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A Deal is a Deal (Part 1)

By twilightgamenight
Created: 16th July 2021 09:31:33 PM
31st January 2021 10:06:55 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