• Published 17th Nov 2011
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Fallout: Equestria- The Last Sentinel - Adder1

It's hard to kill memories when you remember everything.

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Reflection Two: Zoleks

Reflection Two: Zoleks

Ah didn't want tuh spend muh life at a muddy ol' apple farm. Ah wanted to live the sophistuhcated life, like muh Aunt n' Uncle Orange! So Ah set out to try muh luck in a big city- Manehattan! The most cosmopolitan city in all o' Equestria!”

In the wake of the Great Exodus, millions of Northerners flocked to the closest Equestrian cities- Stalliongrad and Burrlin, for instance. As much as they wanted to, those two cities alone couldn't handle the sudden, unprecedented influx of refugees. That didn't stop them from trying, though. Earth ponies- very specifically earth ponies- set up camp for tens of thousands. But there were millions of Northerners, and at the time, Stalliongrad and Burrlin simply couldn't care for everypony.

But one more was all it took. It was by far the largest Equestrian city at the time, famous for its larger-than-life buildings, its larger-than-life monuments, and its larger-than-life people.

Manehattan, City of Lights and Legends.

The storyteller let out a soft sigh.

Look... this world, this Wasteland... all this takes some getting used to. And you do get used to it. But even if I did leave Manehattan behind with my childhood, there's three things I'll always miss. And I miss them even more now that I've been back there. It's... one of the reasons why I choose to forget.

He paused for a few more seconds, eyes downcast. He glanced up, locking eyes with the audience before beginning again in a content, nostalgic tone.

One- the nightlife. Princess Luna lost her way before ponykind harnessed non-magical electricity and used it to bring light to the darkness. Manehattan was famous for its nightlife. We are all diurnal creatures by nature, and in Manehattan, they combined the majesty of night with the light and life of ponykind. After sundown, citygoers were graced with a dazzling array of colorful lights- hanging from streamers that ran from post to post across the city streets, sparkling along the buildings, glimmering in shimmering waters of Manehattan Harbor, from the great torch of the Statue of Friendship. Manehattan never slept. There was always someone somewhere, partying in the nocturnal splendor.

Two- the people. Manehattan was by far the most cosmopolitan city at the time, rivaling- and some would say surpassing- Stalliongrad in that respect. Manehattan's sprawling structures couldn't contain the mounting population. So they build denser, they built higher. You couldn't be afraid of heights, living in Manehattan. High-rise apartments were a part of life, especially for the middle and working class. With how dense, how compacted the Manehattaners were together, you had to be comfortable with bumping into others. For the most part, people were friendly- they had to be. You couldn't go goggle-eyed or cringe at the sight of a zebra, a donkey, a mule, a griffin, or even a buffalo. Sometimes even diamond dogs lived in Manehattan. Variety is the spice of life, and Manehattan... heh, well, Manehattan was one spicy city. Looking back... my Goddess, how far we've fallen. Nowadays, the stranger is met with caution, with paranoia. Back then, it was with a smile or a nod.


He lets out a sigh, eyes twinkling in remembrance.

I miss the songs. I love music. But no matter what, no strings, skins, or reeds can compare to the majesty of the equine voice. And Manehattaners? Manehattaners sure knew how to carry a tune. Take a moment- imagine what it was like, coming back home from a day of work or school to a night of party and play. You definitely had to get used to sleeping easy with noise about. Manehattaners had a well-earned reputation for rambunctiousness. Sure, there's the southern quarter of town where gentrification and demand turned it into an enclave for the upper crust, but don't get me wrong- night was where all the action was. And yeah, that kind of action too. Singing, dancing... and yeah, sexing.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The scope's a little wide for now. Let's narrow it down, let's... focus on my family.

Like many other Northerners that made it to the City of Lights and Legends, my family's first home was a communal tent inside a refugee camp outside city limits. Imagine your average one-story home. Now cram about twenty-five, thirty ponies in there. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't comfortable, and it was noisy as hell. But for a time, it was our place to rest and recuperate from the tragedy that befell our people.

We were lucky- very lucky- not only to have survived but that my parents had this almost picture-perfect skill set needed to make ends meet. Don't get me wrong- Equestria had an amazing, an absolutely phenomenal welfare program. It just wasn't designed to handle the twelve-million-plus weak, weary, hungry, sick, traumatized ponies that all but dropped down on the system's doormat. A lot of philequinpists donated or volunteered to the cause, but you just can't fathom, just can't even hope to be able to help get everypony back on his or her hooves. You just can't. I mean, sure! The world back then was unbelievably better than the one we have now, but there are some problems you just can't work around no matter how hard you try. You can't solve world hunger. You can't solve poverty, disease, what have you. You can't stop the rain. You put a roof over everyone's heads and hope it doesn't leak. It's the sad fact of life, even as good as things were back then.

But again, we were very lucky that my parents had this almost picture-perfect skill set needed to make ends meet. Father, Diamond Dust... he was an earth pony stallion, his fur a distinguished white. His mane and tail were a wholesome blue- that's the best I can describe it. It was just this shade that just came across as “wholesome”. I told you he could find the best in everyone. We all needed somepony to pour our heart out into, someone to just... talk to. Ponies need that- people need that. Maybe that's what I'm getting from all this by telling this story. Father was a consultant, a confidant, and a counselor. He became an open ear behind closed doors. He gave advice both friendly and familial, emotional and entrepreneurial, physical and psychological. I don't know how he did it, but mark my words... (The storyteller repeatedly pointed a hoof out in short, quick jabs.)... he could find the best in anyone. Sometimes it just took a little pressure. Now that's power beyond what money can buy, and he was charging a reasonable rate at that.

Mother, Natural Cure... she was also an earth pony. She had this verdant green coat and a simple, short-cut mane and tail the color of fine lotus powder. She likewise had her hooves full. In the camps where you had so many ponies packed together after such a trying time, disease ran rampant. The Manehattan doctors learned she had knowledge of natural remedies and hired her as a consultant and field doctor to supplement their medicinal and medical knowledge and supplies. She might have been held back- maybe even crippled- by her progeria, but she somehow always managed to make house calls to her patients just as they did in Hokkaido. When she told me this story, I asked her- why did she even do all that? Why push herself like that? Her response? I still remember, in that almost stereotypically worn, wise tone: “There is no rest for the weary. I can rest when I am dead, and I do not plan on dying for a while.” Amazing mare. Just... (He sighs.) Just an amazing mare, my mother.

We all helped one another out like that. The Northerners stuck together and helped pull one another up onto their feet. Even if there was a language barrier, we all did our part in helping one another through this. And by “we”, I mean “they”. Me? I was still a newborn foal, trying to make sense of this noisy world around me.

Things improved fast after that initial hump. The grieving for lost loved ones was over. It was time to look ahead. You know the northern quarter of Manehattan? That wasn't there before The Great Exodus. The northern quarter literally sprung up from the ground, the foundations laid down by Northerners and Equestrians as one. From refugee camp to low-cost housing surrounded by a growing community in three years flat? You can bet that happened. It's one of those moments where I feel a sense of pride in my country. That's the kind of nationalism I think anyone can approve of.

So. Father became a paid consultant, confidant, and counselor. Mother owned her own clinic founded off of the herbal remedies she swore and stood by. We had a comfortable- after what we'd been through at least- apartment, two bedrooms.

Now... where does that leave me?

Well, we’ve covered my parents, who they were, where they came from, what they did. They're both amazing people despite their disabilities- father's polio-stricken hindleg and mother's progeria. They're real heroes in my eyes. Have any of you come across a storybook? Something about a hero or heroine? They always tend to start from humble beginnings. They start small and grow into someone larger than life.

Welllll... I'm not exactly a hero. Sorry to disappoint.

* * *

I slugged the buck- this orange fellow with a messy, blue mane- in the face. But I wasn't very strong, and my hoof just skinned his cheek. The bigger kid slugged me in breast, knocking the wind out of me before bowling me over onto my back. He just pinned me there by placing a single hoof on the barrel of my chest. I tried to yank it off violently and cause him to lose balance- something like that. I wasn't nearly strong enough. I think I just massaged his muscles at best. I hated concrete, but it and I were familiar friends. Like good, familiar friends, we were united yet again. Just the concrete and me- this scrawny, green unicorn colt with a ruffled, black mane and tail and deep-blue eyes that were slanted exotically like all Northerners.

We were on school grounds, just outside the cafeteria. Foals were foals, and a crowd of them gathered around us on the concrete. “Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight!” some of them chanted- hey, what can you do? Foals.

And so Superintendent Vanilla Drop came in and broke up the fight... again. The unicorn mare just used her telekinesis to hold us up out of reach of one another in midair like a mother cat would pick up her kitten. I remember thinking: No fair... magic...

* * *

Look, you could call me a lot of things back when I was a colt. Feisty, belligerent, scrappy, hotheaded, temperamental, crude, ill-mannered, annoying- all that fits, I won't lie. I've already done enough of that. But this is indeed another case of the cruelty of children between children. It's actually something I've seen less of in the Wasteland to be honest, what with everyone fighting to survive. Normally, it's among adults. I find it kind of funny and sad at the same time...

That whole incident? That was when I was seven years old. Believe it or not, I didn't get bullied around too much when I started school. Sure, there were a couple cases, but when the superintendent and her counselors made it clear just who I was and what I'd been though, well, they left little Hokkaido alone for the most part. Before all that, I was calm. I was a... little withdrawn, maybe, but I could still socialize with the other kids just fine.

Of course, that was the first year only. That was... kindergarten.

Unicorns went through a different kind of program at that age. It was called magic kindergarten. Damned mages and their descriptive terminology, huh? (The storyteller chuckles softly.) Anyway, magic kindergarten is sort of a prelude to magical studies in elementary school. They teach you the basics- really only how to concentrate and fire up your horn and the telekinesis spell.

Lorn Almighty, you all know me somehow, someway. You ever see or hear of me using anything other than cryomancy? Heh, well, of course none of you have. That's because I can't. I literally can't perform any other kind of magic- and I didn't know about cryomancy back then. So sure, it might have been pretty impressive to form an overglow without prior tutoring when I was trying to lift a wad of tissue paper, but that wasn't exactly tested material!

(As if proudly, he declares with a bewildered smile,) I flunked magic kindergarten. Think of hearing that about a unicorn way back then. Try to- Try to wrap your head around that. I flunked... magic kindergarten. I was one of the few if not downright the first unicorn to fail magic kindergarten! At that point, being a Northerner doesn't even matter to the others. I tried to make up excuses- that both my parents were earth ponies, that I was a “late bloomer”. Late bloomer? If I could form an overglow, I just plain sucked at magic. Without magic... I mean, what use was a unicorn? I was just a weaker earth pony with this pointy thing coming out of my head. I became the laughingstock of Rubinelle Elementary School. You could even argue from the teacher's standpoint that I made Rubinelle a laughingstock too.

And that... is when the whole bullying nonsense began.

Let it rest now that I know my hubris. Again, I'm not going to lie with this, and lying to myself counts toward this to. I don't take injuries to my pride too well, even if I've learned to reel it in somewhat and even if it's my own doing. It's what made me try to become someone else after leaving Stable Seventy-Two. It didn't help that I was named after my people's homeland in the Far North. Back then, that was what those kids were insulting, at least how I saw things.

So you could imagine that when I started to get teased about that whole “flunking magic kindergarten thing”, I changed. That was when I started becoming feisty, belligerent, scrappy, hotheaded, temperamental, crude, ill-mannered, annoying, the works. One thing became another after that. Being weak, scrawny, lanky, whatever. I was “Hothead” Hokkaido, that's what they called me. Any insult could tick me off. I'm serious. I wouldn't stand to have anyone just walk over me like that. Unfortunately, I took that phrase a bit too literally. All those fights ended up with me on the ground with cuts and bruises and a pink slip to the student center. The worst part? I was stuck at Rubinelle. Who the hell wants a pugilistic magical kindergarten flunk transferring to their school? And sure, the superintendent and counselor tried to have “talks” with the kids that bullied me around, but let's be honest for a second- do you really think they stopped?

If you said yes, just get out right now.

A young filly, head hung low, got up and started for the exit with a dejected sigh.

Wait, are you serious?

She nodded bashfully.

Oh I was just fooling, kid. Come on, sarcasm. Take a seat. I'm not gonna ask anyone to leave.

The filly smiled and settled back down.

Okay... right, the bullies. Well, I couldn't back down from a fight given how I saw myself, as the symbol of hope for my people. Yes, yes, I know. Even back then, I had this sense of self-righteousness. Come on. I was a foal named Hokkaido. Foals take pride in what they can. Call it bragging rights, but I call it a will to feel importance. Kids strive for that. People strive for that. It's why there's bullies out there, big and small. And it's why I fought back against every little insult that I saw as an effort to tear me- and what I represented- down. So yeah, I got beat up a lot as a kid. I never won- no fights, and definitely not in the grand scheme of things. My combative nature just turned other ponies away from me, too. Nobody wants to be friends with the foal who keeps picking fights. Nobody wants to be caught in the crossfire. So I just kept getting my ass handed to me, and I kept getting my ass handed to me alone. At least until I was eight years old.

Because that's when I made a proper friend.

* * *

Sunny Days, that big, orange buck with the cutie-mark of the dirty bits? Yeah, he just wouldn't leave me alone. A lot of them were like that. What's more was that eventually they started coming in groups. It was morning recess on the playground, and I was just minding my own business on the monkey bars when I saw Sunny and his entourage approach me.

The big buck just sneered at me. “Hey, Hothead! What, you trying to put some muscle on those skinny legs?” And they just laughed. Kids and their ‘humor’, am I right?

Well I for one didn't find it the least bit funny and dropped down to the blacktop, a scowl riddling my muzzle. “Yeah, so I can break yours,” I huffed in reply, in that light, smooth tone.

“Ooh, scary.” Sunny mocked, causing more outbursts of laughter from his little posse. “Look, Hothead, you already know what I'm here for. Just gimme your lunch money and I'll leave you alone.”

(The story teller huffed and smiled wanly.) Always the lunch money. You know, the real funny thing was that my parents eventually made me switch to prepaid lunch tickets. I never carried any money on me, at least until I was a little older. They were just trying to get a reaction out of me.

And they did. “Up your butt, Days,” I growled.

“Oh, ho ho ho!” he howled with laughter. “Look who's acting all big and grown-up now, guys!”

And for the third time, that laughter came out directed at me. I couldn't stand it anymore. I just plain rushed him and bucked him in the barrel of the chest. Of course I didn't do much to a guy as tough as him. In fact, he actually let me hammer away at him for a good several seconds. Guy was just putting on a show for everyone to see that I clearly caused all the fighting. At that age, the “he started it” excuse still works wonders. Come to think of it, it still works when you're all grown-up.

Then he hit back- hard. I crumpled to the blacktop as other foals began to crowd around us just like they always did. I shakily got back up on my feet and charged for him again. He just barred me with a foreleg and shoved me back down. Again, he set that heavy hoof down on the barrel of my chest and just pinned me. It was a waiting game now, a waiting game I couldn't win. I tried to tug at that foreleg, punch it off, kick at his hindlegs. Didn't work. I was going to lose the battle and the war yet again.

(The storyteller broke into a great, big smile.) And then out of nowhere, this zebra colt only a bit bigger than I was bum-rushed him and bam! He just took out his right legs from under him and gave him a double-buck to the side, sending him sprawling away. I just gaped and widened my eyes in shock, watching Sunny end up in a groaning heap.

“Hey!” the zebra called, his voice the first friendly one I'd heard in months. My eyes jerked form Sunny’s crumpled form to the zebra colt. I'll never forget that slumping Mohawk and that sloppy grin. Most of all, I'll never forget those sincere, brown eyes. He was holding a hoof out to me. “I not doing all the fight! You get up?”

My surprised gape turned into a hopeful grin as we locked fetlocks and he pulled me up.

He was fast. Maybe not the fastest I've ever seen, but he knew how to fight, and he could outpace and outfight the others as I picked off the scraps he left behind. He barely even got hit- he just blocked, parried, or dodged. And when he did get hit, he made sure it wasn't to anywhere that would hinder him. Usually, it was on the sturdy muscle and bone of his chest. I later learned it was the Manticore style of zebra martial arts. Blocks meet the opponent's attack. Every buck or punch was made from a coiled-up stance. If you couldn't avoid a hit, meet it. Knock the opponent off-balance. Go for the legs, then knock them down. Finish them while they're on the ground. Well, okay, maybe not finish them at our age, but I remember thinking to myself: Manticore style was the shit!

Yeah, we both got in trouble. Yeah, we both got scolded by our parents. But yeah, he and I really hit it off as friends after that day when our parents decided to meet for dinner and apologize to one another about their colt dragging the other into this mess. I thought it was going to end up in a mutual scolding after our little scrap, but it ended up in a family friendship instead. In a way, we could relate to his family. They were members of the Denipulo, one of the seven tribes of the seven hills that founded the Zebrican capital of Roam. They came here from Zebrica while it was facing economic depression, seeking a better life with more economic stability. With how little purchasing power the Zebrican cronus had, selling their entire home and most of their possessions only got them to Equestria, leaving them nearly destitute on arrival. They only recently obtained citizenship status, and their Equestrian- like my parents'- was rudimentary at best. In a sense, they were refugees of a different sort- but still refugees just like us. Imagine my surprise when we found out we lived in the same neighborhood. His family lived only a block-and-a-half down from our apartment. We had dinner together in one of the many city parks almost every weekend.

* * *

When it comes to friendship, it's give and take. If all you do is give, you feel taken advantage of. If all you do is take, the other party is bound to feel the same way. Zoleks wasn't the brightest student, and though he had some zebra friends himself, they mostly knew Equestrian or Zwahili. Zoleks' family spoke a different dialect, Zebrikaans. It was the unofficial “commercial” language of the Holy Zebrican Empire. Meanwhile, I kept getting picked on and getting into fights. So I helped him out with his schoolwork and Equestrian in my spare time, and he stuck by my side. After seeing what he did to Sunny Days and his boys, nobody wanted to pick on me with Zoleks as my unofficial bodyguard.

Heh, Zoleks and I did everything together- just... everything. We played together, ate together, had sleepovers together, did homework together. When we were signing up for classes the next year, we even made sure to get the same ones. And yeah, we got in trouble together, too. Getting into fights wasn't the only thing I did as a foal- I also... ah, had a habit of getting into places I shouldn't be. Okay, won't mince words. I broke into things. I didn't pick locks or anything. Usually it was just an open window or an unattended object. Yeah, I stole things- bits included. Yeah, I sold stuff I could to others who'd keep it quiet. After a bit of instruction, Zoleks caught on himself.

Look, like I said, welfare couldn't fully support us. Even with both my parents working now, most of our income went towards rent and food. I knew it was wrong to steal like that, wronger still that sometimes I stole from other Northerners who left some shiny thing unattended. But who hires a foal for work? Zoleks' folks weren't any better off than we were, either. They were scraping in bottom-of-the-bin, minimum-wage jobs working overtime. Like I said, I knew it was wrong, but I wanted to help my folks and Zoleks' however I could.

Naturally, we couldn't keep this all a secret forever. We both got caught, we were both punished, and we gave stuff back- not all of it, mind you. Our parents never found out just how many dirty bits we made from it. Still, I couldn't help but feel a sense of pride when I saved up enough of those bits to buy Zoleks a brand new bike. Heh, if there was anything Zoleks loved, it was bikes. I'll admit it was freaky when I learned about it and freakier still watching him learn how to ride, sitting down in that odd way.

But seeing him happy like that after making it down the sidewalk without crashing? Now that was something I genuinely felt proud of. Especially when he got his glyphmark from it. Was a symbol resembling a wheel with bent spokes. Heh, not too surprising really. I remember that day fondly- not just because Zoleks earned his glyphmark but because of what happened before he did.

Imagine... a shockwave. An enormous shockwave that glowed with all the colors of the rainbow.

The storyteller took a minute to form a carefully-shaped prism of ice and held it up to the soft light, splicing its color.

Just like that. It was rumored, only later confirmed, that a little filly who later became Ministry Mare Rainbow Dash performed a Sonic Rainboom, sending its powerful shockwave all across Equestria. It was strong enough to cause a small temblor all the way over in Manehattan- and right as Zoleks was trying to ride his bike. He only cried out and wobbled a little. He didn't fall. I don't think he even realized how far he went without looking, so entranced he was by the Sonic Rainboom.

He smiled with the memory.

Of course... stealing wasn't the only thing we got in trouble for, of course. We're all creatures of habit; I'm no exception. Some ponies still picked on me, and yeah, I got into fights still. Not often, but kids just don't quit sometimes. Sunny Days? Nope, not him either. Didn't come nearly as often as before, but it still happened.

Not getting my cutie-mark even after elementary school didn't help either.

I'm sure everypony knows the feeling of being a quote-unquote “blank-flank”. Nopony likes it. Hell, nobody who can get a butt tattoo does either. It's even worse for me because I'm a Hokkaidan. Remember, we get our true names once we get our cutie-marks. As far as I knew, I was the oldest mumei, or “unknown, obscured, nameless”. Being practically the only mumei around sucked. So you could probably imagine my frustration and embarrassment at not only my failure to pass magic kindergarten but also my failure to discover what truly made me unique among all others. Zoleks got his glyphmark, yeah, but me? I just couldn't get it. I definitely tried to. Did all these crazy, often stupid things. And if the fact that I tried knife-juggling is any indication, I got hurt. A lot. Never seriously, luckily. Come to think of it, I think was a lot luckier way back then...

* * *

Anyway, after that little fiasco, father decided to have me settle down for a talk. It was like every other “talk” we had, seated beside one another on my bed. We really didn't have much furniture. We just couldn't afford it, and thinking about it as a kid when I saw other people with something as simple as a dinner table, it sucked. It really sucked living from paycheck to paycheck. Maybe my parents felt it more than I did, working their asses off just to keep afloat, there's no denying that I felt embarrassed and even a tad ashamed by that.

“Hokkaido...” he began- he always used my name like that when he was upset, at least when we were in private. Usually, it was “son”. That didn't bode well.

“Dad, I can explain,” I interrupted in protest. He never lost his patience when I did that. He could always wait for the other party to have their say. “I was just trying to get my cutie-mark...” He let out this heavy, old sigh- just... that's how I remember it. I looked at him that moment and realized just how worn he was getting. He was getting bags under his eyes from late shifts and from worry stealing his sleep. His mane, that wholesome blue mane... it was starting to become speckled with gray. He was silently thankful that my mother lasted this long into their marriage, I think, but... he was getting on in the years- quicker now, I think. That sigh made me realize this, and I just stopped talking right there. It sort of shocked me. After I didn't continue speaking for several seconds, he looked at me as if for an invitation to speak. It was this pleading look that made me feel even sorrier for him.

“Hokkaido,” he began anew, each Equestrian word coming out syllable by syllable, “if you are trying to get your cutie-mark, you should try to find what you are good at.” Oh, well no kidding. If it wasn't my father speaking to me, I would have rolled my eyes at that. But it was my father, my old father. “After you do, focus on those. For me, I knew that I was a good listener. So, I listened. But then I learned I could see through listening what was good in ponies, uh, in people I mean. And after listening to someone talking through his heart, what is next step? You give advice. That was how I got my mark. So find what you are good at. Maybe somepony else already good at it. Keep trying, keep finding. Keep pushing yourself.”

“It just takes a little pressure,” I finished.

He gave me this tiny smile- just this tiny, fragile smile. It stretched his muzzle enough for me to see the hint of aged whiteness on it, not the usual shade of his coat. I don't know how I was good enough to see that, but... maybe it was luck. I don't know. “Yes. A little pressure. But Hokkaido...” He placed his hoof on mine, “try not to do things that can kill you just yet. Please.”

* * *

And that was that. No scolding like I expected. Well, at least until my mother got home and learned about it. Then I got an earful. But... his words definitely made me think about what I was good at. I knew I was better than anyone at my school for getting into fights, but if I was going to get a hooffight cutie-mark, I would have gotten one already. So I spent a little time thinking about what I was good at, going back in time, thinking back, sifting through memory.

Then it hit me.

* * *

“Ow...” I mumbled.

“Why do you keep on hitting your head against the wall like that?” Zoleks eyed me. “It's not even funny anymore. The baker's been giving us these weird looks.” Heh... he had sure come a long way with his Equestrian. We were both twelve now, enjoying our summer off from middle school. We were just chilling in one of the city's many squares. I remember it had this fountain, this beautiful, pure, white marble fountain. Fish and dolphins branched off from the main pillar, water spouting out from their mouths into the rippling pool below. Rarely do you see any working fountains like that. The only one you can find nowadays- the only one I've found so far at least- is at Tenpony. Zoleks told me these fountains were nothing compared to the ones in Tail Aviv, his family's first stop in Equestria. It was the City of Water and Wonder for a reason, he told me.

“Maybe I'll just remember something that'll help me get my cutie-mark,” I grumbled. “Wait a second...”

Remember. That was it. Ever since I was going into elementary, I learned I had this unbelievable ability to remember things. I just couldn't forget no matter what. That was the reason my grades in school were high enough to offset my bad behavior- most of the time at least. I remembered every arbitrary scrap of information I set my eyes on or strained my ears on- even taste, touch, and smell were forever branded in memory. Nowadays, I still remember everything. I've lived for well over two centuries by now, so I've got a lot to sift through, but give me some time to think or give me some sort of trigger, and I'll remember it.

“Wait, did you actually think of something?” Zoleks asked with a grin, jarring me out of my revelation. “What is it? Does it involve biking?”

I grinned right back at him. “We're hitting the library.”

(The storyteller laughed.) Even now, I still find it hilarious how he just deflated to that. At least he still biked me there on his back.

Oh, at this point, Xamuros gave me an odd look. As did several others. “Oh, come on, don't give me that look now,” I told them. “Better than walking there. Now get your mind out of the gutter.” Back to the story...

* * *

Looking back at it, I was wondering how I even thought about that. I mean... what I did was so impractical. I just went to the library and started reading all the things. I just tried to memorize as many things as I could and... hoped I would get a memorization cutie-mark or something. I... I just don't know what I was thinking. What would a memorization cutie-mark even look like? Maybe a checklist? I don't know, but I memorized so many useless details. Centipedes, scientific name Geophilomorpha, belongs to phylum Arthropoda, subphylum, Myriapoda, class Chilopoda. The world record for bouncing a ball into the air without letting it hit the ground was 462 bounces by a determined earth pony stallion named Waddle Wiggle. Garfield from the comic strip of the same name was depicted eating lasagna seventeen times in the Survival of the Fattest comic strip collection. There were approximately 300,000 craters with a minimum 1-kilometer diameter on the surface of the moon. Honestly, when was I ever going to use that sort of information? But there I was, going back to the library day after day to read up on a random book. At least my parents were happy with the premise.

However, I did happen upon a book that I found more interesting than most of those useless facts- the comic collections were nice, though. It was a book that changed me for the rest of my life. Its concepts and lessons still stick with me to this day. I actually liked it so much that I bought it from the library. It's one of the few purchases I made as a young foal that I think was money well spent.

The storyteller procured a second memento. It was a slender volume, its edge liberally speckled with bookmark tabs. At the moment, he kept the cover facing away from the audience.

You know, I wonder how I hadn't discovered my way with words earlier. It's a funny thing, really. If only I found it out sooner or maybe that other book. Hm... but what can you do? You take what you can get. And this?

He curved his muzzle in a sly grin and flipped it around. Depicted was a tower, notably one of the spires of Canterlot Castle. Above the tower, the title proclaimed Lying, Parliamentary Style in faded violet and gold.

Well. I got a lot from this book. I love this book. I really do. You see, lying takes more than just saying what the other person wants to hear. You have to say it right. Can't be too quick or too slow, can't have too much or too little fluctuation. You have to maintain eye contact, try not to twitch. You can't seize up. You have to hit that sweet spot. At the same time, you have to learn to lie to yourself and believe in the lie. You have to be able to hold a smile even when rage is bubbling away inside. You have to be able to show depression or shock when you're really jumping for joy. It's all... about... the façade. Of course, lying wasn't the only thing taught in this book, oh no. Plenty of other neat tidbits... baiting, reverse psychology, and many other neat little toys.

Here's the thing about memorization- you can know everything there is to know, but it doesn't mean squat unless you can apply that knowledge. All that crap about centipede nomenclature, world records, comic character tidbits, lunar craters, what have you? It's just that- crap. Useless, stinky stuff you just want to flush away. Memorization means nothing without application. But this? (The storyteller waves the book slightly.) This I could apply. (He set it down.)

* * *

Zoleks kept sticking by me, even into Lazurian middle school. You know who also kept sticking with me? Sunny Days. Like I said, we're all creatures of habit. Kids like us are no exception. I still had my reputation as “Hothead” Hokkaido, and don't you even think for a moment that anyone forgot I was still a twelve-year-old blank-flank-flunk.

“Crap, him again?” Zoleks sighed as we headed away from the bike racks toward our first class. Sunny and his posse were heading straight for us. “Well, you know I'm here to take 'em out, no sweat.”

“Let 'em come,” I said calmly, inhaling deeply. My voice was starting to get its smoothness, its graveness. I could do this. Confidence was my forte. Maybe “Hothead” fit me after all. “And Zoleks?”


“Don't do anything. No hits. You can block or dodge, but no hitting.”

“Say what?”

“No hitting,” I repeated. “You're not going to help me. Got it?”

Zoleks grumbled softly but nodded in compliance. “You got it, boss.”

I stood firm, upright. No slouching. Chest out, head level. And... smile...

“Jeez, Hokkaido, how many names are you gonna make for yourself?” Sunny asked with a sneer as he drew closer across the concrete. “Flunk, hothead, blank-flank, and now a coltcuddler? C'mon, you're making it easy for us!”

Zoleks snarled and started forward. I blocked him with a leg. Ho-ly fuck did those names sting, especially that last one! But I just drew in a deep breath and reeled my seething rage in. And then I pulled the hook back on its lips into a smile. “Easy.” I cautioned my friend. He scowled as that whole display only brought howls of laughter from Sunny and his group.

“Heh, explains why Hothead's always on top,” one of them cackled. “He's like a doggie! An obedient, little doggie! Of course he's the submissive one!”

I watched as Zoleks merely steeled himself, frowning as he exhaled a deep breath. Then I asked, still holding my smile, “So, fellas, what can I do for you?”

Some of them were a bit perplexed by my bright mood, looking around over their shoulders as if expecting this to be a distraction. Sunny just huffed, “You know already. Come on, buck. Lunch money. Hoof it over. Both of you. Then you can go right on free.”

“Really?” I asked, still smiling but raising an eyebrow.

“Mm-hm, really. You have my word that I'll leave you be-”

“No,” I interrupted, “I mean you're really doing this?” I looked around, namely at Zoleks and a couple other foals that were starting to stop and watch. Like I said, I acquired a bit of a reputation. “Really? Do you know who I am?”

Now the other kids looked outright confused. After all, I normally would have started swinging punches and trading bucks by now. “Yeah, you're fuckin' Hothead Hok-”

“I'm a Northerner,” I said, cutting him off again. “Maybe you've heard of them since there are so many of us? Hm? We fled the Far North to escape the deadly winter, and over twenty-million of us died in the journey. Those of us who survived lost almost everything we had. We're barely scraping by from paycheck to paycheck, and you're trying to steal lunch money from one?” My smile flickered away. “What are you, stupid?”

A couple “Ooh...”s rang out from the small crowd that gathered, and some of Sunny's entourage winced from that. The big, orange buck himself stammered in utter shock that I had resorted to words with some semblance of logic rather than my hooves, “Well...”

(The storyteller was smirking now.) “Oh!” I suddenly smiled, eyes widening and lighting up as I laughed. “Oh, are you really that desperate? I'm so sorry, I didn't know that you, nonono, that your family was so dirt-poor so as to tell you to steal from a Northerner!”

“What?!” Sunny exclaimed incredulously, twitching like a nervous wreck.

See, the thing is, everyone has plans- everyone likes things to go according to plan. When things don't go according to plan, we panic. We panic, especially if things have been going all according to plan for years. And when you panic after all that, you make the shittiest mistakes.

So I told him, “My Goddess I'm so sorry! You must be scraping at the bottom of dumpsters for scraps to eat, you poor thing!” And yeah, I made it sound as exaggerated as I could. Not kidding you. “Here.” I hoofed out a few bits, still smiling. “Take it. Just take it. Buy yourself a nice, delicious bread-bowl of clam chow-”

Sunny slugged me hard in the face, the golden bits flying away forgotten. Hello again, concrete, ol' buddy ol' pal. I've missed you so mu- okay, no. No I didn't miss you. But we we were reunited once again with Sunny pinning me down, hooking me left, right, left, right- again and again and again. As my view jerked back and forth between the blows, I could barely make out anything. But I saw the tears Sunny was blinking back, and I could still hear. I could hear the choked-back sobs, but that's all. Nobody was chanting for us to fight. Maybe there were some winced-out “Ooh...” s or hushed curses. But none of them did anything else. Thank Goddess, Zoleks. You didn't do a thing either. Followed my order to the dot.

Finally, Sunny just gripped me in place, punching me repeatedly with the same forehoof. “Fuck you!” he cried. “Fuck you, you Northerner piece of shit! Fuck all of you!” And then I smiled. I smiled because I knew I had won. In a war of the words, the first to resort to physical violence loses. “Fuck you! Fuck you, the hell you smiling for?! Fuck you!” He paused there, hoof held back, panting heavily.

“Good morning...” I sputtered, “Miss Superintendent...”

A maroon aura surrounded Sunny as he was yanked roughly back, the superintendent mare stepping in and barking out orders. Probably for them to stay away and stay put, yelling for another counselor to come in. I don't know for sure. My head was swimming and the sound started fading out. I know for certain Zoleks called out my name before the darkness closed in. I was still smiling.

* * *

A couple days later, Zoleks and I were on our way home. I had two black eyes- my left was so badly swollen I wouldn't be see out of it until the swelling went down. Luckily, no broken bones, no missing teeth, and my horn was fine. I felt worn and my head was throbbing, but I was flying high. I'd finally won. I was the victim, the innocent victim who didn't even throw a single punch, the innocent victim beaten to unconsciousness. I got in no trouble at all, and it was Days' parents apologizing to mine this time around. I was flying high, and not even the downpour could get me down.

“You sure you're up for riding on my back?” Zoleks asked as he tugged his bike along through the wet lawn of our school's track. “You slipped off and let go on the way to school. I don't want you falling under a cart, boss.”

“Nah, nah, we're good.” I flashed him a smile, working at the zipper to my jacket. It wasn't a proper raincoat, but it still kept me from getting too soaked. “'Sides, I know you have trouble with earth science. We're gonna need as much time as we can get for me to help you study. Who knows? I might be up for learning some Zebrikaans if you're up for it, Zoleks.”

The chill zebra smiled and pat me on the back. “Thanks, Hokkaido.” Eyes forward again. “Hey, you seeing that?”

“Where? Kinda half-blind here.”

“Sorry. Over near the front gate.”

I looked over there and squinted. To my surprise, there was that big, orange buck with the messy, blue mane. Sunny Days, now getting insults thrown at him from a group of foals.

“Bastard got what he deserved, ya think?” Zoleks huffed.

“Poor bastard, though,” I sighed. I'd lived long enough to know what it was like to be on the receiving end. “Hey!” I whistled sharply as we neared. “Let him be.”

“You kidding me?” one of the mares scoffed. “He beat the daylights out of you! He isn't even supposed to be here!”

“Hey look, folks.” I breathed in deep and... smiled. “I appreciate all this, really. But if the colt who got his daylights beat out by the guy you're mobbing is telling you to let the guy be, let the guy be. Capicé?”

Gradually, the small crowd disbanded with no more than a few murmurs and nods of understanding and maybe a few encouraging elbows. I approached Sunny Days. The big buck was sitting on his haunches in the muck, legs curled up, no raincoat, eyes downcast. “What do you want?” he asked in a forlorn, dejected tone.

I was still smiling. “Well, now you know how much it hurt for me all those years, huh?”

“Dammit, Hokkaido!” he hissed at me. “I got expelled from the district and I'm due in juvie! Didn't you check the mail for the court order? Now no fucking school wants me, I'm on fucking probation, and my parents hate me! You got what you wanted! You going to gloat in my face now? Huh?!” He broke into sobs, tears mixing with the rain. “I'm sorry, okay?” he whimpered. “I'm sorry... I'm so sorry... I didn't want any of this to happen... I... miss my friends, I miss helping my brother out at school... I'm sorry, I just... just...”

I flattened my lips. I wasn't flying high anymore. I let out a sigh. “Just got a little hotheaded?”

Sunny glanced up at me for a moment. Then he cast his eyes back down and nodded quickly, jerkily.

You know, winning these battles wasn’t the only thing I learned from Lying. It also taught me to look for opportunities in the aftermath... and I was looking at an opportunity. This was something completely different than what I’d done before. Before, I was still on the attack. Now... now I was trying for reconciliation.

“Sunny,” I said a little more curtly than called for, “look at me.” He only turned away. “Look at me. Come on, Sunny.” He hesitantly, slowly turned up to meet my gaze. I remember... those eyes- beaten, dull green eyes. “I'm sorry too. I didn't mean any of that, alright?”

He gave me this blank look and spat, “Bullshit! The way you did that, you probably rehearsed it!” I winced. Yeah, I did. It was true. He looked away and tucked in tighter. “Just leave me alone.”

Fuck, that didn’t work. Just try again. Try again. Try again and... smile. Just... smile (and the storyteller did so with a pushing motion).

I knelt down to his level. Gently now and no longer smiling, I said, “I was desperate, Sunny. I wanted to get back to you, and yeah, I rehearsed it. But please,” I laid my hoof on his, causing him to make eye contact at last, “believe me when I say I truly didn't want any of this either. I didn’t want you to get into this mess.” Sunny still looked reluctant to acknowledge me. He was glancing away every few seconds.

I needed to seal the deal. And in order to do that... now it was time for the part that I didn’t want to say, the part I didn’t want to admit. But I kept an even, apologetic tone and said, “I was wrong. I should have gone about it some other way. What I did was cruel, and I regret it. I’m sorry, Sunny.” Now his gaze softened, now he kept his eyes on me... and I knew I had him. “Now look, we're both beaten in... some shape or form. Let's move on.” I held out my hoof toward him, offering him as soft and sincere a smile I could manage. “Shall we?”

Ponies... people with nothing to lose and everything to gain will grasp at the first shred of hope they see. It's a fact. And it didn't let me down as Sunny and I locked fetlocks and I helped pull him out of the mud. “You... I really take back what I said about you, Hokkaido...” the big, orange buck said softly. Gone was that brazen tone. “You're not bad.”

I looked to Zoleks and asked, “Hey, it's alright if I stay late helping you out, isn't it? Maybe we can push the Zebrikaans to the weekend or something. We're probably gonna be walking.”

The zebra canted his head in confusion. I nodded toward Sunny to clue him in and he widened his eyes in understanding. “Sure, sure thing, boss. Definitely.”

I turned back to the big earth pony and asked, “Hey, Sunny, where do you live?”

“Uh, I live on Cherry and Oak,” he answered. “It's this apartment not too far from here, like... five blocks?” He pointed.

“Wanna walk and talk?” I offered with that sincere smile. “Maybe I can have a chat with your parents, too? Are they home?”

“Huh? Uh, yeah, well, my mom is, sure. Yeah, yeah, let's walk. Yeah!”

First shred of hope they see, folks.

I nodded, smiling bright as I unzipped my jacket and offered it to him. Investment in an opportunity. “Here, put this on.”

“What?” He stared at me in surprise.

“Eh... rain'll probably do me some good.” I shrugged. “Feels nice. You've been sitting in the mud for a while. Get warm. I’ll be fine”

“You sure?”

I pointed at my face. “Does this look unsure to you?” I asked jokingly. He winced. “... don't answer that. Here, just put it on.”

“Thanks...” he mumbled, slipping on the coat. It didn't cover him that much at all, but it kept him from getting more soaked than he already was. “Really, Hokkaido... thanks. I didn't expect any of this after... what happened and... all these years.”

“It's no problem, really.” I smiled sincerely.

* * *

I love Lying. I really do. Didn't I say that? Of course I did. I talked it over with Miss Days, told her that her son just slipped up. I was pretty rough on him that day, after all. I just smiled, spoke with confidence, added a sprinkle of lies to build the buck up, and sold the deal. Same thing with the district officials. Zoleks was still friends with the local Equestrian Learners tutor at Lazurian, and he was still friends with the principal, and he was still friends with a couple district officials. It's like dominoes. Tip one over in your favor, you get the rest to tip. You just have to get the first tipping. Imagine the looks we got in the hallway when I had not only Zoleks at my side, but also Sunny Days back in school, charges dropped, on my left.

“Sunny!” I heard in the hallway. I looked up to see a smallish earth pony buck galloping over toward Sunny, a bright smile on his face.

“Blustery!” He galloped as well, meeting halfway in a hug.

“‘Bigger’ brother, huh?” I huffed, grinning.

Sunny smiled sheepishly, hugging the comparatively tiny Blustery Days closer. “Bigger in age... he’s in eighth grade.”

“Heh, I getcha, I getcha,” I chuckled. “Hey, I'm Hokkaido.” I extended a hoof to him, and he shook. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Yeah, same.” He nodded. “Thanks for... uh... all that.”

“No problem, no problem.” I smiled.

“Hate to be a buzzkill, boss, but first period's starting up pretty soon,” Zoleks said, nodding at a clock.

“Hold up, we'll have time,” I said, turning back to Sunny and Blustery. I was seeing another opportunity in the aftermath again... “Say, Sunny, Blustery- do you happen to have any friends around? I'd really like to get to know them.”

I don't know if you any of you know a thing or two about pre-war Manehattan, but that right there? Opportunity was knocking, and I answered the door. That, my friends, was the start of the biggest gang in the history of the City of Lights and Legends.

The storyteller smiled wide and toothily as he started flipping through the pages. He had plenty of annotations in the margins. After a good few seconds, he looked back up at the audience.

I love this book. I really do.

* * *

Footnote: Zoleks joined the party!

Hokkaido- Level Up! Level 2 Reached!
Perk added: Scoundrel (Rank One)- Take the Scoundrel perk, and you can use your wily charms to influence people- each rank raises your Speech and Barter skills by 5 points.
Skills note: Speech- 50

Zoleks- Level Up! Level 2 Reached!
Origins: Zebrican Immigrant- You grew up in the Holy Zebrican Empire but set sail for Equestria hoping for a brighter future. You gain +10 to Unarmed, tier 1 in a martial art style of your choice, and +10 to Speech with other zebras. However, you take a -15 penalty to Barter and Speech when dealing with non-zebras.
Companion perk added: You Got It, Boss- Other people close to or below your age are less willing to pick fights both physical and verbal with you as long as Zoleks is nearby. You also gain access to unique dialogue options to threaten certain people.

Unlockables added: Soundtrack- City of Lights and Legends ( Alternate )

Soundtrack- Theme of the Comeback Colt, Hokkaido

Soundtrack- Theme of the Rider, Zoleks

Bonus feature added!
Zoleks' S.P.E.C.I.A.L.:

Strength: 7
Perception: 6
Endurance: 6
Charisma: 5
Intelligence: 4
Agility: 7
Luck: 5

Author's Note:

Many thanks to the FoE community and especially my pre-readers for this installment, Wirepony and Broadestpeak. You’re all awesome! Additionally, thank you for reading. If it’s not too much trouble, I would really appreciate some feedback. Thank you again. Until next time.

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