• Published 27th Mar 2019
  • 1,327 Views, 195 Comments

Five Score – A Prench Tale Vol.1 - Alsey



Getting a cutie mark for my birthday was already strange enough, but what will I do now that my body has suddenly decided to take a Prench leave..?

  • ...
6
 195
 1,327

9 – Bumps in the Road

Sweetchard's View

“Okay, give me a minute... Barista, badger... Botswana, and... uh... oh, boxing, of course..!”

“Eh, of course...”, I smirk. “So what's your letter?”

Rafale has clearly some trouble focusing, but she still refuses to try and get some sleep. At least our little game is good at stopping her from grumbling about the night's incident.

“Let's say... 'P'?”

“I already did that one.”, Crispy points out gently.

“Ah, sorry... 'V', then..?”

“Mmh...” She taps a forehoof against her chin, deep in thought. It's funny how her hooves have these narrow stripes, a bit like a barcode; at first I thought the walls were dirty or damaged, but no, they're supposed to look like that. There's so many little details like this that keep making her look cuter and cuter: the small lighter patches on her lips and nose, and the border of her eyes, which offer an interesting contrast with the constellation of darker spots on her whole coat, especially on her legs, to the point it's almost like—

“Sweety..? Not that it isn't flattering, but it's your turn!”, my mare giggles.

Oops, zoned out for a bit here... But I have the perfect answer: “What can I say? It's hard to not get lost in such a lovely view...”, I tell her with a sly smile, and it makes her blush oh-so deliciously!

“Beware Crispy,” a tired Amber jeers, “it's a real playcolt you got yourself here..!”

“I only have eyes for one mare!”, I protest with mock outrage.

“Yeah, yeah, that's why you kept ogling me every chance you got, right..?”

“Did not! Why is it that, just because I'm a dashing stallion in his prime, everything I do must have an ulterior motive? That's just so sexist!”

Amber razzes loudly in the face of this ghastly injustice, and it melts into a laugh quickly shared by all of us, even Rafale! In fact, I wouldn't have noticed Sébastien picking up his phone, if my left ear hadn't turned towards him on its own.

“Okay.”, he answers, and he hangs up before raising his voice to address us all: “Hey guys, it—”

“Why 'guys', there's only one of him and three of us, t'should be 'hey gals'..!”, Amber rants jokingly.

He rolls his eyes, but seriousness is quick to come back: “It was Mélanie, she should be here in ten minutes, fifteen tops. It's time to take care of whatever's left to do here.”

Our jolliness dies down at the news.

So it's finally time...

We already talked about what we had to do. Sébastien and Crispy stay at Rafale's side while Amber and I go back to our room, where we stocked our things for the night. For my part I don't have much to do, except getting my toothbrush and my towel from the bathroom and putting them back into my sports bag.

I'm not sure what I'll do now with these old clothes... They could still be useful if it's cold, I guess, but my shoes are probably a lost cause. Considering how much they cost me, it's more than a little frustrating. Maybe I could have Sébastien sell them for me? It's probably a little la—

Uh? What's this thing, in the side pocket..?

Oh...

It's just my bracelet.

My broken birthday bracelet... I forgot I put it here, after it snapped.

...

Eh, green, like my mane, and dark red, a bit like my magenta eyes... Maybe it was some sort of sign? I don't remember what colors I used for Amber and Rafale...

I could still wear it, if I found good twine to fix it. But... Could I even craft any kind of jewelry with my hooves now..?

I...

No! That's stupid!! I don't even care!!

I throw the thing away, and it clatters against the far wall, green beads scattering on the bedroom's floor.

...

At least Crispy didn't have to see this...

Well, it's not my problem anymore! I zipper my bag closed, throw it on my back, and walk out of the—

I lift my right forehoof, to see the cracked bead under it.

Whatever, I don't care!! I get back on my way, but it's only to bump into Amber, who's standing between me and the door. I completely forgot she was here... Darn it, I don't need this right now!

“Move aside.”, I demand.

She doesn't comply. Even if she's still dead tired, she stands firm on her hooves. “We have to talk about this, Sweetchard...”, she whispers, gesturing behind me with her head.

“Like heck we do!”, I growl; who does she think she is!?

Her answer is to gather all the pieces of the bracelet in her magic, holding them next to us.

“You can keep it if you like, I don't care!”, I almost spit.

She flinches, but still doesn't move. “You don't look like a pony who doesn't care...”

“Keep your remarks to yourself, filly... I'm not in the mood.”

“You don't have to throw it all away... And I'm not just talking about the bracelet.”

I snort in anger, getting closer and lowering my head to look her right in the eyes.

I can see the fear in hers.

Is she afraid I would hurt her..?

...

Would I..?

I...

Oh gosh what am I doing!? I can't let myself get so upset for something like this!

I draw back, and I'm mortified to see that Amber actually sighs in relief... She really was thinking I would hurt her..! But she's my friend, I wouldn't do that, ever! What kind of pony would that make me!?

“Please forgive me Amber, I... I guess I'm just tired, and stressed out, and...” I rub my leg with a forehoof, ashamed of myself. “I don't know what came over me, sorry I took it out on you...”

She nods, the levitating bracelet bobbing in kind, though she still seems unsure, and cautious...

“You can understand, that I don't want anything to do with... with 'before'?”, I ask, hoping for her comprehension.

“I... Yes, I can. I most certainly can. But I don't think that's healthy either...”

I shrug, looking away. I hate how she stares at me like I'm sick or something. “Then I'll have to deal with it...”

“Still... Maybe you should keep what you can? You don't know if you won't regret it later, so, better safe than sorry, right..?”

I don't want to think about these things...

“Chard, if I can understand, it's because I have to live with this kind of regret... I didn't really have a choice, but you do.”

She sounds so sad... I don't know much about her, come to think of it, except she doesn't really have any family left. Maybe she does have a point...

I turn back to her, and I try to smile: “I'll think about it.”

Her own smile grows a little firmer, and she shuffles aside, the ruined bracelet still in her magical grip. “I'll keep this for you then, for the day you want to fix it, okay..?”

“You do that.”, I agree, and I can finally escape from the bedroom, and from her judging eyes...

Gosh... I know I always had a bit of a temper, but I never act on it! I must be even more tired than I thought... And with all that nonsense Rafale's sister must be almost here!

I carry my bag towards the garage, it's where we planned to wait and load up. I pass in front of the kitchen on the way, and my bad mood comes back with a vengeance, thinking about the two idiots that the Prévosts locked in the cellar..! Seriously, if I had to vent my spleen on someone it should be on them, not Amber! Those guys who treat us like dangerous animals, who would put us all into cages, or worse! How I'd like to get my hooves on them, after what they did to us!

We're lucky that most humans aren't like this... Sébastien, the Prévosts, Rafale's sister, they didn't hesitate to help us, even at their own risk. It's kinda heartwarming, to be reminded that we're not just fending for ourselves.

In the garage I find Crispy with Solange, talking softly to each other. The woman hands her a large bag, and goes for a hug, but I can see that Crispy's a bit uncomfortable with the contact. As soon as Solange leaves her I jump in to nuzzle at my mare's neck: “You okay honeybunch?”

The improvised nickname makes her laugh; mission accomplished! “I'm okay Sweety. And you? You seem a little tense...”

Do I? It'd be remarkable if I didn't, all things considered... “Nah it's nothing. What's in the bag?”

“Oh just some basic things she could part with and, well, various horse care products. To think I used some of these brushes in the past... I would never have imagined that I would one day use them on myself!”

“Horse care..? Do we really need this kind of specialized stuff?”

“Of course we do!”, she says, patting the bag. “Currycombs and brushes, but also hoof picks, hoof dressing, a fully-stocked first-aid kit... More doses for the vaccines she already gave us when we arrived, because we will have to get more shots. By the way, the ice packs should be good for the trip, but please remind me to put them in a fridge when we arrive?”

“Okay, no problem.” Though I really don't fancy being reminded of those awful needles...

“I see you got your own bag. Wasn't Amber with you?”

Darn it..! “Oh, uh, she...”

“I'm here, I'm here..!”, the tired unicorn mumbles as she joins us, her backpack hovering unsteadily in her magic. “Sorry, just wanted to make sure I wasn't forgetting anything...”

She looked right at me when she said that. I mouth a silent 'thank you' for her discretion.

“I told you it wasn't a good idea to unpack for barely half a night...”, Crispy remarks.

“But I reaaaaally wanted to get my book..!”, she whines. I don't know why it seemed so important for her to get that novel, she wasn't even able to sit down and read anyway. It's a good thing I thought of packing it when I left my flat last week...

...

Is it why the book's so important to her..?

“All right folks, she's here!”, Solange calls. She shuts the garage's lights off, slides the wide door open, and she guides the white rental SUV as it slowly backs up about two-third in, bathing us briefly in a red-and-white glow. Even if we can't really use human-designed seats we'll have plenty of place to lay down with this kind of car, that was good thinking!

Rafale's sister – was it Amélie, or Mélanie? – gets out of the SUV, big silvery thermos in hand: “I hope someone made coffee? I'm almost empty.”

“There should be plenty left in the kitchen.”, Sébastien answers as he and Olivier help Rafale walk into the garage – on her hindlegs no less, as if she wasn't wobbly enough already!

Her sister lets the thermos drop as she rushes to the pegasus: “Are you okay!?”

“Just a little dizzy, don't worry...”, Rafale tries to reassure her, but it's not really effective...

“What happened!?”, she asks of Sébastien. “You only told me you may've been found out!”

“Yeah, uh, well, I didn't want to distract you, and it was already done, so... Sorry, Mél..?”

For all her concern, she only touches her sister gingerly, just like she would an animal she's not familiar with... I guess changing species can put a heck of a barrier to a relationship, even among siblings.

...

What angry god did I cheese off, that these things keep piling up on me tonight..?

Maybe... Maybe this, too, is some kind of sign..?

A gentle muzzle snouts at my jaw, bringing me out of my brooding, and my sourness alleviates, if only a little. I nuzzle Crispy in return, and together we take our stuff to the SUV's opened trunk. The back seats have been folded down, so there's ample room for both us and our bags.

I hesitate only an instant more before I pull at the zipper of mine, then use my lips to fish out what I'm looking for. The leather of my purse leaves a none-too-pleasant taste on my tongue, but that's alright.

Turning back, I spot Sébastien hugging Rafale, and I get closer slowly, not wanting to interrupt their moment...

“Tells him his mama loves him and will come back for him, okay..?”, she cries into his arms.

“I'll remind him every day... So please take care of yourself until then. Call whenever you feel like it, even if it's the middle of the night, got it..?”, he whispers, barely holding his own tears. “You promise..?”

“I promise..!”

He helps her into the car, doing his very best to make her comfortable, and as he staggers away, eyes red, I approach him:

“Shéb, could I ashk you shomethin'..?”

He smirks a little, and crouches in front of me, pulling the purse from my mouth: “Of course buddy... I suppose it has something to do with this..?”

“Yeah, I... There's my debit card in there, and my keys, and... If you have the time, could you get to my flat, and get some of my stuff..? You know, pictures, little personal things... If you could stash it at Ra– I mean, at Laurence's, or use my card to pay for a box or a locker..? You can sell the furniture and the clothes, if need be... And we could try to take care of the rent, and...”

“Don't worry,” he pats me on the withers, “I get it. There's no rush, and I'll be in touch, okay?”

“Yeah, okay... Thank you, Sébastien.”

He ruffles my mane as he stands up. “Anytime.”

I breathe deeply, and I admit... I feel a little better, knowing that whatever happens, I won't lose everything...

Mélanie comes back with her refilled thermos as I join the girls in the back of the SUV, and she says her goodbyes to the three other humans: “Thank you both for helping my sister and her friends, I won't forget it.”, she says to the Prévosts, shaking hands. She then turns to Sébastien, and they share a brief embrace. She speaks softly, but I can still hear what she tells him: “I'll never thank you enough for everything you did for her... I know it must've been hard, so if you ever need to talk about all this craziness, I'll be here to listen...”

“Same for you...”, he replies just as quietly, just not quietly enough for pony ears. “Please drive safely.”

She shuts the trunk, plops into the driver's seat, and we finally get on the road, the house's lights turning back on just before we lose sight of it. I guess they'll call the police now...

It's the middle of the night, so there isn't much traffic. We drive back towards the city to get to the highway, the succession of streetlights making shadows dance in the darkened car. I catch Amber's eyes, and we share a smile during an instant, before she goes back to chatting with Rafale, and my own attention is brought back to Crispy. She's looking longingly out the tinted window, but when I see sorrow starting to etch itself on her face, I pull her against me, rolling on the blankets we took with us, away from the world of humans outside, away from a past that can only bring us pain now...

Ambre's View

The last time I took this highway, I was on a bus, and going in the other direction. My only possessions were a bunch of books, a dingy bag, and the clothes on my back...

Now I don't even have the clothes... But I'm not alone, either.

I'm awfully tired, and yet sleep still eludes me; the events of the night were distracting for a while, but my stress is back full-force since we got on the road... It's like my body's locked into 'alert' mode, my ears quick to jump at any sound, and my nostrils flaring regularly. The scent of my friends is a welcome comfort compared to the strange artificial smell of this rental car, but it's not enough to let me relax. If only Laurence weren't so tired, if she could take charge like she often does, I'm sure it would reassure me. I feel a little bit safer, to lay right next to her, but it's not enough... Not when I can see plainly that she's even more exhausted than I am, and that I am the one who should protect her..!

If we were in trouble, could I trust Sweetchard to help..? I'm sure he'd do anything for Crispy, but the way he almost jumped at my throat earlier... If this is how he reacts under pressure, or when he's confronted to something he doesn't like, he's just a disaster waiting to happen! Was he like this too before the change? I'm wary of the idea that he could've suddenly grew more aggressive and unreliable just because he's a stallion now, but on the other hoof, whatever he may claim, he does look at mares differently. Or at least, a lot more insistently...

Crispy and Mélanie are relatively unknown quantities, despite their apparent good will. The former still has to wear her splint, and the latter is the one who's driving us right into the lion's den! What will happen when—

“Amber..?”

“Yes Sarge?”, I blurt out, her addressing me little short of a life preserver thrown my way!

She growls. Why is she growling? Is she hurting? Did I do something wrong!?

Please tell me what to do! Ask me to do something, anything, I don't know on my own!

“Could you please calm down..?”, she orders me through gritted teeth.

“I, er, I'll try...”

And I try, I really really try, but I can't just forget where we're going!! We're only leaving the beltway, slowing down to pass the toll booths; there's still more than two hours of driving, but it's already far too short a respite!

I heard sometimes the police would check random vehicles at toll booths, maybe if they arrest us we won't have to go!

...

Oh come on Ambre! This is getting ridiculous!

It's not the end of the world! You can deal with it!

Right..?

A hoof pokes at my side, and I turn back to the frowning Laurence next to me: “That was you trying..?”

My ears fold back in shame. Even something so simple, I can't manage..! “I'm sorry, I... Please, you should be resting and sleeping, don't bother yourself with me...”

If I must be a useless anxious wreck, the least I can do is to not annoy my friends...

“Sleeping I can't do. As for resting... Maybe it'd help if you weren't so damn tense..?”

“Oh... I will, er, I'll move a little farther then...”

I shift to get away from her, but she doesn't let me! She even pulls me against her chest, her head resting atop mine: “You stay right here, you dolt..! That's not what I meant..!”

“I– I'm sorry Sar— Eep!” I let out a little cry as she bites my ear, though more from surprise than actual pain.

“Now you listen to me, all right..? Right now I'm your big sister, you hear? You know what it's like, to have a big sister..?”

“I... No, I don't know...”

“A big sister is always here for you when you're afraid, when the anxiety is getting too much to deal with... She stays strong when you can't, so she can help you get better, and do the right thing. I'm your big sister now, so you have to tell me Amber: what's happening..?”

A big sister...

The noises of the car fade into the background as I focus on the beating of her heart, the swell of her chest and the warm hair against the back of my horn as she breathes, her strong forelegs holding me tight...

*sigh*

“I don't want to go back to Toulouse...”

“'Back'..?”

“You... You remember, when I told you about... Understanding myself?”

I feel her nodding.

“I couldn't deal with it right away 'cause... My parents found out. They found out, 'cause I told my best friend, and he must've told them...”

My guts twist into knots, thinking about Raphaël's betrayal.

Four years, and that wound still reopens so easily...

“What did they do..?”

“They kicked me out..!”, I mumble through the tears that won't stop. My whole body is racked by my pitiful sobs, but she still holds me tight... “They kicked me out..! My own parents, they kicked me out, they said I was dead to them..!”

Laurence nuzzles the top of my head. She doesn't say a word, but doesn't let go either, keeping me cradled against her barrel, and words keep spilling out from my trembling mouth:

“Everybody, all my friends, they turned their backs on me, I had nowhere to go, so I got away, away from them all..! And– and now I'm going back, and I just don't know what I'm gonna do..! What if I see my parents..? What would they say!? What would I say!?” I struggle to catch my breath after that outburst, my voice reduced to its most miserable as I plead vainly: “Please..! Tell me what I should do..!”

Gosh I'm so pathetic..! I was supposed to be stronger, to have grown better and more mature through all this! Why doesn't it work now!?

“You have nothing to do...”, Laurence whispers between my ears.

“But..!”

“Amber, you look like a magical unicorn... Even if you met them, and I think Toulouse is still a big city, and we're not supposed to see humans anyway... I mean, they wouldn't know it's you if you don't tell them, huh..?”

...

She's not wrong.

“And even if you saw them, and they saw it was you, what are they going to say now..? You're a girl, or a filly, or whatever you want to call yourself, they can't argue with that...”

You don't know them like I do... They would argue..!

“It's going to be all right, Amber... I understand it's difficult, but it's going to be all right... You're anxious now because you don't know how it'll play out, it's natural... Really, it's natural... But you can't let the anxiety win, not before the actual battle..! The anxiety, she's like a little beast that's so afraid that she's lashing out all around, so you have to... To put a wall or something, between you and her... She's not you, she's just a little beastly bunch of emotions, so she has no business taking the driver's seat, you see..?”

“The way you say it,” I sniff, “I'd only need to tame the beast, and I'd be okay... I'm not sure it works like that...”

“The beast is different for each person... Sometimes you can befriend her, convince her not to worry... For others she's always here, even if you try to kill her... Building a wall works for me... You don't let her drag you down with her, keep her away, out of your thoughts, because the only thing she knows is fleeing, and you can't always flee your problems...”

“I know that..! It's just so difficult right now..!”

“... Say, you wouldn't have a magic spell for this kind of thing..? Like, a little light show, and abracadabra, no more stress..?”

Is she serious..? I can't always tell with her. “I wish I had one right now... You know I don't have spells, only levitation...”

“So you took care of these two guys with just levitation..?”

“I... Well, yes, and no...”

“Could you explain to me what you did..?”

“The thing is, I'm not really sure of what I did myself..! I was so afraid, they were about to call their friends, but I couldn't shoot them..! I needed a way, to find a... A way...”

Could... could this be it..?

“A 'way'..? Like one of your hunches..?”

“I... I suppose, maybe..? I needed to find a way to stop them from calling, and then I just knew... It happened so fast, I was almost on autopilot or something, I don't know if I could do it again...”

“We will have to test this, when we have the time... It helped us tonight, but the other times it would've been dangerous... Any other spell ideas..?”

“Well... I'm not sure it's less dangerous, but I may have this spell, from my nightmares...”

“... I see. Did you try it yet..?”

“No, it's... It's some kind of laser beam...”

“That would be dangerous, indeed...”

“I'm not sure it'd even work, coming from a dream and all, but even if it does it's more complicated than levitation...”

“I'm sure it'll work... How is it different..? Do you have to play notes on you horn, like a flute or something, or is it the shape of magic, or..?”

“The way I feel it, it's like I have, like, different circuits in my horn, in different places, not used for the same thing..? For levitation it's the parts of the horn closest to the outside, I have to, er... How to describe this...” I channel a little bit of magic into my horn, just as I would if I wanted to levitate something; it has become so second nature that I don't really think about the 'how' anymore... “So, it's a bit like I... drew circles, around the horn..? Or maybe it's just following the spiral of the bone..? I'm not sure, but the magic flows like this, from my head to the tip, then I need to get the circles outside, and around what I want to levitate, like I'm taking it with a hoof, but I must keep sending circles, and use them to balance the thing... Oh, and the more quickly I send circles, the more I can make, the easier it is to hold things... You see what I mean..?”

“More or less... So what's the difference with the beam thing..? More circles..? More magic..?”

“No, I don't think so... It's still difficult, 'cause it goes so fast, but I'm pretty sure it works closer to the middle of the horn, not the outside... It feels tense, like pulling on a rubber band, or coiling a spring, then releasing the magic build-up... I'll have to try in real life to test it, I suppose...”

“More magical exercises in the future, then..! But yeah, we'll have to take some precautions...”

“Like you did in the garage..?”

She doesn't answer, but I can feel the muscles of her neck and jaw tightening.

Oh no..! I shouldn't have talked about this! Stupid, stupid Amb—

“Yeah...”, she whispers. “Like I did in the garage...”

“I... I'm sorry, I shouldn't have—”

“No you're right, it's the same thing... We'll be able to train together, huh..?”

“So... You really were trying magic..?”

“... If it wasn't magic, then I don't know what it was... Maybe you could help me understand how it works..?”

“Er... I don't know if I could be really helpful, I... I barely know how to use my own magic..!”

“Two heads are better than one, don't you think..?”

“I suppose so, yes...”, I find myself smiling. “We'll have to run some tests then..!”

“Sure..! Let's draft a schedule and training regimen, shall we..?”

– — –

“Any of you still awake..?”, comes Mélanie's weary voice from the front of the car.

“I am...”, I mumble.

Laurence is finally snoozing, after I literally talked her to sleep. I've only been dozing off for short periods, but it's still better than nothing...

“So am I.”, says Crispy from her side of the trunk, barely audible over Chard's snoring. “How are you holding up..?”

“Let's say it's a good thing I have my coffee... At least it's easy driving, we're about halfway there.”

Halfway already...

This time, when the anxiety raises its ugly head, I'm more prepared. Even if I can't help but worry about what Toulouse has in store for me, like Laurence said it makes things a little bit easier to remind myself that anxiety's just a thought process, one I don't have to listen to... Well, my heart certainly listens to it, sure, but my brain knows it's not the full picture.

Small victories...

“Though coffee comes with its price...”, Mélanie goes on. “I'll have to take a little bathroom break at the next rest area, I don't think I'll be able to hold for another hour.”

“In this case I would gladly accompany you, if that's all right.”, Crispy adds.

I'd blame them for not taking their precautions before we left, but considering how hectic the night has been...

“Uh... I'm not sure 'accompanying me' is really possible, you know..? Most rest stops have their bathrooms in the same building as the stores and whatnot. So either we take the risk of being seen by people, or you go take a leak in the park...”

“What!? No! I'm not a dog!”

“Didn't say you were, just that some pragmatism could be appropriate in this situation...”

“Er, isn't there some rest areas without stores, just public restrooms..?”, I ask.

“There are, yeah...”, Mélanie agrees, albeit reluctantly.

“Then let's do that, please..!”, pleads Crispy. “I promise I'll be quick!”

“Suit yourself... But don't whine 'cause the general hygiene is subpar..!”

We drive for about ten more minutes before our vehicle veers to the right and slows down to a stop. I pull myself up to look outside; it's hard to see clearly because of the window film, but it seems we parked alongside a picnic area. I can make out lots of trees, some wooden picnic tables, and the only light comes from a small building about half a dozen meters away, probably the restrooms. There doesn't seem to be any other cars on the parking lot.

Mélanie stops the engine, unbuckles her seat belt, then rummages into her handbag. “Okay girls, I'll go in first, just in case. Then I come back, you go in while I do the look-out, and off we go. Any questions?”

“Is it really safe..?”, asks Crispy.

“As safe as can be, in the middle of the night...”

“It's this very point that concerns me..!”

“I mean, yeah it's not encouraging, but that's the only way you'll get to use a real toilet, so once I've checked, you'll go in there, and make damn sure you appreciate it!”

With no more complaints forthcoming Mélanie gets out of the car, with what I recognize easily as a can of mace in her hand. Through the window I watch her as she makes the short walk to the restrooms and gets inside.

“Amber, I'm sorry to ask, but could you come with me..?”

I turn towards Crispy, who doesn't look especially proud of herself: “It should be safe, don't worry.”

“It's not that, it's just... I would really appreciate it if you could help me with your magic to, well, take care of things..?”

“Er, you didn't need me until now...” And I'm not fond of the idea of getting my magic near another mare's business..!

“This is a public toilet, I can't use my hooves after walking in there..! Please, you said you would help me if I needed it..?”

Dang it, I did say something like that..! “All right, all right... Let's not waste time then, I don't think Mélanie will take too long.”

I crawl away from Laurence without issue, but Crispy has some trouble with Chard; he's still sleeping soundly, but that doesn't stop him from holding firmly on to her! It's certainly cute, seeing him act like she's a big teddy bear, but it's not convenient... I use my magic to pry the mare away from her stallion, but I have to strain my horn acting against his strength, and even once Crispy's freed he instinctively tries to reach out for her! She nuzzles at his snout with clear tenderness, and he calms down. I can't help but smile a bit, seeing her look fondly at her mate...

We're just in time for Mélanie to come back. She opens the rear door for us, and we drop to the pavement. “Please be quick,”, she tells us as she goes back to her seat, “I don't want to fall asleep waiting for you...”

The night is cool, and dark with all these clouds; we don't linger in the open and get into the building through the doorless entry of the women's side. It's not that grimy, for a highway restroom: a wide mirror above the usual sinks and dispensers, a hand dryer, four stalls, including a wheelchair-accessible one, and it all looks decently clean. Even then, it's like Crispy is reluctant to put her hooves against the floor, and as she gets in front of the accessible toilet's door she hesitates, like she's not sure if she should try to open it with her mouth or her hoof...

I sigh, and a quick flick of magic opens the door for her.

“Oh, thank you Amber..! I wasn't too sure about this...”

“Just ask, Crispy, that's why I'm here.”

“I'm sorry, I didn't want to complain too much...”

“Didn't stop you from insisting on a bathroom...”, I mutter as she gets into the stall. Clearly somepony never had to live on the street... Heck, we don't even have to worry about getting naked!

At least she's happy, and this little stop delays all the more the inevitable...

Anyway... I rear up and lean on a sink, studying my reflection under my horn's light. Gosh I look awful... Bags forming under my eyes, coat all matted, mane's a real mess... The perfect image of the prodigal daughter..!

To think, I swore that if someday I came back, it'd be as a whole other person, because I would finally be me, not just a shadow of who I could be... I'm not sure if being a pony counts here. In a way am I closer to the real me, by now possessing what amounts to a cisgender body..? Or am I once again a victim of fate, my soul cast into a body it didn't ask for..?

So often I feared that I could never get my life on the right tracks, that every little victory could be erased overnight by forces outside of my control... But now, somehow, after the greatest change I ever experienced...

I want to hope that everything will turn out all right.

Going back 'home' is still like a very dark cloud on the horizon, stoking this feeling of dread in my chest, but... With Laurence, with my friends, even if I don't know what I'll do, I also feel like there'll be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Maybe it's naive of me... Maybe this pony brain is mucking my good judgment...

Maybe it's a second chance...

“Amber..?”

“Uh? Oh excuse me Crispy, I was distracted; are you done?”

“As much as I could... Can you help me cleaning up?”

“Of course.”

I join her in the stall, and take wads of toilet paper in my magical grip to take care of that. It's hard not to blush a little bit, getting my perceptions so close to such a personal area, and I don't think she likes it any more than I do, seeing how her ears are drawn back... At least it's taken care of quickly and efficiently.

“Thank you Amber, you're a lifesaver..!”

“You're welcome.”, I answer as I push the switch to flush the toilet.

“It still feels so... So different..!”, she says, her tail swishing.

“Hm?”

“Being a mare, a female, I mean...”

Oh, right... It's easy to forget that she's pretty new at living on this side of the fence, it must be her first time on this half of a restroom.

And for my part... I didn't even think about it, walking into the women's side. For once, no fear to be noticed, yelled at, attacked... Well, we're still in the middle of the night, and people would more likely scream 'a pony got in!' rather than 'get this trans woman out of here!', but... It's still a good feeling.

“You seem to be handling it pretty well, I think.”, I tell her. And, if I'm right, there's a good reason for this...

“Sweetchard plays a big part in that, I'm sure.”, she muses. “Maybe I'll really grow comfortable with this marehood thing, after all...”

“Well, maybe it was something that was there all along, just waiting for the opportunity to assert itself, don't you think..?”

I mean, my hypothesis still seems pretty sound. There has to be some correlation, maybe even causation, between our human gender and how we ended up as ponies... Sweetchard wasn't sure about himself, but my own case is definitely—

“Are you kidding?”, she asks me with a lopsided smile. “I was even more horrified than my father when I started looking like a girl! Losing my manhood...” She shudders all over. “That was the most gruesome thing I could ever imagine..! The tail and the ears and the hooves are zilch compared to this!”

Er, well, okay, so much for hypothesizing...

Wait, so when she told me that it's still so hard for her to get used to the change... “... So that's what you still have issues with?”

“Well, of course!”, she scoffs. “Being a pony isn't so bad in itself, even without a horn, but this... It's pretty terrifying, when you think about it, how this whole transformation just erased a part of myself and completely rewrote it... I guess, with this body being female and all, it was inevitable.”

“You mean... You gained a whole new gender identity during the change..?”

“If you mean what I think you mean, well yes, like I told you I'm still adjusting, but I'm female now, so... Wait, Amber, don't tell me you were one of these 'gender theory' types..?”

“W– what!? Haha, no no, of course not!”

'Cause you know, technically I'm just a trans-inclusive afrofeminist, you know, right..? Drat... I guess I'll cross this bridge when we're a little more acquainted with each others.

“Mmh... If you say so... Anyway, can you promise me that this will stay just between us..? I really don't want Sweetchard to know about this. As long as I'm with him it doesn't feel so awful, but the rest of the time...”

“Oh er, yes, yes, of course, don't worry!”

“Thank you!” She hugs me briefly. “I wasn't sure, but maybe it could help to talk about it from time to time.”

“Yeah, I... I understand.”

Well, I suppose I am in an ideal position to discuss this kind of—

...

Wait...

If our pony gender was really randomly selected during the transformation...

Oh-my-gosh oh-my-gosh oh-my-gosh, I could've ended up as a guy, forced to reverse my transition!!

And forced to like it!!

“Amber..? Are you all right? You looked very pale all of a sudden.”

“Yeah I, er, I'm all right, don't worry..!”

Oh gosh..!

Honestly... If it had gone that way...

If my body had started to get more masculine again... Without any way to stop it...

Well I'm not sure I'd still be here to think about it..!

Suddenly puts Laurence's feelings into perspective, huh..?

Anyway... A restroom isn't the best place for this kind of ponderings, Mélanie must be—

“Hey stay out of there!”

Wait, that was her! Who is she yelling at?

My ears catch the sound of steps rushing our way; someone's coming, and fast!

I pull the door of the closest stall open and Crispy pushes us inside, my magic slamming it closed and turning the lock. Can't we ever catch a break!?

We both let out a sigh of relief when we're sure the unknown human goes to the men's side instead of ours. Have to take any little cause for comfort we can get, I suppose..! There 's not really space for two ponies in a normal stall, crammed as we are atop the toilet, but we must be patient...

“Will we always have to hide and fear these darn humans..!”, hisses Crispy, but I don't answer, in part because it doesn't need one, but mainly because I'm trying to focus on what's happening on the other side of the building. Whoever this is, I doubt they came here to use the facilities; it's more like they're trashing the place than anything else. At least that doesn't take them ages, barely one or two minutes after they got here they're already running out, and just as abruptly. Sounds of tires and brakes follow, then we're back to the reassuring silence.

Tension rises anew though when someone else now comes on our side, standing at the entrance.

“You're still in there..?”

It's Mélanie, fortunately!

“What was that!?”, Crispy demands as we get out of the cramped stall.

“Not now, you have to get back to the car!”

We follow after her. Outside, red and blue lights are painting the night, and I soon see why: two police cars are parked on the other side of the rest area, blocking the road leading back to the highway. There's another vehicle sandwiched between them, a nice-looking sedan, and four or five persons are crowed around it. The humans' attention elsewhere, we take our chance to slink back to our ride, Mélanie ushering us inside before locking the doors.

Laurence and Sweetchard are awake, and Crispy's quickly back at his side. “What happened?”, she asks him as he's nuzzling her.

“I'm not sure... I came to with Mélanie trying to stop this guy from getting to the restrooms, but he pushed past her.”

“And I had to stop this big oaf from charging right in...”, Laurence grumbles.

“He came out not long after that, with some kind of bags or packages, and he tried to get away but the cops had just arrived, and they got him.”

Crispy snorts in disgust: “Drugs, I'd bet...”

“Maybe... What took you so long anyway?”

“Oh, we just had some issues using the facilities.”, she lies. “These things are really not up to code..!”

“Everybody get down..!”, whispers Laurence as she looks through a window. “Two policemen are coming our way..!”

We pull our blankets over us, and we lay motionless as we can hear the two humans get closer to us and Mélanie, who stayed in front of the car.

“Evening ma'am.”, says a man with an authoritative voice. “Could we see your papers and those of the vehicle please?”

“Of course!” She opens one of the front door, probably to get her purse. “Play along..!”, she whispers to us before going back to the policeman.

“Already on your way home?”, he asks after a moment. “That's a bit short for renting a big car like that.”

“I know, but I really needed the extra capacity.”

“Really? May we see what you have in your trunk, please?”

“Right away sir, but I warn you, I have four dogs back there with the luggage.”

“Four?”

“Yes, they were my aunt's, she just passed away, she wanted me to take care of them.”

“My condolences. Now let's see this trunk.”

Oh no..! What are we gonna do!? Does Mélanie have a plan!?

The hatchback is opened. I hope they won't spot anything amiss, between the blankets and the darkness..!

“Cri-cri..? You hear me girl?”, Mélanie calls gently. “Come say hello to the nice men!”

Oh I get it! Crispy's the more 'normal-looking' of us, maybe that'd work!

She mustn't be too sure of this plan, as she doesn't act right away, but soon I can feel her moving a bit. I can't see how much she's visible, I hope she mostly kept under the blanket..!

“Ouaf!”, she barks lamely.

Come on, that's the best you can do!?

“That's a weird dog...”, mutters the policeman.

“Oh yeah, I don't know how my aunt found that mongrel, but she's a nice girl.”

“If you say so... You can close it, thank you.”

Oh thank goodness..!

Mélanie doesn't need to be told twice, but the interrogation continues outside:

“Why did you stop here, Ms. Ségaux?”

“Well I admit I wasn't planning to, but with all the coffee I drank these past few hours I really needed a restroom...”

“You should've stopped at a better stop, it's not safe for a lone woman like you, even with your dogs.”

“Sorry sir, it was quite urgent, and to be honest, I'm... I'm always a bit anxious around people, so I tend to avoid them when I can...”

“I can see that... Like owner like dog, eh?”

“You could say that I guess!”

“And do you know anything about this man?”, inquires the other policeman.

“Nothing sir. I was just leaving the restroom when he came barging in – I feared he was after me! That's why I used my mace.”

“And a good thing you did, that slowed him enough for us to catch up. Could you give us an address and a phone number, if we need to ask you further questions?”

“Yes of course sir.”

Their business done, the policemen walk away, and Mélanie gets back into the car with us. “Oh God... That's really too much stress for a single night..!”

“Are you okay..?”, Laurence asks as we emerge from under the blankets.

“Yeah, yeah, don't worry... Let's just wait for them to clear the road, then we get out of here. Oh, one thing though!” She turns back towards Crispy and I: “What were you two doing!? You can't tell me it takes that much time for a horse to piss!”

“Well it's not so easy with hooves..!”, argues Crispy. “You really saved our skins in any case, thank you. I wasn't too sure about your 'dogs' ploy..!”

“You would've preferred I say you're a bunch of life-size pony dolls..? That was my first idea, but beside being suspicious as hell, they would've gutted you open to see if you had any drugs inside! God, talk about rotten luck..! Are you ponies cursed or what!?”

It can really feel that way, I admit... At least none of us got hurt this time!

We wait a little more for the police to do its work, and soon enough they guide us out of the rest area, and we're back on the highway.

I hope that the remainder of the trip will pass without issue... Whatever's waiting for me in Toulouse, it can't be bad enough to wish for more ways to slow us down!

Laurence's View

Even lying down I can see that we're getting closer to the city, from the frequency and quality of streetlights, and our reduced speed. That's good – Mél has been up for far too long, after already spending a full day at work. She needs her rest...

I feel awful, taking advantage of her like this. How much of her personal time, wasted..? How much money did she spend, driving to and fro, and renting this car..? Dammit, she was almost arrested! Why am I always ruining the life of the persons closest to me..?

At least this time it is truly out of my control... We're all victims of this madness..!

My own life, torn asunder... My home, my work, my body... Sainfoin, Sébastien... How long until I lose everything else..? What will I do, then..?

When there's nothing else...

...

No..!

I refuse to yield to this curse..!

I will do my utmost to accomplish my mission. Protecting these ponies, like She asked, bringing them together and leading them to safety... But that won't stop me from also seeking a way to change back! I will get my real body back, I will reclaim my own life! I don't care what it'll take, the sacrifices I'll have to make, I will prevail..!

But I'm so weak right now... I don't know if I'll get well enough before the next time we have to fight... I couldn't have helped Mél or Amber even if I tried..! This damn body that is still rebelling against me at the slightest opportunity, these monstrous wings I still don't know how to deal with... These two clowns that got the drop on me far too easily because I failed to hear them..!

And now this damn headache that won't stop..! I've managed a little sleep on the road through sheer exhaustion, but I'm not sure it'll find me again before we arrive. At least Amber is asleep as we're closing on our destination, that should save her any more unproductive anxiety. Maybe I should heed my own advice, and try to rest and relax too. It's not like I can do much right now anyway...

...

Just relaxing...

...

Maybe sleeping...

...

If only I couldn't wake up at all...

...

Mél keeps on driving all the while, and I must've been nodding off now and again as our pace is noticeably slower, akin to urban speed limits.

“Mél..? Are we close..?”

“Less than a kilometer, according to the GPS... How are you feeling?”

“Tired... But probably not as much as you...”

“Don't worry about me, Lolo...”

“But I must worry about you, you're my sister..!”

“Yeah, but I am the big sister, so you let me take care of you, you hear..? Or have you already forgotten what you said to your friend?”

... Dammit.

“Let's see... Ah, that must be it.”

We come to a stop. The neighborhood is dark, even if I tried I wouldn't see much through the windows. I can hear the tap of Mél's nails as she's probably using her phone, and soon there's the buzz of texts sent and received.

“Okay folks!”, my sister calls through the car. “We're here!”

Chard groans as he wakes up, Crispy coming to soon after, but Amber is still firmly held in the arms of Morpheus. I guess all these emotions really took their toll on the poor filly... For my part I roll to my side to get into a crouch – only to be confronted to the enduring fact that my legs are far too short compared to my arms.

I'm too tired to grouse, so I just cry for a bit, silently, as Mél gets out of the car and comes to open the right side door for us.

“Wait, are we going out in the open..?”, Chard asks.

“We're just in front of the house, don't worry. And all the neighbors are asleep at this hour.”

He and Crispy are the first to get out, then it's my turn to shuffle outside, stretching my sore limbs on the way. Like Mél said, there's a door just a couple steps from the car, we're parked on the side of the road. It looks like one of these typical old houses of the region, with walls made of pinkish bricks.

“Chard, can you help Amber..? I don't think I can do it by myself...”

“Uh? Oh, yes, of course.”

Together we extract the softly snoring unicorn from the car, Chard taking her on his back, and turn toward the door. It opens seemingly on its own, but I recognize the faint aura of golden magic. Just as I thought, as soon as we cross the threshold we are greeted by a tall purple unicorn:

“Welcome to you all! Please, enter!”

She must be a bit shorter than I am, if I'm not slouching that is, with elegant features that remind me of Amber's, though more mature and defined. As she's pushing the door behind us, she also holds a steaming cup in her magic, and quickly seizes most of the bags Mél is carrying without the slightest hint of difficulty.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” I tell her, “it is very much appreciated... I am Laurence Ségaux, and this is my sister Mélanie. This is Sweetchard, Crispy, and the sleeping one is Amber.”

“Nice to meet you all!”, she answers with a wide grin. “I'm Violette, though I'm afraid I'm the only one still awake right now... You will meet the others tomorrow!”

“Uh, it's kind of late, or really early,” says Mél, “so I think I'll take my leave...”

“Nonsense! You look exhausted, I won't let you go back on the road like this! There's ample space to sleep here, we'll get your car in the yard right away!”

“But I have to work tomorrow, and I don't live that far...”

“I will have none of it!”, asserts Violette. “It's the least I can do.”

“She's not wrong, Mél... You need to rest.”

“Okay..!”, my sister relents, rolling her eyes. “I'll get the car...”

“Very well. As for you,” says the energetic unicorn as she turns to us, “please follow me into the salon, I'll show you to your room as soon as I've helped your driver!”

Violette scampers away, our luggage drifting down next to the salon's couches. The room is large, but the furnishing a little parse and dated. It doesn't exactly look like a lived-in place...

“Say,” whispers Crispy, “I don't know if it's just me, but do all unicorns look the same..?”

“There's some likeness with her, yeah.”, agrees Chard, gesturing at Amber still sleeping on his back. “Maybe it's like horses, with proper breeds..?”

The discussion is cut short as Violette and Mél come back. “If you would please follow me, the room is that way!”, chirps the unicorn as once again she levitates our things.

We all follow her through a corridor with dated wallpaper to a large room, with a little bedside lamp and modest cots on the floor.

“I'm sorry we can't offer better accommodations, but I hope it will be sufficient!”

“It will be, thank you...”, I nod to her. “Are you sure this place is safe, though..?”

Her eyes stray to the side of my face that lacks one, as she looks at me, but she does her best to not do it too openly: “I understand your fears, but I can guarantee you that this house is safe. Please rest now, and try to sleep for what's left of the night. If you need anything, I am in the last room to the right.”

The unicorn excuses herself, closing the door behind her, her mug having followed her all the way.

Well... I suppose sleeping is the best thing we can do for now... Mél helps Chard in laying Amber down on one of the cots, the couple claims one, and it leaves one for Mél and one for me. It's not the most comfortable thing, but the others aren't complaining, so I won't.

I'm still a bit reluctant at trusting these new ponies though, and this Violette seemed too peppy to be honest, but...

Uh... I'm the only one still awake, aren't I..?

*sigh*

I turn off the lamp.

With any chance, I'll be too tired for nightmares...