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Life Grew All Around Her (Oneshot)

By Lurkernon
Created: 20th December 2020 04:20:09 AM

  1. Originally posted January 2017
  2.  
  3. > "I'll come find you."
  4. > The words echo in your mind, agonized and aching.
  5. > "..come find you..."
  6. > Swallowing hard, you try and focus on the landscape out the car's window.
  7. > It's certainly a remarkable landscape - massive mountains, clawing into the sky, seemed to surround you.
  8. > On one side the land climbs up - a rocky, desolate slope riddled with the crevasses carved by innumerable rainfalls.
  9. > To the other it fell away towards a distant, shining snake of water at the bottom of the valley.
  10. > ...it isn't enough.
  11. > Your eyes shut and teeth grit, emotions squashed down for years rising within you despite all efforts to keep them down.
  12. > Ears lay flat and your tail flicks nervously.
  13. > If the car's driver notices your discomfort, he says nothing on it.
  14. > You almost wish he would.
  15. > It'd give you something else to think about.
  16. > Instead, when you open your eyes the slopes and valleys are gone.
  17. > Bars hang in front of your muzzle, the cold floor of the cage beneath your aching hooves.
  18. > Still your ears lay flat, though it is protect against the awful clamor of the slave market.
  19. > A singularly oppressive maelstrom of noise - cries of pain, of fear, of anger.
  20. > The snap of whips, rattle of chains, hoofsteps and footsteps echoing on the concrete floor.
  21. > Crying - loud, raw, and agonized or soft and private but no less pained.
  22. > Shivering, you burrow in closer against your mother's side.
  23. > Or as close as the steel collar chained around your neck would let you, anyhow.
  24. > It isn't nearly close enough for your likes; through your barrel lays against her side, warmth flowing between the two of you, your shoulders and neck are twisted away.
  25. > You can tell from the way she strains against you that she wants to be closer as well.
  26. > If not for her own collar, she certainly would be.
  27. > As is, you could barely feel the edge of the scarf she always wore over her mane brushing against your neck.
  28.  
  29. > A pony in the cage next to yours is taken out - howling with fury or terror, the walls of the cage thudding heavily as they struggle.
  30. > The pop-pop-pop of a shock collar turns that to a gasping sob instead, and tears spring to your eyes even though not a spark had touched your coat.
  31. > You whimper softly, but your mother's hoof strokes your back.
  32. > "Shhh..."
  33. > If she could have, you know she'd have clasped you against her, but...
  34. > "D-Don't cry."
  35. "M'not crying."
  36. > Shivering, you roll onto your back and clutch her leg to your belly.
  37. > Almost as if you could curl yourself around it - or it around you - and be protected.
  38. > Or protect her.
  39. > That someone has stopped in front of your cage doesn't immediately register.
  40. > Only when someone grunts out a question do you actually register the two forms standing in front of your cage.
  41. > "This her?"
  42. > "That's her, yep. Hedge Lily, earth pony, age twenty-eight."
  43. > "Alright, get her out."
  44. > The cage door squeals as it is opened, and your eyes snap open at last just in time to see a man reach in and unsnap your mother's chain.
  45. > "W-wait-"
  46. "Momma...?"
  47. > Half-walking, half-dragged from the cage your mother instinctively stands to relieve the chain's pressure on her throat.
  48. > Still, though, she looks back to you.
  49. > Someone else squats down in front of the cage's door, peering in and grunting:
  50. > "What about the filly?"
  51. > "Can't take another. Sorry. Barely have enough money for one."
  52. > Terror fills your veins, cold and icy and electrifying.
  53. "Momma, wait-"
  54. > "You sure? I could give you a discount. No point in holding stock if I'm not going to move it."
  55. > "Please, sir-"
  56. > Your mother's voice is desperate and terrified.
  57. > "Please, she's no trouble. She's a good filly, I can teach her-"
  58. "Mommaaaa!"
  59. > Standing yourself, you push forward as far as the collar lets you go.
  60. > Metal cuts into your throat, choking off air - but still you push on.
  61. > "Sorry. It's not your cost - I just can't feed two mouths."
  62. > "Well, just the one it is then-"
  63.  
  64. > "Sir! Master, I'm begging you - let her!"
  65. "Mo-"
  66. > There's a click, and then you're on your side - spasming in place as the current surges from your collar.
  67. > This time it is your turn for your voice to turn to a strangled cry.
  68. > "Sweetpetal! Stop it, she's just a filly!"
  69. > "That's enough. There's no reason to shock her!"
  70. > The pain ends, leaving your lungs burning and limbs aching.
  71. > Suddenly there's a gentle touch at your cheek.
  72. > Unsteadily you lift your head, looking up into the face of the man who is taking away your mother.
  73. > A bushy mustache covers his upper lip, two lines of hair running down to a small beard on the bottom of his chin.
  74. > Eyes peer out from behind wide, wire-rimmed glasses.
  75. > To your surprise, he doesn't seem angry.
  76. > There's even a touch of sadness in his voice.
  77. > "You're her daughter?"
  78. "Y-Yes. That's my momma."
  79. > Forcing yourself to your hooves, you defiantly push forward again as far as the collar will let you.
  80. "That's my momma, and you can't take her! I gotta go with her-"
  81. > "I'm sorry."
  82. > His hand is on your head, rubbing your mane.
  83. > You know it is filthy and heavy from days unwashed, but still he rubs it.
  84. > "I can't take both of you. I need her to work a field for me, you understand?"
  85. "I gotta go too!"
  86. > Gently he shakes his head.
  87. > With a gesture he brings your mother nearer.
  88. > Ears flat and eyes laden with tears, she leans in and brushes her muzzle to yours.
  89. > "F-Forgive me, Petal."
  90. "Momma, no!"
  91. > Lifting one hoof, she carefully sweeps the scarf she always wore from her head.
  92. > It's filthy now - soiled by weeks without being washed, elaborate embroidery lost under a film of grime.
  93. > Still she presses it into your hooves.
  94. > "You have to be strong, Sweetpetal. Be strong for me, and for every other pony you meet."
  95. "No!"
  96. > Voice reaching a strangled crescendo, you again surge forward until the collar cuts into your throat.
  97. > Unexpectedly, the man's hand pushes you back.
  98. > "Listen - listen, I can't take you. But take -"
  99.  
  100. > He pats his jacket all over.
  101. > Eventually a pen emerges in his hand, which he uses to quickly write a bit of information down on a card.
  102. > "That's my name and where I live, okay? Take this. Take this and find me. Your mother will still be there. I swear - I won't be cruel to her, but I can't take you. So just - if you ever can, come find me."
  103. > The card is dropped at your feet - and a moment later, the pen as well.
  104. "N-No... you..."
  105. > "I won't hurt her - I swear that to you. When you get bought, I'll even try to find you. But I can't take you now. I'm sorry."
  106. "Why..."
  107. > Even the fury in your voice is beginning to drop off in the face of despair, though.
  108. > Another motion to your mother, and she leans in to kiss you on the forehead.
  109. > "Be brave for me, my little Petal. Please."
  110. "B-Brave-"
  111. > The man stands, rising until you cannot see anything above his hips from the cage's limited opening.
  112. > One pull of the leash, and your mother wrenches her eyes from you to turn and follow him with dragging hoofsteps.
  113. > All of a sudden the situation seems to slam back into focus, full awareness of what is happening hammering down on you.
  114. "MOMMA!"
  115. > Your howl rises over the squeal of the cage door slamming in your face.
  116. > Rushing back up against it, you press your muzzle to the wires and peer after her.
  117. > They dig into your coat, but even so you push harder - watching your mother being lead away down the lines of cages.
  118. "Momma please! Please! You promise, Momma - you promised!
  119. > She stumbles.
  120. > Trips.
  121. > Falls, and rises again.
  122. > But she does not turn back.
  123. > As the last of her tail - limp and dragging on the floor - fades from your vision, you fill out your lungs and call as loud as you can:
  124. "I'll come, Momma! I'll come find you! I promise, Momma, I'll come -"
  125. > ...
  126. > Find you.
  127. > You blink again, looking around the car.
  128. > At some point your head had drooped down to stare at your hooves.
  129. > They weren't a filly's hooves anymore.
  130.  
  131. > Decades of labor had lined them, stained them, aged them.
  132. > Your fetlocks were circled with grey now as well - hardly the only part of your coat that had faded.
  133. > In fact, the only part that had remained the same shade was the duo of blooming flowers on your flank - as vibrant and clear as the day they had come.
  134. > "Miss?"
  135. > The car's driver calls back.
  136. > "We're just about there."
  137. "Thank you."
  138. > Voice practically a whisper, you force yourself to repeat it aloud.
  139. "Thank you. I appreciate you driving all the way out here."
  140. > "S'fine. If... can I just ask something, though?"
  141. "Yes."
  142. > "You were a slave?"
  143. > You flinch, but nod.
  144. > There hadn't been any malice in his tone.
  145. "Right up until the rights act got passed. Didn't get released a day before, and got thrown off his property the day after."
  146. > Lifting your head slightly, you raise a hoof to point to your neck.
  147. "See the thin band in my coat? Collar scar. Happens when you wear one for half your life."
  148. > He does look, eyes flicking up to the rear-view mirror.
  149. > But not for long enough to see.
  150. "Sorry. I just didn't know, since you were paying for this yourself and all..."
  151. > "They're giving us some money. The government."
  152. > Or at least until the funding for that got cut off again.
  153. > Force the ponies to come back to work for the same people who'd once held their chains.
  154. > The driver nods, but says no more.
  155. > Abruptly the car squeals to a halt.
  156. > "Right, well. This is as far as I go, miss. I'd need an SUV or pickup or something to go farther."
  157. > There was truth in his words.
  158. > He'd parked on the main street of a town that seemed to be composed of that one road and not much more.
  159. > A few other cars were parked as well, but it was clear just how few lived here.
  160. "How much do I owe?"
  161. > A few taps on his tablet, and the driver passes it back to you.
  162. > Peering at the figure, you do some fast and arithmetic in your head.
  163. "This is wrong."
  164.  
  165. > "I know. My wife and I gotta eat, but you - I know the government never gives enough to the people who need it, and you gotta eat too. So, half - and don't you argue with me, pony."
  166. > You look up, and find that this time he is looking - eyes in the mirror, peering back at you.
  167. > Seeing, this time.
  168. > Cracking a smile - pained, but real - you nod, fetching your card from your saddlebags and swiping it on the tablet's reader.
  169. "Thank you."
  170. > Stepping from the car, you turn and watch it vanish into the distance.
  171. > Only then do you look back around again.
  172. > The place had a hard, cold feel to it - not just the towering mountains rising in a seeming effort to encircle it, but the buildings, the sky, the looks you get from the few others out on the streets - everything seems austere, harsh, unwelcoming.
  173. > Shivering, you shrug up the jacket worn beneath your saddlebags and set off.
  174. > Even a town this small ought to have-
  175. > Ahah!
  176. > The police station is tiny, little more than a couple of rooms.
  177. > But the front desk is manned; the heavyset, jowled man seated at it widens his eyes as you trot in through the doors.
  178. > "Well. There's a new sight - what can I do for you, miss?"
  179. "Excuse me, officer - I'm looking for 3 Knolling Lane."
  180. > The letters and numbers had long since burnt into your consciousness - repeated in an unending, almost religious chant from the very first day you'd read the name and address written onto the card with an almost frantic fervor.
  181. > "Three Knolling..."
  182. > Understanding dawns in his eyes.
  183. > "You're looking for the Scullers' house?"
  184. > Your heart beats a little faster.
  185. > The name was right.
  186. "Yes. You know where?"
  187. > "Yeah - head north out of town, turn on the third right. That's Knolling - keep going down it, the house is on your left. It's about seven, eight miles altogether."
  188. > If only the car could've gone further...
  189. "Got it. Thank you."
  190.  
  191. > "If you're planning on going out that way, be careful. I'd say to get back before dark - no offense, but families around here have guns, and-"
  192. "I get it."
  193. > Wouldn't be the first town you'd found yourself unwelcome in.
  194. "It's okay. I'm used to rough work. A little hike is nothing."
  195. > It takes the officer a moment to catch your meaning, but he makes an affirmative noise when he does.
  196. > You do some quick mental math.
  197. "If I don't find what I'm looking for, I'll be back before dusk. If I do, I'll be staying out there."
  198. > "Got it. Just be safe."
  199. "I will. Thank you, officer."
  200. > You step out just in time to catch another blustery gust rolling down the street.
  201. > Ears flat and breath shuddering, you again make a mental note of thanks for your natural coat.
  202. > Not to mention the jacket, leg warmers, and scarf that you now threw about your neck.
  203. > Once you get underway, however, you soon warm up.
  204. > The road is rough, perhaps too rough for a small car but not nearly too rough for an earth pony.
  205. > Again you let your mind slip and eyes rove over the scenery, allowing your hooves to eat up the distance.
  206. > It wasn't hard to appreciate the stark beauty of the place.
  207. > Especially where the land fell away revealing the rolling hills further down.
  208. > You could see another small town, no larger than the one you'd just left. perched on the far side of the valley.
  209. > Clouds hung around the very tops of the mountains, and in a few of them you fancied you might see a cloud-home or two.
  210. > Few houses were present outside the town - you pass only four, one of which as clearly deserted and had been for some time.
  211. > Thin, scrubby grass and a few sparse weeds clung to the ground here and there, where the wind had not scoured down the earth to nothing.
  212. > ...unfortunately, what you had not calculated for when estimating your time was the vertical climb.
  213. > It turns what ought to have been no more than a two-hour swift trot into a three-and-a-half hour slog.
  214.  
  215. > By the time the mailbox for 3 Knolling Lane comes into view, the sun has already begun to dip towards the horizon.
  216. > The house, when it comes into view, is much less than some of the others had been.
  217. > Not tiny, but certainly not huge.
  218. > It sits in a relatively level patch of land, a few trees adamantly clinging to the rocky ground around the edges of the property.
  219. > Shed of their leaves, they look bleached and almost skeleton-like - clawed branches swaying in the wind.
  220. > The fields around it had been turned once, the familiar furrows of soil now thickly overgrown.
  221. > Overtaken by a variety of plant life choking itself out in the deadly game of survival.
  222. > Approaching the house itself reveals that it, too, has certainly seen age's weathering.
  223. > Paint flakes from the sides, and while no windows are broken all are in desperate need of a cleaning.
  224. > Walking the rock path up towards the front door you pass a car resting in the drive, cold and unused.
  225. > The door is a huge, heavy wooden thing - monolithic and without a window.
  226. > Almost more like a fortress' door than a home's.
  227. > Approaching it produces a tightening in your lungs entirely unrelated to the trip you'd just completed.
  228. > Cries of a filly decades past fill your ears, terrified and furious.
  229. > But at this point, chickening out would be a kick in the flank to all that you'd done, a slap on the face to those who'd helped you, and most importantly a promise broken.
  230. > And so you raise a hoof tap-tap-tapping at the door - and when that fails to yield a response, knocking and then hammering on the door.
  231. > You're about to hammer again when the door smoothly, almost silently, slides open.
  232. > "That hammering could wake the dead, you know."
  233. > Creeping your gaze upwards, you let it rise until the man's face comes into view.
  234.  
  235. > Age has lined it too - and more, his skin drawn back against his skull to form an angular mask and the thin, wire-rimmed glasses you remembered replaced by thick, almost opaque slabs of glass hugging his eyes almost goggle-like.
  236. > His mustache is gone, and what little is left of his beard and hair only clings to his skin in thin wisps.
  237. > But despite that, there is no doubt.
  238. > It is still him.
  239. "Alan Sculler."
  240. > His mouth works wordlessly; he clearly recognizes you, but has no words yet.
  241. > Teeth locked to keep them from chattering, you reach into your saddlebags and pull the pen out - dropping it at his feet.
  242. > The card had long ago turned to dust, but by some miracle the pen had remained not just unbroken but with you through the decades of servitude.
  243. "You took my mother. I've come to find her."
  244. > "Sweetpetal."
  245. > Alan whispers the name, almost reverently.
  246. "Yes."
  247. > Hobbling back, he opens the door fully.
  248. > "Come in."
  249. > You do.
  250. > The first thing that hits you is the smell.
  251. > That unique, unforgettable tang of decay that hangs around old people and ponies alike.
  252. > It clings to the house, an almost tangible cloud of atrophy.
  253. > Driving down the urge to sneeze, you step the rest of the way in.
  254. > The interior of the house is every bit as aged as the exterior.
  255. > Splintery shelves supporting rows of ancient, flaking books surround a sofa that sags dramatically; the clouded windows fill the whole interior with a kind of muted light that renders everything in half-shadow.
  256. > Wood flooring creaks and groans beneath hooves and feet; you walk sparingly, in part also due to the narrow spaces between rooms.
  257. > Everything is coated in a thick layer of dust, barely touched despite its inhabitant.
  258. > Alan leans heavily on a thick, gnarled cane and each step he takes is accompanied by its thunking against the wooden floor.
  259. > "Been waiting for you a long, long time. Your mother always said you'd be here in time."
  260. "Y-Yes. I had to."
  261. > "Surprised you didn't come sooner."
  262.  
  263.  
  264. "I didn't have a choice."
  265. > It's impossible to keep some bitterness out of your voice.
  266. > "Ah. You weren't released...?"
  267. "Not until the Rights Act went through."
  268. > "M'sorry."
  269. > Lurching to a heavy, thickly stuffed chair, Alan slumps into it with a relieved groan and several limbs' popping.
  270. > A cloud of dust bursts from the cushion to hang in the air.
  271. > He motions to the couch, which you nervously climb onto.
  272. > "Tried to find you when I had more money. Figured I could get you up here. Never could catch up with you, though."
  273. "I was... moved out of state when I was bought first. A good ways. No chance to catch."
  274. > "...ah..."
  275. "You didn't sell her-"
  276. > "No! God, no!"
  277. > There's a surprising degree of force in his voice.
  278. > "I wouldn't have sold her if it made the difference between starving or not. Never did have that problem, though. Not once we got to work on those fields."
  279. "You grew food here?"
  280. > "What we ate. Cheaper than getting it trucked out here. 'specially with Lily's hoof in things. Never lost a crop with her - she knew how to ward off rot. Had this special thing she'd mix up..."
  281. "Is - is she here?"
  282. > There's a touch of desperation in your voice.
  283. > That he had not called out to Hedge Lily nor had she come down to hear your voice.
  284. > "She-"
  285. > He looks away, out one window.
  286. > "- was. She's outside now, with her fields. You understand?"
  287. > You do.
  288. > Tears crest the dam that had held them back since childhood, gritted teeth giving way to quiet sobs.
  289. > Muzzle burying itself in your legs, you hide your face from him and let the emotion that had driven you to go on all those long decades pour out.
  290. > Alan, for his part, remains silent.
  291. > His cheeks are dry, but from the look in his eyes it is simply because he has no more tears to give.
  292. "How - how long ago?"
  293. > "Seven years."
  294. > A fresh sob chokes your throat.
  295. > You'd only been free for a little over eighteen months.
  296. > There wasn't any way you could have come for her.
  297. "Was... she free?"
  298.  
  299. > "No. By the time we were thinking about that sort of thing... well, I don't think either of us really cared about who was the slave or not."
  300. "You were that close?"
  301. > He nods.
  302. > "Took Lily years to forgive me for taking her from you. Deserved it, too... but we grew close, yeah. Eventually. The guys in town - they used to joke I'd married her."
  303. "You owned her."
  304. > "And? Doesn't mean we weren't loving."
  305. > He grins, a ghastly expression of yellowed teeth overseen by the gleaming, opaqued glasses perched on his nose.
  306. > "Love crosses a lot of barriers, Sweetpetal. Between a human and a pony's the least of them."
  307. > Denying it would be so easy.
  308. > But this trip had never been about easy.
  309. > Forcing himself up, Alan hobbles from the table and over to one of the bookshelves.
  310. > "It wasn't exactly common, I'll agree."
  311. > Digging in the bookshelf, he eventually produces a thickly, heavily-bound book which he opens.
  312. > "Hedge Lily made me earn every bit of her affection. But it was stronger for that. And strong love - well, like I said. It doesn't know any barriers."
  313. > Reaching inside of a hollow within the book, Alan sets it aside and begins to hobble back to you.
  314. > "I just remembered, there was something else. She wanted me to give this to you if she - wasn't there."
  315. > Curious, you take a few steps closer.
  316. > "When her end was coming, she had me swear that you'd get this."
  317. > The plastic bag which hangs from his hand contains an elaborately-embroidered scarf, nearly folded over itself.
  318. > It is not the one your mother wore - not close.
  319. > But it is done with the same elegance and care you knew she would put into her works.
  320. > Reaching up to take the bag in your teeth (and wrinkling your nose as you get a particular whiff of the decaying scent that hangs miasma-like over the man), you lay the bag on the table.
  321. > Peeling it carefully open, you stick your muzzle in to take the scarf-
  322. > And in the process draw a whiff of breath into your nostrils.
  323.  
  324. > Mostly, it is nothing more than plastic and old cloth.
  325. > But hidden among those scents odors is a scent that you have only the barest touch of a memory of.
  326. > A scent that nonetheless manages to leave your eyes stinging and heart thudding.
  327. > Clutching the bag to your chest with one hoof, you murmur:
  328. "Mama..."
  329. > Another long wait while your tears run out until they are dry, during which Alan hobbles back to his chair.
  330. > Eventually you manage to choke out a question.
  331. "Was she... happy?"
  332. > Hesitation.
  333. > No answer comes immediately.
  334. > "She... never forgot you. S'why I went looking... I knew she'd never forgive me if I didn't. But we had happy times too, yeah. We were happy."
  335. > It's the complexity of the answer that tells you he isn't lying.
  336. > A liar would have insisted your mother was happy - even if just to ease your pain.
  337. > Alan told the truth.
  338. > You knew some slaves who grew close with their owners.
  339. > The lucky few who managed to find some measure of comfort in their captivity.
  340. > "We practically built this place together, she and I. Got her just to keep a field, give me a little more income, but she did so much more."
  341. > Sighing, Alan lets his head fall back against his chair.
  342. > "I don't figure you will believe me, but I did love her and she loved me."
  343. "I believe you."
  344. > No matter how much it rips open fresh wounds on your heart that had long since scarred over, you do.
  345. > Nodding ever so fractionally, he sighs.
  346. > "Thank you."
  347. "Thank you?"
  348. > "Always figured you'd show up at my door one day. I've stuck around a bit beyond my due time, you know? But I knew you'd show up. If I didn't find you, I knew you'd find me."
  349. > Dully you stare at him.
  350. "Fifty-nine years since you took her from me, and I haven't gone a day without thinking of her. Do you think this makes us... even, or something?"
  351. > "No. But I had to anyway. Couldn't go until I did."
  352. > You go silent, laying your head down.
  353. > Both of you just stay like that for a while - each caught in their own thoughts.
  354.  
  355. > "Sweetpetal?"
  356. "Yeah?"
  357. > "You want to go see her?"
  358. > Of course you do.
  359. > The grave is simple, yet clearly tended to.
  360. > Unlike everything else on the property, weeds stop at a clearly defined limit around the edges of the earthen mound, held back by some invisible wall.
  361. > You choke as it comes into view, throat again rising up into your mouth.
  362. > Alan stops a fair distance back, leaning heavily on his cane, and cracks another yellowed smile.
  363. > "Always did have a way with plants, your mother did. Don't even have to weed it myself."
  364. > Nodding is about all you are capable of.
  365. > "I'll, uh... I'll let you some time for yourself?"
  366. > Dumbly walking forwards if in a dream, you pause at the edge of the grave mound.
  367. > There you pause, stomach tumbling, and wait for it to settle.
  368. > Gray and stark yet its lettering still clearly defined, the gravestone rises from the far end of the mound.
  369. > Below your mother's name and the dates of her birth and death - rendered in Earth years, you notice - is an epitaph:
  370. > 'BELOVED'
  371. > 'LIFE GREW ALL AROUND HER'
  372. > You manage a little whimpering laugh.
  373. > How true that was - even from the bare few memories you have of her.
  374. > Life was always around your mother.
  375. > As if as spell had been broken, you drop to your haunches and stare down at the raised mound of dirt.
  376. "H-Hey, Mama."
  377. > Your throat is scratchy, each word a struggle.
  378. "I-I don't think this really counts, so I guess... I guess I broke my promise to you for that. But - I'm still here, aren't I?"
  379. > A breeze rustles the blades of grass and weeds around you.
  380. "M'sorry it took me so long. Couldn't get away... they kept me down right up until the law said they couldn't. But I never gave up, y'know?"
  381. > Forelegs fold down, dropping your belly to the cold ground.
  382. "Stayed strong. Just like you told me to, Mama. Stayed strong for me and for everypony around me and..."
  383. > Another sniffle pushed back.
  384.  
  385. "...and I wasn't strong enough for you. I couldn't even see you and I'm sorry and I just want to see you again and..."
  386. > Everything beyond that is an incoherent mess of tears and crying, emotions once again seeming to pour out into the very ground beneath you.
  387. > The wind rips at your coat, cold and biting, but eventually there's a subtle touch of a gloved hand at your back.
  388. > A bubble of soft warmth seems to settle around you, the wind no longer mattering.
  389. > Maybe you've just become used to it.
  390. > "She was a good pony. And I'm sorry. I genuinely am. I don't know if that means anything to you, but I'm sorry."
  391. "I know."
  392.  
  393. --------
  394.  
  395. > "I can't let you go back down into town. Not now."
  396. > Shuffling through his kitchen, Alan rifles through cabinets with a frown.
  397. > "I'm not really set up for guests, but making you walk back in the dark - no. No way. You're staying the night, at the very least."
  398. "Thank you."
  399. > Peering out the window at the last vestiges of the sun's glow creeping away puts real honesty in your voice.
  400. > Shivering gently, you pull the jacket more tightly around yourself as another draft twists its around through the house.
  401. "Doesn't the cold bother you?"
  402. > "It used to. Lately I don't even feel it anymore."
  403. > One hand is lazily waved in the direction of a window.
  404. > "If you really want, there's an electric heater near the window."
  405. > There is, and it sparks and pops terrifically when you turn it on.
  406. > Edging back in preparation of a fire, you decide to hunker by it for a few minutes as much to watch for smoke as to grow warm.
  407. > Eventually, though, you join him in the kitchen.
  408. > A few empty cans sit in the sink, while Alan carefully monitors a pan sitting on an electric stove.
  409. "You want me to take over on that?"
  410. > "If you want."
  411. "Long as you don't mind me taking it in my mouth."
  412. > He barks out a sharp laugh.
  413. > "Lived most of my life with Hedge Lily and you think I'm worried about that?"
  414.  
  415. > A fair point - and his easiness with the question only reinforces the sense that he was telling the truth about how close they were.
  416. > You take over stirring the frying meal - a mix of vegetables and what looks like tofu out of a can that looks like it would last an eternity until opened.
  417. > Catching your questioning look, Alan shrugs.
  418. > "I'm not growing things ever since Hedge Lily died. Don't eat that much, really. So, it's not going to be fresh. Sorry."
  419. "I've eaten far, far worse. Trust me."
  420. > "I will."
  421. > The lights prove to be dim and buzz just as much as the heater - a few are even burned out - and so dinner is had in half-lit shadows that keep it from being a remotely cheery affair.
  422. > Worse yet, while the heater had done something to drive off the cold in the room it had also increased the house's distinct decaying odor.
  423. > Thus it is hardly a friendly environment for warm conversation.
  424. > Half way through it, though, you look up and over at Alan.
  425. "How did it happen? You and my mother-"
  426. > You can't say it.
  427. > Despite knowing that the emotion he felt - and claimed your mother felt - was almost certainly true, you still couldn't bring yourself to say the words.
  428. > To admit that she had loved a slave owner.
  429. > Her owner.
  430. > "Wasn't at first. We were... distant. She was a worker, I was her boss. Don't get me wrong - I was good to her, but we weren't close. A wall high as the sky between us."
  431. "Yeah."
  432. > "I... dunno exactly when it happened. I started going out to help her in the field. Hedge Lily started giving me bits of advice out of her free will. We opened up to each other, and then started to care."
  433. "...oh..."
  434. > "Were you expecting something more?"
  435. "I don't know. I - I guess I just don't understand."
  436. > "Heh."
  437. > He chuckles softly, grinning.
  438. > Somehow under the lamp's dim light it seems a warmer expression than it had before.
  439. > The yellowed light had given his face a ruddy appearance despite his elderly age.
  440.  
  441. > "It wasn't like y'see in the movies. No sudden moment. She didn't fall into my arms one day, I didn't save her life from some cruel attacker. Just... slowly, over time. Growing, like everything else did around Lily."
  442. > His head tilts.
  443. > "You sure you believe me?"
  444. "I do. It's just - let me show you."
  445. > Slipping from your chair, you circle around to his side of the table - getting close to let him see; if the slablike glasses he wears are any hint, Alan must be nearly blind.
  446. > Rearing up, you put your forehooves on the table - revealing the scarred length of your legs and flank in the limited light.
  447. "See this? I was a slave for decades. I worked day in and day out - lost whole parts of my life to this."
  448. > A trembling hand extends, reaching to almost brush against your coat.
  449. > "They tortured you?"
  450. "A few times. But these aren't even from that. Just - from work. Accidents. Mistakes. No special cruelty besides slavery itself."
  451. > Dropping back down to the floor, you stare up at him.
  452. "I don't think you're lying to me... but I don't understand how."
  453. > "Tell me..."
  454. > Alan leans forward in his seat, both hands on his cane.
  455. > "...there's a Princess of Love, right?"
  456. "Was."
  457. > "Is now, since you're all free again. But - she was capable of a lot of powerful things, right? Because she felt love for her husband?"
  458. "Yeeess?"
  459. > You aren't quite sure where he is going with this.
  460. > "Well, like what?"
  461. "Threw the Changelings out of Canterlot with a surge of magic. Destroyed the evil King Sombra with the help of the Crystal Heart. Held out against-"
  462. > "Now, you see!"
  463. > Despite his volume being low, Alan's voice carries.
  464. > "I don't understand a speck of how she could do that. It is a true mystery to me. But I don't think you're lying."
  465. > Sinking into his seat with a little smile, he shrugs.
  466. > "They happened. I can't understand how, but they did. But Hedge Lily and I loved each other, and maybe that was a kind of magic of its own. Destroying and throwing out hatred instead."
  467.  
  468. > You look down, sighing.
  469. "Then maybe the magic is dead for me."
  470. > "Maybe. Magic is a hard thing to kill, though. I would know - your mother put enough of her spirit into this place that it lingered on. In the fields, in the house, even in me."
  471. "The fields are all fallow."
  472. > "They're alive. The you notice what the rest of this place is like? Wind scours everything, if it isn't tended to. But your mother's magic - heh. Even if just weeds are growing there now, they're still growing."
  473. > He had a point there, you must admit.
  474. > "Sweetpetal..."
  475. > Alan's head turns, looking back out the window.
  476. > "The scarf, Hedge Lily had me swear to give you. But - there's something else I feel ought to be yours as well."
  477. > Your head tilts, ears perked.
  478. > "My time on this world is come and passed, but this house - it's well-built. The fields are still good, after a bit of work. If you want it... it's all yours."
  479. > Heart swelling up into your throat, you freeze.
  480. > He was - offering the whole house?
  481. > "There are no other inheritors, so it's completely yours if you want it. A bit snug for a family - you have a family, yes?"
  482. "Y-Yes. A colt and filly."
  483. > Themselves each a fine young stallion and mare now, with a grandfilly from one as well.
  484. > "Well, it will be cozy. But it will also be yours."
  485. > Mind whirling, you settle on your haunches.
  486. "You know I won't be able to forgive you. Even if you give me this... you tore my mother away from me. Your choice. I can't just forgive that so quickly."
  487. > "Yes. But I'm not looking for forgiveness. And besides, this place is as much Hedge Lily's as it is mine, and she would want you to have it. So - do you want it?"
  488. "I - I honestly don't know."
  489. > Certainly, it would be far better than the little one-room flat you occupied on your government stipend.
  490. > But at the same time, you can't overcome a certain wariness.
  491. > This wasn't your home.
  492. > Could it ever be?
  493. "Can I - can I think about this a bit?"
  494.  
  495. > "Of course! No rush, no rush at all - take your time."
  496. > Dismissively waving, Alan shoots you another smile.
  497. > This time, it is somehow warmer, despite its startling appearance.
  498. > "Take all the time you need. But it is becoming somewhat late, sleep's grasp on me is a fair bit stronger than it used to be. I believe I will be finding some rest now."
  499. "Of course. I... thank you, again. For letting me stay."
  500. > "How could I do anything else? For all Hedge Lily gave me, it's the least I could do."
  501. > Carefully heaving himself up, Alan turns for the stairs.
  502. > "I'm afraid I don't have a second bed-"
  503. "It's alright. I'll be fine on the couch."
  504. > It would, after all, be among the least rough places you had stayed.
  505. > "Well then, at the very least come up and get some blankets!"
  506. > That, you would absolutely do.
  507. > After all, that heater wasn't staying on all night - no fire yet, but you didn't trust it nearly enough to be sleeping around it.
  508.  
  509. --------
  510.  
  511. > Morning announces itself with light steaming in through the windows, illuminating the room.
  512. > Although intense, it did little to ward off the intense chill that had settled in for the night.
  513. > Having buried yourself in a small mountain blankets, you were rather reluctant to emerge from that cocoon of safety and warmth.
  514. > That gives you some time to consider the room, though.
  515. > Carefully extruding your head from beneath the weighty mass of covers like a turtle cautiously emerging from its shell, you let your eyes roam over the collection of items stacked around the room.
  516. > The longer you look, the more signs of your mother's life here you notice:
  517. > Here, a photo mounted in a dusty glass frame showing her deep at work in a field, Alan kneeling beside her.
  518. > There, a hoof-woven wreathe in the old Hearth's Warming style.
  519. > Couch arm-covers, embroidered in the same way she'd done her scarf.
  520. > A gardener's watering can, beaten and tarnished but carefully preserved on a bookcase shelf.
  521. > ...you can't stay in this place.
  522.  
  523. > Too much of her is here.
  524. > Every time you saw something like that, it would be a reminder:
  525. > That she had found happiness, while you had spent decades in hard servitude.
  526. > That she had come to love the man who'd ripped her from your sobbing hooves.
  527. > It sends a touch of anger, of jealousy and - despite your assurances to Alan - disbelief running through you.
  528. > And even as a pang of guilt runs through you at feeling that way over something she had no control of, you still can't force it out either.
  529. > Levering yourself up with a hefty sigh of regret, you slip out into the morning chill and begin to explore the house.
  530. > Moving silently on wooden floors is no easy task with hooves, but quickly you ascertain that Alan isn't downstairs.
  531. > The door to his room upstairs is open, however, and so you peer in.
  532. "Oh! Alan - I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were up."
  533. > His bed is empty; instead, he is stood in front of the room's window - cane discarded at his side and hands resting on the windowsill.
  534. "Listen... I - I've thought about it a bit. And... I don't think I can take the house."
  535. > No reaction.
  536. "Please! Don't take this the wrong way. I'm - I'm incredibly grateful for the offer. I know it must mean... unimaginably much to offer everything you have left of Hedge Lily. But... it's not who I am. I... I guess, I feel like I need to build my own way now."
  537. > Still he is silent, but Alan's head seems to rock forward ever so slightly in a nod.
  538. > Carefully stepping in, you circle around to his side
  539. > It's impossible to tell exactly where with those inscrutable glasses on his face, but you have a fair guess:
  540. > Hedge Lily's grave is quite visible from the window.
  541. > But what surprises you the most is the soft, content smile on his face.
  542. > Relief eases the burden on your shoulders - he wasn't angry.
  543.  
  544. "Being a slave this long... I'm eager to just put all this time behind me. To live the rest of my life as best I can, apart from all that. It won't be easy, but... I think we can."
  545. > Reaching up with one hoof, you gently rest it on his bony knee.
  546. "So... I just wanted to say thank you again. Not just - for the offers, and for letting me stay. But also for - for being good to my mother, and giving her a place to stay."
  547. > ...
  548. > Still silence.
  549. > Complete silence, in fact.
  550. > There's no sign he's even heard you.
  551. "...Alan?"
  552. > A trickle of fear begins to worm its way into your heart.
  553. "Are you alright? Can I-"
  554. > Rearing up, you put one hoof on the windowsill and with another tap his shoulder-
  555. > And a second later leap back with a frightened whinny turning to a scream as Alan collapses to the floor with a mighty thunk, rigid and unbreathing.
  556. > His glasses fly free with a clatter, leaving milky-white eyes to stare sightlessly up to the ceiling - his lips still curled in a warm, familiar, loving smile.
  557.  
  558. --------
  559.  
  560. > The police station waiting room is, in a word, hard.
  561. > Hard tile floors reach for hard concrete walls rising up to a ceiling with a lamp that sends hard light down on a hard table, all of which is augmented by a hard chill seemingly designed to discomfort its occupants.
  562. > Not that such efforts are needed.
  563. > You are already thoroughly discomforted, eyes red from crying and nose raw from the tissues that litter the table in front of you.
  564. > Curled on the tiny, hard metal seat you rest your head in your forelegs and shiver - ears laid down, tail tucked beneath your belly and eyes squeezed shut.
  565. > Squealing, the room's door opens and you jump - eyes locking on to the uniformed man who steps through.
  566. > The same mustachioed officer who'd given you directions to Alan's house.
  567. > A hefty sheaf of papers is tucked beneath one arm, and he carries with him a recording device.
  568. > Your heart seems to freeze altogether.
  569.  
  570. > You were going to be arrested - interrogated and imprisoned, a fall-pony for Alan's death.
  571. > It was all too - convenient.
  572. > And you'd heard far, far too many stories of ponies thrown under the cart by the justice system simply because it was easy to convict them.
  573. "P-Please, I d-didn't do anything. I-I just f-found him and - Y-You have to believe-"
  574. > "Easy there."
  575. > Settling into a chair on the opposite side of the table, he lays the files and device out.
  576. > "I'm just here to get a statement. You're in no trouble. Did the exact right thing by calling us."
  577. "I'm..."
  578. > You blink.
  579. "...I'm not under arrest?"
  580. > "Arrest?"
  581. > Shaking his head furiously, the officer almost seems ready to laugh.
  582. > "No, no. Not arrest. We just needed you to stay while we went out and got the body. We'll just take a statement now and then you're free to go."
  583. "...promise?"
  584. > You sound like a little scared filly again, but the officer seems to understand - reaching across the table to touch your hoof.
  585. > "I promise."
  586. "O-Oh. I'm sorry, I... I thought, because I found him-"
  587. > "No, no. I know you only came through yesterday, and your card ought to give any other alibi you need."
  588. > Frowning, you knit your brows - confused.
  589. "But..."
  590. > "I mean, obviously you couldn't have done it. I'm no coroner but I've seen a few corpses in my time, and..."
  591. > Scratching his mustache, the officer considers for a moment.
  592. > "Well, counting the wind and cold slowing things down a bit... I'd say he's been dead a month at least."
/spg/ pie

Fire's Heart [F&S] (Complete)

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