Right. Sappy part is out of the way. Let's get the fuck on with it.
Given that it was the middle of the night and we were both exhausted from a horrible drug experience, we conked out pretty quick. Rainbow got a bedroll and I, because I was still covered in 'orrible, got some grubby blankets and had to sleep where Full Moon could see me in case I had a seizure. I didn't, in case you hadn't noticed. I'd just washed the day before, now I needed another one. At least Rainbow moved his bedroll near mine.
I woke up with the sunrise, feeling awful. I was cold, all I could smell was vomit, my head felt like it was in a vice, and every bone and joint needed a good spray of motor oil. Rainbow was still out cold. I felt too gross to keep sleeping, so I got up for a bit. The camp was at its sleepiest. Full Moon gave me a lazy nod from his armchair. I felt like he wasn't going to be the sharpest shot right now. "Where's the..." I croaked through the shredded remains of my throat. He pointed around the side of the outer perimeter. All I needed.
I took a piss that felt like acid and hurried back into the camp. I used some of my drinking water to wash the blood and puke off my face, and rather than feeling fresh and awake, I actually felt comfortable enough to sleep again. So that's what I did.
I woke up mid-morning to Rainbow kicking me in the ribs. He meant it as gentle nudging, but my skeleton felt like glass right now, so everything was going to be endless pain anyway. I got by with grunting, and somehow negotiated my way to riding on his back while he carried my bags. Trashcan's head stuck out the top so I could sort of hold him while we went. Lullaby gave Rainbow a whole list of instructions, and a small bag of something that he shoved into my bags. After I had a quick root around to make sure nothing was left behind, and checked that my shitty wrist computer was still functioning (it was, albeit scuffed up from me firing my jacket into the air in a panic), we got going. And I fell asleep again. At least the sun was good for keeping me warm.
Rainbow woke me up as we were approaching Roswhinny. I could see airfield road signs, and my arse was starting to burn in the sun. My computer thing told me it had passed midday, and having my face in Rainbow's sweaty crest (ew) informed me that we were indeed travelling in peak heat. Mercifully this did not last long, at least to my perception. I drifted in and out. Roswhinny got closer, then suddenly we were being waved through the gate, then crossing the quad. By now I was wide awake, just in time for the oh-so satisfying feeling of shade on my butt for the first time in hours.
We entered the mess hall. The lunch rush had passed, so the place was even more of a mess than normal. Catering staff I didn't recognise milled around, wiping down tables and collecting abandoned plates, and some stragglers were finishing their food in a hurry. Rainbow found a quiet table and slid me off his back. I crumpled over the table, and he set my bags down next to me. I may have been conscious, but I certainly wasn't in the mood for any moving.
I must have spaced out, because the next thing I remember was Rainbow sitting beside me and nudging me awake. On stirring and looking around, I noticed Crumble sitting on the other side of me with a smile.
"Oh right. Food things. Those are things."
"I'll bet you're hankering for something to chow down on! Rainbow Code here tells me you ain't had anything to eat since yesterday."
I turned a little green. "I... sort of? I feel like I'd murder a sandwich but then immediately barf it back up."
Crumble bopped her hoof on the table and laughed out loud. "I think I know what to do. And what are you having, soldier?" She leaned back.
"I don't suppose I could get yesterday's dinner, today's breakfast and today's lunch all together, could I?" He grinned. Crumble scowled at him like he'd been caught in the cookie jar. "Please?" The smile on this fucker.
"I'll see what I can do. Can't have you wasting away now, can we?" Crumble gave him a light punch in the shoulder, then rose and returned to the kitchen.
I turned to him. "You're a cheeky bastard, aren't you?"
"You didn't lick it off the stones, Atom."
I snorted, and went back to trying to find the most comfortable balance between sprawling forward on the table and not crunching up my aching stomach.
The smell of food was getting to me. Crumble came back with a plate of the whole lunch menu, and Rainbow set about devouring as much of it as his big stupid mouth would allow in. If I stayed still long enough, my organs stopped complaining and I could allow myself to feel hungry, but then the process of getting up to consider asking for a potato or something would inevitably return me to the misery of a digestive system filing for divorce.
"And for you..." Crumble gently pulled me back into a vaguely upright position with her stump, then set a handled bowl in front of me. Something soup-like steamed from it. "It ain't quite the ol' family stew. But it should help you get back on your feet."
"Is that the..." Rainbow muffled through a mouthful of corn. Crumble nodded.
I stared at it while I readjusted to my position. It smelled good, at least. In an interesting kinda way. There was a kick to the scent that cleared my nose. I wasn't sure if it'd taste as good, though.
"Just give it a few sips, Atom. You need something in you."
I gave her a queasy look, then stared at it some more, stuck my hooves in the handles and gave it the most decent swig you could give a bowl of soup that looked like it'd give me a second degree burn. I held it afterwards and squinted. I swallowed it pretty quickly. It was... almost minty. It was like bean soup with an aroma of antiseptic, and not entirely in a bad way. My throat felt numb, and as it went down, the rebellion in my chest started to die down. I looked back at her with the baffled glare that communicated what my mouth was presently too numb to do.
She shrugged at me. "Rainbow gave me some herbs. Said he'd been told to give 'em to you to help with your uh... current condition."
When I looked at him I'd caught him in the process of wiping some gravy off his chin. He swallowed whatever potato thing was in his mouth and coughed. "I didn't know if that was for all at once or spread out, Lullaby didn't say."
"Is it helping though?"
I went to clear my throat, and it was incredibly painful, but the nausea was calming down. "A little bit," I croaked, barely above a whisper. I took another sip, and found myself willing and able to slurp it down.
"We'll have some real food into you in no time." I got the feeling that Crumble really wanted to thump me on the back, but knew better.
Three or four sips into this anaesthetic soup, with Crumble waiting patiently while Rainbow and I made up for lost time on the feeding front, the canteen doors behind us burst open and some tiny hooves stomped in. I got enough of a start from it that I gripped the bowl and made it spill over the bench and my hoof.
"Oh, piss," I muttered. Crumble wasn't terribly happy about me shaking off soup in her general direction. Twisting was still making my insides complain, so I only turned as much as I needed to see what the fuss was about.
"Yeah, that was real smart, mutt. Now you have to come back this way and look at my stupid face again." That was Prickly Pear, jeering from outside. She was out of her armour, but boy, she didn't need it to look like a fucking tower of a pony. She looked like she could probably beat Rainbow in a hoof-wrestle without much challenge. Ivy Bells had stopped a few paces from the door and had a scrunched up red face. I don't think she'd seen us. "That was some dramatic exit. You sure showed me!" With the way she was coiled up, I could picture her turning around and yapping like an angry terrier, and bouncing along as she did it.
Ivy whipped around and snarled. "You'll take anything you can get, won't you? You spend all day so furious that one of these days you're going to pop an artery so high pressure it's gonna kill some poor son of a bitch, and the best you can do is durr, you went the wrong way? How in the heavens is someone as damn meat-headed as you a tenth-generation ranger?"
"I'm angry? I'm angry? You're the one who looks like you're about to go savage!" To be fair, if looks could kill, Prickly Pear would be the new red paint on the corridor.
"Oh, anyone would get impatient when you're insinuating they're a fucking barbarian every few minutes." Ivy had returned to the corridor, presumably to go the way she'd meant to go in the first place. "I didn't lose you, did I? Do you need me to spell out some of those words for you? I-N-..."
"You keep calling me dumb, but if you're so smart, why do you keep going back to the same point?"
"Because you keep pushing it in my face with things like that glorified 'I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I'!"
"Well if the shoe fits..."
Ivy made a painful throat noise. "This is going in circles. I have better things to do." She turned to leave.
"And you didn't for the last 20 minutes?" Prickly Pear called after her. There was no answer. She snorted, and turned to go the other way.
The mess had gone silent, and nobody had noticed until the argument broke off. After a few seconds of looking uneasily at each other, the catering staff went back to cleaning up. Both Rainbow Code and Crumble looked exhausted. And then I asked the stupid question.
"What was all that about?"
The two of them gave each other that 'oh boy' look.
"Y'see Atom, that uh..." Crumble scratched behind her head. That's not sanitary! "That ain't their first quarrel. Not by a long shot."
"The short version is that I happened," Rainbow said before sticking a whole baked potato into his mouth.
"Back when they were little fillies, Ivy and Pear used to be the best of friends. They used to play at being grown-up rangers on patrol all the time. It was adorable. Pear was too young to understand any of Saguaro's pure-blood hogwash, and y'gotta remember that he only puts up with Ivy because Turing Test is old ranger stock. They go way back. Their daddies were in the first expedition out here, and they can follow their roots all the way back to the war."
"If these feelings are so strong, I'm starting to wonder why any outsiders get in here at all."
Crumble shrugged. "Numbers and diplomacy. Made sense when they were setting up to take any help they could get. It was a real mess. There's still some bad blood with some of the settlements downtown, so we try to keep our distance."
"Weren't we talking about Ivy and..."
"Oh! Yes. Sorry." She chuckled. "You got me distracted. Yeah. When they were small, they were inseparable. But then poor ol' Prickly Pear's world caves in. First, this handsome stranger wanders in and sweeps Ivy off her little hooves..." Crumble had an excellent way of making Rainbow look like he'd been caught. This time he was trying to look innocent while spooning noodles into his mouth. "... and being a teenager and bitter about your best friend spending all her time with someone else ain't exactly a good time. And then, her mama - my sister - is KIA. Same landmine that did this." She waved her stump. "That's when she got real sour."
"If I hadn't already been initiated by then, I'd be out on my arse," Rainbow said from around some beans. "Like, you've seen the attitude Pear takes with me? Saguaro really has it out for me. I literally hide behind Turing Test and hope for the best."
"It's a real shame. I always thought Saguaro was a grumpy old prick, but Pear used to be so... happy. But then life gave her lemons, and she's been drinking that lemon juice ever since. She's got a rep now. She can't make friends. She scares ponies. All she's got are me and her daddy, and you know what he's like. Filling her head with this purity crap." She huffed. "Joke's on him, I know for a fact my poppop was a tribal from Baltimare."
"This place is a madhouse."
Crumble snorted. "You're telling me!"
I was gingerly finishing my soup around the same time Rainbow was clearing his third plate. He looked quite happy with himself, and so did Crumble. I gave walking a go, and it was achey and slow, but manageable. Man, I'd let myself get real soft these last couple of years. I might have gained weight too, but the journey to San Cimarron probably burned some of that off. I should really be taking better care of myself.
Rainbow escorted me back to his room. I immediately thumped onto the couch, and my back felt like it caught fire.
"Are you... sure you're comfortable there? You don't look comfortable."
My response was muffled into the old upholstery.
"Come on. I'll give you the bed for today."
I picked my head out from the cushions. "What?"
"I'm not using it during the day, and I'm pretty sure you could do with some real rest. Your back must really be at you after a week on the sofa."
"Has it been a week? Blimey."
"Yeah!" He helped me up, and I tottered over to the bed.
A thought occurred to me as I planted my face in the foot of the bed. "Is this uh... clean?" I looked at him with a quirk of an eyebrow. He stared blankly at a moment before realisation dawned on that goofy innocent mug of his.
"Oh, bugger off! That was days ago. Surely you've slept on ickier things than this."
"That's not helping the case much, Rainbow."
He snorted. "You could sleep on top of the blanket if it's bothering you that much. It's probably a bit warm underneath it anyway."
I giggled and nudged him. "Fiiiiine." I didn't care that much. I definitely have slept on far more disgusting things than my brother's bed that he uses for things besides sleeping in from time to time. I winced when I climbed up, and again when I flopped down. "Why does this keep happening?"
"Why does what keep happening?"
"You finding somewhere for me to sleep while I'm in agony."
He gave that great big sarcastic shrug. "It can't possibly have anything to do with your gung-ho attitude to everything." He was met with a jacket to the face. He chuckled, then hung it up, along with his own. "I'll be back soon with some water. If you get bored, I think Ivy left the tapes she found somewhere in the collection here."
"Good to know." I was busy finding a position to lie in that wasn't making spaghetti out of my spine. The bed smelled surprisingly fresh. Did they have cleaning spells here? Maybe a dry cleaner? That'd be nice.
"I'm going to go let Turing Test know we're in one piece..."
"That's easy for you to say."
"... and check in with Ivy. You rest up, okay?"
"If you could do me the favour of taking that big laser cannon of yours to my head, that'd really help me out."
He snorted. "Waste of ammunition, I'm afraid."
"Then could you at least throw the radio on?" He stopped in the doorway and hesitated, smiling a little. "Are you just going to stand there?"
"Sorry! Sure." He flicked a button on the table with his collection stuff on it, and the quiet, slightly fuzzy music started playing. Something kind of pop-rock with a swing to the beat, not too loud in the background... I could fall asleep to this.
"Excellent." I turned to the side and didn't see him leave.
Time blurred. I nodded off, but woke up shortly after, with sleep not being terribly forthcoming. It was long enough that Rainbow had come back and left some water bottles on the bed, but short enough that they were still cold. I helped myself to a hearty heap of hydration, and shimmied off the bed. My joints were still creaky, but not as bad as earlier. No idea what was in that soup.
It didn't take long to find the games. I grabbed my jacket and carried it to the bed, leaving the shitty computer thing connected to the sleeve. I should really come up with a name for this thing, shouldn't I? Every time I have to refer to it I end up with some minor verbose digression about how awful it looks.
I found to my dismay that Asteroids appeared to need a button or two more on it than this glorified microwave display had, and gave me a warning about unlicensed Stable-Tec products when I inserted the tape. It let me play the game, then I discovered the half-functional control scheme when I found myself utterly unable, after several attempts, to do some basic things the game was asking of me. 2/10, not recommended.
One of the other two tapes I found were a game called Pipfall, which flatly refused to open, and informed me that a log of this breach of Equestrian intellectual property law had been made, to be reviewed by an officer of the Ministry of Morale at a later date. I set that one aside. If they wanted to come for that, I'd certainly like to see it. The third tape was some office note-taking software that also appeared to be only semi-functional on this device. The radio I'd gotten from the dispenser outside Sam's workshop was still the best use I had for this slot.
I gave up on these and did some busywork to pass time. I counted the caps I had left (166), discovered a token hiding among them for a Satellite Sam's Special Delivery Station (trademarked, careful now), investigated the battery compartment of my blaster and found it jammed shut (probably a corroded battery), and surveyed Trashcan for a popped seam I might be able to work some stuffing into (there wasn't one). Throughout this my head swam every time I moved, and random spikes of pain popped up from time to time. I might lift a hoof the same way I had four times already and suddenly feel like a knitting needle had been shoved into my hock for a second. Let me tell you, this experience was increasingly putting me off drugs. Even the idea of booze was making me queasy.
I threw myself back on the bed at some point with Trashcan, and this time sleep stuck. I'd forgotten what it was like to sleep in a real bed. Like, I joked about the hygiene of their bed, but this was the best sleep I'd had in ages. When I woke up later, Rainbow and Ivy were back and putting away all the stuff I'd left strewn around earlier. They apologised for waking me, and then Rainbow kept me awake by talking to me while Ivy went to get something. I don't remember much of the conversation, but I learned later I was about as articulate as a hibernating bear. Ivy came back with a bowl of soup, and Rainbow left to go on patrol or something.
The smell of the soup roused me from my stupor. I felt rotten waking up, but with a big mouthful of the hearty soup, semi-forced on me by Ivy (I imagine she was holding the bowl because she didn’t want soup all over her bed), I didn't want to drown myself in it.
“How are you holding up?”
I stared into space for a sec before realising I was being talked to. “What?”
Ivy chuckled. “That says a lot.”
I glared. “Oi.”
“What in the wide world of Equestria did you get up to that left you in such a state?”
“Rainbow hadn’t told you?”
“Oh, you know how he gets sometimes. Boy emotions and contrarianism.”
I snorted. “Sounds about right. Kinda why we went to Wormwood in the first place.”
“That was where you went?”
“It was Turing Test’s idea.”
Ivy sighed and grimaced. “Of course it was.”
“I mean, it did the trick, didn’t it? All I had to do was take drugs and have a seizure. Simple!”
“Rainbow Farts wimped out and barfed after like two minutes. Like, I do not believe he’s capable of holding any kind of booze.”
“Slightly different stuff you’re talking about here.”
I waved it off. “Anyway. Yeah, I found my way into some whiskey while I was there and had a bad reaction, and he had a change of heart when he saw me choking on my own vomit.” Ivy made exactly the kind of face you’d expect from that information.
“I’m surprised you’re as functional as you are right now.”
“You and me both.”
“That makes sense though. All he told me was that sometimes you don’t realise what you have until it’s about to slip away.”
“Of course he said that, the sentimental bastard.”
Ivy sighed and shoved some more soup at me.
The next like... day is all fuzzy. My recollection fades in and fades out. In hindsight, I'm surprised I remembered anything prior to this clearly. Maybe there was something that was only working its way out of my system then. I remember watching something on the TV, more soup, hobbling to the bathroom as fast as I could, sneaking another shower and then not bothering to dry off before getting water all over the bed. Where did Rainbow and Ivy sleep in this time? I have no idea.
What I do remember is springing upright in the bed at some point, with my head feeling like a shaken up cola bottle, my legs desperate to shake themselves out, and my worst complaint being that I was fucking starving. I yawned one of those yawns where you yell really loudly on the way out.
"Having fun, Atom?"
I jumped like a startled cat. "Fuck!" Rainbow and Ivy, looking pretty ragged, were poring over the cork board. "When did you get in here?"
"We've been here for twenty minutes."
I rubbed my face. "What time is it? Have you considered windows?"
Rainbow chuckled. "I'm not sure they'd take kindly to drilling through the thick-arse concrete walls down here for that."
"Shite. Have I been asleep all day?"
"On and off." I rubbed my head again. Rainbow came up to the end of the bed and sat. "You feeling any better, though? That's the important thing."
"Yes, actually. Like, shouldn't I still be wanting to die?" My stomach gave a loud rumble. "Also if you leave me alone in here I will eat the tables."
Ivy looked over Rainbow's shoulder. "So can we have our bed back now?"
Shit. I've been rumbled. I turned my neck and winced, and made some noises of pain. "Ack! Ahhh..." I flopped onto my back and rubbed my head into the bed. "Joints are still at me. Ow ow ow."
I didn't see Ivy's face but I imagine she was not impressed. "Well, looks like you're a long-term infirmary case. We'll be repossessing your computer device and caps while you're incapacitated. Wouldn't want resources going to waste, would we?"
Out of the corner of her eye, I spotted the glow of her magic around my jacket. I couldn't stop myself. I sat bolt upright. "Get the fuck away from my-" I had a split second to read their faces. Ivy had a self-satisfied smirk, and Rainbow was doing his best to avert his eyes while still watching. "-uaagghh!" I rubbed my neck gingerly to try and sell the point.
"Get up." Ivy straight-up lifted me off the bed, and my ruse was thoroughly punctured when I landed on all four hooves.
"Bollocks. Can I at least get something to eat? I'm fucking dying here." I realised what I was saying. "In the hyperbolic sense, not the... the other..."
"Go. Run!" Rainbow pointed. "The mess closes at nine."
"What? Shit!" And I was off.
Crumble was quite happy to shove a big plate of fried everything at me when I arrived, because what wasn't eaten was going to be wasted, and I was quite happy to eat it. After two days on a nearly-empty stomach, I had some cramping going on from inhaling a meal in the five minutes I was given before they turfed everyone out for the night, but that was better than being on the edge of vomiting for hours at a time. I had a good long stretch when I got out, and everything needed popping (it was quite satisfying). I immediately regretted such a big feed straight away, because I was dying to jump around. What the fuck was in that stuff Lullaby gave to Rainbow? Does this shit happen often? I felt amazing. I wanted to do flying backflips just because I could. (Except I couldn't, because of the food.)
I got back to the room and happily threw myself at the sofa on auto-pilot. I made a big satisfied 'aahhhh' sound. Then I got dragged up by the back of my undershirt to an upright sitting position, and I made a 'hglkg' sound.
I scoffed. "What did I do."
The two of them were still at the cork board. "Nothing, we just need your attention."
"Did you think we were looking at this thing for fun?"
I blinked. "Yeah." Ivy picked up one of the cushions and bopped me on the side of the head with it
Rainbow was doing quite a good job of keeping a relatively serious face on. Then I realised it was because he was almost hyperventilating. "Turing Test got back to us with the supplies earlier today. Now that you're fit, we've updated him, and we're heading for the camp at 0400."
"Wh- four in the morning? What?"
"We're planning out logistics for the day, and you're going to have to make one more run to Isotope City."
The two of them looked at each other with concern. "What did you do?"
I chuckled. "Nothing! I'm absolutely best buddies with the sheriff at this point."
Ivy sighed. "I guess this is strictly speaking the last time you'll have to go there, so if you have to burn some bridges..."
"Has nobody considered like, giving Sam a radio or something this entire time? It would make life so much easier. Not even like, a little pager? Something we can beep when we're on the motorway outside the car park instead of having me brave a cadre of drooling monkeys with sunburst rifles to ask an angry tumbleweed if maybe Sam can come out to play today?"
"Well, if we thought this might have been an issue..."
"And you guys are planning this next operation. Amazing!" I had a bit of a giggle on the couch.
Ivy glared at me. "Well if you think you're so smart, what do you think we should do?"
"Oh, at this point there's not much to be done. I mean, at this point I know my way around. It's possible that Sam will want to slip out quietly for this too, so if I can get in without arousing the suspicions of captain yardbrush, that'll be ideal. Should be a similar deal to last time. Meet up in Fort Mercer?"
Rainbow huffed and talked quickly. Ivy rubbed his shoulder with a hoof. "I'm afraid you're going to have to make your own way up. To minimise confrontations, our squad will be travelling plainclothes and avoiding settlements. Us, Turing Test, Babylon, plus Knights Lemon Puff and Ocean Breeze."
"They sound really threatening."
"Atom, if we could stay on-"
"So you're being escorted by a biscuit and a scent of carpet freshener?"
I genuinely thought Rainbow was a nudge away from having a panic attack. He looked at the ceiling and sighed. Ivy pulled his nose down and kissed him. She muttered some stuff to him and he nodded. To my confusion, she climbed on his back and rested one foreleg on the top of his head. His breathing slowed. Ivy took over the talking.
"I'll just mark it on your map, Atom. We want to be at the camp by noon, so you can go by Fort Mercer if you like, but don't hang around. You and this dork..." She touched Rainbow's nose lightly, and he flinched. "... are gonna need to catch some sleep tomorrow afternoon for the night hike. Speaking of sleep..."
I squinted. "Oh, bugger, you're going to be going to bed now? Fuck, I've already been asleep for like, two days! I'm gonna be all fucked up."
Ivy dismounted, and started doing something to the bed I couldn't see from the couch. "Whatever you're doing, just make it quiet, okay?"
I huffed. "This is gonna be pants."