Now that she was clean, Boxcars began to itch. Where before the itch was a mild annoyance, now it was a driving need that could not be ignored. It seemed that her brother was inflicted with the same problem, as he too began scratching like mad. However, their attempts to relieve their itchies were met by Doctor Bunsen’s rather stern rebuke.
They were in a room with a window now and she could see that it was getting dark outside. The overhead electric light burned bright in defiance of the coming darkness and the room was almost as warm as the jungle they had once called home, due in no small part to something called a ‘radiator’ that was mounted against the wall. It was hot and they were warned not to touch it.
“So, you sailed up the coast and picked up passengers from several major ports of call.” Doctor Bunsen had a map of the world pinned against the wall and she was looking at the route that the ship had taken. “You also let passengers off in many places. Hmm, not good, not good.”
“Bertie, give it a rest for the night,” Cactus said to his wife and then, he turned to face Boxcars. “We’ll be staying with you throughout your quarantine. We volunteered to keep you and your brother company for the duration of your stay here. You feeling alright, little lady?”
Blushing from Cactus’ affectionate tone, Boxcars squirmed for a bit and then began rubbing her ribs with her hoof. “I’m itchy, my tummy hurts, and I feel a little tired.”
“But other than that, you’re okay?” Cactus sounded worried and his scarred, melted face tried to make some manner of expression, but failed. “Remarkable. You really are a lucky little filly. What are the odds…”
“What’s that?” Domino asked as he pointed at the window and Boxcars turned to look.
Something was coming down from the sky and the lights of the city reflected upon them, turning them into tiny, glittering jewels. Domino stood up, placed his front hooves against the windowsill, and then stood there, trembling as he watched whatever it was that was falling from the sky. Cactus got up from where he was sitting, strolled over to Domino, and then stood there beside the little colt so that they could look out the window together.
“It’s snow, little guy. We get a lot of it in Equestria. Well, sometimes. In some parts.”
“It’s pretty,” Domino said in a voice so soft that Boxcars had trouble hearing him.
“And how are you feeling, little guy? Do you think you can tell me?”
Domino’s head turned to look up at the much larger stallion beside him. “My tummy hurts and I’m thirsty.”
“You’re thirsty?” Cactus clucked his tongue. “Well, you should have said something. If you need something, you only need to ask. Hang on, I’m going to get some drinks and then I’ll be right back so we can watch the snow coming down together. It’ll be great.”
With that, Cactus backed away from the window and left the room.
Outside of the window, the snow came down sideways and Boxcars watched it while she sipped at her chocolate milk, something she had never had before. Bertie was worried about her weight and wanted her to have sweets, which was just fine with Boxcars, who liked sweets. The radiator creaked, popped, and pinged, which no longer startled her.
Cactus complained about the couch and the furniture in general, but for Boxcars it was the nicest, softest thing she had ever sat on, even if the strange, slick surface was kind of clingy. Everything was made to be easy to disinfect, or so Bertie had said. Domino also sat on the couch, sulking over having his temperature taken and complaining about the cold glass. Boxcars too, had endured the indignity of having her temperature taken, but she had not complained. She bore the awkward, uncomfortable moment by reminding herself of all the nice things that had been done for her.
Bertie continued to work on her map, doing stuff that Boxcars could not comprehend.
Boxcars was quite enchanted by the window and the city beyond. The tall buildings—skyscrapers they were called—pushed back the night with brilliant electric lights. This was Equestria, an electrified land so wondrous that even magic seemed to pale by comparison. Nothing seemed to be constructed of mud, or clay, or crude bricks, but everything was made of steel, stone blocks, or glass. Indoors, it was as warm as summer, thanks to the magic of the radiator.
“Why is your face like that?” Domino asked the stallion beside him.
Almost right away, Boxcars wanted to spank her brother for being so rude and her head swiveled around so that she might glare at him. She did her best to communicate her displeasure about this, but Domino seemed to be ignoring her. How typical, she thought to herself. Eyes narrowing, her ears angled forwards out over her eyes and her tail began to swish from side to side, the look of irate big sisters everywhere.
“Oh this…” Cactus sighed the words and leaned over to be a little closer to the much smaller colt beside him. “This is Bertie’s fault.”
“She did that to you?” Domino’s mouth fell open and the heavy sounds of his breathing could be heard.
Sitting by her map, Bertie let out a wistful sigh.
“She and I, we were just a little bit older than your sister is now. Maybe by a few years.” Cactus reached out with his foreleg and draped it over Domino. “Bertie was a little busy trying to write woowoo notes—”
“Woowoo notes?” Domino asked.
“Yes, woowoo notes… love letters and the like… anyhow, she wasn’t paying attention, that’s the point, and she didn’t listen to the instructions given to us by our alchemy teacher. So when she went to do her class experiment, there was a bad reaction. When it started to smoke and bubble in a scary way, I kicked her stool out from beneath her and shoved her beneath the table to save her. Didn’t quite save myself. When the glass beaker exploded, my face heroically blocked the worst of it to save my classmates in the rows behind me.”
“Oh.” Domino leaned over against Cactus and then went still. “And you married her?”
“Well, uh, yes… yes I did. You see, um, well, it was complicated.” Cactus began rubbing his neck with his free foreleg and he stared up at the ceiling with his eyes unfocused. “After the accident, Bertie was given a choice… take a flogging or take her walking papers. She chose flogging of course, and it was a bad one, because the guild master made an example of her for her carelessness.”
When Cactus paused for a time, Domino asked, “So why did you marry her?”
“I’m getting to that.” Cactus rubbed his neck a bit more and his head tilted off to one side. “Poor Bertie, she was eat up with guilt after that, and for the next several years, she asked me every single day without fail if I had forgiven her and every day I told her that I had. It didn’t matter what I said though, because the next day, sure enough, she’d come along and ask me again.”
“But it’s her fault,” Domino said, and his soft-spoken words made Boxcar’s ears stand up. “Why forgive her?”
“Because, it was the right thing to do,” Cactus replied and there was another sigh from Bertie, who stuck a bright red pin into her map. “We Equestrians have this thing about forgiveness. Princess Celestia lived by example and forgave her sister, Princess Luna, so most of us Equestrians try to do the same. Well, maybe some of us. Okay, let’s be honest, a vast majority of us need to think about the importance of this and learn to forgive one another. I consider it to be one of the great Equestrian ideals.”
“So you married her?” Domino’s head tilted back to look up at the stallion beside him.
“Well, I couldn’t think of any other way to convince her that I had forgiven her. One day, she comes up to me, it was at breakfast, it was, and she trots out her daily question, wanting to know if I had truly, really, honestly forgiven her. I didn’t answer that day. Nope, that day I was feeling brave and I turned the tables on her. I asked her to marry me and I refused to say if I had forgiven her. See, I figured that would be the only way to shut her up.”
“Equestrians are funny.” Domino’s head dropped back down and the colt closed his eyes.
“I suppose we are,” Cactus said and his head bobbed in agreement. “But forgiveness is important and more ponies should do it.”
Neck aching, Boxcars turned to face the window once more so that her muscles could relax. Try as she might, there were ponies that she could never forgive, like those who had hung her parents, or mean Miss Blackstrap, who had said that she was getting old enough to be auctioned off for marriage. That would have split her and her brother up, and she had made a promise to her mother and father to look after her little brother, no matter what.
No, some things were unforgivable.
“Boxcars… your cutie mark…”
“Yes?” Boxcars didn’t turn around to face Cactus, but her pointed ears pivoted around backwards to hear him better.
“I can’t help but notice that you and your brother share similar cutie marks… you have two dice with double sixes showing, and your brother has a domino, also with double sixes. The statistical likelihood of this staggers me.” Cactus’s voice lowered a bit when he continued, “Your brother seems awfully young to have his cutie mark.”
Boxcars set her glass of chocolate milk down upon the windowsill and tried to think back as far as she could remember. “He got it right after he was born”—for a moment, she stammered, struggling to remember, but she couldn’t recall getting her cutie mark at all—“and mine just showed up one day when I was too young to remember. My dad, he said that I was his good luck charm. His cutie mark was playing cards, a royal flush of hearts. He said it made him lucky in love, because he found my mother, and she was the greatest mare in the world. I was named Boxcars because of my mark and so Domino got his name for the same reason. My mom said we were lucky to get them so young.”
“You strike me as a very lucky filly,” Cactus said in a low voice and each word was spoken with great care. “By sheer luck, you left Windia, traveled halfway around the world, and somehow didn’t die of whatever disease ravaged that ship. You are a very lucky filly indeed.”
“I don’t feel lucky sometimes,” Boxcars countered, and she felt the first stirrings of anger. “I lost my parents. One by one, I watched what few friends I had get auctioned off for marriage. My home, my entire life, it was torn apart by war and fighting. I lost everything and it was only a matter of time before I lost my brother if I had stayed in Windia.”
Hearing hooves, Boxcars began to sniffle, and when she felt a light touch upon her back, she pulled away. Bertie sat down beside her and even though Boxcars resisted, she found herself pulled into the embrace of the much larger, far more powerful mare. After a bit of struggle, her will to resist fled from her, and she huddled up against Bertie’s side while fighting to hold the tears in. She was tired of crying, she was done with crying, and she never wanted to do it again.
“I left home too,” Bertie whispered, “and I crossed the ocean looking for a better life. I came here to Equestria for the same reasons… I was seven when I ran away from home, because I couldn’t take another minute of living there. So I ran away and I stowed away on a ship and I ended up here, in the wonderful land of Equestria. A really scary pony wearing a spooky mask found me before I had a chance to sneak off of the ship, and I was so scared that I crawled into some ducts so he couldn’t reach me. He sent his apprentice into the duct after me, and that was the day that I met Cactus. I gave him two black eyes when I bucked him in the face for trying to grab me.”
Boxcars didn’t know what to say, but she did slip one foreleg around Bertie’s foreleg and held on. The mare had a confusing amount of muscle, and with all of that muscle there was a reassuring hardness. Boxcars rubbed her cheek against the velvet, angular ridge of Bertie’s elbow and wondered how a mare could be so strong.
“It is getting late, my brave little traveller, and it is just about time for bed, I think. You and your brother both need the rest. While it isn’t life threatening, you are sick with something, but we’re just not sure what it is yet. Best not push your luck too far. Cactus and I will be with you all throughout the night so that if you wake up and need anything, anything at all, we’ll be there to help you.”
When Boxcars tried to reply, a yawn came out instead, which she was not expecting. She cast a final glance out the window at the magical, wonderful world beyond. She was, indeed, a lucky filly to have ended up here, and she was excited for the bright new day that would come tomorrow.
“Come, little one, let me carry you to bed,” Bertie whispered, and Boxcars felt herself being lifted from the floor...