same with you gone, but it went pretty good,” he mused. “It ended up getting a lotta attention, folks from all around the country tuning in to see these flying events. I saw a bit on the news where they were saying that it might be the next big thing or something.”
  1258. “Ha, figures,” Rainbow replied with a smile. “Everything’s more exciting when it’s up in the air.”
  1259. “Mhm, I think they’re starting to realize that. You got a lotta attention, too, by the way, especially after you hit the dirt.”
  1260. “Oh, no…”
  1261. “No, no, not like that. Good attention. Wiping out after pushing hard to get the gold? They love that kinda story. All they were talking about was how you did better than all of ‘em, and how much they gonna have to work to catch up.”
  1262. “Wow, really?” she asked, perking up.
  1263. “Mostly, yeah. I mean they gave the other winners attention, too, but you did better than all the rest. Hell, we should probably tell someone you’ll be good to go in a few months, I bet they’re all just worried you’re out permanently.”
  1264. “Wait, you didn’t tell them?” she prodded, arching an eyebrow.
  1265. “Uh, no, should I have?”
  1266. “Yeah, that’s what you gotta do, let them know I’m alright!” she moaned, covering her face with her hooves. “Otherwise, everyone thinks you’re dead.”
  1267. “Well, sorry girl, I ain’t ever dealt with this before. Without you, I don’t really know my way around these sporting things,” he laughed.
  1268. “It’s alright. Maybe it’ll even build hype, I guess. They’ll probably want to do an interview, though,” Rainbow said with a sigh.
  1269. “You cool with that?”
  1270. “I mean, I’m no stranger to that sort of stuff. Just kind of sucks to deal with that right after getting injured.”
  1271. “How about we just send in a video to show ‘em you’re alright?” Buster offered.
  1272. “Yeah, that could work. That way, it’s no pressure, and they know I didn’t lose a wing or anything like that.”
  1273. “All about you, girl. Don’t trouble yourself after all this.”
  1274. >The arrival of their criminally expensive meals halted their conversation. Guilty as she felt for it, Rainbow Dash couldn’t deny how good the food was. It seemed as though Buster’s plan had worked: by the time dessert arrived, the mare had long since left behind her feelings of worry and frustration.
  1275. >Thankfully, Buster mused, the meal had sufficiently pulled her attention away from their surroundings, too. Ponies, people, even staff of the restaurant constantly looked over to their table and snuck pictures when they thought Buster was looking away. But Rainbow Dash noticed none of it, happily ignoring the intense attention placed on her from all sides.
  1276. >With the meal paid for on credit and a hungry horse satisfied, there was nothing to do but start on the long road home. Thankfully, the air was pleasant on the trip back, with Rainbow happily focusing on the positives of their trip and what to do over the coming months.
  1277. “Hey, Dash,” Buster prompted roughly an hour into the car trip.
  1278. “Yeah, ‘sup?”
  1279. “We should probably give your friends a call, let ‘em know you’re alright. Bet they’re dying to hear your voice.”
  1280. “Good idea!” she said, snatching his smartphone from the center console.
  1281. Buster watched her poke the screen a few times, to no avail. “Need some help with that?”
  1282. “Fine. But give it back after you call them!”
  1283. >Careful not to take his eyes off the road, he unlocked the phone and dialed up the home phone number of one Charles “Anonymous” Finn, billionaire hybrid crop breeder and former plantation owner, putting the device on speaker phone. But, to Dash’s exuberance, it was not he who picked up the phone.
  1284. “Dash? Buster? That one of y’all?” asked the warm, welcome voice of Applejack.
  1285. “AJ!” Rainbow responded, a smile widening on her face. “What’s up?”
  1286. “What’s up? What’s up with you? I ain’t heard anything but the news about you! You alright? Not alright? Tell me, sugar cube!”
  1287. “I’m fine! Well, not fine. Broke a leg and a wing, but everything that matters is alright.”
  1288. “Well, if you’re talkin’ to me, I guess that’s true. Girls!” she shouted, presumably to someone on her end of the line. “Applebloom, Scootaloo, get your hindquarters in here! Rainbow Dash is on the line.”
  1289. After a moment, a familiar, scratchy voice came through. “Rainbow Dash!” Scootaloo exclaimed. “How are you? Is everything okay?”
  1290. “I got banged up a bit, but I’ll be alright, Scoots. I won’t be flying for a few months, though.”
  1291. “Oh no!”
  1292. “Ah, it’s fine, not like I haven’t been through this before. I heard you guys want to bring us out to see you?”
  1293. “Uh-huh!” the nearly fully-grown filly responded. “As soon as possible. First class, everything paid for, just tell us when.”
  1294. “How about this week? Wednesday?” Rainbow asked, looking up to Buster to seek his approval as well.
  1295. “Done. If there aren’t any flights, we can have a jet take you, or something.” Buster smiled and nodded his affirmation, too.
  1296. “Sounds great, see you all then!”
  1297. “Sure, I’ll get the flight booked now. Hey!” she shouted, again to someone on the other end of the line. “Starlight, come here! It’s Rainbow Dash!”
  1298. >…
  1300. “Hey, wait, where’s the sax?” Buster asked, looking around in a brief panic.
  1301. “I tossed it in the trunk, relax,” Rainbow Dash answered, rolling her eyes. “Why are you so jumpy all of a sudden?”
  1302. “I always forget something when I go on a plane. Normally I just keep all my stuff in the car, but no way am I leaving a packed car in some parking garage.”
  1303. “We haven’t forgotten anything, it’s cool,” the mare sighed. “I’m sure if you forgot some little thing, AJ can help us out. Now come on, let’s get going!”
  1304. >Buster checked over the back seat once more, scanning their suitcases as if to see by x-ray if anything had gone missing. He let out a sigh of resignation and finally brought the car to life. He looked out the window for a final, silent goodbye to his tiny but loved home, and started down the route to the nearest airport.
  1305. >With no flights available on such short notice to seat the two together, Scootaloo had instead just booked a private jet for the two. It would be an extraordinary cost for most, but with the sale of the rights to Anon’s wildly successful new breed of fruit, it would be less noticed to them than a penny dropped from a pocket.
  1306. >Both Buster and Rainbow Dash were excited for the trip, but each refused to admit it to the other. The musician had never been in such high-class travel accommodations before, and the mare had never been in an airplane at all. But she dared not stop bemoaning her inability to make the trip herself, and Buster wished to continue teaching his principles of humility. But, if words did not betray their eagerness to make the trip, wide smiles and glowing attitudes certainly did.
  1307. >Thankfully, the drive wasn’t long, as the plane had been able to arrive at a small airstrip near their home. When they pulled in, they found little more than a small parking lot, an old control tower, and a single runway with a shining silver jet waiting at one end.
  1308. “That’s how humans fly?” Dash asked, hoisting her bag onto her back, wincing as it touched her wing. “It looks so heavy.”
  1309. “Yeah, and that’s a small one,” Buster replied shrugging his shoulders. “I don’t know how they do it, but all the ones I’ve been have been twenty times bigger, at least.”
  1310. “Really? That’s, like, bigger than most dragons.”
  1311. “They got dragons bigger than that where you come from?”
  1312. “A few. I fought one, once.”
  1313. “No kidding?”
  1314. “Ha! You should’ve seen the fear in his eyes,” she said proudly, hoisting her head up high.
  1315. “I dunno if I’m sold on that one. We’ll have to ask your friend.”
  1316. “Sure! She’ll tell you the same thing.”
  1317. >The pilot was waiting below the aircraft, but upon seeing the two approaching figures, immediately ascended to his cockpit and began pre-flight preparations. There was no reason to wait: Buster and Dash would be his only passengers for the day. The two ascended the stairwell, which folded up behind them to seal the cabin.
  1318. “Take a seat anywhere,” the pilot called from his seat, “we’ll take off in a minute. Toilet’s in the back, snacks are in the front, and you can put your luggage in a spare seat or overhead.”
  1319. >Despite the plane being small, takeoff was smooth and comfortable, owing as much to the day’s pleasant conditions as the build quality of the craft.
  1320. “Gotta say,” Buster finally conceded, “these folks know how to treat a friend right.”
  1321. “That’s totally like the Apples. Money doesn’t matter when it comes to friends,” Rainbow agreed.
  1322. >For a long while at the start of the flight, the mare’s visage was glued to the jet’s windows, alternating between sides as the plane tilted and turned. Since being freed from her soft prison with Damien, she’d not gone a day without taking to the skies, and only a few days of being grounded had already started to put her on edge. She lapped up every drop of high-flying sightseeing she could, noting the sights below all the while.
  1323. “Find anything interesting down there?” Buster asked, noticing her behavior after a while.
  1324. “It all looks so different,” she replied, softly.
  1325. “Bit more farmland than Alabama, but it shouldn’t be too different ‘til we’re getting close to Idaho.”
  1326. “No, I mean to Equestria. Everything here is so square, so planned out. Where one farm stops, another begins, and it’s like that forever!”
  1327. “That’s how they make the most money, I guess. Your friends probably got a farm a lot like that. Way bigger, maybe, but the same sort of square and circle shapes.”
  1328. “I bet nobody goes hungry here, huh.”
  1329. “Not in America, maybe, but something like a third of the world ain’t so lucky.”
  1330. “Still better than where I’m from,” she sighed, shaking her head. “Equestria was the bread basket of the whole world, but it wasn’t enough even for us sometimes. Things must have gotten bad after most of the countryside came here.”
  1331. >A period of silence passed after that exchange as the landscape below them slowly grew more wild, more remote. Water became rarer and farms grew larger until suddenly, to Dash’s surprise, an abrupt came in the form of a colossal, endless mountain range. She’d known mountains this high and remote, but never a range so colossal and far-stretching.
  1332. “How long do these mountains go for?” she asked, rousing Buster from a light sleep.
  1333. “Huh?” he said, starting awake.
  1334. “Look, down below. How long do those go on for?”
  1335. “Oh, them’s the Rockies. They stretch down from the tip-top of the continent all the way to Mexico, I think. Probably three or four thousand miles, at least.”
  1336. “They look so pretty…”
  1337. “Maybe we can take a trip there with your friends. Should be only an hour or two away from the farm.”
  1338. “I think I’d like that.”
  1339. >Within an hour, the plane began its descent, eventually coming down at another small airstrip, this one positioned squarely among miles of plains, farms, and small towns in every direction. When they stepped onto the tarmac, a familiar face called out from behind a nearby fence.
  1340. “Well, I ain’t seen ya in a long time, but nobody could forget a mane like that.” Rainbow’s head snapped over to see Applejack waiting just beyond the barrier, a silver necklace and slightly different hat being the only indication of any time passed over her young, sturdy figure.
  1341. “Applejack!” she squealed, dropping her bags and rushing the barrier as quickly as her injuries would allow. She looked up at the top of the fence, desperately wanting to jump over, but winced with even an involuntary movement of her wings. “It, it’s been so long!”
  1342. “Too long, sugar cube. This ain’t no place for a meeting, though. C’mon, grab your stuff and meet us out in the parking lot.”
  1343. “Okay!” the blue mare responded, turning and hurrying back to assist Buster with the luggage.
  1344. “Applejack and Buster, I presume,” a definitively more masculine voice called out as soon as they’d left the airstrip.
  1345. >There, beside a shining new Range Rover, Applejack sat beside Charles “Anonymous” Finn, owner and caretaker for the Apple family and more. He was tall, square-jawed, and handsome, the beginnings of a beard dotting his face. He looked to be of purely European heritage, blond haired and green eyed, yet his skin was tanned enough to trick the eyes for a moment. His accent was thick, originating from somewhere deep in the country, and his attire matched the simple cowboy clothing of any Apple.
  1346. “You’re Anonymous?” Rainbow blurted out before Buster could introduce them any more formally.
  1347. “That I am. You ain’t here for me, though,” he laughed, thumbing to the beaming mare beside him. “Go on. Hug each other and whatnot.”
  1348. >The two accepted the invitation, bounding forward and embracing one another with love and anticipation built up and stowed away for years. Rainbow was briefly conscious of the tears welling in her eyes, but any hesitation vanished when she felt her friend’s start to drip down her back.
  1349. “I missed ya, Rainbow,” Applejack croaked, her voice cracking.
  1350. “I…” was all that Dash could get out in response. Instead, she tightened the embrace, savoring the strong grip of a friend once thought lost.
  1351. Meanwhile, the two men were standing aside, watching the moment unfold. “So,” Buster opened, trying to give the ponies room, “that’s your car? Treating ‘em to the good life, huh?”
  1352. “Naw, it ain’t my car,” Anonymous dismissed, waving a hand. “That’s her car. I prefer a good truck. But she insisted we get something to fit the whole family. If we really try, we can get all the ponies in one wagon with this thing.”
  1353. “So where’s all the rest?”
  1354. “Had ‘em stay home so these two can get more time to catch up. And so we could actually fit some luggage in there.”
  1355. “Mind giving me a hand with that?”
  1356. “Not at all,” Anon responded, effortlessly lifting two of the larger bags at once. “So, we seen all the reports on what Rainbow Dash’s been up to, even the stuff the TVs don’t cover. But how ‘bout you? You’re a musician?”
  1357. “Jazz, mainly, but all sorts of genres if folks want it. I’ll play y’all something later.”
  1358. “How’s that work out, money-wise?” he asked, hoisting a bag into the vehicle’s roomy trunk. “Enough to get by?”
  1359. “It’s up and down. Having some in savings is what keeps a man afloat.”
  1360. “Mm, yeah.”
  1361. “I don’t exactly live large, but it’s enough to keep me happy.”
  1362. “And the accident? You’re able to pay the bill, got insurance, what?”
  1363. “No insurance, but I’ll manage. Just gotta work a bit harder until she’s flying again, I bet.”
  1364. “Tell you what, let’s talk on that a bit more later when we got Scoots around, alright?” he offered, swinging the trunk hatch shut.
  1365. “Sure, I suppose. How far away are y’all?”
  1366. “Twenty minutes, maybe. Y’know, it’s nice to have this little strip here if we ever need something delivered, otherwise it’s gotta come in all the way from Boise.”
  1367. “How far away is that?”
  1368. “Not much longer, but an extra day for the postal services. Hey!” he called out to Applejack and Rainbow Dash, who were now chatting idly a distance away. “Y’all ready to go yet or what?”
  1369. “Let’s get outta here!” Applejack called back, motioning Rainbow toward the car. “Can we take the back seat?”
  1370. “Of course you can. Now c’mon, the fillies are waiting back home!”
  1371. >The landscape remained constant for the brief ride back to their property, dominated by tan fields broken every so often by gentle hills and thickets of evergreens. Finally, they came across a great stone sign, lit by spotlights and adorned with brass cursive lettering. “Sweet Wheat Acres,” the sign read. The front gate was similarly extravagant, showcasing an elaborate metal depiction of Equestria’s four princesses.
  1372. “That’s so cool!” Rainbow shouted, jumping forward and putting her front hooves on the glove box.
  1373. “Glad you think so,” Anon proclaimed, tussling her hair. We just had it put in last autumn. It was Sweetie Belle’s design, give her the praise.
  1374. “Sweetie Belle made that?”
  1375. “Well, we had some contractors cast the metal and put it up, but the sign and gate were her design. And she did all that on top of the farm workload. I can’t wait to see what they do now that we ain’t growing anything.”
  1376. “What do y’all do, if not farming?” Buster asked.
  1377. “Whatever the hell we wanna do. I’m a simple man, I go on hunting-fishing trips with Sweetie and Lyra, and anyone else if they wanna come. Scoots started learning to code, Applebloom spends all day in the lab helping me test new crop strains. I’m just glad I can give ‘em all the chance to pursue their passions.”
  1378. “That’s wonderful,” Buster said, smiling.
  1379. “He is wonderful,” Applejack affirmed, her eyes joyful yet thankful. “That’s why I love him.”
  1380. “Wait, what kind of love?” Rainbow asked, arching an eyebrow.
  1381. “That kind, Dash,” she sighed, putting a hoof on the mare’s back. “Hope it ain’t an issue.”
  1382. “Well, no, I don’t have anything against that. It’s just, I didn’t expect you to settle down so fast.”
  1383. “So fast? I’ve known him for years, had him for years, and we ain’t even married yet.”
  1384. “I guess it has been years, huh,” Dash muttered, lamenting the time spent in her prior confines. “Sure doesn’t feel like it to me.”
  1385. “Heh, well, I guess that. Just a few harvests ago you were helping out around Sweet Apple Acres, feels like just yesterday sometimes.
  1386. “Yeah,” she agreed, not wishing to elaborate on what she really meant. “Whoa. That’s your home?”
  1387. >As the car rounded a clump of trees, the farm’s colossal home came into view. It was enormous, built in the style of homes centuries old despite clearly being of recent construction. Nearly every one of the structure’s many windows had been illuminated from within as the evening grew darker, and when Rainbow Dash looked closely, she could see figures within dashing about and sometimes lingering in view for a few moments extra.
  1388. “It’s big,” Applejack conceded with a smile, “but hell if we don’t use it. Eleven grown ponies and one human share that home, and sometimes I swear we need even more room.”
  1389. “You’ve got Big Mac, Sweetie Belle, Applebloom, Starlight…” Rainbow Dash mused. “Who are the rest.”
  1390. “I think I told ya one time, but I guess you’re gonna meet ‘em real soon here anyway.” As if to prove her point, the front door flew open as the car pulled up and a small herd of ponies came flooding down the front steps.
  1391. >Rainbow Dash could barely leave the vehicle before being snatched into a hug by one familiar face after another. At some point, an accidental bump hit her wing, letting loose a cry of pain that got them to back down.
  1392. “I’m so sorry, Rainbow Dash!” Scootaloo gasped, the color draining from her face. “Are you okay? Do I need to call a-”
  1393. “I’m fine, you little rascal,” Rainbow laughed, playfully swatting the filly away. “Holy hell, you’re all grown up!”
  1394. “Haha, not all the way,” the orange mare beamed, glad to have avoided hurting her idol. “You’re still my big sister, you know.”
  1395. “What, did you think I forgot? Come on, let’s go in, it’s freezing out here!”
  1396. >...
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