• Published 10th Jul 2020
  • 1,087 Views, 147 Comments

Three-act Play - Dave Bryant

Wallflower Blush didn’t show up for graduation. Sunset Shimmer is worried—but luckily she knows just the person to consult about it. If Rose Brass can’t help, no one can. • A Twin Canterlots story

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“Physically, she’s progressing.” Even Keel, smarter than usual in a sarong and bolero of conservative cut and color, looked up from their tablet and met Rose’s eye again. “The attending physician is confident she’ll be healed up enough to make the transfer on schedule.”

Rose sat back, eliciting a creak from her swivel chair, and shot the cuffs of the simple but fine blouse of her suit. “So once Wallflower and Sunset are at the clinic, primary responsibility for the case passes to you, and my role scales down to administrative oversight for Social Services.” After a moment’s hesitation she went on, “I’ll be sure to get all the casework information I can to you within the next week.” Her eye narrowed in thought. “You mentioned the healing specifically, I noticed. No improvement in motility?”

A faint grimace crossed Keel’s face, which said quite a lot considering their usual reserve. “A little—enough to hold out hope, I gathered from the hospital staff handling her case. Part of the problem is how uncooperative she’s been. How much of it is can’t and how much is won’t remains an open question. Even Sunset hasn’t been able to boot the girl into motion, and she’s tried.”

Rose sighed and rubbed her forehead with her good hand. “I’ve seen some pretty mulish kids in my time, but Wallflower . . .”

“If you’ll forgive me, Captain—Rose, I looked up your background when I got this assignment.” The words were deferential; the tone, polite but firm. “I couldn’t get much detail on your last case, but even that seemed to be more similar to your usual line than this is. Frankly, I’m surprised you’re dealing with it at all.”

Rose gave them a gimlet eye; just because the questions weren’t asked didn’t mean she couldn’t hear the curiosity lurking. “I’d have been disappointed if you hadn’t looked me up.” She elected to gloss over the past by focusing on the present. “Sunset and I got to know each other as a result of that last case.” A brief sanitized version of Sunset’s original visit bringing her concerns about Wallflower to this self-same office appeared to satisfy the counselor, but Rose was uneasily aware how little that meant. “I made a promise.”

“And you never break a promise,” Even Keel surmised.

“Not if I can help it,” Rose rejoined with a flash of irritation.

The counselor gave her an odd look and paused before continuing. “Sunset certainly seems to be doing her best; you were right about her dedication and her sense of guilt and responsibility. If I have any concerns over her involvement, they would rest there.”

The nod they got in response was rueful. “Definitely something to watch. She does have a temper . . . and if she thinks it’s the order of the day, she’s perfectly willing to immolate herself for a friend.”

This time the look was more than just odd. “I think I’m getting to know someone else who’s perfectly willing to do that.”

“Sunset told me you’re the reason I’m still here.”

Rose faltered in the ICU doorway and tugged at the bottom hem of her suit jacket in a reflexive twitch. She had been about to utter almost exactly the same words Wallflower just blurted out. And when had Sunset mentioned it to Wallflower, anyway?

Well, it could have been during any number of one-sided conversations over the last several days. Right.

It suddenly occurred to Rose the little room full of beeping cabinets and patient bed actually was bigger than her office. She gave her head a brief shake and finished entering. “That’s right. I learned first aid in the army, and I’ve kept up my certification ever since. I have a whole shelf of army field manuals, including those; the ones that aren’t classified are in the public domain and available to anyone.”

Her mouth clicked shut on further words—how hard certification was when military authorities weren’t keen on bestowing it on anyone who wasn’t on active duty, and civilian authorities weren’t keen on bestowing it on anyone who’d learned the military way, with all the hair-raising techniques they didn’t teach. She already had said more about it than she should.

Wallflower had no answer to that, but for once Rose couldn’t blame her. “Really, though, the docs and nurses here have done a he—a lot more for you than I did.” She simply could not resist the urge to needle the apathetic lump on the bed, even if only a little, with a pointed reminder. Maybe, just maybe, it might get a rise out of the girl. “If you want to thank anyone, thank them.”

At least it got a frowny-face out of Wallflower. And did she hunch down a little? Any movement was better than no movement, wasn’t it? In a gentler tone the social worker asked, “Did Sunset also mention she spent all the time she could in here, staying through the night to watch over you?”

That earned a grunt, so Rose carried on. “Sunset really cares about you, Wallflower. You know that, don’t you?”

The mumble that floated back had to be more than just another grunt. “What was that? Speak up, Wallflower, I can’t hear you.” It wasn’t the bellow of a drill instructor, but it was the snap of an officer.

“I said I wish she didn’t.” The words positively dripped with resentment and obduracy.

“Well, that’s not up to you, now is it?” Impatience sharpened the question. Rose’s eye narrowed. This was the longest conversation she’d had with her client since the day of that first interview weeks ago—it only felt like years. She’d imparted a piece of advice from her academy days then; maybe it was time for another. “Wallflower. You can’t control the actions of others, much less their thoughts. You can work to control your own thoughts and actions. You can’t change the way Sunset feels, or the way she acts on those feelings. But you might wanna think about how you’re gonna deal with that. And I don’t mean sulking.”

Abruptly Rose cut herself off again, appalled. Wallflower blinked up at her owlishly. A long, awkward silence stretched.

Rose sighed. “I . . . apologize, Wallflower. That was over the line. Look, just think about it, okay? If nothing else, you and Sunset will have to work together at the clinic, so at least cut her some slack. I’ve got to go, so I’ll talk with you later.” She pivoted in a crisp about-face, back stiff, but before she took more than a step, a low, shaky voice sounded behind her.

“R-Rose? Um, listen, I’m sorry I put you through all that stuff.”

A short nod was all the answer Rose could muster—or would dare. It wasn’t gratitude, but at least it was an acknowledgement of someone else’s feelings, and that was more of a gesture than she’d have expected of the wounded, vulnerable, self-absorbed girl on the bed.

Not until after Rose left the building did she realize she really hadn’t accomplished most of what she’d come to do.

Military or civilian, bureaucracy is largely the same everywhere—similar problems, similar solutions. Rose sat quietly in her office, absently tapping keys and jiggling the mouse that sat nearby as she peered at the cheap flatscreen display set on the small computer trolley at right angles to her putty-colored government-issue metal-and-laminate desk, out of the sight lines that let her converse with visitors, especially clients. Some of her co-workers had track pads, others had track balls, but good as her prosthetic was, it didn’t work well with those devices, so she’d stuck with the older style of pointing device.

At least she’d learned to shoot left-handed; that hadn’t been nearly so difficult. She could use some range time, come to think of it. Maybe some trail-running time, too. And she hadn’t been keeping up as well as she should with the tai chi

She shook her head to clear away the woolgathering; right now what she needed to do was clear away the administrivia on her caseload. The Dazzlings had been ratcheted down to the bottom tier, but that just meant less oversight, not no oversight. They always would be prickly and difficult personalities, but some might argue she was too, and look where she’d gotten. She read and initialed reports, approved a few requests, noted the itinerary for their musical tour of nearby cities, puttering around in their spray-painted rattletrap van. At first she’d been concerned, but they’d been making it all work somehow.

The handful of other cases over which she bore partial or full authority likewise passed across her monitor, one after another, those that had sat idle longest going first. They too required only perfunctory action, checking a box here, stamping an electronic signature there. She fell into a familiar rhythm and the humming mood that went with it—not contentment exactly, but focus and balance, a sense of work accomplished and tasks fulfilled.

The screen blinked as the system regurgitated the next electronic jacket from its bowels, and Rose blinked in return. Wallflower Blush. The breath went out of her in a rush and her head jerked back.

It always was a bit of a letdown when Rose handed off a client to someone else, as if somehow she was shirking or failing in her obligations. She knew better, of course—after all, part of her job was to determine who was best suited to help a client and to arrange for that help to happen—but somehow that wasn’t enough this time around.

Rose leaned back on her chair and looked up at the water-stained ceiling tiles. She was slipping. It was just that simple. Wallflower nearly died on her watch, right in front of her, because she screwed up and failed to cover all the bases properly. She promised Sunset she would do her best . . . and she hadn’t.

Now the thought that someone else would be taking over, that she would be handing off Wallflower to another professional because she couldn’t handle it, was a relief. Her face tightened and she sat up again to look around the tiny cell of an office. What was she doing here, anyway?

Location, location, and location, the old punch line ran, but like a lot of jokes, it oversimplified for the sake of its kernel of truth. The bustle and density of the nearby downtown likely had been factors, but sheer quality and quirky charm no doubt also contributed to the survival of the independent coffee house—a literal former house in its case—as big-chain competitors flooded in like the tide a generation or so back. In the winter Cuppa’s was a cozy refuge of hot bracing beverages; in the summer, as now, it was an oasis shaded from the blazing sun, offering chilled as well as piping refreshments.

Its customers were as eclectic as its comfortable furnishings, and sometimes as shabby. College students and office workers alike jockeyed for space at the order counter and the half-dozen communal tables surrounded by stained and mismatched overstuffed chairs. The much smaller seventh table stood in a corner, only two chairs drawn up to it like a castle’s curtain walls. The crowd’s rooba-rooba provided a modicum of privacy for its occupants’ shop talk in a less formal venue than either of their offices. It was a habit of Sticky Note’s that had taken Rose a while to get used to, but she’d learned to enjoy it.

Sticky’s dry voice recited details, precise and concise. Rose sat back and listened, nodding occasionally in understanding. The man didn’t have a military bone in his body, but she could remember fellow officers decanting after-action reports in the same academy-approved fashion—just as she did. Sticky had a real knack for mirroring exactly the right mannerisms to set someone at ease, a tremendous asset in their shared profession. It helped that verbal military reporting had been honed to a fine art over the last couple of centuries, which made this particular mimicry practical as well as . . . comforting. Well, after a fashion. Maybe reassuring was a better word.

Otherwise he was quite a contrast to his tall, athletic companion. Medium height and rail thin, he managed to look stooped even when he sat—or stood—straight. Short sooty hair with a streak of purple capped a dark red complexion from which slightly watery gray eyes gazed through the squarish glasses perched on his nose. Dark jacket and slacks over a button-down white shirt were as nondescript as it got. Not the sort to stand out in a crowd, and he clearly preferred it that way.

“For the moment, then, Holly’s doing all right,” Rose summed up when his informal lecture concluded. She sipped at her iced coffee and put it back on the table with due care not to end up with blotches on her seafoam-green business suit.

After a judicous pause, Sticky nodded, lips pursed. “Yes, I’d say so. Very middle of the road, which I think is a good characterization of her in general.” He opened a hand palm up. “She isn’t progressing by leaps and bounds, but then she also isn’t dragging her feet or causing trouble.”

Rose’s mouth quirked as his last few words released a cascade of memories, still vivid even after so many years. Sticky “Fingers” Note the more or less ex-pickpocket standing in her office, one hand gripping the upper arm of his friend Bright Eyes—who wasn’t living up to his name very well just then, thanks to the shiner marring one of them. The latter fellow would be one of her first cases, and both of the young men, just out of their teens, definitely caused more than their share of trouble.

Still, she felt a stir of pride at how well it all had turned out. Two of the most cherished moments of her second career were learning of Sticky’s decision to follow in her footsteps and attending his and Bright Eyes’ wedding.


She blinked away the reverie. “Sorry, Sticky. What was that?”

“I asked what’s wrong.” Sticky’s voice was patient but determined. His fingers were tented under his chin. She knew that gesture; she’d caught his full attention.

“Wrong?” Rose’s brow furrowed.

“Yes. The last month or so you’ve changed,” he observed with scientific dispassion. “Quite a bit, actually.”

Rose rubbed her forehead. “It’s . . . been a pretty rough month.”

“So I see. Your report on Wallflower—and Sunset—made that pretty plain.” The hands separated, and he took a sip of his own coffee, hot but equally black. “You’ve dealt with difficult cases before, though. This is different. Why?”

For a moment she hovered on the edge of passing it off, but then he looked up again with a familiar scalpel-like look. He wasn’t going to buy it for a moment. She knew from experience he would cut through a mountain if that was the most direct path to the heart of the problem, and hang the consequences. She sighed and sagged a little.

He listened with the same unflappable calm he brought to any meeting, whether with client or co-worker. She laid it out, all the subtext that never made it into the stilted emotionless officialese of formal reports—the doubts, the stumbles, the mistakes and regrets. It seemed longer than it was before she wound down and leaned back again, all out of words.

They sat silent for a stretch, Cuppa’s obliviously busy around them. Finally Sticky blew out his own sigh. “Then I have my answer.” He leveled a finger at her. “You’re burning out, Rose.”

Author's Note:

Many thanks to I-A-M for allowing me to borrow Sticky Note for this chapter! I-A-M’s setting for the Sunflower Gardens series is separate—and very different—from Twin Canterlots, but Sticky Note is such a wonderful character it would have been a crime to pass up the opportunity, and both of us really wanted to write something between Rose and Sticky.

By the way, so far as I know, what Rose says about US military field manuals is true. Almost everything produced by the US federal government that isn’t classified is in the public domain and generally available. The United States Government Publishing Office exists to produce and disseminate documents not only for the federal government but—through USAGov (formerly the Federal Citizen Information Center) in Pueblo, Colorado—for private citizens who ask.

Oh, and Rose’s desk? The classic Steelcase 3200 that pretty much is the very symbol of Jet-Age government offices of all kinds. It’s quite a bit older than she is, and probably looks just like the one in the linked photo, though instead of that ugly sulphur-yellow it’s an equally awful putty-tan. I’ll bet you can visualize that color perfectly if you ever have seen it.