• Published 31st Oct 2011
  • 1,393 Views, 14 Comments

Patchwork - Kegisak



Caramel runs away from Sweet Apple Acres, and finds a small village hidden in the woods.

  • ...
2
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 1,393

Chapter 2

Patchwork

Pt. 2

The good news was Caramel wasn’t as sore the next day. The bad news was that was a bit like not being as wet as the ocean.

“Easy... easy,” Powder said, rolling him onto his side with her magic, “We’re taking this slow. I’ve been doing this for years, and you aren’t the worst I’ve ever had. It’s going to be fine, Caramel.”

“If it was going to be fine,” the colt grunted, “It wouldn’t hurt so much!” Despite his complaints, and with much support from Powder, both magically and physically, Caramel finally found himself standing on three hooves. Powder glared at his as he tried to put his injured hoof on the ground.

“Keep that thing up,” she told him, “If you put any weight on it now, you’ll be going back into that bed until it’s completely healed, you hear me?”

“R-right,” Caramel said, “Sorry.” Powder trotted into the next room, beckoning for Caramel to follow. It was tricky to walk on only three legs, and even harder to keep from putting his fourth down, but he managed to totter after her. She was waiting for him with a heavy piece of cloth, which she wrapped around his leg and neck, tying it off.

“Test that out,” she said, “How’s the knot?”

“It feels good,” Caramel said, pushing at the cloth, “Not that I could do much.”

“It’ll do well enough, at least,” Powder nodded, “Now, I’ll bet you want some fresh air, huh?”

“A bit, yeah,” Caramel laughed awkwardly. Powder smirked at him - it was probably the first time she had come close to smiling, he thought - and led him to her door. She swung it open, revealing the outside.

“That’s... all there is to your house?” Caramel asked. He withered under Powder’s glare, and tried to explain himself, “I-I mean, I just thought the only doctor in town would have a bigger office, you know?”

“We don’t have room for big houses,” Powder sighed, “We have to save all our room for farmland.”

“... Farmland?” Caramel asked.

“Farmland,” Powder repeated. Both ponies stepped through the portal to the outside, and Caramel saw the village for the first time. Powder hadn’t been lying when she said they didn’t have big houses. Every home that Caramel could see seemed to be little more than a hut, probably no more than two or three rooms at the most. He could see trees in the distance, but the village and the surrounding area had been completely cleared of any lumber, all for one reason - farming. As far as Caramel could see, every patch of land had been tilled, and converted for crops, save for a grid of pathways cutting through the whole thing. Both Caramel and Powder sighed wearily.

Powder led Caramel slowly through the grid of pathways, showing him around the village - what little there was to show. Mostly they were just doing it for exercise. Sitting in one place for too long was just going to hurt his other muscles, Powder explained to him, and it would do him good to work the shoulder muscle a bit as it healed anyways. As the two ponies walked, the other citizens of the village started to exit their meager homes. To Caramel’s surprise, not a single one gave him a second glance. They all went straight for the fields, suiting up into ploughs, or taking up sack of seeds to sow. Other ponies set about weeding the fields that had already been tilled, or watering the earth.

“Doesn’t this seem a bit... excessive?” Caramel asked quietly, “I mean, this isn’t a big place. How much food could you possibly need?” Powder sighed quietly.

“Caramel, how much do you know about farming?” She asked.

“I lived on farms my whole life,” Caramel answered, a bit insulted, “So I can tell you, you don’t need all this land just to feed a few dozen ponies!”

“Maybe not on one of your farms,” Powder said. She reached off of the path, scooping up a hoofful of dirt, and showing it to Caramel, “But we do on our farms.” She tilted her hoof, and the dirt drained off. It didn’t fall away in clumps, like the dirt on Sweet Apple Acre’s would have, but poured down, like sand. Caramel’s mouth hung open.

“Maybe a third of what we plant makes it through to harvest time,” Powder told him, “Maybe. Some old journals say that the soil here used to be good. But now? It’s dead. It’s a wonder we can grow anything.”

“Why don’t you move?” Caramel asked, still dumbfounded, “This soil’s had way too much planted on it, it needs years to get back to farm-able condition!”

“Right,” Powder said, rolling her eyes, “So we’ll all just pack up. Leave the place where we’ve lived for generations. All those ponies, who spent their lives fighting with this land, they’ll just admit defeat, and go ask Celestia for a nice new plot of land? Or maybe the kids will just run away from home, and start a new life somewhere away from their parents, leave them toiling away here with no future. Even if anypony thought about the world outside of here, they’d never leave.” Her tone was venomous. She only gave Caramel a brief look before turning away, but her eyes were worse than knives. They were much, much older eyes than Powder had any right to have.

“I,” Caramel said, leaning away from the livid unicorn, “I’m sorry... but... what about you? Why don’t you leave?”

“I was the smallest,” Powder said. Despite the early hour, she sounded even more tired than she had last night. “I was the smallest, so I had to be the doctor. Those are the rules. I can’t leave, Caramel.” She glanced back at him. Her eyes were no longer angry, just sad, and old. “They need me. I... need to check up on a few ponies. You keep on walking. But take a break if your side starts to hurt at all. And don’t put any weight on that hoof. Got it?”

“... Got it,” Caramel answered. Powder nodded, and headed off along the path. Caramel watched her as she made her way to one of the larger shacks, one that had a column of smoke beginning to form out of its chimney. She knocked once, and went inside. Caramel sat in the middle of the path for a while, looking around. More ponies had appeared now, all of them working in the fields. The chatted happily while they walked along the paths, calling out morning greetings to one another, but the moment they set hoof onto the fields silence fell among them. Caramel tried to strike up a conversation with a young stallion working close to the path, but all he could get out of the pony was a nod of recognition. Caramel lingered for a moment, waiting to see if anything more would come from it, but he finally shook his head, and tottered away.

He followed the paths through the village, finding his way to the edge of the woods, where he took a seat. He was tired from the effort of walking on only three legs, but he had no desire to go back through the bleak village. Instead, he turned away from it, staring through the gaps in the trees.

Celestia, I feel awful, he thought to himself, I can’t even focus for a few months, and these ponies... what do I have to complain about? He rubbed his muzzle with his good hoof, and thought about the farm in Ponyville. Nopony had ever forced him to work the farm, it was just what he thought he should be doing. At least he’d had a choice in the matter. And what did I do? He mused miserably, I ran away. I’ll bet Granny Smith is worried sick. Applejack is probably blaming herself, too... he shook his head.

“You screwed up again, Caramel,” he said to himself. He glanced over his shoulder at the town, and thought about his new situation. “I’m not going anywhere like this,” he said, “Not for a while. I have to be able to do something while I’m here...”

He turned back to the woods, just in time to see a flash of yellow between the trees. He tilted his head quizzically, and squinted into the woods. The yellow flash came again, coming closer. Before Caramel had a chance to react, a little yellow filly darted out of the trees, crashing headlong into the colt.

“Ah!” Caramel shouted, clutching at his ribs as he bounced off the ground, “Buck, me!” He looked around, and saw the filly bounding up to him again.

“Ohmigoshohmigoshohmigosh!” She squealed, “Are you okay!? I’m sorry, everypony is usually working now and I wasn’t watching where I was going and I’m soooooooo sorry!”

“What?” Caramel asked, clambering back onto three hooves, “I’m... fine, I guess.”

“Are you sure?” The filly asked, “You look hurt! Please don’t tell on me!”

“I was hurt before,” Caramel laughed weakly, “You didn’t hurt me any worse. Why would I tell on you, anyways?”

“Well,” the filly said shyly, pawing at the ground like she had been caught in the cookie jar, “‘Cause I’m supposed to be working right now too...”

“Working?” Caramel asked, “What could you have to do, you’re just a little filly.”

“Am not!” The filly objected, “I’m a big filly! Anyways, I’m Papa’s ‘prentice, so I gotta help him make shoes for all the farm ponies, so they don’t hurt their hooves!”

“But, you can’t be any more than ten years old,” Caramel said, a lurking suspicion starting to creep at his mind, “You shouldn’t be working already, should you?”

“Uh huh!” The filly nodded vigorously, “We all help out our Mamas and Papas, so we can get more work done! That way we learn how to do the job that we have to do when we’re Mamas and Papas, and we can teach our foals how to do it too! That’s what my Papa told me!”

“Oh,” Caramel said sadly, his fear confirmed. “What were you doing out here, then?”

“I was watchin’ the road!” She exclaimed excitedly, “‘Cause I was by the road a couple nights ago, and a colt fell down, and so I went and got miss Powder and she made him better and I thought, well, what if colts fall down off the road all the time, but nobody sees them, so I wanted to see if anypony else fell down so I could tell somepony!”

“Really?” Caramel laughed, trying his best to take all the information that the filly spewed at him. Something clicked, and he asked, “Wait, you said you saw a colt fall off the road two nights ago?”

“Uh huh!”

“Well,” Caramel said, smiling at the excitable filly, “I guess I should be thanking you then - I think I was that colt.” The filly’s eyes widened enormously, and a look of pure awe overtook her face.

“Woooooooooaaaaaaaah!” She said, prancing forward and setting her front hooves on Caramel’s haunch, “Cool! You look different all bandaged up, and without leaves in your mane and stuff!”

“Yeah,” Caramel said, leaning away from the over eager pony, “I guess Powder cleaned me up a bit. I was... pretty much out.”

“You were kinda talking in your sleep,” she told Caramel, “But I didn’t hear what you said at all.” She blinked twice, as if some other thought had hip-checked her previous subject clear out of her brain, and dropped down, circling around to Caramel’s side. “Hey, what are those funny marks on your flanks?”

“My cutie mark?” Caramel asked automatically. He had to resist the urge to hoof himself in the face as the filly pressed on.

“What’s a cutie mark?” she asked.

“It’s... well,” Carmel fumbled, trying to find a way to answer the little filly without telling her about the chance she wouldn’t ever get, “Where I come from, ponies get them when we reach a certain age... they, um. We get them to show what our job is.”

“Neat!” She exclaimed, “But why do you wait to get them? Why don’t you just give them to your foals when they’re born?”

“Well... we don’t really know what we’re going to do when we’re born. We have to figure it out later...” The filly just stared at him quizzically.

“You choose what you wanna do?” She asked him. Caramel’s head sunk between his shoulders - as far as his muscle would allow him to, at least.

“Yeah.”

“But... what if too many ponies want to do one thing? Or if not enough ponies want to do something else?”

“I don’t know,” Caramel said apologetically, “It’s never really happened before. Ponies just choose what they want to do and... well, we get by somehow.”

“So,” she said, still clearly having trouble with the concept, “Is it like... having no chores, except all the time?”

“... Kinda?”

“Wow,” she said thoughtfully. The two fell into silence as the filly digested the idea. Her head snapped to the side suddenly, and she shrunk back. Caramel followed her gaze and saw an exasperated looking white stallion making his way through the paths, looking all around.

“Oh...” The filly said sadly, “I gotta go.” She backed away from the searching stallion, pausing just long enough to say, “It was nice meeting you, mister. My name’s Tack!”

“My name’s Caramel,” he replied. Tack smiled shyly at him, and took off along the edge of the forest, circling around behind the houses. In mere moments all Caramel could make out was a little yellow blur amongst the trees. A smiled played on his lips as he watched her dart away, but it faded fast. Caramel felt that same dreariness that hung over the village, but now he felt it inside. His head hung low, and he stood up, slowly making his way back to Powder’s house.

“I have to be able to do something while I’m here...” He repeated to himself. When he made his way back to the village, he saw Powder coming out of another pony’s house. She spotted him, and made her way over.

“There you are,” she said, “Good. How are you feeling?”

“I dunno,” Caramel said quietly, “Tired, I guess? A bit sore?”

“Oh,” Powder said, “That doesn’t sound good.”

“Huh?” Caramel looked up, suddenly worried. Powder shook her head, and put a gentle hoof around her shoulder.

“Not the soreness, don’t you worry,” she told him, “You just come with me, back to my house. We’ll get you back in bed, and then I think I know what you need.” The two ponies moved slowly to Powder’s little hut, and she closed the door after them.

“You seem like you’re in a good mood,” Caramel commented. Powder chuckled humorlessly as she led him back to the bed.

“Keeping my spirits up helps keep everypony else’s spirits down here,” she said. She helped him sit on the bed, and swung him straight. “Don’t bother lying down,” she told him as she trotted into the other room. He heard rummaging, and the clinking of glass. Powder soon reappeared carrying two small glasses and a very, very dusty bottle, sealed with wax.

“Since we’re talking spirits anyways,” she said, setting the bottle down on her desk, “We may as well have some to talk about!”

“I though you didn’t have any alcohol?” Caramel asked her, “You were asking if I had any last night. Anyways, isn’t it too early to be drinking?”

“Any other day, yes,” she said, taking up a small knife, “But I’ve covered all my patients already, and I’m not going to be taking on any more. This isn’t the sort of alcohol you drink unless you know you aren’t going to be bothered.”

“And how do you know you aren’t going to get any more patients?” Caramel asked her, eyeing the bottle carefully. The two glasses made it clear she wanted him to drink as well, and he wasn’t feeling so eager to drink again after his last experience.

“Blacksmith is cold-forging, cobbler can’t cobble until the plough team wears out their shoes, and if anypony is stupid enough to trip and hurt themselves, they can wait a day. Who knows, maybe suffering through a boo-boo will make them all appreciate the fact that they actually have a doctor.” She sliced the top off the bottle, and a powerful scent filled the room. Powder smiled, pouring a tiny shot into each glass. She levitated one beneath Caramel’s nose, the powerful smell filling his lungs.

“Cheers?” He said, taking the glass in his teeth. Powder lifted the other glass to her lips.

“Cheers,” she said. Both ponies knocked back the liquid. It was almost painful to drink, and it seemed to hit Caramel all at once. His face was hot, and his belly felt full of magma.

“Bwah!” He exclaimed, dropping the glass. The liquor continued to make its way through him, causing him to shiver. Powder, for her part, shook her head violently.

“Oh, that’s great,” she said. “We’ll let that sit for a while, I think. You want to lay down, now?”

“Yeah,” Caramel said, “Yeah, I think so.” He let Powder help him lean back, settling into the groove he had made in the stiff mattress.

“Feeling any better now? I know it isn’t much fun being around town.”

“You noticed that?” Caramel asked her. Powder nodded sadly.

“It’s hard not to,” she told him, “This village does that to ponies... I see it happen a lot.”

“I thought you said you don’t get any travellers?”

“Not travellers,” she told him, “Colts and fillies. Much, much worse.”

“Oh,” Caramel said. His mind went immediately to Tack. He probably knew exactly what Powder was feeling. Now all he could think about was all that eagerness draining away from the filly, and watching her become dull and listless like all the other ponies. “How do you stand it here, Powder?” He asked suddenly. Powder looked at him, and poured herself another shot.

“It isn’t always as bleak as that,” she said, draining the shot, “They just do their work. Things actually get a lot livelier in the evenings; I’ll take you out there tonight. You want another drink?”

“No thanks,” Caramel turned her down “My gut is still boiling from the first one.”

“Yeah,” Powder smiled, “It’ll do that.” The two sat in silence for a while, before Caramel asked,

“So... how long are you going to keep me here, anyways?”

“Why? You wanna get out of here as fast as possible?”

“No, no,” Caramel said quickly, “It’s just... I dunno. I guess I just feel bad about not being able to do anything.”

“Well,” Powder said, “You’ll be able to walk normally again in about a week. I can hardly keep you here any longer than that. It’ll take about six for you to make a full recovery, though. I’d really appreciate it if you stuck around until you do. Just so I can keep an eye on it. I never feel right about not being able to see something fix right.”

“You haven’t before?” Caramel asked. Powder rolled her eyes.

“Well, they’ve never just up and walked out of town,” she told him, “But half the stallions here are too stupid to wait for something to heal all the way. The cobbler has bad hoof because he took a hammer to it, and didn’t wait for it to heal before taking a hammer to it again!” She drained another shot, and said, “You’re a really, really good patient Caramel. You listen to what I have to say, you do as you’re told, and you don’t complain - well, okay you complain. But you listen, so you’ve got that on everypony else here.” The two ponies chuckled.

“You ask too many questions,” Powder said suddenly, “I’ve been talking your ear off for two days, it’s your turn. Tell me about yourself.”

“Like what?” Caramel asked.

“No questions!” Powder insisted, obviously a bit drunk already, “Just tell me about something.”

“Um,” Caramel said, at a loss for where to start. “Okay,” he said after a while, “I come from northern Equestria. My family was a part of a much, much larger clan of farmers, the Apple Family. So I grew up working a farm, and I learned to make Caramel Apples from my Auntie. I moved to a new town a few years ago, though, it’s about a day’s walk west of here, I guess?”

“So how come you left there too?” Powder asked. Caramel looked down, and admitted,

“I guess I wasn’t really happy farming anymore.” He glanced shyly at Powder, who was nodding knowingly.

“So you ran away from a farm, and wound up on a farm,” she said wryly, “Nice.”

“Yeah,” Caramel sighed, “Pretty much a standard move, for me.”

“Wow,” Powder said, “Sit up. You need another shot.

“What?” Caramel asked, “I don’t want another shot, that stuff is awful!”

“All good medicine is awful,” Powder told him, “Now come on, sit up. Doctor’s Orders!”

“No way,” Caramel laughed, “Don’t wanna!” Powder took a hold of him with her magic and pulled him up. He winced as the shift pulled on his shoulder.

“Oh geeze!” Powder exclaimed, “I’m sorry! Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” Caramel grunted, “Yeah, I think so. I don’t think you need any more to drink, though.”

“Yeaaah,” Powder said, “You’re probably right. I’ve never been able to hold this stuff at all...”

“You drink much?” Caramel asked. Powder shook her head.

“Nah, I don’t have many days that I can afford to. Or that I really need to, I guess, when you really get down to it. You sure you don’t want another?”

“No, thanks,” Caramel said. Powder picked up the hunk of wax she had sliced off, and put it back over the opening of the bottle. Her horn glowed brighter, and there was a small, bright flash. When Caramel stopped blinking, he could see that the wax had resealed over the bottle. Powder left the room, putting the bottle back wherever it had come from, but soon returned.

“So,” she said, “You gonna keep talking, or what?”

“Huh?”

“You were telling me about yourself, and stuff,” she said, “Tell me about something else now. Don’t ask me what, either, I don’t care. I just wanna hear about something that isn’t here, okay?”

“Alright,” Caramel said, thinking for a bit, “Do you wanna hear about... Travelling?

Caramel and Powder chatted idly for a few hours, passing the day away. Caramel told her about all the things that Brumby didn’t have, and she in turn explained some of the finer details of the village’s culture as she sobered up.

A few of the roles in the town were given to ponies based on individual merits. The smallest unicorn of working age would train to be the town doctor, while the biggest earth pony would be the head farmer when the old one was ready to retire, for example. Tradesponies would train their first child to take their place, and all their other children would work the farms. She got tired of talking about it quickly, though, and the two simply talked about whatever crossed their minds, as the sun started to dip below the horizon.

“So we just stared at her,” Caramel said, recounting a story for Powder, “And she doesn’t say a thing, she just backs out of the barn. Big Mac told me he found her walking backwards through the house, into her bedroom!” Both ponies laughed, and Powder wiped her eyes, looking out the door.

“Hey,” she said, “It’s right about sundown. We should head out now.”

“Why?” Caramel asked, “What happens at sundown?”

“Dinner, for a start,” Powder told him, “I haven’t put anything in you since I found you, so unless you snuck something by me last night, I imagine you could use it.”

‘Um,” Caramel replied. He hadn’t really given it any thought over his aching bones and muscles, but he was hungry. Very, very hungry. Now that Powder had pointed it out, what had been merely another ache was now a sharp pain. “That,” he said, “Sounds really good actually.” Powder helped him onto his feet once more. It was much easier this time, though it still hurt a fair bit. Steadying himself on three hooves, he allowed Powder to lead him out of the house. The sun had dipped below the horizon, and over its fading light Caramel could see the glow of torchlight behind the row of houses opposite them. Powder directed him along the paths and through a gap in the houses, leading to an open clearing, devoid of any farmland.
It seemed like most of the ponies in town had gathered there, if not all of them. Torches were set up on the edges of the clearing, illuminating the area. In the centre there was a large, long table, manned by mares and stallions all doling out food to a line of eager ponies.

“Wow,” Caramel said, looking on the scene with something resembling awe, “What’s the occasion?”

“No occasion,” Powder told him, “This happens every night. It’s how we get food here - the cooks cook meals during the day, and everypony eats at three set mealtimes. That way, ponies don’t have to stop working early to cook for themselves.”

“That’s, uh. Efficient,” Caramel commented. Powder shrugged, and edged him into the lineup.

He was handed a wooden bowl when he reached the table, and directed to move down. As he did so, several ponies ladled the contents of their cauldrons into his bowl - rice, carrots, oats, and a few steaming blobs of tofu. The line moved along quickly, and he soon found himself deposited at the end of the table, bowl clutched in his mouth and looking slightly bewildered. Powder appeared beside him shortly, and asked, “Do you think you can manage to eat without help?”

“Yeah,” Caramel said, coming to his senses, “Yeah, I think I can manage that much.” Powder nodded at him.

“Alright then,” she said, “I’m going to get eat with my parents. If you don’t mind.”

“No, I don’t mind.”

“Alright then,” she said, “Just come get me if you get tired, or want to go back to bed. I’ll be over there.” She nodded her head at a pair of older looking ponies, then headed over, her bowl floating along behind. Caramel looked around and, seeing nopony who looked particularly eager to chat, made his way to the edge of the clearing.

He found a seat beneath one of the torches and set his bowl down, eating from it face first. It didn’t exactly taste good, but it certainly wasn’t bad, and hunger, as they say, is the best seasoning. He tried to eat slowly, but he ended up inhaling the simple meal. He looked up from the remnants of his meal for a moment, and saw a stallion approaching him - a dark chestnut-coloured unicorn with a cherry red mane and a bandage tied around his front left hoof. He sat down in front of Caramel, setting down his bowl, and introduced himself.
“Hey,” the pony said, “I’m Cherry.”
“Hi...” Caramel said carefully, “I’m Caramel.” He extended a hoof for Cherry to shake. The unicorn did so, and vigorously. Caramel’s side ached a bit afterwards, but he tried not to show it.

“So,” Cherry said, clearly oblivious to Caramel’s ache, “You’re the pony that Powder found in the forest, huh?”

“Well,” Caramel said, joking awkwardly, “I don’t think you do this to yourself farming, so I guess I must be, huh?” Cherry laughed, and gave him a firm pat on the shoulder. Caramel winced.

“Hah! I guess you must be! She’s had you locked up pretty tight since she dragged you in, what’s she been doing to you, huh? I bet she’s doing all sorts of weird stuff now that she’s got her hooves on somepony who’ll hold still for her!”

“No,” Caramel said, cocking an eyebrow at the boisterous unicorn, “I’ve been in bed, mostly - “

“Oh, wow, you lucky pony you!” Cherry roared, nudging Caramel violently.

“Resting,” Caramel corrected, “Would you please stop doing that?”

“Stop doing what?”

“Stop hitting, and prodding. I’m still sore, and you keep hitting my ribs.” Caramel said. Cherry snorted.

“Oh, please,” he said, “You just need to tough it out. Look at me, a little burn never stopped me from doing work!” He waved his hoof in front of Caramel’s face, showing off the bandage. Caramel realized that he must be the Blacksmith’s apprentice that Powder had been complaining about the previous day.

“Well,” he said, “A burnt hoof isn’t quite as bad as cracked ribs and a torn shoulder...” Cherry merely shrugged.

“That’s just Powder talking. She tries to baby every little injury. If she had her way, nothing’d ever get done around here.”

“I’m sure she’s just trying to make sure everypony is okay,” Caramel defended the purple mare. The more time he spent in Cherry’s company, the less he enjoyed it. Still, he could hardly tell the unicorn off - he doubted very much that anypony in the village would take his side in the ensuing conflict. If it came to fighting, Caramel wouldn’t have stood a chance against the powerful stallion if he weren’t broken in two places. So he kept his mouth shut, and hoped that Cherry might prove himself owner of a redeeming factor or two.

“If she wanted to make sure ponies healed right,” the chestnut pony said flippantly, “Then she wouldn’t be so mean about the whole thing.” He looked over his shoulder and leaned in close to Caramel, whispering, “Personally, I think she just likes to be in charge. Little ponies, you know? The old doctor was the same way.” He peeked down at Caramel’s bowl, and added, “Speaking of little ponies, are you going to eat that?” Caramel’s eyebrows very nearly met in the middle of his forehead.

“What.” He said flatly, peering sidelong at the unicorn, who levitated Caramel’s bowl.

“Were you going to finish this?” He asked again, pouring the contents of Caramel’s bowl into his own without waiting for a reply.

“Yes, actually,” Caramel objected. He pulled Cherry’s bowl away from him as the unicorn moved to eat from it, and asked, “Can I have it back, please?”

“Huh?” The big pony asked, stopping with his nose where the bowl used to be, “C’mon, aren’t we buddies now? Buddies share, right?”

“Right,” Caramel said “So how about sharing with the pony who hasn’t eaten in two days?”

“Oh,” Cherry said quickly, “Geeze, I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I though Powder must have brought you back something.” He tipped his bowl into Caramel’s, pouring back some of the contents.

“There was a bit more than that,” Caramel noted. Cherry nodded, and poured more back in. “Aaaand, one more tofu,” Caramel added, spurring Cherry to roll one in. Caramel grinned to himself, wondering if he could push it a little bit further, when suddenly a little yellow blur skidded in between them, nearly sending the bowls flying. It stopped before it hit them, if just, and Caramel was able to make out the blur’s true form: Tack, the filly from earlier that day.

“Cherry!” She said, hopping up against the stallion, “Cherry! Your papa wants to see you, he was looking for you!”

“Dad’s looking for me?” Cherry repeated, “I guess I’d better go find him, then.” Tack jumped down, allowing Cherry to stand up. “I’ll see you later, Caramel,” he said, turning away from the colt.

“Yeah,” Caramel said, “See you.” He turned his attentions to the beaming filly beside him, and asked, “How about you, Tack? Care to join me, or have you got somewhere else to dash off to?”

“Nuh-uh,” Tack told him, shaking her head, “Papa’s meeting with all the other boss ponies. That’s why Cherry’s Papa was looking for him - they’re supposed to have their ‘prentices with them, but Papa says I’m too young for the meetings. I tried to sneak into one once, but it was really boring anyways.”

“Is that so,” Caramel said, smiling at the eager filly, “Why don’t you take a seat then? It’d be nice to have somepony to talk to.”

“Really?” Tack asked, “Most ponies don’t listen to me! Papa says it’s just cause I talk all the time, so they don’t get a chance to talk back! I don’t see why, though, it’s fun to listen to ponies talk! You get to learn stuff!”

“I’ll bet,” Caramel said, getting a picture of where her father was coming from. “What sort of stuff do you learn?”

“Oh, lots of things! Like, I learned that Cherry’s Papa gets more metal from broken down tools, and that miss Powder knows better than the mayor sometimes, and that the head farmer likes to spend time with the stallion who works with the cows - “ Caramel blinked awkwardly, but Tack carried on, “And I learned that the cows don’t like it when your hooves are cold, and I learned that miss Powder has a special drink that makes you feel warm, but nopony’s allowed to drink it but her and - “

“Wow,” Caramel laughed, cutting her off, “Sounds like you learned a whole lot.” Tack nodded vigorously in response, and Caramel asked her, “But for someone who claims to like listening so much, you sure do like to talk, huh?”

“That’s just what Papa says!” Tack exclaimed, “But I mean, that’s not it! I mean I like to talk, but that’s because there’s so much neat stuff to tell ponies.”

“So,” Caramel said slowly. His heart was beginning to sink again, imagining this sweet little filly slowly slipping into one of the despondent ponies he’d seen that morning. True, they all seemed much happier this evening, but Tack raw enthusiasm still stood out like a sore hoof. Someday, he worried, all that enthusiasm would drain away, as she was forced into a life she hadn’t chosen. He felt a lot more empathetic than he ought to. “So,” he said again, “You like telling ponies the stuff you learn?”

“Uh-huh! Ponies listen to you when you tell them things!” She said, “It’s really nice! Plus, you get to know that they know something new!”

“Sounds nice...” Caramel said, trying not to sound too depressed. It clearly wasn’t working.

“What’s wrong, mister Caramel?” Tack asked him. He sighed in spite of himself, and told her,

“Oh it’s nothing. Just...” He said, but he stopped. Slowly, ever so slowly, an idea was beginning to form in him mind. Just a kernel of an idea, really, just a thought. Why couldn’t she choose? Who said that she had to be a cobbler like her father? There was nothing stopping her from getting her cutie mark but time. That’s all Caramel had needed. He knew he liked making candy long before his cutie mark, he just needed to do it for long enough that he realized it was what he wanted to do. She knew what she liked to do, so if she could do it, why couldn’t she get her cutie mark? A slow, eager grin spread across Caramel’s face. He could do something. He could help. Even if it was just a little bit, just one little filly, for once he would be able to do something good. Something great!

“Nothing,” he told her happily, “Nothing’s wrong at all.” He scooped the filly up in his good hoof and bounced her, causing her to whoop happily. “Hey,” he said, “I’ll bet Powder’s going to let me out tomorrow, how about you see if you can come meet me then, huh?”

“Sure!” Tack laughed happily. “I’ll come see you after I look at the road, like I did today, okay?”

“You bet,” Caramel said, “It’s a date!”

“Great!” Tack squealed, “Let me down! I gotta go talk to Papa now, the boss ponies are done talking!”

“How do you know?” Caramel asked the filly, setting her back down on the ground. She pointed, and Caramel followed her hoof, spotting Powder walking towards the pair.

“Miss Powder’s a boss pony too!” She told him, “So if she’s here, that means Papa’s done talking too!”

“Ah, I see,” Caramel said, “I guess you’d better get along then, huh?”

“Yup,” Tack said, starting to trot away from him, “But I’ll see you tomorrow!” With that, she dashed away, leaving a waving Caramel in her dust.

“Well, it looks like you made a friend,” Powder commented as she approached, “I think that was the cobbler’s daughter.”

“Yeah,” Caramel said, “Tack.”

“I wouldn’t have thought that you two would have much in common,” she said, taking a seat in front of the broken colt, “She’s so... energetic. And you, aren’t.”

“I’ve been broken in bed for the past two days,” Caramel chuckled, “I haven’t had much chance to be energetic.”

“Not, quite what I meant,” Powder rolled her eyes. “But I might be wrong. You’re in a much better mood that you have been lately.”

“Well,” Caramel said, smiling shyly, “I think I was kinda beating myself up over something. But I think I feel better now. I know what to do about it.”

“Is that so?” Powder asked. She eyed him for a moment, but shrugged. “Are you gonna finish your bowl, or are you ready to go?” Caramel looked down, seeing the bowl of food he had forgotten.

“Oh, right,” he said, “Hold on.” He devoured the paltry remnants of the bowl quickly, and smiled up at Powder. “There,” he said, “I’m ready.”

“Good,” Powder said, standing up and rubbing the bridge of her nose, “I wanna get back home before the Blacksmith’s apprentice comes looking for me again.”

“You mean Cherry?” Caramel asked. Powder stopped rubbing and stared at him.

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

“He came over and talked to me for a bit,” Caramel told her. She sighed, and rolled her eyes.

“Oh lord,” she said, “I can only imagine how that went.” Caramel laughed, and stood up as well.

“Well...” He said, beginning to recount the tale as the pair made their way back to Powder’s home.