• Published 29th Nov 2022
  • 612 Views, 47 Comments

Cammie - Jarvy Jared

A mother's journey to the north inevitably leads her to a journey through her own heart.

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17 - Two Kinds of Crying

Chamomile blinked. A warm, vaguely orange light streamed through an unobstructed window, and she squinted at it, confused by its presence. Squinting and squirming as one does when they are not yet certain they are awake, she felt something brush up against her foreleg. She turned her head. A thin tube led from her upper leg to a slowly dripping IV bag. Next to her was a small metal cart with various capsules, bottles, and rolls of bandage strips that jostled every few seconds. The IV bag swayed in a similarly regular manner.

She was on a bed, her head sinking into the fluffiest pillow she’d ever felt. Her lower body rested under a thin blanket, while the rest of her was covered by a thin, polka-dotted gown. Something smelled unnaturally clean—her, maybe, or the bed itself, and then she smelled another thing: something balmy and spicy. On the other side of the bed was a table, and on it was a ceramic vase with carnations tilting towards the sun.

She finally recognized where she was—the medbay. Her eyes continued to rove, and she glanced in front of her through the rectangular windows, watching as green and emerald hills rolled by. The train was moving at a steady pace, such that it seemed to hypnotize her. She nearly closed her eyes, feeling sleepiness approaching.

But the act of closing her eyes, of inviting darkness in, caused panic to flare up in here. She snapped her eyes open, gasping, and involuntarily sat herself upright, just as the side door to the carriage opened and a honeysuckle earth pony wearing a white nurse’s uniform and cap walked in.

“Oh my!” the nurse exclaimed. She’d been carrying a clipboard—how so very nurse-like, Chamomile thought drolly—and it fell to the ground. She stooped to pick it up, still talking. “You’re awake? I mean, you’re awake! She’s awake!” This she shouted behind her, and a flurry of voices resounded similar cries of shock.

“Um, yes, I’m…” She didn’t get to finish. The door practically came off its hinges as a group of nervous nurses and a doctor rushed in. “… awake. I think.”

Though excited, one stern clearing of the throat from the doctor—a lean, periwinkle mare with a perpetually no-nonsense expression and tone—reminded the nurses of their duty. “Ms.… Chamomile, isn’t it?” she said. She seemed familiar, and it took Chamomile a second to realize that it was the doctor who’d attended to Polar.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“I’m Dr. Yeo.” She pronounced it “yo,” but the name sounded so short that Chamomile was inclined to believe it was short for something. Dr. Yeo spoke briskly, however, and it was clear she did not want to tarry on any topic but the one she’d chosen: “I understand you’ve been through quite the tumultuous event. I need to ask you a few questions…”

Chamomile didn’t mind, and it turned out to be rather standard procedure. Dr. Yeo asked for her name, date of birth, and what year it was. She asked if she had any pain; surprisingly, Chamomile did not. Yeo asked if she was hungry or thirsty—only a little, nothing terribly drastic. Then she asked what was the last thing Chamomile remembered.

It took some time for her to answer. That was not because she remembered nothing. On the contrary, she remembered too much—though it was fragmentary. There was the cavern in which she’d awoken and found Gaea; there was that corridor where they found Clip’s body; the underground lake and Polar; the crystal chamber; the chase, the flight, the screams, the shadows, the fear; the malignant entity that saw her, needed her, that grew closer and closer to them…

She couldn’t decide on what to say but couldn’t figure out how to lie about it. Eventually she decided to say, “My magic cut out at some part.”

Dr. Yeo nodded gravely. “In all likelihood, it did. When we found you, your horn looked like it’d been torched. Your channels suffered similarly upon examination.” She saw the dark look that passed over Chamomile’s face. “But the damage wasn’t permanent. Your channels were only temporarily overloaded. In a few days, if not a week, if not two, your magic should return.” The doctor nodded at an area just above Chamomile’s head. “In the meantime, though, we’ve treated, bandaged, and nullified your horn. Nothing, not even a spark, should escape. I encourage you not to try.”

Chamomile glanced up at herself. There indeed was a tube of gauze wrapped along the tip, and some sort of heavy, metallic ring around the base. Overloaded channels—the direct opposite of her son.

Yeo looked expectantly at her. “I won’t,” she said; then she added, because it seemed insulting not to, “I promise.”

There was a knock at the door. One of the nurses opened it, revealing Zipp. Her eyes lit up when she saw Chamomile. “Hey! You’re awake!”

No sooner had she said this that Yeo turned and fixed her with a stern gaze, and Zipp’s excitement fluttered into nervous embarrassment. “I have yet to finish my examination, Ms. Storm. If you would be so kind as to wait outside…”

“Oh. Right, of course. Sorry, doc. My bad.”

After she left, Dr. Yeo returned to Chamomile, who blurted, “Was that really necessary?”

The doctor quirked an eyebrow. “Ms. Chamomile. You fell through what geologists call a cryoseism—a frost quake, as it’s more commonly called. You fell into an impossibly deep hole, a hole that quickly became packed full of debris, which made excavation completely impossible. You went missing for several hours, nearly a whole day, during which numerous teams attempted to locate you, to no avail. And when next you appeared, it was under considerable thaumaturgical strain, with a horn as black as coal, a body that looked heavily emaciated, and a mind that could only utter nonsense in some ungodly other tongue. To top it all off, you’ve been in a comatose state for days, recovering. My professional opinion is that you should not experience any sudden bouts of excitement, either from internal or external sources. My asking Ms. Storm to leave before she accidentally triggers a cataclysmic relapse, therefore, was not only necessary, but also morally required.”

The slew of information, packaged under a neat, tidy voice, threw Chamomile for a loop. “Sleeping? For days?” she said, like the word had no meaning. “No, that… that can’t be right.”

“I assure you it most definitely is. The entire expedition halted while several rescue missions were performed—and we were on the verge of calling in help from other companies and the three tribes’ cities just as you reappeared.”

Dr. Yeo paused. Then she lowered her voice. “You were extremely lucky, Ms. Chamomile. But you will have to forgive our caution when considering your luck as anything but extraordinary.”

She changed topics, asking to conduct a few physical examinations. Numbly, Chamomile went through them—her body was examined by the cold stethoscope, her heart beat a special tune on the monitor, and her knees danced with each hit of the small rubber hammer. She was asked if she could stand, walk forward, say the alphabet backwards; Yeo again grilled her on her name, as though at any second she threatened losing it. All the while, Chamomile’s mind was elsewhere, scrambling to make sense of what she now knew. It couldn’t be true—it just couldn’t.

Eventually, Yeo gave a terse nod. “All things considered, you appear on a clear path towards recovery. All goes well, you’ll be out of this bed by the time we return to central station.”


“Yes, return. The expedition wasn’t just halted. It’s been canceled. Too dangerous to continue. It’s quite a sensible decision—you do not mean to tell me that you are disappointed?”

“No, I…” Maybe she was, a little bit. Maybe she assumed she’d be working a little longer. “No, I… I’m fine.”

“If you’re worried about payment, I am told that all the workers are receiving their fair share, as if the job had been completed.”

“That’s good.” Workers…

She started forward, the heart rate monitor trilling. One of the nurses coaxed her back into her pillow. “Wait. You said I was found. But what about the others? Gaea, Clip Styles, Polar Blast—”

“They’re fine,” the nurse who’d first entered said. Evidently, however, her speaking violated some sort of protocol, for the doctor gave her a disapproving look.

Yeo sighed. “Yes. We recovered them at the same time we recovered you.” That word, “recovered,” soured something in Chamomile. Like they were not ponies, but mere salvage lost at sea. “You were all clumped together, barely coherent. But they wouldn’t leave your side. Especially that pink mare—Ms. Gaea, as I recall. She’s fond of you.”

Chamomile flushed. Yeo continued unbothered: “We had to sedate them just to separate and treat you all. Thankfully they didn’t have too many injuries. Mr. Polar’s wing was easy to set, and Ms. Gaea had a few cuts cleaned and stitched.” Her eyes became suddenly somber. “Mr. Clip exhibited no outward signs of distress, but his horn…”

“I know.” Chamomile swallowed. “I… we found him like that. Is… Is he going to be okay? I wasn’t sure…”

Yeo appeared reluctant to answer. Chamomile sat forward. “Please. I have to know.”

Yeo sighed. “I admit, my expertise is limited since I myself am not a unicorn. But after consulting with several other unicorn doctors, as well as conducting a few tests, I… believe things are promising on his end. His mana channels are actually quite intact, more than yours were—he just won’t be able to do anything more extensive than lift an item more than five pounds heavy.”

Like a hair razor, Chamomile supposed, or scissors. “So his magic…”

“It’ll return. Forever limited, but not gone.”

“That’s a relief,” Chamomile said, and she meant it. Her heart rate calmed, and she felt as though a large part of her had been extinguished by the revelation. “Could… Could I see them?”

But she already knew the answer before it’d left Yeo’s lips. “Later. We want to make sure—”

“I know, I know. That my luck isn’t about to run itself out.”

A few more questions were asked and answered before Yeo was satisfied. “A nurse will bring you food in a bit. You’ll receive a check-up every half hour, until we reach the station.” Her tone made it clear there was no room for negotiation. Then the doctor said her goodbyes and led the entourage of nurses—sans the first one—out the door.

The nurse leaned in and whispered, “Off the record, I think she likes you.”

“I hear stern doctors are usually the best ones,” Chamomile tried to quip, but her heart wasn’t in it. “Do I really have to wait, though? I really would like to see them.”

“Doctor’s orders. I’m sorry, Ms. Chamomile. I know how much they mean to you, but…”

The nurse trailed off. Chamomile looked out the window, watching the blurring landscape. It was likely that they’d reached central station in a few hours—she could imagine the long trek in her mind and the train carving a path back the way they came. After that…

After that, we all go home.


The thought of it was entirely remarkable to her. How quickly can a word, which had nested for years as the anchor for a pony’s sense of reality, become like a stranger on a passing train…

Was she ready to go home? She didn’t know. She didn’t know why she didn’t know. What prevented her? Sure, her job was technically incomplete, but—

Juniper’s magic.

She frowned—the frown shook and, not wanting the nurse to see, she turned her head and buried her gaze in the IV bag. To have traveled this distance, so far from home, only to turn back before she’d even had a chance to try! What would she tell him? What could she say? How would he react? Would he hate her?

She began to cry. It was a silent cry, when one becomes too exhausted to do anything but wordlessly shake out the cobwebs of their grief. The nurse mistook the reason for the tears. “Hey, hey, look! If… If it really would mean so much to you, I’ll… I can try to arrange something.”

Chamomile was too tired to ask what she meant, so she simply nodded. The nurse smiled sympathetically. “Tissues are to your right,” she said, before leaving.

Chamomile cried until there seemed to be no more tears in her. Oddly enough, her mind felt less clouded. Perhaps it was because she knew, now, what was inevitably to come, and like a pony at the gallows, felt more resolved to face it. It would not come now, it had yet to, but it would—there was no point in denying it.

Somepony tapped three times on the door. “Hey, uh, Chamomile?” came Zipp’s voice. “I saw the last of the nurses leave. You, uh… mind if I come in?”

She blew her nose, then tossed the tissue into the wastebasket. She remembered what Dr. Yeo said—no visitors—and decided the doctor was wrong. “Sure, Zipp.”

Zipp entered, easily noticing Chamomile’s red eyes. She stood at the end of the bed. Her eyebrows were drawn down into a deep V, and the corners of her lips twitched from one kind of frown to another.

Chamomile waited. She had a feeling she’d be waiting a lot.

Finally, Zipp sighed. “There’s no real way to say this without some degree of awkwardness.” She looked at Chamomile with large, vulnerable eyes. “I’m sorry.”

Well. That was not how Chamomile thought this conversation would begin. “You’re… sorry.”

“Yeah, I…” Zipp sighed, shamefaced. “I… I…” Then she shook her head violently, and nearly shouted, “I should have tried harder to find you guys! When I saw that massive fissure in the ground, I tried to dive in, I really did, but—the storm sent me flying back, and by the time it was gone, there was just so much debris in the way, and I… I couldn’t lift any of it, or slip through, and at the same time I had to make sure everypony else was all right and—”

In the middle of her rant, she’d started to hover, and only stopped when she bumped her head against the carriage ceiling. She drifted back down to the floor, rubbing her head. Her voice, Chamomile noted, seemed about to break; she spoke emotionally, openly, and for whatever reason, this reminded her of what Polar had said in the cavern, how Zipp oozed a kind of one-ness with herself.

Another thought intruded upon that one: would Polar ever tell Zipp how he knew her? How he felt?

“We searched for hours. We had no idea if any of you had survived, but we searched anyway. I thought about blasting another hole in the ground just to see if we could tunnel our way in, but our engineers told me that could hurt or trap more ponies.”

“The doctor… she said we’d been missing for hours. And that we’ve been… asleep, for the past several days.” Chamomile looked down at her sheets. “Is that true?”

Zipp nodded. “All of it,” she murmured. “After the storm hit, we spent all day trying to dig you out, but we couldn’t. We tried to find another way underground through the mountains, but we couldn’t find any openings. By the next day we were considering bringing in help from the other tribes.”

Just for us? “But… days?”

Zipp looked miserable. “Yeah. Your friends, they were able to come around a few hours after we’d found them, but you…” She scrunched up her eyes and could no longer look at Chamomile.

She couldn’t blame her. Days in a coma. Days that she’d lost. Astral had been like that, slipping in and out of consciousness, and she remembered that at times she wondered if he had any idea of the time that was passing him by. Four days seemed miniscule compared to all the wasted time he suffered through. Yet even so, she could hardly believe she’d experienced that for herself.

“If I hadn’t hesitated,” Zipp was now saying. “If I had, maybe, pushed us a little more… maybe we would have found you sooner. That’s why I’m sorry, Chamomile.”

“Zipp,” Chamomile said. A firmness had settled into her voice, surprising even her, and she leaned forward, touching her shoulder with a hoof. “What happened—you can’t blame yourself for it; it’s not your fault. I’m sure you did everything you could.”

“Did I?” Zipp laughed bitterly. “I told you about us looking at the tunnels to see if there was any way we could reach you. But the truth is, I didn’t even consider it a possibility until the last minute, when somepony suggested it to me. Maybe if I had actually thought about checking the mountains—”

“You couldn’t have known. None of us could have.” Chamomile lowered her voice, her hoof, and her eyes. “Really, we… we just got lucky, getting out.”

Zipp stared at her, sour-faced. “That’s not really comforting.”

Chamomile shrugged helplessly. “I don’t think luck usually is. It’s just… another way of measuring life. Like the years, or the seasons…”

“I guess so…”

But it was clear Zipp would not accept this reversal. Chamomile wasn’t sure she could, either. She did not blame Zipp in the slightest, but also was aware that there was no comfort in accepting that the universe, on occasion, played dice with their lives. She tried not to think about what would have happened if they’d been trapped underground any longer—if that thing that had chased them had not just captured her, but her friends as well.

That made her think about the skeleton they’d found underground. Lucky Break. The letter that skeleton had carried. Its contents. Luck hadn’t drawn that carrier underground; misfortune had. But maybe misfortune and luck were just two sides of the same coin. Not that that made her feel any less creeped out.

She paused in her thinking, going back over what Zipp said. “You said we came out of a tunnel?”

Zipp nodded. Chamomile felt cold dread creep into her heart. If they had come out… “Was… Was the tunnel open when you found us?”

“Open?” Zipp blinked at her, surprised. “It must have been, since that’s how you got out. But when we went to check on it, it was sealed up shut, like it’d collapsed in on itself.”

“Collapsed—oh, thank the stars…”

Zipp stared at her, but Chamomile didn’t care. She sagged forward, and it seemed like one massive sigh traveled through her body. A wave of emotion crashed into her, and she closed her eyes, nearly chuckling with hysterical relief.

“Why do you ask?” Zipp said. “Were you afraid that something was going to escape with you?”


Chamomile hesitated. The gnashing, fearsome darkness returned to her mind’s eye, as terrifying as it had been when she’d first seen it, and she very nearly bit her tongue to avoid speaking out loud. But something told her that this was not something she ought to keep hidden. She was grateful that the windows were uncovered, that sunlight and warmth streamed generously in, because they filled her with a degree of iron fortitude. “Zipp, we found something underground.”

Her tone conveyed some taboo notion, such that Zipp moved closer and nodded. Chamomile spoke in a throaty whisper, revealing the thing that had chased them through the many tunnels. She also spoke about the skeleton, and the letter which they’d read, adding, almost off-handedly, that it was probably somewhere in their recovered items. Zipp ought to read it—it was probably important. Presently, though, she found she could not describe the entity in anything more specific than shadowy descriptions as thin as smoke—which, she supposed, given the creature, was fitting.

“It chased us. Chased me. I thought… I thought it managed to get me in the end. But I guess I was wrong.” She stared past Zipp, at the receding landscape. “If the tunnel collapsed, though, then… then it must be trapped under there.” She tried to sound confident in that assessment, but already doubt was starting to pool. Could a collapsed tunnel really contain something that had chased them through all those corridors and cavernous passageways? And even if it could, for how long?

Zipp was speechless, and the room became so quiet that Chamomile could have sworn she heard the IV bag dripping and tap the metal pole to which it was attached. Something else could be heard, just at the edge of auditory perception. It seemed like a whisper, deep and scintillating. It reminded Chamomile too much of that voice in her head. It caused her to shiver.

“You believe me, right?” Chamomile asked desperately. “Please tell me you do, Zipp. I’m—I’m sure the others would say the same thing.”

It took another moment of silence passing before Zipp answered her. “As spectacular as that sounds, I do believe you. It fits with…” She’d been about to reveal something, but caught herself. Now she wore a look of morbid wariness. “Well, I mean… Yeah, I believe you.”

She spoke sincerely, and that was enough. Let her have her secrets. Truthfully, Chamomile wanted to forget what she saw, wanted to forget that she had ever been underground.

The train took a slight turn, slowing, and Chamomile felt herself lean into the bed. There were a few ponies outside—a traveling caravan, it seemed, walking along the railroad tracks like a group of gypsies. They were there for but a second, before the turn was completed and they were gone. Before they’d vanished from view, Chamomile had noted their glowing faces, how they seemed to dance and sing in that moment in time, how, in doing so, they were superimposed in her mind and thus made to live forever.

Chamomile realized something. A scene that innocent could live forever in the recesses of one memory just as much as something as nefarious as that experience buried beneath the earth could. The mind had no preference for what it recalled, either good or bad; what haunted it, haunted it, regardless of nature or circumstance. And she realized that no matter what she desired, she would never forget what had happened. Just as she would never forget that night with Gaea, those days with Juniper, and those last moments with Astral. They would live with her for as long as she did. But she couldn’t say if that either comforted or alarmed her. It was just a fact of life—and of death.

She felt disquieted.

“Anyway, uh…” Zipp rubbed the back of her head. “I just wanted to… check up on you. And apologize. Which I did, heh…”

“It’s not your fault,” Chamomile repeated.

“I know, I know. But I still felt I had to.” Zipp nodded to herself. “But yeah. I should get going. That doc probably doesn’t want you to get too stirred up, and you… you probably want to rest.”

She didn’t, but she knew the conversation was over. She nodded.

When Zipp reached the door, she paused. “It probably doesn’t need to be said, but I’m glad we found you all in time.”

She looked so awkward that Chamomile couldn’t help but smile. “I’m glad you found us, too.”

Zipp returned the smile. Seeing it, Chamomile had a sudden thought: I’m older than her. She nearly laughed. Here was a princess, a leader of Equestria’s first railroad company, a pony who took personally the potential loss of any under her—and yet, she was barely grown, likely years younger than Gaea, undoubtedly as old as either Clip or Polar. She was young yet now seemed older, too, made so by worry, and this caused Chamomile to inexplicably feel regret for causing her to age.

Zipp left, and Chamomile now had only her thoughts for company.

She watched the clock tick closer to noon. Its movements were laggard, deceptively so; Chamomile did not think that was a fault, so much as deliberate design. The ticking was not that loud, but she was thankful for its presence—any noise, no matter how small, was better than silence, which only reminded her of the silence they’d suffered in that crystal chamber.

The nurse returned. “Hi, Ms. Chamomile. I’m not bothering you, am I?”

Chamomile briefly tore her gaze from the clock, but found herself slowly returning to it mid-speech. “No, no, I’m just sitting here. Is that clock deliberately several milliseconds behind?”

“I wouldn’t know. I’m just a nurse.”

Another nurse had already removed the IV bag, so all that this nurse did was ask Chamomile a few other questions and check her vitals in an efficient manner. As she did this, Chamomile saw her name written on a tag: Calendula. Under it was written in quotation marks: “Cally.”

“Are you hungry, by any chance?” Cally asked.

Chamomile was about to say no, when her stomach let out a growl. Two pairs of eyes drifted towards her abdomen, then faced each other. Cally smiled; Chamomile, abashed, said, “I, uh, suppose I’m getting there.”

“Sounds like your stomach has a better sense of time than the clock,” Cally said, laughter in her voice. “Well, hold tight. I’ll see if I can get you some food, and…” When she stopped talking, her smile became mischievous. “Well. Get you food, yes.”

Chamomile raised an eyebrow at the fragmentary statement, but chose not to question it. After a few more questions and checks, Cally left through the door, leaving Chamomile alone again. She watched the clock, trying to determine if her eyes were playing tricks on her.

The clock had a soothing effect, though, and soon, as the minutes counted down, she felt herself beginning to drift. Each time that she was about to close her eyes, though, she’d jerk away, remembering everything all over again. The monitor would trill and screech before she forced her heart to calm, and she would let out a groan and sink back into her pillow. She looked at her hooves and saw that they were shaking. With effort, she stilled them, but felt some other part of her in a state of convulsion—it was not some physical part of her, however, but something even more.

She wished she had a book to read, tea to drink, a friend to talk to—anything that would keep her awake, keep her away from remembering, from thinking. Her stomach growled again, and she amended that list to include food.

A few minutes later—she’d stopped actually counting—she heard something approaching the door. A rolling sound, like a cart. Food at last, then, perhaps. Several voices, muffled and low, accompanied it, but she could make out Cally’s among them. She was saying something to the effect of, “Now, be careful, don’t excite her too much.”

Chamomile’s ears flicked as she heard the knob being turned. Visitors? But Dr. Yeo had expressly forbidden—

The door opened, and in walked Cally. She smiled broadly at Chamomile. “Hope you weren’t waiting for too long. I’ve brought drinks and sandwiches, and…”

That last word she said in a sing-songy voice, turning over her shoulder and gesturing with a hoof. A metal food cart, carrying a pitcher of water, cups, and sandwiches—far more than was necessary for a single pony—rounded the doorframe. Chamomile’s blood seemed to freeze even as her heart raced, the monitor beeping imploringly at her, but that was not because of the sight of the cart.

It was because of the ponies who were behind it.

Clip Styles. Polar Blast. And Gaea.

They, unlike her, did not wear any hospital gowns. Their faces glowed when they saw her, and for half a moment, she seriously believed that they had escaped unharmed. But then her eyes traveled over them more fully. They saw the stubby bandage wrapped around Clip’s shattered horn. A sling wound around Polar’s broken wing. Gauze strips applied to parts of Gaea’s legs like she’d suffered freezer burns. And their faces… Although they smiled, their faces were ragged and haunted. There seemed an uncleanliness that no amount of hospital ammonia could remove. And when they looked at her, she could see fear in their eyes. For a moment she thought they were afraid of her; then she realized, no: they were afraid for her. Afraid that she was not really awake, that she was, perhaps, mere moments from slipping back into unconsciousness.

For a time, no one spoke. The ticking of the clock was the only noise in the small compartment. Cally looked between them, then, shrugging, trotted over to check Chamomile’s heart rate monitor. Something was in the air. Tension and something else. They were waiting for somepony to speak, but could not decide who should go first—or even what to say.

Then Polar—brazen, enthusiastic Polar—stepped around the cart and made a mock bow, in a stiff, deliberately slow manner. His good wing flashed in front of the cart like he was presenting it. “Mademoiselle, it iz our supreme honor to present you zis fine, ‘ow-you-say… launch!”

In that instant, the tension shattered. Chamomile was caught between a cough and a laugh, while Gaea turned away, choking on something that seemed similar. Even Cally was chuckling. Clip groaned and facehooved. “Clearly they did not teach you Prench during recruitment. Never speak again, I implore you.”

Polar bristled. “What? No one else was talking.”

“You call that talking?”

“Eet iz, how vous say…”

“Good grief, please! Stop with the accent or I will snap off the rest of my horn and shove it down your throat!”

“Sounds like someone’s getting the hunger cranks!”

The other mares finally let their laughter sing while Clip and Polar continued to bicker. That they were bickering, but not fighting, must surely have been a good sign; that Clip was making jokes about his injury, was perhaps also a good sign as well. Chamomile’s heart relaxed just a bit, and the machine’s beeping dropped a few levels.

“I’ll leave you all to it,” Cally said once her laughter had dimmed. “I’ll be checking in on you in a half-hour, but you better have skedaddled by then—wouldn’t want the other nurses or, goddess forbid it, the doctor, to find out you’re all here.” She winked at Chamomile before making her exit.

Now it was just them: Polar Blast, Clip Styles, Gaea, and Chamomile. It seemed all became aware of this, for the laughter and bickering slowly dissolved, and an air of uncertainty took their place. Chamomile sat up, the sheets slipping away, and crawled a little bit forward, so that she was closer to them. She wanted to say something, but couldn’t think of anything to say. Her eyes were drawn towards the sandwiches.

Polar lowered his voice and dropped his accent. His smile was soft and kind. “I know you have a lot on your mind, but let’s eat first, okay?”

They handed out the sandwiches and drinks like a sacramental tradition. The resulting atmosphere was a bit like that, stuffed with silent holiness, but it was not an unwelcome air between them. Rather it was like they had agreed for the moment they must tend to their bodily needs before their emotional ones.

Eventually, while they ate and drank, conversation made its way between them, natural like the mist off the mountainside. At first, it was snippets—little observations about their surroundings. Gradually, though, the topics advanced into fully-fledged dialogue, light and hearty, like the food they ate fueled some engine of cordiality.

Then the discussion of pay came up. “The doctor said we’re still getting paid in full, despite the expedition ultimately failing,” Chamomile said. She shook her head. “That’s crazy to hear.”

“How much exactly are we getting paid?” Polar asked. “I actually never bothered to ask.”

Clip told him. “That’s more than I expected,” Polar said evenly, but his voice betrayed his excitement.

“Well, I’d imagine there’s some compensation for the whole thing ending early. Wonder where they got all the money from, though?”

Chamomile looked at Gaea. “Do you think it’ll be enough for you to help buy a new plot of land for you and your father?”

Gaea frowned thoughtfully, then brought a hoof up as though she was examining invisible numbers in front of her. “Let me think… If I combine that with what I’ve saved up… Well, it won’t buy a place nearly as big as home was.” She smiled. “But I think it’ll be enough. Any land is good land, and Dad… Dad will be happy.”

Chamomile nodded at this. She looked at Polar, expecting him to be surprised, but he didn’t react beyond also nodding. Gaea must have eventually told him about her family while Chamomile was unconscious.

She looked down at her half-eaten sandwich. “You know, it just occurred to me…”

“Yeah?” Gaea said.

“This…” She waved a hoof at them all. “This is the first time we’ve actually all eaten together, isn’t it?”

The other three looked at each other. “Is it really?” Polar asked.

Gaea nodded. “We… Well, Clip, Chamomile, and I ate together at the Badlands, when you were…”

“Making a fool of myself?” But he smiled without bitterness. “But, yeah, wow, it really is our first time together.”

They continued to speak about the matter with curious and amused tones of voices. It suddenly dawned on Chamomile that these really were her friends—friends who came in all sorts of colors and shades and backgrounds. She thought back to what Zipp had told her back in the Badlands—a time that seemed a generation old, by this point. About them being friends already. She remembered how she’d responded—dubiously, unable to see that, or perhaps unwilling. But now that had changed. Here they were, eating, drinking, bickering, laughing about crushes, like they’d known each other for far longer than a few days.

Her eyes traveled over them, her mind no longer listening to their words. Recalling the awkwardness of their first encounter with each other, she could not fathom it had ever occurred, for they were now interacting so naturally, it was almost uncanny. Suddenly, she could not imagine a life—her life—without them. And that made what had happened underground all the more harrowing.

Their jokes dwindled when they noticed her beginning to sniffle. In a quick motion, Gaea was there. “Hey, hey, what is it? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Chamomile choked out. “Nothing’s wrong. I’m just…” She felt tears building again. She was surprised—she’d thought she’d emptied herself of them before. “I’m just so happy to see you all again.” She tried to wipe her eyes. Tried and failed and tried again and failed again.

She felt somepony touch her hooves with her own. It was Gaea. Through her tears, she saw that she was also crying. “And we are just as happy to see you,” she whispered.

Her voice was a magic spell. Chamomile became overwhelmed by emotion, and for the first time in what seemed forever—a forever that had been defined by a numbness, a coldness; a forever that had featured a bud closing in on itself, refusing to bloom, refusing to touch the sun again—she opened her heart. She cried and cried, not out of exhaustion, but out of necessity. Gaea was crying, too, stroking her mane, crying into it. And Polar and Clip, while quieter, were also crying. They, too, came over and joined the embrace. It was good, and warm, and safe.

There are two kinds of crying in life, both of which happened in that small hospital bay. The first one hides—the second one heals.

But the half-hour was finished all too soon. Cally came in to warn them, and Clip, Polar, and Gaea began to pack up.

They had spoken of much, but the topic of what had happened in those tunnels had never come up. Like the clock, this did not seem a fault of circumstance—it was deliberately chosen. It was too sensitive of a matter for them, too closely held to their hearts, and goddesses only knew how long it would be before they were ready.

Before leaving, Gaea leaned in to whisper in Chamomile’s ear, “I’ll come back later. There’s more I want to say.” She smiled, but seemed disconcerted by a prospect which only she knew, and Chamomile didn’t have a chance to ask her before she slipped away.