• Published 12th Sep 2017
  • 1,368 Views, 92 Comments

The Great Equestrian Gamble - kudzuhaiku

Boxcars crosses the breadth of the world to reach the promised land.

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Chapter 4

Breakfast was a thick, hearty oatmeal filled with chewy bits of stewed fruit. Boxcars awoke feeling mostly fine, but the condition of her brother made her worry, despite Bertie’s near-constant reassurances. Sitting at the table, Boxcars watched as Bertie patiently spooned in bite after bite of the nourishing oatmeal, and her brother’s ears bobbed as he chewed up the rubbery fruit-bits.

Across the table, Cactus was reading a newspaper, and when Boxcars turned to look at him, she was hit by a powerful wave of memory, an incoming tide from an almost forgotten time. Her father too, read the paper at breakfast, and her mother was always chiding him that he needed to eat. At some point, the chiding and the scolding would become too much, and her father would rise from his chair, sweep up her mother into a tender embrace, and dance with her around the room.

The incoming tide caused Boxcar’s vision to blur over—everything in the room around her became rather fuzzy—and some of the waves went rolling down her cheeks in the form of salty tears. Each breath became a struggle as the tidal surge of emotions held inside threatened to escape. Pressing her front hooves together on the table in front of her, Boxcars did everything within her power to hold it all together.

Just as it was starting to become entirely overwhelming, Domino belched and dribbled oatmeal down his chin. Boxcars stared at her sibling in stunned shock, watching as his ears raised and lowered in concern, and she heard Bertie say, “Domino, do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“More please?” the colt replied and he tapped his front hooves against the table’s edge.

“Why, you cheeky little blighter…” Using the spoon, Bertie scraped oatmeal from Domino’s chin while shaking her head from side to side. “At least you said please. Here in Equestria, we say, ‘excuse me’ after we let rip like that. At least, we civilised ones do. Cactus over there still hasn’t figured it out just yet, but in his defense he grew up on the prairie.”

“I take long walks through the sewer, so a little burp now and then is the least of my sins,” Cactus remarked from behind his paper.

So overwhelmed by everything was Boxcars that she didn’t have it in her to be sad. She sat in her chair with damp cheeks, almost amused by her brother’s antics, curious about life on the prairie, and reminiscing because of Bertie’s strong Grittish accent. Her father’s accent was strong, and her mother, having grown up around the Grittish, had a pronounced—but also clipped—accent.

“You’re cute as a button,” Bertie said to Domino. She began spooning more oatmeal into the colt and Boxcars watched in silence as somepony showed her little brother some much needed kindness. “Are you feeling a little better now that you’ve eaten a little?”

The colt nodded, but couldn’t say anything because Bertie stuck a spoonful of oatmeal and fruit into his mouth. Now with his cheeks bulging, the little yearling sat there chewing and smacking his lips all while looking at Bertie with outright adoration. Boxcars felt a strange pang, a lurch in her stomach when she realised that her brother’s heart would be broken when the inevitable separation from these two kind strangers would happen—and it most certainly would happen. It would be just the two of them once more and she would be stuck mending his broken—if not outright crushed—heart. It was rare for her brother to open up to anypony and to see how he was with Bertie…

More tears fell and Boxcars heard a faint plop when one hit the table.

“When we get done here you’re going to need a bath—”

“No!” This single word of protest was accompanied by a considerable dribble of oatmeal that ran down Domino’s chin and onto his barrel, further facilitating the need for a bath.


“But yesterday—”

“Shush and don’t be cheeky. We want to keep you clean and tidy and I can’t have you turning out like Cactus. He’s a scruffian, he is. Been up for an hour or two and hasn’t showered. What a manky git.” When there was a sigh from behind the newspaper, Bertie turned to look in that direction, but not a word was spoken. Returning her attention to Domino, she began to chuckle, which made the many ringlets in her mane bounce.

Smiling a little, Boxcars wiped her eyes and wondered what the day would bring.

The map on the wall now had more pins in it. Boxcars watched with interest as Bertie studied the map, but she also watched her brother, who was wrapped up in a blanket and sleeping on the couch. He looked a little sweaty, but Bertie insisted that he would be fine, and Boxcars wanted to believe her.

Cactus returned to the room from elsewhere and passed Bertie a heavy paper envelope. Sitting on the floor beside Bertie, Boxcars watched as the mare pulled open the envelope and began reading. After a little while, she pushed more pins into the map, little pins with bright red heads. Looking at the map, something didn’t seem right.

“That’s Equestria, right?” Boxcars asked.

“Yes,” Bertie replied in a muted voice so that Domino would not be disturbed. “That’s Fillydelphia, to the north of us. The disease is spreading, it seems.”

“How?” This was as intriguing as it was scary.

“Some pegasus ponies might have flown off of the ship when it was close to Equestria, and they might have flown to Fillydelphia. We don’t know yet, but the hospital reports say the patients are pegasus ponies, so it is a good guess. It is difficult to keep disease contained when there are flying ponies that can go anywhere.”

“What are they sick with?”

“We don’t know yet.” The sound of distress could be heard in Bertie’s voice, as well as frustration. “Right now, your blood is being studied and we’re trying to figure out why you and your brother aren’t dead. I don’t mean to scare you, or disturb you, Boxcars, but this disease, whatever it is, is downright cruel to the very young and the elderly.”

Boxcars felt a soft touch when Cactus sat down beside her and then he pulled her close. “Little lady, we might need to get more blood from you, if that’s okay. We might need a lot of blood, to be honest, and if you gave it to us, you might just end up being a hero.”

“Cactus, we discussed this—”

“How could I be a hero?” Boxcars asked, cutting Bertie off mid-sentence.

“You’re a very lucky filly,” Cactus said in a gentle whisper that made Boxcar’s ears twitch. “You might just be the luckiest filly I know. You and your brother, you’re getting better, or so I reckon, which means you’ve fought a mighty, mighty battle inside of your body. Your blood, in order to win this battle, it had to make soldiers… it had to make an army to fight off the invaders that would do you harm… do you understand?”

Boxcars nodded, but she understood very little and it sounded like make-believe.

“Well,” Cactus continued, “if we take more blood from you, those soldiers that won the battle inside your body could help us out… we might be able to take those soldiers and make more of them, so that they can help other sick ponies. We don’t know yet, but we should know soon. Now Bertie here, Bertie likes to play it safe, and she didn’t want to talk to you until we knew for certain, because she was worried about you feeling bad if you didn’t have what we needed… I myself, I see a plucky little scrapper when I look at you, so I think you’ll be fine.”

“I want to help,” Boxcars said and she pushed herself up against Cactus.

“Of course you do, because you’re a good filly.” While Cactus spoke, Bertie pushed in another pin and let out a sigh. “In fact, Boxcars, because you are such a lucky filly, your blood might be able to help us fight other diseases—”

“Cactus, that’s just speculation.” Holding up a pin, Bertie threatened her husband with it. “Stop that. Right now, she needs time to recover and get better. I know you feel excited about this, but now is not the time.”

“Fine, Bertie, you buzzkill.”

Curious, Boxcars turned her head and looked up at Bertie, who was still waving a pin at her husband. The mare looked down while the filly looked up, and the two of them had a silent exchange where Boxcars expressed her inquisitive interest in the subject. After a bit of staring, it was Bertie who broke first and turned away. Boxcars blinked in victory as Cactus let out a soft chuckle and Bertie made a dismissive wave at her husband with her hoof.

Somewhere, a distant bell rang, which caused her brother to bolt awake with a snort.

“Oh look, Hearth’s Warming came early this year!” cried Cactus as he came barreling back into the room bearing boxes wrapped in strange, shiny, beautiful paper and tied up with fancy bows. “Our brethren and sistren came up from out of the sewers and into a department store to fetch these. What noble sacrifice—”

“Shut your gob, Cactus, some of us like shopping!” In the same breath she added, “Ooh, pretty! I wonder who did the wrapping and the bows!”

“Okay, this one is for the little colt.” Cactus held out the box to Domino, who just blinked at it with in a half-awake stupefied stare. “The tag even says it is from the Rat Catcher’s Guild. What a lovely bit of advertising. Now go on, take it.”

“What do I do with it?” Domino asked while he tried to blink away the sleepy from his eyes.

“Why, you tear off the paper and open it!” Cactus replied.

“No.” The colt shook his head. “Too pretty. Too nice.”

“Oh, come now,” Bertie said as she tried to coax Domino into opening the box. “You won’t get in trouble. This is an Equestrian tradition and as somepony from another country, I find it just marvellous. Cactus here gave me my first Hearth’s Warming present, because he’s a sap about this sorta stuff. Only as I recall, he wrapped it up in newspaper.”

“I wasn’t made of money!” Cactus whined while he gave his wife a sour look.

“The paper is expensive?” Boxcars asked.

This made Cactus and Bertie both pause, and the pair of them both turned to look at Boxcars. A threeway glance was exchanged, and afterward, it was Cactus who glanced at the pretty packages while his ears twitched. Domino sat on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, staring at the pair of boxes, that is until he yawned so hard that his tongue lolled out.

“If the paper is expensive it shouldn’t be ruined.” Standing on the floor and looking up at the presents, Boxcars shook her head in disapproval in very much the same way as she would do to her brother.

Ignoring Boxcars completely, Bertie sat down on the couch beside Domino and set the box down in front of him. The box was almost as big as the colt was and the big white and blue ribbon threatened to tickle his nose with how close it was. The mare wrapped one foreleg around the yearling colt, pulled him close, and then she had this to say:

“It isn’t about the money or the cost. It is about how much we appreciate and love one another. This represents one of Equestria’s finest traditions and it is a reminder of our unity, which has made us the great nation that we are. This is why you came here, isn’t it? This is why I came here. The Founders of Equestria, they came here too, which makes most of us immigrants. Being from different cultures, and backgrounds, and nations, many of us squabble and bicker a bit, but then Hearth’s Warming comes along to remind us of unity and what makes us great.”

“Equestria just had itself a bit of a falling apart,” Cactus said as he sat down on the floor beside Boxcars and pulled her close. “There was a real jerk and he was rather successful, at least he seemed to have the upper hoof at first. For a moment, it seemed as though our great nation was about to topple over, but now, as we Equestrians remember the lessons from our past, we’re coming back together stronger than ever. Every year, Hearth’s Warming serves as a time for us to re-establish our unity… to re-affirm it. Every year, in the dead of winter, when things are bleak and dull, we all come together and remind one another of how we survive the winter in the first place.”

“Yes… so during this bleak time of quarantine, Cactus and I would like to share our traditions with you. We want you to have fond memories of this time, so that way, you too will share in this great Equestrian ideal. One day, you’ll be all grown up and you’ll remember all of this and maybe you’ll be able to pass it along.” Bertie leaned down and kissed Domino on the top of his head and Boxcars saw her brother shiver at the kind mare’s touch.

“Help me open it,” Domino asked.

Smiling, Bertie looked down at the colt wrapped up in a blanket beside her. “You want a little help?”

Without realising that she was doing it, Boxcars pressed up against Cactus while watching her brother open up his gift. He just sat there with an odd look upon his face while Bertie began tugging on the ribbons tied around the box. The magnificent bow came undone and the paper was dealt with next. It was peeled away with great care—somehow it wasn’t torn—and a brown box was revealed. The top flaps of the box were opened, and from inside the box, something strange was pulled out.

“Oh look, it’s a penguin!” Bertie cried as she pressed the toy up against Domino, who seemed rather freaked out about it. “It’s a penguin stuffy and look! He has a monocle! He’s a posh penguin, he is.”

“What do I do with him?” Domino asked.

Bertie now seemed flabbergasted. She sat there with her mouth hanging open, trying to come up with some response, and after a few failed attempts she managed to say, “Why, you have adventures with him. You play with him. It’s great fun to play pretend and he’ll be your friend and at the end of the day you can snuggle with him because he’s all soft and plush.”

“I snuggle with my sister and she talks to me,” Domino replied.

Undaunted, Bertie searched the box and pulled out two more items. “Oh look, he has a top hat and a pith helmet. He’s a very posh penguin indeed. Here, hang on to him and give him a hug.”

Domino didn’t seem impressed, but he dutifully embraced the stuffed toy and held onto it while Bertie hugged him. Boxcars began to snuffle a bit, she didn’t know why, but at this moment she was just as confused as she was happy. The penguin was almost as big as her brother, and she had no idea what to do with it—it would be something that would have to be dragged around as they went from place to place, looking for work and shelter.

“Hey, look, you have a present too,” Cactus said to Boxcars. “Go on, open it up.”

In a moment that felt far too awkward to be pleasant, Boxcars went to work on the package. Using her telekinesis, she pulled away the ribbons and then began to study the box. The paper was held in place by some kind of see through sticky ribbon, which was difficult to pull away and it tore the paper just a tiny bit when she tugged at it. She persisted though, and soon enough, the paper was peeled away, revealing a box inside.

With care, she sat it down on the floor in front of her and saw a pretty picture on the top of the box, but she didn’t know what it was, so she had to ask, “What is it?” She guessed it was the two great princesses, but the box and it’s contents baffled her.

“That is Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, the Royal Pony Sisters. This is a picture puzzle… it’s like a picture that is broken into a bunch of little pieces and you have to put it together. It’s fun, if you like puzzles, and it keeps you busy.” Cactus slipped a foreleg over Boxcar’s withers and gave her a quick hug. “We can put the puzzle together and drink hot cocoa, it’ll be a good time in this boring place.”

“What do I do with it?” Boxcars asked.

“Like I said, you put it together—”

“No…” Boxcars felt bad for interrupting, but she had to make herself clearer. “What do I do with it? How do I carry it with me when I leave this place? For that matter, how are my brother and I to take care of this penguin? These things will only slow me down when I go looking for work.”

When she was lifted from the floor, Boxcars was quite startled and she was pulled into Cactus’ near-crushing embrace. She began to panic, being so close and so entwined with him, and squirmed to get away, but her efforts seemed futile. The panic gained strength, until it was almost overwhelming, and then Boxcars thought about her father. How long had it been since she was comforted? Since she had been loved? These things were a distant memory—safe stallions that meant her no harm were a distant memory—and she longed for a return to those happier days.

With a sob, she went limp, wriggled till she twisted about, and somehow managed to get her forelegs around Cactus’ broad neck. She clung to him, overwhelmed, and he redoubled his grip around her. As she bawled from the pain that overwhelmed her, this moment, this precious moment of safety and trust meant more than presents wrapped in pretty paper and tied with ribbons.

Feeling safe once more was the greatest gift of all, and it had been too long since she had felt it last.

Author's Note:

One final chapter to go...

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