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A Deal is a Deal (Part 3)

By twilightgamenight
Created: 18th December 2020 10:46:18 PM

  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.
  80.  
  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."
  298.  
  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.
  424.  
  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?"
  537.  
  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.
  611.  
  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.
  767.  
  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."
  881.  
  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.
  898.  
  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.
  983.  
  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."
  1066.  
  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.
  1222.  
  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.
  1290.  
  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.
  1539.  
  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."
  1717.  
  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.
  1791.  
  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..."
  1881.  
  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?"
  2090.  
  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."
  2175.  
  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."
  2221.  
  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?"
  2275.  
  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."
  2367.  
  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 -"
  2481.  
  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?"
  2520.  
  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."
  2561. >"I'M NOT SETTING ANYONE 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."
  2573.  
  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.
  2677.  
  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?
  2798.  
  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."
  2846.  
  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."
  2917.  
  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?"
  2957.  
  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.
  2987.  
  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?
  3035.  
  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*!
  3210.  
  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."
  3314.  
  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!"
  3373.  
  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!"
  3379. "Why not? Don't you trust her?"
  3380. >The little mare shakes her head.
  3381. >That's... shit.
  3382. >Beyond troubling.
  3383. "But -"
  3384. >She looks so scared.
  3385. " - okay. I won't say anything to her."
  3386. >"Thank you," she mouths as Lauren comes into the clearing.
  3387. >She looks exhausted.
  3388. >"Okay, I give up!" Lauren groans. "Your ponies are cheatin'."
  3389. "Cheating?"
  3390. >"Yeah, with..."
  3391. >Her eyes slide over to Twist and she frowns for a moment.
  3392. >"Nevermind. How'd your little talk go?"
  3393. >You shrug and look to the mare.
  3394. >"It... it wath fine," she answers slowly, trying to keep her eyes on both of you.
  3395. >She's... she's scared.
  3396. >It hurts that it took you this long to realize she wasn't simply nervous.
  3397. >You nod quickly.
  3398. "I think she'll be fine with the construction crew."
  3399. >"Really?" Lauren asks.
  3400. "Well..."
  3401. >Twist flinches.
  3402. "Yeah."
  3403. >Hell no.
  3404. >She could barely meet your eyes, but you can't say that.
  3405. >Not with all things considered.
  3406. "But I think it'd be better if she could meet with some of the ponies -"
  3407. >"Da wouldn't allow it," she Lauren you off.
  3408. >You try to give the mare a silent apology with your eyes.
  3409. >Maybe she gets it, maybe not.
  3410. >You can't tell.
  3411. "Okay."
  3412. >You shrug.
  3413. "But you can bring her over - or any of the other ponies - whenever you want. Just give me a call."
  3414. >"I - I might take you up on that."
  3415. >She smiles and you have no idea why Twist could be scared of her.
  3416. "I hope you do."
  3417.  
  3418. >"Beans next."
  3419. "Right!"
  3420. >You buck that big, burlap sack off your back an' give it a darn good kick with your hindlegs, hard enough to get it up onto the table Roma's workin' on.
  3421. >It lands with a thud that rocks her pot.
  3422. >"Couldn't you have just *put it on the table*?"
  3423. "Oh! Well, Ah -"
  3424. >Her head jerks up suddenly, lookin' at something -
  3425. >Oh! You hear it too!
  3426. >You swivel around and give him a big smile.
  3427. >"Hey," he says, "someone told me you were here."
  3428. "Thought Ah should help out! Silver an' Moondancer have their stuff down an' Maud won't lemme help with the diggin', so -"
  3429. >"You *are* pregnant," Roma points out, like there's any chance you could forget. "So maybe you should lay off on kicking these bags around."
  3430. "Nah, Ah'm fine. Y'all're all worrin' for no good reason. Ah can take it."
  3431. >"And the foal?"
  3432. "She'll be just fine, too. Don't you worry."
  3433. >"Well," he sighs an' squats down 'side you, "you should still take it easy."
  3434. "Ah said we'll be fine. That troubled look ain't for me, now is it?"
  3435. >You laugh a bit, 'cause of how dang serious he's lookin'.
  3436. >He shakes his head a bit an' sighs again.
  3437. >"Not entirely. But anyway, I've got another job for you. You're good here, right Roma?"
  3438. >"Absolutely. I think I can tip over this pot on my own if I wanted to."
  3439. >He gives her a lil' chuckle an' rolls his eyes.
  3440. "Hey! I was helpin'! An' nothin' got messed up!"
  3441. >"Okay, but I still want you to take care of this, because it's important."
  3442. "Well, what is it?"
  3443. >He reaches into his coat pocket.
  3444. >"We've got some letters from our neighbors. Mind playing postman for a bit?"
  3445.  
  3446. "Believe in me, Sweetie Belle. This is the only way."
  3447. >"No."
  3448. >She says it gently, but firmly.
  3449. >Like a mother chiding her foal.
  3450. >"I'll believe in you - and I'll be your friend - but I won't help that man."
  3451. >And yet the music swells.
  3452. >"There were some villains even Twilight couldn't befriend. I don't know how someone so despicable could touch the magic of Equestria."
  3453. "He wasn't always like this! He -"
  3454. >"I won't do it," Sweetie says firmly, "not while the others are depending on me."
  3455. "You don't have to worry about them! They'll -"
  3456. >"They'll give in," Sweetie finishes. "Eventually."
  3457. "Exactly! You don't have to worry about -"
  3458. >"Like the others did," she cuts you off.
  3459. "He'll let the sheriff take you! You didn't come here to die!"
  3460. >"Celestia brought me here for a purpose," Sweetie says slowly.
  3461. >She reaches up to her neck and pulls a small gold - no, *brass* - pendant out from the thick fluff of her chest.
  3462. >So small, you couldn't see it or the rough cord it hung from until now.
  3463. >Sweetie looks at it for a moment in silence before letting it fall from her hoof.
  3464. >They tiny sun sways slowly from side to side, framed by her white coat.
  3465. >"I thought she brought me here to guide the others, or to find my friends, but I was wrong. You've lost your way."
  3466. "What do - what do you mean?"
  3467. >Is she insane?
  3468. "Celestia is *dead*!"
  3469. >Sweetie takes a couple steps closer and puts a hoof on your flank. Next to your cutie mark.
  3470. >"I'll tell the others to stop taking their suppressants. If we have to fight our way out of this madhouse, we'll need that advantage.
  3471. >"Play your music. Find the magic. It was what you were always meant to do. It's what your cutie mark means."
  3472. "And what does yours mean?"
  3473. >"It's a shield."
  3474. "That doesn't mean you have to - have to *martyr* yourself to prove a point! And who are you even *proving* it *too*? The -"
  3475. >Her soft smile stops you dead.
  3476. >"I don't believe Celestia brought me here to die."
  3477. "Then... why?"
  3478. >"My cutie mark means something else entirely," Sweetie murmurs as she stares out your window. "I can only hope Scootaloo and Apple Bloom remember, that they haven't fallen into complacence or despair."
  3479. "Remember *what*?"
  3480. >"The purpose of a shield."
  3481.  
  3482. >Before you know it, the next load wave of construction materials had been dropped off.
  3483. >Sooner than you expected, but perfect timing.
  3484. >The ponies had finished digging out the foundations only the day before.
  3485. >Just took them three days to do.
  3486. >They finished placing the rebar this morning, as the trucks were unloading.
  3487. >The new supplies are mostly bags of cement, since you're too far out from anywhere for mixer trucks - if any were even available.
  3488. >There aren't.
  3489. >You take another look at the TV and sigh.
  3490. >Maybe you should have asked some of the pegasi to stop their suppressants. If they *can* do what they supposedly can, then -
  3491. >Well, maybe that's a plan for the future. Too late to help now.
  3492. >You file that thought away for later, when you have a chance to consult Moondancer.
  3493. >Maybe this evening, but as for right now...
  3494. >This rain could ruin everything. Again.
  3495. >Yep. Perfect timing.
  3496. >You pull on your coat.
  3497. >Apple Bloom meets you at the front door.
  3498. >Well, just outside the front door. She's sitting on the patio's bench, watching out over the farm.
  3499. >She looks up a few moments after the door swings open and you step out.
  3500. >"Rain?"
  3501. "Rain. We've got four days to get that concrete stored or poured, and I don't really think we've got room to store it."
  3502. >"So we just gotta get it poured," she smiles back. "Ain't a big deal. We were plannin' to do it anyway."
  3503. "That's a good way to look at it."
  3504. >Apple Bloom grins.
  3505. "Let's go share the good news."
  3506. >You check your pocket one more time for your phone - yep. Good.
  3507. "There's a chance I'll have to run off suddenly if Silver calls me. She's got a few leads and might need me to come back to the house to make things official."
  3508. >Apple Bloom nods.
  3509. >"Won't be a problem. You mostly just stand 'round anyhow."
  3510. "Hey! Hey. I *supervise*."
  3511. >"You don't know what you're supervisin'!"
  3512. "Yeah, that's why I'm only supervising."
  3513. >She glares for a bit, watching you as you both come down the stairs.
  3514. >You know because you're watching her out of the corner of her eye, until she finally laughs.
  3515. >"Guess that's fair," Apple Bloom snorts. "Wouldn't want to have to scrap a whole foundation 'cause you tried to actually help."
  3516. "I'll have you know I'm incredibly competent - at certain things that aren't manual labor."
  3517. >"Ah know, Ah know. Sorry. You're managing things well enough, after all."
  3518. "Thanks. Truck or -"
  3519. >She keeps on walking.
  3520. "Okay, we'll walk."
  3521. >"Ain't far an' you should save the gas."
  3522. "I've also got to go down to the road -"
  3523. >"Ain't far an' you should save the gas," she repeats, slowing her pace just enough for you to catch up. "Don't wanna go back in to town again just to fill up those cans, do you?"
  3524. "Not really, but I'll need to soon enough anyway. Those generators we're using to power the tools are burning through the reserves pretty fast."
  3525. >"Huh?" Apple Bloom groans. "Oh, *those*. Ah told you ponies can do it by hoof -"
  3526. "But power tools are faster, aren't they?"
  3527. >"Well, Ah guess."
  3528. >She doesn't look too happy admitting it, but it's true - even if they aren't designed for ponies to use and you had a mild panic attack the first time one of them fumbled the circular saw.
  3529. >Most of the equipment can be managed by hoof, and for those that can't there are the unicorns.
  3530. >Not that many of those offered to go off their suppressants - the memory of what happened to your uncle seems to have them spooked, afraid of what they might do if they lost control - but enough unicorns volunteered to handle things so far.
  3531. >And not one has gone berserk.
  3532. "Besides... don't you have some letters to mail?"
  3533. >"Well, *yeah*," she admits.
  3534. >That puts a smile on her face.
  3535. >"The whole lot of us have a bunch ready to go!"
  3536. "So..."
  3537. >"Okay, okay, We'll keep on usin' the power tools. Ain't how we did things back in Equestria, but we ain't in Equestra now."
  3538. >She veers over to affectionately bump your leg.
  3539. >"Ah guess it is speedin' things up a bit, but it's still goin' too slow for my likin'."
  3540. "Really?"
  3541. >"Well," Apple Bloom drawls as you two amble down the hill from your house, "back in Ponyville, it'd only take us a day to get up a new barn... course we'd have all the cousins over, so..."
  3542. "Barns aren't houses."
  3543. >"Close enough."
  3544. "So you're saying we don't have enough ponies?"
  3545. >"Nah, we got enough, but they ain't Apples," she smirks. "Ah don't wanna brag or nothin', but..."
  3546. >Apple Bloom shrugs, absolutely brimming with humility.
  3547. "And how were your family at -"
  3548. >"Let's just say we're 'incredibly competent' at certain things," she grins. "And all these laws you humans got about makin' stuff are stupid complicated, so that ain't helpin'."
  3549. "Sorry for having electricity and indoor plumblng."
  3550. >"Hey! We had indoor plumbin'!"
  3551. "Okay, electricity and -"
  3552. >"Point takin'."
  3553. >Good thing. You couldn't come up with a second reason.
  3554. >Asbestos?
  3555. >Tornadoes?
  3556. >Well...
  3557. >Silly ponies with their ability to control the weather and not kill themselves with dangerous building materials.
  3558. "So anyway, after I talk with Maud and Firm Footing -"
  3559. >"Firm Footin'?"
  3560. "Yeah, didn't I tell you Moondancer put him in charge of pouring the foundations?"
  3561. >"Huh, nope. *Moondancer*? What's she got to do with this?"
  3562. "Well... you've been busy. Anyway, back in Equestria, he used to -"
  3563. >"Ah know. He'd just started up his own construction company when - when all *that* happened, but he don't really know much about *anything*."
  3564. >Apple Bloom snickers - almost maliciously.
  3565. >"Shoulda seen him try when I asked for somepony to help me put up those walls in the dorm - y'know, makin' rooms for the families an' such. Far as I could tell, he'd never held a hammer 'fore in his life!"
  3566. "He's more like a... well... manager, I guess? General contractor?"
  3567. >"He ain't good with his hooves *at all*."
  3568. "He doesn't have to be. All he has to do is -"
  3569. >"Supervise?"
  3570. "Exactly. Honestly, I'm surprised you didn't mention him."
  3571. >"But he can't actually *do* nothin'!"
  3572. "He can guide others and he knows good work from bad."
  3573. >"Anypony can tell that! You give it a good buckin' an' if it don't break it's good!"
  3574. >You think you can be forgiven for rolling your eyes.
  3575. >"Ah mean, *sure* maybe he can help in some way, but he ain't like Diamond Tiara or nothin'," she scoffs. "That mare was *born* to lead."
  3576.  
  3577. "- besides my personal misgivings, sir, I'm not sure how the other mares would take it."
  3578. >"She volunteered," Sterling shrugs, "and she used to run her own business in... where the fuck was it? Manhattan?"
  3579. "Manehattan, sir, but it wasn't really a -"
  3580. >Sterling chuckles and raises a sheet of paper from his desk.
  3581. >"Stupid bitch even gave me a resume, as if I would give a fuck about that."
  3582. "It seems you did, sir, but -"
  3583. >"I suppose I did. I read the fucking thing after all."
  3584. "This will going to anger your current employees."
  3585. >"Like I *care* what slaves think."
  3586. "Just like you didn't care about that resume?"
  3587. >Sterling waves his hand, dismissing the argument like idly swatting at a fly.
  3588. >"If she wants to take over your administration duties, then that's fine. It's not like she's really in charge of them."
  3589. "That's not how the others will see it."
  3590. >"I don't give a shit. I want you to focus on your music."
  3591. >His manic smile makes you almost regret showing him your results up to now.
  3592. >"Just think about it," Sterling chuckles. "Imagine what will happen when you unlock the magic for me."
  3593. "I don't have to, sir. I saw it firsthand."
  3594. >"*That*? No, *that* was just an accident. I never meant for that to happen, but..."
  3595. >He laughs.
  3596. "I can only hope you show some restraint."
  3597. >"Of course I will," Sterling sneers. "Restraint is what makes it so powerful. If people don't know if magic is behind it, then..."
  3598. >He breaks out in even louder laughter.
  3599. "Of course."
  3600. >You know what he's getting at.
  3601. >These past few days, it's exactly what you've been wondering.
  3602. >You bow your head.
  3603. "I'll give her the good news, sir. Would you like me to send her to you?"
  3604. >"What? No. I don't want to see her. Just show..."
  3605. >He has to read over the paper in his hand again to remember her name.
  3606. "... show Coco what she has to do and get back to work."
  3607. "Very well, sir."
  3608.  
  3609. >Behind Firm Footing stand a team of Earth ponies at the ready.
  3610. >The volunteers, for the most part, but others as well. Those who want to work, who hadn't trusted themselves off the pills, hadn't wanted to go through the withdrawal...
  3611. >Those that want to turn this place into a true home.
  3612. >Waiting to see what they must do next.
  3613. >"Rain?" Firm Footing calls out to you.
  3614. "In four days."
  3615. >"Well that's damn inconvenient," he grumbles. "Did you want us to go for it?"
  3616. "I think so. Do you think you can get it done?"
  3617. >"There'll be some complications," he sighs. "It takes a couple weeks to set firm enough to start construction, probably longer thanks to the rain.
  3618. >"I wish we'd gotten this load first, but no sense waiting since pouring after the rain has complications of it's own. If it were up to me, I'd say we should go for it."
  3619. "Then let's go for it."
  3620. >"On it. Okay crew, let's get these pallets unwrapped and -"
  3621. >You don't pay much attention after that.
  3622. >He's got this - and if not... it's not as if you'd know.
  3623. >You turn to your other forepony.
  3624. "So, Maud...?"
  3625. >She stares at you blankly.
  3626. "Should *they* be here?"
  3627. >You point at the closest foal.
  3628. >"Probably not."
  3629. "Well..."
  3630. >She stares at you.
  3631. >Maud, does. Not the filly. She's busy trying hammer in some nails a stallion is holding for her - to mixed success and unknown purpose.
  3632. >You hope that's scrap wood.
  3633. >Not too far from her, another is fetching tools.
  3634. >A third is 'helping' unwind the shrink wrap from a pallet of cement by running around and around the stack with the end of the plastic caught in his mouth, instead of just cutting through like a sensible person would.
  3635. >"They're tryin' to get their cutie marks," Apple Bloom giggles. "It's something new and exciting - an' they've never done it before - so let them have their chance!"
  3636. "But what if they get hurt?"
  3637. >"That won't happen," Maud answers.
  3638. >You watch them a second longer before shrugging.
  3639. "Okay, as long as no one gets hurt. But..."
  3640. >You point over to a small... pavilion - no, that word is too... too grand - that had been thrown together earlier yesterday.
  3641. "... why is Hematite here? She already has her cutie mark."
  3642. >"In case -"
  3643. >"Hey, Maud!?" Firm Footing shouts, "Can you give us a hoof with the mixers? Wouldn't mind your help too, Apple Bloom!"
  3644. >"Yeah, be right there!" the pony at your side answers.
  3645. >Apple Bloom bumps your leg with her shoulder before bolting off.
  3646. "Well... at least they aren't bags of beans, right?"
  3647. >Maud just blinks.
  3648. "I mean, Roma was... oh, nevermind."
  3649. >It's Maud, after all.
  3650. "Yeah, go on. I'll talk to Hematite myself and make sure she's staying safe."
  3651. >"Okay."
  3652. "After that, I need to go down to the road and see how Jack's team has gotten situated. Since they all came in yesterday, I figure it's only polite to say hello."
  3653. >"Okay."
  3654. >She turns away without another word.
  3655. >Back to normal, you suppose.
  3656. >Probably for the best. Her being perpetually expressive was starting to be a touch unnerving.
  3657. >You head over to the pavilion - honestly more like a... there's a word for it, you swear.
  3658. >There's probably some kind of appropriate technical term for it, but hell if you know.
  3659. >Five paces in, you settle on 'shelter'.
  3660. >It's nothing more than a tarp held up with a few upright beams and another on one side to block the wind.
  3661. >Barely big enough to fit the cot someone dragged out here - and Hematite, too, of course.
  3662. >The little filly waves as you come close.
  3663. >There's a new bandage wrapped around her leg.
  3664. >You can't help but wince.
  3665. "Hey, Hematite."
  3666. >"Hi!"
  3667. "What happened to your leg?"
  3668. >"I... um... I scraped it on the door."
  3669. "Do you think it's a good idea to be out here? You could get hurt."
  3670. >She boops a little box at her side with her nose.
  3671. >There's a red cross drawn on the top.
  3672. >"That's why I'm here," she says, "in case somepony *does* get hurt."
  3673. "Ah."
  3674. >Well.
  3675. >That... makes sense.
  3676. "Good thinking, but be safe."
  3677. >"I will! Mica will take care of... wait, where did he go?"
  3678.  
  3679. >"Before you go," Sterling says after you're already half out the door, "make sure that star diplomat or whatever of theirs looks presentable and is in line."
  3680. "Sir?"
  3681. >"Sweet Thing?" he shrugs. "I don't remember."
  3682. "Sweetie Belle, sir?"
  3683. >"I suppose?"
  3684. "But 'star diplomat'? I was unaware -"
  3685. >"Not literally," Sterling groans. "She is - *was* - a minor celebrity of the week at best, but one of the local news crews might want to get a look at her sooner or later."
  3686. >That could be - what?
  3687. >Good?
  3688. >Bad?
  3689. >For you? For him? For the other ponies?
  3690. >You're not sure, just that a feeling of excitement and panic ripples through you.
  3691. "Have you... heard something, sir?"
  3692. >"I got a call asking to interview her yesterday," he says dismissively, with less gravity than you think the situation should warrant, "but they called back less than an hour later to say the fluff piece had gotten bumped for a press conference."
  3693. >Ah. That explains his casual attitude.
  3694. >Sterling chuckles.
  3695. >"Probably the announcement that the bypass is finally finished up. I wouldn't be surprised. That's *real* news that will impact people's lives.
  3696. >"She's just another damn pony in this shithole in the middle of nowhere."
  3697. >He shrugs.
  3698. >"Well, it's nowhere *now*, but once that's finished..."
  3699. >Another chuckles bubbles up from his throat.
  3700. "You believe those projections still hold, sir?"
  3701. >"Absolutely. Once that bypass is finished, this shithole town will finally be important. It'll be *somewhere*. I might even be able to put the amphitheater to its proper use. Everything that should have happened *years* ago..."
  3702. >Sterling sighs happily.
  3703. >"But anyway... just in case, you understand...? Make sure she falls in line. I'd hate to have to tell the news crew Sweet Thing tried to escape... and..."
  3704. >He leaves the rest unsaid.
  3705. >It would be believable.
  3706. >After all, she publicly stated she only came to this world to find her friends.
  3707. >On a national broadcast no less.
  3708. >Possibly international.
  3709. >Those are becoming more common again, after all.
  3710. >You bow your head.
  3711. "Very well, sir. I will talk to her."
  3712. >Again.
  3713. >For what good it does.
  3714. >"Or have the new mare do it," Sterling shrugs. "I don't care, so long as she doesn't cause trouble for me."
  3715. "I will talk to her, sir."
  3716. >As to what that talk will entail, you haven't the faintest.
  3717. >It occupies your thoughts as you walk back from Sterling's office.
  3718. >What to do with her. How to convince her.
  3719. >You run the conversation through your mind several times.
  3720. >Nothing new.
  3721. >Not a single argument you haven't already tried.
  3722. >Not one unique thought all the way from Sterling's office to the common area the ponies share.
  3723. >It's not empty, not as you expected it to be.
  3724. >One mare sits there, plainly waiting for you. Not the one you had hoped, yet *knew* would not be there.
  3725. >The rest have all taken to the duties you assigned them, even if it is with reluctance.
  3726. >But in one case, refused to leave the room she shares with four others.
  3727. >Sweetie is going to get herself killed.
  3728. >You sigh.
  3729. >It's all you can do.
  3730. >You've tried everything else.
  3731. "Good news, Coco."
  3732. >The little, delicate mare looks up from the magazine she was nosing through and smiles politely.
  3733. "Master Sterling has agreed to your proposal."
  3734. >"Oh? Really?" she ask needlessly. "I'm so happy."
  3735. >You shake your head.
  3736. >She shouldn't be.
  3737. "I'm surprised you would offer to do this."
  3738. >"Why?"
  3739. "Because while this isn't truly any sort of position of authority or honour, the mares that have been here for years will hate you for taking something they think should be theirs."
  3740. >"And?" Coco shrugs.
  3741. "The mares you arrived with will hate you for being a traitor."
  3742. >"Everypony will hate me? I can live with that," she smiles softly. "Emphasis on the *live*."
  3743. "If you come with me, I can..."
  3744. >What to start with?
  3745. >The scheduling?
  3746. >Or the budget Sterling allocates for rewards and favors?
  3747. >How about -
  3748. "Nevermind."
  3749. >You shake your head.
  3750. "The first thing you need to do is talk to Sweetie Belle."
  3751. >Maybe... she'll have more success than you. Maybe.
  3752. >You - and it hurts to think this now - but you don't trust this mare. Too meek yet too eager. Too happy and too pleased with herself.
  3753. >But you've also had no success getting Sweetie to abandon her suicidal stance.
  3754. >Maybe...
  3755. >"Oh, Rarity's little sister? About?"
  3756. >Is that a smile?
  3757. >Do her eyes sparkle eagerly?
  3758. "Master Sterling wants her compliant."
  3759. >"Well -"
  3760. "*I* don't want her to die. Do what you have to do to fulfill those goals."
  3761. >Coco tugs momentarily on her mane and hums softly to herself.
  3762. >"Well... can I change her room assignment?"
  3763. "Within reason."
  3764. >"Then maybe spending time with her old friend would be good for her."
  3765.  
  3766. >Bedding falls to the floor.
  3767. >That, more than the voices, wakes you.
  3768. >The sudden chill.
  3769. >You're used to voices by this point.
  3770. >They're easy to ignore now.
  3771. >Quicker than you would have thought, but mares that come to steal your things don't even try to be subtle.
  3772. >The ones who openly walk in, conversing with each other as they pick over your things.
  3773. >Your jewelry went first, when you were too weak to even yell at them, but that wasn't all.
  3774. >Perfume, trinkets, even your suppressants.
  3775. >Yes, even those.
  3776. >But not your blanket.
  3777. >No one wants that.
  3778. >Except you.
  3779. >You reach for it.
  3780. >"I had hoped you wouldn't break," one of the voices shouts, from the other side of the door. "I should have known better." It sounds... familiar. Vaguely.
  3781. >Almost enough to make you care.
  3782. >"You were *always* a second-rate pony, Coco! First you tried to ride Polomare to success, and then my sister!"
  3783. >"That's uncalled for. I *helped* your sister, if you remember."
  3784. >"Only because you had more to gain from her than Polomare! Now you're -"
  3785. >"I have no idea what you're talking about," the other answers. "This is for your own good. After you see your old friend, maybe you'll see just how bad things can be here. And if not..."
  3786. >Friend?
  3787. >Who?
  3788. >S-
  3789. >No.
  3790. >She's dead.
  3791. >You killed her.
  3792. >"'Old friend'? Who -"
  3793. >"I'm not surprised you haven't seen her yet," giggles the voice. "She hasn't left her bed in almost a week!"
  3794. >"Who!?"
  3795. >"Why don't you go in and see?"
  3796.  
  3797. "Best get out of the way, String Bean."
  3798. >"I'm trying to help!" the colt shouts as he dips into your way again. "Please let me help!"
  3799. "Ah know -"
  3800. >Sun, this load's heavy!
  3801. "- but these're a bit too much for you. Why don't you go on an' help Barrel Roll with the mixin'?"
  3802. >"Ooooookaaaaaaaaaaaaay," the lil' colt whines an' scampers on ahead, leavin' the path clear for you.
  3803. >Hard enough to haul three bags've cement without him weavin' about underhoof.
  3804. >If one slips free, he'll be squashed flat!
  3805. >Not that you'd let that happen, but bein' safe's never a bad idea.
  3806. >You make it to the mixer only a bit behind the foal - for all his eagerness, his short legs can't carry him far with each step.
  3807. "Y'don't mind him helpin' out, do you, Barrel Roll?"
  3808. >The pegasus shakes his head.
  3809. >"Of course not, but - uh, String Bean, step on back and give her room to set those bags down."
  3810. >Don't really exactly set 'em down, so much as stop stoppin' 'em from fallin' off your back.
  3811. >They land with a thud that makes String Bean's eyes bug out.
  3812. >"Oh," he gasps. "Those are *way* heavier than I thought!"
  3813. "Yep."
  3814. >"Now String Bean," Barrel Roll says to the colt while tryin' to hide a smile, "see that cord there on the end of the bag? When I'm ready, you're gonna want to grab that in your teeth - and oh, no."
  3815. >The obvious happens.
  3816. >Barrel Roll sighs an' laughs all in the same breath as the colt shakes, tryin' to get the spilled powder free've his coat.
  3817. >"Ooops."
  3818. >"Don't worry, it's nothing we can't fix."
  3819. >Barrel Roll shakes his head but he's smilin' all the same.
  3820. >"We'll take care of this," he whispers to you. "Why don't you get some of that hot tea Roma cooked up and take a breather?"
  3821. "Ah can get another load or two 'fore Ah gotta -"
  3822. >"And then it'll be another 'load or two' after that, and another and another."
  3823. "If Ah ain't tired, then why not?"
  3824. >"You've already carried double what anypony else has," Barrel Roll adds. "Don't you think it's time for a break?"
  3825. >You shrug.
  3826. >Ooooof, that hurts.
  3827. >It's nothin'.
  3828. >It'll hurt more in the mornin'.
  3829. "Well, Ah haven't been takin' my pills -"
  3830. >"Neither have the others I'm talking about!" Barrel Roll snorts. "Sit for a spell and be a good example for them."
  3831. "After one more load. Then Ah'll -"
  3832. >"Nope!" String Bean shouts an' jumps right in front've you! "Go to break!"
  3833. >Well -
  3834. >You ain't ashamed to admit to yourself that leaves you a bit stunned.
  3835. "Okay..."
  3836. >But if even that tiny colt thinks you gotta... then...
  3837. >Barrel Roll's right, you suppose. Gotta set a good example, for the foals if nopony else.
  3838. "... but you get that mixed an' poured right away. Ah'll be back soon with the next load. *After* Ah've gotten somethin' to drink."
  3839. >You start to turn away and your hooves prepare to take you back to the pallet of -
  3840. >Nope.
  3841. >Gotta be a good example for ponies.
  3842. >You turn away an' walk back the other way.
  3843. >Don't really feel like somethin' hot, but then again with the cold air an' the sweat you've worked up a few minutes of sittin' will probably have you shiverin'.
  3844. >You'll be happy for it then.
  3845. >Roma's set up a table an' built a small fire but a stone's kick from Hematite's aid station. Less than. Passed it a few times as you ran back an' forth to help here an' there.
  3846. >It's in a good spot.
  3847. >Keep folks at the station warm, both with the fire and the tea.
  3848. >The little filly especially, though you don't have any less concern for the mare stretched out on the cot next to her now.
  3849. >"She overworked herself," Hematite says when she sees you lookin'. "She'll be fine after a moment."
  3850. >You nod to her an' keep walkin'.
  3851. >Nothin' to be worried about, or surprised.
  3852. >Every pony here's gotten used to manual labor - not many cushy desk jobs on a farm - but this work ain't exactly the same as bringin' in a crop.
  3853. >Work's different. Gotta move different. Uses different parts've the body.
  3854. >You expect more'n a few strained muscles an' broken bones 'fore this is all over.
  3855. >Not yet, though, from the looks've things.
  3856. >That's good.
  3857. >Seems cruel to hope for in a way, but with any luck Hematite won't be puttin' her cutie mark to use for a long time.
  3858. >Roma smiles when you come up to her table.
  3859. >"I was worried you'd keep working through the day," she says, pourin' you a fresh cup. "Who made you stop?"
  3860. "What makes you think somepony made me?"
  3861. >"Because we've been living together on this farm for *how* many years now? I know pregnancy changes a mare, but I don't think anything could change you *that* much."
  3862. >You snort.
  3863. "Barrel Roll an' String Bean."
  3864. >"Good lads," she mumbles an' nods. "I'll have to make sure they get some extra dessert tonight."
  3865. "You're makin' dessert? Didn't know we were so well off."
  3866. >"Well, I have to *now*," Roma smirks. "Otherwise how can I can give them extra? I think we've got enough sugar to whip up some cookies. Or..."
  3867. >She sighs and taps her chin with her hoof all dramatic like.
  3868. >"I'll have to see what I can spare. You know, you're *really* making a lot of extra work for me."
  3869. "Ah'll try to feel bad about that."
  3870. >She looks like she's about to sass you back, but another pony comes up to the table 'fore she can think of anything.
  3871. >"Hey, Roma, could I -"
  3872. >You step aside for the newcomer an' raise your cup.
  3873. "Thanks for the tea, Roma."
  3874. >She nods back as she pours the next.
  3875. >It's growin' a bit crowded here an' all you're doin' is bein' in the way, so you head on out, eventually makin' your way over to a small swell in the ground, not even a hill really.
  3876. >All've those were leveled out, Maud told you when y'all first arrived, except the one his house is on.
  3877. >Y'don't mind that it's not *really* a hill. Still makes a nice place to sit for a bit an' the slope's gentle enough that it don't give you no trouble even with the tea in your hoof an' your legs achin' from a lack of work.
  3878. >There's even a tree up top to give a bit of shade, less now that the leaves have fallen.
  3879. >Of course, ain't much need for shade right now either.
  3880. >It's so ideal you can't help but think his uncle or someone before him must've put it all together on purpose.
  3881. >From down here so close to the fields, it's the perfect spot to look about.
  3882. >Ain't no surprise somepony's already there, though the *who* is.
  3883. "Ah thought you'd be up at the office."
  3884. >Moondancer gasps slightly and looks up all surprised.
  3885. >"Oh. No," the mare says with a shake've her head. "I needed a break to clear my head. And my eyes. Staring at a screen for hours..."
  3886. >She growls faintly.
  3887. >"I don't know how humans do it."
  3888. "Well, Ah guess everypony has somethin' they can do. Like how pegasi can fly an' earth ponies are strong, so..."
  3889. >Moondancer giggles.
  3890. >"Humans' collective ability is sitting on their butts and staring at computers?"
  3891. "Ah guess."
  3892. >You shrug.
  3893. "Don't sound too great when you put it that way."
  3894. >You settle down beside her.
  3895. >Oooof. That was a mistake. Somehow the air don't feel half as cold as the ground does.
  3896. >Wait.
  3897. >You roll out onto your back, with your belly up to the sky, and stretch.
  3898. >Ahhhhh.
  3899. >Yep.
  3900. >That's so much better.
  3901. >Who needs ice packs when you got winter?
  3902. "Y'know, Moondancer, sometimes sittin' an' doin' nothin' don't sound too bad, neither."
  3903. >"I suppose not."
  3904. >She gives you a little smile an' then goes back to starin' off into the distance.
  3905. "What's wrong?"
  3906. >"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The song is back."
  3907. >Now you look closer, she's still smilin'.
  3908. >Your eyes meet an' her horn lights up an' a small swirl of fallen leaves dances for a moment in a lavender glow.
  3909. >"Except..." she mumbles as the light fades an' the wind sweeps away the leaves, "there's still something missing."
  3910. "Huh...?"
  3911. >"A part of the song," Moondancer explains, but that don't really explain much at all, does it? "A part of the magic. This... this almost feels like Equestria again. *Almost*.
  3912. >"The orchestra could be *fuller*, but all of the parts are there. *Almost*. Something's still missing."
  3913. >Your mind snaps to the first thing it can - family.
  3914. >But that ain't exactly true, is it?
  3915. >These're your family now, an' it's a big one.
  3916. >Maybe not by blood, but by... by blood, if that makes sense.
  3917. >The blood y'all have shed. What y'all have all gone through these past few years.
  3918. >Can't think but any of the others'd feel the same.
  3919. >So is it friends?
  3920. >Nah. Silver Spoon's here now. Cotton Cloudy, too, an' always has been.
  3921. >Scootaloo ain't too far away either.
  3922. >Well...
  3923. "Princesses?"
  3924. >Silly, yeah, but it was the first thing that came to mind that you didn't immediately shoot down.
  3925. >Don't have any of those around, right?
  3926. >You laugh.
  3927. >Moondancer does too, a bit later, followed by a shrug.
  3928. >She looks over your way as she does, an' falls over onto her back to stare up at the sky.
  3929. >Can't quite find the right spot, though.
  3930. >Moondancer keeps fidgitin' until she's practically side-by-side with you.
  3931. >You sit up half-way - it's hard to drink your tea layin' on your back, an' it's hard to watch her squirm too.
  3932. >She frowns an' - an' then props herself up on one leg an' leans over to put her ear to your belly...?
  3933. "Moondancer?"
  3934. >"Nevermind what I said," she whispers an' lays on down again, her smile back. "Nothing missing. It's there, just weak."
  3935. >You look down at your barely-swollen belly.
  3936. "New foals...?"
  3937. >"I suppose.
  3938. >"That would make sense," she continues, half lost in thought. "Despite their lack of cutie marks, many of the foals here are verging on the cusp of adolescence.
  3939. >"They aren't really *foals* anymore. And... now... I almost thought there would be a whole generation of ponies that were never born.
  3940. >"Guess I was wrong about that too. Nothing's missing."
  3941. "You coulda just said 'yes'."
  3942. >"Yes," Moondancer repeats back with a smile. "It'll be nice to have new foals around."
  3943. "Ah thought you didn't care much for 'em?"
  3944. >"I'll make an exception for yours."
  3945.  
  3946. >"Betcha didn't expect to see me here, did you?"
  3947. >You nod.
  3948. "Actually, yeah."
  3949. >Lauren smirks sarcastically.
  3950. >Jack chuckles.
  3951. >The Steffords' ponies stand stock still.
  3952. "No, really. I did."
  3953. >"Uh-huh."
  3954. "Seriously. After all, you're probably here for the same reason I am, aren't you?"
  3955. >"I *guess*. Probably," Lauren answers. "Thought it'd be best to introduce myself an' some've the ponies to the folks they'll be working for."
  3956. "Yep, same thing, though I *am* a bit surprised you didn't bring any of them over earlier."
  3957. >You don't recognize the other three she's got with her, just Twist. And you only ever met her just that once despite what Lauren had said at the time, that she was going to bring over more.
  3958. >To try to get acclimated to dealing with other people again.
  3959. >At first that sounded reasonable. But then... when it didn't happen again...
  3960. >You still can't really figure out why she did that - why she even bothered - unless she *knew* Twist had letters for the ponies on your farm?
  3961. >And knew that her ponies wouldn't trust her with them?
  3962. >It's either that or Lauren was just looking for an excuse to see you - and that sounds plain silly.
  3963. >Neither of you are love struck teenagers anymore.
  3964. >... though from the way she keeps looking at you - turning away and glancing at you out of the corner of her eye -
  3965. >"Sorry," she mumbles. "Things came up."
  3966. >Nah. She's just embarrassed.
  3967. >Her father probably didn't like the idea after all - and they are *his* ponies, so...
  3968. >If...
  3969. >You push the thoughts aside and smile.
  3970. "Well, we're all here now. Ready to meet your crew, Jack."
  3971. >He scratches at his stony stubble - almost long enough now to be called a beard - and shrugs.
  3972. >"I'm glad you both showed up at the same time," Jack says with a shrug. "I'd rather get this done all at once, so it's great you brought some of the ponies along, too. Guess these are going to be our team leaders?"
  3973. >Lauren hesitates for a moment, then nods.
  3974. >"You asked for a few last time you and daddy talked. Thought these four would be the best. They're the least likely to give you any trouble."
  3975. >"Good, good," Jack murmurs. "I'd like to give you all the rundown of what we're going to do and our schedule - so you can plan accordingly."
  3976. >He gives the ponies a nod they refuse to acknowledge.
  3977. >"We won't be needing your entire team every day, so you'll be free to help out on the Steffords' farm during those periods. So...
  3978. >The foreman gestures to the modified shipping container sitting just off the road, about forty feet from where you're standing.
  3979. >"Well... I'd ask if you'd like to take a seat in my office -"
  3980. >Jack shakes his head suddenly.
  3981. >"- but, nah, I guess it'd be a little cramped with all of us. How about I get you some coffee to help you keep warm?
  3982. >"Though I'm afraid it'll have to be black," he continues before either you or Lauren can answer. "Sugar may not be rationed anymore, but it might as well be for us. The only foodstuffs we're getting supplied with are coffee and surplus HDRs."
  3983. >You almost ask what those are, before it hits you.
  3984. >Those memories were almost faded away, but you've eaten more than a handful of the Humanitarian Daily Rations yourself when things were at their worst.
  3985. >"Plus we've got a few MREs left over from our last job," Jack sighs, "but those are hardly any better.
  3986. >"And it's not like we can exactly pop over to the store to pick any sugar up. Same with milk - *particularly* milk - so if either you have any of those to spare I bet my men'd love to buy it off you. Or anything else.
  3987. >"Some of them are willing to break into the Equestrian Daily Rations just for some variety, but no, I'll make sure they save those for the ponies."
  3988. >"But anyway... coffee?"
  3989. >You shake your head.
  3990. "No coffee for me, thanks, but I'll check with my cook and see if she has anything she can spare."
  3991. >"I'd love some," Lauren answers. "An' I'm sure we've got a spare bag or two of sugar to share."
  3992. >"Thanks for that," Jack nods to her and...
  3993. >Nothing.
  3994. >He just stands there, hands on his hips.
  3995. "Um..."
  3996. >Jack frowns and you suddenly decide you really don't like him frowning.
  3997. >All the wrinkles that his almost-beard covers come back into being, turning what's a faint expression into almost a visual threat.
  3998. >"Well, what about you?" he demands, staring at... at the *ponies*. "You four want anything?"
  3999. >Aside from a faint tremble, they don't answer.
  4000.  
  4001. >"Better help me, miss," Jack snaps at you. "Don't think I can manage six cups on my own. It's hard enough just walking some days with this hip."
  4002. "But -"
  4003. >You glance over to the ponies.
  4004. >They still haven't said anything. Even Red. None've 'em asked for any coffee.
  4005. "Y'all don't want any coffee, do you?"
  4006. >Red shakes her head first, followed by the others, but Jack waves for you to come along.
  4007. >"Don't want to spill anything, you know," he growls. "And I don't want to make another trip if they change their minds."
  4008. "They're fine, I think."
  4009. >"They don't have to drink it if they don't want to."
  4010. >Well...
  4011. >"I'll watch over them," your neighbor says. "It'll be fine."
  4012. >Not what you were thinkin', but you ain't gonna make a big fuss of anything.
  4013. >What's there to even get fussy about? Someone givin' your ponies some coffee?
  4014. >They're gonna be workin' alongside each other long enough, you're sure more'n that'll happen.
  4015. >He heads into his 'office' an'... well... okay.
  4016. >You go on in.
  4017. >Can't say it's the nicest office you've ever stood in, but it ain't so bad for a shippin' container with a door an' window cut in one side.
  4018. >Desk, couple of filin' cabinets, blueprints held up 'gainst the wall with magnets - that's handy, you gotta admit, but the bare metal an' lack of insulation means it's downright cold in here.
  4019. >Jack's standin' at the side've the desk, fiddlin' with a bag of cardboard cups.
  4020. >"So," he says softly, "tell me about those ponies."
  4021. "You're worried 'cause they wouldn't answer you?"
  4022. >"I'm worried because of how they've been acting ever since you got here. I was expecting something a little different after meeting Apple Bloom, but I suppose you and your neighbor do things differently."
  4023. "Well, don't fret. They'll warm up to you. Just a little shy around strangers."
  4024. >"Do you think I'm an idiot? I've seen enough, been moving around enough, that I can guess how you treat your ponies. And while I think you should be doing better, that's not my fucking problem.
  4025. >"I've seen ponies used as everything from sex slaves to pets and you know what? I can deal with that. Doesn't make it right, but unless someone's murdering their ponies or violating their work contracts, I've got no legal ground to do more than file a complaint with the relocation agency - and considering how backed up *they* are, that doesn't mean shit.
  4026. >"Right here and now, it doesn't matter what you've been doing to them. Doesn't matter if my suspicions about what's going on at your farm are right or wrong.
  4027. >"Our first delivery of heavy machinery is in five days. We start work then. If they don't straighten out in that time, I can't use them on this worksite.
  4028. >"I'll take the government's money elsewhere and find some other workforce to be the raw labor. Your neighbor's ponies are busy, but there's that other farm out here, the... damn, what's their name again?"
  4029. "But the contract -"
  4030. >Jack snorts. and shakes his head, followed by a dark chuckle.
  4031. >"I can come up with an excuse to invalidate it. All I have to do is look. There's always a way out of a deal if you're willing to play dirty, and lady, I do construction for a living. I don't mind getting a little dirty.
  4032. >"As it is, those ponies are unusable. They wouldn't even answer me when I asked if they wanted *coffee*! That won't play on any worksite *I'm* running. They're going to have to get used to being real people again."
  4033. "Of course! They ain't livestock an' I don't let folks treat 'em like they are!"
  4034. >"Doesn't mean you're treating them like people."
  4035. "I -
  4036. "I *know* that.
  4037. "But, sometimes, it's... it's *hard*, y'know?
  4038. "They don't trust us. Haven't given 'em much reason to, I admit, but they don't all the same.
  4039. "I can try all I want to be their friend, but not a one will reach out to me."
  4040. >Not that you blame them.
  4041. >Still makes you angry, but you don't *blame* them.
  4042. >But you're still angry.
  4043. "These days, just bein' around my family's ponies makes my skin crawl.
  4044. "We've all been through so much - the ponies and us - that I don't know if we can ever be friends."
  4045. >Jack shakes his head an' begins pourin' coffee.
  4046. >"All that matters right now is that they can take orders and work as if they had half a brain.
  4047. >"If something happens, something goes wrong or there's a mistake, and they're too afraid to move or speak up, one of them - or one of my crew - could get hurt. Maybe even killed. Or maybe we'll pour concrete that's been sitting too long and have waste a day's work redoing something. That's my concern. They don't have to be friends."
  4048. "I... think we do."
  4049.  
  4050. >Before they can come back, you reach into your coat pocket and pull out a bundle of papers.
  4051. >Twist tries not to look as you walk her way.
  4052. >She's doesn't do a very good job of it.
  4053. >The others do better.
  4054. "Hey, Twist -"
  4055. >"Pleath don't thay -"
  4056. "- I've got some letters for you and your friends, from Apple Bloom and all the rest."
  4057. >She gives up on trying to keep her eyes down.
  4058. "Apple Bloom!?"
  4059. >"Yeah. Like I said, I thought Lauren would be here so of course I brought them along. But since you're here..."
  4060. >You look at the other three, all doing their best to pretend nothing is happening.
  4061. >Two mares and a stallion. None of which will meet your eyes.
  4062. "I can give them to Lauren if you prefer. I just... I didn't know if you wanted her to know about them, considering you hid yours from her. Lauren's my friend and I trust her, but... I know you experience a very different side of her than I do."
  4063. >They aren't scared for nothing.
  4064. >Except maybe they are. Roma was. Or so you like to think.
  4065. >Twist glances over to the other ponies, first left, then right.
  4066. >She makes no move to take the letters from you.
  4067. "Okay, I'll give them to Lauren."
  4068. >Not... not how you thought that would go.
  4069. >At all.
  4070. >Like... *at all*.
  4071. >The closest any of those others come to making eye contact with you is glaring at your feet.
  4072. >Twist just lets gravity pull her head down until her nose is almost to the ground, with her ears pinned back.
  4073. >Not at all what you expected.
  4074. >"Trying to make friends?"
  4075. >You spin around to see one of the construction crew ambling your way - a heavyset, Hispanic man with a wide face.
  4076. "Well... I guess. Kinda."
  4077. >Situation's a bit more complicated than that, but basically, right?
  4078. >"I've seen this before," the man sighs. "They must've been through some serious shit. C'mon, why don't you come sit with Carl and me and give them a bit of room."
  4079. "But -"
  4080. >"It's the only way they'll feel safe. Well, safer. Like I said, I've seen this before."
  4081. >He steps off a bit away, waving for you to follow.
  4082. "Yeah, but -"
  4083. >"They're going to be a while making that coffee."
  4084. >He clearly doesn't exactly mean that.
  4085. "Maybe I should go over and help."
  4086. >Nor do you exactly mean *that*.
  4087. >He gets it and shakes his head.
  4088. >"Jack's just going to talk to her. You don't need to worry. He can look scary, but..."
  4089. "He's a big, soft teddy bear underneath?"
  4090. >"Oh God, no. But he won't do anything other than talk - and he's not going to sugar coat it."
  4091. >You can imagine.
  4092. >No, you don't even have to imagine.
  4093. >Can't really think of a more plain-spoken individual.
  4094. >You glance back to Twist, but she's still looking away.
  4095. >Kinda thought you two had made a bit of a connection that time you'd talked, but apparently things are a bit different when there's other ponies around.
  4096. >Kinda like they were when Lauren was around.
  4097. >You hope you didn't get her in any trouble with them.
  4098. >You sigh internally.
  4099. "Okay, that sounds great."
  4100. >You don't go far, just over to one of the trailers set back from the road a ways.
  4101. >There are a few chairs set up in front of it - a mismatched mix of folding camp chairs and patio furniture, presumably whatever they were able to get their hands on, in a semi-circle around a dead fire pit.
  4102. >Dug out - if shallowly - and lined with bricks, but looks like it hasn't been used yet.
  4103. >"Hope you don't mind," the man says, settling himself into an empty chair, next to who you have to assume is Carl, and gesturing to one of the other free seats, "but we kinda figured -"
  4104. >"You mean justified to ourselves after the fact," Carl interrupts.
  4105. >"- well, either way the trailers are going to tear this spot up enough that another hole or two wouldn't hurt, right? It isn't too deep anyway."
  4106. >"You mean we couldn't dig down too far by hand."
  4107. >"I *mean* you got tired."
  4108. >Carl shrugs. The other man shrugs.
  4109. >You do too.
  4110. "It's perfectly fine. No harm done."
  4111. >Really.
  4112. >Absolute *worst* case scenario, you have to fill it in.
  4113. >Carl tips his head to you in thanks, then jerks his chin towards Lauren's ponies.
  4114. >"I honestly don't know what's more degrading," he sighs, "this or the shit at the last worksite."
  4115. >"Definitely the last one."
  4116. >"That was a fast call," Carl says. "You didn't even have to think about it?"
  4117. >The other man shakes his head.
  4118. >"Not at all."
  4119. >Daaaaaaaaamn.
  4120. "How bad was it there?"
  4121. >"Well..." the one man starts, before gesturing to Carl with an open hand. "You tell him. Just thinking about it makes me sick."
  4122. >Carl shrugs and sits forward in his faded beach chair.
  4123. >"It was a little town just off of D.C., pretty rich community. No agriculture or industry - not like here.
  4124. >"They didn't really *need* us there, but I think someone calling the shots wanted to earn some favors by paving the dirt road they'd been using, and... well...
  4125. >"Some of the ponies were there for menial work, you know, simple clerical work, maids, gardeners, shit like that. A few 7B, a few 8B."
  4126. >Unskilled workers. Servants.
  4127. >"Most were 9B."
  4128. >You wince.
  4129. >No skills. No hard labor.
  4130. >"I'm sure you know what that means."
  4131. "Useful only for jobs that required a warm body and nothing more."
  4132. >Carl nods.
  4133. >"Normally that means retail or prostitution. These were kept as pets."
  4134. >"At least a slave is a person of sorts, y'know?" the other man adds. "I mean, you can try to take that away from them, treat them like they aren't people, but that means that... well... you can't take it away from them if they aren't a person to begin with, right?
  4135. >"But those poor things were only *pets*. Leashes and everything! There was even a pony show while we were there, if you can believe it!
  4136. >"Who had the prettiest pony, or whose could dance the best, or... shit, I don't know. I didn't go. It was nuts!
  4137. >"Parents would buy a mare just to get her foal as a gift for their child!"
  4138. >You wince again.
  4139. >"But at least they were taken care of," Carl counters. "Sure, they weren't treated like people, but they weren't mistreated for the most part."
  4140. >He looks to you suddenly and waves his hand frantically.
  4141. >"Not that I'm saying you mistreat yours, but those four over there? They're scared. And underweight."
  4142. "That's just Steffords. It's not the same for everyone."
  4143. >"That's good to hear. The ponies in town mostly seemed pretty happy. Mostly. There was even that one pegasus doing mail deliveries."
  4144. >You nod.
  4145. "Things could definitely be worse out here, I admit. But they could also be better. A lot better. One of -"
  4146. >They seem amiable enough, but you don't know these men.
  4147. "- one of my ponies was... rescued from a bad situation in town."
  4148. >It seems more diplomatic than outright saying what was done to Silver.
  4149. >And it gets the point across well enough.
  4150. >The two look at each other and sigh in unison.
  4151. >"Oooooh, *shit*. Humans First, right?" Carl asks. "I thought this was the place, but then everything seemed so nice."
  4152. >"Me too. Figured I remembered wrong. I mean - she was delivering *mail*! All alone! This couldn't have been the right spot. How many did they kill here?"
  4153. >"Twenty-three."
  4154. >You shake your head.
  4155. "More than that."
  4156. >"Shit...." Carl sighs. "Recently?"
  4157. "From what she told me, but I don't have all the details."
  4158. >"Hadn't heard anything about that."
  4159. "The more I think about it, the more I think there'd have to be someone covering it up. Not just the news of it, I mean. There are good people in town. I can't imagine they'd look the other way unless they didn't have a choice."
  4160. >"Wouldn't have mattered, I suppose," the other man murmurs. "We wouldn't hear about it either way. Most places are still dealing with their own problems. Who'd cover anything out here in the middle of nowhere?"
  4161. "They did once."
  4162. >"And it took... what? Six months for that to hit the national news?" Carl counters. "And the only reason anyone outside of this little corner of the world heard of it was because a senior relocation marshal was escorting the next batch of refugees. If he hadn't been there..."
  4163. >The man shrugs.
  4164. >"True."
  4165. >The two sigh in unison, and you with them.
  4166. >There's a moment of silence before Carl glances over at Twist and the other ponies meaningfully.
  4167. >You shake your head.
  4168. "No, not Lauren. Or her father. He's not Humans First. Just an asshole."
  4169. >"And... her?"
  4170. "She tries to be a good person. Better than me, but she's got a lot more stacked against her. Whatever good she tries to do, those ponies don't trust her. Because of her father and the hands, I hope.
  4171. "He's... bitter, to put it politely. His wife died when the portals closed, and he's always had a temper. Lauren does what she can to help the ponies, but..."
  4172. >First one man nods, then the other.
  4173. >"Sometimes it's hard," Carl murmurs. "A person can only do what he - or she - can do. Speaking of... I do masonry."
  4174. >He jerks a thumb at his fellow.
  4175. >"And -
  4176. >"I'm our electrician," the other man interrupts. "We heard you wanted to hire us for a side job."
  4177. "If you're willing."
  4178. >"Willing? Hell, I'm *eager* to get started on something!"
  4179. >Carl looks at his enthusiastic companion and sighs.
  4180. >"I *hate* sitting around with nothing to do," the other man continues. "So I'd love to help out however I can. Carl doesn't have my work ethic, but -"
  4181. >"Do you have meat?"
  4182. "Huh?"
  4183. >"Beef, chicken, whatever," Carl explains. "A man can only eat so many beans before he's done with them."
  4184. "We've got some chickens. But beef..."
  4185. >Should be a little in your freezer.
  4186. >You were saving that for a special day.
  4187. >"Yeah, I knew that was a pipedream."
  4188. "No, no."
  4189. >This *is* a special occassion.
  4190. "I have a little."
  4191. >"Steak?"
  4192. >You do your best not to laugh in his face.
  4193. >"Okay, that was a stupid question," Carl smirks. "Chicken is good enough. It'd be shame if we never had anything to cook over this firepit besides our shitty HDRs."
  4194. "Now as far as payment..."
  4195. >Haggling over the actual price for their help takes less time than you expected - and costs less.
  4196. >In a way, it doesn't cost anything at all.
  4197. >At least no money.
  4198. >Living out here, even for only a few months, you kind of forgot how the rest of the country is dealing with things.
  4199. >Particularly when it comes to food.
  4200. >*Specifically* with anything perishable.
  4201. >You'll have to check with Roma to make sure everything they requested is available - and you make that clear to them - but you've all shaken on the basics of the arrangement in under a minute.
  4202. >Two chickens. Eggs every other day. Fresh bread.
  4203. >From the satisfaction on their faces, that's worth more than any amount of money you could have offered them.
  4204. >It might be, to them.
  4205. >Despite your own financial worries, it's understandable.
  4206. >What good is money if it can't buy what you want?
  4207. >So many people these days don't have access to what you do.
  4208. >Before you moved out here, when was the last time you had cheese? *Real* cheese? Let alone meat?
  4209. >Eggs had been absolutely out of the question, unless you wanted them powdered.
  4210. >These men aren't starving, but what's quickly become staples to you are more like  unattainable luxuries to most of the country.
  4211. >And still will be - for a few more years at least.
  4212. >Jake and Lauren still haven't come back with that coffee by the time negotiations have wrapped up, so you settle back into your seat and - and get back to business.
  4213. "What about the rest of the crew? Anybody else you think would be willing to help out?"
  4214. >The two look at each other.
  4215. >There's a moment of silent communication before Carl nods.
  4216. >"There's a few who could take on various jobs. Some might not have much free time, but they can at least show your ponies what to do."
  4217. >"You're thinking of Karl and Ralph?" the other man asks.
  4218. >"And Lou," Carl answers. "They're busy at the moment getting their gear set up, but I can bring them up to your construction site later tonight, if that's okay with you. Maybe a few others, too. That'll let us all get a look at what's going on and where you're at."
  4219. >You hesitate, but not for long before you find yourself nodding.
  4220. >The ponies will just have to be careful not to use magic around the men.
  4221. >That was going to come up sooner or later anyway.
  4222. "Sounds good. I know this is too much to ask, but any chance one of them is a plumber?"
  4223. >The other man shakes his head.
  4224. >"Afraid not," he says. "We've only got the one certified plumber, and Shawn absolutely hates ponies. Maybe one of the other guys knows a bit, but Shawn -"
  4225. >"He lost one of his hands to a unicorn," Carl interrupts. "And I mean, yeah, I think his attitude's understandable once you know that, so I hope you don't think too bad of him. He's a good guy, otherwise."
  4226. >"But most of us have a Purple Heart," the other man smirks. "Some more than one. That's why we're here and not still in the corps. Not fit enough for front line duty, now that things are winding down. But... yeah. Shawn got it bad."
  4227. >"He's not the only one with a serious injury like that," Carl continues, "but, I mean... not everyone can just take it all in stride like Jack does. We can talk to him, but you might not want him helping out."
  4228. >You nod.
  4229. "Jack warned me and... yeah, I agree, that's pretty understandable. A shame, but..."
  4230. >You shrug.
  4231. "I really need a plumber. None of my ponies know how to do any of that stuff and I'm not sure we can figure it out with just YouTube tutorials. I'd like to avoid calling in someone if I can.
  4232. "But at the same time, I don't want to bring in a plumber that's going to cause problems -"
  4233. >Carl raises a finger.
  4234. "- *assuming* he's even willing."
  4235. >He nods.
  4236. "So if there's someone else who knows anything, then..."
  4237. >"I'll ask around," Carl says, continuing to nod. "If push comes to shove, I'm sure we can figure something out. We're so short on men and equipment that we're helping each other out all the time.
  4238. >"I didn't know a single thing about electrical work before this crew got put together, but now..."
  4239. >"Damn right," the other man agrees. "I mean, I wouldn't trust you to wire *my* house, not without looking it over, but -"
  4240. >"What you mean is you'd trust me to do it, but you'd still check it out before flipping the switch."
  4241. >"Basically, yeah."
  4242. >"And I've helped Shawn out a bit - just a bit, didn't really learn anything that I didn't already know - but some've the others, like -
  4243. >Carl looks around - at what, you're not sure; perhaps not exactly anything at all - and sighs.
  4244. >"Jackson, maybe?" the other man suggests. "Or Auden?"
  4245. >"Maybe. I was hoping they'd be done unloading their gear, but... I'll ask them later, I suppose."
  4246. >The two nod a bit, drifting off into an uncomfortable silence.
  4247. "Sounds like you guys've had it pretty hard."
  4248. >Carl shrugs.
  4249. >"The job's fulfilling, for the most part," the other man says. "It's good to know we're helping people and making a difference; it'd just be nice if we had everything we needed.
  4250. >"You know, normally this kind of work -"
  4251. >He gestures with an open hand to the bare site.
  4252. >"- would require a crane or two. Small ones, but still. And couple of earth movers. Nothing too serious, but still some heavy machinery. Hell, we don't even have a trencher."
  4253. >"You mean we haven't been able to get replacement parts for it."
  4254. >"What I mean is Carl's been hauling around a broken piece of junk for the past four months, hoping for a miracle. Meanwhile, the rest of us have given up and are using shovels to dig the trenches by hand.
  4255. >"For lifting, we've been having to make due with timber frames and pulleys, practically like we're back to dark age technology. At least this time around we're supposed to be getting a digger - not sure exactly *what*, or how old it'll be -"
  4256. >"Or if it'll be running," Carl adds.
  4257. >"Or that, but it'll probably be one of those newer electric models."
  4258. >"True," Carl nods along. "Most of the deisels *were* scrapped for the war effort, so if we're lucky we won't have to worry about fuel."
  4259. >"Well, we'll find out in a few days. Whatever we get, it'll be a blessing. Still, it'd be really handy if some of the ponies could use their magic."
  4260. >You raise an eyebrow.
  4261. >"If you ever saw a plain pony kick a hole straight through a reinforced concrete barricade, you'd know what he means," Carl snorts. "I mean... most can't do as much damage, but *that* particular pony was an absolute terror."
  4262. >"You're talking about that one Earth Pony?" the other man asks.
  4263. >"Yeah," Carl sighs and turns to you. "She'd just rear up on her front legs and kick out with the back two and BAM. Shit, how many times did we have to build that *one* bridge because of her?"
  4264. >"Three times," the other sighs. "And that last time..."
  4265. >"Yeah," Carl mutters while the other man crosses himself. "Poor Harold. He wasn't the only man, but still..."
  4266. >"God in Heaven, yeah, I mean, I *like* ponies - I didn't join up for revenge, I was already enlisted - and I feel guilty as sin for feeling this way, but hearing that she had been taken down by the 45th was one of the happiest days of my life.
  4267. >"It was like... okay, okay, maybe I'll survive this after all."
  4268. >Carl nods.
  4269. >"I don't know what she had against the engineer corps," he sighs, "but... damn..."
  4270. >"Likely smart enough to know that going up against an infantry or armored unit solo like she was would be suicide. Guerrlla warfare means attacking where the enemy is least capable of fighting back.
  4271. >"Zebras and the other resistance fighters were already hitting the supply teams so hard command tripled the escorts, so that meant us and the other engineers. She couldn't fight an army, but she could stop them in their tracks by destroying bridges and roads.
  4272. >"It was just luck the 45th were hunkered down and waiting for transport when she hit that last time."
  4273. >The two men sigh in unison.
  4274. >Carl has this haunted look on his face that makes you afraid to ask more.
  4275. >Whatever they are, it's not your place to dredge up those memories again.
  4276. >The other man shakes his head sadly.
  4277. >"It wasn't my first deployment, but -
  4278.  
  4279. >"Before we go back out there, is there anything else that needs to be said?"
  4280. >You shake your head.
  4281. "No, Jack. I understand well enough what you mean an' you ain't wrong. It's nothin' I wouldn't be doin' on my own, but daddy... he's..."
  4282. >Jack grimaces.
  4283. "I'll talk to him, okay? An' the hands. That's the best I can promise."
  4284. >"And the ponies?"
  4285. "I'll... I'll talk to them too."
  4286. >He nods.
  4287. >"I'm going to be watching closely, you understand? If they don't work out, that's it. No more second chances."
  4288. "I understand."
  4289. >"Then let's get to it, shall we? We've left the poor things out in the cold long enough," Jack says as he begins to pour the coffee. "Not that they'll complain."
  4290. >No.
  4291. >They're too well trained for that.
  4292. >Probably haven't even moved.
  4293. >You take the first cup from him, and the second.
  4294. >It's a juggle, but eventually you pick up four.
  4295. "I'll take these out to them right away, Jack. You bring ours on out in a sec."
  4296. >"Works for me."
  4297. >You head on out of the 'office' an' - an' at first you don't see your neighbor. Not 'til he stands and waves.
  4298. >Don't hear what he says to the men he was sittin' to, but -
  4299.  
  4300. >"- Benny, too," Carl sighs. "I never thought..."
  4301. >You wait for him to continue. Silently. Uncomfortably.
  4302. >He's the one that brought it up, but it still feels like you're intruding.
  4303. >Plenty of people you knew didn't... make it.
  4304. >But that's different.
  4305. >You didn't serve.
  4306. >You didn't *see* it.
  4307. "I'm... sorry."
  4308. >Carl nods.
  4309. "I... um... I better get back to the ponies."
  4310. >Carl seems lost in his memories, but his companion stretches out his hand, leaning over the firepit to shake yours.
  4311. >"Never did introduce myself, did I? Pedro."
  4312. >Oh.
  4313. >You snort.
  4314. "Can't fault your manners. I didn't either. My name's -"
  4315. >The door to Jack's office slams open and you jump to your feet.
  4316. >But everything's fine.
  4317. >Just got caught by the wind or something.
  4318. >Lauren comes out, her hands full, and she -
  4319. >- she looks around.
  4320. >Probably for you.
  4321. "Sorry, I better go help her. Good meeting you guys, I'm looking forward to seeing you this evening. I'll see if Roma can cook up something special."
  4322. >"Sounds good."
  4323. "And... thanks."
  4324. >"For agreeing to help out with your construction?"
  4325. >You shake your head.
  4326. "For everything you two've done."
  4327. >Pedro hesitates, but then nods slowly.
  4328. >"That means a lot."
  4329.  
  4330. "- better'n I expected."
  4331. >The ponies lurch along behind you in silence.
  4332. "What do you think, Red?"
  4333. >"Huh? Oh, thorry, I -"
  4334. "I said that went better'n I expected."
  4335. >"Oh."
  4336. >An then comes the silence 'gain, save for the sound of dirt and rock crunching under your boots an' their hooves, goin' quiet as y'all cross the road over to your family's farm.
  4337. "Well, what do y'all think?"
  4338. >"Umm..." Red hums.
  4339. >You sigh quietly.
  4340. >Prolly the best you'll get out've 'em.
  4341. >God*damn*.
  4342. "Okay, that's a lie. It was *shit*. Jack was threatening me 'cause y'all can't think for yourselves."
  4343. >Why can't they be like *his* ponies?
  4344. >*His* feel *right*.
  4345. >Not like yours.
  4346. >Somethin's wrong with yours.
  4347. >Somethin' about them is dead.
  4348. "Look, it ain't your fault. Da and me got you trained up like that."
  4349. >Bein' honest with yourself, it hasn't just been him. They know that.
  4350. >You've done your share, too.
  4351. "That's - that's on us. We should've done you better. But it's gotta change."
  4352. >Silence.
  4353. >Ain't surprised.
  4354. "I swear, we'll change too. I'll talk to daddy. Make him see that this ain't workin'. Never would an' I ain't gonna pretend it ever did.
  4355. "He - I mean, *we* can't -"
  4356. >You *were* gonna say you can't keep takin' it out on 'em.
  4357. >None've your ponies killed ma or ever did anything.
  4358. >Tryin' to run off or steal a little extra food didn't put 'em in the wrong.
  4359. >It was you for not givin' 'em any other choice.
  4360. "I'm... what I'm tryin' to say is..."
  4361. >That you an' your family are horrible people?
  4362. >They know that.
  4363. "We'll do better. I swear. You gotta believe me."
  4364. >Silence.
  4365. "Why didn't you at least take the letters? I've *tried* to be as good to y'all as I can. Can't you at least trust me that much?"
  4366. >Finally an answer.
  4367. >An uncertain little hum that tells you no - but she wants to.
  4368.  
  4369. >Begrudgingly you get out of bed.
  4370. >As much as you would love to sleep in, there's too much to get done today.
  4371. >Too much to get done *every* day.
  4372. >You've been telling yourself that's a good problem to have - and, yeah, it is.
  4373. >Things are progressing.
  4374. >Things are getting *better*.
  4375. >Besides...
  4376. >... your bed feels empty.
  4377. >And that bothers you - mostly that it feels that way, not the feeling itself.
  4378. >Hasn't bothered you these past few months - hadn't even occurred to you, really - but the last couple of days...
  4379. >... ever since you handed Lauren those letters and her fingers brushed across yours...
  4380. >You shake your head.
  4381. >Enough of this high school bullshit, even if your heart does flutter a bit as you think about that moment.
  4382. >Sure, you'd love to cuddle up to someone at night, but you're not going to ask that of Lauren and you sure as shit aren't going to ask any of your ponies.
  4383. >Not *that* anyway.
  4384. >You reach for your phone.
  4385. >She'd said yes when you called her last night, but you still want to make sure Lauren's up for covering for you and nothing... well.. that nothing "came up."
  4386. >You've got to go into town and it's only been a few days since you introduced Carl, Pedro, and the rest of the volunteers to your ponies.
  4387. >Sure, everything appeared to go smoothly and they seem to be a decent bunch, but still...
  4388. >What kind of callous son of a bitch would you be if you *didn't* worry?
  4389. >What if there's an argument between the construction crew and your ponies?
  4390. >Or if there's an accident and one of the ponies gets hurt worse than Hematite can handle?
  4391. >Or something comes up and someone needs to get hold of you so you can pick up some other supplies, like... well, in that case, you'd trust Moondancer to give you a call on the house line.
  4392. >But it'd still be easier if Lauren was here.
  4393. >You'd *feel* better.
  4394. >And she's been hinting the past couple of days that she'd like to come over again.
  4395. >Probably to be with Silver.
  4396. >You start to dial.
  4397. >No worries about how early it is, and not because you're being inconsiderate.
  4398. >Sun's up - if barely - so Lauren will be too.
  4399. >It's a quick conversation.
  4400. >She's already on her way.
  4401.  
  4402. >Before you go, you take one last look in the mirror.
  4403. >Mmmmm... nah.
  4404. >You pull the band out of your hair an' let your ponytail fall free.
  4405. >Things are changin'.
  4406. >Stood up to daddy yesterday and he didn't even raise his voice.
  4407. >So...
  4408. >New you, new look.
  4409. >...
  4410. >God, that's silly.
  4411. >An' after so many years of just throwin' it into a ponytail, you can't think of anything else.
  4412. >Well...
  4413. >... you'd feel even sillier puttin' it back *now*.
  4414.  
  4415. >That was a mistake.
  4416. >Ain't *too* windy, but just walkin' to your truck was enough so your hair's become a godawful mess.
  4417. >You're gonna be brushing knots out've it for a week.
  4418. >How did you ever survive before the whole ponytail thing?
  4419. >Been so long, y'can't remember.
  4420. >Ma used to do your hair up special from time to time, but...
  4421. >... yeah.
  4422. >It's been a while.
  4423. >An' with her gone, ain't like there was no one else for you to try to look nice for.
  4424. >Not until... well... how long's it been since you've worn this outfit?
  4425. >Still fits.
  4426. >But it's been a while is all.
  4427. >Hell've a long time since you've worn a skirt out on the farm.
  4428. >An' the current state've your hair just confirms y'never should've stopped with the ponytail thing.
  4429. >*God*, y'hope your clothes don't get half as messed up as your hair.
  4430. >You pull up next to - well, close enough to - his pony's dorms.
  4431. >But not too close.
  4432. >Don't wanna get in their way after all.
  4433. >There's ponies scurryin' about like ants after someone kicked over their hill.
  4434. >Not too far from the truth, is it?
  4435. >Them workin' so hard to build new houses an' all, you mean. Wasn't how you intended it at first, but the situation ain't too different.
  4436. >You tug your coat closed an' get on out, the cold hittin' you like a drunk hittin' the ground.
  4437. >There's a light dustin' of snow across the ground an' every few seconds or so another drifts lazily down from above, just enough that your hair starts to feel wet by the time you walk over to him.
  4438. >Shit, why didn't you wear a hat?
  4439. >"- and another blade for the circular saw?" he's askin' a stallion you don't know.
  4440. >"Yes, sir. Looked fine to me, but Josh said it was a danger. I guess it must have gotten twisted a bit when we were still trying to figure out how to use the saw."
  4441. >Your neighbor nods slowly.
  4442. >"I suppose I should've seen that coming. Not like they're designed for ponies. Anything else?"
  4443. >The stallion shakes his head.
  4444. >"Then I'll be off. My friend should be here soon, so if anything -"
  4445. >Well then.
  4446. >You clear your throat.
  4447. >Loudly.
  4448. >Kinda turns into a cough at the end.
  4449. >Damn cold air.
  4450. >But he turns an' smiles.
  4451. >His arms come out wide an' - an' -
  4452. >*Damn* cold out here.
  4453. >His face is flushed red.
  4454. >"Or she's here now."
  4455. >He... uh...
  4456. >Well...
  4457. >You two shake hands.
  4458. >"If *anything* comes up," he says, turnin' to the stallion, "get with her. She'll call me. Sound good, Firm Footing?"
  4459. >"Yes, sir. Not a problem."
  4460. "Anything you needed me to do?"
  4461. >"I figured you'd want to spend some time with Silver," he says with a shrug, "and she could use a break. I have *no* idea what she's doing - not exactly, just that it's bringing in money - but she's been at it solid for the past few days."
  4462. >"And she's been helping out with the construction too, from time to time," Firm Footing adds, drawin' a surprised look from your friend.
  4463. >Huh.
  4464. >So she was just doin' that all on her own for kicks?
  4465. >Sil's crazy.
  4466. >"With our timetable," the stallion continues with a sigh, "I can't afford to turn her away. And the exercise seems to be doing her some good, but..."
  4467. >He gives you a whistful smile.
  4468. >"I remember when she used to be a little filly and I can't help but still think of her like that. She was... not *quite* the terror of Ponyville - that'd be Diamond Tiara, or Apple Bloom and her friends, depending on who you asked - but..." the stallion drifts off with an awkward chuckle. "Well, that's kind of what foals are for, right? To make life hard for the adults. All in all, she was one of the more pleasant.
  4469. >"She's done so much for us. I don't think anypony would mind if she took the rest of the day off if you get what I mean."
  4470. >Your neighbor nods.
  4471. >"I don't want her to run herself ragged."
  4472. >Yeah...
  4473. "On it."
  4474. >She can do that to herself an' won't even notice 'til it's too late.
  4475. "Anything else?"
  4476. >Your friend shakes his head.
  4477. >"Just give me a call if anything comes up. I didn't really - well, I'm honestly a little surprised you were able to make it, so it's not like I had things planned out. I guess your dad didn't object to you coming over? Or did you sneak out?"
  4478. >You laugh in his face an' you don't feel bad about that one bit.
  4479. "We ain't teenagers no more. I didn't sneak out, just let him know I was headin' over an' not to worry."
  4480. >He shrugs.
  4481. >"I thought he'd argue or give you a hassle about it.
  4482. "Why?"
  4483. >"Because he usually does."
  4484. "He's been more agreeable lately. Listens to me when I say we've got to be nicer to the ponies or that I'm goin' off to do somethin'."
  4485. >Your neighbor smiles, but like he's hearin' good news he don't quite believe.
  4486. >Fair enough. If you hadn't been livin' it - or if you'd noticed it right off, instead of slowly realizin' what was goin on - you're not sure you'd believe it either.
  4487. >"Is he finally getting soft?"
  4488. "Nah. Daddy's still as mean as anything, but..."
  4489. >Don't really got an explanation for it.
  4490. >So you shrug.
  4491. "... when I say somethin', he kinda just... goes along with it."
  4492.  
  4493. "Bemoaning fate won't get you anywhere."
  4494. >You resist the urge to roll your eyes.
  4495. >It wouldn't be polite, and it's not as if you don't sympathise with Sweetie Belle.
  4496. >Your owner is a monster.
  4497. >Why didn't you see that before? *Truly* see it?
  4498. >His apathy - his offhand comments - have done more harm than anything the sheriff and his men could ever do.
  4499. >He could have stopped them. You're sure of it. If only he had tried. If he hadn't gone along with it.
  4500. >If he hadn't - *somehow* - convinced you to as well.
  4501. >But all of that goes unsaid.
  4502. >From the set of Sweetie's jaw, there's no reasoning with her.
  4503. >No trying to get her to see things from your point of view.
  4504. >Coco's ideas have had as little success as your own.
  4505. >You sigh.
  4506. "I am not trying to convince you to leave your room, Sweetie Belle. I only stopped by to see if you had anything to mail."
  4507. >She shakes her head.
  4508. "If there was anyone you wanted to write -"
  4509. >"Any*pony*," she interrupts.
  4510. "Anycreature, then, if you object to the human's phrasing so much. Which is ludicrous. We share a world with them, now."
  4511. >"It doesn't matter. I don't have any mail."
  4512. >You sigh.
  4513. "Derpy doesn't get a chance to come by very often. You should take advantage of this. I'm sure she can wait a bit if you wanted to write a letter to Apple Bloom or Scootaloo."
  4514. >From the stunned look in her eyes, that takes her by surprise. Completely.
  4515. >It's not hard for you to puzzle out why.
  4516. >She was so busy objecting, being obstinate, doing everything she could to protest where fate had landed her, that she hadn't stopped to... well.. to *think*.
  4517. >"I..."
  4518. "They leave nearby, Sweetie Belle. Derpy can get a letter to them if you wish."
  4519. >"Maybe..."
  4520. >She shakes her head.
  4521. >"No," she murmurs. "I don't know what to say. What *would* I say?"
  4522. "That you're coming for them, perhaps?"
  4523. >"They already know that. And... and I..."
  4524. >She looks back, into the room she shares with her old friend.
  4525. >"I don't want to lie to them. Maybe next time she's here..."
  4526. >... may be too late.
  4527. >Her ribs are more pronounced than when she arrived.
  4528. "I'll ask her to come by again soon."
  4529. >Sweetie Belle nods and steps back into her room.
  4530. >A small noise stops you from walking away entirely.
  4531. >"Wait," Diamond Tiara repeats, loud enough for you to hear clearly. "I have a letter."
  4532. >The other mare steps aside for you to enter.
  4533. >There's a small, folded square of paper next to her on the bed.
  4534. >You look back to Sweetie Belle.
  4535. "Did you write this for her?"
  4536. >She shakes her head.
  4537. >"I - I didn't know. Sorry, Di. I didn't know or I would have -"
  4538. >You don't know how the poor filly was able to write so clearly - so truly *elegantly*, but the name is right there on the paper.
  4539. "For Silver Spoon."
  4540. >Diamond Tiara nods.
  4541. >"I... thought..."
  4542. >You try to give her a reassuring smile.
  4543. "I'll make sure it's delivered."
  4544. >"But..." a trembling voice comes from behind you "... Silver Spoon? Isn't she...?"
  4545. "I can't say how prevalent this practice is elsewhere, but here..."
  4546. >Did it start at Camp Hope Springs? Here?
  4547. >Was it an invention of Derpy herself?
  4548. >Or somepony else?
  4549. >Somepony in denial? Or who wasn't positive? Or who just had *hope*?
  4550. >Or was it always meant to be a way to say your farewells when they couldn't be spoken face to face?
  4551. >You can't remember.
  4552. "We don't know where everypony is, Sweetie Belle. There's always a chance it might reach them. And sometimes... sometimes a pony has something she needs to say anyway."
  4553. >"Even if...?"
  4554. "Even so. I've had more than a few pass through my hooves. Some for Princess Celestia, some for friends or family..."
  4555. >"What happens to them?"
  4556. "Derpy always does her best to deliver the mail."
  4557.  
  4558. >Before you even get your truck out to the main road - not even off your own property - something starts nagging at the back of your mind.
  4559. >You should have learned from the last time.
  4560. >Not even past the fence and you're already feeling lonely.
  4561. >Should've -
  4562. >You jerk the wheel around and the truck follows, doing a large loop until you're going back up the way you came.
  4563. >And the closer you get to the dorms and your ponies, the surer you are of your choice.
  4564. >You don't miss the confused looks the ponies give you as you drive closer, some even stopping their work to come closer.
  4565. >Well...
  4566. >That's fine, too.
  4567. >You throw it into park next to the frame of one of the soon-to-be houses and hop out, striding over to the closest group of ponies.
  4568. >Firm Footing comes out from nowhere and catches you halfway there.
  4569. >"Is something wrong?" he asks, matching your pace.
  4570. "Yeah - no. No. Just forgot something."
  4571. >"Miss Lauren left already, but that wasn't too long ago. She -"
  4572. >Yeah, you can see her truck up by the house, but you shake her head.
  4573. "No, nothing to do with her. I just thought... it's a long drive and a trip's always better with a friend, right?"
  4574. >You stop and look out over your ponies.
  4575. "Anyone feel like going into town with me?"
  4576. >That's - that's a lot of hooves in the air.
  4577.  
  4578. >Between the half-closed blinds of the livin' room's windows, you see somethin' that makes you hesitate.
  4579. >He's back.
  4580. >Can see his truck comin' right up the path he just headed out on.
  4581. >There's a bit of hope in you he's decided not to go into town after all - mixed with panic that somethin's gone all horribly wrong.
  4582. >You reach into your coat pocket for your phone - did you leave it on silent? Did he -
  4583. >No.
  4584. >Didn't miss a call.
  4585. >An' his truck comes to a stop next to his ponies when it's clear as day you're up at the house already.
  4586. >Well, guess it's got nothin' to do with you.
  4587. >Bastard.
  4588. >An' after all the hassle you went through to get this outfit out've the back of your closet an' washed up.
  4589. >Sure, you're good with him not commentin' on your hair, what with it being a bird's nest now, but *that*?
  4590. >Could've at least mentioned it!
  4591. >Not that you wore it for him.
  4592. >Nah, you've got several other outfits for *that* now, after -
  4593. >Nope. Nope. Nopenopenope.
  4594. >You're here to hang out with your friend.
  4595. >An' to help out another, you guess, but mostly for her - an she's how you got those outfits, so...
  4596. >Nope!
  4597. "Hey, Sil!"
  4598. >You turn away from the window an' start up the stairs.
  4599. >Firm Footin' said she'd be upstairs in the office, so -
  4600. >No answer.
  4601. >- so you go on up.
  4602. >Not quite as familiar with where the office is as you are a certain bedroom or two - or a few very specific parts of the grounds, but you find it quick enough.
  4603. >Mostly 'cause it's the one closest to the head've the stairs an' the door's open an' you can hear Sil talkin' back an' forth with her friend. With... um...
  4604. >Normally you're *good* with names.
  4605. >With *Moondancer*. Yeah. That's it.
  4606. >Well, it'd be just plain rude to walk in. So you knock on the door frame.
  4607. >Two sets of glasses look up at the same time.
  4608. >"Oh *sun*, what happened to your hair?"
  4609. >"You look like shit."
  4610. >Sil gasps and spins her chair around to glare at the other mare.
  4611. >"Moondancer!"
  4612. >"Well, her hair does."
  4613. >"But her clothes are nice!"
  4614. >"I wouldn't know."
  4615. >"You spent enough time with humans, you should have *some* idea -"
  4616. >"My colleagues wore lab coats at work."
  4617. >"But outside of work, didn't you ever -"
  4618.  
  4619. >Berry Punch shifts in her seat.
  4620. >"How do you even *sit* in these things?" she grumbles softly, for probably the third or fourth time.
  4621. "With my butt."
  4622. >She's not really complaining, nor is she really listening, but being a smart ass is more for your benefit than hers anyway, sooo...
  4623. "What's up with that other mare anyway?"
  4624. >"Huh?"
  4625. "The white one. You know, solid white. I mean, she backed down fast when she saw your hoof up -"
  4626. >As did all of the others, though the white one was the only pony to rear up on her hind legs and wave her hooves wildly like that.
  4627. >Seems like there's a story there that you should probably be aware of.
  4628. "- but still... and I don't think we've ever talked before, so..."
  4629. >"Oh, you mean Vinyl Scratch," Berry nods along. "Well, I'd be surprised if you had. She doesn't speak."
  4630. "Oh."
  4631. >Shit.
  4632. "Did... something happen?"
  4633. >Please be during the war. Please be during the war and not on your farm. Please, not another thing that's your -
  4634. >"No, she's never talked."
  4635. "Never?"
  4636. >You take your eyes off the road for a sec - there's no traffic around to worry about, after all - to see Berry Punch nodding.
  4637. >"She's mute," Roma adds, leaning forward from the tiny cargo space behind your seat to join the conversation. "And if you hate the seat so much, Berry, I'll gladly swap places with you."
  4638. "I warned you that my truck only had two seats, but..."
  4639. >The two mares look at each other and shrug.
  4640. >"Well, Roma needed to come into town to help pick up supplies," Berry sighs. "We're starting to run really low on some things - not that I know you aren't doing your best, Roma."
  4641. >"And Berry deserves to see her daughter," Roma nods along. "It's been three years, after all."
  4642. "Yeah, that surprised me. I thought the placement board wasn't supposed to split up families?"
  4643. >"They did their best not to," Berry answers with a gentle smile. "But she's a grown mare. And... there was an opportunity to get out faster this way."
  4644. "Oh?"
  4645. >"It took a while to arrange everything because there were so many of us coming out here.
  4646. >"But for one mare? They were able to find space on one of the emergency relief caravans headed this way a month earlier. Surely you saw what things were like in the camps...?"
  4647. >She waits until you nod.
  4648. "On TV. I never... actually... you know."
  4649. >"Then you know I couldn't let my baby stay there one minute longer than she had to."
  4650. "That's... very..."
  4651. >Thoughtful? Noble? Kind?
  4652. >"I just did what any mother would."
  4653. >Loving. That's the word.
  4654. >"But I still miss her."
  4655. "I can imagine."
  4656. >Not really.
  4657. >Since when have you ever gone through anything like that?
  4658. >The closest was when you... well... what happened with Lauren all those years ago doesn't even compare.
  4659. >At all.
  4660. "But, hey. You'll get to see her soon. Apple Bloom said Derpy could give us the address when stop by the church to drop off the mail. But... why was Vinyl so eager to come along? Does she have family in town, too?"
  4661. >Seems like you might have to make this drive again soon.
  4662. >"She thinks her marefriend is there. Somewhere," Roma answers, "but we can't know for sure. Octavia could have been sent somewhere else after all, or sold. Or..."
  4663. "And the placement board split them up because they weren't married?"
  4664. >"No," your cook shakes her head, "those people really did their best for us. but Vinyl and Octavia... they had an argument."
  4665. >"Something was wrong with Octavia," Berry Punch sneers. "She wasn't herself."
  4666. >"Were any of us?"
  4667. >"Not like *that*. And it wasn't just then if you notice. There was something different about her since before... the sun went down."
  4668. >You've been spending enough time with the ponies lately to recognize that saying.
  4669. >It's easier than outright mentioning Princess Celestia's assassination.
  4670. >"But it got worse," Berry continues. "As soon as we were evacuated Equestria, she - she... did you ever see her *not* arguing with... with *somepony*?"
  4671. >Roma shakes her head slowly.
  4672. >"I suppose not."
  4673. "So they chose to go their own way?"
  4674. >"Octavia had human friends. Things happened."
  4675. "... ah."
  4676. >That explains so little.
  4677. >"But Vinyl misses her," Berry Punch sighs. "She even wrote her a letter."
  4678. >The mare pats at the bundle of mail between the two of you.
  4679. >"Octavia will write back if she can. I'm sure of it."
  4680. "But what if she doesn't? I'm sure Derpy knows where she is. We'll ask. It won't be as good as seeing her girlfriend, but hopefully we'll at least be able to let Vinyl know where she is and if she's doing okay."
  4681. >Or not.
  4682. >What if she's at Sterling Stables, like Silver Spoon was?
  4683. >No, surely not, or Silver would have mentioned it.
  4684. >... right?
  4685. >Or maybe not.
  4686. >She's had a busy life since coming to the farm.
  4687. >It may never have come up.
  4688. >She might not want to remember that part of her life. Has she talked about it to anyone else? Not you, not anyone else that you've heard.
  4689. >Or she might not have wanted Vinyl to know, all things considered. Or...
  4690. >No.
  4691. >You don't want to think about it.
  4692. >And yet -
  4693. >Berry's hoof touches your arm.
  4694. >"Stop the truck. I'm going to swap places with Roma."
  4695.  
  4696. >"Beyond the chicken coop?"
  4697. "Yeah, that little garden plot just on the other side. Ah figure that'd be perfect for you."
  4698. >String Bean looks over that way 'fore turnin' back an' givin' his head a little shake.
  4699. >"But I've *already* done that," he whines. "If I was going to get my cutie mark in farming, shouldn't it have happened by now?"
  4700. >You put a foreleg across the little colt's shoulders an' start walkin' anyhow.
  4701. "This ain't about that."
  4702. >"But -"
  4703. "Ah know, normally when I encourage one've you foals to try somethin' out, that's half the point. But not this time, String Bean. Ah know you wanna help out -"
  4704. >"Hematite gets to, so why can't I? I *know* it's just because I don't have my cutie mark!"
  4705. "It ain't about that at all. Construction work can be dangerous for a foal your size - or hers. Notice how Hematite don't leave her station?"
  4706. >"But..."
  4707. >Y'can pick him up if you gotta - belly ain't so full you can't do that yet - but aside from a little pause every time he says somethin', he keeps up with you.
  4708. "She stays out've the way an' anypony that gets hurt goes to her, not the other way around. It keeps her safe an' lets us work without worryin' 'bout her. So you know how you could really help us out?"
  4709. >"*Farming*," he sighs.
  4710. >You nod.
  4711. "You've got a knack for it. Always done good when we asked you foals to help out. We've got a few ponies out tendin' to the main fields, but they've got it covered. Most everypony is workin' here.
  4712. "Thing is, it's cold out here an' we're drivin' ourselves ragged tryin' to get these houses up. Nothin' helps a pony recover from a hard days' work in this kind've weather like a hot meal, but our stores are startin' to run low on a lot've little things.
  4713. "Stuff that don't get grown here as main crops, really. For example, we've got plenty of cereals, but we could really use some vegetables.
  4714. "These humans we've got workin' with us are doin' a world've good - an' all they want is a little food - so if you *really* want to help... you'll take this little plot an' do your best."
  4715. >"But the plants don't grow that fast!"
  4716. "True, but we can be a little more free with what we've got if we know we've got food in the ground to replace what we use or give away."
  4717. >String Bean silently thinks it over as you lead him to the small plot 'tween two've the dorm halls.
  4718. >He puts his little hooves on the landscapin' timber framin' the area off so nopony accidentally tramples any've the crops an' stares down into the soil.
  4719. "It's a good spot."
  4720. >Dorms are laid out East to West, so its got pretty constant sun all day long.
  4721. >Don't gotta explain that to him, though.
  4722. >He's already got his nose up in the air judgin' it for himself.
  4723. "What'dya think? Up for it?"
  4724. >Smell've the chickens don't even seem to bother him.
  4725. >He looks their way an' kinda grins even.
  4726. >Sure it stinks, but also means he's got fertilizer on hoof.
  4727. >Don't stop him from whinin', though.
  4728. >After he's done his bit lookin' 'round, he frowns up at you.
  4729. >"Isn't there anything else I can do?"
  4730. "Some've the others are at work sewin' up some winter clothes out've feed bags an' whatever rags we've got to spare if you'd rather help with that."
  4731. >He sticks his tongue out.
  4732. >Yeah, you were expectin' that.
  4733. "Gonna get a lot colder, String Bean. We're gonna need those clothes if we're gonna keep workin'. 'fore too long, us adults might have to start workin' in shifts, sharin' coats an' all that. So if you'd like to work on that instead -"
  4734. >"Where are the seeds?"
  4735. "Right over there."
  4736. >You nod to the dorm wall over on your left, where you'd dropped the sack earlier.
  4737. "Got what you need for peas an' salad greens. Even some onion bulbs."
  4738. >"And this will help?" he whines.
  4739. "It's gotta get done, String Bean. If you take care've it for us, that means one've the adults don't gotta stop everything they're doin' to tend to it. You doin' this for us instead of playin' with the other foals would be a huge help."
  4740. >He looks back an' forth tween you and the plot.
  4741. >"It still won't grow fast enough."
  4742. "Might for you. After all, you're an earth pony."
  4743. >"Does that really make a difference?"
  4744. >You shrug.
  4745. "Might. Used to back in Equestria."
  4746. >Though you haven't seen any sign of it doin' any good in this world, but you leave that unsaid.
  4747. >String Bean's disappointed enough he don't get to help out with the construction.
  4748. >Poor little colt lets out a sigh like he's givin' up an' -
  4749. >"Okay, I'll do it."
  4750. >- an'... well... he gives up.
  4751. "Thanks, String Bean. This'll really help us out, Ah swear. Now, we don't gotta dig down far, but -"
  4752. >He's already trottin' over to the sack - musta spotted the tools tucked underneath.
  4753. "- if you bring on over that spade, Ah'll get everything dug up for you."
  4754. >"I said I'd do it," the lil' colt sighs. "The whole point is not to take you away from the *real* work."
  4755. >You shake your head.
  4756. "Ah appreciate that, but the ground's gonna be hard for a lil' foal your size to work. Won't take me long, Ah haven't been on my pills."
  4757. >"Well, *I* haven't been taking mine either."
  4758. "Since when!?"
  4759. >"Since I decided I needed to help!" he shouts back, 'fore grabbin' the handle of the spade in his mouth an' draggin' it out from under the seeds.
  4760. "String Bean! That's dangerous! Y'can't just stop takin' your pills for no reason! Don't you remember what happened just a few months 'go? Or to Maud!?"
  4761. >Darn fool foal trots back proud as punch an' ignorin' every word you say.
  4762. "Some've us adults are only doin' it 'cause we don't got any other choice, String Bean! Ah swear, you better -"
  4763. >He jabs the tip've the spade into the ground like it's nothin'.
  4764.  
  4765. "Better go downstairs, I think."
  4766. >Moondancer don't stop glarin' at you an' Sil.
  4767. >It's more offputtin' than that sounds, with her eyes never waverin' even as she nods along to show what she thinks of that idea.
  4768. >"Sorry," Sil smiles. To you, not the other mare. "She *was* getting less cranky, but -"
  4769. >"I'm *trying* to concentrate."
  4770. >"- but I think you're right. Let's go. I need a break anyway."
  4771. >The other mare's starin' at you an her the whole time it takes Sil to slide out've the desk chair an' join you.
  4772. >Ain't ashamed to admit there's a moment've panic when Moondancer's horn lights up.
  4773. >You know he's lettin' his ponies skip their pills - Sil is, for sure - but a unicorn?
  4774. >Last time you know of that happening around here, someone died.
  4775. >But she's not lookin' at you two anymore an's spun her chair back 'round to face the computer.
  4776. >Takes you a second longer to realize that Moondancer's *typin'* with her magic.
  4777. >Still, you keep your fool mouth shut 'til you an' Sil are partway down the stairs.
  4778. "What crawled up her butt?"
  4779. >"She's found a pony messageboard," Sil sighs. "Nothing secret or anything, it's mostly ponies complaining about their owners and stuff like that. I think she's in an argument with somepony else about the suppressants."
  4780. "Really?"
  4781. >"Yeah. I guess they're 'taking them wrong' and won't listen to her."
  4782. "But didn't she basically create those pills?"
  4783. >"Guess the internet hasn't changed."
  4784. >You hesitate a moment, wonderin' if -
  4785. >"What?"
  4786. "Well... I was wonderin' if I should drag her down here an' make her take a break too."
  4787. >For some reason, Sil starts laughin' an' keeps on walkin'.
  4788. >"For her, this *is* a break."
  4789. "Oh."
  4790. >Ain't entirely sure how that works out, but you haven't been the one workin' alongside her all this time.
  4791. >Nah, that was Sil, and you learned to trust her judgement from the time you were workin' alongside *her*.
  4792. "Well, if you say she finds that relaxin', then -"
  4793. >"I'm not saying *that*," Sil snorts. "No way would I *ever* say that. But it's a change of pace - and Moondancer works better when she's angry."
  4794. "Huh... well..."
  4795. >Yeah, that's a thing with some folks an' you know it. Can't say otherwise.
  4796. >You come to the foot've the stairs an'... after only a lil' thought make straight for the sofa.
  4797. "... I figured you could use a little relaxation of your own, so..."
  4798. >"You wanted to hang out and watch a movie or something?"
  4799. "Could, or we could just chat, but I had somethin' else in mind. Won't stop us from doin' one or the other too, though."
  4800. >You reach into your coat pocket - no, phone - your *other* coat pocket an' pull out -
  4801. >Well, both've em at once.
  4802. >You shrug out of the coat - ain't the easiest thing in the world since your one hand is full now, but startin' to feel a mite warm in here - an' toss it over sofa's arm as you try to untangle one thing in your hand from th' other.
  4803. "Remember how I used to brush your hair?"
  4804. >Sil's eyes light up like - like you ain't ever seen before. Full've life.
  4805. >"How could I *not*? It almost made me forget about that horrible place."
  4806. >You wave the hairbrush you'd brought along to show it off.
  4807. >Not exactly small, but she hadn't seemed to have noticed the brush, even with all the fiddlin' you were doin' with it.
  4808. "An' -"
  4809. >"But let's do you first," Sil giggles. "Your hair's a *mess*."
  4810. >Without thinkin', you reach up an' - an' yeah.
  4811. >She's right. Y'know she's right.
  4812. "I won't say no to that -"
  4813. >Sil smiles an' hops up onto the sofa.
  4814. "- but I've got somethin' else for you first."
  4815. >You hold out your other hand an' uncurl your fingers so Sil can see what you got.
  4816. >She's clearly confused 'bout it, but nods.
  4817. >You know she damn well knows what it is, but just can't seem to... to *get* it.
  4818. "I remember how you used to talk about your necklace Sil, an' how much it meant to you."
  4819. >Still takes her a second to get where you're goin'.
  4820. "This ain't no replacement, I know..."
  4821. >You fumble with the - oh, *hell*, you put the hairbrush down on the cushion beside Sil an' undo the clasp with both hands like a sane woman.
  4822. "... but Ma was pretty specific about one thing. Everything else went to Da like it should, but she left me all her jewelry, though I never could bring myself to look through it 'til a few days ago.
  4823. "Never felt strong enough 'fore now, I guess, but it's been sittin' in a box these past four years, an' I thought... well...
  4824. "Ma was a lovin' soul. She knew this didn't suit me one bit - she always wished I was more girly like her - but she left it to me anyhow.
  4825. "Never could bring myself to sell it, but I don't think she'd mind any if... well..."
  4826. >If you'd thought Sil's eyes were wide 'fore, you were wrong.
  4827. >"Really?"
  4828. "When I saw the pearls, I thought of you. It's yours."
  4829. >Sil bites at her lower lip - an' nods eagerly.
  4830. >"Thank you," she says as she stretches out her neck for you to put it on her. "And I'll have to thank your mother."
  4831. >Don't even get a chance to be confused over that 'fore she nuzzles her cheek 'gainst your arm.
  4832. >"You've seen the letters," Sil murmurs. "You know how we do things now, so if you don't mind..."
  4833. "Nah, that sounds sweet. She'd appreciate it."
  4834. >"Thank you. Again. For the necklace and..."
  4835. "Think nothin' of it' she'd have loved you."
  4836. >There's a bit've a blush on her as she touches the necklace with her hoof like she can't believe it's real.
  4837. >"Oh, sorry! I - sorry. Sit! I'll brush your hair."
  4838. >Y'go to sit down 'side her, but Sil shakes her head.
  4839. >"It'll be easier if you sit on the floor. Otherwise, I'll have trouble reaching."
  4840. "Oh, right. Sorry."
  4841. >What were you thinkin'?
  4842. >Ain't a bed where you can both just stretch out, after all.
  4843. >An' dang this skirt! Takes you a hot minute to remember how to sit in one properly.
  4844. >Hadn't bothered in the truck, but you ain't alone now.
  4845. >An'... you just kinda feel like it matters you do it right.
  4846. >"You were never girly enough?" Sil chuckles once you've gotten yourself situated with it properly tucked under your bum instead of poolin' out messily. "What you're wearing seems pretty feminine."
  4847. >You snort.
  4848. "You know good an' well I don't dress like this normally. God, you shoulda seen Ma's face when I asked her to help me pick out somethin' that'd turn eyes. She was *so* excited."
  4849. >"Oh, so you've had that for a while?"
  4850. >Y'lean back until you're restin' against the edge of the sofa.
  4851. "Sure have."
  4852. >A sigh escapes you. An' then a second, more relaxed one as Sil starts runnin' the brush through your hair.
  4853. >Don't know *how*, but it feels like the brush's glidin' through your hair smooth as skates on ice instead of catching on every single rats' nest you've got goin' on in there.
  4854. "Yeah, Sil, I've had this since I was 19. And fairly certain I haven't worn it once I hit 20, until today. Don't have a clue how I still fit in it!"
  4855. >Sil laughs along.
  4856. "Don't really know why I felt like it today."
  4857. >Yeah, you do, even if you don't want to admit to yourself right now.
  4858. >But she ain't you, is she?
  4859. "Maybe I just wanted him to look at me a bit."
  4860. >Oh, God, that sounds needy as heck.
  4861. "I mean -"
  4862. >"Mhm."
  4863. >Sil's a good friend.
  4864. >She knows what you mean.
  4865. >She stops brushin' an' sighs.
  4866. >"But you haven't actually said anything, have you?"
  4867. "Two've us didn't exactly part on the best terms, Sil. You know that. Sure, things seem to be okay 'tween us now, but it was all a bit rocky when we first met up 'gain an' got worse 'fore it got better. An' right now... it's *okay*. Nah, it's *good*. I don't wanna..."
  4868. >"You don't want to risk your friendship?"
  4869. >Wasn't exactly how you were going to put it, but sounds better'n what you were thinkin'.
  4870. >You nod.
  4871. "That's important to me, Sil. Maybe a few months ago I wouldn't've hesitated to say what I was feelin', but a few months ago I weren't feelin' it like this. I mean, it was prolly there, but deep down. I *missed* him an' how things used to be 'tween us, but that ain't the same, y'know? Not like now, an' ..."
  4872. >"Now you've got something to lose."
  4873. "... yeah."
  4874. >You sigh.
  4875. "I don't wanna lose his friendship. Or yours either, you know. I mean, I'm talkin' about *him*, but that ain't why I'm here. You're just as important a friend to me."
  4876. >"I know."
  4877. >Sil starts brushin' again, pullin' your hair over your right shoulder.
  4878. "It's just... things have been goin' so well, an' gettin' better every day. Just like you. I thought you'd never walk 'gain, but you ain't even got any scars.
  4879. "So... I keep hopin' he'll say somethin' on his own. If everything's gettin' better, that means things 'tween us are too, right?
  4880. "Sure seems like they are. Wasn't too long ago I didn't think I'd be able to be in the same room as that man without deckin' him.
  4881. "But now... everything's better.
  4882. "And when I say everything, I mean *everything*. Even daddy's been agreeable lately."
  4883. >Sil snorts.
  4884. >Yeah, can't believe it either.
  4885. "We hardly ever argue these days, an' the moment I raise my voice he stops an' goes along with whatever I say. I don't get it. I'd be worried, except - well, no, I *am* worried."
  4886. >Sil starts up somethin' with your hair, but the moment you try to look she nudges your face back ahead again with her nose.
  4887. >"Keep your head straight while I do this."
  4888. "Sorry. Well, as I was sayin', it's got me a bit worried, even if things are goin' smoother. Even the ponies are listenin' closer to what I tell 'em."
  4889. >Sil misses a stroke, pausin' clear and noticeable.
  4890. "Yeah... I know, Sil. Daddy and I were pretty rough on 'em and it ain't always been his fault.
  4891. "But when I'm doin' everything I can to make their lives better an' they *still* act out - I just - it makes me so angry, y'know?
  4892. "After *everything* I've done, seems a little respect wouldn't be amiss. When I tell 'em to do somethin' don't they know it's for their own good?
  4893. "Don't they know how many times I stepped 'tween them an' Daddy? How many times I egged him on or argued just so I'd take the beatin' instead of one of them?
  4894. "I know I've been harsh at times, but I've also been tryin' to do all the good I can. An' now I'm tryin' to be their friend an'... at least they're doin' what I ask. Should just be grateful for that, I suppose."
  4895. Sil stops brushin' again.
  4896. >"It sounds hard," she murmurs softly into your ear.
  4897. >A moment later her chin's restin' on your left shoulder, snugglin' up close to your cheek.
  4898. "I ain't blamin' them, you know."
  4899. >"I know."
  4900. "My damn fault for not doin' more sooner."
  4901. >"That's not true. You're a good person."
  4902. "Not good enough, Sil."
  4903. >"Maybe not, but you're still a good person. Not every battle is winnable, no matter how good you are or how hard you fight."
  4904. "Don't excuse what I've done."
  4905. >"No," Sil tells you, "I know. That's what forgiveness is for."
  4906. >She sighs - an' two perfectly smooth legs hug you tight 'bout the shoulders.
  4907. >"Ready to trade places?"
  4908. "Can I take a look at my hair first?"
  4909. >Y'can see it curlin' up over your shoulder, so you got the general idea but that ain't exactly givin' you the full effect.
  4910. >"Why?" Sil asks, stickin' out her tongue. "It's for him, not you."
  4911. "Oh... *fine*."
  4912. >You'll have to sneak off to the bathroom sooner or later anyhow, but for now you stand an' wave a few fingers her way.
  4913. "Scoot on over if you want me to have a place to sit."
  4914. >Little thing already is, leavin' the brush 'tween her an' the space she's made.
  4915. >'fore sittin' down, you pick it up an' -
  4916. "Why's it... *oh*, is this pony slobber all over the handle!?"
  4917. >"How did you *think* I was holding the brush?" Sil giggles. "With my *hands*?"
  4918.  
  4919. >"Besides... what else am I supposed to do?"
  4920. "I don't know."
  4921. >You're not sure she hears you.
  4922. >Not sure it even matters.
  4923. >If you were a stronger person, if you really cared about your friends, you should convince her to give in, but...
  4924. >The way Sweetie Belle tears up whenever she looks your way stops you every time you open your mouth to speak.
  4925. >"I... I *know* I'm not accomplishing anything by refusing. I *know* I have to do more... but what if I push too far?
  4926. >"It's one thing if I'm punished - I can take it - but what if I get the others in trouble?"
  4927. >You would shrug, but your shoulders are still too sore.
  4928. >"Maybe I should," she says softly, kneeling down by your bedside. "If I actually fight back, they'll finally stand with me against this place, right? And if not, they'll have to when they're punished alongside me, won't they?"
  4929. >You would laugh. You would scream at her, call her an idiot, ask what on earth makes her think things would turn out that why.
  4930. >Ask how she can even feel conflicted about this.
  4931. >Wonder how her spirit hasn't been broken yet.
  4932. >Question how she can feel still feel anything except despair.
  4933. >Beg her to share this hope with you.
  4934. >You would.
  4935. >Would.
  4936. >If you thought she had any answers.
  4937. >You know them anyway.
  4938. >She hasn't been here long enough.
  4939. >She hasn't seen what you've seen. Gone through what you've gone through. *Done what you've done*.
  4940. >She hasn't killed her best friend.
  4941. >She hasn't stolen away customers to ensure her own comfort at the cost of her friend's life.
  4942. >You hadn't even considered the consequences. Sterling said he would reward you, urged you on, and... you did.
  4943. >You did whatever he said.
  4944. >You hadn't stopped to think about what that would lead to.
  4945. >Sweetie's innocent. Naive. And a part of you wishes she dies that way, with hope. Like you can't. It would be a mercy.
  4946. >And part of you... part of you wishes that she's right.
  4947. >"They would understand why this place is so wrong, wouldn't they...?" she continues, grasping at straws like it's the only thing keeping her from falling off the edge. "If I did something that caused *Sterling* -"
  4948. >She spits his name out like a piece of rotten food.
  4949. >No, not rotten food.
  4950. >From what she's said, you've both eaten worse.
  4951. >When a mare is hungry enough, she'll swallow anything.
  4952. "- to punish all of the ponies, then they wouldn't have a choice. All I have to do, is -"
  4953. "No."
  4954. >Sweetie's not the only one hanging from the cliff's edge.
  4955. >She's holding you, too.
  4956. >Refusing to let you go.
  4957. >Cruel or not, you can't make yourself allow her to throw her life away.
  4958. >Just as you can't convince her to give in. To join you in the life you've lived these past few years.
  4959. >A life without hope. Comfort, yes. Food, a bed, luxuries... yes.
  4960. >But hope?
  4961. >You shake your head.
  4962. >"Why not?"
  4963. >Her eyes sparkle with misguided faith.
  4964. "They'll blame -"
  4965. >"Me," she sighs. "The other ponies will blame me. Of course. What is... what is *wrong* with this world? Is this what it *does* to us? Make us distrust and hate each other?"
  4966. >Her tears now aren't for you.
  4967. >You don't mind.
  4968. >Even reach over with your hoof to pat her head.
  4969. "Yes."
  4970. >"No... it's not just this world," she sobs. "Equestria is like this too, I just refused to believe it. If it wasn't... if it wasn't then the others wouldn't have given in so easily. I should have... I was *singing* on a stage! Like that did any good!
  4971. >"I should have done something that really mattered.
  4972. >"I *should*."
  4973.  
  4974. "Between you an' me, I'm a little worried about all the ponies goin' off their pills like this."
  4975. >"Why?" Sil giggles as you undo her braid. "Do you think we're all going to go crazy and start murdering each other?"
  4976. "Nah."
  4977. >You chuckle an' shake your head.
  4978. "There was a moment where I almost did, but by the time I found out you'd all been off 'em for long enough that it seemed silly to worry 'bout that. Nah, I'm thinkin... remember some've the other mares at the Stables?"
  4979. >Sil twists her head aroun' to look at you out've the corner of her eye.
  4980. "Y'know, the ones that were stealin' your pills 'fore I stopped 'em...?"
  4981. >Her eyes drop an' she nods.
  4982. >An' then she *laughs*.
  4983. "What's so funny?"
  4984. >"It might be thanks to them that I'm *alive* right now," Sil giggles. "Because once you were gone..."
  4985. >She loses it completely, like this's the funniest joke she's ever heard.
  4986. >"... once..." she gasps for breath "... once you left... let's just say I might not've had the strength to run if I'd been taking my suppressants regularly."
  4987. >Still laughin' softly, Sil leans back 'til she's pushin' up 'gainst you.
  4988. >"Why are you thinking about them?"
  4989. "Well, now that some ponies ain't takin' their pills, don't that mean there's extra floatin' around?"
  4990. >Sil shakes her head - an' stops.
  4991. >"I don't think that's ever been a problem here," she says, all quiet like so no one overhears. "They might not even know about it.
  4992. >"Should I... we... um... maybe we should tell Moondancer...? No, she'd already know, right? Of course she already knows. She developed the pills.
  4993. >"It wouldn't do any real harm, anyway," Sil continues, talkin' faster an' faster as she goes. "Right? And they'd -"
  4994. >"It's not a problem," Moondancer calls out, comin' down the stairs. "We know about it and the effects of an overdose are mild and temporary - at least as far as our testing could determine.
  4995. >"Nopony here would bother. There are better ways to induce a mild dissociative state - assuming they even wanted to. Maybe in the past, but *now*?
  4996. >"I'd be more worried about more ponies stopping their suppressants suddenly, except I'm not exactly *worried*."
  4997. >Yeah, you ain't much either.
  4998. "Sooooo... got all that anger out've your system?"
  4999. >*Much*.
  5000. >A unicorn off her pills an' angry enough for you to remember that fact still gives you the willies.
  5001. >"Yes," Moondancer nods. "Oh, and I call next. My mane and tail haven't been properly taken care of in *years*."
  5002.  
  5003. >"Beets too?"
  5004. "Ah suppose. Think we can rustle up a few."
  5005. >Can't believe how easy this little foal is takin' to the work, even if he hasn't been takin' his pills.
  5006. >"I *hate* beets!*
  5007. >Can't stifle your chuckle over that.
  5008. "You're th'one that asked 'bout 'em."
  5009. >"Because I think they'd be good to grow, not because I want to *eat* any."
  5010. >String Bean sticks his tongue out an' pretends to gag, but he keeps on diggin', goin' a lil' closer now.
  5011. >"Everypony else can have them."
  5012. >Doin' tiny holes 'bout an inch deep an' 'bout as far apart.
  5013. >Each one as easy as stickin' the spade in the ground, no care for how hard-packed or frozen the soil is.
  5014. "I'll go grab those seeds for you. Don't strain yourself while Ah'm gone."
  5015. >Lil' colt mumbles what dang well *better* be a "yes, ma'am" into the handle of his spade an' keeps on goin'.
  5016. >Honestly, you don't feel there's much chance he'll hurt himself. Just a gut feelin'.
  5017. >Course that don't stop you from worryin'. What kind've pony'd you be if you didn't?
  5018. >You make the trip quick, an' it don't take you long to find what you're lookin' for. Storeroom is startin' to look a lil' sparse.
  5019. >Ain't a bad thing though, you think on as you trot back with a bag've seed in your mouth.
  5020. >There's comfort to be had there.
  5021. >Empty storeroom means either you're runnin' out've what you need or it's all bein' put to use.
  5022. >In this case, it's the latter.
  5023. >Hardly any seed in the storeroom 'cause it's where it should be - in the ground where it can grow an' do good.
  5024. >Most've it anyhow.
  5025. >String Bean's just about finished diggin' when you get back.
  5026. >All that's left is to plant the seeds an' bulbs - an' String Bean glares possessively when you try to help so you drop the bag at the edge've the bed.
  5027. "Okay, Ah'll just watch."
  5028. >He's given up already on tryin' to talk you into goin' off an' leavin' him on his own.
  5029. >Not that he'd have won that fight anyhow, but it's hard to argue when you've got a spade in your mouth an' the other party don't.
  5030. >Y'watch as the lil' colt takes the first seed 'tween his teeth an' drops it into the hole he's dug.
  5031. >He kicks over the pile've dirt an' pats it down with his hoof, but not so hard it'll stop the plant from sproutin'.
  5032. >"See?" he smirks at you like that proves somethin'. "I can do it on my -"
  5033. >Everythin' goes blindin' white.
  5034.  
  5035. >Before you get into town, you've had to stop to let Roma and Berry swap places twice more.
  5036. >And yet they *still* can't seem to decide what's more uncomfortable - the seat or the cargo space.
  5037. >So it's no surprise that they both pile out as soon as you pull up to the church.
  5038. >Berry doesn't even wait for you to pull the seat forward; she crawls out from between the two as soon as Roma has managed to get her door open and seat belt off.
  5039. >They remind you of a pair of puppies on their first visit to the park - but with less tail wagging. And more complaining about their various aching bits.
  5040. >And neither one runs off immediately after a butterfly, instead stumbling out of the small parking lot onto the sidewalk.
  5041. >So not much like puppies at all, but that doesn't stop you from smiling at the thought as you look over at the sign to double check you're at the right place.
  5042. >You *think* this is the right church.
  5043. >Yep. Our Martyred Lady.
  5044. >Never heard of it before, though the building seems familiar.
  5045. >You probably saw it on one of your other trips into town.
  5046. "Guess you two are coming with me?"
  5047. >"I'm certainly not sticking around out here alone," Roma snorts while Berry nods.
  5048. >Yeah... makes sense.
  5049. "Give me a sec."
  5050. >You lean back into the cab to grab the plastic bag full of letters from the cargo space, but when you straighten up and get your door closed you see that no, they did *not* wait.
  5051. >Berry's at the top of the stone stairs, prancing in place as she shifting from hoof to hoof.
  5052. >Well... what kind of cruel man would keep her waiting?
  5053. >You head up the steps and get the door for them.
  5054. >It's been a while since you've been in a church, but it feels... familiar.
  5055. >Like home. Comfortable and warm and full of friendship and love.
  5056. >If it wasn't so cozy it'd be unnerving.
  5057. >You've never been particularly religious, but you could swear you there's *something* here watching you.
  5058. >And it's a hard feeling to shake.
  5059. >Lauren would know how to explain it.
  5060. >And she'd know what to do.
  5061. >Her mother took her to church often enough, but you're left standing there at a loss.
  5062. >Are you supposed to kneel down before the cross at the front or sit in one of the pews or...
  5063. >You shake your head.
  5064. >You're just here to drop off some letters.
  5065. "Berry, Roma? You two see -"
  5066. >And then Berry is tugging on the hem of your shirt with her mouth and pointing to your right.
  5067. >Ah.
  5068. >There's a man dressed in all black sitting in the back row of pews, reading something.
  5069. >That must the pastor. Priest. Whatever.
  5070. >Got to be him, right?
  5071. >You'd rather pass the letters off to the pony, but Lauren said the man could be trusted.
  5072. >He's a priest, so you'd damn well hope so.
  5073. >The man doesn't look up as you make your way down the pews towards him, engrossed in the paper he's holding in his lap - reading aloud, you can tell once you're close enough.
  5074. >Can't make out the words, but there's a whisper floating on the air and his lips are moving.
  5075. >You wait until he comes to an end, folds the sheet, and sets it aside.
  5076. >Doesn't look like it's the first - he sets in on a pile of at least a dozen or so others.
  5077. >And it doesn't look like it'll be the last - there's even more on his other side.
  5078. "Sorry to interrupt..."
  5079. >The man's hand hesitates over the paper he was reaching for and he looks up.
  5080. >"Oh, I'm sorry," his deep voice rumbles. "I'm afraid I didn't hear you come in."
  5081. >He leans forward, peering past you and smiling gently - more gently than his rough-hewn face suggested was possible - at your ponies.
  5082. >"Hello there. Have no fear, this is a pony-safe place as all places of God should be."
  5083. >The man sighs and stands quickly, dusting his hands needlessly on his... his smock? Habit? Whatever priests wear.
  5084. >"It seems I got wrapped up in read the letters Derpy picked up," he explains and holds out his hand for you to shake. His grip is firm, almost painfully so. "I'm afraid there's too many these days for her to manage on her own."
  5085. "I thought she just delivered them...?"
  5086. >And by that you mean why is he reading them, but asked politely - and he catches on.
  5087. >"Not every letter can be delivered in person," the man responds. "I don't share all of her beliefs, but what kind of priest would I be if I couldn't accept her faith?"
  5088. >You don't answer that.
  5089. >Wait... didn't someone say something to you about these? Apple Bloom, probably.
  5090. "Oh."
  5091. >Maybe Lauren?
  5092. >But you don't really remember either of them talking to you about this.
  5093. >Doesn't matter. You know what they are.
  5094. >You nod.
  5095. "The letters to the dead."
  5096. >The man nods back.
  5097. >"Exactly. Derpy has more than enough on her hooves with her walks - and she doesn't want her daughter to help with this particular duty."
  5098. >"Dinky?" Berry chirps up. "Is she here?"
  5099. >"She's in the back," the priest answers, leaning over to look past you at the ponies. "She finished her chores for the morning and went to sort the mail Derpy picked up yesterday. Would you like me to get her for you?"
  5100. "That's... yes, please. If you don't mind."
  5101. >You can *hear* Berry nodding her head.
  5102. >"Not at all."
  5103. >The priest holds out his hands.
  5104. >Why...?
  5105. >"The letters you brought. I assume that's what's in the bag."
  5106. "Oh, right."
  5107. >"I might as well add them to the sorting pile while I'm back there," the man smiles as he takes the bag from you. "And I'll bring yours back, of course."
  5108. "Thanks."
  5109. >You step aside for the man to pass.
  5110. >He's halfway up the main aisle before the obvious hits.
  5111. >How's he going to get the mail for your ponies if he doesn't know who you are?
  5112. "Sorry, I didn't give you my name. I'm -"
  5113. >"I know who you are, friend. Derpy told me to expect you."
  5114.  
  5115. >Before you is the single most tangled pile of hair you've ever seen on any being, human or pony.
  5116. "I know you said it's been a while Moondancer, but I gotta ask...?"
  5117. >"What?"
  5118. "Have you *ever* brushed your mane?"
  5119. >She snorts and leans back suddenly, bumpin' her back into your shoulder.
  5120. >"Of course! Sometimes. Occasionally. Once in a while. I mean, it wasn't worth the hassle to try to do it without magic -"
  5121. "Yeah, I can imagine."
  5122. >"- but usually Daniel did it for me."
  5123. >"And what about before you met him?" Sil giggles from down on the floor an' Moondancer groans.
  5124. >"Okay, so maybe I wasn't ever exactly the most -"
  5125. >Everyone jumps as the front door slams open - God, you *hope* that's the front door an' not somethin' else!
  5126. >You're on your feet to find out just as Apple Bloom skids into the room, goin' so fast her hooves slide on' the floor as she tries to change direction.
  5127. >"MOONDANCER! MOONDANCER!" she's screamin' as her hooves find traction 'gain. "WE HAVE TO CALL HIM! SOMETHING'S HAPPENED!"
  5128.  
  5129. >"- best we can, but that's not always enough," the pastor says, putting his giant hand on your shoulder. "All we can do is try. Of course, some don't even make it that far."
  5130. >He sighs.
  5131. >"Men like you and Bill, they aren't rare, you know. I find most of us want the best for the ponies. And most ponies want the best for us."
  5132. >He looks over at the three mares that are alternating between chatting cheerfully, crying, and hugging each other - sometimes all at once.
  5133. >"I worry about them, though, the ponies. Things are changing. More people are coming into my little church every day, but..."
  5134. >He hesitates, clearly at a loss for the right words.
  5135. "Everyone's happy, aren't they?"
  5136. >He laughs, a deep rumble that shakes your bones.
  5137. >"That's a blunt way to put it, but yes. Quite true. In the entire time I've served God, I've only known crowds like this during holidays or in times of crisis. Neither were... neither are like this."
  5138. >He lets out another chuckle.
  5139. >"I know they aren't here for me or God, but for the camaraderie. A town this size doesn't have much for people to do, certainly not large groups.
  5140. >"I'm afraid it's church or nothing."
  5141. >He chuckles again and smiles as his eyes dart to the ponies.
  5142. >"They're good people - or want to be. And if spending time with friends makes that easier on them, then I welcome it."
  5143. >You nod.
  5144. "I can see the appeal, it's just a bit far to drive. Particularly with a two-seater and a few hundred ponies."
  5145. >The man laughs and shakes his head.
  5146. >"I'm not trying to convince you to join us. It sounds like you and the ponies are doing fine out there on your own, but I'll throw a line in for you in my nightly prayers anyway. Your neighbors, though... the Steffords..."
  5147. "You know them?"
  5148. >"Only by reputation and what Derpy told me of the girl."
  5149. >Ah.
  5150. "They're doing a lot better. Lauren's doing everything she can for their ponies."
  5151. >Apparently looking smug is not forbidden to men of God.
  5152. >"See?" he smirks. "People are basically good. Generally. Most of them just needed a chance."
  5153. >And then that grin falls away with a sigh.
  5154. >"And then there are men like..."
  5155. "Sterling?"
  5156. >The priest shakes his head.
  5157. "I've met him. If he's not evil, then..."
  5158. >You shrug. Where else is there to go with that?
  5159. >"So have I," the priest spits once it's clear you aren't going to say any more. "That man lacks conviction and is impossibly short-sighted.
  5160. >"He does whatever is easiest, changes his mind on a whim, spouts off the first thing that comes to mind, and believes nothing bad that happens is *his* fault.
  5161. >"He rages on, blaming the world or his ponies for everything regardless of the blood on *his* hands."
  5162. >That sounds uncomfortably familiar.
  5163. >"However... there are many kinds of evil in this world. If being good was *easy*, if there was an obvious, *immediate* reward to it, then Sterling would be good. Of that, I have no doubt.
  5164. >"But men like our local sheriff and his deputies?" the priest snorts. "No soul is beyond redemption, but if any were it'd be them. Sterling may be doing evil, but I don't believe he *is* evil. Not to the core.
  5165. >"He is a weak soul that could still turn his life around if he just made the choice - if he stopped blindly charging headlong down taking the easy path to Hell. But those men?"
  5166. >He shrugs. Violently.
  5167. >"Only God can judge, but if He, in his infinite wisdom, chose to ask my opinion... I have a few thoughts on the matter I could share."
  5168. >He sighs, his jaw tightening at the very end.
  5169. >"Unfortunately, some of the ponies here seem set on proving their rhetoric true."
  5170. >You're about to ask what that all means when your phone goes off.
  5171. >Shit.
  5172. "Sorry, I... uh..."
  5173. >This can't be good.
  5174. >You look at the name on the screen.
  5175. >Fuck.
  5176. >Lauren.
  5177. >SHIT.
  5178. "... I've got to take this. My friend's watching the other ponies and I told her to call me if anything happened, so - "
  5179. >The priest nods.
  5180. >"I understand."
  5181. >You answer the call and -
  5182. >"STRING BEAN GOT HIS CUTIE MARK!"
  5183. >Her voice is so loud you check to see if you have it set to speaker - you don't - before the words hits you.
  5184. >Not just you.
  5185. >You've always thought of churches as being quiet places, but not like this.
  5186. >Everyone's silently staring. The pastor, the ponies... *you*.
  5187. "Lauren, could you... uh... could you repeat that."
  5188. >"I said String Bean got his cutie mark!"
  5189.  
  5190. >Before you can say anything more, Apple Bloom's takin' your phone - best as she can, anyhow.
  5191. >"It's true!" she yells into the wrong end. "Ah was right there an' then there was a flash an' he's got his cutie mark now!"
  5192. >"That's... that's *great*!"
  5193. >An' yet there's some hesitation 'fore he says that, filled in by a chorus in the background.
  5194. >His two ponies, a third, an' someone y'don't know.
  5195. >A man.
  5196. >"Really, that's amazing," your neighbor says. "Congratulate him for me. But... we can't afford another party right now. I hope he understands and I promise -"
  5197. >Apple Bloom snorts an' rolls her eyes, though only you an' your two friends get that last bit.
  5198. >"Ah think he'll be fine with that," she sighs. "Silly colt is more cranky that everypony's stopped work to gawk over him than he is happy to get his cutie mark."
  5199. "Seriously?"
  5200. >"Yep."
  5201. >There's a moment of stunned silence from everyone around, 'fore a deep voice breaks in.
  5202. >"If I may ask, what's his cutie mark?"
  5203. >"Well," Apple Bloom mumbles, "it's a hoof an' hand shakin', but Ah'.... uh..."
  5204. >Her cheeks are glowin' almost as red as her mane.
  5205. >Y'try not to laugh.
  5206. >"... Ah don't rightly get what it means. He was plantin' seed in that small garden 'tween the dorms when it happened, but it don't look like any farmin' or gardenin' cutie mark Ah've ever seen."
  5207. >"I can't say I know anything about cutie marks," the deep voice rumbles, "but that sounds like a symbol of humans a ponies living together and *that* being the first-ever cutie mark on this side of the portal is a good sign."
  5208. >"But it *ain't* the first," Apple Bloom blurts out 'fore you can stop her. "Hematite's got hers too."
  5209. >God*damn*. You don't know who this man is.
  5210. >There's an ominous silence from the other end've the line.
  5211. >"I'd heard rumors," the voice eventually answers, "but I didn't believe it. I suppose -"
  5212. >A self-depreciatin' chuckle bubbles out've your phone.
  5213. >"- I suppose I should have taken it on faith. If you don't mind, I'll let Derpy know -"
  5214. "Oh! You're her pastor?"
  5215. >Another deep laugh.
  5216. >"Yes, I am. Don't worry, I won't tell a soul beyond Derpy."
  5217. >"Yeah, that's fine," your neighbor answers the man, "but... oh. Oh. Yeah. I get you. Apple Bloom?"
  5218. >"Huh?"
  5219. >"Thanks for calling to let me know. And I'm sure you'll figure out what String Bean's cutie mark means - that's your special talent, after all."
  5220. >"Well... yeah."
  5221. >There's a few more words that pass 'tween the two, but you miss 'em.
  5222. >Nah, you're lost in Apple Bloom's confused face.
  5223. >She don't get it but nobody seems quite like spellin' it out for her.
  5224. >An' you can't quite get the why.
  5225. >Ain't your pony, ain't your place, you suppose, and yet... when she puts your phone back in your hand an' you see he's already hung up, you've already decided that ain't a good enough reason.
  5226. "Apple Bloom... friend to friend, I think we need to keep this quiet."
  5227. >"But everypony on the farm already knows," she answers so innocently.
  5228. "I mean other people. If it's figurin' out cutie marks an' all that's your special talent I can see why you're so excited, but you gotta remember not every human is as nice as him an' me."
  5229. >"From what Ah remember," she half smirks, "you two aren't the nicest pair've the batch either."
  5230. "I'm... sorry. I know, but what I mean is -"
  5231. >"Ah know what you mean," Apple Bloom snorts, "an' you two ain't the worst either. Y'all're my friends, despite everythin'.
  5232. >"But you gotta remember Ah was here when Humans First killed those ponies - we heard all 'bout it an' I ain't stupid. Ah can figure out what those two were hintin' at. What Ah don't get is why they *care*."
  5233. "'cause - well, the most immediate concern is the Sheriff might not be too happy with a pony getting his cutie mark an' decide to do somethin' about it. An' other'n him, I bet a whole slew of folks'll want to see what's up. Some'd just be curious, but others..."
  5234. >"Well... *yeah*, but Ah still don't get why they were worried. If folks wanna come to see 'em an' they're friendly an' all, then that ain't no harm, is it?
  5235. >"Keepin' secrets an' not trustin' each other is what got us all humans an' ponies into this mess in the first place. So Ah'm willin' to be open an' honest an' trust in others to do right by us."
  5236. "Yeah, but -"
  5237. >"An' if Humans First wants to come for the foals," Apple Bloom interrupts firmly, "it won't be like those other ponies. This time it'll be different."
  5238. "How?"
  5239. >Moondancer half turns to sneer at the other mare.
  5240. >"We've got *magic*," she answers while Apple Bloom beams. "And they don't know that."
  5241. >"Uh-huh. Plus String Bean an' Hematite ain't alone, like those others they killed. They've got friends."
  5242. >"This isn't like when a lone pony goes off her suppressants," Moondancer says grimly. "We've got full control of our abilities at full strength. Except..."
  5243. >She sighs.
  5244. >"... if we do *that*, more would come. Most likely a full military response. Remember what happened in Seattle or Wallenberg?"
  5245. >"Those were different," Apple Bloom scoffs. "We'd just be defendin' ourselves."
  5246. >"Well, how about *Baltimore*!?"
  5247. >Apple Bloom frowns.
  5248. >"You know what'd happen," Moondancer snarls. "We'd turn this farm into another Ponyville."
  5249.  
  5250. >"Best keep this quiet," the pastor says as you put your phone away. "As much as I would love to run through the streets shouting out the good news..."
  5251. "Yeah, I get it."
  5252. >"Things are changing - for the better, I believe - and this could be the spark. But sometimes..."
  5253. "I get it. You're warning me that it's always darkest before the dawn. Humans First might be looking for an excuse to act out -"
  5254. >"They're getting restless," the priest growls. "Sterling hasn't given them a pony to 'play' with in a while, not since that poor mare who escaped and ran back into town -"
  5255. >He puts his hands together and looks upward for a brief moment.
  5256. >A brief prayer for Silver Spoon?
  5257. "She's safe with me now."
  5258. >He grins.
  5259. >"That's the quickest the Lord has ever answered me. And yet... for obvious reasons, that just whetted their appetite.
  5260. >"Same with the horrible business at the auditorium last week.
  5261. >"Yet despite pressure from the sheriff, for some reason, Sterling hasn't given in. Yet. Unfortunately, that means they're taking things out on the other ponies around town. Nothing too serious yet, but..."
  5262. "I don't want to paint a target on those foals either - but if you've heard rumors about Hematite then I bet they have too."
  5263. >Roma steps over to you - not exactly *over*, really, but away from the other two ponies - with a firm set to her face.
  5264. >"We can protect them."
  5265. >You... can't exactly stock up on firearms, can you?
  5266. >What good would it do?
  5267. "Yeah."
  5268. >You nod.
  5269. "I know you can."
  5270. >The priest looks at you questioningly, but you shake your head.
  5271. "But let's not tempt anyone. We're just here for some shopping, to pick up the mail, and so Berry can see her daughter. Let's try not to cause any trouble."
  5272. >Roma nods.
  5273. >Good.
  5274. >And now that you think about it, you weren't entirely sure she would. Not deep down.
  5275. >She was the first pony to stand up to you, after all. Not one of the trouble makers, not an unreliable pony, but the trusted cook.
  5276. >There's something more to Roma than anyone ever realized.
  5277. >Or maybe it's the reason.
  5278. >She stood up to you to protect Apple Bloom.
  5279. >And she's doing it again.
  5280. >If anything happened to those little foals, you can't imagine what Apple Bloom would do.
  5281. >Maybe she can.
  5282.  
  5283. >You think on that as you drive out to the address Derpy's daughter had given Berry.
  5284. >Miss turns you should have taken a few times because your mind is elsewhere and GPS is such a crapshoot you hardly ever bother.
  5285. >The odds of getting a signal from one of the few remaining satellites is too low.
  5286. >You barely notice and it takes a nudge or reminder from Berry to get you back on track each time.
  5287. >You're still thinking about Apple Bloom while your mouth makes noises that you hope equate to an explanation to the older woman who opens the door when you knock.
  5288. >*And* as you sit in the living room of the couple that lives there and sip your tea, nodding occasionally but letting Roma carry the conversation for you.
  5289. >There's a lot to think about.
  5290. >They seem like pleasant people.
  5291. >Understanding, to say the least.
  5292. >It's probably a little jarring to have a trio of strangers show up at your door unannounced and ask to see their pony, but they take it pretty well.
  5293. >Particularly considering Berry was bawling her eyes out.
  5294. >Kind, too.
  5295. >Not only do they offer tea and bring out a little plate of cookies like something you'd see on some British TV show, but Berry's daughter has her own room.
  5296. >She's not exactly treated like family, but well enough.
  5297. >You're not sure you'd let one of your ponies go off alone with someone like that, but... well... probably.
  5298. >The two deserve their privacy.
  5299. >You don't let yourself worry about them or what's going on.
  5300. >You think the implications from earlier are more than enough to worry about for now.
  5301.  
  5302. >You thank the couple - shake the man's hand.
  5303. >Berry isn't ready to go, but a softly whispered promise to bring her back calms her.
  5304. >It's the best you can do.
  5305. >To overstay your welcome might make any such future visit impossible, and your hosts while subtle were clear - before you asked, even if you could afford it - that they were unwilling to part with the daughter.
  5306. >Not even if you were to trade one of your other ponies.
  5307. >They have no interest in training a new caretaker.
  5308. >But at least their pony is cared for. Sheltered. Clothed. Fed. Safe.
  5309. >You wait patiently while Berry hugs her daughter on the porch.
  5310. >Her owners... less patiently, but politely.
  5311. >It's been hours
  5312.  
  5313. >You help Roma lift the bag of rice onto the flatbed.
  5314. >The fifth bag, and not the last.
  5315. "Maybe we should start growing this stuff ourself."
  5316. >"The climate -"
  5317. "I know, Roma. I know, but we buy so much of it that it seems a shame we have to import it all from..."
  5318. >You have to check the label. Somewhere in South America.
  5319. "... Brazil"
  5320. >You look up and down the aisle.
  5321. >No one except you and the two ponies.
  5322. "If it weren't for the fact the crops we grow are worth so much more than rice..."
  5323. >Even considering the transport cost.
  5324. >Fresh fruits and veggies are gold.
  5325. >You take another look.
  5326. >Still in the clear, but you drop your voice just to be safe.
  5327. "... I'd give it a go anyway. I'm curious if... well... if String Bean or one of the others might be able to make it work."
  5328. >Berry and Roma stare at you with blank faces.
  5329. "I mean -"
  5330. >"Cutie marks don't work that way," Roma murmurs.
  5331. >"No," Berry agrees, "but... Earth Pony magic... well..."
  5332. >"Maybe... but..."
  5333. "Moot point. Rice travels too well. With this road getting build, we need to focus on short life crops.
  5334. "If we're going to try something stupid, we might as well try something stupid that'll produce a crop that's worth a little more."
  5335. >The ponies stare at you again, then at each other.
  5336. >"Like... what?" Berry finally asks.
  5337. "I don't have a clue, but maybe Apple Bloom will."
  5338.  
  5339. "Been a while."
  5340. >Too long, though you can't say why you stayed.
  5341. >Was the draw of havin' your mane brushed that great?
  5342. >Just sittin' quietly while Lauren ran the brush through the tangles, talkin' with Sil an' Moondancer 'bout stuff you don't quite hear.
  5343. >You were happy enough... bein' happy, you guess.
  5344. >String Bean got his cutie mark an' you helped. Did what you were supposed to.
  5345. >An' kept yourself from runnin' back to badger him just like he wanted.
  5346. >'til now, that is.
  5347. >There's baskin' in comfort an' there's bein' just plain lazy.
  5348. "I'd best get back to String Bean 'fore -"
  5349. >"Wait," Lauren calls out, stretchin' out her hand like she's reachin' for you, though you'd long since moved off the sofa. "As you're here, I've got a quick question I was hopin' you could answer.
  5350. >"Should've asked sooner, but sliped my mind."
  5351. >Ain't that just the way?
  5352. >You chuckle silently an' put on your most neighborly smile.
  5353. "When a friend asks for help, can't exactly say no now can Ah?"
  5354. >"I mean, I guess I could've asked Moonie -"
  5355. >The mare sittin' next to Lauren snorts an' growls somethin' you don't quite catch but can guess the meanin' of.
  5356. >"Okay, sorry," Lauren laughs. "*Moondancer* may not be the most sociable pony an' Sil han't been here too long, so I thought I'd ask you.
  5357. >"Y'got any ponies here with fishery experience?"
  5358. >Uh...
  5359. >That's a bit too out've left field for you.
  5360. "Maybe..."
  5361. >"Or maybe that's a stupid thing to ask," Lauren laughs at herself. "I don't suppose ponies eat fish much."
  5362. "Not so much, nah, but y'can't keep a dog fed on corn n' grass."
  5363. >Dang.
  5364. >Um.
  5365. >Your mind jumps to Fluttershy, but she ain't here. Half of Ponyville seems like at times, but not her.
  5366. "'sides, fish ain't worst pets either an' *somepony* got to raise 'em... so..."
  5367. >Huh.
  5368. >Sometimes lettin' your mouth flap to fill the air ain't the worst idea.
  5369. >Wouldn't have thought of that if you weren't just ramblin'.
  5370. >*Is* there somepony? Or anypony who ran a pet store or...
  5371. >Lauren nods.
  5372. >"So I'm not an idiot. Too much of an idiot, I mean. Anyway, what makes me ask is... seein' all that's goin' on here, I was wonderin' what little improvements me an' daddy could do to our own farm.
  5373. >"'sides the obvious, of course -"
  5374. >Ain't quite as obvious as she's thinkin', but you can guess she means better housin'.
  5375. >Don't really know how the ponies over there live, though you can imagine it ain't great.
  5376. >"- but I don't think I'd be able to talk him in to that just yet. Not 'less I can show him it'll be worth it.
  5377. >"Daddy's bein' amenable at the moment, but I'm worried if I push too hard he'll go back to his old self.
  5378. >"I thought maybe with somethin' like... that tank we've got...? Ain't no good for cattle now an' I sure as the sun rises ain't gonna make ponies drink from a stock tank, but we can't get rid of it without makin' a mess of our fields.
  5379. >"But what if we made it bigger an'..."
  5380. >Lauren's got a spark in her eyes just like him when he was talkin' about gettin' houses built an' the bed n'breakfast.
  5381. >Don't really got a clue what she's talkin' about or where she's goin' but that spark can't help but make you smile.
  5382. >"... well, started keepin' it at least part full and *stocked* it? With fish, I mean? Trout, carp..."
  5383. >She shrugs.
  5384. >"... somethin' at least. I don't know heck 'bout fish. But we ain't close to the coast an' fresh fish don't last too long 'cept in winter since those refrigerated trucks cost a bundle to run.
  5385. >"An' we only get one've those 'round here... what? Once a month? With whatever medicine the doc's ordered and what's got to be kept cold.
  5386. >"It'd be nice to have some fish to eat that weren't salted to heck an' back to keep 'em good - an' I bet the folks in town'd feel the same.
  5387. >"Have to get some've the ponies on board with the idea an' helpin' out, since none've the hands we've kept on know a thing 'bout shit except farmin' an' I'd like to keep it that way.
  5388. >"I'd make the ponies more valuable in daddy's eyes if they were the only ones we could rely on."
  5389. >"Don't know the feasibility of it all, but... it was a thought. An' I know how much you've helped him out with the farm.
  5390. >"Thought maybe you'd be able to do the same for my crazy idea or get me in touch with a pony that can."
  5391. "Uhm..."
  5392. >Ain't nopony comin' to mind.
  5393. "Isn't there anypony on your farm that you can ask?"
  5394. >Don't like the look Lauren an' Silver exchange.
  5395. >"I've tried askin' my own ponies an'..."
  5396. >"It's complicated," Silver finishes for her.
  5397. "Well, Ah don't think anypony'd really know a lot 'bout that, but Ah can ask 'round Ah suppose."
  5398. "Firm Footin' prolly knows a thing or two about how somepony'd go about makin' that a thing, if not the ins-an'-outs of makin' it work."
  5399. >"And I can try looking up some resources," Moondancer offers. "You probably aren't the first to have this idea, so some idiot has already done the trial and error for you and hopefully put some useful notes online."
  5400. >Lauren's jaw drops.
  5401. >"Really?" she gasps. "Thanks! I hadn't even thought about that."
  5402. >"What are friends for?" Silver nods eagerly. "But before anyone makes any real plans, I can try to work out a BEP analysis and -"
  5403. >She giggles as Lauren's eyes start to glaze over.
  5404. >"I'll run the numbers," Silver simplifies things for you normal folk, "to see if it's worth doing."
  5405. "An' who knows? Maybe..."
  5406. >Don't exactly want 'em goin' over there, but...
  5407. "... maybe one've the foals'd have an interest in helpin' out."
  5408. >May not've been the first, but that ain't no reason he should be the last to get his cutie mark.
  5409.  
  5410. >"Between those shovels and the bags of potting soil," Bill says, gesturing down towards the other end of the store. "See there where the shovels are sticking up above -"
  5411. "Ah, got it. Thanks."
  5412. >You nod to the man and head that way, leaving him to his conversation with...
  5413. >Well shit. Seems like a small enough town that you ought to know the man's name, even though you've got no reason to.
  5414. >You've spent... what? Only a few days in town the past ten years?
  5415. >And you've never met him, you know that for sure.
  5416. >You'd remember that cowboy hat, and he doesn't seem the type to ever take it off.
  5417. >Still, you can't shake the feeling you *should* know his name.
  5418. >You'll have to introduce yourself if he's still there when you've grabbed everything you need.
  5419. >It'd be downright rude to go back and interrupt their conversation so soon.
  5420. >Awkward, too.
  5421. >"Are you sure about this?" Berry asks. Distantly.
  5422. >Her mind's not all here.
  5423. >More than understandable, given the circumstances.
  5424. "Well, we *were* running low on most of the seeds and bulbs - for the small stuff, I mean."
  5425. >She gasps in a way that... well... between that and how she's staring you can't help but feel mildly insulted.
  5426. "What?"
  5427. >"I... um... I didn't think you were paying attention to that kind of stuff."
  5428. "I didn't used to, did I? But I can't rely on Apple Bloom to tell me everything. We're good for our mane crops, but I'd like to pick up something to replace what String Bean planted.
  5429. "It's not something serious, but I'd like to have something onhand in case it doesn't take or we decide to expand on that plot. And maybe something off-season too, if Bill has any.
  5430. "Just something to experiment with."
  5431. >She nods slowly, letting her eyes drift away to gaze out over the aisles you pass by.
  5432. >Like...
  5433. >Just like she had at the grocery store. Like someone who's never seen so much in one place at once.
  5434. >And just like the grocery store, you mentally kick yourself.
  5435. >She *hasn't*. Not for four years.
  5436. "If you see something you think we need, let me know."
  5437. >In contrast, Roma's constantly got her head craning to look out the plate glass windows covering the front of Bill's shop.
  5438. >She's got a determined grimace on her face, serious enough you start looking too.
  5439. >And start *really* looking once you pick up that she's watching your truck, doing everything she can to keep it in sight.
  5440. "What's up, Roma? You see something?"
  5441. >Because you don't, but it's clear as day how nervous she is.
  5442. >"I don't like leaving the food like this," she whispers. "The only thing stopping anypony from stealing it is -"
  5443. "Common decency?"
  5444. >"Do you think *that* or the tarp you put over it will stop anypony from taking it?"
  5445. >You shake your head.
  5446. >And then again when her words hit you.
  5447. >*Anypony*.
  5448. >She isn't just worried about humans.
  5449. "It'll be fine, Roma. This isn't -"
  5450. >You don't know what to say. What to compare the situation to.
  5451. >You've never seen her like this.
  5452. >Sometimes supplies or variety have run low, but they've never starved since coming to the farm.
  5453. >Not that you know of.
  5454. >Sure as hell not since you've taken over, and you trust your late uncle enough to think he wouldn't do that to them.
  5455. >For all his faults, he wasn't callous like that.
  5456. >Hell, not even that. It's pragmatic. Like he used to say, a worker with a full belly isn't going to be stealing from the harvest.
  5457. "- this isn't like the camps."
  5458. >It's all you can think of.
  5459. >And from the way her mouth twists, you think you've hit it.
  5460. >Can't blame her.
  5461. >You'll never forget what you saw, so how could you expect her to forget what she lived through?
  5462. >"But -"
  5463. >But there's no reason for it to haunt her forever.
  5464. "I feel better leaving it out there than I do about leaving you in the truck to watch over it.
  5465. "The food is safe - or safe enough. After that talk we had with the pastor, I'm not entirely sure you would be."
  5466. >"What if you're wrong?"
  5467. "Then it's replaceable. You're not."
  5468. >But that's not really good enough, is it?
  5469. >What kind of person would you be if you just dismissed her fears like that?
  5470. >That's not something friends should do.
  5471. "If it makes you feel better, you can sit up front and watch it - from inside the store. I can get this stuff on my own."
  5472. >She peels off immediately.
  5473. "But if anyone *does* try anything, shout out. Don't do anything on your own."
  5474. >She turns back just enough for you to see her nod.
  5475. >That'll do.
  5476. >"Um..."
  5477. "Yes, Berry?"
  5478. >"If you can manage on your own, this's the place Scootaloo lives, isn't it?"
  5479. "Pretty sure she doesn't actually *live* here, but she works here. Bill's her..."
  5480. >Father, basically? Grandfather?
  5481. >Neither's quite accurate, but you can't bring yourself to say owner.
  5482. >It's not just discretion; it's not true. Not the way the two of them interact.
  5483. >"... guardian?" Berry suggests.
  5484. "Exactly."
  5485. >"Can I..."
  5486. >You look back.
  5487. >The stranger with the hat is gone.
  5488. >Dang.
  5489. >Well... now Bill's alone, so...
  5490. "That's fine with me, but Bill might have Scootaloo working on something right now. You can ask him if she's free."
  5491. >Berry nods.
  5492. >"Or maybe I can help her, if... you know..." she says, turning to head back the way you'd come. "I don't mind if I get to talk with her."
  5493. >There's a bit of a question in the way she says that - like she's asking for permission.
  5494. "I'd like to get started back before it gets dark, so try not to get too caught up in anything."
  5495. >"I'll keep that in mind."
  5496. >You continue on, suddenly alone. And suddenly a little unsure about everything.
  5497. >And yet...
  5498. >Seeds are cheap, you reassure yourself. At least the kind you'll be buying here.
  5499. >Not some fancy modified grain or vegetable for mass production.
  5500. >Just some seed packets. The kind of stuff people buy for their little home gardens.
  5501. >Subsudized by the government, part of their Home Grown, Home...
  5502. >Heck.
  5503. >What *is* the name of that program?
  5504. >You hit the garden tools and keep walking until... ah, yep. Just like he said. Right past the shovels.
  5505. >And there's the name, printed right on every seed packet.
  5506. >Home Grown, Home Fed.
  5507. >Well...
  5508. >You don't think figuring out a catchy name was really their top priority.
  5509. >And no one seemed to care.
  5510. >You browse through the small display.
  5511. >Well.
  5512. >It's not small so much as lacking in variety.
  5513. >There's only two kinds of onion, for example.
  5514. >And now you're laughing - at yourself.
  5515. >How long ago was it that you thought that there *were* only two kinds of onions?
  5516. >Okay, you weren't *that* bad, but still...
  5517. >It's only been a few months since you took over the farm and you have to wonder if you'll ever be the same.
  5518. >The seed packets aren't even properly labelled by name or strain, just as Red Onions or Sweet Onions - basic stuff like that stamped on the colored packets lined up on the display.
  5519. >The cheapest packaging possible. Not even a photo of the produce.
  5520. >That would have taken a printer of one kind or another.
  5521. >Stamps were easier to make; there's simple line art of carrots or potatoes for people who can't be bothered to read the name.
  5522. >Or people displaced by the dead zones who didn't read English.
  5523. >You look at the blue packets ones first - the winter vegetables and roots - and grab a few. And then...
  5524. >The orange packets - the fall selection. Same with the green and yellow - ideal for spring and summer planting.
  5525. >Color coded to make things as easy as possible for people.
  5526. >You grab a few of each variety. To experiment.
  5527. >And then -
  5528. >There's a new color.
  5529. >Huh.
  5530. >You've been seeing these displays damn near everywhere for the last four years and they were always the same government-mandated setup.
  5531. >A stripe of blue, followed another of green, then yellow and orange.
  5532. >Now there's another stripe of white packets.
  5533. >Huh.
  5534. >Well.
  5535. >You look it over.
  5536. >Mint, basil, rosemary... spices and herbs.
  5537. >Not real *food*, but... nice to see the selection grow.
  5538. >Then again, just like the name, having a wide variety was probably never a top priority.
  5539. >Getting people growing their own food was, just like the victory gardens of World War II- only with greater need.
  5540. >Things must be getting better everywhere if people can waste garden space on stuff like that.
  5541. >That's right.
  5542. >You consider it a waste.
  5543. >For a few seconds, until you wonder just what the hell has happened to you.
  5544. >And then you grab some of those too. One of each.
  5545. >A little rosemary can go a long way.
  5546. >You detour slightly on your way back to the counter.
  5547. >As you thought, the packets of herb seeds catch Roma's attention - for a moment.
  5548. >Seems like she approves; Roma nods before going back to watching the truck.
  5549. >*Still*.
  5550. >Still staring.
  5551. "Anything happen?"
  5552. >"Not yet."
  5553. >Maybe you'll have to bring her into town more often.
  5554. >Enough "not yet" might change her expectations.
  5555. >Make her trust again.
  5556. >You thought she was, but some memories run too deep.
  5557. >You don't ask, just put a hand on her shoulder.
  5558. >A friendly pat.
  5559. >For now, this isn't a problem - at least not actively so. Hopefully never will be.
  5560. >She can work through it at her own pace.
  5561. >A saying about leading a horse to water comes to mind, as do memories of Lauren from long ago.
  5562. >She didn't want you to solve her problems for her, but that doesn't mean she didn't want you there. You shouldn't have left like that.
  5563. >You like to think you've learned.
  5564. >So you're not going to try to solve... whatever this is with Roma.
  5565. >But you're not going to ignore it either.
  5566. "Well, if anything does... I'll be paying for this and getting Berry. Won't take long."
  5567. >"Where's Berry?"
  5568. "She wanted to see Scootaloo. If you'd like -"
  5569. >"Maybe next time."
  5570. "Okay. Next time."
  5571. >You pat her shoulder again and leave her to it.
  5572.  
  5573. >Beckoned into the room with a wave of Sterling's hand, you comply.
  5574. >Reluctantly, as you had been to even come this far.
  5575. "Sir? You sent for me?"
  5576. >"Yes," he says gruffly. "Something's come up."
  5577. "Should I get Miss Pommel, Sir? I believe -"
  5578. >"No, I'm here to ask you something as a friend."
  5579. >That leaves you floored.
  5580. >Long, silent seconds pass by as you two stare at each other.
  5581. >It's been a long time since he called you that.
  5582. >A long time since you've been one to him.
  5583. >Obedient, yes. Loyal, to a *fault*.
  5584. >You should have stopped him. You should have... been a voice of reason.
  5585. >Instead of following his orders unquestioningly - instead of taking his wild statements as... gospel, you suppose, to borrow a term from his people.
  5586. >You should have been a friend.
  5587. >Now you're not sure if you can be - not *his*.
  5588. >Not after what he's caused.
  5589. >Though you're just as fault as him, aren't you?
  5590. >Half of the *filth* he spewed from his mouth could have been ignored.
  5591. >He would have forgotten it himself an hour later.
  5592. >Other solutions could have been found.
  5593. >If only you had acted as his *friend*.
  5594. >"I can trust you, can't I?" Sterling asks softly.
  5595. >You have to think about it.
  5596. >That doesn't stop you from answering immediately.
  5597. "Of course."
  5598. >Hesitating twice might have angered him.
  5599. >It's what he needs to hear.
  5600. >And if it's true... it's true. If it isn't, then you'll start lying to him at some point.
  5601. >Now is as good a time as any.
  5602. >"I got a call," Sterling says. "Close the door."
  5603. >You kick it shut behind you. Gently, of course.
  5604. >"Like I said, I got a call. Not one I was expecting. That new mare, the one that refuses to work? I've got an opportunity."
  5605. "The sheriff...?"
  5606. >Expected, but your heart still freezes like a sudden winter snap or Equestria without the sun.
  5607. >Sun, *no*. Please anything but that.
  5608. >"No," Sterling shakes his head. "A buyer. From out of town. A friend of a friend -"
  5609. >A lie - no, an untruth, though he believes it.
  5610. >He says the words with honest, casual sincerity but they ring hollow to your ears.
  5611. >"- is looking for a new mare."
  5612. "For...?"
  5613. >"What do you think?" Sterling snorts.
  5614. >You think his "friend's friend" might be disappointed if Sweetie Belle's current service is any indication.
  5615. "I can imagine, sir."
  5616. >Sterling grins.
  5617. "Why wasn't he able to acquire one of the new refugees through the placement agency?"
  5618. >Surely if your owner was able, then this other man could as well.
  5619. >"While he's not *exactly* blacklisted," Sterling chuckles, "his applications were rejected. Officially because he was looking to buy a pony for personal use, but... it's an opportunity.
  5620. >"And I thought... according to... whatshername, the rest of the mares have fallen in line. I thought this one - uh... Sugar...?"
  5621. "Sweetie Belle."
  5622. >Sterling shrugs off your correction.
  5623. >"I thought she would cause more trouble, but she's been keeping to herself, for now, so maybe I can unload her before she stirs shit up."
  5624. >But she's here to find her friends.
  5625. >*Here*. They live nearby.
  5626. >He *can't* sell her to someone from out of town.
  5627. >You don't think that argument would find traction with your owner.
  5628. >"Also there's this - if I sell her, then I don't have to punish her for refusing to work."
  5629. >Sterling has a sparkle in his eyes like a child with an illicitly acquired candy bar.
  5630. >"And if I don't punish her, I don't have to deal with any fallout if anyone *does* come around asking about her."
  5631. "That's... true, sir."
  5632. >Putting aside the filly's wishes to find her friends, this might be a way to save Sweetie's life.
  5633. >"This man will be coming by soon. He wasn't looking for her in particular, but..."
  5634. >Sterling sighs.
  5635. >He leans over, resting his elbows on his desk, shoulders slumped.
  5636. >"... I've met the man once or twice before. It should be easy enough to push him that way."
  5637. "Why the hesitation, sir?"
  5638. >It's... uncharacteristic. *Unnerving*.
  5639. >"There are other ponies I could try to sell him."
  5640. "Sir, I'm afraid I don't understand."
  5641. >"Maybe I'm growing soft," Sterling murmurs - to himself, you suspect, but he doesn't raise his voice as he continues. "Diamond Tiara used to be a good worker, maybe... maybe a change of scenery would do her good."
  5642. >He -
  5643. >No, it's been...
  5644. >How long?
  5645. >Since before the princess's death.
  5646. >Not quite, but it's been so long since he's cared about something other than profits or tasting the magic of Equestria again that you can't believe it.
  5647. >Yet just as it is not in his nature to care about others, it's also not to play games or misdirect.
  5648. >Sterling is not a subtle man. A loud one, one who speaks and acts without thinking. Shortsighted. Without concern for others or - honestly - even himself in many ways.
  5649. "Sir...?"
  5650. >"It would be a gamble either way," Sterling sighs. "His mares enjoy their lives, but..."
  5651. "But?"
  5652. "... he's not nice like I am."
  5653. >Only the way Sterling says it stops you from breaking out in uncontrolled laughter of *him* saying that.
  5654. >He means it.
  5655. >And it's absolutely true, in a fashion.
  5656. >It was *you* who made his absurdities a reality.
  5657.  
  5658. >"Berry... Punch...?"
  5659. >You nod.
  5660. >"Good, I was hopin' I remembered that right," Bill grins. "Berry Punch is in the break room with Scootaloo. I'll grab her if you're ready to go."
  5661. "Nah, let's give them a little more time to catch up. You can ring me up first."
  5662. >"Sure thing."
  5663. >Bill looks down at the seed packets you've dropped on the counter and pauses.
  5664. >"Got something planned?"
  5665. "We're not hurting for food out there, but I thought a little variety would be welcome. I'm glad to see the selection got expanded to include herbs."
  5666. >He nods.
  5667. >"Happened pretty recently. I got the new rack in maybe a few weeks after the official cease-fire was signed?"
  5668. >Bill shrugs.
  5669. >"Give or take. I guess they'd had them prepared for a while and were just holding on to them until things looked clear."
  5670. "Makes sense. People can afford a little more risk now."
  5671. >Bill nods.
  5672. >"A little," he agrees. "But times are still hard. A lot of these seeds are out of season, you know?"
  5673. "I know."
  5674. >"You finally get a greenhouse set up? I was bugging your uncle to get one of those for the longest time."
  5675. "Something like that."
  5676. >"But not *that*," he mumbles into his moustache. "Huh. You know, price of plastic sheeting has gone back down last couple of years, now that it's not mostly being bought up by the military and CDC.
  5677. >"Easy enough to make a greenhouse using that and some four by fours - or even PVC pipe if you want something you can easily tear down and reassemble every year."
  5678. "I'll keep that in mind if my little experiment fails."
  5679. >That might have raised one of Bill's bushy eyebrows a fraction, but it's hard to tell.
  5680. >"Hmm. Okay then."
  5681. >He starts scanning the packets one by one.
  5682. >"I hope you do. Scoots and I don't have the time to tend to a plot of our own, so I wouldn't mind trading some hardware here and there for some fresh produce."
  5683. >Huh. Not a bad idea.
  5684. >Still...
  5685. "Sounds great. I'm surprised no one else in town willing to take you up on that."
  5686. >"No one's wanted to go through the cost and hassle of a greenhouse, so those that do are limited on what they can bring - and most are selling their excess to the local restaurants anyway.
  5687. >"Besides, aside from newcomers just getting started, everyone's pretty set. Not much they need and it's easier for everyone if they just pay cash.
  5688. >"But you... *you* seem to be up to something. Growing your interests when everyone else is holding steady. I bet you wouldn't mind saving a little money."
  5689. "True enough. Tell you what, if this work I'll bring you a little something from the first crop. And if it doesn't... I'll be back to see about materials for a greenhouse. But..."
  5690. >"But?"
  5691. "We've got a lot going on right now. Sure, I'd like to get a little variation in what we're eating, but to be honest it's not going to be my top priority - not if it means taking money or workers off other things."
  5692. >"Understandable," Bill nods. "But if you're looking for a side project, just something to keep busy -"
  5693. "Top of my list, for sure. Do you know how much rosemary I used to go through in a week?"
  5694. >Bill grins.
  5695. >"About as much butter as I did, I'm going to guess."
  5696. >Eh... he's pretty trim for the grandfatherly archetype.
  5697. "So not much...?"
  5698. >You both chuckle at your stupid joke.
  5699. >"Don't let the Bill of today trick you," he shakes his head. "One thing to be said about this whole disaster is some of the shortages have been good for my health. Can't cover everything in half a stick of butter if I only got one to last you a whole month."
  5700. "That's true."
  5701. >"And once the rationing was over... you know how it is. Live a certain way long enough and it becomes a habit."
  5702. >You nod.
  5703. >"There's always a silver lining, no matter how bad the storm that comes with it."
  5704. "Doesn't necessarily make it worth it, but I know what you mean. I never would have come back out here if it weren't for this."
  5705. >Bill stacks up the seeds into a paper bag and pushes it across to you.
  5706. >"Starting to feel more like home?"
  5707. "A little more every day."
  5708. >He gives you a soft smile.
  5709. >"That's good to hear. Anything else you need?
  5710. "Nah, just -
  5711. >There's a small rack of candy set at the end of the counter.
  5712. "Yeah, one more thing."
  5713.  
  5714. "Before you go -"
  5715. >Gilded Lily pauses in adjusting her dress - a gift from a new patron, you presume, judging from how well the green fabric contrasts her orange coat - and looks away from her mirror and the table of cosmetics to peer up at you.
  5716. >Through her lashes.
  5717. >She's a quick learner - the first of the newcomers to adapt to her new life.
  5718. >The first to have given up washing sheets for being the reason they need cleaning.
  5719. >Not surprising. They say it's easier to acclimate to new things when you're younger.
  5720. "This is your first time leaving the Stables, isn't it?"
  5721. >The mare nods.
  5722. >"Yes, ma'am," she murmurs softly. "Miss Coco arranged all the details."
  5723. "Remember, the rules are the same, even if he is taking you out. If there's anything you don't want to do, you can refuse."
  5724. >She nods.
  5725. "You have your panic button?"
  5726. >Another nod.
  5727. "Somepony showed you how to use it?"
  5728. >"Yes, ma'am."
  5729. "Good. Dayne and Tucker will be keeping track if you need them to intervene for any reason. No matter where he takes you, it shouldn't take them more than fifteen or twenty minutes to reach you."
  5730. >One of Sterling's more considerate ideas.
  5731. "Try to hide or barricade yourself in a bathroom or closet if you have to."
  5732. >He wouldn't want his one of his assets disappearing, after all. Or hurt beyond what the customer can pay.
  5733. "If he tries to take you out of town... hit it."
  5734. >"Of course, ma'am," Gilded Lily nods.
  5735. >Good. She's looking nervous now.
  5736. >She understands.
  5737. >Fifteen minutes is long enough to wait for help. If she's too far away, then they'd never make it in time, no matter how well she hides.
  5738. "And..."
  5739. >Gilded's mouth twitches.
  5740. "... give this to the first pony you can."
  5741. >You place a folded piece of paper on the table next to a bottle of perfume.
  5742. "Don't let any human see you do it."
  5743. >"What? Why?"
  5744. >It hurts that this is the first time she's shown surprise.
  5745. >Not just nervousness or a touch of fear but *surprise*.
  5746. >Not at your warnings, but at this.
  5747. "Because it's not your job to pass notes for me. You need to be professional at all times when a client takes you out."
  5748. >No reason to scare Gilded Lily more than she needs to be.
  5749. >And the answer satisfies her.
  5750. >She nods.
  5751. >"Yes, ma'am. But this says it's for Derpy...? Should I...?"
  5752. "Anyone - any*pony* - will do. It'll find it's way to her."
  5753.  
  5754. >"Beer? Cigarettes?" Bill chuckles and you shake your head.
  5755. "Nah, just that."
  5756. >"Thought I'd check, just in case. Cash, or... ah, gotcha."
  5757. >You'd gotten out of the habit of using a credit card.
  5758. >Too many glitches the first few years, too often the networks were down and Bill's assumption was right - by the time everything had been fixed, you were used to using cash everywhere.
  5759. >So was everyone else.
  5760. >It was just easier. More reliable. Never could tell when the system would collapse again.
  5761. >But with the kind of money you're spending now... some habits are good to get back to.
  5762. >Seems like a bad idea to carry around that much cash on you, even if this is a pretty safe area.
  5763. >All that assuming the local banks would even put this much together on short notice.
  5764. >You pull your card from the reader and Bill gives you a nod.
  5765. >"I'll just get those two out here for you," he says.
  5766. "Thanks.
  5767. >"Be right back."
  5768. >He slides out from behind the counter with a quiet creak and muffled groan - and stops.
  5769. >"Better idea," he chuckles. "HEY! SCOOTALOO!"
  5770. >That's one way to do it.
  5771. >It's a minute or so before the ponies come out - a minute Bill spends grinning like... like - well, to think 'like an idiot' seems pretty disrespectful, but it's what comes to mind.
  5772. >"Time for her to go?" Scootaloo sighs when she's close. "But she was telling me about everything that's going on at her farm!"
  5773. >"Sorry, but they've got a long drive ahead of them."
  5774. >Berry winces.
  5775. >Ah. Yep.
  5776. >Well, maybe Roma will want to ride in the back with the rice.
  5777. "Yeah, I'm afraid so."
  5778. >"But tell you what," Bill says, kneeling down with a groan and the help of the counter until he's close to face-to-face with his pony. "I don't remember if we've talked about this before, but I'm okay with you taking a trip out there someday if he is."
  5779. >Three faces turn your way.
  5780. >One shocked, one eager, and one a little embarrassed.
  5781. >"Sorry," Bill chuckles, "Didn't mean to put you on the spot like that. I've been thinking about it for a bit, but I should have asked you first."
  5782. "No, no, it's fine."
  5783. >You wave your hand - the empty one. The one not holding the bag of stuff you just bought.
  5784. "Right now's a bit... well, I don't know if we'll ever slow down or when would be a good time, but..."
  5785. >"Maybe when we find Sweetie Belle?" Scootaloo chirps. "She's here *somewhere*.
  5786. >Well...
  5787. >"Then the three of us could be together again!"
  5788. >That's an easy way to put it off. And if it happens, you couldn't refuse.
  5789. >No, *when*.
  5790. >Think positive.
  5791. "Yeah, that sounds greats."
  5792. >Scootaloo smiles at you and steps closer until she's got her head bent back to be able to look you in the eyes.
  5793. >"Y'know, you seem different."
  5794. >You shrug.
  5795. "Maybe I am."
  5796. >"What happened?"
  5797. "I guess... I guess I changed."
  5798. >She smiles.
  5799. >You reach out and - ruffle her mane.
  5800.  
  5801. >You pull the gate shut behind you and hop back into the driver's seat.
  5802. "Almost home."
  5803. >"Good," Berry mumbles.
  5804. >Roma doesn't even do that. She's been staring out the back window the entire drive, though you think she fell asleep an hour or so back.
  5805. >She's still sitting upright, still perched protectively to watch over the food in the bed of the truck, but her head bobbles a little too much every time you slow or speed up - or start from a dead stop, gentle as you try to be about it.
  5806. >You'll have to wake her soon enough, but not until then if you can help it.
  5807. >Roma deserves whatever rest she can get, and you bet that as soon as everything gets unloaded she's going to pitch in to help with dinner - or cleaning up.
  5808. >It's pretty late. Not horribly, but late enough.
  5809. >Wouldn't be too surprising if dinner has already come and gone.
  5810. >Hopefully they left something for Berry and Roma to eat.
  5811. >You continue up the road until you come to the construction site, full of skeletons of future homes.
  5812. >You gently turn the wheel to the right, taking the truck off the road that leads through the new buildings and instead along the new path that's slowly being worn into the grass and dirt that splits the dorms from the new buildings.
  5813. >Didn't really want to put a road this close to the dorms, but you've found yourself directing deliveries this way too often - and driving it yourself with disturbing regularity.
  5814. >Might need to get this paved sooner or later. Well, later or *much* later.
  5815. >This works for now, though the ride's a bit bumpy.
  5816. >Roma is jostled awake before too long, though she's still blinking the sleep away when you come to a stop.
  5817. >She lets out a little, questioning groan as her head pans around.
  5818. "We're home."
  5819. >"Oh," she mumbles. "Right. Good."
  5820. >You're not sure she actually heard what you said, but she understands well enough.
  5821. >Her shoulders and legs relax,  the tension that held her upright the entire drive draining away in seconds.
  5822. "C'mon, let's get out and stretch our legs a bit. Then we'll see about getting this stuff unloaded and put away."
  5823. >Roma nods.
  5824. >Berry too, once she's done yawning.
  5825. >A bit of a crowd forms in the time that all takes - the stretching, not the unloading - though they make that bit go all the quicker.
  5826. >You end up in the bed of the truck, passing down bags and crates to the ponies who dash off one way or another under Roma's directions - at least until one of her assistants comes out and pushes her inside to eat while the leftovers from dinner are still warm.
  5827. >Doesn't take more than ten minutes you'd say - certainly under twenty - to get the truck unloaded and everything in the process of being stored away in its place.
  5828. >"Anythin' else?" Apple Bloom asks as you hop off the tailgate, leaving the truck bouncing up behind you.
  5829. >She's already carried off two massive bags of rice and at least another of beans, but is still looking for more.
  5830. >You shake your head.
  5831. "Just these."
  5832. >You hold up the small sack from Bill's hardware store; you'd left it until last.
  5833. >No sense holding everything up trying to explain your ideas when there were ponies ready and waiting to help with everything else.
  5834. >"What you got there?"
  5835. "Seeds."
  5836. >"Ah can take those," Apple Bloom says and opens her mouth wide to grab the sack, but you shake your head.
  5837. "Hold up, I actually wanted to talk to you about these. Mind walking with me to the storeroom?"
  5838. >She... *smiles*.
  5839. >"Don't mind at all!"
  5840. >And she listens as you talk about your idea. Explain. Blather. Run your mouth like an idiot.
  5841. >Whichever.
  5842. >All are true enough at various points in the conversation.
  5843. >It's not long before Apple Bloom is shaking her head.
  5844. "Won't work?"
  5845. >She frowns.
  5846. "Dang. I guess I was an idiot to think we could grow out of season just because -"
  5847. >"Ah ain't sayin' that, just that it don't work like *that*. Seasons still matter, but..."
  5848. "Guess I'll have to go back and let Bill talk me into a greenhouse after all."
  5849. >"Hold up there," Apple Bloom snorts as she pushes open the door to the storeroom. "How 'bout you let the farmpony deal with the farmpony things?"
  5850. >Fair enough.
  5851. >"There's a couple've things we can try, so if you'd just put 'em down over there -"
  5852. >Apple Bloom points to one of the shelves with a jerk of her head.
  5853. >"- Ah'll ponder it a bit. Might be a few things we could do an' Ah'll talk to String Bean 'bout it once Ah'm done thinkin' it over."
  5854. "Thanks, Apple Bloom, but I'd still like to talk to him myself."
  5855. >"What'd Ah just say 'bout lettin' farmponies handle the farmpony business?" she chuckles, bumping her shoulder against your leg. "It wasn't a bad thought, but we don't wanna confuse the poor colt. Ah'll take care of this."
  5856. "It's not about the seeds."
  5857. >"Oh? Oh! You wanna congratulate him on his cutie mark!"
  5858. >You nod.
  5859. "And thank him for helping out."
  5860. >"String Bean ain't doin' it for *you*, y'know," Apple Bloom snorts with a grin and bumps in you again. "C'mon, Ah'll take y'to him. Jus' right out here..."
  5861. >She takes you out of the storeroom and just down a ways, to the garden plot and String Bean.
  5862. >The little colt is sitting just off the plot, staring at the soil like he's trying to *will* the plants to sprout.
  5863. >You're fairly certain it doesn't work like that. Well, you are now.
  5864. >Because it's not working.
  5865. >"String Bean!" Apple Bloom calls out to him, causing the little pony's entire body to jerk upright. "Y'din't skip out on dinner, did you?"
  5866. >"No!" he whines back. "I ate everything!"
  5867. >Apple Bloom trots ahead of you to nuzzle his cheek with a smile.
  5868. >"Good."
  5869. "Yeah, I'm glad. It wouldn't be right of me to ruin your appetite"
  5870. >You reach into your coat pocket and kneel down beside the little colt.
  5871. >His eyes light up when he sees what you've brought him.
  5872. >That's a relief.
  5873. >He's spent most of his life here or in one of the refugee camps, so you weren't even sure he'd know what a candy bar is.
  5874. "Congrats on your cutie mark, String Bean. We'll be counting on you."
  5875.  
  5876. >"Benzonatate?" Redheart asks.
  5877. "Didn't you already ask me about that one? When we began?"
  5878. >"Yes, doctor, but..."
  5879. "The list is in alphabetical order."
  5880. >You snort. Chuckle. Some combination of the two.
  5881. >You're getting old. It's easy.
  5882. "Did you think I wouldn't notice?"
  5883. >"You hadn't so far."
  5884. >You don't know whether to laugh, sigh, or applaud her thoroughness.
  5885. >All three have their place. You know her reaction to each.
  5886. >A second check mark and then she'll read out the next thing on the list, no matter your reaction.
  5887. >Instead, you settle for a nod and check the shelves again.
  5888. "We've got plenty. No need to order more. This should hold us through anything short of the end of the world."
  5889. >You hear her marking it off.
  5890. >"Good, what about -"
  5891. "Let's take a break."
  5892. >"But -"
  5893. "You're right. I hadn't noticed so far, Redheart. I think I need a break."
  5894. >You'll see exactly what you saw the first time if you go over things again right now.
  5895. >Redheart knows this, just as you know she wants it done now.
  5896. "You can double check it yourself, if you want."
  5897. >She's tempted. You *know* she's tempted.
  5898. >The sooner your order is in, the higher its priority will be.
  5899. >You trust her to do it on her own. She has before. She will again.
  5900. >But you also know to expect her sigh.
  5901. >"No, doctor. We can wait."
  5902. >She'd rather do this with you.
  5903. "We can swap places. I can call the drugs out and you can -"
  5904. >"You win, okay?" she snorts as she shuffles backwards out of the supply room. "Let's take a break and then look at it again with new eyes."
  5905. "Thanks."
  5906. >She smiles in a way you haven't seen her smile in a long time. Not here, at least. At home sometimes, but not here.
  5907. >The serious, professional mask she wears as soon as she walks into the clinic is breaking little by little.
  5908. >You could have sworn you heard her laugh two days ago.
  5909. >Too soon to tell if that'll end up being a blessing or a curse, so you set aside your worry and take joy in that smile.
  5910. >But not for too long.
  5911. >There's still work to be done.
  5912. "There's something I needed to talk to you and Minuette about anyway, since you two missed the morning 'staff meeting' -"
  5913. >Redheart lets out a cynical giggle.
  5914. >"You mean when you were checking your email?"
  5915. "Exactly. You two were busy taking care of that walk-in. And I didn't finish reading everything."
  5916. >"Oh, is that the *real* reason you want a break?" she smirks, stepping back further to give you room to swing the door shut.
  5917. "No, I *really* want to sit down."
  5918. >You don't explain any further until both deadbolts are locked and you've jiggled the knob - just to check.
  5919. >Just in case.
  5920. >You're being cautious, okay?
  5921. >All things considered, it's quite reasonable.
  5922. >Even if you do sometimes second-guess yourself about it.
  5923. >Seems so unnecessary now, though you know you'd never stop worrying without it.
  5924. "Let's join her in reception. We can go over it all then."
  5925. >She nods and follows you.
  5926. >For a while.
  5927. >And then you're following her.
  5928. >Dang ponies and their four legs.
  5929. >Redheart slows her pace when she notices you lagging behind, just enough for you to almost catch up.
  5930. >But never quite enough for you to *actually* catch up.
  5931. >She's at work.
  5932. >She can't relax.
  5933. >Well, can't *let* herself relax.
  5934. >Not even for a minute, not even enough to walk at anything less than a brisk pace.
  5935. >Is this why you end up cooking dinner so often?
  5936. >Not that you mind.
  5937. >The waiting room is empty, except for Minuette. And the chairs, of course.
  5938. >Blessed chairs.
  5939. >You've been on your feet for... no, don't check your watch.
  5940. >Better not to know.
  5941. >It'll only make them hurt more.
  5942. >Minuette looks up as you lower yourself into one of the seats and mumbles something you can't quite make out, not until after she's put her stylus down and her mouth is empty.
  5943. >"Sorry," she giggles. "That was stupid. Are you two done with the order so I can fax it in?"
  5944. "Not yet. I needed to give my eyes a rest."
  5945. >She nods and looks back to her monitor.
  5946. >"Don't take too long. You've got another appointment in fourty-six minutes."
  5947. "Just a little break, I promise. Besides, there's some news I need to share with you two."
  5948. >"Oh?" she squeaks, her ears perking up at attention.
  5949. "Got an unexpected email this morning from the control board. We're getting three new ponies assigned to the clinic."
  5950. >"Nurses?" Redheart sighs happily. "I'm glad. We sure could use the help."
  5951. "I'm afraid not."
  5952. >"Oh?" she winces.
  5953. "Doctors."
  5954. >"Oh."
  5955. >There's the angry snort you were expecting from her.
  5956. >And the eye roll from Minuette.
  5957. "Of a sort."
  5958. >Redheart's left eyebrow arches up.
  5959. "Honestly I'm not too sure how useful they'll be here."
  5960. >"Why?"
  5961. "Their names are Quality Control and Informed Consent. Have you heard of them?"
  5962. >Your little mare shakes her head. Same with Minuette.
  5963. "One used to be a... uh... mare's health specialist, the other specializes in medicine. Helped to run the trials for the early versions of the magic suppressant, though her work history is a blank the last few years."
  5964. >"Wait," Minuette murmurs. "Didn't you say *three*?"
  5965. "Yeah, but there wasn't any information on the third. At all."
  5966. >"Maybe it was just a typo?" she shrugs.
  5967. "Maybe. I emailed back asking for confirmation but haven't gotten a response yet."
  5968. >"Well, they *could* be helpful," Redheart says softly, with a grin just as gentle as her voice. "Sure, we don't have too many pregnancies, but they happen."
  5969. "True enough. And I'm hoping Informed Consent has more knowledge of how to adapt human medication for ponies than we do."
  5970. >"Our methods work, but are a little..."
  5971. >"Primitive?" Minuette suggests.
  5972. "I was going to say slapdash."
  5973. >"*I* was going to say *unrefined*," Redheart snorts. "Did these doctors come in this latest batch of refugees?"
  5974. >You shake your head.
  5975. "No, that's the weirdest thing about it all. They've been this side of the portals for a while now, working for..."
  5976. >It takes a minute to remember.
  5977. "... for a Dr. Stiers."
  5978. >"Doing what?"
  5979. "I don't rightly know."
  5980.  
  5981. >"Be a good girl and eat it all," Coco smirks at you. "You need to..."
  5982. >She waves a hoof and tilts her head back in a way that says everything.
  5983. >You're...
  5984. >... *alive*.
  5985. >And that's everything there is to be said about you.
  5986. >Except that you don't deserve to be.
  5987. >And... apparently... *now* someone wants you to be more than just that.
  5988. >"I didn't know this job came with room service," Sweetie snarls at the other mare.
  5989. >Defending you - again.
  5990. >Why?
  5991. >And... from what?
  5992. >A good meal?
  5993. >Something better than you've eaten in months?
  5994. >You look over at the table Coco had set up and the steaming tray resting on it.
  5995. >All of your favorites. Not just warm, but *hot*.
  5996. >Fresh from the kitchen.
  5997. >Something's... awry.
  5998. >You turn you head to see Sweetie rise from her bed.
  5999. >"What are you planning to do with her?"
  6000. >"I'm just doing what I'm told," Coco snaps back. "Like we all should."
  6001. "Bullshit."
  6002. >Sweetie jerks back.
  6003. >Surprised that you spoke?
  6004. >Probably.
  6005. "Who told you to -"
  6006. >"Octavia," she interrupts with a fleeting frown. "I hope you can keep it down."
  6007. >She turns to Sweetie and smirks.
  6008. >"Help her if you have to."
  6009. >"Why? I mean - yes, of course -" she smiles sadly at you, "but what's going on?"
  6010. >"Is it really important?" Coco giggles and turns away with a flick of her tail, nearly catching Sweetie in the snout.
  6011. "Yes."
  6012. >"I hear we're in for a family reunion."
  6013.  
  6014. >"Best get going, Ah think."
  6015. "Yeah, you're probably right. Considering it's just sitting on my ass, driving that far is exhausting."
  6016. >You chuckle softly to yourself.
  6017. "I'm about ready to fall asleep right here."
  6018. >"You look it," Apple Bloom snorts as you fall back into the grass of the hill.
  6019. >Stars shine brightly in the night sky, bare branches from the tree at the crest of the hill snake across your view like black lightning.
  6020. "If it wasn't so damn cold..."
  6021. >"Gonna get colder, too. Can't you feel it?"
  6022. "I think I do."
  6023. >You're picking up on more and more.
  6024. >When Apple Bloom brought you out here to talk about the farm - about String Bean's little garden and your thoughts - most of what she said made sense.
  6025. >If not in a way where you really understood it, but in a way where you understood how she was right.
  6026. >And not just because you know you can trust her.
  6027. >It... it's like the knowledge you've never really had is just out of your reach. Like you're seeing it through frosted windows.
  6028. >Or foggy memories - but of things you never knew.
  6029. >Apple Bloom has talked about her past some, but you *know* you've never heard these stories before. Not the ones about her friends.
  6030. >You've certainly never heard about Zap Apples.
  6031. >And yet...
  6032. >You sigh.
  6033. >It's troubling. Or would be if this didn't feel so comfortable.
  6034. >Despite the near-freezing temperatures - that feels warm. Or the hard ground underneath - with the *so* soft grass cradling you.
  6035. >It's...
  6036. >You close your eyes.
  6037. >Only to be shaken awake.
  6038. "How long was I...?"
  6039. >"Ah dunno. Just thought you were thinkin' 'till you started to snore," Apple Bloom snorts. "Get yerself to bed 'fore you've got to grab an empty cot in the dorms."
  6040. >That doesn't sound so bad.
  6041. >"Nah," Apple Bloom shakes her head.
  6042. >Oh.
  6043. >Yeah.
  6044. >You're tired.
  6045. >Must have said that out loud.
  6046. >She's smiling, even as she continues to shake her head.
  6047. >"You gotta get on up to your house. Somepony's waitin' on you."
  6048. "Oh, right."
  6049. >You reach over to Apple Bloom and pat her shoulder.
  6050. "Thanks."
  6051. >You push yourself upright - and from there it's a mostly simple process of standing.
  6052. >Mostly.
  6053. >There are a few complications.
  6054. >Like Apple Bloom still laying on her back, staring up at the stars.
  6055. "You going in?"
  6056. >"Not yet," she sighs.
  6057. "Look, I don't feel great leaving you out here all alone."
  6058. >"Why?" she smirks. "Ain't no timberwolves 'round. Don't gotta worry 'bout bugbears neither."
  6059. "No, but you're alone."
  6060. >Apple Bloom snorts. She lifts one forehoof off the grass and gently pats her belly.
  6061. >"Ain't alone."
  6062. "Still... what if you fall asleep? It's going to hit freezing soon - and I don't know how you're managing without a jacket or something already."
  6063. >"Tell you what," she smiles, "you gotta go back to your truck anyhow an' it's parked outside the dorms. Why don't you ask somepony to come on up an' check on me in a bit?"
  6064. "I... I can do that."
  6065. >"Thanks. I'd just like to be out here a lil' longer. Somethin' 'bout the sky tonight's callin' to me."
  6066. "Don't be out too long, okay?"
  6067. >"I won't. See you tomorrow."
  6068. "Yeah, see you tomorrow."
  6069.  
  6070. >You pull up to the front of the house, instead of going around to the side like you really should.
  6071. >Just too dang tired to walk that extra distance right now, even if some unpleasant feelings drift up as you step out of the truck.
  6072. >Luckily you're alone this time. No injured pony to carry inside.
  6073. >No horrible memories to haunt you later.
  6074. >Or maybe that's a shame.
  6075. >It means they're all still back at Sterling Stables.
  6076. >You sigh and...
  6077. >The porch light is off.
  6078. >Lauren's waiting for you, a black silhouette in the open doorway.
  6079. >You stumble on your way up the steps.
  6080. >She doesn't laugh.
  6081. >You do.
  6082. >Quietly.
  6083. >"Sorry."
  6084. >Lauren disappears for a moment and the lights come on just as you make it up the steps.
  6085. >When she comes back, she's no longer cast in shadow.
  6086. >She looks...
  6087. >... different?
  6088. >No, she's always been beautiful.
  6089. "You did something with your hair."
  6090. >In a daze, you reach out to the curl running over her shoulder.
  6091. >And miss.
  6092. >Your hand brushes her cheek.
  6093. >"Mhm."
  6094. "It looks nice."
  6095. >"And...?"
  6096. >She steps back and - spins. Slowly.
  6097. >It's a nice view.
  6098. >But you don't really know what to make of it.
  6099. >Apparently something.
  6100. >"Y'still didn't notice what I'm wearin' did you?"
  6101. "Sorry, no."
  6102. >"You don't remember this outfit?"
  6103. "You were wearing it this morning."
  6104. >Not the right answer.
  6105. >She shoves you.
  6106. >Gently.
  6107. >But still hard enough she still grabs your hands to stop you from falling off the porch.
  6108. >"Jerk."
  6109. "Sorry, but what you're wearing doesn't usually interest me as much as... well... *you*."
  6110. >Another shove.
  6111. >A blush.
  6112. >Another catch as you teeter on dead feet, though this time she doesn't let go of your hands.
  6113. >"Jerk"
  6114. "Yeah, I know. Sorry. I don't think I meant that quite like how it came out."
  6115. >She smiles. A little sadly.
  6116. >"You're too tired for this, aren't you?"
  6117. "It's been a long day."
  6118. >She pulls you inside.
Apple Bloom Anon Grimdark Rape Grimderp In Progress Moondancer /spg/ Older NSFW

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