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A Deal is a Deal (Part 2)

By twilightgamenight
Created: 2021-07-16 21:31:33
Updated: 2021-01-31 22:06:18
Expiry: Never

  1. >Be almost there.
  2. >The road curved to the left a few miles past, headin' back towards the original highway.
  3. >You can see it up ahead.
  4. >"Miss Lauren?"
  5. "Yes, Mica?"
  6. >You try to keep your aggravation out of your voice.
  7. >He's just curious is all.
  8. >Would be nice if he was a little *less* curious, though.
  9. >"Why's that road so big?"
  10. "Used to be a major highway. Connected two towns, before headin' in to the city."
  11. >Major for here, anyhow.
  12. >Five lanes.
  13. >Folks in other parts of the state would laugh if you told 'em it was a major highway.
  14. >He prolly would.
  15. >"Oh," the colt grunts. "So why are we the only ones on it?"
  16. "*Used* to connect 'em."
  17. >"Huh?"
  18. "Now it goes nowhere."
  19. >"Then where are we going?"
  20. >You glance up at the rearview mirror - yep, just as you expected, he looks puzzled as heck.
  21. >So are you.
  22. "We're goin' into town."
  23. >No way he forgot.
  24. "But -"
  25. >"The farms, Mica," Apple Bloom sighs. "The farms are nowhere. We live nowhere."
  26. "Don't put it that way."
  27. >Let the little ones be happy, you add quietly.
  28. >"It's what you said," the mare sighs, ignoring your silent plea.
  29. "Nah, it’s just… beyond that – beyond his and my places and the Andersons' – the road used to lead to another town, and now it don't."
  30. >"Why?" Mica asks, his enthusiasm unhindered.
  31. "There's somethin' else there."
  32. >"What?"
  33. "Another one of these."
  34. >”Huh?”
  35. >The little pony can't see you jerk your head towards the pylons.
  36. "Another deadzone."
  37. >"Oh."
  38. "Beyond that's the city, but there ain't no way to get there here, without headin' up this way to the interstate."
  39. >"Why?" Hematite asks softly.
  40. "The deadzone."
  41. >"But... why didn't they build a road around it like they did here?"
  42. "Not enough need."
  43.  
  44. >Be sickly amused.
  45. >All that work for nothin'.
  46.  
  47. >Be confused.
  48. >"Then why'd they put those things up?" your brother asks. "Wasn't it to make travel safer?"
  49. >"Yeah," Miss Lauren sighs. "Were plans to run a road around that one too, but..."
  50. >"But?"
  51. >"Our town just ain't big 'nough to justify it. Not anymore."
  52. >"But -"
  53. "Mica..."
  54. >You can see Miss Lauren's face in the mirror.
  55. >She's not crying, but she wants to.
  56. >"Not a lot of folk came back to rebuild," she murmurs, her lips barely moving. "Mostly bad memories in these parts, I guess."
  57.  
  58. >Be unsure if you want to laugh or cry or simply die.
  59. >Puttin' up those columns dang near crippled you.
  60. >Ain't never gonna be as strong as you used to be.
  61. >You can only hope that's all it did to you - that your foal will be okay.
  62. >But you've hoped for a lot of things.
  63. >You hoped AJ would come back for you.
  64. >She said she would, and your sister never lies.
  65. >Everypony knows that.
  66. >But she didn’t.
  67. >You hoped humans and ponies would get along.
  68. >Everything was goin’ so well.
  69. >And then the work was done.
  70. >You hoped a gettin’ out of the camps would solve everything.
  71. >All you did was drag other ponies along for your silly fantasy.
  72. >You hoped he would be a better owner than the last.
  73. >Startin’ to get used to disappointment by then, but you still had hope.
  74. >You remember the exact moment you convinced all the others to trust him.
  75. >Was his first week here, and he weren’t happy about it. Not one bit.
  76. >Seemed to have a bit of a temper, so when the others fell behind, you jumped in to pick up the slack ‘fore he noticed.
  77. >You were tired.
  78. >Already pulled in double the amount any other other pony had.
  79. >The rock was only as big as your hoof, but big enough you twisted your leg somethin’ fierce.
  80. >You’d fallen, spillin’ your cart.
  81. >That caught his attention, sure enough.
  82. >The very thing you’d been tryin’ to avoid.
  83. >At least his anger was aimed at you, though, not at anypony else.
  84. >None of the ones with families or friends.
  85. >He’d stomped up, madder n’ a firecracker, demandin’ to know what was goin’ on.
  86. >Junebug had tried to get in his way.
  87. >You’d all heard horror stories.
  88. >Even seen a few, when the human medical staff at the camps performed what they were callin’ “triage.”
  89. >You called it murder.
  90. >So did some of the other humans.
  91. >Didn’t stop it from happenin’, though. Not always.
  92. >But there weren’t no reason to think he’d do that to you.
  93. >Leg wasn’t that bad. Just sore.
  94. >You could stand.
  95. >Needed a moment to catch yourself, but you could stand.
  96. >You could still work.
  97. >He pushed her aside, comin’ up to you.
  98. >You’d told him you were fine, that you could still work, that he didn’t need to bother himself with you.
  99. >He shook his head and growled.
  100. >You’d insisted that you didn’t need any help, but that only made him angrier.
  101. >”If you get hurt, you speak up, girl,” he’d rumbled. “Can’t afford any ponies getting lamed.”
  102. >You’d tried to reassure him, to tell him you didn’t need any treatment – you didn’t need “triage” – but he ignored you.
  103. >”If you can’t run, you crawl, and when you can’t crawl…”
  104. >His fingers fumbled with the harness until he finally got you free.
  105. >”… when you can’t do that, you find someone to carry you.”
  106. >Words came out too smooth, like he didn’t know what to say.
  107. >Sounded like he was quoting something instead.
  108. >You didn’t care.
  109. >He’d picked you up – not an easy thing for anypony, or anyhuman – and carried you back to his truck.
  110. >You remember the exact moment you’d fallen for him.
  111. >It was only two months ago; it’s not hard.
  112. >You also remember the exact moment he broke your heart.
  113. >That one’s harder. Despite being less’n a week ago, you don’t want to remember it.
  114. >But you managed to get through it all, didn’t you?
  115. >Managed to get through it all, but if your foal… if it…
  116. >You just have to hope again.
  117. >It’s impossible. Ain’t none left in your heart.
  118. >All you can do is stumble forward.
  119. >Your foal’s gotta be okay.
  120. >Ain’t no other choice.
  121.  
  122. >Be worried about Maud.
  123. >As soon as the other mares left, she settled down on a nearby pile of blankets.
  124. >She’s too tired to even raise her head.
  125. >You wait a minute, checking outside to make sure they’d gone, before asking her the question pounding in your mind.
  126. “Are you really doing fine?”
  127. >”Yes,” she sighs. “I’m fine.”
  128. “Not suffering from withdrawal anymore?”
  129. >”No.”
  130. >She looks up at you, her eyelids heavy and sagging.
  131. >”Just tired.”
  132. “Then why are you still here?”
  133. >You wave a hand, clearly indicating where “here” is.
  134. “Shouldn’t you be back with the others?”
  135. >”Do you know how hard it is to pull a plow?”
  136. “N-no.”
  137. >”My legs still ache.”
  138. “Oh.”
  139. >”I’m exhausted.”
  140. “You’re sure nothing –“
  141. >”I’m fine,” the mare insists, a hint of a smile showing up on her face.
  142. “Then why not go back to the dorms? I can drive you.”
  143. >Her smile widens.
  144. >Not much.
  145. >Maybe not at all, but she seems amused.
  146. “If I must confess,” the mare murmurs, “I’m enjoying having some time alone.”
  147. >Oh.
  148. “Oh.”
  149. >Well.
  150. “Okay then.”
  151. >”I’ll go back tomorrow.”
  152. >She lays her head down on a wadded up blanket.
  153. >”I’m looking forward to hearing your plan for the new housing.”
  154. >You too.
  155. >You don’t have a clue.
  156. >Maud tilts her head to look up at you when you sigh.
  157. >”What?”
  158. “You know I don’t know a damn thing about any of that. Where to build or what to buy or even how to get it built.”
  159. >”Ask Apple Bloom.”
  160. “I… can’t…”
  161. >”Ask her anyway.”
  162. >You sigh again, deeper and harsher, but the mare closes her eyes and lets out an exhausted sigh of her own.
  163. “And do you expect me to build Bon Bon a candy store too?”
  164. >”No. Who would she sell it to?”
  165. >She shifts slightly, pulling one of the blankets over herself.
  166. >”Besides,” she mumbles, smiling again for a fraction of a second, “I don’t really like candy.”
  167.  
  168. >Be surprised.
  169. >Last time you drove into town, it weren’t half this big.
  170. >Maybe you’re spendin’ too much time cooped up on the farm with daddy an’ the ponies.
  171. >Lots o’ little farms dot the outskirts, stretchin’ off to both sides of the road.
  172. >Nothin’ more n’ two or three acres, somethin’ a family can handle on their lonesome, maybe with one or two hands to help.
  173. >And – of course – more churches than a dog has fleas.
  174. >You’d think the road’d be better maintained than this, what with all the growth.
  175.  
  176. >Be shaken violently as Lauren hits another pothole.
  177. >These seats ain't meant for ponies, and the seatbelt ain't helpin' none with it forcin' you to sit up awkwardly.
  178. >You remember sittin' like this once before, when he drove you back to the dorms.
  179. >Ain't never used the seatbelts any time previous when you’d been in a human vehicle, but that was the first time you’d ever sat in the front.
  180. >He had insisted.
  181. >City habits, he explained, soundin' almost ashamed of it - but he wouldn't let you go without.
  182. >The drive weren't long, but he took his time, goin' carefully around the rough ground to avoid shakin' you.
  183. >He'd asked your name, where you were from. He'd seen you workin'.
  184. >Been impressed.
  185. >The hands hadn't mentioned you to him, he'd said. Told him all about a few of the others. The troublemakers, the ponies that'd try to cozy up to him for favors, the ones he could trust, and the ones he needed to beat.
  186. >They hadn't told him 'bout you at all.
  187. >Weren't surprising.
  188. >You'd messed up. Messed up everything so bad.
  189. >Nopony was happy here.
  190. >Better’n the camps were, but not what you’d promised.
  191. >Was all your fault. You shouldn't have convinced 'em to sign up.
  192. >You kept your head down - part outta shame, part 'cause it was just good sense.
  193. >Weren't a good idea to catch his uncle's attention.
  194. >You did what you could to help the others, to make up for your mistakes.
  195. >Taught 'em how to farm, looked after their foals.
  196. >Took on their work when they couldn't go any further.
  197. >He'd noticed that, he said. It's what he used to do, after all.
  198. >You hadn't asked what that meant. That woulda meant speakin’, and you were still tryin' to avoid his attention best you could.
  199. >It'd become second nature to you in the past few years.
  200. >When he asked your name again, you realized you still hadn't answered.
  201. >"Hey."
  202. >He chuckled when you told him.
  203. >Then he asked what you used to do.
  204. >"Hey!"
  205. >He smiled when you told him 'bout Sweet Apple Acres.
  206. >The truck'd been idling just off the pavilion for a while now.
  207. >Was as far as he could take you, he explained nervously, like he wanted to go further, hell, maybe even carry you to your cot or something.
  208. >"Cowgirl?"
  209. >Then he asked somethin' you'd never thought to hear.
  210. >He asked if you'd help carry him.
  211. >Not here an' now, but he didn't know a thing 'bout farmin'.
  212. >He asked if you'd be his forepony.
  213. >"Hey, are you awake?"
  214. >You'd said yes.
  215. >You thought you could help.
  216. >You were such a stupid little filly.
  217. >A hand touches your shoulder, the lightest of touches knocking you out of the past.
  218. >Lauren jerks back immediately, like she -
  219. >Yeah.
  220. >That's right.
  221. >One of the nicest humans you've ever met is scared of you.
  222.  
  223. >Be wary.
  224. >Touchin' the mare was stupid.
  225. >You shouldn't have done that, but she wasn’t respondin’.
  226. >Poor girl looked lost in her own lil’ world.
  227. >She didn’t know where she was.
  228. >Also meant she wouldn’t know what she was doin’ ‘fore she kicked you outta your own damn truck.
  229. >That was stupid of you.
  230. >Slowly, the mare raises her eyes and sighs.
  231. >”What?”
  232. “We’re here, Apple Bloom.”
  233. >You turn the wheel, steerin’ the truck into the parkin’ lot of the feed store.
  234. >She turns her head, lookin’ out through the windshield at the storefront – and the orange pegasus that just poked her head out the door.
  235. >Mare’s got the biggest fuckin’ grin you’ve ever seen.
  236. >”Oh,” Apple Bloom grunts, looking down again as you pull into a parking space and throw the truck into park.
  237. >She doesn’t move.
  238. “Well?”
  239. >”Yeah, Ah’m goin’.”
  240. >Apple Bloom sighs and fumbles at her seat belt.
  241. “Need help?”
  242. >”What do you think?” she snarls angrily, jabbing at the release with her hoof.
  243. “Fine, just let me –“
  244. >You try to reach for it, but she doesn’t stop, smacking it again and again.
  245. >Ain’t no way you’re lettin’ your fingers get caught t’ween her hoof and anything else.
  246. “Stop that.”
  247. >”Just let me out,” she growls, never pullin’ her hoof away.
  248. “I’d love to, but you gotta *let* me!”
  249. >You never get a chance to explain what you mean – the two foals’ screams knockin’ all thoughts right out of your head.
  250. >Apple Bloom and you look up at the same time, see it at the same time, and let out little screams of your own in surprise at the same time.
  251. >”APPLE BLOOM!” the orange pegasus shouts, her nose pressed against your windshield, resemblin’ all too much a bug splattered on the glass. “IT REALLY IS YOU!”
  252.  
  253. >Be pulling up to the house.
  254. >Maud finally convinced you she’s fine.
  255. >Helped that she was right – you’re exhausted.
  256. >Wrecking your own living room really did wear you out.
  257. >Maybe after lunch – and a nap – you’ll check on Silver.
  258. >She’s just as much your pony as Maud; you owe her the same concern.
  259. >Even if all she’s been so far is a drain on the farm.
  260. >You park the truck right in front – no way you’re going to *walk* down to the dorms when you’re this tired.
  261. >Not that far to go, but far enough you don’t want to make the walk when you’re feeling like this.
  262. >You kill the engine and get out, wobbling slightly before you get your second boot on the ground.
  263. >First, lunch.
  264. >With a weary sigh, you trudge up the stairs and into the house.
  265. >The lights in the kitchen are on – you’re fairly certain you turned those off.
  266. “Roma?”
  267. >The metallic chime of someone rummaging through pots and pans answers you.
  268. “Hey, Roma, is that you?”
  269. >Obviously, but… well, it could be one of her assistants.
  270. >No answer.
  271. >You shuffle towards the kitchen to see, completely unprepared for the mess you see.
  272. >Pots are scattered everywhere, various foodstuffs piled on the few spots not covered in cookware.
  273. “Roma…”
  274. >You’re too tired to get angry.
  275. >There’s probably a practical reason for all this.
  276. >Damned if you can think of one, though.
  277. “Roma!”
  278. >There’s more rattling – coming around the island, you’re greeted by a wiggling, cream-colored pony butt.
  279. >That’s not Roma.
  280. >The red and purple tail is vaguely familiar, but only vaguely.
  281. >You don’t spend enough time staring at pony ass to know by heart who this one belongs to.
  282. >Plus, you’re also too tired for this bullshit.
  283. “Hey!”
  284. >You slap the palm of your hand down on the countertop.
  285. >”HUH!?
  286. >rattle bang sproing rattle
  287. >Not the sounds you had been hoping for, not “sorry, I’ll get it cleaned up right away!” or even “whoops!”
  288. >The tail thrashes furiously as the pony tries to extract itself from the cabinet.
  289. >You wait patiently, not falling over in exhaustion or grabbing it by the tail and yanking.
  290. >By inches, the pony pulls itself free until you see a familiar pair of glasses.
  291. >Well, not so much familiar as distinctive. There are only the two mares on the farm that wear glasses, and since this pony isn’t crippled…
  292. “Moondancer. I should have… actually, I have no idea why you’re here.”
  293. >You sigh and lean over, resting your forearms on the counter.
  294. “Please explain to me why you’re here and – more importantly – why you made a mess of my kitchen.”
  295. >Adjusting her glasses is not a valid answer, but that doesn’t stop her from giving it a try.
  296. “Roma’s going to have your hide for this.”
  297. >”No, she isn’t,” the unicorn responds with a shake of her head. “I gave her the rest of the day off.”
  298. “Okay, third thing I need you to explain to me, whenever you get around to answering the other two. What makes you think you can do that?”
  299. >She shrugs, as if the reason is so obvious she can’t believe she has to explain that.
  300. “Well?”
  301. >”Maud was right,” the mare sighs. “You need help.”
  302. “I think I’m more than capable of wrecking my own kitchen.”
  303. >”Yeah, probably.”
  304. >The mare pauses, glancing towards the hall.
  305. >”I mean, you seemed to do a pretty good job on the living room.”
  306.  
  307. >Be suddenly free.
  308. >”There,” Lauren grunts as your seatbelt retracts. “Now go on and get. Spend some time with your friend.”
  309. >You’re not sure you want to.
  310. >With only a thin sheet of glass separating you from Scootaloo, you don’t know how you ever thought you could face her.
  311.  
  312. >Be confused.
  313. >You've never seen a pony this happy, not even when you got your cutie mark, so why isn't Apple Bloom happy?
  314. >The pegasus is a total stranger to you, but just seeing her makes *you* happy.
  315. >Something about her feels *right*.
  316. >"Go on, now," Lauren growls, doubled over in her seat. "We ain't got all day."
  317. >She's in pain.
  318. >"Gotta make the most of the time you two got together," the woman adds a second later, once she can straighten up. "I'm sure he'll let you do this again, but it might not be for a while.
  319. >You don't think that's why she's urging Apple Bloom to leave.
  320. >"Yeah," the mare mumbles, fumbling awkwardly at the door handle with her hoof. "Yeah, I know."
  321. >The pegasus doesn't wait for her, rolling off the front of the truck and yanking the door open.
  322. >She has a familiarity with human things that Apple Bloom doesn't.
  323. >"I'M SO HAPPY TO SEE YOU!"
  324. >The orange mare practically leaps in, grabbing Apple Bloom in a tight hug.
  325. >"Y-yeah. Same here."
  326. >"I CAN'T BELIEVE IT! IT'S BEEN THREE YEARS, AND YOU HAVEN'T CHANGED AT ALL!"
  327.  
  328. >Be the same screwup you always were.
  329. >The same stupid little filly.
  330. "Yeah. Sorry."
  331. >Hesitantly, you return Scootaloo's hug.
  332. "Sorry Ah couldn't do better for y'all."
  333. >You can feel the mare suddenly tense up all of a sudden.
  334. >"Wait, what -"
  335. >"HI! I'M MICA! WHO ARE YOU!?"
  336. >Scootaloo jerks back in surprise as the little colt leans around your seat, all without lettin' go and dang near pullin' you outta the truck as she loses her balance.
  337. >A few flaps of her wings gets her steady again.
  338. >"What?" the pegasus grunts, lookin' at the colt. "Uh, hi... um... Mica?"
  339. >She blinks and tilts her head to one side, 'fore lookin' back at you.
  340. >"Mica?" she asks softly. "Why does that... Mica Pie?"
  341. >You nod.
  342. >"Mica!" Scootaloo laughs happily, lettin' go of you to ruffle his mane. "And... and..."
  343. >She leans over you, cranin' her neck to see the other foal.
  344. >"He-hematite!? Last time I saw you, you weren't much bigger than my hoof!"
  345. >Scootaloo grins wildly, lookin' over you at the pair.
  346. >"You know who we are?" you hear Mica ask as Scootaloo does her dang best to crawl over you to get to the foals.
  347. >"Wait, you two don't remember me?"
  348. >"No, should -"
  349. >"HEMATITE! YOU GOT YOUR CUTIE MARK!"
  350. >For a heartbeat, the truck's cab is filled with a flurry of orange feathers.
  351. >"APPLE BLOOM!" the pegasus shouts, deafeningly loud. "YOU DID IT! I CAN'T BELIEVE IT! YOU DID IT!"
  352. >You wish you could die.
  353. >Right here. Right now. Before she learns the truth.
  354. >"This is impossible!" Scootaloo cheers, wrappin' her forelegs around you in a hug. "Everyone says it's impossible, but you did it!"
  355. >She's squeezin' your barrel so dang tight your wish might just come true.
  356. >It don't.
  357. "I didn't do anything."
  358. >”Don’t be so humble, Apple Bloom!” the pegasus laughs, pullin’ you out of the truck. “Everyone come inside! We have to celebrate!”
  359. >She does it easily. Your body just don’t got the strength to resist, not since puttin’ up them pylons.
  360. >You wonder how she does.
  361. >Scootaloo was right there with you the whole time.
  362. >”Mica, Hematite, come on, we –“
  363. >”Nah, sorry,” Lauren cuts her off. “We gotta get goin’. Places to be.”
  364. >”Oh, but –“
  365. >”We’ll be back later,” the woman grunts. “Go on, Apple Bloom.”
  366.  
  367. >Be pissed.
  368. >No, not pissed. You’re too tired to be properly pissed.
  369. >More vaguely infuriated, really.
  370. >You sigh and push yourself up off the counter.
  371. “I’m a reasonable guy, Moondancer, but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.”
  372. >”That depends on how you look at it.”
  373. “The hell it does.”
  374. >You sigh again, looking around at the mess she’s made of the kitchen.
  375. “God dammit.”
  376. >You want to beat her, kick her, punish her somehow.
  377. >Too tired, though, but you know that’s just an excuse.
  378. >As much as you want to, you don’t want to. Not really. The urge is there, but you know it’s wrong.
  379. >Doesn’t stop you from fantasizing about it for a second.
  380. “Just… get this mess cleaned up and get the hell out.”
  381. >This damn mare pushes you almost as much as Apple Bloom.
  382. >”I… can’t…”
  383. >You don’t have to take that from her.
  384. >Apple Bloom, yes, but not this one.
  385. “Moondancer…”
  386. >”No, really, I can’t,” the mare insists. “I told Roma I’d make your lunch.”
  387. “I’ll eat an apple.
  388. >”Then… fine. But you still need somepony to talk to.”
  389. “I’ll be fine.”
  390. >”You don’t sound fine.”
  391. “Not. But I will be, soon as everything gets put away.”
  392. >The mare cocks her head in confusion – or deep thought.
  393. >She doesn’t really look like the kind to ever really get confused, just distracted.
  394. >”You said things.”
  395. “Yes. I fucking did, and if you don’t start –“
  396. >”No,” she cuts in with a shake of her head. “You said ‘unreasonable things.’ The cookware is only one thing.”
  397. >Moondancer looks around the room and rolls her eyes.
  398. >”Okay, it’s a lot of things, but still only one thing in the grand scheme of… things…”
  399. >She giggles nervously before looking back at you.
  400. >”That was a bit repetitive, I’ll admit, but –“
  401. “Fine. Stay. Cook. Clean.”
  402. >”You need help!”
  403. “Then cook lunch and leave me the fuck alone.”
  404. >”But –“
  405. “No!”
  406. >You slam your palm into the countertop.
  407. “I’ve had enough of ponies lying to me, disobeying me, trying to *attack* me!”
  408. >She flinches at the sudden noise.
  409. “Later, fine, sure, we can continue this bullshit, but I’m too tired for it right now.”
  410. >”Then after a nap…”
  411. “No, you don’t get it. I’m *tired* of all of this.”
  412. >You sigh.
  413. “Maybe tomorrow.”
  414. >The mare opens her mouth, but thinks better of whatever she was about to say.
  415. >It snaps shut with a nod.
  416. >”I’ll get lunch ready.”
  417. >She’s not afraid – you don’t see fear in her eyes, she doesn’t cringe or cower or plead.
  418. >Maybe you’re just an idiot, but maybe she actually understands.
  419. >You take a step back from the island. Moondancer doesn’t try to follow.
  420. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to handle reality again, but right now I need a break.”
  421. >She nods again.
  422. >Good.
  423. >You just can’t take this anymore.
  424. >It’s too much.
  425. >You never asked for this.
  426. >”I’ll take care of everything.”
  427. >You look back at the unicorn.
  428. >They didn’t ask for any of this either, did they?
  429. >That’s how she understands.
  430. >Did she go through it herself, or help other ponies with it?
  431. >”Don’t worry,” the mare sighs. “I’ll clean everything up.”
  432. >You stare for a second, wondering which it was.
  433. >Most likely both.
  434. “Fine.”
  435. >You turn and shuffle away.
  436. “I’ll be in the living room. Come get me when it’s ready.”
  437. >”Yes, sir.”
  438. >As soon as you reach the room, you collapse back into your chair – the same one you’d spent the night in.
  439. >You wish you had some beer.
  440. >It’d be a waste to bring out the good stuff now, when you’re too exhausted to enjoy it, but a little something to help you relax would be nice.
  441. >Instead, you find yourself staring at the wall, at the holes you put in it.
  442. >The sight does nothing to help.
  443. >You’re still staring when Moondancer comes up to you, her mane now tied back in a ponytail.
  444. “Ready?”
  445. >”No,” she answers with a shake of her head. “Just finished taking stock of everything.”
  446. >She glances over at the wall and sighs.
  447. >”What do you want me to make, mac n’ cheese or spaghetti?”
  448. “Steak.”
  449. >”I don’t know how to cook that,” the mare responds. “Mac n’ cheese or spaghetti?”
  450. >You glare at her for a second.
  451. >The kitchen is well stocked.
  452. >Lack of supplies isn’t limiting her, only her own abilities.
  453. “I take it you’ll be cooking dinner, too?”
  454. >”Yes, sir.”
  455. “Mac n’ cheese, then.”
  456. >Spaghetti is more of a dinner meal, anyway.
  457. >You sigh.
  458. >Steak is better than either one, as lunch or dinner.
  459. >Moondancer – turning to leave, hesitates as you let out another long, unhappy sigh.
  460. >”I can… try…”
  461. >She looks down at her hooves, ashamed of what she’s offering.
  462. >”Probably won’t turn out well, but I can try.”
  463. >And ruin some perfectly good meat?
  464. >No, you can’t let that happen.
  465. >It’s too rare to waste like that.
  466. “Don’t worry about it.”
  467. >”If it helps…”
  468. “If I want it so damn much, I should just make it myself.”
  469. >”You’re tired,” the mare sighs. “It may not be what I intended when I came up here – but let me help you.”
  470. “Then make the macaroni, Moondancer.”
  471. >It doesn’t really matter what you put in your stomach right now.
  472. “It’ll be fine.”
  473. >“If you’re sure…”
  474. “I’m too tired to care.”
  475. >She nods once.
  476. >”Then…?”
  477. >She drifts off into silence, her question unasked.
  478. “What?”
  479. >”Can I eat with you?”
  480. “Why?”
  481. >”I won’t ask you anything,” the mare answers quickly. “But you need somepony to talk to.”
  482. >She blushes and grins in embarrasement.
  483. >”Also, I skipped breakfast and lunch, so…”
  484. “Fine.”
  485. >It doesn’t really matter where she eats.
  486. >You’ve shared enough meals with Apple Bloom to be used to eating with a pony.
  487. >It is – was – nice, having company.
  488. >”Okay then,” Moondancer responds with a nod. “I’ll get that whipped up in a minute.”
  489. >Another lying pony.
  490. >It’s ten before she trots back into the room, one bowl balanced on her head, the other on her back.
  491. >The hell…?
  492. “Why didn’t you just call me into the dining room?”
  493. >You grab the bowl from her back and stand; she slides hers onto a sidetable with a tilt of her head and hops into the seat beside yours.
  494. >”Well, if we aren’t going to talk, we might as well watch something.”
  495. >She grabs the remote off the table and flips on the TV with experienced hooves.
  496. >Apple Bloom wasn’t anywhere as deft, and she’s spent more time up here than any of the other ponies.
  497. “You… uh…”
  498. >She has a point.
  499. >Watching something is better than staring angrily at a wall.
  500. “You seem pretty familiar with human technology.”
  501. >Slowly, you lower yourself back into your seat as she starts flicking through the available movies.
  502. >”Yeah, well…” the unicorn murmurs, “this isn’t my first time working with humans.”
  503.  
  504. >Be goin’ inside.
  505. >Ain’t got no choice.
  506. >”Come on!” your friend whines impatiently. “I have to show you something!”
  507. “Yeah, comin’.”
  508. >You look back over your shoulder – Lauren’s already pullin’ out of the parkin’ lot.
  509. >She continues holdin’ the door open for you ‘til you’re in, then follows you herself, lettin’ the door slam shut with a jingle.
  510. >”So, how’ve things been out on the farm?”
  511. “Fine.”
  512. >You step aside, lettin’ the pegasus take the lead.
  513. >She guides you down the aisles of hardware an’ other farmin’ goods, past little pins full o’ baby chicks all chirpin’ away merrily.
  514. >”Don’t you *dare* make a comment about me being their mother!”
  515. >Scootaloo says it good-naturedly, even nudges you with her leg when you don’t respond.
  516. “Oh, hadn’t even crossed my mind.”
  517. >It hadn’t.
  518. >You’re lost ‘bout where that came from.
  519. >”Because… you know… when you and Sweetie called me a chicken…?”
  520. “Oh.”
  521. >Yeah, you remember that. Vaguely.
  522. >Seems like a whole lifetime ago.
  523. >Definitely a whole world ago.
  524. >”I guess that’s a little old,” Scootaloo mumbles, lookin’ down at the chicks for a sec’ before leadin’ you on ‘gain.
  525. “Yeah.”
  526. >She pushes on in uncomfortable silence, ‘til the two of you reach a door.
  527. >Don’t even take her a sec to grab the knob an’ twist it open.
  528. >No hesitation or fumblin’ or nothin’.
  529. >”Hey, Bill –“
  530. >”Oh, your friend’s here?” an old man asks, pushin’ himself up off the ragged sofa that fills most of the tiny room. “Well, heck, I’ll head on out and watch the shop.”
  531. >He edges aside slowly, makin’ room for the two of you to enter.
  532. >Scoots don’t hesitate none, jumpin’ right over the arm of the sofa with a single flap of her wings an’ curlin’ up in the spot the man had just left.
  533. >”Heh, that’s my little Scootaloo,” he laughs. “Nestin’ in the warm spot, just like a baby chick.”
  534. >”Hey!”
  535. >”Well, don’t blame me,” he laughs. “It’s your own dang fault for tellin’ me that story!”
  536. >He slaps his knees ‘fore bendin’ down and holdin’ out his hand to you.
  537. >”I’m Bill,” he introduces himself, “and I’m guessin’ you’re Apple Bloom?”
  538. “Yes, sir.”
  539. >You hold out a hoof timidly – almost jerkin’ away when he grabs it and shakes it.
  540. >”Don’t gotta be so bashful, girl,” Bill chuckles, standin’ up tall. “I know your old host musta been a piece of work, but your new one seems like a decent boy.”
  541. “He…”
  542. >A frown flashes across the man’s face.
  543. >”If he isn’t, you tell me. I’m not so old I can’t whip his ass.”
  544. >”Bill…!”
  545. >”Well, Scoots, I’m not!” he growls back. “He was a few years behind my son, but not so much I didn’t see him from time to time whenever there was a school function. If he’s not treatin’ his ponies right, someone’s gotta let him have it!”
  546. “No… he’s…”
  547. >He’d never accept you back if you told lies ‘bout him.
  548. “He’s wonderful, sir.”
  549. >You want him to take you back more than anything.
  550. >”Well…”
  551. >The man looks at Scootaloo and gives her a little nod – one the pegasus returns – ‘fore turnin’ back to you.
  552. >”If that changes any –“
  553. “He treats me better’n Ah deserve.”
  554. >”Fairly certain that’s impossible,” Bill grumbles, lookin’ up all of a sudden when the front door jingles again. “Well, you two girls have fun. Lemme know if you need anything.”
  555. >He jerks his thumb out towards the shop.
  556. >”Gotta go see what his cityslicker needs,” he says with a smile, steppin’ out an pullin’ the door shut behind him.
  557. >There’s an awkward moment of silence ‘fore Scootaloo pats the sofa.
  558. >”Come on, Apple Bloom, sit down and talk with me.”
  559. “Yeah.”
  560. >You scramble at the tall sofa, ‘til you finally get a hind hoof up on it and pull yourself up beside the other mare.
  561. >”What’s wrong?”
  562. “Nothin’.”
  563. >”Don’t you lie to me,” Scootaloo growls. “I know you better than that!”
  564. “Ain’t lyin’.”
  565. >”Then what’s that shit about him treating you better than you deserve!?”
  566. “The truth.”
  567. >You sigh and rest your head on your forelegs.
  568. >Scootaloo just stares.
  569. >”You’ve changed,” she eventually mumbles, shifting to cross her legs over her chest.
  570. “So’ve you.”
  571. >You nod towards her an’ her all-too-human gesture.
  572. >”Yeah… well…”
  573. >The pegasus hastily uncrosses her legs, nervously fidgeting.
  574. >”It’s been three years, after all,” she says guiltily. “I guess it happens.”
  575. >She’s right.
  576. >It’s been three years since you’ve seen each other.
  577. “It’s all my fault.”
  578. >”What?”
  579. “That we got split up.”
  580. >”What!? No!”
  581. “If… if Ah hadn’t suggested everypony sign up for work relocation…”
  582. >”That’s not your fault,” Scootaloo insists, reachin’ out and puttin’ a hoof on your shoulder.
  583. >You jerk away, ‘fore you accidentally kick her too.
  584. “It is!”
  585. >She don’t get it, does she?
  586. “If Ah hadn’t, we’d all still be together! We all coulda stayed in the camps, an’… an’…”
  587. >”No,” Scoots whispers, shakin’ her head. “No, it was better this way.”
  588. >Even your best friend couldn’t stand bein’ with you.
  589. >”I mean, we got split up, but you know what the camps were like.”
  590. “Yeah.”
  591. >”And… and we’ve got to see each other again!”
  592. “Yeah.”
  593. >She falls silent at how dead you sound.
  594. >Sun, you wish you were.
  595. >Scootaloo sighs an’ looks away.
  596. >”How’s everyone doing?”
  597. “Everypony.”
  598. >”What?”
  599. “Everypony.”
  600. >”O-oh. How’s everypony doing?”
  601. “Fine.”
  602. >She sighs again, crossin’ her legs like they’re arms – like she’s human.
  603. >Maybe she is, far as Bill an’ her are concerned, but it irritates you to no end.
  604. >Reminds you that you’re just a pony.
  605. >Just a stupid filly.
  606. >”Well,” Scootaloo sighs, lookin’ ‘cross the tiny room at a dead TV, “did you see Sweetie?”
  607. “She’s here?”
  608. >She can’t be. Her an’ Rarity – they should be safe an’ in Manehattan!
  609. >”No, not here,” the other mare answers, shakin’ her head. “On the TV.”
  610. “Huh.”
  611. >Good.
  612. “No, don’t get to watch that much.”
  613. >”Oh, o-okay, well, she was on the TV!”
  614. “Good for her.”
  615. >Why?
  616. >”She sung the Equestrian Anthem at the last peace talks!” Scootaloo rapidly and excitedly explains. “They televised part of it! Even gave a little speech about us!”
  617. “Why?”
  618. >”Because she misses us, you idiot!”
  619. “Well, I’m glad she remembers us.”
  620. >You’ve tried to forget her.
  621. >Best not to think about the past, just hope everything turned out alright for the others.
  622. >”Rarity and Pinkie were there, too, representing the Elements!”
  623. “An’ what about my sister?”
  624. >”N-no,” Scootaloo stammers. “Just Rarity and Pinkie.”
  625. >She pauses to sigh.
  626. >”Twilight wasn’t there either. Cadence declared her a war criminal. Promised if she ever caught her, she’d hand Twilight over to the humans.”
  627. “Why!?”
  628. >Scootaloo looks down sadly at you an’ smiles.
  629. >”Well, it’s kinda pretty obvious why.”
  630. “No it ain’t!”
  631. >With Celestia and Luna gone, she’s the only one that can save everypony!
  632. >”She killed so many people, Apple Bloom…”
  633. “Weren’t her fault! The humans –“
  634. >”The humans hadn’t hit civilian targets,” Scootaloo sighs. “She did. She didn’t care.”
  635. “Well, they deserved –“
  636. >Your cheek stings.
  637. >”Don’t you dare say that,” the mare hisses, raisin’ her hoof again. “You’re better than that, Apple Bloom! What the heck is wrong with you!?”
  638. >Ain’t the first time you’ve been hit.
  639. “Well, they *did*.”
  640. >You ain’t got no fear of her hoof.
  641. “Don’t you remember what they did to Ponyville?”
  642. >”Yeah, I do. Don’t you remember that happened after what Twilight did?”
  643. >You shrug.
  644. ”They whould have done it anyway.”
  645. >”No, they wouldn’t have.”
  646. >She’s spent too much time with humans.
  647. >You envy her.
  648. “How can you take their side?”
  649. >”There are no *sides* in this, Apple Bloom,” Scootaloo snarls. “We’re all in this together.”
  650. >She throws herself backwards, until her wings are restin’ against the arm of the sofa.
  651. >”We’ve all got to work together. Didn’t you tell us that?”
  652. “Ah was wrong.”
  653. >”No, you weren’t,” Scootaloo insists, shakin’ her head. “Most of the residents here didn’t used to life here. Bill didn’t. He moved here to be near his grandkids.”
  654. >She points past you, back towards the farm – and the pylon’s you’d worked so hard to get up.
  655. >”They’re dead, Apple Bloom. Twilight did that.”
  656. “Good.”
  657. >”Seriously, what’s wrong with you!?” the mare wails. “What happened!?”
  658. “Nothin’ Ah didn’t deserve.”
  659. >”Something did! You’re…”
  660. >Scootaloo pauses, lookin’ you up an’ down.
  661. >”You’re broken worse than Diamond Tiara.”
  662. >The pegasus huffs and looks away.
  663. >”So, yeah, Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon are here in town,” she says, tryin’ to move on to a different topic.
  664. >She’s clearly havin’ a hard time keepin’ her temper in check.
  665. >”I’ve seen them a few times. I think they work up at Sterling’s. Waitresses, I guess.”
  666. >She doesn’t have a clue.
  667. “Silver don’t, not anymore. She’s on the farm with us.”
  668. >You don’t got the heart to tell her the truth. Way she’s been coddled, you don’t think she could take it.
  669. >“Lucky her!”
  670. “Yeah. Sure.”
  671. >Scootaloo shifts, makin’ herself more comfortable in her spot.
  672. >”Well, seriously, how are the others?” she asks. “How’s Babs?”
  673.  
  674. >Be thinking about that night three years ago.
  675. >Wasn’t much different than any other night in the camps.
  676. >Dark, dreary, and mostly hopeless.
  677. >Your stomach was empty.
  678. >Likely would be for another day or two, until the trucks could get out here with some food.
  679. >Your nurse smiled up at you, patting your thigh reassuringly.
  680. >”Things are looking up, doctor.”
  681. >*Mostly* hopeless, which was slightly better than normal.
  682. >The first batch of ponies selected for work relocation had just shipped out, freeing up space and supplies for the others.
  683. “I know, nurse.”
  684. >You sighed and picked up the supply checklist.
  685. >Theft wasn’t the problem it usually was in these kinds of places, but you still needed to go over your medicines.
  686. >It could cost a pony their life if you were suddenly short of something you thought you had.
  687. >”Need help?”
  688. “No, there’s not much to count.”
  689. >”I know,” she sighed, looking at the one locked cabinet in the whole building. “I hope we get some more supplies in soon.”
  690. “Me too. This won’t last the week.”
  691. >”Maybe four days if we’re lucky,” she agreed glumly. “And we aren’t due for resupply until the end of the month.”
  692. “That’s only two weeks away, nurse. We’ll make it last.”
  693. >She laughed and shook her head.
  694. >”It’s amazing how cavalier you can be about things.”
  695. “Yeah.”
  696. >Amazing how much a person can grow in three years, isn’t it?
  697. >You used to be such a fool.
  698. ”Why don’t you go outside and get some fresh air.”
  699. >The building – one of the few actual buildings in the camp – didn’t have a working air conditioner.
  700. >Didn’t have a broken one, either, but at least you had a solid floor under your feet, not mud.
  701. >Nurse was right, though.
  702. >Things are starting to get better.
  703. >The next batch of work relocation ponies were heading out to some nearby farms.
  704. >You were a smart enough man to know you wouldn’t see any results immediately, but it would certainly help with the food shortages in the long run.
  705. >Couldn’t hurt.
  706. >You had just finished up the checklist when you heard the growl of a speeding motor, the driver frantically pounding on their horn.
  707. >The pony nurse met you halfway to the door.
  708. >”Sir, I think –!”
  709. “I know!”
  710. >There’s only one reason for someone to come here.
  711. >The two reporters met you at the door, carrying a bleeding, wheezing mare between them.
  712. >”She just came out of nowhere!” one of them wailed. “I tried to stop, but the mud –“
  713. >”We couldn’t stop!” the other shouted.
  714. “And you MOVED her!?”
  715. >”I thought –“
  716. >”Over here!” your nurse interrupted, gesturing towards one of your two examination tables. “Set her down!”
  717. >She was right – she usually was.
  718. >There was no time to be assigning blame.
  719. >You stepped over to the sink and quickly scrubbed up as fast as you could.
  720. “What happened?”
  721. >”Like I said,” the cameraman shouted as you frantically washed your hands, “she just came out of nowhere, and –“
  722. “No, not that. Tell me what I need to know.”
  723. >”We… we hit her, and… I mean…”
  724. >There’s a grunt as the two set the mare down on the table.
  725. >”I thought she was fine,” the man insisted. “She said she was fine! And then she just started vomiting blood and collapsed!”
  726. >”So we got her into the car,” the other added. “We thought we should get her to you as fast as we could. Were right about it too, because halfway here, she was barely breathing and –“
  727. “Because you probably punctured her lungs when you moved her. That or her diaphragm.”
  728. >One glove on.
  729. “NEVER move a patient like that!”
  730. >”We were just trying to help!”
  731. “You… you FUCKING IDIOT! Doing what you think is best usually causes more harm than good!”
  732. >In your haste, in distraction, you dropped the second glove on the ground.
  733. >Dammit, that’s what you got for rushing.
  734. “Stop to think about what you’re doing next time!”
  735. >”We… we thought –“
  736. “I brought you here to help… I…”
  737. >This is all your fault. You thought bringing in the reporters to expose the conditions in the camp would help.
  738. “I brought you here to help them, not to kill them.”
  739. >You should have thought it through.
  740. “Get out. Nurse, give her some painkillers.”
  741. >”But, doctor…”
  742. “She’s in pain, isn’t she?”
  743. >Second on.
  744. >”Yes, doctor.”
  745. >You understood her hesitation – your supply wouldn’t last forever.
  746. >Thank God whoever was in charge of resupply hadn’t realized ponies needed only a quarter the dose of an adult human.
  747. >Mask.
  748. >Good enough.
  749. >You spun around and looked down at the mare lying on your exam table.
  750. >Red mane, brown coat.
  751. >You thought you’d seen her around before.
  752. >A think trickle of blood was seeping from her nostrils and mouth.
  753. >Her chest was barely moving.
  754. >Worse of all, she was awake.
  755. >Her eyes followed you.
  756. “Nurse, those painkillers…”
  757. >”Yes, doctor.”
  758. >Syringe clutched in her mouth, the mare trotted over.
  759. >Most ponies had problems using human equipment, but not her.
  760. >She’d practiced. Made sure she could do this right. Caused the patient as little pain as possible. Wasted as little as possible.
  761. >You loved her for that. Still do.
  762. >Carefully, she inserted the needle into the mare’s leg.
  763. >The pony reacted instantly, her chest heaving, bloody foam speckling her muzzle.
  764. “Calm down, she’s just trying to help.”
  765. >The mare panic was clear.
  766. >”I’m… fine…” she gasped. “… just… let me… go…”
  767. “Stop, don’t talk.”
  768. >You gently – very gently – probed her barrel.
  769. >Things that should not have moved move under your fingers.
  770. “Dammit, I was right.”
  771. >”What, doctor?”
  772. “Broken ribs. Probably punctured stomach, lungs and diaphragm. Possible spinal injury.”
  773. >You smiled under your mask.
  774. “I’m afraid we’re going to be up all night, nurse.”
  775. >You knew she would be with you every minute, which made it all the more surprising when she shook her head.
  776. “Nurse…”
  777. >She shook her head again, biting her lip.
  778. “Nurse.”
  779. >Again.
  780. “Get me everything out of the –“
  781. >”No.”
  782. >Her eyes trembled and she cried as she said it, but she still said it.
  783. >”Not until…”
  784. >She looked at the mare lying on the table, then at you.
  785. >”Doctor, we need to talk.”
  786. >There was no time for it, but you followed her into the adjacent room.
  787. >You had to.
  788. >There was no way you could have saved the mare on your own.
  789. >”What are her odds of survival?” the mare asked as soon as you were inside.
  790. “Slim, and getting slimmer every moment we –“
  791. >”Then we can’t, sir.”
  792. “We have to try!”
  793. >”We have to save our supplies for the ponies we can help,” your nurse insisted. “How much would you use, if you tried –“
  794. “All of it, if I have to!”
  795. >”Then you *can’t*.”
  796. “I can’t just let her bleed out on my table!”
  797. >”No,” your nurse admitted, dipping her head, “you can’t. You know what you have to do.”
  798. >You knew what she meant, but you didn’t believe her.
  799. “I haven’t done it yet, and I’m not about to. Now, if you’re not going to help me –“
  800. >”She’s going to die anyway, doctor!”
  801. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”
  802. >”You DON’T!”
  803. >The mare tried to hold back her tears, but she couldn’t.
  804. >”I’ve… I’ve seen you work miracles, but you can’t save everypony.”
  805. “I know, but I have to try.”
  806. >”She’s going to die, doctor,” your nurse howled. “You shouldn’t waste supplies just to keep her alive and in pain for a few more days when they could be used to actually save somepony’s life!”
  807. “Dammit, I said – I don’t have time for this.”
  808. >You angrily stalked out of the office.
  809. “If you’re not going to help me, then just get out.”
  810. >”Doctor…”
  811. “GET OUT!”
  812. >You didn’t watch as she left, but you could hear the door slamming behind her.
  813. >The mare on the table was breathing more calmly, but you knew that was just the drugs.
  814. >It wouldn’t have taken much more to put her down.
  815. >You hated yourself for that thought then, and you still do.
  816. >Blood had run off the table and pooled on the floor.
  817. >Her breathing was so weak, it was a miracle her eyes could still focus on you.
  818. >You nearly slipped in the pooled blood when she spoke.
  819. >”Please,” she had begged. “Please.”
  820. “Don’t worry. I’m going to help you.”
  821. >”Please,” she repeated, “I’m… I’m all she… all she…”
  822. “You’re going to get better, just stop talking.”
  823. >You didn’t even know where to begin.
  824. >Without your nurse, you couldn’t put her under.
  825. >”I’m… all… she has… left…”
  826. >Stopping the bleeding. That had to come first.
  827. >”Please…”
  828. “I’m…”
  829. >Even if she was here, you wouldn’t know how to even begin.
  830. >You had…
  831. >”… please…”
  832. >You couldn’t waste any more time doing nothing.
  833. “Okay, I’m going to get started.”
  834. >But as you looked at the open medicine cabinet – at the mostly bare shelves, and the handful of nearly empty bottles – you…
  835. >You did what you thought was right.
  836. >Maybe it was a mistake, maybe it wasn’t.
  837. >You doubt you’ll ever know for sure.
  838. >What you do know is that nothing you could have done would have saved her.
  839. >”Please,” she had begged one last time as you leaned over her with the syringe.
  840. >It was only a quarter dose.
  841. >Just barely enough.
  842. >It’s all you could spare.
  843. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
  844. >She had squeezed those bright green eyes of her shut as you pushed the needle into her vein.
  845. >You were glad you had sent your nurse outside.
  846. >It wasn’t her call to make.
  847. >The mare’s breathing slowed.
  848. >You waited.
  849. >It stopped.
  850. >You waited.
  851. >Fifteen minutes later, you had closed her dull eyes and stepped outside.
  852. >”That… didn’t take long,” your nurse mumbled, looking away.
  853. “I know.”
  854. >”I’m sorry, doctor.”
  855. “So am I.”
  856. >She had hugged you then, her forelegs wrapping around your waist.
  857. >You never felt so grateful for anything in your life.
  858. >That’s why she’s still with you.
  859. >You wouldn’t have let anyone else take her, not after what you two had gone through together.
  860. >Even when blood and bile are splattered across her white coat, she’s still the most beautiful person you’ve ever met.
  861. >”Doctor,” Nurse Redheart hisses at you, giving you a nudge with her foreleg. “Time to get back to work.”
  862. “Yeah.”
  863. >You set down the mug of coffee Minuette had brought you earlier.
  864. “Minuette?”
  865. >”Yes, doctor?”
  866. “A little less cream next time.”
  867. >”Oh, sorry doctor.”
  868. >It had made it the same shade as that mare’s coat.
  869. “Any appointments?”
  870. >”No, but…”
  871. >There’s a pause, making you look up from your coffee.
  872. “What?”
  873. >”Looks like we’re about to have a walk-in,” the receptionist answers. “We’ve got a truck pulling up.”
  874. “Gotcha. Nurse?”
  875. >”Yes, doctor?”
  876. “Think you could do the supply check without me?”
  877. >”Of course, doctor.”
  878.  
  879. >Be alone.
  880. >”How’s Babs,” Scootaloo repeats, worried at your silence.
  881. ”She died.”
  882. >”How!?”
  883. “Peacefully.”
  884. >That’s all the doctor would tell you.
  885. >”Yeah, but –“
  886. “Hit by a car. The same day you left.”
  887. >One left, one died, leaving one little filly, all lost and alone by herself.
  888. >”Oh, Apple Bloom, I’m so sorry!”
  889. >You don’t resist as the other mare hugs you.
  890. >It don’t help you feel better none – you just can’t muster up the oomph to snap at her.
  891. >Was your fault, Babs dyin’, and ain’t nothin’ nopony can say to change that.
  892. “I shouldn’t’ve asked her to stay in Ponyville longer.”
  893. >She was only there for Granny’s funeral.
  894. >Babs should have been on her way back to Manehattan.
  895. >”It wasn’t your fault,” Scootaloo insists, hugging you tighter. “None of it was.”
  896. >But you’d asked her to stay a few days longer, an’ she had.
  897. >Put her right smack-dab in the middle of things.
  898. “Flam is dead, too.”
  899. >She asked.
  900. >You’ll tell her.
  901. “Killed a man an’ had to be put down.”
  902. >More blood on your hooves.
  903. >You can’t blame *him* none for doin’ what he gotta do, but you?
  904. >Flam didn’t have to be the one to skip his pills.
  905. >Could’ve been you.
  906. >Didn’t have to be a unicorn.
  907. >His uncle would’ve been happy with anypony to experiment with.
  908. >”He… well, he killed someone, Apple Bloom.”
  909. >Didn’t have to be him.
  910. “An’ Hematite is still sick. Ah don’t think she’ll ever get better.”
  911. >”That has nothing to do with you!”
  912. “If Ah – if Ah’d just kept my dang mouth shut, we’d all still be together, Scootaloo.”
  913. >The mare’s legs tighten around you, squeezin’ till you can hardly breathe.
  914. >”It’s not your fault, Apple Bloom,” she whispers into your ear.
  915. “It is! Ah just keep tryin’ to do what’s right, an’ nothin’ works out! Babs didn’t even get out of the camp!”
  916. >”Hundreds did,” the pegasus murmurs. “That place was a deathtrap, Apple Bloom. You saved us.”
  917.  
  918. >Be surprised.
  919. >Moondancer stayed true to her word.
  920. >Hasn’t asked you a single question, not even if you wanted to watch Dark City.
  921. >She’s gone back into the kitchen for seconds, but you’re still on your first bowl, staring blissfully at the paused screen.
  922. >You still can’t tell if this movie is horrible or amazing.
  923. >Same with this mac n’ cheese.
  924. >She put… something… in it.
  925. >It’s good, but different, and you’re not entirely sure if that makes it actually bad.
  926. >You’re staring curiously at it when Moondancer comes back in.
  927. >”I can get you some more, if you want.”
  928. “No, this is enough.”
  929. >Her bowl is overflowing – again.
  930. “You seem to be enjoying yourself, though.
  931. >”Yep!” she answers with a wide smile. “I haven’t had this in… well… ever since I came to the farm!”
  932. >She giggles, dropping the bowl on the side table.
  933. >”Well, I guess it’s not exactly the healthiest, most nutritious meal, so…”
  934. >The unicorn shrugs before climbing into her chair.
  935. >”I mean, it makes sense,” she mumbles, squirming happily. “But yeah, I am enjoying myself.”
  936. “And the movie?”
  937. >”I haven’t seen it in even longer.”
  938. >You sigh and look back at the screen.
  939. “I think I like Apple Bloom’s taste in movies better.”
  940. >”Oh? What does she like to watch?”
  941. “Crap. But at least I know what to think of it.”
  942. >The unicorn laughs and restarts the movie.
  943. >You sigh.
  944. “Dammit, I wish Apple Bloom was here.”
  945.  
  946. >Be tryin' to get out of your truck - "tryin'" bein' the operative word.
  947. >Ain't too easy to do when every movement feels like you're bein' torn in two.
  948. >"Miss Lauren...?"
  949. "Yes. Mica?"
  950. >You ain't got the patience for his questions right now.
  951. >"Do you need help?"
  952. "Don't think there's much you can to do help me at the moment."
  953. >"I can go get someone," he offers, already unbucklin' his belt n' trying to squeeze into the front to get at the passenger door without waitin' for an answer.
  954. >You appreciate that.
  955. >It hurts to speak.
  956. >Plus, ain't a bad idea.
  957. >"Mica..."
  958. >"Stay right here, Hematite," he responds, flashing his little sister a smile. "I'll be right back!"
  959. >His tiny hooves are better suited for dealing with the door handle than a grown ponies and he's out of the truck 'fore you can say otherwise.
  960. >Not that you would - it's takin' all you got just to not cry, the pain is that bad.
  961. >Even skipped the church to get here. You'd planned to stop in an' say a few words for your ma, but the pain in your guts told you that wouldn't've been one of your brightest ideas.
  962. >You don't think it was this bad last night.
  963. >Couldn't've been, or you'd have come here straight away.
  964. >The little filly behind you whines.
  965. >She's definitely the one whinin' right now, an' if anybody says different, you'd deck 'em. Not today, though. Maybe tomorrow.
  966. >You're a bit busy tryin' to hold yourself together right now.
  967. >"I got help!" you hear Mica shout. Don't see the colt, though, since you're doubled over with your head almost pressed up 'gainst the steerin' wheel.
  968. >You barely understand the words. Don't, really, until the doc is at your side.
  969. >"What's wrong?" he asks, gently touchin' your shoulder to get your attention.
  970. "Think I'm dyin'."
  971. >"Nonsense. You managed to drive here, didn't you?"
  972. "Think that's what did it. Wasn't hurtin' half this bad 'til I spent..."
  973. >How long?"
  974. "... too damn long sittin."
  975. >"Where's it hurt?" he asks, suddenly all serious.
  976. "All 'cross my belly."
  977. >Everywhere else, too, but that ain't important now.
  978. >You're used to that kinda pain.
  979. >Just the usual soreness after takin' a beatin'.
  980. >"Do you think you can sit up?" he asks after a moment. "I need to see if it's safe to move you."
  981. "Doc, I can get out an' walk, if only you'd give me a hand."
  982. >"Not yet. Not until I know it won't make things worse."
  983.  
  984. >Be inside.
  985. >You’ve just finished the supply check like Doctor Alda asked, but he hasn’t come back.
  986. >It would be one thing if you were back at the camp; the supply check only took five or ten minutes at most.
  987. >You could start and finish it in the time it took him to empty his bladder.
  988. >Here – now – it takes over half an hour.
  989. >You smile at that thought – you don’t mind the extra work at all.
  990. >Having experienced both extremes, you know which one you would pick.
  991. >This one, hooves down.
  992. >No question about it.
  993. >You trot out of the closet, making sure to lock it behind you, and look up and down the hallway.
  994. “Doctor?”
  995. >”He’s still outside!” Minuette calls out from up front.
  996. “Still?”
  997. >”That’s what I just said!”
  998. >You sigh and trot towards reception.
  999. >There is one downside to being oversupplied that you could do without – understaffing.
  1000. >The clinic only has one other doctor – and not even, really. Sutherland’s technically a nurse practitioner.
  1001. >And today is his day off.
  1002. >The other two nurses are both part-time, leaving just you and Minuette to help the doctor today.
  1003. “Any idea what’s going on?”
  1004. >The unicorn looks over at you from behind her desk and shrugs.
  1005. >”Not a clue, but he’s coming back.”
  1006. >She points out past the plate glass windows at the approaching man.
  1007. >He’s alone – and fuming.
  1008. “Another stupid patient.”
  1009. >”Another stupid patient,” Minuette repeats.
  1010. >Both of you know exactly what Doctor Alda is going to say as soon as he’s inside.
  1011. >You wait patiently as he pushes open the door with a sigh.
  1012. >”Nurse? Bring a gurney out here, will you?”
  1013. >Minuette glances your direction. For the first time, she looks a little worried.
  1014. “Of course, doctor.”
  1015. >You are, too.
  1016. >The doctor shakes his head and sighs irritably.
  1017. >”Another stupid patient,” he groans, before slipping back outside.
  1018. >You giggle softly.
  1019. >”Well, I guess it can’t be *that* bad. For a second there…“
  1020. “Yeah. Me too.”
  1021. >Though relieved, you don’t dawdle.
  1022. >Whatever is going on isn’t an emergency – his voiced lacked the urgent sharpness for that, but it was still hard.
  1023. >The two of you have a good working relationship – more than that, a good personal relationship – but when he has that harshness to it, you know you’re his *nurse*.
  1024. >Not his pony or his marefriend but his *nurse*, and he expects you to do what you’re told without any hesitation.
  1025. >You don’t hold it against him.
  1026. >As such, there’s more than a bit of haste in your steps as you wheel the gurney outside.
  1027. >”Ah, good,” he grunts, stepping back from the truck so you can get it as close as possible. “Now, Lauren, we’re going to get you on this and inside, okay?”
  1028. >”I said I’m fine to walk,” the woman inside mumbles, but still takes the doctor’s hand.
  1029. >She grimaces visibly at the slightest movement, gritting her teeth and squeezing her eyes shut.
  1030. >”Careful…” the doctor hisses, trying to support her as best he can. “Don’t force yourself.”
  1031. >Understaffing is definitely one thing you could do without.
  1032. >He’s not big enough to just lift the woman out on his own, and it would be awkward enough trying to help if you were human, but as a pony?
  1033. >You just get in their way.
  1034. >It takes several minutes for him to get her laid out on the stretcher and they’re both panting and wheezing by then.
  1035. “I’ll take her in, doctor.”
  1036. >”Thanks,” he responds, flashing a smile at you. “I’ll be just a sec, but be careful with her.”
  1037. “What’s wrong?”
  1038. >”Nothin’ too bad,” she answers, but you ignore her.
  1039. >She’s got both arms wrapped protectively around her abdomen, so it can’t be anything too good, either.
  1040. >Certainly doesn’t *look* pregnant, though that doesn’t always mean anything with humans.
  1041. >”Best case it’s a –“
  1042. >He pauses, looking back inside the truck’s cab.
  1043. >”- nothing we can’t fix,” he continues with a smile before turning back to face you. “Herniated abdominal wall.”
  1044. >”And if it isn’t?” a weak voice asks from inside the cab.
  1045. >”Still nothing we can’t fix. Now why don’t you two get out here while Nurse Redheart takes Lauren inside.”
  1046.  
  1047. >Be laid out on a stretcher like some corpse.
  1048. “Really, I can walk.”
  1049. >Probably.
  1050. >”Sure, you could,” the pony agrees, “but the doctor already went through the bother of getting you on there, so you’re staying on, got it?”
  1051. “Yeah, fine.”
  1052. >You have to admit – if only to yourself – that the doc prolly has a point about all this.
  1053. >Nothin’ could make you admit it to anyone else, though. Not with the foals ‘round.
  1054. >Mica’s liable to panic if he thinks there’s something wrong, an’ you don’t feel up to dealin’ with any more of his questions.
  1055. “Think you could hurry up a bit, nurse…”
  1056. >What was her name?
  1057. >She an’ the doc had been over to Sterling’s enough you should know this.
  1058. “…Redheart…?”
  1059. >”Are you in pain?”
  1060. “N-nah.”
  1061. >Must have gotten it right.
  1062. >You try your best to smile.
  1063. “Just wanna get you freed up an’ all.”
  1064. >”Don’t worry,” Redheart responds sharply. “You’re our only patient, so we aren’t in any rush.”
  1065. “Ain’t for that.”
  1066. >”Well, whatever it is, don’t worry about it.”
  1067. >There’s a blue unicorn holdin’ open the door as the nurse pushes you inside – you wouldn’t have noticed, what with the pain an’ all, if the nurse hadn’t pointed it out.
  1068. >”Minuette will look after your foals while we’re seeing you.”
  1069. >You open your eyes briefly, just long enough to recognize the mare.
  1070. >Seen her a few times, too, but never caught her name, ‘fore.
  1071. “Actually… um… no insult intended, but could you see to ‘em, nurse?”
  1072. >”I’m afraid the doctor is going to need me to assist with –“
  1073. “They’re one of the reason’s I’m here.”
  1074. >The nurse doesn’t answer, except with a grunt as she struggles to turn the stretcher.
  1075. >”Next time, pull up the emergency entrance,” the mare mumbles quietly after she’s gotten it headed the new direction.
  1076. >Prolly didn’t mean for you to hear.
  1077. “Didn’t figure anybody’d be down there.”
  1078. >”Point.”
  1079. >Redheart pauses to catch her breath – without the squeak of the stretcher’s wheels, you can hear the door open.
  1080. “Doc…?”
  1081. >”What did you do now, Derpy?” your nurse sighs.
  1082. >Not the doc, apparently.
  1083. >You force open your eyes again. You’re still in reception – an’ you can see the doc an’ the foals just outside – but the grey pegasus is unexpected.
  1084. >She’s lookin’ a little scraped up, but none too bad.
  1085. >”I had another accident,” the pegasus admits, shuffling over to one of the seats linin’ the room. “Ran into a wall.”
  1086. >”Were you…” Redheart pauses to look at you, ‘fore coming to some sort of decision. With a nod, she turns back to the pegasus. “Were you flying again?”
  1087. >”Yeaaaaah.”
  1088. >”You aren’t supposed to be doing that,” the nurse grumbles. “What if someone had caught you?”
  1089. >The pegasus blinks twice – her eyes somehow pointin’ different directions each time she opens ‘em up.
  1090. >”Then…” she looks down at herself – with one eye, the other winds up pointin’ up to the ceilin’, “… I guess I’d need more than a few bandages?”
  1091. >The nurse sighs – or maybe growls, it kinda sounds like both – an’ shakes her head.
  1092. >”You’ll just have to wait. The doctor needs to –“
  1093. “She can go first.”
  1094. >The nurse rounds on you so fast, your eyes can’t quite believe it.
  1095. >”Absolutely not,” she hisses at you. “If you’re in as much pain as I think you are –“
  1096. >More, probably.
  1097. >You’ve gotten good at hiding it.
  1098. >That also means you’ve gotten good at dealing with it.
  1099. >It’s not so bad right now.
  1100. “I can wait.”
  1101. >You’ve waited all night and all mornin’. A few more minutes won’t hurt none.
  1102. >Well, it’ll *hurt*, but it won’t do no harm.
  1103. >Redheart tries to argue, but words won’t come out of her mouth, just an angry sputter.
  1104. >You’d laugh, if it weren’t impolite… an’ if it didn’t hurt so.
  1105. >’fore you can, the door opens again – Mica and Hematite bouncing in, followed by the doc.
  1106. >”Derpy,” he greets the pegasus with a nod, ‘fore turnin’ to the blue mare. “Minuette, see if you can call in Sutherland or Marcy. Preferably both.”
  1107. “I can wait, doc. Won’t take more’n a minute to see to her.”
  1108. >”True, but we’ve also got to see to these foals,” he snaps back, not even tryin’ to argue with you ‘bout lettin’ the mare get fixed up first. “I’m assuming you brought them in to get their shots?”
  1109. >You try to shake your head an’ explain, but just movin’ gives you a headache.
  1110. >Feels better once your eyes are closed ‘gain.
  1111. >”We already have our shots,” Mica responds for you, bless his little yappy heart, but by the doc’s weary sigh, he ain’t believin’ it.
  1112. >”Look, I know no one – human or pony – likes getting a shot, but –“
  1113. “I didn’t bring ‘em in for that.”
  1114. >”Oh. But…”
  1115. “It’s the lil’ one. She wants –“
  1116. >Talking hurts.
  1117. >”I… um…”
  1118. >With attention all on her, Hematite’s voice stutters into nothin’.
  1119. >”My sister wanted to see if somepony could teach her!”
  1120. >Bless his heart.
  1121. >”Oh,” the doc grunts. “Well… I don’t think…”
  1122. “She’s lookin’ after Silver.”
  1123. >There’s a sharp intake of breath from the doc.
  1124. >That sure caught him by surprise.
  1125. >You open your eyes a crack to see the expression on his face.
  1126. >He’s lookin’ embarrassed as hell.
  1127. >”Well…”
  1128. “She’s already saved her once after some *idiot* busted her stitches, but…”
  1129. >Redheart groans, but the doc starts laughin’ after a short-lived frown.
  1130. >”Well, okay then,” the doc chuckles helplessly. “I was wondering how to break that news to you.”
  1131. >You can just imagine.
  1132. >He weren’t a customer, thank God, but… he… he knew you an’ Silver were close.
  1133. >Man probably frittered away an hour sittin’ by the phone tryin’ to decide if he should call you or not.
  1134. >”She’s doing okay now?” the do asks after a moment, lookin’ like he’s feelin’ guilty for somethin’.
  1135. >He ain’t askin’ you, though, so you keep your mouth shut.
  1136. >Little filly knows better’n you, anyhow.
  1137. >”I… I think so…?” Hematite answers timidly. “But… I don’t really know what I’m doing…”
  1138. >The doc sighs loudly.
  1139. >You can hear him shufflin’ his feet awkwardly, heavy soles smackin’ the floor as he thinks things over.
  1140. >”Minuette?”
  1141. >”Yes, sir?”
  1142. >”Just get me Sutherland. Redheart, could you see to Derpy? And…”
  1143. >There’s an awkward pause that sounds like he’s rethinkin’ it all.
  1144. >”Derpy,” he sighs, resignin’ himself to whatever plan he had, “would you mind if the two foals sat in on your treatment?”
  1145.  
  1146. >Be enjoying yourself.
  1147. >"How about something a little lighter next?"
  1148. >Even though the question is innocent, you shake your head and sighs.
  1149. >Moondancer looks away from the screen - but doesn't stop scrolling.
  1150. >"Ah, right, no questions," she sighs. "Sorry."
  1151. "That's better."
  1152. >Indeed it is. You haven't relaxed like this in... possibly since the war started. Not in the last two months, at least.
  1153. >The only thing that could make it better is a beer or two.
  1154. >Eventually, the mare stops scrolling, highlighting some chinese cartoon.
  1155. >"Does this one... right, nevermind. We're watching this one."
  1156. >It looks good enough, but the opening few minutes are enough to make you wince.
  1157. >Everything just seems a little too *relevant.*
  1158. "Seen this before?"
  1159. >"I haven't," the unicorn answers, snuggling further into her seat, "but I've seen a few others of theirs. One of the scientists I worked with..."
  1160. >A pause, while she looks at you worriedly.
  1161. "Moondancer?"
  1162. >"Nothing."
  1163. >On one hand, you're enjoying yourself - you want to let the issue slide and relax.
  1164. >The other, however...
  1165. >Just let it go.
  1166. >Of course you can't, but the temptation is there.
  1167. >Kick back, enjoy your second bowl of mac n' cheese, watch the movie, and try to pretend everything is normal for once.
  1168. >It would be nice.
  1169. "Not buying it, Moondancer."
  1170. >"Gonna go get more," she says suddenly, pausing the movie and scooting out of the chair to drop on all fours. "Want some?"
  1171. "How much did you make?"
  1172. >"Enough."
  1173. >Moondancer smirks at you before grabbing her bowl by the rim and trotting away without really answering either issue.
  1174. >Although you feel full to bursting, you plop your half-empty bowl on the top of her head.
  1175. "Top me off."
  1176. >Indignant whining follows the mare all the way to the kitchen, but she returns with two full bowls.
  1177. >There's definitely way too much of this stuff.
  1178. >Even if it *is* tasty.
  1179. >Didn't know at first, but after a bowl and a half, you've come to a decision.
  1180. >It *is* good. Different, but good.
  1181. "Enough angry glaring. Let's get back to the movie."
  1182. >"Sure," Moondancer grumbles as you take your bowl, the word made all the harsher by the way hers is still clutched in her mouth.
  1183. >She sets it down on the table and and scrambles into the empty seat.
  1184.  
  1185. >Be sittin' quietly.
  1186. >Scootaloo hasn't said a word in... inna while.
  1187. >Just held you tight.
  1188. >Eventually, you gave in. Hugged her back.
  1189. >Couldn't help yourself.
  1190. >The thought of bein' wanted was too much.
  1191. >Time passes, the two of you holdin' on to each other.
  1192. >Felt like time held still, like you could stay this way forever.
  1193. >You wish you could, but everything' passes.
  1194. >"What happened to you?" Scootaloo asks softly, her muzzle barely a hair's breadth from your ear. "I thought... I thought the farm was supposed to be..."
  1195. >She breaks off, at a total loss for words.
  1196. "Nothin' happened I didn't deserve."
  1197. >"How can you say that? How can you say that and not even tell me what it was?"
  1198. "'Cause it was all my fault."
  1199. >You don't want her to know.
  1200. >How you fell in love with someone just 'cause he showed you the slightest speck of kindness.
  1201. >You don't want her to feel guilty for leaving you.
  1202. >It's not her fault you were so starved for companionship that you hung on his every word.
  1203. >You don't want *anypony* to know how you walked into that stand without a fight.
  1204. >… or that you did it a second time.
  1205. >… and you would have done it again, if...
  1206. >You hate yourself and you want to hate him.
  1207. >With all your heart, you wish you could.
  1208. >And… her. Scootaloo. You wish you could hate her, too.
  1209.  
  1210. >Be washing the last customer from you.
  1211. >You rush, trying to scrub yourself clean and remove every last trace of him from your body.
  1212. >Not for the first time, you find yourself wishing the customers had to use condoms with you like they did with the human girls.
  1213. >It’s so… *messy*, but since you don’t have to worry about getting pregnant and human diseases usually don’t affect ponies, Sterling leaves it up to the customer.
  1214. >They never want to use a condom.
  1215. >At first, it was just irritating, having to wash the fluids from your coat and make yourself presentable again, but now…
  1216. >You might be crying, but you don’t know. No one will ever know.
  1217. >Streams of water run down your face as you rinse your mane, your movements almost frantic.
  1218. >You don’t have time for this.
  1219. >Downstairs, in the diner, are plenty of customers, every single one waiting for you.
  1220. “Be confident, Diamond.”
  1221. >You’ve been repeating those words over and over, a calming mantra that only makes you more and more frantic with every uttering.
  1222. >The brush catches on a tangle, painfully tearing out several strands of your mane; you don’t even pause.
  1223. “Be confident. You have to be confident.”
  1224. >The pain is nothing. You can ignore it.
  1225. >You can do this.
  1226. >Just get out, dry yourself, put on your waitress outfit and get back to the diner.
  1227. >Find another customer.
  1228. >When you break it down like that, it’s not so hard.
  1229. >You just have to get out of the shower.
  1230. >It’s the first step.
  1231. >You can do this.
  1232. >Just… just need to shampoo your barrel again.
  1233. >You hiss in pain as your hoof brushes across the welts on your ribs, but you don’t stop scrubbing.
  1234. >There’s no time to waste, but you can do this.
  1235. “Be confident.”
  1236. >You can make your quota.
  1237. >It’s just five simple steps.
  1238. >You can do this.
  1239. >First, you need to get out of the shower…
  1240.  
  1241. >Be out.
  1242. >You never thought it would run out.
  1243. “Are you sure?”
  1244. >”I’m the one that cooked it,” Moondancer answers, staring at you with one eyebrow raised, “so,yeah, pretty damn sure.”
  1245. “But –“
  1246. >”That’s the last bowl.”
  1247. “Oh...”
  1248. >The last bowl – and it’s empty.
  1249. “Damn.”
  1250. >"Do you want me to make more?"
  1251. "No... I guess not."
  1252. >"It's good comfort food, isn't it?"
  1253. "Yeah."
  1254. >Too late, you realize you answered her questions.
  1255. >You find that you don't mind, not too much.
  1256. >With a sigh, you put your bowl on the table, nesting it in hers.
  1257. >It’s not that you *really* wanted to eat more – you’re stuffed beyond full – but that you were enjoying yourself.
  1258. >Sitting back, watching movies, eating comfort food… relaxing.
  1259. >Not worrying about the farm, not fretting about finances or Apple Bloom or… or anything.
  1260. >Just relaxing.
  1261. >Pretending everything was normal and forgetting about the rest.
  1262. "Well, it was nice while it lasted."
  1263. >You sigh again and look back at the paused screen.
  1264. "What now?"
  1265. >"We can finish watching the movie."
  1266. “You know what I mean, Moondancer.”
  1267. >"I do, but we can still finish the movie.”
  1268. >Despite that, she doesn’t object – much – when you turn off the TV.
  1269. >”We’ll finish it later,” the mare says quietly, smiling sadly.
  1270. "Maybe."
  1271. >”Maybe. So... what now?”
  1272. “I don’t have a clue. About any of this. Maud was right.”
  1273. >”You need help.”
  1274. “I need help.”
  1275. >”Then…”
  1276. >She mare drifts off as you nod.
  1277. “I needed her, Moondancer. Why did she do it? Didn’t she realize how much I needed her?”
  1278. >”Because Apple Bloom never lets anypony else do something that she can do.”
  1279. “I was talking about Maud. About the pills.”
  1280. >”I know,” the mare responds with a gentle smile, “but Apple Bloom is a bit of an inspiration to us all. She always keeps going, no matter what happens. Always tries to keep us together, to make life worth living. Anytime a pony needed help in the camp, she was the first one there. When they asked for volunteers to help build the pylons, she was the first to raise her hoof.”
  1281. “But –“
  1282. >”When the work relocation program came along, a lot of us were wary. Too much had happened, too much bad blood, but Apple Bloom… she believed in it. She believed in you – in humans, I mean – that you were trying to help. When everypony else was too scared to even consider the possibilities, the pony that had lost *everything* because of you continued to believe.
  1283. >”Nopony else was willing to risk it, so she did it for us. We’re here because of her, because she never let something be somepony else's problem. So you see, Maud could no more ask somepony else to go off their suppressants than… well…
  1284. >”She just couldn’t.”
  1285.  
  1286. >Be comforted.
  1287. >Miss Cheerilee is holding your hoof.
  1288. >“Are you feeling alright?”
  1289. "Yes."
  1290. >"I'm sorry I can't do more to help."
  1291. >You don't know how to respond, so you just smile softly.
  1292. >When all else fails, smile, nod, and be non-committal.
  1293. >There aren't words enough to express how you feel.
  1294. >You couldn't possibly hope for more - you aren't alone.
  1295. >Not once have you been left by yourself, not even when you were sleeping, you suspect.
  1296. >Every time you've opened your eyes, there's been somepony with you.
  1297. >Some held your hoof, some sat, fidgeting nervously. Written Script had been reading, but had looked up immediately when you woke.
  1298. >In his face was the same concern and worry as everypony else.
  1299. >Cotton Cloudy had come in after him and chatted away until you drifted off again.
  1300. >She hadn't seemed to mind that the conversation had been rather one-sided.
  1301. >You don't know how many ponies had come and gone since then, but Miss Cheerilee had been back when you woke up.
  1302. >Of all of them, she had spent the most time with you.
  1303. >Diamond Tiara hadn't come.
  1304. >You know this; you know she's not here - she's still at... that place. It was some other pony that had held you when you thought you were dying, not her. Somepony older. Somepony ki- somepony else.
  1305. >You wish you knew who it was.
  1306. >Apple Bloom hasn't been by either. You think you imagined her, too. Possibly from the beginning.
  1307. >She never was here, was she?
  1308. >The mare that sat with you before... the one at the house, the one that held your hoof, she didn't act like the filly you had known.
  1309. >No, Apple Bloom was never here, but that's okay.
  1310. >Whoever it was... she cared for you.
  1311. >All of them do.
  1312. >Not all of the ponies you've seen today have been familiar, but they all share the same expression, the same concern. All except the one with you now.
  1313. >Hers is a special sorrow.
  1314. >"Are you sure there isn't anything I can do?" Cheerilee asks, holding your hoof tightly. “Anything at all?”
  1315. "Thank you… but I have everything I need."
  1316. >The mare’s face is tight and drawn.
  1317. >More than any of the others, she looks… is it guilt haunting her?
  1318. >What does she have to be guilty for?
  1319. >”You have a cot and a room and more injuries than any filly should ever have,” the mare sighs, shaking her head sadly. “You deserve better. You deserve more.”
  1320. “I… I *have* more.”
  1321. >Miss Cheerilee smiles sorrowfully.
  1322. >”Why didn’t you come with us? Or… or go somewhere else? Anywhere else? I know we didn’t have a choice where we were sent, but…”
  1323. >You shake your head – not much, just as far as you can move without straining yourself.
  1324. “I couldn’t.”
  1325. >”You had skills, Silver! And… and you can work hard when you want to! You didn’t have to be marked 9B and… and sent someplace like that.”
  1326. “I couldn’t.”
  1327. >”But why? You were so much better than that! Why did… why did you go with Diamond?”
  1328. “Because…”
  1329. >”Why?”
  1330. >Miss Cheerilee is pleading – practically *begging* – for a reason or an explanation.
  1331. “I had to.”
  1332. >”But why!?”
  1333. “Because… you know what her mother did.
  1334. “I couldn’t leave her all alone.
  1335. “Nopony deserves that.”
  1336.  
  1337. >Be in the shower.
  1338. >You shouldn’t be.
  1339. >Sterling… Sterling won’t care.
  1340. >No one cares.
  1341. >Your own mother walked out on you.
  1342. >And… and Silver Spoon.
  1343. >If only you could walk out, too.
  1344. >You can’t even get out of the shower.
  1345.  
  1346. >Be thinking back.
  1347. >”There were… other… ponies there,” Miss Cheerilee mumbles. “She wouldn’t have been alone.”
  1348. “You know how hard it is for Di to make friends.”
  1349. >The mare smiles weakly and averts her eyes.
  1350. >”Yes, you’re right. Still, I should have… I used to be your teacher – doesn’t that mean something?”
  1351. >You grin, remembering those happy days.
  1352. >Years have passed since then.
  1353. “No, not anymore.”
  1354.  
  1355. >Be dry.
  1356. >You’re grateful the uniform Sterling makes you wear covers your barrel and forelegs.
  1357. >It hides the welts and bruises, though it does rub against them painfully as you trot downstairs and across the parking lot.
  1358. >Jim eyes you suspiciously as you walk into the diner.
  1359. >”Took your sweet time, didn’t you?”
  1360. “Yeah.”
  1361. >He grunts, doesn’t say anything else.
  1362. >There’s no rule against it.
  1363. >Just treat your customers right and meet your quota – that’s all you have to do.
  1364. >You can even turn down clients you don’t like – so long as you meet your quota.
  1365. >It sounds so easy when you think of it that way.
  1366. >You’re able to smile again by the time you make your way to the bar.
  1367. >All of the customers are currently being served, but you still manage to fake that smile.
  1368. >You’ll get the next one.
  1369. >For sure, you’ll get the next one.
  1370. >You’re focusing on keeping that happy expression on your face when Cherry Berry sits down beside you.
  1371. “What, don’t have anything you need to be doing?”
  1372. >The mare flinches at your snarl, her eyes darting towards a table with a pair of men sitting at it.
  1373. >”I’m… um… I’m waiting for their meals,” she answers quietly. “Are you doing okay?”
  1374. “I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
  1375. >”You were up there for hours.”
  1376. “I had to shower.”
  1377. >You snort and roll your eyes.
  1378. >How stupid can she be?
  1379. >”I… I know…”
  1380. >The pink mare looks away, staring down the empty bar at the far wall.
  1381. >”… and… sometimes… I take my time, too, but was that smart? You only have one day left.”
  1382. “I. Had. To. Shower.”
  1383. >”You don’t have much time left, Diamond. I’m just –“
  1384. “I have *plenty* of time left.”
  1385. >Be confident. You have to be confident.
  1386. >”Look, you can have my table if you want it,” the mare offers. “I’m not that far behind. You –“
  1387. “No.”
  1388. >Her head snaps around, purple eyes wide and trembling.
  1389. >”You’ll have to. You’re so far behind, Diamond. If you don’t… if you don’t, you’ll have to take some of *those* clients!”
  1390. >She doesn’t know you already have.
  1391. >Your uniform covers the marks well.
  1392. “Don’t trouble yourself. I’ve got *plenty* of customers that come in just for me!”
  1393. >”But –“
  1394. “All of Silver’s clients are coming to *me* now.”
  1395. >All of them.
  1396. >Even the ones you wish you could turn away.
  1397. >You can’t afford to.
  1398.  
  1399. >Be reluctant.
  1400. “You taught us, but…”
  1401. >Hers weren’t the only lessons to shape you and the others.
  1402. >”You were grown mares,” Miss Cheerilee finishes for you, sighing. “I know that, but… I’m still… I’m sorry.
  1403. >”I should have stepped up when Spoiled Rich left you. I should have done something. Two young mares your age shouldn’t have had to make those kinds of choices.”
  1404. >You nod weakly, feeling yourself drifting back to sleep.
  1405. “Nopony should, but we did. Our choices are still our own.”
  1406. >She squeezes your forehoof gently.
  1407. “It’s not your fault we made the wrong ones.”
  1408. >You smile up as the ceiling as you reach over and pat her hoof.
  1409. “Don’t blame yourself and instead…”
  1410. >A contented yawn interrupts.
  1411. >It’s a struggle to hold your eyes open; you give in, saving what’s left of your strength to finish speaking.
  1412. >The words come out as barely more than a whispered sigh.
  1413. ”… look at what Apple Bloom has done here. She was your student, too; you should be proud.”
  1414. >”I am.”
  1415.  
  1416. >Be jealous.
  1417. >”- so we usually stay up late every night watching movies. I mean, we haven’t done it as often lately, because Bill is too tired to stay up, but we still give it a shot!”
  1418. >Since you ain’t gonna tell her ‘bout your life, she’s decided to tell you ‘bout hers.
  1419. >One thing you’re takin’ away from all of it, is she ain’t all alone like you.
  1420. >Scootaloo has someone who cares about her.
  1421. “That sounds…”
  1422. >It sounds great.
  1423. >You wish *he* would do that with you.
  1424. >”Yeah, I know,” the other mare chuckles, grinning in embarrassment. “Kinda boring, isn’t it?
  1425. >You wish for it so very much.
  1426. >”But, hey, I’ve been practicing my flying more, so it’s not all lame stuff like movies and popcorn!”
  1427. “Oh?”
  1428. >You don’t really care none, not ‘bout that anyhow.
  1429. >The thought of relaxin’ at the end of the day with your family makes your heart ache.
  1430. >You an’ AJ ain’t ever gonna kick back an’ watch a film together. You ain’t never gonna see her again… or granny… or… or…
  1431. >… you saw Big Mac die.
  1432. >You saw it.
  1433. >He’s dead.
  1434. >You’re the last of your family.
  1435. >Even Babs is gone.
  1436. >You never got to say goodbye to any of them.
  1437. >Maybe… maybe once the baby comes… maybe then…
  1438. >You clutch at your abdomen with your forelegs.
  1439. >”Hey, are something wrong? Are you feeling okay?”
  1440. “Yeah…”
  1441. >Scootaloo looks doubtful, but shakes her head after a second.
  1442. >”Fine,” she sighs. “Anyway, Derpy has been teaching me –“
  1443. “Derpy is here?”
  1444. >”Yeah. Weren’t you listening?”
  1445. “I… I was. Just missed that part…”
  1446. >Sun, you hope she ain’t *there*.
  1447. >You listen halfheartedly as Scootaloo talks about the ponies in town.
  1448. >Awful lot of ‘em are from Ponyville. Ones that were in the camp with you. Ones that are smarter than you an’ didn’t sign up right away to be shipped out.
  1449. >If they all ended up like Scootaloo… you shoulda waited.
  1450. >Derpy is with a pastor an’ his family.
  1451. >Minuette an’ Redheart work at the clinic.
  1452. >Lily Valley and Rose Blossom are at the local grocers.
  1453. >Jelly works at the small cannery with Fiddlesticks, Sue Jam, an’ a couple others.
  1454. >Scootaloo goes on an’ on, rattlin’ off names long after they lose all meanin’ to you.
  1455. >Ponies that work in the shops around town, ponies servin’ on the small farms that lined the road into town and sellin’ their goods up along the interstate.
  1456. >Ponies she’s seen ‘round town, but ain’t entirely sure who they’re with or what they’re doin’.
  1457. >You ain’t got the heart to tell her what Diamond Tiara is doin’ when her name comes up.
  1458. >Or what she done to Silver Spoon.
  1459. >You hug your belly tighter.
  1460. “How do you know all this, Scootaloo?”
  1461. >She cuts off mid-sentence, raisin’ an eyebrow.
  1462. >”Huh?”
  1463. “You get to see them much?”
  1464. >”N-no,” the pegasus answers, wincin’. “Only Derpy, really. Sometimes Crafty Crate when he does a delivery for us. I… um… none of us really get to see each other, but Derpy tells us the news whenever she comes around.”
  1465. >She sighs and shifts to lean against the sofa’s arm.
  1466. >”There’s also the farmer’s market every Saturday, but the ponies workin’ the booths are usually too busy to talk to each other, and as soon as they’re over, everyone – everypony, sorry – is hauled back to their farms right away.”
  1467. >She sighs again, lookin’ at the closed door.
  1468. >”I wish Bill’d let me out to see ‘em, but… I mean, the law is the law and all. I only really get out when he takes me shopping with him.”
  1469. “Oh.”
  1470. >”Yeah,” she groans.
  1471. >Scootaloo eyes shift, lookin’ around awkwardly ‘fore comin’ to rest on the floor.
  1472. >”I wish I was out there with you,” she mumbles. “Bill is nice and all, but… I… I miss being with other ponies. I get to see Derpy once, maybe twice a week and sometimes she’s the only one I get to talk to. Every… *pony* is pretty busy, after all.
  1473. >”Hate to say it, but I’m a little jealous of you. Sure, I mean, I bet the work is harder, but you aren’t alone out there.”
  1474. >She has no idea.
  1475. “Yeah.”
  1476. >Scootaloo smiles for a second at your grunt, but it falls away a moment later.
  1477. >”Sorry.”
  1478. “For?”
  1479. >”For not being there with you. If I had been… maybe…”
  1480. “What?”
  1481. >”Maybe I could have stopped it.”
  1482. “Stopped what?”
  1483. >”Whatever made you this way, Apple Bloom.”
  1484. “Ah ain’t changed one bit.”
  1485. >Still the same stupid filly as ever.
  1486. >The other mare looks up, studin’ you for a sec ‘fore lookin’ back down.
  1487. >”If you say so.”
  1488. >There’s a strain in her voice.
  1489. >She wants to say more, but ain’t.
  1490. >You appreciate that.
  1491. >”Well, okay then,” Scootaloo grunts. “Anyway, Derpy was here yesterday with some interesting news.”
  1492. >You sit silently until she realizes you aren’t gonna say nothin’.
  1493. >”Do you remember Berry Pinch?”
  1494. >You nod slightly, just barely moving.
  1495. >”She’s working at a little vineyard just outside of town and Derpy doesn’t get out there too often, but apparently…”
  1496. >Scootaloo pauses, searching your face for any signs of excitement – or any emotion at all.
  1497. >”… apparently, she’s pregnant,” the mare sighs, seeing nothing in your face. “Father is one of the stallions working on the neigh-“
  1498. >Your body twitches.
  1499. >”… on… uh… one of the neighboring farms. I guess they got a little free time together at the property line or something.”
  1500. “G – good for her.”
  1501. >You try to smile for Scootaloo.
  1502. >When that fails, you try to smile for the new life bein’ brought into this world.
  1503. >That works.
  1504. >Why does she look so shocked?
  1505. >”She’s... she’s not planning to keep it.”
  1506. “Oh.”
  1507. >”If I got pregnant, I’d probably do the same,” Scootaloo sighs. “I… uh… I’d probably be a horrible mother. I mean, all I do all day is watch the store and… uh… watch movies. Not really the best place to raise a kid, you know.”
  1508. “Who would you give it to?”
  1509. >”No, I mean… I’m pretty happy here, but do you really I’d want to bring a new life into all this? Would you?”
  1510. “… yes…”
  1511. >”Seriously, Apple Bloom?” the pegasus barks in surprise, before shrugging. “Well, I wouldn’t.”
  1512. >Your whole body spasms violently as you realize what she means.
  1513. “… yes… seriously…”
  1514. >”Oh.”
  1515. >In the awkward silence that follows, she doesn’t ask a question. She doesn’t have to – it asks itself.
  1516. >Why?
  1517. >The mare doesn’t understand.
  1518. >She’s not alone. She *can’t* understand.
  1519. >You need her to. The way she’s lookin’ at you...
  1520. >The two of you haven’t seen each other in three years, but she’s still your closest friend.
  1521. >You need her to understand.
  1522. “Scoots, Ah think… Ah think Ah’m pregnant.”
  1523. >The mare blinks once. Slowly.
  1524. >”I’m… I’m sorry,” Scootaloo murmurs, “but…”
  1525. >She pauses, swallowin’ audibly.
  1526. >”You’re keeping it?
  1527. “How could Ah not?”
  1528. >”Because… because…”
  1529. >Scootaloo shrugs helplessly when the words don’t come to her.
  1530. >You’re glad – if she had a good reason… well, if that were the case, you’d have a harder time pretendin’ to yourself that you’re bein’ selfless.
  1531. >”Who’s the father?”
  1532. >You shudder, rememberin’ all the things *he* told you, the familiar smell of the stallion, his harsh grunts as he…
  1533. “Ah don’t know his name.”
  1534. >Her surprised gasp makes you shake even harder.
  1535. >“Innocent little Apple Bloom had a one night stand?” your friend finally forces out in a flat, singsong voice, tryin’ her best to make a joke ‘bout it. Some distant part of you appreciates the effort, but most of you is just too dead to care. “What happened to saving yourself -”
  1536. “No.”
  1537. >But you do care.
  1538. >You wish you didn’t, but you can’t make yourself not.
  1539. >You shake your head, tryin’ to shake away the memories.
  1540. “No, it… it weren’t… like *that*.”
  1541. >There’s a long moment of silence before Scootaloo grunts wordlessly in response.
  1542. “It were…”
  1543. >You ain’t cryin’. You can’t be. Ain’t got no reason to be cryin’.
  1544. >”What happened?” Scoots ask, reachin’ out and wipin’ away tears that ain’t fallin’ from your eyes. “What did they do to you?”
  1545. >You shake your head.
  1546. >Ain’t is fault.
  1547. “No, Ah… did it to mahself.”
  1548. >He didn’t do nothin’ you didn’t let him do.
  1549. >”Apple Bloom, whatever they did –“
  1550. >You shake your head firmly.
  1551. >Ain’t no secret what she’s gonna say – and she’s wrong.
  1552. >”Ah walked right into that stand all on, Scootaloo.”
  1553. >You ain’t cryin’.
  1554. >You ain’t.
  1555. “Ah can’t blame nopony but myself.”
  1556. >You ain’t.
  1557. “Ah didn’t…”
  1558. >You just let it happen.
  1559. “… didn’t even…”
  1560. >You wanted it.
  1561. “… didn’t even try…”
  1562. >You ain’t cryin’.
  1563. “… Ah didn’t even…”
  1564. >You got nothin’ to cry ‘bout.
  1565. “… Ah just let ‘im…”
  1566. >You wanted this, didn’t you?
  1567. “… Ah let ‘im mount me an’…”
  1568. >If you wanted this, you don’t have any reason to cry.
  1569. “… Ah didn’t…”
  1570. >A pair of legs wrap around your neck, pullin’ you ‘gainst Scootaloo’s chest.
  1571.  
  1572. >Be quiet.
  1573. >You don’t know what to say or if you even can speak.
  1574. >”She really is an inspiration to us all,” Moondancer says softly.
  1575. “If that’s true, then how can I ask you ponies for help?”
  1576. >”Because she believes in you,” Moondancer says softly. “Whenever anypony needed help, she was there for them. And you…”
  1577. >You smirk darkly; there’s no happiness behind the expression.
  1578. “I need help.”
  1579. >”Yeah, but she wants to be here for you. The rest of us… I think we’re willing to give your ideas a shot, but Apple Bloom…
  1580. >”I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I think Apple Bloom is in love with you.”
  1581. “I know.”
  1582. >”You… what?”
  1583. “I know.”
  1584. >”But you… she hasn’t… I…” the mare sputters, caught by surprise by your casual acknowledgement. “Why didn’t you ever… I mean… she…”
  1585. >She can’t quite seem to get it out of her mouth, but you know what she means.
  1586. “Because she’s a pony, Moondancer.”
  1587. >”But –“
  1588. “I need her, but I can’t… I can’t love her, not the way she wants.”
  1589. >”But why was she here!? Why was she staying in the house with you if not to… to… I thought, maybe, you two were… you know…”
  1590. >She shrugs and a helpless whine pops out.
  1591. “We weren’t.”
  1592. >”I… I understand. I mean, I don’t see the appeal in humans, but…”
  1593. “But you still thought we were together?”
  1594. >”I kind of just assumed.”
  1595. “This isn’t Equestria. Love and friendship don’t conquer all.”
  1596. >”I know that,” the mare snaps back. “And it didn’t work that way in Equestria, either! If it did, humans wouldn’t have -“
  1597. >She comes to a full stop with a squeak, clasping her forehooves over her mouth.
  1598.  
  1599. >Be a mess.
  1600. >Scootaloo’s chest is damp and you just can’t stop.
  1601. >”… and… you’re pregnant?”
  1602. >You nod, smearin’ snot an’ tears across her coat.
  1603. >”You’re positive?”
  1604. “Ah… Ah gotta be, don’t Ah?”
  1605. >Scoots unfolds wings you hadn’t even known were around you an’ gently pushes you back.
  1606. >As much as you want her to hold you, you don’t even resist her.
  1607. >You’re gettin’ used to it.
  1608. >”Stay right here,” Scootaloo says, gently nuzzlin’ your cheek. “I’ll be back in a sec.”
  1609. >Ain’t much chance of you goin’ anywhere, way you’re shakin’ and sobbin’.
  1610. >Don’t even turn when you hear the door open.
  1611. >You don’t wanna watch another pony walk out on your life, not again. You’d rather just -
  1612. >”Hey, Bill!? BILL!? What aisle are the pregnancy tests on!?”
  1613.  
  1614. >Be on your back.
  1615. >Been that way for a while, but doc got you onto an exam table.
  1616. >Bit more comfortable. Just a bit.
  1617. >Right now, he’s standin’ over you.
  1618. >That alone is enough to make you mighty uncomfortable an’ brings back some unpleasant memories, but he’s also probin’ your gut with his hands. Guy’s doin’ his best to be gentle, but it still hurts.
  1619. >Not enough for you to squeal or nothin’, but enough he notices.
  1620. >”Sorry, I’ll try to be –“
  1621. “Doin’ fine, doc. I’ll handle the pain an’ you focus on gettin’ me fixe up. Deal?”
  1622. >Just saying that much leaves you out of breath.
  1623. >The doc looks you over – an’ don’t seem to happy about it – but he nods after a bit.
  1624. >“Deal.”
  1625. “Good.”
  1626. >”I’ve got some questions, though,” he sighs. “Like how did this happen?”
  1627. “Ain’t important.”
  1628. >You don’t blame the mare none.
  1629. >”Lauren, don’t do this.”
  1630. >She was just reactin’. You shoulda known better.
  1631. “Like I said –“
  1632. >”Looks like a pony kicked you, Lauren. This can be serious.”
  1633. >You shake your head.
  1634. “I’m sure you’ll fix me up fine.”
  1635. >”That’s not what I meant.”
  1636. “I know, but that’s all I got to say on the matter.”
  1637. >Doc sighs and pulls off his gloves.
  1638. >”I’m not joking around, Lauren. If a pony attacked you –“
  1639. “Weren’t nothin’ to worry ‘bout. Just a bit of horseplay.”
  1640. >You laugh at your own lil’ pun, but the doc frowns.
  1641. >He throws his gloves at the trash can an’ sits down on his stool, puttin’ his head ‘bout even with yours.
  1642. >”Lauren, I’m not joking. I know it was a pony. I know they kicked you with all their strength. I know that if they hadn’t been taking their suppressants, you would be dead right now.”
  1643. “But –“
  1644. >But she ain’t takin’ her pills.
  1645. >If she weren’t holdin’ back, then…
  1646.  
  1647. >Be patient.
  1648. >”Wait, so what does *that* do?”
  1649. >You don’t know how that woman made it all the way here without strangling that colt.
  1650. >”Mica,” his sister whines, “she already told us.”
  1651. >”Yeah, but I forgot and –“
  1652. “But you’re not the one that needs to know, are you?”
  1653. >”No, Miss Nurse Redheart,” he sighs, shuffling back to the corner.
  1654. “Nurse Redheart is sufficient.”
  1655. >”Yes, Nurse Redheart.”
  1656. “Now, Hematite –“
  1657. >You gesture for the filly to come closer.
  1658. “I want you to bandage this up, just like I did with the other injury. Think you can do that?”
  1659. >”The one on her shoulder?”
  1660. “No, this one.”
  1661. >You point towards the shallow scrape on Derpy’s foreleg.
  1662. >”But what about the one on her shoulder?”
  1663. “We should leave that one open. It’s not near the ground, so it shouldn’t get dirty. If we don’t bandage it, the wound will scab up and heal faster.”
  1664. >”Oh,” the filly grunts, looking unconvinced. You don’t blame her; it’s counter-intuitive and you have the medical experience she lacks.
  1665. “Believe me, it’s better that way.”
  1666. >”Won’t it bleed?”
  1667. “No, look at it. It’s already stopped bleeding.”
  1668. >”Oh.”
  1669. “We still need to clean it, the same way we did with the others, but that’s all.”
  1670. >”Um, okay,” the filly responds nervously. “I guess I’ll give this a shot then. Miss Derpy, you really don’t mind if –“
  1671. >”Of course not.”
  1672. >The pegasus smiles wide, one of her near-perpetual idiot grins.
  1673. >The little filly begins to wrap the wound with gauze, but stops when you shake your head.
  1674. >”I’m doing something wrong?”
  1675. “You forgot to put on the antibiotic ointment.”
  1676. >”The… oh!”
  1677. >She grabs the tube from the tray with her mouth and squirts a dab onto the scrape.
  1678. >”That’s cold,” Derpy giggles, squeezing her eyes shut.
  1679.  
  1680. >Be amused.
  1681. >What Moondancer said doesn’t bother you, but she has her forehooves clasped over her mouth like it’s somehow not too late to the keep the words in.
  1682. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
  1683. >You shrug and lean back in your chair.
  1684. “If love and friendship meant shit, you ponies probably would have kicked our asses. But they don’t, so…”
  1685. >”Heh, yeah… they don’t.”
  1686. >She looks at you askance, clearly trying to read you.
  1687. >For the first time since you had met the unicorn, she looks scared.
  1688. “I’m guessing others have taken offense?”
  1689. >”Y-yeah.”
  1690. “My uncle?”
  1691. >”No, before him.”
  1692. “One of these days, you’re going to have to tell me about that.”
  1693. >”Yeah,” Moondancer chuckles, not meeting your eyes. “One of these days…”
  1694. “I’m serious. You’ve been letting little things drop all evening. I don’t know if you were doing it intentionally or not, but it sounds like there’s some stuff there I should know.”
  1695. >”Nothing important. Really.”
  1696. “You know Twilight Sparkle.”
  1697. >Moondancer flinches.
  1698. >”Kind of…”
  1699. “And that thing about the scientist you worked with? I let it slide, because…”
  1700. >… because you just wanted to relax and pretend there weren’t any problems.
  1701. >”Yeah –“
  1702. >You lean forward suddenly, resting your elbows on your legs and startling the mare into silence.
  1703. “You tell me to open up to you, but then you hide things from me. How am I supposed to trust you?”
  1704.  
  1705. >Be annoyed.
  1706. “Well Derpy, if you weren’t flying around all the time, this wouldn’t have happened and you wouldn’t have to complain about the cream.”
  1707. >”I’m not complaining.”
  1708. “Sure sounded like –“
  1709. >”Wait, you can fly?” the little filly cuts in. She’s dropped the ointment back on the tray and is staring at Derpy in awe, like she’s never seen a pegasus fly in her life.
  1710. >Because *of course* she hasn’t. She’s too young to remember Equestria.
  1711. >”Yeah!” Dirpy chirps, smiling like an idiot. “All pegasus ponies can fly if they don’t take their pills!”
  1712. “Which you *really* should start doing before someone catches you or you push yourself too far and – wait, is that what happened?”
  1713. >The mare shrugs innocently.
  1714. >”You don’t take your pills…?” the filly asks, tilting her head to the side. “Oh, you don’t take your pills!”
  1715. “That’s what we just –“
  1716. >”That’s why you remind me of Silver Spoon and Auntie Maud! And… and you too, Nurse Redheart!”
  1717. “What?”
  1718. >”Can’t you feel it?” she shouts, bouncing up and down excitedly like her brother had been moments earlier. “Why can’t you feel it?”
  1719. “Feel what?”
  1720.  
  1721. >Be patient.
  1722. >Moondancer stares at the floor for long seconds.
  1723. >”I guess you really don’t need that,” she answers slowly.
  1724. “No. Not really. Not after Apple Bloom lying to me and Maud going behind my back like she did. At this point, my tolerance for this kind of shit is starting to run pretty thin.”
  1725. “If you were dropping those hints intentionally, that’s a pretty dick move, Moondancer. Pretty much guaranteed that I could never really trust you.”
  1726. >”No,” she responds, shaking her head. “I was just…”
  1727. >She sighs and raises her gaze to meet yours with timidity you never would have expected from this pony.
  1728. >”I was just comfortable and let things slip.”
  1729. >Her eyes drop to the empty bowls sitting between you.
  1730. >”I just wasn’t watching myself as closely as usual. You’re not the only one that hasn’t gotten to relax in forever.”
  1731. “Sorry, I know I work you all hard, but –“
  1732. >”No, it’s not that. It’s… the other ponies, too. It’s not exactly a secret, but nopony really trusts me. Most tolerate me. Some are even my friends, but I don’t want to risk reminded them of what I’ve done.”
  1733. >Her chest heaves as she lets out another sigh.
  1734. >You wait patiently, recognizing the signs of someone struggling to find the right words and their courage.
  1735. >”The pills that everypony takes.”
  1736. “Yeah?”
  1737. >”I helped develop them.”
  1738. >You can’t believe your ears.
  1739. >”They weren’t... meant for… *this*,” Moondancer says quietly. “It was meant to *help* us.”
  1740. “Help you do what?”
  1741. >Your own voice is barely a whisper.
  1742. >”It… lets us…”
  1743. >The mare trails off into silence, staring at the far wall for a moment before flashing you an embarrassed grin.
  1744. >”Sorry, it’s technical. I’m trying to think of a way to describe it.”
  1745. “You don’t have to. It doesn’t matter anyway.”
  1746. >”No, I do,” Moondancer murmurs. “I want you to trust me. And…”
  1747. “And?”
  1748. >”I need to tell someone, if you don’t mind. It’s been three years and… and I’m beginning to see why Apple Bloom spent so much time with you. You’re not one of *us*. We can talk to you without… well, not without being judged, but there’s an element of that.”
  1749. “Oh.”
  1750. >Moondancer sighs before continuing.
  1751. >”Basically, they were to help us acclimate to a magically dead world. This place… it feels… *weird*.”
  1752. >She shudders with the last word.
  1753. >”Imagine your whole life you heard a song playing. Your entire life is set to an orchestral score. You don’t even know it’s there, because it’s just how the world is supposed to be. And then one day… it just *stops*. That’s what it’s like, coming to this world.
  1754. >”A part of us that had always been there is suddenly gone. The orchestra stops playing. It’s disorienting and some ponies never get used to it.”
  1755. “I’m failing to see –“
  1756. >”The pills block that sensation. It’s not too dissimilar to an antidepressant in that in blocks chemicals in the brain. Basically, when we’re on the medication, we can’t feel magic at all.”
  1757. “But isn’t that the same thing?”
  1758. >”Not quite,” Moondancer sighs. “We all have our own magic in us. When I first crossed over, the orchestra stopped, but… I hope this makes sense… *I* didn’t. Instead of a full orchestra, it was as if I was playing alone. That sudden feeling of loss and aloneness practically sent me running back through the portal.
  1759. >”Twilight had warned me about it, but even so I wasn’t prepared. Everything felt *wrong*. With the pills, I can’t feel anything at all.
  1760. >”They weren’t meant to block our magic; what we’re taking these days is exponentially stronger than what we came up with four years ago. All it was supposed to do was let us live on this side without going crazy.”
  1761. >Moondancer pauses and looks up at you.
  1762. >”Of course,” she chuckles darkly, “it didn’t work right.”
  1763. “Everything still felt wrong?”
  1764. >”No, that worked perfectly. We couldn’t feel anything at all… so those using it tended to draw too deeply on their own magic. Fatally so.
  1765. >”We stopped using them after only three months, after a pegasus fell to her death because she couldn’t realize her magic had run out. It was covered up, of course, but…”
  1766. >Her eyes silently plead for you to understand.
  1767. >”I never meant for anything to happen, but because of something I worked on, a pony died. And now…”
  1768.  
  1769. >Be confused.
  1770. >You don’t feel anything, except the usual sense of dedication.
  1771. >Maybe a little irritation. The filly should be seeing to Derpy, not fantasizing about… whatever it is she’s imagining.
  1772. >”I… um… I… I…”
  1773. >The little filly looks back and forth between you and your patient.
  1774. >”I must be wrong, I guess,” she murmurs. “It’s nothing. Nevermind.”
  1775. >You sigh – intentionally and loudly.
  1776. >It’s not that you mind letting her sit in, or even teaching her, but she’s making a patient wait for no good reason.
  1777. “Then if it’s nothing, show me what you can do.”
  1778. >”Yes, miss,” she answers without hesitation.
  1779. >You watch as she begins wrapping Derpy’s foreleg. She does a good job of it, keeping the gauze nice and tight, but not so tight as to be binding.
  1780. >So far so good – and then she grabs a pair of scissors with her mouth.
  1781. “What are you doing?”
  1782. >”I… um… I’m done –“
  1783. “You’ve barely covered the scrape, girl. Wrap it a few more times –“
  1784. >”But… yes, ma’am.”
  1785. >She does one more circuit with the gauze – her eyes constantly flickering between you and the steadily shrinking roll.
  1786. >Ah.
  1787. >You recognize this. Done it yourself, in darker times.
  1788. “Use the whole roll if you have to, Hematite. We have more.”
  1789. >You aren’t operating out of an unsupplied shack anymore.
  1790. >”But…”
  1791. “I’m guessing you don’t have much in the way of supplies out on the farm, do you?”
  1792. >”No, ma’am,” the filly admits, dipping her head.
  1793. “Didn’t think so.”
  1794. >Her own bandages are thin – just a single layer of gauze.
  1795. >Probably doesn’t even have any ointment, maybe never did. and that’s why she didn’t apply it. Everything else was done with care and precision; she wouldn’t have simply forgotten a step.
  1796. “Okay, that’s good. We can cut it off here. Next, we’ll take a look at that cut over her eye.”
  1797. >”Yes ma’am.”
  1798.  
  1799. >Be quiet.
  1800. >”Eventually, I managed to push down that feeling on my own,” Moondancer mumbles. “I stopped listening to that lone violin, but it never stopped playing. I just… didn’t pay attention anymore. It took me months – nearly a year.
  1801. >”And by that time…”
  1802. >She smiles at you sadly.
  1803. >”We were working on a new version, one that would work better. Almost had our breakthrough, I thought. Never would have figured it out on my own, but you humans can be marvelous when you try to be.”
  1804. “What happened?”
  1805. >”There was a TV in the break room.”
  1806. >Moondancer pauses to take off her glasses and dab at her eyes with her napkin.
  1807. >”We… I don’t really remember what happened next. I watched *her* fall, but after that…
  1808. >”They say the sun always rises… but…”
  1809. “I saw it too.”
  1810. >”I *knew* she wasn’t going to get up again,” Moondancer whispers, her voice breaking under the strain. “They say they found me back in the lab. I don’t know what I was doing. Just… trying to work, I guess.
  1811. >”If I could just get back to work, I could pretend everything was normal. I stayed there for weeks, through Nightmare Moon’s rampage and the invasion of Ponyville. There wasn’t anything I could do, so I just pretended to work.
  1812. >”I kept fiddling with the formula. Trying to perfect it.
  1813. >”The camps were set up, full of ponies that were scared and hurting. They were already on edge – losing… losing that song – the magic – it sent some of them over the edge. Things got violent.”
  1814. “I know. I saw the exposes. What happened –”
  1815. >”I saw them too,” Moondancer cuts you off, “and I kept working. Nothing I did mattered. I wasn’t in the refugee camps. I couldn’t help them, so I focused on my work.”
  1816. “I… I know that feeling. We’re all just doing what we can to get through things and pray for the best.”
  1817. >”I wasn’t getting anywhere,” the mare continues, shaking her head, “but I wasn’t really trying to. I was just trying to distract myself from reality. Eventually the project was shut down and… I was ‘relocated’ to be with my kind.”
  1818. >The mare chuckles darkly at some personal joke.
  1819. >”It was hell,” she says quietly. “And it was partially my fault. I kept adjusting the formula, telling everyone that the new pills would be ready for production at the end of the week, then the end of the month, then next month…
  1820. >”I thought what I did didn’t matter, but I was wrong. I made things worse.”
  1821. >Moondancer laughs, clutching her head with her forehooves.
  1822. >”I. Made. Things. Worse. Because of me, production and distribution of the suppressants was set back *months*. I almost have up then, but you know what I realized?”
  1823. “What…?”
  1824. >”I made things worse.”
  1825. “Yeah, I get that.”
  1826. >”What we do matters. When I saw everything that happened because of my choices, I realized I wasn’t helpless. If what I do matters… then I can make things better.”
  1827. >She reaches over, putting a hoof on your hand.
  1828. >”We aren’t powerless. If may feel like we are, but that’s a lie. Your every choice can change the world.”
  1829.  
  1830. >Be proud.
  1831. >The little filly did a good job seeing to Derpy’s injuries.
  1832. >She trots along behind you, leaving her brother to chat with the pegasus.
  1833. “You did pretty good in there.”
  1834. >”Thanks,” Hematite mumbles, “but there was so much I didn’t know. I’m supposed to be a nurse, but -”
  1835. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
  1836. >You stop walking and point to your own flank.
  1837. “See? Yours is… a *little* different.”
  1838. >The filly’s grey coat shows through her empty hearts, whereas yours are solid red.
  1839. “Every nurse has the same cutie mark, so… I’m not exactly sure what yours is.”
  1840. >Her head droops.
  1841. >”Oh,” she sighs. “There’s a lot I don’t know, but I thought I at least knew what my cutie mark meant.”
  1842. “It’s not your fault. I’m sure you’ve had your cutie mark for years, but...”
  1843. >”N-no. It’s… um… I got it yesterday.”
  1844. “Yesterday.”
  1845. >The word falls out of your mouth, your mind and lips numb to the sounds that issue forth.
  1846. “That’s impossible.”
  1847. >It’s impossible.
  1848. >”But it’s true.”
  1849. >It can’t be.
  1850. “No.”
  1851. >You shake your head, trying to shake away the confusion.
  1852. “That can’t happen. There’s no magic in this world. You…”
  1853. >What are you going to tell her?
  1854. >That she’s not remembering things right?
  1855. >The biggest even in a foal’s life, and you’re going to tell her that she’s *wrong*?
  1856. >”Why does everypony keep saying that?” Hematite whines softly.
  1857. “Because –“
  1858. >”There is *too* magic.”
  1859.  
  1860. >Be worried.
  1861. >The feelin’ don’t last long, only ‘til the symbols change.
  1862. “It’s positive.”
  1863. >”You’re sure?” Scootaloo asks, soundin’ like she’s right on the other side of the bathroom door. “Absolutely sure?”
  1864. “It’s what the test says.”
  1865. >Whatever the other mare says next is lost as you wash your hooves, rushin’ water drownin’ out her voice.
  1866. >She’s frownin’ when you open the door.
  1867. >Prolly gonna try to convince you to abort.
  1868. “I’m keeping it.”
  1869. >You push your way past your friend, roughly shoulderin’ her aside.
  1870. >”Yeah, I know. I’m just wondering why you don’t sound happy about it.”
  1871. “Because… that ain’t your problem.”
  1872. >The mare glares at you, the corner of her mouth twitchin’. She wants to say somethin’, but is holdin’ herself back.
  1873. >Good.
  1874. >She don’t know what it’s like; ain’t got no right to talk.
  1875. >”Let’s go back to the office,” Scootaloo snaps, tossing her mane.
  1876. >You shrug and slowly trail after her.
  1877. >Not like you really have a choice. Not like you can go home or even back to the farm.
  1878. >Even if you could, ain’t nothin’ for you there.
  1879. >You slowly climb back up onto the office sofa with Scootaloo, hopin’ she’ll just keep her mouth shut and show you a movie or somethin’.
  1880. >At the very least, just leave you alone.
  1881. >You know better’n to hope.
  1882. >”What the hell is wrong with you, Apple Bloom?” Scootaloo barks after several minutes of silence.
  1883. “Ah’m lonely. Ah’m keeping it.”
  1884. >”Not what I meant!”
  1885. >The mare throws her forehooves into the air in frustration.
  1886. >”You’re going to be a mother now! You can’t be depressed all the time or your foal will think it’s her fault! If this is a good thing, then Be. Happy!”
  1887. >Scootaloo is scowlin’ at you, her face wracked with emotion.
  1888. >”You tell me this is something you want, so why don’t you act like it?”
  1889. “Because Ah’m scared.”
  1890. >You speak so softly, you don’t even hear your own words.
  1891. >”What?”
  1892. “Ah’m scared, Scootaloo.”
  1893. >”Don’t be,” your friend reassures, reaching out to touch you. “You’ll be a great mom!”
  1894. >You doubt that, but that ain’t what got you worried.
  1895. >Ain’t no way that your foal won’t leave you. Might even hate you.
  1896. “That’s not what Ah’m scared about. Remember Hematite?”
  1897. >”How could I forget?”
  1898. “And how sick she was?”
  1899. >”Y-yeah.”
  1900. “She never got any better, Scootaloo.”
  1901. >”That’s…”
  1902. >Scootaloo frowns, clearly not followin’.
  1903. >”That’s sad and all, but what does it have to do with your foal?”
  1904. “Moondancer says it might be ‘cause of this world. The lack of magic… Ah don’t want my foal bein’ sick like her.”
  1905. >It’s got you scared. Not enough to end the pregnancy, though.
  1906. >Someone to love you… the temptation is too great, even if it only lasts a short while.
  1907. >She’d leave you sooner or later anyhow, for one reason or ‘nother.
  1908. >You’d just like it to be later.
  1909. >“Does Moondancer really think that?”
  1910. “Just a theory she came up with, maybe why Hematite didn’t grow up right.”
  1911. >Scootaloo sighs and leans back, pullin’ her hoof away from your leg.
  1912. >”Maybe,” she admits, shruggin’. “I’m no doctor, but that sounds like it could be why.”
  1913. “Yeah.”
  1914. >”Even with us helping Marble, I didn’t have a lot of hope that Hematite was going to live.”
  1915. “Weren’t a lot of hope to go ‘round back then, was there?”
  1916. >”No,” Scootaloo softly agrees.
  1917.  
  1918. >Be adamant.
  1919. >You’re not that desperate. Yet.
  1920. “I said no.”
  1921. >Maybe tomorrow, but not now.
  1922. >”The fuck do you mean, ‘no?’” your customer snarls, grabbing your hoof and yanking you back onto the bed. “I fucking bought you –“
  1923. “Not for that! I didn’t agree to that!”
  1924. >”You fucking owe me, whore!”
  1925. “Stop! You’re –“
  1926. >He twists your leg painfully, turning your protest into a garbled shriek.
  1927. >”Who brought you all those new clients, huh? You don’t have any right to tell me no.”
  1928. “B-but you haven’t paid for – gah!”
  1929. >He twists it again, pulling it behind your back and driving you down into the mattress.
  1930. >”Like I said, you *owe* me,” he snarls. “I think we can keep this one off the books.”
  1931. “No. NO!”
  1932. >Maybe tomorrow you would have agreed.
  1933. >”I’m going to hurt you and you’re going to *like* it.”
  1934. “NO!”
  1935. >No, not even then. A beating from Sterling couldn’t be any worse than what’s he wants to do.
  1936. >You try to struggle, but every movement sends a spike of pain running up your leg.
  1937. >He could break it on a whim.
  1938. >He just might.
  1939. “Stop! I said no! I’m allowed to –“
  1940. >A hand slides along your neck.
  1941. “ – I’m… I’m allowed to say no…”
  1942. >It tightens.
  1943. >”Not to me.”
  1944. >You try to beg him to stop, but…
  1945. >His grip isn’t tight enough to stop you from breathing – not yet.
  1946. >Just tight enough to make it hard. To make you panic.
  1947. >To make your already troubled breathing even more difficult as you begin to hyperventilate.
  1948. >You realize what’s happening, but your body reacts on its own.
  1949. >No amount of realization can calm your breathing. No amount of pleading will make him stop.
  1950. >He’s not going to kill you, but he’s not going to stop.
  1951. >You had been warned, but… you thought…
  1952. >His hand squeezes even tighter.
  1953. >You thrash and twist, the pain in your leg a distant concern.
  1954. >”You. Fucking. Owe. Me.”
  1955. “Stop.”
  1956. >”No.”
  1957. >You can barely breath, let alone speak.
  1958. “STOP!”
  1959. >”I’m going to teach you not to –“
  1960. >The door slams open. You don’t see it, but you can hear it.
  1961. >You can’t see anything but the black dots swimming in your vision.
  1962. >Can barely hear anything besides the blood rushing through your veins.
  1963. >”What’s going on here?”
  1964. >”Nothing you need to worry about,” your client snaps back at the bouncer, but he pulls his hand away from your neck.
  1965. >”Pretty sure it is, deputy. She told you to stop.”
  1966. >”And she’s just a fucking pony, so who gives a fuck what she says?”
  1967. >”Sterling does.”
  1968. >He lets you go, but not before giving your leg a vicious tug.
  1969. >”Fine.”
  1970. >He climbs off of you.
  1971. >You would run, if you had the strength to. Hide in the bathroom until he was gone, maybe.
  1972. >Too bad you can’t even push yourself enough to roll over.
  1973. >”You know, I’m starting to miss Silver Spoon,” the man growls as he begins dressing himself. “That mare knew her place.”
  1974. >You can see the bouncer out of the corner of your eye.
  1975. >”Yeah,” he agrees, too quickly, “but no one else would buy her after what you did to her.”
  1976. >”Bullshit. I know there were others.”
  1977. >”And they all pulled the same shit as you. No one wants to buy a broken mare except you sick fucks.”
  1978. >Your customer – ex-customer – chuckles as he buttons up his uniform.
  1979. >”Yeah, that’s true. Most people want ‘em pretty, but I don’t care if they’re bruised up. They’re only ponies.”
  1980. >He pauses, glaring down at you with such intensity that you look away immediately.
  1981. >”Remember that, pony. No one else is going to want you. Next time I come in, you better beg for my cock or I’ll make sure you get to go on the next hunting trip.”
  1982. >You want to laugh, but everything hurts too much.
  1983. >Silver had begged.
  1984. >It hadn’t saved her.
  1985. >You lay there as the man leaves. No reason to run or hide or watch him.
  1986. >The bouncer is here. You’re safe now.
  1987. >You hear his footsteps fade away.
  1988. >”You okay?” your protector asks once the sound is gone completely.
  1989. “Y-yeah.”
  1990. >”You know you’re fucked, right?”
  1991. “Yeah.”
  1992. >Silver isn’t here to take the abuse for you anymore.
  1993. >You’ve known this was coming.
  1994. >It’s what you deserve.
  1995. >You should have listened to Apple Bloom.
  1996. >She tried so hard to save everyone.
  1997. >Even you.
  1998.  
  1999. >Be in pain.
  2000. >Slowly, the sensation pulls you to wakefulness.
  2001. >In this half-sleep, it’s easy to believe Apple Bloom is real, that she was with you.
  2002. >You drowsily fumble about with your hoof, reaching for hers, for even the tiniest bit of contact with another pony.
  2003. >You find it when your hoof brushes up against Miss Cheerilee’s leg.
  2004. >Not that you know it is her at first, not until you open your eyes.
  2005. >The older mare is asleep, he forelegs crossed under her head and resting on the edge of your cot.
  2006. >Your heart slows, the rising panic forgotten.
  2007. >You are not alone.
  2008. >You never will be.
  2009. >Never have been.
  2010. >There had always been others.
  2011. >With all your injuries, all you have lived through, you still ask yourself how you had ever lost hope.
  2012. >You wonder how it was even possible, even as you remember the exact moment it happened.
  2013. >No, there was never just one moment.
  2014. >Each time you had thought you had hit rock bottom, life had always found a way to drive you further into despair.
  2015. >The thought makes you giggle – if that was true, then you never *had* lost hope, had you?
  2016. >And now… that hope has come true.
  2017. >You pray that Diamond Tiara is okay.
  2018. >Apple Bloom, too, wherever she is.
  2019. >You sigh contently.
  2020. >A second later, Cheerilee’s leg stirs under your hoof.
  2021. >”Huh…? Oh, sorry,” the mare mumbles groggily, raising her head. “I guess I fell asleep too.”
  2022. >The mare pushes herself up and shakes her head to clear the last remnants of sleep from her mind.
  2023. >”Is everything okay ?”
  2024. “Actually –“
  2025. >”Oh, sun!” Miss Cheerilee swears, noticing your leg – and the bandage. “I need to change that.”
  2026. >Blood has soaked through.
  2027. >Not much, but the surface is stained dull brown in places.
  2028. >You can feel it sticking to your leg, glued to your coat by your own blood.
  2029. >Not much, but enough to tug and pull and hurt.
  2030. >Miss Cheerilee begins laying out scissors and other supplies.
  2031. “Actually, before you begin…”
  2032. >”Yes?”
  2033. “… could I have a pill?”
  2034. >Peeling away the bandages will hurt, but there’s no reason it has to. There’s no reason you have to be in pain now at all.
  2035. >No critical shortage of medication, like there had been in the camps.
  2036. >No masochistic urge to refuse treatment because you deserve to suffer.
  2037. >Miss Cheerilee hesitates, her hoof still hovering over a fresh roll of gauze.
  2038. >”Oh, SUN!” she blurts out before tearing into the bag of supplies again. “I can’t believe how stupid I am!”
  2039. “It’s not that bad.”
  2040. >”I am *so* sorry! I can’t believe I didn’t even think of giving you your suppressant for today! No one else has given you one, have they?”
  2041. “No, I don’t think so.”
  2042. >Your thoughts are still fuzzy, but you’re relatively certain on that.
  2043. >”Crap crap crap crap! I’m sorry, that’s the last thing you need right now!”
  2044. “It’s okay.”
  2045. >She holds out a pill to you, but you don’t take it.
  2046. >”We have plenty,” Miss Cheerilee urges. “There’s no reason to go through *that*.”
  2047. >The mare shivers.
  2048. >You nod slowly, but still don’t take the pill from her.
  2049. “Okay, but…”
  2050. >You think back, trying to remember how long it has been since you last had a suppressant.
  2051. >You can’t even remember how long you’ve been in this cot.
  2052. “… I… don’t think I need one.”
  2053. >”So somepony *did* give it to you,” the mare sighs, relief evident on her face. “Good.”
  2054. “I don’t think so.”
  2055. >”But –“
  2056. “I remember what it was like when we first crossed over, before the suppressants were distributed to the camps. I don’t feel that way at all.”
  2057. >”Now listen here,” Miss Cheerilee grunts firmly, in her best schoolteacher voice, “you need to take your pill.”
  2058. >You gently push her hoof away.
  2059. “Thank you, but I don’t need it.”
  2060. >”Sun! I was warned you might refuse care if we let you! Don’t do this!”
  2061. “I truly don’t need it.”
  2062. >”But –“
  2063. “I don’t feel alone.”
  2064.  
  2065. >Be polite.
  2066. “Of course there is, Hematite. Magic is real.”
  2067. >It’s just not here, you amend silently.
  2068. >The filly glares at you, as firm and serious as her little body can be.
  2069. >”Everypony keeps telling me it isn’t,” she growls, “and that’s why getting a cutie mark is impossible. But I got one! Magic is real!”
  2070. “It is.”
  2071. >Inwardly, you sigh.
  2072. >She doesn’t know any better. She doesn’t know what magic really feels like.
  2073. >You envy her.
  2074. >The suppressants do their job, when you take them, but you’ll never forget the shock of coming to this world.
  2075. >A thread tying you to Equestria snapped when you crossed over, a thread you never knew existed until it was gone.
  2076. >It’s something that the little filly was too young to understand. She grew up never knowing what it felt like to be surrounded by magic, to live your life with that inexhaustible supply at your hooves.
  2077. >You had. And then you came here, leaving Ponyville to burn.
  2078. >It was chaos.
  2079. >Ponies already on edge, ponies who had already lost everything… they crossed the portal and they lost something they didn’t even know existed.
  2080. >There was fighting. Blood was spilled.
  2081. >Not all of it was humans’.
  2082. >Pony fought pony.
  2083. >Medical staff had been given the suppressants first, to help them focus.
  2084. >They didn’t understand. You’re a nurse and your patients come first.
  2085. >There were others that need them more.
  2086. >You’ve gotten used to that feeling, adapted to it with the help of others.
  2087. >Doctor Alda for one.
  2088. >And Minuette.
  2089. >A hoof touches your leg.
  2090. >”Miss?”
  2091. “What? Oh, yes. Supplies. Right. Follow me. I’ll get you some supplies to take home with you for Silver Spoon.”
  2092. >You’ve gotten used to coping with this world.
  2093. >Now you’re not living in the camps, you live with a man who loves you – and that you love, but you’re still not free of that feeling.
  2094. >Sometimes, it has been hard to look to the future in this place, and so you focused on the here and now. On helping the people you could – ponies *and* humans – and being with him.
  2095. >You didn’t have much hope for the future. For yourself or your species.
  2096. >Individuals could find a measure of happiness – you’re proof enough of that – but just enough to keep going.
  2097. >Until now.
  2098. >You look back at the little filly following you.
  2099. >She got her cutie mark.
  2100. >You don’t know what it means – what her special talent truly is – but you know what it means to you.
  2101. >The impossible has happened.
  2102. >You’ve never written *her* before, because you never saw the point of it all.
  2103. >Now you think you understand.
  2104.  
  2105. >Be touched.
  2106. >”What you do matters,” Moondancer repeats. “So you need to start putting some thought into your choices.”
  2107. >Not so much now.
  2108. “Yeah, I remember. I’m incompetent.”
  2109. >”I… didn’t mean it like that.”
  2110. “Well, it’s hard to interpret it any other way.”
  2111. >You shrug and put your hands on the arms of your chair, ready to push yourself up.
  2112. “Thanks for the story, but –“
  2113. >”You’re a good man,” the mare blurts out, “you just need to see that and believe in yourself.”
  2114. “I’m really not.”
  2115. >”You *are*. Apple Bloom trusts you, and –“
  2116. “Apple Bloom?”
  2117. >You laugh. You can’t help yourself.
  2118. >She trusts you.
  2119. >So you must be a good man.
  2120. >That’s what Moondancer is trying to say, you assume.
  2121. >If only she knew the truth…
  2122. >”Look,” the mare huffs, crossing her forelegs like they were arms. “You may not think much of her, but I do.”
  2123. “I think she was the only thing stopping me from driving this place into the ground.”
  2124. >”Then –“
  2125. “But I can’t trust her. And she can’t trust me.”
  2126. >”Why not?” Moondancer asks, frowning like she just can’t understand.
  2127. “She lied to me.”
  2128. >”Get over it.”
  2129. >You gesture towards the holes in the wall.
  2130. >Moondancer’s frown deepens; she understands what you mean without you having to say a word.
  2131. >”Well, it looks like you got it out of your system. Time for the two of you to make up and get back to leading us.”
  2132. “I don’t think we can do that.”
  2133. >”Why not?”
  2134. “She lied to me, Moondancer.”
  2135. >”I don’t get why that’s so important to you.”
  2136. “Because… she told me she was the only mare in heat.”
  2137. >Moondancer’s eyes narrow – not in anger, but confusion.
  2138. >It takes her a moment. You can see the entire train of logic play itself out in her expressions.
  2139. >A raises eyebrow that drops suddenly.
  2140. >Eyes widening.
  2141. >Narrowing.
  2142. >Then glaring.
  2143. >Now she understands.
  2144. “You’re right, Moondancer. Our choices have consequences. She lied to me and because of that I buckled her into a breeding stand and watched as one of Steffords’ stallions raped her.
  2145. “So don’t tell me I’m a good man. I let that happen. I *chose* for that to happen.”
  2146. >The mare’s lips twitch in a sneer.
  2147. >She understands now.
  2148. >You’re not a good person.
  2149. >”Why?”
  2150. “Because we had a deal.”
  2151. >”You could have canceled it,” she barks. “It doesn’t even make any sense! Foals can’t work!”
  2152. “Yeah.”
  2153. >”By law, foals can’t work!”
  2154. >You sigh and lean back in your chair.
  2155. “I know.”
  2156. >You know, but you’ve been trying not to think of it.
  2157. >”There’s no point in it!” Moondancer yells, slamming a hoof into her chair’s arm. “We already have a cease fire! By the time the foal is old enough to work the fields, this whole mess will be over!”
  2158. “Yeah.”
  2159. >You sigh again, remembering how eagerly Apple Bloom had agreed.
  2160. “But some people don’t want a worker. They want a pet.”
  2161. >”What does that mean?”
  2162. “It means there’s rich folks out that that want a foal as a pet. And they’re willing to pay.”
  2163. >”You… you can’t do that,” Moondancer insists. “Foals don’t have employment contracts. You can’t sell them away from their parents.”
  2164. “I know. I was going to sell Apple Bloom’s contract.”
  2165. >”That’s… that’s insane! You can run this place without her!”
  2166. “The deal’s already done. That’s why it had to be now.”
  2167. >Why it had to be her, or so you thought.
  2168. >She’d claimed she was the only mare in season, and you’d believed her.
  2169. >Every choice you make… every single one…
  2170. >… they all turn out to be the wrong one.
  2171. >You never should have trusted Apple Bloom.
  2172. >Moondancer sits silently – not so much as a whisper escapes her lips.
  2173. “I don’t have a choice, Moondancer.”
  2174. >”You always have a choice,” she mumbles back half-heartedly.
  2175. “Not if I’m going to help the rest of you.
  2176. “The money hasn’t been paid yet, but I’ll need it to do just half of what I’ve promised the others.
  2177. “See? I made a decision. I’m helping every pony on my farm live a real life. All it will cost is her.
  2178. “She loves me and I had her raped. She trusts me… and I’m going to sell her off like cattle.
  2179. “Just two signatures and she’ll be gone, Moondancer. That’s all it takes for me to help the rest of you.
  2180. “Two signatures, and never being able to live with myself again.”
  2181. >”There has to be another way.”
  2182. “It’s too late. The deal was made long before I took over.”
  2183. >”You can back out. If they haven’t paid yet –“
  2184. “We need that money.”
  2185. >Moondancer snorts angrily and falls out of her chair with a flounce.
  2186. >”Let me see the books. I’ll figure something out.”
  2187.  
  2188. >Hours later, Moondancer raises her head from the financial statements strewn across your desk and lets out a drawn-out sigh.
  2189. >You take it as a sign of surrender.
  2190. “Like I said, I don’t have a choice.”
  2191. >”There has to be something…”
  2192. “Well, I couldn’t find anything. And neither can you, so…”
  2193. >You give her an exaggerated shrug, followed by a sigh.
  2194. >”I’m not an accountant,” Moondancer mutters angrily.
  2195. “Unless you know one –“
  2196. >”You should let Silver Spoon take a look at this.”
  2197.  
  2198. >Be nervous.
  2199. >Derpy flashes you a happy smile as she trots out of the exam room, freshly bandaged and ready to crash into yet another wall.
  2200. >”I hope I get to talk to you again!” a tiny voice chases after her.
  2201. >”Me too, Mica!” she laughs back, smile widening. “Soon, with any luck”!
  2202. >She comes to a stop as she sees you blocking her way.
  2203. >Her head tilts one way. Her eyes… in two other radically different directions.
  2204. >”Was there something else, Nurse Redheart?”
  2205. “Derpy, I know you aren’t Ponyville’s mailmare anymore, but –“
  2206. >”I’m not?” the mare giggles. “It sure feels like it, sometimes.”
  2207. “Yeah, I guess it does.”
  2208. >You let out a little chuckle.
  2209. “I have a letter for *her*. Could you…”
  2210. >”Of course.”
  2211.  
  2212. >Be confused
  2213. “Silver Spoon?”
  2214. >”Yeah,” Moondancer sighs, pushing away the papers and receipts so she can collapse on the desk’s surface. Face down. “None of the ponies here are accountants, but… honestly?”
  2215. >The mare tilts her head to one side, just far enough to look up at you out of the corner of her eye.
  2216. >”I think she’d be of more help than any accountant.”
  2217. >You wait for the joke, for her to deliver the punchline.
  2218. >It doesn’t come.
  2219. >”Well, maybe in the morning,” Moondancer mumbles, her eyes drifting away to roam over the piles of paperwork. “I can pack this up and take it to her and –“
  2220. “Moondancer.”
  2221. >”Hmm?”
  2222. “She’s a whore.”
  2223. >Her mouth curves in a harsh frown.
  2224. >Too bad. It’s the truth.
  2225. “And not a very good one, or she wouldn’t have ended up the way she did. I don’t see what good it would do, having her go over the financials.
  2226. “Maybe, sure, in the long term it would be great. She can’t work the fields and never will, so finding her something else to do would be a good idea. This is as good as anything, but it doesn’t help me now.”
  2227. >”Are you really this bigoted or do you just have no idea who she is?”
  2228. >You shrug. And sigh. And slump in a nearby chair.
  2229. “She’s 9B. If she had any useful skills, she wouldn’t have wound up spreading her legs for every trucker that passed by.”
  2230. >”Silver Spoon wasn’t there by choice,” Moondancer growls. “She didn’t *choose* to –“
  2231. “Then why was she working at Sterling’s?”
  2232. >”I… I think she went there to be with her friend.”
  2233. >You snort. Not a full blown laugh – you’re too disgusted for that, but still amused.
  2234. “So… how’s that friendship thing working out for you ponies?”
  2235. >”About as well as being assholes is working out for you humans, I suspect,” she snaps back. “At least hear me out before dismissing it.”
  2236. >You look out the darkening window.
  2237. >Not like you’d be wasting your time – there’s nothing else to do except go to sleep and look forward to another hollow and meaningless day.
  2238. >One more day closer to disappointing everyone. Again.
  2239. “Fine.”
  2240. >You gesture for her to go ahead.
  2241. “Tell me this great idea of yours. How are we going to turn Silver Spoon into a financial genius.“
  2242. >”That’s easy,” the mare sighs, pushing herself up from the desk. “We just let her do what she was born to do.”
  2243. “And that is?”
  2244. >”Be rich.”
  2245. >Moondancer grabs a pencil of the desk and lobs it at your head.
  2246. >Misses by a mile.
  2247. >You don’t think she was really trying.
  2248. >”She was being groomed to take over her family’s business,” she continues after reaching for another pencil. “I seriously can’t believe you don’t know who she is. Well, maybe not *you* -“
  2249. >The tilts her head and raises an eyebrow.
  2250. “Yes, fine, I get it. You think I’m an idiot.”
  2251. >She shrugs.
  2252. >”Silver Spoon’s family was wealthy enough before the portals opened, but after that…”
  2253. >Moondancer slowly trails off into exhausted laughter.
  2254. “What?”
  2255. >”*Cobalt*.”
  2256. “You’ve lost me.”
  2257. >”Cobalt,” she repeats. “Lithium. Niobium…. Everything we considered a worthless metal, you humans jumped at a chance to buy. Her family owns mines all over Equestria.
  2258. >”Within two months of the portals being opened to commercial use, their empire had expanded to the point she was *running* the branch in Ponyville.
  2259. >”On both sides of the portals, it was held as the prime example of how trade between our worlds would benefit us all.”
  2260. >Moondancer smiles sadly and looks out the window.
  2261. >”I wish I still had that copy of Time,” she murmurs softly. “I bet Silver Spoon would love to read it.”
  2262. >She sighs and looks back to you.
  2263. >”Or maybe not. Might just bring up bad memories. Doesn’t really matter right now. What *does* matter is she’s more qualified to deal with the farm’s financials than you or I am.”
  2264. “But she knows metal, not produce. She –“
  2265. >”She doesn’t know metal,” Moondancer counters, shaking her head. “She didn’t know how the Hall-Heroult process worked, just that new methods of aluminum extraction would create entirely new product out of waste ore. Silver Spoon knows how to run a business and that’s expertise you need.”
  2266. >You shake your head.
  2267. “But she doesn’t know farming.”
  2268. >The mare sighs and gives you a lopsided frown.
  2269. >”And neither do you. Luckily, you have Apple Bloom to help you with that.”
  2270. “I don’t.”
  2271. >”You *do*. And now you have Silver Spoon to help with the business side of things. She knows –“
  2272. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. She’s everything I’m not.”
  2273. >”Exactly,” Moondancer chirps. “She knows business, you don’t. She’s a pony, you’re human. She’s kinda cute –“
  2274.  
  2275. >Be nothing.
  2276. >Not yet, anyhow.
  2277. >A fly on the wall at best.
  2278. >A distant – and fading – memory at worst.
  2279. >A door creaks.
  2280. >The heavy slab of wood slowly swings open and Ponyville’s mailmare steps into the church.
  2281. >She looks around.
  2282. >It’s not a very large church.
  2283. >In the South, after what happened, there are almost more churches than people.
  2284. >Not quite, but it feels that way sometimes.
  2285. >Methodists, Baptists, Mormons and even Buddhists all within walking distance of each other.
  2286. >This one isn’t quite nondenominational, but it is quite open and accepting. Even to ponies.
  2287. >The man near the altar looks up as the mare’s hoofsteps ring out through the empty space.
  2288. >”Good evening, Derpy,” he says, smiling at her. “Did you have a pleasant walk?”
  2289. >That’s what he calls them. Her “walks.”
  2290. >He knows what she is doing. Approves of it, even. But he won’t say it.
  2291. >”Yep!” she answers back, returning his smile.
  2292. >”You look a little…”
  2293. >He hesitates to point out her bandages, for the same reason he will not refer to her work as anything but her “walks.”
  2294. >”I crashed. Nothing to worry about.”
  2295. >He frowns.
  2296. >If there is one thing he disapproves of, it is when her “walks” cease to involve walking.
  2297. >”You really should stop doing that,” he chides. “If the deputy catches you…”
  2298. >”I know…”
  2299. >”Then will you stop?”
  2300. >”I’ll try, but…”
  2301. >”But it’s a part of you,” he sighs. “I know.”
  2302. >”Sorry. I don’t mean to cause you any trouble.”
  2303. >”You aren’t, Derpy. I just worry about you.”
  2304. >The mare nods, then wiggles her way onto one of the pews.
  2305. >He smiles – perhaps sadly, perhaps… with some other emotion - as she pulls a letter out of her bag.
  2306. >”Don’t take too long. I need you dressed and ready for the evening service before everyone starts to arrive.”
  2307. >”Okay.”
  2308. >He turns back to the altar, fiddling with this and that.
  2309. >The mare carefully – almost reverently – opens the envelope Nurse Redheart had given her.
  2310. >There are others in her bag, but something tells her this is the most important.
  2311. >It was the Nurse’s first.
  2312. >She unfolds the single sheet of paper held within and begins to read, not quite silently – her lips are moving – but certainly indiscernibly.
  2313. >He doesn’t try to listen in – that’s not his place. Some might think it is, if they were in his place, but not him. She’s not talking to him.
  2314. >But if he could read lips, the first three words would be unmistakable to any who knew them.
  2315. “Dear Princess -”
  2316.  
  2317. >”Be reasonable.”
  2318. “I am.”
  2319. >You make another attempt to pull yourself up, but it don’t work out.
  2320. >Never even raise your head off the pillow, same as last time.
  2321. >”You aren’t,” Dr. Alda sighs, runnin’ a hand through his thinnin’ hair. “Hell, I should be holding you longer. I shouldn’t even have done the surgery, not with just Sutherland and me.”
  2322. >He looks you sternly in the eye, the kinda look a doctor gives his patients when he’s bein’ dead serious.
  2323. >”Really.”
  2324. >You know that, an’ you appreciate him doin’ it anyway.
  2325. >“I should have sent you in to the city.”
  2326. “You’ve done more with less, doc. I know you have.”
  2327. >”That was different. This is just you being impatient.”
  2328. >You keep your mouth shut, on account of not wantin’ to admit he’s right.
  2329. >He waits a moment – for you to argue, you think, ‘cause you both know you ain’t gonna tell him that’s true.
  2330. >”Good,” the doc murmurs once he’s decided you ain’t gonna. “So just lay back and relax. It’s normally just an in-and-out procedure, but… I’m a little worried. Just try to be patient; it’s only one night.”
  2331. “You didn’t hold Silver.”
  2332. >”That was different,” he sighs, lookin’ away.
  2333. >He shuffles over to the nearby chair an’ drops himself down, lookin’ older’n anything.
  2334. “How?”
  2335. >”Because it was.”
  2336. “Because she’s a pony?”
  2337. >”Because I know what happened to her and thought it would be best to get her out of town. But you won’t tell me what happened to you and I’m thinking it would be best to keep you away from the farm.”
  2338. >He looks up with another sigh.
  2339. >”A pony kicked you. They could have killed you.”
  2340. “An’ I told you it was just an accident.”
  2341. >”And that’s why I’m keeping you here tonight. I don’t know what’s going on out there, but I do know there’s already been two deaths.”
  2342. “When?”
  2343. >”Little over two months ago, when some idiot thought it was a good idea to take a pony off his meds.”
  2344. “An’ the second?”
  2345. >”The pony that went off his meds.”
  2346. >Doc lifts himself up out of the chair with a weary groan.
  2347. >”Anyway, you’re not in any condition to drive,” he adds as he makes for the door. “I’m holding you overnight and that’s final. Just going to grab some coffee and I’ll be back.”
  2348.  
  2349. >Be uncertain.
  2350. >”Um, aren’t you going to take your pills?”
  2351. >Two orange tablets rest on the table between you, but you don’t reach for them.
  2352. >After a moment, Minuette nudges them closer to you.
  2353. >”I know you didn’t take them earlier,” the other mare sighs. “So don’t even try to tell me that.”
  2354. “I took one.”
  2355. >You hadn’t.
  2356. >”We both know that’s a lie.”
  2357. “Well, I don’t need them like you do.”
  2358. >That earns you one raised eyebrow.
  2359. >”Really.”
  2360. “Really.”
  2361. >”You know there isn’t a shortage anymore, right?”
  2362. “I know that.”
  2363. >”Because sometimes I wonder –“
  2364. “I said I know.”
  2365. >You cross your forelegs and glare at the other mare – the awkward gesture feeling all too natural now after so much time in this world.
  2366. >”Fine…” Minuette mumbles with a roll of her eyes. “You never give in, do you?”
  2367. “No, I don’t.”
  2368. >”I’ll toss these in the trash, then. Like normal.”
  2369. “But –“
  2370. >”You know it’ll cause problems if the books don’t add up,” Minuette grumbles. “We’ve had this discussion before. You aren’t helping anypony by skipping half your doses. And you *really* aren’t helping anypony if you go berserk.”
  2371. >She scoops the meds into the trashcan where so many of your pills have disappeared before. You hate to see them go to waste, but she’s right – you *have* had that particular conversation before.
  2372. >The part about throwing away the meds, if not the rest of it.
  2373. >You’ve never gone off completely, not since you left the camps.
  2374. “It’ll be fine.”
  2375. >You *hope* it will be fine.
  2376. >”Maybe. But if you go into withdrawal –“
  2377. “I won’t. It’s just one day, Minuette.”
  2378. >”You say that now, and tomorrow it will be ‘just two days’.”
  2379. >Maybe.
  2380. >”*If* you go into withdrawal, Dr. Alda will notice. And I won’t be able to cover for you.”
  2381. “I won’t.”
  2382. >You honestly believe it.
  2383. >In all these years, you’ve never taken a full dose. Never more than a half dose, and usually only a quarter. Not enough to get you addicted, like most ponies.
  2384. >Not enough to ever feel comfortable, either.
  2385. >Just enough to dull the pain, just enough that you don’t feel so wrong.
  2386. >Now, you’re starting to wonder what it feels like without them.
  2387. “I’ll be fine.”
  2388. >A part of you even believes that - the part that now has hope.
  2389.  
  2390. >Be surprised.
  2391. “A party?”
  2392. >”Kind of,” the grey mare answers. “Do you think you are well enough to attend?”
  2393. >”Maud, she’s –“
  2394. “What party?”
  2395. >”That’s not important, Maud,” Cheerilee sighs, shaking her head. “Let her rest.”
  2396. >”It’s a welcome party for you and Trixie,” the other mare answers. “I admit, it won’t be as good as the ones my sister throws, but it’s still a party.”
  2397. “Really?”
  2398. >You can’t remember the last time a party didn’t involve…
  2399. >You don’t want to remember what those parties involved.
  2400. >“Basically.”
  2401. >”She’s in no condition for that.”
  2402. >”Oh.”
  2403. >The strange mare blinks once.
  2404. >”Okay. Would tomorrow be better?”
  2405. >”No, Maud! It wouldn’t! You weren’t here when he brought Silver to us, so I understand you don’t know how seriously hurt she is, but -“
  2406. “I would like to go.”
  2407. >The teacher whirls around in surprise, staring at you with her mouth hanging open.
  2408. “I think it’s important.
  2409. >”You aren’t strong enough,” she argues. “You can barely stay awake, let alone –“
  2410. “It’s important, Miss Cheerilee. *Friends* are important.”
  2411. >”I… I can bring your old friends here, there’s no need –“
  2412. “Everypony has watched over and helped take care of me. I know they have, even though I’ve been asleep for most of it. Nopony has treated me like a stranger, even the ones I never met before.”
  2413. >You put your hoof on the mare’s.
  2414. “It’s time I said hello.”
  2415.  
  2416. >Be unsurprised.
  2417. “Enough already, I get it.”
  2418. >And are too tired to do anything about it.
  2419. “We’ll – I’ll run this by Silver Spoon tomorrow. It’s too late tonight.”
  2420. >”I can take it all back to the dorm with me tonight,” Moondancer suggests, scooping the papers into manageable piles without waiting for an answer. “That way, she can –“
  2421. “No, I said I’ll do it.”
  2422. >”Really, there’s no reason I –“
  2423. “My farm, Moondancer. I need to do some of the work around here. Unless you think I’m too *incompetent*.”
  2424. >The mare frowns, but nods after a moment.
  2425. >”Okay. I get it. But I didn’t mean it like that. You mean well, just –“
  2426. “I’m incompetent and don’t have a clue what I’m doing. Ever. About anything. I don’t know business. I don’t know farming. I’m not a pony. I’m not cute. Anything else you want to add?”
  2427. >”You’re… not as bad as you think you are…?”
  2428. >She tries to smile, sympathetically, maybe even genuinely apologetic.
  2429. “Yeah. You covered that too. I mean well. But that’s not really good enough, is it?”
  2430. >”Not what I meant,” the mare sighs. “I mean… you wouldn’t have sold Apple Bloom.”
  2431. “Do you really think that?”
  2432. >”Yes, I do.”
  2433. >Moondancer’s tone is so genuine, so heartfelt, that you almost believe it.
  2434. >Almost.
  2435. “I had her raped.”
  2436. >The mare winces, but nods.
  2437. >”And you know it was wrong.”
  2438. “I still did it.”
  2439. >”You didn’t think you had a choice.”
  2440. “And you’re being awfully nonchalant about it.”
  2441. >Her shoulders slump, followed a second later by her head.
  2442. >”What other choice do I have?” she asks softly. “We’ve all made mistakes in the past. All we can do is move forward and hope we never make them again.
  2443. >”Besides, how can I hope for forgiveness if I can’t forgive others?”
  2444. >You stare at the pony, waiting for her to say more, for her to find a new way to put you down again.
  2445. >She doesn’t.
  2446. >She doesn’t speak, she doesn’t even move, yet somehow finds a way to shrink in on herself even more.
  2447. “You… “
  2448. >Her dismissal hangs on the edge of your tongue, but those aren’t the right words to speak now.
  2449. “You aren’t the pony you used to be, Moondancer.”
  2450. >Though her head remains dipped, her hears perk up.
  2451. “Little by little, we grow into new people.”
  2452. >All you’re doing is parroting back Lauren’s words, but they feel like the right ones to say.
  2453. “Every day, with every choice we make, we become new people. Hopefully better people.”
  2454. >”Do you really believe that?” Moondancer asks with a bitter laugh. “That all our sins just magically disappear given time?”
  2455. “No.”
  2456. >You let out a long sigh.
  2457. “But I wish it was true.”
  2458. >”Yeah,” she laughs again, “it would be nice.”
  2459. >The mare raises her head, glancing out the window for just a moment.
  2460. >Or would be, but something catches her eye.
  2461. >”It would be nice,” she repeats softly, her gaze fixed on the rising moon and a subtle, hopeful smile curling up the edges of her mouth.
  2462. >She sits there, staring out the window. Moments pass – minutes – before her eyes swing back to you.
  2463. >”It would be nice,” she says again, but with less conviction. “Too bad it doesn’t happen. They never go away, even when there *is* magic.”
  2464. >You nod – it’s all you can think to do.
  2465. “I’ll bring the papers to Silver Spoon tomorrow. Go home, Moondancer.”
  2466. >”I don’t even know where that is,” she sighs, though she climbs out of the chair. “Besides, what about your dinner? Don’t I need to –“
  2467. “Still full of mac n’ cheese.”
  2468. >”Oh.”
  2469. >The mare turns away slowly, making for the door at an agonizingly slow crawl.
  2470. “You just want to finish your movie, don’t you?”
  2471. >”No, I… you’re trying to do the right thing for us, so I’m just trying to do what’s right for you. I gave Roma the night off, so I have to cook for you.”
  2472. “It’s a good thing you’re a better cook than I am a farmer.”
  2473. >”Not really,” she sighs, turning back to look over her shoulder at you. “Seriously, I can only make mac n’ cheese and spaghetti.”
  2474. “Really?”
  2475. >”Really. You have no idea how happy I was to discover microwave dinners.”
  2476. >She lets out a sad chuckle and turns away.
  2477. >”Actually, I did have one other thing,” the mare says as she walks towards the door. “Just want to throw this out there so you can think it over.”
  2478. “What?”
  2479. >”For the construction…”
  2480. “Yeah?”
  2481. >”It would be a lot easier if more of us went off the suppressants.”
  2482. “No.”
  2483. >Moondancer freezes, half in and half out of the room.
  2484. >”I’ll do it myself,” she offers. “I wouldn’t ask anypony to do something I wouldn’t, just like Applebloom.”
  2485. “Still no. You’re a unicorn. You’ll kill me.”
  2486. >”No, I think I like you. Not a *lot*, but -”
  2487. “You think I’m an idiot.”
  2488. >”Incompetent. But you’re trying.”
  2489.  
  2490. >Be silent.
  2491. >You’ve told Scootaloo everythin’.
  2492. >She’d reached out an’ pulled you up ‘gainst her chest, holdin’ you tight an’ whisperin’ encouragement into your ear.
  2493. >Didn’t mean to tell her nothin’ – it ain’t none of it her problem – but it all just came out as she held you.
  2494. >Scootaloo didn’t understand. She couldn’t.
  2495. >She said you’d be a great mom, but she didn’t know how you’d let other ponies take a whippin’ when you coulda stepped up and stopped it.
  2496. >She said you’d tried your hardest and never given up, but she didn’t know how you’d used yourself up and don’t got nothin’ left to give.
  2497. >She said a lot of things an’ all of ‘em were wrong.
  2498. >So you told her everythin’.
  2499. >Everythin’ what happened since you saw her last.
  2500. >Your dreams an’ how they died.
  2501. >How you let a pony die.
  2502. >The gamble you made to win his trust.
  2503. >All your fears an’ hopes – not that you have much of the latter. Or the former, for that matter.
  2504. >Ain’t got nothing more to be ‘fraid of.
  2505. >What more can life do to you?
  2506. >But still, you feel fear in your heart as you wait for Scootaloo to say somethin’.
  2507. >*Anything*.
  2508. >She don’t, though. Just stares at you with sad eyes, like she’s pityin’ you.
  2509. >Just like you expect your foal to, once she’s old enough to understand.
  2510. >Same look everypony seems to give you these days, but you can’t take it from her, not your closest friend.
  2511. >Not now, not after openin’ your heart to her.
  2512. >It hurts too much.
  2513. “Well?”
  2514. >So you put on a brave front, same as always, an’ you smack your hoof into her chest, but she don’t even flinch.
  2515. “Say something!”
  2516. >”What?”
  2517. “It don’t matter! Just… somethin’!”
  2518. >Scoots frowns a bit and looks away.
  2519. >”You really do love him, don’t you?”
  2520. “Y-yeah.”
  2521. >”Why?” the mare sighs. “From the sound of things, he hasn’t been that nice to you. Not *bad*, but –“
  2522. “He’s been better’n most.”
  2523. >You shiver, thinkin’ –
  2524. >”That’s not saying much.”
  2525. > - thinkin’ the same thing as her.
  2526. “… Ah know…”
  2527. >You let your head drop back to rest ‘gainst Scoots’ chest.
  2528. “Ah know, but…”
  2529. >A sigh escapes your lungs, long and pained.
  2530. “… it’s what got me through the day. Don’t matter none. Don’t think ponies an’ humans can really love each other.”
  2531. >Scoots ain’t got nothin’ to say to that, or if she does she keeps it to herself ‘til there’s a knock at the door.
  2532. >She gently pushes you off her with a groan.
  2533. >”One sec’, let me just see what Bill need.”
  2534.  
  2535. >Be suspicious.
  2536. “Whadya mean you’ve taken care of it?”
  2537. >”I mean I’ve already called Bill,” the doctor groans as he settles back into his chair. “I assumed since you’d already left one pony with him –“
  2538. “How’d you know that?”
  2539. >”Because those two foals are quite talkative.”
  2540. >That gets you to raise an’ eyebrow.
  2541. >”Okay, just the one, but he talks more than enough to make up for his sister.”
  2542. “Bill’s lettin’ ‘em stay at his place tonight?”
  2543. >Doc nods.
  2544. >”He’s on his way over right now.”
  2545. >He raises up his mug an’ takes a sip.
  2546. >Must not agree with him, ‘cause he raises an eyebrow of his own an’ stares into its insides.
  2547. >”A little bitter,” he mumbles softly into the mug, “but I guess I asked for it.”
  2548. >He sets it aside with a sigh.
  2549. >”Anyway, you don’t have anything else to worry about. Just rest for tonight. Redheart and I have everything covered.”
  2550.  
  2551. >Be a little worried at this point.
  2552. >You aren’t the only one.
  2553. >”They should have been back by now,” Moondancer comments as you walk her to the door. “They weren’t planning on staying the night, were they?”
  2554. “No, but…”
  2555. >”The weather, maybe?”
  2556. “Yeah, it’s starting to pick up.”
  2557. >A bit of an understatement. You can hear the wind howling. Hell, you can hear the house creaking from the gusts.
  2558. >”Have you called her?”
  2559. “No.”
  2560. >”You’re going to, right?”
  2561. “Yeah.”
  2562. >You pull open the door and shiver as the cold hits you full force.
  2563. “Damn, it’s getting pretty nasty out there.”
  2564. >The mare peeks past you and grimaces – but continues forward after only a moment’s pause.
  2565. >”I better hurry then,” she sighs as she steps out the door. “I don’t want to get stuck here for the night.”
  2566. “Yeah. It would be a damn shame if you were trapped with the big, bad human.”
  2567. >”It’s not like that,” the mare laughs, thought the wind snatches away the sound almost before you can hear it. “I have a welcoming party to attend! Our new friends haven’t met everyone yet.”
  2568. >She takes another step, but hesitates before carrying herself clear of the doorway.
  2569. >”Actually… I *suppose* you could come…”
  2570. “No, I couldn’t.”
  2571. >Moondancer looks back and frowns sympathetically.
  2572. “You know I can’t.”
  2573. >”I know, but I had to offer.”
  2574. “I know.”
  2575.  
  2576. >Be angry.
  2577. >Can’t say why, but you are.
  2578. “So I gotta stay the night here?”
  2579. >”Yeah,” Scootaloo answers from the doorway. “Well, not *here*.”
  2580. >She laughs and rolls her eyes at herself.
  2581. >”In the house. It’s right next door.”
  2582. “An’ what about the foals?”
  2583. >”Bill’s going to pick up Mica and Hematite,” she responds. “They’ll be staying with us.”
  2584. >That makes you even angrier, not that you act out on it or nothin’. Ain’t no point.
  2585. >Not like it matters none.
  2586. >Fair certain anything woulda made you angry.
  2587. “Fine.”
  2588. >”Awww, don’t be like that. I know, we can make it just like the sleepovers we used to have back in Ponyville!”
  2589. “Yeah.”
  2590. >’Sides, Scoots didn’t say it, but you know it ain’t got nothin’ to do with the weather.
  2591. >If you hadn’t kicked that woman, you’d be home by now.
  2592. >Home?
  2593. >You laugh at that thought.
  2594. >Since when is the farm your *home*?
  2595. >There was a time you thought it could be, a time that weren’t too long ago. Just a few hours past really, when you were reminded what a real home was like for the first time in years.
  2596. >That farm ain’t home an’ it ain’t ever gonna be.
  2597. >”Well… uh…”
  2598. “What?”
  2599. >”If you’re okay here, I’m going to close up the shop.”
  2600. >It don’t matter one bit, but it still catches you by surprise.
  2601. “Ain’t that someone else’s job?”
  2602. >”Um, no,” Scoots responds, scrunchin’ up her face. “Who else is going to do it? Bill’s already left to pick up the foals, so it’s just you and me here.”
  2603. “Oh.”
  2604. >”He trusts me to take care of it.”
  2605. >Scoots puffs out her chest all proud-like, ‘fore deflatin’.
  2606. >”Sometimes,” she corrects with a wry grin. “You wanna come out and help me?”
  2607. >He used to trust you.
  2608. >Always.
  2609.  
  2610. >“Be quiet.”
  2611. ”But –“
  2612. >“No excuses,” Sterling snaps at you. “You know what happens to ponies that don’t make the quota. I’m cutting you some slack because you’re one of my best ponies, but don’t give me any of your lip.”
  2613. >Your gaze drops until you’re staring at his boots.
  2614. “Sorry, sir.”
  2615. >”Good. Now get out of my office.”
  2616. >None of the other mares are there to comfort you as you walk out of the room. Not even Cherry Berry.
  2617. >It hurts, but you can’t say you don’t deserve it.
  2618. “I’m sorry.”
  2619. >”What was that?” Sterling calls out from his desk. “You have something else to say?”
  2620. “N-no sir!”
  2621. >”Then keep your trap shut and get back to work.”
  2622. >You stumble a few more feet down the hall before looking back at the doorway.
  2623. >Not even Cherry Berry, and *she* -
  2624. “I’m sorry, Silver. I’m so sorry.”
  2625. >A tear – just one – snakes down your face.
  2626. >Only one mare had been there for her. It should have been you.
  2627.  
  2628. >Be a lil’ in awe of the way Scoots cleans the store up so fast.
  2629. >Not that she don’t make a mess of the place doin’ it.
  2630. >Dang near leaves the front door unlocked.
  2631. >”Okay, okay, so he doesn’t really like to let me to close up on my own,” Scoots laughs as she shoos you out the back door. “You caught me.”
  2632. >She trots past you, crossin’ the small driveway an’ forgettin’ to lock up after herself.
  2633. “Uh, Scootaloo?”
  2634. >”What?”
  2635. “The door?”
  2636. >”Huh?” she asks, swivelin’ ‘round. “What about it?”
  2637. “You just gonna leave every door open?”
  2638. >”Oh! Right!”
  2639. >You dunno how she can laugh ‘bout that as she trots back an’ locks the door behind you.
  2640. “This ain’t Ponyville, you know.”
  2641. >”Well duh,” the pegasus grunts, chucklin’ in embarrassment. “But it’s not like the camps either. You don’t have to worry about one of the guards swiping everything you own the minute you turn your back. Or even while you’re watching.”
  2642. >She sighs and waves you on after a sec’.
  2643. >”I don’t miss those places at all.”
  2644. “You’d be crazy if you did.”
  2645. >She raises an eyebrow an’ stops mid-stride.
  2646. >”Then why do I get the feeling you do?”
  2647. “Because… well…”
  2648. >Scoots shives as a sudden gust of wind sends a chill down your spine that you barely notice.
  2649. >”It’s getting cold out here,” the pegasus grumbles, jumpin’ forward an’ pulling open the house door – which ain’t locked neither. “Let’s get inside before we freeze.”
  2650. >Scoots barely waits for you to get inside ‘fore dashin’ in after an’ slammin’ the door tight.
  2651. >”Well?” she demands. “Are you crazy or…?”
  2652. >You stumble on down the dark hall, givin’ her room an’ pretendin’ not to understand.
  2653. >”About the camps, I mean.”
  2654. >You let out a sigh and turn back to the pony that used to be your friend.
  2655. “Because we belonged there, Scootaloo. I miss them because we belonged there.”
  2656. >”No one belongs in a place like that,” she snaps back firmly, shakin’ her head.
  2657. “But at least we was all together. We looked out for one another.”
  2658. >Scoots takes to the air with a flap of her wings and stares down as she flips on the lights.
  2659. >”One of these days, you’re going to have to – nah, nevermind.”
  2660. >She lets out a disgusted grunt as she sails on over your head in a tight spiral.
  2661. “What?”
  2662. >”I said nevermind,” Scoots snaps back harshly. “I’ll just ask Mica. He seems like he likes to talk and you, well…”
  2663. >She shrugs mid-air and flits around the corner.
  2664. >”… yeah, just sit down and I’ll get started on dinner,” she calls out from the next room. “Bill’ll be happy to come home to a hot meal.”
  2665.  
  2666. >Be annoyed.
  2667. >”Everything has been taken care of,” Doctor Alda says into your phone. “Don’t worry, she's doing just fine and your ponies are in good hands.”
  2668. >Doc nods a few times, like anyone but you can see him.
  2669. >”That’s right.”
  2670. “What’s he sayin’?”
  2671. >”Yes, she should be good to drive tomorrow.”
  2672. “Damn right I’ll be good enough to drive!”
  2673. >Doc frowns at you, his bushy eyebrows comin’ together like two caterpillars gettin’ it on.
  2674. >”If you’re that concerned, you could have driven her in yourself. In fact, you probably should have. She was in no condition to –“
  2675. “Stop talkin’ about me like I ain’t here!”
  2676. >”I SAID YOU WERE IN NO CONDITION TO DRIVE, WOMAN!”
  2677. “Thank you.”
  2678. >He rolls his eyes and takes a few steps out into the hall.
  2679. >”Redheart!” you hear him call out. “I need to finish this conversation in private, so could you look after our patient for a bit?”
  2680.  
  2681. >Be a little relieved.
  2682. >You set the phone back on the hook with a sigh.
  2683. >One of these days, that damn woman is going to bite off more than she can chew and get herself killed, but not today.
  2684. >The whole house lets out a groan as a sudden burst of wind slams into it.
  2685. >Weather is getting worse, but a look out the window tells you the ground is still free of ice, for now at least.
  2686. >Might not stay that way for long, but that’s fine.
  2687. >You don’t have to worry any longer.
  2688. >It was Lauren’s yelling more than anything the doctor said that calmed you down.
  2689. >Anyone that feisty is going to be okay.
  2690. >They’ll be back tomorrow.
  2691.  
  2692. >Be resting on a bed far too big for just you.
  2693. >Honestly, you thought this was the master bedroom, ‘till Scoots said otherwise.
  2694. >You’ve pulled a blanket over yourself, but that’s ‘bout it.
  2695. >Ain’t really tired. Ain’t really cold. Just didn’t wanna be with the others no more.
  2696. >Dinner woulda been a tense affair, if it weren’t for the two fillies yappin’ up a storm. Well, mostly just the one.
  2697. >You took your leave as soon as you could without bein’ too impolite. Ain’t got an appetite anyway, even if Scoots cookin’ weren’t half bad.
  2698. >Just another thing she can do that you can’t.
  2699. >She’s grown, an’ you… you’re just all used up.
  2700. >Ain’t nothin’ you can do now.
  2701. >Lucky he even thought you were good enough to be a broodmare, ‘cause that’s all you got left.
  2702. >Can’t plan. Too stupid, spent too long tryin’ to work an’ never ‘nough mindin’ your books.
  2703. >Can’t work. You’re too weak now to put in a good day’s labor. Should have taken better care of yourself, instead of grindin’ yourself down for others that never appreciated it.
  2704. >Can’t even give him advice on the few things you *do* know. He don’t trust you anymore.
  2705. >The one thing you had to offer him, an’ you threw it away.
  2706. >Scootaloo’s become everything you lost.
  2707. >Bein’ ‘round her an’ her owner hurts more’n you can take, a constant reminder of your failin’s.
  2708. >That’s why you left, ‘fore Scoots could bring out dessert.
  2709. >She’d shown you the guest room ‘fore puttin’ the finishin’ touches on dinner, so you’d made your way here, where you could be alone with your pain, instead of with them heapin’ on more.
  2710. >Don’t seem to be helpin’ though.
  2711. >The ache in your heart is so strong you could die.
  2712. >Right now.
  2713. >’fore you can mess up somethin’ else.
  2714. >There ain’t no knock at the door ‘fore someone pushes it open.
  2715. >”Hey, Apple Bloom?” Scootaloo calls out. “I think we gotta –“
  2716. >”Not we, Scoots,” her owner corrects. “Let me talk with her a bit, just one-on-one.”
  2717. >”But Bill –“
  2718. >”No buts. Someone’s gotta keep those foals entertained, otherwise Mica’s liable to… aw hell, I don’t know. Something. Why don’t you show them those movies you love so much.”
  2719. >Scoots lets out an indignant squawk as Bill shuts the door in her face, but that’s the end of that.
  2720. >You can hear her hoofsteps as she walks away, leavin’ you alone with the man.
  2721. >He don’t take a seat on the bed with you, not like *he* does. Did. Ain’t too likely he’ll be that familiar with you again.
  2722. >Ain’t never gonna feel him runnin’ his fingers through your mane or his comfortin’ touch.
  2723. >Instead, Bill pulls a rockin’ chair over to the bedside, ‘fore slowly an’ carefully lowerin’ hisself into it.
  2724. >You could almost swear you hear his bones creak as he does so… like Granny’s did.
  2725. >”I bet you’re wondering why I’m here, Apple Bloom,” he says once he’s gotten himself all settled in.
  2726. “No, sir. It’s your house an’ all.”
  2727. >He frowns a bit, ‘fore he starts rockin’ back an’ forth gently.
  2728. >”Well, Scoots and I had a chat with Mica and Hematite. Mostly Mica.”
  2729. >Ain’t surprising in the least.
  2730. >”Honestly doesn’t sound too bad on that farm,” he continues. “I was a little worried, considering how you’re acting, but from what those two said, conditions at that place seem… well…”
  2731. >The man shrugs.
  2732. >”Could be worse, right?”
  2733. “Could always be worse, sir. Ah know well enough that others got it pretty bad compared to me.”
  2734. >His rockin’ stops suddenly.
  2735. >”Yeah,” Bill groans, his hands tighten’ up on the arms of the chair. “That’s true, but that wasn’t what I was getting at.”
  2736. “Ah know how lucky Ah am.”
  2737. >You *do* know just how lucky you are.
  2738. >He puts up with you, despite how useless you are.
  2739. >Worse things have happened to better ponies than you.
  2740. >You’ve seen it, at least the aftermath.
  2741. >Silver Spoon was a smart mare. Loyal, too. An’, when the urge took her, she could be as kind and caring as Fluttershy.
  2742. >She didn’t deserve what happened.
  2743. >Shoulda been you.
  2744. >”Still not what I meant,” Bill sighs. His rockin’ resumes an’ he folds his hands across his gut as he stares up into the ceilin’, lost in thought. “Damn, I don’t know *what* I was going to say, really. Just that I wanted to hear it from your own mouth. The fillies seem to be doing alright on the farm, but you… I’m worried about you.”
  2745. “Don’t gotta be, sir. Ah’m fine.”
  2746. >”Yeaaaaah… that’s bullshit right there. Anyone with half a brain could tell that’s bullshit. Don’t bullshit me.”
  2747. “You don’t gotta worry ‘bout me, sir.”
  2748. >”Bullshit. Of course I do. You’re Scootaloo’s friend, and even if you weren’t… how could I *not* worry?”
  2749. >He lets out a long sigh, sendin’ the overgrown bristles of his mustache tremblin’ in the breeze.
  2750. >”I know the world is shit right now,” Bill grumbles, “and I know I can’t fix everything. But when I *see* someone hurting, I have to at least try, don’t I?
  2751. >”It’s easy enough to pretend or turn a blind eye when it’s not in my face. Hell, hardly a week goes by without some expose on the news or another tragedy. But those aren’t things I can help, are they?”
  2752. “Ah reckon not.”
  2753. >You wish he would leave, just let you get through today best you know how so you can face the next.
  2754. >But he don’t.
  2755. >Man doesn’t miss the clipped tone you use or the abruptness of your answers, he just don’t care.
  2756. >”Yeah, that’s what I tell myself too,” he sighs. “It’s how I get through the day. But when I see something I *can* do something about, doesn’t that mean I have to try?
  2757. >”That’s why me and the misses had to step up and open our home to a pony. We *had* to.”
  2758. >You look away, but he still keeps on talkin’ like you ain’t tryin’ to ignore him.
  2759. >”I’m doing my best here, Apple Bloom, and a lot of other folks are too. We’re trying to help in our own little way. So, you see my dilemma, don’t you?”
  2760. “Not really, sir.”
  2761. >Bill lets out a loud harrumph.
  2762. >Could swear the chair starts squeakin’ a bit faster.
  2763. >”My dilemma is you’re here. You’re in pain. I have to help, or everything I’ve told myself has been a lie.
  2764. >”Things happen in this town, Apple Bloom. Bad things.”
  2765. “Ah know, sir.”
  2766. >You wish you didn’t.
  2767. >”And I haven’t tried to stop them, because there’s nothing I can do. I’ve done what I can to shelter Scoots from them, but they’re still happening. I *can’t* stop them.
  2768. >”We’re a small town in the middle of nowhere,” he continues. “No one cares what happens to us – or you – here, and the sheriff and his deputies are the law. They don’t think too highly of ponies.
  2769. >”Of course, a lot of folks here don’t.
  2770. >”Some of it I get. Don’t agree with, but I get. I’m an old man, girl, and back in my day ponies were black brown and white. They didn’t talk or have careers or sing. Some folks still think of ponies that way.”
  2771. >He laughs quietly, but not as quiet as he means to.
  2772. >”Hell, want to know the first thing I said to my wife when the gates first opened? I complained to her that these new ponies are too bright and hurt the eyes.”
  2773. >He chuckles again halfheartedly.
  2774. >”But mostly,” he adds quietly, “it’s bad memories.”
  2775. “Everyone’s got those, Ah reckon.”
  2776. >”True enough,” Bill admits, “but around here, we’ve got more than our fair share.”
  2777. >Everypony’s got more’n their fair share, but you keep that thought to yourself. Not out of tact or nothin’, but because there ain’t no point.
  2778. >”Some folks are only here because of the government subsidies on the land. It’s good land, plenty fertile.”
  2779. >No it ain’t. Not like the land back home.
  2780. >Maybe it’s good enough for humans, but you’ve been working twice as hard an’ gettin’ half as much as you would’ve back in Equestria.
  2781. >”That’s why nearly everyone has their own little gardens or small farms, though the only big ones are those three out where you are.
  2782. >”Yeah, that’s why some folks are here, but most of us…”
  2783. >Bill drifts off into an awkward silence, broken only by the creakin’ of his chair.
  2784. >You wish he would just leave.
  2785. >When the creakin’ stops, you think you just might have gotten your wish – up until he speaks, that is.
  2786. >”You know, I saw her once. Twilight Sparkle, I mean. On the TV.
  2787. >”She seemed like a nice person. All this talk about our worlds coming together and how we’d both prosper. I don’t claim to be an excellent judge of character, but I thought she really meant it. I still do.
  2788. >”I don’t think she intended to do what she did.”
  2789. >He lets out a long sigh, almost drownin’ out the sound of the chair rockin’ again.
  2790. >”At first, at least,” he amends, his voice takin’ on a harsher tone. “It took her several hours to close the portals. By the time she closed the last one, she *knew* what she was doing.
  2791. >”The portals near here, they were some of the first. Before anyone understood what was happening.”
  2792. >Bill sighs again, the breath stutterin’ like a misfirin’ engine.
  2793. >”I still don’t know if that was a blessing or a curse.
  2794. >”The news played some of the phone calls from the others. Folks calling their families. They couldn’t get away fast enough and they knew it. There was rioting and chaos and some places even tried to evacuate in an orderly fashion, but some people? They knew they were going to die and they chose to make the most of the time they had left.
  2795. >”I don’t know if I could have handled that, knowing my son and grandkids were going to die and there was nothing I could do. Still… we could have said goodbye.
  2796. >”I just don’t know if I could have taken it. It was hard enough, listening to the recordings they played on the TV. One second, families were making their peace, and the next… from one heartbeat to the next, without any warning, just silence. No screaming, no explosion, just silence.
  2797. >”Everything died. Men, women, children… ponies. Plants. Phones. Cameras. Everything.
  2798. >”It was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced, Apple Bloom, and I’ve seen some scary things. Shit, I’ve *done* some scary things, but these past few years take the fucking cake.
  2799. >“I’m not going to say I agree with what the princess did, or even that I understand it. I’m certainly not going to forgive her. But… I… I do know what it’s like and I don’t envy her one bit.”
  2800. >He stands abruptly, sendin’ the chair rockin’ wildly. It happens so quick you turn to see if he’s leavin’, but Bill sits back down ‘fore you can look away, dabbin’ at his eyes with the tissue he’d grabbed from the nightstand.
  2801. >”That’s what I mean when I say people around here have bad memories. So many people died that day, and so few have closure. We couldn’t even recover the bodies and lay them to rest.
  2802. >”It’s not that folks really hate ponies, just… they have memories and they can’t let them go, because that would mean letting go of the dead.
  2803. >”Doesn’t justify things, but it’s enough for good men and women to turn their heads and pretend they don’t see anything. Some have even convinced themselves that there’s nothing wrong with what’s happening.
  2804. >”Doesn’t mean they actually dislike ponies –“
  2805. “Ah don’t think no one likes us ponies.”
  2806. >”That’s not true.”
  2807. “You weren’t there when Ponyville burned. You didn’t see them soldiers come marchin’ into town an’ killin’ anypony what even showed herself.”
  2808. >”They didn’t mean it.”
  2809. “Easy for you to say. Weren’t your home an’ family.”
  2810. >You curl up tighter, grabbin’ the blanket in your teeth an’ pullin’ it over yourself to hide your shakin’.
  2811. >”No,” Bill admits a minute later. “No, it wasn’t. But… they didn’t mean it. Not as people.”
  2812. >Their eyes will haunt you ‘til the day you die.
  2813. “You didn’t see them soldiers.”
  2814. >”No, but I was one,” he says quietly. “Not then. Not for a few decades, but I’ve been in their shoes.
  2815. >”I’ve killed people, Apple Bloom. Not ponies. Humans.
  2816. >”It’s not an easy thing to do for most people. The way I see it, there’s only two ways: either you make who you’re fighting to be less than hu- less than a person, or… or you make yourself less than a person.
  2817. >”And… it’s hard to do the former when you’re staring them in the eyes. Easier to make yourself into a monster, because you don’t have to face yourself.
  2818. >”I’ve done some scary things and it took me years to come to terms that it was *me* that did them, not a demon wearing my skin. Those boys that burned your town… some of them are going to have nightmares about what they did for the rest of their lives.
  2819. >”Some may have actually meant to do what they did. I’ve known men like that. Know a few that live in this very town. But most? Most were just boys trying to get through the day the only way they knew how.”
  2820. “By killin’ everypony they saw?”
  2821. >”By thinking of it in terms of black and white. Us versus Them. When someone’s in that mindset, they’ll do things they wouldn’t ever even consider.
  2822. “Must’ve been easy, on account of us only bein’ ponies.”
  2823. >Bill sighs and the creaking of his chair stops.
  2824. >”Apple Bloom, turn around. Look at me.”
  2825. “Why?”
  2826. >”Because I want to know what you see.”
  2827. >With a groan, you roll your head around to glare at the man.
  2828. >”Well?” he asks, stroking his short, white beard with one hand. “What am I?”
  2829. “Human.”
  2830. >”That’s disappointing to hear.”
  2831. “You’d rather be a pony?”
  2832. >”I’d rather be your friend.”
  2833. “We ain’t that close.”
  2834. >”I guess you have a point there,” he sighs. “Then how about Bill? Can I at least be a person and not *Them*?”
  2835. “But you *are* one of them.”
  2836. >”That’s not fair. I took in Scootaloo and have taken good care of her.”
  2837. “Because you felt guilty?”
  2838. >”No, because it was the right thing to do.”
  2839. “Well…”
  2840. >You turn away again, starin’ out the window like there’s somethin’ there to see.
  2841. “… you’re still one of them.”
  2842. >”Is that really all you see? What happened to you?”
  2843. >What hasn’t?
  2844. “You said you didn’t know if it was a blessin’ or a curse you couldn’t say goodbye to your kin.”
  2845. >”I did.”
  2846. “Well, *I* know.”
  2847. >”What happened?” he repeats, softer this time. Almost curious soundin’, like he truly wants to know and ain’t just pesterin’ you for the fun of it. “You lost family there?”
  2848. “Ah watched by brother die.”
  2849. >His mane was stained the same color as his coat.
  2850. “Ah held his hoof.”
  2851. >You hadn’t been able to tell where one ended an’ the other began, there was so much blood.
  2852. >”And you said goodbye?”
  2853. “Said a lot of things, not that he could hear me.”
  2854. >Couldn’t even hear your own panicked pleadin’ for him to get up over the noise.
  2855. >Ponyville hadn’t died quietly. It had died *screaming*.
  2856. >He hadn’t heard a word you said, you know that much, just as you hadn’t been able to hear his over the explosions and shouts.
  2857. >”But you made your peace? You had time together?”
  2858. “Up until my cousin dragged me away because the soldiers were gettin’ close.”
  2859. >You can remember turnin’ back to see ‘em kneeling by Big Mac’s side as you ran.
  2860. >Babs wouldn’t let you go back.
  2861. >If you had, she would too.
  2862. >Couldn't let you try to fight 'em on your own.
  2863. >She’d asked you to think of her foal.
  2864. >”And… you think that’s better than never getting to say goodbye?”
  2865. >You should have gone back.
  2866. >She’d miscarried anyway.
  2867. “No.”
  2868. >And then she’d died.
  2869. >”Oh?”
  2870. >Everypony died.
  2871. “Ah never… Ah never got to see my big sis.”
  2872. >You may still be movin’, but you’re dead on the inside.
  2873. >”She died, too?”
  2874. >Everypony died.
  2875. “Probably. Ah don’t know. Never saw her again, so it ain’t like I *know* she’s dead.”
  2876. >Not like Big Mac.
  2877. “Ah can still pretend she’s out there somehere, an’ that gives me hope.”
  2878. >Not like Babs or Granny.
  2879. >”You don’t act like a pony that has any hope.”
  2880. “An’ why should I? Been four years, an’ every single time things seemed to be turnin’ around, they only got worse. Every time. Everything went wrong when Ponyville burned.”
  2881. >Bill sits in silence for a while an’ you let him.
  2882. >You’d rather watch the moon flyin’ through the sky an’ imagine it’s Luna’s doin’, just like when you watch the sunrise.
  2883. >Try to convince yourself everything is normal.
  2884. >Pretend this world ain’t shit.
  2885. >The moon has nearly crossed the narrow window when Bill speaks again.
  2886. >”You blame us all for your brother’s death?”
  2887. “No, I blame y’all for what happened later.”
  2888. >”The camps?”
  2889. “Nah. Weren’t no worse than stayin’ in Ponyville, Ah suppose.”
  2890. >One muddy hellhole or another, wouldn’t have made much difference.
  2891. >At least Babs coulda been buried with family.
  2892. >Maybe she wouldn’t’ve died.
  2893. >Maybe everypony would’ve.
  2894. >”You mean Sterling and what he’s been doing?” Bill asks slowly, like he’s afraid he’s right.
  2895. >He aint.
  2896. >”I know. I should have done something, but I couldn’t. Sheriff and his buddies… like I said, they’re the law around here and they do things their own way. I’ve got family to look after.”
  2897. “Who? I ain’t seen no one else around.”
  2898. >He snorts, amused-like.
  2899. >”Really?”
  2900. ”You said yourself that your gran’kids and son were…”
  2901. >”Scootaloo.”
  2902. “Huh?”
  2903. >”I have to look after Scootaloo,” the old man sighs. “If anything happened to me, do you know what would happen to her?”
  2904. “She ain’t your daughter.”
  2905. >She’s just a pony.
  2906. >Just like you.
  2907. >Nothing more.
  2908. >So why does she feel so loved?
  2909. >Why’s she have a good life and folk that care about her when you… you don’t got anypony but the foal growin’ in your belly?
  2910. >”I know she’s not my daughter,” Bill concedes. “If she was, I could raise her right and trust she’d look after herself. But ponies?”
  2911. >He sighs again, drummin’ his fingers across the chair’s arm.
  2912. “Yeah. Ah know. We’re just –“
  2913. >”If something happened to me, she’d be placed in emergency rehousing. Moved to the first contractor that had a need for more pony labor. And do you know who that is around here?”
  2914. >Ain’t t’farms, you know that much.
  2915. >”I’m not letting that man get his hands on her,” Bill growls. “I’m sorry I haven’t stepped up and tried to stop him, but I’ve got to keep her safe. You’ve got every right to blame me personally for everything, but –“
  2916. “Ah, don’t.”
  2917. >But you do.
  2918. “That ain’t it at all.”
  2919. >”Then what is it? What *do* you blame us for?”
  2920. “Y’all keep givin’ me hope.”
  2921. >”How is that bad?”
  2922. >You finally turn back t’look at the man.
  2923. “If y’all’d just stop, Ah could finally give up.”
  2924. >His fingers stop doin’ their four-beat rhythm.
  2925. >”You don’t mean what I think you mean, do you?” he asks, voice flat.
  2926. >All serious. No humor or even kindness.
  2927. >Gran’fatherly warmth all drained out.
  2928. >Not that any of that was ever meant for you anyhow.
  2929. “Ah don’t know what Ah mean. Just… it’d be easier, y’know?”
  2930. >”I… I can understand that,” he answers, reluctant to admit it as the sun is t’rise these days. “But I pray you can find a reason to hold on to that hope.”
  2931. “Ah did. An’ when Ah lost it, he at least gave me a new one.”
  2932. >Bill’s eyes dart towards your belly for only a second ‘fore he closes ‘em an’ lets out a long sigh.
  2933. >”So. It was positive?”
  2934. “It was.”
  2935. >”But…”
  2936. “Stop your worryin’. It’ll keep me goin’ for a bit.”
  2937. >Until she don’t need you no more.
  2938. >Prolly the day she’s born.
  2939. >Bill sighs again, rubbin’ the bridge of his nose ‘tween thumb an’ forefinger.
  2940. >”For what it’s worth,” he mumbles, “I think that boy is doing his best. He actually means well.”
  2941. >That’s what hurts the most.
  2942. “An’ what if his best ain’t good enough?”
  2943. >”Then he needs someone to carry him, don’t you think?”
  2944. >But you’ve carried him. It’s what he asked an’ you did it.
  2945. >You did everything you could.
  2946. >An’ where’s that gotten you?
  2947. “Ah just... Ah just can’t anymore.”
  2948. >Ain’t nothin’ left of you but the worn-out shell of a pony.
  2949. >Your head’s too heavy to hold up any longer.
  2950. >Everything’s too heavy, like the weight of the entire world’s restin’ on your back.
  2951. >Maybe even two worlds.
  2952. >An’ it’s all just too much.
  2953. >This is all just too much.
  2954. >”I’ll… I’ll talk to the boy,” Bill says, though his voice sounds distant. “See if maybe he’d be interested in selling your contract, if that’s what you want. No guarantee he’ll listen to some old man, but I can try.
  2955. >”Hell, I’m getting pretty old and Scootaloo can’t keep up the store by herself. I could use a someone else to help around here. What do you say?”
  2956. “I’ll…
  2957. “I’ll think about it.”
  2958.  
  2959. >" - being called a landmark move by..."
  2960. >You tune out the TV.
  2961. >It's not important.
  2962. >Neither is the frantic chatter between the other mares.
  2963. >Your attention is focused on the mare guiding you through the common room.
  2964. >Sterling's assistant.
  2965. >His second fav- his *favorite*.
  2966. >Cherry Berry glances up as you stumble past, but quickly looks away.
  2967. >You don't care. You don't need her sympathy.
  2968. >All you have to do is find your new bed.
  2969. >It's been over a year since you've been in this place.
  2970. >To think you've fallen so far. To think...
  2971. >... to think you're back here. Sharing a bedroom with five other mares. Again.
  2972. >Or maybe not.
  2973. >The room Octavia leads you to is strangely devoid of personal affects.
  2974. >More space for yours, you suppose.
  2975. >"So there it is," Octavia mumbles as you begin unloading your belongings on the nearest bed.
  2976. >You'll put them away tomorrow.
  2977. >It's... you don't know when it is, but it's late.
  2978. >You're tired.
  2979. >And sore.
  2980. >And you need a shower.
  2981. >"I'm aware it's not as pleasant as your private room, however..."
  2982. "Whatever. I'll earn that back soon."
  2983. >"I suppose you shall."
  2984. >She dips her head towards the bed you've dumping your things on.
  2985. >"If I may suggest...? Choose one of the others. We've washed the sheets, but weren't able to get all the stains out of the mattress."
  2986. "Yeah. Thanks."
  2987. >Gross.
  2988. >Octavia inclines her head in a shallow bow.
  2989. >"Good luck."
  2990. >She doesn't waste any more words on you - and you don't waste your time watching her leave.
  2991.  
  2992. >The heater is on, but you're still cold. Practically freezing.
  2993. >Empty rooms do that.
  2994. >But that's not why you can't sleep.
  2995. >The first mattress was lumpy, the second so hard you might as well be sleeping on the ground. The third...
  2996. >You've tried them all and you can't sleep.
  2997. >The stains can't be *that* bad.
  2998. >With carelessness born of exhaustion and despair, you sweep your meagre belongings off the bed.
  2999. >Sterling's favors and gifts from clients fall to the floor.
  3000. >Some bounce. Some roll away.
  3001. >A small mirror breaks.
  3002. >Whatever.
  3003. >You grab the sheets between your teeth and yank them back.
  3004. >Enough to see the specks that dot the mattress.
  3005. >You pull the sheets down further, revealing a mottled tapestry of reds and browns.
  3006. >Some old. Some fresh.
  3007. >But not too fresh.
  3008. >Every stain is a week old or more.
  3009. >Dense enough you can almost make out the curve of her leg here, the sweep of her back there.
  3010. >A near perfect silhouette, painted in pain and suffering.
  3011. >She never did move much in her sleep, even when she had nightmares.
  3012. >A soft whimper as you held her in your legs, a slight shudder. Nothing more.
  3013. >How many nights did this take?
  3014. >How many clients...?
  3015. >You crawl onto the bed, your body following where your eyes lead.
  3016. >How long before your bed is like this?
  3017. >Your legs tremble at the thought.
  3018. >Her customers are now yours.
  3019. >Bruises and scrapes cover your barrel.
  3020. >They are not kind.
  3021. >Your back burns.
  3022. >The whips Sterling supplies won't break the skin, but they still sting.
  3023. >How long can you put off the inevitable?
  3024. >How soon before the clients nopony wants are the only ones willing to buy you?
  3025. >Some clients... they bring their own whips.
  3026. >How desperate will you have to be before you say yes?
  3027. >Another day? Two?
  3028. >No.
  3029. >With a shudder, you realize it's started already.
  3030. >You know that.
  3031. >*Knew* that, as much as you wanted to pretend otherwise.
  3032. >You just don't know how long you can last.
  3033. >Will it be as long as her?
  3034. >And... will you face it with the same quiet dignity?
  3035. >No.
  3036. >You can't even pretend.
  3037. >Not when you're standing over her shadow like it’s your very own.
  3038.  
  3039. >Before the alarm goes off, you're up.
  3040. >Fucking thing is always -
  3041. >...missing...?
  3042. >Your hand finds nothing but air.
  3043. >Oh. Right.
  3044. >Still broken.
  3045. >You raise your head to look anyway.
  3046. >The nightstand is bare, save for a lamp and your phone.
  3047. >Yep, still broken.
  3048. >You should have asked Lauren to pick up a new one while she was in town.
  3049. >It *is* her fault it's busted. And the wall. Well, *that* wall.
  3050. >You're halfway to the bathroom when the alarm on your phone goes off, blaring obnoxious music.
  3051. >Shit.
  3052. >Woke up before the alarm, but you forgot to turn it off.
  3053. >Isn't that how it always goes?
  3054. >Life is suffering.
  3055. >You turn back with a sigh and cancel the alarm.
  3056. >Great start to the morning.
  3057. >A look out the window confirms it'll be a great morning for everyone.
  3058. >Fucking perfect.
  3059. >The sky is covered in by a solid sheet of grey.
  3060. >A light drizzle is still coming down and the dark horizon promises heavier downpours later.
  3061. >If you hurry, you can -
  3062. >Wait, when did you learn to read the weather?
  3063. >Rain is rain and it could just as easily go away from you as come towards, but somehow you just know it.
  3064. >Probably something Apple Bloom taught you.
  3065. >The weather is only going to get worse.
  3066. >Best get on with the day while you still can.
  3067. >Soon, you're dressed, downstairs, and out the door with a briefcase in one hand and an apple in the other.
  3068. >Say what you will about the farm life - and you have - but it's done wonders for your ability to get shit done in a timely manner.
  3069. >Kind of.
  3070. >Almost.
  3071. >Your ponies are living in what's basically a few huge shacks, but at least you're not wasting your time on your computer right now.
  3072. >...as tempting as that sounds right now...
  3073. >The ground is a frozen slurry of mud and ice, nor is the air much better.
  3074. >Nope. Not walking. You're taking the truck.
  3075. >But you still have to walk around the house to get to it.
  3076. >Life is suffering.
  3077. >The walkway is too slick, the bare dirt too muddy; you stick to the grass, the thin coating of ice crunching under every step.
  3078. >Your lungs sting with every breath of the freezing air, even once you're in the cab of the truck.
  3079. >After running the heater for a few minutes, you almost feel alive again. Almost. It's still too early.
  3080. >With feeling returned to your hands, you throw the truck into gear and head down the hill.
  3081.  
  3082. >Be a leaf on the wind.
  3083. >Earth underhoof.
  3084. >Words in the heart.
  3085. >All things, and therefore no things.
  3086. >Right before you, a mare struggles to wake.
  3087. >Night has fled, as it always must, yet you don't find yourself drawn to the rising sun like the others.
  3088. >Everywhere, ponies wake as alarms chirp and light streams through windows.
  3089. >Dawn brings a new day and renewed hope.
  3090. >Hope.
  3091. >Eternities have passed since that was a thing.
  3092. >More the pity that not all share it.
  3093. >An example being the young mare twitching fitfully as she casts off sleep.
  3094. >The stain beneath her shows why.
  3095. >Inked on the bare mattress is a tapestry of despair, drawn in blood.
  3096. >The mare stirs, but does not wake. Whatever nightmares haunt her dreams are kinder to her than facing reality.
  3097. >Everypony suffers. Some more than others.
  3098. >Despair. Hope. Some have one. Some know not which to choose.
  3099. >If only you knew what the future would bring.
  3100. >Everypony dies alone.
  3101. >Some more alone than others.
  3102.  
  3103. >Bemused.
  3104. >That’s how the ponies look.
  3105. >You smile at that thought.
  3106. >After all, it was one of the few things you had taught Apple Bloom.
  3107. >She thought it meant amused, but no.
  3108. >At least you’d been able to teach her something. For once. Instead of it being the other way around.
  3109. >The ponies mill about, whispering to each other.
  3110. >Surprised that you’re here? Yeah, probably.
  3111. >A few had glanced your way when you’d gotten out of the truck, but only a few.
  3112. >Apparently, they’re getting comfortable with you. Or at least *more* comfortable.
  3113. >A blue mare skittishly dances a few paces away from you when you stray too close for her comfort.
  3114. >Several steps later, a stallion steps between you and a foal.
  3115. >Most don’t even acknowledge your presence.
  3116. >You know what your uncle would say: you’re getting too ‘familiar’ with the help. And they’re getting too familiar with you.
  3117. >Probably wouldn’t have put it that way, though.
  3118. >It sounds racist, and for all his faults that wasn’t one of them.
  3119. >A man couldn’t afford to be, in this line of work.
  3120. >And in this case, you’re starting to think he was wrong.
  3121. >Moondancer greets you with a swish of her tail and a smile.
  3122. >Certainly not the reaction you would have received all those years ago, from the migrant workers.
  3123. >Hell, not the reaction you got a few months back.
  3124. >The only ponies that smiled at you back then were… well… there was just the one.
  3125. >Apple Bloom.
  3126. >And now…
  3127. >”Finally decided to watch the sunrise with us?”
  3128. “What? No, I’m just here for… uh…”
  3129. >You raise the briefcase in your hand absentmindedly for her to see, as you raise your eyes to the horizon.
  3130. >”Oh, right.”
  3131. >The distinction between earth and sky is blurred by the clouds and rain, a grey streak smeared across the distance.
  3132. “Sunrise?”
  3133. >It can’t be that early.
  3134. >You’re never this awake that early.
  3135. >”Uh, yeah,” Moondancer chuckles nervously. “The sunrise. You know, that thing that happens every morning?”
  3136. >”Usually,” a deadpan voice corrects. “Remember those three days?”
  3137. >”I… yes,” Moondancer sighs, nodding as Maud approaches. “Who doesn’t?”
  3138. “Um…”
  3139. >You have no idea what they’re talking about.
  3140. >Maud greets you with a dip of her head.
  3141. >”Good morning. Or hopefully it will be. Eventually”
  3142. “Well…”
  3143. >You force a smile onto your face – and not the only false one present, you notice.
  3144. “… why… uh… why wouldn’t it be?”
  3145. >”I don’t know.”
  3146. >She shrugs, but now that it’s come up, you can’t shake the feeling that something is off.
  3147. “So… sunrise, huh?”
  3148. >That would explain it – why some of the ponies look so uncomfortable, why some are casting ugly looks your way.
  3149. >Not many, not even most.
  3150. >No, most of the ponies are milling about, shuffling their hooves, and staring off into the distance.
  3151. >But it’s not right. It’s not how you’ve seen them act, when you’ve watched this from the house, or… that one time.
  3152. >The first – and only – time you had joined them.
  3153. >Even though Apple Bloom had invited you and stood by your side the entire time, you shouldn’t have been there.
  3154. >She had been as welcoming as possible, but that hadn’t helped. Made things even worse, probably.
  3155. >You’d stayed. You shouldn’t have.
  3156. >So very out of place, it was painful.
  3157. >You stood silently, trying to draw as little attention to yourself as possible.
  3158. >It was the most awkward moment of your life.
  3159. >This is nothing like that.
  3160. >There’s no focus, no sense of purpose, nothing for you to intrude upon.
  3161. >Mostly… just..
  3162. >… confusion.
  3163. “I should… I should go.”
  3164. >You don’t belong here.
  3165. >The quiet prayers you had overheard months ago are now soft, disoriented murmurs.
  3166. “I’ll be back when –“
  3167. >”Stay,” Moondancer interrupts, smiling wider – but you now see her expression is as forced as your own. “It’s fine. Stay.”
  3168. “I shouldn’t be here.”
  3169. >Maud flicks her tail.
  3170. >Disagreeing with you?
  3171. >Sometimes it’s hard to read her.
  3172. >Always, really.
  3173. >”You didn’t come to the party last night.”
  3174. >A pure statement? A reproach?
  3175. “No, but…“
  3176. >”You could have, though I admit it wasn’t much of a party.”
  3177. >The infinitesimally small twitch of her shoulders might be a shrug.
  3178. >”I lack my sister’s talents.”
  3179. >She seems calm enough, but she always does.
  3180. >Her mood is so much harder to read than the others.
  3181. >Nervous prancing, head raised high, ears pinned back, forelegs splayed.
  3182. >You see that and more as you look out across gathering.
  3183. >Something is wrong.
  3184. >You shouldn’t be here.
  3185. >Some of the foals you had seen happily playing around a day or two before are now sticking close to their parents – and not for warmth. Their large eyes are roaming constantly. Others are huddled together with their friends, or even trying to sneak back inside.
  3186. >Some of the ponies are eyeing you unhappily. Angrily, even.
  3187. >Bumper Crop. Bonbon. Lyra.
  3188. >The last’s anger borrowed, but still present.
  3189. >But that’s only a few, a scant handful.
  3190. >Most look worried. Some scared.
  3191. >Roma, for one.
  3192. >She’s staring into the stormclouds with dead eyes, no fearful trembling or nervous ticks. Just staring. And waiting.
  3193. >You know that expression now.
  3194. >It had taken you three months, but you learned. Eventually.
  3195. >Roma is scared.
  3196. >… and… Moondancer…?
  3197. >Her eyes share the same flat, too-neutral aspect at odds with her smile.
  3198. >She’s scared.
  3199. >How many more?
  3200. >How many of the others that won’t meet your eyes, that look away quickly or pretend to keep their attention locked on the distant horizon?
  3201. >You shouldn’t be here.
  3202. “I’m sorry. I’ll… I’ll be back. Later.”
  3203. >"No, wait,” Moondancer stops you, grabbing your leg with hers. “Stay. It's not you."
  3204. “Then what’s going on?”
  3205. >”I… I don’t know, but it’s not you.”
  3206. >”I know,” a soft voice chimes in, a pony you don’t know by name. “Maybe. I mean… it feels like… back then, doesn’t it?”
  3207. “When?”
  3208. >”When… when… no, never mind. I’m wrong.”
  3209. >The stallion shakes his head and backs away a step, two.
  3210. >”Everything’s fine,” he insists. “It’s just the changing weather making everypony feel weird.”
  3211. >His half-hearted chuckle does nothing to convince you.
  3212.  
  3213. >Be silent.
  3214. >You ain’t never been one to pray much.
  3215. >Never could figure out how that started or why some ponies bought into that idea.
  3216. >Ain’t nopony to hear your words.
  3217. >The princess is dead, an’ if this God some’f the humans ramble about’s real, he ain’t lookin’ out for you.
  3218. >He ain’t even lookin’ out for *them*.
  3219. >Still, you’re awake an’ lookin’ out the window ‘fore dawn.
  3220. >Watchin’ the sun rise.
  3221. >Or tryin’ anyhow. Storm clouds ain’t makin’ it easy.
  3222. >It’s important.
  3223. >Ain’t ‘bout the princess for you, never has been.
  3224. >Ain’t even ‘bout fittin’ in.
  3225. >It’s ‘bout family.
  3226. >You’re up an’ staring at some stupid rainclouds ‘cause somewhere - *somewhere* - AJ’s doin’ the same.
  3227. >You *know* she is.
  3228. >She ain’t with you, but you ain’t completely alone, so long as you can pretend that she’s out there.
  3229. >So long as you can pretend.
  3230. >You sigh.
  3231. >You ain’t been able to convince yourself in months, but you go through the motions anyhow.
  3232. >Can’t say why. Particularly now, when you can’t even see the dang sun for all the clouds.
  3233. >This is stupid.
  3234. >You’re stupid.
  3235. >Today – finally, after three years of waitin’ – you look away.
  3236.  
  3237. >”Be still,“ Doctor Alda sighs an’ shakes his head wearily. ”Hell, go back to sleep, girl. The sun isn’t even up yet!”
  3238. >You doubt he ever got any, himself.
  3239. “Can’t. Even if I wanted to, I’ve got a busy day ahead of me.”
  3240. >Stomach still hurts like heck, but not so bad you can’t sit up.
  3241. “Besides, I’m usually up earlier.”
  3242. >Doc sighs again as you flash him a smile.
  3243. “Couldn’t get back to sleep anyway. My body won’t let me sleep any longer.”
  3244. >”I can make you. I’ve got drugs and –“
  3245. “An’ you keep ‘em for those that need ‘em, okay?”
  3246. >The doc don’t like that one bit, but he steps out of the room before you start peelin’ off that dang gown his nurse gave you to sleep in.
  3247. >Not that you *would’ve*. Just… enough to make the point.
  3248. >Your things are stuffed in a little bag, tossed on a chair.
  3249. >The clothes reek of sweat, but you’ve worn worse.
  3250. >You’d wasted the last day sittin’ ‘round and layin’ down.
  3251. >These’re work clothes.
  3252. >It’s time to get to work.
  3253. >You’re up an’ dressed in a whole minute, with only a lil’bit of wantin’ to die in between slippin’ on your pants and pullin’ on your socks.
  3254. >Even with the time spent puttin’ on the clothes and feelin’ sorry for yourself, you’re out the door in under five.
  3255. >The doc is waitin’ right outside and sighs when he sees you.
  3256. >”Look, it wasn’t *major* surgery –“
  3257. “- but it was still surgery. I know.”
  3258. >Ain’t the first time he’s said that this morning.
  3259. >The doc nods and pulls somethin’ out of his coat pocket.
  3260. >Two somethin’s.
  3261. >”Aftercare instructions,” he explains, holdin’ out a sheet of paper for you, “and some painkillers.”
  3262. >He don’t let go of the small bottle, though. Actually pulls it back ‘fore you touch it.
  3263. >”Don’t take any yet. Best wait until you get back home, if you can.”
  3264. >You nod.
  3265. >Ain’t enough to make him happy, but it’s enough for him to push the bottle into your hand.
  3266. >”More importantly,” he grumbles, “actually take them if you need them.”
  3267. “Will do.”
  3268. >”Promise me.”
  3269. “I swear, doc.”
  3270. >That’s enough for him to actually let go.
  3271. >”You going to go straight back to the farm now?”
  3272. “No, I gotta make a few stops first.”
  3273. >”Don’t push yourself.”
  3274. >You smile for him, make a little show of – okay, that weren’t a great idea.
  3275. >Not ‘cause of your stomach or nothing, you’re just too old to go doin’ cartwheels down the hallway.
  3276. >Lucky that your brains kicked in ‘fore you got started, and you stick with just a smile.
  3277. “I’ll be fine.”
  3278. >Hell, you ain’t even gotta do any *real* work today.
  3279. >Milkin’ the cows – back when you’d had cows – with a busted arm? *That* was work, but you’d done it.
  3280. >Hadn’t been given no choice, but you would’ve anyhow.
  3281. >Someone had to do it, just like now.
  3282. “Just have a couple stops, doc. Gotta swing by the hardware store an’ set up some deliveries is all.”
  3283. >”And where’s the second?” he asks, all suspiciously like you were tryin’ to trick him into lettin’ you kill yourself.
  3284. “Church.”
  3285. >Doc stares at you a minute, but nods.
  3286. >”Fine, but don’t take too long.”
  3287. “I won’t.”
  3288. >”And don’t go through the deadzone on your way back.”
  3289. “Do I look crazy to you?”
  3290. >”Yes.”
  3291. >That’s almost insultin’.
  3292. >He didn’t even hesitate one sec.
  3293. “Well, I’m not.”
  3294. >”I’m serious. If not for your sake, then for the foals. Redheart and I talked about Hematite last night, and… I’m serious. Don’t. I don’t know exactly what’s wrong with her, but don’t you dare.”
  3295. >He says it so firmly, you gotta laugh. Got is arms crossed an’ everything.
  3296. “I promise I won’t take a shortcut.”
  3297. >”Good. You don’t know how dangerous it can be.”
  3298. “I know good n’ well, doc.”
  3299. >You know *damn* well.
  3300. >”Well –“
  3301. “My mother’s in there. Somewhere”
  3302. >He shrugs, the embarrassed gesture so dang out of place on the man that it makes even *you* feel awkward.
  3303. >Heat rises on your cheeks, which only makes things even worse.
  3304. >You’re a grown woman. Feelin’ embarrassed ‘cause a grown man feels embarrassed only makes you even more so.
  3305. >”Sorry,” he mumbles. “I know. Just…”
  3306. “Lemme guess, some fool tried goin’ through an’ didn’t make it?”
  3307. >”Not here,” he answers, “but yeah. Between your farms and the city.”
  3308. >Doc sighs again, his shoulders slumpin’ an’ makin’ him look older’n he has any right to.
  3309. >”I’ll be glad when they get that bypass finally built.”
  3310. “Ain’t never gonna happen. Why’re they even comin’ through in the first place?”
  3311. >Doc starts shufflin’ away, motionin’ for you to follow.
  3312. >Hurts a bit to walk, but it’s easy to keep up with him at his pace.
  3313. >Hell, ain’t gone more’n five steps ‘fore you gotta slow up.
  3314. >“I’m sure you saw how big the town has gotten,” doc says suddenly. “On your way here, I mean.”
  3315. “Kinda had my mind on other things.”
  3316. >”I’m sure you did.”
  3317. >He gets ‘nother three or four steps, ‘fore turnin’ his head to smile at you.
  3318. >“They’ve started up construction again.”
  3319. “What? You’re jokin’.”
  3320. >”Nope. It’ll be finished in nine months, maybe less.”
  3321. >His smile grows even wider.
  3322. “That ain’t even possible! Where’d the money come from? Or the supplies?”
  3323. >”I heard that up north they’ve got some of the factories rebuilt and tooled for civilian equipment again. Things are finally starting to get back to normal.”
  3324. >Disbelief leaves you stunned.
  3325. >Sass takes over.
  3326. “It’s been a while, but… uh… I wouldn’t say any road gettin’ built in under three or four years is *remotely* normal.”
  3327. >”Well, you got me there,” he agrees with a short laugh, “but things are getting better. Little by little, they’re getting better.”
  3328. “I guess that’s good enough.”
  3329.  
  3330. >Before you can answer th’door or even call out, it’s open an’ Scootaloo’s pokin’ her head through the widenin’ gap.
  3331. >Barely even knocked first.
  3332. >“Apple Bloom! You won’t believe it!”
  3333. “What.”
  3334. >You can hardly pretend to care. Nah, can’t even.
  3335. >”Come with me!” she shouts, grabbing your hoof and yanking you out of bed. “This is the best thing ever!”
  3336. >You lack the strength – or the will – to resist.
  3337. >It don’t matter none anyhow.
  3338. >Today – finally – after three years of this, you can accept that.
  3339. >It’s like somethin’ just up an’ clicked.
  3340. >There ain’t nopony out there lookin’ for you.
  3341. >Ain’t no sister starin’ up at the same sky, thinkin’ of you as she does.
  3342. >Certainly ain’t nopony starin’ down an’ watchin’ over you.
  3343. >Nothin’ matters, ‘cause you don’t matter.
  3344. >Maybe to other folks, other ponies, there’ll be things that count.
  3345. >Like whatever Scoots’ so excited for.
  3346. >She matters.
  3347. >There’s folks that care for her.
  3348. >But you?
  3349. >Maybe. Someday.
  3350. >Not today.
  3351. >Not for months.
  3352. >Not until –
  3353. >A portal.
  3354. >On the tv.
  3355. “What…?”
  3356. >”See!?”
  3357. >Scootaloo waves her hooves towards the screen.
  3358. >”She’s –“
  3359. >”Pipe down, Scoots,” Bill cuts her off, smackin’ the mare with his cap. “Let the girl hear it herself.”
  3360. “Why… why is there a portal?”
  3361. >You know there’s some still open. Everypony knows that.
  3362. >It’s how you got out of Equestria in the first place, but…
  3363. “What’s goin’ on…?”
  3364. >Why’re there all kinds of people in fancy suits lined up?
  3365. >What’s with the lil’ stage they got set up an’ the microphones an’ all that?
  3366. >”I don’t rightly know,” Bill answers slowly. “I just turned on the morning news to get the weather and… well… there’s *this*. I knew you’d want to see it yourself.”
  3367. “But…”
  3368. >It don’t make no sense.
  3369. >”Just watch.”
  3370. >You do.
  3371. >Not ‘cause it matters or nothin’, you’re just curious.
  3372. >Kinda.
  3373. >Nothin’ adds up.
  3374. >Only the soldiers are allowed near portals, but those people ain’t no soldiers.
  3375. >Neither’s the pony that comes through, or the ones that follow.
  3376. “Scoots –“
  3377. >”Shush.”
  3378. >An’ that’s the most curious thing so far – Mica shushin’ you like you was talkin’ away at a play.
  3379. >That’s more queer’n the heavy winter coats the ponies on the tv are wearin’ or the cloth they’ve got all wrapped ‘round their faces.
  3380. >Sure, it’s winter an’ all, but it ain’t that cold, particularly wherever they are.arele
  3381. >Grass is still green, even.
  3382. >Ain’t no call for them to be wearin’ something that dang hot.
  3383. >Meanwhile, you’re here feelin’ the chill, even inside, an’ you ain’t got a thing to keep you warm but the little colt that’s snuggled up to one’ve your forelegs an’ his sister on th’other.
  3384. >It’s prolly freezin’ back at the farm, an’ there ain’t nothin’ but a few scarves an’ rags between the lot of you.
  3385. >It ain’t fair.
  3386. >Nothin’ is.
  3387. >This ain’t somethin’ new.
  3388. >So you watch.
  3389. >Not like it’s gonna change your life or nothin’.
  3390. >Ain’t gonna make everything suddenly better.
  3391. >You’re beyond thinkin’ silly stuff like that now.
  3392. >You’re just curious, is all, but that starts to ebb away as soon as some man starts talkin’ at the podium.
  3393. >New refugees.
  3394. >After the cease fire.
  3395. >They *asked* to come.
  3396. >Don’t make no sense.