ponk

Staying over at Pinkie's

Nov 19th, 2016
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  1. Premise:
  2. >"You know, it's a shame you have to go home so early."
  3. "We have to Pinkie, the date is over."
  4. >Her smile wanes a bit but she maintains it.
  5. >"But I want to spend more time with you."
  6. >Drips of rain from the sky peck at you with a dark overcast overhead.
  7. "Come on, I need to get home, it's supposed to get really cold and rainy tonight."
  8. >You begin to walk away, but Pinkie grips your shirt.
  9. >"Please, come back to my place."
  10. "Didn't you say you moved to some little house just outside town?"
  11. >"Yeah."
  12. "What's that like?"
  13. >"Just a hollowed out tree-home, like an old library my friend used to live in."
  14. "Oh?"
  15. >"It's.. It gets cold there.. The window is broken because a filly tossed a ball into it."
  16. "Well then I-"
  17. >"But I have this quilt! It's one my family made, it's been passed down for generations, I think it'll be plenty big enough for the two of us to huddle up together underneath it."
  18. "Pinkie.."
  19. >"A-and I have all these blank coloring books and crayons if you wanna do that together! Or maybe we could use my bead collection to make little bracelets for the local fillies, we could even make some for each other if you want.."
  20. "I-"
  21. >"W-what do you say? Will you spend the night with me?"
  22. >The wind blows fiercely as rain sleets against you.
  23.  
  24. What will you do?
  25.  
  26.  
  27. >Standing in the pelting rain and feeling the cold seeping into your body through your clothes, you decide to take Pinkie up on her offer.
  28. "Alright, Pinkie, let's spend some more time together. Lead the way."
  29. >The mare nods excitedly, bouncing up and down with a large grin, seemingly unfazed by the almost freezing rainfall.
  30. >"Yesss! This is great, Anon! We can stay up long, draw pictures for each other and drink hot chocolate."
  31. >You nod at Pinkie, gently but firmly pushing her to move forward to get out from under this weather as fast as possible.
  32. >"Well... provided I can get a fire going. It gets a little harder sometimes when it's this wet, you know..."
  33. "I'm sure we'll be able to work something out, Pinkie."
  34. >Walking next to the pony and pushing against the fierce wind blowing in your face, the prospect of a hollowed-out tree with nothing to shield you from the elements and the possibility of no working fireplace sends a shiver through your body.
  35. >Truth be told, you're really not in the mood to spend the better part of the evening huddled up with Pinkie, fighting tooth and nail just to get - and stay - dry and warm.
  36. >So why are you following her right now?
  37. >Is it concern?
  38. >Pity?
  39. >Maybe even a bit of curiosity?
  40. >"There it is!" the mare next to you exclaims, ripping you out of your thoughts and back into the cold, shivering reality of the rainy autumn night.
  41. >Following her outstretched hoof, you spot a great oak on the side of the road through the grey screen of the storm.
  42. "That's it?"
  43. >"Yep!"
  44. >Pinkie trots towards the tree, quickly stepping around and out of your field of view.
  45. >You stay behind, letting your eyes wander up and down what is apparently her home.
  46. >It's a tree alright, big, massive and probably hundreds of years old.
  47. >The thick part near the ground is probably three or four meters in diameter, and the crown is a vast cobweb of branches; stripped of their leaves by the advancing fall and a thick maze of black reliefs against the dark sky.
  48. >Despite its colossal image, the massive thing looks uninviting; a cold, dead corpse of something that was once living and is now slowly being eroded by the advancing time.
  49. >The thick, cracked bark is shimmering wet with the rain, catching the occasional glimpse of stray light from the outskirts of town.
  50. >You can't think of anyone who would - let alone could - live in this.
  51. >"Come around, Anon. Get inside and out of the rain."
  52. >Pinkie's yell makes its way around the tree, almost drowned out by the crushing rainfall and the howling of the wind in your ears.
  53. >Following her voice, you make your way along the trunk until you find a small opening in the form of a cut-out piece of bark.
  54. >A smiling pony is leaning out of the hole, gesturing you to move inside.
  55. >Bending down, you wedge yourself through the opening, careful not to slip and fall face first into the muddy ground.
  56. >Once inside, you hear Pinkie pull the piece of wood shut with a muffled thud.
  57. >You are greeted by nothing but darkness and the overwhelming smell of wet, rotting wood.
  58. >This isn't a home.
  59. >This is a carcass, left to itself and the elements a long time ago.
  60. >And yet here you are.
  61. "Pinkie...", you exhale, the reality of her living situating hitting you like a bucket of cold water.
  62. >"Y-yes, Anon?"
  63. "What is this?"
  64. >"It's my home."
  65. >You can't quite see the mare in the darkness, but you can make out her general form moving back from the door and towards the opposing wall.
  66. "THIS is your home?"
  67. >You fail to keep the undertone out of your voice.
  68. >"Yes", comes the reply; a bit more forceful this time.
  69. >"I know it's not much, but it's all I got."
  70. >All she's got...
  71. >"Now, if I could just..."
  72. >A spark of light bursts from the spot Pinkie is standing in, immediately snuffed out by the cold, damp surroundings.
  73. >"...light this damn..."
  74. >Another flash dances through the black, lost like its predecessor to the endless void inside the dead tree.
  75. >"...fireplace!"
  76. >A forceful clash of what you realize is a pair of sharp rocks in Pinkie's hooves echoes though the trunk, drawing with it another spark of fire.
  77. >This one catches, falling into place on a carefully prepared nest of dry leaves and small branches and is immediately nursed by the mare with a series of careful, life-giving breaths.
  78. >Slowly and steadily, the flames grow into a fire, filling up the inside of the tree with orange light and long, flickering shadows on the walls.
  79. >Looking around, you take in the sensations.
  80. >The dimensions of the place are about what you'd expect from the outside, giving you and Pinkie enough room to stand and move around without having to constantly step out of each others way.
  81. >Looking up, you see a high ceiling way up in the upper part of the trunk.
  82. >As Pinkie had described, a broken window in the form of another cut-out with a few pieces of thick, shattered glass is situated a little up the wall, thankfully looking out into the direction of the wind and not channeling it inside.
  83. >The floor is clean, and you can clearly see Pinkies things spread out in the corners.
  84. >A small sleeping area is covered with a few pillows and the large thick blanked Pinkie had told you about.
  85. >An opened coloring book is lying on top of it, a crudely-drawn picture of what appears to be Pinkie Pie surrounded by other ponies on the latest page.
  86. >With light and - finally - a little warmth radiating from the fire, the place is beginning to feel less like a tomb and more like an actual room someone could live in.
  87. >Leave it to Pinkie to spread life and light wherever she chooses to go.
  88. >Still...
  89. >"Anon, you're shivering. Let's get you out of these clothes and under the blankets."
  90. >Looking down on your soaked jacket and pants, you quickly agree with the mare, stripping off as much as you feel comfortable letting go of and sitting down on Pinkie's impromptu bedroom-area.
  91. >"Here you go", she comments, dragging her blanket over your body.
  92. "Thanks, Pinkie."
  93. >"No problem. And welcome to my home", she adds, grinning at you while slowly shimmying her way under the covers.
  94. "Thanks for having me."
  95. >You lift your arm slightly, allowing the soft, warm and surprisingly dry mare to stretch out over your thighs.
  96. >And with Pinkie's body heat slowly creeping up and bringing warmth back into your body, you can't help but feel a certain coziness to your situation.
  97. >Watching the crackling fire and listening to the storm crashing around the three outside, you settle deeper into the covers with Pinkie and slowly start to relax.
  98.  
  99. >You don't know how long it's been since you and Pinkie entered her home, but it had to be at least an hour.
  100. >Judging by the sound, the downpour is still raging outside, accompanied by the occasional rumblings and flashes of light bursting through the high window.
  101. >After being warmed up by the fire and each others body heat for a while, the two of you had begun talking.
  102. >Most of it was small talk accompanied by random anecdotes, helping you to get to know each other a little more as well as pass the time until the storm died down.
  103. >In truth, you still don't know why you decided to follow Pinkie today, but being here now, you won't be able to leave until the weather changes.
  104. >The pony is currently sprawled out on her belly next to you, happily telling you of her friends' shenanigans during the last Grand Galloping Gala.
  105. >You'd absentmindedly begun stroking her fur a while back, only realizing what you did a few minutes later.
  106. >You were a little awkward about it at first, but judging by the mare's relaxed expression and occasional sighs, you doubt she minds.
  107. >"...and then Rainbow Dash drew a super thick booty with Princes Celestia's cutie mark on the bathroom stall. It was suuuper funny, but Twilight was kind of mad", she giggles, a curl of her brightly colored mane bouncing with the motion.
  108. >You chuckle as Pinkie finishes her story of what sounds like a great evening tied off with a hint of vandalism.
  109. "Sounds like you guys know how to have a good time, huh?"
  110. >"You betcha!"
  111. >After recovering from your small fit of giggling, both you and Pinkie quiet down again.
  112. >For a few minutes, the air is filled with nothing but the sound of the rain hitting the outside of the tree and the occasional crack of wood from the fire.
  113. >Deciding now might be as good a time as any to breach the subject, you speak up again.
  114. "So Pinkie..."
  115. >"Hmm?"
  116. "You know, I have to ask. Comfy as it may or may not be, why exactly are you living in here? I mean didn't you use to live at SCC?"
  117. >"Oh", comes the toneless reply.
  118. >"That."
  119. "I mean, I guess it's okay if you don't want to talk about it. But it's kind of hard to ignore."
  120. >Letting her eyes wander around the room, Pinkie slowly nods.
  121. >"I guess it is..."
  122. >The mood in your fortress against the thunderstorm changes.
  123. >It feels like the flames of the fire are growing a little dimmer; a little colder, and the blackness of the outside world is fighting to push back against your save haven, trying to retake its rightful place.
  124. >The earlier coziness is replaced by a more serious air, accentuated by Pinkie getting up and shifting her weight to sit straight on her hind legs, facing you.
  125. >An almost vanishing hint of sadness is written on her face, thrown into stark relief by the shadows drawn from the dying flames.
  126. >Also, you can make out something else in her expression, something deeper and much more powerful.
  127. >The painful memories of past mistakes.
  128. >"I was living with Mr. and Mrs. Cake", she begins, doing her hardest to hider her face and not look you in the eyes.
  129. >Setting her sight down on her hooves, Pinkie continues.
  130. >"They were very nice to me. I guess I've been living with them for about... five years."
  131. >Her blue eyes sparkle with wetness when she blinks, catching the slanting light of the dying embers.
  132. >"I never realized how long it was..."
  133. "It's okay, Pinkie."
  134. >You reach out, gently scratching behind her ear for a few seconds.
  135. "And then what?"
  136. >You try to be as noninvasive as possible in your questioning, giving Pinkie the room to continue with her story on her own terms, yet assuring her of your willingness to listen and support for her in recounting her tale.
  137. >"I guess the years just went by somehow. 'It's a basic property of life', Twilight told me once. 'Every living thing moves forward in some way or another. Stagnation is death.'"
  138. >The mare nods slowly, more to herself than to you.
  139. >"And before I knew, the two most beautiful souls I've ever had the joy to meet came into my life."
  140. "They had children?" you ask, recalling the faint memory of a story of childbirth in Sugar Cube Corner.
  141. >"Two. A colt and a little filly."
  142. >The memory alone is enough to bring a grin to Pinkie's face, the thought of the two little ponies apparently filling her up with warmth and the strength to continue talking despite her quickly watering eyes.
  143. >"It was hard at first, but I managed to help out with the kids. They helped me grow up by helping them grow up", she explains, her eyes unaffected by the unwavering smile on her lips.
  144. >Letting her last words hang in the air for a bit, you can see that Pinkie is quickly becoming the loser in her ongoing battle against her tears.
  145. >A few sparkling droplets make their way from the corners of her eyes, rolling down and leaving streaks of wetness in the soft fur of her cheeks.
  146. >"A-and then..."
  147. >Pressing the words out while trying not to sob, the mare finally looks up to you.
  148. >"...t-then I messed up."
  149. >A cold knot forms in your stomach, as a dark and traitorous little thought worms its way into your mind, clawing at your brain with sharp edges.
  150. "Did... did something happen to them?"
  151. >Pinkie is only able to nod, with heavy sobs and chokes now the only things escaping her throat.
  152. >Despite the heart-shattering display of pain in front of you, you trust your instinct not to fall forward and hug her.
  153. >This is her story, and she deserves a chance to get to the end of it undisturbed.
  154. >Something tells you that Pinkie doesn't want comfort right now, regardless of how much she's looking like she needs it.
  155. >And after a few more moments, the mare is able to bite down her sobs again and hoarsely continues speaking in an almost whispering voice.
  156. >"They're alright now, mind you, so it's not like they're..."
  157. >She lets the silence speak for itself, unable to finish the sentence.
  158. >"But it was my fault. I messed up, and because of that, two wonderful sparks of light almost..."
  159. >Taking a deep, shuddering breath and drawing air back into her lungs, Pinkie is able to calm down.
  160. >"And that's what happened", she finishes with a rather sudden stop, clearly not prepare to uncover any more details about whatever ungodly ordeal she went through.
  161. >"The Cakes didn't want me afterwards, and I didn't want to stay there either."
  162. "What about home? The rock farm. You seemed to be quite nostalgic when you told me about it."
  163. >"I don't want to go back there either", Pinkie smiles sadly, her eyes reddened by the stream of tears.
  164. >"I couldn't. I wouldn't be able to explain to them."
  165. >You let your sight wander around the room again, the light now almost completely drained from it, with a few glowing embers now all that remains from the fireplace.
  166. "But... this?"
  167. >Pinkie picks up the coloring book that had been lying next to you on the blanket all this time, gently stroking the crayon drawing with one of her hooves.
  168. >Looking closer, you see the figures around the pink stick figure of a mare actually resemble two smaller ponies, one with a tiny horn on its head and one with the equally small wings of a pegasus.
  169. >"It feels like this is what I'd deserve."
  170. >Walking through the deserted streets of Ponyville's outskirts back towards your home, you pull your jacket tighter around you to fight the cold of the early morning.
  171. >A low autumn sun is hanging deep over the horizon, penetrating the misty fog with its harsh white light.
  172. >The storm had passed sometime during the night, leaving behind only traces of its fierce assault on the town in the form of loose branches and the occasional toppled-over mailbox.
  173. >Everything is shimmering with the residual wetness of the pelting rainfall and a thick, hazy fog is enveloping the houses and parks.
  174. >You think back to the evening with Pinkie.
  175. >Sometime during the night, after her tear-filled episode of remembrance, the two of you had fallen asleep under her heavy quilt, both too emotionally drained to stay awake any longer.
  176. >And ever though the look she'd allowed you at the enormous baggage she chose to carry goes beyond the boundary of what you’d consider a regular date, you somehow feel closer to the mare.
  177. >Together with her story, she had told you a piece of herself and invited you to see a piece of her soul, no matter how tainted by guilt and shame it may have been.
  178. >You respect her for that, and for better or worse, it helped you understand why Pinkie chose to live like she does.
  179. >Waking up at sunrise, you had quickly said your goodbyes to leave for your own home.
  180. >But you came to a decision.
  181. >The decision of wanting to find out more about Pinkie, her friends and her past, however dark that particular abyss might become.
  182. >In inviting you to step into her world like that, she’d cast a beacon of hope, a lighthouse on the cliffs to help you find your way to her in the black of the sea, to guide her off of whatever godforsaken reality her barge had run afoul on.
  183. >Or at least that’s what you’d like to think.
  184. >Right now however, the foremost things on your mind are your own home, your shower, a hearty breakfast and a set of dry clothes.
  185. >Even though your jacket and pants more or less dried during the night, the cold and damp of the tree still cling to you like a cloying odor of rot and decay.
  186. >You can’t wait to take nice hot shower and finally, truly warm yourself up again.
  187. >A few more minutes of stalking through the dead streets later, you step through the entrance of your house at last, pulling the heavy door closed behind you with a silent click.
  188. >You cast off your jacket and jeans, throwing them onto the slowly growing pile of laundry you’ll have to address soon.
  189. >Scampering into the bathroom, you start to fiddle with the knobs of your shower, turning them up as far as they go and stepping under the stream of almost scalding hot water.
  190. >A small sigh escapes your lips.
  191. >And after standing motionlessly for a few minutes, letting the warmth envelop you and fog up the mirrors, you finally summon up the mental and physical strength to continue going through the rest of your morning routine.
  192.  
  193. >It’s early afternoon as you knock on the door to Twilight’s castle, the dull sound feeling hilariously unfit to attract anyone’s attention inside the behemoth of a residence stretching into the sky before you.
  194. >Its crystalline finish sparkles in the cold sun, catching rays of light and refracting them in a million different colors, giving the entire structure an almost surreal touch of luminescence.
  195. >You knock again, slightly more forceful this time, in a futile attempt to rouse the resident’s attention and almost startle when the door is actually pulled back to reveal a mare looking at you with a pair of bright purple eyes.
  196. >"Anon? What a pleasant surprise."
  197. "Hey, Twilight, do you have a moment? I’d like to talk to you a bit."
  198. >"Sure, come on in!" the mare replies with a smile.
  199. >"I’ll have Spike put on some water for tea. It’s about time for my break anyway."
  200.  
  201. >"What about Pinkie Pie?" Twilight asks, a delicate teacup wrapped in the signature glow of her magical aura floating in the air before her.
  202. "Well... you do know where she lives, right?"
  203. >Twilight nods with her eyes closed.
  204. >"I know. I figured it would be about this, Anon. And before we go into this subject, let me say that Pinkie is my friend. I will try and help you any way I can, but I will not betray her trust in the process."
  205. "Fair enough", you state, taking a sip of your own tea as well.
  206. >Letting the rich and soothing flavor bloom on your tongue, you mentally try out a few ways to word your sentences in a way best reflecting your concerns.
  207. >After a few moments of silence, which the purple unicorn in the armchair across from you seems to devote to thoroughly enjoying her hot beverage, you ask your first question.
  208. "How did she hollow that giant thing out anyway?"
  209. >"She didn’t. At least I don’t think so. You can never be sure with that mare, but as far as I know, that tree has been like that for a very long time."
  210. "Really?"
  211. >Twilight nods, putting one of her hooves on her chin in thought.
  212. >"I seem to recall reading a book on some local folklore a while back. I’m not totally positive, but I think there was some mention of an elaborate home in the trunk of a giant oak tree on the edge of the forest in there. Whoever carved it must have done so some time ago."
  213. "And what, ponies just make their home there from time to time now whenever it’s convenient?"
  214. >Your question carries a note of sarcasm, the notion of Pinkie’s rotting shelter being the stuff of local fairytales too much to believe.
  215. >"Not really. Truth be told, I haven’t met anyone who even know it existed before Pinkie Pie found it; however that happened. It’s not exactly obvious and the door and window are carved out in a way that isn’t too visible if one’s not looking to find them."
  216. "Hm", you exhale, prompting the mare to go on with a small gesture.
  217. >"And even if ponies knew, I doubt they’d care very much. Despite the obvious craftsmanship involved, it’s not remarkable in any way. Remember, making your home in a tree isn’t that uncommon here. Think about my old place."
  218. >Twilight’s smile falters a bit at the realization of what she just said, the pain of losing her home obviously not yet fully faded.
  219. >Her gaze set to somewhere far away, you can see the mare’s consciousness drifting back to her former library, the sensations and images flooding back to her in a searing torrent threatening to spill over.
  220. "Now that was a remarkable tree home, huh?" you comment while refilling your teacup, giving her a moment to try and find her way back out of the labyrinths of her memories on her own.
  221. >A few seconds pass, and after blinking once, her brightly colored irises focus back on you and the world around her.
  222. >"It sure was..." she heavily breathes.
  223. >After letting your eyes wander around the room for a bit, you feel Twilight is ready to continue the conversation.
  224. "So, assuming Pinkie just found out about it at some point through one of her ways, that still doesn’t explain why she lives there now. I know she can’t live at SCC anymore, and she told me she was a little uneasy going back home to the rock farm, but she’s got you guys right? Why didn’t you take her in?"
  225. >"You don’t think we tried? Everyone pleaded with her to come stay with them. I mean look at how huge this place is."
  226. >Twilight gestures to the rows upon rows of bookshelves stretching up to the high ceiling around the room you’re in with a wide motion.
  227. >"She could have had her own room, her own floor for all I care. Applejack even offered to build her a new house somewhere around the orchard."
  228. >Collecting herself again, the mare continues, albeit in a much quieter voice than before.
  229. >"You know how stubborn Pinkie Pie can be. She didn’t want to come live with any of us, and all of Celestia’s royal army wouldn’t have been able to move her. She wants to stay in that abomination of a tree to act out her desire of self-punishment. There’s nothing we can do!"
  230. >Twilight looks down, sadness now clearly written on her face.
  231. >"At least that’s what we told ourselves. Maybe we’re bad friends after all..." she whispers.
  232. >Having encountered the steely resolve of the pink mare yourself a few times, a part of you can’t fault Twilight for eventually giving in and letting her do as she pleased.
  233. >There’s another part however, a deeper, darker part; a part that’s not able to yield to your sense of empathy and wants to call out Twilight and all of her friends on their abysmal display of disregard.
  234. >Five mares collectively choosing the easy path to leave a friend behind in the black miasma of guilt and self-loathing like broken inventory.
  235. "Maybe."
  236. >You can see Twilight’s eyes shining with the wetness of unshed tears before she bites down the impulse and looks back up.
  237. "But maybe there was no right way to solve the situation. I don’t know, but I do believe in the existence of no-win scenarios."
  238. >You pause, letting the silence emphasize your words.
  239. >"But this was not an unwinnable scenario?"
  240. "I doubt we’ll ever find out, Twilight."
  241. >"Can you fix it? Can you help her for us?"
  242. "I honestly don’t know."
  243. >Twilight nods, slowly getting up and out of the chair.
  244. >Trotting the few steps over to you, she places a hoof on one of your hands, looking up to you with sparkling eyes.
  245. >"Anon, I realize I have no right to ask this of you... Please bring her back to us, will you?"
  246. "I’ll do my best. And for Pinkie’s sake, I hope it’s better than you guys’."
  247. >"I can live with that", Twilight nods, the two of you sharing a moment of mutual silence before the mare speaks up again.
  248. >"Now, I think it’s time for me to get back to work. Also I want to write a letter to Princess Celestia and Princess Luna and ask for any wisdom they may be able to share on this."
  249. >You finish the last of your tea and stand up, letting Twilight gently levitate your cup back onto the table.
  250. >"Any last questions?"
  251. >You nod with a sigh, slowly beginning to walk towards the door leading to the corridor.
  252. >There’s only one question left.
  253. >The most important question of all.
  254. >The blackened, tumor-infested backbone of the matter.
  255. >The question you didn’t ask.
  256. >The question you don’t want answered.
  257. "What did she do?"
  258. >Twilight slowly shakes her head, her mane gently moving with the motion.
  259. >"Remember when I told you I can’t betray Pinkie’s trust. Not again. I couldn’t tell you."
  260. "I understand."
  261. >Twilight pauses for a moment before opening the door towards the hall.
  262. >"That being said..."
  263. >Stepping out, she lets you follow her as she slowly makes for the front door.
  264. >"I don’t know what happened either. All I know is that Pinkie was supposed to watch over the children and something bad happened. She blames herself tremendously."
  265. >After saying goodbye to Twilight and her little dragon assistant, who seemed to conveniently appear as soon as the two of you were done talking, you step back out into the brisk autumn air and slowly slouch the way home.
  266. >You’re still not sure whether you should be angrier at Twilight and her friends for abandoning their friend, but you figure throwing around accusations would only help to worsen the already precarious situation.
  267. >For now, you’ll just focus on trying to find a way to Pinkie.
  268. >The reality of her crime is still a mystery to you, Twilight’s hint only serving to confirm what you already knew or inferred.
  269. >The question remains unanswered.
  270. >A part of you is glad for that.
  271.  
  272. >A few days have passed since the night you spent over at Pinkie’s, and for the first time in a while, the looming carcass of her new home pushes itself over the horizon and into your field of view again.
  273. >Your mood immediately darkens upon seeing the tree again, which - according to Twilight - has been like this for quite a while now; a quiet and resolute reminder of when the town didn’t even stretch this close to the forebodingly black edge of the forest behind it.
  274. >Each step brings you closer to the unnatural, out of place figure, filling you with dread and the sudden impulse to just turn around and go about your business elsewhere.
  275. >But you’re also getting closer to your friend.
  276. >Pinkie Pie, in an instance of her reality-defying optimism, had taken up quarters in the twisted thing, choosing this exact place to spread her joy from.
  277. >You had chosen not to go and talk to any more of her friends as you doubt they could offer any additional insight to the story you already put together.
  278. >For you, there’s only one possible course of action.
  279. >The course towards your friend.
  280. "Yo, Pinkie!" you yell at the trunk after coming within earshot.
  281. "Are you there? It’s me, Anon."
  282. >There’s no reply as you continue to walk closer to the tree.
  283. "Pinkie?" you call out again.
  284. >"Anon?"
  285. >The carved-out plate of wood and bark serving as a door swings back, revealing the mare in question behind it, her bright and vibrant coat a stark contrast to the dull grays and browns of the surroundings.
  286. >"What are you doing here? Oh my gosh, are you coming to visit me? That’s so exciting! No one ever comes to visit me anymore."
  287. >Finally stopping in front of the mare, you gently pet the fur of her cheek, prompting a happy smile.
  288. >Her eyes look tired, the heavy bags below speaking of weeks filled with stressful days and restless nights.
  289. >No matter how much she tries to show you otherwise, you can see the circumstance slowly draining her.
  290. "What do you mean, no one visits you? What about your friends?" you ask after pulling your hand back from the softness of her coat.
  291. >"The girls are all suuuuper busy", she smiles, drawing the word out in a long, emphatic syllable.
  292. >"They try really hard, but with me living a little farther out of town, they simply don’t find time to come around that often. It’s no big deal; we still see each other regularly."
  293. "When was the last time you did anything with any of them?"
  294. >"Hmm..." Pinkie looks sideward thoughtfully.
  295. >"A couple of weeks maybe? Guess it has been a little while, come to think of it."
  296. >Weeks?
  297. >They left her alone like this for weeks?
  298. >Despite your resolution to not drag accusations into this, you can feel your fists tightening in a touch of anger.
  299. >Maybe friendship is no longer magic when one of your friends is trying to grind herself down in a spiral of self-hate and frustration.
  300. >Granted, you too missed her predicament until the mare herself reached out to you in what you still believe was a plea for help.
  301. >You don’t know Pinkie all too well yourself, but you’d like to think of the two of you as friends.
  302. >The date you went on, while not exactly a date in the romantic sense of the word, was a mutual effort to get to know each other better and show one another a bit of the worlds you live in.
  303. >And the world she lives in is not something you can ignore, now that you know of it.
  304. >You didn’t see it before and that’s your guilt to carry, but the other mares - all of them - chose to forget about it despite knowing the cold reality of the matter.
  305. >"So what brings you here?" Pinkie asks with her head slanted, bringing you out of your thoughts with a slight startle.
  306. "I was wondering if you’d like to do something together again."
  307. >Your sudden offer surprises the mare who instinctively takes a step back towards her door.
  308. >"What, like right now?"
  309. "Yeah, why not? I was thinking we could go hang out at my place this time and see how it goes from there. Maybe get some food or play some games. Or we could just chill in front of the fireplace like we did back here last time."
  310. >Pinkie looks back toward her tree.
  311. >"I don’t know..."
  312. "Come on. If you don’t like it or you have enough, I’ll just bring you back home. I’m just trying to repay the hospitality."
  313. >"Can I... can I bring my crayons and coloring books? I don’t like leaving them alone for too long."
  314. "Sure. Maybe you can show me some of your drawings."
  315. >Pinkie nods, turning around and vanishing back inside the trunk.
  316. "Just give me a minute to get my stuff then."
  317.  
  318. >A few minutes later, you and Pinkie make your way back to your place, a pair of worn saddlebags thrown over the mare’s back.
  319. "I’m starting to realize you’ve never actually seen my place, have you?"
  320. >"Nope", Pinkie shakes her head.
  321. >"Rainbow told me about it once though. She said it’s a nice place and that your couch is super comfortable."
  322. "Well, she should know, she spent an entire afternoon napping on it. Sometimes I wonder how that mare can hold a steady job, what with her being as lazy as she is."
  323. >"Don’t be mean", Pinkie replies.
  324. >"Dashie works really hard as a weather pony. They have these crazy shifts and sometimes they have to work the nights too. If she seems tired, it’s just because she pushes herself too much."
  325. >You look down at the mare trotting beside you, her blue eyes finding your own with a look you’re not entirely sure how to place.
  326. >"It’s hard for her letting anyone down, so she’s been known to work herself too hard to come through for her friends. She fails to see her limits sometimes."
  327. "I guess being the Element of Loyalty’s got its downsides, huh?"
  328. >"I wouldn’t call it downsides, but it’s probably not as much smooth sailing as other ponies like to think."
  329. >You nod thoughtfully, Pinkie’s ability to understand and show compassion for her friends once again amazing you.
  330. >Like Rainbow’s Loyalty, her Element goes far above and beyond what its name and first impression would suggest, demanding copious amounts of empathy, regard and insight into the personalities and needs of other ponies.
  331. >It’s not just about throwing parties for everyone, it’s about understanding their love, their pain, their struggles, and being there for them as the one fixed star in the ever-revolving flux of the sparkling sky of the night.
  332. >Regardless of one’s own condition.
  333. "What about Laughter?"
  334. >"What about it?"
  335. "Any downsides to the job?"
  336. >"None that I’d know of", Pinkie brightly grins at you.
  337. "Well, here we are", you comment as you stop in front of the door to your house with Pinkie trailing behind you.
  338. >Nothing fancy by any means, but it’s sturdy and provides all the necessary comforts of home.
  339. >Comforts you can’t believe Pinkie is not missing in some ways at least.
  340. >You’re not trying to play any deeper game right now, but you want to invite the mare into your home and hopefully be able to spoil her a little bit with things she can’t really get to right now.
  341. >If she volunteers any more information about her story, you will gladly accept and listen to it, and if she asks for your help, you will give it to her.
  342. >But you won’t pelt her with questions or advice unasked like - you’re pretty sure - she’s already been subjected to.
  343. >"Wow, it’s pretty roomy!"
  344. >You close the door behind Pinkie and gently usher her down the hallway and into the living room, stripping off your jacket and leaving it on a hanger in the process.
  345. "Yeah, I got pretty lucky with it. You wouldn’t believe how cramped some of the pony housing can be for a human."
  346. >"I can imagine", Pinkie giggles.
  347. "Just put your bags down wherever and find somewhere to sit. I’ll go light the fireplace and then we’ll talk about food."
  348. >Following your instructions, the mare sets down her saddlebag and carefully begins taking out her books and drawing utensils, neatly and lovingly placing piece by piece on your living room table.
  349. >You’ve begun to realize how much of an emotional value these simple volumes filled with random scribbles and pictures hold to her.
  350. >Like sacred tomes filled with ancient wisdoms, Pinkie aligns them with small nudges, occasionally opening up a page and carefully studying its contents.
  351. >Out of everything she could have temporarily saved from the decaying air of the tree today, she chose these, tiredly smiling at the doodles and letters like the proud owner of a battlefield relic, admiring its beauty and at the same time knowing of the price it cost someone dear.
  352. >You light the fire with a few scraps of old newspaper, letting its light replace the last rays of the afternoon sunshine falling through your windows.
  353. >After putting on some nondescript background music on your record player, you walk back over and sit beside Pinkie, enjoying the soft tunes and melodies for a few minutes while watching the mare order her collection.
  354. >"We made this one together, you know", she says, as she caressingly touches a crayon drawing of Twilight’s castle with her hoof.
  355. >"I did the line work and they colored it."
  356. >She passes the book to you and - careful not to accidentally bend some edges - you turn a few pages to find more and more imagery of Pinkie’s daily life as a caretaker, some of it drawn close to reality and some more abstract, with lengths stretched and bent and surreal coloring schemes warping into one another.
  357. >Sugar Cube Corner under a starry sky.
  358. >A pony sitting on a bench.
  359. >Pinkie in the kitchen, wearing a chef’s hat bigger than her body.
  360. >You’re not sure if that one’s the result of a child’s overactive imagination or just plain Pinkie-silliness - both seem plausible.
  361. >You stop at the image of a suspiciously human-looking stick figure.
  362. >"Yep, that’s you."
  363. "Really?"
  364. >"We saw you once on a trip to the market. They wouldn’t stop looking at you the entire time, and when we drew afterwards they only wanted to draw you. They’d never even seen a minotaur before."
  365. "That’s funny. Certainly the first time someone’s willing to waste artistic talent on me", you grin as you give the coloring book back to Pinkie.
  366. "So all of these are from your time with the kids?"
  367. >"Yep. I always liked to draw and ended up keeping a diary of sorts with drawn impressions of my day. I’d take scenes and images that I felt were noteworthy and sketched them down in these books. They kind of picked up on it and we started working together for most of these."
  368. >Pinkie closes the book and sets it back down on its place among the others.
  369. "I’m back to continuing alone now though..."
  370. >Not really sure how to respond, you opt to slightly scratch her fur again.
  371. "I’m sorry."
  372. >"Don’t be. It’s alright, I have no one else to blame but myself. Now..."
  373. >Pinkie’s face subtly changes, memories and regret apparently replaced with another, baser instinct as her stomach quietly grumbles.
  374. >"You said something about food?"
  375. "Hmh", you nod, a little disappointed that the moment of deepening your bond has ended.
  376. >Since your own hunger is starting to make itself known too though, you’re not entirely against the idea of picking up the subject again after you eat.
  377. "I was thinking pizza? It’s Friday night after all."
  378. >"What’s that got to do with anything?" Pinkie asks with a slightly confused smile.
  379. "Friday night is pizza night at Joe’s. Half off and free extra cheese."
  380. >"Sounds good to me then."
  381.  
  382. >Not wanting to deal with the chance of a certain yellow-haired pegasus with a knack for arriving with your pizza upside down or inside out to be assigned as your delivery mare again, you opt to walk the short distance from your house to the pizza place.
  383. >Pinkie is trotting beside you, the prospect of hot, delicious food lifting both your spirits.
  384. >"So what toppings are we getting?"
  385. "I’m not really sure yet. What do you like? We’ll probably buy two large pies."
  386. >"Hmm..."
  387. >Your friend gives the question some serious thought, the choice of what topping to order apparently very important to her.
  388. >"What about mushrooms?"
  389. "I could do mushrooms, yeah."
  390. >"And onions?"
  391. "Okay."
  392. >"Can we get pineapple?"
  393. >Looking down at her, you internally scowl at the thought of ruining your delicious pizza with the disgustingly sweet fruit.
  394. >Despite your best efforts, Pinkie is apparently able to read your expression.
  395. >"Okay, no pineapple. Peppers?"
  396. "I can live with that."
  397. >Stepping through the glass door of "Joe’s", the eponymous owner greets you heartily, a greasy apron wrapped around his beige-colored torso.
  398. >"Anon! I was beginning to fear you’d miss pizza night! And with company this time, eh?"
  399. "Hey Joe, this is my good friend Pinkie Pie."
  400. >Pinkie greets the grinning pony, happily placing your order while you take the chance to catch a quick rest on one of Joe’s benches.
  401. >"No problem. Give me a few, yeah?"
  402. >"Sure."
  403.  
  404. >An hour later, and Pinkie and you are back at your home, mostly done with your pizzas.
  405. >Following the meal, you had decided to stretch out in front of the fireplace a bit, letting some mellow music from your record player fill the silence.
  406. >Watching the flames lick along the charred stones at the top of your fireplace, you can hear Pinkie softly humming along with the tune, the mare herself deeply absorbed in drawing the scene of the two of you eating large, brightly colored pizza pies onto a fresh page of her diary.
  407. "Aren’t you stretching the truth a bit, Pinkie? No way they were that big."
  408. >"You have to emphasize the important bits", she replies without looking up, dotting the circular shape with red and green highlights.
  409. >"There’s no point in just drawing what you saw; you have to draw what you experienced."
  410. >She stresses the word.
  411. >"What you felt."
  412. >Not sure you’re entirely clear on the concept of her impressionism, you take another look at the colorful page.
  413. "So what did you feel when eating the pizza?"
  414. >"It was huuuge" she thoughtfully nods.
  415. >"And delicious."
  416. >Fair enough.
  417. >Seeing the mare coming to a finish, you sit up against the wall next to the chimney, the gentle warmth of the stones comfortingly radiating into your back.
  418. "Hey Pinkie?"
  419. >"Hm?"
  420. "Would you like to take a bath? I mean I’m not implying anything, but I thought maybe you’d enjoy a nice, hot soak. It’s getting pretty cold these days."
  421. >Pinkie looks at you, not sure whether accepting or refusing your offer would be the ruder choice.
  422. >"I’d like that, yes", she timidly replies.
  423.  
  424. >Turning off the knob for the hot water, you carefully dip your fingers into the freshly-drawn bath, testing the temperature for the pony standing beside you.
  425. >While a bit uneasy at first, Pinkie had quickly warmed up to the idea of a relaxing soak in your tub, the long cold of the nights spent in the tree apparently not without their effect on her.
  426. >You hope the radiating heat of the soapy water is for her body what your friendship and the hot food provided for her spirit.
  427. >The bubbles created by the soaps and lotions you added to the water reflect the low light in the room, sparkling colorful as Pinkie slowly edges closer to the water, both her hooves on the rim of the bathtub.
  428. "Temperature should be good", you tell her with an approving nod.
  429. "Just hop in and enjoy."
  430. >She hesitates, carefully surveying the steaming bath.
  431. >"Just a second, Anon."
  432. "What’s wrong?"
  433. >"I’m checking my Pinkie sense", she explains while watching the unmoving water with worrisome concentration.
  434. "Come again?"
  435. >"My Pinkie sense. It tells me about certain things, you know?"
  436. >Confused by the mare’s explanation, you shake your head chuckling.
  437. "I don’t really understand, Pinkie, no."
  438. >"Me neither", she replies with a smile, still focusing on the bath and whatever unseen sensation she’s talking about.
  439. >"I just get these..."
  440. >You can see her try out different phrasings in her mind, apparently not satisfied with quantifying the entirety of a complex, diffuse mechanism with a single expression.
  441. >"...these tells sometimes", she finally settles, still not entirely satisfied with the taste of the word.
  442. >"A specific combination of twitches, and they warn me of things that may happen."
  443. >Even though divination powers should be on the high end of the magical spectrum - even in this world - you don’t exactly doubt Pinkie to be in possession of some form of hypersensitivity to the ancient mechanisms behind reality and being able to get a small glimpse beyond the linear arrow of time that everyone else seems to be taking for granted.
  444. >You can’t place your finger on it, but it makes sense.
  445. >Pinkie being more than the sum of her parts makes sense.
  446. "So what tell are you having right now then?"
  447. >"None so far, but I’d like to be sure on this one."
  448. "Which is?"
  449. >"Whether or not there’s an alligator in the bathtub."
  450. >Thrown off for a moment, you quickly recover by checking with your hand again, pushing some bubbles aside to reassure yourself that there’s in fact nothing else in in the tub but soap and water.
  451. >Satisfied with the absence of any and all reptiles in your bathroom, you look back to her.
  452. "That can’t be happening even remotely frequent enough to warrant its own tell. Can it?"
  453. >"You’d be surprised, Anon. It’s just Gummy most of the time, but it never hurts to be sure."
  454. >Recalling Pinkie and her friends collectively walking their pets some time ago, you remember the image of a green and rather passive little animal at her side.
  455. "Right."
  456. >After a second of debating with yourself, you ask.
  457. "Come to think of it, what happened to your crocodile anyway?"
  458. >"Gummy’s an alligator, silly", Pinkie explains, and despite her smile, you’ve grown accustomed enough to the mare’s subtle clues to detect the hint of sadness playing in her eyes.
  459. >"He’s with Twilight", she says with a sigh, "because I didn’t think my current living situation would be the best for him. He needs his space, you know."
  460. >Pinkie finally puts her back leg on the rim of the tub and slowly glides into the water, a relaxed breath escaping her once only her head is sticking out.
  461. "So I guess no alligators?"
  462. >"No... That one hasn’t been used in quite some time."
  463. >This time, you clearly pick up on the note of sorrow radiating from her words.
  464. "I’m sure you’ll be able to use it again soon", you tell her while heading for the door, not wanting to intrude on her well-deserved moment of relaxation.
  465. "I’ll leave you to it then, I guess. Just take as long as you need and I’ll be over in the other room."
  466. >"Anon?"
  467. "Hm?"
  468. >"You can... I mean if you’d want to... you could stay."
  469. >A bit surprised by Pinkie’s offer, you hesitate for a second.
  470. "Would you want that?"
  471. >The mare nods slightly, the motion casting small ripples across the surface of the shimmering water and distorting Pinkie’s dim reflection.
  472. "Alright."
  473. >You walk back to the tub, sliding down on the wall next to it and sit on the floor with your back leaning against the tiles.
  474. >Pinkie dips lower into the tub, her wet mane and closed eyes now the only thing visible above the water.
  475. >Both of you sit in silence for a while, enjoying the heat seeping into your bodies and taking away the stress of the past days.
  476.  
  477. >Your mind wanders while your body slowly acclimatizes to the heat and humidity of the bathroom, the occasional ripple in the surface of the water caused by Pinkie’s slow breathing the only sound disturbing the silence.
  478. >Watching the fog creep up the hard, polished surface of the mirror and leave streaks of wetness, you think about what you could possibly do to help your friend out of her depression.
  479. >You’re sure of her condition by now, even though she’s trying her level best to display her usual, happy self to the outside world, making the rare, dark moments when the facade crumbles away all the more heartbreaking.
  480. >Maybe it’s the shameful display of failed friendship by her peers, or maybe it’s the small bit of your past self you recognize in her, but you’ve firmly decided to do everything within your power to make the pony slowly losing herself in the monochrome background of solitude and reclusion feel like she’s not alone against the torrent of the world again.
  481. >You’re still not sure how to go about your resolution though.
  482. >Will she accept your help?
  483. >Will she be able to forgive herself?
  484. >It hurts to see your friend destroy herself like this.
  485. >You’re drawn from your thoughts by the sound of splashing water as Pinkie starts sitting up in the middle of the bathtub, the oversized piece of steel and ceramic big enough for her to move around in with relative ease.
  486. >Sitting on her hind legs, her upper body rises out of the water as she slowly starts reaching towards the creams and lotions stacked along the wall with a questioning look.
  487. >"May I?"
  488. "Sure, go ahead."
  489. >Working the shampoo bottle, Pinkie begins washing her mane, the long, wet streaks of hair catching the low light of the room and shining in a bright pink.
  490. >You watch her slow movements, surprised by the amount of care, grace and dexterity that goes into her routine as she slowly straightens out the curls and works away the tangles.
  491. >"Thanks for doing this, Anon", she breaks the silence, continuing her work and hiding her face in a maze of mane and shampoo.
  492. >"I mean for everything. I know how much it can take to be there for your friends..."
  493. >She lets her words hang in the air.
  494. "I want to help you", you reply, feeling how now might be a good time to dare venture a little further into the abyss of her memories.
  495. "But for me to do that, you have to tell me a little more about what happened."
  496. >Pinkie rinses soap out of her hair, her mane now a smooth and slick curtain of brightly colored silk.
  497. >Her eyes find yours; two sparkling sapphires in a sea of rose-colored fur, and you can clearly see the fear inside them.
  498. "Please, Pinkie, you have to trust me. If you never open up to anybody, you’ll never be able to find it in you to forgive yourself."
  499. >After taking a deep, shuddering breath, Pinkie slowly exhales, nodding her head yes in the process.
  500. >"Alright, Anon. If you want to hear it, I will tell you my story", she says, her voice quiet but emphasized.
  501. >"You’re my friend and you’ve earned the right to judge for yourself. You just have to promise me one thing."
  502. >She looks to you with pleading eyes, unable to stop her voice from shivering.
  503. >"Please don’t leave me. You can hate me all you want; you can tell the whole world what a terrible disgrace I am, I don’t even care if you never want to talk to me again. Just promise me I won’t stop seeing you. I don’t think I can take another friend vanishing."
  504. >You nod, carefully cupping her cheek with one of your hands, feeling the hot tears running down her slick fur and mixing in with the water below.
  505. "I promise."
  506. >And it is here, in the slowly cooling bath, that Pinkie tells you her story.
  507.  
  508. >You are Pinkie Pie and you’re picking up groceries for your day with Pound and Pumpkin, the excited, bustling chatter of the Ponyville market enveloping you as you slowly move from stand to stand and work your way through your mental checklist of things to buy.
  509. >"That’ll be eight bits", the green-coated mare behind the wooden booth tells you while you pick up and sort four large oranges into your saddlebag.
  510. "Okie dokie", you happily agree, counting the amount of golden coins into her hoof.
  511. "I hope these will be just as good as the ones I bought last week! Those were suuuuper delicious."
  512. >"Well I do think you’ll find them satisfactory, Miss Pie", the mare smiles back at you; "they’ve arrived just this morning from Saddle Arabia. If you’d like to, I’d be happy to recommend coming back for our bi-monthly shipment of pears from Mustangia tomorrow. They’re to die for."
  513. "Oooh, that sounds yummy! I’ll be sure to check in tomorrow then."
  514. >"I’ll be looking forward to it, Miss Pie. And as always, thank you for your business."
  515. >You wave the pony goodbye as you join back into the viscous stream of traders and customers moving slowly along the market square, making for your next, very special destination.
  516. "Hiya!" you exclaim, slightly startling the sturdy pony resting on his chair behind the small market stand, the corners of his lips rising up into a smile upon recognizing you.
  517. >"Pinkie Pie!" the owner greets you, excitedly stepping around the booth to do business with you.
  518. >"I knew you’d be back around any day now! You can never stay away for too long, can you?"
  519. "What can I say?" you guiltily grin.
  520. "Your candy is the best."
  521. >"That it is."
  522. >The merchant nods sagely while assembling the various pots and cups filled to the brim with sugary deliciousness.
  523. >Candies, jelly beans, sour drops and bars of differently-colored chocolates are sorted before your eyes, the mere sight of the overwhelmingly colorful wrappers and ribbons making your mouth water.
  524. >As if reading your mind, your favorite vendor quickly unwraps two yummy-looking red treats, offering one to you with an outstretched hoof while sneaking the second into his own mouth.
  525. >"Try this one", he tells you while chewing on his piece of candy.
  526. >"I just added them to the inventory last week and they’re selling like crazy. I saved some for you, if you want them."
  527. >Happily munching on the flavorful piece of cherry goodness and letting its taste and sweetness bloom on your tongue, you can’t help the small, satisfied moan escaping your lips.
  528. "Hmmm..."
  529. >Smiling at your display of pleasure, the pony silently takes out a few more of the candies from below his stand, putting most of them into a paper bag and the rest directly into your hoof.
  530. >"On the house, for my favorite customer", he winks.
  531. >While going through more bonbons and goodies with the storeowner, you think about what would be a good treat for Pound and Pumpkin, the two foals typically rather picky when it comes to sugary surprises.
  532. >Mr. and Mrs. Cake have told you not to spoil them so much by bringing sweets with you almost every time you watched over them, but you just can’t help yourself.
  533. >Something about those children just makes you want to make them happy.
  534. >You’re aware that this is true for most of your relationships with other ponies, but somehow your desire of wanting to see them smile is even stronger for the twins.
  535. >Maybe it has something to do with how they helped you grow into a better mare by teaching you about responsibility, but then again, it might simply be because they’re just that adorable.
  536. >You’re already smiling with anticipation, picking out two small blocks of chocolate for the foals and a third one for yourself.
  537. >Today will be great.
  538. >"Ten bits", the vendor states while wrapping up your bigger-than-usual paper bag, offering it to you with a smile and a few more pieces of candy.
  539. >"Friendship prices."
  540. "You’re the best. I hope your business will begin to pick up again soon."
  541. >After paying what you owe plus a few bits extra and giving your favorite storeowner a hug he readily returns, you head towards the last stop on your route, a very specific goal in mind.
  542. >A small gift for the twins.
  543. >Again, the Cakes have told you not to overdo it with the presents, but you simply don’t feel right without at least something to hand to your two brightest stars.
  544. >Also you didn’t get them anything the last time you spent the day with them, so you should be good on that front.
  545. >Your steps take you away from the busy drive of the marketplace and down into the alleys and side streets of Ponyville, the amount of ponies crossing your way steadily decreasing as you move farther away from its center.
  546. >You like these ventures into the outskirts of town, enjoying the possibility to stumble across new things to discover and new ponies to meet.
  547. >You keep finding interesting locations, like the strange, seemingly forgotten water fountain in the lower parts of the city gardens the other day, a large statue of an armor-clad alicorn with its features long since withered away rising up in the middle of its display.
  548. >You sat at the foot of the large marble image of the deity for hours, wondering if it had been erected to resemble a glorious protector or a fiendish aggressor.
  549. >You couldn’t tell.
  550. >Stepping around a corner into a small alleyway, you spot the tacky metal sign above the door of a small shop, informing you of having found your destination.
  551. >You push the door open, letting the sights and impressions wash over you as the tiny brass bell above politely chimes to inform the owner of your entrance.
  552. >Before you, the various crooked shelves and dusty cupboards of the thrift shop you discovered recently stretch into the dimly-lit room, seemingly trying to escape from the intruding light slanting through the murky windows and fleeing deeper into the bowels of the house.
  553. >You step inside, letting the door fall closed behind you with a muffled thud and move along the cramped aisles.
  554. "Hello?" you ask into the quiet, feeling strangely intruding despite the neon-colored "open" sign in the window next to the door.
  555. >Images of ancient tombs go through your head, their entrances buried deep below the sea and their secrets long forgotten, the reality of the world slowly lost to the spirits residing within over the millennia.
  556. >You shake your head to clear away the strange thoughts, carefully pushing on along the high rows of shelves stacked with a myriad of trinkets and little odds and ends.
  557. "Anypony home?" you ask again.
  558. >Again you’re greeted with nothing but more silence.
  559. >Despite the eerie feel to it, you’ve come to like this particular store for its variety of strangely alluring merchandise and the sense of discovery you got every time you found something nice to buy here.
  560. >Reaching the counter at the back of the shop, you spot the face of the owner smiling back at you, a shiny metal spoon and a polishing cloth in his hooves.
  561. >"Welcome!" he warmly greets you.
  562.  
  563. "Hi!" you return the greeting, stepping closer to the table as the storekeeper with the dull, off-white coat sorts away his cleaning utensils.
  564. >"Hello. What can I do for you today?" he smiles.
  565. >"Perhaps you’re looking for a set of rare silverware from the far reaches of Yakyakistan? Surely you could do with a bit of a northern touch in your dining room, no?"
  566. >The owner gestures towards the opened box next to him, the various pieces of filigree metal cutlery within twinkling in the low light of the shop.
  567. "Thanks, but maybe next time" you giggle, "I’m looking for a gift actually."
  568. >"Oh, a gift?" the pony behind the counter ponders while placing a hoof on his chin in thought.
  569. >"That makes things more complicated then, yes. May I ask of the occasion and the recipient?"
  570. "It’s for two super-duper adorable foals I know. They’re just the greatest little ponies and I want to make them smile with a small present. Their parents have told me not to overdo it though, so nothing too major please."
  571. >The owner nods slowly.
  572. >"A token of appreciation, yes?"
  573. "Yep! And it has to be extra extra special because I extra extra appreciate them."
  574. >Rummaging around in your saddlebag, you produce one of the cherry-flavored sweets you bought earlier, their otherworldly goodness simply too much to not try and share them with as many ponies as you can.
  575. "Do you want a piece of candy?" you ask while offering the small pearl of crystallized sugar.
  576. >"Thank you very much, but I’m afraid I must decline. I don’t go in for sweets much. You go ahead and enjoy it in my stead, yes?"
  577. "Okie dokie!" you happily exclaim, popping the treat into your mouth.
  578. >"Wait here for a moment please; I think I may have just the thing."
  579. >The pony steps around the counter and vanishes into the murky twilight of the shop.
  580. >Curiously stretching around the aisle he went behind, you hope to catch a glimpse of the shopkeeper working through his inventory, but are greeted with nothing but the empty space between the shelves.
  581. >The sounds of your steps are muffled by the thick coat of dust on the floor as you carefully venture farther into the maze, letting your sight wander over the racks stretching up to the ceiling and holding various books, appliances and things you don’t recognize the use of.
  582. >The strange sense of wonder that keeps bringing you back to this shop fills you up again, and you do your best not to succumb to the desire of touching the more delicate-looking pieces of inventory.
  583. >Maybe you should bring Twilight back here one of these days, the mare surely to be appreciative of the many flasks and phials you can only vaguely place as magical utensils.
  584. >Rarity could probably make sense of the various twinkling gemstones seemingly scattered around the place at random, their colors and cuts just barely escaping your knowledge of precious stones.
  585. >"Miss?"
  586. >The smiling head of the shopkeeper appears around the corner of the next shelf, bringing you back from your thoughts and making you realize how far you’ve wandered into the innards of the dusty store.
  587. >"If you’d like to follow me, I think I’ve found what you’re looking for."
  588. >You make to trot along his form and let him lead you around the bends and twists of the store, its layout - you could swear - subtly changing every time you dare look the other way.
  589. >You nearly run into the stallion as he abruptly halts in front of a small cupboard, a carefully-arranged display of trinkets and jewelry placed below a glass box on top of it.
  590. "Ohh."
  591. >He quickly removes the protective case and selects two small necklaces from the arrangement.
  592. >"How about this?" he asks with a satisfied tone while putting the delicate works of metal into your hoof, the silvery chain links sparkling when you turn them against the light.
  593. >The chain is short, too short to fit around the neck of any grown pony, but it might just be the ideal size for a foal to wear.
  594. >A tiny pendant sits in the middle of each necklace, depicting what you can only assume is a small portrayal of the sun and moon side by side on a shiny teardrop of metal.
  595. "They’re beautiful."
  596. >"Aren’t they?" the merchant smiles, seemingly happy with your approval.
  597. >"I’ve had them for a while now, but the occasion never arose. They’re supposed to be good luck charms for small foals and..."
  598. >He chuckles to himself.
  599. >"... I don’t know, I guess I’ve never had somepony come looking to buy a gift for the little ones before. May I?"
  600. >You hand the pieces of jewelry back to him, watching closely as he lays them out on a piece of silk from his pocket and holds them against a lone ray of sunshine that found its way into the story from a high corner.
  601. >The light plays off the metal, twinkling and glittering in different refracted colors depending on the angle it hits the polished surface.
  602. >"Apparently the necklace is supposed to help unicorns develop their magical power, if you believe such things. But they’re quite nice to look at either way, no?"
  603. "They really are", you reply with a slight frown, remembering the Cakes’ directive concerning big gifts and the state of your sack of bits, the leather pouch just beginning to cross over onto the wrong side of empty.
  604. >You can’t afford this.
  605. >With a sigh, you gesture the storeowner to put the trinkets back into their place, the stallion inquiring with a confused expression.
  606. >"They’re not to your liking? I apologize, but I thought them to be quite the perfect match for your intention, no?"
  607. "They are, but I don’t think I can take them. My wallet’s getting a little light, you know."
  608. >"Well if that’s all, I’m sure we can find a way to help you out", he says warmly, dropping the necklaces into a small pouch of black satin.
  609. >"These have been sitting here for so long, you’d be doing me a favor taking them off my hands. Plus I can feel something about you. I believe you’re meant to have them. I don’t know, maybe it’s a touch of..."
  610. >The shopkeeper bends forward, letting the shadows play on his face as he hands you the pouch.
  611. >"...fate?"
  612. >You smile, amused by the stallion’s silly antics and the generosity he’s showing you, two qualities you’re sure are handy for a thrift store owner.
  613. >"How does seven bits sound? You’re buying lucky charms after all."
  614.  
  615. >You step back out into the alley, the door to the dusty shop with the tacky sign closing behind you, the unfamiliar, bright light of the morning sun forcing you to shield your eyes with your hoof.
  616. >Looking towards the looming clock tower rising above the roofs of the town in the distance, you make it to be nearly 10am, and having finished most of your chores for the morning, you start trotting towards Sugar Cube Corner, where you’re supposed to take over Pound and Pumpkin in about half an hour.
  617. >All your groceries are safely stored in your saddlebags, along with the strangely alluring bag of silk holding the gifts for your two favorite foals in the whole world.
  618. >You wonder if the metal tears hold any real value, apparently having sat in the dark and quiet for some time.
  619. >You hope you didn’t make the shopkeeper lose too much money with your grossly underpriced buy, but then again, he wouldn’t have sold them to you if he couldn’t afford it, right?
  620. >You’ll have to make sure to go back next time with something else than candy as a token of you thanks and gratitude.
  621. >Maybe the necklaces are worthless after all; cheap, mass-produced trinkets to buy for your foals on the trip to Manehatten so they’ll stop complaining and have a nice, shiny new piece of jewelry to focus their attention on.
  622. >You don’t believe that to be true though, and even if you did, it really doesn’t matter.
  623. >After all, the effectivity of any good luck charm is not set by its price, but rather the amount of believe put forth into its divine mechanisms and the story to go along with them.
  624. >And you simply choose to believe.
  625. >Your legs keep carrying you back, closer and closer towards the busy center of Ponyville without you really thinking about the way.
  626. >And before you know, you stand before the familiar building with the high roof and the invitingly sweet scent being carried out and blown away by the wind.
  627. >You step in, being greeted by the familiar sights, sounds and smells.
  628. >"Ah, Pinkie Pie! You’re just in time, the Missus and I were just about ready to leave", Mr. Cake greets you busily, a pair of saddlebags loosely swung over his back.
  629. "Alrighty then. I hope you’ll have fun at the baking convention."
  630. >"Honey, Pinkie is here", he shouts into the back, not really at leisure to afford the time for chitchat.
  631. >"Wonderful", comes the reply from somewhere inside, quickly followed by the mare of the house stepping out into the main room.
  632. >"Thanks so much for taking care of the kids again, Pinkie, but we really need to hurry. They’re upstairs napping and they’re so excited to spend the day with you."
  633. >You grin, handing Mrs. Cake her bags by the door and happily waving the pair goodbye once they’re out the door.
  634. >You think back to the first time you babysat and their justified precaution of your skills back then.
  635. >Now, they’re completely at ease entrusting their most precious gifts to you, without even a shred of doubt in your ability to handle the kids and the responsibility that comes with them.
  636. >You’re quietly humbled.
  637.  
  638. >After sorting away your groceries into the various shelves and cupboards of the oversized kitchen, you silently sneak your way up the stairs to check on the twins, the soft bag of silk containing your gifts held loosely in your mouth.
  639. >The bright wooden door with the colorful nameplates slides open with a soft touch, revealing the familiar sight of unordered toys illuminated by the golden rays of morning sunshine.
  640. >There they are: the best foals anyone could ever wish for, quietly napping in their crib and probably dreaming of a wonderful adventure in a faraway land.
  641. >Or about their parents buying them giant ice cream cones.
  642. >Maybe they’re even dreaming about you.
  643. >The thought makes you smile.
  644. "Hey guys", you whisper, not wanting to disturb their slumber.
  645. "Pinkie Pie’s got something with her for you. I know we said no more presents for a while, but I just couldn’t help myself."
  646. >You take the two trinkets out of the bag, the metal cold to the touch and shining brightly in the light.
  647. "You’re just too cute."
  648. >You giggle to yourself while carefully sliding the chain-linked necklace over Pumpkin’s head, the drop of blueish silver resting on her chest and slightly heaving with the motions of her breathing.
  649. >Giving her a slight kiss on the forehead, you’re once again amazed by the speed her horn is growing at these days.
  650. >Where there was only a slight bump of a horn until a while ago, the twirling spike of her magical extremity is now rising proudly to announce her increasing talent to the world.
  651. >She’s had some problems controlling the ins and outs of her magical energy a while back but that’s mostly settled, leaving you with a small unicorn well on her way to becoming a wielder of arcane power.
  652. >Who knows, maybe she could even become a pupil of Twilight’s someday, following your friend’s steps into Celestia’s school for gifted unicorns.
  653. >Repeating the gesture of affection and kissing her brother, you put the second of the matching pair of accessories on his neck and step back to admire the peacefully resting foals.
  654. "I love you guys. And we’re going to have so much fun today."
  655. >You lay down on the floor next to the crib, resting your head on one of the twins’ oversized sleeping pillows.
  656. "Just... wake me up when you’re ready", you say, a suppressed yawn escaping you, the stress of the busy morning seemingly catching up to you.
  657. >Closing your eyes to rest for a bit, you snuggle deeper into the pillow, letting the sunshine warm your coat and fill your head with images of happily laughing children.
  658.  
  659. >You’re awoken by the sound of crying.
  660. >Opening your eyes, you realize you’ve dozed off, the wall-mounted clock now reading a little after noon.
  661. >You raise your head to peek over the edge of your pillow and into the crib, the continuous crying informing you that somepony is apparently awake and ready for adventure by now.
  662. "It’s alright Pound Cake, Pinkie Pie is here", you tell the foal while getting up and trotting the few steps over to him, your voice still a little sluggish from sleep.
  663. >Bending over the edge of the crib, you softly pick him up and start rocking him with your forelegs, curiously looking around the room as to find the second foal.
  664. "Now where is your sister?" you ask while the upset colt is slowly calming down at your touch and gentle words.
  665. >The twins have proved to be notorious escape artist in the past, unwilling to be contained by their crib and - on some occasions - their room, so the apparent absence of Pumpkin is no cause for alarm just yet.
  666. >More than once, you’ve made a fool out of yourself by storming down the stairs in panic, screaming for the Cakes, screaming for Celestia, Luna and anyone else that would listen, only to find the filly giggling in a high shelf of the kitchen or playing with a stuffed animal in the living room.
  667. "Pumpkin?" you call out, her brother now over his crying fit and excitedly fluttering out of your hooves.
  668. "Where are you, little filly?"
  669. >True to experience, the bubbly gibberish of foal-talk alerts you to her presence behind the crib, the small unicorn preoccupied with stacking small wooden boxes with her telekinetic powers.
  670. "There you are!" you exclaim, giving her a soft hug before letting her continue her arcane geometry.
  671. >You spend the next minutes watching Pound and Pumpkin go about their business, the colt busy with flying his favorite bouncing ball from one side of the room to the other, and the filly still assembling weirdly unsymmetrical figures out of wooden blocks with her magic.
  672. >Letting the warm feeling you always get while enjoying the youthful vigor of the foals wash over you, you’re about to leave them to themselves for a while to start preparing lunch.
  673. >Then it happens.
  674. >One of the colored cubes in Pumpkin’s telekinetic grasp suddenly accelerates, shooting out of her range and into the wall across the room.
  675. >Both the sudden motion and the sound of the wood crashing into plaster startle the foal, making her cry out in shock and surprise.
  676. >A second block flies away, hitting one of the rods of the crib with a sharp wooden clank.
  677. "Oh no!"
  678. >You’ve seen this before; a sudden fluctuation of arcane power, too wild and too great in amplitude to be aptly controlled - or understood, really - by the tiny unicorn still new to the energies of the aether.
  679. "Pumpkin, drop them!" you yell out.
  680. >She listens to the sternness of the familiar voice, cancelling her magical aura and letting the remaining cubes clatter to the floor.
  681. >Breathing a sigh of relief, you quickly step over to the now crying foal to comfort her.
  682. >You’ve dealt with her surges in the past, and in your experience they usually fizzle out as soon as the runaway magic is cancelled and the filly has calmed down for a few minutes.
  683. >And even though the situation is serious, you can’t help feeling a slight jab of pride at being able to handle a potentially dangerous spike like this with such reliability.
  684. "Don’t be scared, you two, Pinkie Responsibility Pie is..."
  685. >Your words catch in your throat when the bright flash of light bursts out of the tip of Pumpkin’s horn, blinding and robbing you of your sense of direction for a few panicked moments.
  686. "Wha..."
  687. >Another burst of ethereal light crashes into you, drowning out the sound of the crying children with its sheer, sense-robbing brutality.
  688. >This shouldn’t be happening.
  689. >You’ve know Pumpkin and her fluctuations for some time by now, and they’ve never had persistence, let alone power like this.
  690. "Guys!" you cry out, your voice sounding more frightened and more panicked than you thought.
  691. >Pound manages to stabilize himself in the air, his tiny wings fluttering hard to set him down next to his sister in his state of upset.
  692. >This time you see it coming.
  693. >Having found your way close enough to the crying Pumpkin to be able to grab her by now, you frantically try and shield her horn with your hooves in a fruitless struggle to protect her and Pound Cake from the magical onslaught.
  694. >You realize too late that the next burst is not made of light alone.
  695. >A thunderous boom is echoing through the room, followed by a violent spark of crackling air and kinetic energy that sends all three of you flying.
  696. >Your back hits the wall hard, sending waves of pain across your body and filling your mouth with the coppery taste of blood.
  697. >What is happening?
  698. >You blink, needing a few seconds of collecting yourself to see anything but black again.
  699. >The air reeks with the scent of ozone following the immense magical discharge, still crackling with lingering electricity.
  700. >Searching frantically for Pound and Pumpkin, you find the foals lying side by side at the foot of the opposite wall.
  701. "No!"
  702. >Pound’s eyes are closed, his form unmoving.
  703. >Pumpkin is still crying.
  704. "Nonononono..."
  705. >You don’t know how, but you realize you’re on your hooves and running towards them.
  706. >Seeing the filly’s horn starting to glow again, your mind is swimming with the only conscious thought it’s able to hold right now: the cold, adrenalin-fueled realization that you have to reach the foals before the next hit connects.
  707. >All you hear in the strange vacuum of silence following the blast is the sound of your hooves on the carpeted floor, and all you see is the image of the kids through your blurred vision slowly getting closer as you gallop across the room.
  708. >You’re just out of reach when you see the long, licking flames starting to burst out of Pumpkin’s horn.
  709. >Crashing into a halt before them, you grab the twins with as much force as you’re comfortable applying in your current state of terror, pressing their forms to your body in hope to shield them from as much harm as possible while containing the radiating unlight.
  710. >Streaks of burning witchfire tingle over your fur, filling your nostrils with the scent of charred hair and your mind with nothing but searing, white-hot pain.
  711. >They’ll be fine.
  712. >You focus on the words like a mantra, channeling your senses to hold on to the memento and keep yourself from succumbing to the welcoming black abyss of unconsciousness.
  713. >They’ll be fine.
  714. >They’ll be fine...
  715. >The magical flames subside, leaving long streaks of charred wallpaper and scorch marks on the ruined carpet.
  716. >You don’t dare let go of the crying foal in your arms, nor her brother, still hanging limp like a broken plaything.
  717. >Throbbing pain is washing through your body and you realize with panic that the unnaturally bright glow is rising up again.
  718. >This time, the crackling electricity precedes the flash, sending shivers down your spine and setting your teeth on edge with a high-frequency pitch.
  719. "No... please..."
  720. >You know this sensation.
  721. >You’ve felt it many times, welcoming, or - in some cases - outright pleading for it.
  722. >The cold unlight of teleportation magic swells around you, reaching its crescendo after a few long seconds with a sickly plop.
  723. >For a short, otherworldly moment, all of your senses are filled with the ground shifting below your hooves and reality bending and swirling around you before reconstructing itself again to form a muddy picture.
  724. >You bend forward, violently emptying your stomach from the sensory overload of being sent through the aether against your will.
  725. >Looking around while coughing and panting, you can make out the thick undergrowth of trees and bushes, a high roof of leaves blocking out the sunshine above and the dirty forest floor below your hooves.
  726. >Even though the sun is shining overhead, your surroundings are dark and murky, most of the light stolen away by the thicket spreading around you.
  727. >You have no way of being sure, but the impression on your senses only matches with one other place you know.
  728. >You’re in the Everfree Forest.
  729. >Pound and Pumpkin are nowhere to be found.
  730.  
  731. >You manage to stand up despite your shaking legs and the pain still pulsing through your muscles, frantically searching for any hint of a familiar sight to give you at least some indication of where you are.
  732. >Remembering Applejack’s lessons in outdoor survival, you estimate the general direction of the cardinal directions by the position of the sun, hoping to whoever is still left to watch over you that your memory isn’t failing you.
  733. >Finally pinpointing north, you start galloping.
  734. >You still have no idea of where you are, but the Everfree stretches out to the south of Ponyville, so north should be the best idea.
  735. "Please..."
  736. >You run as fast as your tired body will allow, punching through bushes and vines while keeping a close eye on the sun occasionally flashing through the overgrowth.
  737. "Please be safe."
  738. >Thorns hook into your skin from time to time, drawing long cuts across your fur and adding to the pain.
  739. >You don’t care.
  740. >You don’t stop.
  741. >The forest gets lighter and lighter, and it’s with a sudden realization that you recognize your path.
  742. >You’ve come this way from time to time, visiting Zecora’s hut or venturing out to the Castle of the Two Sisters on a quiet day, and you know which way to go from here.
  743.  
  744. >Your muscles burn with lactic acid when the looming structure of Sugar Cube Corner comes into view a few minutes later, its peaked roof shimmering in the afternoon sun.
  745. >Still running, you shove the front door out of your way, the thick wood crashing into the wall with a solid bang and drawing the stares of a few curious onlookers.
  746. >You don’t care about the stares, you don’t care about what they might think, you don’t care about your body slowly losing its ability to block the pain.
  747. >All you care about are the last few steps to the upper floor and the bright wooden door with the colorful nameplates.
  748. >Pushing it open, you see two familiar forms lying side by side.
  749. >Your vision starts to blur, and you can feel the hot sensation of tears running down your cheeks as you rush forward.
  750. >Pound and Pumpkin are unconscious, banged up and breathing in a slow but steady rhythm.
  751. >It’s getting harder to make your body do what you want it to.
  752. >Your hooves are trembling as you reach for Pumpkin, shivers running through you from the excess of adrenaline crushing through your bloodstream and the painful cramps left from overexerting every single muscle in your body.
  753. >Somewhere back in the panic, your mind was able to connect the dots, linking the sudden spikes of magical energy to the shiny new necklaces still hanging around the foals’ necks.
  754. >Deceitfully peaceful, the small tears of polished metal rest upon their chests, cold to the touch as you finally manage to stay your hooves enough to grab on to them.
  755. >You rip the foul things off with a quick motion, throwing them as far away into the corner of the room as the screaming muscles in your arm allow you to.
  756. >How could you be so stupid?
  757. >You look around the destroyed room, the stench of ozone and charred wood still heavy in the air and the broken furniture a remnant of the sheer physical force summoned into it.
  758. >How could you be so blind, so trusting?
  759. >How could you risk the two things in this world you hold most dear simply because you got a good deal?
  760. >Unable to hold yourself up anymore, you collapse, pulling Pound and Pumpkin’s warm bodies close to you.
  761. >Your tears won’t stop, leaving wet streaks in the fur of your cheeks and blurring your sight while you tightly hug the children.
  762. >Darkness spreads from the corners of your vision, and the last thing you remember before the blissful, painless void of unconsciousness overtakes you is the sound of crying foals waking from the worst dreams they ever had.
  763.  
  764. >You are Anon, and you’re slowly rising up from your position in the bathroom, the water in the oversized tub almost cold by now.
  765. >Pinkie has finished talking, holding her hooves on the rim of the bathtub and her eyes fixed on you.
  766. >The aftertaste left by her story is a cloy sensation in your mind, prompting you to get up and walk the few steps over to your sink.
  767. >Splashing your face with a bit of water to clear your thoughts, you stare into the mirror, finding Pinkie’s reflection still observing you, studying you, in an attempt to find out your emotions.
  768. >She didn’t cry while telling you her tale, instead she coldly and shakily reported the incidents, not daring to veer from the truth or even embellish the facts beyond anything more than the cold, nightmare-inducing reality.
  769. >You guess she’s simply spent all the tears she had by now.
  770. >You look into her reflection’s eyes, taking care to slowly and deliberately state your next words.
  771. "Pinkie. I’m not going to leave you, okay?"
  772. >She nods.
  773. >"Okay."
  774. "Come on out of that water, you’ll just get cold again if you stay in any longer."
  775. >For the time being, you don’t want to think about what she’s told you anymore.
  776. >Spreading a large towel for her to climb into, you wrap the soft fabric around her body, slowly and carefully rubbing her mane and fur dry with small motions.
  777. >After a few more minutes in the bath, the two of you emerge back into your living room, settling into the warm coziness of your large sofa.
  778. >You wrap your arm around the mare, feeling the fuzzy softness of her freshly-dried fur against your fingers and the motions of her steady breathing against your side.
  779. "You’ll be fine."
  780. >You both fall asleep after only a few minutes, too tired and emotionally drained to be able to stay awake any longer.
  781.  
  782. >The aromatic smell of coffee rouses you from your sleep, creeping into your consciousness with its strong and flavorful aroma.
  783. >You sit up, blinking, waiting until the image of your surroundings slowly starts shifting into focus.
  784. >You’re still on your sofa, sprawled out among the seat cushions and covered by a large, fluffy blanket.
  785. >Pinkie is nowhere to be seen, but the alluring smell of breakfast from the kitchen is giving you an idea of your friend’s whereabouts.
  786. >Rising up, you make your way to the door connecting the two rooms, pushing it open softly and enjoying the scent of coffee, scrambled eggs and toasted bread gently shaking the sluggishness of sleep from your senses.
  787. >Pinkie is setting the table, her face distorted with concentration as she places a fork next to your plate with her mouth, slightly nudging it into position with the tips of her hooves afterwards.
  788. "Smells good in here", you state, surprising the pony more than you planned to and prompting her to jump in place slightly.
  789. >"Anon!"
  790. >You can’t help the grin.
  791. >"Oh my gosh, I didn’t know you were awake already! Was I too loud? Did I wake you up? Ohh I’m so, so sorry, I was trying to be quiet, but I just…"
  792. >Her words trail off when you give her mane a slight ruffle, once again letting your fingers glide through the strands of hair and feel its squishy softness.
  793. "Morning."
  794. >"Good morning, Anon", Pinkie says calmly, your touch prompting a gentle smile adorning her face.
  795. "I guess I dozed off last night", you state while looking around, letting in the sights of Pinkie’s meticulously-prepared breakfast before sitting down on what you assume is your place.
  796. "Sorry about that. I hope you slept okay?"
  797. >"Yep!"
  798. >Pinkie is still busy, quickly spreading the rest of her breakfast assembly on the table before climbing into the chair across from you.
  799. "So what’s all this?" you ask, gesturing to the table laden with eggs, bread, buns, pancakes, cheese and various other breakfast-related items between you.
  800. >She’s even managed to operate your coffee machine, producing what smells suspiciously like the desired result.
  801. >Coffee, in its caffeinated deliciousness, is far less common in Equestria than you’d think it to be, making you one of only a handful of individuals to even know of the drink and the divine, ancient mysteries of its manufacture.
  802. >No doubt Pinkie herself never drank the tasty beverage, let alone prepared it, but somehow the mare managed to produce a cup, using nothing but your coffee maker - a remnant of the old world - and the visual guidelines of watching you use it maybe once or twice before.
  803. >"It’s a token of thanks from me", she calmly explains.
  804. >"For everything. For coming to visit me, for the food and the bath, for letting me stay over… And for listening."
  805. "This is quite a lot, Pinkie."
  806. >"I’m quite thankful, Anon", she whispers.
  807. >You nod, the leftover dizziness from being asleep now quickly being replaced by your hunger and appetite.
  808. "Let’s eat then."
  809.  
  810. >You and Pinkie quietly work your way through the food, both content with following your own train of thought rather than breaking the comfortable silence.
  811. >You use the serenity to play back the mare’s story in your mind, slowly chewing on a piece of bread.
  812. >True to her goal, Pinkie had spared you no startling detail, recounting her tale with little room left for imagination.
  813. >And yet, a crucial detail is still missing, haunting your mind like the fuzzy memory of a bad dream, present but just escaping the horizon of your consciousness.
  814. "Can I ask a question?"
  815. >Pinkie looks at you and nods, her cheeks stuffed to the rafters with cream and pancake.
  816. "About what you told me last night?"
  817. >She wrangles down the food in her mouth with a big gulp, quietly exhaling afterwards.
  818. >"Yes."
  819. >After a few seconds of putting your thoughts in order you ask the question, taking care to try and convey the simplest version of the question.
  820. "The amulets, or necklaces or whatever; what happened to them? And what were they anyway?"
  821. >The mare takes a few moments to answer, radiating what feels like precaution and insecurity for the first time since she’s told you about her living situation back after your date a lifetime ago.
  822. >"I still have them", she states flatly.
  823. >Her confession-like honesty taking you by surprise, you struggle not to cough from the sip of coffee you adversely took going down the wrong way.
  824. "Excuse me?"
  825. >"I still have them back home", Pinkie nods, "because I didn’t feel right giving them to anypony else after what happened."
  826. >Gods above.
  827. >"Twilight found me after I blacked out and used her magic to wake me. When I came to, I collected the things and never gave them up since. Some ponies asked after I explained what happened, but eventually they stopped caring."
  828. >You shake your head, the idea of those curse-ridden dark stars still existing somewhere sending shivers down your spine.
  829. "Why?"
  830. >"Twilight took a look at them a few days later", the mare recounts.
  831. >"She called them 'arcane high-passes' or something like that. Zecora called them Tear Stones. They’re not that common anymore but from what Twilight could gather, most of the known ones still in circulation originate from a short era of magical prosperity way back before the first war of Discord."
  832. >Pinkie’s blue eyes find yours, a sad smile on her lips.
  833. >"They’re not inherently dangerous, you know. They were used to amplify a unicorn’s power by cutting off lower frequencies of magic and modulating the output into a more potent form. In some cases, they’ve been known to stimulate the growth of unicorn foals by making them exert their full range."
  834. "So - in a way - they actually are good luck charms for children…?"
  835. >You let your words trail off, the dark, toothy grin of sharp-edged irony not lost on you.
  836. >Pinkie nods.
  837. >"If you wear them as an earth pony or a pegasus, nothing happens, and for most unicorns they’re simply a way of training. But for a small foal new to her powers and with a tendency to lose control of them… well, you know."
  838. "That…"
  839. >Your words escape you at the display of cosmic unfairness, of karmic imbalance, of sheer bad fucking luck Pinkie revealed to you.
  840. "That can’t be true."
  841. >A small chuckle escapes the mare’s lips, the sound more akin to a dry sob.
  842. >"It is. And as to not forget that, I kept the Tear Stones around. As a reminder of my failure."
  843. "How is this your fault?"
  844. >Your voice is more aggressive that you planned it to be.
  845. >"Ponies always told me I’m too careless and too trusting. I should have been more aware, not just prance around and put everyone else in danger."
  846. >You take a sip of your coffee, tasting its rich flavor and feeling the lingering warmth it leaves going down your throat.
  847. "This is stupid", you state after a few seconds of silence.
  848. >"What is?" Pinkie asks, a tired expression of her face.
  849. >"I bought the artifacts, I gave them to Pound and Pumpkin and I failed to protect them from the surge of magic."
  850. "If you had given those things to any other pony, they’d have been fine!"
  851. >Why can she not see this?
  852. >Why is she so adamant on punishing herself for this freak occurrence, this giant accident of the universe, and why can’t she just accept it for what it is?
  853. "A mistake", you finish your thoughts out loud.
  854. >Pinkie looks at you, her giant, shimmering eyes catching the morning light and shining brightly; crystal blue oceans of sad serenity.
  855. "It was a mistake."
  856. >"I know", she sighs, taking a bite of the strawberry loosely held between her hooves.
  857. "You don’t know! You don’t understand what that means", you push on.
  858. "I can’t believe how everyone else is just letting you erode yourself into nonexistence for this."
  859. >You stand up, unable to keep your emotions in check as well as you’d like to anymore, and walk around the table to grab Pinkie by her shoulders.
  860. "Yes, you fucked up. You did what you thought was right and someone you care about got hurt for it."
  861. >Pinkie’s eyes begin to sparkle with unshed tears, the fruit she held dropping to the floor like a forgotten toy.
  862. >"Anon, please, I…"
  863. "No! You need to listen to me! Apparently I’m the only one in this whole godforsaken, apathy-ridden nightmare of a town to tell you this. And you still can’t hear it."
  864. >Tears begin rolling from the corners of Pinkie’s eyes, the mare shaking while trying to hold back her sobs.
  865. >"H-hear what?" she snivels.
  866. >You force down the hot sensation rising in your gut, taking a deep breath to keep your voice level while you speak.
  867. "People… ponies make mistakes."
  868. >The mare shakes her head vigorously, her eyes shut tightly in an attempt to block you out.
  869. >"I can’t, Anon! I know what you’re asking of me and I can’t do it. I can’t f-forgive myself."
  870. >You’re filled with the overwhelming need to laugh and cry at the same time, your mental floodgates that held back every stab of despair until now finally close to reaching their breaking point.
  871. "I’m not asking you to forgive yourself", you plead, slightly shaking Pinkie back into focusing on you.
  872. "I’m not even asking you to forget what happened. But you can’t keep trying to stop existing anymore, I can’t take it."
  873. >The shaken pony in your arms looks up to you with wide eyes, her tears ceasing to draw long, dark cobwebs of wet fur on her cheeks by the sheer surprise of your words.
  874. >"But…" she quietly whispers, not knowing how to continue her sentence.
  875. "Don’t try to just remove yourself from the world because you messed up. You messed up before, didn’t you? And you probably will again, in time. You told me you were too trusting, right?"
  876. >You move your hands to Pinkie’s face, gently cupping her cheeks in an attempt to make her hear your message.
  877. "You weren’t. That shopkeeper was not even trying to rip you off or sell you dangerous stuff; he was simply even more careless than you. There are so many ponies who like you exactly because you’re so trusting, so helpful, so ready to sacrifice yourself. I like you for it."
  878. >Still caught by surprise, Pinkie is unable to respond.
  879. "This is not the sacrifice you should be making. The world needs you to go back to being happy."
  880. >You realize your voice is shaking.
  881. "I need you to…" you quietly add.
  882. >Having released all the feelings you held within you, you let go of your friend, letting your heavy breaths fill the thick, oppressing silence following your outburst.
  883. >You don’t know how much time passes while you sit on your knees before Pinkie, staring into the deep, colorful abyss of her eyes, wait for her to respond.
  884. >It might have been seconds; it might have been three lifetimes.
  885. >"Anon…" she finally speaks.
  886. >"…do you want a tissue?"
  887. "What? Why?"
  888. >Touching your cheeks, you’re surprised when your fingers come away wet.
  889. >Pinkie’s gentle smile is blurring slightly.
  890. >You chuckle to yourself, slowly rising up and wiping your face with the sleeve of your shirt.
  891. >You don’t even remember the last time you cried.
  892. "What are you doing to me, Pinkie?"
  893. >"I don’t know", the mare replies, breaking into a heartfelt, cathartic giggle you soon can’t help but join into.
  894.  
  895. >You put the last of the plates next to the sink to dry, turning off the warm water and drying your hands with a nearby dishtowel.
  896. >After your little episode, Pinkie and you had decided to finish your breakfast, the mare quickly excusing herself to the bathroom for her morning routine as soon as the notion of cleaning the dishes came up afterwards.
  897. >Well, she did prepare you breakfast, so you guess it’s only fair for you to be stuck with the cleanup.
  898. >Brushing crumbs from the kitchen table, you hear the shower in your bath turn off and let your mind wander back to the pink mare.
  899. >Did she hear your message?
  900. >Will she be able to?
  901. >What will this mean for you?
  902. >The door opens, a fluffy and slightly soaked Pinkie Pie emerging from the cloud of steam billowing out of the bathroom with a soft sigh.
  903. "Good shower?"
  904. >"The best", she happily nods.
  905. >Walking back into the living room with a smile, you sit down on your sofa, lazily opening the newspaper you bothered to bring in earlier.
  906. >Pinkie climbs up next to you, sitting on her hind legs and leaning against you, attentively studying the small black-and-white images printed on the pages.
  907. "So, do you have any plans for today?"
  908. >"I’m glad that you ask, Anon", the mare says with glee.
  909. >"I was thinking maybe we could go and visit Twilight? I feel it’s been far too long since we were able to spend some time together. Also Gummy has probably half forgotten what I look like by now."
  910. >You look at Pinkie in surprise, the importance of her words and what they meant coupled with the smile of pleasant anticipation on her lips clear to you.
  911. "Sure", you reply, folding the paper and putting it back on the table.
  912. "Let’s go."
  913.  
  914. END
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