• 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 Fourteen: Coping

Note: After a little blog post regarding music, I'm going to be trying something new this time. Links to music will be interspersed in the actual text of the chapter and also at the end. If you want to listen as you read, go ahead. If you feel it messes with the pace, then wait until after. Let me know how it works out in the comments. With that, enjoy.



Reflection Fourteen: Coping

Oh, I don't have a very special somepony at the moment.”

Welcome back, folks. It's good to see you all again, just like old times.

The little filly from before said it had only been a week since he left and a few days since he came back.

Kid, you know what I mean.

Yeah... she did.

Heh... well, you know the drill, folks.

Melt away.

<===ooO Ooo===>

I will go down with the ship.
I won't perrk my hands up and surrender.”

I woke up to the warped audio of my radio alarm clock going off at 6:00 A.M. My forelegs were curled up around somepony that wasn't there, hugged around myself instead. I gradually released myself and laid back, letting out a sigh of misty breath from my nostrils. I just lied there, eyes locked on the ceiling, enumerating the specks but losing count again and again. I just lied there, even after the radio shut off on its own. Five minutes, I remembered. It took five minutes for it to do that.

Why had I lost her? I knew it was because I'd gotten too cold for her, but... we could have held onto a relationship. We still could have kept things going. I wanted to see her smile. I wanted to see those crimson, violet-splashed eyes full of determination. I wanted to hear that cute, squeaky snore of hers. I wanted to feel her comforting warmth against... me.

That's what it was. Touch. Lovers need contact, closeness. You hear about the 'lovers' embrace'. Never the sight, sound. Embrace. That touch brings reassurance, a sense of... security and unity.

The storyteller paused, closing his mouth, turned away.

Turned back.

And my coldness destroyed that for the both of us.

The radio kicked in again.

-who you aaaare theeese days.
But you ride on anyway,
don't you baaaaby?”

That was another five minutes. Ten total. Enough was enough. I was twenty-four years old. I had four years of the finest education in equinpology and history Equestria could offer, and I’d raised hell and beat it back. I wasn’t the type to get bogged down by all of this. I wasn't the type to get depressed. I wasn’t going to let this get to me.

Got up.

Washed up.

Wrapped my balisong pouches just above my fetlocks.

And slipped my trusty fedora on. It was time to head for the local library.

* * *

Heh... it was all coming back to me. I was back at the library at Manehattan Magical Institute in the midst of aspiring students, all new faces. It gave me a sense of comfort as I collected research materials off of the shelves and pored over them. 'Just like old times'. I can't begin to tell you how much comfort that phrase brings.

I smiled as I also heard a very familiar sound. “Gotcha this time.”

“Ohhhhh, darn it,” Professor Whitney Shinespark nickered softly. The orange mare with the flamboyant hair circled around me. “And here I was thinking I could catch you off-guard again.”

“Not this time,” I chuckled, turning to face her.

Our smiles slowly disappeared.

“So... how're you doing?” she asked.

“I'm alright,” I answered. “Coming to terms with things.” I turned back to the books before me. “Just gearing up for the next phase of my research.”

Professor Shinespark looked over my shoulder. “Hm... so I guess you're headed to Appleloosa then?”

I looked up from the books and academic magazines on buffalo traditions and customs. “Yep.”

* * *

Click-clack, click-click-clack, clackety-whoosh-chack, clickety-click, clackety-click.

Zoleks eyed me as we walked down the Manehattan city streets after dark. “Seriously? Buck, I think you might be scaring people when you do stuff like that. I mean, it's kinda cool, but... well, knives.”

“Oh!” I blinked. “Right, sorry.” I fanned Silver Skean and her sister blade... Chrome... Chrome Cleaver shut. Yeah, Chrome Cleaver. That'll work. I looked around and noticed I'd attracted some stares, most of them the worried or worrying type. I just paid them no attention and we all went along our merry way. “Yeesh... just a couple balisongs...”

“Well, you don't see anyone else packing that kind of heat, do you?” Zoleks huffed. “Whoa, down!”

Both of us dropped to the ground, as did many nearby as a powered wagon sped by. A colorful lemon meringue pie slammed into a mare that was just a little too slow, bowling her over and scattering a shower of pastry shrapnel around her. As the rest of us slowly got back up to our hooves, she waved away another mare who was helping her up and grumbled, “I'm okay. Freaking South Bucklyn Boys...”

I let out a chilly sigh and turned to Zoleks, tipping my hat to let a piece slide off. “You alright?”

“Yeah, I'm fine,” he replied, dusting some crumbs off of his shoulder as we kept moving along after what was just another harmless incident of gang 'violence'. “Damn, close call.”

“Yeah... times like these where I'm reminded of... you know,” I muttered.

The zebra buck just nodded silently as we reached The Lazy Dog. I frowned as those in line seemed to be... almost all under eighteen. We were the only older people there as far as I could see. We were attracting a lot of odd looks.

“Uh... you think maybe it's time for a different venue?” I asked reluctantly, turning to face him as he did the same.

Zoleks sighed, “One last stand? You're gonna be gone for a whole 'nother month tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah... I guess.” I smiled softly. “Wish Namira were here, though.”

“Eh, someone's gotta keep the shop under watch on a weeknight,” he chuckled. “Plus, you need a dance partner.”

I snorted and chuckled, “Ahhhh... I couldn't have asked for a better friend, Zoleks. Thanks.”

The chill zebra smirked. “No prob, bud.”

“Coltcuddlers...” a filly murmured ahead of us.

We both immediately frowned. “Well, that also brought back more unpleasant memories,” I muttered.

“Yep.”

* * *

Hellish. Helix. Half-Twirl. Screwdriver. Y-Zero-K... and... nailed it! I smiled to myself as Chrome Cleaver danced about in a myriad of clicks and clacks. Today's copy of Equestria Daily was left forgotten on the empty seat next to me. From the looks of things, the main page described the disappearance of some merchant ships of some kind. More bad news. Not like I needed any more of that. So I kept on clicking and clacking.

The speaker chimed, and I paused.“Your attention, please,” the monotonous, female voice called. “Arriving at Appleloosa Station in five minutes. Please prepare to disembark. Your attention, please. Arriving at Appleloosa Station in five minutes. Please prepare to disembark.”

I closed my blade with a swift windmill motion and slid it back into my pouch, removing my travel book on Appleloosa and the San Palomino Desert. Even though I remembered all of the details, it helped to skim through it one last time before we hit the station. From what I learned, Appleloosa was a rustic, Old West-style town that called back to the days when the Principality of Equestria was still the Covenant of Equestria and when the triumvirate government endorsed settlement of the frontier at bargain buy. Buildings were hastily built out of wood and cheap iron to capitalize on the even cheaper land. Appleloosa was built long after those times, but it was built the same manner- in just a year. Earth pony dedication, folks. I respect the folk.

However, walking off of the train... I thought for a moment I was in the wrong place.

All around me were those same flimsy buildings, yes, but further down Main Street appeared to be an explosion of growth. There was a theme park complete with a towering Ferrous Wheel and a rickety wooden roller coaster, several brand-name restaurants and clothing store outlets, and a casino of all things. My eyes were immediately drawn to The Wild West, a nightclub. Even in the midday sun, I could see all the various tubes running along the signs that indicated neon lighting for all of these attractions. Pop music was blasting through speakers mounted atop wooden poles. And it was much more crowded here than I imagined it would be. If I didn't know any better, I'd somehow gone the full circuit and ended up back in the Oldtown part of Manehattan.

“This doesn't look anything like the pictures,” I remarked to myself, completely caught off-guard. I had to, I had to be in the wrong place. Then I let out a shout of surprise as a butter-yellow stallion with a messy tan-orange mane wearing a stetson and a leather vest seemingly popped up in front of me and the rest of the new arrivals.

“Wayell, hey there, everypony!” he exclaimed excitedly, rearing back and kicking his forelegs. “Welcome ta AAAAAppleloosa!”

No. I was in the right place.

“Mah name's Braeburn, and Ah'm gonna give ya the rundown of AAAAAppleloosa!” he said with an impossibly wide grin. “Take a look around! We got attractions fer ponies of all ages! We've got the fiiiinest comforts- like horse-drawn carriages!”

He pointed toward what was, in fact, a horse-drawn carriage. The middle-aged puller grumbled into his cart, “For Pete's sake, it's your turn ta pull!”

Another older pony poked out and whined, “Again? We jus' switched!”

The yellow stallion who I was absolutely sure was in charge of tourism here continued. “And there's some horse-drawn, horse-drawn carriages!”

Okay. A pair of fillies sketching horse-drawn carriages- and quite accurately. That pun got a snort out of me, I admit.

“And here's our local waterin' hole, The Salt Block!” Mister Tourism pointed at a rustic saloon where a dapper stallion bucked out a dazed-looking old coot

“Last time- enough salt for yeh!” the presumable bartender growled.

“Can I least git some water...?” the poor bloke groaned dazedly.

“Over there's Sheriff Silverstar's office,” the butter-yellow stallion went on, tucking his head to nudge- yes, actually nudge all of us sideways, “over there are our famous wild-west dances- we also have mild west dances- you know, fer the young n' old folks- and oh, there's our most wonderful sight in all o' AAAAAppleloosa- our apple orchard!”

Now there was a sight I knew from memory. It still looked like just like what the travel book illustrated- acres of leafy apple trees grown on cultivated land with a wide dirt road weaving through the trees. Only earth ponies could have gotten such an orchard to grow in the middle of a desert, folks. I also noted that there were what looked like teepees barely visible in the distance. That was where I was headed.

Unfortunately, Braeburn had other ideas and nudged us all the way back into town, waving a hoof toward the newest additions to the town. “N’, of course, there's The Bison and Steed! If yer on the way to Las Pegasus, why should ya hafta wait fer the fun to begin? We've got attractions fer all sorts of folk! We've got theme park rides like Ghostrider, our all-wood roller coaster, fer the kiddies, and of course we also got our casino...”

And he droned on and on and on. I cast a few furtive glances about, noticing that he was so completely absorbed in displaying the town that he had all but ignored the small crowd he was addressing. Biting my lip and casually averting my gaze, I inconspicuously backpedaled away from the hubbub and down the dirt road toward the apple orchard.

* * *

“A tourist town,” I muttered to myself with a frown as I trotted between the trees. “It's become a freaking tourist town.” I sighed out a chilling mist and sprouted an ice arm to tuck my fedora lower. The midday sun was starting to bear down on me. I gritted my teeth and squinted my eyes from the sweltering heat. It was only supposed to be around thirty degrees Celsius today- a little on the warmer side but nothing quite as extreme as a heat wave running through Manehattan. Yet again I was reminded of my elemental union and just what I was losing...

And what I'd already lost.

The storyteller flattened his lips and glanced down at his left flank for a moment.

I paused, the recent memory burning in my mind. Burning, just like the sun beating down on me. I looked back up, reminded myself I was here for a reason, and strode forth. My horn lit up with its soft-blue glow and I veiled myself in a slight, chilling mist. It kept the sting of the sun at bay as I approached the cluster of teepees. Already I could see the gigantic buffalo move about, busying themselves with their daily tasks. They were in various dark shades ranging from ebony to rusty-red. Many heads turned toward me almost in unison, and I slowed in pace, somewhat unnerved. Then they went back to their routines, and I relaxed and resumed my stride.

I was approached by a young buffalo cow with a dusty-brown coat and a curly, mustard-colored mane. She had a headband made up of alternating purple and white triangular patterns, and she had a pair of feathers tucked behind her left ear, as did many of this particular chiefdom.

Ya'at eeh, asdzání,” I said with a respectful bow. Hello, sister.

The young cow smiled and chuckled a little, replying, “Ya'at eeh, diyaáhastiin.” Hello, visitor. She reached her hoof across and I met it. She had a firm shake for someone of her age. “It's okay, go ahead and speak Equestrian. We all speak it fluently.”

Doyashóda,” I said with a shake of my head. “Ay-

Doyashóda,” she said in turn. “You are a visitor and our guest. We have to accommodate guests. I'm Little Strongheart. And you are Doctor Frost Windchill, right?”

“No, not a doctor,” I blurted quickly, smiling almost apologetically. “Just... a researcher.”

Little Strongheart shrugged. “Well, alright, whatever you say. Um... what's with the...?” She motioned to me in general.

I looked about myself and realized she was talking about my mist veil. “Oh, uh... long story short, I can only perform ice magic, which has apparently made me more vulnerable to high temperatures. So, I... do this now apparently.” Nice job, Frost. Way to use the right words, right way.

“Well, alright...” Little Strongheart still eyed me but nevertheless nodded deeper into the camp and headed off.

I followed, taking in the goings-on about me. There was quite some commotion- a group of ch'il bééhasin, literally “those with knowledge of seasonal greenery,” had just returned to camp. Just as with many societies, it was easier and more efficient to delegate certain tasks to a particular set of talented individuals in this case the bééhasin. The ch'il bééhasin in particular were the gatherers of the chiefdom- again, this wasn't a tribe because it had a designated leader. Before their partnership and eventual friendship with the Appleloosans, the gatherers of this particular chiefdom must have had to scour for miles and miles to find enough food. Now it was just a short journey into town, but the fanfare of distributing food and other goods among the other members of the chiefdom was still very much alive. All work on weaving, cooking, storytelling, and such ended as soon as the gatherers stampeded back. Parents ushered their calves along, and I found myself smiling as I was reminded- just for a moment- of the days of my infancy in the refugee camps when volunteers arrived with a fresh batch of warm food. Little Strongheart led me around the crowd, searching for a way through. Some of them paused to stare at me, likely because of the mist pouring from my body, but they quickly moved along.

“Am I to take it you're my guide, then?” I inquired, raising my voice so she could hear me over the many gatherers boasting their finds and gifts. It was like the Manehattan Farmer's Market, almost. It at least brought me a sense of comfort, unlike... well, Appleloosa.

“Mm?” She looked back at me. “Oh, no. Not me. I'm actually taking you to him right now.”

I looked up and found myself heading toward the center of the community. “Isn't... that your chief's teepee?”

“Yep!” Little Strongheart smiled and trotted along, almost prancing as if she knew I would be dumbstruck by the idea.

And I was. “I'm sorry,” I chuckled huskily in disbelief. “Your chief is going to be my guide?”

“Yep!” she repeated, leaving me behind as she trotted along blissfully.

Finally, I managed to calm myself down and galloped a bit to catch up. “Is this normal?”

“It is, actually,” Little Strongheart answered. “We've had equinpologists visit us in the past, and Chief Thunderhooves was the guide for all of them.” She added with a friendly, comforting smile, “I hope that doesn't make you nervous.”

“Nervous?” I chuckled again, almost giddily. “No, no, it's just... exciting, the prospect of meeting your leader!” It was definitely a lie, but my expression and tone all but convinced her.

Old habits die hard...

Nevertheless, we finally made it past the commotion and into the chief's tent. And there... well, I met Chief Thunderhooves for the first time. He was a massive, powerful buffalo with a deep, dark-brown fur and eyes full of aged wisdom- they were the only thing that betrayed his age, I think. A colorful, feathery headdress sat between a pair of impressive horns. His nose was flat and especially broad. Despite the size of the tent and the more-than-adequate space it provided, it still somehow felt like his powerful presence took all of it up and surrounded you. And yet, looking at him, I couldn't help but feel oddly at ease. He looked up from a letter he was reading as we entered and greeted us with a patient, friendly smile. Even if he was by far the largest buffalo I had- and still have- ever seen, he still felt very much approachable. That all-encompassing presence that surrounded me felt warm, calming, comforting for my nerves. I was so wrapped up in all of this that I didn't even notice that Little Strongheart had stolen away back outside. I was alone with Chief Thunderhooves.

“I welcome you to the Clan of the Thunderhooves, Doctor Windchill,” he greeted me in a deep, thick voice. “I am their chief.”

“Oh, I'm no doctor,” I said, offering a friendly smile. “Not yet at least.”

“How shall I refer to you, then?” he inquired, motioning across from himself. “And please, have a seat.”

“Just Frost,” I answered, taking a moment to look around and sat on a mat with a black and white diamond-circle design across from him. I kept my trusty fedora on- buffalo never remove their feathers or headdresses save for going to bed and so I kept my own “headdress” on. I took the time to observe my surroundings. The spacious tent was enough to allow space for a small, gently humming, gas-powered generator. It powered a lamp that stood just off to the side of us, allowing him to read his letter, as well as a small television set in the corner of the room. There was also an electric heating unit and a rotating fan, which mercifully brought coolness to the tent. Despite the move to more modern times, there were still various paraphernalia that still harkened back to buffalo traditions. There was a feathered, web-like dream catcher hanging over the doorway, a large hoof drum off to the side behind him, and several clay jars decorated with different patterns to denote their contents.

He commented as such. “I take it you notice the new trinkets I've acquired?”

“Ah, yes, Chief Thunderhooves,” I answered. “Forgive me. I did not expect them.”

He sighed softly, “Just as I'm sure you didn't expect the latest additions to Appleloosa?”

“Mm... well yes,” I replied, unsure where he was going with this.

Chief Thunderhooves sighed and picked up his letter, tilting it toward me for a moment, “Your mentor Doctor Egan and I are good friends. He sent me a letter detailing the reasons behind your visit today. You're here to learn about the effects of industrialization on equinekind, correct?”

“Yes, yes,” I answered with an eager nod. “That's correct.”

The dark buffalo nodded and frowned, glancing away for a moment. “First know and understand that I do not hate technology or industry. They improve equinekind's ability to help one another out. I cannot deny that my clan has benefited from our contact with the Appleloosans. The hoof-cranked radio and the television have made us more aware of the world around us, and they opened us up to its wonders and its problems. We have plenty of food and medicine year-round. We have more opportunities to educate our calves- don't take my word for it; go and ask around like I know your kind do.

“But...” He glanced up, pausing, “I believe there is what you call a double-edged sword to all of this. I understand you visited the Griffin Republic of Aldorna recently?”

“Yes, just a little over a month-and-a-half ago,” I replied.

“And what did you see there?” Chief Thunderhooves asked. “Regarding your thesis, I mean.”

I inhaled deeply and answered, “I found that industrialization in the capital city of Avalon caused a migration of griffins to the capital in search of work at its many factories. This decreased poverty rates in Aldorna, which in turn brought down hunger and crime rates. It also allowed parents to better pay for higher education. In other words, standards of living have gone through the roof since the establishment of Avalon as we know it today. At the same time, the increased exposure to industry and commercial goods and services and their advertisement and proliferation created a sort of culture shock compounded by the increase in highly-educated griffins. This has unfortunately resulted in the... disconnect between religious and cultural facets of griffin life, which have taken a backseat to the necessity to become more educated and specialized in an increasingly competitive workforce.”

Chief Thunderhooves started smiling halfway through my reply. “Are you sure I can't call you Doctor Windchill?”

I smiled back and shared a chuckle.

* * *

Sifting Sands was a golden-yellow cow wearing a business suit made in almost comical proportions to fit the full-grown buffalo. Chief Thunderhooves introduced her to me after the return of the gatherers when the hubbub died down and everyone started to rest- except for people like her. She was getting her things together for work but assured me that she still had more than enough time for a quick interview. The desert night was mercifully cool, and I was able to relax without having to sustain a misty veil. The crackling of the campfires mixed with the sound of the nocturnal desert wildlife, and a sea not of water but of stars hung above our heads. It was a beautiful sight.

“Appleloosa was built in a year, you know that?” Sifting Sands said proudly as if she was an Appleloosan herself. “You know the whole saying 'we didn't build that overnight'? Well, we sure did for The Bison and Steed. You could only accomplish that with earth ponies and buffalo working together.” She inhaled a deep breath and swelled with pride, looking over to the broad building that dominated the distant horizon with its spotlights waving in the air like hooves at a Manehattan nightclub.

“So you work the night shift?” I asked. “Seven to three?”

“Oh yes,” she replied with a nod. “Many of us who work there do. That's when the casino’s busiest.”

“So you are... absent from dinner here?” I asked, looking back toward the camp.

“Yes, unfortunately,” Sifting Sands answered. “Swift Swallow has her grandparents to look after her while we're gone, though. Poor girl, I know she misses us.”

“'Us'?” I regarded her.

She nodded. “My husband works there too. We have the same part of the floor together, thankfully. It's tough, only seeing our daughter in the morning and the late afternoon. We’re at work during the evening and early morning and sleep while she’s at school. At least she still gets part of her family here after we go.”

Another earth-colored buffalo bull stopped by and said to me, “I'm sorry, but it's time for us to go. Have to beat the rush.”

“Have you said good-bye to Swift Swallow?” Sifting Sands asked.

He nodded. “Of course. You should too.”

“You go on ahead,” she said. “I'll say good-bye and be right there.”

The bull who I presumed to be her husband gently met foreheads and nuzzled with their eyes closed. Then he headed off only a short distance to wait for her instead. Sifting Sand turned back to me and apologized before trotting back to her abode. I stood there, watching as she knelt down with a cream-colored calf stooped over a book. They talked for a spell inaudibly, hugged tightly, and bid farewell. Sifting Sands met with her husband and shared a soft smile before trotting off together with the rest of a small group bound for The Bison and Steed.

The storyteller leaned back, shifting in his seat uncomfortably.

Now... I made a promise to tell you this story faithfully and truthfully, just as I promised to Rig and the people of Stalliongrad before you. I felt almost... no, I just plain felt envious of that family. I could have had that.

His muzzle curved into a slanted frown.

I could have had that. And the part of me that craved power, that part of me that nurtured the Mumei felt I should have that. I felt entitled to have that.

That feeling passed quickly. I was a new stallion. But it still left me with a sense of longing.

I returned to the center of camp, where the others were starting to prepare dinner. With such a relatively small community, the clan was closely-knit. Meals were often public affairs where everyone ate together, sharing the bounty that the gatherers brought. It struck me as something similar to a camping trip- hay, this was a camp. The buffalo convened around a large mat where bowls and plates of all the food were placed, taking their pick. Then they sat down at a fire pit to eat and talk. In addition to the various apple-based foods that were no doubt a result of their relations with Appleloosa, there was a mush of some sort that had a murky-green color to it. It didn't look particularly appetizing and the smell was especially pungent, but many of the buffalo took a large portion of it in their bowls. I elected to take some for myself.

I sat down beside Chief Thunderhooves and his close friends, including Little Strongheart, and we all ate at our own pace. The heat of the fire washed over me like that of opening an oven right in front of me. I leaned back, blinking rapidly but forcing myself to stay out of respect. I tried a bit of the mush, and... well... I must have provided that night's entertainment judging from their chuckles in response to my coughing.

“It's alright,” Chief Thunderhooves said with a grin, downing his own bowl of the stuff. “It's an acquired taste.”

“What is it anyways?” I asked, beating my chest and clearing my throat to make sure my coughing episode was finished.

“A bit of corn, a bit of cactus, mostly whatever we can find out in the wilderness,” Little Strongheart answered. “Mostly whatever we find. It's what we're traditionally used to eating, so we still have it.” She smiled apologetically at me. “I'd... suggest eating it between bites of your other food. It makes it more palatable that way.”

“I'll keep that in mind,” I sighed a cool mist to which the others stared. I looked between them and quickly realized what it looked like.

The storyteller leaned back in his seat.

All equines have magic, whether it comes through spells, weather control, hard work, innovation, enchanting, what have you. In the case of buffalo, not only do they worship their ancestors- they can channel their spirits and commune with them. It's not necromancy, let me say that first and foremost. It's their innate ability to foster and maintain a connection to the family that transcends life and death. There are limits, of course- most of them taboo. They cannot ask about the nature of death and the afterlife nor may they ask for physical aid. The passed cannot grant that. They can, however, provide advice and endow the current generation with the knowledge and wisdom of those before them. Often, it can only happen when the body is in a relaxed state or through using various herbs and spices to ease the mind.

Hence their surprise at seeing me “smoke”.

“Are you... contacting-” one of the other buffalo around us asked.

“No, it's just... ice magic... stuff,” Little Strongheart quickly explained.

I nodded and demonstrated, firing up my horn with its icy-blue glow and sprouting an arm from my shoulder, waving. A multitude of “Ah”'s and “Ohhhh”'s followed shortly after, and we resumed eating shortly after. Well. That was awkward.

“Chief Thunderhooves, if you excuse me,” I spoke up and he paused in his eating, “exactly... how many of your clan work in Appleloosa?”

“Two-hundred-forty-four,” he answered after a momentary glance upward. “Roughly a third. A little over three-fourths of that number work at the casino.” He must have noticed my eyes widen as he merely smiled and added, “A chief must know everyone in his or her tribe, Frost.”

“That's true,” I said with a nod. “How would you say it has affected your clan?”

Chief Thunderhooves replied between bites, “It's brought more income to be sure, and it's allowed us to enjoy luxuries such as cooling during the day and heating during the night, television, radio, and electric lighting. However, it has caused parents to be away from their children in the late evening hours. You saw that yourself with Sifting Sands.”

“And have you noticed anything with the children?” I inquired, looking toward another fire pit where there were a couple calves laughing together after what seemed to be a joke of some sort.

“They miss their parents, of course,” he answered. “But we are a close community. There is always someone to care for and watch over them. Teach them, too.” I looked back at him. “Again, I know what you are here to ask, Frost. Our children still learn our traditions. We have a simple rule nowadays. They may do as they wish when in town and at school in Appleloosa, but when at home they are buffalo.” I nodded, gears turning in my head. “Our magic keeps us in touch with where we come from, Frost. It is difficult to forget and forgo our culture when it is so deeply ingrained in who we are.”

“But has there been any profound impact in your culture?” I inquired.

“None that I have seen,” Chief Thunderhooves said, “but I am not the answer to all your questions, am I?”

* * *

“Whoa, hey, Frost! Wasn't expecting you to still have cell service where you were!”

“Heh, well, given how much Appleloosa's caught up on the times, I'm not as surprised on my end. So how are you doing, Zoleks?”

“Ehhh, you been looking at the news lately, buck? Gas prices have gone up. Say it's because of halted oil exports from Zebrica after two of their oil tankers went missing. Full-on investigation headed by the KSV.”

“What? When was this?”

“Today's news. I'm expecting to see less business until this gets resolved, but we should still be fine with the subsidies from the government. I still don't like this, buck. Doesn't bode well with what happened last week. You at least heard about the missing Almarinian merchant ships, right?”

That I heard about. And that they were loaded with Equestrian gems. This can't be a coincidence can it?”

“I dunno, Frost. Never heard anything like this before.”

“Well, let's steer toward brighter skies, shall we? How're you and Namira doing?”

“Huh, us?” Huff. “Ahhhh, you don't want to hear about us. How's things going for you?”

“It's interesting to say the least. The buffalo seem to be barely affected by industrialization and commercialization compared to the griffins. But really, Zoleks, how are you two doing? You've been together for years now. When are you thinking about proposing?”

Hearty chuckle. “Ahhhh, maybe soon, maybe soon. Really buck, let's not talk about that.”

“Everything alright, Zoleks?”

“Yeah, just great, just great! Just, uh...”

“Trying to avoid bringing it up?”

“Uh...”

“Look, it's all over with, Zoleks. Really.”

“Look, you keep saying that, Frost, but I know you went and got that ring for her...”

Sigh. “It's all over with, Zoleks. Really. I'm okay with talking with how things are going between you and Namira. I'm not the kind to get stuck. You know that.”

“Mm... well, I guess...”

“So how are you two doing, then?”

“Well, I actually proposed last night...”

Husky chuckle. “I knew it. That's why you were avoiding it. So? How did it go?”

Snicker, then quietly- “She said yes.”

“Great to hear, Zoleks!”

“Thanks, thanks... hey, I'm glad to hear you like this, Frost. Any ideas how much longer you'll be there?”

“Still going to give it at least a couple more weeks just to be sure.”

“Ah, alright. Take it easy. And don't just call me, okay? Give your folks a call too, alright? You know they're worried about you.”

“Yeah, I will. I will. Take care, Zoleks.”

“See you, Frost.”

Click... sigh...

* * *

Over the course of the next week or so, what I'd discovered with the buffalo was that their culture was all but intact. It was unsurprising given my conversation with Chief Thunderhooves previously. All of the cultural practices and customs still existed and were frequently practiced, from their communal meals to the greeting of the gatherers, from the invoking of the ancestors to the singing and music every three nights. It came to a point where I was no longer concerned for the condition of their culture. I assumed it to be more or less perfectly preserved.

Instead, my concerns started gravitating to the “socio” part of “sociocultural equinpology”.

* * *

“Did I do it right... now?” an older buffalo bull asked her daughter after clicking his mouse.

“No, that's right-click,” she replied. “That brings up a menu most of the time.”

He grumbled softly, clearly more than a little irritated at this point.

Eternal Blossom had been teaching her father how to use a terminal for the better part of the hour. I had been observing from a distance. It had been a very frustrating affair for the father, between the snorting breaths he was letting out and the furrowed brow, I doubted he would last much longer. Now, just bear in mind folks that they were all talking in Bise. For simplicity's sake, I'm translating for you. Some words might be a bit disjointed, but recall I'm not a native speaker. Also bear in mind that it's going to be a bit more disjointed since some of the words you'll hear won't exist in the Bise lexicon.

“Yes, that's it,” the little calf said, offering an encouraging smile as the web browser popped up and started to load the home page. “See? You've done great so far!”

He let out a soft sigh, obviously not feeling that encouragement as the page finally loaded and he was assaulted with various words, images, and colors. “What... is... all this? How do I get to the e-mail page?”

“This is just Whinny-dot-com,” Eternal Blossom answered calmly, resting a hoof on his side in an attempt to ease him up. “Just click on the e-mail login link on the top right along the banner.”

“Like... this?” he asked, unsure as he navigated his mouse icon to the link.

“No, that's right-click again,” she said patiently. “Left-click. That's all you'll need for this.” The older buffalo bull let out another sigh and clicked it, finally getting to the login page. “You're doing great! Now, since you don't have an account yet, we'll have to make one. Just click on the 'Create an Account' link. Remember, left-click... good! Now type in your information...”

“Why do they need my date of birth?” he asked incredulously.

“I...” Eternal Blossom frowned. “I don't know actually. You have to enter it in for you to create an account, though.”

“It makes no sense, though,” he grumbled, then proceeded to... tap multiple keys at once. He frowned and tried again with the tips of his hooves, unfortunately not angling them correctly and still hitting two keys. He growled and finally stood up and stormed off. “I've had it! I'll just stick with letters!” He stormed out and past me, mumbling, “Everything was simpler back then, dammit...”

Well. I guess that's why they called him Running Temper.

* * *

“What do you mean it broke down?” Sharp Hooknose asked.

“It won't work,” his wife High Mountain grunted as she removed the rear cover of the standalone microwave. “It's definitely getting enough power. It just won't start. Something is wrong with it, but I can't figure out what.”

“How long has it been like this? We're going to need it to heat up the food for dinner, and it's not too much longer!”

High Mountain frowned as she looked at the innards of the microwave. “I know, I know.”

“... do you even know what you are doing?” the bull asked, approaching her.

“No,” she sighed. “Do you know how to fix it?”

Sharp Hooknose sighed in turn, “No, no idea.” He stomped the ground in irritation. “And it frustrates me.”

“It's okay, dear,” High Mountain said to him, giving him a nuzzle. “We can just ask one of the others to borrow theirs. I'll ask our son to get a repairpony from Appleloosa to inspect it later.”

Sharp Hooknose let out another sigh and nodded, picking up their cold food. “Okay, okay...”

* * *

At the end of the week, I was pacing back and forth in my tent, repeating major points of analysis to myself while twirling Silver Skean and Chrome Cleaver together with my ice arms. “Due to the nature of their spiritual magic, the Thunderhooves Clan exhibits resistance to cultural deterioration. However, the effects of industrialization have had many notable social repercussions, including a growing divide between the younger and older generations due to the technological education gap and parents often spending time away from their calves as a result of the plentiful jobs at the nearby casino. Furthermore, the increased reliance on-” I paused as someone stomped a few times just outside of my tent- the equivalent of knocking on the door for the buffalo. I performed a pair of staggered Screwdrivers to close my balisongs and pouched them away. “Please enter.”

Chief Thunderhooves ducked under the flap and asked me, “Is everything alright, Frost?”

“Hm?” I blinked at him, at first not understanding why he was concerned. “Yes, yes. I'm quite alright. Thank you, Chief.”

“Why all the talking to yourself, then?” he inquired.

“The talking... oh!” I smiled. “Just how I organize my thoughts on what I'm planning to write for my research paper.”

Chief Thunderhooves looked around my tent. “Wouldn't it be better to use a notebook? Or maybe even one of those portable terminals I've seen at times?”

“I don't really need them, Chief,” I answered. “I have eidetic memory.” Both of his eyebrows raised. “Ah, photographic memory. I remember everything.” Eyebrows back down.

“Mm, you are blessed to have it,” the dark-furred buffalo chuckled softly. “Soon I'll get to that age where I have to be worried about Alzhaymer's.” He sighed softly.

“Yes... blessed...” I murmured, then nodded to him. “Well, with hope, you should be alright. You certainly don't seem senile right now at least.”

“Hmph, thank you,” Chief Thunderhooves huffed softly. Then he eyed me. “You are sure nothing is wrong?”

“Hm?” I was just starting to pace about again and then turned back to him. “Oh, no, no.” I smiled again at him. “I'm quite... quite alright.”

He caught the hesitation and let out a sigh. He did not say anything but merely kept looking at me expectantly. He knew I was lying.

I let out a misty sigh. Slipped up there... so I thought to myself, may as well say it. “I'm perhaps a bit troubled, but it's nothing serious, Chief Thunderhooves.”

“You are sure?” he asked.

I opened my mouth to reply, but he gave me a warning look. Be frank, Frost. Be frank. Get caught once, shame on you. Get caught twice, blame on you. “Perhaps, but... it will be no problem so long as I am here.” That part was true, at least.

“And what of your return to Manehattan?” he asked.

I puckered my lips for a moment, trying to think of a response. I had none.

“This past week, we have had little chance to talk as person to person,” Chief Thunderhooves said, his stance relaxing. “Maybe we can have a chat in my tent?”

“Oh, no no no,” I said quickly with a smile. “Honestly, it's nothing serious enough to warrant that.”

“Frost, it has always been strictly business about my clan, about culture this, social integrity that whenever we talk,” he said a little more excitedly. “I insist.”

“Chief Thunderhooves, I would rather not,” I said a little more firmly. Why wouldn't he get the hint? Even if he was a chief, I didn't feel like sharing such personal issues with him.

“I strongly suggest that you rather do,” he said a little more firmly in tone. I was about to reply one more time when he gave me a surprisingly angry look. Why was he doing that? I just wanted a little privacy while he was all obsessed about getting me to accept his... offer...

Oh. Oh shoot. Buffalo gain honor and prestige through gifts and offers. Here was a buffalo chief making an offer, three times refused so far, another would...

Challenge his honor. Oh. Oh shit. That was a really close call. I almost completely missed that.

I gulped and sighed, “Very well, Chief Thunderhooves. I accept.”

The dark-furred buffalo smiled easy and nodded outside in a motion for me to follow. I tagged along and we both headed to his tent, passing by the others. It was just past dinner, and there were many families still about. Calves were seated around relatives and friends retelling the day's events, the young and the old were working with one another to catch up on the times... it struck me as wholesome.

When we entered his tent, Chief Thunderhooves sat down on his mat and motioned for me to sit across from him. “Tell me of your troubles, Frost.”

I seated myself and inhaled deeply. “Well, you've doubtlessly noticed just why my name is Frost Windchill,” I said to him.

“Yes, yes.” He nodded.

“I am a cryomancer, a practitioner of ice magic,” I started to explain. “Now... elemental magic is inherently dangerous in that not only must someone have an affinity for a specific element- if at all- but with continued practice of the magic, an elemental union forms. This causes both physical and psychological changes in the practitioner.”

I paused to check to see if he was following. He nodded, still focused. Of course he was! What was I thinking? They were all fluent in Equestrian after all. I continued as such. “Well, I'm currently experiencing the more serious of cryomancy's elemental union effects as you've... no doubt noticed- a drop in my body's core temperature.” I raised my hooves and said quickly, “It's safe for me, I assure you! I don't feel cold at all right now. In fact, a little warm. But... I'm cold to the touch. You've realized this. Very cold.”

I inhaled slowly, deeply. “I had a marefriend.” Chief Thunderhooves' eyes opened up wider for a moment. He knew where this was going. I turned away and allowed myself a thin smile. “She was... such an amazing pony, an amazing person. She was my first friend in an unfamiliar place- the first I'd ever been to outside of my hometown of Manehattan. She helped me through school, she was very loving and caring, and she's just this... incredibly talented musician. Incredibly talented.” I turned back to him, smile gone. “She was... she was very frail, though. She got sick very often, and... she put up with me for a long time, all throughout college with me. Just a few weeks ago it... it just became too much.” For a moment, I could almost hear her playing on her violin, could almost see her on Main Street with a crowd gathering about, eyes closed, funneling her emotion through the bow into the strings and into the air...

It must have been for much longer because Chief Thunderhooves asked, “She left you?”

“Yes, but... but the way she did it was...” I sighed mistily again, jarred from that memory I wanted to relive. “She did it for me. I could've stopped the union's progression if I stopped performing cryomancy, and I was more than willing to do it! Even if it's the only magic I can perform- I can't even lift a wad of tissue paper with telekinesis! I was willing to do it!” I let out another sigh. “But... it was too late, and she said she couldn't do that to me.” I looked down at the snowflake on my left flank almost hatefully. “She left me, saying it was for the best. We're... we're still friends, but... but nothing more.”

I bit my lip and looked down and away from him. “I was going to propose to her.” It hurt a lot less than I thought it would. I didn't cry. My voice didn't falter. But I still felt that aching heaviness to my heart. “I was going to propose to her. I was going to be all clever about it, too. I would have slipped it into her violin case along with the other tips while she was too lost playing to notice and...” I sighed, crushing that thought of a moment never to be. “I figured out why, too. We loved one another, and I... I still have those feelings for her. It's just... lovers need physical contact between one another. It's so deeply ingrained in our minds. It's why long-distance relationships rarely ever work out. It's that reassuring lover's comfort. And...” I blew out a soft breath, watching the cool mist sift out and gently fade away, “I don't think I can give that to anyone anymore... I don't think that I can be able to love someone else. And that's what pains me the most.”

I looked back up to see Chief Thunderhooves lean back, looking upward in deep thought. “I think I know someone in my lineage who may be able to help you, or at least offer advice,” he said, closing his eyes and leveling out. “I would like to invoke his spirit for you. If you wish.”

This time, I got the hint. “I don't wish to ask something like that of you,” I said. One.

“Don't you?” he inquired.

“No, I don't,” I answered. Two.

“I'm more than willing, you know,” the dark-furred buffalo said to me.

“And I understand that, but I would rather not,” I replied. Three.

“But it is a very grievous issue, Frost.” He looked deep into my eyes and I into his. They were fierce yet full of depth, full of wisdom- wisdom, I thought to myself, that I should open my ears to. “Let me help you.”

I bowed my head to him. “I... I accept your generous gift, Chief Thunderhooves.”

He smiled thinly and nodded, tilting to the side to retrieve a long, wooden pipe with many intricate, ornate designs carved into it. He looked over, rolling it in his hooves. He pulled a clay jar closer and spoke, “I used to be able to invoke my ancestors without any of this, you know. I only needed to close my eyes and focus. I could just empty all other unnecessary thoughts but those of my ancestor. So could my father. His father, too. And his father before him.” He rolled the pipe a little more. “And his father before him... and his father before him... and his father before him... and his father before him... and his father before him...” I started to fidget a little, and he looked at me. He chuckled to himself. “And many fathers before him as well.

“But today, there are just so many things to worry about.” He went on, looking off to the side of the tent where the television set and the portable generator sat. “I hear about the children missing their parents and my brothers and sisters having difficulty adjusting to the new technology and having to worry about fixing it. I hear about those who work at the casino complaining about the schedule, not only how it disrupts time with their family but also because of how it works. We buffalo don't work on time. We have no clocks. We have no words in our language for nine-o'clock, ten-o'clock, eleven-o'clock, twelve-o'clock. No such things. If we want to meet on the prairie for a private talk after lunch, we don't give the time- just say after lunch. When the sun is high, when the moon rises, when the shadow is long and late or early... but instead we are constrained by your accepted construct of time. It is this tyranny of the clock, they call it.” He let out a sigh. “And then what I hear on TV. Buy this, buy that. Recession this, missing merchant ships that. So much worry. I can't focus.

“Bah,” he grumbled, facing me again. “I am rambling. Here.” He opened the pot and sprinkled a mix of herbs and a hint of salt into the bowl of his pipe and held it above the electric heater. “I will introduce you to my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great...” He paused and tapped his hoof in the air as if to count, “-one-less-great-grandfather.” He chuckled softly. “He is... a special case and had a situation very similar to yours. He may be able to help. Please treat him with respect. He is possibly the most important chief in the Clan of the Thunderhooves.”

“Yes, Chief,” I said with a nod in understanding.

The dark-furred buffalo lifted the pipe away as it began to smoke, closing his eyes as he sealed his lips around the bit and puffed three long times, paused, puffed thrice more, paused, repeated. Finally, he pulled the pipe away and set it down to burn out, falling into a relaxed slouch. When he opened his eyes again, they were rolled up to the point where I could see nothing but white. I knew what the process entailed, but... it nevertheless disturbed me.

“A pony seeks my advice?” he asked. His tone was the same, but the pace at which he spoke was a little slower and there was a clear distinction between each word. He was now a medium.

“Yes, Chief Thunderhooves of old,” I answered with a respectful bow. “I seek your advice.”

“Well go ahead. I won't bite.” A pause. “I'm smiling, by the way. I know it doesn't show. Limits of spirit channeling and such. Speak frankly. I'm not some terrible ruler here to curse you. That would be my great-great-grandson.”

I chuckled softly, feeling more at ease. Then I frowned as I recanted my tale to him. All the while, Chief Thunderhooves the vessel remained still and impassive, though I knew Chief Thunderhooves of old was listening- or at least I hope he did. Again I paused as I spoke about Hummingbird once more, unable to help but remember that comforting, subtle warmth to her slender form as she laid in bed with me with that quiet, squeaky snore of hers. Again he had to regain my attention.

When I finished, he let out a sigh and said, “Yes... I know why my descendant chose me to speak with you. You see, I... had a similar condition to you.” I looked up at him, giving him my undivided attention.

“I was not originally a chief, you see,” he began. “That was my brother. I was merely the clan's shaman, the spiritual leader and healer. When my brother died in a landslide, it fell to me to become chief. At the same time, I could not shed my past life as a shaman. So I acted as both.

“And shamans must remain chaste for life.”

I nodded slowly. I understood now why Chief Thunderhooves chose him. “So you... chose to remain shaman, even when you could have had the chance to have a wife?”

“It is because I could not give up the shaman lifestyle,” he answered. “It had become such an... in...trin...sic part of me. Is that the right word?” I nodded. “It was my destiny, and I had to hold onto that even if I had to become chief. It is just like your cutie-mark, Frost.”

I looked back down at my left flank and slowly nodded in understanding. “So how did you...”

“-deal with it? I was lonely to be sure. At first, I was tempted to find myself a loving cow and to break tradition to do so. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. I had to restrain myself. I was a shaman. That was who I was and still am. I know it is tough. Even to my dying breath, I occasionally longed for someone to hold close to me. I even had to remain distant from my selected heir.

“In order for you to learn to love life and live a wholesome one, you have to occupy yourself. I don't just mean busying yourself. I mean occupying all three parts of what makes you- you. That means body, mind, and spirit.

“The body needs a physical task, something you can always fall back on. For me, it was stampeding. I charged everywhere I went, even if just to aid the neighbor just a tent over. It's how I've always done things. Maybe that's why my name- and the name of this clan to this day- is Thunderhooves.”

I smiled at that.

He continued. “For the mind, you need something to test your intelligence. For me, that was being both a shaman and chief in one. Not only did I have to lead my clan, but I also had to tend to the sick and injured. Both require a lot of knowledge and both require continued learning. You see new situations every day, and you must plan for them or learn to act on them on the spot.

“For the spirit, you need something that soothes you. For me, that was again being a shaman. I healed the sick and injured, and every life I saved made me feel... whole. Complete. Whoever I helped was a son or daughter, a brother or sister, a father or mother to another. I could not save my brother in time, but being able to save the loved one of another made me feel happy and relieved. Even in the Everafter, I long to see a worried bull or cow turn into smiles and laughter after I let them see their loved one. It was something I was very proud and happy I could do for others.

“So let me ask you, Frost. Do you have anything for your body?”

I looked down at the pouches on my fetlocks, sprouting an ice arm to whip Chrome Cleaver up in an Aerial, closing her in a Full Twirl and pouching her. “Yeah... I think I do,” I answered as I did so, smiling a little.

“And your mind?”

“Well, my own job, like yours,” I replied. “I am an equinpologist.”

“Mm, I see,” he said. “I remember when your culture began to study ours. A very interesting buck. Used it to justify pony supremacy.” I winced. “Times have changed, and I am thankful for that. Now what about your spirit?”

“Equinpology as well,” I responded.

“I am shaking my head right now,” he spoke to me. “That is not going to heal your spirit.”

I furrowed my brow. “What do you mean?”

“From what I know, equinpology requires you to detach yourself from the others in a sense,” he replies. “You cannot allow how you were raised or what you know of your own culture to change how you view another's. You cannot compare taboos, customs, and other such things. There is emotion to be sure, perhaps, but it is not good enough. Think hard now. That which occupies your spirit must always call some... emotion in you, and a good one. It must make you laugh, cry, smile all for good reasons. Can you think of something that might do that for you?”

I thought on that for a while. I tried to think of something that made me that emotional. Was it learning about other cultures? Well... not exactly. Balisongs certainly did do that for me. Something else that I liked...

I found my answer much quicker than I thought. And I smiled.

“I think I have,” I said and bowed. “Thank you, Chief Thunderhooves of old.”

“You are welcome, Frost,” he spoke. “Be well. And tell my descendant to get a fine cow already.”

I chuckled softly as Chief Thunderhooves closed his eyes and stiffened up, opening them as normal and blinking rapidly. He caught the tail end of it and frowned. “Was it the cow thing again?”

I nodded, smiling apologetically.

“Hmph. And you Hokkaidans think you have demanding parents. I have a whole lineage shaking their hooves at me to get married!”

* * *

“Hello?”

“Good afternoon, Song Spinner. Hope I'm not calling at a bad time?”

“Frost? Oh, no, no, it's an off day for me today. I thought you were away on assignment in the San Palomino Desert. Are you back already?”

“No, no, just turns out there's actually signal here. How are you doing?”

“Pretty good. I actually meant to call you. Uh, Hummingbird actually moved out...”

“What?”

“She said she wanted to be able to take care of herself. She's making enough money with the orchestra that she decided she could move out to her own apartment. She said she sent you an e-mail with her new address and phone number, though.”

“Oh... okay, thanks for letting me know.”

“Sorry about that, Frost.”

“No, no, it's alright. Don't worry about it. I actually wanted to ask you something in particular.”

“Really? What is it?”

The storyteller smiled.

“Have you ever taught piano before?”

* * *

The armored unicorn stallion sat back, sighed, and smiled.

So that's where it all started for me a few weeks later. A few lessons to test the waters. I'd just swing by her house on Sundays at one in the afternoon, twenty-five bits for an hour. She was cutting me a real bargain considering most professional tutors charged a bit on the minute. I brought this issue up in concern for her, but she just reminded me she had orchestral piano as her primary income in any case. It was the same rate she charged for teaching her cousin.

“Also,” the blue-maned mare said to me with a smirk, “it's because I know you're too proud to take these lessons without paying for them.”

“That's not true!” I protested, feeling a bit of old Hothead Hokkaido in me. Then I looked away bashfully and crossed a foreleg over another. “Okay, maybe you're right.”

“Hey, give me some credit for knowing you better than most people,” Song snickered, patting me on the shoulder with a wing and recoiling a little from the cold before patting again. She tucked it back and headed into her high-rise apartment. I tried to keep my standards up again, but... I couldn't help but let my gaze dip a bit down.

The storyteller puckered his lips for a moment.

Yeah, she still had the nice plot. I'm only equine, okay?

After the chuckles and snickers died down, he continued.

“So how did your trip go?” she asked me, refocusing my attention to more important matters.

“It went pretty well,” I answered as I stepped through into her home, feeling a tad nostalgic as I took in the small, crowded spaces and the scratchy, flat carpet, the plain white walls and the steady chug of the air conditioner. She had appliances and furniture closer to the classiness and the richness that we had in my own home. If anything, renting an apartment with that level of income left quite a bit of money to go elsewhere.

“I was meaning, like, what you were studying,” she clarified as we headed for her glossy, black, upright piano located near the window, which had a view of Main Street. I could even see some musicians playing down there. Small wonder that she spotted Hummingbird- possibly with me in the crowd- so long ago. She had a Samick, one of those third-name brands. As she lifted up the cover and pulled away the bench, it looked worn but recently restored. There was still a bit of tarnish to the brass pedals.

“Oh, well, the Thunderhooves Clan of buffalo has actually been resistant to cultural deterioration,” I replied, then quickly added after realizing my audience was not an equinpological one, “meaning that their traditions and customs have remained intact in the face of the increasingly commercialized and industrialized nature of the modern world. That said, their proximity to the recently commercialized Appleloosa has had some interesting effects on their society. While the availability of modern technology has made certain tasks easier, it also gives them more to worry about. If a bull has to feed his family but also wants gas for his generator, he has to get a job in Appleloosa to pay for it. If that generator malfunctions, he has to pay to hire someone to repair it. That job often comes in the form of working for the town's casino, which often has work hours late into the night and thus disrupts family life. So while industrialization hasn't had a profound cultural impact on the Thunderhooves Clan, it's had a marked social and ideological one. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.” I paused, watching her stare at me. “Too much?”

“No, just, you really like doing that stuff, don't you?” she asked, smiling.

“Does it show?” I chuckled huskily. “So! Where do we start?”

The storyteller kept talking as he made his way over to the old piano.

“Well, there's an interesting story about that,” Song responded. “You see, you know how the only 'tutoring' I've done is for my cousin, right? Well, she was an earth pony. She could only play with her hooves and her snout, and I had to teach her to play like that. Wasn't easy, let me tell you. In your case, however,” She spread her wings and flexed her primaries, “I can use these. You've got those hands of yours, so hopefully this will make things go much smoother. So...” She sat down at the bench, “we're going to start with this.”

He sat down, sprouted a pair of ice arms... and used only one finger on each hand to play “Chopsticks”.

“Really?” I asked her. “We're starting there?”

“Yes, really,” the black-furred pegasus answered, lifting her feathers away from the keys. “Have to know the basics in order to build up.”

“Well, that really didn't count for Hummingbird, did it?”

“Hummingbird's a special exception,” she said. “Do you think you can hear a song, figure out the notes from ear or even by sheet, and then play it in a reverse-engineering way?”

“... no,” I answered. “I can see where you're going with this.”

She nodded. “Right. So, we start with...”

Song played “Chopsticks” again using her wings, but this time, she started using the damper pedal to blend nodes together.

“Then we start doing this,” she added. She then drew a primary up across the piano keys. “And this...” Then she moved onto a waltz-like spree and...

You know what? I'll play for you.

He faced the keys and let his fingers dance...

* * *

Six months passed. I got myself a full-sized electric keyboard, and soon, I could sight-read at a decent clip. Soon, I could play music without really needing instruction.

“It just takes longer for kids because they have to think about all these new ideas, you know?” Song said to me. “Translation of images to keys played, muscle or magic memory to know what keys are where without having to look down, the idea of planning ahead and looking ahead as you play down the measures. Older kids and adults pick it up easier.”

Six months passed. And for all those months, I still kept in contact with her. I'd just drop her a call every so often. Just to check on her.

* * *

“Hello, Frost.”

“Hey, Hummingbird. How are you doing?”

“Pretty good, pretty good. You?”

“Same, more or less.”

“Heh... so I heard from Song Spinner that you started taking up piano.”

“Yeah, that's right.” Soft, husky chuckle. “Guess you can't call me an uncultured Manehattaner anymore, can you?”

Soft giggle.

Sigh. “So how're your street performances going?”

“Still doing them in my off days.”

“Getting popular?”

“Well, uh...”

“Come on, Hummingbird. It's nothing to be ashamed of.”

“A-A little, I mean... I'm not used to it, you know?”

“Don't let it get to you too much. Manehattaners are kind to the famous folk. We know when to leave them be. You won't get pestered by fans or paparazzi or anything. Hopefully.”

“Heh, that's the key word, isn't it?”

Soft chuckle. “I guess. So have you ever thought you could go anywhere with that?”

“Hm... well, Song pitched the idea of recording my own pieces and maybe releasing an EP. A lot of the music I do is mishmashes of existing songs, so I'll have to get the copyright stuff taken care of, but it's something I'm considering.”

“An EP from you, huh? Well, if you're in any need of any good recording equipment, I could ask Silva Hound for advice.”

“Thanks, Frost...”

“No problem, Hummingbird. Just let me know what you decide to do with that, okay? I want to be your first customer.”

Soft chuckle.

* * *

The storyteller sighed.

Six months passed. A lot could change in six months. I was twenty-five years old, a grown stallion now. I couldn't head to The Lazy Dog without drawing stares from the others anymore. It was still a juvie-joint, after all. As much as I loved the music, I couldn't shake the feeling that I didn't fit in anymore- either because I was older... or because I was colder.

I spent those months working, too- in my own hometown. Thinking back, it's hard to imagine how I missed all of that. Manehattan was a sociocultural salad bowl. If I was trying to demonstrate and eventually argue for or against industrialization, it was the place to look. I don't know why I didn't think of that earlier.

Manehattan epitomized the radical shifts brought by industry and commerce. Just walking through the City of Lights and Legends by night was enough to tell me that with all of the great, big neon signs, the variety of music blasting through the air, and the people walking, driving, and flying through the streets.

I discovered something in my studies at home. Manehattan was the quintessential Equestrian city. It incorporated the best Equestria had to offer- love and tolerance, music and magic- and the worst- gangs and thugs, the ultra rich and the ultra poor. It was thus the ultimate place for Equestrian naturalization.

And it showed.

* * *

“You come to ask me of Zebrica?” Modeba, Zoleks' father huffed. “Frost, it has been twenty-four... twenty-five years since we left. I could not tell you what you need to know for your research.”

“But surely you must have something,” I said to him.

He shook his head. “You know enough of my home country through your studies in Canterlot. For how industry and commercialism have changed our customs, I can't tell you- other than that the Great Depression caused many of us to move to Equestria, Aldorna, and Almarinia in search of work. I am happy here, and I care not to return. I would suggest that you go there instead, but all travel to the Zebrican Empire is suspended.”

“... it is?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.

He nodded. “Zebrica is in a state of military operation. The minotaurs staged an uprising and the Caesar is putting it down. So they shut down travel and expelled all unnecessary foreigners.”

I grimaced for a moment. “Any idea how long it'll take for that to reach a resolution?”

“With Caesar Raj'M'Kora?” he huffed. “More of an intellectual than a military leader, that one. Minotaurs are the second-most populous species in the empire. It may take a long time. Don't get your hopes up.”

* * *

Six months became a year now. I had an academic publisher interested in my work with a hoof in the door ready for when I managed to get details on Zebrica, all thanks to Professor Shinespark at MMI. It was just me at home, typing down and fleshing out my notes by day and then partying or going to concerts by night with Zoleks. He and Namira had a simple marriage, just a family-and-friend get-together. Song Spinner and Hummingbird had their music- now me as well. My parents and I were still on good terms, and I was always welcome at home- a home I now enjoyed. I had my balisongs to occupy my body, equinpology to occupy my mind, and piano to occupy my spirit.

But I started feeling... unhappy. The deeper I dug in my research at home, the more... empty it felt. I don't mean the research, I mean Manehattan. And I couldn't believe I was thinking that. Like I said, The City of Lights and Legends was the ultimate Equestrian naturalization center. People from all places and all walks of life came there and were completely assimilated into Equestrian society. You won't find a buffalo, a mule, a zebra, and a pony together in pinstripe suits and straw hats playing swing music anywhere else in the world, at least not like this. I realized that- thinking back- Manehattan was obliterating whole cultures. The only exceptions were the Northerners who had the Northern Lights Festival every year, but that was held only because we had so little of our culture left and we wanted to keep it living on. No other celebration united a whole people in the same way.

I remember I met with Vani Windfall again, now proudly with child and preparing for a new life with her husband, Alden. She could only name four of the gods in the inner circle of the griffin pantheon. Zoleks' family- Namira's as well- didn't practice the same system of cultural responsibilities as zebras should have. But they all knew the Equestrian National Anthem, City of Lights and Legends and all the other pony songs by heart. They knew all of the big-time corporations' slogans and even reacted to their company jingles. They could usually name most of the Manehattan Giants' players- sometimes even their numbers.

Now this isn't to say that I overlooked Manehattan's beauty. Sure, the people greeted one another with a smile and wave, but there were so many of us there that at times- just... at times- it felt more mechanical that personal. Sure, there was still a ton of cultural diversity but only if it was convenient for industrial, commercial life. You won't find any griffin temples in Manehattan, that was for sure. And sure, the city itself was amazing- all the lights, all the people, all the songs. But all that glitters isn't necessarily golden.

So I came to a decision, one that led to a chance meeting that would change my life forever

* * *

We were at the dinner table, eating tempura and goma-ae. I had it all prepared. Was just going to lay it bare. “Mother, father,” I spoke, “I've... I've been thinking I've been needing a change of scenery.” I paused, letting them look up from their food to me. “You know how I'm starting to feel about Manehattan. I still love it as I would my home, but... I think I need a breather.”

They both shared a look. Mother gave a shrug, and father merely asked, “How long do you think you'll need?”

“I don't know,” I answered. “Might be a few months. Might be years.” I let the words sink in. Father glanced downward for a moment. Mother worked her jaw around a bit. “Rest assured, I'll always visit in time for your birthdays and for The Northern Lights and Hearth's Warming,” I said to them as earnestly as I could. “And will call.”

They shared a look. Mother said, “He's his own stallion now, you know.”

Father nodded, then faced me. “So where will you go?”

I inhaled and replied, “I was thinking Ponyville.”

* * *

“Ponyville, huh?” Zoleks asked as we sat at the bar in Club DV8. It was one of the trendier nightclubs in Manehattan. The music was nice, I'll admit, but... it just didn't have the same appeal to me as Silva Hound's at The Lazy Dog. Either it was sensual or it wasn't. DJ H0UND just managed to hit that perfect in-between.

“Yep,” I answered simply, puckering my lip as the scantily-clad waitress passed us by. I didn't even glance at her flank. I had less of a chance at a mare than I did as pre-Mumei Hokkaido. “I just... need some time to think. I'll still keep in touch, don't you worry.”

He smiled easy at that, offering a hoof at first. Then he chuckled and just drew me into a hug, which I gladly returned. “Sparklesake, you're cold,” he muttered as he pulled away, shivering. He nevertheless smiled and clasped me on the shoulder. “Take care, alright? I'll always be there if you need me.”

“I know, Zoleks,” I said with a smile at my greatest friend. “Thank you.”

* * *

“Hey, Frost...” Hummingbird greeted with a soft smile as we wrapped one another in a tender embrace. She was back in her old hoodie, I noted. But at least we were hugging, and for those precious few seconds, I relished her subtle warmth- not too hot for me but just enough to be comforting.

“Hey, Hummingbird...” I whispered to her before we slowly pulled away, mindful of what I was carrying on my back with my ice arms. “Whoa, careful. Mind the keyboard.” It didn't feel like Velcrow straps this time. I'd accepted things, as painful as they were (No I didn't.). “Just... you know, wanted to stop by and see you again before I headed off.”

“Sure, absolutely,” she said with a nod and... smile. I knew that kind of smile all too well. I'd used it before. It's the kind of smile that masks. Masked what? I didn't know. “Oh, come in! Come in!” She stood aside and waved a wing to her apartment. Walking in, it wasn't just a hint of nostalgia washing over me like with Song Spinner's. It was a torrent of it from the crummy appliances to the ratty bed that also probably served as the sofa. There was even an old Zenith television set with the bug-like antennae. I felt... oddly at home there.

“Frost?” she asked, stepping into view. “You alright?”

I shook out of my rumination and smiled to her. “Yeah, I'm okay. So...” I paused, setting down my keyboard and setting it up.

“So...” Hummingbird rubbed her foreleg. “Um... Ponyville, huh?”

“Yeah.” I nodded and stood up. “So... just one song and... maybe dinner after?”

Hummingbird nodded slowly. “Yeah... Frost, have... have you found anypony, anyone else?”

I paused. “... no.” Pause. “Have you?”

She stood there, still rubbing her foreleg. She glanced up at me once, then turned away. She gave the tinniest of nods.

I inhaled, steeled myself, and... smiled. “What's he like?”

“... I... I shouldn't talk about him here, not like this,” she said quickly. “Maybe another time.”

I nodded slowly, letting the smile slip as I turned back to the keyboard. “So, did... you have anything in mind? Just this once, right?”

Hummingbird didn't move for a few seconds. Then she went to the bed and pulled out a set of saddlebags from underneath, popping them open and offering a set of sheet music using her wing. I took them in my arms and looked the title over.

“Hummingbird...” I sighed mistily, closing my eyes.

“I thought it would be fitting,” she whispered.

Eyes open, I let out another sigh through my nostrils. I set down the sheets on the rack and nodded to her. “Let's do it. Let's do it.”

The green pegasus mare, that beautiful green pegasus mare (I still miss her) retrieved her violin case from under the bed. With practiced fluidity, she removed it and hooked it up to a speaker. With a pop and a buzz, she turned it on and drew the bow once, tweaking it until she sounded very close to a cello.

I turned to her and set my fingers on the keys. “On your go.”

Hummingbird closed her eyes, lifted her bow, set it down...

The storyteller nodded to Roanoke.

And we played.

* * *

Footnote: Frost- Level Up! Level 14 Reached!
Perk added: In a China Shop- They're more graceful than you think. You gain a 5% boost to Speech rolls against buffaloes.

Unlockables added: Soundtrack- AAAAAppleloosa (This Doesn't Look Anything Like the Picture...)

Soundtrack- Where the Buffalo Roam

Soundtrack- Theme of the Last Great Chief, Thunderhooves

Soundtrack- Chopsticks (But Not Quite)

Soundtrack- The Last Duet

Author's Note:

So, after all this, I've learned something.

Buffalo names are freaking hard.

But that aside, I hope you've enjoyed this chapter. The pacing was a little hard for me, but... I hope it's alright. Next one is where things get interesting. My thanks to the incredible FoE community, my pre-reader Lazer726, and you for reading. Please leave some feedback if you can. I would appreciate it since there'll eventually come a time for me to look back and tweak things a little. Also, let me know how the music experiment worked out!

Don't forget about the Ask Frost Windchill tumblr either!
(URL = www.askfrostwindchill.tumblr.com)

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