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The Way Life Could Be - Pt. 1

By HeavyHorse
Created: 2021-07-16 21:31:33
Updated: 2021-08-19 07:07:10
Expiry: Never

  1. >You are Starry Sails and presently, you’re staring at the clock next your bed.
  2. >It’s eleven so at least you have a few hours before you need to head out.
  3. >You shuffle about in your bed, turning onto your other side.
  4. >Why did it have to be so early? There’s going to be ponies everywhere, especially around the station.
  5. >Warm Waves said she’d told her friend that you’d prefer to go as late as possible but what would some random pony you’ve never met care about you?
  6. >No doubt you were just another inconvenience to her in what was probably an already stressful job.
  7. >You turn back to your right side and stare at the clock; only a minute’s passed.
  8. >Most of the night had gone like this, tossing about in your bed between fits and starts of sleep.
  9. >Your eyes feel so heavy but no matter how long you keep them shut, you can’t sleep.
  10. >If you were to sleep now, you’d just sleep through your appointment anyway. Then how would you explain yourself to Warm Waves? After all she’d done for you.
  11. >You turn onto your back, hoping against hope to stave off the misery for just a little longer.
  12. >The drawn blinds shut out all but a thin sliver of light but do nothing to dampen the sounds from outside.
  13. >Ponies. Lots of them.
  14. >Laughing, shouting, galloping, trotting, waiting, watching, judging…
  15. >The spell’s been broken alright, nothing else for it but to get up and set your mind to something else.
  16. >Only upon pushing yourself up do you notice the dampness of your pillow.
  17. >Oh, right. Of course.
  18. >Why did you forget that you’d be sweating like the pig you are if you threw all the bedclothes over yourself?
  19. >It felt so snug and comfortable, though, feeling like you could shut out the world with just some fabric.
  20. >Heaving yourself to your hooves, you grunt and trudge towards the window.
  21. >Looking through the slightly broken slat, you spy the crowds passing by below your EWS appointed apartment.
  22. >And feel your heart sink into your stomach.
  23. >Bright Celestia, it was only (late) morning and they were still piling in!
  24.  
  25. >Your bedroom doesn’t do much to take your mind off the sight outside, though you keep the blinds shut just in case.
  26. >There’s your bed, pressed against the wall opposite the door.
  27. >The computer you practically rescued from a dump, next the first window opposite the bed.
  28. >An actual human computer, no doubt bought by somepony who didn’t realise the inherent problems.
  29. >You’d fixed it up with what compatibility hardware you could salvage.
  30. >At least it would’ve been, if it weren’t already boxed up and shipped off.
  31. >Same as the books that would normally sit on the shelves by the window.
  32. >A small chest of drawers containing the many hoodies and sweaters you cloaked yourself in.
  33. >Again, most had already been sent on.
  34. >And… that was it.
  35. >The drawers had a mirror mounted atop them but you carefully kept that covered with one of your rattier sweaters.
  36. >But you had other things to think about today.
  37. >And who knows? Maybe once you get outside New Bridlewood there won’t be as many ponies about!
  38. >No, you can’t bring yourself to get excited, knowing well that for this occasion they’ll be everywhere.
  39. >You pause near the doorway and eye up the dark green hoodie poking out of one of the drawers.
  40. >It’s at least a size too big for you but you liked to think it did the job of concealing your… well, you also liked to think of yourself as having a ‘corpulent figure’.
  41. >Walking through to the kitchen-cum-diner-cum-living room, you become intensely aware of how much your body wobbles as you move.
  42. >Heat burns the edges of your cheeks as you imagine yourself stepping through those crowds, all those attractive mares giggling and pointing at you.
  43. >Maybe your chest and part of your stomach would be covered but even your tail, in its long, unkempt state, wouldn’t completely cover your rump.
  44. >You reflexively twitch your tail to-and-fro, wondering if maybe you still had that sweater that comes down almost to your hips.
  45. >The sound of something rattling against your bedside locker stirs you from your rumination.
  46. >Would he really be… ?
  47. >No, he said before that the time difference was too great.
  48. >It was probably just more spam from whoever the ‘smartpone’ manufacturer had sent your pmail to.
  49. >Seriously? Smartpone?
  50. >Yeah, it’s a cheap Chineighs knockoff but couldn’t they have come up with something a little better?
  51. >It was about all you could afford on your EWS stipend, though.
  52. >Proper, real smartphones—not smartpones, you’re not going to give in—for earth ponies were too expensive.
  53. >But you still needed some way to talk to him when away from your home.
  54.  
  55. >Indecision loses this battle and you step back into your bedroom, sliding your phone off the locker.
  56. >”Today’s the day, huh?”
  57. >Oh.
  58. >It was him.
  59. >You sit back on your rump and just hold the phone for a moment, looking at the message.
  60. >Anon had been kind enough to find a way to get Pillow Talk (he’d kept laughing about the name, saying it meant something totally different there) working on his human phone.
  61. >Not that you deserved him going to all that trouble.
  62. >But it was still nice to at least have somepony- someone to talk to.
  63. >Who was able to put up with your inane chatter about sci-fi and your boring interest in human technologies.
  64. >He even encouraged you to follow through with Warm Waves’ request and offered you a place to stay if you wanted.
  65. >Which you couldn’t accept.
  66. >You didn’t have to look back about your bedroom or into your single other living space to see the mess of dishes and discarded fast food packaging.
  67. >He didn’t need somepony like that imposing upon him.
  68. >He didn’t need somepony like you bringing him down.
  69. >Sighing, you tap at the screen with your hoof and bring up Pillow Talk’s interface.
  70. >Two ponies sit on pillows, gaily chatting it up on its icon.
  71. >You only have one human in your list of contacts, though.
  72. >Though you did try to sound as up as he does when you talk.
  73. >Even then, you found it easier to set up the speech-to-text system.
  74. >At least for the few occasions you’re outside and couldn’t risk being seen tapping away at your screen.
  75. >Here, at home, though…
  76. “I wish it wasn’t.”
  77. >Only now do you notice that the message you received was sent half an hour ago.
  78. >Oh, well, maybe if you weren’t in bed you would’ve replied within a more reasonable timeframe.
  79. >”It’ll be okay, Star.”
  80. >You… weren’t expecting a reply so soon.
  81. >Then again, you weren’t expecting anything from him at what was, for him, some Luna-forsaken hour.
  82. >”My offer to meet is still open, y’know? Or we can meet up for something to eat when you get settled in.”
  83. >Meet up? With him? What, so he can see you as you really are?
  84. >Your withers sink and your head with them.
  85. >You could debate what to tell him but your only explanation worked before.
  86. “Meeting somepony.”
  87.  
  88. >And it was the truth, too.
  89. >Admittedly, it was Mocha Crema and you hadn’t seen her since your school days.
  90. >Who else could you tell Warm Waves about when she asked if you knew anypony who could help?
  91. >Crema was the only pony you’d ever brought yourself to speak to in those years, or the years since.
  92. >Anon didn’t count, of course, he wasn’t even a pony.
  93. >And talking to him through the thaumnet-internet interconnector wasn’t the same as being there in pony.
  94. >But you would be.
  95. >And he’d want to meet you.
  96. >You still couldn’t understand why but that didn’t matter.
  97. >Eventually you’d run out of explanations and excuses.
  98. >Then he’d see the real you.
  99. >Not the you that you carefully presented to him.
  100. >Not the you who had a passion for PnP—Ponies ‘n’ Pals—RPGs with an only hinted at interest in tech.
  101. [spoiler]>Definitely not because you used them as inspiration to write your own sci-fi worlds to escape into.[/spoiler]
  102. >Not the you who’d spent the last years at the whims of the Equestrian Welfare Service.
  103. >Not the you whose stomach tied in knots whenever the prospect of having to go out and deal with other ponies was overridden only by unavoidable needs.
  104. >And then what would you have?
  105. >No, you just… You were just getting some help for a few minor issues you had. This was part of it.
  106. >That’s all you had to tell him, as long as you were careful to manage things.
  107. >”We can’t all meet up?”
  108. >Your eyes zip back down to the phone at the sight of a message appearing on it.
  109. >Oh horseapples, he’s really not giving up this time, is he?
  110. >C’mon, Star, this isn’t your first rodeo.
  111. “Later.”
  112. >But it might as well be.
  113. >At least it’d buy you some time to think of something.
  114. >”I’ll hold you to that!”
  115. >Just like he held you to going along with Warm Waves’ suggestion.
  116. >The prospect of a more generous stipend had done a little to grease that wheel but at the back of your mind, the worry still persisted.
  117. >If the Equestrian Educational Exchange Envoy really was serious about sending ponies to humanland to foster good relations, that responsibility would sit on you, right?
  118. >Unfortunately, it was more than that; they were also providing opportunities to more technically-minded ponies.
  119. >And hoping that those ponies would help bring human innovations back to Equestria.
  120. >And when you messed it all up, what would happen?
  121. >Would the EWS leave you there? Take you back to Equestria? Would you have to face Warm Waves again and explain yourself?
  122. >What would Anon think?
  123. >What would you go back to?
  124. >The hoof not holding your phone is now stuck into your tangled mane, tugging through it and pulling out hairs before you realise what you’re doing.
  125. >”Star?”
  126. >Yep, it was ten minutes since his last message.
  127. >”Try not to worry too much, okay?”
  128. >”I know the portal interferes with things.”
  129. >”But as soon as you come through, I’ll be waiting to talk.”
  130.  
  131. “Gotta get ready.”
  132. >And you really did.
  133. >Your stomach was pressing in against itself.
  134. >And that only brings one little fact you’ve been doing your best to ignore, to the front of your mind.
  135. >There were maybe a few crumbs lurking in one of the cupboards in the kitchen part of the living space.
  136. >The last couple of meals you’d had were all takeout, of course you’d done all you could to avoid having to go to the stores.
  137. >But it was unavoidable now.
  138. >You don’t even bother to check if Anon sent any more messages as you set the phone back on your locker and walk, almost in a daze, to the living area.
  139. >From there, you consider the bathroom.
  140. >And grimace.
  141. >It contained the only other mirror in the apartment.
  142. >Which was fine if you just went in to relieve yourself, you could walk past without so much as glancing at it.
  143. >But it was directly opposite the shower.
  144. >Stepping out, under the harsh glare of the cheap magical lamp, water glistening on your body…
  145. >Your mane was enough of a tangled mess as it was. Dark charcoal, with some wispy patches of white. Maybe if you were a pegasus you could fly and blend in with the night sky.
  146. >Your coat, so dark a navy it almost looked like black, would fit nicely, too.
  147. >But then, up so high away from anything to hide you, you’d be a target for stares from others just as much as your own if you were to step in front of the mirror like that.
  148. >It's probably best you don't re-tread that old ground.
  149. >Besides, your mane was long enough that it at least concealed the back of your neck.
  150. >Anything you could do to hide yourself while out was something to protect, at all costs.
  151. >And it’d take too long to brush out the mess, dry yourself off, check and re-check that everything is okay…
  152. >You’re just going to the store, anyway
  153. >So, the dark green hoodie it’d have to be.
  154. >A monochrome pone going out during the day, in front of such bright and beautiful ponies?
  155. >You’d stick out like a minotaur in a breezy village.
  156. >At least the green would give you some bit of colour, maybe keep some of the eyes off you.
  157. >You step over to one of the windows, blinds drawn just as in your bedroom, and peek out.
  158. >How was it possible that there were even more ponies around now?
  159. >Normally if you absolutely had to go out during the day, you could time it before the afternoon rush and avoid any real crowds.
  160.  
  161. >But today was the six month anniversary of the human internet-Equestrian thaumnet interconnector that allowed trans-dimensional communications between computer systems.
  162. >Sometimes it felt like ponies took any and every opportunity to throw a celebration, throwing the perfect wrench into what feeble plans you had.
  163. >Your stomach growls again and you can’t keep yourself from letting out a small groan of your own.
  164. >You could try to last until later today, maybe pick up something at the station.
  165. >But you know already that you’ll be so intent on catching the train, you won’t want to risk getting held up with something as insignificant as eating.
  166. >What could you even buy now?
  167. >You can’t cook anything yourself, what would the EWS ponies sent to take care of the place think if you left half-used foodstuffs lying around?
  168. >Bad enough that you’re leaving a mess of dishes but you’ve made your peace with that as best you can. You can stuff as much of the takeout packaging in the bin.
  169. >That’s already near full.
  170. >The store closest to the apartment has a little hot food section and it *is* near the back.
  171. >Plus you wouldn’t have to worry about setting it out on any dishes back home.
  172. >Still, you’d have to decide on what to get. No sense trotting in there and holding up other ponies with enough wherewithal to make such a simple decision.
  173. >Hay noodles? No, you’ve eaten enough of those that you’re already starting to feel like a poneeaboo.
  174. >A slice or two of pizza? What, and waste even more time washing the grease off your hooves and coat?
  175. >They did have those ‘breakfast burritos’ that humans made.
  176. >But the one time you’d tried one in the past had been messier than you’re willing to deal with today.
  177. >Maybe just a few sandwiches. They’re cheap, filling, and even you couldn’t mess up eating them.
  178. >With that settled, you step back into your bedroom, hooves clopping noisily against the wooden floor.
  179. >The dark green hoodie was one of the few you’d made sure to retain. You only kept enough that you could stuff them into your saddlebags before leaving.
  180. >Pulling it out of the drawer, you stuff yourself into it.
  181. >It’d taken some getting used to at first, given that you hadn’t really worn much when growing up.
  182. >You still grunt, trying to push your forelegs through the sleeves and your head through the opening.
  183. >Then a little shake to make sure your mane is nicely spread out and a look down between your legs to ensure that the hoodie’s just hanging loose from your frame.
  184. >Oh. No wonder your thighs look so big when you sit down.
  185. >Maybe if you pull the bottom of the hoodie down enough, you could cover them?
  186. >You glance back up to the covered mirror and shake your head.
  187. >Now comes the hard part; saddlebags inside or outside?
  188.  
  189. >Inside, they’ll bulk you out enough that you’ll look like you’re taking up the entirety of the hoodie.
  190. >Outside, they’ll cling to you and negate the point of wearing it by exposing the extent of your frame.
  191. >Then again, considering the crowds, a little extra colour might help you blend in better.
  192. >Plus, the brown should go nicely with the green and maybe even make you look like a proper earth pony rather than the worthless recluse you are.
  193. >Most importantly, though, you can take your phone with you and have easier access to it.
  194. >Your—worryingly light—purse of bits sits on top of the drawer and along with the phone, they’re about all you need to bring with you.
  195. >It’s tempting to slip on the cheap headphones that’re… somewhere around here.
  196. >But what if you don’t hear somepony coming up behind you? Or you forget to take them off before going in the store? Or—
  197. >Your ears pin back at the thoughts that keep popping into your head and you know, that’s precisely what would happen.
  198. >Your ears would pin back at the first sign of trouble. The headphones would slip off and you’d fumble around for them like the foal you are.
  199. >So just leave them, Star.
  200. >You’re still holding the phone, though, indecision paralysing you once again.
  201. >You tap the screen and your heart skips a beat upon seeing a message waiting for you.
  202. >How long have you spent on all of this?
  203. >”Star?”
  204. >That was the last one and your hooves hurriedly tap at the screen to bring up the full list.
  205. >”Just let me know when you’re going, okay?”
  206. >”I’ll be right here, you can talk to me.”
  207. >”Really, I’ve got the day off and I couldn’t sleep anyway.”
  208. >”Star?”
  209. >That last one was sent a little bit after the others.
  210. >Worrying over yourself when Anon was taking time for you like this.
  211. “Sorry.”
  212. >C’mon, Star, you can’t leave it at that.
  213. “Was getting ready to go out.”
  214. >You chew on your lip and feel your hoof start to rise to your mane before you bring it back down to the phone.
  215. “I’ll let you know.”
  216. >You wait for a moment and studiously keep your eyes from wandering to the clock at the top of the screen.
  217. >Celestia knows you don’t want to know how long you’ve spent on all this.
  218. >”You sure everything’s okay?”
  219. >You have to bark out a bitter little laugh at that.
  220. >Thankfully you’re still just using your hooves and not the speech-to-text or, Luna forbid, on an actual call to him.
  221. “No.”
  222.  
  223. “Just nerves, you know?”
  224. >You dare to glance up at the clock and oh sweet Celestia! You really wasted an hour on all this?
  225. >”I know it’s a lot to have to consider. It wasn’t easy for me when I left home, either.”
  226. >A shiver passes through you down your spine to your hooves
  227. >”But you’ll have someone on the other side who can help you.”
  228. >”And another pony, too.”
  229. >You take a deep, shuddering breath and place your hoof against the screen.
  230. “I just wish I knew what to expect.”
  231. >There’s a long pause.
  232. >The icon indicating Anon’s typing appears, disappears, then appears again.
  233. >”You could expect me to be there to help.”
  234. >And you could try to tell him, yet again, that he doesn’t have to.
  235. >Or that you can’t spend time going around with him when you’re on a schedule.
  236. >Lies came just as easily, after all.
  237. >”I don’t wanna press you but it sounds like you could use a friend.”
  238. >Had he seen through that?
  239. >You hadn’t spoken to Crema in so long that you’d no idea what you’d even talk to her about.
  240. >Hope you could get more information about the human world from her, as well as the EEEE provided information packet waiting for you there.
  241. >The one you’d received at your apartment hadn’t been nearly as enlightening as you’d hoped.
  242. >It was probably intended for ponies going more voluntarily, who wanted to be surprised by the differences between the worlds.
  243. >You, on the other hoof, had always been more interested in the humans’ fictional worlds, than their real one.
  244. >And while the thought of finally testing an aptitude after a lifetime of feeling precisely zero connection to your tribe’s magic did stir some unfamiliar feelings within you, it was equally frightening.
  245. >And… the truth is, you felt like you knew Anon better than any of the ponies who’d ever been in your life, apart from your own parents.
  246. >”A friend who could help you carry your things to your new place.”
  247. >You smile, in spite of yourself.
  248. >You’d told Anon of that legendary earth pony strength but he’d just laughed it off.
  249. >How could a little horse that came up to his stomach possibly carry so much weight?
  250. >Nah, it was that he’d told you of ‘powered exoskeletons’ from human sci-fi and you wanted to let on that earth ponies could match them.
  251. >It did raise the tantalising prospect of powered exohoodies with myomer instead of simple fabric.
  252. >Which only led to him cracking a joke about you leading Equestria’s military as its first ‘Starship Poner’.
  253. >It was nice to find someone who found the puns as ridiculous and perplexing as you.
  254. “Everything’s already there, Anon.”
  255. >You’d explained just enough to make sense of the situation but not enough to reveal the true extent.
  256. >That could wait. Preferably until the end of time.
  257. >Who knew? Maybe humans were more like Anon and didn’t rush to immediate judgement of anypony just because they lacked a cutie mark and existed at their Majesties’ pleasure.
  258.  
  259. >Maybe you really would have a friend.
  260. >You jab a mental hind leg at that thought as soon as it rises.
  261. >Okay, you’d have the train ride to think up some explanations.
  262. >And he really hadn’t pressed you on all the details.
  263. >You could, conceivably, get away with not sounding like a total shut-in.
  264. >If you could even bring yourself to say more than two words without your mind turning to complete mush, your throat closing like you’re going into anaphylactic shock, and the desire to walk (or ideally gallop) away taking over.
  265. >”Just tell me what time you get here and I’ll be waiting.”
  266. >”It sounded like your place is a bit aways from the station.”
  267. >”I can give you a lift.”
  268. >Your ears pin back then slowly lift as you consider the offer.
  269. >You were just going to walk, rather than risk being stuffed into a vehicle with humans and ponies and who knows what else.
  270. >Maybe Crema was still the chatty filly she’d been back in school?
  271. >You’d grown to know Anon over months, he might enjoy meeting somepony new.
  272. >Okay, in for an apple, in for an orchard, after all.
  273. “I think it gets there about noon, your time.”
  274. >Were you remembering the time difference right?
  275. >Worse than missing him was leaving him there because of your own incompetence.
  276. >You have the pmail the EEEE sent you, you could re-check it.
  277. >”Oh right. You told me before.”
  278. >”And it’s the only station in the city.”
  279. >No backing out now.
  280. >”Should I bring a sign or do you have a photo of yourself or something?”
  281. >A photo?
  282. >Oh no. Oh Celestia no.
  283. >Sure, the focusing crystal on the phone’s camera had a poor enchantment but you still didn’t want to give him time to think about what you looked like.
  284. “Just a sign.”
  285. >You don’t have to think overly much about that decision.
  286. >You try not to think about how quickly your hoof returns to your mane to run through it.
  287. >This is probably about the best time to check a couple of things.
  288. >Phone in hoof, you use the other three to step back into your living area.
  289. >The awkward gait makes your body rub uncomfortably against the inside of your hoodie.
  290. >”Alright.”
  291. >”I think I’m gonna try to sleep a bit.”
  292. >”Won’t take me long to get there.”
  293. >You tap the switch inside the bathroom and squint as the harsh lamp springs to life.
  294. >”I’ll be here to talk.”
  295. >Then step over to the sink and place a hoof on it, studiously keeping your eyes fixed on the phone.
  296. >”You know me, I don’t sleep too heavy.”
  297. >You chance a look up.
  298. >Under your pale amber eyes, bags tug at your coat.
  299. >Your mane frames the sides of your face and cascades down the back of your neck.
  300. >Knotted up and frizzy.
  301. >It’s an absolute mess, honestly. You’ll have to try to do something with it before you leave later.
  302. >At the least, everything from your neck down is concealed in the reflection.
  303. >You don’t even want to look at the feathering around your hooves again.
  304. >”Take it easy, Star.”
  305.  
  306. >You set the phone back into your saddlebags and splash a little water at your face.
  307. >Your reflection looks back at you just as blearily as before.
  308. >So you turn away from the mirror, flick the switch, and step back into your living area.
  309. >There’s nothing else for it, at this point.
  310. >You could pace around your apartment for a while longer, the battered TV would probably only have broadcasts of the celebrations, or you could look through the one book you’d kept.
  311. >’Computational Considerations: A Primer for Ponies’
  312. >Pretty entry-level stuff but there was still comfort in the familiarity of your well-worn copy.
  313. >And it did give heart that most ponies struggled to get their heads around the non-magical computers of humans, rather than the reverse for you.
  314. >A small glimmer of hope that humanland—no, Earth, a more auspicious name than your own ever was—might just offer some respite.
  315. >You could head out of New Bridlewood, avoiding the crowds for a while and at least try to get your mind turned to other things.
  316. >But your legs already feel heavy at the prospect of just going out and working up the courage to come back through those crowds would leave you pressed for time.
  317. >C’mon Star, look at it this way: it’s one of the last times you’ll have to set hoof to Equestria.
  318. >The last time you’ll have to wake up in this dump with the rest of the EWS’ rejects.
  319. >Though you can’t bring yourself to hope that you might be able to stop counting yourself among them.
  320. >You stop your pacing, mental and physical, and look over at the door to your apartment.
  321. >Dressed, as clean as you can get yourself right now, and prepared to go out, that’s precisely what you should do.
  322. >If you could get your hoof to take a step towards the door.
  323. >Just the one and then another.
  324. >There you go.
  325. >A few more and you’ll be there, ready to go out.
  326. >You instinctively lower your head and pin your ears back.
  327. >The noise from outside still filters in.
  328. >It’s only going to get worse, after all.
  329. >You paw at the floorboards in front of the door before pressing on the lever with a hoof.
  330. >The sooner you go, the sooner you can be back to your empty apartment.
  331. >Then on to somewhere, if not better then at least no worse.
  332.  
  333. >You are, unfortunately, still Starry Sails and you’re still, just as unfortunately, stood in the foyer of your apartment complex.
  334. >Even without the long pane of frosted glass to one side of the door to give a glimpse, you hear the noise from outside.
  335. >Your ears swivel about as you try to pin them back against the instinctive push to listen.
  336. >The apartment building isn’t that far from the square and the most expedient route to the store takes you past there.
  337. >Any other way would just leave you walking longer, through more throngs of ponies.
  338. >Up comes one of your forelegs and you take the sleeve of your hoodie between your teeth, tugging at it without much thought.
  339. >You can’t cover your hind legs but at least you can do something.
  340. >Who knows? The crowds may even work to your advantage.
  341. >Nopony should notice a little mare with her head down, threading her way between them.
  342. >Right?
  343. >You shift your hoof to the door, doing your best to keep your ears down.
  344. >It doesn’t do much to muffle the sound and nothing to dampen the light straining your eyes.
  345. >You could try pushing some of your mane over them but you’ve been over that, haven’t you?
  346. >The last thing you need is to inadvertently bump into somepony.
  347. >Right. Okay.
  348. >You’ve made it this far, Star, just think of it as a dry run for later.
  349. >You can’t. But you can, at least, push at the door’s catch and open it.
  350. >Bright Celestia!
  351. >Did she conspire with the weather ponies to ensure as much sun shone through today as possible?
  352. >And it only further highlights the shifting mass of colour just beyond the doorway.
  353. >You could go back, couldn’t you? Just turn around and… What?
  354. >Go back to an empty apartment and hope you can distract yourself enough from the gnawing hunger?
  355. >Hope you can stop at the store later when you don’t have the choice of turning tail?
  356. >Hope the train is delayed and you can spare a few minutes to get something at the station?
  357. >You duck your head and take the first slow step out.
  358. >You don’t have to think such things if you’re busy trying to will the ground to open up beneath you.
  359. >Or wish that your hooves didn’t clop so thunderously upon the pavement.
  360. >That the sun didn’t decide to shine just that bit brighter upon you.
  361. >Your head ducks a little lower and your ears almost hurt from how tightly you clench the muscles to force them down.
  362. >What was it Warm Waves had said?
  363. >Pick a point above everypony else and just focus on it. Let your peripheral vision guide you through any crowds. Try to forget that there’s anypony around you, because they’re not going to go out of their way to press against you.
  364. >But it was still easier to keep your eyes down and just glance up now and again to make sure you didn’t touch anypony or anything.
  365. >Not too low, though, you don’t want to see the edges of your pasterns and how treacherously wide they are.
  366.  
  367. >Or be reminded of your dark hindquarters wobbling to-and-fro, waiting for some nosy pegasus to start talking to one of their many friends about the little mare from the EWS refuge who clearly doesn’t get out.
  368. >You can only be thankful that the cool spring air doesn’t leave too much sweat beading on your forehead.
  369. >Which just leaves a quick look in either direction to get a proper bearing.
  370. >You’ll have to go right, past the square and further into a thicker mass of ponies.
  371. >There’s a few other houses and apartments along the street, none of the kinds of stores ponies from out of town might be interested in.
  372. >But it was still the main thoroughfare, the only way to avoid taking the more circuitous and quieter route that came with the threat of…
  373. >You try not to grimace. Try not to do anything but put one hoof in front of the other.
  374. >After all, you’re in the press of ponies now and you have to keep moving.
  375. >The light bump of the phone in your saddlebags is a welcome reminder, though.
  376. >Especially against the strawberry blonde tail and rich earthy brown of the unicorn mare in front of you.
  377. >You try not to glance too much at the taller pegasus stallion by her side but you can’t keep from hearing their shared laughter.
  378. >At the diminutive pony behind them, no doubt - head down, eyes down, ears down.
  379. >Clop. Clop. Clop. Clop.
  380. >You’re intensely aware of the feathering on your hindlegs trailing on the ground, picking up more dirt and dust.
  381. >How your gait must look too long for your legs.
  382. [spoiler]>Because you’re so unaccustomed to walking.[/spoiler]
  383. >As well as… other things.
  384. >C’mon, Star, don’t think about your stomach undulating just above the hoodie.
  385. >Nopony can see it, that’s why you’re wearing this getup!
  386. >From the edges of your vision you see ponies moving with more graceful gaits; green, purple, sky blue, white, orange…
  387. >Most in the same direction, towards the square.
  388. >And at least now, the noise of speakers broadcasting a voice, lifts above those around you.
  389. >It’s enough to draw your ears up just a little.
  390. >”... fun planned for all of you! We may not be Equestria’s premier town but we won’t let that stop us from making this the most memorable celebration in all…”
  391. >Yeah, it really is just as well you’re leaving today.
  392. >This whole thing is probably going to go on for days and from what you’ve read, humans aren’t nearly as obsessive when it comes to getting together at the drop of a horseshoe.
  393. >The crowd erupts into fevered cheers at something you weren’t paying attention to and the sudden noise stops you in your tracks.
  394. >You’re barely even aware of the pony that knocks against your rump or their apology.
  395. >How did it appear that there were even more ponies gathered in the square than when you’d first dared to look?
  396. >You really need to get away from all this. It’s only a matter of time before the crowd turns to leave and—
  397.  
  398. >”Excuse me, miss?”
  399. >That was dangerously close.
  400. >Close enough that it could only have come from the pegasus colt looking up at you. >Standing right in front of you.
  401. >You don’t lower your head but your eyes do shoot wide.
  402. >What in the blue blazes of Tartarus does he want?
  403. >”Are you okay?”
  404. >Oh no.
  405. >No no, please no!
  406. >Why is he walking closer to you?
  407. >Why won’t your own hooves move?
  408. >Why don’t you know how to handle foals?
  409. >Isn’t that something mares are supposed to know?
  410. [spoiler]>If you were a better mare, you would.[/spoiler]
  411. >You could gallop away right now, pushing through ponies and probably knocking some over.
  412. >But you wouldn’t be able to show yourself outside your apartment until all of this was over, if you did.
  413. >And you can only imagine what you’d look like, panting and foaming just from that short trip back.
  414. >The colt reaches towards you with a hoof and you do your best not to recoil too suddenly.
  415. >Pulling back might give you a few more precious seconds to think, Star, what’re you going to do?
  416. >You’re… going to...
  417.  
  418. “Sorry!”
  419. >There you go, Star, nothing wrong with falling back on the old reliable.
  420. >Even if all it accomplishes is getting the colt to stop.
  421. >Your voice was barely loud enough for you to hear it but he’s so close now, you shouldn’t be surprised he heard it as well.
  422. >”Um, it’s okay, miss. Everypony feels—”
  423. >”Sunny!” a rich, feminine voice calls out from nearby.
  424. >The colt looks off behind himself but you make sure to keep your eyes on that hoof sitting dangerously close to your sleeve.
  425. >”Mom?”
  426. >A taller pegasus mare, the very colours of a beautiful spring day, pushes through the crowd and comes to a stop, almost glaring down at the colt.
  427. >”Sunny Showers! What have I told you about wandering off?”
  428. >The mare looks over at you, her glare hardening.
  429. >Your ears snap back and you lower your head.
  430. >”And bothering ponies in the street? What if you’d been lost in the crowd?”
  431. [spoiler]>What if he’d asked you to help him find his mom?[/spoiler]
  432. >She practically stomps her dainty hooves over to the colt.
  433. >”But mom, Miss Peppermint always says we’ve gotta help ponies who look sad!”
  434. >Sad?
  435. >You weren’t sad. Maybe frustrated about the crowds.
  436. >Still uncomfortably close.
  437. >”I know sweetie, but,” the mare says, lowering her voice and sighing, “you can’t just walk up to ponies on the street who…”
  438. >She looks back to you, her eyes scanning over your form.
  439. >Your head lowers a little more and you suddenly regret not wearing the brown sweater that comes down over your croup.
  440. >When the mare turns back to her colt, she leans in and whispers something to him.
  441. >The temptation to lift an ear is beaten back only by your reluctance to even imagine what she could be saying about you.
  442. >The colt, Sunny, looks to you and then back to his mother.
  443. >”But mom, maybe that’s why—”
  444. >The mare extends a wing to Sunny’s withers, shaking her head.
  445. >Well. Looks like you don’t have to imagine what she must have said to him.
  446. >”I’m terribly sorry about this, miss. He means well but he still needs to learn to listen to me.”
  447. >The colt lowers his head, looking down, and only now do you realise just how far you’ve lowered yours.
  448. >You were almost level with him, his mother practically towering over you.
  449. >”Sorry,” the colt mutters.
  450. >Whatever his mother says to you is lost in another cheer from the crowd.
  451. >As is their disappearance back into the mass of ponies.
  452. >You busy yourself tugging uselessly at one of your sleeves, hoping that when you look back up, your way will be clear.
  453. >Well, not clear but at least without that high-class mare looking at you like that.
  454. >What was somepony with such a thick Canterlot accent doing out here anyway?
  455. >Why would anypony come from the capital to this little backwater?
  456. >And if they did, wouldn’t that mean that some might come from…
  457. >You’re walking again.
  458. >Not quite ‘walking’ but not exactly a full trot.
  459. >For once, the thought of yourself waddling along the streets isn’t an entirely welcome one.
  460.  
  461. >The huge Enchant-o-vision monitors blare out behind you as you leave the square and pass onto a street still worryingly busy.
  462. >A pub nestled at one corner has seats and cushions set out and a few pegasi flit down to hug friends and take offered mugs.
  463. >There were an awful lot of pegasi about today.
  464. >Ahead of you, though, is your goal: STAR.
  465. >It was a newer convenience store, based on some human equivalent you couldn’t remember the name of.
  466. >A simple six-pointed star logo hung just above the doors admitting such a number of ponies that you almost stopped in your tracks.
  467. >Grace’s Grocery Gazebo had closed years ago and might’ve been the only other store that sold freshly-prepared foods.
  468. >It would’ve been just as busy, anyway. And you would’ve had to keep going until you were in it, too.
  469. >Not even the group of young stallions congregating to one side of the doors could stop you now.
  470. >You hope.
  471. >Bucking buck…
  472. >And of course, ponies are going in on that side rather than coming out.
  473. >So you fall in with the line making their way inside the store and hope that you can keep them to your side enough that you won’t be noticed.
  474. >”Whoah, check out the butt on that one!”
  475. >You flick your eyes towards them just long enough to see one with a raised hoof, pointing.
  476. >”Aw, dude, that’s nasty! She’s just a filly!”
  477. >Your tail twitches and you struggle to keep it swept to the side of your body facing them.
  478. >”Filly or not, you know she’s…”
  479. >Mercifully, the voice trails off into the cacophony of voices, hooves, and wings as you enter the store proper.
  480. >At least you don’t have to think about it too intensely under the waft of warm air that rushes over you.
  481. >Naturally they’d have the heat turned on, on a day like this.
  482. >You can already feel yourself start to sweat more intensely.
  483. >So you make your way—through less ponies than on the street, thank Celestia—to the drinks cabinet.
  484. >About the only good thing about this place was that, being a human import, they also used human technology, rather than unicorn spell matrices.
  485. >Cool air spills out of the cabinet and you sigh internally, wishing you could stand here for the remainder of your time in the store.
  486. >Overhead, the… ‘fluorescent’ lights hum comfortingly - softer light than the sun outside or the enchanted lamps in your apartment.
  487. >Well, since you’re here, you may as well pick out something. It’s not like the last of your bits will be good for anything else, or of much use in the human world.
  488. >The array is of human drinks, another request by the Princess to foster friendship between the two species and prove the worth of their developments.
  489. >One of those energy drinks? No, you’d probably just wind up more on edge back at the apartment.
  490. >Most of the others do have caffeine, which could help to stave off the result of last night’s disaster.
  491. >But your best bet is probably the one featuring a pony and human sharing two bottles of itself.
  492.  
  493. >”Elderflower Effervescence!,” the label proclaims, “a true delight, no matter your species!”
  494. >You’d had it a few times in the past - it was lightly floral and sweet. But the apartment already boasted an impressive collection of empty bottles...
  495. >C’mon, Star, don’t agonise over this. There’s probably ponies trying to get past you into the cabinet, just make a decision!
  496. >So you pull out one of the plastic bottles and spare a glance around you which you’re sure looks far too obvious.
  497. >The bottle feels pleasantly cool on your back, even through the hoodie. Though you try not to shiver too obviously. Luna knows what they’d think if they saw you doing that.
  498. >No sense in trying to walk through here on three hooves, though.
  499. >Now, the hot counter’s near the back of the store, isn’t it?
  500. >Which… is through a throng of ponies and near the line stretching back from the cashier.
  501. >Both of them.
  502. >There’s no way you’re using those self-service tills, with this much of a crowd you’re liable to fumble about until something breaks.
  503. >Or do something wrong and one of the cashiers has to hold everypony else up just to help you.
  504. >Or the superstitious ponies will have meddled with it because ‘technology can’t be trusted’.
  505. >Celestia but sometimes you just wanted to throttle them!
  506. >Suddenly aware of a stallion reaching into the cabinet and glancing towards you, you force your face back into the very picture of neutrality.
  507. >Or so you hope.
  508. >The pangs from your stomach remind you of exactly why you’re here and the need to face the heat of the hot counter.
  509. >Amazingly, there’s only one other pony lined up for it, chatting with the mare working on putting together something for him.
  510. >”Hey, did ya hear Princess Twilight’s comin’ out here later?”
  511. >The mare looks up from what she’s doing and you look away just in time.
  512. >”Seriously, Shutter? Why would she come all the way out here?”
  513. >What to get, though?
  514. >You spare a look back up, mercifully spotting the mare back at preparing the stallion’s order.
  515. >You really should’ve put some thought into this back at home. Humans offered some kind of meat substitute for some of their ingredients and it really bulked out the options.
  516. >”I dunno. I heard she likes goin’ all over, bringin’ humans to see Equestria, or somethin’.”
  517. >And the breads! Even the Princesses couldn’t have so much choice as that.
  518. >”Sure, she’s dragged some big important humans all the way out to New Bridlewood to see this year’s yokelfest.”
  519. >The prices look a bit smudged but the plainer ones are probably a safe bet.
  520. >”Alright, there you go.” You’re distantly aware of the mare passing the stallion a wrapped package. “Hello, ma’am, what can I get you?”
  521. >Cheeses, greens, veg, even fruit… You guess the best option would be some—
  522. >”Ma’am?”
  523. >You frown slightly at the source of the voice distracting you from your indecision.
  524. >The mare. Waiting for you. Looking tired and slightly annoyed.
  525. >Oh. Uh. W-Wait, you haven't decided yet!
  526.  
  527. >And it’s only now you realise that you’ve been standing on the tips of your hooves to get a better look onto the counter and the ingredients splayed out on it.
  528. >You quickly shrink back under the mare’s withering gaze.
  529. >It’s not just the heat from the counter’s lamps that has you sweating, or the coolness on your back that makes you shake.
  530. >Oh Celestia, oh buck, there’s probably a line of ponies forming behind you!
  531. >They want to get back out to the festivities to enjoy them like normal ponies, Star!
  532. >Make a Luna-damned choice and move on! Even you should be capable of that!
  533. >”Ma’am? Do you need more time to—”
  534. “No!”
  535. >You cringe severely and try to lower yourself even more at how loudly you bark the word.
  536. “I-I’ll, uh, the…”
  537. >Oh Celestia’s light, just pick one of the premade options.
  538. [spoiler]>You can’t run off with the bottle on your back, they’d call the guards after you.[/spoiler]
  539. “The…”
  540. >There! You should have enough bits for that and the drink.
  541. “Uh, BLT… Deluxe?”
  542. >Great, your voice is back down to barely audible again and now the poor mare has to lean over the counter, looming over *you*, just to hear what you haltingly blurt.
  543. >She cocks an eyebrow and then finally, mercifully, turns away to get your order ready.
  544. >The heat of the store’s warm air being piped in, the heat from the lamps… You’re going to have damp patches across your hoodie, aren’t you?
  545. >And you won’t be able to wear it later, will you? The best one you have (though that isn’t saying much) and your best bet for meeting Anon and Crema, and you’ve made a mess of it.
  546. >Rather than start ruining more of your mane, you settle on chewing your lip and grinding a hoof against the stone tiles.
  547. >You can’t start taking everything off here, what would ponies think?
  548. >”There you go.”
  549. >Oh, the mare’s put your packaged sandwiches on the glass counter. It looks bigger than you expected, though.
  550. >Ugh, you can’t start taking it with your hooves, the bottle will roll right off your back and probably into somepony.
  551. >Take it in your mouth, you’re going to eat it anyway.
  552. >Pushing up onto the tips of your hooves again, you’re just about able to take the package between your lips without disturbing the bottle too much.
  553. >Plus, it means you don’t have to try and thank the mare!
  554. >Though like a foal, you just blink and sort of try to incline your head while you’re already stretching to take up your meal.
  555. >She nods back, at least, and now you get the scent of what you’ve hastily chosen rising to your nostrils.
  556. >It’s slightly earthy and warm but more than that is a strong, spicy pungency that almost makes your eyes water.
  557. >Can you even eat this? It must be safe for ponies but… Well, tapwater’s still free to use.
  558. >And the mare’s already moved onto the next pony.
  559. >You can figure this out at home.
  560. [spoiler]>The thought makes your heart skip a beat.[/spoiler]
  561. >All that’s left now is to join one of the lines that hasn’t seemed to diminish in size at all.
  562.  
  563. >Okay, stare at somepony’s rear, stare at the cashiers, stare around the store like a wide-eyed foal, gee Star, the options for attracting more attention are endless!
  564. >So you turn your gaze back down to the dark tiles, shuffling forward when you hear, more than see, the pony in front of you move.
  565. >You can already feel your saliva starting to run around the paper package but at this point, trying to shift it onto your back would just cause more problems.
  566. >Then somepony will put a hoof in it and wonder at the disgusting wretch who can’t even control her own body.
  567. >All you can do is take a slow, shuddering breath.
  568. >And fill your mouth with more of that overpowering aroma, almost sending yourself into a coughing fit.
  569. [spoiler]>Then you could spit the package out at the mare in front of you, she’d probably think you were trying to feel up her rump.[/spoiler]
  570. >Oh, well, at least the small steps don’t cause your oversized hooves to clop quite so noisily against the tiles.
  571. >And the line’s moving forward at a steady pace! You might just be able to make it out of this nightmare without making a complete flank-head of yourself for once.
  572. >You’re close enough to the cashiers now that you can make out the shrill ‘beep’ of their registers over the sound of ponies chatting.
  573. >So much quicker and easier than having somepony manually tapping away, agitating the ponies waiting behind you.
  574. >Sparing a look upwards, it seems you’re next.
  575. >And you only let a couple of drops of saliva fall!
  576. >Just a shame you can feel more than a couple of drops of sweat falling against the barrel of your hoodie.
  577. >Celestia, how can ponies get so cold, so easily?
  578. >Oh. Right.
  579. >”Thanks! Enjoy the festival!”
  580. >And you’re up, Star.
  581. >Though quite suddenly, the thought of somepony having to handle your dirtied package freezes you in place.
  582. >”Uh, next please?”
  583. >Your head snaps up, your ears with it, and in some unfathomable alignment of cosmic luck, you see a horn jutting from the head of the stallion behind the counter.
  584. >You may not know that much about unicorn magic but he shouldn’t be able to ‘feel’ the wetness of the package, right?
  585. >It’s just enough confidence to step over and slip it across the counter, turning back around to grab the bottle on your back.
  586. >”Is that all you’re—Oh! Did the server not tell you?”
  587. >That confidence breaks so fast it’s a wonder you don’t drop what’s in your mouth.
  588. >”We’ve got a special meal-deal just for today; if you’d like, you can buy a pack of chips and get everything for a reduced price!”
  589. >He’s… beaming at you.
  590. >Was he new here? Didn’t he recognise an obvious EWS bloc wastrel when they so obviously could barely stand to be around other ponies?
  591. >It’s just part of the job, smiling at everypony like you mean it.
  592. >That’s what they’re told, right? That’s what you read.
  593. [spoiler]>Why else would a cute stallion smile at you?[/spoiler]
  594. >Wait, you’re focusing on the wrong thing here.
  595.  
  596. >Taking one of the small packs below the counter between your teeth is as good an excuse as any to duck your head down.
  597. >Part of your mane slips around your eyes and you grab the first thing your teeth latch onto.
  598. >You’re not even sure what it is.
  599. >This place doesn’t carry much in the way of traditional Equestrian carrot or apple chips.
  600. >Just those salty, greasy, delicious potato chips humans made.
  601. >If your countrymares didn’t care for them, that just left more for you, right?
  602. >It doesn’t matter, anyway, it’s just one less decision to agonise over.
  603. >Unlike the expression on the stallion’s face, his eyes slightly wide and his mouth hanging ajar.
  604. >Oh no, you’d whipped your head up but only to get your mane away from your eyes!
  605. >Did you flick some of your saliva onto him?
  606. >Your confusion evaporates when he lifts the pack to scan its barcode and you see its full extent.
  607. >”BIG Minotaur size!” is plastered across the top of it, “for BIG ponies with BIG appetites!”
  608. >You try to suck in your gut but it’s not like he could see that, right?
  609. >The other ponies behind you can, though, but they’re probably whispering to each other about your oversized rump, the way your feathering catches under your hoof as you nervously grind it against the tiles, the pathetic way you try to manoeuvre your tail to cover yourself…
  610. >Your breathing starts to quicken and you instinctively lower your head until you’re barely peering over the counter.
  611. >The stallion sounds distant as he ‘cheerfully’ calls out the price of your items.
  612. >You fumble at your saddlebags with your teeth, then slump back onto your rump and try fiddling with your hooves.
  613. >You probably should’ve tightened the belt so the bags didn’t slip about on your back.
  614. >Purse in hoof, you fumble some more at the string until you’re able to empty it across the counter.
  615. >Shame burns at your cheeks as the coins rattle about, a few threatening to tumble over the edge.
  616. >The thrum of magic as the stallion hastily catches them doesn’t register as your eyes dart to-and-fro, your throat suddenly feeling drier.
  617. >You have to get out of here.
  618. >You’re suddenly too aware of how close the next pony in line is to you.
  619. >How more and more are coming into the store and waiting to queue up, the insistent beeping from one of the self-service tills indicating a pony in need of assistance, how the lights overhead don’t feel quite so comforting any more but that their light glints off the sweat coursing down you.
  620. >What were you thinking? You can’t do this! You can’t handle this!
  621. >Pushing yourself back to all fours with a grunt, you turn to one side, making sure not to face back into the store.
  622. >Your hoof barely stretches onto the counter and you dump the bits the stallion had left, as well as your items, into your saddlebag.
  623. >Then you don’t walk. You don’t even trot. You break into as much of a gallop as your diminutive legs will allow, paying no heed to whatever the stallion calls out from behind you.
  624.  
  625. >Thumping music emanates from the square but that’s not what finally brings you to a halt, your breathing ragged and laboured.
  626. >You couldn’t feel it.
  627. >That familiar bump-bump-bump against your flank.
  628. >Suddenly, the world of ponies slips away into nothingness as you feverishly pull open the flap of your saddlebag.
  629. >No, no, no!
  630. >You stupid, incompetent foal!
  631. >You dumped everything into the wrong one, didn’t you?
  632. >You didn’t even put your bits back into your purse and now they’ve been rattling around in there!
  633. >Hot tears sting the edges of your eyes as your lips and teeth search for it, your mane having fallen over your face again.
  634. >Please, oh please, don’t let it—
  635. >There!
  636. >Your teeth latch onto it and you pull, shifting it past the other items.
  637. >Remembering yourself, you tenderly drop your phone into your waiting hooves.
  638. >It’s fine.
  639. >There aren’t even any scratches on the screen!
  640. >Something uncomfortably close to a sob breaks free from your throat as you tenderly cradle the device against your chest.
  641. >Eyes shut, desperately trying to slow your panting, you fail to notice the ponies who frown as they pass.
  642. >Slipping the phone back into the other, empty, saddlebag, you take a last shaky breath and stand.
  643. >You feel dampness across your body and the cool air is almost uncomfortable.
  644. >Home, Star. Just get home.
  645. >Keeping your head down and your ears pinned back enough to close off the music, the voices, the stomping of hooves, you put a bit more speed into your gait than in your journey out.
  646. >It still takes uncomfortably long before you’re finally able to poke about in your saddlebags for the key.
  647. >And an agonising eternity later until you shut the door behind you.
  648. >You feel almost in a daze as you ascend the stairs and round the corner, coming at last to the worn door to your sanctuary.
  649. >One whose emptiness, you realise as you gently shut the door behind you, is surprisingly welcome.
  650. >It almost feels larger, now devoid of your own belongings. The darkness wraps about you better than any of your clothing ever could.
  651. >Relief is quickly replaced by your more familiar companion and you hurriedly work at undoing the straps of the saddlebags, then tug at your hoodie.
  652. >Now lying on the floor, you prepare yourself for the worst.
  653. >There are more spots of wetness on it than you’d like but less than you’d feared.
  654. >The worst are where the saddlebags lay against your flanks but maybe if you leave it on the couch, it might dry out just enough.
  655. >The thought brings you back to the realisation that you’re still sweating.
  656. >You could shower, of course, but that’d mean having to deal with your mane and tail.
  657. >Your stomach groans and you lean forward, touching it with a hoof.
  658. >No, right now there’s only one thing you need to do.
  659.  
  660. >It’s a little later now but you’re still just Starry Sails.
  661. >That… had not been a good idea.
  662. >What made that BLT a ‘Deluxe’?
  663. >To start, some kind of mayonnaise-like sauce you could only describe as ‘hotter than all the rivers of fire in Tartarus’.
  664. >You’d wolfed down half the bottle of Elderflower Effervescence after the first bite. Then carefully eaten it in smaller bites after, making sure to sip water between each.
  665. >It was also massive; long, thick slices of bread with beets, legumes, [spoiler]tofu[/spoiler], some kind of chopped nuts mixed into the bread, and thick, sweet daisy petals.
  666. >Probably the healthiest thing you’ve eaten in… yeah, better not to think too hard about that.
  667. >You’d also forgotten just how sweet that drink was but the sugary, floral liquid did much to dispel the memories of your greatest nightmare being realised.
  668. >Enough so that you could even break out ‘Computational Considerations’ and flick through the first few chapters to the later ones.
  669. >Too much foundational stuff concerning magic in those, you just wanted the gritty tech details.
  670. >Well, even that was after you’d cleaned yourself up after the mountainous sandwich.
  671. >Worse than your brief rush back home was how the sauce made you sweat as if you’d run from Manehatten.
  672. >You’d dragged one of the cleaner towels out from the bathroom and set it under yourself, grabbing another and draping it across your back as you ate.
  673. >They were worryingly damp by the time you’d finished but at least it spared the couch the worst.
  674. >Your hoodie hung off the back of the couch and you guiltily looked up at the stained ceiling.
  675. >It still wasn’t enough to convince you to open one of the windows and let even more of the din you’d done your best to ignore, in.
  676. >The book had helped to some degree but the level of noise and music, combined with your earlier escapades leave that welcome familiarity escaping you.
  677. >Which means there’s only one thing left to do.
  678. >One thing you can do.
  679. >Two, actually, but the other one is still lying in your saddlebags dumped by the door.
  680. >Your hooves still clop hesitantly against the floor as you near it, the memory of earlier painfully pushing its way back to the fore of your mind.
  681. >As if a baby manticore is hissing at you from over there, you gingerly rifle through the bag and take the oversized pack of chips between your teeth.
  682. >The faster walk to your bedroom helps.
  683. >You toss the pack onto your bed and fetch the last thing you’ll need from the living area.
  684. >Walking on three hooves here is okay, as is hopping onto your bed.
  685. >Nopony can see the way your body wobbles and shakes, after all.
  686. >Or hear how loudly the bedsprings creak and the frame groans.
  687. >If nothing else, it’s as well you’re leaving for a new bed. The thought of having to explain anything to the EWS, even just going before them…
  688. >No, that’s not what you want to think about right now.
  689.  
  690. >With a little pushing and more shoving, you have your blankets and couple of pillows arranged into something more comfortable and familiar.
  691. >Shutting the door to your bedroom doesn’t do anything about the sound coming through the window but the smaller space does feel cosier. Safer.
  692. >So you lie, now, upon your bed, where the day’s events start to catch up with you.
  693. >The thought of sleeping through your deadline, missing the train, having to explain yourself even further… No, you know you won’t nod off.
  694. >But it’s still kind of nice how the tiredness works a little magic to distract you from all else except the phone in your hoof.
  695. >You tap at the screen and let out a breath at seeing no messages waiting for you.
  696. >Oh. Well it hadn’t been that long, anyway. He’s probably still asleep.
  697. >And you’d only be bothering him with your…
  698. [spoiler]>... you wouldn’t. Because you wouldn’t bring it up.[/spoiler]
  699. >Your head lowers but you tell yourself it’s just the tiredness and you want to get more comfortable.
  700. >Then you see it.
  701. >It must have happened when you were dashing home.
  702. >And it’s almost as well that it did, you probably would’ve collapsed if you’d seen it then.
  703. >A missed call.
  704. >From Warm Waves.
  705. >Why was she calling you?
  706. >Everything was arranged and you’d finished up with her.
  707. >Did… Did the EWS want you to stay in contact?
  708. >The phone tips away from your hooves as you pull back your head, the tiredness suddenly evaporating.
  709. >Should you call her?
  710. >Probably.
  711. [spoiler]>But you won’t.[/spoiler]
  712. >No. No, you can’t.
  713. >Your heart thunders in your chest as you search for something to latch onto.
  714. >If it’s important, really important, she’d call you again, right?
  715. >You look back to the phone, lying propped against the bedclothes.
  716. >The screen’s off, the device silent.
  717. >It could start ringing at any second.
  718. >You lie there, taking short, quick breaths and wait.
  719. >And wait.
  720. >And wait…
  721. >... But the phone stays silent.
  722. >And the last thing you’re going to do is just wait here for your judgement.
  723. >You boop the screen with your nose and it blinks to life.
  724. >It’s impossible not to wince at the sight of the ‘missed call’ notification but you hurriedly push it aside with a hoof.
  725. >There’s still enough power to keep you going for a bit. You’ve heard the trains that run through the inter-dimensional portals have been upgraded with human-designed tech.
  726. >Maybe they’d even have those fancy magic banks?
  727. >There was no way you’d ever be able to afford one of the crystals unicorns used to charge magical devices but that was never a problem before now.
  728. >Yeah, the portal might interfere with communications but that’s why they had more elaborate spell matrices to keep essential systems running on the trains, right?
  729. >And if they *were* more modern ones, they’d supplement the aging steam engines with thaumatic drives.
  730. >Right?
  731. >They could spare some of that power for ponies needing to work on important business.
  732.  
  733. >But… that’s not really what you want to think of right now, either.
  734. >You had your fill of magical nonsense from ‘Computational Considerations’.
  735. >And you don’t need to think about how your business was neither important nor… well, business.
  736. >You’d much rather think about that pack of chips, for a start, promising ‘spring onion and four cheese’ flavouring.
  737. >Humans surely had some strange ideas of what flavour combinations went together but so far they hadn’t disappointed.
  738. >And thankfully the bag was designed with more than unicorns in mind, featuring a simple ‘rip open’ design.
  739. >Not that you need to *rip* it open, just a light pull with your teeth fills your nostrils with a sweet and savoury scent that almost puts a smile on your face.
  740. >You push your muzzle into the pack and scoop a few up with your tongue, munching with no little satisfaction as you tap at your phone.
  741. >No sense getting the screen greasy.
  742. >And before you put any real thought into it, you’re tapping out the address of a equusite you’ve spent far too much time on.
  743. >Anon had told you there was a human equivalent and kind of hinted at the idea ponies had simply made their own version of it.
  744. >You could only hope it was better than this.
  745. >4canal often seemed like a haven for the kinds of ponies who lived in the other apartments around you. If the occasional screaming fit, stomping of hooves, and other… more disturbing noises were any indication.
  746. >Still, there were a few little havens on it, your own personal being its /tg/ board for tabletop generals.
  747. >Well, it was mostly taken up by threads for Hyperspace Hyperwars, Fantasy Fusiliers, Chaosengine, and the like but there were always a hooful of threads for…
  748. >You frown, recalling that the Equestrian penchant for fantasy RPGs extended even to this place.
  749. >So you duck off to grab another mouthful of chips and flick down through the threads, looking for one you knew had to be there.
  750. >And sure enough it was: BattleThaum.
  751. >You can’t stop yourself from rolling your eyes, though. Celestia, did they really have to create their own ‘filly-friendly’ version of everything from Earth?
  752. >The fine minds of 4canal had been busy at work rewriting their own lore and even rules better suited to the human original.
  753. >You glance up to where your shelves would normally sit and sigh, mentally, at the missing book.
  754. >A treasure from Earth, again bought with what bits you could scrounge together after denying yourself as much food as you were comfortable with.
  755. >It could wait, though, until you’re on the other side.
  756. >You quickly turn your attention back down to the phone. That thought can wait for a bit.
  757. >Right now, there’s some fillies posting in this thread that have interesting ideas about the latest revision of the Wild Dog.
  758. >Filthy tribal scum…
  759.  
  760. >It’s getting a little difficult to keep your eyes open, now.
  761. >The pack of chips lies empty and discarded, a small pile of crumbs gathered before your hooves.
  762. >Not like you’ll have to worry about that, anyway.
  763. >You’ve gone through the threads that interest you, though, and even a few that didn’t, just to give yourself something to do.
  764. >And it is getting near the time you’ll have to go…
  765. >Your head lowers and your ears slowly slip downwards.
  766. >It wouldn’t do any harm just to check, at this point.
  767. >Even if you can’t talk about it, just talking to him would help.
  768. >So you close off Bronze and tap at the Pillow Talk icon.
  769. >What could you say, though?
  770. >Explain about the day you’ve had?
  771. >Re-tread the only fears you’d been able to bring yourself to share?
  772. >All you really wanted was—
  773. >”Anon is typing…”
  774. >It’s kind of strange, really, how you feel your lips pulling back in a genuine little smile.
  775. >It feels like you’ve been able to do that lately.
  776. >It feels kind of [spoiler]nice[/spoiler].
  777.  
  778. >You’re once again Starry Sails and you never once liked these new busses with the thaumatic drives.
  779. >Sure, they were smoother than pony-pulled carts but the way the magical energy buzzed and crackled (especially in the older ones) always left you feeling like your mane was about to start standing on edge.
  780. >Plus it meant more ponies crammed together.
  781. >And today, of all days, it’d be your luck that you have a mare sitting in the seat next to you.
  782. >You’ve drawn your hind legs in as close to yourself as possible, pushed yourself back in the seat to make yourself as small as you can.
  783. >But it’s not nearly enough.
  784. [spoiler]>Not when you’re as large as you are in all the wrong ways.[/spoiler]
  785. >The only small mercy was that the mare hadn’t tried to engage you in conversation.
  786. >She’d said ‘hello’ and then something about the festivities in the most terrifyingly bubbly tone you’ve ever heard…
  787. >... But otherwise sat there, tapping away at her phone.
  788. >Turning your attention back out the window is almost as bad.
  789. >You’d prepared yourself for the fact that the journey to Manehatten would be on a busy bus like this. Ponies would still be arriving throughout the day.
  790. >What you couldn’t prepare for was seeing just how heavily thronged the streets were.
  791. >And especially, going past Tack Way, even as briefly as it was.
  792. >It sends a shiver down your spine and you quickly, furtively, glance over to the mare still seated uncomfortably close.
  793. >If she saw or felt it, she doesn’t show it.
  794. >From what you could remember, there’s still a few more stops before your own.
  795. >If your luck continues the way it has, the mare will still be seated by your side before you get there.
  796. >Still, you don’t put your headphones back on.
  797. >You’d charged your phone as much as possible before setting off but you wanted to keep as much of that power for the train. Just in case.
  798. >So you stare back out the window and try, so hard, to follow Warm Waves’ advice.
  799. >Even if just thinking about her brings another prick of fear to the fore of your mind.
  800. >She hadn’t called again and now you weren’t sure whether you should worry or relax about it.
  801. >Okay, Star, just look out the window and keep your eyes on the buildings, above everypony else.
  802. >No, don’t focus on the pegasi flitting about, or their reflections on the glass.
  803. >Oh Celestia, oh Luna, she just *touched* your *feathering*!
  804. >Your hind leg reflexively tries to pull back but you’ve already got it almost pressed against your body.
  805. >And now the mare knows, if she didn’t already by your unwashed, unkempt body, that she’s been sitting next to a disgusting shut-in!
  806. >It’s almost too much to turn your head, just enough, to see from the corner of your eye that her hoof is pressed against the seat.
  807. >She was just pushing herself off it and accidentally brushed against you…
  808. >Of course she was, Star. She’s getting off the bus and you’ll have a clear run to get off, yourself.
  809.  
  810. >You exhale, long and slow, and bring one of your forelegs over your saddlebag.
  811. >You’d pressed yourself uncomfortably up against the window and the few items of clothing you had, stuffed into the other bag, worked against you.
  812. >Not your green hoodie, though, that was safely covering you once more.
  813. >But now even with your book and headphones in the bag, you still feel that familiar outline.
  814. >Your talk with Anon had been… good.
  815. >The usual, where he’d asked what you were doing and you struggled to think up something better than admitting how long you’d spent on 4canal.
  816. >So you’d told him you were going over some reference materials.
  817. >Which, strictly speaking, wasn’t a lie. You had the book you’d kept and there were the pfd’s—pony-formatted documents, some foalish implementation of a human file format—posted to the threads on /tg/ which served as good references for the fan rules.
  818. >He hadn’t asked anything else about what course you’d been assigned by the EEEE and you weren’t particularly keen on volunteering that information.
  819. >Not yet.
  820. >Nor had you brought up the mare who’d be waiting for you at the station.
  821. >You’d said you were meeting somepony and that was enough.
  822. >Shifting in your seat, you turn from the window and about the still mostly-full bus.
  823. >Closer now, it’s hard not to think about it.
  824. >How long would they be there together? It’s not like Anon even knew who Crema was.
  825. >But he’d be holding a sign with your name on it and if she saw that, she’d want to approach him, wouldn’t she?
  826. >What would she tell him about you? What *could* she tell him about you?
  827. >You turn back to the window, now passing a line of buildings that permit a view to the sky.
  828. >The last time you’d spoken to Crema was… You can’t remember exactly, sometime when you were still schoolfillies.
  829. >Even then, you hadn’t said much.
  830. >And now here you were, meeting the mare who, for whatever reason, had agreed to the EWS’ request to act as a liaison.
  831. >Warm Waves had said Crema was on Earth on a similar EEEE program and already had some experience helping other ponies settle in.
  832. >Yeah, that’d be her.
  833. [spoiler]>But why help you?[/spoiler]
  834. >You look back down from the window.
  835. >You’re almost at the stop for the train station, now.
  836. >And from there…
  837. >It was hard to draw up the effort to worry about it, now.
  838. >After all, how much worse could it be?
  839. >Besides which, you weren’t immediately being dropped into the course. At least the EEEE understood the need for ponies to acclimate a bit, first.
  840. >With a jolt, the bus comes to a stop and you slip off the seat, tugging at one of the sleeves of your hoodie.
  841. >It’s awkward trying to thread your way along the aisles with one of your saddlebags so packed and you’re sure you feel it press against more than one leg.
  842. >It puts a little haste in your gait. You’re sure you feel the bus shake that bit more.
  843. >Stepping onto the street is like being back in New Bridlewood but infinitely worse.
  844. >The sights, sounds, smells, it’s all too much.
  845.  
  846. >You long to simply shut your eyes, shut yourself off, forget where you are.
  847. >But you can’t.
  848. >And the bus stop is just outside the station proper.
  849. >Drawing your eyes up to look at the imposing building affords you the chance not to look at the throngs streaming around you.
  850. >The massive concrete edifice looks out of place among what qualifies as ‘modern’ buildings in the ‘modern’ city of Manehatten.
  851. >It settles your tumbling stomach.
  852. >Even above the ponies surrounding you, you’re able to make out the doors leading in.
  853. >And you’re also just able to make out that more ponies stream out of it than into it.
  854. >It makes sense - most ponies who wanted to experience the festivities on Earth would’ve been there already.
  855. >The rest would be returning home.
  856. >The thought draws you back to the present and where you should be going but maybe you can wait until there’s a break in the crowd.
  857. >It’s what you’d like to think.
  858. >But the way ponies press against you as they pass, easily pushing you away from where you need to go…
  859. >... You try your best to thread your way through them, into a stream that’s passing close enough to the station to enter it.
  860. >You try your best to control your breathing and lift your head enough to watch for an opportunity.
  861. >You can’t avoid thinking about the voices surrounding you or the thunderous din of hooves.
  862. >Music drifts by from somewhere else in the city.
  863. >A pegasus swoops overhead, dangerously close.
  864. >Panic grips your heart and you shut your eyes, pushing into the crowd towards where you last saw the station’s opening.
  865. >You can feel them. Ponies. Their legs and chests and flanks, rubbing against you as you force yourself against them.
  866. >You, once more, do your best to focus on how they rub against the fabric of your hoodie or your saddlebags—
  867. >Your saddlebags!
  868. >Your eyes snap open, ears pin back tight, and your hooves press harder into the pavement as you push, putting your weight towards one side of your body.
  869. >You whisper out shaky apologies as your voice cracks and the strength in your legs along with it.
  870. >It’s only a miraculous mercy granted by Celestia herself that you don’t collapse into the station’s doorway.
  871. >Still, it takes a moment of standing to one side, where few other ponies follow the path in, for you to catch your breath and steady your shaking limbs.
  872. >Before you can look back up to see something you hadn’t prepared yourself for.
  873. >The sight of how many humans milled about alongside ponies.
  874. >How tall they stood above them.
  875. >The last time you were in Manehatten, you’d seen some but now, knowing what’s ahead of you, it’s different.
  876. >This was the world you were headed to.
  877. >A world populated almost entirely by these creatures.
  878. >Ones of subtly different colours, accentuated more by the clothes they chose to wear.
  879. >Maybe you really wouldn’t stand out quite so much.
  880. [spoiler]>As if you’d be anypony different from who you are.[/spoiler]
  881.  
  882. >You’re feeling decidedly more like a breezy in a minotaur village, though.
  883. >Even if you’re also starting to feel a little self-conscious, standing there gawping.
  884. >And it’s looking up, now, that you get a true sense for the scale of this building.
  885. >You’d seen photos of the interior of Canterlot Castle and the like but their scale always felt gaudy in their glorification of the Princesses.
  886. >This, however, was a testament to ingenuity and engineering, themselves.
  887. >You can’t help but squint at the wide glass window set into the ceiling, light spilling down into this grand hallway.
  888. >Maybe not all human-built buildings allow so much natural light, though.
  889. >Still, you set your hooves into motion and pass small stands and shops flanking both sides of this grand hallway.
  890. >At the far end you can see a line of doors with massive displays over them, announcing train times, platform numbers, estimated journey times, and more.
  891. >No sign of chalkboards or written signs, these displays are like your own computer’s monitor with the display smoothly flipping between information sets.
  892. >That’s your destination; platform four, the train departing in another twenty minutes.
  893. >There’s enough of a clear view for you to see that almost nopony or human passes through the doors to it.
  894. >In spite of the crowds milling about you, you permit yourself a small internal sigh of relief.
  895. >Looking down, you scuff a hoof against the impeccably clean stone floor. Seems you won’t have to worry *too* much about further dirtying your feathering, here.
  896. >But that’s precisely what sets your nerves to stirring.
  897. >How was everything looking so good? There must be something you’ve forgotten.
  898. >Your head dips and you quickly look about you.
  899. >No, the crowds aren’t as close to you here as out on the streets and what humans pass by don’t even stop to look at you.
  900. >Okay, well, maybe it’s a good omen? Closer to the human world, things are looking up?
  901. >Not you, though, you keep your head down as you make your way to the platform entrance.
  902. >The air feels warmer than outside but not as unpleasantly so as back in the store in New Bridlewood.
  903. >A gust of cooler air blows past you as you step through the door to the platform and follow the winding hall up a gentle incline.
  904. >Emerging at the end, you squint against the harsh sunlight of the more open platform.
  905. >On one side sits probably the strangest train you’ve ever seen. There’s no steam engine, just an incredibly boxy but still sleek looking locomotive.
  906. >The carriages behind it are similarly styled with long, darkened windows lining them.
  907. >There’s… almost nopony here, next the train.
  908. >The nerves crawling up along your back intensify.
  909. >Was the service delayed? Cancelled?
  910. >Was your trip out here wasted? Would you have to brave the city yet again at a later point?
  911. >A loud bark of laughter to one side interrupts your thoughts.
  912.  
  913. >So startled, you turn towards its source - the opposite platform.
  914. >The train sitting on the tracks there is far more familiar, though still different from any you’ve seen in Equestria.
  915. >It has a steam locomotive but it’s larger and grander, and lacks any of the ostentatious colouring of those normally found here.
  916. >In fact, it’s almost completely black, featuring only some red highlighting and green along its sides.
  917. >You can see some humans and ponies, both dressed in fine clothing, standing by the carriages or entering them.
  918. >There’s another human standing by the locomotive, in dark blue overalls marked with black stains that extend to what parts of his skin you can see.
  919. >He’s holding a cap in his hand that should cover the wispy bits of hair on his head. Must be an older one.
  920. >But beside him, talking animatedly in a voice you can’t quite hear, is a pony.
  921. >Sitting on the curly locks of her mane is a hat, not unlike the human’s, and a camera lies slung around her neck.
  922. >Whether it’s stains that mark her coat, too, or just her natural patterning, you can’t make out from here.
  923. >Does she work in the station? You’d seen a few ponies wearing uniforms similar to the humans but would they allow a pony to work on the trains themselves?
  924. >”Starry?”
  925. >The human makes a motion with his hands, then starts jotting something down on a notebook the mare passes him. She smiles broadly up at him as he does so.
  926. >”Star!”
  927. >For the second time, your thoughts are interrupted, but the voice you hear sends a cold chill rattling down your spine.
  928. >No.
  929. >No, it can’t be.
  930. >You looked along the length of the platform, you’re sure of it!
  931. >Why would she be here? You’d finished with her!
  932. >You’re shaking like a leaf in the breeze when you turn back around and see a mare trotting towards you with a familiar sunshine gold coat, and auburn mane and tail.
  933. >Warm Waves.
  934. >In a flash, your hoof is up at your unwashed mane and then back down to the sleeve of your hoodie.
  935. >Oh horseapples, why hadn't you done more? You should've known something like this might happen!
  936. >You sniff but can’t smell a thing. She’d know, though. She’d know of how much you *should* have cleaned yourself up.
  937. >Even if her smile doesn’t falter for a second, she has to know as she draws up in front of you.
  938. >”Star, dear, I’m glad I caught you before you left!”
  939. >Her voice is as rich and deep as you remember. It makes your stomach sink and your ears pin right back against your head.
  940. >”I tried calling you earlier but there was no reply. Is everything okay?”
  941.  
  942. >You can’t bolt away from here. Not home, not anywhere else.
  943. >They’d come after you. Who knows what they’d do to you for wasting their time?
  944. >”Star?”
  945. >Why didn’t you call Warm Waves back? You could’ve prepared for this.
  946. >You could’ve had some idea what she wanted and figured out what to say.
  947. >”Star!”
  948. >Now here you are, trapped and with no idea what to do.
  949. >At the least you might’ve been able to avoid the worst of it.
  950. >”Starry Sails!”
  951. >You gasp, lifting one of your forehooves and lean your body back, diminutive legs tensing.
  952. >It’s been some time since you’ve heard your full name being used like that.
  953. >Evidently, Warm Waves sees it too, though you’re sure her ears aren’t lowered as much as yours.
  954. >”I’m sorry to do that, dear, but you were…” she trails off, grimacing. “I know how difficult this must be. Celestia’s light, I can see it just as clearly again.”
  955. >You look down, away from her and wish you could find something to say.
  956. >”But I have to impress upon you that nothing is wrong.”
  957. >It’s just enough for you to incline your head back up a little.
  958. >She’s smiling again.
  959. >”At least, *you* haven’t done anything wrong.”
  960. >It’s a strange feeling that grips you at hearing that; had the EWS or EEEE made some mistake?
  961. >Were you to be spared?
  962. >Or was it something worse?
  963. >”Seems there’s been a bit of a mix-up and, hmm,” she hums, horn starting to glow, “it shouldn’t fall to you to clear it up, dear.”
  964. >You know what she really means, though.
  965. >You wouldn’t be able to fix it, even if you didn’t try to avoid doing so.
  966. >”I tried to explain to Clerical Task that this was important but you know how it is with these things.”
  967. >You don’t really but at seeing the smile on her face, as placid and warm as her namesake, you try your best to offer one of your own.
  968. >”I’m sorry to ambush you like this, Star, I wanted to explain all this to you over the phone.”
  969. >And now you look back down, the familiar feeling at your side suddenly turning treacherous.
  970. “S-Sorry.”
  971. >”You don’t have to apologise, Star.”
  972. >Nor do you have to look up, since Warm Waves has lowered her head enough to meet yours.
  973. >It’s a wonder she even heard what you said.
  974. >”Not for this.”
  975. >The soft thrum of her magic levitating something close to you is what draws your gaze back up.
  976. >Two items - cards, roughly the same size but only one looks like it’s paper.
  977. >You can already see Warm Wave’s name on it, some other lettering, and a few series of numbers.
  978. >”I’m sorry, I *should* have given this to you sooner. It’s my number that you can reach me from Earth.”
  979. >You’re able to muster up just enough energy to hold out a hoof and let her gently deposit the card on it.
  980. >Your feathering blows lightly in the breeze but… she was used to it, right?
  981. >That’s why she didn’t say anything about your mane and tail, either. It had to be.
  982. >”I wanted to meet you to give you that but this is equally important.”
  983.  
  984. >It’s the other card, shiny and plastic. You can make out your name printed on it in clear, block lettering. There’s a series of numbers, a strange design, and the insignias of the EEEE and EWS.
  985. >”The information packet the Equestrian Educational Exchange Envoy sent you explained that bits aren’t legal currency on Earth, I’m sure.”
  986. >As with the other card, she sets it on your hoof and you look it over.
  987. >”They’ve worked with human governments and financial institutions to offer accounts to ponies on the exchange programs. They tend to prefer working without physical currencies, anyway.”
  988. >The mare chuckles and you can’t help yourself in looking up to her.
  989. >”Your stipend will be paid into the account set up for you and you’ll be able to use this card in lieu of bits or their own money.”
  990. >You’d read a little about these. They facilitated the instantaneous transfer of cash using computer systems.
  991. >It made infinitely more sense than having to fumble with bits.
  992. >”Unfortunately… Your original card was sent to the wrong student.”
  993. >You choke.
  994. >Would that mean—
  995. >”It’s alright!” Warm Waves holds up a hoof. “It’s already been sorted out on their end, and I wanted to give you your card rather than leaving you to…”
  996. >She trails off again but the smile doesn’t disappear this time.
  997. >”The information packet you’ll find there will explain all the details of how to set up and use it. And don’t worry, Star, the system is automated. I’ve made sure it is.”
  998. >You feel a weakness in your legs.
  999. >What… What exactly is happening here?
  1000. >Where are the probing questions? The long, uncomfortable silences? The need to talk and project your voice until you ache?
  1001. >Perhaps sensing what’s on your mind, Warm Waves goes on, “those aren’t the only reasons I came here.”
  1002. >And there it is.
  1003. >”This isn’t something that I could say over the phone. It wouldn’t be the same.”
  1004. >Warm Waves pauses and takes a breath.
  1005. >Her horn dims and she sits back on her haunches.
  1006. >”I want you to remember, Star, how far along you’ve come. Whenever you start to doubt yourself, just think back to when I first told you.”
  1007. >Not now, though. You’re still reeling a bit from what’s just happened.
  1008. >”And I want you to know that I’m proud of you.”
  1009. >That, however, does make your eyes fall away from her. You aren’t worthy of pride.
  1010. >And you’re sure she wouldn’t say that if she saw what happened earlier today. Or over the months since you’ve last seen her.
  1011. >”But I know it won’t be easy, which is why I gave you my card. Whenever you need to talk, you can call me. And you can talk to… Ah, Mocha Crema, wasn’t it?”
  1012. >You cringe internally. How could you possibly talk to Crema about any of this?
  1013. >Or anything?
  1014. >”You know, when I last spoke to her, she sounded pretty excited about meeting you. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by it.”
  1015. >Though you doubt anything about that will surprise you.
  1016. >”Star?”
  1017. >The quiet, gentle tone of her voice catches you off guard and you look back up.
  1018. >She’s still smiling that gracious smile.
  1019.  
  1020. >The kind that didn’t do anything to stop your stomach from lurching, the last time you saw it.
  1021. >”You’re going to be okay.”
  1022. >Warm Waves nods and with her eyes closed momentarily, she doesn’t see how you shake your head.
  1023. >”More than anything else I’ve said, I hope you’ll believe—”
  1024. >The mare stops suddenly as an announcement over the station’s PA system scratchily rings out.
  1025. >The doors of the train close in unison with a series of hisses and gentle thumps.
  1026. >You’re not giving any time to consider her words before Warm Waves pushes herself back to all fours and nods again.
  1027. >”Seems I’m going to have to cut things shorter than I’d like, again, Star.”
  1028. >She doesn’t hug you or hold out her hoof in offering but does that little incline of her head towards you, like the last time.
  1029. >”Please, when you get the chance, give me a call. I can always make the time. Now then…” Warm Waves points towards the train with a hoof. “I shouldn’t keep you any longer. I’ll just wish you the very best of luck, Star! The most wonderful opportunity awaits you!”
  1030. >She inclines her head again, then turns back towards the entrance to the platform.
  1031. >You watch after Warm Waves for a moment longer, considering what she’s said.
  1032. >It *was* an opportunity, after all, but perhaps more for another pony.
  1033. >Any other pony.
  1034. >Nevertheless, you do have to board the train.
  1035. >You take a few steps before realising you’re still holding the cards in your hoof, then quickly look about and breathe a mental sigh of relief that nopony else is on the platform.
  1036. >Slipping them into your saddlebag, you approach one of the doors of the train.
  1037. >Which lacks any kind of handle you’d find on an Equestrian train. There’s just two heavy looking doors and a small, round button on either side of them.
  1038. >You’d heard humans had developed sensors that picked up on movement but that seems more than impractical for something like a train.
  1039. >And the button does have two arrows pointing in opposite directions, above it.
  1040. >You give it a gentle tap and sure enough, the doors open with a soft hiss and a beep.
  1041. >The interior is just as different from Equestrian trains.
  1042. >Instead of carefully sculpted seats, designed more like couches, they seem to be narrower, designed more for humans or ponies sitting on their haunches.
  1043. >You step in for a closer look.
  1044. >The backs look more like plastic than wood and the floor underhoof lacks carpeting.
  1045. >Probably easier to clean and maintain.
  1046. >Stranger, though, is the lack of any noise in the carriage except the sound of the breeze blowing outside, through the open door.
  1047. >Carefully craning your neck around one of the seats, you don’t spy anypony or any humans in them. You’d hear if they were there anyway, wouldn’t you?
  1048. >You still walk slowly down the aisle, ears propped just a little.
  1049. >Some of the seats are lower than others and there’s a few of the more usual couch-like ones for ponies.
  1050.  
  1051. >You pick one of the higher, narrower, and straighter seats that only has one other next to it, rather than sitting opposite others across a low table.
  1052. [spoiler]>Maybe if you were a normal mare you wouldn’t have to strain yourself so much getting up into it.[/spoiler]
  1053. >But your size does sort of work in your favour when you seat yourself.
  1054. >You have to clumsily undo the straps of your saddlebags to fit into it.
  1055. >For a moment, you debate dumping it on the seat next to you but the train doesn’t make any other stops, right?
  1056. >It’s not like you’ll have to hurriedly scrabble to lift it and then worry about dropping it on the ground where it can slide about.
  1057. >And you’d have easy access to it, just in case.
  1058. >If anypony or anyone does get on, they probably wouldn’t sit down right next to you, rather than an empty seat.
  1059. >Plus, it’d be easy to put back on when you’re getting off the train.
  1060. >Okay, Star, put it on the other seat.
  1061. >There’s two small damp patches where the saddlebags lay against your flanks but they’re not as bad as earlier today.
  1062. >Probably from your sudden meeting with Warm Waves.
  1063. >A repeated beeping noise from behind the seat has you quickly turning to peer into the gap between them.
  1064. >But there’s nothing there and no other sounds beside a soft hiss and thump.
  1065. >Right, the doors are automatic. Nopony else got on, Star.
  1066. >So you turn back around and smooth down your hoodie against yourself as best you can.
  1067. >Then lightly tug at the hem so it doesn’t rest quite so tightly against your body.
  1068. >And then… lie back against the seat.
  1069. >There’s not much to see out the window to your side, just the platform and the other train.
  1070. >You can almost make out your reflection in the glass but with the sun now hanging lower in the sky, it’s easier to ignore it.
  1071. >You rub at your eyes and scrunch up your nose at your feathering tickling against it.
  1072. >Now left with little to do but sit back and wait, you feel the day’s events start to catch up on you again.
  1073. >Your disastrous trip to the store and all that went with it; the hastily made order that left you feeling worse than a night of trying to sleep through summer heat; the return journey out to the bus and the packed interior of it; and running into Warm Waves.
  1074. >You take a long, slow breath and close your eyes.
  1075. >No matter how you tried to prepare, fate seemed insistent in conspiring against you.
  1076. >But you were here, now.
  1077. >Short of the train breaking down or something going wrong with the portal, there was nothing left to ruminate on.
  1078. >And you’d rather not think too much about what transpired outside.
  1079. >So you reach over to your saddlebags and rummage about for that little rectangular device and the headphones to go with it.
  1080. >You’ve only got them out when the train lurches to a start, with surprisingly less noise than you’re used to.
  1081. >And without the unpleasant waves of sensations from thaumatic drives!
  1082. >It’s almost enough to make you smile.
  1083.  
  1084. >In spite of that, though, when you check your phone, you see that its transceiver crystal is reporting interference.
  1085. >Oh well, you’d made your peace with that earlier.
  1086. >Miraculously, it’s something going your way for once.
  1087. >And it’s still holding a decent charge!
  1088. >You slip the headphone connector in and tap the icon for Party Pony Player.
  1089. >The whole interface is filled with as much obnoxious pink and sky blue as its icon but it’s the only applicative spell matrix for music that works with your phone.
  1090. >That doesn’t matter, though. Not now.
  1091. >Now, you flick your hoof over the list of albums both pony and human (that you’d had to painstakingly convert to more usable formats) until you find the one you’ve been saving.
  1092. >The one Anon sent you.
  1093. >He didn’t say where he got it, or offer much explanation of what it was beyond that he thought you’d like it.
  1094. >But if it’s from him, it has to be good, right?
  1095. >You lift the headphones over your ears and absently shuffle them into a comfortable position.
  1096. >Then you tap at the first song, the oddly named ‘Divining (Name of the Lost)’.
  1097. >Soft electronic notes rise to life and a smoother backing leaves your eyes falling shut.
  1098. >There’s nothing much to see outside, anyway, just the end of the station and more of the city.
  1099. >But this… It’s like some of that strange, modern music from the Dukedom of Germaneigh you’d heard.
  1100. >From artists who started incorporating human devices and styles into their work.
  1101. >This was much softer, though
  1102. >Relaxing.
  1103. >Calming.
  1104. >It leaves your mind wrapped in a strange, but still pleasant, warmth as you give your tired body a little wiggle into the seat.
  1105. >The thoughts of the last day slip away.
  1106. >And your exhausted, half-asleep mind turns to other things.
  1107. >Of travelling between worlds.
  1108. >Between the stars that separate them.
  1109. >Towards a place where magic never took root.
  1110. >A place, perhaps, where a pony without its connection, without the gracious touch of its destiny, might find a home.
  1111. [spoiler]>A place where you belong.[/spoiler]

The Way Life Could Be - Pt. 1

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Floor's Wet 'n' Wild Adventure

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[WIP] Snowpone Tales

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[WIP] Lost & Found

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[WIP] Frost Fringed Letters

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