The creaking of a metal handle rang out, and the loud rush of water in the other room came to an end. "Alright, Cranky..." the griffon called from beyond the half-closed door. "Got your bath set up, your bed is made, and I'm about to bring your dinner. Anything else?"
"No, I... I think that's about all of it," Cranky replied. His eyes never left the pages before him. "Thank you, my dear."
A female griffon in a white uniform emerged from the bathroom, a small cloud of steam from the bathtub creeping out after her. Though the clothes covered up most of it, Cranky could still catch a glimpse of her flawless white and blue plumage.
"Don't mention it," she said with a smile. "And you really don't need to say 'thank you' all the time. This has to be the hundredth time just today." Her talon patted the old donkey's shoulder as she walked up behind him. "It's my job, you know..."
Cranky shrugged and smiled as well. "I know. It just feels better if I say it anyway," he said, pausing for a moment as his gaze wandered out the window before him. A pair of old oak trees wavered in the breeze outside. One had already lost almost all of its leaves, while the other still clung stubbornly to its yellow canopy.
He smiled again at the sight and turned to wink at his caretaker. "And isn't that what this place is for? 'Making me feel better'?"
The griffon laughed and shook her head. "Fine, you crazy old kook. Have it your way." She jabbed him gently in the side, turned around, and walked to the other side of the room.
After making sure that everything else was cleaned up and organized, she stepped outside for a few minutes and came back carrying a tray laden with two bowls of food and a mug of tea.
"Here you go," she announced. "Hot veggie soup, hot oatmeal, and very hot black tea. Compliments of the top-class chefs at Stonewall Retirement Community."
"Thank you very much, Liz," Cranky said. He quickly slid the papers out of the way as she put down the tray on the desk before him. With slight hesitation, he picked up the spoon, dipped it into the soup, and took a quick sip. He licked his lips and chuckled again. "Mmm... I recognize the spices. You might not have much of a kitchen back home, but you make a mean soup." He quickly sampled the scent of the tea as well. "And how did you know this is my favorite?"
Liz shrugged and gave a weak smile. "Yeah, alright... You got me," she said. "And it's okay if you don't want to eat it now. I can tell you're not in the mood."
"I'll eat it all, don't worry." Cranky set the tray aside and brought back his papers and quill. "Listen, uh..." he began. "You really don't need to stay. Thank you... For everything. Really..." His hoof waved toward the door. "Now go on. They're probably waiting for you back home."
"Now don't start that again," Liz replied. She went through the drawers next to Cranky's bed one last time to see if everything was in order. "You remember what I promised. And after what you did for us, this is the least I can do in return."
"Well... I know, but... isn't this a little too much?" he said. "You paying to let me stay here?"
"Bah!" Liz waved it off. "With all the rich families spending a fortune to dump their old in here, even the janitors get paid like royalty. Letting you stay is just an extra half hour I had to take on." She quickly fluffed the pillows on the bed and smoothed the wrinkles on the sheets. "Like I said: the least I can do."
She straightened herself once the bed was done, smoothed out the wrinkles in her outfit, and returned to the other room to check on her patient's bath. "Besides," she went on, "the little guys know why I'm here for so long. Did you know they ask about you every day when I get home?"
Cranky chuckled. "You could bring them here one of these days. We always had a lot of fun."
Liz returned the chuckle. "Well, I know they'd make a spectacular mess... Just like they always do."
After they went silent, the old donkey sat back in his chair for a moment and closed his eyes. His nostrils were caressed by the aroma of the food, which mingled with the scent of soap and warm steam coming from the bathroom. Behind him, he could hear Liz moving up and down the room, no doubt trying to find something else to take care of. It made him smile.
Music from the band that played in the common room seeped in gently through the floor beneath his hooves. He opened his eyes again and let his gaze wander over his belongings, all of them now spotless and organized thanks to the young griffon's efforts. His old clothes were all stacked up in his dresser. His polished, dark-brown wooden furniture and yellow papered walls – parts of the old-fashioned design of the place – shimmered flawlessly in the afternoon glow. The old mementos from his journeys stood proudly in neat rows on the shelves. Even the carpet beneath his hooves was old and worn, though not a speck of dust could be found on it.
Everything here makes me feel old...
He shook his head to banish such thoughts and glanced out the window to stare at those two trees again. The way their branches were entangled made it look as though the two were hugging, the one at the edge of life still clinging to the one that had succumbed.
Cranky gave a long sigh. "I've lived too damn long..." he whispered.
"Hmm?" Liz paused in her motions.
"Oh, nothing..." he said. Placing his forelegs on the desk, he leaned forward and rested his head on his hooves. "I just... I'm trying to work out this passage, and... it's making my head hurt..."
Liz raised an eyebrow and noticed the papers half-obscured by the donkey's hooves on the desk. "You know, I never thought to ask before, but... what is it that you're writing, anyway?" she asked.
"A few memories, a few ideas... Though now I'm thinking about turning it into a story," Cranky said. "Change a few names, choose a different setting, things like that." He gave another sigh. "The memories, all the real details... I think I'd like to keep those for myself."
"Okay..." Liz scratched at the blue and white feathers on her head awkwardly and took a few steps closer. "And what kind of story are we talking about?"
"See for yourself," he replied. With a smile, he leaned back in his chair and turned around. His hoof stretched out toward the griffon, a bundle of papers in its grip.
Hesitantly, Liz accepted the pages and slowly browsed through them, careful not to create any wrinkles or smudge the still-drying ink. She read each passage that caught her attention half-aloud to herself, while Cranky paid close attention to her reactions. He could see her eyes narrow a little every time she mouthed words such as "pony," "magic," or "friendship."
Finally, after skimming through the last few pages, Liz handed the writings back with an amused snort. "Pfff... Forgive me, but... this is just ridiculous," she said and shook her head. "'Friendship lessons'? Give me a break..."
She leaned back and stared at him, but Cranky did not say anything. An unwavering smile remained on his face as he took the papers back.
Her jaw dropped. "Seriously?" she said. "Do you really think there's anything to learn from these ponies?"
"Why not?" Cranky returned the pages to the desk and turned back to his caretaker. "I've been pretty happy while I lived in Ponyville. Learned quite a few things, too. Look, they even gave me this fancy toupee," he added with a grin and pointed at the golden headpiece on one of the shelves. "Quite a story how I got that one..."
"Good for you," Liz said. She sat down on her haunches and crossed her arms. "Good for them. They seem to live in such a perfect little world. But not everyone can be as lucky as they are. So why should any of their stories matter to us?"
"They could lead us by example?" Cranky suggested in a playful tone.
"Yeah, right..." The griffon rolled her eyes. "As if you could say any of this an 'example'..."
The donkey raised an eyebrow. "What's the matter, kid?" he asked. "Why the bitter attitude toward something so positive?"
"Look, it's a cute idea, but... That's not how people are," she said and looked away. "I mean, it's easy for those who live in a wealthy and safe world to talk about 'love' or 'friendship' or whatever. It's not hard to be good in a good place."
"Well, it wasn't always good..."
"Wow, tell me more," Liz grumbled. "What happened? Did somepony's muffins go stale? Did they forget to brush their teeth one day?" She laughed. "Seriously, what kind of challenges did they ever have to meet?"
"Quite a few, actually." Cranky did a quick search through the pages. "See? They've been hit by parasprites, changelings, dragons... Even a creature of pure chaos once tried to split them apart."
"Obviously..." Liz said. She glanced at the boxes of medications piled up on a nearby shelf and shook her head.
Cranky noticed the odd look she was giving him. "You don't believe me, do you?" he asked with a smile.
"Well, I... Look, that's not really the point," Liz stammered and held up her claws defensively. "And even if it's all true, I don't think that it helps."
"Is that so? What makes you say that?"
"It's not hard to make friends during a crisis." She got up and paced around a little. "When everyone is in big trouble, people tend to take care of each other, simply because that's what works best. But those times don't compare to the, shall we say, 'tests of friendship' in everyday life."
Cranky leaned back in his chair and listened to her intently.
"No one really cares about anyone else..." Liz went on. "Not as soon as it's time to take care of themselves." She paused for a moment and stared deeply into his eyes, her voice dropping almost to a whisper. "Not unless you need the other to help you..."
Cranky did not look away. He just smiled and reached out to pat her shoulder lightly. "Well, there you have it," he said. "What's the difference?"
"That it's selfish." The griffon's eyes twitched, and her beak trembled a little. "It's not really 'friendship'. Out here, it's just 'you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours'..."
"Well, I can assure you, these ponies were better than that." Cranky glanced at the papers once more. His eyes caught on a small photograph that was clipped to the first page. He placed his hoof on it and brushed it gently. "It seemed like there was... I don't know, something magical about them..."
"Well, duh..." Liz chuckled and rolled her eyes again. "That princess used to be a unicorn, and now she's an alicorn, right? There was bound to be some magic along the way..."
"No, I mean... Not that kind of magic..." he stammered. "Well, actually... Yes, it was kind of like that, but... It was still different. Something far beyond the mere parlor tricks we normally call 'magic.'"
"What, did it give them power for some sort of 'super powerful magic duel' or whatever?" Liz asked.
"No, power has nothing to do with this," Cranky said. His gaze lost focus as he became immersed in his own thoughts. "This wasn't a magic for one to wield. This was magic to be absorbed. To be shared. It was as though they could use it to spread life and love to even the darkest corners of the world."
"Splendid..." Liz said. She wiped her eyes and crossed her arms again with an annoyed huff. "So why does the story end there? How come those ponies aren't sharing any of that 'wonderful magic' with us?" She nodded her head toward the lands visible through the window. "We could sure use it to fix a few things around here."
"Maybe because I have yet to write the rest of it," Cranky quipped. He leaned over the pages and picked up his quill.
"Well, don't keep me waiting then," Liz said. With a long sigh, she got back to her feet, walked up to the old donkey, and placed a reassuring claw on his shoulder. "Besides, I did promise to help out along the way, didn't I?"
"I'm very glad that you did," Cranky replied and glanced at her. His caretaker was smiling, but he could tell that something was eating away at her on the inside.
"There you go with that look again," he said. "What's on your mind?"
Liz hesitated for a moment. "You know," she began, "I always loved folk tales. The story, the characters, everything. But something never felt quite right about them. It took me a while to learn that when they first appeared, these stories didn't have any happy endings. People just gave them a few, I guess so they'd be easier to stomach." She shook her head. "But that doesn't really help. We always want that good ending, so whenever we didn't get it, we tried to think of ways there could have been one. That's how we learned a lesson."
"And?" Cranky turned around to face her again.
"Well, if you give it a happy ending, then we can just move on." The griffon was pacing around again. "We won't learn anything. We'll always just expect everything to turn out alright somehow in the end. And that's not how it works. The world isn't that simple. We have to make things turn out well."
"Anyway, that's kinda how I feel about this story." Liz looked at the papers and shrugged. "It's cute, and I guess the morals make sense, but it's just too much of a fantasy for me. I can't expect a dream world to save my own."
Her words did not just bounce off this time. Cranky gave a deep sigh and put down his quill. "Maybe you're right..." he said, burying his face in his forehooves. "It really is silly and worthless, isn't it?"
"Hey, come on now..." Liz blurted out and rushed to his side. "That's not what I said..."
She froze when the old donkey raised his head and chuckled again. "Yep, you could be right," he said. "But maybe that isn't the reason why we let them have happy endings."
Liz cocked her head to one side. "Huh?"
"Sometimes, we long for the darkness," Cranky began. "We want to feel bad so we can then remind ourselves of all the good that surrounds us. But sometimes, we want the light instead. We want to feel something good. We want to hear a happy story to know that there can be good in the world."
The griffon's jaw dropped again, making her patient chuckle. "Wait... What?" she said. "I mean... I get that a nice story is better from time to time, but... This one... It's just too nice. Of all the things you must have lived through, you want to write about a fairy tale?"
Cranky just smiled. "Kid, I've spent decades wandering throughout Equestria even before I ended up in Ponyville. I've seen many things and met many kinds of folk." He turned to look at the items on the shelves nearby. At the sight of each one, his ears twitched as the roar of the great cities found them once more. His bones ached slightly, and he could almost feel the weight of his cart on his back. "Most of them deserve to have their stories told," he said with a sigh. "But I won't have the time to tell them all."
Liz opened her beak, but her voice got caught in her throat as the donkey turned back to her.
"Like you said: the world isn't a fairy tale," he went on. "But it isn't as bad a place as we like to think it is. And these..." He tapped his hoof gently on the papers before him. "These right here are the stories that tell us about that. They are the ones we need the most."
Liz could only stare in shock. Finally, she just huffed and shook her head. "Alright, maybe that's true," she said. "But all these silly little adventures and stuff?" It was her turn to laugh. "Can't really send a message when no one's going to take it seriously."
She glanced at the photograph on the front page. "Especially not with a filly like that." One of her talons pointed at a pink pony on the picture. "What was her name again? 'Pinkie Pie'?"
Cranky laughed as well. "That filly..." he said. "She always did tell me the strangest things. And she talked so fast that it made your head spin."
Liz frowned. "Sounds like something that would drive me crazy," she muttered.
"I did feel that way at first," Cranky said and looked at the picture again. "But, thinking back now, it was the best thing that ever happened to me."
The donkey nodded. "I owe most of my knowledge of their adventures to her," he said. "Strange as it may sound, I wouldn't trade her account for any other."
Liz smiled as she sat down on the edge of Cranky's bed. "It sounds like you had some good friends back there," she said. "In fact, that 'Ponyville' place sounds a lot better than this dump. So how come you left them behind?"
Cranky closed his eyes and shook his head. "Believe me, I didn't want to," he said, almost whispering. His forehooves trembled as he lifted them weakly to rub his temples. "It hurt me more than anything in my life. It hurts me to this day. But..." He sighed, and his gaze wandered out the window again. "The pain would have been worse if I were to stay."
Liz did not speak this time, merely listened and watched as the donkey before her shrunk slowly, as though a great weight were crushing him.
"Like I said: I've lived too damn long," he went on and took a deep breath. "But I want to use what little time I have left to make things right." His hooves gripped the edges of the desk tightly. Strength returned to his voice as he fought back against the jaws of time. "I want the magic of my friends to find others. They deserve that much from me in return."
The griffon did not say anything just yet. She slowly got up and walked up to her patient once more. Leaning over his shoulder, she took one last look at his work spread out on the desk. The page he had most recently been working on was only half-filled. It contained a passage that described how he settled down in Ponyville. How "the most annoying pony he ever met" became his first friend there. How she helped him find something precious that he had lost.
She leaned a bit closer and narrowed her eyes. The lines on this page looked strained and uneven compared to the ones that came before it, as though it were a great burden to put each word on paper.
Liz stepped back. "Got a title yet?" she asked.
Cranky sighed and slowly shook his head. "Not really... Just a placeholder, I suppose," he said.
"Let me have a look..." Liz said and carefully uncovered the first page. "Hmm... 'Friends Forever'?"
"You don't like it?" Cranky asked and looked up at her.
"Not bad," she said and scratched her head thoughtfully. "It doesn't really pack a punch, though." She handed the page back and pointed at the photograph, upon which six colorful ponies were grouped together, a wide smile on all of their faces. "That 'magic' you talked about... Why not try and work it in there somehow?"
"I'll give it a thought," the donkey muttered as he stared at the picture. His smug expression slowly returned as he faced her once more. "Let me sleep on it."
Liz chuckled. "Alright, alright... I get it," she said and made her way to the door. "See ya tomorrow then, Cranky!"
"Excuse me! Elizabeth?" a stallion with a purple coat and black mane called out from behind the reception desk. "Could you come over here, please?"
The griffon halted halfway through the exit and turned around. "Yes, Mr. Bastion?" she replied.
"We have yet to update your employee information," the pony said as he opened a large folder on the desk before him. "Could you please fill out this form?"
She gave an annoyed grunt, but her legs were already dragging her back. "Right away, boss," she grumbled.
The stallion just smiled obliviously and gave her a quill once she reached the desk. Liz pulled up a chair for herself, sat down, leaned over the papers, and went through the tedious process of filling them out.
Name: Elizabeth Talar
She paused at that line and looked up at Bastion. The stallion just shrugged. Liz sighed, and the quill in her claw moved on, leaving the space blank.
Legal guardian's name (leave blank if it matches the above line): Cranky Doodle Donkey
Legal guardian's residence: Granite Mound, Peak #13
Personal residence (leave blank if it matches the above line):
The rest of the form seemed to just blur together as the quill danced across the pages, filling them out in quick succession. Once she was finished, she stacked up the papers and handed them back to the stallion behind the desk.
"Thank you," he said while sliding the folder back into its drawer. "By the way, that promotion is still open. Are you sure you don't want it?"
"I'd love it more than anything in the world," Liz replied and looked away. "Better pay, lighter work, fewer hours... It would be a dream come true."
Bastion leaned a bit closer. "But... What?" he asked hesitantly.
The griffon sighed and turned back to him. "It would mean I wouldn't be able to see him that often," she said.
"Huh." The stallion raised an eyebrow and smiled. "You sure sound like you don't want to let that old donkey down. I remember, even before that little trouble with the house, you worked real hard every day to help him."
"Well, I'm not about to slack off and get myself fired, am I?" Liz replied.
Bastion chuckled. "Yeah, yeah... But after a while it almost looked like you were up to something. Maybe trying to pry some knowledge out of that poor soul. Does he have a secret treasure or something?"
"That's one way of putting it..." she muttered.
"Can we come and visit the funny donkey? Pretty please!"
"Yeah! Can we go? Please?"
The griffon gave a loud groan as she desperately tried to stay above the barrage from the young pair. The little rascals were relentless. She could barely get a word in as they tortured her constantly, alternating between tugging on her legs and screaming into her ears.
"Can we? Can we? Huh? Huh?"
"Okay, okay!" Liz cried. Her talons reached out to grab their beaks and silence them. "Just keep it down already!"
"Yaaaay!" the two griffon cubs shouted in unison as soon as she let go. They spread their little wings and soared all over the room, chanting the whole time. Liz buried her face in her claws with another groan, but eventually just shook her head and laughed at their antics.
The doorbell rang. Liz quickly yelled at the two cubs to be silent and trotted up to the front door. A young pegasus wearing a mailpony's hat stood outside.
"Elizabeth Talar?" he whimpered. His hooves tugged on the strap of his bag nervously, and he kept turning his head left and right, staring at the harsh terrain around him.
"Yes, that's me," Liz replied. She could barely hold back a grin. Despite the fact that most of them could fly, this part of the mountain range still seemed to terrify almost everyone who ventured out here. No doubt the sight of an old and crumbling cottage in such a harsh and remote place made them fear the thought of whoever might live inside.
"I've brought a package for you," he said. Reaching into his bag, he retrieved a large packet wrapped in brown paper. There was an envelope on top of it. She picked it up and twirled it between her talons, but could not find any writing on it.
"Sign here, please," the pony said with a shaky voice, breaking her concentration. She accepted the notepad and the quill in his hooves and scribbled her name on the dotted line. "Thank you," he said after she handed everything back. "Have a good day, Miss!"
Liz just waved him goodbye and watched as the pony galloped off, giving himself a running start before taking to the air. She waited until he disappeared behind a nearby peak, after which she went back inside.
"Come on, guys!" she called out to the others. "If you want to visit him, then we need to get going right now."
The kids did not need any more encouragement. Less than a minute later, the three of them were soaring between the mountaintops, gradually descending toward a small settlement in a valley nearby. Since the cubs were too young to fly on their own, she carried them under her forelegs to keep them safe during the flight.
Within minutes, they descended on the outskirts of town, the mature griffon's legs touching down near a sign that read "Welcome to Granite Mound!" From here, they made the rest of their journey on foot. The cubs giggled and immediately broke out of her embrace to sprint ahead. Liz smiled. She could have taken them straight to her workplace, but the rascals needed to have a little free movement every once in a while.
As they made their way toward the retirement home, Liz took the bundle she received earlier that morning out of her bag. Holding the package in one claw, she used her sharp talons on the other to neatly slice the envelope open and retrieved the letter inside. As the page unfolded, her heart leaped when her eyes landed on familiar hoofwriting.
I don't know when this is going to get to you. The instructions I gave to the administration here should, in theory, make sure it arrives on your birthday, but the system in this place can make the postal service look like a speeding Wonderbolt. No matter how it turns out, though, I wanted to get this done while I could still walk on my own four hooves.
I've auctioned off most of my belongings that I've collected over the years. Many of them are very close to my heart, but I figured that precious mementos won't mean anything once I move on to a different place. I thought about giving them all to you, but I doubt they would have held the same value in your eyes.
However, it seems their value in bits did turn out to be as high as I believe they deserve. And with that sorted out, it only makes sense that I give you something a bit more practical than a pile of junk and memories hoarded by an old donkey.
In this envelope, you will find a document where I leave all but a tenth of my monetary possessions to you. I will not write down the exact sum, but I can assure you that you and your brothers won't have any financial troubles for a long time. In case they moved you three to a shelter by the time you get this, then rest assured: today is the last day you have to spend there.
The rest of the money is for taking care of what is left of me, as well as a donation to the Community and the town for letting me have such a wonderful stay. There's also a bit of legal nonsense in there where you get the house and everything else back. As promised, I only took it for safekeeping.
The numbers themselves don't deserve to be in this letter, though. It feels wrong, for this is taking the easy way out when it comes to being charitable. There will always be money. There will always be expensive things to buy or sell. None of them are the most valuable things we can give in life.
I imagine such a view might surprise you. I wasn't sure of it at first either. But this is just one of the many things that I've learned among those ponies I told you so much about.
Please give my best wishes to the two little rascals. Tell them the "funny old donkey" is too tired for any more laughs, so he needs to rest for now. When he's better again, he'll try to think of a few new tricks.
I have learned much in Ponyville, but not enough. I wasn't brave enough to stay there. Once I left, I could focus on what I needed to do, but I was alone again. So when I arrived here, I promised myself not to make the same mistake as before. I would not push away a gentle soul ever again.
It was a blessing that I found you. You were a perfect friend for me during my time of need. Thank you for staying by my side all this time. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything that you did for me.
I hope I've been a good friend.
Cranky Doodle Donkey
"What's it say? What's it say?" the kids chanted as they ran up to her. Liz did not reply. She glanced at the package again. Despite what the letter said, she could easily tell that it contained a lot more than just legal and business documents.
As they approached the community building, she noticed the pair of oak trees outside the old donkey's window. Both had lost their canopies, the two now reduced to a skeleton of dark trunks and empty branches. The only reminder left was a thick carpet of leaves beneath them, which was currently being raked into a large pile by the gardeners.
She stopped and stared at the husks for a while. A smile crept onto her face.
The leaves were gone, but the branches were still hugging each other.