With the horrors of recent events behind them, the crew of Claudia eventually returned to Port Medusa to rest once more. They had earned some time off, Captain Hair Trigger felt, both for themselves and their allies. That and they needed some more time to get to know Swan, the new mercenary on their crew, and catch up with some of their acquaintances who live and work on the space station itself.
But the black has its own traditions. And for once, some can be of a positive, heartwarming nature for those in need of it.
The Most Wonderful Time of Manufacture
* * *
The flying mug impacted on the lip of a rare unoccupied stool, careening up and over in some rebellious defiance of common physics. With fiery liquid flying out in all directions, the clatter of its landing on the table amongst an ongoing card game was joined by rampant cries of annoyance and anger. Half a dozen burly shipmates looked up, and soon the insults were flying back along the mug's trajectory, accompanied by a metal ashtray.
Bushel Hops looked up from her customer with a scowl and rattled a hoof off the metal plate on her bartop three times. The one she kept on a little spring between an upper and lower metal surface precisely to make a noise louder than any shout.
"Hey! Chill out or get out!"
A couple dozen faces from the rival shipping companies looked up at her from either side of Port Medusa's tavern. Many of them glowered, some even swore under their breath, but all went back to grumbling among themselves instead, pulling stained cards back to hands and hooves.
Captain Hair Trigger dropped an empty shot glass to the bar's surface with an amused chuckle, having watched the bartender take care of business quite happily.
"Rowdy night, Bush."
The bartender didn't take her stern look away from the groups, and Trigger could have sworn the earth pony's eyes were looking in two directions at once. To Trigger’s right, a hippogriff somewhat larger than her made a neutral sound.
"Young hotheads with their drink," muttered Swan.
Bushel finally turned back to Trigger, shrugging dismissively. "Bad blood, competing contracts. I'll be lucky if I can close up without them kicking off. Speaking of hot fuses tonight, I'm not going to expect anything from you again, am I?"
Her wary glare turned to Swan, and the affronted indignation on his face set Trigger to laughing uproariously, knocking her hoof on the table.
Grumbling, he grabbed his beer again. "You start one fight with some ass who more than deserved it, and suddenly you've got a reputation forever. For the love of..."
Feeling the warmth of the spirits in her gut, Hair Trigger felt herself laugh far more than she had intended to, snorting and tapping her empty glass to signal for a refill.
"Oh, don't worry, Bush. Got him on a tight leash."
Bushel Hops took a second, before finally cracking into a grin and short laugh at the roll of the hippogriff's eyes, leaning over the bar conspiringly on one foreleg. She winked while pouring the stiff drink for the Captain. "You do, huh? Guess my hunch was wrong then. Always figured you were the one who preferred being tied up."
Hair Trigger met the bar-mare's waggling eyebrows with a confident smirk. "Oh, you did, did you? So, that's why you never said anything to me. You needed someone you thought would be the one to strap you to the bed-frame instead, huh?"
Bushel cackled, sliding the glass to her customer. "I'm quite certain we both know who'd be the one tying who, filly."
"And I'm very certain us starfarers know how to tie better knots, babe," replied Hair Trigger, her voice sudden and smooth.
"And I'm absolutely certain I'm too sober to be sitting next to this exchange," deadpanned Swan, leaning on a claw and upending his bottle. The liquid inside sloshed, being downed at the rate only an experienced drinker could manage.
Hair Trigger snorted, downed her shot, shook her head, and collected the tray of drinks she'd initially come for. The remainder of her crew were sitting at the far end of the bar, behind one of the two parties she'd seen arguing. She could see the top of Kerfuffle's plume over them, and (like any good partner) hear Tundra even through the din. After a moment she spotted the bright green of Verbena Mint's tail sticking out from the side as well.
Whether Sweet Alyssum, the station’s much feared director, knew of Verbena - her half-sister - being in Bushel’s was something Hair Trigger was not certain of, nor something she wanted to know.
Knowledge meant complacency, after all. Ignorance in this case was bliss.
She knocked Swan's shoulder. "Come on over when you get the chance, you're spending too much time off alone as is."
There was a brief grunt in reply; Swan turned his attention to the hanging display screen to watch some far off anti-gravity based sport with his drink.
Shrugging to Bushel, Hair Trigger took up the tray in her telekinesis. Giving the bartender a wink as she turned, Hair Trigger spoke up above the noise.
"Cheers, Bush. I'm sure that cider will have Tam going off the wa-HEY!"
Mid-turn, a heavy body barged into her. The metal tray squashed between them, flattening into Hair Trigger's face and knocking her off the stool. She hit the ground, back to the bar. The tray upturned, drowning her in various forms of alcohol; the glasses rattling one by one off of her head.
With a feeling of absolute indignation, Hair Trigger felt one of the bottles land perfectly on her horn.
A surge of fire washed through her. Opening her eyes, feeling them stinging from the spirits flowing down face, she could see a hefty, blurry shape above her. A minotaur, belonging to one of the transport crews. He looked down and gave Hair Trigger a dismissive kick on her hindleg with his hoof, his hands patting at his soaked clothing. His own tankard lay on the floor.
"Watch yourself, you clumsy little shit!"
Trigger's mouth caught open, and she scowled. Floundering for a moment, feeling a searing anger at the laugher of others around the room she surged up, rose to her full height, and stared him sternly in the groin.
"Says the bastard who just knocked clean into me when I wasn't even moving!" She bared her teeth, looking upwards and trembling.
The minotaur just grinned at her. "Heh...tiny pony thinks she's a big shot. Not that you should be here."
Hair Trigger let out a low growl, her head twitching to one side. "How. Do you figure. That?"
The minotaur nodded to her side at the way in, and a thickly worded warning written on it.
"No minors allowed in the bar."
He reached forward and clipped Hair Trigger around the ear. The impact was solid, dizzying the unicorn for a moment, feeling like she'd run into a steel bar - enough to almost take her off her hooves.
"Playpen’s up on level six, kid."
He gave her another knock, before Hair Trigger whipped her head around, her face projecting a visage of growing rage.
"Aww, look at her, lads! She's wanting a fight!" The minotaur waved to his crew. "Little thing's got a cutie temper tantrum! Guess she's got a SHORT fuse!"
Hair Trigger stomped the ground.
"Oh. Fuck YOU."
"Oh you want to fight? Well come o-"
Before his fist could even clench, a pony's skull -complete with a firm and well directed horn- headbutted him in the groin with all the sudden force and fiery anger of a torpedo hitting a capital ship's hull.
Hair Trigger felt it land. Hard. Hard and true, followed by the minotaur collapsing in front of her, wheezing and gasping, his legs failing like they were made of jelly. He made a strangled cry.
Catching the brute's beard in her magic, she grabbed his cheeks and yanked his head down, slamming it against the heavy metal stool. With a sound of a boulder hitting a brick, the enormous creature dropped to the floor and curled into a ball.
"And you'll damn well apologise when you're done crying you stupid...fuck...ing..."
She had caught the look on Swan's face, the hippogriff having turned from his game.
Slowly, he raised a hand and pointed behind Hair Trigger. In a moment, some of the red mist cleared, and Hair Trigger sighed, already knowing in her gut what she'd see.
Turning to look over her shoulder, she saw twelve other creatures raise up from their table, the sound of scraping chairs and dragging bottles in hand filling the bar.
Hair Trigger stroked her hatless mane and muttered quietly, "Aw, shit..."
From along the side of the bar, she could see her crew still somewhat unaware, other than Volatility Smile. The crystal pony was already up, reluctantly easing herself in towards Hair Trigger and Swan. She gave the minotaur on the floor a glance, and then turned her eyes to the hippogriff. "Seriously? Did you start another fight?"
"You what!? Why does everyone just assume-"
One of the minotaur's friends stepped forward: a burly earth pony. Hair Trigger fixed him with a stare, refusing to blink as his crude accent belched out.
"Oi! Fuck you playin' at!? Now here's the deal, you're gonna apologise to us, and him, real nice like. Gonna be some drink in it too, see?"
Volatility Smile groaned, her head turning to see who Trigger were looking at. She leaned down to her Captain.
"Hair Trigger, think about what you're saying, and we-"
"How about you all eat a bag of dicks!? He's the one who came at me!"
The invitees of the phallus-consumption looked to one another, as though scarcely believing what they heard. One shrugged, before they rushed forward. All of them.
Volatility Smile sighed, hung her head, and moved to duck the first punch.
* * *
Bushel slammed the metal panel again and again, but its noise was lost. She called the names of those she knew. She promised suspensions.
None of it helped, as she witnessed the brawl break out in front of her. Hair Trigger and her two crewmates quickly amalgamated into the whirlwind of thrown fists, hooves, and claws. She saw some of their attackers break off and charge at the rest of the crew. A missed punch struck a lonesome mercenary at the bar on the back, who quickly joined in as a third party, throwing hooves at anything in range. A drunkard flailed into it all, seemingly just up for any fight.
Then, with terrifying stillness, she saw one thrown bottle arc up and away.
Slowly, it descended, end over end, until it crashed into the back of one of the rival crew's heads. It shattered, and a string of curses broke the air.
Before she knew what was happening, the other half of the bar spun into a fury and charged into the fray. The sound of breaking furniture mixed with glass exploding. Screams of rage and the dull thud of impacts drowned out the sports channel.
Throat hoarse from yelling, Bushel hit a red button below her bar and went back to slapping and shouting at anyone within reach.
* * *
Hair Trigger had somehow already ended up wrestling and punching with three of the instigating rival crew. She had one of their manes in her teeth, jarring it as she rammed her horn again and again to jab at the side of the one holding her in a headlock. Her hindlegs were connecting with someone every time she kicked, and it didn't sound like any of her crew.
Thus, she decreed, it was a viable target.
Hooves smacked into her sides, and she fought to keep her head protected, feeling the impact of punches on her forelegs. There wasn't any pain. The adrenaline and anger steamed through her to keep her thrashing like a rabid wolverine in their hooves, until one of them bodily picked her up and hurled her onto the bar top.She felt claws on her back, dragging her down the length of it, clattering into bottles along the way.
"For-argh! Fucks-ack! Sake-ow!"
Her head impacted on the cash register and she lashed out to the side on sheer instinct. Her hoof caught one of them in the sternum, and she wrestled her way onto her back. Clumsy fighting ensued as she traded hooves with another brawler, before finally sneaking a strike by to clip his chin and make him back off.
Drink sprayed over her from a tossed plastic cup, making her wince away. Opening her eyes, she saw a pony rise up to stomp down on her chest. She sucked in air, trying to toughen up before the impact.
An orange hoof swung a bottle that crashed over her assailant's head, and what she now saw was a pegasus went down hard, falling off the bar to the floor, wings splayed out.
Hair Trigger paused for a moment, and saw Bushel Hops glowering at the groaning pony below them.
"Never did pay his damned tab,” muttered Bushel.
She tossed the empty tip jar at him -just for punctuation- before looking up and clearly spotting some other trouble. She rushed off quickly down the bar, pulling at a plastic container someone was trying to hurl. “Hey! No! Leave that right where it is!”
Taking a second to take a glance at the brawl, Hair Trigger stood up on the bartop and looked for her crew among the thirty-something bodies tussling and fighting in every corner.
For a moment she thought she could see Tundra's cloak getting tangled up in it, but more freighter crews -presumably called via multiband- had piled in from the nearby hangar. She could-
A can bounced off her forehead.
“Gotcha, shortstack! Haha!”
The aggravating pain shot through her, and Hair Triggered glowered, vibrating in outrage. Her mouth twisted and she decided, quite simply, 'fuck it' and 'fuck you', in short order.
Her telekinesis glowed and picked up two broken chair legs. Staring death at the group of jeering ponies amidst the brawl, she just bellowed in rage, ran across the bar top, and dove right off it clean into the midst of the mayhem swinging the hunks of wood at anyone within reach that happened to be taller than her.
This, as it turned out, was itself quite a tall order.
* * *
Volatility Smile rebounded off of a unicorn's side, knocked herself away and then was driven back again by the crush of ponies swinging and tackling on all sides. She ducked a punch coming for her head, using what self-defence techniques she knew to shift around the attack. Giving the drunk a sharp shove from behind, they keeled over and got lost behind a couple of griffons brawling on the floor. She ducked a bottle, before grabbing the nearest chair and swinging it to buy herself some room.
Turning, the chair sweeping, she felt it suddenly stop in mid air, a magical field enveloping it.
“Smile, it's me!”
Tundra Gem’s look of shock met her as he fought to untangle himself from his own cloak. Even before he could speak again, a pony tackled into his side and took the unicorn off his hooves.
As the space-trucker sought to get atop Tundra, a sudden flare of magic sent him firing directly upwards to join the flying bottles in soaring across the room. He cleared most of the brawl, a high pitched, warbling yell accompanying him, before falling on top of - and breaking - a table on the far side.
Smile grabbed Tundra's hoof to help him up, and the unicorn leaned on a chair as he steadied himself.
“What in Equestria got this started?” Tundra asked hurriedly, panting and looking around, his magic instinctively catching an ashtray and two bottles in mid-air.
Volatility Smile shrugged and gave a 'what-can-you-do' look. “Rather what 'triggered' it.”
Tundra paused, opened his mouth slowly, and then nodded. “Yes...yes, I think I can grasp roughly what transpired now-look out!”
A griffon came barrelling toward them, smashing the remaining chair from Smile's grip. She stepped around a haphazardly thrown claw, turned, and bucked him as hard as she could. She couldn’t even get her balance before another pony fell into her and ran past before she even saw them, sending her tumbling into Tundra to fall together in a heap. Hissing in pain on the ground, Smile saw the griffon come back at them again. He was wild with rage, seemingly with no other goal than to get some hits in.
“Fuck you!” he cried.
The voice from behind him caught the griffon's attention, before a purple coated arm threw a fist into the side of his beak.
Swan drove into the larger opponent, using stance and momentum to make up for what he lacked in comparative strength, powering wicked hooks again and again into the griffon's stomach. The moment he had the head low enough, Swan grabbed it and threw the griffon down, giving him a nasty kick to the solar plexus. The air was blown from the thug’s lungs, and he lay coughing on the ground.
Getting up together, Tundra and Smile pushed and shoved behind Swan to the edge of the room, away from the mad brawl.
“Eloquent? That's your taunt?” Smile chided. “Coming from you of all people?”
Swan shrugged and kicked a can away, looking back into the thrashing crowds near the bar. “Least I put some fucking effort into it. YES!”
“What!?” Both Smile and Tundra remarked together. The hippogriff pointed at the display screen and thrust both hands in the air.
“Third inning, last possible moment from the sidelines! I knew they had it this season!”
Bewildered, staring at one another, unicorn and crystal pony just shook their heads.
“Make our way to the exit?” Tundra suggested.
Smile nodded. “Sure, just...” She turned back to the fighting, concern brewing in her head. “...what about Tami?”
Tundra's calmness faltered. “Oh no, let's go!”
* * *
Tami slipped backwards as far as she could, caught against the bar itself at the opposite end. She'd tried to hold on to Verbena, until the crush had separated them. Now she had no idea where anybody was.
“Hey! Hey you!”
Tami squealed in fright, turning sharply. There was a pony limping toward her. Long haired, rough, and clearly coming off a long time in the black.
“I...recognise you, halfbreed!” A distinctive Empire accent slurred from heavy intoxication, as the earth pony stumbled and pushed toward her. “You'wi...you'wif the short one who'm hurt mah mate!”
“What? No! I'm j-just here to get a drink, I was just going to go! I'm going! It's okay!” She pleaded and spoke rapidly, possibly too fast for his inebriated mind to keep up.
“Nah! You wiff her! C'mere!”
His hoof rose.
And his hoof fell.
She felt a stinging smack across her cheek and fell to the ground with a cry of pain - one that stood out amongst the crowd. She fell into a puddle of ale, feeling dizzy and with a stinging throb in her face. She opened her eyes, feeling them dampen in fear as she saw him leering over her.
“Git up, fight!”
She couldn't reply, shaking her head over and over.
“Git up, fi-”
Kerfuffle's fist hit the side of his head like a pneumatic ram.
The pony was catapulted over the bar, his head staying oddly where it was in spatial terms as the rest of his body rotated around it. He crashed - upside down - into the shelving at the back, before dropping out of sight in a clatter of decorative bottles, quite unconscious.
Tami looked out from behind her raised hands, seeing the big griffon look over his handiwork with some degree of surprise before gently reaching down to her.
“C'mon, Miss. Let's get you someplace safe.”
She grasped his hand and let him lift her onto his back, safe between his raised wings.
“Sorry I didn't get here sooner, Miss,” he began, seeing her holding her bruised cheek. “Some very rude people got in the way.”
Unbothered by anyone (and indeed with many moving out of his path entirely) he started moving toward the door, where Volatility Smile, Tundra Gem, and Swan were waiting. As he stepped around strewn objects, from his back she could see a trail of around twelve groaning spacers on the ground on a rough trajectory from where Kerfuffle had been seated to where she'd been.
Kerfuffle looked around, before pointing.
“Here she comes, Miss, all safe.”
Tami looked up, and then gaped at just what she was seeing before her, where Kerfuffle pointed.
* * *
At first, Verbena Mint had been scared when the fight had broken out. A much larger pony had rammed between her and Tami and knocked her over, but when she'd gotten up, something strange had happened.
The first pony that saw her had come running to throw a punch, before suddenly stopping.
“Oh, no! Not you!” he'd said, before turning to find someone else.
Then, a crude looking mare covered in painted tattoos had swung toward her with a bottle in hoof, before pausing and backing up.
“Shit...I ain't got nuthin' against you!” she'd said.
Both of them had rapidly exited, and then she had realised what was going on.
Calmly, almost smugly, she had wandered back through the brawl to her seat and collected the milkshake she’d brought into the bar from where it had spilled. Half of the thick drink was still left. Another pair of spacers had given her an evil eye, before suddenly switching to an apologetic look. Verbena had watched them go, and waved.
There had been a brief worry when a bottle lightly impacted on her flank. But the two stallions eagerly arguing and trying to say it was the other one had made it worth it. She had just tapped her chin, letting them sweat over her thoughts, before trotting past.
Now, she delighted in the look of surprise from the Space Jammers near the entrance, as they witnessed her skip serenely through it all and back to them.
Stopping in front of them, she sipped from her straw and giggled.
“What...what was that?” Tami gasped down from above atop Kerfuffle's back.
Verbena felt a twinge in her heart at the bruise on her bestie's cheek, but gave a cheery grin and a dismissive shrug all the same. “Spend a few weeks here...people learn who your half-sister is.”
She winked, reflecting that now she knew why Sweets enjoyed this sort of life so much.
* * *
The crew gathered, free from the still furious violence erupting inside Bushel's tavern. Tammani still rubbed her cheek with one hand, the other accepting some spilled ice that Verbena had wrapped in a tissue and passed to her friend. It stung, but the cooling sensation was enough to let her feel relieved at getting away lightly.
“Best we maybe head back to Claudia till things cool off?” Swan offered, rubbing his side. Someone had gotten a good shot in.
“Are we not we forgetting someone?” Tundra chided, angling his head back to the singularity of drunken madness.
After a half second of everyone staring at one another, the confusion wore off and Tami gasped aloud. “The captain! Where's the captain?”
As one, they cast their eyes to the tumbling, frantically swinging bodies. It was hard to see individuals amongst the upturned tables and flying beer. Yet eventually, as Tami looked from her perch on Kerfuffle, she started to see something from her higher perspective.
A section of the brawl had an odd anomaly. Every few seconds, one of the drunkards would cry out and drop downwards out of sight with a sharp cry, like swimmers being pulled below the surface.
“There she is!”
Tami pointed, and Kerfuffle lifted her down to the ground. Following her direction, he waded back in. She saw the big griffon breeze past some stumbling, walking wounded and reach his hand into the melee. After a couple seconds of grasping he gripped something, and pulled a whirling dervish of a pony out from the crowd in one hand.
“Come on! Come on! Call me that will you! C'mere you bastard! C'MERE!”
Even as Kerfuffle lifted her up and quickly walked back, Hair Trigger was swinging all four limbs in the air, her teeth bared, her coat soaked in beer and her face covered in a few bruises.
“I think you got enough of ‘em, Cap'n.” Kerfuffle spoke softly.
Hair Trigger's protests fell on deaf ears, or at least calmer ears, as Kerfuffle walked her back over. On the way, the sight of a dozen security drones surging into the tavern past her seemed to calm the unicorn down somewhat.
Dropping to the ground again, she bristled and stared back at the fight, then grinned at the satisfying sound of several taserings occurring in quick succession.
“All right, maybe it was worth it to leave early,” she tacitly admitted.
The sound of running claws and paws caught Tami's attention, and she - along with the others - turned to find Gerhard sprinting up to the tavern, somewhat out of breath and still trying to buckle his protective layers on.
“Just typical.” he was muttering. “Utterly typical we get a riot the moment the drone update screws the response cues. So...”
He stopped by the door, seemingly happy to let the drones buzz in and pacify the situation, before his gaze fell to the crew. Tami watched as his beady eyes travelled between all of them, before settling on Swan.
“You didn't start this, did you?”
“Oh for the Empress' damned sake!” The hippogriff threw his arms up, turned, and promptly just left in the direction of Claudia, stomping and swearing as he went.
Tami could have sworn she saw a grin on Gerhard's beak. Drawing his attention back to them, the security chief nodded sideways at the brawl as he knelt down to Verbena.
“Miss Mint, all okay?”
She put on an exaggerated scared expression, making a slow nod. “I'm okay, they got me out after the bad ones in there all started it.”
Gerhard watched her act for a second, one eyebrow slowly raising, before turning to Hair Trigger. “So I'm sure if I check the footage...they'll have struck first, and you'll have calmly headed off to your ship to stay out of the way for a day or so in order to not wander into any more trouble, am I correct?”
“I think that'd be about right, sans a quick trip for some painkillers...ow.” She winced, rolling her shoulder around.
Gerhard nodded, apparently more concerned with the resolution than a blame game over a bar brawl. “On your way then. I better get this settled.”
Nodding their thanks, the crew began to move off, as Gerhard sighed and watched the drones deploying restraining clamps. “For goodness sake, I expect this more around Hearthswarming in a few months, not now...”
Walking past on her way out, Tami paused, watching him for a second.
Her gentler voice got the griffon to turn and Tami felt oddly on the spot, her friends already rapidly departing into the hangar, or to the next door shop, other than a patient, watchful Kerfuffle waiting at the curve for her.
Gerhard tilted his head. “Yes, Hearthswarming.”
“On a station? How do you know when it is? You don't have seasons.”
The griffon took a second, before chuckling. “Ah, of course. Old tradition. Hearthswarming, they say, is on the anniversary of the date of manufacture of the artificial construct. Commissioning is the birthday, so they say, but the day it was completed? That's Hearthswarming. Differs station to station, ship to ship.”
Tami cooed, her mouth pursing at this idea. “Oooh...I see. I never knew that.”
He shrugged. “Mostly a Peripheral thing. Anyway, off you go.”
“Oh, yes, yes, sorry!” She smiled at him and turned to canter back to the others, catching them on the way to the hangar.
Behind her, Gerhard turned, and saw an old drone finally limping its sluggish way down the corridor toward the tavern.
“And just where the hell have YOU been?”
* * *
Tami lay awake on Claudia’s bridge, mindlessly toying with a paintbrush in her hands.
It was night cycle inside the ship, with all the lights dimmed and the rest of the crew asleep downstairs. That this included Tundra Gem as part of the word 'crew' didn't prompt a second thought to her now.
They were asleep. Yet she was not.
Swaying in her hammock, the windows of the bridge shuttered against the everpresent lights of the hangar, Tami couldn't help but feel she'd missed something. A little niggling at the back of her mind giving her pause.
Adrenaline from the fight? No, she'd had a long shower to flush that (and the stink of beer) out of her. Concern about a job? Couldn't be, they were still on downtime. Lingering worries about a couple weeks ago? Definitely not - Whisper's advice had been on point, Tami hadn't had another occurrence since.
No, she reflected, this was different. This wasn't a worry. She knew worry and anxiety like old foes by now. She could recognise their insidious approach on her mind.
This was something more benign. Like feeling you had forgotten to lock the door after leaving your home, whether you already bought milk, or if you couldn't remember the exact date of your dad's birthday.
The paintbrush stopped moving.
Tami clambered her way out the hammock and into motion. Tapping across the rugs in the bridge, she hopped into her seat by the pilot station. The darkness of Claudia's nerve center lit up with a login screen, its background that of an NLR boy band. (The stars and hearts around the band member on the far right were not photo-edited at all, she had maintained, when asked about them.)
Her credentials entered, Tami started digging. She parsed to the base level Pioneer class systems screen, then to factory level information, and then to the ship summary. Scrolling through countless lines of pointless data and legal text, Tami rubbed her tired eyes and continued to flick-flick-flick at the screen with a claw.
Eventually, after ten minutes, she found what she was looking for and gasped sharply.
She flew from the chair, hurriedly wriggling on the floor to get her pyjamas off and her overalls on before unlocking the door, throwing it open, and flying downstairs as fast as she dared without waking anyone.
* * *
“Kiffie! Kiffie, come on!”
Tami's hands knocked and shoved at the not-exactly-small shape under the oversized sheets in Kerfuffle's quarters.
Unresponsive, the giant griffon lay still on his side.
Making a far too high pitched sound of frustration, Tami spread her wings and flew up to land atop his hip, before making light jumps from hands to hooves again and again.
“Kiffie! Wake up! C'moooon!”
There was a sudden, sleepy snort, and the griffon's leftmost eye creaked open. “Mmph, hmm?” Shaking his head, Kerfuffle sat up, hunching to avoid the slope of the wall, and looked down as Tami dropped back to the floor. “Is somethin' wrong, Miss?”
She grabbed his claw, tugging and pulling with all of her might, her hooves rapidly skittering on the floor, wings flapping eagerly. Kerfuffle didn't move an inch.
“I need your help! We've gotta go shopping right now, and I can't carry it all myself!”
Kerfuffle twisted his mouth side to side, clearly considering her meaning for a moment, before shrugging and sitting up, patently deciding to go along with it.
“Comin'. We in a hurry?”
“Yes, we gotta do it before the others get up.”
Tami hurried to the door to let him get dressed, before whispering back through the gap again.
“And bring a sack!”
* * *
Hair Trigger was in her optimum state.
It was quiet, it was warm, it was comfortable, and it was shared with someone else.
Drifting between deep sleep and a lazy morning snoozing, she willed rather than consciously moved her forelegs into gripping the squeezable object, tugging its back against her chest and burying her head into the back of its neck. The satisfied, pleased groan it made was enough to push her toward sleep again.
After another few blissful minutes, enough cohesion of thought began to gather to start identifying simple aspects of reality. That meant things like 'bed', 'Tundra', 'nightshirt not present', and 'damp spot, don't roll backwards.'
Grasping her hooves around Tundra's front, she reaffirmed her place pulling against his back and let her head fall to the pillow again, feeling something on top of it.
Oh, that was where my nightshirt got to.
Even as she declined to move again, accepting the discarded article as a replacement pillow, her ear twitched when she heard a noise from outside her quarters.
Two people talking, like they didn't want to be heard.
Immediately, a curiosity caught in her heart, and refused to go. A hunch. And she rarely ignored them knowing that something was afoot. Pushing sleep aside, Hair Trigger yanked herself up.
He stirred lightly.
Her hoof snapped out in a light, but firm smack of his rump.
The unicorn jerked and snapped awake. “Ack! What!? What? Trigger, what was th-”
She nudged him, nodded at the door, and got up quickly.
“What's going on?”
“I don't know, just heard something. Someone's up to something out there.”
Wiping his tired eyes, Tundra rolled onto his front, grimaced briefly as his foreleg rested on a 'spot', and got to his hooves. “Something bad?”
Hair Trigger didn't reply, her magic grasping around her revolver, before she heard another noise. This one was much louder. The short, surprised squeal of a young female, followed by a crash.
Hair Trigger smirked and dropped the revolver back onto her table.
The pair of them went to the door and opened it just as another two doors opened at the same time. The morning-mane of Volatility Smile poked out and she saw Swan's curious glance.
All of them, together, then stared in wonder.
Claudia's common room was different. Brighter. More colourful.
From the supports on the roof, glinting tinsel and jury rigged flickering lights had been hung in a haphazard assortment. Cheap ornaments of sparkling reindeer and candy canes were dotted around the shelves and kitchen. The edges of the main display were covered in a plastic green leaf design, while doors to quarters bore wreaths and bells. Bags of food were heaped at the far end.
Yet on the table stood a manufactured tree, every strand glowing and shifting colours from embedded LEDs. A large griffon stood up to his full height beside it, a star in his claw, caught as though his hand had been found in the cookie jar.
At its bottom lay an upside down hippogriff, lying on her shoulders with her hindquarters hanging above her against the tree, collapsed into a pile of hastily half-wrapped boxes and obvious trinkets. A garish, overly bright red sweater with snowflakes and colour changing tiny bulbs in the shape of a tree flickered on her chest.
“Oh, uh, gosh...uuuh...”
Blushing, she put on her best grin and - still upside down - spread her arms wide with a forced grin, shaking her hands.
Feeling her heart attempt to implode from the stupid, adorable little sight, Hair Trigger instead just burst into laughter.
* * *
It took only a few short minutes for explanations, and Hair Trigger almost kicked herself to think she hadn't even checked for this. She'd known about the tradition from her own family, but her assumption had always been that Hearthswarming was miles away, since she'd had one just before leaving for Port Medusa in the first place, mere months ago.
But this stupid, overly sneaky, silly way to do it cut off any negative feelings at the knee, and instead she just grabbed her pilot into a tight hug.
“You are too much of a sweetheart, you know that? And you!” She pointed at Kerfuffle, who had finally assembled the tree's lighting in an energy efficient manner. “You were in on this! You of all people?”
“I guess, Cap'n?” He shrugged in response, before rushing to catch the once again falling star.
“This is quite the shock; I guess I was only thinking about it back planetside.” Volatility Smile walked into the common room more properly, looking about her in wonder. “You even picked up food? Kerfuffle, that's so sweet of the two of you.”
The big griffon climbed down, looking more bashful than anything, picking up the Hearthswarming hat he had been 'volunteered' to wear, and proudly affixing it onto his plume again. Volatility Smile, after a second, failed to hold her composure, and cracked up at the sight.
“This truly is something. I hadn't known of that tradition out here,” Tundra observed, calmly as ever, before a more childlike glee overtook his eyes at spotting one label around a gift with his name on it. “Oh!”
Tami squeaked as Hair Trigger gave her another squeeze, hearing her Captain speak loudly in her ear. “Two Hearthswarmings in four months. Oh, I love Periphery traditions! Now c'mon, all of you: get dressed and get out there to get your presents while Tam and Kerf set the rest of this up. Tundra? Shower first. And Tam? See who you can rustle up to join in.”
Tami, nodded eagerly, still grasped in the hug, before her brain caught up with the instruction for Tundra and started piecing two and two together from the awkward blush on the wizard's face.
Gingerly, she detached herself from close proximity to Hair Trigger.
Swan, for once a relaxed smile on his face, clapped his hands and grabbed his casual clothing from the line over the door. “Well, you heard the mare, everyone. Hop to it!”
* * *
What followed was nought but a whirlwind of Hearthswarming preparations. One eager crew condensed days of work into the space of a single morning. The original pair remained on board to prepare. Tammani eagerly sent out mail to anyone she knew on the station. Kerfuffle, fighting to contain his glee at his first ever Hearthswarming, began finding the difficulties of not getting tangled in ribbons while wrapping the things he and Tami had bought. The others, now properly awake, began galloping around Medusa looking for what they needed.
Swan returned first, ever the bastion of efficiency and experience, with the job of finding gifts for several people. He quickly set about the kitchen, putting together a late breakfast of the only sort anyone could expect of him. The presence of pancakes and smoked fish, he claimed, made it a Hearthswarming one.
Volatility Smile bumped into Verbena mid-route, the young pony having already been rushing down to pick up her own things. The pair joined forces. One with knowledge of the station, the other with knowledge of making a cashier's life a living misery. Between them they acquired their gifts, some treats for general handouts, several free samples, and one managerial resignation.
Captain Hair Trigger went about Hearthswarming shopping the way she normally did. With indecision, muttering, and eventual bursts of inspiration. Yet caught on one gift, she eventually headed into the station elevator after consulting with Bushel. She descended into the lower levels of the station to find what she needed, and two hours later emerged with the last item on her checklist. And a grin.
* * *
Kerfuffle spent far too long gingerly undoing every facet of the wrapping with his talons, trying to keep it all in one piece as much as he possibly could. After all, it had his name painted on it around little cogs and wires. How could he rip that apart?
Tami clenched onto his arm to watch, finding the sight as amusing as it was adorable, until finally Kerfuffle popped the top and upended the box into his palm.
Inside lay an input-logic-converter with a dual-feed connector.
Kerfuffle's eyes lit up, his beak opening in a silent gasp, before burying the hippogriff amongst his feathers in a bear-hug of utter delight.
“I love Hearthswarming!” he cried out loudly, arms and wings wrapped around the muffled sounds of delighted laughter from his chest, before finally letting the spluttering pilot down. A second later, he hugged her again anyway.
“Now your little spider-bot can fit a camera to see where he's going!” she spoke up happily.
“That's so kind, Miss! I dunno how I didn't see you buy it earlier. Guess I was still tired.”
Even as they hugged, another excited unwrapper was on his third present already. Tundra, like a foal on his first Hearthswarming, gleefully pulled open a parcel to find a book on the pre-galactic history of Equestria, 'Skyborne Tales of the Sapphire Coast'.
“Oh, most wonderful!” he exalted, immediately flicking through its maps and long texts of deeds, individuals, and adventures, despite the other presents left nearby.
“Most welcome.” Swan gave a nod from the kitchen, turning to dump another load of food onto the table. While there, he stopped, finding Volatility Smile handing him a small package.
“Don't think you get left out.”
Confused, Swan took it. “I've already gotten a few from the rest; I don't feel left out...”
Smile winked. “You'll know what I mean. I've seen what you've got stitched to your bags.”
Beginning to suspect, Swan placed the food down, tossed the kitchen towel back to the drawers, and peeled the small box out to open. Inside, he found a patch. One bearing the logo of Port Medusa. Momentarily taken aback, he just laughed. Laughed, and clapped Smile on the shoulder. “Thank you. I suppose where I’ve been matters as much as who I’m with..”
“Can go right beside those old unit patches then. Like a life's journey, right?”
Handing her a plastic cup of cider, early or not, Swan knocked his against hers, and then took a long drink. “Yeah. Now here, go finish off your own. I've got to see to the fruit pudding.”
Volatility Smile lived up to her name in response, turning back. Yet the moment she did, she found her way blocked by a griffon. Looking up, she found Kerfuffle awkwardly standing with a gift in his hands. “You uh… You missed this one from the tree, Mrs Smiles. Here you go. It's, uh… This one's mine. From me.”
“Oh stars above, I'm so sorry Kerfuffle. It must have just passed my eye. Thank you.”
Placing her drink down first, she pulled the not entirely well wrapped paper off of it and began laughing aloud. Holding her gift aloft, she shouted across the room. “Hey! Tami, sweetie! Look what I got!”
The hippogriff looked up from handing a gift to Tundra, her eyes blinking and squinting to see what Smile had in her hooves. Volatility Smile grinned and shouted the answer to her. “Bounce Beats Volume Four, for the ultimate cardio experience!”
The look on Tami's face dropped Smile to the chair behind her with laugher. The aghast look of someone desperately trying to figure out more than a few more excuses was too rich.
“I'll see you in the mornings!”
Tami rubbed a hand over the other, offering a polite nod, as she tried to sneak herself away from the immediate topic. Shimmying to the side, she got midway toward the sofa before stumbling across a gift held in a telekinetic field.
And from behind it, one Captain Hair Trigger with a generous smile.
“You've been running in circles all morning - haven't caught you. Happy Hearthswarming, Tam.”
Tami gasped, hands to her mouth, before bouncing in glee, the terror of Smile's sessions forgotten all but instantly. “Ooh! Captain, oh, thank you!”
The present was propelled into her hands, and she hopped her backside up onto the sofa to pull the ribbon off the top. Scything one of her fingers around the lip, she pulled open the top and peered in with eager excitement. The inside of it was dark, and she squinted to get a grasp of what lay within it, angling the box to let the light panels above shine in so she could see it and-
Almost immediately, her cheeks flushed cherry red, and the top of the box was slammed down with a shocked squeak. Her eyes rapidly swivelled, hunting to make sure no-one else was watching them. Her voice was a sharp, stammered hiss.
Hair Trigger only winked, her grin reaching ear to ear, before nudging the hippogriff's side with an elbow. “Gotta look out for the morale of my pilot, don't I?”
Tami bit her lip, holding the top tightly down, as though what was inside would leap out and be seen by everyone. Her face looked more like a beetroot. “Th-thanks...I g-guess?”
“That's the spirit, Tam.” She grinned, giving the hippogriff another little squeeze with her foreleg. “Wanted to get you something to wow Midnight with too, but I doubt Medusa's the place to find attire like that. Didn't know your size anyw-”
Tami's wing batted at her face, and Hair Trigger burst into laughter even as the blushing hippogriff leapt onto her and playfully fought hand on hoof, barely suppressing her own nervous giggles. “You're-you're something, Captain! I don't know what yet but I'll think of a word!”
Letting the unicorn back up, Tami shot her a look somewhere between a pout and reluctant enjoyment of her Captain’s antics. Hair Trigger just gave her a wink.
“Wouldn't be me if not. Now if you-hmm?”
Hair Trigger's eyes slid sideways as the presence of another making his way to the sofa caught both their attentions. After a moment, Tami hid her gift behind a pillow, as if the unmarked box in wrapping paper wasn't cover enough.
Tundra stood there, the others still laughing around the table behind him. He had one more box in his magic, and floated it forward.
“I...I may have hesitated to give you this, Captain. My gift, to you. For you, I mean.”
Giving Tami a brief wink, Hair Trigger felt her own face flush lightly and stood up to take the box for herself. She gave him a suspicious look and shook it. Behind her, Tami sat up, hands clenched around her own body as she watched the (to her) cute couple sharing a moment. Across the room, directed by a point from Volatility Smile, the others started paying heed.
It was, after all, the last gift between them all.
Finding herself the centre of attention, Hair Trigger gave Tundra a cheeky look, listening to its contents, before tearing it open without losing eye contact. “Pressure of the moment, huh? For me or you?”
“Definitely for me.” Tundra confessed, looking away briefly with his front legs rubbing over one another.
“Well then, let's see how you did on our first Hearthswarming.”
Hair Trigger threw open the top. Her hoof rummaged inside, and yanked the gift out without any hesitation.
There was a silence, and then there were gasps from the others. Smile's pleased one. Tami's excited one. A sense of heartwarming was palpable among all.
Hair Trigger stared at the object before her and felt the moment slow down. Condensed into just her looking at it...before she fought back the wisp of tears in her eyes.
In her hooves, rested a pristine piece of quality headwear, to suit any captain of a starship.
Looking up at his worried, anxious face, Hair Trigger simply surged forward and grabbed him by the chest into a vice-like grip, as his magic firmly slid it onto her head.
* * *
After a late Christmas brunch and getting the presents squared away, the crew took a couple of hours to themselves. Yet after mid-day on Port Medusa’s own cycle other ponies gradually started to arrive.
It started as one, with Verbena Mint running through the hangar to open up Claudia and head inside, long since accepted as one who could enter at will. She rushed up to and hugged Tami, Hair Trigger, Volatility Smile, and then nearly disappeared into Kerfuffle before deciding she had better get to business. Presents, sweets, and an eager, filly-like glee about Hearthswarming re-energised Claudia’s atmosphere.
Even as she and Tami got to work preparing a playlist of the most sugar-happy space-pop to throw on (much to Swan’s chagrin) an unexpected arrival made its presence felt from a ring at the airlock. On opening it, Volatility Smile found a deer; ‘Crazy D’ - Port Medusa’s most well known fast food cook - was standing on the main ramp. Known for keeping his customer’s orders stuck to his antlers on notes, the impressive horned growths were instead now decorated with hanging baubles and flickering lights. To his side, somewhat embarrassed for his father, was his son Sruth - the young buck was dragging a trolley of food along with him.
“Hearthswarming!” The older deer declared. “Hearthswarming requires food! I do food! I do Hearthswarming! Yeah?”
After they had rolled the food up the cargo ramp into the ship itself, Smile didn't even get the door closed before spotting a very tired and still nonplussed Bushel making her way toward the ship. Her voice travelled ahead of her, along with the clink of glass in her rucksack.
“You let that captain know she still agreed to help me repair the tavern tomorrow for helping her find Kinky-Dink’s Emporium, y'hear!? I need a night to drink instead of watching others do it.”
Volatility Smile didn't know what to think. Bewildered, she held the door for the brash mare. “I...Tami messaged you too? I can't say we expected you and D and-”
Bushel shrugged. “She put it out on the general notice mailing list. We usually jump on any ship having its Hearthswarming here anyway. Why not? Excuse to get slammed. Now c'mon, show me where your coolant valves are. Medusa Special doesn't do well with normal fridges.”
Wandering past, Bushel left a stunned Volatility Smile by the door. Blinking, turning her head to the hangar at large, Smile noticed the crews of several other docked ships starting to gather outside their hulls and point toward Claudia.
“Oh my stars...”
* * *
As Port Medusa's internal cycle turned from midday to early evening, Claudia bore host to more ponies than any of its crew had expected. A full fifty others crowded the common room and cargo bay, each adding to the piles of food and drink, or bringing gifts for those they knew among the crowds.
They entered in groups, usually other crews. Even the two rival ones that had fought the night before seemed to mysteriously get along. It was half an hour before Hair Trigger even realised she was sharing horrendously inappropriate jokes with the raucous crowd that she had beat over the head with bottles less than a day ago.
At any given event the best times were always found in the kitchen. Any experienced party-goer would confirm that. But on ships it was a different matter.
Instead, the best times took place in the engine room.
Kerfuffle, to his delight, found that eventually every mechanic and engineer in the ship gravitated there. He had spent some hours sitting awkwardly, unsure how to broach the crowds and loud voices, before quietly retreating to familiar territory. There, he had found a few other mechanics already sharing a drink and chattering about the well maintained regulators around the core. Others made their way up over time to talk shop. Finally, surrounded by those who knew what true entertainment was, Kerfuffle settled into his place for the night.
Tami and Verbena, as ever, found one another's company almost immediately and rarely parted sides, quickly adding Sruth to their little group of the younger ones on board. Before long, music began pumping all over the ship, as Tami showed both of them a 'little trick' she had learned with the PA system not too long ago.
Among those who often came from different civilisations, there was usually friction. But for Swan, finding a New Lunar Republic veteran who had fought on the opposite side of the War of the Two Crowns instead gave him a drinking buddy for the night. Much time was spent sharing tales from either side of the same front, and laughing equally as much at the false perceptions as to who thought who was attacking or defending in those confused times.
Volatility Smile, concerned as much for the ship as anything, fell into the role of trying to stay somewhat sober, running around and being wary of where everyone was and what was happening. Yet eventually she settled near Tundra, the unicorn keeping his distance from many of the crowds and seeming ill at ease with such an intense environment. Happy for a more familiar face, the pair shared time and laughs, both easing off their high strung worries a little.
And among it all, Patch (bearing a hippogriff-dispensed red bow on his chassis) nearly ran down his battery careening around at a rapid rate in a dire attempt to dispense alcohol, sugar, and fat warnings to counter the horrific event taking place. Unable to prevent the health damage, his confused algorithms eventually logged the event as 'mass ritualistic suicide' and he retreated to his charger.
* * *
Squeezing through the crowds, Tami pulled Verbena behind her to the kitchen's fridge, working around the frantically serving deer to their right.
“There, there, that one!” Verbena pointed, before grabbing out an ice cool bottle of Confederate vodka. “Oh, I am so going to-”
The sudden sight of Tami rapidly cutting her hand over her own throat got the young earth pony to look round. Verbena spotted the sudden and withering glare of her half-sister looking her way, the Director - surrounded by a small fleet of security drones - having just entered the room.
“-hand this to the pony who asked me to collect it!”
Grinning too wide, speaking much too loudly, she passed it to Tami, who just as meekly handed it to (unknown to her) a very confused Sruth, who simply passed it to his father beside them.
“Ah, Confederate cooking oil,” came the offhand remark from the older deer, before D took a sharp slug from the bottle itself. “Sometimes also used in the food.”
Sweet Alyssum gave a small - but sharp - smirk before taking up a short drink of her own. She wasn't going to stay long, but it did well to show face at a visiting ship's Hearthswarming. Her attendance was never expected, but it was generally a useful impression to have circulating about herself for attracting crews to her station.
And the looks on the faces of those present was always worth it, she thought to herself, waving and smiling to a known pirate whom she knew wouldn't be leaving her station the next day...
* * *
It had taken many long hours waiting for an opportunity, but Hair Trigger had finally managed to reacquire the Captain's Sofa.
With only one in the entire ship, it had disappeared quickly under ponies using it, until she had staked out her claim and dove onto it while someone went for another drink. And just to assure that no-one else joined when she didn't want them to, she dragged Tundra down with her.
Seemingly quite happy to get off his hooves, the Solar Empire investigator dropped down with a sigh, catching both their drinks in his precision magic, before floating Hair Trigger's to her mouth with a goofball grin. “I can't say I earmarked this as what I expected when being assigned this mission, Captain. Serving alcohol to a marefriend on a sofa at Hearthswarming - and they say that real espionage doesn't involve any parties and drinks. This is the second you've taken me to.”
Hair Trigger smirked, sipping at the upturned glass, before using her own telekinesis to adjust the Hearthswarming lights that someone had hung around Tundra's neck. Much as spacers saw it just as an opportunity for a bit of a get together, there was a very festive theme to the night. Most had brought one gift for the hosting crew, and then a few others for people they knew personally. Clearly, Periphery crews knew this routine well.
“I did say I'd show you the sights.” Hair Trigger winked.
Raising an eyebrow, Tundra scoffed, and prodded one of her hindlegs with his across the sofa. “I believe you weren't referring to events at the exact time you said that, Captain.”
“Whatever gave you that idea, Tunny-Buns?”
The pair of them cracked into giggles, and she leaned into his side, pulling one of his forelegs over her shoulders. “You know, I do love it when you insist on still calling me 'Captain'.”
He grinned. “Why do you think I've observed to keep saying it? Your pupils dilate every time.”
“Least I know you're paying attention to my eyes at some points, then.”
She knocked his side, and in a moment of high-spirited fun, he returned the gesture, the pair of them chuckling together like school-kids at their first party.
Yet as they flirted and joked, a small set of leaves began to slowly ease into the top of their vision. Descending from above, a sprig of mistletoe lowered until it rested just between their faces.
Hair Trigger raised her eyebrows and tilted her head to look up and find Tami holding it, hovering in the air above the pair and extending the mistletoe in one hand with expectant glee on her face, clearly waiting to see something between the couple.
Tundra Gem looked back down at Hair Trigger with a small snicker. Trigger looked back at Tundra, thought for a second, and then let a sly grin come across her face.
Seeming the smile, Tami lightly shook the mistletoe back and forth, egging them on, and slowly drew in her breath as she saw the two lock eyes.
Hair Trigger looked up, then down again at Tundra with a lick of her lips, and chuckled. “Well...all right then!”
She sat up, then leaned forward.
And grabbed Tami by the cheeks.
The surprised hippogriff had only a second to emit a shocked squeal before Hair Trigger's sudden movement yanked Tami down and planted her lips firmly onto the startled pilot's mouth.
Tami's wings faltered before flapping rapidly to catch her, all four limbs below her doggy-paddling in the air in bewilderment at the sudden kiss locking around her lips.
“Mmphmm!” Her face rapidly turning cherry red, Tami made a muffled squeak, her wings losing control and dropping her onto her hands and hooves by the sofa's front end. A not entirely quiet 'mwua!' sound signalled Hair Trigger letting the kiss go, a cheeky, pleased grin plastered over her face. “Not bad, Tam! Not bad!”
Tundra Gem, for his part, was already doubled over in laughter at the wide-eyed look of confusion on Tami's face, as she staggered and dizzily fell back against the nearest door frame to catch her breath and process what had just happened. She was breathing heavily in surprise, her chest rising and falling.
“C-Captain! I d-didn’t mean m-me-I-I-what was-” she babbled rapidly.
Hair Trigger laughed, “Just do that to Midnight and you'll be good. Y'aight?”
Flustered all over, Tami staggered up and made a vague nod, her eyes as round dinner plates with small pupils. “Wh-what? Y-yeah, Captain what-you-I...I think, wait-I mean...I-need-a-drink!”
Blushing fiercely, she staggered off, leaving Hair Trigger to chuckle to herself and turn back to her boyfriend. “Oh, that reaction...priceless. She's too-”
The mistletoe, caught in a magic field, floated in front of Hair Trigger's face. The front of her hooded top was yanked forward, hard. Tundra pulled her into a tight hug, tickling her nose with the leaves. “Hope you didn't forget someone who'll kiss back.”
Hair Trigger felt her cheeks flush, before grinning. “Who said she didn't?”
Tundra just laughed, and pulled Hair Trigger in for a deep, long kiss.
One that didn't let up for some time.
* * *
The music and voices echoed outside of Claudia into the hangar, drifting out to the force fields and reflecting with strange, pitch adjusted echoes from the unusual physics at work. With most of the other ships, ground crew, and even those like Raw Deal inside, it was deserted. Empty ships waited, staring at Claudia as though wondering why she was getting all the attention.
Kerfuffle stepped off the bottom ramp, exiting the party for a moment. He moved unsteadily, balancing on his hindlegs until he had the airspace to use his wings. Awkwardly carrying a tray of food, he also bore a small, stuffed bag under an arm.
Quietly, not wanting to disturb the other ships in their silent rest, he flew around Claudia's front and across to the next ship. Much smaller in bulk than Claudia, more akin to a heavy fighter, its robust and angular shape around large engines betrayed the ferocious speed it could reach in the void. Stopping on its hull, Kerfuffle awkwardly leaned down to gently tap on the tinted glass canopy of the single person cockpit.
For a few moments there was no reply, and he almost left then and there, but after a moment the sound of miniaturised servos picked up and the glass slid backwards.
Below it a set of golden eyes on a dark coat stared up at him, and then at what he carried, with some momentary confusion.
Kerfuffle coughed, looking just as hesitant himself at what he carried under Whisper Step’s hard glare. “Evenin', Miss Step. We gave you some time to turn up, but I figured you weren't comin' after a while.”
Whisper glanced back at the main screen within the Regulus, where a mail advertising Claudia's Hearthswarming was still displayed. She pursed her lips and shrugged, looking away toward the cargo vessel.
“Not exactly my kind of environment at the moment.”
“Figured so. S'why I brought this out. Can't be havin' you going hungry while everyone else eats all merry-like. And well, bein' honest with you Miss, you never seem to eat much the best of times. Mama never said that was good for you.”
He set the tray down on the edge of the cockpit. Bitesize nibbles, a small platter of Crazy D's always barely identifiable but (usually) edible rolls and pies, and a couple of bottles from the drinks bin.
Whisper Step swapped her attention back to the griffon, and then the tray. Her mouth opened slightly, as though genuinely surprised, before she found herself being handed a small bag.
“An' this is from all of us. Ain't right we all pass our presents about and you don't get yours on Hearthswarming. Can't have a member of the Captain's crew missing out.”
The dark earth pony took the bag in her hooves, finding a manner of haphazardly wrapped gifts within, covered in achingly colourful and cheap paper. Pushing a couple to the side to see all five, she raised an eyebrow and looked back up. “I'm not under Hair Trigger's command, Kerfuffle.”
The griffon nodded. “I know that, Miss. But that don’t mean you aren’t still part of her crew.”
There was a long silence. Whisper, for once, looked actually somewhat confused about what to say or do, before a slow smile crept across her stoic face. She took the bag into the cockpit proper, stowing it by the seat, and drew the tray in behind it. Holding up one of the bottles, she gave its label a look of approval. Gently, she snickered. “You lot are ridiculous. Thank you, Kerfuffle.”
The big mechanic smiled warmly, stepping back away from the cockpit onto the hull itself. “You're welcome, Miss. Happy Hearthswarming.”
“Happy-” Whisper laughed under her breath, as though finding the notion silly, even if genuine. “Happy Hearthswarming to you… And pass it along to the others.”
Kerfuffle gave her a blissfully innocent look and made to fly back to Claudia. “I'll do that. And Miss Tami'll be glad to hear you're using the slippers she made for you too. Good night!”
He took off, missing the sudden widening of Whisper's eyes and the sharp protest that died in her throat at seeing the griffon already gone. Mouth open, Whisper sat there for a few seconds, before closing it and shaking her head.
Gently, she lifted one present out, its half-wrapped state revealing it to be from the griffon himself.
A toy spy-pen, with 'invisible' UV illuminating ink.
After a moment of staring at it with hard eyes, she couldn’t prevent a chuckle breaking through, one that rose into an uncontrolled laugh, the first true one she'd had to herself in some time.
“I swear, this crew...”
Putting the gift, and her work, to one side, she popped the cap of the bottle off on the edge of the cockpit latch, sat the food on the auxiliary panel, and laid back to enjoy the ambience of Claudia's Hearthswarming - if from a little further distance than most.
* * *
Hair Trigger looked up, hearing Volatility Smile's voice somewhere above the music and chatter bouncing off the walls.
“Over here, Smile!”
Gradually, fighting her way between a couple of dancing stallions, Volatility Smile squeezed and pushed her way through toward her. She could see Smile trying to move while holding a brown package, shaking out her mane once through the crowd. At some point the crystal pony had given over to the inevitable and let it hang loose for the night, its sparkling glints catching the lower lighting well.
“Was down by the entrance ramp, had one of the station's drones fly by with a delivery.”
Raising an eyebrow, Hair Trigger got off the sofa, passing her drink to Tundra before taking the package in her hooves. She felt its balance shift as it was turned, like it had liquid in it. A letter was hoofed over as well, which she unfolded separately in her magic.
“I didn't order anything. Who's it - oh.” She saw her own name on the letter. “Huh.”
Smile nodded and offered a shrug. “To you. No sender noted on it. All it says is 'open first' on the letter. That's about it.”
Turning it over, Trigger found the words herself, and slid its contents out to read.
Behind her, she heard Tundra get up, and felt him rest his chin on her shoulder. His cheeks were still flushed, whether from her or from the drink she wasn't certain. Possibly both.
“Got a secret...secret admirererer, Captain...” he chuckled.
Definitely the drink.
She reached up and patted his cheek without turning her head, and squinted in the low light at the letter itself.
Contact this number in private when you have a moment.
Don't open the package till you do.
Hair Trigger furrowed her brow.
“Either Whisper's playing games, something I doubt, one of you is playing a prank, which you all know better than to instigate with me, or this is going to be quite the surprise.”
Volatility Smile sat on the common room stairs, picking up a glass of wine she'd left behind earlier. “Well, who knows what tomorrow brings. Suppose you've got some free time now, right? Want one of us to come in, just in case?”
Hair Trigger shook her head and looked back up at Smile, gently lifting Tundra off her shoulder as she did so. “Nah, I'll handle it. You all stay out here, enjoy yourselves. Or keep adding to that stock check, whatever makes you happy.”
Smile laughed, waving the leg bearing her multiband. “S'not that, Hair Trigger.” Her voice was a little less precise than normal. “It's getting the dates other crews have theirs. So we can keep an eye on who else is out there about to have a Hearthswarming. Networking isn't just for business, I assure you.”
Pausing, Trigger smirked, then nodded. “Well played, Smile.”
“That's what you have me for. Also, tracking results of that lot through there on who can lift the most weight on the bar.”
Laughing, Hair Trigger gave Tundra a kiss on the cheek, “Of course. Now you...” She turned to the unicorn, and ushered him to sit back down on the sofa. “Just going to my room for a moment.”
“I'll...I'll be right through!” He perked up with a grin, only half hearing her.
Cracking up, she tapped his head to push him back down. “Not what I meant, just stay here and look after my drink.”
Clearly catching up on remembering the letter, Tundra nodded and glanced at his glass. “I think averting from this stuff for months may be having an effect on me.”
“No shit, magic-man. Back in a moment.” She chuckled, picked up the package and made pace for her quarters.
* * *
With the ambience dulled through the thick walls of her quarters, Hair Trigger collapsed into her desk chair. Immediately, a sense of tiredness crept through her, as her body recognised a quiet moment to settle after from the long day.
Resting the small package on the desk, she pulled out the letter and unlocked her workstation to bring up the communication interface. A quick glance revealed the number to be a pre-paid access line for a real-time video link across systems. Technology wasn't quite at the level to allow full streaming for everyone to do it yet, but premium services for those who really wanted one did exist.
Someone wanted to speak to her face to face.
Punching the numbers into her satisfyingly clacky keyboard with quick spikes of telekinesis, Hair Trigger didn't waste any time on hitting the icon on the screen to call it. She could sit for minutes second guessing, or just do it and see what happened.
When confronted with such moments, that was how she rolled.
The screen switched to showing three circles. One for her, one for the hubs between Claudia and whenever this was, and one for the receiving connection. Quickly, the hub connection lit up, before it sat on the receiving end for around half a minute, then a full minute, and then two.
She was about ready to call it a lost call, when it finally blinked green and chimed a short countdown to full video link. An electronic voice announced the call.
“Real-time streaming stable. Connection established.”
A video window appeared on the comm-app. It was blurry, the video buffering struggling for a moment or two to catch up with the active link’s signal. After a second, she could see fragmented pixels of colour that began to steadily come into focus. She could make out blonde feathers, probably a griffon. They were moving the camera - likely on a laptop - placing it down on what she thought was a desk.
Finally, the real streaming quality and framerate kicked in, and Trigger saw a blonde griffon, clearly in his fifties at least, but with a youthful energy in his eyes. He sat back with a calm smile, clearly having finally gotten a good connection in return. Behind him, a chunk of a ship's hull was affixed to the wall of what seemed like a cosy living room.
“Captain Hair Trigger. Glad you received my mail.”
Hair Trigger's eyes followed past his head to that piece of hull on his wall, and saw a symbol upon it: a griffon wing, with a smaller pegasus wing overlapping it. She grinned, recognising it immediately.
“Captain Gaius, I presume. In other words, Tam's-”
Gaius scoffed, as though surprised to hear the title before his name. “Tam's father, yup. Took a while, but finally glad I got a moment to speak with you. Just captain-to-captain, hm?”
“Sure it's not dad-to-captain?” Hair Trigger snarked, settling back in her chair and crossing her hooves.
Gaius laughed shortly. “Well, if you'd prefer it be. But I think I can convince you elsewise. You got my package with you there?” She lifted the brown paper object, waving it in her magic in front of her display's camera. Gaius smiled and motioned with a large claw. “Open it.”
Hair Trigger paused for a moment, and then unfurled the package’s string binding. Eventually, the 'tink' of hoof on glass became apparent. The moment that she pulled a small, unlabelled bottle with just a small drink's worth of dark amber liquid at its bottom from the wrapping, Gaius slid the full bottle that it had clearly come from into view, with around one third of its contents left.
“See, I have a tradition,” he began, pouring a small measure into a tilted glass, “one that started far back when I first took command of the Tammaran. Every time I had another ship's captain aboard, or any time I visited another ship to meet its own one, I would sit down with them and have a small drink from this. Direct from Equestrian space itself before the split, sixty five years aged before bottling.”
Hair Trigger whistled, suddenly regarding the glass in her hoof with a little more care, watching as Gaius poured a measure for himself.
“It's a pity I couldn't get out there to meet in person, but I figured what the hell. I've not had the chance to do this in two decades - I can bend the rules a little. Hope you've got a glass.”
Hair Trigger winked, floating across a simpler, but more than viable spirits glass to pour the bottle's scant contents into. “For a drink like this, I'd run out and buy one if I had to. Thank you.”
“Well said, Captain. Please, go ahead.”
Without waiting himself, Gaius settled back, taking up his glass to sip from. Hair Trigger followed suit, raising it in a quick toast before trying not to look too eager in bringing it to her lips.
It was lighter than she'd expected, passing into her mouth with a heavy, fragrant tone. She almost had to remind herself to not gulp to chase the subtleties, before the sudden heavy aroma and flavour broiled and swam around behind her lips and into her throat. Spicy nutmeg, with a cured, unexpectedly thick headiness that took a second to really erupt.
She couldn't help herself, breathing out suddenly and smelling the meaty tingle in the exhalation, before lightly shaking her head.
Gaius sighed, looking like he'd come back to an old friend, settling in his chair in a much more relaxed manner as he brought the glass down from his beak. “It's quite something, isn't it, Captain?”
“I feel like I just drank my yearly earnings. How did you even afford this, if I can even ask that?”
Gaius smirked, and tapped his beak with a claw. “Ask the captain of the Empire supply ship I took it from.”
There was a pause, before the pair of them laughed. A simple, easy laugh, taking the edge off of the conversation. Gaius settled the glass in a palm and nodded. “How is Tami?”
Hair Trigger felt the hair on her neck raise up and the drink catch in her throat. How was one to say 'Well I got her into a bar fight recently where she got punched, bought her something you probably don't want to hear about, and then snogged her - with tongue - less than an hour ago' to her father? Taking a second to shelter behind a mock sniff of the glass, Hair Trigger gathered her thoughts in a less suicidal direction.
“Probably bouncing off the walls about now. We've got a bit of an event going on board at the moment.”
He nodded. “I can vaguely hear it. I'm not keeping you?”
“Like I said, with a drink like this, you could pull me away from my boyfriend asking me to bed.”
She snapped it out before thinking on sheer habit, and was surprised to hear Gaius suddenly guffaw with laughter. Hair Trigger smirked, feeling somewhat more at ease. “Tami's doing great for us. Flying Claudia about just as we need her to...even if she sometimes needs reminded she can. But really, it's just her being herself that makes us glad she's with us. I wouldn't give up the spirit she brings on board for anyone else at the helm. That, and she can fly like a demon when she has to.”
Gaius flushed, and Trigger observed an odd look of bashful pride about his face. “Well, she made an old dog like me grip the seat when she took me up. So I can believe it. I still get surprised by what these newer ships are capable of. But what I'm more interested in is, how has she been doing though, as herself? I don't mean in piloting.”
Hair Trigger tapped her glass against a hoof a couple of times, formatting her answer as quickly as she could, before spotting the easy look on Gaius' face. It was honest and open. He wasn't digging for issues. Taking a second to collect her thoughts, she took one more decadent sip of her drink and placed the glass down with a gentle breath.
“It's been trying at times. Lately especially. I won't try to pretend she hasn't had her moments where it's clear she's scared or anxious. I've had to...had to occasionally just sit with her for a while. After something frightening, or if she makes a mistake, or if we're ever in danger. Really, when she starts doubting herself, that's when it gets bad. But we're here for her, and we'll help her, because we all want that smile in our lives. I promise you that.”
The few seconds’ pause from Gaius set her stomach churning a little, before he gently nodded. “I believe you, Captain. And I thank you for doing that for her, and for being honest with me. I know my daughter. I know what she's been through. And if someone had tried to pretend what you just said didn't exist...well, that's when I start booking shuttles out of worry.”
Hair Trigger smirked. “Knew the dad-talk bit was in here somewhere.”
Gaius chuckled in response. “Well I could tell you that I'd follow your ship into the next galaxy if I ever felt she was being mistreated aboard, would that help make things feel more traditional?”
She didn't reply, just making an amused look and taking another delectable sip of the provided spirit, trying to make it last. After a second, she rested the glass against her chest as he spoke again.
“This is your first command, isn't it, Captain?”
“Mhm,” she replied tacitly. “Needed something apart from my family. My own little slice of space.”
“How are you handling it?”
The question caught her by surprise. She had been preparing for every eventuality that led back to Tami in some way, but a query directly to her was not on the expected card. She stumbled over her words for a moment, holding the glass in both hooves. “Me? I… Well, it's been a few months since I left the others and came here. It's been… trying. I wake up every morning and still need to remind myself at times I'm the one who's got to walk out and make the calls. Just taking some getting used to.”
The frankness of her own reply surprised her. Maybe it was being plied with a top-end and rare whiskey, or the easy authority in his voice, perhaps even the alcohol from before, but she felt her lips move before her head caught up.
“Hardest thing is getting used to the retrospective. Look back, see things that happened, wonder if you made the right call. Been a few rough moments. Few times people, even Tami, got hurt. Crewmembers leaving either right after you get them, or mid-job, when you're wondering if they thought you were taking them a direction you shouldn't have. And there's no-one above yourself anymore to look to and ask if you're calling the right shots.”
The glass circled in her hooves. She didn't know where that had come from, and momentarily felt ashamed she'd said it.
Gently, Gaius' voice came through the speakers with a warmer, paternal, and more experienced tone. “What you said? That isn't a negative thing, Captain. What you said is just what it is to be a captain at all.”
She looked up, finding him looking directly into her own eyes.
“I had command of a vessel for twenty years during the most tumultuous event in our modern history. Life out there, it draws you into things you don't expect, or sometimes don't even want. It happens before you've even realised. One job turns into a rabbit hole and before you know it, you're playing a part in a front of a war that you never even knew existed. The only real question has to become...is this for some good in the end?”
Hair Trigger felt her glass run dry, and she settled it on the desk.
“...I think so.”
“Then the very fact that you worry about things like that tells me all I need to know. To know that you're doing things the right way, Captain. You're concerned about your crew as people, not just their performance. You're questioning what's right out there.”
He sighed lightly, finishing his own drink. “For example: that blasted Academy in orbit above here, they took Tami in, and after one year sent the wrong damn girl back to me, from how it was to see her again. There in body, but…” Gaius glanced away and shook his head. “They took my daughter away from me for four years with what they did.”
He leaned down, closer to the camera, and suddenly smiled, holding up a tablet with a still frame from one of Tami's VLOGs in it, with Claudia’s crew around her, the hippogriff beaming with unrelenting joy and contentment.
“Whereas you? You gave me her back.”
Gaius paused, letting the words sink in, and Hair Trigger felt rather than heard the emotion in his tone. “So as far as I'm concerned, my daughter isn't wrong. She found herself a great captain, Captain.”
There was extra emphasis on that final word, and he set the tablet down. Hair Trigger had to look away, feeling something inside she hadn't before. A certain well of affirmation she'd been afraid to judge for herself since leaving the roost.
Gaius gave her a few seconds, then tapped the desk. “Listen, you've got my contact now. Just between us, if you ever need anything, or to ask anything...just let me know. My life's experiences are at your disposal; it's the least I can offer as thanks for what you've done for me and my family.”
“Thank you,” she repeated, touching a hoof to an eye. “And I promise I'll keep them safe, even if-”
“Even if you're finding that same rabbit hole.”
“Yes, because I think we are,” she added quietly.
Gaius, surprisingly, smiled. “Then much as I can worry, it makes me proud to know she's out doing what I used to. Go do some good, Captain, and Happy Hearthswarming.”
Hair Trigger nodded again, smiling, before twisting her mouth up in confusion. “Wait, I never told you it was Hearthswarming on my ship. How'd you know our date of manufa-”
Gaius laughed and winked. “To the next galaxy, if I have to. Good night, Captain.”
The connection cut on her bewildered look, before she made a single, short laugh followed shortly by a much longer one.
Then, she sat in silence for some minutes.
After rubbing at her eyes, she moved to head back outside.
* * *
Things were still in full swing: a Hearthswarming atmosphere of drink, dance, laughs, reunions, first meetings, love, and friendship around the flickering tree at the centre of the common room.
Tami stood slightly to the side of it, clutching her third cider in her claws, taking her time with it. She wanted to be cohesive for tonight, but it gave her a warmth in her belly to feel that little heady easing of her anxieties around such a dense crowd. This had been more than she could possibly have expected. Far more.
She heard the sound of a door closing behind her, but paid it no heed.
A few seconds later, she felt hooves grab her from behind, and spin her around to face them. She had just a second to realise who it was, before her Captain grabbed her into a tight, long hug. An embrace that she was more than happy to return in kind, uncaring of whatever reason had initiated it.
* * *
The frivolity continued long into the night cycle. A time of colour and smiles, and new memories.
In time, groups departed and waved, smiling more than when they had arrived. Eventually, even those closest bid their farewells, returning to their own homes or ships. In many cases, those there the same thing.
They left behind a ship that bore the décor of a place that had seen joy. A mess that told of fun. A clutter that held cheer.
Leaving six within it to meet, to smile, and to reflect. To gather and take the quiet hours to themselves before the inevitable cleaning.
A first Hearthswarming. A tradition born to a new ship, for its newest crew.
And as they each fell to sleep, either in a solace long sought, in the company of a loved one, in the relaxation of letting one's hair down, or slumped against a dear friend on a sofa, Claudia finally fell silent, filled with nought but smiles.
In nearly a thousand years since they had first left Equestria, much had changed, adapted, shifted, or simply been forgotten. But some things still remained as they had once been, no matter how many stars lay between it and its origin, or how differently its people had grown apart.
And across a galaxy, that same spirit of Hearthswarming remained strong.
* * *