Chapter XIV: Cold as Flame
Temporal keeps her word. Before I bash her skull against the sidewalk, she talks. Tells me Scope’s killers have been hiding out right here in Discord’s Kitchen. Tells me they’ve been doing jobs for the Daughters, and that they may’ve even joined the gang outright. Temporal doesn’t give me names, just descriptions: Earth ponies. Drab coats. Grey manes. Related: cousins if not sisters. Not a lot to go on, but still the best lead I’ve had to date. I’m close now. Close to finding the shit-eating, sub-equine parasites that cut Stephen Scope’s throat and tried to pin the whole rap on me. I’m close now. I can feel it.
Temporal keeps her word. I keep mine as well. Before she died, she made me promise to leave her body at an address somewhere in the heart of Discord’s Kitchen. Poor, dumb mare knew she didn’t have a chance against me, but she loved her brother or just plain hated me too much to let it go. Poor Temporal. Poor dumb mare. Her only sin was never learning how to love anything that wasn’t hers, and her only mistake was wanting to trade blows with a pony who was just like her in all the wrong ways. Poor, dumb mare. Died the way a pony ought to die, though. Wasn’t scared in the end.
It’s late, and it’s freezing, and Temporal is heavier than she ought to be, and I’m running on fumes, but I somehow make it from Shanty Alley all the way back to Peachy’s Pies. I stick to the backstreets. Creep down only the darkest alleyways. Stay in the shadows. Keep out of sight. It’s a long, dreary trudge but I make it to Peachy’s without running into any trouble. I leave her body around back like I promised I would. She didn’t say why she wanted to be left at Peachy’s, and I didn’t ask. Temporal went into this thing knowing she wouldn’t be walking away, and she had a week to plan it out. Probably arranged for her body to be found by somepony she trusted. I can’t say for sure. Don’t know. Didn’t ask.
There’s a hollow feeling in my chest where my heart should be as I lay Temporal down outside the backdoor. I lay her down carefully, whishing I had flowers or something to leave at her side, and then laughing bitterly at such a stupid notion. Flowers for a pony I murdered and dumped outside of some shitty café in a shitty part of town: stupid notion. I lay her down, then I stand over her for a spell, trying to squeeze out a few tears in her memory. The water works don’t come. Faucet’s dried up. Temporal deserves at least a few tears but I can’t even give her that. Can’t feel a thing. It’s the same as it was when I looked down at Filthy Rich. I’m empty. Numb. Can’t feel a thing. The wind tugs at my mane, as if warning me against the danger of lingering any longer. I head the warning, say my goodbye, then start off in no particular direction.
It’s late. Dark. Dark as it gets. The streets are alive with the cocky jeers of dealers harassing junkies, and the snores of the drunken winos slumped against dumpsters, and the perfumed tang hovering around the working mares that dot the corners like zits on Manehattan’s ugly face. The night sounds—and a few smells and tastes mixed in for good measure. I trot. Listen for sirens. Don’t hear any. I never hear any sirens in the Kitchen.
I trot and already my mind is buzzing with thoughts of finding Scope’s killers. I’m close now, but If the Daughters are involved, that means I’ll have to go back to Shanty Alley. And if they've found Junebug, which they likely have by now, then I won’t have too many friends waiting for me when I return. I was the last pony seen with Junebug before she died, and I’ve been gone for a week now. It doesn’t take a head like Sparkle’s to connect those dots. They’ll be gunning for me if they aren’t already, and if I have to deal with both the Daughters and Scope’s killers I might as well get comfy on the ground beside Temporal now because I’m already dead.
I trot. Think. The street goes airy under my hooves, like I’m a pegasus strolling along the silver lining of a cloud. My thoughts drift from the Daughters to Junebug. She might still be there. Still lying on the floor in her shack, wrapped in a bed sheet where I left her. Maybe the Daughters haven’t found her, I let myself believe. Maybe she’s there now.
Still lying there. Still smiling…
…The thought gives me an idea. A light I didn’t know was there flickers to life in the back of my head, and I see my next move as clear as day. I get an idea. A horrible idea. A mistake in the making. A long shot in every sense of the word—but if it works I won’t have to worry about the Daughters getting in my way while I search for Scope’s killers. If it works I’ll have the whole gang on my side. In my back pocket. But only if works. If it doesn’t, I’m dead for sure and Scope’s killers get off scot-free. They get away with taking Junebug’s husband from her, and framing me, and carving out Sparkle’s horn, and kidnapping Filthy’s daughter…
… Just a filly, Temporal said. Just a little foal, frightened out of her mind right now if those monsters haven't already butchered her.
With the memory of Filthy’s last words ringing in my ears, I spin around hurriedly and make my way back to Peachy’s. The idea warps itself into something vaguely resembling a plan of action—and then there’s no more time for thinking. No time and no need. It’s late. I’m running out of moonlight. In a few hours it’ll be morning, and Celestia will come out to hog the playground with her ball of fire, and every eye in the city will flutter open and watch me, and by then it’ll be too late.
No time for thinking. No need.
I gallop back to Peachy’s. Back to Temporal. When I find her, I whisper a worthless apology in her unhearing ear. Then, hooves trembling from fatigue, I scoop her up and drape her lifeless form across my back, wearing her like a bleeding cape. Then I pray to a goddess who doesn’t love me that Temporal doesn’t slide off my back as I start my mad dash back to Junebug’s place. The bruises on my face scream as the wind stabs them with needles so cold they burn. I try not to think about it. Try to ignore it.
It and the shooting pains playing tag in my front legs.
Stupid plan. Won’t work. Stupid. Stupid.
And the obvious blood trail I’m leaving all over the snow-topped sidewalk, and the weight of the dead thing bobbing on my back.
Stupid. Damn it, Rose! So bucking stupid.
And the snow crunching under my boots, slowing my dash, making every step a slippery battle.
Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!
And the bratty, self-loathing voice in the back of my head that isn’t convinced this plan of mine will work. The one that’s obsessing over every stinking detail. Panicking. Worried about the blood trail. Worried that Junebug has been dead for too long or that the Daughters have already found her.
I try to ignore all of it as I flee down the back backstreets, down the darkest alleys, away from the heart of the Kitchen and back to Shanty Alley. Back to where I hope Junebug is still lying dead in her shack. Still smiling.
A carriage tears by, traveling opposite the direction of my frantic charge. I see light from the lanterns mounted on the carriage—and as it passes I steal a fleeting vision of blue and white.
A squad cart? In the Kitchen?
My heart skips a full beat. The ache in my limbs flares. The freezing, burning needles sharpen. Sharpen.
Did they see me? I think. Then I feel a threatening glow at my back. I try to glance over my shoulder, sure now that the cops are following me, only to catch an eyeful of Temporal’s tail wafting beside mine, the both of them looking like rippling black specters against the white screen charging from behind.
If I cried out as I stumbled and fell, I didn’t hear it over the thundering hooves, or the soggy plop of Temporal’s corpse landing gracelessly in the snow. The carriage barrels by harmlessly. Not a squad cart. Not blue and white. Yellow and black. A taxi. Not cops. A taxi. Just a taxi.
Get up, stupid. Get up or the plan won’t work.
I scramble back to all fours. Pulse pounding. Hooves trembling. I scramble. Scoop up Temporal. Gallop a step faster. A step faster. Faster.
And then the night sounds find me. Chase me.
The wind picks up, howling with an animal’s voice.
Another carriage barrels by. Another.
A gun barks.
The shriek of something scared and helpless echoes from someplace far, far away.
The night sounds chase me: the unsubtle discord of things chasing and things fleeing. Thundering hooves and blaring sirens and shattering glass—and above it all, the city’s hot, haughty laugh, rising up toward the starless night sky like smoke over a holocaust.
…And then all at once the night sounds fall away. The streetlights retreat behind me, and the looming edifices shrink into small houses, and the small houses give way to tents and shacks. The heart of Discord’s Kitchen recedes at my back, noisy and scary as all hell. Finally—I’ve made it back to Shanty Alley.
With the lights from the Kitchen behind me, the night seems to grow thicker. Realer. It’s dark now. As dark as it gets. My hooves echo through the dense midnight veil, the layer of snow coating the sidewalk unable to muffle the sound as I charge on blindly. Franticly. Mind racing. Chest heaving. Pulse pounding like a drumbeat.
I sprint through the dark for a decade, a century, unable to shake a new, forbidding feeling that something is watching me. My eyes dart left and right, but there’s nothing to see. Nothing but the vague outline of tent houses pitched in the abyss. I sprint for a century. At the turn of the millennium, I find the light from the Golden Bit Bridge peeking at me as I climb the hill that leads to Junebug’s home.
When I slide the scrap metal door open a foul stink tackles me, trying to drag my aching body to the ground. I slump in the doorway, dizzy. Legs weak. Stomach churning.
Stupid. Smell is too strong. Too obvious. Won’t work. Stupid. Stupid.
I push the voice out of my head. Gather myself. Focus. Focus on the plan and nothing else.
I toss Temporal’s carcass, not caring where it falls. I don’t waste any time. Don’t think. No thinking. No need. I get straight to work, and the work is grim.
Forced entry. Needs to look like a forced entry.
Scrap metal moans like a dying thing as straining muscles rip it from the face of the shanty.
Then a fight. Make it look like a fight. Make it good.
Hoof sized holes appear in the flimsy walls. The bookcase crashes to the floor in a small quake of crunching wood and flapping pages. A few spastic stomps split the already cracked tabletop in half.
I don’t think. Don’t waste time. I find a scalpel on the shelves. Slash my cheek. Cut the corner of my mouth. Nick one of my forelegs.
Make it good, Rose. Come on, make it good.
Then I suck a lungful of foul air and try not to bite through my bottom lip as I stand up on my hind legs and jam the blade into my side.
“Bucking Ponyfeathers,” I swear aloud, stumbling but managing to catch myself before I topple over. “Shit! Shit!” Too deep. “Shit.” Too deep. I’m nervous. Frantic. Hooves are trembling. Stabbed too deep. Not focused. Not careful. Too deep. Bleeding out too fast. My head goes light. Front hoof reaches out for something to steady myself with. Finds the medicine shelves. I lean against them; balanced on my hind legs, clutching my side, trying hard not to panic, to stay in control. Focus. Focus on the plan and nothing else.
Ignore it, I tell myself. It’s nothing. Ignore it. Focus.
Slowly, I limp over to where Junebug is wrapped in a bed sheet, lying motionless on the dusty floor. It’s not until I pull the sheet away from her face, that the full gravity of what I’m about to do falls on me. I don’t think. If I think I won’t be able to do what needs doing. I don’t think. I take the scalpel in my mouth, and I remind myself that it needs to look good, and I mutter a prayer of forgiveness to a goddess who doesn’t love me—and when blade comes down, it comes down slow and stops just shy of biting into Junebug’s throat.
I can’t do it.
I start to drive the scalpel through Junebug’s neck. Make it look like she was murdered. Make it look good. I start to, but stop just shy of piercing flesh. I can’t do it. Can’t defile her corpse. And anyway it’s no good. The body’s too old. Smell’s too strong. If I cut her now the Daughters might figure out that the wound was made after death. Can’t do it. Can’t risk defiling Junebug’s corpse for the sake of a plan that might not work. She deserves better than that. There has to be another way. A better way.
I cover Junebug’s face with the bed sheet.
Think, Rose. Better way. Get rid of the smell. Make it look good. The voice between my ears is lousy with panic as I dash through the predator’s maw and up to the bedroom. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
I shove the voice out. Ignore it. Sprint up to the bedroom. Search under the bed. Grab Junebug’s first aid kit. Pop the lid. Rummage around before finding something useful: rubbing alcohol. The bottle is half empty but it should be enough. I shove it back into the white box; then, not finished searching just yet, I throw open a closet.
Rifle through drawers.
Check under the bed again.
Come on Junebug, you’re a bucking drug dealer. Ponies smoke drugs, don’t they? You must have a lighter. A box of matches. Something.
I dash back to the newly destroyed room. Flustered. Body aching. Head throbbing. Dizzy from blood loss. I dash back. Search the medicine shelves. Find vials. Bottles. Herbs. Powders. No good. No lighters. No matches. No good.
Stupid. Knew it wouldn’t work. Stupid. Stupid.
Then my spirits leap when I see the plant that Junebug warned me not to touch. The Poison Joke.
I spit out the first aid kit and grab the pot, remembering what Junebug said about the plant. Remembering that it played a ‘joke’ on the poison. Reversed the symptoms. Reversed my nightmare too. Made me think Daisy and Lily where alive.
I grab the pot. Hurry outside. Set it down. Scoop up a mound of snow and drop it on the plant. It’s a long shot, but then so is this whole crazy cluster-buck I’ve stumbled into. Long shot, but I’ve got nothing to lose.
I grab the pot in trembling hooves, and I nearly trip over myself as I hurry outside, and I almost drop the stupid thing when I set it down, and I scoop up a mound of snow, and…
…And then I laugh out loud. Bright yellow flames leap out of the pot, licking ravenously at the night air—and I laugh out loud. The plant plays its joke. Turns the snow into fire. It’s a good joke. Funny. Crazy. I laugh out loud. Snow becoming fire. Crazy. The whole damn world is crazy.
Something about staring down at the ceramic pot of dancing, crackling impossibility calms me down. Reminds me of a time when I was just a filly; when me and Daisy and Lily were small kids with big eyes, watching Celestia drag her ball of fire up past the taut, blue horizon during the annual Summer Sun Celebration. I had thought it was the most amazing display of power back then. Power enough to command that the sun shine. Power grand and absolute, and yet nothing but a cheap parlor trick compared to the tiny miracle dancing in a pot on the sidewalk outside of a ruined shanty. Dancing at the edge of the world, to pure and perfect and innocent to know what horrible purpose it was created for.
Snow into fire. Cold into warmth. A good joke. Funny. Crazy as all hell.
I take my dancing miracle back inside. Set it on the floor. Open the white box. Soak the medicine shelf in rubbing alcohol. Then I take one last look around this wonderful, horrible, timeless place nopony should ever have to call home, and there’s a pang in my chest when I realize it won’t be here in the morning.
In the low light of the dancing miracle, I kneel beside Junebug and pull the sheet away from her face. “I’m sorry, Junebug,” I say, pressing my forehead against hers. She’s cold. Pale. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t save your husband and I couldn’t save you. You deserved so much better than this.”
I press my forehead against hers. Then I kiss her.
And then the dancing miracle is in my hooves. And then it is leaving them, leaving me, sailing dream-like through the stale air before bursting in splash of golden sparks.
Vials catch and crack, and bottles explode, and herbs wilt and blacken, and powders cook and turn the color of ash—and in the savage passing of cures and poisons a new miracle is born; one that leaps into the ceiling and falls onto the floor. Dividing. Increasing. Spanning. Consuming aged wood and ancient rust, licking with a yellow tongue, chewing with red-orange fangs. And dancing. Still dancing its innocent dance.
I watch the blaze devour the shanty, breathing in the myriad of foul stenches, ignoring the searing sting in my foreleg. Feeling calm. Clean. I watch the blaze; then I kneel down beside Junebug one last time.
“Goodbye, Junebug,” I say plainly. “I love you too.” I kiss her forehead. Then I drag Temporal’s carcass back out into the snow and steel myself for what’s coming next. All that’s left is to get into character. Become the loose cannon cowpony that squeezed information out of Two Cents. Play it tough. Action movie tough.
Bittersweet acceptance washes over me as I wait for Shanty Alley to wake with a start—for a few Daughters to rush out in search of the pony making trouble in their territory. I feel calm. Clean. For a short moment I feel like the alicorn that busted all those heads before Luna let me fall to my death. Before the city caught me. Things have been so…different since that night. Since I’ve been living in Discord’s Kitchen. Up on the rooftops I felt invincible. Up there I could fly and fight. I was faster than everypony. Stronger. Smarter. I had my equipment. My weapons. My hook and line. But down here it’s like—it’s like…like…
The thought drowns under a wave of confused shouts. A few of the Daughters have woken up, and they’re already shouting and arguing as they gallop out onto the street, looking to all the world like a huddled mass of bewilderment outlined in the firelight.
“What’s all this, then?” asks one of the stallions. I don’t recognize him from the group that beat me and Junebug, but I know he’s part of the gang. He’s wearing the boldest pair of short-shorts I’ve ever seen and his lip gloss is an odd color I can’t make out in the near perfect darkness. “Is that Juney’s bloody shack going up in smoke?” He stands up on his hind legs and shoves two dainty hooves into his cheeks dramatically. His accent is Trottingham too.
“Big Sis will have our nads on plate if something’s happened to Juney,” pipes another stallion, his voice shrill and boyish.
“Well don’t just stand about, you dopey lot. Go and see what’s what!” One of them orders. His voice is familiar: girly like the other stallions, but not forced. Natural. “Now! Be of then!” He rears up on his hind legs, waving for the others to go investigate the blaze. The fire illuminates his mane and once again I see a vision of blue and white. The others hesitate a moment, then run off into the burning shack, leaving Crest on the sidewalk to fidget fretfully in solitude. He hasn’t noticed me standing off a little ways away. Good. I let him sit in it for a while longer. Let him sweat. He fidgets. Mumbles incompressible little nothings. Starts pacing. I let him. Watch him.
Then I whisper another worthless apology to Temporal, and I remind myself to stay in character, to make it look good.
I go to work on the dead unicorn. Swearing at unhearing ears. Stomping an unfeeling midsection. Hating every second of it. Feels bad. Broke my promise. Told Temporal I’d leave her at Peachy’s. Leave her with somepony she trusted, but instead here I am pummeling her remains into the snow.
“Stupid bucking cunt,” I swear, aiming the insults at myself. Feeling each of them like knives twisting in my gut.
“…Monster… I hate you... I hate...”
I stomp. Swear. Hate every second of it. Hate myself.
There are tears in my eyes by the time I get Crest’s attention. I hear him say something about me calming down, and I feel his hooves pull at me, wrestling me away from the dead unicorn.
“Easy, lovely,” he says. “Easy. What’s all this, then?”
“This piece of shit killed Junebug,” I hiss, blinking hot tears out of my eyes. I get in a few more stomps before Crest manages to wrench me away from what’s left of Temporal, spinning me around with surprising ease so that now I’m standing on my hind legs, facing the blaze. He holds me upright for a moment. Then, off balance, the two of us teeter and fall face first into the snow. He keeps holding me. He’s strong. Warm. Close. The scent of his perfumed fur floods my senses, and his breath is a frigid cloud as it brushes the back of my neck. I pretend to struggle in his grip a little longer, milking the vengeful lover bit for all it’s worth.
“It’s all right now,” he says. “It’s all right. Just talk to me.” He loosens his grip but doesn’t let me up. He wants me. If I remember right, Crest seemed to have a thing for me the first time we met. I change tactics. Ditch the vengeful lover bit and play vulnerable. Play damsel in distress—hurt, confused, heartbroken and looking for comfort in the forelegs of a strong male. I play vulnerable. Soften my tone. Let my ears sag. Sob. Sniff. I play vulnerable and poor Crest eats it up.
I tell Crest everything. I tell him how Temporal came storming in, shouting something about Junebug’s product turning up on her block, driving down her business. How she blasted poor Junebug with a magic bolt that lit the shack on fire. How we wrecked the place brawling, and how she stuck me in the side with her horn, and how I smashed a lamp over her head. How I busted her head open, and how she tried to run for it, and how I chased her out here to finish the job. I tell Crest everything. I feed him bullshit by the wheel barrel, and I do it with a mock shiver in my voice and a real pang in my chest, and he holds me, swallowing every bitter lie I feed him.
Together we get back to our hooves. Crest throws one of my forelegs around his neck and lets me lean on him. He holds me close to his side, nuzzling my cheek with his muzzle.
“Oh—oh wow. You’re hurt,” he says gently, noticing my self-inflicted wounds. My burned foreleg. The hole in my side.
“It’s nothing,” I assure him. “Just a few nicks.”
He holds me close. Nuzzles my cheek. My neck. Hard to believe he’s a member of the most notorious street gang in the city. Hard to believe he’s one of Manehattan’s criminals. So kind. So strong. I lean on him, trying vainly to convince myself the heat rising in my cheeks is just another part of my act.
The other Daughters come running back, bustling and talking over each other in varied tones.
“Some pony went and tore the door off, sis—”
“Holes in the walls, and books and things everywhere—”
“What about the fire, sis—”
“Looked like a right mad squabble went down in there. Right mad—”
“Blood and puke on the floor and—”
“The fire, sis. It’s spreading—”
Now all the heads poking out of the shacks and tents are turned towards the miracle dancing across the hunched back of what was once Junebug’s home. Spreading. Licking and chewing at the tent city for at least one block in both directions. Gobbling the shacks. Gulping down the tents and the smaller homes in easy swallows and chasing frightened ponies out onto the street: mares and stallions carrying bundles of clothing, radios, picture frames, foals—pieces of lives now shattering under the miracle’s destructive dance. Mares and stallions—fathers and mothers and friends and lovers—choking on heavy smoke as they skitter away from the exploding, crackling orgy of light and color and heat. Skittering like water flies.
Dozens of skittering water flies and not a single ripple to be felt.
The Daughters stop their chattering. Crest falls silent and stays that way. I don’t say anything either. In silence we watch the miracle dance its innocent dance, entranced by the marriage of beauty and destruction. I think of Junebug wrapped in her bed sheet, and the sheet wrapped in yellow and red. I think of the flames consuming her, growing broader and taller, living on the hide of a dead thing. A knot in my gut comes undone. An ache in my heart ebbs away. The bittersweet calm finds me again. I feel calm. Clean.
I think of Junebug’s perfect lips blackening and sacrificing none of their perfection. My eyes fall on Temporal. Silently I thank her for the help, and I promise to burn her too.
“I want to join the gang. Become a Daughter,” I lie, confident now in my ability to manipulate Crest’s feelings. “I… I don’t have anywhere to go now. Junebug was my only friend and she’s…” I end the thought with a few sobs for good measure. Milk the bit for all it’s worth, and it’s worth plenty.
“Is that a fact, lovely?” he answers, his accent charming, his voice carrying an air of evanescence. “Should warn you though, now ain’t a great time. Big Sis is going to be steamed about all this.”
“You let me worry about that.”
“Well, guess it’s our funeral then,” he laughs darkly.
By now all the heads poking out of doorways and windows are facing the blaze. It’s still spreading. Fast. I think of the plant’s joke and I laugh out loud. Crest and the others look at me sideways. Look at me like I’ve lost my mind, but they have absolutely no idea. Snow into fire. Good joke. Funny. Crazy. I laugh out loud. I watch one trifling flower make snow into fire—make a fool of the Manehattan winter—and I laugh out loud.