Chapter XVIII: Cry So You Don’t Laugh
For a while I’m surrounded on all sides by hollow blackness, like a night sky Luna forgot to dot with stars. Only there’s none of the usual midnight cold sinking its claws into my pelt. No bone-deep feeling of dread that usually scurries up my spine when the sky darkens and the lowlifes come out to kick up trouble. It’s a clean night. An honest, secretless dark. Baring all rather than hiding. I tumble through it, weightless as a thought.
Eventually the blackness gives way to familiar images. I shift through them like a flipbook in reverse: everything thing from the cold splash of the licking waves to the noose slipping easily around Daisy’s neck.
I got them, Daisy. Lily. I got them. They weren’t the ones who took you away from me, but they’d taken plenty away from others. They hurt ponies, and they killed, and they trampled all over innocent lives, and to get my hooves on them I had to do the same. They dragged me and ponies better than me down to their level. Rolled us in piss and shit until we were as filthy as the rest of the gutter trash—but I got them. I finally got them, and it only cost me a few broken lives and my soul. My damned, cowardly soul, and that’s fine by me because the thing was never worth much anyway. My only regret is that they didn’t scream for me. They didn’t cry out—didn’t make a sound when I sent them plunging into the next life.
Daisy. Lily. I got them. Got them for you. I’m coming to see you very soon…
For awhile it’s quiet. Warm. Peaceful.
Then the pain worms its way in and finds places to have its fun. It dances up and down my knotted spine. Plays my fractured ribs like a xylophone. The living, breathing, mean-faced pain—worming and dancing and playing—jeering at me because I’m still alive after all. Still around for it to have its fun.
I shift through the flipbook from end to beginning, then again from beginning to end. The pages at the end are smudged. The ink is running and the images printed on them are blurred. Only a few of them make any sense.
I see licking waves sucking me into oblivion.
Deep green hooves reaching for me. Grabbing me.
Strands of soaked burgundy mane.
The last image has a sound playing behind it. A filly’s voice. Whining. Its pitch rising like a tea kettle.
A smell finds my nose just as I finish flipping through the book. Fresh. Salty.
Something hard comes down on my shoulder with a laugh. Taunting me. Calling me a punk and daring me to do something about it. It hits me again in the gut, having itself a time.
Voices tunnel into my ears and knock around inside my skull.
I dive for it.
“…Thought you could pull one over on me, did you?” The voice is hot and haughty, talking the way the city would if the old mule had a Trottingham accent. “You think I’m daft, lovely? I’ve been smacking ‘round shite like you since me mum pushed me out her bleedin’ cunt.”
Primary gives a nod and one of the Daughters deals me a punishing blow to the jaw that rattles my teeth. I hit the ground with a thud and stay there.
“Discord’s Kitchen belongs to me. This whole city is mine, Rosy.”
She gives another nod and some asshole stomps my lower back. I try to turtle up. Try to shield my head and neck from the next blow, but my front hooves are tied behind my back.
Panic darts behind my eyes.
I lose my head for a minute. Another.
Beads of sweat as thick and hard as bullets drip down my brow. I struggle vainly against my bindings for one frantic, fear-inspired moment. Can't think straight. Can't focus.
Somewhere behind the sirens blaring between my ears, Primary is still running her mouth, going on and on about how she’s untouchable. How ponies with twice my brains have tried to whack her but none have come close. She says something about knowing I’m the vigilante from the papers. Something about the Pie sisters warning her about me. About my plot to kill her. I spit blood, wishing she’d stop raving long enough for me to shake the cobwebs out of my head.
I look around and count four Daughters standing over me. Surrounding me. With Primary that makes five. Five ponies—and I can hardly see straight, and my back is shouting curses at me, and my hooves are tied—and...and...
...Calm down, Rose, I tell myself. I have to say it three more times for the words to stick. My heart stops trying to smash my chest open and settles for just pounding really hard, really fast. Damn thing sounds like it's right next to my ear.
And the whole time I'm freaking out, Primary is glaring down at me, the fury in her face hot and cold at the same time. She looks ready to eat me alive. This’ll be tricky.
“Those two sick bucks are lying to you,” I say. The effort it takes to get my jaw working right is tremendous. Talking drains me. “Whatever they told you is bullshit. I’m here for them not you. A whole lot of ponies have died over this; now untie me so I can finish what I started.”
Primary doesn’t give another nod; she opts to kick in my ribs herself. I grit my teeth, absorbing the blow as best I can.
“And why should I believe the word of a vigilante over me own mates? Inkie and Blinkie had me back in Trottingham. I’m head of the Mandem now, thanks to them. What have you done but lie to me and me sisters?”
“Primary, just listen to—”
“Should have let you drown in that harbor,” she growls, kicking me again. Something in my side comes loose. Feels like it's floating. Must be a rib. I let out a groan and roll onto my back, gasping. Primary says something else, but I don’t hear it over the blood pulsing between my ears. I look up at the high ceiling and already my training is kicking in. Doing what it does best. Keeping me alive.
“…But Olive insisted I give you a chance. Hear your side of it, and all that…”
The training takes over. It starts by assessing the damage done to me. I doze for a bit and let it do its thing.
No broken limbs. No internal bleeding. Ribs on my left side are a mess. Foreleg is still bleeding from the knife wound. Hurts pretty bad. Could be a problem if I need to run for it.
Primary keeps talking, in love with the sound of her own voice. She kicks me every few seconds to make sure I’m still listening. I’m not. I’m taking in my surroundings. Figuring out where I am and how to escape.
Big room. Paved floor. High ceiling. Crates stacked along the walls. Forklift parked in front of wide double doors. Salty breeze drifting in through high windows. Must be a shipping warehouse. Near the docks I’d guess—
My train of thought goes pitching off the rails as Primary stomps her cyan hoof down on my cheek and keeps it there. I try to muscle her off, but it’s no use without my forelegs. She bends down. Looks me square in the eye.
“And poor Crest. Broke his heart to find out you’d been playin’ him this whole time.” Her expression dims. “You hurt him, Rosy. Remember what I said would happen and if you went and did that?” The words billow out like smoke from a dragon’s flared nostrils.
She stands up straight. Looms. The hardly-there glow from the light fixture hanging overhead drops down on Primary at angle that lays her shadow across me like a shameless lover.
“Inkie. Blinkie. Get over here,” she orders.
A pair of grey phantoms appear. I don’t see which direction they come from. Don’t hear them approach. They spin themselves out of some dark corner of the warehouse and trot up beside Primary. They look down at me, their shadows lying down on either side Primary’s, adding to the depravity on the floor.
Primary beats her wings. Hovers. Floats between the grey phantoms. She throws her forelegs around each of their necks, kissing their cheeks with an exaggerated lip-smacking sound.
“I take it you’ve already met Inkie and Blinkie here?”
An obnoxious grin claims her face, holding it hostage. I can scarcely make out the expression in the strange lighting, but it’s there all right. The phantoms wear matching blank expressions. The contrast between them and Primary is disturbing.
“They don’t look like much, I know, but these are two of the scariest blighters I’ve ever laid me eyes on. And when the shite hits the fan, and Celestia send sends her guards stompin’ ‘bout me kitchen in them golden horseshoes and all that—me and these two, we’re gonna butcher the lot of them.”
Primary’s eyes flash with that distinct Manehattan brand of madness. The kind they don’t make anywhere else in the world.
“I’m gonna ass rape that cunt alicorn with her own horn. Tear off them pretty white wings of hers and wear 'em like a cape.” She pauses. Lets out a satisfied sigh. Then her grin shrinks till it’s nothing but a straight line on her face. “Wish you could be here to share it with me, Rosy. Could’ve been like sisters, you and me. And Crest and little Olive and the whole gang. Could’ve been one right happy family.”
There’s something like sadness in her voice when she says it. Like she really believes it could’ve worked.
“Yeah. I guess we could’ve…” I say, knowing deep down in my gut that could never be true. Knowing that Primary and the Daughters are just more of Manehattan’s criminals. This is their world and there’s no place for me here. After everything that’s happened, I’m not sure there’s a place for me anywhere.
“I won’t lie, I’m gonna miss you, Rosy,” she says, her hooves returning to the floor.
She kneels down and tousles my mane, rubbing the top of my head the way a real older sibling might. Then she stands up straight and turns to leave.
“Kill this tosser,” she says, heading toward the wide double doors, not looking back as she swaggers away. Her is stride confident. Arrogant. Like the world belongs to her. Like she’s the only reason it’s allowed to exist.
She swaggers off but for all her bravado she’s just one more water fly to me. One more thing this city won’t let me have. She skirts away and doesn’t leave a single ripple as she goes.
The other Daughters file out behind her, leaving me alone in the warehouse with the grey ghosts. They stare down at me, their cheeks suddenly rosy with barely stifled passion. Blushing. Hot with that strange sort of lust and wanting that only ponies like us can understand.
“They didn’t hurt you did they?” one of them says in a bashful voice. She inches toward me timidly. Kneels down. Wipes blood from forehead. From the corners of my mouth. Then she rolls me onto my back, wincing at the angry red welts on my left side. Timidly, she leans forward and kisses them, her lips too soft and too loving to belong to a murderer. My skin crawls but I let her kiss me, not sure yet how I’m going to play this.
The other one sits down and lays my head across her lap. She plays with my mane. Strokes my ears. Our eyes meet and the splash of red on her cheeks brightens. She brushes a shock of grey mane back behind her ear. Leans forward. Kisses me.
“You’re wonderful,” she says. “Isn’t she wonderful, Blinkie?”
“She’s perfect.” The one kissing my bruised body lies down beside me, resting her head on one foreleg while tracing little circles on my chest with the other. They wear the same shy expression. Smile the same demure smile. Speak with the same bashful voice.
Inkie and Blinkie. 'The Pie sisters,' Primary called them.
Pie? Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in years. Can’t be right though. The Pie I remember back in Ponyville was an angel. A little eccentric maybe, but a harmless fool. Can’t be right. These two can’t be related to her.
Inkie plays with my mane. Strokes my ears.
Blinkie traces little circles on my chest.
I lie still. Let them have their fun until I think of something.
“We knew you were special, Rose—” Inkie starts.
“—that’s why we had to kill the doctor,” Blinkie finishes, their voices in perfect rhythm with each other.
“How do you figure that?” I say, deciding to play along.
Their faces light up when I actually respond to them. My sudden interest in their depravity has them all aglow, and they can’t wait to tell me the whole sad story.
“He had to die—”
“—because you wanted him to live. It’s the same reason we took Sparkle’s horn.”
“We had to or she’d have never known herself—”
“—known what she really is—
“—what so many of them are.”
They beam at the mention of Sparkle, no doubt remembering the night when they stripped the unicorn of her magic, the disgusting bucks. When I don’t say anything, they take it as cue to keep going.
“When we found Twilight we were so excited—”
“—we could hardly contain ourselves—”
“—everypony thought she was so pure—”
“—but we knew better.” A fit of laughter throws them out of sync for a moment.
“We knew what she was—”
“—what so many of them are.”
“All Twilight needed was a push—”
“So you took her horn,” I finish, glaring up at Inkie. Wishing that she’d stop touching me. Stop playing with my mane.
“Took her magic!” they exclaim in unison. Their eyes go all starry and lovesick. Inkie kisses my face. Blinkie rolls on top of me and starts nibbling my neck, working her way down my shoulders.
“All you ever have to do is take something of theirs,” says Inkie. “Something they love or want to protect. Something they think they need. And then you show you who they really are.”
“You ruined her,” I say, not liking the way they talk about Sparkle. Like they cared about her. Like they were doing her some kind of favor. “You made a monster of her.”
Blinkie sits up, straddling my hips. “She was already a monster,” she says thoughtfully. “We just gave her an excuse to let it out—”
“—something to point her claws at,” Inkie finishes. Then she sighs. Leans back on her forelegs and looks up at the ceiling, as if searching for something. “But Twilight was a failure in the end. She was always trying to fight it.”
“We thought we had something when she followed us to Fillydelphia and tried to kill us,” says Blinkie. Then, addressing her sister, “Remember when she threw you out of that moving train?”
Inkie giggles. “That was wonderful. I thought she was the one that day. Thought I could go on loving her forever.” Inkie giggles. My stomach does a summersault. I pull at the rope binding my front hooves, wanting to be free of it. Wanting very badly to hurt these two.
“But even then, I could tell Twilight’s heart wasn’t in it. She was willing to chase and to hurt, but she never enjoyed it. Not the way you do, Rose,” says Blinkie. “We killed the doctor knowing you would chase us—”
“—and break everything in your way until you found us,” Inkie finishes. “We knew the moment we watched you trample the little unicorn.”
“The hate in your eyes!” exclaims one half of the shared voice.
“The anger! The hurt!” says the other.
“The love!” they say in unison, sounding like one pony rather than two speaking at the same time.
“So we killed the doctor that same night—”
“—because you wanted to save him—”
“—because we wanted to know the real you—”
Teeth graze my neck.
Lips brush my face.
“You’re wonderful, Rose—”
“—you’re perfect, Rose—”
“—and you’re ours—”
And then they laugh. Hot and haughty and mad. They laugh with the same voice, but at that moment I realize it doesn’t belong to either of them. When they laugh I know it’s her voice. It’s her. It’s always been her.
And then just like that—with a blush and grin and laugh—just like that it all makes sense. The Pies never wanted me dead. That’s why they framed me for Scope’s murder instead of just killing me when they had the chance. That’s why Inkie hesitated up on the bridge. She had me dead to rights. Had me in her crosshairs but she blinked. Flinched. And all that talk about us going together. That was just nerves. Inkie saw the Daughters coming to stop her and she panicked. She didn’t see another way out, so she settled for sharing my end. Or maybe she knew Primary wouldn’t let us die. Either way the truth is obvious now: They never wanted me dead. They can’t do it. She can’t do it.
They laugh. Hot. Haughty. Mad. They laugh—and it all makes sense—and then suddenly I’m laughing too. Suddenly my hind legs are kicking, and my sides are splitting, and my eyes are tearing up, and the Pie sisters are staring down at me, confused, not knowing what to do—and I’m laughing. I’m going on like I won’t ever stop.
“You can’t do it,” I practically shout between big snorting laughs. “You’ve had me this whole time. You had every chance in the world. You had knives and guns and cops and crooks and lonely broken hearts. You had ever weapon lying right there at your hooves but you can’t do it.”
I laugh. Laugh until it hurts. Laugh until I cry. And Inkie and Blinkie are looking down at me, blank-faced, the color in their cheeks wiped away by uncertainty. They don’t know what to do, and they don’t have a clue what any of it means, and that’s fine by me. What I have to say isn’t for their ears. It’s for hers. This love story of mine: it’s a tale of unrequited affections—of tragic, star-crossed lovers—and it’s always been about me and her.
“You were so scared that night I fell out of the sky. You were terrified. That’s why caught me. You had me that night. Had me right where you wanted me, but you can’t do it,” I laugh. It’s finally my turn to laugh. “You pathetic, ugly old mule, you can’t do it!”
It all makes sense now. This is her doing. This was her plan all along. She’s been setting me up for this from the very beginning. Creating tragedy after tragedy. Horror after horror after nightmarish horror. The Pie sisters are just two more of those horrors. They're pawns in all this. Nothing but two of Manehattan’s criminals. Trying to break me. Drag me down to their level. Taint me. She’s a jealous old mule, this city is. When she sees something beautiful she taints it, and what she can’t taint she kills.
“But you never could kill me, could you, Manehattan? You love the way I break things. Nopony can satisfy you the way I can. You can’t do it. I’m you’re favorite, and you love me, and you can’t do it.”
I laugh until I’m breathless—and when the laughing's done there’s only one more thing that still needs doing. One more thing, and then the old mule will know for sure that she’ll never have me.
“Where’s the kid?” I ask. It’s only question that still needs asking.
As soon as the Pie sisters hear the words leave my mouth, the fantasy world they’ve built for themselves comes down around them like a house made of glass. They look at each other, then down at me—and they know right away that I’m just another failure.
And Manehattan—she’s on her knees begging and pleading and whining and crying, because after everything we’ve been through she needs me. I’m her favorite adopted daughter, and she loves me because nopony can break things the way I can. She loves me so much it hurts, and she can’t stand knowing I hate her.
She begs. Pleads. Whines. Cries. She wants me. The poor ugly old mule, she loves me.
And with one honest, unselfish action—with just three little magic words, I smash Manehattan’s heart all to pieces.
“Where is she?” I ask. It’s the only question that still needs asking. Only way to settle the score.
“How do you know about her?” says Inkie. She kneels down and runs a longing hoof through my mane. Her eyes are big and sad and beautiful. “Never mind the brat. We’re finally together, Rose. After all this time we’re finally together.”
“The kid. Where is she?” I repeat with a voice made of iron. The words hit her like a blow.
“It doesn’t have to be that way.” Her sad eyes blink away a tear. “We’re together now. We understand each other. We know what real love is.”
“The kid? If you’re not going to tell me, you’d better kill me now.”
“You can’t go back out there.” Anger flares behind her sad eyes. She frowns. “There’s no place for you out there. They can’t love you the way I can. You’ll keep breaking them, Rose. They’ll run away from you. Call you a monster. They won’t understand. They won’t know you’re just trying to love them…”
“…But I’ll love you. You won’t break me. I’m stronger than them. We can hurt each other forever, and I’ll never break.”
“Where is she?”
“Where is she?”
“Rose, I promise… Promise I won’t break.” Tears roll down her grey face. “Rose stay with me. I love you. I’m the only pony who can love you…”
“You’re the only pony who can love me!” she shouts. The words come out of Inkie’s mouth, but I know better. I know Manehattan’s voice when I hear it. “Please, Rose! Stay with me! Love me.”
She stares down at me. The city stares. Manehattan. Crying. Hurting. Loving me in her sad, strange way. I stare at her. Into her. And for the first time I think I truly understand what old Storm Chaser was trying to tell me. It’s not ponies like Inkie or Blinkie that we call enemy. It’s not even the city or her criminals. It’s something else. Something bigger and uglier than the old mule. It’s losing somepony you love. It’s having a part of yourself ripped away, leaving you less than whole. Less than what you’re supposed to be. It’s moment in time, or a place, or a pony that made you think twice about yourself. About the state of things. That took your world and turned it upside-down and shook it until everything you thought you knew tumbled out of your head and smashed against the unforgiving ground.
For me it was Daisy and Lily. For Sparkle it was her magic.
I finally understand old Storm Chaser’s words. ‘There is an intimacy we experience with our enemies that we will never know with our lovers.’ Because our enemies—our loss and our suffering and our want and our personal demons—those are the things that teach us. That build us up or tear us down. That show us who we really are.
I understand, and I stare up at Inkie’s sad grey face, and I wonder what enemy she fought against and lost.
I whisper for her to lean forward. I Press my forehead against hers. And then I kiss her.
“You know I can’t do that. I can’t love you. You killed Scope. You hurt Sparkle. I couldn’t save them, but I can still save the kid. Now tell me where she is.” The words leave my mouth gently. Almost lovingly. Almost.
“I’ve heard enough of this,” Blinkie growls. Furious. Heartbroken. She pulls a small knife out of her boot, and I watch with big, startled eyes as the blade flips open with a metallic click. “She’s not who we thought she was. She’s no different from the others, and I’ve heard enough.”
Blinkie is growling.
Blinkie is growling—and then the blade is falling toward my chest—and the hooves holding it are trembling even as they move to end me.
She trembles. In the end it’s my turn to laugh and Manehattan’s turn to tremble. She’s afraid. Afraid to say goodbye to her beloved adopted daughter.
“DON’T YOU TOUCH HER!” Inkie roars, her half of the voice gross and monstrous. She lunges at her sister. Tackles her to the floor.
“DON’T YOU DARE! I’LL KILL YOU!”
They wrestle, fighting over the knife. I watch, mesmerized as it passes between their hooves. Passes from mouth to mouth.
Stabs a gut.
Slashes a flank. A shoulder.
Tears open a thigh.
Slices a tongue. An eye.
“DON’T YOU TOUCH HER…!”
The blade passes between the two of them. Just one blade. They share it in that same way they share everything else. The knife passes between them, until finally it finds a chest. A heart.
And finds it again.
...The sounds are wet and slick and tragic.
When it’s over the winner is straddling her dead sister’s hips, clutching the knife between trembling hooves. She looks down at the knife, then past it, staring with gaping eyes at the gash across her underbelly. Then she wobbles and topples over, bleeding out on the floor like the animal she is.
It takes me awhile to slink over to where she dropped the knife and cut the rope from around my front hooves. Getting back to all fours is a challenge. Everything hurts, but it’s that good kind of hurt. Kind that taps you on the shoulder and lets you know you’re still alive.
I waist one minute with a goodbye, then, finally done with this gruesome life, I turn and start to skirt away.
“Wait…” one of the corpses calls to me. It’s the winner. The one with the gash across her underbelly. I turn to face her, unable to tell whether she's Inkie or Blinkie. “She’s here… The kid…crates with…holes in lids.”
“Thank you,” I say, loving her dearly in that moment.
“One…one more thing…p-please…”
I trot over to where she’s lying and look down at her, wishing that somehow this could have ended differently.
“Why did you do it…? The d-doctor…why were you…p-protecting him…”
“Because a long time ago I did nothing,” I tell her. “I hid, and I watched my two best friends die, and I did nothing to stop it. I was afraid, and I couldn’t be afraid anymore. This was the only way I knew how to beat the fear.”
“And d-did you…? Did you… beat it…?”
I answer with a nod.
“…Wonderful…” she says, smiling her demure smile. “…You’re wonderful, Rose. You’re perfect…”
Whatever’s in her rustles as it leaves. I close her eyes for her. I do the same for her sister. It’s more than they deserve, but I do it anyway.
After a few decades of limping around the warehouse, searching for something I can use to pry open one of the crates, I find a crowbar somepony left sitting on the seat of the forklift. Lucky break. This whole night has been one long lucky break.
I hobble over to the stack of crates, my body cursing at me. There are only a few crates with holes in the lids. They’re stacked against the wall pyramid-style. I take a strong breath. My body curses me. I climb the pyramid. Drag down one of the two crates on the very top. Somehow I manage it without breaking my neck.
Not until I peel the stubborn lid away do I realize I have no idea what my plan is if I actually find the kid. The shape I’m in, it’d be a miracle if I could carry her out of here. And even if I do, then what? And why the hell would she be in a crate in some warehouse in the…first…place…
I look inside the crate. There are five of them: five blank-flanked foals curled up beside each other, looking like baby hamsters. Sleeping soundly. Probably drugged. Given something to keep them under till they get to where ever they’re going. Something strong if all that racket I made opening the crate didn’t wake them.
Five of them. Five foals. All earth pony colts. I look inside the crate, then up at the wooden pyramid. This is bigger than just some random kidnapping. Bigger than Inkie and Blinkie. It’s not their M.O. This is some kind of trafficking operation, and it’s a damn crude one at that. Drugged foals in sealed crates? Air holes are punched through the lids, sure, but how are the jokers running this thing keeping their merchandise fed? What about seeing that the kids can piss and shit without doing it all over each other? Making each other sick.
This isn’t just amateur, it’s downright stupid. Has to be the Daughters’ handy work. No other criminal outfit in the city is this sloppy, at least not one with enough resources to pull something like this. I’ve seen a lot foul shit since I started down this bath, but this is…this is just… I don't have words for what this is.
After a few days of nosing around the Kitchen, I learn about the pony trafficking racket Primary had been setting up since before she left for Trottingham. She uses mostly foals from Shanty Alley because she knows they won’t be missed. Cops sure as hell won’t stomp down to the edge of the city looking for a few dozen missing street urchins. Kids’ parents probably won’t give a damn either. A little filly goes missing in a place as poor as the Alley, the parents will likely see it as a blessing. They'll see it as one less mouth they have to feed, and the bastards won’t give a damn.
Primary is sharp, I’ll give her that much. She must have known it was only a matter of time before some asshole got brave and decide to punch Junebug’s ticket. This trafficking racket must have been her contingency plan for when the drug game went belly up. The Daughters have always had their hooves in prostitution as well as drugs; and Primary probably figured it was time to stop selling sex and start selling sex slaves.
I never find Filthy Rich’s daughter. Never figure out why Primary had the Pie sisters kidnapped her in the first place. If the plan was to use foals nopony would go looking for, why abduct the daughter of a known crime boss? Was Primary just bucking with Filthy? Did she do it just see if she could? She’s certainly arrogant enough to pull something like that solely for the challenge. Certainly careless enough too, but…I don’t know. Guess I never will, now...
After a few days of nosing around, learning about Primary and about all those missing foals, I decide to head downtown. Decide to leave an anonymous letter on the backdoor of the police station. It’s dark out and there’s nopony around to see me tape the envelope to the doorknob. Tomorrow morning when somepony finds the letter, Manehattan’s finest will know the warehouse’s location, and they’ll know what’s in those crates, and they’ll know who’s responsible. I wrote down everything I’d learned about the operation. I even wrote “FROM THE VIGILANTE” on the envelope in big, bold letters to ensure the message didn’t get ignored. Manehattan’s finest aren’t exactly what I’d call reliable, but it’s up to them to deal with the city and her criminals now.
Every inch of me wants to go back. The thrill of chase is still rattling around in my bones, but I know in my gut those days are past me now. It’s up to the cops. It has to be. My score has been settled. I’m done. I’m on my way home.
It’s a thrill to fly again. To sprint. Leap. Land. I don’t have my grappling hook, and I haven’t fully recovered from the spanking Big Sis and her goons gave me, and Tracy and her gang are trying to bury the city in snow—but Celestia damn it, it feels good to fly again. I’m downtown tonight. I’m home. The buildings downtown lean on each other like drunken friends stumbling out of bar, stupid-faced and worriless.
It’s been too long. The rooftops and fire escapes have missed me. The corners and the rough edges too. They ask me where the hay I’ve been for the past two seasons and I tell them the whole sad story, except this time it’s one they’ve never heard before. A story that doesn’t end as awfully as it should have. They listen closely. Captivated. Moved.
I’m still a long way from the red-light district when I’ve finished telling my story. The corners and the rough edges aren’t too satisfied with the ending and honestly neither am I. There are still pieces missing. Still things nagging at me: like what Stephen Scope said to Baritone up on that rooftop the night my chase began.
‘If you waste me she’ll find out’, he said all those nights ago. ‘I’m working with her now. You hurt me and she’ll come after you’.
She’ll. Her. One mare. Just one.
Scope was only expecting one mare to bail him out of trouble with Filthy Rich. Two Scents said the same thing. Said Scope was ‘working with that crazy now.’ He only mentioned one mare too. What did he mean by that? Did Scope never meet both of the Pie sisters? And if he didn’t, what reason could they have had to hide anything from him? He was just one stallion on the run from the mob; he couldn’t have posed any threat to monsters like Inkie or Blinkie.
In the end I guess it doesn’t matter. Scope. Sparkle. Inkie and Blinkie. They were all connected in some way, and they aren’t exactly still around to answer any of the hard questions. And even if they were, those aren't my questions to ask anymore. I chased, and I caught who I was chasing, and I beat Manehattan and her criminals, and I overcame the old fear, the tremble in my hooves—and now I’m done. The scores been settled, and everypony who needed to pay in blood and dignity has paid in full. Now all that’s left is to fulfill a promise I made to a certain special somepony.
I dash. Leap. Land. Dash. Faster. Faster.
The moment I see the neon sign blinking in the distance a swarm of butterflies decide to make a home of my stomach. There it is, a little less than two blocks away now: the bright neon image of a twirling horseshoe, blinking and becoming a twirling mare. Storm’s place. The Ringer, just two blocks away.
Suddenly Redheart’s gift—the pendant hanging around my neck—suddenly it feels like a wrecking ball. Like one of those giant hooks you see dangling at the end of cranes. I had the thing made a few days ago. Found a halfway decent jeweler while I was still uptown and had him make it using the stone’s from the diamond dog’s collar. Traded the worn leather strap for a simple silver chain. Traded the sour memory for new one. The new memory slaps against my chest as I sprint along the rooftops.
What will I say if she asks me where it came from?I wonder, shuddering at the thought. What will I say if she asks me where I’ve been, or what I’ve seen, or what I’ve done?
The thoughts weigh on me. Slow me down. I take my time flying the rest of the way, in no hurry to face Redheart and her questions. I watch the sign blink. Watch the mare replace the horseshoe, the horseshoe replace the mare, both twirling, dancing the sort of dance you only ever see in the red-light district. I’m one building away from the sign when I notice something about the twirling mare I hadn’t before. I notice her neon-orange hind legs scissoring the stake as she spins. Her front hoof waving a ten gallon hat. Her freckled face shooting me a wink that could excite a corpse. For the first time I see the spurs. The pair of chaps hiding her cutie mark. It’s Blondie. I'd never noticed before, but the Ringer’s sign is modeled after Blondie.
Blondie. The name I gave her pops into my head accompanied by her sweet scent. She’s one of the few good memories to come out of all this craziness. I let my mind drift back to the night I spent tasting her. Breathing in that sweet smell. I remember her. And then all them. I remember Blondie’s scent, like fresh picked fruit. I remember Sparkle’s aroused hooves and her taunt cord. Junebug’s full, perfect lips. Temporal’s burned face, and Crest’s devil-red panties, and the demure smile shared by Inkie and Blinkie. I think about their lips pressed to mine. Their tongues in my mouth. Their hooves running through my mane. Their hips straddling me. Their chests heaving. Their breath splashing against my face and neck. I think about the dull wet sounds, and the seedy bathroom stalls, and all those bloody, gritty kisses we stole from each other. All those nights lost to dark, empty passion.
I remember my old lovers and the pedant around my neck grows that much heavier.
After several minutes of stalling, I decide to go in through Storm’s bedroom window. Old Storm Chaser lives in a two bedroom flat above his club that looks, smells, and feels like every nine bit flop house in downtown Manehattan. I go in through his window because I know he isn’t home. It’s a weekend night, which means the old stallion is likely downstairs enjoying the company of his dancers—or downstairs in his basement fight club, kicking the snot out of some young punk the way he used to kick the snot out of me during our training sessions.
The butterflies in my gut flutter like mad as I stand in the middle of Storm’s room, hooves glued to the floor by indecision. Redheart is sleeping soundly just one room away. The reality of it is overwhelming. My gut tightens. Mouth dries out. Head spins. I tremble. Shake like I won’t ever stop.
Then a cowardly thought pops into my head, and I allow myself to indulge it for just one second. I glance over my shoulder, glance back at the open window, and I think about leaping out the way I came. I think about flying to someplace far away, someplace where trash like me belongs. A tiny, nagging voice finds me from behind the thought. It tells me that Redheart will be safer if I go now and stay gone. Tells me she’ll live a happier life. A long, full, safe, happy life—and to make it happen all I need do is turn around. Leap out the window. Never look back.
I indulge the thought. Then I box it up and burry it someplace deep down in my being where it can’t bother me. If I leap out that window now, I’d be fleeing. Can’t do that. Can’t do that ever again. Score’s been settled. There’s nopony left to chase. No more reason left to flee.
I take a deep breath—the sort of breath a mare takes before she does something very brave or very stupid—and I focus on my forelegs. Focus on putting one in front of the other.
I step through the doorway. Step into my new life.
I step through the doorway, and the end of the world is waiting for me just outside of Storm’s room. It is sticking to the second bedroom door in the flat: the room where I know Redheart is sleeping soundly. I’m still a few paces away when I see the slip of paper stuck to the door—
—And then all at once I’m right in front of it, and I am pulling it off the door, and I am holding it, and I am looking at it for a long time without reading it, and I am wondering what it is. What it means.
It’s a note. The words are large. Sloppy. Red.
“LAUGH SO YOU DON’T CRY,” the note says. I almost do.
I am reading the note—and then the door is opening slowly, and lights are flicking on, and blackness is waning inside the room, and brightness is growing, and the unforgiving realness of it all is coming into existence.
The light flicks on and there is a noose around Redheart’s neck. She is hanging from the ceiling fan and there is a noose around her neck, looking as though it were made just for her. It is the color of sand and the contrast it creates against Redheart’s pristine white coat is striking. The life has already drained from her eyes. She is hanging from the ceiling fan, and there is no life in her eyes, and she is smiling. Two gashes have been carved into her face. They begin at the corners of her mouth, and they curve upwards along her cheeks, and they are red and gnarled and dripping, and she is smiling. Redheart is smiling. It’s her laugh-so-you-don’t-cry smile. The one she makes when everything hurts so bad it’s funny…
Red against white… The thought forms in my mind lazily. That smile. My nightmare. Red against white.
I collapse. No—I am collapsing. Breaking. It is happening now. It will always be happening.
I am breaking. Pieces of me are raining down onto the carpet with a sound like shattering glass. The promise I made to Redheart was the only thing keeping me together, and now she is dead and so am I. She is hanging from the ceiling, smiling—and I am breaking, pieces of me are raining down, down, down… It's still happening. It will always be happening. It won’t ever stop...
“All right, Manehattan. You got me.”
I wait for the old mule to throw her head back. To clutch her sides and wipe tears from her eyes as she laughs her hot, haughty laugh. I wait. She doesn’t. She just watches me, sullen-faced, ashamed of herself for having to resort to this. For having to stoop this low.
“You just couldn’t lose gracefully. Couldn’t stand that I beat you.” A tiny laugh tickles the back of my throat. I try to push it out but a sob comes instead. “Well you finally got me, Manehattan. You got me. You win.”
We sit together, my city and I. She is my tragic star-crossed lover, and I am her favorite adopted daughter. We sit together in the face of our tragedy, sharing the fault in equal measures. It is the closest, I fear, we will ever come to love.