• Published 28th Jan 2020
  • 3,140 Views, 48 Comments

To Belong - Freglz



It ain't always easy, regaining what you lost. Especially when you've been missing it for years.

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Mother and Daughter

Who did those ponies think they were? Just who, exactly? Because they didn’t seem like warm, bubbly and inviting sort I’d met when I first came in.

“How dare they,” I muttered to myself, over and over and over as I paced back and forth along what I could only suspect was a patio; when the whole building was made of clouds — barring the furniture and all them kinds of niceties — it was rather tricky to tell. “How dare they.”

It wasn’t right. It wasn’t right and they knew it. They had to. Why else would they have tried imposing themselves like that? They shouldn’t have done that. It wasn’t right.

My pacing came to a halt and I fell onto my rear, and as I scanned the night sky for stars, I was disappointed: the heavens were overcast, a fog hanging in the air even this high up from the ground, moonlight filtering through it like some phantom apparition.

Realising that I wouldn’t get to see them that evening left a hole in my stomach, deep and sickening, and I suddenly felt all the anger I had drain out of me, overshadowed by a terrible sense of distress. Not the sort that made me want to cry out for help, but the sort that makes you feel like you’re teetering on a knife’s edge. The sort that makes you want to hold somepony.

Or two.

Or something that reminds you of them.

I took off my hat and and pressed it to my snout and closed my eyes as I inhaled. If I imagined hard enough, I could still pretend his scent was there, and hadn’t been drowned out by constant use and a wash every couple of weeks. I could still pretend I was a young filly, and we were a happy family. I could still pretend the last time I saw him wasn’t the last time.

I could still pretend that everything was just fine, and it would always be alright.

But that’s all they were: fantasies. Dreams I’ve had for years and years, but even dreams can only get you so far; they can’t change the past, or even the future. It’s a truth I’d learned to live with and a truth I’d learned to accept.

Or at least I thought I had.

“AJ?”

“Yeah?” I croaked, quickly returning my hat to my head and gulping down the lump in my throat.

Rainbow approached through the archway, steady yet careful, and the fire I saw in her eyes from earlier had vanished. Her neck was level and head angled forward just enough that some of her forelock partly hid her troubled gaze. “You doing okay?”

“Yeah.” I coughed and turned away to rub at my eye before she saw a tear forming. “Better.”

“…Do you wanna talk about what happened back there?”

“What’s there to talk about?”

There was a falter in her step — I could hear the gap in her shuffled stride. “Well, there’s the fact that you insulted my parents to their faces for no obvious reason when all Mom said is that our families would become each other’s in-laws, so… you know. But aside from that, no, I guess there isn’t a lot to talk about.”

A passive-aggressive tone; there was some fire left over after all. But I couldn’t really blame her — seeing how I’d gotten myself riled up while trying to protect my family, it was only fair that she did the same. It was in her nature as well as mine. Like she said, we were too similar to ignore.

“Do you have a problem with them?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because…!” I began, then immediately drifted off into a frustrated huff, stomping the spongy floor beneath me. And after half a minute of gritted teeth and tightly closed eyes, I turned to her with a tense muzzle and upturned brows. “Look, it ain’t worth sourin’ the night over any more than it already has been. Just go back inside and enjoy your dinner and—”

“It’s about your parents, isn’t it?”

I shut my mouth. I wanted her to figure it out eventually, but now that it’d been said aloud… part of my wished she never had. And unfortunately, my silence was all the confirmation she needed.

“Do you think that they’re trying to replace them?”

I didn’t answer directly, turning away instead, but in reality, what other explanation could there have been? They wanted to be mommy and daddy to more than just Rainbow, and I was the first on their little shopping list; an item — a thing to collect and hang as a trophy, and they already had plenty of those tucked away in a special room that even she was hesitant to mention.

“I don’t think that’s how they meant it.”

“Oh, and how did they mean it, Dash?” I sneered, taking a step toward her. “Because all that talk of me bein’ a ‘second daughter’ seemed pretty concrete if you ask me.”

“They’ve always been like that,” she said with a roll of her eyes, then sat down and sighed, hanging her head. “I told you before, didn’t I? They’re just… excitable. And when it has anything to do with me, they get completely out of control. So, maybe they rubbed you the wrong way, but they didn’t mean to. It’s just not who they are.”

“It don’t matter if they meant it or not, Rainbow, it’s about what they said and how they said it. The least they could do is sound a little less eager about the whole thing — throw a touch of humility in there for all our sakes.”

“That’s not how they work.” She looked up at me almost pleadingly. “They’re happy for me, Jackie. They’re happy for you too. They just… sometimes get a bit too caught up in the moment to realise what they’re saying, or how they’re saying it. Trust me, I didn’t tell them about getting into the Wonderbolts for ages because I knew they’d blow it way out of proportion.”

“Seems like they haven’t changed much, then.”

“Oh, they have. It used to be so much worse. What you saw back there? Imagine that, but twenty-four-seven, and if we’d made this same announcement to their past selves, a pair of earplugs would’ve been your new best friend for the next week.”

I winced. “So, what, I’m just supposed to forgive them because they’re better now than whatever they were before?”

“AJ, c’mon.” She groaned. “It’s not like you to hold a grudge this quickly.”

“I ain’t holdin’ a grudge. I’m statin’ what’s gotten on my nerves.”

“And I’m hearing you. But it won’t do you any good sulking out here about it.”

“I ain't sulkin', I’m…”

“What?”

I struggled for the words, and then for the courage to speak them, and after gulping again and meeting her eyes once more, I cast my attention high up to the sky, and the moonlight still glowing through the clouds and fog. And for the second time that night, I was left feeling distressed.

“I’m searchin',” I hoarsely finished, scanning the void some more for any sign of a gap — a glimpse of what lay beyond — but ultimately coming up short. “For them.”

Rainbow tracked my gaze, and a long, uneasy pause followed. “Your mom and dad?”

I paused, worried that I’d be admitting something I shouldn’t, but eventually nodded. “I keep tellin’ myself that they’re up there, somewhere. And if I look up at just the right time… and if I wish with all my heart… maybe I’ll see a sign.”

“Like what?”

“A twinkle. A shootin' star. Some new constellation I haven’t seen before. I don’t know. Something. Something to tell me that they haven’t gone. Not… not really.”

She was silent for a long moment, considering what I’d said and what her response would be. “You know they haven’t really gone.”

“I know.” I closed my eyes again and breathed in… then out… and the cool, fairly odourless air helped to calm my down a bit. “So long as I remember them, so long as I love them, they can’t have gone. But it’d be nice if I had something to see, not just trust myself to feel.”

Another silence.

I sighed. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen anything…”

“Well then, maybe tonight’s your lucky night.”

“How?” I murmured, peering at her through half-lidded eyes. “It’s all clogged up.”

“Not for me,” she declared, flashing what would’ve been a cocky, self-assured smirk on any other day as she spread her wings and displayed them proudly. But that evening, there wasn’t any cheek; it was a genuine smile, kindly and sincere. “Pegasus, remember? Fastest in the world. I once cleared the skies over Ponyville in ten seconds flat. Busting open a window for you would be a piece of cake.”

I hesitated, inspecting her up and down, though I didn’t know exactly what for. “Are you sure?”

Her smile widened as she rolled her eyes and crossed the distance between us, putting a hoof on my shoulder and putting her muzzle close to mine. “AJ, you’re my friend. You won’t owe me anything for doing this, because we’re way past that point: we’re engaged. And by the end of the year…”

Despite myself, there was a warmth in her voice and an affectionate shine to her eyes that almost made me melt like butter on a hot stove. That’s the Rainbow I adore, and not one many ponies have seen firsthoof.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” she hummed, then gave me a tender nuzzle followed by a quick peck on the cheek, and before I could even think to kiss her back, she shot into the air and raced for the cloud cover. “Love you, Jackie!”

I could only watch in awe as she streaked a rainbow in her wake — so fast that she was a blur — and cleaved a path through the fog. Swirling, spiralling, collecting and condensing it all into a cloud like only pegasi can, then bucking it off to the side so she could start again. Not even half a minute in and she’d already cleared a space large enough to fit the big red barn back home.

When she sets her mind to things, she gets them done.

She’s said the same about me, but whatever I can do just can’t compare; when I see her up there in her element, ducking and diving and twisting and turning, speedier than a starling, more controlled than a hummingbird, and more dashing than just about any other pony in the whole entire world… Merciful Sisters, she makes my heart soar as high as she does.

I don’t envy her for having wings, but I definitely feel like I’m missing out at points.

I was so taken by the spectacle, in fact, that I didn’t hear somepony else enter the picture until she spoke. “Marvellous, isn’t she?”

I wheeled around and found Windy standing on the patio, watching Rainbow work her magic with a subdued, sober smile, brows upturned and ears lowered a little way. The vibrant energy that radiated from her had gone, replaced by a far more reflective and pensive air.

“I was so happy to see her learn how to fly. We took her out for ice-cream afterwards — banana for her, mango sorbet for me, cookies and cream for Bow — but even while we were eating, she wouldn’t sit down. She just kept on hovering there. Never got tired, never stopped smiling. She was just so excited, and she wanted to show it off to the world.”

In the face of the outburst I’d given her and her husband, I found myself snorting and smirking. “Doesn’t sound like she’s changed much since then.”

“In a way, she hasn’t. In others, she has.” She sighed and closed her eyes as her head sagged, ears pinned back and tail tucked in. “But no matter what, she’ll always be our little girl. Our only little girl. And we love her so much for it.”

Not much that I could say in response. So, I chose to keep quiet.

“I heard what you said, you know. About us trying to replace your parents.”

That plucked at a nerve, and I held my breath for a brief moment. “How much?”

“More than you’d have liked, I bet.” She peered up at me, then glanced behind us both for the house. “Cumuli aren’t the most soundproof homes on the market.”

“Ah.” I turned away, then cleared my throat and awkwardly shuffled my weight. “Well, I—”

“I’m sorry.”

I snapped to her once more, cocking an eyebrow in surprise.

“That’s not how we wanted to come across. It’s just…”

I waited a short while, but when it seemed like she’d gone and got herself stuck in her own thoughts, I decided some careful prompting was in order. “Just…?”

Her jaw clenched behind a tense, twisted mouth as she stared off into the horizon, then sighed yet again as she plopped herself onto her rump and returned to me, anxious. “The reason why I was so enthusiastic — so… so eager — to call you my ‘second daughter’ is because… Rainbow wasn’t our first attempt.”

My brows climbed higher than I ever thought possible. “Pardon?”

“This stays between you, me and Bow, understand?” She sidled closer and looked at me imploringly. “We don’t discuss it with Rainbow because it’s nothing she needs to worry about, and we don’t want to make her feel like she can’t blame us for doting on her just because we had a few setbacks early on. But the long and short of it is this: she’s the product of years and years of birth plans and medication and doctor appointments and every traditional remedy under the sun. And always, they’d fail, and we’d be back at square one.”

I could barely think, let alone speak. This wasn’t something I’d expected to hear at all.

“We got lucky a few times. Five, I think. The first was when we were still dating. I had to tell Bow over dinner, of course, and when I did… he was scared and thrilled and nervous and everything else rolled into one. And we decided then and there that this would be a welcome change and challenge for us. And while we were dozing off together in bed… he asked if I’d like to make it official and seal the deal. Tie the knot. Get hitched. And I figured, since we were going to be a mom and a dad, it wouldn’t hurt to be husband and wife either.”

My stomach started flipping itself over like a stack of pancakes. I truly didn’t know how to reply, but it didn’t sound like she was trying to make me feel bad for her — guilt me into offering her an apology — because it was far too raw for that.

“But it was a miscarriage.” Her voice caught on the last note and she gulped, observing the floor beneath her for a long while before looking ahead with tears welling up in her eyes. “So were the others. Rainbow was lucky number six. If I didn’t carry her to term, that would’ve been it — I… I wouldn’t have been able to bear the pain anymore. Not for another attempt. And when she…”

I shimmied just a little closer. “Windy…”

“And when she was born, I thought she’d turn out to be a stillbirth for the longest time: she wasn’t crying. That’s how I knew something was wrong when the doctors took her away. I didn’t get to see her for hours, And all the while, I could only lie there. Just… just lie there. And my heart was breaking because it seemed… it seemed like I was doomed to be this… this… this damaged thing. And it was cruel. Because I found the stallion I wanted to spend my life with… but I couldn’t raise a family with him.”

“But you did,” I whispered, then watched as I gently slid my forehoof across to hers and squeezed it for reassurance. “You are.”

“I am,” she echoed lamely, nodding. And then a faint, shaky smile crept its way onto her muzzle, and she huffed a laugh for it. “And now she’s making a family of her own. It’s a long way from where she started off, so tiny and fragile… and perfect.”

“You raised her well.”

“I did, didn’t I?” She laughed again, but more heartily, and she wiped at her eyes and snout with the back of her hoof before sharing her smile with me. “I would’ve loved to have had more, but… if I lost another… I was afraid that not even Bow could put me back together again. She’d be my one and only daughter. And then you came along.”

I bit the inside of my cheek and allowed myself to look away just a tiny bit, the tug on my chest coming in at full-force. It left me feeling a little short of breath.

“I’m sorry that I was so quick to pounce on the idea. Of you. As a part of our clan. It doesn’t excuse how selfish I was… but I hope you now understand why, at least. If I’d known… or rather, if I’d remembered that your parents are… no longer with us… then maybe I’d have been a tad more sensitive.”

I sighed and bobbed my head, then took off my hat and held it close to my chest. “That’s alright, I guess. It’s in the past — can’t change that. So’s the fact that Ma and Pa ain’t here no more… but I suppose I’m not as over it as I thought I was, or else I wouldn’t have kicked up such a fuss.”

“What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?”

I paused, wondering if I was really all that comfortable talking about it. But if I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t stuck in yesteryear, pushing on almost two decades at that point, it was probably for the best if I stopped treating it as taboo; something that shouldn’t be discussed, even when asked.

It was a thing that happened. As much a part of me as my hooves, my coat, my mane and tail, or being friends with Twilight, or being engaged to Rainbow. I shouldn’t feel ashamed to admit any of it.

“Jumped by timberwolves,” I said, perhaps just a mite too quickly for my own tastes, so I cleared my throat as I looked toward the horizon like she had. “They were makin’ a delivery run to some grocers out west, past the Unicorn Range. Don’t know what convinced them to leave so soon after my little sister was born, but it shouldn’t have taken more than a week before they got back. And when they didn’t, Granny led the search effort.”

“She left you behind?”

“With a family friend and business partner. She wasn’t goin’ to let us get in the way of lookin’ for her son, or the mother of her grandchildren. But when she came up to the pass they were meant to be headin’ through, all she found was the mangled remains of the cart, produce scattered everywhere… and this hat.” I weakly flapped it about for emphasis. “Belonged to Pa. I was scared of even touchin’ it for the longest while afterwards — thought I’d be tarnishin’ their memory or something. Maybe I thought there’d be no way I could live up to the impression they made on me. Who can say?”

“I can’t even imagine…”

“And for your sake, I hope you’ll never have to.” I found my voice quavering slightly at the end that, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t keep it down. “It was just so… sudden. There weren’t even any bodies to recover. And the story books always make such a big deal out of it, like it means they could still be alive. But they can’t be. Part of me wants to believe they are, but they can’t be. They had no reason to leave, and no reason to stay away this long. We were good kids. Not the best, but… not bad. And… we needed them. I…”

“Applejack…” She unfurled her wing on instinct to drape it over my back, but clearly thought better and settled instead for shuffling closer and laying her hoof over mine. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d have minded. “Honey, please, don’t beat yourself up.”

“I’m not,” I croakily mumbled, then cleared my throat again and put Pa’s hat back on my head. “It’s just that… it wasn’t easy. Fendin’ for ourselves. Without them. Big Mac and I had to grow up fast, and… and it’s weird to think how we were more of a mother and father to Apple Bloom than they ever were. She even called me Ma once. It’s like I’ve been one longer than I had one… and I know it’s selfish of me to say so, but that ain’t right.”

“It isn’t, sweetie. It really isn’t. And you’re not selfish for thinking it.”

“Then why do I feel like it is? And why does it scare me, thinking that… that you and your husband might…”

She picked my hoof up and lay the other over it, looking me in the eyes and with upturned brows and ears angled back, offering a restrained, apprehensive smile. “You think it’s selfish because you’ve lived without it for so long. It’s become the norm. But if wanting parents makes us selfish, then there has to be something wrong with the world; everypony needs to be taken care of every once in a while. It’s just who we are, as living beings. No shame in that.”

The words felt like something I already knew, yet needed to hear again. Which was ironic, or poetic, or whatever it was, considering I hadn’t talked with many ponies about it, just Big Mac and Granny, and even then in shallow terms. Rainbow too — it never got in the way of our relationship, so I let the topic be. It’s not that I didn’t trust her to handle it… I just knew that sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone.

Regardless, hearing this from her, a weight was being lifted from my withers, and I felt that I could breathe a little easier because of it.

“As for Bow and myself…” Windy continued, drifting off and lowering her gaze in thought, “I’d like to apologise for how we acted. We were overzealous. We know we can’t replace them, and we’d never try. But Rainbow trusts you — loves you — and we love and trust her. And we’ll love and trust you the same just for that, because we can see how happy you are together. How you complete each other.”

“You… y-y-you think?”

Of course.” She stared at me for a short while longer, then unfurled her wing again and cocked a hesitant eyebrow inquiringly.

I glanced at it, then lingered when it suddenly seemed like such a welcome, inviting sight. And I felt myself drawn to it, as if I’d been searching and yearning for it for decades, and I could scarcely believe my own luck in finding it here, on the back patio of a cloud home, so high above the rest of the world.

She seemed to take notice and, gently, wrapped it around me and shimmied closer, softly tugging me with it until her shoulder pressed against mine. “We aren’t replacements, Applejack. We never wanted that. But just as Rainbow is an addition to your family… you and yours are an addition to ours. Don’t think of us as your new parents — think of us as your other parents. And maybe, in time… if you’re comfortable with it…”

I turned to her, teeth chattering behind closed lips as a strangely uplifting chill trickled down my spine like melting ice.

Windy retracted her wing and pulled back a little way, shifting in place to face me, then slowly bowed her head as she put a forehoof to her chest, and the other on my shoulder. And when she looked me in the eyes once again, there were tears in hers. “You can call me… Mom. If you want.”

I blinked, and suddenly, my vision seemed a whole lot clearer. I was welling up too, and I found myself sniffling and rubbing away at the waterworks misting up my vision. “I think I’d like that.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Maybe. In time.”

She blinked in turn, and some of the wetness in her eyes dribbled away as she grinned. “That’s good to hear. That’s very good to hear.”

A silence settled.

Without any wind, the only noise to break it was the sound of our stuttered breath, and the distant rush of air as Rainbow screamed through the ever-clearing sky. Stars glistened like moonlight shimmering on the dark surface of a midnight sea, and the moon itself seemed larger than it had ever been before. It was beautiful, plain and simple.

When she finally felt satisfied with her work, Rainbow blazed a path toward us, busting every cloud she’d formed along the way, then slowed up and landed on the patio opposite Windy. “Look at you two,” she said with a smile, combing her feathers through her mane. “I turn my back for five minutes and you’re already hugging it out.”

I snorted and shook my head. “She made it hard to say no.”

“Yep. Mom tends to do that.” She sat down at my side and swathed her wing over my back — like mother, like daughter — and gestured to the vast expanse before us. “So, what do you think?”

“I think it’s wonderful,” Windy whispered, nodding to herself. “Absolutely stunning.”

“And I’ll have to agree,” I said, nodding in kind. “You did good, Dash. Thank you.”

The silence resurfaced, and as time went on, nothing much changed in the sky above.

That was okay.

I had somepony else watching over me.