• Published 14th May 2024
  • 538 Views, 21 Comments

Surrogate - Raugos



For a fee, you can rent a pony. You can be a pony. But you can never stay a pony.

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Chapter 4

Cliff Breeze cracked open an eyelid and squinted against the harsh, orange-yellow light. His mouth tasted sour and coppery at the same time, and the insides of his nostrils felt dry and crusty. His muzzle and ribs ached, and a dull throb persisted at the back of his neck.

He glanced around blearily and realised that he was lying on the couch in Philip’s living room. Most of the broken sculptures and pottery had been removed, and the remaining shards swept up into a corner. The curtain was pulled over the window, blocking out the city’s neon lights. It was cold enough for his breath to fog, but thanks to his thick socks and hoodie—the one with wing slits that he usually wore as Hoar Frost—the chill didn’t get to him. His coat felt brushed and carried the faint scent of soap.

Had… had Philip somehow managed to clean and dress him up? How long had he been out for?

The clock on the wall displayed 11.17 PM.

He winced at the thought of the man lugging him around and tending to him like some comatose geriatric. But he had to admit that he’d done an uncannily good job of making him comfortable. He’d been arranged to lie on his back without cutting off circulation to his wings, and a quick check revealed that barely any feathers were out of alignment. He’d even shaved around the lacerations on his legs so that his coat wouldn’t stick to the gauze tape.

Though, that shouldn’t have been surprising. Philip technically had the experience; he was a part-time pony, after all.

Cliff groaned and dragged himself out of the couch. His head spun a little when he stood up, but the dizziness went away after a few seconds. Gingerly, he touched the back of his neck with a feather and hissed when the swollen spot throbbed and ached. At least there was no more nausea or nervous spasms.

Slowly, he trudged to the kitchen and found Philip hunched over at the dining table, nursing a steaming mug. He was shivering, despite wearing a thick jacket and woolly trousers. Parts of his hands and fingers were wrapped in gauze. His lower lip was bloody and swollen, and his black eye was more like a massive horseshoe stamp on the left side of his face.

When he got closer, he saw the spent auto-syringe also lying on the table, next to the empty bottle of Moondust.

“Hey,” said Philip. “Cliff, right? How are you feeling?”

“Like a bucked cloud.” He pulled up a chair and gingerly lowered his rump onto it. “You?”

A shrug. “Same.”

“Why is it so cold?”

“This unit’s central heating doesn’t work, and we broke the portable one.”

Cliff winced. “Oh. That’s not good.”

“Whatever.” Philip got up and opened the pantry. “Can you eat?”

He thought about it for a moment, then nodded.

Philip came back with a chocolate-and-oats bar, a little pack of dried apple rings, and a cup of hot water. His stomach rumbled appreciatively as he chewed.

When he was almost finished, he noticed Philip staring at him from the other side of the table.

“Whahf?” he asked with a half-full cheek.

Philip at least had the grace to look a little abashed. “Sorry. It’s just… it’s like looking in a mirror. I know you’re a pony in your own right, but I keep thinking… that’s me. Why am I over there? Why am I still stuck in this two-legged body?”

He swallowed and nodded. “Yeah, I think I get it. When I… when I look through those memories, I wonder why I’m never that good at anything. Being me isn’t good enough. I haven’t played any music in years. I want to be you—Hoar Frost. Being me will never be good enough. I thought I might as well let someone else make the most out of my… self, since I’m awful at it. I’m just a useless pony and—horse apples, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be dumping this on you.”

“Fuck, you might as well,” Philip said with a roll of his eyes. “One last thing I could be good for.”

Cliff glanced at the empty bottle. “You’re not going to try again, are you?”

“Hell if I know. There’s no money left to go out on a high note, and I don’t have the guts to jump off a building.”

Cliff bit his lip and flattened his ears. “Thanks for patching me up. I’m sorry about what I said. About you. And I’m sorry about Pixel. You… you were good for each other.”

“Wasn’t meant to be. I’m only human. I never should’ve tricked her in the first place,” said Philip. He then turned his eyes skyward and sighed heavily. “Sorry for shitting on you, too. And dragging you into this whole mess. The… is your slug damaged? The company isn’t going to force you to pay for a replacement, is it?”

“No, I’ve already worked off the initial debt. Hopefully it’ll heal on its own.” He winced as he touched the lump with a feather. “I’m sorry. About the memories. I shouldn’t have spied on you and Pixel. It was wrong and I was… just wrong.”

“And if you hadn’t, I’d be dead, so I guess that evens it out.”

They ate and drank in silence for a while.

Cliff wanted to call Sternum to let him know that the crisis was somewhat resolved for now, but since his phone was smashed, Philip’s was apparently still at Pixel’s place, and the flat didn’t have any landline or desktop, there really wasn’t much they could do but wait until tomorrow when the public library opened. He was too much of a nervous wreck to fly back to the centre, and it probably wasn’t a good idea to leave Philip alone for the night.

Eventually, they finished up and put everything into the sink.

Despite regaining consciousness barely an hour ago, Cliff felt quite ready to sleep like a log, so he hummed in agreement when Philip announced that he was going to bed.

“Hey, umm, Cliff?” Philip paused at his door and shifted uneasily. “I need a favour.”

He looked up to him and raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”

“It’s pretty fucking cold.”

“I know.”

Philip had been shivering on and off the entire time at the dining table, and that was with the lights on, a hot kettle on the stove and a second warm body nearby. His room was positively frigid, and the blanket wasn’t quite thick enough to keep a non-pegasus comfortable without powered heating. Then, Cliff noticed Philip’s gaze going back and forth between him and the bed.

Oh.

There was technically nothing wrong with the idea. It was practical, even. But with all the newfound baggage between them, it just felt weird.

The silence stretched.

Eventually, Cliff swallowed and trotted right in before things could get any more awkward. “Sure, why not?”

“Just to be clear, this is only because the heater’s broken and I’m freezing my ass off,” said Philip as they crawled into the single bed together.

Cliff grinned sheepishly. “Understood.”

They curled up back to back underneath the blanket. No cuddling or snuggling was involved.


Not consciously, at any rate.

Cliff and Philip did not say a word throughout breakfast.

The peace didn’t last, though.

After he’d finished filling his belly with oats, some leftover salad and coffee, the realisation that his slug was out of commission, possibly forever, came crashing down on him. If he couldn’t be a surrogate, he couldn’t surf memories—and Sternum was now aware of his habit, so that was doubly impossible. He had no chance of fooling him another time. And if he couldn’t be somepony else, even for a while, then he was stuck being himself. All the time. Foreve—

“Cliff!” Philip had come around to his side of the table and shaken him. “Slow down and breathe!”

“I… thanks.” He took a shuddering breath. “Ugh. This sucks. So much.”

“What?”

“Me. I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself.”

“Heh. Join the club. I’ve spent just about everything I have.” Philip went back to his seat and rubbed his temples. “I’m getting evicted next month.”

Cliff took a moment to run the numbers in his head, before he tentatively said, “You could, uh, crash at my place? I’m a little more stable with bits. Enough for us to figure something out in the meantime.”

Philip blinked. “You actually trust me enough to live with you?”

“We’re practically half the same person.” Cliff gave him a rueful grin. “Can’t be any worse than what we did yesterday, right?”

The doorbell rang.

“Shit, you just had to say that, didn’t you?” Philip muttered. “You’re native. You know that Equestria is Murphy’s Law on steroids!”

Opening the door revealed a very miffed earth mare wearing a parka and saddlebag, with a phone held in her hoof.

“Pixel?” they cried in unison.

The mare in question observed them with half-lidded eyes for a moment, tail lashing.

“Cliff Breeze and… Hoar Frost,” she said, glancing at each of them in turn. Her eyes narrowed when she focused on Philip. “You’ve been ghosting me.”

Cliff did a double take and whipped his head to face Philip. “Wait, what? I thought she’d dumped you!”

Before Philip could respond, a voice chirped from the phone in Pixel’s hoof. It had an active video call showing Sternum’s face on the screen. “Oh, thank hive you’re okay! Your slug’s tracking went haywire. What happened?”

Cliff flattened his ears as the others raised their voices at the same time, talking over one another with accusations, excuses, demands and verbal dismissals. The neighbours were coming out and staring, and if they got any noisier, someone was bound to call the cops.

Politely clearing his throat didn’t work. Neither did waving his wing. He eventually got them to stop by yelling, “We slept together, okay?”

When all eyes turned to him in shock, Cliff grinned nervously and continued, “So, maybe we should go inside and sort things out. Somewhere not in public?”

Nods all around.

After going inside and taking their seats around the dining table, they worked on bringing everyone up to speed on everything.

Cliff summarised the sequence of events from learning about the Moondust parcel up to his fight with Philip, including admitting to his chronic habit of surfing memories. Philip then spoke of how he’d taken care of Cliff after he’d passed out due to a damaged slug—they heard Sternum making worried chittering noises from the phone at that—and everything after. Reassuring Pixel Rust that their previous night in bed had been purely utilitarian took a bit of work, but she eventually dropped that scandalised glare and just responded with a huff.

Philip also admitted that he’d been ghosting Pixel ever since Cliff had woken up in her bed. No mails of any kind, no calls, no texts. He hadn’t dared to go back. So, his phone had just languished in her possession. He was sorry, very, very sorry, for leaving her in the dark like that, but just the thought of her reaction had terrified him. He couldn’t see any way back. Pixel’s scowl darkened at that remark.

Sternum took over from there. Whilst Cliff was on the way to Dasher Row, he’d tried calling Philip’s phone, which Pixel answered, since it was still at her place. Once he figured out that she was his marefriend, he pretended to be a telemarketer and hung up. That trail was a bust. When there was no update from Cliff about the situation, he tried calling, but it was suspiciously cut off—courtesy of Philip smashing Cliff’s phone. He then spent hours worrying before he decided to get Pixel involved. But by the time he’d called again and gotten her up to speed on everything, it was already too late for her to catch a train to Kinship City, let alone Dasher Row.

“And that’s why I’m here, first thing in the morning!” Pixel said with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. She flicked her gaze from the phone on the table to Philip and Cliff in turn. “So, you boys have been cooking up a whole trainload of horse apple drama for ages behind my back, to the point where not one, but two of you are bucking depressed and/or suicidal, and then you guys nearly killed each other and then slept together, and now we’re all here to pick up the pieces like we’re in some stupid soap opera. Is that the gist of it?”

Cliff felt his ears flatten. If human ears could, he was sure that Philip’s would’ve as well. Neither of them could meet her eyes.

“If I may, I think it’s important to acknowledge that at least the situation is no longer in crisis,” Sternum piped up. “We can—”

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t sue your ass into the ground,” Pixel snarled at the phone. “Everything we’re going through is because of your Tartarus-damned surrogate scheme!”

Silence for a beat.

Then, Sternum chirped nervously and said, “Well… Mister Breeze did save your coltfriend, and he in turn saved the owner of the body loaned to him. I understand if you want nothing to do with the surrogate programme ever again, but at least the option of emulating the previous state of your relationship still exists—if you want him to be, you know, a stallion again. A lawsuit would end any chance of that, and probably risk jail time for Mister Breeze as well, since it won’t be possible to hide his very illegal surfing habit in a trial. It would be a shame if he had to pay that price for doing the right thing…”

Pixel’s frown deepened. Her tail lashed. “Thank you, Mister Sternum, I think we’re done here. Kindly bugger off.”

“But I… yes, duly noted.” Sternum flattened his ears and nodded. “Buggering off, now.”

And he hung up.

“Fucking corpo,” Pixel muttered.

Cliff felt inclined to protest on Sternum’s behalf; he wasn’t that bad, but now probably wasn’t the best time.

After a moment, Pixel unfastened her saddlebag and pushed it across the table to Philip. “Here, you left these at my place.”

Philip slowly pulled the bag closer and peeped under the cover. He then mumbled, “Thanks.”

More silence.

Then, Pixel scrunched her eyes shut and sucked in a deep, shuddering breath. When she exhaled, her eyes were glistening with tears.

“This is messed up. One day I’m having the time of my life, and the next, I find out my coltfriend has split into two different people. How am I supposed to deal with that?” She sniffled and looked at Cliff, up and down as if he was wracked with some terrible disease. Then, she turned to Philip and choked out, “I thought you were toying with me. You’re n-not even a pony anymore! How? How c-could you do this to me?”

“Babe… babe! I’m sorry!” Philip knelt down by her side and gingerly reached out to touch her hoof. She recoiled at first, but slowly leaned into him as he whispered and cooed to her. He gently combed his fingers through her mane, pressing his forehead to hers, hushing her as his own tears started trickling out. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I wasn’t thinking. Everything was moving so fast and I wasn’t thinking and I couldn’t plan ahead and I was stupid and I’m sorry. Babe, I’m so sorry. I loved you but I was broke and didn’t know what to do. Please, I didn’t mean to—”

Cliff got out of his seat and sidled into the living room as quietly as he could. Despite his best efforts, his ears still picked up sobbing and distinct murmurs, so he forced himself to inspect whatever undamaged sculptures remained, mentally cataloguing them one by one in great detail.

Then, his eyes fell upon Hoar Frost’s—Philip’s guitar.

He swallowed dryly.

Could he?

Slowly, he lifted it from its stand and carried it over to the couch.

He sat and plucked a couple of strings.

Something stirred inside him.

He swallowed again.

Played a note. Then another. And another.

I believed what we had would last forever,
After all the moments we spent together,
Were they meaningless in the end?

It started slowly. Glacially. But each word came more easily than the last.

If friendship is supposed to be magic,
Why has ours become so tragic?
I'm no longer proud to call you my friend…

Each note strengthened the tune in his mind, until he found himself humming along.

Feels like after all this time,
You should have known we'd be here tonight,
Wondering where the past has gone,
All the memories we lost when we moved on,
Honestly,
It hurts thinking,
About the way,
We were, just you and me,
This isn't what friendship is supposed to be…

It felt like his heart was bleeding. It hurt, but he couldn’t stop. The words came spilling out of his mouth as he sang under his breath:

“Giving up always seemed so easy,
“But it's hard when it's you and me,
“And I don't want to say goodbye,
“We've hurt each other time and time again,
“I guess all good things come to an end,
“But I don't want to lose you tonight…”

He closed his eyes and stopped fighting back the tears. It had been so long since he was last in the grip of a heartsong…

“Don't say goodbye,
“I promise everything will be alright,
“Don't leave me,
“I'm sorry,
“I'll fix this if it costs me my life,
“I'm going to make this right…”

As the last resonating note faded to silence, Cliff carefully set aside the guitar and wiped his eyes. He was shaking, but not from the cold. He also felt oddly warm, but it wasn’t because of his hoodie. There was an almost euphoric lightness to him, as if somepony had cut him and drained a lake of poison from his veins. He could finally feel.

When he heard a couple of sniffles, he whirled around and found Pixel and Philip standing behind him. Both had half-dried streaks of tears running down their cheeks.

Cliff cringed and lowered his eyes. “I’m sorry. I had no right to violate those memories. Of both of you. I… I’m so sorry.”

“I should hate you for all the times you were perving on us. I look at you, and I feel like there’s a monster wearing the face of my friend,” Pixel said as she closed in on him, until they were muzzle to muzzle. She lifted up his chin and gazed into his eyes like she was trying to fathom the depths of his soul. Then, she sighed and pulled him into a fierce hug. “But you also saved my Frosty—Philip, so I’ll do my best to get over it. I forgive you.”

Cliff stiffened at first, then sighed and returned the hug. Shortly after, he felt Philip joining in and winced when his slug got a little jostled. Still, it was… nice.

They eventually broke up the hug, and Cliff scooted aside so that they could all sit together on the couch and share their warmth in companionable silence. Philip was in the middle, and Cliff noticed that his hand was clasping Pixel’s hoof.

“Are you two… still together?" he asked.

Their eyes met for a moment before they turned back to him and said, “Yes.”

“For now, at least,” Pixel added with a sigh. “We’ll need some time to figure this out—there’s the finances, his visa status, therapy for both of us… Right now I’m just too much of a mess to know if I even should be mad about anything or just happy that he’s still… here. And if Phil is lucky, I’ll turn out to be a filthy xenophile. Just like him.”

Philip chuckled. “You know, I’ve always wanted to do this.”

Cliff watched as he slid his hand up Pixel’s back, through her mane, and then began fondling and scratching her ear with his fingers. She practically purred and leaned into him, sighing deeply.

“Oh, hayseed, yes,” she murmured. “If for some reason we don’t work out, I’m still gonna bucking pay you to do this…”

Cliff almost considered asking Philip for a turn. Almost.

“What about you?” Pixel asked. “Please say you’ll at least get professional help. And get out while you can. We lose enough ponies to that awful surrogate shit.”

“Yeah, we heard you playing. You’re too good to be wasted on us humans. Get help and live for yourself.” Philip chuckled and thumped him on the shoulder. “Shit. Look at me, now I’m the one giving a lecture. Hell, I guess we could even go to counselling together. We’re practically half the same person.”

“That would be the smart thing to do, wouldn’t it?” Cliff glanced down at the guitar and traced his hoof over its surface. Touched his neck and winced when his slug throbbed painfully. “I haven’t been able to play for ages… something was different this time. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to try.”

He had no guarantee that the awful deadness wouldn’t fill him again, but for now, with Philip and Pixel around, he was okay. He could take another step.

And another after that.

And another.

And maybe that was enough for him.

Author's Note:

The song is Friendship by Aviators, an old guard of the fandom.

Comments ( 15 )

Thank you! That was weird, tense, and fascinating. I genuinely did not know where your story was going for most of it, but it all made sense. I'm glad I read this.

Scyphi #2 · May 15th · · ·

Interestingly, I was in a bit of a mood myself when going into this story, so much so I nearly opted not to read it, then considered bailing as its subject matter became clear...but weirdly reading to the end anyway put me in a better mood.

Funny how that works out, huh? :twilightsmile:

Raugos #3 · May 15th · · ·

11904209
I was a little worried that the tag would be off-putting. Glad that you felt better by the end; I prefer my stories to be a little hopeful, even when they're dealing with heavy subjects. Thanks for reading! :heart:

11904165
Heya, thank you for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed it! :twilightsmile:

zwaph #4 · May 15th · · ·

Oh, Raugos! A guy, who wrote Hearths' Sparring Eve. A nice story though!

This seems like it could be an interesting world to visit again. How many of us would pay that fee? Hope things work out and get better for the characters, good choice of song as well.

Very strange but good story!

Really cool story! Very easy to relate with the main characters and I appreciate how everything resolved.

11904590

How many of us would pay that fee?

A lot of people, I suspect. Though it definitely would help if they could iron out all the issues that come with abusing this tech.

11904344 11904853 11905124
Thanks for reading! :pinkiehappy:

Ah thank you, I must peruse your catalogue. Ah times it is dofficult to distinguish characters from their pronouns when Cliff and Phillip are interacting.otherwise nice

Edit:
Ha! I already follow you. Guess I've missed out huh?

That was odd but very good. Thanks for the story! Extra thanks for the Aviators. There are some good memories there.

11906299

Ah times it is dofficult to distinguish characters from their pronouns when Cliff and Phillip are interacting.

Thanks for the feedback. I do try to keep a balance between using dialogue tags to help identify speakers, and reducing their usage to improve flow and pacing.

Ah thank you, I must peruse your catalogue.

I hope you find other stories to your liking. Thanks for reading this one! :twilightsmile:

11906968
Oh yes, Aviators did some amazing pony songs back then. And thanks for reading! :pinkiehappy:

this story was great and an excellent read and I want Cliff and Sternum to kiss

Hey there, fellow contestant! Here's my review of your story:

I really enjoyed this one. It has a great core concept, a relatable main character, and a compelling plot. I think it works as a commentary on our own modern detachment from our own lives and also as criticism of the sort of escapism we see in a lot of other MLP stories. Despite being among the longer stories from this contest, I think it's paced very well and I didn't really notice the length much at all, which is always a good sign.

For minor criticism, I think the last chapter drags a little bit and maybe comes to a conclusion a little too neatly. Also detached a bit once I realized what the song was... just sort of took me out of it.

That said, a few minor gripes didn't keep me from thoroughly enjoying it. Good luck in the contest! :twilightsmile:

11924821
Hey mate, thanks for reading. Glad you enjoyed it! :twilightsmile:

For minor criticism, I think the last chapter drags a little bit and maybe comes to a conclusion a little too neatly.

I can see that. Fun fact: the original draft had Pixel revealing that she was pregnant. Unfortunately, I had one day left to write the ending and there was no chance of me sorting that bombshell out in a satisfactory way before the deadline. :twilightsheepish:

11924924
Oh wow, that would have been a big twist! But I think, under the circumstances, this was probably the right way to go if you were under the gun. My own story was a bit down to the wire as well, so I get it.

But like I said, minor gripes aside, still a damn good story. :yay:

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