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A Deal is a Deal (Part 3)

By twilightgamenight
Created: 2021-07-16 21:31:33
Updated: 2021-01-31 22:05:55
Expiry: Never

  1. >"- best get going if we're going to make it to the party in time."
  2. >Impossible.
  3. >It's still early.
  4. >Stupid early. The sun's barely up.
  5. >You check your watch, but Moondancer is right.
  6. >Kinda.
  7. >Of course.
  8. >Or close enough it's not really worth arguing about.
  9. "Want to take the truck or...?"
  10. >"There's enough time to walk," she says with a shake of her head. "Plus it's nice out."
  11. "Still pretty chilly."
  12. >"Brisk," she counters with a harsh edge, "but the sky is clear and the ground is dry. Let's walk."
  13. "'kay."
  14. >You're not arguing with a pony who's off her suppressants, even if she *is* taking it better than Maud did the first time around.
  15. >Might be the party and having something to look forward to.
  16. >Maud's barely showing any signs of withdrawal at all.
  17. >You're trying not to get your hopes up.
  18. >It's only been a couple of days. Things might get worse.
  19. >You hit the power button on the monitor and... why?
  20. >You shrug mentally.
  21. >Electricity rationing is over, but habits die hard.
  22. >Oh well. It's a good habit to have.
  23. >Moondancer impatiently trots out of the office, doing a little dance in place as you get your coat and put the papers -
  24. >"Don't bother."
  25. >- leave the papers right where they are.
  26. "I guess we'll be coming right back to work anyway."
  27. >"In a few hours."
  28. >You nod and the mare runs off - just a little bit, just out of sight past the door frame.
  29. >You don't think she'll snap if you don't rush after her - after all, you've spent the better part of two days together researching various things and she hasn't snapped yet.
  30. >Not violently, anyway.
  31. >Things would have gone smoother and been more productive if you had a second computer, but there's always the physical paperwork to go through.
  32. >She doesn't mind.
  33. >Anything to keep her busy.
  34. >Silver's been easier to deal with, content to sleep until you bring her something new to look at.
  35. >After her initial jitters she's been so calm and mild mannered you can hardly believe she's been off her suppressants for weeks.
  36. >And Apple Bloom...
  37. >You've barely seen her since she gave you her answer.
  38. >Not surprising. You've been busy and she... you don't know. You've been busy.
  39. >That's probably a mark against you, but Moondancer's frantic energy has kept you narrowly focused on task.
  40. >While she checked the actual wording of the employment contracts, you were looking up the sale and transfer of the war bonds the farm is being paid in.
  41. >The kinds of rates you can get.
  42. >How the prices have climbed now that the war looks to be coming to an end and investors won't have to sit on them for long.
  43. >You didn't read that explanation anywhere - Silver had to spell it out for you when you went down to discuss things with her yesterday.
  44. >She seems to think five or so years isn't long.
  45. >It's still worthwhile to sell them, even at forty or fifty cents on the dollar.
  46. >You'd learned a lot in these two days.
  47. >Not just that Apple Bloom didn't want to be sold, and Moondancer chews her mane when she's frustrated and doesn't even know she's doing it.
  48. >There's a theme park in Oregon named Equestriville where a hundred or so refugees are allowed to live 'free' and natural - and spend their days entertaining human visitors.
  49. >New Houston has leash laws for ponies like they're animals.
  50. >The law about not leaving ponies unattended is supposedly for their own protection - to protect them from other humans.
  51. >Humans First use to be particularly active here - still are - and a pony's contract is effectively a legal guardianship.
  52. >You're supposed to care for them. Look after them. Make sure they're safe.
  53. >You've had to look these kinds of things up, because with Apple Bloom staying, there's no way out of selling ponies.
  54. >*Other* ponies. *More* ponies.
  55. >It's more work and hassle for you, but you're okay with it.
  56. >Have to be.
  57. >You just can't dip too far into the war bonds without the rest of your family noticing.
  58. >All of them have a claim on some of the profits.
  59. >It *is* your *family's* farm, after all. You're just running it.
  60. >Fuckers.
  61. >No one wanted to move here, not that you can blame them.
  62. >You'd considered selling your ponies' work contracts out of the area, to keep them away from some of the people in town and what they do.
  63. >Now you're not sure.
  64. >There's some nice spots, some states with laws protecting ponies from abuse, but yours is one of them.
  65. >Laws don't mean shit if they aren't enforced.
  66. >Might help if your local law enforcement weren't - almost without exception - members of Humans First.
  67. >Proudly so.
  68. >They aren't the only ones.
  69. >At least if your ponies are nearby...
  70. >"Hurry up!" Moondancer shouts as she bolts out the front door just ahead of you.
  71. "Yeah, yeah, I'm coming."
  72. >... you don't know everyone in town and can't pretend those you do you know well, but better the devils you... are vaguely familiar with.
  73. >More importantly, they know where to run if shit goes bad.
  74. >Not here, not to you.
  75. >It's too far. They'd never make it.
  76. >There are good folks in town. People better than you.
  77. >Men like Bill who treat their ponies like their own family.
  78. >He's not alone.
  79. >That's another thing you found out.
  81. >Been two days.
  82. >This is it.
  83. >You wish you hadn't agreed to this, but you force yourself awake.
  84. >It's no worse than what you've been doing for the past four years - at least, that's what you keep telling yourself.
  85. >Can't deny that there's a difference, though, that you don't want to do this.
  86. >That the fear of not being able to say no for the first time ever makes you tremble.
  87. >You've always been able to, always had that choice.
  88. >To starve or let a man do what he wanted with you.
  89. >To 'service' a client or not.
  90. >To choose how far you were willing to go, what you were willing to do.
  91. >You've always been able to say no.
  92. >There were always others to protect you if you refused.
  93. >Other ponies. Sterling's men. Someone.
  94. >You don't want to do this.
  95. >But you hadn't wanted to sell yourself for scraps of food either.
  96. >You got used to it. More than that, during your time here you'd come to enjoy it.
  97. >The presents, the rewards, the power you had over these men.
  98. >It wasn't so bad.
  99. >You can get used to this.
  100. >Just relax and think of happier times.
  101. >You slowly sit up.
  102. >Everything still hurts, but not as bad as it had a few days back.
  103. >You don't think any of the bruises still show.
  104. >When you open your eyes, you see Octavia is waiting, sitting silently and watching from the bed across the room.
  105. >Bitch.
  106. "Afraid I'll chicken out?"
  107. >"It does not matter to me," she answers slowly, "but no. If you were that kind of mare, you wouldn’t be in this situation."
  108. >But she doesn't pressure you to hurry up, to get out of bed.
  109. >Just watches.
  110. >Stays with you as you rinse off in the communal shower the normal mares use.
  111. >Just six shower heads. Not even any stalls.
  112. >No doors.
  113. >No privacy.
  114. >It still unsettles you - these bare concrete walls, that your own toiletries aren't always at hoof unless you remembered to bring them.
  115. >You didn't bother today.
  116. >It doesn't matter if you smell nice or your mane shimmers.
  117. >No point wasting your special shampoos or scents.
  118. >You doubt anyone will buy them for you ever again.
  119. >There's enough hope in your heart to make you think it's worth saving, that you'll live long enough that it's worth trying to make it last.
  120. >The men today won't appreciate the nice touches.
  121. >This is just a rinse to wash off the night sweat.
  122. >To kill time.
  123. >And... no one else is here this early.
  124. >Only Octavia, and she doesn't count.
  125. >She's not showering, not really sharing the space.
  126. >Just watching you.
  127. >People have watched you before.
  128. >Some have even wanted that. *Just* that. *Paid* for it.
  129. >To watch you in the bath.
  130. >Shampooing your mane and tail.
  131. >She doesn't bother you.
  132. >This is the closest you've gotten to having a private shower since you lost your rooms, since you stopped being one of Sterling's favorites.
  133. >You try to make the most of it, let the water rush over you, let it wash away -
  134. >"You should save some water for the other ponies."
  135. >Not listening.
  136. >"We're still expected to conserve water." she lectures. "For the farms."
  137. >Fuck her.
  138. >"It's almost time."
  139. >Bitch.
  140. "Fine."
  141. >You kick at the handle and cut the water.
  142. "Let's go."
  143. >"Aren't you going to dry off?"
  144. >You shrug.
  145. >"It's cold. We don't want you to catch -"
  146. "They'll keep me warm."
  147. >The bitch dips her head.
  148. >"I suppose. Shall we...?"
  149. >You follow her.
  150. >You haven't done this before. The only mares that have are total losers. You don't really know the way.
  151. >You were always busy. Always doing your job.
  152. >Enjoying your successes.
  153. >You haven’t been there since Sterling gave up on his dream.
  154. >Octavia leads you down the hall, avoiding the other common areas, the other ponies, out the back door.
  155. >It's not locked. Never is.
  156. >What's the point?
  157. >The only mares that would ever run are the ones that would be hunted down anyway.
  158. >Most of them are smart enough to try to spend their last days in comfort.
  159. >No one's tried since Radiant Sky.
  160. >No one gets away.
  161. >She was right.
  162. >It's cold.
  163. >You should have dried off.
  164. >Doesn't matter.
  165. >Soon enough you won't feel anything at all.
  166. >At least, that's what you hope.
  167. >That you'll just drift away and let it happen and be done with it.
  168. >She leads you out the back and away from the two-story building that has been your home for the last three years.
  169. >Past the hotel you've worked that whole time.
  170. >Then the diner where - she hesitates.
  171. >"Did you need to...?"
  172. "What?"
  173. >"Relieve yourself?" she asks, almost blushing.
  174. >You sneer back.
  175. >Men have paid to watch you do that too. And women.
  176. >It wasn't so bad, once you got used to it.
  177. >"You won't have another chance until Sterling frees you from the stand."
  178. "If I have to go I have to go and they can fucking deal with it."
  179. >Fuck them.
  180. >She almost smiles.
  181. >You've gotten used to her emotionally dead *almosts*.
  182. >Maybe because you feel the same.
  183. >Octavia heads down a small path through the stunted trees and tall grass behind the restaurant.
  184. >You’ve never been this way, but you know where it goes.
  185. >Every pony here does, though most don't remember it like you do.
  186. >Octavia does, though.
  187. >It was built for her, though she's never used it.
  188. >No one has, not the way it was intended.
  189. >You're walking long enough to rethink this again before you reach the parking lot of the open-air auditorium.
  190. >Unlike the hotel and diner with their shared parking lot, this has its own.
  191. >Its own road to the highway, too.
  192. >The rest of it - what *you* do - it was only ever a side business.
  193. >Something to recoup Sterling's costs. To put the little hotel and diner meant for attendees to *some* use when the rest never took off. When he couldn’t sell all of you.
  194. >When he couldn’t find enough buyers for unskilled ponies who refused hard labor.
  195. >You don't feel bad about that.
  196. >You try not to feel anything at all.
  197. >Not disappointment at how few cars dot the grounds, nor happiness at the same.
  198. >Nothing.
  199. >More will come.
  200. >It's early.
  201. >Not your regulars, though.
  202. >The look of discomfort Rance shot your way when you approached him last week...
  203. >You don't want to think about it.
  204. >No.
  205. >You step off the curb and onto the asphalt, but the mare beside you hesitates.
  206. "What? Jealous that I'll be getting more use out of your stage than you ever will?"
  207. >Octavia shakes her head.
  208. >"No," she whispers. "I was... wondering?"
  209. "What it's like? Want to trade places?"
  210. >She shakes her head.
  211. >"I was wondering... was it guilt or greed?"
  212. "Was *what*?"
  213. >"When you let that client of Silver Spoon's take you. When you let him hurt you. You never allowed your prior clients to engage in that kind of roughness before. Why *then*? Was it guilt or was it greed?
  214. >"Did you feel so bad about Silver Spoon that you let him do it to punish you?
  215. >"Or were you so eager to prove you were better than the other mares - to be the top of the heap another week - that you didn't stop to think beyond the money?
  216. >”Did you even consider what would happen?"
  217. "What does it matter to you?"
  218. >Or you.
  219. >"Because I have been thinking. More accurately, I have been pondering which sums up my choices."
  220. "Bitch."
  221. >She looks at you out of the corner of her eyes and *almost* nods.
  222. >"Perhaps."
  223. >She then looks back out across the parking lot and sighs.
  224. >"Let's go in the back, shall we?"
  225. >There’s a second’s more hesitation before she laughs silently and smirks at you.
  226. >"I expect you'll be hearing that frequently today."
  227. >Bitch.
  228. >There's another car pulling up.
  229. >Shabby.
  230. >Not the kind of thing you'd expect one of your kind of client to drive.
  231. >You wish you saw more of your regulars.
  232. >Not just n the diner when they give you a sad look and shake their heads and take some *other* mare to a room.
  233. "Yeah, that sounds fine."
  234. >You don't want to see these men.
  235. >Once you're on the stand, you won't see anything at all.
  236. >Nothing real.
  237. >Just memories of Equestria, and it's been so long *that* barely feels real anymore.
  238. >More like something you read in a book.
  239. >Something that happened to someone else.
  240. >Someone wearing your skin, using your name, but not you.
  241. >You could never go back there. Certainly never back to that life.
  242. >Not anymore.
  243. >It can't be you.
  244. >Just like the mare on that stage isn't going to be you.
  245. >Sterling is waiting for you backstage.
  246. >He doesn't seem surprised that you came through the back.
  247. >He rarely seems surprised at anything anymore, not for the past couple of years.
  248. >Just angry.
  249. >"Any protests out there yet?" he asks without even looking at you.
  250. >"No, Master Sterling," Octavia answers. "Though it's early yet."
  251. >"Yeah," he grunts. "I bet they'll show up later."
  252. >He sneers and looks down to you.
  253. >"You sure you want to do this?"
  254. "It's too late to back out."
  255. >"Yep, but you still have to agree."
  256. "The fuck does that matter to you *now*?"
  257. >"Doesn't," Sterling snarls back. "I don't give a fuck about any of you worthless 9-Bs.
  258. >“You're all fucking liabilities and I can't even sell you off, but Octavia likes it if I through the motions from time to time."
  259. >The mare nods slightly.
  260. >Fuck her.
  261. "It's either this or I agree to go on a 'hunt'."
  262. >He shrugs.
  263. >"You could run away."
  264. >Bullshit.
  265. "There's no point pretending that's not the same thing."
  266. >Sterling stares at you with complete indifference for a minute before sighing.
  267. >"It’s the sheriff’s job to track down runaways. All I do is give him a call and let him know who's on the run and where they before it happens, in exchange for a little money under the table. You could leave before I do that."
  268. "That will make – what!? - a few hours difference?"
  269. >And Sterling won't get paid.
  270. >You're almost spiteful enough to do it just for that.
  271. >To bolt out the door right now.
  272. >Run and never come back.
  273. >He won't chase you.
  274. >Octavia won't try to stop you.
  275. >But...
  276. "At least the deputies have to make it quick if I stay near town. I *know* what they did to Radiant Sky."
  277. >Sterling shrugs again.
  278. >"They *do* like to make an event of it for their little club," he agrees, "and they hate being interrupted. Made my life hell last time, but it's their own damn fault for taking so long."
  279. >He sighs and shrugs.
  280. >"He probably won't fuck around if you stay in town, but don't think that'll save you.
  281. >"For some reason, the sheriff's really got his eye on you. You must have done something to piss him off."
  282. >You shake your head.
  283. "I haven't done anything!"
  284. >"Of course you did. You didn't think most of your customers were driven off by the bruises and shit, right?
  285. >“Well here’s a newsflash – they weren’t. That’s only part of it. The sheriff's pals have been leaning on them.
  286. >"Whatever you did, he wants to punish you.
  287. >"But it's your choice."
  288. >He gestures towards a door at the other end of the room.
  289. >”You can go out there.”
  290. >He points towards the door you just came through.
  291. >”You can run.”
  292. >He shrugs.
  293. >”Or you can… wait. You’ll run eventually.”
  294. "You're sick."
  295. >Fuck him.
  296. "I'm ready. Let's get this over with."
  297. >"Close enough to consent for me."
  299. >Better to not listen.
  300. >Better to not be there.
  301. >Not this time.
  302. >You stayed with Master Sterling in the back room when it was Silver Spoon.
  303. >She wanted to live so much.
  304. >Never even thought of running away.
  305. >She tried up until the last moment.
  306. >Beyond that moment.
  307. >This time is different. This time you can't stay.
  308. >You would go to work, but there isn't much to do.
  309. >There won't be all day.
  310. >Never is for you.
  311. >Just keep the other mares in line because Sterling doesn't want to have anything to do with them.
  312. >Lay back and read a book or two.
  313. >Try to write some new music.
  314. >Fail.
  315. >The usual.
  316. >Nothing much.
  317. >It’s not exactly a packed schedule.
  318. >None of those take much time.
  319. >The mares that are left are for the most part the ones who enjoy this life.
  320. >The rest have all been sold off or run away - or 'run away' and everything that entails.
  321. >Same thing, really.
  322. >And failing?
  323. >That's not hard at all.
  324. >You've been doing that off and on since you received your cutie mark.
  325. >More on than off lately.
  326. >No, not much to do at all.
  327. >You leave without a word to Master Sterling.
  328. >He’s busy being angry.
  329. >You leave before he can make more bad decisions and travel back down that path to the diner, past the hotel, back to the two-storey building that houses the ponies, through the backdoor.
  330. >Past the stairs that lead to the private rooms.
  331. >You go to the communal living room on the first floor, not to your bedroom.
  332. >You would, but there's no TV there - not that Master Sterling wouldn’t have given you one if you asked, but you felt it would be a distraction.
  333. >Unfortunately a distraction is what you want now.
  334. >Something to make some noise.
  335. >There's no one else here yet.
  336. >That’s not unexpected.
  337. >Quite the opposite, it’s what you were hoping for.
  338. >There’s no point in any of them getting up this early and they know it.
  339. >Master Sterling lets them set their own hours and they all know today is going to be a slow day, even those that cater to the early morning crowd, the men coming off the graveyard shift or just heading in to work.
  340. >Most of the regular morning clientele will be at the auditorium today.
  341. >The higher-class patrons won't come by until later.
  342. >A lunch break for some, an after-work respite for others.
  343. >You sink into the soft cushions of one of the sofas and turn on the TV. To the - *not* to the news.
  344. >You happen to flicker past it as you scroll through the channels, but Sweetie Belle's face on the screen convinces you to keep going.
  345. >Guilt?
  346. >Or greed?
  347. >Is that pit in your stomach more than simply hunger?
  348. >Do you care so little about what's going to happen to her that you would rather watch the tritest soap opera or children's cartoons instead?
  349. >You almost go back to the news, to prove to yourself if no one else that you don't care. That you don't feel bad about what you know is going to happen to her.
  350. >Or to prove that you're a better pony. That you *do* care. That you don't only think of yourself.
  351. >Thankfully you can't seem to find it again.
  352. >You eventually come across something simple and stupid and stay there, even as time passes and one boring program turns into its equally meaningless replacement.
  353. >It doesn't really matter what you watch.
  354. >Nothing matters.
  355. >Vinyl is dead.
  356. >You know this in your heart.
  357. >Everything you did was for her, to find her.
  358. >To be reunited.
  359. >You were going to make music again. Together.
  360. >It was your dream.
  361. >More than just yours.
  362. >More than just hers.
  363. >"I don't know why I'm bothering," a voice breaks through your fugue. One of the mares. You can't tell who. "I should have stayed in bed."
  364. >You don't really care, though you're surprised anyone else -
  365. >You're surprised at how long you've been sitting here, doing nothing.
  366. >Feeling sorry for yourself, you suppose.
  367. >"I know, right?" another snorts. "Who would pay for one of us when she's practically giving it away?"
  368. >That's unproductive and a mistake.
  369. >"The men who don't want sloppy seconds?" the first answers.
  370. >You should be feeling sorry for your friend.
  371. >"Or tenths!"
  372. >Or Diamond Tiara.
  373. >"Or remember the guy from yesterday?"
  374. >Or any one of a dozen other ponies.
  375. >"The one who smelled like he shat himself before coming in? *Yes*."
  376. >"Everyone turned him down."
  377. >"Well *of course*."
  378. >"Not like she can say no now, though," the mare laughs. "And not just because she's desperate. Celestia, have you *ever* seen someone drop to the bottom of the herd *that* fast?"
  379. >"Never! It's like she just stopped caring. Even Silver lasted for... how long was it from her first week short to her 'running off'?"
  380. >"Seven, eight months? Oh, I wonder if Diamond's room is up for grabs? I want my own TV so I can watch *whatever* I want! I’m tired of having to watch those stupid game shows because Fond Feather likes them!”
  381. >”Don’t forget about her king bed! I’m sure it’s soooooo soft!"
  382. >You wonder if the ponies working on the farms are just as callous, or is it just you?
  383. >”How could I ever forget about that?”
  384. >”When you get it, can I watch movies with you?”
  385. >"Sure! Speaking of... why is the TV on?" one of your new companions asks as she saunters around the sofa and reaches for the remote you had thrown onto the coffee table. "And why is it on something so - oh!"
  386. >She lets it drop from her limp mouth.
  387. >You should be able to put a name to her face, just as you should have to her voice, but it still escapes you.
  388. >"Oh," she gasps again. "Miss, I didn't see you. Are you watching..."
  389. >It hardly matters to you what's playing, but she doesn't finish the question.
  390. >If she doesn't care enough to ask, then you're not going to answer.
  391. >You shrug.
  392. >"Sorry," she murmurs and backs away. "I didn't mean to interrupt you."
  393. "It's fine."
  394. >She smiles awkwardly and turns away, to her friend.
  395. >"Whatever, the TV in the diner should be on the news now and I want to see if there's anything about the new arrivals!
  396. >"Oh, good idea! I’m ready for breakfast anyway. I have a craving for waffles and eggs."
  397. >Your stomach still feels hollow, but it doesn't rise up at the sound of food.
  398. >"I like the idea of waffles but eggs? Ewwwww. I’ll take hash browns instead!"
  399. >Whatever it is... you don't like it.
  400. >"Deal!"
  401. >"With sliced strawberries on the waffle!"
  402. >You should be harnessing this feeling and making something of it.
  403. >"Your choice, but blueberries are better!" the other laughs as they walk off. “And a little whipped cream –“
  404. >Writing something in Vinyl's memory, though you doubt you could do her justice.
  405. >She was the only one who could coax that wild flair from you.
  406. >Anything you created on your own wouldn't suit her in the least.
  407. >Perhaps it's time for you to expand on your style a bit.
  408. >You wanted noise and while there's no TV in your room upstairs, there *is* your cello.
  409. >Not *that* one, not your old one.
  410. >You don't know where it is.
  411. >There were more important things to flee Ponyville with.
  412. >The replacement Master Sterling bought you still serves, even if it does feels wrong in your hooves.
  413. >Maybe that's why it's been too long since you've used it.
  414. >You're upstairs and halfway through tuning the instrument when you realize you haven't taken your suppressant today.
  415. >But it's over there across the room.
  416. >You'd have to stand up and get it - and some water.
  417. >And the beginnings of a song are starting to flitter through your imagination.
  418. >A solo piece, but not by choice.
  419. >None of the other mares here have any musical talent.
  420. >Yet… here and there you can imagine other instruments taking their place.
  421. >A violin during a soft lull, or a horn during a triumph.
  422. >Yes, that could work, just as the cello could stand alone.
  423. >You'll take your suppressant later.
  425. >"Before you say anything..." Roma says hesitantly "... I'm afraid breakfast is porridge again. If you want to go back to the house, I'll be up in a minute to make yours."
  426. "No, it's fine, I'm sure you're busy setting up for the... um... cuteceniera."
  427. >"That too, but I'm afraid I just don't have a lot to work with right now."
  428. >You don't know what to say to that.
  429. >Just stand there for a minute.
  430. >Her eyes flare open and then suddenly blurts out "Not that I'm complaining!"
  431. >The pony at your side shrugs.
  432. >"Yeah, it'd be nice to have something a little different from time to time," Moondancer says bitterly. "At least you make it taste good."
  433. "I thought it was pretty good."
  434. >"You haven't had to eat it every morning forever," your friend snaps. "It would be nice to have a little variety, you know?"
  435. >Roma's mouth tightens, but she doesn't say anything.
  436. >You're grateful for that.
  437. >Moondancer opens her mouth to say more but shakes her head and has the decency to blush. "Sorry, sorry, it's..."
  438. >She slinks away leaving the rest of the apology unsaid.
  439. "Sorry, it's the suppressants."
  440. >"I know," Roma sighs, "but she's right."
  441. "Really, I thought it was good. I'm sure I'll enjoy it today too."
  442. >"I've gotten a lot of practice at it."
  443. >She turns to head back to the kitchen, but you call after her.
  444. "Wait! Um... what about what you were going to use for my breakfast? Any way you could... you know?"
  445. >"That's... well... there's a lot of difference between scrounging up some green onions and potatoes for one and finding them for a few hundred."
  446. "I could... um..."
  447. >What?
  448. "... well... you make great porridge."
  449. >"Thanks," Roma smiles. "Sit down and I'll bring you a bowl. The cakes are still in the oven, so you've got time to eat up before the party."
  450. >You return the smile and look about as the mare heads off.
  451. >Looking for... ah, there.
  452. >Sitting alone.
  453. >Not surprising.
  454. >Moondancer almost looks up as you walk over to her, kinda tilting her head aside and half glancing your way out of the corner of her eye.
  455. >Not meeting yours, you notice, as she drops her gaze back to the bare tabletop as you sit down beside her.
  456. "You okay?"
  457. >"Yeah," she mumbles. "Fine."
  458. >That's a blatant lie - clearly she's *not* - but you don't call her on it.
  459. >Partially because she might turn you inside out, mostly because who the fuck *is* okay in this day and age?
  460. "Cool, cool. Anything I can do to help?"
  461. >Your usual of holding and run your fingers through her mane until she feels better seems like a bad idea.
  462. >More than that, it's just not appropriate. Not with her.
  463. >Luckily Moondancer must have an idea of her own because she looks up hopefully.
  464. >"Spagoots tonight?" she asks.
  465. "You cooking?"
  466. >"If you're okay with me setting the kitchen on fire because I can't find the right size pan immediately."
  467. "Okay, I'll -"
  468. >The thought of asking Roma after the conversation you just had with her... well, it's not pleasant.
  469. "I'll cook."
  470. >That seems easier.
  471. >Moondancer does another little half-turn of her head and smiles.
  472. >"Thanks."
  473. "Least I could do for your help."
  474. >"And to stop me from snapping and going on a murder spree, right?" she chuckles.
  475. "Yep. Mostly that."
  476. >"Moondancer snorts and - and turns away.
  477. >"It's honestly not as bad as I thought," she mumbles. "The withdrawal is horrible, but that's *it*. That's all I'm feeling. I don't feel the... the *nothing*."
  478. "That's... good?"
  479. >The mare shrugs.
  480. >"Maybe my body's acclimated to the lack of magic. Maybe the pills are still blocking the absence.
  481. >"They *shouldn't*. It *should* be out of my system, but it's not like we had time for long-term clinical testing. Maybe after so long on them it's permanent.
  482. >"Maybe..."
  483. "It'll be fine. I mean Maud's doing okay."
  484. >You think.
  485. >Maybe.
  486. >You turn to find her in the crowd and maybe she's *not* doing okay.
  487. >She's got a skip in her walk.
  488. >You can see her from here and would wave her over, but she's talking with her family and smiling and *skipping*.
  489. >So... she's doing okay?
  490. >Right?
  491. >You turn back to the Moondancer in time to catch her looking Maud's way.
  492. >"Are you sure that's 'fine'?" she asks. "This isn't like her at all."
  493. "It's her niece's cuteceniera, and from what I gather it's the first one on this world. Seems like a reason to get excited."
  494. >"Reasonable."
  495. "You don't sound convinced."
  496. >"I don't *want* to be convinced," Moondancer grumps back. "I want to be pissy and watch movies and most of all be *left alone*."
  497. "You can go back on your suppressants if you want. There were other volunteers, so -"
  498. >"No," she answers with a firm shake of her head. "I want to know that I didn't fuck everything up again. If this caused permanent damage, then... then every pony on Earth..."
  499. >You know the sound of a woman about to start crying and this is not a day for that shit.
  500. >Nope.
  501. "And you want to eat spagoots."
  502. >"*Yes*," she answers vehemently, her prior worries suddenly forgotten as she remembers her favorite food group - cheap pasta and sauce.
  503. "Do you want to leave? I can start it right now and -"
  504. >"No, this is too important. Everypony is here. I can't make them go through this when I won't."
  505. >It takes a second for you to realize she means the other volunteers.
  506. >They aren't too difficult to spot; most are sitting alone.
  507. >Probably doing their best not to flip out and start a genocide.
  508. >That too is reasonable.
  509. >Last thing you need is one grumpy pony provoking another.
  510. >But they're all still here, except...
  511. "Silver isn't."
  512. >"She's hurt," Moondancer responds. "We're just cranky."
  513. "Still..."
  514. >You sit back as a shadow catches the corner of your eye.
  515. "... oh, thanks, Roma."
  516. >She sets down two bowls and gives you a nod.
  517. "Anyway, Moondancer, I wish Silver was going to be here. She's kind of the reason this whole thing happened."
  518. >Roma stops and gives you a smile.
  519. >"She will be," the cook says sweetly. "Lyra and Cheerilee went to get her, since the poor girl can't walk on her own."
  520. "Oh. Cool. Good. Should I..."
  521. >"Help?"
  522. >You nod.
  523. >"Last time you did that you nearly killed her," Moondancer snipes.
  524. "Oh."
  525. >Shit.
  526. "Right."
  527. >Well aren't you just a raging asshole?
  528. "I didn't mean to, you know?"
  529. >"I know," Roma chuckles at your suffering, "but we don't want Hematite to get her new dress all bloody so I think you'd best let the mares handle it."
  530. "New dress?"
  531. >Ponies wear dresses?
  532. >"For the cuteceniera."
  533. "Ah. Cool, cool..."
  534. >You give the room another look around, but none of the other ponies are wearing much in the way of clothing. Certainly no dresses.
  535. >Huh...
  536. "Hey, where's Apple Bloom?"
  538. "Be still, Hematite."
  539. >Always thought of her as the calm one've the bunch, but the lil' filly's so excited she's almost bouncin' off the walls.
  540. "You gotta hold still for me so Ah can get these pins in straight."
  541. >She moans like it's pure torture an' can't help but fidget but she does her honest best.
  542. >Same as you, though you don't got any illusions you're any good at this kinda stuff.
  543. >Ain't as easy as standin' still.
  544. >However...
  545. >Rememberin' back to your friends an' that talent show, you guess you could be a heck of a lot worse.
  546. >You still ain't got a clue how Sweetie made an outfit with *five* legs!
  547. >Besides, you haven't so much as pricked Hematite once.
  548. >"Are you done yet?" she whines.
  549. "Almost."
  550. >Or touched her at all.
  551. >You've been feelin' better these past few days.
  552. >Not like how you used to be, but stronger.
  553. >Haven't felt like this in years.
  554. >Ain't used to it an' Hematite's so fragile you're worried you could break her by accident.
  555. "Okay, darlin' -"
  556. >Darlin'?
  557. >Since when've you called anypony that?
  558. >"Huh?"
  559. "- uh, go ahead an' take it off so I can get that last bit hemmed up."
  560. >The lil' filly shucks off the dress so fast you're scared for a sec' that it all fell apart on her.
  561. >You didn't think you were doin' *that* bad on the sewin'!
  562. >"We're not going to be late, are we?"
  563. "Course not. Party can't start without it's guest of honor."
  564. >Unless the dress *did* fall apart, but nah.
  565. >It's all still in one piece when you pick it up off the floor've her family's room.
  566. >Even if it *don't* really deserve to be called that.
  567. >You did the best you could with these rooms, same as you are now.
  568. >Well...
  569. >Hematite crowds in close an' watches as you stitch up the hem.
  570. >"Did you used to be a... a..."
  571. >The lil' filly screws up her face as she tries to remember the word.
  572. >"... a... seamstress?" she finely asks, so earnest you feel bad about the laugh her question shocks right outta you.
  573. "Heck no, I'm pretty bad at sewin'."
  574. >Could be worse, but...
  575. >You give the blue dress another look over an' sigh.
  576. >It ain't just the stitchin' or the design, though you're bad 'nough at both.
  577. >The dress is so plain it hurts to look at.
  578. >That ain't all. Blue just ain't her color an' you're pretty sure the cloth you're usin' used to be curtains.
  579. >Can't be sure 'cause you don't know where it came from, but it's all you got to work with 'less you wanna start cuttin' up somepony's sheets.
  580. >Pretty curtains or whatever though, an' what you did with 'em ain't half bad.
  581. >"Well..." the filly murmurs, "I think it's beautiful."
  582. >She's starin' at it like it's the honest truth, all wide-eyed an' shimmery.
  583. >Not surprisin'; she ain't never seen a dress 'fore.
  584. >There's maybe a few dozen coats stretched 'tween the lot've you an' that's 'bout it for the clothin' 'round here.
  585. "Thanks, but it really ain't. If Rarity were here..."
  586. >Y'almost hope Hematite never sees a real dress, 'cause it would just make her embarrassed at what she wore for her cuteceniera.
  587. >Almost enough to make you give up.
  588. >Her lil' filly face turns into a frown.
  589. "... it could be better is all Ah'm sayin'. Ah'm no good at this. Heck, considerin' the way you sewed up Silver, you'd probably be better at it than me."
  590. >"You didn't have to make me a dress," Hematite mumbles. "If it's making you feel bad, I don't need one."
  591. >Much as that dark, cowardly part've you wants take her up on that, you can't.
  592. "Course you do!"
  593. >You force a smile to your face an' continue with as much enthusiasm as you can muster - and more.
  594. "Gettin' your cutie mark only happens once in a filly's life!
  595. "An' it ain't like there's anything else for me to help out on. Roma's got the cake taken care of an' Maud's doin' the decorations.
  596. "Since nopony else was makin' you a dress... well... I gotta do somethin'."
  597. >You shrug an'... keep smilin'.
  598. "Ain't nothin' else for me to do."
  599. >Gotta make yourself useful 'round here or there ain't no reason for him *not* to sell you.
  600. >More importantly, ain't no reason for you to believe he *shouldn't* an' you won't let yourself go back to feelin' that way.
  601. >Your wishes only go so far. Rest takes effort.
  602. >'sides, she deserves it.
  603. >"Well..." Hematite mumbles an' comes towards you. "Thank you."
  604. >She tries to give your leg a hug, but you jerk back.
  605. "Careful! Ah don't want you gettin' stuck by a needle on your big day!"
  606. >"Oh, sorry."
  607. >She tries to smile an sits back on her cot.
  608. >An' fidgets.
  609. >Poor filly.
  610. >You know just what that's like.
  612. >Despite what you told her, the dress ain't all you do, though. Not really.
  613. >But none of it counts. It's just helpin' out.
  614. >While Marble's fussin' over her daughter an' gettin' her into the dress, you're helpin' Maud with the finishin' touches with the streamers.
  615. >She can't quite get the 'em into place on her own, but one good kick an' you've got 'em sailin' over the double-beamed rafters overhead.
  616. >But that's just helpin'. Her aim ain't as good as yours is all.
  617. >Roma's a decent cook, but she's never decorated a cake 'fore.
  618. >Poor mare's been cookin' up bulk meals for two hundred ponies these last three years. Simple stuff, easy to make.
  619. >Easy to get the supplies for.
  620. >Not quite the same.
  621. >Before that, she was just another small-time farmer. Worked her little field, sold her crop - an' what she made've it - at the market.
  622. >That's all that took to make her the cook 'round here - nopony else had so much as worked as a server in a restaurant.
  623. >You've done it before, though. All of it, even decoratin' a cake.
  624. >Done a lot of things when you were tryin' to get your cutie mark.
  625. >A lot of experience, though little in each subject.
  626. >You do your best, though.
  627. >Still don't count.
  628. >Ain't got any of the fancy tools normally used, but you do your best 'cause how're things gonna get any better if you don't?
  629. >That's 'bout what you can say.
  630. >You've all done your best, even if you wanna do nothin' more than crawl in a dark hole an' cry yourself to sleep, 'cause none've it's good enough.
  631. >No tellin' Hematite that, though.
  632. >Ain't never seen a filly so happy at her own cuteceniera.
  633. >Every lil' thing has her in awe, from the paper streamers an' cheap party hats he bought to the thin sheet cakes Roma an' Marble bring over.
  634. >Even claps her forehooves together excitedly when she reads what you wrote on top in pink frosting.
  635. >Ain't never seen a filly wear her dress so well either, with so much delight, not even Sweetie or Diamond or any of your other friends who could do it like they were *born* to it.
  636. >That ain't pride talkin', either, 'cause every time you take your eyes off her smile to look at the dress, all you feel is disappointment.
  637. >Should've been better.
  638. >She deserves better.
  639. >Well... y'all did the best you could.
  640. >An' the whole group turned out, even Silver, though she can barely stand.
  641. >Miracle she can do that at all.
  642. >An' him - he's here too.
  643. >Probably the first human ever to attend a cuteceniera, but nopony seems to notice or mind.
  644. >Ain't no one payin' attention to anypony but Hematite.
  645. >It's the biggest cuteceniera you've ever seen.
  646. >Two hundred ponies plus.
  647. >Even more'n came to yours an' Sweetie's an' Scootaloo's.
  648. >Well, maybe not, 'cause Pinkie always seemed to round up an impossible crowd, but that weren't the *whole* town, not *all* of Ponyville.
  649. >This *is*, even if it ain't as many ponies.
  650. >More impressive, in its own way.
  651. >You sit off in the far end of the hall an' let it happen.
  652. >Just watch as the foals push some tables around to make room to play with the games you'd made up for 'em a long while back.
  653. >Simple things since you didn't have much to work with, a little ring toss sets and the like.
  654. >You haven't seen the foals playin' with 'em for a long time.
  655. >Figured they'd -
  656. >"Hey."
  657. >You look up to see him standin' over you with a plate in each hand.
  658. >From the angle you're sittin' you can't see what's on them, but you know anyway 'fore he says anything.
  659. >"I brought cake. Mind if I sit down?"
  660. >You shrug.
  661. >It's the smartest answer you can think of.
  662. >Not too eager, though you're happy he's talkin' to you.
  663. >Guess he ain't too resentful you told him you didn't wanna be sold.
  664. >Not too angry, though you're fair certain this ain't goin' anywhere good.
  665. >One've you's gonna say somethin' that hurts the other. That's just how these things go.
  666. >"Thanks. I saw you hadn't gotten any cake and... well..."
  667. >He lifts one've the plates like he's givin' a toast.
  668. >"... it's going fast. Those kids... damn, it's like they'd never seen a cake before."
  669. "Most of 'em haven't, you know, or were too young to remember it."
  670. >He kinda frowns, 'fore settin' the plates down on the table an' sittin' beside you.
  671. >"That's a depressing thought," he sighs. "Should I...?"
  672. "Take those plates back an' let the foals get 'em?"
  673. >He nods an' smiles, though the expression looks equal parts pained an' hopeful.
  674. >"Are you back to being able to read my mind?"
  675. >You shrug.
  676. >"I mean, it used to be you and I -
  677. >You shake your head.
  678. "Don't put it back. Too much cake's bad for growin' foals."
  679. >He's only caught off for a sec before that smile is back an' he's pushin' the plates towards you.
  680. >"Then which do you want? I brought you a choice between chocolate or lemon."
  681. >Both smell over-sweet, so strong you can't even catch hints of chocolate.
  682. "Lemon."
  683. >Can at least smell the fruit over the sweetener.
  684. >"Sure thing."
  685. >He slides that one all the way over to you an' pulls the chocolate back for himself.
  686. >Not long ago you would have said it didn't matter.
  687. >More'n that, it really wouldn't've.
  688. >But after those letters, you...
  689. >Somepony's gotta try and you're glad you made the choice you did.
  690. >It almost tastes like real cake.
  691. >Don't regret it at all.
  692. >Maybe it's little greedy, but a pony's gotta care for herself too.
  693. >That weren't in the letters, but that's how you ended up the way you did - bein' selfless to a fault.
  694. >If askin' him not to sell you an' takin' a piece of cake is the worst you do, then that ain't so bad.
  695. >Texture's flat an' solid, but you could swear Roma must've used actual lemons in it.
  696. >Were a few left, you think.
  697. >Doubt that's true with the chocolate cake, though he don't seem to think anything's wrong it.
  698. >He's enjoyin' every bite in a way the foals could only *hope* to.
  699. >Maybe that's 'cause he remembers cake an' the happier days it came with.
  700. >You're tryin' to too, but it hurts.
  701. >That's a good sign, ain't it?
  702. >That you're feelin' somethin'?
  703. >Thinkin' about your friends an' Pinkie Pie's parties an' Sugar Cube Corner?
  704. >It hurts but it's better'n feelin' sorry for yourself.
  705. >"This is the best day ever!" a lil' filly shouts, givin' you less'n a second's warnin' to snap out've your memories as she hurls yourself at you.
  706. >Hematite tackles you 'bout your barrel an' -
  707. >An' -
  708. >As her forelegs touch you -
  709. >It's too soon!
  710. >Can't be!
  711. >The baby *kicks*.
  712. >You don't know what that feels like and you know it ain't possible, but -
  713. >The feelin' that runs through your belly as Hematite nuzzles it can't be anything but!
  714. >Ain't possible!
  715. >But you know what you felt an' it weren't just the lil' filly huggin' you tight.
  716. >"Thank you, Apple Bloom!" Hematite cries into your chest. "I've never had so much fun! I love my dress and the cake and can we have cake again -"
  717. >She squeezes tighter an' -
  718. >The baby!
  719. >Sudden panic seizes you.
  720. >If it can kick - if she squeezes too hard -
  721. >You go to push Hematite away, but her auntie Maud's already pullin' her back effortlessly.
  722. >"It's not nice to jump on other ponies like that," she's tellin' her niece.
  723. >There's more an' you think Hematite tries to apologize, but you're havin' a hard time listenin'.
  724. >The baby kicked.
  725. >It ain't been long enough.
  726. >But what else'd it be?
  727. >Weren't just an ordinary hug from Hematite, you know that.
  728. >You'd almost dismiss it as a strong static shock, like when you were fillies an' you'd shuffle your hooves on a thick carpet, but there ain't any carpet here!
  729. >An' if her dress'd do it, you'd have felt it when you're sewin' it up an' you weren't zapped even once!
  730. >There's a hand on your shoulder.
  731. >A *hand*.
  732. >His.
  733. >"Hey," he whispers into your ear, "you okay? Because you don't look okay."
  734. "The baby - the baby *kicked*."
  735. >You mean to whisper, but he ain't the only one starin' now.
  736. >"That's... um... you're wrong," he says softly. "It's too early for that."
  737. >"What exactly is he talking about?" Maud asks. "You're pregnant? When did that...?"
  738. >You've never seen her at a loss for words. Silent, sure, but at a loss?
  739. >Never.
  740. >His eyes flicker between you and her, then out over the hall.
  741. >Ears're turned your way.
  742. >"Um... well... I didn't -"
  743. "Ah'm pregnant."
  744. >He flinches an' swears under his breath.
  745. >"I didn't think that was possible," Maud responds flatly. "How did that happen?"
  746. >Now it ain't just ears.
  747. >Some ponies are openly starin', jaws open.
  748. >Not all.
  749. >Some've those jaws are clenched tight.
  750. >Some ponies eyes ain't open wide in surprise - they're narrowed.
  751. >Some ears are flat back against their heads.
  752. >You ain't the only one to notice.
  753. >He's tryin' to play it cool, but he's nervous. Scared even.
  754. >The hand he put on you is tight, almost 'nough to hurt.
  755. "This ain't the time to talk about that."
  756. >It ain't.
  757. >You wave Hematite over - she don't know what's goin' on an doesn't hesitate to shrug free of her aunt easy enough - an' you hug her tight.
  758. "Today's Hematite's day and we need to celebrate her cutie mark! Y'all can be happy for me tomorrow."
  759. >Maud raises one eyebrow.
  760. >"So... you *are* happy?"
  761. "Uh-huh!"
  762. >You... you really are.
  763. >That's...
  764. >Weird.
  765. >Ain't gonna complain though.
  766. >You hug the filly tighter an' smile.
  768. >Before Apple Bloom's visit, you never once thought of writing to the princess.
  769. >And now here you are with a pen in your mouth when you should be watching the shop.
  770. >No customers at the moment, so no harm no foul, right?
  771. >Well... maybe. You could find *something* to do if you wanted to and leave this for later.
  772. >Not as if you don't have plenty of time to write to her.
  773. >Heck, when he heard about the whole letter thing, Bill urged you to, but nah.
  774. >It's... well... it's *stupid*.
  775. >She's *dead*.
  776. >You were *there*.
  777. >Everything went pitch black and there was screaming and the next morning - when there *was* a morning -
  778. >There's no reason to think about it.
  779. >Everything's so much better now.
  780. >You've got a home and a full stomach every night. Everyone likes to say the camps were horrible - and they were - but you didn't always have those *before* the portals opened.
  781. >And there's Bill. You wish you had someone like him back in Equestria.
  782. >You know you've got it good here.
  783. >*Life* is good.
  784. >And Apple Bloom is alive. Depressed and a major downer, but alive - and as long as she's alive things can get better for her.
  785. >So's Sweetie, though she looked more resolute than anything. Like Apple Bloom used to be.
  786. >They're both alive and where there's life, there's hope.
  787. >You hadn't really been sure about either of them anymore.
  788. >And Rainbow Dash was on the TV yesterday, her and Fluttershy.
  789. >The humans were... what was the phrase they used?
  790. >Whatever, you can't remember.
  791. >Doesn't matter.
  792. >Princess Cadence must be happy. Fluttershy's going home.
  793. >Dash isn't, but that's because she's brave!
  794. >She's staying behind so her friend can go to Equestria.
  795. >Any idiot could see that, even though no one said it.
  796. >You've not the same filly you used to be - or so you like to think - but a spark of that flares back to life every time you think about what Dash did - and what she's doing.
  797. >She's so heroic.
  798. >None of that has anything to do with the pen in your mouth.
  799. >That's all... um... it's all *big* stuff. Princess stuff. She already knows about it.
  800. >Not really - she's *dead* - but if she wasn't she wouldn't need you to write to her about it.
  801. >Same with Marble's filly getting her cutie mark. That's *big*. Bigger than anything else.
  802. >She knows. Or would.
  803. >No, you want to tell her... you're not quite sure.
  804. >There's something and it's right there! Right on the edge of your brain and you *know* that's not right and the saying is different but it's right anyway!
  805. >You've gotten as far as "Dear Princess Celestia," but that's it.
  806. >It's not your nature to give up, but that'd be the smartest thing to do because what's the point? Derpy is going to take your letter, read it, and burn it.
  807. >If you wanted to talk to Derpy, you could just... you know... *talk* to her. She's by often enough these days.
  808. >You don't stop, though.
  809. >There's something you want to write, even if you can't figure out *what*.
  810. >You almost start telling her about Bill, because she should know about him and how nice he is - him and most of the humans you meet.
  811. >But that's big, too. Princess level stuff. She'd know that not all humans were bad.
  812. >It's...
  813. >... well...
  814. >... there's always good and bad, right?
  815. >Good dragons and bad dragons, good ponies and bad ponies, good humans and... well...
  816. >... guys like Sterling.
  817. >They never lasted and they never will.
  818. >Somehow they always lose.
  819. >The princess knows that, though. Knew that.
  820. >Would have.
  821. >Must have.
  822. >You don't need to write to her about that.
  823. >The shop bell rings and you let the pen drop to the counter.
  824. >First things first. Can't slack off on your job.
  825. >Bill's depending on you.
  826. "Anything I can help you - oh. Hey, Derpy."
  827. >"Hi," she smiles back with just her head poking around the shop's door. "I was on my way to drop off some mail at the Stables and thought I'd see if you had anything."
  828. "Well..."
  829. >She squeezes through the door without opening it all the way and comes up to the register.
  830. >Derpy stands up on her hind legs and leans against the counter, putting her almost at the same height as you on your stool.
  831. >"Oh!" she gasps and giggles as she sees your half-assed attempt at a letter "Did I interrupt you? I can wait until you're done."
  832. "Nah."
  833. >You roll your eyes at yourself and sigh.
  834. "I'm not getting anywhere because I don't know what to write."
  835. >You shrug - shoulders, wings, and all.
  836. "Maybe I'll have it done when you come back."
  837. >"Is it for one of the mares at the Stables? Because if it is, I'll wait. I don't get a chance to go by there often."
  838. "No, it's for..."
  839. >You're *not* blushing!
  840. >And you're not hiding it behind the letter!
  841. >You're just holding it up for her to see!
  842. >Yeah! That's all!
  843. >"The princess!?" Derpy giggles, just like you knew she would. "You've never written to her before!"
  844. "There has to be a first time for everything, right?"
  845. >You shrug again, just the shoulders this time.
  846. >"Is it about Hematite?" she asks excitedly. "Nurse Redheart wrote to the princess, too - *and* for the first time ever! - right after -"
  847. >You shake your head and she stops as suddenly as if she'd flown into a wall.
  848. "I don't know what it's about, Derpy. I felt like writing her, that's all."
  849. >"To say hi?"
  850. >You smirk and nod and roll yours eyes because well, yeah, that's a better explanation than anything you can figure out.
  851. "I guess."
  852. >Basically, right?
  853. "I don't really have anything to tell her, but... I just kinda feel like it. Stop by on your way back and I'll have it ready."
  854. >"Okay!"
  855. >Derpy smiles and reaches over the counter for a - um...
  856. >Whatever.
  857. >You let her have it, like you always do.
  858. >She can get really touchy-feely at times and it still weirds you out but it's just a hug.
  859. >Feels odd, though.
  860. >Makes your feathers stand on end and sends a shiver down your spine.
  861. >"I better get going," Derpy says after a second and lets you go. "All of the worst people will be... um... busy."
  862. >She blushes and looks down.
  863. "I heard."
  864. >You don't exactly know *what* you heard, but it was enough that you didn't want to hear more.
  865. >Whatever those two customers were talking about yesterday, it wasn't anything good.
  866. "Be safe."
  867. >"I'll be fine."
  868. >She pats your hoof just as a cloud rolls past, the light streaming through the windows dimming for a moment before coming back brighter than before.
  869. >"There's not much traffic on the highway and if there is I can always fly over."
  870. >She beats her wings once - enough to flip herself away from the counter with a giggle.
  871. >That's not what either of you meant and you both know it.
  872. "Okay."
  873. >You've got to laugh.
  874. >Derpy's got the widest shit-eating grin you never expected to see from her.
  875. >The expression would look more at home on Dash's face.
  876. "If you do, don't let the sheriff's men see you."
  877. >She sticks out her tongue and half-flaps her wings again.
  878. >"They wouldn't beat up the pastor's pony, would they?" she giggles.
  879. >You both also know the answer to that.
  880. >"Don't worry, I'll be careful."
  882. >Derpy's not gone for more than a minute before you realize what you wanted to tell the princess.
  883. >As Apple Bloom would say, in that low growl of hers, that's just the way of things, ain't it.
  884. >You pick up the pen in your mouth and start writing.
  885. "For the first time in years, I'm not just happy. I'm hopeful. Things will get better."
  886. >You look at the page for a moment and snort.
  887. >The crumpled up page is flying towards the trashcan seconds later.
  888. >Yes! Nothing but net!
  889. >She doesn't need that letter. It's big stuff too.
  890. >She'd already know.
  891. >Whatever. You'll think of something to say.
  892. >Something better than "Hi princess! I'm sorry you're dead and that I haven't written to you ever."
  893. >Maybe... Apple Bloom's foal?
  894. >It's just a tiny thing yet.
  895. >A small thing.
  896. >Something worth writing about.
  897. >Yeah.
  899. >Between Apple Bloom's news and Moondancer's attitude, you're on edge for the rest of the party - for what little of it you stay.
  900. >You slip out at the first opportunity to disappear unnoticed - though that goes out the window when Hematite notices you trying to leave.
  901. >The filly practically jumps into your arms to hug you and thank you for today.
  902. >You leave right after - and Moondancer is on your heels.
  903. >Hurray.
  904. "You can stay."
  905. >"I'd rather not," she answers - a little too late. You figured that her following you twenty or so feet out of the door *was* her answer. "We have too much to do."
  906. >True enough.
  907. >If it was any other pony, you would have thought she was lying - that this was about Apple Bloom's foal.
  908. >Not her, though.
  909. >You shrug and slow down so she can catch up.
  910. >If it was any other pony you might have been worried, but not her.
  911. >Moondancer already knows what you did.
  912. >If she was going to kick you to death or turn you inside out she probably would have done it by now.
  913. >"So," the mare at your side mumbles as you start up the hill, "pregnant, huh?"
  914. >And you thought you were safe.
  915. "Yeah, um..."
  916. >Silly you.
  917. >"That cost your uncle quite a bit," she continues. "Silver saw it in the financials and asked me about it."
  918. "What did you tell her?"
  919. >"That it wasn't... your fault."
  920. "Ah."
  921. >What else can you say to that?
  922. >Call her a liar?
  923. >Moondancer's a smart mare. She knows she lied to Silver.
  924. >That's fine, so long as she doesn't lie to you.
  925. >You can't take that again.
  926. >"Silver hasn't told anypony else if that's what you're worried about. She won't."
  927. "Well..."
  928. >Moondancer looks genuinely...
  929. >Grumpy.
  930. >Still grumpy.
  931. >A little pissy, but mostly grumpy, with a touch of concern.
  932. "... yeah. A little."
  933. >"Were you concerned we might riot?" she snorts.
  934. "To be honest, I didn't think about how the rest of you would react until..."
  935. >You absently gesture back towards the dorms.
  936. "Mostly I've been..."
  937. >"Too busy feeling bad for yourself to think about that."
  938. >You chuckle and shake your head.
  939. "Yeah, but lately I've had too much on my plate to think about that at all. If anything, what worried me most was..."
  940. >You sigh.
  941. "... was what I did to Apple Bloom. But even that..."
  942. >You shrug.
  943. >Not going to pretend to be a better person than you are.
  944. >You demanded honesty from her and you'll give her the same.
  945. >Moondancer nods and frowns.
  946. >"I know," she agrees. "You've been busy."
  947. "Who isn't?"
  948. >"You've been *keeping* yourself busy - so you didn't have to think about it."
  949. >Ah.
  950. >That's... yeah.
  951. >Maybe.
  952. >You shrug again and Moondancer mirrors the gesture.
  953. "Maybe."
  954. >"Maybe."
  955. >You're almost to the house when she speaks again.
  956. >"I know it's impossible, but I'd like to get a look at Mr. Stefford's records. I was shocked at how much your uncle paid and I have to wonder just how big a business that is."
  957. "What?"
  958. >You have to look at her, but she seems genuine.
  959. >"Forced breeding," she explains, completely missing what has you surprised. "I wouldn't have thought it could possibly be worthwhile outside of... singular circumstances."
  960. "Seriously? You seriously want to know about that?"
  961. >"Of course. It would be interesting to know how many other mares he's been paid to - to inseminate."
  962. >Despite stumbling there at the end, her tone never wavers.
  963. >She really does.
  964. "You're a bit fucked up."
  965. >"Academic curiosity doesn't mean I condone it."
  966. "Still a bit fucked up."
  967. >Moondancer snorts loudly and you nearly jump out of your skin.
  968. >For a moment there you had forgotten that she was a unicorn - off her meds and short tempered.
  969. >You don't die a horrible death in the next few seconds, so it's probably all okay.
  970. >"Maybe," she finally mumbles, "but not as fucked up as what you did."
  971. >You deserve that.
  972. "Fair enough."
  973. >"Morality aside," she says softly, "it can't *really* be legal, can it?"
  974. "Legal enough out here."
  975. >A saying about sausage and how it's made comes to mind but it all seems rather - you'd rather get back to work.
  976. >You shrug and quicken your pace.
  977. >There's an awful lot you need to do to fix what you did - not that you ever can, but you still have to try.
  978. >"So we're both fucked up," Moondancer pants as she breaks into a trot to keep up. "Maybe this time will get lucky."
  979. "Huh?"
  980. >"Maybe this time two wrongs *will* make a right."
  981. >It's not that funny, but you still laugh.
  982. >So does she.
  984. >Better to smile an' nod than make a scene.
  985. >Ain't no way you can escape easily as him an' blowin' up at anypony'd just make things worse.
  986. >Despite what you said 'bout it bein' Hematite's day, other ponies keep findin' excuses to come up to you an' ask questions.
  987. >Everypony knows you ain't been around for a few weeks.
  988. >Ain't no secret where you've been. Up at the house, with *him*.
  989. >An' everypony knows you gone into town.
  990. >Everypony's got a theory.
  991. >How it happened.
  992. >How long ago.
  993. >Who the father is.
  994. >If it was... him.
  995. >Grassy Field least has the decency to blush as she asks. Not everypony did.
  996. >"I've known for ages you had a crush on him," she says, nudgin' your barrel in what she means to be a playful way. "But is that *possible*?"
  997. >You shake your head an' let her know you ain't gonna answer, but she don't have none of that.
  998. >"I mean... I know plenty of that went on in the camps," the mare continues straight on like she's wearin' blinders, "but I never heard of anypony getting pregnant!"
  999. "Yeah, me neither."
  1000. >"Maybe it was the power of love!" she squeals happily.
  1001. >You -
  1002. >- huh.
  1003. >To your relief, she takes your silence as some kinda answer an' leaves you in peace - 'til the next pony finds an excuse to ask you questions you can't answer.
  1004. >Got too much pride to let 'em know.
  1005. >That's your burden, yours an' your family's - AJ had the same problem.
  1006. >An' you know what?
  1007. >You're good with that.
  1008. >Pride'll keep your nose in the air - it'll keep your head up above the water.
  1009. >It'll keep you goin' when this new hope you've got fails.
  1010. >An' it will, but that's okay.
  1011. >Got your pride back an' you're gonna keep it.
  1012. >You gotta think about Diamond Tiara an' *her* pride.
  1013. >Know where she is now.
  1014. >Know what she's doin'.
  1015. >Heard it from Silver.
  1016. >An' you bet she'll be okay.
  1017. >Pride'll keep anypony goin', long after they should've fallen down.
  1018. >Makes you smile.
  1019. >The mare talkin' to you mumbles somethin' you don't quite hear an' shuffles off.
  1020. >Ain't to long 'fore another finds some reason to sit down 'side you.
  1021. >You don't answer nothin'.
  1022. >Just smile an' nod an' think 'bout what Grassy said.
  1023. >True enough you never heard of nopony gettin' knocked up by a human, or the other way 'round.
  1024. >An' if you were really curious, could ask Silver. She'd know.
  1025. >Got too much common sense for that, though.
  1026. >It'd be rude.
  1027. >But that ain't what got you tied up inside.
  1028. >It's what she said 'bout love.
  1029. >You lived in Ponyville - most've you here did - an' you've seen what love an' friendship an' hope can do.
  1030. >Seen Twilight an' all the rest do the impossible.
  1031. >Changeling go from bein' monsters to bein' your friends.
  1032. >He's - was - your friend.
  1033. >More'n that, he gave you hope.
  1034. >If you'd waited -
  1035. >*If* you'd said no - if you hadn't let your loneliness win out an' had *listened* to him, if you'd known what he was askin'...
  1036. >Hadn't pretended he was askin' somethin' else.
  1037. >Hadn't deluded yourself an' found another mare to do it, would it have worked?
  1038. >If you'd told him how you felt could he have been the one instead?
  1039. >Would the baby in your belly be *his*?
  1040. >Could love do that?
  1041. >Is it -
  1042. >You suddenly realize somethin'.
  1043. >Don't matter.
  1044. >If you love him enough an' he loves you back, then the baby *would* be his, wouldn't it?
  1045. >Are either've you capable of doin' that anymore?
  1046. >But that don't matter either.
  1047. >It's *your* foal.
  1048. >Ain't nothin' that matters more'n that an' ain't nopony can take that away from you.
  1049. >Not it an' certainly not him.
  1050. >You're gonna tell him. Today.
  1051. >An' whatever he says ain't gonna change things, but it's gonna get said.
  1052. >You don't make Hematite tackle you like he did.
  1053. >Instead, you go up to her - ain't hard to find her in the crowd, even though she's just a little thing.
  1054. >You're thinkin' 'bout what to say, but it all goes blank when you reach her.
  1055. >Uhhhhm...
  1056. >The filly's head turns your way an' you ain't really gotta say anything, do you?
  1057. >She squeals happily as you hug her an' then a little more frantically as you nuzzle her forehead.
  1058. >Little filly legs kick about as she laughs so hard you join her.
  1059. >She's pantin' an' breathless when you set her back down an' can barely squeak out "Are you coming back tomorrow?"
  1060. "'Course I will."
  1061. >But why?
  1062. "What's happenin' tomorrow?"
  1063. >"I... um... I don't know."
  1064. >Good enough.
  1065. "I'll see you tomorrow, Hematite."
  1067. "Between those two aisle down there."
  1068. >The customer looks where you're pointing.
  1069. "About halfway down, on your left."
  1070. >"Ah, got it," he says with a nod. "Thanks, Orange."
  1071. "No prob! Lemme know if you need anymore help."
  1072. >"Sure thing."
  1073. >He tips his hat - JUST LIKE YOU SEE IN THOSE WESTERN MOVIES! - and - and! - you *gotta* use this word - *moseys* along.
  1074. >You've been out in the country for *years* now and this is the first cowboy you've seen! A real cowboy!
  1075. >He's got the hat and everything!
  1076. >And a revolver on his belt!
  1077. >A *real* revolver!
  1078. >You didn't think people were allowed to do that, but he is!
  1079. >Just like a cowboy!
  1080. >You kinda want to chase after him and ask him stuff, but - nah.
  1081. >Gotta play it cool.
  1082. >Heh.
  1083. >"Orange."
  1084. >Bill should be back soon - you check the clock on the register.
  1085. >Yeah.
  1086. >Soon.
  1087. >He said he'd be back around two.
  1088. >*Then* you can go talk to the cowboy!
  1089. >Honestly, you didn't even think they were real. Like... orcs and elves and stuff.
  1090. >But he's got the walk right!
  1091. >And the gun!
  1092. >And the hat!
  1093. >And -
  1094. >The bell chimes and you reluctantly turn your attention back to your job - but it's just Derpy.
  1095. >Okay, that sounds wrong, even in your own head.
  1096. >It's Derpy!
  1097. >That's better.
  1098. >She gives you a tired smile and comes up to the counter.
  1099. "How did it go?"
  1100. >Couldn't have been too bad, but some of her feathers are out of place.
  1101. >Probably would look fine to a human - or even a unicorn or earth pony - but you can tell *something* happened.
  1102. >"It was okay," Derpy sighs. "Did you finish your letter?"
  1103. "Yep!"
  1104. >You - wait, where *did* you put that?
  1105. "Uh... gimme a sec - ah!"
  1106. >Tucked up beside the register.
  1107. >You slide it across the counter and Derpy sticks it into her mailbag.
  1108. "So..."
  1109. >Derpy blinks twice - her eyes pointing in brand new directions each time they open.
  1110. >If you weren't struggling so hard to think of a way to ask, you'd laugh.
  1111. >Heck with it.
  1112. "Derpy, who's left?"
  1113. >"Huh?"
  1114. "At the stables."
  1115. >She shakes her head.
  1116. >"Bill doesn't like me talking to you about -"
  1117. "I don't need to know what happens there, Derpy. I'm just asking who's still there."
  1118. >"I... don't really know. I saw Cherry Berry and Fond Feather. Most of the ponies decided to sleep in today, so I left the letters with them. They said they would deliver them for me."
  1119. "Ah..."
  1120. >"I wish I knew where everypony was," Derpy continues, dropping her head to the counter and letting it fall to one side.
  1121. >One eye looks up at you, but the other is firmly staring at the counter.
  1122. "I thought your owner got you that list from the agency?"
  1123. >"Samuel did, but only the original placement records."
  1124. >She sighs and lets her face melt a little into the counter.
  1125. >"They're basically three years out of date - and they weren't all that accurate to begin with."
  1126. "Seriously?"
  1127. >"According to them, Babs Seed is on the same farm as Apple Bloom."
  1128. "Huuuuuh."
  1129. >Weren't computers supposed to make record keeping better?
  1130. >You're pretty sure that's the case.
  1131. "Well... we could call her and ask?"
  1132. >Derpy sighs and wobbles her head a bit, kinda like she's shaking it but not quite since it's on the counter.
  1133. >"We both know she didn't make it out of the camp."
  1134. "Not about Babs. I mean for everyone on the farm. And maybe she can tell us who's at the neighboring places."
  1135. >"She told me everyone she remembered when she was here," Derpy answers, "but -"
  1136. "She might not have remembered everyone! She had a lot on her mind."
  1137. >"I guess that's true," Derpy says with a little more strength. "Yeah, we should!"
  1138. >You have to think a bit before you can remember the number - it'd be so much easier if Bill was here with his cellphone - he has it saved on there - but no.
  1139. >It's all good. You remember the number eventually and remember it right.
  1140. >You dial from the store phone - because there's no reason putting it off, right? - and a familiar voice answers.
  1141. >Not her, though. Him. Her owner. Whatshisname.
  1142. >He's busy - and so is she, at Hematite's cuteceniera - but he says he'll send Bill an email later today or tomorrow.
  1143. >Good enough!
  1144. >That makes Derpy smile again and after you hang up the two of you talk a bit.
  1145. >Eventually the conversation turns to the other major owners in the area and which ones might be willing to provide lists of their ponies.
  1146. >Most are close by and only own a handful - and most of those Derpy already knows about. Exactly who's where and everything.
  1147. >It's not a very big town, though it's growing every day.
  1148. >More and more people keep moving here, though you can't see why.
  1149. >It's not very exciting.
  1150. >Neither is the conversation after a while.
  1151. >Talking about doing things isn't anywhere near as fun as *doing* things.
  1152. >Even Derpy agrees.
  1153. >She's just about to leave when Bill comes in.
  1154. "Finally you're back!"
  1155. >"Sorry," he responds. "I got caught up dealing with something."
  1156. "You should have called! What if -"
  1157. >He shakes his head and points at you - uh, *behind* you.
  1158. >Oh heck.
  1159. >The cowboy.
  1160. >You'd forgotten about him!
  1161. >He's leaning against the other counter - with the trailer hitch in his hand.
  1162. >Crap!
  1163. >How long did you make him wait?
  1164. >Why didn't he say anything!?
  1165. >"Don't you think you need to take care of the customer?" Bill asks. "Instead of ignoring him."
  1166. "Sorry, I -"
  1167. >"Nothing like that," the cowboy chuckles. "I was enjoying listening to their conversation, but... uh..."
  1168. >He straightens up and adjusts his hat.
  1169. >"... I do have to ask, did you leave your pony all alone? I mean, no one's here watching her?"
  1170. >"She's pretty good with the customers," Bill answers. "*Usually*."
  1171. "Always!"
  1172. >Usually always.
  1173. >"You didn't have any trouble, did you?" Bill keeps on, before turning his head back to you. "If you were watching movies again in -"
  1174. >"No, not at all," the cowboy quickly interrupts. "No trouble. Orange is doing great. I just found it odd is all. Same with... Derpy, is it? Pretty odd seeing a pegasus doing mail delivery all on her own."
  1175. >"Just for other ponies," Derpy says. "It's my job!"
  1176. >The cowboy smirks and has this tiny little snort.
  1177. >"Must be safer for ponies around here than I'd heard."
  1178. >That makes you wonder what exactly he *has* heard, but Bill has his don't-ask-questions look on.
  1179. >More stuff he doesn't want you to know.
  1180. >But it's your town too!"
  1181. >"We have our issues," he says to the cowboy, "but I trust my pony to look after herself. She knows what to do if someone tries to start something."
  1182. >"Huh," the cowboy hums and nods to himself. "I heard Humans First were pretty active around here. Didn't they kill something like twenty-three ponies?"
  1183. >"That was early on, not long after the work relocation."
  1184. >"And how many since then?"
  1185. >No one answers.
  1186. >How would you know?
  1187. >Every time something comes up on the news, Bill always turns it off!
  1188. >"Must be something going on around here," the cowboy mumbles. "Wasn't there a man killed by his ponies just a few months back?"
  1189. >Bill shakes his head.
  1190. >"That had nothing to do with those assholes. It was an honest mistake."
  1191. >"A mistake?"
  1192. >"He took the unicorn off its suppressants."
  1193. >"Doesn't sound like a mistake to me, but I suppose it's at least as much his fault as the pony's. Better than a race war, I suppose."
  1194. >He yawns and pushes the trailer hitch towards you.
  1195. >"Well, I guess that's enough of indulging my curiosity. Think you can ring me up, Orange?"
  1196. "Sure, it'll be... um..."
  1197. >"Yeah," the cowboy drawls as you fumble with the register, "I might be moving into the area sometime soon. I want to make sure my pony's safe."
  1198. >"Oh, you've got a pony of your own?" Bill asks. "Did you leave her in your truck? I bet she'd love to meet these two."
  1199. >He must be warming up to the cowboy.
  1200. >Cool!
  1201. >"Nah, Orange -"
  1202. >You look up, but he's still talking to Bill.
  1203. >"- is back home taking care of other things. Uh -"
  1204. >He looks down at you and tips his hat.
  1205. >"- sorry, miss. I meant *my* Orange. Don't worry, if I come back she'll be with me."
  1206. "Awesome!"
  1207. >You smile and push the hitch back towards him.
  1208. "That'll be... um... $52.98."
  1209. >"Ouch," he grunts and reaches into his pocket. "I don't think I'll ever get used to these post-war prices."
  1210. >Seems normal to you, but you don't know what the pre-war prices were like, so...
  1211. >Still seems normal to you.
  1212. >He takes his change and receipt with a smile.
  1213. >"Well, see you around Orange," he says and tips his hat again to you, then to Bill as he walks around to the other counter. "Sir."
  1214. >"Name's Bill."
  1215. >The cowboy shakes Bill's outstretched hand.
  1216. >"Call me Marshal. And you -"
  1217. >The man pats Derpy's head like she's a child.
  1218. >She doesn't seem to mind.
  1219. >"- you be careful."
  1220. >Wait. Shouldn't a cowboy be talking more... well... *country*? Like Apple Bloom?
  1221. >Huuuuuh.
  1223. >"Believe me," says the voice on the other end of the phone, "it's a good thing."
  1224. >"Yeah," Da grunts. "Thanks for the heads up."
  1225. >He hits a button an' takes it off speaker just 'fore you can hear the other man hang up.
  1226. >You look at your coffee, your empty plate, anywhere but him.
  1227. >Is he angry?
  1228. >"Shit."
  1229. >Yeah, he's angry.
  1230. >Who's he gonna take it out on today?
  1231. >You or the ponies?
  1232. >Risk a quick glance up and he's smilin'.
  1233. >You.
  1234. >That's... good.
  1235. >Won't be too bad.
  1236. >He's smilin' and shakin' his head.
  1237. >"I didn't fucking believe it," Da sighs and pushes his plate away, "but you were right. They're finishing up the road after all."
  1238. "Good, I guess."
  1239. >"And they're taking some of our land along with it. Eminent domain bullshit, so we don't have a choice but at least we'll be getting paid for it - market value which isn't saying much. Real money and not bonds, at least."
  1240. >You nod, unsure where he's goin' with this.
  1241. >"They want a half-acre of our least productive land right along the road - and your *boyfriend* -"
  1242. "Who?"
  1243. >"You damn well know who," Da snaps. "He's to give up a matching parcel across the other side. Government wants to build a rest stop."
  1244. >He waits for you to say somethin'.
  1245. "Makes sense."
  1246. >Still silent.
  1247. "It'll be a six, seven hour drive going the slow way from the city into town."
  1248. >"Closer to seven," Da corrects. "There's a man coming through in a day or two to talk to us about this and I think it'd be best if we already had some land picked out. Call your boyfriend and get him down to the road."
  1249. "Where? It's a long road."
  1250. >Splits your two properties the entire length, after all.
  1251. >"How about... the northwest cattle tank. We don't have any cattle anymore, so we don't have any use for the land."
  1252. >You nod obediently.
  1253. >"Don't take too long about it, either. I don't know exactly when this man'll be here, so the sooner we're done, the better. I don't want to give him any excuse to wander around on our land."
  1254. >And see what happens here, though he don't say that part.
  1255. "Yes, Da."
  1256. >He don't think there's nothin' wrong with it, after all.
  1257. >You excuse yourself from the table and head back to your room to get your phone.
  1258. >Y'almost flop on your bed but the faint soreness in your belly stops you from doin' anything stupid.
  1259. >You ain't a teen no more, chattin' up the boy next door.
  1260. >Got no reason to be layin' in bed kickin' your feet in the air while you chat with him.
  1261. >This's a work call. Gotta keep yourself in the right frame've mind.
  1262. >You dial his number an' don't got to wait long 'fore he answers.
  1263. >He sounds tired, but listens to everything you got to say 'fore he asks "Are you sure? I haven't heard anything."
  1264. "Don't think we're supposed to until the goverment's man gets here, but Da knows people."
  1265. >There's a moment of silence 'fore he responds.
  1266. >"I guess I do too."
  1267. "Huh? You heard -"
  1268. >"I know you."
  1269. "Oh."
  1270. >You ain't a teen no more an' you ain't gonna blush over somethin' so simple, but... teen you prolly would've.
  1271. "Guess that counts."
  1272. >"I agree with the idea of getting it all planned out before the government guy gets here. I don't really want them walking around my farm either."
  1273. "Why? Ain't like you're that mean to your ponies or anything."
  1274. >"No, but there's other things I don't want anyone to see. Dammit, I hate to cut what I'm doing short but - you got it, Moondancer?
  1275. >"Yeah, okay. She says she'll be better off without me being in her fucking way right now. You said by your northwest cattle tank?"
  1276. "Uh-huh."
  1277. >"Good. I'll be down there in... give me fifteen minutes. I'll bring..."
  1278. >He hesitates an' you can practically hear the gears grindin' in his head.
  1279. >"I'll bring Apple Bloom, I guess," he finally says. "She'll know what land's best."
  1280. "That... that don't sound like a good idea. Da'll be there."
  1281. >"So will I. Your father didn't do anything to her that I didn't."
  1282. >You shake your head, though he ain't here to see it.
  1283. "Still don't think it's a good idea. You know what he can be like."
  1284. >"I don't know the land well enough," he says. "Anything I agree to will be guesswork at best and - yeah - I know what your dad's like.
  1285. >"I don't want him screwing me out of some of my best land because I have no idea what I'm doing and he thinks it'll be funny."
  1286. "It's only a half-acre. Won't make much of a difference in your yield."
  1287. >"Yeah, but... I have ideas."
  1288. >God.
  1289. >Sometimes you don't know which one of them is worse.
  1291. >Before you hang up, you almost say something stupid.
  1292. >Only on reflex, not because you're idiotic enough to believe it or think it'd be the right thing to say.
  1293. >Or maybe it would be.
  1294. >But not now.
  1295. >Bah.
  1296. >You've been spending too much time with Lauren and it's bringing back too many old memories and habits.
  1297. >You're an adult now. This shouldn't be happening.
  1298. "See you in a bit."
  1299. >Nice and neutral.
  1300. >"Yeah," she sighs a moment later. "See ya."
  1301. >Dang.
  1302. >She almost said it too.
  1303. >Or so you like to think.
  1304. >Hope?
  1305. >Maybe.
  1306. >No?
  1307. >You shake your head to clear the cobwebs out of your brain.
  1308. >"So what was that about?"
  1309. "I thought you heard. You said you got this."
  1310. >"All I heard was you blathering like an idiot," Moondancer snorts. "I said I got this because I want you to leave me alone."
  1311. "Um..."
  1312. >Okay then.
  1313. >"But not before you tell me what she said."
  1314. >You explain, first the news then your ideas, and then Moondancer gives you this look.
  1315. >A look that says she thinks you're the dumbest piece of shit to walk on two legs or four, even though you've done absolutely nothing wrong. Nothing.
  1316. >Today at least.
  1317. >"You should have put it on speaker."
  1318. >Okaaaaaay. A little cranky.
  1319. >A thought pops into your head. A horrible, tempting, horribly tempting thought.
  1320. >If you take Moondancer to this meeting, she might turn Steffords inside out.
  1321. >Nah.
  1322. >Well, yes, she might, but Lauren wouldn't appreciate it.
  1323. >If she didn't want you to confront him a decade ago... yeah. That wouldn't be any better.
  1324. >"Let me know how it goes," Moondancer dismisses you with a wave of her hoof. "Now move so I can use the computer."
  1325. >You scoot aside and she shoves her chair over to take your place before you even have a chance to stand.
  1326. >Well.
  1327. >You'll leave her to what she's got to do.
  1328. >You've only gotten one step before you start second guessing yourself.
  1329. >Did you clear your internet history?
  1330. >Will she clear hers?
  1331. >Are you doing the right thing?
  1332. "Um... Moondancer?"
  1333. >"What."
  1334. "Should I take Apple Bloom with me?"
  1335. >"Why don't you ask her yourself?"
  1336. >That sounds... reasonable.
  1337. >More reasonable than arguing with her and your insides becoming your outsides.
  1338. >You fuck off, probably to Moondancer's great relief, and only slow down to grab your coat from its hook in the entryway and...
  1339. >Apple Bloom should still be at the party, right?
  1340. >You'll just slip in and - and find her climbing the steps to the patio as you walk out the front door.
  1341. >She's smiling.
  1342. >If it wasn't so nice to see her happy, you'd find it weird.
  1343. >But you're smiling too, so...
  1344. "Hey."
  1345. >"Hi."
  1346. >She looks you over and that smile flickers for a moment.
  1347. >"Goin' out again?"
  1348. "Yeah. I got a call from Lauren. You know all about the road, right?"
  1349. >She nods.
  1350. "The government wants to buy some of our land to build a rest stop, so we're going to meet up with her... with Steffords... and figure out what to offer them. I... uh... want to come with me?"
  1351. >She looks at you suspiciously.
  1352. >Shit. Right. Of course Lauren was -
  1353. >"Is Lauren gonna be there?"
  1354. "Yeah."
  1355. >Apple Bloom looks down, then back over her shoulder.
  1356. >Towards the dorms, you suppose.
  1357. >"Ah've got some letters Ah want to write."
  1358. "O... kay."
  1359. >You try not to be disappointed. Of course she wouldn't want to go with you, but you'd thought... something. You thought something.
  1360. >Hoped, at least.
  1361. "That's fine, but it reminds me.
  1362. "Your friend - um, Scootaloo - called and asked me to email her a list of all the ponies here and on the other farms. For the mail lady. Mare."
  1363. >"Oh. *Oh*. *Dang*."
  1364. >Apple Bloom frowns and snorts and twitches her ears and maybe you should just stop talking to ponies today?
  1365. >Aside from Hematite, it seems all you're doing is pissing them off.
  1366. "Sorry, I'll just -"
  1367. >"Oh, Ah ain't angry at you," she mumbles, then laughs. "Ah forgot Ah told Derpy I'd get her a list next time Ah went into town, but ain't as if Ah got a clue when that'll happen. This is way better."
  1368. "Oh. Uh..."
  1369. >Thumbs up?
  1370. "Cool?"
  1371. >"Yeah, we're cool," Apple Bloom chuckles. "Well..."
  1372. >Reality must hit, because she sighs and shakes her head.
  1373. >"Ah better get on that. Ah wonder if you could email her my letters too? That'd be much faster."
  1374. "Well..."
  1375. >Except someone would have to type them up, and she'd have to have a printer, and...
  1376. >Worth a shot, right?
  1377. "Maybe. I can ask when I send her the lists."
  1378. >"Nifty!" your little pony says and swishes her tail back and forth a couple times. "Ah'll get started right away!"
  1379. "And I better get down to the road. I hope I don't mess this up."
  1380. >"How could'ya?"
  1381. "What if I give up some of our most fertile land, or something that'd be good for... I don't even know."
  1382. >Apple Bloom nods too quickly, it's almost insulting if she wasn't absolutely right with what she's implying.
  1383. >"Ah guess..."
  1384. >She shakes her head again.
  1385. >"Why don't you take Maud? When it comes to rocks an' dirt ain't nobody better'n her."
  1386. "Yeah, but this is farmland."
  1387. >"Farmland's still rocks an' dirt."
  1388. >She has a point.
  1389. >And someone is better than no one.
  1390. >And Maud could probably kick Steffords to death with all four hooves tied behind her back.
  1391. >And - yeah.
  1392. "Got it."
  1393. >You give her a thumbs up and a smile and shuffle aside so you can hold the door for her.
  1394. "I'll let you know how it goes."
  1395. >You take the truck - it's nowhere near as bitterly cold as it was a few days back, but it's still some distance to Steffords' stock tank and you aren't going to walk that.
  1396. >Certainly not in the time you told Lauren you'd be there.
  1397. >You arrive just as the party is wrapping up - or more like the guest of honor finally tuckered herself out - she's snuggled up next to Marble.
  1398. >Nothing's really broken up, though. The adults seem content enough to sit around and chat.
  1399. >Gossip, really.
  1400. >About things you try not to listen to because you've got other things going through your head right now and don't need the distraction.
  1401. >You'd rather think about what good you *could* do than what you *have* done.
  1402. >Maud is still in good spirits - and it's still unnerving.
  1403. >She's laughing with her sister over some joke and you almost feel bad about pulling her away, but Apple Bloom was right.
  1404. >Maud's the right pony for this job. The *next* right pony.
  1405. >You'd still rather have Apple Bloom.
  1406. >Maud looks up as you come up to her table and smiles.
  1407. >It makes your spine tingle.
  1408. >"Need me for something?"
  1409. "Afraid so. I've got to pick out some land for building. I could really use your help."
  1410. >"I thought we had finished the survey work for the houses."
  1411. >She had - and it had only taken her one day.
  1412. >If you had *any* less faith in her, you'd be worried about that, but since you don't know any better there's no reason not to trust her wholeheartedly.
  1413. >Not as if that's ever blown up in your face.
  1414. >This time will be better though, you know it.
  1415. >Things are different now.
  1416. >You make sure to explain it clearly this time.
  1417. >Maud nods along as you get to the end.
  1418. "It's for a rest stop and - and I have some other ideas. Things that might bring in some money."
  1419. >"Why aren't you asking Apple Bloom?"
  1420. "She suggested I get you."
  1421. >"Ah," Maud grunts.
  1422. >Do you hear... could it be... *disappointment*?
  1423. "She wanted to write some letters, Maud. Besides, she said you'd be better. No one knows rocks and dirt better than you."
  1424. >"Rocks, yes. I'm not sure about dirt."
  1425. "Good enough for survey work."
  1426. >"I suppose," Maud nods and rises to her hooves.
  1427. >"Do you want Silver Spoon too?"
  1428. >Huh... what?
  1429. >Wait?
  1430. >Okay.
  1431. >She skipped a few steps of logic there and it takes you a minute to catch up to her but yeah, maybe. That'd be a good idea. Except -
  1432. "The money bit, gotcha. Silver is still hurt. I'd love to, but she needs to -"
  1433. >Oh. She's right there.
  1434. >One table over.
  1435. >Listening.
  1436. "- um -"
  1437. >Attentively.
  1438. "- I figure you probably need your rest, right?"
  1439. >Looking better than you've ever seen her, even when she was taking your order at Sterling Stables.
  1440. >Before everything went from bad to worse.
  1441. >Doesn't matter that her legs and belly are wrapped in bandages now, there's something about the way she sits, the tilt of her head, the sparkle in her eyes...
  1442. "But if not..."
  1443. >She needs her rest, though. You're not going to force her.
  1444. >Hell, it'd be mean to even request it of her.
  1445. >"You drove here, right?" Silver Spoon asks. "I thought I heard your truck outside."
  1446. >You nod.
  1447. >"I'm not so sleepy anymore. I think I'll be fine as long as I don't have to walk much."
  1448. >Ah.
  1449. >Cool.
  1450. >You'd probably be more excited - or worried - if it wasn't so unbelievable.
  1451. "Great."
  1452. >You almost sound as monotone as Maud.
  1453. "I mean, that should be fine. Perfect, actually!"
  1454. >But.
  1455. "Except my truck only has the two seats."
  1456. >Maud shrugs and walks over to Silver to help the other mare stand.
  1457. >"I can ride in the back," she says casually as she gets one of Silver's forelegs over her shoulders. "I don't mind. It's surprisingly comfortable."
  1458. >There's the wacky Maud you know and love.
  1459. >Describe a truck's bed as comfortable? Waaaaaacky.
  1460. >You'd offer to help with Silver, but you can't think of a good way to promise you won't nearly kill her this time and by the time you've almost managed you're standing next to the truck.
  1461. >At least you get to help her into the passenger seat.
  1462. >You're in your own before you realize that should have raised uncomfortable memories of you helping the nurse get Silver in the first time.
  1463. >Should have.
  1464. >Didn't.
  1465. >Doesn't.
  1466. >She's smiling this time around.
  1467. >And she doesn't stop when she sees you staring.
  1468. >"It'll be nice to see more of my new home," she explains. "It reminds me of Ponyville in a way. So much farmland, I thought it stretched forever when I was a foal."
  1469. "Ah."
  1470. >"There's no magical forest, is there?" she giggles.
  1471. "Afraid not, though there's some woodlands to the east, off our - uh, my property."
  1472. >"Then I suppose it's not quite like Ponyville. Fewer monsters, I suppose."
  1473. >Just the three, but you don't say that.
  1474. >You keep your truck to the smoother paths, for Silver's sake, even though your first impulse was to swing past the woods or some of the other more scenic bits of your property.
  1475. >She keeps her eyes glued to the window anyway, but doesn't say anything about the landscape.
  1476. >Instead she instead asks you to tell her about your idea for raising money.
  1477. >It's hard to put your nebulous idea into words until you finally decide to just go for it.
  1478. "What's better, a rest stop oooooooooor a motel?"
  1479. >Silver snorts softly and shakes her head, still watching the land flash by.
  1480. >"You don't have the money for that."
  1481. "Not yet but the government is buying that half-acre at market value. That should be worth something, right?"
  1482. >"That won't be remotely enough for you to do... *anything*. This land is in the middle of nowhere and a half-acre is much smaller - and far less valuable - than you think."
  1483. "Oh."
  1484. >Well.
  1485. >"Maybe I'm wrong," Silver offers you a little hope. "It's been a few years since I bought property this side of the portals."
  1486. "I doubt it."
  1487. >But maybe!
  1488. >Yeah, it'd make sense.
  1489. "Well, yeah. Maybe. If it's been a while. Value has to have gone up, since there's a lot less livable land to go around, after all."
  1490. >"And far fewer people to buy it."
  1491. >Oh, right.
  1492. >"I wouldn't count on much money," Silver says gently, "though I might be surprised. Until we know, I think you should keep your ideas limited to something more manageable. You can always expand later - *if* it's worth it."
  1493. "Oh."
  1494. >"Alternatively you could rely on deficit spending, but I've never been a fan of it in situations like this or I would have recommended it earlier. There's just too much risk."
  1495. "Well, if the government didn't think people would be using the road, they wouldn't be doing this, right?"
  1496. >"Governments can afford to be wasteful," Silver giggles. "You can't. You don't have enough to throw away, nor are you so deep in the hole that there's nothing to lose.
  1497. >"I would be all for it if there was sufficient information to rely on, but future traffic patterns at the moment are a total unknown.
  1498. >"Maybe if we're lucky, this man from the government will have studies with him - or access to them - and is willing to share, but other than that I suggest holding on anything until -"
  1499. "Okay, I get it. Stupid idea. How about a restaurant then?"
  1500. >Silver shakes her head. "That suffers the exact same risk. Thought..."
  1501. >She looks away from the window, lost in thought.
  1502. >"... perhaps... a bed and breakfast? You're already planning on new housing, so worst case scenario it can be turned into that. The basic design wouldn't be much different."
  1503. "And with that we could start right away. Just take some of the materials meant for the houses and use it for this instead."
  1504. >Perfect!
  1505. >Except -
  1506. "*If* you think that'd be okay with everyone, I mean."
  1507. >"Well -"
  1508. >Silver looks at you with wide eyes.
  1509. >"- I'm sorry," she says quietly. "I forgot my place."
  1510. "What?"
  1511. >"I've been making all of these suggestions, but you're the one in charge here. I'm sure everyone will be okay with whatever you decide."
  1512. >You sigh.
  1513. >Dammit.
  1514. >She hadn't shown any fear towards you for so long.
  1515. >But maybe it's not
  1516. >Moondancer *did* say you had to be more accountable and take charge of things, but that just doesn't feel right.
  1517. >Almost as bad as her being scared of you.
  1518. >Worse, actually.
  1519. >At least you can understand her being afraid, after what you did and what she's been through.
  1520. "You're the one with business experience, Silver, not me. I bet that means you also know how to manage employees."
  1521. >"That's not the same."
  1522. "Close enough."
  1523. >"Are you sure?"
  1524. "Yep. Being accountable doesn't mean ignoring everyone else and doing everything myself."
  1525. >Silver sits quietly, so silent you sneak a couple of glances her way every few seconds.
  1526. >"That's true," she says softly as you near the meeting place, "but I'm still only your pony. You make the actual decisions."
  1527. "I can't make those decisions without knowing what my options are. Tell me what you think, because what *I* think is clearly insane or wrong or impossible."
  1528. >She offers you another shy smile before she resumes talking.
  1529. >By the time you reach the road, she's talked you into it. Or out of it.
  1530. >Out of one idea and into another.
  1531. >Not exactly hers, either.
  1532. >You can't guarantee people will be using this road, but there might be a way to encourage them.
  1533. >If it works in Oregon, maybe it will work here too.
  1534. >And not once does she act afraid of you.
  1535. >Not even like an employee or slave or whatever.
  1536. >More like a friend.
  1537. >An old friend.
  1538. >You haven't met someone who can finish your sentences for you like this since... since Apple Bloom.
  1540. >"Before you go any further," daddy cuts him off, "I gotta ask - are you out of your mind?"
  1541. "He must be."
  1542. >A resort?
  1543. >What the hell is he thinkin'?
  1544. >Dumbass even brought a pair of ponies with him - one've 'em Silver at that, though at least she stays safely on his side've the road in his truck.
  1545. >She shouldn't even be out of bed!
  1546. >The other pony though, she can take care of herself you think, but there was still no reason to antagonize Da like this.
  1547. >"Don't even bother answering that," daddy continues, wavin' his hand. "Tell me what's wrong with this land right here? Whatever stupid ideas are rattling around in your head, you can do it here.
  1548. >"On your side it's nothing but wild scrub brush and on mine I've got a worthless hole in the ground the government is willing to fill up for me. Seems perfect."
  1549. >"It's fine," Maud answers for him. "Except you need that tank for drainage."
  1550. >Daddy frowns and you think it's lucky he's stoppin' there.
  1551. >He ain't ever gone after another man's pony 'fore. Dogs sure - an' they deserved it - but never a pony. That don't make listenin' to their talk any happier for him.
  1552. >"Shit."
  1553. "Da -"
  1554. >He looks back up towards the stock tank and sighs.
  1555. >"You gotta keep your pony in line," he says almost casually, "but it's got a point. I'd forgotten that was the whole reason I had this dug in the first place."
  1556. >You nod quickly, before he can return to his first point.
  1557. "I remember that now. Back when I was little. Whole northern field would turn into an unholy mess in a heavy rain and stay that way a week."
  1558. >"Shit," Da swears. "Alright, let's hear your idea."
  1559. >"So - a resort -"
  1560. >"Not that - I don't really care what your fantasies are, just where exactly you plan to put it."
  1561. >"That's fine, I didn't expect you to go along with it and it's more of a long-term plan anyway. Silver and I were thinking something more scenic, like up the road a bit."
  1562. "Uh... *which* way?"
  1563. >That weren't too specific, but he points back the way he came.
  1564. >Closer to his house, though that's set off from the road quite a bit.
  1565. >You look that way, curious what it is he's considerin' 'scenic'.
  1566. "Talkin' about that small stand of maple trees on your side?"
  1567. >They're far enough away you wouldn't know what they were if they hadn't been there for over a decade. Well over.
  1568. >An' if you hadn't spent your fair share of time in that little stand.
  1569. >It was a convenient spot, 'bout halfway 'tween his house an' yours.
  1570. >"I'm thinking maybe offering them some land near it and building on the other side."
  1571. "A *resort*."
  1572. >"Eventually," he admits with a shrug. "If it goes well. Just a bed and breakfast to start and maybe a few roadside stalls. You know, like the ones in town by the interstate for folks to sell what they grow in their little gardens."
  1573. >Daddy shakes his head in that old man way and rubs one hand against his jaw.
  1574. >"Not gonna stop you from ruining yourself," he sighs. "After all, I'm interested to see how it goes. Stud fees aren't really bringing in the money anymore and I wouldn't mind finding something else to supplement that."
  1575. >You're worried for a sec' but Maud just blinks at that.
  1576. >Must've flown over her head.
  1577. "So... what? You're gonna try sellin' some produce direct?"
  1578. >Don't really want her knowin' exactly what happened to poor Apple Bloom, an' since didn't pick it up you ain't gonna let daddy drive home the point.
  1579. "I guess you've got some fig trees, right?"
  1580. >"Yeah, there's that but it seems a shame to use ponies as just labor. They've all got their own talents."
  1581. >Da scoffs at that an' looks up at his eyebrows like he's hopin' God'll explain what the hell's goin' on here.
  1582. "Well, yeah, but -"
  1583. >"Like Bon Bon," he continues blindly, "she's supposed to be pretty good at making candy, so why not let her, right? That might make her happy."
  1584. >"Your ponies stepping out of line?" daddy asks with a smirk. "Not surprised, the way you treat them. I've offered to help you out before and that offer still stands."
  1585. >You don't know Maud all that well - barely more'n her name - but she takes that surprisingly well. Just a little tilt of one ear.
  1586. >Reminds you of Big Red, in a way. Smaller sure an' without the scars, but the same calm acceptance.
  1587. >That comparison don't make you feel any better.
  1588. >"How about we treat this like another experiment," your neighbor suggests. "You treat your ponies the way you do and I'll try to make mine happy. We'll see who comes out on top."
  1589. >"I'm willing to take that bet," Da laughs. "Who gets the farm if you die and do you think they'll sell?"
  1590. >He answers daddy with a shrug.
  1591. >"Probably?"
  1592. >Daddy laughs again an' shakes his head.
  1593. "Let's check out that spot 'fore it gets too late in the day."
  1594. >He stops, his train of thought derailin' on the spot, an' looks over at you, then the sky.
  1595. >"Yep, Lauren's got the right of it. Let's go."
  1596. >He goes back to his truck an' you to yours.
  1597. >You'd rather ride with him an' ask what the hell he's thinkin', but he's only got that little two-seater.
  1598. >Da's quiet on the ride, clearly thinkin' things over an' you don't interrupt him.
  1599. >That only makes him mad.
  1600. >If he's still thinkin' it over, he ain't made up his mind yet. No sense pushin' him towards anger.
  1601. >You stay quiet.
  1602. >"I don't like it," daddy finally mumbles, "but it's his farm. If he gets folks coming through and spending money, then... I don't know. I don't like it."
  1603. >He looks over at you as he lets the truck slowly roll to a stop.
  1604. >"I want you to make sure none of his animals give ours any strange ideas, got it?"
  1605. >You nod.
  1606. "I understand."
  1607. >"Good girl."
  1608. >He reaches for his door handle, but -
  1609. "But what if it *does* work? Are you gonna let Red an' some of the others do their thing?"
  1610. >"I don't like it," he repeats. "They killed your ma, remember?"
  1611. "Not *our* ponies. That was the princess."
  1612. >Da shakes his head an' you shut your mouth.
  1613. >"They took something from me, Lauren. Can't forgive that and I certainly won't forget it."
  1614. >But he ain't sayin' no.
  1615. >Maybe you're just bein' deluded, but that gives you hope.
  1616. >You both get out - enough's said an' he's done for now - and look about.
  1617. >This area is still part of the cattle fields, so y'ain't got anything in the ground now or plans for the future.
  1618. >Not enough ponies to convert it an' then work it.
  1619. >Your neighbor waves to you from the other side've the road an' starts crossin' over.
  1620. >His pony don't, though. She starts nosin' about on the west side of the trees, proddin' at the ground with her hoof every few steps.
  1621. >"Sooooo...?" he asks.
  1622. >You quickly give him a smile and nod.
  1623. "Seems fine, right Da?"
  1624. >"Maybe."
  1625. >Not too happy you answered for him, but not really pissed or anything. He's still thinkin'.
  1626. >"Well, Steffords? What's the problem?"
  1627. >"Not sure there is one," daddy growls back. "Get your pony over here to check."
  1628. >Your neighbor raises an eyebrow.
  1629. >Maud does too.
  1630. >She looks over to her owner questioningly.
  1631. >Or so you suppose. Her face is blank as a clear morning sky.
  1632. >"Seriously?" he asks daddy. "You want her opinion?"
  1633. >"I don't like 'em," Da sighs, "but it's not like I'm not totally against using a pony's talents to my benefit, you know, or I wouldn't have made a killing with that stud."
  1634. >Your friend frowns, but gestures for his pony to come over.
  1635. >"Go ahead, Maud," he tells her. "You're done on our side, right?"
  1636. >"I'd like to do a proper survey later but I believe this land will do. It's slightly elevated."
  1637. >Don't figure what that's got to do with anything, but you're more confused about how fast she was.
  1638. "But she only looked at it for a whole minute? When we got that barn put up, it took the guys a full day to find the right spot!"
  1639. >"She's just that good. Besides, We can find the exact spot for the bed and breakfast later - and the government guys can deal with the details of the rest stop."
  1640. >Maud shrugs - except she don't. She just has that kind of apathetic expression as she crosses the road.
  1641. >Here she does the same thing she'd done for him - stompin' her hoof here and there, though she takes longer, rangin' one way then the other.
  1642. >"So?" Daddy pushes after she's wandered a good distance from the three of you, 'bout a hundred feet east. "How's it look?"
  1643. >"Normally I would say this isn't a good place to build," she says bluntly. "You have several sinkholes ready to form."
  1644. >"You're shitting me."
  1645. >"No."
  1646. >Da frowns and -
  1647. >Maud suddenly rears up.
  1648. >"Jesus, what -"
  1649. >Her forelegs come straight down, the hooves slammin' into the ground with a sharp crack that makes y'all jump.
  1650. >There's a second where everyone's just watching an' waiting an' - then the ground in front of her crumbles in, leavin' a hole big enough for you crawl in.
  1651. >Da coughs at the dust the collapse kicks up and grabs for your neighbor.
  1652. >You wince as his hand clasps onto the man's arm.
  1653. >You *know* daddy's got a hell of a grip.
  1654. >"What the shit is this?" daddy shouts. "How did she do that? Are you sure she's on her meds?"
  1655. >"W-what? Yes! Of course she is! I remember how my uncle died and I'm not going to repeat his mistake!"
  1656. >No, he ain't.
  1657. >Don't mean you believe him - know he's lyin' plain as day. About the suppressants, that is.
  1658. >Not about not repeating his uncle's mistake.
  1659. >He just picked a better pony for the job.
  1660. >"If she's taking her pills, then how the hell -"
  1661. >"It's much bigger," the pony interrupts, "but old. Probably happened before you had the stock tank dug to add drainage. Without that, the surface water sank down to the carbonate bedrock."
  1662. >She sticks her head in the hole briefly before pulling it out and nodding.
  1663. >"I was right. Dolostone. It's a good thing you didn't drive over this area."
  1664. >"Huh," daddy grunts and lets go of your neighbor. "So, aside from the sinkhole?"
  1665. >"The bedrock is close to the surface," Maud continues, "but extremely porous. If someone else is willing to fill holes for you, it seems ideal land to offer them."
  1666. >"Huh."
  1667. >Da rubs at his jawline and takes a few steps away.
  1668. >Y'almost want to ask your friend how he's doin' - he's rubbin' at his arm where daddy grabbed him - but he walks over to join your Da.
  1669. >"So?" he pushes. "Perfect, right?"
  1670. >"Not sure. Have your pony keep checking. If your stupid idea isn't as foolish as I think it is..."
  1671. "Are you gonna do it?"
  1672. >"I don't know," Da sneers. "Maybe. I'd like to keep my options open."
  1673. "Don't gotta be right next to his, if you do."
  1674. >"Yeah, yeah, I'm aware, but I'd like to *keep my options open*."
  1675. >Maud obediently waits for her owner to give her a nod an' then starts roamin' a bit further.
  1676. >"Damn, that's a good pony," Da mutters. "Any chance you'd sell her?"
  1677. >"Not a snowball's chance in hell."
  1678. >"Shit. Figured as much, but I thought she might be a little too docile for you. We could do an even trade. My daughter's got a spirited mare. Pretty worthless. Seems right up your alley."
  1679. "Trixie's -"
  1680. >You almost correct yourself, but that'd only cause more problems. Instead, you shoot your neighbor a look so he knows to keep his damn mouth shut.
  1681. "She's *mine*, Da."
  1682. >You ain't told him and you ain't gonna.
  1683. >"I know, I know," he sighs, "but I thought -"
  1684. >What's yours is his. *That's* what he thought.
  1685. >"Doesn't matter," your friend cuts in. "I wouldn't trade her anyway. Couldn't. I've also got her sister. No splitting up families, remember?"
  1686. >"I get it," Da says, raisin' his hands in surrender. "You care for them too much."
  1687. >"Probably."
  1688. >"Hope you don't have any delusions about saving the world or anything."
  1689. >"Nope. I just want to make this little corner of it better."
  1690. >Da shrugs with a chuckle that trails off into an awkward silence as the three've you watch Maud work.
  1691. She goes about double the distance she's already gone past the new sinkhole, and the same again away from the road, before she comes back towards you.
  1692. "What's it like?"
  1693. >"Exactly the same."
  1694. "Maybe it's better to the west?"
  1695. >"Hope so," Da grunts.
  1696. >Maud keeps on workin' headin' out that way, but she's back quick this time.
  1697. >"Well?"
  1698. >"The ground is firm," Maud answers daddy. "There's a slight incline that starts about twenty feet from where you are."
  1699. >"Looks flat to me."
  1700. >"Yes. It's just enough to make the water run off to the east."
  1701. >"Good news, I suppose," Da grunts. He looks around for a minute an' gives your neighbor a nod. "Guess this'll do."
  1702. >The man hesitates, then reaches out a hand.
  1703. >"Glad to hear it."
  1704. >He's probably regrettin' it as Da shakes his hand.
  1705. >Can't believe he forgot how strong daddy's grip is so soon, but he bears with it an' even smiles.
  1706. >"Wonder if they're going to expect our little murderers to help with the construction," daddy says as he lets the man's hand go. "Not as if there's any real work for mine to do right now, so I wouldn't mind renting them to the government."
  1707. "Even if they aren't, wouldn't hurt to ask the man when he comes by."
  1708. >Da looks at you an' - you interrupted him.
  1709. >"Fair point," your friend comes to the rescue. "There's a workforce right here. No need for them to bring in anyone else besides the specialists.
  1710. >"I mean... a three, four hour drive every day? Or are they going to camp out here? Nah. If you suggest it, there's no reason they won't take you up on it. Too bad my ponies will be busy."
  1711. >Daddy smirks an' glances over at you.
  1712. >"So mine will have to do the work on your side too?" he chuckles. "I suppose that'll be a perfect opportunity for my daughter to show you how a professional runs a herd. Maybe you'll learn something."
  1713. >Oh.
  1714. >God.
  1715. "Daddy -"
  1716. >"What?" he chuckles. "You're spending so much time over there, I figure you'd love an opportunity to show off."
  1718. >Being near that man was unpleasant to say the least.
  1719. >You don't like how silent Lauren was the whole time, like she was scared to speak.
  1720. >Didn't stop her from interrupting when she thought she had to, though.
  1721. >Like she'd rather Steffords be angry with her than you.
  1722. >You don't like it at all.
  1723. >Even more, you don't like what he was implied there at the end.
  1724. >You sit silently in your truck thinking about it while Maud does some more surveying work on your land.
  1725. >It takes a while before you remember you aren't alone.
  1726. >That there's a pony sitting next to you.
  1727. >Waiting patiently.
  1728. >Staring.
  1729. >Smiling, though timidly.
  1730. >"Did he agree?" Silver asks once you've noticed her. "What was that noise? Why do you look so worried? He didn't agree, did he? Or are you having second thoughts?"
  1731. "That's a lot of questions, but yes."
  1732. >"That... not actually a very helpful answer."
  1733. "He agreed."
  1734. >"Slightly more helpful, but any caveats? Or... why do you look worried? What went wrong?"
  1735. "Nothing, nothing went wrong. He agreed to offer this land. He's even thinking about following our lead if it works. Maybe. And that sound - the big crack?"
  1736. >Silver nods.
  1737. "That was Maud impressing the hell out of Steffords by kicking a hole in the ground. He wanted her to check out his land -"
  1738. >"I saw her walk across the road. That's what she was doing?."
  1739. >You nod.
  1740. "- so she exposed a sinkhole just waiting to collapse. He offered to buy her on the spot. I refused, of course."
  1741. >Silver nods like she expected that.
  1742. >"Then why the long face?"
  1743. "I... I don't know yet. There's so many possible ways things could go wrong. Like if this works and it's profitable and Steffords *does* start building right across the road..."
  1744. >You shrug.
  1745. >"Then that's good."
  1746. "How is that good?"
  1747. >"Because it means we've already succeeded," she answers smugly. "Besides, anything he builds only gives people *more* reason to come out here."
  1748. "I suppose."
  1749. >Silver reaches over and lays a bandaged hoof on your arm to comfort you.
  1750. >"It'll be okay," she insists. "Everything will be fine. This is *good*."
  1751. "I know. That's what has me worried."
  1752. >"How?"
  1753. "Haven't you noticed -"
  1754. >Or maybe she hasn't, you realize. She hasn't been here long enough, or even awake most of that time.
  1755. >Maybe it's just you.
  1756. "- every time things are bad but start going *right*, everything suddenly gets *worse*?"
  1757. >Maybe you're just seeing patterns where there are none.
  1758. >"Or is everything bad right before it gets better?" Silver giggles like a child.
  1759. "Same thing, but backwards."
  1760. >"But true," she insists. "For me, at least. I was starving in Hope Springs, but then I was taken in by Sterling - and it was horrible, but it was *better*. I - I didn't have to do anything I wasn't already doing. There was a warm bed to sleep in and all the food I could eat."
  1761. "He - he let people *hunt* you!"
  1762. >"Things got worse, true, but it was better than the camp. And when things got bad enough and I couldn't take it anymore, I almost gave up - but I didn't. I ran. And I was rescued by you. Life got better.
  1763. >"And then I nearly died, but Hematite saved me and got her cutie mark. I live with other ponies, with *friends*. I'm getting to use my talents and do what I was *born* to do. All around me I see ponies that are doing the same.
  1764. >"Ever since Twilight closed the portals, it's been the reoccurring theme, though I've only noticed it now. Bad things happen, but good things too. And every single good thing is better than the last.
  1765. >"My life is more fulfilling than I could possibly have imagined a few years ago. I'm the happiest I've been in... for as long as I can remember. Not just satisfied or comfortable, but truly happy, despite everything that has happened up to this point. So you know what I'm hoping for?"
  1766. "Not a clue."
  1767. >"That something *does* go wrong. Because whatever happens next will be better than ever.
  1768. >"This venture is starting small enough you can afford for it to fail.
  1769. >"The spot you suggested is close enough to the main house and dorms - and the places Maud surveyed earlier - that it's not horribly out of the way where you won't be able to supervise things.
  1770. >"While the trees don't look like much right now, but you said they were beautiful before they lost their leaves. Even if the rest of the place is flat and dull, there's that - and we can always spruce things up a bit. Maybe dig a little pond to add flavor or... I'm sure *somepony* has some landscaping experience."
  1771. >She looks a little lost, but shakes her head and smiles wider.
  1772. >"*Somepony* will know. That's not my area."
  1773. "You seem pretty sure about all this."
  1774. >You wish you could be as confident, but that's okay. Hers is infectious.
  1775. >"Why wouldn't I be?"
  1776. >You shrug.
  1777. "I don't know. Because -"
  1778. >You hear a truck fire up - and you look over to see Steffords and Lauren drive off.
  1779. "- because I'm worried that Lauren is going to bring over her father's ponies to help build the rest stop."
  1780. >"Then we get to make more friends."
  1781. >You shake your head.
  1782. "He doesn't treat his ponies the way I do. I don't think that's going to happen."
  1783. >"I'd like to see him stop it."
  1784. >You've never seen anyone - pony or human - look as smug and determined as she does right now.
  1785. >Well... maybe once.
  1786. >You're struggling for a reply - maybe a warning or a caution - when the truck lurches as Maud pulls herself into the bed.
  1787. >She taps the rear window, as if the truck shaking like that wasn't enough to get your attention.
  1788. >"Everything's fine," she says once she knows you're listening. "You're good to go."
  1789. >Guess you'll just have to wait for the other shoe to drop.
  1790. >Hopefully you'll be stuck waiting forever.
  1792. >Berry Punch hands you her letter with a smile.
  1793. >Seems everypony's smilin' today.
  1794. >"Thanks."
  1795. "My pleasure!"
  1796. >Ain't like you're doin' anything here - she's the one that walked all the way up to the house.
  1797. >All you're doin' is sittin' outside on the porch relaxin' - and later on you'll have to hand the letters over to him to give to Derpy - or maybe you'll get to go back yourself?
  1798. >That'd be nice.
  1799. >She reaches out an' - an' she's tryin' to hug you.
  1800. >Well, you hug her right back!
  1801. >An' she quickly turns her head an' sneezes so hard her whole body shivers..
  1802. >"Sorry," Berry giggles. "For a second there it felt like champagne bubbles were tickling my nose."
  1803. "It's all good."
  1804. >At least that's what you try to say, but with the letter clamped in your teeth it all comes out a bit slurred.
  1805. >She gets the point though an' that's what matters.
  1806. >You tuck it under a rock with the rest of the pile on the window sill - letters you've written an' the others that've been brought to you.
  1807. >Wasn't just her, after all.
  1808. >There've been ponies bringin' you letters ever since that night.
  1809. >Some answerin' the messages sent by their loved ones, others askin' on their own.
  1810. >Berry wasn't even the first today.
  1811. >Seems they're bringin' 'em as soon as they're done, like that'll get 'em there any sooner.
  1812. >If you were the same cynical mare you were a few days ago, you'd roll your eyes at it - assumin' you'd do anything at all other'n feel sorry for yourself - but now you can understand the feelin'.
  1813. >The letters did them all good, an' folks are seemin' happier an' happier every day that passes.
  1814. >It don't explain the way Berry frolics down the hill like a newborn foal gettin' to play outside for the first time, but there's been more of that too.
  1815. >Even Maud's smilin'.
  1816. >From time to time.
  1817. >Ain't a permanent thing.
  1818. >Would be weird if it was an it's weird enough already.
  1819. >You go back to rockin' back an' forth in the rockin' chair.
  1820. >Air's cold - an' all the colder for you doin' nothin' but sittin' here on the porch - but it feels good.
  1821. >You close your eyes and enjoy the sensation - the cold air on your body, the slow breeze that promises more rain - or is it snow?
  1822. >Best ask a pegasus - they'd know.
  1823. >It'll matter.
  1824. >Think you'd rather have snow, though you can't begin to imagine the kind of snowball fight that'll break out as soon as the first flake hits the ground.
  1825. >Way things are goin'... it'll be big.
  1826. >You're gigglin' silently at the thought when you hear his truck pull up.
  1827. >To the front, not around to the side.
  1828. >He's got stuff to unload?
  1829. >You slowly open your eyes to see he's already out an' around to this side, helpin' Silver get down.
  1830. >Huh.
  1831. >Oh.
  1832. >That makes sense, you suppose.
  1833. >An' there's Maud, takin' her weight from him.
  1834. >"Will you two be okay getting up the steps?
  1835. >"Yes."
  1836. >"Cool..."
  1837. >He looks up from the pair an' sees you an' smiles - an' waves.
  1838. >"I took your advice!" he calls out.
  1839. "An' you took Silver with you too, I see."
  1840. >"Yep."
  1841. >You smile at the two mares as they come up towards you.
  1842. "Oh - *heck*! Lemme get the door for you!"
  1843. >"We're fine," Maud chuckles. "You look too comfortable too move right now."
  1844. >Well, that's about as true as the sun, so you sink back that inch or two you'd jumped up.
  1845. >The chair shakes a bit more'n normal as you put your weight back on it wholly, but it settles back into it's smooth routine 'fore they're inside.
  1846. >He takes a bit longer, fussin' about with...
  1847. >He's just feelin' nervous an' killin' time.
  1848. >Ain't doin' nothin' in particular.
  1849. >You take the time to go through the pile of letters an' find a certain one.
  1850. >He's climbin' the steps once you've found it an' doubly surprised when you stretch out your neck for him to take it.
  1851. >"Is this that list the mailmare asked for?" he asks.
  1852. "Nah, it's a letter."
  1853. >"Ah. I'm not sure I'll have time to type it up today, sorry, but I'll try to get it to her as soon as..."
  1854. >Takes him that long to realize you're shakin' your head.
  1855. "No, this one's for you. Read it when you're ready."
  1856. >Did your part.
  1857. >Now it's up to him.
  1858. >"Um... sure..."
  1859. >He starts to unfold the page, but you shake your head again.
  1860. "When you're *ready*. You don't seem ready right now."
  1861. >"I suppose not," he laughs weakly. "Silver and I came up with something and I've kinda got my mind on that."
  1862. "Ah can tell. So, what're we workin' on now?"
  1863. >You listen to his explanation, from the ideas that popped into his head to what he actually settled on.
  1864. >Seems like you made the right call suggestin' he take Maud instead of you.
  1865. >Don't mean the whole thing don't leave you shakin' your head.
  1866. "Doesn't make any sense to me, but I suppose it's worth a shot if Silver says so."
  1867. >"That's what I was thinking. Honestly I expected her to talk me out of it entirely, so I'm about as surprised as you. And that Steffords is going along with it? That's the cherry on top."
  1868. "... yeah..."
  1869. >That name casts a shadow on you - you shiver, finally feelin' the cold for what it is, but like any cloud it passes by soon enough.
  1870. >"That's about it, really," he says. "Silver is going to help look into what kind of permitting and stuff we'll need, but there's really only room for two in the office and Moondancer's already in there..."
  1871. >He holds up your letter.
  1872. >"Want me to read this now?"
  1873. "Nah, when you're ready. Don't matter if it's tomorrow or a week or a year from now. It ain't for *me*. It's for *you*."
  1874. >"Gotcha," he smiles.
  1875. >But not hard enough you can't see the worries in his face when he looks at your letter.
  1876. >"If you don't mind, I'm going to wait a bit."
  1877. "Fair."
  1878. >"To be honest, I'm a little scared."
  1879. "Ah know. Ah was too, but we gotta start trustin' each other again. Ah'm sorry Ah lied to you."
  1880. >"And... and I'm sorry I..."
  1882. >Been a few days - just a few - since you went out to the road to meet Sterling.
  1883. >So much has happened since then.
  1884. >The first loads of building supplies have come in - you weren't ready for them yet but here they are.
  1885. >And you're out of cash until you sell one thing or another - but neither of those are even close to the top of your worries.
  1886. >You've got to get building permits before anything can progress. Inspectors.
  1887. >All kinds of things you hadn't exactly thought through.
  1888. >You're on a farm, right? The closest town is a few hundred miles away by car unless you're feeling suicidal.
  1889. >Seems reasonable all you had to do to build houses was *build* them, but no. Not if you want to do this right.
  1890. >They need to have power. None of these ponies are electricians. You certainly aren't.
  1891. >Plumbing? Same thing.
  1892. >You've got the ponies working on constructing the framework, building sub-assemblies like the guide Moondancer found suggests, but that's as far as they can go.
  1893. >It's almost going too fast - Maud and the other Earth Ponies don't even need to use hammers to drive in the nails. One good kick does the job, at least for the volunteers - the ones off their meds.
  1894. >They'll be ready for the next step before everything else is.
  1895. >You'd jumped the gun and started without thinking. Again. Did what you thought was best - *again* - and now you're stuck with more problems.
  1896. >Still not at the forefront of your worries.
  1897. >You're not dwelling on them - it's nothing that can't be overcome.
  1898. >Moondancer and Silver are upstairs working at it, assuming one doesn't kill the other for being "too fucking cheerful all the fucking time."
  1899. >Luckily that doesn't seem likely anymore.
  1900. >Moonie isn't *as* cranky now, though most of the other volunteers are past the withdrawal entirely.
  1901. >Just the other day you saw Berry Punch rolling around in the fresh snow, playing with the foals and laughing.
  1902. >Definitely not the direction you expected this little experiment to go.
  1903. >You push that from your mind too, the good along with all your worries.
  1904. >Lauren just called.
  1905. >The man is here, the one from the government to talk about buying up that land - and he brought a crew with him to get started.
  1906. >At least *someone* around here is prepared, though it means everything seems to be progressing faster than you can handle.
  1907. >Good thing you've got a few friends to help you out.
  1908. >You hang up the call and rush for your coat - and then out to the porch.
  1909. >Too late.
  1910. >You'd hoped to catch him before he left the road, but he's driving up the path to the house in a small sedan. Standard black government issue.
  1911. >You sigh and step down from the porch.
  1912. >He's bound to have already seen the dorms and the piles of lumber.
  1913. >Last thing you need is him nosing about and finding out that some of your ponies are off their suppressants.
  1914. >Yep.
  1915. >Shit.
  1916. >He stops by the dorms.
  1917. >You run for your truck, but you're not fast enough.
  1918. >He's out of his sedan and kneeling by Maud by the time you reach him. Talking.
  1919. >Well, there's not much talking.
  1920. >It's more like a staring contest between the drabbest pony you know and the drabbest bureaucrat the government can build.
  1921. >Middle aged, but not *too* middle aged. Chubby, but not fat. Balding, but not bald. Standard grey suit. Standard blue coat.
  1922. >He looks up and stands as you come closer.
  1923. "Why don't you get back to work, Maud."
  1924. >She nods and turns back to continue counting out the wooden beams.
  1925. "Make sure you get another pony to help you move them!"
  1926. >She looks back and raises an eyebrow - then nods.
  1927. >She understands.
  1928. >No showing off, even accidentally.
  1929. >"Is this pony for real?" the man asks with a faint smile as he watches her.
  1930. "Depends, what did she say?"
  1931. >His eyes flicker towards some of the others for a moment, but then he shrugs and laughs.
  1932. >"Nevermind."
  1933. >He reaches out his hand.
  1934. >"Hank Timmons," he say. "Department of Homeland Reconstruction."
  1935. >You make your own introductions and wait for him to launch into his pitch after shaking his hand, but the man doesn't say anything for a bit, just looks out towards the dorms and the ponies at work.
  1936. "Curious about the ponies?"
  1937. >You hope not.
  1938. >"A bit, I suppose. What's going on?"
  1939. "We've got some construction planned. New housing."
  1940. >"Damn, exactly what I thought then. That may put a kink in my schedule. We were hoping to hire your ponies to help with *our* construction. Not enough workforce, you see. Lots of projects going on everywhere."
  1941. >He laughs and elbows your side.
  1942. >"Good thing, too. Kind of my job."
  1943. >You chuckle along nervously and wait for him to get to his point.
  1944. >"Are you getting new ponies too? There was a big load that came into town with us. Three of those big, green army trucks. You know, those soft top ones? Poor creatures must have been freezing in there. I kind of felt bad for them."
  1945. "Yeah, I imagine that'd be pretty cold, but no. No new ponies."
  1946. >"Ah," he grunts. "I thought maybe you had. Why new housing if you aren't getting any new ponies?"
  1947. "Just trying to treat the ones I got right. The dorms we have weren't really meant for long-term occupancy like this."
  1948. >"That's admirable."
  1949. >Timmons doesn't sound like he really means it, just that it's the socially correct polite response to the socially correct polite thing.
  1950. >"My department has it's own little idea it wants to start on, but I take it you've already heard. Your neighbor - Steffords? - already had some land picked out and said you did the same."
  1951. "That's correct. Want to hop in my truck and we can head down there?"
  1952. >"Works for me. I don't know how much off-roading this little rental can handle."
  1953. >He doesn't wait for you and climbs right on in. No hesitation.
  1954. >"I'm guessing it's the spot opposite your neighbor's?" Timmons asks as you get behind the wheel. "I hope it's better than what he showed me, though if not..."
  1955. >He shrugs.
  1956. >"We'll make it work. So far the rest of the project is coming in under budget and ahead of schedule, so we've got a little leeway with what we take here.
  1957. >"Can't have things going *too* well, you understand, or the higher ups will figure we can complete the next project with half the budget."
  1958. "Don't worry, I had one of my ponies check it out. It's sound ground."
  1959. >"Oh, really? That's nice."
  1960. "Had to be. I plan on doing a little building there myself."
  1961. >"I know the start of a pitch," Timmons chuckles. "Go on, let's hear it."
  1962. >You explain your idea - roughly - and he nods along, making polite noises as you go.
  1963. >"I suppose that could work," he comments once you've wrapped up. "And it wouldn't hurt us at all. This is just the start of the latest wave of reconstruction - tertiary routes and such. Things that were low priority before.
  1964. >"It'd be pretty nice for me if we could show higher than expected traffic or a clear economic boost.
  1965. >"After all, if this goes poorly, the department might cut this wave short and reroute resources elsewhere. We've only got one functioning port on either coast and the guy two office down keeps banging on about how important Alaska is now..."
  1966. >Timmons rolls his eyes at his own story and shakes his head.
  1967. >"Not as if the Chinese are doing any better than we are. Damn near everything we're using is being produced domestically, and everything we're producing is being used."
  1968. >His sigh turns into a chuckle.
  1969. >"I tell you what, private construction isn't technically under my purview, but it's a good idea. I'll see if I can talk to some folks and push through the permits you'll need. For the houses too, if you haven't gotten that straightened out yet.
  1970. >"You'll need to bring in inspectors for every step of construction, but if you keep pace with my crew I bet the inspectors wouldn't mind taking a look at your buildings too. They'll already be out here for the rest stop, so what the hell, right?"
  1971. "I'd really appreciate that."
  1972. >"No problem. The government is here to help!"
  1973. >Yeaaaaah...
  1974. >Well, you don't mind if he makes himself look good for his bosses if it means helping you out.
  1975. "We're just about there, exactly where you thought it'd be."
  1976. >"Good, good."
  1977. >You stop short though, this side of the maples, and hop out.
  1978. >He follows only just behind.
  1979. "Right here's where I was thinking for that bed and breakfast."
  1980. >You point out the small orange flags Maud had stuck into the ground in a rough outline.
  1981. "A small parking lot over there..."
  1982. >You point out some yellow flags.
  1983. "Nothing too big, of course."
  1984. >"Of course. It'd be a shame if no one used these new rest stop."
  1985. "Exactly."
  1986. >"It'd look bad on paper."
  1987. "I get you, Mr. Timmons. Don't worry - customers only."
  1988. >He nods happily.
  1989. "No utility lines yet, I'm afraid, but I suppose you'll have to run them out here for the rest stops."
  1990. >"Actually, there's a main running down the center of the road," Timmons comments smugly. "Goes right through the deadzone."
  1991. "Huh... and that... *works*?"
  1992. >"As long as it's pressurized, works just fine. Bonus is it kills off any bacteria or viruses that filtration might have missed and we don't have to worry about root infiltration for about half the length of it."
  1993. "Huuuuuh."
  1994. >"Power lines, though... we'll have to work on that. Anyway, on to business -"
  1995. "Right, sorry. The spot I was thinking for the rest stop is just on the other side of these trees."
  1996. >"Well, let's take a look at it."
  1997. >The trees aren't exactly dense, particularly without their leaves, but there's enough they're hard to see past the lot until you're about halfway through.
  1998. >Timmons cranes his head over to one side right about the same time you first hear their voices.
  1999. >"Looks like the foreman's already gotten started with the survey," he frowns, though you can't understand why.
  2000. >You nod.
  2001. "Not surprising. I'm afraid I talked your ear off back there."
  2002. >His head tilts over fractionally and he shrugs.
  2003. >"I suppose so," he answers. "Well, let's see what he thinks."
  2004. >The curl of his lip makes *you* think *he* doesn't actually give a damn about the other man's opinion.
  2005. >That's... their problem.
  2006. >Not good, but not your problem until they make it yours.
  2007. >You wave as you come through the trees.
  2008. >Apple Bloom waves back.
  2009. >It's good to see her smile again.
  2010. >She trots away from the five men in yellow vests she had been talking with and heads over to you and smiles again.
  2011. >Happy to be busy. Useful.
  2012. >Maybe even to see you, though you don't let your mind go to far down that road.
  2013. >Not the time for that.
  2014. >"They were just standin' about by the side of the road," Apple Bloom says to you. "Figured Ah should show 'em the land so they could get started. Ah mean, that's why you asked me to run out ahead of you, right?"
  2015. "Exactly."
  2016. >One of the men - wearing the same vest as all the others but with a red hardhat where the rest all have blue or white - catches up a second later, clearly slowed by his noticeable limp.
  2017. >"This here's Jack an' he -"
  2018. >"Jack's the foreman for the crew that'll be working on the rest stops," Timmons interrupts. "Used to live out in this area, didn't you?"
  2019. >"Close enough, I suppose," the man growls back.
  2020. >"Good, good," Timmons smirks. "I'm hoping we can help these folks out a bit with their little project."
  2021. >Jack nods.
  2022. >"Mean the houses, sir? Apple Bloom told me all about them."
  2023. >"Those too."
  2024. >Jack glances over to your pony and then nods.
  2025. >"Yes sir, shouldn't be a problem," he agrees, then points over across the road before Timmons can say anything else. "We've got the preliminary survey done on the neighbor's land wrapped up, if you wanted to take a look."
  2026. >"Sure, sure. That sounds fine."
  2027. >"Honestly, sir, I suggest we ask for a spot further up the road. Filling those holes is going to take a lot of time and material."
  2028. >Timmons snorts at the idea and starts walking.
  2029. >"Nonsense," he says, his back already to Jack. "This'll work juuuuust fine."
  2030. >The other man doesn't say anything, just shakes his head and watches him leave - at least, not until Timmons is upwind and across the road.
  2031. >*Then* he grunts one word and one word only.
  2032. >"Fucker."
  2033. "I guessing you two don't get along?"
  2034. >Jack shakes his head and pulls his hardhat free, revealing his bald scalp and a scraggly fringe of grey that matches the grey stubble on his cheeks.
  2035. >"Piece of shit doesn't give a fuck about doing things right. Efficiency doesn't matter at all - men *or* materials, even though there's places hurting hard for both."
  2036. >He sighs and runs a hand through his practically nonexistent hair.
  2037. >"I've only got my surveying crew with me today, but the rest will be coming soon - long before we're ready for them - just because he wants this done as fast as possible so he looks good."
  2038. >"Ain't that efficient?" Apple Bloom asks, but Jack shakes his head.
  2039. >"Fuck no. There are jobs those men could be doing elsewhere, instead of sitting on their hands here waiting for the raw construction to be done. Sure, this project might get a little delayed if their other jobs run long, but it's better than them doing fucking nothing."
  2040. >"Oh."
  2041. >"So, yeah, you could say Timmons and I aren't friends."
  2042. >Jack sighs again and puts his hardhat back on.
  2043. >"Tell you what, I'm generally a big fan of following the rules and all that, but *he's* the one fucking shit up and since we have his approval...
  2044. >"My men aren't supposed to leave the worksite - by the way, we're bringing in trailers with the rest of the crew, no sense spending half the day driving back and forth to work. Gonna park them on *your* land, if you don't mind, since it's stable - but I think we can arrange something."
  2045. "Like...?"
  2046. >He gives you a mischievous smile and winks.
  2047. >"Let me park those trailers on your land and I'll turn a blind eye to my men helping you out with your work in their spare time.
  2048. >"I've even got an electrician on the books, and it'll be a good long time before I have any work for him since we've got to get the new lines laid first. He's a good man. Likes to keep his hands busy. Doubt he'll mind spending some time helping you out for a few bucks on the side."
  2049. "That's... *great*! I'd really appreciate that. Timmons only said he'd have the inspectors do our buildings too, but that's great!"
  2050. >"I doubt he meant anything like this, but he doesn't really know *shit* about what happens once he's made his plans. It's his job to make blank promises and the job of us little folk to figure it out."
  2051. "So... you're the one *really* in charge. Got it."
  2052. >"Wouldn't go that far," Jack smirks, "at least not where anyone else can hear it. Unless I've had a few beers. Or it's a bull session, in which case I've probably already had a few beers."
  2053. "Any chance you've got a plumber too?"
  2054. >Jack shakes his head slowly.
  2055. >"Got one of them, yeah, but I doubt he'd be willing to do anything for you. In fact, it might be best for me if you kept your ponies out of this area so I don't have to listen to his bitching."
  2056. "Huh?"
  2057. >"Half of my crew are vets, me included. Combat engineers mostly, and I have to admit some of them still hold grudges."
  2058. "Ah..."
  2059. >Shit.
  2060. >"All of us were offered positions with the DoHR upon discharge because of our experience and y'know what? It's not so bad.
  2061. >"You take *one* fucking spear from a whacked out zeeb guerrilla and that's enough for any man. Even if they would taken me back the way my hip is now, I wasn't about to reenlist."
  2062. >Jack chuckles to himself while you mildly wonder if this is exactly what Silver was waiting for, but the man reaches down to pat Apple Bloom's head.
  2063. >"Now I don't want you getting any wrong ideas," he says. "I'm not going to let my men start trouble, but sometimes trouble has a way of starting all on it's own."
  2064. "I'm familiar. Even when both sides are trying not to."
  2065. >"You get it. Now *Timmons*... he wants to hire all the ponies around as raw labor and we're going to fucking need the help, but me? I'd like to minimize contact. No sense helping trouble out."
  2066. >Apple Bloom whines softly and sighs.
  2067. >"That's a dang shame," she grumbles. "We've been out here for three dang years with all the same folks an' Ah know it'd mean a lot to most've us to see a new face."
  2068. >Jack shrugs.
  2069. >"All I'm asking is to keep away when it's not necessary - and all I'm doing is asking. Actual worksite is different, since there's construction going on, but the trailers and all that? All I can do is *ask*.
  2070. >"But if my men want to go up to the farm on their free time, to help with construction -"
  2071. >He nods to you.
  2072. >"- or just to socialize -"
  2073. >He nods to Apple Bloom.
  2074. >"- that's between them and you. If you don't want them, I'll keep them on a short leash, but otherwise I'll step in only if there's a problem."
  2075. "That... uh..."
  2076. >Sure could use an electrician, among other things.
  2077. >Apple Bloom isn't exactly giving you puppy dog eyes, but close enough.
  2078. "... yeah, that sounds fine with me, but I'll have ponies working on -"
  2079. >"The bed and breakfast?" Jack interrupts. "Not a problem. That's over there on the other side of those trees and you know what they say - out of sight, out of mind."
  2080. "I suppose that'll work."
  2081. >"Glad we can see eye to eye on this. Well..."
  2082. >He reaches out and shakes your hand.
  2083. >Not saying hello, nor goodbye.
  2084. >This is a deal, as far as he's concerned, and it's sealed with that handshake.
  2085. >"... I thought things were pretty shit out here in the sticks," he sighs once everything's official, "but honestly it doesn't seem half bad, even for the ponies.
  2086. >"I saw a lot of them in town while we were passing through and most of them seemed happy. Hell, I talked a bit with the load that was traveling with us and they seemed pretty excited."
  2087. "Oh?"
  2088. >"Yep. They're looking forward to it. Said they're going to be working in a... shit, what was it? A stadium? Or... uh..."
  2089. "Amphitheater?"
  2091. >Bed calls, but you don't listen.
  2092. >There's work to be done.
  2093. >Not the work you *want* to do - no, you were up until four this morning doing *that* - but still work.
  2094. >Distasteful as it is - as it always has been, though now more than ever - it is still your duty.
  2095. >Even if Vinyl *is* dead.
  2096. >If you have no incentive.
  2097. >No hope for joy.
  2098. >That won't stop you.
  2099. >You made a deal with that man, after all.
  2100. >You glance over at your hutch and the small pill bottle on it.
  2101. >Maybe today?
  2102. >You have to deal with the new ponies in - well, *now* according to your clock - and something to make this bloody headache go away would be welcome.
  2103. >It's your own damned fault, you're very well aware, but things have clicked so brilliantly without the filthy things.
  2104. >No, not today.
  2105. >Your work - the work you *want* to do - is not yet finished.
  2106. >Risking it all, risking losing your groove, just to feel better for the benefit of *others* is ridiculous.
  2107. >You'll simply have to cope.
  2108. >After all, what is art if the artist does not suffer?
  2109. >You're not going to throw away the last four years for a momentary relief, assuming the suppressants would even settle your pain.
  2110. >You still give the bottle another look.
  2111. >Maybe you should flush it so you're not tempted again.
  2112. >This won't become any easier.
  2113. >... maybe after you welcome the new ponies.
  2114. >Yes.
  2115. >You're late.
  2116. >That simply will not do.
  2117. >You straighten your simple bow tie, throw your saddlebags over your back - thank the sun you had the foresight to pack all of the handouts last night - and leave, if not at a gallop then at a brisk canter.
  2118. >Despite your attempts to focus, the music does not leave your mind.
  2119. >So distracting is it that when you exit the back door, you nearly run straight into Derpy.
  2120. >Poor mare looks frightened half to death, though whether it's from narrowly escaping trampling or simply from where she is, you could not say.
  2121. >Perhaps if you could focus, but no. With the music playing through your head and your other duties, she's nothing but in your way.
  2122. >"Hi," she smiles at you. "I've got mail for the new ponies."
  2123. "Okay."
  2124. >"Are they...?"
  2125. "Give it here. I'll deliver them."
  2126. >More work on your part, but easier than answering her questions.
  2127. >Your mind is busy - to busy for her nonsense, though you feel somewhat guilty for your brusque tone.
  2128. >You'll apologize later.
  2129. >After-
  2130. >Her rustling through her mailbag drives you insane.
  2131. >Maybe -
  2132. >The noise makes it impossible to concentrate.
  2133. >If you -
  2134. >By the time she *finally* pulls the letters out, all of your progress has been lost.
  2135. >And then she holds them out to you in her mouth.
  2136. >And as you reach for the mail, your hoof touches her muzzle. Barely.
  2137. >And everything clicks.
  2138. >A snare.
  2139. >Yes.
  2140. >Of course you couldn't find the right note for a cello.
  2141. >You need percussion here.
  2142. >And -
  2143. >Yes.
  2144. >It all works now.
  2145. >You can *hear* the song.
  2146. >Not just in your mind, but with your whole body.
  2147. >You almost drop everything. Run inside. Write it out before it disappears again, but the music is so strong.
  2148. >It reverberates through your whole body.
  2149. >You're never going to forget it.
  2150. >It's never going to go away.
  2151. >Never again.
  2152. >"Is... everything okay?"
  2153. "No -"
  2154. >You have to go great the new mares.
  2155. "- but it will be."
  2156. >You can write this down after.
  2157. >The mare smiles - and -
  2158. >Oh, bother.
  2159. >You give her a hug.
  2160. >It's what she wants and you don't mind so much.
  2161. "I'll let the new mares know about what you do. Come back in a few days and I may have a few letters to go out."
  2162. >Derpy nods - a somewhat unpleasant sensation as her head is resting on your shoulder, though each motion is to the beat of the drums playing in your head.
  2163. >"Is there anything to go out now?"
  2164. >You wouldn't know - you've been too caught up in your own work - but it seems unlikely.
  2165. "I don't think so. No one was expecting you back so soon."
  2166. >"Sorry," Derpy murmurs into your mane, "I should come by more often."
  2167. "You should. I'll have a new song ready soon."
  2168. >"Really!?"
  2169. >You nod.
  2170. >"You haven't done anything in years!"
  2171. "I know. I'm hoping -"
  2172. >When was the last time you used that word?
  2173. >When was the last time you actually felt *hope*?
  2174. "- that amphitheater Sterling built can finally be put to use."
  2176. >So are the ponies you are to meet.
  2177. >Twenty of them, all bright eyed and eager.
  2178. >They're too absorbed in their conversation to notice you, too distracted by the newness of this world - and the effects of their suppressants.
  2179. >It's been a few days, but it takes longer than that to adjust.
  2180. >One of the unicorns goes nearly cross-eyed trying to open her pack with magic she cannot summon before the Earth mare beside her laughs and opens it for her.
  2181. >Must not have been the first time - the group shares a good natured giggle, even the mare stretched out staring into the sky, basking as if she were laying on a hot summer beach and not on a cold stone bench in winter.
  2182. >Her coat is even unbuttoned.
  2183. >On the way here, you'd come to wish you'd worn yours but no, you hadn't thought to grab it and it was too late to go back and get it.
  2184. >It's okay.
  2185. >Just seeing that mare laze about in the sun like a cat makes the you feel warmer. Somehow.
  2186. >Between their various distractions, you get close enough to hear their happy voices - close enough to make out what they're saying.
  2187. >Close enough to stand right beside them without being noticed.
  2188. >It happens.
  2189. >You remember what it was like when you first took the suppressants - that you couldn't feel anything. Sounds seemed duller, you couldn't see anything unless you were looking right at it.
  2190. >Maybe you're cruel for taking advantage of them, but their conversation is too pleasant to interrupt.
  2191. >It's been too long.
  2192. >The mares at Sterling Stables, even the ones that don't mind the work - and the few that *enjoy* it - don't talk like this.
  2193. >"What do you think we'll be doing?" the mare on the bench asks her companions as their current topic settles into a lull, "Concessions?"
  2194. >"Or cleaning up after a show?"
  2195. >"Sweetie's probably here to sing!"
  2196. >"If that's what they want me to do. I don't mind earning my way, but I'm here to find my friends."
  2197. >"And I'm here so I don't freeze my flank off every time I step outside!"
  2198. >More laughter.
  2199. >"It's a pretty big amphitheater for such a small town," an Earth mare comments once the giggling dies down. "I don't think it's seen a lot of use."
  2200. >"True, I couldn't really see everything from the road but the town didn't seem much bigger than Ponyville -"
  2201. >Smaller, you think, but it's been a few months since you walked the town.
  2202. >It could have grown significantly.
  2203. >Certainly the diner has been busier than ever.
  2204. >" - and we *never* had anything like this."
  2205. >"Well, I don't see any crystal palaces either, so..."
  2206. >More giggling.
  2207. >"Maybe it's brand new?"
  2208. >"Nah, judging by weathering, I'd say it's definitely a few years old."
  2209. >"So things will be pretty easy," a pegasus laughs. "If there aren't any shows, there won't be anything for us to do, right? Easiest job ever!"
  2210. >"We didn't pick hard labor," another murmurs, "but I don't think it'll be *that* easy."
  2211. "I'm... afraid...
  2212. >When was the last time you used *that* word? That you felt *afraid*?
  2213. >That there was something to lose.
  2214. >Why now, after you've lost everything?
  2215. >You would inspect that feeling more, but you have taken long enough.
  2216. >Twenty pairs of eyes are staring at you. Waiting. Expecting. Shocked.
  2217. >Not as badly as they will be.
  2218. "I'm afraid -"
  2219. >And you are. You really are.
  2220. "- it won't be that simple."
  2222. >"Believe me, that coulda gone a *lot* worse."
  2223. "I know, Apple Bloom. I'm still a little worried that we might have issues with some of the guys, but -"
  2224. >"Seriously, a *LOT* worse."
  2225. "I know, I know."
  2226. >She's right.
  2227. >You raise your hands in surrender.
  2228. >Probably not the safest thing since you're driving, but it's not as there's any other cars around.
  2229. >Or roads.
  2230. >Or ponies, besides the one sitting beside you. Hopefully.
  2231. "But I can't help but think about how it *could* go wrong."
  2232. >And that maybe you're looking forward to it.
  2233. >Silver had a point.
  2234. >It wasn't rational, but it was still true.
  2235. >"Now that you've already agreed to it an' all?" Apple Bloom says with a mixture of exasperation and mirth.
  2236. >Like she's tired of you doing stupid shit but it still amuses her.
  2237. "Yeah. Exactly."
  2238. >That probably *is* how she feels. You hope.
  2239. "Now that it's too late but before anything bad actually happens."
  2240. >"Well -"
  2241. "It's stupid, I know."
  2242. >You don't mind being stupid if it means you get to see her smile again.
  2243. >Moondancer was wrong. There's nothing wrong with leaning on friends from time to time.
  2244. >"Ain't really," Apple Bloom says. "So long as you ain't just regrettin'. If you take the time to really think about it you can try to stop anything from happenin'."
  2245. "I already agreed to let the men stay on our land - and I can't go back on that, we *really* need the help."
  2246. >Your friend nods.
  2247. "But what if Bon Bon runs into one of them?"
  2248. >"See, now you're thinkin' about it. How're you gonna stop that from happenin'?"
  2249. "Oh. Huh."
  2250. >Selling her is probably not the answer Bloom is getting at, but it's the first one that comes to mind.
  2251. >"Ah figure it ain't enough to keep her away from where they're stayin', what with some of 'em coming up to help with the houses. We'll gotta keep her - an' a couple others - out've their way or we might lose their help."
  2252. "Locking her in isn't an option, is it?"
  2253. >It was your second idea. Shooting her was third.
  2254. >You're proud that you had them in that order.
  2255. >Apple Bloom pretends to look like she's considering it for a second before she shakes her head.
  2256. "I know, that'd just make her worse."
  2257. >"Ah dunno if she *can* be worse, but it'll drive Lyra crazy an' that poor mare don't deserve that. Well, crazier."
  2258. "So I can't let her stay at the dorms and I can't let her work on the bed and breakfast, soooo..."
  2259. >Ah!
  2260. >You would snap your fingers, but you've never really been any good at that.
  2261. "Got it. She can start making candy. Roma's got the kitchen at the dorms in use pretty much 24/7, but the one at the house isn't."
  2262. >There's no way that can go wrong!
  2263. "I mean, I've never *made* candy, but..."
  2264. >You shrug. Hard.
  2265. "It's the same as any other cooking, right?"
  2266. >"Well... Ah suppose."
  2267. >Apparently not.
  2268. >You know that expression - that she thinks you're not quite right but close enough and knows trying to explain it will only confuse things.
  2269. >Like crop rotation.
  2270. >That was a long conversation. Things kept going in circles.
  2271. >"Still it's a bit early, ain't it? Gonna be a while before we can start sellin' it."
  2272. "So?"
  2273. >"Ah mean, it'll keep her busy, but there's gotta be somethin' better. You know, somethin' *productive*."
  2274. "Apple Bloom, when's the last time the foals had any candy?"
  2276. >Bells ring in the distance.
  2277. >The only church with a bell tower is new - at the far end of town.
  2278. >Normally you can't hear them. Between your work or practicing with your cello, there's always something, but not today. The air is so still the bells cut right through the music playing in your head, discordantly chiming where there should be a soft lull of strings instead.
  2279. >The mares all stare at you in silence as the bells go their full count.
  2280. >"You... you can't be serious," the first to speak says softly. "This is insane."
  2281. "It..."
  2282. >"This isn't right!" one of the mares - on second glance, Rarity's sister - screams.
  2283. >She's grown.
  2284. "I know."
  2285. >"She's got to be lying," another mumbles. "Why would this be real?"
  2286. >"Why would she lie?"
  2287. >"Because..."
  2288. >"This is insane," the first says again. "It can't be real."
  2289. >"What in Celestia's name makes you think we would agree to this?" Sweetie Belle demands, stamping her hoof on the concrete. "And why did *you*?"
  2290. >Why indeed?
  2291. >You shouldn't have.
  2292. >None of you should have.
  2293. "It was better than what we had."
  2294. >You shrug.
  2295. "It wasn't originally supposed to be like that, but things didn't... work out."
  2296. >It was - to some extent - your fault.
  2297. >You couldn't bring the crowds. You couldn't make the music. Not by yourself.
  2298. "It was still better than what we had in the refugee camps. He gave us clean rooms, baths, and warm meals. We would have been happy with *anything* to eat, but..."
  2299. >No, you're not going to defend Sterling.
  2300. >Your choices?
  2301. >The other mares?
  2302. >Maybe.
  2303. >If not defend... they seemed like the right choices at the time.
  2304. "... even after... things changed... there was still some dignity to it."
  2305. >"Seriously!?"
  2306. >"How can you say that?"
  2307. "Most of the mares felt it was better than being penned into a muddy field liked... like *animals*."
  2308. >You wonder how they feel about that now.
  2309. >For your own part, you're not sure.
  2310. >He no longer has anything to offer you.
  2311. >With the music back, you hardly taste your food.
  2312. >The music is all the seasoning you could ever need.
  2313. >Warmth?
  2314. >If you want to be warm, you could find Derpy again.
  2315. >Surely she would love another hug.
  2316. >"Warm meals sound nice," a pegasus comments quietly, but not quietly enough to avoid getting ugly glares from the others.
  2317. >"Would you *really* go along with this, Eastern? Just for some hot food?"
  2318. >"You're an Earth Pony!" the pegasus snaps back. "You don't know what it's been like up in the clouds! But... no! Never! I'm not saying this isn't right, but..."
  2319. >"We can fight back! There's twenty of us, and... and how many other ponies work here? The human working with the placement office said... she said more than thirty, right? That we wouldn't be alone? We can refuse! We'll - we'll *fight* them if they try to make us!"
  2320. >You shake your head, though you can't be certain any of them are paying any attention to you any longer.
  2321. "The ponies here won't help you."
  2322. >"Why not!?"
  2323. "We -"
  2324. >That's not true anymore, is it?
  2325. "*They* are content. The ones that objected were either sold or... or died."
  2326. >"DIED!?"
  2327. >"This is insane!"
  2328. >"What do you mean 'died'?"
  2329. >"She's full of it. Forget this, I'm leaving. Come on, Eastern. Let's see them try to -"
  2330. >The mare's wings flap - her friend hesitates - but her hooves never leave the ground.
  2331. >No magic.
  2332. >"Whatever. I can still run. I'm not going to stay here and let the humans kill me! What did you get us into, Sweetie?"
  2333. "I... I wouldn't recommend that."
  2334. >Of course not. That's why you're still here.
  2335. "Most who have been killed died while trying to escape."
  2336. >Rarity's sister looks around, at the others, at the amphitheater, at the road that must be beyond the ridge.
  2337. >"I don't *see* any guards!" she tries to rally the others with anger. "Who killed our friends?"
  2338. >Friends?
  2339. >She doesn't even know who -
  2340. >She's not wrong, though.
  2341. >"I *really* doubt it the other ponies!"
  2342. "This isn't the city, Sweetie Belle."
  2343. >You try to say it as gently as possible.
  2344. "Things can be rough here. Most of the humans are pleasant enough, but didn't the placement board warn you about Humans First?"
  2345. >A few look at each other, clearly confused.
  2346. >Either they weren't warned or they didn't believe it.
  2347. "They're -"
  2348. >"You almost sound like you're *defending* what goes on here," a unicorn interrupts you. "Either that or you're lying. Where are all the humans anyway? I bet you're *lying*. Trying to scare the new ponies. Well, it won't work! You can't *imagine* what we've seen!"
  2349. "No."
  2350. >You shake your head.
  2351. >Maybe a few days ago, but... no.
  2352. >What's there to defend?
  2353. >A better life?
  2354. >A roof over your head?
  2355. >Not *starving*?
  2356. >That isn't *enough* anymore.
  2357. >It never should have been.
  2358. "But you can't imagine what we've been through, either. Run if you want, just know you'll be hunted down."
  2359. >"By the man that bought us?"
  2360. "No. Sterling doesn't care."
  2361. >"Then why did he buy our contracts!?"
  2362. "Because... because he was looking for a particular pony."
  2363. >It's your fault.
  2364. "He... he still has hope."
  2365. >"For WHAT!?"
  2366. "That - one day - he too can hear the music."
  2368. "Beef would be nice."
  2369. >Roma rolls her eyes, as you knew she would.
  2370. "I just said it would be *nice*. I know it's not realistic."
  2371. >"If you had some, I could, but -"
  2372. "I know, I know. Don't worry about my dinner. I told Moondancer I'd make spaghetti for her."
  2373. >"Okay then," Roma sighs and shrugs.
  2374. >You let her get back to her work, but that makes it sound like *you* were the one that stopped *her*.
  2375. >She's the one who walked up behind you while you're watching the magic show and asked what you wanted for dinner!
  2376. >"But wait." she says, stopping after only a few steps and looking over her shoulder with a bit of a grin. "You're... uh..."
  2377. >Roma eyes dart away for a second.
  2378. >Like they used to when she spoke to you - back when she was always scared.
  2379. >But when they come back to you, she's still smirking.
  2380. >Still scared - or at least uncertain - but still has that grin.
  2381. >"... you're cooking dinner for a *mare*?"
  2382. "What? I can cook. I can cook *spaghetti*. It's not that hard."
  2383. >"That's not what I meant," she laughs with relief.
  2384. >"Yeah," Apple Bloom mumbles beside you and gently kicks your thigh, "somepony might think that means somethin'. Fair certain that's what Roma's gettin' at. Heck, Ah might even feel a bit... a bit jealous."
  2385. >Maybe she's joking. Maybe she really does. Just a bit.
  2386. >She sounds playful, but looks back to the makeshift stage too quickly.
  2387. >Not really much of a stage, to be honest. It's the foal's 'classroom' - the new blackboard is hanging from the back wall.
  2388. >Someone pushed everything out of the way to make space.
  2389. >That's the extent of the 'stage'.
  2390. >Doesn't seem to diminish anyone's enthusiasm, lest of all the foals.
  2391. >They're clapping their little hooves together excitedly with each new trick.
  2392. >"Can you believe it?" Apple Bloom asks softly.
  2393. "I don't see why not."
  2394. >"Well, Ah guess you didn't know her 'fore all this happened."
  2395. "I didn't know Trixie at all until a few weeks ago."
  2396. >You shrug.
  2397. "Still don't, really."
  2398. >"Well, lemme tell you, the *old* Trixie... well... uh..."
  2399. >You clap along with the foals while Apple Bloom tries to find her words.
  2400. >"Ah was raised to tell the truth, y'know?"
  2401. >You nod.
  2402. >"An' Ah was raised never to speak ill of somepony. So that's all Ah can say about that."
  2403. "She wasn't a very good magician?"
  2404. >"Ain't what Ah'm sayin'."
  2405. >You shrug.
  2406. "She seems like she's having fun."
  2407. >And everyone else, too.
  2408. >As soon as you drove up to the dorms, a pony ran out to wave you inside.
  2409. >You'd wondered why no one was outside.
  2410. >It felt almost warm compared to some of the recent weather.
  2411. >Apparently she hadn't started too long before, trying to keep the foals entertained while their parents worked.
  2412. >It just kinda turned into entertaining *everyone*.
  2413. >And you can see why.
  2414. "Well, I think she's pretty good."
  2415. >It's not like she arrived with any props or anything, but that hasn't stopped her from separating hoops made from what you suspect was your good bailing wire or pulling a very surprised chicken out of a folded paper hat - and that's only what you've been here to see.
  2416. "If I didn't know better, I'd think she was doing real magic. Except, well, I know it's just... well... *magic*."
  2417. >Apple Bloom looks at you like you've gone full retard.
  2418. >As you play the words back in your head, you think she may be right.
  2419. "I mean, Trixie's off her pills, so -"
  2420. >"She ain't one of Moondancer's volunteers."
  2421. "Oh."
  2422. >Huh.
  2423. "So she's doing magic tricks, not real magic?"
  2424. >Apple Bloom nods.
  2425. "Then I guess she's really good."
  2426. >"It's her special talent, after all. But when it comes to actual magic, she ain't all that."
  2427. "Says the Earth Pony."
  2428. >"- who *knew* th' Princess of magic, remember?"
  2429. "You and everyone else. I know. Remember when Trixie threatened to tell Twilight Sparkle if I didn't give her a room of her own?"
  2430. >"Ah don't think Ah was there for that," Apple Bloom smirks. "Did she really?"
  2431. "Mhm, the morning after she arrived."
  2432. "Oh. That was... um... a busy day."
  2433. >By unspoken agreement, by mutual shame, you both look away.
  2434. >Shit.
  2435. >That *was*.
  2436. >Between losing your temper and almost killing Silver, it was amazing you had time for Trixie's bullshit.
  2437. >Yeah, she can be a bit of a bitch, can't she?
  2438. >Still...
  2439. "I should... get back to work. I bet Moondancer is waiting on me."
  2440. >Apple Bloom grunts.
  2441. "Did..."
  2442. >She is jealous, isn't she?
  2443. "Did you want to come along? I'm sure you'd have some insight that -"
  2444. >"Naw," she answers softly - with a gentle smile, even. "Y'all got that covered. Ah'll stay an' enjoy the show."
  2445. >You -
  2446. >Would it be cruel?
  2447. >Would it even be appropriate?
  2448. >You don't pat her head as you get up.
  2449. >Don't say anything else before walking away.
  2450. >Is this the other shoe?
  2451. >Did it drop?
  2452. >You're just starting to get along again, and now...
  2453. >She's worried you don't need her?
  2454. >Jealous that you're spending time with Moondancer instead of her?
  2455. >Both?
  2456. >Worries occupy your thoughts the entire walk back.
  2457. >Yes, walk.
  2458. >You're so lost in thought, you only remember your truck is parked outside the dorms when you're walking in your front door.
  2459. >Well. Dang.
  2460. >You'll get it later.
  2461. >Still wondering about Apple Bloom, so hard it takes an embarrassingly long moment for you to realize why there's no place for you to sit when you reach your office.
  2462. >There's two chairs. There *should* be room.
  2463. >And yet... there isn't?
  2464. >"Welcome back," Silver finally says. "Should I -"
  2465. >"No," Moondancer snaps. "He can stand."
  2466. >"Okay, but -"
  2467. "Why...?"
  2468. >"Because she's hurt and I'm grumpy."
  2469. "No, I was just confused because -"
  2470. >"You're an idiot?"
  2471. "No! I forgot that Silver was here!"
  2472. >"Because you're an idiot."
  2473. >"I've been fairly productive," Silver interrupts your oh-so-eloquent exchange. "Such as -"
  2474. "Wait... that's not the only thing I forgot. I didn't drive you up here this morning, did I? *How* did you get here?"
  2475. >"I walked."
  2476. "Should you *be* walking?"
  2477. >"No," Moondancer answers quickly. "She should *not*."
  2478. >"Probably not," the other mare admits, blushing faintly, "but I felt fine."
  2479. "... huh. Sorry, I meant to, but the guy from the government showed up and - and that was already after you got here. Damn, sorry, I guess I've been busy lately -"
  2480. >"But it's been the good kind of busy," Silver says, turning back to your computer and bringing up a window, "Productive busy. Don't feel bad. I had some questions and arrived early. It didn't take long, but I found a buyer for -"
  2482. "Bear with it, do your job, and you can be rewarded. Some of the mares have their own private rooms, with a TV -"
  2483. >"What's a TV?" an Earth pony asks. "Not - not that I -"
  2484. >"Seriously?" the unicorn beside her sneers. "You stupid mudpony, it's a -"
  2485. >"It doesn't matter," Sweetie Belle interrupts the other unicorn. "If you don't go along with their scheme, you won't have one. Right?"
  2486. "There *is* one in the communal living room. Most of the working rooms have them as well."
  2487. >"Working rooms?"
  2488. >"I'm assuming the rooms where... we'll..."
  2489. >"No," Sweetie Belle insists. "We won't do it, so it doesn't matter."
  2490. "I sympathize and appreciate your position, but..."
  2491. >"No!"
  2492. "... if you don't work, you won't be fed."
  2493. >"What is wrong with this place!?" Sweetie shouts. "What's wrong with the placement board? Wasn't this place inspected? Isn't it supposed to be *safe*!?"
  2494. "It... is. Not one workplace injury or death on record."
  2495. >As far as you know, Master Sterling has never filed a claim with his insurance. Not once.
  2496. >You come through to the end of the path.
  2497. >The diner is right ahead, the 'motel' and gas station just beyond.
  2498. "Would you care for the tour now?"
  2499. >You look back to the mares again.
  2500. >They hardly felt the cold before, seemed to find the current weather almost tropical, but some - some are shivering as they look at their new home.
  2501. >Shaking.
  2502. >Others stare with dead eyes, others with anger.
  2503. "You... you can try to escape if you want. I won't say anything, but the sheriff is no doubt expecting someone to. I assume he is watching."
  2504. >None of the marked cars are in the parking lot, but that doesn't mean anything.
  2505. >To your relief, no one moves.
  2506. >That beat up truck at the end of the parking lot... is it familiar or are you simply imagining things?
  2507. >You are not, however, imagining the gun rack mounted on its rear window, the rifle that is no doubt loaded and ready.
  2508. >But no one inside. He could be... could have gotten tired of waiting.
  2509. "It's some distance, but... perhaps..."
  2510. >No, too far.
  2511. >They'd never make it to the next town.
  2512. >Where could they run to?
  2513. >Who would protect them?
  2514. >There are some here who might try.
  2515. >Derpy's owner, for one.
  2516. >He keeps the sheriff from harassing her after all, lets her go freely through the town without escort.
  2517. >But could he protect this many?
  2518. >There is only so much insult that man will take. Sterling, as well.
  2519. "Perhaps... a hot meal first?"
  2521. "Beer?"
  2522. >Moondancer answers with a groan that - as far as you can tell - means something between 'yes, please!' and 'fuck you for existing'.
  2523. >You grab another out of the fridge before walking into the living room, so there's absolutely NO call for the glare she gives you.
  2524. "What."
  2525. >"This isn't spagoots," she grumbles and nudges her plate piled high with... well... what you were pretty damn sure was spagoots but apparently not.
  2526. "Uuuuuuuuh..."
  2527. >It's angel hair pasta. Got tomato sauce. Something that society has decided to pretend is cheese sprinkled on it.
  2528. >"It's too fancy."
  2529. "Ah...?"
  2530. >"What's this fucking green stuff?"
  2531. "Basil?"
  2532. >"Yeah, fuck is up with that?"
  2533. "I thought it would taste nice."
  2534. >"Huh."
  2535. >Moondancer leans out over the TV tray you had set up for her and sniffs at her meal.
  2536. >"I don't like it. You did things to it."
  2537. "I swear, all I did was make spaghetti."
  2538. >"I wanted spagoots. You did it right the first time, so you *know* how to do it! How did you fuck it up?"
  2539. >You hand her the beer - which she takes without complaint but without stopping staring at you like you WRONGED her. If she has a list, you're going on it.
  2540. "The first time was straight out of the can."
  2541. >"Yes. Spagoots."
  2542. "Well, I only had two cans and we used them, so I thought I'd make something nicer."
  2543. >"But it's not spagoots."
  2544. "It's still spaghetti."
  2545. >"But it's not spagoots!"
  2546. >You don't think you're going to win this fight.
  2547. >She'll eat it when she gets hungry.
  2548. >Or set you, the house, and part of the atmosphere on fire.
  2549. "Please tell me you're not going to set anything on fire."
  2550. >"Would it get me spagoots?" Moondancer snaps. "Because if it would -"
  2551. "It wouldn't."
  2552. >"Then I guess I won't."
  2553. "That's nice. Silver, any complaints about your meal?"
  2554. >The other mare shakes her head, a trailing bit of of spaghetti twirling about as it dangles from her mouth.
  2555. >Guess the temptation was too much for her to wait.
  2556. "I suppose I should have offered you a beer, but -"
  2557. >"That's quite alright," she says politely after dabbing away some sauce from her mouth with her napkin. "I shouldn't be drinking."
  2558. >"*Or* walking," Moondancer barks.
  2559. >"Or walking, I suppose. Thank you for letting me stay here tonight."
  2560. "No problem. If you tried to walk back, Moondancer might set you on fire."
  2562. >Maybe you shouldn't poke that bear.
  2563. "Sorry, sorry. I meant magical laser murder."
  2564. >"That's better," she harrumphs like an old man, followed seconds later by her eyes popping wide open and her slamming a hoof into her chair's arm. "I'm not laser murdering anyone either!"
  2565. "That's good. You're over the worst of the withdrawal now?"
  2566. >"YES! I'm over it completely!"
  2567. "So this is just your natural personality?"
  2568. >"I'm - can we just *watch* something!?"
  2569. "Are you going to eat your spaghetti?"
  2570. >She looks at her plate and grimaces.
  2571. >"I'm not going to waste food, but no promises that I'll *enjoy* it."
  2572. "Good enough."
  2574. >Being in charge is... if you had to pick a word, you'd say troublesome.
  2575. >Not that you have any right to complain, of course.
  2576. >You're exempt from the duties of the other mares, but it wouldn't be fair for you to not *work*.
  2577. >A mare must earn her keep!
  2578. >Particularly now, after you've told that to so many others. After you've looked down on them for not doing their part, for raising a fuss when *all* they had to do was what was expected of them.
  2579. >But now...
  2580. >You can *hear* the music again.
  2581. >You can do what you were brought here to do!
  2582. >What you were *born* to do!
  2583. >You yearn to leave the room assignments and work schedule for later. Or tell the new mares to sort themselves out. Anything to get back to your cello.
  2584. >But every time the thought strikes you, the music hits a bitter note.
  2585. >The new mares are huddled about the table in the common room. Eating.
  2586. >You hadn't been about to let them become a spectacle, something for the humans to gawk over.
  2587. >The customers can see the new mares when their work begins. They aren't ready for it yet.
  2588. >No, you'd had their meals delivered here.
  2589. >It was the right call, in more ways than one.
  2590. >The way some tear into their food might have put some of the other diners off of theirs.
  2591. >Bereft of their clothing, you can see how lean some of them are. The pegasi mostly.
  2592. >Not starvation thin, not like you and your companions were before Sterling, but certainly underweight.
  2593. >Only Sweetie refuses to eat.
  2594. >You glance up from the half-filled schedule; she still hasn't eaten a bite.
  2595. >She'd refused to order, too. You'd had to do that for her.
  2596. >Maybe you'd chosen... no, it wouldn't have mattered what you'd ordered.
  2597. >She sneers when she sees you looking her way.
  2598. >"Here, Eastern," she says, pushing her styrofoam box towards the pegasus. "You look like you're still hungry."
  2599. >"R-really? But... no, you should eat, too!"
  2600. >"Take it, Eastern."
  2601. >"Hey," a unicorn snaps as discordant notes swirl through your mind. "She said she didn't want it. Let me -"
  2602. >"Hold up there," an earth pony barks back, "you got plenty to eat. Manehattan still has a portal and I *know* the humans were bringing in aid shipments for you all."
  2603. >"So? You got them too!"
  2604. >"But you got it *first*!"
  2605. >"So what? Everypony got the same thing and it was all *cold*. I just want -"
  2606. >"You *say* that, but I'm know for a fact -"
  2607. >"I'm giving it to Eastern," Sweetie says firmly, a loud drum beat that drowns out the rest. "She needs it the most."
  2608. >"Well, I don't really *need* it -"
  2609. "I'll have more brought."
  2610. >The last thing you need is them fighting, though... it would mean they would be unable to present a unified front. Harder to resist. It might be better for them in the long run, if they just gave up, if ...
  2611. >No, no.
  2612. >You can't think like that.
  2613. "Be careful not to eat too much. If... well..."
  2614. >They aren't as bad off as the ponies from the camps, but it still sounds like rich food might be more than their stomachs can take.
  2615. "Try not to make yourselves sick."
  2616. >"Because if we're sick, we can't *work*," Sweetie snarls. "Am I right?"
  2617. "That won't matter to some of the men who come here. Better to be well fed and healthy enough to fight back if you don't want them to take you anyway."
  2618. >You walk over to the low coffee table the mares have their food on - one of the pegasi hunches over hers like a starving dog afraid you're going to steal her meal away. She raises a wing - blocking her neighbor from reaching for it while keeping her eyes locked on you? Or is it a threat?
  2619. >A strike from a wing is no laughing matter.
  2620. >Troubling, but you try to - outwardly - show no signs of noticing.
  2621. >After all, you're simply reaching for the remote.
  2622. >None of the mares had noticed it - or the TV.
  2623. "So you don't get bored."
  2624. >Bored? You couldn't give a half about them being *bored*.
  2625. >You want them to stop fighting.
  2626. >It's making the music *wrong*.
  2627. >You set it to something hopefully inoffensive, eventually settling on a documentary about pre-Twilight Earth wildlife.
  2628. >The cute animals should mend some hurt feelings.
  2629. >Hopefully it won't cover the extinctions.
  2630. "Sweetie Belle?"
  2631. >"What."
  2632. "Will you come with me?"
  2633. >"Why? So you -"
  2634. "I'll need help carrying the food."
  2635. >"Uh-huuuuuh."
  2636. >She's the most resistant, and yet the most agreeable. The least afraid. She's holding herself together better than any of the other new ponies.
  2637. >The rest...
  2638. >Perhaps your memory is biased, but you don't remember the refugees from the camps acting like this.
  2639. >You're wrong, of course. You must be. Objectively you know this.
  2640. >They stole from one another, hoarded what they had, refused to help.
  2641. >Most of them.
  2642. >You remember one young mare who refused to give in to the culture that grew from refugee camp.
  2643. >How she tried to force everyone back to the right path.
  2644. >It should be no surprise her friend is refusing to give in as well.
  2645. >But it felt *different*. Where the ponies from the camps were devoid of hope, the newcomers feel... *wrong*.
  2646. >*Corrupted*.
  2647. >They shouldn't be like this.
  2648. >You're not entirely sure if Sweetie will come, but you hope appealing to her desire to help the others will bring her along.
  2649. >It does.
  2650. >As you turn your back, she says reassuring words to the rest and jumps up to follow.
  2651. >Telling them not to worry, not to fight. That there will be plenty for everyone.
  2652. >No, that's not what she says.
  2653. >She says every*pony*.
  2654. >How odd it sounds - you've all but forgotten that word.
  2655. >You walk ahead - but not too far ahead. She'll be with you momentarily.
  2656. >Down the hall just a bit, down towards the door.
  2657. >When you hear her hooves on the floor, you -
  2658. >"What? Are you going to threaten me? Demand I -"
  2659. "I just want you to answer a question."
  2660. >"What?"
  2661. "What... what happened? What happened to Equestria? What happened to... to *them*?"
  2662. >Sweetie's mouth gapes.
  2663. >"You... you don't know!?" she stammers. "You have to know! How could anypony *not*!?"
  2664. "I'm afraid the news from Equestria is rather limited here, and I assume the other way about as well."
  2665. >Her confusion, her total disbelief, are written across her face stronger than anything you've seen from her before.
  2666. "For example, I take it you didn't see the conditions we lived in at the refugee camps...?"
  2667. >If she had seen *anything* it would have to be that... but no.
  2668. >The young mare looks away for a moment, gathering her courage to speak. Ignoring your question.
  2669. >Her own burdens weigh too heavily on her.
  2670. >How strange, when she had no difficulties shouting out all your evils earlier.
  2671. "Is it truly that bad?"
  2672. >She nods.
  2673. >"The Windigo came. Why did you think we were all wearing those heavy coats?"
  2674. "I - I didn't know."
  2675. >Her lips start to curl into the sneer she's worn almost since you first greeted her, but can't quite make it.
  2676. >Her memories sap her will to fight like no threat ever could.
  2678. >Been a while, so you figured... ah, hell, you just want to see him again.
  2679. >Takin' a pony 'cross the road is just an excuse.
  2680. >Not a bad one, though. Someone's really pushin' things through with the government.
  2681. >Da got the call last night. Went into town early this mornin' and should be signin' the paperwork today to lease out your ponies to help with the construction.
  2682. >Don't know why they couldn't come *here*, or why it had to be done *now*, but...
  2683. >It was time for someone to do a supply run anyway.
  2684. >An' you figured, well, might as well take advantage. New things always make the ponies spooked. Make *anyone* spooked, but all things considered...
  2685. >If you got one or two've the ponies used to the idea of bein' 'cross the road, maybe meetin' new folk, it'll make things smoother. Rest'll follow their lead.
  2686. >Few years of conditionin's hard to shake.
  2687. >An' it sure as hell shows.
  2688. >Damn near had to pick up the mare an' carry her over the fence, Daddy's got it so damn beaten into them that they ain't to even get close, but she finally did it.
  2689. >Road's got her stopped dead, though.
  2690. "C'mon, Red."
  2691. >You pat your leg like you would for a dog.
  2692. >Hurts your soul that you do it without thinkin', treatin' 'em like that, but... it usually works.
  2693. >She looks 'round carefully, like she expects to see daddy or one've the hands jumpin' out at her the second her hoof hits the asphalt.
  2694. >Don't know why.
  2695. >Poor thing can't see anything ever since her glasses gave up the ghost a year or so back.
  2696. >Surprising it lasted that long, really. Frame was barely holdin' together when she got here.
  2697. >Still, she's one of the braver ponies, in her own way. Not defiant really, more too stupid to know when she should keep her mouth shut.
  2698. >Well... not stupid. Optimistic?
  2699. >Not quite, but... whatever.
  2700. >If it'd been any other pony than her that'd volunteered - an' you hadn't been expectin' *any* to, hadn't even crossed your mind that one *might*, you were just tryin' to explain what you were 'bout to do so they didn't get too worried - but if it'd been any other pony, you'd've turned 'em down figurin' they were up to somethin', but her?
  2701. >Nah. It'll be fine.
  2702. >Come to think of it, you probably would have picked her anyway.
  2703. >You didn't want to bring a pony that'd think they could make a break for it. She's brave in her own way, but not like that.
  2704. >It's too damn cold for you to go chasin' after a runaway, but she won't try it.
  2705. >Too timid.
  2706. >She's walkin' awkward, too. Bit of a limp, keepin' her right foreleg tight to her body.
  2707. >You hope she hasn't hurt herself.
  2708. >Hope even more one've the other ponies didn't do it to her.
  2709. >Things bein' how they are, it wouldn't be the first time the ponies' tempers snapped.
  2710. >Like any critter, they'll lash out at anything if you put 'em under enough stress. Their owners, the hands, each other...
  2711. >If the ponies are fightin', that can't go anywhere good.
  2712. >Great. Another thing to worry about.
  2713. >You sigh inwardly and put on a worried smile.
  2714. >"You doin' okay, Red?"
  2715. >"Yeth, mith."
  2716. >She's always had that lisp, but... nah, she's just nervous. That's all.
  2717. >You hope.
  2718. "Then c'mon. Take that first step."
  2719. >Gotta put a bit of an edge in her voice to make her follow you across the road, but she does.
  2720. >Slowly.
  2721. >Her foreleg tucked tight and stiff.
  2722. "I'll show you around the area you'll be workin', Red, an' I called up my friend. He says he'll meet us soon."
  2723. >"And Apple Bloom?"
  2724. >She's already asked that twice. Don't know why she's askin' a third time, not like your answer's gonna change.
  2725. "I'm afraid not. Just him."
  2726. >"But why?"
  2727. "Because I said no."
  2728. >"But... mith..."
  2729. "No"
  2730. >A little hope gives 'em something to look forward to, keeps 'em goin', but is dangerous all the same.
  2731. >Last thing you - or they - need is some of the ponies sneakin' off, tryin' to hide out. Maybe gettin' his ponies in trouble too, for helpin' runaways.
  2732. >Better if they don't know how well their neighbors lived compared to them.
  2733. >Safer.
  2734. >For everyone.
  2735. >Maybe this was a bad idea, but it... it sounded good in your head.
  2736. >Get a few used to dealin' with new folks, ones that wouldn't hit 'em a soon as look at 'em.
  2737. >Otherwise those men on the construction crew might - rightly - think somethin's unsavory goin' on.
  2738. >Da's even upped the amount of food he's givin' 'em. Throwin' in an extra few bales per shack every night.
  2739. >Not that they were starvin' or nothin' - the apples you bring 'em are more for variety and to be nice than keepin' 'em alive - but it's puttin' a little more meat on their bones.
  2740. >Isn't that *enough*?
  2741. >Well, no, but...
  2742. >You brought them those letters!
  2743. >Gave them somethin' to look forward to!
  2744. >Why can't she be happy with that little hope, for now at least?
  2745. >"Pleath, mith?"
  2746. "No."
  2747. >"Pleeeeeeeath!? I promith I'll be -"
  2748. "I already damn well told you no!"
  2749. >That shuts her up. *Finally*.
  2750. >Why's she gotta be pushin' so damn hard?
  2751. >This was a mistake. You just wanted to see him, so you should have gone over. Alone.
  2752. >Been honest with yourself.
  2753. >Comin' up with an excuse is given' you more hassle than it's worth.
  2754. >Even if it was somethin' you should do.
  2755. >It's cold as heck out here. You just wanna snuggle up with him an'...
  2756. >... an' that's kinda 'bout it. Snuggle an' forget about the ponies for a while.
  2757. >Why's everything gotta end up bein' about them?
  2758. >Stoppin' daddy from beatin' 'em or savin' Trixie or...
  2759. >God give you the strength.
  2760. >You walk along the road a bit, not too fast, givin' Red time to catch up.
  2761. >Should've driven, but... well, price of gas bein' what it is...
  2762. >You were thinkin' 'bout other things, okay!?
  2763. >No good questionin' your decision *now*. It'd be damn stupid to go back for the truck at this point.
  2764. >Used to walk this way all the time, before you had a truck of your own.
  2765. >Damn near every day one summer, and further.
  2766. >It ain't that far of a walk and it ain't *that* cold. Just enough to make Red shiver every so often, when a gust of wind catches her.
  2767. >She's gonna have to make this walk every day soon. Gotta know the way.
  2768. "Just a bit further, Red."
  2769. >"Yeth, mith."
  2770. "I know you ain't used to dealin' with new folk, but you be polite an' all, got it?"
  2771. >"Yeth, mith."
  2772. "He an old friend of mine. Nice guy."
  2773. >Usually.
  2774. >Nicer than you in so many ways, even if he lacks the courage to be the man he could be.
  2775. >But he's gettin' better.
  2776. >Just wish he'd think about somethin' other than the damn ponies for a minute.
  2777. >... an' that's why he's a better person than you.
  2778. >You sigh, pausin' to watch the steam of your breath fade away into the air.
  2779. >It'll pass, you know - this resentment you're feelin'.
  2780. >Always does, but it makes you feel like a piece of shit for wantin' him to hold you when he should be doin' some good.
  2781. >An' feelin' like that makes you want to be comforted all the more.
  2782. >An' that makes you feel even worse for bein' *weak*.
  2783. >Not like you haven't sacrificed to help out the ponies.
  2784. >Done more than *him*.
  2785. >But all you did was save one. He's...
  2786. >Goddammit.
  2787. >Like you need *more* reasons to feel sorry for yourself right now.
  2788. >"Mith?"
  2789. "Yeah?"
  2790. >"Are we there...?"
  2791. "Nah. Almost. Just a bit further."
  2792. >"Oh. I thought -"
  2793. "See those trees, Red? It's just past there."
  2794. >This is why you like her. A smarter pony, a less courageous one, would have kept silent. Wouldn't have risked gettin' kicked for speakin' out of turn.
  2795. >Would have let you wallow in pointless self pitty.
  2796. "Tell you what, Red, if you do okay with my friend, I'll see about askin' him to bring Apple Bloom along another time."
  2797. >Ain't no way that's happenin', but it ain't bad to give her that hope, is it?
  2799. >Beige walls always look so drab, but now more than ever.
  2800. >So... so... *mundane*, when the sun is shining brighter, when the sky is bluer, when... when life is so *vibrant* now.
  2801. >You should ask Master Sterling to repaint his office.
  2802. >Perhaps put in a window.
  2803. >That might give him a brighter outlook on life.
  2804. >Yes, that's a wonderfully silly idea to believe in.
  2805. >Perhaps you'll even choose to hold to that idea beyond this moment, but you most certainly will *not* be making that suggestion anytime soon.
  2806. >He's late.
  2807. >There must have been a development.
  2808. >He'll tell you about it when he arrives.
  2809. >No, you don't speculate.
  2810. >You close your eyes, blocking out the bare walls and focus on the sound. On the *music*.
  2811. >Eventually faint, slow drum beats join the song. Dull and flat notes.
  2812. >*Human*, you've come to recognize, though you would know Master Sterling's footsteps anyway.
  2813. >Slow and foreboding, but rushed. Like there's no time to let each note ring true.
  2814. >"Good news," he says before even coming into his office. He knows you're here - you always are.
  2815. "That's a welcome surprise."
  2816. >"Yes, it is indeed," Sterling chuckles as he comes around to take his seat behind his desk. "Dr. Stiers called first thing this morning. He says he might have a breakthrough."
  2817. "Brilliant."
  2818. >"Yes, yes it is," Sterling laughs again. "I'm glad *one* of my investments is paying off. Not to disregard what you've done for me here - without this place, I never could have afforded to fund his research."
  2819. >You bow your head, acknowledging his praise.
  2820. >"So how about these new mares? How do you think they'll work out?"
  2821. "I've assigned the new mares to support duties for now."
  2822. >"Why?" Master Sterling snaps suddenly, his face doing a complete reversal from seconds earlier as he scowls down at you. "I've wasted enough fucking money on them. They need to start earning it back."
  2823. "They're not acclimated."
  2824. >"I don't care."
  2825. >You shake your head.
  2826. "I warned you, Master Sterling. You let me meet them alone for that reason, and that was the correct choice. If there had been any humans, I suspect there might have been violence."
  2827. >He shifts in his seat as he thinks it over.
  2828. >You give him the time he needs.
  2829. >No good comes from pushing him. Obedience makes the moments you do resist have purpose.
  2830. >"Should I sell them?" he asks. "I need to make a profit on them - and *now*. The sheriff would likely -"
  2831. "No, sir. They will fall in line, but this is how it has to be. Give them a week to settle in."
  2832. >"I NEED them to earn their money back! Stiers almost has the secret!"
  2833. "This is how it has to be, sir. Don't you trust me?"
  2834. >He frowns.
  2835. >This is why you're obedient, why you go along with everything he says.
  2836. >So that when you *don't*, it's such a surprise he has to ask himself *why*.
  2837. >So he has to think it over.
  2838. >So he takes you seriously.
  2839. >"If you say so," he finally sighs. Petulantly, like a child, but he's still agreeing. "Fine. They can have their week."
  2840. "Is there anything else, sir?"
  2841. >"You seem in a rush to get out of here," he comments. "Fine, but do you have *any* good news for me?"
  2842. >You smile.
  2843. >Can't help yourself.
  2844. >It's the best news in two worlds.
  2845. "I can hear the music again."
  2847. >Below your feet, twigs crack.
  2848. >He looks up at the sound.
  2849. >Damn!
  2850. >You were hopin' to sneak up on him.
  2851. >Because...
  2852. >Because you were bein' silly.
  2853. >A person's allowed to be silly from time to time, dammit!
  2854. >You wave.
  2855. >He waves back - and to Red, as well.
  2856. >"Hey," he says. "I'm -"
  2857. "So this is where you'll be workin', Red."
  2858. >Yeah, it's rude to interrupt like that, but names'll just lead to awkwardness.
  2859. >Truth be told, you don't remember hers, not her *real* name.
  2860. >Been Red as long as you can remember.
  2861. >"Uh..." he grunts, "... yeah."
  2862. "Looks like they've started already."
  2863. >Kinda.
  2864. >You've heard the trucks rumblin' down the road last night, but hadn't taken a look.
  2865. >There's a few trailers set up. A tank of water. Some shippin' containers.
  2866. >All set back a ways from the road.
  2867. >"Yeah," he nods an' looks over his shoulder for a sec. "They've been dropping off stuff. I... uh... yeaaaaah. I can't believe it."
  2868. >He shakes his head - you can guess why, since it's only been a day since the government's man came by - an' smiles.
  2869. >"No one's here, though. I think the surveying crew went back into town until all their gear is delivered."
  2870. "You're pulling my leg. This can't be..."
  2871. >An' yet it's all here, plain as day.
  2872. "... huh."
  2873. >"No reason for them to camp out until they can start work, I guess."
  2874. "Yeaaaah."
  2875. >"Anyway..."
  2876. >He awkwardly shuffles his feet before droppin' down into a crouch.
  2877. >"So," he says to Red, "looks like you'll be starting work pretty soon. Looking forward to all this?"
  2878. >She looks over to you before answering.
  2879. >You nod, but by her continued silence you guess she can't make out the gesture.
  2880. "Go on, Red."
  2881. >"I gueth, thir," Red answers, her eyes dartin' back an' forth between you an' him.
  2882. >You can guess what's runnin' through her head - the choice between answerin', an' answerin' *fast* at that less he or you get angry, an' what to actually say.
  2883. >Mostly you, gotta suspect.
  2884. >She don't know him, but she does know you.
  2885. >Goddammit.
  2886. "I'm... uh..."
  2887. >She ain't gonna be comfortable with you here.
  2888. >*Goddammit!*
  2889. "I'mma head over here a bit."
  2890. >"But... mith...?"
  2891. "You'll be fine, Red. I just wanna check on... I mean, over there -"
  2892. >"Oh, right," he says quickly and smiles at you. "You must hear the ponies. I've got a Maud bringing down a group to check on our building site. They were right behind me, but I didn't think they'd catch up this fast. I mean, they *were* walking..."
  2893. >He looks back to Red an' - an' almost pats her head.
  2894. >It's as endearing as it is infuriating.
  2895. >"Hey... uh... Red. How'd you like to -"
  2896. "Don't worry about it. You two can stay here an' chat. Was there somethin' you needed me to tell 'em, or..."
  2897. >He raises an eyebrow.
  2898. >Okay, so that weren't so smooth on your part, but -
  2899. >"Nothing comes to mind. They know what to do. Oh, and Silver should be with them."
  2900. "Sil!?"
  2901. >"Yeah. She wanted to see the site. Said something about -"
  2902. "Wait, she's *walkin'*?"
  2903. >He nods.
  2904. "You - you *ASSHOLE*! She can't be walking yet!"
  2905. >He smirks like a fucker an' shakes his head."
  2906. >"She's doing fine, I swear. Why don't you go check on her? They should be just on the other side of the trees."
  2907. >You look back through the tangle, but even with all the leaves down it's too thick to see clear through.
  2908. "'kay, but if she's hurtin', I'm comin' back to make sure you don't do that again."
  2909. >"Mith?"
  2910. "You'll be fine, Red."
  2911. >"Ith that Thilver *Thpoon*?"
  2912. "That's not -"
  2913. >"Yeah, she's living here now."
  2914. >God*DAMN*.
  2915. >"Mith? Why can't thhe walk? Pleathe, can I -"
  2916. "Talk with my friend, Red."
  2918. >Before Lauren walks off, she gives you the nastiest glare you've seen in... in a pretty long time.
  2919. >What's her deal?
  2920. >She's being kind of... what? Crazy? Hormonal? *Pissy*?
  2921. >Something, for sure. Not quite herself.
  2922. >It's not as if *you* asked *her* to bring a pony over for... for why, exactly?
  2923. >Surely her family's ponies are used to dealing with humans - *they* still have farmhands, after all.
  2924. >If something was wrong, then...
  2925. >"Thir?"
  2926. "Oh, yeah. Sorry."
  2927. >You smile for the little pony's benefit.
  2928. "Don't worry, the mean lady is gone for now."
  2929. >You laugh.
  2930. >The pony doesn't.
  2931. "I was just joking."
  2932. >She nods.
  2933. >"Thhe's a lot nicer than her father."
  2934. "Uh... huh."
  2935. >Okay, crouching like this is uncomfortable as hell.
  2936. >You sit down, legs crossed.
  2937. "So... what's your name?"
  2938. >"They call me Red, thir."
  2939. "Yeah, I picked up on that, but what's your name?"
  2940. >She blinks and looks at you, kinda vacant eyed.
  2941. >Shit.
  2942. >She can't even remember -
  2943. >"... Twitht."
  2944. >Thank God.
  2945. >And how cruel. Her parents gave her a name she can't pronounce.
  2946. >Jerks.
  2947. "So, Twist -"
  2948. >"Don't! Thhe'll get angry!"
  2949. >You shrug.
  2950. "Lauren's been angry at me before. I can deal with it."
  2951. >She looks around anyway, though not *quite* in the direction Lauren walked off.
  2952. "Hey, Twist -"
  2953. >She jumps.
  2954. "- you were walking a little stiff there, is your leg okay?"
  2955. >"Y-yeth, thir!"
  2956. "Good, good. So... how are you?"
  2958. >Before you walked away, you gave him a look he didn't deserve.
  2959. >Probably.
  2960. >Silver is fine. Gotta be. He wouldn't make her walk if she couldn't, impossible though that is.
  2961. >But if she's not -
  2962. >You make your way through the trees an'...
  2963. >No ponies.
  2964. >Not *here*, they're a bit off.
  2965. >That's not a surprise.
  2966. >You hadn't heard anything, just made up some excuse to leave so Red could talk to him like a real person without worrin' you'd whup her.
  2967. >God, what is *wrong* with you today?
  2968. >You get why she'd worry, but not why you're so... so *pissy* about it.
  2969. >All you wanted was to spend some time with your friend... and... well...
  2970. >... it's okay.
  2971. >Silver is your friend, too, an' you can just make her out in the small herd headin' your way.
  2972. >Seems like she's doin' fine.
  2973. >... huh.
  2974. >Okay then.
  2975. >You start to walk up the - you're not as young as you used to be.
  2976. >Nah, you wait patiently for her to get to you. She's comin' this way anyhow.
  2977. >Don't take long, particularly when she sees you.
  2978. >There's a moment where she waves.
  2979. >An' you wave back.
  2980. >... an' she's broken into a gallop, leavin' the others behind.
  2981. >Can't even process that 'fore she's barreling into you.
  2982. >Damn near knocks you off your feet!
  2983. >Thank God she hit your legs, not your belly, because the way she's squeezin' 'em would probably have undone all of Dr. Alda's work!
  2984. >Next thing you know, you're on your back, huggin' Sil as she laughs wildly.
  2985. >It's infectious.
  2986. >The two've you must look like a pair of lunatics to the others.
  2988. >Bemusement.
  2989. >Surprise.
  2990. >Excitement.
  2991. >Master Sterling's face run through a range of emotions before settling on disbelief.
  2992. >"You said the last violin stopped," he says bluntly.
  2993. "Vinyl may be dead -"
  2994. >"You don't have any proof of that."
  2995. "No, but... I... I felt it. But now... I suspect I may be wrong."
  2996. >"Before that you told me you couldn't hear anything at all. You've been telling me that for years."
  2997. "Something... changed."
  2998. >"And you aren't just saying this so I go easy on the new ponies, are you?"
  2999. "Of course not."
  3000. >Master Sterling glares at you over his desk.
  3001. >That's a surprise.
  3002. >He's never doubted you before; you've never lied to him and he knows it.
  3003. >Never.
  3004. >There's never been any cause.
  3005. >"Okay," he sighs and leans back in his chair. "I believe you."
  3006. >Thank the sun.
  3007. >"It doesn't make any difference. They have to work - but they can start with support duties. Though -"
  3008. >He shakes a finger at you.
  3009. >"- you've lost the music before. I'm not giving up on Stiers' research. Those mares will have to work."
  3010. >You dip your head.
  3011. >"Eventually. It can wait a week, but I *need* that income."
  3012. "I understand, sir."
  3013. >You're so relieved that you almost miss his excited grin.
  3014. >He's worried, distracted, stressed, and this - this doesn't *help*, but he's still excited.
  3015. >Despite it being one more thing on his plate.
  3016. >"Do you..." he starts slowly, visibly pushing his other concerns aside for the moment, "... do you think the new arrivals caused this...?"
  3017. "I -"
  3018. >You don't *think* so.
  3019. >But you can't be sure, can you?
  3020. >It started with Derpy hugging you - or did it?
  3021. >Was it because they were here - because of their proximity?
  3022. >Or perhaps -
  3023. >You can't be sure.
  3024. >But...
  3025. "Perhaps."
  3026. >Perhaps you can save Sweetie. Perhaps... perhaps more, if you show progress.
  3027. "It is a possibility, sir."
  3028. >That's not a lie.
  3029. >It's possible. All things are.
  3030. >And -
  3031. > - more importantly -
  3032. >- she needs a friend.
  3033. >You do too.
  3034. >And isn't the magic of Equestria the magic of friendship?
  3036. >Behind Sil, the other ponies get to work.
  3037. >You recognize a few, but not all. There's the angry little unicorn, the deadpan grey one, an'... um...
  3038. >Sil follows your gaze an' looks over her shoulder.
  3039. >"Maud wanted to start marking out the foundation," she explains. "Maybe even start digging."
  3040. "But... the ground is frozen? Ain't that gonna be hard?"
  3041. >The got a few shovels between 'em, but surely they ain't plannin' to dig down with that, not after the rain an' the snow and the freeze?
  3042. >"Shouldn't be a problem," Sil giggles.
  3043. "Oh, he got together the money to rent a digger...?"
  3044. >Only thing you can think of.
  3045. >"Oh *sun* no," Sil laughs. "I tried looking up the price of those - and I do *not* remember them being anywhere near that expensive! He could have *bought* one a few years ago for what it would cost to rent one for a month!"
  3046. "Yeah..."
  3047. >You nod.
  3048. "... everything's so much more expensive now. Particularly machinery like that."
  3049. >So that means -
  3050. "Don't tell me he's going to have y'all do it by hoof?"
  3051. >"It won't be so bad," Sil grins. "You have *no* idea."
  3052. >"Silver -!" one of the other mares warns her.
  3053. >"Whoops," Sil rolls her eyes. "Neeeeeeevermind, but don't worry. It'll be *easy*."
  3054. "Uh... huh. Kinda like how you're up on your hooves again without... without *anything*? No therapy, no time, nothin'! Am I supposed to think you magically got better for no reason?"
  3055. >"If that's true, wouldn't *magic* be the reason?" Sil flutters her eyelashes at you, like a john she's teasin'.
  3056. "Stop that! Y'know what I mean."
  3057. >Sil smiles an' nods.
  3058. "You should be in bed, Sil, even if you *can* walk. Why'd you come down here?"
  3059. >"I wanted to get a view of the area myself. I always liked to do that before breaking ground on a new building. I don't have Maud's knowledge - and I don't know *anything* about construction, not the actual work involved - but nothing beats actually seeing the area for oneself."
  3060. >You shrug.
  3061. "I suppose."
  3062. >"Now..." Sil hums an' scoots over to sit 'side you.
  3063. >She bumps her shoulder into yours.
  3064. >"... I don't see a truck. Why'd *you* walk here?"
  3065. >You shrug again.
  3066. "Cheaper than drivin', I suppose."
  3067. >She rolls her eyes and sighs.
  3068. >And bumps you again.
  3069. >"Yeah, but *why*?"
  3070. >You shrug. Hard.
  3071. >What?
  3072. >You gonna tell her you were feelin' lonely?
  3073. >That you wanted to be with your friend? *Friends*?
  3074. >That everything at home felt like... like... it was all a bit off.
  3075. >Like a pie where the fruit'd just started to turn or with a touch too much salt in the crust.
  3076. >An' pie's pie.
  3077. >Ain't to be turned down less it's *truly* awful.
  3078. >Not worth complainin' about.
  3079. >You ain't that weak.
  3080. >Besides, it don't feel like that now.
  3081. "I... uh..."
  3082. >Tell her the truth?
  3083. >The *other* truth?
  3084. "... y'know how my family's ponies are... well..."
  3085. >"That they aren't even allowed to have *names*?" Sil scowls. "Yes, I remember what you told me."
  3086. >She shudders and shakes her head.
  3087. >"Bleh. At the time it sounded worse than being owned by Sterling."
  3088. "Yeah, well, at least we don't let the Sheriff kill ours."
  3089. >"I said 'at the time'," Sil whispers back. "I didn't realize how bad it could be. Being the low mare on the pole is a lot different than life for the rest of the mares there. I got desperate. I made stupid choices. Still..."
  3090. "Yeah."
  3091. >You shake your head.
  3092. >Enough about that.
  3093. "My family's ponies... they ain't too used to dealin' with people."
  3094. >"And that brings you here today because...?"
  3095. >You look over at the others, make sure none've 'em are listenin' in.
  3096. >They're all hard at work an' laughin' at each other's jokes.
  3097. "Well, I'm guessin' you're neck deep in all this -"
  3098. >Sil nods.
  3099. "- so you know how our ponies're bein' hired to help out with buildin' the rest stop?"
  3100. >She keeps noddin'.
  3101. "Well, I thought it'd be good if I got a few've 'em used to talkin' to folk again. Y'know, to people that'll treat 'em as... as *people*."
  3102. >"And that brings here because?"
  3103. >You scowl at your friend.
  3104. >She laughs.
  3105. "Because I thought he'd be a good guy for them to talk to."
  3106. >Sil nods.
  3107. >"And you brought a few ponies over to meet him?"
  3108. "Just one for now, but yeah."
  3109. >"Who?"
  3110. "Red."
  3111. >Sil don't react. Just stares at you.
  3112. "Y'know, *Red."
  3113. >She slowly shakes her head.
  3114. "I know we spoke about her. You even said she was your friend back from Ponyville."
  3115. >Sil shrugs.
  3116. "She... uh... got a red mane?"
  3117. >"I think I could have guessed that," Sil rolls her eyes at you, "but that's not as unique as you think it is. Just here, there's Apple Bloom, Moondancer -"
  3118. "Okay, okay. Kinda... kinda the same colors as Apple Bloom? But less... yellow?"
  3119. >"Like Moondancer?" Sil giggles softly. "Or -"
  3120. "She has a lisp."
  3121. >"That's better," she continues to laugh under her breath. "I know humans think every pony is so unique and could *never* share the same coloring as -
  3122. >"Wait. A *lisp*?"
  3123. >Her eyes grow wide.
  3124. >She smiles.
  3125. >And then laughs, loud enough the other ponies stop their doing to look your way a sec.
  3126. >A few smile back before they get on with their work.
  3127. >No questions - they're just happy to see *her* bein' happy.
  3128. >"*Twist*" Sil whispers loudly. "It's *Twist*!"
  3129. >Oh, right.
  3130. >Twist.
  3131. >That's her name - her real name.
  3132. "Yeah."
  3133. >"You left her alone with him?"
  3134. "Well... yeah."
  3135. >Must be frownin', cuz Sil giggles.
  3136. >She always did that when you frowned.
  3137. >Said it reminded her of someone she knew.
  3138. "Look, she was actin' all skittish with me there!"
  3139. >Shit!
  3140. >Raised your voice too loud - but thankfully none've the ponies are payin' you any attention.
  3141. "I had to leave him. Her. Leave her with him. Damn thing couldn't act normal with me there, an' that means it's all a waste..."
  3142. >"Except we got a chance to gossip," Sil adds. "Just like old times."
  3143. "Yeah... glad to see you're back on your hooves."
  3144. >"Thanks," Sil huffs. "Good to know I'm not an *afterthought*"
  3145. "I didn't mean it like that, Sil! Didn't cross my mind you'd be up to talkin' with anybody yet."
  3146. >"What you mean is I didn't cross your mind at all."
  3147. "Sil!"
  3148. >She nudges your shoulder with hers. Gives you an innocent smirk.
  3149. >"You know I'm teasing. Everybody's surprised."
  3150. "Yeah..."
  3151. >Well...
  3152. >You reach over an' hug her tight to your side.
  3153. "I'm glad you're doin' okay. Always nice to hang out with a friend."
  3154. >"Yeah," Sil sighs happily, then does this weird lil' shake of her head.
  3155. "What?"
  3156. >"Well... can I see her?"
  3157. "Who?"
  3158. >"Twist."
  3159. >Damn.
  3160. "That... ain't a good idea."
  3161. >"Why not?"
  3162. "Because... because you know how we treat 'em."
  3163. >"Ah... right," Sil mumbles. "So this is one of those situations, like how an employer doesn't want his employees discussing their pay."
  3164. "I... guess?"
  3165. >"And you think we might say something that'll make Twist...?"
  3166. "Make her what?"
  3167. >"I was going to say 'uncomfortable', but I'd be worried if she *was*. 'Unmanageable' might be a better choice."
  3168. "Yeah, basically. Plus if daddy finds out they talked to any've the ponies here, it'll be a beatin'."
  3169. >You sigh.
  3170. "Mainly that."
  3171. >"Don't worry," Sil smiles. That damn innocent smile. "I understand. And I'm sure *he* won't say anything that might cause problems."
  3172. >Why's that grin of hers not lookin' so innocent now?
  3173. >"You know..." she teases, "he turned me down at the Stables."
  3174. "Fucker."
  3175. >"Because he turned me down?"
  3176. "Because he went there at all."
  3177. >Sil leans into further, until she's practically laying against your chest an' lookin' up at you.
  3178. >"You should be careful," she whispers. "Maud thinks he has a type."
  3179. >What?
  3180. >"Mares with red manes and cream coats."
  3181. "WHAT!?"
  3182. >"Is that a problem?" Sil giggles.
  3183. "No! Of course not! Why would that be a problem?"
  3184. >"Because you look like it is."
  3185. "You're full've shit."
  3186. >Oh God, your face is burning.
  3187. "I better go -"
  3188. >"If you leave now, you'll only prove me right."
  3189. >Silver keeps a straight face for about as long as it takes one've the other ponies to laugh.
  3190. >Damn, they *were* listenin'!
  3191. >"I was wondering if I was the only one who had noticed how much time he spends with those two," the first mare to laugh says when she sees you look her way.
  3192. >"Nope," adds another, "but I'm surprised Maud saw it."
  3193. >"Wasn't it obvious?" Maud asks in such a dull voice you almost wonder if she's givin' them attitude, but the way they laugh, you're guessin' not.
  3194. >"No!" a stallion gasps. "I had no idea!"
  3195. >"Of course you didn't!" the first mare laughs at him. "But Silver, why are you bringing it up now? Are you teasing your friend?"
  3196. >Oh thank God, they didn't hear you talkin' about Re- uh, Twist.
  3197. >"You know, if you dyed your mane -"
  3198. >"They call it hair, Sunflower."
  3199. >"- right, hair. I meant hair. If you dyed your hair red, I bet he'd take a liking to you, too."
  3200. >The ponies laugh all the harder at that.
  3201. >Even Sil.
  3202. >Even you, after a bit because it's just so damn ridiculous - there ain't no way you're actually doin' that.
  3203. >Besides, it ain't like that. Not about him and the mares.
  3204. >Least not him and Apple Bloom.
  3205. >You think.
  3206. >Hell, your face must be redder than her mane right now.
  3207. >"That's one heck of a blush, but I don't think that will work," the mare giggles. "Maybe I'm wrong and he'll like the colors reversed. It's worth a try."
  3208. >Oh, *hell*.
  3209. >You sure as shit ain't doin' *that*!
  3211. >Beautiful sounds swirl around you as you walk down the hall, the melody almost visible - like ethereal scraps of sheet music caught in the wind.
  3212. >If you had any lingering doubts about your choice, your little lie, the music puts them to rest before they can rise.
  3213. >This is the right choice.
  3214. >The mares all jerk around to look at you as you enter the common room - the additional food you had ordered them already devoured.
  3215. >There's even a little left over.
  3216. >You can only hope they hadn't gorged themselves beyond their body's abilities, or it'll all be coming back up soon.
  3217. "I have good news. Master Sterling has accepted my proposal. You have one week to come to terms with your new life here."
  3218. >The mares share uneasy glances. Some of them.
  3219. >Others accept it blankly with unfocused eyes - in shock their new reality would be coming true after all.
  3220. >One nods, looking firmly at the floor. And then another.
  3221. >A full belly can be very convincing in ways that words can never be.
  3222. >Sweetie alone continues to look defiant, but the expression has softened.
  3223. >There might be something like appreciation behind her glare.
  3224. >"Don't give up hope," she says to the others. "That's another week we have to come up with something."
  3225. >"Like what? An escape plan?"
  3226. >"That or - or something else," Sweetie answers. "We have a week to figure that out."
  3227. >She gives you a strained smile.
  3228. >"Thanks for buying us time."
  3229. >You nod back.
  3230. "Some of you may be able to find alternative employment within a week.
  3231. "Perhaps, for some of you, there is a human in town that could use your particular talent and would be willing to buy your contract.
  3232. "For others, you may be able to find another job here that Master Sterling would find more profitable. If any of you can cook, for example..."
  3233. >Nothing else comes to mind - and that itself is a long shot - but it's enough to bring a bit of a sparkle back to the mares' eyes.
  3234. "And on that note - Sweetie Belle, if I may speak with you in private?"
  3235. >"Do you have a job for her?" an Earth mare interrupts. "Can I try to -"
  3236. >"It's probably something only a unicorn can do," another snarls, "so let me. I'm just as good as Sweetie is. I can do it."
  3237. >No, she can't. Neither of them can.
  3238. >You can't feel anything from them.
  3239. >Like an electric guitar without an amp.
  3240. >"Really," the unicorn continues. "I can do it. Whatever it is, so long as it's not - not *that*. I'll do it. I swear, I won't even complain, even if I -"
  3241. "I'm afraid it's not like that."
  3242. >She's not strong enough.
  3243. >None of the other mares would willingly go to their deaths than submit, only Sweetie Belle.
  3244. >You aren't offering her a more pleasant duty; you're saving her life.
  3245. "Sweetie Belle, this way, please. The rest of you stay here and - and relax."
  3246. >She doesn't argue, doesn't defy you to make a point - to you or for the sake of the others.
  3247. >Gaining *them* a week has gained *you* her trust, at least a little.
  3248. >She follows you up to your room - where her sneer returns.
  3249. >"So this is what being a happy little whore gets you," she says as she looks over your room.
  3250. >It's not anywhere near as nice as some of the others. No TV, no fancy furniture. No trinkets. No toys.
  3251. >No cosmetics or jewelry on display to showcase your popularity to visitors.
  3252. >But you do have your own room. Your own bed. A dresser with some clothes - not that you choose to wear them often. A desk to work at.
  3253. >A cello - the single most expensive thing you have ever owned.
  3254. >A true work of art.
  3255. >Only what you've asked for. Only what you need.
  3256. "I've never slept with a human, Sweetie Belle."
  3257. >She sneers, but doesn't interrupt otherwise.
  3258. "Master Sterling has other tasks in mind for me."
  3259. >"Like making the rest of the whores fall in line?"
  3260. >You shake your head.
  3261. "I manage them because I want to stay busy, because it didn't feel right to do nothing while they worked. And I don't want anyone else to die."
  3262. >"Oh really? I got the impression you didn't really care. So what *are* you supposed to be doing?"
  3263. "I was to bring the magic of Equestria to this world."
  3264. >"You?"
  3265. "Yes. Me."
  3266. >"Not - not *Twilight*?"
  3267. "She would be killed on sight.
  3268. >"Or Starlight Glimmer?" she continues. "Or maybe *Sunburst*? At least a *unicorn*?"
  3269. >You shake your head.
  3270. "You don't understand. Did you ever visit this world before - before everything happened?"
  3271. >Sweetie shrugs.
  3272. >"Once. With Rarity. She wanted to visit Paris and dragged me along."
  3273. "Do you remember what it was like when you came through? How - how the music *stopped*?"
  3274. >"The music?"
  3275. "Sorry, that's what I call it."
  3276. >Moondancer took to the turn of phrase so strongly that - over time - you've almost forgotten what it meant.
  3277. >It just seemed so perfect, in your heart.
  3278. "Do you remember how something was suddenly missing the second you came through?"
  3279. >She hesitates.
  3280. "To me, it felt like an orchestra that had been playing all my life - that I had never truly noticed before because it *was* playing all my life, from the moment I was conceived until I cross through - had suddenly gone silent. Surely you remember that feeling."
  3281. >Slowly Sweetie nods.
  3282. "That's what Sterling is after. He doesn't *care* about us, about what he makes us do or what he sells us into - he wants the *magic*. And now that the veil has been torn from my eyes, I can see that it's further and further from his reach every time he grabs for it.
  3283. "He was close, though. Long ago. I could see it - everyone there could. Before the portals closed, before everything went wrong, he used to visit us in Canterlot to watch us play.
  3284. "And once - the song changed."
  3285. >You shake your head.
  3286. "Not - not what we were playing. I don't mean *that*. The song of Equestria - the music, the *magic*.
  3287. "The magic of Equestria answered him - the power that gives us Earth ponies our strength, pegasi the ability to fly, and unicorns their spells - it resonated with a human. With *him*.
  3288. "Once.
  3289. "Did you know that?"
  3290. >Sweetie shakes her head in disbelief.
  3291. >You would smile, if you hadn't already known.
  3292. "It wasn't widely publicized. Too... too unbelievable, I suppose.
  3293. "But that's why I'm here - why we're *all* here. So he can feel that once more.
  3294. "He thought - *I* thought - that my music might do something, but not only had I had lost all desire to play, the music was *gone*.
  3295. "There was no magic here."
  3296. >"I didn't notice a difference," Sweetie says quietly. "Not when I crossed over this time."
  3297. >She falls silent, in thought.
  3298. "Maybe -"
  3299. >"I think the magic of Equestria is gone. I can barely -"
  3300. >She loses her words.
  3301. >Her eyes glisten with a sudden wetness.
  3302. >"- it's difficult for the pegasi to fly these days. Honestly, it didn't feel any different when I crossed over.
  3303. >"Maybe it'll come back, once the Wendigo are gone. The dragons *were* coming to help...
  3304. >"I didn't feel the difference because the magic is *gone*.
  3305. >"It's been gone so long, we've grown so used to it. I don't know why we're bothering to take the suppressants. They're supposed to keep us safe and - and - but they don't -"
  3306. "I want you to stop taking them."
  3307. >"Why? What would that do?"
  3308. "Because you're wrong. I can hear the music again.
  3309. "And there is room in this song for you."
  3310. >"What about the rest?"
  3311. "I'll do what I can."
  3312. >"I can't abandon them. I won't let you save me when the rest are still in danger."
  3313. "I can't save them without a friend."
  3315. >Before you can go back, you gotta wait for your face to stop bein' redder than a pony's rear after a good tannin'.
  3316. >"Okay, that's enough," Sil snaps back playfully. "We need to get back to work."
  3317. >"'We?'" giggles another of the ponies. "Or do you mean 'us'?"
  3318. >"No," Sil sighs with a genuine smile, "I'll help, but you have to tell me what to do."
  3319. >She stands an' heads over to a small pile've shovels.
  3320. "Ummm, Sil...?"
  3321. >"I'll be fine."
  3322. "If you say so, but..."
  3323. >"What?"
  3324. "Do y'all... well, I'd feel damn awkward just sittin' here while y'all worked. Lemme pitch in an' help."
  3325. >"You don't have to. We'll be fine."
  3326. >You shrug.
  3327. "It's what friends do."
  3328. >Shovels are sized for a pony, so it's a touch past bein' a bit on the short side for you, but awkward or not it's less awkward than sittin' on your ass while your friends worked theirs off.
  3329. >Wait, friends?
  3330. >Since when are these other ponies your friends?
  3331. >Only met the one've 'em once before, an' you can barely remember her name. But the rest?
  3332. >Well...
  3333. >That doesn't feel like a problem.
  3334. >Huh.
  3335. "So, what're we doin'?"
  3336. >"Do you see the red flags?" Maud says.
  3337. >There's a dozen or so of the lil' things scattered across the field.
  3338. "Oh, is that what you were doin', getting those planted?"
  3339. >The mare nods.
  3340. >"Those are the outline for the building's foundation."
  3341. "Uh..."
  3342. >"We have to dig down two feet."
  3343. >Oh, Jesus. What have you gotten yourself into?
  3344. >You try to keep up, but it ain't as easy as you thought it'd be - an' you didn't think it'd be all that easy, what with all the recent rain soakin' into the ground an' freezin' hard.
  3345. >Top few inches are thawed, but after that it's like tryin' to dig through solid rock.
  3346. >Maud don't seem to have no trouble with it, though.
  3347. >Silver struggles a bit, but she's doin' better'n you.
  3348. >Poor girl ain't used to this kind've manual labor; far as you can see that's holdin' her back more'n her injuries.
  3349. >Don't take long 'fore the ponies notice.
  3350. >An' by that, you mean that it's damn well obvious to anyone lookin' when even Sil is down twice the depth you are.
  3351. >"Need to take a break?" the mare beside you asks.
  3352. "Nah, I'm doin' -"
  3353. >Okay, so this is damn hard an' you're out've breath.
  3354. "- doin' just fine."
  3355. >"Are you sure?"
  3356. >"Don't hassle her, Sunflower," another says, an' gives you a big smile. "Considering how tall they are, it's hard enough for humans to reach the ground."
  3357. >The mare giggles.
  3358. "Yeah, well..."
  3359. >She sticks her tongue out at you.
  3360. "... least I can reach the top shelf without help."
  3361. >"So can I," one've the ponies chuckles as he rears up an' holds one've his hooves above his head, "as long as it's only about... *this* high."
  3362. "So the top've the counter. Got it."
  3363. >He shakes his head and sighs dramatically.
  3364. >"You humans build things too tall."
  3365. "Well, ain't like we got wings or magic or anything. You gotta give us that."
  3366. >He pretends to think it over for a bit 'fore noddin'.
  3367. >"Okay, fair's fair. You can have your oversized shelving."
  3368. >Huh...
  3369. "Hell, none've you are on your pills, are you?"
  3370. >No wonder you couldn't keep up!
  3371. >Maud an' Silver exchanges looks - an' smiles.
  3372. >"Nope!"
  3374. >Between the trees, you can see Lauren coming back.
  3375. >Twist sees you looking over her an' glances back.
  3376. >"Pleath!" she hisses. "You can't tell her!"
  3377. "Why? She knows about -"
  3378. >"Thhe doethn't know about thethe oneth!"