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A Deal is a Deal (Part 2, in progress)

twilight_game_night Mar 10th, 2016 (edited) 10,354 Never
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  1. PART ONE: https://pastebin.com/DK21fjWz
  3. PART THREE: https://pastebin.com/AbeCtUte
  5. >Be almost there.
  6. >The road curved to the left a few miles past, headin' back towards the original highway.
  7. >You can see it up ahead.
  8. >"Miss Lauren?"
  9. "Yes, Mica?"
  10. >You try to keep your aggravation out of your voice.
  11. >He's just curious is all.
  12. >Would be nice if he was a little *less* curious, though.
  13. >"Why's that road so big?"
  14. "Used to be a major highway. Connected two towns, before headin' in to the city."
  15. >Major for here, anyhow.
  16. >Five lanes.
  17. >Folks in other parts of the state would laugh if you told 'em it was a major highway.
  18. >He prolly would.
  19. >"Oh," the colt grunts. "So why are we the only ones on it?"
  20. "*Used* to connect 'em."
  21. >"Huh?"
  22. "Now it goes nowhere."
  23. >"Then where are we going?"
  24. >You glance up at the rearview mirror - yep, just as you expected, he looks puzzled as heck.
  25. >So are you.
  26. "We're goin' into town."
  27. >No way he forgot.
  28. "But -"
  29. >"The farms, Mica," Apple Bloom sighs. "The farms are nowhere. We live nowhere."
  30. "Don't put it that way."
  31. >Let the little ones be happy, you add quietly.
  32. >"It's what you said," the mare sighs, ignoring your silent plea.
  33. "Nah, it’s just… beyond that – beyond his and my places and the Andersons' – the road used to lead to another town, and now it don't."
  34. >"Why?" Mica asks, his enthusiasm unhindered.
  35. "There's somethin' else there."
  36. >"What?"
  37. "Another one of these."
  38. >”Huh?”
  39. >The little pony can't see you jerk your head towards the pylons.
  40. "Another deadzone."
  41. >"Oh."
  42. "Beyond that's the city, but there ain't no way to get there here, without headin' up this way to the interstate."
  43. >"Why?" Hematite asks softly.
  44. "The deadzone."
  45. >"But... why didn't they build a road around it like they did here?"
  46. "Not enough need."
  48. >Be sickly amused.
  49. >All that work for nothin'.
  51. >Be confused.
  52. >"Then why'd they put those things up?" your brother asks. "Wasn't it to make travel safer?"
  53. >"Yeah," Miss Lauren sighs. "Were plans to run a road around that one too, but..."
  54. >"But?"
  55. >"Our town just ain't big 'nough to justify it. Not anymore."
  56. >"But -"
  57. "Mica..."
  58. >You can see Miss Lauren's face in the mirror.
  59. >She's not crying, but she wants to.
  60. >"Not a lot of folk came back to rebuild," she murmurs, her lips barely moving. "Mostly bad memories in these parts, I guess."
  62. >Be unsure if you want to laugh or cry or simply die.
  63. >Puttin' up those columns dang near crippled you.
  64. >Ain't never gonna be as strong as you used to be.
  65. >You can only hope that's all it did to you - that your foal will be okay.
  66. >But you've hoped for a lot of things.
  67. >You hoped AJ would come back for you.
  68. >She said she would, and your sister never lies.
  69. >Everypony knows that.
  70. >But she didn’t.
  71. >You hoped humans and ponies would get along.
  72. >Everything was goin’ so well.
  73. >And then the work was done.
  74. >You hoped a gettin’ out of the camps would solve everything.
  75. >All you did was drag other ponies along for your silly fantasy.
  76. >You hoped he would be a better owner than the last.
  77. >Startin’ to get used to disappointment by then, but you still had hope.
  78. >You remember the exact moment you convinced all the others to trust him.
  79. >Was his first week here, and he weren’t happy about it. Not one bit.
  80. >Seemed to have a bit of a temper, so when the others fell behind, you jumped in to pick up the slack ‘fore he noticed.
  81. >You were tired.
  82. >Already pulled in double the amount any other other pony had.
  83. >The rock was only as big as your hoof, but big enough you twisted your leg somethin’ fierce.
  84. >You’d fallen, spillin’ your cart.
  85. >That caught his attention, sure enough.
  86. >The very thing you’d been tryin’ to avoid.
  87. >At least his anger was aimed at you, though, not at anypony else.
  88. >None of the ones with families or friends.
  89. >He’d stomped up, madder n’ a firecracker, demandin’ to know what was goin’ on.
  90. >Junebug had tried to get in his way.
  91. >You’d all heard horror stories.
  92. >Even seen a few, when the human medical staff at the camps performed what they were callin’ “triage.”
  93. >You called it murder.
  94. >So did some of the other humans.
  95. >Didn’t stop it from happenin’, though. Not always.
  96. >But there weren’t no reason to think he’d do that to you.
  97. >Leg wasn’t that bad. Just sore.
  98. >You could stand.
  99. >Needed a moment to catch yourself, but you could stand.
  100. >You could still work.
  101. >He pushed her aside, comin’ up to you.
  102. >You’d told him you were fine, that you could still work, that he didn’t need to bother himself with you.
  103. >He shook his head and growled.
  104. >You’d insisted that you didn’t need any help, but that only made him angrier.
  105. >”If you get hurt, you speak up, girl,” he’d rumbled. “Can’t afford any ponies getting lamed.”
  106. >You’d tried to reassure him, to tell him you didn’t need any treatment – you didn’t need “triage” – but he ignored you.
  107. >”If you can’t run, you crawl, and when you can’t crawl…”
  108. >His fingers fumbled with the harness until he finally got you free.
  109. >”… when you can’t do that, you find someone to carry you.”
  110. >Words came out too smooth, like he didn’t know what to say.
  111. >Sounded like he was quoting something instead.
  112. >You didn’t care.
  113. >He’d picked you up – not an easy thing for anypony, or anyhuman – and carried you back to his truck.
  114. >You remember the exact moment you’d fallen for him.
  115. >It was only two months ago; it’s not hard.
  116. >You also remember the exact moment he broke your heart.
  117. >That one’s harder. Despite being less’n a week ago, you don’t want to remember it.
  118. >But you managed to get through it all, didn’t you?
  119. >Managed to get through it all, but if your foal… if it…
  120. >You just have to hope again.
  121. >It’s impossible. Ain’t none left in your heart.
  122. >All you can do is stumble forward.
  123. >Your foal’s gotta be okay.
  124. >Ain’t no other choice.
  126. >Be worried about Maud.
  127. >As soon as the other mares left, she settled down on a nearby pile of blankets.
  128. >She’s too tired to even raise her head.
  129. >You wait a minute, checking outside to make sure they’d gone, before asking her the question pounding in your mind.
  130. “Are you really doing fine?”
  131. >”Yes,” she sighs. “I’m fine.”
  132. “Not suffering from withdrawal anymore?”
  133. >”No.”
  134. >She looks up at you, her eyelids heavy and sagging.
  135. >”Just tired.”
  136. “Then why are you still here?”
  137. >You wave a hand, clearly indicating where “here” is.
  138. “Shouldn’t you be back with the others?”
  139. >”Do you know how hard it is to pull a plow?”
  140. “N-no.”
  141. >”My legs still ache.”
  142. “Oh.”
  143. >”I’m exhausted.”
  144. “You’re sure nothing –“
  145. >”I’m fine,” the mare insists, a hint of a smile showing up on her face.
  146. “Then why not go back to the dorms? I can drive you.”
  147. >Her smile widens.
  148. >Not much.
  149. >Maybe not at all, but she seems amused.
  150. “If I must confess,” the mare murmurs, “I’m enjoying having some time alone.”
  151. >Oh.
  152. “Oh.”
  153. >Well.
  154. “Okay then.”
  155. >”I’ll go back tomorrow.”
  156. >She lays her head down on a wadded up blanket.
  157. >”I’m looking forward to hearing your plan for the new housing.”
  158. >You too.
  159. >You don’t have a clue.
  160. >Maud tilts her head to look up at you when you sigh.
  161. >”What?”
  162. “You know I don’t know a damn thing about any of that. Where to build or what to buy or even how to get it built.”
  163. >”Ask Apple Bloom.”
  164. “I… can’t…”
  165. >”Ask her anyway.”
  166. >You sigh again, deeper and harsher, but the mare closes her eyes and lets out an exhausted sigh of her own.
  167. “And do you expect me to build Bon Bon a candy store too?”
  168. >”No. Who would she sell it to?”
  169. >She shifts slightly, pulling one of the blankets over herself.
  170. >”Besides,” she mumbles, smiling again for a fraction of a second, “I don’t really like candy.”
  172. >Be surprised.
  173. >Last time you drove into town, it weren’t half this big.
  174. >Maybe you’re spendin’ too much time cooped up on the farm with daddy an’ the ponies.
  175. >Lots o’ little farms dot the outskirts, stretchin’ off to both sides of the road.
  176. >Nothin’ more n’ two or three acres, somethin’ a family can handle on their lonesome, maybe with one or two hands to help.
  177. >And – of course – more churches than a dog has fleas.
  178. >You’d think the road’d be better maintained than this, what with all the growth.
  180. >Be shaken violently as Lauren hits another pothole.
  181. >These seats ain't meant for ponies, and the seatbelt ain't helpin' none with it forcin' you to sit up awkwardly.
  182. >You remember sittin' like this once before, when he drove you back to the dorms.
  183. >Ain't never used the seatbelts any time previous when you’d been in a human vehicle, but that was the first time you’d ever sat in the front.
  184. >He had insisted.
  185. >City habits, he explained, soundin' almost ashamed of it - but he wouldn't let you go without.
  186. >The drive weren't long, but he took his time, goin' carefully around the rough ground to avoid shakin' you.
  187. >He'd asked your name, where you were from. He'd seen you workin'.
  188. >Been impressed.
  189. >The hands hadn't mentioned you to him, he'd said. Told him all about a few of the others. The troublemakers, the ponies that'd try to cozy up to him for favors, the ones he could trust, and the ones he needed to beat.
  190. >They hadn't told him 'bout you at all.
  191. >Weren't surprising.
  192. >You'd messed up. Messed up everything so bad.
  193. >Nopony was happy here.
  194. >Better’n the camps were, but not what you’d promised.
  195. >Was all your fault. You shouldn't have convinced 'em to sign up.
  196. >You kept your head down - part outta shame, part 'cause it was just good sense.
  197. >Weren't a good idea to catch his uncle's attention.
  198. >You did what you could to help the others, to make up for your mistakes.
  199. >Taught 'em how to farm, looked after their foals.
  200. >Took on their work when they couldn't go any further.
  201. >He'd noticed that, he said. It's what he used to do, after all.
  202. >You hadn't asked what that meant. That woulda meant speakin’, and you were still tryin' to avoid his attention best you could.
  203. >It'd become second nature to you in the past few years.
  204. >When he asked your name again, you realized you still hadn't answered.
  205. >"Hey."
  206. >He chuckled when you told him.
  207. >Then he asked what you used to do.
  208. >"Hey!"
  209. >He smiled when you told him 'bout Sweet Apple Acres.
  210. >The truck'd been idling just off the pavilion for a while now.
  211. >Was as far as he could take you, he explained nervously, like he wanted to go further, hell, maybe even carry you to your cot or something.
  212. >"Cowgirl?"
  213. >Then he asked somethin' you'd never thought to hear.
  214. >He asked if you'd help carry him.
  215. >Not here an' now, but he didn't know a thing 'bout farmin'.
  216. >He asked if you'd be his forepony.
  217. >"Hey, are you awake?"
  218. >You'd said yes.
  219. >You thought you could help.
  220. >You were such a stupid little filly.
  221. >A hand touches your shoulder, the lightest of touches knocking you out of the past.
  222. >Lauren jerks back immediately, like she -
  223. >Yeah.
  224. >That's right.
  225. >One of the nicest humans you've ever met is scared of you.
  227. >Be wary.
  228. >Touchin' the mare was stupid.
  229. >You shouldn't have done that, but she wasn’t respondin’.
  230. >Poor girl looked lost in her own lil’ world.
  231. >She didn’t know where she was.
  232. >Also meant she wouldn’t know what she was doin’ ‘fore she kicked you outta your own damn truck.
  233. >That was stupid of you.
  234. >Slowly, the mare raises her eyes and sighs.
  235. >”What?”
  236. “We’re here, Apple Bloom.”
  237. >You turn the wheel, steerin’ the truck into the parkin’ lot of the feed store.
  238. >She turns her head, lookin’ out through the windshield at the storefront – and the orange pegasus that just poked her head out the door.
  239. >Mare’s got the biggest fuckin’ grin you’ve ever seen.
  240. >”Oh,” Apple Bloom grunts, looking down again as you pull into a parking space and throw the truck into park.
  241. >She doesn’t move.
  242. “Well?”
  243. >”Yeah, Ah’m goin’.”
  244. >Apple Bloom sighs and fumbles at her seat belt.
  245. “Need help?”
  246. >”What do you think?” she snarls angrily, jabbing at the release with her hoof.
  247. “Fine, just let me –“
  248. >You try to reach for it, but she doesn’t stop, smacking  it again and again.
  249. >Ain’t no way you’re lettin’ your fingers get caught t’ween her hoof and anything else.
  250. “Stop that.”
  251. >”Just let me out,” she growls, never pullin’ her hoof away.
  252. “I’d love to, but you gotta *let* me!”
  253. >You never get a chance to explain what you mean – the two foals’ screams knockin’ all thoughts right out of your head.
  254. >Apple Bloom and you look up at the same time, see it at the same time, and let out little screams of your own in surprise at the same time.
  255. >”APPLE BLOOM!” the orange pegasus shouts, her nose pressed against your windshield, resemblin’ all too much a bug splattered on the glass. “IT REALLY IS YOU!”
  257. >Be pulling up to the house.
  258. >Maud finally convinced you she’s fine.
  259. >Helped that she was right – you’re exhausted.
  260. >Wrecking your own living room really did wear you out.
  261. >Maybe after lunch – and a nap – you’ll check on Silver.
  262. >She’s just as much your pony as Maud; you owe her the same concern.
  263. >Even if all she’s been so far is a drain on the farm.
  264. >You park the truck right in front – no way you’re going to *walk* down to the dorms when you’re this tired.
  265. >Not that far to go, but far enough you don’t want to make the walk when you’re feeling like this.
  266. >You kill the engine and get out, wobbling slightly before you get your second boot on the ground.
  267. >First, lunch.
  268. >With a weary sigh, you trudge up the stairs and into the house.
  269. >The lights in the kitchen are on – you’re fairly certain you turned those off.
  270. “Roma?”
  271. >The metallic chime of someone rummaging through pots and pans answers you.
  272. “Hey, Roma, is that you?”
  273. >Obviously, but… well, it could be one of her assistants.
  274. >No answer.
  275. >You shuffle towards the kitchen to see, completely unprepared for the mess you see.
  276. >Pots are scattered everywhere, various foodstuffs piled on the few spots not covered in cookware.
  277. “Roma…”
  278. >You’re too tired to get angry.
  279. >There’s probably a practical reason for all this.
  280. >Damned if you can think of one, though.
  281. “Roma!”
  282. >There’s more rattling – coming around the island, you’re greeted by a wiggling, cream-colored pony butt.
  283. >That’s not Roma.
  284. >The red and purple tail is vaguely familiar, but only vaguely.
  285. >You don’t spend enough time staring at pony ass to know by heart who this one belongs to.
  286. >Plus, you’re also too tired for this bullshit.
  287. “Hey!”
  288. >You slap the palm of your hand down on the countertop.
  289. >”HUH!?
  290. >rattle bang sproing rattle
  291. >Not the sounds you had been hoping for, not “sorry, I’ll get it cleaned up right away!” or even “whoops!”
  292. >The tail thrashes furiously as the pony tries to extract itself from the cabinet.
  293. >You wait patiently, not falling over in exhaustion or grabbing it by the tail and yanking.
  294. >By inches, the pony pulls itself free until you see a familiar pair of glasses.
  295. >Well, not so much familiar as distinctive. There are only the two mares on the farm that wear glasses, and since this pony isn’t crippled…
  296. “Moondancer. I should have… actually, I have no idea why you’re here.”
  297. >You sigh and lean over, resting your forearms on the counter.
  298. “Please explain to me why you’re here and – more importantly – why you made a mess of my kitchen.”
  299. >Adjusting her glasses is not a valid answer, but that doesn’t stop her from giving it a try.
  300. “Roma’s going to have your hide for this.”
  301. >”No, she isn’t,” the unicorn responds with a shake of her head. “I gave her the rest of the day off.”
  302. “Okay, third thing I need you to explain to me, whenever you get around to answering the other two. What makes you think you can do that?”
  303. >She shrugs, as if the reason is so obvious she can’t believe she has to explain that.
  304. “Well?”
  305. >”Maud was right,” the mare sighs. “You need help.”
  306. “I think I’m more than capable of wrecking my own kitchen.”
  307. >”Yeah, probably.”
  308. >The mare pauses, glancing towards the hall.
  309. >”I mean, you seemed to do a pretty good job on the living room.”
  311. >Be suddenly free.
  312. >”There,” Lauren grunts as your seatbelt retracts. “Now go on and get. Spend some time with your friend.”
  313. >You’re not sure you want to.
  314. >With only a thin sheet of glass separating you from Scootaloo, you don’t know how you ever thought you could face her.
  316. >Be confused.
  317. >You've never seen a pony this happy, not even when you got your cutie mark, so why isn't Apple Bloom happy?
  318. >The pegasus is a total stranger to you, but just seeing her makes *you* happy.
  319. >Something about her feels *right*.
  320. >"Go on, now," Lauren growls, doubled over in her seat. "We ain't got all day."
  321. >She's in pain.
  322. >"Gotta make the most of the time you two got together," the woman adds a second later, once she can straighten up. "I'm sure he'll let you do this again, but it might not be for a while.
  323. >You don't think that's why she's urging Apple Bloom to leave.
  324. >"Yeah," the mare mumbles, fumbling awkwardly at the door handle with her hoof. "Yeah, I know."
  325. >The pegasus doesn't wait for her, rolling off the front of the truck and yanking the door open.
  326. >She has a familiarity with human things that Apple Bloom doesn't.
  327. >"I'M SO HAPPY TO SEE YOU!"
  328. >The orange mare practically leaps in, grabbing Apple Bloom in a tight hug.
  329. >"Y-yeah. Same here."
  332. >Be the same screwup you always were.
  333. >The same stupid little filly.
  334. "Yeah. Sorry."
  335. >Hesitantly, you return Scootaloo's hug.
  336. "Sorry Ah couldn't do better for y'all."
  337. >You can feel the mare suddenly tense up all of a sudden.
  338. >"Wait, what -"
  339. >"HI! I'M MICA! WHO ARE YOU!?"
  340. >Scootaloo jerks back in surprise as the little colt leans around your seat, all without lettin' go and dang near pullin' you outta the truck as she loses her balance.
  341. >A few flaps of her wings gets her steady again.
  342. >"What?" the pegasus grunts, lookin' at the colt. "Uh, hi... um... Mica?"
  343. >She blinks and tilts her head to one side, 'fore lookin' back at you.
  344. >"Mica?" she asks softly. "Why does that... Mica Pie?"
  345. >You nod.
  346. >"Mica!" Scootaloo laughs happily, lettin' go of you to ruffle his mane. "And... and..."
  347. >She leans over you, cranin' her neck to see the other foal.
  348. >"He-hematite!? Last time I saw you, you weren't much bigger than my hoof!"
  349. >Scootaloo grins wildly, lookin' over you at the pair.
  350. >"You know who we are?" you hear Mica ask as Scootaloo does her dang best to crawl over you to get to the foals.
  351. >"Wait, you two don't remember me?"
  352. >"No, should -"
  354. >For a heartbeat, the truck's cab is filled with a flurry of orange feathers.
  355. >"APPLE BLOOM!" the pegasus shouts, deafeningly loud. "YOU DID IT! I CAN'T BELIEVE IT! YOU DID IT!"
  356. >You wish you could die.
  357. >Right here. Right now. Before she learns the truth.
  358. >"This is impossible!" Scootaloo cheers, wrappin' her forelegs around you in a hug. "Everyone says it's impossible, but you did it!"
  359. >She's squeezin' your barrel so dang tight your wish might just come true.
  360. >It don't.
  361. "I didn't do anything."
  362. >”Don’t be so humble, Apple Bloom!” the pegasus laughs, pullin’ you out of the truck. “Everyone come inside! We have to celebrate!”
  363. >She does it easily. Your body just don’t got the strength to resist, not since puttin’ up them pylons.
  364. >You wonder how she does.
  365. >Scootaloo was right there with you the whole time.
  366. >”Mica, Hematite, come on, we –“
  367. >”Nah, sorry,” Lauren cuts her off. “We gotta get goin’. Places to be.”
  368. >”Oh, but –“
  369. >”We’ll be back later,” the woman grunts. “Go on, Apple Bloom.”
  371. >Be pissed.
  372. >No, not pissed. You’re too tired to be properly pissed.
  373. >More vaguely infuriated, really.
  374. >You sigh and push yourself up off the counter.
  375. “I’m a reasonable guy, Moondancer, but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.”
  376. >”That depends on how you look at it.”
  377. “The hell it does.”
  378. >You sigh again, looking around at the mess she’s made of the kitchen.
  379. “God dammit.”
  380. >You want to beat her, kick her, punish her somehow.
  381. >Too tired, though, but you know that’s just an excuse.
  382. >As much as you want to, you don’t want to. Not really. The urge is there, but you know it’s wrong.
  383. >Doesn’t stop you from fantasizing about it for a second.
  384. “Just… get this mess cleaned up and get the hell out.”
  385. >This damn mare pushes you almost as much as Apple Bloom.
  386. >”I… can’t…”
  387. >You don’t have to take that from her.
  388. >Apple Bloom, yes, but not this one.
  389. “Moondancer…”
  390. >”No, really, I can’t,” the mare insists. “I told Roma I’d make your lunch.”
  391. “I’ll eat an apple.
  392. >”Then… fine. But you still need somepony to talk to.”
  393. “I’ll be fine.”
  394. >”You don’t sound fine.”
  395. “Not. But I will be, soon as everything gets put away.”
  396. >The mare cocks her head in confusion – or deep thought.
  397. >She doesn’t really look like the kind to ever really get confused, just distracted.
  398. >”You said things.”
  399. “Yes. I fucking did, and if you don’t start –“
  400. >”No,” she cuts in with a shake of her head. “You said ‘unreasonable things.’ The cookware is only one thing.”
  401. >Moondancer looks around the room and rolls her eyes.
  402. >”Okay, it’s a lot of things, but still only one thing in the grand scheme of… things…”
  403. >She giggles nervously before looking back at you.
  404. >”That was a bit repetitive, I’ll admit, but –“
  405. “Fine. Stay. Cook. Clean.”
  406. >”You need help!”
  407. “Then cook lunch and leave me the fuck alone.”
  408. >”But –“
  409. “No!”
  410. >You slam your palm into the countertop.
  411. “I’ve had enough of ponies lying to me, disobeying me, trying to *attack* me!”
  412. >She flinches at the sudden noise.
  413. “Later, fine, sure, we can continue this bullshit, but I’m too tired for it right now.”
  414. >”Then after a nap…”
  415. “No, you don’t get it. I’m *tired* of all of this.”
  416. >You sigh.
  417. “Maybe tomorrow.”
  418. >The mare opens her mouth, but thinks better of whatever she was about to say.
  419. >It snaps shut with a nod.
  420. >”I’ll get lunch ready.”
  421. >She’s not afraid – you don’t see fear in her eyes, she doesn’t cringe or cower or plead.
  422. >Maybe you’re just an idiot, but maybe she actually understands.
  423. >You take a step back from the island. Moondancer doesn’t try to follow.
  424. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to handle reality again, but right now I need a break.”
  425. >She nods again.
  426. >Good.
  427. >You just can’t take this anymore.
  428. >It’s too much.
  429. >You never asked for this.
  430. >”I’ll take care of everything.”
  431. >You look back at the unicorn.
  432. >They didn’t ask for any of this either, did they?
  433. >That’s how she understands.
  434. >Did she go through it herself, or help other ponies with it?
  435. >”Don’t worry,” the mare sighs. “I’ll clean everything up.”
  436. >You stare for a second, wondering which it was.
  437. >Most likely both.
  438. “Fine.”
  439. >You turn and shuffle away.
  440. “I’ll be in the living room. Come get me when it’s ready.”
  441. >”Yes, sir.”
  442. >As soon as you reach the room, you collapse back into your chair – the same one you’d spent the night in.
  443. >You wish you had some beer.
  444. >It’d be a waste to bring out the good stuff now, when you’re too exhausted to enjoy it, but a little something to help you relax would be nice.
  445. >Instead, you find yourself staring at the wall, at the holes you put in it.
  446. >The sight does nothing to help.
  447. >You’re still staring when Moondancer comes up to you, her mane now tied back in a ponytail.
  448. “Ready?”
  449. >”No,” she answers with a shake of her head. “Just finished taking stock of everything.”
  450. >She glances over at the wall and sighs.
  451. >”What do you want me to make, mac n’ cheese or spaghetti?”
  452. “Steak.”
  453. >”I don’t know how to cook that,” the mare responds. “Mac n’ cheese or spaghetti?”
  454. >You glare at her for a second.
  455. >The kitchen is well stocked.
  456. >Lack of supplies isn’t limiting her, only her own abilities.
  457. “I take it you’ll be cooking dinner, too?”
  458. >”Yes, sir.”
  459. “Mac n’ cheese, then.”
  460. >Spaghetti is more of a dinner meal, anyway.
  461. >You sigh.
  462. >Steak is better than either one, as lunch or dinner.
  463. >Moondancer – turning to leave, hesitates as you let out another long, unhappy sigh.
  464. >”I can… try…”
  465. >She looks down at her hooves, ashamed of what she’s offering.
  466. >”Probably won’t turn out well, but I can try.”
  467. >And ruin some perfectly good meat?
  468. >No, you can’t let that happen.
  469. >It’s too rare to waste like that.
  470. “Don’t worry about it.”
  471. >”If it helps…”
  472. “If I want it so damn much, I should just make it myself.”
  473. >”You’re tired,” the mare sighs. “It may not be what I intended when I came up here – but let me help you.”
  474. “Then make the macaroni, Moondancer.”
  475. >It doesn’t really matter what you put in your stomach right now.
  476. “It’ll be fine.”
  477. >“If you’re sure…”
  478. “I’m too tired to care.”
  479. >She nods once.
  480. >”Then…?”
  481. >She drifts off into silence, her question unasked.
  482. “What?”
  483. >”Can I eat with you?”
  484. “Why?”
  485. >”I won’t ask you anything,” the mare answers quickly. “But you need somepony to talk to.”
  486. >She blushes and grins in embarrasement.
  487. >”Also, I skipped breakfast and lunch, so…”
  488. “Fine.”
  489. >It doesn’t really matter where she eats.
  490. >You’ve shared enough meals with Apple Bloom to be used to eating with a pony.
  491. >It is – was – nice, having company.
  492. >”Okay then,” Moondancer responds with a nod. “I’ll get that whipped up in a minute.”
  493. >Another lying pony.
  494. >It’s ten before she trots back into the room, one bowl balanced on her head, the other on her back.
  495. >The hell…?
  496. “Why didn’t you just call me into the dining room?”
  497. >You grab the bowl from her back and stand; she slides hers onto a sidetable with a tilt of her head and hops into the seat beside yours.
  498. >”Well, if we aren’t going to talk, we might as well watch something.”
  499. >She grabs the remote off the table and flips on the TV with experienced hooves.
  500. >Apple Bloom wasn’t anywhere as deft, and she’s spent more time up here than any of the other ponies.
  501. “You… uh…”
  502. >She has a point.
  503. >Watching something is better than staring angrily at a wall.
  504. “You seem pretty familiar with human technology.”
  505. >Slowly, you lower yourself back into your seat as she starts flicking through the available movies.
  506. >”Yeah, well…” the unicorn murmurs, “this isn’t my first time working with humans.”
  508. >Be goin’ inside.
  509. >Ain’t got no choice.
  510. >”Come on!” your friend whines impatiently. “I have to show you something!”
  511. “Yeah, comin’.”
  512. >You look back over your shoulder – Lauren’s already pullin’ out of the parkin’ lot.
  513. >She continues holdin’ the door open for you ‘til you’re in, then follows you herself, lettin’ the door slam shut with a jingle.
  514. >”So, how’ve things been out on the farm?”
  515. “Fine.”
  516. >You step aside, lettin’ the pegasus take the lead.
  517. >She guides you down the aisles of hardware an’ other farmin’ goods, past little pins full o’ baby chicks all chirpin’ away merrily.
  518. >”Don’t you *dare* make a comment about me being their mother!”
  519. >Scootaloo says it good-naturedly, even nudges you with her leg when you don’t respond.
  520. “Oh, hadn’t even crossed my mind.”
  521. >It hadn’t.
  522. >You’re lost ‘bout where that came from.
  523. >”Because… you know… when you and Sweetie called me a chicken…?”
  524. “Oh.”
  525. >Yeah, you remember that. Vaguely.
  526. >Seems like a whole lifetime ago.
  527. >Definitely a whole world ago.
  528. >”I guess that’s a little old,” Scootaloo mumbles, lookin’ down at the chicks for a sec’ before leadin’ you on ‘gain.
  529. “Yeah.”
  530. >She pushes on in uncomfortable silence, ‘til the two of you reach a door.
  531. >Don’t even take her a sec to grab the knob an’ twist it open.
  532. >No hesitation or fumblin’ or nothin’.
  533. >”Hey, Bill –“
  534. >”Oh, your friend’s here?” an old man asks, pushin’ himself up off the ragged sofa that fills most of the tiny room. “Well, heck, I’ll head on out and watch the shop.”
  535. >He edges aside slowly, makin’ room for the two of you to enter.
  536. >Scoots don’t hesitate none, jumpin’ right over the arm of the sofa with a single flap of her wings an’ curlin’ up in the spot the man had just left.
  537. >”Heh, that’s my little Scootaloo,” he laughs. “Nestin’ in the warm spot, just like a baby chick.”
  538. >”Hey!”
  539. >”Well, don’t blame me,” he laughs. “It’s your own dang fault for tellin’ me that story!”
  540. >He slaps his knees ‘fore bendin’ down and holdin’ out his hand to you.
  541. >”I’m Bill,” he introduces himself, “and I’m guessin’ you’re Apple Bloom?”
  542. “Yes, sir.”
  543. >You hold out a hoof timidly – almost jerkin’ away when he grabs it and shakes it.
  544. >”Don’t gotta be so bashful, girl,” Bill chuckles, standin’ up tall. “I know your old host musta been a piece of work, but your new one seems like a decent boy.”
  545. “He…”
  546. >A frown flashes across the man’s face.
  547. >”If he isn’t, you tell me. I’m not so old I can’t whip his ass.”
  548. >”Bill…!”
  549. >”Well, Scoots, I’m not!” he growls back. “He was a few years behind my son, but not so much I didn’t see him from time to time whenever there was a school function. If he’s not treatin’ his ponies right, someone’s gotta let him have it!”
  550. “No… he’s…”
  551. >He’d never accept you back if you told lies ‘bout him.
  552. “He’s wonderful, sir.”
  553. >You want him to take you back more than anything.
  554. >”Well…”
  555. >The man looks at Scootaloo and gives her a little nod – one the pegasus returns – ‘fore turnin’ back to you.
  556. >”If that changes any –“
  557. “He treats me better’n Ah deserve.”
  558. >”Fairly certain that’s impossible,” Bill grumbles, lookin’ up all of a sudden when the front door jingles again. “Well, you two girls have fun. Lemme know if you need anything.”
  559. >He jerks his thumb out towards the shop.
  560. >”Gotta go see what his cityslicker needs,” he says with a smile, steppin’ out an pullin’ the door shut behind him.
  561. >There’s an awkward moment of silence ‘fore Scootaloo pats the sofa.
  562. >”Come on, Apple Bloom, sit down and talk with me.”
  563. “Yeah.”
  564. >You scramble at the tall sofa, ‘til you finally get a hind hoof up on it and pull yourself up beside the other mare.
  565. >”What’s wrong?”
  566. “Nothin’.”
  567. >”Don’t you lie to me,” Scootaloo growls. “I know you better than that!”
  568. “Ain’t lyin’.”
  569. >”Then what’s that shit about him treating you better than you deserve!?”
  570. “The truth.”
  571. >You sigh and rest your head on your forelegs.
  572. >Scootaloo just stares.
  573. >”You’ve changed,” she eventually mumbles, shifting to cross her legs over her chest.
  574. “So’ve you.”
  575. >You nod towards her an’ her all-too-human gesture.
  576. >”Yeah… well…”
  577. >The pegasus hastily uncrosses her legs, nervously fidgeting.
  578. >”It’s been three years, after all,” she says guiltily. “I guess it happens.”
  579. >She’s right.
  580. >It’s been three years since you’ve seen each other.
  581. “It’s all my fault.”
  582. >”What?”
  583. “That we got split up.”
  584. >”What!? No!”
  585. “If… if Ah hadn’t suggested everypony sign up for work relocation…”
  586. >”That’s not your fault,” Scootaloo insists, reachin’ out and puttin’ a hoof on your shoulder.
  587. >You jerk away, ‘fore you accidentally kick her too.
  588. “It is!”
  589. >She don’t get it, does she?
  590. “If Ah hadn’t, we’d all still be together! We all coulda stayed in the camps, an’… an’…”
  591. >”No,” Scoots whispers, shakin’ her head. “No, it was better this way.”
  592. >Even your best friend couldn’t stand bein’ with you.
  593. >”I mean, we got split up, but you know what the camps were like.”
  594. “Yeah.”
  595. >”And… and we’ve got to see each other again!”
  596. “Yeah.”
  597. >She falls silent at how dead you sound.
  598. >Sun, you wish you were.
  599. >Scootaloo sighs an’ looks away.
  600. >”How’s everyone doing?”
  601. “Everypony.”
  602. >”What?”
  603. “Everypony.”
  604. >”O-oh. How’s everypony doing?”
  605. “Fine.”
  606. >She sighs again, crossin’ her legs like they’re arms – like she’s human.
  607. >Maybe she is, far as Bill an’ her are concerned, but it irritates you to no end.
  608. >Reminds you that you’re just a pony.
  609. >Just a stupid filly.
  610. >”Well,” Scootaloo sighs, lookin’ ‘cross the tiny room at a dead TV, “did you see Sweetie?”
  611. “She’s here?”
  612. >She can’t be. Her an’ Rarity – they should be safe an’ in Manehattan!
  613. >”No, not here,” the other mare answers, shakin’ her head. “On the TV.”
  614. “Huh.”
  615. >Good.
  616. “No, don’t get to watch that much.”
  617. >”Oh, o-okay, well, she was on the TV!”
  618. “Good for her.”
  619. >Why?
  620. >”She sung the Equestrian Anthem at the last peace talks!” Scootaloo rapidly and excitedly explains. “They televised part of it! Even gave a little speech about us!”
  621. “Why?”
  622. >”Because she misses us, you idiot!”
  623. “Well, I’m glad she remembers us.”
  624. >You’ve tried to forget her.
  625. >Best not to think about the past, just hope everything turned out alright for the others.
  626. >”Rarity and Pinkie were there, too, representing the Elements!”
  627. “An’ what about my sister?”
  628. >”N-no,” Scootaloo stammers. “Just Rarity and Pinkie.”
  629. >She pauses to sigh.
  630. >”Twilight wasn’t there either. Cadence declared her a war criminal. Promised if she ever caught her, she’d hand Twilight over to the humans.”
  631. “Why!?”
  632. >Scootaloo looks down sadly at you an’ smiles.
  633. >”Well, it’s kinda pretty obvious why.”
  634. “No it ain’t!”
  635. >With Celestia and Luna gone, she’s the only one that can save everypony!
  636. >”She killed so many people, Apple Bloom…”
  637. “Weren’t her fault! The humans –“
  638. >”The humans hadn’t hit civilian targets,” Scootaloo sighs. “She did. She didn’t care.”
  639. “Well, they deserved –“
  640. >Your cheek stings.
  641. >”Don’t you dare say that,” the mare hisses, raisin’ her hoof again. “You’re better than that, Apple Bloom! What the heck is wrong with you!?”
  642. >Ain’t the first time you’ve been hit.
  643. “Well, they *did*.”
  644. >You ain’t got no fear of her hoof.
  645. “Don’t you remember what they did to Ponyville?”
  646. >”Yeah, I do. Don’t you remember that happened after what Twilight did?”
  647. >You shrug.
  648. ”They whould have done it anyway.”
  649. >”No, they wouldn’t have.”
  650. >She’s spent too much time with humans.
  651. >You envy her.
  652. “How can you take their side?”
  653. >”There are no *sides* in this, Apple Bloom,” Scootaloo snarls. “We’re all in this together.”
  654. >She throws herself backwards, until her wings are restin’ against the arm of the sofa.
  655. >”We’ve all got to work together. Didn’t you tell us that?”
  656. “Ah was wrong.”
  657. >”No, you weren’t,” Scootaloo insists, shakin’ her head. “Most of the residents here didn’t used to life here. Bill didn’t. He moved here to be near his grandkids.”
  658. >She points past you, back towards the farm – and the pylon’s you’d worked so hard to get up.
  659. >”They’re dead, Apple Bloom. Twilight did that.”
  660. “Good.”
  661. >”Seriously, what’s wrong with you!?” the mare wails. “What happened!?”
  662. “Nothin’ Ah didn’t deserve.”
  663. >”Something did! You’re…”
  664. >Scootaloo pauses, lookin’ you up an’ down.
  665. >”You’re broken worse than Diamond Tiara.”
  666. >The pegasus huffs and looks away.
  667. >”So, yeah, Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon are here in town,” she says, tryin’ to move on to a different topic.
  668. >She’s clearly havin’ a hard time keepin’ her temper in check.
  669. >”I’ve seen them a few times. I think they work up at Sterling’s. Waitresses, I guess.”
  670. >She doesn’t have a clue.
  671. “Silver don’t, not anymore. She’s on the farm with us.”
  672. >You don’t got the heart to tell her the truth. Way she’s been coddled, you don’t think she could take it.
  673. >“Lucky her!”
  674. “Yeah. Sure.”
  675. >Scootaloo shifts, makin’ herself more comfortable in her spot.
  676. >”Well, seriously, how are the others?” she asks. “How’s Babs?”
  678. >Be thinking about that night three years ago.
  679. >Wasn’t much different than any other night in the camps.
  680. >Dark, dreary, and mostly hopeless.
  681. >Your stomach was empty.
  682. >Likely would be for another day or two, until the trucks could get out here with some food.
  683. >Your nurse smiled up at you, patting your thigh reassuringly.
  684. >”Things are looking up, doctor.”
  685. >*Mostly* hopeless, which was slightly better than normal.
  686. >The first batch of ponies selected for work relocation had just shipped out, freeing up space and supplies for the others.
  687. “I know, nurse.”
  688. >You sighed and picked up the supply checklist.
  689. >Theft wasn’t the problem it usually was in these kinds of places, but you still needed to go over your medicines.
  690. >It could cost a pony their life if you were suddenly short of something you thought you had.
  691. >”Need help?”
  692. “No, there’s not much to count.”
  693. >”I know,” she sighed, looking at the one locked cabinet in the whole building. “I hope we get some more supplies in soon.”
  694. “Me too. This won’t last the week.”
  695. >”Maybe four days if we’re lucky,” she agreed glumly. “And we aren’t due for resupply until the end of the month.”
  696. “That’s only two weeks away, nurse. We’ll make it last.”
  697. >She laughed and shook her head.
  698. >”It’s amazing how cavalier you can be about things.”
  699. “Yeah.”
  700. >Amazing how much a person can grow in three years, isn’t it?
  701. >You used to be such a fool.
  702. ”Why don’t you go outside and get some fresh air.”
  703. >The building – one of the few actual buildings in the camp – didn’t have a working air conditioner.
  704. >Didn’t have a broken one, either, but at least you had a solid floor under your feet, not mud.
  705. >Nurse was right, though.
  706. >Things are starting to get better.
  707. >The next batch of work relocation ponies were heading out to some nearby farms.
  708. >You were a smart enough man to know you wouldn’t see any results immediately, but it would certainly help with the food shortages in the long run.
  709. >Couldn’t hurt.
  710. >You had just finished up the checklist when you heard the growl of a speeding motor, the driver frantically pounding on their horn.
  711. >The pony nurse met you halfway to the door.
  712. >”Sir, I think –!”
  713. “I know!”
  714. >There’s only one reason for someone to come here.
  715. >The two reporters met you at the door, carrying a bleeding, wheezing mare between them.
  716. >”She just came out of nowhere!” one of them wailed. “I tried to stop, but the mud –“
  717. >”We couldn’t stop!” the other shouted.
  718. “And you MOVED her!?”
  719. >”I thought –“
  720. >”Over here!” your nurse interrupted, gesturing towards one of your two examination tables. “Set her down!”
  721. >She was right – she usually was.
  722. >There was no time to be assigning blame.
  723. >You stepped over to the sink and quickly scrubbed up as fast as you could.
  724. “What happened?”
  725. >”Like I said,” the cameraman shouted as you frantically washed your hands, “she just came out of nowhere, and –“
  726. “No, not that. Tell me what I need to know.”
  727. >”We… we hit her, and… I mean…”
  728. >There’s a grunt as the two set the mare down on the table.
  729. >”I thought she was fine,” the man insisted. “She said she was fine! And then she just started vomiting blood and collapsed!”
  730. >”So we got her into the car,” the other added. “We thought we should get her to you as fast as we could. Were right about it too, because halfway here, she was barely breathing and –“
  731. “Because you probably punctured her lungs when you moved her. That or her diaphragm.”
  732. >One glove on.
  733. “NEVER move a patient like that!”
  734. >”We were just trying to help!”
  735. “You… you FUCKING IDIOT! Doing what you think is best usually causes more harm than good!”
  736. >In your haste, in distraction, you dropped the second glove on the ground.
  737. >Dammit, that’s what you got for rushing.
  738. “Stop to think about what you’re doing next time!”
  739. >”We… we thought –“
  740. “I brought you here to help… I…”
  741. >This is all your fault. You thought bringing in the reporters to expose the conditions in the camp would help.
  742. “I brought you here to help them, not to kill them.”
  743. >You should have thought it through.
  744. “Get out. Nurse, give her some painkillers.”
  745. >”But, doctor…”
  746. “She’s in pain, isn’t she?”
  747. >Second on.
  748. >”Yes, doctor.”
  749. >You understood her hesitation – your supply wouldn’t last forever.
  750. >Thank God whoever was in charge of resupply hadn’t realized ponies needed only a quarter the dose of an adult human.
  751. >Mask.
  752. >Good enough.
  753. >You spun around and looked down at the mare lying on your exam table.
  754. >Red mane, brown coat.
  755. >You thought you’d seen her around before.
  756. >A think trickle of blood was seeping from her nostrils and mouth.
  757. >Her chest was barely moving.
  758. >Worse of all, she was awake.
  759. >Her eyes followed you.
  760. “Nurse, those painkillers…”
  761. >”Yes, doctor.”
  762. >Syringe clutched in her mouth, the mare trotted over.
  763. >Most ponies had problems using human equipment, but not her.
  764. >She’d practiced. Made sure she could do this right. Caused the patient as little pain as possible. Wasted as little as possible.
  765. >You loved her for that. Still do.
  766. >Carefully, she inserted the needle into the mare’s leg.
  767. >The pony reacted instantly, her chest heaving, bloody foam speckling her muzzle.
  768. “Calm down, she’s just trying to help.”
  769. >The mare panic was clear.
  770. >”I’m… fine…” she gasped. “… just… let me… go…”
  771. “Stop, don’t talk.”
  772. >You gently – very gently – probed her barrel.
  773. >Things that should not have moved move under your fingers.
  774. “Dammit, I was right.”
  775. >”What, doctor?”
  776. “Broken ribs. Probably punctured stomach, lungs and diaphragm. Possible spinal injury.”
  777. >You smiled under your mask.
  778. “I’m afraid we’re going to be up all night, nurse.”
  779. >You knew she would be with you every minute, which made it all the more surprising when she shook her head.
  780. “Nurse…”
  781. >She shook her head again, biting her lip.
  782. “Nurse.”
  783. >Again.
  784. “Get me everything out of the –“
  785. >”No.”
  786. >Her eyes trembled and she cried as she said it, but she still said it.
  787. >”Not until…”
  788. >She looked at the mare lying on the table, then at you.
  789. >”Doctor, we need to talk.”
  790. >There was no time for it, but you followed her into the adjacent room.
  791. >You had to.
  792. >There was no way you could have saved the mare on your own.
  793. >”What are her odds of survival?” the mare asked as soon as you were inside.
  794. “Slim, and getting slimmer every moment we –“
  795. >”Then we can’t, sir.”
  796. “We have to try!”
  797. >”We have to save our supplies for the ponies we can help,” your nurse insisted. “How much would you use, if you tried –“
  798. “All of it, if I have to!”
  799. >”Then you *can’t*.”
  800. “I can’t just let her bleed out on my table!”
  801. >”No,” your nurse admitted, dipping her head, “you can’t. You know what you have to do.”
  802. >You knew what she meant, but you didn’t believe her.
  803. “I haven’t done it yet, and I’m not about to. Now, if you’re not going to help me –“
  804. >”She’s going to die anyway, doctor!”
  805. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”
  806. >”You DON’T!”
  807. >The mare tried to hold back her tears, but she couldn’t.
  808. >”I’ve… I’ve seen you work miracles, but you can’t save everypony.”
  809. “I know, but I have to try.”
  810. >”She’s going to die, doctor,” your nurse howled. “You shouldn’t waste supplies just to keep her alive and in pain for a few more days when they could be used to actually save somepony’s life!”
  811. “Dammit, I said – I don’t have time for this.”
  812. >You angrily stalked out of the office.
  813. “If you’re not going to help me, then just get out.”
  814. >”Doctor…”
  815. “GET OUT!”
  816. >You didn’t watch as she left, but you could hear the door slamming behind her.
  817. >The mare on the table was breathing more calmly, but you knew that was just the drugs.
  818. >It wouldn’t have taken much more to put her down.
  819. >You hated yourself for that thought then, and you still do.
  820. >Blood had run off the table and pooled on the floor.
  821. >Her breathing was so weak, it was a miracle her eyes could still focus on you.
  822. >You nearly slipped in the pooled blood when she spoke.
  823. >”Please,” she had begged. “Please.”
  824. “Don’t worry. I’m going to help you.”
  825. >”Please,” she repeated, “I’m… I’m all she… all she…”
  826. “You’re going to get better, just stop talking.”
  827. >You didn’t even know where to begin.
  828. >Without your nurse, you couldn’t put her under.
  829. >”I’m… all… she has… left…”
  830. >Stopping the bleeding. That had to come first.
  831. >”Please…”
  832. “I’m…”
  833. >Even if she was here, you wouldn’t know how to even begin.
  834. >You had…
  835. >”… please…”
  836. >You couldn’t waste any more time doing nothing.
  837. “Okay, I’m going to get started.”
  838. >But as you looked at the open medicine cabinet – at the mostly bare shelves, and the handful of nearly empty bottles – you…
  839. >You did what you thought was right.
  840. >Maybe it was a mistake, maybe it wasn’t.
  841. >You doubt you’ll ever know for sure.
  842. >What you do know is that nothing you could have done would have saved her.
  843. >”Please,” she had begged one last time as you leaned over her with the syringe.
  844. >It was only a quarter dose.
  845. >Just barely enough.
  846. >It’s all you could spare.
  847. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
  848. >She had squeezed those bright green eyes of her shut as you pushed the needle into her vein.
  849. >You were glad you had sent your nurse outside.
  850. >It wasn’t her call to make.
  851. >The mare’s breathing slowed.
  852. >You waited.
  853. >It stopped.
  854. >You waited.
  855. >Fifteen minutes later, you had closed her dull eyes and stepped outside.
  856. >”That… didn’t take long,” your nurse mumbled, looking away.
  857. “I know.”
  858. >”I’m sorry, doctor.”
  859. “So am I.”
  860. >She had hugged you then, her forelegs wrapping around your waist.
  861. >You never felt so grateful for anything in your life.
  862. >That’s why she’s still with you.
  863. >You wouldn’t have let anyone else take her, not after what you two had gone through together.
  864. >Even when blood and bile are splattered across her white coat, she’s still the most beautiful person you’ve ever met.
  865. >”Doctor,” Nurse Redheart hisses at you, giving you a nudge with her foreleg. “Time to get back to work.”
  866. “Yeah.”
  867. >You set down the mug of coffee Minuette had brought you earlier.
  868. “Minuette?”
  869. >”Yes, doctor?”
  870. “A little less cream next time.”
  871. >”Oh, sorry doctor.”
  872. >It had made it the same shade as that mare’s coat.
  873. “Any appointments?”
  874. >”No, but…”
  875. >There’s a pause, making you look up from your coffee.
  876. “What?”
  877. >”Looks like we’re about to have a walk-in,” the receptionist answers. “We’ve got a truck pulling up.”
  878. “Gotcha. Nurse?”
  879. >”Yes, doctor?”
  880. “Think you could do the supply check without me?”
  881. >”Of course, doctor.”
  883. >Be alone.
  884. >”How’s Babs,” Scootaloo repeats, worried at your silence.
  885. ”She died.”
  886. >”How!?”
  887. “Peacefully.”
  888. >That’s all the doctor would tell you.
  889. >”Yeah, but –“
  890. “Hit by a car. The same day you left.”
  891. >One left, one died, leaving one little filly, all lost and alone by herself.
  892. >”Oh, Apple Bloom, I’m so sorry!”
  893. >You don’t resist as the other mare hugs you.
  894. >It don’t help you feel better none – you just can’t muster up the oomph to snap at her.
  895. >Was your fault, Babs dyin’, and ain’t nothin’ nopony can say to change that.
  896. “I shouldn’t’ve asked her to stay in Ponyville longer.”
  897. >She was only there for Granny’s funeral.
  898. >Babs should have been on her way back to Manehattan.
  899. >”It wasn’t your fault,” Scootaloo insists, hugging you tighter. “None of it was.”
  900. >But you’d asked her to stay a few days longer, an’ she had.
  901. >Put her right smack-dab in the middle of things.
  902. “Flam is dead, too.”
  903. >She asked.
  904. >You’ll tell her.
  905. “Killed a man an’ had to be put down.”
  906. >More blood on your hooves.
  907. >You can’t blame *him* none for doin’ what he gotta do, but you?
  908. >Flam didn’t have to be the one to skip his pills.
  909. >Could’ve been you.
  910. >Didn’t have to be a unicorn.
  911. >His uncle would’ve been happy with anypony to experiment with.
  912. >”He… well, he killed someone, Apple Bloom.”
  913. >Didn’t have to be him.
  914. “An’ Hematite is still sick. Ah don’t think she’ll ever get better.”
  915. >”That has nothing to do with you!”
  916. “If Ah – if Ah’d just kept my dang mouth shut, we’d all still be together, Scootaloo.”
  917. >The mare’s legs tighten around you, squeezin’ till you can hardly breathe.
  918. >”It’s not your fault, Apple Bloom,” she whispers into your ear.
  919. “It is! Ah just keep tryin’ to do what’s right, an’ nothin’ works out! Babs didn’t even get out of the camp!”
  920. >”Hundreds did,” the pegasus murmurs. “That place was a deathtrap, Apple Bloom. You saved us.”
  922. >Be surprised.
  923. >Moondancer stayed true to her word.
  924. >Hasn’t asked you a single question, not even if you wanted to watch Dark City.
  925. >She’s gone back into the kitchen for seconds, but you’re still on your first bowl, staring blissfully at the paused screen.
  926. >You still can’t tell if this movie is horrible or amazing.
  927. >Same with this mac n’ cheese.
  928. >She put… something… in it.
  929. >It’s good, but different, and you’re not entirely sure if that makes it actually bad.
  930. >You’re staring curiously at it when Moondancer comes back in.
  931. >”I can get you some more, if you want.”
  932. “No, this is enough.”
  933. >Her bowl is overflowing – again.
  934. “You seem to be enjoying yourself, though.
  935. >”Yep!” she answers with a wide smile. “I haven’t had this in… well… ever since I came to the farm!”
  936. >She giggles, dropping the bowl on the side table.
  937. >”Well, I guess it’s not exactly the healthiest, most nutritious meal, so…”
  938. >The unicorn shrugs before climbing into her chair.
  939. >”I mean, it makes sense,” she mumbles, squirming happily. “But yeah, I am enjoying myself.”
  940. “And the movie?”
  941. >”I haven’t seen it in even longer.”
  942. >You sigh and look back at the screen.
  943. “I think I like Apple Bloom’s taste in movies better.”
  944. >”Oh? What does she like to watch?”
  945. “Crap. But at least I know what to think of it.”
  946. >The unicorn laughs and restarts the movie.
  947. >You sigh.
  948. “Dammit, I wish Apple Bloom was here.”
  950. >Be tryin' to get out of your truck - "tryin'" bein' the operative word.
  951. >Ain't too easy to do when every movement feels like you're bein' torn in two.
  952. >"Miss Lauren...?"
  953. "Yes. Mica?"
  954. >You ain't got the patience for his questions right now.
  955. >"Do you need help?"
  956. "Don't think there's much you can to do help me at the moment."
  957. >"I can go get someone," he offers, already unbucklin' his belt n' trying to squeeze into the front to get at the passenger door without waitin' for an answer.
  958. >You appreciate that.
  959. >It hurts to speak.
  960. >Plus, ain't a bad idea.
  961. >"Mica..."
  962. >"Stay right here, Hematite," he responds, flashing his little sister a smile. "I'll be right back!"
  963. >His tiny hooves are better suited for dealing with the door handle than a grown ponies and he's out of the truck 'fore you can say otherwise.
  964. >Not that you would - it's takin' all you got just to not cry, the pain is that bad.
  965. >Even skipped the church to get here. You'd planned to stop in an' say a few words for your ma, but the pain in your guts told you that wouldn't've been one of your brightest ideas.
  966. >You don't think it was this bad last night.
  967. >Couldn't've been, or you'd have come here straight away.
  968. >The little filly behind you whines.
  969. >She's definitely the one whinin' right now, an' if anybody says different, you'd deck 'em. Not today, though. Maybe tomorrow.
  970. >You're a bit busy tryin' to hold yourself together right now.
  971. >"I got help!" you hear Mica shout. Don't see the colt, though, since you're doubled over with your head almost pressed up 'gainst the steerin' wheel.
  972. >You barely understand the words. Don't, really, until the doc is at your side.
  973. >"What's wrong?" he asks, gently touchin' your shoulder to get your attention.
  974. "Think I'm dyin'."
  975. >"Nonsense. You managed to drive here, didn't you?"
  976. "Think that's what did it. Wasn't hurtin' half this bad 'til I spent..."
  977. >How long?"
  978. "... too damn long sittin."
  979. >"Where's it hurt?" he asks, suddenly all serious.
  980. "All 'cross my belly."
  981. >Everywhere else, too, but that ain't important now.
  982. >You're used to that kinda pain.
  983. >Just the usual soreness after takin' a beatin'.
  984. >"Do you think you can sit up?" he asks after a moment. "I need to see if it's safe to move you."
  985. "Doc, I can get out an' walk, if only you'd give me a hand."
  986. >"Not yet. Not until I know it won't make things worse."
  988. >Be inside.
  989. >You’ve just finished the supply check like Doctor Alda asked, but he hasn’t come back.
  990. >It would be one thing if you were back at the camp; the supply check only took five or ten minutes at most.
  991. >You could start and finish it in the time it took him to empty his bladder.
  992. >Here – now – it takes over half an hour.
  993. >You smile at that thought – you don’t mind the extra work at all.
  994. >Having experienced both extremes, you know which one you would pick.
  995. >This one, hooves down.
  996. >No question about it.
  997. >You trot out of the closet, making sure to lock it behind you, and look up and down the hallway.
  998. “Doctor?”
  999. >”He’s still outside!” Minuette calls out from up front.
  1000. “Still?”
  1001. >”That’s what I just said!”
  1002. >You sigh and trot towards reception.
  1003. >There is one downside to being oversupplied that you could do without – understaffing.
  1004. >The clinic only has one other doctor – and not even, really. Sutherland’s technically a nurse practitioner.
  1005. >And today is his day off.
  1006. >The other two nurses are both part-time, leaving just you and Minuette to help the doctor today.
  1007. “Any idea what’s going on?”
  1008. >The unicorn looks over at you from behind her desk and shrugs.
  1009. >”Not a clue, but he’s coming back.”
  1010. >She points out past the plate glass windows at the approaching man.
  1011. >He’s alone – and fuming.
  1012. “Another stupid patient.”
  1013. >”Another stupid patient,” Minuette repeats.
  1014. >Both of you know exactly what Doctor Alda is going to say as soon as he’s inside.
  1015. >You wait patiently as he pushes open the door with a sigh.
  1016. >”Nurse? Bring a gurney out here, will you?”
  1017. >Minuette glances your direction. For the first time, she looks a little worried.
  1018. “Of course, doctor.”
  1019. >You are, too.
  1020. >The doctor shakes his head and sighs irritably.
  1021. >”Another stupid patient,” he groans, before slipping back outside.
  1022. >You giggle softly.
  1023. >”Well, I guess it can’t be *that* bad. For a second there…“
  1024. “Yeah. Me too.”
  1025. >Though relieved, you don’t dawdle.
  1026. >Whatever is going on isn’t an emergency – his voiced lacked the urgent sharpness for that, but it was still hard.
  1027. >The two of you have a good working relationship – more than that, a good personal relationship – but when he has that harshness to it, you know you’re his *nurse*.
  1028. >Not his pony or his marefriend but his *nurse*, and he expects you to do what you’re told without any hesitation.
  1029. >You don’t hold it against him.
  1030. >As such, there’s more than a bit of haste in your steps as you wheel the gurney outside.
  1031. >”Ah, good,” he grunts, stepping back from the truck so you can get it as close as possible. “Now, Lauren, we’re going to get you on this and inside, okay?”
  1032. >”I said I’m fine to walk,” the woman inside mumbles, but still takes the doctor’s hand.
  1033. >She grimaces visibly at the slightest movement, gritting her teeth and squeezing her eyes shut.
  1034. >”Careful…” the doctor hisses, trying to support her as best he can. “Don’t force yourself.”
  1035. >Understaffing is definitely one thing you could do without.
  1036. >He’s not big enough to just lift the woman out on his own, and it would be awkward enough trying to help if you were human, but as a pony?
  1037. >You just get in their way.
  1038. >It takes several minutes for him to get her laid out on the stretcher and they’re both panting and wheezing by then.
  1039. “I’ll take her in, doctor.”
  1040. >”Thanks,” he responds, flashing a smile at you. “I’ll be just a sec, but be careful with her.”
  1041. “What’s wrong?”
  1042. >”Nothin’ too bad,” she answers, but you ignore her.
  1043. >She’s got both arms wrapped protectively around her abdomen, so it can’t be anything too good, either.
  1044. >Certainly doesn’t *look* pregnant, though that doesn’t always mean anything with humans.
  1045. >”Best case it’s a –“
  1046. >He pauses, looking back inside the truck’s cab.
  1047. >”- nothing we can’t fix,” he continues with a smile before turning back to face you. “Herniated abdominal wall.”
  1048. >”And if it isn’t?” a weak voice asks from inside the cab.
  1049. >”Still nothing we can’t fix. Now why don’t you two get out here while Nurse Redheart takes Lauren inside.”
  1051. >Be laid out on a stretcher like some corpse.
  1052. “Really, I can walk.”
  1053. >Probably.
  1054. >”Sure, you could,” the pony agrees, “but the doctor already went through the bother of getting you on there, so you’re staying on, got it?”
  1055. “Yeah, fine.”
  1056. >You have to admit – if only to yourself – that the doc prolly has a point about all this.
  1057. >Nothin’ could make you admit it to anyone else, though. Not with the foals ‘round.
  1058. >Mica’s liable to panic if he thinks there’s something wrong, an’ you don’t feel up to dealin’ with any more of his questions.
  1059. “Think you could hurry up a bit, nurse…”
  1060. >What was her name?
  1061. >She an’ the doc had been over to Sterling’s enough you should know this.
  1062. “…Redheart…?”
  1063. >”Are you in pain?”
  1064. “N-nah.”
  1065. >Must have gotten it right.
  1066. >You try your best to smile.
  1067. “Just wanna get you freed up an’ all.”
  1068. >”Don’t worry,” Redheart responds sharply. “You’re our only patient, so we aren’t in any rush.”
  1069. “Ain’t for that.”
  1070. >”Well, whatever it is, don’t worry about it.”
  1071. >There’s a blue unicorn holdin’ open the door as the nurse pushes you inside – you wouldn’t have noticed, what with the pain an’ all, if the nurse hadn’t pointed it out.
  1072. >”Minuette will look after your foals while we’re seeing you.”
  1073. >You open your eyes briefly, just long enough to recognize the mare.
  1074. >Seen her a few times, too, but never caught her name, ‘fore.
  1075. “Actually… um… no insult intended, but could you see to ‘em, nurse?”
  1076. >”I’m afraid the doctor is going to need me to assist with –“
  1077. “They’re one of the reason’s I’m here.”
  1078. >The nurse doesn’t answer, except with a grunt as she struggles to turn the stretcher.
  1079. >”Next time, pull up the emergency entrance,” the mare mumbles quietly after she’s gotten it headed the new direction.
  1080. >Prolly didn’t mean for you to hear.
  1081. “Didn’t figure anybody’d be down there.”
  1082. >”Point.”
  1083. >Redheart pauses to catch her breath – without the squeak of the stretcher’s wheels, you can hear the door open.
  1084. “Doc…?”
  1085. >”What did you do now, Derpy?” your nurse sighs.
  1086. >Not the doc, apparently.
  1087. >You force open your eyes again. You’re still in reception – an’ you can see the doc an’ the foals just outside – but the grey pegasus is unexpected.
  1088. >She’s lookin’ a little scraped up, but none too bad.
  1089. >”I had another accident,” the pegasus admits, shuffling over to one of the seats linin’ the room. “Ran into a wall.”
  1090. >”Were you…” Redheart pauses to look at you, ‘fore coming to some sort of decision. With a nod, she turns back to the pegasus. “Were you flying again?”
  1091. >”Yeaaaaah.”
  1092. >”You aren’t supposed to be doing that,” the nurse grumbles. “What if someone had caught you?”
  1093. >The pegasus blinks twice – her eyes somehow pointin’ different directions each time she opens ‘em up.
  1094. >”Then…” she looks down at herself – with one eye, the other winds up pointin’ up to the ceilin’, “… I guess I’d need more than a few bandages?”
  1095. >The nurse sighs – or maybe growls, it kinda sounds like both – an’ shakes her head.
  1096. >”You’ll just have to wait. The doctor needs to –“
  1097. “She can go first.”
  1098. >The nurse rounds on you so fast, your eyes can’t quite believe it.
  1099. >”Absolutely not,” she hisses at you. “If you’re in as much pain as I think you are –“
  1100. >More, probably.
  1101. >You’ve gotten good at hiding it.
  1102. >That also means you’ve gotten good at dealing with it.
  1103. >It’s not so bad right now.
  1104. “I can wait.”
  1105. >You’ve waited all night and all mornin’. A few more minutes won’t hurt none.
  1106. >Well, it’ll *hurt*, but it won’t do no harm.
  1107. >Redheart tries to argue, but words won’t come out of her mouth, just an angry sputter.
  1108. >You’d laugh, if it weren’t impolite… an’ if it didn’t hurt so.
  1109. >’fore you can, the door opens again – Mica and Hematite bouncing in, followed by the doc.
  1110. >”Derpy,” he greets the pegasus with a nod, ‘fore turnin’ to the blue mare. “Minuette, see if you can call in Sutherland or Marcy. Preferably both.”
  1111. “I can wait, doc. Won’t take more’n a minute to see to her.”
  1112. >”True, but we’ve also got to see to these foals,” he snaps back, not even tryin’ to argue with you ‘bout lettin’ the mare get fixed up first. “I’m assuming you brought them in to get their shots?”
  1113. >You try to shake your head an’ explain, but just movin’ gives you a headache.
  1114. >Feels better once your eyes are closed ‘gain.
  1115. >”We already have our shots,” Mica responds for you, bless his little yappy heart, but by the doc’s weary sigh, he ain’t believin’ it.
  1116. >”Look, I know no one – human or pony – likes getting a shot, but –“
  1117. “I didn’t bring ‘em in for that.”
  1118. >”Oh. But…”
  1119. “It’s the lil’ one. She wants –“
  1120. >Talking hurts.
  1121. >”I… um…”
  1122. >With attention all on her, Hematite’s voice stutters into nothin’.
  1123. >”My sister wanted to see if somepony could teach her!”
  1124. >Bless his heart.
  1125. >”Oh,” the doc grunts. “Well… I don’t think…”
  1126. “She’s lookin’ after Silver.”
  1127. >There’s a sharp intake of breath from the doc.
  1128. >That sure caught him by surprise.
  1129. >You open your eyes a crack to see the expression on his face.
  1130. >He’s lookin’ embarrassed as hell.
  1131. >”Well…”
  1132. “She’s already saved her once after some *idiot* busted her stitches, but…”
  1133. >Redheart groans, but the doc starts laughin’ after a short-lived frown.
  1134. >”Well, okay then,” the doc chuckles helplessly. “I was wondering how to break that news to you.”
  1135. >You can just imagine.
  1136. >He weren’t a customer, thank God, but… he… he knew you an’ Silver were close.
  1137. >Man probably frittered away an hour sittin’ by the phone tryin’ to decide if he should call you or not.
  1138. >”She’s doing okay now?” the do asks after a moment, lookin’ like he’s feelin’ guilty for somethin’.
  1139. >He ain’t askin’ you, though, so you keep your mouth shut.
  1140. >Little filly knows better’n you, anyhow.
  1141. >”I… I think so…?” Hematite answers timidly. “But… I don’t really know what I’m doing…”
  1142. >The doc sighs loudly.
  1143. >You can hear him shufflin’ his feet awkwardly, heavy soles smackin’ the floor as he thinks things over.
  1144. >”Minuette?”
  1145. >”Yes, sir?”
  1146. >”Just get me Sutherland. Redheart, could you see to Derpy? And…”
  1147. >There’s an awkward pause that sounds like he’s rethinkin’ it all.
  1148. >”Derpy,” he sighs, resignin’ himself to whatever plan he had, “would you mind if the two foals sat in on your treatment?”
  1150. >Be enjoying yourself.
  1151. >"How about something a little lighter next?"
  1152. >Even though the question is innocent, you shake your head and sighs.
  1153. >Moondancer looks away from the screen - but doesn't stop scrolling.
  1154. >"Ah, right, no questions," she sighs. "Sorry."
  1155. "That's better."
  1156. >Indeed it is. You haven't relaxed like this in... possibly since the war started. Not in the last two months, at least.
  1157. >The only thing that could make it better is a beer or two.
  1158. >Eventually, the mare stops scrolling, highlighting some chinese cartoon.
  1159. >"Does this one... right, nevermind. We're watching this one."
  1160. >It looks good enough, but the opening few minutes are enough to make you wince.
  1161. >Everything just seems a little too *relevant.*
  1162. "Seen this before?"
  1163. >"I haven't," the unicorn answers, snuggling further into her seat, "but I've seen a few others of theirs. One of the scientists I worked with..."
  1164. >A pause, while she looks at you worriedly.
  1165. "Moondancer?"
  1166. >"Nothing."
  1167. >On one hand, you're enjoying yourself - you want to let the issue slide and relax.
  1168. >The other, however...
  1169. >Just let it go.
  1170. >Of course you can't, but the temptation is there.
  1171. >Kick back, enjoy your second bowl of mac n' cheese, watch the movie, and try to pretend everything is normal for once.
  1172. >It would be nice.
  1173. "Not buying it, Moondancer."
  1174. >"Gonna go get more," she says suddenly, pausing the movie and scooting out of the chair to drop on all fours. "Want some?"
  1175. "How much did you make?"
  1176. >"Enough."
  1177. >Moondancer smirks at you before grabbing her bowl by the rim and trotting away without really answering either issue.
  1178. >Although you feel full to bursting, you plop your half-empty bowl on the top of her head.
  1179. "Top me off."
  1180. >Indignant whining follows the mare all the way to the kitchen, but she returns with two full bowls.
  1181. >There's definitely way too much of this stuff.
  1182. >Even if it *is* tasty.
  1183. >Didn't know at first, but after a bowl and a half, you've come to a decision.
  1184. >It *is* good. Different, but good.
  1185. "Enough angry glaring. Let's get back to the movie."
  1186. >"Sure," Moondancer grumbles as you take your bowl, the word made all the harsher by the way hers is still clutched in her mouth.
  1187. >She sets it down on the table and and scrambles into the empty seat.
  1189. >Be sittin' quietly.
  1190. >Scootaloo hasn't said a word in... inna while.
  1191. >Just held you tight.
  1192. >Eventually, you gave in. Hugged her back.
  1193. >Couldn't help yourself.
  1194. >The thought of bein' wanted was too much.
  1195. >Time passes, the two of you holdin' on to each other.
  1196. >Felt like time held still, like you could stay this way forever.
  1197. >You wish you could, but everything' passes.
  1198. >"What happened to you?" Scootaloo asks softly, her muzzle barely a hair's breadth from your ear. "I thought... I thought the farm was supposed to be..."
  1199. >She breaks off, at a total loss for words.
  1200. "Nothin' happened I didn't deserve."
  1201. >"How can you say that? How can you say that and not even tell me what it was?"
  1202. "'Cause it was all my fault."
  1203. >You don't want her to know.
  1204. >How you fell in love with someone just 'cause he showed you the slightest speck of kindness.
  1205. >You don't want her to feel guilty for leaving you.
  1206. >It's not her fault you were so starved for companionship that you hung on his every word.
  1207. >You don't want *anypony* to know how you walked into that stand without a fight.
  1208. >… or that you did it a second time.
  1209. >… and you would have done it again, if...
  1210. >You hate yourself and you want to hate him.
  1211. >With all your heart, you wish you could.
  1212. >And… her. Scootaloo. You wish you could hate her, too.
  1214. >Be washing the last customer from you.
  1215. >You rush, trying to scrub yourself clean and remove every last trace of him from your body.
  1216. >Not for the first time, you find yourself wishing the customers had to use condoms with you like they did with the human girls.
  1217. >It’s so… *messy*, but since you don’t have to worry about getting pregnant and human diseases usually don’t affect ponies, Sterling leaves it up to the customer.
  1218. >They never want to use a condom.
  1219. >At first, it was just irritating, having to wash the fluids from your coat and make yourself presentable again, but now…
  1220. >You might be crying, but you don’t know. No one will ever know.
  1221. >Streams of water run down your face as you rinse your mane, your movements almost frantic.
  1222. >You don’t have time for this.
  1223. >Downstairs, in the diner, are plenty of customers, every single one waiting for you.
  1224. “Be confident, Diamond.”
  1225. >You’ve been repeating those words over and over, a calming mantra that only makes you more and more frantic with every uttering.
  1226. >The brush catches on a tangle, painfully tearing out several strands of your mane; you don’t even pause.
  1227. “Be confident. You have to be confident.”
  1228. >The pain is nothing. You can ignore it.
  1229. >You can do this.
  1230. >Just get out, dry yourself, put on your waitress outfit and get back to the diner.
  1231. >Find another customer.
  1232. >When you break it down like that, it’s not so hard.
  1233. >You just have to get out of the shower.
  1234. >It’s the first step.
  1235. >You can do this.
  1236. >Just… just need to shampoo your barrel again.
  1237. >You hiss in pain as your hoof brushes across the welts on your ribs, but you don’t stop scrubbing.
  1238. >There’s no time to waste, but you can do this.
  1239. “Be confident.”
  1240. >You can make your quota.
  1241. >It’s just five simple steps.
  1242. >You can do this.
  1243. >First, you need to get out of the shower…
  1245. >Be out.
  1246. >You never thought it would run out.
  1247. “Are you sure?”
  1248. >”I’m the one that cooked it,” Moondancer answers, staring at you with one eyebrow raised, “so,yeah, pretty damn sure.”
  1249. “But –“
  1250. >”That’s the last bowl.”
  1251. “Oh...”
  1252. >The last bowl – and it’s empty.
  1253. “Damn.”
  1254. >"Do you want me to make more?"
  1255. "No... I guess not."
  1256. >"It's good comfort food, isn't it?"
  1257. "Yeah."
  1258. >Too late, you realize you answered her questions.
  1259. >You find that you don't mind, not too much.
  1260. >With a sigh, you put your bowl on the table, nesting it in hers.
  1261. >It’s not that you *really* wanted to eat more – you’re stuffed beyond full – but that you were enjoying yourself.
  1262. >Sitting back, watching movies, eating comfort food… relaxing.
  1263. >Not worrying about the farm, not fretting about finances or Apple Bloom or… or anything.
  1264. >Just relaxing.
  1265. >Pretending everything was normal and forgetting about the rest.
  1266. "Well, it was nice while it lasted."
  1267. >You sigh again and look back at the paused screen.
  1268. "What now?"
  1269. >"We can finish watching the movie."
  1270. “You know what I mean, Moondancer.”
  1271. >"I do, but we can still finish the movie.”
  1272. >Despite that, she doesn’t object – much – when you turn off the TV.
  1273. >”We’ll finish it later,” the mare says quietly, smiling sadly.
  1274. "Maybe."
  1275. >”Maybe. So... what now?”
  1276. “I don’t have a clue. About any of this. Maud was right.”
  1277. >”You need help.”
  1278. “I need help.”
  1279. >”Then…”
  1280. >She mare drifts off as you nod.
  1281. “I needed her, Moondancer. Why did she do it? Didn’t she realize how much I needed her?”
  1282. >”Because Apple Bloom never lets anypony else do something that she can do.”
  1283. “I was talking about Maud. About the pills.”
  1284. >”I know,” the mare responds with a gentle smile, “but Apple Bloom is a bit of an inspiration to us all. She always keeps going, no matter what happens. Always tries to keep us together, to make life worth living. Anytime a pony needed help in the camp, she was the first one there. When they asked for volunteers to help build the pylons, she was the first to raise her hoof.”
  1285. “But –“
  1286. >”When the work relocation program came along, a lot of us were wary. Too much had happened, too much bad blood, but Apple Bloom… she believed in it. She believed in you – in humans, I mean – that you were trying to help. When everypony else was too scared to even consider the possibilities, the pony that had lost *everything* because of you continued to believe.
  1287. >”Nopony else was willing to risk it, so she did it for us. We’re here because of her, because she never let something be somepony else's problem. So you see, Maud could no more ask somepony else to go off their suppressants than… well…
  1288. >”She just couldn’t.”
  1290. >Be comforted.
  1291. >Miss Cheerilee is holding your hoof.
  1292. >“Are you feeling alright?”
  1293. "Yes."
  1294. >"I'm sorry I can't do more to help."
  1295. >You don't know how to respond, so you just smile softly.
  1296. >When all else fails, smile, nod, and be non-committal.
  1297. >There aren't words enough to express how you feel.
  1298. >You couldn't possibly hope for more - you aren't alone.
  1299. >Not once have you been left by yourself, not even when you were sleeping, you suspect.
  1300. >Every time you've opened your eyes, there's been somepony with you.
  1301. >Some held your hoof, some sat, fidgeting nervously. Written Script had been reading, but had looked up immediately when you woke.
  1302. >In his face was the same concern and worry as everypony else.
  1303. >Cotton Cloudy had come in after him and chatted away until you drifted off again.
  1304. >She hadn't seemed to mind that the conversation had been rather one-sided.
  1305. >You don't know how many ponies had come and gone since then, but Miss Cheerilee had been back when you woke up.
  1306. >Of all of them, she had spent the most time with you.
  1307. >Diamond Tiara hadn't come.
  1308. >You know this; you know she's not here - she's still at... that place. It was some other pony that had held you when you thought you were dying, not her. Somepony older. Somepony ki- somepony else.
  1309. >You wish you knew who it was.
  1310. >Apple Bloom hasn't been by either. You think you imagined her, too. Possibly from the beginning.
  1311. >She never was here, was she?
  1312. >The mare that sat with you before... the one at the house, the one that held your hoof, she didn't act like the filly you had known.
  1313. >No, Apple Bloom was never here, but that's okay.
  1314. >Whoever it was... she cared for you.
  1315. >All of them do.
  1316. >Not all of the ponies you've seen today have been familiar, but they all share the same expression, the same concern. All except the one with you now.
  1317. >Hers is a special sorrow.
  1318. >"Are you sure there isn't anything I can do?" Cheerilee asks, holding your hoof tightly. “Anything at all?”
  1319. "Thank you… but I have everything I need."
  1320. >The mare’s face is tight and drawn.
  1321. >More than any of the others, she looks… is it guilt haunting her?
  1322. >What does she have to be guilty for?
  1323. >”You have a cot and a room and more injuries than any filly should ever have,” the mare sighs, shaking her head sadly. “You deserve better. You deserve more.”
  1324. “I… I *have* more.”
  1325. >Miss Cheerilee smiles sorrowfully.
  1326. >”Why didn’t you come with us? Or… or go somewhere else? Anywhere else? I know we didn’t have a choice where we were sent, but…”
  1327. >You shake your head – not much, just as far as you can move without straining yourself.
  1328. “I couldn’t.”
  1329. >”You had skills, Silver! And… and you can work hard when you want to! You didn’t have to be marked 9B and… and sent someplace like that.”
  1330. “I couldn’t.”
  1331. >”But why? You were so much better than that! Why did… why did you go with Diamond?”
  1332. “Because…”
  1333. >”Why?”
  1334. >Miss Cheerilee is pleading – practically *begging* – for a reason or an explanation.
  1335. “I had to.”
  1336. >”But why!?”
  1337. “Because… you know what her mother did.
  1338. “I couldn’t leave her all alone.
  1339. “Nopony deserves that.”
  1341. >Be in the shower.
  1342. >You shouldn’t be.
  1343. >Sterling… Sterling won’t care.
  1344. >No one cares.
  1345. >Your own mother walked out on you.
  1346. >And… and Silver Spoon.
  1347. >If only you could walk out, too.
  1348. >You can’t even get out of the shower.
  1350. >Be thinking back.
  1351. >”There were… other… ponies there,” Miss Cheerilee mumbles. “She wouldn’t have been alone.”
  1352. “You know how hard it is for Di to make friends.”
  1353. >The mare smiles weakly and averts her eyes.
  1354. >”Yes, you’re right. Still, I should have… I used to be your teacher – doesn’t that mean something?”
  1355. >You grin, remembering those happy days.
  1356. >Years have passed since then.
  1357. “No, not anymore.”
  1359. >Be dry.
  1360. >You’re grateful the uniform Sterling makes you wear covers your barrel and forelegs.
  1361. >It hides the welts and bruises, though it does rub against them painfully as you trot downstairs and across the parking lot.
  1362. >Jim eyes you suspiciously as you walk into the diner.
  1363. >”Took your sweet time, didn’t you?”
  1364. “Yeah.”
  1365. >He grunts, doesn’t say anything else.
  1366. >There’s no rule against it.
  1367. >Just treat your customers right and meet your quota – that’s all you have to do.
  1368. >You can even turn down clients you don’t like – so long as you meet your quota.
  1369. >It sounds so easy when you think of it that way.
  1370. >You’re able to smile again by the time you make your way to the bar.
  1371. >All of the customers are currently being served, but you still manage to fake that smile.
  1372. >You’ll get the next one.
  1373. >For sure, you’ll get the next one.
  1374. >You’re focusing on keeping that happy expression on your face when Cherry Berry sits down beside you.
  1375. “What, don’t have anything you need to be doing?”
  1376. >The mare flinches at your snarl, her eyes darting towards a table with a pair of men sitting at it.
  1377. >”I’m… um… I’m waiting for their meals,” she answers quietly. “Are you doing okay?”
  1378. “I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
  1379. >”You were up there for hours.”
  1380. “I had to shower.”
  1381. >You snort and roll your eyes.
  1382. >How stupid can she be?
  1383. >”I… I know…”
  1384. >The pink mare looks away, staring down the empty bar at the far wall.
  1385. >”… and… sometimes… I take my time, too, but was that smart? You only have one day left.”
  1386. “I. Had. To. Shower.”
  1387. >”You don’t have much time left, Diamond. I’m just –“
  1388. “I have *plenty* of time left.”
  1389. >Be confident. You have to be confident.
  1390. >”Look, you can have my table if you want it,” the mare offers. “I’m not that far behind. You –“
  1391. “No.”
  1392. >Her head snaps around, purple eyes wide and trembling.
  1393. >”You’ll have to. You’re so far behind, Diamond. If you don’t… if you don’t, you’ll have to take some of *those* clients!”
  1394. >She doesn’t know you already have.
  1395. >Your uniform covers the marks well.
  1396. “Don’t trouble yourself. I’ve got *plenty* of customers that come in just for me!”
  1397. >”But –“
  1398. “All of Silver’s clients are coming to *me* now.”
  1399. >All of them.
  1400. >Even the ones you wish you could turn away.
  1401. >You can’t afford to.
  1403. >Be reluctant.
  1404. “You taught us, but…”
  1405. >Hers weren’t the only lessons to shape you and the others.
  1406. >”You were grown mares,” Miss Cheerilee finishes for you, sighing. “I know that, but… I’m still… I’m sorry.
  1407. >”I should have stepped up when Spoiled Rich left you. I should have done something. Two young mares your age shouldn’t have had to make those kinds of choices.”
  1408. >You nod weakly, feeling yourself drifting back to sleep.
  1409. “Nopony should, but we did. Our choices are still our own.”
  1410. >She squeezes your forehoof gently.
  1411. “It’s not your fault we made the wrong ones.”
  1412. >You smile up as the ceiling as you reach over and pat her hoof.
  1413. “Don’t blame yourself and instead…”
  1414. >A contented yawn interrupts.
  1415. >It’s a struggle to hold your eyes open; you give in, saving what’s left of your strength to finish speaking.
  1416. >The words come out as barely more than a whispered sigh.
  1417. ”… look at what Apple Bloom has done here. She was your student, too; you should be proud.”
  1418. >”I am.”
  1420. >Be jealous.
  1421. >”- so we usually stay up late every night watching movies. I mean, we haven’t done it as often lately, because Bill is too tired to stay up, but we still give it a shot!”
  1422. >Since you ain’t gonna tell her ‘bout your life, she’s decided to tell you ‘bout hers.
  1423. >One thing you’re takin’ away from all of it, is she ain’t all alone like you.
  1424. >Scootaloo has someone who cares about her.
  1425. “That sounds…”
  1426. >It sounds great.
  1427. >You wish *he* would do that with you.
  1428. >”Yeah, I know,” the other mare chuckles, grinning in embarrassment. “Kinda boring, isn’t it?
  1429. >You wish for it so very much.
  1430. >”But, hey, I’ve been practicing my flying more, so it’s not all lame stuff like movies and popcorn!”
  1431. “Oh?”
  1432. >You don’t really care none, not ‘bout that anyhow.
  1433. >The thought of relaxin’ at the end of the day with your family makes your heart ache.
  1434. >You an’ AJ ain’t ever gonna kick back an’ watch a film together. You ain’t never gonna see her again… or granny… or… or…
  1435. >… you saw Big Mac die.
  1436. >You saw it.
  1437. >He’s dead.
  1438. >You’re the last of your family.
  1439. >Even Babs is gone.
  1440. >You never got to say goodbye to any of them.
  1441. >Maybe… maybe once the baby comes… maybe then…
  1442. >You clutch at your abdomen with your forelegs.
  1443. >”Hey, are something wrong? Are you feeling okay?”
  1444. “Yeah…”
  1445. >Scootaloo looks doubtful, but shakes her head after a second.
  1446. >”Fine,” she sighs. “Anyway, Derpy has been teaching me –“
  1447. “Derpy is here?”
  1448. >”Yeah. Weren’t you listening?”
  1449. “I… I was. Just missed that part…”
  1450. >Sun, you hope she ain’t *there*.
  1451. >You listen halfheartedly as Scootaloo talks about the ponies in town.
  1452. >Awful lot of ‘em are from Ponyville. Ones that were in the camp with you. Ones that are smarter than you an’ didn’t sign up right away to be shipped out.
  1453. >If they all ended up like Scootaloo… you shoulda waited.
  1454. >Derpy is with a pastor an’ his family.
  1455. >Minuette an’ Redheart work at the clinic.
  1456. >Lily Valley and Rose Blossom are at the local grocers.
  1457. >Jelly works at the small cannery with Fiddlesticks, Sue Jam, an’ a couple others.
  1458. >Scootaloo goes on an’ on, rattlin’ off names long after they lose all meanin’ to you.
  1459. >Ponies that work in the shops around town, ponies servin’ on the small farms that lined the road into town and sellin’ their goods up along the interstate.
  1460. >Ponies she’s seen ‘round town, but ain’t entirely sure who they’re with or what they’re doin’.
  1461. >You ain’t got the heart to tell her what Diamond Tiara is doin’ when her name comes up.
  1462. >Or what she done to Silver Spoon.
  1463. >You hug your belly tighter.
  1464. “How do you know all this, Scootaloo?”
  1465. >She cuts off mid-sentence, raisin’ an eyebrow.
  1466. >”Huh?”
  1467. “You get to see them much?”
  1468. >”N-no,” the pegasus answers, wincin’. “Only Derpy, really. Sometimes Crafty Crate when he does a delivery for us. I… um… none of us really get to see each other, but Derpy tells us the news whenever she comes around.”
  1469. >She sighs and shifts to lean against the sofa’s arm.
  1470. >”There’s also the farmer’s market every Saturday, but the ponies workin’ the booths are usually too busy to talk to each other, and as soon as they’re over, everyone – everypony, sorry – is hauled back to their farms right away.”
  1471. >She sighs again, lookin’ at the closed door.
  1472. >”I wish Bill’d let me out to see ‘em, but… I mean, the law is the law and all. I only really get out when he takes me shopping with him.”
  1473. “Oh.”
  1474. >”Yeah,” she groans.
  1475. >Scootaloo eyes shift, lookin’ around awkwardly ‘fore comin’ to rest on the floor.
  1476. >”I wish I was out there with you,” she mumbles. “Bill is nice and all, but… I… I miss being with other ponies. I get to see Derpy once, maybe twice a week and sometimes she’s the only one I get to talk to. Every… *pony* is pretty busy, after all.
  1477. >”Hate to say it, but I’m a little jealous of you. Sure, I mean, I bet the work is harder, but you aren’t alone out there.”
  1478. >She has no idea.
  1479. “Yeah.”
  1480. >Scootaloo smiles for a second at your grunt, but it falls away a moment later.
  1481. >”Sorry.”
  1482. “For?”
  1483. >”For not being there with you. If I had been… maybe…”
  1484. “What?”
  1485. >”Maybe I could have stopped it.”
  1486. “Stopped what?”
  1487. >”Whatever made you this way, Apple Bloom.”
  1488. “Ah ain’t changed one bit.”
  1489. >Still the same stupid filly as ever.
  1490. >The other mare looks up, studin’ you for a sec ‘fore lookin’ back down.
  1491. >”If you say so.”
  1492. >There’s a strain in her voice.
  1493. >She wants to say more, but ain’t.
  1494. >You appreciate that.
  1495. >”Well, okay then,” Scootaloo grunts. “Anyway, Derpy was here yesterday with some interesting news.”
  1496. >You sit silently until she realizes you aren’t gonna say nothin’.
  1497. >”Do you remember Berry Pinch?”
  1498. >You nod slightly, just barely moving.
  1499. >”She’s working at a little vineyard just outside of town and Derpy doesn’t get out there too often, but apparently…”
  1500. >Scootaloo pauses, searching your face for any signs of excitement – or any emotion at all.
  1501. >”… apparently, she’s pregnant,” the mare sighs, seeing nothing in your face. “Father is one of the stallions working on the neigh-“
  1502. >Your body twitches.
  1503. >”… on… uh… one of the neighboring farms. I guess they got a little free time together at the property line or something.”
  1504. “G – good for her.”
  1505. >You try to smile for Scootaloo.
  1506. >When that fails, you try to smile for the new life bein’ brought into this world.
  1507. >That works.
  1508. >Why does she look so shocked?
  1509. >”She’s... she’s not planning to keep it.”
  1510. “Oh.”
  1511. >”If I got pregnant, I’d probably do the same,” Scootaloo sighs. “I… uh… I’d probably be a horrible mother. I mean, all I do all day is watch the store and… uh… watch movies. Not really the best place to raise a kid, you know.”
  1512. “Who would you give it to?”
  1513. >”No, I mean… I’m pretty happy here, but do you really I’d want to bring a new life into all this? Would you?”
  1514. “… yes…”
  1515. >”Seriously, Apple Bloom?” the pegasus barks in surprise, before shrugging. “Well, I wouldn’t.”
  1516. >Your whole body spasms violently as you realize what she means.
  1517. “… yes… seriously…”
  1518. >”Oh.”
  1519. >In the awkward silence that follows, she doesn’t ask a question. She doesn’t have to – it asks itself.
  1520. >Why?
  1521. >The mare doesn’t understand.
  1522. >She’s not alone. She *can’t* understand.
  1523. >You need her to. The way she’s lookin’ at you...
  1524. >The two of you haven’t seen each other in three years, but she’s still your closest friend.
  1525. >You need her to understand.
  1526. “Scoots, Ah think… Ah think Ah’m pregnant.”
  1527. >The mare blinks once. Slowly.
  1528. >”I’m… I’m sorry,” Scootaloo murmurs, “but…”
  1529. >She pauses, swallowin’ audibly.
  1530. >”You’re keeping it?
  1531. “How could Ah not?”
  1532. >”Because… because…”
  1533. >Scootaloo shrugs helplessly when the words don’t come to her.
  1534. >You’re glad – if she had a good reason… well, if that were the case, you’d have a harder time pretendin’ to yourself that you’re bein’ selfless.
  1535. >”Who’s the father?”
  1536. >You shudder, rememberin’ all the things *he* told you, the familiar smell of the stallion, his harsh grunts as he…
  1537. “Ah don’t know his name.”
  1538. >Her surprised gasp makes you shake even harder.
  1539. >“Innocent little Apple Bloom had a one night stand?” your friend finally forces out in a flat, singsong voice, tryin’ her best to make a joke ‘bout it. Some distant part of you appreciates the effort, but most of you is just too dead to care. “What happened to saving yourself -”
  1540. “No.”
  1541. >But you do care.
  1542. >You wish you didn’t, but you can’t make yourself not.
  1543. >You shake your head, tryin’ to shake away the memories.
  1544. “No, it… it weren’t… like *that*.”
  1545. >There’s a long moment of silence before Scootaloo grunts wordlessly in response.
  1546. “It were…”
  1547. >You ain’t cryin’. You can’t be. Ain’t got no reason to be cryin’.
  1548. >”What happened?” Scoots ask, reachin’ out and wipin’ away tears that ain’t fallin’ from your eyes. “What did they do to you?”
  1549. >You shake your head.
  1550. >Ain’t is fault.
  1551. “No, Ah… did it to mahself.”
  1552. >He didn’t do nothin’ you didn’t let him do.
  1553. >”Apple Bloom, whatever they did –“
  1554. >You shake your head firmly.
  1555. >Ain’t no secret what she’s gonna say – and she’s wrong.
  1556. >”Ah walked right into that stand all on, Scootaloo.”
  1557. >You ain’t cryin’.
  1558. >You ain’t.
  1559. “Ah can’t blame nopony but myself.”
  1560. >You ain’t.
  1561. “Ah didn’t…”
  1562. >You just let it happen.
  1563. “… didn’t even…”
  1564. >You wanted it.
  1565. “… didn’t even try…”
  1566. >You ain’t cryin’.
  1567. “… Ah didn’t even…”
  1568. >You got nothin’ to cry ‘bout.
  1569. “… Ah just let ‘im…”
  1570. >You wanted this, didn’t you?
  1571. “… Ah let ‘im mount me an’…”
  1572. >If you wanted this, you don’t have any reason to cry.
  1573. “… Ah didn’t…”
  1574. >A pair of legs wrap around your neck, pullin’ you ‘gainst Scootaloo’s chest.
  1576. >Be quiet.
  1577. >You don’t know what to say or if you even can speak.
  1578. >”She really is an inspiration to us all,” Moondancer says softly.
  1579. “If that’s true, then how can I ask you ponies for help?”
  1580. >”Because she believes in you,” Moondancer says softly. “Whenever anypony needed help, she was there for them. And you…”
  1581. >You smirk darkly; there’s no happiness behind the expression.
  1582. “I need help.”
  1583. >”Yeah, but she wants to be here for you. The rest of us… I think we’re willing to give your ideas a shot, but Apple Bloom…
  1584. >”I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I think Apple Bloom is in love with you.”
  1585. “I know.”
  1586. >”You… what?”
  1587. “I know.”
  1588. >”But you… she hasn’t… I…” the mare sputters, caught by surprise by your casual acknowledgement. “Why didn’t you ever… I mean… she…”
  1589. >She can’t quite seem to get it out of her mouth, but you know what she means.
  1590. “Because she’s a pony, Moondancer.”
  1591. >”But –“
  1592. “I need her, but I can’t… I can’t love her, not the way she wants.”
  1593. >”But why was she here!? Why was she staying in the house with you if not to… to… I thought, maybe, you two were… you know…”
  1594. >She shrugs and a helpless whine pops out.
  1595. “We weren’t.”
  1596. >”I… I understand. I mean, I don’t see the appeal in humans, but…”
  1597. “But you still thought we were together?”
  1598. >”I kind of just assumed.”
  1599. “This isn’t Equestria. Love and friendship don’t conquer all.”
  1600. >”I know that,” the mare snaps back. “And it didn’t work that way in Equestria, either! If it did, humans wouldn’t have -“
  1601. >She comes to a full stop with a squeak, clasping her forehooves over her mouth.
  1603. >Be a mess.
  1604. >Scootaloo’s chest is damp and you just can’t stop.
  1605. >”… and… you’re pregnant?”
  1606. >You nod, smearin’ snot an’ tears across her coat.
  1607. >”You’re positive?”
  1608. “Ah… Ah gotta be, don’t Ah?”
  1609. >Scoots unfolds wings you hadn’t even known were around you an’ gently pushes you back.
  1610. >As much as you want her to hold you, you don’t even resist her.
  1611. >You’re gettin’ used to it.
  1612. >”Stay right here,” Scootaloo says, gently nuzzlin’ your cheek. “I’ll be back in a sec.”
  1613. >Ain’t much chance of you goin’ anywhere, way you’re shakin’ and sobbin’.
  1614. >Don’t even turn when you hear the door open.
  1615. >You don’t wanna watch another pony walk out on your life, not again. You’d rather just -
  1616. >”Hey, Bill!? BILL!? What aisle are the pregnancy tests on!?”
  1618. >Be on your back.
  1619. >Been that way for a while, but doc got you onto an exam table.
  1620. >Bit more comfortable. Just a bit.
  1621. >Right now, he’s standin’ over you.
  1622. >That alone is enough to make you mighty uncomfortable an’ brings back some unpleasant memories, but he’s also probin’ your gut with his hands. Guy’s doin’ his best to be gentle, but it still hurts.
  1623. >Not enough for you to squeal or nothin’, but enough he notices.
  1624. >”Sorry, I’ll try to be –“
  1625. “Doin’ fine, doc. I’ll handle the pain an’ you focus on gettin’ me fixe up. Deal?”
  1626. >Just saying that much leaves you out of breath.
  1627. >The doc looks you over – an’ don’t seem to happy about it – but he nods after a bit.
  1628. >“Deal.”
  1629. “Good.”
  1630. >”I’ve got some questions, though,” he sighs. “Like how did this happen?”
  1631. “Ain’t important.”
  1632. >You don’t blame the mare none.
  1633. >”Lauren, don’t do this.”
  1634. >She was just reactin’. You shoulda known better.
  1635. “Like I said –“
  1636. >”Looks like a pony kicked you, Lauren. This can be serious.”
  1637. >You shake your head.
  1638. “I’m sure you’ll fix me up fine.”
  1639. >”That’s not what I meant.”
  1640. “I know, but that’s all I got to say on the matter.”
  1641. >Doc sighs and pulls off his gloves.
  1642. >”I’m not joking around, Lauren. If a pony attacked you –“
  1643. “Weren’t nothin’ to worry ‘bout. Just a bit of horseplay.”
  1644. >You laugh at your own lil’ pun, but the doc frowns.
  1645. >He throws his gloves at the trash can an’ sits down on his stool, puttin’ his head ‘bout even with yours.
  1646. >”Lauren, I’m not joking. I know it was a pony. I know they kicked you with all their strength. I know that if they hadn’t been taking their suppressants, you would be dead right now.”
  1647. “But –“
  1648. >But she ain’t takin’ her pills.
  1649. >If she weren’t holdin’ back, then…
  1651. >Be patient.
  1652. >”Wait, so what does *that* do?”
  1653. >You don’t know how that woman made it all the way here without strangling that colt.
  1654. >”Mica,” his sister whines, “she already told us.”
  1655. >”Yeah, but I forgot and –“
  1656. “But you’re not the one that needs to know, are you?”
  1657. >”No, Miss Nurse Redheart,” he sighs, shuffling back to the corner.
  1658. “Nurse Redheart is sufficient.”
  1659. >”Yes, Nurse Redheart.”
  1660. “Now, Hematite –“
  1661. >You gesture for the filly to come closer.
  1662. “I want you to bandage this up, just like I did with the other injury. Think you can do that?”
  1663. >”The one on her shoulder?”
  1664. “No, this one.”
  1665. >You point towards the shallow scrape on Derpy’s foreleg.
  1666. >”But what about the one on her shoulder?”
  1667. “We should leave that one open. It’s not near the ground, so it shouldn’t get dirty. If we don’t bandage it, the wound will scab up and heal faster.”
  1668. >”Oh,” the filly grunts, looking unconvinced. You don’t blame her; it’s counter-intuitive and you have the medical experience she lacks.
  1669. “Believe me, it’s better that way.”
  1670. >”Won’t it bleed?”
  1671. “No, look at it. It’s already stopped bleeding.”
  1672. >”Oh.”
  1673. “We still need to clean it, the same way we did with the others, but that’s all.”
  1674. >”Um, okay,” the filly responds nervously. “I guess I’ll give this a shot then. Miss Derpy, you really don’t mind if –“
  1675. >”Of course not.”
  1676. >The pegasus smiles wide, one of her near-perpetual idiot grins.
  1677. >The little filly begins to wrap the wound with gauze, but stops when you shake your head.
  1678. >”I’m doing something wrong?”
  1679. “You forgot to put on the antibiotic ointment.”
  1680. >”The… oh!”
  1681. >She grabs the tube from the tray with her mouth and squirts a dab onto the scrape.
  1682. >”That’s cold,” Derpy giggles, squeezing her eyes shut.
  1684. >Be amused.
  1685. >What Moondancer said doesn’t bother you, but she has her forehooves clasped over her mouth like it’s somehow not too late to the keep the words in.
  1686. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
  1687. >You shrug and lean back in your chair.
  1688. “If love and friendship meant shit, you ponies probably would have kicked our asses. But they don’t, so…”
  1689. >”Heh, yeah… they don’t.”
  1690. >She looks at you askance, clearly trying to read you.
  1691. >For the first time since you had met the unicorn, she looks scared.
  1692. “I’m guessing others have taken offense?”
  1693. >”Y-yeah.”
  1694. “My uncle?”
  1695. >”No, before him.”
  1696. “One of these days, you’re going to have to tell me about that.”
  1697. >”Yeah,” Moondancer chuckles, not meeting your eyes. “One of these days…”
  1698. “I’m serious. You’ve been letting little things drop all evening. I don’t know if you were doing it intentionally or not, but it sounds like there’s some stuff there I should know.”
  1699. >”Nothing important. Really.”
  1700. “You know Twilight Sparkle.”
  1701. >Moondancer flinches.
  1702. >”Kind of…”
  1703. “And that thing about the scientist you worked with? I let it slide, because…”
  1704. >… because you just wanted to relax and pretend there weren’t any problems.
  1705. >”Yeah –“
  1706. >You lean forward suddenly, resting your elbows on your legs and startling the mare into silence.
  1707. “You tell me to open up to you, but then you hide things from me. How am I supposed to trust you?”
  1709. >Be annoyed.
  1710. “Well Derpy, if you weren’t flying around all the time, this wouldn’t have happened and you wouldn’t have to complain about the cream.”
  1711. >”I’m not complaining.”
  1712. “Sure sounded like –“
  1713. >”Wait, you can fly?” the little filly cuts in. She’s dropped the ointment back on the tray and is staring at Derpy in awe, like she’s never seen a pegasus fly in her life.
  1714. >Because *of course* she hasn’t. She’s too young to remember Equestria.
  1715. >”Yeah!” Dirpy chirps, smiling like an idiot. “All pegasus ponies can fly if they don’t take their pills!”
  1716. “Which you *really* should start doing before someone catches you or you push yourself too far and – wait, is that what happened?”
  1717. >The mare shrugs innocently.
  1718. >”You don’t take your pills…?” the filly asks, tilting her head to the side. “Oh, you don’t take your pills!”
  1719. “That’s what we just –“
  1720. >”That’s why you remind me of Silver Spoon and Auntie Maud! And… and you too, Nurse Redheart!”
  1721. “What?”
  1722. >”Can’t you feel it?” she shouts, bouncing up and down excitedly like her brother had been moments earlier. “Why can’t you feel it?”
  1723. “Feel what?”
  1725. >Be patient.
  1726. >Moondancer stares at the floor for long seconds.
  1727. >”I guess you really don’t need that,” she answers slowly.
  1728. “No. Not really. Not after Apple Bloom lying to me and Maud going behind my back like she did. At this point, my tolerance for this kind of shit is starting to run pretty thin.”
  1729. “If you were dropping those hints intentionally, that’s a pretty dick move, Moondancer. Pretty much guaranteed that I could never really trust you.”
  1730. >”No,” she responds, shaking her head. “I was just…”
  1731. >She sighs and raises her gaze to meet yours with timidity you never would have expected from this pony.
  1732. >”I was just comfortable and let things slip.”
  1733. >Her eyes drop to the empty bowls sitting between you.
  1734. >”I just wasn’t watching myself as closely as usual. You’re not the only one that hasn’t gotten to relax in forever.”
  1735. “Sorry, I know I work you all hard, but –“
  1736. >”No, it’s not that. It’s… the other ponies, too. It’s not exactly a secret, but nopony really trusts me. Most tolerate me. Some are even my friends, but I don’t want to risk reminded them of what I’ve done.”
  1737. >Her chest heaves as she lets out another sigh.
  1738. >You wait patiently, recognizing the signs of someone struggling to find the right words and their courage.
  1739. >”The pills that everypony takes.”
  1740. “Yeah?”
  1741. >”I helped develop them.”
  1742. >You can’t believe your ears.
  1743. >”They weren’t... meant for… *this*,” Moondancer says quietly. “It was meant to *help* us.”
  1744. “Help you do what?”
  1745. >Your own voice is barely a whisper.
  1746. >”It… lets us…”
  1747. >The mare trails off into silence, staring at the far wall for a moment before flashing you an embarrassed grin.
  1748. >”Sorry, it’s technical. I’m trying to think of a way to describe it.”
  1749. “You don’t have to. It doesn’t matter anyway.”
  1750. >”No, I do,” Moondancer murmurs. “I want you to trust me. And…”
  1751. “And?”
  1752. >”I need to tell someone, if you don’t mind. It’s been three years and… and I’m beginning to see why Apple Bloom spent so much time with you. You’re not one of *us*. We can talk to you without… well, not without being judged, but there’s an element of that.”
  1753. “Oh.”
  1754. >Moondancer sighs before continuing.
  1755. >”Basically, they were to help us acclimate to a magically dead world. This place… it feels… *weird*.”
  1756. >She shudders with the last word.
  1757. >”Imagine your whole life you heard a song playing. Your entire life is set to an orchestral score. You don’t even know it’s there, because it’s just how the world is supposed to be. And then one day… it just *stops*. That’s what it’s like, coming to this world.
  1758. >”A part of us that had always been there is suddenly gone. The orchestra stops playing. It’s disorienting and some ponies never get used to it.”
  1759. “I’m failing to see –“
  1760. >”The pills block that sensation. It’s not too dissimilar to an antidepressant in that in blocks chemicals in the brain. Basically, when we’re on the medication, we can’t feel magic at all.”
  1761. “But isn’t that the same thing?”
  1762. >”Not quite,” Moondancer sighs. “We all have our own magic in us. When I first crossed over, the orchestra stopped, but… I hope this makes sense… *I* didn’t. Instead of a full orchestra, it was as if I was playing alone. That sudden feeling of loss and aloneness practically sent me running back through the portal.
  1763. >”Twilight had warned me about it, but even so I wasn’t prepared. Everything felt *wrong*. With the pills, I can’t feel anything at all.
  1764. >”They weren’t meant to block our magic; what we’re taking these days is exponentially stronger than what we came up with four years ago. All it was supposed to do was let us live on this side without going crazy.”
  1765. >Moondancer pauses and looks up at you.
  1766. >”Of course,” she chuckles darkly, “it didn’t work right.”
  1767. “Everything still felt wrong?”
  1768. >”No, that worked perfectly. We couldn’t feel anything at all… so those using it tended to draw too deeply on their own magic. Fatally so.
  1769. >”We stopped using them after only three months, after a pegasus fell to her death because she couldn’t realize her magic had run out. It was covered up, of course, but…”
  1770. >Her eyes silently plead for you to understand.
  1771. >”I never meant for anything to happen, but because of something I worked on, a pony died. And now…”
  1773. >Be confused.
  1774. >You don’t feel anything, except the usual sense of dedication.
  1775. >Maybe a little irritation. The filly should be seeing to Derpy, not fantasizing about… whatever it is she’s imagining.
  1776. >”I… um… I… I…”
  1777. >The little filly looks back and forth between you and your patient.
  1778. >”I must be wrong, I guess,” she murmurs. “It’s nothing. Nevermind.”
  1779. >You sigh – intentionally and loudly.
  1780. >It’s not that you mind letting her sit in, or even teaching her, but she’s making a patient wait for no good reason.
  1781. “Then if it’s nothing, show me what you can do.”
  1782. >”Yes, miss,” she answers without hesitation.
  1783. >You watch as she begins wrapping Derpy’s foreleg. She does a good job of it, keeping the gauze nice and tight, but not so tight as to be binding.
  1784. >So far so good – and then she grabs a pair of scissors with her mouth.
  1785. “What are you doing?”
  1786. >”I… um… I’m done –“
  1787. “You’ve barely covered the scrape, girl. Wrap it a few more times –“
  1788. >”But… yes, ma’am.”
  1789. >She does one more circuit with the gauze – her eyes constantly flickering between you and the steadily shrinking roll.
  1790. >Ah.
  1791. >You recognize this. Done it yourself, in darker times.
  1792. “Use the whole roll if you have to, Hematite. We have more.”
  1793. >You aren’t operating out of an unsupplied shack anymore.
  1794. >”But…”
  1795. “I’m guessing you don’t have much in the way of supplies out on the farm, do you?”
  1796. >”No, ma’am,” the filly admits, dipping her head.
  1797. “Didn’t think so.”
  1798. >Her own bandages are thin – just a single layer of gauze.
  1799. >Probably doesn’t even have any ointment, maybe never did. and that’s why she didn’t apply it. Everything else was done with care and precision; she wouldn’t have simply forgotten a step.
  1800. “Okay, that’s good. We can cut it off here. Next, we’ll take a look at that cut over her eye.”
  1801. >”Yes ma’am.”
  1803. >Be quiet.
  1804. >”Eventually, I managed to push down that feeling on my own,” Moondancer mumbles. “I stopped listening to that lone violin, but it never stopped playing. I just… didn’t pay attention anymore. It took me months – nearly a year.
  1805. >”And by that time…”
  1806. >She smiles at you sadly.
  1807. >”We were working on a new version, one that would work better. Almost had our breakthrough, I thought. Never would have figured it out on my own, but you humans can be marvelous when you try to be.”
  1808. “What happened?”
  1809. >”There was a TV in the break room.”
  1810. >Moondancer pauses to take off her glasses and dab at her eyes with her napkin.
  1811. >”We… I don’t really remember what happened next. I watched *her* fall, but after that…
  1812. >”They say the sun always rises… but…”
  1813. “I saw it too.”
  1814. >”I *knew* she wasn’t going to get up again,” Moondancer whispers, her voice breaking under the strain. “They say they found me back in the lab. I don’t know what I was doing. Just… trying to work, I guess.
  1815. >”If I could just get back to work, I could pretend everything was normal. I stayed there for weeks, through Nightmare Moon’s rampage and the invasion of Ponyville. There wasn’t anything I could do, so I just pretended to work.
  1816. >”I kept fiddling with the formula. Trying to perfect it.
  1817. >”The camps were set up, full of ponies that were scared and hurting. They were already on edge – losing… losing that song – the magic – it sent some of them over the edge. Things got violent.”
  1818. “I know. I saw the exposes. What happened –”
  1819. >”I saw them too,” Moondancer cuts you off, “and I kept working. Nothing I did mattered. I wasn’t in the refugee camps. I couldn’t help them, so I focused on my work.”
  1820. “I… I know that feeling. We’re all just doing what we can to get through things and pray for the best.”
  1821. >”I wasn’t getting anywhere,” the mare continues, shaking her head, “but I wasn’t really trying to. I was just trying to distract myself from reality. Eventually the project was shut down and… I was ‘relocated’ to be with my kind.”
  1822. >The mare chuckles darkly at some personal joke.
  1823. >”It was hell,” she says quietly. “And it was partially my fault. I kept adjusting the formula, telling everyone that the new pills would be ready for production at the end of the week, then the end of the month, then next month…
  1824. >”I thought what I did didn’t matter, but I was wrong. I made things worse.”
  1825. >Moondancer laughs, clutching her head with her forehooves.
  1826. >”I. Made. Things. Worse. Because of me, production and distribution of the suppressants was set back *months*. I almost have up then, but you know what I realized?”
  1827. “What…?”
  1828. >”I made things worse.”
  1829. “Yeah, I get that.”
  1830. >”What we do matters. When I saw everything that happened because of my choices, I realized I wasn’t helpless. If what I do matters… then I can make things better.”
  1831. >She reaches over, putting a hoof on your hand.
  1832. >”We aren’t powerless. If may feel like we are, but that’s a lie. Your every choice can change the world.”
  1834. >Be proud.
  1835. >The little filly did a good job seeing to Derpy’s injuries.
  1836. >She trots along behind you, leaving her brother to chat with the pegasus.
  1837. “You did pretty good in there.”
  1838. >”Thanks,” Hematite mumbles, “but there was so much I didn’t know. I’m supposed to be a nurse, but -”
  1839. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
  1840. >You stop walking and point to your own flank.
  1841. “See? Yours is… a *little* different.”
  1842. >The filly’s grey coat shows through her empty hearts, whereas yours are solid red.
  1843. “Every nurse has the same cutie mark, so… I’m not exactly sure what yours is.”
  1844. >Her head droops.
  1845. >”Oh,” she sighs. “There’s a lot I don’t know, but I thought I at least knew what my cutie mark meant.”
  1846. “It’s not your fault. I’m sure you’ve had your cutie mark for years, but...”
  1847. >”N-no. It’s… um… I got it yesterday.”
  1848. “Yesterday.”
  1849. >The word falls out of your mouth, your mind and lips numb to the sounds that issue forth.
  1850. “That’s impossible.”
  1851. >It’s impossible.
  1852. >”But it’s true.”
  1853. >It can’t be.
  1854. “No.”
  1855. >You shake your head, trying to shake away the confusion.
  1856. “That can’t happen. There’s no magic in this world. You…”
  1857. >What are you going to tell her?
  1858. >That she’s not remembering things right?
  1859. >The biggest even in a foal’s life, and you’re going to tell her that she’s *wrong*?
  1860. >”Why does everypony keep saying that?” Hematite whines softly.
  1861. “Because –“
  1862. >”There is *too* magic.”
  1864. >Be worried.
  1865. >The feelin’ don’t last long, only ‘til the symbols change.
  1866. “It’s positive.”
  1867. >”You’re sure?” Scootaloo asks, soundin’ like she’s right on the other side of the bathroom door. “Absolutely sure?”
  1868. “It’s what the test says.”
  1869. >Whatever the other mare says next is lost as you wash your hooves, rushin’ water drownin’ out her voice.
  1870. >She’s frownin’ when you open the door.
  1871. >Prolly gonna try to convince you to abort.
  1872. “I’m keeping it.”
  1873. >You push your way past your friend, roughly shoulderin’ her aside.
  1874. >”Yeah, I know. I’m just wondering why you don’t sound happy about it.”
  1875. “Because… that ain’t your problem.”
  1876. >The mare glares at you, the corner of her mouth twitchin’. She wants to say somethin’, but is holdin’ herself back.
  1877. >Good.
  1878. >She don’t know what it’s like; ain’t got no right to talk.
  1879. >”Let’s go back to the office,” Scootaloo snaps, tossing her mane.
  1880. >You shrug and slowly trail after her.
  1881. >Not like you really have a choice. Not like you can go home or even back to the farm.
  1882. >Even if you could, ain’t nothin’ for you there.
  1883. >You slowly climb back up onto the office sofa with Scootaloo, hopin’ she’ll just keep her mouth shut and show you a movie or somethin’.
  1884. >At the very least, just leave you alone.
  1885. >You know better’n to hope.
  1886. >”What the hell is wrong with you, Apple Bloom?” Scootaloo barks after several minutes of silence.
  1887. “Ah’m lonely. Ah’m keeping it.”
  1888. >”Not what I meant!”
  1889. >The mare throws her forehooves into the air in frustration.
  1890. >”You’re going to be a mother now! You can’t be depressed all the time or your foal will think it’s her fault! If this is a good thing, then Be. Happy!”
  1891. >Scootaloo is scowlin’ at you, her face wracked with emotion.
  1892. >”You tell me this is something you want, so why don’t you act like it?”
  1893. “Because Ah’m scared.”
  1894. >You speak so softly, you don’t even hear your own words.
  1895. >”What?”
  1896. “Ah’m scared, Scootaloo.”
  1897. >”Don’t be,” your friend reassures, reaching out to touch you. “You’ll be a great mom!”
  1898. >You doubt that, but that ain’t what got you worried.
  1899. >Ain’t no way that your foal won’t leave you. Might even hate you.
  1900. “That’s not what Ah’m scared about. Remember Hematite?”
  1901. >”How could I forget?”
  1902. “And how sick she was?”
  1903. >”Y-yeah.”
  1904. “She never got any better, Scootaloo.”
  1905. >”That’s…”
  1906. >Scootaloo frowns, clearly not followin’.
  1907. >”That’s sad and all, but what does it have to do with your foal?”
  1908. “Moondancer says it might be ‘cause of this world. The lack of magic… Ah don’t want my foal bein’ sick like her.”
  1909. >It’s got you scared. Not enough to end the pregnancy, though.
  1910. >Someone to love you… the temptation is too great, even if it only lasts a short while.
  1911. >She’d leave you sooner or later anyhow, for one reason or ‘nother.
  1912. >You’d just like it to be later.
  1913. >“Does Moondancer really think that?”
  1914. “Just a theory she came up with, maybe why Hematite didn’t grow up right.”
  1915. >Scootaloo sighs and leans back, pullin’ her hoof away from your leg.
  1916. >”Maybe,” she admits, shruggin’. “I’m no doctor, but that sounds like it could be why.”
  1917. “Yeah.”
  1918. >”Even with us helping Marble, I didn’t have a lot of hope that Hematite was going to live.”
  1919. “Weren’t a lot of hope to go ‘round back then, was there?”
  1920. >”No,” Scootaloo softly agrees.
  1922. >Be adamant.
  1923. >You’re not that desperate. Yet.
  1924. “I said no.”
  1925. >Maybe tomorrow, but not now.
  1926. >”The fuck do you mean, ‘no?’” your customer snarls, grabbing your hoof and yanking you back onto the bed. “I fucking bought you –“
  1927. “Not for that! I didn’t agree to that!”
  1928. >”You fucking owe me, whore!”
  1929. “Stop! You’re –“
  1930. >He twists your leg painfully, turning your protest into a garbled shriek.
  1931. >”Who brought you all those new clients, huh? You don’t have any right to tell me no.”
  1932. “B-but you haven’t paid for – gah!”
  1933. >He twists it again, pulling it behind your back and driving you down into the mattress.
  1934. >”Like I said, you *owe* me,” he snarls. “I think we can keep this one off the books.”
  1935. “No. NO!”
  1936. >Maybe tomorrow you would have agreed.
  1937. >”I’m going to hurt you and you’re going to *like* it.”
  1938. “NO!”
  1939. >No, not even then. A beating from Sterling couldn’t be any worse than what’s he wants to do.
  1940. >You try to struggle, but every movement sends a spike of pain running up your leg.
  1941. >He could break it on a whim.
  1942. >He just might.
  1943. “Stop! I said no! I’m allowed to –“
  1944. >A hand slides along your neck.
  1945. “ – I’m… I’m allowed to say no…”
  1946. >It tightens.
  1947. >”Not to me.”
  1948. >You try to beg him to stop, but…
  1949. >His grip isn’t tight enough to stop you from breathing – not yet.
  1950. >Just tight enough to make it hard. To make you panic.
  1951. >To make your already troubled breathing even more difficult as you begin to hyperventilate.
  1952. >You realize what’s happening, but your body reacts on its own.
  1953. >No amount of realization can calm your breathing. No amount of pleading will make him stop.
  1954. >He’s not going to kill you, but he’s not going to stop.
  1955. >You had been warned, but… you thought…
  1956. >His hand squeezes even tighter.
  1957. >You thrash and twist, the pain in your leg a distant concern.
  1958. >”You. Fucking. Owe. Me.”
  1959. “Stop.”
  1960. >”No.”
  1961. >You can barely breath, let alone speak.
  1962. “STOP!”
  1963. >”I’m going to teach you not to –“
  1964. >The door slams open. You don’t see it, but you can hear it.
  1965. >You can’t see anything but the black dots swimming in your vision.
  1966. >Can barely hear anything besides the blood rushing through your veins.
  1967. >”What’s going on here?”
  1968. >”Nothing you need to worry about,” your client snaps back at the bouncer, but he pulls his hand away from your neck.
  1969. >”Pretty sure it is, deputy. She told you to stop.”
  1970. >”And she’s just a fucking pony, so who gives a fuck what she says?”
  1971. >”Sterling does.”
  1972. >He lets you go, but not before giving your leg a vicious tug.
  1973. >”Fine.”
  1974. >He climbs off of you.
  1975. >You would run, if you had the strength to. Hide in the bathroom until he was gone, maybe.
  1976. >Too bad you can’t even push yourself enough to roll over.
  1977. >”You know, I’m starting to miss Silver Spoon,” the man growls as he begins dressing himself. “That mare knew her place.”
  1978. >You can see the bouncer out of the corner of your eye.
  1979. >”Yeah,” he agrees, too quickly, “but no one else would buy her after what you did to her.”
  1980. >”Bullshit. I know there were others.”
  1981. >”And they all pulled the same shit as you. No one wants to buy a broken mare except you sick fucks.”
  1982. >Your customer – ex-customer – chuckles as he buttons up his uniform.
  1983. >”Yeah, that’s true. Most people want ‘em pretty, but I don’t care if they’re bruised up. They’re only ponies.”
  1984. >He pauses, glaring down at you with such intensity that you look away immediately.
  1985. >”Remember that, pony. No one else is going to want you. Next time I come in, you better beg for my cock or I’ll make sure you get to go on the next hunting trip.”
  1986. >You want to laugh, but everything hurts too much.
  1987. >Silver had begged.
  1988. >It hadn’t saved her.
  1989. >You lay there as the man leaves. No reason to run or hide or watch him.
  1990. >The bouncer is here. You’re safe now.
  1991. >You hear his footsteps fade away.
  1992. >”You okay?” your protector asks once the sound is gone completely.
  1993. “Y-yeah.”
  1994. >”You know you’re fucked, right?”
  1995. “Yeah.”
  1996. >Silver isn’t here to take the abuse for you anymore.
  1997. >You’ve known this was coming.
  1998. >It’s what you deserve.
  1999. >You should have listened to Apple Bloom.
  2000. >She tried so hard to save everyone.
  2001. >Even you.
  2003. >Be in pain.
  2004. >Slowly, the sensation pulls you to wakefulness.
  2005. >In this half-sleep, it’s easy to believe Apple Bloom is real, that she was with you.
  2006. >You drowsily fumble about with your hoof, reaching for hers, for even the tiniest bit of contact with another pony.
  2007. >You find it when your hoof brushes up against Miss Cheerilee’s leg.
  2008. >Not that you know it is her at first, not until you open your eyes.
  2009. >The older mare is asleep, he forelegs crossed under her head and resting on the edge of your cot.
  2010. >Your heart slows, the rising panic forgotten.
  2011. >You are not alone.
  2012. >You never will be.
  2013. >Never have been.
  2014. >There had always been others.
  2015. >With all your injuries, all you have lived through, you still ask yourself how you had ever lost hope.
  2016. >You wonder how it was even possible, even as you remember the exact moment it happened.
  2017. >No, there was never just one moment.
  2018. >Each time you had thought you had hit rock bottom, life had always found a way to drive you further into despair.
  2019. >The thought makes you giggle – if that was true, then you never *had* lost hope, had you?
  2020. >And now… that hope has come true.
  2021. >You pray that Diamond Tiara is okay.
  2022. >Apple Bloom, too, wherever she is.
  2023. >You sigh contently.
  2024. >A second later, Cheerilee’s leg stirs under your hoof.
  2025. >”Huh…? Oh, sorry,” the mare mumbles groggily, raising her head. “I guess I fell asleep too.”
  2026. >The mare pushes herself up and shakes her head to clear the last remnants of sleep from her mind.
  2027. >”Is everything okay              ?”
  2028. “Actually –“
  2029. >”Oh, sun!” Miss Cheerilee swears, noticing your leg – and the bandage. “I need to change that.”
  2030. >Blood has soaked through.
  2031. >Not much, but the surface is stained dull brown in places.
  2032. >You can feel it sticking to your leg, glued to your coat by your own blood.
  2033. >Not much, but enough to tug and pull and hurt.
  2034. >Miss Cheerilee begins laying out scissors and other supplies.
  2035. “Actually, before you begin…”
  2036. >”Yes?”
  2037. “… could I have a pill?”
  2038. >Peeling away the bandages will hurt, but there’s no reason it has to. There’s no reason you have to be in pain now at all.
  2039. >No critical shortage of medication, like there had been in the camps.
  2040. >No masochistic urge to refuse treatment because you deserve to suffer.
  2041. >Miss Cheerilee hesitates, her hoof still hovering over a fresh roll of gauze.
  2042. >”Oh, SUN!” she blurts out before tearing into the bag of supplies again. “I can’t believe how stupid I am!”
  2043. “It’s not that bad.”
  2044. >”I am *so* sorry! I can’t believe I didn’t even think of giving you your suppressant for today! No one else has given you one, have they?”
  2045. “No, I don’t think so.”
  2046. >Your thoughts are still fuzzy, but you’re relatively certain on that.
  2047. >”Crap crap crap crap! I’m sorry, that’s the last thing you need right now!”
  2048. “It’s okay.”
  2049. >She holds out a pill to you, but you don’t take it.
  2050. >”We have plenty,” Miss Cheerilee urges. “There’s no reason to go through *that*.”
  2051. >The mare shivers.
  2052. >You nod slowly, but still don’t take the pill from her.
  2053. “Okay, but…”
  2054. >You think back, trying to remember how long it has been since you last had a suppressant.
  2055. >You can’t even remember how long you’ve been in this cot.
  2056. “… I… don’t think I need one.”
  2057. >”So somepony *did* give it to you,” the mare sighs, relief evident on her face. “Good.”
  2058. “I don’t think so.”
  2059. >”But –“
  2060. “I remember what it was like when we first crossed over, before the suppressants were distributed to the camps. I don’t feel that way at all.”
  2061. >”Now listen here,” Miss Cheerilee grunts firmly, in her best schoolteacher voice, “you need to take your pill.”
  2062. >You gently push her hoof away.
  2063. “Thank you, but I don’t need it.”
  2064. >”Sun! I was warned you might refuse care if we let you! Don’t do this!”
  2065. “I truly don’t need it.”
  2066. >”But –“
  2067. “I don’t feel alone.”
  2069. >Be polite.
  2070. “Of course there is, Hematite. Magic is real.”
  2071. >It’s just not here, you amend silently.
  2072. >The filly glares at you, as firm and serious as her little body can be.
  2073. >”Everypony keeps telling me it isn’t,” she growls, “and that’s why getting a cutie mark is impossible. But I got one! Magic is real!”
  2074. “It is.”
  2075. >Inwardly, you sigh.
  2076. >She doesn’t know any better. She doesn’t know what magic really feels like.
  2077. >You envy her.
  2078. >The suppressants do their job, when you take them, but you’ll never forget the shock of coming to this world.
  2079. >A thread tying you to Equestria snapped when you crossed over, a thread you never knew existed until it was gone.
  2080. >It’s something that the little filly was too young to understand. She grew up never knowing what it felt like to be surrounded by magic, to live your life with that inexhaustible supply at your hooves.
  2081. >You had. And then you came here, leaving Ponyville to burn.
  2082. >It was chaos.
  2083. >Ponies already on edge, ponies who had already lost everything… they crossed the portal and they lost something they didn’t even know existed.
  2084. >There was fighting. Blood was spilled.
  2085. >Not all of it was humans’.
  2086. >Pony fought pony.
  2087. >Medical staff had been given the suppressants first, to help them focus.
  2088. >They didn’t understand. You’re a nurse and your patients come first.
  2089. >There were others that need them more.
  2090. >You’ve gotten used to that feeling, adapted to it with the help of others.
  2091. >Doctor Alda for one.
  2092. >And Minuette.
  2093. >A hoof touches your leg.
  2094. >”Miss?”
  2095. “What? Oh, yes. Supplies. Right. Follow me. I’ll get you some supplies to take home with you for Silver Spoon.”
  2096. >You’ve gotten used to coping with this world.
  2097. >Now you’re not living in the camps, you live with a man who loves you – and that you love, but you’re still not free of that feeling.
  2098. >Sometimes, it has been hard to look to the future in this place, and so you focused on the here and now. On helping the people you could – ponies *and* humans – and being with him.
  2099. >You didn’t have much hope for the future. For yourself or your species.
  2100. >Individuals could find a measure of happiness – you’re proof enough of that – but just enough to keep going.
  2101. >Until now.
  2102. >You look back at the little filly following you.
  2103. >She got her cutie mark.
  2104. >You don’t know what it means – what her special talent truly is – but you know what it means to you.
  2105. >The impossible has happened.
  2106. >You’ve never written *her* before, because you never saw the point of it all.
  2107. >Now you think you understand.
  2109. >Be touched.
  2110. >”What you do matters,” Moondancer repeats. “So you need to start putting some thought into your choices.”
  2111. >Not so much now.
  2112. “Yeah, I remember. I’m incompetent.”
  2113. >”I… didn’t mean it like that.”
  2114. “Well, it’s hard to interpret it any other way.”
  2115. >You shrug and put your hands on the arms of your chair, ready to push yourself up.
  2116. “Thanks for the story, but –“
  2117. >”You’re a good man,” the mare blurts out, “you just need to see that and believe in yourself.”
  2118. “I’m really not.”
  2119. >”You *are*. Apple Bloom trusts you, and –“
  2120. “Apple Bloom?”
  2121. >You laugh. You can’t help yourself.
  2122. >She trusts you.
  2123. >So you must be a good man.
  2124. >That’s what Moondancer is trying to say, you assume.
  2125. >If only she knew the truth…
  2126. >”Look,” the mare huffs, crossing her forelegs like they were arms. “You may not think much of her, but I do.”
  2127. “I think she was the only thing stopping me from driving this place into the ground.”
  2128. >”Then –“
  2129. “But I can’t trust her. And she can’t trust me.”
  2130. >”Why not?” Moondancer asks, frowning like she just can’t understand.
  2131. “She lied to me.”
  2132. >”Get over it.”
  2133. >You gesture towards the holes in the wall.
  2134. >Moondancer’s frown deepens; she understands what you mean without you having to say a word.
  2135. >”Well, it looks like you got it out of your system. Time for the two of you to make up and get back to leading us.”
  2136. “I don’t think we can do that.”
  2137. >”Why not?”
  2138. “She lied to me, Moondancer.”
  2139. >”I don’t get why that’s so important to you.”
  2140. “Because… she told me she was the only mare in heat.”
  2141. >Moondancer’s eyes narrow – not in anger, but confusion.
  2142. >It takes her a moment. You can see the entire train of logic play itself out in her expressions.
  2143. >A raises eyebrow that drops suddenly.
  2144. >Eyes widening.
  2145. >Narrowing.
  2146. >Then glaring.
  2147. >Now she understands.
  2148. “You’re right, Moondancer. Our choices have consequences. She lied to me and because of that I buckled her into a breeding stand and watched as one of Steffords’ stallions raped her.
  2149. “So don’t tell me I’m a good man. I let that happen. I *chose* for that to happen.”
  2150. >The mare’s lips twitch in a sneer.
  2151. >She understands now.
  2152. >You’re not a good person.
  2153. >”Why?”
  2154. “Because we had a deal.”
  2155. >”You could have canceled it,” she barks. “It doesn’t even make any sense! Foals can’t work!”
  2156. “Yeah.”
  2157. >”By law, foals can’t work!”
  2158. >You sigh and lean back in your chair.
  2159. “I know.”
  2160. >You know, but you’ve been trying not to think of it.
  2161. >”There’s no point in it!” Moondancer yells, slamming a hoof into her chair’s arm. “We already have a cease fire! By the time the foal is old enough to work the fields, this whole mess will be over!”
  2162. “Yeah.”
  2163. >You sigh again, remembering how eagerly Apple Bloom had agreed.
  2164. “But some people don’t want a worker. They want a pet.”
  2165. >”What does that mean?”
  2166. “It means there’s rich folks out that that want a foal as a pet. And they’re willing to pay.”
  2167. >”You… you can’t do that,” Moondancer insists. “Foals don’t have employment contracts. You can’t sell them away from their parents.”
  2168. “I know. I was going to sell Apple Bloom’s contract.”
  2169. >”That’s… that’s insane! You can run this place without her!”
  2170. “The deal’s already done. That’s why it had to be now.”
  2171. >Why it had to be her, or so you thought.
  2172. >She’d claimed she was the only mare in season, and you’d believed her.
  2173. >Every choice you make… every single one…
  2174. >… they all turn out to be the wrong one.
  2175. >You never should have trusted Apple Bloom.
  2176. >Moondancer sits silently – not so much as a whisper escapes her lips.
  2177. “I don’t have a choice, Moondancer.”
  2178. >”You always have a choice,” she mumbles back half-heartedly.
  2179. “Not if I’m going to help the rest of you.
  2180. “The money hasn’t been paid yet, but I’ll need it to do just half of what I’ve promised the others.
  2181. “See? I made a decision. I’m helping every pony on my farm live a real life. All it will cost is her.
  2182.  “She loves me and I had her raped. She trusts me… and I’m going to sell her off like cattle.
  2183. “Just two signatures and she’ll be gone, Moondancer. That’s all it takes for me to help the rest of you.
  2184. “Two signatures, and never being able to live with myself again.”
  2185. >”There has to be another way.”
  2186. “It’s too late. The deal was made long before I took over.”
  2187. >”You can back out. If they haven’t paid yet –“
  2188. “We need that money.”
  2189. >Moondancer snorts angrily and falls out of her chair with a flounce.
  2190. >”Let me see the books. I’ll figure something out.”
  2192. >Hours later, Moondancer raises her head from the financial statements strewn across your desk and lets out a drawn-out sigh.
  2193. >You take it as a sign of surrender.
  2194. “Like I said, I don’t have a choice.”
  2195. >”There has to be something…”
  2196. “Well, I couldn’t find anything. And neither can you, so…”
  2197. >You give her an exaggerated shrug, followed by a sigh.
  2198. >”I’m not an accountant,” Moondancer mutters angrily.
  2199. “Unless you know one –“
  2200. >”You should let Silver Spoon take a look at this.”
  2202. >Be nervous.
  2203. >Derpy flashes you a happy smile as she trots out of the exam room, freshly bandaged and ready to crash into yet another wall.
  2204. >”I hope I get to talk to you again!” a tiny voice chases after her.
  2205. >”Me too, Mica!” she laughs back, smile widening. “Soon, with any luck”!
  2206. >She comes to a stop as she sees you blocking her way.
  2207. >Her head tilts one way. Her eyes… in two other radically different directions.
  2208. >”Was there something else, Nurse Redheart?”
  2209. “Derpy, I know you aren’t Ponyville’s mailmare anymore, but –“
  2210. >”I’m not?” the mare giggles. “It sure feels like it, sometimes.”
  2211. “Yeah, I guess it does.”
  2212. >You let out a little chuckle.
  2213. “I have a letter for *her*. Could you…”
  2214. >”Of course.”
  2216. >Be confused
  2217. “Silver Spoon?”
  2218. >”Yeah,” Moondancer sighs, pushing away the papers and receipts so she can collapse on the desk’s surface. Face down. “None of the ponies here are accountants, but… honestly?”
  2219. >The mare tilts her head to one side, just far enough to look up at you out of the corner of her eye.
  2220. >”I think she’d be of more help than any accountant.”
  2221. >You wait for the joke, for her to deliver the punchline.
  2222. >It doesn’t come.
  2223. >”Well, maybe in the morning,” Moondancer mumbles, her eyes drifting away to roam over the piles of paperwork. “I can pack this up and take it to her and –“
  2224. “Moondancer.”
  2225. >”Hmm?”
  2226. “She’s a whore.”
  2227. >Her mouth curves in a harsh frown.
  2228. >Too bad. It’s the truth.
  2229. “And not a very good one, or she wouldn’t have ended up the way she did. I don’t see what good it would do, having her go over the financials.
  2230. “Maybe, sure, in the long term it would be great. She can’t work the fields and never will, so finding her something else to do would be a good idea. This is as good as anything, but it doesn’t help me now.”
  2231. >”Are you really this bigoted or do you just have no idea who she is?”
  2232. >You shrug. And sigh. And slump in a nearby chair.
  2233. “She’s 9B. If she had any useful skills, she wouldn’t have wound up spreading her legs for every trucker that passed by.”
  2234. >”Silver Spoon wasn’t there by choice,” Moondancer growls. “She didn’t *choose* to –“
  2235. “Then why was she working at Sterling’s?”
  2236. >”I… I think she went there to be with her friend.”
  2237. >You snort. Not a full blown laugh – you’re too disgusted for that, but still amused.
  2238. “So… how’s that friendship thing working out for you ponies?”
  2239. >”About as well as being assholes is working out for you humans, I suspect,” she snaps back. “At least hear me out before dismissing it.”
  2240. >You look out the darkening window.
  2241. >Not like you’d be wasting your time – there’s nothing else to do except go to sleep and look forward to another hollow and meaningless day.
  2242. >One more day closer to disappointing everyone. Again.
  2243. “Fine.”
  2244. >You gesture for her to go ahead.
  2245. “Tell me this great idea of yours. How are we going to turn Silver Spoon into a financial genius.“
  2246. >”That’s easy,” the mare sighs, pushing herself up from the desk. “We just let her do what she was born to do.”
  2247. “And that is?”
  2248. >”Be rich.”
  2249. >Moondancer grabs a pencil of the desk and lobs it at your head.
  2250. >Misses by a mile.
  2251. >You don’t think she was really trying.
  2252. >”She was being groomed to take over her family’s business,” she continues after reaching for another pencil. “I seriously can’t believe you don’t know who she is. Well, maybe not *you* -“
  2253. >The tilts her head and raises an eyebrow.
  2254. “Yes, fine, I get it. You think I’m an idiot.”
  2255. >She shrugs.
  2256. >”Silver Spoon’s family was wealthy enough before the portals opened, but after that…”
  2257. >Moondancer slowly trails off into exhausted laughter.
  2258. “What?”
  2259. >”*Cobalt*.”
  2260. “You’ve lost me.”
  2261. >”Cobalt,” she repeats. “Lithium. Niobium…. Everything we considered a worthless metal, you humans jumped at a chance to buy. Her family owns mines all over Equestria.
  2262. >”Within two months of the portals being opened to commercial use, their empire had expanded to the point she was *running* the branch in Ponyville.
  2263. >”On both sides of the portals, it was held as the prime example of how trade between our worlds would benefit us all.”
  2264. >Moondancer smiles sadly and looks out the window.
  2265. >”I wish I still had that copy of Time,” she murmurs softly. “I bet Silver Spoon would love to read it.”
  2266. >She sighs and looks back to you.
  2267. >”Or maybe not. Might just bring up bad memories. Doesn’t really matter right now. What *does* matter is she’s more qualified to deal with the farm’s financials than you or I am.”
  2268. “But she knows metal, not produce. She –“
  2269. >”She doesn’t know metal,” Moondancer counters, shaking her head. “She didn’t know how the Hall-Heroult process worked, just that new methods of aluminum extraction would create entirely new product out of waste ore. Silver Spoon knows how to run a business and that’s expertise you need.”
  2270. >You shake your head.
  2271. “But she doesn’t know farming.”
  2272. >The mare sighs and gives you a lopsided frown.
  2273. >”And neither do you. Luckily, you have Apple Bloom to help you with that.”
  2274. “I don’t.”
  2275. >”You *do*. And now you have Silver Spoon to help with the business side of things. She knows –“
  2276. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. She’s everything I’m not.”
  2277. >”Exactly,” Moondancer chirps. “She knows business, you don’t. She’s a pony, you’re human. She’s kinda cute –“
  2279. >Be nothing.
  2280. >Not yet, anyhow.
  2281. >A fly on the wall at best.
  2282. >A distant – and fading – memory at worst.
  2283. >A door creaks.
  2284. >The heavy slab of wood slowly swings open and Ponyville’s mailmare steps into the church.
  2285. >She looks around.
  2286. >It’s not a very large church.
  2287. >In the South, after what happened, there are almost more churches than people.
  2288. >Not quite, but it feels that way sometimes.
  2289. >Methodists, Baptists, Mormons and even Buddhists all within walking distance of each other.
  2290. >This one isn’t quite nondenominational, but it is quite open and accepting. Even to ponies.
  2291. >The man near the altar looks up as the mare’s hoofsteps ring out through the empty space.
  2292. >”Good evening, Derpy,” he says, smiling at her. “Did you have a pleasant walk?”
  2293. >That’s what he calls them. Her “walks.”
  2294. >He knows what she is doing. Approves of it, even. But he won’t say it.
  2295. >”Yep!” she answers back, returning his smile.
  2296. >”You look a little…”
  2297. >He hesitates to point out her bandages, for the same reason he will not refer to her work as anything but her “walks.”
  2298. >”I crashed. Nothing to worry about.”
  2299. >He frowns.
  2300. >If there is one thing he disapproves of, it is when her “walks” cease to involve walking.
  2301. >”You really should stop doing that,” he chides. “If the deputy catches you…”
  2302. >”I know…”
  2303. >”Then will you stop?”
  2304. >”I’ll try, but…”
  2305. >”But it’s a part of you,” he sighs. “I know.”
  2306. >”Sorry. I don’t mean to cause you any trouble.”
  2307. >”You aren’t, Derpy. I just worry about you.”
  2308. >The mare nods, then wiggles her way onto one of the pews.
  2309. >He smiles – perhaps sadly, perhaps… with some other emotion - as she pulls a letter out of her bag.
  2310. >”Don’t take too long. I need you dressed and ready for the evening service before everyone starts to arrive.”
  2311. >”Okay.”
  2312. >He turns back to the altar, fiddling with this and that.
  2313. >The mare carefully – almost reverently – opens the envelope Nurse Redheart had given her.
  2314. >There are others in her bag, but something tells her this is the most important.
  2315. >It was the Nurse’s first.
  2316. >She unfolds the single sheet of paper held within and begins to read, not quite silently – her lips are moving – but certainly indiscernibly.
  2317. >He doesn’t try to listen in – that’s not his place. Some might think it is, if they were in his place, but not him. She’s not talking to him.
  2318. >But if he could read lips, the first three words would be unmistakable to any who knew them.
  2319. “Dear Princess -”
  2321. >”Be reasonable.”
  2322. “I am.”
  2323. >You make another attempt to pull yourself up, but it don’t work out.
  2324. >Never even raise your head off the pillow, same as last time.
  2325. >”You aren’t,” Dr. Alda sighs, runnin’ a hand through his thinnin’ hair. “Hell, I should be holding you longer. I shouldn’t even have done the surgery, not with just Sutherland and me.”
  2326. >He looks you sternly in the eye, the kinda look a doctor gives his patients when he’s bein’ dead serious.
  2327. >”Really.”
  2328. >You know that, an’ you appreciate him doin’ it anyway.
  2329. >“I should have sent you in to the city.”
  2330. “You’ve done more with less, doc. I know you have.”
  2331. >”That was different. This is just you being impatient.”
  2332. >You keep your mouth shut, on account of not wantin’ to admit he’s right.
  2333. >He waits a moment – for you to argue, you think, ‘cause you both know you ain’t gonna tell him that’s true.
  2334. >”Good,” the doc murmurs once he’s decided you ain’t gonna. “So just lay back and relax. It’s normally just an in-and-out procedure, but… I’m a little worried. Just try to be patient; it’s only one night.”
  2335. “You didn’t hold Silver.”
  2336. >”That was different,” he sighs, lookin’ away.
  2337. >He shuffles over to the nearby chair an’ drops himself down, lookin’ older’n anything.
  2338. “How?”
  2339. >”Because it was.”
  2340. “Because she’s a pony?”
  2341. >”Because I know what happened to her and thought it would be best to get her out of town. But you won’t tell me what happened to you and I’m thinking it would be best to keep you away from the farm.”
  2342. >He looks up with another sigh.
  2343. >”A pony kicked you. They could have killed you.”
  2344. “An’ I told you it was just an accident.”
  2345. >”And that’s why I’m keeping you here tonight. I don’t know what’s going on out there, but I do know there’s already been two deaths.”
  2346. “When?”
  2347. >”Little over two months ago, when some idiot thought it was a good idea to take a pony off his meds.”
  2348. “An’ the second?”
  2349. >”The pony that went off his meds.”
  2350. >Doc lifts himself up out of the chair with a weary groan.
  2351. >”Anyway, you’re not in any condition to drive,” he adds as he makes for the door. “I’m holding you overnight and that’s final. Just going to grab some coffee and I’ll be back.”
  2353. >Be uncertain.
  2354. >”Um, aren’t you going to take your pills?”
  2355. >Two orange tablets rest on the table between you, but you don’t reach for them.
  2356. >After a moment, Minuette nudges them closer to you.
  2357. >”I know you didn’t take them earlier,” the other mare sighs. “So don’t even try to tell me that.”
  2358. “I took one.”
  2359. >You hadn’t.
  2360. >”We both know that’s a lie.”
  2361. “Well, I don’t need them like you do.”
  2362. >That earns you one raised eyebrow.
  2363. >”Really.”
  2364. “Really.”
  2365. >”You know there isn’t a shortage anymore, right?”
  2366. “I know that.”
  2367. >”Because sometimes I wonder –“
  2368. “I said I know.”
  2369. >You cross your forelegs and glare at the other mare – the awkward gesture feeling all too natural now after so much time in this world.
  2370. >”Fine…” Minuette mumbles with a roll of her eyes. “You never give in, do you?”
  2371. “No, I don’t.”
  2372. >”I’ll toss these in the trash, then. Like normal.”
  2373. “But –“
  2374. >”You know it’ll cause problems if the books don’t add up,” Minuette grumbles. “We’ve had this discussion before. You aren’t helping anypony by skipping half your doses. And you *really* aren’t helping anypony if you go berserk.”
  2375. >She scoops the meds into the trashcan where so many of your pills have disappeared before. You hate to see them go to waste, but she’s right – you *have* had that particular conversation before.
  2376. >The part about throwing away the meds, if not the rest of it.
  2377. >You’ve never gone off completely, not since you left the camps.
  2378. “It’ll be fine.”
  2379. >You *hope* it will be fine.
  2380. >”Maybe. But if you go into withdrawal –“
  2381. “I won’t. It’s just one day, Minuette.”
  2382. >”You say that now, and tomorrow it will be ‘just two days’.”
  2383. >Maybe.
  2384. >”*If* you go into withdrawal, Dr. Alda will notice. And I won’t be able to cover for you.”
  2385. “I won’t.”
  2386. >You honestly believe it.
  2387. >In all these years, you’ve never taken a full dose. Never more than a half dose, and usually only a quarter. Not enough to get you addicted, like most ponies.
  2388. >Not enough to ever feel comfortable, either.
  2389. >Just enough to dull the pain, just enough that you don’t feel so wrong.
  2390. >Now, you’re starting to wonder what it feels like without them.
  2391. “I’ll be fine.”
  2392. >A part of you even believes that - the part that now has hope.
  2394. >Be surprised.
  2395. “A party?”
  2396. >”Kind of,” the grey mare answers. “Do you think you are well enough to attend?”
  2397. >”Maud, she’s –“
  2398. “What party?”
  2399. >”That’s not important, Maud,” Cheerilee sighs, shaking her head. “Let her rest.”
  2400. >”It’s a welcome party for you and Trixie,” the other mare answers. “I admit, it won’t be as good as the ones my sister throws, but it’s still a party.”
  2401. “Really?”
  2402. >You can’t remember the last time a party didn’t involve…
  2403. >You don’t want to remember what those parties involved.
  2404. >“Basically.”
  2405. >”She’s in no condition for that.”
  2406. >”Oh.”
  2407. >The strange mare blinks once.
  2408. >”Okay. Would tomorrow be better?”
  2409. >”No, Maud! It wouldn’t! You weren’t here when he brought Silver to us, so I understand you don’t know how seriously hurt she is, but -“
  2410. “I would like to go.”
  2411. >The teacher whirls around in surprise, staring at you with her mouth hanging open.
  2412. “I think it’s important.
  2413. >”You aren’t strong enough,” she argues. “You can barely stay awake, let alone –“
  2414. “It’s important, Miss Cheerilee. *Friends* are important.”
  2415. >”I… I can bring your old friends here, there’s no need –“
  2416. “Everypony has watched over and helped take care of me. I know they have, even though I’ve been asleep for most of it. Nopony has treated me like a stranger, even the ones I never met before.”
  2417. >You put your hoof on the mare’s.
  2418. “It’s time I said hello.”
  2420. >Be unsurprised.
  2421. “Enough already, I get it.”
  2422. >And are too tired to do anything about it.
  2423. “We’ll – I’ll run this by Silver Spoon tomorrow. It’s too late tonight.”
  2424. >”I can take it all back to the dorm with me tonight,” Moondancer suggests, scooping the papers into manageable piles without waiting for an answer. “That way, she can –“
  2425. “No, I said I’ll do it.”
  2426. >”Really, there’s no reason I –“
  2427. “My farm, Moondancer. I need to do some of the work around here. Unless you think I’m too *incompetent*.”
  2428. >The mare frowns, but nods after a moment.
  2429. >”Okay. I get it. But I didn’t mean it like that. You mean well, just –“
  2430. “I’m incompetent and don’t have a clue what I’m doing. Ever. About anything. I don’t know business. I don’t know farming. I’m not a pony. I’m not cute. Anything else you want to add?”
  2431. >”You’re… not as bad as you think you are…?”
  2432. >She tries to smile, sympathetically, maybe even genuinely apologetic.
  2433. “Yeah. You covered that too. I mean well. But that’s not really good enough, is it?”
  2434. >”Not what I meant,” the mare sighs. “I mean… you wouldn’t have sold Apple Bloom.”
  2435. “Do you really think that?”
  2436. >”Yes, I do.”
  2437. >Moondancer’s tone is so genuine, so heartfelt, that you almost believe it.
  2438. >Almost.
  2439. “I had her raped.”
  2440. >The mare winces, but nods.
  2441. >”And you know it was wrong.”
  2442. “I still did it.”
  2443. >”You didn’t think you had a choice.”
  2444. “And you’re being awfully nonchalant about it.”
  2445. >Her shoulders slump, followed a second later by her head.
  2446. >”What other choice do I have?” she asks softly. “We’ve all made mistakes in the past. All we can do is move forward and hope we never make them again.
  2447. >”Besides, how can I hope for forgiveness if I can’t forgive others?”
  2448. >You stare at the pony, waiting for her to say more, for her to find a new way to put you down again.
  2449. >She doesn’t.
  2450. >She doesn’t speak, she doesn’t even move, yet somehow finds a way to shrink in on herself even more.
  2451. “You… “
  2452. >Her dismissal hangs on the edge of your tongue, but those aren’t the right words to speak now.
  2453. “You aren’t the pony you used to be, Moondancer.”
  2454. >Though her head remains dipped, her hears perk up.
  2455. “Little by little, we grow into new people.”
  2456. >All you’re doing is parroting back Lauren’s words, but they feel like the right ones to say.
  2457. “Every day, with every choice we make, we become new people. Hopefully better people.”
  2458. >”Do you really believe that?” Moondancer asks with a bitter laugh. “That all our sins just magically disappear given time?”
  2459. “No.”
  2460. >You let out a long sigh.
  2461. “But I wish it was true.”
  2462. >”Yeah,” she laughs again, “it would be nice.”
  2463. >The mare raises her head, glancing out the window for just a moment.
  2464. >Or would be, but something catches her eye.
  2465. >”It would be nice,” she repeats softly, her gaze fixed on the rising moon and a subtle, hopeful smile curling up the edges of her mouth.
  2466. >She sits there, staring out the window. Moments pass – minutes – before her eyes swing back to you.
  2467. >”It would be nice,” she says again, but with less conviction. “Too bad it doesn’t happen. They never go away, even when there *is* magic.”
  2468. >You nod – it’s all you can think to do.
  2469. “I’ll bring the papers to Silver Spoon tomorrow. Go home, Moondancer.”
  2470. >”I don’t even know where that is,” she sighs, though she climbs out of the chair. “Besides, what about your dinner? Don’t I need to –“
  2471. “Still full of mac n’ cheese.”
  2472. >”Oh.”
  2473. >The mare turns away slowly, making for the door at an agonizingly slow crawl.
  2474. “You just want to finish your movie, don’t you?”
  2475. >”No, I…  you’re trying to do the right thing for us, so I’m just trying to do what’s right for you. I gave Roma the night off, so I have to cook for you.”
  2476. “It’s a good thing you’re a better cook than I am a farmer.”
  2477. >”Not really,” she sighs, turning back to look over her shoulder at you. “Seriously, I can only make mac n’ cheese and spaghetti.”
  2478. “Really?”
  2479. >”Really. You have no idea how happy I was to discover microwave dinners.”
  2480. >She lets out a sad chuckle and turns away.
  2481. >”Actually, I did have one other thing,” the mare says as she walks towards the door. “Just want to throw this out there so you can think it over.”
  2482. “What?”
  2483. >”For the construction…”
  2484. “Yeah?”
  2485. >”It would be a lot easier if more of us went off the suppressants.”
  2486. “No.”
  2487. >Moondancer freezes, half in and half out of the room.
  2488. >”I’ll do it myself,” she offers. “I wouldn’t ask anypony to do something I wouldn’t, just like Applebloom.”
  2489. “Still no. You’re a unicorn. You’ll kill me.”
  2490. >”No, I think I like you. Not a *lot*, but -”
  2491. “You think I’m an idiot.”
  2492. >”Incompetent. But you’re trying.”
  2494. >Be silent.
  2495. >You’ve told Scootaloo everythin’.
  2496. >She’d reached out an’ pulled you up ‘gainst her chest, holdin’ you tight an’ whisperin’ encouragement into your ear.
  2497. >Didn’t mean to tell her nothin’ – it ain’t none of it her problem – but it all just came out as she held you.
  2498. >Scootaloo didn’t understand. She couldn’t.
  2499. >She said you’d be a great mom, but she didn’t know how you’d let other ponies take a whippin’ when you coulda stepped up and stopped it.
  2500. >She said you’d tried your hardest and never given up, but she didn’t know how you’d used yourself up and don’t got nothin’ left to give.
  2501. >She said a lot of things an’ all of ‘em were wrong.
  2502. >So you told her everythin’.
  2503. >Everythin’ what happened since you saw her last.
  2504. >Your dreams an’ how they died.
  2505. >How you let a pony die.
  2506. >The gamble you made to win his trust.
  2507. >All your fears an’ hopes – not that you have much of the latter. Or the former, for that matter.
  2508. >Ain’t got nothing more to be ‘fraid of.
  2509. >What more can life do to you?
  2510. >But still, you feel fear in your heart as you wait for Scootaloo to say somethin’.
  2511. >*Anything*.
  2512. >She don’t, though. Just stares at you with sad eyes, like she’s pityin’ you.
  2513. >Just like you expect your foal to, once she’s old enough to understand.
  2514. >Same look everypony seems to give you these days, but you can’t take it from her, not your closest friend.
  2515. >Not now, not after openin’ your heart to her.
  2516. >It hurts too much.
  2517. “Well?”
  2518. >So you put on a brave front, same as always, an’ you smack your hoof into her chest, but she don’t even flinch.
  2519. “Say something!”
  2520. >”What?”
  2521. “It don’t matter! Just… somethin’!”
  2522. >Scoots frowns a bit and looks away.
  2523. >”You really do love him, don’t you?”
  2524. “Y-yeah.”
  2525. >”Why?” the mare sighs. “From the sound of things, he hasn’t been that nice to you. Not *bad*, but –“
  2526. “He’s been better’n most.”
  2527. >You shiver, thinkin’ –
  2528. >”That’s not saying much.”
  2529. > - thinkin’ the same thing as her.
  2530. “… Ah know…”
  2531. >You let your head drop back to rest ‘gainst Scoots’ chest.
  2532. “Ah know, but…”
  2533. >A sigh escapes your lungs, long and pained.
  2534. “… it’s what got me through the day. Don’t matter none. Don’t think ponies an’ humans can really love each other.”
  2535. >Scoots ain’t got nothin’ to say to that, or if she does she keeps it to herself ‘til there’s a knock at the door.
  2536. >She gently pushes you off her with a groan.
  2537. >”One sec’, let me just see what Bill need.”
  2539. >Be suspicious.
  2540. “Whadya mean you’ve taken care of it?”
  2541. >”I mean I’ve already called Bill,” the doctor groans as he settles back into his chair. “I assumed since you’d already left one pony with him –“
  2542. “How’d you know that?”
  2543. >”Because those two foals are quite talkative.”
  2544. >That gets you to raise an’ eyebrow.
  2545. >”Okay, just the one, but he talks more than enough to make up for his sister.”
  2546. “Bill’s lettin’ ‘em stay at his place tonight?”
  2547. >Doc nods.
  2548. >”He’s on his way over right now.”
  2549. >He raises up his mug an’ takes a sip.
  2550. >Must not agree with him, ‘cause he raises an eyebrow of his own an’ stares into its insides.
  2551. >”A little bitter,” he mumbles softly into the mug, “but I guess I asked for it.”
  2552. >He sets it aside with a sigh.
  2553. >”Anyway, you don’t have anything else to worry about. Just rest for tonight. Redheart and I have everything covered.”
  2555. >Be a little worried at this point.
  2556. >You aren’t the only one.
  2557. >”They should have been back by now,” Moondancer comments as you walk her to the door. “They weren’t planning on staying the night, were they?”
  2558. “No, but…”
  2559. >”The weather, maybe?”
  2560. “Yeah, it’s starting to pick up.”
  2561. >A bit of an understatement. You can hear the wind howling. Hell, you can hear the house creaking from the gusts.
  2562. >”Have you called her?”
  2563. “No.”
  2564. >”You’re going to, right?”
  2565. “Yeah.”
  2566. >You pull open the door and shiver as the cold hits you full force.
  2567. “Damn, it’s getting pretty nasty out there.”
  2568. >The mare peeks past you and grimaces – but continues forward after only a moment’s pause.
  2569. >”I better hurry then,” she sighs as she steps out the door. “I don’t want to get stuck here for the night.”
  2570. “Yeah. It would be a damn shame if you were trapped with the big, bad human.”
  2571. >”It’s not like that,” the mare laughs, thought the wind snatches away the sound almost before you can hear it. “I have a welcoming party to attend! Our new friends haven’t met everyone yet.”
  2572. >She takes another step, but hesitates before carrying herself clear of the doorway.
  2573. >”Actually… I *suppose* you could come…”
  2574. “No, I couldn’t.”
  2575. >Moondancer looks back and frowns sympathetically.
  2576. “You know I can’t.”
  2577. >”I know, but I had to offer.”
  2578. “I know.”
  2580. >Be angry.
  2581. >Can’t say why, but you are.
  2582. “So I gotta stay the night here?”
  2583. >”Yeah,” Scootaloo answers from the doorway. “Well, not *here*.”
  2584. >She laughs and rolls her eyes at herself.
  2585. >”In the house. It’s right next door.”
  2586. “An’ what about the foals?”
  2587. >”Bill’s going to pick up Mica and Hematite,” she responds. “They’ll be staying with us.”
  2588. >That makes you even angrier, not that you act out on it or nothin’. Ain’t no point.
  2589. >Not like it matters none.
  2590. >Fair certain anything woulda made you angry.
  2591. “Fine.”
  2592. >”Awww, don’t be like that. I know, we can make it just like the sleepovers we used to have back in Ponyville!”
  2593. “Yeah.”
  2594. >’Sides, Scoots didn’t say it, but you know it ain’t got nothin’ to do with the weather.
  2595. >If you hadn’t kicked that woman, you’d be home by now.
  2596. >Home?
  2597. >You laugh at that thought.
  2598. >Since when is the farm your *home*?
  2599. >There was a time you thought it could be, a time that weren’t too long ago. Just a few hours past really, when you were reminded what a real home was like for the first time in years.
  2600. >That farm ain’t home an’ it ain’t ever gonna be.
  2601. >”Well… uh…”
  2602. “What?”
  2603. >”If you’re okay here, I’m going to close up the shop.”
  2604. >It don’t matter one bit, but it still catches you by surprise.
  2605. “Ain’t that someone else’s job?”
  2606. >”Um, no,” Scoots responds, scrunchin’ up her face. “Who else is going to do it? Bill’s already left to pick up the foals, so it’s just you and me here.”
  2607. “Oh.”
  2608. >”He trusts me to take care of it.”
  2609. >Scoots puffs out her chest all proud-like, ‘fore deflatin’.
  2610. >”Sometimes,” she corrects with a wry grin. “You wanna come out and help me?”
  2611. >He used to trust you.
  2612. >Always.
  2614. >“Be quiet.”
  2615. ”But –“
  2616. >“No excuses,” Sterling snaps at you. “You know what happens to ponies that don’t make the quota. I’m cutting you some slack because you’re one of my best ponies, but don’t give me any of your lip.”
  2617. >Your gaze drops until you’re staring at his boots.
  2618. “Sorry, sir.”
  2619. >”Good. Now get out of my office.”
  2620. >None of the other mares are there to comfort you as you walk out of the room. Not even Cherry Berry.
  2621. >It hurts, but you can’t say you don’t deserve it.
  2622. “I’m sorry.”
  2623. >”What was that?” Sterling calls out from his desk. “You have something else to say?”
  2624. “N-no sir!”
  2625. >”Then keep your trap shut and get back to work.”
  2626. >You stumble a few more feet down the hall before looking back at the doorway.
  2627. >Not even Cherry Berry, and *she* -
  2628. “I’m sorry, Silver. I’m so sorry.”
  2629. >A tear – just one – snakes down your face.
  2630. >Only one mare had been there for her. It should have been you.
  2632. >Be a lil’ in awe of the way Scoots cleans the store up so fast.
  2633. >Not that she don’t make a mess of the place doin’ it.
  2634. >Dang near leaves the front door unlocked.
  2635. >”Okay, okay, so he doesn’t really like to let me to close up on my own,” Scoots laughs as she shoos you out the back door. “You caught me.”
  2636. >She trots past you, crossin’ the small driveway an’ forgettin’ to lock up after herself.
  2637. “Uh, Scootaloo?”
  2638. >”What?”
  2639. “The door?”
  2640. >”Huh?” she asks, swivelin’ ‘round. “What about it?”
  2641. “You just gonna leave every door open?”
  2642. >”Oh! Right!”
  2643. >You dunno how she can laugh ‘bout that as she trots back an’ locks the door behind you.
  2644. “This ain’t Ponyville, you know.”
  2645. >”Well duh,” the pegasus grunts, chucklin’ in embarrassment. “But it’s not like the camps either. You don’t have to worry about one of the guards swiping everything you own the minute you turn your back. Or even while you’re watching.”
  2646. >She sighs and waves you on after a sec’.
  2647. >”I don’t miss those places at all.”
  2648. “You’d be crazy if you did.”
  2649. >She raises an eyebrow an’ stops mid-stride.
  2650. >”Then why do I get the feeling you do?”
  2651. “Because… well…”
  2652. >Scoots shives as a sudden gust of wind sends a chill down your spine that you barely notice.
  2653. >”It’s getting cold out here,” the pegasus grumbles, jumpin’ forward an’ pulling open the house door – which ain’t locked neither. “Let’s get inside before we freeze.”
  2654. >Scoots barely waits for you to get inside ‘fore dashin’ in after an’ slammin’ the door tight.
  2655. >”Well?” she demands. “Are you crazy or…?”
  2656. >You stumble on down the dark hall, givin’ her room an’ pretendin’ not to understand.
  2657. >”About the camps, I mean.”
  2658. >You let out a sigh and turn back to the pony that used to be your friend.
  2659. “Because we belonged there, Scootaloo. I miss them because we belonged there.”
  2660. >”No one belongs in a place like that,” she snaps back firmly, shakin’ her head.
  2661. “But at least we was all together. We looked out for one another.”
  2662. >Scoots takes to the air with a flap of her wings and stares down as she flips on the lights.
  2663. >”One of these days, you’re going to have to – nah, nevermind.”
  2664. >She lets out a disgusted grunt as she sails on over your head in a tight spiral.
  2665. “What?”
  2666. >”I said nevermind,” Scoots snaps back harshly. “I’ll just ask Mica. He seems like he likes to talk and you, well…”
  2667. >She shrugs mid-air and flits around the corner.
  2668. >”… yeah, just sit down and I’ll get started on dinner,” she calls out from the next room. “Bill’ll be happy to come home to a hot meal.”
  2670. >Be annoyed.
  2671. >”Everything has been taken care of,” Doctor Alda says into your phone. “Don’t worry, she's doing just fine and your ponies are in good hands.”
  2672. >Doc nods a few times, like anyone but you can see him.
  2673. >”That’s right.”
  2674. “What’s he sayin’?”
  2675. >”Yes, she should be good to drive tomorrow.”
  2676. “Damn right I’ll be good enough to drive!”
  2677. >Doc frowns at you, his bushy eyebrows comin’ together like two caterpillars gettin’ it on.
  2678. >”If you’re that concerned, you could have driven her in yourself. In fact, you probably should have. She was in no condition to –“
  2679. “Stop talkin’ about me like I ain’t here!”
  2681. “Thank you.”
  2682. >He rolls his eyes and takes a few steps out into the hall.
  2683. >”Redheart!” you hear him call out. “I need to finish this conversation in private, so could you look after our patient for a bit?”
  2685. >Be a little relieved.
  2686. >You set the phone back on the hook with a sigh.
  2687. >One of these days, that damn woman is going to bite off more than she can chew and get herself killed, but not today.
  2688. >The whole house lets out a groan as a sudden burst of wind slams into it.
  2689. >Weather is getting worse, but a look out the window tells you the ground is still free of ice, for now at least.
  2690. >Might not stay that way for long, but that’s fine.
  2691. >You don’t have to worry any longer.
  2692. >It was Lauren’s yelling more than anything the doctor said that calmed you down.
  2693. >Anyone that feisty is going to be okay.
  2694. >They’ll be back tomorrow.
  2696. >Be resting on a bed far too big for just you.
  2697. >Honestly, you thought this was the master bedroom, ‘till Scoots said otherwise.
  2698. >You’ve pulled a blanket over yourself, but that’s ‘bout it.
  2699. >Ain’t really tired. Ain’t really cold. Just didn’t wanna be with the others no more.
  2700. >Dinner woulda been a tense affair, if it weren’t for the two fillies yappin’ up a storm. Well, mostly just the one.
  2701. >You took your leave as soon as you could without bein’ too impolite. Ain’t got an appetite anyway, even if Scoots cookin’ weren’t half bad.
  2702. >Just another thing she can do that you can’t.
  2703. >She’s grown, an’ you… you’re just all used up.
  2704. >Ain’t nothin’ you can do now.
  2705. >Lucky he even thought you were good enough to be a broodmare, ‘cause that’s all you got left.
  2706. >Can’t plan. Too stupid, spent too long tryin’ to work an’ never ‘nough mindin’ your books.
  2707. >Can’t work. You’re too weak now to put in a good day’s labor. Should have taken better care of yourself, instead of grindin’ yourself down for others that never appreciated it.
  2708. >Can’t even give him advice on the few things you *do* know. He don’t trust you anymore.
  2709. >The one thing you had to offer him, an’ you threw it away.
  2710. >Scootaloo’s become everything you lost.
  2711. >Bein’ ‘round her an’ her owner hurts more’n you can take, a constant reminder of your failin’s.
  2712. >That’s why you left, ‘fore Scoots could bring out dessert.
  2713. >She’d shown you the guest room ‘fore puttin’ the finishin’ touches on dinner, so you’d made your way here, where you could be alone with your pain, instead of with them heapin’ on more.
  2714. >Don’t seem to be helpin’ though.
  2715. >The ache in your heart is so strong you could die.
  2716. >Right now.
  2717. >’fore you can mess up somethin’ else.
  2718. >There ain’t no knock at the door ‘fore someone pushes it open.
  2719. >”Hey, Apple Bloom?” Scootaloo calls out. “I think we gotta –“
  2720. >”Not we, Scoots,” her owner corrects. “Let me talk with her a bit, just one-on-one.”
  2721. >”But Bill –“
  2722. >”No buts. Someone’s gotta keep those foals entertained, otherwise Mica’s liable to… aw hell, I don’t know. Something. Why don’t you show them those movies you love so much.”
  2723. >Scoots lets out an indignant squawk as Bill shuts the door in her face, but that’s the end of that.
  2724. >You can hear her hoofsteps as she walks away, leavin’ you alone with the man.
  2725. >He don’t take a seat on the bed with you, not like *he* does. Did. Ain’t too likely he’ll be that familiar with you again.
  2726. >Ain’t never gonna feel him runnin’ his fingers through your mane or his comfortin’ touch.
  2727. >Instead, Bill pulls a rockin’ chair over to the bedside, ‘fore slowly an’ carefully lowerin’ hisself into it.
  2728. >You could almost swear you hear his bones creak as he does so… like Granny’s did.
  2729. >”I bet you’re wondering why I’m here, Apple Bloom,” he says once he’s gotten himself all settled in.
  2730. “No, sir. It’s your house an’ all.”
  2731. >He frowns a bit, ‘fore he starts rockin’ back an’ forth gently.
  2732. >”Well, Scoots and I had a chat with Mica and Hematite. Mostly Mica.”
  2733. >Ain’t surprising in the least.
  2734. >”Honestly doesn’t sound too bad on that farm,” he continues. “I was a little worried, considering how you’re acting, but from what those two said, conditions at that place seem… well…”
  2735. >The man shrugs.
  2736. >”Could be worse, right?”
  2737. “Could always be worse, sir. Ah know well enough that others got it pretty bad compared to me.”
  2738. >His rockin’ stops suddenly.
  2739. >”Yeah,” Bill groans, his hands tighten’ up on the arms of the chair. “That’s true, but that wasn’t what I was getting at.”
  2740. “Ah know how lucky Ah am.”
  2741. >You *do* know just how lucky you are.
  2742. >He puts up with you, despite how useless you are.
  2743. >Worse things have happened to better ponies than you.
  2744. >You’ve seen it, at least the aftermath.
  2745. >Silver Spoon was a smart mare. Loyal, too. An’, when the urge took her, she could be as kind and caring as Fluttershy.
  2746. >She didn’t deserve what happened.
  2747. >Shoulda been you.
  2748. >”Still not what I meant,” Bill sighs. His rockin’ resumes an’ he folds his hands across his gut as he stares up into the ceilin’, lost in thought. “Damn, I don’t know *what* I was going to say, really. Just that I wanted to hear it from your own mouth. The fillies seem to be doing alright on the farm, but you… I’m worried about you.”
  2749. “Don’t gotta be, sir. Ah’m fine.”
  2750. >”Yeaaaaah… that’s bullshit right there. Anyone with half a brain could tell that’s bullshit. Don’t bullshit me.”
  2751. “You don’t gotta worry ‘bout me, sir.”
  2752. >”Bullshit. Of course I do. You’re Scootaloo’s friend, and even if you weren’t… how could I *not* worry?”
  2753. >He lets out a long sigh, sendin’ the overgrown bristles of his mustache tremblin’ in the breeze.
  2754. >”I know the world is shit right now,” Bill grumbles, “and I know I can’t fix everything. But when I *see* someone hurting, I have to at least try, don’t I?
  2755. >”It’s easy enough to pretend or turn a blind eye when it’s not in my face. Hell, hardly a week goes by without some expose on the news or another tragedy. But those aren’t things I can help, are they?”
  2756. “Ah reckon not.”
  2757. >You wish he would leave, just let you get through today best you know how so you can face the next.
  2758. >But he don’t.
  2759. >Man doesn’t miss the clipped tone you use or the abruptness of your answers, he just don’t care.
  2760. >”Yeah, that’s what I tell myself too,” he sighs. “It’s how I get through the day. But when I see something I *can* do something about, doesn’t that mean I have to try?
  2761. >”That’s why me and the misses had to step up and open our home to a pony. We *had* to.”
  2762. >You look away, but he still keeps on talkin’ like you ain’t tryin’ to ignore him.
  2763. >”I’m doing my best here, Apple Bloom, and a lot of other folks are too. We’re trying to help in our own little way. So, you see my dilemma, don’t you?”
  2764. “Not really, sir.”
  2765. >Bill lets out a loud harrumph.
  2766. >Could swear the chair starts squeakin’ a bit faster.
  2767. >”My dilemma is you’re here. You’re in pain. I have to help, or everything I’ve told myself has been a lie.
  2768. >”Things happen in this town, Apple Bloom. Bad things.”
  2769. “Ah know, sir.”
  2770. >You wish you didn’t.
  2771. >”And I haven’t tried to stop them, because there’s nothing I can do. I’ve done what I can to shelter Scoots from them, but they’re still happening. I *can’t* stop them.
  2772. >”We’re a small town in the middle of nowhere,” he continues. “No one cares what happens to us – or you – here, and the sheriff and his deputies are the law. They don’t think too highly of ponies.
  2773. >”Of course, a lot of folks here don’t.
  2774. >”Some of it I get. Don’t agree with, but I get. I’m an old man, girl, and back in my day ponies were black brown and white. They didn’t talk or have careers or sing. Some folks still think of ponies that way.”
  2775. >He laughs quietly, but not as quiet as he means to.
  2776. >”Hell, want to know the first thing I said to my wife when the gates first opened? I complained to her that these new ponies are too bright and hurt the eyes.”
  2777. >He chuckles again halfheartedly.
  2778. >”But mostly,” he adds quietly, “it’s bad memories.”
  2779. “Everyone’s got those, Ah reckon.”
  2780. >”True enough,” Bill admits, “but around here, we’ve got more than our fair share.”
  2781. >Everypony’s got more’n their fair share, but you keep that thought to yourself. Not out of tact or nothin’, but because there ain’t no point.
  2782. >”Some folks are only here because of the government subsidies on the land. It’s good land, plenty fertile.”
  2783. >No it ain’t. Not like the land back home.
  2784. >Maybe it’s good enough for humans, but you’ve been working twice as hard an’ gettin’ half as much as you would’ve back in Equestria.
  2785. >”That’s why nearly everyone has their own little gardens or small farms, though the only big ones are those three out where you are.
  2786. >”Yeah, that’s why some folks are here, but most of us…”
  2787. >Bill drifts off into an awkward silence, broken only by the creakin’ of his chair.
  2788. >You wish he would just leave.
  2789. >When the creakin’ stops, you think you just might have gotten your wish – up until he speaks, that is.
  2790. >”You know, I saw her once. Twilight Sparkle, I mean. On the TV.
  2791. >”She seemed like a nice person. All this talk about our worlds coming together and how we’d both prosper. I don’t claim to be an excellent judge of character, but I thought she really meant it. I still do.
  2792. >”I don’t think she intended to do what she did.”
  2793. >He lets out a long sigh, almost drownin’ out the sound of the chair rockin’ again.
  2794. >”At first, at least,” he amends, his voice takin’ on a harsher tone. “It took her several hours to close the portals. By the time she closed the last one, she *knew* what she was doing.
  2795. >”The portals near here, they were some of the first. Before anyone understood what was happening.”
  2796. >Bill sighs again, the breath stutterin’ like a misfirin’ engine.
  2797. >”I still don’t know if that was a blessing or a curse.
  2798. >”The news played some of the phone calls from the others. Folks calling their families. They couldn’t get away fast enough and they knew it. There was rioting and chaos and some places even tried to evacuate in an orderly fashion, but some people? They knew they were going to die and they chose to make the most of the time they had left.
  2799. >”I don’t know if I could have handled that, knowing my son and grandkids were going to die and there was nothing I could do. Still… we could have said goodbye.
  2800. >”I just don’t know if I could have taken it. It was hard enough, listening to the recordings they played on the TV. One second, families were making their peace, and the next… from one heartbeat to the next, without any warning, just silence. No screaming, no explosion, just silence.
  2801. >”Everything died. Men, women, children… ponies. Plants. Phones. Cameras. Everything.
  2802. >”It was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced, Apple Bloom, and I’ve seen some scary things. Shit, I’ve *done* some scary things, but these past few years take the fucking cake.
  2803. >“I’m not going to say I agree with what the princess did, or even that I understand it. I’m certainly not going to forgive her. But… I… I do know what it’s like and I don’t envy her one bit.”
  2804. >He stands abruptly, sendin’ the chair rockin’ wildly. It happens so quick you turn to see if he’s leavin’, but Bill sits back down ‘fore you can look away, dabbin’ at his eyes with the tissue he’d grabbed from the nightstand.
  2805. >”That’s what I mean when I say people around here have bad memories. So many people died that day, and so few have closure. We couldn’t even recover the bodies and lay them to rest.
  2806. >”It’s not that folks really hate ponies, just… they have memories and they can’t let them go, because that would mean letting go of the dead.
  2807. >”Doesn’t justify things, but it’s enough for good men and women to turn their heads and pretend they don’t see anything. Some have even convinced themselves that there’s nothing wrong with what’s happening.
  2808. >”Doesn’t mean they actually dislike ponies –“
  2809. “Ah don’t think no one likes us ponies.”
  2810. >”That’s not true.”
  2811. “You weren’t there when Ponyville burned. You didn’t see them soldiers come marchin’ into town an’ killin’ anypony what even showed herself.”
  2812. >”They didn’t mean it.”
  2813. “Easy for you to say. Weren’t your home an’ family.”
  2814. >You curl up tighter, grabbin’ the blanket in your teeth an’ pullin’ it over yourself to hide your shakin’.
  2815. >”No,” Bill admits a minute later. “No, it wasn’t. But… they didn’t mean it. Not as people.”
  2816. >Their eyes will haunt you ‘til the day you die.
  2817. “You didn’t see them soldiers.”
  2818. >”No, but I was one,” he says quietly. “Not then. Not for a few decades, but I’ve been in their shoes.
  2819. >”I’ve killed people, Apple Bloom. Not ponies. Humans.
  2820. >”It’s not an easy thing to do for most people. The way I see it, there’s only two ways: either you make who you’re fighting to be less than hu- less than a person, or… or you make yourself less than a person.
  2821. >”And… it’s hard to do the former when you’re staring them in the eyes. Easier to make yourself into a monster, because you don’t have to face yourself.
  2822. >”I’ve done some scary things and it took me years to come to terms that it was *me* that did them, not a demon wearing my skin. Those boys that burned your town… some of them are going to have nightmares about what they did for the rest of their lives.
  2823. >”Some may have actually meant to do what they did. I’ve known men like that. Know a few that live in this very town. But most? Most were just boys trying to get through the day the only way they knew how.”
  2824. “By killin’ everypony they saw?”
  2825. >”By thinking of it in terms of black and white. Us versus Them. When someone’s in that mindset, they’ll do things they wouldn’t ever even consider.
  2826. “Must’ve been easy, on account of us only bein’ ponies.”
  2827. >Bill sighs and the creaking of his chair stops.
  2828. >”Apple Bloom, turn around. Look at me.”
  2829. “Why?”
  2830. >”Because I want to know what you see.”
  2831. >With a groan, you roll your head around to glare at the man.
  2832. >”Well?” he asks, stroking his short, white beard with one hand. “What am I?”
  2833. “Human.”
  2834. >”That’s disappointing to hear.”
  2835. “You’d rather be a pony?”
  2836. >”I’d rather be your friend.”
  2837. “We ain’t that close.”
  2838. >”I guess you have a point there,” he sighs. “Then how about Bill? Can I at least be a person and not *Them*?”
  2839. “But you *are* one of them.”
  2840. >”That’s not fair. I took in Scootaloo and have taken good care of her.”
  2841. “Because you felt guilty?”
  2842. >”No, because it was the right thing to do.”
  2843. “Well…”
  2844. >You turn away again, starin’ out the window like there’s somethin’ there to see.
  2845. “… you’re still one of them.”
  2846. >”Is that really all you see? What happened to you?”
  2847. >What hasn’t?
  2848. “You said you didn’t know if it was a blessin’ or a curse you couldn’t say goodbye to your kin.”
  2849. >”I did.”
  2850. “Well, *I* know.”
  2851. >”What happened?” he repeats, softer this time. Almost curious soundin’, like he truly wants to know and ain’t just pesterin’ you for the fun of it. “You lost family there?”
  2852. “Ah watched by brother die.”
  2853. >His mane was stained the same color as his coat.
  2854. “Ah held his hoof.”
  2855. >You hadn’t been able to tell where one ended an’ the other began, there was so much blood.
  2856. >”And you said goodbye?”
  2857. “Said a lot of things, not that he could hear me.”
  2858. >Couldn’t even hear your own panicked pleadin’ for him to get up over the noise.
  2859. >Ponyville hadn’t died quietly. It had died *screaming*.
  2860. >He hadn’t heard a word you said, you know that much, just as you hadn’t been able to hear his over the explosions and shouts.
  2861. >”But you made your peace? You had time together?”
  2862. “Up until my cousin dragged me away because the soldiers were gettin’ close.”
  2863. >You can remember turnin’ back to see ‘em kneeling by Big Mac’s side as you ran.
  2864. >Babs wouldn’t let you go back.
  2865. >If you had, she would too.
  2866. >Couldn't let you try to fight 'em on your own.
  2867. >She’d asked you to think of her foal.
  2868. >”And… you think that’s better than never getting to say goodbye?”
  2869. >You should have gone back.
  2870. >She’d miscarried anyway.
  2871. “No.”
  2872. >And then she’d died.
  2873. >”Oh?”
  2874. >Everypony died.
  2875. “Ah never… Ah never got to see my big sis.”
  2876. >You may still be movin’, but you’re dead on the inside.
  2877. >”She died, too?”
  2878. >Everypony died.
  2879. “Probably. Ah don’t know. Never saw her again, so it ain’t like I *know* she’s dead.”
  2880. >Not like Big Mac.
  2881. “Ah can still pretend she’s out there somehere, an’ that gives me hope.”
  2882. >Not like Babs or Granny.
  2883. >”You don’t act like a pony that has any hope.”
  2884. “An’ why should I? Been four years, an’ every single time things seemed to be turnin’ around, they only got worse. Every time. Everything went wrong when Ponyville burned.”
  2885. >Bill sits in silence for a while an’ you let him.
  2886. >You’d rather watch the moon flyin’ through the sky an’ imagine it’s Luna’s doin’, just like when you watch the sunrise.
  2887. >Try to convince yourself everything is normal.
  2888. >Pretend this world ain’t shit.
  2889. >The moon has nearly crossed the narrow window when Bill speaks again.
  2890. >”You blame us all for your brother’s death?”
  2891. “No, I blame y’all for what happened later.”
  2892. >”The camps?”
  2893. “Nah. Weren’t no worse than stayin’ in Ponyville, Ah suppose.”
  2894. >One muddy hellhole or another, wouldn’t have made much difference.
  2895. >At least Babs coulda been buried with family.
  2896. >Maybe she wouldn’t’ve died.
  2897. >Maybe everypony would’ve.
  2898. >”You mean Sterling and what he’s been doing?” Bill asks slowly, like he’s afraid he’s right.
  2899. >He aint.
  2900. >”I know. I should have done something, but I couldn’t. Sheriff and his buddies… like I said, they’re the law around here and they do things their own way. I’ve got family to look after.”
  2901. “Who? I ain’t seen no one else around.”
  2902. >He snorts, amused-like.
  2903. >”Really?”
  2904. ”You said yourself that your gran’kids and son were…”
  2905. >”Scootaloo.”
  2906. “Huh?”
  2907. >”I have to look after Scootaloo,” the old man sighs. “If anything happened to me, do you know what would happen to her?”
  2908. “She ain’t your daughter.”
  2909. >She’s just a pony.
  2910. >Just like you.
  2911. >Nothing more.
  2912. >So why does she feel so loved?
  2913. >Why’s she have a good life and folk that care about her when you… you don’t got anypony but the foal growin’ in your belly?
  2914. >”I know she’s not my daughter,” Bill concedes. “If she was, I could raise her right and trust she’d look after herself. But ponies?”
  2915. >He sighs again, drummin’ his fingers across the chair’s arm.
  2916. “Yeah. Ah know. We’re just –“
  2917. >”If something happened to me, she’d be placed in emergency rehousing. Moved to the first contractor that had a need for more pony labor. And do you know who that is around here?”
  2918. >Ain’t t’farms, you know that much.
  2919. >”I’m not letting that man get his hands on her,” Bill growls. “I’m sorry I haven’t stepped up and tried to stop him, but I’ve got to keep her safe. You’ve got every right to blame me personally for everything, but –“
  2920. “Ah, don’t.”
  2921. >But you do.
  2922. “That ain’t it at all.”
  2923. >”Then what is it? What *do* you blame us for?”
  2924. “Y’all keep givin’ me hope.”
  2925. >”How is that bad?”
  2926. >You finally turn back t’look at the man.
  2927. “If y’all’d just stop, Ah could finally give up.”
  2928. >His fingers stop doin’ their four-beat rhythm.
  2929. >”You don’t mean what I think you mean, do you?” he asks, voice flat.
  2930. >All serious. No humor or even kindness.
  2931. >Gran’fatherly warmth all drained out.
  2932. >Not that any of that was ever meant for you anyhow.
  2933. “Ah don’t know what Ah mean. Just… it’d be easier, y’know?”
  2934. >”I… I can understand that,” he answers, reluctant to admit it as the sun is t’rise these days. “But I pray you can find a reason to hold on to that hope.”
  2935. “Ah did. An’ when Ah lost it, he at least gave me a new one.”
  2936. >Bill’s eyes dart towards your belly for only a second ‘fore he closes ‘em an’ lets out a long sigh.
  2937. >”So. It was positive?”
  2938. “It was.”
  2939. >”But…”
  2940. “Stop your worryin’. It’ll keep me goin’ for a bit.”
  2941. >Until she don’t need you no more.
  2942. >Prolly the day she’s born.
  2943. >Bill sighs again, rubbin’ the bridge of his nose ‘tween thumb an’ forefinger.
  2944. >”For what it’s worth,” he mumbles, “I think that boy is doing his best. He actually means well.”
  2945. >That’s what hurts the most.
  2946. “An’ what if his best ain’t good enough?”
  2947. >”Then he needs someone to carry him, don’t you think?”
  2948. >But you’ve carried him. It’s what he asked an’ you did it.
  2949. >You did everything you could.
  2950. >An’ where’s that gotten you?
  2951. “Ah just... Ah just can’t anymore.”
  2952. >Ain’t nothin’ left of you but the worn-out shell of a pony.
  2953. >Your head’s too heavy to hold up any longer.
  2954. >Everything’s too heavy, like the weight of the entire world’s restin’ on your back.
  2955. >Maybe even two worlds.
  2956. >An’ it’s all just too much.
  2957. >This is all just too much.
  2958. >”I’ll… I’ll talk to the boy,” Bill says, though his voice sounds distant. “See if maybe he’d be interested in selling your contract, if that’s what you want. No guarantee he’ll listen to some old man, but I can try.
  2959. >”Hell, I’m getting pretty old and Scootaloo can’t keep up the store by herself. I could use a someone else to help around here. What do you say?”
  2960. “I’ll…
  2961. “I’ll think about it.”
  2963. >" - being called a landmark move by..."
  2964. >You tune out the TV.
  2965. >It's not important.
  2966. >Neither is the frantic chatter between the other mares.
  2967. >Your attention is focused on the mare guiding you through the common room.
  2968. >Sterling's assistant.
  2969. >His second fav- his *favorite*.
  2970. >Cherry Berry glances up as you stumble past, but quickly looks away.
  2971. >You don't care. You don't need her sympathy.
  2972. >All you have to do is find your new bed.
  2973. >It's been over a year since you've been in this place.
  2974. >To think you've fallen so far. To think...
  2975. >... to think you're back here. Sharing a bedroom with five other mares. Again.
  2976. >Or maybe not.
  2977. >The room Octavia leads you to is strangely devoid of personal affects.
  2978. >More space for yours, you suppose.
  2979. >"So there it is," Octavia mumbles as you begin unloading your belongings on the nearest bed.
  2980. >You'll put them away tomorrow.
  2981. >It's... you don't know when it is, but it's late.
  2982. >You're tired.
  2983. >And sore.
  2984. >And you need a shower.
  2985. >"I'm aware it's not as pleasant as your private room, however..."
  2986. "Whatever. I'll earn that back soon."
  2987. >"I suppose you shall."
  2988. >She dips her head towards the bed you've dumping your things on.
  2989. >"If I may suggest...? Choose one of the others. We've washed the sheets, but weren't able to get all the stains out of the mattress."
  2990. "Yeah. Thanks."
  2991. >Gross.
  2992. >Octavia inclines her head in a shallow bow.
  2993. >"Good luck."
  2994. >She doesn't waste any more words on you - and you don't waste your time watching her leave.
  2996. >The heater is on, but you're still cold. Practically freezing.
  2997. >Empty rooms do that.
  2998. >But that's not why you can't sleep.
  2999. >The first mattress was lumpy, the second so hard you might as well be sleeping on the ground. The third...
  3000. >You've tried them all and you can't sleep.
  3001. >The stains can't be *that* bad.
  3002. >With carelessness born of exhaustion and despair, you sweep your meagre belongings off the bed.
  3003. >Sterling's favors and gifts from clients fall to the floor.
  3004. >Some bounce. Some roll away.
  3005. >A small mirror breaks.
  3006. >Whatever.
  3007. >You grab the sheets between your teeth and yank them back.
  3008. >Enough to see the specks that dot the mattress.
  3009. >You pull the sheets down further, revealing a mottled tapestry of reds and browns.
  3010. >Some old. Some fresh.
  3011. >But not too fresh.
  3012. >Every stain is a week old or more.
  3013. >Dense enough you can almost make out the curve of her leg here, the sweep of her back there.
  3014. >A near perfect silhouette, painted in pain and suffering.
  3015. >She never did move much in her sleep, even when she had nightmares.
  3016. >A soft whimper as you held her in your legs, a slight shudder. Nothing more.
  3017. >How many nights did this take?
  3018. >How many clients...?
  3019. >You crawl onto the bed, your body following where your eyes lead.
  3020. >How long before your bed is like this?
  3021. >Your legs tremble at the thought.
  3022. >Her customers are now yours.
  3023. >Bruises and scrapes cover your barrel.
  3024. >They are not kind.
  3025. >Your back burns.
  3026. >The whips Sterling supplies won't break the skin, but they still sting.
  3027. >How long can you put off the inevitable?
  3028. >How soon before the clients nopony wants are the only ones willing to buy you?
  3029. >Some clients... they bring their own whips.
  3030. >How desperate will you have to be before you say yes?
  3031. >Another day? Two?
  3032. >No.
  3033. >With a shudder, you realize it's started already.
  3034. >You know that.
  3035. >*Knew* that, as much as you wanted to pretend otherwise.
  3036. >You just don't know how long you can last.
  3037. >Will it be as long as her?
  3038. >And... will you face it with the same quiet dignity?
  3039. >No.
  3040. >You can't even pretend.
  3041. >Not when you're standing over her shadow like it’s your very own.
  3043. >Before the alarm goes off, you're up.
  3044. >Fucking thing is always -
  3045. >...missing...?
  3046. >Your hand finds nothing but air.
  3047. >Oh. Right.
  3048. >Still broken.
  3049. >You raise your head to look anyway.
  3050. >The nightstand is bare, save for a lamp and your phone.
  3051. >Yep, still broken.
  3052. >You should have asked Lauren to pick up a new one while she was in town.
  3053. >It *is* her fault it's busted. And the wall. Well, *that* wall.
  3054. >You're halfway to the bathroom when the alarm on your phone goes off, blaring obnoxious music.
  3055. >Shit.
  3056. >Woke up before the alarm, but you forgot to turn it off.
  3057. >Isn't that how it always goes?
  3058. >Life is suffering.
  3059. >You turn back with a sigh and cancel the alarm.
  3060. >Great start to the morning.
  3061. >A look out the window confirms it'll be a great morning for everyone.
  3062. >Fucking perfect.
  3063. >The sky is covered in by a solid sheet of grey.
  3064. >A light drizzle is still coming down and the dark horizon promises heavier downpours later.
  3065. >If you hurry, you can -
  3066. >Wait, when did you learn to read the weather?
  3067. >Rain is rain and it could just as easily go away from you as come towards, but somehow you just know it.
  3068. >Probably something Apple Bloom taught you.
  3069. >The weather is only going to get worse.
  3070. >Best get on with the day while you still can.
  3071. >Soon, you're dressed, downstairs, and out the door with a briefcase in one hand and an apple in the other.
  3072. >Say what you will about the farm life - and you have - but it's done wonders for your ability to get shit done in a timely manner.
  3073. >Kind of.
  3074. >Almost.
  3075. >Your ponies are living in what's basically a few huge shacks, but at least you're not wasting your time on your computer right now.
  3076. >...as tempting as that sounds right now...
  3077. >The ground is a frozen slurry of mud and ice, nor is the air much better.
  3078. >Nope. Not walking. You're taking the truck.
  3079. >But you still have to walk around the house to get to it.
  3080. >Life is suffering.
  3081. >The walkway is too slick, the bare dirt too muddy; you stick to the grass, the thin coating of ice crunching under every step.
  3082. >Your lungs sting with every breath of the freezing air, even once you're in the cab of the truck.
  3083. >After running the heater for a few minutes, you almost feel alive again. Almost. It's still too early.
  3084. >With feeling returned to your hands, you throw the truck into gear and head down the hill.
  3086. >Be a leaf on the wind.
  3087. >Earth underhoof.
  3088. >Words in the heart.
  3089. >All things, and therefore no things.
  3090. >Right before you, a mare struggles to wake.
  3091. >Night has fled, as it always must, yet you don't find yourself drawn to the rising sun like the others.
  3092. >Everywhere, ponies wake as alarms chirp and light streams through windows.
  3093. >Dawn brings a new day and renewed hope.
  3094. >Hope.
  3095. >Eternities have passed since that was a thing.
  3096. >More the pity that not all share it.
  3097. >An example being the young mare twitching fitfully as she casts off sleep.
  3098. >The stain beneath her shows why.
  3099. >Inked on the bare mattress is a tapestry of despair, drawn in blood.
  3100. >The mare stirs, but does not wake. Whatever nightmares haunt her dreams are kinder to her than facing reality.
  3101. >Everypony suffers. Some more than others.
  3102. >Despair. Hope. Some have one. Some know not which to choose.
  3103. >If only you knew what the future would bring.
  3104. >Everypony dies alone.
  3105. >Some more alone than others.
  3107. >Bemused.
  3108. >That’s how the ponies look.
  3109. >You smile at that thought.
  3110. >After all, it was one of the few things you had taught Apple Bloom.
  3111. >She thought it meant amused, but no.
  3112. >At least you’d been able to teach her something. For once. Instead of it being the other way around.
  3113. >The ponies mill about, whispering to each other.
  3114. >Surprised that you’re here? Yeah, probably.
  3115. >A few had glanced your way when you’d gotten out of the truck, but only a few.
  3116. >Apparently, they’re getting comfortable with you. Or at least *more* comfortable.
  3117. >A blue mare skittishly dances a few paces away from you when you stray too close for her comfort.
  3118. >Several steps later, a stallion steps between you and a foal.
  3119. >Most don’t even acknowledge your presence.
  3120. >You know what your uncle would say: you’re getting too ‘familiar’ with the help. And they’re getting too familiar with you.
  3121. >Probably wouldn’t have put it that way, though.
  3122. >It sounds racist, and for all his faults that wasn’t one of them.
  3123. >A man couldn’t afford to be, in this line of work.
  3124. >And in this case, you’re starting to think he was wrong.
  3125. >Moondancer greets you with a swish of her tail and a smile.
  3126. >Certainly not the reaction you would have received all those years ago, from the migrant workers.
  3127. >Hell, not the reaction you got a few months back.
  3128. >The only ponies that smiled at you back then were… well… there was just the one.
  3129. >Apple Bloom.
  3130. >And now…
  3131. >”Finally decided to watch the sunrise with us?”
  3132. “What? No, I’m just here for… uh…”
  3133. >You raise the briefcase in your hand absentmindedly for her to see, as you raise your eyes to the horizon.
  3134. >”Oh, right.”
  3135. >The distinction between earth and sky is blurred by the clouds and rain, a grey streak smeared across the distance.
  3136. “Sunrise?”
  3137. >It can’t be that early.
  3138. >You’re never this awake that early.
  3139. >”Uh, yeah,” Moondancer chuckles nervously. “The sunrise. You know, that thing that happens every morning?”
  3140. >”Usually,” a deadpan voice corrects. “Remember those three days?”
  3141. >”I… yes,” Moondancer sighs, nodding as Maud approaches. “Who doesn’t?”
  3142. “Um…”
  3143. >You have no idea what they’re talking about.
  3144. >Maud greets you with a dip of her head.
  3145. >”Good morning. Or hopefully it will be. Eventually”
  3146. “Well…”
  3147. >You force a smile onto your face – and not the only false one present, you notice.
  3148. “… why… uh… why wouldn’t it be?”
  3149. >”I don’t know.”
  3150. >She shrugs, but now that it’s come up, you can’t shake the feeling that something is off.
  3151. “So… sunrise, huh?”
  3152. >That would explain it – why some of the ponies look so uncomfortable, why some are casting ugly looks your way.
  3153. >Not many, not even most.
  3154. >No, most of the ponies are milling about, shuffling their hooves, and staring off into the distance.
  3155. >But it’s not right. It’s not how you’ve seen them act, when you’ve watched this from the house, or… that one time.
  3156. >The first – and only – time you had joined them.
  3157. >Even though Apple Bloom had invited you and stood by your side the entire time, you shouldn’t have been there.
  3158. >She had been as welcoming as possible, but that hadn’t helped. Made things even worse, probably.
  3159. >You’d stayed. You shouldn’t have.
  3160. >So very out of place, it was painful.
  3161. >You stood silently, trying to draw as little attention to yourself as possible.
  3162. >It was the most awkward moment of your life.
  3163. >This is nothing like that.
  3164. >There’s no focus, no sense of purpose, nothing for you to intrude upon.
  3165. >Mostly… just..
  3166. >… confusion.
  3167. “I should… I should go.”
  3168. >You don’t belong here.
  3169. >The quiet prayers you had overheard months ago are now soft, disoriented murmurs.
  3170. “I’ll be back when –“
  3171. >”Stay,” Moondancer interrupts, smiling wider – but you now see her expression is as forced as your own. “It’s fine. Stay.”
  3172. “I shouldn’t be here.”
  3173. >Maud flicks her tail.
  3174. >Disagreeing with you?
  3175. >Sometimes it’s hard to read her.
  3176. >Always, really.
  3177. >”You didn’t come to the party last night.”
  3178. >A pure statement? A reproach?
  3179. “No, but…“
  3180. >”You could have, though I admit it wasn’t much of a party.”
  3181. >The infinitesimally small twitch of her shoulders might be a shrug.
  3182. >”I lack my sister’s talents.”
  3183. >She seems calm enough, but she always does.
  3184. >Her mood is so much harder to read than the others.
  3185. >Nervous prancing, head raised high, ears pinned back, forelegs splayed.
  3186. >You see that and more as you look out across gathering.
  3187. >Something is wrong.
  3188. >You shouldn’t be here.
  3189. >Some of the foals you had seen happily playing around a day or two before are now sticking close to their parents – and not for warmth. Their large eyes are roaming constantly. Others are huddled together with their friends, or even trying to sneak back inside.
  3190. >Some of the ponies are eyeing you unhappily. Angrily, even.
  3191. >Bumper Crop. Bonbon. Lyra.
  3192. >The last’s anger borrowed, but still present.
  3193. >But that’s only a few, a scant handful.
  3194. >Most look worried. Some scared.
  3195. >Roma, for one.
  3196. >She’s staring into the stormclouds with dead eyes, no fearful trembling or nervous ticks. Just staring. And waiting.
  3197. >You know that expression now.
  3198. >It had taken you three months, but you learned. Eventually.
  3199. >Roma is scared.
  3200. >… and… Moondancer…?
  3201. >Her eyes share the same flat, too-neutral aspect at odds with her smile.
  3202. >She’s scared.
  3203. >How many more?
  3204. >How many of the others that won’t meet your eyes, that look away quickly or pretend to keep their attention locked on the distant horizon?
  3205. >You shouldn’t be here.
  3206. “I’m sorry. I’ll… I’ll be back. Later.”
  3207. >"No, wait,” Moondancer stops you, grabbing your leg with hers. “Stay. It's not you."
  3208. “Then what’s going on?”
  3209. >”I… I don’t know, but it’s not you.”
  3210. >”I know,” a soft voice chimes in, a pony you don’t know by name. “Maybe. I mean… it feels like… back then, doesn’t it?”
  3211. “When?”
  3212. >”When… when… no, never mind. I’m wrong.”
  3213. >The stallion shakes his head and backs away a step, two.
  3214. >”Everything’s fine,” he insists. “It’s just the changing weather making everypony feel weird.”
  3215. >His half-hearted chuckle does nothing to convince you.
  3217. >Be silent.
  3218. >You ain’t never been one to pray much.
  3219. >Never could figure out how that started or why some ponies bought into that idea.
  3220. >Ain’t nopony to hear your words.
  3221. >The princess is dead, an’ if this God some’f the humans ramble about’s real, he ain’t lookin’ out for you.
  3222. >He ain’t even lookin’ out for *them*.
  3223. >Still, you’re awake an’ lookin’ out the window ‘fore dawn.
  3224. >Watchin’ the sun rise.
  3225. >Or tryin’ anyhow. Storm clouds ain’t makin’ it easy.
  3226. >It’s important.
  3227. >Ain’t ‘bout the princess for you, never has been.
  3228. >Ain’t even ‘bout fittin’ in.
  3229. >It’s ‘bout family.
  3230. >You’re up an’ staring at some stupid rainclouds ‘cause somewhere - *somewhere* - AJ’s doin’ the same.
  3231. >You *know* she is.
  3232. >She ain’t with you, but you ain’t completely alone, so long as you can pretend that she’s out there.
  3233. >So long as you can pretend.
  3234. >You sigh.
  3235. >You ain’t been able to convince yourself in months, but you go through the motions anyhow.
  3236. >Can’t say why. Particularly now, when you can’t even see the dang sun for all the clouds.
  3237. >This is stupid.
  3238. >You’re stupid.
  3239. >Today – finally, after three years of waitin’ – you look away.
  3241. >”Be still,“ Doctor Alda sighs an’ shakes his head wearily. ”Hell, go back to sleep, girl. The sun isn’t even up yet!”
  3242. >You doubt he ever got any, himself.
  3243. “Can’t. Even if I wanted to, I’ve got a busy day ahead of me.”
  3244. >Stomach still hurts like heck, but not so bad you can’t sit up.
  3245. “Besides, I’m usually up earlier.”
  3246. >Doc sighs again as you flash him a smile.
  3247. “Couldn’t get back to sleep anyway. My body won’t let me sleep any longer.”
  3248. >”I can make you. I’ve got drugs and –“
  3249. “An’ you keep ‘em for those that need ‘em, okay?”
  3250. >The doc don’t like that one bit, but he steps out of the room before you start peelin’ off that dang gown his nurse gave you to sleep in.
  3251. >Not that you *would’ve*. Just… enough to make the point.
  3252. >Your things are stuffed in a little bag, tossed on a chair.
  3253. >The clothes reek of sweat, but you’ve worn worse.
  3254. >You’d wasted the last day sittin’ ‘round and layin’ down.
  3255. >These’re work clothes.
  3256. >It’s time to get to work.
  3257. >You’re up an’ dressed in a whole minute, with only a lil’bit of wantin’ to die in between slippin’ on your pants and pullin’ on your socks.
  3258. >Even with the time spent puttin’ on the clothes and feelin’ sorry for yourself, you’re out the door in under five.
  3259. >The doc is waitin’ right outside and sighs when he sees you.
  3260. >”Look, it wasn’t *major* surgery –“
  3261. “- but it was still surgery. I know.”
  3262. >Ain’t the first time he’s said that this morning.
  3263. >The doc nods and pulls somethin’ out of his coat pocket.
  3264. >Two somethin’s.
  3265. >”Aftercare instructions,” he explains, holdin’ out a sheet of paper for you, “and some painkillers.”
  3266. >He don’t let go of the small bottle, though. Actually pulls it back ‘fore you touch it.
  3267. >”Don’t take any yet. Best wait until you get back home, if you can.”
  3268. >You nod.
  3269. >Ain’t enough to make him happy, but it’s enough for him to push the bottle into your hand.
  3270. >”More importantly,” he grumbles, “actually take them if you need them.”
  3271. “Will do.”
  3272. >”Promise me.”
  3273. “I swear, doc.”
  3274. >That’s enough for him to actually let go.
  3275. >”You going to go straight back to the farm now?”
  3276. “No, I gotta make a few stops first.”
  3277. >”Don’t push yourself.”
  3278. >You smile for him, make a little show of – okay, that weren’t a great idea.
  3279. >Not ‘cause of your stomach or nothing, you’re just too old to go doin’ cartwheels down the hallway.
  3280. >Lucky that your brains kicked in ‘fore you got started, and you stick with just a smile.
  3281. “I’ll be fine.”
  3282. >Hell, you ain’t even gotta do any *real* work today.
  3283. >Milkin’ the cows – back when you’d had cows – with a busted arm? *That* was work, but you’d done it.
  3284. >Hadn’t been given no choice, but you would’ve anyhow.
  3285. >Someone had to do it, just like now.
  3286. “Just have a couple stops, doc. Gotta swing by the hardware store an’ set up some deliveries is all.”
  3287. >”And where’s the second?” he asks, all suspiciously like you were tryin’ to trick him into lettin’ you kill yourself.
  3288. “Church.”
  3289. >Doc stares at you a minute, but nods.
  3290. >”Fine, but don’t take too long.”
  3291. “I won’t.”
  3292. >”And don’t go through the deadzone on your way back.”
  3293. “Do I look crazy to you?”
  3294. >”Yes.”
  3295. >That’s almost insultin’.
  3296. >He didn’t even hesitate one sec.
  3297. “Well, I’m not.”
  3298. >”I’m serious. If not for your sake, then for the foals. Redheart and I talked about Hematite last night, and… I’m serious. Don’t. I don’t know exactly what’s wrong with her, but don’t you dare.”
  3299. >He says it so firmly, you gotta laugh. Got is arms crossed an’ everything.
  3300. “I promise I won’t take a shortcut.”
  3301. >”Good. You don’t know how dangerous it can be.”
  3302. “I know good n’ well, doc.”
  3303. >You know *damn* well.
  3304. >”Well –“
  3305. “My mother’s in there. Somewhere”
  3306. >He shrugs, the embarrassed gesture so dang out of place on the man that it makes even *you* feel awkward.
  3307. >Heat rises on your cheeks, which only makes things even worse.
  3308. >You’re a grown woman. Feelin’ embarrassed ‘cause a grown man feels embarrassed only makes you even more so.
  3309. >”Sorry,” he mumbles. “I know. Just…”
  3310. “Lemme guess, some fool tried goin’ through an’ didn’t make it?”
  3311. >”Not here,” he answers, “but yeah. Between your farms and the city.”
  3312. >Doc sighs again, his shoulders slumpin’ an’ makin’ him look older’n he has any right to.
  3313. >”I’ll be glad when they get that bypass finally built.”
  3314. “Ain’t never gonna happen. Why’re they even comin’ through in the first place?”
  3315. >Doc starts shufflin’ away, motionin’ for you to follow.
  3316. >Hurts a bit to walk, but it’s easy to keep up with him at his pace.
  3317. >Hell, ain’t gone more’n five steps ‘fore you gotta slow up.
  3318. >“I’m sure you saw how big the town has gotten,” doc says suddenly. “On your way here, I mean.”
  3319. “Kinda had my mind on other things.”
  3320. >”I’m sure you did.”
  3321. >He gets ‘nother three or four steps, ‘fore turnin’ his head to smile at you.
  3322. >“They’ve started up construction again.”
  3323. “What? You’re jokin’.”
  3324. >”Nope. It’ll be finished in nine months, maybe less.”
  3325. >His smile grows even wider.
  3326. “That ain’t even possible! Where’d the money come from? Or the supplies?”
  3327. >”I heard that up north they’ve got some of the factories rebuilt and tooled for civilian equipment again. Things are finally starting to get back to normal.”
  3328. >Disbelief leaves you stunned.
  3329. >Sass takes over.
  3330. “It’s been a while, but… uh… I wouldn’t say any road gettin’ built in under three or four years is *remotely* normal.”
  3331. >”Well, you got me there,” he agrees with a short laugh, “but things are getting better. Little by little, they’re getting better.”
  3332. “I guess that’s good enough.”
  3334. >Before you can answer th’door or even call out, it’s open an’ Scootaloo’s pokin’ her head through the widenin’ gap.
  3335. >Barely even knocked first.
  3336. >“Apple Bloom! You won’t believe it!”
  3337. “What.”
  3338. >You can hardly pretend to care. Nah, can’t even.
  3339. >”Come with me!” she shouts, grabbing your hoof and yanking you out of bed. “This is the best thing ever!”
  3340. >You lack the strength – or the will – to resist.
  3341. >It don’t matter none anyhow.
  3342. >Today – finally – after three years of this, you can accept that.
  3343. >It’s like somethin’ just up an’ clicked.
  3344. >There ain’t nopony out there lookin’ for you.
  3345. >Ain’t no sister starin’ up at the same sky, thinkin’ of you as she does.
  3346. >Certainly ain’t nopony starin’ down an’ watchin’ over you.
  3347. >Nothin’ matters, ‘cause you don’t matter.
  3348. >Maybe to other folks, other ponies, there’ll be things that count.
  3349. >Like whatever Scoots’ so excited for.
  3350. >She matters.
  3351. >There’s folks that care for her.
  3352. >But you?
  3353. >Maybe. Someday.
  3354. >Not today.
  3355. >Not for months.
  3356. >Not until –
  3357. >A portal.
  3358. >On the tv.
  3359. “What…?”
  3360. >”See!?”
  3361. >Scootaloo waves her hooves towards the screen.
  3362. >”She’s –“
  3363. >”Pipe down, Scoots,” Bill cuts her off, smackin’ the mare with his cap. “Let the girl hear it herself.”
  3364. “Why… why is there a portal?”
  3365. >You know there’s some still open. Everypony knows that.
  3366. >It’s how you got out of Equestria in the first place, but…
  3367. “What’s goin’ on…?”
  3368. >Why’re there all kinds of people in fancy suits lined up?
  3369. >What’s with the lil’ stage they got set up an’ the microphones an’ all that?
  3370. >”I don’t rightly know,” Bill answers slowly. “I just turned on the morning news to get the weather and… well… there’s *this*. I knew you’d want to see it yourself.”
  3371. “But…”
  3372. >It don’t make no sense.
  3373. >”Just watch.”
  3374. >You do.
  3375. >Not ‘cause it matters or nothin’, you’re just curious.
  3376. >Kinda.
  3377. >Nothin’ adds up.
  3378. >Only the soldiers are allowed near portals, but those people ain’t no soldiers.
  3379. >Neither’s the pony that comes through, or the ones that follow.
  3380. “Scoots –“
  3381. >”Shush.”
  3382. >An’ that’s the most curious thing so far – Mica shushin’ you like you was talkin’ away at a play.
  3383. >That’s more queer’n the heavy winter coats the ponies on the tv are wearin’ or the cloth they’ve got all wrapped ‘round their faces.
  3384. >Sure, it’s winter an’ all, but it ain’t that cold, particularly wherever they are.arele
  3385. >Grass is still green, even.
  3386. >Ain’t no call for them to be wearin’ something that dang hot.
  3387. >Meanwhile, you’re here feelin’ the chill, even inside, an’ you ain’t got a thing to keep you warm but the little colt that’s snuggled up to one’ve your forelegs an’ his sister on th’other.
  3388. >It’s prolly freezin’ back at the farm, an’ there ain’t nothin’ but a few scarves an’ rags between the lot of you.
  3389. >It ain’t fair.
  3390. >Nothin’ is.
  3391. >This ain’t somethin’ new.
  3392. >So you watch.
  3393. >Not like it’s gonna change your life or nothin’.
  3394. >Ain’t gonna make everything suddenly better.
  3395. >You’re beyond thinkin’ silly stuff like that now.
  3396. >You’re just curious, is all, but that starts to ebb away as soon as some man starts talkin’ at the podium.
  3397. >New refugees.
  3398. >After the cease fire.
  3399. >They *asked* to come.
  3400. >Don’t make no sense.
  3401. >Why’d anypony ever *want* to come here is beyond you.
  3402. >You stop listenin’ pretty quick.
  3403. >Curiosity only lasts so long.
  3404. >Bit after, the man steps away from the microphone.
  3405. >It’s over.
  3406. >Whatever it was.
  3407. >Ain’t nothin’ to get excited ‘bout.
  3408. >Took you three years to learn, but you did.
  3409. >Eventually.
  3410. >Ain’t nothin’ worth getting’ excited ‘bout.
  3411. >Hope is only a cruel lie.
  3412. >Maybe for others, ponies like Scoots or -
  3413. >*Sweetie Belle.*
  3414. >Why’s… why’s Sweetie Belle on the tv?
  3415. >Why’s she steppin’ up to the podium?
  3416. “Scoots…? What’s goin’ on?”
  3417. >”Just watch.”
  3418. >Sweetie starts to talk, but you barely hear a thing she says after the first few words.
  3419. >Wish more’n anything that you could.
  3420. >”Three years ago,” she had said, tears in her eyes, “I lost my best friends. In the chaos and confusion of those early days, they were taken from me.
  3421. >”Today, I’m here to get them back.”
  3422. >She smiles – not for the camera, but for you, like she’s starin’ right at you, face to face.
  3423. >”Apple Bloom, Scootaloo… just wait for me a little bit longer. We’ll be together soon.”
  3424. >You wish more’n anything you could hear the rest, but you can’t over the poundin’ of your heart.
  3425. >None of that matters right now.
  3426. >Somepony’s comin’.
  3427. >For you.
  3429. >Be curious.
  3430. "You sure?"
  3431. >"Yeah, yeah," the stallion mumbles through his forced grin, "everything's fine."
  3432. >At your side, Moondancer shakes her head. Just enough to make the fringe of her bangs sway gently, but enough for you to notice.
  3433. >"No," she murmurs softly, too soft for the stallion to hear.
  3434. >Too soft for you to hear, if you weren't so on edge.
  3435. >Right now, you can't miss a thing.
  3436. >"No," she repeats. "I know what you mean."
  3437. "Moondancer...?"
  3438. >"Just watch the sunrise," she whispers, her voice a hair stronger. "Be quiet and watch the sunrise with us."
  3439. >The mare sidles up closer, until she's pressed against your leg, hard enough you instinctively step away to balance yourself.
  3440. >She follows.
  3441. >A moment later, Maud is doing the same on your other side.
  3442. >They're as worried as you are. More, probably.
  3443. >So you try.
  3444. >The quiet part is easy. That's as simple as keeping your lips together and not running screaming for the truck.
  3445. >Watching the sunrise is harder.
  3446. >It's impossible to keep your focus on that gradually brightening blur of grey when there's so much going on around you.
  3447. >The air is chilly - cold, even. The ground hasn’t even had a chance to thaw from the year’s first hard freeze.
  3448. >That’s not enough to explain away the shivering you see among many of the ponies.
  3449. >In some - perhaps most - it's fear.
  3450. >As the minutes pass and more ponies gathered outside, what had been merely unease became something more.
  3451. >Now they’re scared.
  3452. >The little visual cues are enough to clue you in.
  3453. >Yes, even you can notice them.
  3454. >Others... others are simply cold. There's no fear in their posture, not that you can see.
  3455. >Maybe you just don’t know them well enough.
  3456. >If Apple Bloom was here…
  3457. >If…
  3458. >You sigh internally.
  3459. >*If* she was here. *If* you thought you could trust her to tell you the truth. *If*.
  3460. >You can’t keep relying on her for everything, because you *can’t* rely on her for *anything*.
  3461. >The fact of things is you don't know your ponies well, not who they are or where they're from. Not even their names, save a scant handful.
  3462. >The ones you have the most contact with. The friendly ones. The troublemakers. The troublemakers you thought were your friends.
  3463. >You'd tried.
  3464. >When you first got here, you tried.
  3465. >Not much, but a little.
  3466. >Mostly going through the paperwork, the bulk contracts and accompanying pictures.
  3467. >Some of it stuck. Enough to know that mare by the pavilion with the burgundy coat was in the last batch to arrive at the farm, only a few months before you.
  3468. >It's a rare color on a pony and that makes it easy to remember.
  3469. >She's shaking like a blizzard is raging around her.
  3470. >So's the teal pegasus on the far edge of the crowd.
  3471. >He's from the last batch too, you think.
  3472. >Maybe.
  3473. >Could be wrong.
  3474. >But they're both standing alone, out of the herd.
  3475. >Maybe it *is* that cold out here, maybe it's the mares pressed on either side of you that are keeping you from freezing to the bone.
  3476. >Then what about the couple just a few yards from you?
  3477. >Flare... uh...
  3478. >No, you're not going to even try to pretend you remember their names, just the wild orange mane on the mare.
  3479. >You *know* that pair came in on the final load.
  3480. >Some of those ponies were so traumatized by the war or what came after that there was no fear left in them.
  3481. >That's why that batch stuck in your memory: the cautionary notes the farmhands left that the whip and threats wouldn't do you any good. They’d spent too long in the camps.
  3482. >Those two aren't afraid of anything, yet they're shaking more than any of the rest.
  3483. >And it can’t be the cold; they're huddled together and about as close to the center of the herd as is possible with such a loose gathering.
  3484. >You could swear their lips are turning blue.
  3485. >It's not *that* cold out here, not even counting the light drizzle your jacket is keeping you from feeling.
  3486. >Can't be.
  3487. "Moondancer..."
  3488. >She nudges you, probably trying to quiet you.
  3489. >Too late. You've already opened your mouth when you said her name.
  3490. >Inertia carries you on.
  3491. "... I think everyone should go back inside."
  3492. >"Not until the sun is up."
  3493. “No, something’s wrong. I *really* -“
  3494. >”I need to see this. *We* need to see this.”
  3495. >A nearby stallion nods, perhaps in agreement with her whispered words.
  3496. >That’s not enough.
  3497. >The ponies are your responsibility, right?
  3498. >After months, you’ve finally accepted that.
  3499. >You’re building new housing for them, make their lives better.
  3500. >Talked to them.
  3501. >Gotten to know some of them.
  3502. >Realized that they’re… *real*.
  3503. >Real people, not just animals. Not simply numbers on a sheet or figures in a distance.
  3504. >Maybe even start to care.
  3505. >Something’s wrong and you can’t leave them like this.
  3506. “Moondancer…”
  3507. >You try to sound firm.
  3508. >Not harsh. Compassionate, but unyielding.
  3509. “You can skip a day.”
  3510. >She shakes her head.
  3511. >”Not today.”
  3513. >Be utterly shocked.
  3514. >"Hey..."
  3515. >Scootaloo brushes her hoof 'gainst your cheek.
  3516. >It comes away wet.
  3517. >”… hey there, stop that.”
  3518. >You're cryin'… an' she's smilin'.
  3519. >"You’re going to make me cry, too.”
  3520. >Too late. She already is.
  3521. >She's cryin' too, but she's smilin'.
  3522. >Ain't hard to figure why.
  3523. >”Everything's going to be okay now."
  3524. >With those green eyes starin' outta the tv at you, can't help but have somethin' like hope flutter t'life in your chest.
  3525. >No.
  3526. >No!
  3527. >Why would Sweetie do this to you?
  3528. >Why does she want to hurt you?
  3529. >Weren't you once – lifetimes ago – friends...?
  3531. >”Be careful out there,” Doc calls out as you make your way down to your truck.
  3532. >Feels a bit off, but you can walk just fine on your own. Don’t need a dang wheelchair.
  3533. “I’ll be fine, but thanks for your worry.”
  3534. >”Looks like a storm’s coming in. It’ll probably reach us before you’re halfway home, so are you *sure* you don’t want to stay another night?”
  3535. “Can’t. Got work to do.”
  3536. >He shrugs and rolls his eyes.
  3537. >”Never could stop you, could I?”
  3538. “’bout as well as you can that storm.”
  3539. >Bit of a twinge in your gut as you step up into the cab of your truck, but you manage.
  3540. >Isn’t nothin’ near as bad as yesterday.
  3542. >Behind you the rain starts to come down, the drops thick and heavy, if few and slow.
  3543. >You’d followed Moondancer inside just in time.
  3544. >For as scattered as the rainfall is, it makes a heck of a racket on the roof of the dorms.
  3545. >Deep down, you’re a bit grateful for it.
  3546. >The noise drowns out the quiet mutterings of the ponies as the shuffle inside.
  3547. >The sun never did poke out from behind the clouds, but eventually the sky had lightened enough for them to be satisfied – or give up, at least.
  3548. >You had felt the tension slowly drain out of the mare on your left.
  3549. >The one on your right stayed solid as a rock, as always.
  3550. >Even as Moondancer went from rigidly holding you in place to leaning against you for support, you stayed quiet.
  3551. >The steel in her voice had shocked you into silence, a silence you both hold until you’re through the first building and the loud bustle of the kitchen and are crossing the covered walkway to the next hall.
  3552. >"The sunrise," she speaks softly, shaking away the dampness in her mane and tail, “I... I needed to see it.”
  3553. >"To make sure it happened," Maud adds. A question? An explanation?
  3554. >Her tone is so neutral, you can’t tell.
  3555. >Either way, Moondancer nods.
  3556. >”Everypony else, too. It’s why we were there.”
  3557. “I thought that whole sunrise thing was about remembering the princess or something.”
  3558. >”Partially,” she concedes, nudging open the door and holding it open for you. “Mostly that, really. When the sun comes up, it feels like she’s still with us. Like… you know… we haven’t been abandoned.”
  3559. “But today…?”
  3560. >The mare shakes her head, her eyes downcast.
  3561. >”It didn’t feel like that today. She wasn’t there. But… it’s fine. It’s just a feeling. She never was there. She’s dead.”
  3562. >Moondancer sighs, her head drooping for a moment as if she were deflating.
  3563. >”She’s been dead for years. Probably just the weather making everything feel weird.”
  3564. >She tries to raise her head and smile as you slide past her.
  3565. >Maud doesn’t.
  3566. >You know because you look back at her as she comes in behind you and her face is as impassive as always.
  3567. >Admittedly, you haven’t known Moondancer long, if you really know her at all, but this nervousness is so at odds with the mare that kicked you out of your own kitchen.
  3568. >Not Maud, though. She’s as unshaken as ever, the firm and unyielding pony you can depend on.
  3569. >”You know how it is, right?” Moondancer laughs weakly, stepping away from the door and letting it bang shut. “I mean, you’ve lived on this world longer than any of us, so… yeah…”
  3570. “Well…”
  3571. >She stares up at you nervously, clearly looking for some kind of reassurance.
  3572. >You learned that expression from Apple Bloom, too. It’s practically identical, save for the glasses.
  3573. >In the dim lighting of the dorms, her coat is the same pale yellow.
  3574. “… yeah...”
  3575. >You don’t quite pat her head, but the impulse was there.
  3576. >For just a moment, quick and fleeting.
  3577. >Until you remembered Apple Bloom’s lies.
  3578. >That streak of red in her mane is even about the same color.
  3579.  “Yeah… I… uh… I get it.”
  3580. >You try to smile back.
  3581. >It’s not enough.
  3582. >Moondancer turns away, still uncertain, still worried.
  3583. >”Well…” she chuckles, “no sense wasting time, right? I’ll take you to Silver Spoon. Maud… could you… um… help set up the tables? Inside, you know? For breakfast?”
  3584. >The other mare spares a glance your way before nodding.
  3585. >”Sure,” Maud murmurs in her usual monotone, peeling away and heading out the very door she had just come in.
  3586. >Your confusion must show, because Moondancer puts on that fake smile again.
  3587. >”It’ll be pretty crowded if all of us try to fit in that room,” she explains. “And Marble’s not exactly the *strongest* pony… so… “
  3588. >Strong enough, you suspect. You haven’t met an earth pony yet that wasn’t, even on their suppressants.
  3589. >But it’s hard to argue.
  3590. >You don’t know. You don’t know *anything* about your ponies.
  3591. >Being here, now, is proof enough of that.
  3592. >So you shrug away your unease and gesture for her to lead the way.
  3594. >She’s right enough, though; the room’s uncomfortably small with just the three of you.
  3595. >Would have been four, but the mare watching over Silver Spoon had left at a quiet word from Moondancer.
  3596. >The cot itself takes up most of the space, despite being barely large enough to hold the mare laying upon it.
  3597. >Silver Spoon’s eyes sweep over you unseeing, locking on to Moondancer after a moment.
  3598. >”Oh,” she asks weakly. “Are you taking over for Twinkleworks…?”
  3599. >”Not exactly,” Moondancer murmurs. “We’re… um…”
  3600. >”Oh,” the injured mare whispers with a smile, the expression faint but genuine. “Is Hematite back?”
  3601. “No, I was hoping…”
  3602. >Silver Spoon’s head whips around to stare at you in shock and you realize she was only now noticing your presence.
  3603. >Scant moments later, the glances fearfully towards the only other piece of furniture in the room – at the small table and the pill bottle on it.
  3604. >The *full* bottle.
  3605. >The implication hits you at the same time her gaze does.
  3606. >”I’m… I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I… I…”
  3607. >You want so hard to slap your face into your palm.
  3608. >Maybe if you do it hard enough, you’ll knock yourself out and wake up in some magical world where things aren’t shit.
  3609. >And it’s not just because of how pathetic she seems, trying to stammer out the obvious, but because you should have seen this coming.
  3610. >Because this is your fault.
  3611. >Hadn’t Lauren warned you about this? Or… or was it Apple Bloom…?
  3612. >Would you even have listened to her if it was?
  3613. >Well, you hadn’t, and now you have a pony who’s suffering for it.
  3614. >You sigh – because you can’t run away.
  3615. “Silver Spoon...”
  3616. >She shudders at your voice.
  3617. “… why aren’t taking your pain meds?”
  3618. >”W… what?”
  3619. “Your pain meds.”
  3620. >You sigh again.
  3621. >This is getting old.
  3622. >If your brand new accountant is in pain, she won’t be able to concentrate.
  3623. >Neither will she be able to if she’s doped out of her mind, but you push that out of *your* mind.
  3624. >Even if you’ve put her in the hands… or hooves… of the other ponies, you have a responsibility to make sure she’s not in pain.
  3625. >A responsibility you wish you could ignore.
  3626. >If only you could.
  3627. >If only you hadn’t seen it.
  3628. >If only you could pretend it wasn’t happening. Feign ignorance. Walk away and say it’s her own fault, not yours.
  3629. >Caring is a bitch.
  3630. >It makes your heart ache.
  3631. >Things was easier when you didn’t care.
  3632. >Everything was so much better when you had Apple Bloom to stand between you and the other ponies.
  3633. >You sigh and shove an unresisting Moondancer aside so you can reach the bottle.
  3634. >It feels so heavy when you pick it up, more than any bottle should.
  3635. “You *need* to take them, Silver Spoon.”
  3636. >She raises an eyebrow, confusion written clearly across her face.
  3637. >”But I *am*…” she answers after a second, then then a second later adds something you never want to hear her say again. ”… master…?”
  3638. >It hits your gut like a hammer.
  3639. “Don’t call me that again.”
  3641. >Be afraid.
  3642. >Every time you’ve woken up, you’ve been terrified that he would be standing over you.
  3643. >Every time you’ve fallen asleep, it’s been in your thoughts as you drifted away.
  3644. >Not always at the forefront, but always there.
  3645. “Y-yes, m-“
  3646. >No.
  3647. >Not that.
  3648. “- sir…?”
  3649. >He sighs.
  3650. >He’s unhappy.
  3651. >You should have been taking your pills.
  3652. >Where’s Hematite?
  3653. >Did he do something to her!?
  3654. >Did he do something to her because you haven’t been taking them!?
  3655. >The thought makes you sit up – or try.
  3656. >A bandaged hoof slips on the sheets, dropping you back down to the cot before you’re even an inch off the pillow.
  3657. >He leans forward, as if following you, and waves the bottle in front of your face, so close it isn’t blurry anymore.
  3658. >“You *have* to take your pills,” he barks. “If you’re in pain, you *need* to let someone know!”
  3659. “But… I *am*.”
  3660. >”Then why is the bottle full?”
  3661. “Those… um…”
  3662. >You don’t understand.
  3663. >What’s his trick?
  3664. >What’s he playing at?
  3665. “… those aren’t the painkillers…”
  3666. >He jerks the bottle away from your face.
  3667. >Presumably raises it to his own.
  3668. >That’s what the blurs you can see seem to indicate.
  3669. >”Huh.”
  3670. >”Those are the magic suppressants,” the mare with him says.
  3671. >”Oh.”
  3672. >Apple Bloom…?
  3673. >It…*almost* looks like her.
  3674. >It doesn’t sound like her, though.
  3675. >You probably imagined her from the beginning.
  3676. >You wish you had your glasses, but they’re on the table. *Should* be on the table. You can’t see well enough to tell if they’re still there.
  3677. >And if you can’t see them, they’re out of reach.
  3678. >”Shit,” master groans. “Does *anyone* take their suppressants? Ever?”
  3679. “I’ll… I’ll start tomorrow.”
  3680. >If it brings Hematite back, you would do anything.
  3681. >She’s your friend.
  3682. >More than the others, though they care about you. The feeling of warmth that washes over you when the filly is around is like a tsunami compared to the gentle tides of the others.
  3683. “Please… m-“
  3684. >The blob stiffens.
  3685. “- sir –“
  3686. >It relaxes.
  3687. >You make a mental note of that.
  3688. >It’s easy, learning what words and phrases to use.
  3689. >What to say and what not to if you want to avoid punishment.
  3690. >Don't forget to call him ‘sir.’ He likes that.
  3691. “- I’ll start taking them. Sir.”
  3692. >There’s a gentle swaying that you eventually realize is him shaking his head.
  3693. >”Don’t bother,” he sighs. “No one else does.”
  3695. >Be an idiot.
  3696. >Those pills aren’t even the same color.
  3697. >Maybe if you paid more attention to shit around here, you’d remember that.
  3698. >”I’ll take them!” Silver Spoon shouts, reaching out with her hoof. “Please! Just… just don’t hurt Hematite!”
  3699. “What?”
  3700. >You drop the bottle into your jacket pocket.
  3701. >Might as well make it official… or… something.
  3702. >Thoughts flitter through your head. Advice your uncle gave.
  3703. >Never give someone an order they won’t follow.
  3704. >”Please…”
  3705. >Once disobeyed, it’s likely to happen again, so if you take the pills away and tell her not to take them, she won’t be disobeying you by not taking… wait…
  3706. “What? What!? Why would I ever hurt Hematite?”
  3707. >You can’t have heard her right.
  3708. >You round on Moondancer.
  3709. “That can’t be what she said. She didn’t, did she?”
  3710. >The mare nods.
  3711. “Why would she think I would do that!?”
  3712. >”Probably because she wasn’t taking her suppressants.”
  3713. "So? Wouldn't I punish *her* for -"
  3714. >Moondancer sighs and shoulders you aside.
  3715. "- uh - okaaaay, then..."
  3716. >There’s no space to move in this tiny room.
  3717. >”Silver Spoon?” Moondancer says softly, reaching out to touch the mare’s hoof. “Everything’s fine. Don’t you remember?”
  3718. >”… please… don’t hurt her…”
  3719. >”She went into town. She’s fine.”
  3720. >”... she’s… she’s my friend…”
  3721. >”And she’ll be back,” Moondancer reassures the mare. “She just went to talk to one of the nurses in town. That’s all.”
  3722. >She looks back over her shoulder at you expectantly until you nod.
  3723. “I swear. She’ll be back tomorrow.”
  3724. >Hurt a filly?
  3725. >You would never.
  3726. >You’ve never even *hit* one of your ponies.
  3727. >The thought brings up recent memories.
  3728. >Recent memories bring a smile to your face and a chuckle to your lips.
  3729. >Of course you’d never hit one of your ponies.
  3730. >Lauren wouldn’t let you.
  3731. >Damn woman would jump in the way, probably even if she was in another state.
  3732. >”B-but –“
  3733. >”Hematite has nothing to do with this.”
  3734. >”Then… why are you here…?”
  3735. >”We have a job for you.”
  3736. >The mare pulls at the sheet covering her, like she’s trying to hide under it.
  3737. >”Wh-what kind of job?”
  3738. >Shit. She’s still scared of you.
  3739. >”Well…” Moondancer mumbles, “It’s just… I thought…”
  3740. >And *she* is still spooked by the sunrise.
  3741. >That’s not helping.
  3742. >She can barely get a handful of words out and for all her attempts at calming Silver Spoon, the mare looks about ready to bolt.
  3743. >Both of them.
  3744. >One might have, already, if she could get out of her cot.
  3745. “Moondancer, let me.”
  3746. >You gently nudge her aside again so you can take her place by the cot, and drop down to one knee once you’ve got the space.
  3747. >Unsurprisingly, she lets you.
  3748. >Just as unsurprising is how Silver Spoon flinches away slightly once her eyes focus on you.
  3749. >Only slightly. She was well trained, you guess.
  3750. >Dammit.
  3751. “Look, you used to run your own business, right? Or, the Ponyville branch or whatever. It might have been more complicated, but basically?”
  3752. >The mare nods, the gesture shaky and hesitant.
  3753. “Good. Because I never have.”
  3754. >You try to smile for her, but you don’t know if she can see it.
  3755. >Not just because she’s too scared out of her mind to notice, but because of the way her eyes seem to slide over you, never quite stopping, never quite locking on.
  3756. >Those pills weren’t the only thing on the table.
  3757. >Took you months to figure out pony body language, but that’s a matter of interpreting what you’re seeing. That can be complicated.
  3758. >The glasses on the table aren’t. They’re a simple fact.
  3759. “I don’t expect you to do any miracles, or… uh… even know if you’re feeling up to doing anything right now, but…”
  3760. >She’s still bedridden, for fuck’s sake.
  3761. >You shouldn’t have come here.
  3762. >Not to this room, not to the dorms. Not to the farm.
  3763. >Should have stayed at your dead-end job and refused to take over for your uncle. Let one of your cousins take over instead.
  3764. >You’re not cut out for this.
  3765. >You sigh and reach for the glasses – don’t even have to extend your arm fully in this tiny place – and hold them out to the mare.
  3766. “Think you’re up for some reading?”
  3767. >“R-reading…?”
  3768. “I need your help.”
  3769. >You always need their help.
  3770. >Apple Bloom, Maud, Moondancer… Lauren…
  3771. >And now a mare crippled both body and mind.
  3772. >How pathetic you are.
  3773. >Slowly, she reaches out with her bandaged forelegs and takes her glasses from your hand.
  3774. >”Help with wh-what…?”
  3775. “Running this place.”
  3777. >Be party to the enslavement of your own kind?
  3778. >You don’t know how to respond to that.
  3779. >You never hated Octavia, not like some of the others.
  3780. >She’s just doing what she must to survive.
  3781. >You - of all ponies - are in no position to judge her for that.
  3782. >Di and you… you had been selling your bodies long before Sterling’s.
  3783. >You understand necessity.
  3784. >No, you didn’t hate Octavia, but neither had you ever wanted to take her place.
  3785. >Not then, not now.
  3786. >On the surface, it’s no different from managing a business.
  3787. >You can manage a business.
  3788. >That’s all he’s asking of you.
  3789. >It could be worse.
  3790. >Others have ‘asked’ *far* worse of you.
  3791. >You balance your glasses on your muzzle.
  3792. >They don’t sit right.
  3793. >You have to fiddle with them: pushing them up, nudging one side down, then the other.
  3794. “I…”
  3795. >You’ve fired ponies before. Poor workers, the unmotivated, those simply incapable of meeting the goals set for them.
  3796. >When all else failed, you let them go without a speck of guilt, knowing that some might not be able to find other jobs.
  3797. >… that they might lose their homes.
  3798. >You should be able to do this.
  3799. >”I need your help, Silver,” the man murmurs softly, sending a shiver down your spine.
  3800. >He’s not the first to whisper gently to you even as he twists the blade.
  3801. >It’s usually a precursor of worse to come.
  3802. >”Apple Bloom’s helped me plenty with the farming side of things.”
  3803. >You’ve never hated her either, but she’s a stronger pony than you, by far.
  3804. >So is Octavia.
  3805. >And Di.
  3806. >”But she can’t help me with the business side.”
  3807. “I… I want to…”
  3808. >You want to live.
  3809. “… but I can’t.”
  3810. >You aren’t strong enough to lead others to their deaths.
  3811. >You aren’t strong enough to save anybody.
  3812. >You aren’t like them.
  3814. >Be… relieved.
  3815. >You shouldn’t be, but you are.
  3816. >As much as you need Silver Spoon, assuming she can do what Moondancer thinks she can do, you don’t want to be here.
  3817. >You don’t want to do this.
  3818. >Things need to change, but when’s the last time any change worked out for the better?
  3819. >When you got that promotion?
  3820. >What was that… one year ago? Two?
  3821. >Yeah. A while back.
  3822. >Didn’t last, did it?
  3823. “It’s okay, Silver. I understand.”
  3824. >She’s probably as terrified of change as you are.
  3825. >When’s the last time anything went better for her?
  3826. >Probably three… four years?
  3827. >Bad as the camps were, they couldn’t have been any worse than Sterling Stables.
  3828. >Every change she’s been through has probably been for the worse, going from her home to the camps to the Stables to… *here*.
  3829. >She doesn’t even have a warm bed to sleep in.
  3830. >It’s more than you understand her fear, you *share* it.
  3831. “It’s fine, Silver. You just rest. Take all the time you need.”
  3832. >Not like it’ll matter.
  3833. >She’ll never do any real work anyway.
  3834. >Silver Spoon will never be able to work the fields, not unless that little filly can work miracles.
  3835. >You can’t expect that of Hematite. It wouldn’t be fair.
  3836. >Miracles don’t exist anymore.
  3837. “I’ll… uh… I’ll be back when you’re feeling better. We can get started then.”
  3838. >You hate yourself for it, but you almost hope she never does.
  3839. >Then you would never have to try to fix things.
  3840. >You start to stand, but the mare’s eyes are trembling behind her glasses.
  3841. >She probably thinks she’ll be punished.
  3842. “Don’t worry.”
  3843. >You should reassure her.
  3844. “It’s fine.”
  3845. >It’s the least you can do.
  3846. >No, it’s not, but it’s the most you’re willing to do.
  3847. >”But…”
  3848. >You *should* do more.
  3849. “It’s fine. It can wait until you’re better.”
  3850. >”… can’t… can’t you find someone else…?”
  3851. >That tone.
  3852. >You don’t remember what she said to you at the diner, but that tone?
  3853. >You *remember* that.
  3854. >The voice of a mare who knows she’s about to die, barring a miracle.
  3855. >The voice of a mare who doesn’t believe in miracles.
  3856. “No.”
  3857. >You sigh.
  3858. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
  3859. >You look to Moondancer, but she shakes her head.
  3860. >You sigh again.
  3861. “Apparently not. I’ve got plenty of ponies willing to work hard, but… well… they’re mostly 9A. Unskilled.”
  3862. >Not exactly true.
  3863. >With every moment you’ve spent with the ponies, you’ve realized how big a lie that is.
  3864. >They’re not unskilled, just without the talents and abilities needed by the essential industries.
  3865. >They’re not stupid, either.
  3866. >Not all of them, anyway.
  3867. >They can learn.
  3868. “Don’t worry about it. I guess… maybe… I could get a book or two on accounting and one of them could –“
  3869. >”Accounting?” Silver interrupts, her eyes widening suddenly. “Not… not… *management*?”
  3870. >The way she says that last word makes it seem like she means something else entirely, something you don’t want to ask about, because it would just mean another thing to feel bad about.
  3871. >You’ve got enough of that already.
  3872. “No, not management.”
  3873. >You try to say the word as neutrally as possible.
  3874. “I’ve got Maud and Moondancer –“
  3875. >”What? No! I’m not –“
  3876. >You cut off the mare with a shake of your head
  3877. “- AND Moondancer for that. Apple Bloom, too.”
  3878. >Little as you trust her, the ponies still do. You think. Hope.
  3879. “And most of the ponies here want to work. It’s not a problem of getting them to do anything or telling them what to do, I just don’t have the money to… you know…”
  3880. >”Buy more…?” Silver asks hesitantly.
  3881. >You shake your head.
  3882. “Even if I wanted to, there’s no more refugees coming over. No, I want to… um…”
  3883. >It’s hard to look her in the eyes and say you’re trying to help her.
  3884. >If you really cared, you would have sooner.
  3885. >It’s too late for all that. It would feel patronizing to say you want to make things better around here.
  3886. >You can’t look her in the eyes and say that with a straight face.
  3887. >So you don’t.
  3888. >You look everywhere – anywhere – but at her.
  3889. “This place is a shithole.”
  3890. >”It’s… it’s not so bad…” the mare mumbles insincerely. Or maybe her standards are just that low. “It’s warm –“
  3891. “It’s freezing in here.”
  3892. >”It’s warmer than outside. The roof doesn’t leak. I’m… grateful…”
  3893. >That tone again.
  3894. “You deserve better.”
  3895. >The words are painful to say.
  3896. >Embarrassing.
  3897. >You’re sure if you could see yourself right now, your cheeks would be bright red, because if you *really* believed ponies deserved better, you’d have acted long before.
  3898. >Done something more than voting for the Indentured Refugee Act and turned them into slaves – and it had taken 24/7 news coverage of the conditions in the camps to get you to bother going down to the polling station to do *that*.
  3899. >And her?
  3900. >Silver Spoon nearly died before you cared enough to… to do more than eat lunch.
  3901. >You’re not a good man.
  3902. “I want to build some better housing.”
  3903. >You want to stop feeling guilty.
  3904. “Just have to… you know… find the money for it.”
  3905. >You shrug.
  3906. >What else can you do?
  3907. >As long as it’s impossible, you don’t have to do anything.
  3908. “You all don’t deserve this.”
  3909. >You don’t believe that.
  3910. >All you had to do was say no, but you didn’t even do that much.
  3911. >The only friend you had out here on the farm, and you didn’t even do that little for her.
  3912. “It’s…”
  3913. >”I’ll… I’ll do it.”
  3914. >You’ve heard that tone before, but not from her.
  3915. “Nevermind, girl.”
  3916. >You should never have asked.
  3917. >Apple Bloom didn’t have to be raped.
  3918. >You sigh and push yourself to your feet.
  3919. “It can wait. Or I’ll find someone else. Or…”
  3920. >Or you’ll do nothing.
  3921. >Go back to pretending the problem is unsolvable.
  3922. >Try to forget.
  3923. >You’ll be trying to forget for the rest of your life anyway.
  3924. >”I’ll do it, sir.”
  3926. >Be strong.
  3927. >As strong as you can be.
  3928. >You don’t doubt there’s an ulterior motive behind what the man is saying.
  3929. >At the very least, a healthy workforce is a strong workforce.
  3930. >But if it will help…
  3931. >You’re not a strong pony, not of body or will, but you can do this.
  3932. >You can help others, like Hematite helped you.
  3933. >… like Apple Bloom helped so many.
  3934. >You’ll never be strong like them, certainly never as strong as Octavia, but you can do this.
  3935. >”I’ll do it, sir.”
  3936. >It’s just accounting.
  3937. >You don’t have to do more than sit up and look over numbers, and only one of those will be hard.
  3938. >”Are you sure?” he asks, reaching for a briefcase he must have set down at some point. “I brought some papers, but…”
  3939. “Y… yes.”
  3940. >”Are you *really* sure? I won’t –“
  3941. “Yes.”
  3942. >He frowns.
  3943. >”You… you can stop at any time, got it?” he murmurs as he pulls the table over to the edge of your bed. “Really. Just say the word.”
  3944. “I… I will.”
  3945. >He hesitates a moment before setting the briefcase on the table and popping it open.
  3946. >“Just… you know… take a look. Give me some general ideas for now. Whatever I can cut or… whatever. Some quick cash is all I need. Most of the cost can probably be done on credit, but… but… I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.”
  3947. >He puts his hand to his forehead and massages his temple.
  3948. >“I don’t have a fucking clue. I’ll… I’ll just…”
  3950. “… be waiting outside.”
  3951. >You jerk your thumb towards the cobbled together scrap wood that serves as her door.
  3952. “Give a holler if you need anything or… whatever.”
  3953. >You almost trip over Moondancer in your haste to get out.
  3954. >This is all feeling too similar.
  3955. >Doesn’t help that Moondancer follows you out into the hall and slumps against the wall beside you.
  3956. >Just like Lauren.
  3957. “Don’t you have things to do?”
  3958. >”N… not really…”
  3959. >You sigh and slide down the wall until you’re sitting at the base, basically like one of those inflatable animals springing a leak.
  3960. >That’s how you feel, too.
  3961. “Fine.”
  3962. >At least she’s sitting close enough she’s keeping you kind of warm.
  3963. >Kinda.
  3964. >You pay her no attention and keep staring at the opposite wall and its peeling paint.
  3965. >There’s layer upon layer of that shit just caked on.
  3966. >This building is a lot older than just three years.
  3967. >It shouldn’t have taken you so long to realize how shitty it is… just… you never cared about the condition the migrant workers lived in.
  3968. >They didn’t complain.
  3969. >And it kept the rain off when… well… it was a good enough place to get intimate with a summer fling.
  3970. >You hadn’t been looking at the buildings.
  3971. >It hadn’t been a problem, not until you started caring.
  3972. >You sigh.
  3973. >You shouldn’t have.
  3974. >”Is… isn’t this what we planned on…?” Moondancer asks once you’ve broken the silence. “Is something wrong?”
  3975. “I dunno. *Is* something?”
  3976. >”I…”
  3977. “Because you’re sure acting like something’s fucked to hell.”
  3978. >”I’m not talking about me –“
  3979. “Well, I am.”
  3980. >You risk a glance at the mare.
  3981. >Yeah, that’s the expression you were expecting.
  3982. >Half outrage, half fear, her mouth hanging limply open, whatever words she wants to say caught in her throat.
  3983. “So –“
  3984. >”Because you don’t want to talk about yourself?”
  3985. >So she managed to say it after all.
  3986. >You can’t look at her.
  3987. >Her expression reminds you too much of someone else.
  3988. “Yes.”
  3989. >”Why?”
  3990. >You shrug.
  3991. >”Come on,” Moondancer whispers. “There’s nopony else here. Everypony is at breakfast or… or…”
  3992. >She stands suddenly with a sigh.
  3993. >”I should go get Silver’s food for her. Twinkleworks would be back by now if she was bringing it.”
  3994. ”You don’t want to talk about yourself, do you?”
  3995. >”No.”
  3997. >When Moondancer returns, she only has a single bowl balanced on her back.
  3998. >You both look away at the same time.
  3999. >A few moments later, the mare is throwing herself onto the floor beside you.
  4000. “So… how’s it going in there? Silver Spoon making any progress?”
  4001. >”She’s… she’s looking happy to be busy,” Moondancer answers dully. “Gets her mind off of things, I guess.”
  4002. “And you? Not hungry?”
  4003. >”No, not really.”
  4004. “Because of the sun?”
  4005. >”Because… because you wouldn’t understand, okay?”
  4006. “Try me. It’s the sun, right? Look, just because there were clouds…”
  4007. >You trail off as Moondancer shakes her head.
  4008. >”It’s not the clouds,” she sighs. “It’s just… it’s weird. I’ve spent too long here.”
  4009. “What does that mean?”
  4010. >”On this world, the sun always rises. Every day. No matter what.”
  4011. “So?”
  4012. >She snorts, offering you a brief, sad, cynical smile.
  4013. >”I’ve gotten too used to it. When the princess died-“
  4014. >She doesn’t say which princess. She doesn’t have to.
  4015. >“I was there that day.”
  4016. >Though she keeps her face neutral, Moondancer’s ears flicker back and forth.
  4017. >”I was there,” she repeats, voice barely above a whisper. “Not *there* there, but… I’d taken some vacation time to go back to Equestria, to visit with Twilight and watch the… the speech, but… well, Twilight had given me some ideas and there is - *was* - a secondary lab in Canterlot.
  4018. >”Rudimentary compared to the one back in Nevada, but I wanted to try something out. I got wrapped up in my work and lost track of time.
  4019. >”Twilight’s ideas were just too good. I was making too much progress.
  4020. >There’s that smile again, sharp and bitter.
  4021. >”You know, she probably saved my life.
  4022. >”The ceremony was already starting before I realized it. I was barely able to get to the break room and turn on the TV.
  4023. >”When Celestia died… well… I told you about that.”
  4024. >Her eyes flick over towards you and she grins in embarrassment.
  4025. “Yeah. They found you in the lab, right?”
  4026. >She nods briefly.
  4027. >”I don’t really remember anything between Celestia falling and then. I’m sure you know better than me what happened after.”
  4028. >You shake your head.
  4029. “The cameras cut out almost immediately after the gunshot. Everything just went black.”
  4030. >”Yeah…” Moondancer whimpers, “it did. Like the sun itself had been snuffed out.
  4031. >”We had three solid days of night, or… or so I hear, until Nightmare Moon… well…”
  4032. >She shrugs.
  4033. >”Until she was gone, too. And even after that, it just felt… *wrong*.
  4034. >”The sun rose too quickly and set too abruptly. It didn’t travel the sky in a smooth arc, but moved every hour, on the hour, like it was just going through the motions.
  4035. >”And some days it rose late.”
  4036. >Moondancer smiles again, the expression fleeing even faster than before.
  4037. >”Or so I’ve heard,” she repeats. “I guess Twilight had a lot to deal with at the time.
  4038. >”I wouldn’t know, because I never saw her again. I came back through the portal on the second day.”
  4039. “But… weren’t they all basically closed? Not like, *closed* closed, but –“
  4040. >”Not to us,” she murmurs. “All of us, all the humans, all of the ponies working on the portals and ancillary projects… There were a lot of us in Canterlot, either at the lab or at the speech. We all thought it was the culmination of all our hard work.”
  4041. >Moondancer sighs, her head drooping until her nose is scant inches from the floor.
  4042. >”I guess it was, in a way. The beginning of the end.
  4043. >”Anyway, all of us were rounded up as soon as someone in charge realized what was happening.
  4044. >“I’m grateful to them. I wasn’t really all there. A lot of bad things happened during that time, a lot of rioting and… and worse, but the troops stationed there kept us safe. Kept us from making stupid decisions.
  4045. >”And when they could, they brought us home. Humans *and* ponies. They didn’t treat us any different. That came… later.”
  4046. >You nod, though she doesn’t notice.
  4047. >”My group… we came through the portal and it was like… no, it *was* as different as night and day.
  4048. >”Celestia might be dead in our world, but when I returned here… I…
  4049. >She drifts off, smiling at the memory.
  4050. >”I thought she was here. In this world. I stepped through the portal just as the sun cleared the horizon and everything felt *right*.
  4051. >”Equestria was shrouding in darkness, but here… it was different. There was light. Here we may not see it, but the sun always rises.
  4052. >”Always.
  4053. >”No matter what. And always as predictable as… well, as the sunrise.
  4054. >”It felt like she was with me that day, and every day since, because, well… why else would the sun rise?”
  4055. >Moondancer pauses, looking vainly towards one of the few windows, though all that’s visible is a grey sheet of clouds.
  4056. >”It didn’t feel like that today.”
  4057. >The mare glances over at you, eyes wet and shimmering in the dull.
  4058. >”So. That’s what’s wrong with me.”
  4059. >She forces a victorious, hollow smile onto her face.
  4060. >“How about you?”
  4061. “That was… that was pretty heavy. How am I supposed to follow that?”
  4062. >Moondancer stares straight into you.
  4063. >For the first time today, there’s no hesitation, no awkward hedging or avoidance.
  4064. >”Truthfully would be nice.”
  4065. >You chuckle.
  4066. “Well, that’s ironic.”
  4067. >”Why?”
  4068. >You glance up and down the hallway.
  4069. >It’s clear, but for all you know every ‘room’ could be occupied.
  4070. >The flimsy walls wouldn’t stop anything more than a whisper, so that’s how you answer her. At a whisper.
  4071. “Because I lied to her, Moondancer. I’m lying to all of you.”
  4072. >”How…?”
  4073. >You can hear the cautious worry return to her voice, see the nervousness in her body language, but you keep talking anyway.
  4074. >Who else would you unburden your worries on?
  4075. >*Apple Bloom*?
  4076. >She’s not here.
  4077. >And if she were…
  4078. >You’re glad she’s not.
  4079. “I… I don’t care about any of this. I don’t want to make things better for you ponies. Not really. I mean, if I *did*… wouldn’t I have started long ago?”
  4080. >Moondancer continues to stare at you in silence.
  4081. >She doesn’t have any answer for you, or if she does, she keeps it to herself.
  4082. >No, she doesn’t have any answers.
  4083. >Her eyes have only questions.
  4084.  “I mean… I mean… how long were you in the camps? Things were horrible there, right? Well, I didn’t try to help then, did I?”
  4085. >”You didn’t know.”
  4086. “Because I never cared enough to find out. That’s just the simple truth of things. I don’t want to make things better, I just don’t want to feel guilty anymore.”
  4087. >The mare slowly shakes her head.
  4088. >”I told you before and I’ll say it again,” she sighs, “you need to have more faith in yourself.”
  4089. “I *lied*.”
  4090. >”Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think you did.”
  4091. “I told her I cared.”
  4092. >”You’re telling the truth, to everyone but yourself.”
  4093. “She nearly died! Because. I. Don’t. Care.”
  4094. >Moondancer’s still staring at you, those huge, purple eyes of hers locked on you.
  4095. >Despite the color, despite the glasses, she’s just like Apple Bloom.
  4096. >She trusts you too much.
  4097. >She doesn’t understand.
  4098. >”These are tough times,” she admits quietly, as if it were some kind of secret. “You had problems of your own. I wouldn’t expect you to look beyond your own nose. Plenty don’t.”
  4099. “A good man would.”
  4100. >”Maybe,” Moondancer admits, putting her hoof on your shoulder. “Or maybe he’d be too busy dealing with his own issues. I can’t expect everypony to try to solve every problem ever. That’s how…”
  4101. >For an instant, just an instant, her eyes drop, clouded over by dark shadows.
  4102. >”… that’s how… *mistakes*… happen. No, I never would have expected anyone to help us, *just because*. It wouldn’t make sense. Honestly, I would be suspicious. But if a good man learns all the details of a situation like ours…”
  4103. >She sighs and glance towards the window framing the grey clouds hovering in the sky.
  4104. >”… well, then he has a choice.”
  4105. “You’re wrong, Moondancer. A good man wouldn’t.”
  4106. >Argument or acceptance, that’s what you expect. Not a soft giggle.
  4107. “What?”
  4108. >”Well, isn’t that what you’re so angsty about?”
  4109. “About what?”
  4110. >”That you don’t have a choice. That you *have* to help us. Doesn’t that mean you’re a good person?”
  4111. >You shake your head quickly.
  4112. “No. I just… I just don’t care. That’s all. Or – or…”
  4113. >”You’re afraid of having the ability to act, because you know you must. And if you must, then you should have earlier.
  4114. >”You think that if you don’t care, that absolves you of any guilt. If you don’t care, then you had a reason to turn a blind eye to everything that happened these last three years.”
  4115. “A good person would have done something.”
  4116. >”Like what? What could you have done?”
  4117. “I… I don’t know. I would have figured out something.”
  4118. >Moondancer shakes her head.
  4119. >”No, you wouldn’t have. You don’t have anything to feel guilty for. It’s not your fault so many ponies died of starvation or abuse at the refugee camps.”
  4120. “I could have done something.”
  4121. >”But why would you have? Every activist has needed his call to action.”
  4122. “Not all.”
  4123. >”No, I guess not, but I’ve never quite trusted ones who didn’t have a reason behind their cause, have you?”
  4124. >You glance away, unwilling to answer.
  4125. >Unwilling to admit she’s right.
  4126. >She isn’t.
  4127. “I… I’ve known for ever since I came here how my neighbors treat their ponies and I haven’t done anything to help them. Hell, I’ve known since I heard ponies were being sent out here how things would end up!
  4128. “Steffords doesn’t even let his ponies have names! They have to go by their contract numbers.”
  4129. >”I know,” Moondancer whispers. “I haven’t done anything about that either, so… does that make me a bad pony?”
  4130. “No, because you’re just –”
  4131. >She winces before you realize what you’ve said.
  4132. “I didn’t mean –“
  4133. >”I know what you meant,” she sighs. “And you’re right. I’m just a pony. And you’re just a man. We’re all ‘just’ something.”
  4134. “I mean, I could have *actually* done something!”
  4135. >”Like what?”
  4136. “I don’t know! Sit down and have a talk with them?”
  4137. >”Do you *really* think that would change Steffords’ mind?”
  4138. “I don’t know. Maybe. I should have tried.”
  4139. >Maybe you still can.
  4140. >Maybe you should.
  4141. >”You and I both know it wouldn’t have done any good.”
  4142. >You could still have tried.
  4143. “It doesn’t matter anyway.”
  4144. >You sigh.
  4145. “You’re right. If his own daughter can’t make a difference, what could I do?”
  4146. >“Nothing,” Moondancer answers sincerely. “And there’s no shame in that. You can only do what you can do.”
  4147. “Then I guess I have nothing to feel bad about, because I can’t do anything. I can’t farm or run a business or help his ponies - and I can’t even help my own.”
  4148. >”You’ll find a way.”
  4149. “I won’t. Silver Spoon won’t find the money.”
  4150. >”She might.”
  4151. “She won’t. It would take a miracle.”
  4152. >”And?” Moondancer prods. “Don’t you believe in miracles?”
  4153. “No, not anymore.”
  4154. >You shrug her hoof off.
  4155. “Let me tell you right now what’s going to happen. We’re going to get some houses built, some ponies are going to move in, and then I’ll run out of money.
  4156. “I’ll feel a little better because I did something. You ponies will feel a little better because you think I care and some of you had your lives improved just a little bit.
  4157. “Then everything is going to start falling apart, because I don’t have any money around to pay for maintenance. Probably not even for the dorm or the farm equipment.
  4158. “The farm will go bust and you all will be transferred to other contract holders in the area. Maybe a few will end up in better places in town. Most will go to Steffords or the Andersons, whoever buys up this land first.
  4159. “Of the two, one of those is better than the other, but not by much.
  4160. “And some, some’ll probably end up with asshole’s like Sterling, all because I tried to help.
  4161. “I’m basically kill them, you know.
  4162. “That’s how this is going to play out, and I’m going to let it, just for the off-chance it works out and I don’t have to feel like shit anymore.”
  4163. >”You should… you should believe in yourself,” Moondancer mumbles. “We’ll find a way.”
  4164. “It’ll never happen, because nothing ever does. We just keep going around and around, given just enough hope to keep on keeping on. That’s all, Moondancer. Nothing ever changes and we just keep going in circles.
  4165. “That’s just how this world works.”
  4166. >She opens her mouth as if to argue, but closes it with a sigh.
  4167. >She knows you’re right.
  4168. >You can see the shadow return, the light in her eyes snuffed out by the truth she wants so badly to deny.
  4169. >This world is like a machine.
  4170. >Flawed and imperfect, but It works. Barely. And it’ll never get any better.
  4171. >It doesn’t improve, doesn’t magically become more efficient.
  4172. >There’s no magic in this world.
  4173. >It just gets more and more worn as time goes on.
  4174. >Gears begin to slip, belts become loose, pistons struggle until the buildup of waste become too much and everything comes to a halt.
  4175. >Unless someone fixes and maintains it, eventually it’ll break.
  4176. >Even then, all that does is postpone the inevitable.
  4177. >Every machine breaks eventually.
  4178. >And most of all, you don’t care.
  4179. >If you did, you don’t think you couldn’t live with yourself, knowing you’re just letting everything rust away.
  4180. >Long, awkward minutes pass in silence.
  4181. >You try anything you can to keep your mind off the inevitable, how this is all going to go to shit.
  4182. >Last night, you’d had hope, but today you have to face the truth.
  4183. >Everything is shit.
  4184. >You’d go back into Silver’s room and tell her to give up, if you thought you could face her.
  4185. >Maybe she would actually have some answers.
  4186. >She won’t, but you should check.
  4187. >You can’t, though.
  4188. >The only thing keeping you from walking out is the sound of the rain growing heavier and heavier, until you can’t even hear the crack of thunder over the roaring storm beating down.
  4189. >The sky outside the window is as black as hope.
  4190. >At least tallying up the possible damages and recovery work keeps you occupied.
  4191. >It won’t be too bad.
  4192. >Pretty much everything is buttoned up for the off-season.
  4193. >Might have to check the storerooms and make sure there weren’t any leaks.
  4194. >Would be crippling if the harvest rotted before it could be picked up.
  4195. >Tomorrow, you’ll have to go back to giving orders and being their owner, not their… whatever you are.
  4196. >You didn’t think it was possible, but the air inside the hall grows even colder until you’re thankful for the mare sitting beside you.
  4197. >Even if she’s not warm, she’s at least not as cold as everything else.
  4198. >She’s also shivering.
  4199. >You’re not a good man.
  4200. >A good man would have given her his coat long before now.
  4201. >You don’t even do that.
  4202. >You *share* it, the pair of you huddled together under the coat like it was a tiny blanket.
  4203. >You can’t help but press up against her trying to keep as much of yourself covered as you can, but that’s all it is: two people trying to keep warm.
  4204. >It doesn’t help much.
  4205. >Not you, anyhow. Moondancer stops shivering after a few minutes.
  4206. >”The others are probably fine,” she says absentmindedly a few minutes after that, with that tone you recognize all too well.
  4207. >She’s trying to convince herself.
  4208. >“The kitchen will keep them all warm,” she mumbles, “even if the massed body heat doesn’t.”
  4209. >You’re not a good man.
  4210. >A good man would have worried – or even thought – about the rest of his ponies, not just the one he can see.
  4211. >”And Silver Spoon has her blankets, so…”
  4212. >It’s so cold, you can see her breath in the air, if only briefly.
  4213. “I should check, shouldn’t I?”
  4214. >The mare shrugs, a gesture that you can barely see thanks to your coat, but feel keenly.
  4215. >”She seemed scared of you,” she sighs. “I should be the one to check on her.”
  4216. “Yeah, but…”
  4217. >There’s some reasons you should do it.
  4218. >Showing you care, or being responsible, or trying to convince yourself of… of something.
  4219. >Just nothing you can articulate before you realize your phone is ringing.
  4220. >You pull it from your coat pocket.
  4221. >Lauren.
  4222. >Probably about the construction materials, or some other bad news.
  4223. >You sigh.
  4224. >”Should I…”
  4225. >You should take this.
  4226. “That’d be great.”
  4227. >You answer the call.
  4229. “Best price I could get.”
  4230. >”Still… shit…”
  4231. >Yeah, you know how he’s feelin’.
  4232. >’bout the same as you did when Henry gave you the quote, an’ that ain’t no surprise.
  4233. >That’s why you’d put off the call ‘til you’d stopped by the supermarket an’ picked up the rest of his stuff. Even got some flowers for ma.
  4234. >Just have to pick up his ponies an’ hit up the church.
  4235. >A responsible woman prolly would’ve waited until she’d got in the cab of her truck ‘fore pullin’ out her phone, but hell.
  4236. >A responsible woman prolly would’ve called before makin’ the deal. See what he said an’ all that, but…
  4237. >This’s for the best.
  4238. >Not the callin’ ‘fore you’ve found your keys an’ got inside the cab where if it ain’t warm, you at least got the heater, ‘cause that was pretty stupid of you.
  4239. >The putting him ‘tween a rock an’ a hard place, that’s for the best. It’s ‘bout the only way to get him to do shit.
  4240. >Guy wants to be a good person, he just don’t know how an’ it’s up to you to show him the way.
  4241. “Look, I know it’s more than you wanted to spend, but we’ve got a bit of a shortage goin’ on right now.”
  4242. >Now you think about it, that ain’t no surprise either, though it sure comes as one to him.
  4243. >”I thought things were supposed to be getting better!”
  4244. “They are, just… well… a lot of the local materials are goin’ into workin’ on the bypass.”
  4245. >”What bypass?”
  4246. >Right, right, he ain’t heard of it. Hell, you hadn’t ‘til today either.
  4247. “You know the one ‘tween our places an’ the city? Seems they’re finally getting it done.”
  4248. >There’s a rough moment of silence on his end, long enough you’re startin’ to wonder if you’d screwed up.
  4249. >He ain’t always gone the right direction when you put him on the spot like this.
  4250. >Usually, yeah, but not always.
  4251. >An’ couple times, it’d gone bad.
  4252. “That’s got the town all stirred up right now. Everyplace I’ve stopped they ain’t been talking about nothin’ but.”
  4253. >An’ that’s been quite a few places. More’n what you’d told the doc, but you hadn’t really thought that all through at the time.
  4254. >Couldn’t pick up everything on his list in one go.
  4255. >”I guess things got too good, huh?” he eventually sighs. “Fine. I should have seen that coming. Now I just have to find a way to… shit. Shit. That’s going to be a bitch to afford, but they’ve already gotten their hopes up…”
  4256. >He sighs ‘gain.
  4257. >He ain’t too happy, but that’s fine.
  4258. >Warms your heart he thought’ve the ponies first, before thinkin’ ‘bout how you’d already made the deal.
  4259. >He’ll get over it.
  4260. “Maybe if I sold off a pony or two.”
  4261. >You’d known it’d go there.
  4262. >Luckily that boy’s got you or he’d be makin’ all kinds’ve stupid calls.
  4263. “Well, there’s the first bit of good news. Bargainin’ couldn’t get the price down none, but it weren’t worthless. Henry don’t even know if he can get you everythin’ you’re askin’ for, so he’s agreed to only take half on the first delivery an’ the remainder with th’last.
  4264. “You know, just in case he can’t get hold’ve somethin’.”
  4265. >”And when will that be?”
  4266. “Um… one sec.”
  4267. >You riffle through your pockets ‘til you find the slip of paper Henry’d jotted out the numbers on – and find your keys too, on the way.
  4268. >First thing’s first, you get on in and start the truck up ‘fore you so much as even *look* at that paper.
  4269. >Only takes a few seconds, but of course you can hear his impatience every step of th’way.
  4270. >Well, man’s stressed. Ain’t polite, but you’ll forgive him.
  4271. >Ain’t even your money, an’ it was a bitter pill for you too.
  4272. “Um… yeah. Got it.”
  4273. >”And?”
  4274. “He’s gonna stagger th’deliveries so you don’t got a lot of stuff laying around ‘til it’s needed. Prolly ‘cuz he’s got other folks lookin’ for stuff too an’ he’s trying to keep up with demand.”
  4275. >”I know how businesses work.”
  4276. “Y’don’t know shit.”
  4277. >Well, it’s true.
  4278. >You ain’t gonna feel bad for that.
  4279. >”… fine, but I could have figured that much out on my own.”
  4280. >That boy’s damn lucky you’re ‘round.
  4281. “So anyhow, first delivery next week. Should be everything you need to lay the foundations.”
  4282. >”For houses I don’t know if I’ll even be able to build. Perfect.”
  4283. “Look, he’ll come through. Ain’t never had a problem with Henry ‘fore now.”
  4284. >”Uh-huh. Well, when’s the last delivery?”
  4285. “Should be end of next month, weather and supplies permittin’.”
  4286. >”Great. Perfect. At least I have a few weeks to think about how fucked I am.”
  4287. “Or t’find the money, y’know.”
  4288. >”That too.”
  4289. “You’ll find a way.”
  4290. >”Maybe.”
  4291. “You’ll find a way.”
  4292. >You expect him t’argue, but he just sighs.
  4293. “Look, it’ll all work out. I promise.”
  4294. >”Or what? You’ll sell off one of your ponies again? Or maybe your own –“
  4295. >No. He ain’t goin’ there.
  4296. “Nuh-uh, don't you say another damn word.”
  4297. >You already owe him one asskickin’, an’ you ain’t gonna let him rack up too big a debt on that account.
  4298. >He wouldn’t survive it.
  4299. “Besides, there’s more good news.”
  4300.  >”… what?” he asks suspiciously.
  4301. “Henry’ll send out a couple’ve his handymen to help. They ain’t gonna do all the work, but they’ll show you how it’s done.”
  4302. >Another one’ve them long, ominous silences.
  4303. “Look, I know you ain’t got any ponies that know how to do that sort’ve work.”
  4304. >”Well…”
  4305. “An’ if that ain’t enough, there’s a few ponies back on daddy’s farm with that kind’ve experience. I can ask daddy if… if he’ll rent ‘em t’you.”
  4306. >”Great. So now I have to find the money for that too.”
  4307. “Look, I… I can *try* an’ get you a deal…”
  4308. >”Yeah. Thanks.”
  4309. >Gotta be somethin’ you can do to convince daddy.
  4310. >He ain’t got the work to keep ‘em all busy anyhow, and bein’ neighborly’s always a good thing.
  4311. >Just gotta convince *him* of that.
  4312. >You’ll… you’ll find a way.
  4313. >“Don’t… don’t… whatever,” he sighs. ”Don’t worry about it. I’ll just sell off a worthless pony or two.”
  4314. >He ain’t gonna.
  4315. >He *ain’t*.
  4316. >”So, everything’s done?”
  4317. “Y-yep, ‘bout to head back.”
  4318. >”How’s Apple Bloom?”
  4319. “Just on my way to pick up her an’ the foals.”
  4320. >”Good. That’s… that’s good.”
  4322. >Best price your ass.
  4323. >That was nearly triple what you had estimated.
  4324. >Shit.
  4325. >Fuck.
  4326. >Shit…
  4327. >Selling one pony wouldn’t be enough.
  4328. >Not unless it was the right one.
  4330. >"Between you and me,” Moondancer mumbles softly, just as aware as you how thin the walls are. “I *really* do think he’s trying to help."
  4331. “By selling off… selling off *worthless* ponies?”
  4332. >You heard him say it clearly. You both did.
  4333. >The walls are thin, just bare plywood for the most part.
  4334. >You both heard him clear as day, but the other mare shakes her head.
  4335. >”He’s… he’s just under a lot of stress. He won’t actually do it.”
  4336. >You glance at the door, though you can’t say why.
  4337. >He’s still outside in the hall, not anywhere near the door.
  4338. >You can’t hear his voice anymore, but his furious pacing gives him away.
  4339. >That’s all you’ve heard for several minutes - his steps echoing back and forth on the bare concreate floor.
  4340. >You can follow him just from the sound – or from the way Moondancer’s ears swivel to track each step.
  4341. >She’s terrified, or her ears wouldn’t be doing that.
  4342. >He’s angry.
  4343. >When he comes back in…
  4344. >You don’t want to think about it.
  4345. “Then…”
  4346. >This may be your only chance to ask.
  4347. >To know for sure.
  4348. “… if that’s true…”
  4349. >She hasn’t spoken ill of him. Not once. Not today, nor last night.
  4350. >”It is.”
  4351. >Her presence – and your own – had been fleeting at the welcoming party, but she was there.
  4352. >You recognize her now, from the brief moment between when Baritone had carried you in to when you made the mistake of thinking you could eat cake.
  4353. >It was just a small piece, but apparently solid food is still a bit beyond you.
  4354. >She had arrived even after you, her mind clearly on other things, but made a point to stop and speak with you.
  4355. >It was too late, you were too out of it.
  4356. >You don’t remember what happened.
  4357. >But deep down… no, not even deep down.
  4358. >You *want* to believe her.
  4359. >With all your heart, you want to believe Moondancer.
  4360. >Not because of who she is or what she says, but because you simply want to believe that things can be better than this.
  4361. >It’s just so hard to ignore the evidence in front of your eyes.
  4362.  “… why are you acting so scared?”
  4363. >”I’m… I’m not.”
  4364. “You are. You’ve been acting nervous since you came in here.”
  4365. >Having your glasses on only makes it clearer.
  4366. >The way she keeps looking around, nervously shifting her weight back and forth like she’s going to bolt at any second.
  4367. >She wants to believe he’s kind, and you want to believe it too, but you know all too well how humans can turn in an instant, without any warning.
  4368. >One minute they’ll be gently stroking your mane, the next they’re viciously yanking it back to expose your neck.
  4369. >They’ll tell you how you’re their favorite, but won’t so much as look at you the next day.
  4370. >And this one?
  4371. >He’s already angry.
  4372. >He acted like he cared. He asked you to help him help the others.
  4373. >But when he comes back inside your tiny room?
  4374. >Will he shout and rant? Will he hit you?
  4375. >Are you one of the useless ponies he was speaking of?
  4376. >Who could he even sell you to?
  4377. >A glue factory?
  4378. >Or would you make better pet food?
  4379. >You bitter, choked laugh makes Moondancer jump, though her ears never stop following the sound of his steps.
  4380. >Is he going to get rid of you?
  4381. >Or maybe… maybe he will walk through that door and ask you to find a way to keep all of his ponies here.
  4382. >Maybe he’ll keep his anger in check.
  4383. >Maybe he’ll be kind.
  4384. >Maybe he’ll let you talk or ask if you’ve found anything.
  4385. >Maybe he’ll even listen.
  4386. >Maybe…
  4387. >You shouldn’t feel this way, but you can’t stop your heart from hoping any more than you could from beating.
  4388. >It will let you down. Betray you. Lead you down a false path that only grows darker, but you can’t help but hope that maybe he’ll be gentle.
  4389. >He might be.
  4390. >He might listen to you and what you’ve found.
  4391. >You have no idea, only fear warring with hope.
  4392. “Moondancer, why are you scared…?”
  4393. >She shakes her head.
  4394. “Is it… is it him?”
  4395. >You hope it isn’t.
  4396. >It is, but you *hope* it isn’t.
  4397. >But it has to be.
  4398. >Everypony you’ve seen, everypony that watched over you, everypony at the party last night… all of them…
  4399. >None of them had been afraid. Every other emotion under the sun, some angry, some happy, some welcoming and others standoffish, but never scared.
  4400. >Not like this. Not until today.
  4401. >Not until *he* was around.
  4402. >”No,” Moondancer whispers. “It’s… it’s…”
  4403. >She glances towards the ceiling, but her gaze goes beyond it.
  4404. >”Can’t you feel that?”
  4405. “Feel… what? The cold?”
  4406. >Is she worried about the weather?
  4407. >”No,” she answers, though she shivers as she says it. “It’s like everything is wrong. The sun… the sun didn’t rise today. I mean it *did*, but not *right*.”
  4408. >She shivers again and sighs.
  4409. >”You honestly can’t feel… *it*?” she laughs nervously. “Whatever *it* is?”
  4410. >All you feel is the pointless war between fear and hope, the chill in the air, the pain of your injuries, but nothing like that.
  4411. >Nothing feels ‘wrong’, no more than everything else these past four years.
  4412. >”It’s like… like when the princess… *died*. Don’t you remember that?”
  4413. >You nod.
  4414. >How could you not?
  4415. >”And you don’t feel it? Everypony else does, but you…?”
  4416. >You shake your head, afraid to open your mouth to answer.
  4417. >Afraid that you’ll ask what new atrocity occurred.
  4418. >Afraid that she’ll tell you.
  4419. >Which one was it this time? Princess Cadence?
  4420. >You thought there was a ceasefire in effect, but that doesn’t mean anything.
  4421. >The two worlds weren’t even at war when Princess Celestia was assassinated.
  4422. >Did someone finally catch Princess Twilight?
  4423. >You don’t ask.
  4424. >You’re afraid you’ll feel joy at the news and you don’t want to be that pony.
  4425. >You want to believe that everything will be okay.
  4426. >”Maybe that’s because you didn’t go outside to watch the sunrise,” Moondancer sighs. “Or maybe we all just imagined it. Maybe it was just one of us.”
  4427. >She chuckles hollowly, her eyes darting back towards the ceiling.
  4428. >”You know, like how I’m making you scared right now, even though you shouldn’t be? Because I’m… *I’m* scared?
  4429. >”Somepony must have felt something was wrong and acted nervous, so the rest of us did too. That’s got to be it. You don’t feel it because you weren’t there. It’s nothing.”
  4430. >She forces herself to stillness and tries to smile.
  4431. >”It’s nothing,” she repeats. “Everything is fine. He’s… he’s a good man, or he’s trying to be.”
  4432. >Moondancer holds that expression as she nudges your bowl towards you with her muzzle.
  4433. >”Eat up. Before it gets cold.”
  4434. >She’s just trying to distract you, but you’re too scared to eat.
  4435. >… and too cold and hungry to not attack the steaming porridge.
  4436. >Maybe everything will be okay.
  4438. >Be furious.
  4439. >And only working yourself up to greater and greater heights.
  4440. >That won’t help anything.
  4441. >Pacing back and forth kept you warm, but that’s all the good it did.
  4442. >Already you can feel your sweat turning ice cold as it runs down your back.
  4443. >Being angry is doing more harm than good right now.
  4444. >Or ever.
  4445. >It’s never helped.
  4446. >Not once.
  4447. >Well.
  4448. >Once.
  4449. >Only once, when it wouldn’t let you walk away from the clinic.
  4450. >Just that once, when you were too angry to think about how hard it’s going to be to care for a crippled pony.
  4451. >And even then…
  4452. >No, you can’t bring yourself to believe you made the wrong call there.
  4453. >But only that once.
  4454. >Just once.
  4455. >You force your anger down, your feet eventually coming to a stop outside Silver Spoon’s door.
  4456. >She might have a solution. Maybe. But she won’t.
  4457. >You hesitate to pull the door open and find out, because when you do… when you do there won’t be any more pretending.
  4458. >She won’t have a solution.
  4459. >It’s not too late.
  4460. >You could call Lauren back, tell her she’s crazy, and to go back to the hardware store.
  4461. >Maybe cut back on your plans, if not cancel them altogether.
  4462. >This is only a temporary setback.
  4463. >You could put it off for a year, maybe two. Save up the money or wait for prices to fall.
  4464. >Or you could kill two birds with one stone.
  4465. >Sell some ponies.
  4466. >Have fewer to feed, fewer to house.
  4467. >Make some money in the process.
  4468. >It was just a threat, just your anger talking in the heat of the moment, but it makes sense.
  4469. >Or maybe your brand new miracle accountant worked some magic and found money out of nowhere.
  4470. >She didn’t and you can’t even make yourself pretend any longer that there’s a chance.
  4471. >You don’t want to make that certainty *real*, but you’ll never get anywhere if you keep avoiding things.
  4472. >At least you can start planning for failure once she’s told you there’s no way.
  4473. >You raise a loose fist and rap it against the door.
  4474. “Hey, can I come in?”
  4475. >You don’t know why you even bothered.
  4476. >You own this place. You own the ponies.
  4477. >Hell, it’s not as if you have to worry about walking in on them naked, because they’re *always* naked.
  4478. >They aren’t even real people.
  4479. >Real people can’t be bought and sold on a whim.
  4480. >You should just walk in, but still you wait until Moondancer pulls the door open.
  4481. >”Uh… yeah,” she grunts, trying to sidle out of your way. “So…”
  4482. “I have bad news.”
  4483. >”I guessed that,” she tries to laugh. “I mean… there’s no such thing as good news these days, right? So…”
  4484. “No, I have that too.”
  4485. >You sigh and wait for Silver Spoon to finish fumbling with the plastic spoon in her hooves.
  4486. >It doesn’t look like she’s managed to eat any of her breakfast at all.
  4487. >Of course not, with her legs like that.
  4488. >She can barely lift them, let alone use them with any grace.
  4489. >Shit.
  4490. >You shoot Moondancer an angry glare that she doesn’t deserve.
  4491. >Or maybe she does. You don’t know.
  4492. >You’re too angry to know anything right now – except that – which is why you gently push the mare aside so you can step around the table.
  4493. >Gently, not how you want to.
  4494. >You’re in no state to make decisions.
  4495. >Had to put a hole in a wall and almost kill a pony to realize that, but you can learn.
  4496. >Just takes a while.
  4497. “Here, let me help you with that.”
  4498. >You reach for the spoon, but Silver Spoon shakes her head.
  4499. >”No… no, sir. I can…”
  4500. >She looks at the bowl, at the spoon, at the mare behind you.
  4501. >Whatever reassurances she was looking for, she didn’t find a one.
  4502. >”I can eat later, sir,” she mumbles. “I’m not hungry.”
  4503. “If that’s true... fine. But…”
  4504. >Do you really care?
  4505. >Do you *really* want to help?
  4506. >Or are you just finding another excuse to put off doing anything?
  4507. >Does it really matter, so long as you can pretend to yourself that you’re a good person?
  4508. >That doesn’t even matter.
  4509. >You shake your head to clear your jumbled thoughts.
  4510. >It doesn’t work, but you didn’t expect it to.
  4511. >You aren’t in any condition to start making decisions.
  4512. >Not that you wouldn’t make the wrong ones anyway, but you’ll probably make worse ones.
  4513. >You crouch down by the head of the cot and take the spoon from her – she’s in no condition to stop you.
  4514. “Look, Silver Spoon… can I just call you Silver?”
  4515. >She nods.
  4516. >Of course she would.
  4517. >You *own* her. You can call her whatever you want.
  4518. >Or, like your neighbor, you could call her nothing.
  4519. >There’s nothing to stop you from taking away her name entirely.
  4520. >Nothing but the ache in your heart when you think that over too long.
  4521. >The mare on the cot stares up at you – even crouching, you’re head and shoulders above her – and there’s no mistaking the expression on her face.
  4522. >She’s scared.
  4523. >Helpless.
  4524. >Just like that one time, with another mare you used to think you knew.
  4525. “Silver…”
  4526. >God, it hurts.
  4527. >“… if you need help, *ask* for it.”
  4528. >You don’t want to remember that day, but you can’t think of anything but.
  4529. >You can’t think of any words other than the ones you parroted up to her.
  4530. “When… when you can’t run, you crawl…”
  4531. >You scoop up a spoonful of the porridge and tilt your head towards it; Silver’s so focused on your face that she wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
  4532. “…and when you can’t do that…”
  4533. > It’s just a quote from an old TV show, one you’ve probably quoted it a thousand times.
  4534.  “… when you can’t do that, you…”
  4535. >It doesn’t mean anything.
  4536. >They’re just comforting words.
  4537. “…you…”
  4538. >It don’t *really* mean *anything*.
  4539. >This shouldn’t be so hard to say.
  4540. “… you find someone to carry you.”
  4541. >And pray they don’t break your heart.
  4542. “So…”
  4543. >You both failed on that point, didn’t you?
  4544. “Silver…”
  4545. >You try to smile as you hold the spoon closer to her mouth.
  4546. “Are you hungry?”
  4548. >”Because I can help you,” he adds with a strained smile. “Please, let me help you.”
  4549. >You want to believe this is a trick.
  4550. >He’s going to dump the hot porridge on you or hold it just out of reach so you have to stretch but never come close enough to take it in your mouth.
  4551. >You *know* this, and yet… yet you can’t quite believe it’s true. And you *are* hungry.
  4552. >Carefully, *warily*, you open your mouth.
  4553. >He doesn’t make you strain to reach the soon. He doesn’t toy with you.
  4554. >From the first spoonful, he’s gentle. He helps.
  4555. >That doesn’t stop you from wanting to run every time his hand draws near.
  4556. >Moondancer’s ears are pinned back, her every movement and twitch one of fear.
  4557. >Something is wrong.
  4558. >Maybe she’s just spooked by whatever happened earlier, or maybe… maybe…
  4559. >You’re careful not to let the man touch you.
  4560. >It’s hard; he’s not very good at this, not like some of the other ponies that have helped you eat.
  4561. >”I completely forgot,” he sighs between the fifth and sixth spoonful.
  4562. >Now.
  4563. >It’s now.
  4564. >Now is when all your worries will come true.
  4565. >”I need to call that doctor and see about setting up an appointment for you.”
  4566. >You... you can’t believe it.
  4567. >It can’t be. Whatever you think it is, it can’t be.
  4568. >”You know, for rehab,” he sighs again. “Well, that’ll just be one more thing we can’t afford and there’s already so many of those it doesn’t really matter, does it?”
  4569. >You nod carefully.
  4570. >Agree. Always agree.
  4571. >It’s safer.
  4572. >But there’s a chance he means it.
  4573. >”And a follow-up appointment with the clinic, but insurance should cover that. Or the relocation agency. Don’t know about the rehab, though.”
  4574. >He sighs and lets his head drop limply.
  4575. >”Shit.”
  4576. >A moment of silence passes before Moondancer takes a cautious step closer.
  4577. >”Is… is that the bad news…?” she asks, almost but not quite putting a hoof on his shoulder.
  4578. >”No,” he answers quickly, but follows it with a nod. “Yes, but no, just *more* bad news.”
  4579. >He sighs and raises his head.
  4580. >A second later, he’s offering you the next spoonful.
  4581. >”Well…”
  4582. >”It’s the construction supplies, Moondancer,” he explains, even as he continues to feed you. “They’re going to cost way more than we thought.”
  4583. >”Oh,” she grunts. “Yeah, we… uh… we heard.”
  4584. >He hand stops suddenly, the spoon just a few inches shy of your mouth, and looks back at her over his shoulder.
  4585. >”You heard?”
  4586. >”Y-yeah. Not everything, but enough to get a general idea of –“
  4587. >”So you heard me talking about selling ponies.”
  4588. >It’s not a question, not even a statement from the way he says it.
  4589. >Just a resigned acknowledgement.
  4590. >He looks back to you and brings the spoon closer to your mouth.
  4591. >“Well. That’s great. Saves us some time.”
  4592. >He’s going to sell you.
  4593. >That’s why he’s taking care of you, so you can get healthy enough to make him a profit.
  4594. >You feel grateful anyway.
  4595. >”Look, I now there’s plenty of ponies that don’t like it here,” he says softly. “I’ll try to make sure they go to good places.”
  4596. >Moondancer nods, though you’re the only one who sees it.
  4597. >He keeps his eyes locked on the spoon, on the bowl, on anything but her face – or yours.
  4598. >”I swear I’m not going to send anyone to *Sterling* or my goddamn neighbors.”
  4599. >She nods again, and again he doesn’t so much as know – or care.
  4600. >He’s angry at her. So angry he can’t even look at her.
  4601. >”I’m not a fucking monster, you know, though I can’t promise it’ll be all -”
  4603. “- beaches and sunshine, but maybe some ponies would be happier.”
  4604. >You shrug.
  4605. “Like… I don’t know… Bon Bon? Maybe there’s a candy shop in town that would buy her, or… hell, in a few months, up in the city.
  4606. >You risk a glance back, terrified of the expression you’ll find on her face.
  4607. >The utter disappointment she must feel in you.
  4608. >From everything you’ve heard, she worked so hard –
  4609. >*Apple Bloom* worked so hard to keep all of the ponies together.
  4610. >Moondancer just looks confused and worried.
  4611. “They’re getting the bypass finished up.”
  4612. >She nods, though you can’t be sure she actually heard a damn thing you said until she limply mouths “Bon Bon?”
  4613. “Yeah. Her.”
  4614. >”Why…?”
  4615. >You can think of half a dozen reasons why.
  4616. >Because she attacked you, because she’s a troublemaker, because she’s probably sabotaging the harvests, because you don’t want to have to have another pony killed…
  4617. >But it all comes back to one key reason.
  4618. “She’s not happy here, Moondancer. I’m not trying to punish anyone for anything, just…”
  4619. >”Oh.”
  4620. >She nods along.
  4621. “It might be the best thing for everyone, but I don’t think one pony would be enough… so…”
  4622. >You look over at Silver for confirmation, though you already know it’s true.
  4623. >She’s your damned accountant, after all.
  4624. >If she agrees, then the blame isn’t all on you.
  4625. >It’s just the practical solution.
  4626. >As soon as you lay eyes on her, the mare practically spits the spoon out in her haste to answer.
  4627. >”How… um… how much more expensive will it be?”
  4628. “You read the estimates, right?”
  4629. >They should have been in the paperwork you’d bundled up for her, but who the fuck knows.
  4630. >You just grabbed everything off the top of your desk and stuffed it in a briefcase.
  4631. >Silver pauses a moment, then nods.
  4632. “Yeah, triple that.”
  4633. >That makes even her flinch.
  4634. >Yeah.
  4635. “So, how many would I have to sell, at the current rate for unskilled ponies?”
  4636. >She blanches, the light grey of her face growing even paler.
  4637. >”Twenty,” she mumbles. “Maybe thirty.”
  4638. >Shit.
  4639. >Worse than you thought, and you’re already running on –
  4640. >”We can’t afford to lose that many,” Moondancer blurts out, stealing the words right out of your mind. “We barely got the harvest in as it was, and that was with the foals helping out!”
  4641. “You think I don’t know that!?”
  4642. >Silver’s wrong. That’s impossible.
  4643. “Look, do you think you *maybe* got that math wrong, because last I checked prices were going *up* ever since the ceasefire.”
  4644. >It can’t be that many. There’s no way.
  4645. >”Maybe… maybe I did,” she whimpers. “It’s… um… it’s just an estimate…”
  4646. >Great.
  4647. >Your miracle accountant can’t do basic fucking math.
  4648. >”… but before I…” she trails off with a wince. “*Before*… there were rumors of a new wave of refugees coming over…”
  4649. >You shake your head, because you hadn’t heard any such thing.
  4650. “I really doubt that.”
  4651. >Silver’s eyes dart away from you and she shivers under her blanket.
  4652. >Goddammit.
  4653. “Hey, hold up, I’m not angry at you –“
  4654. >You *are*, but you shouldn’t be. You won’t *let* yourself be.
  4655. >It’s not her fault but yours.
  4656. >You shouldn’t have had hope.
  4657. “But… uh… just how reliable was that rumor…?”
  4658. >”Enough that ma- uh… Mister Sterling…”
  4659. >She shivers again.
  4660. >”… raised our quotas to… um…”
  4661. >You don’t want to hear it.
  4662. >You shouldn’t have asked.
  4663. >You –
  4664. >”…‘thin the herd’ to make room for new arrivals.”
  4665. >You should have done something.
  4666. >But no. You’re not a good man.
  4667. >A good man would be trying to figure out how to buy up more ponies to save them from that hellhole.
  4668. >He’d find a way.
  4669. >You… you have problems of your own.
  4670. >”And… well… even if it isn’t true…”
  4671. “I *really* hope it isn’t.”
  4672. >That probably means it is.
  4673. >That’s how this world works.
  4674. >Silver nods quickly, but continues speaking barely a second later.
  4675. >”A rumor alone is enough to drive down prices.”
  4676. “*That* much?”
  4677. >”Combined with a ceasefire and… and what that eventually means…?”
  4678. >Shit, she’s right.
  4679. >It wouldn’t happen overnight, but it’ll happen.
  4680. >Eventually this entire program will be abolished.
  4681. >”By the time you find a buyer...”
  4682. >”Particularly if you’re going to try to find a good match for each pony,” Moondancer adds, “even classified as unskilled labor…”
  4683. “I get it.”
  4684. >You sigh and scoop up another spoonful of porridge for Silver.
  4685. “I get it, girls.”
  4686. >You hold it up to her muzzle.
  4687. “I’m sorry, Silver.”
  4688. >It takes a moment before she notices, both the spoon and what you said.
  4689. >You can see the conflict warring in her eyes for a moment before the later wins.
  4690. >”S-sorry?” she murmurs. “For…?”
  4691. “For… for everything.”
  4692. >She waits a second, but that’s all you can say.
  4693. >You don’t even want to imagine what happened to her, let alone put words to it.
  4694. >When she realizes you’re done, she mumbles a soft thanks and takes the spoon in her mouth.
  4695. >Always careful not to take too much, lest she touch you.
  4696. >You can understand.
  4697. >More than understand.
  4698. >You really wish you didn’t.
  4699. >You sigh and wave Moondancer forward with your other hand as you continue to feed Silver.
  4700. >It takes her a while, but eventually she’s standing at the side of the bed, the small table between the two of you.
  4701. “So…”
  4702. >She looks away quickly.
  4703. “Got any ideas?”
  4704. >”A… a few.”
  4705. “Like?”
  4706. >”Well… um…”
  4707. >The rest of her answer is lost as she mumbles it into the floor.
  4708. “I have some, but…”
  4709. >They’re probably shit.
  4710. >Won’t work.
  4711. >Nothing does.
  4712. >You go to refill the spoon, but…
  4713. “Silver? Are you full?”
  4714. >She flinches and shakes her head.
  4715. >”N-no, sir, but… um… what are your ideas?”
  4716. >It won’t work.
  4717. >You’ll tell her and she’ll shoot it down and she’ll be *right*, but it’s the best you have.
  4718. “Moondancer had a point. We can’t sell that many ponies and still keep the farm going. But… what if it’s just one?”
  4719. >”One?”
  4720. >”One?” Moondancer echoes. “Who?”
  4721. “Maybe more, but… I’m guessing prices on certain kinds of ponies aren’t going to drop too much.
  4722. “I mean, if these are voluntary refugees coming over, they’re just going to be ponies that don’t have anything to live for in Equestria, right?”
  4723. >The two mares nod, a hair apart.
  4724. “So…”
  4725. >”We just have to find the ponies that are wasting their talents here,” Moondancer says slowly. “The kinds of talents that the big companies will pay big money for.”
  4726. >Not what you had in mind, but it makes sense.
  4727. >It’s an obvious solution.
  4728. >You shrug – and, a second later, realize you’d pulled the spoon away from Silver’s mouth just as she was leaning in for it.
  4729. >Great.
  4730. >Classic.
  4731. >”So, who…?” Moondancer mumbles, turning aside from you. “Anypony in particular… or…”
  4732. “Whatever would fetch the most. Any suggestions?”
  4733. >Silver shakes her head quickly, but Moondancer falls silent and utterly, completely still.
  4734. “I mean, there’s got to be a few, right?”
  4735. >She doesn’t answer, but even you know of some.
  4736. >Only some.
  4737. “Moondancer? Hey, I –“
  4738. >”I don’t want to go.”
  4739. >She looks up.
  4740. >Just her eyes.
  4741. >Just those wide, trembling purple eyes, framed between her bangs and the top of her glasses.
  4742. >”Please,” she whimpers, “I don’t want to go.”
  4743. >That’s all she says.
  4744. >It’s all she has to say.
  4745. >You can figure out the rest.
  4746. >She’s scared, *terrified* that you’ll sell her, probably to a pharmaceutical company or some science lab - somewhere she can put her skills and knowledge to good use.
  4747. >”Please…”
  4748. >She’s lived through that before and only made things worse, and not just for herself.
  4749. >You can relate.
  4750. >Just the thought of it has her frozen stiff, so scared that she doesn’t flinch away when you reach for her, so unnerved that she doesn’t jerk back when you brush the bangs out of her eyes or run your fingers through her mane.
  4751. “Hey… It’s okay, Moondancer.”
  4752. >She trembles, softly mouthing the same plea again, so quietly you can’t hear it.
  4753. >You push the table between you back, out of the way, and pull her close.
  4754. >She doesn’t resist. She doesn’t pull away or hesitate to lean her face against your chest, even if it does push her glasses askew.
  4755. “I won’t…”
  4756. >You could never.
  4757. “I won’t sell you.”
  4758. >”But… I would…”
  4759. >She swallows nervously; even through your coat, you can feel every movement of every muscle.
  4760. “I wouldn’t. You’re one of the few I can trust.”
  4761. >She’s never lied to you, not once.
  4762. >Never led you astray.
  4763. >”I mean…” she mumble softly, her voice muffled by fear as much by your coat, “I would… my sale would cover the cost. By myself.”
  4764. >She’s always been open, even now as she’s begging you not to sell her.
  4765. >You shake your head, even though she can’t see the gesture with her face buried in your chest.
  4766. “No. I need ponies who don’t lie to me.”
  4767. >"Then… then who..?"
  4768. >You glance over, but Silver doesn’t meet your eyes.
  4769. >She has the exact same answer you do.
  4770. >Knows exactly what you’re going to say.
  4771. >There are two skilled ponies right here.
  4772. “Well…”
  4773. >You couldn’t.
  4774. >”I have another idea,” she murmurs, saving you from saying anything you would regret. “A… um… a…”
  4776. “… better idea.”
  4777. >You hesitate to say that, but it’s true.
  4778. >”What…?” he asks cautiously, but at least he asks.
  4779. >He’s listening.
  4780. >You had hoped, but weren’t sure that he would.
  4781.  “What about… what about the crop?”
  4782. >”What about it?”
  4783. >He’s gruff and dismissive, but responding.
  4784. “When will it be picked up and… um… when will you be paid?”
  4785. >”Soon,” he responds with a one-armed shrug. “We’ll have some trucks in next week, and the money should hit our accounts the week after that.”
  4786. “How… how much will that be?”
  4787. >The rest you could have extrapolated from the ledger, at least gotten a rough estimate, but that? That you don’t know.
  4788. >”I don’t know.”
  4789. >And neither does he.
  4790. >Or… he’s stop paying attention to you, just giving a quick answer to shut you up.
  4791. >You had hoped that he -
  4792. >”It won’t be enough, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’ll only be enough to keep things afloat.”
  4793. >He’s still listening.
  4794. “Most of it the payment is locked in… in war bonds?”
  4795. >”Yeah, for what good that is,” he sighs. ”Otherwise… otherwise this wouldn’t be a problem.”
  4796. >He’s still stroking Moondancer’s mane, still running his fingers through the strands, his attention barely on you or your words.
  4797. >”Otherwise, this dump would be making a shit ton of cash.”
  4798. “It…”
  4799. >And now is the moment of truth.
  4800. >He’s listening, if only partially.
  4801. >He’s calm. Calmer, at least.
  4802. >He’s trying to help.
  4803. “It… it *is*.”
  4804. >His hand pauses for a moment, as if snagged on a tangle in her mane.
  4805. >”What…?”
  4806. “The farm… it *is* making money.”
  4807. >He looks up from the mare in his arms.
  4808. >”What.”
  4809. >He’s…
  4810. >You want to fall silent. Mutter an apology. Say you were wrong.
  4811. >It’s what you should do.
  4812. >You should always agree with humans.
  4813. >Even now, even when he’s missing something blindingly obvious, something you saw the first moment you started looking through the ledger, you should agree.
  4814. >Say he was right. Say that the farm is barely making enough money to keep itself running.
  4815. >It would mean him selling ponies, probably quite a few, but you should keep silent.
  4816. >You can’t.
  4817. >Experience tells you one thing, but your heart… your heart says something else entirely.
  4818. >It says this time is different.
  4819. “It’s…”
  4820. >It says to have hope.
  4821. “It’s quite profitable, really.”
  4822. >”Bullshit.”
  4823. >He doesn’t argue, doesn’t try to prove you wrong.
  4824. >All the evidence is right there; he doesn’t even feel a need to explain it to you.
  4825. >He doesn’t even see *how*.
  4826. >It’s just so basic.
  4827. “These bonds…”
  4828. >”The funds are locked,” he says, matter-of-factly.
  4829. >And that’s why he’s not seeing the solution.
  4830. “… are they transferable…?”
  4832. >”… because if they are…”
  4833. >Fuck.
  4834. >Fuck everything.
  4835. >No. It won’t work.
  4836. >It *can’t* work.
  4837. >”… you could sell them.”
  4838. “No one would buy them.”
  4839. >Silver tilts her head slightly, waiting for you to explain.
  4840. >It’s a long wait.
  4841. >All you know is it wouldn’t work, not *why*.
  4842. “Because… because…”
  4843. >”Because there’s no set due date on them,” Moondancer says, her voice muffled so as to be barely understandable. “Who would buy them?”
  4844. >”Someone willing to wait.”
  4845. >You shake your head.
  4846. >It makes sense, but it’s just not practical.
  4847. “For all we know, it’ll be *years*.”
  4848. >”That’s why… why you’d have to… you’d have to sell them cheap.”
  4849. “How cheap?”
  4850. >She hesitates, looks away.
  4851. >Shows uncertainty for the first time since she started speaking.
  4852. >”Maybe… fifty cents per dollar?” she answers. “Probably… probably less.”
  4853. >That…
  4854. >That won’t work.
  4855. >It *can’t* work.
  4856. “How much less?”
  4857. >“I… um… I don’t know the current market…”
  4858. >You sigh.
  4859. >It was too good to be true.
  4860. “I doubt we’ll be able to raise enough money that way, but…”
  4861. >The mare pressed against your chest shifts, pulls away. Turns to look at Silver.
  4862. >“Do you really think that would work?” Moondancer asks. “Really?”
  4863. >”Going by the ledger…” the other mare mumbles, “yes. Maybe.”
  4864. >Her eyes drop.
  4865. >”I *hope*,” she continues. “It’s better than… than…”
  4866. “Than selling ponies?”
  4867. >Silver nods.
  4868. “But what if they aren’t happy here?”
  4869. >”Then…”
  4870. >”Please,” Moondancer cuts in, her chin pressed against your chest. “Please, look into it.”
  4871. >Two sets of purple eyes stare up at you pleadingly.
  4872. >”Please…”
  4873. >Oh… fuck it.
  4874. “Fine.”
  4875. >Moondancer smiles faintly as you ruffle her mane.
  4876. “I’ll look into it.”
  4877. >Not that it’ll go anywhere.
  4878. >”R-really…?” Silver asks her eyes wide with surprise. “Really?”
  4879. “Yeah, why not? What’ll it hurt?”
  4880. >All you’re doing is wasting your time.
  4881. >Not like there was anything more important you could be doing.
  4882. “I’ll… uh…”
  4883. >Silver almost looks like she’s going to cry.
  4884. “I’ll…”
  4885. >She *is* crying.
  4886. >That’s just too much.
  4887. >You reach out to touch her.
  4888. >Gently, softly.
  4889. >To just lightly brushing her hair, like you did for Moondancer.
  4890. >Like you’ve done for Lauren.
  4891. >For Apple Bloom.
  4892. >She doesn’t want to be touched, but it’s all you know to do.
  4893. >All you can think to do.
  4894. >Hesitantly, your fingers come closer.
  4895. “Look… it’ll… it’ll be okay.”
  4896. >She doesn’t flinch away.
  4897. >Of course not, her eyes are shut.
  4898. >She can’t see you, see how close your hand is.
  4899. “I’ll look into it along with the other idea and… and *maybe*…”
  4900. >There’s a sharp shock, like static electricity, and you jerk your hand back as Silver jumps.
  4901. >Her eyes are open wide.
  4902. >Yeah.
  4903. >That was a stupid idea.
  4904. >The static shock was just a coincidence, but what isn’t?
  4905. >You shouldn’t touch her.
  4906. “I’ll… um… I’ll look into it, okay?”
  4907. >Maybe it’ll even work out.
  4908. >And even if it doesn’t… at least you won’t have to sell as many ponies.
  4909. >Just the one, if you’re lucky.
  4910. >Silver nods wordlessly, but you’re already standing.
  4911. >Already thinking about what to do next.
  4912. >You’re due for some good luck right about now.
  4913. “So… I’ll get back with you by the end of the week, I guess. Might take some time to do the research.”
  4914. >Even if you get Moondancer to help you.
  4915. >The house only has the one computer, after all.
  4916. “Anyway…”
  4917. >You should go.
  4918. >You shouldn’t have tried to touch Silver.
  4919. “You’re looking tired… so…”
  4920. >She doesn’t; she looks more awake than ever.
  4921. >Doesn’t matter, because it’s just an excuse to leave.
  4922. >You have work to do.
  4923. >Moondancer takes the hint and reaches for the briefcase with her mouth, but stops when Silver quickly shakes her head.
  4924. >”I…”
  4925. >The injured mare stops, looks up at you, and – after a moment – smiles gently.
  4926. >”I’m still looking it over,” she says. “I might find another option.”
  4927. >You hesitate, but the mare doesn’t.
  4928. >”I can look at them when I wake up.”
  4929. >You nod, conceding the point.
  4930. >Maybe she will find another way.
  4932. >Moondancer stays quiet until you’re out of the room, until you’re walking out the door to the next hall.
  4933. >Rain is slamming down, driven by wind that makes the paltry cover of the walkway totally worthless.
  4934. >You’re soaked by your third step, Moondancer probably from her first.
  4935. >She only says one word, just one simple question that you can barely hear over the roar of the storm.
  4936. >”Really?”
  4937. “Yes.”
  4938. >You meant it.
  4939. >Looking into selling the bonds seems a lot easier than trying to sell your ponies.
  4940. >Better for the farm, too. And better for the ponies. Most of them, anyway.
  4941. >Some... some should probably be sold. For their own sake, if nothing else.
  4942. >Moondancer falls back into silence until you’re into the next hall, both of you dripping water like you were the storm itself brought into the building.
  4943. >Neither of you bother to shake yourselves dry; you’re about to get soaked again anyway.
  4944. >”Well,” Moondancer whispers, as you push open the next door, “*that* seems out of character.”
  4945. >You pause to think about it and find yourself agreeing.
  4946. >For the first time in a long time, you find yourself with real hope in your heart.
  4947. >You’re not sure how much you trust it, but it’s there.
  4948. “Time for a change, I guess.”
  4949. >Moondancer nods silently, agreeing – or at least acknowledging that you spoke.
  4950. >You choose to believe it's the former.
  4951. >Time for some change around here.
  4952. >She may not believe it – she may not even believe it’s possible – but neither did you. Not until a certain little, grey pony gave you hope.
  4953. >Might not be easy, but what is these days?
  4954. >If she can do it…
  4955. >You look back down the hall.
  4956. >If she can, then you can, too.
  4957. >You hesitate for a moment at the door.
  4958. >The rain is slamming down outside, but it's only a short run to the next hall of the dorms.
  4959. >Well.
  4960. >You open the door and take the first step.
  4961. >Moondancer follows, more reluctantly than you had expected.
  4962. >You’re soaked through by the time you’re inside again, even more than you were already.
  4963. >Now, for sure, you can’t get any wetter.
  4964. >You don’t hesitate to jump out into the rain again and make the mad dash for the dining hall.
  4965. >Things can’t get any worse, so why wait?
  4966. >The rain’s not going to get any lighter.
  4967. >It’s not going to miraculously stop.
  4968. >And you’re already soaked.
  4969. >You just go for it, and leave Moondancer scrabbling madly to catch up.
  4970. >She’s caught off guard; you’re jerking the door open before the last has even fallen shut behind the mare.
  4971. >Her hooves kick up little sprays of water with each step she takes.
  4972. >It’s wild, it’s wet, and – honestly – it’s probably messier than if you and she had simply trudged along like before, but it’s over sooner.
  4973. >”Give me a little warning next time,” Moondancer grumbles as she passes through the doorway.
  4974. “Yeah, sorry, I just... I don’t know. I almost feel like skipping.”
  4975. >She raises an eyebrow.
  4976. “But I wouldn’t. I’m not gay.”
  4977. >”Uh... huh.”
  4978. >She almost laughs. Almost.
  4979. >For some reason, that seems important to you.
  4980. >There hasn’t been enough of it around here. Not for years.
  4981. >It’s time for that to change.
  4982. >Her snort and faint, lingering smile will be close enough for now.
  4983. >It stays on her face as she looks along the hall, at the tables full of ponies, some eating, some simply waiting for the rain to come to an end before they return to their... their what?
  4984. >Their cots?
  4985. >The lucky few to the tiny 'rooms' they share with their family?
  4986. >A few are just sitting around talking, their empty bowls piled together or pushed aside.
  4987. >Most look worried. Some scared. Some dull and hollow.
  4988. >One looks completely dead and devoid of all emotions, but that’s okay.
  4989. >She always looks like that.
  4990. >Well, not quite.
  4991. >She's almost smiling.
  4992. >Sure, her face is blank as normal, but you can sense it.
  4993. >She's *almost* smiling.
  4994. “How's breakfast, Maud?”
  4995. >”It's fine.”
  4996. “High praise.”
  4997. >”Indeed,” she answers flatly.
  4998. “Are... you being sarcastic?”
  4999. >”Are you?”
  5000. >Roma is nearby, only one table away, easily within earshot.
  5001. >Her ears are down, limply – tiredly – flopped back.
  5002. >It’s still morning, and she’s exhausted.
  5003. >The poor mare is finally sitting down to eat her own breakfast, long after everyone else has finished, or nearly so.
  5004. >She works too hard around here - keeping everyone fed - for you to badmouth her efforts, particularly right here, in front of her and everyone else.
  5005. >You shake your head.
  5006. >Besides, you mean it.
  5007. “You seem happy with it, Maud, so… yeah. High praise.”
  5008. >The mare shrugs.
  5009. >”I’m not a picky eater.”
  5010. “No, but you’re rarely happy and today you - *almost* - seem happy.”
  5011. >Maud fractionally tilts her head to the side.
  5012. >“I suppose,” she answers after a moment of thought. “Want to try some?”
  5013. >You glance out one of the few windows.
  5014. >You don’t know why - you haven’t suddenly been struck deaf; you can *hear* the rain coming down in sheets as thick as lead, rattling and banging against the roof like it’s trying to fight its way inside.
  5015. “Sure –“
  5016. >But –
  5017. >Roma must have heard.
  5018. >She’s looking your way and pushing her stool back.
  5019. “I can get it.”
  5020. >”You don’t know where the bowls are,” she sighs. “Or…”
  5021. >”I’ll... get it,” Moondancer mumbles softly with a shake of her head. “I haven't eaten yet either.”
  5022. >She forces a wavering smile onto her face.
  5023. >”Maybe everything will be clearer once I’ve had some breakfast.”
  5024. >You hope so.
  5025. >And for you, too.
  5026. “Thanks, Moondancer, but... uh...”
  5027. >You don’t think - *hope* - any of the ponies will mind, even if Bon Bon is staring death at you now. She just hates you on general principle.
  5028. >Still.
  5029. >It makes you think.
  5030. “– *only* there’s any extra.”
  5031. >You aren’t going to take food out of their mouths.
  5032. >Moondancer nods and trots off, drops of water shaking themselves free of her coat with every step, and Roma settles herself back into her stool with a weary sigh.
  5033. >Bon Bon continues to try to make your brain explode via sheer willpower.
  5034. >Maud – Maud *almost* smiles. Again.
  5035. >Twice in one day.
  5036. >That’s a minor miracle.
  5037. >”Have a seat,” she says, inviting you to join her at the table with a sweep of her foreleg.
  5038. >There's a crude stool opposite her, one of many in the hall, but that’s a bit silly.
  5039. >You nudge it aside and flop your ass right on the floor, legs crossed.
  5040. >Table comes up a bit high, but it’s better than having to bend nearly in half to reach the food.
  5041. “The stool's uh... a little... tall?”
  5042. >”Of course.”
  5043. >You want to ask who made them, or about the weather, or any other stupid piece of small talk.
  5044. >It’s all stuff you already probably know the answer to.
  5045. >Apple Bloom, most likely.
  5046. >It’s fucking raining like the end times have come.
  5047. >Yes, this is awkward.
  5048. >Not as awkward as it could be, of course.
  5049. >If it was anyone else...
  5050. >Luckily, this is Maud.
  5051. >The two of you stare at each other in completely unawkward silence until Moondancer comes back with two bowls of porridge.
  5052. >One is balanced on her head, one on her back, just like she did with the mac n’ cheese.
  5053. >Except there’s a bit dripping down her bangs.
  5054. >Just a little spill.
  5055. >She seems oblivious to it, even as you reach for her.
  5056. >You just grab those few strands between two fingers and gently wipe it from her hair, and she doesn’t so much as blink or ask what you’re doing.
  5057. >No reaction when you take the bowls and set them on the table.
  5058. “Moondancer...?”
  5059. >”Oh. Right.”
  5060. >She slumps down onto the stool beside you.
  5061. >”Moondancer, you seem...” Maud starts, then falls silent.
  5062. >At a loss for words.
  5063. >”... tired?” she eventually finishes.
  5064. >”No, no,” the Moondancer answers, “just lost mentally.”
  5065. “Eat. See if it helps.”
  5066. >You reach for the spoon in your own bowl.
  5067. >It’s cheap. Plastic.
  5068. >Worn.
  5069. >It’s been used before.
  5070. >Washed, though, and washed *repeatedly*.
  5071. >Your uncle was a piece of shit.
  5072. >These ponies deserve better.
  5073. >You should see about getting them something more appropriate.
  5074. >Maybe call up a restaurant supply store.
  5075. >You have enough ponies here.
  5076. >Should be able to get a decent bulk discount.
  5077. >But the food?
  5078. >The food is good.
  5079. >Better than what you expected, considering is porrage.
  5080. >Better than that, really.
  5081. >It's excellent.
  5082. >Superior to what Roma usually makes you.
  5083. >You’d be jealous – hell, maybe you are.
  5084. >Or maybe it’s just the company.
  5085. >Food eaten alone never tastes as good as it does with friends.
  5086. “Roma?”
  5087. >The mare looks up from her own bowl.
  5088. “This is great.”
  5089. >She smiles.
  5090. >Yeah, you don’t think you’re jealous.
  5091. >You go at it with such gusto that you nearly catch up to Maud – and she had a head start.
  5092. >Not quite, though.
  5093. >She pushes her bowl away with a happy – for her – monotone sigh and crosses her forelegs on the table.
  5094. >”So,” she says, looking up and down the hall, “who’s watching Silver Spoon?”
  5095. “Uh –“
  5096. >Shit?
  5097. “ – she’s... um... sleeping.”
  5098. >Maud... well, she doesn’t *frown*... but she probably isn’t too happy with that and neither are you.
  5099. >You should have thought of that.
  5100. >If everyone is two or three buildings away from her, who’ll hear her if she calls for her pain meds?
  5101. >Or just wants someone to talk to?
  5102. >Maud starts to rise, silently volunteering herself.
  5103. >Just like she had with going cold turkey on the suppressants to plow the field.
  5104. >Just like Apple Bloom.
  5105. >The food suddenly tastes bitter in your mouth.
  5106. “Wait, I’ll go with you. There was some stuff I wanted to talk to you about, so –“
  5107. >”I’ll go!” Bon Bon calls out from her table. “I’ve lost my appetite.”
  5108. >It’s such a clichéd exit, you can’t bring yourself to feel insulted.
  5109. >She was *waiting* for an excuse to lash out; her bowl was pushed aside before you came in.
  5110. >It just... just isn’t worth it.
  5111. “Thanks, Bon Bon.”
  5112. >She snorts derisively – and when you don’t give her a reason to act out – walks off.
  5113. >Hopefully to take care of Silver.
  5114. >Her friend, the green one, chases after her into the rain.
  5115. >You wait for them to get out the door before turning back to Maud.
  5116. ”Is she actually going to...?”
  5117. >The mare nods.
  5118. “If only to prove how horrible I am, right?”
  5119. >Another nod.
  5120. >”For a while. I’ll check on her later.”
  5121. “Well… that’s good. Actually, that’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about…
  5122. “You can’t say some ponies wouldn’t be happier elsewhere. Bon Bon for certain, and she’s not alone.”
  5123. >Maud nods.
  5124. “I can think of one other in particular.”
  5125. >”And what does that mean?” she asks cautiously.
  5126. “We might have to sell some ponies, and if there are some that’d prefer to be elsewhere...”
  5127. >”I can’t find fault in that.”
  5128. “Might not be as many as I thought, though. Silver came up with some good ideas.”
  5129. >You tell her everything – almost everything – between spoonfuls of porridge that tastes better with every bite: your talk with Silver, the options she presented, how ponies might be sold and to whom, as the ideas come to you.
  5130. >Ponies with talents that could probably be put to better use in the shops in town, if they’re willing.
  5131. >Honestly, it probably would have been smarter to have this little talk somewhere private, but by the time you realize that it’s too late.
  5132. >Besides, it’s better if everyone hears.
  5133. >At least, that’s what you convince yourself, and it isn’t hard.
  5134. >Better to be open about it and have volunteers.
  5135. >Maud listens quietly.
  5136. >Moondancer... she’s quiet too, but you can’t say she’s listening.
  5137. >Probably not.
  5138. >Others are, though.
  5139. >Not as many as you thought; most seem lost in their own little worlds, caught by whatever funk has Moondancer feeling down.
  5140. >Only a handful have shaken it off to bother trying to listen in.
  5141. >Enough, though.
  5142. >Word will spread, even if it takes a day or two.
  5143. >Maud waits a moment after you’ve finished talking, and then another. And then she nods.
  5144. >”I didn’t expect you to have good news like this.”
  5145. “I admit I’ve been pretty negative, but –“
  5146. >”That too,” she cuts you off, “but I didn’t think you were really working.”
  5147. “What? Why?”
  5148. >”You know.”
  5149. “Because I’m… what…? Lazy?”
  5150. >”Because you have a fetish.”
  5151. >She looks meaningfully at Moondancer, who smiles awkwardly.
  5152. “I’m… lost.”
  5153. >”Perhaps I was wrong. Sorry.”
  5154. “I’m still lost.”
  5155. >”Nevermind.”
  5156. “But –“
  5157. >Moondancer stands suddenly, nearly knocking the stool over in her haste.
  5158. >”I’m going to get my suppressant,” she excuses herself.
  5159. >Tries, anyway, but some stuff is more important than some weird pony being weird.
  5160. “Wait, hold on.”
  5161. >You reach for her when she doesn’t stop; the mare freezes the moment your hand touches her.
  5162. >At least she doesn’t kick, because she was so quick to get away that you damn near grabbed her ass by accident.
  5163. >Aside from her tail, there wasn’t much left within arm’s reach.
  5164. >Maud doesn't laugh.
  5165. >You appreciate that.
  5166. “Wait."
  5167. >And you're going to pretend it didn't happen.
  5168. "I think you’re right.”
  5169. >”Aaaaabout?” Moondancer asks, a million miles away.
  5170. “About the suppressants. You were on to something about helping the construction with your magic. It’ll save us a lot of time and money.”
  5171. >”Aren’t you afraid I’ll go berserk?” she asks, still facing away.
  5172. “No.”
  5173. >Yes, but it’s irrational, like a fear of falling when there’s a railing between you and the cliff’s edge.
  5174. “No, not really. I don’t think you’d hurt me or anyone else. Besides, it doesn't *have* to be you... but...”
  5175. >”O-oh.”
  5176. “And Maud, if you’d be willing…?”
  5177. >With her strength and a pully or two, she could take the place of a crane.
  5178. >Who knows how much that would save?
  5179. >Probably one more pony that wouldn’t have to be sold.
  5180. >”I’m not sure...” Moondancer answers.
  5181. >Maud just blinks.
  5182. “Please?"
  5183. >You turn back to Maud.
  5184. "And you’ve barely been back on the meds, but –“
  5185. >”That’ll make it easier,” Moondancer adds softly. “They'll take a while to get back in her system, so the withdrawal won’t be so bad this time.”
  5186. >”T-true,” Maud admits. Hesitantly. Like she’s afraid. Like she can feel *anything*. “I can still feel the magic.”
  5187. >Apparently she can, though you more meant emotions.
  5188. >”Or at least I *think* I can.”
  5189. >Close enough.
  5190. “Please?”
  5191. >She looks troubled. Worried.
  5192. >You reach out for her – and jerk your hand back at the sudden shock.
  5193. “Shit! Fuck! That’s the second time that’s happened today!”
  5194. >Moondancer laughs as you shake your hand.
  5195. >Maud, too.
  5196. >Both are quiet, barely perceptible, but for their own reasons.
  5197. >Maud’s just like that, silent and stoic.
  5198. >”Must be your coat,” Moondancer says after a moment, after her nervous giggling dies down.
  5199. >You give her your best what the fuck look, because you’ve had this coat for years.
  5200. >“I had a sweater like that, back in – in Equestria,” she continues. “I loved that sweater, but the way it rubbed my coat the wrong way and –“
  5201. >Maud *giggles*.
  5202. >Maud.
  5203. >Maud Pie.
  5204. >Everything stops.
  5205. >Everything stops because holy shit emotion.
  5206. >From Maud.
  5207. >Even the rain itself seems to pause in recognition of the impossible.
  5208. >Even Maud herself.
  5209. >”Sorry,” she mumbles. “I apologize for my emotional outburst.”
  5210. “But… uh…”
  5211. >”I don’t even know what was so funny.”
  5212. “Ooooookay?”
  5213. >”I believe it will be,” she answers. "Okay, I mean."
  5214. “So... let me get this straight –“
  5215. >”Okay.”
  5216. “- everyone else here is morose and pissy, but you’re suddenly giddy?”
  5217. >”Apparently,” Maud giggles.
  5218. “That makes *no* sense at all. It’s like –“
  5219. >”It’s the last violin,” Moondancer says suddenly, her eyes snapping open wide - wider than her glasses. “The last violin, all over again.”
  5220. “What?”
  5221. >That means nothing to you.
  5222. >”I know I said that before, about us – ponies – and how magic was a symphony that we never heard until it stopped playing, and our own magic - each ponies' personal magic - was the last instrument to stop.”
  5223. "Oh, right."
  5224. >You nod.
  5225. >”But I was wrong. There was one more. I just… never *noticed* until it stopped this morning. Didn’t you hear it, Maud? Didn’t you hear the silence?”
  5226. >Maud shakes her head.
  5227. >”I didn’t notice anything like that.”
  5228. >”You *had* to have! You were acting like something was off, like everypony else!”
  5229. >”Because everypony else was.”
  5230. >”O-oh.”
  5231. >There’s nothing funnier than an egghead who thinks she has everything figured out, only to be rebuffed by plain, simple facts.
  5232. >You can’t help yourself; you laugh.
  5233. >Of course, you feel guilty about it, but you still laugh.
  5234. >”Well, *fine*,” Moondancer snorts. “Maybe grey ponies are immune to it, whatever *it* is. Or earth ponies. I… I don’t know.”
  5235. “Maybe it’s just Maud?”
  5236. >Maud nods on cue.
  5237. >”No, no,” the other mare grunts and shakes her head. “Silver Spoon was scared, but of *you*, not… whatever has the rest of us freaked out.”
  5238. “The last violin?”
  5239. >”Yes, the last violin.”
  5240. >Maud raises an eyebrow – and the rest of her follows a second later.
  5241. >”This conversation is getting beyond me,” she says, stepping away from the table. “I’m going to check on Silver Spoon now.”
  5242. >You nod to the mare as she walks away, and then turn to the one still beside you.
  5243. “Last violin, huh? That’s a pretty good analogy, you know. Makes it really easy to understand.”
  5244. >”I wish I could take credit for it, but I heard it in the camps," Moondancer sighs. "From a musician.”
  5246. >"Between us," Sterling says quietly, "are you worried about her?"
  5247. >"It would be understandable if I was,” Octavia answers. “She used to be one of your most profitable mares, sir. Just a few weeks ago, in fact."
  5248. >"But we've seen this before. She's started on the downward spiral."
  5249. >It's true.
  5250. >You have.
  5251. >And you never even knew it until it was too late.
  5252. >Until you'd taken the wrong client. Then another.
  5253. >And now they're the only ones who *do* want you.
  5254. >"Yes," Octavia agrees. "Just like Silver Spoon. You could give her some time off to recover."
  5255. >Yes.
  5256. >Please.
  5257. >You creep closer, straining to hear, to hope.
  5258. >You hadn't meant to listen in - you were just walking - stumbling - past when you heard your name.
  5259. >No, you were hoping he would see you. That he would be alone and he would... you don't know.
  5260. >Forgive you?
  5261. >"I could," Sterling admits, and you almost feel hope, "but it would set a bad precedent."
  5262. >"She's already lost her private room, perhaps -"
  5263. >"You *are* worried about her."
  5264. >Dead silence.
  5265. >"Aren't you?" he presses.
  5266. >"No."
  5267. >Bitch.
  5268. >"No, sir, I'm not. She has a job to do and she should do it."
  5269. >"Then what's wrong?"
  5270. >"I think... I think you can stop looking, sir," that cunt answers. "The final violin has stopped playing."
  5271. >"What does that mean?"
  5272. >"I believe..." she whimpers, impossibly soft, "... I believe Vinyl is dead. I no longer hear her song.."
  5273. >"Damn," Sterling sighs, "that's a shame. Do you need some time -"
  5274. >"That would set a bad precedent, sir."
  5275. >Maybe...
  5276. >You dare to hope.
  5277. >Maybe, if he lets *her*, then -
  5278. >"Are you sure, Tavi?"
  5279. >He wants to.
  5280. >You know that tone.
  5281. >You know desire when you hear it.
  5282. >"Yes, sir. I need to work. We all should."
  5283. >Sterling sighs.
  5284. >You don't dare to make any sound.
  5285. >"Okay, as you wish," he concedes. "Then about this new shipment we're getting..."
  5286. >Your ears perk up.
  5287. >You've heard rumors.
  5288. >Even started some, but you never thought it was true.
  5289. >You never thought he was really "thinning the herd."
  5290. >You thought... you thought Silver...
  5291. >"... you've already looked over the paperwork?"
  5292. >"Yes, sir. I read through it all when you gave it too me last week, right after you signed off on all of the employment contracts."
  5293. >"Good, good. Any names you recognized?"
  5294. >"Of the twenty new ponies, there are five I know."
  5295. >"Musicians?" he asks hopefully.
  5296. >"One *is* a notable singer, sir."
  5297. >"Bah," Sterling grumbles, "find me a damn pony who *can’t* sing."
  5298. >"She's the sister of an Equestrian heroine."
  5299. >Octavia sounds... she sounds worried.
  5300. >Most of the mares were.
  5301. >When you saw them.
  5302. >They didn't bother to wake you.
  5303. >Cunts.
  5304. >You don't care.
  5305. >You have your own things to worry about.
  5306. >"This may cause problems, sir," she continues. "The media will be watching, and these new ponies..."
  5307. >She growls slightly.
  5308. >You can imagine the irritated head shake she must be doing right now, hear the faint, derisive snort.
  5309. >"I don't know what Equestria is like these days, but they didn't have to spend a year in the camps."
  5310. >"No," Sterling responds. "They're been shipped straight to their contract owners. That's why I had to get that paperwork to be finished before they even came through."
  5311. >"I know, sir. I understand. But they haven't been through the refugee camps. They won't..."
  5312. >They won't have gone through the same hell you did.
  5313. >You and Silver.
  5314. >Starving. Alone. Selling yourself for the tiniest bit of anything that would dull the pain, just to survive.
  5315. >Octavia's haughty attitude pisses you off to no end. It pisses everypony off, but you find yourself agreeing with the way she snarls at the thought of the newcomers.
  5316. >"The media will lose interest soon enough," Sterling laughs. "Besides, the sheriff will turn a blind eye towards us and anything that -"
  5317. >"That's the bigger problem, sir," Octavia interrupts. "These ponies are coming straight from Equestria. They won't be used to such -"
  5318. >"You mean they haven't been broken, yet."
  5319. >Silence.
  5320. >Then Octavia sighs.
  5321. >"Yes, sir. A number of your current staff were prostituting themselves to the camp guards for food long before they were shipped here. Most of them are grateful just to have a warm room to sleep in and regular meals, but these newcomers might not be so... *accepting* of their new position. They haven't been through what we have."
  5322. >Sterling sighs.
  5323. >Unhappily.
  5324. >Just the sound of that makes you shudder.
  5325. >"Okay, I get it," he finally mutters. "I'll ask the sheriff to keep his boys away for a few weeks and try to warn off a few of the other rough customers."
  5326. >You could almost feel hopeful.
  5327. >"And those that won't play nice?" Octavia asks.
  5328. >"Well, I hate to turn away a paying client. Good thing we know exactly who to direct them towards."
  5329. >Almost.
  5331. >"Best finish setting up," Bill sighs, though you don't know what exactly they still gotta do.
  5332. >Don't really care, neither.
  5333. >You just followed along 'cuz you couldn't stand watching the screen anymore, not like Hematite and her brother.
  5334. >Even after Sweetie was gone an' Bill turned it over to some children's cartoon for ‘em, you could still see her.
  5335. >Still hear her.
  5336. >"Scootaloo, can you -"
  5337. >"Get the sign?" she chirps, like a dang bird. Like she's his *pet*. "Sure thing!"
  5338. >You slink over outta her way an' find yourself a corner of the counter to huddle in.
  5339. >And wait.
  5340. >Lauren's comin' soon.
  5341. >Bill told you.
  5342. >You din't kill her.
  5343. >That's good, at least.
  5344. >She's on her way, done the shopping and all that.
  5345. >Thought she was doin' you a favor, lettin' you spend more time with your friend.
  5346. >She don't know how much it hurts, every second you spend here.
  5347. >"Hey, Scoots! Catch!"
  5348. >A set’ve keys go flyin' over your head an' Scootaloo catches 'em in her mouth.
  5349. >"Looks like we have a customer waiting," he laughs. "Go ahead and open up the door."
  5350. >You...
  5351. >Nah.
  5352. >You don't care.
  5353. >You don't look.
  5354. >You try to ignore the sound of the bolt gettin' pulled back an’ the door openin’.
  5355. >Either it's Lauren and it's time to go or...
  5356. >It ain't nothin' you need to concern yourself about.
  5357. >Still -
  5358. >Your ears perk up.
  5359. >"CAN YOU BELIEVE IT!?"
  5360. >You recognize that voice.
  5361. >"YOU SAW IT TOO!?" Scootaloo screams back. "ISN'T THIS AWESOME!"
  5362. >"YEAH!"
  5363. >Your eyes snap upwards.
  5364. >There's someone loomin' over you.
  5365. >"Just gonna turn down the ol' hearing aid," he chuckles, givin' you a wink an' fiddlin' with somethin' in his ear.
  5366. >You - you try to do the same.
  5367. >Try to ignore the two mare's yappin' away at hundred miles an hour 'bout Sweetie.
  5368. >Y'hear some more names. Ponies they recognized. Ponies you shoulda.
  5369. >Yours.
  5370. >"She's here?" Derpy shouts. "Apple Bloom? APPLE BLOOM!?"
  5371. >"She's hiding here, somewhere, but... um..."
  5372. >Don't make no sense, but it's even harder to ignore their whisperin', though you can't make out a damn speck of it.
  5373. >Don't gotta, though. It's easy enough to imagine.
  5374. >Scoots tellin' her that you ain't you no more. That you're depressed. That you're a bitch. That you're -
  5375. >"Pregnant!" Derpy giggles. "That's great!"
  5376. >"Well..."
  5377. >"That's great, isn't it?" the older mare asks. "She's not going to..."
  5378. >"Nah, she plans to keep it."
  5379. >"Oh! Great! Being a mom is the best! Where is she?"
  5380. >You hear a couple a wing beats, like you haven't heard in years.
  5381. >A pegasus, really flyin'.
  5382. >"Dang it, Derpy!" Bill shouts from where ever he's gone. "What have I told you about flying in the store?"
  5383. >"Sorry," she whines, "I was just trying to see Apple Bloom."
  5384. >"She's -"
  5385. >Please. No.
  5386. >"- over by the counter. Whoah! Derpy! No, don't you -"
  5387. >Everything is lost in a flurry of feathers an' fuzz as the mare tackles you from up high.
  5388. >But... and you don't realize this 'til the pair of you stop rollin'... she does it careful like.
  5389. >Lookin' out for the baby, you realize as you stare up at her from your back.
  5390. >"This is great!" she squeals and hugs you.
  5391. >You're... glad?
  5392. >That there's at least one pony who understands.
  5393. >But lookin' at her, you realize she don't.
  5394. >She ain't alone.
  5395. >Ain't never been.
  5396. >Scoots said she got to walk the town. Meet the others. Have friends.
  5397. >"Who's the father?" she asks.
  5398. >She don't get you at all.
  5399. "Somepony."
  5400. >"Who?"
  5401. "Ah don't know."
  5402. >"O-oh."
  5403. >She ain't ever gonna understand, an' you can't bring yourself to explain.
  5404. >To tell her... to tell her it ain't what she thinks, that it's worse.
  5405. >An' *that* is better than what you'd hoped for.
  5406. >That impossible hope.
  5407. >It still hurts.
  5408. >Derpy looks 'way, at least her head does. One eye don't quite point remotely the same direction.
  5409. >She looks back to you an'... an' hugs you 'gain.
  5410. >"You'll be a great mom," she whispers.
  5411. >She squeezes you 'gain and then sits back on her rump with a smile.
  5412. >"You should come by my church," she says. "I have a ton of mail for you! And probably for some of the others on the farm!"
  5413. >Huh?
  5414. "Mail...?"
  5415. >"Yeah! Things may be different, but I'm still Ponyville's mailmare, you know! So, if you could do me a favor...”
  5416. >She smiles wider.
  5417. >Winks at you.
  5418. "What."
  5419. >"Oh," Derpy stumbles, "um, could you look through my undelivered mail and take whatever you can with you...? You know, for whoever got sent to that farm with you?"
  5420. "Yeah. Fine."
  5421. >"And you should write a letter!"
  5422. >She turns her head this way and that with a dumb, loopy grin.
  5423. >"Scootaloo! Do you have any paper or - PERFECT!"
  5424. >She takes the sheet of paper and pen from the other pony and pushes it towards you.
  5425. >"To anyone!" she insists. "I'll do my best to get it to them!"
  5426. >You...
  5427. >... reach for the pen with your mouth.
  5428. >Derpy's still smiling as the shop's door slams open.
  5429. >The -
  5431. >- bell chimes as you walk into Bill's place.
  5432. >You see him, over by the hardware, straightenin' up stuff, but no one else.
  5433. >None of the ponies.
  5434. >He smiles an' waves an' points over to the counter.
  5435. >Ah.
  5436. >You shuffle up ‘tween the aisles an' find first Bill's pegasus, then -
  5437. "Hey, it's you!"
  5438. >The grey mare's eyes waggle a bit as she smiles up at you from her seat on the floor.
  5439. >"Oh, from the clinic!" she giggles. "Hi!"
  5440. "Is Apple Bloom -"
  5441. >"Yeah, Ah'm here," her familiar voice dimly answers.
  5442. >There's a clatterin' and she stands up from where she's hidin' behind the counter.
  5443. >Mare almost looks relieved.
  5444. >You guess the visit didn't go so well.
  5445. >"Ah'll go get the foals," Apple Bloom mumbles an' starts walkin' away.
  5446. >Goes a lil' further than you expect, until you realize she's headin' for the back door.
  5447. "Wait, where are they?"
  5448. >"Still at the house," Bill answers with a jerk of his thumb. "It's just out back."
  5449. "You - you left them *unattended?*"
  5450. >"Well, yeah, just across the alley," he laughs. "That law about constant supervision for your ponies only applies to those with more than -"
  5451. "Ain't what I meant. What if someone tried to foalnap 'em or -"
  5452. >Bill rolls his eyes.
  5453. >"Oh, don't worry, the door's locked and they're watching cartoons."
  5454. "Great..."
  5455. >You guess.
  5456. >"Hey, Scootaloo!" Bill calls out. "Can you go with your friend? The door's locked, and -"
  5457. >"Yeah! Sure thing!"
  5458. >There's an orange blur an' then there's only the one pony with you, lookin' all sad at a blank piece of paper held between her hooves.
  5459. "So... uh..."
  5460. >You lean 'gainst the counter - and then nope, that hurts.
  5461. >Feels better to just stand.
  5462. "... you doing okay? You were lookin' pretty banged up."
  5463. >"Oh," she gasps, an' drops the paper. "Yes, thank you! Just perfect!"
  5464. >That ain't true at all, she's got bandages up an' down her legs, just like -
  5465. >- just like Sil did.
  5466. >Hers ain't all bloodied and stained, though.
  5467. >She sees where you're lookin' an' that look must've been skeptical, 'cuz she giggles and shakes her head.
  5468. >"It wasn’t that bad. How about you? You weren't looking so good."
  5469. >Hard to look good on a gurney.
  5470. >You shrug.
  5471. "Doin' better. I can stand, at least, and I couldn't yesterday."
  5472. >She gets this concerned look on her face and scoots over to pat your leg.
  5473. >"You should rest."
  5474. "Can't yet. Still have to stop by the church an' then take Apple Bloom and the little ones back home."
  5475. >She stops listenin' somewhere between 'chuch' an' ‘Apple Bloom.’
  5476. >"Oh?" she gasps excitedly. "Which church?"
  5477. >You shrug again.
  5478. "Don't really matter. Ma really religious or anything, but I still wanna say a few words for her."
  5479. >She pats your leg again an’ smiles sadly.
  5480. >"Then... why not mine?"
  5481. "Yours?"
  5482. >"I mean... my owner's. He's the pastor."
  5483. "Sure."
  5484. >You shrug yet again.
  5485. "Why not?"
  5486. >One's as good as another.
  5487. >The backdoor swings open, Bill's mare leadin' the way with Hematite followin' and Mica -
  5488. "Mica! Stop trying to grab her tail!"
  5489. >"But..."
  5490. >"It's okay," the mare laughs. "He's too slow to catch me, anyway!"
  5491. >Just to prove herself right, she flicks her tail in the colt's face again an' jumps into the air before he can get hold've it.
  5492. >Even little Hematite giggles as her brother leaps after it an’ lands flat on his face.
  5493. >The grey mare with you laughs, too, an' then laughs harder.
  5494. >"Oh, definitely!" she says between chuckles. "You *have* to come to my church! She needs to see this!"
  5495. "A colt lookin' like an idiot?"
  5496. >She stops an' thinks, her eyes rattlin' 'round like the gears you can almost see turnin' in her head.
  5497. >An' then she smiles wider.
  5498. >"That too," the mare agrees. "It's nice to watch children playing."
  5499. "Oh."
  5500. >Yeah, you suppose.
  5501. >"But I meant her cutie mark!" she explains, pointin’ to Hematite.
  5502. "Ah..."
  5503. >Right.
  5504. >You nod.
  5505. >Makes sense.
  5506. >First you ever heard of a pony gettin’ her cutie mark here. You shoulda figured someone would wanna make a big deal out of it at some point.
  5507. >"And it's on the way out of town, so -"
  5508. "Sure, we'll definitely go. Which one is it?"
  5509. >She tries to tell you its name, but it gets all jumbled with the directions she's givin' you at the same time.
  5510. >Finally, you sigh and shake your head.
  5511. "Hold on, you busy?"
  5512. >"Um..."
  5513. >She looks 'round, looks down at the satchel she’s got ‘round her neck, an' shakes her head.
  5514. >"I’ve already picked up some of the mail for today,” she says, “since I try to go by early because some of the other ponies’ owners don’t like me coming around and –“
  5515. “So, you ain’t busy?”
  5516. >”- and I just came by to give Scootaloo the good news. Not - NOT THAT GOOD NEWS!"
  5517. >She giggles at herself, still shakin' her head.
  5518. >"Not like a missionary,” she clarifies. “The good news about her friend coming to town, but she already knew and -"
  5519. "Then how 'bout you just show me the way?"
  5520. >Even standin' is startin' to hurt a bit, an' *he'll* prolly get cranky if you come back too late, so you're ready to get on the road.
  5521. "I bet we can fit one more pony in the cab -"
  5522. >Except you got all those things he asked you to pick up for him, so it might be a tight squeeze.
  5523. >Nah, you got some tarps an' a pickup.
  5524. >Most of it's already in the bed anyway.
  5525. >Rain be damned. This ain't shit.
  5526. " - just gimme a sec. I gotta move some stuff around."
  5527. >It don't take long.
  5528. >Less than you thought, since the two mares - not Apple Bloom, the other two - come out and join in once they see what you're doin'.
  5529. >You don't think nothin' got hurt any.
  5530. >Once it's all done, you nod to the grey mare.
  5531. "Go ahead an' get in. I'll go get the - oh."
  5532. >They're already on their way, Mica jumpin' on every puddle he can find an' his poor sister tryin' like heck to avoid the water splashin’ up.
  5533. >Kinda pointless, though.
  5534. >It's still rainin'.
  5535. >Apple Bloom comes last, sayin' a few final words to her friend.
  5536. >Bill comes out with 'em.
  5537. >He grabs you hand to shake it as the last mare climbs into the passenger seat.
  5538. >She pulls the door shut behind her.
  5539. "Well, I'll see you 'round, Bill. Thanks for -"
  5540. >"Hold up," he says, leanin' in. "You're going to go around the deadzone, right?"
  5541. "Yeah. Why?"
  5542. >"Just... go around."
  5543. "Yeah, but... there's somethin' you ain't tellin' me."
  5544. >He nods an' sighs.
  5545. >"Apple Bloom... took a pregnancy test. It's positive."
  5546. >Damn.
  5547. "Don't worry, I won't risk it."
  5548. "Good," he sighs, noddin', "but... do me a favor?"
  5549. "Sure."
  5550. >"Let her decide if she wants to tell him. I don't think they're getting along and... umm..."
  5551. >He looks away.
  5552. >You're thankful for that.
  5553. >"... well..."
  5554. >He knows what your daddy does.
  5555. >He knows that you help him.
  5556. >Your cheeks burn.
  5557. "Don't worry. I won't say nothin'."
  5558. >"Thanks."
  5560. >"Beneath us?" Lyra parrots back. "Why?"
  5561. >They're still arguing.
  5562. >It's all the two of them have done since they came in to look over you, since they woke you up, since they made it absolutely impossible to sleep.
  5563. >"Yes," Bon Bon snaps back. "All this farming crap is beneath us!"
  5564. >You think it's possibly all they've done since coming to this world.
  5565. >Lyra giggles and tosses her mane back with a twitch of her head.
  5566. >"It's funny hearing an Earth Pony say that," she says, still laughing. "Mostly it was us unicorns and the pegasi grumbling about -"
  5567. "I make *candy*," her friend answers gruffly. "I don't dig in the ground like an animal."
  5568. >She looks away from the other mare and eyes the papers on your table again.
  5569. >"It's not that bad, Bon Bon," Lyra says, but her friend isn't listening.
  5570. >She's staring at you now.
  5571. >"Really, we have a life here, and -"
  5572. >"What's all that?" Bon Bon interrupts, punctuating the question with a kick to the table.
  5573. >It rattles, a few loose pages flutter free, out of your line of sight.
  5574. >She used to run her own business.
  5575. >She knows what you were studying. She knew what they were from the moment she first looked at them.
  5576. "The... um..."
  5577. >She's angry.
  5578. >She always seems angry, but this is the first time she's been angry with you.
  5579. >The first you noticed, anyway.
  5580. >You've mostly been asleep.
  5581. "... the farm's finances."
  5582. >Anyone could have figured it out.
  5583. >You don’t know why she wanted you to spell it out for her.
  5584. >"So you're helping *him*?"
  5585. "I'm..."
  5586. >You wish she'd just go away.
  5587. >You didn’t tell him you were going to nap just to get him to leave.
  5588. >If only *she* would, though.
  5589. >Lyra could stay – she’s quiet enough - but she wouldn't.
  5590. >At the party the others threw for you and Trixie, what little of it you attended, you noticed that where Bon Bon goes, the other follows.
  5591. >Everywhere.
  5592. >Always.
  5593. >But never the other way around.
  5594. >You thought -
  5595. >You thought things that you didn't need to think.
  5596. >Bon Bon isn't protecting anyone from anything.
  5597. >Nor do you need protection from him. He’s not Sterling.
  5598. >You don't need to submit to her.
  5599. "I am helping him."
  5600. >You stare her straight in the eyes.
  5601. "I'm helping him help us."
  5602. >She sneers and turns her head to ask her friend, "Can you believe this?"
  5603. >But she's looking back to you before Lyra can answer.
  5604. >She doesn't even *hear* her friend's answer.
  5605. >Doesn't see her nod, or her faint, hopeful smile.
  5606. >"Apple Bloom said the exact same thing, you know," the mare laughs at you, "and you see where that got her?"
  5607. >You... don't.
  5608. >You don't understand.
  5609. >Not about Apple Bloom - that barely registers - but how she can be so angry all the time.
  5610. >He's trying to help.
  5611. >You understand that now, once you were over your fear.
  5612. >Bon Bon settles down in the corner of your tiny room, her hindlegs outstretched.
  5613. >Her friend tries to join her.
  5614. >You don't blame her.
  5615. >Its cold, even under your blankets.
  5616. >If Diamond was here...
  5617. >Bon Bon pushes the other mare away.
  5618. >If Diamond was here, that's probably what she would do, too.
  5619. >It almost makes you miss the camp.
  5620. >The way you and her would cuddle together for warmth.
  5621. >"I just want to make candy again," Bon Bon sighs, her head falling back to stare up at the ceiling. "Is that too much to ask? To do what I'm *meant* to do?"
  5622. >Lyra shakes her head, but the other mare - again - ignores her.
  5623. >"Well?" she demands from you.
  5624. >From you.
  5625. >Not from her friend.
  5626. >From you, the mare who *is* getting to do what she was born to do.
  5627. >How can you tell her she can't?
  5628. >It's harder than keeping your eyes open.
  5629. "N-no. It’s possible. I could… I could try to find a way.”
  5630. >Helping him help the others.
  5631. >Isn’t that what this is all about?
  5632. “Could you..."
  5633. >"What?"
  5634. "... could you get me something to write with?"
  5636. >Benches line both sides of the aisle.
  5637. >Empty.
  5638. >Ain’t nopony else here, not Derpy’s pastor or her daughter or anypony else.
  5639. >Just rows of empty benches an’ an altar up front.
  5640. >”Where’s… uh… where’s your owner?” Lauren asks as she walks up to the front.
  5641. >”Out,” Derpy answers. “He even before I did!”
  5642. >”Where to?”
  5643. >”To visit one of his parishioners.”
  5644. >”Oh, uh… mind... mind givin' me a moment alone?" Lauren mumbles, takin’ up a seat right near the altar.
  5645. >”Sure!”
  5646. >You don't either.
  5647. >Don't quite know what it's like to lose a parent, since you never knew yours, but you know what it's like to lose family.
  5648. >You know what it's like to lose everything now.
  5649. >Derpy's starts yappin' away to you about the letters.
  5650. >More to th'foals.
  5651. >You stopped really listenin' a while back.
  5652. >" - Dinky - "
  5653. >The name breaks through the fog an' you look over to Derpy - an' her daughter.
  5654. >Oh.
  5655. >Right.
  5656. >She got family.
  5657. >She *got* to be with her family.
  5658. >No one took it away from *her*.
  5659. >"Go on," Derpy says to th'foals. "Dinky will take care of you."
  5660. >"But what about you?" Mica whines.
  5661. >"I have work to do."
  5662. >He pouts, but only for a second, then bounces off with his sister to talk to his new friend.
  5663. >Were you like that as a foal?
  5664. >Could you make friends with anypony the minute you met 'em?
  5665. >What happened to you?
  5666. >What hasn't?
  5667. >A hoof touches your shoulder.
  5668. >Derpy’s.
  5669. >"Are you okay?"
  5670. "Ah guess."
  5671. >You shrug, you try to shrug. You...
  5672. >"I was going to read the letters to her," the mare says softly, "but if you need something..."
  5673. >She leaves it hangin'.
  5674. >What don't you need?
  5675. >A friend?
  5676. >Can't ask her to be that.
  5677. >Can't go ruinin' her life.
  5678. >Can't -
  5679. "To... her?"
  5680. >Derpy nods an' empties out her mailbag on the nearest bench.
  5681. >She sorts through an' pulls one outta the pile.
  5682. >She smiles, sad-like, as she looks at it, then shows you the name written on the outside.
  5683. >Zecora.
  5684. >"Not every letter is for a pony who's still alive."
  5685. "Zecora’s... dead...?"
  5686. >You hadn't even known.
  5687. >It seems -
  5688. >It seems all too possible.
  5689. >Of course she'd be dead.
  5690. >Your potions tutor?
  5691. >Of course, just like all the rest.
  5692. >"I'm afraid so," Derpy murmurs an' pulls another letter from the pile.
  5693. >Swoon Song.
  5694. >Braeburn.
  5695. >Tulip Swirl.
  5696. >Cup Cake.
  5697. >Princess Celestia.
  5698. >"So many,” Derpy sighs, setting the letters back on the pile, "but I'm still the mailmare. It's still my job to see they're delivered."
  5699. "But..."
  5700. >You don't care.
  5701. >Shouldn't care.
  5702. >"I read them out loud and..."
  5703. >Derpy giggles an' blushes an' nearly cries.
  5704. >"I know it's stupid, but I read them out loud and hope the wind carries my words far enough to reach who they're addressed to."
  5705. >You look at the letters. Those for the living, those for the dead.
  5706. >You're supposed to be beyond such things.
  5707. >Beyond carin'.
  5708. >Beyond hope.
  5709. >Ain't even tried to watch the sunrise this mornin'.
  5710. >You've stopped carin'.
  5711. >You *have*.
  5712. >Derpy reaches into her bag an' pulls out a pen an' sheet of paper.
  5713. >She drops 'em on the bench, alongside all the others.
  5714. >Same pen Scootaloo'd given her earlier.
  5715. >Prolly the same paper, too.
  5716. >"I guess I stole these," Derpy giggles, "but you didn't have a chance to write your letter."
  5718. >Be a leaf on the wind.
  5719. >The two grey mares wave to their new friends and then go about their work.
  5720. >One out to the little vegetable garden in the back, the other to her letters.
  5721. >"Still so many," she murmurs quietly, though the pile is noticeably smaller than before.
  5722. >She shoves them back into her back carries them to her room, to Ponyville’s makeshift mailroom, for sorting.
  5723. >It, too, has been thinned.
  5724. >Every letter for every pony the visitors could name, every pony on their farm and those adjacent.
  5725. >Thousands remain.
  5726. >The mare sets to work.
  5727. >Same as every day.
  5728. >She pulls the first letter from her bag.
  5729. >Sweetie Bell.
  5730. >She sets it aside, beginning a stack she will sort out later. Letters to be delivered.
  5731. >Fond Feather.
  5732. >It joins the pile.
  5733. >Cup Cake.
  5734. >Into a separate pile, one that she'll read soon.
  5735. >Applejack.
  5736. >She hesitates, uncertain where it goes, then adds it to the first.
  5737. >Just because she can't deliver it now doesn't mean she can't tomorrow, or the next, or the week after.
  5738. >Not until she's certain.
  5739. >Big Mac.
  5740. >She grimaces.
  5741. >There's nothing sealing it shut.
  5742. >The ponies trust their mailmare.
  5743. >They know what happens, what she does.
  5744. >How she goes about letters that cannot be delivered.
  5745. >Most don’t share her beliefs, but many of them find it comforting anyway.
  5746. >Cathartic, at least.
  5747. >The mare slowly unfolds the page.
  5748. >There's not much written, yet she stares at it for what seems forever, before mouthing the only word on the page.
  5749. >"Why?"
  5751. “- been quiet since Maud left.”
  5752. >”Huh, wha?” Moondancer grunts as she looks up from her bowl.
  5753. “I said you’ve been pretty quiet since Maud left.”
  5754. >”Oh. Yeah.”
  5755. “I'm pretty sure that was all a joke. I mean, does she mean she thought I had a fetish?”
  5756. >”Oh, she was talking to you?" the mare mumbles. "I thought she was talking to me."
  5757. >That would explain why she's keeping her eyes down and refusing to look at you - or anyone else.
  5758. >But...
  5759. “That’s… good? I guess?”
  5760. >You laugh. Try to laugh.
  5761. >Awkwardly, but…. What the hell?
  5762. >Moondancer doesn’t take the bait.
  5763. >She doesn’t laugh with you, or at you.
  5764. >She just stirs her porridge and avoids your eyes.
  5765. "Well, um… .why? Was she talking about Silver Spoon?"
  5766. >Moondancer shakes her head.
  5767. >"You. I thought she meant you.”
  5768. “But –“
  5769. >“Humans. That I had a thing for humans."
  5770. “Ah.”
  5771. >Maybe if you were smarter, you'd be able to think of something else to say.
  5772. >Come up with some way to get her out of her funk.
  5773. >It seems important.
  5774. >But you're not that smart.
  5775. "Why? I thought you weren't attracted to humans. You said you didn't see the appeal."
  5776. >She frowns, though all you really see of the expression is a slight furrowing of her brow.
  5777. >"I did?"
  5778. “Yeah, just last night.”
  5779. >"Oh. Well. I don't. You're all so hairless, it just... ewwww."
  5780. >She sticks her tongue out at you.
  5781. >Not quite happy, but it's an improvement.
  5782. >She’s looking at you at least.
  5783. >You share a chuckle until she sighs and looks aside.
  5784. >"Even my husband."
  5785. “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa?”
  5786. >You may not say it, but you might as well have. You think it and Moondancer can read it on your face.
  5787. >”You’re all an ugly as heck,” she snorts.
  5788. >You expect her to keep talking.
  5789. >Hope she will.
  5790. >She's opening up to you more, and that's important, but - apparently - not now. Not on this topic.
  5791. >You don’t blame her.
  5792. >"... but a mare can’t help who she falls in love with," she sighs, catching you by surprise.
  5793. >And then she falls silent again.
  5794. >She plays with her porridge, stirring the remnants over and over.
  5795. >Slower and slower.
  5796. >Losing herself more and more with every second that passes.
  5797. "Where is he?"
  5798. >"Gone."
  5799. >She shifts uncomfortably, turning this way and that.
  5800. >She doesn't want to talk about this, and yet you think she has to.
  5801. >Didn't she tell you that the other ponies here aren't exactly her friends?
  5802. >And if they can't be, then that only leaves you.
  5803. "Were you two split up when you were sent to the camps?"
  5804. >You'd hate to lose her, but...
  5805. "I’m sure I can… uh… find him and return you…?"
  5806. >You can't think of a better way to phrase it, though you wish you'd tried a little harder.
  5807. >That sounds more like you're talking to a puppy about returning it to its owner, not reuniting split lovers.
  5808. “Do you know where he is?”
  5809. >"I know exactly where he is."
  5810. "Oh. Uh... good. Then..."
  5811. >But you need her.
  5812. >If you can't trust Apple Bloom, you need her. You need a pony you can trust.
  5813. >You need a friend.
  5814. "... I guess I can find him..."
  5815. >But how can you keep them apart?
  5816. "... so... where is he?"
  5817. >What kind of monster would you be if you did?
  5818. >Moondancer lets her spoon drop into the bowl and sighs.
  5819. >"Approximately three and a quarter miles south-southeast of Hope Springs Refugee Camp. 3306 Huntington Lane."
  5820. >Maybe... maybe he doesn't want her back?
  5821. >Maybe that's why she sounds so sad?
  5822. >Well...
  5823. >That should make you feel happy, shouldn't it?
  5824. >But it doesn't.
  5825. "Well, I –"
  5826. >"His grave is marked with a white cross I made from a picket fence. The house was abandoned – the entire town was - so I didn’t see any harm in breaking it."
  5827. "Oh. He's..."
  5828. >Moondancer looks up from bowl.
  5829. >She's not crying.
  5830. >It might be easier for you if she was, but she isn't.
  5831. >"That’s right. He’s dead."
  5832. "How…?"
  5833. >"A simple bacterial infection. All it would have taken was some penicillin, but..."
  5834. "There wasn't much of that to go around, was there?"
  5835. >"Not for us," Moondancer smiles sympathetically, though it really should be you trying to comfort *her*. "All we had was what we could carry on our backs, and neither of us thought to bring any antibiotics.
  5836. >"Ironic, considered we both worked for a drug company."
  5837. >She sighs and smiles softly to herself.
  5838. >"I told him to stay, but he insisted on coming with me to the refugee camp."
  5839. >Well.
  5840. >This was a mistake.
  5841. >You were trying to cheer her up.
  5842. >Yeah.
  5843. >Smart you.
  5844. >Moondancer laughs.
  5845. >"Calm down," she chuckles, "it happened years ago."
  5846. "I shouldn't have asked."
  5847. >She shakes her head.
  5848. >"I'm not going to pretend it doesn't make me sad, but it's been long enough I've gotten used to it.
  5849. >"Bad things happen to good people.
  5850. >"That's just how this world is."
  5851. "Maybe... maybe we can fix it."
  5852. >It still doesn't seem so hard.
  5853. >Last night, sure, but today? Nah.
  5854. "We might have to make some difficult decisions, but it's doable."
  5855. >Moondancer shakes her head again.
  5856. >"Not 'we'," she says softly. "You. You're the owner. You have to make the right choices."
  5857. >As much as you hate to admit it, she's right.
  5858. >It's your responsibility.
  5859. >You voted for this.
  5860. >Still would have passed if you hadn't, but that's not the point.
  5861. >You *voted* for this.
  5862. >For slavery.
  5863. >You chose it.
  5864. >You took over the farm.
  5865. >If you'd refused, your family might have disowned you, but someone else would have taken over.
  5866. >But you didn't.
  5867. >You agreed.
  5868. >This farm is yours now.
  5869. >These choices are yours to make.
  5870. >You nod to Moondancer.
  5871. "But I'll need your help."
  5872. >"That much we can do," she agrees, though she doesn't sound hopeful.
  5873. >That hurts, but it doesn't matter, does it?
  5874. >She's right, it's not her choice. It's not up to her.
  5875. >Doesn't matter if she doesn't believe it's doable, because as of today, you do.
  5876. >And it's your choice.
  5877. "We're going to do it, somehow.
  5878. "One way or another, we'll make this place better. Build some real houses. Maybe -"
  5879. >Oh.
  5880. "- maybe even..."
  5881. >You should probably talk to Silver Spoon first.
  5882. >That would be smart.
  5883. >There's no reason to get anyone's hope's up.
  5884. >Except...
  5885. >Isn't that a good enough reason in and of itself?
  5886. >Maybe it is.
  5887. >You'd like to think so.
  5888. "- maybe even -"
  5889. >It's something like a four-hour drive to get into the city, and that's if someone's willing to go through the deadzone.
  5890. >Just to get to the *farms*, not into town.
  5891. >The bypass will make it take even longer.
  5892. "- hell, uh..."
  5893. >"Spit it out," Moondancer mumbles.
  5894. "... how about we - I - set up a restaurant or something?"
  5895. >She gives you a look that tells you exactly how stupid she thinks you are right now.
  5896. >Or maybe not.
  5897. >Mostly, she looks tired and scared and emotionally drained.
  5898. >So, probably stupider than that.
  5899. >And yes, you can't quite disagree with her, but something about it sounds right.
  5900. >It just fits.
  5901. "Or - or some kind of knick-knack store?"
  5902. >The look on her face doesn't waver.
  5903. "Like I said -"
  5904. >Though you don't think she really heard anything you said.
  5905. "- they're finishing up the bypass on the other end of us. We won’t be in the ass-end of nowhere anymore. More like… like… the ass-center of nowhere with two major population centers on either side.
  5906. “I can't say we'll be getting a lot of traffic through here, but who knows?"
  5907. >Moondancer thinks about it for a minute.
  5908. >She still thinks you're an idiot – clearly –  but she contemplates the idea anyway.
  5909. >Her eyes aren't locked on yours anymore.
  5910. >"Well..."
  5911. "You think it's stupid, don't you?"
  5912. >"I... I think you mean well?" she answers diplomatically. "But... there's this saying about counting chickens..."
  5913. >You shrug.
  5914. "True, but if we plan for it, we might be able to have something set up by the time the road is finished."
  5915. >"How about..." Moondancer starts, before shaking her head. "It wouldn't work."
  5916. "What?"
  5917. >"I said it wouldn't work."
  5918. "So?"
  5920. >Before you leave town, you've got one more stop.
  5921. >Well, it ain't exactly in town, but the way the place is growin', it might not be too long 'fore it is.
  5922. >Can't see the monument or the pylons, rain's comin' down so hard, but you keep an eye out for the sign marking the bypass.
  5923. >You're sure not to miss it, for a number of reasons.
  5924. >Ain’t gettin’ everyone killed just ‘cause you got distracted.
  5925. >There.
  5926. >Apple Bloom barely registers when you pull off the road onto the narrow strip of dirt and grass separating the bypass from the straight-away, but Mica -
  5927. >"What are you doing now?" he asks. "Is the truck okay? Are we going to go back? Can we watch more cartoons?"
  5928. >That boy never shuts up, does he?
  5929. >You sigh.
  5930. "Everything's fine, Mica. I just need to leave some flowers for ma."
  5931. >"Oh. Where?"
  5932. "Just in there."
  5933. >You're close enough now to make out the pylons clearly, though only a vague outline of the monument in the deadzone.
  5934. "Won't be a minute."
  5935. >"Where are you going?”
  5936. “Monument’s in the deadzone. Gotta lay ‘em there.”
  5937. >”But... but didn't you say that wasn't safe?" he asks, an' Apple Bloom almost nods.
  5938. >You shrug.
  5939. "Yeah, that's why I won't be a minute."
  5940. >You reach down between beside your seat and find the small bouquet – if it can even be called that - you picked up earlier.
  5941. >It's not much, but that seems more appropriate.
  5942. >The portals’ closin' took enough from the world.
  5943. >Don't need to help it destroy more'n you gotta.
  5944. >Besides...
  5945. >They're ma's favorite.
  5946. >Iris.
  5947. >A little goes a long way, when it’s your favorite.
  5948. >You pop open your door an' -
  5949. >"Wait!" Hematite calls out. "You're... you're hurt. I... um... I don't think it's a good idea for you to go in there."
  5950. "I appreciate the concern, but who else is gonna -"
  5951. >"I'll do it!"
  5952. >Little Mica bounces 'tween the seats, grabs the bouquet out of your hand with his mouth, and leaps out the door.
  5953. >He lands with a splash that splatters mud all up your jeans and is dashing off 'fore you can get your seatbelt off and get after him.
  5954. "Wait! Hold up!"
  5955. >You make a bit of a splash of your own gettin’ down, but that's the least thing from your mind as you chase after him.
  5956. >Dumb colt is gonna get himself killed.
  5957. >"Miiiiicaaaaaaaa!" another voice yells after him, an' you turn to see the boy's sister fall out of the cab and land ungracefully in the muddy ground.
  5958. >Her cry brings him up short, just a nose shy of the boundry, an' he turns back when he sees Hematite tryin' to come after him.
  5959. >You bend down and yank the flowers from his mouth when he gets close.
  5960. >Boy don't try to stop you.
  5961. >Fact is, he looks grateful, though he don't spare you much more than a quick glance.
  5962. >"Are you okay?" he asks Hematite nearly as soon as his mouth is clear.
  5963. >"I'm fine," she whines, though her bandages are now lookin' distinctly more red than muddy. "Don't *DO* that!"
  5964. >Must have reopened somethin’ when she fell.
  5965. >Shit.
  5966. >"Do what?" her brother whines back.
  5967. >"Run off like that!"
  5968. >"But it's raining and I wanted to get it over with as fast as I could! "
  5969. >"You didn't have to -"
  5970. >He stomps his little hoof, splashin' the side of his sister's face.
  5971. >"Who else was going to do it?" he asks. "You and Apple Bloom are sick and Miss Lauren's hurt. I couldn't let any of you -"
  5972. "Hell, we could've just kept goin’ if y’all were so worried."
  5973. >You’ll be back this way again.
  5974. >Ain’t a once in a lifetime thing.
  5975. >But the lil’ colt, he shrugs an’ kicks at the ground.
  5976. >"I just thought... I'd be sad if I'd lost my family, so..."
  5977. >He looks up at you with sad, pony eyes.
  5978. >”… please? Just let me do it?”
  5980. >You never thought you’d watch a pony layin’ flowers at your mother’s memorial.
  5981. >Even after you’re all back in the truck an’ drivin’ down the road, you still can’t quite believe it.
  5983. >"Before you go," Moondancer mumbles as you try to stand, "... um... what are you going to do now?"
  5984. " Gonna talk to -"
  5985. >Nah.
  5986. >You shake your head.
  5987. >All you have are wild ideas.
  5988. >You'll let Silver rest and finish looking through everything before you bring even more to her.
  5989. "Nevermind. I'm going back to the house. Need the computer to so I can start looking into selling the war bonds."
  5990. >Maybe see what information you can find about the local rebuilding.
  5991. >Maybe…
  5992. >Oh.
  5993. >Maybe someone needs some raw labor.
  5994. >Your ponies could do that.
  5995. >Earn some money.
  5996. >Gain some experience before they get started building their own homes here.
  5997. >Yet another wild idea.
  5998. >One that might work.
  5999. >You hope they don’t stop coming.
  6000. >Moondancer pushes aside her bowl and starts to rise.
  6001. >"Do you want me to help?"
  6002. “Well...”
  6003. >"I know how to use a computer."
  6004. "That's not it."
  6005. >You sigh and look around the hall, at all the ponies that have helped you, whether you knew it or not at the time.
  6006. >Whether you knew *them* or not.
  6007. "I've been letting others carry me long enough."
  6008. >You can't rely on Apple Bloom anymore and you can't ask anyone else to take on that role.
  6009. >Not when you could - and should - step up and start taking care of things yourself.
  6010. >"But... I can help?" Moondancer says. "Please? I'd like something to do to keep me busy.”
  6011. >Her ears perk up, the first sign of excitement since the sunrise.
  6012. "Get me a list, Moondancer. Volunteers to go off their meds to help with construction."
  6013. >"How many?"
  6014. >You shrug.
  6015. "I don't know. As many as you think are reasonable. As many as can without making things too dangerous around here.
  6016. “I trust you to make that call better than I could."
  6017. >"O... kay."
  6018. "And after that..."
  6019. >You look around the hall again.
  6020. >There's something.
  6021. >You just can't remember it, until you see her.
  6022. >Roma looks so tired.
  6023. "Moondancer, how about spaghetti? And let’s finish that movie."
  6024. >The mare nods, as eagerly as you think she can right now.
  6025. "Roma?"
  6026. >The other pony looks up, just as weary as you thought she would.
  6027. "Don't worry about coming up to the house today."
  6028. >She nods.
  6029. >That's all.
  6030. >Too worn out to do anything more.
  6031. >It's enough.
  6032. >All she has to do is *not* do something.
  6033. "Okay, Moondancer. Dinner and a movie, as soon as you get me that list."
  6034. >She smiles and you turn to leave.
  6035. >The rain sounds light - or lighter, at least - and this might be your only chance to make a break for it and get to work.
  6036. >"Wait!" Moondancer calls out and you turn back to her.
  6037. "Yes?"
  6038. >"Do I... do I have to be one of the volunteers?"
  6039. >You shake your head.
  6040. "I said volunteers, so if you don't want to, you don't have to."
  6041. >Not again.
  6042. >You won't do that again.
  6043. "And I mean it."
  6044. >Never again.
  6045. >You don't think your heart could take it.
  6046. "If none of the ponies feel comfortable with it, I'll rent whatever equipment we need."
  6047. >Moondancer raises an eyebrow.
  6048. >"But how will -"
  6049. "I'll take care of it."
  6050. >You know what she's asking.
  6051. >How you'll afford it.
  6052. >If you'll sell another pony to make it happen.
  6053. >If you'll cut back on the number of buildings.
  6054. >And yes, if you have to, but others are listening.
  6055. >You don't want it to sound like a threat.
  6056. >It's not, just a necessity.
  6057. >But no more martyrs.
  6058. >No more Apple Blooms.
  6059. >Never again.
  6061. >"Best let me do the talkin'," Lauren says. "He might not be too happy."
  6062. >Mica nods.
  6063. >Hasn't said a word the last hour or two.
  6064. >That ain't like him.
  6065. >He's shiverin', and it ain't just the cold an' the wet.
  6066. >It’s more’n what’s on the outside that’s doin’ this to him.
  6067. >You remember what that was like.
  6068. >Sure, he was only in there for a few minutes, but he's still a colt.
  6069. >She pulls her truck up to the front of the house, leavin' great, muddy furrows up the hill.
  6070. >Luckily, the rain'd stopped a while back, long ‘fore the truck rattled through the gate.
  6071. >You don't miss it.
  6072. >The sound've it lulled you to sleep, an' what you found there wasn't much to your likin'.
  6073. >"Look, he's liable to be in a foul temper, so maybe it'd be best if you three stayed here for a bit or even go down to the dorms."
  6074. >"Why?" Hematite asks.
  6075. >"Just 'cause," Lauren sighs. “I probably should have dropped you off there.”
  6076. >They don't know what he's like.
  6077. >You nod.
  6078. >"But we don't have any heaters there," Hematite argues. "Mica's too cold! We have to get him warmed up!"
  6079. >Lauren grimaces, but turns her head so only you see, an' you don't think she meant you to.
  6080. >"Right, stay here," she says an' pops her seatbelt off. "I'll come out an' get you when it's all clear."
  6081. >She makes it sound like he's dangerous.
  6082. >He is, though, ain't he?
  6083. >You shudder at the memory of him throwin' that table at you.
  6084. >All the threats an' all the truths he screamed at you.
  6085. >All the lies.
  6086. >You're shakin' more'n Mica when Lauren shuffles back to the truck.
  6087. >"He's... uh..."
  6088. >He hates you.
  6089. >She looks up into the sky, back at the house, an' then to you an' the foals.
  6090. >"... he's in a good mood."
  6091. >The woman shrugs, then motions for y'all to come out.
  6092. >"One've the ponies is in there gettin' dinner started right now. He told her to make enough for all of us, so..."
  6093. >Another shrug.
  6094. >"Well, come on."
  6095. >She helps Hematite out, but you gotta manage on your own, and Mica...
  6096. >He stays shiverin' in the back seat.
  6097. >"Can you carry him?" his sister whines, but you can't.
  6098. >No way you could manage.
  6099. >An' Lauren shakes her head.
  6100. >"Doc said to avoid heavy liftin'," she answers with a frown, "but I was worried that'd be the case."
  6101. >She looks at the colt an' sighs.
  6102. >He'll be angry.
  6103. >"He's on his way out," she continues, "said he just had to help out the mare in there with -"
  6104. >You hear the house's door creek open.
  6105. >Lauren does to, an' looks back over her shoulder at him.
  6106. >You don't.
  6107. >He's angry.
  6108. >Gotta be, or... or why was he angry with you?
  6109. >Mica could’ve died!
  6110. >All you did was lie to him, about *nothing*.
  6111. >You couldn't've asked somepony else to do it.
  6112. >It was just one little lie, and he was so angry.
  6113. >You don't want to see how angry he is now.
  6114. >More than that, you don't want to find out he *isn't*.
  6115. >It wouldn't be fair.
  6116. >It wouldn't be *right*.
  6117. >You look down.
  6118. >Keep your eyes on the grass under your hooves.
  6119. >"Hematite, Apple Bloom," he says. "Go inside. It's too cold out here."
  6120. >The filly tentatively walks off, but you don’t.
  6121. >He's gonna hurt her.
  6122. >An'... she did help you.
  6123. >Saved you.
  6124. >He was gonna kick you.
  6125. >She took your licks instead.
  6126. >You owe her.
  6127. >Applejack’d say you had to stay.
  6128. >Help her out the way she’d helped you.
  6129. >That it’d be the right thing to do, even if she hadn’t.
  6130. >That's what you tell yourself.
  6131. >Why your legs don't move.
  6132. >Not that you're trying to make sure something in this world is fair.
  6133. >Anything.
  6134. >Just one thing.
  6135. >This, if nothin' else.
  6136. >Just this one thing.
  6137. >He sighs.
  6138. >He's angry.
  6139. >Out of patience.
  6140. >Gonna snap.
  6141. >"Mica," he says, "what happened?"
  6142. >"He went into the deadzone," Lauren answers when the colt don't. "Only for a minute."
  6143. >"Why?"
  6144. >"To lay some flowers at the memorial. He *asked* to do it, an' he's just a little too fast for me to catch."
  6145. >"You were going to do it yourself, weren't you?" he sighs. "Even though you’re hurt? You are such an idiot."
  6146. >"Guess so."
  6147. >He sighs again.
  6148. >He's gonna snap.
  6149. >He's gotta.
  6150. >"Come here, Mica," he says. "Scoot over to the edge of the seat and I'll carry you inside."
  6151. >He grunts, like he did when he picked you up, carried you up to the house weeks ago.
  6152. >It ain't fair.
  6153. >"That was very brave of you," he tells the colt, "but don't do that again, okay?"
  6154. >He takes a few steps but pauses next to you.
  6155. >You see his leg outta the corner of your eye.
  6156. >"You must be worried to death, Apple Bloom."
  6157. >No.
  6158. >Ain't nothin' to worry about.
  6159. >It's just a fact of life here.
  6160. >Ain't nothin' fair.
  6161. >You shake your head.
  6162. "He'll be fine once he gets something hot to eat."
  6163. >A truck door slams shut an' he keeps walkin'. Lauren, too.
  6164. >You...
  6165. >This cold ain't good for the baby.
  6166. >You don't feel it no more, but he might.
  6167. >"W-wait!" Mica shouts. His first word in forever. "What about the mail?"
  6168. >"What about it?" Laure asks.
  6169. >"Aren't you going to hand it out, Apple Bloom?"
  6170. >Why?
  6171. >Why you?
  6172. >Why’s it always gotta be you?
  6173. "Later."
  6174. >"Wait, mail?" your owner stops an' asks. "For me?"
  6175. >"Nah," Lauren grunts. "For the ponies. There's one in town that's taken up -"
  6176. >"She- she's Ponyville's mailmare!" Mica interrupts. "And she gave us letters for EVERYPONY!"
  6177. >Your master snorts.
  6178. >Dismissive.
  6179. >”I bet that’d make everyone a bit happier,” he says. “It’s been an… odd day and I think it’d be good for them.”
  6180. >He stops walkin’.
  6181. >”Dinner won’t be ready for a while, Lauren. Would you mind driving Apple Bloom down to the dorms so she can hand it out?”
  6182. >You stop.
  6183. >He didn’t ask you.
  6184. >Didn’t even want to talk to you.
  6185. >”I guess that wouldn’t be a problem.”
  6186. >”Thanks. It’s a little cold for her to make that walk down and back.”
  6187. >Fine.
  6188. >You turn ‘round an’ head back.
  6189. >”Don’t take too long,” he tells Lauren. “We’re just getting dinner started, but it’s only spaghetti. Won’t take forever to make.”
  6190. >”Yeah, yeah, I know. Don’t waste your time.”
  6191. >”That too,” he laughs, “but you both look like you could do with a decent meal.”
  6192. >Lauren opens the door for you, an’ you ride down in silence.
  6193. >You don’t wanna talk.
  6194. >It ain’t fair.
  6195. >He ain’t angry one bit, not at them.
  6196. >But you – he still expects more from *you*.
  6197. >Haven’t you given him everything?
  6198. >Lauren stops the truck close to the dorms, an’ turns to you.
  6199. >”Need help with the bag?”
  6200. >You shake your head, but she’s already twistin’ ‘round to pull it outta the back seat.
  6201. >Fine.
  6202. >You take it in your mouth an’ manage the door’s handle on your own.
  6203. >Don’t need any more’ve her help.
  6204. >Don’t need any more’ve a debt.
  6205. >"I'll stay right here 'til you're done."
  6206. >You don't say anything.
  6207. >The bag’s heavy.
  6208. >You feel exhausted by the time you get t’the hall’s door.
  6209. >It’s shut ‘gainst the cold, but it ain’t the hardest thing in the world to nudge it open an’ drag the bag inside.
  6210. >You gotta blink the surprise outta your eyes.
  6211. >Looks like everypony’s here.
  6212. >Shouldn’t be surprised.
  6213. >Ain’t no heaters here, an’ the dining hall’s the warmest place, thanks to the kitchen.
  6214. >Looks like everypony’s just sittin’ down to eat, an’ Roma –
  6215. >Ain’t she up at the house?
  6216. >Makin’ dinner for him?
  6217. >She ain’t. She’s here, with Marble an’ the others, stackin’ freshly baked bread on servin’ trays.
  6218. >A few folks look at you odd.
  6219. >Some smile.
  6220. >Marble's one of 'em, but it drops right away an' she heads your way.
  6221. >The rest...
  6222. >They’re *laughin’* at you.
  6223. >You’re such a stupid filly.
  6224. >If only you weren’t here, you could pretend it weren’t true.
  6225. >You see Maud makin’ her way through the tables an’ sigh inwardly.
  6226. >She can do this for you.
  6227. >”Are you back?” she asks in her blank way. “We’re so happy.”
  6228. >You let the back fall from your mouth an’ shake your head.
  6229. >Marble sidles up beside you an' -
  6230. >"Where are Mica and Hematite?" Maud asks for her.
  6231. "Up - up at the house. They're... they're fine."
  6232. >"Oh," their mother gasps. "When I saw you were alone, I was worried. They're..."
  6233. "They're fine."
  6234. >Will be, soon enough.
  6235. "He invited 'em in to eat with him."
  6236. >"Oh, good," she smiles. "I hope they have fun. So..."
  6237. >"Why are you here?" Maud finishes bluntly.
  6238. >Like gettin' hit with a hammer.
  6239. ”Ah'm just... just droppin’ these off. Got- gotta go.”
  6240. >”Dropping what off?”
  6241. >Maud noses open the mouth’ve the bag an’ gasps.
  6242. >”What are these?”
  6243. “Letters.”
  6244. >”From?”
  6245. “The ponies in town."
  6246. >Her eyes snap open in surprise.
  6247. >"How?" is all she manages to ask.
  6248. "Derpy. Guess she still thinks she's in Ponyville or somethin'."
  6249. >You nudge the bag towards her.
  6250. "Can you –“
  6251. >Legs wrap ‘round your neck in a hug.
  6252. >Maud, of all ponies, is huggin’ you tight.
  6253. >An’ gigglin’.
  6254. >Laughin’ at you, just like all the rest.
  6255. >”This is great!” she shout. “Everypony! Apple Bloom brought letters from the ponies in town!”
  6256. >You ain’t got a chance to run off ‘fore somepony’s liftin’ you an’ the bag up onto one’ve the tables.
  6257. >They’re all starin’.
  6258. >All waitin’.
  6259. >Even Roma. Marble. Maud.
  6260. “Well, Ah… Ah gotta…”
  6261. >”Go on!” somepony shouts. “Who’s the first letter for!?”
  6262. >You… you can’t get away.
  6263. >Can’t escape.
  6264. >Hide away until they forget ‘bout you again.
  6265. >You… you reach into the bag an’ pull out a bundle.
  6266. >Derpy’d done that, at least.
  6267. >Tied little pieces of twine ‘round all’ve the letters for each pony.
  6268. >Made things easier.
  6269. >This… won’t take long.
  6270. >Not unless you make it.
  6271. >Like… like back at the barn, this ain’t your fault.
  6272. >It’ll all go quicker if you just let it happen.
  6273. >You drop the bundle on the table an’ call out the name written on top.
  6274. “Rose – uh – Roseluck?”
  6275. >She rears up outta the crowd and pushes her way forward.
  6276. >”Oh my gosh!” she gasps as she takes the letters ‘tween her hooves. “It’s from Lily!”
  6277. >She tears at the twine with her teeth an’ fans out the rest’ve the letters.
  6278. >”Another from Daisy! And –“
  6279. >”What about me!?” somepony shouts, followed by another an’ another an’ another, ‘til everypony in the hall is yellin’ for you to continue.
  6280. ”Um… um…”
  6281. >You nudge the next batch out.
  6282. “Li- Lily Longsocks?”
  6283. >How long has it been since you said her name?
  6284. >How long since you even spoke to her?
  6285. >Met her eyes?
  6286. >Smiled back at her as she smiled at you?
  6287. >"Thank you, Apple Bloom."
  6288. >Too long.
  6289. “Trixie?”
  6290. >Just one letter, but her eyes show no less excitement than the other two for that.
  6291. >Even hugs you.
  6292. “Marble?”
  6293. >The shy mare's gotten pushed back by the others, near clear to the edge of the crowd.
  6294. >It’s difficult for the shy mare to get through, but you don’t… you don’t go on until she’s gotten her letters.
  6295. >Her nervous smile makes it worth everypony’s shouting.
  6296. “Night Glider!”
  6297. >This… this isn’t so bad…
  6298. >They’re yellin’ at you, but… it ain’t angry.
  6299. >Everypony’s just excited is all.
  6300. “Cloud Runner!”
  6301. >The old stallion gets off his rump an’ shoulders the others aside ‘til he can grab his mail.
  6302. “Written Script!”
  6303. >It’ll pass.
  6304. >They’re not excited for you, but for their letters.
  6305. “Carrot Top!”
  6306. >But if it makes ‘em forget what they think of you, if only for a little bit…
  6307. "Vinyl!"
  6308. >Her name is written with such fanciful script, it's hard to read.
  6309. “Berry Punch!”
  6310. >You keep your hoof on her mail, stoppin’ her from runnin’ off.
  6311. “I… uh… I didn’t see her, but uh... I heard about your daughter. She’s… um…”
  6312. >She’s not keeping hers.
  6313. “… she seems like she’s doing alright.”
  6314. >The mare gives you a grateful smile an’ takes her mail.
  6315. >You bend down for the next.
  6316. >It’s –
  6317. >You push it aside an’ grab another.
  6318. “Lu- Lucky Star!”
  6319. “Millie!”
  6320. “Noteworthy!”
  6321. “Ap-“
  6322. >Another.
  6323. “… um… Cloudchaser?”
  6324. >The giggling mare leaps up onto a table an’ jumps from one to the next ‘til she can snatch the bundle from your hooves an’ dashes off.
  6325. >You... you go through the bag until it's all been given out.
  6326. >Nearly.
  6327. >There's still a few bundles in there, but by that time, there's hardly anypony lookin' your way.
  6328. >Everypony's busy readin' their mail.
  6329. >Except those that don't got any.
  6330. >"Is that all?" Crunch Time whines.
  6331. "Ah'm... Ah'm 'fraid so."
  6332. >He ain't the only one still waitin'.
  6333. >They're hurt - an' its your fault.
  6334. >It *ain't*, but they feel that way an' you - you can't -
  6335. >You gotta go.
  6336. "But... uh... Ah'm sure he'll be goin' into town at some point. Might be more. An' if you wanna write to somepony..."
  6337. >You step down from the table an' grab the bag.
  6338. >"But... there's still mail in there, isn't there?" another pony asks. "Come on, didn't my cousin write to me?"
  6339. "Ah... Ah don't got anything for you -"
  6340. >"So who's it for?" they demand.
  6341. "It's -"
  6342. >"If she says she doesn't have anything for you," Maud murmurs, "then it's not for you, is it?"
  6343. >"But -"
  6344. >"Is it for the ponies on the other farms?" somepony asks. "If it's anypony with the Andersons', I can take it to them! Open Skies and I are supposed to meet at the fenceline tonight!"
  6345. "Well..."
  6346. >There's a few.
  6347. "Ah... Ah didn't know everypony on the other farms, so..."
  6348. >You didn't wanna do this anyway.
  6349. "Ah only got a couple for 'em."
  6350. >You pull their letters from the bag, the ones for the ponies you know live on the neighbor's farm.
  6351. >"Anything for the ponies on Steffords' farm?" somepony asks.
  6352. >You can't keep track.
  6353. >There's still too many crowding around you, though they've all fallen silent.
  6354. >All eyes on you.
  6355. >You wanna bolt an' run, 'fore they all remember how much they hate you.
  6356. "Someone... uh..."
  6357. >"I... I could do it?"
  6358. >"Don't, Windfall," somepony else hisses. "If those humans catch you -"
  6359. "You, uh, don't gotta. Someone else'll do it."
  6360. >They fall silent.
  6361. >It's not many.
  6362. >You shoulda asked Lauren to look at the names.
  6363. >If anypony needs cheerin' up 'round here, it's them.
  6364. >Just a few hours with him crushed every hope you had left, save one.
  6365. >They gotta *live* with that man.
  6366. >You shoulda done more.
  6367. >"Somepony else?" Maud asks quietly.
  6368. "Uh... yeah... it's taken care of."
  6369. >"Are you sure?"
  6370. "Um... yeah...?"
  6371. >Maud smiles at you, unnervin' enough as that is, but then she puts a hoof on your shoulder.
  6372. >"Okay, Apple Bloom. Be careful."
  6373. >You don't realize what she meant 'til you're back in the truck an' see the small pile of letters on Lauren's lap.
  6374. >Maud thought you were gonna do it.
  6375. >They all did.
  6376. >No.
  6377. >Not anymore.
  6378. >Never again.
  6379. >"Everyone happy?" the woman asks an' puts the letters aside.
  6380. "I guess."
  6381. >For a minute there, it was almost true.
  6382. >Everypony had hope.
  6383. >"Even you?"
  6384. >You shrug.
  6385. >Reminded you of what things used to be like, 'fore y'all came to the farm.
  6386. >'fore you found out what kind of man his uncle an' the neighbors were an' what you'd led everypony into.
  6387. >But you ain't a little filly anymore.
  6388. >He made you grow up.
  6389. >Weren't the war or the time or anything like that.
  6390. >It was him.
  6391. >You know better'n to hope now.
  6392. >Don't know why you started to think you could feel it again.
  6393. >Didn't take much for everypony to turn sour on you all over again.
  6394. >Ain't your fault nopony wrote to 'em.
  6395. >"You ain't actin' too happy," Lauren sighs, eyein’ the bag in your hooves. "So, you still got some mail in there?"
  6396. "Not really."
  6397. >"Is it all for you?"
  6398. >You shrug again.
  6399. >"Gonna read 'em?"
  6400. "Ah dunno. Maybe."
  6401. >The woman frowns.
  6402. >You don't know.
  6403. >Can't really imagine what anypony'd have to say to you.
  6404. >Mostly 'cuz you don't want to risk it.
  6405. >Actually readin' 'em?
  6406. >You don't know.
  6407. >It might be to hard.
  6408. >Lauren sighs and puts the truck into gear.
  6409. >"I hope the rest are takin' to it better than you are."
  6410. "Most of 'em."
  6411. >"That's good, at least. I hope the letters I'm deliverin' help put things closer to right than they are."
  6413. >"BET I CAN BEAT YOU TO THE -"
  6414. >"Mica! Don't run!" Hematite shouts at her brother, but to no avail.
  6415. >You grabbing him by the barrel is the only thing that stops the colt from bolting off and slamming head first into who knows what.
  6416. >Probably a wall. Maybe a chair.
  6417. >Possibly you.
  6418. >Good thing you were sitting on the floor or you wouldn’t have been able to reach him.
  6419. “I know you want to be helpful, but let Moondancer get the food, okay?”
  6420. >Once his little legs stop scrabbling for traction and he nods, you set him back down beside you and continue scrolling through your options.
  6421. >With extra company, it’d be awkward to resume the movie you and Moondancer had been watching.
  6422. >Besides, you’d both decided it was probably too dark for the foals.
  6423. >Probably too dark for her, too. She seems to be doing better, but it's still there, whatever *it* is.
  6424. >Something's still wrong.
  6425. >Getting that list and making dinner may have helped, but they were only distractions, not solutions.
  6426. >You can tell.
  6427. >Funny how you couldn't just a few weeks ago, how you had no idea how terrified Roma was of you, but now...
  6428. >You wouldn't mind something cheerful, too.
  6429. >Mica sighs and flops on his little pony ass to watch the pictures on the TV flicker past.
  6430. >"What are you doing?"
  6431. "Trying to find something for us to watch while we eat.
  6432. >"Oh. Oh! What about –“ he says, then stop short and leans forward to peer past you at his sister. “What was that thing we were watching this morning? It was fun!”
  6433. >"I don’t know,” she whines back. “I wasn’t paying attention."
  6434. >"It was great! We should get one of these for our room!"
  6435. >He pokes at your thigh with his hoof.
  6436. >"Can we? Can we?"
  6437. "We'll... uh... see..."
  6438. >Maybe a communal rec room or something?
  6439. >That should be doable, right?
  6440. >Maybe?
  6441. You also thought finding something to watch would be doable, and that's proving pretty hard.
  6442. >Something light and comedic, but not too silly.
  6443. >Something you can enjoy, but they can too.
  6444. >Something intellectual enough to not bore Moondancer.
  6445. >Something down to earth enough to not lose Lauren.
  6446. >”Well, can we at least watch that thing Bill showed us?” Mica asks, poking at your thigh again.
  6447. “If you can remember the name, sure.”
  6448. >"Ummmmm... it had these humans, but they looked weird and could fly and there was a red one and a green one and I don't remember the other one and they were all girls I think and -"
  6449. >”No, no,” Moondancer cuts him off as she comes back in with two plates of spaghetti. “Go over. No, the other way. Yeah. Delivery Service. Yeah, that one.”
  6450. >She wasn't even listening to him, but this looks good.
  6451. >Okay, problem solved.
  6452. >He's not complaining.
  6453. >This looks cute.
  6454. >”Uh, a little help?”
  6455. >Oh. Right.
  6456. >You take the plates from her and set one down in front of each of the foals.
  6457. >Wait.
  6458. >If she can manage to get those plates balanced *on* her head and back, why can't she get them off on her own...?
  6459. >”Are we going to wait for Apple Bloom?” Moondancer asks as she turns back to the kitchen. “Should I leave theirs on the stove to keep warm, or…?”
  6460. “Nah, bring it. I got a text from Lauren a second ago saying she and Apple Bloom are headed back. Should just be a few minutes."
  6461. >"Oh, good."
  6462. "Need some help with the breadsticks?”
  6463. >You have to offer. You'd insisted on them, after all.
  6464. >Silly mare was going to eat straight spaghetti!
  6465. >"No, I got it."
  6466. "You sure?"
  6467. >"Yeah."
  6468. "Hoooookaaaaaaaa-"
  6469. >Lauren - because who else would it be - double taps the horn on her truck.
  6470. "- aaaaaaaaaaaaay. I have to help her unload some stuff, anyway."
  6471. >You ruffle Mica's mane and - and... and are kind of afraid to do the same to Hematite.
  6472. "Get started. We'll all be right back."
  6473. >The colt nods and starts slurping his food.
  6474. >His sister smiles.
  6475. >They're happy, at least.
  6476. >You pass Apple Bloom in the entryway.
  6477. >She's got a bag in her mouth and - and you hope a nice meal and a movie makes her feel better.
  6478. >Lauren's waiting for you by her truck with a bag of groceries in each hand.
  6479. >"The beer's a bit heavy," she says, jerking her head towards the bed of the truck. "Grab that and the other bag?"
  6480. "Sure."
  6481. >"The rest... uh... either you should get a couple of ponies to help unload, or... am I spendin' the night here again?"
  6482. >You shrug.
  6483. "Seems like that's up to you."
  6485. >It’s the most normal meal you’ve ever eaten.
  6486. >Shouldn’t be.
  6487. >You’re sitting on the floor.
  6488. >Watching a children’s cartoon.
  6489. >There’s a kid on either side of you.
  6490. >Neither of them are human.
  6491. >One won’t stop talking.
  6492. >The other, you’re pretty sure in better times would be a Make-a-Wish candidate.
  6493. >Your ex-girlfriend, the summer fling you walked out on, is sitting behind you.
  6494. >One of your slaves - because that's what they really are, isn't it? - is curled up on the sofa, wrapped around her second or third plate of what she's calling 'spagoots'.
  6495. >At what point did any of this become 'normal'?
  6496. >Owning slaves?
  6497. >Spending time with an ex and not regretting it?
  6498. >Having *friends*?
  6499. >Why can't you shake the feeling you're in a Norman Rockwell painting?
  6500. >And why doesn't that bother you?
  6501. >It feels comfortable.
  6502. >Normal.
  6503. >Like this is how things should be.
  6504. >Everyone's sitting around the tv.
  6505. >Eating. Laughing.
  6506. >Mica keeps poking you and asking if you 'saw that'.
  6507. >Hematite falls asleep halfway through and slumps against your leg.
  6508. >Moondancer just watches silently and eats.
  6509. >More and more.
  6510. >Lauren passes you another beer.
  6511. >Only your second.
  6512. >Same for her.
  6513. >And then... there's Apple Bloom.
  6514. >You wish she had stayed and eaten with the rest of you.
  6515. >She's the exception that proves the rule.
  6516. >Her absence is what solidifies just how *normal* everything else feels.
  6517. >It shouldn’t bother you this much if everything else did too.
  6518. >It's weird.
  6519. >If anything, you should be grateful she went to her room.
  6520. >She lied to you. She made you do something you can never take back.
  6521. >Something you should have stopped from happening.
  6522. >She was your friend.
  6523. >You should be angry at her... or feel horribly guilty - and yes, you are.
  6524. >Both.
  6525. >But more than that, you wish she was eating with all of you.
  6526. >It’s that, more than anything, that makes everything else seem so normal. The contrast.
  6527. >How *wrong* that one particular thing feels.
  6528. >How much it bothers you that she isn't here when if she was everything would be *right*.
  6530. >You probably shouldn't be doing this, but the feeling stayed with you, even after dinner.
  6531. >After the movie ended.
  6532. >After Moondancer finished washing up and you woke the foals so she could walk them back to the dorms.
  6533. >Maybe you should have kept them here.
  6534. >Moondancer would have stopped you from doing this.
  6535. >More importantly, it's still cold, even if not as bad as this morning, but you thought... well, it was probably stupid, but you thought it'd be better if the foals were with their parents.
  6536. >Poor Marble was probably crazy with worry.
  6537. >Kinda like you right now.
  6538. >This *is* crazy, but you're *worried*.
  6539. >You knock on the door.
  6540. >No answer, not that you expected there to be.
  6541. >If you were her, you wouldn't bother either.
  6542. >Though if you were her, you don't know how you could stand to... anything.
  6543. >You knock again as you push open the door.
  6544. >Apple Bloom doesn't look back at you, doesn't even raise her head from the bed.
  6545. "Hey?"
  6546. >She sighs but doesn't move.
  6547. "Apple Bloom?"
  6548. >She's awake, plainly.
  6549. >You walk closer, up to the bed.
  6550. "Hey... um..."
  6551. >You push aside the stuff on it and make room to sit.
  6552. >Facing away from her.
  6553. "Do you..."
  6554. >It would be the best thing, right?
  6555. "... do you want me to sell you?"
  6556. >For both of you?
  6557. >You want to reach for her, to run your fingers through her mane. It... it *seemed* like it made her feel better earlier.
  6558. >*Before*.
  6559. >You don't.
  6560. >It would be a mistake.
  6561. >Lauren was kicked across the room because of that. You don't want to be next.
  6562. >You don't want to make her so uncomfortable she has to do that.
  6563. >You don't know how she can stand being in the same room as you.
  6564. >Also... you...
  6565. "I... uh... I got a call from Bill. After you left town, I guess. He said he'd buy you if I didn't want you. Said Scootaloo could use a friend a little closer, but..."
  6566. >You sigh.
  6567. "... I mean... you're not happy here, are you?"
  6568. >How could she be?
  6569. "I... can't sell you to him..."
  6570. >Unless she's not pregnant. Then it would be okay, wouldn't it?
  6571. >If it made her happier?
  6572. "... but I *could* sell you. To a nice family. If you wanted me to."
  6573. >It would be the best thing for everyone.
  6574. >You. Her. The farm. All of the ponies still here.
  6575. "So..."
  6576. >You shouldn't have to ask her permission.
  6577. >You *aren't*.
  6578. >Moondancer said you need to step up and take responsibility for things.
  6579. >You *are*.
  6580. >But this?
  6581. >She had a crush on you. Maybe more.
  6582. >And you did this to her.
  6583. >She was your friend.
  6584. >How are you supposed to fix it?
  6585. >"Ah don't know," Apple Bloom finally answers.
  6586. "Yeah, me neither."
  6587. >This is...
  6588. >Awkward.
  6589. >To say the least.
  6590. >You don't want to leave.
  6591. >You miss her.
  6592. >The way she used to be.
  6593. >Before you broke her.
  6594. >You want to stay here with her.
  6595. >For now, at least.
  6596. >It doesn't feel *right*. How could it?
  6597. >But you miss her.
  6598. >You let your hand fall.
  6599. >It had been reaching for her all on its own.
  6600. >Bad habits - or good - die hard.
  6601. >It's all you know how to do when words fail.
  6602. >Your hand lands on the stuff you'd pushed aside.
  6603. >Awkwardness and guilt does the rest.
  6604. >You don't want to leave.
  6605. >You can't sit here in silence.
  6606. >It's something to talk about.
  6607. "So... uh... did... uh... did Lauren get you some things in town, or...?"
  6608. >It's a plastic shopping bag. Opaque. Makes sense, right?
  6609. >"What?" Apple Bloom mumbles.
  6610. >Pretty beat up, though. Wrinkled. The text on it scratched so badly you can't read what store it came from.
  6611. "... or... uh..."
  6612. >You don't know what to do.
  6613. >Why can't you just hold her?
  6614. >Why did you have to ruin everything?
  6615. "... what's... well..."
  6616. >You nudge open the mouth of the bag.
  6617. "Letters? I thought you'd taken them down to the others?"
  6618. >"Did."
  6619. "But..."
  6620. >They're tied up, secured with twine.
  6621. >You open the bag further and see the three large bundles inside.
  6622. >The top one has a name written on it. Hers.
  6623. >You grab the first bundle and pull aside the corner.
  6624. >Next letter is also for her.
  6625. >And the next.
  6626. >And -
  6627. "Are these... um... all for you...?"
  6628. >"Ah guess."
  6629. >The next batch is the same, and the third.
  6630. >All of them.
  6631. >Some have dates written on them, some from two or three years back.
  6632. >Some from last week.
  6633. >There are dozens.
  6634. >Maybe more than a hundred.
  6635. "That's a lot."
  6636. >"Ah ruined a lot of lives."
  6637. "Every pony I've spoken to has said otherwise."
  6638. >Silence again.
  6639. "Are you going to read them all?"
  6640. >You're not looking at her - you can't risk meeting her eyes, seeing what isn't there anymore because of you - but you can feel her shrug.
  6641. >"Dunno."
  6642. >You... well...
  6643. >You'd ask her what you could do to fix this, but... what?
  6644. >Saying you're sorry won't magically undo you buckling her into the stand.
  6645. >Holding her won't stop you from saying what you said.
  6646. >Lying to her won't change how you feel.
  6647. >You're the bad guy here.
  6648. >Don't want to be.
  6649. >Never meant to be.
  6650. >Doesn't change the fact that you are.
  6651. "Well... I hope you do read them..."
  6653. #APPLE BLOOM
  6654. >"... because damn near everyone I've spoken to has nothing but good things to say about you."
  6655. >He laughs weakly.
  6656. >"They're probably... um... fan letters or..."
  6657. >He sighs.
  6658. >Slumps over.
  6659. >"I don't know, Apple Bloom. I'm... sorry. Just... uh..."
  6660. >The bed bounces slightly as he stands.
  6661. >"Just promise me you'll think about it, okay?"
  6662. >He don't walk away.
  6663. >Waitin' on you to promise him, you guess.
  6664. "Ah promise. Ah'll think about readin' the letters."
  6665. >"I meant..." he sighs, "... well, I meant about if you want me to sell you or not."
  6666. >Can't promise him that, so you don't.
  6667. >You don't want to go away.
  6668. >Don't want to get your hopes up for a better place.
  6669. >Don't want to get his up, either.
  6670. >You'd told him yes once 'fore.
  6671. >Thought the best.
  6672. >Thought it'd be a good thing.
  6673. >Thought you'd have a family.
  6674. >That's how this all started, 'cause you're a stupid filly.
  6675. >One he wants to get rid of an' you can't blame him for that, but you still can't make that promise.
  6676. >You don't wanna think about it.
  6677. >"Apple Bloom? Please? If you don't want me to sell you, it's... it's fine."
  6678. >It ain't.
  6679. >He hesitated.
  6680. >He's lyin'.
  6681. >He wants you gone.
  6682. >"I don't want to sell you, but..."
  6683. >Liar.
  6684. >"... I don't know how else to..."
  6685. >He sighs.
  6686. >"Think about it, please."
  6687. >Can't.
  6688. >You ain't a liar like him.
  6689. >Applejack would -
  6690. >Applejack ain't here.
  6691. "Sure."
  6692. >Don't matter what your sister'd think of you anymore.
  6693. >Realized this mornin' when you finally got it into your damn head she ain't lookin' up at the same sky as you.
  6694. >"Thanks."
  6695. >She's prolly dead too, just like Big Mac.
  6696. >You don't wanna think 'bout it.
  6697. >You don't wanna think 'bout bein' sold.
  6698. >You *ain't* gonna.
  6699. >Can't stop yourself.
  6700. >After he's gone, it's all you can think 'bout.
  6701. >Bein' sold, movin' away. Maybe to a place with nopony else to judge you.
  6702. >Nopony who knows you.
  6703. >A fresh start for you n' your foal.
  6704. >All new people to disappoint.
  6705. >A new life to ruin.
  6706. >You told yourself you *ain't* gonna think about it and you *ain't*.
  6707. >Can't stop yourself.
  6708. >So you roll onto your side an' reach for your letters, 'cause readin' those?
  6709. >Readin' about all the ponies whose lives you've ruined?
  6710. >Ponies callin' up all the mistakes you've made, how you led 'em down a bad path?
  6711. >How you tried to help but in the end did more harm than good?
  6712. >That's easier to deal with than thinkin' about gettin' sold away from him n' this farm.
  6714. >"Thank you, Apple Bloom."
  6715. >It's what they say. Over an' over.
  6716. >Letters from ponies sayin' how their lives are so much better now.
  6717. >How you talkin' 'em into signin' up for work relocation was the best thing that'd happened to 'em in a long time.
  6718. >Ponies that are happy with their lives.
  6719. >Ponies that ain't so much, but say it's better'n the camps.
  6720. >Some that wish they'd listened to you sooner.
  6721. >Some just tellin' you 'bout how things are now.
  6722. >Askin' 'bout you.
  6723. >Wonderin' if you're okay.
  6724. >Worried they haven't heard nothin'.
  6725. >Ponies that are still alive, because've you.
  6726. >Who think they can never thank you enough for what you did.
  6727. >For putting in extra shifts at the camp an' the extra rations you gave to 'em instead of eatin' yourself.
  6728. >Patchin' a leaky tarp - the only thing keepin' the rain off their heads.
  6729. >Helpin' a filly turn a lil' corner of the camp into a flower garden an' bringin' a little bit of life n' color to the place.
  6730. >Sittin' with another as she died.
  6731. >Grievin' with the family instead of turnin' your back like so many other ponies.
  6732. >Diggin' her grave when nopony else had the strength to.
  6733. >Never lettin' your own problems stop you from jumpin' in to help another.
  6734. >"Thank you, Apple Bloom. We all owe you so much."
  6735. >Ponies that found jobs more fulfillin' than the ones they had back in Ponyville.
  6736. >Ponies who are diggin' ditches, but at least got themselves full bellies - or full enough.
  6737. >Those who've lost friends, but haven't lost any more since they left the camps.
  6738. >A few who've lost more, but are grateful their friends got to live a few years longer.
  6739. >Some who're alone, but still alive.
  6740. >"Thank you for everything."
  6741. >Some've the ponies are angry, but not at you, never at you.
  6742. >At their owners, at the world, at life in general, but never at you.
  6743. >"Thank you, Apple Bloom."
  6744. >You wipe at your eyes and unfold the next letter.
  6745. >It's from Pumpkin Cake.
  6746. >Thankin' you for taking care've her an' her brother when their ma fell sick.
  6747. >And... after.
  6748. >You'd forgotten 'bout that, about helpin' her father when he started to fall apart. For keepin' him going, remindin' him he had two children to look after.
  6749. >Not lettin' him give up.
  6750. >Stoppin' him when you found him with that bit of glass, when he'd lost all hope for him an' his foals.
  6751. >Helpin' him find what little work there was to be had in the camp.
  6752. >Pushin' him to keep goin' even if there weren't much for a baker to do if there weren't any flour.
  6753. >Any food, really.
  6754. >Not even grazing.
  6755. >Hope Springs was already a muddy pit even when you arrived, an' you were one've the first.
  6756. >But you found a way.
  6757. >"You always found a way," Pumpkin writes. "Remember how you helped us crawl under the fence and hunt for acorns?"
  6758. >You'd forgotten all about that.
  6759. >About sneakin' outta the camp to go foragin' and takin' the children with you, though they were more hindrance than help.
  6760. >About how you had to look those hungry foals in the eyes an' tell 'em they couldn't eat the acorns they'd found, not yet.
  6761. >They almost got you caught a few times, but Carrot needed the time alone to grieve.
  6762. >You didn't want the foals to see him like that.
  6763. >Besides, you didn't mind. They helped you find enough acorns to grind into flour.
  6764. >It weren't much, but it was enough for their father to make some bread in the rough stone oven you'd helped him build.
  6765. >"It was the best thing I've ever eaten," the Pumpkin says in her letter. "I can't believe how much I ate."
  6766. >Not enough, but... it was somethin'.
  6767. >Helped out, an' not just him, not just his family.
  6768. >Gave ponies somethin' to eat.
  6769. >A little.
  6770. >For a few.
  6771. >For a time, 'til you three'd picked the ground clean for a mile or so 'round Hope Springs.
  6772. >Then... you'd found somethin' else.
  6773. >You've forgotten what.
  6774. >You'd forgotten all 'bout that.
  6775. >Readin' the filly's letter, she makes it sound like it was the world to her an' her family.
  6776. >But it weren't nothin' special to you.
  6777. >Was just another day, 'nother week, 'nother pony you'd helped out when times got tough.
  6778. >'nother daring escape through the fence with a pair of foals just old enough to understand what'd happened to their ma.
  6779. >Older'n you were when you lost yours.
  6780. >Where you don't know a thing 'bout your ma, Pumpkin Cake remembers.
  6781. >An' she remembers everything you did for 'em, where you'd forgotten.
  6782. >And... and she says "thank you, Apple Bloom."
  6783. >Half the letters are like that, maybe more.
  6784. >Things you'd done for this pony or that, but you don't remember.
  6785. >Gotten 'em some food when they were starvin', helped 'em hide from the triage teams when they were hurt, played with their foal when some of 'em found 'work' with the guards.
  6786. >Just little things.
  6787. >Nothin' special, but to them...
  6788. >You keep readin', the next letter an' the next an' the one after that until hours've passed and there's nothin' left to read.
  6789. >Can't believe it.
  6790. >To these ponies, it meant everything.
  6791. >Even just the tryin', if you couldn't do more.
  6792. >Just bein' there for 'em when they needed a friendly shoulder to cry on.
  6793. >When ponies were fightin' each other from scraps of Pumpkin's bread, holdin' grudges an' hiding away what little they had, you were...
  6794. >You can't believe how much you'd forgotten.
  6795. >More'n that, you can't believe how much it meant to each and every pony that you'd stuck by 'em.
  6796. >Shared what you had.
  6797. >Did what you could.
  6798. >That's just what folks are supposed to do in tough times, right?
  6799. >You didn't think it meant anything special to anypony.
  6800. >You *weren't* bein' special, just tryin' to be normal when nopony else was.
  6801. >Tryin' to help out however you could, do whatever you could.
  6802. >You were just bein' you.
  6803. >You'd forgotten.
  6805. >Being up before the sun is bullshit.
  6806. >You don't know how Lauren manages it, particularly now.
  6807. >She's been hurt, gone through surgery, spent all yesterday driving and doing chores for you, and still - somehow - found the energy to get up?
  6808. >You wish she'd come to her senses and get back into bed with you.
  6809. >"Prolly shouldn't have stayed the night," she sighs as she pulls off the shirt you'd lent her, "but things were goin' so nice. I didn't wanna..."
  6810. "Ruin the night by going back to your farm?"
  6811. >"Yeah."
  6812. >You'd try to talk her out of it, for her sake, but... that's also why you can't.
  6813. >For her sake.
  6814. >Lauren looks like she feels guilty enough already.
  6815. >Probably thinking about the ponies she left alone with her father.
  6816. >How angry he'll be.
  6817. >What he'll do to her when she gets back.
  6818. >You try to tell yourself that she's a big girl now. She can take care of things herself if she wanted to.
  6819. >You hope.
  6820. >Then again, you also hope she *wants* to, and you know that's not going to happen.
  6821. >"What?"
  6822. "What...?"
  6823. >"You're starin'," Lauren smirks. "Enjoyin' the view or..."
  6824. >Hadn't been - it hadn't even crossed your mind until she said something - but you shrug.
  6825. "Yeah, I guess so."
  6826. >It's not a bad view, her in just her bra and a wide open button-down.
  6827. >"Well -"
  6828. "But... also..."
  6829. >"What?"
  6830. >You wait until she's done fastening her shirt, thinking and rethinking if you should say anything.
  6831. >Lauren keeps glancing over at you every other button, nervously waiting for you to finish speaking.
  6832. "I'm..."
  6833. >Yeah, you should.
  6834. >She's your friend.
  6835. "... worried about you."
  6836. >The woman's head jerks up.
  6837. >"Wait," she grunts. "Really?"
  6838. "Yeah."
  6839. >"Seriously?"
  6840. "Uh-huh."
  6841. >"An' not in a that-bitch-might-sue-me-cuz-my-pony-nearly-killed-her kinda way?"
  6842. "No."
  6843. >... wait...
  6844. "And you're not a bitch."
  6845. >Lauren smirks and pretends to adjust her shirt.
  6846. >"That... uh... that might be the nicest thing you've said to me in..."
  6847. "Ten or twelve years?"
  6848. >"Give or take," she responds. "Though I can't be sure if I believe it."
  6849. >She gives out a dark little chuckle and shimmies into her pants with a groan.
  6850. "You okay?"
  6851. >"I'm fine. Apple Bloom didn't do much damage and I'm just a little sore now."
  6852. "Good, good. But... you okay?"
  6853. >She freezes.
  6854. >Another day, you might appreciate the scene of her bent over reaching for her boots, but you've got other things on your mind.
  6855. >"You mean my dad an' what he'll do."
  6856. "Yeah."
  6857. >"I'm a grown ass woman -"
  6858. >You're very well aware of that right now.
  6859. >"- and if I gotta..."
  6860. >She shrugs and throws herself down on the bed to pull her boots on.
  6861. >"You don't need to be worrin' about me."
  6862. "Well, I am."
  6863. >She turns - and winces.
  6864. >"Thanks. I'm... uh..."
  6865. >And smiles.
  6866. >The same smile she used to have back then.
  6867. "Touched?"
  6868. >"Surprised," she laughs. "I thought... well... you've been bein' nice - *sometimes* -"
  6869. >You deserve that.
  6870. >"- but I didn't think you *meant* it, just..."
  6871. "Let you bully me into being nice?"
  6872. >"I wouldn't put it like that."
  6873. "But close enough?"
  6874. >"I guess. I know you can't resist a cryin' girl."
  6875. "Well..."
  6876. >You sit up and stretch and yawn.
  6877. >Don't really need to.
  6878. >You're stalling and you know it.
  6879. >She knows it.
  6880. "... maybe..."
  6881. >"Thought so."
  6882. "... at first. That night I brought Silver here. But after that..."
  6883. >You shrug again.
  6884. >"Oh," Lauren laughs awkwardly, "so last night you're just been hopin' I'd put out or..."
  6885. "What? No. You just had surgery. Minor surgery, but... that... uh..."
  6886. >She unconsciously pats at her belly and groans.
  6887. "... seems like it wouldn't have been the best idea."
  6888. >You shake your head.
  6889. "No, I only thought you needed a friend."
  6890. >You should've stayed for her.
  6891. "These last few years can't have been easy on you."
  6892. >"Longer'n that," she mumbles.
  6893. "Yeah, I'm sorry."
  6894. >"Really?"
  6895. "Really."
  6896. >"Now I know you're full've shit," Lauren laughs and turns way before you can see her expression, "'cuz if you weren't, I don't know how I'd take it."
  6897. "Nah."
  6898. >Shit.
  6899. >You want to hold her until everything is all okay again, but that won't solve anything.
  6900. "Do you... want a hug?"
  6901. >It'd be nice, though.
  6902. >"Sure, why not?" Lauren laughs again, turning back to you and rolling her eyes.
  6903. >She scoots closer on the bed, close enough for you to reach out and -
  6904. >"Ow!"
  6905. >You both jerk back at the sudden shock.
  6906. >"You... you..."
  6907. >Lauren grabs her pillow and slams it into your face.
  6908. >It's just a pillow, but she's strong.
  6909. >It hurts.
  6910. >And it smells like her.
  6911. >Of sweat and leather and green grass.
  6912. >"... jerk!" Lauren giggles. "You did that on purpose!"
  6913. "No! I swear! It was happening all day yesterday and -"
  6914. >"So you *knew* it was going to happen! I'm going to -"
  6915. >Yep.
  6916. >She's going to smother you to death with a pillow.
  6917. >You slip your arms past the feathery death and squeeze her tight.
  6918. >At least you can take her with you!
  6919. >Or a hug will calm her down.
  6920. >Whichever.
  6921. >She laughs.
  6922. >You laugh.
  6923. >The pillow falls to the side.
  6924. "Seriously, I didn't mean for that to happen."
  6925. >"Yeah, yeah," Lauren giggles, "I'm sure you didn't. I'm going to go before you can 'not mean' anything else. Besides..."
  6926. >She sighs and a little of the sudden life in her drains out with the air.
  6927. >"I still have to unload most of the truck an' get home."
  6928. "Need me to help?"
  6929. >"Nah, go back to sleep."
  6930. >Tempting.
  6931. >But -
  6932. >"I'll see if some've the ponies'll unload the truck for me. They're probably up by now, right?"
  6933. "Probably."
  6934. >Sunrise can't be too far away.
  6935. >"Figure it makes more sense to let 'em put it all up than for us to be blunderin' about in their home."
  6936. "Yeah, probably."
  6938. >"Be safe."
  6939. "Yeah, I'll..."
  6940. >Can't stop yourself from smilin' even if you wanted to.
  6941. >And right now, you *really* don't want to.
  6942. "... I'll try. See you... sometime."
  6943. >Can't promise yourself more'n that.
  6944. >Him either.
  6945. >Can't spend all day every day over here when you got responsibilities of your own.
  6946. >There's folks depending on you.
  6947. >Dad's gonna be pissed.
  6948. >Already is, but...
  6949. >Nope.
  6950. >You'll cross that bridge when you get to it.
  6951. >Beatin' yourself up 'bout stayin' away so long an' what he's prolly done while you were gone ain't gonna do anyone any good.
  6952. >Neither will stallin'.
  6953. >You leave - and you let him *watch* you leave.
  6954. >Just a favor 'tween friends.
  6955. >An' maybe a bit of revenge for the shock.
  6956. >Stupid, but the fun kind've stupid.
  6957. >Well, you get a kick out of it and you bet he does too, though you regret putting that little swing in your step by the time you get to the stairs.
  6958. >God, you are *sore* an' that didn't help none.
  6959. >Nothin' like yesterday, though. Nothin' so bad you feel like dyin' when you get behind the wheel of your truck.
  6960. >Enough you feel grateful when you see the handful of ponies standin' outside, waitin' for the sun to rise.
  6961. >Ain't a lot of heavy stuff to unload - all light enough, really - but you don't feel up to much more'n resting.
  6962. >The ponies look up as you drive closer, shuffle uneasily an' talk amongst themselves.
  6963. >You come to a stop some ways from 'em, close to the dorms as you can without feelin' like you're invadin' their space more'n you have to.
  6964. >An' then you wait.
  6965. >Not stallin', waitin' for them to come to you, for them to finish up with them greetin' the day.
  6966. >Once you get to lookin', you realize there's fewer than you expected.
  6967. >All your ponies try to watch the sunrise when they can and it ain't too far off now.
  6968. >None'd turn back inside like a few do now, not unless your da was ready with the whip.
  6969. >That's... uh...
  6970. >... unsettling.
  6971. >Almost kills your good mood.
  6972. >Makes you worry what he's really doin' with his ponies when you aren't watchin', that they ain't just spooked 'cause you're an outside, but...
  6973. >Almost.
  6974. >But they come on out again - most of 'em, anyhow - 'fore it can prey on your mind too much, an' some new ponies with 'em.
  6975. >Those two split off your way.
  6976. >The one of 'em with the red mane you know from last night, the other you *think* you recognize...?
  6977. >She's friendly, though, you know that much, but you can't say how.
  6978. >Instinctively, you guess.
  6979. >You get outta your truck to greet 'em.
  6980. "Mornin'."
  6981. >"Good morning," Moondancer greets you. "Is that -"
  6982. >Yeah, she knows. You'd told her all 'bout this last night.
  6983. >You nod.
  6984. "Yep. Think you two can help me unload everything?"
  6985. >The mares nod.
  6986. "Did you wanna wait until after the sunrise?"
  6987. >They shake their heads.
  6988. >Huh.
  6989. >"I don't really... um... see a point anymore," Moondancer mumbles. "Maud, did you -"
  6990. >"No," the other mare answers in a monotone so flat you're startin' to rethink the whole 'friendly' thing.
  6991. >Still kinda wanna pick her up an' roll around with her an' ruffle her mane, but that's a bad idea for so many reasons.
  6992. >So you pull back the tarp an' pull yourself up into the bed've the truck an' that was a mistake too.
  6993. >Ow.
  6994. >Ow.
  6995. >Okay.
  6996. >Deep breath.
  6997. "I'll... ow... hand everything down an' you two can carry it on inside, okay?"
  6998. >Most of it's in bags, so it's no extra trouble on them to grab a few in their mouths an' trot on inside.
  6999. >Some groceries, stuff that don't grow so well here or little staples like some herbs and spices that they'd somehow run low on.
  7000. >Prolly him bein' oblivious.
  7001. >A chalkboard heavy enough Maud has to help you get it down an' big enough it takes the both of 'em to carry it inside.
  7002. >You'd wonder what it's for, but Mica told you on the drive yesterday.
  7003. >You've never seen anyone - human or pony - so excited about school before.
  7004. >Party supplies - little paper hats an' streamers an' junk like that.
  7005. >You'd asked him how he could waste his money on stuff like that, but he insisted they were important.
  7006. >The way Maud's eyes sparkle when she sees 'em, you guess he must be right.
  7007. >From there, it's just odds and ends. A couple of board games, the cheapest you could find. Some hardware supplies, nails and such.
  7008. >The mares move fast, trottin' one load after another in quick as they can, though Moondancer's pantin' hard after the third run.
  7009. >She pushes herself to keep up with Maud's pace, but just can't manage.
  7010. >The mare's just comin' back out for her fourth load when Maud's trottin' back with her sixth.
  7011. "Just a few more."
  7012. >Meant to be encouragement, but the mare sighs an' thumps her forehead 'gainst the side of your truck.
  7013. >"Want to help?" she mumbles, an' while you don't think she really means it, there's just a bit more'n she can manage on her own left.
  7014. "Sure."
  7015. >Why not?
  7016. >You're just gonna carry a couple bags a few feet an' drop 'em inside the door.
  7017. >No harm, right?
  7018. >You're invited.
  7019. >So...
  7020. >You slide over to the tailgate an' gingerly let yourself down.
  7021. >"Thanks," Moondancer smiles as you hand her 'bout half the bags.
  7022. >You take the others yourself.
  7023. >Ain't too heavy. Gettin' down put more've a strain on your belly than carryin' these in.
  7024. >Maud's comin' out to grab the last, but she smiles when she sees you.
  7025. >Okay, she prolly don't, but maybe?
  7026. >Feels like she does, an' she holds the door open for you an' Moondancer.
  7027. >Okay, this is weird.
  7028. >All these ponies up an' awake, but only a handful are outside watchin' the sunrise?
  7029. >Huh...
  7030. >Huuuuuuh...
  7031. >Some're sittin' quiet, others chattin' with their friends, but...
  7032. >You shake off the weird feelin' an' follow Moondancer.
  7033. >Sure, it feels wrong, but you're in no position to understand.
  7034. >They all seem... okay.
  7035. >Better off'n the ponies on your farm.
  7036. >You follow the mare through the tables, close enough for you to hear scraps of conversation.
  7037. >Ponies talkin' excitedly about the cuteceanera, whatever that is.
  7038. >Talkin' less excitedly about... nothin' in particular.
  7039. >Eagerly swappin' stories about the letters they got.
  7040. >"You wouldn't believe how happy Open Skies was to get those letters!"
  7041. >"I bet I would! Has anypony heard from the -"
  7042. >And yet, one by one, as you walk past, they fall silent.
  7043. >Maybe comin' in was a mistake.
  7044. >You offer 'em a weak smile... but... as soon as Moondancer shows you were to put the bags you're carryin', you're out of there.
  7045. >It feels too weird. Too *wrong*.
  7046. >You get in your truck an' you drive away, tryin' to clear the feelin' from your mind.
  7047. >Don't work.
  7048. >Everything there felt off, everything but Maud.
  7049. >*Wrong*.
  7050. >You're halfway home before you realize you could've dropped in to see Silver, but...
  7051. >No.
  7052. >What would you've said to her anyway?
  7053. >That you were sorry?
  7054. >Maybe just be there for her?
  7055. >Yeah, you could've.
  7056. >Should've.
  7057. >Just seein' her would've been worthwhile.
  7058. >God, how could that have slipped your mind?
  7059. >You nearly turn back then and there, but no, you've been away too long.
  7060. >Who knows what might've happened.
  7061. >You were weak, just like when you left Silver alone at Sterling's.
  7062. >Shit...
  7064. >You don't drive straight to the house.
  7065. >Da's truck is there - you can see it parked in the drive - so you know he is too.
  7066. >That's only part've the reason.
  7067. >Rest is there's somethin' else you gotta take care of first.
  7068. >Honestly, it's the more important one of the two.
  7069. >You keep drivin' - past the house, past the farmhands' quarters, through the fields, past the barn where the lucky few are stabled, 'til you come to...
  7070. >This.
  7071. >Where most of your ponies live.
  7072. >You sigh and wonder what on earth made you think there was anything wrong with the ponies back at his place.
  7073. >Whatever else, *they* aren't livin' in shacks.
  7074. >At least these're sturdily built, you can say that for 'em.
  7075. >Have to be, or the padlocks on the doors wouldn't have much point, would they?
  7076. >For the same reason, there ain't no windows.
  7077. >You can imagine what's goin' through their minds, hearin' the truck outside of their shacks.
  7078. >No idea who's out here, what they're gonna do.
  7079. >You kill the engine, grab what you gotta, and slip out've your seat.
  7080. "Don't worry, just me!"
  7081. >Won't do much good, but...
  7082. >You sigh an' trudge up to the closest one.
  7083. >Can hear 'em talkin' as you struggle with the lock, but once it's open...
  7084. >The smell hits you like a hammer.
  7085. >Fifty pairs of eyes stare silently at you.
  7086. >Well, not *pairs*. Not all of 'em.
  7087. >An' not in the eye. Just in your general direction.
  7088. >At your hands. Feet.
  7089. >The parts you'd hit 'em with.
  7090. >The bag've apples you're holdin'.
  7091. >Even the ones you know, the ponies that know *you*.
  7092. >Because they do.
  7093. >Goddammit him.
  7094. "Hey... uh..."
  7095. >You let the bag down. Some've the eyes follow, but they won't touch it 'til you're gone.
  7096. >No matter how much you tell 'em it's okay.
  7097. >No matter how hungry they are.
  7098. >You look at the letters in your other hand.
  7099. "... I was in town, and there's a mare there named Derpy..."
  7100. >Some of those eyes show recognition.
  7101. >Some excitement.
  7102. >Some show nothin' at all.
  7103. "... anyway, she had some mail for y'all."
  7104. >You look back down at the top letter.
  7105. >Sparkler.
  7106. >She's in the next shack, or should be if she doesn't want one of the farmhands to take her hide when she gets caught.
  7107. >Second... same.
  7108. >The third...
  7109. >Tootsie Flute.
  7110. "Horseshoe... I... uh... got a letter for you."
  7111. >You crouch down an' hold it out.
  7112. >God it hurts, but if you hadn't you doubt she'd have come forward an' taken it in her mouth.
  7113. "Let's see... uh..."
  7114. >You fan out the letters an' look 'em over, call out the others you see.
  7115. >Some don't come forward.
  7116. >You leave those beside the apples.
  7117. >They'll get 'em when they're ready.
  7118. >Some've the others, they don't even wait to start reading theirs.
  7119. >You bein' here or not be damned.
  7120. >It's nice to see a smile on these faces, even if it's just a few, for just a bit.
  7121. >You've still got a couple dozen letters - an' a ton've eager faces waitin' - but...
  7122. "Sorry, that's it."
  7123. >There's some soft whinin'.
  7124. >Good.
  7125. >Means they were hopin' you'd call their name - well, what they're forced to go by here.
  7126. >An' that means they've got somethin' they're lookin' forward to now.
  7127. "I'll be sure to check with Derpy next time I'm in town."
  7128. >Good they've got somethin' to hope for.
  7129. "Hide 'em well, because if da sees you with these..."
  7130. >You don't gotta finish that warnin'.
  7131. >They know.
  7132. >An' they will.
  7133. >They've got somethin' to lose now.
  7134. >Somethin' to keep goin' for.
  7135. >An' you know you've got three more shacks of hungry ponies an' three more bags in your truck.
  7136. >Can't keep 'em waiting.
  7137. "Okay, I'm gonna lock everything back up now. Remember..."
  7138. >"W-wait, mith..."
  7139. >One of the ponies takes a half-step towards you.
  7140. >"Nothing for me?"
  7141. "Sorry, I'm afraid not."
  7142. >"Oh," she murmurs.
  7143. "What?"
  7144. >"I thought a friend might have written to me."
  7145. "Sorry Red, I've got nothin'."
  7146. >Poor girl.
  7147. >"If nopony else," she sighs an' hangs her head, "I at leatht thought Apple Bloom would."
  7148. >That make's 'em all look up.
  7149. >Most of 'em, anyhow, even the ones readin' over their own letters.
  7150. >Particularly them. All of *them*.
  7151. >The ones that aren't totally lost in their own sufferin' seem to forget their own problems, if only for a moment.
  7152. >"Yeah," Anvil murmurs. "I haven't heard anything from her in years."
  7153. >Cloud nods an' whines.
  7154. >"She should have been placed nearby."
  7155. >"I hope she's okay."
  7156. >"Isn't she on the neighbor's farm?"
  7157. >"I thought so, but it's not like we're allowed to -"
  7158. >A dozen heads turn your way.
  7159. >You sigh.
  7160. "I know, you aren't allowed near fence. I ain't gonna get pissed at you for sayin' what's true. But... yeah... she's nearby. Next farm over."
  7161. >"I thought so!" Grey squeals "You've seen her?"
  7162. >"How'th Apple Bloom doing?"
  7163. >Huh.
  7164. >Letters must've done more good'n you thought they would.
  7165. >First time in three years they've asked 'bout other ponies.
  7166. >"Is she okay?"
  7167. >"Does she know we're here?"
  7168. >"You went to her farm? Why? Can we -"
  7169. >You raise a hand.
  7170. >Don't mean to shut 'em up so fast all at once like that, but it works.
  7171. >You hate it.
  7172. "She's..."
  7173. >You hate that you can't tell them the truth.
  7174. "She's a strong pony."
  7175. >Not all of it.
  7176. "She'll get through this. You all will."
  7177. >They need to have hope.
  7178. >It's more important than food or water or anything else, because without that...
  7179. >You always hoped he'd come back.
  7180. >It's what keeps a person goin'.
  7181. "But... um... I've got some other news."
  7182. >You hadn't thought they'd care, but maybe...
  7183. "There's this foal on Apple Bloom's farm, and a couple days back, she -"
  7185. >Before you'd gone to bed, you'd made up your mind.
  7186. >Ain't told him yet.
  7187. >Decided you'd sleep on it, though you didn't do much sleepin' last night.
  7188. >Didn't want to jump into somethin' without thinkin' it through, not like last time.
  7189. >You ain't just gotta worry about yourself.
  7190. >Gotta think about what it'd do to the others.
  7191. >You look out your window at the pale glow on the horizon.
  7192. >Don't mean anything to you.
  7193. >AJ ain't out there somewhere, watchin' it with you.
  7194. >But... maybe... maybe Scootaloo is?
  7195. >Maybe Sweetie?
  7196. >You stay where you are.
  7197. >Ain't watchin' the sun like it's somethin' special, but you're still watchin' it.
  7198. >If you're honest with yourself - an' you don't know why you should be but you are - you're stallin'.
  7199. >Made up your mind before you'd gone to bed, but that changed your mind half a dozen times through the night.
  7200. >Almost got up more'n once to answer his question, but you never did.
  7201. >Somethin' always stopped you.
  7202. >A letter from a friend. Pleasant memories. Your own disgust at yourself.
  7203. >Your hopes an' dreams.
  7204. >Rememberin' he's with her.
  7205. >That don't hurt as much as it did, but it still hurts.
  7206. >An' it just wouldn't be right to walk in on 'em.
  7207. >An'... more importantly... you didn't know the answer.
  7208. >Still don't.
  7209. >Not really.
  7210. >Ready to give him one, to have this all be over one way or the other. You don't know what to say.
  7211. >What you'd choose.
  7212. >What you want.
  7213. >Almost told him to make up his own mind, to put the whole deal outta your hooves.
  7214. >You're just his slave.
  7215. >Don't matter what you want.
  7216. >Almost kicked down his door an' screamed it at him, to make it all his fault.
  7217. >To make it not yours.
  7218. >Didn't, though.
  7219. >Couldn't decide to do that, either.
  7220. >Couldn't decide if you wanted to be his slave or his friend, helpless or defiant.
  7221. >If you wanted to flee or if it even was fleeing.
  7222. >But as you watch the sunrise, you start to get an' idea.
  7223. >You start to understand.
  7224. >Your heart starts to clear.
  7225. >You -
  7227. >"- better decide if you want to live - or *not*."
  7228. "I'm trying!"
  7229. >You can't even get out of your bed.
  7230. >Out of Sil's bed.
  7231. >Octavia sighs and puts a hoof to her forehead.
  7232. >"I know you overheard Master Sterling and I speaking yesterday," the mare says softly. "I *know* you know what's happening. You may be a spoiled brat, but you aren't stupid. No more than most here."
  7233. "I'm not -"
  7234. >"You are."
  7235. >You'd kick her if you thought you could get away with it.
  7236. >If your body didn't hurt too much.
  7237. >If you'd had more than one customer yesterday.
  7238. >If you hadn't agreed to let him do what he did.
  7239. >If you hadn't been so desperate.
  7240. >And now you can't even leave your room.
  7241. >Not the private room Sterling had given you, not the one you had earned.
  7242. >That's no longer yours.
  7243. >Silver's room.
  7244. >The small one meant to be shared by five mares.
  7245. >The room no one wants to share with you.
  7246. >The room for mares who -
  7247. >"I'm presenting you with a choice, that is all. It would keep you alive for a few more weeks, perhaps longer. You *know* how difficult it will be to recover from this, don't you?
  7248. >"Just like Silver Spoon, you must realize. You're following the exact same pattern as her, only swifter. No ups and downs; it took months for her to reach this point!
  7249. >"Though I suppose she *did* have help..."
  7250. >Octavia shrugs.
  7251. >Bitch.
  7252. >"But, perhaps," she whispers, smiling faintly, "it could be you don't *want* to live -"
  7253. "Why wouldn't I!?"
  7254. >"I thought there was a chance you had realized what you did to your friend."
  7255. >She's wrong.
  7256. >She's *wrong*.
  7257. "I don't want to die!"
  7258. >"Life, then?" that bitch huffs as she stares down at you. "That would seem to be the preferable choice."
  7259. "But to do *that*!?"
  7260. >"She did it too, you know. I've never seen a mare so desperate to live as her."
  7261. "And what good did it do Sil!?"
  7262. >"It bought her another month."
  7263. "And she never did it again! It's *horrible*!"
  7264. >"Be that as it may, I fail to see any other options for you.
  7265. >"This shall be your second straight week of under-performance; early though it is I strongly doubt you'll be able to meet your quota. Considering your sudden plummet..."
  7266. >She drifts off.
  7267. >"Strange," she murmurs as her head tilts back, as she looks up to the ceiling, "how one poor choice, one wrong client led you to this.
  7268. >"Or perhaps the origin is more distant, even more removed from your current predicament.
  7269. >She sighs and looks back to you.
  7270. >"Unfortunately, it is happening, and the master's new employees will arrive shortly before the end of the week.
  7271. >"Master Sterling considered pushing up your deadline, but we decided against that - it would set a bad precedent if he did not follow his own rules, after all.
  7272. >"Besides..."
  7273. "You want me to take the bad customers."
  7274. >"That would be a kindness to the newcomers," Octavia agrees, dipping her head, "so you can understand I would prefer if you did not die just yet."
  7275. >You don't know which would be worse.
  7276. >Why is she making *you* choose?"
  7277. >"And... you...? What would you prefer?"
  7278. "I'd rather wait until I don't have a choice. Even if I don't make the quota this week, I still have -"
  7279. >"I rather doubt you would survive the experience after another week of this."
  7280. >She responds to your sneer with the same impassive, polite mask she *always* wears.
  7281. "You almost sound concerned for me. Are you trying to be nice or something? Well, as nice as you *can* be?"
  7282. >"I am not," the mare snorts, "though perhaps I sympathize. I can understand the desire to keep on living, even when there is no reason.
  7283. >"Master Sterling simply no longer has anything to offer me besides my life. My friend, like yours, is dead.
  7284. >"Though, to be fair, *I* didn't kill *mine*."
  7285. >You didn't!
  7286. >"More importantly, if you refuse this offer, you know what will happen.
  7287. >"One way or another, you won't survive the next week and your death might give our new employees the wrong idea about their futures."
  7288. "Or the right one!"
  7289. >"The *wrong* one," she insists. "Do the job and you will live. Do the job well and you will live well."
  7290. "Don't and you die."
  7291. >"No different from life anywhere else," Octavia snaps back. "If a farmer refuses to till his field, whose fault but his own will it be when he starves?
  7292. >"As I said, the choice is yours.
  7293. >"Do you want to live?"
  7294. >You don't have to think about it, not even for a second.
  7295. >Still, you hesitate.
  7296. >Not for long, but you hesitate.
  7297. "... yes."
  7298. >You don't want to die.
  7299. >She inclines her head.
  7300. >"In two days then, just before the new ponies arrive. The master will want to advertise. Until then you should rest. It shall be..."
  7301. >You could almost imagine she shudders.
  7302. >"... it shall be a trying experience."
  7303. >Bitch.
  7304. >"When it happens... close your eyes and think of Equestria.
  7305. >"Try to remember happier days.
  7306. >"Remember your friend and the time you two had together."
  7307. "I'll be fine."
  7308. >Octavia closes her eyes and sighs.
  7309. >"I hope so," she whispers. "There will be a great many humans waiting their turn and they will not be kind. The kinds these events attract are not the sort to be gentle.
  7310. >"The last time a mare agreed to this..."
  7311. >She shakes her head.
  7312. >"You did not see what they did to Silver Spoon, did you."
  7313. "N-no."
  7314. >You hadn't watched.
  7315. >You were busy.
  7316. >You were doing your job.
  7317. >You...
  7318. "It.. can't be that bad."
  7319. >You don't want to know what they did with her.
  7320. >It can't be as bad as you think.
  7321. >You'll be fine!
  7322. >She...
  7323. "Maybe... No, I'll wait. I won't do it. Not yet."
  7324. >It can't be *that* bad, but that's still bad enough.
  7325. >"Your beating for missing the first week was light. He didn't even bruise you - it was barely more than a playful spanking."
  7326. >Your rump says otherwise.
  7327. >"I have seen Master Sterling order far worse - you allow your *own customers* as of late to do worse - but the next week?
  7328. >"You know the punishment. There is no room for leniency with that. You receive no food until you make your quota.
  7329. >"As I said, I do not believe you would survive what these men would do to you after that."
  7330. "Silver waited."
  7331. >"She was stronger than you."
  7332. "I... I could do it on the first day."
  7333. >That wouldn't be so bad, would it?
  7334. >You'd be hungry, but... that's all... right?
  7335. >"You could."
  7336. "I mean... there are some mares who enjoy it!"
  7337. >"And I hope you have noticed none of them are with us anymore."
  7338. "Some of the human women are!"
  7339. >"Angela and Tina? I don't think those two are quite sane."
  7340. >Octavia sighs angrily and tosses her mane.
  7341. >"I suppose if you do not want to submit to this, you don't have to.
  7342. >"It's not mandatory - but I'm afraid I just don't see any other way. You do want to live, don't you?"
  7343. "I said I did! I don't want to die!"
  7344. >"In two days, then?"
  7345. >You... nod.
  7346. >"I'll notify Master Sterling."
  7347. >It can't be that bad.
  7348. >It can't.
  7349. >Not worse than dying.
  7351. >Between the sheets there is absolute heaven.
  7352. >Except...
  7353. >Wait, wasn't Lauren here?
  7354. >No...
  7355. >Well, yes. *Was*.
  7356. >She left.
  7357. >Crazy woman.
  7358. >How late is it?
  7359. >You open your eyes and sit up - or close enough.
  7360. >Still feels too damn early, but the sun's streaming through the window nice and bright.
  7361. >Midmorning, then.
  7362. >Around 10.
  7363. >Shit, since when could you tell what time it was just by the sun?
  7364. >You need to get up.
  7365. >Got to start looking into your options, what you can sell and what kind of money you can get for it.
  7366. >Or who.
  7367. >Deliveries are going to start arriving soon and you need to be able to pay for them.
  7368. >But first...
  7369. >Pants.
  7370. >You need pants.
  7371. >And then...
  7372. >A few minutes and approximately dressed later, you bounce down the stairs and into the kitchen.
  7373. >You're hoping Roma left you something and you aren't disappointed.
  7374. >Cold bacon never tasted better.
  7375. >You could take it into the den, eat while working.
  7376. >Did it all the time at your old job.
  7377. >Had to.
  7378. >But...
  7379. >Well, you could.
  7380. >And it's too cold to sit outside on the porch.
  7381. >Buuuuuut...
  7382. >You compromise with yourself and carry the plate into the dining room - and the big window facing out the rear.
  7383. >Not very productive, but not too cold either.
  7384. >It's no watching the sunrise or anything, but there's something pleasant about it.
  7385. >Not a great view, you have to admit.
  7386. >The fields are bare, the ground a muddy mess from yesterday's rain.
  7387. >Sky's still a dull, winter grey.
  7388. >But...
  7389. >... well...
  7390. >Maybe the view on the other side of the house would be better. Brighter, at least. Sun's that way.
  7391. >But this is what you got.
  7392. >And, more importantly, it's good enough.
  7393. >Calming.
  7394. >You munch on another strip of cold bacon, taking your time.
  7395. >Bit by bit.
  7396. >On the last bite when you realize you aren't alone.
  7397. >You've never been alone.
  7398. >You hold out the plate to Apple Bloom.
  7399. >The mare barely glances over before wordlessly taking a bit of sliced apple in her mouth.
  7400. >You set the plate down on the table between you.
  7401. "I'm... well..."
  7402. >Yeah...
  7403. >"Ah... Ah want..."
  7404. >Yeah.
  7405. >It's one of those conversations.
  7406. >The kind that don't happen.
  7407. >And you think you're both okay with that.
  7408. >You aren't ready for it yet.
  7409. >It's not so awkward, just sitting in silence and staring out at the grey landscape and even greyer sky.
  7410. >Almost comforting, really.
  7411. >Being with your - with Apple Bloom.
  7412. >Even after what you did to her and what you might still have to do.
  7413. >What she decides.
  7414. >But that's not today.
  7415. >Today, you're sharing your cold breakfast with her in silence, and that's okay.
  7416. >For today.
  7417. >For now.
  7418. >It's -
  7419. >"Don't sell me."
  7420. "'kay."
  7422. >Before you'd gone downstairs, you'd changed your mind again an' again an' again.
  7423. >Thought it over from every angle, from every way.
  7424. >If you go, AJ'll never find you.
  7425. >But she's prolly dead.
  7426. >If she ain't, she's not comin' anyhow.
  7427. >Sweetie, though...
  7428. >She came here *just for you* - an' Scootaloo - an' you can't run away from that!
  7429. >But then you remember how things went with your other friend an' wonder if maybe you should.
  7430. >An' on the one hoof, you've done all you can here.
  7431. >They don't need you.
  7432. >He don't need you.
  7433. >Others might.
  7434. >Letters reminded you of that.
  7435. >Of what you used to do, how many you used to help.
  7436. >How it made you feel.
  7437. >You could do more good if you go.
  7438. >A tiny, little cynical voice inside says you just want... more.
  7439. >The ponies here don't appreciate you.
  7440. >*He* don't appreciate you.
  7441. >Another voice says they do an' you're just too stupid to notice.
  7442. >Yet another says you'll just disappoint more folks if you go.
  7443. >Better to stay where you are, where people know how worthless you are.
  7444. >But that's all the more reason to stay, ain't it?
  7445. >To make it up to 'em all. To be better.
  7446. >To make *them* better.
  7447. >If they ain't back to normal, if *you* ain't, then your job ain't done, is it?
  7448. >But it ain't your job.
  7449. >But -
  7450. >It don't matter.
  7451. >Lookin' at the good, lookin' at the bad, tryin' to find reasons one way or another.
  7452. >Thinkin' of your future, thinkin' of your foal... tryin' to imagine everything you can.
  7453. >Don't matter.
  7454. >You don't...
  7455. "I don't wanna go."
  7456. >"I said 'kay."
  7457. >Maybe you're scared of change, maybe you're just too afraid to hope.
  7458. >No one'd blame you if you were.
  7459. >It'd be reasonable, all things considered.
  7460. "I..."
  7461. >"Here, have some more."
  7462. >Yeah.
  7463. >You don't know what to say anyway.
  7464. >What your reasonin' is. How to explain the way you feel.
  7465. >Just that...
  7466. >"I thought you didn't like apples?"
  7467. "Huh...?"
  7468. >Oh.
  7469. >OH.
  7470. >"I always thought it was funny, considering your name and all, but..."
  7471. >There's a sliced apple on the plate 'tween you. Most've one, anyhow.
  7472. >You can still taste it.
  7473. >"You can have the toast if you want. I'm happy with just the bacon."
  7474. >Tart.
  7475. >More tart than you're used to.
  7476. >He's -
  7477. >He's tryin' not to laugh at you.
  7478. >Can't even imagine the look on your own face right now.
  7479. >Haven't had an apple since... you don't know.
  7480. >Don't know when you stopped likin' 'em, when you started refusin' an' givin' 'em to the others.
  7481. >Can't even remember the why, just that...
  7482. >You lick your lips.
  7483. >It tastes like... like...
  7484. "Home."
  7485. >"What?"
  7486. "This is my home now. I don't want to go anywhere else."
  7487. >"I could... find you a better home...?"
  7488. >You shake your head.
  7489. "Home's where your family is."
  7490. >"I just mean... you don't seem happy here, Apple Bloom."
  7491. "Home ain't always a perfect place. Family ain't always your favorite people. Don't mean it ain't home."
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