All things considered, I suppose we could have been worse off. As it was, teaching Vinyl and Octavia how to set traps for small animals did wonders to take both my mind and theirs off of what had happened not too long ago, and it was a practical learning experience for all involved -- it had in fact been six years since I had put my skills to any use, but it would now keep us alive, so I needed to be sure we all knew how to do our part to work together and survive.
All of that having been said, finding a dead body and evidence of dangerous predators in the area didn’t do much to raise our confidence.
I knew how to survive in the wilderness of Earth -- even with other large predators in the area -- but the addition of Equestrian fauna had thrown a wrench in the whole thing. The fact of the matter was, I found myself very unsure of how I would need to work and live around things like wyverns, manticores, popping cats, and chimaerae; for those, I relied on Vinyl’s surprisingly extensive knowledge of Equestrian wild animals to be sure I wasn’t unknowingly drawing undue attention to ourselves, and Octavia’s uncommon physical strength and agility to help protect us from anything that might catch us unawares. We hadn’t come across anything yet, but truthfully, it was only a matter of time.
In retrospect, I suppose I should have purchased a bigger gun, but, luckily for me, I had two strong pony ladies to back me up the whole time.
Vinyl was a walking knowledgebase, full of information both useful and entertaining. As she explained it, unicorns were best known for their magical prowess, as they tended to be physically inferior to the other two pony subspecies, so they often focused on gaining knowledge and mastery of the arcane. However, since Vinyl knew ahead of time that she would be deprived of her magic for some time to come, before the whole “event” had happened, she spent the preceding years learning and memorizing every bit of useful information she could; that would ensure that, even without her magic, she would be a force to be reckoned with. As it stood, she was well-versed in the arts of alchemy, astronomy, magitech engineering, electronics, acoustic physics, and even minor biology, just to name a few fields. Also, by the way her friend Octavia explained it, Vinyl was a musical prodigy (which was rare for a unicorn), and even her magic was sound-based.
By comparison, Octavia was affectionately dubbed “the muscle” by Vinyl, and the moniker stood true simply by observation. After only a few days to recover from a traumatic event, Octavia was physically stronger than I was, and her admittedly attractive curves belied a hidden strength that was part nature, and part nurture. I learned that earth ponies (the name for ponies without wings or a horn) were occasionally considered the lesser of the three subspecies (usually by unicorn nobles), but in truth, they made up for the lack of the ability to manipulate magic and fly by being uncommonly physically strong and resilient, as well as having better hearing and a denser bone-structure than the other two types of ponies. Historically, earth ponies were known for tilling the land and feeding the masses through farming and livestock, and to do so, they had to be strong. In general, earth ponies made the best farmers, musicians, dancers, and front-line soldiers, using their augmented physical strength, dexterity, agility, and creativity to overcome nearly all obstacles they came across.
Honestly, being in the presence of two specialized creatures, I felt rather mundane by comparison. Humans weren’t the strongest creature that walked the Earth, the quickest, nor the longest-lived, but we had somehow fought our way to the top of Earth’s food chain, through our intelligence and ingenuity. What humans lacked in the physical attributes, we made up for with endurance and cunning, being able to outlast or outwit all the other creatures we came across, using our technology to surmount our shortcomings. The problem was, these ponies outclassed us at nearly every avenue: they had their own technology, which in most ways was equal to our own, as well as being physically superior to us as a species; from what Vinyl had told me, a strong earth pony male guard in full armor could outrun a wolf, and was able to flip a car simply by ramming it with a sprinting shoulder. Unicorns could manipulate the world -- and the minds of people -- through magic, and pegasi had the ability to control meteorological events, or even completely stop them.
As I conversed with them, I came to realize that one of only a few things that humans did better than ponies was war, and I still don’t think that’s something any “civilized” race wants to be known for being the best at. In truth, humans didn’t have an excuse not to be good at war, as we had basically been finding reasons to kill one another since the dawn of our species, so it made sense we had learned better and more efficient ways to do so. I explained to Vinyl and Octavia about just a few of the methods of combat we used, and they were amazed at our ability to have more than one type -- guerilla warfare, for example, was an unknown concept to them, but they quickly recognized the usefulness of ambush tactics in unknown terrain by a smaller force to overcome a larger, stronger adversary. Then, just for fun, I told them about one of mankind’s most famous military moments in history, trying my best to keep Hollywood’s exaggerations out of it.
“So wait a minute,” Vinyl broke in, momentarily pausing in her setting of a simple snare, “a few hundred of these ‘Spartans’ held back, like, a million men?”
I shrugged idly. “History books say it was a million, but modern researchers recently found it was likely to be closer to a hundred to maybe 150,000 men, and the Spartans probably had somewhere in the number of six to seven hundred on their side. Still, you can see the vast difference in forces between them.” I nodded to Vinyl, motioning for her to continue her work as I spoke. “Anyway, those few hundred men held off a superior force for seven days before they were defeated, all because of the clever use of force multipliers and superior training per soldier. True that Spartans wouldn’t stand a chance against soldiers from this time period, but for their time, they were among the greatest warriors the world has ever seen.” At that time, Vinyl also finished setting the trap and I looked over her shoulder to inspect it. Finding it satisfactory, I nodded and patted her shoulder gently, handing her a plastic bag filled with bits of food. “Good, now bait it, and we’ll check it tomorrow. We’ll set up about five or six more out here before we head back, and that should be enough for the time being.”
“Where did you learn to do all of this?” Vinyl questioned, taking my hand as I helped her stand.
I shrugged and turned away, scanning the area for good trap placements. “I’m self-taught, mostly. I’ve always been one of those paranoid types of people that wondered ‘what if’, so I made sure to be prepared in case civilization collapsed. Me and…” I stopped short before I could say Kyle’s name, reminded of the fact that I didn’t know if he was even alive. Again, as if it were fresh, the entire situation crashed down on me, and I physically stumbled because of my momentary loss of focus. I mentally scolded myself: I didn’t have time to be worrying about other people, when I had three ponies, Jenna, and Bailey that were counting on me to be strong and pull my weight.
“Alex?” Octavia’s voice rang in, concern flowing strong in her tone. I felt her hand settle on my shoulder, and I resisted brushing it off rudely.
I still gently pulled away, shaking my head. “I’m fine...just got a headache. C’mon, let’s finish setting the rest of the traps before night falls.” I glanced over my shoulder to see Octavia’s shining violet eyes boring into me, but she nodded and walked past me as we began to tromp through the snowy forest.
As usual, Bailey took point, using her superior senses to sniff out or hear any threats before they could get to us, as well as identify anything of interest that the rest of us might miss. Being the only one of us that was significantly armed, I brought up the rear, which left Octavia and Vinyl in the middle of our little group. As of yet, we hadn’t come across any threats, but I knew that it would only be a matter of time before we did: it might not be today or tomorrow, but at some point, I was going to have to use my pistol to protect us.
I still didn’t know how I was going to deal with that, but that bridge had yet to be reached, so I did my best to put it to the back of my mind and focus on the present.
Much as I had planned, we spent the remaining hour or so of daylight setting up the remainder of our small traps, and I kept an eye out for obvious signs of any large predators nearby. Luckily, there was no sign of any ground-based predators that I could see, which set me somewhat at ease; however, even with that being the case, I had to remind myself that Equestria had large predators that could fly, so the lack of prints in the snow could mean nothing. I could only hope that the Equestrians’ specific knowledge would help, should we come across something I was ignorant about.
Even with the trap-laying and scouting to keep me busy, the troubling thoughts wouldn’t completely leave me alone, and I occasionally found myself having to nearly physically shake myself to get my head back in the game. At some point, I’d need to have a sit down with myself to come to terms with the unfortunate possibilities swimming around in my mind, but currently, I had to focus on making sure our safe haven remained as such, and that we wouldn’t starve to death. As I had been doing for the past few days, I reminded myself that I wasn’t the only person counting on me, so I had to be sure to stay focused, and keep a cool head.
We arrived back at the cabin just as the sun hit the horizon, turning the sky into a beautiful tapestry of red, orange, pink, and violet. I said nothing as I methodically brushed off and removed my winter gear, pleased that the remainder of the day had passed without incident. After such a long, tiring day, I was looking forward to some warm food and time spent in front of the fire with my new acquaintances.
“Hey guys,” Jenna called as she entered the main room with the radio in hand, “listen to this. It’s been playing for the past hour or so, and I’ve got no clue what it is.”
Jenna set the radio on the coffee table and turned up the volume, taking a seat next to a previously-napping Celestia as we all listened. For a few seconds, there was nothing but static, but that was followed by a series of short little blips followed by long tones in different combinations. It only took me a few seconds to recognize morse code -- which, like a dork, I had learned for just this type of situation -- so I quickly grabbed the pad of paper on the table and pulled a pen out of the small sleeve on the side of it, and began writing down the code as it came. The sequences only continued for another five minutes before it immediately dropped off, and there was only static. With obvious breaks in the code, it offered some semblance of a sentence or something, but when I looked at it, the code didn’t make any sense to me.
“What the hell…?” I mumbled, pivoting the page as I tried to figure out just what it all meant. It was clearly a code of some sort, but I wasn’t clever enough to decipher what it meant: it obviously couldn’t be binary, it wasn’t a numeric substitution code, and there weren’t any actual words in the sequence, which meant that it was a code for someone specific that only they would know. The first number might refer to the time on a 24-hour clock, but-
“Turn to AM1340.” Vinyl requested quietly, looking directly at me. “The first number’s a radio frequency, and the middle letters refer to the Equestrian Special Forces. Someone’s about to say something.”
“It’s Cadence.” Celestia voiced from beside me, quietly, as if speaking any louder would make it untrue. “The ‘R’ stands for ‘royal’, and the rest is the year 972PNN, which was the year Cadence was born.” Celestia then smirked at me. “I told you she was going to send a message sooner or later.”
I followed the request and tuned to the proper frequency, then turned the volume up and slowly cranked the dynamo to ensure we didn’t lose power. We waited patiently through the static for many minutes, but just as I was about to suggest that we may have made an incorrect assumption, the radio crackled and clicked, which was the telltale sign of an antique analogue radio coming on.
“...ESF4243, callsign ‘Fury4’, reporting. This is a message for Equestrians and friends of Equestrians...may this message find its way to them. Contact has been made with at least 40% of the ESF, and Alpha03 has been secured. Alpha03 will speak now.”
The previous female voice dropped away with a click, and with another click, another voice began speaking. Though the second voice had a gentler tone and a higher pitch, it sounded somehow more powerful than the previous person.
“This is Alpha03, callsign ‘Heartbreaker’. On behalf of Equestria, I extend my condolences to those who have been displaced because of this great event, as well as those that have lost loved ones. Know that you are not alone, and help will always be there for those who need it most, should they seek it. To our fellow Equestrians, do what you can to survive and locate allies among the locals; to the locals, please do what you can to work with us to overcome this time of great change. Know that we are not your enemies -- we are victims of this event every bit as much as you all are. Though some may fear this to be an invasion, I wish to stress that our people are victims of circumstance just as much as humans are: the majority of us do not seek to take advantage of any of you. Much has changed, and your world will never be the same, but all is not lost.
“Together, we can forge a greater future than any of us ever imagined, and I believe in the friendship and love of our new allies. The power of this friendship is evidenced by the fact that I am alive and well, and making this broadcast with the help of a new human friend. Lastly, for my aunt,” Celestia sat up a bit straighter at this, and her ears stood straight up, “know that I am safe and whole, despite a few close calls here and there. I hope you are also well and unharmed, and I hope to see you again soon. Until next time, my new friends and allies.”
The radio went back to static again, the message apparently finished, so we waited for another few moments before turning it off and sitting quietly to digest all we had just heard. If the information was accurate, Celestia’s niece and one of the Equestrian Special Forces soldiers had been taken in by a friendly human, and already a network was being formed among other Equestrians. If our world was indeed a parallel dimension to theirs, it meant that it was likely their radios functioned the same as ours, but to organize and broadcast a message within just a few days…
“Heartbreaker? Really?” I blurted out with a chuckle. “That’s the princess of love’s callsign? She’s a big ol’ dork.”
Despite the situation, giggles and soft laughter spread throughout the room, and I was glad that the tense atmosphere was smoothed over quickly. I’d like to think most of it was due to my well-placed teasing of the pony that gave the message, but I knew it was predominantly due to the fact that Celestia had confirmation that her niece was safe and sound, and one of Vinyl and Octavia’s beloved princesses was okay. And, somewhere inside, I was relieved as well -- whether it was because of my empathy for Celestia or some of her lingering memories and feelings, I wasn’t sure, but there was no doubt I was quite glad to find out that Cadence was all right. I’d sort through my feelings on the matter later. For now, I believe we’d all earned something nice for dinner as a bit of a celebration…
Only for the full situation to hit me again. Amidst words and likely looks of concern, I had to once again excuse myself to keep from breaking down in front of everyone.
After taking a lukewarm shower (to preserve energy) and putting on clean clothes, I ended up sitting on the ground, leaning up against the bathtub, and finally succumbing to weakness by breaking open my hidden stash of liquor. Sure, sitting by myself and knocking back drink after drink of 80 proof liquor probably wasn’t smart or healthy, but I felt I had kept up a strong front long enough to finally be a little weak, if only just on my own. Even in my moments of self-destruction, I still couldn’t bring myself to push the burden on the others, as they had enough to deal with already.
For probably the fifth or sixth time in the past hour, I heard a knock on the door, which I completely ignored as I had done with all the others. I knew everyone was worried about me, which only made me feel worse, but I needed time to worry about me for a little bit: I had to get myself to terms with the fact that all the work I had spent doing for the past fifteen years probably meant nothing now, the rest of my family and friends might be dead, but most terrifying of all, that I had no real idea what to do beyond “live from one day to the next”.
What about the future; what about my future? What the hell was I going to do after all this blew over, if it ever did? How many people that I expected to be there in my immediate life were now gone or dead? What about...Jesus, what about when they leave?
I was no fool, and I knew for a fact that Celestia was going to leave as soon as she was physically strong enough to do so without undue risk to her, and Vinyl and Octavia would probably follow, or at the very least start searching on their own for friends that may have made it to Earth alive. When that all happened it would just be Jenna and I, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but...I had become used to the ponies being in my life. Selfish and fast as it was, I felt connected to them, and I didn’t want it to end up with just Jenna and I. Did that make me a bad person? It felt like I was a bad person for feeling that way.
And, as much as I tried to avoid it -- for multiple reasons -- I wanted Celestia to stay most of all.
After taking another swig of honey-whiskey and finding it empty, I perked up as I found the sounds from the other side of the door had completely stopped -- momentarily, of course, because the next thing I heard was Vinyl’s voice. “Alex, if you don’t open this door, Octavia’s gonna rip if off the hinges!”
“Fuck off, go away!” I shouted in response, really wishing they’d just leave me alone to wallow for a bit.
“Count of three, Alex!” Vinyl’s voice warned, which I stubbornly answered with silence.
She’s not really gonna…
The final count was followed by momentary silence, only for what sounded like a sledgehammer slamming into the wall taking its place. The “hammer” hit twice more, and then the door was unceremoniously pulled away from the doorway as if it were the easiest thing in the world, accompanied by the sound of wood tearing away. Standing in the doorway were all three ponies and Jenna, the latter of which was staring at Octavia in shock and...was that…?
“Can I just say something?” Jenna queried, and when she was answered with silence continued with, “That was pretty, um...stimulating to watch. I mean, you just handled that door like it owed you money!”
Octavia glanced to Jenna with a faint blush beginning to appear over her cheeks. “I appreciate the compliment, but I am afraid you would be wasting time on me. Females do little to nothing for me.”
“WHAT THE FUCK?!” I bellowed in surprise and anger, throwing the empty glass bottle away with a crash, and shooting to my feet -- a little unsteadily, I’ll admit.
Before I could shout anymore, Jenna looked back to me and interrupted with, “I told them to, Alex. The last time I found you locked in a bathroom was-”
“Seriously, can’t you just let that go?” I barked back irritably. “It was years ago, and I was a different person back then. Sitting down alone and processing everything with some drinks is hardly going to kill me.”
Unfortunately for me, Celestia decided to step in with a firm, “What is she referring to, Alex? Why was she so uncomfortable with leaving you alone that she would break down a door to get to you?” While she didn’t actually say it, I quite clearly picked up on Celestia’s silent plea of, “Please don’t lie to me.”
I held my ground for a few moments before releasing a drawn-out sigh and plopping down on the edge of the tub before rhetorically asking, “Did you all ever wonder why I wear long sleeves? It’s not because of the cold.” Without allowing tension to build or them to question it, I rolled up my sleeves and rolled my palms toward the ceiling. My “unveil” of two long, thick scars running over each forearm was followed by utter silence, and I had a feeling that sooner or later, one of them-
“Why?” Vinyl breathed out in a hushed tone, her word shaking slightly even so.
I shrugged nonchalantly, doing my best not to show just how much I didn’t want to talk about this. “Depression is the simplest answer, and it wasn’t even for a good reason: my family loved me and made sure I knew it, I had friends, I wasn’t going hungry or unsheltered, and I hadn’t lost anyone close to me. Even so, I felt that my situation was bad enough that I should just end it.” Despite it all, I chuckled at the idiocy of the act that almost cost me my life. “To this day -- whether because of the trauma or simply because it wasn’t important enough -- I can’t remember exactly why I thought it needed to be done...but if Jenna hadn’t found me, I wouldn’t be here today.”
“YOU’RE GODDAMN RIGHT YOU WOULDN’T!” was my only warning before the world flashed white, and I found myself suddenly looking to the right, my opposite cheek stinging something fierce -- not enough to bruise, but definitely enough to let me know I'd fucked up. I looked back to my assailant to find Jenna sucking in angry breaths through gritted teeth, even as tears began to fall down her face. When she spoke again, however, her voice was low, and cold, which was somehow far more intimidating. “The last time you did the whole ‘go off on my own’ thing, I found you in a puddle of your own blood in your shower, and you do the same thing again? How the fuck did you think I was going to act?” To my surprise, Jenna’s next act was to sit down next to me and pull me into a bone-crushing hug, sniffling a bit as she whispered, “I already had to deal with one body today, so you’re the idiot for making me worry I might see yours.”
With no other forthcoming response, I could only hold Jenna close, muttering nearly-silent apologies as I realized just how terrified she must have been because of me. Within moments, I found myself surrounded by three ponies as well, and one of Celestia’s massive white wings had curled around me, Jenna, and Vinyl.
Octavia had taken the place in front of me, kneeling and grasping my free hand while stressing, “We are thankful for saving and caring for us, but you don’t need to shoulder burdens alone.” She patted my hand with her own as she smiled at me, her large, expressive eyes locked on mine. “Ponies work together to overcome, and that includes how each member of a group is feeling. I know that your culture is different -- and I can respect that -- but we are more than willing to help you with whatever is weighing heavily on you, Alex. Please, let us in.”
“You’re our friend, or at least I’d like to think you are.” Vinyl added quietly, her hand creeping up around my back to wrap around my unoccupied shoulder. “Princess Twilight taught us that, above all else, friends stand together, no matter what. I consider you my friend, so I don’t like it when you get all mopey and shut us out, because it makes me feel like you don’t like us or something.”
Reflexively, I looked at Celestia questioningly, but she simply offered a smile as she voiced, “I believe you can guess the gist of what I’m going to tell you, Alex.”
There were four people now, holding onto me in some way or another to let me know that they didn’t want me doing what I’d just done. They wanted in, and I wasn’t so sure it was a good idea to allow that, but one look at the concerned faces around me -- especially Celestia’s -- caused my resolve to crumble, and I would have literally fallen over had they not been holding me up.
“I don’t know what happened to Kyle, and I think that’s worse than just knowing he’s dead.” I muttered, starting with what first came to mind as far as my worries. “The last time I saw him was at the hotel, shortly after the event happened, but he hasn’t made it here, so I’m not sure what happened to him. At least if I knew he was dead I could mourn him and eventually move on, but I’m stuck in limbo, because I’m hoping that he’s okay.” I’d cried my tears for the day, so my voice just came out flat and emotionless instead...which somehow sounded worse, even to my own ears.
“Would you rather he be dead?” Jenna asked, with just a bit more bite than I would have liked.
I returned her statement with a glare as I shot back, “I would rather I knew what happened to him, no matter what that is. That way I could find a way to deal with it, instead of this ‘fear the worst, hope for the best’ perpetual vortex I’m stuck in.” That was enough for them to deal with, and an omission of the complete truth wasn’t necessarily lying, so-
“Is that all, Alex?”
Goddammit…I should have known Celestia wouldn’t give me a loophole like that.
I glanced at the alicorn at my side, mentally debating actually saying what I was really feeling. I knew it was probably a bad idea, but I wasn’t able to lie to Celestia, no matter how much I wanted to: I had seen her life through my own eyes -- lived it, temporarily -- and I somehow knew just how important honesty was to her. Besides the fact that I felt connected to her beyond what I had experienced through our temporary mind-meld, I had never been good at lying to a friend’s face, and Celestia was definitely a friend. At that moment I really hoped I wouldn’t come to regret not keeping my mouth shut, honesty be damned.
“No,” I began with a long breath of defeat, “it’s not all. It’s only been a few days here, but already I consider you three ponies my friends...and I don’t do too well with saying goodbye to friends.” At the questioning looks of Octavia and Vinyl, I sucked in another steadying breath as I explained, “Celestia has already told us that she can’t stay -- and while I don’t like it, I understand -- but when you two leave, it’ll just be me and Jenna. I just…” I let out the remainder of my breath through my nose and pulled my hands away from Octavia so that I could rest my head in my hands as I let them figure out what I was actually saying.
Unfortunately, my momentary peace was broken by Celestia’s firm request. “Alex, tell us exactly what you want.”
“I DON’T WANT YOU TO LEAVE!” I shouted desperately, bursting away from the group and causing Octavia to stumble away in shock. I found myself pacing before I knew it, trying my best to keep from exploding due to the hurricane inside of me as I growled, “I might never see one of my best friends again, and three new friends are going to be leaving, meaning they might be gone too. I don’t want that, but I can’t stop it, and I just feel so goddamn useless because of it!” I stopped my pacing and thrust a finger at a startled Celestia. “When you walk out that door in a few more days, I might never see you again, and that scares the ever-living shit out of me; you’ll just be another friend I lost because I couldn’t do anything to stop it.”
Celestia momentarily found her voice, “Alex, I told you that I-”
“I know,” I interrupted in a low tone, “and I get that you have to protect your people. I understand that this is who you are and it’s what you have to do, but a part of me doesn’t care. I know this isn’t a problem I can solve like I do other things, and I understand and approve of your desire -- your primal need -- to protect and look after your people, but…” I let my trailed-off sentence hang in the air as I took a seat on the counter, slumping in defeat. “This isn’t a problem I can solve, it’s not something I can fight off, and I can’t convince some stupid bureaucrat to change something to make it better. Instead, I’m stuck here waiting for the inevitable, questioning whether it might have better if we’d never even met. And,” I held up a hand, forestalling the argument that was sure to come from at least two of the ponies, “I know, I saved you from freezing to death in the snow, so how fucked-up do you think I feel saying that? It makes me hate myself a little more just thinking about it, and it just reminds me that there’s a reason I keep my number of friends to a bare minimum: because when they leave, there’s less of them to lose.”
With my piece said, I slumped as the fire that drove me sputtered out, and I found myself more exhausted than I had been before. And I knew that regardless of what I had said, it was going to be pointless anyway, as it wouldn’t change anything. So, instead of feeling some sort of relief on getting my worries out in the open, I just felt tired, and there was nothing I wanted more than to just go to bed to sleep off the liquor and the emotional tension that had taken hold of me.
“Alex,” Vinyl called, drawing my attention as she stood and made her way over to me, “where did you get this idea that Tavi and I are going to leave?”
I shrugged helplessly. “Well it would make sense, wouldn’t it? Your pony-leader will be leaving, and I’m sure you all have friends out there that you are worried about, so-”
“Alex,” Vinyl interrupted, now standing in front of me with her ruby-red eyes boring into me, “the princess is someone I respect and admire, but Tavi and I following along with her will just slow her down. Besides that, the best thing that Tavi and I can do for our friends is survive. I mean, if you want us to go, we’ll leave, but-”
I shook my head vehemently as hope rekindled in me. “N-no, I don’t want you to go. I just thought-”
“You let your fears and anxiety get the best of you, like you always do when you have too much time to think about things alone.” Jenna surmised accurately. “Your brain came up with this crazy notion that eventually you’re going to end up all alone, but that’s not gonna happen. This is what happens when you go off on your own and get yourself all worked-up instead of talking to people, Alex.”
I wanted to be indignant at what Jenna was saying, but she was completely correct, and we both knew it. Because of that, however, the self-destructive thoughts set in once again as I found myself muttering, “I don’t know why you’ve put up with me all these years, Jen. I’m a pain in the ass.”
Within only a few seconds, Jenna had pushed herself up on the counter next to me, and wrapped her arm around my shoulders as she held me close and tapped the side of my head. “Stop that. You’re an idiot sometimes, but you’re my idiot, so stop getting down on yourself.”
“It’s all right to feel overwhelmed, Alex.” Vinyl added warmly, putting her hand on my head and giving a little rub. “I’d be surprised if you were perfectly fine, because this whole thing is too much for someone to handle without cracking. What you need to remember is that we’re all here to help you through it, and we’ll overcome this as a group. Ponies are strong because we support one another, and now, we’ll show you how much that helps.”
And so, for the next hour or so, we just talked things out, and I can’t deny that I felt loads better. Holding everything in and just trying to deal with it on my own had led to me falling apart under all the pressure I had put on myself, so the only logical thing to do would be to try some other way to deal with my inner turmoil, which was why I was so open to doing things “the pony way”. I’ll admit, it felt good to get my fears and worries out in the open, to let everyone know what I was dealing with. A part of me still felt bad that I was burdening the others with my issues, but a much more thankful part enjoyed the care and support I had from my friends -- new and old.
It was surreal, in a way: here I was, surrounded by helpful friends that freely offered listening ears and strong shoulders to lean on, and I took their support, even though they weren’t humans. It seemed that ponies were innately more connected to each other, and were far more open with each other about what they thought or felt, which I suppose was why they were so adamant to get me to talk about what was bothering me. I’ll admit that it still felt odd to just open up to three people that had been complete strangers only a few days ago, but I can’t deny that actually talking about what I was feeling helped me cope with it.
Following the more heavy talk, we ended up moving to the more comfortable living room. Random chatter about a bunch of things -- ranging from human technology to Celestia’s well-known love of baked goods -- was next for the night. I found it odd that I’d never sat down and talked with friends so much before this whole event happened, but then I remembered that I’d had console- and PC-gaming to distract me; even with that being the case, I couldn’t deny that it was quite nice to just spend time with people who I could relate with. Now, granted that Celestia, Vinyl, Octavia and I were all very different people, but major traumatic experiences tend to have a way of bonding people together.
Through our sharing, I found out a bit about Vinyl and Octavia’s past life on Equestria, and the rather hilarious antics two musicians with initially different tastes got up to.
Like they’d originally said, Vinyl and Octavia met in an orphanage as young girls, just old enough to talk. However, just like Earth, it seemed even pony children tended to be cruel to those that stood out, and an almost-monochrome earth pony and a white unicorn with blood-red eyes were easy targets for the other children. And so, while the two ponies initially didn’t have that much in common, they banded together over the trials of being different from the rest of the children. Years later, though…
”Tavi got adopted...a-and I didn’t.” Vinyl explained morosely, a faint frown crossing her features as she remembered what was likely a rather painful memory for her. Octavia was immediately bringing her closest friend in for a strong embrace, and after a few moments, Vinyl agreed to continue her story. “They were real high-class ponies, and they thought Octavia looked like the kind of pony they’d want as a daughter. They taught her to be the perfect little noble princess, and I didn’t hear from her for almost t-ten years.” Vinyl’s voice broke near the end, and she went silent as Octavia whispered to her as she continued the embrace.
Octavia picked it up from there. “Unfortunately for us, young ponies have no right to decide things for themselves until they come of age, so we were forced to be apart until we were old enough to live our lives separate from the influence of adults.” An expression of pure shame crept onto Octavia’s face as she amended, “I’m ashamed to admit that, for some time, I forgot about Vinyl. Let it simply be said that the life of the upper-class is extraordinarily addicting, and it can blind one to the world outside of it.”
Vinyl had composed herself once again, and I was able to notice a rather radiant smile on her face now. “I had gone into the workforce straight out of the orphanage, with government assistance because of my lack of any other support, and my music career was just starting out. Because of that, I didn’t have much money, so I thought getting a roommate would be the best option. So,” she let out a soft giggle at the memory, “I was following up on an ad requesting a roommate at a flat downtown, not really paying attention to anything else besides the address in my hand. I found the place and knocked on the door, and imagine what my face looked like when Octavia was the one that answered the door.”
“It was something like this:” Octavia jumped in, and then proceeded to slowly let her mouth drop open as her eyes got wider and wider. Needless to say, it was quite the entertaining expression, and I found myself letting out a deep laugh at it. Vinyl’s cute blush just made us all laugh harder, until finally, Vinyl joined in the laughter as well.
As the laughter petered out, Vinyl continued. “I’ll admit, it was kinda tense at first -- ten years is a long time, and we’d changed a lot from how we’d been as fillies. On the one hand, Tavi was a prim, proper mare raised in Manehattan, only moving to Canterlot when she joined the Royal Symphony Orchestra. She was about as snooty as you’d imagine.”
“And Vinyl,” Octavia jumped in, shooting a smirk to her best friend, “was the epitome of what you’d imagine an unkempt ruffian to be, and a slob to top it all off. I can’t count the number of times I shouted at her for leaving food containers around the flat, or putting dirty dishes in the sink when an empty dishwasher was right there.”
I snorted a single laugh out before asking, “What about music? I imagine you two ground on each other, having such different tastes in music.”
“She attacked me with a cello!”
“Just the case, and-”
“Still! That thing’s huge!”
I couldn’t help but laugh at the two ponies, finding it oddly comforting that even among ponies, no friendship started out perfect. It reminded me of how Jenna and I met -- and drove each other up the walls, if I remember correctly -- before we grew closer and became the best friends we were today.
“So,” I interrupted their banter, drawing their attention back to me, “how did you two go from that to,” I then gestured to the two of them, “this?”
At this, both ponies’ faces lit up in blushes again, but Vinyl was the first to answer. “I, um...I know we said that us as an item is never going to be a thing, but we did try once, just to see if it would work.”
I refrained from shouting out a loud ‘I KNEW IT’, but smiled nonetheless.
Octavia picked up the explanation from there, clearing her throat loudly. “As it turns out, we misunderstood deep emotional attachment for actual romantic love, and things simply didn’t work out.” The mare looked to her companion and hugged her tightly, kissing her on the temple lightly with an amount of love that I could almost see before she clarified, “I love Vinyl more than anypony else in the world, but that love is the love from one sister to another, and nothing else.”
Despite it all, I couldn’t help but glance to Jenna and smile, which she returned before looking back to the two ponies and asking, “So, does that mean there’s a lucky guy or girl waiting for one or both of you back where you come from?”
Vinyl shrugged, looking to her friend. “You were dating Fred before all this happened, weren’t you?”
Octavia let out a frustrated sigh at that, rolling her eyes. “Why does everypony think we were an item? Frederick and I were only friends, Vinyl. I was focusing on my career too much for any sort of romantic inclinations, so no, there is no special somepony hoping I’m all right...at least that I know of.” She paused before bringing a finger to her chin, thinking aloud. “The last romantic relationship I had was...well, you.”
Vinyl went silent as she mumbled, “That was…” and suddenly, her eyes shot open as she whipped her head to look at Octavia again, “Tavi that was, like, five years ago!”
Octavia shrugged helplessly as we all watched the exchange. “As I said: my career was my main focus, and then, the event was being prepared for. After things settle down for our worlds, perhaps I’ll find someone, but for now my primary need is to survive, so that is what I’ll be doing.”
“Yeah, I guess I can understand that.” Vinyl agreed with a bob of her head. She then glanced to me and added, “Sorry, Alex.”
With a raise of my eyebrow, I asked, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It means that you likely won’t be getting any of this,” she gestured to Octavia and herself, making a point to run the tips of her fingers over her clothed chest, “anytime soon. Drag, bro.”
I’ll admit, it was a bit childish of me, but I grabbed hold of Celestia next to me and countered, “Yeah, well I got a princess, so nyah!” I punctuated the statement by sticking out my tongue like a five year-old, but it made me feel better nonetheless. And, I’ll admit, it was fun to watch Vinyl’s face turn pink again when Celestia wrapped her own arm around me, and stuck her tongue out as well. “So maybe I don’t get the cute little DJ or the stacked Amazon cellist, but I’d say a badass warrior princess is a pretty good win, for me.” Just to be more of a little shit (I was still drunk, so judge not), I blew a loud raspberry and held Celestia close like I was a toddler protecting my favorite toy.
Before any of us could speak further, my stomach let out a roar of anguish, and I reflexively looked outside to see how late in the day it was. To my surprise, it was completely pitch-black, which explained why my belly was complaining so loudly.
“Right,” I muttered, pulling away from Celestia -- reluctantly, I’ll admit, “we should probably pack it in for the night.” A chorus of muttered agreements answered me, so I stood to begin cooking us something for dinner.
An hour and a half later, I was methodically clipping my fingernails over the bathroom wastebin, trying to ignore the broken glass bottle that was underneath the clippings. Earlier in the day had certainly not been my proudest moment, and I just wanted to forget about it...but I couldn’t. As much as my behavior was negative and selfish, out of that, my friendships with the ponies seemed to have strengthened as I opened up to them a bit. So, in the end, I couldn’t write off the whole time as a completely negative thing.
And, it was pretty nice to find a legitimate reason to cuddle with the flirty alicorn.
Now though, I was following up on my promise to keep Celestia company, as she had told me she did not want to be alone when she went to sleep. Sure, there were some things about Celestia that I was still figuring out, but I knew she was telling the truth when she said she simply wanted someone she trusted next to her for when the nightmares came. I knew for a fact that simply as a person she was more of a badass than I’d ever be, but I also knew that everyone, no matter how strong, had to have a person to confide in, and time to emotionally deal with trauma.
After finishing my grooming, I looked in the mirror at myself, wondering if maybe I should do a quick shave before I went back to the master bedroom. Just to double-up (because why not), I brushed my teeth a second time, spending extra time on the tongue to make sure I had fresh breath. Then I realized what I was doing, and mentally kicked myself.
“You’re just being a comforting presence to her,” I audibly scolded myself with a scowl, “it’s not like you’re dating her. Man up, get your ass in there, and be a good friend.”
Taking a deep breath, I pivoted and walked to the door, noting that I’d have to get Octavia to fix it at some point, but for now I just moved it aside to walk through before placing it back in front of the doorway. Celestia was already waiting for me, clothed in nothing but a hot-pink underwear set, which honestly didn’t even bother me anymore. She looked up at me as I approached, and smiled gently in the moonlight, patting the place next to her in the bed. I returned her smile and kicked off my house shoes, sliding under the covers and into the bed.
After shifting around a bit to get comfortable, I frowned at the flannel top I wore, glancing a few times to Celestia before asking, “I know this is gonna seem a little strange for me, but do you mind if I take off the shirt? I’ll start sweating if I sleep in it.”
Celestia let out a soft giggle and shook her head. “I don’t mind at all.”
I shrugged and whipped the shirt over my head, foregoing the use of the buttons. Remembering who I had agreed to share a bed with, I mumbled, “I guess the real question is if you can keep your hands to yourself, because if I wake up and your hand is on my jewels, we’re going to have a problem.”
Celestia played the part of scandalized woman well, as she placed her hand on her chest and scoffed in mock-offense. “I am a lady Alex, and I would never molest a bedmate.” After a few moments of silence, she amended, “...much.”
I released a loud sigh turning onto my back to stare at the ceiling. However, after a few moments, I figured that since we were supposed to be completely honest with one another, I might as well get everything out in the open. “I don’t think it’s a secret to you that I find you very attractive, Celestia, and I’ll admit that I would probably not have any idea what to do if you actually came onto me.” I then turned my head to look at her again, and smirked. “You’ve got ‘it’, so you’re flaunting it, and I can respect that. Would I be correct in assuming that the attraction I feel is mutual?”
Celestia was still for a few moments before nodding, almost meekly. “Yes, it is. You are probably asking yourself why a ‘badass princess’ would be interested in an alien, but-”
“You’re more focused on who someone is instead of what they look like; I know.” I finished, tapping my temple with a finger. “It’s weird, but along with the memories, I got pieces of you in here now, and I feel like I’ve known you for years. It’s crazy, but it helps me know what’s going on in that noggin of yours.” Even so, not everything was answered by what I already knew, and so I asked, “Why, though?”
I didn’t have to elaborate, as Celestia picked up on exactly what I was asking. She smiled briefly before Karyll’a shot to her hands -- not in the form of a weapon or shield, but in the shape of an intricate, stylized sun. She handed the golden object over to me, and it kept its form even as I grasped it. As I looked over it, her voice floated in gently. “You know what I am, Alex, so think on this: when the sun has seen everything that walks, swims, flies or crawls, how important do you think physical form is to it? The sun is powerful, yes, but it is not omnipotent, and so it tends to see the big picture; in that big picture, it is difficult to pick out minute details in the form of a specific focus, but it becomes much easier to observe what that seemingly-insignificant point is doing. So instead of focusing on the what, the sun sees far more of the who, how, and why. That is who someone is, and that is what is important to me. Now, that isn’t to say that the physical form doesn’t have its merits,” Celestia’s gaze trailed over my bare chest for a moment, before her eyes settled on mine again, “but the who carries far more weight when it comes to attraction than the what ever will.”
I snorted a short laugh, pulling the blanket up around us before settling into the bed and turning toward her on my side. “Goodnight, you big flirt. I better have my pants on when I wake up.” With only a thought, I sent Karyll’a back to Celestia, who sighed softly as the ring settled onto her horn once more.
I felt as the tip of one of her wings reached back to tickle me, and she returned, “No promises, Alex. Goodnight, and sleep well.”
Luckily for us both, the day had been exhausting enough that we didn’t have to wait long before sleep began to take us, and only moments after Celestia’s soft snores began to fill the room, I followed her soon after into the realm of dreams.