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A Deal is a Deal (Part 1)

By twilightgamenight
Created: 18th December 2020 10:40:44 PM

  1. >”Ah don’t wanna do this no more!”
  2. >With a tinge of guilt, you lock the last restraint around the mare’s leg.
  3. “Sorry, Apple Bloom, but the fee is non-refundable.”
  4. >You try to pat her head, but she jerks away from your hand. Hell, if all four legs weren’t anchored to the stand, she’d probably run back out to the fields.
  5. >It’s a minor miracle she stood still long enough for you to tighten the leather strap around her barrel, let alone the leg restraints.
  6. “Look, girl, I know this isn’t ideal, but with the corporate work camps and such buying up the last of the government’s prisoner contracts, we don’t really have much choice.  We’ve already sunk the money into this deal and can’t afford to just throw it away.”
  7. >She shakes her head frantically, refusing to listen to your words.
  8. >You sigh – and Apple Bloom flinches at the noise.
  9. >She’s knows you well enough to recognize your patience is running thin.
  10. “You’ve been with my family for how long?”
  11. >”T-three years, s-sir.”
  12. “And we’ve treated you well in that time, haven’t we?”
  13. >She doesn’t answer; a dark corner of your soul is tempted to beat some respect into her, but you need the mare as healthy as possible right now.
  14. >Besides, that’s not your way.
  15. >There’s no point in beating a lie out of her, no reason to hit her until she just tells you what you want to hear. You’d only be venting your anger and frustration on her, because there is no way a few kicks will actually make her happy about her situation.
  16. >Still, you wonder if you’re too gentle with the ponies – but your uncle was a harsh man, and you saw how that worked out.
  17. >You’ve been running the place for two months, and despite having next to no idea what you’re doing, you suspect you can’t be running things any worse than he had.
  18. >Sure, he’d made some good decisions, here and there, and this deal was probably one of them. But even at the end, he was driving the farm into the ground – the canner price for that stallion hadn’t even come close to covering the cost of his funeral.
  19. >That damned pony would have been worth more alive and in the fields, but just like now you hadn’t had much of a choice.
  20. >Standards must be maintained.
  21. >”But… but… Ah changed my mind… sir,” Apple Bloom whimpers softly, shaking in the restraint. “Ah know what Ah said, but –“
  22. “You don’t have a choice, girl, and neither do I. This deal was signed and paid for damn near a year ago.”
  23. >You’ve been putting it off as long as possible, but time’s up.
  24. “You’re the only mare in heat right now, Apple Bloom, and Steffords isn’t a patient man. It’s either now or never.”
  25. >”Then Ah say never!”
  26. “Sorry, but you don’t get a say.”
  27. >Her legs are shaking so much you suspect that the metal stand is the only thing keeping her upright.
  28. >You would sedate her, but after the last time you tried…
  29. >Ponies can be surprisingly delicate, and the farm can’t afford to go throwing away any more money like that.
  30. >”Ah got rights,” Apple Bloom murmurs, staring at the wall. “You can’t do this.”
  31. “First off, you’re damned lucky I told you about that -”
  32. >She snorts angrily and futilely tries to pull free of the restraints.
  33. “Stop that!”
  34. >The mare freezes when you raise your hand – and you’re glad that’s all it takes.
  35. >”You – you can’t hit me no more!” she stutters after a second. “You told me so!”
  36. >Dammit.
  37. >You lightly smack her flank, making her jump – as much as the restraints allow, anyway.
  38. “No, the treaty we just signed with your princess says we can’t be cruel, and all that means is we can’t beat you for the hell of it. Doesn’t say anything about enforcing discipline.”
  39. >”But – “
  40. “Besides, girl, if it weren’t for the cease-fire driving the prices sky-high, those perverts would still be making their pony-snuff films, legal or not, so shut your mouth. Steffords’ll be here any minute and I already get enough crap from him about how much I let you all get away with!”
  41. >You’d rather not deal with the man at all.
  42. >Silently, you curse your departed uncle for setting this up – and paying for it so far ahead of time. Thinking “long-term” he had put it and you have to admit he had a point – stud fees had only gone up after the cease-fire last month, just like he had predicted.
  43. >”Ah don’t wanna do this,” the young mare whines again. “My sister always Ah should save myself for somepony Ah love!”
  44. “And I don’t want to have to listen to Steffords bitching about how he deserves more money for this, but we’ve all got to do things we don’t want to do.”
  45. >There’s no time for this; there’s still work to be done.
  46. >You roughly – perhaps more so than necessary – grab her tail and yank it upwards, tying it the leather strap running around her barrel.
  47. >Apple Bloom doesn’t scream – she knows better than that – but she does wince and shut her eyes.
  48. >Dammit, you don’t really mean to hurt her.
  49. “Dangit, girl, calm down.”
  50. >”Ah can’t,” she whimpers softly. “Ah only said Ah’d do it so you wouldn’t hit me.”
  51. “Well, you better, because I already made the mistake of sedating one pony and I won’t do that again. You saw what happened, didn’t you?”
  52. >Their bodies didn’t react well to most medications. Too many generations used to doing things with magic, the scientists were saying; their bodies just couldn’t deal with the chemicals.
  53. >True or not, there’s no way you’re letting one of the unicorns off its suppressants to sedate her magically. Even if any of the farm’s unicorns had that particular talent, your uncle’s funeral was closed-casket for a reason.
  54. >You learned a lot from him – particularly from his mistakes.
  55. >Never let the unicorns off their suppressants.
  56. >Even if you treat ‘em right – and he hadn’t – the withdrawal will drive a unicorn mad.
  57. >Another reason you’re going through with this – you’d rather sell off the pointy-headed bastards if you could. The way you see it, they’re a liability, a mistake just waiting to happen, but right now the farm needs the workforce.
  58. >With another irritated sigh, you wrap the heavy leather guard around Apple Bloom’s neck.
  59. >”No! Ah –“
  60. >She tries to jerk away, but you grab her head and pull it back.
  61. “This is for your own good, girl.”
  62. >She shudders at your angry growl.
  63. >”Try sayin’ that when you’re the one locked up and presented to the whole world!”
  64. >Her tail twitches as she tries to cover herself.
  65. “You wouldn’t be, if you’d just do what you’re supposed to, girl! You think I LIKE using the stand?”
  66. >No warning this time – you simply smack her flank with the flat of your hand, leaving a faint pink mark shining through her pale coat.
  67. >”N-no, sir.”
  68. “Then just stand there and take it!”
  69. >”Ah… Ah’ll try.”
  70. “You better, because I don’t know how this stallion will react if you start trying to buck him off. Like I said, this –“
  71. >You tap the leather guard encircling her neck.
  72. “ – is for your own good. Steffords’ stallion isn’t all there and he might try to bite you if you start acting up.”
  73. >Apple Bloom is quiet for several long seconds before suddenly relaxing her body.
  74. >She slumps in the stand, her head hanging dejectedly.
  75. >”Fine,” she mumbles. “Ain’t like Ah got a choice.”
  76. “Sorry, girl.”
  77. >You try to scratch between her ears, but she flicks away your hand.
  78. >Good enough. At least she isn’t struggling anymore. You don’t need her to like you or even be happy about things, so long as she doesn’t make them any worse.
  79. >Apple Bloom mumbles something you don’t catch, her soft whisper drowned out by the sound of a truck grinding to a halt outside the barn.
  80. “He’s here.”
  81. >You sigh for a third time and glance over at the mare.
  82. “What did you say?”
  83. >”What’s his name?” she asks again, just loud enough for you to hear. “Ah might… ah might know him –“
  84. “I don’t know. Steffords doesn’t let his ponies have names.”
  85. >The mare winces as a truck door slams.
  86. >”T-then what’s his cutie mark?”
  87. “Burnt off with a brand, so he doesn’t have one.”
  88. >”But how can Ah –“
  89. >You can barely hear her over the sound of Steffords stomping around outside. Even so, it’s a distraction.
  90. “I’ve got work to do, Apple Bloom. I can’t deal with your questions right now.”
  91. >She doesn’t fight the gag you shove into her mouth.
  92. >Good, because it’s for her protection – if she used that tongue of hers on Steffords, he’d likely kick the shit out of her.
  93. “Look, I’ll try to find out, okay? All I know is this stallion is a damn big bastard and strong as hell. The only reason he’s in private hands is he didn’t come out of the war all there. Doesn’t talk, doesn’t fight back, but he can’t do a damn bit of work because he can’t remember anything for more than a heartbeat.”
  94. >There’s the sound of a bolt being thrown – he’s getting the stallion out of the trailer.
  95. “Pretty much all he’s good for is breeding, and Steffords is keeping things at a premium by demanding a live cover.”
  96. >You sigh for the fourth time as your neighbor leads the massive stallion through the doors.
  97. >Damn big bastard – you’d almost suspect he was a real horse if it weren’t for his bright red coat.
  98. >Apple Bloom tenses up immediately; even though she can’t see the stallion, she must be able to smell him.
  99. “Calm down, girl. This won’t take long.”
  100. >She bucks wildly, straining at the leather straps and steel cuffs.
  101. >You’re no longer worried about the stallion hurting her – not half as much as you are about her hurting herself.
  102. “Dammit, Apple Bloom!”
  103. >You drop down beside her to hiss the words in her ear, trying to keep Steffords from hearing.
  104. “Didn’t you tell me the most important thing in your life was your family?”
  105. >She moans through the gag and continues to wrench her body this way and that, trying to pull the breeding stand apart.
  106. “Your brother and sister and grandmother – you’re always going on about how much you miss them, right?”
  107. >”Can’t keep your animals under control, can you, city boy?” Steffords laughs, though his stallion is straining at his lead. The poor pony stumbles at the end of the rope, obliviously lurching forward over and over, but never quite managing to go anywhere.
  108. >Bastard can’t even remember how to put one hoof in front of another, or he’d be dragging Steffords along the floor.
  109. >You try to ignore the man’s twisted cackling.
  110. “Apple Bloom.”
  111. >Her eyes are squeezed tightly shut, but she can’t keep the tears from spilling out.
  112. “Apple Bloom, I can’t give you back your family –”
  113. >The mare pulls at the neck guard with such force, you’re not sure what will give first – her neck, or the strap.
  114. “ – but you can have a new one. Wouldn’t you like that?”
  115. >She jerks her head back and forth frantically.
  116. >Shit.
  117. “Is there anything I can do to convince you?”
  118. >Apple Bloom continues to shake her head.
  119. “Fine.”
  120. >With a sigh, you heave yourself up and dust off your hands.
  121. “Then I guess we’re done talking here. I’ll just have to hope this takes and you change your mind later.”
  122. >Her eyes flare open in utter panic and she strains at the leather strap around her barrel. The buckle starts to give, the leather slipping bit by bit through the metal.
  123. >If you don’t stop her, she’s going to hurt herself; if she hurts herself, maybe she’ll finally learn to listen to you.
  124. “Go ahead.”
  125. >You nod towards Steffords.
  126. “Let’s get this over with.”
  127. >”Sure thing,” he answers with a shrug. “Not like I’m getting paid by the hour.”
  128. >You wait for it…
  129. >”Probably should be, though. Hell, with the way stud fees have gone –“
  130. >There it is.
  131. “Just get on with it, Steffords.”
  132. >You slump down on the floor – not too close to Apple Bloom, but not too far either.
  133. >”You gonna sit and watch?” he asks with a sneer, nudging the stallion towards your mare with a riding crop. “Shoulda figured you for a horsefucker, the way you treat your ponies.”
  134. “Just trying to protect my investment.”
  135. >”Uh-huh.”
  136. “I know that pony of yours doesn’t exactly know what he’s doing. I don’t need him killing my mare.”
  137. >”Don’t you worry about that none,” Steffords snaps back with a smirk. “Been doing this for four years and haven’t had one complaint yet.”
  138. >He whacks the stallion again, driving him towards Apple Bloom.
  139. >Something – probably the scent of a mare in heat – provokes a natural response that no amount of brain trauma can erase.
  140. >Apple Bloom screams into her gag as the stallion awkwardly pulls himself onto her.
  141. “Well, what about you? I don’t see you going anywhere.”
  142. >Steffords shrugs and stuffs his hands into his pockets.
  143. >”Just like watching ponies get put in their place,” he answers after a moment. “Or anything, really.”
  144. >There’s an awkward moment of non-silence – the stallion’s grunting and Apple Bloom’s sobbing are too loud for you to ignore – before the other man sits down beside you.
  145. >”You know, you ever need someone to beat some respect into those ponies of yours, I’d be willing to help out.”
  146. >Asshole.
  147. >”Free of charge,” he laughs at your frown. “Just being neighborly.”
  148. “At least none of my ponies are like that thing.”
  149. >You jerk your chin towards the stallion.
  150. >”Obedient, you mean?” Steffords cackles and grabs a small rock off the bare floor. A flick of his wrist sends it bouncing off the scar tissue covering the stallion’s head. “See? Boy don’t even flinch.”
  151. “He probably can’t feel it.”
  152. >”Course he can’t, but obedient is obedient. Don’t care much how it’s done.”
  153. >Dammit, you hate this fucker. He just takes things too far.
  154. “I gotta… check on something.”
  155. >He laughs again as you stand and wander over to workbench at the far end of the barn. There’s some rope here that you pretend wasn’t coiled right, a few tools and bits of gear you shuffle around as if putting them away.
  156. >But mostly, you’re just trying to pretend you aren’t pissed that he’s right.
  157. >Every squeal and moan from Apple Bloom stabs at your heart – that damn mare should just be quiet and do what she’s supposed to do.
  158. >”YOU’LL NEVER HEAR ONE OF MY PONIES WAILING LIKE THAT,” Steffords yells, more amused than disapproving. “NOT LESS I WANT HER TO!”
  160. >God only knows how much longer you’ll be able to put up with this piece of filth.
  162. >Shit.
  164. >You better, considering the amount of money that was dumped into this deal.
  166. >Apple Bloom screams again, so loud it hurts.
  167. >Fuck this rope.
  168. >Fuck all this shit.
  169. >You sweep the workbench clear with your hand, throwing everything to the floor.
  170. “WHAT’D YOU DO TO HIM?”
  171. >”HUH?”
  173. >Aside from the stallion’s grunts, there’s total silence. You have to glance towards Apple Bloom just to reassure yourself she’s still conscious – and alive.
  174. >She is, her ears standing straight up even though her eyes are snapped shut.
  176. >Right.
  177. >The war.
  178. >You shuffle back to the other man and throw yourself on the ground.
  179. ”Seems like the kind of thing you’d do to the rest of your ponies.”
  180. >”It’s tempting,” Steffords admits, “but the brain is a tricky thing – even theirs. His got torn up something terrible by that shrapnel and even them pony doctors couldn’t explain how he was still living. Not that they’d know a damn thing, anyway. Wanna know the best part?”
  181. “Not really.”
  182. >”Damn idiot kept mumbling about his family – that’s all he could say. Had to get back to his family and shit like that.”
  183. “I said not really.”
  184. >”But once they cut out the damaged bits, he shut right up.”
  185. >You glare at the man, but he doesn’t take the hint.
  186. >”I hear the government people tried to repeat it with some of the other prisoners, but all it got them was a pile of dead ponies and some official investigation into misconduct or something.”
  187. >You pointedly look elsewhere. There – at that knot in the wall.
  188. >Anything but at him or the ponies.
  189. >”Course, it ain’t really all that special,” Steffords continues. “After their first week, none of my ponies are much worse. See, that’s proof enough that those Humans First bastards are wrong – ponies are intelligent creatures. They’re capable of learning, so long as you beat ‘em hard enough and long enough. Not HIM, though.”
  190. >He points towards the stallion.
  191. >”That one’s the exception. Haven’t had to put the boot to him even once.”
  192. >Dammit, she’s crying again.
  193. >Should have brought some goddamned earplugs or something. Used a thicker gag, maybe.
  194. >”Heh, looks like he’s almost got her broken in,” Steffords chuckles. “Not much fight left in her now, but I know you like your ponies willful and disobedient, so I’ll do you a little favor and buy her off of you for –“
  195. “No.”
  196. >Steffords shrugs and leans back against the wall.
  197. >”Yeah, wouldn’t be worth it, anyway. That stallion’s probably only got another good year left – doubt I could get a decent line from these two in that time.”
  198. “Bullshit, ponies live longer than that.”
  199. >”Complications from his injuries or some crap like that. But you take my advice and close breed that mare – maybe you can get something good out of it. Too risky for my tastes, but you seem the right kind of desperate to give it a shot.”
  200. >He pauses to give you a wry grin.
  201. >”Assuming you get a decent foal out of this, I mean.”
  202. “I better.”
  203. >”Well I –“
  204. >One look at you and whatever he was about to say disappears from his mind.
  205. >”Yeah, I hope you do.”
  206. >The two of you sit quietly, waiting for the big bastard to finish up. It’s not too much longer – just long enough for you to memorize the pattern of the woodgrain on the boards opposite you.
  207. >”See you tomorrow, neighbor,” Steffords says as he collects his pony and drags him away from Apple Bloom before he can start a second round. “We got, what, four sessions written up in that contract?”
  208. “Yeah, see you then.”
  209. >You don’t watch him leave, your eyes glued to the quivering, sobbing mare strapped to the breeding stand.
  210. >Tomorrow, you’re bringing earplugs.
  212. >Steffords is long gone and you’re still sitting on the ground.
  213. >Minutes pass – maybe hours, you’re not sure – but Apple Bloom doesn’t stop shaking.
  214. >You have to let her out of the stand eventually, because there’s no doubt in your mind that leaving her in overnight would kill her. Or she’d kill herself trying to get out on her own.
  215. >The gag comes off first.
  216. >If she’s going to make a fuss, best she do it now where the other ponies won’t hear.
  217. >Shit, it comes away speckled with blood – the corners of her mouth are raw and torn were the cloth rubbed against them.
  218. >You don’t say anything.
  219. >You don’t know what you can say without admitting… something that you shouldn’t admit.
  220. >”What did I do to deserve this?” she finally croaks, her eyes downcast.
  221. “Nothing, but it wasn’t so bad, was it?”
  222. >She refuses to meet your eyes, jerking her head away the second you undo the neck guard.
  223. “Was it, Apple Bloom?”
  224. >”Yes.”
  225. >Her answer half-catches you by surprise. Not what she said, but that she answered at all.
  226. “Then imagine what it’ll be like if I have to go and find you tomorrow.”
  227. >The mare almost falls when you undo the strap around her barrel; her legs can’t support her weight. You have to hold her up as you undo the cuffs on her legs.
  228. “Be here at the same time, okay girl?”
  229. >She nods slowly as you lower her to the ground, where she curls up on herself.
  230. >You had expected her to flinch away from your touch, but she’s too exhausted to do even that.
  231. “Do you want me to –“
  232. >”Just leave me alone,” she sobs.
  233. “Alrighty, girl, just rest up. I’ll send one of the other mares by later to check on you.”
  234. >”Don’t,” she pleads softly as you rise to your feet. “Ah don’t want nopony to see me like this.”
  235. “Fine, I’ll check on you myself.”
  236. >To your shock, she gives you a brief nod.
  238. >You mull it over as you trudge back up to the house, but it makes sense. Just like you couldn’t let the rest of the ponies see Apple Bloom making a fuss, she can’t let them see her being weak.
  239. >Most of your ponies seem to look to her for some reason, despite her young age – she’s always putting on a brave face whenever other ponies are around, talking back and fighting with you every chance she gets like she has a reputation to uphold.
  240. >Yeah, you can understand why she wouldn’t want any of them to see her like this, sobbing like a scared little filly.
  241. >You’ll check on her after you eat, take some food down for her – something nice, maybe some fruit.
  242. >But not an apple, never an apple. Despite her name, the poor girl hates them for some reason.
  243. >The front door is unlocked – not really any point when your closest neighbor lives about an hour’s drive away – so you just waltz on through and hang your hat on a nearby hook.
  244. “Hey, Roma! What’s for dinner?”
  245. >”Sorry, it’s a bit late!” the mare answers from the kitchen. “Fried chicken, but it’ll be a few minutes!”
  246. “S’alright, girl. I need to wash up anyhow.”
  247. >You’re feeling a little dirty, and the quick shower you take does little to help but pass the time.
  248. >Roma has the table set and food laid out by the time you get back downstairs.
  249. >”Again, sorry it was late, sir.”
  250. “Not a problem. I’m guessing your other work kept you out in the fields?”
  251. >”Yes, sir,” she answers promptly. “Sorry –“
  252. >Her mouth clamps shut as you sigh loudly.
  253. “Stop that, you don’t have to apologize for me giving you so much to do. I know I put a lot on your shoulders.”
  254. >You slump in your chair and blindly stare at the table.
  255. >”Is… is something wrong?” Roma asks, cautiously edging up beside you. “Is there something I can do? If you want something else –“
  256. “Dangit, girl, I’m not my uncle.”
  257. >”I – I know, sir.”
  258. “I’m not going to beat you just because I decided on casserole instead of chicken.”
  259. >”I know, would you like me to make a –”
  260. “Don’t I treat you ponies well?”
  261. >”Very well, all things considered. Particularly compared to some of your neighbors.”
  262. “Then why the hell are you acting so scared all of a sudden?”
  263. >”I’m always this scared,” she answers with a dry smile. “You usually just don’t notice, sir.”
  265. >Pear in hand, you slowly push open the barn door.
  266. “Apple Bloom? You still in here, girl?”
  267. >”Y-yes, sir.”
  268. >She hasn’t moved from where you had set her down, still curled in a tight ball.
  269. “I brought you something to eat.”
  270. >You set the pear down by her head when she doesn’t move to take it from you.
  271. “Have you had a chance to think things over?”
  272. >She nods.
  273. “Change your mind about all this?”
  274. >She doesn’t respond.
  275. “Don’t you want a new family, Apple Bloom?”
  276. >Again, she doesn’t answer.
  277. >You sit down beside her – not too close, just barely at arm’s reach.
  278. “Anything we can do to make this easier on you, girl? I mean, as long as you don’t fight, we don’t have to use the stand.”
  279. >”C-can Ah see him?” she mumbles. “Tomorrow, can Ah see him?”
  280. “Why?”
  281. >”N-no reason, sir,” Apple Bloom answers with a tremble. She’s lying, you know that much, but not exactly who she is lying to – you or herself. “Ah just… just…”
  282. >She drifts off with another shudder, her shoulder’s twitching uncontrollably.
  283. >The mare is scared – terrified, even.
  284. >Dammit.
  285. “Well, I don’t see why not.”
  286. >There can’t possibly be any harm in it, in letting her at least know the face of the stallion you hope will sire her first foal.
  287. >She doesn’t seem to find any comfort in that, despite having asked for it.
  288. >After several tense minutes, you have to say something.
  289. “I’m thinking you should probably get some sleep, Apple Bloom. It’ll be a long day tomorrow –“
  290. >You wince at your own stupidity – the mare spasms and twists away. She finally looks up at you, but not *at* you.
  291. >Her eyes are unfocused and wide, the pupils dilated.
  292. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to work in the fields tomorrow.”
  293. >It’s your tone more than your words that brings her a measure of peace – that’s why you continue to speak to her gently, just rambling in the same soft way until she begins to calm down.
  294. >You don’t stop then, not until she doesn’t flinch away when you try to run your hand through her mane.
  295. >She’s still scared of you – they all are – but you’re also the only familiar thing in her tiny universe right now.
  296. >After what seems like an eternity, her movements become deliberate, not reactionary – when she scoots away from you, it’s out of disgust, not fear.
  297. >You can live with that.
  298. “I don’t know about you, girl, but I’m feeling pretty tired. Need help getting back to the dorm?”
  299. >Apple Bloom shakes her head frantically at the suggestion.
  300. >”Ah… Ah can’t,” she mumbles, her eyes dropping to stare at the ground. “Ah can’t go back there right now.”
  301. >She shivers at the thought.
  302. >”Ah’ll just… Ah’ll just sleep here…”
  303. >Her eyes briefly flicker towards the stand and she shudders again.
  304. “Bullshit.”
  305. >She tries to pull away as you reach for her, but she’s too drained to escape.
  306. “Come on, girl.”
  307. >She’s only about 120 pounds – you can lift that.
  308. >It won’t be easy, but you can’t just leave her here. A man has to take care of his ponies, after all.
  309. “I’ll let you sleep up at the house, okay?”
  310. >She doesn’t try to fight you – no fidgeting, no trying to escape.
  311. >”Thank you,” she mumbles into your chest as you lift her up. “Ah don’t want nopony to see me like this.”
  312. >But it’s okay for you to see her being weak – you’re not a pony. Your opinion doesn’t really matter, not unless it makes her life worse.
  313. >And she clearly believes it can’t get any worse.
  314. >Maybe she was too young for this, or maybe she just trusted you too much.
  315. >Too much hope placed in this new and kind master, only for you to tear away the illusion so suddenly.
  316. >That’s what Roma is terrified of, what always has her on edge. She’s just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
  317. >You frown when you meet that very mare coming down from the house as you climb the gentle slope – you’d hoped to avoid her, but luckily Apple Bloom is asleep.
  318. >”The dishes are all done, sir,” Roma says, dipping her head, though her eyes never leave the mare in your arms. “Do you need me to make breakfast as well?”
  319. “No, that won’t be necessary.”
  320. >The mare hesitates, her mouth twisted like she wants to say something more. With Apple Bloom’s weight starting to take its toll on your back, she’ll just have to find that courage tomorrow.
  321. “Goodnight, Roma.”
  322. >She continues to stare at Apple Bloom, despite your dismissal.
  323. “Don’t tell anyone about this, please. For her sake.”
  324. >Timidly, the mare nods.
  325. >You try to continue on, but at the last second Roma shifts to block your way.
  326. >Looks like she found the courage after all.
  327. “What?”
  328. >”Don’t you dare do anything to her,” your cook mumbles, suddenly looking away. “I mean, please, sir.”
  329. “Wasn’t planning to.”
  330. >”She’s had a hard enough life, what with her sister running off and her brother dying in the war and all.”
  331. “I know, Roma. Goodnight.”
  332. >You stress the last word and she takes the hint, stepping out of your way.
  333. >”Thank you, sir. I – I won’t tell anyone.”
  334.  >You smile slightly at her choice of words – she might be spending too much time in the house and away from the other ponies, but it’s not as if you have the time to do any of the cooking yourself.
  335. “Oh, one last thing?”
  336. >”Y-yes, sir?”
  337. “Could you ask Maud to come up to the house first thing in the morning?”
  338. >”Of course, sir.”
  339. >The rest of the walk gives you time to order your thoughts – Apple Bloom normally leads the morning shift, but…
  340. >You glance down at the mare.
  341. >This deal better be worth it, but you have a sinking feeling that it would be better to have her in the fields, particularly now.
  342. >You try to give most of your orders through a select few – overall, the ponies seem to work better when being led by one of their own, than being driven by a slave driver – to give them something akin to an illusion of freedom, at least, even though they can’t have the real thing.
  343. >It doesn’t hurt that this little pony knows more about farming than you ever will.
  344. >When you get to the house, you put Apple Bloom in one of the many vacant rooms.
  345. >You consider setting an alarm for her, but there’s no need.
  346. >She’ll be at the barn when you need her there – you can trust her on that.
  347. >The mare said she would be there, and that has always been enough.
  348. >She would sooner die than break her word.
  349. >You pull the covers over her and head for your own bed – you don’t know what your uncle did to make Roma worried enough to actually speak out and you don’t want to know, but whatever it was isn’t your way.
  350. >With weary legs, you trudge up the stairs. You stop only long enough to set your own alarm and strip down before collapsing into bed.
  352. >There’s a knock at your door – and a glance at your alarm clock reveals that it’s too fucking early for that kind of bullshit.
  353. “What is it!?”
  354. >”You wanted me here first thing in the morning,” a flat voice answers. “It’s first thing in the morning, so I’m here.”
  355. >Oh, fucking dammit. This crap is why you don’t like to rely on Maud as your forepony – she’s too damn literal. Hard worker and knows how to lead a group, but a pain in the ass for you to deal with.
  356. >Worth it, though sometimes – like now – you start to rethink that.
  357. “It’s just after midnight, Maud!”
  358. >”Yeah.”
  359. >You try to rub the sleep from your eyes, but it doesn’t do much good.
  360. “Dammit, just come back later!”
  361. >”But it’s first thing in the morning.”
  362. “No, it isn’t!”
  363. >”But –“
  364. “Just come back later!”
  365. >There’s a disturbingly long moment of silence that seems to stretch on forever as your brain starts to and finally does realize you didn’t define what later meant.
  366. >”It’s later now,” the mare finally says through the door. “I’m here.”
  367. “Come back at six!”
  368. >Another moment of silence.
  369. “SIX AM!”
  370. >”I was going to ask.”
  371. ”SIX AM TODAY!”
  372. >”Obviously,” she responds. “I’ll be back then.”
  373. >With an exasperated sigh, your head falls back onto your pillow.
  374. >You’re asleep moments later, though you do not sleep well.
  375. >Dreams plague your rest, you remember that much, though the jolt of the alarm drives the memory of what they were from your mind.
  376. >You fumble for the alarm, trying to hit the snooze button, because – seriously – fuck this.
  377. >There isn’t one.
  378. >You purposefully looked for an alarm clock without any kind of snooze option, after oversleeping every single day the first week.
  379. >It takes several more tries before you finally switch the clanging piece of shit up.
  380. >5:00.
  381. >You could sleep in a bit longer – but doing that without resetting the alarm means you’ll start the day late.
  382. >Resetting the alarm is too much work.
  383. “Fuck it.”
  384. >You stumble out of bed.
  385. >It’s the early mornings more than anything else that remind you that you aren’t really a farmer.
  386. >Or a rancher.
  387. >Whatever the fuck it is you’re supposed to call yourself.
  388. >It’s definitely the mornings and not the constant sunburn or the ponies or uncertainty of your job title or the any-fucking-thing else.
  389. >Fucking mornings.
  390. >There’s time enough to shower – and you definitely feel like you need it – but you’ll just end up sweaty and dirty by the end of the day. The farm doesn’t have enough ponies for you sit back and take it easy – no glorious southern plantation life for you, sipping mint juleps on the porch while your little slaves toil away in the fields.
  391. >With a groan, you pull on some work clothes and stumble through the empty house. The sound of your boots on the stairs echoes loudly through the empty house. Your uncle’s wife and kids had moved out almost as soon as you moved in – understandable, what with the bad memories and all. Their moving van had been pulling out of the drive before yours had even come to a stop.
  392. >The last few employees had stayed long enough to explain the ropes to you – but there wasn’t enough money coming in to keep them on. They’d stayed out of loyalty to the family, and you… you weren’t quite close enough.
  393. >Close enough that it was your duty to take up the family farm, though – your parents and extended relatives had made that pretty fucking clear.
  394. >Take just ONE year off from school to spend at the farm and – well – biggest mistake of your life, because everyone else seems to think you were the most qualified.
  395. >You were just there to flirt with the neighbor’s girl, though nothing came of it.
  396. >Fuck this place and everything in it.
  397. >At least your kitchen is well stocked – you have to admit that as you look over your choices for breakfast.
  398. “Burnt toast or burnt eggs?”
  399. >Too bad you can’t actually cook any of it.
  400. >You settle for grabbing an apple – after all, if you don’t have to cook it, you (probably) won’t burn it.
  401. >Your wristwatch – and seriously, you never thought you’d need one of those again – shows you have about twenty minutes before Maud shows up –
  402. >Oh, right.
  403. >Apple Bloom.
  404. >For once, you’re not alone in the house.
  405. >You roll your eyes at your own stupidity and grab some other fruit.
  406. >The mare is sleeping fitfully when you carefully open the door, rolling this way and that in the bed and twisting the sheets something terrible.
  407. >The sight of her weighs heavily on your soul.
  408. >Too bad it had to be her.
  409. >You leave the fruit on the nightstand and slip away to wait for Maud on the porch.
  410. >Breakfast helps you pass the time until the grey pony plods out of the darkness.
  411. >She pauses when she sees you and – hesitantly – takes a step back.
  412. “What’s wrong, Maud?”
  413. >”I didn’t expect you to be outside,” she answers. “It’s not six yet.”
  414. >Always so damn literal.
  415. “That’s fine, we can get an early start.”
  416. >”If you’re okay with that,” the mare drones, coming up the few steps to join you.
  417. >Briefly – but precisely – you outline your plans for the day.
  418. >Which fields need attention, the number of ponies that should head where, what other tasks need to be done.
  419. >Basically, you rattle off the list of suggestions Apple Bloom had made yesterday morning. She had the whole week planned out for you – she always does.
  420. “And Full Steam needs to take a look at the tractor. It’s feeling a bit rough –“
  421. >It’s one bad day from giving up the ghost.
  422. “ – and I’m hoping he can get it running smoothly again so we can till the east field in time. If he can’t, I’ll have to take it in to a repair shop and who knows how long that’ll take.”
  423. >Or cost.
  424. >”We could just use plows,” Maud suggests in her usual flat tone. It takes you a second to realize she’s being serious – you’re still getting used to her dry voice.
  425. “We don’t have any.
  426. >”Oh, right.”
  427. >But that’s not a bad idea. Not as good as getting the tractor running, because it would take a lot longer – and pull ponies off of other duties – but better than nothing.
  428. >You’ll have to look into that.
  429. >”Anything else?” she asks after a few seconds of silence.
  430. “Well…”
  431. >You have a feeling you’re forgetting something, but you always have that feeling these days.
  432. >As you sift through your thoughts, Maud looks back over her shoulder towards the dorm – and the faint glow in the sky.
  433. “Nope, that’s it. I’ll be dealing with some stuff in and around the barn, so if anything comes up you can find me there.”
  434. >You can faintly see the other ponies shuffling out of the dorm.
  435. >It’s too far for you to see what they’re doing, but you know that every head is pointed towards the horizon.
  436. “It’s alright if you join them.”
  437. >You don’t want to keep her from the rest. The mare circles around to fully face the creeping light, but doesn’t step down from the porch.
  438. “Still watching the sunrise?”
  439. >”Of course.”
  440. >She doesn’t leave to join the others – she doesn’t need to.
  441. >So long as they share the experience, that’s enough.
  442. >You watch silently from your chair – not the sunrise, but the ponies. Watching the sunrise with them was… you had tried it once, and it was just too awkward to ever do again. You felt like a Muslim barging in to pray with some Hindus or something. You consider going inside, but remain frozen in place.
  443. >It seems less intrusive to just sit silently.
  444. >The sun is just starting to peek above the horizon when Maud shifts slightly.
  445. >”Where were you when the war started?” the mare asks suddenly, her movement the only warning and her voice tinged with something that almost sounds like emotion.
  446. “At home, watching the address on TV.”
  447. >She nods slightly, as if she expected that answer.
  448. >”You saw?”
  449. “Yes.”
  450. >It’s been years, but you’ll never forget.
  451. >”Then how can you ask.”
  452. >It’s not even a real question, because there can’t ever be a real answer.
  453. >Celestia’s address to the peoples of Earth was your generation’s Alamo or Pearl Harbor or John Lennon or the Kennedy assassination or 9/11.
  454. >Except you happened to be on the other side.
  455. >The war didn’t start up immediately – and no one really knows who was behind it – but everyone and everypony agrees that Princess Celestia’s assassination was the starting point.
  456. “I guess I can’t.”
  457. >She grunts softly as the sun slowly climbs above the skyline.
  458. >You let out a breath you hadn’t known you were holding once it finally clears the ground.
  459. “It’s… it’s a shame what happened.”
  460. >You feel a sudden need to apologize, even though you had nothing to do with any of it. Not the assassination, not the war or occupation or anything else.
  461. >”I guess,” Maud mumbles and turns away from you awkwardly. She slowly steps down off the porch, her violet tail hanging limply. “At least this is better than the refugee camps.”
  462. >You’d heard about them, about the crowded camps and their horrible conditions and how the term “refugee” was a joke. You’d even watched a few of the investigative documentaries.
  463. >No food, no water, rampant disease, corrupt guards.
  464. >Ponies were dying in there.
  465. >The outsourcing was supposed to help – that’s why you voted for it.
  466. >“Yes,” Maud continues dryly. “This is better.”
  467. >You hadn’t realized you’d been voting for slavery until it was too late.
  468. >It wasn’t your fault. One vote out of the entire nation didn’t make a speck of difference to the outcome, but at times…
  469. “Except now you’re treated like livestock.”
  470. >”Of course you treat us like livestock,” Maud responds without pausing. She shuffles down the path, even as she continues to talk. “If you didn’t, you’d have to treat us like people.”
  471. >She’s right, of course.
  472. >You don’t have a choice but to treat them like livestock.
  473. >After a few moments, you rise from her chair and follow her.
  474. >There’s work to be done.
  475. >You turn back towards the house after a few steps – out of curiosity, mostly. There’s a flash of pink in a window – in the window to the bedroom you put Apple Bloom in.
  476. >Good, she woke up in time to watch it with the others.
  477. >You don’t need any extra guilt weighing you down.
  478. >There’s no time for it.
  479. >You trudge down the path to begin the day.
  480. >Mostly you stay away from the ponies and work on your own tasks – on things that a single pair of hands can accomplish, or that *only* hands can accomplish.
  481. >Still, you check in on them from time to time as your work takes you across the farm. Things seem to be going smoothly, but not like they would if Apple Bloom had been out there.
  482. >Maud’s a good worker and can accurately pass on orders, but she lacks the same touch as the younger mare. The other ponies aren’t quite as quick to jump at her instructions.
  483. >As the sun climbs higher in the sky, you begin to check your watch periodically – then almost religiously.
  484. >She’s not going to be late; neither should you.
  485. >You get to the barn an hour early – after all, you have last night’s mess to clean up, though it might be quicker to just leave all the rope and assorted tack on the ground.
  486. >They’ll probably end up there again.
  487. >You start by cleaning the stand – even if she doesn’t need it, you can’t leave it in this condition. Not unless you *want* to give Stefford a reason to give you more shit about how unfit you are for this life.
  488. >You’re already well aware.
  489. >This really should have been done last night – the built up salts are starting to corrode the metalwork. Not enough to cause any damage, but leaving things for later is a bad habit you need to lose.
  490. >The leather is worse off – no matter how many times you rub the straps with a damp cloth, you can’t erase the stains of the mare’s sweat.
  491. >That’s fine – it’s a breeding stand. It doesn’t need to look pretty. In fact, you prefer that it *doesn’t*.
  492. >Things that are ugly should *look* ugly, after all.
  493. >Apple Bloom isn’t here – there’s still some time left – so you busy yourself picking up mess you had created last night. Even if everything does end up on the floor again, you need to do something to keep yourself occupied.
  494. >You’re just picking up the last of the rope when you hear the barn door creak open.
  495. “Apple Bloom?”
  496. >”Nope, ‘fraid not,” a woman’s voice answers. “I’m guessin’ that’s the mare?”
  497. “Huh?”
  498. >In surprise, you spin to face – sigh – *her*.
  499. >Oh, goddamn.
  500. >She’s still wearing her long, blond hair in a loose ponytail – you thought she would have grown out of that by now.
  501. >Hoped she hadn’t, but no grown woman wears her hair like that.
  502. >Sure toned up nicely, though, you have to admit – last time you saw her, she was more than a little chubby – now her body is relatively athletic – something her tight jeans and low-cut shirt show off wonderfully – but not naturally so. She has the build – and curves – of a woman who works out obsessively because she knows every bite she eats goes straight to her thighs.
  503. >Damn, those curves.
  504. >You hadn’t wanted to see her again, but at the moment you’re having trouble regretting it.
  505. >”That’s the mare’s name, right?” Lauren repeats, walking through the doors like she owns the fucking place. That damn red stallion trails in behind her on his lead at his own oblivious pace.
  506. “Yeah, I thought you were her.”
  507. >”First time I’ve been mistaken for a pony. Most people seem to think I’m too tall,” she laughs. “Haven’t seen you for years, how you doin’?”
  508. “Fine, I guess.”
  509. >You give a little shrug and drop the rope you’re holding on the workbench.
  510. “I wasn’t expecting you; I assumed your father –“
  511. >”Oh, daddy’s busy,” Lauren says with a wave of her hand. “Besides, don’t really matter who brings the idiot, right?”
  512. >She yanks hard on the stallion’s rope, causing the pony to stumble.
  513. >”I’m sure he can manage things on his own without our help.”
  514. >There’s an awkward pause that you finally can’t help but break.
  515. “Seemed capable enough last time.”
  516. >”That’s what I thought.”
  517. >She looks around the barn and frowns.
  518. >”Got noplace to sit?”
  519. “There’s the ground.”
  520. >You gesture towards the aforementioned ground, because somehow she managed to overlook it once already and clearly needs help finding it.
  521. “Feel free?”
  522. >”Yeaaah, gonna pass on that,” Lauren answers before hopping up on the spine of the breeding stand.
  523. >There’s no way that narrow steel bar can be more comfortable than the ground, but she seems happy enough there.
  524. >She stares at you expectantly with her large, green eyes.
  525. “What? I’m not walking all the way to the house and back to bring you a chair.”
  526. >”Weren’t expecting you to.”
  527. >She expects you to, but you’re not going to.
  528. >”So…”
  529. “I said I won’t.”
  530. >”Where’s the mare?” Lauren sighs, rolling her eyes at you.
  531. “She’ll be along soon.”
  532. >”You let ‘em just roam free?”
  533. “They’ve got their work to do.”
  534. >”Well, yeah, but –“
  535. >She pauses, tilting her head to the right as if to study you from some new angle.
  536. “Look, they know not to run – where would they go? They’d have to cross your place or the Anderson’s to get anywhere, and none of them are stupid enough to do that.”
  537. >”So you’re saying they stay because they know they’re safer here?”
  538. “Yeah.”
  539. >She frowns.
  540. >”The hell do you think you are? Schindler or something?” the woman mocks. “Out to save all the little ponies from all the big bad pony farmers?”
  541. >She begins kicking her legs playfully, swinging them back and forth absentmindedly as she stares at you.
  542. >”Well? Are we really all that bad? All we do is keep ‘em in line.”
  543. >Ugly things should look ugly; too bad they rarely do.
  544. “Maybe I am.”
  545. >You shrug and turn back to your cleaning.
  546. >”Huh. I wonder if you really believe that.”
  547. >You’re better than them, at least. You know that much.
  548. >There’s a heavy, awkward silence as you tidy up the barn, broken only by the squeaking of the stand as Lauren continues to kick her legs.
  549. >God, that always did annoy you.
  550. >It’s a relief when then door creaks open again.
  551. >You turn in time to see Apple Bloom’s face disappear.
  552. “Dammit, Apple Bloom.”
  553. >The way Lauren laughs stings more than anything her father could have said.
  554. “Shut it.”
  555. >The woman obediently nods and clasps both hands over her mouth.
  556. >Snide little bitch.
  557. >You follow the mare outside, prepared to give chase if necessary.
  558. >There’s no need.
  559. >She’s huddled against the wall, shuddering violently.
  560. “Apple Bloom –“
  561. >”Ah can’t!”
  562. “Apple Bloom.”
  563. >”Ah can’t!” the mare cries.
  564. “Look, it’s the same as yesterday – you can get through this. All you have to do is go in that barn and –“
  565. >”No!”
  566. >”I don’t got all day, you know!”
  568. >You look down at the cowering, whimpering mare.
  569. “You said you’d do this, girl. What’s so bad about it that you’d change your mind?”
  570. >She flinches like you had actually struck her.
  571. “For as long as I’ve known you, you’d sooner die than break your word. Isn’t that how your sister raised you?”
  572. >The mare nods weakly.
  573. “What would your sister think if she knew you were going back on your word?”
  574. >The mare looks up at you with her wide pony eyes.
  575. >”But Ah – Ah –“
  576. >She cuts off as the door squeaks – Lauren is leaning over to poke her head around the edge, her long ponytail dangling damn near to the ground.
  577. >”Yeah, girl,” Lauren snarls, her green eyes narrowed in annoyance, “what *would* your sister think?”
  578. >Apple Bloom yelps and turns away, covering her head with her forelegs.
  579. >”Ah’ll do it!” she whimpers. “Please don’t hate me, AJ, Ah’ll do it!”
  580. >The mare sniffs twice more before pulling herself to her hooves and shuffling inside. She screams as the stallion lunges for her, stopping only when he runs out of rope – Lauren had the presence of mind to tie the end off before leaving him unattended.
  581. >”Can’t trust this piece of shit anywhere,” the woman sighs, shoving him back. “Now how are we gonna do this? You need the stand or is there any chance your pony won’t run off again?”
  582. “No, we don’t need to – hey, Apple Bloom, what are you doing?”
  583. >The mare is cautiously approaching the breeding stand, her eyes locked firmly on it.
  584. “I thought you said you were going to behave today?”
  585. >”Yeah,” she mumbles back. “Ah’m a pony of my word.”
  586. >Even as she says that, she steps up and straddles the steel frame.
  587. “Then get off of there. We don’t have to use that.”
  588. >”Ah – *Ah* do,” she sobs, snot running from her nose. “Ah need the stand.”
  589. “But you aren’t going to fight it, are you?”
  590. >What the hell is she doing?
  591. >“N-no, sir.”
  592. >Lauren shrugs and begins tightening the straps and other restraints – and you’re too stunned to stop her.
  593. “You don’t need to do it like this if you aren’t going to fight him!”
  594. >”Ah do! Ah need it!”
  595. “Why!?”
  596. >“This way… this way it ain’t my fault.”
  597. “What…?”
  598. >With a slight tremble, Apple Bloom lowers her head for Lauren to tighten the neck guard.
  599. “I told you, none of this is your fault, girl.”
  600. >Her large eyes flicker towards you momentarily – there’s a question there, but one she’s too afraid to ask.
  601. >Maybe…
  602. >”He’s right, you know,” Lauren tells the mare, tightening the strap around her barrel. “This ain’t your fault at all, just what’s gotta be done.”
  603. >The woman runs her hand down the pony’s back, kneeling down to whisper softly into her ears.
  604. >You can’t make out the words, just the gentle tone, no matter how you hard you strain to hear.
  605. “Are you sure –“
  606. >Lauren stares you into silence, continuing to whisper without pause.
  607. >She sits back on her heals when Apple Bloom nods once.
  608. >”Ah’m… Ah’m ready.”
  609. >She doesn’t sound like she is, but Lauren stands and takes a few steps towards the stallion.
  610. >”Remember, this ain’t your fault,” the woman repeats as the undoes the knot holding the pony back.
  611. >She raises an eyebrow when she sees you make for the door, but doesn’t stop you.
  612. >Good, because you can’t watch this.
  613. >Not again.
  614. >You should, but you can’t.
  615. >Somehow, that makes it worse than if you could, but chose not to.
  616. >The door shuts behind you – there are a few moments of peace, a few moments where you can pretend you aren’t just letting that happen, but it doesn’t last.
  617. >The walls aren’t thick enough to block out the noise. Not completely.
  618. >Dammit, that bitch forgot to gag Apple Bloom.
  619. >Worthless cunt.
  620. >You’re so focused on blocking out the noise that you don’t even notice Lauren slipping outside to join you until she puts her hand on your shoulder.
  621. >”Hey –“
  622. “Why didn’t you gag her!?”
  623. >Her hand pulls away abruptly and she takes a step back in shock.
  624. >”So we could hear her if she called for help,” Lauren answers after a second. “If we ain’t gonna watch, she’s gotta have a way of letting us know if she’s in trouble.”
  625. “Oh.”
  626. >She should have just stayed.
  627. >”Surprised I give a damn?” she asks, slumping up against the wall beside you. “You really shouldn’t be.”
  628. “No… no, that was nice of you.”
  629. >”Nice had nothing to do with it,” she mutters in response. “I don’t want your mare getting hurt and us havin’ to return the stud fee is all.”
  630. “Plus damages.”
  631. >”Plus damages.”
  632. >Lauren crosses her arms and turns away from you.
  633. “Still, thanks for calming Apple Bloom down.”
  634. >”She did what she was supposed to. She gets treated nicely.”
  635. “I should have done that.”
  636. >She’s supposed to trust you. She’s supposed to obey *you*.
  637. >”Nah, you gotta live with her,” Lauren responds after a few seconds of near-silence. “Might be best if you don’t show up at all the next two days, ‘cept to pick her up and take care of her afterwards.”
  638. “Why?”
  639. >Lauren answers with a weak laugh and shake of her head, sending the tip of her ponytail dancing.
  640. >”Well, you don’t really want her associating you with this, do you?”
  641. >She risks a quick look at you, glancing over her shoulder for just a fraction of a second.
  642. >”I mean, she’s such a scared little shit –“
  643. “How the fuck would you like being strapped to that rack and raped!?”
  644. >”What makes you think I haven’t been?”
  645. >wat
  646. >She looks back again, biting her lip.
  647. >”Well, now I got your attention –“
  648. “Bitch.”
  649. >”Yeah, I am,” she sighs, smirking slightly. “Anyway, I lied. I *do* got all day. Nothing to do around here except work, you know?”
  650. “And beating ponies for the hell of it, right? Isn’t that what your family does?”
  651. >”God, you really hate daddy, don’t you?”
  652. >She shifts, rolling herself around to face you again.
  653. >”If this were a story, don’t that mean you would have to seduce me from my evil ways?”
  654. “Why don’t you go spend time with the Andersons, if you’re so fucking bored. They’ve got a son about our age, right?”
  655. >Lauren shrugs.
  656. >”You talkin’ about the one that fed hisself into a thresher or the one that moved away and don’t talk to his family no more ‘cause slavery is immoral?”
  657. “Either, but I guess that answers that.”
  658. >She sighs loudly, drowning out the sounds from the barn for a moment.
  659. >”Ain’t nobody to have fun with ‘round here, less I count my father,” she mumbles. “And we’re Southern, but not *that* Southern. So…”
  660. >She flutters her eyelashes at you in what’s probably meant to be a seductive manner.
  661. “This is why I can’t fucking stand you. You know that, right?”
  662. >”Yeah, sure,” the woman sighs. “Just keep telling yourself that. I’m sure you had perfectly valid reasons for running back to the city. So, how was life there? Make lots of friends? Become CEO of some giant company?”
  663. >Fuck her and her bullshit.
  664. >”Why are you doing this?” she sighs.
  665. “Because I have to. You know, that damn contract and everything kinda says I have to.”
  666. >”Bull,” Lauren snarls. “You coulda turned daddy away. I doubt he would have minded any.”
  667. “Bullshit.”
  668. >”But that ain’t what I meant.”
  669. >She gingerly reaches out and touches your shoulder again.
  670. >”Why are you here? Why’d you come back after so long and take up the farm?”
  671. “My uncle died. You know that!”
  672. >Lauren doesn’t retreat this time, gently squeezing your shoulder.
  673. >”Yeah, but why *you*.”
  674. “What choice did I have! My family made me!”
  675. >”You haven’t changed a bit, have you?” she sighs angrily. “Still blaming everything on someone else.”
  676. “Fuck you.”
  677. >Bullshit, this isn’t your fucking fault.
  678. >You jerk away from her hand and walk around her.
  679. >”Hey, where you going?”
  680. “I’ve got to check on my pony.”
  681. >*Someone* has to be responsible and supervise things.
  682. >”Fine,” Lauren mumbles, crossing her arms over her chest defensively. “Just be nice to her.”
  683. “What was it you did to her? Some horse trick?”
  684. >”*No*,” she sneers. “Just talked to her. Ponies ain’t livestock and you can’t treat ‘em like they are!”
  685. “How the fuck can you tell me that when your family doesn’t even let ponies have names!?”
  686. >She flinches as your fist smashes into the wall.
  687. >”It’s horrible what people can do to one another, ain’t it?” Lauren mumbles, her eyes dropping to stare at the ground. “Fine, go play with your pony, asshole.”
  688. >If you weren’t so concerned for Apple Bloom, you just tell her to go back in instead.
  689. >In fact, fuck it.
  690. “No, why don’t you?”
  691. >She gasps, looking up suddenly, her eyes wide and trembling.
  692. >”Because –“
  693. “Yeah, you should do it. After all, you don’t want to risk Apple Bloom getting hurt, right?”
  694. >Her eyes narrow, her mouth turns into a thin line.
  695. >”Fine,” Lauren growls, pushing past you. “Fucking coward.”
  696. >She flings the door open and stalks inside.
  697. >All you can hear is Apple Bloom’s sobbing.
  698. >Fucking bitch could have at least closed the goddamn door.
  699. >You kick it shut, cutting off the noise.
  700. >And none-to-soon – Maud rounds the corner of the barn less than a minute later, heading straight for you.
  701. >”The tractor is broken,” she says in her usual monotone before you can greet her.
  702. “Yeah, I know, that’s why I said –“
  703. >”Full Steam says he needs new parts to fix it.”
  704. >Dammit.
  705. >You don’t need this now.
  706. >Why did she have to come to you about this *now*?
  707. >”Why is Apple Bloom crying?”
  708. “What?”
  709. >”Apple Bloom,” Maud repeats. “She’s crying. Why?”
  710. >You glance towards the doors, but they’re shut.
  711. >Damn her pony hearing.
  712. >You look towards the doors again.
  713. >Dammit, how the hell do you explain this?
  714. >”Oh,” the mare grunts suddenly, coming to a sudden realization. “Is that why she isn’t working today?”
  715. >Maud almost sounds… angry?
  716. >You’ve never her show so much emotion, but it’s understandable, considering what’s happening to Apple Bloom.
  717. “I know this isn’t right –“
  718. >”No, it’s fine,” the mare sighs, her cheeks slightly flushed. “Family is important.”
  719. “What?”
  720. >”I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be jealous,” Maud mumbles in her usual monotone. “I just wish I could see my sisters again.“
  721. “What…?”
  722. >”I would probably cry, too.”
  723. >You can’t fucking imagine that to be true.
  724. >It’s nice of you to do this for her.”
  725. “I – I wish she felt the same way.”
  726. >If that’s what Maud thinks, why couldn’t it have been *her*, instead?
  727. >Why did it have to be Apple Bloom?
  728. >”That’s odd,” the mare comments, her ears flicking briefly. “I assumed she would be happy to see Big Mac.”
  729. “Who?”
  730. >”Big Mac,” she repeats, blinking slowly. After a few seconds of silence, she blinks again and continues. “Big stallion. Red. Her brother.”
  731. >Shit.
  732. >”That was him I saw coming out of the trailer earlier, right?”
  733. >She turns her head slightly to indicate the trailer hooked to Lauren’s pickup.
  734. >*Shit*.
  735. >Apple Bloom should have fucking told you!
  736. >That alone would have been grounds to nullify the contract and get the farm’s money back!
  737. >SHIT!
  738. “Why didn’t she –“
  739. >”Oh, right. Nevermind,” Maud grunts, turning her head back to stare curiously at the barn. “I forgot.”
  740. “Forgot what, Maud?”
  741. >”I forgot he’s dead. Nevermind.”
  742. >She turns away, heading back towards the fields.
  743. >”Anyway, we need parts for the tractor.”
  744. >Your mind is far from thoughts on the tractor as the mare walks away.
  745. “Wait!”
  746. >Maud stops and looks back over her shoulder.
  747. “Do you know what’s going on in the barn?”
  748. >”No,” she answers flatly. “Don’t you?”
  749. “Y-yes.”
  750. >She stands stiff as a rock, the only movement a slow, patient blink.
  751. “But you can hear her crying –“
  752. >”You would tell me if you wanted me to know,” Maud says with an almost imperceptible shrug. “I just hope it isn’t too bad, whatever it is. She’s had a hard life.”
  753. >She’s not the first pony to tell you that in recent days.
  754. >You sigh loudly and glance towards the barn door again.
  755. >She can’t know what’s happening – even if she *does* know, she can’t – but her comments have you on edge.
  756. >Your heart is pounding and mind racing – you’re not sure if this is a good development or not, yet. Still trying to figure it out.
  757. >”Sir?”
  758. “What?”
  759. >You’d almost forgotten about Maud.
  760. >No, you had forgotten.
  761. >”Can I go now?”
  762. “Yes. Almost. Wait.”
  763. >She doesn’t move.
  764. “Are you sure Apple Bloom’s brother is dead?”
  765. >”Yes.”
  766. >Maud fidgets, her eyes darting away from you with uncharacteristic discomfort.
  767. >You don’t want to press her any further, but you need to know.
  768. >If you can get out of the contract…
  769. >Well, it would be the best thing for Apple Bloom, right?
  770. >And the farm, probably. Short-term, at least.
  771. >”I should get back –“
  772. “How do you know?”
  773. >She answers with a silent stare, her tail lazily moving back and forth.
  774. >In another pony, that might mean nothing. From her, it’s a warning.
  775. “Did you see the body, because –“
  776. >”I don’t want to talk about this.”
  777. >You shouldn’t push any further – it’ll undermine your authority if you keep it up and she refuses to answer – but you have to.
  778. >It’s for the best – you *have* to.
  779. “Neither do I, Maud, but I need to know.”
  780. >She meets your eyes briefly, before turning.
  781. >”Ask Roma,” the mare tells you as she trots away. “She used to live in Ponyville.”
  782. “But…”
  783. >You hesitantly take a step to follow her, but she doesn’t stop.
  784. >The signs where there – you saw them – not that they made any sense. It’s not like you were talking about her family, so why was she so uncomfortable?
  785. >There’s no point calling her back – you lost control of the conversation when you pushed her too far.
  786. >You could try to regain it, demand she come answer your questions, but sometimes it’s better to let go.
  787. >Even to someone as new to this lifestyle as you, it’s common sense – never give a pony an order they won’t follow.
  788. >Briefly you consider tracking down your cook and questioning her, but discard the idea almost immediately.
  789. >After all, Roma might not give you the answers you want to hear.
  790. >And… and…
  791. >It doesn’t really matter if the stallion is Apple Bloom’s brother, so long as you can convince the Steffords that he is, right?
  792. >If you remember the contract right, DNA testing is at their cost, so you doubt they’ll seriously contest it.
  793. >This deal is worth a decent amount of money to them, but not *that* much.
  794. >You’re almost giddy with excitement as you open the barn door and slip inside.
  795. >It’s quiet - the stallion occasionally grunts as he thrusts himself into Apple Bloom, but that and the squeaking of the stand are the only sounds.
  796. >Your mare seems to have run out of tears.
  797. >Lauren is slumped on the ground with her legs bent, resting her crossed arms on her knees.
  798. >She seems oblivious to everything, looking vaguely in Apple Bloom’s direction with a vacant, thousand-yard stare.
  799. “Not too proud to sit on the dirt anymore?”
  800. >That should make things easier.
  801. >Always has, with her.
  802. >Once Lauren’s pride is broken, she’s a cinch to deal with.
  803. “Hey.”
  804. >This time won’t be any different.
  805. >You’ll have your money back by the end of the day.
  806. “Lauren, wake up.”
  807. >You bend down slightly, trying to get her attention.
  808. >Her eyes don’t waver – she doesn’t respond to you at all.
  809. >Huh.
  810. >You reach out to touch her shoulder – you don’t want to wait for her to snap out of whatever little fantasy she’s having on her own.
  811. >As your fingers brush against her, Lauren finally comes alive, jumping away and slapping at your hand.
  812. >”Don’t you ever fucking touch me, you son of a bitch!”
  813. >She misses by a mile.
  814. “Well, if you’d actually been paying attention to things, I wouldn’t have had to.”
  815. >Lauren scowls at you and scoots further away.
  816. >”Everything’s fine.”
  817. “Well, I wouldn’t go that far…”
  818. >The woman’s frown deepens as you sit down beside her.
  819. >”No need for you to stay, I’ve got this.”
  820. “Actually –“
  821. >”Fine! Then I’ll go –“
  822. >She tries to stand, but you grab her wrist and yank her back down – pulled off-balance, she falls awkwardly to land sprawled on the dirt.
  823. “Don’t you fucking walk away from me.”
  824. >”Or what?” Lauren growls, tearing her arm free from your hand and half-rising.
  825. “Or I’ll have to go talk to your ‘daddy’ about this instead.”
  826. >She freezes in place.
  827. >”About what?”
  828. “Well, I just heard something interesting from one of my ponies.”
  829. >Slowly, she lowers herself back down, edging further away from you as she does so.
  830. >”And…?”
  831. >She knows you have a point – you always have a point. She also knows you’re going to take your own sweet time getting to it.
  832. “Apple Bloom has a brother.”
  833. >The woman timidly glances in the mare’s direction – as do you after a second’s delay.
  834. >Her eyes are squeezed shut, her ears flat against her skull.
  835. >She won’t hear a word you say.
  836. >Good, you don’t want her ruining your bluff by saying anything.
  837. >”What, you want to buy him or something?” Lauren mumbles after a moment, her green eyes flickering away from the ponies momentarily. “Maybe make your money back on stud fees?”
  838. >She laughs weakly, baring her teeth in a fake smile.
  839. >”You want advice or something?”
  840. “Nah, I heard he was pretty badly injured.”
  841. >If the ponies thought he was dead, he had to have been – if he had survived at all.
  842. >”So what? If you take care of him proper and all, that ain’t much of a problem.”
  843. >She jerks her chin towards the stallion.
  844. >”Daddy managed, after all.”
  845. >Oh, that’s just beautiful.
  846. “I also heard he was pretty big.”
  847. >”Well, good for you, then. Guess you’ll get a nice foal out of this.”
  848. >She frowns and looks away, finding something at the far end of the barn that required her immediate attention.
  849. “He’s also bright red.”
  850. >Lauren’s head snaps around to stare at you, her eyes wide in panic.
  851. >”You don’t mean –“
  852. “Now, what did that contract say again about –“
  853. >”Don’t you dare!”
  854. >She practically jumps to her feet. You follow suit – it’s hard to intimidate someone standing over you.
  855. >As it is, the top of her head barely comes up to your chin.
  856. >That doesn’t stop her from getting in your face, though.
  857. >”Don’t you *dare* try –“
  858. >She stops midsentence to look at the ponies again.
  859. “What?“
  860. >”Outside,” she murmurs angrily, grabbing your hand and pulling you towards the door. “We’ll discuss this outside.”
  861. >Damn farmgirl doesn’t give you much of a chance to resist, dragging you outside before you realize what’s happening.
  862. >”What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she hisses as she kicks the door shut behind you. “You can’t do that!”
  863. “Pretty sure I can. Your family breached the contract –“
  864. >”Not that!”
  865. >She shoves you, sending you stumbling back into the wall.
  866. >So much for having her spirit broken.
  867. “Look, don’t give me any shit about it being a leftover from your farm’s horse breeding days. A deal is a deal and –“
  868. >”How can you talk about her brother when she’s right there!?”
  869. “Because –“
  870. >”Even if you’re right, and I ain’t saying you are, she’s… she’s…”
  871. >Your cheek stings.
  872. >…
  873. >She slapped you.
  874. >Fucking bitch slapped you!
  875. >”How could you let this happen to her!?”
  876. “Hey!”
  877. >She flinches away for a second – for just a second – as you raise your hand.
  878. “It’s your stallion this… this…”
  879. >You can’t make threats and not follow through on them.
  880. >That applies to ponies *and* people.
  881. “This is *your* fault!”
  882. >She doesn’t turn away or try to avoid your open palm, standing still as a rock as you bring it across her face.
  883. >”Yeah, it’s never yours,” Lauren growls, your handprint clearly visible on her cheek. “God, she prolly don’t even know if it’s him! How can you talk about it where she can hear you?”
  884. “Because you broke the contract! I don’t expect her to tell me! She’s just a pony!“
  885. >”They ain’t livestock!” Lauren screams, so loud even her father can probably hear her. “Now you go on in and pull him off of her, you piece of shit.”
  886. >She reaches past you and tries to pull the door open, but you slam it shut, leaning your whole weight against it.
  887. “You aren’t contesting it, then?”
  888. >Something about that gives her pause.
  889. >Something about that scares her more than your hand had.
  890. >”I’ll – I’ll have to talk to daddy –“
  891. “No, you’re here. You make the call.”
  892. >”I can’t do that,” she says, almost pleadingly. “Besides, don’t matter what the truth is, you go pull him off of her right now!”
  893. >Lauren yanks on the handle, but can’t budge it with your weight pinning the door in place.
  894. “No.”
  895. >Why is she so focused on that?
  896. >Whatever the reason, it gives you something to bargain with.
  897. >”If you don’t –“
  898. “If you admit that he’s her brother, then I’ll do it.”
  899. >Lauren hesitates.
  900. >”I can’t do that, and you know it,” she hisses loudly, pulling on the handle again.
  901. “Then call your father.”
  902. >She releases the door handle and takes a step back, hesitantly digging into her pocket for her phone.
  903. >”F-fine.”
  904. >She’s breaking.
  905. >”I’ll – I’ll call him, and…”
  906. >Lauren tries to smile at you as she pulls her phone out.
  907. >It’s neither warm, nor convincing.
  908. >If she was trying to scare you, it didn’t work.
  909. “Go ahead. Call.”
  910. >You may hate the man, but for some reason she is *scared* of him.
  911. >Lauren looks down at her phone, but can’t quite seem to make herself dial.
  912. >Her finger hovers over the screen for several long, heartstopping moments.
  913. >Will she break? Or will she –
  914. >It’s Apple Bloom’s scream that finally sends her over the edge. A long, drawn out, wordless howl that tears at your soul – and hers.
  915. >”Fine,” Lauren mumbles, her arms dropping to her sides. “Fine, you win.”
  916. “What was that?”
  917. >”I said you win!” Her eyes flicker up to meet yours. “He’s her brother, okay!?”
  918. “Are you sure about that? Because –“
  919. >”Yes!” Lauren shouts, tears starting to gather in the corners of her eyes. “We’ll… we’ll pay you back, just… just help her…”
  920. >You cross your arms and smile.
  921. >”Why aren’t you –“
  922. “He’s *your* stallion. Shouldn’t you pull him off?”
  923. >You’ll never forget the look of terror on her face.
  924. >Sometime in the future, you might look back on it and feel ashamed, but right now all you feel is victorious.
  925. >”I… I…”
  926. >Lauren’s eyes dart back and forth, like a caged animal trying to find a way to escape.
  927. “Oh, fine, I’ll do you a favor.”
  928. >You reach out and ruffle her hair.
  929. >She *hates* that.
  930. >…
  931. >She doesn’t react.
  932. >Well, that’s no fun.
  933. >With a sigh, you shift your weight and yank open the door.
  934. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of this for you.”
  935. >Ah, *that* blow landed.
  936. >Lauren turns away to hide her tears.
  937. >You never thought that she would be that weak.
  938. >Well, time to uphold your end of the deal – time to get that beast off of your mare.
  939. >You cautiously approach, careful to avoid spooking him.
  940. >Even this brain-damaged bastard can probably bust you up pretty bad if he lashes out.
  941. >His lead is still attached, so you make for that, grabbing the rope with both hands and yanking.
  942. >It takes several tries, but eventually he stumbles away from Apple Bloom.
  943. >Easier than you thought, but he’s clearly exhausted and lacks the strength to fight you.
  944. >Between his sweat-slick coat and heavy panting, bastard has clearly spent himself on your mare.
  945. >Repeatedly – and painfully – if the white-and-pink dribble from between her legs means anything.
  946. “Shit…”
  947. >In your distraction, the bastard half-heartedly tries to mount her again, but a swift jerk of his lead pulls him away.
  948. “I’ve half-a-mind to…”
  949. >As much as you want to beat the shit out of the stallion, you can’t. And there’s no point threatening him – he wouldn’t even understand.
  950. >You settle for jerking at his rope harder than necessary, roughly leading him outside.
  951. >Lauren doesn’t say anything as you tie his lead off.
  952. >Doesn’t even thank you.
  953. “That’s two breaches of contract.”
  954. >Her head snaps up.
  955. >”What?”
  956. “I’m pretty certain that monster of yours damn near killed my mare.”
  957. >”Then why aren’t you taking care of her!?”
  958. >She rushes inside without waiting for an answer, forcing you to yell after her.
  959. “Well, why weren’t you watching him!?”
  960. >You give the stallion’s rope a cursory check before following her back inside.
  961. >There are two things you really don’t need right now – that dumb bastard wandering loose and getting hurt… and Lauren having any time alone with Apple Bloom.
  962. >She might say the wrong thing.
  963. >Maybe you should have waited to bring up her brother until you knew for sure.
  964. >Didn’t have a choice, though.
  965. >Your worst fears are reveled for the joke they are as you step into the barn – Lauren isn’t questioning your mare about her family.
  966. >”Please, no more,” the mare murmurs softly as Lauren gently touches her.
  967. >”Just a little bit longer and it’ll all be over.”
  968. >”… please…”
  969. >”Someone’s gotta check your injuries, girl. Would you rather it be me or one of your kind?”
  970. >Dammit, that should have been your first concern.
  971. >”Y-you,” Apple Bloom answers after a second’s hesitation, her head dipping even further in surrender.
  972. >Guiltily, you reach for the straps holding her in place, but Lauren swats at your hand.
  973. >”Not yet.”
  974. “I should do this.”
  975. >Lauren glares harshly at you over the mare’s back.
  976. “Fine.”
  977. >You take a few steps back, distancing yourself both figuratively and literally from what she is doing.
  978. >Apple Bloom cries out as the woman’s fingers touch something painful – the chains rattle as she reactively tries to lash out with her hindlegs.
  979. >”Sorry, girl, just a little bit longer.”
  980. >The mare grits her teeth, trying not to scream as Lauren continues.
  981. >Dammit.
  982. “If she’s seriously hurt –“
  983. >”I know, I know,” the woman mumbles, giving you a weak smile that Apple Bloom can’t see. “You’d kill me in a heartbeat to protect her.”
  984. >Actually, you were thinking about the money you’d get out of it, which makes Apple Bloom’s grateful expression hurt even more.
  985. >You should be thinking about her, not the farm.
  986. >The farm will find a way to survive. It always has.
  987. >”Don’t worry, though,” Lauren sighs, pulling her hand free. “You don’t gotta do that. It’s just a little tearing.”
  988. “Good.”
  989. >She pats Apple Bloom’s flank with her clean hand.
  990. >”You’ll be okay, girl,” she whispers – you don’t think you were meant to hear that, but emotion lends her voice greater volume than she had intended. “You’ll get through this.”
  991. >Apple Bloom shudders as Lauren begins undoing the buckles and straps – her muscles are too tense to let her fall.
  992. “Maybe… maybe I should get a professional to take a look…”
  993. >It’ll cost, but not as much as keeping your best worker out of the fields for who knows how long.
  994. >”Maybe…” Lauren concedes, though the look she shoots you when Apple Bloom isn’t looking says otherwise.
  995. >Gently, she runs her hand down the mare’s neck.
  996. >”He’ll take good care of you.”
  997. >”P-please, Ah just want out of this,” Apple Bloom pleads.
  998. >But –
  999. >Oh.
  1000. >The strap around her barrel is still holding her in place.
  1001. >Why the hell didn’t Lauren take care of –
  1002. >She gestures impatiently for you to undo the buckle.
  1003. > - oh.
  1004. >Your eyes flicker back towards her face.
  1005. “Get that damn stallion of yours in his trailer.”
  1006. >You don’t want Apple Bloom seeing him when you carry her out.
  1007. >To your relief, worry about what she might say isn’t the first thing that popped into your head. Nor the second.
  1008. >No, it was actual concern about her that came first.
  1009. >Lauren nods and leaves you alone with the mare.
  1010. >Good, you didn’t want to have to see her any longer, either. That was the second thing, before you started to worry about what Apple Bloom might say if she saw the stallion.
  1011. >You give Lauren a few seconds head start before stepping up and releasing the last restraint.
  1012. >It isn’t a surprise this time when Apple Bloom starts to fall – you easily catch her.
  1013. >“T-thank you, sir.”
  1014. ”Don’t, girl. I don’t deserve it.”
  1015. >Her eyes drop  and she looks away.
  1016. >It stings a little that she doesn’t insist, but you won’t hold it against her.
  1017. “At least it’s all over now.”
  1018. >”Ah’ll… Ah’ll try to do better tomorrow,” she sobs into your chest. “Ah’m s-sorry I –“
  1019. “Tomorrow won’t happen.”
  1020. >You stroke her mane gently as you come up with some little lie to explain things – your mind wanders even as the words pour out and not a one sticks in your memory longer than it takes for the next word to come out.
  1021. >Luckily, she isn’t paying much attention either, so you won’t have to worry about being caught in a lie later.
  1022. >Really, Apple Bloom is too relieved to give a damn why.
  1023. >After a few minutes, you run out of nothings to say and just pat her comfortingly.
  1024. >”It’s… it’s because Ah got hurt, ain’t it?” the mare asks after a while.
  1025. “No.”
  1026. >That’s just the cherry on top.
  1027. >”Ah… Ah’m sorry Ah –“
  1028. “No, it’s not your fault.”
  1029. >”Ah know,” she mumbles, shivering slightly. “Ah – Ah know that.”
  1030. “Want me to take you back to the house?”
  1031. >”Ah can walk.”
  1032. “I’m sure you can, girl, but I can carry you, too.”
  1033. >”Y-yes, sir,” she sobs as you hoist her up.
  1034. >It was nighttime when you carried her to the house yesterday, but you have no fear of running into any of your other ponies today.
  1035. >They should all still be out in the fields or occupied with other work.
  1036. >No sign of the stallion, either, as you carry Apple Bloom outside, though Lauren is leaning against the trailer.
  1037. “We’ll discuss this as soon as I’ve seen to my pony.”
  1038. >She nods without even looking up.
  1039. >As you expected, you don’t come across any other ponies as you carry Apple Bloom up the path. You might not run the farm with Steffords’ iron fist or your uncle’s unpredictable cruelty, but the ponies know better than to stray from their assigned tasks.
  1040. >After all, anything that doesn’t get done today will just have to be added to their workload tomorrow.
  1041. >You see to Apple Bloom’s needs – get her into the shower, make sure she has food and water in her room for when she gets out.
  1042. >You’d stay with her, but after a moment she shoos you out.
  1043. >Even walking around naked all the time, ponies don’t seem to feel comfortable with someone watching them bathe.
  1044. >You could use a shower yourself, but you shouldn’t keep Lauren waiting too long. Every moment you delay is another moment she has to get up the courage to call her father, and you know that he won’t roll over half as easily as she did.
  1045. >Hell, you weren’t expecting *her* to roll over half as easily as she did.
  1046. >Still, you take your time heading back – even pausing to grab a pair of apples from the kitchen.
  1047. >You’re starting to feel a little hungry, and it’d only be polite to bring Lauren something.
  1048. >After all, it never hurts to be gracious in victory.
  1049. >You mosey back down the path at your own pace, but still somehow manage to catch the woman by surprise.
  1050. >She’s sitting on the ground with her back to the trailer, huddled up with her arms wrapped around her legs and her head pressed against her knees.
  1051. >You aren’t trying to move silently, but she doesn’t seem to notice your steps as you come closer, not until you nudge her foot with the toe of your boot.
  1052. >”I told you not to touch me, asshole,” she mumbles without raising her head.
  1053. “And I told you we’d discuss this as soon as I’d finished with Apple Bloom.”
  1054. >You stand over her silently.
  1055. >”Can’t we do this tomorrow?” she eventually asks wearily, still looking down.
  1056. “No, my mare’s been hurt –“
  1057. >”As if you even give a damn.”
  1058. >Lauren finally raises her head – dried tears streak her face, but she looks more frustrated and angry than sad.
  1059. >Still sad, though.
  1060. >It’s just buried under the other emotions.
  1061. “Of course I care, dammit. That’s why I put this little talk off long enough to take care of her.”
  1062. >”Yeah, or maybe you were just hungry.”
  1063. >She nods towards the apples in your hand.
  1064. >”Surprised you didn’t stop for a full five-course meal on the way to celebrate,” she sneers. “After all, you’re going to get your damn money back *and* a nice foal out of this.”
  1065. “Speaking of money…”
  1066. >”It’ll take me a few days, but you’ll get it,” she snarls, looking away abruptly and wiping at her face with her hands. “Just give me some time.”
  1067. “Why?”
  1068. >”Because I don’t got that kind of cash just lying around, okay!?”
  1069. “Okay, but –“
  1070. >”An’ I can’t let daddy know, so…” Lauren sighs with a catch in her throat – she has to take a moment to stop herself from breaking out into a crying fit again before she can continue. “So if you want – if you want your damn money so damn badly, you’ll just have to wait.”
  1071. >You have to stop yourself from pressing for payment now – if Lauren doesn’t have the money, she doesn’t have it.
  1072. >Besides, she’s good for it; that girl is honest to a fault.
  1073. >Still…
  1074. “And just why can’t your father know?”
  1075. >She flinches away as you step closer and doesn’t relax even when you hold out one of the apples to her and sit down in the trailer’s shade.
  1076. >”I just can’t, alright?”
  1077. “But he’s the one that signed the contract. There’s no reason you should pay.”
  1078. >Aside from being the one that let the stallion injure Apple Bloom, but it wouldn’t be nice to bring that up.
  1079. >You almost do, but hesitate too long. By the time your desire to see her squirm finally beats out common decency, the moment had passed.
  1080. >There’s a long, awkward silence as Lauren stares at the apple you had handed her.
  1081. >You’re just taking the first bite of yours when she responds.
  1082. >”It’s just easier this way, alright?”
  1083. >You give Lauren a little nod to show that you understand – and not just because you’re just giving in.
  1084. >Hell, you’re practically a goddamn expert on taking the easy path, and that doesn’t make you a coward or lazy or anything of the sort.
  1085. >Isn’t there some Eastern religion about doing just that?
  1086. >Not that you follow it, as such, but it feels *right*.
  1087. >You *do* understand what she means and it *is* easier. For everyone.
  1088. “Fine, I can wait.”
  1089. >”Gee, thanks,” Lauren sniffles, trying to mask her vulnerability with sarcasm. It almost makes you regret being nice to her, but you can’t bring yourself to kick someone who’s down *this* low. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
  1090. >Besides, apparently you don’t have to wait *that* long for your money.
  1091. “That’s pretty fast.”
  1092. >”With the stallion,” she sneers.
  1093. “But –“
  1094. >“We gotta keep up the pretense, dumbass.”
  1095. >Oh.
  1096. >Makes sense.
  1097. “Why not just leave him here, then?”
  1098. >You gesture towards the barn with the hand holding the apple.
  1099. “Don’t want him in the dorms, but you had to see we got plenty of empty stables in there…”
  1100. >As does everyone.
  1101. >It’s been at least a year since your uncle sold off the last of the real horses in these parts.
  1102. >That sale alone kept the farm going for over the winter months.
  1103. >”Course I saw,” Lauren mumbles before finishing off her apple.
  1104. “Well?”
  1105. >She answers you with silence and by gazing off at the horizion.
  1106. “Means you won’t have to waste your time coming up here every day.”
  1107. >And that means you won’t have to see her until she comes to pick him up.
  1108. >”Can’t,” the woman says after a few moments. “Daddy don’t like having any of his belongings out of arm’s reach that long.”
  1109. >She sighs, turning her head just enough to look at you out of the corner of her eye.
  1110. >”Speakin’ of, I better get back to the farm.”
  1111. >She waits a moment longer, just watching you with those green eyes of hers.
  1112. >You get the feeling she’s expecting – hoping – you’ll say something to change her mind.
  1113. “Yeah, I guess so.”
  1114. >You give yourself a little push off of the trailer and stand.
  1115. “Sounds like you’ve got a lot to do.”
  1116. >You can hear the scrape of her boots against bare dirt as she rises behind you.
  1117. >”I… I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
  1118. “Don’t really have a choice, do we?”
  1119. >Her reply is lost to you as you take another bite of your apple, the crunchy flesh of the fruit drowning out whatever she says.
  1120. >Whatever.
  1121. >It’s not important.
  1122. >You wave with your free hand without even turning to look at her and trudge back up the trial to the house.
  1123. >There’s only one or two more bites left on the fruit – you take your time and finish it off in three, tossing the core aside without stopping.
  1124. >You’re a quarter of the way there when you hear her slam the truck door shut and its engine cough a few times before finally turning over.
  1125. >A happy sigh escapes your mouth as the truck rumbles off.
  1126. >Good, she’s gone.
  1127. >When you come to a fork in the path, you briefly consider going right and doing a round of the fields to check on your ponies’ progress, but it seems rather inconsequential next to seeing after Apple Bloom.
  1128. >Besides, that leads off to the shed, and Maud already told you Full Steam couldn’t get the tractor running.
  1129. >The sharp sound of a dinner bell makes you glance towards the left – to the dorms and the big pavilion filled with tables.
  1130. >Ponies are gathering around, apparently having already finished up in the fields for the day.
  1131. >Even in the dying light, you can see Roma and her two assistants are hard at work serving dinner.
  1132. >Well, good then.
  1133. >That gives you enough time to see to Apple Bloom and take a shower before she’ll be up to make your meal.
  1134. >Still, your pace quickens, rapidly eating up the remaining distance.
  1135. >Before too long, you’re standing outside the spare room, hand hovering just shy of the door.
  1136. >Should you knock?
  1137. >Or just walk in?
  1138. >You’ve never had to think that through, before.
  1139. >It’s always been a pretty obvious thing – either they’re on your territory or you’re on theirs – but this is the first time you’ve had a pony sleeping in your house, so you’re not sure.
  1140. >She *might* be asleep…
  1141. >You knock softly.
  1142. >”Y-yeas…?”
  1143. >Well, she *could* have been.
  1144. “Hey, Apple Bloom, it’s me…”
  1145. >”Ah know, sir,” she mumbles, just loud enough for you to hear through the door.
  1146. “Can I…”
  1147. >No, you shouldn’t have to ask.
  1148. “I’m coming in, girl.”
  1149. >You push the door open slowly and poke your head through the gap.
  1150. >Apple Bloom is huddled on the far side of the bed, clutching the pillow to her chest.
  1151. >She’s not quite trying to hide behind it, but close enough to make you wonder for a second.
  1152. >You step inside and take a look at the nightstand.
  1153. >Good, it looks like she ate.
  1154. >Not much, though.
  1155. >At least the pitcher you’d set out for her is nearly empty.
  1156. “How are you feeling, girl?”
  1157. >”Betr – better.”
  1158. >That wouldn’t have fooled a child.
  1159. “You were going to say something else?”
  1160. >She squeezes the pillow tighter.
  1161. >”Ah hurt… sir,” she answers reluctantly. “Ah hurt all over.”
  1162. >Shit.
  1163. “But you’re doing better?”
  1164. >The mare half-smiles at your hopeful tone.
  1165. >”Yes, sir.”
  1166. >Well, she’s feeling good enough to lie to you, and that’s something. You’ll let it slide.
  1167. “Anything I need to get you?”
  1168. >”No, sir.”
  1169. “What about some more water?”
  1170. >”O-okay.”
  1171. “Anything else?”
  1172. >She shakes her head slightly, her mouth clamped tightly shut.
  1173. “Be right back, girl.”
  1174. >Apple Bloom is still using the pillow as a shield when you return with the refilled pitcher.
  1175. >”Thank you, sir,” she mumbles as you set it down.
  1176. “Anything else?
  1177. >That’s not what you want to ask her – you *want* to ask her about the stallion, about her brother, but you can’t.
  1178. >You just can’t.
  1179. >You’ve already pushed one mare too far today, and don’t have the strength for another one of those conversations right now.
  1180. >She’ll still be here tomorrow.
  1181. >You can have that little talk then.
  1182. >”S-sir…?”
  1183. >Oh, damn. You zoned out a minute there.
  1184. “Yes?”
  1185. >”Ah… Ah said Ah don’t need nothing else…”
  1186. >Wearily, you nod your head and leave the room.
  1187. >You’re too tired for this.
  1188. >Until now, you hadn’t realized exactly how worn out you were, but between having to deal with Lauren after a full day’s work has left you absolutely exhausted.
  1189. >Somehow, you find the strength to get upstairs and into the shower.
  1190. >You do some of your best thinking in the shower, but that doesn’t seem to help now – your thoughts run in an endless circle that goes nowhere.
  1191. >Not really surprising, since you aren’t even thinking about anything in particular.
  1192. >Just a constant stream of stuff and worries.
  1193. >It’s frustrating, but not enough to make you get out – not until the water runs cold.
  1194. >The shock of it sends you jumping out of the shower and toweling yourself dry.
  1195. >You were in there too long.
  1196. >Dinner is going to be cold.
  1197. >Besides, you wanted her to make something
  1198. >Still doing up the buttons on your shirt, you rush down the stairs and into the kitchen.
  1199. >Roma jerks up in near panic as you run into the kitchen.
  1200. >”Is something wrong, sir!?”
  1201. “No, I just need you to… oh…”
  1202. >There are two bowls on the counter.
  1203. >”To what, sir?”
  1204. >She doesn’t wait for your answer before dumping greens and sliced tomatoes into both bowls.
  1205. “Is that for Apple Bloom?”
  1206. >Roma blushes and nods.
  1207. >”I thought…” she says timidly, floundering before finding her words again. “I hope you don’t mind, sir, but I thought she might need something.”
  1208. “Oh.”
  1209. >She continues on with her work, but keeps watching you warily.
  1210. “Perfect, that’s exactly what I was going to ask.”
  1211. >She relaxes slightly, but that only makes you more self-aware of the effect you have on her.
  1212. “Thanks, Roma.”
  1213. >”It’s my duty,” she responds quickly, cutting thin slices of cheese to add to the salads. “I would hate to disappoint you.”
  1214. “Anything I can do to help?”
  1215. >You’re starting to feel a little guilty just watching Roma make your dinner, but she entire body tenses up when you reach for a knife.
  1216. “Don’t worry, I was just going to chop some –“
  1217. >”I can do that, sir,” she cuts you off bluntly. “I will have everything ready in just a few minutes.”
  1218. “Oh… okay…”
  1219. >She grabs the knife off the counter and begins cutting up some leftover chicken from yesterday.
  1220. >”Miss – I mean, Apple Bloom is in the downstairs bedroom, sir?”
  1221. “How did you know?”
  1222. >”I could smell her, sir. I’ll take her meal in to her after you’ve been served.”
  1223. “No, I’ll do that.”
  1224. >”I can do it, sir,” she insists, dumping the sliced chicken onto one of the salads and reaching for the dressing. “No reason for you to trouble yourself.”
  1225. “I said I’ll take care of it.”
  1226. >You really doubt Apple Bloom wants another pony seeing her right now.
  1227. >”Sir –“
  1228. >Roma looks up fiercely.
  1229. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”
  1230. >She looks away quickly, shuddering at the iron in your voice.
  1231. >”Sir, she needs to eat…” the mare pleads. “Please, let me –“
  1232. >Roma cuts off at your sigh.
  1233. >She’s been on the receiving end of it less often than Apple Bloom, but she knows what it means.
  1234. “Roma, I’ll –“
  1235. >”Please, sir,” she begs. “I don’t know what she did, but don’t punish her anymore. The rest of us are willing to take her punishment on ourselves, so long as you don’t… don’t…”
  1236. >Another sigh escapes your lips. Out of patience, you grab the meatless bowl from the counter.
  1237. “You told the others?”
  1238. >And you thought you could trust her after she promised not to last night.
  1239. >”N-no, sir, but when she was absent, the others figured something was up!”
  1240. >Dammit.
  1241. >”And then when that truck came again, we thought… we thought…“
  1242. “She’s not being punished, Roma.“
  1243. >”But sir, you’re keeping her locked up all alone!” the cook cries out. “After what happened with her brother and sister, we’re the closest thing to family she has! If you won’t let her out, at least let me in to see her! Please!”
  1244. >The mare seems on the verge of tears.
  1245. >Fine.
  1246. “I give up.”
  1247. >She flinches as you sigh again.
  1248. “Apple Bloom wants to be alone right now, but I’ll take this in to her.”
  1249. >”T-thank you, sir,” Roma mumbles after a moment’s pause.
  1250. >You thought she was going to push for more.
  1251. >So did she, you suspect, before her courage failed her.
  1252. >”I’ll just finish up your dinner and leave, then.”
  1253. “No.”
  1254. >The mare freezes in place, her eyes wide as dinner plates and very purposefully pointed at the ground.
  1255. “Stay. I have some questions.”
  1256. >With the slow and deliberate movement of someone that knows they have just made a horrible life choice, the mare nods once.
  1257. >”Yes, sir,” she says dully.
  1259. >Roma calms down slightly after watching you go into Apple Bloom’s room with her meal, but only slightly.
  1260. >You should beat her – you know this – but can’t find the energy for it.
  1261. >Besides, if she’s willing to stand up to you when she’s this scared already, what good would it do?
  1262. >None at all, and you know it.
  1263. >As you eat, you question her about Apple Bloom’s family.
  1264. >Just like Maud said, she has a brother.
  1265. >Or had.
  1266. “Are you sure he’s dead?”
  1267. >”No more than I’m sure about anypony else,” Roma mumbles into the floor. She can’t bring herself to meet your eyes. “We… we…”
  1268. >She cuts off, wiping at her eyes with her hoof.
  1269. “Yes?”
  1270. >”There were a lot of bodies that weren’t recovered,” she answers after a moment. “Even more that couldn’t be identified.”
  1271. “So he’s officially missing?”
  1272. >Still works in your favor, not that it really matters unless Steffords finds out about his daughter’s deal.
  1273. >”No, sir. Officially, Big Mac is dead.”
  1274. >Damn.
  1275. >”He was listed…”
  1276. >You take another bite of your salad as Roma visibly shakes, reliving the memories.
  1277. >”He was listed as an irrecoverable casualty, and – and – “
  1278. >She squeezes her eyes shut, as if that could block out the scene playing out in her mind.
  1279. >” – after we saw what your weapons did, anypony we couldn’t save was assumed killed in action.”
  1280. >The pictures the press showed were heavily censored, but you could understand.
  1281. >”Apple Bloom never gave up hope, though,” the mare adds. “She always believed that he had run off with her sister to do… to do whatever it was she was going to do.”
  1282. >Great.
  1283. >This Big Mac could be Stefford’s stallion or he could be dead or possibly even still free somewhere in Equestria.
  1284. >Basically, Roma knows nothing.
  1285. >At least you got that much out of it.
  1286. >You continue to eat in silence, ignoring the pony as she tries to control her emotions.
  1287. >It’s been years.
  1288. >She should be over this by now.
  1289. “Well, that was interesting.”
  1290. >Roma glances up for a fraction of a second when you set your fork down.
  1291. >”Anything else, sir?” she sobs as you push your chair back and stand.
  1292. “There’s still the matter of your punishment.”
  1293. >”Y-yes, sir.”
  1294. “You know you can’t talk back like that, right?”
  1295. >”I know, sir,” she mumbles. “I was just… I know, sir.”
  1296. >You can’t beat or whip her and expect it to do any good.
  1297. >Not only would she not learn anything from it, your reputation would suffer amongst the other ponies if their cook came back bloody and bruised because she dared to help Apple Bloom.
  1298. >And they outnumber you… by an uncomfortable ratio.
  1299. “Good.”
  1300. >She dares another quick look at your face, trying to judge your anger, but you doubt it does her any good.
  1301. >You’re still trying to figure out a suitable punishment.
  1302. >Ah.
  1303. “What would my uncle have done to you?”
  1304. >”T-twenty lashes, though it’d depend on his mood.”
  1305. >Shit, you don’t even know where the whip is.
  1306. >Haven’t used it once since you got here.
  1307. “Good thing I’m not him, then.”
  1309. >The mare shambles out the front door, still a nervous wreck despite your leniency.
  1310. >Leniency isn’t even the right word – that would be giving her ten lashes, or maybe even five.
  1311. >She’s lucky you’re so tired, and far too busy to do it tomorrow.
  1312. >And gathering everypony around to watch? That’s just wasted time that would be better spent with them out in the fields.
  1313. >You slump in the recliner and grab the TV remote.
  1314. >As the weather forcast flashes across the screen, you silently agree with your decision.
  1315. >First freeze of the season is coming at the end of the week.
  1316. >Earlier than expected.
  1317. >Shit.
  1318. >You need every pony in the fields right now.
  1319. >Yeah, you definitely picked the right punishment.
  1320. >Having Roma come up to the house three times a day to make meals for Apple Bloom will hurt a little, but not if it gets your best pony back in the fields even a day sooner.
  1321. >At least that’s the only piece of bad news you get – the rest of the forecast seems to be the usual fluff pieces – some rich bitch’s puppy got stuck in a pipe and had to be rescued, another high school sports team feature, the pony princess demanding the return of the elements of kindness and loyalty… nothing special.
  1322. >Certainly nothing that affects you or your farm.
  1323. >But that freeze…
  1324. >Aside from running your ponies to the bone, you don’t know what to do about that.
  1325. >Shit.
  1326. >SHIT!
  1327. >You flip off the TV.
  1328. >Then you turn it off.
  1329. >You need to talk to Apple Bloom.
  1330. >She’ll know what to do.
  1331. >You don’t want to wake her almost as much as you don’t want to admit you don’t know what you’re doing here, but since she already knows that last part…
  1332. >With a sigh, you heave yourself to your feet and head towards her room.
  1333. >The sooner you talk, the sooner you can start preparing.
  1334. >You have the door to half-open before you remember to knock.
  1335. >With the lights off, you can just barely see the mare jerk upright in shock, still clutching that damn pillow.
  1336. >Hopefully… hopefully getting back to work will help get her mind off of everything.
  1337. “Apple Bloom, we need to talk.”
  1339. >Your blind flailing sends the alarm clock smashing into the far wall.
  1340.  >Oops.
  1341. >And the damn thing is *still* ringing!
  1342. >So much for turning it off and getting a little more sleep.
  1343. “Dammit.”
  1344. >You need to get up, anyway; you set it a half-hour earlier for a reason, after all.
  1345. >It was a good reason, at the time, but now you’re not so sure.
  1346. >You can’t hear yourself sigh over that FUCKING alarm, but your body makes the usual movements.
  1347. >No, you’re sure – you need to get up.
  1348. >Dammit, if Roma hadn’t left so early, you could have…
  1349. >What, been too busy beating her to watch the weather forecast? Wondering why she was standing around for no fucking reason?
  1350. >You could have gone down to the dorm last night, but it was late.
  1351. >Too late, you felt at the time.
  1352. >You reach up and turn on the lamp sitting on your nightstand.
  1353. >And then glare at the alarm clock.
  1354. >It doesn’t react.
  1355. “Fucker.”
  1356. >You pull yourself out of bed and begin to get ready to face the day, starting by turning off that damn noise.
  1357. >Clothes follow, and by the time you’re pulling on the boots, you’re mostly awake.
  1358. >Also a little angry, but that helps keep your eyes open.
  1359. >Fucking alarm.
  1360. >Fucking common courtesy.
  1361. >Fucking Apple Bloom talking you into letting the other ponies get their sleep.
  1362. >You should have kicked in the fucking door last night and gone over the schedule changes with Maud instead of waking up before the fucking… fucking… something.
  1363. >Meh.
  1364. >You’re too sleepy to keep that going, even if it does help.
  1365. >Instead, you focus on getting down the stairs without falling and dying. That’s hard enough on its own.
  1366. >Either you manage, or hell is just like the farm, because you’re walking out the front door moments later, flashlight in hand.
  1367. >You don’t really need it – the stars and moon are bright enough to light the way – but bring it anyway, just leave it switched off.
  1368. >Never know when you might need some light at too-fucking-early-o’clock in the morning.
  1369. >The dorm’s lights are on, and as you get closer, you can see a few silhouettes as ponies rush past the windows.
  1370. >About a hundred feet out – oh, who the fuck are you kidding? You don’t know how far it is – some ways out, you click on the flashlight.
  1371. >Don’t want them to think you’re sneaking up on them.
  1372. >Things run smoothly here because you trust your ponies and they know it.
  1373. >Not that you have a choice.
  1374. >Without any other humans around, you *have* to trust the ponies.
  1375. >You stop short of the building, just outside of the circle cast by its lights.
  1376. >It has little to do with trust – not directly, anyway – and more to do with habit ingrained in you back from when this place was used to house migrant workers.
  1377. >Back when there *were* migrant workers.
  1378. >It was one of your uncle’s rules.
  1379. >It’s been years, but that bit of advice has stuck with you.
  1380. >”A person needs space,” he had told when you first came to stay at the farm. “Let ‘em have it and things’ll be a lot smoother.”
  1381. >He was far more… reasonable… in those days, before the portals opened.
  1382. >You don’t stand there long before Maud is trotting out to meet you.
  1383. >”You’re up early.”
  1384. “So are you.”
  1385. >She stares at you blankly in response.
  1386. “I’m afraid there’s going to be a change –“
  1387. >Her tail twitches slightly.
  1388. >The movement is small enough you’re surprised you noticed.
  1389. >Hell, it’s small enough, you wonder if you imagined it.
  1390. >You ponder that a little too long, leaving that sentence unfinished.
  1391. >”To?” Maud has to ask after a while, her question waking you from your little daze.
  1392. “Oh, right. A change to…”
  1393. >While you were out of it, a small group of ponies has gathered just inside the open doorway. None whose name you can remember – certain not right now, when you can barely remember your own – but a few you recognize.
  1394. >Both of Roma’s assistants are trying their hardest to pretend they aren’t listening, but their stiff ears and awkward glances give it away.
  1395. >What are they worried about?
  1396. >Thanks to their duties, they spend far less time in the fields than most of the others.
  1397. >”Is something wrong?” Maud asks, her tail lazily swishing back and forth.
  1398. “Why would you think that?”
  1399. >”Because you’re frowning.”
  1400. >Oh.
  1401. >So you are.
  1402. >Well, you have good reason to, being up this fucking early and with… right. The freeze.
  1403. “Yeah, we’ve got a problem, Maud.”
  1404. >You can’t help but notice the many eyes that look in your direction.
  1405. “There’s going to be a hard freeze end of this week.”
  1406. >A few of the pegasus ponies nod, acting as if they had a fucking clue about this. One even has the temerity to smirk and doesn’t even try to hide it.
  1407. >Others look relieved, Roma’s assistants among them.
  1408. >Oh.
  1409. >They thought this was about her?
  1410. >Inwardly, you roll your eyes.
  1411. >Externally, you think you manage to keep a straight face.
  1412. “We’ve gotta change up the work schedule a bit to get everything vulnerable in before then, so…”
  1413. >Maud doesn’t seem to be paying attention to you, not until the group she’s staring at disperses, leaving the two of you alone.
  1414. “Hey, Maud? You awake?”
  1415. >”Thought you’d want to talk in private.”
  1416. >It didn’t matter to you, but you shrug and explain the changes to her.
  1417. >By the end of it, she’s smiling.
  1418. >You don’t think you’ve ever seen her smile.
  1419. >You didn’t think she was *capable* of smiling, but there it is – a slight, but noticeable upward curl at the edges of her mouth.
  1420. “What?”
  1421. >”Nothing you’d think is important,” the mare answers.
  1422. “No, tell me.”
  1423. >You don’t want it to become habit – the not answering you thing, that is.
  1424. >Maud looks away and her ears twitch, but she complies after a second.
  1425. >”It’s a good plan,” she responds in her usual monotone. “So Apple Bloom has to be alright.”
  1426. “Why would you say that?”
  1427. >Seems like an odd jump in her logic, but maybe you’re just too asleep to see it.
  1428. >”Because she helped you come up with it,” Maud answers slowly. “If she can do that, then she’s okay.”
  1429. “Wait…”
  1430. >Is she…
  1431. >”… are you implying I couldn’t have come up with a good plan on my own?”
  1432. >”I’m not implying anything,” Maud responds, raising one eyebrow. “I’m inferring that Apple Bloom is feeling better.”
  1433. >Is she fucking with you?
  1434. >You think she’s fucking with you.
  1435. >She’s fucking with you, right?
  1436. “You don’t think I could do this on my own?”
  1437. >”I don’t know. Could you?”
  1438. >She’s fucking with you.
  1439. “Gee, Maud, I don’t know. What do *you* think?”
  1440. >”I think it doesn’t matter what I think.”
  1441. >Damn straight.
  1442. >”I know you asked for her advice.”
  1443. >You close your eyes and count to numbers.
  1444. >Not any particular ones, or in any set order, either. Too tired for that shit.
  1445. >It doesn’t help.
  1446. >”Are you okay?”
  1447. “Yeah.”
  1448. >You open your eyes again. You don’t *want* to whip her for this, but… you have to come up with something.
  1449. >After all, you punished Roma for being uppity last night, so you have to punish Maud to be fair.
  1450. >”Good.”
  1451. “You’re fucking with me, aren’t you?”
  1452. >”No.”
  1453. >Yes, she is.
  1454. >It’s a good thing none of the other ponies are around to overhear this.
  1455. “You know you can’t act like this, right?”
  1456. >”I know,” Maud answers flatly. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be so emotional, but I can’t help it.”
  1457. >You’re trying to give her an out here. Why won’t she just take it?
  1458. “Look, I’m sure it sucks being a slave, but –“
  1459. >”I’m not a slave.”
  1460. >She tilts her head slightly.
  1461. >”I’m an indentured refugee.”
  1462. >You groan and facepalm.
  1463. “You’re not fucking with me, are you?”
  1464. >”No. I really am happy that Apple Bloom is doing better.”
  1465. >She looks around before continuing.
  1466. >”I don’t know if you noticed, but we were very worried for her. Thanks for allowing Roma to take care of her.”
  1467. “It’s… She’s… she’s fine, Maud.”
  1468. >The mare nods slightly, as if she had expected that from you.
  1469. >”Did she say anything else?”
  1470. >She had.
  1471. >Things you had turned down out of hand, but after a full night’s sleep – okay, a half night’s sleep – are starting to sound appealing.
  1472. “Yeah, but…”
  1473. >This isn’t good, but the work needs to get done.
  1474. “She agreed with you about the plows, but I’d still rather get the tractor going…”
  1475. >Maud nods for you to continue.
  1476. >This is a bad idea.
  1477. “… but since neither of those things are going to happen anytime soon, I’m – she’s – worried that the ground will freeze, and that’ll make it hard.”
  1478. >”Indeed,” Maud agrees, that smile playing across her face again.
  1479. >Why…?
  1480. >Oh.
  1481. >You roll your eyes with the force of a thousand planetary bodies.
  1482. “It’ll make the work harder than it has to be, so she thought that maybe some of the earth ponies could –“
  1483. >This is a bad idea.
  1484. “ – could maybe go cold turkey on their meds.”
  1485. >She blinks slowly.
  1486. >”What.”
  1487. “I didn’t even *know* any of the others took meds! I thought it was just the unicorns!”
  1488. >Though Apple Bloom’s explanation made a lot of sense, you can’t remember any of it now.
  1489. >Not really.
  1490. >Something about earth ponies being stronger and pegasus ponies being able to actually fly like birds.
  1491. >It made sense at the time.
  1492. >You’d also said no at the time.
  1493. >But now that you can’t remember, it sounds like a great idea.
  1494. >Maybe not the pegasus ponies – they’ll probably just fly away – and definitely not the unicorns, but the earth ponies? Why not?
  1495. >Seriously, why not?
  1496. >You had a reason last night – you remember that much, at least.
  1497. “I mean… you’d be able to plow the frozen soil then, right?”
  1498. >”It will be hard, but yes. We can try it,” Maud concedes after a few minutes of silence, “but you should try to get the tractor fixed first.”
  1499. “Why? I mean, if that would work, then –“
  1500. >”It’s illegal.”
  1501. “Oh.”
  1502. >Right.
  1503. >”Also, it didn’t work out so well last time.”
  1504. “Last time…?”
  1505. >You’ve tried this before? No, wait, of course not. Your uncle tried this before?
  1506. >”Yeah. About two months ago.”
  1507. >Shit.
  1508. >How could you forget?
  1509. >It’s how he got killed.
  1510. “Right, right.”
  1511. >You sigh.
  1512. “Nevermind, I’ll… have Full Steam get me a list of what he needs to fix the tractor and I’ll head into town to get the parts.
  1513. >”You should get some more sleep first.”
  1514. “No, if I go right now, I can get there when the store opens, and –“
  1515. >”And crash and die on the way back,” Maud cuts you off in her usual deadpan voice. “Go back to sleep.”
  1516. “But…”
  1517. >Are you really going to argue with a slave?
  1518. “…I…”
  1519. >No, you aren’t.
  1520. “… I expect you to have that list ready when I get up.”
  1521. >”Yes, sir.”
  1523. >Another hour does miracles.
  1524. >You stretch and look at the battered alarm clock.
  1525. >Oh, that makes sense.
  1526. >It’s actually been three hours.
  1527. >Shit.
  1528. >You forgot to reset the alarm.
  1529. >All you have to do is put on your boots – you’d collapsed on the bed still dressed – before heading downstairs to grab something for breakfast.
  1530. >Maybe some fruit again or… or the meal Roma must have cooked for you when she made Apple Bloom’s breakfast.
  1531. >Yep, that’ll do.
  1532. >It’s nothing special – and everything is cold by now – but it’s unexpected and more than enough to get you going.
  1533. >You reach for a napkin before digging in and almost accidentally use the list of parts Maud had written up for you.
  1534. >Well, good.
  1535. >So far the day is going smooth.
  1536. >Running a little late, but that’s not a problem.
  1537. >Not like you have any appointments or… shit…
  1538. >Lauren.
  1539. >You do the math in your head and just barely have enough time to get there and back before she shows up, *if* you take the shortcut.
  1540. >With a sigh, you dig in your pocket for your phone.
  1541. >You don’t want to take the shortcut.
  1542. >Her number might still be in here.
  1543. >Years of lazily copying all contacts from one phone to the next pay off – it’s there, right below “Krazy Steve.”
  1544. >You have no fucking clue who that was.
  1545. >Of course, there’s no guarantee she still has the same number.
  1546. >Your finger hovers over her name.
  1547. >If you take the shortcut, you can be back in time. There’s no need to call her – or the random stranger that has that number now.
  1548. >You call anyway.
  1549. >She answers just before you hang up.
  1550. >It only rang twice.
  1551. >”Hey! It’s you!”
  1552. “Um –“
  1553. >”I’m surprised you still have my number.”
  1554. >And apparently she still has yours.
  1555. >Certainly hadn’t expected that.
  1556. “Yeah, me too. Anyway –”
  1557. >”Oh.”
  1558. >She sounds so sad about that for some reason.
  1559. “Anyway, I need to go into town, so I’ll be back late.”
  1560. >”What!? No!” she shouts, nearly deafening you. “You can’t do that!”
  1561. >You sigh quietly.
  1562. “Fine, come over at the scheduled time, just don’t expect me to be here.”
  1563. >”No, I literally mean you *can’t*,” Lauren insists – almost begs. “You can’t leave your ponies unattended!”
  1564. “Bullshit, I do that all the time. Maybe if you didn’t mistreat yours –“
  1565. >”It’s illegal, idiot.”
  1566. “What.”
  1567. >”As long as you or another is on the property, that’s good enough,” Lauren sighs. You can *hear* her rolling her eyes at you over the phone. “Gawd, I was wondering how you managed that little bit all on your own without any help, and now I know. You don’t even bother.”
  1568. >Ah.
  1569. >Great, you can’t leave the farm ever again.
  1570. >Wee.
  1571. >No, fuck that and fuck the police, you’re leaving.
  1572. >Not like anyone is going to risk the drive out here to check on it anyway.
  1573. >”Oh, I have an idea!”
  1574. “You’re sounding way too cheerful. I’m scared.”
  1575. >You repeat the words by old habit before you realize what you’re saying.
  1576. “Well, you shouldn’t be!” Lauren giggles, sounding just like she did as a teenager. “I’ll be right over!”
  1577. ”I can go into town on my own.”
  1578. >”To watch the ponies, dumbass. Besides, I wouldn’t mind…”
  1579. >You wait for her to finish, but all she does is sigh.
  1580. >”I’ll be right over,” she finally says.
  1581. “I’m not going to –“
  1583. >Ow. You may never hear out of that ear ever again.
  1584. “Dammit, at least put the phone –“
  1586. “FUCK!”
  1587. >”What?” Lauren asks, talking to you again.
  1588. “I said I’m not going to wait for you. I’ve got things to do and it’s not like anyone really cares about that law.”
  1589. >You hope.
  1590. >Probably not.
  1591. >If it was important, you would have known about it.
  1592. >Besides, no one cares what happens out here, so long as the produce keeps flowing. That’s all that really matters.
  1593. >”Fine, don’t wait,” Lauren mumbles, suddenly sounding almost as deadpan as Maud. “I didn’t really expect you to.”
  1594. “The hell does that mean?”
  1595. >”Doesn’t matter,” she sighs. “I’ll be there in ‘bout an hour.”
  1596. >She hangs up before you can ask again.
  1597. >You could call her back. You could also smash your phone.
  1598. >Luckily, you do neither of those things, settling instead for finishing your breakfast as grumpily as possible.
  1599. >You manage to thoroughly not enjoy a bite.
  1600. >With the list of parts safely in your pocket, you leave the table and head for Apple Bloom’s room.
  1601. >She should know that you’re leaving.
  1602. >More importantly, she should know not to talk to Lauren.
  1603. >You don’t know what that bitch is up to and you don’t care, so long as it doesn’t mess with your ponies.
  1604. >Somehow your feet carry you outside instead.
  1605. >You were too busy thinking about her – about Lauren – to keep them on track.
  1606. >Shit, whatever.
  1607. >Apple Bloom is probably asleep anyway.
  1608. >After a quick pocket check – wallet, keys, list… all good – you pull your keys from your pocket and reach for the door.
  1609. >Lauren can’t bother your mare if she can’t get inside.
  1610. >But if you lock it, Roma won’t be able to get in either.
  1611. >Fuck it, you trust Apple Bloom, and besides, Lauren already caved.
  1612. >You head around the side of the house and get into your truck.
  1613. >As you drive down to the road, you can see your ponies hard at work off in the distance.
  1614. >Good, it looks like everything is going according to schedule.
  1615. >As far as you can tell, anyway.
  1616. >It takes twenty minutes for you to hit the main road that splits your property from the Steffords’.
  1617. >You go left.
  1618. >There’s not a single other vehicle on the road, not that you expected any.
  1619. >It may be a four-lane road, but traffic is non-existent. Going left leads to town, going right leads to the Anderson’s and beyond that… nothing. It’s just a dead zone beyond that.
  1620. >There’s nothing out here except the farms, no reason to come out here except to pick up the produce or drop off materials or supplies.
  1621. >Not even any landmarks, aside from the occasional stand of trees or distant building, but those get lost in the hypnotic blur of the fields streaming by on either side.
  1622. >After fifteen minutes or so you try the radio.
  1623. >Static, as always.
  1624. >Nothing reaches out here.
  1625. >Only reason you get a phone signal is because the Anderson’s have a tower back on their place.
  1626. >The prospect of driving in total silence for three hours makes your heart sink.
  1627. >Maybe you should have waited for Lauren and brought her along.
  1628. >At least brought a pony with you.
  1629. >Shit, you should have thought to have Full Steam come along, since he’s the one that’ll be working with them.
  1630. >Too late now.
  1631. >There’s always your phone – you’ve got some music on there or could stream some talk show, but that’d kill the battery before you got halfway there.
  1632. >By the time the first border pylon is in sight, you’re even thinking about buying up the contract for a new pony in town so you’ll have someone to keep you company.
  1633. >It’s stupid and you don’t really have the money to spare, but the farm could always use more workers and once Lauren pays you back..
  1634. >Doesn’t seem like a half-bad idea, really.
  1635. >You’re well aware it’s the desperation talking, not your common sense, but that doesn’t stop you from considering it.
  1636. >The thought occupies your mind, the internal debate keeping you almost as distracted as an actual companion.
  1637. >Probably more distracted, since a companion might have warned you that you were about to miss the turnoff.
  1638. >On your own, you realize a moment too late.
  1639. >You jerk the wheel sharply to the right, sending the truck bouncing off the road and over the rough ground and dead grass, narrowly avoiding one of the bright orange warning signs.
  1640. “Shit!”
  1641. >That was close.
  1642. >Fuck the shortcut.
  1643. >The truck bounces again as it hits the shallow ditch and then the asphalt of the bypass.
  1644. >Shit, either you’re picking up a pony or a CD while you’re in town.
  1645. >Probably the CD.
  1646. >It’ll be cheaper.
  1647. >Plus it won’t talk back or try to kill you.
  1648. >Also won’t tell you when you’re about to get yourself killed.
  1649. >Hmm.
  1650. >The pylons on your left keep you from losing yourself completely to the road and your thoughts as you guide your truck along the gentle curve of the bypass.
  1651. >They’re spread out just far enough that it’s almost a surprise when one whizzes past.
  1652. >Still, that debate continues in the back of your head.
  1653. >Maybe another pony, you finally concede.
  1654. >It’ll be far more expensive, but you have money coming in soon.
  1655. >If you can find one cheap enough – no, you won’t go looking for a pony, but if you happen to *stumble* across one?
  1656. >Well, if you do, it’s fate, and who are you to argue with that?
  1657. >Eventually the road straightens out and you leave the pylons and warning signs behind.
  1658. >From there, it’s a straight – if long – drive into town.
  1659. >Not as long as you expected, though.
  1660. >You were expecting the small farms and ranches that dot the road – nothing large, not even large enough to feed the local community, but the not the shops and other buildings that have sprung up.
  1661. >In the two months since you last passed through, the town has grown.
  1662. >Never in your life would you have thought to see this much expansion in such a short time – particularly now.
  1663. >Aside from there mere existence, none of the buildings particularly interest you.
  1664. >Even with your gas tank running on little more than fumes, you drive past two gas stations.
  1665. >Also three churches because of course you do – this *is* the southern U.S. still, and even after everything that’s happened, the Baptists, Methodists, and all the rest are all around.
  1666. >Despite the decent number of folks going in and out of the buildings, you’re fairly certain – but not positive – that today isn’t Sunday.
  1667. >Could be, though, you have to admit to yourself as you drive down the road towards the interstate.
  1668. >Days have kind of lost their meaning to you.
  1669. >One is pretty much the same as the other out on the farm, so far removed from civilization.
  1670. >There’s even a few ponies mixed in the humans – hell, there’s even a grey pegasus wearing robes and sweeping the stone steps with a happy little smile on her face.
  1671. >Huh.
  1672. >What the hell was wrong with her eyes?
  1673. >The farm supply store is off on your right, but you don’t head there yet.
  1674. >Your truck isn’t the only thing running on empty, and the interstate is right ahead, as are the cheapest gas prices around and a decent meal.
  1675. >Sterling Stables is just on the other side of the six-lane road, but you have no problems crossing.
  1676. >Traffic is light – almost non-existent.
  1677. >No surprise, considering prices are sitting at eight bucks per gallon, *without* taxes.
  1678. >And that’s only so low because it’s meant to draw folk in – they’re selling the fuel at barely above cost. It’s the other parts of the business where the profit is made.
  1679. >As much as you want to head straight for the diner, you pull next to one of the pumps first.
  1680. >The price to fill up the truck and the two cans in the bed make you rethink your ideas on getting another pony.
  1681. >On the one hand, this little trip has already cost you enough.
  1682. >On the other… compared to the cost of fuel, what’s a little extra going to hurt?
  1683. >*IF* you see one cheap enough, you remind yourself as you top off the last can and head over to the attendant to pay.
  1684. >All around the small stand are signs pointing customers to the diner and other facilities the place offers, from the attached motel, to the “other” private rooms.
  1685. “Pump nine.”
  1686. >You hold out a wad of bills to the pale pony behind the register, but he takes his time counting out your change.
  1687. >”Planning on grabbing a bite to eat?”
  1688. “Yeah.”
  1689. >You’d forgotten about the damn sales pitch.
  1690. >”Good, good,” the unicorn responds with a fake smile. “Where you from, stranger?”
  1691. >*Always* with the damn sales pitch.
  1692. >That’s the price you’ve got to pay for cheap gas.
  1693. >Well, that and eight bucks a gallon.
  1694. “Nowhere important.”
  1695. >”Now I don’t believe that for a second. Everyone’s from *somewhere* important!” he responds with the patter of a natural-born salesman – or scam artist. “Heck, I bed you came in from one of the farms, didn’t you?”
  1696. >He’s probably been keeping an eye on your truck since you crossed the interstate.
  1697. >You shrug noncommittally as he slowly counts out your change.
  1698. >”Bet you’re feeling pretty lonely, cooped up out there all the time.”
  1699. >Another shrug.
  1700. >Goddamn, can he count any slower?
  1701. >”If you’re looking for someone to spend time with, we got plenty of options...”
  1702. >He wiggles his eyebrows meaningfully.
  1703. “Yes, I know about the whores.”
  1704. >”… and not just ponies, you know,” he continues with a sly smile. “I’d wager good money that you haven’t seen a good woman in months!”
  1705. >Finally, the bastard slides your change across the counter.
  1706. >”Just think it over while you’re eating.”
  1707. >It’ll be hard not to, since they’re also the waitstaff.
  1708. >He wasn’t wrong, though – it *has* been months since you’ve even seen a woman.
  1709. >Just Lauren, and she doesn’t count.
  1710. >You head back to your truck and pull away from the pump to park in one of the spots surrounding the diner.
  1711. >After a quick stop to relieve yourself, you slide into an empty booth and wave down one of the waitresses.
  1712. >Despite humans outnumbering ponies significantly – and you remembered it being the other way around when you’d last come through – it’s a young, grey mare that answers instead of the busty redhead you’d been hoping to catch.
  1713. >Fuck it, better if you look from here, anyway.
  1714. >That way you won’t be tempted.
  1715. >*Too* tempted.
  1716. >Any more than you already are.
  1717. >”Yes, master?” she asks, hobbling up to the table with a slight limp. “What can I get for you?”
  1718. >Well, at least she seems eager to please.
  1719. >A little *too* eager, sitting down beside you in what has to be the most awkward sitting position in the entire  history of sitting.
  1720. >You scoot over, but she follows.
  1721. >At least she can get her entire rump on the seat now.
  1722. “Um…”
  1723. >She smiles, but her eyes don’t do the same behind the lenses of her glasses.
  1724. “Just some water… and…”
  1725. >”Yes?”
  1726. “I’ll take the cheese enchiladas.”
  1727. >”And for… *dessert*?”
  1728. >She bats her eyes at you in a way that would be seductive, if she wasn’t a pony and her eagerness hadn’t already put you on edge.
  1729. “Nothing.”
  1730. >The mare bites her lip for a second, but nods.
  1731. >”Yes, master.”
  1732. >She slides off of the seat, landing roughly on all fours.
  1733. >”If… if you change your mind, just say something.”
  1734. “Not fucking likely.”
  1735. >You mutter the words quietly to yourself, but she shudders.
  1736. >Probably just because of her limp.
  1737. >There’s no way she heard you.
  1738. >You shake your head and look around, trying to get it out of your mind.
  1739. >The redhead is gone, but there’s still more than enough eyecandy in the place to keep you occupied.
  1740. >Despite that, your eyes land on a pink mare sitting at the bar – she’s watching your waitress  with concern.
  1741. >After you notice that, so do you.
  1742. >Not just her limp, but the way she cowers away from the human manning the till and starts shaking as soon as he turns away.
  1743. >You think – just for a second, you think – that she’s about to start crying.
  1744. >She doesn’t, but only because the other mare is at her side, holding her tightly.
  1745. >Looks like she has some things on her mind.
  1746. >Shit, she better have gotten your order right.
  1747. >Not that there’s much to fuck up, but that’ll just make things worse.
  1748. >End up with a fucking cheeseburger or something.
  1749. >Shit.
  1750. >You sigh.
  1751. >Completely lost in your own world of despair, you barely register it when a new mare slides into the seat opposite you.
  1752. >”Disgraceful, isn’t it?” the pink mare sneers. “She should just accept that a handsome man like you would never be interested in her.”
  1753. >She flips her purple-and-white mane back with a  flip of her hoof – an all-to-human gesture that is so out of place on a pony.
  1754. “Um…”
  1755. >”Don’t feel bad for her,” the mare laughs. “Silver Spoon hasn’t met her quota in *three* weeks. Can you even believe that?”
  1756. >So that’s why she was acting so desperate.
  1757. “Actually –“
  1758. >”Master Sterling even gave her an extra day, but it’s not going to make any difference, because you’re going to take *me* instead, aren’t you?”
  1759. >She leans back and stretches in what has to be a horribly uncomfortable – perhaps even painful – fashion for a pony.
  1760. >It… it gets the point across, though.
  1761. >You can definitely see how some folks might find ponies to be the epitome of delicious flat chest.
  1762. >As she poses seductively, it makes other thoughts bubble unwanted to the surface instead.
  1763. “How old are you?”
  1764. >The mare’s eyes narrow momentarily.
  1765. >”Old enough,” she answers after a second. “I’ve been here for three years, so believe me when I say I know how to please a *real* man.”
  1766. >She’s been here as long as Apple Bloom has been with the farm.
  1767. >That doesn’t answer your question, though, but it doesn’t really matter.
  1768. >Law doesn’t have an age of consent for ponies, because they can’t really give consent anyway.
  1769. >”You know, no one minds if we get started a little early,“ the mare hints, biting her lower lip. “So long as we’re not obvious about it, I could give you a blowjob while you eat.”
  1770. >With a bored sigh, you nod towards your waitress.
  1771. “What’s going to happen to her?”
  1772. >”Don’t worry about that.”
  1773. >The pink mare reaches across the table to grab your hand between her forehooves.
  1774. >”Instead, why don’t you start thinking about what you want to do to me?”
  1775. >She’s acting pretty desperate herself.
  1776. “And how many weeks has it been since you’ve made your quota?”
  1777. >”Master, I *always* make my quota,” she says with a smile. “I have men coming in daily just for me, so how about –“
  1778. “Sorry, not interested in used goods.”
  1779. >The mare gasps and pulls her hooves away from you.
  1780. “I think I want extra onions on my enchiladas. Think you can go put that in for me?”
  1781. >”Well, if you’d rather have *her* instead –“
  1782. “Extra. Onions.”
  1783. >”If you want to talk about ‘used goods’, she’s already had three men in her today!”
  1784. “Onions. Do I need to talk to –“
  1785. >”I’m going, *master*,” the mare snarls, sliding out of the booth and trotting away. “I hope you’re happy with her!”
  1786. >You sigh again and stare at your empty table.
  1787. >Shouldn’t you at least have your drink by now?
  1788. >It’s a good thing the food here is so good, because the service sucks.
  1789. >It takes another few minutes before the grey mare – Silver Spoon? – is back with your drink.
  1790. >”So sorry for the wait, master,” she mumbles, bowing low. “Cherry Berry will bring out your meal in a few minutes.”
  1791. “Why?”
  1792. >”B-because it’s not ready yet,” the mare answers, pulling away from you like she expects you to hit her. “I’m sorry, but –“
  1793. “No, I mean why not you?”
  1794. >She’s your waitress – *she* should bring your meal.
  1795. >You’re not even sure who Cherry Berry is – presumably one of the pink mares – but whoever she is, she isn't your waitress.
  1796. >”I’m – I’m needed elsewhere. Master Sterling needs me out back.”
  1797. >Ah.
  1798. >Time for her punishment.
  1799. >You feel a slight twinge of guilt as the mare stalks off, tail between her legs.
  1800. >Oh well, it’s not your place to step between a man and his legal obligation to keep his ponies in line.
  1801. >Besides, if she didn’t want this job, she shouldn’t have refused hard labor.
  1802. >Her contract could have gone to one of the farms, instead. Hell, it could have been her instead of Apple Bloom on that stand.
  1803. >Frankly, whatever her punishment is, she brought it on herself.
  1804. >You spend the next few minutes sipping from your glass and staring out the window.
  1805. >A few vehicles go speeding by on the interstate, but not many.
  1806. >The arrival of your meal saves you from death by boredom.
  1807. >”Here you go, master,” the mare you had seen comforting Silver Spoon says as she slides the plate in front of you. “If there’s anything else I can do for you –“
  1808. “What’s going to happen to Silver Spoon?”
  1809. >You can’t help but ask – you’ve had nothing else to think about while waiting for your food.
  1810. >”It’s… She’s going to be made available to Master Sterling’s special clients.”
  1811. “How much…”
  1812. >You drift off as the mare’s eyes narrow suddenly and her lip curls.
  1813. “What?”
  1814. >”Fucking sicko,” she growls softly, brave enough to confront you, but still afraid of being overheard. “You didn’t seem like one of them, but I should have known –“
  1815. “No, no. How much to pay off her quota?”
  1816. >If it’s cheap enough, why not?
  1817. >Besides, it *has* been a while…
  1818. >”Oh.”
  1819. >The pink mare blinks and looks away abruptly.
  1820. >”I’m sorry, master, but it’s too late.”
  1821. >As if on cue, you hear dogs baying from behind the building.
  1822. >She jerks her head around to look in the direction of the sound.
  1823. >You try to hide your smile from the pony, that was just too perfect, like in a horror movie when the lights suddenly go out or lightning strikes.
  1824. >No way it’s related to your waitress.
  1825. >You shrug and dig in.
  1826. >Dammit, no extra onions, but you’d mostly said that just to get rid of that one mare.
  1827. >”Are you… are you enjoying it?”
  1828. >The mare is trying to smile, but you can sense the fear behind it – not just for your waitress, but for herself.
  1829. “Worried I’m going to say something about your little outburst?”
  1830. >”No, never, master!”
  1831. >That’s a yes.
  1832. ”I’m not. It’s fine.”
  1833. >You gesture to the plate with your fork.
  1834. “The food I mean. It’s fine. But you should watch that mouth of yours. Not everyone is as nice as me.”
  1835. >”T-thank you, master.”
  1836. >She dips her head and backs away, leaving you to your meal.
  1837. >You sigh quietly and take another bite.
  1838. >It’s not *really* fine.
  1839. >You can’t believe they forgot the damn extra onions, but you’re not going to complain.
  1840. >Wouldn’t do any good anyhow, so why bother?
  1841. >Still damn tasty, with the best chili con carne you’ve had since that one little place in Texas.
  1842. >You tried going back once, but it was gone – half the town was.
  1843. >Hopefully the staff survived. Maybe went on to open up a new place somewhere else.
  1844. >Next time you go through there, you’ll have to ask around.
  1845. >You laugh silently as dogs begin howling again, further off in the distance.
  1846. >Next time?
  1847. >There won’t be a next time. You’re stuck here until you die or the government decides to free all the ponies.
  1848. >Yeah, there’s the best case scenario.
  1849. >Without a workforce, there’s no way you can keep the farm running, so you would *have* to shut it down.
  1850. >Never going to happen, but a man can still dream.
  1851. >You try a little bit of the rice – it’s dry, but flavorful. Mixed in with the excess chili con carne, it’s a amazing.
  1852. >The beans, though… damn, should have asked for charro instead of refried.
  1853. >They’re okay, but only okay.
  1854. >You shrug slightly and finish them off anyway.
  1855. >That one’s on you. You really should have asked to swap those.
  1856. >When you’ve finished off your meal, you leave a wad of bills tucked under the edge of the plate and rise.
  1857. >No tip, though.
  1858. >Not because your waitress was a pony or because the service was bad, despite both of those being true.
  1859. >You just don’t think there’d be a point.
  1860. >Fate just didn’t line up.
  1861. >Besides, it probably would have cost too much.
  1862. >Not like anyone else was jumping up to help her.
  1863. >On your way out, you nod towards the pink pony – Cherry Berry, you think.
  1864. >She responds with a slight bow as you push through the doors.
  1865. >You circle around to the back of the building out of curiosity, but there’s nothing to see.
  1866. >A few pickups with empty cages in the beds, but that’s not too surprising.
  1867. >It *is* duck season, after all.
  1868. >First one since the war.
  1869. >Bound to be more than few eager hunters out with their dogs.
  1870. >You shrug slightly and head towards your truck.
  1871. >Whatever happened to the mare, it’s not your problem.
  1872. >Once you’re back in the cab, you pull out of the parking lot and head towards the farm and feed store.
  1873. >You probably should have called ahead, but you’re fairly certain they’ll have everything you need.
  1874. >There wasn’t much on Full Steam’s list.
  1875. >You didn’t read it over carefully, or at all, but it was only a few lines.
  1876. >The old man behind the counter greets you with a cheerful wave and steps around to shake your hand.
  1877. >”Ain’t seen you in a while! How’s the farm treatin’ you?”
  1878. >He seems to remember you, though to your embarrassment you don’t even recognize him.
  1879. >Well, you’ve had a lot going on. Doesn’t excuse it, of course, but it does explain it.
  1880. “Just fine, though my tractor is giving me a bit of trouble. Need a few parts for it.”
  1881. >”I kept telling your uncle he needed to overhaul the engine on that thing!” the old man chuckles loudly in that so-sad-yet-haha-I-told-him tone that only the elderly can pull off to perfection. “Well, you got a list on you, or we gonna have to do this by memory?”
  1882. “I’ve got a list.”
  1883. >It’s not in the first pocket you check, though.
  1884. “Somewhere, I hope.”
  1885. >Nor the second.
  1886. >You’re about to panic, when you check your wallet.
  1887. “Yep, got it right here.”
  1888. >You unfold the paper and hold it out to the man.
  1889. >Bob, maybe?
  1890. >It’s starting to come back, you think.
  1891. >Bob takes the list from you and goes down line by line.
  1892. >”Heck, these are nothin’ parts!”
  1893. “Nothing ‘til you don’t have ‘em. Then they appear to be everything.”
  1894. >”True enough,” the man responds with a shrug. “Yeah, we got everything you need, ‘cept that last thing. Hope you weren’t plannin’ on pickin’ those up here.”
  1895. “Uh…”
  1896. >He turns the page around for you to see.
  1897. >The last line is written in a different hand – hoof.
  1898. >Maud’s you suspect.
  1899. “No, no. I know I’ve gotta go down to the clinic to pick up those anti-magic pills.”
  1900. >”Alrighty, then. It’ll take me a few minutes to get everything for you.”
  1901. >He takes a few steps before turning back to flash you a sly smile.
  1902. >”Heck, I’ll just get Scoots to take care of it!”
  1903. >Scoots?
  1904. >”HAY, SCOOTALOO!” Bob shouts, hands cupped around his mouth. “STOP WATCHIN’ THEM MOVIES OF YOURS AND GIVE AN OLD MAN A HAND!”
  1905. >”YEAH, YEAH, ON MY WAY!”
  1906. >A few seconds later, an orange pegasus is bursting out of the back room and snatching the list out of Bob’s hand.
  1907. >”Just fetch me those tractor parts, Scoots,” the man says, patting her head gently, “then you can get back to your movies.”
  1908. >”I’ll have ‘em in a flash, Bill!”
  1909. >She dashes off, only to backpedal and jog in place in front of you.
  1910. >”Once you’ve settled up, go ahead and pull around to the side, mister,” she tells you. “I’ll get these loaded for you!”
  1911. “Yeah, sure.”
  1912. >Not one hint of deference or defiance.
  1913. >Back in the city, ponies acted like pets.
  1914. >On the farm, they were slaves.
  1915. >Those at the diner pretended they were human.
  1916. >And here’s one that acts like a real person.
  1917. >You think you like her.
  1918. >She’s direct and eager, but unlike the mares from the diner there’s no hint of desperation clinging to it.
  1919. >Just like Apple Bloom, in better days.
  1920. >You sigh at that thought and mosey back to the register with Bob – er, Bill.
  1921. >”Hope her attitude didn’t put you off none.”
  1922. “Nah. How long have you had her?”
  1923. >Couldn’t have been too long if she still acts like that.
  1924. >”Little over three years, now,” the old man sighs, leaning heavily against the counter. “You know, soon as they started selling out the contracts. Misses and I thought that if we could give a pony a good home, we had to.”
  1925. >You’d thought about that too, but your apartment hadn’t really been big enough at the time.
  1926. “Well, she certain seems happy.”
  1927. >You wish your ponies could be.
  1928. >”Yeah,” Bill chuckles, running a hand through his thin hair. “Particularly now that she’s seen them Hobbit movies. Dang girl watches all six of ‘em over and over. Don’t have a clue what she gets out of it at this point.”
  1929. >He shrugs and rolls his eyes.
  1930. >”What can I do?”
  1931. “Nothing, I guess.”
  1932. >”Well, sometimes I can sit down and watch ‘em with her,” Bill correct with a chuckle. “Grab some popcorn  and some rest in the office with her n’ those movies until a customer comes in.”
  1933. “Oh.”
  1934. >”So, let’s see… you needed a catalyzer and…”
  1935. >You run down the items with Bill while he rings you up – and grab a couple other things you think of while he prices the parts.
  1936. >A few tools – and a plow meant for ponies.
  1937. >Bill only has the one in stock, but that’s enough to give Maud’s idea a test-run.
  1938. >After you’ve paid and he’s helped you load the items into your truck, you pull around to the side where the pegasus is already waiting for you.
  1939. >She starts loading the parts in one-by-one, but hesitates with the last – and largest.
  1940. “Something wrong?”
  1941. >”It’s a bit heavy. Mind getting out and giving me a hand?”
  1942. “I… uh… no?”
  1943. >You’ve already got one foot on the ground when you start wondering when you start taking orders from ponies.
  1944. >But… she asked nicely… and that counts…
  1945. >Besides, you’re already picking it up.
  1946. >By the time your ego start to seriously object, you’ve back in the truck and driving away.
  1947. >You swing by the grocery store and pick up a few luxuries your farm can’t provide before heading towards your last stop.
  1948. >You’re running later than you had hoped – the stop at the farm and feed store had somehow taken over an hour, due to old men’s ability to talk on and on about nothing – but the clinic should still be open.
  1949. >It’s close, but the lights are still on as you pull your truck into one of the empty parking spaces.
  1950. >And the door is open, but there’s no one at the receptionist’s desk.
  1951.  “Hello?”
  1952. >There’s no answer.
  1953. >Well, you aren’t too low on pills, if you remember right.
  1954. >Everyone might be gone… or busy…
  1955. “Anyone here?”
  1956. >If you’re honest with yourself, you really don’t have a clue how low the supply is back at the farm.
  1957. >Shit, you didn’t even know that it wasn’t just the unicorns taking them.
  1958. >Still, you’re on the verge of walking out when a noise down one of the corridors catches your attention.
  1959. “HELLO!?”
  1960. >And if you’re even more honest, you don’t want to have to make this drive again in another week or two.
  1961. >No one responds, but you head in that direction anyway.
  1962. >You *really* don’t want to make this drive again.
  1963. >As you get closer, the noises become clearer.
  1964. >Once you push your way through one set of double doors, you can make out voices.
  1966. >It doesn’t sound like either of the doctors that work here, though you only met them that one time.
  1967. >The voice just doesn’t sound like it belongs to a healer.
  1968. >”Sir, please, just wait outside!”
  1970. >”She still might, if you don’t get out of our way!” a harsh voice snaps back.
  1971. >You’ve seen enough MASH to know what a doctor sounds like, and you’re pretty damn sure that’s Hawkeye in there.
  1973. >”No, you’re still paying, now wait outside!”
  1974. >The voices are just around the corner from you in what has to be the ER.
  1975. >At least, that’s what the arrow sign pointing that direction says.
  1976. >Well, it seems like you’ve found where everyone is.
  1977. >”FINE, BUT I’M LEAVING!”
  1978. >”No! Sir, as her legal guardian, you have to stay while –“
  1980. >”You can’t legally do that, sir,” a female voice insists.
  1981. >Maybe you should just come back next week for those pills.
  1983. >”And if she lives!” the doctor adds. “Nurse Redheart, more gauze over there.”
  1984. >They sound busy.
  1985. >You turn around and head back towards the front.
  1986. >”I want you to know, Sterling, that if Silver Spoon dies, it’s your fault!”
  1987. >Shit.
  1988. >Silver Spoon.
  1989. >You make two more steps before you can’t go any further.
  1990. >A hero can only resist the call to adventure for so long…
  1991. >At least, that’s what you tell yourself as you head back towards the ER.
  1992. >It’s definitely the call to adventure.
  1993. >Not guilt.
  1994. >You don’t have anything to feel guilty for.
  1995. >”SHE CAN GO BACK TO THE REFUGEE CAMPS FOR ALL I CARE!” a well-dressed man is screaming as you round the corner. His eyes gleam as he catches sight of you. “OR HELL! WANT TO BUY A PONY, BUDDY?”
  1996. “Maybe.”
  1997. >You walk towards him, ignoring the unicorn receptionist that tries to block your way.
  1998. “What did you do to her?”
  1999. >”Nothing that can’t be fixed!” he snarls back. “Pay her medical costs and she’s yours. I’m done with that piece of trash!”
  2000. >You look past him – past the doctors – to see the still form of Silver Spoon lying on a gurney. Blood mats her silver mane.
  2001. >Worse, yet, with her waitress uniform torn away, you can see her ribs.
  2002. >Not just… not just from the tightness of her skin, though there is that, too.
  2003. >You can literally see her ribs.
  2004. >There’s a long gash down her side that the human doctor is hastily sewing up, but you can clearly make out the gleam of wet bone.
  2005. “I –“
  2006. >You can’t afford this.
  2007. >There’s no way you can afford to pay for her treatment, not for a pony that won’t be able to work.
  2008. >Certainly not for a pony that might never be able to work.
  2009. “I –“
  2010. >”He’ll do it!” the pony nurse screams, pulling one hoof away from the gauze to shove the receptionist your way. “Minuette, take care of the paperwork!”
  2011. >You nod.
  2012. “Deal.”
  2013. >Your heart won’t let you do otherwise.
  2014. >The unicorn hesitates, but moves away from the gurney after a moment.
  2015. >She knows she can’t do anything to help, but still… it doesn’t feel right to just walk away.
  2016. >Maybe you’re just projecting your own feelings onto her.
  2017. >”Hurry up!” Sterling growls, rifling through his briefcase on a nearby counter. “Not all of us can lounge about all day.”
  2018. >The pony frowns and trots over to the man.
  2019. >”You have her papers, right?”
  2020. >You wait a moment longer, reluctant to leave Silver Spoon again.
  2021. >It’s not your fault.
  2022. >But you still feel like it is.
  2023. >You don’t even *know* her.
  2024. >”Of course I brought her papers,” Sterling snarls back at the unicorn. “I can’t file insurance if you didn’t have those, after all, not that it would cover anything.”
  2025. >Her face is untouched – in a way, that’s the worst part.
  2026. >Not the gouge along her side or the bite wounds on her forelegs.
  2027. >You’ve seen injuries like that before, when you were a kid.
  2028. >One of your friends was attacked by a neighbor’s dog.
  2029. >He tried to protect his head.
  2030. >Damn near lost his arms.
  2031. >You hope she doesn’t lose her legs.
  2032. >The farm can’t afford a crippled pony.
  2033. >And that’s why you’d rather look anywhere but her face, because you can remember the way she looked at you, the way she tried not to cry even though she must have known what was going to happen to her.
  2034. >You turn at the sound of Sterling slamming a bundle of documents on the counter.
  2035. >”Last time I filed, damn insurance didn’t cover a fucking thing. Well, I’m certainly not filing anything now!”
  2036. >Sterling waves a hand in your direction.
  2037. >”It’s all his problem, just as soon as we get this signed off. I guess I’m just lucky I took the time to hunt these down before bringing her in.”
  2038. “How long?”
  2039. >”It’ll be over as soon as you sign the papers,” he answers with a flourish of his pen. “There, even backdated transfer so your insurance can take care of it.”
  2040. >Sterling grins like he did it to do you a favor, instead of to avoid another black mark on his record.
  2041. “No, how long did it take you to find the papers?”
  2042. >”Not long.”
  2043. >He shrugs.
  2044. >”Ten, maybe fifteen minutes. Now sign the damn papers so I can get out of here.”
  2045. >You take the pen the receptionist holds out and sign.
  2046. >It shouldn’t be this easy, but it is.
  2047. >Just two signatures and a date.
  2048. >You had to go through more paperwork when you bought your first car.
  2049. >He walks out without another word.
  2050. >And you let him.
  2051. >You don’t *want* to, but what could you do?
  2052. >It doesn’t matter, because you let him go.
  2053. >”Okay, so, payment –“
  2054. >The unicorn’s mouth snaps shut as you shake your head.
  2055. “I can’t afford to pay it off now. There’s no way, not with the government still confiscating half my crops and paying in war bonds. I’ll have to pay if off in installments.”
  2056. >She smiles slightly and tilts her head.
  2057. >”Don’t worry about it. Even if Doctor Alda doesn’t wave the bill on his own, I’ll talk him into it.”
  2058. >She puts a hoof on your arm.
  2059. >”I just… I just can’t bear to watch that man kill any more ponies like this.”
  2060. “Like how?”
  2061. >”His damn ‘hunting trips’,” she snarls. “I wish he’d just call them what they are – everypony knows that he films them. That he – that he makes snuff films.”
  2062. “But those are illegal – why doesn’t anyone stop him!?”
  2063. >The receptionist sighs and digs through the documents Sterling had left.
  2064. >”Maybe for ponies like Redheart and the ones on your farm, yes, but poor Silver Spoon?”
  2065. >She pulls out a page for you to see – the aptitude and interest ratings.
  2066. >”Silver Spoon is 9B.”
  2067. >The unicorn points to the bottom of the page with her hoof.
  2068. >”No special skills, refused hard labor. She’s classified as an entertainer.”
  2069. “So? There’s a limit to how far a man can discipline his ponies, even if they are –“
  2070. > – worthless.
  2071. >You don’t say it, but the unicorn’s mouth curls in a frown. She knows what you meant.
  2072. >”She’s not worthless, and she wasn’t being disciplined. She was doing her job. So long as someone enjoyed watching Silver Spoon struggle for her life, she was just doing her job and the law says nothing about that.”
  2073. >No, that falls under occupational hazards.
  2074. >”I’ll go get some supplies together for you –“
  2075. “What?”
  2076. >”She can’t stay,” the receptionist explains sadly. “We don’t have the staff for someone to watch her 24/7, and she’ll need care. Assuming…”
  2077. >She glances over at the two still working on Silver Spoon.
  2078. >”Doctor Alda knows what he’s doing,” she says with a sad smile. “He’s gotten far too much practice recently. Now, follow me – I’ll take you to a waiting room.”
  2079. >You don’t move.
  2080. >She takes a few steps before turning her head back to look at you.
  2081. >”Don’t worry, you aren’t abandoning her or anything. If you stay, you’ll just get in their way.”
  2082. >With a weary nod, you gather Silver Spoon’s papers and follow the mare into a small room filled with chairs.
  2083. >”Just sit anywhere. I’ll be back in with some things for you in a bit.”
  2084. >While you wait, you leaf through your new pony’s refugee papers, though you’re too distracted to really read them.
  2085. >The only bit that stands out was her place of origin – Ponyville.
  2086. >Maybe she knows Apple Bloom.
  2087. >Reuniting her with a friend won’t make up for everything, but it’d be a start – for both of them.
  2088. >You look up at the sound of hoofsteps, but it isn’t the blue mare.
  2089. >”She’ll be okay,” the nurse says with an exhausted smile. “Doctor Alda is wrapping up the last few things, so he sent me in to talk with you about her care.”
  2090. >You try to listen, but know none if it is going to stick in your mind. Luckily, she brought copied instructions for you to take with you.
  2091. >It’s not much, really.
  2092. >Dietary restrictions, when and how to change her bandages, and… medication instructions.
  2093. “She’ll be on painkillers?”
  2094. >”Yes,” the nurse – Redheart, her namebadge says – snaps back. “Are you surprised after what happened to her?”
  2095. “No, no really. Just wasn’t thinking.”
  2096. >Of course she’s on painkillers.
  2097. “But… what *did* happen to her?”
  2098. >Redheart sighs and sits down opposite you.
  2099. >”She hasn’t woken up, so we don’t know for sure, but from her injuries and past survivors of Sterling’s hunts, I can guess.”
  2100. >The mare pauses, but you nod for her to continue.
  2101. >”First, she was raped –“
  2102. “She’s a whore.”
  2103. >”She. Was. Raped,” she repeats harshly. “Probably by the hunters, though that’s not always the case. Then they set the dogs on her.”
  2104. >You heard.
  2105. >You heard it and you ignored it.
  2106. >”At some point, she was shot, but that was just a graze and didn’t do much damage compared to what the dogs did when they caught her.”
  2107. “How did she even survive?”
  2108. >”Silver Spoon made it back to the diner, somehow,” Redheart answers with a sigh and a shrug. “And while some of his clients may be into that sort of thing – or just turn a blind eye to it – it’s hard for anyone to ignore a screaming mare getting torn apart while they watch.”
  2109. >She sighs again.
  2110. >”I’m sorry I forced you into this, but I thought…”
  2111. “That I would just ignore what was happening?”
  2112. >You’d already done that.
  2113. >Might have done it again if she hadn’t agreed to Sterling’s terms.
  2114. >She nods once.
  2115. >”Or that you would see her condition and back off.”
  2116. >That would have been the smart thing to do, instead of investing time and money into a 9B.
  2117. >A lot of time, you suspect, and even more money.
  2118. ”Silver Spoon is going to need rehabilitation, isn’t she?”
  2119. >Redheart hesitates, then sighs.
  2120. >”Yes.”
  2121. “Unless she’s lucky, she’ll never walk again.”
  2122. >”She is lucky.”
  2123. “I think you and I have very different definitions of that word.”
  2124. >”Maybe,” the nurse concedes with a slight shrug, “but she made it back to the diner and she lived long enough to reach us.”
  2125. “Yeah, but –“
  2126. >”And then you showed up. As far as I’m concerned, that makes her a *very* lucky mare.”
  2127. “I don’t think so.”
  2128. >”Why?” Redheart asks, scrunching her muzzle. “Are you going to do something even worse to her?”
  2129. “No – god, no!”
  2130. >”Then why would you say that?”
  2131. “Because… because I was just here to get pills for my other ponies.”
  2132. >The corner of the nurse’s mouth curls up in a half-smile.
  2133. >”See? Lucky.”
  2134. >The mare stands and pats you on the knee – as if you were the one that needs comforting.
  2135. >”I have to go back to Doctor Alda,” she tells you. “Do you have a list of what you need?”
  2136. “I… um… maybe…”
  2137. >You lean to one side and pull your wallet out to retrieve the list Maud had written.
  2138. >Redheart frowns when you hold it out to her.
  2139. >”These are tractor parts –“
  2140. “No, the thing at the bottom.”
  2141. >”Oh. Right,” she mumbles, shaking her head in a pointless attempt to clear it. “When she gets back, give that to Minuette.”
  2142. >You nod and the mare begins to walk away.
  2143. >She only gets a few steps before turning back to face you.
  2144. >”Sorry, sorry, I should have brought this up earlier –“
  2145. >You give her a shrug and a smile.
  2146. >” – but it’ll be at least an hour before we feel comfortable releasing her. We’ll see exactly how long once she wakes up, so be prepared for a bit of a wait.”
  2147. “Sure.”
  2148. >She takes another step – almost. Her hoof is hovering an inch from the ground when she freezes and looks back at you again.
  2149. >”Actually, it’ll be an hour until Doctor Alda feels comfortable,” Redheart confesses. “I’d rather keep Silver Spoon here for a few days, but…”
  2150. >She sighs.
  2151. >”… but that’s not my call to make.”
  2152. “Because you’re just a pony?”
  2153. >”That has nothing to do with it,” Redheart huffs with annoyance. “He gets to make the call because he’s the doctor and I’m his nurse.”
  2154. >You laugh silently – Apple Bloom wouldn’t have given up that quickly if she thought you were making a mistake.
  2155. >She never does.
  2156. >You think about saying something, but the nurse is already trotting out stiffly.
  2157. >Anyway, you can’t afford to spend that much time away from the farm.
  2158. >Even if they ponies don’t need you to run things, they need the tractor parts you have in the back of your truck.
  2159. >You’re just settling back with a magazine from the table beside you when your phone rings.
  2160. >It takes a minute for you to pull it free from your pocket.
  2161. >You sigh when you see the ID.
  2162. “Hi, Lauren.”
  2163. >”Hey, where are you?” the woman asks cheerfully. “Almost back?”
  2164. “No, I’m still in town.”
  2165. >”What the heck?” she growls. “I know you hate everyone n’ everything ‘bout this life, but you can’t just run away again.”
  2166. “Look, something came up, okay? I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
  2167. >”When’ll *that* be?”
  2168. “In…”
  2169. >You check your watch.
  2170. >Shit.
  2171. “If I’m lucky, I’ll be back around dinnertime. You can go home if you want.”
  2172. >”No, I’ll stay,” Lauren grumbles softly.
  2173. >There’s a long, uncomfortable silence before she speaks again.
  2174. >“So, what are you doing?”
  2175. >That’s a very good question.
  2176. >What *are* you doing?
  2177. >And how exactly do you tell your neighbor that you just bought a crippled pony whore?
  2178. >If you’re smart, you don’t.
  2179. >But since you’re you, she’ll find out eventually.
  2180. >*Eventually.*
  2181. >That doesn’t mean now, or even today.
  2182. “Nothing interesting.”
  2183. >”Oh. So you’re going to come back now?”
  2184. >Lauren giggles at your silence.
  2185. >”Well, if not, then whatcha doin’, mister?”
  2186. >If you hang up, she’ll just call again.
  2187. >She’s bored – she’s got nothing better to do that fucking wardial your phone.
  2188. “I’m just waiting.”
  2189. >”Uh-huh. For…?”
  2190. “Some paperwork and stuff.”
  2191. >”If you keep bein’ cagey, you know I’ll just gotta fill in the blanks on my own.”
  2192. “Look, I’m busy, so –“
  2193. >”Aww, are you buyin’ me a present?”
  2194. “No! I’m waiting for someone!”
  2195. >”Oh, god, please tell me you ain’t at Sterling Stables,” Lauren hisses, “because if I *ever* find out you went there –“
  2196. “NO!”
  2197. >Not the way she’s thinking, at least.
  2198. >Lunch doesn’t count.
  2199. >”Good. You stay away from that place.”
  2200. “I plan to.”
  2201. >Now that you’ve had a chance to think about it, the food isn’t *that* good.
  2202. >Lauren sighs into her phone.
  2203. >”Glad to know you have – oh, hold on.”
  2204. >There’s a brief pause where you can hear her yelling, but not at who or what.
  2205. >”Gotta go – Apple Bloom needs help getting out of the shower.”
  2206. “What?”
  2207. >”I’ll see you when you get home!”
  2208. >You stare at your phone’s blank display, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
  2209. >Apparently, there’s a pony in the shower – you get that much.
  2210. >It’s the *why* that’s most puzzling. Next to that, Lauren’s involvement seems almost trivial.
  2211. >At least you didn’t say anything regrettable.
  2212. >The screen goes black, though you don’t notice it for several minutes.
  2213. >When you finally do, you stuff it back into your pocket and pick up the magazine again.
  2214. >It’s not particularly interesting, but it’s better than nothing.
  2215. >You’re halfway through with the receptionist returns with a large bag stuffed with gauze and other supplies.
  2216. >Silver Spoon’s blue-framed glasses sit neatly on top.
  2217. >She runs off again when you ask about the pills and is back before you can start on the next.
  2218. >When you ask about the cost, the unicorn shrugs dismissively.
  2219. >”We have your farm’s insurance on file,” she answers, “assuming you kept the same policy…?”
  2220. >You nod.
  2221. >It seemed good enough when you took a look at it, though you haven’t had a chance to go too in depth.
  2222. >“They’ll cover what the Pony Relocation Agency doesn’t.”
  2223. “Thank you.”
  2224. >You had assumed that would be the case, what with the number of ponies the farm employs in “productive” occupations, but weren’t positive.
  2225. >One of these days, you’ll have to read through the entire thing.
  2226. >The unicorn smiles bashfully and retreats when you reach for the next magazine.
  2227. >Oh, Highlights.
  2228. >And someone’s already done all the puzzles.
  2229. >Fucker.
  2230. >There’s plenty of other magazines to choose from, though, so you reach for the next.
  2231. >You lose track of the time, but it has definitely been over an hour by the time the nurse returns.
  2232. “She’s awake?”
  2233. >”She was, long enough for us to explain the situation,” Redheart responds. “She’s asleep again, but she’ll be…”
  2234. >The mare shakes her head after a moment.
  2235. >”No, she won’t be okay,” she corrects herself, “but she’s safe to move.”
  2236. “What do you mean, ‘she won’t be okay?’”
  2237. >”Her master tried to kill her, so what do you think?” the nurse snaps. “Physically, there’ll be scarring and she’ll need rehab to regain full use of her legs, but I suggest you also look into a therapist.”
  2238. >Yeah, right.
  2239. >”Also, we need you to bring her back in for a checkup in two weeks. I’d like it to be sooner, but…”
  2240. >The mare shrugs.
  2241. >”Doctor Alda can give you some recommendations then,” she sighs. “Bring your vehicle around to the ER doors and I’ll help you get her in.”
  2242. “Shouldn’t I wait until she’s awake?”
  2243. >”I’d rather you didn’t,” Redheart answers with a shake of her head. “I know the road out to the farms doesn’t get as much maintenance as they need.”
  2244. >True, but it’s not *that* bad.
  2245. >“No matter how carefully you drive, she’s going to be bounced around and that’s going to hurt. With luck, Silver Spoon won’t feel any of it.”
  2246. >So much for conversation to keep you awake and alert.
  2247. >Still, a sleeping mare is better than a screaming, crying one.
  2248. “Sure, I’ll go get my truck.”
  2249. >You carry the two bags of supplies with you and stow them in the narrow space behind the driver’s seat.
  2250. >For a minute, you try to adjust the passenger’s seat, until you realize you have no idea what will be comfortable for the mare.
  2251. >Meh, Redheart can help with that.
  2252. >She’s waiting outside when you pull around, her face creased in the deepest frown you’ve seen since you last picked up a 2000AD comic.
  2253. >”I was hoping for something with a backseat,” she grumbles as you step out. “Couldn’t spring for the extended cab, could you?”
  2254. “Not really much point, since I’m alone out on the farm.”
  2255. >She looks sharply at you.
  2256. “I mean, the only human.”
  2257. >”Fine,” she sighs, gesturing for you to open the passenger door.
  2258. >The two of you do the best you can for Silver Spoon, but you both worry it won’t be enough.
  2259. >In the end, you settle for reclining the seat as far as it will go and bundling the mare up tightly in a fetal position with blankets Redheart brings out.
  2260. >The seatbelt won’t do any good in that position, so at the nurse’s prompting you hook a pair of bungee cords around the seat to hold your new pony in place.
  2261. >”I think that’s as good as it’s going to get,” Redheart sighs, dropping down to all fours and stepping back. “If anything happens, call us.”
  2262. “Will do.”
  2263. >”If she wakes up, give her one of the painkillers – the *blue* ones. It’ll take the edge off and help her get back to sleep.”
  2264. >You nod.
  2265. >”And… and…”
  2266. “What?”
  2267. >”Please don’t make me regret speaking up back in the ER.”
  2268. “Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of her.”
  2269. >Apple Bloom probably isn’t ready to get back to work completely, but she might be able to help out with Silver Spoon’s care.
  2270. >Redheart nods twice.
  2271. >When she doesn’t say anything else, you circle around to the driver’s side.
  2272. >”Oh, and –“
  2273. >You pause with one hand on the door’s handle.
  2274. “Yeah?”
  2275. >”Avoid the deadzone.”
  2276. “I was planning to.”
  2277. >You climb into the cab and check on Silver again.
  2278. >The straps seem tight and her breathing is deep and regular.
  2279. >Fuck, what the hell do you know about this anyway?
  2280. >Waiting and checking over and over just means she’ll wake up too soon.
  2281. >And yet you can’t help but fiddle with things, trying to make her more comfortable.
  2282. >”Just go!”
  2283. >Your head spins to look at Redheart – and the faint smile on her face.
  2285. >The nurse was right – the roads are poorly maintained.
  2286. >You wince sympathetically with every bump and hole you hit, but it’s understandable.
  2287. >Only one other car shares the road with you, passing the opposite direction as you near the turnoff.
  2288. >No one from the farms – you’re sure of that – so probably someone visiting the memorial.
  2289. >Redheart was also right about Silver Spoon - she *is* lucky.
  2290. >The mare doesn’t begin to stir until you’re right at the turnoff.
  2291. >In your distraction, you miss it, swerving slightly to avoid the bright orange warning sign.
  2292. >Today is not your day when it comes to those things.
  2293. “Hey, are you awake…?”
  2294. >The mare twitches again, whining softly.
  2295. “Silver? Are you okay, girl?”
  2296. >She groans, but doesn’t seem to hear you.
  2297. >The truck coasts to a stop as you gently apply the brakes, keeping to the triangle of dirt between the roads.
  2298. >You throw it into park before turning to the mare again.
  2299. “Silver Spoon?”
  2300. >You reach for her, hesitant to touch the pony lest you accidentally wake her.
  2301. “Anything I can do?”
  2302. >Your fingers hover just above the blanket.
  2303. >She shudders quietly.
  2304. >You pull your hand away and lean back in the seat.
  2305. “There’s no right answer, is there?”
  2306. >Trying to force one of the pills into her would probably do more harm than good.
  2307. >Not for the first time, you wish normal medications worked on ponies.
  2308. >The driver’s seat creaks as you shift your weight and stare in her direction.
  2309. >And sigh.
  2310. >Beyond the warning signs, between the pylons, you can see the memorial.
  2311. >You’ll never understand why the idiots put it inside the deadzone. Probably some bullshit about “to remind us of our loss” or something.
  2312. >You smile – or wince. You’re not sure.
  2313. >Someone’s been by recently – probably the car you passed.
  2314. >Had to have been.
  2315. >The flowers they put at the base of the monument are just beginning to lose their color and turn to dust.
  2316. >If they’d been there more than half an hour, they’d be gone already.
  2317. >With another sigh, you throw the truck back into gear and guide it onto the bypass.
  2318. >Awake or not, you can’t stay here.
  2319. >There are too many names on that memorial that you know.
  2320. >At least, you assume they’re there.
  2321. >You’ve never gone in to check.
  2322. >Silver Spoon’s whimpers eventually quiet.
  2323. >When the silence hits you – when you realize she’s been quiet for a while – you nearly go off the road again in your panic.
  2324. >A quick glance is all it takes to convince you that she’s still alive, that she’s still breathing, but that’s long enough that you miss the pothole right in front of you.
  2325. >Miss *seeing* it.
  2326. >You actually hit the hole.
  2327. >The impact jerks the steering wheel out of your hands, though you manage to regain control before actually running off the road.
  2328. >The truck’s suspension is good – it has to be, for all the off-road driving you do on the farm, but that still rattled your bones.
  2329. >You don’t want to imagine what was like for Silver Spoon.
  2330. >Dammit.
  2331. >At least when assholes like Sterling hurt ponies, they do it on purpose.
  2332. >You just do it because you’re careless and stupid.
  2333. >For the next few hours of driving, you keep your eyes on the fucking road.
  2334. >The best thing you can do for her now is get her into a real bed, not fuck around trying to get you both killed.
  2335. >It’d be tragic and all if it was just you that died, but it’d be downright embarrassing if your shitty driving killed Silver Spoon too, considering everything she’s lived through up till now.
  2336. >Though she groans and whines, the mare never does seem to fully wake. Not even when the truck crosses the open gate and into your farm, roughly bouncing over the steel cattle guard.
  2337. >The fields you pass through are empty, the ponies having finished up work for the day.
  2338. >They’re probably wrapping up their dinner right about now.
  2339. >That’s one less awkward explanation you have to give tonight, though you doubt it’ll be any easier in the morning.
  2340. >Maybe practice will help – Lauren’s truck is parked beside the house.
  2341. >Dammit.
  2342. >Well, at least she can help you carry Silver Spoon, then.
  2343. >You pull up as close as you can and take another look at the mare.
  2344. >Still asleep.
  2345. >Still breathing.
  2346. >Good.
  2347. >You kill the engine and step out, pulling your seat forward to get to the bags stored in back.
  2348. >Best start with those, then get Lauren to come out and help you with Silver Spoon.
  2349. >The rest can wait until tomorrow.
  2350. >With a bag in each hand, you climb the steps to the porch. A little juggling later and you’ve got the front door open and are stepping inside.
  2351. >There’s no need to guess where your neighbor is – you can hear the TV blaring from here.
  2352. “Hey, Lauren!”
  2353. >She doesn’t answer, but in fairness she probably can’t hear you over the explosions.
  2354. >You head that way – besides, you have to cross through the living room to get to the nearest bedroom.
  2355. >Nearest *empty* bedroom.
  2356. >You’ll put her next to Apple Bloom.
  2357. >You grimace when you step into the room.
  2358. >She’s seriously watching that?
  2359. >Well, you shouldn’t be surprised, but you thought Apple Bloom would at least have better taste.
  2360. >Despite your expectations, the mare seems to be enjoying the movie, curled up in your recliner with a bowl of popcorn.
  2361. >Lauren is sitting over to the side, watching Apple Bloom as much as the movie and sipping from a glass.
  2362. “Hey!”
  2363. >They both jump, Apple Bloom spilling some popcorn on the floor and Lauren damn near spilling her yellow drink on the couch.
  2364. “What the hell are you drinking?”
  2365. >”Just apple juice,” the woman answers after a second. “Don’t worry, I didn’t touch any of your piss-poor beer.”
  2366. “Put that down and come with me. I need your help with something. And… Apple Bloom…?”
  2367. >”Yes, sir?”
  2368. “Could you go back to your room for a bit?”
  2369. >You don’t want her to see Silver Spoon – not until she’s in bed and covered up, at least.
  2370. >”Y-yes, sir.”
  2371. >Lauren sighs as the Apple Bloom slides out of the chair and pauses the movie before shuffling away.
  2372. >”Sure thing. I only just spent all day helping you out –“
  2373. “You mean watching movies?”
  2374. >”Mostly,” the woman admits with a grin.
  2375. >She sets the glass down and rises, straightening out her button-down shirt with her hands.
  2376. >”So whatcha need help with *now*?”
  2377. “Just give me a second to put these down –“
  2378. >You hold up the bags for Lauren to see.
  2379. “ – and then we’ll head outside.”
  2380. >”Sure, fine, *don’t* tell me,” she grumbles softly, following behind as you make your way to the empty bedroom. “I just *love* being kept in the dark.”
  2381. “You’ll see soon enough.”
  2382. >She sighs again.
  2383. >”Does this have something to do with why you’re so late?”
  2384. “Yes.”
  2385. >”You didn’t get me a present, did you?”
  2386. “No. Get the door for me?”
  2387. >Lauren reaches around to give the handle a twist and a shove.
  2388. >The door swings open.
  2389. >Good, the room is still clean.
  2390. >You don’t know why it wouldn’t be, but it’s been one of those days.
  2391. >The bags get dropped on the floor off to one side before you head over to pull back the covers on the bed – it’ll be impossible to do when you both have your arms full with an unconscious mare.
  2392. >”So if you didn’t get me a present and you have bags full of… of….”
  2393. >You glance back at Lauren – she’s bent over, looking intently at the bags.
  2394. “Yes, medical supplies.”
  2395. >“… are these Silver’s glasses?”
  2396. >You turn your head to see what she’s talking about – oh, right, those were in with the bandages and other supplies.
  2397. >Lauren pulls the glasses out of the bag and holds them up like she’s just discovered evidence of some heinous crime.
  2398. >”Why the *hell* do you have Silver’s glasses?”
  2399. “What?”
  2400. >”You went up to Sterling Stables, didn’t you!?” Lauren shouts. “I thought I told you –“
  2401. “Quiet!”
  2402. >You point at the wall the room share’s with Apple Bloom’s.
  2403. >The woman’s eyes follow the gesture and she huffs angrily.
  2404. >”Just tell me why you have Silver’s glasses, asshole,” she demands with a slight shake of her head.
  2405. “How do you know whose glasses those are?”
  2406. >”… I…”
  2407. “Just help me carry her inside.”
  2408. >You jerk your head towards the door.
  2409. “Once she’s comfortable, you can bitch at me all you want.”
  2410. >Lauren beats you to the door, silently fuming all the way to the truck.
  2411. >She reaches for the handle on the truck’s door and throws it open before you can catch up.
  2412. >”Silver, what’d this son of a bitch do?” the woman demands before she actually realizes what she’s seeing. “Did he… oh… oh, God.”
  2413. >The woman cranes her head around to look at you with wide eyes.
  2414. >If it weren’t for the freckles scattered across her face, she’d be as pale as snow.
  2415. >”What did you do to her?”
  2416. >You sneer back.
  2417. “Saved her.”
  2418. >You’ll never understand why Lauren always thinks everything is your fault.
  2419. “Move so I can get her loose.”
  2420. >Lauren hasn’t reached for the straps yet, and Silver Spoon certainly isn’t going to free herself.
  2421. >She steps back, raising her hands to her mouth in silent horror.
  2422. >With her out of your way, you step forward and unhook the bungee cords holding the pony down.
  2423. >When you lift the blanket from the mare’s body, revealing the bloodied bandages covering much of her body, a gasp makes you jump.
  2424. >It wasn’t Silver Spoon, though – to your relief, you hadn’t woken her.
  2425. >”He *didn’t*,” Lauren mumbles as you toss the blanket into the driver’s seat. “He *couldn’t*.”
  2426. >You twist to glare at the woman.
  2427. “I didn’t do this, dammit.”
  2428. >”I know,” she answers. “I just…”
  2429. >You sigh and reach for the mare.
  2430. “Help me get her inside.”
  2431. >”Wait.”
  2432. >Lauren steps forward and grabs your arm.
  2433. >”Hand me that blanket,” she says. “Let’s make this as easy on her as we can.”
  2434. >You frown, but do as she asks.
  2435. >Sure enough, in under a minute she’s put together a serviceable stretcher with a pair of spare wooden posts from the garage and the blanket.
  2436. >It’s flimsy – nothing actually holds the blanket to the posts – but she seems confident, and you have to admit she knows a heck of a lot more about this kind of stuff than you.
  2437. >Gently, you lift the mare out of the passenger’s seat and lay her down on the stretcher.
  2438. >Lauren reaches for her end, but you hesitate.
  2439. >”Don’t worry none, her weight’ll hold things together.”
  2440. >Despite her reassurances – and your own knowledge that you should just trust her – you lift your end very slowly, expecting it to fall apart at any second.
  2441. >It doesn’t.
  2442. >When you raise your head you expect to see a smug grin on Lauren’s face, but her mouth is drawn tight.
  2443. >She’s too worried about Silver Spoon to revel in her victory – if she even noticed it at all.
  2444. >”Alright, now slow n’ steady.”
  2445. “I know.”
  2446. >It’s painstakingly slow, but undoubtedly a better idea than just carrying her like you had planned.
  2447. >She’s light – lighter than Apple Bloom – but the other mare was too exhausted to feel anything.
  2448. >With her injuries, every jostle and bump makes Silver Spoon moan and twist – even asleep, you think she feels *everything*.
  2449. >”We’re gonna have to change her bandages,” Lauren sighs once the mare is safe on the bed. “I’ll take care of that before I head out.”
  2450. >We?
  2451. >She looks down at Silver Spoon, her eyes shimmering wetly.
  2452. >”I just can’t believe…”
  2453. “I’ll take care of it if it’s bothering you that much.”
  2454. >You don’t want to have to listen to her whining about it.
  2455. >”No, I think you need to have a chat with Apple Bloom,” Lauren responds, her words turning to steel. “Besides, Silver’s my friend. I ain’t gonna just leave her to your incompetent hands.”
  2456. >Friend?
  2457. >”You’d prolly end up killin’ her by accident.”
  2458. “Yeah, well…”
  2459. >”Don’t tell me that ain’t true,” Lauren says with a  weak laugh.
  2460. “Maybe not, but I never thought I’d live to see the day a Steffords called a pony her friend.”
  2461. >The woman sighs and gently brushes her hand across Silver Spoon’s cheek.
  2462. >”Fair enough,” she mumbles. “I can see how you’d think that.”
  2463. >Lauren looks up at you and fakes a smile.
  2464. >”Now, howsabout you go see to your mare and leave me to take care of Silver?” she asks, picking up the bag of medical supplies and pulling things out seemingly at random.
  2465. >But probably not really. She knows what she’s doing, *you* are the one that doesn’t have a clue. Of course it seems random to you.
  2466. >All the more reason to stay.
  2467. “No. If you have so little faith in me, why don’t you show me what to do?”
  2468. >”I’ll do that tomorrow. Right now you really gotta have a talk with your Apple Bloom.”
  2469. “She doesn’t have to know everything about Silver Spoon, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
  2470. >”It weren’t, but you’re wrong on that, too,” Lauren sighs. “Anyway, that ain’t it at all. She wants to know why you’re punishin’ her.”
  2471. “I told her I’m not.”
  2472. >”No, you told her the breedin’ weren’t a punishment. You ain’t said nothin’ about why you ain’t spending time with her no more.”
  2473. “Because without her, I’ve got to run the farm! Even then –“
  2474. >Lauren steps forward quickly and puts a finger on your lips.
  2475. >”Shhh,” she hisses with an amused smile. “You should be tellin’ her that, not me.”
  2476. >You’re tempted to bite her.
  2477. >Hell, you’re tempted to slap her.
  2478. >She says all that shit about you not being allowed to touch her yesterday, and then she turns around and touches you?
  2479. >But she also has a point.
  2480. >There’s no reason talking to her.
  2481. >Never really is.
  2482. “Fine, just be gentle with her.”
  2483. >The woman snorts and returns to Silver Spoon’s side.
  2484. >”Don’t worry, I will,” she answers with a wry grin as she bends over to cut off the dirty bandages. “Believe me, I care a heck of a lot more ‘bout her than you.”
  2485. “Oh?”
  2486. >”Yup.”
  2487. ”Spend a lot of time with Sterling’s whores?”
  2488. >Lauren’s shoulders heave as she sighs.
  2489. >”Somethin’ like that.”
  2490. >Huh.
  2491. >You never took her for a lesbian, let alone a horsefucker.
  2492. >Wait.
  2493. “So, do the Stables have stallions, too?”
  2494. >”Out!”
  2495. >She puts down the roll of gauze she had been unwinding and starts pushing out of the room.
  2496. “Hey!”
  2497. >”Go talk to your mare, jerk,” Lauren growls before slamming the door in your face.
  2498. >Well, okay then.
  2499. >If she wants to hurt more of your ponies, that’s fine – so long as she can pay for it.
  2500. >Not like you ever thought you’d get much work out of Silver Spoon, anyway.
  2501. >Best case she’ll end up being one of Roma’s assistants.
  2502. >Or maybe you’d keep her around the house as a maid or something.
  2503. >Whatever happens, you know she’ll never be working the fields.
  2504. >Damn.
  2505. >A loud sigh catches you by surprise, even though it’s your own.
  2506. >You need Apple Bloom back.
  2507. >This is impossible to do on your own.
  2508. >Hell, you don’t even know how the day’s work went.
  2509. >You should probably go talk to Maud first and see if –
  2510. >No.
  2511. >Apple Bloom takes priority.
  2512. >She almost looked like she was back to normal when you saw her in the living room.
  2513. >If she’s good enough to get back to work, you’ll avoid a lot of back-and-forth just by letting her go talk to Maud.
  2514. >Take two long steps to the right and knock on the door.
  2515. >There’s no answer, so you slowly push the door open.
  2516. “Hey, Apple Bloom?”
  2517. >She’s sitting dejectedly on the bed, staring out the window.
  2518. >It’s pitch black, save for the distant lights of the pony dorms.
  2519. >The mare sighs.
  2520. “Apple Bloom?”
  2521. >”Yes, sir?” she mumbles, not even turning to look at you.
  2522. “Didn’t you hear me knock?”
  2523. >”Ah did.”
  2524. “Ignoring me?”
  2525. >The mare shrugs slightly and sighs again before turning her head to peek at you over her shoulder.
  2526. >”Sorry, sir,” she answers with downcast eyes. “Ah figured you’d just come in anyway, so there weren’t no point in sayin’ anything.”
  2527. “I haven’t done that to you, yet.”
  2528. >Almost, but not quite – you’d been a little late last night, but you *had* remembered to before actually walking in.
  2529. >”No, Ah guess not.”
  2530. >She turns back to the window.
  2531. >You’d be angry if you weren’t worried – this is a complete turnaround from how she was acting earlier.
  2532. “You’re mad at me, aren’t you?”
  2533. >”Ah’m not allowed to be mad at my master.”
  2534. “No, I guess not,” you sigh, coming around the bed to sit down beside her. “But you can be mad at me. Not as your master, but as just me.”
  2535. >She looks up at you with tearful eyes.
  2536. >”But Ah can’t be mad at *you*,” she mumbles. “You’re just doin’ what you gotta do.”
  2537. “That’s what we’re all doing, Apple Bloom.”
  2538. >She slumps against your side.
  2539. >”Ah know,” she answers after a moment, “and that’s why Ah can’t be mad at you – ‘cause if Ah am, then Ah gotta be mad at myself.”
  2540. “Well –“
  2541. >”’sides,” she mumbles into your ribs, “a pony’s gotta have friends, n’ you’re the closest Ah got.”
  2542. >That’s…
  2543. >That’s awkward.
  2544. “But the others…”
  2545. >”The other ponies all treat me like Ah’m the same filly Ah was back ‘fore the war started,” Apple Bloom cries softly. “They only listen to me on account of who my sister is! An’ they all got family n’ friends with ‘em. But Ah don’t. And – and *you* don’t. Not really! You’re all alone out here on the farm, same as me.”
  2546. “You just said you had a sister –“
  2547. >”But she ain’t here, is she? Ah know you got family an’ you’re here ‘cause you don’t wanna disappoint ‘em, - well, Ah’m the same. My family ain’t here but Ah’m still tryin’ to live my life how they’d want me to. Ah know you n’ I argue n’ all, an’ Ah’m your basically your slave, but Ah just thought –“
  2548. >She squeaks as you put your arm around her shoulder and squeeze gently.
  2549. “Yes, Apple Bloom. You’re my friend.”
  2550. >You can’t just ignore a crying female – human or pony.
  2551. >Besides, she’s not entirely wrong.
  2552. >You’ve been relying on her from the moment you arrived.
  2553. >”Then why are you doin’ this to me?” she sobs. “Why’d you bring *her* here?”
  2554. >Silver Spoon?
  2555. >”Are you plannin’ to have Lauren take my place?”
  2556. >Oh.
  2557. >”What’s gonna happen to me? Is that why… is that why you…”
  2558. >She drifts off, unable to bring herself to say it, but you know what she means.
  2559. >The breeding.
  2560. “You mean what happened in the barn?”
  2561. >For some reason, you can’t quite say it either.
  2562. >”Ah thought… Ah thought…”
  2563. >She swallow audibly, trying to force town the tears and snot.
  2564. “What?”
  2565. >”Ah thought you knew how lonely Ah was!” the mare cries. “Ah thought you were trying to help out by arranging a marriage or somethin’ for me!” she cries. “Ah didn’t realize Ah was supposed to be a *broodmare*!”
  2566. >Oh.
  2567. >”Ah was just so happy when you started talkin’ ‘bout family n’ all, Ah agreed without even thinkin’.”
  2568. >You gently pat her shoulder, trying to comfort her as best you can.
  2569. >There aren’t any words – you don’t know what to say.
  2570. >She *should* have known – your explanation was very clear – but you can’t help feel that it was your fault somehow.
  2571. >”An’ then…”
  2572. “Well… you…”
  2573. >She might still have the family she wanted, though it’ll take longer, but you don’t know if bringing it up would be reassuring or not.
  2574. >Probably not.
  2575. >”Anyway, even if that’s what you *did* mean, there ain’t no way Ah could marry him.”
  2576. “Remind you too much of your brother…?”
  2577. >”He’s dead.”
  2578. “Your brother?”
  2579. >”That stallion. His body might be movin’, but he’s dead.”
  2580. “You never even looked at him.”
  2581. >”No, but Ah heard what you n’ Mister Steffords were sayin’, an’ I sure as heck know what he was doing –”
  2582. >She clutches at your shirt with her forehooves.
  2583. >” – an’ there ain’t nopony alive that can do – do what *he* did.”
  2584. >Ah.
  2585. >So that’s how she’s going to keep herself sane – by blaming the stallion.
  2586. >She *should* be blaming you.
  2587. >You squeeze her tightly, actually pulling her closer to your side.
  2588. “I don’t even want her here, you know? Lauren, I mean.”
  2589. >”O-oh…”
  2590. >Apple Bloom looks up at you, her large eyes glistening in the light of the lamp.
  2591. >”Ah – Ah kinda thought that was the case.”
  2592. “Why?”
  2593. >”Well…”
  2594. >Her eyes drift away and she blushes faintly.
  2595. >”You seemed about as happy to see her as Ah did to… to…”
  2596. >The mare’s head drops, her forehead pressing against your side.
  2597. “To be on that stand?”
  2598. >You can feel her nod.
  2599. >”But just like me, you don’t got a choice, do you?” she mumbles dejectedly. “At least tell me you’re getting’ married and it ain’t just –”
  2600. “Married!? I’m not marrying her!”
  2601. >”But –“
  2602. “Did she say something about that to you?”
  2603. >”N-no, but… she ain’t so bad…”
  2604. >Apple Bloom risks a glance at your face, dipping her head back down immediately when she notices you watching her.
  2605. “What do you mean?”
  2606. >”Ah mean…”
  2607. >The mare shudders once before continuing.
  2608. >”Ah mean she at least knows farmin’… and she ain’t so bad once you get to know her…”
  2609. “No, she is, girl, believe me.”
  2610. >You sigh and pat Apple Bloom’s shoulder.
  2611. >”Just give her a chance, sir,” she whispers after several seconds. “I know you gotta, so you might as well make the best of it. You need someone that can help you run the farm.”
  2612. “Yeah, but not *her*.”
  2613. >”I know you two argue, but so do we!”
  2614. >She’s crying again.
  2615. >You can feel the mare shaking – she’s trying to hide it, but she can’t.
  2616. “Yeah, but her and I… it’s different.”
  2617. >”You gotta give it a chance!”
  2618. “I did. Didn’t work out.”
  2619. >Spend enough time with someone and you learn how to push all their buttons.
  2620. >”But –“
  2621. “Believe me, girl. I spent damn near every day with that woman for almost a year. It didn’t work out.”
  2622. >”Oh.”
  2623. >She sighs – her body heaves with the effort.
  2624. >You can feel her hot breath against your side.
  2625. >”Ah’m sorry, sir.”
  2626. “It’s not your fault.”
  2627. >”Ah know, but Lauren –“
  2628. “I don’t need her, girl. I have you.”
  2629. >Why does that make her laugh?
  2630. >More importantly, why doesn’t it sound genuine?
  2631. >”Ah wish… sometimes Ah wish…”
  2632. “What?”
  2633. >”Ah wish Ah was a human. Then neither one of us would have to go through this, would we?”
  2634. “I guess.”
  2635. >You don’t know what else to say.
  2636. >It’s obvious what she means, but you can’t bring yourself to tell her no.
  2637. >Her wish is impossible, so there’s no harm in letting her dream.
  2638. >The mare hugs you tightly with her forelegs and sighs.
  2639. >”Course, if Ah was human, we never woulda met, would we?”
  2640. >Probably not.
  2641. “I’m sure we would.”
  2642. >Let her have the dream.
  2643. >She snorts, not believing a word you said.
  2644. >”Not likely,” the mare responds. “I can’t imagine you comin’ out to Sweet Apple Acres for any reason, an’ Ah never woulda left there if Ah hadn’t been forced to.”
  2645. “True enough.”
  2646. >She sighs again as you gently run your hand down her back.
  2647. “It’s no secret that this life isn’t for me.”
  2648. >With a sorrowful giggle, Apple Bloom looks up.
  2649. >”Ah know.”
  2650. >She squeezes your chest again.
  2651. >Her legs don’t quite reach all the way around, but she tries.
  2652. >”You’re only here because your family says you gotta be. Still…”
  2653. >The mare hesitates.
  2654. >In her eyes, you can see her rethinking what she was about to say.
  2655. “What?”
  2656. >”Why don’t you just sell it off?” she asks timidly. “Ah know it’s the family farm n’ all, but… Ah mean…”
  2657. “I can’t, girl.”
  2658. >”Ah know… but…”
  2659. >She doesn’t look away, but her expression changes – you weren’t exactly sure what it was before, but now she’s pleading.
  2660. >”… if you’re gonna lose it anyway, what’s the point?”
  2661. “What are you talking about, girl?”
  2662. >”Ah’ve heard you complainin’ about the bills n’ such,” Apple Bloom admits. “With what’s being half the crops bein’ taken away, we’re bringin’ barely more n’ what it takes to keep us all fed.”
  2663. >Oh.
  2664. >Her eyes blink shut as your hand comes close to her face.
  2665. >Your fingers run though her mane.
  2666. “It’s not that bad. Things are tight, sure, but the bonds we’re being paid with actually make this place pretty profitable. Just… not now. Not until we can cash them in.”
  2667. >”Oh,” Apple Bloom grunts, casting her eyes towards the floor.
  2668. “Don’t be like that, girl. We’re running on a shoestring budget right now, but once that happens –”
  2669. >You softly stroke your hand down the side of her neck.
  2670. “ – we can get a few more machines around here.”
  2671. >Assuming the factories are retooled for civilian purposes again.
  2672. >”That’ll help out,” she admits softly after a moment. “So why can’t you just wait?”
  2673. “For?”
  2674. >”For that. Why do you gotta have Lauren here?”
  2675. “I don’t.”
  2676. >And you really wish you had the balls to throw her off your farm.
  2677. >Unfortunately, she’d probably take them with her.
  2678. >”But –“
  2679. “I’m not marrying her. We aren’t dating. It’s…”
  2680. >How do you explain it?
  2681. “… she’s just butting in.”
  2682. >As if on cue, there’s a knock on the wall.
  2683. “For example...”
  2684. >You sigh.
  2685. “Let me go check and see what’s going on.”
  2686. >If she hurt your pony…
  2687. >Well, she can’t do any worse than her last owner.
  2688. >Reluctantly the mare sits up, freeing you to poke your head out the door.
  2689. >Lauren is waiting for you, holding pretty much the exact same position – one hand on the doorknob, leaning out.
  2690. >”She’s awake,” the woman says before you can ask. “I think you should bring Apple Bloom over to say hello.”
  2691. “Fine, fine.”
  2692. >Why not?
  2693. >It might be good for both of them.
  2694. >You duck back into the room.
  2695. >Apple Bloom is back to staring out the window.
  2696. “Lonely?”
  2697. >”Yes,” she mumbles, “but Ah *can’t* go back there. Not yet.”
  2698. >She turns to look over her shoulder at you.
  2699. >”Please don’t make me… sir…”
  2700. “Don’t worry – I need you here.”
  2701. >”For?”
  2702. >Her eyes sparkle with uncertain hope.
  2703. >You hope this doesn’t disappoint her.
  2704. >At least… at least you aren’t sending her back.
  2705. “I think – I hope – I found one of your friends today.”
  2706. >Silver Spoon is from Ponyville; there’s a chance.
  2707. >”O-oh?”
  2708. >Apple Bloom cringes slightly.
  2709. “We have her –“
  2710. >Dammit, Lauren!
  2711. >Woman needs to stay the fuck out of your pronouns. This isn’t her farm.
  2712. “ – I put her in the room next door for now.”
  2713. >You wave for her to follow you, but the mare doesn’t budge.
  2714. >”Ah’ll see her when Ah go back to the dorm,” she finally says. “Ah can wait.”
  2715. “Aren’t you even curious who it is?”
  2716. >”Yeah,” the mare admits after a second, “but Ah can wait.”
  2717. >She shivers, clutching at herself with her forelegs.
  2718. >”Ah can’t –“
  2719. “She’s hurt.”
  2720. >Her eyes flare open wide.
  2721. >”H-how bad?”
  2722. “Bad enough. She needs your help – *I* need your help.”
  2723. >You shrug.
  2724. “I know more about running a farm than I do about changing bandages and looking –“
  2725. >”Ah better take a look,” Apple Bloom cuts you off with a smile.
  2726. “Good, because –“
  2727. >“You don’t gotta keep talking,” the mare sighs, hopping off the bed and trotting over to you. “Ah know what you’re doin’, and… thank you, sir.”
  2728. “What *am* I doing?”
  2729. >”Givin’ me somethin’ to do.”
  2730. >She bumps her flank into your leg as she walks past.
  2731. >”Showin’ me that you still trust me n’ all.”
  2732. >You shrug internally.
  2733. >If she’s going to attribute more cleverness to you than you had intended, you’re not going to prove her wrong by opening your mouth again.
  2734. >”Takin’ my mind off… off of…”
  2735. “Yeah, you caught me.”
  2736. >You flash her a guilty smile when she looks back.
  2737. >None of those things had crossed your mind – you were only trying to guilt her into taking care of Silver Spoon for you.
  2738. >She trots out into the hallway and you follow behind.
  2739. >Despite her apparent eagerness, Apple Bloom hesitates before pushing the door open slowly.
  2740. >”How bad is it?” she asks again, with the door open just a crack. “Ah just… Ah wanna be prepared.”
  2741. “She’ll live.”
  2742. >Apple Bloom nods grimly and pushes the door open enough to slip through.
  2743. >Through the gap, you can see Lauren sitting by Silver Spoon’s side, holding one of her hooves in both hands.
  2744. >She stands when Apple Bloom approaches and says a few words you don’t catch.
  2745. >With a nod, the mare rears up to see the other, planting both forehooves on the edge of the bed to balance herself.
  2746. >”SILVER SPOON!”
  2747. >You *hope* that’s a happy shout.
  2748. >From the look on Apple Bloom’s face, you’re not entirely sure.
  2749. >”Oh, Celestia! Ah’m so happy you’re still alive!”
  2750. >With tears flowing freely from her eyes, she embraces the other mare.
  2751. >Lauren smiles and pats Silver’s hoof one last time before walking towards the door.
  2752. >”Think we should give ‘em some time alone,” the woman says as she pushes past you, pulling the door shut behind herself.
  2753. “Why?”
  2754. >”Because I’m not an asshole like you.”
  2755. >She walks away – and you follow her into the living room.
  2756. >Seems like a better idea than barging in on Apple Bloom or just hanging around in the hallway like a creep.
  2757. >Lauren throws herself back into the sofa and stares at the fighter jets frozen on the TV, ignoring you as best she can as you seat yourself in your chair.
  2758. >After an awkward minute or two, she sighs.
  2759. >”Are you going to turn that off?”
  2760. “I dunno. Seemed like you were enjoying it.”
  2761. >”It’s *paused*.”
  2762. “Can’t make it any worse of a movie.”
  2763. >She sighs again and turns away from the TV.
  2764. >”Why do you always have to do this?”
  2765. “Point out your shitty taste in movies?”
  2766. >”That’s part of it,” she snarls. “I got tired of hearing that after the third movie we went to.”
  2767. “Not my fault you always picked shitty movies.”
  2768. >”Then why did you always have me pick!?”
  2769. >So you could point out her shitty taste in movies – but since she already knows that, you don’t bother to say it.
  2770. >Lauren stares at you so intently – like she actually expects a real answer – that you turn the TV off just to placate her.
  2771. “Happy now?”
  2772. >”No,” she huffs, leaning back and staring at the ceiling. “How the heck am I supposed to be happy when Silver is all tore up like that?”
  2773. “I guess you can’t be.“
  2774. >Awkward silence overtakes the room.
  2775. >You’re about to ask how she knows your new pony when Lauren hisses at you.
  2776. >”Don’t ask.”
  2777. >There’s a finality to the words that brooks no arguments.
  2778. >Besides, silence will draw out the truth even faster.
  2779. >It’s handy, knowing someone as well as you know her.
  2780. >”She’s a friend,” Lauren eventually says. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
  2781. >You remain quiet.
  2782. >So does Lauren.
  2783. >For several long, drawn out minutes, the only sound comes from the off-balance ceiling fan.
  2784. >You’ll fix that, someday.
  2785. >”I think I know someone that can help with her physical therapy,” Lauren volunteers out of the blue. “He’s gotten plenty of experience with dog attacks.”
  2786. “I never said she was attacked by dogs.”
  2787. >”You didn’t have to.”
  2788. “Oh? Been on some of Sterling’s hunting trips?”
  2789. >”You’re an asshole,” Lauren sighs. “I saw her injuries when I changed her bandages.”
  2790. “Well, I still bet you have.”
  2791. >She sneers at you before leaning down and grabbing the cuff of her jeans.
  2792. >”Fine, I admit it,” the woman snarls, pulling up the cuff to reveal a scarred leg. “You’re right – I *have* been to one of his hunting trips.”
  2793. >You know those kinds of scars – you’ve seen them before, on your friend’s arms.
  2794. “Let me guess – didn’t train your dogs well enough?”
  2795. >”Really!?”
  2796. >Lauren rolls her eyes and lets the cuff fall.
  2797. “Well, they turned on you, so –“
  2798. >”I *stopped* one of his hunts, you idiot,” the woman sighs, falling heavily against the sofa’s back. “God, how do you not get that?”
  2799. “Likely story.”
  2800. >She reaches up with one hand and rubs her forehead.
  2801. >”Sometimes I wonder what I still see in you,” Lauren mumbles softly. “And then you pull a stunt like bringing Silver home, and…”
  2802. >Her hand drops just enough for her to peek at you, her green eyes staring over the back of her hand.
  2803. >”… that don’t make us alike, though, does it?”
  2804. “Not one bit. After all, your father –“
  2805. >” – ain’t me, and I ain’t him!” the woman barks. “I wish you’d get that through your fool head!”
  2806. >She hesitates… and laughs.
  2807. >“Though… he *was* there with me.”
  2808. >Lauren smiles viciously.
  2809. >”Sterling had to buy himself a couple new dogs, I can tell you *that*. Daddy don’t let *nobody* hurt what’s his.”
  2810. “His? Does that mean you or the pony?”
  2811. >You smile at your insult, but she takes the wind out of your sails almost immediately.
  2812. >”Trixie ain’t his,” Lauren answers with a lopsided grin, tilting her head to one side. “She’s *mine* - I bought her contract from that man and daddy didn’t give him no choice about it.”
  2813. “Okay, there are two things wrong with what you just said.”
  2814. >”What now?” the woman groans, reaching for her glass.
  2815. “First off, I know that’s all bullshit because your family’s ponies don’t *have* names, and second –“
  2816. >”She’s mine. She’s gotta name.”
  2817. >The woman shrugs slightly.
  2818. >”Besides, it’s kinda hard to forget it. *She* certainly won’t.”
  2819. “Whatever.”
  2820. >You wave away her words like the smoke they are.
  2821. “I know your farm isn’t doing much better than mine. Do you really expect me to believe your dad just bought you a pony for the hell of it?”
  2822. >”*I* bought her contract, asshole,” Lauren sighs. “Not daddy.”
  2823. “Bullshit. How did you get the money for that?”
  2824. >”I had to…”
  2825. >She pauses and looks away abruptly.
  2826. “Are you seriously blushing?”
  2827. >”No.”
  2828. >Bullshit.
  2829. >You can see the red glow on her face as clear as a sunrise.
  2830. “Finally going to admit you’re lying to –“
  2831. >”Ain’t lying,” she grumbles. “It weren’t cheap – Sterling was plenty pissed I messed up his hunt. Cost him a lot of money, but I… I paid her off eventually.”
  2832. >She must have sunk her entire life savings into it.
  2833. >”Bastard,” Lauren spits suddenly. “Takin’ ponies out an’ murderin’ ‘em just ‘cause they won’t spread their legs for any asshole trucker that stops in!”
  2834. >Her green eyes bore into you.
  2835. >Watching.
  2836. >Waiting.
  2837. >Expectantly.
  2838. “Y-yeah, doesn’t really make sense, does it…?”
  2839. >Her lips turn down in a severe frown.
  2840. >You did *not* say the right words.
  2841. >”Makes too much sense,” Lauren growls. “Wanna know how much those hunts make him? Because *I* know! I had to match it to buy Trixie’s contract!”
  2842. >There’s no way she could afford that.
  2843. >”What doesn’t make sense is why folks let him get away with it!”
  2844. >*That* you know the answer too.
  2845. >Might not be the one she’s hoping for, but it’s the truth.
  2846. “Because it’s easier than stopping him.”
  2847. >”Yeah,” she sneers, rising to her feet. “You’d know, wouldn’t you?”
  2848. >Lauren staggers out of the room, flashing you an angry look as she passes you.
  2849. >”I need some of your shitty beer,” she growls. “Hope you don’t mind, because –“
  2850. “Bring me one, too, will you?”
  2851. >You could use a drink.
  2852. >More than one.
  2853. >Besides, not like you’re going to be driving anywhere.
  2854. >And… you don’t have to be up early, do you?
  2855. >The ponies seemed to do well enough without you today.
  2856. >When Lauren returns, she heads straight for the sofa and slumps down.
  2857. “Hey, what about – no, don’t throw it!”
  2858. >Her arm freezes in mid-toss. After a second, it drops to her side, the can rolling free from her loose grip.
  2859. >With an aggravated sigh, you shuffle over to the sofa and snatch up your beer.
  2860. >”Don’t pay me no mind,” the woman mumbles, looking off to the side and cracking open her can. “I’ll just finish this n’ be on my way.”
  2861. “I don’t know why –“
  2862. >” – why I don’t just get the fuck out now?”
  2863. >Yes, but that’s not the only thing.
  2864. >Not even the foremost in your mind.
  2865. “ – why do you *care* so much?”
  2866. >First Apple Bloom, now Silver Spoon and… and Trixie.
  2867. >”How can I not?”
  2868. >Lauren raises her beer to her lips.
  2869. >”Don’t worry,” she sighs, letting the can drop back down untouched. “You’ll get your damn money. I know that’s what you’re *actually* concerned about –“
  2870. “No.”
  2871. >”– but don’t you worry none.”
  2872. >That hadn’t even crossed your mind.
  2873. “You can’t afford it, can you?”
  2874. >For once – for the first time in your life, perhaps – you’re trying to reassure her.
  2875. >”No, I… I can…” she answers, turning her head further to hide the tears that slide down from her eyes. “I just gotta…”
  2876. “Look –“
  2877. >”… all I gotta do is sell Trixie’s contract, an’ you’ll have your damn money.”
  2878. >Well, now you feel like shit.
  2879. >”I’m sure I can find some decent folk out there for a 9B like her,” the woman mumbles into her beer, ignoring your hand on her shoulder. “It’ll just take some time, okay?”
  2880. “Or –“
  2881. >”At least Silver’s gonna be okay,” Lauren laugh’s darkly. “You’re too much of a chickenshit to ever do anything to her.”
  2882. >That doesn’t sting at all.
  2883. >Nope.
  2884. >Well, maybe a little.
  2885. “ – I could always –“
  2886. >”What? Give me time?” Lauren snarls, her head whipping around to face you. “Or… or are you going to let me work off the debt!?”
  2887. >What does that even mean?
  2888. >You search her face for a clue, but find nothing that doesn’t leave you more confused.
  2889. >Lauren blushes furiously as she realizes you’re looking into eyes.
  2890. >In a heartbeat, she’s staring away again.
  2891. >”I don’t know what’s worse,” she sighs. “That you’d offer, or that I’d accept.”
  2892. >She sighs again, her entire body heaving under your hand.
  2893. >”At least… at least it wouldn’t be the first time.”
  2894. “You don’t have to pay, Lauren.”
  2895. >You can feel her tense up from head to toe.
  2896. >”And… what…?” she asks fearfully. “Are you gonna tell daddy?”
  2897. “No, just...”
  2898. >The farm has managed to squeak by so far.
  2899. >The money would be nice – hell, it could turn this place around if you used it right – but…
  2900. >”Whatever you’re gonna suggest, I can’t,” Lauren cries. “I can’t. A deal’s a deal, after all, and I told you –“
  2901. “Then I’ll take your pony.”
  2902. >”What…?”
  2903. “As payment.”
  2904. >You can’t believe you’re doing this.
  2905. “Like you said, I’m too much of a chickenshit to do anything to her.”
  2906. >Your beer is heavy in your hand.
  2907. >Damn, you should have drunk that first – then you could blame the alcohol for this.
  2908. >You’d rather she think of you as a lightweight.
  2909. >Shit.
  2910. >You take a sip before continuing.
  2911. “Besides…”
  2912. >It’s been a long day.
  2913. >You’re emotionally – and physically – exhausted.
  2914. >Another crying woman is more than you can put up with.
  2915. >That’s the only reason you’re doing this.
  2916. “… that way… you could always…”
  2917. >You’re going to hate yourself in the morning.
  2918. “… come visit her…?”
  2919. >Scratch that – you hate yourself now.
  2920. >”That’s… that’s surprisingly decent of you,” Lauren laughs grimly. “What’s the catch?”
  2921. >Catch…?
  2922. >You want to ask yourself how she can think so little of you, but you already know the answer to that.
  2923. “There isn’t one, Lauren.”
  2924. >The woman shakes her head in disbelief.
  2925. >”Don’t you lie to me ‘bout it,” she mumbles. “Ain’t no point – you pretty much got me under yer thumb right now, so you don’t gotta sweeten me up for nothing.”
  2926. >Lauren tips her head back and downs her beer in one go.
  2927. >Not a bad idea – you follow her lead.
  2928. >You really don’t feel like being sober.
  2929. >Too bad one beer won’t do the job.
  2930. >”Well?” she mumbles into her empty can before you can respond.
  2931. “I’m trying to be nice.”
  2932. >”Since when have you ever been nice to me?”
  2933. >True enough, it’s been a long time – if you ever *had* been.
  2934. “Well, since when have you been nice to ponies? I mean –“
  2935. >”I know what you mean,” Lauren sighs, turning away to sit sideways on the sofa with her back leaning against you.
  2936. “Just, from what I heard –“
  2937. >”Yeah, I got plenty of reasons to hate ‘em,” the woman admits, “but I can’t. Try sometimes, but I can’t.”
  2938. “But your mom –“
  2939. >”The ponies we’re dealin’ with – they ain’t the ones what blew up the portals. Even if they was, being mean to ‘em wouldn’t bring her back.”
  2940. >She sighs and leans forward to set her empty can on the sidetable before leaning against you again.
  2941. >”Even daddy don’t hate ‘em, you know?”
  2942. “Bullshit.”
  2943. >”He’s harsh, but… but he’s fair. In his own way.”
  2944. >The Lauren shifts, curling her legs up and wrapping her arms around them – like she always has when she feels vulnerable.
  2945. >”I wish he weren’t so strict, though,” the woman mumbles after several seconds.
  2946. >She sighs before continuing, the breath hissing out from between clenched teeth.
  2947. >”I was gonna have to sell of Trixie’s contract sooner or later anyway. In a way, I’m glad it’s now, ‘fore anything worse could happen.”
  2948. “What do you mean?”
  2949. >You idly play with your empty can, debating grabbing another one – or two.
  2950. >Lauren sounds like she could use another.
  2951. >She’s a happy drunk.
  2952. >Might be the easiest way to cheer her up.
  2953. >”I mean she’s on ‘er second strike already,” Lauren answers, burying her head between her knees. “She learns fast an’ works hard, but she don’t want to and he’s getting’ tired of her backtalk.”
  2954. “So?”
  2955. >”If she keeps it up, he’s gonna kill her.”
  2956. “But she’s *your* pony.”
  2957. >”An’ I’m *his* daughter!” she cries with a shudder.  “That damn near makes her *his*! An’ – an’ I don’t even know if he’s wrong, considerin’ she’d rather ramble on about ‘Twilight Sparkle’ this and ‘Twilight Sparkle’ that than do any actual work!”
  2958. “If she’s such a bad worker, why’d you even bother to save her?”
  2959. >And why are you letting her come *here*?
  2960. >”I didn’t know her at the time,” Lauren snaps back with a grim chuckle. “Even if I had, I ain’t… I ain’t like you, willin’ to just let life pass me by.”
  2961. “That’s not fair.”
  2962. >Lauren shrugs noncommittally without raising her head.
  2963. >She obviously thinks otherwise, but isn’t going to fight about it. Not now.
  2964. >”When I heard the dogs barkin’, I knew *somethin’* was up,” the woman sighs. “Daddy told me to pay it no mind an’ finish my meal, but I couldn’t help but walk outside the diner an’ look.”
  2965. >Oh.
  2966. >You just sat there when you heard them.
  2967. >”I don’t regret it none, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
  2968. “It’s not.”
  2969. >You’re too busy trying to not feel guilty to worry about her.
  2970. >”Oh.”
  2971. >Lauren shifts uncomfortably.
  2972. >”Sometimes I do,” she mumbles once she has stopped moving. “I know I shouldn’t, but then I think of all the ponies I became…”
  2973. >She shakes her head slightly before continuing.
  2974. >”… I think of all the ponies I couldn’t save and think about how little good I did in the long run…”
  2975. >The woman sighs and raises her head, awkwardly twisting to look at you.
  2976. >”Thanks for savin’ my friend from that bastard.”
  2977. >You're too surprised to avoid her kiss.
  2978. >Hell, you would have been too surprised anyway – you don’t even believe it happened until your fingers touch the damp spot on your cheek.
  2979. “Oh.”
  2980. >”Don’t ask,” Lauren mumbles, turning away again. ”Spend enough time with someone, you’re gonna feel *something* for ‘em… even if it is just friendship.”
  2981. “You mean me? Or Silver Spoon?”
  2982. >”Don’t ask.”
  2983. “O-okay.”
  2984. >She’ll explain on her own, eventually.
  2985. >Not like you won’t have time later.
  2986. >You haven’t been able to keep her away these past two days – there’s no way you’re going to be able to now.
  2987. >”I’ll… I’ll be able to see her, right?”
  2988. >Definitely no way you’re keeping her off your farm.
  2989. “Yeah.”
  2990. >Lauren sighs happily as you pat her shoulder.
  2991. >”Thanks.”
  2992. >She grabs your hand and holds it in place before you can pull it away.
  2993. >”No, you ain’t gonna just run away again,” the woman chuckles. “Not when you’re just startin’ to be nice.”
  2994. >Wasn’t too long ago that she warned you to never touch her, and now…?
  2995. >You sigh internally.
  2996. >Women are crazy.
  2997. “Am I supposed to tell you that you’re pretty?”
  2998. >”Wouldn’t hurt,” Lauren snorts in surprised amusement, “but I was *hoping* for another beer.”
  2999. “Um.”
  3000. >You try to pull your hand away, but she holds tight.
  3001. “Unless you let go…”
  3002. >”Yeah, I know.”
  3003. >And yet she doesn’t release you.
  3004. >You’re starting to worry that she never will when her phone rings.
  3005. >With a sigh, Lauren slides her hand from yours and digs into her pocket.
  3006. “I’ll be back with those beers.”
  3007. >She nods, her exhaustion clear in the way she moves her head.
  3008. >You stand and make for the kitchen – you’re barely out of the room when the phone stops ringing.
  3009. >”H-hey, daddy…”
  3010. >Shit.
  3011. >You should have expected him to call at some point; Steffords can’t be too happy with his daughter being gone so long.
  3012. >Hopefully he won’t blame you.
  3013. >Meh.
  3014. >Nothing you can do about it now.
  3015. >That little bit of logic doesn’t stop you from worrying, but that’s okay – the beer will.
  3016. >Looks like there’s still about half a case stuffed in the fridge.
  3017. >Good.
  3018. >Twelve cans should be enough, so you shouldn’t have to get out the good booze.
  3019. >You really didn’t want to – that stuff should be savored.
  3020. >Right now, you’re just drinking to relax.
  3021. >You just grab the entire case and carry it back with you.
  3022. >Sure, it’ll get warm, but by that time you won’t care.
  3023. >Neither will Lauren, if you remember right.
  3024. >She never could match you.
  3025. >Plus she’s lost weight, so you doubt her tolerance has gone up any.
  3026. >The woman is still on the phone when you come back, whispering urgently.
  3027. >”No, daddy, I’ve just… I’ve been drinkin’, okay?”
  3028. >Well, she’s *trying* to whisper.
  3029. >You laugh to yourself as you drop the case on the floor beside her.
  3030. >Looks you were right – Lauren’s alcohol tolerance hasn’t gone up at all.
  3031. >Only one beer and she’s too buzzed to talk quietly.
  3032. >”No, I just think it’d be safer if I stayed here tonight.”
  3033. >wat
  3034. >Well, yeah, probably.
  3035. >If this is what one beer does to her, she’ll be in no state to drive after a few more.
  3036. >”He… he don’t mind…”
  3037. >Lauren raises her head – her eyes asking permission far too late to catch up with her mouth.
  3038. >Reluctantly, you nod and smile.
  3039. >It’s the only realistic response - either she stays here or she sleeps it off in her truck.
  3040. >Trying to drive back to her place would be a disaster.
  3041. >Besides, even with Silver Spoon and Apple Bloom in the house, there are still a few spare bedrooms.
  3042. >”What!? N-no, I’m not going to fuck him!”
  3043. >Aaaaaaand that’s your cue to get out.
  3044. >You grab a can from the case before walking out of the room.
  3045. >Probably time to check on the two mares anyway, but first…
  3046. >With a flick of the tab, the can pops open with a sharp crack.
  3047. >Foam spills down the sides almost faster than you can lap it up.
  3048. >Shit, shouldn’t have dropped the case.
  3049. >Once the situation is under control, you keep walking towards the mares’ rooms.
  3050. >Hmm, you probably should have brought an extra beer or two – from the way Apple Bloom is looking, crumpled up on the floor outside Silver’s room, she probably needs one.
  3051. >Too late to go back, thought – she hears your footsteps and raises her head.
  3052. >”She’s asleep,” the mare tells you with a sigh. “Whatever those pills are, they seem pretty strong.”
  3053. “Good.”
  3054. >Resting your back against the wall opposite her, you slide down to the floor.
  3055. “It’s about time we got decent meds developed for ponies.”
  3056. >You wait a bit, but Apple Bloom doesn’t say anything.
  3057. >She’s angry and confused – you can tell that much from the way she’s holding her head.
  3058. >You don’t break the silence.
  3059. >The mare has things on her mind and you have a beer to drink.
  3060. >Silence is just fine for right now.
  3061. >The can is about a third empty before your pony breaks the silence.
  3062. >”What happened to her?”
  3063. “Worried about your friend?”
  3064. >”She weren’t… yeah, I’m worried about my friend. What happened to her?”
  3065. >You take another sip, giving yourself time to think.
  3066. >Is it really a good idea to tell her?
  3068. >You shouldn’t put it that way, but yeah, she should know.
  3069. >At least what happened to Silver Spoon.
  3070. >She’s going to find out eventually.
  3071. “Well, basically…”
  3072. >You sigh before continuing.
  3073. >Apple Bloom listens carefully, her ears standing at attention as you rattle off what the nurse had told you, from Silver Spoon being raped to being shot.
  3074. >With every word, the mare’s anger builds
  3075. >By the end, she’s absolutely smoldering with rage.
  3076. >Both ears lay flat against her skull, her eyes are barely slits.
  3077. >You can’t help but sympathize – hell, you were pretty angry at the time, too.
  3078. >”If Ah ever see that man –“
  3079. “Don’t.”
  3080. >”But –“
  3081. “Don’t, girl. Don’t make promises you can’t carry out.”
  3082. >”Ah’m pretty sure Ah could kick –“
  3083. “Then don’t make promises you *shouldn’t* carry out. If you so much as touch Sterling, he’ll have you…”
  3084. >Shit.
  3085. >”What?” she hisses angrily. “He’ll have me *what*!?”
  3086. “He’ll have you killed.”
  3087. >”Still…”
  3088. >Apple Bloom shakes her head, trying to dismiss the point – in her own mind, at least – and failing.
  3089. >”… he tried to kill my friend,” she moans. “Ah can’t just forget that.”
  3090. >You can understand that – you won’t forget it either.
  3091. >But are you really any better?
  3092. “Were you this angry with me?
  3093. >”When!?”
  3094. “He’s not the only one with blood on his hands, girl. I mean… Flam…?”
  3095. >”What!?”
  3096. >The mare tilts her head to one side, clearly confused.
  3097. “You know, the –“
  3098. >”No!” she shouts. “You did what you had to do!”
  3099. >Her head drops down and she paws at the wooden floor nervously.
  3100. >”Ah mean, it weren’t his fault, what he did to your uncle,” she mumbles more quietly. “What with the med’s n’ all, he weren’t exactly in control of himself, but it weren’t your fault either!”
  3101. “But I’m still the one that had him put down.”
  3102. >”He was a danger to everypony,” Apple Bloom responds immediately. “You did what you had to do, but *that* man is just being MEAN.”
  3103. >There’s no uncertainty in her voice, but it still gnaws at you.
  3104. >Sterling isn’t the only one that’s had ponies killed.
  3105. >But…
  3106. >It was humane, it was *necessary* – it wasn’t your fault.
  3107. >She’s right; there’s a world of difference between what you did to Flam and what Sterling is doing with his ponies.
  3108. >The unicorn had killed your uncle – he *had* to be put down.
  3109. >You hadn’t tried to stop it.
  3110. >If Apple Bloom attacked Sterling…
  3111. >You don’t think you could just stand back and let justice take its course.
  3112. >Not again.
  3113. >Not with her.
  3114. >And something about that feels wrong.
  3115. “I should have tried something.”
  3116. >You stare into your beer.
  3117. >The answer isn’t there, but it seems like the best place to look right now.
  3118. >You don’t want to see the expression of disappointment in your mare’s face.
  3119. >She says she wasn’t angry with you, but that can’t be true.
  3120. >Apple Bloom rises and walks away – you can hear the clip clop of her hooves on the wood.
  3121. >Yeah, if you were her, you couldn’t stand to look at yourself either.
  3122. >You damn near jump out of your skin when she sits down beside you, her flank pressing against your hip.
  3123. >”It weren’t your fault,” Apple Bloom repeats, pulling the can out of your hands when you don’t respond.
  3124. >She sets it on the floor on her other side, forcing you to focus on her.
  3125. >”All you did – all you do – it ain’t your fault. You’re only doin’ what you gotta do.”
  3126. >The mare shivers.
  3127. >”Truth be told, Ah feel safer with Flam gone. He was going to snap sooner or later and – and…”
  3128. >She blushes but keeps her eyes squarely on yours.
  3129. >”… honestly, Ah’m glad he snapped when he did. At least nopony was hurt.”
  3130. “Just my uncle.”
  3131. >”He weren’t a pony,” Apple Bloom answers with a guilty smile. “Ah know Ah should feel bad about sayin’ it, but Ah’m glad he’s gone.”
  3132. >She bumps her shoulder into yours playfully.
  3133. “Did you really just say that you’re happy my uncle was murdered?”
  3134. >She couldn’t have.
  3135. >You heard her words – you’re pretty sure you understood their meaning – but something’s not quite adding up.
  3136. >”Y-yeah, Ah am.”
  3137. >You should feel something, but don’t.
  3138. >Insulted, maybe?
  3139. >At least angry.
  3140. >But you don’t.
  3141. >Awesome.
  3142. >The beer is working.
  3143. >”Ah mean, him getting’ murdered is the only reason you’re here…”
  3144. >The mare leans forward, searching your face for any hint of emotion.
  3145. “Ah.”
  3146. >”B-besides,” she stammers uncomfortably, “Ah mean –“
  3147. “No, I get it.”
  3148. >She waits patiently for you to explain.
  3149. “Besides, I should feel guilty about Flam –”
  3150. >And you do, but… not quite.
  3151. >Not for the right reasons.
  3152. “– but mostly I’m just worried I’ll have to do it again.”
  3153. >It’s one thing to send a stranger to his death, but with someone – somepony – you know?
  3154. “Please don’t make me.”
  3155. >You know that you couldn’t.
  3156. >”Ah… Ah won’t.”
  3157. >She wraps her forelegs around your chest, hugging you tightly.
  3158. >”Ah promise.”
  3159. “Good.”
  3160. >You run your hand along her back, patting her gently as she snuggles in to you.
  3161. >”If it makes you feel any better, you may have one life on your hooves, but you’ve just saved another.”
  3162. “You?”
  3163. >”Silver Spoon, you idiot,” the mare laughs, squeezing you tighter. “You know Ah wouldn’t do nothing to get you in trouble.”
  3164. >Oh.
  3165. >Yeah.
  3166. >That’s right.
  3167. >Relief floods through your body, even though you know Silver Spoon isn’t out of the woods yet.
  3168. “She’s not entirely out of danger, you know.”
  3169. >”Ah know, but you did the hard part.”
  3170. “No, girl, this is the hard part. I’m going to need your help with her.”
  3171. >The mare nods eagerly.
  3172. “Tomorrow, Lauren’s gonna show us how to do everything, like changing her bandages and stuff.”
  3173. >”I ain’t too good with that kinda thing,” Apple Bloom mutters uncertainly, “but Ah’ll try. Just wish that Fluttershy or Nurse Redheart were here –“
  3174. “Redheart?”
  3175. >”Yeah,” the pony answers with a nod. “She was a nurse back in Ponyville.”
  3176. >You chuckle silently, making Apple Bloom cock her head to one side in confusion.
  3177. “Well, she’s a nurse in town now.”
  3178. >”Seriously!?”
  3179. “Yeah. If it weren’t for her…”
  3180. >With the one arm that isn’t pinned by Apple Bloom’s body, you gesture towards Silver Spoon’s door.
  3181. >Somehow, you find it hard to explain exactly what Nurse Redheart did, but your mare’s look of excitement tells you that she managed to fill in the blanks on her own.
  3182. >”Who else did you meet!?” she asks eagerly, practically climbing into your lap in her impatience.
  3183. >With a smile, you ramble about your trip.
  3184. >You gloss over your stop at Sterling Stables, but at mention of Scootaloo she practically jumps into the air.
  3185. >”Oh my gosh! You’re joking, aren’t you!?”
  3186. “Um, no…?”
  3187. >You think you got the name right.
  3188. >”All this time, and Scootaloo was just a few hours away!?” Apple Bloom shrieks happily, squeezing you so tight you’re worried something might break. “Ah tried to get the board to send her with me – Ah mean, us orphans should stick together – but they said we weren’t family and we got split up!”
  3189. >Oh god, your ears hurt.
  3190. >Your lap hurts.
  3191. >You really wish she’d stop jumping up and down on it.
  3192. >”At least happy she ended up with humans as nice as you!” your mare laughs, hugging you frantically. “CAN AH SEE HER!?”
  3193. >Apple Bloom thinks her friend ended up with a human as nice as you?
  3194. >She thinks Old Bill is as nice as you?
  3195. >Or... that you're as nice as him...?
  3196. >He was practically treating that mare like she was his daughter - a daughter whose every whim he indulged.
  3197. >Maud and Apple Bloom are the only ponies you've gotten remotely close to and you've been treating them like friends at best.
  3198. >No, not even that.
  3199. >*Work* friends.
  3200. >At best.
  3201. >You stare into Apple Bloom's giant, orange eyes, trying to figure her out.
  3202. >Have you been treating your ponies better than you thought?
  3203. >Are you being too hard on yourself?
  3204. >No.
  3205. >You can lie to yourself about many things, but not that.
  3206. >Not after what you let happen to Silver Spoon.
  3207. >Maybe in a few weeks you can rationalize it, but not right now.
  3208. >"Please?" Apple Bloom begs. "Ah haven't seen her in *years*."
  3209. "Yeah. Of course."
  3210. >You'll try to work something out.
  3211. >"When?"
  3212. >That's a harder one.
  3213. >The farm has work that needs doing, but you don’t appear to be essential in the least.
  3214. >You weren’t here all day and nothing is on fire.
  3215. >Presumably everything got finished.
  3216. >It’ll be up to when Bill and Scootaloo – and Apple Bloom.
  3217. "I'm… not sure, girl."
  3218. >She fidgets uncomfortably in your lap, her hooves digging into your legs as she shifts back and forth.
  3219. >"Ah know we got alotta work to get done 'fore the freeze," the mare responds in a near panic, "but Ah can... Ah..."
  3220. >Apple Bloom timidly looks away from you.
  3221. >”Nevermind.”
  3222. "We can get it done faster with your help, if that's what you're going to say."
  3223. >"It were."
  3224. >She leans forward, resting the side of her head against your chest.
  3225. >"But Ah can't."
  3226. "Not ready to be with other ponies yet?"
  3227. >Even in your own mind, Silver Spoon doesn't count - she's in worse condition than Apple Bloom.
  3228. >You think she feels the same way.
  3229. >"No," the mare sighs, shivering at the thought. "Ah can't."
  3230. >You comfortingly wrap your arms around her barrel and hold her tight.
  3231. "It's okay, girl. You can see your friend some other time."
  3232. >The mare whines softly.
  3233. >”Oh, okay, sir,” she mumbles. “Ah understand. Can’t let a pony not work without bein’ punished.”
  3234. >What?
  3235. “I’m… I’m not punishing you…”
  3236. >”No, Ah understand, sir. You gotta.”
  3237. >She tries to pull away, but you don’t let go. Once she realizes that you won’t – and it doesn’t take long – she collapses back against your chest.
  3238. >”Once Ah get back to work, then Ah can see see her?”
  3239. “I’ll give Bill a call and try to set something up, but are you ready to be with other ponies?”
  3240. >Apple Bloom remains silently frozen in your lap.
  3241. >You don’t want to push this on her if she’s still uncomfortable with the thought.
  3242. “We can wait, girl.”
  3243. >”No…” she whispers. “Ah’m not…”
  3244. “Then it can wait.”
  3245. >"… but it's different if it's her."
  3246. “I’ll… see what I can do, girl. Give me a couple of days.”
  3247. >You have to check and make sure you’re right – Maud can probably do fine without you around, but you should check first.
  3248. >At least let her know you got a plow and the tractor parts.
  3249. >The sooner Full Steam can get started on that, the better.
  3250. “There are just a couple of things I’ve got to do.”
  3251. >On top of all that, you’ll have to give Bill a call.
  3252. >You don’t think he’d mind, but it’d be best to check.
  3253. >It’s too late to call tonight – you know you’ve got the store’s number around here somewhere, but it’s got to be closed up by now.
  3254. >You’ll check with him tomorrow.
  3255. >Tonight… Lauren.
  3256. >You’ll need her to watch the farm again.
  3257. >Fucking laws.
  3258. >You’re going to owe her.
  3259. >With a shock, you realize you’re running your hand through Apple Blooms mane, absentmindedly brushing out the tangles with your fingers.
  3260. >You used to do that all the time with Lauren, too, after she’d had a bad day with her father.
  3261. >Fucking muscle memory.
  3262. >At least it seems to comfort the mare just as well as it had her.
  3263. “Sorry it can’t be any sooner, but I’ve got to set everything up, girl.”
  3264. >Apple Bloom nods, pulling her mane through your fingers.
  3265. >”Thank you.”
  3266. >The two of you stay there for a few minutes with her snuggled against your chest.
  3267. >It’s comforting – and not just for her.
  3268. >It might be the beer talking, but the weight of her body against yours is relaxing.
  3269. >The steady rhythm of her breathing falls into sync with yours, until you’re not exactly where your body stops and hers begins.
  3270. >Unfortunately, it can’t last forever.
  3271. >Eventually the beer reaches your bladder.
  3272. “Apple Bloom?”
  3273. >”Hmm?”
  3274. “I’ve got to get up.”
  3275. >”O-okay…”
  3276. >Slowly, she ducks down under your arm and crawls free of you.
  3277. >”Do I…”
  3278. >She looks towards Silver Spoon’s room, then over to hers.
  3279. >As you struggle to stand, the mare whines softly.
  3280. “If she’s asleep, there’s nothing you can do for her now.”
  3281. >”Ah know,” Apple Bloom mumbles.
  3282. “Why don’t you finish up your movie?”
  3283. >Your shitty, shitty movie.
  3284. >The mare nods timidly.
  3285. >”You’re right, sir,” she mumbles. “There’s nothing I can do for her, and watching a crappy movie like that is better than sitting alone in my room.”
  3286. >Crappy movie?
  3287. >Hah!
  3288. >You were right about her.
  3289. >With your bladder temporarily forgotten, you lean down and pick Apple Bloom up.
  3290. >She squeaks in surprise as her hooves leave the ground – almost thrashing about, but the mare stops before her struggles throw you off balance.
  3291. >Not that you’re drunk.
  3292. >Of course not.
  3293. >Not after only two beers.
  3294. >But she *does* feel a little heaver and it *is* a little more difficult to get her up than it had been only a few days ago.
  3295. >Eh, it’s been a long day.
  3296. >Apple Bloom squeaks again as you drop her – a little more roughly than you mean to – into the chair she had been sitting in earlier.
  3297. “Can you – um –“
  3298. >Suddenly you remember why you had to stand up in the first place.
  3299. “Be right back.”
  3300. >By the time you’ve seen to that – and *that* seems to take forever – and make your way back to the living room, she’s gotten the movie back on.
  3301. >You’re surprised Apple Bloom can work the controls with her hooves, but you know it had to be her.
  3302. >Lauren doesn’t look like she’s moved a muscle since you left her – she still has her phone hanging limply from one hand.
  3303. >Despite that, she’s managed to accumulate quite the collection of empty cans.
  3304. >You drop down beside her and she doesn’t even react.
  3305. >Apple Bloom is focused on the movie, but you lean over to whisper in Lauren’s ear.
  3306. >The mare doesn’t need to know about any of this.
  3307. “Is he pissed?”
  3308. >Slowly, Lauren nods.
  3309. “Are you going to be okay?”
  3310. >She starts to nod again – but stops midway.
  3311. >”No,” the woman sighs. “Probably not.”
  3312. “If he tries to –“
  3313. >”Ain’t that. I’m used to that.”
  3314. >She sighs again and drops another empty can on the ground.
  3315. >”Had to get used to it, after you ran off.”
  3316. “S-sorry…”
  3317. >You are, but not really. Not completely.
  3318. >Why didn’t she just leave?
  3319. >”Ain’t nothing for you to ‘pologize for. I ain’t sad ‘bout that anymore.”
  3320. “But still –“
  3321. >She shakes her head.
  3322. >”Don’t worry ‘bout me none. You never have, ain’t no reason to start now.”
  3323. >Lauren reaches down to pull another beer out of the case.
  3324. >It has to be her sixth or seventh.
  3325. >“I’ll be fine. I’ve gotta be. For them.”
  3326. >You’re not sure what to say to that.
  3327. >She means the ponies – she has to, but why?
  3328. >To protect them from her father?
  3329. >Bullshit. Lauren can’t actually go toe-to-toe with that man.
  3330. >No one can.
  3331. >Hasn’t stopped her from trying, though.
  3332. >Whatever.
  3333. >You reach into the case and fish around for a beer of your own.
  3334. >There!
  3335. >The tips of your fingers brush against metal.
  3336. >…
  3337. >Shit.
  3338. >There’s *one* can left.
  3339. >She’s gone through more than you thought.
  3340. >Maybe… maybe more than you thought.
  3341. >Lauren is usually a happy drunk.
  3342. >You look at her – at how she’s curled up on herself like a beaten stepchild.
  3343. >She looks anything but happy.
  3344. “You’re not going to throw up, are you?”
  3345. >That would be a pain to clean up.
  3346. >Lauren shakes her head and sighs.
  3347. “It’ll be a bitch to clean up.”
  3348. >”I’m fine.”
  3349. >She’s not.
  3350. >Nine beers in under half an hour isn’t fine.
  3351. >The idiot is only still sitting upright because they haven’t hit her yet.
  3352. “Get up.”
  3353. >She doesn’t resist as you pull her up. That doesn’t mean it’s easy – her body drags with the dead weight of someone too drunk to stand.
  3354. >You’ve gotten her arm around your shoulders when you notice Apple Bloom’s watchful eyes on you.
  3355. >She looks… scared.
  3356. “Lauren’s fine, just had a bit too much to drink.”
  3357. >”No, I dint.”
  3358. >You roll your eyes and get your arm around her waist to hold her up.
  3359. “I’ve got to get her to bed –“
  3360. >Or a bathroom, depending on what shade of green she is by the time you two get upstairs.
  3361. “ – and then I’ll be hitting the sack myself.”
  3362. >Fuck dinner; you’re not hungry.
  3363. >Apple Bloom looks down abruptly, trembling slightly.
  3364. >Why…?
  3365. >Oh.
  3366. “Stay up if you want. Watch your movie.”
  3367. >You reach out to pat the mare’s head as you struggle past with Lauren.
  3368. “Hell, watch another.”
  3369. >Some distraction would do her good, you think.
  3370. >She nods feebly, but when you look back at her from the base of the stairs, she’s still staring at the ground.
  3371. >Something’s not right, but there’s nothing you can do about it now.
  3372. >It’s taking all you have just to keep Lauren on her feet.
  3373. “Want me to come back and check on you?”
  3374. >”Ah’m fine.”
  3375. >Bullshit.
  3376. >But you’ve already got one problem on your hands – in your hands – to deal with.
  3377. >You’ll come back later.
  3378. “Come on, Lauren. Don’t make me carry you.”
  3379. >”I can make it on my own,” she snarls – while simultaneously clutching tightly to you.
  3380. >By the time you’ve gotten her up the stairs, she’s holding a hand over her mouth.
  3381. >Shit.
  3382. >Double shit.
  3383. >Why is the master bedroom the one closest to the stairs?
  3384. >Why is the closest bathroom *yours*?
  3385. >Luckily she’s too busy with her own problems to notice the dirty clothes strewn about the place or the rest of your bachelor mess.
  3386. >You kick the door to the bathroom open and drag her inside – which is actually far less manly than it sounds.
  3387. >The door was half-open already.
  3388. >Still, it saves precious seconds – she’s pulling free from you and face down in the toilet as soon as she sees it.
  3389. >Not a moment to spare.
  3390. “Gonna be okay on your own?”
  3391. >Lauren nods, waving you away with one hand.
  3392. “You… aren’t going to pass out and drown in my toilet, are you?”
  3393. >”Go WAY!” she coughs wetly.
  3394. >Yeah, she never did want you to hold her hair for her or anything like that.
  3395. >You head back into your bedroom and start kicking all the dirty clothes into a slightly more organized pile.
  3396. >She’ll be sober enough to notice them on her way out.
  3397. >After a few minutes, you’re giving some serious thought to your earlier idea – of making Silver Spoon your maid.
  3398. >She’ll never be fit enough for farm work, but she can manage this.
  3399. >Hopefully.
  3400. >You’re imagining her in a cute little maid outfit when you hear Lauren turn on the shower.
  3401. “Oh, *fuck* no.”
  3402. >You don’t know what you were expecting to happen when you threw open the door, but Lauren’s miserable sigh isn’t it.
  3403. “… the hell are you doing?”
  3404. >”I ain’t goin’ to bed like this,” she scowls before pulling a vomit-stained shirt off over her head. “Don’t want to deal with you bitching about me messin’ up your sheets or nothin’.”
  3405. >How did she even -?
  3406. >You jump back as she flings the filthy thing in your direction.
  3407. >”Are you seriously just gonna stand there n’ watch?”
  3408. “Probably not. It’s not like it’s anything I haven’t seen before.”
  3409. >Except about twenty pounds lighter, and –
  3410. >Wobbling unsteadily on one foot, Lauren’s jeans drop to the floor.
  3411. > – and the scars.
  3412. >Right.
  3413. >Huh.
  3414. >You’re still watching her.
  3415. “Well, maybe a few things are new.”
  3416. >Lauren kicks her jeans at you, but they fall short.
  3417. “Fine, I’ll go.”
  3418. >You could stay.
  3419. “I should check on the mares anyway. One of us needs to be a responsible adult, after all.”
  3420. >”Sorry, but I guess it’s your turn for once,” Lauren mumbles, reaching behind her back with both hands. “Now, either you get –“
  3421. “I’ll leave a shirt on the bed for you.”
  3422. >She sneers at you as you retreat from the bathroom.
  3423. >The last thing you hear before the door shuts is a deep sigh.
  3424. >You’re not sure if it’s from you or her.
  3425. >Another sigh – this one you know is yours.
  3426. “This sucks.”
  3427. >There’s not much in your closet – you need to do laundry soon – just some heavy duty workshirts and a plain white t-shirt.
  3428. >Good enough.
  3429. >You throw the t-shirt on the bed for Lauren before heading downstairs.
  3430. >You weren’t lying; you should check on the mares.
  3431. >Well, you *should*, however Silver Spoon all-but slips your mind.
  3432. >Apple Bloom was scared.
  3433. >You don’t know why, but you know she was scared of something.
  3434. >When you carried Lauren upstairs, the way the mare looked…
  3435. >It was almost the same as when you strapped her into the stand for the first time.
  3436. >A part of you expect to find her trembling and terrified in your chair, but the living room is empty.
  3437. >With a sigh, you turn off the TV, followed by the lights.
  3438. >Electricity rationing may be over, but you can’t beat the habit.
  3439. >That’s okay – it’s a good habit to have.
  3440. >She’s probably fine; you’re tempted to just go to bed.
  3441. >But… Lauren is in your shower.
  3442. >You should give her time to finish cleaning up if you don’t want another fight.
  3443. >Besides, if you’re being honest with yourself, you’re worried.
  3444. >No, if you’re *really* being honest with yourself, you feel guilty.
  3445. >Back at Sterling Stables, you ignored what was being done to Silver Spoon, and now…
  3446. >You wish you weren’t being honest with yourself.
  3447. >It’s probably nothing.
  3448. >There aren’t any dogs howling, you’re too far out in the middle of nowhere for a random axe-murderer to slip in…
  3449. >Though Steffords... nah, not his style.
  3450. >You know that niggling voice in the back of your head is nothing, but you can’t make yourself ignore it.
  3451. >In the near-dark, you walk quietly towards their rooms.
  3452. >There’s a moment when you hesitate – when you ask yourself if Apple Bloom is asleep.
  3453. >You don’t want to wake her.
  3454. >It’s been a long day.
  3455. >You just want to go to bed – so you better get this over with.
  3456. >Slowly you open the door on the left and peek in.
  3457. >Silver Spoon looks fine.
  3458. >As fine as she can be.
  3459. >She’s asleep, but you don’t know how long that will last.
  3460. >You… don’t *really* have much experience caring for injured people.
  3461. >Or ponies.
  3462. >Should you put a bell or something on her nightstand?
  3463. >So she can get your attention if she needs something?
  3464. >She probably couldn’t use one anyway with her legs torn up like that.
  3465. >You don’t even know why Lauren put the mare’s glasses on the nightstand, since there’s no way she could put them on by herself.
  3466. >No, no bell. Apple Bloom is just one wall away – she’ll hear if Silver Spoon calls out.
  3467. >You don’t even know where to find one, anyway.
  3468. >Shrugging internally, you shut the door.
  3469. >There’s the temptation to do the same with Apple Bloom’s.
  3470. >Just peek in, sneak away… you knock.
  3471. >If she’s asleep, she won’t –
  3472. >”Y-yes…?”
  3473. >Dammit.
  3474. “Hey, Apple Bloom? Are you okay?”
  3475. >”Just fine, sir.”
  3476. >She’s lying.
  3477. >You want to believe her – you want to take this excuse and walk away.
  3478. >You want a lot of things you can’t have.
  3479. “I’m coming in.”
  3480. >She doesn’t answer, but an answer isn’t necessary.
  3481. >It’s your farm.
  3482. >You make the rules.
  3483. >Just like earlier, you find the mare looking outside.
  3484. >She has her forelegs crossed on the windowsill and is staring up into the night sky.
  3485. >”Ah said – Ah said Ah’m fine.”
  3486. “You also said your sister raised you to tell the truth.”
  3487. >Apple Bloom buries her face in her legs.
  3488. “So tell me.”
  3489. >”Why should Ah?” she sobs. “You lied to me, so why should Ah tell you?”
  3490. >Ah.
  3491. >She still isn’t over that.
  3492. >You sigh and sit down beside her – again.
  3493. >Of course she isn’t over it.
  3494. “I’m… I’m sorry I…”
  3495. >You could have canceled the deal.
  3496. >You could have done a lot of things.
  3497. “… I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer about things.”
  3498. >Maybe if she’d had a better idea what to expect, it wouldn’t have been so rough on her.
  3499. >”Clearer?” Apple Bloom scoffs. “Y-you straight up *told* me you didn’t want her here!”
  3500.  >Her?
  3501. >”You *told* me it din’t work out ‘tween you two!”
  3502. “Lauren?”
  3503. >”You told me all that, but then you go an’ practically carry her up t’your bed!”
  3504. “And you were telling me to give her a chance.”
  3505. >Apple Bloom stiffens.
  3506. “You went on and on about it, girl.”
  3507. >”Don’t always know how much you want a thing ‘till you realize you can’t have it.”
  3508. >She… she needs a friend now.
  3509. >You find yourself putting your arm around her again.
  3510. >Despite the surprise, you don’t stop yourself.
  3511. “What does that mean?”
  3512. >”It means she’s closer to you than Ah’ll ever be.”
  3513. >Ah.
  3514. >She’s feeling insecure.
  3515. >You know how that goes – the fear that you’ll never measure up to someone else – but she’s never shown anything like that before today.
  3516. >Brave and confident – those are the words you’d use to describe Apple Bloom.
  3517. >Not insecure. Not needy.
  3518. >Her body isn’t the only thing her cycle is changing. Poor girl isn’t herself right now.
  3519. >She’s not trying to be difficult; she’s just worried she’ll lose her only friend.
  3520. >Apple Bloom shivers as your hand pats her shoulder.
  3521. “I really doubt that.”
  3522. >You wish you could stay here with the mare and reassure her.
  3523. >Spend the night just talking or watching movies. Something – anything – to make her feel better.
  3524. >Hell, you wish you *wanted* to, but even if you did, you can’t always be there for her.
  3525. >She needs friends. Friends other than you.
  3526. >You’ll have to take her into town to see that other mare soon.
  3527. “Now, I hate to do this, but –“
  3528. >”You’re gonna go be with *her*, aren’t you?”
  3529. “I’m going to go to *sleep*. I’m exhausted.”
  3530. >You are.
  3531. >Dealing with a hormonal mare is just the cherry on top of your crazy ride of a day.
  3532. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
  3533. >”Yeah,” she mumbles as you get up to leave. “See you then.”
  3534. “Try to get some sleep yourself.”
  3535. >”Ah will.”
  3536. >She doesn’t move from the window as you walk out.
  3537. >Dammit.
  3538. >You hope she doesn’t fall asleep like that.
  3539. >Can’t be good for the back.
  3540. >As you climb the stairs, you also hope that Lauren is out of your damn shower and sober enough for you to point in the direction of an empty room.
  3541. >You don’t hear running water. That’s a good sign.
  3542. >The woman curled up in your bed, however… that’s not such a good sign.
  3543. “Goddammit, get out of there and find another room to sleep in.”
  3544. >Lauren slowly raises her head from the pillow to look at you.
  3545. >”No,” she mumbles drowsily – though that could still be the alcohol.
  3546. >There’s still got to be plenty of it in her system.
  3547. “Out.”
  3548. >”If you didn’t want me to be in this room, why’d you bring me in here?” Lauren sighs, tugging the covers tighter around herself.
  3549. >Her eyes meet yours for a fraction of a second before darting away.
  3550. >“Don’t… don’t be a jerk.”
  3551. >Fuck it.
  3552. >Not again.
  3553. >You don’t need this.
  3554. “Fine, I’ll go sleep somewhere el-“
  3555. >”Fuck you, asshole!” Lauren shouts suddenly. “Don’t you see I need someone to hold me right now!?”
  3556. >Her cheeks are burning from her fury – or embarrassment.
  3557. “You…”
  3558. >As your brain tries to brain, the woman’s blush deepens and she hides behind under blankets.
  3559. “… you turned into a pussy.”
  3560. >”I’m a woman,” she mutters darkly from her sanctuary. “I’m allowed.”
  3561. “A few beers and all of a sudden you need cuddles? When the fuck did this become a thing for you?”
  3562. >You aren’t just being a jerk.
  3563. >This isn’t the same Lauren you used to hang out with.
  3564. >She’s different. You both are, you’re willing to admit, but the Lauren you knew was never this maudlin.
  3565. >Lauren wasn’t always on edge like the woman hiding in your bed.
  3566. >She always tried to hide her feelings and put on a strong persona, always tried to keep everything back until she just couldn’t anymore.
  3567. >Always made it even worse when she finally did lose control.
  3568. >It was sudden. No warning.
  3569. >One second Lauren would be all smiles and sunshine, the next she was… like this.
  3570. >If you’d cared enough to think about it before now – if you hadn’t been so preoccupied antagonizing her – you would have noticed.
  3571. >This time… this time you had plenty of warning.
  3572. >You just hadn’t given a fuck.
  3573. “When did this become your thing, Lauren.”
  3574. >Silence.
  3575. >If she can’t answer, you can’t stay.
  3576. >It’s not as if you’re her friend anymore.
  3577. “Well, I’m going.”
  3578. >You spin on your heel and walk out, pausing just outside the door and reaching back in.
  3579. >Fingers brush against the light switch, casting the room into darkness.
  3580. “See you in –“
  3581. >”My second beer.”
  3582. “What?”
  3583. >”It became a thing after my second beer,” Lauren answers, her voice muffled by the heavy blankets. “When I… when I realized…”
  3584. “That you’re a cunt?”
  3585. >“… that it’s *my* fault this happened to S-silver…”
  3586. >She doesn’t even acknowledge your jab.
  3587. >Well, fuck, now you feel bad about it.
  3588. >Slightly.
  3589. >You sigh loudly and step back into the room.
  3590. >Besides…
  3591. “No, that’s not your fault, Lauren. I should have done something.”
  3592. >”Been three weeks since I finished payin’ off Trixie,” the woman mumbles, ignoring your halfhearted attempt to console her. “S’all my fault.”
  3593. “So?”
  3594. >The bump under the blankets wiggles and shifts to one side.
  3595. >”First week they don’t meet their quota, they get beat,” Lauren answers slowly. “Second they don’t get fed. Third, they get… they get taken on a hunt.”
  3596. >You don’t see how that’s relevant.
  3597. “And…?”
  3598. >”Been three weeks since I worked with Silver. S’my fault,” she slurs. “I coulda stayed.”
  3599. “What.”
  3600. >Worked with Silver?
  3601. >”I shoulda stayed. Bought her too. He woulda sold her.”
  3602. “Stayed where?”
  3603. >You don’t know why you ask; you already figured it out.
  3604. >”I shoulda stayed, but I couldn’t.”
  3605. >There’s a tremble in her voice – from experience, that tremble tells you she’s crying.
  3606. >The blankets and the darkness hide the faint shivering, but she is.
  3607. >You know her too well, even after all these years.
  3608. >”I couldn’t make myself do that no more. I just couldn’t. I should have, but I *couldn’t*.”
  3609. “What did you do.”
  3610. >It’s not even a question. It’s not even spoken loud enough for her to hear.
  3611. >You know what she did, you just can’t quite believe it. Not without hearing it from her mouth.
  3612. >”I know – I know it was wrong,” she whines drunkenly, “l-leavin’ her like that. Ain’t no way shy lil’ Silver’d make her goals on her own!”
  3613. >The shaking is visible now – more than visible, even in the dim light from the hallway.
  3614. >It’s just like before, when she’d come to you after a bad day with her father.
  3615. >Under that blanket, she’s curled up on herself, shaking and crying.
  3616. >”No way she could, not – not after what that BITCH did to h-her.”
  3617. >Goddammit.
  3618. >Lauren is gasping for breath between the words, she’s crying so hard.
  3619. >God.
  3620. >Dammit.
  3621. >You’re going to hate yourself in the morning.
  3622. >But as you walk towards the bed, you realize you don’t hate yourself now.
  3623. >That’ll change, though.
  3624. >You’re sure of it.
  3625. >”It’s all my fault,” Lauren moans softly.
  3626. “No, it isn’t.”
  3627. >You pull down the covers to reveal Lauren’s tear and snot streaked face.
  3628. >Her eyes are wide and trembling.
  3629. >”Y-you’re –?”
  3630. “Yeah.”
  3631. >”I – I thought you – you –“
  3632. >She’s still shaking, though she curls up to you when you sit on the bed.
  3633. >Instinctively, you run your fingers through her hair.
  3634. >It’s all you can do for her – hold her, comfort her, and listen.
  3635. “Why would you think that?”
  3636. >You can’t abandon a crying girl – pony *or* human.
  3637. >She should know this – despite evidence to the contrary, she should still know this.
  3638. >That time… it wasn’t your fault.
  3639. >”…I thought y-you’d hate me if you knew what I did…”
  3640. >Yes.
  3641. >No.
  3642. >She… she did what she had to do.
  3643. >It wasn’t her fault.
  3644. “No.”
  3645. >You gently brush away her tears with the back of your hand.
  3646. “Why would I?”
  3647. >”… because of what you did last time…” she sobs. “Soon as you knew…”
  3648. >That – that wasn’t your fault.
  3649. >”… you ran off. Moved back to th’city. Figured it was –“
  3650. > - related.
  3651. >She stops before saying the word.
  3652. “That was… different.”
  3653. >Was it really?
  3654. >Doesn’t matter.
  3655. >It’s what Lauren needs to hear you say.
  3656. >You sigh and let go of her – prompting the woman to make a desperate grab for your hands.
  3657. “Let me up. I need to get out of my clothes.”
  3658. >She shakes her head – but releases your hand just moments later.
  3659. >You kick off your boots and strip down to your undershirt and boxers.
  3660. >The two of you have shared a bed wearing less in the past, but that just wouldn’t be…
  3661. >Well, you’d feel uncomfortable doing that.
  3662. >More uncomfortable than you are now.
  3663. >Not to say that you a wave of contentment doesn’t run through you when Lauren’s wet body presses up against yours.
  3664. >Did she even towel off?
  3665. >The water has already soaked through her shirt and is making good progress on yours.
  3666. >It doesn’t matter.
  3667. >You don’t really mind.
  3668. >Nor do you mind the mess she’ll leave as she tucks her face in your chest.
  3669. >You loved her once – at least, you thought you did.
  3670. >Then you hated her, and now?
  3671. >As for the now… you aren’t really sure, but you’ll probably hate yourself in the morning.
  3672. >Less than you would if you’d walked away, though.
  3673. >You couldn’t have forgiven yourself if you’d done that.
  3675. >Be someone else – like the mare quietly sneaking up the stairs.
  3676. >You shouldn’t be doing this. That thought pounds in your mind over and over with every step you take.
  3677. >And though you know that, you also know you can’t *not*.
  3678. >You are alone.
  3679. >You are tired of being alone.
  3680. >The other ponies… they don’t know how lucky they are.
  3681. >The refugee boards did their honest best to keep families together.
  3682. >Too bad you didn’t have any family no more.
  3683. >That’s why you didn’t tell him no.
  3684. >Even if you *had* known what he meant…
  3685. >You shiver slightly at the thought.
  3686. >… you’re not sure you would have refused.
  3687. >You’re just so alone.
  3688. >And… and… horny.
  3689. >You shouldn’t be doing this.
  3690. >It’s a stupid idea.
  3691. >He’ll hate you.
  3692. >You don’t care.
  3693. >This isn’t the first time you’ve had these thoughts, but it’s the first time you’ve been able to act on them.
  3694. >Or more accurately, the first time you haven’t been able to stop yourself.
  3695. >Even though you realize it’s impossible, you hope he’ll…
  3696. >You’re not sure what you hope.
  3697. >Only that you want him inside of you.
  3698. >Not just because of *that*, but because… you think maybe you love him?
  3699. >That ain’t impossible, right? It ain’t just the hormones, because you were thinking that before you got hit with this.
  3700. >And… well… also… maybe you could pretend *it* is his.
  3701. >You shake your head at your own stupidity.
  3702. >It’s impossible.
  3703. >Gotta be, otherwise…
  3704. >Nah, it’s impossible.
  3705. >But maybe you’ll convince yourself if you pretend hard enough.
  3706. >You miss having family.
  3707. >The lights are still on upstairs, so you proceed with even more care, though all you want to do is gallop down the hall until you find him.
  3708. >Drunk or not, *she* might still be awake, so you don’t.
  3709. >You don’t mind Lauren… not really.
  3710. >Nice enough, but…
  3711. >She reminds you of your sister and that stings.
  3712. >That woman is a constant reminder of what you’ve lost – and threatens to take more.
  3713. >Or maybe she could be…
  3714. >You don’t know.
  3715. >It’s all so confusing.
  3716. >Right now, you don’t know how you really feel half the time.
  3717. >All you can trust is what you knew before this started.
  3718. >You love him.
  3719. >You do, right?
  3720. >He treats you like a real person – more so than most of the other ponies.
  3721. >You slowly creep down the hall.
  3722. >All of the doors are closed, save one.
  3723. >That’s his, you think.
  3724. >You’ve never been up here, but you think that’s his, from the smell.
  3725. >It smells like him.
  3726. >It also smells like her.
  3727. >That… that doesn’t mean anything.
  3728. >Definitely not.
  3729. >See?
  3730. >You’re already convincing yourself of things you know are lies.
  3731. >Just gotta pretend hard enough.
  3732. >The lights are off in the room, but those in the hall illuminate the room just enough for you to see.
  3733. >Just enough for you to see him crawl into bed with Lauren.
  3734. >You pull away from the door, clutching at your barrel with both forelegs.
  3735. >No.
  3736. >You knew it, but no.
  3737. >He said he wasn’t.
  3738. >You *asked*, and he said he wasn’t going to be with her.
  3739. >He said he didn’t even want her here.
  3740. >You believed him.
  3741. >He said so, and you believed him.
  3742. >A tiny giggle escapes your mouth.
  3743. >You’re already so good at pretending, you believed him.
  3744. >Oh Celestia, you HATE this.
  3745. >You clutch your barrel tighter – partially to calm yourself, partially to –
  3746. >No, you can’t.
  3747. >Most mares do, you know, once they’ve cooled down.
  3748. >Nopony wants to bring a foal into this horrible world.
  3749. >But…
  3750. >The child you just know is growing inside of you is your only chance at a family now.
  3751. >A part of you recognizes it’s too early to know that.
  3752. >*Far* too early.
  3753. >The rest of you doesn’t care.
  3754. >In time, maybe you’ll even convince yourself it doesn’t matter who the father is.
  3755. >You just… you wish it could have been *him*.
  3756. >Silent tears slide down your face.
  3757. >You sit there, leaning against the wall for who knows how long before slinking down the stairs.
  3758. >In defeat.
  3759. >A part of you knew it would end this way.
  3760. >You had hoped that part was wrong.
  3762. >Be a different person.
  3763. >No, a different *pony*.
  3764. >You’re just a pony, you remind yourself.
  3765. >It’s easy to remember; it’s been beaten into you more than once.
  3766. >And not figuratively.
  3767. >It’s easy to remember, even through the haze of drugs and pain. Mostly pain.
  3768. >The pills aren’t working.
  3769. >Your body has built up a tolerance to them.
  3770. >No one knows, not even your friend.
  3771. >Master – no, your *old* master – never took you to the clinic before, to keep it off your record.
  3772. >Hurt the resale value, he had said, before stuffing you with enough painkillers to get you back on your hooves.
  3773. >Your entire body hurts.
  3774. >It burns. It screams in agony.
  3775. >You don’t.
  3776. >The new master… you don’t know what he will do if you wake him.
  3777. >Your friends told you he was kind, but you can’t risk it.
  3778. >It’s only your first day as his slave.
  3779. >You can’t risk angering him.
  3780. >A tear slides down the side of your face.
  3781. >You wish you were brave enough.
  3782. >You *tried* to be.
  3783. >You tried not to run.
  3784. >But your legs wouldn’t let you die so easily.
  3785. >Betrayed by your own body, you ran. You… survived.
  3786. >Your courage failed you then, as it fails you now.
  3787. >You don’t want to hurt.
  3788. >You don’t want to die.
  3789. >You stay silent.
  3790. >You don’t want to die.
  3791. >You want to be free – of this pain or this life, but you don’t want to die.
  3792. >You stay silent.
  3794. >Be up too late.
  3795. >Bill just went to bed, but he should have been asleep hours ago.
  3796. >The old man gets tired so easily lately, but he enjoys staying up to watch these shows with you too much to give in to his body’s demands.
  3797. >Tonight, it was some British comedy about a bookstore.
  3798. >You can’t decide if Twilight Sparkle would have enjoyed it or not.
  3799. >On the one hoof, it’s about a bookstore. On the other…
  3800. >On the other, you think she’d benefit from having her own copy of the Little Book of Calm.
  3801. >With a sigh, you fumble with the remote until you’ve turned off the TV.
  3802. >Dang thing is too small for your hooves.
  3803. >Bill got you one of those ones with the GIANT buttons, but you “lost” it.
  3804. >You can manage with a normal one just fine!
  3805. >It just… takes a while sometimes.
  3806. >You don’t feel bad about it.
  3807. >When his eyesight started going last year, you got *him* one – and he promptly “lost” it.
  3808. >When you looked for it, you found it stashed in the closet right next to yours.
  3809. >You may both be stubborn, but at least you’re stubborn together.
  3810. >Bill and Scootaloo versus the world!
  3811. >Until you find Apple Bloom.
  3812. >Then it’ll be Bill and you AND Apple Bloom versus the world!
  3813. >She’s gotta be nearby.
  3814. >You’ve seen a few other ponies from Ponyville around town.
  3815. >All of ‘em left the camp around the same time as you and her, so you’re hoping.
  3816. >You’ve even seen Diamond Tiara a couple times – always with a different human.
  3817. >You don’t know why, but Bill didn’t want you to talk to her.
  3818. >He hasn’t had any problems with you talking to any other ponies, though.
  3819. >Even taken you to see Derpy a few times.
  3820. >You yawn and stretch your wings.
  3821. >Time for bed.
  3822. >Maybe he’ll let you visit with her tomorrow.
  3823. >She’s no Rainbow Dash, but she’s been helping you with your flying.
  3824. >Neither of you are on your pills – Bill flushes yours as soon as he picks them up from the clinic and Derpy’s host family has some religious objection – so you can both fly.
  3825. >As long as no one sees you doing it.
  3826. >Kinda.
  3827. >Well enough for her to teach you a few things.
  3828. >You look at the clock on the microwave as you dump the dirty dishes in the sink.
  3829. >Dangit. Nearly midnight.
  3830. >You’ll wash those tomorrow.
  3831. >Better get to bed.
  3833. >Be confident.
  3834. >Those two words repeat over and over in your head as you approach the man.
  3835. >They’re the most important words in the world.
  3836. >Be confident.
  3837. >Act like he’s already bought you.
  3838. >The man has turned away Trish and Jewel, but hasn’t done more than pick at his meal.
  3839. >He clearly isn’t here for the food – or the human women.
  3840. >No, he’s here for you.
  3841. >He just doesn’t know it yet.
  3842. >All you have to do is be confident.
  3843. >There aren’t many ponies working the floor right now.
  3844. >Certainly none that can match you.
  3845. >Cherry Berry is busy with an older man on the other side of the diner – she’s wasting her time, thinking he’ll buy more than the standard package.
  3846. >Certainly dressed well enough to have money to throw around, but he’s just stringing her along.
  3847. >Might not mean to, but he’ll never commit.
  3848. >He’s drinking too much.
  3849. >By the time he finds his courage, he’ll be finished.
  3850. >You come up to your mark’s booth, flipping your purple-and-white mane to catch his eye.
  3851. >An empty tumbler sits by his right hand.
  3852. >He may be ignoring his food, but that’s his second whiskey and coke.
  3853. >You might have to cut this one loose, but not yet.
  3854. “Do you need another, master?”
  3855. >You slide onto the booth beside him.
  3856. >A little forward, but you’re eager for this.
  3857. >He’ll be your last client of the week.
  3858. >Well, maybe not, but the last one you *have* to take to meet your quota.
  3859. >The man looks at his empty tumbler and sighs.
  3860. >”I shouldn’t, but why not?”
  3861. >The stench of alcohol on his breath makes you want to gag.
  3862. >You don’t.
  3863. >Instead, you force a smile onto your face and lean closer to the man.
  3864. “And is there anything else you…”
  3865. >You bump your hip against his.
  3866. ”… want?”
  3867. >Asking is just a formality.
  3868. >He wants you. You know it.
  3869. >If he didn’t, you wouldn’t have wasted your time on him.
  3870. >The man frowns and goes back to picking at his food.
  3871. >Dammit, not again!
  3872. >How could you make the same mistake twice in one day!?
  3873. >You ALWAYS –
  3874. >”Maybe,” he grunts.
  3875. >Hah!
  3876. >You shouldn’t have doubted yourself.
  3877. >You *always* know how to pick a client – one that doesn’t turn you down or waste your time.
  3878. >The easy marks.
  3879. >It’s not that hard, really.
  3880. >You don’t know why Silver Spoon found this so difficult.
  3881. >Look for a man looking for a pony and get there first.
  3882. >Leave the harder targets for the other ponies to fight over.
  3883. >It’s not your fault if some of them can’t make it.
  3884. >Silver Spoon should have tried harder.
  3886. >Stop being a little bitch.
  3887. >You’re a grown woman, dammit.
  3888. >How could you say those things to him last night?
  3889. >Even if you *were* drunk…
  3890. >…okay, you were definitely drunk…
  3891. >… but that’s still no excuse.
  3892. >You have to leave.
  3893. >Crash in a different room.
  3894. >Maybe if he’s not a jerk, the two of you can pretend last night didn’t happen.
  3895. >Yeah, that’s likely.
  3896. >He’s a jerk.
  3897. >Like right now, he won’t let go of you.
  3898. >You’re trying to slip free without waking him up, but he just won’t let go!
  3899. >His arm is wrapped around your torso, his hand pressed firmly against your back.
  3900. >*Under* the shirt.
  3901. >The other is tangled in your hair.
  3902. >Dammit!
  3903. >Why couldn’t you just keep your damned mouth shut!?
  3904. >Oh, God. He must think you’re such a baby.
  3905. >Or a filthy slut.
  3906. >He’s called you that before.
  3907. >You don’t think he *meant* it, but…
  3908. >Stop thinking about it.
  3909. >You’re such a whiny, little bitch.
  3910. >Always acting strong, but deep down…
  3911. >You have to get away before he wakes up.
  3912. >Pretend it never happened.
  3913. >You’re starting to panic; your breathing is rapid and shallow.
  3914. >Stop!
  3915. >Calm down!
  3916. >You’re going to wake him!
  3917. >He’s –!
  3918. >He… he squeezes you against his chest.
  3919. >…
  3920. >Okay.
  3921. >This is fine too.
  3922. >Caught in his arms, you try to relax.
  3923. >It’s easier than you think.
  3924. >Your body still reacts to his touch.
  3925. >It’s been so long, but it feels so familiar.
  3926. >It feels… safe.
  3927. >Safer than anywhere else on Earth.
  3928. >You’re surprised he didn’t walk away last night.
  3929. >Still not sure if you wish he had or not.
  3930. >But that’s okay.
  3931. >You’re happy he’s here.
  3932. >It might just be nostalgia, but that’s enough for right now.
  3933. >You didn’t think it was possible for him to hold you any tighter, but he does, pulling your hips firmly against his and sliding his leg between yours.
  3934. >You can’t help but melt in his grip and relax.
  3935. >Be comfortable.
  3937. >Be yourself.
  3938. >That’s the advice your mother always gave you about dealing with women.
  3939. >You’re not entirely sure it applies to situations like this, though, considering you’re caught between wanting to throw Lauren out of bed or…
  3940. >Huh.
  3941. >Your thigh is trapped between hers.
  3942. >This is going to get awkward.
  3943. >This is going to get even *more* awkward, you correct yourself.
  3944. >Lauren shifts slightly, cuddling even closer into your chest.
  3945. >You can feel her hot breath against your skin. You know you shouldn’t be enjoying it, but you are.
  3946. >Even after all these years, even after the weight she’s lost, you’ve never found anyone that fit your body as well as her.
  3947. >Maybe that’s why you don’t resist when her leg hooks around yours and pulls it tight against –
  3948. >Okay.
  3949. >Maximum awkwardness achieved.
  3950. >You laid out a shirt for her and nothing else, and that’s exactly what she’s wearing.
  3951. >That’s not panties your leg is rubbing up against.
  3952. >If you didn’t know her, you’d start to think it was an invitation.
  3953. >But you *do* know her, and that makes things awkward.
  3954. >She knows it won’t work out unless one of you has changed significantly.
  3955. >You need an adult.
  3956. >…
  3957. >Lauren’s an adult.
  3958. >…
  3959. >Possibly a consenting adult.
  3960. >…
  3961. >You probably need a *different* adult.
  3962. >Or maybe some condoms…?
  3963. >You’re not entirely sure which.
  3964. >On the one hand, you kind of hate her and she kind of hates you.
  3965. >On the other, do you really? Does she…? Or are you both just assholes that don’t know how to handle things?
  3966. >Either way, you would have to be up to get what you need.
  3967. >You can’t get what you need.
  3968. >Even if one of your legs wasn’t trapped between hers, getting up just isn’t an option right now.
  3969. >She’s *purring*.
  3970. >You can’t hear it, not with her face tucked into your chest, but you can feel the vibrations in your torso.
  3971. >Waking her up isn’t an option.
  3972. >You try to convince yourself this is one of those “cat sleeping on your lap” situations.
  3973. >That if you move, you’ll wake her up.
  3974. >Probably won’t get clawed, though.
  3975. >Knee to the groin seems more likely.
  3976. >You make a valiant attempt at it, at telling yourself that’s why you don’t flip her out of bed.
  3977. >A for effort.
  3978. >But even you have to admit to yourself that it’s because you enjoy the feeling of her body pressed up against yours.
  3979. >You could stay up all night just holding her.
  3980. >You could, but you don’t.
  3981. >Actually, that means you couldn’t, but you tried.
  3982. >The next thing you know, you’re waking up.
  3983. >It’s not the screech of the alarm clock that gets you, but the sound of it smashing against the far wall.
  3984. >”Goddamn that’s annoying!” Lauren hisses, awkwardly sitting up and covering her ears.
  3985. >It’s all the more awkward because she doesn’t untangle her legs from yours and *things* rub up against *things.*
  3986. >The feeling is distracting enough that it takes you several seconds – coincidently the same amount of time it takes her to sit up – to realize that the alarm isn’t ringing anymore.
  3987. >And that there’s an alarm clock sized dent in the far wall.
  3988. >Shit.
  3989. >Lauren throws pretty hard.
  3990. >With a sigh, she falls back on the bed and pulls your arm around her waist.
  3991. >And then looks at your arm.
  3992. >Followed by your face.
  3993. >And lastly her hand.
  3994. “Don’t blame me. You put it there.”
  3995. >She frowns.
  3996. >You expect her to argue – even brace yourself for a punch.
  3997. >Her casual shrug catches you by surprise.
  3998. >”Don’t matter who put what where,” Lauren mumbles. “What counts is I ain’t objecting.”
  3999. >Green eyes look up at you through her messy tumble of golden hair.
  4000. >”What ‘bout you?”
  4001. “Um…”
  4002. >Lauren bites her lip – not seductively, not teasingly.
  4003. >When she does it intentionally, it’s always lopsided and *always* the right side.
  4004. >No, this is from worry.
  4005. >It takes you too long to figure that out and even longer to figure out how to respond.
  4006. >By the time you do, she’s looked away.
  4007. >She hasn’t quite pushed your hand away, but you can feel her tensing up.
  4008. >A noncommittal grunt won’t be enough anymore.
  4009. >You try to think of something, but the words won’t come.
  4010. >”Sorry,” Lauren mumbles “I guess you gotta get up – ah!”
  4011. >After a heartbeat’s hesitation, she stops resisting and lets you pull her closer.
  4012. “It can wait.”
  4013. >You are barely even a figurehead around here. The ponies can take care of things themselves.
  4014. >Honestly, you just get in their way.
  4015. “This is where I belong.”
  4016. >”In bed?”
  4017. “Beside you.”
  4018. >You don’t know why you say that. It just feels like the right thing to say.
  4019. >It certainly has the right effect.
  4020. >Lauren giggles and blushes, shaking her head slightly at your cheesiness.
  4021. >”You didn’t seem to think so earlier,” she sighs, rolling over onto her back to stare up at the ceiling.
  4022. “Well –“
  4023. >She sighs loudly and runs her hand along your arm.
  4024. “What?”
  4025. >”Why aren’t you being a jerk?”
  4026. “What.”
  4027. >Her head limply falls to one side, coming to rest facing you as if by accident.
  4028. >”Why aren’t you… being… *you*?”
  4029. >That’s a good question.
  4030. >Hesitantly, she pulls her hand away from you.
  4031. >”This is… this is starting to get weird,” she murmurs. “Last night, I needed someone, but… I know you hate me.”
  4032. >Lauren is biting her lip again, her eyes drifting away from yours.
  4033. “I…”
  4034. >You don’t *hate* her.
  4035. >She’s just a cunt.
  4036. >Why isn’t she being a cunt?
  4037. >You lay there helplessly as she untangles her legs from yours and rolls over, turning away from you.
  4038. >”It’s okay. I hate myself.”
  4039. >She tries to pull away, but you don’t let go.
  4040. >”Why are you being nice to me!?”
  4041. “We get along pretty well when we aren’t trying to antagonize the shit out of each other, I guess.”
  4042. >Her struggling stops as you pull her back against your chest.
  4043. >”I… I guess,” she sighs loudly, surrendering to your embrace. “I don’t deserve this. You shouldn’t be so nice.”
  4044. “Why not?”
  4045. >”Because… because I’m trash.”
  4046. “No.”
  4047. >”Yes! I’m worthless! I can’t even… I can’t…”
  4048. >Lauren grabs onto the arm encircling her waist.
  4049. >”I’m *weak*. I hate myself for it, but I just can’t do what I gotta do.”
  4050. “I don’t hate you.”
  4051. >”Well, I hate *you*,” she sobs, her fingernails digging painfully into your arm. “I hate you almost as much as I hate myself.”
  4052. “Why…?”
  4053. >Because you left? That was *years* ago!”
  4054. >”Because you give me hope,” she snarls, “but in the end you never come through.”
  4055. “I….”
  4056. >Things never work out, but it isn’t your fault.
  4057. “… I try.”
  4058. >It isn’t your fault, right?
  4059. >”Since when the fuck have you ever tried!?”
  4060. “I’m trying now.”
  4061. >Her hand slips free of your arm, revealing the little half-moon indents her fingernails have dug into your skin.
  4062. >”Yes, you are,” Lauren sighs contently.
  4063. >She shifts, scooting down slightly to better fit the curve of your body.
  4064. >“Thank you.”
  4065. >As she slides down the bed, you can feel her shirt riding up beneath your hand until you experience the delicious feeling of bare skin on bare skin.
  4066. >She makes no move to pull the shirt down – between that and her happy purr, you assume she must be enjoying this as much as you.
  4067. >Slowly, you move your hand up her body, slipping it under the shirt.
  4068. >Her purr turns into a moan; it seems like that was a safe assumption to make.
  4069. >Your fingers brush along the contours of her body, up from her waist to –
  4070. >”No. Stop.”
  4071. >Entwining her fingers with yours, she pulls your hand back down to her waist.
  4072. >”Someday – maybe someday soon – but not now.”
  4073. “Why…?”
  4074. >”When…”
  4075. >Lauren’s voice drifts off as she buries her head in her pillow.
  4076. “It’s not like we haven’t –“
  4077. >”When it happens, I want to face you…”
  4078. >Wat.
  4079. >”… like a real person.”
  4080. “Then turn around…?”
  4081. >It’s not rocket science.
  4082. >”I can’t face you right now. I just…”
  4083. >She tries to drag your hand off of her.
  4084. >”… just let me go.”
  4085. “But –“
  4086. >”I need… I need to get up,” she pleads. “I need to get ready. So do you.”
  4087. >Reluctantly you pull your arm from around Lauren’s waist and she practically bolts out of the bed, giving you a clear view of her bare, apple-shaped bottom before the hem of the shirt falls to cover it.
  4088. >Round and full, yet firm.
  4089. >”I need…”
  4090. >Her head jerks around desperately, all while avoiding looking your direction.
  4091. >After a second, Lauren locks on her shirt, abandoned in the doorway to the bathroom.
  4092. >Quickly, she bounds over to it and drops to her knees.
  4093. >A soft whine escapes from her throat as she carefully picks it up.
  4094. >Dried vomit crusts the front.
  4095. >You know what she’s thinking.
  4096. “Washing machine is downstairs, between the kitchen and garage.”
  4097. >Lauren nods wordlessly.
  4098. “I’ll be out of the house as soon as I can throw on some clothes, so –“
  4099. >”I still gotta show you how to take care of Silver.”
  4100. “Show Apple Bloom. She’ll do it better than I would anyway.”
  4101. >She nods again and stands.
  4102. >”I’ll just…”
  4103. >She points towards the bathroom.
  4104. “Yeah. Give me a few and I’ll be gone.”
  4105. >Lauren turns slightly – not enough to face you, maybe enough to see you out of the corner of her bright green eyes.
  4106. >There’s a hint of a smile on her face – just a hint.
  4107. >”Thanks.”
  4108. >She closes the bathroom door behind herself, leaving you alone to get dressed.
  4109. >You quickly change into clean clothes – nothing special, just your standard for a day in the fields.
  4110. >Maud probably has everything under control, but there’s still work to be done.
  4111. >You need to talk to her; to let her know that you got the parts for the tractor and find out how yesterday went, at least.
  4112. >Maybe… maybe find out some other things, too.
  4113. >You slap your hand against the wall twice as you step out the door.
  4115. >That’ll give Lauren time to wash her clothes and get dressed.
  4116. >It’s not like you haven’t seen her naked before, but it’s different now.
  4117. >She didn’t used to be so self-conscious.
  4118. >You would have laid out something for her, but you know nothing of yours would fit better than an old t-shirt.
  4119. >Even with those hips of hers, your jeans would just slide right off.
  4120. >Best you can do for her right now is give her privacy.
  4121. >You head downstairs – curious noises only speed your decent.
  4122. >In earlier days, that would have sent you running for a weapon, but there’s no one out here.
  4123. >You aren’t worried about burglars or anything like that.
  4124. >Maybe a pony uprising, but that seems unlikely.
  4125. >The sounds are coming from the kitchen and the lights are on – whoever’s there isn’t trying to hide.
  4126. >Might be Apple Bloom trying to get a snack or something.
  4127. >You peek in – oh, right.
  4128. >Roma.
  4129. >It’s still dark out, but she’s making breakfast for Apple Bloom – and doing it with a smile on her face.
  4130. >You sigh quietly.
  4131. >It’s supposed to be a punishment, but she seems so happy about it.
  4132. >You knock softly on the wall before walking in – nothing good can come from surprising a pony with a knife in her mouth.
  4133. >She looks up at the noise and, seeing you, hastily puts down the knife.
  4134. >”Good morning, sir, I hope I wasn’t too loud.”
  4135. “No, no, everything’s fine. Just came to get breakfast.”
  4136. >The mare looks down with a frown.
  4137. >”I’m afraid I haven’t prepared anything for you yet, but –“
  4138. “Wasn’t expecting anything. I told you to make breakfast for Apple Bloom, not for me.”
  4139. >She nods quickly as you head for the fruit bowl.
  4140. “But thanks for making something for me yesterday. I appreciate it.”
  4141. >”Thank you, sir.”
  4142. >You pick an apple out of the bowl – and then a second.
  4143. >Skipping dinner last night has left you ravenous.
  4144. >”Will the mistress be requiring a meal?”
  4145. >What.
  4146. “The who?”
  4147. >”Your guest,” Roma explains with a sigh.
  4148. >She’s not being snippy, she’s just tired; there are dark circles around her eyes.
  4149. “Oh. Right. Lauren. Yes, that would be nice.”
  4150. >The mare nods and turns back to her work.
  4151. “And… actually… could you make breakfast for one more?”
  4152. >”What would you like, sir?”
  4153. “It’s not for me.”
  4154. >She might not be able to eat in her condition, but she should try.
  4155. >”Then what should I make for your other guest, sir?”
  4156. “She’s not exactly a guest, Roma. I’ve…”
  4157. >Words fail you.
  4158. >You still don’t know how to explain Silver Spoon to the ponies.
  4159. >It’s hard to look a pony in the face and tell her that you bought another of her kind.
  4160. “Maybe porridge or grits?”
  4161. >You think you remember the care instructions said something about soft food, but nothing too liquid.
  4162. “Lauren will explain. I need to get down to the dorms.”
  4163. >”Very well, sir.”
  4164. >After a short but awkward silence, you head outside.
  4165. >One of the apples goes in your pocket, but the other you devour as you walk.
  4166. >It’s enough to assuage your hunger for now.
  4167. >With the sun poking just over the horizon, you can see the ponies huddled around the pavilion.
  4168. >As you close the distance, groups begin to split off and head towards the fields.
  4169. >Only a handful remain by the time you arrive.
  4170. >Roma’s assistants are hard at work cleaning up after breakfast.
  4171. >You never realized how large the pots they used were, but you’re fairly certain the grey mare cleaning out the largest of them could easily fit inside.
  4172. >The rest of the ponies are clearly waiting for you.
  4173. >More accurately, they’re waiting for Maud, who is waiting for you.
  4174. >You can tell from the way they keep looking to her.
  4175. >Well, that’s why you have foreponies – so you don’t have to deal with the others yourself.
  4176. >You greet Maud with a nod that she returns.
  4177. >“Did you get everything on the list?”
  4178. >Straight to the point.
  4179. “Yeah, I did. How was –“
  4180. >”What about a plow?”
  4181. “They only had one, but yes –“
  4182. >”Did you take the tractor parts to the shed?”
  4183. “Not yet, they’re –“
  4184. >”Could you do that so Full Steam can get started on fixing the tractor?”
  4185. “I’ll do it as soon as we’re done talking.”
  4186. >Surprisingly, she lets you finish that sentence.
  4187. >”Good.”
  4188. >The two of you stare at each other for a second – you’re afraid to speak, assuming she’ll just cut you off again.
  4189. >”And then could you take the plow to the east field?”
  4190. “Going to get started today?”
  4191. >”Why not?”
  4192. >You shrug – she knows better than you how quickly the magic blockers they’re on wear off.
  4193. >If they’re ready to try it now, then they might as well.
  4194. “I’ll drop that off along with the tractor parts, then. How did yesterday go?”
  4195. >”We’re ahead of schedule.”
  4196. “Really!?”
  4197. >”Yes.”
  4198. “That’s great news.”
  4199. >And yet it gnaws at you.
  4200. >Back at your old job, back when you lived in the city, you always used to feel that you’d be more productive if your boss just went away and left you alone.
  4201. >Now you know what it’s like being in his shoes.
  4202. >Still… it’s good news.
  4203. >”Indeed,” Maud drawls. “Is there anything else?”
  4204. “No… I…”
  4205. >You try to think, but nothing important comes to mind.
  4206. >Just Silver Spoon.
  4207. >Explaining her is still beyond you.
  4208. >You’ll let Roma spread the word.
  4209. >”Well?”
  4210. >The harness of her tone catches you off guard – visibly so, because she looks away a second later.
  4211. >”Sorry, I’m having trouble controlling my temper,” she mutters. “I stopped taking my pills.”
  4212. >Oh.
  4213. >Shit.
  4214. >Your body takes a step back before you can think.
  4215. >This was something you had agreed to, but it’s still…
  4216. >The last pony to stop taking his pills killed your uncle.
  4217. >”I’ll be fine,” Maud rumbles. “Is there anything else we need to talk about?”
  4218. >Now that you know, you can hear a hint of the strain in her voice.
  4219. >Or maybe you’re just imagining it.
  4220. >Either way, she’s handling the withdrawal far better than Flam.
  4221. “No, that’s everything.”
  4222. >You take another step backwards.
  4223. “I’ll go drop those things off right now.”
  4224. >Maud nods and you quickly walk back away.
  4225. >For some reason, you’re reluctant to turn your back on her until you’ve some distance away.
  4226. >It’s silly, you know, but you can’t help it.
  4227. >There’s nothing you could do to stop her even if you do see her coming – at least, that what it sounded like from Apple Bloom’s description.
  4228. >You finally relax when her eyes swing away from you and she beings giving the last few ponies their orders.
  4229. >It’s only been a few seconds – you’ve only walked backwards a few feet – but it feels like forever.
  4230. >You turn and walk – quickly – back up the hill to the house.
  4231. >The truck is still parked in front of the house – no one has touched it, because there’s no one out here, but you look it over before hoping in.
  4232. >It was a bit of a crazy night, and you don’t entirely remember if you left everything in the bed or not.
  4233. >All of the parts seem to be there.
  4234. >You’re just climbing into the cab when you hear the house door slam shut.
  4235. >Lauren waves shyly as she walks down the steps, a pair of your jeans cinched up around her waist with a belt.
  4236. >Right… belts are a thing.
  4237. >Looks ridiculous, though, and she knows it.
  4238. >You can tell from the blush spreading across her cheeks.
  4239. >”I’ve got to… um…”
  4240. >She holds up a pail with her right hand for you to see.
  4241. >”… need to head down to the barn and see to daddy’s pony.”
  4242. “Want a ride?”
  4243. >You lean over to unlock the passenger door, but she shakes her head.
  4244. >”Thanks, but you got things you gotta do. I can walk.”
  4245. >True, but… you shrug internally. It’s not worth arguing over.
  4246. “Okay then, see you later.”
  4247. >You head your separate directions without another word, though the sight of Lauren’s jeans slipping from her waist in the rearview mirror brings a chuckle from you.
  4248. >Last you see of her, she’s walking down the hill with a pail in one hand and the other trying to hold up your far too large jeans.
  4249. >So much for belts.
  4250. >You *knew* there was no way those would fit her.
  4251. >As you turn to follow the path, the house hides Lauren from you.
  4252. >You sigh.
  4253. >Time for work.
  4254. >Drop off the tractor parts – check.
  4255. >Take the plow to the east field – check.
  4256. >And then you do… do…
  4257. >What else is there for you to do…?
  4258. >The truck slows to a crawl as your foot slides off the gas.
  4259. >You throw it into neutral.
  4260. >There isn’t really anything else.
  4261. >Not that there aren’t things to do, but nothing that *you* need to do.
  4262. >Nothing specific.
  4263. >Lauren and her lack of properly fitting clothing stop you from heading back to the house to ask Apple Bloom –
  4264. >Apple Bloom.
  4265. >Shit.
  4266. >Right.
  4267. >You lean over to pull the phone from your pocket.
  4268. >Quickly scrolling through your contacts… yep, there it is.
  4269. >The number for the farm and feed store.
  4270. >You were wrong – there’s still one more thing you have to do.
  4271. >One more thing that only you can do.
  4272. >You told Apple Bloom you would call.
  4273. >Now is as good a time as any.
  4274. >It rings three times before a cheerful, young voice answers.
  4275. >”Bill’s Farm and Feed, how can I help you?”
  4276. >It’s her – the pony. It has to be.
  4277. “Hey, is Bill there?”
  4278. >He has to be. It’d be against the law for her to be if he wasn’t.
  4279. >”He’s… he’s not available right now.”
  4280. “Oh.”
  4281. >”Something I can help you with?”
  4282. >You smile slightly at her tone.
  4283. >Back at your old job, you’d heard it a few times from your female coworkers when they though clients were snubbing them in favor of the men.
  4284. >”Whatever it is, I –“
  4285. “Yeah, you can.”
  4286. >”Perfect. So –“
  4287. “Scootaloo, right?”
  4288. >”Uh-huh.”
  4289. “Soooo… do you know a mare named Apple Bloom?”
  4291. >You spend the next few hours doing small jobs around the farm.
  4292. >Routine maintenance, checking on things, the little crap that never seems important but always eats up the day.
  4293. >Around nine you pause to eat the second apple, just stopping for a minute and relaxing before getting back to all those trivial tasks.
  4294. >Now’s a good chance to take care of them; you’re just killing time before heading back to the house.
  4295. >Her clothes should be clean and dry by now, but you wait a little longer.
  4296. >There’s more to do, and you’ve already started on these jobs.
  4297. >Besides, Lauren’s supposed to teach Apple Bloom how to care for Silver Spoon.
  4298. >No sense barging in on that.
  4299. >Around noon, you bring your truck about in a lazy u and head back.
  4300. >Roma arrives just before you – she’s climbing the steps as you hop out of the cab.
  4301. “Here to make lunch?”
  4302. >”Yes, sir,” she answers with a genuine smile. “I was thinking of mashed potatoes, with pork chops for you and Miss Lauren.”
  4303. “Sounds good.”
  4304. >A little heavy for lunch, but there’s nothing you really need to head back out for.
  4305. >”It’ll be ideal for Silver Spoon.”
  4306. >wat
  4307. >Her smile widens, though there’s a hint of something behind it.
  4308. >Anger or rage, you can’t tell.
  4309. >Neither can she, you suspect.
  4310. “Have you told the others?”
  4311. >”No,” Roma answers with a shake of her head. “It’s not my place to do that.”
  4312. >Dammit.
  4313. “I guess not.”
  4314. >But you were hoping.
  4315. >She stays there for a moment before dipping her head slightly.
  4316. >”I’ll go get lunch started, then.”
  4317. >You nod back and she goes inside, but you dally.
  4318. >Not long, just enough to think about things.
  4319. >You don’t *really* have to go out again.
  4320. >Maybe to check in with Maud, but … maybe not.
  4321. >It’s a little scary, her going off her meds just like that.
  4322. >She should have had one of the other ponies do it, not her.
  4323. “Dammit.”
  4324. >You have to go out again.
  4325. >Tell her to go back on her meds.
  4326. >You can’t have an unreliable forepony. Not now.
  4327. >And… and you need to tell them about Silver Spoon.
  4328. >You shouldn’t hide it from the other ponies.
  4329. >Even if you *could*, but it would slip out anyhow.
  4330. >You play it over in your head as you head inside – what you could say, how the ponies would react.
  4331. >In the end – by the time you reach the living room – you realize that there’s only one thing you can do.
  4332. >Honesty isn’t always the smartest policy, but it is the best.
  4333. >You’ll just tell them the truth.
  4334. >Lauren is waiting for you, or at least waiting for something, on the sofa.
  4335. >AND wearing appropriately sized clothes.
  4336. “Guess you’ll be headed back soon?”
  4337. >She nods slowly.
  4338. >”Yeah,” she sighs. “I gotta go back sooner or later. Might as well get it over with.”
  4339. “You’ll have lunch first, right?”
  4340. >Another nod, this time accompanied with a slight smile.
  4341. “Is Apple Bloom in her room?”
  4342. >”She’s with Silver. I showed her what to do, n’ gave ‘em a little time to themselves.”
  4343. >Lauren sighs and follows up with a gentle shrug.
  4344. >”I get the feelin’ they didn’t used to get along too well, but…”
  4345. “But?”
  4346. >Another shrug.
  4347. >“Hard times have a way of bringin’ folks together.”
  4348. >You nod once, hesitantly.
  4349. >Then you lean down and hug her.
  4350. “Yeah, I guess so.”
  4351. >After a moment, she hugs you back.
  4352. “I’ve got to go talk with her for a bit, but then…”
  4353. >”I’ll be waitin’.”
  4354. >She lets go before you do, though you quickly follow suit.
  4355. “Be right back.”
  4356. >”I know.”
  4357. >She’s smiling as you walk away – you keep glancing over your shoulder, but that smile never leaves her face.
  4358. >There’s something unsettling about it – and something equally reassuring.
  4359. >The door to Silver Spoon’s room is open, but you knock before entering.
  4360. >Apple Bloom looks up immediately, the other mare a fraction behind her.
  4361. >The drugs are slowing her reaction speed.
  4362. ”Hey, girls.”
  4363. >”Here to check on her?” Apple Bloom asks, sliding off of the seat she had dragged over to the side of the bed.
  4364. “No, I’m sure you’re taking good care of her, but why don’t you let me take over for a bit?”
  4365. >You pull your phone out before sitting down in spot she had just been occupying.
  4366. >The number is already pulled up; you just have to tap the screen and hold it out to Apple Bloom.
  4367. “There’s someone that’s expecting a call from you.”
  4368. >Tentatively, she takes the phone from you and sets it down on the floor.
  4369. >Not having hands makes it hard for ponies to work phones.
  4370. >She stares at the screen, trying to make sense of the contact info displayed it.
  4371. >Before she can, it begins ringing, making her jump in surprise – you'd tapped the dial button when you handed it over.
  4372. >It was already set to speakerphone.
  4373. >You'd prefer to let her have a bit of privacy, but... no hands.
  4374. >It rings again - followed swiftly by the clatter of a receiver being clumsily picked up.
  4375. >"APPLE BLOOM!?"
  4376. >Your mare is frozen stiff in surprise.
  4377. >"Apple Bloom, is that you!?"
  4378. >"S-scootaloo?"
  4379. >"Yeah!"
  4380. >"SCOOTALOO!"
  4381. >A wide smile splits her face.
  4382. >"Oh, Celestia! Ah can't believe it!"
  4383. >Trying - and failing - to hide your own grin, you shift your attention to Silver Spoon to give Apple Bloom some measure of privacy.
  4384. >She accidentally meets your gaze for a second – the instant your eyes connect, the mare closes her eyes and dips her head.
  4385. >At every word from the other mare, she cringes.
  4386. >Shit, you should have thought this through.
  4387. >Apple Bloom isn’t the only one deserving of privacy here.
  4388. >Silver Spoon is in pain; letting Apple Bloom talk with her friend in front of her, doing everything you can to make *her* happy is… is…
  4389. >It’s too late to give her privacy, but you should at least give her your concern.
  4390. “You doing alright?”
  4391. >The question distracts Silver Spoon a little – she stops shuddering and nods.
  4392. >A dark streak of wetness marks the pillow – tears are leaking out from under shut lids.
  4393. “Need anything? Something for the pain?”
  4394. >The mare shakes her head slightly.
  4395. >”No, master,” she hisses through gritted teeth. “I’m fine.”
  4396. >That word – she called you master back at the dinner. They all did.
  4397. >You’ve never asked your ponies to do that.
  4398. >Not even your uncle went that far.
  4399. “You don’t have to call me that, girl.”
  4400. >It’s a habit you want to break – one that you’re sure will only remind her of darker times.
  4401. >An abbreviated nod is her only response.
  4402. >It’ll do for now.
  4403. >You reach out to touch her, to hold her reassuringly, but she flinches away the moment your hand touches her.
  4404. >Of course she would.
  4405. >You’re an idiot.
  4406. >Being… “touched”… has been her whole life for the past three years.
  4407. >Even ignoring that, it was a bad idea.
  4408. >You’re not the one that did this to her, but you can understand how she could blame you.
  4409. “Sorry.”
  4410. >You should say more.
  4411. >Something.
  4412. >Anything.
  4413. “I…”
  4414. >Nothing.
  4415. >What could you possibly say to her?
  4416. >Apologize for not buying her back at the diner?
  4417. >From what the other ponies said, one john more or less wouldn’t have made a difference.
  4418. >Say you’re sorry for not stepping in to stop what happened?
  4419. >You had no idea what was going on.
  4420. >In no way is it your fault what happened to her, but still…
  4421. “I’m sorry. You deserved better.”
  4422. >You don't know Silver Spoon.
  4423. >Aside from what Lauren has dropped, you don't know who she is, where she has come from or her dreams for the future.
  4424. >Her personality and habits and quirks are all a mystery.
  4425. >What you do know is that she didn't deserve what happened to her.
  4426. >Silver Spoon deserved better.
  4427. "No, I don't."
  4428. >The words barely escape her clenched jaw.
  4429. >Did she really…?
  4430. "No, girl. No one deserves that."
  4431. >Her eyes snap open, wild and fearful.
  4432. >She hadn't meant to say that out loud, she hadn't meant for you to hear.
  4433. >The mare trembles, shaking like prey that has been cornered by a predator, afraid to move lest you pounce, but too terrified to control of her body.
  4434. >"I'm sorry, master,” she whines quietly.
  4435. >This is so uncomfortable it hurts.
  4436. >“I didn't mean -"
  4437. >You look away, unsure what to say or do to reassure her that you haven't taken offense.
  4438. >The instant your eyes leave her, Silver Spoon stops talking.
  4439. >She doesn't want to pull your attention back.
  4440. "You..."
  4441. >She flinches.
  4442. >You don't see it - you're intentionally looking away - but you can hear it… the creak of the bed frame, the rustling of the sheets.
  4443. >Great.
  4444. >Just great.
  4445. >You sigh, drawing another twitch from the mare.
  4446. >You may have gotten more than you bargained for with her.
  4447. >Possibly more than you can deal with.
  4448. >How do you help a pony you can't even breathe around?
  4449. >You can't give her to Lauren, though that's the first solution that popped into your head.
  4450. >It wouldn’t work; her father would be the death of Silver Spoon.
  4451. >No matter Lauren's good intentions, she wouldn't be able to protect the mare from him.
  4452. >She can barely manage to protect herself - and certainly not that other pony of hers.
  4453. >Though... she sounds willful and defiant.
  4454. >Silver Spoon one is more to his liking.
  4455. >Broken.
  4456. >You and she both awkwardly pretend the other doesn't exist while Apple Bloom talks happily with her friend.
  4457. >This was a bad idea.
  4458. >You don’t know what the injured mare is thinking, but you can imagine.
  4459. >Why does everyone else get to be happy?
  4460. >Why can’t she have friends?
  4461. >You should have taken Apple Bloom out of the room before dialing her friend.
  4462. >This is just cruel.
  4463. >A particularly cheerful shout makes Silver Spoon twitch again.
  4464. >You risk a look, but she doesn’t notice.
  4465. >She’s crying again.
  4466. >A quiet sigh escapes your lips.
  4467. “Apple Bloom.”
  4468. >She continues to talk.
  4469. >Wouldn’t be the first time she ignored you lately.
  4470. “Apple Bloom.”
  4471. >The mare timidly looks over at you.
  4472. >She doesn’t want to, but your sharper tone makes her.
  4473. “Wrap it up. Lauren and Roma are waiting on us.”
  4474. >The mare nods.
  4475. >She says a few more things to her friend before picking the phone up with her mouth and passing it to you.
  4476. >You don’t notice, not until she drops it in your lap.
  4477. >With a sigh, you look away from Silver Spoon and gesture for Apple Bloom to go on without you.
  4478. “I’ll be right behind.”
  4479. >You watch as she trots away, tail swaying back and forth like a happy puppy.
  4480. >When she’s gone, you turn back to Silver Spoon.
  4481. >You don’t say anything yet, just look her over.
  4482. >Someone – probably Lauren – has woven the mare’s silvery mane in a tight braid.
  4483. >It’s draped across her shoulder, tied off at the end with a red ribbon.
  4484. >Lauren usually ties off her ponytail with one just like it.
  4485. >Probably the same one, you suspect.
  4486. >The mare’s glasses are neatly set on the nightstand beside her.
  4487. >She’s the only pony you’ve ever seen to wear glasses.
  4488. >Briefly, you wonder why, but dismiss the though.
  4489. >It’s not important.
  4490. >A fresh rivulet of tears trickles out from shut eyes.
  4491. >She’s in pain.
  4492. >You already knew this.
  4493. >Despite what she said, you knew this.
  4494. >You look away and see the fresh pile of bloody bandages piled on the overflowing wastebin.
  4495. >That’ll have to be emptied soon.
  4496. >You sigh again.
  4497. >None of this tells you what to do with her.
  4498. >Nothing gives you a hint to the magic words to calm her.
  4499. >A part of you wants to grab her by the shoulders and shake her until she snaps out of it.
  4500. >Every other part realizes just how stupid that would be.
  4501. >Your body aches to hold her like you would Lauren, to run your fingers through her hair until she’s cried it all out, but…
  4502. >Even if that didn’t make things worse, you doubt her body has enough tears.
  4503. “What am I supposed to do with you?”
  4504. >She shudders – and you realize you had spoken out loud.
  4505. >”W-whatever you wish, master.”
  4506. >You can’t help but catch the hesitation, notice how she’s not quite as ready to give up as she acts.
  4507. >At least, you hope that’s what it means.
  4508. >You hope there’s still a pony in that shell that’s worth all this hassle.
  4509. “I wish you’d be honest with me.”
  4510. >She inhales sharply.
  4511. “I can’t help you if I don’t know how.”
  4512. >You don’t know why you haven’t given up yet.
  4513. >It’s not guilt; this isn’t your fault.
  4514. >”You don’t have to help me,” the mare whispers. “I deserve this.”
  4515. >She… she might even believe that.
  4516. >It doesn’t sound like she’s just saying what you want to hear.
  4517. >You don’t want to hear that.
  4518. >Who would?
  4519. “Is that why you aren’t asking for more pills?”
  4520. >She gasps – first in surprise, then in pain.
  4521. >That’s enough.
  4522. >You lean down and rifle through the bag of supplies until you find the box.
  4523. >The directions have too many words – you don’t have the patience for that.
  4524. >You read them anyway.
  4525. >Five pills is the maximum recommended dose.
  4526. >You hope it’s enough.
  4527. “I’m giving you some. Don’t argue.”
  4528. >Silver Spoon gives you a brief nod.
  4529. “Are you going to need water to get these down?”
  4530. >Another nod.
  4531. >There’s a glass on the nightstand. Not full, but full enough.
  4532. >You punch the first pill out of their blister packaging and slip it into Silver Spoon’s mouth.
  4533. >She doesn’t resist.
  4534. >With one hand, help her raise her head. The other holds the glass for her to drink from.
  4535. >Water dribbles from the corner of her mouth, but she swallows the pill.
  4536. >You set the glass down and pop out the next.
  4537. >One by one, you help her get them all down.
  4538. >After the last, she finishes off the glass.
  4539. >You don’t give her much choice; the instructions say to take the pills with lots of water.
  4540. >You hope it’s enough, just as you hope the pills are enough.
  4541. >They don’t fix everything, but she seems more relaxed when you slowly lower her head.
  4542. >Might just be wishful thinking on your part, though, or the effort of sitting up exhausted her body to the point she can no longer tense up.
  4543. “Tell us if you’re hurting, either me or Apple Bloom.”
  4544. >Silver Spoon closes her eyes and nods.
  4545. >”Yes, master.”
  4546. “Remember, this isn’t your fault. You don’t have to punish yourself.”
  4547. >A hollow smile plays across her face for the briefest of moments; she doesn’t have the strength to keep it up for longer.
  4548. >”If I didn’t deserve this, it wouldn’t have happened.”
  4549. "That's..."
  4550. >... fucking depressing.
  4551. >If Silver Spoon actually believes that, it's a miracle she's still alive.
  4552. >But she doesn't, does she?
  4553. "Be honest with yourself.”
  4554. >”I am.”
  4555. “If you really thought that, you wouldn't have run back to the diner."
  4556. >"I..."
  4557. >Her voice breaks and she rolls onto her side to face away from you.
  4558. >"I made a mistake, master," the mare croaks. "I shouldn't have run."
  4559. >Dammit.
  4560. >You slump over in your chair, resting your elbows on your knees.
  4561. >She falls silent after that.
  4562. >Why shouldn’t she?
  4563. >What more can she say?
  4564. >What can either of you say that hasn’t already been said?
  4565. >You can't find the thoughts or words to argue.
  4566. >Normally, this is where you'd shut up and hold the girl; let her cry, listen to her woes.
  4567. >You can't touch Silver Spoon.
  4568. >It would only cause her more pain.
  4569. >She has no more tears to shed.
  4570. >Her eyes are dry, not because everything is fine, but because she just *can't* anymore.
  4571. >All you can do is listen to her and she doesn't want to talk.
  4572. >There's nothing to listen to except her shallow breathing.
  4573. >You should give up; you've done everything you can.
  4574. >Unless she's willing to help you, you can't help *her*.
  4575. "You don't deserve what happened to you."
  4576. >Unable to think of anything new to say, you fall back on repetition.
  4577. >You had to give her one more chance. You had to.
  4578. >"I deserve everything."
  4579. >You gave her a chance and she threw it away.
  4580. >It's not your fault; there's nothing more you can do.
  4581. >Time to give up.
  4582. >With a sigh, you heave yourself to your feet.
  4583. >A clatter draws your eyes down to the floor - your phone, forgotten in your lap, fell when you stood.
  4584. >The impact shocks the screen to life; Scootaloo's contact info is still up.
  4585. >Inwardly you cringe.
  4586. >How could you have let the two mares talk in front of Silver Spoon?
  4587. >Even as you silently admonish yourself, you know the answer.
  4588. >You wanted Apple Bloom to be happy.
  4589. >Everyone deserves to be happy.
  4590. >You bend down and pick up the phone.
  4591. >The screen goes black after a second and you slip it into your pocket.
  4592. >She *was* happy.
  4593. >You turn back towards the Silver Spoon and sigh.
  4594. "If you deserve everything that happened, that means you deserved to live."
  4595. >The mare stirs, turning just enough to glance at you with glazed eyes.
  4596. "You lived and that means you were supposed to. Remember that, Silver Spoon. If you deserve everything that's happened, that means the good too, not just the bad."
  4597. >She stares at you for several seconds – as long as her body can hold the position – before she can’t hold her head up any more.
  4598. >Her eyes close.
  4599. >She doesn’t say anything, but there’s a slightly nod.
  4600. >It could have been a tremor, but you think not.
  4601. >There’s no evidence fir it, but a nod gives you a reason to keep trying.
  4602. >Something you said might have reached her after all, and that means she’s not a lost cause.
  4603. “Apple Bloom or I will be back soon with your lunch.”
  4604. >Another nod, this one clearly recognizable.
  4605. >Good enough.
  4606. >You slowly walk out of the room.
  4607. >Lauren is waiting for you.
  4608. >She’s leaning against the wall, her back and the palm of one hand pressed flat against it.
  4609. >”Lunch is ready,” she tells you with a slight smile.
  4610. “You were listening in?”
  4611. >”Mhm,” she hums, nodding. “That was… a lil’ out of character for you.”
  4612. >You raise an eyebrow and stare pointedly until a faint glow spreads across her cheeks.
  4613. “Was it really?”
  4614. >”No, I guess not.”
  4615. >She steps away from the wall, catching you in a firm hug before you can escape.
  4616. >”You just forgot who you were for a bit is all.”
  4617. >After a second, you return the embrace, pulling her tight against you.
  4618. >”I’ve got to go,” she mumbles, sighing happily in your arms. “Daddy called. He’s… I’ve got to go.”
  4619. "Okay."
  4620. >"I’ll be back tomorrow with Trixie," she says, still holding on to you. "After all, a deal is a deal, so..."
  4621. >She smiles as she breaks the embrace.
  4622. >”Just gotta go say goodbye to Silver. I hope…”
  4623. >She sighs loudly and looks down at her feet.
  4624. >You don’t need her to say anything else; last night’s conversation is still clear in your memory.
  4625. “She doesn’t blame you at all.”
  4626. >”Honestly, I know, so I gotta do it for her.”
  4627. >It makes a twisted kind of sense.
  4628. >She always has been so quick to accept blame.
  4629. >Lauren gasps as you kiss her forehead.
  4630. “Don’t be so rough on yourself.”
  4631. >”Maybe.”
  4632. “Good. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
  4634. >You don’t.
  4635. >Not until four days later.
  4636. >Four days that pass by in a blur of work and worry.
  4637. >You try to tell yourself it’s nothing to panic about, that you have other pressing concerns.
  4638. >Things like Mica.
  4639. >That very night, he came knocking on the door just as you were sitting down for dinner.
  4640. >Roma had reheated the leftovers from lunch.
  4641. >You didn’t mind; Lauren hadn’t stayed to eat after all, and you didn’t want the food to go to waste.
  4642. >You knew – in a theoretical sense – that there were children on the farm, but he was the first you ever really saw.
  4643. >The first that talked to you and made you acknowledge his presence.
  4644. >He begged you to go out to the east field and get his auntie to come back.
  4645. >His words meant nothing to you until you drove out there.
  4646. >You didn't know Maud had a nephew.
  4647. >After a brief, tense conversation, you left her alone to sleep in the fields.
  4648. >It left you scared of her and of what you had to do.
  4649. >”Apple Bloom isn’t ready to take over,” she had told you. “If she was ready, she would have come back. She hasn’t come back, so she’s not ready. You have to lead the others yourself.”
  4650. >She didn’t trust any of the other ponies to do this, to go off their meds and plow the field.
  4651. >Or perhaps she just didn’t want them to suffer in her place.
  4652. >Either way, it left you terrified.
  4653. >You considered forcing Apple Bloom to return to her job, but someone had to stay with Silver Spoon.
  4654. >It couldn’t be you, not if you wanted her to relax – and recover.
  4655. >Even so, you were wavering and uncertain until you spoke with Apple Bloom.
  4656. >You’re not sure what prompted her to say what she did, if it was concern for her friend or fear for herself, but she convinced you.
  4657. >On the day Lauren was supposed to return, you were out in the fields with your ponies.
  4658. >You kept your distance from them, limiting your interaction to short orders.
  4659. >In truth, you’re simply parroting Apple Bloom’s instructions.
  4660. >You keep your phone with you, but it never rings.
  4661. >Her truck never drives through the gate.
  4662. >You chose to spend most of your time with the teams near there, so you would see her when she came.
  4663. >The work kept you so distracted that you didn’t realize that she hadn’t until the shadows were long and the sky growing dark.
  4664. >You checked your phone – no calls.
  4665. >You drove to the house – she wasn’t there.
  4666. >You called her.
  4667. >No answer.
  4668. >You tried to tell yourself that the worry gnawing at you was for the pony, for the *payment*, but you couldn’t quite convince yourself.
  4669. >The first cold front came sweeping through that night.
  4670. >Not a deep freeze, but cold enough.
  4671. >When you saw Mica nervously trotting up the hill, you already knew what he was going to say.
  4672. >After grabbing some food and other things, you drove out to the east field ahead of the front and convinced Maud to shelter in the shed.
  4673. >It didn’t take much before she climbed into the bed of the truck and began devouring the apples you had left there.
  4674. >You didn’t offer to let her ride in the cab, you didn’t even get out to talk to her.
  4675. >The manic look in her eyes was warning enough not to.
  4676. >She stayed there as you shooed Full Steam out of the shed so she could sleep in peace.
  4677. >He had come back after dinner to continue working on the tractor, but one look at Maud was enough to send him galloping away.
  4678. >It wouldn’t have been finished anyway, even if he worked through the night.
  4679. >Besides, he had already put in at least twelve hours, and there were laws about how long the pony refugees could work each day.
  4680. >No one really followed them, but it was enough of an excuse for you to let Maud spend the night in the shed instead of out in the fields.
  4681. >You left her with a few blankets and a space heater – and tried to pretend you didn’t see the thin streams of blood trickling from her nostrils.
  4682. >That thought kept your mind occupied until you slumped into your own bed.
  4683. >You had set your phone on the nightstand to act as your alarm, so it was within easy reach.
  4684. >No calls.
  4685. >No answer.
  4686. >It didn’t even ring, just went straight to voicemail.
  4687. >Sometimes phones break, you told yourself as you set it back down and tried to sleep. She would be here tomorrow.
  4688. >She wasn’t.
  4689. >The next day was much the same as the last, except one of Roma’s assistants was with her that morning.
  4690. >She had insisted on making your breakfast herself, Roma explained. As thanks.
  4691. >You didn’t understand until you realized how closely she resembled Mica.
  4692. >The mare was shy – she barely spoke two words the whole time she was there – but her hash browns were delicious.
  4693. >It was a nice way to start the day, your body warmed by a hot meal. You barely felt the chill of the morning air.
  4694. >You pocketed several apples before heading out – not for yourself, but for Maud.
  4695. >The ponies didn’t need your guidance – to save yourself some effort, you had given them their instructions last night before going home for your own dinner – so you headed straight for the shed.
  4696. >She was gone.
  4697. >The blanket was thrown aside, the space heater smashed.
  4698. >The tractor was untouched.
  4699. >Silently, you drove on to the east field where she was already harnessed up and at work.
  4700. >You set the apples down and left.
  4701. >When she was hungry, she would notice them.
  4702. >You checked your phone before driving on to the first work party.
  4703. >No calls.
  4704. >Straight to voicemail.
  4705. >You couldn’t pretend anymore; you were worried.
  4706. >The first group of ponies noticed.
  4707. >You noticed they had their children with them, little fillies and colts bounding back and forth to help gather up the crops.
  4708. >That had never happened before.
  4709. >They thought you were nervous about that.
  4710. >There were laws against making the refugee children work, though they didn’t seem to mind, nor did their parents.
  4711. >It was their decision, one of them had explained when he noticed your dumbfounded expression.
  4712. >When you asked why, the answer left you only more confused.
  4713. >Of course they would help; this was their home, too.
  4714. >You traveled from group to group that day to pass on new instructions and saw the same thing at every one.
  4715. >Apple Bloom had a few other choice things to say when you mentioned it to her later, mostly about your uncle.
  4716. >After that, you weren’t surprised that you hadn’t noticed the foals earlier.
  4717. >You tried calling Lauren three more times that day before heading down to the pavilion to talk to Full Steam.
  4718. >”Two days,” he had told you. “I’ll have the tractor finished in two days.”
  4719. >The next day, you only tried calling once.
  4720. >There was frost on the ground, but it disappeared almost as soon as the sun rose.
  4721. >As the ponies watched it climb over the horizon, you pressed redial on your phone.
  4722. >Straight to voicemail.
  4723. >You hadn’t expected anything else.
  4724. >Even with Marble Pie’s grits warming you, you shivered as you walked down the steps to your truck.
  4725. >If there weren’t so many things around here you had to do, you would drive over there and check on her.
  4726. >You wanted to do it anyway, but you couldn’t.
  4727. >The law said you couldn’t leave your ponies unattended.
  4728. >Besides, there was someone else who needed you to check on her first.
  4729. >You set the apples down on the edge of the field again and backpedaled quickly as Maud started walking your direction.
  4730. >She stopped following you as soon as you got in the truck, but it left you on edge.
  4731. >Not enough to forget about Lauren.
  4732. >You stopped a short distance away and pulled your phone out again, but dropped it into the passenger seat without dialing.
  4733. >Even you can learn, given enough time.
  4734. >You didn’t even bother to pick it up when you went back inside for lunch.
  4735. >A worried Apple Bloom was waiting for you just inside the door.
  4736. >At first, you had thought something was wrong with Silver Spoon.
  4737. >In a way, you were right.
  4738. >”She’s thinks that Lauren is avoiding her,” the little pony had explained. “Is… is she…?”
  4739. >Her tail swished back and forth behind her.
  4740. >If it weren’t for the concerned tone, you would almost have thought she was happy.
  4741. >You assumed it was out of confusion.
  4742. >Later, as you lay in bed, you began to wonder.
  4743. >You reached over for your phone and checked.
  4744. >No calls.
  4745. >You got up early on the fourth day.
  4746. >The tractor was ready, just as Full Steam had said it would be.
  4747. >Just in time before the hard freeze.
  4748. >Maud had spent the night in the fields; she hadn’t stopped working.
  4749. >She was still there when you came up with the tractor, straining to pull the plow another inch.
  4750. >After three days, she just couldn’t go any further.
  4751. >Between exhaustion and withdrawal, it was too much for her.
  4752. >When she saw you, she slumped in the harness.
  4753. >You hesitated, unsure what the mare was going to do.
  4754. >She didn’t appear sure either.
  4755. >After several minutes, Maud shrugged off the harness and stumbled away.
  4756. >Later, when the sun was starting to fall and the cold winds coming in, you found her locked in the shed, safely away from the others.
  4757. >In a rough, gravelly voice, she asked for her pills.
  4758. >Then she asked if she had done enough.
  4759. >”Did you finish it?” Maud asked.
  4760. >You had.
  4761. >It took up until the last minute, but you finished it.
  4762. >You wouldn’t have if Maud hadn’t done as much as she had.
  4763. >Mica and Marble met you at the dorms with worried looks.
  4764. >An hour later, you pulled up to the shed with some hot food and some pills.
  4765. >You set them down, knocked, and retreated.
  4766. >Only when Maud opened the door did you drive away.
  4767. >The wind was coming in hard by then, the occasional gust rocking your truck.
  4768. >Freezing rain was sure to follow.
  4769. >But the plowing was done, the crops were harvested.
  4770. >Maud was…
  4771. >You’d done what you could for her. Now the rest was up to her and luck.
  4772. >The other ponies had buttoned up the dorms and pavilion.
  4773. >Everything was as ready for the storm as could be.
  4774. >It was both a blessing and a curse.
  4775. >You and your ponies had gotten everything finished in time; now you had nothing to worry about except Lauren.
  4776. >Nothing to distract you.
  4777. >No necessary work to stop you from driving over to Steffords’ farm.
  4778. >Just the law, but you’ve broken more than a few of those recently.
  4779. >And the weather, but it won’t last forever.
  4780. >The storm should be over by morning.
  4781. >You’re not sure if you can wait that long.
  4782. >It’s been four days since you last saw Lauren.
  4783. >That shouldn’t mean anything – you hadn’t seen her for *years* before a few days ago – but somehow it does.
  4784. >She’s always been true to her word; she should have been here.
  4785. >You’ve waited long enough.
  4786. >She was right.
  4787. >You had forgotten who you were.
  4788. >This isn’t you.
  4789. >You look out the window.
  4790. >Behind you, dinner is rapidly cooling.
  4791. >The house’s heater can’t keep pace with the dropping temperature outside.
  4792. >You’re starting to feel the chill.
  4793. >It would be easy to stay here, to blame the weather.
  4794. >You can drive over in the morning when the ice has melted.
  4795. >Apple Bloom is trying to call you over to the living room.
  4796. >She needs you, too. It wouldn’t be right to leave her.
  4797. >These past few days, she’s been trying to be with you whenever you’re home, even if other ponies are around.
  4798. >She hasn’t minded Roma or Marble’s presence.
  4799. >Or maybe she hasn’t really noticed them, being focused on you as she is.
  4800. >It’s a little off-putting.
  4801. >She acts like you’re the only one she feels comfortable around.
  4802. >It reminds you of another scared girl you used to protect.
  4803. >Lauren was right.
  4804. >You had forgotten who you are.
  4805. >Now you remember.
  4806. >You’ve been fighting against it, but you remember.
  4807. “I’ve got to go out!”
  4808. >”NOW!?” Apple Bloom screeches from the living room. “You can’t be serious!”
  4809. “Yeah, now.”
  4810. >”But everything’s iced over!”
  4811. “I know.”
  4812. >You can see that from the window.
  4813. >It’ll be impossible to get down the hill in the truck without it slipping.
  4814. >You’ll have to go off the path and hope the ground is still soft enough to provide some traction.
  4815. >Apple Bloom comes bounding up to your side and rears up to look out the window.
  4816. >With her forehooves resting against the windowsill, she beams up at you.
  4817. >”Well, Ah’ll go with you!”
  4818. “No, someone has to stay here with Silver.”
  4819. >”But –“
  4820. “Don’t argue. This is a bad enough idea already.”
  4821. >”Then –“
  4822. “I’m not risking your life, too. Not for something this stupid.”
  4823. >She follows you as you put on you pull on your heavy coat and walk towards the door.
  4824. >The mare doesn’t say anything, but she looks nervous.
  4825. >Understandably so.
  4826. >You should be nervous, too.
  4827. >A part of you is still aware enough to understand that, but the rest of you just cannot care.
  4828. >Lauren needs your help.
  4829. >”Wait!” Apple Bloom shouts, grabbing your leg just before you can reach the door. “Didn’t you say you’d gotten everything finished? Can’t we just sit down n’ watch a movie?”
  4830. “There’s something I forgot.”
  4831. >”Can’t it wait ‘til tomorrow?”
  4832. “No. I shouldn’t have let it go this long.”
  4833. >”But…”
  4834. “Go ahead and watch some movies. I don’t mind. Just don’t forget to check on Silver from time to time.”
  4835. >”But, I want to be with –“
  4836. >A knock on the door cuts her off.
  4837. >Her ears stand straight up for a second, before folding back.
  4838. >”Nevermind, sir,” the mare sighs, letting go of your leg.
  4839. >She turns and slinks away.
  4840. >”Ain’t no point in you goin’ out now anyhow.”
  4841. “But –”
  4842. >”Ah’m gonna go check on Silver Spoon.”
  4843. “What about your movie?”
  4844. >The mare’s tail droops – you hadn’t realized how high she had been holding it until it falls flat.
  4845. >”Don’t feel like watching nothing,” Apple Bloom mumbles as she walks away. ”Just open the dang door and let ‘em in ‘fore they freeze.”
  4846. >Before you can ask anything else, there’s another knock on the door, followed by a pair of voices.
  4847. >”Hey, you in there!?”
  4848. >”Trixie is cold, human! Let Trixie in!”
  4849. >One of those voices you recognize.
  4850. >The other isn’t too hard to guess at.
  4851. >You jerk the door open and hug Lauren before she can react.
  4852. >The woman winces as you squeeze her tight, but you don’t care.
  4853. >”Can Trixie go inside now?” the blue unicorn at her side sneers. “Trixie enjoys a good snowfall the same as any other pony, but this weather is just unpleasant!”
  4854. >”Yeah, it’s a bit chilly out here,” Lauren adds with a laugh, pushing your arms away. “Mind if we…”
  4855. “No! Of course not!”
  4856. >You step aside for the pair and wave them in.
  4857. >After you’ve closed the door, you notice Lauren eying you with a hint of a smile on her face.
  4858. “What?”
  4859. >”We catch you on your way out?”
  4860. “Um, kinda.”
  4861. >Hastily you pull off your coat and hang it from one of the hooks in the entryway.
  4862. “I was…”
  4863. >You’d come to terms with the worry preying on you, but actually saying it is beyond you.
  4864. >”I know.”
  4865. >Her smile widens and she starts to pull off her own coat.
  4866. >She stops after a second and grimaces.
  4867. >”Still a bit chilly,” she says with a shake of her head. “Hope you don’t mind me keepin’ this on.”
  4868. “No, it’s fine.”
  4869. >Melted ice is dripping from her coat and hair, but you don’t care.
  4870. >She’s safe.
  4871. “What happened?”
  4872. >There are other things that are more important than water on the floor.
  4873. “I haven’t seen you in four days!”
  4874. >”Stuff came up. Sorry I didn’t call. Can we…?”
  4875. >She gestures towards the living room.
  4876. >”Yeah, sure. Sorry, things are a bit of a mess –“
  4877. >You haven’t had much time to clean up after yourself lately, but it’s not that bad.
  4878. >No worse than the pair of you had left it.
  4879. >You really should have at least thrown out those beer cans.
  4880. “ – I… uh… I didn’t hear you drive up.”
  4881. >”Had to leave the truck at the bottom of the hill,” Lauren explains with a shiver. “Ain’t no way it coulda made it up the hill with all that ice.”
  4882. >”Trixie had to *walk*, like some filthy peasant,” the unicorn sneers, shaking melting ice from her hooves as she follows behind the two of you. “Trixie deserves better!”
  4883. “I see now why you say her name is hard to forget.”
  4884. >”Of course Memorable and Fantastic Trixie’s name is hard to forget,” the blue mare laughs arrogantly. “It is Trixie’s and just being in her presence is an honor!”
  4885. >You’re too relieved right now to feel more than a twinge of annoyance at the unicorn.
  4886. >It still makes you frown – and that makes Lauren giggle.
  4887. >”Sorry,” she mouths silently.
  4888. >”Now, where is Trixie’s room? Trixie assumes she will be sleeping in the master bedroom, so…”
  4889. >She taps a hoof impatiently.
  4890. >You have no idea how that attitude didn’t get beaten out of her by Steffords.
  4891. >It’s tempting to do it yourself, except…
  4892. >Lauren is glomped on to your side.
  4893. >She’s just trying to warm herself using your body heat, but it almost feels like she’s trying to hold you back.
  4894. >Melted ice is soaking into your shirt and pants.
  4895. >She’s…
  4896. >From the sound of it, she’s gone through a lot to protect that mare.
  4897. >You have no idea why, but you aren’t going to throw her efforts away.
  4898. “Upstairs, first door on the left.”
  4899. >It’s not the master bedroom, but after a look at it you don’t think she will object.
  4900. >”Trixie hopes it is up to her standards, or she may just grow tired of waiting for Twilight Sparkle and take care of things herself!”
  4901. >Considering what her accommodations must have been like before, you’re sure it’ll be fine.
  4902. >She’s up the stairs before that name hits you.
  4903. >Twilight Sparkle.
  4904. >You may not be the most knowledgeable person when it came to the war… hell, you don’t even know the names of all the ponies on the farm, but *that* name…
  4905. >Lauren meets your questioning stare with a timid nod.
  4906. “Seriously?”
  4907. >”I think so,” the woman answers with another nod. “At least, it’s what she believes.”
  4908. >You close your eyes and sigh.
  4909. “I can’t deal with that right now.”
  4910. >Lauren mumbles something you don’t quite catch and rests her head against you.
  4911. “I’m glad you’re safe.”
  4912. >That draws a happy little moan from her, one that turns into a hiss as you put your arm around her shoulders.
  4913. “What’s wrong!?”
  4914. >”Nothin’,” she snaps back, stepping away from you. “Silver’s in her room, I’m guessin’?”
  4915. “Yeah, but –“
  4916. >”I’m fine, just a little sore. Fell a couple times climbin’ the hill.”
  4917. “Oh.”
  4918. >She looks away from you and sighs.
  4919. >”Look, I’m just gonna say hello to Silver, an’ then…”
  4920. >Lauren shrugs.
  4921. >”I’m hopin’ you don’t mind me spendin’ the night again, she says with a hollow laugh. “Ain’t really looking forward to the drive back.”
  4922. “Of course you can.”
  4923. >Why would you mind?”
  4924. >“Just take any of the empty rooms?”
  4925. “You can, but…”
  4926. >She doesn’t look your direction; she doesn’t see the raised eyebrow or confused shrug.
  4927. >”Thanks.”
  4928. >She starts to walk off.
  4929. “Want me to take that coat for you? It’s gonna get pretty hot if –“
  4930. >”Nah, it’s fine.”
  4931. >You shrug again.
  4932. >The thermostat is set to 72; she’ll take it off when it gets too hot for her.
  4933. >You watch as she leaves the room, trying to figure out exactly what was going on in her head.
  4934. >Why would she want a room of her own?
  4935. >The reason eludes you.
  4936. >It leaves your thoughts full and cluttered.
  4937. >A groan from your stomach reminds you that it, however, is empty.
  4938. >Dinner, though cold by now, is still waiting for you on the table.
  4939. >With nothing better to do, you sit down and eat.
  4940. >Not everything – you’re tired of eating cold vegetables long before your plate is empty.
  4941. >The excess goes back into the fridge.
  4942. >They’ll reheat just fine.
  4943. >With the food put away and the lights off, you slump into the living room and throw yourself onto the sofa.
  4944. >And wait.
  4945. >You don’t know what else to do.
  4946. >Barging in on Lauren and Silver Spoon would feel wrong.
  4947. >You can hear them still talking, but not make out their words.
  4948. >That’s fine.
  4949. >You’re not trying to listen in on her; you’re just waiting.
  4950. >After several minutes, the voices stop.
  4951. >A moment later, Lauren stumbles back in, looking more exhausted and weary than you’d ever seen her.
  4952. >Still, she’s smiling as she pulls off her coat.
  4953. >She’d gotten too hot – her face is flushed – but you can see why she’d worn it.
  4954. >Under the coat, all she’s wearing is a tanktop.
  4955. >It gives you a clear look at the mottled yellow and purple bruises.
  4956. >”Don’t worry,” she sighs, “they’re already healin’.”
  4957. “You saw me?”
  4958. >”Were you tryin’ to hide?” she laughs, though she turns her head away. “Because if you were –“
  4959. “No.”
  4960. >You shake your head quickly.
  4961. >”Good, cuz that’d be creepy.”
  4962. >She throws the coat on the closest chair.
  4963. >”And a ‘lil disappointin’. I mean, you didn’t even *try* to –“
  4964. “I wasn’t hiding!”
  4965. >”I know. Anyhow, I weren’t tryin’ to keep this from you.”
  4966. “You were hiding it from them.”
  4967. >She nods once and sits down beside you.
  4968. >”’sides, you’ve seen it before, so…”
  4969. >You reach out to Lauren, but she pulls away.
  4970. >”Don’t,” she sighs. “Please.”
  4971. “What did he do to you?”
  4972. >”Nothin’ I couldn’t take.”
  4973. >Slowly, she raises her head to look at you.
  4974. >There’s a hint of a smile playing across her face.
  4975. “It *looks* horrible.”
  4976. >Lauren shrugs.
  4977. >”It ain’t that bad,” she sighs. “He only touched me with his hands.”
  4978. >Thank fate for small favors.
  4979. "He's done worse."
  4980. >"Yeah."
  4981. >The sad tone in her voice makes you slump over in failure.
  4982. You could have stopped this years ago.
  4983. "I don't know why I didn't kill him back then."
  4984. >"Maybe 'cause I asked you not to?"
  4985. "Maybe."
  4986. >Lauren flinches once as you reach out, relaxing slowly when only you pat her leg.
  4987. >She hurts more than she's saying, or she wouldn't be so wary.
  4988. >At least he kept his abuse above the waist this time.
  4989. "Maybe I should have done it anyway."
  4990. >The woman sighs and covers your hand with hers.
  4991. >"I'm glad you didn't."
  4992. >You raise your head just enough to see her still-flushed face.
  4993. >Errant strands of gold are plastered to her forehead by sweat and melted ice.
  4994. "I wouldn't have anyway, not want to know why I left?"
  4995. >She nods once.
  4996. "Because what else could I do?"
  4997. >Her head tilts to the left, sending a wave of hair cascading over her shoulder
  4998. >The confusion is clear in her face.
  4999. "You wouldn't let me stop him and I couldn't just stand back and watch..."
  5000. >The statement is punctuated more by a shrug and a sigh than anything else.
  5001. >"So you ran away?"
  5002. "What else could I do? I was starting to wonder if you *enjoyed* what he was doing to you."
  5003. >"No, but... he's still my daddy. In his own way, he still cares for me. I couldn't let you -"
  5004. "Then why didn't *you* leave? It's not like you were a child."
  5005. >"Because then he'd go after mom."
  5006. "But your mom is dead."
  5007. >"Gee, really?" she asks with a sarcastic grin. "I wonder how I never noticed."
  5008. >The way she squeezes your hand takes the sting out of her tone.
  5009. >"After it happened, I thought about leaving. Maybe trying to find you again."
  5010. "But?"
  5011. >"You know how things were like right after that."
  5012. >Well enough to know what she means.
  5013. >Checkpoints, restricted travel.
  5014. >People dying by the hundreds trying to cross unmarked deadzones.
  5015. >"By the time I could get away," Lauren sighs, "there were others I had to protect."
  5016. "The ponies?"
  5017. >She nods and squeezes again.
  5018. >"They follow his rules and he's fair enough, but when they don't..."
  5019. >She stretches out her arm unnecessarily so you can see the results.
  5020. "You take their beatings for them."
  5021. >"I get in his way," Lauren answers with a sad smile. "Usually, he's too worn out to do much with 'em once he's done with me."
  5022. "Why?"
  5023. >"Because he’s getting old."
  5024. >You can’t help but mirror the smirk on her face.
  5025. “No, why do you do that for them?”
  5026. >”Someone has to.”
  5027. >You raise an eyebrow at that.
  5028. “I think I’m not the only one who forgot who they are.”
  5029. >"I'm still stuck in heroine mode," Lauren laughs darkly. "Give me a day or two to stop hurtin’ and I'll be back to a weepy mess you can comfort.”
  5030. >Or maybe she didn’t forget.
  5031. >Maybe you just never noticed.
  5032. >”Now if you'll excuse me, I'm goin' to bed now."
  5033. "To a separate bed...?"
  5034. >"Y-yeah.”
  5035. >Lauren sighs and stands, releasing your hand.
  5036. “You sure?”
  5037. >She nods and walks towards the stairs.
  5038. >With her hand on the banister, she looks back briefly.
  5039. >The moment her eyes make contact with yours, her head jerks away.
  5040. >”I hope you understand, but I don't want to be touched right now."
  5042. >You wake - alone - to the sound of water running through pipes.
  5043. >A part of you thought that Lauren would slip into bed beside you in the middle of the night.
  5044. >You dress yourself to that sound.
  5045. >It’s not loud, but two months of living alone have made you more aware of such things.
  5046. >Hopefully, your new pony is just relishing her first hot shower in god knows how long.
  5047. >As you walk down the stairs, the sound fades, but it's still going.
  5048. >You take the steps slowly. There's no rush; there's no work to do.
  5049. >Well...
  5050. >You hesitate before descending the next step.
  5051. >There *is* work to do, you silently correct yourself. It's just not urgent.
  5052. >At the least, you have to wait for things to thaw out enough your truck has traction.
  5053. >For the first time in far too long, you have the freedom to go back to sleep.
  5054. >The smell of breakfast draws you downstairs anyway.
  5055. >Marble greets you with a shy smile, half-hidden by her mane.
  5056. >Roma's welcome is colder, a brief nod and annoyed sigh.
  5057. >"Why did it have to be her," you can hear her muttering angrily under her breath.
  5058. "Problem, Roma?"
  5059. >"No, sir."
  5060. >She drops a bowl on the counter with a loud clatter.
  5061. "You sure?"
  5062. >"Nothing I won't get used to," she sighs. "Your new mare just happens to be..."
  5063. >She pauses, hunting for the right words with a frown.
  5064. "A bit of a bitch?"
  5065. >Marble’s horrified gasp makes you regret using those words.
  5066. >"I was going to say ‘particular,’” Roma corrects, though her lopsided grin agrees with you. “I’ve seen her before, and… yeah.”
  5067. “Ah.”
  5068. >”She’s not so bad,” Marble says, so quietly you barely hear it. “I think she’d be great with the foals. I mean, with Apple Bloom… um…”
  5069. >The mare dips her head, causing her mane to cascade over her entire face.
  5070. >”…Mica misses her. A magic show might…”
  5071. >The rest of whatever she is saying is lost as her voice drops even lower.
  5072. >You take a plate Marble nudges towards you – eggs and toast – and immediately hand it off to the crazy lady in one of your oversized long-sleeved shirt glomping onto your free arm.
  5073. “I think you need this more than me.”
  5074. >”Mhm,” Lauren grunts, though she keeps one arm wrapped around yours. “Daring heroics build up an appetite.”
  5075. >Her hair is still dripping wet from her long shower.
  5076. >You give her a concerned, questioning expression as the water soaks into your shirt.
  5077. >No words.
  5078. >She’ll speak about it up if she wants to; you’d rather not.
  5079. >"No, not for a long while now," she answers with an earnest, yet forlorn smile, accurately reading your face. "Daddy lost his interest somewhere in my mid-twenties. Last night just brought back memories is all."
  5080. >A sigh of relief escapes your chest.
  5081. >“I’ll make some more,” Marble whispers, turning back to the range.
  5082. “And how about something hot for Maud? I can take it to her in a bit.”
  5083. >She probably needs some warm food in her after last night, assuming – no, you’re not even going to think that.
  5084. >”Mica already took her something,” Roma comments, stirring the pot on one of the smaller burners. “I swear, that colt takes more after his aunt than his mother.”
  5085. >The other mare murmurs something too soft for you to catch.
  5086. “He doesn’t seem like Maud at all, though.”
  5087. >”His *other* aunt.”
  5088. >That draws another quiet noise from Marble.
  5089. >”Pinkie Pie,” Roma sighs.
  5090. >With a roll of her eyes, the mare pours the contents of the pot into the bowl.
  5091. >She adds a touch of brown sugar – and after an amused chuckle, an additional heaping spoonful followed by a splash of milk.
  5092. >”’Ere,” she grunts, holding it out to you with her mouth gripping the rim.
  5093. >Once you take it, she immediately starts pulling eggs from the refrigerator.
  5094. >”Take that to your other –“ her eyes dart towards Marble momentarily “– guest, if you would, sir.”
  5095. >True to her word, Roma hasn’t mentioned Silver Spoon to any of the other ponies.
  5096. >She’s still waiting for you to break the news to them.
  5097. >You untangle yourself from the woman devouring your breakfast and pick up a freshly finished plate of eggs and toast for Apple Bloom, though you can already hear her response.
  5098. >When you make your way to Silver Spoon’s room and present their meals to them, Apple Bloom doesn’t disappoint.
  5099. >”Ah can cook for myself,” she growls, taking the plate when it becomes clear you won’t leave unless she does. “They don’t gotta treat me like a child.”
  5100. >You don’t want to get in an argument in front of Silver Spoon, so you simply smile and ruffle her mane.
  5101. >By the time you sit down for your own breakfast, the two cooks are out the door, leaving you alone at the dining table with Lauren and… your new mare.
  5102. >Who seems to be trying to set her toast on fire with her mind.
  5103. >”This does NOT live up to Trixie’s expectations,” she mutters angrily. “Trixie distinctly requested –“
  5104. >”Deal with it,” Lauren cuts her off. “And you’re going to sleep in the dorms after tonight with the other ponies.”
  5105. >”But -!”
  5106. >”No buts.”
  5107. >”Trixie’s DEAR friend TWILIGHT SPARKLE –“
  5108. “Killed half a billion people, including Lauren’s mother, when she decided to seal Equestria. Her name doesn’t carry a lot of weight around here.”
  5109. >The unicorn glares at you.
  5110. >You glare back.
  5111. >She loses, looking away after a few seconds.
  5112. >”Those two fillies get to live here, though,” the mare mumbles, refusing to give up so easily.
  5113. “They’re injured.”
  5114. >It takes longer than you’d like, but eventually the unicorn grunts in ascent.
  5115. >”But you can’t make me work in the fields,” she adds. “I’m 9b! You can’t make me do filthy manual labor like some pathetic mudpony.”
  5116. “Fine, then you can look after their children.”
  5117. >”She’s a magician,” Lauren adds with a nod. “I bet the foals would love a magic show.”
  5118. >With a groan, you slam your face into your hand.
  5119. “She’s off her pills, isn’t she?”
  5120. >You’re going to die.
  5121. >”The Resourceful and Astounding Trixie has arcane powers and magicks beyond your limited understanding!”
  5122. >”No, she’s taking her pills,” Lauren helpfully translates between bites. “She just happens to be a stage performer.”
  5123. >”Th-that is ONE way to look at it!”
  5124. >You groan at the outburst, catching Lauren’s attention.
  5125. >Truth be told, there wasn’t much else to hold it – her plate is empty.
  5126. “I can’t believe you took a beating for this mare.”
  5127. >”No one deserves to be treated like that,” Lauren answers with a shrug.
  5128. “That includes you too, you know.”
  5129. >”I know.”
  5130. >She shrugs again – and snatches a piece of toast off your plate.
  5131. >You stare at your plate with an exaggerated sense of profound loss.
  5132. >Once the heartbreak has passed, you look up.
  5133. >Enough of this.
  5134. “Finish your breakfast, Trixie. Once you’re done, I’m taking you to the dorms.”
  5135. >The mare pouts, but polishes off her plate in a matter of minutes.
  5136. >She can’t help herself; the temptation of warm, tasty food is just too much for her.
  5137. >"Very well," she grunts, sitting back in her chair with a happy sigh. "That was exc - *adequate*. You may now show Trixie to these dorms, so she may judge if they are suitable."
  5138. "Hold on, I'm still eating."
  5139. >You gesture towards your rapidly emptying plate.
  5140. >Goddammit, Lauren.
  5141. >"Fine," the unicorn huffs. "Trixie shall graciously grant you extra time."
  5142. >She crosses her forelegs and stares impatiently until you shove your plate over to Lauren.
  5143. "Just eat the whole thing, dammit."
  5144. >"Okay!"
  5145. "Let's get going, Trixie."
  5147. >Be ravenous.
  5148. >You hadn't eaten last night, or in any mood to eat at all recently, so you gladly take his plate and finish it off.
  5149. >He rolls his eyes as you slather the last piece of toast with yet more butter.
  5150. >"Let's get going, Trixie."
  5151. "I'll just wait for you here!"
  5152. >He nods and shoos the mare ahead of him.
  5153. >"We can take care of the paperwork when I get back."
  5154. "Mkay!"
  5155. >Oh.
  5156. "Hey!"
  5157. >He's already through he door; he has to lean back to see you.
  5158. >You chuckle.
  5159. >Why can't he just take a step back?
  5160. >"What?"
  5161. "I've got everything in a bag in my truck. Think you can grab it for me on your way back."
  5162. >"Sure," he sighs, annoyed but willing.
  5163. >Your keys are still in your pocket, because you're wearing the same jeans you wore yesterday.
  5164. >As nice as clean clothes would be, you don't have the energy to deal with wearing his oversized stuff.
  5165. >The toss falls short, but he manages to catch them without falling.
  5166. >Unlike *his* pants, if you tried to wear them.
  5167. >God, that was annoying.
  5168. >You flash him a wide smile and he nods.
  5169. >"Be back in a bit."
  5170. >You wait until you hear the front door close before shoving the empty plates away and collapsing on the table.
  5171. >Everything hurts.
  5172. >You don't have to be strong for her anymore, though.
  5173. >That's his job now.
  5174. >You're just going to rest for a bit.
  5176. >Be confused.
  5177. >You thought you had accepted he would never love you, but…
  5178. >She was gone and he was worried, but he didn't go after her, like the stallion always does in the stories.
  5179. >That gave you hope.
  5180. >You should have known better. You *did* know better.
  5181. >There was never any chance.
  5182. >Hope was just too tempting to ignore.
  5183. >You try to push it out of your mind, but it’s hard.
  5184. >Harder than forgetting the stand.
  5185. >Unlike *her*, that weren’t his choice. You can't blame him for it.
  5186. >You just *can’t*.
  5187. >It was... it just had to be done.
  5188. >Ain't nobody’s fault.
  5189. >That doesn't mean the memory of the straps tightening around your barrel and neck doesn't makes you shudder.
  5190. >Silver Spoon doesn’t say anything, but you can tell she noticed by the way she quickly looks away.
  5191. >That just makes it hurt more.
  5192. >She feels sorry for you.
  5193. >Her!
  5194. >After everything she went through!
  5195. >Next to that, what he – what *happened*  to you is nothin’!
  5196. >At first, you thought you'd been through the same thing, her and you.
  5197. >That made her family of a sort and you didn't feel so alone.
  5198. >Then you realized she hadn't gone through the same thing at all.
  5199. >And all you felt was guilt.
  5200. >You should be feelin' sorry for her, not the other way 'round.
  5201. >Even Silver Spoon don’t have any respect for you.
  5202. >No one does.
  5203. >Not even him.
  5204. >You’re such an idiot.
  5205. >With a sigh, you drop the toast back on your plate and push it away.
  5206. >Silver turns her head and asks a question with her eyes.
  5207. "Never you mind."
  5208. >You try to force a smile to your face.
  5209. >It's just gonna be you n' your foal.
  5210. >You hope she don't look down on you, too.
  5212. >Be scared.
  5213. >"Never you mind."
  5214. >She’s trying so hard to smile, to pretend everything is fine.
  5215. "Please..."
  5216. >Either you focus on her pain or your own.
  5217. >You'd rather it be hers.
  5218. >She can still face life.
  5219. "... talk to me..."
  5220. >You have to know how.
  5221. >Occasionally, you catch the guilty looks she flashes your direction and it kills you.
  5222. >It’s no mystery what she’s thinking, that she feels guilty for feeling sorry for herself.
  5223. >She doesn’t understand.
  5224. >She didn’t deserve what happened to her.
  5225. >You did.
  5226. >It’s all you’re good for.
  5227. >“Talk ‘bout what?” the mare mumbles, giving her plate another nudge.
  5228. “Anything.”
  5229. >She doesn’t respond.
  5230. “Tell me about the ponies that live here?”
  5232. >Be greeted by warm, smiling faces.
  5233. >And Roma.
  5234. >Whatever argument she and Trixie had this morning, she’s not over it.
  5235. >Nor is the mare following – somehow – in front of you.
  5236. >Or maybe that sneer is just her permanent expression.
  5237. >You look around for… for…
  5238. >Apple Bloom is up the hill.
  5239. >Maud is locked in the shed.
  5240. >There are only a handful of other ponies whose names you know.
  5241. >None you’d consider leaders of the pony community. Herd. Whatever they are.
  5242. >Today is their day off, so most of the ponies are… you don’t know what they’re doing.
  5243. >Stuff?
  5244. >Stuff around the dorms.
  5245. >A few foals are running around playing.
  5246. >Some of the older ponies are sitting at the pavilion’s benches just shooting the breeze.
  5247. >There’s a green pegasus mare sitting near the path, weaving little wildflower crowns.
  5248. >Her movements are delicate and precise, despite the lack of fingers.
  5249. >A few of the ponies eye you – and the new arrival – suspiciously, but most seem content to ignore you.
  5250. >Others are excited.
  5251. >Mica comes bouncing out of the crowd, followed momentarily by other colts and fillies.
  5252. >”What about our catapult?” a pink unicorn whines as she catches up to him. “Apple Bloom’s gonna be disappointed if we don’t have –“
  5253. >”Shush!”
  5254. >The filly glares angrily, but falls flat on her rump when the colt spins around and leans towards her.
  5255. >”Magic show,” he hisses in an obnoxiously loud stage whisper.
  5256. >The filly’s eyes widen impossibly large and she leans to her left to look past him.
  5257. >”Magic show?”
  5258. >”Magic show!” he repeats, twisting his head over his shoulder to look at Trixie. “Magic show…?”
  5259. >The mare beside you sighs theatrically and rolls her eyes, but you can see the smile she’s trying to hide from the others.
  5260. >”And just what makes *you* think the Great and Powerful Trixie is willing to squander her valuable time performing her wondrous magics in such a place?”
  5261. >”Mommy,” he answers flatly.
  5262. >”What.”
  5263. >”Mommy said you would!”
  5264. >”O-oh. Oh!”
  5265. >You look around for Marble, finally spotting her peering out of one of the dorm’s windows.
  5266. >Her violet eyes sparkle excitedly.
  5267. >You wave, a gesture the mare shyly returns.
  5268. “Go on, Trixie. Do your thing.”
  5269. >”One does not simply unleash the occult powers!”
  5270. >“One does if she wishes to avoid working the fields,” an orange pegasus stallion calls out, making the mare flinch. “We got too much to do ‘round here to put up with slackers.”
  5271. >Trixie looks around frantically, but she’s surrounded by a sea of eager faces.
  5272. >”Trixie only means she will need time to prepare!”
  5273. >”No magic show?” the pink filly whines, pawing at the ground with one hoof.
  5274. >”Not yet, I guess,” Mica sighs.
  5275. >”Then let’s go earn our cutie marks in catapultry!”
  5276. >You chuckle quietly at the filly’s made up word.
  5277. >Trixie is not so quiet.
  5278. >”Cutie marks!?” she laughs at the foals. “Nopony in this wretched world has world has gotten a cutie mark!”
  5279. >Or maybe she’s laughing at that.
  5280. “Trixie –“
  5281. >”You think *you* will be the first!?” she continues, ignoring your warning growl. “It’s impossible outside of –“
  5282. >”It is too possible!” Mica shouts back, stomping a hoof and sending up a small flurry of dust. “Apple Bloom said so!”
  5283. >Behind him, the pink filly begins to tear up.
  5284. >”You shouldn’t believe the word of –“
  5285. “Trixie.”
  5286. >” – of –“
  5287. “Trixie. Stop.”
  5288. >”Oh, *fine*,” she snarls. “But they’re –“
  5289. “Trixie.”
  5290. >The mare lets out a wordless shout of frustration.
  5291. “Just… go inside and…”
  5292. >You gesture towards the dorms, but that’s about all you can do.
  5293. >There should be some open beds in there.
  5294. >Place is meant to hold about 500 migrants, and you only have 200 ponies. Or somewhere about that number.
  5295. >You didn’t think there were this many children.
  5296. >”I’ll show you around,” a cream-colored unicorn mare says, throwing a foreleg around Trixie’s withers. “I know what it’s like, being odd mare out.”
  5297. >She takes a second to adjust her oversized glasses before continuing.
  5298. >”We don’t have any empty rooms, but –“
  5299. >Rooms?
  5300. >The rest of what the mare says escapes you.
  5301. >The dorms don’t have *rooms.*
  5302. >Just three long halls filled with cots and a fourth with basic necessities – a large kitchen, a small laundry facility… and… other things.
  5303. >But not rooms.
  5304. >You’re sure of that.
  5305. >Though you’ve never been inside while it was occupied, Lauren and you did once spend a *very* - okay, not the time to think about that.
  5306. “Rooms?”
  5307. >She’s already led Trixie away, past a pair of mares bouncing a ball back and forth.
  5308. >“I was *really* looking forward to a magic show,” Mica sighs unhappily.
  5309. >You squat down, not quite getting on his level, but as close as you can.
  5310. “Maybe tonight? I mean, she just got here. She probably needs some time to get situated.”
  5311. >”Yeah,” he sighs. “Well, since you’re here, I made you something! Come with me!”
  5312. >The colt grabs your sleeve in his mouth and starts trotting towards the dorms.
  5313. “Wait, I –“
  5314. >You can’t go in there.
  5315. >”Oh, sorry,” he giggles, spitting out your sleeve. “I guess it’d be hard for you to walk like that, huh?”
  5316. “Yeah, but –“
  5317. >”Just follow me!”
  5318. >He scampers off, the little filly and a few of the others in tow.
  5319. >You look around; none of the adults seem worried, so you follow. Slowly.
  5320. >This feels wrong.
  5321. >This is *their* place, you should just –
  5322. >”Hurry up!” Mica shouts, beckoning you from the doorway.
  5323. >You hesitate at the threshold and look back.
  5324. >One or two of the ponies are nervously looking your direction, but that’s all.
  5325. >”Go on,” the green mare tells you in the gentlest voice you’ve ever heard, still weaving her little crowns. “It’s okay.”
  5326. >You’re not sure what you expect to happen when your foot crosses the threshold, but nothing was not it.
  5327. >The mare giggles as you look around in panic.
  5328. >”Go ahead, silly.”
  5329. >”Come ON!” Mica shouts at the same time.
  5330. >Caught from both sides by encouraging words, you take the next step.
  5331. >It’s not your fault; they told you to do it.
  5332. >The first hall is much as you remember it. The kitchen takes up most of the space.
  5333. >Marble and the other assistant are already prepping lunch.
  5334. >Mica waves to his mother as he trots past and out the opposite door.
  5335. >You follow him out to the covered walkway that connects it to the next hall.
  5336. >It’s still mostly the same.
  5337. >Rows of cots line the hall in both directions, though there’s a cleared space at the far left end.
  5338. >Mica stops when he notices you pause.
  5339. >”That’s where Miss Cheerilee teaches class,” one of the other colts explains before he can speak up.
  5340. “Oh.”
  5341. >That… that makes sense.
  5342. >With this many children around… yeah. That makes sense.
  5343. >You just hadn’t expected it.
  5344. >When your feet start moving again, Mica nudges open the screen door and leads you back outside and then into the third hall.
  5345. >It’s nothing like what you remember.
  5346. >Rough wooden dividers separate the hall into individual stalls – or rooms.
  5347. “Who did this?”
  5348. >”Yeah, pretty shoddy, isn’t it?” a passing stallion responds with an amused grin. “But it’s not like any of us have hammers as cutie marks, so –“
  5349. >”Mjolna does!” Mica snaps back, looking so very proud of himself.
  5350. >”Mjolna doesn’t count,” the stallion says with a shake of his head.
  5351. >”Yeah, I guess not.”
  5352. >Mica slumps.
  5353. >”We’re just lucky Apple Bloom knew a bit about carpentry and could scrounge up some materials,” the stallion explains to you with a shrug. “I guess all those years she spent running around town causing mischief were good for something after all.”
  5354. “I… guess?”
  5355. >The stallion nods and trots on.
  5356. >”This way,” Mica says, pointing to the left. “Our room is down at the end.”
  5357. “Your room?”
  5358. >”Yeah, the room I share with mom and dad and sis!”
  5359. >He sprints on ahead and waits impatiently by one stall.
  5360. >”Mom helped, but I did it all by myself!”
  5361. “But –“
  5362. >”Okay, I mostly did it all by myself!”
  5363. >You’re too slow for him – before you’re halfway down the hall, he dashes into the room.
  5364. >Seconds later, he comes out with a large card clamped in his mouth and gallops back in your direction.
  5365. >He holds it out to you, stretching up as high as he can.
  5366. >You still have to kneel to take it from him.
  5367. >In large, heavy letters, it reads ”Thanks for taking care of Auntie Maud.”
  5368. >There’s little drawings of a pony – presumably Maud – standing side-by-side with a human stickfigure.
  5369. >You, you guess.
  5370. >”Mom said I should stay away because, well, she wouldn’t say why, but none of the other adults would go near auntie and I didn’t know what to do and mom said I shouldn’t bother you, but –“
  5371. “Thank you, Mica.”
  5372. >He smiles wide.
  5373. “How is she?”
  5374. >The colt tries to play innocent.
  5375. >He tries to pretend he has no idea what you’re talking about.
  5376. >The whistling doesn’t help.
  5377. >He can’t whistle, so it’s mostly just rushing air.
  5378. >Doesn’t stop him from trying, though.
  5379. >He puts so much effort into it that you can’t help but laugh.
  5380. >”Fine, you caught me,” he sighs. “She’s… okay, I guess? What’s wrong with her?”
  5381. "It's... hard to say."
  5382. >If his mother didn't tell him, you're not sure if you should.
  5383. >Besides, you have no idea how to explain withdrawal to a child.
  5384. >The pink filly tilts her head to the right and frowns.
  5385. >"Is it the same thing that's wrong with Apple Bloom?"
  5386. "No, she - she..."
  5387. >That's even harder to explain.
  5388. "I needed her help."
  5389. >"With what?"
  5390. "Taking care of someone."
  5391. >"Who?"
  5392. >"Why not Tree Hugger?" a yellow colt interrupts. "Oh, Mica! Why don't we ask Tree Hugger to visit your aunt!"
  5393. >"Did one of the chickens get hurt?" a white pegasus filly asks, her eyes wide. "Oh, no!"
  5394. >"Nah," Mica answers with a shake of his head. "Mom had me and sis collect their eggs two days ago and they were all there."
  5395. >"Even Petunia?"
  5396. >The chickens have names?
  5397. >"Mhm, her wing is doing fine."
  5398. >One was hurt?
  5399. >Well, you’ve been busy.
  5400. >"Maybe he bought some new animals when he went into town!" the pink one shouts excitedly. "Like a puppy!"
  5401. >A dozen bright, eager eyes turn to you and sparkle.
  5402. >"Is it a puppy!?"
  5403. >How are their eyes doing that!?
  5404. "No, it's... not a puppy..."
  5405. >The thought is physically painful.
  5406. "It's another new pony."
  5407. >Who was mauled by dogs.
  5408. >You hope that puppy thing never gets back to her.
  5409. >"Oh," the pegasus filly sighs with obvious disappointment. "Is she sick?"
  5410. "She's... hurt."
  5411. >"Oh."
  5412. >”Mica’s sister is always hurt,” the other filly says after a minute of awkward silence. “Is it like that?”
  5413. “I hope not.”
  5414. >It better fucking not be.
  5415. >You rub your forehead with one hand.
  5416. “Where is she?”
  5417. >If one of your ponies is hurt, it’s your responsibility.
  5418. >You should… something.
  5419. >”Hematite is in our room,” Mica answers with a sigh. “I tell her she should come out more often and play with us!”
  5420. >”Mhm,” the white filly agrees. “She’ll never get her cutie mark if she stays in their room all the time!”
  5421. >Then there’s only a thin cloth curtain separating you from her.
  5422. >Only a handful of “rooms” have doors.
  5423. >All it would take is for you to reach out your arm and pull it aside.
  5424. >It’s already partially open, but not enough for you to see anything.
  5425. >Something stays your hand, though.
  5426. “Is she…”
  5427. >No, you’re talking to the wrong pony.
  5428. “He –“
  5429. >What did he say?
  5430. >Oh, right.
  5431. “Hematite? Are you okay?”
  5432. >”She’s fine,” Mica answers.
  5433. >You don’t want his answer.
  5434. ”Hematite?”
  5435. >There’s a soft murmur from the other side of the curtain, too soft for you to understand.
  5436. “Can I…”
  5437. >”I’m fine,” comes a tiny voice in response. “I just hurt myself again.”
  5438. “How?”
  5439. >”I fell.”
  5440. >Lauren “fell” a lot too, you remember.
  5441. “Could you… could you could come out here?”
  5442. >”Do I have to?”
  5443. “No, but I’d like to meet you face-to-face.”
  5444. >There are four rapid, awkward thumps and heartbeats later a dark face peers up at you from around the curtain.
  5445. >From under short, rust-orange bangs, a pair of pearlescent grey eyes stare at you in a mixture of impatience and fear.
  5446. >”Hi.”
  5447. >”See?” Mica groans. “She’s *fine.*”
  5448. >Maybe.
  5449. >You crouch down as low as you can and she shuffles back a step.
  5450. “Aren’t you lonely staying in your room all the time?”
  5451. >”Not really.”
  5452. >"I bet the new pony is lonely!" Mica cuts in. “I mean, she only has Apple Bloom to keep her company! You should bring her here! That way we can all help take care of her!"
  5453. >You turn away from Hematite to answer him.
  5454. "I'll talk to her about it."
  5455. >You'll do no such thing.
  5456. >Bringing her here would be a horrible idea.
  5457. >When you turn back, the grey filly has pulled the curtain shut.
  5458. >You sigh and heave yourself back to your feet.
  5459. >"What's her name?"
  5460. "It's... um... I should check on Trixie..."
  5461. >You should get the hell out of here.
  5462. >"Oh, okay," Mica responds with obvious confusion. "She's probably back here..."
  5463. >He shoves past you, and out the back door to the next walkway.
  5464. >Your chance to break free is lost when a herd of tiny ponies bounces alongside you, hemming you in.
  5465. >Well, you should check on Trixie anyway.
  5466. >She probably needs to be rescued from that mare.
  5467. >Anyone who has spent more than five minutes alone with Trixie probably wants to kick her face in.
  5468. >You included, which really makes you question your desire to rescue her.
  5469. >The last hall is the most unchanged.
  5470. >No dividers, no cleared space.
  5471. >Just two rows of cots.
  5472. >Where the other hall had small decorations and personal affects around nearly every cot, this one is practically stark and untouched.
  5473. >A few – very few – have names written over them.
  5474. >"I don't know why some ponies want to live here," Mica says with a little shrug. "If I was an adult, I'd rather live with my friends."
  5475. >"Some ponies just want a little privacy," the pink filly sighs at him.
  5476. >It sounds like they've had this conversation before.
  5477. >"Yeah, but -"
  5478. >The filly rolls her eyes; she already knows what he's going to say.
  5479. >He's cut off by the pegasus bumping her shoulder against his.
  5480. >"Shhh," she hisses in his face. "Don't be so loud."
  5481. >You hadn't realized just how noisy the foals had been until they fall silent.
  5482. >A few get bored and wander off, the rest stay near the door as you walk down the hall towards Trixie.
  5483. >She's crying.
  5484. >The other mare doesn't look like she's done anything, to her though.
  5485. >There’s no signs of a fight, no injuries.
  5486. >The both look up as you approach.
  5487. >You were right - fresh tears pour from Trixie's eyes.
  5488. "What's wrong?"
  5489. >Maybe... maybe you should have let her stay in the house...
  5490. >"T-T –Trixie hasn’t had a place all her own for t-two years."
  5491. >You look at the mare, then at the cot.
  5492. >The other mare gestures towards the wall with her horn – to the freshly carved name over the cot.
  5493. “It’s just a cot.”
  5494. >”But it is Trixie’s.”
  5495. “You had a whole bedroom to yourself last night.”
  5496. >”It’s not the same.”
  5497. >The other mare nods slowly and steps away from the cot.
  5498. >”We should give her a moment,” she says to you, jerking her head toward the door. “And you foals should get back to your projects!”
  5499. >”But he was going to tell us about the other new pony!” Mica whines. “I wanna –“
  5500. >”He’ll tell you later,” the mare sighs. “Go on now.”
  5501. >The foals scatter, giggling, as she waves them off.
  5502. >”So, another new arrival?” she asks, walking slowly towards the door.
  5503. >Your body follows along without any input from you – it’s just nature to walk alongside someone that’s talking to you.
  5504. “Actually, she was here first, but…”
  5505. >You shrug.
  5506. >”Ah.”
  5507. >She pauses in the open walkway between the halls and taps her chin with her hoof.
  5508. >”Ah, okay then.”
  5509. >She’s not actually talking to you – or anyone.
  5510. >”Well…”
  5511. “It’s… um… it’s not favoritism or anything, if that’s what…”
  5512. >”What?”
  5513. >She raises a thick eyebrow.
  5514. >”No, I wasn’t thinking that at all. Well, maybe, in a fashion –“
  5515. “She’s hurt.”
  5516. >”Oh.”
  5517. >Her eyes dart aside before coming back to focus angrily on you.
  5518. >”You didn’t –“
  5519. “No, I didn’t!”
  5520. >”Hmm,” she grunts. “I guess I can believe that. Aside from… you know… you haven’t so much as hit a one of us.”
  5521. >That’s not true, and now that she brought it up, you can’t forget it.
  5522. >Goddammit.
  5523. >”Apple Bloom said we could trust you, and I guess she was right.”
  5524. >The mare shrugs.
  5525. >“So, what happened?”
  5526. “There was… an… incident… when I went into town for the tractor parts.”
  5527. >”And?”
  5528. “And some assholes think it’s fun to cripple and kill ponies.”
  5529. >”I am very well aware of that,” she answers sharply.
  5530. “I… I won’t say that I rescued her, but I did bring her here. Away from him.”
  5531. >”Uh-huh. So why haven’t you let any of us see her?”
  5532. “Apple Bloom has. After all, that’s why she’s been spending the days up at the house.”
  5533. >The mare blinks.
  5534. >”I can do basic math, you know,” she growls. “I’m not an idiot.”
  5535. “What? I needed help, so I asked her –“
  5536. >”You went into town two days after Apple Bloom disappeared up the hill.”
  5537. >Oh.
  5538. >”Look, it’s fine,” the mare sighs. “I know you like her. I mean, if not in *that* way, then at least more than the rest of us.”
  5539. >She shakes her head, trying to dislodge whatever nasty thoughts are stuck there.
  5540. >”I just don’t get the appeal…”
  5541. “Um…”
  5542. >”I’d say something about not telling anypony else, but most everypony has already figured it out on their own so there’s not really any point. It’d be nice if you let us see her every once in a while, though.”
  5543. “It’s not like that at all.”
  5544. >”Just don’t take advantage of her,” the mare says, jabbing a hoof at you accusingly. “She was about to go into season – and don’t you use that as an excuse either! We have a few rooms left!”
  5545. >But… she told Trixie that there weren’t any…?
  5546. “I thought –“
  5547. >She trots out of the open and into the other hall. She waves her forehoof towards the stalls with doors.
  5548. >”If a mare doesn’t want…”
  5549. >She coughs and blushes.
  5550. >”… doesn’t want *attention*, she can spend her season in peace.”
  5551. >Oh.
  5552. >”Only two are occupied right now, so she could –“
  5553. “Two?”
  5554. >”Mhm, there are four more that she –“
  5555. >You don’t listen.
  5556. >There’s a more important question that needs answering.
  5557. >Why did Apple Bloom tell you she was the only mare in heat?
  5558. >You think you know the answer.
  5559. >No, you *know* the answer.
  5560. >You just didn’t think she would lie to you.
  5561. >Honestly, you didn’t think she was capable of lying.
  5562. >”Hey, are you paying attention to me?” the mare growls, nudging your leg with her hoof. “Look, I know you’re used to ignoring us, but it’s just rude when I’m trying to explain something to you.”
  5563. “Sorry.”
  5564. >You shouldn’t be the one apologizing, but something about her posture reminds you of your days in a catholic school with the angry nun teachers.
  5565. >That’s really bad, because you didn’t go to catholic school.
  5566. >What matter is you don’t want to get smacked by a ruler, and everything about her tone and body language says you’re about to be.
  5567. >”Yes, well…”
  5568. >She didn’t expect you to apologize, leaving her flustered.
  5569. >”… um… I guess it’s a lot to take in all at once, particularly since you’ve never even shown any interest before…”
  5570. “Sorry, I just…”
  5571. >”… we’ve been trying to do more than just *survive* here. I still hope to get back to Canterlot someday, but a lot of the others don’t have a home to go back to.”
  5572. “They can rebuild, can’t they?”
  5573. >”Ponyville doesn’t exist anymore.”
  5574. >"It does too!"
  5575. >Little Mica stomps his forehooves; you didn't know such a tiny body could hold so much conviction.
  5576. >The mare groans and rolls her head around to glare at the colt.
  5577. >You get the feeling that this is another oft-repeated argument.
  5578. >"I thought I told you to go back to -"
  5579. >"It *does* exist!" the coal shouts. "It does!"
  5580. >"Okay, fine, it does," the unicorn snaps back. "Now get back to your project or you'll never get your cutie mark."
  5581. >Her surrender does little to calm him, but he backs away with a grimace.
  5582. >"It does exist," he repeats firmly. "Ponyville is real."
  5583. >"Mica..."
  5584. >She stares at him until he takes another reluctant step back.
  5585. "What happened to your catapult?"
  5586. >"Lily and Sky are still working on it," the colt answers, not taking his eyes off the mare. "I just came to see if my sister wanted to play with us but she says no. I don't know why she thinks it's so fun to sit in our room all day!"
  5587. >"A *catapult*? Oh, sun, Sky isn't trying to fly again, is she?" the mare gasps. "And don't you *dare* let your sister anywhere near it! She'll get hurt!"
  5588. >"I'll take care of her!"
  5589. >"Mica! You said the same thing about the raft!"
  5590. >Raft...?
  5591. >You cross your arms and put on your sternest expression.
  5592. "One of these days, you're going to have to tell me what's going on around my farm when I'm not watching."
  5593. >Mica's eyes flicker towards you and he sits down with a huff.
  5594. >"It was just a scratch," he whines. "Seriously!"
  5595. >"And it bled for *days*, Mica," the mare chides. "You know she's sick."
  5596. >"But -"
  5597. >"No buts, my little pony. Stop pushing your sister to do things she doesn't want to do."
  5598. >He stares at the ground in silence for several long seconds.
  5599. >"Well?" the mare pushes.
  5600. >"Fiiiine."
  5601. >"Now go play with your friends."
  5602. >It takes a gentle push from the mare before he rises to his hooves and trots off.
  5603. "She's sick?"
  5604. >"Mhm," the mare answers. "Her blood... it doesn't clot right. The slightest wound continues to bleed for days and days."
  5605. "Oh."
  5606. >"Poor thing has to patch herself up all the time," she continues, giving you a sad, embarrassed smile. "I'm afraid the closest pony we have to a doctor is Tree Hugger, and... well..."
  5607. >She drifts off into a nervous giggle.
  5608. "Good, I guess. I was worried that..."
  5609. >You shrug.
  5610. >It's hard to actually say the words.
  5611. >"I know what you were thinking," the mare mutters sympathetically. "It's almost a textbook example - actually, I'm pretty sure one of my textbooks *did* use an example just like... that's not important."
  5612. "What's wrong with her?"
  5613. >"I don't know."
  5614. >She shrugs apathetically.
  5615. >"Let me just fire up all my fancy scientific medical equipment -"
  5616. >She turns away from you and pushes a few imaginary buttons.
  5617. >"Nope, sorry, results are inconclusive."
  5618. "You forgot to make the beep-boop noises."
  5619. >Sarcasm is contagious.
  5620. >"Oh, of course," the mare gasps, "why didn't I think of that! Want me to run the tests again?"
  5621. "No, I get the point."
  5622. >You awkwardly fiddle with Mica’s card.
  5623. "I should probably punish you for being snarky."
  5624. >"Darn. Are you going to make me brush Apple Bloom's hair? I could try to give her a hooficure. I mean, that's basically what you're having Roma -"
  5625. "Just forget it."
  5626. >"No, I don't think I will forget it,” the mare giggles. “It was fun watching you squirm."
  5627. >You weren't *squirming*!
  5628. >Fidgeting, maybe, but not squirming.
  5629. >She slowly stops laughing as you glare at her.
  5630. >There’s worry in her eyes. Not fear of what you’ll do to her, but fear that she hurt your feelings.
  5631. >"Hematite is the youngest pony here,” she sighs after a moment of silence. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s the lack of magic in this world. Maybe her body didn’t develop properly.”
  5632. >She shrugs helplessly.
  5633. >”It’s… just a theory, and one that doesn’t have any evidence, but I told her to stop taking her suppressants several months ago.”
  5634. >That catches you by surprise; you can’t imagine that shy, little filly going through the same things Maud and Flam did.
  5635. >It’s even more surprising that Mica didn’t recognize what was happening to his aunt.
  5636. >”We haven’t seen any improvement, but she hasn’t gotten any worse,” the mare continues. “I hope you don’t mind.”
  5637. “No, I guess not.”
  5638. >There’s nothing scary about a hurt little filly.
  5639. >”Don’t worry,” the mare rushes to reassure you, “the rest of us –“
  5640. “How old is she?”
  5641. >”Hematite was born right after the… the war started. She’s not even old enough to have seen Ponyville before it was…”
  5642. >She glances around, hunting worriedly for a certain colt.
  5643. “I get it. Go on.”
  5644. >”Of course, most of the fillies and colts here are too young to remember it,” she sighs distractedly, “even the ones born there. But of all of the ponies here, she’s the youngest.”
  5645. “If she’s the youngest, then…”
  5646. >There’s a horrible lurking in the back of your mind. You can’t quite connect the dots, but it’s there.
  5647. >”Right,” the mare sighs, nodding in agreement. “That means no ponies have been born since we came to your world. At least, none of the mares here have given birth.”
  5648. >And there it is.
  5649. >She looks away, her eyes flickering towards one of the stalls with a door.
  5650. >It’s closed – and presumably occupied.
  5651. >”It’s rare for a mare to conceive… and so far none have carried to term. As nice as all… *this*… is…”
  5652. >With a grimace, she waves a hoof, gesturing to the hall.
  5653. >”Nopony wants to bring a new life into this world. I’ve heard from some of the ponies on neighboring farms that your fellow farmers have turned to forced breeding to ‘fix’ this, but –“
  5654. “My uncle never took Hematite to the clinic in town?”
  5655. >She blinks twice, caught by your sudden topic change, but you couldn’t listen to her talk about that.
  5656. >You didn’t have a choice about what happened to Apple Bloom.
  5657. >It wasn’t your fault.
  5658. >But if she continues, you’re worried you might…
  5659. >You aren’t catholic and she’s not a priest, but you still feel the urge to confess and be absolved of what happened to her.
  5660. >The mare frowns and looks down at the ground.
  5661. >”We never told him.”
  5662. >She shrugs, a gesture you mirror.
  5663. “Yeah, that’s understandable.”
  5664. >Apple Bloom’s joy at his death hasn’t been a mystery for a few days.
  5665. “But you trust me, right?”
  5666. >Apple Bloom still does. She knows it wasn’t your fault.
  5667. >The mare shrugs again.
  5668. >”Apple Bloom trusts you. And so does Maud. We trust *them*.”
  5669. “Close enough.”
  5670. >You shuffle your feet nervously, taking a few steps back and just looking around.
  5671. “I could take her in. See if maybe there’s something that could be done.”
  5672. >”Maybe,” the unicorn agrees, nodding towards the door to the second hall, “but I’m the wrong mare to talk to about that.”
  5673. “Yeah, I guess so.”
  5674. >”I – I wouldn’t mind…” a small voice whispers.
  5675. >Hematite looks up at you plaintively, her eyes shimmering in the weak light of the hall.
  5676. >”… but you’ll have to talk to mommy.”
  5677. >”Where did you come from, little one?” the mare asks gently, spinning around to talk to the filly. “Shouldn’t you be – oh, sun! What happened to your leg?”
  5678. >The filly’s entire left foreleg is bandaged up, the cloth already turning a disgusting red.
  5679. >It reminds you all too much of Silver Spoon.
  5680. >Even their coloring isn’t that different, just the mane really.
  5681. >”I scraped it on the road yesterday,” the filly answers. “I was chasing Mica and a tripped and fell.”
  5682. >”And why were you chasing him out there?”
  5683. >Though already soaked, the bandages are neat and tight. And clean.
  5684. >It’s amazing a filly so young could do such a good job of taking care of her own injuries.
  5685. >”I was lonely but none of the other foals wanted to stay inside and play with me.”
  5686. >Hematite looks down and scrapes at the ground with her good foreleg.
  5687. >”And mommy and daddy were too busy, so… I went out. Sorry, Miss Moondancer.”
  5688. >The filly looks up, peering at you through the orange fringe of her mane.
  5689. >”I’d like to go to the clinic, if mommy and daddy are okay with it.”
  5690. “I’ll ask them.”
  5691. >Hematite flashes you a tiny smile.
  5692. >You almost think you hear someone whisper “yay.”
  5693. >The unicorn – Moondancer – echoes the filly’s expression with a miniscule change of her own.
  5694. >It’s not a wide grin or happy smile, but the sudden absence of the constant frown you hadn’t quite noticed before.
  5695. >Despite being so subtle, there’s still a world of difference in the mare’s new expression.
  5696. >She doesn’t thank you, not with words, anyway, but the slight nod she gives you means the same thing.
  5697. “I’ll ask Marble right now, so…”
  5698. >”Wait,” the filly chirps as you start to leave. “I mean, if you don’t mind…”
  5699. “Yes?”
  5700. >”All of the… um… all of the adults are busy and all of my friends are… are outside…”
  5701. >She shuffles timidly, make all the more awkward by her injured leg.
  5702. >”Could you… could you stay a bit longer and tell me a story?”
  5703. “I…”
  5704. >Why not?
  5705. >There’s nothing pressing you have to get done right now.
  5706. >”Apple Bloom said there were humans in Equestria,” the filly mumbles. “Could you tell me about –”
  5707. “No! I mean…”
  5708. >You didn’t serve.
  5709. >There were more than enough volunteers to avoid the necessity of a draft.
  5710. >More than enough humans looking for revenge.
  5711. >You weren’t one of them.
  5712. “… I’ve…”
  5713. >”It’s okay,” Hematite whispers. “I’m sure you’re busy too.”
  5714. >”No, it’s not like that,” Moondancer answers for you, gently patting the filly’s shoulder. “It’s my fault; we’re in the middle of discussing something. He’ll be back when he can.”
  5715. >The mare looks askance at you until you nod.
  5716. >It’s the least you can do to thank her for her rescue.
  5717. “Yeah, I’ll be back when I can.”
  5718. >That brings the smile back to the filly’s face, not as wide as it had been before, but it’s there.
  5719. “Does it have to be a story? You just want someone to spend time with, don’t you?”
  5720. >There should be some old board games stashed somewhere up at the house.
  5721. >”I… guess… All the other foals want to do is go outside and play.”
  5722. >”They never got to go outside before,” Moondancer adds quietly. “Because… you know…”
  5723. “Then how about I bring you some board games? I can play with you when I get a chance, then you can teach your friends.”
  5724. >Her eyes pop open wider than you can imagine.
  5725. >”Really…?”
  5726. “Yeah.”
  5727. >The little pony bounds forward and quickly wraps her forelegs around your calf in a tight hug – as far as she can reach, that is.
  5728. >”yay.”
  5729. >Ah. You weren’t imagining it earlier.
  5730. >”Now let him go, my little pony,” Moondancer tells her, “he needs to speak with your parents.”
  5731. >”But –“
  5732. >You can’t shake her free yourself, partially for fear of hurting her, but also… she’s far stronger than you would have expected of such a fragile filly.
  5733. >Besides, a part of it makes you feel worthy of Apple Bloom’s praise.
  5734. >Maybe not right now – definitely not right now, not so soon after being reminded of what happened to Apple Bloom – but you *will* be.
  5735. >It will take time, but your relationship with your ponies will be like Old Bill and Scootaloo’s.
  5736. >Just like those two, someday your ponies will be *family*.
  5737. >Even as the unicorn tries to coax Hematite into letting go, you understand the oddity of those thoughts.
  5738. >You never wanted to treat them like family before, or even friends, but it’s hard to keep feeling that way with the tiny filly hugging you for all she’s worth.
  5739. >She’s leaving a bloodstain on your jeans, but you don’t mind.
  5740. >When Moondancer finally gets the filly to release her grip and escorts her back to her room, you wait for the mare to return.
  5741. >She wasn’t wrong; you two *were* in the middle of a discussion.
  5742. >You jerk your head towards the front as the unicorn trots back and she nods.
  5743. >The two of you will talk as you walk.
  5744. >By the time you reach the kitchen, you have a new shopping list.
  5745. >Some of it she asked for, some you didn’t need her too.
  5746. >Medical supplies, board games, plywood, among other things.
  5747. >”… and a blackboard would be nice,” Moondancer finishes, gesturing towards the cleared space in the second hall. “It would *really* help out Cheerilee.”
  5748. “I’ll… see what I can do.”
  5749. >It’s already a formidable list.
  5750. >Not as expensive as your last shopping trip, but also not as essential.
  5751. >You look down at the “classroom” and rethink that.
  5752. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”
  5753. >There are a few things you can push back.
  5754. >She keeps walking, passing out into the open space between halls.
  5755. >”I’m glad to hear it,” the mare says, flashing you perhaps the first genuine smile you’ve seen from her. >“Now about the –“
  5756. “One sec.”
  5757. >She nods in understanding as you head towards Marble.
  5758. >The mare is still working on prepping lunch – it takes time to make a meal for so many ponies – but she puts down her knife when she sees you approaching.
  5759. >Briefly, you summarize your conversation with her daughter.
  5760. “So, how about it? Can I take her in?”
  5761. >Marble looks down, letting her mane fall to hide her face and mumbles… something.
  5762. “Could you repeat that?”
  5763. >Mumble.
  5764. “I’ll take that as a maybe.”
  5765. >There’s a little jerk of her head you interpret as a nod.
  5766. “We can talk about this later, after you’ve had a chance to discuss it with her father.”
  5767. >Another little twitch.
  5768. >You look towards the other assistant – she shrugs.
  5769. >Good, at least it’s not just you.
  5770. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
  5771. >Moondancer accompanies you outside, picking up right from where she left off.
  5772. >”Now, about the pony living up at your house. What do you plan to do about her?”
  5773. “Don’t exactly yet. She’s… been through a lot.”
  5774. >”I’m sure she has,” the mare answers, with a clear, unspoken message.
  5775. >They have all been through a lot.
  5776. “We all have.”
  5777. >All of you, not just the ponies.
  5778. >”I know.”
  5779. >The mare sighs and looks off into the distance.
  5780. >”I know,” she repeats. “What happened… it’s not your fault.”
  5781. >”The buck it isn’t!”
  5783. >Be absolutely furious.
  5784. “I can’t believe we let him in there!”
  5785. >”Calm down,” Lyra pleads, idly kicking the ball around between her two forelegs.
  5786. >She’s nervous.
  5787. >You're too angry to care.
  5788. “No, I will not calm down! All we have left is our privacy, and now… and now…”
  5789. >Your marefriend balks in the face of your anger.
  5790. “I used to have a life! WE used to have a life!”
  5791. >”I know, but –“
  5792. “And a house and my candy store! Now all I have is a 60 hour work week –“
  5793. >”That’s actually better than back in Ponyville,” Lyra cuts you off with a weak laugh. “You used to spend all day there, working on –“
  5794. “Working on what *I* wanted to do! What I’m *supposed* to do!”
  5795. >You don’t realize you’re crying until Lyra reaches over and wipes the tears from your cheeks.
  5796. “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve… I’ve…”
  5797. >”I know,” the unicorn sighs. “Maybe we can talk to him. He seems reasonable.”
  5798. “Reasonable!? We live in a *stall*, Lyra! A BUCKING STALL! Like common animals!”
  5799. >She looks down at the ball, unable to meet your eyes.
  5800. >”I know.”
  5801. “We deserve better!”
  5802. >”I’m not arguing that we don’t, just…”
  5803. “Just what!?”
  5804. >”You’re making a scene.”
  5805. “I. Don’t. Care!”
  5806. >You noticed the other ponies looking your direction.
  5807. >Their worried glances aren’t lost on you.
  5808. >”Just… try talking to him, then,” Lyra sighs, her voice cracking. “Just talking. Don’t do anything you’ll regret.”
  5809. >She raises her eyes to gaze into yours.
  5810. >There are tears there.
  5811. >”Don’t do anything *I* will regret.”
  5812. “What do we have to lose, Lyra? Our *stall*?”
  5813. >”Each other.”
  5814. “I –“
  5815. >”Just talk to him,” the unicorn says, grabbing your hoof with hers. “I did, once. He seems… well, a little dumb, but essentially nice.”
  5816. >A tear breaks free, trickling down your marefriend’s face.
  5817. >It doesn’t quench the fire in your heart, but it does… no…
  5818. >You shake your head.
  5819. >She has a point. You don’t want to admit it, you don’t want to accept it, but she has a point.
  5820. “I can’t.”
  5821. >”*Please*.”
  5822. >Now it’s *you* that can’t meet *her* eyes.
  5823. >There’s a cloud just over the horizon that catches your eye.
  5824. >It’s easy to focus on; it looks just like cotton candy.
  5825. “You really think I should talk to him?”
  5826. >The words just slip out; you hadn’t meant to speak.
  5827. >”I think you shouldn’t do anything at all,” Lyra answers with a cracked voice and false smile, “but I know you can’t do that, can you?”
  5828. “I… I can’t. Not anymore.”
  5829. >You watch the cloud drift in the wind until it’s hidden by the dorm.
  5830. “Somepony has to stand up to him.”
  5831. >”Somepony,” the mare pleads. “Not *you*.”
  5832. “I’m somepony, Lyra.”
  5833. >”I know. You’re *my* somepony. My special somepony, please…”
  5834. >You’re still unable to meet her eyes, which means you’re looking in just the right direction when *he* steps out of the dorms.
  5835. >”Please!” Lyra begs as you break into a trot. “Be careful!”
  5836. >You don’t respond, not to her.
  5837. >”What happened…” you hear Moondancer tell him. “It’s not your fault.”
  5838. “The buck it isn’t!”
  5840. >Be caught off guard.
  5841. >Your head snaps around to face the voice.
  5842. >It takes a moment before you realize it came from the earth mare stomping your direction
  5843. >She looking absolutely furious.
  5844. >"It's not his fault, Bon Bon," Moondancer hisses, stepping between you and the oncoming mare. "He's doing his best."
  5845. >Bon Bon - that name sounds familiar.
  5846. >You've heard it before, but you can't remember why.
  5847. >The mare sneers and shakes her head, jostling her cotton-candy mane.
  5848. >"He’s *human*, that makes it his fault," Bon Bon growls. “Now get out of my way. He and I need to have a talk."
  5849. "About?"
  5850. >Neither of the ponies so much as glance in your direction.
  5851. >Fine.
  5852. >You take a step back and cross your arms.
  5853. >If that’s how it’s going to be, you’ll just act the spectator, same as the other ponies.
  5854. >"Things are going better now that he's here," Moondancer snaps, her ears lying flat back against her head. "You *have* to admit that."
  5855. >"As soon as he admits he and those like him stole everything from me!"
  5856. >"He wasn't there!" Moondancer shouts, stomping her hoof. “It wasn’t him!”
  5857. >"I don't care!"
  5858. >"He's doing what he can to help! He's even going to get a chalkboard for Cheerilee -"
  5859. >Bon Bon snorts angrily and twitches her head from side to side.
  5860. >"No, he *says* he's going to get one," the mare growls. "A lot of humans have told us a lot of things."
  5861. >She jabs accusingly at Moondancer with one forehoof.
  5862. >"Didn't the refugee board say something about you getting to work at a university?" Bon Bon snarls. "They told me I'd be making candy, but here I am!"
  5863. >She waves a hoof out towards the fields.
  5864. >”*I* don’t see any candy shops. Do you?”
  5865. >”You knew there was a chance Lyra would find a…” the unicorn’s eyes dart towards you momentarily “… a *sponsor* before you did.”
  5866. >”I didn’t think that would actually happen!” the other mare shouts. “She wasn’t supposed to… to… it’s not important! What matters is he’s human!”
  5867. >"I know, but he's..." Moondancer mumbles, looking away from the other mare to see your face. The conflict raging inside of her is easy to see. "I hope he's different! I believe he is!"
  5868. >"Different from the humans that herded us into those horrible refugee camps?” Bon Bon screams. “How many of your friends did you watch die there?”
  5869. >”Too – too many, but –“
  5871. >She waves a hoof behind her, gesturing to someone or something.
  5872. >”Because of *them*,” the mare continues, “I’m the only one she has, and I’m stuck in this place, taking care of –“
  5873. >She cuts off suddenly, twisting her head around to look over her shoulder fearfully.
  5874. "At least we *tried* to spare the civilians."
  5875. >"What?"
  5876. >Bon Bon snaps back to face you, her anger resurfacing.
  5877. "How many friends *did* you lose, Bon Bon? Because there used to be a town just up the road and... you know what?"
  5878. >You throw your arms out in an exaggerated shrug.
  5879. "There *isn't* anymore!"
  5880. >She takes a step back, your wild gestures catching her by surprise.
  5881. "Eight thousand people just GONE in the blink of an eye, turned to ash and dust, and do you know why?”
  5882. >”Because your kind killed –“
  5883. “Because we wanted a portal nearby so the produce would reach Equestria still fresh from the ground.”
  5884. >”So?” she snorts. “Humans started it!”
  5885. ”I went to school with a lot of them, or their children. One day, they were there, and the next... you ponies killed them."
  5886. >”There wasn’t a choice,” the earth mare barks back. “It was the only way, wasn’t it, Moondancer?”
  5887. >”I – I don’t know,” the unicorn answers hesitantly.
  5888. >”Of course you do! You helped the princess make the portals!” Bon Bon pushes.
  5889. >That can’t be true.
  5890. >You can’t help it; you take your eyes off Bon Bon to see for yourself.
  5891. >It’s true.
  5892. >Even before she responds, you know it’s true.
  5893. >From the way her eyes tremble to the slight dip of her head, everything about her screams that it’s true.
  5894. >”Twilight used some of my theories, that’s all,” Moondancer slowly responds. “Maybe… maybe there was a better way to close the portals. I don’t know! We didn’t mean – I didn’t mean –”
  5895. >"At least it was quick for them,” Bon Bon laughs darkly, “unlike what the humans are doing to us.”
  5896. >She takes another few steps toward you, roughly shouldering Moondancer out of her way.
  5897. >"I live in a *stall*," the mare hisses at you. "Like an animal. And then one day, you'll take me up that hill, won't you? What did you do to Apple Bloom? What are you going to do to the rest of us?"
  5898. "Apple Bloom is fine. I didn't do anything to her."
  5899. >"Then why can’t I believe you? "
  5900. >She takes another step toward you, her face contorted in rage.
  5901. >You've seen that expression before.
  5902. >Twice.
  5903. >Once on Maud, once on Flam.
  5904. >No, three times – you also saw it on some of the men and women marching to war.
  5905. >She's lost to her anger.
  5906. >"If I'm going to die here, I might as well deserve it!"
  5907. >The mare bounds forward before Moondancer can react.
  5908. >Two, three hoofbeats.
  5909. >Four.
  5910. >Briefly, you wonder if this is what it was like for your uncle.
  5911. >Did he have time to wonder where he had screwed up?
  5912. >Five.
  5913. >Did Bon Bon go off her pills, too?
  5914. >You should have been more careful. You should have been making sure they were taking them.
  5915. >Six.
  5916. >The mare rears up, her hooves poised to kick.
  5917. >If she’s anything like Maud, one blow is all it will take to stave in your ribcage.
  5918. >Her hooves start to kick out.
  5919. >Seven.
  5920. >She’s not running anymore.
  5921. >Those aren’t hoofbeats you’re hearing. It’s the sound of your heart.
  5922. >Eight.
  5923. >Strange.
  5924. >You don’t think your heart is beating.
  5925. >You can’t move a muscle.
  5926. >Nine.
  5927. >Ten.
  5928. >Silence.
  5929. >Eleven.
  5930. >A green blur launches itself into the air on its last step.
  5931. >It slams into Bon Bon as her hooves lash out, knocking the mare down before they can connect.
  5932. >Twelve.
  5933. >Your heart starts beating again.
  5934. >”No!” the mint-green unicorn screams, holding the other mare down. “Don’t!”
  5935. >She twists her head around to look at you, tears flowing freely from her eyes.
  5936. >Bon Bon tries to take advantage of the unicorn’s distraction, but can’t break free of her insane strength.
  5937. >”She didn’t touch you!” the green mare shouts. “You can’t punish her! Please!”
  5938. >The earth pony struggles and screams futilely.
  5939. >She’s still on her suppressants, you realize, just too angry to think.
  5940. >There’s no way the mint-green unicorn could hold Bon Bon if she wasn’t.
  5941. >”Please,” the unicorn begs. “She’s all I have left.”
  5942. >And then it clicks, how you recognize the earth pony’s name when you barely knew *any* of them.
  5943. >”Bon Bon is all I have,” the unicorn repeats. “You can’t… you can’t…”
  5944. “I know. Don’t worry, I’m not going to punish Bon Bon.”
  5945. >The earth mare freezes mid-kick.
  5946. >”What.”
  5947. "I said I’m not going to punish you."
  5948. >You nod towards the green mare.
  5949. >As soon as Bon Bon stopped struggling, the unicorn had wrapped her legs around her in a tight, desperate hug.
  5950. “I didn't recognize you until *she* showed up.”
  5951. >Never try to separate those two, the farmhands had warned you before they left.
  5952. >The green one will panic.
  5953. >"Don't - don't you dare threaten my friend!" Bon Bon screeches as you drop down in a crouch.
  5954. "I'm not."
  5955. >She flinches as you raise your hand.
  5956. "And I'm not threatening you, either."
  5957. >She squeaks when you bop her head with Mica's card.
  5958. "I'm trying to help."
  5959. >You’ll prove yourself worthy of Apple Bloom’s trust.
  5960. >Someday, you’ll become the person she thinks you are.
  5961. >”Then why… why haven’t you freed us?”
  5962. “Because you aren’t slaves.”
  5963. >”You made Maud –“
  5964. >“That wasn’t his idea,” Moondancer cuts in, stumbling over to your side, “and she volunteered.”
  5965. >You give her a brief nod in thanks.
  5966. “Like I said, you’re not slaves. You’re just stuck here, same as me.”
  5967. >You sigh and look around at the other ponies.
  5968. “I don’t blame any of you for what happened to my friends.”
  5969. >You don’t miss the way Moondancer abruptly looks away.
  5970. “No, not even you. It sounds like you barely had anything to do with making the portals.”
  5971. >”But I –“
  5972. “You didn’t have a thing to do with what *she* did with them.”
  5973. >The unicorn nods, though she doesn’t meet your eyes again.
  5974. “What happened… it wasn’t your fault.”
  5975. >”I know,” Moondancer whispers.
  5976. “As for what happened to your homes…”
  5977. >You sigh and look back to Bon Bon.
  5978. “… I hope you don’t blame me for that.”
  5979. >Her face is impassive, completely ignoring the sobbing mare on top of her.
  5980. >You flinch involuntarily.
  5981. >Whatever their relationship is, it isn’t healthy.
  5982. >Not even you can ignore a crying woman like that.
  5983. >”We still don’t have a home,” the mare says dully.
  5984. “I can’t give you back your old home, and I can’t just give you a new one. The farm won’t support it.”
  5985. >You grimace internally.
  5986. >That shopping list is growing more expensive by the second.
  5987. “What I *can* do is help you build a new home.”
  5988. >You look back up to the others.
  5989. “We’ve got the slow season coming up. I don’t know what uncle had you do during that time, but I think we have something more important to take care of.”
  5990. >”What exactly are you saying?” Moondancer asks, her hope clear in her voice.
  5991. “I’m saying that if you all are willing to put in the time and effort, how about we start getting some proper housing put together?”
  5992. >Slowly she smiles.
  5993. “Well, what do you say? I can’t do it alone.”
  5994. >You give a little shrug.
  5995. “I’m shit with a hammer.”
  5996. >There’s a moment of silence, followed by a sea of nodding heads.
  5997. >Not all of them, though.
  5998. >Not every pony believes you.
  5999. >”What about those of us that’re meant for other things?” a turquoise pegasus snarls. “I mean, I can’t use a hammer either, so where does that leave me?”
  6000. >She beats her wings once, a half-remembered gesture from a life before the farm – a life when she could still fly.
  6001. >The mare flinches as your eyes meet hers.
  6002. “If you don’t want to be here, I’m sure I can find a buyer for your contract in town.”
  6004. >Your legs are wobbling as you walk back up the hill.
  6005. >That was close.
  6006. >Too close.
  6007. >She actually tried to kick you.
  6008. >Not even Maud did that.
  6009. >Adrenaline and righteous anger can only keep you brave and upright for so long; there’s a tremor in your hand as you reach for the doorknob and twist it open.
  6010. >The house is dark and silent.
  6011. >An empty living room stands is silent save the ticking of the wall clock; the dining room has long-since been abandoned.
  6012. “Lauren?”
  6013. >Her truck is still outside.
  6014. “Hey! Lauren!?”
  6015. >She’s still here. Somewhere.
  6016. >Maybe she went back to sleep.
  6017. >That would be nice; she doesn’t need to be around for this.
  6018. >Your legs are close to giving out; it feels like the rest of you already has.
  6019. >Alone, you slump into the sofa, head clutched between both hands.
  6020. >You kept everything together until you got back to the house, but now…
  6021. >It’s just too much.
  6022. >You need a minute, or a lifetime.
  6024. >Be scared.
  6025. >You were goin’ to fetch Silver some water when you saw him sittin’ in the livin’ room.
  6026. >Somethin’ ‘bout him made you hover in the hall, all ‘fraid to go in.
  6027. >You don’t know how long he’s been sittin’ like that, but it has you scared.
  6028. >Anywhere ‘tween a minute and a lifetime, you know that much.
  6029. >What you don’t know is the why.
  6030. >You want to walk over to him, put your leg around him, ask what’s wrong… but that ain’t your place.
  6031. >He’s made that clear enough.
  6032. >You know you should just walk away, but you’re hooves don’t seem to be workin’ right.
  6033. >Against your will, you take a step towards him, then another.
  6034. >You try not to make any noise, but you also tried to walk away.
  6035. >Neither of those things happened.
  6036. >He raises his head slowly, so very slowly.
  6037. >You want to run for it, to run back to your room or Silver’s and hide.
  6038. >Way he’s movin’, you think he wants you to, too.
  6039. >He’s givin’ you a chance.
  6040. >You don’t take it.
  6041. >When his eyes meet yours, you wish you had.
  6042. “What’s… what’s wrong…?”
  6043. >You take another step towards him.
  6044. >Missed your chance to be a coward, now you gotta be brave.
  6045. >Don’t have a choice in the matter.
  6046. >”It’d be easier to ask what *isn’t*,” he answers with a sigh. “Where’s Lauren?”
  6047. >*Her.*
  6048. >Your body shudders, hearin’ her name comin’ from his lips.
  6049. “Ah don’t know.”
  6050. >He glances towards the stairs and sighs again.
  6051. “Need me to find her for you?”
  6052. >He doesn’t answer immediately, the silence stretchin’ out ‘til you’re worried it’ll never end.
  6053. >”No,” he finally answers. “This has nothing to do with her.”
  6054. >When his eyes flicker back to you, they’re colder n’ the dead of winter.
  6055. >”You really want to know what happened?” he snarls.
  6056. >Your eager nod brings a sneer to his face before it brings any answers.
  6057. >”Fine,” he grunts. “I’ll fucking tell you.”
  6059. >Be utterly despondent.
  6060. >You tried to give her a chance to leave.
  6061. >She wouldn’t take it.
  6062. >This isn’t your fault.
  6063. “One of the mares attacked me, girl.”
  6064. >Apple Bloom gasps, covering her mouth with a hoof.
  6065. >”You didn’t –“
  6066. “No, I didn’t do anything to her. I just…”
  6067. >You fling your arms into the air.
  6068. ”I just let her go!”
  6069. >Apple Bloom’s relieved sigh catches in her throat.
  6070. ”I didn’t do a damn thing to her, and you know why?”
  6071. >”N-no.”
  6072. “Because at least she was honest with me.”
  6073. >The mare takes a quick step back.
  6074. >Another sigh escapes your mouth.
  6075. >”Ah –“
  6076. “Shut it, Apple Bloom. I can’t deal with this right now.”
  6077. >It was such a small thing, such a little lie. It shouldn’t be a big deal.
  6078. >One of the mares had to do it, but you can’t convince yourself it didn’t matter which one.
  6079. >It didn’t have to be her.
  6080. >It didn’t have to be your friend.
  6081. >You don’t know if you want to scream or cry.
  6082. “Go back to your room.”
  6083. >You can’t look at her anymore.
  6084. >”But… I….”
  6085. >It hurts too much.
  6086. “Fine. Stay here, then.”
  6087. >You heave yourself to your feet, but they just stand there.
  6088. >They don’t carry you away from all this like you had hoped.
  6089. >For some reason, they demand instructions before they can walk away.
  6090. >You don’t know if you have it in you to make any more decisions, today or ever.
  6091. >More importantly, you don’t know if you should.
  6092. >They never end well.
  6093. >You decided not to break the deal with Steffords. You decided to take in Silver Spoon. You decided to help your ponies.
  6094. >The farm can’t afford what you promised them.
  6095. >There’s no way, not on top of Silver Spoon’s care and everything else.
  6096. >You can’t even quit and just *leave*.
  6097. >Not because your family wouldn’t stand for it, but because the last time you tried that, Lauren –
  6098. >She never broke free of her father.
  6099. >You run a hand across your scalp.
  6100. “I’m…”
  6101. >You risk a glance at the mare.
  6102. >That was a mistake.
  6103. “I can’t look at you right now.”
  6104. >Every time you do, all you can think about are her screams.
  6105. >She’s quiet now, not even moving a muscle, but you can still hear her screaming.
  6106. >Why couldn’t she be like this *then*?
  6107. >You’re not even looking at her, but you can only see the terrified look in her eyes as you tightened the strap around her barrel.
  6108. “Go away, girl.”
  6109. >It’s not your fault. It’s not. She’s the one that said she was the only mare in season.
  6110. >”W-why…?”
  6111. >The tremble in her voice breaks your heart.
  6112. >She shouldn’t be scared of you, not like that.
  6113. “Because it didn’t have to be you.”
  6114. >”What didn’t have to be me?” she asks, slowly walking towards you.
  6115. >You can barely hear the hoofsteps over her screaming.
  6116. “It didn’t have to be you on that stand.”
  6117. >A hoof reaches out to touch your leg, gently yet firmly.
  6118. >She’s trying to reassure you, but you don’t deserve that kindness.
  6119. >”It weren’t your fault,” the mare whispers. “It weren’t nopony’s –“
  6120. “You lied to me.”
  6121. >Apple Bloom answers your accusation with silence.
  6122. >There's no impassioned denial, no rational explanation, not even an apology.
  6123. >You had expected those. Hoped for them, even.
  6124. >Even the flimsiest excuse would have been enough for you.
  6125. >*Anything* to handwave this away, to pretend it didn’t happen.
  6126. >Anything, so long as you can pretend she didn’t lie to you.
  6127. >And more importantly, so you can pretend you didn’t do that to her.
  6128. >Her hoof remains on your leg.
  6129. >You want to walk away, but you can’t. Your feet won’t move.
  6130. >You want to simply give up and *leave*.
  6131. >Leave the room. Leave the farm. Leave Apple Bloom and Lauren and Silver Spoon and just let them all just be someone else’s problem.
  6132. >Why can’t it just be someone else’s problem for once?
  6133. >Why can’t you just *walk away*?
  6134. >Your chest heaves as you let out a stuttering sigh.
  6135. “Apple Bloom, I…”
  6136. >It never works.
  6137. >The situation never gets better.
  6138. >You… you aren’t the cause.
  6139. >It’s not your fault.
  6140. >Leaving won’t solve anything.
  6141. “…I know… I know that my uncle was an asshole. I know that it’s hard for some ponies to trust humans, but you?”
  6142. >You pause for a heartbeat… one that your heart decides to skip.
  6143. “I thought you trusted me.”
  6144. >You have to stay.
  6145. >”Ah do.”
  6146. >You have to fix things.
  6147. “And I… I’m trying to be worthy of that trust.”
  6148. >You have to make them better. For everyone.
  6149. “I’m not there yet.”
  6150. >She begged you not to do it.
  6151. >”You are.”
  6152. “No, I’m not.”
  6153. >If only you had listened then.
  6154. >You shake your head sadly.
  6155. “I’m trying to be, but I’m not.”
  6156. >She trusted you to treat her well. To take care of her. To be her friend.
  6157. >”You *are!*”
  6158. “Then why can’t you just tell me the truth!”
  6159. >Again, she answers you with silence.
  6160. >As silent as she can be when she’s still screaming in the barn.
  6161. "Well? Aren't you going to say anything?"
  6162. >Please say something, you silently add. Anything to drown out the screams.
  6163. >Slowly, she withdraws her hoof.
  6164. >"It... it weren't our fault..."
  6165. "You *lied* to me!"
  6166. >"It had to be done," she mumbles. "You n' me, we didn't have a choice."
  6167. "We had choices!"
  6168. >The sound of the lamp smashing onto the floor makes you jump; you hadn't even realized you'd swept it off the sidetable until then.
  6169. >The spinning fragments bounce once before coming to a rest.
  6170. >You watch in silence.
  6171. >It was your great-grandmothers. It had been in the family for almost as long as this farm.
  6172. >You don't care.
  6173. >"Weren’t no choice," Apple Bloom whispers as your eyes drift away. "You had a deal. You had to."
  6174. "It didn't have to be you, though."
  6175. >You raise your hands to cover your face, your fingers digging painfully into your skin.
  6176. >"Who else coulda done it?"
  6177. "Oh, I don’t know. Maybe one of the *other* mares who's currently in heat?"
  6178. >Silence.
  6179. >Screams.
  6180. "Well!?"
  6181. >The top of the sidetable splits as you slam your fist down on it.
  6182. >You don’t feel any pain.
  6183. >Not physically.
  6184. >Emotionally, it’s practically all you feel.
  6185. >Pain… and anger.
  6186. "Why didn't you tell me about them!?"
  6187. >"They... they didn't want to go through that…"
  6188. "And you did!?"
  6189. >The sidetable is suddenly in your hands.
  6190. >And then… it simply *isn't*.
  6191. >With a crash, it slams into something on the other side of the room.
  6192. >You don’t care what.
  6194. >"No! Ah -"
  6195. "Oh, did you fucking *WANT* to be strapped down and raped?"
  6196. >The wall nearest doesn’t fare well against your fist, leaving a crater of broken blaster.
  6197. "Because if that’s the case, there’s a place in town that would fucking LOVE to own you!"
  6198. >"Ah - Ah didn't!"
  6199. “You sure about that, Apple Bloom? Because you marched right up to that fucking stand all on your own last time!”
  6200. >”Ah had to,” she answers, before repeating it again, softer, pleadingly. “Ah *had* to.”
  6201. "Why!? You think I wanted to do that to you!?"
  6202. >"Ah don't think you wanted to do that to *anypony*!" Apple Bloom screams. "You're a good man; you don't want to hurt nopony!"
  6204. >Be jolted awake.
  6205. >You hear screaming.
  6206. >His mare is screaming.
  6207. >Relief washes over you.
  6208. >You’re glad you’re awake.
  6209. >She’s been in your dreams far too often as of late.
  6210. >It takes you a second to realize you aren’t dreaming anymore.
  6211. >You’re awake and she’s still screaming.
  6213. >Be helpless.
  6214. >The voices are getting louder and there is nothing you can do.
  6215. >You hope they don’t come for you.
  6216. >You also hope they do.
  6218. >Be incandescent.
  6219. "But do you think I wanted to do that to *you*?"
  6220. >You slam your hand into the wall again.
  6222. >"W-what do you mean...?"
  6224. >Be… you don’t know what you are.
  6225. "W-what do you mean...?"
  6226. >He cares about you.
  6227. >You know he does.
  6228. >He’s angry because he cares.
  6229. >"I mean..." he grunts, pushin’ his forehead against the wall. "I mean... I needed you.”
  6230. >You take step towards him.
  6231. >In his fury, he’d moved away from you. Even as angry as he was, he didn’t wanna hurt you.
  6232. >The table missed you. Barely, but it missed you.
  6233. >He weren’t *tryin’* to hit you. He don’t wanna hurt you.
  6234. >He don’t wanna hurt nopony.
  6235. >”I needed you, Apple Bloom,” he repeats slowly. “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing without you.”
  6236. >His fists clench and unclench.
  6237. “Ah –“
  6238. >”You’re my forepony. I needed you in the fields."
  6239. “O-oh.”
  6240. >You knew better than to hope, but it still hurts.
  6241. >His hands slam into the wall again.
  6242. >You’re just his forepony.
  6243. >He don’t know his knuckles are split and bleedin’.
  6244. >He don’t care how much you care for him.
  6245. >Involuntarily, you take a step back, followed by another as his head twitches in your direction.
  6246. >"I don't give a fuck about the other ponies, but you?"
  6247. >He straightens, brushin’ a hand across his forehead to shake off plaster dust – and leaving a red streak in its place.
  6248. >"I *need* you. I *trusted* you?”
  6249. >His head drops as rapid footsteps pound on the stairs.
  6250. >"Go back upstairs, Lauren," he says, not even lookin’ up to see the woman's horrified expression. "This isn’t your problem."
  6251. >"… the heck happened!?" she gasps, frozen in place only a few steps down.
  6252. >Her eyes dart rapidly ‘tween you n' him, almost as fast as her breathin’.
  6253. >"It's none of your business. Now go upstairs."
  6254. >She swallows visibly and puts her hand on the bannister.
  6255. >The two of ‘em remain frozen that way until she finds her courage.
  6256. >Lauren takes another step, wobbling slightly as her legs almost give out.
  6258. >"I'm pretty sure it does," Lauren says firmly, takin’ another. “Looks like you two were gettin’ into it. What’s goin’ on?”
  6259. >"You want to know?” he snarls, smackin’ the wall again with the palms of his hands. “Do you *really* fucking want to know!?”
  6260. >”You better tell me ‘fore I get down there.”
  6261. >”She *lied* to me!”
  6262. >Lauren freezes, leanin’ heavy on the bannister.
  6263. >You don’t think it’s surprise stoppin’ her, not the way she’s havin’ trouble stayin’ upright.
  6264. >She’s hurtin’, that much is obvious.
  6265. >He didn’t do that, did he?
  6266. >He couldn’t have, but you ain’t never seen him angry like this before.
  6267. >It has you terrified, too afraid to speak, too afraid to run.
  6268. >”Who cares?” the woman fires back, “Get over it.”
  6269. >”Apple Bloom lied to me! She’s always going on about her sister and how important family is, so…”
  6270. >He throws his hands out wide and shrugs violently.
  6271. >”Well, what would her sister have to say about that!?”
  6272. >She’d say you did the right thing for the wrong reasons.
  6273. >You did it to protect the others.
  6274. >That brings a little smile to your face, because you can almost believe it.
  6275. >”Without havin’ known her sister, I imagine she’d be awful disapproving,” Lauren rumbles menacin’ly, gingerly takin’ another step, “but even less so of what you’re doin’ now.”
  6276. >The woman winces as she puts her weight on her foot, but that doesn’t stop her from takin’ another.
  6277. >”You don’t get it, Lauren!”
  6278. >”I guess not, but I don’t need to. Either you calm down or I’m comin’ down.”
  6279. >“What I did to her...”
  6280. >He snorts in amusement.
  6281. >”… what WE did to her…”
  6282. >He breaks off in full-blown laughter.
  6283. >”Well, guess what, Lauren! She fucking *wanted* it!"
  6284. >”Bullshit!”
  6285. >”She *WANTED* us to tie her up and let her –“
  6287. >”She told me she was the only mare in heat, just so she could be the one plowed by –“
  6289. >”AND SHE’S NOT THE ONLY ONE!” he shouts back, bashing a new hole in the wall. “IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE HER!”
  6290. >Lauren’s steps falter.
  6292. >”This true, girl?” the woman gasps, looking at you in horror. “Please, tell me it ain’t.”
  6293. “It… it…”
  6294. >Her eyes look just like your sister’s.
  6295. >Deep and green.
  6296. > - and scared, just like you’d last seen her.
  6297. “Ah was just tryin’ to keep ‘em… keep ‘em safe!”
  6298. >You can’t lie to her.
  6299. >To yourself, but not to her.
  6300. >You tried, but you can’t.
  6301. “... and… Ah… Ah’m all alone. Ah thought – Ah just wanted –“
  6302. >"See?" he snarls viciously, wavin’ a hand in your direction. "She was just *lonely*!”
  6303. ”No! Ah –“
  6304. >“Just a filthy slut."
  6305. >"Don't you call her that," Lauren growls. "Don't you *dare*."
  6306. >”Well, am I wrong?” he laughs. “She walked right up to the stand and lifted her tail so her br –“
  6308. >He laughs again, rubbin’ his forehead with one hand.
  6309. >”Of course you’d jump to defend her,” he chuckles. “I shouldn’t have expected anything else.”
  6310. >”No, you shouldn’t have. Don’t make this her fault!”
  6312. >You wish you could.
  6313. >It would be so simple.
  6315. >"WELL, NEITHER DID WE!” he screams back, his fists clenched so tight they’re burning white, even under the plaster and blood. “SHE LIED TO US! SO WHOSE FAULT IS THIS, IF IT ISN’T HIS AND IT ISN’T OURS?"
  6316. “It ain’t –“
  6317. >"IT’S HERS!"
  6318. “No, it ain’t nopony’s –“
  6320. “… ain’t… ain’t nopony’s…”
  6321. >"IT’S ALL HER FAULT!"
  6322. >His head twitches in your direction, stoppin’ just ‘fore he can see you.
  6323. >With a sigh, he shudders, his whole body shaking with pent up rage.
  6324. >“No,” Lauren whispers, takin’ another step. “It… it…”
  6325. >His head snaps up with a predatory growl that makes your legs quaver.
  6326. "It’s. All. Her. Fault."
  6327. >The woman freezes as his eyes fall on her.
  6328. >He doesn’t say anything more as she covers her mouth with her hand and turns pale as his knuckles.
  6329. >"You… you can’t say that."
  6330. >"But it’s true," he snarls back. “It’s her fault.”
  6331. >His shoulders slump as he twists his head around to stare at you, lookin’ for all the world like the men that came to Ponyville.
  6332. >Not his clothes nor his face, but his expression.
  6333. >His expression is dead on.
  6334. >He looks just like Flam, before -
  6336. >Be horrified by what you’ve become.
  6337. >The feeling doesn’t last long.
  6338. >Apple Bloom takes one step away from you, then another.
  6339. “It wasn’t my fault!”
  6340. >She has to understand.
  6341. >You step towards the retreating mare, sending her scrambling backwards, stumbling over the ruins splintered sidetable.
  6342. >It almost hit her.
  6343. >You hadn’t realized that.
  6344. >Something akin to regret and shame rises in your mind, but the anger in your heart snuffs it out.
  6345. >Apple Bloom frantically scrambles backwards and loses her balance.
  6346. >She falls heavily on her side.
  6347. “I wish it had been any of the other ponies, girl. It didn’t have to be you!”
  6348. >”Ah… Ah… Ah don’t mind!” she screams, trying to get back to her hooves and crawl away from you at the same time.
  6349. >She succeeds at neither.
  6350. “Don’t mind?”
  6351. >You snort loudly, your entire body jerking in dark amusement.
  6352. “Hear that, Lauren? She doesn’t fucking mind!”
  6353. >Apple Bloom whimpers as you step closer.
  6354. “All that screaming, all that begging, and she DOESN’T MIND!”
  6355. >You shudder at the memory of her screams.
  6357. >Lying on her back, the mare shakes her head frantically.
  6359. >”No!”
  6361. >She’s still shaking her head, her eyes tightly shut.
  6362. >“My brother is dead!” she screams. “He’s dead!”
  6364. >”HE’S DEAD! I SAW HIM DIE!”
  6366. >”He’s dead!” the mare repeats, sobbing and curling up on herself. “He’s dead!”
  6368. >You take another step, bringing the mare within reach.
  6369. >With amusement, you notice she’s shielding her belly with her legs, like it fucking matters.
  6370. >Even if she is pregnant, the foal will be worthless.
  6371. >Inbred trash, just like she probably is.
  6373. >Apple Bloom screams, trying to turn to shield herself as you pull back your leg.
  6374. >” – YOU –“
  6375. >You hesitate.
  6376. >You don’t know why.
  6377. >This is all her fault.
  6378. >Everything.
  6379. >Everything that’s happened.
  6380. >Everything from the barn to Maud, everything has been her suggestion.
  6381. >She deserves to be punished.
  6382. “It… it didn’t have to be you!”
  6383. >The mare whimpers and curls tighter.
  6384. >You’re giving her a chance to explain herself.
  6385. >Why won’t she just take it?
  6386. “It could have been one of the other mares in season!”
  6387. >”T-they didn’t want –“
  6389. >With a shudder, you scream wordlessly.
  6391. >Another shudder wracks your body.
  6392. “I HAD YOU!”
  6393. >"It didn't have to be any of them, you jackass!” you dimly hear Lauren shout, followed by the sound of bare feet hitting wood. “A mare's season can be induced, you know!"
  6394. "No."
  6395. >You shouldn’t hurt your own property.
  6396. "I didn't know."
  6397. >An injured pony can’t work.
  6398. >You turn towards the stairs, towards Lauren as she hits the floor running.
  6399. >If only you had known.
  6400. >Thoughts of the other mares you had seen and spoken to flash through your mind.
  6401. >Moondancer, Roma, Marble… even Bon Bon.
  6402. >Could you have handled their screams any better than Apple Bloom’s?
  6403. >No, she’s wrong.
  6404. >Whoever it had been on that stand, whichever mare you had chosen…
  6405. >… they still would have screamed.
  6406. >You wouldn’t have found a willing mare.
  6407. >She is *wrong*.
  6408. >It doesn’t matter.
  6409. >Your hand comes up all on its own as Lauren closes.
  6410. >It had to be one of them, but it didn’t have to be Apple Bloom.
  6411. >It didn’t have to be *her*.
  6412. >It could have been any of the other mares.
  6413. >Just. Not. Her.
  6414. >Your backhand slap knocks Lauren to the floor.
  6415. >She… she was tougher than that, you thought, but she’s on the floor… on her hands and knees, huddled over Apple Bloom.
  6416. >”Ain’t her fault you didn’t ask,” the woman mumbles, dipping her head and pressing her forehead against the mare’s. “Don’t blame her none for your bein’ an idiot.”
  6417. “And… and what…?”
  6418. >Your hand stings.
  6419. >It’s distracting.
  6420. “Even if… if I had known…”
  6421. >It hurts.
  6422. “I’m just supposed to pick a mare to be raped? How’s that supposed to be any better!?”
  6423. >It would have been, though.
  6424. >Shouldn’t be, but it would have been.
  6425. >"Yeah, it sucks,” Lauren whispers, just loud enough for you to hear, “but that’s what this shit world is. Just a series of bad choices.”
  6426. >You should… you should… something.
  6427. >You don’t know.
  6428. >Your hand hurts. They *both* hurt.
  6429. >You’re exhausted.
  6430. “If that’s all it is, then we should just walk away.”
  6431. >“We can’t. All we can do is pick the lesser of two evils and just pray things get better someday.”
  6432. "Maybe you have a point.”
  6433. >She shudders at the malice in your words.
  6434. “If I'd had Silver Spoon then, it could have been her strapped to that breeding stand."
  6435. >She wouldn’t have screamed.
  6436. "It should have been her."
  6437. >"Because that's all she is to you?" Lauren accuses, rising to your bait. "Is she supposed to be your little fucktoy!? Is that why you 'rescued' her!?"
  6438. >You sigh as the woman twists her head to glare at you.
  6439. >Two furious green eyes bore into you.
  6440. "No."
  6441. >You sigh again.
  6442. >It really should have been Silver Spoon.
  6443. "Because she wouldn't have screamed."
  6444. >The calmness of your answer shocks her, knocks the anger right out of her.
  6445. >"No," Lauren agrees softly, shutting her eyes. "She wouldn't have. But she deserves better than that."
  6446. >She slumps, hugging Apple Bloom tightly.
  6447. >”We all do.”
  6448. >Not “they,” you notice. “We.”
  6449. >You sigh again and look at your hands, because you can’t look at those two anymore.
  6450. >Blood slowly wells up from split knuckles, dripping down your hands.
  6451. >It…
  6452. >You glance up at Lauren and Apple Bloom, but they’re both turned away from you.
  6453. >It might not all be yours.
  6454. >You giggle softly.
  6455. >The only person in this house you *haven’t* hurt is Silver Spoon, and here you are talking about how she should have been force bred just because she wouldn’t have screamed.
  6456. "You're right."
  6457. >You’re a monster.
  6458. "She does deserve better."
  6459. >At least you aren’t the only one.
  6460. >Silver Spoon shouldn’t be in this house with the rest of you.
  6461. >Lauren flinches as you step towards her and Apple Bloom, but you walk right past the pair and out of the room.
  6463. >Be in pain.
  6464. >You try to ignore it.
  6465. >So long as she doesn’t get hurt, it’s all –
  6466. >He walks past you without pause.
  6467. >Your head snaps up in time to see him walk out of the room.
  6468. ”Where are you going!?”
  6469. >He’s going after Silver.
  6470. >You know it.
  6471. >His boots stop clicking on the floor, but there’s a long, drawn out silence before he answers.
  6472. >”You’re wrong, Lauren,” he sighs. “We can’t just wait and pray for things to get better.”
  6473. “What are you going to do!?”
  6474. >”Funny, isn’t it? In this place full of monsters, the whore is the most innocent.”
  6476. >Be calm.
  6477. >You hear footsteps.
  6478. >He’s coming for you now.
  6479. >You won’t fight it, not this time.
  6480. >Even if your courage fails you, your body *can’t*.
  6482. >Be scared.
  6483. >More scared than you had been when he was comin’ for you, because now he’s *leavin’*.
  6484. >He’s walkin’ away from you.
  6485. >You can’t let him.
  6486. >He’s gonna leave and never come back.
  6487. "WAIT!"
  6488. >"Why?” he sighs. “Are you ready to go back to the others?"
  6489. "N-no."
  6490. >There’s another ominous silence, broken by another long sigh.
  6491. >"Then maybe I should make Silver Spoon my new forepony."
  6492. >"I love Silver n' all," Lauren responds, starin’ at the hall, "but look at her cutie mark!"
  6493. >"Yeah, it's a spoon,” he sighs. “So what? Apple Bloom has a fucking shield.”
  6494. >You can practically hear him shrug.
  6495. >”A fucking *shield*, Lauren. What the fuck does that have to do with farming?"
  6496. >”I’m not the one to ask.”
  6497. >Two green eyes stare down at you.
  6498. >”Well?” she whispers.
  6499. “It… it ain’t got nothin’ to do with farmin’.”
  6500. >The woman’s eyes widen.
  6501. >”But…” she gasps softly, “the apple…?”
  6502. >You shake your head from side to side slowly.
  6503. >He sighs again. There’s a thump as he falls against the wall.
  6504. >”Well? What *does* it stand for?”
  6505. “It… it’s about…”
  6506. >”Hurry it up, girl.”
  6507. “… helping other ponies find their cutie marks.”
  6508. >You expect a sigh… a shout… something.
  6509. >”Well, that’s fucking worthless, isn’t it?” he groans. “How does that make you a better farmer?”
  6510. >”She… that’s…”
  6511. >”Shut up, Lauren.”
  6512. >Something thumps against the wall again.
  6513. >”None of the foals have their cutie marks, Apple Bloom,” he sighs. “So what are you except a failure?”
  6514. “I’m… I’m not!”
  6515. >It’s not your fault.
  6516. >This world doesn’t have any magic.
  6517. >You *tried*.
  6518. >"Then you’re a liar."
  6519. >There’s another sigh.
  6520. >You hesitate.
  6521. >The sharp click of his boots on the floor spurs you on.
  6522. “No, Ah –“
  6523. >He keeps walkin’.
  6524. >You hesitated too long.
  6525. >Fearfully, you look up at the woman bend over you.
  6526. “What’s he gonna do?”
  6527. >”I don’t know,” Lauren grimaces. “I ain’t never seen him like this.”
  6528. >She lets go of you and struggles to rise, but falls back to her knees.
  6529. “Did he –“
  6530. >”Nah, he didn’t do this,” she answers with a pained smile. “Hits like a pussy. Barely tapped me.”
  6531. >She’s lying.
  6532. >AJ never could lie.
  6533. >She closes her eyes and drags herself up into a nearby chair with a groan.
  6534. “I ain’t never seen him like this,” she repeats slowly. “Almost has me worried.”
  6536. >Be done with this.
  6537. >Lauren is wrong.
  6538. >You don’t have to choose the lesser of two evils.
  6539. >There’s always a right answer, if you look hard enough.
  6540. >You’re staring at the door to Silver Spoon’s room, trying to find one.
  6541. >Every decision you’ve made has made things go from bad to worse, but that was with Apple Bloom at your side.
  6542. >Without her, you’re hoping…
  6543. >Timid hoofsteps ring out.
  6544. “What now, Apple Bloom?”
  6545. >You’re surprised she found the courage to follow you.
  6546. >”Ah – Ah came to stop you!”
  6547. “You don’t even know what I’m going to do.”
  6548. >”No, but Ah can’t let you hurt anypony no more!”
  6549. >There’s a fire in her voice you hadn’t heard in a long time.
  6550. “You know, I was just thinking over everything you and I have done together.”
  6551. >”Then *don’t*.”
  6552. “I relied on you for so much, didn’t I?”
  6553. >”Yeah, and –“
  6554. “Were you hoping Maud would kill me?”
  6555. >”N-no!”
  6556. “You’re the one that suggested some of the ponies go off of their pills, Apple Bloom. Why would you say that if you didn’t want me dead?”
  6557. >”B-because –“
  6558. “Don’t worry.”
  6559. >You sigh, rubbing your forehead with a bloody hand.
  6560. “I won’t punish you. I still need you, because of what happened to Maud.”
  6561. >”Ah… but… Ah…”
  6562. “I'm trying to fucking make things better, but you know better than any of the ponies the kind of situation this farm is in. We can only do this if everyone pitches in. We can't afford to have worthless ponies just laying around taking up space."
  6563. >”Ah know,” she whimpers.
  6564. “I need you, now more than ever.”
  6565. >You turn your head to see the mare cowering in fear.
  6566. “I mean, now that Maud is…”
  6567. >”Is?”
  6568. “She went off her pills, just like *you* suggested.”
  6569. >Apple Blooms pupils shrink until they’re lost in a sea of white.
  6570. “She went off her pills, because I guess I just have a horrible habit of relying on selfless – and senseless – mares.”
  6571. >”She didn’t know what’d happen,” Apple Bloom whispers.
  6572. “How could she not?”
  6573. >You don’t know why, but a smile comes to your face.
  6574. “It’s pretty fucking obvious.”
  6575. >”But… Hematite…”
  6576. “What about her?”
  6577. >”Moondancer n’ Ah talked, and –“
  6578. “Right. She’s off her pills, too.”
  6579. >”Little filly did okay,” Apple Bloom continues, looking down at her hooves. “Things were a lil’ rough at first, but she did okay after that.”
  6580. “Yeah, but she didn’t get any better after that, did she?”
  6581. >You put your hand on the door and push it open.
  6582. “I still need you, but don’t think I’ll be relying on you after this.”
  6584. >Be brave.
  6585. >You aren't fighting it, this time.
  6586. >He walks in, his face dead.
  6587. >You gasp in pain and surprise as he scoops you out of bed.
  6588. >He’s… he’s finally decided to make use of you, or get rid of you.
  6589. >You knew this day was coming.
  6590. >It’s all you’re good for.
  6591. >Why not here?
  6592. >Is it because you got the sheets dirty?
  6593. >They’re going to get dirty anyway, what does a little blood matter?
  6594. >He's getting rid of you.
  6595. >Try to stay calm.
  6596. >He carries you out into the hallway, where you see Apple Bloom slumped against the wall like a corpse.
  6597. >A gasp brings a fresh, new pain searing through your side.
  6598. >”Calm down,” he grunts, walking past the collapsed mare. “I’m just taking you someplace better. Someplace –“
  6599. >He glares at your friend.
  6600. >” – someplace away from monsters like us.”
  6601. >”Wait…”
  6602. >She’s alive.
  6603. >”What is it, Apple Bloom?” he sighs, twisting to look back at her.
  6604. >”At least… at least let me bandage your hands.”
  6605. >”After the way you’ve bandaged up your friend?” he sneers back. “Did you even wash your hooves before doing this? I’d be better off asking that filly to do it.”
  6606. >The hollow look in Apple Bloom’s eyes would break your heart, if there was any of it left after three years of hell.
  6607. >”Fine,” she croaks, choking back tears. “Do that.”
  6608. >His stare hardens.
  6609. >”I’ll –“
  6610. “I’m ready, master.”
  6611. >”You don’t even know what I’m doing, do you?” he growls. “You’re too drugged up to know anything.”
  6612. >A part of you smiles.
  6613. >You haven’t had a pill in hours.
  6614. >Every step he takes, every move he makes… *everything*… everything hurts.
  6615. >You don’t want to hurt anymore.
  6616. >You just want to be free.
  6617. “It doesn’t matter, master. I’m ready.”
  6618. >You think you’re ready to die now.
  6620. >Be amused.
  6621. >”It doesn’t matter, master. I’m ready.”
  6622. >At least one of them trusts you.
  6623. “You don’t care at all?”
  6625. >Be ready.
  6626. >”You don’t care at all?”
  6627. “No.”
  6628. >There’s no point calling him master anymore.
  6629. >Soon, he won’t be.
  6630. >”Apple Bloom…”
  6631. >The mare whines.
  6632. >”… I’m taking her to the dorms. Bring her things.”
  6633. >”Ah’m not ready to –“
  6634. >”I don’t give a fuck,” he snaps. “My hands are full, if you haven’t noticed.
  6635. >”But –“
  6636. >”Like I told you, I can’t afford useless ponies. Get everything together and follow me.”
  6637. >He smiles as he carries you into the wrecked room without waiting for her.
  6638. >You are trash.
  6639. >Worthless trash.
  6640. >Master Sterling said so, and if someone like *him* thought so little of you, what must your new master think?
  6641. >He’s going to throw you away.
  6642. >Dump you with the rest of his ponies.
  6643. >Let you die there.
  6644. >There’s no room for a useless pony here.
  6645. >You shut your eyes when you see the vague image of your Lauren lying in a chair.
  6646. >She’s not moving.
  6647. >Without your glasses, you can’t tell what happened to her, but you smell her blood on him.
  6648. >”Right, don’t look,” he tells you in a broken voice. “Keep your eyes shut until I get you home.”
  6649. “Home?”
  6650. >You would laugh, if you had any left in you.
  6651. >The last of it was used up before you got to Sterling Stables.
  6652. >Giggling at the ghosties only works for so long.
  6653. >”Yes,” he grunts. “I’m taking you home.”
  6654. >Ponyville burned.
  6655. >Your home is gone.
  6656. >Soon, you will be too.
  6658. >Be a failure.
  6659. >You couldn’t stop him.
  6660. >You couldn’t even stall him.
  6661. >That’s all Lauren asked you to do – stall him.
  6662. >He says he’s taking her to the dorms. He… he is, right?
  6663. >Just like he said?
  6664. >He’s never lied to you before.
  6665. >… has he…?
  6666. >Fear keeps you from dashing after him.
  6667. >He gave you an order.
  6668. >Normally, that wouldn’t matter – you’d holler and argue and do what you think is best regardless – but he’s right.
  6669. >You’re a failure.
  6670. >Not a one of the foals has got their cutie mark.
  6671. >Every attempt you’ve made at makin’ things better has just led to more work for little to no gain.
  6672. >No wonder everypony treats you like the same silly filly you were back in Ponyville.
  6673. >You’ll follow his orders.
  6674. >Quickly, you stuff everything – all of her medical supplies, her glasses, *everything* – into one of the bags.
  6675. >With the handle in your mouth, you chase after him.
  6677. >Be spent.
  6678. >She’s light, lighter than Apple Bloom, but carrying her downhill feels just as hard as it had been carrying the other mare up.
  6679. >You try to be careful, to jostle her as little as possible.
  6680. >Either it’s working or the painkillers are, because the mare has a satisfied smile on her face.
  6681. >You’re not even halfway there when you notice the first rigid figure watching you.
  6682. >Slowly, other ponies stop what they’re doing to stare.
  6683. >Those talking away at the pavilion drift off into an uneasy silence as you approach.
  6684. >A few of the adults shoo away the foals, driving them around the edge of the building on some errand or quest.
  6685. >Good, they shouldn’t see this.
  6686. >Gone is the casual welcome you received earlier.
  6687. >Now a sea of cautious – and angry – faces greet you.
  6688. >Even Marble meets you with a scowl.
  6689. >”See!?” the turquoise pegasus from before snarls. “I bucking told you all –“
  6690. >”I’m sure it’s not like that,” a yellow and orange mare snaps at her.
  6691. >”No, surely not,” Moondancer says firmly. “Remember, he hasn’t even hit any of us. Not once.”
  6692. >Silver Spoon is heavy.
  6693. >You can’t carry her much further.
  6694. >Adrenaline fueled endurance can only last so long, and you used that up in your rage.
  6695. >”Can you get her inside?” Moondancer asks.
  6696. >You nod, too out of breath to speak.
  6697. “I told her I’d bring her home.”
  6698. >You found some anyway.
  6699. >The mare in your arms twists and writhes as you carry her into the first hall.
  6700. >Moondancer trots on ahead, leading you into the second hall, with others following behind.
  6701. >You’re not sure how much further you can go.
  6702. >”Here!” a stallion shouts, gesturing towards a cot. “Set her down!”
  6703. >Your strength lasts just long enough to reach it – not long enough to set her down.
  6704. >She doesn’t fall – you don’t drop her – but she does go down more roughly than you intended.
  6705. >You fall against the wall, sliding down into a crumbled heap on the floor.
  6706. >”What happened?” a purple stallion gasps, but you shake your head.
  6707. >Three words aren’t enough to explain, but that’s all you have the strength for.
  6708. “Get me Hematite.”
  6709. >Moondancer looks at the mare, at the crudely wrapped bandages soaked through with blood.
  6710. >She hadn’t been bleeding that badly before; her wounds must have reopened as you carried her.
  6711. >Sure enough, your shirt and arms are stained with her blood.
  6712. >You have the blood of two ponies on you now.
  6713. “Please.”
  6714. >”Why her?” shy Marble asks softly. “She’s just a filly. She shouldn’t have anything to do with this.”
  6715. “Because I don’t know of anyone else that can take care of her."
  6716. >The mare turns her head.
  6717. >You can’t see her expression as she looks at Silver Spoon, but you do make out the nigh-imperceptible nod she gives Moondancer.
  6718. >A few hurried whispers later and a pony dashes off.
  6719. >You spend the time trying to catch your breath.
  6720. >Silver Spoon spends it bleeding out.
  6721. >The wound on her side must have torn open, because not even a minute later the cot is literally soaked through.
  6722. >A small puddle of red is collecting on the floor below her.
  6723. >You did it again.
  6724. >You made a decision, and it’s all going wrong.
  6725. >All without Apple Bloom, too.
  6726. >This one is all on you.
  6727. >This one is all your fault.
  6728. >The mare keeps that same contented smile on her face the entire time, though.
  6729. >If… if everything does go wrong, at least she’s too drugged to know what’s happening.
  6731. >Be… happy?
  6732. >You think you’re happy.
  6733. >For the first time in Ponyville burned to the ground, you’re happy.
  6734. >It’s almost over.
  6735. >He didn’t lie to you; you’re going home.
  6736. >He even tried to be gentle with you.
  6737. >He’s letting you die among your own kind, in bed, not torn apart by dogs.
  6738. >It’s no wonder Apple Bloom fell in love with him.
  6739. >You would too, if you had any time left.
  6740. >As it is, he’ll have to settle for your thanks.
  6742. >Be worried.
  6743. >Where is she?
  6744. >Where is Hematite?
  6745. >You try to stand, but a hoof comes over to touch your arm.
  6746. >”Thank you,” Silver Spoon sighs, closing her eyes.
  6747. “For?”
  6748. >She shouldn’t be thanking you!
  6749. >You’re the one that fucking killed her!
  6750. >If you’d just left her alone, she –
  6751. >A second silvery hoof touches your leg.
  6752. >”W-what’s wrong with her…?” Hematite whispers.
  6753. “She’s hurt. Can you help her?”
  6754. >The filly looks at the cot, at the smiling mare, and shakes her head.
  6755. >She tries to step back, but her mother nudges her forward.
  6756. “Please. Help her.”
  6757. >Trembling, Hematite looks over her shoulder at Marble.
  6758. >”Please, dear,” the mare whispers.
  6759. >”I’ll… I’ll *try*.”
  6760. >The stallion that ran off to get her carefully sets down a battered first aid kit and the filly pops it open.
  6761. >It’s nearly empty.
  6762. >You can see the brief moment of hesitation as she realizes just how low her supplies are.
  6763. >The filly’s head turns to look at Silver Spoon, then back to the first aid kit.
  6764. >”I – I’ll need your help,” she murmurs softly.
  6765. “I’ll get you more.”
  6766. >She’s already pushing a pair of scissors into your hands before the second word is out of your mouth.
  6767. >”I need you to cut away the bandages around her barrel.”
  6768. >You smile and take the scissors from her.
  6769. >She wasn’t thinking about her limited supplies at all.
  6770. >”Mom, could you –“
  6771. >You’re more focused on the bandages than whatever else she says.
  6772. >This has to be done right.
  6773. >You can’t make things worse. Not again.
  6774. >Slowly and carefully, you cut through the gauze, pealing it back to reveal the large tear along her side.
  6775. >”Apply pressure,” the filly snaps into your ear, shoving a handful of clean cloth at you. “Hold it tight while I get these cleaned.”
  6776. >You’re faintly aware of Moondancer pushing other ponies back with the help, demanding they give Hematite room to work.
  6777. >A white pegasus slips by the mare with a few whispered words. She kneels at Silver Spoon’s bedside, grabbing the other mare’s forehoof with her own.
  6778. >”Silver Spoon?” she pleads. “Remember me?”
  6779. >The earth mare’s head turns to look at her, never losing her smile.
  6780. >”You remember me, right? From Ponyville.”
  6781. >”Cotton Cloudy,” Silver sighs happily. “Cotton.”
  6783. >Be content.
  6784. >”Yes!” the mare gripping your hoof cries. “Yes. Oh sun, what did they do to you!”
  6785. >You answer her with a wider smile.
  6786. >The new master is a good master.
  6787. >You wish you could have been with him longer.
  6788. >He’s letting you die with your friends.
  6789. >If only Apple Bloom and Lauren were here. Or Diamond Tiara.
  6790. >Then it would be perfect.
  6792. >Be on the verge of panic.
  6793. >You don’t know what to do.
  6794. >Blood keeps oozing out from under your hands at weak, irregular pulses.
  6795. “Hematite…!”
  6796. >”Almost ready,” she chirps.
  6797. >You look back, trying to see what’s taking her so long.
  6798. >She’s got her nose buried in a book.
  6799. >”I’ve… I’ve never had to do this for somepony else,” she confesses with a shudder. “Definitely not anything this big or serious.”
  6800. “She’s still –“
  6801. >”Oh, move aside,” a pink earth mare growls at you, taking the cloth from your hands and pressing at against Silver’s side again. “You don’t have any foals of your own, do you?”
  6802. >You shake your head and scoot out of her way until your back is to the wall.
  6803. >”Of course not,” the mare laughs weakly, giving you a reassuring smile. “If you did, you’d know how to do this right.”
  6804. >You return her smile.
  6805. >It’s not long before Hematite approaches Silver Spoon, hesitantly gesturing for the pink mare to back away.
  6806. >She hisses as she sees the full extent of the injury, the torn sutures and flesh.
  6807. >The filly begins cleaning the wound, slowly at first, then with more confidence as she progresses.
  6808. >”This is going to hurt,” she whispers to Silver Spoon as she threads the needle and pushes it against the mare’s flesh.
  6809. >Only the briefest shudder runs through her as the needle pushes through her skin.
  6810. >She’s too out of it to notice.
  6812. >Be fulfilled.
  6813. >Apple Bloom is here.
  6814. >You wince at an unexpected pain in your side, but it’s only temporary.
  6815. >It’s to be expected. Dying should hurt.
  6816. >But Apple Bloom is here. You can see her coming through the door, a vivid splash of red and yellow slowly moving your direction.
  6817. >Diamond Tiara is here, too, you think. She was at your side just seconds ago.
  6818. >She must have moved to give Apple Bloom room to say goodbye.
  6819. >Your hoof twitches, waving her closer.
  6821. >Be cautious.
  6822. >You’re not sure what to say to her.
  6823. >You’re not sure what will spook her.
  6824. “Go ahead, Apple Bloom.”
  6825. >The mare nods, gently setting down the bag and walking over to the cot.
  6826. >Silver Spoon smiles again as Apple Bloom takes her hoof in hers.
  6827. >”I’m here,” she whispers.
  6828. >You lean back and pray.
  6829. >Not to god or anyone in particular.
  6830. >You laugh as you remember something you once heard about ponies.
  6831. >”Dear Princess Celestia,” you think silently, “please let her live.”
  6832. >It’s as good a prayer as any.
  6833. >”Please don’t let another one of my stupid decisions kill another one of your subjects.”
  6834. >You repeat that thought and variations of it over and over as you watch Hematite work, from the first stitch to the last, from the first roll of gauze to the one you fetch her from the bag Apple Bloom had brought.
  6835. >At last, the little filly steps back.
  6836. >Her head swings around to look at you, then back to Silver Spoon.
  6837. “All done?”
  6838. >”I think so…?” she answers with some hesitation. “I need to redo the bandages on her legs, but those can wait.”
  6839. >A smile crosses her tiny face.
  6840. >”That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Moondancer asks. “You did well, my little pony.”
  6841. >”No, I guess not.”
  6842. >Hematite gaze shifts back to Silver Spoon.
  6843. >”I’m… I’m glad I could help her.”
  6844. >There’s a blinding flash of light and the next thing you know, Marble has her daughter in a bear hug.
  6845. >”You did it!” the mare cheers, louder than you’ve ever heard her speak before. “You did it, Hematite!”
  6846. >It takes you a second to notice the red mark on the filly’s flank.
  6847. >A red cross and four red hearts.
  6848. >"This... this is impossible!" Moondancer shouts happily, grabbing the mother and daughter in a hug of her own. "Just impossible!"
  6849. >”What happened!?” a stallion asks, peering through the doorway. “What’s impossible?”
  6850. >”Hematite got her cutie mark!” Moondancer yells back, jumping in excitement. “Everypony! Hematite got her cutie mark!”
  6851. >Ponies crowd in eagerly – where moments before the hall had been all but empty at the unicorn’s insistence, it’s now full to bursting, with even more pushing their way in every moment.
  6852. >Every pair of eyes are on Marble and Hematite, still locked in their hug.
  6853. >Well, almost every pair.
  6854. >Silver Spoon stares up at the ceiling with a blissful expression, lost to the world.
  6855. >Her chest still rises and falls slowly - she's alive, just too out of it to care.
  6856. >Apple Bloom is still huddled beside the injured mare, actively ignoring everything going on around her.
  6857. >Her hooves are no longer grasping Silver’s and her eyes see just as little.
  6858. >You reach over and -
  6859. > - and hesitate. You're reluctant to touch her.
  6860. >After today, you don't know if you should - or if you're even allowed.
  6861. >You pull your hand back.
  6862. "Apple Bloom..."
  6863. >"Ah know," the mare hisses.
  6864. "But Hematite -"
  6865. >"Ah know."
  6866. >You leave her be after that.
  6867. >All that shouting broke your throat; it hurts to speak.
  6868. >It broke your bond; it hurts to speak to Apple Bloom.
  6869. >Others will take care of her, you tell yourself with a slight smile.
  6870. >You aren't the only one to have noticed her absence.
  6871. >Moondancer pushes her way through the other ponies to reach her, grabbing the mare by her withers and turning her around.
  6872. >"How could this happen?" the unicorn asks in a cheerful mixture of exuberance and shock. "This is impossible, isn't it?"
  6873. >She tries to drag Apple Bloom to her hooves, but the earth mare pulls free.
  6874. >"Don't ask me," she moans. "Ah didn't have nothin' to do with this."
  6875. >"I... I don't know, maybe you did," Moondancer insists, tugging on the mare's shoulder again. "You were the one that first suggested she stop taking her suppressants!"
  6876. >Again Apple Bloom shrugs free.
  6877. >"Yeah, but... Ah didn't mean nothin' by it.”
  6878. >Against the backdrop of cheering ponies and happy faces, Moondancer’s distinct frown is painfully out of place.
  6879. >”Ah was only guessin’,” Apple Bloom sighs, turning away. “Ah ain’t got no part in this.”
  6880. >”That doesn’t matter,” the unicorn hisses softly. “Do you know how much she looks up to you?”
  6881. >”Well, maybe she shouldn’t.”
  6882. >”We *all* do!” Moondancer whispers emphatically. “I don’t know what *he* -“
  6883. >Her eyes dark towards you, full of fire.
  6884. >” – did to you, but –“
  6885. >”He didn’t do nothin’.”
  6886. >Apple Bloom closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.
  6887. >Her head drops as she slowly lets it out, but it comes back up in a nod – or in surrender.
  6888. >”Fine, Ah’ll go put on a show and pretend Ah’m not worthless.”
  6889. >A shocked gasp escapes Moondancer as the other mare shoulders her way past her, forcing a smile onto her face.
  6890. >At first, the expression is hollow and mocking, but the fake trappings of happiness fall away with every step the mare takes.
  6891. >The trembling mouth and tearful eyes she has when she reaches Hematite are so much more genuine.
  6892. >Others move out of her way – respectfully, you notice.
  6893. >Moondancer seems more like a leader than any of the other ponies you’ve met recently, but she had to shove her way through.
  6894. >The other ponies move aside for Apple Bloom on their own.
  6895. >Hematite notices her approach before her mother, slipping free with the ease of a full-strength earth pony and turning to present her flank.
  6896. >"I got my cutie mark, Apple Bloom!” she shouts giddily. “I finally got it."
  6897. >”Ah know.”
  6898. >"Aren't… aren’t you proud...?" the filly mumbles, confused by the mare’s tears. “I thought –“
  6899. >"Yeah, I... I am..."
  6900. >Apple Bloom grabs the little pony and squeezes her tight, crying and laughing at the same time.
  6901. >It’s such a personal moment that you look away.
  6902. >Though her eyes are now closed, Silver Spoon’s chest continues to rise and fall.
  6903. >Her bandages are clean and tight.
  6904. >You didn’t kill her; you should leave before you do.
  6905. >Standing is hard; your legs don’t seem inclined to do what you want them to do.
  6906. >Gone is your chance to simply slip away; Moondancer notices you struggling to stand and edges closer.
  6907. >"Before you leave,” she whispers, “I'm sorry to add more to your list, but... we could use some party supplies. I hope you understand."
  6908. >Speaking is too painful, so you nod.
  6909. >You understand.
  6910. “Tell… tell her –“
  6911. >Moonbeam questioningly gestures towards Apple Bloom with her horn and you nod.
  6912. “ – she can stay here. If she wants.”
  6913. >”Will do.”
  6914. >Once you’re sure your legs will hold you, you slip out of the hall.
  6915. >Despite having to carry only your own weight, your legs protests more than ever as you climb the hill.
  6916. >Going up the steps is almost the final straw, but you manage to get onto the porch and through the door.
  6917. >From there, you have one hand on the wall to support you all the way to the living room, where you fall into the empty chair beside Lauren.
  6918. >You stare at the ground for a few minutes before looking at her out of the corner of your eye.
  6919. >She has a bag of ice pressed to the side of her face, and her green eyes are burning into you, waiting for something.
  6920. >You think you know what.
  6921. "I fucked up."
  6922. >"Yup."
  6923. >Her eyes flicker away from you, subtly gesturing towards the far wall and all the damage you had done.
  6924. >The sight of it makes you clutch your head and double over.
  6925. "I fuck - fucked up bad."
  6926. >Words barely come out of your mouth.
  6927. >It hurts to speak.
  6928. >"You messed up your voice pretty bad, too," Lauren adds with a laugh. “All that screamin’ ain’t good for you.”
  6929. “I did worse than that.”
  6930. >”I know.”
  6931. "You don’t. This… “
  6932. >You wave a hand at the damage you had done.
  6933. “… this was… not intentional, but…”
  6934. >”I get what you mean.”
  6935. “I nearly killed Silver Spoon."
  6936. >"What did you do?" she sighs painfully.
  6937. "I was... I thought... I thought she'd be better off with the other ponies than here with me, but her stitches tore open as I was carrying her down the hill and she started bleeding..."
  6938. >Her blood is all over your shirt. Hematite's all over your pants.
  6939. >Everyone’s is on your hands – Lauren’s, Silver Spoon’s, *yours*.
  6940. >"But she's okay now?" Lauren sighs, turning in her seat to face you.
  6941. "One of the fillies sewed her back up."
  6942. >You give her a sad smile.
  6943. "She got her cutie mark."
  6944. >"You're shittin' me!"
  6945. "No, I'm not."
  6946. >Sighing, you lean back.
  6947. >And *smile*.
  6948. >Ruefully, but it’s still a smile.
  6949. "At least something good came of it all."
  6950. >Lauren returns the expression with half smile of her own.
  6951. >"Was it worth it?"
  6952. >You glance over at her, at the friend whose blood is smeared across your knuckles.
  6953. >Was it?
  6954. "I don't know.”
  6955. >The walls, the table… great-grandma’s favorite lamp… none of those things matter to anyone. Not really.
  6956. >Hematite, though… she matters to everypony.
  6957. >Not just the ones on your farm.
  6958. “It might have been."
  6959. >Lauren thinks silently, her eyes drifting away from you.
  6960. >"I... I don't want to say your heart was in the right place,” she says hesitantly. “You screwed up – you screwed up a lot of things – but that happens.”
  6961. >She sighs and looks back at you.
  6962. >”You did a good thing, thinkin' about Silver an’ stayin’ with her."
  6963. >She leans forward, resting her elbows on her knees.
  6964. >"Yeah, you did a good thing. Maybe not the right thing, but it was a good thing."
  6965. >Her eyes stare up at you through her golden bangs.
  6966. >”I don’t got a clue how that mare of yours can ever trust you again, not after what you said an’ did.”
  6967. “I… know. I fucked up. And you?”
  6968. >"I’ll get over it,” Lauren sighs. “Still gotta kick your ass, though, you know that, right?"
  6969. "If I'm lucky."
  6970. >"If you're lucky," she agrees with a nod – followed by a pained expression. "If daddy sees this..."
  6971. "He doesn't like people messing with what's his, I know."
  6972. >"He'll fucking shoot you."
  6973. "I know."
  6974. >You sigh.
  6975. "That's why I have a favor to ask."
  6976. >She blinks. Once.
  6977. >”What.”
  6978. “I… I need to take Apple Bloom into town tomorrow. To visit a friend.”
  6979. >”And you need me to stay here for you?”
  6980. “Yeah…”
  6981. >"Why should I?"
  6982. "Well, it’ll keep you away from him, but more importantly… I owe her."
  6983. >"Don’t you owe me?"
  6984. "Yeah, but you get to kick my ass later."
  6985. >Lauren laughs, then winces.
  6986. >She grunts and shifts the bag of ice to a new place.
  6987. >”Sure, fine… but…”
  6988. “What?”
  6989. >”I’ll take her into town. You need any supplies, just give me the cash and a list, but I think you two could use some time apart.”
  6990. “Fair enough. I’ll get a list together.”
  6991. >There’s too much on your list to give her; you’ll have to prioritize.
  6992. >Party supplies are on the top.
  6993. >You’re sorting the items in your head when Lauren sighs and reaches out to smack your arm lightly.
  6994. >”Kinda funny, isn’t it?”
  6995. “What?”
  6996. >You can’t think of a single thing about this day that could be described as funny. Not one.
  6997. >”I just never thought my knight in shining armor would lay hands on me like that,” Lauren chuckles half-heartedly. “You had problems enough talkin’ dirty to me.”
  6998. “Yeah, well…”
  6999. >Heat rises in your cheeks.
  7000. >"Still gotta kick your ass, though."
  7001. "You do that to your father, too, after he hits you?"
  7002. >"I expect it of him,” she answers with a shake of her head. “I expect better of you."
  7003. “Really? You expect better from me? After everything I’ve done?”
  7004. >”Yes. Really,” Lauren sighs, letting the hand holding the ice fall to her lap.
  7005. >She gives you a contented smile – one that makes you shiver.
  7006. >Reminds you too much of Silver Spoon.
  7007. “You’re crazy. You know that, right?”
  7008. >”Ain’t true at all,” the woman giggles softly, leaning back in her chair. “Like I said, you always give me hope.”
  7009. “You also said I never come through.”
  7010. >”Yeah, you never do,” she grins. “But every time you get a little closer an’ one of these days… you’ll do it. That’s what I’m expectin’ from you.”
  7011. “You’re crazy.”
  7012. >She’s crazy. Absolutely crazy.
  7013. “I’m still the same asshole that abandoned you when you needed me the most.”
  7014. >She shakes her head and holds out an empty hand for you to take.
  7015. >You do.
  7016. >”Nah, you ain’t that boy anymore.”
  7017. “But I –“
  7018. >”An’ you ain’t the man that slapped me a few hours ago,” Lauren argues. “You ain’t even the same person you were a minute ago. Little by little, we grow with every breath, every heartbeat… every choice.”
  7019. >Her eyes lock with yours.
  7020. >”Even the wrong ones.”
  7021. “Huh. Almost makes me sounds like I’m redeemable.”
  7022. >A weak chuckle follows, trying to make a joke of it, but it dies as she squeezes your hand.
  7023. >“You left once.”
  7024. “I… I made a mistake. I didn’t know –“
  7025. >”Shush,” she whispers with a smile. “You left once, and… yeah… you think it was a mistake. I ain’t gonna say it was, I ain’t gonna judge that; I know I didn’t make that easy on you. But… I know you don’t wanna be here.”
  7026. “I’m not a farmer.”
  7027. >”But you haven’t left. You ain’t gonna let yourself make that same mistake twice. You’re stickin’ around and doin’ your best.”
  7028. “My best isn’t good enough.”
  7029. >”Not yet,” she says, squeezing your hand again, “but one day it will be.”
  7030. >You wish you could believe her.
  7031. >Maybe one day you will be able to.
  7032. >Right now, all you can do is hold her hand.
  7033. >It must show, because Lauren leans towards you.
  7034. >”Look, I get it if you don’t believe me, but you don’t gotta,” she sighs. “You just gotta believe in yourself… and… you’re tryin’. Just keep tryin’. That’s all I ask, that you keep on tryin’. Promise me that.”
  7035. “I… I promise.”
  7036. >With a smile, she settles back in the chair.
  7037. >You’re both sitting in silence, hand in hand, with Apple Bloom slinks in.
  7038. >She cowers back as soon as she sees you, but comes forward soon enough.
  7039. “I’m glad you came back.”
  7040. >Before coming any closer, the mare looks around the room carefully, surveying the damage.
  7041. “I didn’t… I didn’t mean what I said.”
  7042. >”Gee, could have fooled me,” Apple Bloom snarls half-heartedly, too exhausted and depressed to hate you like you deserve. “You meant it. You meant every word of it.”
  7043. “Maybe I did, but I was wrong.”
  7044. >”Ah know,” she snaps at you, with more fire than you had expected. “My brother is *dead*.”
  7045. >Cautiously, the mare steps towards the smashed lamp.
  7046. “I meant… yes, that, but… you’re not worthless. I do need you. Everyone does.”
  7047. >She looks away from the wreckage, her orange eyes wide and trembling.
  7048. >”Ah… Ah… guess…”
  7049. >Life drains out of her eyes and her head drops.
  7050. “I mean it. I fucked up.”
  7051. >Very slowly, she turns away from you, from the wreckage, from *everything*.
  7052. >Everything.
  7053. >Loose plaster falls from the cratered wall, the only movement in the room.
  7054. >Apple Bloom looks up slowly.
  7055. >Under her bright red mane, her eyes plead with you, beg you to turn back time.
  7056. >Rewind everything until you can trust her – and she can trust you.
  7057. >Eleven… twelve seconds pass… and so does the moment.
  7058. >Nothing happens and time resumes its normal flow. You failed her again.
  7059. “I’m… sorry.”
  7060. >”So you say.”
  7061. >“Apple Bloom…”
  7062. >”Please,” the mare whimpers, shaking her head as if to dislodge Lauren’s worried words. “Please, just leave me alone.”
  7063. >Powerless, you watch as she simply walks away.
  7064. >Lauren watches, too, though she nods as if she had expected it.
  7065. >Even after the mare’s tail has disappeared into the hall, the pair of you stare at the opening.
  7066. >”Just like I worried,” Lauren sighs, reluctantly pulling her hand from yours. “I’ll go talk with the girl.”
  7067. >Apple Bloom needs someone to talk to.
  7068. >Certainly not you.
  7069. >Kicking off your boots, you wave her on.
  7070. “I’ll just…”
  7071. >Speaking was a bad idea.
  7072. >The woman nods – then smiles.
  7073. >”Helps knowin’ I ain’t the only one hurtin’ after that lil’ tantrum of yours.”
  7074. >Instant shame floods you.
  7075. “… sorry...”
  7076. >”Damn right, you should be,” she sighs, pulling herself out the chair with difficulty. “And I’m glad you are.”
  7077. >Righting herself presents challenges all of their own, but Lauren manages to stagger after the mare eventually.
  7078. “I am...”
  7079. >Variations of the same prayer you silently uttered at Silver Spoon’s side flit through your mind.
  7080. >Instead of the injured mare, your thoughts are on Apple Bloom.
  7081. >Nothing can wipe away what you said or did, not now or back in the barn or during the entire time you’ve been here.
  7082. >Going forward is the only way.
  7083. >You pray quietly for the strength to do so, to not make the same mistakes again, to be the person Apple Bloom thinks – thought – you were.
  7084. >One day, you might be.
  7085. >Until then, you’ll just have to do the best you can.
  7086. >Nothing you can do except try again.
  7087. >Underwhelming, you know, but…
  7088. >That’s your only choice. Lauren was right; you can’t just leave.
  7089. >Someone has to change things around here.
  7091. >Be hurting.
  7092. >You embrace the pain.
  7093. >It’s how you can relate to her, to Apple Bloom.
  7094. >Not the actual pain of your bruises and other injuries, but the emotional pain.
  7095. >The pain of being knocked to the ground by someone you care about.
  7096. >Apple Bloom has the door shut. She wants to be alone.
  7097. >You know that feelin’.
  7098. >No point knocking. She doesn’t get a choice about this conversation.
  7099. >You just walk right in.
  7100. >The mare is curled up on her bed, her eyes flat and dead.
  7101. >She doesn’t react to your presence, doesn’t even bat an eyelid to acknowledge your existence.
  7102. >Only when you sit down beside her does she move, rolling onto her side to face away from you.
  7103. “I got a surprise for you.”
  7104. >”I don’t care,” the mare groans. “Just leave me alone.”
  7105. “Why?”
  7106. >”Be-“
  7107. “Because when you’re alone, you think no one can hurt you?”
  7108. >No one can ever leave you if you never let them in.
  7109. >”If you already know, then just leave.”
  7110. “No, because you’re wrong.”
  7111. >The mare doesn’t resist as you grab her by the shoulder and roll her back to face you.
  7112. >She doesn’t have the strength or the will to care to even try.
  7113. “You’re wrong, Apple Bloom, because you’re never alone.”
  7114. >Softly, you tap her forehead with one finger.
  7115. “There’s always someone with you, and she don’t always have your best interests in mind.”
  7116. >She flinches as your finger comes down again.
  7117. “You’re always with yourself, Apple Bloom, and there’s no way you can escape that.”
  7118. >Nothing.
  7119. “Wouldn’t it be better to be with friends?”
  7120. >”Ah don’t have no friends,” she mumbles in response.
  7121. “Not even Silver?”
  7122. >Apple Bloom sighs, sinking in on herself like she’s actually shrinking.
  7123. “Not even Scootaloo?”
  7124. >”Doesn’t matter. Ain’t no way he’s gonna let me see her now.”
  7125. “He will.”
  7126. >”No, he won’t,” the mare sighs. “He don’t trust me.”
  7127. “That doesn’t matter.”
  7128. >”Him sayin’ he’s sorry don’t suddenly undo everything he said.”
  7129. “No, it doesn’t. I’m not askin’ you to forgive him.”
  7130. >”But he’s… he’s right…”
  7132. >Be holdin’ back tears.
  7133. >You don’t know how you can cry anymore, but you can.
  7134. >It’s ain’t every day you’re forced to confront the truth.
  7135. >You used to be full of potential, of endless possibilities and even more endless enthusiasm.
  7136. >Happiest day in your life was when you got your cutie mark.
  7137. >Such a lie.
  7138. >All those crusades, all those adventures, only to find out you are –
  7139. “Ah’m worthless.”
  7140. >”No, that ain’t true at all.”
  7141. “It *is*! Ah’m supposed to help other ponies figure out their special talents, and… and…”
  7142. >Lauren’s hand strokes the side of your neck, sending a shiver down your spine.
  7143. >You want so very much for her to hold you and tell you everything will be okay.
  7144. >She reminds you too much of Applejack.
  7145. >You scoot away from her, away from her hand and her comfortin’ touch.
  7146. >Lauren is *not* your sister, and even if she were… you don’t deserve it.
  7147. >”Is this because of what he said?” the woman sighs. “Or because of that filly?”
  7148. “Ah didn’t think he was right, not until… not until *then*.”
  7149. >”Because she got her cutie mark?”
  7150. >No.
  7151. “Yes.”
  7152. >She smiles down at you sadly with those dang green eyes of hers.
  7153. >”But?”
  7154. “Ah… Ah don’t wanna talk about it.”
  7155. >”Then don’t. You don’t gotta tell me anything, so long as you’re honest with yourself.”
  7156. >You nod slowly.
  7157. >”But I can understand, you know. It’s your special talent, right?”
  7158. “Ah said Ah don’t wanna talk about it.”
  7159. >It hurt, knowing your special talent was worthless here, that nopony would *ever* get their cutie marks.
  7160. >”I know.”
  7161. >But that was… well, it weren’t okay, but you could look past it. There were other things to do, other ways you could help.
  7162. >Made it hurt even more, findin’ out you were *wrong*.
  7163. >You ignored your purpose to… to play carpenter! To work a stupid farm! No wonder the other ponies are always lookin’ at you.
  7164. >Lookin’ *down* at you.
  7165. >Still the same stupid filly, blundering about, doin’ everything but what you’re supposed to.
  7166. >Pretendin’ you were buildin’ a community, when you shoulda been helpin’ those foals.
  7167. >You’re worthless.
  7169. >Be… confused…?
  7170. >Your heart still beats.
  7171. >It isn’t supposed to be doing that.
  7172. >You’re dead.
  7173. >A dead mare’s heart doesn’t beat, nor does she breathe or cry or hurt or *scream*.
  7174. >It’s a sound you’re far too familiar with, just not from your own mouth.
  7175. >The sound scares you more than anything you could imagine.
  7176. >It’s been…
  7177. >It’s been *years* since you’ve screamed.
  7178. >It’s been years since Ponyville burned to the ground.
  7179. >Your heart begins to pound wildly, like it’s trying to force its way from your ribcage.
  7180. >Dead mares don’t scream.
  7181. >You’re still alive.
  7182. >You aren’t free.
  7183. >The small room is claustrophobic, rough walls of mismatched wood closing in on you as you scream, louder and louder.
  7184. >What started as a sharp, shocked gasp becomes a deafening roar as the sound echoes back at you.
  7185. >Your suffering isn’t over.
  7186. >Your courage didn’t desert you, your body didn’t fail you.
  7187. “WHY!?”
  7188. >Why does your master taunt you so?
  7189. >You shudder as the door slams open.
  7190. >He’s here for you.
  7191. >To make you suffer even more.
  7192. >How cruel this new master is, to give you hope.
  7193. >You slam your eyes shut.
  7194. >You don’t want to see him or what he’ll do to you.
  7195. >Let it be a surprise. Let the brand or the whip come suddenly and without warning. Let yourself pretend it’s not coming for as long as you can.
  7196. >You hear hoofsteps.
  7197. >He’s sending another pony to do it.
  7198. >Will they be kind?
  7199. >Will they empathize with you and pull their blows?
  7200. >Will they be cruel?
  7201. >Will they just be happy it’s not them suffering for his amusement?
  7202. >You wait.
  7203. >You pretend.
  7204. >You worry.
  7205. >You whimper.
  7206. >This new master is vicious.
  7207. “W-why am I still alive…?”
  7208. >”Because I helped you,” a soft voice answers. “It’s my special talent.”
  7209. >A filly.
  7210. >He sent a filly to hurt you.
  7211. >Even Sterling was never that vile.
  7212. “Please…”
  7213. >”Are you in pain?” the filly asks. “I heard you screaming. Do you need your medicine?”
  7214. “I… I just want to stop hurting.”
  7215. >”Okay.”
  7216. >There are sounds, noises that make no sense. Hoofsteps, a little grunt, more hoofsteps.
  7217. >”Open your mouth.”
  7218. >You comply.
  7219. >Resistance will only lead to more pain. You are sure of it.
  7220. >There’s another grunt and then you taste the slight sweetness of the pain medication.
  7221. >”Swallow. Or… do you need water? I should have gotten you water.”
  7222. >She’s worried. The high-pitched whine of her voice gives it away.
  7223. >You swallow.
  7224. >The new master is a cruel man if he would punish a filly for that.
  7225. >You can’t let him know.
  7226. >"Oh, okay..." the filly whispers. "If you're sure you don't need any."
  7227. >You automatically open your mouth for the next pill.
  7228. >"Did... did you need another?"
  7229. >You did something you weren't supposed to.
  7230. >”I guess you can have another, if you think you need it.”
  7231. >You close your mouth.
  7232. >”Are you sure?” she asks, gently touching your shoulder with her tiny hoof. “I don’t want to give you too much, but if you’re in pain…”
  7233. >Feebly, you shake your head.
  7234. >It’s only pain.
  7235. >The filly whimpers softly and pulls her hoof away.
  7236. >"I'll be right back."
  7237. >She's going to tell the master. You shouldn’t have tried to get extra pills.
  7238. >"You've been asleep for hours. I think you need to drink something."
  7239. >The sadness in her voice makes you want to cry.
  7240. >She feels sorry for you.
  7241. >You hear the rapid shuffle of the filly walking away but don't dare open your eyes.
  7242. >He could be waiting.
  7243. >Eventually, your master will lose his patience.
  7244. >Pretending he's not there will only make things worse in the long run, but you can't make yourself face him.
  7245. >You can't make yourself face living.
  7246. >Time stretches on, but you wait.
  7247. >Tension melts away from your body. You can't hold onto it any longer.
  7248. >"Here."
  7249. >You're too worn to so much as twitch in surprise or fear at the sudden voice in your ear.
  7250. >All you can do is open your mouth for the straw the filly is poking you with.
  7251. >Reflexively, your body swallows the sweet juice.
  7252. >The sudden shock of flavor makes you gag.
  7253. >"I'm sorry!" the filly whines, pulling the straw away immediately as you cough up the liquid.
  7254. >It dribbles down the side of your muzzle and face, but there's a soft cloth patting it away before it can get any further.
  7255. >"I'm sorry," she repeats "I thought... I thought since you haven't had anything to eat, you'd need some nutrients somehow. I'm sorry!"
  7256. >She dabs away at your mouth and face with a damp cloth.
  7257. >"Should I get you some water instead?" the filly whispers in a near panic. "Or tea? Do you want tea?"
  7258. "N-no. This is fine."
  7259. >You don't want master to punish her.
  7260. >She sounds so worried that he will.
  7261. >"Oh. Good."
  7262. >You can almost *hear* her smile.
  7263. >"I don’t have a clue what I’m doing,” she whispers confidentially, trailing off in a faint, embarrassed giggle. “I thought you needed *something*, so I just got you Auntie Maud's favorite."
  7264. >The filly pushes the straw back into your mouth.
  7265. >"It’s starfruit. I - I don't know why, but I just thought you'd like it."
  7266. >You take another sip, this one slower and smaller.
  7267. >"You remind me of her, and not just because you're both grey."
  7268. >The filly giggles again.
  7269. >"Well, you're more silver than grey, kind of like me, but you *feel* like her."
  7270. >This poor filly.
  7271. >"I didn't realize how much until I went to see her just a bit ago. She's doing a lot better, and... and so are you!"
  7272. >She doesn’t pull the straw away.
  7273. >You can’t help yourself. You take another sip.
  7274. >It’s been so long, so long that another pony was willing to talk to you.
  7275. >You’ll do anything to keep her here and talking.
  7276. >No one wants to associate with the bottom mare at Sterling Stables.
  7277. >Cherry Berry was brave, treating you like a normal pony, but she was only nice because she knew she was next.
  7278. >”Though, I guess you remind me more of Apple Bloom,” the filly mumbles uncertainly. “I don’t know why.”
  7279. >Apple Bloom.
  7280. >Your friend.
  7281. >Your brave friend.
  7282. >She sat by your side for so long.
  7283. >Barely spoke, barely did anything, but you don’t blame her for that.
  7284. >Why would she want to talk to you?
  7285. >Her presence alone was enough and you were lucky to have her as a friend.
  7286. >”Mhmmmm,” the filly hums. “You definitely feel more like her than my aunt.”
  7288. >Be alone.
  7289. >Even with Lauren sittin’ beside you, you’re more alone than ever.
  7290. >She’s been silently keepin’ you company, just like you had with Silver Spoon.
  7291. >Watchin’ over you, in case… in case *what*?
  7292. >You ain’t hurtin’, not in any way she can fix anyhow.
  7293. >Nopony can help take away the pain you’re feelin’ now.
  7294. >If only your sister were here.
  7295. >”You sure there’s nothin’ you want to tell me?” Lauren asks for the dozenth time.
  7296. “Ah’m sure.”
  7297. >The woman smiles gently.
  7298. >”Well, we can’t just keep sittin’ here in silence.”
  7299. >You don’t see why not.
  7300. >”What’d you an’ Silver talk about?”
  7301. “Didn’t really.”
  7302. >You just sat there keepin’ her company – though sometimes it felt more like it was *her* keepin’ *you* company.
  7303. >Either way, you didn’t know what else to do.
  7304. >Couldn’t even bandage her up right.
  7305. >You’re so worthless.
  7307. >Be grateful.
  7308. >Apple Bloom stayed with you the whole time.
  7309. >She cared for you, just like this little filly is now.
  7310. >Maybe… maybe this isn’t a punishment for you or the filly.
  7311. >Maybe it’s for Apple Bloom.
  7312. >Last you saw, she was crumpled against the wall of his house.
  7313. >You thought she was here with you and held your hoof, but you also thought you were dying.
  7314. >Nothing about that was blur or memories was true, just a comforting lie.
  7315. >This isn’t Ponyville.
  7316. >You aren’t dying.
  7317. >Diamond Tiara isn’t here.
  7318. >That wasn’t Apple Bloom holding your hoof.
  7319. >Right now, the only things you know are real are the filly and the straw in your mouth.
  7320. >You hope the master lets her visit you again.
  7321. >You want to know she was real.
  7323. >Be worthless.
  7324. >”If the two of you weren’t talkin, why’d you stick to her side all that time?” Lauren asks as she brushes a loose strand of hair out of her face. “Can’t imagine that was very fun for either of you.”
  7325. >You don’t answer.
  7326. >Ain’t no point.
  7327. >She don’t listen anyhow.
  7328. >Why can’t she just leave you alone!?
  7329. >”Well,” she sighs, sittin’ up.
  7330. >Maybe she’s finally goin’ to leave.
  7331. >”Thanks for stayin’ with her anyway.”
  7332. >She leans over and touches you again.
  7333. >”I know she appreciates it.”
  7334. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
  7335. >You doubt it.
  7336. >”Don’t be like that,” Lauren sighs, “she’d thank you if she were here, but since she ain’t… thank you.”
  7337. >She leans over further and her light touch turns into a hug.
  7338. >You panic.
  7340. >Be flung off the bed.
  7341. >You land painfully, your hip hittin’ the wood floor hard.
  7342. >Good thing you ain’t *that* old yet, or you’d be headin’ straight for the ER.
  7343. >Everything from your knees to your neck aches more than usual, but that’s nothin’ next to the burnin’ fire in your abdomen.
  7344. >You roll over onto your back, floppin’ spread out on the floor.
  7345. “Ow.”
  7346. >After a few seconds, you find the strength to raise your head.
  7347. >Good, you weren’t kicked in half.
  7348. >Almost feels like it.
  7349. >Takes several tries to make your hand an’ fingers work right, but eventually you get ‘em hooked ‘round the hem of your shirt.
  7350. >Almost afraid of what you’re gonna see, you pull up your shirt to reveal two red hoofprints stamped just above your pelvis.
  7351. “Now that… that was uncalled for.”
  7352. >Gingerly, you reach down an’ – this is gonna hurt – gently probe the area ‘round the –
  7353. “GAAAA!”
  7354. >Yeah, that hurt.
  7355. >Your head drops hard, smackin’ against the floor and makin’ you see stars for a bit.
  7356. “Dangit, girl.”
  7357. >You ain’t quite sure who you’re talkin’ to – her for kickin’ you, or you for pokin’ at it.
  7358. >More cautiously, and without lookin’, you feel at it again.
  7359. >Don’t feel like anything is ruptured.
  7360. >You don’t scream again, so that’s a good sign.
  7361. >Probably gonna live.
  7362. “Dangit, Apple Bloom.”
  7363. >A scared whimper answers.
  7364. “I ain’t got a problem takin’ a lickin’ for a reason, but that was just plain uncalled for.”
  7365. >She whimpers again.
  7366. “Why the heck did you do that?”
  7367. >Your hand drops over to the side with a thump.
  7368. >Enough pokin’ at yourself.
  7369. >Ain’t gonna do no good, an’ you’re fair certain she didn’t break any of your insides.
  7370. “Well, girl?”
  7371. >”I… I just don’t wanna be touched…”
  7372. >Oh.
  7373. >You’re ‘bout as big an idiot as him, aren’t you?”
  7374. “Sorry, girl. Should have realized.”
  7375. >You try to sit up, but the sudden pain that accompanies the movement drops you right back on the floor.
  7376. >Hard.
  7377. “Ow.”
  7378. >You let out a long sigh, one that hurts more than anything.
  7379. “Guess that one’s all on me, but… damn…”
  7380. >You’re definitely staying the night here.
  7381. >Hell, you ain’t even entirely certain you’ll be good to drive tomorrow.
  7382. “That was one heck of a kick, girl.”
  7383. >”S – s –“
  7384. “You ain’t on your suppressants, are you?”
  7385. >”…no...”
  7387. >Be afraid for your life.
  7388. >It was a gut reaction.
  7389. >You couldn’t help yourself.
  7390. >But you still kicked her.
  7391. >Bucked her off, an’ did it HARD.
  7392. >”Well… okay then,” Lauren grunts from the floor. “That explains why I feel like I got run down by a truck.”
  7393. >She groans and a hand feebly smacks the side of the bed.
  7394. >”I know I said it’s my fault an’ all, but could you at least… I don’t know… see if my insides are still *inside*?”
  7395. >If they ain’t… you’re a deadmare.
  7396. >He won’t have a choice.
  7397. >You know he said he’d fight it, but you know he wouldn’t have a choice.
  7398. >Cautiously, you approach the edge of the bed and peak over.
  7399. >She looks… you didn’t do this. Not all of it.
  7400. >The clear hoofprints, those are yours, but the fadin’ bruises… those *ain’t*.
  7401. >The woman smiles as you begin to nod.
  7402. “They’re still inside.”
  7403. >”Good,” she laughs. “So why don’t you tell me why you ain’t takin’ your pills?”
  7404. “Because…”
  7405. >You hesitate.
  7406. >*He* doesn’t know. Not even the other ponies know.
  7407. >”I’m sorry for touchin’ you like that,” Lauren grunts, “but…”
  7408. “Ah… Ah was worried for the baby.”
  7409. >”Huh?”
  7410. “There’s a filly down at the dorms an’ she… she …”
  7411. >Though you suspect it’s about all she *can* do, Lauren raises an eyebrow, until you finally explain all ‘bout little Hematite Pie and the theories Moondancer has been throwin’ about.
  7412. >”So you thought you might not be able to conceive if you were takin’ the pills?” she asks once you’re done.
  7413. “Or… even if Ah did, that the foal wouldn’t grow right. Besides…”
  7414. >You sigh and look away.
  7415. “Ah ain’t never taken ‘em, ‘less somepony was watchin’ and made me do it. Had to hide it from the others, but I couldn’t…”
  7416. >You couldn’t just be *useless*.
  7417. >All you got goin’ for you is you’re a healthy earth pony mare.
  7418. >None too bright, no skills or talents worth speakin’ of.
  7419. >You’re spiraling into another series of depressing thoughts when Lauren’s pained laughter snaps you out of it.
  7420. >”Heh,” she grunts, “we shouldn’t’ve been worried none ‘bout the stallion hurtin’ you. We shoulda been worried ‘bout you hurtin’ *him*.”
  7421. >She laughs again, though it quickly turns into a groan.
  7422. >Lauren smiles sadly and looks up into your eyes.
  7423. >”Is that why you insisted on usin’ the stand?”
  7424. >No.
  7425. “Yes.”
  7426. >The woman’s face turns even sadder.
  7427. >You said yes. You know you said yes.
  7428. >So why did it sound so different when it came out of your mouth?
  7430. >Be on your back.
  7431. >”No.”
  7432. >Apple Bloom looks down at you in shock, as if surprised by what she’d just said.
  7433. “S’ok, girl, you don’t gotta tell me.”
  7434. >You know well enough the reasons she walked up to the breedin’ stand and made you cuff her in place.
  7435. >She did it so it wouldn’t be her fault.
  7436. >You try to turn onto your side and almost succeed.
  7437. >Pain’s goin’ away, slowly but surely.
  7438. >Damn, you need an ice bath or somethin’, or the swellin’ is gonna bloat you up worse n’ a pregnant mare.
  7439. “Hey…”
  7440. >You tap the floor with the palm of your hand.
  7441. “Think you can come down here an’ help me up? I need to get an icepack on this if I’m gonna be in any condition to drive you into town tomorrow?”
  7442. >”F-for…?”
  7443. >It’s too much of an effort to roll your eyes, so you settle for an agonized groan.
  7444. “Whadya think for? I’m gonna take you to see your friend.”
  7445. >You smile as her jaw drops.
  7446. “Assumin’ I ever get off this floor, of course.”
  7448. >Be dabbing at Silver Spoon’s face again.
  7449. >A little juice spilled out when you pulled the straw away.
  7450. >”Don’t… don’t go…?” the mare begs.
  7451. “I’m just putting the glass down.”
  7452. >As an afterthought, you quickly add an explanation.
  7453. “It’s empty. Did you want more?”
  7454. >She’s quiet.
  7455. >Thinking about something.
  7456. >Maybe she’s worried about how much is left.
  7457. “It’s okay, you can have more if you want it.”
  7458. >You don’t have much, but the other ponies all agreed that the injured mare comes first.
  7459. >Moondancer had to talk to some of them first, but in the end nopony disagreed.
  7460. >There’s plenty of fruit in the storehouses, but there’s only one Silver Spoon, and if you lose her…
  7461. >The adults hadn’t told you the rest, but you’re a smart filly.
  7462. >You think getting your cutie mark meant more to them than it did to you.
  7463. >There is no way you can let them down, not mom or Moondancer or Apple Bloom.
  7464. >Most importantly, there’s no way you can let your patient down.
  7465. “Silver Spoon…?”
  7466. >”I’m fine,” she croaks back. “I don’t need any more.”
  7467. >You climb back onto the stepstool you’d dragged over to the side of her cot.
  7468. “I didn’t ask if you needed more.”
  7469. >This is the second time she’s hesitated like this.
  7470. >First the pills, which you could understand, but now juice?
  7471. “I asked if you *wanted* more.”
  7473. >Be thirsty.
  7474. >You want more.
  7475. “No…”
  7476. >The taste is horrendous, but you want more.
  7477. “… not right now…”
  7478. >You want her to stay with you more than you want juice.
  7479. >”Okay,” the filly responds. “Then I’ll bring you some later. How does that sound?”
  7480. “Nice. It sounds nice.”
  7481. >You can’t keep your eyes shut any longer.
  7482. >Somehow, you’re too exhausted to keep them closed.
  7483. >Light filters in through your lashes, between the hair’s crack of your open eyes.
  7484. >It would make you laugh, if you had the strength.
  7485. >”Are… are you laughing?”
  7486. >You are?
  7487. >You are.
  7488. >It’s weak, but it’s real.
  7489. >In surprise, your eyes pop open.
  7490. >You ran out of laughter when Ponyville was destroyed.
  7491. >This is -
  7492. >”Hi,” your caretaker says, her orange mane and dark coat filling your vision. “I’m Hematite Pie.”
  7494. >Be thoughtless.
  7495. >You drop from the bed and grab the woman’s hand.
  7496. “Sorry…”
  7497. >”Don’t whine none,” Lauren grunts, grabbing onto the bed with her other hand. “Just pull.”