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A Deal is a Deal (Part 4) - last updated 1/31/21

By twilightgamenight
Created: 18th December 2020 10:48:25 PM

  1. >"Beautiful."
  2. >The morning sun streaming in through Sterling's office window certainly is.
  3. >One of the most beautiful things you've ever seen.
  4. >It caught your eyes as you finished your report and now you can't seem to look away.
  5. >Even the music in your head pauses to appreciate the sight.
  6. >There should be something to fill that pause... some instrument. A harp? Perhaps -
  7. >But that's not what he's talking about.
  8. >You tear your eyes away from the light and nod.
  9. "I agree, sir. Their progress is astounding.
  10. "Considering you told me to prepare them for this visitor just a few days ago -"
  11. >You wince as you hear a flute out of nowhere.
  12. >From nowhere.
  13. >One only you can hear.
  14. "- I am surprised at how well the Diamond Tiara and Sweetie Belle are coming along."
  15. >Sterling grins.
  16. >"And..." he smiles wider, "are they behaving themselves?"
  17. >You pause a moment.
  18. >The truth? Or...
  19. "Diamond Tiara's spirit is broken, sir."
  20. >The truth.
  21. >Yet a snare rattles off a progressive beat in your head that seems to imply otherwise.
  22. "She can't do anything *but* behave herself. Sweetie Belle..."
  23. >Or...
  24. >"Yes?"
  25. "... is too preoccupied to act out. Since Miss Pommel spoke to them, Sweetie Belle has been grooming Diamond every day.
  26. "Helping her shower and eat, brushing her hair... she seems to believe that this may be the only way to save her friend."
  27. >And Diamond might be starting to believe it too.
  28. >There wasn't quite *hope* as such in her eyes when you spoke to her earlier, but there was *life*.
  29. >Not the simple acceptance or deadness that hurt your soul to see.
  30. >Sterling's grin falters.
  31. >His brows furrow.
  32. >Not in anger - not *true* anger, not at first - but in... in long-missing introspection.
  33. >You've known the man long enough - longer than you've lived in this world - to know his thoughts.
  34. >Who does he hope to sell?
  35. >Diamond Tiara? His favoured whore - though no longer?
  36. >So he doesn't have to punish her any further?
  37. >Or Sweetie Belle?
  38. >The newcomer? A mare he's never even spoken to - and has no interest in ever speaking to.
  39. >Which one can he afford to not punish without appearing weak?
  40. >You know him too well, and his thoughts leave you sick.
  41. >So self-centred. So callous. So *simple* and reactionary and uncaring.
  42. >Barely conscious enough of his own preferences to acknowledge his concern for Diamond Tiara, yet totally lacking the understanding that he's the one that put her in this situation - or can save her from it.
  43. >He could have...
  44. >He *was* your friend. He wasn't always like this. He couldn't have been.
  45. >At one point he was full of laughter and kindness. Generosity and loyalty. All replaced with an unending desire for power.
  46. >What dregs of those noble feelings make him uncomfortable whenever they rise to threaten his perception of reality, to make him realize he might actually have cared about one of his ponies.
  47. >And he doesn't like it.
  48. >What Sterling can't articulate, what he can't understand, makes him *furious*.
  49. >It makes him stupid.
  50. >It makes him easy to manipulate.
  51. "Sir, if I may propose something... if you wish to be rid of *both* of the mares..."
  52. >Sterling frowns.
  53. >And then he understands.
  54. >"Maybe with any luck we can sell them both," he smirks. "Maybe we'll even offer a two-for-one deal. That'll solve things."
  55. >A simple solution.
  56. >A *possible* solution.
  57. >He'll want to milk every last dollar out of the buyer.
  58. >You bow your head.
  59. "That sounds like the best option."
  60. >Assuming the buyer is willing to take them both.
  61. >Assuming Sterling doesn't get greedy and demand too much for the 'deal', driving the buyer to look at another pony altogether.
  62. >You will...
  63. >*Sun*, you haven't been able to think of something yet, but you won't stop trying.
  64. >Some way to keep them both alive. And *here*.
  65. >Sweetie Belle *must* find her friends.
  66. >And Diamond Tiara... she needs help.
  67. >You can feel her guilt every time she opens her mouth.
  68. >Every time she raises her head. With every single thing she does.
  69. >You don't have any faith she would manage on her own.
  70. >There must be something.
  71. "That is all I have to report. Was there anything else I can help you with, sir?"
  72. >You have to find a way to get the music out of your head.
  73. >It's making it hard to think.
  74. >Your own thoughts, your instincts even - at times - are overpowered by a swelling of sound.
  75. >Even now, as you try to push back the music, a piano joins the orchestra. A new set of strings on a slightly different pitch than all the others.
  76. >And there *are* others.
  77. >So many more than what you had been hearing just a few days ago, and more every minute. From a mere handful to hundreds of instruments playing in sync with each other.
  78. >The music had... had not faded away as such... no... but...
  79. >It had come to be natural.
  80. >You heard it when you needed it, but were able to let it slide into the background when you had to focus on other things. But these last few days...
  81. >"I said you can go," Sterling barks.
  82. "Oh, sorry. Thank you, sir."
  83. >You turn to leave.
  84. >"Are you..."
  85. >You sigh internally.
  86. >Of course.
  87. >"... okay?"
  88. >What.
  89. >"You seem... you don't seem great."
  90. "Thank you for your concern, sir."
  91. >You look back and try to give him a reassuring smile, to not look week.
  92. "I'll be fine."
  93. >Why...?
  94. >Why did he have to ask now?
  95. >Why did he have to look like he truly cared about you?
  96. >A booming rumble drives those questions out of your head.
  97. >A new drum. A large one.
  98. >Beating steadily like a slow heartbeat.
  99. >Like your father's heart when you were a child and would rest your head on his chest.
  100. >Full and powerful.
  101. >Sterling isn't your problem now.
  102. >You need...
  103. >Many things. Different things.
  104. >That aren't here.
  105. >You need...
  106. >First things first.
  107. >You need to see if Derpy has come back.
  108. >Then...
  109. >Maybe you'll take one of your suppressants.
  110. >You...
  111. >This is too much.
  112. >You make your way to the common area you share with the other mares here.
  113. >And that's as far as you can get.
  114. >The rolling thunder of cymbals that don't exist makes your legs quiver.
  115. >There's an empty seat.
  116. >You take it.
  117. >Try to listen to the others.
  118. >To let their voices drown out the orchestra in your head.
  119. >You'll get used to it. You will. And you would never wish for it to be gone, ever again.
  120. >You *need* it.
  121. >*Everypony* needs it.
  122. >But right now, it's just too much. Too sudden.
  123. >"-are you sure?" you hear one of the mares gasp.
  124. >You close your eyes and focus on that voice, even if the actual words don't sink in.
  125. >"She's missing? How did you hear?"
  126. >"When I was out last night. Double Dip told me she has seen Oil Base in two days - and they *always* meet up every night."
  127. >"Oh stars," one of the mare's gasps. "Do you think...?"
  128. >"What?"
  129. >"That the sheriff or his men..."
  130. >"I hope not. Probably. Don't think about it."
  131. >You try not to either.
  132. >Your hooves are full already.
  133.  
  134. "Before y'all go, Ah got somethin' Ah gotta ask."
  135. >"Do we want breakfast?" Karl asks. "I was wondering when you'd offer. I nice home-cooked meal from a nice lady -"
  136. >Other Carl - with a 'c' - gives him a shove but that don't take the crooked smile off his face none.
  137. >"Give it a rest, you *know* she's not interested."
  138. >Well... maybe some other time you'd've found the attention flatterin', but...
  139. >You give a little snort.
  140. >The men from the construction crew ain't gonna be 'round forever, an' you ain't that kind of mare.
  141. >Never really got a chance to find out the kind you are, but you know it ain't that.
  142. >Y'don't take no offence though, either at the flirtin' or the rescue.
  143. >"I'm not complaining about the pay, you understand. I *love* the fresh food, but I'm just tired of having to cook my own eggs," Karl sighs an' throws up his hands like he always does when he's playin' 'round. "And you - *you* keep burning them, Carl, so -"
  144. "Tell y'what -"
  145. >If it weren't such a sight, you'd feel bad 'bout gigglin' like a filly.
  146. "Y'all're really helpin' us out, so Ah can talk to Roma an' see if she's got time -"
  147. >"Yes," the Carls answer at the same time. "Please."
  148. >Really *don't* feel bad for gigglin' like you do.
  149. "Okay then, Ah'll talk to her."
  150. >You do a quick look 'round an' count.
  151. >There's twelve - no, there's Shawn standin' way over there where he don't gotta talk to nopony or even pretend you exist.
  152. >Never thought you'd see him again after his first big argument with Sand Bag, but hunger can make anypony - or human - do things he'd never believe.
  153. >In this case, put 'side his hatred an' help out.
  154. >That makes thirteen today.
  155. >Thirteen of Jack's crew waitin' for y'all to finish up watchin' the sunrise an' get to work.
  156. >More'n usual.
  157. >Always a lil' different every mornin', who's here to help out.
  158. >Y'know it depends on their workload down at the road an' how many don't got work've their own they gotta do.
  159. "Why don't you two do me a favor an' ask 'round to see if the rest of the folks want the same? Ah'm sure Roma'll be able to whip up breakfast for those've you that're interested."
  160. >"And if she's too busy?" Carl asks.
  161. "Then Ah guess..."
  162. >Don't know how it looks to them, but you wink.
  163. "- Ah'll just have to cook for you."
  164. >They laugh.
  165. >Well. Whatever. Y'were just playin' 'round like Karl was.
  166. >Cookin' up a meal for a bunch've hungry folks don't mean nothin' except you're returnin' a favor.
  167. "Can't promise it'll be all that good, but at least it'll be better'n Sweetie Belle'd do. Ah *can* promise that!"
  168. >"Sweetie Belle?" Karl asks, with a wiggle of his eyebrows that DON'T MEAN NOTHIN' WHOLESOME. "I haven't met her. Could you..."
  169. >Don't realize the expression you're makin' 'til he stops talkin' with a sad look on his face and Carl puts a hand on his shoulder.
  170. >You shake away your frown an' his fumbled apology.
  171. "Ain't like that."
  172. >"I didn't know, I'm -"
  173. "Nah, Ah just said it ain't like that."
  174. >Y'do your best to smile.
  175. "She's fine. In town somewhere, Ah hope. Just haven't seen her in a while is all."
  176. >Won't be too much longer.
  177. >Can't ever forget what she said on the TV, what you saw when you stayed the night with Scootaloo.
  178. >She's comin'. She's here for you.
  179. >Y'all are all gonna be together again soon.
  180. >Thought of it almost makes you wanna cry, for how long it's been an' for how happy you're gonna be.
  181. >"Oh," Carl gasps. "Good. Still -"
  182. "Ah'm the one what brought her up. Don't got nopony for myself to blame if it makes me sad for a bit. Now y'all get on to work an' Ah'll ask Roma 'bout cookin' up those eggs for you. Guessin' you want your bread toasted up too, or -"
  183. >Karl nods, but Carl holds up a hand.
  184. >"Wait, didn't you mean to ask us something?"
  185. "Oh, dang! Yeah, there's a rumor goin' 'round that y'all might have to head out soon? Is that true?"
  186. >The two men exchange awkward looks.
  187. >Yeah, that's a yes.
  188. >DANG.
  189. >An' just when everything's goin' so *well*!
  190. >"That's the thing," Carl sighs, "We don't know how much longer we can help out here, which is why so many of us came today. Might be our last chance to earn some eggs and bread."
  191. "What's goin' on?"
  192. >"Jack is getting a lot of pressure to speed things up."
  193. "So that gov'ment asshole can look better?"
  194. >He shakes his head.
  195. >"No. Well, probably, but that wouldn't phase him."
  196. >"We're needed out West," Karl says. "There's some serious stuff going down and from what we're hearing Princess Cadence won't allow us to move our troops through the portals."
  197. "Well... Ah don't mean to start nothin', but -"
  198. >"No, no, that's fair," Karl cuts you off. "I can see why she wouldn't trust us, even with the cease-fire, but that means there are a lot of roads and bridges that we've got to shore up so we can get soldiers into California."
  199. >That... don't really mean much to you.
  200. >You've heard 'bout it - same as you'd heard 'bout the Peaks of Peril back in Equestria, but still don't mean nothin'.
  201. "What's goin' on there?"
  202. >"They're trying to secede," Carl growls.
  203. "They don't wanna be part of this country no more?"
  204. >"*Some* don't. Unfortunately, they're the ones in power."
  205. >He shakes his head an' sighs deep.
  206. >"Never thought I'd see this happening in my own country."
  207. >"Jack is going to be pushing us hard from here on," Karl says, puttin' a comfortin' hand on his friend's shoulder, "so we'll only be able to come up to help in the evenings, if that. Mostly. Might still be a day here or there where some of us are free."
  208. "Well..."
  209. >The whole California thing still don't mean much to you, but you can see it's troublin' them.
  210. "... Ah wish you'd said somethin' to us earlier. If y'all need help, Ah'm sure -"
  211. >Karl shakes his head.
  212. >"Thanks for the offer, but -"
  213. >Y'swirl 'round 'fore you even hear the sound of little foals' hooves stampeding your way, 'fore they can start callin' your name.
  214. >Their panicked voices are a rollin' wall of noise, shoutin' out for every mare or stallion they see.
  215. >You run their way.
  216. "What's goin' on!?"
  217. >There's Mica - an' sure as the sun shines you know he's the one behind all this.
  218. "Where were y'all!? What'd -"
  219. >"I thought we might get our cutie marks!" he shouts out, seein' your eyes on him. "That's why we snuck out while everypony else -"
  220. >One've the fillies grabs him by the mouth an' holds tight.
  221. >You'd laugh if they weren't all so panicked - an' not just 'bout whatever mischief he was 'bout to confess to.
  222. >"We saw something!" the filly yells over Mica's muffled voice. "Come quick!"
  223. "Where?"
  224. >"Down by the road!"
  225. >Your hooves are already movin'.
  226. >Wouldn't be nothin' to make the foals act like this.
  227. >They've all seen there share of troubles.
  228. >Foals come runnin' along, an' some've the adults too.
  229. >Carl, too. An' Karl.
  230.  
  231. "Beige sheets?"
  232. >You look up and down the aisle.
  233. >This might be the biggest store in town, but it still doesn't have a huge selection.
  234. >Not like the stores you'd been to in the cities.
  235. >Or back in Equestria, where a pony would have a whole shop dedicated to just one or two things, depending on their talents.
  236. >Not one aisle.
  237. >For *all* bedding.
  238. >No, that's not fair.
  239. >There's another with blankets and comforters.
  240. >"Might as well," Dr. Alda - no, *Daniel* agrees.
  241. >You aren't at work yet.
  242. >This is work *related*, but it's not *work*.
  243. >Sometimes it's so hard to separate the two.
  244. >You close your eyes and clamp down on those stray thoughts.
  245. >*Daniel.*
  246. >You husband's name is Daniel and you are *not* going to let yourself think otherwise until you're at the clinic.
  247. >Though you're both dressed for work... and going there right after, but...
  248. >No!
  249. >Not until you're there.
  250. >It's easier this time.
  251. >It's growing easier every day.
  252. >"Well?"
  253. >HECK.
  254. >What were you doing?
  255. >Daniel nudges you with his thigh.
  256. "What?"
  257. >"Change your mind?"
  258. >Right. The sheets.
  259. "No. Beige is fine."
  260. >You grab two sets off the shelf and toss them in the shopping cart.
  261. >Just two.
  262. >Daniel never was able to get clarification on the third pony and you'd talked him into holding off on preparing anything for her.
  263. >Why waste the clinic funds if it was just a mistake?
  264. >A mistake that *was* made on every email he got, but...
  265. >No, don't start second-guessing yourself now.
  266. >He wants to be as prepared as possible and you agree. Usually.
  267. >But sometimes... sometimes you've got to keep him in check.
  268. >You worked hard to convince him to hold onto that money for now. And -
  269. >"Or maybe we should get two different colors, because -"
  270. >You shake your head.
  271. "I'm sure it'll be fine. I don't know know what their accommodations were like with Dr. Stiers, but here they'll just have to make do with beige sheets and our guest room."
  272. >"You mean my den."
  273. "*You* mean my reading room."
  274. >The two of you stare off for a few seconds before laughing.
  275. >"I guess it doesn't matter if we never got around to setting it up for either," Daniel snorts.
  276. "No, we never had time..."
  277. >"We've been in this house for..." he has to count it off on his fingers "... almost three years now."
  278. >You shrug.
  279. "And somehow we never had time."
  280. >"We might now, with two extra doctors."
  281. "But we won't have the room anymore."
  282. >Daniel runs his hand through his short beard and mumbles under his breath.
  283. "Mind repeating that so I can hear it?"
  284. >"Well, I was just wondering, do Quality Control and Informed Consent really need to stay with us? What if we turned one of the exam rooms at the clinic into a bedroom for them."
  285. "Nooooo, we can't do that!"
  286. >"But -"
  287. "You know we can't. It's not polite. Besides..."
  288. >"What?"
  289. >You drop your voice and look around.
  290. >There's no one around, but you still take a second to word things carefully.
  291. "... you know we can't. It wouldn't be safe."
  292. >"Nonsense."
  293. "Leaving them alone? At night?"
  294. >"They wouldn't be alone," Daniel snorts. "We *do* have a night crew. All human, too, so they wouldn't be 'unattended'."
  295. >He flips his hands in some nonsensical gesture like that means something.
  296. >"On a more practical level, they would always be on hand for emergencies."
  297. >You firm yourself up and stand as straight and tall as you can.
  298. >That puts your chin somewhere on the level with his belly button instead of glaring down angrily as it would have at idiot doctors back home, but it's the posture that counts.
  299. "That would be a mistake and you know it."
  300. >"Because -"
  301. "You *know* why."
  302. >Doc - *Daniel* nods slowly.
  303. >"Didn't really mean it, you know," he says, turning away slightly to grab some pillows off the top shelf.
  304. "I know."
  305. >"They probably wouldn't cause in hassle at the clinic."
  306. "Do you want to risk it?"
  307. >"... noooo," he sighs. "Fine. But it would be more practical in emergencies."
  308. "We live five minutes away, Daniel."
  309. >"Five minutes might make a difference in a real emergency."
  310. "Daniel..."
  311. >"Okay, okay!" he surrenders, holding his hands up. "They'll stay with us. Now, should we get a third set of bedding, in case..."
  312.  
  313. >Bellowing trumpets drown out everything for a moment.
  314. >They're short-lived but leave your head aching and ears ringing.
  315. >Even though they aren't real.
  316. >"I think I'll turn him down," you hear, once you *can* hear, "if he asks again."
  317. >It takes you a more than a moment to identify the voice.
  318. >Too long.
  319. >It's easier to open your eyes and glance over at the voice.
  320. >Gilded Lily gives you a little smile as she sits down next to you, before turning her head away.
  321. >"I mean, it was fun," she continues, "but three outings in almost as many nights? I didn't know what to expect and it was great and all, but..."
  322. >"Yeah," another of the mares agrees. "That's a bit much. Is he trying to romance you or something?"
  323. >"I don't know," Gilded murmurs. "Maybe. He doesn't seem to have a marefriend."
  324. >"*Girl*friend," the other mare corrects. "Most of the men that come to us aren't really into ponies, or they would have bought one for themselves already."
  325. >Not entirely true.
  326. >Some of the Stable's clients just like *variety*.
  327. >But you keep your mouth shut.
  328. >Gilded Lily's murmured "oh" sounds quite disappointed enough as it is.
  329. >If she has hope her client is trying to take her away from all this, how can you steal that away from her?
  330. >"Besides," the other mare continues, "always leave 'em wanting or they'll get bored with you. Some of them like the chase and want you to fall in love with them. That's why *I* usually stop for the week once I hit my quota."
  331. >"And *that* is why you share a room with four other ponies," a new voice growls. "If you want anything good in life, you have to work for it. Do a little extra."
  332. >"I'm happy with three meals a day and a roof over my head," the other laughs back.
  333. >It sounds almost like a chime.
  334. >"Besides," she carries on, "a few of my clients like to take me shopping, so..."
  335. >"When's the last time they bought you anything good?"
  336. >"You mean jewellery? Gadgets? That kind of crap? Heck no, give me a nice blanket to curl up in any day."
  337. >A sigh of imagined comfort, echoed swiftly by a sigh of disgust from the other mare.
  338. >"Wait, really? Gilded Lily jumps back in. "Your customers take you *shopping*?"
  339. >"Sometimes," the pair answer, just a heartbeat out of unison.
  340. >"Changing your mind about turning him down?" one giggles. "I mean..."
  341. >Beside you, Gilded Lily shakes her head.
  342. >"No way. I... I don't think it's safe right now. I mean, when was the last time either of you went out?"
  343. >"Last week," one answers.
  344. >"Okay," the other sighs, "I admit, it's been a while. You new girls have caught everyone's attention."
  345. >Gilded nods slowly.
  346. >"I've seen way too many deputies out. It's..."
  347. >How much have they told her?
  348. >Come to think of it, how much did you? It's hard to remember. Did she -
  349. >"... it's not safe," Gilded repeats. "I saw two of them attack another pony at a park."
  350. >You look up, not just out of the corner of your eye, but up and alert - the pain and music suddenly pushed to the back of your mind.
  351. >There are more than a hoofful of mares lounging about the room. Some positioned to be watching the TV, some caught flipping through magazines.
  352. >All waiting for the diner to open. For breakfast, to get started filling their quotas...
  353. >Except they're not looking at the TV or their magazines or even at the pony they had been speaking to just seconds earlier in their own quiet conversations.
  354. >They're all staring at Gilded.
  355. >Waiting.
  356. >You take it all in, look them all over, though you can't put a name to a single face.
  357. >All except Gilded, they seem... in shadow. No... fuzzy.
  358. >It's you. You *know* it's you.
  359. >The drums in your head, the strings in your ears - a new... is that... a *guitar*?
  360. >When did that...?
  361. >You shake your head.
  362. >It doesn't help much, but it brings your thoughts back to the moment instead of being lost wherever they were going.
  363. "Really?"
  364. >Gilded nods.
  365. "They were beating a pony?"
  366. >Again, she nods.
  367. "In public?".
  368. >In private, alone, that would be no surprise, but with witnesses?
  369. >Out in the open?
  370. >That hasn't happened in...
  371. >*When*?
  372. "Was his owner there? What... what *happened*?"
  373. >Gilded shrug.
  374. >"I only noticed when he started screaming. They were hitting him with batons until... I guess it was his... *owner*?... did... *something*?"
  375. >She sighs.
  376. >"I don't know. I... didn't want to... I mean, I was on a job, so... my client takes priority and..."
  377. >Gilded laughs. Nervously.
  378. >"I, um, I looked away and tried to focus on... I mean, I had a client. And if they had seen me watching, then..."
  379. "You did the right thing."
  380. >She smiles, but it's not sincere.
  381. >It doesn't match the shadows in her eyes at all.
  382. >"Not surprising, I guess," a mare on the other sofa adds. "They're all fucking assholes."
  383. >"Really?" the pony beside her asks, giving her companion a shove with her hoof. "I always thought J.D. was pretty cute, don't you think so? And he was nice to -"
  384. >"- to Diamond Tiara? *Really*? You saw what happened to her."
  385. >A moment of silence, followed by nodding and a sigh.
  386. >"And it wasn't *just* that," Gilded continues a bit later. "I saw them a few other times. I..."
  387. >She leans over, almost putting her mouth to your ear.
  388. >"... I gave the letter to somepony," she whispers, "but I haven't seen -"
  389. >"We can hear you, you know."
  390. >Gilded grimaces.
  391. "It's okay. It's not a secret."
  392. >She hesitates, then nods and sits up.
  393. >"I haven't seen Derpy," Gilded finishes. "Not at all, any of the times I've gone out. And... we were mostly in public, so..."
  394. >She shrugs.
  395. >"I don't know. Maybe that's normal. But I..."
  396. >The other two - and you - shake your heads.
  397. >"... oh."
  398. "She's always out, doing her rounds."
  399. >"I usually see her," one of the mares agrees. "Unless... you know. If he just wants to fuck at his home, or..."
  400. >"Oh."
  401. "Unless... unless she was hurt. Or her pastor -"
  402. >It seems so wrong to call him her owner.
  403. "- doesn't think it's safe to let her do her rounds."
  404. >"When is it ever?" a mare laughs.
  405. "Then less safe than usual. Normally the sheriff and his deputies leave her alone."
  406. >A sea of nodding heads.
  407. >Each and every one out of sync with the beat playing through your soul, save Gilded's.
  408. >"Hey," the mare closest to the TV says suddenly, sitting up straight, "do y'all think it's because Master Sterling kicked the sheriff's men out?"
  409. "He did?"
  410. >All eyes back on you.
  411. >"You don't know?" Gilded murmurs. "I thought -"
  412. "I'm not running things anymore. I... I've been busy. Did Sterling really..."
  413. >"For a week or two at least," a mare by the card table answers when a moment of silence shows nopony else will. "He said they had to stay clear of here and he'd let them know when they were welcome back."
  414. "That's..."
  415. >Unbelievable.
  416. >Impossible.
  417. >Amazing.
  418. >They never tipped well, but they *paid* well.
  419. >Paid for the damage they did.
  420. >Why?
  421. >Why would Sterling... and why didn't he tell you?
  422. >Because you're supposed to be busy with your music.
  423. >But *why*?
  424. >Why does he suddenly *care*?
  425. >There's a flurry of hopefully, upbeat violin strokes - a frantic and inspiring solo set against a backdrop of -
  426. >Or is it just to keep his slaves healthy and in good condition so he can sell them?
  427. >- silence.
  428.  
  429. >Before you get to the actual road, Mica's hollerin' an' pointin' off towards the fields.
  430. >"Over there now!"
  431. >Takes you a minute to see what he's tryin' to show you.
  432. >Shouldn't have - ground's bare, ain't no trees save what's down by the road, but it's so unexpected you were blind to it for a minute.
  433. >Cuttin straight through the fields is a mare you don't recognize at all - an' you know all the ponies hereabouts.
  434. >That ain't right, an' that makes your hooves slow as you try to ponder it out.
  435. >She's young - younger'n you, at least.
  436. >Ain't no filly, for sure, but still young.
  437. >She from the Steffords'?
  438. >Maybe one've the crew that's been helpin' out with buildin' the rest stop down the road?
  439. >Nah. Probably not. All've them were from Ponyville, far as you remember.
  440. >Ones that weren't were in Camp Hope Springs, fairly sure.
  441. >An' she's comin' down the road from the opposite way.
  442. >Rest stop's some distance the other direction.
  443. >She from the Andersons' up the road then?
  444. >Whole body tenses up as all the reasons that might be run through your mind.
  445. >But nah, shouldn't be.
  446. >Their ponies were all from the same camp too, an' you're sure you wouldn've heard if they'd brought in some new ponies.
  447. >They ain't got their ponies on as tight a leash as the Steffords an' some of the ponies here like to meet up at the property line to chat some nights, despite it bein' one heck of a walk.
  448. >Ain't no smoke comin' off from that way either.
  449. >Nah, somethin' bout this ain't right at all.
  450. >Your eyes drop from the skyline back to the mare.
  451. >She's hurt, can see that well enough.
  452. >Scratches 'long her flank stand out. The dried blood don't exactly blend in with her yellow coat.
  453. >Not bad, nothin' worse'n you'd sometimes find yourself with after a day've hard work, but they stand out.
  454. >No, not bad, but nothin' you wouldn't get taken care of.
  455. >That's for sure.
  456. >It's flat, too, her coat. Dull an' lifeless. Not the gloss you'd expect from a pony who'd worked herself dead tired.
  457. >No lather on that coat of hers, not a bit of sweat at all.
  458. >Ain't it ain't just the cold.
  459. >She's dehydrated.
  460. >Her grey mane an' tail are a dreadful mess, tangled an' knotted with bits of twig an' leaves mixed in.
  461. >Hooves cracked, one bad 'nough it's bleedin'.
  462. >She's too tired *not* to walk on it, though every few steps she 'members at the last second an' don't put no weight on it.
  463. >And most unsettlin' of all...
  464. >She's smilin'.
  465. >She's lookin' at you an' all the others an' she's smilin'.
  466. >"I think she needs help," Mica whispers, "but I... I remember what you told me about strangers. Did I -"
  467. "You did the right thing gettin' me, now run on back with your friends. Get... get somepony to go on up to the house. Ah think we'll need the truck."
  468. >"But I -"
  469. "Don't argue, Mica."
  470. >Say it firmer than you mean to, but it keeps him quiet an' he don't argue.
  471. >Or that's what you think at first, but nothin' in this world or Equestria could keep him silent for long.
  472. >"Should I ask someone to bring Hematite?"
  473. >Least he ain't arguin'.
  474. >"She's hurt."
  475. >Fair question. *Good* question.
  476. >But you don't know this mare. You don't know what's goin' on here.
  477. "No, we'll bring the stranger to her."
  478. >You pat his head an' -
  479. >He deserve the whole truth.
  480. "Somethin' ain't right 'bout this, Mica. Ah'm worried."
  481. >- an' you give him a flick of the hoof to his rump to get him runnin'.
  482. >You look left an' right.
  483. >The rest of the foals take after him, though some need a little encouragement from the adults.
  484. >Others got the same looks on their faces as you prolly do, even the humans. Some of 'em.
  485. >Some look like if they had weapons, they'd be holdin' 'em ready.
  486. >You know that look.
  487. >An' you thought you were gettin' to know some've these men.
  488. >Can't fault 'em.
  489. >Been years since trouble found its way out this far, but you ain't ever gonna forget it.
  490. >Ain't likely to ever think on it, either.
  491. >Even Stefford had said to cut down that tree after what Humans First did to it.
  492. >But this mare...
  493. >Everypony's slowed down to match your pace, 'cept the stranger.
  494. >She's walkin' fast as her legs can, tryin' to climb up the slight incline to the path you an' the rest are all standin' on.
  495. >An' still smilin' even as she forgets to keep her cracked hoof off the ground an' winces.
  496. >Can hear the hiss as she sucks in air at the pain of it, but that don't get her to slow down one speck.
  497. >In a few more steps, she's all but galloping your way.
  498. >Cut the distance in half from when you first saw her by now.
  499. "Hold up there an' rest your hoof."
  500. >She looks up - head might've been pointed your way, but she hadn't been *lookin*.
  501. >Hadn't really seen you, not 'til you called out to her.
  502. >She tries to speak, but all that comes out is a dry cough.
  503. >But she stops.
  504. >Walkin', that is.
  505. >Her smile just gets bigger an' wider.
  506. >Karl starts to step forward, but you put a hoof on his leg.
  507. >"I was just going to carry her -"
  508. >Carl puts a hand on his shoulder.
  509. >"She's hurt, Carl."
  510. >"Look at her eyes, Karl."
  511. >Now he says it...
  512. >They're open wide an' unfocused. Pupils big as your hoof.
  513. >"She's hurt," he repeats. "We should help."
  514. >"Look at her ears."
  515. >Flat back.
  516. >"Remember what happened to Royce? This mare's terrified, Karl. And she's a unicorn."
  517. >Hadn't even spotted the tip of her horn pokin' out've the birds nest she's made of her mane.
  518. >"If you go near her..."
  519. "Y'all might be scarin' her."
  520. >Karl frowns, but takes a step back.
  521. >"I get it," he mumbles, "but we aren't going to abandon you. At least *I'm* not."
  522. >He glances over to Carl, who nods.
  523. >You take a deep breath an' - an' resist the urge to look 'round.
  524. >Ain't gonna ask somepony else to do this.
  525. >Not when there ain't no reason for you not to - baby in your belly or not.
  526. >Fact is, somethin' says that's all the more reason it has to be you.
  527. >An' if you were crazy, you'd say that somethin' was the baby itself, but you ain't.
  528. >Still, you trust your instincts.
  529. >Mare's scared. Injured. But there ain't nothin' to her that makes you think you can't be friends.
  530. "How'd you get hurt?"
  531. >You take the small hill slow, givin' her all the time she needs to answer.
  532. >"I got hurt...?" the mare finally answers, once she's found 'nough mosture in her throat to clear the dust. "Oh."
  533. >She looks over her shoulder at her flank, not even seemingly aware of the leg she's got curled up tight to her barrel.
  534. >The leg that makes her lose her balance for a sec an' dance sideways, givin' you a clear look now at her flank.
  535. >At her *blank* flank, save for the scrapes and smears of dry blood.
  536. >Well, y'knew she as young.
  537. >Must've still a filly when everthing went wrong.
  538. >"Oh," she coughs. "I lost my saddlebags."
  539. >She looks sad for a moment, before laughin'.
  540. >"It doesn't matter," she barks softly. "I ran out of water days ago. I didn't think it would take this long to get here."
  541. >She coughs 'gain, dry an' painful to hear.
  542. >"I am here, right? I'm here, aren't I?"
  543. "Depends entirely on where you were goin', but wherever that is Ah think you should take a rest here."
  544. >Can only pray she ain't leadin' trouble to your doorstep, but you can't turn her away.
  545. >"Where's my jacket...? Oh, right. I got hot and... and..."
  546. >She looks 'round.
  547. >"... I took it off, but..."
  548. >A true friend helps a friend in need, an' she's in need for certain.
  549. >"... I'm cold. It's cold."
  550. >No matter the circumstances that put her here.
  551. "Ah think you lost your jacket too, but don't you worry. We got a truck comin' an' we'll get you a nice spot by the cookin' stove, okay? Nice an' warm."
  552. >"No, I can't. Not unless I'm here. The ponies..."
  553. >She half-heartedly jerks her head to gesture back up the road the way she came.
  554. >"... they said I had to keep walking."
  555. >How could they -
  556. >"They said the mare I was looking for was on the next farm. Am I there? Or... did... did I walk too far?"
  557. >Her smile drops for a sec, 'til you shake your head.
  558. "If you're talkin' 'bout the Andersons, we're the next farm down from them. An' the only place past us'd be the Steffords."
  559. >That puts her crazy smile back on her face.
  560. "You were lookin' for us? Why?"
  561. >"My name's Oil Base. I heard I could get my cutie mark here."
  562.  
  563. "Beets?"
  564. >"Just eat them," Roma sighs. "They're good for you."
  565. "I know, but... *beets*? For breakfast?"
  566. >"Don't argue."
  567. >You weren't planning to.
  568. >Not after she came all the way up here to cook your breakfast for you.
  569. >It's her job, but...
  570. >... you don't know.
  571. >It was her job, but things are different now.
  572. >You don't know.
  573. >Besides, it smells kind of tasty.
  574. >Beets and eggs.
  575. >But only two eggs.
  576. "We're starting to run low on food, aren't we?"
  577. >"Some," Roma admits as she turns away to start washing dishes. "We have plenty of rice, beans, and oats, but paying those workers in food is starting to take a toll on some of our other supplies."
  578. "Good thing String Bean's garden seems to be taking off."
  579. >You can *hear* her roll her eyes.
  580. >"He's just planted the things. They haven't even sprouted yet."
  581. "I know, but... I have hope."
  582. >"He's never done this kind of stuff before," Roma smirks. "Everypony is trying to help out when they have time, but..."
  583. "I still have hope."
  584. >"It'll be fine. We picked up plenty of rosemary and salt on that last trip. We'll manage to keep the food interesting with those."
  585. >She drops a pan into the sink.
  586. >"Mind if I wash these tonight? I can get them when I come back to -"
  587. "Yeah, that's fine. But I'll be eating dinner at the worksite tonight. Jack and his guys are doing a little grilling and invited me to join them."
  588. >Roma pauses, up on two legs and balancing against the sink with another.
  589. >And shrugs.
  590. >"Then I might as well do these now."
  591. "Or tomorrow morning. Or I can -"
  592. >"I'll do them now," she insists. "Go eat before your food gets cold."
  593. "'kay."
  594. >It *does* smell good.
  595. >And you don't have time to argue.
  596. >Big day. Lots of things to do.
  597. >You start by taking your plate to the living room and chowing down while watching the morning news.
  598. >Fluff pieces, mostly.
  599. >A little about the weather, but nothing you didn't already know.
  600. >You're about to get up and take your empty plate back to the kitchen when it cuts to something a little more interesting.
  601. >Something about the Marshalls running some investigations into pony abuse nationwide.
  602. >Ponies who slipped through the cracks.
  603. >Possible corruption in the Pony Relocation Agency.
  604. >Well, that's good.
  605. >They're about to go into details about a raid in Oregan and the charges against a local Agency official when the clop of hooves running up the stairs.
  606. >You're on your feet before they hit the deck.
  607. >They still make it to the front door before you.
  608. >It slams open with a crash.
  609.  
  610. "Alright!"
  611. >You slam the truck's door shut.
  612. "Let's get her inside the dorm!"
  613. >Full Steam hops out of the bed as soon as you let the gate down and starts gesturing for this new pony to come over to the edge.
  614. >"Just climb onto my back," he tells her. "I'll carry you."
  615. >It's awkward, watching her try to move.
  616. >Seems like everything just hit her all of a sudden once Apple Bloom and the others had helped her into the truck.
  617. >Like she could allow herself to feel the pain of her injuries now that she didn't have to keep walking.
  618. >She groans as she tries to edge herself to the end of the tailgate.
  619. "Need some help?"
  620. >She's going to say no, of course. She's a runaway - what else could she be? - and there's probably a good reason for that.
  621. >You aren't surprised when she nods.
  622. >Of course she doesn't want a human to -
  623. >She nodded?
  624. >Oh.
  625. >You lean over the tailgate and stretch out your arms to her.
  626. >She's not shy. She doesn't flinch away from your touch.
  627. >And she's not starving either. You wouldn't hazard a guess at when the last time she ate was, but despite her relatively small frame she's still heavy enough you're happy to put her on Full Steam's back instead of trying to carry her in yourself.
  628. >And besides... just the idea of it makes you shiver and remember -
  629. >There's blood smeared on your shirt.
  630. >But you try not to panic.
  631. >It's not like Silver Spoon.
  632. >This mare just has a few scrapes on her side.
  633. >It's not bad.
  634. >Not much blood.
  635. >And it's not your fault.
  636. >But it still brings back the memories you had thought you could avoid.
  637. >You shiver in place a moment before pushing them to the back of your mind.
  638. >Can't let your guilt paralyze you.
  639. >No.
  640. >You can panic later. When you're back home. In bed.
  641. >In your nightmares, if you have to.
  642. >But right now?
  643. >You keep your shit together.
  644. >No other choice.
  645. >This is just as serious, in its own way.
  646. >Her life may not be at immediate risk, but she's bringing danger to your farm.
  647. >Couldn't get much out of her before getting her into the truck, but you can figure that much out on your own.
  648. >She's on the run from something.
  649. >You look back the way you'd come.
  650. >No real reason. Not really looking for anything. Don't expect to see the sheriff coming your way trying to find a runaway pony.
  651. >Not yet, anyway.
  652. >Maybe hoping Apple Bloom was close enough you could pass this on to her. Maybe...
  653. >The group that had met you down in the fields is still some ways off.
  654. >Of course they are.
  655. >A truck is so much faster than a pony can walk.
  656. >But - you look over at the crowd that's gathered, the ponies that had stayed here instead of running off to check on what the foals had found.
  657. >Nervously milling about.
  658. >Or eagerly.
  659. >This pony is another new face - another new friend.
  660. >They all want to meet her, you can *feel* it.
  661. >But...
  662. >You sigh and close the tailgate.
  663. >Moondancer is among the herd, talking with one of the foals.
  664. >Not working on that sale she promised she could make with Silver's help.
  665. >You could...
  666. >Do your damn job instead of asking her to take over.
  667. >You can fall apart later. It's just a little blood.
  668. "Go on, everyone."
  669. >You wave for the ponies to head out.
  670. "Day's just starting and we've all got a lot to do. Hematite? Are you -"
  671. >"She's inside getting ready," some pony calls out from the crowd.
  672. "Good. You all can meet the new pony after Hematite has looked her over and she's had a chance to get some rest."
  673. >Doesn't satisfy every pony, but they don't argue.
  674. >You don't give them a chance to.
  675. "Stay safe, everyone. This might keep Hematite busy for a while so be careful."
  676. >Not everyone moves out immediately, but they get started on their way.
  677. >Most towards the construction sites, some back to the laundry or whatever other duties they have for the day.
  678. >A few even wave to you as they go.
  679. >You wave back.
  680. >Take a deep breath.
  681. >And go inside the dorm.
  682. >Just the first building - you don't have to move on to the next.
  683. >Part of the dining area has been turned into a little hospital.
  684. >A very little hospital, near the stoves.
  685. >It keeps them warm - warmer than any of the other halls.
  686. >Hematite had insisted.
  687. >Who are you to argue?
  688. >It's working. Most of the injured are back on their hooves in a day or two.
  689. >Of the eight cots, only four are occupied.
  690. >Nor'east broke a leg when he fell. He waves as he sees you.
  691. >Upsy Daisy stepped on a nail. From how happy she seems in her sleep, you almost wonder if it was on purpose.
  692. >Treeline had a bit of an accident with a saw. Nothing serious. He looks up every couple of seconds and sighs like he wishes he could get back to work.
  693. >And...
  694. >You kneel down beside the last occupied cot.
  695. >The stranger - the runaway - lying on her side uncovered, her bloody left flank facing up.
  696. >She doesn't seem to notice you. Or much of anything, just content to lay there and grin as Hematite takes care of her injuries.
  697. >Hematite looks up as your shadow falls over her.
  698. "Is it okay if I talk to her?"
  699. >"Yeth," Hematite mumbles through the tube in her mouth. "Buh..."
  700. >She bites down, squeezing a dollop of antibiotic cream onto the mare's cracked hoof. One of them - they all seem in bad shape, but this one...
  701. >Hematite sets the tube down on the little stool she's turned into her table.
  702. >"... but she hasn't had anything to drink in several days," the filly continues as she rubs the cream in with her hooves. "Can you help her get something down?"
  703. "Sure."
  704. >"But not too much, or -"
  705. "I know. Just a little."
  706. >Hematite's smile hurts your heart, even if it only lasts a second before she turns back to the book a little green filly is holding open.
  707. >"Okay," she murmurs to herself, "I cleaned the area and applied the cream, so now..."
  708. >"The filler?" the other filly asks.
  709. >"But we don't have any," Hematite answers. "Besides..."
  710. >You make a mental note to add that to your list.
  711. >No, you don't. You'll forget. But you make a mental note to talk to Hematite later and see what she needs.
  712. >For now...
  713. "Hi."
  714. >No reaction from the mare.
  715. >You reach for the jug of water someone had brought and pour a little into a cup.
  716. >To your surprise, it's warm.
  717. >Did Hematite think of everything?
  718. >She is... *scarily* good at this.
  719. >You resist the urge to pat her head and turn your attention back to the mare.
  720. "Want some water?"
  721. >*That* gets her attention.
  722. >You hold out the glass for her to sip from, slowly tilting it for her until it's empty.
  723. >And then she looks at you.
  724. >Actually *looks* at you.
  725. "Hi. what's your name?"
  726. >"Oil Base," she croaks.
  727. "Where did you come from?"
  728. >"Town. Can I..."
  729. >You look at Hematite, but she's busy filing one of Oil Base's hooves.
  730. >You use your best judgement and give the mare a little more water.
  731. >She smiles happily as the last of it pours out of the cup.
  732. "So... you're a runaway."
  733. >Oil Base nods.
  734. >Seems easier on her than talking.
  735. >But... shit.
  736. >A runaway.
  737. >That'd definitely leading trouble to your door, if anyone thought to look out this far.
  738. >At least she's not from the Andersons or Steffords - that's some solace.
  739. >They'll probably assume she died in the dead zone. You hope.
  740. >Trouble with the law is the last thing you need when half of your ponies are off of their suppressants.
  741. >How many years would that earn you in jail?
  742. >Or would they just shoot you and every pony that tried to fight back?
  743. >Shit...
  744. >Oil Base's pained hiss draws you out of your imaginings.
  745. >She hisses again as Hematite rubs a wet cloth across the mare's bloody hip.
  746. >"Sorry," the little filly tells her, "but I have to clean this off before I - I..."
  747. >Hematite looks down at the pale yellow coat.
  748. >A couple of pinpricks of fresh blood well up, but aside from that...
  749. >"You're a blank flank!?"
  750. >"But you're an adult!"
  751. >Oil Base snorts.
  752. >"Believe it or not," she frowns, "I'm only a little older than you."
  753. >"But you're an adult."
  754. >"Okay, so I was a late bloomer!" the mare complains, followed by another hiss as Hematite wipes the fresh blood away.
  755. >"Sorry," Hematite mumbles. "I didn't mean anything. I was just surprised. Now hold still, I'm going to put some more cream on these..."
  756. >Oil Base frowns.
  757. >"I was still a filly when everything happened," she whines, "and I haven't been able to get my cutie mark since. No one has, except -"
  758. >She raises her head to look at Hematite, her eyes settling the filly's cutie mark.
  759. >"- except you."
  760. >"And String Bean!" the other filly adds.
  761. "Is that why you ran away?"
  762. >She nods.
  763. >"It's not fair. I was just about to get my cutie mark, I know it! Everyone else in my school had gotten theirs, so I *had* to be next. But then the princess died and... and..."
  764. "That's it? That's why you ran away?"
  765. >"I don't want to be a blank flank forever! I am *not* going to! I'm going to get my cutie mark!"
  766. "I've... I've got to take you back. I thought you ran away because you were being abused or were afraid for your life, but if that's all -"
  767. >"It's *everything*!" Oil Base screams, too loud for her voice to handle. It breaks and she coughs dryly until she's finished off another half cup of water.
  768. >"You *can't* take me back," she pleads. "I walked all the way out here and it was *so* far. I walked for *days*, but at - at least there wasn't any traffic so I didn't have to hide so much after I got out of town."
  769. "Well yeah, of course there's no traffic. This road doesn't go anywhere.
  770. >"It comes here."
  771.  
  772. "Better if I help, I figured. Didn't y'all say you had to get this wrapped up soon?"
  773. >Pedro grins, even though he waves you off.
  774. >"Thanks for the thought," he says, though that don't stop him from takin' the rope from you, "but you really shouldn't be doing this, miss."
  775. >He staggers a bit as the weight've the toolbox you were haulin' up to the men above catches him by surprise, but he yanks on the rope hard 'fore too much slips back through the pulley overhead.
  776. "Y'can't say this wouldn't go faster with an extra pair've hands."
  777. >He laughs.
  778. >"I'm not arguing that. But we aren't paying for your time, just your family's ponies. Besides, what if you got hurt?"
  779. >Ain't the first time you've heard that argument an' it's still as true as the first time.
  780. >You raise your hands in surrender. For now.
  781. "Okay, okay, I'll let y'all work in peace."
  782. >He makes faster work've it anyway. Farm born and raised might've made you no weakling, but Pedro can really throw is weight into haulin' on that rope like you never could.
  783. >Man's got well over a hundred pounds on you easy. Closer to two if you had to guess.
  784. >'sides...
  785. >Already got caught. *Here*.
  786. >But over *there*...
  787. >By what's supposed to be the parkin' spaces, there's a row've big, rectangular stone blocks spaced out with four feet or so between 'em.
  788. >An' a cart with five still to be placed.
  789. >Some've your ponies are workin' with a lashed-together teepee lift to get the next block off the cart an' are strugglin' with it.
  790. >*They* don't say a word otherwise when you grab onto the rope they're yankin' with their teeth an' help out.
  791. >Finally get it high enough for one've 'em to pull the cart away an' y'all start lowerin' it down slow, with Davenport holdin' it steady with his front hooves so it don't spin 'round an' stays lined up with the others they've already planted.
  792. >He gives you a grin as the block hits the dirt an' the rope goes slack.
  793. >Some've 'em are warmin' up to you a bit - or to human folk in general.
  794. >You've seen a few comfortable chats between your ponies an' the human crew here an' there.
  795. >But course learnin' their names an' callin' the ponies by 'em like real people helps, though it...
  796. >... it makes it harder to push what's been done to 'em an' all they've been through out've your mind.
  797. >Horrible what people can do to one another, ain't it?
  798. >An' while some seem willin' to forgive...
  799. >There's just as man frowns as there are smiles your way.
  800. >Just as many ponies angry for you tryin' to be their friend now as there are ones glad you're at least *tryin'*.
  801. >Some angry just 'cause, an' that's fair.
  802. >Done what you could to keep 'em safe, but that weren't always enough.
  803. >An' others... they got their reasons.
  804. >Y'don't think bad at Beauty Brass an' a few others for shyin' away from you or glarin' suspiciously when she don't think you're watchin'.
  805. >Ponies undo the straps 'round the block y'all'd just set an' pull 'em loose while others grab at the hoist an' start draggin' it over to the next spot where the cart's already waitin'.
  806. >You jump at a cough at your side.
  807. >"Sorry, miss," Jack says in his usual amiable growl, "didn't mean to startle you."
  808. "No, nah, it's fine, I'm the one that should be sorry. I should have seen you."
  809. >"No, you *should* be somewhere else," he grins, "and not at my worksite. But since you're here..."
  810. >He holds out a hand, gesturin' off a ways towards the shippin' crate that's his office.
  811. >"... can I offer you a cup of coffee?"
  812. "Well, okay, but -"
  813. >"They've already set a dozen blocks without you," Jack says, cuttin' you short. "Pretty sure they can manage another four on their own."
  814. >True enough, but still...
  815. >You frown.
  816. "Ain't gonna yell at me again, are ya?"
  817. >Jack shakes his head an' laughs.
  818. >"No, I -"
  819. >An' then he stops.
  820. >"No," he repeats, dead serious, "things were a bit rough the first few days and I had my doubts, but things have worked out.
  821. >"Don't know if it's because you keep showing up and poking around of if my men have just gotten used to drawing ponies out of their shells, but things are going better than I expected.
  822. >Even the men like Shawn who don't like ponies are doing... well, they aren't causing any trouble."
  823. "Good to hear."
  824. >"I don't want to mislead you, though. This will probably still be an uncomfortable conversation."
  825. "Just 'cause I want to help out my -"
  826. >Y'almost say 'friends', but that ain't true. At all.
  827. "- my ponies?"
  828. >Ain't a one of these ponies your friend, even if many of 'em might be growin' *friendlier*.
  829. >Not the same.
  830. >Not yet.
  831. >Damn near any've 'em would turn on you in a heartbeat if it weren't for them bein' so afraid or tired or broken. You can *feel* it.
  832. >"Well," Jack sighs, "that might be a part of it, miss. But I know you've heard the men talking about the change in our schedule because I also know they can't keep their damn mouths shut. If you'd follow me..."
  833. >Somethin's up.
  834. >He's bein' awful polite - for him.
  835. >Not the gruff bluntness you've grown to expect from Jack in the short time you've known him.
  836. >Makes you curious.
  837. >An' that, more than the sudden gust of freezin' wind drives you to take up his offer.
  838. "Alright Jack, I wouldn't mind a hot drink to warm up."
  839. >Not that you'd refuse.
  840. >Man's bein' polite. Only reasonable for you to respond in kind.
  841. >He gonna ask you to talk to your friend? Get him to lend his ponies to the cause?
  842. >Maybe convince the few hands your daddy talked into stickin' around to come down an' join in?
  843. >Don't see the first really bein' an option, what with all they're workin' on themselves.
  844. >The second... you ain't gonna let that happen. Not while you can help it.
  845. >Jack don't say a word on the walk over. Don't even look 'round like he always does, watchin' for trouble, callin' out to folks slackin' off or doin' things not *just right*.
  846. >Man seems a bit lost in his own thoughts - an' he's findin' more'n enough trouble there.
  847. >Can't hardly look at him for more'n a few steps 'fore whatever troubles he's dealin' with start to make you uncomfortable too.
  848. >So you... you look away. Wave to a few ponies that look up an' take notice of you.
  849. >Smile at the handful on break sittin' 'round a fire someone built, snackin' on their hay an' dried fruits.
  850. >Big kettle they'd put over it whistles as you pass.
  851. >It's good you an' Jack ain't the only ones havin' a warm drink.
  852. >Y'give em' a smile none see as Jack opens the door for you an' shows you in ahead of him.
  853. >His office looks much the same as before, to your eyes at least.
  854. >You try to look 'bout, here an' there an' anywhere but at Jack as he pours the two've you coffee an' has a seat behind his desk.
  855. >That don't make you any less uneasy.
  856. >You take the other seat with a bit of hesitation.
  857. >He gonna ban you from the worksite?
  858. >Well within' his rights.
  859. >You like to think you're helpin', but -
  860. >"Look miss, I'm going to level with you here," Jack sighs. An' sighs again for good measure. "We're *fucked*."
  861. >He scowls so hard into his mug've coffee it's a minor miracle it don't boil over in his hands.
  862. >"This rest stop is a good idea, a good spot and it'll serve a good purpose, but..."
  863. "But?"
  864. >"... it's little more than a vanity project for a handful of shitstains," Jack growls.
  865. "Y'mean Timmons?"
  866. >"Among others. I'm not saying this rest stop wouldn't be a good thing to have here, but it's not a priority. Things have come up."
  867. "California?"
  868. >He nods.
  869. >"This should have been a six-month project. Longer, but we're used to building on a short deadline and I honestly expected to bring it in under time - if we got everything we were promised."
  870. >He sneers at a calendar on the near wall 'fore turnin' back to you.
  871. "An' now?"
  872. >"I've been given a month to finish it. No corners cut, no scaling back on any part of it. Like I said, it's not a priority, but..."
  873. "Someone wants a feather in their cap."
  874. >"Yeah," Jack grins.
  875. >It's not a happy smile.
  876. >More've a wince.
  877. >"If they'd asked me -"
  878. "You would have told them to go fuck themselves."
  879. >He snorts.
  880. >Then he chuckles.
  881. >"I wouldn't have said it in so few words, but yes. Not every job is worth doing perfectly, but this... it's a long drive. People will need a place to stop. And I *know* it won't be given the maintenance it needs - unless we do it right the first time."
  882. >Silence.
  883. >Is he askin'... ?
  884. >What *is* he askin'?
  885. >Ain't got a clue where this all is goin'.
  886. >An' he's busy glarin' at his coffee 'gain like it's the person behind this all.
  887. "What... uh..."
  888. >He looks up.
  889. "What would you do if it was totally up to you?"
  890. >Jack frowns - more than he always is and runs a hand through his grey beard.
  891. >Grown out quite a bit from the stubble he had when you first met, but still ain't much of an answer.
  892. "C'mon, Jack."
  893. >You shrug.
  894. "Be honest with me. Tell me what would you do."
  895. >"This is bullshit," Jack snaps. "I'd drop this project immediately."
  896. >He blinks. Scowls harder.
  897. >"Sorry, miss. I spoke without thinking. What I mean is I'd pause on this and come back later, or send in another crew to finish it when one is freed up."
  898. "What's goin' on in California is that important?"
  899. >"Yes, miss. It is."
  900. "Y'can drop the 'miss' stuff, Jack."
  901. >"No, I can't. I'm about to ask you for a big favor and that deserves a little politeness on my part."
  902. >Well that don't sound good at all.
  903. >"We've got to get this job finished. If we don't, not only will my ass be in hot water, but it'll make it harder to get funding for other civil projects - and we *need* those.
  904. >"This *country* needs those. The *people* need it. And we've got to do it right.
  905. >"It's got to stand for decades because we don't have the manpower or resources to keep coming back and fixing shit up because we did a sloppy job in the first place.
  906. >"At the same time, we've got to move on. The men are, for the most part, combat engineers. There are other crews working all over the nation, but few have the experience we do. And shit is hitting the fan. We're *needed* elsewhere."
  907. >Jack drifts off again.
  908. "Sounds like they've put you in a tough spot."
  909. >He nods.
  910. >"I'm only seeing one option here. We've got most of our materials, but we're still short on much of the machinery we were expecting.
  911. >"I don't have the manpower to make up for it, even with the ponies.
  912. >"We've learned a few tricks, gone back to some ancient ways, but none of that will help us dig a trench faster or move beams from one place to another any quicker than we already are."
  913. >He stops to run his fingers through his beard again.
  914. "You're stallin', ain't you? Is it really that bad?"
  915. >"Not something I should be asking for at all, but..."
  916. "You're in a tough spot."
  917. >"We are," he sighs. An' then goes silent again.
  918. "Then just ask."
  919. >"I want your ponies to stop taking their suppressants."
  920. >Jack's jaw drops. Then yours.
  921. >"Well *fuck*," he snarls to himself, "I was sure I'd pussy out and come up with something else. It's against the law, and... and..."
  922. >He looks up to see how you're takin' it.
  923. "But that's the truth of it?"
  924. >He starts to play with his whiskers 'gain, though he stops himself short.
  925. >Nods an' straightens up, looks you square in the eye.
  926. >"Yes miss, it is. I like to play by the rules and keep everything as above board as I can. If anyone even *heard* I suggested this..."
  927. >He sighs.
  928. >"I've seen what ponies can do.
  929. >"An earth pony at full strength can dig faster than a man with a shovel using nothing but his bare hooves.
  930. >"A unicorn - or several working together - can lift a beam into place faster than a whole team with a frame and some rope. A few of the stronger ones can even teleport things from place to place.
  931. >"Pegasi can get up to places my men can't without ladders or scaffolding. Know how much time that'd save us, even if one of the crew has to stand below her and shout out directions?
  932. >"And... I know it's possible."
  933. >He frowns. Scratches at his beard 'gain.
  934. >"Fucking shouldn't be, but it is," he sighs. "At least, that's what the guys that have been helping out your friend have been saying.
  935. >"I've heard rumors some of his ponies aren't on their suppressants and are using their abilities. They say the ponies are trying to hide it from them, but...
  936. >"It's true, isn't it? They've got their magic?"
  937. "It -"
  938. >Y'asked the man to be honest with you.
  939. >How can you not do the same?
  940. "- ain't my place to say, but..."
  941. >It's an honest answer. An' it gets the point across.
  942. >"And none of them have gone crazy?"
  943. >That you shake your head to.
  944. >"No irritability, no aggression? No violence? No rampaging or throwing themselves under a moving truck to make the pain stop or silence the noise in their head?"
  945. "Ain't seen nothin' like that, Jack."
  946. >"We tried that before, you remember?" he pushes. "At the refugee camps? When we were trying to set the pylons?"
  947. >You nod slowly.
  948. "I only heard a little on the news."
  949. >"We only tried it a little," Jack grins sadly. "It was a failure. Outright. Total fuckup.
  950. >"Some ponies could manage it for a while - and I know it's not unusual for the occasional pony to be off his meds here or there -"
  951. >You can think of a few.
  952. >"- not a big deal so long as they don't fuck around and make a show of it - but overall..."
  953. "I heard."
  954. >"... it usually goes tits up fast. And the more that are off the suppressants, the bigger the shitshow."
  955. "I know."
  956. >"It's one of the reasons the suppressants went from a necessity to absolutely, *unquestioningly* mandatory - and one of the reasons the ponies agreed to it so readily.
  957. >"But... if *his* ponies have their magic back..."
  958. >You - you stop yourself from noddin'.
  959. "If you think that's true, an' I ain't sayin' it is -"
  960. >Jack nods for you to continue. Clearly understands - an' shares - your caution here.
  961. "- then why not ask his help? Get some of his ponies an' -"
  962. >"Because they're busy," Jack answers back a l'il too fast. "And... and he doesn't really know what's going on. He doesn't understand the stakes.
  963. >"He's trying to help his ponies and give them a better life - and I'm all for that, you've got to believe me - but he doesn't truly get what's going on here.
  964. >"Not what we're doing as a nation, not... not even what he *himself* is trying to accomplish.
  965. >"But *you* - your neighbor is just a man doing his best, but *you* know what's going on. You *understand* things. I *trust* you.
  966. >"Notice how you're down here trying to help your ponies while he's... he's..."
  967. >Jack shrugs.
  968. >That's almost - no, it *is* insultin'.
  969. "He's doin' his best."
  970. >"He's doing his best," Jack nods. "It's not the same. There's a difference.
  971. >"I've seen a lot of fuckers abuse their ponies, but I've seen just as many try to do right and take care of them. What he's doing isn't revolutionary -"
  972. "Except for the magic."
  973. >"I've got a feeling that has nothing to do with that man. And I think you know it too."
  974. "He's..."
  975. >May be some truth to that.
  976. >You shrug.
  977. "All I can say is he's doing his best."
  978. >Jack nods.
  979. >"He is. That's why I'm asking you, not him."
  980. >You gotta stop an' think for a minute.
  981. >On how that ain't quite right. On how to say no. Or yes.
  982. >'bout how you haven't had a single sip of coffee yet.
  983. >It's still warm. An' bitter.
  984. >You take a second sip.
  985. >It's too bitter for a third.
  986. "I... I get what you're sayin', Jack. An' I get why you're askin' - not just me, but why you're askin' at all.
  987. "You're a pretty no-nonsense guy, aren't you?"
  988. >He nods.
  989. "And you're a man who cares about his job, but more'n that I think you care about helpin' folk an' makin' the world a better place."
  990. >"I like to think so."
  991. "Even if it is just a rest stop on a road from nowhere special to nowhere important."
  992. >"Even so. We build this, build it right, and it'll help people. Not like rebuilding a bridge would, but it might save a few lives by giving people a place to stop and rest for an hour.
  993. >"That seems worth doing right to me."
  994. >You take that third sip right about now.
  995. >Jack waits patiently.
  996. "I'd like to see this done proper, but you're right. I understand what you're askin' of us - not just me an' my family, but the ponies too."
  997. >"Doesn't have to be every pony -"
  998. "An' I wouldn't trust every pony. Much as I want to, there's..."
  999. >"I understand," Jack nods. "You don't have to explain."
  1000. "I think... I think we can consider what you're askin'."
  1001. >You say that, but you know what 'we' would say.
  1002. >Daddy would take the back of his hand to anyone that would mention such a thing.
  1003. >Then take a shotgun to any pony that he suspected hadn't been takin' their pills.
  1004. >An' damn near the whole world would agree it was the right thing to, puttin' it out've its misery 'fore it could snap an' kill someone.
  1005. >"You get we can't talk about this to anyone, right?" Jack asks. "Even if we don't do go through with it, if you so much as mention that I asked..."
  1006. "I understand. What about your crew?"
  1007. >His mouth tightens up.
  1008. >"I don't know," he admits. "We don't have much contact with the world outside our worksites, but... I don't know. I just don't see any other way to make this happen."
  1009. >Jack sighs.
  1010. >"Don't know what I'll have to promise them, but we've been together a long time. I can trust them. And the ones I can't trust...
  1011. >"You do this for me, find a way to make the magic work, help me get this done *right* and before our transports arrive, and I'll find a way to keep my crews' mouths shut.
  1012. >"I'll send them all up to help your friend if I have to, leave the worksite with just the ponies and a handful of men I can trust to keep their mouths shut.
  1013. >"And... you'll get the full payment. The full six months pay that we planned to use your ponies.
  1014. >"I know Timmons put some kind of escape clause into the contract. Right now that little shit is probably thinking about how he can use it.
  1015. >"Probably get a bonus for getting the project done under budget thanks to it, too."
  1016. >Jack growls an' shakes his head.
  1017. >"Fuck that cunt. I'll make sure he pays your family in full."
  1018. >The phone in your hip pocket buzzes.
  1019. "That sounds... more'n fair, Jack."
  1020. >Makin' some vague promises there with no clue how he's gonna back 'em up, but...
  1021. >Phone buzzes again.
  1022. >You pull it free an' silence it without lookin'.
  1023. >... he's the kind've man who gets shit done. He says he's gonna do it, he'll do it.
  1024. >You *know* it.
  1025. "But..."
  1026. >Your phone buzzes a third time an' you hit the button 'gain.
  1027. >Wait...
  1028. >Hol' on...
  1029.  
  1030. >"Better make this quick," Lauren sighs into the phone. "I'm in the middle of somethin' important."
  1031. "I know, but..."
  1032. >You shrug.
  1033. >Pointlessly.
  1034. >She can't see you; it's a phone call.
  1035. >But you still shrug.
  1036. >And you still keep pacing back and forth along your living room.
  1037. >Apple Bloom's head follows your every step, but Moondancer and Silver Spoon keep talking quietly between themselves.
  1038. >Maud just sits there on the floor, against the wall. Waiting.
  1039. "... I didn't know who else to call, Lauren. We need some advice."
  1040. >Not even Apple Bloom had the answer to this problem.
  1041. >"What's goin' on?"
  1042. "I've got a pony here..."
  1043. >"You've got a few hundred," she growls.
  1044. "Yeah, but one of them is a runaway."
  1045. >You hear some muffled swearing from her end.
  1046. >Can't quite make out the words, but the intent is obvious.
  1047. >"I'll be right there."
  1048.  
  1049. >"You serious?" Lauren sighs as she sits down on the sofa next to Silver Spoon. "You better be."
  1050. "I am."
  1051. >She puts her hand to her temple - but uses it to brush away a few loose strands of hair from her face.
  1052. >It doesn't trick anyone.
  1053. >"Today just keeps on givin'. Great."
  1054. "I guess it was a bad time. Sorry. I -"
  1055. >She waves her hand.
  1056. >"It's fine. I'll..."
  1057. "What?"
  1058. >"I'll figure it out," she mumbles. "You've got enough going on right now. Don't need to worry about my issues."
  1059. >You -
  1060. >She's... *wrong*.
  1061. >But -
  1062. >"Look," Moondancer growls, "we've got to figure out what to do with Oil Base. Now."
  1063. >Well, that's why you got all your closest friends here. To figure that out.
  1064. >Between Lauren, Moondancer, Silver Spoon, Apple Bloom, Maud, and yourself, *someone* should have an answer.
  1065. >Or at least a good idea.
  1066. >"An' figure out if we're gonna get more ponies comin' to us for help," Apple Bloom nods. "How'd she find out 'bout the cutie marks?"
  1067. >Lauren shrugs.
  1068. "The pastor?"
  1069. >You look at Lauren for her opinion, but she shakes her head.
  1070. >"Doubt it," she says. "He was warning us to be cautious about letting anyone know, so why would he tell folks himself?"
  1071. "Couldn't have been Bill. He -"
  1072. >"What makes you think it was a human?" Apple Bloom asks. "Could'a been Redheart that told her. She knows 'bout Hematite for sure. Or..."
  1073. >"Or...?" Moondancer presses.
  1074. >"Ore," Maud says firmly. Then giggles in her own stoic way.
  1075. >"Ah mean, it was probably..."
  1076. >"Derpy," three out of four ponies sigh in unison.
  1077. >Maud is still giggling to herself at her pun. You can almost see a smile on her face.
  1078. >You're not even sure how you know it was a pun, but you can't think of anything else that would make her crack up like that for so long.
  1079. >Moondancer shakes her head and sighs.
  1080. >"Can't blame her too much," Apple Bloom says and reaches from her chair across the side table to put a hoof on the other pony's shoulder. "Derpy pro'lly thought folks needed some good news, an' Ah can't think of anything better to tell 'em."
  1081. >"Except it caused this pony to run away," Lauren points out, "an' like you said, there might be more. Ain't an easy trip out here, either."
  1082. >"It is a long walk," Maud comments.
  1083. >The woman shakes her head.
  1084. >"More'n that, Maud," she says. "It's a long walk with no cover in the middle've winter. No place to stop an' sleep either, 'cept a few bushes."
  1085. "And I don't think any of them know how far it really is. Oil Base really wasn't prepared."
  1086. >"Ah don't think nopony'd be stupid enough to try an' cut through the deadzone, but..."
  1087. >You all fall silent.
  1088. "Yeah... I hope that won't happen. At least they have a chance if they stay out of there."
  1089. >"Might not have a choice," Lauren murmurs. "Might be the only way to get away if they're bein' chased."
  1090. "Shit. I hadn't thought of that, but Bill did say the sheriff's department has been more active than usual."
  1091. >Lauren looks up.
  1092. >"When'd he say that?"
  1093. "Called him after I called you. Thought I'd see if he knew about Oil Base since she wouldn't tell me anything herself."
  1094. >"An'?"
  1095. >You shake your head.
  1096. "He didn't know her personally, of course, but he's heard a little. Seems like her owner runs a little print shop in town."
  1097. >"Miller Prints?" Silver asks. "I... remember them. Not her, though."
  1098. >You nod.
  1099. "Yeah, Miller Prints. Owners have had her contract for two years now, and they've mostly kept her in the back working the printers.
  1100. "Seems they let her have a little freedom. She would meet with friends every night and her owners gave her a small weekly salary.
  1101. "No rumors of abuse or mistreatment. Treat her almost like a regular employee. As far as I can tell..."
  1102. >You shrug.
  1103. "... she really did run away just because she thought she could get her cutie mark here."
  1104. >"Well..." Lauren hums, "y'don't really got a reason to hold on to her if that's the case. If they'd been hurtin' her, then maybe you could make some kinda claim of offerin' her sanctuary, but without that you ain't got a leg to stand on."
  1105. "The suspicion right now is that Human's First got her and the sheriff is just putting on a show of looking to cover it up.
  1106. "From what Bill said, things are getting pretty rough because of it with people accusing the department of killing her.
  1107. "The deputies... aren't happy about that and are taking it out on ponies they find breaking any laws. If we return her..."
  1108. >"That *might* calm the situation there," Moondancer finishes for you, "but there's no guarantee. And there's no guarantee she won't be punished, either by the sheriff or her owners."
  1109. >"Punished?" Apple Bloom hisses. "Then we can't send her back! All she wants t'do is get her cutie mark! She nearly died to get here! We gotta -"
  1110. >"Keep a runaway?" Lauren cuts her off. "Harboring's a serious crime. Hell, might even be considered pony traffickin' if they think you were gonna sell her! The marshalls will get involved if that's the case. They might already be if they suspect she was stolen instead of runnin' away an' if anyone knows she's here -"
  1111. "The Andersons' ponies know."
  1112. >"An' Bill."
  1113. "He won't say anything."
  1114. >"Neither will anypony," Apple Bloom says, though you wish you could share her confidence.
  1115. >"Y'all can't be sure of that," Lauren groans. "Think this through. If the marshalls come, or even the sheriff, they're gonna see what else you're doin'. Ain't gonna be as simple as 'em pickin' her up, y'know. They're gonna search the farm for any other ponies they think you're harborin' an' any l'il thing you've done wrong they're gonna hit you on."
  1116. "Like?"
  1117. >She sighs and folds over, resting her head in her hands.
  1118. >"Like how half've your ponies ain't on their pills."
  1119. >Silver reaches out, but Lauren doesn't notice the leg on her back.
  1120. >"No one takes it too serious if it's just one pony here an' there so long as nothin' goes wrong - mostly 'cause it nearly always does so nobody even considers it's happenin' - but you ain't just got one or two!"
  1121. "Yeah, but -"
  1122. >"Not gonna just fine you, y'know? They're gonna say you should know better for sure, what with all that happened to your uncle. They're gonna take you to jail for abusin' your ponies an' more - an' that's if you're lucky! Worse case, someone's gonna start to wonder why nothin's goin' wrong with 'em an' scoop up the entire bunch to experiment on!"
  1123. >You expect her to go on, but instead there's just an awkward silence until Maud nods.
  1124. >"She has a point."
  1125. >No shit.
  1126. >But...
  1127. "Maybe you could call up Oil Base's owners," Apple Bloom starts, "an' come to some sort've arrangement -"
  1128. >"We can't afford to buy her," Moondancer cuts in, with Silver Spoon nodding along sadly.
  1129. >"Things may seem better now," Silver adds, "but we're still running on a tight budget. I don't think we can tighten it any further without making cuts."
  1130. >"Weren't even thinkin' that," Apple Bloom snorts. "We could just... y'know... keep her here long enough for me to help her get her cutie mark, then we could take her back. An' if they agree an' all, wouldn't be any trouble!"
  1131. >"If they don't," Silver sighs, "then we'll be leading them right here."
  1132. >"Yeah, but... ain't it worth a shot? Ah mean... we could take her back if they say no, but there's no way they'll agree if we never ask."
  1133. "But what if they really do say no, Apple Bloom? You're saying you're okay with us taking her back?"
  1134. >"Well, no, but what're the odds that'll happen?" she answers. "They sound like reasonable people."
  1135. "I think a reasonable person might want their employee at work."
  1136. >"Yeah, but..."
  1137. >"He's right," Maud monotones. "Either we take her back or we hide her."
  1138. >"Anything else is too risky," Moondancer agrees.
  1139. >Lauren nods, Silver, too, a moment later.
  1140. "Great. So we've narrowed our two options down to... two options."
  1141. >"If you take her back," Silver says slowly, "they'll know where she ran to. And where others might be trying to go. Someone might ask why they're trying to get here."
  1142. "They'll know that if they catch any other runaways."
  1143. >"Nuh-uh," Apple Bloom shakes her head. "She didn't know where she was goin', just that it was one've these farms. Or maybe even the city. Could've been anywhere."
  1144. "That's a pretty thin excuse."
  1145. >You sigh.
  1146. "But... if anyone had any idea she came out here, they would have caught her by now. It's taken her days to walk here. If anybody had bothered to look out this way..."
  1147. >Shit.
  1148. "I think... I think what we've got to do is keep a low profile. And to do that..."
  1149. >You look at your friends, each in turn.
  1150. >Trying to see if they agree with you, if any of them has a hint on how to go.
  1151. >Lauren looks away.
  1152. >Silver Spoon's eyes dart around as much as yours. "I... I'd like to help her - we *should* - but..."
  1153. >Moondancer shrugs.
  1154. >But Apple Bloom?
  1155. >"Hide her," she says when your eyes meet hers. "Please, if we only got the two choices then you gotta."
  1156. >Maud nods.
  1157. >"Ah can't turn away a pony that's askin' for help with her cutie mark. Ah *can't*."
  1158. "You could... go with me into town whenever we need supplies? Try to help her there?"
  1159. >"An' what're the odds her owners'll let me do that? Particularly now that she's already run away once?"
  1160. >You sigh.
  1161. "Probably the same as them agreeing to let her stay out here."
  1162. >Well...
  1163. "Part of me says to put it up for a vote with the others, since it'll affect them if things go wrong, but part of me says..."
  1164. >"Keep her," Silver says. "If she goes back, who knows what'll happen?"
  1165. >No one here would know better than her.
  1166. >Moondancer frowns, but shrugs.
  1167. >"It's a lose-lose situation," she sighs. "We'll manage."
  1168. "Good. We're keeping her. Apple Bloom -"
  1169. >"Ah'm already on it," she smiles and jumps out of her chair. "Don't worry, Ah'll get it all taken care of!"
  1170. >Good, because you had no idea what you were going to say.
  1171. "Perfect."
  1172. >Maud follows after her with a little nod your way.
  1173. >"Well, if you've got that emergency figured out," Lauren mumbles, "I better get goin'. Got a lot -"
  1174. "To tell us? What's going on, Lauren?"
  1175. >She looks up at you from under her hair and smiles.
  1176. >"Why does doing the right thing come so easy to you?"
  1177. "Since when? Did you not see how hard it was to decide not to send Oil Base back to her owners? Have you ever met me? Most of my life I've done nothing but the wrong thing."
  1178. >"Since now," Lauren snorts. "How'd you make that choice?"
  1179. "Because..."
  1180. >You want to be the person she believes you can be?
  1181. "... because I have friends. Doing what's right is easy when you have friends who back you up."
  1182. >She nods.
  1183. >As does Silver Spoon.
  1184. "So. Lauren..."
  1185. >"Is there something we can help you with?" the mare asks, with her hoof on her friend's leg.
  1186. >"Nah, I just needed to think somethin' through," Lauren grins. "It's all good now."
  1187.  
  1188. >"Best explain this bullshit *fast*," Daddy snarls.
  1189. >He stands from his ol' leather recliner an' raises an open hand but that don't make you back down or nothin'.
  1190. >Oh, he'll hit you alright, just you don't care much.
  1191. >Ain't gonna stop you from doin' what you think needs doin'.
  1192. >Hasn't for over two decades. Sure as shit ain't gonna put no fear into you now.
  1193. "We gotta do it. I read through that contract you signed an' sure enough there's an escape clause for the government folks.
  1194. "Ain't got no other choice if we wanna get paid in full. Y'know we need that money."
  1195. >"Not that badly, you stupid girl! We aren't as bad off as your idiot boyfriend!"
  1196. "He ain't -"
  1197. >Y'catch his hand with your forearm.
  1198. >Stings.
  1199. >Knew it would.
  1200. >You brush it off.
  1201. "We *need* that money, daddy, an' you damn well know it."
  1202. >"We're gettin' by just fine," he growls.
  1203. "An' that's *all* we're doin' - *gettin' by*.
  1204. "Y'agreed with me about the rest stop an' how we could let the ponies sell fruits an' veggies there to earn a l'il extra off books.
  1205. "How's this any different?"
  1206. >"It might get us killed! I swear if you let a single -"
  1207. "Just *sit down*, daddy, an' -"
  1208. >He *does*.
  1209. >Don't stop scowlin', but he sits.
  1210. >"This is the stupidest shit you've ever -"
  1211. "- an'... hear me out."
  1212. >"Fine," he spits without even a second's thought. "I'm listenin'."
  1213. "I coulda just gone behind your back on this, but you know that ain't how I am."
  1214. >He nods an' glares an' keeps his mouth shut.
  1215. >Last bit's what surprises you the most.
  1216. >No arguin' you're bein' an idiot, no agreein' that you're always startin' trouble an' flappin' your mouth.
  1217. "I ain't sayin' *every* pony, daddy - maybe not any unicorns at all come to think of it - but whatever we decide on, we gotta start now.
  1218. "I know there's dangers, but I -
  1219. >Bringin' up Sil an' how she wouldn't hurt a fly won't win him over.
  1220. >He'll just go on 'bout why you ever cared so much for a 'stupid whore' an' you've heard more'n enough of that over the last year to ever want to hear it again.
  1221. >Nah, if he's listenin', you're just gonna go straight for the point.
  1222. "Look, daddy, Jack ain't got much time an' it'll take the suppressants a few days to work their way out've their system, so..."
  1223.  
  1224. >Beads've sweat roll down Oil Base's face as she yanks on the rope along with Full Steam an' Shelf Stable.
  1225. >Poor thing's almost worn to a frazzle. Few days into this whole cutie mark adventure already an' she hasn't let you stop pushin' her for a single moment.
  1226. >Almost take the rope in your teeth an' help out, but that'd basically defeat the purpose, wouldn't it?
  1227. >Still... but nah, you hold yourself back.
  1228. >Together those three are enough to get that wooden frame lifted up for Red Line an' Gust Front to hammer into place. Takes time, but they get it done.
  1229. >An'...?
  1230. >No cutie mark.
  1231. >You told Oil Base more'n once she'd know when it happens, but the moment the rope goes slack she checks her flank anyhow with an expectant grin plastered all 'cross her face.
  1232. >Makes you smile.
  1233. >Used to do the same, didn't you?
  1234. >An' it never made a speck of difference.
  1235. >This time's no exception.
  1236. >Oil Base lets out a l'il moan an' hangs her head like a beat dog.
  1237. >All the worse 'cause her leg are tremblin' an' she can barely hold herself upright.
  1238. >Poor filly ain't used to physical work like this. Not that carryin' around boxes of paper an' runnin' the printers weren't hard work, but that's not the same.
  1239. >Which is why you've been throwin' her into all the manual labor you can think of.
  1240. >She ain't ever built a house before, so if that was her special talent then only makes sense she wouldn't have cutie mark.
  1241. >But... nope.
  1242. >"We've been trying for *days*," Oil Base whines as she plants her butt on the ground. "Maybe I don't *have* a special talent."
  1243. "Don't let it get you down. Took me longer'n just a few days to get mine."
  1244. >"Yeah, but I have *you* to help me! You had to do it on your own."
  1245. >You shake your head.
  1246. "Ah weren't on my own. Had Scootaloo an' Sweetie Belle an' all of Ponyville to help."
  1247. >"Or at least to put up with your shenanigans," Miss Cheerilee chuckles at you as trots past draggin' a small cart full up with bricks.
  1248. "Hey, tolerating' us three runnin' 'round like idiots *was* helpin'!"
  1249. >"If you say so," she giggles without breakin' pace.
  1250. >Full Steam lets out a lil' chuckle, but he weren't there. Only heard 'bout it from the ponies swappin' tales of times back home. But Shelf Stable?
  1251. >He cracks up like it's the funniest thing he ever heard.
  1252. >Somethin' 'bout that makes you feel like you should take it as an insult, but his laughter is catchin' an' you find yourself smilin' along with them.
  1253. >Okay, maybe she has a point.
  1254. >Maybe if the adults had cracked down on your crusadin', you'd have found your real purpose earlier.
  1255. >All the same, you're glad they didn't.
  1256. >Sometimes it's the journey an' so on.
  1257. >Miss Cheerilee stops, quick as she can with that cart, an' comes on back 'round in a loose circle.
  1258. >To pat your head like you're still a filly.
  1259. >Y'let her do it twice 'fore flailin' her off with a laugh.
  1260. "Get on your way, Ah'm tryin' to work here! Shouldn't you be with the foals anyhow?"
  1261. >"I needed to stretch my legs, but don't worry," Miss Cheerilee snorts. "They aren't running loose, I promise. Trixie is putting on a magic show for them."
  1262. "That's good, Ah guess."
  1263. >Last thing you need is them wanderin' all over again. What if the next surprise they stumble on ain't as pleasant as your new friend?
  1264. >Like she was readin' your thoughts, Miss Cheerilee turns aside a bit to look Oil Base's way.
  1265. >"Maybe you'd like to join them?"
  1266. >Huh?
  1267. >"I'm not a child," the young mare snaps back. "I may be a blank flank, but I'm not a little filly!"
  1268. >Huh.
  1269. "Nah, but have you ever watched a magic show?"
  1270. >Oil Base freezes up.
  1271. "Ever even had a chance to?"
  1272. >"No, but -"
  1273. "Then why not?"
  1274. >"Because I want to get my cutie mark!"
  1275. "Exactly! Trixie's show might wake somethin' up in you."
  1276. >"Like what?" Oil Base pouts from the ground. "A cutie mark in *watching* someone do magic tricks?"
  1277. >You shrug an' give a smile.
  1278. "Ah doubt that. Maybe you'll see how the tricks are done - maybe your talent's in figurin' out that kinda stuff or just plain noticin' things other ponies overlook, or maybe..."
  1279. >Y'shrug again.
  1280. "... maybe you'll want to give it a chance yourself an' ask Trixie to teach you somethin'.
  1281. "Cutie marks are a complicated business, Oil Base. Can't know what it'll be 'til it happens, an' even after that it ain't always a clear cut thing.
  1282. "You gotta try everything you can, 'cause you never know what your cutie mark's gonna be or what it'll mean."
  1283. >An' just 'cause she's here don't mean there ain't other things to get done.
  1284. >Miss Cheerilee's put an itch in your legs to do some hard work yourself.
  1285. >These houses won't gonna build themselves. Ain't right to let everypony else take it all on themselves.
  1286. >An' besides, purpose in life an' all that but your own cutie mark don't define you, ear to tail.
  1287. >Oil Base don't look convinced, but it's really the best thing you can think of right now.
  1288. >You've tried dang near everything, from her helpin' Green Bean with the garden to buildin' to paintin' what's already got done.
  1289. >An' *nothin'*.
  1290. >You'd had hope with the paintin', too.
  1291. >Maybe if it'd been more artsy an' less slappin' a couple coats over a wall...
  1292. "Look Oil Base, Ah know this is frustratin' but this kinda thing takes time. Gotta just try everything 'til somethin' clicks an' Ah do mean *everything*."
  1293. >"I know," she sighs, "but isn't there something else I can do?"
  1294. >Nothin' that comes to mind right now, so you shake your head.
  1295. "Y'got somethin' against havin' a rest? Don't tell me you ain't worn out."
  1296. >Gotta say this for her - she don't try to make the claim otherwise.
  1297. >"What if I don't *want* a cutie mark in magic?" she goes instead. "That stuff's for kids."
  1298. >She tries to wave away your hoof, but with less success than you had with Miss Cheerilee an' you pat that head of hers.
  1299. "Then just sit a spell an' enjoy the show. Ah bet you're tuckered out from helpin' with the construction an' all."
  1300. >"It's still for kids," Oil Base mumbles. "I want to be good at something *useful*."
  1301. "Trixie's a grown mare an' she seems pretty happy with what she's doin'. Can't say what you're doin' ain't useful if it's puttin' a smile on somepony's face."
  1302. >She thinks it over a bit an' you can tell it ain't really convincin' her, but she finally nods.
  1303. >"Fine, but..."
  1304. "What?"
  1305. >"But *really*," she sighs, "what if I *don't* have a special talent?"
  1306. "Everypony's got a talent, Oil Base, an' Ah swear we'll find yours."
  1307.  
  1308. >"Beards?" Wing Span asks.
  1309. >"Too scratchy," Alice answers with an undignified snort and wave of her hand.
  1310. >You think some of the mannerisms of the Stables' ponies might be rubbing off on the human employees.
  1311. >It shouldn't be surprising.
  1312. >Or now that you think of it, it's surprising it's taken so long.
  1313. >Some of these mares and women have shared each others' company, beds, and clients for over three years now.
  1314. >Not many - most of the women haven't stayed more than a few months, just long enough to get back on their feet or find another opportunity - but some.
  1315. >The ones who *enjoy* this life.
  1316. >Just as some of the ponies do.
  1317. >And how you enjoy the sounds of their voices. The company-by-proxy they provide.
  1318. >You should go back to your room and take up your cello again, but it's just too quiet up there.
  1319. >The conversation in the tv room helps bring balance to the music running rampant through your mind, even if the presence of others - if just being around other ponies - does taint the beauty of it some.
  1320. >It shouldn't - you know that in your soul - but it *does*.
  1321. >Yet that slight twinge of discord, the slightly sour notes, makes the orchestra so much deeper.
  1322. >Can't have beauty without ugliness, you suppose. Or the light without the dark.
  1323. >"Really?" Wing Span laughs sharply. "Beards are too scratchy?"
  1324. >"Oh *yeah*. I hate dealing with all that hair."
  1325. >"But you love playing with my fluff."
  1326. >"Yeah, that's because it's nice and soft," Alice giggles and buries her face in her friend's chest.
  1327. >"Stop! Stop!" Wing Span laughs, the trill of her voice just ever slightly off from the series of chimes ringing in your ears. "That tickles!"
  1328. >"Nope!"
  1329. >Manic giggling turns cold as Cherry Berry turns in her seat and glares.
  1330. >An uncharacteristically bold move from the normally meek mare.
  1331. >"Could you two *please* be quiet! I'm trying to watch the news!"
  1332. >She doesn't have to be so careful to avoid stepping on others' hooves now that Diamond Tiara has fallen, you suppose.
  1333. >Everyone thought she would be the one to take Silver Spoon's place, but...
  1334. >"Why?" Alice fires back and pulls Wing Span onto her ample lap, ignoring the pegasi's false protests. "What's on the news that's so important?"
  1335. >"Things are *happening*."
  1336. >"So?" the woman shrugs. "Everything is shit, but at least we're safe here. Why does it matter to you?"
  1337. >"You aren't a pony so I guess maybe you didn't notice *Alice*," Berry sneers, "but we're getting murdered out there."
  1338. >"You're exaggerating," Wing Span sighs. "It's not -"
  1339. >"First Oil Base disappeared and now Turned Soil's gone."
  1340. >"You *really* think they're going to say anything about that on the news?" Wing Span sighs. "Just wait for Derpy's next visit if you want to *really* know what's going on. Watching the broadcasts is just..."
  1341. >"Depressing?"
  1342. >Yes, every time the mares watch anything about current events, the music in your mind takes on a dirge-like tone.
  1343. >"Pointless. They don't cover anything *local*."
  1344. >Also true.
  1345. >But as Cherry Berry opens her mouth and points a hoof, you sigh.
  1346. >Though you didn't mean anything - nothing but an idle escape of air - it's enough to silence whatever she was about to say.
  1347. >You feel a small twinge of satisfaction at that. The others may have gotten used to your *presence*, but your *actions* still carries weight.
  1348. >Even though it shouldn't. It never should have.
  1349. >You never should have had any power over them.
  1350. >Maybe someone would have stood up to Sterling if it hadn't been for you.
  1351. >You shake your head at yourself.
  1352. >But that's not how they see it, you realize a moment too late.
  1353. >"What?" Wing Span almost barks. "Are we... being too loud...?"
  1354. "Cherry thought so."
  1355. >"But -"
  1356. "Pointless or not, that is no excuse for being rude."
  1357. >"Oh, right," the pegasus mumbles. "Sorry."
  1358. >Then she snaps upright.
  1359. >"Oh!" she gasps with much more deference than she had shown you. "Miss Coco, I'm sorry, did we -"
  1360. >It hardly matters, but you turn your head to view the source of the newly plucked strings, out of tune and time with the entire orchestra.
  1361. >"Are you causing trouble again?" Coco sneers at Wing Span.
  1362. >"No, miss!"
  1363. >"If you've got nothing better to do," your replacement hums, "we could use more help in the diner."
  1364. >"I've hit my quota for the week, miss."
  1365. >"And?"
  1366. >"Sorry, miss, I'll -"
  1367. >"I'll go," Cherry Berry mumbles.
  1368. >Still short. Still at risk, even if she didn't fall as far or as fast as expected.
  1369. >Coco smirks.
  1370. >Why?
  1371. >And is it your own distaste that makes those strings turn dark or something outside?
  1372. >Dark turns to discordant as she glances your way.
  1373. >"Sterling -"
  1374. "Don't you mean *Master* Sterling?"
  1375. >She rolls her eyes.
  1376. >"*Master* Sterling wanted me to tell you our *visitors* will be here tomorrow. I don't know why. It's not as if you matter anymore.
  1377. >"So if you want to say farewell to Sweetie Belle..."
  1378.  
  1379. >"Bedlam out there," Bill comments, pointing over the counter and Derpy's head to the window.
  1380. >Dunno why. Looks pretty normal to you.
  1381. >Clear - clear*ish* - skies, though it's starting to get a little dark as the sun goes down. Empty parking lot. A few cars at the shop across the street.
  1382. >Nothing too weird or anything.
  1383. >Derpy's just as confused as you - or you're just as confused as her.
  1384. >Yeaaaaaaaah, that's not good.
  1385. >Love her to pieces - who doesn't!? - but if there's ever a mare that didn't know up from down...
  1386. >She tilts her head to the side, making her eyes go all wonky for a moment before one settles on Bill and the other on you.
  1387. >"I mean, it's getting pretty crazy from what I hear," he sighs. "Maybe even dangerous. Sure you should be doing your rounds?"
  1388. >Huh?
  1389. >"I haven't been able to for so long," Derpy moans.
  1390. >Huh!?
  1391. "It's only been a few days since you were here. You're allowed to take a break, you know."
  1392. >Particularly if Bill's right. But... the sky looks clear...?
  1393. >There haven't been any big storms or anything. Not even all that windy.
  1394. >"A few days is too long," Derpy whines. "Ponies *depend* on me."
  1395. >"You know what I mean," Bill grumps in his grumpy old dad way. "I'm guessing the pastor was trying to keep you safe?"
  1396. "From?"
  1397. >She nods frantically -
  1398. "Hey, I asked -"
  1399. >- until her mailbags -
  1400. "Derpy, wait -!"
  1401. >- fall off her back.
  1402. >You sigh to yourself as the loose canvas flaps open and letters spill everywhere.
  1403. >"Oh - oh, *heck*."
  1404. "Let me help you with that."
  1405. >You hop off your stool - and resist the urge to fly over the counter because you know from experience that'd just make the letters scatter everywhere.
  1406. >"Better you than me," Bill groans. "I don't think my knees would like it if I tried to get down there."
  1407. "Yeah, I know."
  1408. >You smirk. He smiles.
  1409. "If your legs hurt so much, why don't you sit for a bit?"
  1410. >"Was planning to," he settles onto the stool with a contented groan that turns into a grin as you stick your tongue out.
  1411. >You come around the counter and start to sweep loose letters towards Derpy, first kicking with your hooves...
  1412. >Until common sense kicks in and you brush them up with your wings.
  1413. >It's how she does it - and she's had to do it a lot.
  1414. >Oh yeah, that's *much* faster.
  1415. >Derpy, instead of either, is nosing them around like... like...
  1416. >Why isn't she -?
  1417. >Oh. Uh. Huh.
  1418. >Yeaaaaaaaaah...
  1419. >Now you're looking, it's obvious how she's keeping her left wing tucked in tight to her side.
  1420. >And that it's not completely hiding the bruise on her barrel.
  1421. "Um, Derpy? What -"
  1422. >"Just a flying accident," she answers a little *too* fast and with a smile that's a little *too* wide. "Don't worry about it!"
  1423. >Okay, but...?
  1424. "Uh... huh..."
  1425. >It doesn't look like a flying accident to you, and you've had enough flying lessons with her to become something of an expert on them.
  1426. >How the heck would a mare get a bruise on her side like that!?
  1427. >Her wing looks fine, so she didn't fall into something or anything.
  1428. >And it's not -
  1429. >"Don't worry about it," Derpy repeats, mumbled through a mouthful of mail she picks up and drops into her bag.
  1430. >That's... uh...
  1431. >... okay...
  1432. >No, *not* okay!
  1433. >You've -
  1434. >"Derpy," Bill says firmly, so you don't have to (thank Celestia!), "did something happen?"
  1435. >"Nothing serious."
  1436. "When?"
  1437. >She shakes her head and tips the mailbag your way so you can shovel in the letters you've swept up.
  1438. >"A couple of days ago," Derpy sighs. "I made a mistake, but it's fine. I won't get caught again."
  1439. >Bill and you share a look.
  1440. >He doesn't want you to know about everything horrible out there -
  1441. >And... *okay*, sometimes - for a long time, *always*, until Apple Bloom opened your eyes - you go along with that because it's better than thinking about it.
  1442. >- but you can make some guesses.
  1443. >And whatever you're guessing?
  1444. >You think that's what he's thinking.
  1445. >"You should probably go home after this, Derpy," Bill sighs.
  1446. >Yeah, exactly what you were thinking.
  1447. >"I'll lock up the shop and give you a ride."
  1448. >No, not what you're thinking!
  1449. "Why close? I can stay here and -"
  1450. >"Because I think it's for the best."
  1451. "Why!? I've watched the store on my own before. What's different this time?"
  1452. >"What's different," Bill sighs in a way that makes you think you're not going to get an answer you like, "is that I'm saying you can't."
  1453. >Yeaaaah, you don't like that at all.
  1454. "*Bill*, I -"
  1455. >"I *can't*," Derpy whines. "I have mail I have to deliver. It's important! I should have -"
  1456. >"Did you sneak out?"
  1457. >"Noooooooooo...ooooo...?"
  1458. "You snuck out."
  1459. >"Does it really count if he knew I was going to do it?"
  1460. >"Yes," Bill rolls his eyes. "Come on, get in the car and I'll take you home. And *you* -"
  1461. >He gets off the stool with a groan so he can poke his finger an inch from your nose.
  1462. >"- you lock up behind me and stay behind the counter. I'll be back soon."
  1463. >"I can't yet," Derpy whines. "Or... can..."
  1464. >Her eyes light up like the sun coming out from behind a cloud and grins wide.
  1465. >"Can you take me to Sterling Stables!?" she asks hopefully. "I've been everywhere and haven't seen Sweetie Belle, so she *has* to be there! I have mail for her! And I've got -"
  1466. >Oh! Yeah! Maybe -
  1467. >"Nope."
  1468. "Awww, c'mon, Bill! Why not? Help a mare out!"
  1469. >"Because I'm not taking anyone *near* that place."
  1470. >"But I have important mail to deliver!"
  1471. >"I said no."
  1472. "You *know* she'll just sneak out and try again."
  1473. >Derpy nods.
  1474. >"And I'm hoping the pastor will be able to stop her."
  1475. "But -"
  1476. >"But I was able to stay away from the deputies today!" Derpy argues. "It was really safe! I - I *know* I can make it, so -"
  1477. >There's... *something*. Something that makes her stop and think.
  1478. >She looks out the window.
  1479. >"- I guess it *is* getting late..."
  1480. "A little, but -"
  1481. >"Fine, but I'm going there tomorrow," Derpy says firmly. "It's been too long. Though..."
  1482. "What?"
  1483. >"Octavia sent me a message," Derpy sighs. "She told me to stay away for now, but I *can't*! I have a letter for her! She *needs* to read it! And another one for -"
  1484.  
  1485. "Better?"
  1486. >Oil Base looks up from her bowl of veggie stew an' shrug as you sit down beside her.
  1487. >"What do you mean?"
  1488. "Well, sun's down an' another day's over -"
  1489. >"Without me getting my cutie mark," she grumbles.
  1490. "Nah, but you tried a lot of things an' even got a chance to relax a bit. Did you have fun watchin' Trixie?"
  1491. >Oil Base frowns a sec', then nods despite whatever grumpiness she's feelin'.
  1492. >"She even agreed to teach me some magic."
  1493. "An'?"
  1494. >She rolls her eyes.
  1495. >"You *know* it didn't work."
  1496. "Oh, Ah know for sure you ain't got your cutie mark yet or it'd be all over the farm. What Ah'm wonderin' is how it turned out."
  1497. >"Horrible!"
  1498. "But did you have fun?"
  1499. >"Well..."
  1500. "An' did she teach you some tricks or some unicorn stuff?"
  1501. >Oil Base frowns *hard*.
  1502. >"Just some stupid card trick. How is she gonna teach me any 'unicorn stuff'?"
  1503. "Well, Ah was thinkin' -"
  1504. >"This shouldn't be so hard!" Oil Base squeals softly. "Hematite is just a filly and *she* has her cutie mark! Why can't I find mine?"
  1505. "Then Ah guess we just gotta try somethin' else, don't we?"
  1506. >"But she even knows exactly what her cutie mark means! I thought you said that took even more time to -"
  1507. "She does? She knows what it means"
  1508. >"Yeah," Oil Base sneers. "How can she not? I've been to the clinic before, so I know that *all* nurse ponies have the same cutie mark."
  1509. >You shake your head.
  1510. "Hers ain't quite the same, Oil Base. Hearts on theirs are solid, an' hers are..."
  1511. >You kinda try to draw it out with your hoof, the curls an' shape an' it don't mean nothin' to Oil Base.
  1512. >"What?"
  1513. "... her hearts are kinda hollow. Ain't the same. Honestly, pro'lly means somethin' else than just nursin'."
  1514. >"Yeah, well..."
  1515. >Oil Base shrugs an' sighs an' eats a bit of her stew.
  1516. "An' there's String Bean too. Ah ain't got a clue what his mark means. Hoof an' human hand shakin'? He got that while plantin' some crops!"
  1517. >She nods but don't look up.
  1518. "So don't think they've got it all figured out an' you're behind or nothin'. This ain't a race an' not everypony's gonna be goin' the same distance or even startin' at the same place."
  1519. >"If you say so."
  1520. "But Ah got an idea. How 'bout you help Roma an' her crew with breakfast tomorrow?"
  1521. >Oil Base sticks out her tongue and moans.
  1522. >"But they wake up so early."
  1523. "Then if it don't work, it'll mean you'll have more time to try other things."
  1524. >"I *guess*. Did you have some other ideas?"
  1525. "A few."
  1526. >Nothin' excitin', so you don't expand on that.
  1527. >Workin' with your hooves got the brain runnin' some, but there's still time.
  1528. >You'll sleep on it.
  1529. >"I guess I better go to bed now then," Oil Base mumbles into her stew, "since I have to wake up so early."
  1530. "Not a bad idea, but 'fore you go Ah gotta ask you somethin'."
  1531. >Things to try weren't all you were thinkin' over.
  1532. >Wondered why it's just been the two so far.
  1533. >Why it's only been Hematite an' String Bean to get their cutie marks.
  1534. >Not the first time you've questioned it.
  1535. >Could just be luck, but you ain't gonna rest on that an' just hope for the best.
  1536. >Not your way. Sittin' on your rump an' doin' nothin' sure as the sun rises ain't what your talent is.
  1537. >So you asked yourself what those two've got in common.
  1538. >Again, not the first time you've thought that over.
  1539. >An' you keep comin' back to the same thing. Don't see nothin' else.
  1540. >"Go ahead," Oil Base sighs. "What do you want to ask?"
  1541. "You takin' the suppressants?"
  1542. >She shakes her head.
  1543. >"Not yet. Hematite told me to wait."
  1544. "'cause why?"
  1545. >"I guess injuries heal faster if you're not taking them,  She told me she'd check on the scrapes tomorrow and tell me if I can start taking the pills again. But..."
  1546. "But what?"
  1547. >"... I'm starting to get worried. I know it takes a while for the suppressants to wear off entirely, but how long? I don't -"
  1548. "How weak's it? Can you use your magic?"
  1549. >"Maybe..."
  1550. >She shakes her head an' shudders.
  1551. "Why don't you give it a try?"
  1552. >"If I was going to do that, I would have asked Trixie to teach me some real magic!" Oil Base glares your way. "But I'm not that stupid!
  1553. >"I'm not going to let my suppressants wear off entirely! And even if I did, I haven't used my horn in years."
  1554. "Why not? How hard can it be?"
  1555. >"It's not the same with a unicorn as an earth pony, you know? You're just... *stronger*. It's different with a unicorn."
  1556. >Y'start to argue just on general principle, but she's got somethin' of a point.
  1557. >Don't have to do nothin' special to put your magic to use. It just happens. But *her*... an' the other unicorns...
  1558. >"I hope Hematite says I can take one tomorrow," Oil Base murmurs. "I've seen ponies that skipped a few days and I don't want to go through that."
  1559. "It's already been a few days since you took one've the pills."
  1560. >"Yeah, but..."
  1561. >Y'do the math.
  1562. >Count the days.
  1563. >"... I really hope she lets me take some tomorrow."
  1564. "Well... don't."
  1565. >"It's *harder* on unicorns."
  1566. "Ah know. Ah've seen it go wrong."
  1567. >Too many times. Years ago, in the camps, but also...
  1568. >Y'don't wanna think on that.
  1569. >Gotta stay positive.
  1570. >Realistic, but positive.
  1571. "Ah've also seen it go right."
  1572. >An' you got it in your head that this's realistically not stupid as heck.
  1573. "Moondancer's off her pills an' all she got is a little grumpy, but she's *always* a little grumpy. That don't mean nothin'."
  1574. >Oil Base's lip curls an' you can't make heads or tails of the face she's makin' right now.
  1575. >Fair certain she ain't exactly sure how to feel either.
  1576. >Scared? No question on that. Certainly unhappy an' a li'l angry.
  1577. >Hopeful? Maybe. If some ponies can manage, then...
  1578. >"Yeah, but -"
  1579. "Trixie too, though at first she was dead set against it. An' they ain't the only ones, y'know."
  1580. >She sits still an' silent for a whole minute.
  1581. "What'dya think? Willin' to trust me on this?"
  1582. >"Why...? Why is it so important to you that I don't take the suppressants?"
  1583. "Because Ah was thinkin' -"
  1584. >Nah.
  1585. >What if you're wrong? Don't wanna give her false hope.
  1586. "- because it'll mean more things you can try. Like *real* magic."
  1587. >"And if... if I start to lose control...?"
  1588. "You can take the pills whenever you want, Oil Base. Ah just... Ah was hopin' you could have a little faith."
  1589. >You smile an' put a hoof on her back.
  1590. "It'll all work out, Ah promise."
  1591.  
  1592. >Beams of light stream through your window as the sun rises slowly.
  1593. >You don't pause - don't *dare* let your cello fall silent right now - but you do give the warm glow a part of your attention.
  1594. >Something is missing. Still.
  1595. >Something that the sunrise almost brings with it.
  1596. >A full symphony is playing in your head.
  1597. >*Almost*.
  1598. >Some of the players are muffled, many are distant.
  1599. >Most are off-key or out of tune. Or out of time.
  1600. >Like foals playing their first recital.
  1601. >But they're *there*. You can hear them present.
  1602. >There's only one thing still missing.
  1603. >You're sure of it.
  1604. >The orchestra could be fuller. It could be *better*. But all the key elements are present.
  1605. >Save one.
  1606. >You try everything to fill the hole with your cello, from the time it takes the sun's light to go from one edge of your bed to the other.
  1607. >From long before, truthfully, but only at daybreak had you taken up the bow and began playing instead of running the possibilities through your head.
  1608. >It's... it's not even close.
  1609. >But you can almost imagine what is missing.
  1610. >There's the deep percussion that pounds close to your heart, so strong it travels down your hooves to shake the earth below.
  1611. >The brass and reeds that blow through your soul like a wind sweeping the sky free of clouds.
  1612. >And of course the strings - not the ones your hooves are currently working, but that twinkle like the thoughts racing through your mind.
  1613. >There's even something that reminds you of Vinyl's music. Synthetic, electronic... mechanical in nature. *Alien*. A single... *instrument*, for lack of a better term, unlike the host of strings or overlapping thunder of drums. Sometimes you can't hear it - *often* - and rarely clearly. But when you *can*... for all its foreignness it acts in perfect accompaniment to the rest of the orchestra.
  1614. >There is so much to hear. And yet...
  1615. >Your cello is a poor substitute for whatever is absent, but you play anyway.
  1616. >Slow and deep.
  1617. >Sorrowful.
  1618. >Not the sorrow of someone - some*pony* - who has lived through the recent troubles.
  1619. >That's too fresh. An open wound.
  1620. >It's deeper than that. Richer. More hopeful.
  1621. >The sorrow of ages past and joys of ages yet to come. Of eyes that have seen more than any living being, both terrible and wonderous.
  1622. >The regrets and dreams of a species. Or so you like to think.
  1623. >Your cello - and your hooves - do your best.
  1624. >The end result is melancholic at best.
  1625. >It doesn't compare to what you *know* is missing - even though you can't put a hoof on what exactly that is.
  1626. >With each movement of your bow, the emptiness - the *quiet* void - defines itself a little more.
  1627. >With every wrong stroke you make, you eliminate a possibility.
  1628. >With every second that passes, you come closer and closer to realizing what exactly is absent.
  1629. >You can almost hear it now.
  1630. >Hear it by the silence of what it isn't.
  1631. >Over the voices and clatter of the other mares preparing for the day, over the muffled sound of cars along the highway.
  1632. >You should have asked Sterling to soundproof your room.
  1633. >The noise is distracting.
  1634. >You're so *close*.
  1635. >If it weren't for the background noise...
  1636. >You're almost there.
  1637. >*Almost!*
  1638. >With every passing moment it grows closer.
  1639. >A little more refined. A little more *defined*.
  1640. >Clearer.
  1641. >*Closer*.
  1642. >Closer!?
  1643. >You can almost hear it over the distant growl of cars -
  1644. >Of *approaching* cars.
  1645. >You look out your window.
  1646. >Your hooves still don't pause, but they slow.
  1647. >Matching the song you almost hear.
  1648. >It's not too early for customers to arrive, but this is different.
  1649. >To your musician's ear, they sound completely different from the usual traffic.
  1650. >Too tuned, too smooth, too *new*.
  1651. >Your view isn't the grandest - it hardly mattered to you - but it's sufficient.
  1652. >Two cars. Black.
  1653. >*Pristine*.
  1654. >You can't remember the last time you saw a *new* car, let alone two.
  1655. >Before Celestia -
  1656. >It's been a long time. Years.
  1657. >How -
  1658. >Your hooves - they've stopped.
  1659. >In your surprise, you stopped playing.
  1660. >But... you can still hear it?
  1661. >You can still hear the song. The *whole* song.
  1662. >*How?*
  1663. >What -
  1664. >You set your cello aside - you aren't playing it anyway.
  1665. >It's not necessary.
  1666. >But whatever is happening outside...
  1667. >You go to the window and look out over the Stable's parking lot from your second-story perch.
  1668. >Sterling and Coco are waiting.
  1669. >The cars are parked.
  1670. >The driver of the lead car steps out.
  1671. >Military. You can tell from his uniform.
  1672. >Not private, either. Or security.
  1673. >Uncommon, but not startlingly so.
  1674. >The roads can be dangerous.
  1675. >VIPs often warrant a military escort.
  1676. >He opens the rear door.
  1677. >You don't even have to guess who the man who exits is.
  1678. >Oh, you don't know his name or identity, but the way he carries himself tells you enough.
  1679. >That man is here for Sweetie Belle. Or somepony else.
  1680. >*His* military uniform is a bit of a surprise - or would be if it could hold your attention.
  1681. >A pony follows him.
  1682. >An earth mare.
  1683. >Not one you recognize.
  1684. >Not one you care about.
  1685. >She could be your best friend and you still wouldn't recognize her at this moment.
  1686. >That would trouble you, but it doesn't.
  1687. >It - *she* - is not what you're looking for.
  1688. >Even Sterling shows a lack of interest in the pair.
  1689. >Maybe others would fall for his wave and grin, would think he was greeting them eagerly, but he doesn't approach the man.
  1690. >He hardly looks away from the second car.
  1691. >He knows something.
  1692. >That car's driver is out too. Also military.
  1693. >As is his companion. His *armed* companion.
  1694. >You assume they all have weapons of one kind or another, but he's the only one holding a rifle.
  1695. >Casually, but at the ready, while the driver opens the rear door for his passengers.
  1696. >Sterling doesn't hesitate.
  1697. >He walks straight for the three ponies the driver ushers out.
  1698. >*There*.
  1699.  
  1700. >Beams of light stream through your window as the sun rises slowly.
  1701. >You don't pause - don't *dare* let your cello fall silent right now - but you do give the warm glow a part of your attention.
  1702. >Something is missing. Still.
  1703. >Something that the sunrise almost brings with it.
  1704. >A full symphony is playing in your head.
  1705. >*Almost*.
  1706. >Some of the players are muffled, many are distant.
  1707. >Most are off-key or out of tune. Or out of time.
  1708. >Like foals playing their first recital.
  1709. >But they're *there*. You can hear them present.
  1710. >There's only one thing still missing.
  1711. >You're sure of it.
  1712. >The orchestra could be fuller. It could be *better*. But all the key elements are present.
  1713. >Save one.
  1714. >You try everything to fill the hole with your cello, from the time it takes the sun's light to go from one edge of your bed to the other.
  1715. >From long before, truthfully, but only at daybreak had you taken up the bow and began playing instead of running the possibilities through your head.
  1716. >It's... it's not even close.
  1717. >But you can almost imagine what is missing.
  1718. >There's the deep percussion that pounds close to your heart, so strong it travels down your hooves to shake the earth below.
  1719. >The brass and reeds that blow through your soul like a wind sweeping the sky free of clouds.
  1720. >And of course the strings - not the ones your hooves are currently working, but that twinkle like the thoughts racing through your mind.
  1721. >There's even something that reminds you of Vinyl's music. Synthetic, electronic... mechanical in nature. *Alien*. A single... *instrument*, for lack of a better term, unlike the host of strings or overlapping thunder of drums. Sometimes you can't hear it - *often* - and rarely clearly. But when you *can*... for all its foreignness it acts in perfect accompaniment to the rest of the orchestra.
  1722. >There is so much to hear. And yet...
  1723. >Your cello is a poor substitute for whatever is absent, but you play anyway.
  1724. >Slow and deep.
  1725. >Sorrowful.
  1726. >Not the sorrow of someone - some*pony* - who has lived through the recent troubles.
  1727. >That's too fresh. An open wound.
  1728. >It's deeper than that. Richer. More hopeful.
  1729. >The sorrow of ages past and joys of ages yet to come. Of eyes that have seen more than any living being, both terrible and wonderous.
  1730. >The regrets and dreams of a species. Or so you like to think.
  1731. >Your cello - and your hooves - do your best.
  1732. >The end result is melancholic at best.
  1733. >It doesn't compare to what you *know* is missing - even though you can't put a hoof on what exactly that is.
  1734. >With each movement of your bow, the emptiness - the *quiet* void - defines itself a little more.
  1735. >With every wrong stroke you make, you eliminate a possibility.
  1736. >With every second that passes, you come closer and closer to realizing what exactly is absent.
  1737. >You can almost hear it now.
  1738. >Hear it by the silence of what it isn't.
  1739. >Over the voices and clatter of the other mares preparing for the day, over the muffled sound of cars along the highway.
  1740. >You should have asked Sterling to soundproof your room.
  1741. >The noise is distracting.
  1742. >You're so *close*.
  1743. >If it weren't for the background noise...
  1744. >You're almost there.
  1745. >*Almost!*
  1746. >With every passing moment it grows closer.
  1747. >A little more refined. A little more *defined*.
  1748. >Clearer.
  1749. >*Closer*.
  1750. >Closer!?
  1751. >You can almost hear it over the distant growl of cars -
  1752. >Of *approaching* cars.
  1753. >You look out your window.
  1754. >Your hooves still don't pause, but they slow.
  1755. >Matching the song you almost hear.
  1756. >It's not too early for customers to arrive, but this is different.
  1757. >To your musician's ear, they sound completely different from the usual traffic.
  1758. >Too tuned, too smooth, too *new*.
  1759. >Your view isn't the grandest - it hardly mattered to you - but it's sufficient.
  1760. >Two cars. Black.
  1761. >*Pristine*.
  1762. >You can't remember the last time you saw a *new* car, let alone two.
  1763. >Before Celestia -
  1764. >It's been a long time. Years.
  1765. >How -
  1766. >Your hooves - they've stopped.
  1767. >In your surprise, you stopped playing.
  1768. >But... you can still hear it?
  1769. >You can still hear the song. The *whole* song.
  1770. >*How?*
  1771. >What -
  1772. >You set your cello aside - you aren't playing it anyway.
  1773. >It's not necessary.
  1774. >But whatever is happening outside...
  1775. >You go to the window and look out over the Stable's parking lot from your second-story perch.
  1776. >Sterling and Coco are waiting.
  1777. >The cars are parked.
  1778. >The driver of the lead car steps out.
  1779. >Military. You can tell from his uniform.
  1780. >Not private, either. Or security.
  1781. >Uncommon, but not startlingly so.
  1782. >The roads can be dangerous.
  1783. >VIPs often warrant a military escort.
  1784. >He opens the rear door.
  1785. >You don't even have to guess who the man who exits is.
  1786. >Oh, you don't know his name or identity, but the way he carries himself tells you enough.
  1787. >That man is here for Sweetie Belle. Or somepony else.
  1788. >*His* military uniform is a bit of a surprise - or would be if it could hold your attention.
  1789. >A pony follows him.
  1790. >An earth mare.
  1791. >Not one you recognize.
  1792. >Not one you care about.
  1793. >She could be your best friend and you still wouldn't recognize her at this moment.
  1794. >That would trouble you, but it doesn't.
  1795. >It - *she* - is not what you're looking for.
  1796. >Even Sterling shows a lack of interest in the pair.
  1797. >Maybe others would fall for his wave and grin, would think he was greeting them eagerly, but he doesn't approach the man.
  1798. >He hardly looks away from the second car.
  1799. >He knows something.
  1800. >That car's driver is out too. Also military.
  1801. >As is his companion. His *armed* companion.
  1802. >You assume they all have weapons of one kind or another, but he's the only one holding a rifle.
  1803. >Casually, but at the ready, while the driver opens the rear door for his passengers.
  1804. >Sterling doesn't hesitate.
  1805. >He walks straight for the three ponies the driver ushers out.
  1806. >*There*.
  1807.  
  1808. #DIAMOND TIARA
  1809. >"... begin with," you can hear Coco from outside the door, "Master Sterling thought you might like to look at this pair."
  1810. >You look across the room to Sweetie Belle.
  1811. >He's here.
  1812. >You both know what this means, though you're still not sure what you hope *that* means.
  1813. >Neither is Sweetie, you suspect.
  1814. >With every passing day, her certainty and resolve have waned a little more.
  1815. >"I'm not interested in a pair," a man answers. "The army movies me around too often to make that worthwhile. Yet."
  1816. >You struggle to crawl out of bed, to rise to your hooves and...
  1817. >The other mares stole all of your jewellery and makeup long ago.
  1818. >So much for making yourself presentable.
  1819. >Your legs ache.
  1820. >Your stomach screams.
  1821. >"Oh, really?" Coco asks.
  1822. >Bitch.
  1823. >Can't she just get this over with?
  1824. >"Personal ponies entail a lot of paperwork," a female voice - a *familiar* voice - sneers. "Even for a man of master's rank."
  1825. >Someone you knew from...?
  1826. >Ponyville...? You think it was Ponyville and not the camps.
  1827. >Maybe.
  1828. >You can't remember.
  1829. >You almost ask Sweetie Belle, but when you turn her way the expression you see plastered across her face *hurts*.
  1830. >The undisguised pity she has for you right now is worse than anything any customer has ever done.
  1831. >"Ah," Coco grunts. "I understand, but -"
  1832. >Her voice drops too low for you to hear.
  1833. >You aren't brave enough to look over as Sweetie comes closer, to see what -
  1834. >"Here," she mumbles, "let me brush your mane."
  1835. "No, it's fine. Either he wants us or..."
  1836. >The door creeks open.
  1837. "... too late anyway."
  1838. >You should have gotten up earlier.
  1839. >Surely someone would have let you borrow something. Some blush or maybe a dress.
  1840. >You could have done something nice with your mane.
  1841. >Maybe even tried to get back a necklace or...
  1842. >But you didn't.
  1843. >And you know *why*.
  1844. >Coco is the first in. Still talking.
  1845. >You ignore her.
  1846. >It hardly matters if she's successful - if she convinces this man to buy one or both of you.
  1847. >No, it *does*.
  1848. >It matters.
  1849. >You don't want to die.
  1850. >Still... you can't quite make yourself...
  1851. >... *do* anything.
  1852. >It matters, but it doesn't.
  1853. >And Coco least of all.
  1854. >Your eyes similarly slide off the man that follows her in.
  1855. >Tall. Older, but not *old*. Handsome enough.
  1856. >The kind of person you would have sought out not long ago, save for the uniform.
  1857. >That's all you notice of the man.
  1858. >That's all you want to know.
  1859. >The soldiers at the camp may have had the most to trade, the quickest to offer you food, but...
  1860. >You push back the uncomfortable memories.
  1861. >There's another pony with him.
  1862. >You were right.
  1863. >You *did* recognise that voice.
  1864. >It *is* someone from Ponyville.
  1865. >She looks surprised - maybe even shocked - for a brief moment.
  1866. >Your eyes lock with hers.
  1867. >... and you see nothing there.
  1868. >Sweetie stepping forward gives you a reason to look away first.
  1869. >She dips her head politely.
  1870. >"Hello, Mrs Rich."
  1871. >"*Miss*," the mare sneers back. "I haven't seen Filthy in... I don't know. It hardly matters. So I think -"
  1872. "But you kept his name."
  1873. >"I like it."
  1874. >"More importantly, *I* like it," the man she's with adds. "I take it you know each other. Well, I hope that'll make this easy."
  1875. >You stare. Try to remember.
  1876. >She left the camp - left *you* - at the side of an army officer. His personal whore.
  1877. >Was it him?
  1878. >You don't think it was. That man was shorter. Darker hair.
  1879. >"If she knows them," Coco grins like an *idiot*, "does that mean you'll buy them both?"
  1880. >He glares at her.
  1881. >She's pushing too hard.
  1882. >"It means Spoiled can help me pick," he frowns. "It's fortunate I brought her on this trip instead of one of the others."
  1883. >Stupid mare doesn't know how to make a sale and *you* -
  1884. >"Get the white one," Spoiled suggests. "She's Rarity's sister. You remember her, don't you?"
  1885. >"Yes, of course. From the peace talks. She was quite eloquent..." he points to Sweetie "... unlike her. Does she talk?"
  1886. >Coco stammers wordlessly for a moment before figuring out how to take advantage of -
  1887. >"Of course, Colonel Morgan! She's just... shy?"
  1888. >- or not.
  1889. >She should have been forced into service like the rest.
  1890. >A *filly* could push a sale better than her.
  1891. >You sigh.
  1892. >The man looks your way - and smirks.
  1893. >Like he knew exactly what you were thinking and agreed.
  1894. >"I can't say I really see the family resemblance to Rarity," he sighs, "but I suppose I'm not buying her for her diplomatic talents.
  1895. >"She's pretty enough, but why not the pink one? I was told she has more experience."
  1896. >That's a polite way to put it.
  1897. >One you could appreciate in any other situation.
  1898. >"Well..." his companion giggles, "isn't a lack of experience a selling point?"
  1899. >He shrugs.
  1900. >"I'm not looking for something to break in, Spoiled. You know I don't enjoy that the way some people do. I just want a little more variety."
  1901. >"Well..." Coco mumbles, "between the two of them..."
  1902. >"You can go," he says with a shake of his head. "Tell Sterling you did your best -"
  1903. >For what little that means.
  1904. >"- but I'm only buying one of his mares."
  1905. >"But sir, I -"
  1906. >"If I buy any at all," he huffs. "If you're going to stay, at least stay *quiet*. These two have barely been able to say a thing."
  1907. >He looks first to you -
  1908. >And smiles again at your shrug.
  1909. >- then to Sweetie Belle.
  1910. >"Sorry," she mumbles through gritted teeth. "I... um... I don't know what..."
  1911. >"That's fine," he waves her off. "I already have a chatterbox waiting for me at home. I'm sure she'd appreciate someone to talk to, but that's not why I'm here."
  1912. >He walks towards you, Sweetie watching with concern - and then glaring - with every step he takes.
  1913. >Why?
  1914. >You both knew what this was all about.
  1915. >He paces around you, looking at you from every angle.
  1916. >Dragging his hand across your spine, brushing along the natural direction of your coat.
  1917. >Along your neck and flank.
  1918. >"Soft, but a bit lifeless."
  1919. >Running his fingers through your mane.
  1920. >"Have you ever heard of conditioner? You should try it."
  1921. >You - you *want* to ignore him. To just stand still looking directly ahead. To pretend... to... you don't know.
  1922. >But your head follows him. Your eyes track him as he circles.
  1923. >Instinct? Fear?
  1924. >Some lingering desire to -
  1925. >He grabs your tail and lifts.
  1926. "Hey! I -"
  1927. >He didn't even *ask*!
  1928. >Not even customers would *dare* and... but this isn't the same.
  1929. >There are no guards waiting outside to intervene. No opportunity to go back to the diner and snag another customer.
  1930. >No second chances.
  1931. >"Did you say something?"
  1932. >You don't want to... you don't know *what* you want.
  1933. "No."
  1934. >He lets your tail drop and circles again.
  1935. >You don't watch him.
  1936. >You're too busy looking at the floor.
  1937. >Trying to avoid seeing Sweetie Belle's expression, to not see the pity and contempt she must hold for you right now.
  1938. >You can barely see his feet as they circle, further and further until he's not even circling you, but -
  1939. >"No!" Sweetie screams.
  1940. >You look up to see her jerking away from the man, spinning about to glare with her tail clamped down tight to her rear.
  1941. >"I'm not like -"
  1942. >You knew it.
  1943. >*Contempt*.
  1944. >"- I'm not like *that*!"
  1945. >The man smirks and takes a step back as she dances a few more steps away from him.
  1946. >He shrugs and sighs and shakes his head.
  1947. >"See?" he says with a jerk of his chin. "I'm not looking for a challenge or a fight. I just want a mare that will do what I want. The pink one seems better for that."
  1948. >"I still think you should buy Rarity's sister," his companion says with a curl of her lip.
  1949. >Bitch.
  1950. >"Why?" the man asks. "I suppose you know them, so is there something about her personality or -"
  1951. >"She's my daughter," Spoiled Rich sneers. "It would be weird."
  1952. >He gasps.
  1953. >He laughs.
  1954. >He rolls his eyes.
  1955. >He shakes his head.
  1956. >"And you want me to buy the *other* one?"
  1957. >"It would be weird," she repeats.
  1958. >"Some people might be into that, you know," he chuckles.
  1959. >You can imagine.
  1960. >And it wouldn't be the worst thing you've done. Not recently.
  1961. >Except that it's *her*.
  1962. >Even so...
  1963. >"Don't be disgusting," Spoiled scoffs.
  1964. >"I said 'some people'," he sighs. "Not me. Besides, she doesn't look all that healthy."
  1965. >You - you look back at yourself.
  1966. >A reaction. To see. To challenge. To argue against the insult. To... to...?
  1967. >"She's fine," Coco insists when all you can do is stand there like a nervous first-timer dragged onto the floor.
  1968. >"No, she's been mistreated," he says. "I can see that plainly. Her hair is dull and coarse. She's thin, but I'm guessing she was much thinner not too long ago.
  1969. >"The way she flinched as I touched her side... "
  1970. >You did?
  1971. >You hadn't even noticed.
  1972. >"... I assume someone broke one of her ribs. It's healed - or healed enough - but she still expects pain.
  1973. >"I'm not looking for a pony to break but neither am I looking for a project. Some people may get off of nursing a broken pony back to health, but not me."
  1974. >He shrugs, almost apologetically, before twisting his head around to Spoiled.
  1975. >She does nothing.
  1976. >Exactly what you expect from her.
  1977. >"Well," he sighs, "are there any others Sterling is willing to part with?"
  1978. >That's it.
  1979. >"Um..."
  1980. >No second chances.
  1981. >"Well..." Coco hums, " I can see if..."
  1982. >You can guess how Sterling is going to react to this.
  1983. >He's been... generous as of late.
  1984. >You suspect Octavia had something to do with that, but his patience will only last so long.
  1985. >"Wait!" Sweetie shouts. "We... um..."
  1986. >He'll snap. Throw a tantrum. Make demands.
  1987. >You've seen it before.
  1988. >He might regret whatever happens afterwards, but that won't help you, will it?
  1989. >"... I mean..." Sweetie mumbles.
  1990. >It won't help her either.
  1991. >You might even drag down Octavia too if she's stood up for you both as you suspect.
  1992. >He might blame her.
  1993. >"Did you want to say something?" the man asks with crossed arms and an amused grin. "Maybe beg?"
  1994. >Sweetie looks your way.
  1995. >She shudders.
  1996. >"Let me guess," he smirks, "Sterling will beat you if I don't buy you."
  1997. >Sweetie's mumbled answer is too soft for even you to hear.
  1998. >"What was that?"
  1999. >"He'll kill us," she repeats.
  2000. >"And?"
  2001. >"That's a lie!" Coco shouts.
  2002. >For a second you think the man is going to kick her.
  2003. >From the way she quickly cowers back, she thinks so too.
  2004. >"No," he glowers. "I've heard enough of Sterling that I can believe it. I was warned he had temper issues, so I was happy he went with doctors instead of meeting me personally.
  2005. >"I can't stand men like that, but I've certainly known enough to believe he would have a pony or two killed out of anger. Particularly ones that were costing him money."
  2006. >He smirks.
  2007. >"These kinds of people always find some excuse to justify it to themselves. Money is an easy reason."
  2008. >You nod and his grin widens.
  2009. >"So, Spoiled, does that make a difference?"
  2010. >"What do you mean?"
  2011. >"Do you want me to buy your daughter now if it will save her life?"
  2012. >She -
  2013. >There's a reason you stopped thinking of her as your mother long ago.
  2014. >She *hesitates*.
  2015. >Not because she might possibly *care*, not because she's weighing her feelings and finding some deeply buried maternal instinct starting to finally blossom, but because she doesn't know what answer *he* wants.
  2016. >She never even looks at you before answering.
  2017. >"No."
  2018. >"Why not?"
  2019. >"Whatever brought her to this, I'm sure she did it to herself."
  2020. >And she's not wrong, is she...?
  2021. >"See?" his companion huffs. "Did you see her stomp her hoof?"
  2022. >You did?
  2023. >He nods.
  2024. "I -"
  2025. >"If you buy her too... " Sweetie interrupts "... I... I promise..."
  2026. >"Buy her too?" the man laughs. "I haven't even decided I'd buy *you*. In fact, I'm fairly certain I won't."
  2027. >"... I promise I'll do whatever you want!"
  2028. >He makes a show of pretending to consider it. Not patronizingly, not insultingly. Not as a joke or to mock her.
  2029. >It's a measured, polite response, but he shakes his head.
  2030. >"No, I only want one more pony for the moment. I think five is sufficient."
  2031. >"Then... you can sell Diamond!" Sweetie shouts. "You don't have to keep her, but if you sell her to someone who won't hurt her I promise that I'll -"
  2032. >"And what's to keep you obedient once your friend is out of my reach?"
  2033. >"I... um..."
  2034.  
  2035. >Beyond this door...
  2036. >In Sterling's office...
  2037. >Within your reach is the sound of something *almost* right - almost *perfect* - but sour.
  2038. >A cloudy sunrise.
  2039. >A sudden rainstorm on a bright spring day.
  2040. >A scratchy wool blanket on a cold winter night.
  2041. >A dress just your colour and cut but one size too small.
  2042. >Something like that.
  2043. >Or so you think. Thought.
  2044. >It's louder now. Clearer.
  2045. >And yet you find yourself hesitating. Second-guessing things.
  2046. >Wondering if it's all in your head.
  2047. >*Of course it is.*
  2048. >But now you're questioning if this is *real*. If you're actually hearing what you're hearing, or... or if you're just so desperate for the missing piece that you would hear it no matter what.
  2049. >That doesn't stop you.
  2050. >Because it's true.
  2051. >You are that desperate.
  2052. >And you'll take any chance you can to find it.
  2053. >You grasp the knob and twist.
  2054. >Sterling doesn't even frown as you come in.
  2055. >You smile.
  2056. >It's here.
  2057. >*It's here!*
  2058. >No glare, not one angry word.
  2059. >Just the biggest grin you've ever seen slashed across his face.
  2060. >Probably echoing your own.
  2061. "Ste- Master Sterling, may I -"
  2062. >"Good, I'm glad you came," he interrupts. Thankfully. You have no idea what you were about to ask.
  2063. >"You should know about this. I want you to meet Informed Consent -"
  2064. >He gestures to one pony - a stallion. The pony nods brusquely, barely acknowledging you.
  2065. >"- and Quality Control."
  2066. >The second. A mare. She doesn't even do as much as her companion.
  2067. >You don't care.
  2068. >Those two interest you about as much as you do them. Less.
  2069. >They're *nothing*.
  2070. >"They're the doctors that are going to fix everything."
  2071. >You can't even remember their names or the colour of their coats.
  2072. >Pegasus? Unicorn? Earth pony?
  2073. >Everything is washed away.
  2074. "But -?"
  2075. >No mention of the last pony.
  2076. >There are three. You could swear there are three.
  2077. >The one standing apart from the others.
  2078. >You know what you saw, but -
  2079. >Over there. Yes.
  2080. >Apart from Sterling.
  2081. >Are you imagining her?
  2082. >"Great news, isn't it?"
  2083. >You don't know. You don't understand. That doesn't matter.
  2084. "... fix everything, sir?"
  2085. >How can they?
  2086. >He's wrong. He's wrong in so many ways. You don't even know what he means, but you know it's *wrong*.
  2087. "What do you mean?"
  2088. >Those two can't fix anything.
  2089. >"These three were sent by Stiers."
  2090. >It's the third pony.
  2091. >Yes.
  2092. >A third.
  2093. >She's the answer.
  2094. >"They're going to do the surgery."
  2095. >The *key*.
  2096. "Oh."
  2097. >Surgery.
  2098. >That must be why he's so happy.
  2099. >You remember... *something*?
  2100. >Something he had mentioned to you.
  2101. >It's gone.
  2102. >It doesn't matter.
  2103. >You don't und- it's not important.
  2104. >You stare at the third pony.
  2105. >Or try.
  2106. >Your eyes keep sliding off her.
  2107. >Like you don't want to see her.
  2108. >Like she isn't really there.
  2109. >Yes, *her*.
  2110. >But she is.
  2111. >She's right... where?
  2112. >You forgot if she was over -
  2113. >There.
  2114. >The most memorable shade of...
  2115. >What colour is that again?
  2116. >It slips your mind every time you look away, however involuntary that may be.
  2117. >That's not why you keep looking back to her.
  2118. >Not the colour of her coat or the familiar - if lined - face or her oversized wings.
  2119. >It's the music.
  2120. >The sickly sound of her diseased melody.
  2121. >A sore throat trying to sing an aria. A gurgling chorus of a single voice.
  2122. >Words slurred and bubbling, manic in their pace and without any single one being distinguishable from the next.
  2123. >It's coming from her.
  2124. >From *her*.
  2125. >Her alone.
  2126. >Not anypony else.
  2127. >From *her*.
  2128. >She's the key.
  2129. >And it all clicks.
  2130. >The music...
  2131. >... it *is* the pony.
  2132. >It always has been, hasn't it?
  2133. >Not just *her*. Not just this lone strained voice.
  2134. >You've heard it before, haven't you?
  2135. >The single song of an individual.
  2136. >Most clearly from Derpy - the percussive playing of a guitar that sounded so very like a drum.
  2137. >You didn't know what you were hearing.
  2138. >Not the instrument, not the source, not why, not what it means.
  2139. >You know better now.
  2140. >It's all so clear.
  2141. >No, wait. Not a guitar. Not a drum.
  2142. >Derpy is... she's a *pegasus*. Obviously her song is -
  2143. >Oh!
  2144. >No, it's -!
  2145. >A bassoon!?
  2146. >But played so peculiarly, that it's no wonder she's so -
  2147. >*Oh!*
  2148. >If you push yourself, you can hear Derpy even now. You can pick her song out of the orchestra, from the hundreds of others.
  2149. >She's not far away. And coming closer.
  2150. >But it's not just her. Others as well.
  2151. >Your own, if you focus, but it's hard.
  2152. >It sounds *natural*. Too natural. Too close for you to see. It blends into your thoughts and actions so smoothly it's always slipping to the back of your mind. Beyond subconscious.
  2153. >But others... some you can hear very few clearly, and most of those are distant. So distant you can't fully make out their songs.
  2154. >And yet some are so loud their every note makes a mark on the symphony.
  2155. >Most are dull. Even the closest. Many off-key, the majority out of rhythm, but you can *hear* them. And you know each sound, each *instrument* is *someone*.
  2156. >But never a voice. And never *sick*.
  2157. >Just the mare hiding before you.
  2158. >Guitars, drums, chimes, violins, snares, banjos...
  2159. >All manner of instruments, from all manner of ponies.
  2160. >That must be why it was so hard to pick out the individual sounds, to identify the specific ponies.
  2161. >To realize what it was you were hearing.
  2162. >Every instrument ever played in Equestria - and more - blended together into a song that only you can hear.
  2163. >Layered song upon song, intermingled and woven together.
  2164. >But never a voice.
  2165. >And never like *this*.
  2166. >You look at her - you *truly* look at her...
  2167. >... and gasp.
  2168. >It's not her.
  2169. >It can't be her.
  2170. >But you know it is.
  2171. >Purple coat.
  2172. >Wide wings.
  2173. >Long horn.
  2174. >*Princess*.
  2175. >Twilight Sparkle.
  2176. >Murderer of millions.
  2177. >Criminal in two worlds.
  2178. >Eyes filled with determination.
  2179. >You see her for what she is, for *who* she is.
  2180. >And at that moment, at that realization, she sees *you*.
  2181. >Sees you as you see her, fully aware.
  2182. >Fully knowing.
  2183. >That whatever magic she is using to hide herself only makes you more aware of who she is.
  2184. >She twitches. Her wings flare out slightly as if about to take flight.
  2185. >Her eyes never waver.
  2186. >Sterling talks, but you can't hear him over Twilight's song, over the sudden, panicked rush in tempo and pitch.
  2187. >Whatever he says, it's not important.
  2188. >It couldn't be, not compared to this.
  2189. >Nothing is.
  2190. >You stare at her as she stares at you. Thinking. Judging. Fearing.
  2191. >And neither of you say a thing.
  2192. >What would you say?
  2193. >What would you do?
  2194. >Yell? Scream? Call for help?
  2195. >Denounce her for her crimes?
  2196. >*How can you?*
  2197. >Are you truly any different?
  2198. >So much you thought was necessary only brought about more suffering.
  2199. >So much you believed ended up being a lie.
  2200. >That you saw no other choice is irrelevant.
  2201. >Her crimes are only greater than your in magnitude.
  2202. >You...
  2203. >... nod to her.
  2204. >Not as a pony to her princess - not kneeling, not submissive - but as one misguided fool to another.
  2205. >She smiles. Faint and sorrowful, but she smiles.
  2206. >If only either of you had stopped to *think*.
  2207. >Millions would still be alive. Silver Spoon would still be alive. Vinyl would -
  2208. >And how many other ponies?
  2209. >You try to remember their names. Their faces. The ones you punished. The ones you arranged to die. To be *killed*. To -
  2210. >You've blanked them out. Done your best to forget. To tell yourself if they had only done their jobs. If only -
  2211. >All you have is regret.
  2212. >And hatred.
  2213. >Not for the princess, not for Sterling, but for yourself.
  2214. >Hatred and regret and a hope that somehow - *somehow* - you can find a way to make... not *amends*.
  2215. >That's... how can you ever bring back all those lives? How can *she*?
  2216. >No, not a hope to make amends, but to make things better at least.
  2217. >A hope you share. A drive.
  2218. >A *need*.
  2219. >You have your music. Your song. The orchestra. You have to complete it. Figure it out. And *she* -
  2220. >If you had -
  2221. >Something... *unspoken*...
  2222. >... *happens*.
  2223. >There's no other way to put it.
  2224. >For a moment your song is in tune with hers.
  2225. >A duet.
  2226. >A blending of shared sins and shared hopes.
  2227. >Sick and *wrong*, Princess Twilight's voice plays counterpoint to your sombre strings.
  2228. >You can see it, hear it.
  2229. >Her thoughts, her past.
  2230. >Spike is gone.
  2231. >She sent him away to keep him safe.
  2232. >Another regret.
  2233. >Questions if it was as necessary as she thought.
  2234. >As she questions everything else.
  2235. >As she still asks herself every morning if she hates herself for what she did.
  2236. >If -
  2237. >You understand.
  2238. >Not everything.
  2239. >You don't need to understand everything.
  2240. >*Can't*.
  2241. >That's too much.
  2242. >But you see what's in her thoughts.
  2243. >As she sees what's in yours.
  2244. >Why you're here.
  2245. >Why she's here.
  2246. >Oh, *sun*.
  2247. >She -
  2248. >The songs diverge, your strings taking up a frantic swing like the panicked beating of your heart.
  2249. >If -
  2250. >Twilight Sparkle's song screams.
  2251. >She jerks back.
  2252. >Sterling *stops*.
  2253. >*Everything* stops as she turns to him and glares.
  2254. >*Furious*.
  2255. >As you saw her, she saw you.
  2256. >"NO."
  2257. >Her voice shakes you. Shakes the room.
  2258. >She knows.
  2259. >The vibrations - the force - leave you quivering like a plucked string.
  2260. >He... he doesn't get it, does he?
  2261. >He doesn't have the faintest idea.
  2262. >"WE WILL *NOT* HELP YOU."
  2263. >Or he wouldn't lean forward and point his finger at -
  2264. >"I don't know who you think you are," Informed Consent sneers. Stumbles. "But you swore to help us. You told Stiers if he got you here -"
  2265. >Tries to salvage a bad situation.
  2266. >He doesn't see. Doesn't know just what's happening.
  2267. >Her horn glows.
  2268. >They see *that*.
  2269. >The don't understand, but they *see*.
  2270. >And they are afraid.
  2271. >Your song is not the only one flying frantically through your mind.
  2272. >Three at first.
  2273. >More. Slowly. The closest. Picking up speed as if they -
  2274. >But *hers* - calm. Methodical. More now than ever. *Insistant*.
  2275. >A deep and murderous rage.
  2276. >She won't do it again.
  2277. >Not by mistake. Not by accident.
  2278. >Not in a panicked flurry. Not without deliberation.
  2279. >"Stiers..." one of the other ponies murmurs "... Stiers won't help you again if you do anything to us."
  2280. >It dawns on them. Like the sun on a cold morning.
  2281. >"I *know* he's been sharing research and materials with you. You *need* -
  2282. >The princess' song overpowers her. Or him.
  2283. >You can't tell.
  2284. >You only know it was a pony because of the pluck of their song as fear gave them the courage to -
  2285. >"It doesn't matter," Twilight Sparkle snarls. "I'll probably be dead soon, if we're lucky. If not, then everyone here will be. I no longer *need* his cooperation."
  2286. >She's going to kill him.
  2287. >Sterling. Kill Sterling.
  2288. >"I don't have to make bargains anymore," she rumbles with manic glee, "not with him and not with myself!"
  2289. >*Murder* him.
  2290. >"There's no reason *not* to save others when -"
  2291. >Your *friend*.
  2292. >"- I *finally* can make -"
  2293. >He *used* to be your friend.
  2294. >"- a *real* difference in -"
  2295. >Her horn glows brighter.
  2296. >Your song tugs your body along.
  2297. >Not to stop her.
  2298. >Not to save him.
  2299. >You don't throw yourself in her way or beg for his life.
  2300. >He *should* die.
  2301. >He *deserves* it.
  2302. >You know this.
  2303. >*She* knows this.
  2304. >She's thought it over. Judged him. Thought on the consequences.
  2305. >All in the space of seconds.
  2306. >And this - this is deliberate. He *should* die.
  2307. >But -
  2308. >- somehow -
  2309. >- it still makes you -
  2310. >Her song hits a high note. Resolve.
  2311. >As does yours. Fear? Melancholy? Sadness?
  2312. >A bittersweet realization.
  2313. >She looks away from Sterling.
  2314. >Looks at you.
  2315. >Out of the corner of her eye.
  2316. >That saves him.
  2317. >Not anything you say. Not anything you do.
  2318. >Another shared moment that makes her turn her head just enough.
  2319. >A shrieking beam of black light so dark and brilliant it's almost an impossible purple smashes through the far wall instead of through Sterling.
  2320. >Her song crests, so *wrong* you fall to your knees.
  2321. >It's all you can do not to vomit.
  2322. >It doesn't *stop*.
  2323. >You hear screams outside.
  2324. >Confusion.
  2325. >A jangling, jarring discordance to the orchestra.
  2326. >As if everypony everywhere -
  2327. >"If it weren't for her," the princess hisses. "I would *kill* you. And I would regret *nothing*."
  2328. >What's one more death?
  2329. >She doesn't -
  2330. >No, not just Sterling.
  2331. >"I would - I *know* what you've all done."
  2332. >The doctors. You too.
  2333. >At least she *should*.
  2334. >The things you've done -
  2335. >But you're not certain if that's what she meant.
  2336. >And neither is she.
  2337. >Another shared moment where your songs align.
  2338. >Uncertainty.
  2339. >There's a flash.
  2340. >Brighter.
  2341. >A vibrant raspberry.
  2342. >She's gone.
  2343. >Her song... lingers.
  2344. >For a moment.
  2345. >Then fades.
  2346. >Into the distance.
  2347. >You can still hear it clearly.
  2348. >Still hear every overlapping word, now that you know what to listen for.
  2349. >That you know what you're listening *to*.
  2350. >She's not far.
  2351. >Outside of town, maybe. But not far.
  2352. >You - you raise your head before you stand.
  2353. >Before you *can* stand.
  2354. >Even looking up is enough to make the *wrongness* send waves of nausea through you.
  2355. >You almost do it anyway.
  2356. >The sensation helps you stop thinking about her song.
  2357. >About how *wrong* it was, and yet how vital.
  2358. >About how the orchestra sounds... complete.
  2359. >With her, it's *complete*.
  2360. >Thin and wrong and as off-tune as ever, but whole.
  2361. >You're not sure who recovers first.
  2362. >Which of the other three speak first.
  2363. >It's certainly not you.
  2364. >They don't understand what just happened.
  2365. >Sterling is shaken. Angry.
  2366. >They don't hear the music.
  2367. >He always is when he doesn't understand.
  2368. >The doctors insist they can perform the operation without her. That they never needed her.
  2369. >They don't know who was here, who she was.
  2370. >And as they talk, more and more seems to fall away from them.
  2371. >They argue, they plead. They shout and bellow. They try to... to control themselves.
  2372. >To not run screaming and hide.
  2373. >You... stand.
  2374. >Slowly.
  2375. >Your mind spins with every movement.
  2376. >"We don't *need* her, Control," the stallion insists. "She was only here to help with recovery and integration!"
  2377. >Their argument doesn't help.
  2378. >"That's not what we should be worried about right now, Consent! She could *kill* someone! She threatened to kill *us*! Someone has to -"
  2379. >Its discord is almost as disturbing as Twilight's song.
  2380. >Only flat. Deafened.
  2381. >*Weak*.
  2382. >"She's gone rogue," Sterling agrees. "And she's not taking suppressants. A unicorn like that -"
  2383. >The two ponies stop arguing, stop everything.
  2384. >You can read their thoughts from their songs.
  2385. >Can hear them asking themselves if she *was* a unicorn.
  2386. >But of course. There's the evidence. The hole in the wall. The cloudy sky beyond.
  2387. >Yes, a unicorn. Obviously.
  2388. >And clearly not taking her pills.
  2389. >She's gone insane. Same as the others. Same as every pony that stops taking her supressants.
  2390. >Insane and violent.
  2391. >Obviously.
  2392. >"Go and..." Sterling waves "... get... um..."
  2393. >He points to you.
  2394. >Why *you*?
  2395. >Because he trusts you.
  2396. >Because you're his friend.
  2397. >Because you've always done what he says.
  2398. >"Tell... call the sheriff. Tell him there's a unicorn on the loose. Her name is..."
  2399. >They look at each other.
  2400. >They don't know.
  2401. >He waves his hand.
  2402. >"It doesn't matter. She's... well... you were there."
  2403. >Perhaps the only one that truly was.
  2404. >"Call the sheriff and tell him."
  2405. "Tell him what, exactly?"
  2406. >"Tell him... you damn well know what to tell him!"
  2407. "Of course, sir."
  2408. >You know exactly what to tell the sheriff.
  2409. >As soon as you can make it to a phone.
  2410.  
  2411. "Bend it the other way, Bill."
  2412. >He looks up from the new wire rack and pretends to glare.
  2413. >"Shouldn't you be the stocking out all the hardware from yesterday's delivery instead of watching an old man fumble around?"
  2414. "You *know* I already did that."
  2415. >"Damn," he sighs. "Alright, come here and help me. Just don't laugh too much."
  2416. "It's not haaaard. All you need to do is -"
  2417. >And suddenly you're on the floor.
  2418. >Your legs buckled.
  2419. >All of them.
  2420. >You didn't even know - didn't realize - what has happening until your chin hit the ground.
  2421. >It hurts.
  2422. >You clench your mouth tight.
  2423. >Not just because it hurts. Trying not to throw up.
  2424. >Makes it easy not to laugh at Bill.
  2425. >"Wh-what the -"
  2426. >The rack falls.
  2427. >The sound it makes -
  2428. >You try to block out the clatter - long after it's already on the ground.
  2429. >Bill's hand is on your back.
  2430. >He's talking.
  2431. >He's trying to get his hands under you.
  2432. >You -
  2433. >He'll hurt himself trying to pick you up.
  2434. >You stand. It doesn't work.
  2435. >You close your eyes and try again. *Up*, this time.
  2436. >Stand *up*, not whatever your body just tried to do.
  2437. >This time you make it to your hooves.
  2438. >You *wobble*.
  2439. >"- happened?" Bill asks about... *something*. "Are you okay?"
  2440. >You turn your head to the left - no, to the *left* - towards Bill.
  2441. >And after you blink a few times, he looks about normal.
  2442. >"I'm going to call the clinic. Stay right - uh, lay down. I don't want you -"
  2443. "No, don't. I... uh... I think I'm fine."
  2444. >Maybe...?
  2445. >Yeah. No.
  2446. >*You're* fine.
  2447. >It was the world that went all wrong.
  2448. >You're sure of it.
  2449. >"What happened?"
  2450. "I... I don't know. Everything was just..."
  2451.  
  2452. "Before you say anything, I *know* you don't want to go off your suppressants..."
  2453. >Trixie shakes her head like a damn bobblehead.
  2454. >You sigh, push your glasses back up, set your breakfast down on the table, and... no, *don't* sit.
  2455. >If she bolts again, you'll just tackle her.
  2456. "... Silver Spoon had a good suggestion, so I'm trying to put together a list of useful skills us unicorns have."
  2457. >"Look," she sighs, "do we *really* need to go over this right now?"
  2458. >She pushes her bowl away from the edge of the table and stands.
  2459. >"I'm trying -"
  2460. "Yes, I know. Your contract says we can't make you do any hard labor, but -"
  2461. >"- no, I'm *trying* to -"
  2462. "I know, you're doing your best, but -"
  2463. >"- Lily Pad is sick and I'm *trying* to -"
  2464. "Oh."
  2465. >"*Yeah*. So if you don't mind -"
  2466. "You were going to try to cheer her up?"
  2467. >"Told her parents I'd be by right after breakfast."
  2468. >Well. Now you feel like...
  2469. >Eh.
  2470. >Okay, maybe you're a little task-oriented right now, but...
  2471. >It happens.
  2472. "Sorry, go ahead. But when you're free, I'd like to talk. Even if you don't want to go off the suppressants, you might be able to teach some of the other unicorns something useful."
  2473. >"Well, I... uh... I mean *Trixie the Great* can -"
  2474. "It'd be really helpful. I know you didn't -"
  2475. >Uh...
  2476. >Shit.
  2477. >What's the word?
  2478. >You can't un-
  2479. >... um...
  2480. >Sh...
  2481. >You don't hear the rest.
  2482. >All you hear is *pain*.
  2483. >Pain and screaming.
  2484. >Your screaming, you think.
  2485. >Others too, maybe.
  2486. >Maybe it's just you.
  2487. >And then it's gone.
  2488. >Mostly.
  2489. >Your horn *aches*. Like it was slammed in a door or... no, that's stupid, but -
  2490. >It's hard to think.
  2491. >And -
  2492. >It's gone.
  2493. >Trixie backs up.
  2494. >She looks scared.
  2495. >You look around.
  2496. >She's not the only one.
  2497. >The ones that aren't holding their heads or collapsed on the floor.
  2498. >The rest...
  2499. >You move your head too fast.
  2500. >It leaves you dizzy.
  2501. >After a moment, it passes.
  2502. >Still, when you raise your head again, you do it slower.
  2503. >With purpose.
  2504. >With *focus*.
  2505. >It keeps the nausea at bay.
  2506. >Maybe... maybe one in twenty ponies is on the ground.
  2507. >Counting is hard.
  2508. >A few more look sick. And some -
  2509. >Maud is standing still as a rock, her eyes shut tight.
  2510. >Most ponies seem fine.
  2511. >Scared. Worried about their friends. Worried this might be the other shoe finally dropping.
  2512. >Idiots.
  2513. >If you - if *anypony* - were going to go berserk from withdrawal, that would have happened -
  2514. >You make the connection.
  2515. >Obviously you'd already made it, but now you *realize* it.
  2516. >Everypony affected by... you'll figure out *what* later. When thinking is easier.
  2517. >Everypony affected wasn't taking suppressants.
  2518.  
  2519. >"Beast of a task, isn't it?" Proper Standing says all sympathetic-like, though you bet Oil Base'd rather he step in an' do it than just feel sorry for her.
  2520. >Might, too, if she asked. He ain't the bad sort at all, but you wave him along.
  2521. >Don't matter how much she tries to put this off, gotta give it a try herself.
  2522. >Sure, muckin' out the chicken coop ain't pleasant in the least, but you're startin' - nah, you *are* out of ideas. For somethin' like the fourth time.
  2523. >"Are you sure about this...?" she sighs.
  2524. >Only so much that can be done out here.
  2525. "Never know what'll work. 'sides, at least you ain't gotta do it alone."
  2526. >String Bean gives her a friendly smile she don't notice - so you return it for her.
  2527. >Ain't her fault she got other things on -
  2528. >All the strength drain's out've you all at once.
  2529. >Your knees tremble, then -
  2530. >They stop just short've bucklin'.
  2531. >Somehow you find the will to keep standin'. Somewhere deep down, a li'l voice singin' out not to fall.
  2532. >Scared an' worried an' telling you to keep to your hooves. That it'll be over soon.
  2533. >Don't know how long you're doin' nothin' but just not collapsin' in a heap.
  2534. >When it passes, when you can do somethin' other'n just hold on to that voice, when you can look 'bout...
  2535. >String Bean's on the ground.
  2536. >Oil Base's holdin' her head.
  2537. >"What happened?" she moans.
  2538. "Ah... Ah don't know."
  2539.  
  2540. "Believe it or not, I'm startin' to think - I... uh...."
  2541. >Woah.
  2542. >You wobble on your feet an' nearly drop your phone.
  2543. >Put your hand up against an exposed stud to keep yourself upright.
  2544. >"Everything all right?" your neighbor asks.
  2545. >Barely hear him.
  2546. >Phone's in the hand you braced yourself with, after all.
  2547. >But... y'know what he asks. Can just feel it.
  2548. >An'...
  2549. >You raise the phone back to your mouth.
  2550. "Yeah. Just got dizzy for a sec there."
  2551. >"Weird, me... um... are you okay?"
  2552. "Yeah."
  2553. >"Just overworked yourself?" he chuckles nervous as heck.
  2554. "Maybe."
  2555. >What was me 'bout to say...?
  2556. >"Why don't you -"
  2557. "I'll..."
  2558. >Were 'bout to tell him you'd call him back, that somethin' don't feel quite right, but somethin' *don't* an' you don't wanna let go of his voice.
  2559. "Hold on a sec, I'm gonna step out an' take a look around."
  2560. >"Maybe you shouldn't. Why don't you sit down?"
  2561. "I'm fine. Stop worrin' so much."
  2562. >Even if it does warm your heart to hear him speak like that.
  2563. >You step out've the... *whatever* this particular room of the rest stop'll end up bein' an' look about.
  2564. >Work's stopped. All over.
  2565. >Men an' pony alike all standin' in silence.
  2566. >Somethin' like one in ten ponies is starin off into the distance.
  2567. >The rest are starin' at *them*.
  2568. >Takes a sec to realize where those first batch are lookin'.
  2569. >Down along the road.
  2570. >Back towards town.
  2571. >What are they seein' that you...?
  2572. >Huh.
  2573. >It ain't the seein'. It's the *feelin'*.
  2574. >An' you don't got a clue what you're feelin'.
  2575. >Just that it makes you terrified an' hopeful all at once.
  2576. >Mostly terrified, 'til...
  2577. >An' then it's gone.
  2578. >"You okay?" your friend asks.
  2579. >Huh.
  2580. >He can't feel it.
  2581. >Not yet.
  2582.  
  2583. >Bells.
  2584. >New bells.
  2585. >Another pony joins the orchestra.
  2586. >You hang up the phone with a smile because of that.
  2587. >Another friend returned.
  2588. >An earth pony.
  2589. >It almost...
  2590. >It might not matter.
  2591. >Sterling doesn't know how lucky he is.
  2592. >He's small. Unimportant. Princess Twilight wasn't here for him.
  2593. >She didn't know. She didn't care.
  2594. >She isn't here to kill.
  2595. >What he's done here - what *you've* done here - are *trivial*.
  2596. >All those deaths *nothing* compared to what's coming.
  2597. >You can't comprehend the scale of her purpose.
  2598. >The connection wasn't deep enough for that.
  2599. >You got flashes of emotion, a brief glimpse at her thoughts as they ran through her mind.
  2600. >Millions might die.
  2601. >Maybe more.
  2602. >She's here to save them.
  2603. >She's not here to kill. She's here to die.
  2604. >That...
  2605. >You're ashamed of it, but that almost makes you feel relieved.
  2606. >Would, if it weren't for the faint sound of her song that makes the orchestra complete.
  2607. >You hope she's wrong.
  2608. >You hope she survives.
  2609. >Now that you know what was missing, you don't think you could bear for it to disappear again.
  2610. >You hope... you *pray* that the sheriff doesn't catch her.
  2611. >You had to call him. You *had* to.
  2612. >Not because Sterling told you to. Not because you didn't have the courage to refuse.
  2613. >She's dangerous.
  2614. >But at the same time, you pray they never corner her.
  2615. >She's fragile enough already.
  2616. >You can't imagine what having to kill more would do to her mind.
  2617. >You don't want to find out.
  2618. >You want -
  2619. >You have the song now. All of it.
  2620. >Parts of it are wrong - dull or off-tune or sick - but you can *fix* that.
  2621. >You know exactly *how* to fix it.
  2622. >What to change, who needs to be louder, who to soften.
  2623. >All is right with the world that lives in your head.
  2624. >This one - this world, the one you live in - may be in danger. It might be - it *is* - horrible and terrifying.
  2625. >But the world you hear, the world you can *see* every time you close your eyes...
  2626. >It is time to bring it out of your mind and to life, whole and fully formed for all to hear.
  2627. >You reach out with a hoof and poke at the telephone, to push it away from the edge of the table.
  2628. >With a sigh, you...
  2629. >You smile.
  2630. >Tentatively.
  2631. >Everything could still go wrong.
  2632. >You're still terrified.
  2633. >Still sick to your stomach.
  2634. >But still you smile.
  2635. >Trust in the princess.
  2636. >Hard as it is - to trust in *her* specifically - you have to. You *have* to. It's not even a question of desperation.
  2637. >It's something deep down in your soul. An unquestionable instinct.
  2638. >An imperative need.
  2639. >One you choose not to fight against.
  2640. >One that you choose to believe in wholeheartedly. Because it calms your fears. Soothes your nausea.
  2641. >Gives you somepony to believe in.
  2642. >Everything will be okay.
  2643. >There's a princess now.
  2644. >And if not... if she can't... there's nothing you or anypony else can do about it.
  2645. >There's something wrong with her, but... it...
  2646. >Does it matter? There's a princess now.
  2647. >So... you smile.
  2648. >Wrong as her song sounds, it's better than nothing. *She* is better than no princess at all.
  2649. >It makes you feel as close to happy as you have in years.
  2650. >Not just happy.
  2651. >Content. Comfortable.
  2652. >*Home* - almost.
  2653. >Close enough.
  2654. >You don't think about it.
  2655. >Not because you don't want to, but because...
  2656. >Because?
  2657. >Because why question it?
  2658. >Why can't you just be happy?
  2659. >You choose to be happy.
  2660. >Close enough is good enough.
  2661. >You head to your room.
  2662. >The song carries you.
  2663. >Drums beat in time to your hoofsteps - or are your hooves slaved to the beat?
  2664. >Does it matter?
  2665. >You aren't the only one. The other mares you see as you glance out every window, the ponies walking too and from the diner, they're doing it too.
  2666. >Stepping to the beat, tossing their manes to the wind with a flurry of chimes.
  2667. >You see Fond Feather, headed to work. You see her turn her head to her companion and laugh at some joke.
  2668. >Laugh in time with a rapid cascade from a flute.
  2669. >They don't even know they're doing it, do they?
  2670. >Their songs are dull and flat, and yet -
  2671. >Oh!
  2672. >Derpy is back.
  2673. >You can *feel* her.
  2674. >Not distantly like before, but -
  2675. >You gallop on.
  2676. >Hit the rear door of the Stable's small office building with your shoulder, crashing it open as cymbals clash and -
  2677. >To the left?
  2678. >Yes, you hear her to the left.
  2679. >You look that way.
  2680. >There she is.
  2681. >Looking around cautiously. Creeping across the parking lot to get to the building you share with the other mares.
  2682. >How awkward that seems now.
  2683. >'The building you share with the other mares.'
  2684. >None of you ever gave it a name. Never referred to it as a dormitory or apartments. Certainly never as home.
  2685. >How very awkward.
  2686. >Discordant notes rumble at the thought, not quite the Moon's tritone but disturbing enough to send a shiver along your spine.
  2687. >Yet when you look back to Derpy, at her trying to crawl from car to car along the diner's parking lot like something from a Con Mane thriller, the ominous notes are drowned out by her courage and determination.
  2688. >You gallop out into the parking lot to meet her.
  2689.  
  2690. >"Better now?" Bill asks.
  2691. >You nod. Cautiously, but when your body does what you want instead of the opposite you nod harder.
  2692. "Yeah, I... uh..."
  2693. >Legs work too, so you stand.
  2694. >Bill tries to stop you but you shake your head again before he can say anything.
  2695. "No, it's fine. Really."
  2696. >Everything's good.
  2697. >Good enough.
  2698. >You stretch - legs *and* wings. Make sure everything is in working order.
  2699. >"Are you sure?"
  2700. >Even give a little test flap that makes Bill frown.
  2701. "Uh... yeah."
  2702. >You try that all again. Just in case, y'know?
  2703. >Everything does what you want it to, from your hooves to your secondaries.
  2704. "Yeaaaaaah... I don't know what just happened but everything seems fine now."
  2705. >Doesn't stop him from hovering over you like a worried parent.
  2706. >If you'd -
  2707. >Nah, no if. It's comforting.
  2708. >It's nice to have someone who cares about you like this.
  2709. >Bill smiles and nods, but in that way you know he doesn't really entirely mean.
  2710. >"I still think we need to take you in to see Dr. Alda."
  2711. >You stick out your tongue.
  2712. >The doctor is a nice enough guy, but...
  2713. "Nah."
  2714. >You dance in place, taping each hoof one after another on the floor while the others are raised.
  2715. "See?"
  2716. >"You might be feeling fine now, but just a bit ago you *weren't*. What if -"
  2717. "Yeah, but..."
  2718. >But what?
  2719. >You shrug.
  2720. >"If it happened once, it can happen again. It might be something serious. Stop being so stubborn. If something is up -"
  2721. "I'll tell you if it is."
  2722. >"But what if -"
  2723. "If *anything* feels weird, I'll tell you."
  2724. >Bill frowns *hard*.
  2725. "Everything's fine now."
  2726. >"Fine," he turns with a sigh. "As long as you're as unhappy with this compromise as I am."
  2727. "Let's just get this rack up."
  2728. >"On that we agree."
  2729. >You bolt forward and grab hold of one end with a hooked leg.
  2730. >"Hey, what's that song you're humming?"
  2731. "I'm what..?"
  2732.  
  2733. >Begin again. Think it through.
  2734. >Organize your thoughts.
  2735. >It couldn't have been what -
  2736. >"Huh?" Trixie snarls. "What?"
  2737. "What?"
  2738. >"You're mumbling."
  2739. >You were?
  2740. >You shake your head.
  2741. "Nothing important. Everything's... fine."
  2742. >"You sure? Because a second ago you really weren't. You aren't going to snap and kills us all, are you?"
  2743. >You look up and grin.
  2744. "No."
  2745. >She shrinks back.
  2746. >You would too if you could see your face.
  2747. >Even being on this side of it, you can tell your smile isn't very convincing.
  2748. >You probably look deranged.
  2749. >It's the best you can manage.
  2750. "Go on, and -"
  2751. >You put a hoof to your head.
  2752. >It doesn't hurt anymore - the feeling itself was fleeting - but the *memory* of it still aches.
  2753. >And will for a long time.
  2754. >You -
  2755. >You wave Trixie off.
  2756. "Isn't there a little filly waiting for you?"
  2757. >You think - you *hope* - it comes off as casual. That you keep what you're feeling out of your voice.
  2758. >Everypony is already on edge.
  2759. >Afraid of what just happened, what they felt. Scared because they've seen what can happen to ponies off their suppressants - and what they can do to others.
  2760. >Terrified because they don't know what just happened.
  2761. >You... know more than most.
  2762. >And they know *that*.
  2763. >You're the smart one. The scientist. The researcher. When they don't have answers, they come to you for them.
  2764. >So you try to smile. Make reassuring sounds come out of your mouth. Hopefully they form real words and not idiotic babbling.
  2765. >You aren't paying attention.
  2766. >It's all you can manage to keep up the act - or... you know.
  2767. >Not make anypony panic, including yourself.
  2768. >You do as best you can until you find someplace empty. Some family's room? A lone corner of one of the dorms?
  2769. >There's a vague curiosity on that point lurking in the back of your thoughts as you tuck yourself between an empty cot and a wall and grab your head.
  2770. >But you're less worried about where you are than about what's happening.
  2771. >You know what that feeling was.
  2772. >And worse, what you feel *now*.
  2773. >Two different and distinct sensations, yet you know they're related.
  2774. >They have to be.
  2775. >You did enough experiments. Tried enough things with the princesses and others.
  2776. >Pushed the bounds in the name of science.
  2777. >Did things that shouldn't have been done out of curiosity.
  2778. >Learned things that few other ponies know.
  2779. >Found out what didn't work in this world.
  2780. >More importantly, what *did*.
  2781. >No. What *does*.
  2782. >There's somepony here capable of using dark magic.
  2783. >Somepony strong.
  2784. >On par with... with Starlight Glimmer. At least.
  2785. >Your hair is on end.
  2786. >Like...
  2787. >The dark magic was momentary. Strong, but you only felt it for a moment. Everypony did.
  2788. >Everypony that *could* feel *any* magic.
  2789. >That moment when everything went *wrong*. When reality itself made a *mistake*.
  2790. >This world doesn't have Equestria's natural magical atmosphere to dampen that twisting of existence.
  2791. >But they don't know what it means, do they?
  2792. >Not unless you tell them.
  2793. >Will you?
  2794. >You pretend to consider it. For your own benefit. So you can tell yourself you're a good pony. A good friend.
  2795. >That you're not the kind of pony to keep secrets without a good reason.
  2796. >That you *have* a good reason.
  2797. >That there's no reason to cause a panic.
  2798. >That...
  2799. >Well... maybe.
  2800. >Some, at least. You can tell some *something* of what just happened. You know they'll have questions. You have to tell them *something*.
  2801. >*Anything* would be more calming than nothing.
  2802. >You can... you can make sense of it somehow.
  2803. >But not everything.
  2804. >Not what you feel *now*.
  2805. >What all of the others - all those that *can* feel it - must be dismissing as... as simple instinct or unease.
  2806. >You spent enough time with the princesses to know what it means to feel your hair on end like this.
  2807. >It wouldn't be Princess Cadence. She can't leave Equestria. And her daughter is too young.
  2808. >Princess Luna is trapped in the moon for...
  2809. >... you don't know. No one knows how long it'll be until she escapes - or *who* will emerge.
  2810. >You know who it has to be.
  2811. >Only one princess can be here. Only one would be using dark magic.
  2812. >How many died this time...?
  2813. >You know whose presence you feel.
  2814. >Only an alicorn radiates this kind of magical aura.
  2815. >Too close for comfort.
  2816. >That pulse of dark magic had to have been somewhere within...
  2817. >You try to think. What happened? Was there any hint, any -?
  2818. >That's no good. You were too focused on your own pain to pay attention. You weren't prepared for it.
  2819. >But the ache of the spell still lingers in your mind.
  2820. >Somewhere... *that* way.
  2821. >You don't even know what way *that* way is, just that it came from there. Maybe.
  2822. "Oh, *sun*."
  2823. >Too close.
  2824. >But now... it feels even closer. The presence of a princess.
  2825. >Was it a teleportation spell?
  2826. >Is she coming for *you*?
  2827. >She needed your help. Asked for it often. Her allies found a way to get her letters to you even at Hope Springs, long after you stopped answering them.
  2828. >Surely she would have found another mind to bounce her ideas off of?
  2829. >But none of them - none of them would know what you know, would they...?
  2830. >Has she grown tired of waiting?
  2831. >When you focus on that ephemeral feeling, you could swear she is at your side. Right beside you.
  2832. >But only when you *try* to sense her.
  2833. >Like a scared filly trying to catch sight of shadows in the dark.
  2834. >And worst of all... that feeling? The sensation of an alicorn nearby? It's almost *calming* when you do that.
  2835. >You try - and painfully fail - to tell yourself it's because it's easier to accept the worst than uncertainty.
  2836. >That you know she's here. Right next to you. That things can't get any worse.
  2837. >If only that was the reason -
  2838. > - and not because there's something about that feeling that makes you believe everything is - no, *will be* - right with the world.
  2839. >The uneasiness doesn't go away but it's... it's separate somehow.
  2840. >And that's even worse.
  2841. >Like an echo of that calm.
  2842. >An echo... or a shadow?
  2843. >But what if it isn't?
  2844. >What if there's two of them!?
  2845. >What if Twilight found help?
  2846. >She wasn't always an alicorn. She could have found an ally and...
  2847. >Your wrap your forelegs around yourself and shudder at the impossibility.
  2848.  
  2849. "... beautiful."
  2850. >"Huh?" Oil Base groans.
  2851. "Oh, uh..."
  2852. >You shake your head but that feelin' don't leave you.
  2853. "Ah said it's beautiful."
  2854. >"I'm glad you're enjoying my headache," Oil Base frowns your way.
  2855. >Well now you feel bad for lettin' your mind wander.
  2856. "No, the... uh..."
  2857. >What *was* that?
  2858. >Somethin' hopeful. Somethin' tellin' you that you ain't alone.
  2859. >That whatever comes you've got your family. An' friends too.
  2860. >Hard to put it into words.
  2861. >Like...
  2862. >Like the warmth of a good meal radiatin' out from your stomach?
  2863. >You almost put a leg up to your belly to check, but y'know that's just your imagination. How you're makin' sense of something that don't quite make sense at all.
  2864. "Nevermind, Oil Base. Ah just got distracted is all."
  2865. >Ain't *really* all.
  2866. >You should be worried. What if -
  2867. >You'll check with Hematite in a bit. Maybe ask one've the other mothers.
  2868. >Other mothers? Gettin' ahead of yourself a bit, ain't you?
  2869. >Can't really call yourself a mother 'til you've got a little one to hold.
  2870. >And yet -
  2871. >Dizzy spell from the pregnancy maybe? Got yourself a little light-headed?
  2872. >Somethin' to be concerned 'bout sure, but it passed for now.
  2873. >The warmth is a l'il too comfortable for you to panic over what could be nothin'.
  2874. >You put you a leg 'cross Oil Base's shoulders.
  2875. >She jumps at the touch.
  2876. "Sorry 'bout your headache. You feelin' better now?"
  2877. >"Yeah," she blinks an' shakes her head. "I think."
  2878. >She shakes her head again, harder this time. Squeezes her eyes shut hard 'fore openin' up wide.
  2879. "Sure? You seem -"
  2880. >She squints.
  2881. >"Was it *always* this bright out?"
  2882. >You look 'round. Seems the same to you.
  2883. "Well, still early in the mornin' an' the sun ain't fully risen yet, but..."
  2884. >"I know, but... what I mean is..."
  2885. "What?"
  2886. >"Nevermind."
  2887. "Nah, go on. Ah ain't gonna laugh at you. Swear on my family's name."
  2888. >She smiles.
  2889. >Not sure if you've ever seen a smile so sweet.
  2890. >"I'm... not sure," she murmurs. "I'll tell you when I understand."
  2891. "Fair enough. But 'til then..."
  2892. >"You wanted me to clean the chicken coop?"
  2893. "Ah think you ought to give it a shot."
  2894. >"Okay," she sighs. "Go ahead, String Bean. Show me what I need to -
  2895.  
  2896. >"Be honest with me. Are you *sure* everything -"
  2897. >Or maybe you're wrong.
  2898. >There's an edge to his voice.
  2899. >Makes you smile. Makes you feel... like...
  2900. "Are you worried 'bout me?"
  2901. >"Well, *yeah*."
  2902. >You giggle girlishly.
  2903. "And there ain't nothin' more to it?"
  2904. >"Well..."
  2905. "You felt it, didn't you?"
  2906. >He falls silent.
  2907. "You should check on your ponies."
  2908. >Some've yours are startin' to look 'round. Not starin' down the road anymore.
  2909. >Here an' there ponies reach for tools they'd dropped.
  2910. "Mine felt it too."
  2911. >With nervous glances back the way they'd been lookin', or at their fellows, folks slowly start gettin' back to work.
  2912. "Some of 'em, anyhow."
  2913. >That makes you almost want to cry.
  2914. >Can't say why exactly.
  2915. >Just a feelin' that there's somethin' the others are missin' out on.
  2916.  
  2917. >Beneath the car sheltering her, Derpy looks left then right. And then darts on to the next.
  2918. >And the next.
  2919. >Until she's crawling under your belly and peering about for the next scrap of cover.
  2920. >Despite what you've just been through, despite the danger and fear and absolute terror clawing at the back of your mind... despite all *that*, you laugh.
  2921. >Perhaps not despite. Perhaps *to* spite the darkness.
  2922. >Whatever horrors exist, what can they measure up against friendship?
  2923. >Even if -
  2924. >Derpy cringes away at your giggling, until her head brushes up against your belly.
  2925. >"Oh."
  2926. >And she crawls back under, enough to twist her neck about and give you a friendly glare.
  2927. >"You scared me! Quick, if we run, we -"
  2928. "It's *fine*, Derpy. I'm here, so even if someone sees you -"
  2929. >"Oh! Right!" she giggles. "You basically run this place, don't you?"
  2930. >That's... not entirely accurate.
  2931. >Certainly not now.
  2932. >But close enough.
  2933. >You nod slowly.
  2934. "You'll be safe, so stand up and - wait - wait! Let me move first!"
  2935. >Nope, though she does finish crawling between your legs before getting herself fully upright.
  2936. >You would... you don't know *what* you would do - roll your eyes, maybe? - if it wasn't for her eager, earnest grin and the excited fluttering of her wings.
  2937. "Not that I am displeased to see you, but didn't I send you a warning to -"
  2938. >"I HAVE IMPORTANT MAIL!"
  2939. >WELL NOW.
  2940. >It certainly has been a while since you've heard the Roy-
  2941. >No.
  2942. >No?
  2943. >Of course not. *Of course* it's not the Royal Canterlot Voice.
  2944. >She's not one of the princesses.
  2945. >She's not -
  2946. >But it hits you just like it.
  2947. >With an impact that strikes at your soul and rocks you on your hooves.
  2948. >"I couldn't wait any longer!" Derpy whines as she begins to trot in place.
  2949. >Her eagerness... it's...
  2950. >Infectious would be the right term.
  2951. >You find yourself swaying faintly as your hooves match her's cadence.
  2952. >"Should I -"
  2953. "Let's... let's go inside."
  2954. >For all your assurance - and confidence - that no one would trouble her with you present, there's still... well...
  2955. >Her caution and worries are infectious, too.
  2956. >Tensions are running high and the staff are unsettled - there's a rogue unicorn on the loose, after all.
  2957. >At least, that's what they believe.
  2958. >And the sheriff is probably on his way. If not him, then his deputies. Most likely both.
  2959. >You sigh and herd your friend along. Before joy or fear can try to wrest control away from reason.
  2960. >Derpy sticks close to your side - so close she bumps into you more than once before you reach the building you share with the other mares.
  2961. >She slinks inside as you hold open the door, carefully peering this way and that before fully passing through the doorway.
  2962. >Briefly you consider giving her a nudge, pushing her in, but she slips inside before it can be more than a passing thought.
  2963. >The entryway is dark, lit only by the sun shining through the doorway before it closes behind you - and then only by the flickering of the TV in the common room.
  2964. >Derpy creeps forward slowly, turning her slowly yet wildly, with every flicking change on the TV drawing her attention away.
  2965. >It blares loudly, but without audience.
  2966. >The room is empty.
  2967. >It would not surprise you if the whole building is, save for a handful of mares sleeping off the night before in their beds.
  2968. >The rest are either at work hunting down new prey or still resting in clients' arms in the hotel.
  2969. >Or that is those who weren't awakened by Twilight's fury, though you're not sure all of them - *any* of them - felt it like you did.
  2970. >But the sound? The panic?
  2971. >Before you had even called the sheriff, they were gathering to marvel at the hole in Sterling's office. Ones at twos at first, brave enough to come out and stare, but more over time.
  2972. To indulge their curiosity and feel... something.
  2973. >You suspect it varied from pony to pony. Or human to human. From fear to apathy to mild curiosity.
  2974. >"Are..." Derpy whispers, barely discernible over the noise of the television, "... are you sure -"
  2975. "Everything will be fine."
  2976. >You're not so sure, not about *everything*, but here and now - for the moment, at least...
  2977. >Derpy turns her head to grin back at you over her shoulder.
  2978. >"Yes, it will be."
  2979. >That, too, is infectious. Her optimism - no, her *certainty*.
  2980. >What is it about her that is so... so...
  2981. >... inspiring?
  2982. >Moving?
  2983. >"I have a letter for you."
  2984. >Her wings flutter with excitement.
  2985. >And your heart with it.
  2986. "A letter?"
  2987. >When was the last time she delivered mail for you?
  2988. >Long ago.
  2989. >Before word spread throughout the town of what you had become.
  2990. >Certainly not after.
  2991. >But that's not why you take a step closer.
  2992. >Derpy nods eagerly.
  2993. >"For others, too. I have letters for Sweetie Belle and... uh..."
  2994. >She noses open her saddlebag and peers inside, before grinning like... well... like *her*.
  2995. >"... and more," she giggles, "but you two are the reason why I came today."
  2996. "Even though I warned you not to."
  2997. >"I didn't think these couldn't wait any longer. Sweetie Belle hasn't heard from Scootaloo and Apple Bloom in years. She doesn't even know where they are! I had to bring their letters to her! And you -"
  2998. >Feathers shiver with barely contained energy.
  2999. "Yes? I suppose I'm no longer hated?"
  3000. >Something... something that shouldn't excite you as much as it does.
  3001. >To be more than just a traitor. An enemy.
  3002. >Derpy almost frowns, but instead she grins.
  3003. >"Better!"
  3004. >It's -
  3005. >You know who it's from before Derpy fishes the letter out of her bag.
  3006. >Maybe it's a little lie you're telling yourself to give yourself hope. But you *know*.
  3007. >Before the letter comes free of the mailbag. Before you can see your name written on the outside.
  3008. >See the distinctive curves of the letters.
  3009. >Not so special or unique to anypony else, but to you - *you know*.
  3010. >Like your cello. Like how any musician would be able to pick out their instrument from a hundred just like it.
  3011. >How yours sounds just slightly different from all the others.
  3012. >How it feels in your hooves.
  3013. >How it brings a smile to your face.
  3014. >To you, it's obvious.
  3015. >For you, everything changes.
  3016. "Vinyl."
  3017. >"Vinyl," Derpy confirms as she passes the letter over to you.
  3018. "Where - *how* - did you get this?"
  3019. >"It came with all the others from the farms."
  3020. >The farms?
  3021. >*Oh.*
  3022. "But... I... I couldn't *hear* her. I thought -"
  3023. >How to put it?
  3024. >She doesn't hear the music. Not like you. That, too, you know.
  3025. "- I couldn't *feel* her, Derpy. I was sure..."
  3026. >"I understand," she grins.
  3027. "No, I mean..."
  3028. >You sigh. Close your eyes. Hold the letter tight to your chest.
  3029. >Try to focus. Try to think -
  3030. >No.
  3031. >Try to hear Vinyl.
  3032. >To pluck her song out of the orchestra. To trace it back, like you had earlier with Derpy's. Now that you know where she is, that she -
  3033. >But you can't.
  3034. >None of it... none of it is *her*. None that you can hear. None of the songs belong to her heart.
  3035. >It's too far. There are too many players now.
  3036. >And the one you keep latching on to, the one that you think sounds like hers... that *must* be hers... *isn't*.
  3037. >There are... for lack of a better term... *rules* to the music.
  3038. >You know that.
  3039. >And you know that can't be her.
  3040. >Just like you would expect your own song to be a cello, but...
  3041. >You're too close to hear it, it's too integral to your being, but it's not a string instrument. You know that much.
  3042. >You sigh. And open your eyes.
  3043. >And the letter.
  3044. >It's short.
  3045. >Angry. Angry yet sad.
  3046. >*Disappointed*.
  3047. >Lonely. Lost. Furious.
  3048. >And old.
  3049. >Written... you couldn't guess, but some time ago. Months. Years, maybe.
  3050. >The paper is battered and dirty. Stained with mud and dirt. None of it new.
  3051. >She might not still be alive.
  3052. >She could have been sold elsewhere. To another town. To the city, to... to *anywhere*.
  3053. >That could be why you can't -
  3054. >"She is," Derpy whispers.
  3055. >You nearly jump.
  3056. "How can you -"
  3057. >"She's still there. They also sent me a list of all the ponies on the farms. She's there."
  3058. >You read the letter again.
  3059. >Nothing changes on a second reading. Or even a third.
  3060. >Nothing could change. It already has.
  3061. >Nothing could change your mind.
  3062. >You have to make this right.
  3063. >Derpy smiles, she waits, she looks about.
  3064. >She's patient while you... while you...
  3065. >While you *what*?
  3066. >Try to talk yourself out of it? Into it?
  3067. >Sterling won't sell you.
  3068. >And... the princess? The world may end again tomorrow. Or the next day. Or a week from now.
  3069. >Derpy seems certain everything will be okay, but what you saw in Twilight Sparkle's mind doesn't give you much hope and even less time.
  3070. >You don't know how long she will have. If she can slow it down or stop it.
  3071. >But... if she can't...
  3072. >"You're going to do it," the mailmare asks softly. No, *states*. She knows.
  3073. >She knows what's going through your mind. Through your heart.
  3074. "Yes. I'm going to try. But..."
  3075. >It would be easier to just do it. To do it alone.
  3076. >To turn a blind eye. To just do what you have to.
  3077. >It would be easier. You might actually stand a chance of making it.
  3078. >But you can't do that anymore, can you?
  3079. >You've been doing it for the past three years, but not anymore. Never again.
  3080. "... I..."
  3081. >"With Sweetie Belle?"
  3082. >Derpy's voice is quavery. Not so certain this time, is she? Not so sure. But neither are you.
  3083. >There's a difference between turning a blind eye to the suffering of others and... and running head first into a wall expecting it to move.
  3084. "It might be her only chance of seeing her friends."
  3085. >But she's not alone. And there are some things... some things you just *can't* fix. No matter how hard you try.
  3086. >"Why?"
  3087. >No matter how much it hurts.
  3088. "Because... because Sterling is trying to sell her. Her and Diamond Tiara. He might already have, by now. I thought it would save them, but... a man came, and - and -"
  3089. >"Then take me to them," Derpy insists, the fluff on her chest bristling. "At the very least I have to deliver their mail, so -"
  3090. >You nod.
  3091. >It might make things easier on you. To see her in person.
  3092. >Maybe that man declined her. Maybe he decided to buy only Diamond Tiara. Or neither.
  3093. >That would give you some time. You could try to find a way.
  3094. >If only you could find something for Diamond Tiara to latch on to. A reason to live.
  3095. >But if not...
  3096. >"Stop thinking so much," Derpy giggles, "and take me to them."
  3097. "Of course."
  3098. >Find out - find out what happened first. Or what's happening. Figure out the situation before -
  3099. >You can't help yourself.
  3100. >As you walk, you think. Your hooves move in straight lines, but your thoughts in circles.
  3101. >Always coming back to you telling yourself it might not matter. That she might not want to go. That -
  3102. >And then it's off again on another lap of the same track. The same train of thought.
  3103. >All the way to the door of their room. The last room down this hallway. The one with the faint smell of mold and despair that seeps through the door.
  3104. >The last room too many mares have seen.
  3105. >You listen for a moment - stop your companion from trying to push the door open and walk in blindly.
  3106. >If the visitors are still there...
  3107. >What?
  3108. >You don't know. You haven't the faintest clue how they would react to you walking in on them. And that uncertainty is terrifying.
  3109. >Not as terrifying as knowing how Derpy might react, what she might do if she walked in on the wrong thing.
  3110. >But you hear nothing.
  3111. >No voices, no footsteps. No creaking of rusted bedsprings. Nothing.
  3112. >You knock.
  3113. >Rap your hoof against the door four times.
  3114. >Nothing.
  3115. >Are they -
  3116. >"- already gone?" Derpy hisses in a panic. She again tries -
  3117. >You open the door for her.
  3118. >Better you than her if you're wrong.
  3119. >No.
  3120. >They're both still there. Just the two of them.
  3121. >Diamond Tiara laying in her bed. Same as always as of late. And Sweetie Belle...
  3122. >She stands from her place on the center of the floor when she sees you.
  3123. >*When*.
  3124. >It takes her a moment to even look up, and a moment further to blink away the tears.
  3125. >Even longer to comprehend who you are.
  3126. >Her eyes are red. Her mane and tail in disarray.
  3127. >A nightstand toppled over.
  3128. >A mattress dragged half off the frame.
  3129. >Another flipped on its side.
  3130. >Torn scraps of sheets and stuffing surround her - what was once a pillow, you suspect.
  3131. "Sweetie... I..."
  3132. >She runs up to you.
  3133. >Puts her hooves around your neck. Pulls you tight and cries into your mane.
  3134. >You let her let you be the sister she will never see again.
  3135. >You put your leg around her shoulders and hold her as tight as she's holding you.
  3136. >Derpy comes in. Slowly and quietly. Afraid to intrude. She stand off to the side awkwardly. Watching.
  3137. >No, not just watching, but crying too.
  3138. >Softly, with a stack of mail clamped in her mouth.
  3139. >She doesn't know, but she doesn't need to know.
  3140. >Empathy is enough.
  3141. >One letter slips free just before the first tear tumbles down the mare's face.
  3142. >And so the two of you wait. The three of you.
  3143. >Derpy and you for Sweetie Belle to exhaust herself.
  3144. >And Diamond Tiara...?
  3145. >For...?
  3146. >You're afraid to put it into words, even in your own mind.
  3147. >As if that would make it real somehow.
  3148. >You turn your head as far as you can without disturbing the crying mare holding on to you. Just enough to look at Diamond Tiara out of the corner of her eye.
  3149. >Her back is to you. No, to Sweetie.
  3150. >She doesn't care about you or anypony else, but her friend...
  3151. >You -
  3152. >"He... he *bought* us," Sweetie sobs. "I had to promise to behave, but he bought us. He -"
  3153. >You squeeze her tight.
  3154. >"- he wouldn't take Diamond if I didn't! If I don't go with him, she'll..."
  3155. >It does more than make you second guess yourself. If she goes along with you...
  3156. >You glance at Diamond Tiara again.
  3157. >... there will be consequences.
  3158. >You knew this.
  3159. >But now you know why Diamond's back is turned. Why she can't stand to see Sweetie Belle like this.
  3160. >Guilt.
  3161. >The same guilt that put her in this room in the first place. That took away everything she had earned, every privilege she had worked so hard to accumulate.
  3162. >She's the only reason Sweetie promised. She is the reason Sweetie will be that man's plaything.
  3163. >And it's easier for her to sink into her own misery than to accept that hardship.
  3164. >You can imagine what's running through her head, but that's all you can do. Imagine.
  3165. >How Sweetie Belle might be free, if only...
  3166. >If only.
  3167. >Diamond Tiara doesn't even try to rise to her hooves or even turn her head.
  3168. >Just lays there.
  3169. >And as much as you wish you could have hope...
  3170. "Sweetie, let's... let's sit and talk a bit."
  3171. >With luck, you can convince her. You don't think you'll ever convince yourself, but that will be your burden to bear.
  3172. >And you won't try to convince Diamond Tiara, as easy as it might make things if she wasn't weighing down her friend.
  3173. >Even you have your limits.
  3174. >But... accepting what's going to happen to her?
  3175. >That you can *almost* manage.
  3176. >After all, what's one more life on top of everything else you've done?
  3177. >The consequences... the consequences of staying far outweigh leaving.
  3178. >One life? Or two?
  3179. >Because... because *living* itself isn't enough. And it never was. And it never will be.
  3180. >The answer is obvious.
  3181. >One is nearly over. The other... just beginning.
  3182. >Now if only you can convince Sweetie. And yourself, while you're at it.
  3183. >Derpy steps aside as you lead the young mare over to her bed. To *a* bed.
  3184. >You can't tell if it's hers, or if hers is the one she upended.
  3185. >It doesn't matter. It's a place to sit. To talk.
  3186. >You get her seated and... and Derpy sets down her stack of mail beside her.
  3187. >Sweetie pushes it aside without looking at it, giving you room to sit.
  3188. >Your eyes flicker towards the mailmare.
  3189. >She's grabbed the letter that fell and -
  3190. "If you could give us a moment, please."
  3191. >She drops the letter in your lap and nods.
  3192. >Trots over towards Diamond Tiara while nosing through the mailbag.
  3193. >"I know it's here somewhere," she whines softly.
  3194. >Good.
  3195. >The more distracted she is, the better.
  3196. >She's too innocent, too perfect to hear what you have to say.
  3197. "Sweetie..."
  3198. >The little mare lets her head fall against you.
  3199. "... I... I'm going to run away."
  3200. >She doesn't know what to say to that, you think.
  3201. >Nor are you sure what you expected from her. Angry demands that you explain why you put her through all this, only to abandon her?
  3202. >Demands that you... demands, perhaps. Too many, too varied to put words to. Hers, at least.
  3203. >Your demand is very simple.
  3204. "I want you to come with me."
  3205. >Sweetie stiffens.
  3206. >Shocked.
  3207. >Like she wasn't aware that was even an option.
  3208. >How long did you spend, how much effort did you expend, trying to convince her it *wasn't*?
  3209. >If it even is, now.
  3210. "It's... it's not reasonable, I know."
  3211. >You stroke her mane with your hoof.
  3212. "It's not practical. I might not make it, but I'm going to. I don't have any other choice. And I don't think you do, either."
  3213. >"Is this because of... of..."
  3214. >She turns her head to look vaguely in the direction of Sterling's office.
  3215. >"I heard something," she mumbles, "and then there was yelling and..."
  3216. "Partially. I think... I think we're running out of time."
  3217. >There's no other way to put it without scaring the poor mare even more.
  3218. >This is at least cryptic enough that her eyebrows pinch together for only a moment before she lets it slip past her without trying to unravel your meaning.
  3219. >There's enough on her mind without worrying about one more thing.
  3220. >"We..."
  3221. >She looks across the room at her friend. Past Derpy flopped on the floor sifting through a stack of letters to find just the right one.
  3222. >"... we *can't* leave. Diamond isn't strong enough. She can barely stand. She was doing okay earlier, but then -"
  3223. "Sweetie -"
  3224. >"She wouldn't make it out the door before she collapsed. We *can't*."
  3225. "I'm not talking about her."
  3226. >Sweetie gasps.
  3227. >Hurt? Stunned?
  3228. >Her song, distorted and muffled as it already ways, becomes utter chaos.
  3229. >Notes that could not ever be played side by side with ones that never *should*.
  3230. >"No! I - I *can't* do that! If I run away - I don't go with him - he won't take Diamond! She'll *die*. Look at her!"
  3231. >You...
  3232. >She's so insistent, glares so hard, that you do.
  3233. >As much as you would prefer not to.
  3234. >Because if you do... it'll be all the harder to tell yourself it's necessary.
  3235. >That it's the only way to save Sweetie Belle.
  3236. >But you look. And you listen.
  3237. >You can hear her song, same as you can hear Derpy's careless tumble of brass and Sweetie's faint strings.
  3238. >It comes so easily now, picking out a pony's music. So easily that you can hear Diamond's *quiet*.
  3239. >Yes, her *nothing*.
  3240. >An audible blackout. A solo of silence.
  3241. >"She'll die here if I don't go with him," Sweetie moans. "I have to do it!"
  3242. "Sweetie..."
  3243. >"Ah, here it is!" Derpy snorts. You look up at her voice - a mistake.
  3244. >Her oblivious grin makes you feel all the worse.
  3245. "... she's..."
  3246. >You have to wonder why Derpy is even bothering.
  3247. >Is Diamond strong enough to even open the letter, let alone read it?
  3248. >Certainly not enough to care about the contents.
  3249. >She doesn't take the letter from Derpy's mouth, doesn't try to catch it as it slips from the mailmare's grasp.
  3250. >Doesn't even nudge it aside when it lands on her face.
  3251. "... she's already gone, Sweetie. Her heart is still beating, but -"
  3252. >Sweetie shakes her head frantically.
  3253. "Think about it. At first I believed this was a way to save you both, but now -"
  3254. >"I can't leave her like this!"
  3255. "- you'll *never* see Apple Bloom and Scootaloo if you go with him!"
  3256. >"But at least Diamond will live!"
  3257. "But she doesn't want to! You can't save her life, Sweetie! Only she can do that! And she -"
  3258. >She can hear every word you say.
  3259. >You can hear it in her silence.
  3260. >"You're wrong," Sweetie whispers over that deafening nothing. "She doesn't want to die."
  3261. "But neither does she want to live. And you sacrificing yourself for her? That just makes it harder on Diamond. I don't like it either, but..."
  3262. >"Want me to hold it open for you?" Derpy whimpers. "Here, I can help. Please, just...
  3263. >You ignore the crinkle of unfolding paper.
  3264. >Close your ears and your heart to the sound.
  3265. "... I don't want you..."
  3266. >"Where would we even go?" Sweetie mumbles.
  3267. "The farms outside of town. It's... it's too far to carry her, Sweetie, assuming we even make it. But it's... I *think* it's safe. And... and... well -"
  3268. >A drum strike.
  3269. >Loud and violent and reverberating.
  3270. >You nearly fall off the edge of the bed.
  3271. >A second.
  3272. >Diamond Tiara is sitting up.
  3273. >If... if she heard what you were saying, if anger gives her strength, then -
  3274. >Then *nothing*. It doesn't mean she could -
  3275. >A third.
  3276. >No. She's oblivious to you. To the whole world outside of the letter clutched between her hooves.
  3277. >Derpy reaches out to touch her. To ask if everything is okay.
  3278. >You can see the concern and hope in her eyes.
  3279. >And as her hoof connects with Diamond's shoulder, her drums come fully to life.
  3280. >A more rapid beat than you could have ever expected from the filly, not even at her youngest and wildest.
  3281. >Joyous and... and *martial*.
  3282. >Not victorious, not returning in glory.
  3283. >Music to go to war to.
  3284. >Grinning like a maniac, even as tears flow freely down her face.
  3285. >"Diamond, is everything -" Derpy gets out of her mouth before the crazed mare's sudden gaze snaps her mouth shut.
  3286. >You tighten up. Prepared to... you don't know.
  3287. >You can hear a hundred songs, pull them apart and study each one individually with a thought, but none like this.
  3288. >Just hers.
  3289. >Violent and -
  3290. >"She's alive."
  3291. >- *eager*.
  3292. "Diamond, what are you -"
  3293. >"She's alive!"
  3294. >*Pining.*
  3295. "Who? What are you -"
  3296. >"SILVER SPOON IS ALIVE!"
  3297. >She practically leaps from her bed to tackle Derpy. To hug the mare and giggle.
  3298. >"She's alive! She's alive!"
  3299. >And Derpy -
  3300. >Not just Derpy.
  3301. >The next thing you know all four of you are hugged tight, all crying and laughing together.
  3302. >The song becomes more than just drums.
  3303. >A violin comes in at some point, frantically chopping to match the rhythm of Diamond's drums.
  3304. >Sweetie Belle.
  3305. >Derpy's brass plays counterpoint.
  3306. >And somewhere, deep in your soul, lost in the song, your own music plays its own part. Whatever it may be. Dark and brooding, you assume.
  3307. >Lingering guilt over what you were contemplating just seconds earlier, mixed with relief that you no longer have to convince Sweetie. Or yourself.
  3308. >That you won't have to carry the weight of one more, though you -
  3309. >You don't worry about the how. Not right now.
  3310. >Not when the music playing through your mind is so grand.
  3311. >You don't even notice the missing aspect of the song, not even now that you know what to listen for.
  3312. >Combined, your laughter forms a mirthful chorus that bubbles over everything like water along the river's rapids, punctuated by Diamond's happy shouts.
  3313. >Vocals better, more intimate and honest, than any distant princess could ever provide.
  3314. >Any thoughts of leaving Diamond behind are swept away by that song, even if her grip is weak - and after mere moments you and Derpy are practically holding her up as her legs can't take her weight anymore.
  3315. >But her heart?
  3316. >Her soul?
  3317. >Her *song*?
  3318. >You'll carry her if you have to. All the way.
  3319. >You won't leave yet another friend behind.
Apple Bloom Anon Grimdark Rape Older Grimderp In Progress Moondancer /spg/ NSFW

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