Someone Still Loves You

by brokenimage321

17. Delinquency

 “Care to remind me why he’s comin’ along?” Apple Bloom asked sourly as she led the four towards the orchards. “You do remember he ain’t allowed on our property, right?”

“Yeah, I do,” Scootaloo nodded, glancing up to see Rumble still hovering twenty or thirty feet above them. “I just don’t care.”

Sweetie Belle scoffed. “Somepony’s feeling a little feisty today...” she murmured.

“You know, Sweetie Belle?” Scootaloo put an arm around her, grinning brightly. “All I want is a day to just hang out with my friends and have some fun. No drama at all; think can that happen?”

“Sure,” Apple Bloom said, “But I’m pretty sure lettin’ him in the Clubhouse is just askin’ for drama. ‘Specially with Appleja-”

Scootaloo stepped in front of Apple Bloom. She was smiling, but her eyes were hard and sharp.

“But not with you though, right?” she said.

Apple Bloom gulped. She would be a liar if she didn’t admit that Scootaloo could be intimidating when she got… like this. That glare, that snarl, that stance… she knew better than to cross her.

“No ma’am,” Apple Bloom said, smiling nervously. “None.”

Scootaloo’s face brightened, “Awesome,” she said, stepping out of Apple Bloom’s way.

They walked in silence until they approached a barbed-wire fence, a thick orchard of apple trees just on the other side. A weathered wooden sign hung from it: “Welcome to Sweet Apple Acres! No Trespassing.”

Apple Bloom shot a nervous glance at Scootaloo. “Why don’t y’all stay put real quick, while I go check on somethin’?” she said. WIthout waiting for a response, she pushed open the gate, then trotted through the line of apple trees.

Rumble fluttered down beside Scootaloo. “What’s  she doing?” he asked.

“Probably checking to see where her siblings are,” Sweetie Belle said. “Even if she’s not…” she grimaced. “...fond of you, she still doesn’t wanna get in trouble.”

A few moments later, Apple Bloom poked her head out of the trees. With a slight smile, she walked back  to her friends, and—her expression soured a little—and Scootaloo’s flyin’ mule.

“Coast is clear, y’all,” she said, her expression strained.  “Now let’s get a move on, ‘fore they come lookin’.”

With a nod, Scootaloo, followed by Sweetie Belle from behind and Rumble from above, wandered through the trees until they came to a clearing. in the center stood an old, gnarled apple tree, and, in its branches hung a cute, if simple, treehouse.

“Here we are, Rumble,” Scootaloo beamed, “The Cutie Mark Crusader Clubhouse.”

“Hm,” Rumble put a hoof to his chin, “I was expecting something a little more…” he gestured vaguely. “I dunno, secret.”

Scootaloo blinked. “Huh?” she said, glancing up at the treehouse. “This is pretty well hidden… I think.”

“I think he wants a secret little hidin’ place where you two can swap cooties,”  Apple Bloom said with a sneer. “Ain’t none a’ that goin’ down in there, you understand?”

“Sure, sure, whatever,” Scootaloo said, shouldering her aside as she walked towards the treehouse.

As the four of them climbed the ramp, Rumble spoke again. “I didn’t mean secret as in, like, hidden in the Everfree or something,” he said. “I just meant like… a secret hideout.”

“Like, a fort?” Sweetie Belle asked, looking at him over her shoulder.

“Yeah,” Rumble nodded.

“Well, I for one, like our little treehouse,” Apple Bloom said as they stepped inside. “What more could you want? You have food, shelter, electricity, and…” She trotted under the trap door, and pulled the lever, a ladder clunked down to the floor, “A loft!”

“That’s more like it,” Rumble said, smiling. “So… what do you girls do in here, anyway?”

“Well,” Scootaloo said, “When we were blank flanks, we would plot different ways to earn our cutie marks.”

“Now, we pretty much do the same thing,” Sweetie Belle continued, gesturing to the giant checklist pinned to one wall, “but for other ponies. That’s kind of our mission: to help other ponies discover their special talents.”

“We’re pretty good at it, too.” Scootaloo thought for a moment, then grinned. “Might even be able to sort you out one of these days.”

“I think we already know what he’s good at,” Apple Bloom grumbled, “but I don’t think you can get a cutie mark for runnin’ your mouth.” She thought for a moment, then grinned wickedly. “Maybe you just need to piss off the right pony.”

No one laughed. Apple Bloom glanced around at the stoic faces and glowered.  After a long moment, Sweetie perked up, then clopped her hooves together..

“Ooh!” She said brightly,, “Let’s play a board game!” Without waiting for a response,  she lit her horn and grabbed a colorful box from the shelf.

“You ever play Bubbles, Rumble?” she asked, as she opened the box and started laying out the pieces.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Never even heard of it.”

“It’s fun,” Scootaloo said, wrapping an arm around his shoulder—and blushing the slightest bit.  “I-it’s really easy, too All you gotta do, is roll the dice by pushing on this bubble, and then move your little pegs until you reach the end.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Apple Bloom scoffed. “Might wanna explain it in a way he can understand:” she leaned forward. “Now, this here is the dicey-wicey, and ya gotta push it with your little hoofsie, and—

Scootaloo pressed her lips into a thin line, then looked away, and Rumble followed suit. Sweetie Belle shot Apple Bloom a hard look.

“I’m sure he’ll get it,” Sweetie said.  “We’ll all go first, and he can watch.” And, with that, she reached out and pressed the bubble.

Thunderlane gulped.

Cheerilee sat calmly at her desk, carefully rearranging the knick-nacks. She fiddled with her mug of half-sharpened pencils (“A mind is like a parachute: it works best when open,” it cheerfully proclaimed), then nudged it a quarter-inch to the left. After that, she turned to a stack of ink-stained essays, stacked neatly with with razor-sharp precision. She ran a hoof down one edge, and, satisfied, tuned to her few little desk-toys: a plastic apple filled with sticky-notes, a drinking bird she’d used once for a science demonstration,and an oversized plastic hourglass she used to time tests.

Thunderlane sat in the front row of desks and watched her nervously. The chair was just a hair too small to allow him to relax, which was fine with him. Thunderlane didn’t consider himself especially smart, but neither was he stupid; as he watched Cheerilee carefully order her little world more to her liking, he saw a dark, predatory look in her eyes. She was angry—and, if life as a weatherpony had taught him anything, the only thing to do now was to watch which way the wind was blowing and to try and stay ahead of the storm.

Cheerilee flicked a glance up at the clock, then sighed and looked down again. Thunderlane sat up straighter in his seat.

“It appears,” she said, breaking the silence for the first time since Thunderlane had entered, “that Miss Dash will not be joining us.”

Suddenly, the image of a rough-and-tumble cowpony flashed, unbidden, across his mind.

She’s quiet… too quiet...

Thunderlane nodded quickly, rattling the image loose from his mind. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “She wasn’t at work today, either. If I had known that you’d invited her, I would’ve—”

She waved her hoof dismissively. “I’ll just have to talk to her later,” she said.

Thunderlane gulped again, swallowing his words.

Cheerilee sighed again, then pressed her hooves together. “I’m assuming you saw Rumble’s chin?” she asked, her voice quiet and level.

“No, ma’am,” Thunderlane said, a note of surprise creeping into his voice. “Did something happen?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Really?” she asked. “You haven’t seen him at all?”

He shook his head. “Not since yesterday afternoon. Scootaloo came and picked him up, and the two of them—”

Cheerilee pressed her lips into a thin line, and Thunderlane trailed off.

Cheerilee leaned forward slightly. “Mr. Lane,” she said carefully, “When Rumble left school yesterday, he was perfectly fine—as healthy and rambunctious as ever. This morning, he came to school with a cut on his jaw—a big one, one that had been expertly stitched closed.” She cocked her head slightly. “Are you sure you know nothing about that?”

Thunderlane’s eyes widened. “N-no,” he stammered, “No, I don’t. Maybe he and Scootaloo were roughhousing, and—?”

“Perhaps,” Cheerilee admitted, picking a pencil from the mug and toying with it. “But that’s not what he’s telling his friends.”

Thunderlane swallowed. He had the sense that Cheerilee wanted him to ask the next question. And, given her mood, that seemed the best course of action.

“So,” he said carefully, “what is he telling his friends?”

She spun the pencil experimentally around her hoof, then looked up at him. “He’s telling them,” she said gravely, “that he was almost killed by a Wonderbolt.”

Years of after-work card games with the guys had given Thunderlane an excellent poker face. And yet, he still had to swallow three or four times before he could speak.

A Wonderbolt—Rainbow Dash? What would she have against little Rummy? They don’t get along, sure, but I didn’t think she’d have it in her… She’s weather captain, after all! She’s supposed to be better than that!

And—he shrank a little deeper into his chair—what in Equestria can I do about it? I can’t stand up to her—not if I want to keep my job. And if I get fired, then me and Rumble would have to—

And it was all that filly’s fault. Had to be.

Thunderlane heard himself begin to speak.

“Maybe it was an accident,” he said, his gaze on his desk. “You know how reckless he is… maybe they were just racing, and—”


Thunderlane looked up, then shrank deeper into his seat. Cheerilee held the broken remains of her pencil in her hooves, dark storm clouds sweeping across her face. She pushed back her chair, stood, and placed her forehooves on the desk.

Thunderlane suddenly felt very small.

“Do not insult my intelligence,” she said, her voice cold and quiet. “I am not an idiot. Rumble said that he was attacked. And precious few are the foals who can race fast enough to give themselves stitches.”

“Y-yes ma’am,” he stammered. “Sorry, ma’am.”

Cheerilee glared at him a moment—then, suddenly, her expression cracked. The mask of anger slipped away, and she looked almost frightened. She sat, heavily, in her chair, then put her face in her hooves.

For a long moment, she was quiet—then, just as Thunderlane was contemplating sneaking away, she spoke again.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I... have something of a reputation for being protective of my students.” She looked up at him over her hooves, her gaze hollow. “Perhaps overprotective,” she added.

She lowered her hooves back to the desk, and began to toy with the two halves of the pencil. “It’s just…” she began, then trailed off. Thunderlane said nothing.

Finally, Cheerilee sighed. “I… I don’t know you’d understand,” she said. “But seeing these little ones… seeing them listen to me, look up to me, spend half their waking days with me…” She chuckled mirthlessly. “Well, I’ve never been married, but I expect it’s something like what it feels like to have children of your own. And to see someone threaten them… it’s…” There was another snap—smaller, this time. Cheerilee looked down at her hooves, at the two new pencil fragments that lay there, then brushed them, self-consciously, into the wastebasket.

Cheerilee crossed her hooves in front of her, then looked up at Thunderlane. Thunderlane stared at her for a moment before his eyes widened. He had the distinct sense that Cheerilee wanted him to do something, though, for the life of him, he couldn’t think of what.

So, he said the only thing he could think of.

“I’ll talk to her,” he croaked. “See what happened. And—” he gulped. “I’ll see what needs to happen next.”

Cheerilee leaned back in her chair and smiled. “Thank you,” she said.

Thunderlane shot skyward, scanning the panorama below for any signs of his little brother. Flying low over Ponyville, he watched as many mares, stallions and foals trotted and romped about, yet no gray-and-navy colt caught his eye. As he neared the center of town, Thunderlane paused, then wheeled around; he still hadn’t found his brother, but he saw a colt he had recognized—exiting Sugarcube Corner with a cupcake in one hoof, and the other shoved in his mouth.

Button Mash damn-near choked as a pegasus landed right in front of him. He looked up and recognized Thunderlane, then squealed and turned to run away, but Thunderlane caught him by the tail.  

“Hey kid,” Thunderlane said urgently, “You know where my brother is?”

 Button blinked, “Shouldn’t you know that?” he shot back.

Thunderlane’s eyes hardened, and Button sucked in a sharp breath.

“I… I-I think he’s with..with Scootaloo,” he squeaked. “Yeah! He’s with his little filly friend and they went to… to...” As he remembered, his eyes widened.

Oh, shit.

Thunderlane saw the change in Button’s face and he swallowed.

“C’mon,” he said, “you can tell me—where’d they go?”

“T-that little fort the girls have,” Button squeaked. “I-it’s like a treehouse or something, I don’t know.”

Thunderlane opened his mouth in shock, and, his tail freed, Button fell forward—and landed directly on top of his other cupcake.

“Dammit—” he spat.

“Are you sure?” Thunderlane asked, his voice trembling.

Button Mash looked up at him, furious. “Pretty damn sure,” he said. “He was talkin’ about it all afternoon—”

Without another word, Thunderlane spread his wings. Button was nearly blown back on his ass as Thunderlane rocketed into the sky, and soared towards Sweet Apple Acres. Button huffed, then looked back down at himself, then up at Sugarcube Corner. Maybe he could ask Miss Pinkie for another cupcake. She was usually pretty good about that sorta thing.

Apple Bloom glared at the game board. The only pegs left were green and blue—hers and Rumble’s. And the mule was winning. She pressed the dice bubble and watched the die pop into the air—and, when it landed again, it showed a 1. She growled, then reached out and pressed the bubble again—and again

Sweetie Belle leaned in and looked closely at the bubble. . “What are you doing?” she asked, irritation creeping into her voice.

“Thing’s broke.” Apple Bloom squinted as she peered down at the dome, and the hated die within.

Scootaloo snorted.  “Uh… I don’t think it’s broke, Apple Bloom,” she said, snickering. “You’re just losing.”

Apple Bloom whirled around and glared daggers at Scootaloo, “Like hay I’m losing!” She barked. “H-he cheated!” she said, pointing a hoof at Rumble.

Rumble just smirked back at her.

Sweetie sighed. “How do you cheat in a game like this?” she asked.

“Dunno,” Apple Bloom said, tears starting to gather at the corner of her eyes. “But he’s doin’ it.”

Rumble glanced between the three fillies. “So,” he said carefully, “Are we gonna finish the game, or what…?”

“They might,” a voice said, “but you aren’t.”

Rumble whipped his head around, and the three fillies looked up. The color drained from all four of their faces. Standing in the doorway, blocking the sunlight, was Thunderlane—and he looked none too pleased.

Thunderlane felt his expression crack. He had always tried to do right by Rumble, but this—this—this was too much. He watched Rumble’s face carefully, and saw the rough patch of fur under his chin.

It felt like somepony had dumped a bucket of ice in his gut.

“It’s time to go,” he said coldly.

Rumble swallowed, hard. Silently, he stood and walked out the door and down the ramp. Thunderlane turned to follow, and, after a quick, shared glance, the girls stood and followed.

“What’s this all about?”

Apple Bloom squeaked and tried to hide behind Sweetie Belle. Walking up the path, carrying two baskets full of apples, was Applejack. She was staring at Rumble, fire in her eyes and a snarl on her lips. “I’m pretty sure I made it clear you weren’t allowed on my property,” she hissed.

“He got lost,” Thunderlane said, looking her in the eye. “I was just bringing him home.”

Applejack looked up and watched his passive, stoic expression for a long, long moment. Finally, she nodded. “Fine,” she said, turning away. “Just get out of here. And make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Thunderlane nodded, and the two of them turned and trotted away.

Applejack sighed, then turned back to Apple Bloom. She opened her mouth to speak—but, suddenly, Scootaloo broke from the trio and sprinted after the retreating Rumble. Applejack watched her go, then turned back to Apple Bloom.

“You know better.” Applejack said firmly, “I know Scootaloo’s your friend, and you wanna keep her happy, but it doesn’t matter. He’s bad news.” She leaned closer. Never. Again.”

Apple Bloom swallowed and nodded her head.  “Yes, ma’am,” she said, her voice shaking. “Won’t happen again, ma’am.”

As Scootaloo galloped towards them, Thunderlane looked over his shoulder at her. He leaned down and whispered into Rumble’s ear, which made Rumble look up at him in shock, then glance back at Scootaloo. Thunderlane said something else, and Rumble gulped, then galloped away.

“Wait!” Scootaloo cried—but Thunderane reached out and caught her as she passed him. Scootaloo froze, then looked up at him.

Thunderlane looked down at her, licked his lips, and sighed. “Listen,” he said, his voice gentle but firm, “I think… I think it would be for the best if you left my brother alone for a little while.” He swallowed. “He.. he has some very important flight courses coming,” he lied, “and he doesn’t need any extra stress or distractions…” He lowered his head a little and looked into her eyes. “Okay?”

Scootaloo blinked, and mouth hung open.

“But why—?”

Even as she asked it, she saw in his face that, despite his tone,  this was not up for debate.

Scootaloo swallowed her words and nodded numbly.

Thunderlane nodded a curt, but genuine thanks, then turned and flew away.

Scootaloo watched him go, and slowly sank onto her flank. It felt like someone had just ripped her heart from her chest.  

Neither of them spoke as they walked back home.

Rumble walked behind Thunderlane, his head bowed. He couldn’t see his brother’s face from back here, but he didn’t exactly need to. Thunderlane was never one to yell, never one to ground him or otherwise punish him like other foals’ parents did.

And yet, Rumble could still tell that Thunderlane was furious. It was in his voice as he had told him to run home, in the way he walked… Rumble swallowed nervously. Thunderlane had snapped at him once or twice, but he had never seen him angry.

Thunderlane said nothing as he unlocked the door to their apartment and let Rumble inside. Rumble trotted back towards his room—

“Rumble,” Thunderlane called after him, his voice quiet yet firm.

Rumble froze. He turned back to Thunderlane, still standing just inside the door.

Thunderlane jerked his head towards their tiny living room. “In here,” he said.

Rumble trotted into the living room and climbed up on their sofa. Thunderlane followed behind him, then pulled a wooden chair into the middle of the room, sat down on it. For a moment, he said nothing—then, he heaved a weary sigh, and leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees.

For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Finally, Thunderlane looked up.

“Listen, Rumble,” he said, with the slightest tremble in his voice. “There’s… something we need to talk about.”

Rumble nodded wordlessly.

Thunderlane looked down again. He took a deep breath—and, when he spoke again, he spoke carefully, as if his words were made of spun glass.

“I get,” he said slowly, “that you see something special about this filly—this Scootaloo, or whatever her name is. And I respect that.” He swallowed. “But, you have to understand—the past few weeks, I’ve seen you getting back into bad habits. You’ve been mouthing off to my boss, and picking a fight with a Wonderbolt, and humiliating and insulting Applejack’s sister—a-and then…” He sighed again. “You snuck onto their property, when you knew you weren’t supposed to.” He shook his head slowly, then looked up at Rumble.

He wasn’t angry. Or, at least, he didn’t sound angry.

“Can’t you see?” he said, almost pleading. “Can’t you see what she’s dragging you into? You’re trying to protect her and be with her—and she’s dragging you down to a bad place. You—” he gulped. “You could’ve been killed last night. And it was because of her.”

“That wasn’t her fault,” Rumble said, a note of irritation creeping into his voice. If Thunderlane noticed, he ignored it.

Every time you’re with her,” he pressed on, “You come home, and you’re in a bad mood. You’re depressed, or lonely, or angry, or stressed. And this is over some stupid girl.” 

Rumble’s eyes flashed.

“You’re barely ayearling, dude,” Thunderland continued. “You don’t need this kind of…” he gestured weakly. “...this kind of crap in your life. Not yet. You should be out pallin’ around with your friends, getting dirty and breakin’ stuff, not worrying about girls. You’re still a colt, Bud,” he said. “No need to act like a teenager just yet.”

Thunderlane looked up and met Rumble’s gaze—and what he saw frightened him. Rumble saw him shrink back a little. But still, he swallowed, reached out and put a hoof on his shoulder.

“I’m only trying to help you,” he said tenderly. “You’re my brother—and I—” he gulped. “I care about you.”

Rumble snarled, and swatted his hoof away. “Since when have you cared about me? About anything?” he spat. “The only reason we’re here is because you’re a slacker—a loser. You’re stuck in some entry-level job because you can’t hold down anything else. You change marefriends more often than the milk in the fridge—it’s a friggin’ miracle that you haven’t run off Cloudchaser yet.” He took a deep breath. “Do you know you made Mom cry before we left?” 

Rumble was shaking with rage now. He knew what he was saying wasn’t right—wasn’t fair—but still, in some deep, twisted part of him, it felt good.

“You’re a jerk,” Rumble spat. “You’re a jerk, and a loner, and a loser. You’re just angry because I have friends and you don’t. You’re jealous I finally have something good, and just want to ruin it for me. Well,” he said, sitting up taller, “I’m not gonna be like you. We’re gonna stay together, and we’re gonna be happy. And—” an evil grin spread across his face “—I’m not gonna end up working a dead-end job for some bumfuck weather crew like you.”

Thunderlane’s eyes went wide. For a moment, he just stared—and then, his lips twisted into a snarl.

“Don’t you dare,” he hissed. “Don’t you fucking dare.”

He stood, knocking his chair back, his face twisted with rage. Rumble gasped and scrambled backwards, pressing himself deeper into the couch.

“Don’t you DARE give me shit!” Thunderlane roared. “You have no fucking idea what I’ve had to put up with—all for you, you little snotnosed shitstain!” He pressed his face up to Rumble’s, eyes blazing. “You think you’ve had it hard? Try this on for size, numbnuts: senior year, Skydancer Memorial High, best flyer in your class. College acceptance letter, spot on the Wonderbolts reserve, whole nine yards. And then you make a bad decision, and it all comes crashing down: everyone hates you. Can’t show your face anywhere. Father won’t look at you, Mother cries when you walk in the room. And your six-year-old brother isn’t helping—bullies call him a fillyface, a faggot, and one day he snaps, goes HAM on their asses. Gets suspended. Mom’s boss hears, feels bad, comes over with flowers to make him feel better. He snaps again, cusses her out, almost jumps her before you step in. You sport the shiner for a week and a half, which doesn’t help your prospects any. And you can tell that, if he stays here, he’s gonna do it again. Gonna end up the same way you did. Folks want him to stay—folks think they can change him—but you know different.”

Rumble tried to back away, but there was nowhere to go. Thunderlane’s chest heaved as he worked up his head of steam.

“So you strike out on your own, you and the shitstain,” Thunderlane growled. “You couchsurf for two weeks until one of your friends gives you a lucky tip: easy job, alright pay, working the weather patrol for some podunk little town in the middle of nowhere. Boss is nice, has her eyes on the ‘Bolts. Not the job you want to make a career out of, but might help you earn back your stripes. So the two of you move out there and find a place. And you get the shitstain in school, then work every shift you can beg, borrow, and steal, to make sure you and him stay fed and under a roof. You give up everything you have, everything you are—your friends, your hobbies, your relationships—because you think it’s what you have to do to keep the two of you alive.”

Rumble flicked his gaze away, looking for a way out of this. But there was no way out—it was only him and Thunderlane, a songbird and the hurricane.

“So you work hard,” Thunderlane snarled. “And you get promoted. And you start to make some actual money. Find a marefriend you actually give a damn about. And the kid is liking school, and making friends, and doing alright. And then he—then he—”

Thunderlane’s voice cracked, and he looked away—and, in an instant, all the steam went out of him. He swallowed once or twice before he spoke again. “And then,” he said slowly, “he starts making the same mistakes you did,” he finished.

He squeezed his eyes shut. And, as he did, Rumble’s eyes went wide.

Thunderlane was crying.

All of a sudden, Rumble saw Thunderlane for who he actually was—not a neglectful tyrant of an older brother, but a pony, plain and simple. A young, frightened pony, with shoulders too weak to hold the responsibilities he’d taken for himself, but burdened, too, with the knowledge that, if he failed, there was no one else to take them.   

Thunderlane sagged, and dropped on his haunches, tears rolling down his cheeks. “Do you know what happened?” he asked, after a long moment. “Back in Cloudsdale? Do you know why I had to leave?” he asked, looking up at Rumble.

Rumble stared for a moment before he realized Thunderlane actually wanted an answer. He quickly shook his head, and Thunderlane chuckled mirthlessly.

“Sunflower,” he said. “That was her name. Had a crush on her since… oh, I don’t know, maybe flight camp, back in the day. Smart, and funny, and her body—” he clicked his tongue appreciatively, and flashed a rogueish grin—but his smile quickly fell again. He bowed his head, and fresh tears ran down his face.

“But all the looks in the world won’t help you if you’re ugly inside,” he said. “And she was triple-A, gold-star, board-certified disgusting. Soul as black as a smoker’s lung. Clever, manipulative, cunning, and cruel—would’ve made a great politician someday. And I—” He hesitated, then swallowed. “I was hers, head over hooves.”

“What’d she do?” Rumble heard himself say.

“You don’t wanna know,” Thunderlane said. “But it was bad. So bad she—” He shook his head. “She was the reason it all went wrong. She hooked another stallion. Got the two of us to fight each other. I won, and he—” Thunderlane shook his head. “Well, he didn’t.”  

He took a deep breath. “That’s when it all started to change,” he said. “That was why I had to leave. Because I didn’t want to have another pony look at me like that, knowing what I’d done. And—” he swallowed nervously. “—and that’s why I brought you with me. Wanted to make sure you wouldn’t make the same mistakes. Wanted to make sure—” he swallowed again. “—wanted to make sure that Mom and Dad would have one son they could be proud of.”

Rumble watched him sitting there, chest heaving, tears running openly down his face, and felt a twinge of something deep in his chest. Slowly, he clambered down off the couch, trotted over to where Thunderlane sat, and wrapped his arms around him.

“Sorry,” he whispered, burying his face in Thunderlane’s shoulder.

Thunderlane returned the hug, and they sat there for a long, silent moment, Rumble feeling hot tears dripping on his mane.

Rumble squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn’t unravel what was going on in his heart—there was pain, and anger, and guilt and frustration, and another dozen things he didn’t have names for, all wrapped up in each other, twisted and knotted and boiling up inside him.

But one thing was clear: he had crossed a line. He knew his words could hurt—it was one of the things he was good at, in fact. Very good. But never had he hurt someone he loved. Never had he seen his words cut so deep.

And that, alone, hurt him more than he could say.

“I’m sorry,” Thunderlane said suddenly. “I’m sorry for losing my temper. I’m sorry for yellin’ at you. And—” Rumble felt him swallow. “I’m sorry for being such a shit brother. A shit parent.”

“ ‘S not your fault,” Rumble murmured.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Still not fair to you.” He hesitated, chuckled a little. “Do you know why Cloudchaser’s stuck around so long?”

Rumble shook his head.

“It’s because she’s good with kids,” he said. “I mean, she’s nice—”

“—and kinda cute,” Rumble admitted.

Thunderlane nodded. “But I was hoping…” he swallowed. “I was hoping she could help the two of us figure this mess out.”

Rumble let out a little laugh, and Thunderlane chuckled, too. For a moment, they both were quiet again.

“I want you to promise me something,” Thunderlane said suddenly.

Rumble nodded against him.

“I want you to stay away from her.”

Rumble’s eyes snapped open. “Scootaloo?” he managed to choke out.

“You know she’s not good for you,” he said. “Don’t lie to yourself. Just—promise, okay?”

Rumble looked up at Thunderlane. He opened his mouth, ready to fire another barb—but he snapped it shut again and bit his tongue until he tasted copper. He swallowed once or twice, then, he spoke:

“I promise.”

It was a lie. It was a promise he knew he couldn’t—wouldn’t—keep. He knew it even as he said it.

And yet, he knew, somehow, it was all he could say. Anything else would have been simply cruel.

Thunderlane squeezed him tighter. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”