• Published 19th Nov 2023
  • 1,095 Views, 42 Comments

Little Donkey - 8_Bit

A lone equine wanders into a new village, ultimately hoping to scout out a quiet place to eventually settle down in and call home. Unfortunately for her, the one she stumbled upon is Ponyville.

  • ...

Chapter III - Through The Winter's Night

Ahh, now that was a good night's sleep.

I peek an eye open, one ear instinctively tilting forward to shield me from the bright light coming in through the window. The small clock beside my bed is, not remotely to my surprise, blurry. Reaching a tentative hoof out of my precious cocoon of blanketed warmth, I prod at the place where my glasses should be. Roughly. But instead, I only touch countertop. So I lift my hoof slightly and shift it around the surface of the bedside table, searching. Which is when the worst thing happens. I feel my hooftip brush against something. Then a moment later, there is the sound of something small and metallic clattering onto the wooden floor.

"Oh, bollocks."

Thus, two options remain to me. Number one, remain in position. The outside world is overrated anyway, who needs food, drink, or even vision? Especially when this bed is so warm and so comfy. Or number two, get out of bed, find my glasses, and get started with my day. Honestly, this is a harder decision than you might expect. Such was my efficiency in my construction of a blanket burrito, the temperature difference between the inside and outside of my bedsheets is stunning. Even in the well-insulated rooms of the inn, the air feels cold by comparison. And for a few moments, I whip my exposed foreleg back into the safety of the thick duvet. There's some intense thinking going on. And when I say intense thinking, I mean my pre-caffeinated brain repeating the words 'bed comforble' over and over. Yes, I know 'comforble' isn't a word. But it's early, give me a break.

Alas, the saga between missing glasses and cozy comfort can only go on for so long. With some heavy reluctance and some mental steeling, I slowly unfold myself from the layers of my blanket fortress. My limbs protest immediately, as they are one by one exposed to the slightly-less-warm air outside the protective burrito. But I figure, just get it over with already. Once I'm slightly less mummified, I throw one corner of the duvet aside. There's an urge to hiss against the sudden temperature change that hits my entire body, though that could be the melodramatic side of myself yearning for attention. I tell myself not to be such a big foal, roll over, and pull myself into a sitting position on the edge of the bed.

The floor clops underhoof as I settle down onto it. Then, exhaling through my nostrils, I lower myself into a crawling position to look for my glasses. A yawn forces its way out of my mouth, as I fumble around behind the bedside table with an outstretched hoof. They can't have ventured too far, could they? Wait, that's stupid. It's not the first time I've accidentally knocked my glasses off of my nightstand, and it won't be the last. I know for an undisputed fact that it's a fifty-fifty chance that they're either just sat where they first hit the floor, or that they've bounced and fucked off into the unknown. Why is it, when I'm at my most blind and vulnerable, my glasses hit the ground running and take off on their own little sightseeing tour to Vietmane?

Worrying amounts of time pass by, before my ears give the most barely perceptible little flutter as they catch onto the faintest clink sound. With as much tender care and grace that my dopey, just-woken-up self can muster, I nudge them closer so I can raise them aloft in my hoof. Success! I squint at them, checking for dust or cracks, before triumphantly sliding them up the bridge of my muzzle as I stand up. Ahh, sweet high definition vision, how I took you for granted! The blurry room brings itself back into sharp focus. I glance at the clock sat on the small stand next to the bed, noting the time. Twenty-five to nine. Cool, not bad by my standards.

Then I turn to the window. It's all fogged up, so I take a step forward and wipe a patch of condensation away, revealing the morning view. Ponyville is bathed in a fresh blanket of snow, the streets and houses transformed into a winter wonderland straight off of a holiday greetings card. The ponies continue about their day-to-day lives, wrapped up in thick scarves and heavy coats as their every step leaves deep imprints on the pristine snow. A group of foals can be seen, giggling with delight as they chase each other around throwing snowballs. I spot Holly as well, shovelling a clear path to the front door of the inn as other ponies passing by bid her a good morning.

Oh? Right, yeah, so it turns out I decided to stay in Ponyville. At least, for a bit. And I've been here for... well, a while. Two months it's been now, to be exact.

What happened? Fair question, I suppose. So yeah, I went to bed that night with that feeling deep down that I should stay for a while. And all I've done in the last few years is follow my gut. Yes, the intended destination was Canterlot, but I couldn't escape the idea that I should stay in Ponyville for a bit. Unwind, kick back, all that fluff and rubbish. So in the morning I just... stayed. Paid for an extra night, went out into town and just took in the (limited) sights. Went to see Amethyst at her market stall. Tried a few more treats at Sugarcube Corner, where Pinkie Pie was curiously absent. Sampled some more (by which I mean, a lot more) of the local ciders, and went to bed absolutely steaming drunk.

Next morning? I was having a stack of pancakes to soothe my hangover, when one of the innkeepers, Merry, deposited the morning newspaper at my table. When I'd extended my stay the day before, I'd told her that my plans had originally been to set off for Canterlot, but I'd had a change of heart. So, the morning after, she thought it prudent to show me the morning headline: 'Changeling Invasion Wreaks Havoc'. Yep, the very day I was supposed to be in the city, a swarm of shapeshifting insect-equine monsters had attacked the exact place I would have been. The motherfucking queen of the Changelings had set her eyes on some royal wedding, and her subjects had taken it upon themselves to start attacking civilians on the streets. I didn't dodge a bullet, I dodged a fucking barrage of cannonballs. Now I'm not superstitious, but this turn of events? When combined with my gut feeling, the message from the universe seemed pretty clear.

'Ponyville seems like a cool place, you just hang out there for a bit, yeah?'

So I did, and here I still am. I have a reasonable quantity of bits to my name, but those bits are still a limited resource. Merry and Holly agreed to let me keep my room, paying my fee in advance on a weekly basis. And with the promise to give a weeks notice if I was to end said agreement. Safe in the knowledge that I wasn't going to be without a roof over my head, I was able to start making efforts to keep that bit supply afloat.

It started off straightforward, taking on odd jobs around town. Haul a cart here, assist with repairs there. The market proved to be a big money-maker too, as ponies would pay a decent sum for a reliable face to watch their stalls while they went for lunch. Or to help out during busy periods. And frankly, I owe a lot to Amethyst. More than half of my time helping market runners was at her stall. Her praise by word-of-mouth carries a lot of weight around town, so my services were soon in high demand. I actually had to buy a little diary, just to keep my day-to-day duties in check. There were two instances where I was so busy, I ended up forgetting to allot time for a lunch break. A mistake I never made again, I can promise you that much. On both occasions, Pinkie Pie caught wind of it and materialised by my side with a sandwich. Giving me two instances of heart palpitations in a singular working week.

Here's the rub though. I'm a fast learner. So it was very quick that, off by heart, I knew the names, faces, jobs, dispositions and even the goshdarn coffee preferences of at least a dozen ponies about town. The ones that utilized my services the most, that is. And I've gotta say, they've all wormed their way into my heart. It's gonna be a bitch of a task to say goodbye once I'm finally ready to leave town. Still, I'll burn that bridge when I get to it, at least I think that's how the saying goes.

Things took a big turn a couple of weeks ago though. Merry and Holly must have gotten wind of the positive word I'd built for myself, because one morning they sat down with me at breakfast, and offered me a job at the Hoof & Hearth. Thankfully on the Breakfast side of the business, not the Bed one. I'd be a terrible maid. When it comes to making beds, I'm as reliable as a politician's promises. And I don't think I'd suit the outfit, black and white tends to clash with the dual greys of my pelt. But I digress. No, they asked if I would take up a part time position as a bartender during the evenings, and a sort of 'jenny-of-all-trades' during daytimes. Clean a floor, help out with food prep, take the wagon and collect a delivery. You know, a bit of everything. All on shift patterns of course, give me some breathing room and time to unwind. In exchange, I get room and board, and enough of a wage to sustain myself.

I just finished my first full week of the arrangement, and it's going great. Working behind the bar during the evenings is especially good, because all the ponies I've grown to know around town caught wind of it being my new job. While the market ponies were sad to be losing me, they magnanimously decided to support me in my new endeavour by showing up in the evenings and getting jolly well sloshed. Sure, I've had to bring in a small stool for me to stand on when filling steins at the taps, otherwise I can't reach. But the sight of the tops of my ears zipping back and forth behind the bar seems to be one that the locals find as entertaining as they do endearing. The tips for each night go in a communal pot for everycreature working, front and back of house, and they all say they've noticed an uptick in bit count since I started. Kerching!

Still gazing out the window, I catch a glimpse of myself in my reflection on the glass. Heh, bed mane. In a word, I look rather scrunkly this morning. So I take a few minutes to neaten myself up before I head out. As I run a comb through my mane, my eyes fall on a small barrette sat atop a chest of drawers, one bearing a pink butterfly formed from thin strips of metal. As ever, old memories tug at my chest, but I push them to the back of my mind. When my head looks slightly less like it's been mangled, I give a nod of resignation, and make my way downstairs.

When I step through the doors leading into the small kitchen, I find Holly dishing up a plate of breakfast food for herself. She nods to me with a smile, her mane damp from being outside, as I make my way over to a corkboard in one corner. The weekly rota has just been pinned up. I consult it, noting which nights I'm scheduled to be at the bar, as well as any daytime chores assigned to me. For today, I'll be serving drinks from six in the evening until closing at twelve. Additionally, I've been marked down to collect a shipment of cider from Sweet Apple Acres, but the collection time isn't until half ten. Cool, I've got time to nip down to Sugarcube Corner for something to eat. The pancakes here at the inn are top tier, but they're very filling. Some lighter pastries are calling to me this morning.

"That chiropodist was here again last night," I say, causing Holly to look up from her food. "He keeps asking after you, you know?"

"For the last time, Pitter Patter is not a chiropodist," she replies, her mouth full of hay bacon. "He's a hoof fetishist, there's a big difference."

"Eh, semantics."

"I already know he was here, Merry said something about him when she came to bed. I'll tell you what I told her: he's a creep but a total lightweight."

"Accurate statement," I confirm with a laugh. "Two ciders and he was falling asleep at the bar. I cut him off when he started making noises like a seagull."

"Good. Speaking of cider, you see we've got a shipment due that Merry's assigned you?"

"Yeah, I'm gonna go grab something to eat first though. I'll be back in an hour to grab the wagon."

She nods. "Wrap up warm, it's sunny out but it's crazy cold today."

"You got it, boss!"

I head out, grabbing my pink woollen hat and scarf from the coat stand in the reception area as I go. You ever get cold ears in winter? Now imagine your ears are about ten inches longer than those of the average citizen. So yeah, donkeys in winter don’t always have the most pleasant time. Back home, we often wore special hats with long sleeves to accommodate our ears, but those are hard to find in pony towns. So I have to resort to balling mine up underneath the baggiest beanie hat I can find. The matching scarf is a bonus, as is the fact that it makes for a cute ensemble.

Fun fact! Common donkey lingo around winter time refers to how the tips of our ears are often the first to feel the worst of the cold. When temperatures drop below a certain threshold, exposed eartips are likely to suffer frostbite. So when you hear a donkey say ‘I’m freezing my tips off’, that’s how you know it’s really fucking cold out. Although from what I’ve gathered on my travels, the phrase gets misused a lot by creatures who replace the word ‘tips’ with something far less innocent.

My breath rises in front of me with every exhale as I press onwards through town, en route to Sugarcube Corner. With every hoofstep the snow lets out a satisfying crunch that, along with every other ambient sound right now, is oddly muffled through my bundled up ears beneath the thick beanie hat. It makes everything around me seem more subdued. Calmer, quieter, more ethereal.

This tranquillity is broken with startling rapidity, though. I round a building and see a white orb barrelling through the air towards me. I duck to the side, feeling a lick of cold brush against the side of my head as the snowball skims past. My assailant, one of the three fillies who dub themselves ‘The Cutie Mark Crusaders’ grins sheepishly at me. Before I can even drum up the energy to shoot her a disapproving frown, she is pelted from both sides with further snowballs that smother her entire face. She shrieks, falling backwards and scrambling to scrape the cold mess from her visage. Karma is a cruel mistress.

Saying that, they’re sweet foals and ultimately harmless, but they haven’t yet mastered the intricacies of tact. Nightmare Night took place only a few weeks after I first arrived in town, and while it’s not a celebration I ever particularly gelled with, it can be a good laugh. Amethyst held a small party for friends at her house, and invited me along to introduce me to her group. It was a ‘costumes optional’ dealio, and I opted out. Not enough time, and not really something I wanted to spend money on. While I was walking over, the orange pegasus filly stopped me to ask me where I bought my costume ears from.

Cheeky little so and so. I was half-tempted to loosen the wheels on her scooter for that one.

With my teeth beginning to chatter, I sight the candy cane columns and gingerbread roof of Sugarcube Corner. A new addition to the decor, one that I haven’t seen yet, is the fairy lights and decorative icicles that adorn every inch of the rafters. At least, I hope the icicles are just for decoration. It wasn’t that cold last night.

I sigh as I step into the warm, rowdy bakery, the temperature rise hitting me like a brick wall as the wave of aromas dances through my nostrils. Mr Cake greets me as Mrs Cake stands vigil at the cash register, working her way through a (thankfully) short queue of customers. Pinkie Pie is nowhere to be seen, but I stay on high alert nonetheless. She has an uncanny ability to jumpscare me, and I don’t think it does my nerves any good. What does bring me some relief, is when I spot Amethyst with Bon Bon, sitting at a booth in the back of the room. She gives me a wave and nods her head down to the table. A silent gesture over the din, inviting me to sit there. I incline my head towards the queue, and mouth the words ‘give me a minute’, which yields a wide grin from her as she turns to resume her conversation with Bon Bon.

To my relief, when Pinkie Pie appears, it is as she walks out of the kitchen carrying a tray of fresh glazed doughnuts. Without her teleporting to my side and scaring me half to death, I’m actually able to be pleased to see her. She offers me a frantic wave of greeting as she swaps the empty tray on the display rack with her full one, before she returns to the kitchen again. The queue passes swiftly, and before I know it, Mr Cake has presented me with my mocha, a raspberry turnover, and a sour cream glazed doughnut. Carrying my sugary breakfast on a tray, I make my way into the dining area and slide into the booth where Amethyst and Bon Bon are midway though a riveting discussion about a book they’re both reading.

”I still think Detective Piper went way too far in the interrogation,” Bon Bon says, nodding to me as I sit. “You can see he was getting in way too deep, compromising himself. Emotionally invested, that skews your judgement, y’know?”

”Well, yes and no,” Amethyst replies. “He was wrong to start throwing furniture around, no arguments there. But it worked, didn’t it? That griffon sang like a canary to save his own tailfeathers.”

”It didn’t make any difference in the long run though! Just led them back in a circle, left them without any idea who did it.”

Yeah, Amethyst and Bon Bon do this little book club thing every now and then. Following on from Nightmare Night, they picked up this murder mystery novel the exact size and weight of a slab of paving granite. No thank you! Too much to take in. Though judging from the positioning of their bookmarks, they’re both more or less three quarters of the way though the hefty volume of pages.

“True, they don’t know who did it, I have a theory though.”

Bon Bon perks up at this. “Oh yeah? Who?”

“I mean, it is just a theory, I don’t want to spoil it for you,” Amethyst says with a chuckle.

”Go on, spill” Bon Bon insists. “You’re always pretty insightful with this stuff, I wanna hear what you think.”

Amethyst sits up straight, clearing her throat. “I think… it was that snide little creep of a griffon, Cousin Rosemary.”

“Oh yeah? She does give me the heebie-jeebies, but I don’t know if she's got the chops for murder.”

”Okay, so the old griffon was found in his greenhouse, where he was known to grow his own herbs. And he was found clutching a bundle of leaves in one claw. They never said what kind of leaves, right? I think he grabbed a bundle of rosemary leaves as he was dying, as a clue about who killed him.”

I scoff. “Well, good thing he wasn’t killed by his Uncle Dick, then.”

And there I go again, operating without any filter. Both Amethyst and Bon Bon shoot me looks of incredulity as I try to deflect by taking a hasty glug of my mocha. Which is way too fucking hot. I feel my eyes shrink to pinpricks as my tongue becomes roughly the same texture and temperature of the ninth circle of Tartaurus. At least the caffeine hits quick, since Mr Cake always gives me an extra shot of espresso.

“Well, despite that bit of input, I’m actually glad to see you, Tara,” Amethyst says, rolling her eyes at my fruitless attempt to play down my reaction to the inferno that has taken a hold of my mouth. “There’s something I wanted to ask you about.”

’Oh yeah, what’s up?’ is what I try to say, but it comes out as a wheezy splutter. Thankfully, she must speak this particular dialect, as she continues.

”So for Hearth’s Warming, my sister’s taking her family on a skiing trip. And this puts me in a pickle, since I normally have them around my house for the day, so it’s left me without anypony to host for. So I thought, why not host a Friend’s Warming? It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like, Hearth’s Warming but with friends instead of family, and I wanted to see if you’d like to join? Just get together at mine, have dinner, some drinks, play some games and make a good day of it.”

”That… sounds… delightful…” I croak, as I try to fan cool air into my mouth.

“Wonderful!” Amethyst beams in reply. “So it’ll be you and me, Bon Bon and Lyra, and Vinyl and Octavia. We’ll be doing a Secret Exchange for gifts so you don’t have to buy for everypony. Now that you’re onboard, we can get together and draw names some time this week!”

”Awesome.” The burning now has receded to a mere persistent tingle. “I didn’t have any plans, so it keeps me out and busy. Merry and Holly were offering me the day off, at least now I have good reason to accept it.”

Bon Bon tilts her head. “Do donkeys even celebrate Hearth’s Warming?”

“Ehhhh… sorta,” I say, rocking a hoof back and forth in the air. “Not many of us really buy into the windigo story. I guess from our perspective, it’s more of a fable than it is fact. Your standard message to be good to each other and all that stuff. Honestly though, the majority of us just use it as an excuse to give out presents, eat good food and crack into some festive booze. Since it follows right on the tail of Frostfire Night, we’re all already gathered together anyway.”

Amethyst and Bon Bon share a glance of confusion, before the latter speaks. “What-fire Night?”

“Frostfire Night,” I repeat, feeling one ear droop. “You guys must know about Frostfire Night?”

They both shake their heads.

Huh, well today I learned a thing. I always grew up thinking it was a tradition that everycreature celebrated. Even though Hearth’s Warming was a celebration my family only took semi-seriously, it never actually occurred to me that the traditions we do take seriously might be comparatively unknown to the rest of the world. Talk about eye-opening.

”Okay, I’ll bite,” Amethyst says. “What is Frostfire Night?”

And for a moment, I'm a little too stunned to reply. Some things are so ingrained in you as quote-unquote normal, that it becomes an utter novelty to actually have to explain them to another creature. But, I summarise it as succinctly as I can, in between bites of raspberry turnover.

"So in short, it's what we donkeys call the night of Winter Solstice. There's a lot of small intricacies to the celebrations, little traditions, but it all centres on a bonfire. It being the longest, darkest night of the year, the whole family gathers around a bonfire to symbolise the warmth of our bonds with each other, resilience during the difficult times, and how even the darkest nights must eventually yield to light."

They both look... surprised? I'm not sure what they think they were expecting to hear, but it clearly wasn't that.

"Is it every family that lights a bonfire?" Bon Bon asks.

"Uh-huh. Collectively, the familial bonfires light up the whole town. If you like the smell of wood fires, then you'd love it back home around this time of year. The smell lingers until after New Years, it's great. As you might expect, the fire departments are always on high alert around Frostfire Night. But it's also tradition that every family pitches in some money towards their Hearth's Warming ball, as a thank you. It's a night that brings the whole town together."

"Huh, that's really sweet," Amethyst mutters, a faint smile crossing her face. "Do you go home for it each year then?"

My ears both falling down low gives away my reply before I can even move my lips. In case it's not obvious, I don't ever try to play poker. My 'tell' is as subtle as a howler monkey with a megaphone.

"You... don't?" Amethyst gasps.

"No, not since I started travelling," I admit. "I haven't been home at all since then. And I haven't... haven't..."

"Haven't what?"

I sigh. "I haven't celebrated Frostfire or Hearth's Warming with anycreature since then, either."

If it wasn't for the constant background noise of the café, the silence at the table would have been deafening. And for a few awkward moments, I stare at my tray.

Amethyst breaks the silence first. "Oh, Tara. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to pry, if it's a difficult subject for you." She reaches out across the table, resting her hoof on top of mine. My cheeks immediately begin to burn as my heart gives a flutter.

"Well then," Bon Bon says. "Why don't we have a Frostfire Night here?"

Amethyst's eyes go wide as her face broadens in an impressive grin, shaking my hoof encouragingly. "Say, yeah, that's a great idea! It'd be just super to see your traditions, if you wouldn't mind walking us through them?"

There it is again, that tugging sensation in my gut. 'See, I told you Ponyville was a decent place.' Only this time, it extends upwards from my gut and spreads into my chest. There's no equine way of stopping the smile that contorts my face, pulling my ears back upright again as my eyes feel irritatingly watery.

"That... that would be amazing," I gush. "There's a small garden at the back of the inn, I could ask Merry and Holly if I could host it there?"

As the sun dips towards the horizon, a few weeks after the first discussion of the idea in Sugarcube Corner, I find myself at the far end of the Hoof & Hearth's beer garden. Unfazed by the light flurry of snow, I am tasked with leading a group of ponies in stacking lengths of wood into a carefully arranged pile. Amethyst, Lyra, Vinyl and Merry are all levitating the logs into place with finesse, as me, Octavia, Bon Bon and Holly drag them across the garden from the storage shed. It had taken most of the last few weeks to gather a pile of wood sufficient to do the job. I'd called in some favours as well, asking some of the market ponies to donate firewood and kindling, but the result will be worth it.

Afternoon sun quickly recedes, and by the time we have a neat stack of various cuts of wood, it's pitch black outside. Merry starts passing out polystyrene cups, gesturing towards a large insulated flask the size of a dustbin that Holly carries out. They've prepared some piping hot vegetable soup, one which soon attracts a queue as each pony takes their turn ladling out portions for themselves. I let them all go first. They're the ones helping me out, after all. And while they all sit, tenderly sipping at their steaming cups, I slip away.

I return a few minutes later, carrying a wicker basket, one which I've filled with metal lanterns. Tradition calls for more ornate lanterns, ones specially painted by each respective member of the family participating in the ceremony. But due to time restraints and limited budget, I salvaged these from a variety of junk shops and one or two from a scrap yard. The appearance of the lanterns is of no consequence to the outcome of the ceremony anyway, all that matters is if they can be lit or not. I'd tested these myself. Though they're a bit rusty and beaten up, the wicks still light just fine. I lay all eight in a row, a few paces away from the unlit bonfire as the ponies at my back look on in curiosity. When I'm done, I turn to address them.

"Right! Thank you all for coming, it... it means a lot that you're all here doing this with me. Now it's pretty cold, so we'll get cracking, shall we?"

The whole group nods, giving quiet words of support and affirmation. Apart from Vinyl, who whoops loudly and claps her hooves.

"So, normally it's the dad of the family that lights the fire, but in absence of any father figures, I guess it falls to me. To prepare for this role, I've lined up some dad jokes."

They all groan in unison.

"Hey hey, cheer up," I laugh. "I've got a burning desire to make sure this goes well! Last thing I want is to be a hot mess right now. But as far as introducing a new tradition to you all goes, I hope you can embrace it with a warm welcome. And..."

"Okay, okay," pleads Amethyst. "You can be dad tonight, Tara. Just... don't make us listen to any more of those jokes!"

"Hey, those weren't that bad," Vinyl says. "I've heard much worse from Octy when she's had enough scotch."

The ice successfully broken, thank you Vinyl for the backup, I start preparing the hefty branch I selected for getting the fire lit. While doing so, I gesture towards the lanterns and encourage each of the group to take one, but also advise them not to light them yet. Though Amethyst briefly forgoes this, instead opting to help me wrap a paraffin-soaked rag around the end of the branch. Once that is tied on, I hold the branch steady as she lights it, and then I push the small flame into the base of the kindling.

With that done, I take my place in the line of ponies stood behind the row of lanterns. In the cold night air, and through the bursts of snow dancing in the wind, it takes a few minutes for the fire to really catch. The subdued flickering begins to intensify and spread. Heat slowly emanates from within the pile. What was once a dark garden to the rear of the inn is flooded bit by bit with a comforting orange light, as the flames take hold. The crackling sounds seem to hold a hypnotic allure, drawing us closer as warmth chases away the chill of the night.

"This time by the bonfire is intended for us to reflect on the year we've had," I explain. "The challenges we've overcome, the joys we've experienced, the lessons learned, all of that stuff. It's a moment to appreciate how far we've come, individually and together."

The ponies share brief glances with each other, but seem to take this instruction in their stride. Amethyt's eyes have a distinct glint in the orange glow, while Lyra wears a contented smile as she keeps darting her eyes towards Bon Bon. Octavia lets out a small sigh as she leans her head against Vinyl's shoulder, somepony whose expression is hard to discern behind the sunglasses she still won't take off, even at night. Merry and Holly intertwine their hooves, turning to face each other and resting the tips of their muzzles together.

As for me? Since my last Frostfire was when I left home so, so long ago, I've got multiple years of reflection to catch up on. Departing my home county, bound for far off lands on a ship crossing the Nostrum Sea. Vineyards in Prance. Scaling mountains on the Iberneighan peninsula. Relative plain sailing until reaching the backstreets of Buckarest. Less said there, the better. Then there were the long train journeys, countless miles of frozen wilderness between Stalliongrad and Foalgorod. Seeing the Dragon Kingdoms. Surviving an earthquake in Neighpon. Being stuck in Neighpon before being able to make my way to Indoneighsia. Fucking hell, that was an ordeal, just trying to get on that boat. Being trapped in an area struck by natural disaster is not something I'd reccommend.

"This is nice," Lyra murmurs, snapping me out of my mental recount of my travels. "Thanks for this, Tara."

"Yeah, agreed. Thanks, T," Vinyl adds.

"Please don't call me T."

That gets a laugh out of the group. It's been a few minutes now, adequate time for reflection, and the flames on the bonfire have grown to be huge. All the snow at the base of the wood pile is beginning to sizzle and steam, and my face begins to swelter. I pick up my lantern and take a couple of steps backwards, an action that seems to rouse the ponies out of their stupor, as they all do the same.

"Anyway, who's ready to light these bad boys?" I say, holding my lantern up high. "Each of you grab a match, but wait on my word, as there's a bit more to this as well."

"Please, no more dad jokes," Merry says, with a wink.

I laugh in reply, unable to fight the smile forcing its way onto my muzzle. "No dad jokes, I swear. No, as you light your lanterns, I want each of you make a wish. And when your lantern is lit, hold it up nice and high. It's a way of sending our hopes and dreams out into the world, together."

A chorus of sharp cracks follow, and in quick succession the lanterns around me are lit. Each pony leans in close as they light their match, whispering quiet promises to it. A technically unnecessary part of things, but if it makes the process easier for them, so be it. One by one, they raise their lanterns to the sky. Even the unicorns refrain from using their magic, holding the lanterns up in their hooves. Once all seven of them have done their bit, I do the same. The match lights, the flame is lit, my wish is made, and my lantern joins the group in being held aloft.

"This feels... magical," Bon Bon whispers.

"We're doing something really special here," Amethyst agrees.

"So... what now?" asks Holly. "Do we share what we wished for?"

"What? No!" Merry gasps, sounding scandalised. "If you say what you wished for, then it won't come true."

"That's birthday wishes, it's completely different."

"Umm... is it, Tara?"

The group turns to face me, and I find myself momentarily lost for words. Back home, we never said our wishes out loud, but as far as I know there wasn't any rule saying you shouldn't. At least, that was the case for my family. Other families might say them out loud, I have no idea. We never exactly exchanged tips and tricks for Frostfire, we just got on with it. I think for a few seconds. Yeah, I'm bringing my home traditions to far off places right now, but why do we have to do things exactly the same way?

"If you want to say them out loud, go for it," I decide. "Share your wish with the world."

There's a brief, awkward pause as none of us speaks. Not wanting to go first, no doubt. Tense moments pass, only soundtracked by the roaring crackle of the bonfire, until finally a voice speaks up.

"May our friendship grow stronger with every passing day," Amethyst says.

"May kindness and compassion find its way into every heart," Bon Bon follows.

"May I find the courage to live my life as my truest self," Octavia adds.

"May my next album blow Neon Lights' album out of the water," is Vinyl's tasteful addition.

"May we all become more accepting of the eccentricities of others," Lyra murmurs.

"May the bonds of community spirit grow stronger and stronger," Merry gushes.

"May Merry stop snoring at night," Holly finishes off, with a scandalous giggle.

As another wave of laughter washes over the group, I hesitate, feeling the weight of their anticipation. The fire crackles reassuringly, casting a warm glow on all of us as I fidget with my lantern.

"I only heard seven wishes," Amethyst says, her voice gentle but with obvious traces of expectance. "Somepony's holding out on us. Or should that be somedonkey?"

Octavia nods in agreement. "Oh yes, Tara, you must share it with us. You've guided us through this beautiful ceremony, we'd dearly love to know what more you might wish for."

A mix of emotions swirls within me. Gratitude for their support, and a touch of vulnerability at the thought of speaking my mind. Which, for me, is rare. I glance at each of their eager faces, a sense of warmth spreading through me from their persistent camaraderie.

"It's just... it's not as grand as any of yours," I begin, trying to downplay the significance. "Or as specific as Holly's."

Vinyl nudges me. "Come on, spill the beans. We're all ears!"

Taking a deep breath, I let it out. "Okay, fine. My wish... it's for a sense of belonging. To find a place where I truly feel at home."

There is a pause, a moment that seems to stretch as their gazes meet mine. The fire continues to crackle in the background, its warmth a comforting presence in the chilly night.

Bon Bon's voice is soft with empathy. "That's a beautiful wish, Tara."

Merry chimes in, her smile full of warmth. "You've already found a home with us."

"Have I though?" I couldn't help but blurt out those words, breaking the brief silence that follows Merry's heartfelt statement. My voice wavers slightly, betraying the tumult of emotions swirling inside me.

The sincerity in Merry's eyes and the warmth of the firelight around us contrasts with the uncertainty that still lingers within. I want to believe her words, to embrace the sense of belonging that they've all found in this tight-knit circle. But there is a whispering doubt, an echo of longing that hadn't yet found its resolution.

"A few times, these last few months, it has felt like I've found a home, but then..." I trail off, my gaze shifting to the rising flames, the bonfire casting fleeting shadows across the snow-dusted ground.

A part of me remains unmoored, seeking an anchor that eludes me still. Merry's expression shifts, a mix of concern and empathy, and I wish I hadn't opened my stupid fucking mouth. I don't want to cast doubt on the beauty of this moment or the sincerity of their friendship. But the pull within me, the yearning for permanence, persists, and it seems impossible to ignore. As the snow continues to fall softly, I turn to face Merry again, a bittersweet smile tugging at my lips.

"Maybe you're right. Maybe I have found something close to a home here, but..." I pause, struggling to convert thoughts and feelings into spoken words. "There's still this part of me that's searching, that's not quite settled yet. Four bloody years, I've been ambling from place to place. Going where I wanted to go. But I never found anywhere I wanted to stay. So when all of a sudden, I feel like I've found somewhere I'd like to belong to, how can I trust myself enough to know whether or not I'll want to stay here for good? Dare I call this place a home?"

The words hang in the wintry air, carried away by the whispers of the night. Merry reaches out, placing a comforting hoof on my shoulder, offering silent support.

Amethyst's gentle voice breaks the weighty silence that had settled around us. "Tara, finding where you belong isn't always a clear-cut path. It's like piecing together a puzzle. Sometimes, you find a few pieces that fit perfectly, and other times, you're still searching for the right ones. And that's okay."

Her words carry a reassuring wisdom, and I feel a soft tug at my heart. The warmth in her eyes mirrors the flickering flames, offering solace in a moment of introspection.

"We all have our journeys," she continues, her voice carrying a soothing melody. "It's about embracing the connections we've made and cherishing the moments we share. Home isn't just a place; it's the creatures who make you feel whole."

I glance around at the gathered ponies, each one holding their lantern aloft, faces illuminated with hope and camaraderie.

"I guess you're right," I murmur, a sense of acceptance settling in. "And maybe I just need to appreciate what I've got here for what it is. Right now, it's a nice place to be. And if I decide I need to move on, it's good memories to take with me."

Merry squeezes my shoulder, her gaze filled with empathy. "Tara, wherever your path takes you, you'll always have a place here among us."

The sincerity in her words resonates deeply. Amid the quiet of the night and the glow of lanterns, I realise I should focus on embracing the present than seeking an elusive future. The comfort of companionship, the shared dreams, and the genuine camaraderie that, in itself, is a haven I can cherish.

My mind wanders back to the miles I've covered, the landscapes I've traversed, and the faces I've encountered along the way. There's an undeniable thrill in the unfamiliar, a sense of freedom that comes with exploration. But beneath the allure of new horizons, I can't shake this persistent thought. Perhaps in chasing the world, I've been fleeing from something. Each new town, every distant shore, carried promises of fresh beginnings and untold stories. With every farewell bid to a place or a creature, I found myself in a perpetual cycle of departures, leaving fragments of myself scattered across the globe.

It's a peculiar notion. Searching for a sense of home in the ever-changing landscapes, never allowing roots to dig too deep. Was I escaping a past I can't reconcile with? Or was I running towards an uncertain future, avoiding the need to confront the uncertainties that lay ahead? There will always be missed opportunities. Lost chances to forge lasting connections. Moments where I could have paused and let myself belong. Yet the nomadic life, in its transient beauty, offered comfort in its freedom.

As the warmth of the bonfire envelops us, I can't help but feel a twinge of uncertainty mingled with the longing for stability. A place where I could be tethered. The comforting embrace of familiarity teases at the edges of my wanderlust, inviting me to consider the prospect of settling. Of staying still long enough to reconcile with what internal conflicts drive me forward.

Amethyst, ever perceptive, senses the turmoil brewing within me. With a tender gaze, she steps closer and envelops me in a hug. Her gesture catches me off guard, but it's a warmth I hadn't realized I needed.

"You're not alone, okay Tara?" she murmurs softly, her words a gentle echo in the night. "We're here with you."

Her embrace, a silent reassurance, triggers a chain reaction. Slow at first, then all at once, the rest of the group gravitates toward us, forming an unspoken circle of support. Bon Bon, Lyra, Octavia, Vinyl, Merry, and Holly. They all close in, their hooves embracing us in a shared moment of solidarity.

There's an inexplicable comfort in this closeness, a sense of something I've yearned for without realizing it. Holly, who had been the source of boisterous humour moments ago, now stands close, offering a quiet smile. Vinyl, usually wrapped in her own cool demeanour, joins the embrace, an unspoken understanding passing between us. Octavia, with her serene presence, offers a nod of solidarity. Bon Bon and Lyra, their bond evident in the way they hold each other, add their warmth to the collective hug. And Merry, ever the beacon of optimism, gives me an encouraging squeeze.

The group forms a tight pack around me, each pony lending their silent support. Their presence speaks volumes more than any words could convey. In this embrace, amidst the flickering warmth of the fire and the gentle snowfall, the faintest traces of belonging wash over me.

"Thanks guys," I mumble, fighting back the onslaught of tears.

Yep. They got me all emotional. Sneaky bastards.