• Published 21st Sep 2013
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Fallout Equestria: Ashes - Relyet



Another Fallout Equestria Sidestory. Two ponies walked across the wasteland, trying their hardest not to be heroes, not to make friends, and not to change the wasteland.

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Chapter 5: Breakfast at Strawberry's

Fallout Equestria: Ashes

Relyet

Chapter 5: Breakfast at Strawberry's

Staying out of trouble, I hope? Don't want to have to waste good bullets on your sorry flank.





The Town of Little Cliffside. The closer we got to it, the more I decided Bazooka Joe's description of it left a lot to be desired. It was neither little, nor a town. City would be a more fitting title. On the southern side of the great crevasse, the 'town' image was more fitting, all the buildings I could see stood no taller than three stories high, except a few taller apartment complexes perched high on a lonely hill. The majority of them were cottages built in rows, all made of wood and painted in what must have one time been bright, cheery colors. Many of the homes were crumbling and faded, and their formerly neat lawns were overgrown with desert flora. Except the homes and buildings inside the 6 meter high wall/fence thing surrounding a large swath of the former town, of course. Those homes were sturdy, inhabited, and even fortified, and I could see the residents of Not-so-Little Cliffside milling around them, much like the ponies in the billboard had been, only more well armed.

Across the chasm, the buildings became towers. Not epic sky scrapers like those of Manehattan, but much taller and more modern looking than the simple homes of the south. It was impossible to see clearly into that tangled jungle of metal and glass, even with my binoculars.

Connecting the two was the bridge. In the advertisement on the billboard, it had been there, but had been understated and simple. Here and now, it was a huge metal skeleton laying like the spine of some giant creature across the gap and draped with debris and vegetation.

And finally, beyond it all, off the edge of the cliffs that the whole thing sat upon, was the sea. The city was situated snuggly just miles away from the western coastline of Equestria. It gave me a slightly better idea of where exactly we were.

All in all, it looked promising. A big place with lots of ponies and lots of work. Within the hour we would be trotting through the gate that formed where the security walls met across the road, and things could start getting back to normal. Maybe I could find an easy job for Air Heart and get him earning the caps he still insisted he was going to pay.

I looked back at the quiet pegasus. He'd lapsed into a sort of sulky silence since the day before, I supposed he didn't like being threatened with a sword. Abattoir still made enough noise for the both of them though.

"Keep it down back there, we're almost here." I called back when the twisted metal archway and tall boxy watchtower were in clear view. Last thing I needed was her singing at the top of her lungs when we arrived. As we approached the open gateway, I could see a ponylike figure up in the tower peering down and moving around. Sure enough, shortly after passing through the gate and into the town proper, there were two ponies coming out to meet us.

One was a unicorn with a powdery grey coat and a pale blonde mane tied back behind her ears. She wore a utility jumpsuit of some kind and only one single boot, on her right hind leg. I could understand her plight, it was hard enough to find one matching set of hoofwear in the wasteland, let alone two. But what stood out most were her eyes, they were tired and sad, and made her look very old.

The other mare was a light lavender color, with a short cropped mane and tail in streaks of green and yellow. A cowpony hat was perched on her head and she wore a padded barding that included a duster, with a belt of shotgun shells wrapped around her torso. Her battle saddle bore a lever action shotgun, and I could see two smaller revolvers tucked into pockets on either one of her shoulders.

I really wondered which one was the sheriff.

As they drew closer I could hear the end of the conversation they'd been having. "-come by and let you take a look at 'em after I deal with this. Catch ya later, Chance." The sad eyed mare broke off and turned the other way, and then it was just the lawmare approaching us, smiling genially.

"Howdy." She greeted us pleasantly. I stopped my trot close enough that we could talk comfortably without being close enough for either of us to feel threatened just yet.

"Hello."

"Mind if I ask where you folks're comin' from?"

"South."

"Of course. And y'got a pretty nice sized waggon there, y'all merchants?"

I looked back, at Crunch barely squeezed into the waggon's harness, Abattoir with her choppy mane and borderline manic smile, and Air Heart shrinking down and trying to blend into the dirty street under him. "No, we're not."

"No, you ain't." The mare chuckled dryly. "Where'd ya get the waggon, then?"

"Found it."

"... Look lady, my whole point comin' up here was to make sure you weren't another little band of raiders tryin' to get into my town, and you ain't doin' much to assuage my fears, y'know?" Her brow was furrowed, and her drawling accent didn't seem as thick as at first.

"It's true, we did! Some wicked nasty ponies had it first, but Lumi and Mr.Crunch stomped 'em good!" I guess it was a blessing I'd been able to speak as far as I did before Abattoir cut in. The mare in the wide hat looked at her curiously.

"Nasty... One of 'em have a ugly yellow bandana?"

"Yup!"

"That'll be Gasher, he's one of the Greys from across the bridge. Or was, if I'm understandin' you right."

"She shot him in the head." Air Heart spoke up for the first time I could recall since the day before. The sheriff looked at him as if she hadn't noticed him at all before, startled and suspicious. He quickly averted his eyes from her.

She continued to stare at him for another moment before regarding me again. "Y'don't say. And you hauled this heavy ass thing all the way back here outa the goodness of your hearts?"

I sighed, and I'd gone so long since my last one. This would've been so much easier without the other two. "No, we didn't. Are they still alive?"

My question seemed to puzzle her. "Who?"

"Whoever owns the bloody waggon."

She snorted slightly and turned her head to look down the road she'd come from. "Oh. Yeah, they didn't kill nopony when they snatched the waggon. If you're here to bring it back, I guess... Fine, I'll show you the way, but I've still got my eyes on you. No funny business." She gave us all a stern but not harsh look before turning around and trotting back the way she'd came.

I could deal with this. A little mistrust from the town law enforcement was typical for me and Crunch, just be pleasant and don't ruffle her mane, stick to ourselves and get the work done. Easy.

I don't think even I believed that.

The sheriff guided us through town, out of one neighborhood that led into a little town square, and off into another where most of the homes had been converted into shops. Or they were shops that had been converted into homes, I couldn't tell exactly. Some had signs. On the way I saw quite a lot of ponies casually out and about, and they couldn't decide between staring at us or ducking out of sight. Eventually we were told to wait outside one building while she went inside to fetch the owners.

While we waited, I looked the building over. It was tall, with a pair of stairs built right up against one outer wall that led up to the roof, where I could see some chairs set up. There was a wooden sign hanging off the roof, a slab of wood that had had other thin chunks of wood nailed to it to make letters. I'm not going to tell you what it said though, because I don't feel like it.

The sheriff returned shortly, with a stunned looking mare and stallion.

"Cactus weren't kiddin' Sunny, that's our waggon alright!" The colt said in amazement as he moved around the side, inspecting it. I started to help Crunch wriggle out of the harness while the mare climbed inside to check on the crates.

"And it looks like almost everything is here, not a bit of it smashed or stolen!" She seemed ecstatic after peering inside several crates, until she lifted the lid of one and her nose scrunched up. "Oh goodness. This isn't ours, though." Her horn lit up with pink light and she levitated out my old cloak and Air Heart's crumpled, stained uniform.

I immediately turned on Abattoir, who snickered and shrugged. "I thought we could find someplace to get 'em washed."

The mare daintily dropped the bundle onto a sidewalk and went back to examining the crates, a little more carefully now. Air Heart looked at the pile with his brow furrowed, then gasped. He took a deep breath and leaned in, coming back out with the shocky stick clutched in his teeth. "I can't believe I almost forgot this in the cave..." Huh, I had forgot about that too. He looked at his bare body in confusion, then shuffled up to Crunch and tucked the weapon into one of his saddlebags, earning a raised eyebrow.

"Oh, this is just wonderful, we can't thank you enough." The mare dismounted and leapt up, throwing her forelegs around a still confused looking Crunch.

"Actually," I began, drawing her gaze back down. "You could."

She smirked knowingly "Oh, of course, you'll be wantin' a reward, and by Celestia, you deserve one." The stallion hitched himself into the waggon and started to pull it around a corner of the building, and she released Crunch, trotting towards the front of the store. "I think all of y'all deserve a special discount, whenever ya shop here at The Barter Post, forty percent off, how's that sound?"

Not exactly something to be thrilled about. We rarely had time to use any kind of 'special discount' to our advantage before we had to move on. But, I thought as she waved us inside from the doorway, this place isn't a two bit hole in the ground on the side of the road, we could end up staying here a whole week even. And then there was Air Heart, still needing barding and a proper weapon.

We followed her into the store. It held a lot more than I would have thought from the outside. Every wall had had a shelf either brought in and pushed against it, or built into it, and all of them were stocked. There were even metal bins on the floor with more items stacked inside them. It was a good sign at least.

"Come on in, don't be shy, have a good look around." I heard my companions follow me in and turned to find Air Heart. First things first.

"You. Find something to wear." He jumped up, having been poking his nose through one of the bins, and found me behind him.

"Me? But I don't-"

"Just find something. You'll be completely useless without some kind of armor."

"Abattoir doesn't wear any armor either..."

"Abattoir is abnormal. Go."

He chewed on his bottom lip and nodded his head, trotting past me and up to the pleasant shopkeeper, who had retreated to watch us shop. "Excuse me, I need something to wear..."

"Oh, of course, darlin'!" She clapped her hooves together, then clapped them down on Air Heart's shoulders "It's not much, but we've got several pre war outfits still in lovely condition and perfect for the discerning lady about the wasteland." She started to push him towards a tall wardrobe missing one of its doors. "Hmm, these wings. I don't know if we have many that will fit properly, maybe Cross Stitch can alter one of the dresses..."

Air Heart started to dig his hooves into the worn wooden floor, stammering. "W-wait, wait, that's not what I- M-ma'am, please, I didn't m-mean- N-n-no, I'm not a mare!" He finally had to raise his voice, but immediately lowered it again and let out a sorrowful squeak "I'm sorry..."

"You're not? Are you sure?" The mare asked before she could stop herself from asking such a dumb question, then shook her head. Her smile was back in an instant and she waved towards another shelf instead. "My apologies, you'll be wantin' some barding then, we've got plenty of second hoof protective garments of all shapes and sizes. And please, call me Violet, darlin'."

"He'll need a battle saddle too. Or something light that he can learn to shoot." I added from behind the pair as she started to levitate up the first outfit. She looked sideways at me while she tried to hold it up against Air Heart's slim frame.

"Oh, we don't have anything like that here, you'll have to go across the street for that." She nodded out the window. "To Shot Trotters. They handle just about all the weapons in Cliffside- Oh, no, this'll never do." She tucked away the raggedy overalls and selected another piece. "Now, I ain't no gossip, but miz Nightingale, what owns the Shot Trotters... She's a nice enough mare around town, comes in here from time to time, but she's scary if'n you cross her when it comes to business." She flicked her eyes across the room to make sure it was only the three of us in this conversation before explaining that part.

I couldn't really care about this town's politics or squabbles too much, but I nodded. We'd be making a second trip, it seemed. I left Violet to her work while she tried to find some barding that was just perfect (Too green, too yellow, too bulky, not bulky enough, etc.).

It occurred to me, while staring into a bin of mismatched socks, that this would be the perfect place to find some of the assorted junk depicted on the weird blue scroll. I levitated it out of my saddlebag and unrolled it, trotting around the store. In the end, I managed to find a tennis racquet, a length of garden hose, and an old metal valve that still turned smoothly, not a bad start.

When I trotted up to the counter to pay for my collected junk, I found Abattoir there ahead of me. She slid a small pile of bottle caps across, and the stallion from before slid a thick brown book across in return. She took it and slipped it into her saddlebags, turned around to face me, and just smiled. "You'll never guess what I just bought~!"

"Go bother somepony else." I pushed past her and dropped my items on the counter. "This. And whatever she picked out for him." I nodded to Air Heart and Violet. She seemed to be putting the finishing touches on his new outfit. It was another kind of uniform, like his old Enclave one, but obviously for a different organization. It was mainly soft pink, with yellow accents and buttons in the shape of butterflies. It had been made for a pegasi, with two roomy holes for his wings. Normally I would have rejected such a flimsy thing, but this one had fallen into the hooves of somepony with more survival sense, and had had some additions in the form of some armored plating around the shoulders and back, and a few extra pouches attached to a belt around the chest.

Violet even threw in a pair of saddlebags.

The stallion poked curiously at the racquet before shrugging and tapping the cash register "Sure thing, with your discount this all comes out to one hundred forty caps."

Crunch, as if sensing he was needed, appeared at my side with a small sack of caps. I drew them out in a row and started stacking them on the counter. Air Heart came trotting up looking slightly embarrassed. "What do you think?" He asked hesitantly.

"It's pink." I mumbled as I counted.

"What? N-no, your goggles must be fogging up, this is just... Lightish red. And it's what the doctors in the Ministry of Peace used to wear."

"I thought you said you weren't a medical pony?"

He huffed slightly "Well, no, but I could be, right? I could practice, with you two..." He looked startled a moment and shook his head. "I mean three!"

'Practicing' wasteland surgery seemed outside his abilities, when the sight of blood made him nauseous, but I decided not to remind him of that yet. In retrospect, I should have been more worried. "Whatever you say. How does it feel?"

"It's... nice? A little itchy." He flapped his wings experimentally though the two holes in the back. "At least it used to belong to a pegasi, but it doesn't fit as well as my old uniform."

"You'll get used to it. Come on, we've still got another stop to make, we're getting you a real weapon."

But before he could even start to stammer out the first syllable of protest, a surprised cry came from the other end of the shop.

"She WHAT?"

I whirled. It was the sheriff. And Abattoir. She must have found somepony else to bother.

"Yup, you heard me right, she's famous too, from the radio, she's the one who took care of aaaall those Bloodshots!"

***

I'll never know what kept me from skinning her alive right there in the Barter Post.

"You were right, it'd be way annoying to get recognized from the radio, that's why I'm letting you take all the credit!"

Abattoir explained (from a very safe distance away from me) as we trotted down the street behind the sheriff. Our destination seemed to be a tall skinny building with a large metallic tower build out of the top of it. "Come on down to the station." She had said after Abattoir finished her no doubt wildy exaggerated tale. "There's somepony who'd like to meet y'all very much, I think."

Looking at the building, I wasn't sure if she meant 'police-station' or 'radio-station'. Possibly both. She let us into a front room that was mostly taken up by a row of three simple jail cells. There was an elderly pony snoozing in one of them. Then she led us through another door into an office of sorts. There were storage lockers, two desks with terminals on them, a set of bunk beds, and a curved countertop with a coffee machine on it, among other things.

"Now, you're sure you're not pullin' my leg here?" She asked while pouring deep brown liquid from the coffee pot. "The DJ really doesn't appreciate hoaxes." All trace of her accent seemed to have been left at the door, along with her cowpony hat.

"You're right. This was all a big joke." I said flatly. "Ha. Ha. See? We'll be going now."

But it was not to be. "Nooope, it's true, I was there an' I saw the whole thing!"

"You were there, huh? Captive of those murderin', piece-a-shit Bloodshots then?" She mused before lifting the mug with her teeth to take a small sip.

"Double nope, I was one of 'em!"

The sheriff's sip, and the rest of the coffee, went sputtering out of her muzzle, and she dropped the mug. Curiously, it didn't shatter when it hit the floor. She coughed and staggered a bit, catching herself on the counter and wiping her mouth on her sleeve. You'd think she'd be used to ponies openly admitting to being raiders right in front of her. "Geez, almost inhaled... You gota be kiddin' me, you were-"

"She was, but she's not anymore. Can we get this over with?" I stepped forward to cut Abattoir off before she could dig us a deeper hole.

The sheriff nodded and snorted a few times, clearing her nostrils before standing up straight. "Right, okay... We're gonna go see the DJ, but he-" She pointed at Air Heart, who was standing in the corner looking confused. "-Stays down here. Him too." She gestured to Crunch, who was in the other corner looking statuesque.

"Fine." I snapped sharply before Abattoir could start whining about it. Anything to make this go quicker. This 'DJ' wouldn't be the first mare I'd met who had a problem with stallions.

Satisfied, she led us around the desks and up a staircase, to a metallic door. There was a triangle shaped sign in the middle, yellow and black showing a little picture of a tower with waves coming out of the sides. The sheriff knocked on the door a few times, and after a moment, it opened.

Inside was a large... something. A lot of somethings, even. One was like a large desk with a broad flat device built into it, with rows and rows of knobs and dials and buttons. One wall had a row of tall featureless silver rectangles, another had shelves full of boxes with thin slips of cardboard in them.

And sitting in a swiveling chair in the middle of it all was a youthful pegasus mare who was just barely older than a filly, favoring us all with a broad grin. She had the same pale purple coat color as the sheriff, but her mane was striped pink and white. "Woah, two guests, what's the occasion, sis?"

Well that threw my theories out the windows. The windows this room had none of, I noticed as we walked further in.

"They're, uh... I thought you'd be interested in speakin' with 'em, for the radio, y'know." The sheriff shrugged awkwardly. The filly gave us a curious tilt of the head.

"... Why? Is there a circus in town and they're in it?"

We were not that unusual looking, I swear. Abattoir giggled at that and vaulted herself onto her forehooves again. The filly and her sister raised their eyebrows, the former clapping her hooves a few times. "Awesome!"

"It's a pleasure to meetcha, DeeJaay, I'm Abattoir and I listen to your show all the time. That's Lumi, and she's a grump." She wobbled over to the sitting filly and dipped one of her dangling forelegs down for her to shake. I doubted what she said, she'd only got her PipBuck a few days ago.

"No way, for reals? Sis, she's a fan! Please, call me Desert Rose! You've already met my sister, Cactus Flower." She shook the offered hoof eagerly. I don't know how much more of this I could've taken.

"We're not with a circus." I didn't say it that loudly, but Abattoir still tumbled comically at my outburst and ended up on the floor in front of the shelves. And for added effect, a lone tin can seemed to tip itself over from the edge of one of the shelves and land on her head.

After Desert Rose stopped laughing, it seemed I had her attention. She snickered up at me and cocked her head. "Okay then, Lumi, was it? Why are you here?"

"Luminescence. And not because I want to be. I blame her for that." I kicked backwards at Abattoir.

That wasn't the answer she was looking for, clearly. Her sister seemed more eager to fill her in instead. "Rose, you remember your little story about the Bloodshots a few days ago?"

Rose rolled her eyes and leaned back in her chair "Of course! Best news in Little Cliffside for a long while."

"Well she's claiming it, says it was her work."

"No, she said that, I said she's a liar and to ignore everything she says. I had nothing to do with any of that."

Abattoir had got back on all four hooves by then, and for once had nothing to say. She just trotted back to the door, raised her hoof.

And brought it down on the light switch.

The row of florescent lights hanging from the ceiling winked out. There were a few rows of blinking lights on the long table thing, and a near empty bottle of Sparkle Cola RAD I hadn't seen was now gleaming on a side table.

And I stood in the middle of it all, bathing the room in a greenish glow. I sighed heavily and couldn't resist whacking my hoof into my forehead.

I was still facehoofing when Abattoir flicked the lights back on, and the two lavender sisters were staring with their mouths agape. Finally, it was Rose who spoke first, flapping her wings and lifted into the air above her chair.

"No fuckin' way!"

That seemed to snap her sister out of her stupor, and she stomped a hoof. "Rose!"

Rose looked down sheepishly and settled back into her chair, but she was still grinning when I could finally manage to look up again. "Okay... Since I'm here, I'll say what I need to say. I didn't even know you existed before you went and broadcast that, so I can't do anything about that first time, but I don't want you to play anymore stories about me on your radio, and I don't want whoever gives you your info following me around, got it?" I really hoped she got it.

Cactus Flower was looking annoyed at me, but her sister 's was looking more thoughtful. She flapped one wing out at the side and made her chair spin while she thought. After a moment she spoke up, mid-spin. "Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"It's just weird, you're like the first pony ever who's come and told me that, usually it's the other way around." She shrugged her shoulders. "But, okay, I can respect that. I can't promise that if you do something major that I won't report it, ponies need to know, but I won't mention ya by name or anything."

I let out a long sigh, and it wasn't out of annoyance this time. It would have been troublesome to have to push the issue with violence. "Thank you. If there's nothing else, we'll go now."

"Oh, but could I ask a few more questions, just for my own curiosity?" The filly bit her lower lip and smiled, in a move I suspected she was used to deploying on susceptible older ponies.

"I... don't see the point, really..." A filly, a curious one, and one who made a job out of spreading information to masses of ponies? Definitely bad news. But Abattoir appeared at my side and nudged me sharply.

"Oh c'mon, it can't hurt, she already promised not to blab. Just look at that face~!"

I resisted sighing again so shortly after another one and just hung my head. "Fine, what is it?"

Before she started, Rose flapped again, and her chair rolled along the floor to her side desk. She picked up the bottle of radish flavored soda and emptied it, then peered up at her sister. "Sis, mind goin' and gettin' me another drink?"

I could tell by her look that Cactus was not fooled in the slightest. But she took the empty glass bottle and turned towards the door. "Fine. A few minutes. But you watch your tongue, and give a holler if you need anything."

The metal door closed heavily behind her, and we were left face to face with the grinning filly. "Sooo... All that, inside the compound, that was really you?"

"Your source might have been exaggerating a bit."

Her smile broadened, and she flapped her way out of the chair, hovering over above my head "Oh, I think I can trust her word more than anypony else's."

It only took a (few) moments for the bit to drop. "Oh. Right." With Air Heart around I had forgotten that most pegasi were actually very good flyers, and could cross a lot more space in a lot less time. "Yes, then. Crunch helped, but yes."

"Shiiiit..." She sighed and sunk a few feet in the air, eye level with us now. "I've never seen anythin' like that before, if I didn't know any better I woulda said it was the work of a pack of hellhounds... So, why didja do it?"

"It was a job."

She sunk again, dropping back into her chair with her wings drooping at her sides. "I thought so. So you're not really 'fighting the good fight', huh? My sister thinks you're a raider, y'know." That sounded familiar.

I shrugged. "No, not a hero, not a raider either. My employer was, but after the job ends it's got nothin' to do with me anymore."

She looked like she was thinking hard, and I guessed we were about done, but she raised her head before I could turn to the door. "One more thing. Is it true you've got another pegasi with you?"

"Yes."

"I knew it! Sis gets nervous whenever other pegasi are around, she thinks every one is an Enclave squad comin' to get me or somethin'. She's probably not gona let me out of the station for a while, another one came through two days ago and she still hasn't calmed down!" She stuck her tongue out to show what she thought of that, and waved her hooves. "Not that I want you all to leave, that is, don't get the wrong idea! Say 'hi' to him for me, will ya?" Then she adopted that accent, like the one Cactus greeted us with, and we could hear the mare from the radio in it. "Anyway, thanks again for seein' me. DJ Desert Rose won't have nothin' to say about the mysterious mare that glows in the dark, s'long as she keeps a low profile. Seeya!"

"Fiiiiinally." Whined Abattoir. I'd almost forgot she was there. I found her rolled onto her back and spread across the floor "That was waaaay more boring than I thought it would be. Bye bye, DeeJay." She rolled onto her hooves and beat me to the metal door, galloping down the stairs. I just gave the filly one last look and a polite nod before following Abattoir.

***

Klonk.

"Uhm, Luminescence..."

Klonk.

"Lumi, quit it, you're gona put a hole in the door."

Klonk.

"Lumi, the sign says they're out for lunch, they'll be back soon."

"I don't need to know what the sign says, Abattoir, shut up." I lifted my head off of the locked door of the gun shop. There was a similar sign, wood back with chunks of wood for letters (I briefly wondered if some pony around here had a signmaking cutie mark) that spelled out Shot Trotters. And handing in one of the windows was a sign with a little clock on it that proclaimed they were out to lunch. Both things I could tell perfectly well on my own, thank you.

"We can come back later." Air Heart tried to sound sympathetic from my shoulder. "It's not that important that I get a... a weapon right away. We could get something for lunch too, Cactus told me there were some nice places to eat in town."

Grunting, I rose to my hooves and nodded. "Fine, whatever. Lunch. Lead the way." I had sped through the process of ditching out of the police/radio station as quickly as I could, and hurried my crew back down the streets, and this locked door had been there to greet me. It was almost as if Abattoir planned it that way.

I lowered my gaze to the road and let Air Heart lead us, perfectly content to feed on my own boiling anger while they ate lunch.

Maybe if I'd been paying attention I would have seen the building and been able to refuse to enter before we were right outside of it. Instead, I snapped back to attention when Abattoir gaped. "Woooah, wicked!"

I looked up at a large two storey building that looked like a large house of some sort, with an awning stretching over a porch with tables and chairs spread out on it, and a bright red roof. We were standing in a parking lot with a couple waggons and carriages parked around us, and an ornery looking buck in a red vest watching over them. But most eye catching was the large circular sign topping a pole and plastered above the front entrance. It showed a white mare with an aggressively red and curly mane, wearing a hat that looked like a strawberry, and holding a plate of pancakes.

"What the-

"Strawberry Shortcake's Bed and Breakfast."

"Stop doing that!" I snapped at Abattoir before taking a deep breath. "Is this the only place there is?" I could see down the streets, other former restaurants that looked like they'd been claimed by ponies.

"Well, no." Air Heart shook his head. "But Cactus said this would be the most likely place to... y'know, run into somepony who might... Ponies who would want us..."

"The best place to find work." Of course it was. I looked up to Crunch to see if he had any thoughts. He was staring wistfully at the rows of waggons. I suspected he missed having one to pull around. "Okay, let's go, but try not to draw any unnecessary attention."

I trotted across the parking lot and they followed behind. Just as I was stepping up onto the stairs that led to the porch, and the entrance, Abattoir called out in surprise. "Wait one pony-pokin' second!" Looking back at her I saw she had an intense look on her face, and she suddenly thrust her hoof out at Air Heart. "Why are you dressed like a nurse?"

***

The inside was remarkably well kept. The wallpaper, red with white stripes, wasn't peeling anywhere, and the tile floor, red and white again, was polished to a high sheen. There were several spaced out tables, and some booths along the walls. Up against the far back wall was something that looked like a bar counter, but the bottles I saw on the shelves didn't look like alcohol. On either side of the bar-looking-thing were staircases leading up. And off in one corner that had no tables and looked like some kind of lounge, was a wide billboard plastered with papers. Some things you could just count on.

Oh, and there were quite a few ponies there, too. Eating, talking, laughing, and generally hanging out. It made sense, this place must be a big attraction for merchants passing through, and I'm sure lots of ponies from around town found it charming and decided to make it their main hangout, that's why the board was here of course.

I spotted a table with at least two empty tables on either side of it, and headed towards it. Hopefully my companions would finish their lunch quickly and we could get some kind of head start on something today.

Hopefully, but not likely.

"Hey, is that what I think it is?" Abattoir stood on the tips of her hooves to see. She was looking into the lounge area, I couldn't tell what she might mean, there were large overstuffed chairs, a jukebox, a pool table, and some confused looking ponies over there.

"Whatever it is, ignore-" She was off, bouncing around a waitress pony who nearly dropped her tray. Air Heart, unusually enthusiastic, followed after her, politely excusing himself as he squeezed past the same mare. "Oh, what now..." I grumbled, and changed course to chase after them.

I caught up to them and found Abattoir standing on her back legs, propping herself up on the edge of the pool table, and just giggling at it. Air Heart was watching from across the table, and snickering.

"... I don't get it." I said up to Crunch when he joined me. This seemed to be exactly what they were waiting for, as Abattoir rounded on me and placed her hoof on my shoulder. It was at that moment I realized I'd made a terrible mistake.

"Well either you're closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge, or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community~" It wasn't exactly singing, just talking fast, but I still recognized a tempo behind it that she was following in her head. I shrugged her off quickly but she didn't miss a beat, and went on singing the bizarre song that seemed to be trying to convince an audience, which Air Heart was apparently playing the part of now, that having a pool table would lead to the collapse of their whole society. Or something. I ran back towards the table I'd picked after she started that first line with a shout of "Nevermind. I'll be over there when you feel like acting like normal ponies" so I didn't catch most of it.

When Abattoir and Air Heart were finished, the ponies who had been lounging in the... lounge gave a few hesitant claps with their hooves, and they trotted over to join me at the table. Luckily the scene hadn't carried out too far into the main floor, and only a few ponies at the surrounding tables were staring at them.

"That was fun." Air Heart slid into a chair with a grin on his face.

"I said not to draw attention to yourselves."

"Oh, lighten up a little, huh?" No, that wasn't Abattoir, it was Air Heart who'd playfully scolded me. If you could find a dictionary that still had all its pages, and look up 'withering glare', you might find an image of the look I was giving him across the table. He deflated slightly and chewed on his lower lip. "Sorry."

"He's right, you can't be a grumpy-lump all the time." That's what she thinks. But Abattoir was immune to my glares, and the arrival of a waitress mare distracted me from dealing with her.

"Howdy." She bobbed beside our table, levitating a pad and pencil and laying out some menus. She had a shock of red mane like the mare outside on the sign, but I could see brown roots starting to show under it. "Welcome to town, an' welcome to the Bed n' Breakfast. Today's special is, ah 'course, pancakes." I pushed the menu in front of me over to Crunch, while Air Heart and Abattoir leaned over their own.

"Definitely pancakes!" Abattoir decided quickly. Air Heart was looking over the menu, confused.

"This can't be right. You've really got fresh vegetables?"

"Sure do, sweetie! We've also got canned, if you prefer those, I know some ponies what just can't stand to eat anythin' else."

"But... How? Can you have them, I mean."

The waitress chuckled lightheartedly and rolled her eyes, as if she went through this several times a day. "You folks must be really, really new in town. Half the ponies what live around here got their own little crops growin' in the back yard. We buy it up and it gets shared with everypony, or traded."

That didn't seem like enough for Air Heart. "You grow it?1 How is that possible?"

"You ask a lota questions, sugar. Don't know. Don't reckon anypony in town knows for sure, just know that ya put stuff in the ground and it grows. Might be a little 'rradiated, but never nothin' too serious."

"Well... Then, I'll have... the veggie salad, please." He still looked confused as he sat back in his chair. The waitress turn to me and Crunch.

"Certainly. And you two?"

"Not hungry." I mumbled. Crunch tap-taped and the waitress craned her neck.

"Alright, an apple then?" More tapping.

"Uhm, two?"

This continued for a moment until Crunch stopped tapping and nodded firmly.

"Sooo, a dozen apples, one salad, one stack of pancakes, comin' right up." Her cheerful attitude had swung more towards weirded-out as she scribbled on the pad and hurried off.

***

"I've never seen somepony eat so much so fast."

I stared up at the bulletin board in the lounge while Air Heart marveled at Crunch's gobbling abilities. He was no doubt beaming under the praise.

"I mean, a dozen apples in under ten minutes..."

I slowly scanned the pieces of paper tacked up in front of me. I wasn't about to say I missed Pyresteady, but I did long for the simple process of just having a 'boss' I could speak to instead of this. I had asked the waitress, but there was no such pony here. There was a mayor, or something, but he lived up in those tall apartment buildings overlooking the sea that were apparently outside the 'safe zone'. I didn't really listen that closely.

"So, uhm, did you find anything, yet?" Air Heart asked hesitantly. I lit up my horn and grabbed one of the papers, one of the ones with the largest cap rewards I could see, and floating it to him.

"Sure, this one."

He looked dubiously at it, then at me. "Are you sure? This doesn't sound like your... style."

"I don't have a 'style', it's a job that pays well, and we're going to do it. Let's go."

"Uh, wait, Abattoir's still buying things, I think. We have to wait for her."

Abattoir's pancakes had come coated with a sticky red substance the waitress had identified as 'strawberry syrup', their specialty. Abattoir had licked the plate clean, and even drank from the pitcher before I stopped her. And because she hates me, the waitress revealed to her they make and sell the stuff right here, and she ran off to no doubt purchase as many bottles as she could carry. I snorted at him and turned towards the door.

"Better idea, let's leave before she notices we're gone, maybe she'll stay here and eat pancakes until she dies."

Of course, that was the moment she chose to come bounding back into the lounge, landing in front of me and letting her nose bop the front of my mask "Boop." She squeaked, before turning and lifting open one of her saddlebags, showing off the half dozen bulbous glass bottles. "I'm all set! What're we doin', huntin' scorpions? Wipin' out a clan of vamponies? Delivering a package?" Air Heart moved up to show her the paper I'd taken from the board, I just brushed past her to get to the door. "Ooooh, this sounds boooring, did you pick it?" She teased Air Heart while bouncing after me.

It was hard to tell if it was the syrup of if she was just naturally bouncy.

"No, she did, and I already told her I have my doubts about it... Hmm, we're looking for the home of somepony called Fiddle Sticks, that sounds familiar..."

I stepped outside and waited for the rest of them, then motioned forward. "You two lead the way there, I need to talk to Crunch about something."

They held their usual facial expressions at that(Air Heart: confused, Abattoir: grinning) and continued past me. I fell in beside Crunch.

We walked in silence for a moment while Air Heart and Abattoir navigated. It did occur to me that if they didn't hear me say anything they'd probably get suspicious, so I tried to think of something to actually talk to Crunch about. It then occurred to me I did actually have something to talk about.

"She's oblivious, but he pays more attention. He's probably going to get curious, you know that." It wasn't a question, but he nodded. "Hopefully it won't happen until he leaves, or, by some stroke of Discord, he manages to pay that debt. You won't get too attached to him. Either of them." A shake of his head this time, but then he cast a sideways glance at me. He snapped his teeth at the air and raised an eyebrow. "No. Way too risky." He snorted and gave a smirk. "I'm not being stubborn. You've seen how they are. We can't keep them with us." He shrugged, and we went back to silence.

Eventually, Air Heart stopped in front of a home and drew my attention. "I think this is it."

I looked up the front path, it looked like all of the other homes I'd seen so far, a picturesque slice of old world suburban living. There was a porch, a front lawn and a back yard lush with grass, and even a little mailbox with a picture of some kind of instrument carved into it.

"One way to find out." I trotted around him and up the walkway, stopped at the door, and knocked a few times. The door was opened by an orange unicorn. He was thin and tall, wearing some kind of suit coat. I couldn't tell exactly what, but I felt something was off as I looked at him. "You Fiddle Sticks?"

He considered me for a moment. "Goodness... Are you a fan? I've told you, I don't do private performances."

"It's about the job." By then, the rest of my companions had joined me on the porch, and Air Heart showed him the paper. He peered at it closely, then chuckled and stepped backwards.

"Oh, of course. I'd almost forgotten I posted that, it's been months... Please, do come in." We came in.

He led us into a well kept livingroom and told us all to take a seat, and that he would be right back. There was a dusty couch, and several overstuffed chairs. I sat down and waited. While we were waiting I took stock in the room. There was a fireplace and mantle, a squat table in front of the couch with a book on it, and a little bench in the corner with some kind of instrument case beside it.

Fiddle Sticks returned shortly with a tray of glasses, filled with sparkle cola and, a little surprisingly, tinkling with ice. He floated one out to each of us before he began talking.

"I am honestly surprised, I expected nopony to respond to that listing. As it says, I'm in need of somepony to help me uncover the truth about one of my long dead ancestors, and that rarely involves causing bodily harm to other ponies or creatures. I assume that alone chased off most other mercenaries. You lot must obviously be of a higher intellectual caliber."

Oh. Damnit.

Abattoir scooped up one of the throwpillows from the couch beside her and muffled herself with it, while Air Heart suddenly started coughing violently on his cola and avoiding looking my way. Nowhere to go but forward, I guess.

"Just tell us... whatever you can." I sighed, and waited for him to start droning.

"Well, it's not much to go on, I'm afraid." He walked to a mantle over the long unused fireplace, and opened a wooden box, pulling out a folded sheet of paper. "I have it from my father, who had it from his father, who had it from his mother, and so on, that my ancestor once lived right here in Little Cliffside. Back before it was Cliffside, back when it was just a budding settler town even."

"The tale goes that he was a great traveling musician, much like myself, roaming throughout pre-prewar Equestria, crossing paths with all sorts of ponies and having grand, and perhaps less then lawful, adventures, until finally settling down here with my great-great-and-so-forth Grandmother. I only have the words of my father and grandfather, and this," He waved the still folded scrap of paper in the air "to go on, and frankly, I'd finally like to know if it's all a load of old ponypies or not."

He stopped talking and surveyed us, probably expecting a refusal. I glanced at my companions. Crunch was dozing in his seat, Abattoir was fiddling with her Pipbuck, and Air Heart was looking at me sympathetically. "Uhm, well, we're sorry to-"

I cut Air Heart off sharply, Discord bugger me if I was going to give him the satisfaction. "We'll do it."

Fiddle Sticks grinned broadly and floated the scrap of paper over to me. "Oh, wonderful. Take that, it's a scrap from my great-great-how-ever-many-greats Grandfather's old journal. I don't know how useful it'll be in pointing you in the right direction, but you never know."

I unfolded it in front of my face and looked into it for a moment, then tucked it into my saddlebags. "That everything?"

"Mmh, I believe so. Good luck, get back to me as soon as you can." I climbed out of the overstuffed chair, leaving my drink untouched, and started towards the door. Air Heart prodded Crunch awake, and they followed me. I turned to make sure Abattoir was coming and she tapped something on her Pipbuck.

"...talked your ears off, here's Fiddle Sticks with a new instrumental piece for y'all to enjoy." Then it started playing that upbeat tune, and Abattoir grinned.

"I knew it! You're on the radio too!" Fiddle Sticks looked slightly amused, nodding and talking over the music.

"Why, yes, I am." He gestured into the corner with the bench and instrument case. "Always a pleasure to meet a fan. Shall I play you something before you go?"

"Yes!" Abattoir gasped herself to her hooves, shutting off the recording.

"No, we're already running late." And lit my horn up to pull her with us as I continued towards the door, before she could make an ass of herself again.

***

I led us out of the neighborhood, away from the homes and back into the small business district, ignoring my companions behind me as they tried to talk about two different things at once. I looked left and right, scanning the buildings until I found one that was still abandoned, and turned.

"What are we looking for here, shouldn't we-" Air Heart began as we stood in the lobby of what used to be a dentist's office. I rounded on him and he was silenced with a squeak. I floated out the folded up paper and passed it to him.

"Read it."

He took it in his hooves, his brow furrowed, and peered down into the paper. He was silent for a moment, so I stamped my hoof and he jumped again. "Out loud."

He dropped his eyes, mumbling "OH! Right, uhm, o-okay..." He started, then looked up again, and gulped. "If..." Oh, this was going to be great. "If you say please."

I stared at him. Stared for a long while and finally said the only appropriate thing. "What?"

"S-say please, then I'll read it."

"No." I liked to think my tone suggested there was no argument, but I must have been wrong because he continued to argue.

"W-w-we're partners, no matter what you said, and this is a skill that you want me to use for you. The l-least you can do is say p-please..." He had dropped the paper so he could use all four legs to stand on, and good thing too, because they were all shaking under him as he spoke.

"No. The least I could have done is killed you in the desert so you wouldn't die of dehydration when we left you there. Now read." I really didn't have time for this.

He seemed to wilt at that, and sat down to give his trembling legs a rest. He let out a breath he must have been holding and pulled the paper closer. "F-fine. For now, but n-next time, I'm not going to unless you say it..."

Abattoir snickered lightly and patted him on the back. "Good try" She mumbled, then sat down on her knees as well.

I kept my sarcastic comment to myself, and joined them on the floor while he read from the torn page of a long dead pony's journal.

^^^VVV^^^

Bluegrass' Journal, entry no.3

I think I finally found someplace I can stop. Stepped off the train this morning into a nice little town called Campolina. Lots of friendly faces, but I think some of them knew I was from Equestria. They must not get many city ponies here.

I set up a little show right after I got off the train. I doubt any of them have ever seen a unicorn play. They were so impressed, none of them noticed I wasn't just using my horn to pull the bow. Pulled in enough bits to last a little while. I know you wouldn't approve, but a buck's got to make a living.

After I stopped playing, a buck in a fancy getup approached me. He had a pair of guns, something I'd never seen even in the city. He told me that was some fancy hornwork, and I thought he was going to bust me right there! But it turns out he's a 'business pony' and he was impressed with me. Introduced himself as Ante Up, funny name if you ask me, and offered to buy me a drink. I know what mom would say, but I'm plenty old enough.

It turns out he's good friends with the owner of a local bar, and said he could get me a job playing there regularly. I didn't want him to think I was too eager, so I told him I'll think about it. I'm going to go back tomorrow and tell him I'm in.

I hope you and mom and dad are doing good, I'll come home as soon as I'm able to.

VVV^^^VVV

Footnote: Leveled up? I didn't even finish the quest yet!


Skill note: Speech 15. How do you manage to talk anypony into anything?



(Shorter chapter than I thought, I decided to split this one in two when the arrival to Little Cliffside took longer than I imagined it would. As always, thanks go to Kkat for the FoE universe I muddle around in, to the lovely folks at the Wasted Days sim for the location, and double thanks to the kind soul who cared enough to make a wiki page for this story <3)