• Published 29th Jun 2012
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Fallout: Equestria - Wasteland Bouquet - Cascadejackal



There's a lot of stories in the Equestrian Wasteland, and they all need to be told.

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Chapter 7: All In

---CHAPTER 7: All In---
"Lady, you're trouble. "

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A white smudge was visible against the grey-brown land, moving like a bat out of hell. I flapped harder, trying to get some height before it vanished, knowing full well that if I lost sight of it, I'd never see it again.

Why? Why the fuck would Lily do something like that? My lungs burned in my chest, muscles screaming as I flew, my grey wings barely keeping me aloft. Couldn't she see how Rose felt? How important she was to her little sister? To throw all that away so carelessly... I hated Lily for what she did...

If she hadn't met Lucky Break, none of this would have happened.

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It had started out well enough, just our usual visit to the casino. Rose had gone to her favorite poker table straight away, since the management kept a seat open for her. She'd become a little infamous since we first showed up; I'd heard more than a few ponies talking about the Mistress of The Cards, and how she was almost unbeatable. Some of the rumors were actually pretty funny, too. Like how she was actually the Goddess Luna in disguise, since she only came to the casino after dark.

Seriously, why do ponies believe in that crap? Some magical princesses die in the war, and every pony in the wasteland starts calling them Goddesses and praying to them? Prey species are wierd, and ponies are no exception.

Since Rose was occupied with her nightly fun and games, I was stuck making sure Lily didn't blow all her caps on the slot machines. Didn't bother me too much, though. Rose had asked me to look after her big sister, and anything that got me in that little white mare's good books was fine by me, so if that meant buying Lily drinks all night, then so be it.

Then Lucky Break showed up. Should've torn his fucking throat out then and there, saved us all this bullshit. Him and Lily hit it off right away; chatting, laughing, buying each other drinks. When that bastard offered to let Lily gamble his money away, she was all over him. You'd swear she was in heat, the way she was acting! Fucking idiot.

When Rose finished playing and sat next to me at the bar, I could tell something was up. Rose NEVER sat near me when she could be with her sister instead.

It wasn't until we got back to the hotel that I had any idea just how bad it was. And if I'd known how bad it would get... I'm not sure what I would have done, but it would have involved Lucky Break, that's for sure.


I'd been sitting at the table in my room, sharpening my new knife; a pre-war griffin blade, nice and heavy, the way knives are meant to be, when Rose shoved the door open without knocking and came in carrying a bottle of whiskey with her magic, kicking the door closed behind her. We'd shared a couple bottles at the casino, but I guess she wanted to drink some more. She loved the burn.

"Where're your manners, Rose? I coulda been naked!" I smirked at her as she came over to me.

"You're always naked. Just like me." She jumped onto the table and sat in front of me, just staring at me. Nothing unusual there, Rose always stared. It's one of those things she just did, without even thinking about it. The little twitch of her ear, though... That was a sure sign something was bugging her.

Still, I wouldn't let her comment go. "Oh, so we're naked together, in my room, and all alone, huh?" I stuck my knife back into it's sheath and grinned at her. "You're being awfully forward tonight, aren't you?" She blinked at me and started tapping her hoof on the table.

"Shut up." There wasn't any anger in her words; there never was. But she didn't stop tapping, and I was sure I knew what was wrong.

"You didn't like Lucky Break, did you?" Bingo. Her little hoof smashed into the table hard enough to leave a dent, then she started tapping again.

"No."

"Is it cause of your... feeling thing?"

"Yes. No. Kind of."

"Well? What is it?" I started tapping my claw in time with her hoof; she stopped her tapping and glared at me. I stopped as well, raising my claws in mock surrender.

"I don't like him. He likes Lily."

"So? Just tell her you don't like him, she'll understand."

"She likes him, too. They like each other." She started tapping again.

"Oh... Well, you should still talk to her, let her know how you feel."

"No. Lily deserves to be happy, and Lucky Break makes her happy." Taptaptaptap. It was getting faster.

"That doesn't mean you have to keep quiet, you know." I tried to grab her hoof because the tapping was getting annoying. She just pinned my talon to the table with it. Her hooves may have been tiny compared to my claws, but she was strong, and I had trouble getting free.

"If I say anything, she won't be happy anymore."

"It's not that simple, Rose. And get off my claw!" She lifted her hoof so I could pull away, and started tapping again.

"It is that simple. Lily should be happy, no matter what." I swear she was doing it on purpose now. "Don't tell her, Ibis. I mean it. Promise!" She stopped tapping and lifted her hoof to point at my face.

"I promise..." That's when I took the chance to grab her foreleg. "Gotcha-OW!" She slammed the back of my claw against the table.

"I win."

"What was that for?!"

"I'm bored. Let's hoofwrestle."

"I thought you wanted to talk!"

"Now I want to hoofwrestle."

"You're insane, you know that?" She nodded, and what followed was the longest, most enjoyable arm wrestling session I'd ever had. At the start we were evenly matched, since both of us were going all-out, and it didn't take long before we were sweating from the exertion. Don't ask me how a little unicorn could be as strong as a griffin! Rose had never been a normal pony, after all.

Then Lily came in; Apparently, she'd heard me and Rose and thought we'd been having sex! I guess it might have sounded like that through the wall or whatever... But it was still pretty fucking funny! Funnier still because we'd finished the whiskey in record time, and had one hell of a buzz going. Rose had... well, roses on her cheeks! Oh, gods... I just remembered how she got her name! If even half of that story was true, then I'm glad I wasn't around for it... Anyway...

Lily yelled at Rose, told her to stay with me if she couldn't stop laughing, and stormed out. After a minute, Rose's laughter turned into little sobs and she curled up against me. "Lily's... mad... at me..."

"Shh..." I picked her up and put her on the bed, laying next to her and stroking her mane. "She's just mad cause we laughed at her, don't worry. It'll be okay in the morning, you'll see." I hugged her, enveloping my little mare in my arms and wings. I could feel my heart breaking, seeing my precious flower so upset.

Slowly, her sobs stopped, and her body grew still. When I felt a hot pressure on my arm, I smiled and pulled away a little, looking down at her; Rose had my arm in her teeth, but there wasn't any force behind the bite. She was just holding on, more out of habit than anything else.

"I'll hug you more if you keep that up." She bit harder, but it was still pretty weak, her way of asking to be held. And hold her I did. I caressed that pretty little head of hers until her eyes closed and her breathing got nice and deep, then went to sleep myself. After all that booze, and getting worn out by the arm wrestling, I was really tired. Having my darling Whiskey Rose pressed against me made all my dreams that night into happy ones, though, so it was the best night I'd had in a long time.

A couple of times through the night, I woke up to her whimpering in her sleep, and stroked her mane until she calmed down. I think Lily looked in on us at one point, but she didn't say anything, just closed the door and went back to her room.


Rose and Lily made up in the morning. I kinda hoped they'd kissed and made up, to be honest. I loved Rose, but Lily was still cute. Naive and innocent, sure, but cute. Actually, that morning was the first time I'd admitted out loud that I loved the little red-headed mare. Lily seemed happy about it, too. I was just glad Rose hadn't heard; I wasn't sure how she'd react.

Then again, maybe she had heard me say it. It's the only reason I can think of for how she settled our argument about kissing in the marketplace. Until Lily had signed to me that Rose had enjoyed it (I had a little trouble figuring out what she was trying to say at first. She should learn proper sign language or something) I'd thought she was just teasing me again. When I realized she'd enjoyed the kiss too, well...

Even with everything Rose did to me after, the scorpion in the box, the horny brahmin and the other stuff... Even with all of it, that one kiss was more than worth it. Still can't believe she learned how to do that from romance novels! That mare could kiss better than any girl I'd ever met!

...
Wait a second... Rose learned how to kiss from books...
That means I was her first kiss!


Over the next couple of weeks, Lily and Lucky got closer and closer, while Rose started spending more and more time with me. I'd thought about telling Lily what Rose had said, but she'd made me promise not to say anything. You don't break a promise with Rose. Ever. I'd heard stories about a crazy pink pony from before the war, and what she'd do if someone broke a promise with her; It'd been tame compared to what Rose might have done to me. It wasn't just fear that made me keep the promise, though. I knew she wouldn't forgive me if I broke it, and that was more than enough to ensure I wouldn't say anything.

Everything came to a head last night, though. The four of us had been at the bar, since Rose wasn't allowed to gamble at the casino anymore. Apparently, some of the 'High Rollers' were also really influential, since they're the ones that got Rose barred. Upclass fucktards just couldn't take losing to my flower so often.

I'd been sitting with Rose all night; We'd had a small drinking contest going on and kept up our usual bullshit. I'd flirt, she'd insult me, we'd both get drunk and she tried to ignore Lucky Break. Not easy, when he was making out with Lily at the next table. It was making me sick just watching, and I could tell Rose was hating every second they spent touching each other.

Next thing I knew, Rose had gotten an empty whiskey bottle jammed on her horn, and I'm not kidding when I say jammed. The damn thing didn't want to come off!

If you think that's impressive, she grabbed our last bottle of Wild Pegasus in her mouth, threw her head back and downed the lot in one go! Rose could drink, all right... Looking back, I realise why she did it, though. Lily and Lucky had just had a major make-out session, and since Rose experienced everything her sister did... Well... She must've been trying to get the feeling of that slimebag Lucky Break's tongue out of her mouth.


Know what? Fuck him. Next time I see that stallion, he's fucking dead. Anyone that upsets my little Rose doesn't deserve to live. And if Lily has a problem with that, then fuck her too. She doesn't deserve someone as special as Whiskey Rose.

I wouldn't hurt her, though. I doubted Rose would ever forgive me for slapping Lily like I did, but if I seriously hurt her idiot sister...

Fuck that. I shuddered and scanned the ground below me, searching for some tell-tale flash of white or red... There. She was still running, but not to anywhere. Just a straight line away from town. Away from Lucky break. Away from... Caravan Lily...


I can't believe how stupid Lily was. When she left us in the bar, she told us not to stay out too late, then staggered away, hanging off of that worthless buck like a cheap floozy. That idiot mare should have realized what that would do to Rose! If the poor girl couldn't take being apart from her big sister for a single night, how would she feel if she was left behind for a male?! It must have felt like she was being replaced by the one thing she hated!

It took a minute or two before Rose left some caps on the table and trotted to the door, bottle still on her horn. I hurried out just in time to see her start running, a bloody-maned ghost in the night, and took off after her. She was quick, though, and I lost her for a while; Until I heard the screaming, coming from just outside of town.

Cursing myself for being so slow, I flew to where the screams were coming from, dreading what I'd find... It was worse than I'd thought.


Raiders, slavers, even just some violent, drunken idiots would have been better. What I saw, though, turned my stomach.

Rose had smashed the bottle from her horn and was using her magic to gouge at herself with it, the whole time screaming three words: "Make them stop!"

Her lips were a bloody mess and there were gashes down her sides and her cheeks, along her forelegs and her chest... Places you might touch a mare you were being intimate with. I realized that she was feeling what Lucky was doing to Lily and swooped down to try and stop her.

"ROSE! STOP IT!"

She twisted to look at me and I saw her eyes; They were wild, desperate, like a cornered animal. Then I felt something in my chest break as she slammed into me, knocking me away. "He's touching her!" She screamed, slashing at herself with the broken bottle. "Make them stop, Ibis! Make them stop!"

I coughed and lunged at her, my broken ribs sending spears of pain though my entire body. "Put down the bottle, Rose!" I grabbed it, the broken glass digging into my claw as I tried to get it away from her... With a small pop, it stopped glowing... and my knife was pulled from my belt instead. Throwing the bottle to one side I grabbed the knife, tying it into the sheath so she wouldn't be able to get it free, then lunged at her.

Rose threw me again; if any of my ribs had just been cracked the first time, they were broken now. I got back up and grabbed her again, wrapping my arms around her throat and pinning her down. "Stop it!" I commanded, but she just kept struggling and screaming for me to make it stop...

Her body froze and went completely rigid for a second and I started to relax. "That's better. Now-"

"He's inside her." Her voice was horrible. Twisted with anger, disgust, hatred, fear and confusion...

"Wha-" I was slammed against a large rock, hard enough to bruise my wings, and when I looked up... Rose was standing on her hind legs, reared up, her head and front hooves in the air... The shattered bottle glowing as it plunged towards...

"ROSE! NO!" I launched myself at her and knocked her to the ground, the bottle digging into my side instead of her soft petals. She lay underneath me, sobbing.

"Why? Why is she doing it? He's inside her, Ibis! Make them stop, please!"

I groaned; my side was killing me, the bottle stuck deep enough that I'd have to pull it out, but I wasn't going to let Rose go, not after what she'd tried to do. "I can't stop them... Rose, why are you doing this? Why are you hurting yourself?"

"It's my pain! Nobody elses! All mine!"

"What do you mean?"

"If I hurt enough, I can't feel her! Hurt me, Ibis! PLEASE!" She started fighting, trying to get free. Stunned by what I heard, I couldn't hold on properly, and she leapt up before turning and slamming her hooves against me, sobbing.

"Stop it!" I raised my arms to protect myself. "I'm not going to hurt you-ARGH!" The bottle was wrenched out of me, pulled by her magic.

"Please... Hurt me..." Her eyes were shining, full of tears, as she slashed at me with the makeshift weapon, opening up my forearm and making me scream. "Ibis... Please..." She went to swing again, but before she could, I slapped her. She laughed, and my blood ran cold; it wasn't like any sound I'd ever heard her make before, like she was an insane child. "More... You can make it stop, Ibis! Just hurt me more!"

Rose lunged at me, laughing and screaming and crying, and for the first time since we'd met, I was fighting for my life. I had no choice. She might have killed me if I hadn't fought back. I tried to pin her down, grab her, but she just twisted so that my claws dug into her, gouging first at me and then herself with the bottle; I managed to knock the bottle out of her magical grip and get her forelegs pinned, but she started trying to bite me instead.

"Keep going! Please!" She begged, frantic. My heart shattered; there was only one way to help her, only one way to keep her from killing herself and me... I tore at her shoulder with my beak, her hot blood splashing across my face and in my mouth, thick and coppery. I couldn't tell if her scream was from pain or pleasure; maybe both.

She knocked me away and then lunged, a mix of ecstasy and agony on her little white face, her tears flowing freely as we collided. I felt something die inside me; could I really do what she wanted me to? Then there was no time to think, only act. We tore at each other, our bodies entwining in an obscene mockery of sex, the parched earth beneath us spattered with small rivers and pools of our life, discarded and forgotten in the madness, in a twisted act of violence spurred on by the unwanted carnal pleasures my beloved Rose was forced to endure.

Our screams echoed through the night, our bodies slick with blood and sweat as we grappled and fought, every moment passionate, violent, intimate in the worst of ways. Her teeth tore at my throat and I returned each touch, my beak breaking skin like a knife, piercing her delicate flesh and making her cry out in terrible ecstasy, her voice filled with the most primal of emotions; The cry of prey that knows it has lost, but still fights on, savoring every drop of life it has left, even as that life spills out upon her assailant, and he bleeds upon her, their moments, their flesh, their very souls entwining as their bodies did, in a moment more pure, more terrible, than any they could hope to experience again.

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Dawn broke, muted light illuminating our spent and broken bodies where we lay, grey and white against the ancient, poisonous soil, as twisted and broken as the souls of those who now lay upon it. My wing sheltered my beloved from the light; better to let her sleep. I held her close, hoping to comfort her with my presence, let her know everything would be alright... I knew it wouldn't be, that there was no way to fix this. My head was light, every part of me screaming in agony, and I was drifting, fading... Not into blessed sleep, but into unconciousness...


I was woken by a snarl and the sudden disappearance of Rose from my side.

"Rose, what's wrong? Talk to me!" Was that... Lily? I forced my aching body to sit up; my broken ribs were like fire in my chest and I groaned, trying to focus on the cream mare in front of me.

"Lily, what the fuck are you doing here?" It was.

"Ibis, what happened? What's wrong with Rose?!" What? She didn't know what was wrong with her little sister? Black rage swelled up inside me; It was all her fault, and she didn't even understand what she'd done!

"You had sex with Lucky, didn't you?!" I snapped, glaring at her.

"I-"

I couldn't help it. That look of confusion, the way it was replaced with pain and fear when Lily realised what she'd done, tears in her eyes like she was the one who'd had her heart ripped out... I slapped her with as much strength as I could.

"Rose fucking felt everything!" I screamed at her. "You know how she is, what you mean to her, and you still fucked that bastard!"

My darling, precious flower snarled at her big sister; A wordless expression of everything she felt, more eloquent than mere words could ever be. Her eyes were the dead grey of ice, not a trace of light remaining... The eyes of the walking dead.

When Lily tried to approach her, Rose ran, leaving us behind... No, leaving her big sister behind.

"Rose... I..." Lily called out quietly, wanting her little sister to come back.

I slapped her again and she dropped, limp, just watching that white shape fade into the distance. "You fucking idiot, Lily. Stay here, I'll take care of Rose." The disgust I felt, looking down at the cream mare, laying there, longing for the very thing she'd just destroyed and cast aside, was overwhelming. I thought she'd been better than that.

I turned my back on her and leapt into the air, forcing my bruised wings to carry me, knowing that I might be doing permanent damage but not caring. Someone had to look after Rose.

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We'd been moving for most of the day when the white form stumbled and rolled down a hill, not getting back up. I dived, desperately hoping she was okay, and hit the ground harder than I should have, leaving a small furrow in the dirt. Agony shot through me, my abused body barely able to stand, but I managed to reach her...

Rose lay on her side, covered in sweat and blood, foaming at the mouth. I didn't need to be a doctor to know she was in bad shape; She was panting, her chest heaving, and all the wounds from last night had opened again. She coughed and sprayed the ground in front of her muzzle with blood. I thought about giving her a healing potion from my belt, but didn't. Anyone who's ever been seriously hurt knows that those potions will just make things worse if you don't get proper medical care first. I settled for giving her a shot of med-x, stabbing the syringe into her neck and watching her wide, wild eyes glass over... Her mouth moved like she was trying to talk, and I leaned close to hear what she was saying:

"Big... Bro... ther..."

Was I... her big brother now? The words sent me reeling, but I shook it off. Rose needed someone, anyone, that could care for her and keep her safe... Even from herself. Carefully, I took her into my arms and spread my wings. There was another town nearby, four hours away, maybe three if I pushed myself... I flapped my aching, burning wings and ignored the searing fire in my chest. It was getting hard to breathe, but Rose needed me. I'd push myself to death's door to help her, if it meant Rose lived.

The flight felt like it took an eternity. I had Rose gripped tightly to my chest, her heartbeat faint and unsteady, her body twitching from a pain far deeper than any amount of drugs could help. "Celestia, Luna, if you're really watching over my little pony, let me get her to a doctor in time..." I muttered a small prayer; I didn't believe in the goddesses, but Rose did, and if they could do anything to help, then I'd sell them my soul if I had to.


The sun was starting to set when I reached the town; Our caravan had passed through almost a month ago, but I still remembered where the doctor had his office. I always bought medical supplies when we were in a town; My mother had taught me that, saying you never knew when you'd need something to dull the pain or heal a wound.

You'll never be as grateful for that advice as I was at that moment. But remember it, it could save your life... Or the life of someone you love.

I landed as gently as I could outside the small building with the three butterflies on its sign, trying not to jostle Rose too much. The med-x was still in her system, but she didn't need any more pain or discomfort. The doctor was outside, having a smoke; Funny, you never really see unicorns smoking.

"Doc... Help her..." I gasped, staggering towards him. He stared at me like I was a monster... And I must have looked like one. A bloody griffin, carrying an almost dead mare... "Please... Anything you want, I'll give it to you... just... help..."

He looked closer and saw that Rose was still breathing. Barely. "Get inside, quickly. We might be able to save her, if we hurry."

We went inside and I lay my precious mare on a table so the doctor could see her. "What happened to you two?" His horn glowed as he tried to ascertain the extent of her injuries.

"Fight... We Ran... She collapsed... Will she... be okay...?" I weezed and shook my head, trying to clear the cobwebs. He didn't need to know everything, why the hell was he asking something so stupid?! Rose was fucking dying!

"I'm not sure... She's got a pierced lung, a concussion, she's lost a lot of blood... All of her muscles are badly damaged, as well... If I-"

Everything went dark.

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"Ugh..." I couldn't move. Every inch of me hurt, and it felt like I was wrapped in something...

"You're finally awake." The doctor's voice came from beside me.

"Rose... is she..." I struggled to sit up, but my body wouldn't respond properly, the pain scrambling my brain.

"She's alive... Barely. You shouldn't try to move, young griffin. Your body has been through a lot."

"Fuck... You..." I fought through the agony and finally sat up, opening my eyes slowly. Ugh... The room span and I fell back down, shutting my eyes again. "Where... is she?" Speaking, breathing, everything sent spikes of pain through me.

"She's in the next bed, but don't try and sit up again!" This time I listened. Staying still hurt less.

"Is she... awake?" Fuck, even my voice was shot through with pain.

"I'm afraid not... With the state she's in, I have to keep her sedated. It will be days, at the very least, before I'm willing to let her wake up. Frankly, I'm amazed she's even alive."

"Have to... see her..."

"If I let you see her, will you stay still?"

"Yeah..."

I heard a curtain being pulled back and slowly opened one eye to look; there was a slender body wrapped in bandages and covered by a white sheet. I could just make out her chest moving, and relief washed over me. "Doc... leave the... curtain... open... Please? She... needs to... be able... to see me..."

"Alright... But it's time for you to get some rest, Mr Griffin."

"Ibis..." I felt something jab into my neck. "My name's... Ibis..." Webs and fog filled my mind, pulling me from consciousness and into a haze of muddled dreams and nightmares... The only part I remember was something watching me and Rose... It was laughing, gazing down on us with eyes that burned a brilliant, vivid blue...


Over the next few days, I recovered enough to leave my bed, and learned how serious our injuries had been. Most of my ribs had been broken and I was suffering from exhaustion and blood loss, in addition to countless bruises and sprains.

I got off lucky.

Rose had a punctured lung, a couple broken and cracked ribs, severe blood loss and minor spine damage. That last part worried me, but the doc said she would probably regain full mobility... If it wasn't for the rest of her body.

"Her muscles... tore themselves apart?" I was sitting on my bed, covered in bandages and staring at the doctor. He nodded. "How can that happen?"

He sighed. "You understand why you get tired, don't you? It's because you're pushing your body to it's limits. When your muscles start hurting, that's a sign you should stop before you damage yourself. If you keep going, past your limits, and don't stop... Most ponies... and griffins, of course... suffer severe muscle fatigue, because their muscles are only damaged a little before they stop. Your friend, though... You said she ran for an entire day without stopping, after fighting for hours the night before?"

I nodded. This time, the room only swam a little.

"She pushed her body well beyond what it could take. Her muscles aren't simply damaged, they were almost destroyed. I wouldn't have been surprised if her heart had ruptured during surgery, with the stresses she put herself through."

"But I did the same thing as her, so how come-"

"How come you're not at death's door?" The doc sighed again. "Griffins are naturally more athletic than ponies. Your body is designed to take more punishment than hers, so the fight didn't affect you as badly. If I'm being honest, I'm shocked your friend is still alive at all. It's beyond her simply not wanting to die; I have no choice but to believe something is keeping her here."

Something was keeping Rose from dying... "Luna, Celestia, thank you..." I whispered, tears forming in my eyes. They'd heard my prayer after all.

"What was that?" The doc looked at me strangely.

"N-nothing." I wiped my eyes with the back of my bandaged arm; Moving still hurt like nine kinds of fuck, but I could tough it out. I had to. "Is there any chance she'll recover?"

He looked at the small, bandaged body, laying in that bed all alone... "A small chance, but she'll never recover fully. At most, she might be able to walk unaided... But even that will take years."

"I'll look after her..."

"Are you sure about that? It's going to be a long, difficult life; For both of you, if you're serious."

"There's no way I'll leave Rose alone... She needs me..."

"I see..." The doc turned away; I recognised the look of concern and doubt on his face with just a glance. After dealing with Rose, reading a normal pony's expression was easy. "Try and get some rest, Mr Ibis. I'll be back in an hour to check on you and your... friend."

"She's my..." I hesitated. Could I say it? "Little sister." Yeah. That's what she was, alright. Saying it felt good, too.

The doc stared at me, confused. "Your... sister?"

"Yeah... I have to look out for her... I'm all she's got..."

"I... see... Like I said, try and get some rest..." He shook his head slowly and left the room; It didn't matter if he believed me or not, I knew what the truth was, and I'd made up my mind about what I had to do.

That left me alone with Rose... I got off my bed and crossed to hers, sitting beside the almost still body and stroking her bandaged head... She looked like a little doll, laying there...

"Ibis..."

...
Did she just say something? I leaned close to her face... No, it was just her breathing... Sighing, I lay down beside her, covering her with my wing and quickly falling into a deep sleep.

"Ibis..." A whisper crept through the room, light as a lover's breath... A small, haunting laugh followed it. "Take care of my little Rosie, Ibis..."

I shivered in my sleep, dreaming of a tall, snow white mare with burning blue eyes and a mane that dripped with blood...

---------------------------------------------------------------

I watched my mother and Lily's parents leave town, careful not to let them see me. They would want me and Rose to go with them, but that would have meant Lily coming near my little flower again... And there was no way I'd let that happen.

As they faded into the distance, I returned to the doc's place with a small bag of caps on my belt. Rose and I had both needed operations to keep us alive, and then there was the space we took up in the clinic, on top of the potions and bandages and other medical supplies. It wasn't cheap, and I'd already given the doc every cap I had, so I'd taken a job at the town store once I was cleared for light work. Stacking shelves, sweeping, that sort of thing. Most of my pay went towards our debt, the rest on essentials... Except for today. The doc had finally reduced the sedatives he had Rose under and she'd woken up last night. Screamed her head off until I could calm her down, but at least she was awake and... kinda talking... So I'd picked up a packet of gum as a treat, something to help Rose feel better.

"I'm back! And I brought you a pres-" I stopped, staring. Rose was standing beside her bed, still wearing her bandages. She shouldn't have been able to do that. I walked towards her slowly. "You okay, Red?" She turned her head and blinked at me; I guess that meant yes. "Come on, get back into bed, okay? For your big brother?" She nodded, then lifted one hoof and stumbled. Before she could fall I dived forwards and caught her; her whole body was trembling, and I could feel her muscles straining under her coat...

"Hurts..." She choked out the word, her voice low and hoarse. "Need... drink..."

"Okay, I'll get you some water, but don't move, okay?" I lifted her onto the bed, laying her on her side.

"Whiskey..."

I laughed softly to myself; even half dead and unable to hold herself up, she wanted her favorite drink. "You're getting water, and that's final." I stroked her cheek, and she bit me. It was so light I barely felt it, but with the way she was shaking... Just that little effort took everything she had. "Hey, when you get better, I'll get you all the whiskey you can drink, okay?" She nodded, and I kissed her horn.


When the doc came back in from his rounds around town, Rose was sitting up and I was holding a glass of water for her. Yes, I'd given her some rad-x first. I'm not stupid enough to take chances, no matter how clean the water looks.

"What are you doing?!" He yelled and galloped over to us. "She shouldn't be sitting up! She shouldn't be moving at all!"

"Thirsty." Rose stared at him and he froze. I couldn't blame him; with her eyes that deathly grey, her habitual stare had become spine-chilling. "Needed a drink."

"Rose, be nice. He saved you." I stroked her muzzle and she blinked, turning back to me to drink some more water; I guess being unconcious for a few days leaves you feeling parched.

"How is she even moving?" The doc kept his voice at a normal level and came over to us cautiously; probably trying to avoid having Rose stare at him again. "Her muscles were torn apart, like... like wet paper..."

"When I got back, she was standing beside her bed." I pulled the glass away so Rose could breathe; She glared at me until I let her drink again. The doc practically fainted at the news.

"Standing?! That's... That's not possible..."

"She was standing, alright. Weren't you, Rose?" I rubbed between her ears and she closed her eyes, enjoying it, but still determined to empty her glass of water and quench her thirst. "You sure she was hurt that bad, doc? I mean, she wasn't exactly running around, but you said it'd take years before she could walk; It's been a few days and she's already standing."

"Her spine was damaged as well! That alone should have kept her down for at least a month, assuming I had the skill to operate and repair it properly! With the sort of damage that was done to her body... It's just not possible! There's no way she should be moving!"

Rose pulled away from the now empty glass and shook her head with a snort. Then collapsed, moaning. "Tired... Ibis, sleep with me..."

I smiled at her, then shrugged at the doctor. "Sorry, doc. Rose is a special mare, that's all I can tell you." He turned and walked out, refusing to look at the bandaged mare that defied all medical logic. Rose managed to poke me with her hoof, so I lay down and let her curl up against me. It didn't take long before she was lost in dreamland, and I carefully slipped away, heading outside to where the doc was having a smoke to calm his nerves.

"Your sister is... I can't explain it. There's gotta be something looking after her... I'm not a religious pony, but seeing her recover so fast..."

"You've gotta wonder if Celestia and Luna really are looking down on us, right?"

He looked at me strangely.

"What? You think I don't know about pony religion?" I chuckled. "Honestly? I spent the entire flight here praying to them. Rose believes they're up there and I was desperate, so... Guess you could say I'm a believer, now."

The doc shook his head. "That makes two of us, Ibis. That makes two of us."

A small gust of wind blew down the street, and it almost sounded like giggling... I shivered and turned to the doc, suddenly unnerved. "I'm gonna go back in, make sure I'm there when Rose wakes up."

"Yeah... And I've gotta take stock, you two have used up a lot of my supplies." He shuddered. I chalked it up to how chilly the breeze had been, and not the haunting, mocking sound it had carried.

I remembered the pouch of caps at my belt. "Here's today's pay, Doc." I tossed it to him as we went inside; He caught it in his magic.

"Well, I'd say that about takes care of your debt, but you're not leaving until I'm convinced you two are one hundred percent... And I want to observe your sister. Something seems off about her, but I'm not sure what."

I laughed and pulled the door closed behind us. "Yeah, we get that a lot."

---------------------------------------------------------------

It took just over two weeks before the doctor said we were in anything approaching a good condition. In that time, Rose had almost completely recovered. She was eating solid food, breathing normally, and only started shaking after exerting herself for more than a few minutes at a time. She also refused to leave my side from the moment she could walk properly. When I went to my job at the store, she insisted on helping me sweep, using her magic to clean up while I handled the other tasks. Every night she'd hop onto my bed to sleep with me, and more often than not I'd fall asleep stroking her mane or her side. It felt nice, having my little sister beside me, and I even sang her some lullabies when she had trouble sleeping.

Her progress shocked me, and scared the shit out of the doctor.

"Incredible. If it wasn't for the scars, I'd swear she wasn't the same broken little filly I had to operate on..." He was poking and prodding Rose while she sat on her bed, checking her over. "And the way her muscles have recovered... There's no way for me to explain it..."

Under that off-white coat, Rose's muscles had regained most of their former strength, showing almost no sign of the damage that had been done. Putting any effort into something exhausted her quickly, though.

"Maybe the healing potions were more potent than you thought?" I was sitting next to Rose and shrugged, watching her ears twitch; she didn't like being inspected, but I'd told her to be nice. That was more than enough proof of how much she trusted and needed me; she did what I said. The 'little filly' remark got an eye twitch, though.

"It wasn't the potions, at least not completely. Your recovery, on the other hoof, has gone as well as I'd expected, considering how much better shape you were in to begin with."

I was back to full strength by now, too. Unfortunately, I was having the same problem as Rose: Neither of us had much stamina. I could heft some decent sized crates around, or carry Rose under my arm when she was tired, but more than a few minutes and I had to take a longer break than I would have liked. Rose? Well... She could use her magic for a minute or so before the headaches got too bad, and she could shove a full ammo box a few feet before her body gave out.

So, we were great for short-term stuff, but anything else would probably make us pass out. The doc said it was because of what we'd been through, the fighting, the chase and then the surgery, and that we'd be back to normal eventually.

"Well, it has to be something. It's not like excercise can do that to a mare." Rose blinked at me. "Uh, no offense, Rose. We're just wondering why you're healing so well." She raised her foreleg, looked at it, and shrugged before setting it back down.

"I don't know." Oh, now she was feeling chatty!

I rolled my eyes. "Well, what do you know?"

"I know we should stay inside and out of sight today."

"Why?"

"Caravan is coming through."

"Our Caravan?" Rose nodded to confirm my suspicion, and her mane went in her eyes. She shook her head to get it out of her face and fell over, just laying there on her bed. She must have had one of her headaches again.

"Doc..."

He sighed. "I understand, Ibis. You explained this last week, remember?" Not very clearly, since our reason for not wanting anyone to know where we were was pretty private, but I had explained. "I'll let the store know you're not coming in today. You two can stay here; Just keep out of the way and don't bother any of my other patients."

"Thanks, doc. We'll stay in bed, won't we, Rose?" I felt playful, so I gave her a wink. She stuck her tongue out at me and just lay there, one hoof twitching.

With a sigh, the doctor pulled the curtains around our bed shut and left us alone. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.

"You sure you're gonna be okay, Red?" I used my pet name for her. She nodded and lay there silently, just tapping her hoof. It got faster, then slower, and kept doing that through the day. At one point, I heard a familiar voice asking the doctor if he'd seen a grey griffin and a white mare. The tapping had gotten almost frantic at that point, but started slowing as I heard hoofsteps leave the clinic after the doc said he hadn't seen us in weeks, like I'd asked him to.

It was nighttime before she stopped tapping.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"How's your... thing... going?" Rose stared at me, not understanding the question. 'You know, your empath thing. I was wondering if you were having any trouble with it." It was a few days after the... incident, and we were back at work.

She shrugged and went back to sweeping. "Everything's... fuzzy. Even when Li-... when the caravan came through... it was hard to focus... Hurt my head." Rose hadn't said her former big sister's name since we'd arrived in town. That slip of the tongue was the closest she'd come.

"Don't worry, you'll be okay soon. I mean, you're still getting over some pretty major stuff." I grinned at her. "Would it help if I kissed you?" She ignored me, so I grabbed her in a huge hug and kissed her right on the cheek. "Better?" She still ignored me, her horn glowing with magic as she controlled the broom.

"Red? C'mon. I'm just playing with you."

"I know."

I frowned and let her go. "Something's up, isn't it."

"My head hurts, that's all."

With a sigh, I grabbed the broom and pulled it away, her magic vanishing with a barely audible fizzle. "That's it, you're taking a break, young lady." She snorted at me and went into the back room. I followed, and watched her hop onto a crate and lay down, hiding her face in her hooves. Softly, I walked over and stroked her mane. "Red... Rose... are you sure you're okay?"

"Hurts..." She sounded tired, worn out.

"Have a nice, long break, okay? I'll come get you when our shift is done."

"No... Wanna help big brother..."

I smiled and kissed her horn. "And your big brother says you have to rest, okay? Be a good pony and stay here?"

She nodded without taking her hooves from her face.

"Good girl." Rose could be such a little filly sometimes, but it was sweet. I was an only child, so having a little sister that looked up to me... That relied on me to take care of her... I really loved Rose, and it was in a different way than I used to. I'd still flirt sometimes, but it was usually play, rarely serious. I'd realized that, even though she had the body and mind of a mare, somewhere deep inside, she was still a frightened little filly in need of someone to protect her from the world while she grew up.

I was happy to be that someone.


The next month passed smoothly. We worked at the store, helped the doctor out in return for staying in the clinic, and even got in a few visits to a bar. You can imagine what the doc said when I came in late that first time, carrying a completely wasted Rose in my arms.

Basically? That we shouldn't have been drinking at all, and certainly not as much as we had. I didn't see the problem; we were almost back to normal. I'd been flying laps around the town each morning for over a week, with Rose trotting along below me. Sure, that meant flying slowly so she didn't get left behind, but I didn't mind.

---------------------------------------------------------------

I finished my shift in the afternoon and wandered over to the sheriff's office, waving to a few of the ponies I met on the way. Working in the store had meant I got to know most of the town fairly well, and got friendly greetings wherever I went. Even Rose was welcome anywhere in town, despite how shy she was. If anyone needed something fixed, they just asked her; Rose liked keeping her hooves busy, and we needed all the extra caps we could get.

Speaking of Rose... When I got into the sheriff's office, it was easy to spot her: She was repairing the sheriff's rifle, and had taken over the big, official looking desk in the center of the room to do it. The sheriff himself, an old blue buck, was dozing on a comfortable (and oddly intact) couch, his hat pulled over his face.

"I'm done for the day, Red. How are things here?" I leaned on the desk, watching her work. She was using her hooves again, since using magic for something so precise would have made her pass out in mere minutes; swapping parts, cleaning the mechanism and doing all the things the sheriff was too lazy to do. Didn't say much for the town's law enforcement if he couldn't be bothered keeping his gun working right.

"Lonestar hasn't fired this gun in months, Ibis. I'm going to ask him if I can have it when I'm done; Should take me maybe another hour or so." Lonestar was the sheriff's name. Sounded fake to me.

"What would you need a gun for, Red? We're safe here in town."

"I wanna leave. It feels like I'm being smothered, like the town is closing in around me... And the caravan will be back soon, as well." She hadn't taken her eyes off the gun since we'd started talking; It was a nice rifle, semi-automatic with a brass-inlay on the reciever, but no scope, just iron sights. Took .308 rounds, just like... Ah. Now I knew why she wanted it; It reminded her of her father's gun, which we'd left behind... Along with her duster, and everything she owned.

"If he doesn't give it to you, I'll buy it off him, okay?" I hugged her and she stopped working just long enough to hug me back.

"Thanks." Back to working on the gun, her little white hooves moving methodically. I never had, and never would, be able to understand how she manipulated things so well without fingers or digits of any kind. Ponies are wierd.

"How long? Until the caravan passes through, I mean." I leaned over her shoulder, watching her work, and breathed deeply. She smelled of gun oil, sand and something else... Was that perfume? Yeah, I think it was. Not very strong, but it was there. Smelled just like roses. "And I like your perfume."

She stopped messing with the gun and twisted to look at me. "Maybe a week and a half, if they're on schedule. And thanks." Aww, was that a blush I saw? Rose was so cute sometimes. Didn't really understand why she'd be wearing perfume at all, though. I knew she wasn't interested in anyone, so who was she trying to impress?


Turns out Lonestar was more than willing to part with the rifle. Only cost me 60 caps, too. The smile on Rose's face when I gave it to her was huge, and she actually kissed me! Just a small kiss, on the cheek, but it still made my heart soar.

We said our goodbyes and left at the end of the week to get a head start on the caravan. I didn't have a destination in mind, and Rose was simply following me, but we had enough supplies to last the better part of a month between us. So, we just walked.

---------------------------------------------------------------

BANG! With a spray of blood and brains that splattered my face, the crazed raider I was fighting dropped to the ground, the side of his head missing. Breathing heavily, I glanced around; That had been the last one. Sheathing my knife, I looked for the source of the shot: Rose.

There. She was on her hind legs, using the rifle like an earth pony would, with her back braced against a large boulder so she was steady. I wiped raider bits from my face and waved to her; She waved back and more-or-less collapsed with her new rifle leaning against her, ready in case anything else happened. I spread my wings and flew to her side to check on her. She had her eyes closed, and was groaning.

"You okay, Red?" I knelt beside her, cradling her head in my claws. She didn't open her eyes, just gave me a small nod.

"Tired... Head hurts... Shoulder, too..." Her shoulder was turning a nasty color where the rifle's stock had been pressed against it; The recoil had given her a bad bruise. I fished a healing potion out of my belt and made her drink it, only taking the bottle away when it was empty. The bruise started to fade, but a lot slower than I would have liked.

"Stay here, try and rest. I'll see if there's anything worth scavenging. Just... Don't move much, okay?" She nodded again and slumped back against her boulder. Days of walking had worn her out; maybe we should have stayed in town a little longer... No, Rose had wanted to leave, and we'd been well enough that the doc was willing to let us go. With a sigh, I went back to the raiders and starting searching their corpses.

Wierd. Every raider I'd seen in my life was a pony. Never a griffin, or a zebra, or anything else. Every last raider was a pony of some kind, like it was a disease or something they just passed around; Could you do that? Infect other people with insanity and stupid?

This bunch had been run-of-the-mill, drugged-up and wearing a hodge-podge of leather armor; some of it made from pony hide. I saw more than a few cutie marks, and not all of them were attached to their owners. The few guns they'd been carrying were as useless in a fight as the ponies themselves had been; Rusted and broken. One pistol was a pile of worthless scrap, having exploded and taken the muzzle of its wielder with it.

Worthless weapons, shitty armor, and an assortment of drugs that would probably kill me if I tried using them. There were some caps, but they were in a bag with a bloody, severed hoof. I threw the hoof and bag away, kept the caps. You don't survive in the wasteland for long if you're squeamish or sensitive. Someone tries to kill you, gut 'em and take their stuff. Survival of the fittest and all that shit.

Of course, being a predator helps. Claws and a beak will beat hooves and teeth every time. Having a deadeye mare at your back with a high-powered rifle is just the icing on the cake.


They'd ambushed us while were walking; screaming as they leapt out of covered holes in the ground, the few with guns trying to shoot us while the rest closed in, swinging pool cues and knives. Rose had crushed one raider's throat with her hoof and ran to the rock she was now leaning against (to get some distance), then opened fire with startling accuracy. Every time she fired, another raider fell with a hole in their head or chest. I'd thought she was good with her old bolt-action, but a semi-automatic rifle turned her into a murder machine. Of course, I hadn't bought a gun before we left, so I made do with my natural weapons. And my big fucking knife.

I wondered why Rose hadn't sensed the ambush for a moment, but one look told me she wasn't doing nearly as well as she made out. Her headaches had been getting worse since we left town a few days earlier, and she could barely use magic at all now. If her magic and her empathic abilites were connected, then it was no wonder she couldn't feel anything around us. Leaving behind the meager pickings, I went back to the rock and sat down against it. Rose crawled onto me, resting her head in my lap, and I started petting her.

"You sure you're okay? Tell me if you're not, I mean it." I scratched behind her ear and she sighed in pleasure.

"Can't think straight... Can't feel you properly... Head hurts too much..." So her magic and abilities were connected. I'd guessed right.

"Want some med-x?" She shuddered at my suggestion.

"No... Makes me feel wierd..." I kept petting her and she slowly sat up, putting her head on my chest. "I can hear your heart... It sounds... nice... You're... so... warm..." Her voice got soft, and her breathing deepened; She'd just fallen asleep while sitting up.

"You just rest, Rose. Big Brother will protect you." I whispered and kissed the top of her head. The only reaction I got was a small ear twitch; she was completely out of it.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Three months passed.

We'd avoided the caravan routes as much as we could, taking odd jobs in each town we passed through, only staying for a few days at most before moving on again. Work consisted of both of us helping in stores, and I could usually earn some extra caps as a bouncer in bars or saloons. Rose kept herself busy repairing things for people, and she picked up a bit of a reputation for quality work. More than once, a pony would come into wherever we were working and ask for the red maned mare instead of buying anything from the store. To keep things friendly, we bought replacement parts for whatever needed fixing from our employers; that way, everyone made money.

It was the end of the day and I was closing up; Our boss trusted us enough to leave us alone in the afternoon. Rose was sitting on a crate, counting her caps.

"Rose, what're you doing?" I stepped over to her; Why couldn't she sit on the floor or at the counter or something? Always had to be on a crate or table. It couldn't have been comfortable or good for her butt.

"Dividing my pay." Rose always did that, and gave me a share. I just didn't see her do it, since I was so busy most of the time.

"I can see that. But why three piles?" She blinked at me, confused.

"I... I don't know... I always do it like this..." Her ears lowered and she shook her head. "Some for me, some for you, some for... For..." She hopped off her crate and went into the back room, emerging a second later with a little canvas bag in her mouth, then jumped back onto her crate and put it down. It jangled a little. "I put them in this bag, but I don't... I don't know why..." Tears started to well up in her eyes. "Ibis... why do I keep putting them in the bag? I... I don't understand... It feels like I should give it to someone, but I don't know who!"

I hugged her, making soft, comforting noises. "Shh. It's alright, Red. You used to do this with... with Lily, remember? Is that who you want to give the bag to?" I felt a flash of anger when I said the name; We didn't talk about her, didn't speak about the bitch that had hurt Rose like that.

"Lily...?" She shook her head. "I... I can't remember.... my head hurts..." I felt a warm dampness on my chest; she was crying. "It hurts so much..." Wrapping my arms and wings around her, I held her as tightly as I could as the sun set outside, light fading into darkness and shadow. Our boss came in, took one look at us and went into his office without saying a word as Rose sobbed quietly. Night fell, and still I held onto my precious flower. Eventually she quieted, sleeping, and I carried her into the back room, laying her out on the crate she liked to rest on during the day.


I knocked on the boss's office door quietly and went in. "Sorry about that, boss. Red was exhausted."

"'s okay, Ibis. She sleepin'?"

"Yeah. I think we'll be moving on again in a couple of days, if that's alright with you."

"'s fine." He waved a hoof at me dismissively. "You and your sister have been a great help, you'll always be welcome to stay here, long as you like. Sure you won't stay? You two are getting pretty popular; you'll be missed if you go."

I smiled sadly. "I'm sure. Red doesn't like to stay anywhere too long, but thanks for the offer."

I went back into the store proper and looked at the canvas bag... Hesitantly, I opened it: There was a good amount of caps inside, almost half of what she'd earned in the past few months. Rose couldn't even remember Lily, had blocked out all memories of her, but still put aside most of her money for her undeserving big sister, like she always had.

Hatred washed over me and I dug my talons into the bag, about to tear it apart, only to stop. Destroying it wouldn't change anything, and it would just upset Rose. No. Lily might not care about Rose, but I did, and there's no way I'd do anything to hurt her. Sighing, I scooped up the pile of caps Rose had set aside and dropped them into the bag, the small pieces of metal clinking together. If my little sister needed to do this, put aside money for someone she couldn't even remember, then who was I to stop her?

When I entered the storeroom, I saw that Rose had curled into a ball and was shivering. Dropping the canvas bag next to my pack, I climbed onto the crate with her, putting my wing over her protectively. She was cold against my side, shaking like a leaf.

By now I'd fully recovered, but Rose was still fragile. Firing her rifle quickly still left bruises, and getting upset or pushing herself too much left her worn out and weak. She couldn't use magic at all now, either. I pulled her close to my chest so she could hear the beating of my heart, and the trembling stopped. Letting her know I was there was the easiest way to calm her down; She depended on me for so much. I was the one that found us work, led the way to the next town, bought our supplies and prepared our meals. I'd become so used to being her big brother that I didn't even think about it anymore.

Her body started to warm up and I rested my head on hers. Her coat was a little rough, but we had been travelling a lot, so it wasn't surprising. I decided that, as soon as we could, we'd get a room in a nice hotel and I'd give her a proper bath. Maybe I could even find some soap in a store somewhere, then I could pamper her properly! Grinning at the thought, I kissed her cheek. Her perfume sent a shiver up my spine; where had she found that stuff, and why did she like wearing it so much? Was she trying to be grown up or something?

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Here you go, kid. I packed you some extra ammo and food." Our boss tucked a pouch into Roses's saddlebag. She blinked at him. "Ibis, look after your sister and come back soon, you hear? Pretty little thing like her, town won't be the same when you're gone."

"I'll take good care of her. Thanks for everything, boss." We waved and started walking. I stretched my wings but didn't take to the air, since Rose wouldn't have liked being left alone on the ground without a good reason. And I wasn't gonna suggest carrying her, since she was afraid of heights.


That night, we had a simple meal of pre-war stuff. Some kind of goop that, according to the box, was made of dehydrated potatoes. Tasted like dirt to me, even after we added the water and mixed it up like the box said. A snack cake each for dessert and some sparkle cola to wash it all down. I was wondering how fast I could find a radhog and get some real food when Rose poked me. "Ibis?"

"Huh? Something up?"

"Do you think I'm pretty?"

"Wha-? Is this about what the boss said before we left?"

"I just wanna know if you think I'm pretty. No reason." She shrugged and turned away.

I grabbed her and pulled her into my lap, flipping her onto her back so I could tickle her white belly. She squeaked and started squirming. "No, you're not pretty." Her ears drooped and she stopped struggling. "You're beautiful." I gave her a kiss on the mouth, but didn't slip her any tongue; she was just worried about how she looked, and I wasn't gonna take advantage of that. When I pulled my head back, she was dazed, her cheeks bright red. I smiled at her and rubbed her chest playfully. "You're the most beautiful mare in the wasteland, Rose. Never forget that."

She smiled up at me. "Thanks, Ibis... Can I ask you a... private question?"

"Anything you want, sis."

"Do you... Have anyone special?" The fuck? Where the fuck did that come from?

"W-what do you mean?"

"Do you love anyone?" Oh, awkward.

"I... guess I love... you." Why was I hesitating? I loved her with every fibre of my being, dammit! As both a little sister and, hopefully, one day, my mare. Why was admitting it to her so hard?!

"You.. guess... you love me?" She blinked, confused.

"Alright, fine. I love you, Rose. You already knew that! It's not like I ever tried to keep it a secret!" I glared at her and she giggled, happy I'd finally admitted it to her face. She'd known all along, and I knew that she knew, but saying it out loud like that, in front of her? Totally different from both of us knowing it without saying a word to the other. Made me feel like... like we were starting to have a proper relationship, instead of just brother/sister or really good friends.

"I love you, too." She sat up and threw her forelegs around my neck. "I'll stay with you forever, Ibis. Promise."

I hugged her back, not sure what to say. We sat there in comfortable silence, just holding each other as the night grew late and our campfire died.


We hadn't had proper food for months. Prewar stuff, withered fruit and vegetables when we could afford it and the odd bit of preserved meat, but nothing fresh enough to satisfy me. I'm a griffin, okay? We're predators. A beak full of fresh meat beats reconstituted potato goop every time, and that's why I went hunting the next afternoon.

I soared a little higher and got ready to dive on my prey; a good sized radhog that was blissfully unaware of my hungry gaze. The pre-war food had been alright (I'm lying. It was shit.), but tonight we'd be eating actual meat! Narrowing my eyes to focus on the tasty looking treat, I snapped my wings almost closed and went in for the kill.

It screamed when I struck, but a quick application of my claws put a stop to that, and then it was just a matter of getting it back to camp.

Rose blinked when I dropped our meal in front of her. "You managed to catch something?"

I rolled my eyes at her. "No, it fell out of a tree."

"It climbed a tree? I'm impressed."

"I was being sarcastic."

"So was I." She went back to checking her ammo supply, inspecting each bullet carefully before loading it into a magazine. All that maintenance was the reason I preferred my knife; quick, easy and deadly. I could shoot as well as the next griffin when I had to, of course. It's something you've gotta learn, growing up in the wasteland.

Having a mother that's a retired mercenary just meant I learned it quicker and earlier than most, that's all...

Except for Rose; She'd had a rifle in her hands... Hooves? Mouth? since she'd been a filly, and had apparently killed the raiders responsible for destroying her life without hesitating... Come to think of it, Rose never did seem to hesitate when it came to killing...

I shuddered, distracted for a second from preparing our meal, bloody knife hanging loosely from my claws. Did she even have a conscience? Even I felt bad for killing sometimes; when raiders were obviously just poor ponies (again, they always seemed to be ponies!) trying to feed their families, or when some slaving piece of shit begged for their lives, claiming to have kids. Felt bad while I killed them, but didn't let it bother me. It was always them or me.

The first and only time I hesitated in a fight, I almost died; I was a kid, fighting with another griffin, and he was bigger and older than me. I'd managed to knock him down and was about to tear his throat out, when I realized that I was about to kill someone I'd known most of my life. We'd been enemies our whole lives, but still, I'd known him for so long... That hesitation gave him the chance to claw at my stomach, and the pain made up my mind for me. He died, I lived. That's how it is in the wasteland.

But Rose... I shook my head and went back to prepping the meat. She never hesitated to pull the trigger, never seemed concerned when she took a life. Once that gun came out, her target was as good as dead. She never shot to wound or cripple, even when she could have done it easily, instead making death as quick and painless as possible. A ruthless, merciless killer who didn't let her victim suffer...


Ah, forget it. Leave the frustrating moral problems and self-doubt to someone else, like a little grey unicorn or something... Rose made a wierd noise and gave herself a shake, staring at me intently. "What?"

"What did you just do?"

"What do you mean?"

"You did something."

"I'm just getting dinner ready, that's all!" I raised my claws and showed her the knife; It would need a good cleaning after this. "I swear I didn't do anything!"

"Don't do it again. Whatever you did." She kept glaring at me.

"Okay! I won't do... whatever I did! Just quit looking at me like that!" When Rose turned back to her bullets, I sighed in relief...

Wait... why the hell had a little grey unicorn popped into my head when I thought about moral angst and self-doubt? Fuck, Rose is glaring at me again. Scary.


"Hope you like it medium-rare!" I carved a hunk of meat from the radhog, which was spinning above our campfire on a spit, and put it on a tin plate for my waiting mare. Rose nodded eagerly; she'd been drooling since I'd started cooking it, and the smell was getting to me, too. I set the plate on the ground in front of her and realised for the first time, as she lifted the hot chunk of meat in her hooves and tore into it, just how wierd it was for ponies to eat meat.

"I thought ponies ate, y'know, grass and shit. But you're enjoying that a hell of a lot, Red." I cut myself a chunk of meat and bit into it. HOT! I fanned my mouth and looked for our canteens... There! Rose chuckled through her mouthful of (damn hot! why wasn't she bothered?!) radhog and kept chewing away while I cooled my burnt tongue.

"It's hot, Ibis. Be careful."

"No. Shit." My glare would have sent a lesser pony scurrying in fear, but Rose just shrugged and kept gnawing on her meal.

"Ish tashty."

"Huh?"

She swallowed her mouthful before answering again. Little miss manners. "Meat is tasty, full of protein and just plain good for you. Why wouldn't I enjoy it?"

"Cause you're a pony! Aren't you meant to eat grass and stuff?" I made sure my food was cool enough and tore into it with my beak. Oh, it was so good! After so long with prewar crap and 'Pony Food' it was great to have a proper meal. When Rose looked away, I followed her gaze to the brown, scrubby grass that was everywhere in the wasteland. Hell, I'd seen proper deserts that had the stuff; Not much, but if you knew where to look, it'd be there. Around here? I wouldn't call it a desert; More like a shit-hole. Plenty of grass, the odd twisted tree, and even a pond or river every now and again. Nothing you could drink, at least not without some rad-x or rad-away, but it was still water.

"I guess so. Before the war, ponies didn't eat meat at all." She shrugged. "Their loss. Grass tastes like dirt, and I like something with substance in my diet. Oh, we can survive well enough on a herbivorous diet; it's what our bodies are meant for, after all. But what sane pony would pass up something that tastes so good?" She raised the rapidly cooling meat in her hooves and grinned at me, then started devouring it.

I laughed. "You ponies are so wierd sometimes, you know that?" She blinked at me instead of answering; Her mouth was way too busy for her to speak. "Yep, wierd little ponies." I smiled at her. "But you're my kind of wierd, so it's okay." Another blink turned my smile into a proper grin. Nice to see my mare enjoyed the finer things in life. And now that she'd had something good to eat, she was looking a hell of a lot better.


We carved and wrapped the leftover meat before settling down for the night. It would keep us well fed for the next few days, and maybe bring some caps if we bumped into any travelling traders or caravans. Fresh food is always in demand, after all.


Rose yawned and snuggled closer to me, resting her head on my arm. I smiled and watched her blink sleepily, those grey eyes shining in the firelight. "You look a lot better now, Red. Guess you just needed a proper meal to get you back on your hooves." She nodded slowly and looked up at me, her eyes half-closed, giving me the most angelic smile I'd ever seen. It was so innocent, so pure and trusting, I thought my heart was going to melt. There was nothing on her face but adoration for me, and I pulled her into a deep, loving kiss. We were both breathless when we parted, and we held each other, sharing soft kisses, well into the night. We didn't have sex; there was no need. Our gentle kisses and loving caresses said far more than even the most passionate lovemaking could ever have expressed, and I couldn't bring myself to rob my delicate little mare of her innocence on that heavenly night.

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Movement beside me, then stillness. Slowly, I woke up and looked around, just spotting a crimson tail as it vanished into a thick patch of bushes near our campsite. Taking care of business, no doubt. Content to lay where I was, I stretched and enjoyed the memories from our cuddling the night before, closing my eyes to relive each tender moment, each whispered word. We'd kept things simple, not getting too intimate or sexual (you couldn't even call it heavy petting), but it had been amazing nonetheless. The way she trembled when I ran my claws down her spine, the little whimpers as I caressed her soft flank and played with her tail. Her hooves around my shoulders, that cute muzzle pressed into my neck to muffle her squeaks of pleasure, the warmth of her breath on my chest. I smiled to myself. It had been a wonderful night, one I'd remember for the rest of my life.


"Oof!" Something heavy dropped onto my chest and I opened my eyes again. Right in front of my beak was a cute white face, and we stared at each other. "Rose, what are you doing?" It looked like she was thinking really hard.

"Thinking."

"About..." I prompted her.

"Last night."

"I was thinking about last night, too." I tried to kiss her, but she pulled back, looking nervous. I frowned. "What's wrong?"

"I... We..." She sighed. "It's nothing."

"It's not nothing, Red. C'mon, tell me."

"Okay... I'm all... twitchy... I liked it when you touched me, and I wanted you to... touch... other places... but..." She paused for a second. "But I'm... twitchy, like I wanna run away..." Rose looked so adorable when she was confused. I smiled and rubbed between her ears.

"You're just scared, that's all. I'm the first guy you've ever been near like this, aren't I?"

She nodded, eyes half-closed with pleasure, loving getting her head scratched.

"It's okay to be scared or nervous, Red. How about this, we'll take it slow, go at your pace, and see where we end up. Sound good?"

She smiled and nodded again. "Sounds... good. I love you, Ibis."

"And I love you, Rose." This time, she didn't pull away from my kiss.


It struck me how similar Rose was to the flower she was named after. It took a lot of care and love before either one could bloom into a beautiful flower, but all the time and effort would be well worth it. The same could be said of our relationship. It had taken months to get this far, but every day we spent together deepened our bond and brought Rose further out of her shell. No matter how long it took, I'd stay with her, nurture her, and protect her.

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"This was a terrible idea." A few days later, we were making our way through a swamp, and had taken a break so I could get my bearings. "We should have gone around." I swallowed; There was a metallic tasting film on the inside of my mouth, a sure sign we were getting exposed to radiation. Rose was having a staring contest with the biggest frog I'd ever seen; It was bigger than her head!

She didn't look away from the mutant frog (I got the feeling they were sizing each other up) but still answered. "You said it would take too long. Remember?"

"A few days longer; and it would have been better than radiation poisoning!"

"We have Rad-Away, don't we?" The frog croaked at her, and they each took a step (or hop) closer, closing the gap between them.

"Yeah, but-"

"And we've both taken Rad-X, right?" The gap got smaller, but neither one blinked or looked away.

"Of course-"

"Then there's no problem." The frog leapt at her, its mouth wide open (The teeth on that thing! It was like a bear trap!) and Rose reared up, then brought both front hooves down on it. Hard. SPLAT! It popped, coating her forelegs in... It was disgusting, let's just say that. "We move quickly, don't stop unless we have to, and we get out as soon as we can."

I stared at her in disgust as she washed her legs in one of the pools of murky water. "Rose, you have some major issues. You do know that, right?"

"That's beside the point, Ibis." She blinked at me. "We should get moving. There are more frogs." With one hoof, she indicated the thick, murky bog her former nemesis had popped out of. I shuddered when something warty and greenish-black moved; it looked larger than a hellhound. There were other frogs, too, now that I took a proper look. They were in the mud, on the trees, just watching us hungrily. At least there weren't many of the big ones.

We set off again, watching our backs in case the slimy horde decided to follow us. They didn't. They did start eating the dead one, though. Yuck.


By my best bet, it was late evening when we found the cave. Hard to tell, because between the thick canopy and the rain that had started up, there was almost no light this deep in the swamp. We'd had to bring out our lamps to avoid falling into the countless stagnant pools that made up the swamp, and a dry cave seemed like paradise after the dank, insect infested hellhole we'd been trudging through for hours. Even the pair of feral ghoul ponies wandering around outside hadn't deterred us; finding a place to rest was more important than avoiding a fight. Not that it was much of a fight. Rose brought the jerky-ponies down with two shots, and I threw them into the undergrowth. Let the frogs eat them, if they could.


I whistled and played my light along the cave walls; it went further back than I could see, sloping quickly downwards. "This place is impressive, alright. Feels... important... for some reason." I looked at Rose and she nodded.

"Yeah... Like there's something here, hidden... Wanna search?" She started trotting in place, eager to explore.

"First, let's see that shoulder." She groaned and calmed down so I could examine her. There was a small bruise, but nothing major. Must've been tender, though, because she bit me when I poked it. "OW! Rose, leggo! OW!! That hurts!"

Looking ashamed, she let my claw go. I rubbed it and glared at her. "Well, at least you've got your strength back." My glare softened into a smile. "In fact, I think you're even stronger than you used to be. Come here, I want to check you out properly." She shivered as I ran my claws over her body, giving her a once over. The past few days had done wonders for her. She was happy and well fed, and it showed. Her muscles finally had their old strength back, and she could walk and talk all day if she had to. I checked her hooves, to make sure she hadn't hurt them or gotten something stuck in them, then her legs to be sure they weren't swollen after slogging through knee-deep water most of the day. She cooed when I rubbed her shoulders and sides, then squeaked as I gave her sodden, tangled tail a tug, trying to get some of the gunk out of it. Okay, I was also messing with her, but just a little. She liked having her tail played with, and I was feeling flirty now that we were out of the rain.

"IBIS!" Rose glared at me, her cheeks bright red, and I laughed.

"Your tail's a mess, Red. So's your mane. Want me to brush them for you?" I gave her my most innocent smile. She wasn't fooled.

With a snort, she pulled away from me and sat down out of my reach. "I can do that myself, thank you." She used her hooves to start pulling swamp crap from her mane and tail, throwing it at me. I laughed and hopped out of range until she'd cleaned herself off. Her mane and tail were, if not clean, then cleaner, but she just sat there, sullenly staring at the wall and ignoring me.

With a sigh, I sat beside her and put my arm around her shoulders. "Sorry, Red. Too far, too fast?"

She rested her head against me. "No... I just... didn't expect it, that's all... I like it when you do that, but..."

"It makes you feel 'twitchy', right?"

She gave a little nod, and turned so she could smile at me. "Yeah... a little... But I still like it."

"Want me to do it again?"

"No... Not right now... I wanna explore, see what's in here." I laughed; there was no way I could turn down that eager face.

"Okay, but we'll eat first, then explore, okay?"

She nodded eagerly and I laughed again, thinking to myself how interesting the night was going to be. I didn't realize it then, but it was going to be a lot more interesting than I'd bargained for.


FOOTNOTE: 25% PROGRESS TO NEXT LEVEL




A/N: This chapter was gonna be longer, but I decided to split it up into a couple of parts. Can anyone guess what's going to happen next?

Thanks to KKat for creating the awesome FoE world, to Winter Storm for being a huge help, and to everyone that's been reading so far! You guys are AWESOME!