The stupid bastard said nothing for four hours. I was getting bored of this. Like, I was already absolutely sick of the stonewalling (dare I say I wanted the cheery dope back instead of this morose motherfucker?) but by now I was just getting drained with this. I was out the other side of emotionally exhausted and into just done with this shit. I swear I must have passed out walking at one point. The walk to Wormwood wasn't much distraction either. It was just straight northwest, taking us past some creepy old industrial estate and a fat load of nothing.
Have I mentioned how weirdly laid out Equestrian urban centres seem to be? I mean, I'm probably the weird one with the Manechester background, but large parts of Equestria feel like they'd been barely settled even before the war. Maybe I'm just in the wrong parts of the country (my route to San Cimarron took me through the wild parts of the south, largely avoiding most places that might reasonably be considered a city), and obviously there must be parts that have the ancient street plan with industrial infrastructure laid on, but all I'd found before San Cimarron, with the exception of one particularly festive location in the swamp (that's a story for another time), had been backwater collections of huts like Fort Mercer, newly settled towns built out of scrap, and stretches of highway with some retail units adjacent that had the gall to call themselves names like "Acacia City". You go two blocks from the main road and suddenly you're in bumblefuck nowhere.
You see what you do to me Rainbow? I'm rambling about the nuances of urban planning again.
Anyway. Journey to Wormwood was unbearably dull. There was like, a few dead prickly-ass trees and some rocks and that was it. We got there and I was about ready to scoop out my eyeballs for the sake of stimulation. If this was where all the star stuff was coming from then I was bracing myself to commence tripping balls. The place wasn't unlike the Eagle Tribe's camp, but with a few more permanent structures, like larger tents, a watchtower, and more electrical lighting. Torches and a central campfire still provided most of the lighting. Dusk had passed on our approach to the place, which was turning out to be almost as dramatically lit as the approach to the Eagle Tribe camp, but instead of being at the top of a wind-carved valley, it was the only feature on the land for miles around, and featured a few of what might be considered to be living trees. Little hard to tell.
Rainbow opened his stupid mouth for the first time in hours. "Do we just... what, do we just go up and say hello?"
I scoffed and rolled my eyes. "Oh, let me." I pushed past him, which was completely unnecessary since we were still a hundred paces out and there was years of space in every direction.
I sauntered up to the camp until I was in the light of it. I noticed the tents, fences, lights and other junk they'd dragged to this location formed a ring. Not a very large ring, but definitely defensible encirclement of the camp. Sprawled on an armchair - where the fuck did they find that and how did they get it here? - was a pony who I guessed was a door guard of some kind. He had some baggy poncho-scarf thing and an assload of beads, and thick, braided hair that flopped over his face and must have made it impossible to see, but he was sitting next to a very large rifle with a lot of glowy bits and wires hanging out of it, so I was not inclined to take the piss.
"Hey mate, what's going on?" I leaned on the arm of his recliner.
"Yo, dude! About time you got here." He had a voice like a rock star. Which is to say, he sounded like his throat had seen years of booze and more drugs than I could name.
"You and your friend there have been takin' it easy for miles. You two holding up okay?"
I hesitated a moment longer than I intended, and I could see him pick up on that with a sliver of his yellowed teeth peeking through his grin. "We're fine, just heading over to check this place out."
"I getcha. I think we might have what you need." Spaceman this dude was not. Rainbow caught up and seemed to look over my shoulder. "There you bros are! Don't be shy." Rainbow shuffled awkwardly from behind me. Mother of fuck, boy, will you stop acting like the dorky kid at the school dance?
"Hello, we uh..."
"Is that a Ranger patch?" Rainbow almost flailed and fell over on the spot. The door guard broke into a chuckle. "Relax, dudeski. Everyone is welcome here. Gonna guess this is you two dudes' first time in Wormwood?"
We both nodded. Rainbow, being a dweeb, felt the need to explain us. "We're just visiting for a night if that's okay? I mean, I don't know if there's a cap fee or some kind of-"
The guard held up a hoof. "All you need to worry about, my friend, is the Silent Night."
"Silent Night?" He started saying it, then I said it, and he stuttered to a stop.
"Inside these walls, you're not Rangers."
"I'm not a Ranger outside the walls either, but go on."
He looked at me for a moment, then continued. "This is neutral turf. There is no fighting, no espionage, no judging here. We are all pilgrims to this celebration of the shared journey of ponykind through these tough times, y'dig?"
Rainbow nodded. "Got it. So yo-"
I cut in. "And what happens if someone does start fighting?"
"If I can pick you out at three miles in dusk, I'm pretty sure I can shoot those glasses off your face from the gate."
I blinked. "Where'd you learn to shoot like that?"
"Bit of this and that." He grabbed his rifle, suddenly, and had it cocked, aiming at some imaginary target to the side, and making a high-pitched whine within half a second. It made both of us jump. He lowered it, smiled, and gently sat it down. "Legend is the Dreamer family can see the night as bright as day. I like to think I live up to it. Say." He turned to Rainbow and sat forward. "You might know my baby brother, Nightlight. Found his way into the Rangers. Said he wanted to broaden his horizons. I dunno if he's on to anything, but he seems to be having fun."
I didn't know the name, but I had a pretty good idea who he was talking about, and based on Rainbow looking at me with the same realisation-slash-alarm I was looking at him with, I'm pretty sure I was right.
"Anywhoosits, no sense leaving you two duders out in the cold any longer, right? C'mon in. Name's Full Moon. If you wanna dump your stuff, just toss it anywhere, I'll make sure nobody leaves with something they're not supposed to. First thing you're gonna want to do is talk to Lullaby over by the still, she'll get you situated. It's quiet tonight, so you'll have lots of space to yourselves if that's what you're lookin' for. Alright?"
I missed my beat because I wasn't expecting to have to respond there. Rainbow started walking. "I think we get the idea." I lingered a moment before hurrying to follow.
"Alright, you guys have a good one!"
I'd heard some distant music outside the camp, and we passed the twanging guitar-thing it was coming from on the way through. The oasis itself was nothing like what I'd been picturing. Instead of a verge of palm trees and shrubs around a lake, there was just a well and some sad-looking wildflowers nearby. All the cultivation appeared to be under some tarps on sticks to the side. Some trader was on his back on a make-shift bench, waving at the sky, and someone unclothed was singing off-key to herself while threading beads. Rainbow looked like he'd gotten lost for a moment. I spotted a twisting bundle of banged-up pipes and stuff, including a big copper sphere, with someone in a welding mask hunched over a glowing, bubbling bowl. I scooted around Rainbow to nudge her on the shoulder. She stepped back and lifted the welding mask, and she was wearing a gas mask underneath, which she then lowered. Under the masks she had a face like a moth-bitten old rug. "Hwah?"
"Are you Lullaby?"
She made that 'oh' face of realisation. "Oh, well how do you do, missy? Did Moony let you in?" I heard a groan from the direction of the door.
"He gave us the impression that if we were here otherwise, we'd be roast ducks by now."
She blinked and looked around. "Oh, there's two of you?"
Rainbow waved. He was standing right next to me. "Uh, hi!"
"You didn't see this big fucker here?"
"Oh, don't mind me, my eyesight's just going." She tapped the welding mask. "Here's a free tip, kiddos, don't get this stuff in your eyes."
I looked at the bubbling liquid. It had a green tint to it. I looked up with a squint. "'This stuff' being?"
Her face exploded with glee, and she threw the welding mask across the camp. It broke a pot, and while someone in one of the tents seemed kind of bothered, Lullaby certainly wasn't. "Good golly, I've got some things to show you! Take a seat, dears, I'll be with you in a second."
Rainbow went ahead to the larger fire and found a cushion to sit on. He looked very stiff, and I was tempted to ask if he was actually having some kind of digestive problem. I dawdled to watch Lullaby scoop up two gourds off the ground in her hooves, tap them on the pipes, and one after the other, hold each under a protruding pipe under a large upturned ceramic bottle, and press a plunger. Whatever came out steamed in the evening air, and spilled liberally into the dirt as she fumbled with the gourds.
"Now, what's your relation, strangers? I'm sorry, I didn't catch your names! Trading partners? Lovers?" She'd started the second question by the time I'd opened my mouth, and the third by the time Rainbow opened his.
I burst out laughing. Rainbow choked to death. "Celestia, no! She's my... my sister, Atom Smasher."
Lullaby gave me a squinting smile as I fell back off the bench giggling. I had to straighten my goggles on climbing up again. "Y'look more like a gut buster to me!"
I snorted. "He's Rainbow Code."
"Good to meetchas! Now get up Atom Smooshie, I've got something for you two. And I might have some prunes for you," she said, nudging Rainbow. I exploded again. It went completely over his head.
"You're so uptight, even the blind think you look constipated."
He sighed and grabbed the gourd off Lullaby. I took mine. Lullaby held each of our gourd hooves to stop us from chugging straight away. "Careful now!"
"Oh, is there some ritual for this stuff?"
"No, it's hot."
"Also, yes." Lullaby pulled both of us closer. "You only drink star stuff when you're looking at the stars."
Rainbow looked straight up and motioned out drinking from an imaginary gourd with his free hoof. "That seems kind of messy."
"Okay, listen to me. Breathe deep." We did. "Breathe out." We did. "Bottle to mouth." Likewise. "And... up!" Slowly but firmly, she lifted the ends of the gourds, tilting them back until we were looking straight up at the sky, and something very hot and bitter flowed into my mouth. She let go, and after the first gulp went down, the instinct to wretch and pull the bottle away took over. This was much stronger than the glorified piss the Spaceman gave me. I felt a hoof on my chin, and it nudged my balance backwards. "Keep looking up, sweet ones."
Rainbow didn't sound happy. "Ugh, that was... what was in that? It tasted like bile, wow..."
"Shhh." She didn't need to keep holding my head up. "Tell me, do you see any shooting stars?" I knew exactly what was going on, and listening to Rainbow's reaction was going to be amazing. At least I thought that was going to be the case, because I was still getting bowled over by looking at the night sky sober. Rainbow was at least used to that part. So we both had the same slack-jawed "woah" when the milky way started to sparkle, and a couple of stars began to twinkle and dance and streak in and out of existence. Lullaby chuckled. "Sweet dreams, children." She took the time to set the gourds down while we were staring, and she must have went back to her business.
We lost track of time staring at the sky. At some point I ended up on my back. I tried moving the stars around with my hooves, but they were more fickle than ceiling tiles. When I stuck my hoof in them, it felt tingly, like licking a spark battery but not on my tongue. They swirled, like they were reflected in water, and the milky way parted and swished like a cloud. The moon looked pointy in its crescent state, so I didn't feel like giving it a poke.
"I'm... what... where... what?" I heard Rainbow say. It took me a moment to process that it was him, and another to get up and stagger over to him to pull his head down from the sky before he got lost in it.
"It's okay! You're still here."
"I'm not okay. I'm compromised. I need first aid. Wait, I'm the first aid. Can I give myself first aid?"
I slapped my forehead. My hoof felt like it continued all the way through, a feeling which made me lose my balance and grab him by the front. "We're still in Wormwood. Just relax, will you? We're safe here."
I pawed around for the discarded gourds, and took another swig from one. It was still as hot and sour, but having a dose already in my system made it feel like I was swallowing a lemon whole. Just a different kind of unpleasant, really.
"Are you my sister?"
"What?" I slumped back against the bench, like, lying on the floor and using the bench to prop my head up, because that's sensible.
"You must be someone else. I'm so sorry."
I squinted. The whole world turned into a pancake and I had to stop that. "Rainbow Code, what the fuck are you talking about?"
He grabbed a cushion and flopped forward. "You can go home, I've dragged you out here for nothing."
"What kind of lightweight are you?" I completely failed to get up and give him a shove.
"How do they make pillows that dance?" He was holding a completely stationary cushion in front of his face.
I sighed. "Yeah, fuck you. You would be the kind of miserable puritan to not hold a drink, wouldn't you?" He didn't answer me. I took another clumsy bite of magic lemon, threw it away and crawled over to him. "Why won't you answer me?"
"You're still here?"
"Yes, I'm still fucking here!"
"Why?" he yelled. I'd never heard him yell close up before. He looked more afraid than angry.
"I don't know!"
We stared at each other for like, a minute, panting. Slowly, he looked down his nose, and his face went pale. "I think I'm going to be sick."
I shoved him away from me. He tumbled in the dust a bit, and managed to keep running from the light for a few steps, before falling to the side. I stopped paying attention after that.
Well, this was a bust. I figured at this point I might as well get completely fucked up, just because it was the most interesting thing to do. The sky was dripping, and I couldn't be sure if the stars were falling, or if it was raining, or if it was raining and taking the stars with it. After a whole load of effort, I managed to get on my hooves, and start poking around the camp for things. The fire danced with a hypnotising swirl that had me trip over the trader and not even break my gaze on it until my face was in the dirt again. Getting up again seemed to take an eternity. "Woah, I didn't see you there, I'm sorry, I didn't see anything, I didn't..."
Gravity went sideways, then I found myself upright. "It's all good, sister!" he said in a heavy drawl, then pulled me in and started chewing on my nose. I think he might have been trying to kiss me.
I pushed him back. "Please don't do that."
"You got it!" At this, he fell backwards to his original position of rearranging the cosmos. I wiped my face. Did I just say 'please' and 'sorry' on reflex? If I got any more wasted I'd be a model citizen.
I got an idea. I looked around. The distant music seemed to carry colours on the air. "Hey, man, mind if I borrow some water?" I was already making for his pack before he answered.
"Sure thing!" He wasn't even looking at me.
I flopped on my front next to the roped up pack and pulled it open, and then I fell inside. Up and down disappeared in a dark tunnel that smelled like dust and chili. I navigated by feel alone. The music from outside echoed as I poked my way past giant cans of rations and loose rounds the side of my body. My epic quest dragged on, and I was breathing spicy sand instead of air. Finally, I felt my prize - glass bottle with a screw top. I braced myself, placed both hooves on it, and yanked as hard as I could. I kicked and flailed and screamed, and eventually, I was launched from the dark hole of the bag into the night, flying miles into the air, only to land back at the camp, next to the bag, surrounded by a mess of bean tins, bullets, and a bottle of whiskey.
Once I'd stopped swimming in the ability to see, I grabbed the bottle, screwed the top off, and chugged greedily. It felt like eating fire. When I pulled the bottle away, my breath burned a hole in the sky. Not to be ungrateful, I fumbled around for the cap and screwed it back on to the bottle. I didn't want all of his whiskey to fly away without him.
I stumbled back to the bench I'd been hanging out at before to get some more star stuff. The fire didn't seem to like me looking at it as I passed, and I didn't make eye contact. The mare's singing stung my ears. I don’t know when the wind picked up but it had risen to a deafening shriek, with the sound of distant thumping and clanging carried on it. I needed a bit of quiet time.
All of my shit had fallen out of my upturned bags, so I had to pick through it to find the gourds. When I went to take a swig, it punched me in the snout. I yelped and threw the gourd away. So stunned I was that I put a hoof to my face. When it came away, it was drizzled with deep red. I took a deep breath. It smelled like a stainless steel knife. After a brief itch inside my nose, my head exploded entirely. I returned to awareness a mere moment later, lying on the ground. The only evidence of my fatality was a tiny black splatter in the dirt, barely glinting red in the firelight. The closer I looked, the more it seemed to hate me, so I stopped looking at it.
By now I was panting through my mouth. I could feel my tongue being eroded by the sand, but I didn’t have another choice. Pretty soon I could feel parts of my throat escaping with each rasping exhale. I looked again at my stuff. There was a small bear cub nibbling some landmines. I didn't remember carrying any landmines, but there were a lot of them. I tilted my head and leaned closer, then the bear turned to me, snarling with a gaping hole for one eye, brandishing a weapon at me that crackled with blue sparks. My whole body was itched with radiation exposure. My ears began to click and my legs blotched and flayed themselves right in front of me. I squealed and shimmied back as fast as I could before tripping on my jacket.
As I fell on my back, my jacket felt like it was tightening around me, pressing burning irons into my sides. It choked my vision. I screamed breathlessly, but there was no air to scream with. My throat had already melted away. I had to get rid of this jacket before it trapped me. I writhed and flailed and pulled at it for hours, finally throwing away the leather tomb. A wing came with it.
It was only now that I realised that it was my armour. Free from it, the absolute zero of the infinite black above gripped me and began to fill my veins with ice, crystal by excruciating crystal. Before my eyes leaked out of my sockets, I looked up. Burning spears of light hurtled towards me. The milky way was their trail of smoke as they crossed the heavens to extinguish all life from the universe, with the thorned moon as their general, and now they were coming for me. I was done screaming, because nobody could help me now. I turned to the ground to hide, to dig my way back to the stable with my feeble hooves, to beg for mercy that wouldn't come.
The next thing I remember was waking up, somehow, not quite over the fear that the entire universe and everything in it was summoning the fire of eternity to destroy me. The stars were certainly there, but they were still swaying and swerving and glaring at me. Don’t ask me how I knew it, but the longer I lay there on my back, looking up at the sky, the more I got the feeling that I was somewhere I shouldn’t be. I wanted to get up and go, but my legs had other plans.
My heart was pounding in my ears. I couldn’t hear anything else. Well, I heard other things occasionally. But most of what I heard was the droning thump at a racing pace. At least I thought that was a heartbeat. If it was, and it was mine, it was frighteningly fast and irregular and my awareness of this was not helping with that. Neither was trying to concentrate on the stars, now leaving trails as my breathing moved my head around. The sticky taste and smell and crusty texture of vomit inside and outside of my head right now made everything disgusting.
A string of words fought their way through the pounding. “... whiskey? Booze and star stuff don’t mix, you big dummy!” I think it was Lullaby, but I can’t be sure. I just remember the word ‘dummy’ attaching itself to my heartbeat and repeating in my ear, growing in volume until all I heard was the chorus of my own stupidity.
I blacked out again for a little while. It might have only been a couple of seconds. The chant of ‘dummy dummy dummy DUMMY DUMMY DUMMY’ made it just a little bit hard to keep time. I tried to get up again. No dice. I sighed. Or, that’s what I wanted to do, I couldn’t control the pace of my breathing. My voice wasn’t responding either. Not even an incoherent groan. The more I tried to call for help, the more the rush of air in my limp throat drowned out everything else. I stopped trying after a while because it was even more unbearable than the sound of my exploding heart.
Let me tell you, the moment when you try to call for help because your body is completely non-functional, as embarrassing as it is, and you actually physically can’t, is a moment of nauseous dread I didn’t think existed.
“... trying to rope me into this?”
“She came here with you!”
That was Rainbow. He was arguing with someone. Maybe Full Moon. Little bit hard to tell, because I was still in the grip of some mad cardiac dysfunction. I only caught bits of the conversation. The edges of my vision began to blur again.
“... wants to fuck herself up and OD in some hole in the desert, that’s her business. She’s got her life. She doesn’t need me.” Gee, thanks. Some paladin you are. I heard a smack. It wasn’t my ears, it was something going on outside of my narrowing cone of vision. There was a long pause.
“Will you quit being a legendary dumbass already?”
“The… you hit me. What about…”
“If you’re going to cry about your selfish issues you can get the fuck out of my village and out of the way. If not, shut up and help me.”
Silence. Well. Not silence. Head-splitting thumping and angry points of light. But thumping uninterrupted by words for a bit.
“Okay.” Rainbow’s voice was shaky.
Noises ensued. I only noticed how much peripheral vision I’d lost when Rainbow and Full Moon appeared either side of me, and I could barely make out their faces.
“Can you prepare a needle?” There was a pause while Rainbow stared at me open-mouthed. I honestly had no idea how to read it. Awe at how fucked up I was? Still high himself? Full Moon grabbed him and shook him. “Focus!”
“Yes! Yes. Four years field medic. Gimme.”
A box flew over me from one to the other. For a brief second I freaked out and thought it was going to land on my immobile face, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at me. After this I zoned out for a bit. They exchanged some medical-sounding words about like, veins, hyperthermia, stabilising, stuff like that. I was starting to drift, and droning jargon was a push towards sleep.
“Can you get it together? You’re shaking all over the place.”
“I’m sorry, I…” Rainbow sniffled. It definitely sounded like he was trying extremely hard not to cry.
“Listen, you hold the light, I’ll do the needle.” They had a light? Fuck. I couldn’t see a thing by now.
After this point words blurred together. They’d been fuzzy and muffled for a minute already, and even the thumping was fading. Soon, it all swirled away, leaving me in the dark quiet.
I woke up in bits and pieces, with one uncomfortable part of my perception following another sluggishly. First was the rough ground creating a painful bend in my back. Next was the spinning in my head, followed by distant twanging. My face felt crusty, on the cheeks and nose. I stirred to try and move to a better position, and noticed the blanket on me. I heard a sound that took me a minute to realise was words. "She's waking up!" There were other words too far away to recognise. "Give us a bit, okay?"
"Wha... what?" I opened my eyes. I was lying on my side. It was still night, and we were still outside. Nearby at my eye level was a small fire - mercifully content to keep to itself - and a big tan haunch with a multicoloured arc on it. I looked up to see the face the leg belonged to, looking at me with streaked cheeks and a trembling smile.
When I shifted to lie on my front, I noticed that my stomach felt like it was full of cactus needles and didn't like me moving. My forehooves were wrapped in bandages. There was also some other soft lump underneath me. "Rainbow? What happened?"
Several parts of me erupted in pain when he scooped me up and hugged me. "You're okay!"
"Ow. Ow. Still really hurting here."
"Sorry! Sorry." He set me down again, and I was happy enough to lean on his side. I felt around for the soft lump I'd been lying on. It was Trashcan. I duly pulled him close and squeezed him. "You... had a bad reaction to the star stuff. I was really worried." He sniffed and wiped his nose.
"You... you were?" I looked up. My face started feeling tight again. He nodded. I smiled and slumped against him. I tried to say something else but I just chuckled, and then I felt a trickle on my face. Oh no. Here we go. It started with that, and before I knew it my face was buried in his side to hide my hideous sobbing. Rainbow had a hoof around my back, and I could hear him struggling to control himself too. I caught myself before too long, but my face was already wet and my voice was all wobbly.
"You're important to me." He squeezed. "And I didn't realise how much until I thought I was about to lose you again." He held me and we swayed gently for a little while. "I've... been a bit of a selfish dick, Atom."
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
He chuckled. "I realised something in the last few hours. I'd been... still trying to imagine you as I left you. That's why I got so upset the other night. The idea of my baby sister going out and surviving in the big bad wasteland broke my brain."
I lingered on this thought. "Who knew that when you leave someone alone for ten, twelve years, they grow up a bit?" I smirked and poked him.
He laughed, but when he was done he stared at the ground. "Yeah..."
I leaned my head back on him, and tried to pull the blanket further up around me. I was really cold. Wasn't I not supposed to be able to feel cold? Fuck. "Listen. You're not gonna hear me say this a lot, but I'm already bawling into your shoulder, so I might as well." I tried to lean back further so I was actually looking at his face. "Whatever the fuck just happened with the space drugs was the scariest thing that's ever happened to me. I've never felt so helpless in my life."
"Not even nearly dying from heatstroke on the highway?"
"Not even close." I nudged him. "Waking up and actually having someone looking out for me is... it means a lot." I swallowed. Fuck, I was starting to choke up again. He squeezed me, and I chuckled to get rid of the tears.
"Wasteland warrior or not, you're still gonna be the baby I promised to look after."
I let him hug me for a moment. "Well that went well."
He broke into chortles. "Oh, give it a rest, I just nursed you out of a bad trip."
I rolled my eyes with a smile. "Fiiine."
By now I was half-sitting up, lying on my back with my head on Rainbow's lap. Trashcan was on my front, and I pulled him up to look at him. "I put him there while you were sleeping. You clung on to him for dear life."
I stared the bear up and down. "Dude's seen some good service."
"The skeleton I took him off back at the Caballero Centre. You don't find the remains of kids unless something awful happened." Rainbow made a pensive noise. "She must have run scared into the loos. Got separated or something. All she had to comfort her was this bear."
"That's uncharacteristically empathetic of you, Atom."
"Funnily enough, I can relate to the plight of a scared and lonely child."
We went quiet. The tears had stemmed, and the mood had chilled.
I leaned back and broke the silence. "I was propositioned by someone on the way back from Isotope City yesterday."
"Bunch of Enclave spooks. One called Colonel Valkyrie claimed to be my aunt. Offered to take me away and set me for life."
I squinted. "What do you mean, you too?"
"I got the same offer, years ago. I don't know if it happens to all the pegasi down here, or she just singled me out. I still have the badge she gave me."
"I was very tempted to take it." He went quiet. I paused. "I didn't. But I didn't rule it out either."
"You... you must have been really tempted."
I chuckled. "This was after you'd cold shouldered me all the way back from the mountains, so yeah, I was just about ready to leave town."
"I wouldn't have blamed you. I've been a horrible brother."
I snorted. "No, you've been a well-intentioned idiot. Just fix the idiot part and everything should be fine."
He huffed with a smile. "You're so much like mum it's unbelievable."
"Am I? I wouldn't know."
"Tough as nails, sharp as a tack, cheeky streak a mile wide."
"Does that mean you got dad's idealistic moron genes?"
He burst out laughing. "Probably." He sighed. "I do miss her. She taught me how to shoot. Got my cutie mark that way."
"You got your butt stamp from operating a firearm and you got huffy at me for being a bit heavy-handed?"
"Well, A. It wasn't in like, a firing range, I got it from chasing off a bully with a toy gun, and B. I thought we'd established that I was a moron?"
"Hang on, a toy gun? Like, yellow plastic, shot foam darts?"
"That's... yeah, that's the one!"
"I loved that thing! I found some explosive darts for it and used it as my sidearm for ages!"
"... explosive darts?"
"Yeah! It's somewhere in a Ranger lockup back east. We should go get it!"
Rainbow shook his head. "I think you need some more rest."
We went quiet again for a while. I yawned. I picked up Trashcan again.
"When did you get religious, Rainbow?"
"You were saying those prayers back at the Caballero Centre. Like, for the little girl who gave me Trashcan."
He ruffled my hair. "I... wouldn't quite call it religion. A little bit of faith maybe. A few of the Rangers hold on to some old prayer books, some medallions, stuff like that. Break 'em out when things get tough. I like to keep a few rites on the top of my head for like, honouring the dead." He smiled weakly. "Celestia knows, there's plenty of them."
"Have you ever had something you believed in, Atom?" I just stared at him. "... stupid question."
"Never really thought about it. I guess that's what makes it intriguing to me."
"I can teach you a simple one if you're interested."
"I'm not that curious, you goof." I nudged him lightly. "But it's kinda nice what you're doing. Remembering ponies who don't have anyone else to remember them. You've got your ways, I've got mine." I held Trashcan close. Rainbow put his foreleg over mine and squeezed me.
"That we do."