by Jarvy Jared

5 - Diagnosis

Summers in Bridlewood varied depending on what part of the forest you were in, and what weather had preceded the day. If you were lucky, and the weather was good, the air would be at a comfortable temperature and you could enjoy the bulk of summer’s warmth without feeling like you were suffocating under a mountain of molten malaise. If you were unlucky, it would have rained the night before, not quite enough to cool things, but enough to soak through the leaves, mist the earth, and trap the vapors under the canopy. The humidity would stick to your mane and coat, causing your hair to frizzle up, and sweating would feel deeply uncomfortable.  
But that day, Chamomile was unbothered by the humidity. She lay against a thick tree, whose bark was riddled with curious lichen cool to the touch, surrounded by mushrooms that glowed blue. 
It was her break day. The tea shop was closed, and while just a year prior she would have fought tooth and nail to keep it open, she now recognized the necessity of a pause. Astral did not have to beg, then implore, then connive with Penny in order to get her to take the day off anymore, thanks in large part to the charge which rested humbly between her hooves. 
He liked to sleep—that much had been evident when he’d been born. The doctors had worried he wasn’t breathing, and had flicked his hoof a few times to get him to cry; it turned out he simply was lost in the infinite landscape of dreams, and had registered quite slowly the difference between the warmth of his mother and the frightening cold of the outside world. From this love for sleep had come the surprising feature that he was a quiet baby, much to her and Astral’s relief. The tea shop was a busy place, but Juniper slept happily in his crib, watched over by one parent while the other tended to the customers. The banging of pots and pans, the boiling of water, and the conversations which, due to the acoustics of the tree-shop, carried up the steps like restless spirits, never interrupted his slumber, and when he awoke, he was hungry, but never belligerent. “Where do you think he gets that from?” Chamomile had once asked, after he’d eaten and been put to bed.
“Not you, that’s for sure,” Astral said. He received a somewhat painful nudge in the shoulder, which did nothing, to her disappointment, to erase his cheeky smile. “What? You’re the restless one in bed.”
“And you’re any better, Mr. ‘I have to save my monkey?’”
“That was a one-time occurrence!”
“Still a weird dream.”
“Can’t argue with you there.” Astral laughed, then looked at his son. He had a habit of looking at him as though he was seeing Juniper for the first time, a look that had first manifested when they found out, a few weeks after making the wish, that Chamomile was pregnant. It was a look of pure wonder, if not a little bit of fear, but it was fear that he quashed each and every time he looked that way. And it seemed that look was a special antidote for the pervasive dullness and numbness that plagued unicorn-kind, for even the otherwise droll and dispassionate elders, when she and Astral walked around Bridlewood, looked up with sparkles of interest. Children offered a brief magic that was not taboo to entertain, it seemed. 
With that kind of magic, too, it seemed that energy at last returned to many. Penny Point, among others, volunteered to help transform the upstairs loft of Chamomile’s tea shop into an actual nursery, taking apart the room that had once been her childhood bedroom and replacing it with all the things a newborn would need. They added a fresh coat of paint and decided to let the other children lend a hoof, leading to a room covered in a wild array of hoofprints. Chamomile’s tea shop coincidentally saw an uptick in business, which led her to once or twice joking to Astral, “Maybe we should have another!”
Even Alphabittle had assisted, in his own way, despite technically being a business rival. A fan of toys and games, he sent the parents-to-be a package of board games and puzzles. Astral thought it kind of gimmicky, but accepted nonetheless; Chamomile was secretly warmed by the gesture.
The magic, of course, didn’t last. The lack of their natural connection to real magic meant that excitement dwindled before Juniper was born, and Bridlewood returned to a familiar stupor which would not end for several more years. But Chamomile and Astral didn’t care for that. For them, that they were about to be a family was the only spell required to transform their lives from a series of daily, dry catalogs to days of great meaning and importance—and it was all thanks to this wish child, this bundle of joy (how cliché, she often thought; but then, pulling from Astral’s teachings, she’d think that a cliched truth was still the truth), which, at present, slept soundly in her hooves. 
She watched him as he slept while she rested against the bark. A fog born from the humidity drifted lazily in front of her, and she entertained the fantastic notion of beasts coming through that fog to lay their heads at her hoof, to pay their respects to the newborn. She’d been having a lot of those fantastic thoughts since Juniper’s birth—perhaps as a side effect of either the procedure or the thrill of being a new parent—but in a way, she treasured them, because they helped fight against the monotony of daily life, which every day she could feel drip into her soul like an IV. 
She wished, suddenly, that her parents could have met Juniper. Her mother no doubt would have expressed the similar sentiment, that of children having their own kind of magic, even though, as far as unicorns went, her mother was among one of the most superstitious. Her father, a stallion of broad shoulders and booming laughter, would no doubt have requested every weekend to spend with his grandson, to teach him about woodcarving and mushroom-finding, to educate him in the ways the world could seep into your skin and become you. 
She then wondered what Astral’s parents might have thought about their grandson—let alone of their daughter-in-law. They had both passed away when Astral was young, and he had grown under the care of a distant relative. She had little to work off of in terms of description, for among the things Astral did not like to talk about, it was them. Only twice in their relationship had she tried to get more information out of him, and the only thing he’d provided her was that “They’d died from a sickness.” Only that—no specific disease, no ailment, no symptoms. She supposed that was because it was easier for him to think of death in this way, universal and without nuance, because by making it out to be so abstract, it could not engulf the rest of his life. The shadow of sorrow must not extend past the garden. Their deaths had not made him cold; they’d made him warm. 
Thinking of Astral caused her to look around the forest. Just as she’d promised to take the day off, she’d also promised to leave in Astral’s hooves the closing and tidying up of the shop. A momentarily disquieting feeling wormed its way into her—that aspect of the job was something she liked to do herself, and while she’d grown to trust Astral, the idea that somepony else was inside, handling the cleaning and settling, made the obsessive business-mare in her rear up in agitation. But she shook her head—Astral knew what he was doing. And he’d promised that, when he was done, he’d come and join them outside.
“Besides,” she whispered, looking back down at her son, “there are some things more important than the shop’s condition. Isn’t that right, Juniper?”
He, of course, said nothing. He was dreaming. His nose was slightly scrunched up and his brow furrowed, but these gave no indication of whether the dream was good or bad. Additionally, he made no sound, save for his gentle breathing. Peaceful sleep! It must have skipped a generation, and with some amusement, Chamomile wondered if she should be jealous of him for this quality. 
Watching him made her start to feel drowsy. So did the heat. So did the bark, to which her back had grown accustomed. She felt her eyelids begin to droop. She hoped Astral would come soon, like he said he would once he was done with the shop. They had the whole day ahead of them, which was rare, so they must take advantage of it, while daylight still peeked out from behind the leaves…

She awoke with a start and covered in sweat. The air was swelteringly hot. Frantically, still clawing her way out of sleep’s numbing embrace, she looked at Juniper, afraid that the heat had consumed him. 
He was still breathing, thankfully, and was still asleep. But it was still terribly hot. They had to go back inside, she decided, before either of them passed out from heat exhaustion.
She stood awkwardly, her knees were tight and locked. Worry gnawed at her. She couldn’t understand why. It seemed to be linked to her sudden waking, like some sixth sense had intuited that something was wrong. But what?
Then it hit her. Astral wasn’t here.
She turned in place, scanning her surroundings. The fog was too thick to see more than a few yards ahead, but there were no forms, no cloaked silhouettes, standing in its midst. There was nopony next to or behind the tree, either. As far as she could tell, she and Juniper were the only ones in the area. 
Juniper chose that moment to wake up. He yawned, looking at Chamomile with those impossibly big eyes. But while he had yet to speak, his eyes spoke for him. They conveyed, in their innocence, also a sense of confusion.
“I know,” she said. “We’ll go find him.”
She tried to smile, but it was a flash of one, barely long enough to register in Juniper’s mind.. She retrieved from the ground the portable bassinet and placed him inside, then attached it to her back.
She followed the cobblestone path, her worry continuing to grow. The heavily shadowed outline of the tea shop rose out of the mist with such dark foreboding, Chamomile nearly jumped. The lights were on, meaning Astral was likely in. But as she drew closer, she saw that the back door was half-open, like somepony had rushed trying to get it to work. She paused for a second, wondering if they’d been broken into… and if Astral was still inside… 
In three rapid steps, she closed the distance. Remembering the threat, though, she slowed just enough to avoid crashing into the door. She raised a hoof hesitantly, trying to hear sounds through the small crack, but there were none. Her worry clamped a vice around her throat, silencing her.
Slowly, she pushed the door. Something stopped it, so she gave a somewhat harder push, and something slipped and fell into view. It was so quick that she couldn’t comprehend what she saw. 
Her worry’s grip slackened just enough for her to realize it was a motionless, mossy-green leg. 

“I’m fine, really.”
“You were not fine, Astral. You were unconscious. You were barely breathing!”
She hadn’t meant to shout; she’d intended on leaving the doctor’s hut with some measure of calm attached, but the moment he’d opened his mouth, her anger and fear flared up. She was thankful that Juniper was in Penny’s care at the moment—she didn’t want him to be around to hear this.
There were other patients, however, who could still hear them from inside the hut. They looked through the windows with mildly surprised expressions, before they looked away. 
Astral took a breath. She whirled on him, daring him to say it again, that he was fine. But then his shoulders hunched. His head hung low. In a murmur unbecoming of him, he said, “You’re right. I’m not fine.”
Her heart softened. She guided him towards a bench nearby. The day’s humidity had finally lessened just enough to be bearable, and the air was no longer thick with it. 
They sat down. “I’m sorry to have made you worry,” he said. “This was all my fault.”
She sighed. “No. I should have turned on a few fans before we left. That shop can gather a lot of heat rather quickly.” She chewed her lip. “Can you imagine if that happened to a customer? Maybe I should think about adjusting the ventilation and air flow…”
“That’s… not quite what I meant, actually.”
“Astral?” She turned to him “What are you saying?”
A guilty shadow crossed his face, darkening his eyes and giving him the frightful look of a skeletal, green being, hidden under his fall jacket. “It’s true that maybe some of the humidity caused me to faint, but… this wasn’t the first time I felt that way. It’s only the first time I’ve collapsed.”
She stared at him, long and hard. Without needing to, she convinced him to go on. 
On that bench, surrounded by the peaceful lethargy of Bridlewood, Chamomile felt her world begin to crumble. Astral had a condition. He had had it for quite some time. It manifested as random bouts of fatigue and weakness in the joints, and headaches in the middle of the day that would disorient and momentarily confuse him, make him forget where he was or what he was doing. Up until that moment that Chamomile had discovered him, he’d been lucky enough to experience those symptoms when she wasn’t around. They were never so debilitating as to cause injury, so he had simply dismissed them as part of the process of becoming older, being a new parent, and facing the stresses of day-to-day living. 
But the fainting was an indication. Something was wrong with him. It had progressed to this point and was likely to progress further. That much had been made clear by the doctor who, through a thick pair of glasses, a frown sculpted from cement, had announced the prognosis without so much as batting an eye. That was the result of them being magic-less, she knew; but still, she had never wished more for magic to return, if it meant that the doctor would at least feel something!
Astral did not talk long, only a few minutes. But they were quiet for far longer. The shadows lengthened and the birds returned to their nests. Across the way, behind the fountain, the schoolhouse opened its doors and children filtered slowly out and took their own paths home. Chamomile watched them, thinking about how in just a few short years, Juniper would be enrolled. 
“How long?” 
She meant to speak more clearly, but the words had come out as a hissing whisper, like she was the one in physical agony. 
Astral looked at her, and tried to maintain his gaze—but couldn’t for more than a few seconds. A weary sigh, too weary for a stallion his age, escaped him. “The doctors couldn’t give more than an estimate when I was first diagnosed. Initially they said that it’d probably won’t happen until way down the line.”
“But things have changed,” she inferred. “This fainting spell.”
“Yes. It might have shortened things.”
“By how much?”
He wouldn’t—or couldn’t—say.
After another bout of silence, one that lasted just for all the children to leave and the silence of the forest to return, Chamomile asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Astral looked helplessly at her. “Would it have mattered?”
“Of course it would have!” She got off the bench and faced him with a glare. She wanted him to flinch. She wanted him to feel threatened by her. But all he did was keep that helpless look. And this only made her angrier. “Astral, how could you not tell me this?! I could have helped! I could have—”
“It’s terminal.”
“That’s beside the point!” She stomped her hoof on the dirt, her voice rising. She didn’t care if anypony inside the doctor’s office heard her. “I am your wife, mister! I made a promise that I’d be with you in sickness and in health! Well, I’ve been with you for the latter, and I have every intention of being with you in the former!”
“I know,” Astral said quietly. He lowered his head. “I know, and you’re right. I shouldn’t have concealed it from you.”
She forced herself to take a deep breath, and when she next spoke, it was with measured calm. “Then if you knew… why didn’t you say anything?”
“Because I am a selfish pony, no matter what you think of me,” he said.
That threw her off. She nearly stumbled back. “What—selfish?”
“Yes.” He shook his head, then brought it back up. He was smiling, but the smile was as sad and as lonely as the moon. “I’m selfish, because I was happy when we met, and I didn’t want to lose that happiness no matter what.” 
Chamomile’s mind reeled. “No, no. That’s not right, Astral. You’re not—you’re not selfish for… for…”
“But I am, my dear.” He slowly rose off the bench, his jacket sweeping under him like a cloak of loathsome darkness—her mind conjured up an image of a casket with a burial cloth covering it, and she shivered. “I am, undoubtedly, one of the most selfish ponies to have ever lived. Because I was afraid to tell you the truth. Because I thought happiness could only mean that one thing.”
He looked at her again. He was trying to be brave, trying to be noble in his confession, but she had known and loved him long enough to recognize the tiniest quiver of his lips, which occurred when he was at his most stressed; to note the flickering of his eyes as they attempted to determine what the subject before him was thinking of him; to detect the warble in his voice that indicated he was close to letting out a vengeful, horrid wail, the kind that would rail against the tragedy of his condition. 
“That’s the truth,” he said quietly. “All of it. I swear it to you.”
So you say, she thought. But how can I take that oath? An oath lasts longer than a pony does. But what does it mean when the pony isn’t meant for this world for long? Does the oath last longer than their last word?
The humidity rose off their shoulders and a fresh, late afternoon coolness settled. Astral’s eyes were a metallic hue, unblinking in their sincerity. “Do you hate me for it?” he asked.
She almost didn’t hear him. Her mind was awash with sensations and half-thoughts. She was a traveler onboard the vessel to the underworld, surrounded by the infinite abysses of suffering and sorrow. But his words—and how scared they sounded—gradually made their way through the passage into her ear, and she looked at him with deep pity.
“No,” she said. “I don’t. I never could.”
He looked like he was about to cry. She didn’t let him see if he did, however, for she stepped forward rapidly and embraced him, pressing her muzzle against his neck. She could feel both of them shaking. 
“We’ll find a way, Astral,” she whispered. “I promise you that, and I promise I’ll keep trying no matter what you or the doctors think.”
He laughed hollowly. “You’re a stubborn mare… but I suppose that’s what I love about you.”
“But promise me one thing.”
“No more secrets, please. Nothing between us but the truth. Can you do that?” She pulled back to look at him. “Can you do that for me, for us?”
He didn’t hesitate. “I promise.”
But he did not stop shaking.