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“I appreciate you coming along and all, Starshine,” Grapevine said, “But did we have to take the Corps’s cloud scouting balloon?”
The little basket underneath the bright-orange balloon swayed for the millionth time, and I continued to keep a death grip on my side of the wicker gondola. “Oh, it was no problem at all,” Starshine was saying. “I just felt so bad about yesterday; the least I could do was give the two of you a lift.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said sourly. Maybe it was all the potions the doctor had given me before we left the clinic or the fact my entire backside was wrapped in new, tighter bandages, but I was feeling a little snappy.
“You can fly, why are you afraid of heights anyways?” Starshine asked, incredulous. Of course she would ask, the pink-maned Pegasus hadn’t stayed in the balloon’s basket for more than five minutes consecutively.
“Plus, you didn’t seem to have a problem on the airship,” Grapevine chirped in. I just grumbled under my breath and tried to concentrate on the woven timber beneath my hooves. The truth was, I didn’t really know why I was suddenly so afraid; ever since I had woken up from my accident, I had been terrified by the very idea of flying. I tried to shake off a feeling of dread at not being able to fly again. As soon as my wing was fixed up, I would be good as new, or so I hoped.
I had to admit, using the Weather Corps balloon did have its advantages: instead of having to wait to land at the Fillydelphia Airfield, we got to moor at the Corps’s downtown headquarters. As Starshine maneuvered the airship into position, we scraped the side of a nearby skyscraper.
“Heh, oops,” she said. The ground-based office of the weather control had a much older look than the buildings around it. Instead of smooth glass and concrete, the building resembled the design of Canterlot Castle.
Grapevine saw my look of befuddlement and explained, “The Weather Corps office is one of the few old downtown buildings still standing after the parasprite infestation a few years back.” I whistled in awe; that would explain the feeling of ‘new-ness’ I got from a look at the center city. Back home, we had had a couple parasprite problems ourselves, but nothing so severe as this. What, did nopony own a tuba or something?
Our balloon was secured to the building easily enough, and we disembarked without trouble. Grapevine looked around the buzzing offices, ripe for stories, with a look of longing, but insisted we head straight to the doctor.
The interior of the building was much more modern than the outside, and we were given access to the newly-installed lift (or elevator, as they called it) by a pink Pegasus in charge of the building.
“Try not to break it,” she told us.
I’d never ridden a non-magical lift before, and I couldn’t recommend the experience after trying it out. After coming to a bumpy, gear-grinding stop in the building’s lobby, the lift doors slid open and we all stepped out.
All of us, that was, except Starshine. She pawed the ground awkwardly, looking like she was lost. “Well, are you coming?” I asked, beckoning to the building’s front doors. A smile brightening her face, Starshine galloped to where we stood and resumed walking beside us. Despite my misgivings, I figured befriending the only other Pegasus pony I knew was a better idea than leaving her all by herself. We tried walking out the front doors side-by-side, but opted for single-file after we all got stuck in the doorway.
“Are you sure we’re not lost?” I asked. Grapevine sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Yes, I’m sure. I told you, the pony we’re looking for is working uptown today, and it takes a long time to walk there from downtown.”
“Who exactly are we looking for, again?” Starshine asked from above us. She’d taken to the skies about ten minutes earlier due to “boredom.” It didn’t make a difference, however, as the sidewalks were surprisingly empty, presumably a side effect of walking around at 10 in the morning. The buildings uptown, on the outskirts of the business district, looked more like the Weather Corps downtown offices, but a bit less utilitarian. Grapevine called it, “Neo-Magicka architecture.” To me, that meant the buildings had a lot of pointy spires.
“We’re going to see an old acquaintance of mine. He specializes in medicine and owes me a favor,” she said.
“Are you sure we can’t go to a hospital?” I asked. The bandages around my wings had started to get itchy, and I was certain the potions were starting to wear off, despite the assurances the Serenity City doctor had given us.
“Do you have the money for a hospital bill?” Grapevine asked glumly.
“No...” After the cab ride two days ago and paying a deposit on the room I was renting from Joya, I had less than 10 bits to my name.
Grapevine, walking in front of me as usual, turned her head back and assured me, “Don’t worry, he’s a really good doctor; he’ll fix you up just like new.”
“If that’s the case, then maybe I should ask him when you can start training again,” Starshine called down in a tone that I hoped was teasing.
“Not funny,” I said. After my last bout of training, I was perfectly prepared to keep my hooves away from clouds for the rest of my natural life. It wasn’t like I needed to make weather anyways.
“We’re here,” Grapevine announced, derailing my train of thought. She had stopped in front of a rather large and fancy apartment building. I figured only the richest mares in the city could afford to live within.
“He lives here?” Starshine asked incredulously, before I could get the chance.
Grapevine chuckled and shook her head. “He makes house calls.”
Grapevine’s “acquaintance” turned out to be a bright red unicorn with a strikingly rainbow mane, which Grapevine assured me afterwards was relatively common in some areas of southern Equestria. The stallion’s cutie mark, a stethoscope, was clearly visible as he patched up a butler who worked in the building’s penthouse.
“Ah Grapevine, I’ve been expecting you; just give me one more second,” he said when he saw us walking into the servants's quarters. The doctor turned back to the unfortunate butler; the silver mare had a large bandage on her right, front hoof.
“Now just hold still,” he said. “This probably won’t hurt a bit.” The stallion’s horn began to glow an odd color, a sort of greenish-yellow-purple, and enveloped the butler. With a bright flash, the glow disappeared, along with the bandage. Tentatively, his violet-maned patient stood on her previously-damaged hoof. “See, good as new!” The doctor exclaimed.
The profusely-thankful butler quickly agreed to let the doctor use the servant quarters to work on me. As she galloped away, the doctor called out after her, “Hoof swelling and/or glowing in the dark is perfectly normal: do not be alarmed!”
Turning back to Grapevine, he spoke in his strangely out-of-place Trottingham accent. “Well now, what seems to be the problem? You don’t seem hurt, but I can see what I can do; at the least, I might be able to conjure up a rousing speech or two.”
Grapevine huffed and rolled her eyes as Starshine forcibly pushed me to the front of our little party, and said, “Actually we’re her for Minty: I, er, she hurt her wing pretty badly yesterday.” He turned to look at me, his eyes drifting toward my bandaged side.
“I see, I see...” He looked back at Grapevine one more time before setting himself directly in front of me, a hoof raised in greeting. “It’s good to meet you Minty; the name’s Rainbow Remedy, Doctor of Arcane Medicine from Concealed College.” I smiled weakly and timidly shook his hoof, a little humbled before him. It might not be as famous around Fillydelphia, but everypony in northern Equestria knew only the best ponies were allowed entry into the Concealed College, let alone were able to make it to graduation.
Resuming his doctoral tone, Remedy asked, “Could I take a look at your damaged wing?” I nodded and turned my bandaged side toward him. His horn glowed again and the wrappings fell away, revealing the broken limb beneath. To me, it didn’t look all that bad, but concern showed on Remedy’s face.
“I’m impressed,” he said. “A broken ulna and fractures along your radius and carpus bones; what have you been up to?”
“Making weather,” I replied lamely. I felt my wing lift up, but not the usually-accompanying pain: side effects from the magic presumably.
“Well you certainly get an A for effort if you managed this jumping on clouds,” he said idly, his eyes focused intently on the structure of my wing. My wings stretched out and retracted under his magic gaze. Starshine remained uncharacteristically silent, standing in the corner with her face pointed at the ground.
“Here, you may want to lay on this,” Remedy said, pushing one of the servants’s sparse beds into the middle of the small dorm room. I looked at him quizzically, but complied. He’s a doctor, he knows what he’s doing, right?
“Now,” Remedy said, clearing his throat “Grapevine, you and your Pegasus friend will need to vacate the room, things are about to get science-y.”
“That means we need to get out now,” Grapevine half-whispered, pulling Starshine out the door with her. As the door shut, Remedy turned back to me.
“Now, let’s see what we can do with you,” he said, clopping his forehooves together. I gulped.
“Y-You mean you don’t know what you’re going to do?”
“Well, I’ve never worked on an actual Pegasus before, but I’ve seen a lot of pictures,” Remedy replied giddily. With the room already crowded, and the extra bed added to the middle, he had to back up against the wall to give himself room for “science.”
“So what’s going to happen when you cast your spell?” I asked, getting the distinct feeling that maybe coming to a doctor who only Grapevine knew was a bad idea.
Remedy laughed, a little too maniacally, “I have no idea!”
Before I could object further, his horn glowed the same weird color as before and enveloped my entire body. The magic felt warm and soft, like being rubbed all over with goose down. A bright flash consumed my vision, much larger than the one I had witnessed earlier.
When my eyesight returned, I carefully checked myself over, making sure I didn’t have any extra or missing limbs as a byproduct of his spell. To my great relief, all I found was my injured wing was now encased within a magical field. I couldn’t feel the appendage, but I could actually hear the bones moving around. Gross.
“See, that wasn’t so bad,” Remedy said, a cheeky grin on his face. I glared at him, but he shrugged it off. “Come on then, you really didn’t think I would do something on purpose, did you?” he asked.
“It crossed my mind.”
Remedy laughed. “Maybe you should learn to do a little less of that.”
“Trusting?” I asked.
No amount of rolled eyes could express what I felt. Sighing, I asked, “So, am I going to owe you anything?”
“Owe me?” Remedy asked, feigning hurt. “A friend of Grapevine’s is a friend of mine; think of it as a favor.” When he saw me looking at him strangely, he sniffed and said, “It’s not like you could afford it anyways.”
Remedy walked over to where I lay on the bed and examined my wing. “Anyway, I had your friends leave the room so I could talk to you.”
“Why?” I asked, wincing as my wing was tugged around. His formally idle demeanor grew serious as he looked me in the eyes.
“I know you didn’t break your wing by yourself.”
“Whu- what are you talking about,” I stammered. My lying could stand some practice, I decided. Remedy continued to glare at me, thoroughly unconvinced. “It was an accident, I swear,” I continued. “I was just trying to learn how to make weather, and I might have tried a little too hard.”
“Did she put you up to it?” Remedy’s voice was startlingly low and monotone; the accent was gone like snow after Winter Wrap-Up.
“Oh, well yeah, but don’t get mad; it’s not like-” I began, but was cut off.
“I knew it,” Remedy said. “I think she’s doing okay, I stop visiting, and she’s at it again, and-” This time, it was my turn to interrupt.
“Wait, I thought you said you had never met Starshine before?”
“Star who?” Remedy asked. I could almost see the realization hit him like a hammer. “You’re telling me it was Miss Machine Wings that caused this, not Grapevine?”
“Well, she didn’t exactly cause my accident, and she seems like she wants to make it up to me...” I paused and got up off the bed. Remedy gave no protest. “Why would you think Grapevine did it?”
“Oh, just forget I said anything,” he said, hurriedly walking toward the door. “Speaking of Grapevine, why don’t we see what she and the Pegasus are up to.”
I stepped in front of him and tried to look as intimidating as I could. In ferocity, I may have rated at field mouse. “Tell me,” I said.
“Tell you what?” Remedy said, chuckling badly. With my gaze unwavering, he reluctantly answered, “Alright, alright.”
Remedy let out an exaggerated sigh before continuing. “You’ve heard of her, um, falling out with the Chronicler, correct?” I nodded. “Things...weren’t very good for her after that. She got into fights; pushed her friends away.” Trying to imagine Grapevine, only marginally taller than Starshine, picking fights made my head hurt.
“For a few weeks, I was the only contact with the outside world she had; I came by as often as I could to check up on her. A week ago, the last time I saw Grapevine, her boss told her that if she didn’t have another story by the end of the Summer Sun Celebration, then she would be fired permanently from the paper.”
He walked over to where a black doctor’s bag sat and dug through it, producing two small pills. Before I could ask if they were for me, he popped them in his mouth and continued, “I didn’t actually think she would pull it off, the way she was. I was preparing for a repeat of the cider incident.” Remedy turned to look back at me, his rainbow mane fluttering as he moved. I briefly wondered how he managed to keep it floppy but out of his eyes no matter which way he turned: I had to use enough pomade to grease a pig just to get my hair to keep in place.
“Now, she walks into my work and started acting like her old self again,” he said. “You wouldn’t have anything to do with that, would you?”
It was my turn to speak, but the right words wouldn’t come to my mouth, instead issuing some sort of grunt to the negative. I didn’t understand why he seemed to think I calmed Grapevine down; she seemed to only tolerate my presence, at best. A specter of a smile graced the doctor’s face as he watched the gears turning in my head. He didn’t follow up on the question, but instead turned to the door.
“Well, then, glad that’s settled,” Remedy said. “Now, let’s go see if we can’t find your friends.”
“Shouldn’t they be right outside?” I asked, trotting up alongside him. It surprised me how tall he was: easily a head taller, if not more.
Opening the door, he said, “If Grapevine’s old self is starting to come back, then the answer would be...” The door swung open to reveal an empty hallway.
“...and then we took one of those ele-lift things up to servants’s quarters, and there you were,” I finished. Maybe it was the giddiness of the feeling finally returning to my mended wing or the side effects of “searching” for Grapevine in the fancy penthouse’s wine cabinet, but my tongue had loosened enough to tell Remedy most of what had happened over the last few days.
For being so talkative, Remedy was a pretty good listener. That, or I didn't notice if he was talking.
We peeked our heads cautiously into another one of the penthouse’s rooms, knocking before entering. We’d learned that lesson the hard way when we walked in on two mares, er, taking full advantage of an empty janitorial closet.
The room I looked into was a plushly-decorated writing room. A lush, maroon couch dominated the room, and on it sat a shiny typewriter. The fireplace, and subsequently the room, were dark; no Grapevine in here, either.
Shutting the door, Remedy spoke up for the first time since I had started my story; his Trottingham accent had returned, to my joy. He sounded much too serious and down when his voice took the flat inflection of a Fillydelphian.
“So, if I understood your story correctly, you are currently traveling around with a pony with more baggage than a Pullmare car and a Pegasus who nearly managed to end your life the first time you met her.”
Well, when you put it that way...
Before I could defend myself, he laughed and said, “Minty, I think you’re going to fit in around here just fine.” I had to admit, his smile was almost as infectious as Joya’s. Then again, so was Starshine’s. Maybe I just smiled too easily.
We stopped in front of two large, oak doors. Their frames were inlaid with gold, and the door handles were fashioned from fire rubies.
“Oh, well, of course she would be in there,” Remedy said. I looked at him quizzically.
“This is Ms. Spoon’s room; she owns the building,” he explained. I could feel my eyes widen; Grapevine hadn’t been kidding when she gave her spiel about investigative journalism.
Remedy gingerly opened one of the opulent doors and peered in. I tried to see around him, but the room was too dark. I almost let out a sigh of relief, and figured Starshine and Grapevine had gone down to another floor.
No such luck, however, as we heard a quiet shuffling and a muffled, “Shush!” that sounded distinctly like a certain reporter. With a flicker of Remedy’s horn, the room’s electric lights lit up. They were magic lights, I noticed: expensive to get so far south of the big unicorn cities.
“You can come out now,” he said. Starshine sheepishly walked out from behind a nearby wardrobe, and Grapevine from underneath the large wooden desk in the center of the room. Clutched in her mouth were several important-looking papers.
“Grapevine,” Remedy said with a sigh. “Please, please, please tell me that you’re not stealing from Ms. Spoon, one of the richest ponies in the city and the mare who’s paying me to look after her servants.”
“I’m not,” Grapevine said adamantly between the papers. She spat out the papers and pointed a hoof to Starshine. “But she was.”
“Wha-? Are you serious?” Starshine cried.
Before the argument could continue, however, we all heard a sound that made us freeze in our tracks. Outside the door was the voice of the coal baroness herself, Silver Spoon.
Though muffled by the massive doors, we could hear her say, “Now Copper, I am going to go lay down and I am not to be disturbed, is that understood?”
I couldn’t hear the response, but I guessed it was to the affirmative. Feeling suddenly exposed, I looked around the room for a good hiding place, but didn’t see one.
“In here,” Remedy hissed from across the room, holding open a small linen closet. I doubted we could all fit comfortably, but I didn’t care. I galloped over to the closet and sprang inside, followed quickly by Starshine and Grapevine. Remedy, however, didn’t join us.
“Get in,” I whispered, looking anxiously at the door. He shook his head as the fire-ruby door knobs began to turn and mouthed the word, “Distraction.”
As Silver Spoon’s doors opened, ours was slammed shut in our faces. The linen closet’s doors and walls were thin, allowing us to hear everything that was said. It was too bad the closet was smaller than my carpet bag, forcing all three of us to get to know each other much better than anypony should.
“Oh, Rainbow Remedy, I didn’t expect to find you in here,” Silver Spoon said. Remedy laughed nervously.
“Really? Well, I finished checking out the servants early, so I thought that I would come see if you were well.”
“Oh, are you sure that’s the only reason you came to see me?” Silver Spoon replied, her voice silky. I was thinking of what other reason he could possibly have when it hit me. Oh...OH! Oh, Sweet Celestia, no! I shuddered; Remedy was around my age, but Silver Spoon was, like, 40.
To my stomach’s great relief, Remedy quickly refused, saying, “Quite certain, actually.” Silver Spoon huffed, and I could almost see her eyes roll.
“I was only having a little fun, dear; try to loosen up. Celestia knows I try, what after all those meetings on the Celebration lately. They can really zap the energy out of a pony.”
“Do tell,” Remedy said. I could hear the conversation begin to drift away as he led Silver Spoon away from our hiding place.
“Oh, you wouldn’t believe it dear, it’s always shutting out the unions this, and good impressions on the government that. Not to mention Miss Grace Pullmare going on and on about investors.” She sighed. “Maybe I am getting too old for this; I haven’t seen Tia’ in nearly a month.”
I glared at Grapevine to stay quiet when I heard the faint scratch of pencil on paper. Luckily, neither pony outside seemed to notice.
“Oh, well I wouldn’t say that; you’re just stressed, is all,” Remedy was saying. “If you would allow me a little check up, I’m sure I could find something to have you on your hooves in no time.” Silver Spoon laughed.
“I hope you’re right, doctor. I hope you’re right.”
“Right then, let’s take a look at you over here in the bathroom, because the bathroom has much better lighting than this dreary bedroom,” Remedy said, nothing suspicious about his voice at all.
“Well, you don’t have to shout; I’m not that old, dear,” Silver Spoon said. The pair’s voices grew fainter and I could hear the sound of hooves on tile. When I could hear the, presumably, bathroom door slam shut, I quickly opened the closet doors, letting us all pile out.
“I can breathe again!” Grapevine said. Starshine shook out her metal wings with a satisfied look on her face. I took the chance to similarly stretch my wings, though they didn’t make nearly the noise. My newly-healed wing felt great, so the experience was even better.
Grapevine regained her composure, and told us, “Alright, time to go; we need to get out of here before those two come back.”
As we trotted out of the room I asked, “What about Remedy?”
“Don’t worry, you’ll see him again,” Starshine ensured me. I wanted to know how she would know, but we were already focused on making our escape.
I coughed at the smoke that snaked its way back from the trolley’s steam engine. We’d decided to use a couple bits and take the nice ride home. Or, at least, I thought we were headed home until the trolley changed tracks and headed toward Zebratown, all the way out in the Northeast Fillydelphia, a nearby map told me.
“Can you please tell me why we just passed West Fillydelphia?” I asked Grapevine, having to yell to be heard over the engine noise despite being right next to her.
“Ask Starshine!” she yelled back. Starshine had been the one to suggest the trolley ride, but had kept to herself the whole ride. Mostly, she just sat and adjusted her wings under the stares of curious onlookers.
Pushing my way across the car to where she sat, I asked, “Starshine, where are we going?” She looked up in surprise to see me so close.
“We fixed your wing, but there’s one more thing that still needs to be replaced,” she said. She kept her tone at a normal level, meaning I had to strain to hear her in the noisy car.
“If you don’t mind refreshing my memory, what else is broken?” I asked. The tilt of her head told me that she thought I was crazy. By now, I was getting used to that look.
“I broke your camera, if you remember.” Now that I thought about it, my neck did seem lighter. Thinking about it more made me feel the loss even worse than before; I’d forgotten all about my former prized possession.
“Alright, so we’re fixing my camera,” I said. “Then why do we need to go to Zebratown? There’s plenty of shops all over city.” She shook her head.
“We’re not going to buy one, I know a friend who might be willing to give us one.”
“And just who might that be?” Grapevine asked, joining our conversation. I almost jumped when I heard her voice; she moved so quietly it was almost scary.
“Sterling,” Starshine answered.
Grapevine’s eyes flashed. “Sterling, as in Sterling Bristle? The inventor?”
“The very same,” Starshine answered, grinning slyly. I wanted to ask who exactly this colt was, but the two didn’t give me time to interject. “How in Celestia’s name do you know him? I heard he barely talks to anyone!” Starshine shrugged her shoulders, eliciting a groaning of metal upon metal from her wings.
“Who do you think made these?”
Taking the break in the conversation as an opportunity, I quickly asked, “So who exactly is this, ‘Sterling?’” To them, I might as well have asked who Celestia is.
“He’s one of the best inventors in the city,” Starshine answered. “Bit of a recluse, though; the only time he leaves his house is for the Zebratown market days.”
“And that would be...when?” I asked. Before Starshine could answer, the trolley car hit a bump and for a sickening second I was airborne, and ponies around me were screaming and shouting. Once the event was over however, everypony went back to what they were doing like it was nothing out of the ordinary. It was up to me, then, to look like the idiot with her hooves covered over her head. I gathered myself up in time to hear announcement that we had arrived in Zebratown.
Conveniently, the monthly market day was today. Zebratown’s cobblestone square was packed wall to wall with colorful merchandise and even more colorful earth ponies. Grapevine said something, but I couldn’t hear her over the din of ponies shouting why I should spend my precious few bits on some of their wares.
Luckily, Starshine seemed to know which way she was going and led us through the crowds, which were packed so thick that I could only follow her by looking for the metal wings. I had to dodge an overly-enthusiastic mare trying to sell me pocket watches, and very nearly got in the middle of a fight between two earth ponies arguing over whose apples were better quality. A small-mustachioed stallion even tried to get me to buy one of his hoof-drawn postcards, but I managed to push past all of them and reach Sterling’s stall.
The tent was near the back of the square, but for good reason: the maroon tent was easily twice as large as any other stall in the event. Over the entrance was a crude sign that simply read, “Sterling.” Woodwind music warbled from a shiny, new-looking phonograph right inside the tent’s entrance. Scattered technology lay across the interior in a seemingly random order, with a large, model steam engine laying right next to a display of typewriters. Astoundingly, in one corner he even had a broken steam engine on display, its too many pistons stuck out in an awkward v-shape. It was no wonder, then, that the tent was almost completely void of customers.
Starshine shushed us, and advised, “Be careful, he startles easily.”
Grapevine promptly ignored her and ran to the back of the tent, calling, “Mr. Sterling, are you in here?” An olive-brown earth pony, who had been organizing a music shelf while standing on a stool, yelped and fell down in surprise. The ebony-colored records he had been holding fell to the ground with the green-maned stallion, shattering into dozens of pieces.
“Oh, my; oh, dear,” the pony, Sterling, said. The lanky colt picked himself up from the ground and dusted off his frizzy, unkempt mane. The awkward smile he gave us when he realized he was being watched was certainly not cute, nor was his appearance. Not at all.
“Minty, your wings are doing that stand up thing again,” Grapevine helpfully pointed out.
“Yeah, you might want to get that checked out,” Starshine chimed in, giggling. I realized suddenly, stupidly, that she was a Pegasus too. Oh Celestia, she knows.
“Must be a, uh, side effect from Remedy’s magic,” I stammered, racking my brain for an excuse.
“But this isn’t the first time-” Grapevine began, confused, until Sterling cut her off.
“Oh, um, excuse me, but, can I help you with anything?” Still chuckling, Starshine walked over to where Sterling stood and carelessly put a leg around his neck and introduced us.
“Sterling, this is Grapevine, and the Pegasus is Minty Flower. Minty, Grapevine, this is Sterling Bristle.” Grapevine coolly nodded hello while I stumbled through a greeting, my tongue falling all over itself.
“Now that we’re all friends,” Starshine continued, patting Sterling with her hoof, “We need you to do us a favor.”
“Well, o- of course I could help you, maybe,” Sterling said with a nervous chuckle. “Wha- what do you need?”
“A camera,” Grapevine explained. She looked around at the interior of the stall. “You wouldn’t happen to have one lying around, would you?” Seeking his chance to get out of Starshine’s grasp, Sterling walked over to where a large worktable stood.
“I don’t have one with me today...b- but I could maybe make you one, if you wanted.” He sighed and turned back to Starshine, who was playing with some stacked light bulbs. “I- I guess you’ll want this for free?”
“Well of cou-” she began, before being cut off by Grapevine, who said, “If you wanted, I’m sure Starshine and I could help drum up some business for this place.”
“Hey!” Starshine protested, “Don’t I get a say in this?” Grapevine shook her head.
“No, but it will give us a chance to help out, and for Minty to talk to Sterling.”
Reversing her arguing, Starshine clopped her hooves together giddily and said, “Oh yes, Minty and Sterling can stay in here all alone.” I tried my best to stare the Pegasus down, but she just looked smug.
Sterling, seemingly none the wiser, was trying to say, “I don’t really care if anypony even comes in here...” Unfortunately for him, nopony seemed to be listening. Grapevine and Starshine were out the tent flap before he could say anything else. Sterling sighed wearily and turned to me.
“I-I suppose the camera is for you?”
“Oh, uh, yeah, it is,” I answered, startled. To my knowledge, Starshine hadn’t told him what happened back on Serenity. “How did you know?” He pointed to my cutie mark.
“That’s a GL1138 model lightbulb: they’re made only in Northern Equestria and only for unicorn cameras.” He seemed more comfortable talking in facts, and I was admittedly floored that he knew more about my cutie mark than I did. I always figured lightbulbs were mostly the same. “I figured with the accent and cutie mark...” I smiled and nodded politely, though my mind was still preoccupied on that he had actually noticed my cutie mark.
Sterling dragged the stool from where it had tipped over earlier and set it in front of his worktable before starting to gather supplies. “Y- You wouldn’t happen to, um, know anything about steam engines, would you?” I shook my head to the negative as I watched him work, bent over the table and with a screwdriver in his mouth. His voice muffled, he asked, “Do you k- know how to use a wrench?”
I amused myself by listening to Grapevine and Starshine trying to draw customers to Sterling’s shop while I tightened bolts on a pile of model steam engines. I had been assured that they weren’t the real thing, but they certainly felt heavy enough.
Sterling himself was currently grunting over his workstation, trying to shove too-large parts inside a too-small case. To me, it looked like he was doing his best to break my new camera before it was even built.
Outside, Grapevine was trying to coax ponies away from their bits, saying, “It doesn’t matter if your record player is only a year old, this new model has blast receptors; it gives you twice the sound!”
It was easy to make out Starshine’s voice, coming from just a little further away. Suffice to say, she took a different approach. “You think your steam engine is good enough? Think again! You’re not even worthy to use these engines, but we’re giving you the special privilege of buying one!” The pony she was shouting at apparently mumbled something.
Through the canvas I heard, “What do you mean your carriage doesn’t need an engine? If you ever want to pick up a stallion, you’re going to have to look like a real mare, mare.” The pitching went on for a good half hour, yielding exactly zero customers for each. As I moved on to patching up the older record players in the tent, Grapevine and Starshine devolved into bickering with each other.
“It’s your yelling that’s driving away the customers, you’re too loud!”
“Yeah, well, you’re not loud enough!”
“You’re too bossy!”
“You’re too smart!”
I was afraid I was going to have to break them up when some hapless pony showed up, and was immediately bombarded with sales pitches.
An hour later, I was done fixing up most everything in the shop. Strangely, Sterling insisted that the steam engine I had seen earlier wasn’t broken at all, so I tacked it up to him being one of the eccentric inventors the newspapers always raved about.
Bored, I walked over to where he sat with my camera, now starting to look more like something that could actually take pictures. Currently, he was vigorously polishing the case with an rag.
“Anything else I can do to help?” I asked, startling him. The cloth slipped from his hooves and onto the floor.
“Here, I’ll get it,” I said, reaching for it at the same time as him, our hooves briefly touching. I quickly yanked my hoof away.
“No, nothing that I can think of,” Sterling finally answered as restarted his work.
“So, what do you do around here?” I asked, trying to make conversation.
He didn’t look up, but answered, “I invent things; s- sometimes I sell them.”
“All by yourself?” I asked, idly playing with a small, metal gear. Sterling shrugged.
“Usually; Starshine comes by every once in a while so I can maintain her wings.” I got up and walked just a little bit closer to him.
“Must get lonely,” I oh-so-unsubtly observed. I was just glad Sterling’s cluelessness saved me from my big mouth. At any rate, he sighed and squirted some strange liquid onto a new oilcloth and began polishing the camera lens.
“It does, sometimes,” he said, then smiled. “N- Not that you would know, of course.”
“Huh?” I asked, dropping the shiny, new record I’d been holding, which luckily landed on a display pillow.
His ears drooped as he answered, “Oh, uh, sorry, are you and the unicorn keeping it a secret? I’m sorry- I won’t tell anypony, I swear.”
Wait, he thinks me and Grapevine are...oh no. “No, no, it’s not like that,” I began, stuttering nervously. Of course, now it sounded like I was denying the truth. “We’re just friends...”
Sterling went back to his work with a knowing nod. I groaned and walked over to the farthest corner of the shop to sulk.
Some time afterward, Sterling let out a deep sigh of relief and announced he was done. The declaration caught me by surprise, not least of which because I had nodded off to sleep on a pile of mattresses with fancy, steel springs.
“Already?” I asked. He excitedly shook his head, clumsiness replaced with pride. I trotted over to his worktable to get a view of the completed product, and I was impressed. It wasn’t nearly as glamorous as my magic camera, but was a step above the other earth pony models I had seen around Fillydelphia.
The case was an ebony metal, and was taller than it was long. A large lens occupied the front, and an even larger light bulb was positioned on a sort of crane on top.
“It’s based on a newer model I received from an associate in Stalliongrad,” he explained. “This camera can take three shots without needing to be reloaded, as opposed to one.”
I didn’t feel the need to mention the unicorn models could take fifteen. “Ca- Can I touch it?” I asked.
“Go ahead.” I pulled it closer to me to get a better look at it, and was happy to see my face on the cover of the case.
“I don’t know how I can ever thank you,” I said. He looked startled.
“Oh, well, it was nothing really...”
“Hey, your camera’s done!” Grapevine exclaimed as she and Starshine barged back into the tent. Thanks to her, I nearly dropped my brand new camera in surprise.
“Not too bad,” Starshine commented. Shaking her wings, she continued, “Not as good as your other handiwork, of course.”
I would have cared, but I was trying to fit a leather strap around the camera so it could hang around my neck. Sterling, still awkwardly proud, was explaining to an uninterested crowd of Grapevine and Starshine how the camera worked.
Finally managing to get the strap on, I slipped the camera over my head. The leather taught and the camera hanging at just the right height, it felt perfect.
We left Starshine back at the tent, where she said she needed some work done on her wings. She promised to get in touch later for more “lessons” once my wing had healed. Oh, and she’d winked when she mentioned having Sterling work on her. Of course she winked: I’d never be able to live that one down. Also, that wasn’t jealousy I felt in my stomach, I was obviously just hungry.
It didn’t help that Grapevine didn’t stray more than a hoof or two from my side the entire time, giving Sterling’s theory more and more credence. I almost wished that she would return to her grumpier self.
The journey back to Joya’s shop was a long one, even with the trolley ride; it was around midnight when I finally made it back. The final leg of the journey had been the worst, too, as Grapevine had to ride a different streetcar back to her house. She left me with a promise of more excitement tomorrow, and finally something to do with reporting.
The shop was dark when I entered, remembering Grapevine’s advice to get the key from under the welcome mat. The clothes hanging on racks and folded on shelves were as neat as ever, almost reminding me of home.
As my eyes adjusted, I saw that there was a light coming from beneath the door to Joya’s work room. Quietly, I made my way over to the door and slowly peaked inside. A single candle burned on a wooden desk next to the sewing machine, casting long shadow’s across Joya’s sleeping face.
She lay sprawled out across the tabletop, snoring softly. I tiphoofed over to her, but decided not to wake her. Under Joya’s prone form lay my dress, though I could hardly call it that anymore. She’d woven patterns on the dress inlaid with gold, including an outline of my cutie mark for each flank.
It was something that was best suited for the Grand Galloping Gala, and my heart caught a little when I realized that she must have not stopped working since we left yesterday. All this for me, a pony she barely even knew: it was enough to make me tear up a little.
Doing what I could for her, I managed to sling the sleeping donkey across my back, ignoring her weight. Slowly, steadily, I carried her up the stairs and into her room, much messier than I’d seen it last. I’d meant to lower her onto the bed and then go to my room, but the day’s built-up exhaustion finally hit me, and I collapsed onto the bed, donkey and all. By the time my head hit the sheets, I was asleep.