Fallout: Equestria - Wasteland Bouquet

by Cascadejackal

First published

There's a lot of stories in the Equestrian Wasteland, and they all need to be told.

The Wasteland Bouquet. Just another bar, in just another town. The same old crowd, even when the faces change. Prospectors, scavengers, anyone that's down and out or just needs to tell their story, get things off their chest. Unicorn, Earth Pony, Pegasus, even Griffon, everyone is welcome. Walk on in, get yourself a drink, and cry your heart out to the pretty mare behind the bar, or maybe the quiet mare with the cold eyes. That's what they're there for, after all.

Thing is, they have their own story. It may not be heard very often, but here it is. Because every pony has a story, and those stories need to be told.

Chapter 0: Prologue

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FALLOUT EQUESTRIA - WASTELAND BOUQUET

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War. War never changes.

When Equestria was burned to ashes in the maelstrom of balefire, it was just a footnote in the long, bloody war. A moment of brief, if widespread, suffering, followed by a false calm. Over time, ponykind crept out from the Stables, giant underground bunkers built to save the lucky few that made it in, only to find that the land had changed. When the bombs fell, the Pegasi had closed up the skies to protect themselves, cutting Equestria off from the sun and the moon.

The clouds hung low over the burned, barren landscape, and all the comfortable realities the Stable ponies had hoped to find were long since gone. In time, the hearts of ponykind grew hard, mirroring the world they now lived in. Maybe one day, things would be better, changed by ponies who would shine like beacons in the darkness.

But this isn't a story about heroes or grand adventures. This is about a normal mare, who just wanted to look after her friend.

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---PROLOGUE---
"You did that on purpose."

It's late afternoon, the setting sun casting a comfortable glow across the world, even through the everpresent cloud cover. A few small lamps light the inside of my home and business, but don't cast enough light to completely chase away the familiar shadows that dance in the corners and under tables. From time to time I can see townsponies outside, through the large windows placed perfectly to let in the afternoon light. They seem content, not rushing home before it gets too dark, often stopping to talk and laugh with each other, happy, enjoying the safety of our town.


I yawn and give the bar one last wipe, hang the rag from a hook by the till, and turn to the mirror on the wall. "You're looking good, Lily." One bright green eye winks back at me as I laugh and check myself out; I'm a gorgeous unicorn mare, cream coat with just a little dust on it, mane and tail full and luxurious, the gold streaks vivid against emerald green. "Best looking barmare in town, and don't you forget it."

A toss of my mane and I turn back to the large room before me, smiling and looking at the ramshackle collection of tables, stools and cushions that make up our home, the Wasteland Bouquet; some with passed-out occupants, most empty, and one overturned with a couple of empty whiskey bottles next to it. That's the one I make my way over to, crossing the worn wooden floor to glare at the old black & white griffon snoring her beak off behind it. "Magpie! Wake up!"

"Fuck off, Lily. Ah'm sleeping" comes her mumbled reply, then a green glow surrounds the mop bucket in the corner as I levitate it over.

"I said: WAKE! UP!"

The griffon squawks and leaps up as the bucket is upended, soaking her. "I'm up! I'm up!" She glares at me, and I look her right in the eye without blinking.

"It's your turn to mind the bar, Magpie."

"Fine, but you get to tell Rose why she's all wet." One talon points at where she was just laying, and the off-white unicorn she'd been using as a pillow. The very wet, and very awake, unicorn.

"Oh, Rose, I'm so sorry!" While I'm busy apologizing and shoving the complaining griffon across the tavern floor, the mare stands up slowly and shakes herself off.

"About what?" Her flat, precise voice is unreadable, as always, but I can tell she's grumpy from the way she eyes the now empty bucket.

"Don't you even think about it, Rose." Satisfied that Magpie is behind the bar and ready to work (using a towel to dry herself), I trot back over and stick my hoof in the white mare's face. "I just washed my mane this morning, so forget the bucket and help me clean up."


With the two of us, it doesn't take long to clean up and see the last customers off, so we seat ourselves at the bar, where Magpie has just finished drying herself off, still muttering about inconsiderate ponies. Unlike Rose, who doesn't care in the least that her coat and mane are still damp.

"Here." Magpie throws her towel up and I catch it with my magic. "Before she catches a cold, you know what she's like." A bottle of whiskey floats past the griffon's head, only to be plucked from the air, a teasing grin on her beak. "Rose, let Lily dry your mane first, and then you can have it." Rose pokes her tongue out at Magpie, the white glow from her horn fading, then turns to me.

"Well?"

I drop the towel on her head and start drying her blood-red mane, then move onto her off-white coat, having fun and being quite rough. Magpie laughs as Rose starts to coo with pleasure from the rub down, the mare's blue-grey eyes shut tight with happiness. "I think she's gonna fall off her seat if you keep that up!" I smirk and rub harder, paying special attention to her cutie mark, and sure enough.... THUMP.

"Ow."

Magpie and I burst out laughing, watching Rose lay on her back, twitching, lost in her little bliss filled world. Then it's just Magpie laughing, as Rose kicks my seat out from under me without even opening her eyes and I land next to her. "You two are just so damn funny!" The griffon gasps, clutching her chest with tears in her eyes as she looks down at us.

Rose just opens one eye and uses her magic to pull the bottle of whiskey down, wrapping her hooves around it and resting her head on my chest with a satisfied sigh, eyes closed again. Ignoring Magpie, I give Rose a kiss on her horn and stroke her mane, smiling, words coming to my lips, but: "I love you too, Lily." I still get surprised by how good Rose is at reading my emotions, even after all these years.

"Would you stop doing that?"

Even though I'm scolding her, she just looks up at me with a small smile, and I have to kiss her. "Aww! Get a room, you two!" We both look up at the smirking old griffon, then at each other.

"It's your shift anyway, so maybe we will." Saying that, I roll to my hooves and snap my tail against Rose's flank, before leading the way to the back of the building, and the stairs to our room. Rose nuzzles against me the whole way, the now open bottle of whiskey gripped in her mouth, and I think back on all our journeys, all the things we've been through together, and how everything started.

Chapter 1: Memories

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---CHAPTER 1: Memories---
"Is she gonna be okay?"

Maybe I should start by introducing myself. I'm Caravan Lily. Grew up on the caravan trails with my parents, and that's how I got my name. Nobody calls me Caravan though, unless they want a hoof to the face. Good old dad always said I got my temper from mum, and she said I got my stubborn streak from him. It was a good life, travelling from town to town, meeting new ponies and going where the caps were. I loved feeling so free and trading with everypony we met, so it wasn't a surprise when my cutie mark turned out to be two caps and a feather. Rose was so jealous when she saw it.

Whiskey Rose... I still remember what she used to be like. A happy little filly, a year younger than me, she was always smiling and running everywhere, never content to just sit still, those bright blue eyes shining as we played in the big field outside her house. Our parents were old friends, since they used to travel together until Rose's parents fixed up an old house in the middle of nowhere and settled down to start their family.

We'd stop by once a month to catch up and trade. Her mother was a unicorn that loved painting flowers and her father was an earth pony who made the best whiskey in the wasteland, so you can see how she got her name...

At least, I used to think that's how she got her name. Then I learned the real story...


I always made sure to bring Rose something special, like a book or magazine, and she'd go nuts every time, like it was the greatest thing ever. We'd swap stories, too; I'd talk about all the places I'd been and she'd tell me how her father was teaching her how to shoot or hunt. Sometimes she was allowed to use her dad's old hunting rifle, and I learned pretty quickly that even though she looked silly using the gun like an earth pony would, especially since it was longer than her, she almost never missed.

Didn't like using her magic to aim, either.

Everypony thought she'd get her cutie mark for shooting, but her mother wanted Rose to be more "ladylike", and tried teaching her to be gentle, kind and most important, listen to others and how they feel. That's about the time Rose found her OTHER talent, the one that didn't involve putting holes in things: Rose could feel other ponies emotions. No matter how well you hid what you were feeling, she'd know.

Now, that would be impressive enough, but that little sensitivity of hers not only got better and more defined as we grew up, until she could feel someponies physical sensations as well if she was close enough, but it also affected her magic. One day, I'd cut my leg when we were playing, not bad, but it did bleed a lot. Rose was freaking out, helping me limp back to the house, when suddenly the pain dulled. Not gone, but not nearly as bad.

I looked at my leg, and realized Rose had her glowing horn pressed to it. She asked me if it felt better, and the little filly seemed so proud when I said it did. With my leg feeling so much better, we made our way into the house and I got patched up while Rose wandered off to find something to eat.

I remember asking her parents when they'd taught her the anaesthetic spell, and they said they hadn't, that she'd never been able to use medical magic well enough. That's when I realised she'd been limping after numbing my leg; She hadn't just numbed it or used a medical spell; she'd actually taken the pain herself to help me.

I told our parents, and they called Rose in to talk to her about it. The words she said still stick in my mind today: "Lily was hurt and I made her feel better. Helping ponies makes me happy." With a huge smile, she'd stuck her head back in the box of sugar apple bombs my mum had given her that morning, the happiest little pony in the world


That's the kind of fillies we were. Happy, laughing, the best of friends and closer than sisters. That would change, though.

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Flash forward a couple of years. I'm not quite a filly anymore, and Rose can't wait to be grown-up like me.

It'd been a long trip that month, and we were looking forward to seeing our friends again, visions of the white buck in his old brown duster standing beside the pretty, maroon-maned unicorn with her everpresent saddlebags, and Rose bouncing around her parents in excitement filling my head.


we were still a good distance away, and I was reading the book I'd picked up for Rose; A big one, about zebra fighting techniques or something, when I heard my mum gasp. "Is that... Smoke?"

I poked my head out of the wagon, spotting the dark streak rising over the hills instantly, a dark streak against the everpresent low, thick clouds. My dad urged the brahmin on, and we raced down the road, only slowing when the house came into view. "Oh, no..." My mother sounded ready to cry, and I could feel my eyes tearing up as well.


The grand old house, once so strong and magnificent, like a castle in the wastes, was now nothing more than a few charred and smoking timbers, streamers of dark smoke winding their way into the sky. I leapt down from the wagon and took off, praying desperately to the goddesses that everypony was okay, that they'd gotten out in time. "LILY, WAIT!" Ignoring the cries for me to stop, I charged into the pile of still warm ash calling for somepony, anypony.

That's when I saw the little figure sitting where the living room used to be, wearing an old, battered coat that was much too big. "Rose!"

She didn't react and I started to panic, picking my way through the smouldering wreckage as fast as I could and grabbing her. "I found Rose!" I called to my parents, and they ran over to help me check her out. The little filly just sat there, eyes closed and wearing her father's duster, his battered old hunting rifle laying on her mother's saddlebags a few feet away, as we bandaged up the burns on her legs.

"Rose, Honey, what happened? Where are your parents? Where did this blood come from?" My mother was trying to wash spattered blood from Rose's face, while I was just trying to get my best friend to open her eyes.

"Bad ponies came."

Her voice was flat and dead, nothing like the filly I'd grown up with. "I told papa they were coming, and mama made me hide under my bed. There was lots of shooting. Some of the bad ponies were killed, but then papa got hurt, and they came inside." Rose opened her eyes, and my blood ran cold as I echoed my mothers horrified gasp.


Those bright, shining blue eyes had lost their light, turning into twin pools of ice.


"They came inside, and started hurting mama and papa." My mother hugged Rose tight to her breast as I collapsed, trembling, in shock at what she must have heard, only to realise that she wouldn't have just heard it all... "I could feel them. Mama and Papa were in so much pain, but I couldn't help them. Mama told me to stay hidden until the bad ponies left, and I was being a good pony. If you're a good pony, mama and papa will look after you. Right?" Rose looked at me and I felt sick, nodding that yes, she was a good pony...

"They won't look after me now, though, because I'm a bad pony. I couldn't help them, I couldn't help mama and papa." She moved one hoof, brushing some ashes aside to reveal...

"Oh, goddesses..." My voice was weak as I stumbled away and threw up. All that was left of her parents were a couple of badly burned bones, and she was stroking them gently, blaming herself because her parents were gone.

"Honey, it's okay, it's not your fault." My mother stroked Rose's mane, sobbing as she tried to comfort the broken, emotionless filly. My father finally pulled himself together, sitting in front of her and looking her in the eye.

"Rose, sweetheart, we'll stop the bad ponies from hurting anypony else. Did you see where they went?"

Rose nodded and pointed. "They went that way, after setting the house on fire. About an hour walk. When they left, I came out to try and help mama and papa, but I couldn't do anything, not even wake them up, and the fire was really scary... Papa always said I shouldn't go out alone at night, but there wasn't anypony to come with me, so I got his gun and coat. It was getting really hot, but I managed to find mama's saddlebags, too. The door was on fire, so I... I had to break a window to get out... I hope papa isn't mad at me, I didn't want to break it, but it was too hot to open."


Listening to my best friend describing everything in that flat, dead tone, worried about getting in trouble for breaking a window, I started to shake. My parents hugged her tight and my father whispered soothingly. "You won't get in trouble, I promise. Now, stay here with Lily and auntie, and I'll be back in a little while." Slowly, he pulled himself away from Rose and started walking in the direction she'd pointed, taking his shotgun from the wagon on his way.

"The bad ponies are all gone now," Rose mumbled, more to herself than us. "They won't hurt anypony ever again."

The little white filly with the ice-cold eyes and blood-red mane didn't say anything after that, as my mother and I carried her to the wagon, setting her down in the back where she'd be comfortable while we buried her parents remains and waited.

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When my father returned, I was watching Rose read her new book, every motion passive, with no emotion or energy at all. She'd barely reacted when I gave it to her, just a flat, quiet "thank you" and not a word since. My mother told me to stay with Rose and ran over to meet my father.


We were too far away to hear what they said, but my mother sat down heavily, dazed, as my father came over to the wagon, putting one hoof on Rose's shoulder. "Honey, do you know what happened to the bad ponies?"

His voice was low, like he didn't want me to hear what was about to be said; Rose obviously didn't feel the same, because she just looked at him with those dead eyes and said, clear as day: "I hurt them all."

My father looked like he was about to pass out. "Does that make me a bad pony? I know I shouldn't hurt other ponies, but I took their pain away while they went to sleep, so I'm kinda good, right?" She cocked her head and looked first at my father, then my mother, and finally at me.

My father whispered to me: "She cut their throats. Every last one of them."


I started to cry, picturing this little filly, the one almost lost in an old coat that was made for a large stallion, slitting the throats of raiders and taking the pain of dying away, still trying to be a good pony even as she took their lives. To feel everything her parents went through, their deaths, and then the pain and deaths of the very raiders responsible as she killed them. I couldn't begin to imagine what that had done to her.

"I'm sorry, Lily. Please don't cry." Rose nuzzled me, then stood up. "It's okay; I know I'm a bad pony now, so I'll just stay here, with mama and papa." She picked up her mother's saddlebags and put them on, tucking the old rifle into the straps, and went to jump down from the wagon.

"NO!" I screamed and threw myself at her, pinning her so she couldn't leave. "You're a good pony, Rose! We'll look after you, I promise!" My parents grabbed her too, the three of us doing our best to convince her it was alright to stay with us, that we didn't think she was a bad pony. Eventually, she stopped trying to get away and just sat there quietly as my father coaxed the brahmin back towards the road.


"Are you okay, Rose?" I asked softly, brushing her mane away from her face.

"I'm okay." A troubled expression crossed her face, just for a moment. "Lily?"

"What is it, Rose?"

"Even if I'm a bad pony now, will you look after me? I promise I'll do whatever you say, and I'll never go away like mama and papa did."

I held her tightly, fighting back tears, unable to speak. "We'll take care of you, Rose. Don't worry."

My mother spoke up, looking back at us with a sad smile. "I'll look after you like you were my very own daughter. Now, it's getting late, so why don't you and Lily get some sleep?"

Rose nodded and squirmed out of her dad's old duster, laying it on the floor of the wagon like a blanket before curling up, using one of her mother's saddlebags as a pillow. "Hey, when did you get your cutie mark, Rose?" I poked her flank with one hoof, seeing, for the first time , a black heart-shape on her coat. She turned her head to look at it, expression blank and unreadable.

"Got it last night, I guess."

As she put her head back on the bag and went to sleep, my blood ran cold; The most traumatic night of her life, and she'd gotten her cutie mark from it...


FOOTNOTE: LEVEL UP
New Perk: Cherchez La Filly -- +10% damage to the same sex and unique dialogue options with certain ponies.

Companion Gained: Whiskey Rose

Chapter 2: Caravan under a Cloudy Sky

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---CHAPTER 2: Caravan under a Cloudy Sky---
"You have my word."

Morning. Even with the everpresent clouds, dawn brought enough light to make me groan and cover my eyes with one leg. We'd been travelling through the night and I'd spent most of it tossing and turning, nightmares lurking behind every dream. Quiet snoring drew my attention to where Rose lay, in the exact same position she'd fallen asleep. With a yawn I crawled over to lay beside her, careful not to wake her up.

"Everything okay back there, girls?" My mother whispered from up front. "We're nearly in town, not long now." I nodded and pointed at Rose. "No, let her sleep. Poor dear needs as much rest as she can get." Just then the wagon hit a bump and Rose whimpered, curling up against me and opening her eyes.

"Lily?" I wrapped my forelegs around her.

"Shh, it's okay. I'm here, Rose. Go back to sleep." With a small sigh, she buried her face against my chest and drifted off into a deep sleep. I didn't know if I should envy her for being able to sleep peacefully after everything that she'd been through, or pity her for having her world torn apart so brutally that nightmares didn't hold any terror at all. In the end, I settled for holding her while she slept and stroking her head.

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The town was just coming into view when Rose woke up with a start, her whole body shaking. "Rose, what's wrong?" I asked her in a panic, my tone drawing my parents attention.

"So many ponies...' She curled up into a little white and red ball, mumbling, and I realized what was happening.

"Dad, stop!" I yelled to my father and he reigned in the brahmin as my mother leapt to our side.

"Lily, what is it? What's wrong with Rose?" She nuzzled the quivering ball as I explained.

"Rose can feel emotions, remember? And she's never been in a town!"


The wagon turned and we hurried back down the trail, only stopping when Rose started to recover. "Rose, honey, can you hear me?" My mother spoke softly, cradling Rose in her hooves. The little white head gave a tiny nod. "I want you to focus, okay? Focus on us, baby. On auntie and uncle and big sister Lily, alright?" Another nod, and her body had almost stopped trembling. "Is that better, honey?"

Rose's voice was weak when she replied, "Yeah. It was just scary, that's all."

My mum set her down next to me, and I put one hoof around her shoulders protectively, comforting her. "Rose, honey, do you think you could keep focusing on us? Maybe ignore all the other ponies?" Rose shook her head at the suggestion and hugged me tightly.

"Maybe."

My parents looked at each other in concern, and my father spoke up. "Rose, we need to go into town, but if it's too much, I can go by myself. Is that okay?" Those grey eyes watched us from under her crimson mane, and she nodded again.

"I'll be okay if Lily is with me." With that, we made our way back to town, slowly letting her get used to being near so many ponies.

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"See something you like, young lady?" The buck behind the counter smiled at Rose, who was staring at a small stack of more or less intact books. She nodded and pointed at a Daring Do novel without speaking. "A Daring Do fan, huh? Good choice." He smiled at her again, but her face was blank as she just stared back. "Tell you what, cute filly like you, it's yours for 5 caps." Rose turned to look in her saddlebags, but I stopped her and payed for it myself.

The buck leaned over the counter and whispered to me; "Is she okay?" He waved a hoof at where Rose was sitting, carefully putting her new book away.

I sighed and whispered back, "She's just really shy, that's all."

His smile faltered for a moment before he replied, "Oh. Well, was there anything else you wanted?"


Several minutes later we left the store, stepping out onto the fairly empty street with our bags full of supplies. Our hooves kicked up little clouds of dust as we walked, Rose staying so close that we'd brush up against each other every few steps.

It was clear the filly wasn't very comfortable, since she hadn't spoken for hours or even opened her mouth except to sip at a sparkle cola. A cool breeze blew across us, disturbing the hot mid-day air, messing up our manes and making Rose shiver. "It's alright, Rose." I whispered as we reached the store my parents were in. "As soon as mum and dad come out, we'll be on our way." She stared at me silently, so I poked her side and grinned. "Cheer up. Why don't you read your new book while we wait?" For a second I thought she was going to smile, but she just pulled out her book and settled down next to me.

Watching her, my eyes started to wander, coming to rest on her cutie mark, like a black stain on her white coat. The more I looked at it, the more disturbing it became. You know how when you draw a loveheart, it's closed? Her cutie mark wasn't. It was all broken and twisted, covered in thorns. This was the best look I'd had at it so far, since she'd left her father's old duster and his gun in the wagon. That had taken some convincing, and it wasn't until I'd pointed out that she could bring her mother's saddlebags that Rose had agreed. Sensing my unease, Rose looked up at me curiously. "Sorry, just looking at your cutie mark." She twisted her head to look at it, then cocked her head and stared at me. "It looks... Nice." I forced a smile, but she just shrugged and went back to reading. Eventually, my parents came out of the store and we all got to work loading new supplies and deliveries onto the wagon.

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My heart soared. The sun was high, a calm wind was blowing, and the road seemed to stretch into eternity. My parents were laughing at some joke dad had made, and Rose was clearly happy to be moving again, watching straggly trees and rocks roll past us with a peaceful look in her eyes. Only a couple of hours out of town, with a wagon full of goods and two days till the next stop on our route. I was in heaven.

"Feel better now, Rose?" Brushing my emerald mane back (I love the feel of wind in my face, but it always messes up my hair), I levitated over two sparkle colas, giving my friend one as she nodded.

"I don't like towns much." She bit the cap off her drink, took a sip and watched the landscape go by. "Lily, how big is the world?"

Opening my own drink (with my magic, of course. Rose really seemed like an Earth Pony sometimes.), I took a long drink, enjoying the carroty flavour before answering. "So big, that you could walk forever and not see it all. Why?"

She tapped one hoof on the side of the wagon. "I... I wanna see it all, Lily. I want to stay with you, and auntie and uncle, and go everywhere that caravan ponies like you do. Even if I have to go into towns or talk to other ponies, it doesn't matter, because travelling makes you happy, and that makes me happy." I laughed and hugged her as tight as I could, my parents watching us with huge smiles on their faces.

"Of course you can travel with us, Rose." My father called back to us. "You're family, after all." Rose just looked at the three of us, then went back to watching the world, her face passive, but peaceful looking.

"Family..."

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The old brown coat was pretty comfortable to lay on. Not as good as my bedroll, but after we made camp Rose had refused to sleep on anything but her dad's duster, and I'd ended up laying on it with her so she wouldn't be lonely.

My parents and I took turns telling ghost stories, and even Rose had told one. I'd recognised it from one of the books I'd given her ages ago, but hearing it told in that cold, emotionless voice scared the living crap out of me. Now, I don't believe in ghosts, but by the time she was finished talking, my mane was standing on end, and I swear that I could see things walking around, just outside the circle of light cast by our campfire. It didn't help that Rose kept looking out into the night, either, like she was watching something.


When we were all done scaring each other (or trying to. Rose seemed to take it better than I did), our dinner was cooked to perfection. Some withered vegetables from town, and fresh bacon. "I can't believe you took down that radhog with one shot." I mumbled past my mouthful of food, earning a scolding from my mother.

Rose shrugged and swallowed. "Hard to miss. It ran straight at us."

My father gestured at the old hunting rifle that had belonged to Rose's dad and said, with a strip of bacon hanging from his mouth, "You're one hell of a shot, Rose. Few years, I'll have to start paying you as a guard." My mother glared at him as he chewed and swallowed.

"Well, I can see where Lily gets her manners."

As I licked my plate clean, I felt offended; There was nothing wrong with my manners!

Dinner over, we cleaned up and got ready to sleep, my father keeping his shotgun by his side. The area was pretty safe, and there hadn't been any raiders sighted around there lately, but better safe than sorry. There was still the wildlife, after all. Laying next to Rose, I pulled a blanket over us and cuddled against her. "G'night, Rose."

"Good night, Lily." As I drifted off, she was still staring into the darkness...

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Brr... Cold... I rolled over, reaching for the soft, warm filly and missing. Groping around sleepily, I realized she wasn't next to me at all, and sat up to look around. The fire had died down, just softly glowing embers that gave off little light, but it was enough to tell she wasn't there.

"Rose?" I called out softly, getting up and walking to the wagon, the brahmin sleeping beside it. Nopony in the wagon, and I checked behind it in case she'd needed to, uh, 'take care of business', but she wasn't there. After waiting a little while, in case she showed up, I woke my parents. "Rose is missing."

That one sentence was enough to get them up and moving, my father floating his shotgun along as we started searching around the camp, calling. "Rose!" We didn't get far, only a few steps from the fire, before Rose materialized from the darkness, like a bloody maned ghost, a duffel bag on her back and a bloody knife in her mouth. She spat out the knife and looked at us.

"What's wrong?"

We stared back in shock, and my father managed to stutter out a question: "Where were you? Where did you get that knife? And..."

"Your face!" As Rose walked closer, my mother shrieked and ran to her, checking the big, bloody bruise on her little face. Floating some medical supplies out, mum started to clean it, making Rose wince as she answered.

"Some bad ponies were going to hurt us, so I found them and asked them to leave. One hit me, and, well..." She waved a hoof at the bloody knife. "They're gone now."

Dad yelled at her. "Rose, that was dangerous! You should have told me there were bad ponies nearby!" Those grey eyes looked at him, as dead and lifeless as her voice.

"If I told you, then there would have been fighting, like when I told papa. I don't want my family to go away again..." A pause, then she continued, her voice sad now. "Was I a bad pony? I only wanted to keep everypony safe... Please don't make me leave..."

Mum stopped cleaning the bruise, hugging the filly tight. "No, honey, you don't have to go anywhere."

I hugged her too, and dad came over, keeping his voice calm. "Rose, I'm not angry, you just scared us. From now on, if there are bad ponies around, I want you to tell us, okay? Don't do things like this. Can you promise?" He smiled at her, and she bobbed her head in agreement.

"I promise. Good ponies don't break promises, and I want to be a good pony."


Slipping out of our arms, Rose grabbed the bag and dragged it over. "I took all their stuff, too. We can sell it in town, right?" We all sorted the bag out together, after I made Rose promise never to leave my side again. All up, there were several badly damaged guns with ammo, an assortment of knives and shivs, a couple of healing potions and a bunch of random junk. When she said 'all their stuff', she meant it.

Eventually we got everything squared away, Rose had her cheek bandaged up and, after a very stern lecture and some more promises, she curled up next to me. This time, I made sure she was sound asleep before resting my head on her neck and going to sleep myself.


Morning found us moving again, and Rose refused to talk to us about her fight with the raiders. Years later, I'd get to see her fighting skills firsthoof, but for now I was more or less unaware just what she was capable of. Nonetheless, my father always made sure to check with Rose before we made camp, and she never took off on her own again, staying near me just like she'd promised.

FOOTNOTE: LEVEL UP
Companion Perk: Honest Heart -- Whiskey Rose gains +10% to all skills when you are nearby. Promises are meant to be kept.

Intermission (TEASER)

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WARNING: This chapter is kinda cloppy. Don't read on if you're offended by intimate situations.


---INTERMISSION---

Rose sets her half-empty bottle of whiskey down at the top of the stairs while I trot on down the hall, moving at her usual sedate pace. With one hoof I push the door to our room open and, my tail swaying seductively, head in, knowing Rose will catch up quickly once I'm out of sight.

With a spark of emerald magic I light the candles sitting on my dresser, the flickering flames giving just enough light to see by and making shadows dance across our bed invitingly. I could have used the lamp instead, but this was more... romantic...

I give a small shriek and leap up at the feel of warm breath on the back of my neck, spinning to glare at the mare behind me; I hadn't even heard her close the door! "Rose! Do-"

She shuts me up with a kiss so passionate, I almost melt right there. Long minutes pass before we seperate and it's all I can do to breathe, staring into her eyes, completely dazed. Those deep, ice-coloured pools, so deep and clear it's impossible to think straight...

A half bottle of whiskey would have put me out like a light, but Rose... Her gaze is clear and loving, her breath fresh and sweet as she just barely touches her lips to mine... Those soft, gentle lips... The small kiss is enough to make me moan quietly and lean forward as she pulls away, a small smile on her face.

"You're such a tease." I murmur and nuzzle against her neck before hopping onto our bed, stretching out luxuriously, giving her a good view before petting the sheets beside me, an invitation she happily accepts.




This chapter is being written as a crossover. I hope you enjoyed the teaser, because it gets a LOT better after this.
As soon as my co-author finishes their part, I'll change this to the full chapter.

Chapter 3: A Sticky Situation

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---CHAPTER 3: A Sticky Situation---
"Snips and Snails and Bubblegum Fails"

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I was sitting in the back of the wagon, waiting for just the right moment to strike... NOW! Jabbing my hoof forwards, I hit my target dead on; Rose's massive bubble exploded, and her face was turned into a gooey pink mess.

"Lily!" My mother scolds me. "That wasn't very nice!"

"Oh, chill out, mum. I'm just having fun!" I smirked and did my best not to laugh, failing miserably as Rose started wiping the bubblegum off her face (and ears. Mane, too. That stuff went EVERYWHERE.), only to stick the ball of goo back in her mouth and start chewing again.

"See? Rose doesn't mind. Do you, Rose?" She blinked at me and blew another bubble as her answer; this one was even bigger than the last! Like a big, pink, bullseye...

Mum glared at me. "Don't you dare, Lily. Leave your sister alone."

I shrugged, said "Fine" and stretched out, resting my head on a dufflebag and watching Rose clean her face off again (Not my fault that time!).


It'd been a few years since Rose lost her parents, but it was still hard to make her open up or say more than a few words at a time. It wasn't that she refused to talk, she just didn't feel like it. She's still like that, actually; Only says what she needs to. Sure, I could always get my friend talking (or squealing. Tickling her was fun!), but that's because she trusted me.

Anypony else? Forget it. Please, Thank You, Yes and No were about all she'd say.

Heck, my parents were lucky to get more than one conversation with her in a whole day!


"Rose, come here!" Seeing the gooey mess from the latest bubble, my mother called the white mare up to the front (how Rose avoided tripping over any of our cargo with her face covered in goop, I have no idea), and scraped the gum off. "What a mess! How can you stand this stuff?" If you've ever tried getting gum out of your hair, you'd know how horrible it is. But when mum threw the ball of gunk onto the trail, Rose just watched it vanish into the distance longingly, while mum fussed with the red (and sticky) mess on her head in a futile attempt to make her presentable.


Sharp eyed as always, Rose had spotted a packet marked 'Super Radbuck Gum!' while shopping with me in the last town we'd stopped at, bought it on the spot (as well as a magazine on electronics. It was full of complicated words, so I got a headache just looking at it) and had been chewing almost non-stop for the last 3 hours, blowing bubbles and bursting them like a foal.

So, when my mum had finished grooming Rose and let her go, I stuck the last stick of gum between my lips and poked my friend's rump to get her attention. You should have seen her eyes light up! She tried biting it, but I sat up so she couldn't reach; Goddesses, how I loved being taller than her. Only a few inches, but it made teasing her like that so much more fun.

"Lily, that's mine." Rose grumbled and tried getting it again, but I kept it out of reach, grinning.

"ooz or agic!" Okay, so I couldn't speak clearly with a stick of gum between my teeth, but Rose got the idea.

"No." Instead of doing the normal unicorn thing and taking it from me with her magic, Rose stuck her front hooves on my chest and pushed me onto my back so she could take the gum her way.

I want you to picture two very pretty teenaged mares, in the back of a moving wagon, kissing. That's what it looked like. And, I'll admit, it was fun. We didn't actually kiss though, Rose just wanted her stick of gum.

"You two..." Mum scowled at us as we sat up (Rose was happily chewing again).

"Honey, they're just kids. Kids play around." My dad laughed at us; He wasn't too bothered with anything we got up to, as long as we were happy.

No, me and Rose weren't a couple back then. I was at the age where boys were interesting (and they were more than a little interested in me), while Rose couldn't have cared less either way as long as nopony tried touching her.


So, great friends, but we weren't lovers or anything.


"Lily, show some brains." Mum was really getting stuck into me. "You know what your sister is like, just look at her!" By this point, Rose was licking the remains of a bubble from her muzzle. Not too big a mess yet, but she'd get there eventually. "I swear, you must enjoy watching her get all messy."

"I do, actually." That earned me a glare that would have melted glass. It was true, though. Rose was enjoying the gum, mess and all, and I loved seeing her smile. Or stare blankly at the scenery, same thing with Rose.

I think we can skip the rest of the argument. What it amounted to was, I'd be held responsible if Rose got it in her mane again, and I'd be the one cleaning it for her.

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Predictably, by the time we stopped to stretch our legs and give the brahmin a break, Rose had gotten the pink goop everywhere. Again. "Did you do this on purpose?" It took me almost half an hour to get that crap out of her mane, so when she nodded, I thumped her on the head with my hoof.

She responded by kicking me, and it wasn't long before we were rolling around in the dirt and giggling. Even back then Rose was surprisingly strong, but I put up a good fight. I still ended up being pinned, though, her chest pressed to mine so hard I could feel her heartbeat. She buried her face in my mane (just to mess it up) and climbed off, trotting off towards our caravan and calling out for my father.

"Uncle, passenger coach coming!" Rose had gotten so used to other ponies, she could tell traders from caravaneers, or gun merchants from ponies that sold barding, from a pretty impressive distance. Empaths. What can you do?


Sure enough, a passenger wagon rolled by a few minutes later. A big, fancy thing with a few families (That's how Rose knew it was a passenger coach) in it. Dad and me flagged them down and went to work. Ammo for their guards, food and water for the families, information on the road ahead for all of us and a pile of caps for me! I mean, for us. Um, anyway...


I waved goodbye and strolled back to the wagon. As social as ever, Rose had hidden herself underneath it, reading while we did all the hard work. She still wasn't big enough for her duster to fit properly, so she was laying on it as usual. Didn't stop her white coat from getting covered in dust, though.

"So, what're you reading?" Not that I was interested, but Rose loved to read. She'd talk my ears off, given half a chance.

"An article on Pipbucks. Like a radio on your leg, but it can keep track of all your stuff too. They have a map function, as well." See? She doesn't stop talking!

Sarcasm aside, I'd actually been intrigued by her description of the Pipbuck. They sounded useful, so imagine my disappointment when, after much (verbal) probing, Rose told me they weren't exactly common before the war, and I might never get my hooves on one.

I disagreed, saying that I'd almost definitely find a Pipbuck for myself one day, even if I had to go scavenging for it myself. Rose just looked at me like I was an idiot and pointed out that, no matter how good a trader I was, scavenging is completely different. We started bickering (I bickered. Rose just spoke normally, her voice flat, precise, and all the more infuriating because she was probably right), and we were still arguing when evening came and we set up camp.

"I think I'd be a great scavenger!"

"A radroach would eat you."

"Not if I have a gun, it wouldn't!"

"You're terrible with a gun."

"Am not!"

"You forgot to load your shotgun last week, when I was teaching you."

"Well, that... I mean... Not everypony is a gun freak like you!"

"Lily, there's a reason uncle pays me as a guard, and lets you handle the trading."

That shut me up. Dad had made good on his offer, and Rose had become our official guard a few months after she started travelling with us. Speaking of good old dad...


"Grub's up, girls!"


We ran over, only bumping each other a little (hey, I was hungry!) and slid to a graceful stop. Well, I slid to a stop, and Rose gracefully jumped over me. "Manners, girls." Mum was ladling soup into our bowls; I can't remember what was in it, just that it smelled great.

"Thanks, mum!"

"Thank you, auntie." I levitated my bowl over and stuck my muzzle in, savoring the delicious odor and slurping it up, while Rose was using magic (shocking, I know!) to stir her soup with a spoon.

"Lily, you eat too fast." Rose was dipping a hunk of bread into her bowl. "Can you even taste it?"

I raised my head, licking my lips. "Yep. Tastes better this way." Then, back into the bowl I went!

Dad chuckled, his mouth smeared with soup. "That's my girl."

"You are such a bad influence on our daughter." That was my mother, all right. Always picking on my manners. "Look at Rose, she's a proper lady."

Never laugh when you have your face in a bowl of soup. It's messy.

"A proper lady? Rose?" Wiping my mouth on my foreleg, I waved a hoof at her. "She's more like a... a... I dunno, but she's no lady!" Said the mare with food all over her face. Rose just sat there and ate in silence, not caring what we thought.

I'm gonna skip the part where I get told off again. Manners, be polite, act more like your sister, the usual. Don't bother pointing out that me and Rose aren't actually sisters, because I don't care. We're family, and that's all that matters. Back then, and even more so now.

Where was I again? Oh yeah, getting told off and eating dinner. Good times! Mum shook her head in exasperation. "I just don't know what went wrong. I did my best, but you're so... Argh!" She stomped, glaring at my dad. "It's your fault Lily is like this."

Dad laughed and gave her a soupy smooch. "Would you prefer a dainty daughter who refuses to get dirty?"

"Well, no, but..."

"Then don't worry, I'm sure Rose will rub off on her eventually."

If your mind ends up in the gutter one more time, I'm taking it away from you. I'm serious.

I guzzled the last few drops of soup, licked the bowl clean and put it down. "Done!" With a huge grin, I poked Rose's side. "C'mon, slowpoke. Finish eating so we can start my lessons again. I'll prove I'm as good a shot as you."

Pretty sure Rose took her time just to bug me. "I'm done." She set her bowl in mine and stood up. "Uncle, can we borrow your shotgun?" I was already at the wagon, said shotgun hovering beside me. Rose was always so polite. She got that from her mother.

"Alright, but be careful. Lily is the worst shot I've ever seen." Come on, dad! That wasn't fair!

"I'll stand in front of her, don't worry." Great, even Rose was cracking jokes about how bad I was!

"Are we doing this or not?" I stomped off; Rose would just have to catch up.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Oh, fuck me sideways.

Somepony, who shall remain nameless, but is very attractive and has lovely green eyes, may have stumbled into a bloatsprite nest. And that pony, who is still nameless, may have forgotten to load her shotgun. Again. In fact, she dropped the shotgun and ran away screaming.

The bloatsprite that was about to take my ear off exploded, covering me with gunk. The one that had hold of my tail met the same fate a moment later, then the third, which was stuck in my mane.

I ran, screaming, into our camp and ducked behind Rose; my saviour. She was standing on her hind legs, the stock of her old hunting rifle braced against her right shoulder, left hoof supporting the barrel, right hoof working the bolt.

The rifle had been made for use by a unicorn (bolt actions are hard to work without magic), but Rose used it just like an earth pony would; just like her father had. One ice-colored eye peered down the scope, tracking motion in the darkness, and she tongued the trigger again. I didn't need to see what she was aiming at to know her target was dead, Rose never missed. "Are you okay?" She put the rifle into its holster on her back and sat next to me, one foreleg around my shoulders.

"I hate bloatsprites." I shuddered and she hugged me. My parents came over to help pick bits out of my hair and comfort me as Rose nuzzled my neck, then stood up.

"You're not hurt, but stay here while I get the gun." Oh, right... I dropped my shotgun when I retreated... Okay, fine, when I screamed and ran.


So sue me, bloatsprites are creepy. Those huge eyes, the gross wings, the teeny tiny legs... Ugh... Taint, radiation and giant bugs, never a good mix.


It didn't take Rose long. She was back in about a minute, the gun clutched in her teeth (Seriously! That mare must forget she's a unicorn sometimes!). I was more or less bit-free by then, but my skin was still crawling. Ugh. Bugs suck.

"Next town, I'm buying you a revolver, and teaching you how to use it." She sat down beside me and started checking the shotgun out, fiddling with it. "It's going to take all night to fix this." It looked fine to me, and I said so. Dad smacked the back of my head.

"You've gotta be more careful, Lily. You can't just drop a gun and expect it to work when you pick it back up. Rose, show her what you're doing. And Lily, for Celestia's sake, pay attention."

And so began one of the most boring nights of my life. By the time I went to sleep, I knew more than I'd ever wanted to about how guns work, and how to keep them from falling apart. Well, I knew not to drop them in a panic or hit things with them, anyway.


FOOTNOTE: LEVEL UP
GUNS 25
REPAIR 25
New Perk: Travel Light -- While wearing light armor or no armor, you run 20% faster. All the better to avoid bugs!

Chapter 4: New Friends

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---CHAPTER 4: New Friends---
"I'm a year older than you."

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BANG! BANG! BANG-SMASH! "Yeah!" I cheered as the bottle exploded.

"Three shots. You're getting better."

"See, I said I was as good a shot as you!"

"In your dreams, Lily."

Rose and I were just outside of town, firing at some bottles on a fence. True to her word, Rose had dragged me (literally, at first) to a gun merchant, buying me a revolver, and now she was showing me how to use it.

"I bet I'd be a better shot with that other gun, the one with the mother-of-pearl mouthgrip and the engraved barrel!"

"Two reasons I didn't let you get that: First, it was a show-piece. Flashy, not meant for firing. Second, it was a pistol, and they have more moving parts."

Rose tapped my new gun (an ugly, dull grey thing) with her hoof. "This is a prewar police revolver. It was made to shoot first time, every time. It's also harder to break, and even you should be able to keep it working."

"Whatever." I aimed, and fired again. BANG! BANG! CLICK! Wait, click?

"It also carries five shots."

Oh. I blushed a little and used my magic to reload. "How about you try hitting the bottles, then?" I hovered the gun over to Rose (grip first, barrel to the ground. I knew better than to point a loaded gun at somepony), who went to grab it in her teeth. "With your magic! You ARE a unicorn, after all."

Rose rolled her eyes, and her white glow pulled the revolver away from me. Checking to make sure it was loaded (I groaned), she lifted it in front of her, at eye level. "Use the sights and line up your target. Exhale, then fire." BANG-SMASH! BANG-SMASH! BANG-SMASH! BANG-SMASH! BANG-SMASH!

Five shots, five hits. The empty cases were ejected, the cylinder was snapped closed and Rose gave me back my gun. "See?"

"Yeah yeah. Okay, genius, my turn again." Five shots, two hits. If nothing else, at least I was consistent.


We stayed out there practicing until the sun was starting to go down, then started walking back to our hotel. "Why are we staying in town, Lily? Auntie and uncle wouldn't tell me much, just that they have plans for tomorrow." My parents had gotten us rooms at a nice hotel (When I say nice, I mean that the sheets were clean and the bed softer than my bedroll. So, pretty nice.) for a couple of days.

"Oh, you know. They have... plans. The important kind." Rose was staring at me without blinking.

"It's a secret, isn't it?" Crap.

"Mum and dad... They need a break from travelling! Yeah, that's it!" I was lying to an empath. Double crap.

"Whatever." Rose sighed and looked away. I felt guilty for lying to her, and very glad she couldn't read my mind.

"C'mon, let's go back to our room and jump on the bed! You know you want to!"

"You want to. I don't." Spoilsport.

"Fine! I'll race you then!" I took off, knowing she'd be right behind me. Ever since promising to stay near me, Rose had done just that. My own white-and-red shadow, she was never far away. You can imagine what that did for my love life.


Yes, I managed to have a love life. We had a caravan route, remember? Every month, up and down the trail, stopping at the same old towns. There were a couple of cute bucks, and I got pretty serious with one of them. We went on a few dates and spent most of our time together kissing (while Rose did her best to ignore us). It was fun, until he wanted to go further than just kissing. I was curious, he brought a bottle of wine, and when I woke up, Rose was wrapped around me protectively. I never saw the buck again.


Rose told me that I'd gotten drunk and he'd tried to take advantage of me, so she'd beaten him senseless before he could do more than give me a few unwanted kisses, then dumped his unconscious butt in the middle of the road. After that, I was careful to keep Rose by my side and not drink too much. Not that I could get rid of her, even if I wanted to.

I still flirted and went on dates, though. Not all colts are creeps, after all. And I knew my sister would keep me safe if they tried anything.


So, back to the race! Round a corner, through a hole in a fence, down an alley and back onto the street, Rose's hoofbeats coming from just behind me as we came to the hotel.

I stopped as fast as I could, hoping to make Rose crash into me. It worked. We went down in a tangle of limbs, laughing our heads off. At least, I was laughing. Rose, as usual, only giggled a little.

We untangled ourselves and went inside, heading to our room while arguing about who won the race.

"I won!"

"We crashed. It was a tie."

"A tie that I won, and you lost." I kicked our door open and trotted into the nice, comfortable hotel room.

"You can't win a tie, Lily." Rose pushed the door closed behind her, staying right behind me.

"I can!"

We jumped onto the bed we shared. Rose hated sleeping alone, and I loved how warm she was, so it was a win-win situation.

"No, you can't."

I grabbed a pillow in my teeth (magic isn't very good for hitting things) and swung at Rose. She ducked and tackled me, pinning me to the bed.

"Give up?"

"Never-aahahahaha!"

Rose blew a rasberry on my tummy, and I burst out laughing, trying to squirm away.

"I give, I give!"

She stopped, but kept me pinned, looking me in the eye. "Tell me why we're staying here, then."

I sighed and gave her a hug. "Sorry, Rose, I just can't. Mum and dad made me promise."

"Oh." Crushed, she slid off me and levitated her saddlebags onto the bed, pulling out a thick book before settling down to read it, her back to me.

"C'mon, you'll find out soon. Give me a smile. Please?" I lay on her back and wrapped my forelegs around her neck, nuzzling her cheek. She didn't smile.

"Cheer up. For me?" I licked her cheek and hugged tighter, making the smallest of smiles show up on her lips. "See? Isn't that better?"

"You're heavy."

"And you're grumpy."

She ignored me and went back to reading, so I just lay there, wishing I could tell her the truth, and hoping it would be worth it in the end.


Eventually, I climbed off her and stuck my head in her saddlebags, looking for something to eat. Some magazines, a box of parts for her rifle, another magazine (a prewar beauty one! I made a mental note to borrow it later), several packets of gum (mum would kill Rose if she found out) and, to my utter delight, a box of Fancy Buck snack cakes!

"Save me one, Lily." I hadn't even taken them from the bag yet, and Rose knew what I'd found. Was it that obvious?

"Only if you smile." I dropped the box onto the bed and poked Rose's chest, doing my best Mother stare; It was meant to look serious and grown up. Rose wasn't impressed, she just stared back until I blinked.

"Fine. They're yours anyway." She actually smiled when I said that, so I gave her one and she went back to reading.


If you've never had a Fancy Buck snack cake, you have no idea what you're missing out on. They're like the cupcakes of the Goddesses, packed so full of sugar and preservatives it's like a party in your mouth.

What? I'm being serious! They really are that good!

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"Girls, we're back!" Dad knocked on the door before opening it and coming in, mum at his side. Shaking the now empty box off my head (there were crumbs inside!) I bounced off the bed and ran over to them. "Did you get everything?" I was trotting in place eagerly.

"Yep. Uh, what's wrong with Rose?" Dad pointed at her; She was still reading, not paying us any attention at all.

I whispered; "She knows we're keeping something from her."

"Oh..."

Mum walked over and hopped onto the bed next to Rose, brushing her mane. "Are you okay, sweetie?" Without looking up from her book, she just nodded. "I promise we'll tell you the secret tomorrow, okay? It'll be worth the wait." Another nod, and she sat up long enough to hug my mum. "Now, you and Lily go to bed. It's getting late, and we've got a big day planned."

"Good night, girls."

"Night!"

Rose blinked at my parents; she had her book in her mouth and was trying to get it back into the bag. They turned off the light with a smile and a wave, then shut the door, leaving us in the dark. I heard a thump and felt something warm and fuzzy press against me; Rose had given up trying to put the book away (dropping it on the floor instead) and curled up next to me.

A few minutes of silence, where all I could hear was Rose breathing, then: "Lily?"

"Mm?"

"Is the secret really so good?"

"It's the best secret ever."

"Then why won't you tell me?"

"Because it'll be better in the morning."

"Promise?"

"Promise."

Her forelegs wrapped around me. "If you say so." She buried her face in my neck and went to sleep, leaving me feeling guilty, but knowing she'd be super happy in the morning.

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"SURPRISE!" We all cheered as I pulled the blindfold off Rose's eyes. "Happy birthday, Rose!" Her eyes went wide and her jaw dropped; it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen.

When we'd woken up, my parents had blindfolded Rose and we'd led her across town, to the cafe where we'd set up her surprise party. The last few years, me and Rose had our birthdays while we were travelling, so a proper party was out of the question. Just some small gifts and some junk food.

Now, though... We had a table full of the freshest looking food the cafe had! Salad, fresh radhog pie, and even a freshly baked cake! With FROSTING! And on the other table was the real reason Rose was in shock: A copy of The Elements of Harmony!

"How... I..." She was speechless, so I shoved her towards the food with a smirk.

"We thought you'd like this." Dad was grinning his head off. "Lily got you the book, and we all thought you could use a chance to relax and enjoy yourself! Sorry for keeping it a secret, but I can't believe you forgot your own birthday!"

Rose looked at everything, then at him. "I forgive you. Must've been expensive, though."

Dad laughed at her. "Don't worry, it's coming out of your pay."

Rose smiled at that. He was joking, of course. But we didn't care, there was partying to be done!

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"Ugh... My stomach..." We were back in our hotel room and I was on the bed, twitching. "Why aren't you in pain? You ate as much as I did!" Forcing my eyes open, I glared at Rose. She was using me for a pillow, her head buried in her new book.

"Yes, but I ate slowly." She looked up at me. "Where did you find this, anyway?"

"What, the book? Remember last month, I made you wait outside while I talked to those scavengers?"

"Yeah."

"I asked them to keep their eyes out for any interesting books, and that's what they brought back."

"Oh. Thanks." She kissed my forehead and snuggled against me. "I love you, big sister"

I blushed. "I love you too, little sister."

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Let's jump forward a few months. I'd had my birthday (Rose insisted we throw a party for me. I hadn't complained, especially when she gave me the cutest set of hairpins ever, with little birds on them!), the roads were fairly peaceful and we'd stopped in a town that almost always had neat cargo for us.


My parents were in the mayor's office, discussing a job that would pay way more than our usual route, while me and Rose were in a bar. Rose was enjoying a bottle of Wild Pegasus (She said it reminded her of her dad, so I wasn't gonna stop her) and I was chatting with a young male griffin. He had lovely mottled grey feathers, a constant grin on his beak, and he was my age!

No, I would never sleep with a griffin. He was kinda dashing, though.

"And that's when I swooped in, grabbed the bag of caps, and took off before they even realized I was there!" He laughed, and so did I.

"How did you get away?" I asked eagerly, leaning close.

"I went straight up, waited in the clouds until they stopped looking." He laughed again and winked at me. "My gun was laying back in the tunnel, all shot up, so fighting back would've been kinda hard. I could've dealt with them, I just didn't wanna get my claws dirty."

Rose snorted and took another sip of her whiskey. She hadn't spoken to him at all, and later she'd tell me that most of his story had been made up. I already knew that, of course, but it was fun listening to him.

"Oh, so you don't believe me?" Grinning, he reached across the table to get the bottle. "Pass the booze and I'll tell you about the time I-YEEOW!" He pulled his claw back, rubbing it where Rose had bit him.

"Mine." She stared, daring him to try again.

"Rose! That was mean!"

"Don't worry about it, I like feisty girls." The way he smiled at her made my heart flutter, but Rose just took another drink. "Y'know, you're kinda cute, for a pony." There was that smile again. I'll admit, I was a teensy tiny bit jealous that Rose was getting more attention than me. Not that she cared; I asked her why she didn't pay attention to boys once, and her reply was simple: "I'll die before I let a male touch me."


There's a good reason for her attitude, but... I'd rather not talk about that right now. Later on, maybe.


"Lily, auntie and uncle are going to be done soon. We should go." Rose waved her hoof in my direction; putting down a third of a bottle of whiskey was a bit much for a first-time drinker, but she was still better off than I would have been.

"Okay, Rose. We need to go shopping, anyway. Nice meeting you, uh..."

"Ibis. My name's Ibis." He winked at Rose (who had the bottle in her mouth as we walked to the door). "Good meeting you, girls."

We did our shopping, stopped for Rose to vomit in an alleyway (she looked better after that), and met my parents back at the caravan.


"So? What's the job, dad?"

"Pretty simple. We're taking some passengers north, into the city; shouldn't be more than two weeks there, two weeks back. The mayor hired them to check out an old Robronco building and... What's wrong with Rose?" She'd climbed in the wagon and collapsed.

"She had a little too much to drink."

"Let me guess: Whiskey?"

"Yep."

"Just like her old dad. Surprised it took so long, considering how she got her name. Ow!" Mum kicked him.

"Lily, make sure your sister drinks plenty of water. I remember what her father was like, and we don't need another hung-over, dehydrated guardpony. I can't take all that complaining again, and it would be bad for our passengers to see our only guard like that."

I nodded and jumped up next to the groaning Rose, trying to make her sit up and have something to drink that wasn't alcoholic. I managed to get her to swallow a few mouthfuls of water before I heard dad say "Lily, our passengers are here!"

"One second!" After making sure Rose was still drinking her water, I looked out of the wagon, curious about our passengers. We're a caravan, after all. Live cargo isn't something we deal with very often.

"Girls, this is Magpie-" Dad pointed to the older, black and white griffin. "And her son, -"

"Ibis!" I called out his name, waving. That's who it was, alright.

"Hey, Lily! Where's your sister?"

Rose lifted her head up, took one look at him, and groaned.

FOOTNOTE: LEVEL UP

Chapter 5: Shuffling the Cards

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---CHAPTER 5: Shuffling the Cards---
"Sometimes it's just really fun to be scared."

Rose scooped up her winnings, much to Ibis' annoyance.

"There's no way you're that lucky. Let me see your cards! Oh, what the hell?! You were bluffing?!" He facehoofed... Faceclawed? "I don't believe this. Mom, spot me some more caps. This time, I'm gonna beat her."

The older griffin shook her head and grinned. "No way. That girl could take us to the cleaners if she wanted to, and I'm not helping her."


We were late into the second week of our journey north, into the shattered ruins of the city. A dark smudge on the horizon was our destination; it was still a few days away though. The journey had been smoother than we'd all expected (aside from Rose throwing Ibis out of the wagon once or twice. He'd been flirting with her the whole trip, and didn't seem to get the message), so the pair of griffins had taught me and Rose how to play poker over the first few days.

Most of it went over my head, but Rose was a natural. Being an empath (and having the best poker face in the world, according to Magpie), she had won so often that Magpie refused to play anymore. Her son, though...


"Fine. I'll put this up, instead. It's worth a few caps, at least." Ibis reached into his bag and pulled out a comic book: Sword Mare! Rose blinked at him, shuffled the cards (with her hooves! I was starting to wonder if she was more like an Earth Pony with a horn than a Unicorn), and dealt.


A few minutes later, Rose was reading her new comic, I was happily counting caps (Rose split her winnings between us) and Ibis was flying ahead, sulking.

Magpie shook her head, smirking. "I told him to give up. There's no way he could beat you, girl." Rose nodded without looking up and the elder griffin turned to my parents, discussing the details of the job. We were looking for some kind of prewar gizmo that, apparently, did something important at some point.


Hey, we were getting payed so much to find the thing, I didn't care what it was!

What? Why're you looking at me like that?

Ugh, fine. Even after listening in, I had no idea what we were looking for, just that it was valuable. Happy now?


"98, 99, 100. You really cleaned up, Rose!" I stuffed my share away and reached over to start counting Rose's pile. It was smaller than mine, but she was the one who split it up! The comic was more interesting than caps, I guess. Some ponies are just wierd like that.

"49, 50. You sure this is enough for you?" She nodded, and brushed her mane out of her eyes. That crimson mess was getting a little out of hoof, so I decided to cut it for her next time we made camp. Not that I'd tell her until I was about to do it, of course.

Satisfied we were now rich, I rummaged through Rose's saddlebags until I found the beauty magazine I'd been looking for, and settled down to read it, muttering to myself. "Ooh, maybe this..." Those old magazines had some really nice clothes in them, but I was interested in the hairstyles. "No, this one! Wait, this would look even better on her!"

Have you ever been stared at so intently you can feel it? It's not fun. I turned my head and saw Rose watching me, suspicious. "Um, Rose? Can you, y'know, blink? That's creepy." She winked one eye, then the other, very slowly, sending shudders up my spine. "Quit it. I'm not kidding!"

"Whatever you're planning, Lily, leave me out of it." She turned back to her comic and I growled.

"Who said I'm planning anything?"

"You are. And it involves me."

"How did you know? Can you read my mind now?"

"No. You're just easy to understand." ARGH! She made me so mad sometimes! I leaned over, bit her tail, and yanked. She gasped and glared at me, her cheeks bright red. "Lily! D-don't do that!" I couldn't believe it, she was actually trembling!


"Wow... I think your sister likes having her tail pulled." Ibis landed next to me with a small thud and I stared at him in confusion.

"Huh?"

"Look at her face, Lily!" I still didn't get it. "You don't look like that unless you really, really like something."

Oh... I blushed, finally understanding. Whoops. "Sorry, Rose."

"You're cute when you blush, Rose. Did you know that? Maybe I should try." He grinned, but didn't actually try grabbing her; Ibis may have been a total flirt, but he wouldn't do anything like that without Rose's permission.


That restraint (I wouldn't call it respect) probably saved his life. We still had to make camp and wait for him to regain conciousness, though.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Speaking of making camp...

"C'mon, Rose, just stay still!" I had a pair of scissors and a brush floating beside me, and Rose was keeping as far away as she could get.

"No."

My parents and Magpie were making dinner and laughing at us while Ibis lounged around, saying he was too sore to help. The bruises weren't that bad, Rose had only used her hooves!


Right, Rose!


"If you let me cut your hair, I've got some gum in my bag." That brought her to a stop (and got me a glare from mum). "A whole packet, all for you!"

One ear twitched as she studied me. "You won't cut too much?"

"Just a little, I promise. You won't even notice."

"Alright. But just a little." She trotted over and sat in front of me. What a mess! There was dirt and gun oil all through her hair! How do you get gun oil in your mane?

---------------------------------------------------------------

Sitting back, I studied my handiwork. Yep, she was damn cute. I'd straightened, cut, brushed and trimmed until she looked like a mare instead of a mop. I was feeling pretty proud of myself, and Rose actually smiled a little when I floated a small mirror out of my bag so she could see herself. "See? You look much better." I smiled as she shook her head, messing it up again. She was so predictable.

"Yeah, she's a real knockout! Even prettier than you, Lily!" Ibis smirked. "Oomph!" That was Rose jumping on him. "Crazy mare! Help!" He was laughing and trying to defend himself as Rose beat him up. "Attack of the killer beauty! Hahah-FUCK!" Rose trotted away with a mouthful of feathers, leaving Ibis clutching the back of his head in pain.


Magpie and my dad collapsed, laughing their heads off, while mum started scolding Rose. I know! It shocked me, too! My sister was getting told off and I wasn't! "Rose! Behave yourself, young lady!"

Rose spat out the feathers, looking very pleased with herself. "He said Lily wasn't pretty."

Dad and Magpie were clutching each other now, tears running down their faces. "You... You keep getting beaten up by a pony! What kind of griffin are you?!"

Ibis glared at his mother, rubbing the back of his head. "The kind of griffin that won't beat up a defenceless girl."

Even my mum started laughing at that one. Whiskey Rose? Defenceless?

"Whatever helps your ego, son. Hey, Rose! Wanna be my daughter? I need a kid I can be proud of!"

"MOM!"

Rose deadpanned: "No, thank you. I'd look strange with a beak."

That set us all laughing again, even Ibis. Rose was more interested in finding the packet of gum I'd promised her.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Oh. My. Goddesses." We were entering the city, and I was in awe. The outskirts had been small buildings, houses and the like, mostly rubble. The further we went, though, the bigger and more complete the buildings got. When we entered the city proper, they towered over us.

"How the hay is this place still standing? I thought all the cities got wiped out by the bombs!" That was me speaking.

Dad answered. "Solid construction, I expect."

"I always heard that not all the bombs went off, leaving some places almost untouched." Magpie chimed in.

"These buildings... They are monuments to a fallen past, dreaming giants filled with forgotten memories."

We all stared at Rose in shock. She looked back, confused.

"What?"

"Erm, that was... awfully... poetic of you, Rose." That may be, dad, but I was still trying to figure out what the hell she'd just said!

She shrugged. "It felt like the right thing to say."


We kept our eyes open, watching windows and shadows for movement as we travelled, following Magpie's whispered directions to our goal. The deeper into the city we went, the creepier things got. The wind echoed hauntingly, almost sounding like voices at times. The sun must have been getting low, because everything was covered in this deep orange hue, like what autumn looks like in those old books. The buildings were so tall I could barely see the sky and I was starting to feel trapped, like I was being suffocated.


If you've never had a panic attack, try to avoid it. I was starting to hyperventilate, feeling the buildings close in around us, slowly blocking out the sky, when Rose pressed her glowing horn to my forehead, and the panic subsided.

"Better?"

I hugged her, tears in my eyes. "Thanks, Rose... How can you do it? Take my fear or my pain away, and never let it get to you?"

She shrugged and kissed the top of my head. "Making sure you're happy is all that matters."

"You two, keep your eyes open!" Dad chided us.

"There's nothing here, uncle. Just small animals and ghosts." Did she just say ghosts? My skin started crawling, and a sudden noise made me jump,

"You sure about that?" Magpie pointed to where some crumbling concrete had just fallen. "Cause something did that, and I don't think it was a ghost."

"It was a lizard. Her nest is up there."

Magpie and Ibis exchanged a look, and the male griffin flew up to check it out. He came back with a (pretty big) dead lizard in his beak. Spitting it out, he confirmed what Rose had said. "Just this thing and a nest."

"I told you."

"Fine. But you don't seriously expect me to believe there are ghosts here, do you?"

Rose just looked at him for a moment, and went back to watching the buildings.

"Dude, that's just creepy." Ibis shuddered and tore a chunk from the lizard, chewing noisily. Gross. Even I like some meat now and then, but at least chew with your beak closed!

---------------------------------------------------------------

Night was falling properly as Magpie, Rose and Ibis worked at opening the rusted steel doors of the Robronco building. It was a broad, tall, featureless structure, dull gray-green, with no windows anywhere that I could see, just the faded sign identifying it out front and some pillars supporting a cracked roof over the entrance. My parents looked uneasy and trust me, that was miles better than I was doing. Try scared shitless, and you'd be getting close.

With a low screech that echoed up and down the desolate streets, the doors were unsealed and pushed open wide enough to get not only ourselves through, but the brahmin and wagon, too. We stood there for a long minute, the fading light only penetrating a few feet into the building before fading completely, leaving a darkness so deep that I was afraid to move, in case it sucked me in.


"Hehe... Ladies first?" Ibis forced a chuckle and grinned nervously, offering Rose the honor of going first.

She took a portable light from our gear and walked in without hesitating, snapping her tail at the grey griffin as she passed him, her light barely visible in the blackness, then vanishing. A few moments of silence, then. "It's clear. Come on." Her voice doubled on itself, then tripled, the darkness and echoes making it come from everywhere at once, giving it an unearthly quality; At that point, I started wishing she'd let some emotion into her voice. That dead sound was not the sort of thing you want to hear in a decaying city.


We filed in, using our own lights, and found Rose quickly enough. She was sitting on a chair behind the receptionist's desk, pale eyes catching the glow from our lights and shining eerily. "Power's dead."

"Can you use a better term next time?" Ibis was looking over his shoulder; there was almost no light outside now, and pretty soon our small lamps would be the only thing keeping the darkness at bay.

Rose nodded, her mane falling over one eye, and I shuddered; Sitting there like that, she looked like a ghost with blood dripping down it's face.

"Blink, damn it! You're freaking me out!" Ibis seemed to agree.

She tilted her head to the side, closed her eyes and opened them again. Very slowly. Ibis decided it would be less creepy to help my parents bring in the wagon and brahmin, and I followed him.

---------------------------------------------------------------

We got some proper spotlights set up, and their light chased the darkness away, forcing it to hide in corners and gaps, lurking there like it just waiting for us to turn our backs...

I never appreciated how amazing portable magic-based lighting was before that moment. Expensive and hard to find, sure, but amazing. Especially since my puny light spell was barely enough to read by.

Magpie and Ibis were helping my parents set up our bedrolls and some extra lighting, so I wandered over to where Rose was still sitting. "Creepy, isn't it?"

"Not really."

"You're not scared? Not even a little?" She shook her head, and I walked around to her side of the counter. "What about ghosts and thi-" My voice caught in my throat. Rose was sitting beside a unicorn skeleton. "W-what's t-that?"

She petted the grinning skull. "Tequila Sunrise. She was the receptionist."

"How-"

Rose used her magic to lift a small nameplate up from the pile of bones. "Her badge."


Tequila Sunrise. Receptionist. That's what it said, alright.


"Rose, please don't play with skeletons." I got the feeling those empty eye sockets were staring at me. "Just, don't."

Rose sighed and put the badge back as I walked away. "Sorry, Miss Tequila. Lily is funny sometimes. So, you were planning an after work party when the bombs fell?"


My fur stood on end, my flesh started crawling, and I walked back to my parents, pretending I hadn't heard anything. I floated out a bottle of sparkle cola and sat on my bedroll, taking a long drink and wishing it was something stronger.

"Lily, you okay?" Dad sat beside me. "You look like you've seen a ghost."

I pointed to where Rose was sitting and took another long drink. "No, but Rose is talking to one."

---------------------------------------------------------------

Dad approached her slowly, Magpie, Ibis and mum watching from a distance. I was trying to soothe my nerves with another bottle of cola. It wasn't working.

"Rose, who are you talking to?"

"Miss Tequila. She's nice."

"Um, Rose, I can't see anypony there."

"Of course not. She's a ghost."


OOOKAAY! I started looking for looking for some whiskey in Rose's bags, only to be disappointed. There was a bottle, but it was empty.


"Of course she is, honey. Now, do you think you could help us for a little while?" He spoke softly, like Rose was crazy.

"Okay, uncle. I could probably get the power back on, if the generator isn't too broken." She tilted her head, like she was listening to something. "Miss Tequila says she'll show me the way downstairs."

"Alright, Rose. But take Lily and Ibis with you, okay? Just to be safe." He waited for her to nod before coming back over to us and whispering "Keep an eye on her, you two. I don't like this place." Ibis nodded; I chugged the last of my cola, then we grabbed some lights (I floated mine along. Ibis carried his in one claw) and a toolkit, jogging over to Rose.


"So, you're... talking to a ghost?" Ibis laughed nervously, but Rose just nodded.

"Yep. Miss Tequila is telling me all about her niece." She turned to the air next to her. "Do I really look like her? Oh, she was an Earth Pony? That's nice."

"Rose? Shouldn't we be... fixing something?"

"Hm? Oh, right. Miss Tequila, please lead the way." Rose picked up her light in her mouth (at least she couldn't talk like that) and trotted ahead of us.

"Is she crazy or something?" Ibis hissed to me, just as I thought I saw something flickering ahead of Rose in the darkness.

"I'm not so sure..." I muttered, and we followed her.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Down one passage, then another, through a door and into yet another hall. Rose never faltered, walking like she knew where to go. Or was being led by someone... I banished that thought from my head and ignored the flickering shapes that danced just outside my lamp's circle of light, vanishing when I looked straight at them. Every now and then, we'd find a skeleton laying on the floor; Rose always said "Excuse me" when we passed them, and sometimes the flickering shapes seemed to follow us.


"Miss Tequila, the power's out. Getting a keycard won't help us." We'd stopped in a security room, and Rose was talking to... her 'friend'. Blank screens covered one wall, throwing our light back at us. It was strangely clean if you ignored the thick layer of dust, just like the rest of the building; I guess being sealed up tight for almost 200 years kept out the weather. A couple of skeletons (probably guards) were sprawled out in front of the screens, but I didn't look too closely at them.

"Oh, we'll need it to go upstairs when we fix the generator? It should be in one of the filing cabinets? Thank you." She trotted over to some cabinets and started looking through them. Ibis went to help, and I started to go over, only to see something interesting... A box marked Lost & Found sat on a shelf on the other side of the room, so I went there instead and opened it up.


I was in a prewar building that had never been looted. You would have done the same thing.


"Junk. Junk. Shiny. Ooh, this is a nice manebrush. A bracelet? And it's real gold!" I felt a hoof on my left shoulder. "One second, Rose. Hey, look what I found for you!" Rose (with Ibis close behind) came trotting up on my right side to see what I'd found, a plastic keycard hanging from her mouth. Wait, my right side? As I turned to my left, I felt the hoof on my shoulder pull away.

There was nothing there.


The book I'd just pulled from the box with my magic dropped to the ground.

Rose spat out the keycard. "Miss Tequila wants to know if you found her bracelet. She lost it the week before she died."

"Um, yes?" I heard somepony whisper in my ear, and that was it for me; "GHOST!" I slammed into Ibis, knocking him over, and hid behind him. Rose stared at me in disbelief.

"You don't have to yell. Miss Tequila knows she's a ghost. She was just looking for her bracelet, that's all."

---------------------------------------------------------------

It took almost 15 minutes for me to stop shaking, and we started walking again. I looked over my shoulder every few seconds and stayed between Rose and Ibis, who was rubbing his wing where I'd crashed into him.


"Did you have to slam into me like that?"

"Shut up! There was a fucking ghost there!"

"You sound like your sister."

"There was a fucking. Ghost. Touching. Me."

"Yeah, right."

I would've hit him, but I was too busy making sure nothing was sneaking up on me.


"Lily, Ibis, we're here!"

'Here' turned out to be a wooden door leading to a set of stairs. Stairs that went down. As in, into a very dark basement. Where I thought I could hear things moving. Oh, joy.

"Do we have to go down there?"

"Miss Tequila says the generator is down there, so yes, we do."

"Fine, but I'm keeping my gun out." I looked in my bag for the revolver, only to realise...

"You left it with my rifle, remember?"

"Fuck."

"It's just dark, come on."

Rose picked her lamp up again and started down the stairs like it was no big deal.

"Come on, chicken." Ibis snickered and followed her.

"You're the chicken, Ibis. Hey, wait up!" I almost fell down the stairs in my haste. Actually, I would've preferred being unconscious to being in that basement. If the darkness above was deep, then this was absolute, the glow from my lamp pitiful and weak in comparison to that endless abyss... I could feel the weight of the building above bearing down on me, the air stale and thick, almost alive after two centuries of being undisturbed...


CLANK!

I almost wet myself and ran, but I noticed (just in time) that Rose had her upper half stuck under a large generator.

"Broken transfer line, stripped gear, and this looks corroded. Lily, can you pass me a shifter, the spool of copper wire and the black insulated cable?"

I stared blankly into the toolbox. "Copper wire is the orange stuff, right?"

Rose sighed and squirmed out, getting the stuff herself. "Lily, please, don't touch anything. Talk to Miss Tequila or something."

Yeah, that was going to happed. She vanished into the machinery again, and I sat down next to Ibis.

"So..."

"So what?" He stared at me.

"Seen any ghosts yet?"

"Nope." Something moved in front of us and he lifted his lamp. Nothing there but some old crates. "Well, none I'll admit to seeing, anyway."

We sat there, making small talk and listening to Rose banging around doing Luna-knows-what, until:

"Done." Rose crawled free of the generator and stretched. "Lily, there should be a big red button. You can press it."


Big red button? The kind that does stuff? Finally, something I could handle! I found it and raised my hoof dramatically. "Here goes nothing!" Push it and... Lights came on, flickering at first, but going steady after a second. They were so bright it hurt my eyes; I had to shield them so they could adjust. Somewhere in the distance, I heard machinery start up, a pulsing, grinding vibration travelling through the floor and making my head hurt. But at least I could see. And what a sight!

"Rose, mum is gonna kill you!" She was filthy. Grease everywhere! She looked like a zebra!

She just shrugged. "I got the lights back on. Let's head back." With that, Rose led the way up the stairs, Ibis behind, me in the back.

"I can see one spot that doesn't have grease." The griffin snickered, staring at Rose's backside; I stepped to one side, knowing what was about to happen.

Sure enough; THWACK! Rose kicked him in the face and he went head-over-tailfeathers down the stairs


On the way back, I made sure to stop in the security room and get the bracelet. When we arrived in the lobby, I put it on the foreleg of Tequila Sunrise's skeleton, much to Rose's delight.

"Miss Tequila says thanks." My messy friend smiled at me.

"Uh, your welcome?" Something touched me and I shuddered. "Please don't do that again, Miss Tequila." I whispered.

---------------------------------------------------------------

We explained what had taken so long (Magpie wouldn't let Ibis use a healing potion, saying that a black eye wasn't serious enough to waste one), and how the keycard Rose found (dad looked uneasy when he heard about Tequila helping us) would get us upstairs and make our search easier. Mum insisted we all get a good night's sleep (before hauling Rose into one of the bathrooms to scrub her coat clean. It was quite a chore, since she had to use a sink and Rose wouldn't stop squirming), so that's what we did. My parents on their bedroll, Magpie with Ibis in the wagon, and I bunked down with Rose on her duster. Not that I got much sleep; I kept hearing ponies walking around or speaking, but I didn't see anything.

Fucking ghosts. I was starting to hate them more than bugs.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Morning was a huge relief. Just knowing it was daylight outside was enough to brighten my spirits (bad choice of words), but I still went outside for a while. After being stuck in a dark building full of... things... I wanted some proper light, fresh air and my familiar clouds above my head.


Breathing deeply (and trying not to look at the tall buildings all around me), I stretched out on the cool concrete and watched the clouds. Yeah, I liked being outside a lot more I liked being in some dark, dingy, prewar building.

From time to time a griffin would cross my view; hard to tell which one, they both looked the same up there. The pair were doing recono... reconass... They were searching the area. More for potential salvage than looking for threats, since Rose had already told us there wasn't anything threatening nearby.

As for the ghosts... Rose said they'd all left just before morning; going wherever ghosts go, I guess. I'll spare you the explanation she gave us (or Tequila Sunrise gave us, through Rose) about why they couldn't leave before. Something about sealed graves and laughing stars; I really, really didn't want anything to do with the whole spooky undead thing, and just blocked as much of it out as I could. So did my dad, actually.

Mum told us that, when they were travelling with Rose's parents, dad had gotten himself lost in some old factory for a few hours and when they found him, he was curled up in a corner and gibbering about things coming out of a glowing rock.

I couldn't believe it! Not only had my dad, the wasteland wonder, the buck with a perfect sense of direction, gotten himself lost in a factory, but he was terrified of ghosts because of it!

We all had a good laugh at that! Until Ibis poked me in the side and whispered "Boo!" in my ear. Then they were laughing at me hiding in the wagon, as Rose tried stomping the grey griffin into paste.


So, there I was. Cool concrete beneath me, clouds above. Not quite an open road, but it was the best I was going to get while in the city, so I savored every minute of it.

"Lily, time to start searching."

Right, the thingy we were here for. "When the griffins land, I'll get up." No rush. I waved a hoof towards the sky, and Rose plonked herself down next to me.

"Okay, but if we get in trouble it's your fault." She started tracing patterns in the fur on my chest.

"Fine by me." I closed my eyes and smiled, trying to work out what she was drawing. First a star, then a happy face, followed by a big squiggly mess and now she was drawing a big loveheart. After that she started writing something.

Lily. Is. A. Lazyhead.

I opened one eye and stared at her. "Really?"

She eeped and blushed, rubbing her hoof across my chest to try and get rid of it.

"You're such a foal, Rose." I sat up and messed her mane up, making her giggle.

"At least I'm not a lazyhead."

"Be nice or I'll pull your tail again."

Her face turned the same color as her hair and she scooted away, hugging her tail protectively. "Leave my tail alone, Lily." She looked away, embarrassed.

"Okay, I won't pull it." She relaxed a little. "But I will tickle you!" I pounced and she squealed, thrashing her legs to try and escape, but I didn't let up until she admitted defeat. Worn out, I slumped on top of her. We lay there together, the cool concrete soothing against our warm bodies, without speaking, for several minutes.


"Rose, can I ask you something?"

"What?"

"Is your tail really that sensitive?"

She blushed again and refused to answer, looking away.

"Come on, Rose. It's me, your big sister. You can tell me anything, you know that."

"Well... It's... Lily, this is embarrassing."

"Nobody can hear us, you know."

"Fine. I like having my tail pulled, okay? It feels really good. Just... Don't tell anyone? Please?"

"I promise."

"Pinkie Pie promise?"

"Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye." I wasn't sure that was completely right, but it satisfied her.

"Is it.. normal... to like my tail being pulled?"

"I dunno. Wanna find out?" I sat up and swished my tail in her face. Carefully she got it in her teeth and gave it a small tug. "You can pull harder, you know." She yanked and I screamed.

"Sorry! I'm sorry Lily!"

I jumped up, rubbing my butt. "It's okay, I guess I'm just different, that's all. I'm sure you're normal." No chance wanting your tail pulled was normal; that bucking hurt! Still, I wasn't about to make my little sister feel like she was wierd.

"C'mere, you!" I pulled her into a huge hug. "As long as you like it, there's nothing wrong it. Okay?"

She hugged me back. "Okay."


We had a nice long talk about girl stuff after that. I'm not going into detail. No. Forget it.

It was little eye-opening, to be honest. Despite being able to sense emotions and feel other ponies physical sensations, she was really naive about a lot of things, so I did my best to answer her questions. After all, I was the big sister.


By the time the griffins landed, we were both giggling and I'd gotten Rose to open up to me more than she ever had before. "You two look happy." Ibis stalked up to us, a little blood on his beak (guess they'd been hunting, too). "Find anything cool while we were out?"

"We were waiting for you, featherhead." Rose grinned at him. That's right: Rose grinned at a boy. Our little talk had made her open up a lot... At least for a little while.

"Yeah, what took so long? You get lost or something?" I piped up.

"There was a lot of ground to cover. Couldn't see anything valuable from the air, though, and mom wouldn't let me search any buildings."

The three of us started walking back to the building.

"So, what were you two talking about?"

"Boys, of course." I smirked.

"Really? Was I brought up at all?"

"Yeah, Rose told me how she really feels about you."

"Whoa, really? C'mon, let me in on the secret!"

Rose motioned him close, took a deep breath, and yelled "I hate you!" right in his ear!

While he was busy reeling, we ran through the open doors and into my parents waiting arms, giggling like a pair of schoolfillies.

---------------------------------------------------------------

We split up into groups so we could search faster. My parents took the ground floor east side, Magpie took the whole west wing, while me, Rose and Ibis got the top floor, since we had the only keycard. This time I made sure to bring my gun, just in case. No need for our lights, since the generator was working now. There was an elevator at the back of the lobby, and we managed to ride it up one floor before Rose demanded we get out and take the stairs instead, much to Ibis' displeasure.


"Why the hell would we do that? Do you know how many floors there are?"

"Fine, you take the elevator. Lily and I will use the stairs."

I sighed. "Rose, what's the problem? It's just an elevator."

She shuddered. "I don't like it. My stomach goes all wierd."

"Baby." Ibis managed to dart out of reach before Rose could get hold of him.

"Fine. But only because Lily doesn't want to walk."


The whole ride up, she had her face buried in my mane and she was breathing hard. When we reached the top floor (swiping the card through a reader to leave the elevator), I took her aside and made her sit down. She was actually sweating.


"Are you okay?"

She nodded. "I think I'm gonna be sick, though."

I wrapped my hooves around her while Ibis went off to search the nearby rooms. "Just breathe, Rose. Relax and breathe."

"Feels like I left my stomach on the ground floor..."

"You'll be okay. Do you want a minute?"

Another nod, and I waited until she was ready before calling Ibis over. "You search that way, I'll take Rose and we'll look over there. Meet back here in half an hour." The griffin agreed, and we split up.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Ugh... What stupid pony came up with elevators anyway?" We were in a big, open room marked 'Executive Cafeteria'. There were some uncomfortable looking tables set up (several skeletons still sat there), and a pretty fancy kitchen off to one side. One wall was made almost entirely of glass, with metal behind it. Who makes a glass wall and covers it in metal anyway? Seemed stupid to me.

"It beats walking up all those stairs. Here, this'll take your mind off it!" While Rose hid under a table, I was rummaging around in the kitchen (my bag was quickly filled with preserved food), and had found a control panel on the wall. There were some labels above the buttons and switches, but they were too faded to read. I tried pushing and flicking everything anyway. No luck. "Fix it for me?" I gave Rose a hopeful grin and she sighed.

"Fine." In no time at all, she was ripping the guts out of the control panel and patching it together. Maybe she was focusing a little too much on it, but the elevator had freaked her out big time. And while she was distracted, I could scrounge up some more stuff! I cleaned out the kitchen and moved onto the tables. Cutlery (boring), food trays (still boring, and covered in 200 year old food. Yuck!), and a few briefcases that I managed to break open. Nothing more interesting than old papers that fell apart when I touched them, and some pencils. "Shouldn't there be piles of cool stuff? I mean, nopony's come in here for... Whoa." Rose yelped as the control panel sparked (singing her nose) and a rattling sound filled the room. The metal shutters behind the glass groaned as they started to raise, letting in sunlight and giving me the most amazing view I'd ever seen.


I pressed my face to the window and stared out. The city stretched out forever, far below us, like a puzzle with no end. A maze of rooftops lit by the midday sun, seperated by dark valleys that could only have been the streets between them. My beloved clouds seemed close enough to touch; I knew we were still way below them, but I put my hoof on the glass anyway, wishing I could fly, just so I could see this every day. "Rose... Look..." My voice was breathless as I called her over.

"What is it, Lily? Oh..." I saw her reflection in the window as she walked up next to me, rubbing her burned nose, and glanced out at the amazing view. She squeaked and turned, if it was possible, an even paler shade of white, walking very slowly backwards before turning and running through the door.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Rose?" I was trotting around on my own, Rose having vanished. My hoofsteps echoed up and down the empty halls as I searched, poking my head into any rooms she might have hidden in. "C'mon, where are you?"


I found Ibis first. "Have you seen Rose?"

"Wasn't she with you?"

When I was done explaining, he looked surprised. "Sounds like she's scared of heights. Explains why she didn't like the elevator, too."

"Scared of heights? Rose isn't scared of anything!"

"Has she ever been this high up before?"

"Well, no..."

"Scared of heights. I'd bet my last cap on it."

He'd already lost his last cap to Rose, but I didn't say that. Instead I said: "Whatever. Let's just find her." I'll admit, the thought that Rose could be afraid of anything was pretty disconcerting. She'd always seemed so steady, never flinching or showing... emotion of any kind, actually. Her face always calm and blank, like a mask...

Oh, buck me up the backside... If I was right...

---------------------------------------------------------------

Eventually we found one door that had been kicked in (almost torn off it's hinges). The battered nameplate said 'CEO', with the name obscured by a big dent. "Too high... Way too high..."

I could hear muttering coming from the room and called out. "Rose, are you in here?" The muttering continued, so we walked in. It was empty... Nope, I could see a spot of white under the desk. I walked over and bent down; There she was, curled up into a ball and shaking. "Rose, it's okay to be afraid... Come out of there..." She just kept twitching.

"Too high, Lily."

"I know what'll help you feel better. Look, a terminal!" I banged my hoof on it, making her jump. That made me feel guilty. "I bet there's... stuff... on it! Computer stuff!" Okay, I knew next to nothing about terminals. I'm not an idiot, they just weren't interesting.

"Ah, leave the little chicken alone, Lily." Ibis banged on the desk, making Rose jump again. "If she wants to hide, then let her." He winked at me, letting me know he wasn't serious. "We can go find a nice, private room and make out. Sound like fun?" Before I could blink, Rose had shot out from under the desk and started beating Ibis while he screamed "JUST KIDDING! JUST KIDDING!"

When Rose came back over (leaving the griffin in pain on the floor) and hugged me tightly without speaking, I hugged her back as hard as I could.

"Fuck... You cracked my fucking ribs, Rose!" Ibis coughed, digging a healing potion from his belt and drinking it. "I'd never try anything like that with Lily, she's not my type."

"I know." Her voice was back to normal (for her), cold and passive.

"Then why'd you try and kill me?"

"I didn't. That's why you're still alive." She let me go and started typing at the terminal, pausing to look at the griffin. "Thanks for helping me."

"Uh, your welcome? Geez, you could give me a thank you kiss or something, instead of attacking me."

Rose ignored him, concentrating on breaking into the computer, her face back to being completely unreadable. Buck me at both ends, I was right. She was keeping everything inside, no matter what happened.

"Rose, can we talk? I'm worried about you." She ignored me.

"Seriously, look at me! ROSE!" I yelled at her. This time she sighed and looked me in the eye.

"Lily, I'm fine. Let's just find what we came for, and get back on the ground. Everything will be better then. Just... don't press the issue. Please?" She smiled at me (not a big smile, but her eyes weren't as dead as they'd been before, so that was something) and turned back to the terminal. I groaned and started looking around the room (ignoring the swearing Ibis, who had propped himself up against the wall). Filing cabinets, old pictures, nothing of value really... HELLO! There was a skeleton under the desk (Rose must have been laying on it before. EUGH!), but it's what was on the skeleton's foreleg that caught my eye: A Pipbuck!


I may have broken the skeleton's leg in my eagerness to get the Pipbuck, but that's because the damned thing wouldn't open. "HAH! I told you I'd find one!" I crowed, shoving it in Rose's face before trying to open it again.

"Well done. But you can't use it."

I'd resorted to chewing on it, and stopped. "Huh? Why not?"

"Becaue you need special tools to get them on and off. Tools I don't have."

"Oh..." I looked at the (now slobbery) Pipbuck. "You sure?"

"I'll have a look later, if it means that much to you. The radio should still work, even if it's not being worn."

"Good enough!" I was so proud; I'd promised myself I'd get one at some point, and I had!


SCRZZZK!!!! A burst of static from the terminal made me jump backwards, hitting Ibis, who'd finally climbed to his feet and joined us at the desk. Rose rolled her eyes while the griffin glared at me, rubbing his sore ribs. "I found some old audio logs, but they're pretty damaged. Figured we should listen anyway, see what we can learn."


A voice rose from the terminal, static-y, but clearly male.

Diary entry 233: My Pipbuck arrived today. As requested, it contains the coordinates for --static-- I really hope I never have to --static-- but the way this war is going, who --static--

Diary Entry 237: I've put in an order for the new --static-- and it should be arriving be the end of the month.

Diary Entry 242: Apparently, you can use these new --static-- in most systems. --static-- told me they use them in some Ministry mainframes, and even --static-- but I'm sure he was kidding. Who would make something that can --static--

Diary Entry 249: Someone was snooping around --static-- last night. The door was found unlocked, but the guards didn't report seeing anything on the cameras. I'm getting nervous, this --static--

Diary Entry 250: I've moved --static-- to a storage room in the west wing. It should be safe there. The passcode is --static-- 15.

Diary Entry 300: We've just got reports that --static-- was hit by a balefire bomb, and we could be next! I need to get the --static-- before I can leave, though! Fuck, I can't remember the code! Okay, calm down. My master keycard should get me in, I just need to find it, go down there, and then I can get to the Stable... Where is it? Where the fuck is it?! Right, calm! Think this through... Just breathe... Alright, there should be a spare card in the security office. Good... Wait, what's that noise? *distant rumbling* Oh, no... --static--

Diary Entry 303: --static-- three days. The generator went down when the bombs hit, and the entire building *coughing* went into lockdown. Most of the staff is already dead from radiation, a few killed themselves instead. Dammit, *coughing* my Pipbuck is driving me nuts with this clicking! Ah, fuck it all. I'm as good as dead, anyway. If anyone hears this... Tell my wife I love her... *coughing and retching* is.. is that blood?


The three of us stared at each other in shock from what we'd just heard. "Was that..." Ibis stopped, unable to say it.

"The day the world ended." Rose whispered, looking... Well, like she'd just heard the world end.

I was shaken to my very core. Knowing that Equestria had been wiped out was one thing; I'd always thought it happened instantly, and the only ponies to survive had been in Stables or so far from cities they weren't affected. It was something distant, vague, like hearing about some stranger that got killed; You feel bad for them, but it doesn't affect you on a personal level.

This was... We'd heard a bomb go off in this very city, just one of many across Equestria. We heard a pony survive, suffering for three days from radiation poisoning, and his last thoughts before dying were of his wife! Briefly, I wondered if Tequila Sunrise had died from radiation as well, or if she'd been one of the ponies that commited suicide, rather than face the slow, painful death ahead of them...

Something inside me twisted and died; Rose had called the city and it's buildings Monuments to a Fallen Past... I understood what she meant now...


"So, there's something important in the west wing, and we need the keycard to get it." Rose shook herself.

"Yeah... Mom's down there... I guess we should..." Ibis trailed off.

"Alright then, let's go." Rose led us out of the room. Since I went last, I closed the door respectfully. Didn't put the Pipbuck back, though. Something told me I might need it later. And, y'know, it was mine now...


Stop looking at me like that. I felt guilty for keeping it, but a dead pony doesn't need a Pipbuck. Tequila Sunrise and her bracelet? That was different! How? It just was! Know what, fuck you.


We'd decided there wasn't anything else of value on that floor (I suggested getting some more food from the cafeteria, but Rose grabbed me and didn't let go until we passed it), so we went back to the elevator. It took a couple of minutes to persuade Rose to get in, but we did. She lay down and turned a funny shade of green the instant it started moving, so I started talking to Ibis to try and distract her.

"So, I'm not your type, huh?" I jabbed him with my hoof.

"Nope. No offense, but you're kinda... Soft."

"Soft?" What was that meant to mean?

"Yeah. You're too lighthearted. I can tell you've never even been in a proper fight."

So I didn't get in fights. Big deal. "Oh really? What is your type then?"

He pointed at Rose. "Well, I wouldn't mind dating Rose."

She glared at him and he chuckled, giving her a wink. "How about it, Red?" Red? Oh, because of her mane. Duh. "We get back, I'll take you out on the town, show you the night of your life. Maybe we could even have a goodnight kiss." He laughed, only half-joking.

Rose stood, crossed the small space (moving her body seductively. I hadn't realised she knew how to do that!) and reared up on her hind legs, front hooves braced on Ibis chest. "I... uh..." He started stammering as Rose leaned close to his beak.

"Ibis..." Her voice was low and soft. It made me shiver, and in a good way!

"Uh, yes, Rose?" He was getting nervous; Rose had never acted like this around him before (or any boy for that matter)!

My sister looked deep into his eyes, pushed him back against the elevator wall, and...

"BLEAGH!" She threw up all over him.

"YOU FUCKING NUTCASE! WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?!"

Rose just laughed and sat beside me. "I feel better now. Thanks, Ibis."

---------------------------------------------------------------

When we reached the ground floor and left the elevator, Ibis was still trying to get vomit out of his feathers (swearing the entire time) while me and Rose were having trouble breathing, we were laughing that hard. I managed to get a few steps into the lobby before collapsing, my chest killing me. Rose wasn't far behind, and she slumped on top of me. Magpie was waiting (My parents were still off searching), and stared at her son when he stepped out, covered in... Use your imagination. It wasn't pretty.

"What the fuck happened to you?"

"Rose threw up on me."

The look on her black and white face was priceless.

"She.. what?"

"She fucking puked on me!" He pointed at Rose, who had subsided into hiccups and giggles.

"I don't like elevators, and his flirting was making me sick." She grinned at Magpie. "So, I threw up on him."

The elder griffin faceclawed. "You're unbelievable. Ibis, clean that crap off. Rose, you and I are going to have a serious talk, young lady."

---------------------------------------------------------------

Rose was sitting in her chair at the front desk (I was standing beside her), with Magpie leaning on the desk and glaring at her. Ibis was still in the bathroom; we could hear the tap running and he was swearing more or less nonstop.

"Rose, honey, you need to learn some respect for other people. Just because you don't like him flirting doesn't mean you can attack him or throw up on him. He hits on almost every girl he sees, but it's not like he's serious."

"But he is serious."

"What? How do you... Oh, the empath thing. Are you sure?"

Rose nodded. "He likes me. A lot. Like, a lot, a lot." That was the first I'd heard of it. I'd always thought Ibis was just playing around.

"Then why do you keep doing stuff like this to him?"

"Because he's my friend and I enjoy fighting with him. And even though he's my friend, I'd rather kill him than let him touch me."

"Um, Magpie?" I butted in. "Rose isn't lying. She really doesn't like males touching her. She almost killed a a drunk buck that bumped into her once."

"Does she at least have a reason? Or is she just nuts?"

We both stared at Rose, and she stared right back. "You don't want to know."

"Spill it, Red. What's your problem?" Ibis had come out of the bathroom, his feathers dripping wet, but clean. He scowled at her.

"C'mon, tell your big sister!"

"I wanna know why you hate guys so much, too."

She stared at us. "Promise not to tell auntie and uncle, or even talk about it ever again?"

"I promise."

"I pinkie pie promise."

"Just tell us already!" She stared at Ibis until he gave in. "Fine, I promise.

Rose sighed and tapped her hooves on the desk, looking for the words. "Lily, remember the bad ponies that killed my parents?" I nodded. "They raped mama."


Oh, fuck me up the ass with a loaded shotgun. Now I understood why Rose never spoke about that night.


Magpie and Ibis seemed a little shocked, but I could tell they hadn't fully grasped it yet. "Well, that's pretty bad, but do you have to hate all guys?"

"Ibis, Rose can sense more than just emotions and feelings. She can feel everything other people feel. As in, every single physical thing we're feeling right now. If I've got an itch, she can feel it. If you cut your leg, she feels the pain. If your wings are sore from flying too much, then she can feel it like she had wings. And she's been like that almost her entire life."

Now they got it. I could tell from the look of horror they shared.

"I... I'm sorry, Rose... If I'd known, then I wouldn't have flirted with you like that..."

Rose shrugged and Magpie hugged her, stroking her mane. "Dammit, honey. You've been through a lot, haven't you? Don't worry, I won't let anything else happen to you."

I joined in the group hug. Ibis stood back, not sure what to do.

"I'll let you hug me. Just this once." Rose smiled at him, and he slowly put his arms around her.

"OW! What the fuck, Rose?!" She'd bitten him and wouldn't let go, his talon gripped tightly between her teeth. "You said I could hug you!"

She nodded.

"Can you let me go, then? OW!"

She shook her head, biting harder.

"So I can hug you, but only while you're biting me?"

Another nod.

"Fine. Crazy mare." He hugged her tightly, accepting her terms. We all stayed like that for what felt like ages, only seperating when my parents came back.


"What's with all the hugging?" Dad asked, helping mum take off her saddlebags.

"Oh, uh... Rose is scared of elevators." Rose nodded, confirming what I said.

"Wow? Really?" Dad stared at her in disbelief. "Well, try to avoid them then. Any luck?"

I started explaining what we'd found (leaving out the final audio log; that could stay between the three of us) while Ibis leaned close to Rose, rubbing his sore talon, and whispered: "Can I still flirt with you? Because I really do like you."

"I know. And yes, you can." She smiled at him, and I barely saw her hooves move.

Ever seen a griffin get thrown halfway across a room? It's pretty impressive.

Magpie just groaned. "Beat him up if you have to, Rose, but try not to puke on him again. Please?" Rose nodded and walked, smiling, over to where Ibis had landed.

"Dead yet?" She started poking him.

"Ow! No, I'm not dead. Ow! Quit it! OW! ROSE! FUCKING QUIT IT!" They were both grinning, even when it turned into a wrestling match. Rose won, of course. Ibis was busy being unconscious again. I guess beating him to a pulp was how she showed she liked him. That's not what was important.

The important thing was, Rose now considered a guy her friend.

---------------------------------------------------------------

I stared at the thing Ibis was holding. It was about the size and thickness of a Daring Do book, had a screen, some buttons and a bunch of cables coming out of it, and I had no idea what it did. "That's what we came here for?"

"Yep."

"What is it?"

"Prewar computer thing. Do I look like I know anything about computers?"

Rose groaned, lifting her head out of a box of complicated looking bits and pieces to glare at us. "You two... We come all this way, and you don't know what we're here for?"

I shook my head, and so did the griffin.

Rose facehoofed. "Fine. I'll explain, and I'll be sure to use small words."


Her explanation took a few minutes, and left me just as confused as before. "So, it's like a key? That can make computers do... stuff..."

Rose facehoofed again. "Yes, Lily. It's a key that makes computers do stuff. Very important, and very dangerous, stuff. Ibis, if you ask me 'what kind of stuff?' one more time, I swear to Celestia, I'm stuffing you in a crate and leaving you here."

The griffin shut his beak, knowing Rose was being serious.

"Now, you two head back to the lobby. Your parents should be finished packing up by now. I'll meet you there in a little while." She stuffed her head back into the box of parts.


Me and Ibis took our time going back. The keycard let us into almost every room, and while most of the junk we found was just that, junk, there were a couple of neat things. Robot ponies in glass cases, diagrams pinned up on walls (they were pretty, so I shoved some in my bag), and a working Sparkle Cola machine! We broke it open and enjoyed our nice, cold drinks as we walked (We'd stuffed the rest of the bottles in my bag, too. It was getting kinda heavy, to be honest). The west wing was pretty big, and we were walking for ages, so we started talking. Mostly about Rose.

"You think she'd ever let me take her out?"

"What, on a date?"

"Yeah."

"Not a chance."

"I don't mean any time soon, more like in a few months."

"Pfft, as if you'd survive that long, even if, for whatever reason, my parents let you join us."

"Hey, you guys could use an extra guard. And I'm sure she'd relax eventually."

"When you're dead, maybe."

"She let me hug her, and she even called me her friend. A few months, we'll be a couple. You'll see."

"The day you and Rose start dating, I'll marry a hellhound."

"Thanks for your vote of confidence. You're a real peach, Caravan."

"That's Lily to you!" I hit him as hard as I could. The bastard just laughed.

"Ooh, scary! I think a fly just landed on me. Try a little harder, Caravan!" He dodged my next hit and flew down the corridor, laughing.

"You're fucking dead!" I managed to catch him when we reached the lobby, ramming into him with all my might. Long story short, I ended up squirming and cursing while he sat on me.

"Careful. Rose'll kill you if you hurt Lily." Dad warned Ibis.

"I don't hurt defenceless girls, remember?" Oh, I was so going to beat the shit out of him when I got free.

"Where is your sister, Lily?" Mum looked down the corridoor we'd just come from.

"Said she.. UMF! had something.. GAH! to do!" I was trying to shove Ibis off of me, but his big grey butt was too heavy. How the hell could Rose knock him around so easily?!


Silence... The sounds of machinery had vanished... "Ibis, get off!" He stood up and stared down the long, empty hall behind us; I kicked him as I got to my hooves, and followed his gaze. "Whoa..." One by one, the lights were going out, darkness creeping from every corner like a living thing...

"Sorry about the wait." I screamed and almost bolted when someone spoke behind me; Rose was so damn quiet when she moved! "I had to disable the generator again."

"You disabled the generator? Why?" Magpie scratched her head. "Think of all the salvage we haven't found yet!"

"This place wants us to leave so it can go back to sleep. It's already dreaming; Can't you tell?" Rose pointed at the slowly approaching darkness; it was creeping forwards as each light faded, reclaiming the building inch by inch.

"Um, I'm with Rose on this one. The thing is in my bag, so let's leave. Now?" I swear the darkness was looking right at me, and I could hear something whispering in the back of my mind.

"The girls are right, we should go." Dad looked like he was about to piss himself.

---------------------------------------------------------------

We made ourselves scarce, pausing only to close the doors behind us, and hurrying through the streets, trying to get as far away as we could before night fell.

The lengthening shadows reached out towards our wagon like the grasping tendrils of the city itself, every dark window and alley seemed full of watchful eyes as we passed, our group speaking in hushed tones if we spoke at all.

"Rose, are there other ghosts here?" I looked towards my sister; she was messing with my Pipbuck.

"Yep."

"How many?"

"Lots."

"Lots?"

"Yeah. A lot of ponies died here and can't leave. Remember what Miss Tequila said? There's a star watching them, and it's laughing because they're trapped."

I shuddered, making a promise to myself that I'd never come back here again. Ghosts, laughing stars and dreaming buildings. I fucking hated the city.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Two weeks there, two weeks back. The trip back had been slightly more eventful, but not exciting by any means. Rose had gotten the radio on my Pipbuck working pretty quickly, so we'd at least had some music (I couldn't help but wonder what the DJ looked like. He sounded cute!), Ibis had lost all his salvage trying to beat Rose at poker, and I'd managed to bring down a huge radhog with my revolver! What? Ugh, fine. It wasn't that big. Like half my size. But I wasn't expecting to be ambushed while I was taking a... You know what? Never mind.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"SWEET CELESTIA'S ORGASMIC SUNSPOTS!"

"LILY! Watch your language!"

"Sorry mum!" My mother shook her head, disgusted at my language. But sitting in front of me was more caps than I'd ever seen in my life, and it was just my share!

After collecting our pay from the mayor, we'd all gone to a bar to split the profits. Rose was sharing a bottle of whiskey with my dad (who was telling her about when he travelled with her father), Ibis was arguing with Magpie over something or other, and me? I was drooling over my pile of caps. No, not literally. Okay, fine. Maybe just a little. But that was a lot of caps!

"You need to set a good example for Rose. You're the big sister, after all."

"Uh, mum?" I pointed to Rose and my dad; they'd started singing a very dirty song about Luna and the full moon. Rose had a nice singing voice, to be honest. I'd forgotten how she sounded when she was having fun. "I don't think I'm the one you need to worry about."

My mother facehoofed. "Dear! That is not a song for fillies!"

"Ah, Rose ain't a filly! She's almost a mare, fer Celestia's sake!" Dad messed up Rose's mane, making her squeal. "Hey Rose, wanna know how you got your name?"

She nodded eagerly. "Yes please, uncle!"

"Dear, maybe that's not such a good idea-" Mum tried to stop him, but it was too late. I perked up; this was a story I'd never heard before!


"Now, your dear old dad only had two loves in his entire life. Whiskey was the second, making it or drinking it. Your mother was the first, and I'd never seen such a pair. An earth pony and a unicorn! He was the toughest son-of-a-gun I'd ever met, and the nicest. We'd been friends since we were colts, and nothing could tear us apart. That buck... I couldn't have asked for a better friend. Not that he was perfect; Celestia's Sunny-side-up Flank, no! He spent almost as much time hungover as he did drunk! And the fighting! He once joked he was trying to get thrown out of every bar in the wasteland. Of course, he did have a concussion at the time, so I'm not sure how serious he was..."

Dad paused to swig some whiskey, then passed the bottle to Rose, who was listening intently. Magpie and Ibis had stopped their arguing to listen as well.

"Yeah, he was a scoundrel alright. But a good one. Always ready with a smile or a kind word, never held a grudge; that sort of thing. He made more friends in bar fights than he did enemies; 'Win or lose, it's how much fun you have', that's what he used to say, then he'd buy the other guy some drinks. He was good looking in his day, too. Right, dear?"

My mum snorted. "He was a mess. But yes, he was kind of attractive; You just had to get past the blood, bruises and alcohol first."

"Haha, that old rogue gave me hell when I married you. Remember what he said on our wedding day?"

"Ugh. I remember his black eye more, but yes. He said if I made you too respectable, he'd have to disown you."

"Ahahaha! I'd forgotten about his shiner! Yep, that's what he said alright. Celestia burn his butt, he could be a bastard at times. What was I... Yeah, he was a real looker back then. Mares would throw themselves at his hooves, and he turned 'em all down; Said he was trying to get up the courage to ask out the girl of his dreams: Your mother, Rose."

"She was an artist of many talents, always painting or drawing or singing... Hell, that mare just loved to create. O' course, the best thing she ever made was... Can you guess?"

Rose shook her head.

"It's you, kid! The day you were born, your parents were so proud!"

"Uncle, what about my name?"

"Oh, fine." Dad messed up her mane again. "Now, it's kind of a long story... It all started late one night, in this little dirt-hole of a town. We'd just finished trading and gone to the bar, where your parents were talking about having kids. Well, your dear old mother was talking about it. Your pop didn't think he'd be any good at being a parent; Look how wrong he was! Alright, I'll get on with the story, just stop poking me! Like I was saying, about then the sherrif walked in..."

---------------------------------------------------------------

"And that's how Rose got her name." Dad finished up both the story and the bottle of whiskey, leaving me staring at him in disbelief. Rose was under the table, weezing; She'd laughed so hard she'd fallen off her seat and was having trouble breathing. Mum had her face buried in her hooves, humiliated. Magpie and Ibis just looked dumbfounded. "Any questions?"

I raised my hoof. "Yeah. You're full of shit, dad."

"That's not a question, Lily." He peered into the bottle. "Why's the whiskey gone?"

"Because you and Rose drank it all, and I still reckon you're full of shit. Do you really expect me to believe that Rose's mother, the most gentle and caring unicorn in Equestria, was an uncontrollable pyromaniac?"

"Only if we let her near a flamethrower. And after that day, we never did."

"How about Rose's dad, the hellhound and the whiskey bottle?"

"One hundred percent true."

"I still say you're full of shit."

"Fine, don't believe me."

"Enough, you two!" Mum glared at us. "I think we should call it a night. Lily, take your sister outside, I think she's going to be sick. And you..." She rounded on my dad. "Did you have to go into so much detail?! You know what I went through back then!"

"It wasn't so bad! And besides, it made Rose laugh!"

"Not so bad? You didn't get your tail burned off! And stop laughing!" WHACK! She hit dad, and that made him laugh harder. I was guiding a wobbly Rose outside, Ibis and Magpie staring at my parents like they were insane. It was one hell of a story, even if it sounded fake... Ugh!

"Rose! Careful!" At least we'd gotten outside before she threw up.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Two days later, I was watching Magpie freak out.

"You. Did. WHAT?!"

Ibis cringed. "How was I meant to know she's better at poker when she's drunk?"

"You shouldn't have been playing poker with her at all! Six months salary. Six fucking months! I don't fucking believe you!" She turned to my dad, shaking her head in disbelief. "Are you sure you can't let him off?"

Dad shook his head. "It's not up to me. You'll have to ask Rose."

All eyes turned to the white mare, and Magpie groaned. "You're not gonna let him go, are you?"

Rose shrugged. "Nope. He owes me too much."

"I can't fucking believe this..." The elder griffin turned back to my dad. "Fine. Have you got room for an extra guard?"

Dad nodded with a grin. "Good company is always welcome; and since Ibis won't be getting paid, we can afford to hire you.'

Magpie faceclawed. "Rose, please kill my son. I'm begging you."

Rose smiled and pounced on Ibis ("OOF!"), not attacking him, just laying across his back. "You wanted to come with us; now you can." She poked the back of his head.

"I wanted to get paid, too."

"Then you shouldn't have lost." She poked him again.

"You shouldn't be so rutheless at cards."

"I wanted you to come anyway." More poking.

"Aww, I knew you liked me! FUCK!" Rose had bitten his wing and was twisting it. "Let me go! That fucking hurts! Fuck, I'm not kidding!" She let him go and he rolled over, dislodging her. "That's it, Rose, let's see how you like it!" He tried grabbing her and... A few seconds later, he was on his back groaning, with Rose sitting on his chest.

"You lose." She licked his cheek and they both smiled.

"Brat."

"Featherbrain."


FOOTNOTE: LEVEL UP
BARTER 50
New Perk: Fortune Finder -- The untold riches of the wasteland await! You find more bottle caps whenever you search containers.

Quest Perk Gained: Claustrophobia -- You need the open skies above you to feel safe. -1 Agility when indoors. In addition, dark, enclosed areas like tunnels are likely to cause panic attacks. But, you gain +1 Charisma when outside. You should have been a Pegasus.

Companion Gained: Ibis


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Thanks to KKat for creating FO:E, a world so fun to play in it should be illegal! And a super huge thanks to everyone that's been reading so far!

By Luna's full moon! I think this chapter is twice as long as the rest of the story! No wonder I feel worn out! Ah, well. I hope you had as much fun reading it as I did writing it. ^_^

Chapter 6: Deal

View Online

---CHAPTER 6: Deal---
"Losing a friend's trust is the fastest way to lose a friend."
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"Are you serious, dad?!" My eyes were wide.

"Course I am. After that last job, we're set for a while. You girls should take a vacation, and this is the perfect place!"

We were in a large town, one with hotels, bars, even a casino. The open-air market was what grabbed my attention, though; So much cool stuff!

"Awesome! Uh... What about you and mum? Aren't you staying with us?"

My parents smiled at each other. "We'll be back in a month, don't worry."

"C'mon, stay! You're seriously gonna leave us here alone? Look at this place, it's perfect!"

"You won't be alone; Ibis will be with you. Besides, your mother and I could use some time to ourselves..." They smiled at each other again and touched hooves.

"Oh..." I nodded and got ready to dart away into the crowds; They wanted some time without us, and I wanted to go shopping! "Well, have fun!"

"Not so fast, young lady!" Crap. I pulled up short and turned back my dad. "Give me your bag." Dad took my bag and emptied it of caps, leaving me just... "Three hundred caps, more than enough to keep you happy for a month. Stop looking at me like that, Lily. I don't want you spending everything, and I'll be taking most of Rose's caps as well. Now, where is she?"

I pointed to our wagon; Sure enough, my sister was dozing underneath, her coat spread out as a blanket as usual. Ibis was in the wagon itself, tied up with a dufflebag pulled over his head; Rose didn't appreciate being drooled on by a sleeping griffin.

"Rose, I need to talk to you. Come over here!"

She got up and stretched, taking her sweet time coming over to us. "Yes, uncle?"

"Honey, you, Lily and Ibis are going to be staying here for a little while, okay?"

Rose nodded sleepily. "Okay uncle. Will Magpie be going with you? There are some raiders outside of town; they're looking for easy targets."

"Are you sure?" Another sleepy nod. "Well, if you say we'll need her..."

"You will. And I'm sure she'll find somewhere to be when you're... Ahem... Lily?' She blushed. "Can you say it?"

I laughed. "Rose, my parents know what you mean. Right, dad?"

"Right." Dad looked away for a moment and cleared his throat. "Right, three hundred caps each, for you girls and Ibis. Rose, don't take all Ibis' caps, understand?" Rose groaned, but nodded. She didn't look too happy with the restriction. Poker was quickly becoming her favorite way to pass the time, and Ibis was her favorite victim. "This is your vacation, and you earned it; all three of you. We'll be back in a month, so behave yourselves, and have fun!" Ibis was untied, we all exchanged hugs and my parents went to meet Magpie, waving goodbye until they were out of sight.

I turned to my companions, grinning wildly. "We've got almost a thousand caps between us, and a full month to go nuts. What should we do first?"

---------------------------------------------------------------

We ended up getting a couple of rooms at a nice hotel first. Nothing super expensive or amazing, but the bed was fun to jump on. Ibis got the room next to mine (I was sharing with Rose again. Duh!), and then we went shopping.

"Rose, I wanna wear it!" I'd attached my Pipbuck to the strap on my bag and was tapping my hoof against it; It really didn't do anything but pick up radio stations since it wasn't on my leg. Who designed those things, anyway?! "Look at the size of this market, someone's gotta have the right tools!"

Rose was ignoring me, busy discussing some wierd electronic thingy with the mare in charge of a stall. It looked like a box with a pistol grip and wires coming out of it. "The emitter lens is damaged, and there's a lot of wear on the transduction coil. Nopony in her right mind would buy an M.E.W in this condition, let alone try to fire it."

"Oh really? And I suppose you're some kind of expert on magical weapons?" The old mare looked indignant that someone would question her goods.

"No. But I do know how to repair them. With what you have here-" Rose pointed at some components; It all looked like junk to me. "I could get this model working. As it is, it's only worth about ten caps."

"And if you fix it?"

"One hundred to one-fifty."

The vendor whistled. "How much will that cost me?"

"Fifty caps. And these." Rose indicated a little case of tools; They were funny looking, little sockets and hexagonal things, stuff like that. I had no idea what they were for; I knew my way around a screwdriver and a bobbypin (do bobbypins count as tools?), but just looking at those things confused me.

"I dunno, seems kinda steep..."

"Fifty caps and the toolkit for a working M.E.W. It's more than reasonable." I winced. My sister had no idea how to haggle, and no respect for social niceties. That doesn't mean she was wrong; We all knew the merchant was getting a good deal. Rose was just blunt. Like a hammer. To the head.

"Oh, fine."


Caps changed hooves, Rose put the wierd tools into her bag, and a few minutes later... "Done." The thing looked more or less the same to me, a box with a mouthgrip and some wires. "You can fire it without needing to worry about melting your face now."

"I'm impressed, kid." The merchant checked Rose's work, clearly pleased with the result. "I didn't think you could, but you got this thing working again."

Rose shrugged. "I wouldn't trust it for more than a few days of repeated use; Not without more maintenance, at least."

"I thought you said it'd be perfect."

"No, I said I could get it working. Perfect would take hours, and proper replacement parts."

"Whatever, kid. Say, you looking for work? I could use a pony that's good with her hooves."

"No, thank you. I'm on vacation."

"Oh, well, if you change your mind, let me know."

Rose nodded and the three of us went on our way, browsing the other stalls. "Why do you use your hooves for everything anyway? Thought all you unicorns could do magic, make things float, crap like that." Ibis prodded Rose, barely pulling his claw back before she could bite him. "I mean, Lily's a regular Hoofini-" I grinned, proud our feathered friend thought so highly of me. "but I almost never see you do anything magical. Why is that?"

We skirted around a group of mercenaries arguing about the price of ammo while Rose answered. "I need to feel what I'm doing, and magic simply doesn't give me that connection."

"Or you're just bad at magic." I chipped in as we found an empty spot to catch our breath, away from the crowds. "Ever think of that?"

Rose just blinked at me, and her horn started to glow. I felt something move in my bag and suddenly my revolver was floating in front of my sister. "What're you..." Before I could finish my sentence, she'd unloaded my gun, dismantled it, rebuilt it and reloaded it, all with her magic, in under thirty seconds.

"Oh, so you can use magic!" Ibis said, laughing at the shocked expression on my face; I was speechless.

"Yes, Ibis. I can use magic." Rose nodded and set my gun on the ground. "All unicorns can." Her hooves seemed to dance as she repeated her earlier performance, but without using magic this time. "Using my hooves is just easier, and much more comfortable. Lily, please take better care of your gun; The cylinder was loose and there was dirt on the hammer. Not enough to keep you from firing it, but it's better to be safe than sorry."

Now Ibis was speechless as well; Not only had Rose dismantled my gun, cleaned it, repaired it and put it back together, she had done it all without looking, with her hooves alone, and I'm pretty sure it had been quicker than when she did it with her magic. We stood there, gaping, as Rose levitated the gun back into my bag.

"How did you... That's insane!" Ibis shook his grey head in disbelief. "I couldn't do that!"

Any normal pony would have looked smug. Rose just shrugged. "Dad was an Earth Pony. Using my hooves, being able to feel what I'm working on? It's more natural than using my magic. Now, shall we continue shopping before Lily goes into Trading Withdrawal?" She smirked, and I glared at her.

"Very funny, Rose. Don't forget, I'm the oldest, so I'm in charge." She nodded. "Good. Now we can get back to shopping." Trading Withdrawal. Honestly. That's not even a real thing!

---------------------------------------------------------------

We left our purchases (I got a new bow for my mane, Rose bought some books and Ibis had a big, curved knife. Rose had checked it out before letting him buy it, of course; I think Ibis was relieved when she approved of his selection) in our rooms and headed to the casino, enjoying the cool evening air. "Don't you just feel so free?" Yes, I was dancing down the middle of the road. We'd shared some beers before leaving our rooms, and I was with my two best friends. A little giddyness was to be expected, okay? "It's like I'm flying!"

Ibis laughed and leapt into the air, flying circles around me. "No, it's like you're stumbling around like a drunken idiot." I tried to catch him and missed.

"Well, I'd be flying if I could! AAAH!" I shrieked when he swooped in and picked me up.

"See? Now you're flying!" He laughed and adjusted his grip so I'd be more comfortable, and we rose above the town.

"Wow..." I was breathless. We'd been higher in the Robronco bulding, but this was amazing! The wind whipped my mane back as we flew, free as... Well, as a griffin! "You're so lucky, Ibis... Flying whenever you want... I wish I had wings..."

He laughed. "If you like this, then hold on tight!" We started diving and twisting like crazy, making me shriek with delight. Ibis' claws tightened around me as we pulled out of our dive a few feet above the ground and blew past Rose, my sister just a white and red blur as we climbed again, rolling lazily. "Having fun?" Ibis twisted his head to smile at me.

"I fucking love you, Ibis! You're the best griffin ever!" His smile turned to an evil grin and we dived again ("AAAAAAAAHH!!!") only to do some wierd twisty-roll and come out facing the way we'd come.

"I told you before, Lily! You're not my type!" We laughed together as we flew; I didn't mean it that way, and he knew it. Far below, I spotted Rose; She was just a smudge against the dark street, sprinting after us.

"Maybe we should land before Rose gets lonely!" I suggested, not really wanting to be on the ground again so soon, but knowing Rose would be freaking out since she couldn't reach me.


We landed and it took me a minute to find my sister; She had her head in a barrel, throwing up. "Oh, sorry, Rose! I didn't think!" I patted her on the back and she slowly raised her head. Eugh... Green really wasn't her color.

"I hate flying."

I hugged her. Ibis was perched on the roof of the building next to us. A pretty smart idea, given how Rose was looking at him; I didn't need to be an empath to know she was blaming the griffin for her current state, and would take it out on him at the first opportunity. "It's not like you were the one flying, though. I mean, don't you feel things like... I dunno, like they're distant or something? Hey, stop looking at me like that, Rose! You don't talk about your abilities that much, so I have no idea what it's like!" She'd been looking at me like I was an idiot. "Would it kill you to explain once in a while?"

"Yeah! We're your friends, you can trust us!" Ibis called down; apparently griffins have really good hearing.

Rose groaned and sat next to me. She still didn't look well. "It's... Hard to explain. Most ponies" One hoof pointed at Ibis, who was now hanging over the edge like a... What's that thing called? Ugly, made of stone? Gargoyle, I think. "and griffins, I can feel everything they feel, but it's... vague. I remember dad telling me about having to take med-x once, and how it made his whole body numb. I guess that's a pretty good analogy." Analo-what? I knew what med-x did, but I didn't know that word.

"So it's like being doped up?" Ibis again.

"I guess so, but not really. Some ponies, I can feel really clearly. Auntie and uncle are the only ones, really. I used to be able to feel my parents like that, but..." Rose went silent for a moment, so I started stroking her mane.

"It's okay, Rose. What about me?" I nuzzled her neck, trying to cheer her up. "Can you feel me like that?"

She blinked at me and looked away, embarrassed. "Um... You're a little more... clear than that..."

"What do you mean?"

A bit of a blush crept across her face. "I can... Um... I can feel everything."

"Everything? How much is 'everything'?"

"Everything. Every emotion, every single thing you touch or taste or smell or feel, every part of your body." She blushed more. "It's like I'm me, and you, at the same time."

"Oh..." Wow... This was awkward... "So, when I was... y'know... 'hoofing it' in the bathroom at our hotel?"

Rose nodded. "Yes."

"Seriously?"

Another nod. "It was... interesting..."

By this point both our faces were bright red; We were blushing so much it was easily visible in the low light. Ibis was staring at us, trying to work out what we were talking about.

"Are you saying that... the reason you took so long getting ready for tonight was... Wow... Seriously? And Rose felt it too?" He flew down and landed near us, approaching slowly, smirking. "That's... kinda hot, actually. FUCK!" We both lunged at him; there was no chance he could escape, and we beat the living shit out of him

"PERVERT!"

"Creep."

"FREAK!"

"Featherbrain."

Eventually we stopped, more because I had to catch my breath and Rose had gotten bored than anything else. Ibis was groaning, and Rose pulled a healing potion out from his belt with her magic. "Open wide. I want to go to the casino." She forced his beak open and poured the potion down his throat.

"Fuck... You girls are crazy..." He coughed and sat up, groaning. His bruises were already beginning to fade.

"And you're a fucking pervert!"

"Hey, you're the one that hoof-fucks herself, Lily. OW!" Rose smacked the back of his head.

"Shut up, stand up, start walking." She slipped her forelegs under his wings and pulled him to his feet easily. "Buy Lily a sparkle cola, promise never to say that again, and I don't kill you. Agreed?"

"Two sparkle colas and a beer, forget everything you heard and I won't kill you." I glared at him.

"Jeez, you two really are crazy- OKAY OKAY!" He flinched when I raised my hoof. "Just don't kill me!"

---------------------------------------------------------------

Flashing, brightly colored lights and a barrage of noises assaulted me as soon as we entered the casino. "Wow..." I was stunned. All around me I could see ponies gambling; Some winning, most losing, and all of them as caught in the hypnotic scene as I was. Tables for poker, blackjack and some wierd game with dice filled a sunken area, but that was boring.

What I was interested in was the wierd boxes with levers and little spinny wheels on them; They were the brightest things in there, outdoing even the pastel colored mob of ponies with their brilliance, their melodic dinging and ringing. I tried getting to them, drawn like a moth to a flame, but Ibis grabbed me. "No you don't! You've got the worst luck I've ever seen, Lily!"

"B-but they're so shiny!" I tried feebly to escape, pawing at the air like that would help me break free from the griffin's talons, desperate to reach the shiny boxes that promised so much wealth!

"Rose, help me here!" Ibis grunted as I struggled. Rose sighed and pressed her horn to my forehead. A warm glow filled my mind and everything seemed a little clearer; The shiny boxes lost some of their hold on me as I noticed how most of the ponies using them (insert chip, pull lever. I filed that away for later use) seemed desperate, how very few of them were actually winning.

"Huh? What... Rose, what did you just do to me?" I shook my head, confused. One second I'd been wanting to reach the pretty, shiny, noisy boxes, the next...

"I cleared your head for you. You were... overwhelmed." She blinked at me. "Ibis, you can let her go now."

"Not until she gives us her word not to gamble; No cards, no craps, no slot machines." He squeezed me, and I squeaked out my agreement.

"No gambling! Got it! Can't... breathe..." Why would I want to play craps, anyway? That game with the dice looked more interesting! A lot less gross, too.

The griffin let me go and I took a deep breath before turning to him, my eyes full of hope. "Are you sure? Just one try can't hurt!" I felt something jab the back of my head (Rose's horn) and the warm glow washed over me again, stripping away more of my urge to play with the pretty boxes... Slot machines, that's what Ibis called them! "Fine, no gambling." I sighed and turned to Rose, swatting at her. "Just stop fucking with my head, okay?" She ducked my hoof and nodded.

"The bar's over there, Lily. Let's get our drinks; courtesy of Ibis." She eyed the grumbling griffin. "Unless he wants to spend the night tied up with his beak taped shut."

"Drinks on me? No problem." He laughed nervously; We both knew Rose wasn't kidding. He owed me two sparkle colas and a beer, and she'd make him pay up, one way or another. We got our drinks (making Ibis carry them) and found ourselves some seats.

"How do you do stuff like that?"

"Like what?"

"You know, get inside peoples heads, like what you did to Lily."

"Huh?" I turned back to my friends, distracted for a moment by the bank of slot machines mere meters away. "What were we talking about?"

Rose's horn started to glow. "Lily... Don't make me do it again."

I raised my hooves defensively. "I'm good, don't worry! Honest!" And I was good! Just, intrigued by the machines. I'd seen somepony win a minute ago: Their slot machine had started vomiting chips like Rose after a full bottle of whiskey, and if each chip was worth one cap, then they'd made a bundle... Something told me the chips were worth more than that, though...

"See, that's what I'm talking about! How much can you do to our brains? Can you make us think we're, like, radhogs or something?"

Rose shrugged. "I can take away the pain of your worst wound, or your deepest fear. I can make death as gentle as going to sleep. Calming Lily was easy; I simply took some of her desire to use the slot machines. Of course, the emotions and sensations I take don't simply vanish." She paused to drink her cola. "From a foalish fear of the dark, to the pain of a cut leg, to the experience of death itself, everything remains within me."

Ibis stared at her. "So, when you kill someone..."

She nodded. "I feel their death. When I can, I ease their passing from this life into the next. However, I can only do so when I am very near; No further than touching distance."

The griffin gave his grey head a shake, disturbed. "How do you deal with it? I mean, it must be like dying yourself, over and over again. Doesn't that wear you down?"

Rose finished her cola. "I'm used to it now. The first time was rather... Disconcerting, to say the least. To feel the raider's life leave his body when I cut his throat, to feel his fear, his futile anger... The next was so similar, and yet, so different. So, too, were the others. With each life I took that night, I caught a glimpse of what lies beyond... And when I was done, when all that remained was blood and silence, there was no regret. They would never harm another as they had harmed my parents." She stood up. "Ibis, please control Lily. I feel like indulging myself, and they have poker tables." My sister vanished into the crowd and I turned to the griffin, who was in shock. I'd already heard all that before, more or less, so it didn't bother me. Not much, anyway. Still creepy and depressing, though.

"How come she gets to gamble?" I waved my hoof at the crowd; Rose was visible every now and then as she weaved her way to the pit with the card tables.

Ibis shook his head. "Because she's good at it." Well, no shit. "And you couldn't win a coin toss if you had a two-headed bit." That wasn't fair at all! "That sister of yours is a strange one, Lily. I'm starting to worry about her."

"I think she's come along nicely, considering. Hey, is that a female griffin over there?" I pointed at nothing and slipped out of my seat, hoping Ibis would be distracted long enough for me to reach a slot machine.

"Where do you think you're going?" Fuck. He'd grabbed my front leg, stopping me.

"Um... Little mare's room?" I gave him my most innocent smile. He didn't fall for it.

"Yeah, right. Come on, I'll get you another beer."

---------------------------------------------------------------

"BLEAGH!" Rose used her magic to keep my mane out of my face while I threw up; we'd been in the casino for hours, and I'd drunk more than I should have. I blamed Ibis; he was the one paying for my drinks. He should have warned me not to mix beer, sparkle cola and... what was that stuff I ordered towards the end? Started with a V... Doesn't matter.

What matters is that I was throwing my guts up in the alley outside our hotel, and Ibis was the one responsible. "Feel better now?" He called out from the entrance to the alley, well out of my reach... and my range. Guess he didn't want a repeat of the Robronco elevator.

"I'd feel better if you carried me to my room."

"Fuck off. You can walk perfectly fine."

"Rose, make him carry me."

Rose pointed at me. "Ibis, carry her."

"Why the hell should I? Do you know how much she made me spend on her drinks?! It's only fair she has to suffer!"

"If you carry her, I might let you kiss me goodnight." WHAT?! I was throwing up again, so there's no way I heard that right!

"Are you serious?" Rose nodded at him. "Well, okay then! Up we go!" He came over and swept me up in his arms. I didn't like being carried like a foal, so I tried to throw up on him, but my stomach was empty.

Still, it was nice not having to walk. And he was gentle when he set me on the bed, so I could forgive the indignity of being lugged around like a baby. When Rose dropped her winnings next to me, I forgot all about it and opened the bag; She'd almost doubled her 300 caps in a single night! Just to make sure, I started counting, half-listening to my friends arguing.

"You said I could kiss you! C'mon, be a sport."

"I said I might let you kiss me. I never said where."

"But your hoof? What are you, a princess or something? At least let me kiss your cheek!"

Rose tapped her hoof on the ground, thinking about it. "Fine. One kiss, on the cheek." I looked up from my... Um, Rose's pile of caps, interested in what was going to happen.

Ibis leaned in, grinning, and gave her a big kiss on the cheek. My jaw dropped! She'd actually let him do it! "OW! FUCK!" Nope, it was too good to be true; When he pulled back, Rose had a couple of feathers in her mouth, and she was smiling as she spat them on the floor. "What did you do that for?!"

"You're a bad kisser."

Ibis was rubbing the side of his neck, I could see where the feathers had been pulled out. "I'll have you know I'm a great kisser! And how would you know? That one was on the cheek! Let me give you a proper kiss, we'll see how you feel!"

Rose snorted. "I didn't get all tingly, or warm, or even blush. That's how it happens in the books, so you must be a bad kisser."

The griffin groaned. "Rose, not everything is how it is in books. And a proper kiss is a lot better than some stupid story makes it sound, believe me."

"I'll take your word on it. Right now, I have to go wash my face. Shoo. Go back to your room." She pushed him out (he was protesting the whole way) and turned to me with a grin. "That was fun."

"So, you into griffins now?" I went back to counting as she jumped onto the bed next to me.

"No. And I never will be."

"Don't you think you're being mean, leading him on like that?" 299, 300, 301... She hadn't lost any money, then.

"No. He keeps hoping I'll fall for him, but he's happy enough with the way things are. I won't deny that I enjoy fighting him, and that it is comforting to feel his body against mine, but I doubt that comfort comes from... sexual... reasons or desires."

"You are really, really wierd, Rose."

She shrugged. "To be honest, I think of him as an... older brother, of sorts." Wait, what?

"What? Seriously?" I stared at her.

"Of course. I know he would protect us from anything if he could; that's how Ibis is. He cares for us and watches over us, just like older brothers do in my books." She smiled at me. "That is what big brothers do, right?"

"I... guess?" I shrugged. "So, you've got a big sister and a big brother now? Does that mean I'm less important, then?" Putting on a sad face, I stared at Rose; She threw her arms around my neck, hugging me like she'd never let go, her face buried in my mane.

"That means you're even more important, Lily. Nopony could replace you."

I hugged her back, feeling a little guilty. "You know I was just playing, right? Just teasing you?"

"I know. But please don't say things like that, it makes me sad." She squeezed me tighter, so I did the same to her; We kept hugging tighter and tighter until one of us squeaked. Yeah, it was me. So what?

"Can't... Breathe..."

Rose let me go, an embarrassed grin on her muzzle. "Sorry."

"Damn, how come you're so strong?" I poked her chest. "You're the scrawniest unicorn I've ever seen!"

She shrugged. "It's the Earth Pony in me, I guess."

"Must be. Now, let's have a good look at you!" I made her sit up straight on the bed while I walked around her. "Yep, you're scrawny alright. Like a little filly" She blew a rasberry at me and I laughed. "You act like one, too. Quit squirming!" I'd started playing with her mane, trying to put it in different styles. "Seriously? Gun oil again? Do you sleep with your rifle or something?" Said gun was leaning in the corner, with her duster tossed over it.

"Sometimes." Rose blushed. "When we're travelling, I always keep my rifle close, and it makes a nice pillow."

"You are the wierdest, and best, little sister I could ever ask for." I gave her a huge hug and kissed her cheek. "Never change, Rose."

She nuzzled against me. "I won't."

"Good. Now, back to your hair!" With a groan, she reluctantly let me keep messing with her mane; I was having fun, and a little smile crept across her face, showing she enjoyed it too.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"And they won't even let me play the slot machines! Can you believe it?!" I thumped my hoof on the table, making my new friend laugh.

"I can't imagine why, it's not like you'd lose every time."

"Exactly! But try telling Rose and Ibis that!" I grinned at him; Lucky Break, a brown coated, brown maned unicorn buck about my age. His cutie mark was a four-leaf clover, and he'd offered to buy me a drink. That was a couple of hours ago, when we'd entered the casino. Rose had went to her poker table of choice (after our first few visits, they kept a seat open for her. Something about being a High Roller, whatever that meant) while Ibis was watching me like a hawk... Or a fuzzy-butted eagle. Same thing.

"Why don't you have a spin? On me, if your boyfriend there doesn't mind." Lucky grinned, pointing at Ibis. The griffin scowled.

"Don't you dare, Lily. You're the most unlucky mare I've met in my life. Ten minutes, you'll send that buck broke."

"Hey, if Lucky wants to treat me, it's up to him." I turned back to Lucky. "He's not my boyfried. I'm single." I winked.

"Well, aren't I the lucky one. Let's go, I've got a pocket full of chips and a lovely mare who needs to learn the finer points of gambling." That made me giggle, and we went to the table pit.

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"I knew you should have let me play the slots instead." I grumbled, glaring at the cards in front of me. Lucky was staring, wide-eyed, at them as well.

"How... You... Jokers? That's not even..." He shook his head. "Your friend wasn't kidding, was he?"

I shrugged and asked eagerly: "Guess not. Can we try the slot machines now? Cards are boring!"

"You can't be any worse at them, I guess. Jokers... That's just..." He shook his head again.

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DING DING DING DING! "YEAH! I FUCKING RULE!" The machine spat out some chips (less than I'd put in during the last few minutes, but who cares?! Flashy lights and loud noises made it great!) and I threw my hooves in the air. Lucky laughed at me.

"You're still down about 20 chips, you know."

"Oh, shut up. I finally won, don't bring me down!"

"Okay, okay. Not being a downer." He smiled at me. "Well, big winner, how's about treating your lucky charm to a drink?"

I chuckled. "I think you deserve at least that. What'll it be?"

"A bottle of Golden Harp would be perfect." He offered me his hoof. "Walk you to the bar?"

"Why, thank you!" I took his hoof, we went to the bar and ordered. Ibis wasn't far behind; He'd been following me the whole time.

"Gonna get me one, Lily?" He plonked his big grey behind on the chair next to me.

"Nope. I like Lucky more." I stuck my tongue out at the griffin, hugging my new lucky charm. Ibis narrowed his eyes at the buck.

"Rose will kill him, you know. She's never let a buck close to you, and I don't think she'll start now."

"Rose?"

"My sister. She's really protective. And shut up, Ibis. Lucky's a good guy. He hasn't tried anything at all!"

"Wait, you thought I was..." Lucky laughed. "Don't worry, Mister Griffin., I never try anything on the first date. Especially with a delightful mare like Lily." I beamed at him.

"If you do try anything, you will die." When Rose spoke from behind me, I jumped out of my seat and into Lucky Break's arms.

"Rose! What have I told you about sneaking up on me! Er, sorry, Lucky." I blushed and clambered off of him and back onto my seat, hoping he wouldn't be offended by her threat. He was nice, cute, and had let me play with the slot machines! "Like I said, she's protective."

He smiled at me, "Quite alright, Lily. And you must be Rose, her sister. I'm Lucky Break." Lucky smiled at Rose and extended his hoof to her. "Pleased to meet you." She stared at it, her ear twitching slightly.

SHIT! I grabbed his hoof and pulled it away from my sister. "She doesn't like being touched, and I like you better in one piece."

"Oh, my... Is she really so dangerous? Such a sweet looking girl, too." He looked a little nervous, and his smile faltered for a moment. "Well, I don't want to offend anypony. May I buy you a drink, Rose?"

She blinked her blue-gray eyes at him, then turned to Ibis. "How much did Lily lose?"

"Rose, don't ignore Lucky!" I protested, but she ignored me, too, so I turned to Lucky, looking a little ashamed. "Sorry, she doesn't like strangers much. Especially bucks."

"Quite alright. To each their own. If your sister dislikes me so much, then perhaps I should go. It is getting late, after all." He smiled at me and got off his seat, but I grabbed his shoulder.

"Just ignore them." I waved my hoof at Ibis and Rose, who were sharing a bottle of whiskey (for the first time ever) and talking about my terrible luck. "I want you to stay, at least until you can walk me home." I blushed a little, smiling at him.

He smiled back. "Very well."

---------------------------------------------------------------

Talk about a gentlebuck. He didn't even try for a goodnight kiss! I gave him one anyway; I really liked him, no matter what Rose or Ibis said.

Come to think of it, I hadn't seen Rose in a while. When we reached our rooms, she dumped her latest bag of caps (they kept getting bigger!) on our bed and went into Ibis' room, saying she had to talk to him about something. I'd occupied myself by counting caps and wondering if I'd see Lucky again, but she really had been gone for a long time...

Gradually, I realized there was a constant thudding coming from the next room, Ibis' room. Every few seconds, another thump, like something banging against wood. If it had been anypony else, I'd almost have said... Nah, couldn't be... Could it?

I left behind my- Rose's horde of caps and got up, walking to the dividing wall and pressing my ear to it. Yep, that was definitely thudding. And... Ibis groaning? Oh, Luna tie me down and shove her hoof up me, I think they were! Rose and Ibis were having sex!

"Slow down, Rose. You're starting to hurt me!"

"Don't be a baby. I'm almost there, so hold out a little longer."

"Dammit, slow down! It's starting to cramp!"

"Maybe if it was bigger, you wouldn't be having so much trouble."

"That's not fair, and you know it!"

I sat back, reeling. They were seriously having honest-to-Celestia actual sex! And Ibis was bad at it, from the sound of things. My little sister was with a guy! I never thought she'd do that... Especially with Ibis, of all people! And I'd never dreamed she'd have sex before me!

I left my room and stood at Ibis' door, hesitating to open it. What was I thinking, there had to be some kind of innocent explanation. They couldn't possibly be doing it... I could hear their voices through the door.

"Happy now? Argh... It hurts..."

"It's just a little swelling. Want me to kiss it better?"

"You'll just bite it, I know what you're like."

"Fine. I'm going to lay down this time, so it's easier for you."

"What, you want to go again?"

"Of course. Here, I'll lay on my back, and give you a head start."

"You're going down, Rose."

"No, you are. And after, you can help dry me off. I'm working up a sweat... So are you, from the look of it."

"I wouldn't be, if you'd take it easy on my bloody-"

"What in the name of Luna's shiny pink moon-pebble is going on in here?!" I burst into the room, glaring at them. Rose was on her back on a table, an empty whiskey bottle beside her, laying with her lower half hanging off of it, her body soaked with sweat... Ibis was standing near her head, leaning towards her, just as sweaty... He had his elbow braced on the table, with Rose's hoof clutched in his claw, and they were both groaning, straining... Oh, sweet mother of Celestia... My face started burning as I stared at them, realizing what they were doing.

"Lily, what's wrong?" Rose blinked at me, before slamming Ibis' talon against the table, making the thump I'd heard before. "Did something happen?"

"I.. er... It's nothing... Are you... Hoofwrestling?"

Ibis nodded, frowning as Rose slammed his talon down again. "Rose wanted to see who could reach 100 wins first. My damn arm is killing me, she's relentless!"

"Oh, erm... I... I see..." I think my face had turned the color of Rose's mane.

"Why, did you need something? And why the hell are you blushing?" he risked a glance at me; Rose pinned his (rather swollen) arm again. "OW! Slow down!"

"I... heard you from my room and it sounded like you were..."

"Sounded like we were what?" He groaned, putting everything he had into pinning Rose's hoof. It didn't help. THUMP!

"Nothing, really!" I laughed just a little too shrilly. Ibis stared at me for a moment.

"Lily, what is going on in that tiny little brain of yours?" THUD! "Dammit! Not so hard! I just wanna know what Lily thought we were doing!"

Rose sat up (giving Ibis a chance to rub his wrist) and blinked at me. "What did you think we were doing?"

"Oh... Nothing, really..."

"Spill it, Lily. It couldn't have been something, not with the way you burst in here." Ibis crossed the room to grab a towel from his bag, drying himself off. Rose glared at him; I recognised the look, it meant she wanted to be dried first.

"Well, you see... I heard thumping... and then groaning... and some of the stuff you said... so..."

They stared at me. "So what?" "What would we be doing besides hoofwrestling?"

I blushed and spat it out. "I thought you were having sex, okay?!"

First they snickered. Then they chuckled. Then they were on the floor, clutching their guts, laughing like crazy.

"Why... Why the fuck would you think we were... gahahah! having sex?!"

"My big sister... ahahaha! is a perv!"

My face was burning. "That's what it sounded like, alright!"

Ibis managed to sit up, gasping; Rose had started hiccuping. "Lily, you are so... adorably dense... sometimes."

"Oh, fuck off Ibis. And why the hell are you all sweaty, anyway? Hoofwrestling isn't that intense!"

He was trying to breathe normally, still chuckling. "It is when... Rose wants to go all out... She's as strong... as a griffin...!"

"Stronger! HIC! You lost HIC every HIC time! HIC! And Lily HIC! thought we were HIC!" She burst out laughing again.

"Fuck you two! Rose, you can stay in here tonight if you keep laughing at me. I'm serious!" Fuming, I stormed out, slamming the door closed behind me with my magic and leaving the pair laughing at me, went into my room and slammed that door too. Just for good measure.

---------------------------------------------------------------

I sighed, looking at the nightstand by my bed. My pipbuck was sitting there, since it made a good clock. Just past midnight... I rolled over, stretching in the empty bed and thinking. Rose had stayed with Ibis after all... Maybe I shouldn't have said she couldn't sleep with me tonight... Rose did everything I told her, just like a real little sister; never questioned anything I said, always being a good little pony... All she did was laugh at me, and in hindsight, it was pretty funny... They'd downed at least two bottles of whiskey together that night, so I guess they'd been a little drunk, too...

It had been years since I'd slept alone, and now... I couldn't. I missed Rose's familiar warmth, her smell, the sound of her breathing. The bed seemed huge and empty, and I felt so lonely...

Quietly, I slipped into the hall. It couldn't hurt to see if she was still awake... After all, she wouldn't sleep at all unless I was with her... I poked my head into Ibis' room; The light was still on, so it was easy to spot them. They were lying on the bed, Ibis on his back, a little drool dripping from his beak onto the pillows, and Rose... She was curled up into a ball on his chest, sound asleep. If it hadn't been for the slight movement of her chest, you'd have thought she was a stuffed toy.


Sighing, I closed the door and went back to my bed. Guess she was fine where she was... Somehow, that made me feel even worse...

-------------------------------------------------------

Blue-grey eyes were opened, just the tiniest sliver, but it was enough to watch a cream mare look into the room. She was lonely, upset... When she closed the door, the white pony with the blood red mane curled into a smaller, tighter ball, even lonelier than the mare she'd been watching. A normal filly would have cried, but Whiskey Rose didn't. Lily had told her to stay here tonight, and good ponies did what they were told. No matter how much it hurt her, Whiskey Rose would always try to be a good pony, especially for her big sister.

-------------------------------------------------------

Morning... I'd been tossing and turning all night, trying to get comfortable, but the bed was just too... empty. I made up my mind, then and there, to apologise to Rose. First, I'd take her breakfast, then-

Someone knocked on my door. "Lily? Can I come in?" It was Rose.

"Sure."

She pushed the door open and came in, her head low, horn glowing white as she floated... was that a cheese sandwich? "Lily, I'm sorry for laughing at you last night." She went to jump onto the bed next to me, but hesitated, not looking me in the eye. "It wasn't funny, I know that now." The sandwich floated over to me. "Here, I made this for you. I know how much you like daisies, but they didn't have any." She turned to leave. "I'll be with Ibis if you need me..."

"Rose, stop!" I thumped my hoof on the bed and she stopped. "Come here, right now. No, come here come here." Obediently, she climbed onto the bed, sitting next to me, but keeping her head low, not looking at my face. I was feeling really guilty now. "Rose, look at me." She didn't, so I grabbed her head in my hooves and lifted it so I could look into her eyes. "You didn't do anything wrong, okay? I'm sorry for yelling at you. I was... I was just upset, because I'd... I'd made myself look like an idiot, and I took it out on you." I hugged her. "Forgive me?"

"You didn't do anything bad, Lily. You're a good pony." Rose wrapped her hooves around me, nuzzling my neck. "There's nothing to forgive you for."

"Alright, but from now on, you're sleeping with me every night, okay?"

"Okay."

I kissed her horn and smiled. "Now, help me eat this sandwich! After that, we'll go shopping! How does that sound?"

She smiled a little and nodded.

We shared the sandwich and went next door to get Ibis. I was expecting him to be tied up or unconcious or something, but he was sitting at the (slightly scuffed) table, sharpening his new knife; I stared at him, then poked Rose's shoulder. "Why didn't you beat him up or something?"

She shrugged. "He was comfortable to lay on, and he didn't try anything." I stared at Ibis again.

"You behaved? You? Rose, I'm not sure that's really Ibis. It can't be! Not if he didn't try anything with you!"

She shrugged and Ibis stuck his knife in it's sheath on his belt. "Why would I try anything? We were just sleeping together, after all." He smiled at Rose, who snorted in response and walked out of the room, pulling the door closed behind her with her magic. The griffin came over to me and whispered: "It didn't feel right, trying anything when she was like that. Poor thing, she was heartbroken when you said she had to stay in here... Does she always whimper in her sleep like that?"

"She was whimpering?"

"Like a little filly."

"No, she's never done that before..."

"You really crushed her last night, Lily." He looked at the door sadly. "I hugged her when we went to bed, and she only bit me a little."

"Don't worry, I'm never going to make her sleep apart from me again. I couldn't sleep last night; Being alone is... horrible..." I was trying not to cry...

Ibis wiped a tear from my face and messed up my mane. "As long as you understand, Lily. Without you, she... she's just not the Whiskey Rose I fell in love with."

"You really love her?" I stared at him, stunned, and he grinned.

"Almost as much as you do, I bet. Species be damned, Rose is my kind of girl. Strong, smart, loyal, and that body! Mmm! I could eat her right up!"

"You really are a fucking pervert, aren't you?"

"Maybe, but that doesn't change how I feel. Let's go, before my little marefriend gets impatient." We both laughed and went into the hall; Rose was sitting on the floor and playing with a spider, letting it run around on her hoof. Ick.



About half an hour later, the three of us were walking through the market, hunting the stalls for anything interesting or useful. Rose was on one side of Ibis, I was on the other; She'd kept that damn spider and it was sitting on her muzzle like a pet! UGH! No way was I getting close to that thing!

"It's kinda cute, sitting on her face like that." Ibis nudged me with his elbow, smirking. "Don't you think so?"

"No, I don't fucking think so!" I shuddered and Rose blinked at me. The spider was sitting on the end of her nose now. "Bugs are creepy! Rose, don't you dare come near me with that-" I screamed and jumped onto Ibis' back when she took a step towards me, grinning. "Get rid of it!"

"Ow, watch your hooves Lily! You heard her, Rose. Get rid of it before she tears my wing off!" I was clutching his wing, hiding behind the feathery appendage. I really, really didn't like bugs. Still don't. Rose sighed and lowered her head, letting the horrible thing run off to torment somepony else. UGH!

"There. Now can you get off me? You weigh a ton! OW!" I smacked him on the head and jumped down.

"I hate bugs." I shuddered and trotted to the nearest stall that looked interesting; some pre-war jewelry. Mostly beaded necklaces and things, nothing really valuable, but it helped distract me from thinking about horrible, multi-legged things... "EEK!" I squeaked when I felt something go up my back, turning slowly, my face full of fear... Rose and Ibis were laughing again. "What did you just put on me?" I was still shaking, dreading the answer.

Rose leaned close, opened her mouth... and blew on my neck, making it feel like something was on me. I shuddered and glared at her. "Not funny, Rose." She stopped and backed off, her smile dying instantly.

"Sorry, Lily..."

I sighed and put my hoof around her shoulders. "It's okay, just don't do it again." I nuzzled her cheek, she was really sensitive today. "Tonight, you can make it up to me, okay?"

"I'll do anything you want!" She brightened up a little.

"Anything, hmmm?" I let her go and tapped my chin, thinking... "Ibis, what's with that look?" I could tell the griffin was thinking something dirty.

"Do you really want to know?" Oh, that grin was just evil! "Cause it could be fun for all of us!"

"Rose, kick him." She did, and the griffin fell over, clutching his stomach. I sighed. "Rose, you aimed too high."

She shrugged. "You never said where I should kick him."

"He was probably gonna suggest something really dirty, you should have aimed lower!"

"I... was gonna... say that... we could... have a.... kissing... competition..." Ibis struggled to his feet, winded. Rose stared at him, probably deciding if she should kick him again or not.

"You're a bad kisser. We already know that." Nope, she just went for his pride instead.

He caught his breath before responding. "Oh, fuck you, Rose. I bet you wouldn't turn down Lily!" He pointed at me.

"And I bet Lily would be a better kisser than you." Huh? How did I get dragged into this?!

"Rose, I-" I started to speak, but Ibis cut me off.

"And what about you? Have you ever kissed anyone?" The griffin glared at Rose. "How do you even know what a real kiss feels like, anyway? Always having your head stuck in those books or down your rifle scope, you wouldn't know a good kiss if it bit you!" Rose growled and jumped on him, pinning him to the ground with a heavy thud; I expected her to beat him black and blue, but what happened next made my jaw drop.

Rose, my male-hating sister, kissed Ibis. On the mouth. And what a kiss! I think there was some tongue! After a minute she pulled her head back and opened her eyes, smirking triumphantly at her victim. "Competition over. I win." She got off him and stood next to me. "Lily, your mouth is open." I shut my mouth as Ibis opened his eyes and sat up, dazed.

"Where the hell did you learn that?"

"Romance novels. Your heart is pounding, every part of you is tingling, and your head is all messy-uppy. That's what a real kiss is meant to do to you." Was messy-uppy even a word? I was having trouble thinking straight, still in shock from what just happened.

"Okay, that was a real kiss... Did you enjoy it too?" He smiled at her; he still looked kinda dizzy, though.

"Nope." Rose shrugged, a bored expression plain on her face. "And I want to wash my mouth out. You have bad breath." She turned to examine a stall, and I saw a small smile creep across her lips. She was also blushing a little.

Ibis got to his feet and scowled at her; she was facing away from him, so he couldn't see what I did. "You're a brat, Rose. A complete and total brat."

"That's why you love me." She swished her tail at him, not bothering to turn around... Not wanting to turn around, more like! I waved my hoof at Ibis to get his attention; Point at Rose, kissing motion, point at Ibis, back at Rose, and poke my tongue out at the griffin with a huge smile... A look of understanding crossed his features and he smiled, getting what I was trying to say. Rose had enjoyed the kiss too, and now she was teasing him.

"Well, next time, how about I kiss you?" He stood beside her, casually putting one arm over her shoulders. "I'll give you such a great kiss that your tail will curl." He ran his talon up her back, teasing her. She couldn't hold back the shiver his claw gave her, and there was no way to hide her blush.

"Let me go, or I tear you in half." Rose twisted her neck to glare at him, her cheeks bright red. "You have five seconds. Four. Three. Two-"

Ibis let go and stepped back, claws in the air and laughing. "Okay, no need to get violent. I'll buy you something nice if you don't hurt me, how does that sound?"

My sister glared at him silently for moment... "Gum. I want bubble gum." When he agreed, she turned to me, still glaring, and I winced. "You told him, didn't you?"

"Maybe." I gave a nervous chuckle.

"I didn't want him to know."

"Um, sorry?"

She stopped glaring at me and nuzzled my neck. "I wanted to tease him, that's all." I hugged her, smiling; My little sister was starting to grow up. "Now I have to find another way to play with him." Uh oh...

---------------------------------------------------------------

Lucky Break stared at Ibis, who was sitting at the bar with most of his head covered in sticky pink goop and all of his feathers messed up, trying to get over the most traumatic experience of his life with a bottle of Wild Pegasus. Rose was sitting next to him, well away from Lucky, and kept trying to steal the bottle. Ibis had his claws wrapped tightly around it, though, and even Rose couldn't pry them off. "What-"

"You don't want to know. Believe me." I cut him off. "Rose was bored, that's all you need to know."

"Rose did that?"

I nodded.

"How?"

"Like I said, you don't want to know."

"Right... But-"

"I said, you don't want to know. How about teaching me how to play cards instead?" I gave Lucky my biggest smile, trying to distract him from my messy friend. If I hadn't told Ibis that Rose enjoyed their kiss, she wouldn't have done... What she did. Ibis and I would have nightmares about it for the rest of our vacation. Bursting a huge bubble on his face had been the least of it. To this day, I still don't know where she found a baby radscorpion or how she spring-loaded it into a jewelry box, let alone how she convinced a brahmin that Ibis was an ideal mate.

I don't blame you for not believing me. It's almost as unbelievable as how Rose got her name. All that was missing was a flamethrower, a crate full of whiskey and a hellhound!

...

Let's never speak of this again.


Lucky sighed. "Very well, Lily, if you insist." He offered me his hoof and I took it; Never turn down a gentlebuck when he's being polite! Especially when he's cute, and willing to let you spend his money!

Long story short? We wound up at the slot machines. Lucky refused to let me near a card table ever again.

"I've seen bad luck before, Lily, but there's no way you should be this unlucky. It's almost like some great, cosmic thing has it out for you." Lucky was shaking his head in disbelief.

"Well, I can't be smart, beautiful and lucky, now can I?" I stuck my tongue out at him, and he chuckled.

"I suppose your horrendous luck almost makes up for your many good qualities."

"Oh, tell me more!" I laughed, blushing. "What about me do you like the most?"

"As you said, you are smart, and beautiful. Your spirit knows no bounds, and your laughter is quite infectious."

"Aww, you're just saying that." I looked away, smiling.

"Now, would I tell a lie to the finest mare I've met?"

"I don't know, would you?"

Lucky laughed and put his hoof under my chin, turning my head so we were looking into each other's eyes. I felt my face burning. "I would never lie to you, Lily." He leaned close and I got ready to kiss him, but he stopped just shy of my lips, his voice low as he whispered. "You have wonderful eyes... Like the most precious of emeralds..."

When he pulled back, I groaned. What would it take for him to get a clue?! I wanted to make out, he must have wanted to make out, so what was the problem?!

---------------------------------------------------------------

"What do you think of Lucky, Rose?" The two of us were walking home together (Ibis was flying around above us, following from the air); Lucky had stayed at the casino, trying to win back the money I'd lost at cards. Not that I felt bad about it, I knew he'd make it back quickly. Besides, he was the one encouraging me to gamble!

"I don't like him." Rose shook her head, tossing her mane out of her eyes.

"I knew that! What I meant was, is he genuine or not?" I frowned at her, and she just blinked at me. That was her response to everything! Blinkity-fucking-blink-blink! "Well? Out with it, little miss empath!"

"He genuinely likes you, Lily. Unlike the last buck you were involved with."

Oh, right... The one that got me drunk, and was almost killed by Rose when he tried to take advantage of me...

"Don't worry, Rose. I've got you to protect me!" I grinned and gave her a big hug as we reached our hotel. "C'mon, let's go to our room. I'll wash your mane, and then we can curl up in bed and read together!"

Quit looking at me like that. I can read just fine, I'll have you know! Stop laughing or I'll have Rose throw you out! That's better.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Waddya mean we're not allowed to gamble here any more?!" I stomped my hoof, frustrated at the casino manager. "Just cause Rose keeps winning is no reason to throw us out!"

"You're not being thrown out, you just can't gamble. Your friend is just a little too lucky and our other High Rollers are starting to complain. I'm sorry, but you can still enjoy refreshments from the bar."

It was our last week in town before my parents returned and we'd just been told Rose was too good at poker, so she wasn't allowed to play any more. Sure, we had two big bags full of caps that she'd won back in our room, but that's still not a good reason to ban us! Stupid casino...

Grumbling, I led our group to a bar Rose had mentioned seeing while we were shopping. If we couldn't gamble, then the casino wouldn't get any of our caps at all! Jerks. Still, Lucky Break was tagging along with us, so that was something. We'd gotten pretty close over the last month, and he was by my side most days. We only split up late at night, since Rose had started getting grumpy when she was tired. You don't wanna see Rose grumpy. Think of a small, white, sarcastic hellhound.


I focused on my beer, holding it steady with the green glow of my magic. Golden Harp, huh? Not bad. Another sip just to make sure... Yeah, not bad at all. Lucky was trying to make friends with Rose and failing. As usual. She was sitting at the next table over with Ibis, and the pair of them were sharing a bottle of whiskey; It had become something of a ritual between them. If Lucky was nearby, they'd stay close enough to keep an eye on us, but just drink and talk quietly, ignoring any attempt me or Lucky made to get their attention.

It was a little insulting, but I had an attractive stallion to talk to, one who not only liked me, but wasn't just trying to get under my tail! At least, that's what Rose said, and she never lies to me!

Although... I wouldn't have minded if he tried to go further than just kissing. He was a great kisser and all, but I wanted more! No, it wasn't just because I was drunk! We'd been spending more and more time together all month, and he still hadn't tried to put the moves on me! And I hadn't really... 'taken care of business'... since I found out Rose could feel it when I was... Like I said, taking care of business, so I kinda needed to have my itch scratched.

"You ever have that happen?"

"Have what happen?" Lucky turned to me, giving up on talking to Rose. She could be so stubborn!

"Get kicked out of a casino! Can you believe the nerve of them?!" I banged my beer on the table. Golden Harp... Why did it make me think of sweets?

"Well, no..." He admitted. "But then, I've never won such a large amount of money. Rose is quite talented, for being so young."

"No shit. She's only been playing for about a couple of months, too!"

His eyes widened. "You'd think she was born to play; In fact, I'm surprised her cutie mark isn't a pair of cards! I've never seen a unicorn so skilled at reading her opponents in my life!"

"Yeah, well... Rose's special like that." I never did tell him about the empath thing... Meh. Didn't matter. Rose didn't want anything to do with him, and I wanted him all to myself.

"I see... Speaking of cutie marks, how did she get hers? It's quite... Unusual."

"You don't wanna know."

"Another of your long and complicated stories, my dear?"

I blushed. He'd just called me 'My Dear'!. "Nope. I just don't think I should tell it, when it's Rose's story. Try asking her."

Lucky looked over at Rose; she'd gotten the empty whiskey bottle stuck on her horn and Ibis was trying to get it off for her. She didn't seem too bothered by it, though. "I'd rather not. Your sister seems... Less than fond of me."

I snorted and motioned for him to lean close. "Wanna know a secret?" As soon as his face was close enough, I grabbed him and gave him a big, drunken kiss. Slowly, we pulled apart. "I like you enough for both of us." I grinned at him; maybe I shouldn't have been drinking so much, but who cares? He smiled back.

"I have a secret too, my dear Lily." We leaned close to each other again. "I like you a lot, as well." This time, the kiss was mutual.

When we seperated this time, I volunteered to get us some more beers, leaving Lucky at our table, giving him a good show and swaying my hips as I approached the bar. I glanced at Rose and Ibis on the way; my sister was chugging back an entire bottle of Wild Pegasus in one go, with Ibis staring at her in awe... or was it horror? She still had the bottle on her horn, too.

It was getting late when I stumbled out of the bar, hanging onto Lucky. We were both beyond drunk, stumbling and singing as we headed for my hotel, trading kisses and laughing when we missed. As we'd left the bar, I'd called out to Rose and Ibis, telling them not to stay out too late.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Ugh... Talk about hangovers... Even with my eyes closed, I could tell it was daylight, so I reached out, finding something warm and fuzzy to bury my face in... I breathed deeply, hoping Rose's familiar smell would help me feel better...

It didn't smell like Rose.

I forced myself to sit up and open my eyes... Ow... My head hurt was pounding... And why was I sore between my hind legs? Oh, no.... I focused on the sleeping form next to me; It was Lucky Break.

What the hell had happened last night?

The last thing I remember was pushing Lucky onto the bed, giggling, and then... Fuck. I lifted the blanket a little and looked down. There was a spot of blood... That explained why I was so sore... And why Lucky was unsheathed... It was pretty impressive, now that I got a good look at it... Hesitantly, I shook Lucky to try and wake him up. No, not like that. I put my hoof on his shoulder and shook him, you pervert.

He yawned and slowly sat up, smiling at me. "Good morning, Lily." He kissed me and I melted, pressing against him for a second before my brain kicked in and I pulled back.

"Lucky, last night... Did we?" I was a little afraid of his answer.

"Have sex? Of course. You said that since you wouldn't be in town for much longer, you wanted to make our last week memorable. I didn't want to take advantage of you, but you were quite insistant. Why? Is something wrong?" He gazed at me, concerned, and I smiled a little.

"No, nothing." I kissed him, happy he was worried about me; I knew he cared about me, and I was glad he'd been the one to make me a real mare. "I'm just a little sore, that's all."

"I was as gentle as I could be, Lily." He wrapped his forelegs around me. "When you said you loved me last night, I was overjoyed. You are a wonderful mare, and do you remember what I said when you asked me to be your special somepony?"

Blushing, I shook my head. "It's... kinda a blur." A drunken, sex-filled blur, but still a blur.

"Oh." Lucky seemed disappointed. "Well, I said it would be a dream come true, and I meant it." We kissed again.

"Hehe... You really said that?" He nodded, smiling. "It would be nice... Having a proper relationship... you would wait for me, right? Cause you know I travel a lot..."

"I'd wait for you forever, Lily. And maybe I could come with you; I've always wanted to travel."

"We'll see about that." More happy kissing. "I'll talk to Rose about-" Fuck... "Lucky, where's Rose?"

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I ran as fast as I could, Lucky just behind me. Ibis' room was empty; neither of my friends had slept there last night, so I was heading for the bar we'd been at last night. They had to be there, they just had to be! I burst in and ran up to the bartender. "Have you seen my sister? Unicorn, white coat, red mane, she was with a griffin?!" I managed to get the words out, panting like I'd just run clean across a town... Which I had!

"They left just after you! Your sister took off and the griffin followed her; looked like they were heading to the edge of town."

"THANKS!" I yelled over my shoulder and took off again; Lucky had collapsed, panting, but I couldn't stop to see if he was okay; Rose was missing and maybe hurt!

The whole time I ran, visions of her laying in some ditch, scared and alone, kept flashing through my head. I tried to banish them from my mind, but they were replaced by even worse thoughts. Rose being captured by raiders, or running into a hellhound, or even worse fates... Oh, please let her be alright! Celestia, Luna, I'm sorry for everything I've ever done or said, but please let my little sister be alright!

Eventually, I saw a grey shape lying near some rocks, about a minute out of town, and sprinted over to it. It was Ibis, and he had Rose under his wing...

"No... nononononono..." I moaned, they were both bloody and battered, a bloodstained and broken bottle laying in the dirt nearby... I forced myself to get closer... Thank Celestia, they were still breathing... With one hoof I lifted Ibis' wing to get a better look at Rose... Her eyes snapped open and focused on me.

They were almost fully grey, barely any blue left at all, staring at me without blinking, full of pain, loathing and disgust.

"Rose... Are you-"

She snarled and leapt away from me, staggering a little. It was like looking at a wild animal, her coat covered in streaks of dirt and dried blood.

"Rose, what's wrong? Talk to me!" I pleaded, stepping towards her, my heart breaking. The closer I got, the further away she leapt. Ibis stirred, letting out a pained groan.

"Lily, what the fuck are you doing here?"

"Ibis, what happened? What's wrong with Rose?!"

"You had sex with Lucky, didn't you?!" The griffin glared at me.

"I-"

Ibis slapped me across the face. Hard.

"Rose fucking felt everything!" He screamed at me. "You know how she is, what you mean to her, and you still fucked that bastard!"

Rose snarled at me again, the look in her eyes so intense it scared me; She was looking at me like I'd betrayed her, and I suddenly realised that I had! I started sobbing and tried to run to her, desperate to hold her and beg for her forgiveness.

I never had a hope of reaching her. The moment I moved, so did she, moving faster than her battered body should have been able to, fleeing from the town... and me. I sat down heavily, staring after her. "Rose... I..."

Ibis slapped me again and I fell over, limp, just watching that white shape fade into the distance. "You fucking idiot, Lily. Stay here, I'll take care of Rose." He gave me one last disgusted, disappointed look and took to the air, flying after my little sister... I hoped he could catch up to her before something happened...


I was still laying there when Lucky caught up; he was breathing heavily, but I didn't care, didn't even look at him, just stared into the distance.

"Lily... Are you okay? Did you find Rose?" He gently lifted me up; I flopped like a ragdoll in his grasp, all the life drained out of me. "Lily?" Why did he sound so upset? It's not like he'd just betrayed the most important pony in his life, ripped out her heart and stomped on it...

"Lily, talk to me. What happened?" Gently, he stroked my mane, holding me close.

"I... I... Rose, she..." I broke down, sobbing, and buried my face in his chest, telling him everything. About Rose, about her cutie mark, her parents, how she needed me... and how I needed Her.


FOOTNOTE: LEVEL UP

Companion Lost: Whiskey Rose
Companion Lost: Ibis

Ugh... This chapter was fun to write at first, but that last part... Thanks to KKat for creating Fallout Equestria, and to Winter Storm for all the tips and help!

Chapter 7: All In

View Online

---CHAPTER 7: All In---
"Lady, you're trouble. "

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A white smudge was visible against the grey-brown land, moving like a bat out of hell. I flapped harder, trying to get some height before it vanished, knowing full well that if I lost sight of it, I'd never see it again.

Why? Why the fuck would Lily do something like that? My lungs burned in my chest, muscles screaming as I flew, my grey wings barely keeping me aloft. Couldn't she see how Rose felt? How important she was to her little sister? To throw all that away so carelessly... I hated Lily for what she did...

If she hadn't met Lucky Break, none of this would have happened.

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It had started out well enough, just our usual visit to the casino. Rose had gone to her favorite poker table straight away, since the management kept a seat open for her. She'd become a little infamous since we first showed up; I'd heard more than a few ponies talking about the Mistress of The Cards, and how she was almost unbeatable. Some of the rumors were actually pretty funny, too. Like how she was actually the Goddess Luna in disguise, since she only came to the casino after dark.

Seriously, why do ponies believe in that crap? Some magical princesses die in the war, and every pony in the wasteland starts calling them Goddesses and praying to them? Prey species are wierd, and ponies are no exception.

Since Rose was occupied with her nightly fun and games, I was stuck making sure Lily didn't blow all her caps on the slot machines. Didn't bother me too much, though. Rose had asked me to look after her big sister, and anything that got me in that little white mare's good books was fine by me, so if that meant buying Lily drinks all night, then so be it.

Then Lucky Break showed up. Should've torn his fucking throat out then and there, saved us all this bullshit. Him and Lily hit it off right away; chatting, laughing, buying each other drinks. When that bastard offered to let Lily gamble his money away, she was all over him. You'd swear she was in heat, the way she was acting! Fucking idiot.

When Rose finished playing and sat next to me at the bar, I could tell something was up. Rose NEVER sat near me when she could be with her sister instead.

It wasn't until we got back to the hotel that I had any idea just how bad it was. And if I'd known how bad it would get... I'm not sure what I would have done, but it would have involved Lucky Break, that's for sure.


I'd been sitting at the table in my room, sharpening my new knife; a pre-war griffin blade, nice and heavy, the way knives are meant to be, when Rose shoved the door open without knocking and came in carrying a bottle of whiskey with her magic, kicking the door closed behind her. We'd shared a couple bottles at the casino, but I guess she wanted to drink some more. She loved the burn.

"Where're your manners, Rose? I coulda been naked!" I smirked at her as she came over to me.

"You're always naked. Just like me." She jumped onto the table and sat in front of me, just staring at me. Nothing unusual there, Rose always stared. It's one of those things she just did, without even thinking about it. The little twitch of her ear, though... That was a sure sign something was bugging her.

Still, I wouldn't let her comment go. "Oh, so we're naked together, in my room, and all alone, huh?" I stuck my knife back into it's sheath and grinned at her. "You're being awfully forward tonight, aren't you?" She blinked at me and started tapping her hoof on the table.

"Shut up." There wasn't any anger in her words; there never was. But she didn't stop tapping, and I was sure I knew what was wrong.

"You didn't like Lucky Break, did you?" Bingo. Her little hoof smashed into the table hard enough to leave a dent, then she started tapping again.

"No."

"Is it cause of your... feeling thing?"

"Yes. No. Kind of."

"Well? What is it?" I started tapping my claw in time with her hoof; she stopped her tapping and glared at me. I stopped as well, raising my claws in mock surrender.

"I don't like him. He likes Lily."

"So? Just tell her you don't like him, she'll understand."

"She likes him, too. They like each other." She started tapping again.

"Oh... Well, you should still talk to her, let her know how you feel."

"No. Lily deserves to be happy, and Lucky Break makes her happy." Taptaptaptap. It was getting faster.

"That doesn't mean you have to keep quiet, you know." I tried to grab her hoof because the tapping was getting annoying. She just pinned my talon to the table with it. Her hooves may have been tiny compared to my claws, but she was strong, and I had trouble getting free.

"If I say anything, she won't be happy anymore."

"It's not that simple, Rose. And get off my claw!" She lifted her hoof so I could pull away, and started tapping again.

"It is that simple. Lily should be happy, no matter what." I swear she was doing it on purpose now. "Don't tell her, Ibis. I mean it. Promise!" She stopped tapping and lifted her hoof to point at my face.

"I promise..." That's when I took the chance to grab her foreleg. "Gotcha-OW!" She slammed the back of my claw against the table.

"I win."

"What was that for?!"

"I'm bored. Let's hoofwrestle."

"I thought you wanted to talk!"

"Now I want to hoofwrestle."

"You're insane, you know that?" She nodded, and what followed was the longest, most enjoyable arm wrestling session I'd ever had. At the start we were evenly matched, since both of us were going all-out, and it didn't take long before we were sweating from the exertion. Don't ask me how a little unicorn could be as strong as a griffin! Rose had never been a normal pony, after all.

Then Lily came in; Apparently, she'd heard me and Rose and thought we'd been having sex! I guess it might have sounded like that through the wall or whatever... But it was still pretty fucking funny! Funnier still because we'd finished the whiskey in record time, and had one hell of a buzz going. Rose had... well, roses on her cheeks! Oh, gods... I just remembered how she got her name! If even half of that story was true, then I'm glad I wasn't around for it... Anyway...

Lily yelled at Rose, told her to stay with me if she couldn't stop laughing, and stormed out. After a minute, Rose's laughter turned into little sobs and she curled up against me. "Lily's... mad... at me..."

"Shh..." I picked her up and put her on the bed, laying next to her and stroking her mane. "She's just mad cause we laughed at her, don't worry. It'll be okay in the morning, you'll see." I hugged her, enveloping my little mare in my arms and wings. I could feel my heart breaking, seeing my precious flower so upset.

Slowly, her sobs stopped, and her body grew still. When I felt a hot pressure on my arm, I smiled and pulled away a little, looking down at her; Rose had my arm in her teeth, but there wasn't any force behind the bite. She was just holding on, more out of habit than anything else.

"I'll hug you more if you keep that up." She bit harder, but it was still pretty weak, her way of asking to be held. And hold her I did. I caressed that pretty little head of hers until her eyes closed and her breathing got nice and deep, then went to sleep myself. After all that booze, and getting worn out by the arm wrestling, I was really tired. Having my darling Whiskey Rose pressed against me made all my dreams that night into happy ones, though, so it was the best night I'd had in a long time.

A couple of times through the night, I woke up to her whimpering in her sleep, and stroked her mane until she calmed down. I think Lily looked in on us at one point, but she didn't say anything, just closed the door and went back to her room.


Rose and Lily made up in the morning. I kinda hoped they'd kissed and made up, to be honest. I loved Rose, but Lily was still cute. Naive and innocent, sure, but cute. Actually, that morning was the first time I'd admitted out loud that I loved the little red-headed mare. Lily seemed happy about it, too. I was just glad Rose hadn't heard; I wasn't sure how she'd react.

Then again, maybe she had heard me say it. It's the only reason I can think of for how she settled our argument about kissing in the marketplace. Until Lily had signed to me that Rose had enjoyed it (I had a little trouble figuring out what she was trying to say at first. She should learn proper sign language or something) I'd thought she was just teasing me again. When I realized she'd enjoyed the kiss too, well...

Even with everything Rose did to me after, the scorpion in the box, the horny brahmin and the other stuff... Even with all of it, that one kiss was more than worth it. Still can't believe she learned how to do that from romance novels! That mare could kiss better than any girl I'd ever met!

...
Wait a second... Rose learned how to kiss from books...
That means I was her first kiss!


Over the next couple of weeks, Lily and Lucky got closer and closer, while Rose started spending more and more time with me. I'd thought about telling Lily what Rose had said, but she'd made me promise not to say anything. You don't break a promise with Rose. Ever. I'd heard stories about a crazy pink pony from before the war, and what she'd do if someone broke a promise with her; It'd been tame compared to what Rose might have done to me. It wasn't just fear that made me keep the promise, though. I knew she wouldn't forgive me if I broke it, and that was more than enough to ensure I wouldn't say anything.

Everything came to a head last night, though. The four of us had been at the bar, since Rose wasn't allowed to gamble at the casino anymore. Apparently, some of the 'High Rollers' were also really influential, since they're the ones that got Rose barred. Upclass fucktards just couldn't take losing to my flower so often.

I'd been sitting with Rose all night; We'd had a small drinking contest going on and kept up our usual bullshit. I'd flirt, she'd insult me, we'd both get drunk and she tried to ignore Lucky Break. Not easy, when he was making out with Lily at the next table. It was making me sick just watching, and I could tell Rose was hating every second they spent touching each other.

Next thing I knew, Rose had gotten an empty whiskey bottle jammed on her horn, and I'm not kidding when I say jammed. The damn thing didn't want to come off!

If you think that's impressive, she grabbed our last bottle of Wild Pegasus in her mouth, threw her head back and downed the lot in one go! Rose could drink, all right... Looking back, I realise why she did it, though. Lily and Lucky had just had a major make-out session, and since Rose experienced everything her sister did... Well... She must've been trying to get the feeling of that slimebag Lucky Break's tongue out of her mouth.


Know what? Fuck him. Next time I see that stallion, he's fucking dead. Anyone that upsets my little Rose doesn't deserve to live. And if Lily has a problem with that, then fuck her too. She doesn't deserve someone as special as Whiskey Rose.

I wouldn't hurt her, though. I doubted Rose would ever forgive me for slapping Lily like I did, but if I seriously hurt her idiot sister...

Fuck that. I shuddered and scanned the ground below me, searching for some tell-tale flash of white or red... There. She was still running, but not to anywhere. Just a straight line away from town. Away from Lucky break. Away from... Caravan Lily...


I can't believe how stupid Lily was. When she left us in the bar, she told us not to stay out too late, then staggered away, hanging off of that worthless buck like a cheap floozy. That idiot mare should have realized what that would do to Rose! If the poor girl couldn't take being apart from her big sister for a single night, how would she feel if she was left behind for a male?! It must have felt like she was being replaced by the one thing she hated!

It took a minute or two before Rose left some caps on the table and trotted to the door, bottle still on her horn. I hurried out just in time to see her start running, a bloody-maned ghost in the night, and took off after her. She was quick, though, and I lost her for a while; Until I heard the screaming, coming from just outside of town.

Cursing myself for being so slow, I flew to where the screams were coming from, dreading what I'd find... It was worse than I'd thought.


Raiders, slavers, even just some violent, drunken idiots would have been better. What I saw, though, turned my stomach.

Rose had smashed the bottle from her horn and was using her magic to gouge at herself with it, the whole time screaming three words: "Make them stop!"

Her lips were a bloody mess and there were gashes down her sides and her cheeks, along her forelegs and her chest... Places you might touch a mare you were being intimate with. I realized that she was feeling what Lucky was doing to Lily and swooped down to try and stop her.

"ROSE! STOP IT!"

She twisted to look at me and I saw her eyes; They were wild, desperate, like a cornered animal. Then I felt something in my chest break as she slammed into me, knocking me away. "He's touching her!" She screamed, slashing at herself with the broken bottle. "Make them stop, Ibis! Make them stop!"

I coughed and lunged at her, my broken ribs sending spears of pain though my entire body. "Put down the bottle, Rose!" I grabbed it, the broken glass digging into my claw as I tried to get it away from her... With a small pop, it stopped glowing... and my knife was pulled from my belt instead. Throwing the bottle to one side I grabbed the knife, tying it into the sheath so she wouldn't be able to get it free, then lunged at her.

Rose threw me again; if any of my ribs had just been cracked the first time, they were broken now. I got back up and grabbed her again, wrapping my arms around her throat and pinning her down. "Stop it!" I commanded, but she just kept struggling and screaming for me to make it stop...

Her body froze and went completely rigid for a second and I started to relax. "That's better. Now-"

"He's inside her." Her voice was horrible. Twisted with anger, disgust, hatred, fear and confusion...

"Wha-" I was slammed against a large rock, hard enough to bruise my wings, and when I looked up... Rose was standing on her hind legs, reared up, her head and front hooves in the air... The shattered bottle glowing as it plunged towards...

"ROSE! NO!" I launched myself at her and knocked her to the ground, the bottle digging into my side instead of her soft petals. She lay underneath me, sobbing.

"Why? Why is she doing it? He's inside her, Ibis! Make them stop, please!"

I groaned; my side was killing me, the bottle stuck deep enough that I'd have to pull it out, but I wasn't going to let Rose go, not after what she'd tried to do. "I can't stop them... Rose, why are you doing this? Why are you hurting yourself?"

"It's my pain! Nobody elses! All mine!"

"What do you mean?"

"If I hurt enough, I can't feel her! Hurt me, Ibis! PLEASE!" She started fighting, trying to get free. Stunned by what I heard, I couldn't hold on properly, and she leapt up before turning and slamming her hooves against me, sobbing.

"Stop it!" I raised my arms to protect myself. "I'm not going to hurt you-ARGH!" The bottle was wrenched out of me, pulled by her magic.

"Please... Hurt me..." Her eyes were shining, full of tears, as she slashed at me with the makeshift weapon, opening up my forearm and making me scream. "Ibis... Please..." She went to swing again, but before she could, I slapped her. She laughed, and my blood ran cold; it wasn't like any sound I'd ever heard her make before, like she was an insane child. "More... You can make it stop, Ibis! Just hurt me more!"

Rose lunged at me, laughing and screaming and crying, and for the first time since we'd met, I was fighting for my life. I had no choice. She might have killed me if I hadn't fought back. I tried to pin her down, grab her, but she just twisted so that my claws dug into her, gouging first at me and then herself with the bottle; I managed to knock the bottle out of her magical grip and get her forelegs pinned, but she started trying to bite me instead.

"Keep going! Please!" She begged, frantic. My heart shattered; there was only one way to help her, only one way to keep her from killing herself and me... I tore at her shoulder with my beak, her hot blood splashing across my face and in my mouth, thick and coppery. I couldn't tell if her scream was from pain or pleasure; maybe both.

She knocked me away and then lunged, a mix of ecstasy and agony on her little white face, her tears flowing freely as we collided. I felt something die inside me; could I really do what she wanted me to? Then there was no time to think, only act. We tore at each other, our bodies entwining in an obscene mockery of sex, the parched earth beneath us spattered with small rivers and pools of our life, discarded and forgotten in the madness, in a twisted act of violence spurred on by the unwanted carnal pleasures my beloved Rose was forced to endure.

Our screams echoed through the night, our bodies slick with blood and sweat as we grappled and fought, every moment passionate, violent, intimate in the worst of ways. Her teeth tore at my throat and I returned each touch, my beak breaking skin like a knife, piercing her delicate flesh and making her cry out in terrible ecstasy, her voice filled with the most primal of emotions; The cry of prey that knows it has lost, but still fights on, savoring every drop of life it has left, even as that life spills out upon her assailant, and he bleeds upon her, their moments, their flesh, their very souls entwining as their bodies did, in a moment more pure, more terrible, than any they could hope to experience again.

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Dawn broke, muted light illuminating our spent and broken bodies where we lay, grey and white against the ancient, poisonous soil, as twisted and broken as the souls of those who now lay upon it. My wing sheltered my beloved from the light; better to let her sleep. I held her close, hoping to comfort her with my presence, let her know everything would be alright... I knew it wouldn't be, that there was no way to fix this. My head was light, every part of me screaming in agony, and I was drifting, fading... Not into blessed sleep, but into unconciousness...


I was woken by a snarl and the sudden disappearance of Rose from my side.

"Rose, what's wrong? Talk to me!" Was that... Lily? I forced my aching body to sit up; my broken ribs were like fire in my chest and I groaned, trying to focus on the cream mare in front of me.

"Lily, what the fuck are you doing here?" It was.

"Ibis, what happened? What's wrong with Rose?!" What? She didn't know what was wrong with her little sister? Black rage swelled up inside me; It was all her fault, and she didn't even understand what she'd done!

"You had sex with Lucky, didn't you?!" I snapped, glaring at her.

"I-"

I couldn't help it. That look of confusion, the way it was replaced with pain and fear when Lily realised what she'd done, tears in her eyes like she was the one who'd had her heart ripped out... I slapped her with as much strength as I could.

"Rose fucking felt everything!" I screamed at her. "You know how she is, what you mean to her, and you still fucked that bastard!"

My darling, precious flower snarled at her big sister; A wordless expression of everything she felt, more eloquent than mere words could ever be. Her eyes were the dead grey of ice, not a trace of light remaining... The eyes of the walking dead.

When Lily tried to approach her, Rose ran, leaving us behind... No, leaving her big sister behind.

"Rose... I..." Lily called out quietly, wanting her little sister to come back.

I slapped her again and she dropped, limp, just watching that white shape fade into the distance. "You fucking idiot, Lily. Stay here, I'll take care of Rose." The disgust I felt, looking down at the cream mare, laying there, longing for the very thing she'd just destroyed and cast aside, was overwhelming. I thought she'd been better than that.

I turned my back on her and leapt into the air, forcing my bruised wings to carry me, knowing that I might be doing permanent damage but not caring. Someone had to look after Rose.

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We'd been moving for most of the day when the white form stumbled and rolled down a hill, not getting back up. I dived, desperately hoping she was okay, and hit the ground harder than I should have, leaving a small furrow in the dirt. Agony shot through me, my abused body barely able to stand, but I managed to reach her...

Rose lay on her side, covered in sweat and blood, foaming at the mouth. I didn't need to be a doctor to know she was in bad shape; She was panting, her chest heaving, and all the wounds from last night had opened again. She coughed and sprayed the ground in front of her muzzle with blood. I thought about giving her a healing potion from my belt, but didn't. Anyone who's ever been seriously hurt knows that those potions will just make things worse if you don't get proper medical care first. I settled for giving her a shot of med-x, stabbing the syringe into her neck and watching her wide, wild eyes glass over... Her mouth moved like she was trying to talk, and I leaned close to hear what she was saying:

"Big... Bro... ther..."

Was I... her big brother now? The words sent me reeling, but I shook it off. Rose needed someone, anyone, that could care for her and keep her safe... Even from herself. Carefully, I took her into my arms and spread my wings. There was another town nearby, four hours away, maybe three if I pushed myself... I flapped my aching, burning wings and ignored the searing fire in my chest. It was getting hard to breathe, but Rose needed me. I'd push myself to death's door to help her, if it meant Rose lived.

The flight felt like it took an eternity. I had Rose gripped tightly to my chest, her heartbeat faint and unsteady, her body twitching from a pain far deeper than any amount of drugs could help. "Celestia, Luna, if you're really watching over my little pony, let me get her to a doctor in time..." I muttered a small prayer; I didn't believe in the goddesses, but Rose did, and if they could do anything to help, then I'd sell them my soul if I had to.


The sun was starting to set when I reached the town; Our caravan had passed through almost a month ago, but I still remembered where the doctor had his office. I always bought medical supplies when we were in a town; My mother had taught me that, saying you never knew when you'd need something to dull the pain or heal a wound.

You'll never be as grateful for that advice as I was at that moment. But remember it, it could save your life... Or the life of someone you love.

I landed as gently as I could outside the small building with the three butterflies on its sign, trying not to jostle Rose too much. The med-x was still in her system, but she didn't need any more pain or discomfort. The doctor was outside, having a smoke; Funny, you never really see unicorns smoking.

"Doc... Help her..." I gasped, staggering towards him. He stared at me like I was a monster... And I must have looked like one. A bloody griffin, carrying an almost dead mare... "Please... Anything you want, I'll give it to you... just... help..."

He looked closer and saw that Rose was still breathing. Barely. "Get inside, quickly. We might be able to save her, if we hurry."

We went inside and I lay my precious mare on a table so the doctor could see her. "What happened to you two?" His horn glowed as he tried to ascertain the extent of her injuries.

"Fight... We Ran... She collapsed... Will she... be okay...?" I weezed and shook my head, trying to clear the cobwebs. He didn't need to know everything, why the hell was he asking something so stupid?! Rose was fucking dying!

"I'm not sure... She's got a pierced lung, a concussion, she's lost a lot of blood... All of her muscles are badly damaged, as well... If I-"

Everything went dark.

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"Ugh..." I couldn't move. Every inch of me hurt, and it felt like I was wrapped in something...

"You're finally awake." The doctor's voice came from beside me.

"Rose... is she..." I struggled to sit up, but my body wouldn't respond properly, the pain scrambling my brain.

"She's alive... Barely. You shouldn't try to move, young griffin. Your body has been through a lot."

"Fuck... You..." I fought through the agony and finally sat up, opening my eyes slowly. Ugh... The room span and I fell back down, shutting my eyes again. "Where... is she?" Speaking, breathing, everything sent spikes of pain through me.

"She's in the next bed, but don't try and sit up again!" This time I listened. Staying still hurt less.

"Is she... awake?" Fuck, even my voice was shot through with pain.

"I'm afraid not... With the state she's in, I have to keep her sedated. It will be days, at the very least, before I'm willing to let her wake up. Frankly, I'm amazed she's even alive."

"Have to... see her..."

"If I let you see her, will you stay still?"

"Yeah..."

I heard a curtain being pulled back and slowly opened one eye to look; there was a slender body wrapped in bandages and covered by a white sheet. I could just make out her chest moving, and relief washed over me. "Doc... leave the... curtain... open... Please? She... needs to... be able... to see me..."

"Alright... But it's time for you to get some rest, Mr Griffin."

"Ibis..." I felt something jab into my neck. "My name's... Ibis..." Webs and fog filled my mind, pulling me from consciousness and into a haze of muddled dreams and nightmares... The only part I remember was something watching me and Rose... It was laughing, gazing down on us with eyes that burned a brilliant, vivid blue...


Over the next few days, I recovered enough to leave my bed, and learned how serious our injuries had been. Most of my ribs had been broken and I was suffering from exhaustion and blood loss, in addition to countless bruises and sprains.

I got off lucky.

Rose had a punctured lung, a couple broken and cracked ribs, severe blood loss and minor spine damage. That last part worried me, but the doc said she would probably regain full mobility... If it wasn't for the rest of her body.

"Her muscles... tore themselves apart?" I was sitting on my bed, covered in bandages and staring at the doctor. He nodded. "How can that happen?"

He sighed. "You understand why you get tired, don't you? It's because you're pushing your body to it's limits. When your muscles start hurting, that's a sign you should stop before you damage yourself. If you keep going, past your limits, and don't stop... Most ponies... and griffins, of course... suffer severe muscle fatigue, because their muscles are only damaged a little before they stop. Your friend, though... You said she ran for an entire day without stopping, after fighting for hours the night before?"

I nodded. This time, the room only swam a little.

"She pushed her body well beyond what it could take. Her muscles aren't simply damaged, they were almost destroyed. I wouldn't have been surprised if her heart had ruptured during surgery, with the stresses she put herself through."

"But I did the same thing as her, so how come-"

"How come you're not at death's door?" The doc sighed again. "Griffins are naturally more athletic than ponies. Your body is designed to take more punishment than hers, so the fight didn't affect you as badly. If I'm being honest, I'm shocked your friend is still alive at all. It's beyond her simply not wanting to die; I have no choice but to believe something is keeping her here."

Something was keeping Rose from dying... "Luna, Celestia, thank you..." I whispered, tears forming in my eyes. They'd heard my prayer after all.

"What was that?" The doc looked at me strangely.

"N-nothing." I wiped my eyes with the back of my bandaged arm; Moving still hurt like nine kinds of fuck, but I could tough it out. I had to. "Is there any chance she'll recover?"

He looked at the small, bandaged body, laying in that bed all alone... "A small chance, but she'll never recover fully. At most, she might be able to walk unaided... But even that will take years."

"I'll look after her..."

"Are you sure about that? It's going to be a long, difficult life; For both of you, if you're serious."

"There's no way I'll leave Rose alone... She needs me..."

"I see..." The doc turned away; I recognised the look of concern and doubt on his face with just a glance. After dealing with Rose, reading a normal pony's expression was easy. "Try and get some rest, Mr Ibis. I'll be back in an hour to check on you and your... friend."

"She's my..." I hesitated. Could I say it? "Little sister." Yeah. That's what she was, alright. Saying it felt good, too.

The doc stared at me, confused. "Your... sister?"

"Yeah... I have to look out for her... I'm all she's got..."

"I... see... Like I said, try and get some rest..." He shook his head slowly and left the room; It didn't matter if he believed me or not, I knew what the truth was, and I'd made up my mind about what I had to do.

That left me alone with Rose... I got off my bed and crossed to hers, sitting beside the almost still body and stroking her bandaged head... She looked like a little doll, laying there...

"Ibis..."

...
Did she just say something? I leaned close to her face... No, it was just her breathing... Sighing, I lay down beside her, covering her with my wing and quickly falling into a deep sleep.

"Ibis..." A whisper crept through the room, light as a lover's breath... A small, haunting laugh followed it. "Take care of my little Rosie, Ibis..."

I shivered in my sleep, dreaming of a tall, snow white mare with burning blue eyes and a mane that dripped with blood...

---------------------------------------------------------------

I watched my mother and Lily's parents leave town, careful not to let them see me. They would want me and Rose to go with them, but that would have meant Lily coming near my little flower again... And there was no way I'd let that happen.

As they faded into the distance, I returned to the doc's place with a small bag of caps on my belt. Rose and I had both needed operations to keep us alive, and then there was the space we took up in the clinic, on top of the potions and bandages and other medical supplies. It wasn't cheap, and I'd already given the doc every cap I had, so I'd taken a job at the town store once I was cleared for light work. Stacking shelves, sweeping, that sort of thing. Most of my pay went towards our debt, the rest on essentials... Except for today. The doc had finally reduced the sedatives he had Rose under and she'd woken up last night. Screamed her head off until I could calm her down, but at least she was awake and... kinda talking... So I'd picked up a packet of gum as a treat, something to help Rose feel better.

"I'm back! And I brought you a pres-" I stopped, staring. Rose was standing beside her bed, still wearing her bandages. She shouldn't have been able to do that. I walked towards her slowly. "You okay, Red?" She turned her head and blinked at me; I guess that meant yes. "Come on, get back into bed, okay? For your big brother?" She nodded, then lifted one hoof and stumbled. Before she could fall I dived forwards and caught her; her whole body was trembling, and I could feel her muscles straining under her coat...

"Hurts..." She choked out the word, her voice low and hoarse. "Need... drink..."

"Okay, I'll get you some water, but don't move, okay?" I lifted her onto the bed, laying her on her side.

"Whiskey..."

I laughed softly to myself; even half dead and unable to hold herself up, she wanted her favorite drink. "You're getting water, and that's final." I stroked her cheek, and she bit me. It was so light I barely felt it, but with the way she was shaking... Just that little effort took everything she had. "Hey, when you get better, I'll get you all the whiskey you can drink, okay?" She nodded, and I kissed her horn.


When the doc came back in from his rounds around town, Rose was sitting up and I was holding a glass of water for her. Yes, I'd given her some rad-x first. I'm not stupid enough to take chances, no matter how clean the water looks.

"What are you doing?!" He yelled and galloped over to us. "She shouldn't be sitting up! She shouldn't be moving at all!"

"Thirsty." Rose stared at him and he froze. I couldn't blame him; with her eyes that deathly grey, her habitual stare had become spine-chilling. "Needed a drink."

"Rose, be nice. He saved you." I stroked her muzzle and she blinked, turning back to me to drink some more water; I guess being unconcious for a few days leaves you feeling parched.

"How is she even moving?" The doc kept his voice at a normal level and came over to us cautiously; probably trying to avoid having Rose stare at him again. "Her muscles were torn apart, like... like wet paper..."

"When I got back, she was standing beside her bed." I pulled the glass away so Rose could breathe; She glared at me until I let her drink again. The doc practically fainted at the news.

"Standing?! That's... That's not possible..."

"She was standing, alright. Weren't you, Rose?" I rubbed between her ears and she closed her eyes, enjoying it, but still determined to empty her glass of water and quench her thirst. "You sure she was hurt that bad, doc? I mean, she wasn't exactly running around, but you said it'd take years before she could walk; It's been a few days and she's already standing."

"Her spine was damaged as well! That alone should have kept her down for at least a month, assuming I had the skill to operate and repair it properly! With the sort of damage that was done to her body... It's just not possible! There's no way she should be moving!"

Rose pulled away from the now empty glass and shook her head with a snort. Then collapsed, moaning. "Tired... Ibis, sleep with me..."

I smiled at her, then shrugged at the doctor. "Sorry, doc. Rose is a special mare, that's all I can tell you." He turned and walked out, refusing to look at the bandaged mare that defied all medical logic. Rose managed to poke me with her hoof, so I lay down and let her curl up against me. It didn't take long before she was lost in dreamland, and I carefully slipped away, heading outside to where the doc was having a smoke to calm his nerves.

"Your sister is... I can't explain it. There's gotta be something looking after her... I'm not a religious pony, but seeing her recover so fast..."

"You've gotta wonder if Celestia and Luna really are looking down on us, right?"

He looked at me strangely.

"What? You think I don't know about pony religion?" I chuckled. "Honestly? I spent the entire flight here praying to them. Rose believes they're up there and I was desperate, so... Guess you could say I'm a believer, now."

The doc shook his head. "That makes two of us, Ibis. That makes two of us."

A small gust of wind blew down the street, and it almost sounded like giggling... I shivered and turned to the doc, suddenly unnerved. "I'm gonna go back in, make sure I'm there when Rose wakes up."

"Yeah... And I've gotta take stock, you two have used up a lot of my supplies." He shuddered. I chalked it up to how chilly the breeze had been, and not the haunting, mocking sound it had carried.

I remembered the pouch of caps at my belt. "Here's today's pay, Doc." I tossed it to him as we went inside; He caught it in his magic.

"Well, I'd say that about takes care of your debt, but you're not leaving until I'm convinced you two are one hundred percent... And I want to observe your sister. Something seems off about her, but I'm not sure what."

I laughed and pulled the door closed behind us. "Yeah, we get that a lot."

---------------------------------------------------------------

It took just over two weeks before the doctor said we were in anything approaching a good condition. In that time, Rose had almost completely recovered. She was eating solid food, breathing normally, and only started shaking after exerting herself for more than a few minutes at a time. She also refused to leave my side from the moment she could walk properly. When I went to my job at the store, she insisted on helping me sweep, using her magic to clean up while I handled the other tasks. Every night she'd hop onto my bed to sleep with me, and more often than not I'd fall asleep stroking her mane or her side. It felt nice, having my little sister beside me, and I even sang her some lullabies when she had trouble sleeping.

Her progress shocked me, and scared the shit out of the doctor.

"Incredible. If it wasn't for the scars, I'd swear she wasn't the same broken little filly I had to operate on..." He was poking and prodding Rose while she sat on her bed, checking her over. "And the way her muscles have recovered... There's no way for me to explain it..."

Under that off-white coat, Rose's muscles had regained most of their former strength, showing almost no sign of the damage that had been done. Putting any effort into something exhausted her quickly, though.

"Maybe the healing potions were more potent than you thought?" I was sitting next to Rose and shrugged, watching her ears twitch; she didn't like being inspected, but I'd told her to be nice. That was more than enough proof of how much she trusted and needed me; she did what I said. The 'little filly' remark got an eye twitch, though.

"It wasn't the potions, at least not completely. Your recovery, on the other hoof, has gone as well as I'd expected, considering how much better shape you were in to begin with."

I was back to full strength by now, too. Unfortunately, I was having the same problem as Rose: Neither of us had much stamina. I could heft some decent sized crates around, or carry Rose under my arm when she was tired, but more than a few minutes and I had to take a longer break than I would have liked. Rose? Well... She could use her magic for a minute or so before the headaches got too bad, and she could shove a full ammo box a few feet before her body gave out.

So, we were great for short-term stuff, but anything else would probably make us pass out. The doc said it was because of what we'd been through, the fighting, the chase and then the surgery, and that we'd be back to normal eventually.

"Well, it has to be something. It's not like excercise can do that to a mare." Rose blinked at me. "Uh, no offense, Rose. We're just wondering why you're healing so well." She raised her foreleg, looked at it, and shrugged before setting it back down.

"I don't know." Oh, now she was feeling chatty!

I rolled my eyes. "Well, what do you know?"

"I know we should stay inside and out of sight today."

"Why?"

"Caravan is coming through."

"Our Caravan?" Rose nodded to confirm my suspicion, and her mane went in her eyes. She shook her head to get it out of her face and fell over, just laying there on her bed. She must have had one of her headaches again.

"Doc..."

He sighed. "I understand, Ibis. You explained this last week, remember?" Not very clearly, since our reason for not wanting anyone to know where we were was pretty private, but I had explained. "I'll let the store know you're not coming in today. You two can stay here; Just keep out of the way and don't bother any of my other patients."

"Thanks, doc. We'll stay in bed, won't we, Rose?" I felt playful, so I gave her a wink. She stuck her tongue out at me and just lay there, one hoof twitching.

With a sigh, the doctor pulled the curtains around our bed shut and left us alone. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.

"You sure you're gonna be okay, Red?" I used my pet name for her. She nodded and lay there silently, just tapping her hoof. It got faster, then slower, and kept doing that through the day. At one point, I heard a familiar voice asking the doctor if he'd seen a grey griffin and a white mare. The tapping had gotten almost frantic at that point, but started slowing as I heard hoofsteps leave the clinic after the doc said he hadn't seen us in weeks, like I'd asked him to.

It was nighttime before she stopped tapping.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"How's your... thing... going?" Rose stared at me, not understanding the question. 'You know, your empath thing. I was wondering if you were having any trouble with it." It was a few days after the... incident, and we were back at work.

She shrugged and went back to sweeping. "Everything's... fuzzy. Even when Li-... when the caravan came through... it was hard to focus... Hurt my head." Rose hadn't said her former big sister's name since we'd arrived in town. That slip of the tongue was the closest she'd come.

"Don't worry, you'll be okay soon. I mean, you're still getting over some pretty major stuff." I grinned at her. "Would it help if I kissed you?" She ignored me, so I grabbed her in a huge hug and kissed her right on the cheek. "Better?" She still ignored me, her horn glowing with magic as she controlled the broom.

"Red? C'mon. I'm just playing with you."

"I know."

I frowned and let her go. "Something's up, isn't it."

"My head hurts, that's all."

With a sigh, I grabbed the broom and pulled it away, her magic vanishing with a barely audible fizzle. "That's it, you're taking a break, young lady." She snorted at me and went into the back room. I followed, and watched her hop onto a crate and lay down, hiding her face in her hooves. Softly, I walked over and stroked her mane. "Red... Rose... are you sure you're okay?"

"Hurts..." She sounded tired, worn out.

"Have a nice, long break, okay? I'll come get you when our shift is done."

"No... Wanna help big brother..."

I smiled and kissed her horn. "And your big brother says you have to rest, okay? Be a good pony and stay here?"

She nodded without taking her hooves from her face.

"Good girl." Rose could be such a little filly sometimes, but it was sweet. I was an only child, so having a little sister that looked up to me... That relied on me to take care of her... I really loved Rose, and it was in a different way than I used to. I'd still flirt sometimes, but it was usually play, rarely serious. I'd realized that, even though she had the body and mind of a mare, somewhere deep inside, she was still a frightened little filly in need of someone to protect her from the world while she grew up.

I was happy to be that someone.


The next month passed smoothly. We worked at the store, helped the doctor out in return for staying in the clinic, and even got in a few visits to a bar. You can imagine what the doc said when I came in late that first time, carrying a completely wasted Rose in my arms.

Basically? That we shouldn't have been drinking at all, and certainly not as much as we had. I didn't see the problem; we were almost back to normal. I'd been flying laps around the town each morning for over a week, with Rose trotting along below me. Sure, that meant flying slowly so she didn't get left behind, but I didn't mind.

---------------------------------------------------------------

I finished my shift in the afternoon and wandered over to the sheriff's office, waving to a few of the ponies I met on the way. Working in the store had meant I got to know most of the town fairly well, and got friendly greetings wherever I went. Even Rose was welcome anywhere in town, despite how shy she was. If anyone needed something fixed, they just asked her; Rose liked keeping her hooves busy, and we needed all the extra caps we could get.

Speaking of Rose... When I got into the sheriff's office, it was easy to spot her: She was repairing the sheriff's rifle, and had taken over the big, official looking desk in the center of the room to do it. The sheriff himself, an old blue buck, was dozing on a comfortable (and oddly intact) couch, his hat pulled over his face.

"I'm done for the day, Red. How are things here?" I leaned on the desk, watching her work. She was using her hooves again, since using magic for something so precise would have made her pass out in mere minutes; swapping parts, cleaning the mechanism and doing all the things the sheriff was too lazy to do. Didn't say much for the town's law enforcement if he couldn't be bothered keeping his gun working right.

"Lonestar hasn't fired this gun in months, Ibis. I'm going to ask him if I can have it when I'm done; Should take me maybe another hour or so." Lonestar was the sheriff's name. Sounded fake to me.

"What would you need a gun for, Red? We're safe here in town."

"I wanna leave. It feels like I'm being smothered, like the town is closing in around me... And the caravan will be back soon, as well." She hadn't taken her eyes off the gun since we'd started talking; It was a nice rifle, semi-automatic with a brass-inlay on the reciever, but no scope, just iron sights. Took .308 rounds, just like... Ah. Now I knew why she wanted it; It reminded her of her father's gun, which we'd left behind... Along with her duster, and everything she owned.

"If he doesn't give it to you, I'll buy it off him, okay?" I hugged her and she stopped working just long enough to hug me back.

"Thanks." Back to working on the gun, her little white hooves moving methodically. I never had, and never would, be able to understand how she manipulated things so well without fingers or digits of any kind. Ponies are wierd.

"How long? Until the caravan passes through, I mean." I leaned over her shoulder, watching her work, and breathed deeply. She smelled of gun oil, sand and something else... Was that perfume? Yeah, I think it was. Not very strong, but it was there. Smelled just like roses. "And I like your perfume."

She stopped messing with the gun and twisted to look at me. "Maybe a week and a half, if they're on schedule. And thanks." Aww, was that a blush I saw? Rose was so cute sometimes. Didn't really understand why she'd be wearing perfume at all, though. I knew she wasn't interested in anyone, so who was she trying to impress?


Turns out Lonestar was more than willing to part with the rifle. Only cost me 60 caps, too. The smile on Rose's face when I gave it to her was huge, and she actually kissed me! Just a small kiss, on the cheek, but it still made my heart soar.

We said our goodbyes and left at the end of the week to get a head start on the caravan. I didn't have a destination in mind, and Rose was simply following me, but we had enough supplies to last the better part of a month between us. So, we just walked.

---------------------------------------------------------------

BANG! With a spray of blood and brains that splattered my face, the crazed raider I was fighting dropped to the ground, the side of his head missing. Breathing heavily, I glanced around; That had been the last one. Sheathing my knife, I looked for the source of the shot: Rose.

There. She was on her hind legs, using the rifle like an earth pony would, with her back braced against a large boulder so she was steady. I wiped raider bits from my face and waved to her; She waved back and more-or-less collapsed with her new rifle leaning against her, ready in case anything else happened. I spread my wings and flew to her side to check on her. She had her eyes closed, and was groaning.

"You okay, Red?" I knelt beside her, cradling her head in my claws. She didn't open her eyes, just gave me a small nod.

"Tired... Head hurts... Shoulder, too..." Her shoulder was turning a nasty color where the rifle's stock had been pressed against it; The recoil had given her a bad bruise. I fished a healing potion out of my belt and made her drink it, only taking the bottle away when it was empty. The bruise started to fade, but a lot slower than I would have liked.

"Stay here, try and rest. I'll see if there's anything worth scavenging. Just... Don't move much, okay?" She nodded again and slumped back against her boulder. Days of walking had worn her out; maybe we should have stayed in town a little longer... No, Rose had wanted to leave, and we'd been well enough that the doc was willing to let us go. With a sigh, I went back to the raiders and starting searching their corpses.

Wierd. Every raider I'd seen in my life was a pony. Never a griffin, or a zebra, or anything else. Every last raider was a pony of some kind, like it was a disease or something they just passed around; Could you do that? Infect other people with insanity and stupid?

This bunch had been run-of-the-mill, drugged-up and wearing a hodge-podge of leather armor; some of it made from pony hide. I saw more than a few cutie marks, and not all of them were attached to their owners. The few guns they'd been carrying were as useless in a fight as the ponies themselves had been; Rusted and broken. One pistol was a pile of worthless scrap, having exploded and taken the muzzle of its wielder with it.

Worthless weapons, shitty armor, and an assortment of drugs that would probably kill me if I tried using them. There were some caps, but they were in a bag with a bloody, severed hoof. I threw the hoof and bag away, kept the caps. You don't survive in the wasteland for long if you're squeamish or sensitive. Someone tries to kill you, gut 'em and take their stuff. Survival of the fittest and all that shit.

Of course, being a predator helps. Claws and a beak will beat hooves and teeth every time. Having a deadeye mare at your back with a high-powered rifle is just the icing on the cake.


They'd ambushed us while were walking; screaming as they leapt out of covered holes in the ground, the few with guns trying to shoot us while the rest closed in, swinging pool cues and knives. Rose had crushed one raider's throat with her hoof and ran to the rock she was now leaning against (to get some distance), then opened fire with startling accuracy. Every time she fired, another raider fell with a hole in their head or chest. I'd thought she was good with her old bolt-action, but a semi-automatic rifle turned her into a murder machine. Of course, I hadn't bought a gun before we left, so I made do with my natural weapons. And my big fucking knife.

I wondered why Rose hadn't sensed the ambush for a moment, but one look told me she wasn't doing nearly as well as she made out. Her headaches had been getting worse since we left town a few days earlier, and she could barely use magic at all now. If her magic and her empathic abilites were connected, then it was no wonder she couldn't feel anything around us. Leaving behind the meager pickings, I went back to the rock and sat down against it. Rose crawled onto me, resting her head in my lap, and I started petting her.

"You sure you're okay? Tell me if you're not, I mean it." I scratched behind her ear and she sighed in pleasure.

"Can't think straight... Can't feel you properly... Head hurts too much..." So her magic and abilities were connected. I'd guessed right.

"Want some med-x?" She shuddered at my suggestion.

"No... Makes me feel wierd..." I kept petting her and she slowly sat up, putting her head on my chest. "I can hear your heart... It sounds... nice... You're... so... warm..." Her voice got soft, and her breathing deepened; She'd just fallen asleep while sitting up.

"You just rest, Rose. Big Brother will protect you." I whispered and kissed the top of her head. The only reaction I got was a small ear twitch; she was completely out of it.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Three months passed.

We'd avoided the caravan routes as much as we could, taking odd jobs in each town we passed through, only staying for a few days at most before moving on again. Work consisted of both of us helping in stores, and I could usually earn some extra caps as a bouncer in bars or saloons. Rose kept herself busy repairing things for people, and she picked up a bit of a reputation for quality work. More than once, a pony would come into wherever we were working and ask for the red maned mare instead of buying anything from the store. To keep things friendly, we bought replacement parts for whatever needed fixing from our employers; that way, everyone made money.

It was the end of the day and I was closing up; Our boss trusted us enough to leave us alone in the afternoon. Rose was sitting on a crate, counting her caps.

"Rose, what're you doing?" I stepped over to her; Why couldn't she sit on the floor or at the counter or something? Always had to be on a crate or table. It couldn't have been comfortable or good for her butt.

"Dividing my pay." Rose always did that, and gave me a share. I just didn't see her do it, since I was so busy most of the time.

"I can see that. But why three piles?" She blinked at me, confused.

"I... I don't know... I always do it like this..." Her ears lowered and she shook her head. "Some for me, some for you, some for... For..." She hopped off her crate and went into the back room, emerging a second later with a little canvas bag in her mouth, then jumped back onto her crate and put it down. It jangled a little. "I put them in this bag, but I don't... I don't know why..." Tears started to well up in her eyes. "Ibis... why do I keep putting them in the bag? I... I don't understand... It feels like I should give it to someone, but I don't know who!"

I hugged her, making soft, comforting noises. "Shh. It's alright, Red. You used to do this with... with Lily, remember? Is that who you want to give the bag to?" I felt a flash of anger when I said the name; We didn't talk about her, didn't speak about the bitch that had hurt Rose like that.

"Lily...?" She shook her head. "I... I can't remember.... my head hurts..." I felt a warm dampness on my chest; she was crying. "It hurts so much..." Wrapping my arms and wings around her, I held her as tightly as I could as the sun set outside, light fading into darkness and shadow. Our boss came in, took one look at us and went into his office without saying a word as Rose sobbed quietly. Night fell, and still I held onto my precious flower. Eventually she quieted, sleeping, and I carried her into the back room, laying her out on the crate she liked to rest on during the day.


I knocked on the boss's office door quietly and went in. "Sorry about that, boss. Red was exhausted."

"'s okay, Ibis. She sleepin'?"

"Yeah. I think we'll be moving on again in a couple of days, if that's alright with you."

"'s fine." He waved a hoof at me dismissively. "You and your sister have been a great help, you'll always be welcome to stay here, long as you like. Sure you won't stay? You two are getting pretty popular; you'll be missed if you go."

I smiled sadly. "I'm sure. Red doesn't like to stay anywhere too long, but thanks for the offer."

I went back into the store proper and looked at the canvas bag... Hesitantly, I opened it: There was a good amount of caps inside, almost half of what she'd earned in the past few months. Rose couldn't even remember Lily, had blocked out all memories of her, but still put aside most of her money for her undeserving big sister, like she always had.

Hatred washed over me and I dug my talons into the bag, about to tear it apart, only to stop. Destroying it wouldn't change anything, and it would just upset Rose. No. Lily might not care about Rose, but I did, and there's no way I'd do anything to hurt her. Sighing, I scooped up the pile of caps Rose had set aside and dropped them into the bag, the small pieces of metal clinking together. If my little sister needed to do this, put aside money for someone she couldn't even remember, then who was I to stop her?

When I entered the storeroom, I saw that Rose had curled into a ball and was shivering. Dropping the canvas bag next to my pack, I climbed onto the crate with her, putting my wing over her protectively. She was cold against my side, shaking like a leaf.

By now I'd fully recovered, but Rose was still fragile. Firing her rifle quickly still left bruises, and getting upset or pushing herself too much left her worn out and weak. She couldn't use magic at all now, either. I pulled her close to my chest so she could hear the beating of my heart, and the trembling stopped. Letting her know I was there was the easiest way to calm her down; She depended on me for so much. I was the one that found us work, led the way to the next town, bought our supplies and prepared our meals. I'd become so used to being her big brother that I didn't even think about it anymore.

Her body started to warm up and I rested my head on hers. Her coat was a little rough, but we had been travelling a lot, so it wasn't surprising. I decided that, as soon as we could, we'd get a room in a nice hotel and I'd give her a proper bath. Maybe I could even find some soap in a store somewhere, then I could pamper her properly! Grinning at the thought, I kissed her cheek. Her perfume sent a shiver up my spine; where had she found that stuff, and why did she like wearing it so much? Was she trying to be grown up or something?

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Here you go, kid. I packed you some extra ammo and food." Our boss tucked a pouch into Roses's saddlebag. She blinked at him. "Ibis, look after your sister and come back soon, you hear? Pretty little thing like her, town won't be the same when you're gone."

"I'll take good care of her. Thanks for everything, boss." We waved and started walking. I stretched my wings but didn't take to the air, since Rose wouldn't have liked being left alone on the ground without a good reason. And I wasn't gonna suggest carrying her, since she was afraid of heights.


That night, we had a simple meal of pre-war stuff. Some kind of goop that, according to the box, was made of dehydrated potatoes. Tasted like dirt to me, even after we added the water and mixed it up like the box said. A snack cake each for dessert and some sparkle cola to wash it all down. I was wondering how fast I could find a radhog and get some real food when Rose poked me. "Ibis?"

"Huh? Something up?"

"Do you think I'm pretty?"

"Wha-? Is this about what the boss said before we left?"

"I just wanna know if you think I'm pretty. No reason." She shrugged and turned away.

I grabbed her and pulled her into my lap, flipping her onto her back so I could tickle her white belly. She squeaked and started squirming. "No, you're not pretty." Her ears drooped and she stopped struggling. "You're beautiful." I gave her a kiss on the mouth, but didn't slip her any tongue; she was just worried about how she looked, and I wasn't gonna take advantage of that. When I pulled my head back, she was dazed, her cheeks bright red. I smiled at her and rubbed her chest playfully. "You're the most beautiful mare in the wasteland, Rose. Never forget that."

She smiled up at me. "Thanks, Ibis... Can I ask you a... private question?"

"Anything you want, sis."

"Do you... Have anyone special?" The fuck? Where the fuck did that come from?

"W-what do you mean?"

"Do you love anyone?" Oh, awkward.

"I... guess I love... you." Why was I hesitating? I loved her with every fibre of my being, dammit! As both a little sister and, hopefully, one day, my mare. Why was admitting it to her so hard?!

"You.. guess... you love me?" She blinked, confused.

"Alright, fine. I love you, Rose. You already knew that! It's not like I ever tried to keep it a secret!" I glared at her and she giggled, happy I'd finally admitted it to her face. She'd known all along, and I knew that she knew, but saying it out loud like that, in front of her? Totally different from both of us knowing it without saying a word to the other. Made me feel like... like we were starting to have a proper relationship, instead of just brother/sister or really good friends.

"I love you, too." She sat up and threw her forelegs around my neck. "I'll stay with you forever, Ibis. Promise."

I hugged her back, not sure what to say. We sat there in comfortable silence, just holding each other as the night grew late and our campfire died.


We hadn't had proper food for months. Prewar stuff, withered fruit and vegetables when we could afford it and the odd bit of preserved meat, but nothing fresh enough to satisfy me. I'm a griffin, okay? We're predators. A beak full of fresh meat beats reconstituted potato goop every time, and that's why I went hunting the next afternoon.

I soared a little higher and got ready to dive on my prey; a good sized radhog that was blissfully unaware of my hungry gaze. The pre-war food had been alright (I'm lying. It was shit.), but tonight we'd be eating actual meat! Narrowing my eyes to focus on the tasty looking treat, I snapped my wings almost closed and went in for the kill.

It screamed when I struck, but a quick application of my claws put a stop to that, and then it was just a matter of getting it back to camp.

Rose blinked when I dropped our meal in front of her. "You managed to catch something?"

I rolled my eyes at her. "No, it fell out of a tree."

"It climbed a tree? I'm impressed."

"I was being sarcastic."

"So was I." She went back to checking her ammo supply, inspecting each bullet carefully before loading it into a magazine. All that maintenance was the reason I preferred my knife; quick, easy and deadly. I could shoot as well as the next griffin when I had to, of course. It's something you've gotta learn, growing up in the wasteland.

Having a mother that's a retired mercenary just meant I learned it quicker and earlier than most, that's all...

Except for Rose; She'd had a rifle in her hands... Hooves? Mouth? since she'd been a filly, and had apparently killed the raiders responsible for destroying her life without hesitating... Come to think of it, Rose never did seem to hesitate when it came to killing...

I shuddered, distracted for a second from preparing our meal, bloody knife hanging loosely from my claws. Did she even have a conscience? Even I felt bad for killing sometimes; when raiders were obviously just poor ponies (again, they always seemed to be ponies!) trying to feed their families, or when some slaving piece of shit begged for their lives, claiming to have kids. Felt bad while I killed them, but didn't let it bother me. It was always them or me.

The first and only time I hesitated in a fight, I almost died; I was a kid, fighting with another griffin, and he was bigger and older than me. I'd managed to knock him down and was about to tear his throat out, when I realized that I was about to kill someone I'd known most of my life. We'd been enemies our whole lives, but still, I'd known him for so long... That hesitation gave him the chance to claw at my stomach, and the pain made up my mind for me. He died, I lived. That's how it is in the wasteland.

But Rose... I shook my head and went back to prepping the meat. She never hesitated to pull the trigger, never seemed concerned when she took a life. Once that gun came out, her target was as good as dead. She never shot to wound or cripple, even when she could have done it easily, instead making death as quick and painless as possible. A ruthless, merciless killer who didn't let her victim suffer...


Ah, forget it. Leave the frustrating moral problems and self-doubt to someone else, like a little grey unicorn or something... Rose made a wierd noise and gave herself a shake, staring at me intently. "What?"

"What did you just do?"

"What do you mean?"

"You did something."

"I'm just getting dinner ready, that's all!" I raised my claws and showed her the knife; It would need a good cleaning after this. "I swear I didn't do anything!"

"Don't do it again. Whatever you did." She kept glaring at me.

"Okay! I won't do... whatever I did! Just quit looking at me like that!" When Rose turned back to her bullets, I sighed in relief...

Wait... why the hell had a little grey unicorn popped into my head when I thought about moral angst and self-doubt? Fuck, Rose is glaring at me again. Scary.


"Hope you like it medium-rare!" I carved a hunk of meat from the radhog, which was spinning above our campfire on a spit, and put it on a tin plate for my waiting mare. Rose nodded eagerly; she'd been drooling since I'd started cooking it, and the smell was getting to me, too. I set the plate on the ground in front of her and realised for the first time, as she lifted the hot chunk of meat in her hooves and tore into it, just how wierd it was for ponies to eat meat.

"I thought ponies ate, y'know, grass and shit. But you're enjoying that a hell of a lot, Red." I cut myself a chunk of meat and bit into it. HOT! I fanned my mouth and looked for our canteens... There! Rose chuckled through her mouthful of (damn hot! why wasn't she bothered?!) radhog and kept chewing away while I cooled my burnt tongue.

"It's hot, Ibis. Be careful."

"No. Shit." My glare would have sent a lesser pony scurrying in fear, but Rose just shrugged and kept gnawing on her meal.

"Ish tashty."

"Huh?"

She swallowed her mouthful before answering again. Little miss manners. "Meat is tasty, full of protein and just plain good for you. Why wouldn't I enjoy it?"

"Cause you're a pony! Aren't you meant to eat grass and stuff?" I made sure my food was cool enough and tore into it with my beak. Oh, it was so good! After so long with prewar crap and 'Pony Food' it was great to have a proper meal. When Rose looked away, I followed her gaze to the brown, scrubby grass that was everywhere in the wasteland. Hell, I'd seen proper deserts that had the stuff; Not much, but if you knew where to look, it'd be there. Around here? I wouldn't call it a desert; More like a shit-hole. Plenty of grass, the odd twisted tree, and even a pond or river every now and again. Nothing you could drink, at least not without some rad-x or rad-away, but it was still water.

"I guess so. Before the war, ponies didn't eat meat at all." She shrugged. "Their loss. Grass tastes like dirt, and I like something with substance in my diet. Oh, we can survive well enough on a herbivorous diet; it's what our bodies are meant for, after all. But what sane pony would pass up something that tastes so good?" She raised the rapidly cooling meat in her hooves and grinned at me, then started devouring it.

I laughed. "You ponies are so wierd sometimes, you know that?" She blinked at me instead of answering; Her mouth was way too busy for her to speak. "Yep, wierd little ponies." I smiled at her. "But you're my kind of wierd, so it's okay." Another blink turned my smile into a proper grin. Nice to see my mare enjoyed the finer things in life. And now that she'd had something good to eat, she was looking a hell of a lot better.


We carved and wrapped the leftover meat before settling down for the night. It would keep us well fed for the next few days, and maybe bring some caps if we bumped into any travelling traders or caravans. Fresh food is always in demand, after all.


Rose yawned and snuggled closer to me, resting her head on my arm. I smiled and watched her blink sleepily, those grey eyes shining in the firelight. "You look a lot better now, Red. Guess you just needed a proper meal to get you back on your hooves." She nodded slowly and looked up at me, her eyes half-closed, giving me the most angelic smile I'd ever seen. It was so innocent, so pure and trusting, I thought my heart was going to melt. There was nothing on her face but adoration for me, and I pulled her into a deep, loving kiss. We were both breathless when we parted, and we held each other, sharing soft kisses, well into the night. We didn't have sex; there was no need. Our gentle kisses and loving caresses said far more than even the most passionate lovemaking could ever have expressed, and I couldn't bring myself to rob my delicate little mare of her innocence on that heavenly night.

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Movement beside me, then stillness. Slowly, I woke up and looked around, just spotting a crimson tail as it vanished into a thick patch of bushes near our campsite. Taking care of business, no doubt. Content to lay where I was, I stretched and enjoyed the memories from our cuddling the night before, closing my eyes to relive each tender moment, each whispered word. We'd kept things simple, not getting too intimate or sexual (you couldn't even call it heavy petting), but it had been amazing nonetheless. The way she trembled when I ran my claws down her spine, the little whimpers as I caressed her soft flank and played with her tail. Her hooves around my shoulders, that cute muzzle pressed into my neck to muffle her squeaks of pleasure, the warmth of her breath on my chest. I smiled to myself. It had been a wonderful night, one I'd remember for the rest of my life.


"Oof!" Something heavy dropped onto my chest and I opened my eyes again. Right in front of my beak was a cute white face, and we stared at each other. "Rose, what are you doing?" It looked like she was thinking really hard.

"Thinking."

"About..." I prompted her.

"Last night."

"I was thinking about last night, too." I tried to kiss her, but she pulled back, looking nervous. I frowned. "What's wrong?"

"I... We..." She sighed. "It's nothing."

"It's not nothing, Red. C'mon, tell me."

"Okay... I'm all... twitchy... I liked it when you touched me, and I wanted you to... touch... other places... but..." She paused for a second. "But I'm... twitchy, like I wanna run away..." Rose looked so adorable when she was confused. I smiled and rubbed between her ears.

"You're just scared, that's all. I'm the first guy you've ever been near like this, aren't I?"

She nodded, eyes half-closed with pleasure, loving getting her head scratched.

"It's okay to be scared or nervous, Red. How about this, we'll take it slow, go at your pace, and see where we end up. Sound good?"

She smiled and nodded again. "Sounds... good. I love you, Ibis."

"And I love you, Rose." This time, she didn't pull away from my kiss.


It struck me how similar Rose was to the flower she was named after. It took a lot of care and love before either one could bloom into a beautiful flower, but all the time and effort would be well worth it. The same could be said of our relationship. It had taken months to get this far, but every day we spent together deepened our bond and brought Rose further out of her shell. No matter how long it took, I'd stay with her, nurture her, and protect her.

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"This was a terrible idea." A few days later, we were making our way through a swamp, and had taken a break so I could get my bearings. "We should have gone around." I swallowed; There was a metallic tasting film on the inside of my mouth, a sure sign we were getting exposed to radiation. Rose was having a staring contest with the biggest frog I'd ever seen; It was bigger than her head!

She didn't look away from the mutant frog (I got the feeling they were sizing each other up) but still answered. "You said it would take too long. Remember?"

"A few days longer; and it would have been better than radiation poisoning!"

"We have Rad-Away, don't we?" The frog croaked at her, and they each took a step (or hop) closer, closing the gap between them.

"Yeah, but-"

"And we've both taken Rad-X, right?" The gap got smaller, but neither one blinked or looked away.

"Of course-"

"Then there's no problem." The frog leapt at her, its mouth wide open (The teeth on that thing! It was like a bear trap!) and Rose reared up, then brought both front hooves down on it. Hard. SPLAT! It popped, coating her forelegs in... It was disgusting, let's just say that. "We move quickly, don't stop unless we have to, and we get out as soon as we can."

I stared at her in disgust as she washed her legs in one of the pools of murky water. "Rose, you have some major issues. You do know that, right?"

"That's beside the point, Ibis." She blinked at me. "We should get moving. There are more frogs." With one hoof, she indicated the thick, murky bog her former nemesis had popped out of. I shuddered when something warty and greenish-black moved; it looked larger than a hellhound. There were other frogs, too, now that I took a proper look. They were in the mud, on the trees, just watching us hungrily. At least there weren't many of the big ones.

We set off again, watching our backs in case the slimy horde decided to follow us. They didn't. They did start eating the dead one, though. Yuck.


By my best bet, it was late evening when we found the cave. Hard to tell, because between the thick canopy and the rain that had started up, there was almost no light this deep in the swamp. We'd had to bring out our lamps to avoid falling into the countless stagnant pools that made up the swamp, and a dry cave seemed like paradise after the dank, insect infested hellhole we'd been trudging through for hours. Even the pair of feral ghoul ponies wandering around outside hadn't deterred us; finding a place to rest was more important than avoiding a fight. Not that it was much of a fight. Rose brought the jerky-ponies down with two shots, and I threw them into the undergrowth. Let the frogs eat them, if they could.


I whistled and played my light along the cave walls; it went further back than I could see, sloping quickly downwards. "This place is impressive, alright. Feels... important... for some reason." I looked at Rose and she nodded.

"Yeah... Like there's something here, hidden... Wanna search?" She started trotting in place, eager to explore.

"First, let's see that shoulder." She groaned and calmed down so I could examine her. There was a small bruise, but nothing major. Must've been tender, though, because she bit me when I poked it. "OW! Rose, leggo! OW!! That hurts!"

Looking ashamed, she let my claw go. I rubbed it and glared at her. "Well, at least you've got your strength back." My glare softened into a smile. "In fact, I think you're even stronger than you used to be. Come here, I want to check you out properly." She shivered as I ran my claws over her body, giving her a once over. The past few days had done wonders for her. She was happy and well fed, and it showed. Her muscles finally had their old strength back, and she could walk and talk all day if she had to. I checked her hooves, to make sure she hadn't hurt them or gotten something stuck in them, then her legs to be sure they weren't swollen after slogging through knee-deep water most of the day. She cooed when I rubbed her shoulders and sides, then squeaked as I gave her sodden, tangled tail a tug, trying to get some of the gunk out of it. Okay, I was also messing with her, but just a little. She liked having her tail played with, and I was feeling flirty now that we were out of the rain.

"IBIS!" Rose glared at me, her cheeks bright red, and I laughed.

"Your tail's a mess, Red. So's your mane. Want me to brush them for you?" I gave her my most innocent smile. She wasn't fooled.

With a snort, she pulled away from me and sat down out of my reach. "I can do that myself, thank you." She used her hooves to start pulling swamp crap from her mane and tail, throwing it at me. I laughed and hopped out of range until she'd cleaned herself off. Her mane and tail were, if not clean, then cleaner, but she just sat there, sullenly staring at the wall and ignoring me.

With a sigh, I sat beside her and put my arm around her shoulders. "Sorry, Red. Too far, too fast?"

She rested her head against me. "No... I just... didn't expect it, that's all... I like it when you do that, but..."

"It makes you feel 'twitchy', right?"

She gave a little nod, and turned so she could smile at me. "Yeah... a little... But I still like it."

"Want me to do it again?"

"No... Not right now... I wanna explore, see what's in here." I laughed; there was no way I could turn down that eager face.

"Okay, but we'll eat first, then explore, okay?"

She nodded eagerly and I laughed again, thinking to myself how interesting the night was going to be. I didn't realize it then, but it was going to be a lot more interesting than I'd bargained for.


FOOTNOTE: 25% PROGRESS TO NEXT LEVEL




A/N: This chapter was gonna be longer, but I decided to split it up into a couple of parts. Can anyone guess what's going to happen next?

Thanks to KKat for creating the awesome FoE world, to Winter Storm for being a huge help, and to everyone that's been reading so far! You guys are AWESOME!

Chapter 8: Bluff

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---CHAPTER 8: Bluff---

Uh, yes! Obviously, that's why I zipped my mouth closed, then locked it with a key, then dug a hole, then buried the key, then built a house up top the hole where I buried the key, then moved into the house atop the hole.

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"Fucking Rad-Away. Goes through me like a herd of rampaging Brahmin." Muttering, I finished relieving myself and went back into the medical office proper, pleased and surprised that not only was there a private bathroom for the (long dead) doctor, but that the water was still running. Stable-Tec really built things to last, even if the water looked about as clean as a raider's plot-hole.

"Find anything useful?" I had to raise my voice so Rose could hear me; The horde of feral ghouls screaming and smashing against the door and window, determined to get in and tear us apart, was fucking loud. Again, Stable-Tec did a good job. We'd locked the door as soon as we ducked in, and the window could probably take a grenade without a problem, so we were safe. For now...

Rose pulled her head out of a small box, spitting some orange packets of Rad-Away onto the pile of stuff she'd been gathering. "We're well stocked on Rad-X and Rad-Away, Ibis." She scratched her head with her bandaged hoof. "Half the containers in here are full of anti-radiation supplies, almost like..." Her voice trailed off and she looked thoughtful.

"Almost like...?" I waved my claw at her to continue, trying to ignore the howling, rotting army only meters away.

"Something doesn't seem right, that's all. Maybe if I could get into the terminal, I'd know more..." She shrugged, indicating the computer which, despite her best efforts, had refused to surrender it's secrets. "But right now, I'm just suspicious. We've got enough anti-radiation supplies to last years, but only a couple of the containers were open when we got here. Most of the ponies outside are wearing Stable barding, which means they were the original inhabitants. But... And this is the important part... They're all ghouls."

I groaned. "Rose, what's your point?"

Rose blinked at me. "A Stable full of Ghouls and anti-radiation supplies. It doesn't add up, that's all." she turned to another box and started emptying it, leaving me to stare through the thick window at the jerky ponies. Yep, they were wearing Stable barding alright. Most of them had pip-bucks on, as well... Didn't pip-bucks have some kind of radiation detector? Rose had said something about it ages ago, after our little adventure in the Robronco building.

Okay, so we had ghouls equipped with rad detectors, in a protective underground bunker stocked with anti-rad meds, that seemed to be the source of all the radiation in the area. Now alarm bells were starting to go off in the back of my head. "Rose... It takes a lot of radiation to turn someone into a ghoul..."

Rose pulled her head out of her latest box and looked at me, a pair of glasses she'd just found perched on her muzzle. "A whole lot of radiation. A balefire bomb can do it in minutes, or..."

"Or?"

"Or a damaged reactor could, but that would take years."

"A damaged... Reactor?"

She nodded at me. "Yes."

"Stables use reactors, don't they?"

"Yes. Big ones."

"And if it was damaged... And they couldn't get out..."

"Then they were doomed from the start."

We stared at each other. "Ibis, we're in a Stable, surrounded by feral ghouls, and there's a reactor leaking radiation somewhere below us. Pass the Rad-Away?"

I threw Rose two packets of the orange flavored crud; We had plenty to spare. She tore the tops off and swallowed the contents, then started fidgeting. "Um..." She looked embarassed, and I sighed.

"Little mare's room is in the back, Rose."

She ran for it, making me chuckle. At least I could hold it after taking Rad-Away.

Turning to the boxes and piles of debris Rose had left behind, I started sorting and going over the last few hours in my head.

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We'd had a light meal before starting to explore the cave, and it had quickly become clear there was something worth hiding down there.

We followed the natural slope of the cave as it descended, playing our lights across the floor and walls. A small rivulet of water wound its way through the stones, and we had to be careful not to slip. For long minutes, we walked in near-silence, listening to the drip-drip-drip of water seeping in from above, until I almost tripped over Rose.

"Careful, Red! Warn me when you're gonna stop!" I glared at her and she blinked in reply, mumbling around her lamp's mouthgrip and pointing one hoof at a large, rusted sign that was bolted to the cave wall. I pointed my light (which was held in my claws) at it to get a better look.

STABLE 77 - PLEASE HAVE ID AND ENTRY PAPERS READY

"A Stable, huh?" Rose nodded and mumbled something else at me. I groaned. "I can't understand you with that thing in your mouth, Red."

She set her lamp on the ground and looked up at me. "I said, Stables have medical bays and armories. We should definitely check it out."

"How the hell would you know that?" I stared at her. I'd never been in a Stable before, and I was pretty sure she hadn't been anywhere near one either.

Rose blinked at me again. "Read it back in the Robronco building. The CEO had a file about them on his terminal, and I read it before playing the... the audio logs..." She shuddered, and so did I. You don't forget hearing something like that...

"So, an armory and a medical bay?" I let out a triumphant laugh; Yeah, it was forced. Anything to take our minds off of those logs... "Guess we struck gold, then!" Rose nodded.

"If the Stable isn't sealed, of course."

"Sealed?"

"Yeah. Stables are shelters, after all. They were designed to be self-sufficient for hundreds of years, then open when it was safe enough for the ponies inside to leave and start rebuilding."

"They're meant to open when it's safe, huh?" She nodded again. "Well, I wouldn't call the middle of a radioactive swamp safe, but you never know. They could still be living down here. Just... Cut off from the rest of the world." Neither of us really believed that, and we were a lot more cautious as we proceeded deeper; There hadn't been any signs of life so far, just the occasional bone fragment or scrap of cloth. I loosened my knife in its sheath, while Rose made sure her rifle was loaded and easy to reach in its holster on her back.


Not long after the sign, the tunnel leveled out, leading us on a straight path to the Stable and whatever lay within. Despite our caution, we didn't see anything more dangerous than some small radroaches.

We paused and killed our lights, hearing something moving ahead of us. Slowly, my knife ready, I crept forwards to peek around the corner... The cave opened up a little, with a metal wall at the far end. From where I was, I could see a large gear-shaped opening, with flickering lights in the room beyond. Between us and the opening, which I guessed was the entrance to the Stable, was a lone ghoul, growling and stalking back and forth. I slipped back to Rose and told her what I'd seen.

"Just one?" Her ear twitched.

"Yeah. Think you can get it on the first shot?"

"...I could... But if there's other ghouls around..." They'd hear the shot. I got the point and, after I snuck up on the ghoul, so did he... she? Hard to tell what it used to be. Rose came trotting up behind me to inspect my handiwork.

"That was quiet."

"Ambushes are a specialty of mine, Red." I grinned at her and wiped my knife off on the thing's barding. Rose blinked at me.

"Of course they are." She turned and led the way towards the Stable proper. The closer we got, the more the feathers on the back of my neck stood up. Pony bones littered the floor, a few unreadable signs scattered amongst the remains. The stink of decay and damp, rusted metal began to grow, until we stopped just outside the opening. We sidled up to the edge of the entrance and I poked my head in cautiously, making sure it was safe.

The room beyond was dominated by machinery, the floor covered in metal gratings and panels. A huge gear-shaped thing, likely the door itself, was resting in a grooved track to one side of the entrance, some big, heavy-duty looking thing jammed into the back of it. Rust covered everything, giving it the appearance of some industrial nightmare. Water dripped from cracks in the concrete ceiling, running down the walls and vanishing through the grated floor, leaving dark stains where it had worn down the walls over untold years. A single light flickered in the ceiling, providing shaky illumination, but still good enough to show me that the room was clear.

I slipped in and motioned for Rose to follow. We stowed our lights in our packs and checked the area properly, being as quiet as possible; It was looking pretty unlikely that we'd find friendly ponies waiting for us. A door at the back of the room must have led deeper into the Stable, but it was closed. A small security checkpoint was visible through a window, accessible through an open door tucked into the corner.

How did I know it was a security checkpoint? Easy. The grimy glass looked damn thick (I didn't realise it at the time, but all Stable windows are reinforced. Overkill, much?), I could see a gun locker inside, and it clearly said SECURITY on a softly glowing sign above the door.

Rose tapped her hoof against the floor to get my attention, then pointed at a control panel someone had gutted, wires and bits sticking out everywhere. "Door controls." She whispered. "Somepony wanted out, badly."

I nodded. "Any idea why?"

"No. But let's be careful... Something doesn't feel right here..."

"I know what you mean." Pausing to spit (the metallic taste was getting stronger, but I didn't think much of it at the time), I stalked over to the security office, while Rose went the other way, checking out some machinery that lined the walls.


The monitors and control panels were caked in dust and filth; Nothing had disturbed them for years, at least. I tried the locker, and cursed quietly when it refused to open. About twenty seconds later, the lock broke open and I sheathed my knife; Who needs to pick a lock when you can just force it? Pulling the (oddly flimsy, considering it was used by security) door open, I looked inside. A couple of 10mm bullets and a retractable baton. Talk about disappointing. Still, I shoved them in my bag (to sell later) before inspecting the security room a little better. A pair of filthy, rotting chairs at the desk/control station, a worn out poster of a pink pony stared at me from the wall (FOREVER!), and... Hey, some playing cards! The security ponies must have been playing when... something... happened. I turned over the cards, curious to see who would have won that hand... hoof? Whatever.

First off, the pair on the left... Two Nines. A good draw. And now for the other pair... Queen and Ace of Spades. Blackjack.

Nothing beats Blackjack.

With a smirk, I collected all the cards and popped them into one of my belt pouches. Rose would love to have a deck of her own.

With my little search completed, I went back into the entry room, spotting a white flank poking out of a... Why did Rose seem to like crawling inside generators so much? her tail flicked back and forth, and I could hear a muffled clanking as I snuck up behind her. It looked like this generator was meant to power the big, gear-shaped door, but time and water seepage had taken its toll on the machine. Even I could tell it was useless. I stepped to one side and tapped my claw on Rose's flank; her back hoof lashed out purely from reflex, like I'd thought it would. You don't spend months near someone you love without learning their quirks, after all. She squirmed free and blinked at me, grease on her cheek. "What?"

"Find anything in there?"

"Spare parts. You?"

I grinned, pulling out the pack of cards. "Well... I did find these... And I already have a deck of my own..." Her eyes widened and she stared at the cards.

"Gimme."

"Oh, did you want these?" She nodded rapidly, eyes focused on her prize. "I was going to sell them in the next town, but if you really want them..." Her head was moving so fast it was starting to blur, so I leaned close and dropped my voice to a low, intimate whisper. "Give me a kiss, and they're all yo-"

Rose hit me with the most amazing kiss I'd ever had in my life; Our tongues entwining, her lips pressed to my beak in unbreakable passion, her hooves holding my head still so I couldn't pull away. My wings snapped wide open (a little embarassing), my fur and feathers stood on end, and my brain exploded. It felt like my entire body was on fire, every part of me going haywire.

When that heavenly mouth left mine, I was gasping for air, my eyes rolling wildly in their sockets. Rose had taken kissing and turned it into a weapon of griffin destruction! Weakly, I raised the claw holding the cards to my red-maned goddess. She smiled at me, took the deck in her mouth and tucked it into her saddlebag. "Thank you!... Uh... Ibis?" Her cheeks went a little red.

"Y-yeah?" I tried to focus on her, but my world was spinning too much.

"You... made a bit of a mess." She pointed her hoof at my underside, and I managed to clear my head enough to take a look. Ah, fuck. I was hanging free and proud... and the kiss had blown more than just my mind.

"That's... never happened to me before." I grinned at her sheepishly, trying to cover myself with my talons and wings.

She snorted and turned away. "Of course it hasn't." I winced at the sarcasm, but noticed she was still watching me out of the corner of her eye. It wasn't my face she was paying attention to, either.


I used some rags from my pack to clean myself off. "Seriously, that's the first time I've ever..."

"Emptied your clip?" She snickered, still not looking straight at me.

"Very funny. I'm not some innocent little hatchling, Red, and this isn't my first relationship."

"Oh?" She turned to face me straight-on, glaring. "Am I just another conquest, then?"

"What?" I faceclawed. Don't tell me she was jealous! "Rose, it's nothing like that! Hell, all the other girls I've been with were griffins! The only time I ever 'emptied my clip', as you so eloquently put it, was when we were fucking! And trust me when I say it was just sex with them!"

"And with me?" Her glare was ice-cold. Yeah, she was jealous all right.

I sighed. "Rose, do you honestly think I'd be after you if all I wanted was a good time?" She blinked at me, glare softening a little, and I stepped closer to her. "We've never had sex, not even once, have we?" She shook her head. "I told you that I love you, and I meant it. You know that." A nod this time. "I'm just saying, I may be your first boyfried, but you're not my first girlfriend. Understand?" Another nod, and the glare was almost gone. I stood next to her and put my wing over her as I kissed her cheek. "I don't care about any of my past relationships, because I have you now, and I wouldn't trade what we have for anything in the world. So... We good?"

Rose smiled and kissed my cheek in return. "We're good, Ibis." She pressed her head against my shoulder, making me smile. Under my wing like that, she looked so small. "Ibis..."

"Yeah?"

"Are griffins like chickens? Is a female called a hen?"

I laughed and tried to swat the back of her head; She ducked my claw and headbutted me, so I got her in a headlock and she bit me, trying to pull out some feathers. We fought for a minute, then a low, raspy growl made us freeze.


Something was moving behind the closed door.


We immediately split, Rose taking position in the entrance to the cave, her rifle aimed at the sealed door. I slid along the wall, my knife ready, until I could reach the switch that would open the door. I raised my claw, signing to Rose that I'd open it on the count of three. She nodded in confirmation and steadied her hooves, the mouthgrip of her rifle secure between her teeth.


One...

Two...

Three!


With a mechanical click-hiss, the door slid open and out stepped... A massive feral ghoul that glowed bright green. Snarling, it lunged at me and I slammed my knife between its eyes, stabbing over and over again as we hit the ground, trying to kill it before it could tear my throat out. We were struggling too much for Rose to get a clean shot off, and I was a little chewed up before it finally stopped moving. Rose holstered her rifle and ran up to help me get out from under it. Fucking thing was as big as me!

Once free, I retched. It tasted like I had a mouthful of filthy water and blood, and I realized what the glowing ghoul was: A Glowing One! A type of ghoul radioactive enough that just being near one was dangerous. I'd heard about them, but never seen one. I explained all this to Rose as I dosed myself up with Rad-Away and a healing potion.

"Looks like the Stable might be more dangerous than we thought..." Rose mused, standing well back from the deceased glow-pony. I couldn't blame her for being cautious; it was still glowing a little.

"Yeah... Still think it's worth going in?" I stepped behind a bank of machines to piss; I'd never met anyone, pony, griffin, zebra or other, who didn't have to piss after taking Rad-Away.

At least the tangy orange-flavoured stuff got the horrible taste of radiation poisoning out of my mouth.

Rose blinked at me; my head and shoulders were still visible over the rusty machinery. "Of course. We just have to be super careful now, that's all."

I groaned. She was determined to check it out, no matter what.


We both took some Rad-X before passing through the now open door; If there was one Glow-Pony down there, there'd be more. We took our time, moving silently and checking each corner before turning. Open rooms were inspected quickly, while closed ones were ignored in case of... surprises.


I dunno if you've ever been in a Stable, but they are horrible. The halls were so small I couldn't stretch my wings properly, and if I reared up I could almost touch the ceiling with my claws. Small puddles had gathered on the floor in places, some still and stagnant, others fresh and fed by water that trickled and dripped from cracks in the walls. The stench of decay was so strong that I had to breathe through my mouth, lest I choke on the still, dead air.

And to think, ponies had lived here once! What right-minded creature would willingly hide in a place like this, knowing they'd never seen the sky again?! Or clouds, whatever...

No. They weren't in their right minds. The ponies, the zebras, everyone who was involved in that futile, idiotic war... None of them could possibly have been sane. If they were, they would have seen what was happening, found a way to stop it before it was too late, before everything was wiped out.

Instead, they built shelters, the Stables, like they were planning for mutual destruction.

Fuck it. They were dead, we were alive. The past meant nothing, and only the future was important now. My future, Rose's future... Our future.


I smiled at Rose as we took a break in a large atrium, thinking about Our Future. Maybe we'd settle down eventually, find a nice town someplace far away and build a house there. Interspecies marriage isn't unheard of, and the mental image of Rose in a wedding dress was stunning. Kids, though... Well, there was always adoption. Celestia knows there are plenty of orphans out there, after all. Didn't matter what species they were, I'd love them like they were our real kids. Something told me Rose would be a great mother, too.

Yeah, I'd started using Celestia for my oaths and the like. Luna, too. Seemed right, after they'd answered my prayers and kept Rose alive like that.

Rose blinked at me. "Ibis, you're staring." Huh?

"No I'm not!" I was. I shook my head and glanced around; The atrium was pretty big, a couple of stories tall, with walkways and windows along the walls. "I was just thinking, that's all."

She blinked at me again. "Thinking? What about?"

I grinned at her. "That's for me to know, and you to guess." With a flap of my wings, I leapt into the air. The atrium was big enough that I could fly a little, and it was a relief to stretch my cramped wings. I circled lazily, landing on the second floor and having a quick look through the biggest window, one which had a clear view of the entire atrium; beyond it was a decent sized room, dominated by a huge horseshoe... ponyshoe? shaped desk, with monitors covering the back wall. Keypads and control panels were everywhere, but I couldn't work out what they did. Hey, I was on the other side of thick, dirty glass, remember? You try figuring out pre-war tech when you can't even see it clearly.

All the doors on that level were closed, so I dropped back down to Rose. "Ready to move out?" She nodded, and we resumed our careful exploration, heading for the dorms next.


The dormitories were a maze. A few terminals were still active, despite their age and the conditions in the Stable (talk about craftsponyship), and Rose had pulled some messages (A birthday, some ponies arranging a date, that sort of thing) from them. Only one had anything of interest though; A maintenance report from a few years after the Stable was sealed, stating that most of the vital equipment was operating perfectly, including the water talisman. That caught my eye; a water talisman would be worth a fortune if it was still working. Rose agreed with me, and it got added to our list of priorites.

We kept moving, clearing the dorms one room at a time, listening at each door before we opened it, then closing it behind us when we moved on. I'd started to relax as we searched, since we hadn't encountered any more ghouls, normal or glowing.


If you ever find yourself in a Stable, or abandoned building, or someplace that you don't know for sure is safe, then don't relax. Ever.


I hit the switch to open the cafeteria door (I hadn't heard anything inside) and poked my head in. Most of the lights had failed, plunging the room into a darkness barely alleviated by the few flickering lights that remained. After a moment, my eyes adjusted, and what I saw almost made my heart stop. Dozens of ghouls lurked in the darkness, growling and bumping into each other, like an army of zombies. Thankfully, they hadn't seen me yet, so I slipped back into the hall, signed 'Danger' to Rose, and pressed the button to close the door.

Instead of the now familiar click-hiss, there was a screech as the hydraulics jammed, followed by screams and howls as the feral ghouls inside went nuts, rushing towards the source of the noise: The door we were standing in front of. Rose and I ran for it, stopping at the next intersection. While I tried to decide what way to go, Rose drew her rifle and opened fire, emptying her clip into the oncoming horde. The ones in front fell, tripping the ones behind, and I had just enough time to spot the sign saying MEDICAL before I heard Rose grunt in pain.

I twisted, ready to kill whatever had hurt my precious flower, but she was already taking care of it. A ghoul had blindsided her, coming from a side corridor and knocking her down. Her foreleg was bleeding from where the foul thing had managed to bite her, and her rifle was laying a few feet away, knocked from her grip. Before I could take the two steps to get to them, Rose tore her leg free of the jerky pony's mouth and punched it repeatedly, caving the zombie's head in before struggling free. She looked at her bleeding leg, then at me. "Ow." The howling, screaming horde was getting closer, only slowed for a few seconds as they tripped over their dead friends.

"FUCK!" Grabbing Rose (she squeaked), I started running, cursing the idiot ponies who had built the Stable with such small hallways and heading in the direction the medical sign had indicated. Rose was squirming in my arms as I ran.

"My gun!" She yelled, trying to get free.

"We'll get it later!" I yelled back, looking for another sign. There! I ducked into the marked door, slapping the switch and praying it would close in time. It did, and I slumped back against it.

"Thank Celestia..." I sighed in relief, then screamed in pain. Rose bit me, hard, and I dropped her with a thud. She sat up and glared at me, her ear twitching.

"I dropped my gun."

I glared right back at her. Griffin vs Pony, the ultimate stare-off! "So what?"

"I want it back."

"Get it later."

"But I want it now."

"Too bad." I waved my claw at the window, the jerky horde howling and smashing against it. "In case you didn't notice, we're kinda trapped in here, and the most dangerous thing we've got is my knife."

"We also have your breath, Ibis." I opened my mouth to say something impolite, but stopped when she nuzzled my neck. "I lost my gun, Ibis. It's all I had, and I dropped it when that ghoul bit me." Most people thought Rose had a flat, emotionless voice, but I could hear how sad she was. I rested my claw on the back of her head, rubbing her mane softly.

"Hey, you've still got me, Red." I lifted her head up and smiled at her. "And we'll get your gun back as soon as we can. You won't lose anything else, not while I'm here."

She smiled a little, but she still looked sad. "Promise?"

"I promise." We shared a huge hug, then I used some supplies from the medical boxes to clean and bandage her foreleg. It wasn't too bad, once I cleaned the blood off, but I still disinfected it thoroughly. Who knows what you can catch from ghouls?


And that brings us back to right now.

---------------------------------------------------------------

The toilet flushed and Rose came back in, still wearing her glasses. I looked up from the pile of stuff in front of me and laughed at the look of disgust on her face. "Yeah, the water is kinda gross. Hope you didn't get any on yourself."

She snorted and plonked herself down in front of me, the assorted boxes, junk and medical stuff between us. "I hate Stables."

I laughed again. "I'm not too fond of them myself, Red..." With a sigh, I turned to more serious matters. "Any idea how we'll get out of here?"

She shook her head and stared at me. The glasses she was wearing made her look really cute. Smart, too. "Nope. We'd need weapons to deal with them," Her bandaged hoof waved at the window and our insane, undead audience. "but we're in medical, not the armory or security station."

"How are we on supplies?"

"Food for a week, maybe two if we ration it. Same with water, unless..." Her grey eyes wandered to the bathroom.

"No way in hell, Red." That stuff looked almost as dangerous as the ghouls.

She shrugged. "Then we've got a week to escape... If our friends out there don't drive us crazy or break in first." She had a point; The howling and banging was already getting on my nerves, and I couldn't imagine trying to sleep through it. Instead of voicing my concerns, though, I said something far more useful.

"Those glasses make you look like a scientist or something, Red." I laughed.

Rose just blinked at me through the lenses. "Uh, thanks?"

"No, I mean it! They make you look smart!"

She bristled. "And I don't look smart without them?"

Crap. "I meant smarter, Rose. Calm down!" She settled down, then looked at me funny.

"I feel smarter, too."

"Maybe you can get into the terminal now?" I joked, shrugging.

Rose returned my shrug. "Maybe." She trotted over to the desk, hopped onto the chair, and starting tapping away. I followed and stood behind her, watching my little mare work.

Lines of code flashed across the screen, bathing us in its green glow and looking for all the world like some forbidden magical incantation. Words, sentences, complete gibberish and wierd symbols scrolled and changed, Rose working her magic on the system, until...

ACCESS GRANTED - WELCOME, DOCTOR

Rose grinned, proud of herself. "Well done, Red." I messed up her mane playfully. "You're a genius!" She looked up at me, smiling, and I rewarded her efforts by planting a kiss on her lips. Blushing, she turned back to the terminal.

"Give me a minute, and I'll see if there's anything useful on here."

I watched her go through files, the words flashing up just long enough for her to skim the contents, then move onto the next log. "Medical histories, mostly. Not very surprising." She spoke as she read. "Most common complaint was... Symptoms matching radiation sickness. A note to the Overstallion; seems the Pipbucks weren't picking up any radiation, but the ponies working near the reactor were suffering from advanced exposure less than six months after the Stable was sealed. A response from the Overstallion, saying that... Huh. He said that the Pipbucks were fine, and that the reactor had been inspected and certified by Stable-Tec only a month before they entered. Then he... Well, that's strange."

Rose looked at me, her ear twitching. "The Overstallion ordered the doctor to stop distributing anti-rad medicine, because rumors of a radiation leak would, and I quote: 'Cause unnecessary panic, threatening the well-being of all residents of Stable 77'."

I stared at her. "Guess that explains the ghouls outside, then."

She nodded. "And the surplus meds, too."


Rose went back to typing, and I watched our 'friends' through the reinforced glass. The Overstallion had signed their death warrants with that order; I wondered if he was one of the ferals, or if he'd just died of rad poisoning... And why hadn't the Pipbucks picked anything up? Maybe they were defective, but after seeing how well Stable-Tec usually built things, that just didn't seem right to me...

"Ibis... Ibis!" I turned to see Rose glaring at me.

"Sorry, I was... lost in thought." Her ear twitched.

"Whatever. I found some design documents." I leaned over her shoulder to see the map she'd brought on-screen. "It shows all the corridors and rooms in the Stable, and the important ones are labeled."

"Where are we?" I studied the green lines and shapes. Rose tapped the screen, pointing out where it said 'MEDICAL'.

"Right here. And the armory is here." She tapped another, quite close, spot. "One level down, by the security offices."

"If this is accurate... Then we'd have to leave this room, take a left, second left after that, and hope the elevator works." Rose turned a little green just thinking about riding the elevator, so I kept talking. "But it probably won't, so that's a right turn down a long corridor, and then we could use the stairs... Only problem is..."

"Only problem is: I don't think the ghouls will let us just waltz on through."

I groaned. "So, we need weapons to clear out the ghouls, and we need to get past the ghouls to get the weapons. Great! Just fucking great!"

Rose studied the map some more. "There... might be another way, Ibis."

I leaned over her again, trying to see what she was talking about. "I don't see it. What do you mean, Red?"

"Vents." She pointed out a set of thin lines that ran across the entire map. "They go to every room, including this one." I glanced around the room; There, near the ceiling, was a round vent cover.

"Rose, there's no way I can fit in there."

"I can." She stared at me, already set on carrying out her plan.

"You're not going in there. It's too dangerous."

"I'll be safer in there than I am in here, Ibis."

"Look-"

She cut me off. "We need weapons. There's only one safe way to get them, and I'm the only one that can fit. I'll have my light with me, and I'll take a rope; it should be quite a drop to the next level, after all."

I groaned. "You're not gonna change your mind, are you?"

"Nope."

"Fine. Let's just get this over with, then."


I used my knife to pry the rusted cover free from the vent; It looked even smaller than I'd thought, and I started to have fresh doubts. "You sure about this? What if you run into something in there or get lost?"

Rose snorted and headbutted me softly. "I'll be fine, Ibis. I memorised the route, and the only thing I'm likely to see is bugs. Little ones." She looked up at me, and I could see she was more nervous than she let on. "But you'd better be here when I get back, okay? Barricade the door and lock yourself in the bathroom if you have to. Take our supplies in with you, as well." Her head was pressed against my chest now, voice wavering. "And don't come out until I get back, understand? I already lost my gun, I don't wanna lose you, too..." I wrapped my arms around her, holding her tightly.

"I'll be fine, Rose, don't worry. I'll be here, waiting for you, so don't be long." She pulled away and gave herself a shake, back to being determined and unstoppable, smiling at me as she went through our packs, looking for the stuff she needed. The rope went around her shoulders and her light was thrown into the vent, clanging as it landed.

"I'll hurry, then... Uh..." She blushed, her ears going flat. "Pick me up? I can't reach the vent." I laughed.

"Okay, short stuff." I swept her up and started to lift her to the hole, when she started squirming.

"Wait! Turn me around!" When I turned her so we were facing each other, she blushed. "Kiss me? For luck."

"For luck." Smiling, I kissed her. Then another, deeper kiss. "That one was because I love you. Hurry up, so I can give you a 'welcome back' kiss, too." She nuzzled my cheek, her face bright red. She was still wearing the glasses, too, and that made her even cuter.

"I'll be as fast as I can, Ibis."

I lifted her up again; She hooked her front hooves on the edge of the hole and crawled inside. "Okay... Here I go..." I watched her white butt and red tail vanish as she crawled down the vent, regretting letting her go, desperately hoping she'd be okay, that nothing would happen while we were apart.

"Be careful!" I called after her. The reply was muffled; she must have had her light in her mouth. The unmistakable sound of something falling came out of the hole a few moments later, and my heart leapt into my mouth. "Are you okay?!" I was on the verge of going in after her when she answered, her voice tinged with dissappointment as it echoed back to me.

"I lost my glasses."

My heart started beating again and I let out a relieved laugh. "I'll get you another pair, don't worry. Just... be more careful. I don't want to lose you, Rose."

"Ibis..."

"Yeah?"

"I love you."

I smiled to myself. "I love you too, Rose." The sounds of crawling and scraping were the only response I got; She'd started moving again, and even they faded after a few minutes, leaving me to wait in... Not silence, that's for sure. The ghouls outside were as noisy as ever.

---------------------------------------------------------------

An hour passed. An hour where all I could do was watch the vent and wait impatiently. I tried telling myself that Rose would be fine; She wasn't claustrophobic, she was strong enough to handle a ghoul or two if the armory wasn't empty, and she'd memorized the map, so there was no way she'd get lost.

Nothing could go wrong... Right?

I sighed and turned away from the vent, starting to search the room for anything I could use as a weapon. Rose might have gotten stuck, or couldn't reach the vent to come back up, and I'd need something better than my knife to go get her.

Of course, if there'd been any weapons in Medical, Rose wouldn't have had to go to the armory. The most dangerous thing I found was an old bonesaw, and it was too rusted to be much use. Still, I found myself looking through the window, counting the ghouls and trying to work out a quick way of getting through them all.


Go out slashing with my knife and the bonesaw? They'd overwhelm me.

Just run for it? Too many jerky ponies in the way.

Fly past them? Walls too close together, ceiling too low.


I groaned. Going out there would be suicide. Still, I kept looking. A room just down the hall was open, and might be safe if I was quick enough to get in and close the door, but then I'd just be trapped in a different room. The intersection was too far away... There was a vent on the corridor wall, out of reach of the ghouls, but it was too small for me to fit into, just like the one Rose had gone into... Huh?

I blinked and looked at the vent again. Was that... a face? It was! A familiar face, spots of white showing through dirt and grime, was visible through the vent cover's bars!

ROSE WAS OKAY! On the wrong side of the window, sure, but she was okay! I cheered and punched the air as Rose mouthed something to me.


Get.

Down.


A couple of what looked like metal apples fell from the vent, hitting the floor as the white face vanished.

I stared for a second, then realized what she'd just dropped into the hall: Grenades.


Swearing, I hit the deck. A few seconds later: BOOM! The explosions rattled the window and door, but Stable-Tec had done it again; The sound was muffled, barely louder than a shotgun blast, and I slowly climbed to my feet.


It was impossible to see through the window; it was scorched and covered by splattered ghoul bits. Instead, I pulled my knife (just in case something had survived), and opened the door.

The hall was a mess. Scorched by the grenades, painted by jerky pony guts and THE SMELL! I could taste the air!

Coughing, I picked my way through the carnage, heading for the vent I'd last seen Rose in. Forget about salvage; feral ghouls don't carry much of value anyway, and the blast had destroyed what little they did have.

I banged on the vent cover and yelled into it, trying not to cough too much. "R-Rose! You okay in there?"

The white face reappeared. "Found the armory, Ibis. They had grenades." She smiled.

"No shit! You got more of those?" I had to stand back a little to get a good look into the vent; it was a few inches above my head when I was standing on just my hindpaws. Still couldn't see much more than a dirty, happy face, but I'd missed her so much it was great to even glimpse her through those bars.

"Lots. I'll meet you at the armory, Ibis. The way should be clear." She vanished as I yelled after her.

"Wait!" Nope. The scuffling and scrambling sounds faded away. Groaning, I tried to remember the directions to the armory, then grabbed our bags from Medical before setting off, checking corners and being cautious. Stopped in the intersection to grab Rose's rifle, too; losing it like that had really upset her.


After I found the first group of exploded ghouls, I stopped worrying. Rose had cleared the way before coming to get me, dropping grenades from vents and leaving a huge mess in her wake. I was impressed by how much carnage she'd managed to wreak; there was easily two or three dozen deceased ghouls between Medical and the armory, and only one had still been 'alive' when I reached it. I put the ugly thing out of its misery, and kept moving.


I arrived in the armory without further incident, and just in time to see Rose (covered head-to-hoof in dirt, dust and crud) squirm free of the vent, using a pile of conveniently stacked boxes as a staircase. Well, that explained how she got back up after raiding the lockers. She shook herself off and leapt at me, laughing. "IBIS!" I caught her and gave her the 'Welcome Back' kiss I'd promised. Then a few more kisses, just for fun, before setting her down.

"I was worried about you, Rose! I thought you'd gotten lost or stuck or something!"

She snorted at me. "I couldn't climb back up the rope, so I had to go the long way round. If I hadn't found that sloped vent, I'd still be looking for a way up."

I laughed and hugged her. "I'm glad you took the long way; those ghouls would have torn me apart if you hadn't blown them up!" Rose looked so proud of herself when I said that!

"Grenades are fun." She stepped back and gave a happy little twirl, showing me the bandoleer she was wearing. It was loaded with grenades, some with white bands on them, a couple with red bands. "Even better than kissing!"

"Are you sure grenades are better than kissing?" I grinned at her, and she blushed. "Maybe we should find out!" Deciding the armory was safe enough for us to take a break, I slapped the door control, sealing us in the room, and took my filthy little mare into my arms for a long, in-depth study of kissing.


That hour apart had been far too long, and we spent a good, long time making up for it.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"So?" I was laying on my back, Rose draped across my chest. We'd thrown our blankets down on the floor so we'd be comfortable while we made out. "Kisses or grenades?" We smiled at each other and exchanged a small, tender kiss.

"Mmmm... Kisses, but only with you." Rose nuzzled against my neck, burying her face in my feathers, and, since my claw was already on her flank, I scratched her cutie mark. She blushed a little. "Ibis... That tickles..."

"Oh?" I raised my eyebrow. "Does it really?" I rubbed her flank some more and started to move my claw lower, down along her leg, and she squeaked.

"Ibis!" She squirmed a little, giggling, then gasped when I slipped my claw to the inside of her leg, closer to her petals than I'd ever touched before. "IBIS!"

I traced small circles in her fur with one talon, teasing her. "Is this okay, Red?" I smiled gently, careful not to go too fast or too far. It was up to Rose how intimate we were; She got to set the boundries, tell me what was okay and what wasn't, and I wouldn't have had it any other way.

She nodded, nervous. "Y-yeah... But... not too close, okay?"

"Okay." I kissed her and kept drawing small circles on her underside, making her moan softly into our kisses, only parting to breathe and speak a few words at a time. "Want me... to get a little... closer?"

With a small gasp, she nodded, her eyes half-closed. "Y-yeah... But I'm... a little... scared..."

"It's okay, Rose. Just tell me... when you... want me... to stop..."

Kissing became more important than speaking then; the only sound was Rose moaning quietly as my claw inched closer, teasing the soft flesh beneath her white coat, drawing, slowly but surely, nearer to her innocence.

Rose pulled away from my beak, panting, half-closed eyes shining with undisguised lust, and just a little fear. "Ibis... I feel... twitchy..."

My talons stopped moving, staying where they were and lightly stroking her damp tenderness. Not even an inch away, my goal awaited; I could feel her heat against my palm as my talons stroked and rubbed the soaked fur around it. "Run-twitchy?" I smiled and slowed the movements of my claw, not wanting to scare her off now that we'd come so far.

"N-no... Different twitchy..." She moaned softly, her lower half moving on its own, revealing her need. "It's... it's good... But..."

Sighing, I started to move my claw up, towards her belly. "You're scared, right?" She nodded, and I gave her an understanding smile. "It's okay. You're just twitchy because you're enjoying it, that's all." The lust in her eyes was driving me nuts; I knew she wanted it as badly as I did, maybe even worse, but she had a lot of stuff to work out, and that would take time. "You know what would happen if I kept going, right?" My claw rubbed her underside, dipping down every few seconds to brush against sensitive spots, making her moan and gasp as I found two little nubs to tease, pinching and rolling them between my talons.

"Y-yeah... I know..." She gasped.

"Do you want me to stop?

Her answer was a deep, lust-filled kiss, her moans of pleasure making it plain what she wanted.

I gave a small tug on the sensitive little piece of flesh I was teasing, getting a loud moan in return, then dipped my claw lower, brushing my palm across her petals, dragging my talons lightly across them as my claw made its way back up to play with the hardened bumps, repeating the motions over and over again, feeling her burning dampness grow. Her hips started to thrust forwards against my claw, her voice getting louder and louder, panting and moaning as we kissed, my every touch bringing her closer to the brink.

"Rose..." My voice low, initimate, I whispered in her ear. "Ready?"

Rose cried out wordlessly, desperate for what was coming, and I pressed one talon against her entrance, giving her a second to understand what I was about to do... Quickly, I thrust it into her while grinding my palm against her pearl, careful not to hurt her with my claws.

She threw her head back and screamed with pleasure, her entire body convulsing against me as, for the first time in her life, she experienced true, unbridled ecstasy.

---------------------------------------------------------------

I stroked Rose's mane. She was still laying on my chest, but now her whole body was limp and sweaty, small tremors running through her slender frame from time to time, still caught in the aftershocks of that single amazing moment. Her grey eyes blinked up at me sleepily, the look of sheer adoration she was giving me blending nicely with the sultry afterglow of her first ever orgasm.

"Ibis..."

"Yeah?"

"That was... wonderful..."

"It gets better, you know."

"You're kidding..."

I smiled and gave her a tender kiss. "That was just a sample." I ran my tongue along the edge of her ear, whispering. "Trust me, Red. You haven't experienced anything yet; I've got a lot more to show you."

She let out a low, exhausted, impossibly sensual moan, and I felt her shudder. "Ibis..."

With a small laugh, I wrapped my arms around her. "Not tonight, right?"

Rose nodded sleepily. "Tired..."

"Alright. We'll save it for later, then..." She'd fallen asleep while I was talking, and I carefully slipped her off my chest so I could sit up, resting her head on our blankets and brushing her messed-up mane from her face with a smile. "Sleep tight, Rose."

So, in an abandoned, radioactive Stable, in the middle of an irradiated swamp, with a torrential storm going on above us, Rose learned just how wonderful it could be to share herself with another, and fell asleep dreaming of the untold pleasures I'd promised.


Smiling, I took some more Rad-X and had a quick look around the armory. Plenty of lockers, a few crates... Something with a large tank and several hoses attached... Carefully, so as not to disturb my sleeping flower, I stood and made my way over to it, dreading what I'd find. My heart sunk when I saw that it was, in fact, what I'd feared.

A flamethrower.

Worse yet, it was still fully fueled.

Remembering the story of how Rose got her name, my blood ran cold. If there was any chance that Rose took after her mother when it came to these things, then there was only one sensible course of action.

Using my claws, my knife and several blunt objects, I sabotaged the flamethrower as much as I could and hid the fuel tank in an empty crate, then locked the crate and broke the key in the lock so it couldn't be opened again. Just for good measure, I shoved the crate to the back of the armory, hiding it behind some other crates and throwing a filthy tarp over the whole lot.

I still didn't feel safe.


Sighing, but only a little afraid for my life and general well-being now, I lay down beside Rose. She looked so peaceful, so content, that I started yawning. Figuring that a locked armory was as good a place as any to get some shut-eye, I made sure Rose's rifle was within reach and loaded, then rested my head on her small chest, listening to her heart beating as I drifted off.

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Never roll over in your sleep if you have a unicorn for a lover. Those horns are sharp, and I can think of better ways to wake up.


I glared at Rose; she was prancing in front of me, freaking out about the bloody rag I was holding against my cheek.

"Sorrysorrysorrysorry!" Her ears were flat against her head and every word came out in a rush. "I didn't mean it honest Ibis and I'm really sorry and please don't leave me I'm really really sorry I didn't know my horn was so sharp and I'll put something on it next time and-"

"Enough!" I dropped the rag and grabbed her muzzle in both claws, fixing her with my sternest gaze. She kept trying to apologize, even though I was holding her mouth closed. "Rose, Stop talking. Breathe." She took a deep breath through her nose, then exhaled. "I'll let you go now, but no talking." She nodded as much as she could, ears still flat, eyes wide with panic. Cautiously, I released her muzzle; her ears twitched and I could tell she wanted to keep apologizing, but because I'd told her not to, she didn't.

"Listen to me, Rose... Are you listening?" She nodded, prancing in place. "Calm down." Her hooves stopped moving, but her tail kept whipping around. Good enough, I guess. "First, it wasn't your fault. Understand?" Another nod. "A healing potion will clear this right up, so don't worry about it. Second..." I picked the rag up and wiped my cheek; the blood had pretty much stopped flowing. "I'm not going to leave you. Ever. Especially over something tiny like this. Got it?" Her head bobbed again. "Do you know why?" A confused blink this time, and I smiled at her. "Because you're my mare, and I'll never leave you alone, no matter what."

Rose's face lit up, making me laugh. "Okay, Rose, you can talk now." She launched herself at me, crying and laughing at the same time. I caught her, her hooves wrapping around me as she sobbed out another apology.

"I'm sorry! I-"

I shut her up with a kiss, then held her as she caught her breath, stroking her head to help her calm down. "Rose, it's okay." I freed one claw from her and fished a healing potion from my belt, pouring it down my beak and turning my head so she could watch the gash heal. "All better, see? Nothing to get worked up about."

"I-"

"If you say you're sorry one more time, I'm going to tape your muzzle closed."

She blinked at me. "But it's my fault you got hurt!"

I sighed, squeezing her until she squeaked a little. "Rose, it's nobody's fault. I knew that this might happen when we started sleeping together, but I didn't care. I still don't. You know why, don't you?"

"Because... I'm... your mare?" Her face was full of hope, and I gave her another kiss as a reward for getting it right. No matter how often I saw her blush, it always brought a thrill to my heart.

"Bingo. Now, give me a smile, so I know you're okay."

She gave me the biggest, happiest smile I'd ever seen in my life.

"Good girl." I squeezed her again, and this time she squeezed back. Damn, she was strong! "Can't... Breathe!" She loosened her death-grip on me, grinning sheepishly.

"Sorry?"

"Right, where's that duct tape?" I reached for my bag and Rose screamed, leaping away from me and scrambling up the pile of boxes in front of the vent, trying to escape. I laughed at her and she spun to face me, terror plain as day on her face.

"Don't tape my muzzle shut! I need it to eat! And kiss!"

"Fine! I was just kidding!" I walked over to the crate, opening my arms. "C'mon, get down here and give me a hug, then we can clear this place out. I bet you'll find some more grenades, too."

She eyed me suspiciously but, after seeing I didn't have a roll of tape on me, she leapt from the boxes into my arms, giggling madly.

After we spent a few minutes hugging, and a few minutes more kissing, we finally got round to searching the armory properly.


Rose let out a little squeal of delight and dragged her discovery out of the dusty locker it had been sitting in for so many years. "Ibis! Look!"

I gave up on the ammo box I was trying to unlock and took a glance at what she'd found. "It's just a dusty old shotgun. What's so special it?"

She rolled her eyes at me and grabbed some rags from her bag to clean the thing. I still didn't get the big deal; we'd come across plenty of shotguns before, They'd all been pieces of shit we'd taken off of former raiders, but what made Rose get so excited about this one?

I got my answer when she finished cleaning the years of accumulated dust from it and held it up with her front hooves so I could get a better look.

The stock was made from some kind of pre-war wood, a deep, luxurious red that no tree in the wasteland could possibly aspire to. The barrel was finely made, even I could see that, thick and solid with floral engravings covering the reciever, where a large drum magazine was still attached.

I took the gun from Rose, turning it over reverently; it was beautiful, alright. Then I saw the words carved into the stock:

The Flowers of Ponyville - D/L/R

I glanced at Rose; She was staring at the carving as well, looking curious. "Ibis... Who are they?" She tapped the three initials with her hoof.

"I... don't know, Rose. Sorry." I shrugged. "But I bet they were really special to each other, since they put their initials on here together."

Rose blinked at me. "I guess... Well, it's your gun now, so take care of it... Needs a name, though." She stared at me, waiting.

I thought for a moment, then the perfect name popped into my mind. "Garden," I whispered, then spoke normally so Rose could hear me. "I'll call it... Garden."

"That's a nice name... Whoever those ponies were, I bet they'd be happy you're looking after their gun." She smiled at me, and I blushed.

"Thanks, Rose." I raised the shotgun to my shoulder to check it out; It was heavy, the sort of thing that ponies would need a battle saddle to use. Peer down the sights, eject the drum and pop it back in, cock it to load a round and rest my claw on... the grip. I fumbled around for a second, then groaned. It was made for ponies, after all. "Uh, Rose? Little problem."

She blinked at me again. "Not made for griffins?"

I nodded. "Not made for griffins."

"I can fix that. Gimme." She took the gun in her mouth and set it on a (fairly clean) work bench, then turned into a white and red whirlwind, darting all over the armory collecting tools and parts while I stared.


It took just over half an hour for Rose to finish, and she proudly pushed the modified gun into my claws. My brain was still trying to catch up with what I'd just seen, though.

"Uh..."

"Like it?" She smiled, obviously pleased with herself. I just nodded dumbly, finally realising that she'd given me the shotgun and taking my first look at it.

The mouthgrip had been removed and replaced with a pistol grip that sat just in front of the stock, while the entire firing mechanism had been modified to work with the new set-up. I raised it again and ran through my checks for the second time; It rested comfortably against my shoulder, and I realised Rose had put some padding on the butt of the stock. The drum popped out and back in even easier than before, and the cocking action was smooth as silk.

"This is incredible, Rose! How the hell did you do it?!"

She was practically bouncing with joy now. "Easy! I just used my hooves!"

I laughed. She really was like an earth pony with a horn. "Will it fire, though?"

Rose stopped bouncing for a second to glare at me. "Of course it will!" She pointed at a crate. "Shoot the lock off that box, if you don't believe me!"

I took a good look at the crate, making sure it wasn't the one I'd hidden the flamer tank in; Nope. This one was labeled 'STABLE SECURITY - RIOT ARMOR.' Guess there was no harm in opening a box of armor. Shrugging, I pressed Garden to my shoulder, took aim, and... Almost dislocated my fucking shoulder!

The lock exploded, torn apart by the blast. "FUCK!" I screamed, flicking the safety on and dumping the shotgun onto the workbench so I could down a healing potion and inject some med-x into my aching arm.

Rose trotted over to the shotgun, poking it with her hooves. "Guess it needs more padding." She blinked at me. "You okay?"

"Luna damn it, that thing's not a shotgun: It's a fucking cannon!" Med-x is a wonderful thing; My shoulder had stopped hurting already, and the healing potion was repairing the damage.

Still, when Rose finished adding more padding and offered me the shotgun again, I eyed it warily before picking it up. "You sure about it this time?"

"I used some shock-absorbing material from the riot armor, so... Yeah. It should be fine." She idly waved one hoof at the now-open box; I could see that it was full of armored vests and helmets, all a uniform black with the number '77' stenciled on them in bright yellow.

"Alright... But if it breaks my arm, you have to cook dinner later, got it?" Rose nodded.

"Got it."

I steeled myself for the inevitable pain, took aim at an empty locker, and pulled the trigger. The kick was still pretty heavy, but not nearly as bad as it had been before. Considering the size of the hole that Garden punched in the locker, I could live with a little discomfort. "By Luna's velvety flank, Rose. What the hell kind of rounds did you load this thing with?"

She shrugged and blinked at me. "Slugs. Only thing I could find that would fit; There's two whole ammo boxes full of them."

I stared at her. "No normal rounds?"

"Nope. I did find that flamethrower you sabotaged, though. I used part of it to make the grip for Garden." She pointed at the flamer (which was in pieces) and then my shotgun.

"I didn't... I'd never..." Rose stared at me, expressionless, and I sighed. "Okay, I broke it. How'd you know?"

"Claw marks on the regulator and hoses. Why'd you do it, anyway?"

"Don't ask." No way was I going to admit to being scared shitless just by thinking about her using a flamethrower.

She snorted. "Whatever. Wanna help me clean this place out?" We grinned at each other, and raced to see who could find the best stuff.


It was a draw. Tons of ammo, a few weapons Rose hadn't cannibalized for parts and... "Rose, where did you find that?"

Rose was inspecting a very familiar fuel tank. "The crate you hid it in."

"But I-"

"Jammed the lock? I noticed." She indicated the tank's former hiding place; the area around the lock had been smashed beyond belief.

"How-"

"I hit it. A lot."

"Why-"

"I wanted to see what you were hiding."

I just stared at her, my beak hanging open in shock.

"We can sell it, Ibis. Flamethrower fuel is valuable." She shoved it into a dufflebag; one of several we'd scrounged up, all of them now filled with salvaged equipment. "We should take some of the armor, too... Ibis? Ibis!"

I snapped out of it when Rose bit my claw. "OW! Rose! What was that for?"

She sighed, shaking her head. "Ibis, you need to pay more attention. You finish looting, I'll see if there's any armor that will fit us."


Since I didn't have a better idea, we went with Rose's plan. I scrounged up some ammo drums for Garden, clips for Rose's rifle, a couple more guns that neither of us were interested in using, plenty of assorted bullets and shells, enough grenades to level a small town and, for some reason, a harmonica. The whole time I was looting, Rose was going through the crate of armor, occasionally trotting over to me with a vest in her mouth to compare it against me, then growling and throwing it into an ever-growing pile of discarded armor when it didn't fit.

In the end, she just tore some vests apart and stitched them all together to make a big one.


I shifted, testing my range of movement. My wings were sticking out of two holes Rose had cut for just that purpose, and I could move them normally. The straps, pouches and buckles didn't get in the way, either. "Kinda heavy, isn't it?"

Rose shrugged. "I put some metal plates in the lining; The vests were meant to stop knives or clubs, not bullets, after all." She spun around, showing off her new 'outfit'. "How do I look?"

Her armor was more-or-less normal; She'd found a vest that would fit her and just added some plating in vital areas. The bandoleer of grenades was secured with a couple of quick-release clips and her rifle holster was strapped across her back, in easy reach of either her hooves or mouth.

"Pretty good." I grinned at her; She always looked good. "So, what's next?"

She looked around the stripped armory slowly; We'd cleaned out everything of value (and a few things that were worthless), and we hadn't left much in Medical upstairs, either. The dorms and cafeteria could wait until we passed through on our way out, so that left... "We should find the water talisman, Ibis."


We filled our vest pouches with ammo, healing potions and some syringes of med-x. That way, we wouldn't have to search through our bags in an emergency; quick access to medical supplies can be a life saver, after all. Fully prepared, the full dufflebags split between us, we popped the door open and stepped into the corridor.

"Alright, where would the water talisman be?" I had Garden raised and ready in case of another ambush; If it could blow a hole the size of my fist through a locker door, it would probably rip ghouls apart.

"Down two levels, in maintenance... I think." Rose blinked at me. "We'd better take-"

"The stairs, I know." Rolling my eyes, I finished her sentence. She blinked at me again, then nodded.

"Right. They should be this way, so let's go."

Amazing what being properly armed can do for your confidence levels. We were still cautious, but now we had enough firepower to protect ourselves.

Pity we didn't come across any more ghouls on the way down; I wanted to see what Garden would do to a tight group of jerky ponies.


Instead, something far worse than ghouls blocked our way into the maintenance area. Water.

"Guess the water talisman is still working..." We stood at the top of a staircase, looking down into the flooded level below. there was maybe a few inches between the dark, tepid water and the ceiling. Rose nodded.

"Guess so... You wanna go first?"

"Nope. Ladies first, Rose."

"Ibis... I can't swim." She blinked at me.

I groaned. "Me neither."

Hey, it's not like swimming is a useful skill in the wasteland. If you can find water deep enough to swim in, it's probably radioactive or infested with things that want to eat you. Usually both.

Rose took a tentative step forward, sticking one hoof in the water; Her coat stood on end and she leapt backwards, shivering. "C-cold!" She turned to me, her grey eyes wide. "Ibis... I don't think we can get the talisman."

"You're probably right, Rose. Whaddya say we just get out of here and leave this place to rot?"

She took a slow look around, taking in the mildew covered walls, the rusted metal, the decaying furniture, and nodded. "Yeah. I don't like this place anymore."

With that, we headed for the surface, stopping in Medical to make sure we hadn't missed anything, and taking a quick look in the (now empty) cafeteria as we passed it. Moldy food, a fairly intact jukebox and some pony skeletons. Nothing I wanted to look too closely at.


Again, no ghouls got in our way. Guess Rose had blown them all apart when she was playing Vent Warrior.

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I stretched my wings, legs and arms, enjoying the slightly fresher air of the swamp and letting out a sigh of appreciation. It was good to get out of that hellhole, even if all I could see was trees and water... And Rose, who was chasing a frog around in front of the cave, determined to squish it for trying to bite her when she wasn't looking.

The little mutant was croaking frantically and hopping as fast as it could, trying to escape the vengeful mare. Rose charged after it, but the frog managed to squeeze between some roots at the base of a tree just in time.

THUNK!

Rose yelped as her head slammed into the tree, her horn getting stuck in the wood. "Help!" She tried pulling herself free, all four hooves scrambling in the mud as she backpedaled.

I was laughing my beak off at the sight.

"Ibis! I'm stuck!" She whined, still struggling. The frog creapt out from its hiding place and croaked at her; She tried stepping on it, but it nimbly jumped onto her back and got ready to sink its teeth into the back of her neck.

In a flash I was by Rose's side and grabbed the vile thing, throwing it away as hard as I could and hearing it splash down somewhere out of sight.

"You okay?" I brought my head down to Rose's level so we could look at each other. She snorted and glared at me.

"I'm stuck. Help me."

"Okay, okay." I grabbed the collar of her vest and gave a tug; Damn, she really was stuck! "Let's pull together on three. One... Two... THREE" With both of us working together, her horn came free. We both fell backwards, landing on our butts in the mud. Rose shook her head and glared at me... Then started giggling.

Pretty soon we were both laughing like crazy.

"You... You got beaten by a frog!"

"I got beaten by a tree! That's even worse!"

We helped each other up and set off, bursting out in laughter every now and then. Despite the ghouls in the Stable, the past couple of days had been great, and when we finally reached the edge of the swamp, we grabbed each other and started cheering and dancing.

Rose may be an alright singer, but her dancing is... Terrible.
When I laughed at her, she headbutted me until I swept her up and blew a rasberry on her tummy. Then she started squealing and flailing around instead.

It was a fun time for both of us, and we continued our journey to nowhere in good spirits, closer than we'd ever been before.


"Rose?"

"Yeah, Ibis?"

"You ever think about marriage?"

"Sometimes." She gave me a shy smile and I put my wing over her affectionately as we walked along, just a pair of lovers ready to face the world together.


FOOTNOTE: 50% PROGRESS TO NEXT LEVEL

A/N: This chapter goes out to everyone who has been reading so far, but especially Winter Storm for all the help, and Midnight Stalker for inspiring me to write a happier chapter. ^_^

KKat gets a super special thanks for writing FoE, as usual! You rock! Woohoo!

Chapter 9: Blue Sky Tears

View Online

---CHAPTER 9: Blue Sky Tears---

“Treat me like a pushover, and you'll get the once over.”

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The sky is so blue... A few small, fluffy clouds drift aimlessly, just wandering through the warm sunlight that shines down upon this peaceful green field, the long grass swaying serenely in a gentle breeze. I turn my head and smile, watching my beloved Rose taking her afternoon nap.

Her mane shines in the afternoon light; She's been growing it out for a while now, the deep red braid vibrant against her snow-white coat, her entire body seeming to glow with health and life, a far cry from our days of wandering.


I slowly sit up and stretch my wings, chuckling softly. Yeah... She's just gotten more beautiful over the years, blossoming into the wonderful flower I'd always known she would. As I move she stirs, looking up at me with those amazing eyes, a match for the sky in color, but infinitely deeper and filled with a love that makes my heart soar. "Ibis..." Her voice is sweeter than honey, more gentle than the breeze that plays across us. "Help me up?"

Smiling, I help her stand. "Easy now, Rose. You know what the doc said." She nuzzles against me, the touch so familiar, so comforting, that I can't imagine spending a day without her by my side.

"I know. I have to take it easy." We walk, side by side, across the field to our house; it's nothing special, just a little piece of paradise we managed to find, far from all the hustle and bustle of the world. "Are you sure everything's gonna be okay, though? I'm a little worried..." I open the front door and let Rose go in first, then follow her down the little hall that leads to the kitchen. "The doctor said it'll be fine, but..." She stops and turns to look up at me, concerned.

I just lean in and kiss her gently, chasing the worried frown from her face. "Relax, Rose." I stroke her side lovingly, sharing her blissful smile. "Everything will be okay."

"But-"

"I mean it. I'll never let anything happen to you, or our child. I promise." I gaze into those adoring, trusting eyes and thank the Goddesses for every wonderful moment we've had together, and for every moment yet to come. "Come on, I'll make you lunch. You need to keep your strength up, after all." We share another tender kiss, and go into the kitchen.

Sunlight fills the little room, accompanied by the breeze blowing in through the open window. Rose settles herself down on a pillow by the table with a content smile, and I watch her happily. The day we found out she was pregnant was the greatest day in our lives.


Rose hadn't been feeling well for a few days, so I flew to the nearest town to get a doctor for her. When he gave us the news, we just stared at each other in shock for a moment... Then Rose leapt into my arms and we both cried our hearts out, overcome with joy.

That was months ago, and it's almost time now. Rose still gets nervous every now and then, worrying that something will go wrong or that she'll be a bad mother and, every time, I reassure her, telling her that Celestia and Luna are watching over us, protecting us, and that we'll both be wonderful parents.


I finish making lunch and step away from the counter, watching Rose's eyes light up at the sight of her favorite mixed flower salad; No matter how often I see her looking happy, it never fails to brighten my day.

A white glow surrounds the bowl before I can set it on the table, and Rose levitates it down to where she can reach it without stretching, savoring each and every bite of the fresh, crisp plants. I sit on the polished wooden floor next to her, stroking her swollen belly. Yeah, not long now... Another month or two, and we'll have a little bundle of joy to take care of... "Rose..." My claw stills on her side and we look at each other, waiting...

Another little kick.

Our eyes meet and we gaze at each other for a long moment... Slowly, as if in a dream, our faces draw closer, until there's no room for words, just a loving, bliss-filled kiss that lasts until we remember to breathe.

"Ibis..."

"Yeah?"

"Is this... heaven?"

"Even heaven couldn't be this good, Rose."

She smiles and leans against me, floating bits of her salad up to her mouth and munching quietly, lost in the moment, just like I am.


Eventually, the sun starts to set, throwing deep shadows across the land and painting the sky a brilliant hue. Rose yawns and stands, nudging me with her head. "Ibis... I'm sleepy..."

I stroke her mane fondly. "Alright, let's go to bed." Our steps echo as we walk through the empty house, each sound swallowed up by the evening stillness, and I smile. Soon enough, there'll be no more silence.

Just the sounds of our family, and our happiness.


Rose blinks at me and I help her onto our bed; It's not very high, but she can't really jump onto it lately. She snuggles into the clean white sheets and raises her head, looking at me invitingly, waiting for me to join her. I take my time, though, making sure she's comfortable before I lay down beside her and take her in my arms. We hold each other, husband and wife, as dusk turns to night and the stars come out to begin their ages-old dance through the sky. Slowly, my beloved drifts off, her breaths deepening as her eyes flutter closed. I stroke her side and watch her sleep, lost in the perfection that lays beside me.

I kiss her horn and close my eyes, trying to get some rest myself; My life is far better than my dreams, but the way Rose smiles when I bring her breakfast in bed always makes those hours spent sleeping worthwhile.

My last thought before I drift into the serene stillness of sleep? "It's almost too good to be true..."

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It was.

My eyes snapped open, revealing a very blurry world; one far removed from the paradise I'd been dreaming of.

The room came into focus as I sat up, my head pounding. A small fire burned nearby, illuminating the inside of the ruined building I was laying in, piles of debris throwing strange shadows on the walls and what remained of the ceiling; Almost a third of it had collapsed, leaving a gaping hole that revealed the dark night sky, clouds low and ominous. A couple of used med-x syringes and an empty healing potion lay beside the bedroll I was sitting on.

I took all this in slowly, trying not to move too much; It felt like someone had used me for a pinata. Where the hell was I and what the hell happened? More importantly, where was Rose?

My memories came back in a rush.

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We were walking though the ruin-filled outskirts of a destroyed city, two weeks after our adventure in Stable 77. We'd sold most of our salvage in the first town we came across, getting ourself a small fortune in caps, not to mention ammo and spare parts for our guns.

Rose was explaining the difference between her three grenade types to me as we walked. "Green bands explode, Ibis. That's what I used in the Stable. White bands are stun grenades; They knock things unconcious. The red ones, though..." Her smile turned positively evil. "They're incendiary. They light stuff on fire."

I stared at her, trying to find the words to express my horror, when gunshots rang out. Automatic weapons stitched a line over our heads as we ducked behind a ruined sky-wagon, trying to get a look at our attackers.


Raiders. Well armed for once, and not suicide-rushing us, either.

"Rose, move!" She responded by darting away, heading into the buildings behind us to try and find a position she could snipe from. Using her rifle like an earth pony meant she couldn't move and shoot at the same time; I didn't have that problem. As she smashed a door down and bolted inside, I unslung Garden and opened fire while retreating, aiming for the raiders scurrying around in the buildings on the other side of the street.

One went down, his head torn clean off. Rose had insisted I keep slugs loaded, and now I could see why; Normal buckshot would have had much less impact at this range. Another raider ducked just in time, getting showered by shards of brick instead. I made it to the doorway and got a few more shots off before diving inside to avoid the answering hail of bullets. Turns out the building used to be a restaurant. Must've been fancy, before everything got blown to fuck and back.

"Ibis, I count ten of them!" Rose's shout came from upstairs and I followed it, finding her set up at a large window, tracking and firing at anything that moved. I could hear rough voices from below, shouted orders and directions; Raiders weren't meant to be this organized!

"You sure?" I slid in beside her, popping up to squeeze off a few shots before ducking down and scooting further along the window. Rose was doing the same, making it as hard as possible for the raiders to predict her movements.

"Counting the one you killed, and the three I killed, yeah!" She yelped as machine-gun fire ripped over her head, blowing holes in the ceiling and covering her with dust. I stuck Garden up and blind-fired, trying to pin down whoever was spraying us. It didn't work.

"We've gotta get out of here!" I yelled over the constant gunfire; they may have been more organized than normal, but they still didn't know how to conserve bullets. "Did you see a way out that won't get us killed?"

Rose shook her head and yelled back. "No! Ground floor would be suicide!" She scrambled further along and popped up, firing once before diving to avoid the inevitable hailstorm of lead; There was a scream from the street. Guess she managed to hit something. I wasn't having the same luck.

Most of my shots hit wagons or walls; the raiders were ducking in and out of cover, advancing on our position and covering each other. I was starting to have serious doubts about their identity; Raiders don't use tactics. They're too crazy.

I fired my last shot and went to reload, peeking out for just a moment. One of the raiders was aiming a rocket launcher at the building. Well, fuck.

"ROCKET LAUNCHER! GET DOWN!" At my yell, Rose dived behind some tables, kicking them over for cover. I was too far away to join her and flattened myself as much as I could, trying to become one with the corner between wall and floor.

It didn't work.

There was an almighty explosion and a searing blast of heat, like the fiery flatulance of Celestia Herself, and my world started to spin.

I was rolled over onto my back and a white face hovered in front of me, a streak of blood dripping from a gash on her forehead. Rose. Her mouth moved like she was screaming something, but I couldn't hear a word she was saying... I couldn't hear much of anything over the damned ringing in my ears...

Something was moving behind Rose, at the stairs... A male unicorn, levitating a knife as he crept up on Rose... I tried to warn her, but my body wouldn't respond...

Everything started to go black. Rose turned to meet the raider as he lunged at her, his face twisted and feral. I saw them slam into each other, then I didn't see anything at all.

---------------------------------------------------------------

I groaned, my claws pressed to my forehead. Fuck... Raiders with brains, automatic weapons and rocket launchers. Could things get any worse?

Slowly, I got to my feet, taking stock of my injuries. Nothing too major, from the feel of it. Bandages on my chest and neck, though. My vest was laying next to our supplies; a quick inspection showed it had taken the brunt of the blast, leaving it burned and full of shrapnel, probably saving my life in the process. Underneath it was...

Things just got worse. A lot worse.
Underneath it was Rose's rifle, mangled beyond repair.


My brain went into overdrive, running through everything I'd seen before passing out and everything I'd seen since waking up, in an effort to work out where I was, and what had happened to Rose.

First, this place wasn't the restaurant. That much was clear.
Marks at the doorway showed I'd been dragged here, but didn't tell me much beyond that. The fire had been burning for while, going by the warmth of the room and the pile of junk nearby for use as fuel.

Garden was in easy reach and fully loaded, a spare ammo drum beside it as well, so whoever saved me wasn't hostile.

Rose was missing, but all her gear was stacked next to mine. Her gun was useless now except for scrap, but it meant enough to her that she wouldn't leave it behind for any reason. So, she was probably okay. Just... Not here.

The bandages, med-x and healing potion hadn't come from my vest, so Rose must have got them from her own pouches. That meant she was in good enough shape to administer first aid, as well.


Everything told me Rose was okay, but I couldn't shake the feeling of dread. The last thing I'd seen was a raider about to stab her in the back, and there had been more crazies downstairs and outside... If they really were raiders. The level of planning they'd shown made me nervous; Normal raiders just charged you, screaming their heads off... Until said heads were blown off, anyway.

I took one last look at my vest; Between the shrapnel still embedded in it and the burned straps, it was useless. Sighing, I picked up Garden, double-checked to make sure it was loaded, and left the room, following the marks left by whoever had dragged me here.

Unfortunately, I hadn't counted on the rest of the building being dark. The fire cast barely any light into the hallway beyond, and I had to wait a few seconds for my eyes to adjust. Just another reason griffins are awesome; Our eyesight is great, no matter what time of day... Or night, whatever.


It turned out I was in a small apartment building; Most of the rooms were ruined, walls and ceilings long ago crumbled. The room I'd been in had been one of the few that were still usable, and I poked my head (and Garden) into the other rooms as I passed, checking for Rose... Or someone who could help me find her. I was thankful for the rotting carpet that covered the floor; It muffled my steps, meaning I'd probably have the drop on anyone I came across.

When I reached the lobby, I saw something moving around behind a large desk. It looked pony sized and was moving back and forth aimlessly, staggering every few steps. Slowly, careful not to draw attention to myself, I crept up behind it, leveling Garden at the mystery pony. "Turn around. Slowly," I ordered, keeping my voice low enough that it wouldn't travel.

The figure started to turn, then changed its mind and started to turn the other way, only to stagger and change directions again. I almost pulled the trigger right then and there, but when the pony finally managed to turn all the way around, I was glad I hadn't. "Rose!" I lowered Garden, stepping towards her; Even in the darkness it was easy to recognise her. The shape of her face, the bulk of her vest, and that mess of a mane were all dead give-aways. "What are you doing out here? C'mon, let's get back to the room." I turned and started walking, then stopped, looking over my shoulder. She hadn't moved from that spot. "Hey! You okay, Red?"

I got the feeling she blinked at me, then she started walking, following me slowly. I had a bad feeling about this... We made our way back to the room, Rose weaving all over the hall like she was drunk, standing still every time I got too far ahead or stopped coaxing her forwards. "Almost there, Red. Just a little further..." We got back into the room, the warmth and light from the fire welcome after the cold, dark hallway. Rose stepped into the light and my heart stopped.

There were dark circles under her glassy, unfocused eyes, like she'd been awake for days. Her vest was in the same shape as mine, covered in burns and full of shrapnel, the grenade bandoleer empty. Little pieces of metal were sticking out of her flank and neck, where the vest hadn't covered. Parts of her coat were scorched and blackened, her face and forelegs coated with dried blood. Even through the mess, I could see a few bullet wounds, but that wasn't the worst of it; There was still a knife stuck in her neck. It had gone right through a gap in her armor and, if I had to guess, gotten lodged in her collarbone. Not a pretty sight.

"Rose... What happened?" She just stood there, not focusing on anything, just swaying back and forth. "Rose... Red?" When I used her nickname, I got a blink, and tried again. "Rose?" Nothing. "Red?" Another blink. "Red, come here." I kept my voice gentle, and she staggered over to me. "Speak to me, Red. What happened?" She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. A look of vague confusion crossed her face, and she shook her head before trying again. Still nothing. "Red... Can you speak?" I knew what the answer would be even before she shook her head. No.

"Come on." I pulled her closer to the fire, both to warm her up and get a better look at her... "Well... It's... not so bad..." I smiled at her, but her eyes remained unfocused. "You were hurt worse than this before, remember?" No reaction. "Stay still, so I can get this knife out of you." Gingerly, I took hold of the knife, waiting for some sign she was in pain. Nothing, even when I pulled the knife free. It had gotten stuck in her collarbone, just like I thought, and I had to pour a healing potion straight into the wound to heal it before she bled out.

"Okay... I'm going to take off your vest now. Is that alright, Red?" Just a blink. She didn't react to anything unless I called her Red... She was really starting to worry me... I unbuckled her vest and slid it off; thankfully, almost none of the shrapnel had penetrated to her vital organs. Carefully, I used the tip of my knife to remove the little bits of shrapnel that had lodged themselves in her flesh; by some miracle, they hadn't been big enough or had enough force behind them to reach anything vital. Even the bullet wounds had been clean, going all the way through and missing anything particuarly important. Thank Luna for small favors.

"This may sting a little, Red." Another blink, and I poured some water from our canteens over her, washing the blood off and cleaning the burnt parts of her coat. "You're lucky, Rose. I don't see a single serious injury anywhere on you." No reaction; I hadn't called her Red that time. I kept talking to her, keeping my voice friendly, soothing, while I made sure she didn't have any serious injuries or broken bones. She was disgustingly healthy, considering how bad she looked. It was a bit of a hassle trying to make her drink a healing potion, though, and I ended up bottle-feeding her, like she was a foal.

It was worth the effort; I watched the small cuts fade away in seconds, the gash on her forehead only taking a little longer. In less than a minute, she looked more-or-less normal. Blank expression and glassy eyes not withstanding...


"Okay, Red. Stay still..." I'd managed to get her to sit on the bedroll, and held up a dose of med-x for her to see. "This will only hurt for a second, and then you'll go to sleep for a little while. Understand?" She blinked, and I injected the powerful painkiller into her neck. Within seconds, her eyes closed and she fell sideways, out like a light. I sighed. Hopefully she was just in shock, and she'd be better when she woke up.

Either way, I wasn't getting much sleep tonight. I pulled a blanket over her and sat facing the door, Garden at the ready.


What the hell had happened after I passed out in the restaurant?

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I felt something bump my shoulder and woke up instantly, my eyes snapping open, every fibre of my body ready for action. I've heard people say you can't wake up suddenly, that it's always a gradual thing.

They're probably heavy sleepers.

I jerked to my feet and twisted, bringing Garden up to aim at whatever had touched me...

It was Rose.

My little mare stepped back, confused and frightened, until I lowered Garden with a sigh and moved closer to her; I must have scared her, pulling away and aiming my gun at her like that. She pressed her head against my shoulder, then looked up at me, concerned.

"Sorry, Rose. You startled me, that's all. You okay now?"

She shook her head and headbutted my chest.

"What's wrong?"

She opened her mouth to speak, then frowned and tried again. She pointed at her throat, irritated.

"Still can't talk, huh?" I frowned; I'd been hoping that a good night's sleep would have helped her recover.

She shook her head and stared at me, tears welling up in her eyes. I grabbed her and pulled her close, cradling her head to my chest, trying to comfort her.

"It's okay, Rose. Can you tell... I mean, show me what happened?"

Rose pulled away from me and nodded, then started signing.
I'll spare you the details; she had to resort to miming things several times, and she bit me when I laughed. I couldn't help it; She was funny to watch! And she smiled when she bit me, so she must have been having fun as well.


What it came down to was this:
After the rocket hit (the blast had knocked me out), Rose tried to wake me up, terrified she was going to lose me. The unicorn colt I'd seen had jumped her, managing to stab her once (losing his knife in the process) before she'd killed him. Another had come at her with an axe, though, and managed to destroy her rifle. After that, she'd used every last grenade she had to wipe the raiders from the face of the wasteland permanently.


"So, when you were done killing them, you dragged me in here, cleaned me up, gave me a dose of med-x and a healing potion, then started the fire to keep me warm?" Rose nodded. "How long was I out?" She tapped her hoof twice. "Two hours?" She shook her head. "Two days?" Nodded this time. "Did you sleep at all?" More head shaking. "No wonder you've got bags under your eyes, Rose. You should have been resting, not wandering around like that. You were so tired you didn't even recognise me, and you could have gotten hurt!" She looked ashamed, and I sighed, opening my arms. "Come here."

Rose hopped onto my lap, snuggling into my embrace like she'd never leave. "You were really worried, huh?" Without looking up, she nodded, and I kissed the top of her head. "I promised I'd never leave you, remember?" Another nod. "I always keep my promises, especially to you." She looked up at me, pouting. "Do you want a kiss?" She smiled and nodded, making me laugh. "Oh, alright."

We stayed like that for most of the morning, just holding each other and kissing, reminding ourselves of what we'd almost lost. Neither of us had been seriously injured, a stroke of incredible luck, considering what we'd been facing. Celestia and Luna must have been paying extra attention that day. Every moment I spent with Rose in my arms, I thanked them for their help, promising whatever they wanted as long as I could stay with my precious flower.


The only losses we'd suffered were our vests, Rose's rifle, and her voice... Her inablity to speak was the only thing that worried me... I'd hoped she would have gotten better after getting some sleep, but she hadn't shown any signs of speaking, or made any noise at all...

At least she'd gotten enough sleep to remember who I was, and her own name. That was something worth celebrating with some snack cakes and sparkle cola, washed down with a few more kisses. And that's exactly what we did, before packing up and heading back to the scene of our battle; I wanted to know exactly what went down. Not that Rose's description was in doubt; She never lied, after all. I was just suspicious of who our attackers really were, and she hadn't exactly been paying close attention while she was killing them.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Rose led the way out of the apartment building and down a couple of streets, cutting through an alley and following the path she'd used to drag me to safety. I stayed close, our sides bumping as we walked, the contact reassuring her that I wasn't going anywhere without her. She still looked at me every few minutes to make sure I was there and we actually stopped once, when she dragged me into a ruined store for a rest.

"Rose, I-" I started to object, saying that we didn't have time to rest, but she kissed me, tears streaming down her face, pressing her body as close to mine as hard as she could. I took her in my arms and cradled her; she was shaking, desperate for a warm, comforting touch. "Rose... You were lonely, weren't you?" She nodded, buring her face in my chest, soaking my feathers with her tears. I stroked her mane, making comforting noises to try and calm her down. "Is that why you can't talk? You got scared and lonely?"

She pulled her head back so she could see my face, and nodded. That's what I'd thought... "You'll get better soon, Rose. I'll do everything I can to help you." She smiled and closed her eyes, waiting for me to kiss her. "So, you think I could just kiss it better?" She nodded, keeping her eyes closed and head raised, still waiting. I didn't disappoint, giving her the most passionate kiss I could.


Now that I think about it, we seemed to make out in some really dangerous places. A rotting Stable full of ghouls, the middle of a radioactive swamp, and now in a crumbling city where, just two days ago, we'd both almost died.

Love trumps common sense, I guess.


Finished making out for now, we smiled at each other and Rose opened her mouth nervously... Nothing came out, and she frowned at me. "Hey, it's not my fault." I tried to hug her, but she pulled away and started going through her bags, looking for something...

She pulled out a book (every book or magazine we found ended up in her bags) and shoved it into my claws. I took a look at the cover.

Tales for Fillies and Colts

"Rose, this is a book of fairy tales." She nodded and thumped the book with her hoof, glaring at me. "What, you want me to read it?" Another nod, and I started flicking through, Rose pointing at first one passage, then another.

Every part she pointed out involved the prince and princess kissing at the end of the story, or breaking some spell with their love, or something similar. I was starting to see a pattern here.

"Rose... You know that these stories are just make believe, right?" She stomped her hoof and glared at me, mad that I was dismissing her fantasy. "Just because-" She stomped again and pointed at the book, insisting it was true. I was getting frustrated with her now; she was being naive. "No, you listen to me, Rose. These are just stories for children; Who ever heard of love defeating an evil shapeshifting queen? Or the Elements of Harmony, saving the world time and time again? As if stuff like that's real; If it was, we'd be able to see the sky right now! Every last thing in here is-OOF!"

Rose grabbed the book in her mouth, twisted away and applebucked me in the guts before huddling in a corner, sobbing silently. I slumped down, winded and mentally kicking myself. Of course that stuff was all make believe, but Rose wanted to believe in it, and who was I to take away her fantasies?


We'd both seen enough to know the wasteland hated innocence, ripping it away and leaving a black pit in the heart, replacing kindness with hate and pain... Rose knew far it better than I did, and I'd just tried to destroy one of the few pieces of innocence she still had... Groaning, I managed to stand up and go to her; She had the book clutched in her hooves, tears staining the cover as she cried without making a sound.

"Rose?" I stood next to her huddled body, keeping my voice soft; she was still so fragile, so vulnerable. Almost losing me had broken something inside her, and there wasn't much left to break now. I had to keep her safe, keep her from breaking down anymore. "I'm sorry... I just..." I sighed and sat beside her, my side pressed to hers. "I'm just worried about you, that's all. I didn't mean it..." She turned to me, frowning through the tears. "No, you're right. I did mean it. I still think everything in that book is made up, but... if you think it'll help you, then..." Her expression grew a little less sad, and a little more hopeful. "I'll do whatever you want... So... forgive me?"

Rose wiped her face on my chest and smiled up at me. I kissed her horn and started thinking of ways to make it up to her. I felt terrible for upsetting her like that... "Hey... Want me to read to you tonight? You can pick the story." Her face lit up and she hugged me happily, burying her face in my feathers and making me laugh. "I'll read as many stories as you want, Rose. But only for tonight, got it?" She nodded and stuffed the book back into her bag, then buried her face in my chest... And tore out a mouthful of feathers, spitting them on the ground with a smirk. "YEEEOW! Rose! What the fuck was that for?!" She pointed at me, then the bag with her book in it, and acted angry. "Because I insulted your book?" She nodded again. "You... I... GAAAAH!" I threw my head back and just yelled, frustrated, before glaring at her. She glared straight back at me without blinking. "You are such a brat sometimes." She smiled and licked my cheek, so I grabbed her tight and gave her the biggest, deepest, most mind-blowing kiss I could, as revenge for being so frustrating and childish.


Not as good a kiss as the one she'd given me back in Stable 77, but I was pretty proud of myself. As soon as I let go she sat down heavily, her eyes spinning in their sockets, and I laughed. "As soon as you catch your breath, we're moving out again. Okay?" She nodded, blushing and smiling, grey eyes staring in different directions. A quick shake of her head and her eyes went back to normal, then she started signing. Eye tap. Chest tap. Point at me. I smiled and reached over to mess up her mane. "And I love you, Rose. Ready to go?" She nodded, and we went back on our way, headed for the restaurant once more.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Eugh..." I could feel my breakfast coming back up to say hello.

The street in front of the restaurant was littered with body parts and the closer we got, the more pieces the former ponies were in. "You really did use all your grenades, didn't you?"

Rose blinked and nodded, strolling through the scattered bits without a care in the world, stopping every now and then to check for valuables; She didn't find any. Hell, even the missile launcher was a twisted, wortheless wreck.

For my part, I was doing a headcount (literally) and trying not to step in anypony; Raiders get a little... squishy... when they've been carpet-bombed by a bandoleer's worth of grenades... Less than half of the deceased psychos were present, unless I'd miss a few heads; Entirely possible, considering the number of party poppers Rose had been carrying...

Fuck... Hadn't Rose said she'd used all of her grenades?

"Rose... Did you use the... red... grenades?" She looked back at me, and her grin was the most evil thing I'd ever seen. Slowly, she raised one hoof to point at the restaurant, and I swear I heard the devil herself laughing, somewhere just out of sight.


Rose walked straight through the door, but I hesitated; I could smell burnt flesh from outside, and I wasn't looking forward to seeing what incendiary grenades did. A loud thump from inside caught my attention, and it was quickly followed by another. Rose was waiting... Taking a deep breath, I stepped inside...
And stared at the burnt, nightmarish remains of the restaurant.

The smell was bad enough, but seeing the twisted, blackened ponies, mouths still open in their death screams, skin turned to charcoal and cracked, showing the cooked muscles underneath...


If I wasn't a predator, it would have put me off meat for the rest of my life.


Rose was sitting on a burnt table by the staircase, her ear twitching. She thumped her hoof against the charred surface impatiently, waiting for me.

"Okay, I'm coming!" I made my way to her, avoiding the crispy ponies and coughing; raiders never smell good, and they smell a lot worse after being bathed in... whatever the fuck incendiary grenades are filled with. "So, upstairs?" Rose stared at me for a moment. "What?" She blinked. "Look, I know it was my idea to come back here; I just didn't think you would have..." I gestured to the hellish scene around us, "burnt half of them to death. It's a little extreme, don't you think?" She narrowed her eyes, pointed at the nearest pony-shaped piece of charcoal, then me, and mimed an explosion. "Because they blew us up? Really?" She nodded, and I sighed. "You really do have issues, Rose. A lot of them."

With a shrug, Rose hopped off her table and wandered upstairs; I followed quickly, hoping whatever was up there was better than the barbeque-gone-wrong I'd just been standing in.


It was better, but not by much.

Halfway up the stairs, I stepped in what used to be a raider, but was now a pile of shattered bones and pulverized flesh. "Ew.' Disgusted, I shook the goop off my paws. "What the fuck did you do to this one, Rose?" She blinked at me, pointed the raider, then at an axe imbedded in the wall, and mimed something breaking, followed by punching the air and stomping... "This is the one that broke your rifle?" She nodded. "And... You stomped on him?" Another nod. "You didn't use the axe?" She shook her head. "Ooookay.... Rose... did you leave any of them intact?" With a nod, she trotted all the way up the stairs, into the room where the missile had almost blown us to Tartarus, leaving me to follow at my own pace. I ended up jumping over the raider, since it was too splattered to go through or around; so far, there hadn't been enough left of our assailants to work out who they were.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Seriously?" I stared at Rose; she was playing with the head of the raider that had stabbed her. A head that wasn't attached to the body, I might add. She shrugged and kicked it into a corner before sidling up beside me, pointing curiously at the headless body I was inspecting. "Don't play with wierd things, Rose. And no, I still don't know who they were. But look at this," I tapped one claw on the former raider's armor; it was made of well-fitting metal plates, with very little rust. "How many raiders have you seen wearing proper armor?" Rose shrugged and whacked her hoof on the chestplate I'd just tapped. Her hoof left a big dent, and she blinked at me. "Okay, so it's not combat armor, but it's leagues beyond what most raiders wear, and at least one of them had a missile launcher. And did you see the way they were moving? They covered each other while advancing on us. That's not normal raider behaviour." Her ear twitched, and she whacked the corpse again pointedly. "Yes, all raiders are the same when they're dead. I'm just wondering why these ones were better armed and better trained than normal, that's all. If I didn't know better, I'd say they were mercs..."

Rose just shrugged and started wandering around the room, pausing to sniff at the spot I'd been laying when the missile hit... Speaking of the missile; There was a large hole in the roof, and rubble everywhere. If they'd hit any closer to either of us... I shuddered and completed my search of the raider.


A few bullets, some healing potions, and a single inhaler of Dash. I stuck the lot into my bag, wondering just who the hell these guys were, and why they'd attacked us like that. I hated mysteries and raiders, so mysterious raiders were a whole new level of frustration to deal with... Or not. If we ran into more of them, then I'd start to care.

I gave Rose a few more minutes to snoop around before we left; She didn't find anything interesting. Well, there was a fork that had miraculously survived not only the years of exposure, but the explosion as well. Rose shoved it in her saddlebag anyway; probably because it was the most valuable thing she'd found.


After that, it was just a matter of getting out of the restaurant without stepping in anypony. As soon as we reached the street, I took to the air and flew just beyond the field of bits before setting down again, waiting for Rose to catch up.

She barreled into me at full gallop, and we went down hard. "Fuck, Rose! What the he-" I stopped when I saw the tears in her eyes. "Hey, what's wrong?" She pointed at me, then up in the air, and made a flying motion with her hooves, pointed into the distance, then tapped first herself and then the ground.

"Did you think I was going to fly away and leave you here?" Starting to cry, she nodded, her forelegs going around my middle so I couldn't go anywhere. I pulled her into the tightest hug I could. "Look, I'm never going to leave you, Rose. What's it going to take for you to believe me?" She looked ashamed of herself for doubting me, so I kissed her. "Alright... No matter what you want, if it''s for you, I'll do it. Okay?" She nodded. "Now, what do want me to do, so that you know I'll always be with you?" She pulled away and stared at me for a long moment, tapping her chin with her hoof and thinking...

I waited, giving her all the time she needed.


Eventually, Rose grinned and pointed at my wing. "What? Something to do with my wing?" She nodded, and I extended my wing to her... Only to pull it back when she yanked out a feather. "OW! Rose, do you like hurting me or something?!" I glared at her, but she just nodded, one of my feathers in her mouth. At least she was honest... "Is that it? You just wanted one of my feathers?" My poor wing... I was starting to wonder if I'd have any feathers left soon... Rose shook her head, pointed at the feather, then her mane. "Oh... Really? That's all?" She nodded and smiled, offering me the feather. I took it and leaned over her, doing what she'd asked me to.


A few seconds later, I sat back to check out my work. Rose, looking happier than she had since Stable 77, now had one of my grey feathers braided into her mane. I smiled at her; she looked nice like that... "Happy now?" She jumped up and kissed me frantically, the only way she think of to thank me. "Okay, okay! Calm down, Rose!" I laughed at her and she started trotting in place, eager to get moving now that she knew I was never, ever going to leave her alone.

As we started back on our way through the ruined city, we bumped sides and smiled at each other, content with our lot in life.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"I don't want to set the world on fire... I just want to start... a flame in your heeeeeaaart!" I threw my head back, holding the last word of the song as Rose danced around me happily. We were still in the outskirts of the city, but by my guess another four or five hours of walking would see us free and clear. As I finished singing, Rose did a big, spinning leap, grinning her head off... Only to vanish with a clank and the sound of breaking metal when she landed.

"Rose? Where'd you go?" I stepped up to the edge of a large, square hole in the pavement and looked in. There was a big metal grating at the bottom, broken hinges showing where it had once been connected to the street above; Rose had landed on it and fallen through, easily twelve feet straight down. She stared up at me, rubbing her flank and blinking. "You alright down there?" She nodded and looked around. "Can you get back up?" She shook her head and pointed at a service hatch set into one wall, then blinked at me. "No, don't do that; We don't know where it leads... Look, just stay there, I think I've got a rope..."


I went through my bags quickly, found a rope and lowered it down to her. "Okay, grab... on... Ugh, never mind." What was I thinking? Ponies have hooves, they can't grab things! "I'll figure this out, just-" I stared as Rose bit the rope and held it tightly between her teeth. "Uh... you sure about this?" She nodded. "Ookay... Here we go, then..." I braced myself and started to haul her up; I could hear her hooves kicking against the wall, trying to find purchase on the smooth, worn concrete. In no time at all, she was standing beside me, looking very annoyed as she spat out the rope and glared at me. "Hey, it's not my fault you fell. Look where you're dancing next time." She tried to bite me, but I was too quick and managed to get her in a headlock.

Rose struggled for a second, then snorted and relaxed, melting against me and smiling. "If I let go, you're not gonna hurt me, are you?" She shook her head, so I loosened my grip cautiously... She gave herself a shake and rubbed her flank. "What, did you hurt yourself?" She nodded. "Let me see, then." She blushed, but turned around so I could check out her butt... And it was a very cute butt...


I wiped some dirt off her flank to make sure she hadn't been hurt in the fall, and she snapped her tail at me. "Hey, quit it!" Her tail flicked in front of me again, so I grabbed it, giving it the smallest tug... Her whole body froze and, ever so slowly, she turned her head to look at me, a mix of fear, anticipation and excitement on her face... I grinned, thinking that I might as well play with her a little.

"Will you behave?" Rose gave an almost imperceptible nod, and I tugged her tail again. Her face turned as red as her mane, and her hindlegs started to slide apart, like she didn't have any control over them... Something told me she wasn't bracing herself to kick at me, either... "Want me to let go?" This time, her nod was more noticable so, rather than keep pushing my luck, I released her tail. She jumped away and stared at me, panting a little... "Sorry, Red... Too far?"

Rose panted and glared at me, pawing at the street like she was going to charge, and I started to get nervous; I really hoped I hadn't gone too far... The last thing either of us needed was for her to get frightened or upset with me...

She lunged, her front hooves flailing as she tried to beat me to death. I raised my claws to defend myself, but it didn't help much. Scant seconds later, I was on my back, groaning; I was going to be very, very bruised later... Rose was laying on my chest and staring at me, conflicted; She looked angry one second, happy the next, then aroused, scared, excited, and then upset... It was like she didn't know what to feel... I raised my head a little to speak to her. "Rose... You okay now?" She nodded and frowned, still confused. "Sorry... I thought you'd be okay with me pulling your tail... If I say I'll never do it again, will you forgive me?" She blinked and nuzzled my cheek; Guess that was a yes. I sighed, relieved. "Thanks, Red."

She hopped off of me, then started nosing around in my belt; after a bit of searching, she pulled out one of my healing potions and spat it onto my chest, staring at me expectantly.

Eager to please (and get rid of the bruises), I drained it and got back to my feet. Rose pressed her side to mine, and smiled at me shyly. I smiled back. "If you're scared or nervous or anything at all, you know you can talk to me, right?" Even as I said it, I realized how stupid it was. So did Rose, going by the death-glare she was giving me. "Right, sorry! Don't kill me, please!" I half-joked, grinning at her. "But seriously, I'm here for you, Rose. Whatever you need. Understand?" She kissed my cheek, resting her head on my neck with a contented smile.

---------------------------------------------------------------

That night, we made camp in an old store on the very edge of the city, and Rose took me up on my offer to read to her. We finished our dinner (pony food again. Not a lot of edible wildlife in an urban environment) and curled up together in front of the warm, comforting fire we'd started in a barrel. Rose pushed her book into my claws, determined to make me keep my word. I sighed. "I know I promised to read whatever story you want, but nothing too sappy. Please?" Rose just grinned and tapped the book with her hoof until I opened it, and she pointed out the story she wanted to hear. "You sure?" She nodded and, with a sigh, I started to read.

"Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria, there were two regal sisters who ruled together..."

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A couple of days later, we found ourselves in a nice little town; the ideal spot to take some time off and relax. We'd sold our scavenged stuff (Rose somehow got two caps for the fork she'd found) and gotten a room at the best hotel we could find... Sure, it was the only hotel in town, but at least the sheets were clean, and it was near a respectable bar, too; One we'd be visiting later that night... But for now, we had more important things to do...


We stared into each other's eyes across the small table in our room, the air around us charged with tension. Neither of us dared blink or look away, unwilling to show any form of weakness in this most sacred of duels, lest we suffer the shame of defeat...

As one, we set our cards on the table, determined to see things through, no matter the cost, the unexpected result laying there before us...

"Yes!" As I pumped my fist in the air and laughed, Rose glared at me, her ear twitching; She wasn't impressed with my victory. "I finally beat you!" She snorted and tapped the deck with her hoof. "What? No, no rematch. You lost, fair and square." I grinned at her. "And you know what that means..." Her ear twitched again; She knew, alright. "You're buying the first round tonight, Rose." If looks could kill, I'd have been one dead griffin, but they couldn't, so my little mare had to make do with shuffling her deck and shooting me foul looks. I sat back and watched her, a satisfied smile on my beak.


I'd finally worked out why Rose was so good at poker: Her empathic abilities. Well, she also had a natural talent for it, but her ability to feel what her opponent was feeling was her biggest advantage. Now, though...

Over the last few months, she'd been having more and more trouble sensing others, even me. Her magic had gone downhill as well, and she'd complained that her headaches were getting worse... Before we entered Stable 77, she'd lost any and all magical ability she'd once had... And I could only assume her emotional sensitivity had followed... That meant she was on the same level as me... Maybe even lower, considering how easily I beat her at poker...


With a start, I realized that because Rose had be an empath her whole life, she couldn't read expressions or body language like a normal pony could; She'd never learned how. Obvious things like anger or a smile, she'd pick up on. But anything more complex or subtle, and she couldn't understand it...

Worse than that, by losing her empathy, she'd lost her connection to the world... To me... Now I understood why she'd wanted one of my feathers, why she got upset if we were seperated or I got too far away; It was something physical, something real she could hold onto, to remind her that I was there, even though she couldn't feel me...


What was it like for her? I found myself watching Rose more closely as she played with her cards, my feather still braided into her mane, and wondered what was going through her head. What would it be like to lose everything you ever knew, one thing after the other... Her parents and her home... Lily... Her magic... Then the only way she had to understand and relate to others...

How much of our relationship was based on genuine feelings, and how much was her need for someone to cling to? Was I just a safety net, there to keep her from breaking down completely? Or was I something more?


Now that I thought about it, she'd become extremely attached to me after Lily betrayed her... Almost obsessively so... We were never apart for long, and everything we did was my suggestion... I led the way from town to town, decided when we set up camp, even what we ate for our meals...

Was she just trying to be what I wanted, so I wouldn't turn away from her? Were all those kisses, the hours spent holding each other, even her moment of vulnerability in Stable 77, just her attempts to keep me beside her?

No... I couldn't think that. I loved Whiskey Rose with every fiber of my being, and I had to believe she felt the same about me... But still...


"Rose..." I cleared my throat, trying to find a way to ask her without being too obvious... She looked up from her cards and blinked at me. "How... How do you feel about me? I mean, really feel about me?" She blinked again, confused. "What I'm trying to say is..." Oh, to hell with it. I threw caution to the wind. "Are you just saying you're in love with me so I don't leave you?"

Those grey eyes... The pain I saw when I looked into them threatened to tear my heart out, and I knew, without a doubt, that she wasn't acting; Everything she'd said to me, everything she'd done with me, been willing to let me do to her, had come from her heart... So much so, that the mere suggestion I might doubt her true feelings was unbearable to her...

As tears started to fall, she started to back away from the table, heading slowly for the exit, her eyes locked on mine, accusing me of... of what? Using her? Doubting her? Betraying her trust? I couldn't tell... My mind and my body were frozen, watching the final pieces of her fragile psyche dangle above a precipice from which there could be no return...


She backed into the door with a small thud, turning for a moment to try and open it... Free from her gaze, I realized what was happening and lunged for her, grabbing hold before she could leave... She struggled and I knew that, had she been able to, she would have been screaming. I didn't let go, though; I remembered the last time she took off all too well...

A broken bottle slashed through the night air, tearing apart soft flesh, blood pouring upon the barren earth below.

No! I'd never let that happen again!

"Rose!" I fought with her, desperately trying to come up with something, anything, that would calm her down... Telling her the truth would only make her worse... But could I really lie to her? She'd know... No, she wouldn't. Without her empathy, she was like a blind mare... I swore to myself that I'd make it up to her later, explain everything when she was herself again, but for now... "Rose, I-I'm sorry! I'm just... scared that you'll leave me!" Not a total lie, then... She stopped struggling, and I continued. "I need to know that... that you love me as much as I love you... Please... don't go... don't leave me... I need you..." I wasn't lying anymore; I really did need her. Life without my precious flower wasn't something I wanted to consider, not after so long together.


Rose stilled as tears wound their way down my face, dripping onto her back. Slowly, she turned to look at me, pain mixing with guilt on her pale face... "Please... Stay with me..." I squeezed her tightly, and she buried her face against me, saying that, yes, she would stay...


We sat there, on the hard wooden floor of our hotel room, for the better part of an hour. We needed each other more than I'd realised... I was the only good thing left in her life, and I'd willingly given up what little I had to be with her... My mom, my job, they were all I'd had, and I'd left them behind so easily... It hadn't hurt, hadn't bothered me in the least, but I'd never be able to let Rose go... Big Brother, Boyfriend, I'd be whatever she needed, just as long as we were together...

Eventually, we managed to stand up, wiping our teary eyes as we did so... I used the back of my arm, Rose used my side. "Do you mind? That's gross." I smiled at her and she blinked, before trying to wipe her face on me again. I took her face in one claw gently, stroking her cheek and looking deep into her eyes. "Sorry... For upsetting you, I mean... I'm just scared, that's all... I don't know what I'd do if I lost you, and-" She shut me up with a passionate kiss, leaving no doubt how she felt about me, and I was gasping for air when she pulled back, smiling.

My brain wasn't working too well, thanks to the kiss. "I... uh..." Rose rolled her eyes at me, then stomped and pointed at the door before making a drinking motion. That, I understood. "So, in a hurry to buy the first round?" I chuckled, wondering how she could be so cute, even while she was giving me a death-glare. The closest thing I could think of to compare her to would have to be a stuffed, toy hellhound. Scary as all fuck, but still so adorable I couldn't help but hug her. She bit my arm and dragged me out of the room when I did, though.

It hurt. A lot.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Ugh..." I rolled over and fell out of bed, landing with an mind-shatteringly loud thud on what felt like jagged spikes, but was really just the rough, Luna-damned floor of our hotel room. Hazy sunlight filtered through the filthy curtains that hung over the windows, so damn bright I couldn't open my eyes at all. My mouth felt like it was stuffed full of cotton wool... vomit flavored cotton wool too, not the normal kind.

My brain was slowly starting to get in gear and I could finally move a little... Then the pain kicked in.

My head was throbbing, it felt like I had a black eye and, if I wasn't mistaken, my arm was dislocated.


Last night had been fun, alright.


We'd gotten to the bar in one piece and Rose had bought the first round, since she lost our poker game. All our worries and troubles were quickly forgotten as we came up with drinking games, like shots to the value of whatever card we drew from Rose's deck... Or a staring contest, where whoever blinked had to down an entire beer in one go... How we hadn't just dropped dead from alcohol poisoning was a mystery that would probably never be solved.

About midnight, some drunken shitheads decided to start trouble; That's when things got really fun. They called me a mutant chicken, started hitting on Rose, and got a little too touchy-feely with her... I decked one, Rose threw another across the bar and onto somepony elses table, knocking over their drinks, and the whole place just exploded.

Bottles and glasses flying everywhere, tables flipped and chairs chucked, even a couple of airborne ponies, courtesy of a tipsy little mare by the name of Whiskey Rose. That was a sight to see! She'd had a great time, just fighting with anyone and everyone that got near her. Calling it a free-for-all didn't do it justice!


We didn't catch the end of the brawl, though; Rose had dragged me outside and, despite our drunken state, made it quite clear she was tired, so we went back to our hotel room... Eventually. There was a lot of staggering around, and a couple of stop-offs to empty our stomachs... I may have, at one point, urinated on someone's front door as well...

Remembering the make-out session when we actually got back to our room, I grinned and sat up. Slowly, though, so my head didn't fall off... Once I thought I was sitting, I got ready to do the hard part and open my eyes...

3...

2...

1...

I forced my eyes open and immediately wished I hadn't; even the weak sunlight that made it through both the clouds above and the curtains was enough to make me yelp and cover my face with my claws... Well, the one I could move, anyway.

"Fuck... Celestia, you must really hate drunks..." I muttered to myself, cursing the Sun Goddess to Tartarus and back for being so cruel, and stood (on my hindpaws, of course), before walking to the nearest wall and bracing myself for the inevitable agony to come.

CRUNCH.

Never, ever, under any circumstances, especially with a hangover, fix a dislocated arm on your own. It's not easy, it hurts like all fuck, and if it wasn't for a shot of med-x, I would have passed out.


"Fuck. Fuck. Ow. Fuck." Tucking the used syringe back into my belt (better than throwing it on the floor and maybe stepping on it later), I tried to work out where Rose had gotten to. Not in the bed, not under or on the table... She'd definitely been here last night...

I walked (okay, staggered) over to the closed bathroom door; I had the vaguest memory of her going in there, and it was the only lead I had. I creaked the door open, wincing at the horrific sound, like a thousand ponies screaming right beside my ear... Hangovers suck, in case you didn't guess.

Yep. When I stuck my head in, there she was; Whiskey Rose, laying back in the half-filled, old tin bathtub, her crimson mane (feather still braided into it) a complete mess, an empty whiskey bottle floating in the water beside her and a pair of mirrored shades she'd 'found' during the fight on her face.

Ugh... Nobody should look that good after a night of drinking and brawling, even her. Still, when opportunity knocks... I'd have to be careful, though; She'd drunk a lot more than me, and she liked to share her suffering with me when she was hungover...

I stripped my gear off and climbed into the tub with her. She groaned and lifted her head; I couldn't see her eyes through the shades, but I could imagine the look she was giving me. "Easy, Rose. Don't kill me, I'm just getting cleaned up, that's all." With another groan, her head flopped back against the side of the tub. That looked like it hurt. "You alive?" More groaning; I decided to just ignore her for now and started washing up.


Little blood, little vomit, something I hoped was drool, and that was just my face. I spent a couple of minutes messing with my wings; The last few weeks had done a number on them. The filthy swamp, getting blown up, and just the rough way we'd been living in general had all conspired to make me a mess. It was easy enough to get my wings looking presentable, but I resolved to spend at least an hour taking proper care of them later; No, I'm not vain. Wings are very important, that's all... Like a unicorn's horn, or whatever... Well, maybe that's different; I had no idea how unicorns thought about their horns...

Okay, I had some ideas about their horns, but something told me that the dirty prewar novels I'd 'borrowed' from Rose weren't exactly accurate. That mare would read anything, I swear it.


Anyway, I was watching Rose from the corner of my eye while preening my wings; She didn't seem the least bit interested in what I was doing, and I couldn't even tell if she was still awake or not because of those shades... "Dead yet?" She feebly tried to kick me in response. I grinned and sank lower into the water. It was cold, and I knew we'd both have to down some rad-away later, but it felt so good I just didn't care. "Aaah... Feels good to be clean, doesn't it?" Rose snorted, obviously not caring either way, and I decided to help her recover from our big night...

Slowly, I moved until my claws were on the edge of the tub, one on each side of her head, and lowered my body until our chests were pressed together. "Rose..." I whispered into her ear, my tongue flicking out to tease her. "You should really get up..." I was laying on top of her now, kissing her cheek and whispering sensually. I wasn't really expecting anything to happen between us, since we were both completely destroyed from the night before. It was just fun to tease her and play around. "Or we could... Y'know... Just stay here for a while..."

Rose turned her head so we were kissing properly and pressed her hooves to my chest, slowly moving them down between us, and I was surprised, wondering just what she thought she was doing... "Rose!" I yelped in surprise and her ears flattened, the sudden noise tearing through both of our heads. "Don't play with that!" She smirked and squeezed her hooves together a little, shaking them up and down. I gasped. "R-Rose... Don't start... what you can't f-finish..." What the hell had gotten into her today?! She shut me up with another kiss, this one nice and deep, then I felt her belly pressing against me... "Rose... S-stop..." Her hooves stilled and she cocked her head, looking at me through the mirrored lenses; I had no idea what she was thinking and couldn't read her at all through those glasses, so I pulled them off with my claw.


The lust in her eyes made me harden against her instantly, and it was all I could do to stop myself from taking her right then and there... It was a good thing I didn't, because when she realized just what she'd started, and what was pressing against her body, mere inches from her innocent flower, fear started to creep into those lovely grey eyes. "Rose... Is this... really what you want?" She nodded, eyes locked on mine. "Are you sure?" Another nod. "It's just... You look... scared..."

She flinched, then gave a small nod, and I sighed, regretfully lifting myself off of her and sitting back, smiling gently to try and reassure her. The effect was ruined, though, by my hard cock sticking up from the water. Rose stared at it, blushing, and I chuckled. "What do you think you're looking at?" I already knew, but the way she pointed, keeping her hoof close to her body like she was afraid to touch me, was too cute... "I thought so. Like what you see?" She nodded bashfully. "That's alright. I like looking at you, too." I waved my claw at her body, and she pulled her hind legs up, covering herself and blushing even more. "I'm going to be serious for a minute, Rose... I don't think you're ready for sex yet... Do you think you are?"

It looked like she was thinking hard about it and, after a few minutes, she shook her head. That's what I thought... If she'd really experienced her mother's rape, then that would have left some really deep scars, and after Lily and Lucky Break fucked, then those wounds would have been even deeper... "It's okay, Rose. We don't have to have sex right now, and I don't mind waiting until you're ready. You understand that, right?" She nodded, but still didn't look at my face, her eyes focused quite a bit lower. "Good girl... But... Why'd you start playing around like that in the first place?" Her ears flattened and she looked at me properly before starting to sign something. Point to both of us, draw a loveheart in the air, then point at my member and between her legs.

"You think that, because we love each other, we should have sex?" She nodded, then shivered at the thought. I sighed. "Rose, if we're going to do this, then let's at least wait until you can talk again, alright?" She nodded slowly, still looking a little conflicted. "Good. Now, let's get dry and decide what we're going to do today..." With a smile, she slipped out of the tub and crashed onto the floor, her eyes rolling; it looked like her hangover was a lot worse than mine after all. I got out and helped her up with a caring smile, then glanced around, looking for a towel... Something brushed against my underside and I looked back, wondering what Rose was up to now.

Her hoof was creeping slowly towards my still erect penis and when she realized I was watching her she froze, looking at me sheepishly. With a laugh, I nodded to her. "If you really have to, you can touch it." She grinned and extended her hoof all the way, poking and prodding as she investigated something she'd never had a proper look at before. It wasn't what I'd call uncomfortable, but she could have been more gentle. After a few seconds inspecting my equipment, she pulled her hoof back, looking quite pleased with herself. "Happy now?" She nodded, and pointed to where our towels were laying. As I rubbed her down, I thought about what she'd been doing; I guess she'd been trying to get over her fear of males, though I couldn't help but wonder if she was pushing things too fast...


"Done." I finished drying her mane and pointed to the bathroom door. "Now, you go wait on the bed. I won't be long, so don't go anywhere, got it?" Rose nodded, then looked at me curiously. "What?" She pointed at my cock; it was still fully erect. She'd made me pay special attention to her flank and underside while I dried her, and more than once I'd found myself lingering on parts of her that were quite fun to rub... She'd enjoyed it, and so had I... "What about it?" I tilted my head, wondering what she was thinking, and if she'd realized why I wanted her out of the bathroom. She made an up-and-down motion with her hoof, still pointing at my cock. Crap. She had figured it out. I sighed and rolled my eyes at her. "Yes, I'm going to masturbate. You're not ready for sex, and I'd rather not walk around town like this. So, you can either wait in our room, or stay here and watch. What's it gonna be?" She made a face at me, grabbed her shades in her teeth, and ran towards the bedroom, kicking the door closed behind her. I chuckled; she was so damn cute when she was shy.


The only thing left to do was jerk off.

---------------------------------------------------------------

When I walked into the bedroom, Rose was poking her busted rifle mournfully, trying to come up with some way of fixing it.

"Looks broken to me." She looked up, poked her tongue out at me, and thumped her hoof on the cracked stock. "I know it's important to you, but even you can't repair that thing." She glared at me. "Not my fault, Rose; axes tend to do that... I know what'll cheer you up..." I rummaged around in our bags... Rose always had a bottle stashed somewhere... Ah. I straightened, showing her the bottle of Wild Pegasus in my claw. "Little hair of the hellhound?" Her face lit up, and a few shots (with rad-away chasers) later we headed out to see what we could find in town.


Now, this wasn't some little frontier town, made from salvaged materials and badly bolted-together sheet metal. We were just on the limits of the destroyed city (I could never be bothered remembering the names of each place we passed through) we'd almost been blown up in, and more than a few buildings were still intact. The road was actual asphalt, even if it was cracked and had weeds growing through it. There were sidewalks you could walk on without tripping, running water in our hotel, even working streetlights. It was like a glimpse into the prewar world... With more junkies, gangs and trick ponies than you could shake a stick at.

Not that anyone was going to give us trouble; I had Garden slung over my shoulder, I was bigger and meaner looking than damn near everyone, and Rose almost killed some idiot that tried to steal her saddlebag.


We trawled every store in town, looking for any parts Rose could use to fix her rifle, but none of them fit her exacting standards... Lunch was easier to find; a beer each and some freshly cooked meat from a street vendor. After our adventures, we'd made enough caps that work was a low priority compared to having something interesting to do, and that's what we focused on for the rest of the day.

Evening found us standing in front of a large building, the sign proclaiming it to be 'The Jungle Gym'. Talk about a stupid name. "Well, this is the place... Doesn't look like much." Rose shrugged and blinked at me. We'd overheard some ponies talking about a boxing league based in the gym, and how they were looking for new fighters. That had perked Rose's interest immediately; she'd enjoyed the brawl in the bar, and the idea of getting paid to fight suited her just fine. I was a little more cautious, since any kind of organised fighting will attract big, mean individuals... It was Rose's decision, though, and I agreed to support her completely... After she made it clear I didn't have a choice in the matter.

Besides, we were so far from home, there was no chance of being found by accident, so it was safe enough to stay for a while if we wanted to.


When we went in, I was struck by how clean and well organised it was. Bright lights hung from the ceiling, illuminating everything. Boxing bags, work-out equipment, even a big boxing ring in the middle of the room. A couple of earth ponies were sparring, while the shortest earth pony stallion I'd ever seen was smoking a cigar and shouting at them, alternating between advice and abuse.

I followed Rose to the edge of the ring; she watched the ponies trading blows, paying close attention to the way they fought and the padded shoes they wore. It looked wierd to me; Ponies aren't built to punch, after all.

After a short while, the short stallion called an end to the bout. The fighters climbed out of the ring and went to a door at the back of the gym; the locker room, I guessed. The midget came over to me and Rose, glaring at us. "What the fuck do you fuckers want?" Foul mouthed little shit. I narrowed my eyes at him.

"We're looking for a fight. In the ring, if possible."

"Oh, really? Haven't had a griffin fighter in a while. Sure you're up to it, chicken?" Oh, I wanted to kill him so badly.

"Not me, my friend." I waved my claw at Rose; She blinked at the midget.

"Hah! You fucking kidding me? This little unicorn cunt?"

Rose snorted and glared; she didn't like the little stallion very much either. "I'm serious, mr..."

"Jungle. The name's Jungle, and don't you forget it, chicken."

"Whatever, short-arse." If he wanted to be rude, then so would I. "How about you get one of your boys in the ring, let my mare work her frustration out on him? Unless you're scared, that is."

We glared at each other, daring our opponent to blink. "Fine, don't say I didn't warn you. Hey, cunt, you know the rules?" Rose blinked at him. "Fuck, I hate silent types. Hooves only. Front or back, I don't give a shit. We'll pad that stupid fucking horn of yours, and no magic either. Start you off with something simple; you can handle simple, right?" She gave him a glare that would have made me proud. To his credit, the little pain-in-the-arse only flinched a little. "Chicken, you get to put the shoes on your little fuckbuddy there. I'll round up somepony her size, and don't come crying to me when the little cunt is out cold on the canvas."

---------------------------------------------------------------

Rose calmly faced her opponent, an earth pony mare twice her size, as Jungle explained the rules. "Front and back hooves only. No biting, gouging, horns, magic, or weapons of any kind. I don't give a fuck where you hit each other. Face, chest, legs, shove your fucking hoof up the other cunt's plot and turn her into a puppet for all I fucking care. The fight goes for five minutes, or until one of you goes down. I ring that bell, you'd better get back to your fucking corner. Got it?" Rose nodded. "Right... You two, bump hooves, back to your corners, and when the bell rings, come out fighting." Rose bumped hooves with her opponent, and went to her corner, eagerly awaiting the sound that would start the fight.

DING!

At first, they only danced around each other, then the big mare took a swing that would have left me seeing stars. Rose took the blow to her face with a relaxed grin and swung her own hoof once, with all her might. Even with all the padding on her hooves, Jungle and I cringed as her opponent went spinning halfway across the ring, flopping like a ragdoll. I didn't need to check the big mare to know she was out like a light.

Rose came trotting back to us, looking pleased with herself, and quite rightly so! Jungle managed to pick his jaw (and cigar) up off the floor and turn to me. "So, mr griffin... Does your friend want to sign up pro, or just fight for the rest of the season?"

I smirked at him, pleased with the sudden respect. "The name's Ibis, and she's Rose. I think we'll just hang around for the season. Now, let's talk about prize money..."

---------------------------------------------------------------

There were two months left in the season, and there was a match every weekend. Jungle had insisted we give Rose a name for her fights, and I came up with Bloody Mane.

Pretty soon, that name was on everypony's lips, and when word got out she was fighting, the gym was packed. Rose cleaned up her opponents in the first round each time, and walked away with no more than a few bruises. We made a bundle, Rose got to have fun, and we spent the rest of the week getting drunk and making out.

Then, it was time for the last match of the season.


"All I'm saying is, Ironchops has never lost. Hell, the big fucker's only had one draw, and he almost killed the other fucker after the fight because of it. It'd be better for all of us if your friend throws the match."

"No way, Jungle. Rose'd never agree to it; She's not fighting for the title or the money, she enjoys it. You've seen her face when she fights; you really want to try talking her into losing?" I pointed at Rose; she was on the other side of the gym, studying herself in a mirror.

Jungle shuddered. "Fuck... She's like a fucking animal in the ring... Just, talk to her, Ibis. Make her see sense, or she'll end up dead."

---------------------------------------------------------------

It was the big night. The crowd was roaring, the overheads casting their harsh, white glow down upon the ring. Rose was trotting in place eagerly, waiting for a glimpse of her opponent.

The announcer, a unicorn, stood alone in the center of the ring, his magically amplified voice booming out over the mass of heaving, screaming flesh that had come to see the match. "Fillies and Gentlecolts! Tonight, we have for you a fight for the ages! A show you will never forget! These two ponies have never met, never even seen one another, but tonight, before your very eyes, they will fight to see who is the stongest, the most fierce, and who deserves the belt the most! In the red corner, we have the defending champion, the undefeated pony of pulverising, IRONCHOPS!"

The crowd went nuts as the biggest stallion I'd ever seen climbed into the ring; He made me look like a fucking chick! His blue coat barely managed to contain muscles that looked like they could have stopped a bullet, and his eyes were a wild red. He stomped around the ring, roaring to the crowd, getting them riled up.

I turned to my mare, much less confident than I'd been a few minutes ago. "Fuck... Rose, are you-" The look in her eyes frightened me. They were hungry, focused, more intense than anything I'd ever seen... The eyes of a monster...

"And in the blue corner, the queen of carnage, the mare of mayhem... BLOODY MANE!!!"

When the announcer called her name, Rose sprung into the ring, holding her head high and proud as she walked towards her tank-of-a-pony opponent. The crowd were screaming themselves hoarse, cheering on their favored fighters, placing bets and just plain old going insane as the pair started to circle each other and the announcer continued.

"You both know the rules, so get to your corners and give us all a good show."

They bumped hooves, went to their spots, and everything went silent, the gathered crowd just waiting for that fateful sound...

DING!

They slammed into each other, not playing, not testing, just trying to destroy each other. Padded hooves flashed and smashed against sides, chests, faces, anything that could be hit. Neither one was giving an inch.

The pair of fighters could only see their opponent, feeding on the roar of the crowd as the bell rung to end the first round, then the second... The third... The fourth...

---------------------------------------------------------------

Round fifteen started. The crowd had long ago fallen silent, awed by the gods of battle standing before them. Now, the only sounds were of hoof on flesh, and the occasional crunch of breaking bone. Their padded shoes were starting to wear out, but nobody was willing to break the fighters apart to replace them.

As if by some unspoken agreement, the match had transcended the normal rules, and only death or unconciousness could declare a winner now.


The pair was covered in bruises, coughing blood into the ring as they slammed against each other time and again. Every twist, every kick and punch, they all struck home, neither combatant caring for their own safety, focused on only one thing... The Fight.

Even victory had ceased to matter, and as the bell rung to end the round, I grabbed a bucket of water and threw it over Rose when she sat down in her corner. Talking to her was useless; she was watching Ironchops, and he was watching her, their gazes so intense I thought my heart was going to stop. The air was charged with violence and tension, bordering on madness...

As one, Rose and Ironchops blinked, and everyone knew... This would be the final round, one way or the other.


The bell rung, for the final time, and the warriors strode forth, like titans from ancient myth... Time seemed to freeze as their walk turned into a charge, each swinging a single hoof, gambling everything on a final blow... Reality returned to normal, the crowd watching in shock as the loser hit the mat, bounced once, and lay still, the only sign of life the movement of their chest.

The announcer stood beside the prone form, stuttering as he tried to find words that could do justice to what we'd just witnessed... "A-and the winner is... BLOODY MANE!"

The crowd exploded. Rose staggered over to the announcer and I jumped into the ring, Jungle behind me. "We have a new champion! Ironchops has been defeated! Bloody Mane, what do you have to say on this momentous occasion?!"

No, he didn't know that Rose couldn't talk. As he extended his spell to her, the crowd went silent, the air heavy with anticipation as Rose opened her mouth...

And sneezed, the magically amplified sound echoing all through-out the gym. The tension was shattered; A few giggles rang out in the still air, then some chuckles, and soon everypony was laughing their heads off. Rose just grinned at me sheepishly; I grinned back and ran my claw through her sweat-drenched mane.

My little marefriend was one of a kind, all right.

---------------------------------------------------------------

About an hour later, Jungle, Rose and I were in the locker room, dividing the take from the fight. Well, Jungle and I were dividing the take. Rose was tripping, since I'd stuck her with two doses of med-x and a half-dozen healing potions. She lay on her back on a bench, her hooves twitching as she tried to catch... whatever she thought was flying above her.

Probably little Lunas or Celestias.

"Well, you two fucking cleaned up." The midget didn't look very happy.

"Why so glum, Jungle? You made a killing too!"

"That's just it; Ironchops is gonna want Bloody Mane dead when he wakes up."

"You gonna explain to him that Rose doesn't want to be champion?"

"I'll try, but with that psycho..." Jungle took his share and left the locker room, leaving me to watch Rose in her anaesthetic-fueled bliss.

She looked better already, since I'd forced her to drink so many healing potions. None of her broken bones had been bad enough to need surgery, surprisingly. I was still going to keep her in bed for a few days, though, just to be safe... And if I had anything to say about it, I'd be right there beside her.

"Long time no see, son."

A familiar voice startled me, and I looked towards the door. "Mom? What are you doing here?" My mother, looking quite pissed off, was standing there with a very familiar mare beside her. I felt a flash of anger, but then I noticed how run down the mare looked; Dark marks under her eyes, she'd lost a lot of weight, her mane was a filthy mess, and her eyes were almost dead, a far cry from what she'd looked like when we first met...

It grated to say her name, but seeing her like that, I couldn't hate her as much as I used to...

"Lily..."


FOOTNOTE: 75% PROGRESS TO NEXT LEVEL
Companion Perk: Prize Fighter -- Whiskey Rose gains +1 Strength, +1 Endurance, and +15 HtH. She is also more resistant to crippled limbs, and has a strange desire to nibble ears.



A/N Well, we're fast approaching the end of planned events. Not the end of Wasteland Bouquet, because that would be boring! But after the next few chapters, I'll be flying by the seat of my pants, so hold on and enjoy the ride!

KKat gets all my thanks, for the awesomness that is Fallout Equestria! Winter Storm and Midnight Stalker get tons of thanks, because they helped with this chapter more than they know!

And last, but certainly not least, all my readers and fans! I couldn't do this without you!

Chapter 10: Regret

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---CHAPTER 10: Regret---

“You're more than friends. You're my family.”

---------------------------------------------------------------

---8 MONTHS AGO---

"Are you okay now, Lily?"

Lucky Break had managed to coax me back to my hotel room, and he had his hoof around my shoulders... It was meant to be comforting, but all it did was remind me of what we'd done, and what it had done to Rose...

"N-no..." I blew my nose with a hanky that Lucky had given me, trying to keep from sobbing too much. "I d-don't think I'll e-ever be okay again... Lucky... I h-hurt Rose... S-she'll never f-forgive me..."

"Lily... From what you told me, Rose needs you; You're her big sister, the most important pony in her life. I'm sure she'll come back on her own, and I'll even apologise to her myself." He seemed so sincere... But he didn't understand. Even after I'd cried my heart out to him, told him about her parents, the raiders, how she hadn't left my side for so long and my promise to look after her...

No. He didn't get it. How could he? Rose had hated him from the start, but I thought that it had just been because he was a colt... Really, it had been because I liked him as well; Had she been jealous? Afraid? I couldn't understand it myself, but I knew I'd never make the same mistake again... I'd find Rose, apologise, do anything and everything I could to make her forgive me...

But first, I had a decision to make... Not a hard one, though. In fact, it was the easiest decision I'd ever made: Was Lucky Break important enough to risk hurting my little sister even more?

The answer was a resounding 'No'.


"Lucky, I... I don't think we can be together anymore..." I blinked away my tears and looked at him; He was smiling sadly.

"I know, Lily... Your sister is more important to you than anypony, I can see that, and the last thing I want is to come between you two..."

"Thanks, Lucky." I wiped my eyes and smiled. Maybe he did understand... If only I'd paid more attention to Rose, talked to her about how I felt about Lucky Break, things might have turned out better...

"It's alright... We can still be friends, right?"

"Maybe... But I need to talk to Rose first..."

Lucky nodded, and smiled. "Of course. I'm sure they'll be back soon... Tomorrow, at the latest."


They didn't come back.

---------------------------------------------------------------

ONE WEEK LATER


"And that's what happened."

My parents stared at me in horror as I finished telling them about how I betrayed Rose, the state I'd found her and Ibis in, and how they'd ran off to get away from me. Lucky had left before I met my parents, since him being there would only have made things worse.

"Lily... You..." Dad shook his head, disgusted at what I'd done. "Where's this coltfriend of yours? I've got a few words for him."

"We split up, dad... After what it did to Rose, I don't think I'll ever look at another buck again..." I hung my head in shame, flinching when Magpie spoke.

"You'd better not, you little idiot." I didn't need to look up, I could feel her angry eyes boring into me. "Doing something like that... You're lucky my son only slapped you!"

"Can't you see Lily feels bad enough already?" My mum broke in. "She knows what she did, and you two aren't helping matters. Lily, do you know what way they went?"

I nodded, still not looking at my family or Magpie. "Y-yeah... I think they were headed for that little town near here..."

"Lily... We passed through there this morning, and we didn't see them..."

I looked up at my dad, fighting back tears. "M-maybe they were just inside or something, and you missed them? T-they l-looked like they were h-hurt when they r-ran off..." I started to sob, and mum hugged me.

"Honey, it's okay. I bet they're on their way back right now, and if they don't show up soon, we'll go find them, alright?"

I nodded dumbly, unable to talk, my heart ripped in two. Magpie was looking towards the road out of town, like she was ready to take off by herself and find her son. Dad was staring in the same direction, looking worried about his adopted daughter... my little sister...

---------------------------------------------------------------

TWO WEEKS LATER

Ibis and Rose still hadn't come back... I was in the back of the wagon as we rolled down the long and dusty road, headed for the most likely place we'd find them... The town they'd been running towards...

Magpie was circling above us, checking for any sign of them while we travelled. The town was only a few hours away, and dad said they could have easily made it on hoof... It wasn't very comforting... They'd looked really hurt, and anything could have happened to them since then... I blinked away my tears and looked at Rose's saddlebags; she'd left everything she owned behind...

Desperate to distract myself, I pulled the worn bags over and started sorting out the contents; Rose would have just blinked at me if she saw me doing it, and I managed a small chuckle. Somehow, she managed to find whatever she wanted in that mess. A stack of books and magazines, a half-empty bottle of whiskey, some old gum wrappers and boxes of bullets for her rifle, which was sitting on her duster beside me.

I found the wierd little toolkit she'd gotten at the market, and stared at it... Nope, still no idea what it was for. Funny-shaped sockets and pointy things, little clippy bits and things like that. They looked complicated and important, but the label was too faded for me to read. It would have to stay a mystery for now, or at least until I could ask Rose about it.


I packed all Rose's things back into her bags neatly; She'd be grumpy if I threw anything out, and I didn't want to upset her any more... With a small sniffle, I pulled my bag over instead. My pipbuck was still attached to the strap, and I hit the 'On' button for the radio, tuning it to DJ Pon-3.


"Hellooooo, Equestrian Wasteland! This is DJ Pon-3, your voice in the darkness! Or at least, the radiation. Haha...

Time for the news, children! You all know about Whispering Sands, the infamous city of ghosts, right? Well, a plucky little band of caravaneers recently went in, on a contract to find some gizmo from before the war. Now that's what I call having spirit! Haha!

All jokes aside, I've gotten word of things happening near there, and it looks like the gizmo our adventurous pals found may be at the heart of it all. So, stay clear of Whispering Sands and keep your eyes open, unless you wanna join the ghosts.

And now we've got Blue Eyes and his classic hit, A Long Night."


My jaw dropped, and I stared blankly at my pipbuck, the music playing in the background. Did... Did DJ Pon-3 just speak about us? I squealed happily, clapping my hooves together and getting a curious look from my mum. Rose would be so excited!

Rose... My excitement died. We had to find her first, then I could give her the good news... With a sigh, I settled down to watch the horizon and wait, quietly singing along with the radio as the lonely world crept by.

---------------------------------------------------------------

The first thing I did when we got to town was head for the doctor's office, while my parents and Magpie split up to look around. Rose and Ibis had been gone for almost three weeks, and I could only hope they hadn't been as hurt as they'd looked...

I found the right building quickly enough, the three butterflies on the sign really distinctive... Pretty, too. Pushing the door open, I went into the front room and found the doctor, a unicorn buck, doing some paperwork.

"Um... Excuse me..." The doctor looked up at me... He looked really tired...

"Yes? What is it, young lady? Are you hurt?"

"N-no... But some of my friends might be... Have you seen a big, grey griffin, and a white unicorn with red mane?"

The doc sighed and rubbed his temples with his hooves, frowning. "Yes, I've seen them... They were in quite a state when they came in... Half dead, both of them." My heart sank and I couldn't speak, my mouth just hanging open while I processed what I'd heard. Half dead? They couldn't be... "How they recovered so fast is beyond me... They left as soon as they were well enough. Against my advice, might I add."

My heart started beating again. "T-they're alive?" I stared at the doctor, praying to Celestia and Luna that I'd heard him right. He nodded.

"Oh yes, quite alive. They left a couple of weeks ago, but they didn't say where they were going, I'm afraid."

"Thank you so much!" Smiling, I turned and trotted away, leaving the doc to his paperwork. I had to tell my parents the good news! Rose was okay! Ibis, too... I guess Magpie would be happy to hear that, but Rose was more important!

I ran through town looking for my parents, filled with hope for the first time in weeks. Together, we'd be able to find my sister for sure!


When I found them, mum and dad insisted we spend the rest of the day asking around town for any clue where they might have gone, even though I wanted to just go out and find them already!

---------------------------------------------------------------

ONE MONTH LATER

"Lily, you need to eat something."

"I'm not hungry."

"You've barely eaten for days!"

"Don't care." I turned away from my mum and the plate of food she was trying to give me, staring at the twilight landscape before me. Had it always looked this dead, this lonely?

There was nothing moving out there, not even a hint of a breeze, the reds and browns of the still desert sands muted and faded under those low, oppressive clouds.

A month ago, I'd have been happy to look out over the endless desert wasteland, but we hadn't heard anything more than vague rumours of Rose and Ibis...

From what we'd heard, they never stayed in one place for long, moving from town to town, doing odd jobs to earn a living.

It was great that they were alive, but I just couldn't understand why they were moving around so much... Didn't they know we were looking for them?


...
What if... What if they were avoiding us? Avoiding me?

I blinked back my tears, telling myself I wouldn't cry. Maybe Rose just needed some time to recover...

That had to be it. I'd really hurt her, after all, and nopony would get over something like that so fast... Especially Rose...

It was getting harder and harder not to cry, thinking about my little sister out there, with just Ibis to protect her... At least he could be trusted, not like me... A stupid mare who couldn't even look after the pony that meant the most to her...


I shivered and went over to my bedroll, just at the edge of our campfires glow, pulling Rose's old duster over and burying my face in it, breathing in the smell of worn leather, dust and gun oil before wrapping it around myself to keep out the nighttime chill. It was the closest I could come to having Rose beside me...

My stomach growled, but I ignored it, watching the world slowly fade into darkness, hoping against hope that I'd see a white shape come trotting towards me, and unable to sleep for fear she'd come back while I was dreaming.

---------------------------------------------------------------

For almost a year, we continued on our usual rounds, my parents refusing to go off chasing every rumor we heard. Magpie agreed with them, saying that they'd be fine as long as Rose and Ibis were still together.

I didn't eat or sleep much for all those long months... Food seemed to have lost all taste and my dreams were so lonely... so empty... Mum spent a lot of her time fretting over me, saying I was losing too much weight, that I didn't look well... I didn't care.

I asked in every town we passed for news, rumors, even the smallest scrap of information about my sister, but there was nothing concrete enough to convince my parents we should abandon our caravan trail and find them...

In the back of my mind, I understood. The caravan was our livelihood, and there were ponies depending on the supplies we delivered, but Rose meant more to me than anypony else...


Then, one day, in a crowded bar, I overheard something that caught my interest.

---------------------------------------------------------------

TWO WEEKS AGO

"Didja hear the news? You know old Jungle, down in Little Fillydelphia? Well, he found himself a new fighter! Word is, she's gunning for the champ."

"Bullshit. Ain't nopony can take on Ironchops and live, let alone some mare."

"And I say she could do it. I was there last month, saw her fight! They call her Bloody Mane for a reason; that little unicorn is a monster!"

"A mare, and a unicorn? Now I know you're full of it."

"Um, excuse me?" I waved my hoof at the two bickering traders, getting their attention. "You wouldn't happen to be talking about a little white unicorn with a red mane, would you?"

The first trader, an earth pony buck, nodded.

I felt a small spark of hope. "Does she have grey eyes? And a black heart-shaped cutie mark?"

"Yep, that's Bloody Mane alright. You a fan, young lady?"

"N-no... I'm her sister..." The pair stared at me.

"Come off it, now. Ain't no way you could be Bloody Mane's sister. Everypony knows she's an only child; her family got eaten by manticores."

"I heard she was part griffin." A pony at the next table over butted in. "And that she's married to that big grey fella that's always beside her."

"Hah! She was raised by minotaurs! Any idiot could see that!"

"Prove it!"

"I saw her fight, and there ain't no way she could be that strong unless-"


I tuned out the rest of their argument; it was starting to get absurd and I'd already learned the important stuff.

Rose was alive, with Ibis, and they were staying in one place!

As fast as I could, I said thanks (they were too busy arguing to notice) and bolted out of the bar, searching for my parents. Now that I knew where they were, and that they were staying there instead of moving on, my parents had to see sense!

---------------------------------------------------------------

"But why not?!" I stomped, glaring at my dad. "Rose is okay! We even know where she is!"

"Lily, Little Fillydelphia is a long way away, especially when we've got contracts to fill and deliveries to make here. You know how important our caravan is."

"But dad-"

"But nothing. If your sister is really okay, and she's found a place to stay, then we'll go to her as soon as we can."

"But-"

"No, Lily. We're not dropping everything just to fix your mistake." My ears flattened and I winced. That hurt, and I deserved it. "Ibis is with her, and I'm sure he's looking after her just fine. Isn't that right, Magpie?"

The old griffin scratched her head with one talon. "Well... That worthless son of mine is sweet on Rose, so I don't think he'd let any harm come to her... And I taught him everything he knows about surviving out there, so they should be alright... I'd still like to see him, though. I've got a few words to say to him, for running off like that."

My eyes lit up and I turned back to my dad. "See? Magpie wants to go!"


There was a lot of arguing, and I cried a lot, but eventually we all came to an agreement. Since Magpie was still under contract to us as a guard, she'd take me to Little Fillydelphia to see Rose and Ibis.

We spent the next few days preparing for the long trip ahead. When we set out, I had both of my saddlebags full of supplies, with Rose's rifle and duster tucked into the straps. Magpie agreed to carry Rose's saddlebags for me, when I explained that the three things were all she had left of her parents.

It was going to be a long trip, almost a month, but it would be well worth it, just to see my little sister again.

---------------------------------------------------------------

NOW

I shifted uncomfortably, not liking the ruined, dirty town. Little Fillydelphia was nasty, smelly, full of junkies and crazy looking ponies, and worst of all... It felt like it was closing in on me.

Not as bad as Whispering Sands had been, with all those tall buildings (Magpie told me they were called skyscrapers), because the buildings here were only a couple of stories at most, but it didn't feel like a safe place.

If I didn't have Magpie with me, I was sure that something bad would have happened. Not that the old griffin was bothered by any of the stuff we saw; she barely glanced at a mugging, stepped over a junky who had just overdosed on something in an inhaler, and I had to trot to keep up with her.

"Alright, Lily. My son and your sister are meant to be at the Jungle Gym, right?" I nodded.

"Y-yeah... That's what I heard..." A gunshot rang out and I flinched, stepping closer to my feathery bodyguard. She looked down at me, amused.

"Oh, calm down. They've really cleaned this place up since the last time I was here, you know."

"Y-you've been here before?"

"Yeah. Years ago, before I retired. Now, let's find the place, and stay close."

Oh, I sure as hell didn't have any plans to go off alone. Shying away from a colt that leered at me, pus dripping from one nostril and down his mouthful of rotten teeth, I hurried to stay beside Magpie where it was safe.


We stopped at a street vendor to get directions to the Jungle Gym, and learned there was a big fight that night. Apparently, Bloody Mane (Rose, if I was right) was going to be fighting the champion, somepony called Ironchops. I couldn't understand why everypony seemed so excited about a stupid fight, or why Rose was fighting at all, but at least we knew where she'd be.

By afternoon, we'd found the gym, a prewar building made of cracked bricks, a big sign over the doors. Magpie lead the way inside, and I followed her closely. There was all sorts of stuff everywhere, from weight sets to work-out machines, but the centrepiece was a big boxing ring, with ponies dragging benches around it, setting up seating under the direction of a really short earth pony smoking a cigar...

He was swearing a lot.


"Excuse me..." With Magpie at my side, I trotted up to him. He stopped shouting long enough to look at us, then facehoofed.

"Another fucking unicorn with another fucking griffin. That's all I fucking need. Sorry kid, but if you're looking to fight you're out of luck. Tonight's the last bout of the season, and we're not looking for new fighters."

"Oh, um... I'm not a fighter... I'm looking for my sister... She's a white mare, with a red mane and a black heart cutie mark. Have you seen her?"

He stared at me, then shrugged. "Bloody Mane never said anything about a sister. Then again, she doesn't say much."

I wasn't surprised. "Well, Rose is shy..."

"You know her real name, huh? Guess you really are her sister; ain't many fuckers around here know that. You said you were looking for her?"

I nodded. "Yeah... Do you know where she is? It's really important that I find her..."

"Nope." My heart sank. "Her and that griffin of hers-"

"Ibis." Magpie butted in.

The stallion glared up at Magpie. "What?"

She glared straight back at him. "His name is Ibis, pony."

"Yeah yeah, fucking whatever. Like I was saying, they never said where they're staying. If it's really important, we've got a few tickets left for the fight tonight. You can talk to her after that, if she's still conscious."

Well, it was something at least. Me and Magpie bought our tickets and, after finding out the start time, wandered around town to see if we'd bump into Rose and Ibis. The whole time, I was wondering just what the short pony had meant by 'If Rose was still conscious'...

The fight couldn't be that bad, could it?

---------------------------------------------------------------

The sun was setting when we got back to the gym, turning the town into an urban nightmare lit by barrel fires and flickering streetlights. Dozens of filthy ponies were gathering at the building, more than I'd seen all day, and we had to fight our way through them to get inside. If it wasn't for Magpie, I would have been crushed.

"Lily!" Magpie tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to some empty seats, in the middle of the crowd. All the ringside ones were already filled with rabid looking ponies who were screaming and stamping, waiting impatiently for the fight to start. We struggled to get to our spots, barely sitting down before some lights over the ring came on, illuminating the announcer with their harsh glow.

"Fillies and Gentlecolts! Tonight, we have for you a fight for the ages! A show you will never forget! These two ponies have never met, never even seen each other, but tonight, before your very eyes, they will fight to see who is the stongest, the most fierce, and who deserves the belt the most! In the red corner, we have the defending champion, the undefeated pony of pulverising, IRONCHOPS!"

A huge stallion climbed into the ring, looking like a giant blue wall of muscle, and started stomping around, roaring to the crowd, getting them riled up. I had to flatten my ears to keep from going deaf, and even Magpie winced at the sudden increase in volume.

"And in the blue corner, the queen of carnage, the mare of mayhem... BLOODY MANE!!!"

A white unicorn jumped into the ring, and it took me a moment to recognise her. Her mane was shorter than it had been all those months ago and looked like it had been cut with a knife, but it was the same crimson mess I'd loved to play with. The way she moved was different as well, stronger, more confident.

There was no mistaking who she was though.

"Rose..." I whispered, my eyes going wide as I watched her approach the massive, monster sized pony without a trace of fear... If anything, she looked... eager...

"She's fighting that brute?" Magpie stared in disbelief as Rose and the big pony bumped hooves and went to opposite corners, eyes locked on each other, neither one speaking. "Lily, your sister is insane!"

I had to struggle to hear her. The crowd was going completely berserk now, and I started to yell so the old griffin could hear me, but just then a bell rang and the announcer dived out of the ring, barely avoiding the collision between Rose and the giant stallion. At that point, my brain almost shut down at the impossible scene before me. The blue stallion looked like he could have crushed me with one hoof, but Rose wasn't even blinking as he pummelled her, instead matching every one of his blows with one of her own for several long, brutal minutes.


Another bell rang and they seperated, going back to their corners like nothing had happened, not even breathing hard. "Holy fuck... Are you sure that's really Rose?" Magpie stared, wide-eyed, at the fighters and I nodded.

"Y-yeah... That's her alright... Isn't that Ibis behind her?" I pointed at where Rose was sitting, and the grey griffin leaning into the ring, trying to talk to her. She was ignoring him, so it had to be Ibis. Nobody else could get that close to her and still be ignored like that, after all.

Magpie tried to say something else, but the bell rung for the next round and the roaring crowd drowned her out.

---------------------------------------------------------------

I felt sick, but couldn't look away.

The crowd had fallen silent ages ago, and all anypony could hear now was the sickening thud of hooves against flesh as Rose and Ironchops collided time and time again, spitting out blood and trying to kill each other.

Sweat sheened on their coats, flying into the air in glittering sprays every time one of them landed a hit, catching the harsh light of the overheads above the ring like a rain of diamonds, only to fall with the spattered blood on the floor all too quickly.

They were moving slower than they had been at the start and each hit made them stagger, but the fire in their eyes was still burning strong enough that even I could see it. It was like nothing existed outside of the ring, their eyes fixed only on each other, not even blinking, lost in some horrible insanity that scared me.

Why? Why was Rose doing this? Why was everypony just watching them try to kill each other?! Good ponies weren't meant to fight, but every pony here had actually paid to come and see this!

I couldn't wrap my head around it, it all seemed so wrong!

How could anypony enjoy something so horrible and violent?


As the bell sounded to end the fifteenth round, I struggled to understand it all. Rose had always been a good pony, so why would she be fighting like this? This wasn't something a good pony would do! What had happened to my little sister?

"This is it." Magpie's voice snapped me back to reality, and I looked up at her.

"Huh?"

"When that bell rings, it's all over, Lily. I can feel it." The old grey griffin grinned, and I noticed most of the ponies around us had the same hungry, eager look she did. I shuddered and scooched closer to my bodyguard for protection, suddenly very afraid. The air felt like it was alive with silent anticipation and waiting violence, and I felt my eyes drawn back to the ring. Rose and Ironchops were staring at each other like a couple of predators ready for the kill.

Ponies shouldn't look like that. Not even in the worst places in the wasteland is there a reason ponies should look like that.
What had happened to us? Had ponies ever done things like this before the war? What would the Goddesses say if they saw us now, looking and acting like wild animals?

I was starting to feel really ashamed of what ponykind had turned into.

DING!

Rose and Ironchops stepped out of their corners, walking towards each other... Their walk turned into a charge, and they both raised a single hoof, time slowing to a crawl as they swung for the last time.

It felt like an eternity before, with a gut-twisting crunch of breaking bone that echoed through the silent gym, time returned to normal. Ironchops lay motionless on the the floor of the ring, and the announcer climbed in to check him, looking shocked beyond belief.

"A-and the winner is... BLOODY MANE!"

I whimpered and covered my ears with my hooves as the crowd exploded, screaming and cheering. Rose staggered to where the announcer was standing, in the middle of the ring. Ibis jumped into the ring as well and stood beside her, with the short stallion that liked to swear right behind him. "We have a new champion! Ironchops has been defeated! Bloody Mane, what do you have to say on this momentous occasion?!"

The announcer's horn glowed as he extended his voice spell to Rose, the crowd hushing quickly, eager to hear what the new champion had to say. My breath caught in my throat; after so long, I'd finally be able to hear my little sister's voice again!


Rose opened her mouth...

And sneezed, the magically amplified sound echoing all through-out the gym. A few ponies snickered, then I heard some chuckles, and soon everypony was laughing their heads off. After such a huge, horrible fight, all the tension suddenly drained out of the crowd. Rose just looked up at Ibis and he grinned at her, running his claw through her sweaty, soaked mane.

My jaw dropped. Rose was letting Ibis touch her.
What the hell had happened over the last few months?

---------------------------------------------------------------

After the match, everypony had to leave while they took care of the fighters and cleaned the ring.

I was glued to Magpie's side as we fought through the teeming mass of ponies that had gathered outside the gym. They were all talking about the fight, and I caught snippets of conversations as we shouldered our way through... Well, Magpie did all the shouldering. I just followed her.

"Bloody Mane is a monster! Did you see when-"

"There's no way it was rigged! I swear I heard Ironchops' jaw break and-"

"I told you she'd win! I saw her first fight and I just knew-"

"FUCK! I lost everything! How the fuck did the champ lose to that little-"

I didn't get to hear what the angry pony thought Rose was, because we finally got out of the crowd. "That was intense." Magpie stretched her wings and grinned. "Best fight I've seen in years!.. You okay, Lily? You look a little green."

We started walking, waiting for the crowd to thin out before trying to get back in and see Rose and Ibis. "I'm fine. Really... Um, Magpie?"

"What is it, kid?"

"Why did everypony enjoy the fight so much? It was horrible!"

The old griffin stared at me. "You're a wierd one, Lily. There's nothing better than a brawl to a griffin. Hell, most ponies enjoy it too. Gives you a chance to let off steam."

"I meant watching it!" I shuddered. "Every time they hit each other, I thought I was gonna throw up..."

Magpie chuckled. "You're too sensitive kid. Some people are just wired for violence, either seeing it or doing it. Ponies, griffins, minotaurs. Doesn't matter what you are."

"But Rose doesn't like fighting!"

"She seemed to like attacking Ibis. Remember?"

"I... She... That was different."

"Oh, really?" We'd stopped at a street vendor to get some food. I didn't feel like eating, but Magpie did. "How was it different?"

"It just was, okay!" I stomped my hoof and glared at her. She just chuckled.

"Okay, fine. Have it your way, kid. Why not have something to eat while we wait for the crowd to thin out?"

"I'm not hungry." Just then, I got a whiff of her roast iguana and my stomach rumbled. She raised her eyebrow and stared at me. "I said I'm not hungry, and that's that!"

Magpie shrugged and sat on a bench at the side of the road to eat her snack. I hopped up beside her, watching the crowd in front of the gym impatiently. The streetlights bathed the filthy ponies in their flickering, yellow light, and I really hoped Rose and Ibis would stay in the gym until we could talk to them.

---------------------------------------------------------------

About an hour passed before it was clear enough for us to get to the door.

Inside, the gym was pretty empty, with just a few ponies cleaning up all the litter and stuff left behind on the seats. A couple of ponies were trying to get the still-unconcious giant pony onto a stretcher. Secretely, I hoped he was alright. I didn't like seeing anypony getting hurt like that, no matter who they were.

I spotted the short pony coming out of a door at the back of the gym, and trotted over to him. "Um, my sister-"

He cut me off, waving his hoof at the door he'd just come out of. "In there." With that, he just walked past me, towards the huge pony. He was finally on the stretcher, and the medical ponies were trying to lift it without much success.

Turning to Magpie, I smiled nervously. "Should we just go in?"

She nodded, scowling. "Take all the time you want with Rose. I'm going to have a few words with my son." The old griffin pushed the door open and, after hesitating for a moment, I followed her into what turned out to be a locker room.

"Long time no see, son."

"Mom? What are you doing here?" Ibis was sitting on a bench next to a row of lockers, looking at Magpie in shock. Then his eyes turned to me and I flinched away from the disgust on his face. "Lily."

Right then, Magpie walked forwards and punched Ibis straight in the beak, sending him sprawling.

"The fuck, mom?!" He sat up and she hit him again. This time, he rolled to his feet and kept out of reach. The griffins glared at each other, and I stayed as still as I could. Angry griffins are scary.

"What the fuck were you thinking?" Magpie yelled, her wings flaring. "Running off like that was irresponsible and idiotic! Worst of all, you broke your contract!"

"My contract?" Ibis laughed, but he didn't sound happy. "My contract was with Rose, mom. Not the caravan, and certainly not with her." He pointed at me and I backed up, frightened. "I stayed true to my contract, and I would have gone with Rose even if she didn't own me."

Magpie took a step towards him, scowling. "She only owned you for six months. You should have come back, Ibis. Not wandered around, like some freelancer."

"I'm no freelancer, mom. Rose still owns me. She never released me from my contract."

"You idiot!" The older griffin took another step forwards. "She doesn't have to! After six months, you were free! You know that!"

"I know."

"Then why didn't you come back to me?"

Ibis looked away, and I followed his gaze. Rose was on her back on a bench, waving her hooves in the air slowly and grinning. "Because Rose needs me, mom. I'm not going to abandon her, not after everything that's happened. She means too much for me to do that, contract or not."

Magpie sighed and closed the gap between them completely, only to lightly thump Ibis on the head with her fist. "You are just like your father. He was a sentimental idiot, too."

Ibis rubbed his head and grinned sheepishly. "Sorry, mom."

The old griffin thumped him again. "I swear, you'll meet the same end he did, Ibis."

"There are worse ways to go, mom."


Ignoring the continuing griffin family drama, I walked carefully over to my sister. "Rose... It's me, Lily..." My voice low, I sat beside her, taking a good look at her. She looked rough. A bunch of little scars all over her belly and forelegs, her mane looked like it had been cut with a knife and it had... Was that one of Ibis' feathers, braided into it?

"Rose?" I waved my hoof in front of her face, but didn't get a response. Her eyes were huge and she just stared up at the ceiling, smiling and waving her hooves like she was trying to catch something.

"Don't bother." Ibis' voice startled me, and I turned around. The griffins were behind me, and it didn't look like they were going to fight anymore. "I gave her a couple doses of med-x. The only reason she's still awake right now is the adrenaline from the fight." He reached over and grabbed Rose's muzzle. She didn't seem to notice. "See? Dead to the world. Why are you here, anyway? Shouldn't you be with Lucky Break?"

"I uh..." I mumbled, looking at the ground.

"Well, speak up!" Ibis yelled at me suddenly. "What, you think you can ruin Rose's life, and then just waltz back in? Is that it?"

"NO!" I screamed at him, almost in tears. "I left Lucky! Rose is more important to me than anypony! If I could change what I did, I would, but I can't! All I can do is try and make it up to her!"

Ibis opened his beak to yell at me some more, but: "ENOUGH!" Magpie shouted, stepping between us. "Lily knows what she did, son. She's been beating herself up nonstop since you two ran off, and the little idiot's barely eaten or slept in months."

Ibis glared at me, and his eyes softened a little. "She does look pretty pathetic." He sighed. "Fine. Rose is out of it right now, but she should be lucid tomorrow. I'll let you speak to her then, but only on one condition."

"Anything!" I responded eagerly. "Anything at all, as long as I can talk to her."

"If Rose wants you to leave, you leave. Got it?"

I nodded. Rose wouldn't want me to leave. I was her big sister, after all. I couldn't bring myself to think any other way.

"Alright. There's only one hotel in town, that's where we're staying. Let me clean Rose up and get our things, and you can come with us. You might as well stay there too, but you're not sharing our room. Is that clear?" I nodded again. "Good."

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I stared at myself in the small, stained mirror hanging over the sink. I looked terrible. Dark circles under my eyes, my mane was a mess, and I looked half starved. Maybe I should have listened to my mum and eaten and slept more...

Well, now that I had Rose back, I would!

I dunked my head into the sink and ran my hooves through my mane, trying to clean it. I had to look my best for my first real meeting with Rose... She didn't care about appearances, but I'd feel better knowing I looked like a real pony and not something that wandered in out of the desert.

When I looked into the mirror again, I sighed. At least I'd got some of the dirt out.


Magpie was waiting for me when I left the bathroom. "Ready?"

"Nearly. I'll just be a second." Using my magic, I folded up Rose's duster and stuck it in her saddlebags. Her rifle was holstered and tucked into the straps, and I floated the bundle alongside as I trotted to the door. "Okay, ready."

Into the hall, with its only-kinda-dirty carpet, and to the room next to ours. Magpie knocked on the door, and after a few seconds, we heard Ibis say "Come in."

Magpie walked straight in, but I hesitated, suddenly nervous. What if Rose really did want me to leave? No, I couldn't think like that. Steeling myself, I stepped in and saw Magpie and Ibis sitting at a small table, already talking. Rose was sitting on the bed, looking bored... The grey feather was still in her mane, too. "I told her you're here to see her, Lily."

"T-thanks, Ibis." The grey griffin went back to talking to his mother, and I trotted up to Rose, smiling nervously. "Um... Sorry it's been so long, sis..." She blinked. "Look, about what happened... I... I wanted to say I'm sorry and..." She just stared at me, those big grey eyes blank and unreadable. "Could you say something? Please?"

"Rose can't speak, Lily. She lost her voice." Ibis called out.

My ears flattened. "Was... was it..."

"It's not because of what you did. She lost it when we got blown up. The blast knocked me out and it scared her so bad, she can't talk any more."

Thwack!

"Want to run that by me again, son?" Magpie raised her claw again, and Ibis rubbed the side of his head, where she'd hit him. "Only this time, explain how you got blown up, and why."

"Gah, fine, mom! I'll tell you everything that's happened, okay?"


"You really can't talk?" I asked Rose quietly. She just blinked and stared at me blankly. Dread started to form, creeping around inside me. If she'd lost her voice, then what else could she have lost? "Rose... Do you know who I am?" She shrugged, and I felt my heart tear in two. "You don't remember? I'm your big sister, Lily! We're best friends! Don't you remember that big birthday party we had for you, when I gave that Elements of Harmony book? See? I've got it here! And your saddlebags, your duster, even your gun!" I pulled her stuff over and started emptying it onto the bed in front of her frantically. "Do you remember any of it?" Rose just sniffed at a few things, then started poking the gun with her hoof idly.

I leapt onto the bed, throwing my hooves around her neck and holding her tightly as I cried. Magpie and Ibis stopped talking to watch. "I'm so sorry, Rose! About Lucky Break, about hurting you like that, about everything! Please, please remember me! I promise I'll never do anything like that again! Just please forgive me!" She pulled away, her eyes wide and confused. I raised my hoof to her, sobbing, but she shook her head and hopped off the bed, walking towards the bathroom. Every few steps, she'd stagger and shake her head.

"Okay, that's enough for today." Ibis called out, then he stood and went to open the door. "Mom, can you take Lily back to her room? I think she's upset Rose enough for one day."

"C'mon, Lily." Magpie stood beside her son, and I wiped my eyes on my foreleg as Rose went into the bathroom to get away from me.

"O-okay..."

WHAM!

A loud, metallic thud had us all rushing to the bathroom, where we were met with a surprising sight.

Rose was sitting with her head on the edge of an old tin bathtub, one with a very large dent exactly where her forehead happened to be resting.

"Rose!" I rushed to her side and she turned her head to look at me, not lifting it from the dent.

"Why?" Her voice was sad, pained, eyes full of hurt. "Why did you do it, Lily?"

"I-"

"Rose, are you sure this is the right time?" Ibis broke in, stepping forwards and resting his claw on her back. "I mean, you just got your voice back, and I guess your memory, too... How much do you remember?"

"Everything, Ibis. Everything they did together. Everything he did to my sister." Her grey eyes stayed focused on my face. "Why, Lily? Why would you let him do that to you?"

"B-because... I didn't think... I didn't realise you'd feel it too... I promise I'll never do anything like that again, if... if you'll just forgive me..."

"Lily..." Rose raised her hoof and put it on my shoulder, then leaned forwards to hug me tightly. "I was so scared... It was like mama again... I couldn't do anything to stop the feelings..." She started to cry.

"I'm so sorry! I didn't think! I'll do anything I can to make it up to you, Rose! I promise!" I wrapped my hooves around her, crying myself.

After a little while, she sniffled and raised her head to look at me. "Lily, I... I know you really liked Lucky... and..."

"Rose, it's not important. I don't care about Lucky any more."

"No, Lily, this is important..." She pulled away from me. "I... I really love Ibis... More than you liked Lucky, but... I'm scared, even though I want to be with Ibis like you were with Lucky, and... can you teach me how to not be afraid? Please?"

Magpie raised an eyebrow at Ibis curiously, and he mouthed 'I'll explain later' to her. I smiled and giggled a little. "You're growing up, Rose. But I thought you didn't like males."

"I don't like colts. Ibis is a griffin."

"Okay... I'll try and teach you not to be scared of guys... But on one condition: Ibis," I glared at the grey griffin. "You tell me what the fuck you've been doing to my little sister!"

"Lily, don't swear. Good ponies don't swear." Rose scolded me, and we all smiled. Except for Rose; she was completely serious.

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We spent the rest of the day listening to Rose and Ibis tell us about the months they'd spent alone. They stopped for me to go in the bathroom and throw up a couple of times, when they were telling us about how they almost died running away from me, and then what Rose did to the raiders that blew them up.

Magpie spent a lot of time hitting Ibis for being reckless or an idiot, and I tried to kill him when he told us (in very nonspecific terms) what he and Rose had done in Stable 77. The big feathery bastard wouldn't die, though, and Rose just giggled and watched us struggling with each other. Magpie faceclawed, saying something about never having grandchicks.


But at least Rose had forgiven me. I still swore to her, myself, Luna and Celestia that I would never have sex with a buck without getting Rose's permission first, though.

Oh, and we asked her why she'd slammed her head into the bathtub. Know what she said? "It seemed like a good idea, and it worked."

She still couldn't use magic, though. Ibis had explained that, along with her memory, she'd lost her magic after recovering from their fight. It killed me that she couldn't do her empath thing or use magic, but it didn't seem to bother her much.

I had a lot to feel guilty for... But I'd make it up to Rose, no matter how long it took.

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"Are you sure?" I stared at Ibis, not fully convinced.

"We kept Rose up late last night, and I had to give her a shot of med-x to help with her concussion."

"That's what happens when you headbutt a bathtub..." I muttered, and Ibis chuckled.

"Yeah... She's still pretty out of it, and I want to get her some bullets for her rifle as a present. Look at how glad she is to have it back!" I looked past him to where Rose was dozing on the bed, her front hooves wrapped protectively around her precious gun, her duster being used as a blanket and her saddlebags for a pillow. It was pretty cute... "Mom agreed to look after her for us, so we can pick up some stuff while she's sleeping. I also wanted to talk to you in private."

I glared at him. "Oh, yes, Ibis. We'll be talking, all right. I'm still not finished with you."

He sighed. "I know, I know. So, is that a yes?"

I nodded. "Yeah... But I'm giving her a hug before we go." I trotted over to the bed and jumped up, snuggling my little sister happily. She smiled in her sleep and curled up even tighter around her gun. I watched her sleep for a moment, then went back to Ibis. "Let's be quick, okay? I don't want to leave her here too long." We waved to Magpie, who was reading a magazine at the table across from the bed, and left the hotel.


A couple of hours later, we returned. I had every packet of gum I could find in the entire town and some books that didn't seem too damaged, while Ibis had opted for bullets and a bottle of whiskey. We walked into the room to find a very agitated Magpie pacing back and forth, completely alone.

"Mom, where's Rose?"

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-WHISKEY ROSE-

Sleep slipped away, my dreams replaced by the waking world, and I reflected on the previous night. To have forgotten Lily was unthinkable. A good pony would never have done that, nor would they have run off.

I knew this, and yet I could not change the past. She had hurt me, albiet unintentionally, and I had hurt her. I had been a bad pony, and I would have to be extra good to make up for it.

There was no point in dwelling on it further, so I slowly opened one eye, wondering why my body responded so slowly. Then I remembered; Ibis had given me a dose of med-x to help me sleep, saying I had a concussion. Thankfully, it had almost worn off while I slept.

The room was well lit, so it must have been midday. Magpie was reading a magazine at the table, one I recognised from my collection. There was no sign of Lily or Ibis, and a small flash of panic gripped me before I raised my hoof, feeling for the feather I'd taken from Ibis and smiling when I found it, still braided into my mane. They'd be back. My big sister and boyfriend wouldn't leave me alone for long.

I'd be a good pony and wait right here for them.


I stretched a little under papa's old duster, my head on mama's bags. It reminded me of late nights, curled up against my papa with my head on mama's side, while they told me stories and read to me from my books. I missed them so much...

With a little sigh, I shut my eyes and tried to go back to sleep, knowing I'd see them in my dreams. They were always there, saying how proud they were that I was a good pony and giving me lots of hugs. It was nice.


Thud! Thud! Thud!

I opened my eyes again, woken by the sound of banging on the door. I couldn't have been asleep for more than an hour. The knocking continued, and I lay there for several minutes before wondering why Magpie wasn't answering it.

Raising my head, I quickly discovered why: I was alone in the bedroom, and the bathroom door was closed.

With a sigh, I slipped from my warm, comfortable spot on the bed. I didn't want to, but it was rude not to answer the door, especially when I didn't know who it was. It could have been important.


When I opened the door, there was a dirty young mare wearing a tattered old hat standing there. "Ohmigosh ohmigosh ohmigosh! It's really you! You're really Bloody Mane, aren't you?!" I nodded. Ibis had chosen my boxing name based on the color of my mane. It made sense, but conjured unpleasant images all the same. "This is so awesome!"

I just stared at her, waiting for her to get to the point.
It's impolite to interrupt when ponies are speaking, after all.

"Oh, right! I've got a message from Mr Jungle, he wants to meet you! He said it's urgent, and you should come right away!"

Jungle. The short pony that liked to swear and smoke. He was responsible for organising my fights in the ring. He had never come too close to me, though from respect or fear I could never tell. Had I been in full possession of my faculties, there would have been no doubt, but without my empathy he was as unreadable as all the other ponies of the wasteland. Only long association allowed me to read either Ibis or Lily with anything approaching ease.

I argued with myself for a moment, while the young mare stared at me, her eyes full of... awe? That was most likely, although I couldn't understand why. All I had done in this town was fight, and that was hardly praise-worthy.

Ibis and Lily might be back soon, and they'd be expecting me to still be here. Magpie would know what to do, but I didn't know how long she'd be in the bathroom.

"Isn't it impolite to keep somepony waiting? Leave them a note, it'll be fine."

The little voice in the back of my mind whispered to me, and that made the decision for me. The voice had never steered me wrong before, after all. I had a very smart conscience.

"One second, please." I smiled at the young mare, making sure to be polite. She seemed nice, after all. "I need to leave my friends a note, so they know where I am." I crossed the room to the bed, and pulled a scrap of paper and a pencil out of my saddlebags.

Gone to see Jungle. Urgent. Back soon. Rose.


Pleased that my mouthwriting was nice and neat, just like mama taught me, I stuck the note on the table. "Um..." The mare was fidgeting in the doorway. "Can I get your autograph? Please?" She smiled, and I nodded.

"Okay." Because she'd said please, I could hardly refuse. She was being a good little pony, after all. I signed another piece of paper as 'Whiskey Rose' and gave it to her, wondering why she seemed to like me so much.

"Whiskey Rose?" She looked at me, curious. I blinked at her.

"My name."

"You mean... your real name?!" She seemed excited, and I couldn't understand why. When I nodded that, yes, it was my real name, she squealed and tucked the paper safely into her hat. "Thank you so much, Miss Whiskey!"

"You're welcome. Now, Jungle asked to see me?"

She nodded frantically. "Uhuh! He asked me to take you straight to him!" I followed her as she trotted out of the hotel and set off across town, chattering the whole time. "See, he wants to meet you just outside of town, instead of at the gym. I thought it was wierd, but he paid extra for me to guide you personally, and it's so cool that I get to meet the Bloody Mane! Oh, I'm Jacknife, by the way."

"Nice to meet you, Jacknife." I smiled at her, watching the ponies on the streets out of the corner of my eye as we walked. They kept their distance, for some reason. I wished I still had my empathy; other ponies are so hard to understand.

"I saw your fight against Ironchops, and it was the coolest thing ever! You were all like Wham! Whack!" Jacknife was dancing around me, parodying a boxer. "And then, when you sneezed, I was like 'No way!' and I laughed so hard!"

I blushed a little. I hadn't meant to sneeze, I'd just had blood up my nose.


We kept walking, with Jacknife keeping up a running commentary as she re-enacted my fight with Ironchops, the large, strong pony. She seemed to enjoy adding adding her own flair to the story.

"And then he roared, and you just punched him in the guts! It was so cool! Um, Miss Whiskey, can I ask you a question?"

I nodded.

"How did you get so strong? What's your secret?" She stared at me with eyes I could only describe as 'Eager'. I thought about it for a moment before answering.

"Being a good pony."

"Huh? That's it?"

I nodded again. "Good ponies always win, Jacknife. Just be the best pony you can, and everything will turn out alright in the end."

"Wow... You're so cool, Miss Whiskey! I'll be the best pony ever, just you watch!"

We smiled at each other, chatting as we walked. Soon enough, we reached our destination, just outside of town.


Planks of wood and slabs of stone stuck up from the flat, raised area, several meters of wasteland and a barbed wire fence seperating it from the town proper. Here and there, I could see mounds of fresh dirt, like somepony had been digging.

"Jungle wanted to meet me in a graveyard?" I turned to Jacknife and she nodded rapidly.

"Uh huh! It's a wierd place to meet, isn't it? Well, Mr Jungle is over there," She raised her hoof and pointed. "And I've gotta get back to town. I've gotta run errands, and a good pony doesn't keep others waiting, right?" She grinned at me, and I smiled.

"That's right. Don't worry about me, I'll find my way back when I'm finished here."

"Okay, Miss Whiskey! Bye!" She took off, galloping back into town as I waved good bye.


"What a nice pony," I said to myself, as I turned and headed for where I could see Jungle. There was a very large pony next to him and, as I trotted up, I realized it was Ironchops. "Hello, Jungle."

The short pony looked... Surprised. "What, you can speak now?" I nodded. "Well, it doesn't matter... I'm really sorry about this, kid, but it was either you or me, and I like living more than I like you."

Before I could speak, Ironchops had slammed into me, roaring. I tried to brace myself, but something was wrong. He was much stronger and faster than he had been in the ring, and I was knocked over, dazed. I tried to stand, but he stomped on my legs, breaking them. The pain shot through me, but it didn't matter. The little voice in my head was screaming for me to stand up, escape, and that's what I tried to do. Ironchops stomped on my legs again, breaking them in different places, and then he started to stomp on the rest of me.

"Fuck, at least kill her clean!" Jungle looked away, and even I could see he was disgusted.

"Fuck you, Short Cunt! Shut your fucking mouth or I'll kill you too! This bitch'll get what she fucking deserves for what she fucking did to me!" The huge pony kept stomping on me, breaking everything he could. I tried to raise my head, and he stomped on that as well. My world exploded as I felt my horn shatter under his blows, and I could taste blood. More than mere bone was broken, but I kept trying to stand. It was futile, my body wouldn't respond.


Finally, Ironchops stepped away, panting. "Give me the knife, Short Cunt."

"No, I-" Jungle cowered, Ironchops looming above him like an angry titan. "It's in the bag!"

The giant pony reached into a sack and pulled out a rusted knife with his mouth. Grinning maniacally, he walked out of my view. Jungle just shook his head and turned away, sickened, as the first sharp pain tore through my flank.

Ironchops was cutting my cutie mark off.

He made it slow, agonising, digging into muscle and bone with the blunt, rusted blade, before throwing a large, ragged patch of my hide into the sack and turning back to me. Then, he began to cut and stab, killing me slowly.

The pain was excrutiating, yet my mind was clear through it all. Unable to move my broken, shattered body, all I could do was wonder what Ibis and Lily would think when they found out I wasn't in the room. I'd written that I'd be back soon, and now I wouldn't be back at all...

Something told me I should have felt sad, but I didn't. I just felt numb, concerned that they might think I was a bad pony for not coming back like I said I would...

Eventually, the cutting and stabbing stopped. The world had begun to fade, a grey fog creeping in over my senses as I felt myself being pushed into a hole in the ground.

"Bury her, Short Cunt, or you're fucking next."

As the dirt began to fall on my limp, torn and broken body, I wished that I'd had one more chance to hug Lily, or kiss Ibis.

Then, I died.



FOOTNOTE: LEVEL UP



A/N Wow, sorry about the long wait. This chapter was cursed! I had tons of health problems while I was writing it, and everything seemed to be getting in the way of finishing it.
No, this isn't the end. We've got a long road ahead of us before we reach that, believe me!
I'd like to thank KKat and Somber for being amazing inspirations, and Winter Storm and Midnight Stalker for always being there when I needed help in one way or another.

Chapter 11: Cradle to Grave

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---CHAPTER 11: Cradle to Grave---

“ We can always find a way to fix that hole in the roof. But if you don't come back, we'll never be able to fix the hole in our hearts.”

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A young filly hums to herself as she stands on the porch of her house, eyes closed to better enjoy the gentle wind that blows through across her face.

She doesn't know the name of the tune she's humming, or the words, only that her mother always smiles while singing it. For a moment, the filly wonders if she should go back inside and ask her mother to teach her the song properly, but her young mind quickly sets the idea aside in favor of spending the morning playing.

As she opens her bright blue eyes and steps lightly off the porch, she hears her mother call out from the kitchen window, telling her to be careful. The filly giggles; she's always careful.

"Yes mama!"

With that, she skips off into the large field behind her house, a place of dreams and magic, wondering what game she could play today.

Perhaps she'll be a famous explorer, charting untold lands and travelling all over the world.

Maybe she'll be a famous singer, making ponies everywhere smile with her songs.

With a little squeal, the filly realises the perfect thing to do, and skips to her favorite place in the field.


To those innocent eyes, the field is a wonderland of infinite majesty. The earth is a deep, luscious brown, full of life. The grass is emerald green, strong and healthy in the golden sunlight that filters through the beautiful silver clouds above. Every breath of wind carries with it whispers of a world she's never known, waiting just beyond the house and field that have been her home, her world, since the day she was born.

Her young heart soars as she dances in the warm morning air, skipping and spinning to a song only she can hear, until she reaches her rock. A boulder at the far end of her field, it is so large she has to jump to get on top of it.

The rock has been her castle, her fortress, her stage and her mountain. Her father places cans and pieces of wood on it as targets when he gives her shooting lessons. The ancient piece of stone is her playmate and her oldest friend, almost as reliable and comforting as her parents, and she stretches out on it, basking like a lizard as the cool surface slowly drinks in the rising heat of the day.

Her cyan eyes take in her field, coming to focus on her house. The old wooden structure, repaired and maintained by her parents, is the grandest thing she's ever seen. She knows every inch of it, from the creaky floorboard on the porch, to the loose panel under her bedroom window, where the little spider lives.

The house is ancient and showing its age in places, but to the filly, it is the only place she can imagine calling home. She smiles and rolls onto her back, exposing her soft white underside to the sky, but doesn't look away from the building. She thinks about the comforting smell of the living room, where she so often falls asleep, curled up in front of the fireplace with her parents. Her mouth waters at the thought of the clean old kitchen and how her mother might, even now, be preparing lunch.


The filly shakes her head and rolls over again, standing up with a determined look on her young face. It is still morning, and she has to play before she can eat lunch.

She looks around, peering into the tall grass beside her rock, searching for a stick she remembers seeing yesterday. With a yell of delight, she spots it, using her magic to wrap it in a white glow, pulling the length of wood up to her before letting out a battlecry and leaping from the ramparts of her castle heroically, determined to protect Canterlot from the evil invaders.


The battle goes on for hours and countless evil beasts are vanquished by her mystical sword as it flashes back and forth, gripped by her mighty magic. The fearless warrior queen leads her valiant ponies against the enemy, driving them back as Princess Celestia and Princess Luna look on in awe at the crimson maned hero.

Finally, the battle is done, and the brave warrior kneels before the princesses, smiling graciously as they promise her anything she desires. She thinks for a moment and opens her mouth to speak, but a voice breaks into her concentration.

He mother is calling her in for lunch.

The little filly giggles and leaps down from her rock, leaving her stick leaning against it, all thoughts of heroic battles and princesses forgotten without hesitation. Her mother is calling, and that is much more important than playing.

With her tummy rumbling, the filly sprints across her field towards her house, leaping into her father's waiting hooves on the porch and laughing as he hugs her tightly, asking what she'd been doing.

"I was being a knight, just like in my books!"

She beams as her father ruffles her mane with his hoof, chuckling, and takes her inside. She can smell something delicious being cooked, and the clink of plates makes her ears twitch with anticipation.


Throughout the meal, the kitchen is filled with the sound of laughter, as always. The filly is careful to mind her manners, just like her mother has always taught her. Her parents talk and joke, their happiness even more wonderful to her than the delicious meal her mother prepared.

The filly savors every last bite of her lunch, and looks up at her father with big, shining eyes when she's finished.

"Papa, can I please go play now?"

Her father nods, and then gives her some news that makes her ears stand up straight, her eyes growing wide with pleasure.

Her big sister will arrive tomorrow.


A squeal of delight echoes through the house as the filly runs to her room and starts tidying it. She loves her big sister, and it wouldn't do to have her favorite pony see her room in such a mess.

"Big sister is coming, Mister Chicken! We have to get everything ready!"

She quickly finds her stuffed griffin, a ragged little thing her mother made for her years ago, and grabs the threadbare toy in her mouth, carrying it as she hums happily and trots back and forth, cleaning. Books are returned to their rightful places, organized by some mad system the filly reinvents on an almost daily basis. Magazines are stacked at the end of her bed, where she can reach them easily at night. Her collection of pretty stones, gathered from all across the wide world of her field, is straightened and dusted.


The filly finishes cleaning and smiles, setting her toy down on her bed in a place of honor. "All done, Mister Chicken! Big sister will be so proud!" The toy doesn't answer, and she doesn't expect it to. With a giggle, she pokes it with her hoof, knocking it over. "You worked hard, Mister Chicken! You should take a nap!"

Finally, she remembers that she was meant to be playing, and realises she didn't have to clean up so early in the day. Reasoning that it was better to be done cleaning now and be able to play more later, and that her mother would be proud of her for doing such a good job, she giggles and runs out of her room, heading once more for her field.


For hours, the young filly plays. Her joyous laughter rings out across the heavenly field as she darts back and forth, playing explorers, knights, and all the games her innocent young mind can conjure into being. The greatest magic in the world is that of a child at play, where all the world is hers to shape, and her pure heart is full to bursting with that immeasurable magic.

In time, her father calls for her to come in, as it's time for her bath. She waves goodnight to the setting sun, knowing that even Celestia needs her naptime, and happily trots towards her house, pausing for just a moment to watch the fireflies that dance in the cooling air.


The filly tells her mother all about the day she had and all the adventures she went on, her eyes shut tight as the soap is washed from her face. As her coat is dried with a soft, fluffy towel, she describes an enormous, pretty beetle with a shiny shell that had buzzed at her and flown out of the field, past where she was allowed to go. She trots beside her mother, the most beautiful unicorn in the world, as they go into the living room, where her father is waiting in front of a roaring fireplace. She laughs and launches herself at the earth pony stallion, burying her small face in his big, strong neck. Her mother sits beside them and the family falls into comforting routine, lit by the dancing flames that seem almost alive.

The filly hums along with her mother, the same song she had been humming that morning. Her father reads to her from a large book of fairy tales, and every princess or hero looks just like his darling daughter. Her bright blue eyes begin to close as she yawns, and her parents smile lovingly at each other, knowing that, for the filly, sleep is not far off.

Suddenly, her eyes shoot open, wide with fear. "Papa, bad ponies are coming."


Her father asks her if she's sure, and she nods. "They're coming here... They're really angry, Papa. I'm scared." The large stallion, a comforting presence that promises safety simply by being there, kisses her horn, telling her not to be scared, that he'll protect her. He nods to his wife, and the beautiful unicorn lifts her daughter with her magic, carrying the filly to her bedroom as the stallion puts out the fire and starts extinguishing all the lights in the house, one by one.

The filly scurries under her bed to hide, just like her mother tells her to. "Mama... Be careful... Please?" She peeks out from behind a stack of magazines, her bright blue eyes brimming with tears. Her mother smiles softly and floats the stuffed griffin from its place on the pillows and into her daughter's waiting hooves, before giving the young filly a kiss on the forehead, telling her everything will be okay, and that she should stay hidden until it's safe, like a good little pony.

She watches her mother turn out the light in her room and leave, closing the door behind her, and listens to her hoofsteps going down the hall as she slides further under the bed, clutching her toy and sheltering behind her magazines.

"It's okay, Mister Chicken. Mama and Papa will be fine, you'll see."

The toy is silent, as always, and she gives it an extra tight squeeze, to make sure it isn't too frightened. Not because she's afraid, because that would be silly... Silently, she admits to her toy that maybe, just maybe, she's a little scared too... But that's okay, because everypony is scared sometimes... right? Even Mama and Papa.

Her parents are nervous, and she knows it. The same way she knows the bad ponies are coming for the house, and that they're all really angry. It's not something she can explain, but she's always been able to sense other ponies. Her parents understand it, and trust her without hesitation. This isn't the first time she's warned her parents about bad ponies nearby, but it's the first time the bad ponies have been coming to the house.


The little filly flinches as she hears the familiar crack of her father's old hunting rifle, the one she's been learning to use for so long. One of the bad ponies falls, screaming in pain, and the filly rubs her chest, the distant, phantom pain mildly distracting. "See, Mister Chicken? Papa will protect us." Another gunshot, and the hurt pony fades from existence. The filly blinks in surprise; it felt... funny... when the bad pony died... But not haha funny...

More gunshots ring out in the night air, both from her father and the bad ponies. The house is good cover, and the proud, strong stallion fires from a window, doing everything he can to protect his family, but he is only one pony. The bad ponies have to cross her flat, open field, but there are lots of them, and they all have guns.

The stallion takes a hit and goes down, his gun sliding under a cupboard, the little filly choking back a scream as she feels his pain. Her mother rushes over to stop the bleeding, pouring a healing potion into the wound even as the first bad pony breaks down the door and charges into the house, snarling like an animal as he slams into the beautiful, fragile unicorn mare, pinning her to the ground. The next pony to violate the sanctity of her home smashes a sledgehammer into her fathers side as he tries to stand, breaking ribs and knocking him to the ground. More bad ponies come in and they gather in the living room where, just minutes ago, the filly had almost dozed off in front of the fireplace with her parents.


She feels their rage, their blind need to hurt, as they stomp on her father and stab him. Their leader approaches her mother, the delicate mare coughing and groaning in pain. The filly is confused. She can't understand why the bad pony is so interested in her mother or what he wants, her young mind unable to comprehend the horrible, alien desires of this monster from the wasteland...

As two of the bad ponies pin her down and spread her hind legs, her mother starts to struggle, only to struck across the face with a jagged chunk of wood, dazing her and ripping deep marks in the soft skin of her face. The little filly gags, and hugs her toy closer, trying not to scream or throw up. Her mother is worried about her, and the filly won't do anything to let the bad ponies know she's there. She'll stay hidden under her bed, nice and quiet, like a good pony.

The leader of the bad ponies presses his hoof against the back of her mothers head and lowers himself against her. The filly struggles to understand what he's doing. Her father does something like this with her mother sometimes, but it's because he loves her mother, and they both like it. The bad pony doesn't love her mother, and her mother is frightened, screaming and struggling to get free, to get away from the horrible pony that is pressing against her.

The bad pony thrusts, tearing into her mother, and the filly feels something in her mind shatter, biting down on her lip until she can taste blood. She feels her mother crying at the invasion, the violation of body and soul, and squeezes her toy tightly. Another bad pony hits the mare with the wood again, telling her to scream louder. Her father tries to crawl to her mother, but the bad ponies start kicking and beating him, forcing him to watch as his wife is raped over and over again, by the entire gang. They torture him until he dies and then torture his wife, even as they continue to rape her. Even the mare's death does not slake their animal lust and her cooling corpse is violated, new holes cut for their sick pleasures.

Through it all, the filly stays under her bed, frozen, her young mind shattered. Pain and pleasure are warped, twisted, one corrupting the other in irreconcilable ways. She cannot feel hate, though she knows it would be okay to hate the bad ponies. She cannot feel much at all, now, just a deep, hollow emptiness, like there is an endless hole inside of her, where happiness used to be.


By some miracle, the bad ponies don't search the house, too busy with their foul, twisted desires to engage in petty theft or vandalism. For hours, they destroy everything the filly had ever held dear, and it is almost dawn when they leave, throwing burning bottles into the house behind them, running off and howling like the vile, diseased beasts they are.

The filly remains under her bed, unable to move, her mind completely broken.

Mama is gone.

Papa is gone.

She has never felt alone before, never felt anger, or fear, or doubt. Now, she cannot feel at all.

Her mother told her to stay under the bed, and that's what she'll do. If she's a good pony, then her mother will come and get her, right? Everything will be okay if she's a good pony, right?

"No."

The filly shakes her head, wondering where the voice came from.

"Get up. It's not safe."

The voice is in the back of her mind. She blinks, unsure of what to do.

"Crawl out from under the bed. The bad ponies are gone, but the house is on fire, and it isn't safe to stay here. Bring Mister Chicken."

Blinking, the filly grabs her toy in her mouth and crawls out from her hiding place, standing and giving herself a shake, waiting for the voice to tell her what to do.

"Good girl. Now, go to the living room."

Still clutching her beloved toy griffin, the filly pushes open the door to her room and walks down the hall. She really doesn't want to go into the living room, but the voice seems to care about her, and her mother always said she should listen to ponies that cared about her.

She pauses in the doorway, young mind struggling to process the horrific scene before her. Blood covers every surface, her parents life splattered like so much paint, fire slowly creeping up the front wall, towards the ceiling. Slowly, one hoof at a time, the filly approaches the mutilated, violated bodies she can barely recognise as her family. She hesitates upon seeing her mothers once beautiful face, now slashed and broken. Some small part of her mind remembers reading that you should close somepony's eyes when they die, but her mother doesn't even have eyes any more...

"It's okay. It's the thought that counts."

Nodding, the filly extends her hoof and closes her mothers eyes, hiding the gouged-out sockets from the world, and then does the same for her father. She decides the voice must be good, because it tells her to do nice things, and that she'll listen to it from now on.

"You're a good pony, you know. Now, go over to the cupboard, and get your papa's gun. You'll need it."

The filly sets her toy down in a clear spot on the floor, one free of blood or other fluids, and looks under the cupboard. Sure enough, she can see the familiar old gun, and she reaches for it. It doesn't occur to her that she could use her magic, but with a little stretching, she manages to catch the stock with her hoof and drag it out, setting it beside her toy.

"Well done. You should go and get your mama's saddlebags, as well. Be quick, though. The fire is starting to spread."

With a nod, the filly darts back down the hallway, to her parents room. She knows where her mother keeps her saddlebags and goes to slip them on, but hesitates upon seeing her father's old duster. The voice never said anything about taking it, but she always loved the old coat... She grabs it in her teeth and puts it on, the old leather garment far too big for her, but it is in no danger of falling off as she tightens the straps of the saddlebags around her middle. She is starting to sweat, and has to run back to the living room. The front wall, with the only door in or out of the house, is completely ablaze. She grabs her doll and tucks it safely into her bags, then sticks the old gun through the straps before trying to get to the door. It's useless, the flames forming an impenetrable barrier.

"Break the window. It's the only way."

The filly blinks, confused. That's not something a good pony would do. "But only bad ponies break things... I'll get in trouble."

"Wouldn't it upset your parents more if you got hurt? You can say sorry after, but it's very important that you stay safe."

The filly thinks about it for a moment, then nods. "Okay..." She trots over to the window at the back of the room, coughing a little. Her young lungs aren't used to so much smoke, and sweat is pouring down her face. "I... I guess I can break it..."

"Good girl, but there isn't much time. Hurry."

She takes a few steps back and charges, jumping at the last second, curling up as she hits the window and goes through it, shards of broken glass bouncing off of the well-worn duster. She hits the ground hard, rolling a few times before climbing, unsteady, to her hooves, and turning to look back at her house. It's become an inferno, the sudden rush of air through the broken window fueling the blaze. Flames leap and roar like demons from her scariest books and a pitch black column of smoke rises into the air, reaching for the low, dark, suffocating clouds. Something inside the filly feels like crying, but she has no tears. Her soul is broken, dead and dry like some forgotten desert, all emotion locked away tightly and hidden from the world.

"You're safe, but there's one more thing you need to do."

The filly simply blinks, waiting for the voice to tell her what to do. Her eyes widen a little when she hears her next task, though. Not from surprise, but simply because it is so unexpected.

"You need to find the bad ponies, and kill them all."

"B-but... Only bad ponies kill... I want to be a good pony..."

"Good ponies protect other ponies as well. If you let the bad ponies leave, they'll hurt so many, and it will all be your fault. That will make you a very bad pony, because you could have stopped them. Do you want to be a very bad pony?"

"N-no... I'll be a good pony and kill them... But only because they're bad ponies, okay? Not for revenge, because that's not for good ponies, and I don't want to hurt them too much if I can help it...

"Only because they're bad ponies, and not for revenge. I promise. I'll even show you how to kill so it won't hurt them too much. Now, they went across your field, so that's the way you should go, but be careful. Alright?"

She nods. "Alright."


The filly sets out across her field, the house she was born and raised in slowly collapsing behind her, sparks from the ravenous blaze fading into the night like so many tiny lives cut short. Her hooves, stained with the blood of her family, pick a familiar path through the sparse and dry grass that fills the field. The earth underhoof is a sickly brown, hard packed and rough, still showing scars from the radiation that once bathed this area and promising little life to even the hardiest of plants.

Her eyes have lost their innocent shine, the once-vibrant blue a dull, muted grey. She no longer sees things through the eyes of a child, or even as most ponies would. Her gaze is clear, and she can see only the truth of the world. The pain, the suffering, the innocence and the sin. She passes no judgement, but simply accepts. This is the real world, one she should never have had to know, and one in which she will live from this moment forth.

As she passes her rock, the rough old boulder that had so often brought her joy, she brushes up against it one last time. Unseen by her, something falls from her bag and lands beside the large stone, watching with mismatched button eyes as she walks away, oblivious to the loss of her old companion. Some would say the stuffed griffin looked sad, or that it may have shed a tear, but the toy simply lay there, waiting loyally for its owner to return.

---------------------------------------------------------------

The dark clouds hang like a burial shroud over the wasteland, no moonlight piercing them to grace the decaying world with its silver beauty, leaving only a darkness as cold and black as the hearts of ponykind.

Still, the little filly trudges on through the unfamiliar land, following the vague sensations of blind rage and base desires that spread outwards from her prey like a sickening haze, one only she can perceive.

Her mind is clear and focused. She has a purpose, if only for the time being, and fulfilling that purpose will help her be a good pony. The voice had told her so, and she trusts the voice without question, as only the young and vulnerable can.


She walks for almost an hour, yet she does not tire. Her bags and her gun are heavy, but the weight is comforting, familiar, a reminder of better days that she bears without complaint. In time, she draws close to her prey and takes shelter in a small ditch, speaking for the first time since leaving her home.

"Are you still here? What should I do?" Briefly, she wonders if the voice is still with her, but that small doubt is quickly discarded, swept aside by the reassuring voice, warm and friendly.

"I'm here, don't worry. I want you to focus, just a little. One of the bad ponies is sleeping, can you find him?"

The filly closes her eyes for a moment, reaching out with her mind and sifting, clumsily, through the twisted, vile cloud of emotions and feelings before her. One by one, she touches each of the foul creatures, nodding when she finds the one at rest.

"Good. Now, leave your things here. They'll be safe, and you can get them after. Do you understand?"

The filly blinks, then nods before undoing the straps on her saddlebags. They are placed to one side, and the old duster is folded neatly on top of them. She leans her rifle against the rest of her belongings but rests her hoof on it, wondering why she can't just use it to make the bad ponies go away.

"The bad ponies will hear you if you do that, and then they'll hurt you. If you do exactly what I say, then I can protect you."

She smiles and takes her hoof from the weapon, waiting for the kind voice to tell her what to do next.

"Good girl. Now, I want you to be as quiet as a mouse. Can you do that?"

She nods and crouches low to the ground, playing mousey. The voice chuckles, and it makes her smile again. She likes the voice.

"Very good, little mouse. Just like that. Here is what you need to do next..."


The filly creeps out her ditch, moving behind bushes and rocks, keeping out of sight just like the voice tells her to. She knows when the bad ponies are looking, can feel them as she inches ever closer, but she isn't afraid. When they get too curious or wander too close, something distracts them just long enough for her to slip away. After several long minutes of what she idly labels 'Hide & Seek', the filly comes upon the bad pony she seeks, sound asleep with the blood of her parents still on his face.

"Do you see his knife?"

Her blue-grey eyes wander across the sleeping form, taking in his crude barding and the severed, mummified hooves hanging like grisly trophies from his belt. Spotting the knife, she nods.

"Good. Take it."

She leans over her prey and takes the grip of his knife in her mouth, careful not to make sudden movements or wake the sleeping pony. It tastes unpleasant, like bile and blood, and she grimaces.

"I know it's yucky, but it's only for a little while. Now, you need to kill him, but first... You don't want him to suffer, do you?"

The filly shakes her head. No, she doesn't want to make him suffer, even if he is a bad pony.

"You can take all his pain away, but it won't be fun. Are you sure?"

She nods. Only bad ponies cause pain, but she doesn't say this out loud. The voice had told her to be quiet and, like a good little filly, she does what she's told.

"Do you remember what you did when your big sister hurt her leg? How you took her pain away?"

Another nod.

"Just like that, then. Press the knife under his throat, right there, where it's soft. Now, as you cut, use your magic and take everything away. Don't be gentle, either. Cut nice and deep to make it quick."

The filly does as she is told, biting down on the knife as she lights her horn and slashes. Everything rushes into her at once. The pain of the wound, the rage and hate her victim feels for her, his fear of dying... Everything. It crashes down like a wave, threatening to overwhelm her, but something deep inside shifts, sealing all the bad pony feelings away in a dark and distant corner of her mind, where they can do nothing to harm her. The last thing she feels from her victim is the cold, empty, nothingness of death, and then he is gone. Silently, she says a prayer to the Goddesses, asking them to judge the bad pony fairly.

"You really are a good pony, aren't you?"

She nods. The prayer was something she read once, a long time ago, and it was something good ponies were meant to say.

"Are you ready? You still have to stop the rest of the bad ponies, but you can rest for a moment if you want."

With a shake of her head, the filly steps away from her first kill, the knife still gripped between her teeth. There is no time to rest, not while bad ponies are still nearby.

"Alright, but be careful, and do exactly what I say, just like before."


The filly follows her instructions precisely, hiding until a bad pony comes near enough for her to slip out and cut their throat, her magic taking everything from them, even the desire to move or resist. With each kill, she crawls to a new spot, like a ghost in the night, and begins again. Some see her before they die and their minds are the worst, full of horrific desires and needs aimed at her young, fragile body. For hours, she creeps about, bringing death and taking pain, until all is silent, and only she remains.

"Are you okay?"

The voice breaks into her thoughts, concerned. The filly is shivering, though not from the cold night air. It is from something far deeper. The chill of death, felt with each life stolen, now nestles beside her soul. "I... I'm okay... Just... feel funny..."

"Take a moment and breathe. It's all over now, the bad ponies won't hurt anypony else.

She takes a deep breath and holds it for a moment, then lets it out. She still feels cold inside, but it's bearable. "Am I a good pony now? I stopped the bad ponies, like you said..."

"Yes. You are a very good pony."

"What should I do now?"

"What do you want to do?"

"I... I wanna see mama and papa again... Say sorry for breaking the window..." The voice is soft when it speaks, comforting her.

"Your parents will understand. I'm sure they're happy you're alright."

"So... I should go home?"

"Yes, my little pony. It's safe now, so you should go home and let your parents know you're okay."


Her work complete, the filly collects her things and begins the long walk home. She doesn't look back, or acknowledge the corpses she leaves in her wake. They were bad ponies, and now they are dead, spatters of their blood on her muzzle the only proof they existed at all.

---------------------------------------------------------------

The once proud house is nothing but warm ashes and a few charred timbers, sticking up from the blackened earth. The filly blinks in the early morning light, unsure what she should feel. Her home, her parents, everything she loved, all gone. She thinks she should feel sad, but she is still numb, dead inside. The voice is silent, offering no advice or instructions, and she picks her way through the ashes, leaving little hoofprints behind her, until she reaches the spot she last saw her parents. "Mama... Papa... I'm sorry I broke the window... And... I'm sorry I couldn't help you... But... I made the bad ponies go away... They won't hurt anypony, ever again..."

She recieves no answer, nor does she truly expect one. Her parents are with the goddesses now, and all she can do is be a good pony to make them parents proud. The voice remains silent, and the small filly simply sits there, beside her parents remains, unsure if she really is a good pony or not. Can she truly claim to be good if she has taken a life? Does the reason justify the act, or the end justify the means? The day wears on as she idly ponders such things, the concepts and words half-remembered from her books, until an almost forgotten pony, full of fear for the young filly, intrudes upon her solitude.

"Rose!"

---------------------------------------------------------------

The filly is dozing lightly in the back of the wagon, finding what little comfort she can in the nearness of her big sister. The arrival of her aunt and uncle had come as a small surprise, since she had all but forgotten they were meant to arrive yesterday. There had been tears when they learned what had happened, and they had buried her parents, marking the graves with two stones pulled from the wreckage of her house. Afterwards, promises were made, more tears were shed, and the filly had joined what little family she had remaining.

She had even discovered that, at some point in the night, she had gained her cutie mark. It was a twisted, black, heart shape, one that brought her no joy. She could see no meaning in it, and could have continued her life just as easily without it.


A small bump wakes her up, but her big sister lays beside her, the older unicorn warm and soft enough to lull the white-coated filly back to sleep. For some time, she dreams of laying in her warm bed and cuddling Mister Chicken, the precious toy that had gone missing after her escape from the burning house. That ragged little doll had been the last piece of innocent joy in her life and now it was laying somewhere, forgotten and abandoned. The thought of her friend, out there alone, leaves her feeling even more hollow than before. She'd betrayed her best friend. Most ponies would have felt self-pity, and almost certainly would have been depressed, but not the filly. She accepts the loss, her sin, and merely hopes her toy is somewhere safe.

Suddenly, a cacophony of strange emotions and sensations rush into her, mental run-off from what she can only assume is a town, something she has heard of but never seen. The jumbled sensations, so varied and different from her parents, or even the bad ponies, wash over her, crashing and slamming against her psyche as she wakes up, shaking. "So many ponies..."

Her aunt and uncle try to calm her, to help her through something they don't understand, but it is the presence of her sister that makes the real difference, giving her something to focus on, to cling to like a rock in the crashing ocean.

The filly unconciously filters through everything that flows into her, setting it aside much like she had while near the bad ponies, keeping her sense of self from being overcome. There is no conscious decision or effort, and she has no idea of what she is doing. She believes she is simply focusing on her sister to the exclusion of all else, the survival mechanism entirely subconcious and automatic.

Anything coming from the outside world is sealed away, repressed, all the fear, confusion, pleasure, pain, anger, lust and happiness seeping from the town kept at bay, lurking in the dark corners of her mind, a roiling, twisting mass of things she cannot deal with.


Soon, the filly begins the slow process of adjusting to being surrounded by so many other ponies. She stays near her sister as they enter town, refusing to speak, trying to understand the myriad lives she can feel being lived around her. The hours spent wandering the town, with her sister showing her all the neat things there are to do and see, all the strange new ponies there are to meet, open her eyes. The world is impossibly big, and she resolves to ask her sister about this later. Her big sister has lived out here her entire life and if anypony would know how big the world was, then the cream mare was certainly the right one to ask. The question would have to wait until night, though, as the town makes her too uncomfortable to speak.

---------------------------------------------------------------

The filly looks off into the night, tracking something on the very edge of her senses.

"You know they're there, don't you?"

She nods. The voice had been silent for a long time, since before her big sister had arrived, and she hadn't realized how much she missed it.

"They've been following the caravan. They want to hurt your family."

She already knew that, but stays silent. The voice is trying to help her, and she wonders what she should do about the pursuers. If they really want to hurt auntie and uncle and big sister, then she should make them go away... right?

"Are you sure? They haven't done anything yet."

Stretching, she watches the darkness, focused on where the aura of aggression is coming from. It's not the same feral, primal emotion she felt from the first bad ponies, rather, it's a focused, deliberate intent to cause harm. She blinks, taking her time and making up her mind. If she hurts them before they do anything, then she'll be a bad pony. If she lets them hurt her family, then she'll be an even worse pony.

"What are you going to do?"

The voice sounds curious, but doesn't pressure her. She comes to a decision and stands carefully, slipping away from her big sister and the campfire. She'll ask the bad ponies that are following them to leave, and if they don't...

"Such a good pony. They won't just leave, you do know that, don't you?"

She nods. Yes, she knows that, but she's willing to give them the chance. Only bad ponies kill when they don't have to. Her small hooves make very little noise as she picks her way across the dark landscape, heading for the cold, calculating ponies. It doesn't take very long and she pauses upon seeing them, careful not to be seen herself. Four of them. She waits for the voice to tell her what she should do, confident it will keep her safe.

"I can see you're serious about asking them to leave. That one, in the front. He's the leader, so talk to him. He has a knife; it's on his left foreleg. Remember that, since you didn't bring a weapon."

She had left her gun back in the wagon. It was loud, and using it would wake up her family. If her family woke up, they'd have to fight these new bad ponies, and they might get hurt. She didn't want that.


"Excuse me." The filly pipes up, trotting out from her hiding place to stand in front of the leader, a large earth pony with crude armor and steel shoes. She notes that, like the voice said, he has a knife sheathed on his foreleg. "Can you please leave? I don't want you to hurt my family, and I'd really appreciate it if you left us alone." The group laughs and the leader smashes his hoof into her face, knocking her down. She doesn't understand. She'd asked him nicely, like a good pony, but all he wanted to do was hurt her.

"I told you. Now you have to kill them, and you got hurt as well. Big sister is going to be upset with you."

Paying little attention to the voice, yet knowing it is right, she spits out some blood and gets her hooves under her. The pain doesn't bother her at all, nor does the bad ponies laughter. As the leader raises his hoof to strike her again, she staggers forwards and grabs his knife in her teeth, pulling it out and lighting her horn. Seconds later, the bad pony is on the ground, dying. His companions stare in disbelief, but then the filly steps forward, bringing them into range of her magic and draining them of all will to fight or move. Three more cuts, three more deaths, and the chill beside her soul grows ever deeper.

"You're shaking."

She blinks, trying to stop the tremors wracking her small frame. "I feel funny again..."

"You're not used to killing yet, that's all."

The filly starts nosing around the cooling bodies of the bad ponies. That she is looting the dead does not bother her, the only concern that they might have something valuable that her big sister could sell. "Big sister likes buying and selling things, so I'll bring her a present. She'll like that, right?"

"Yes, but be quick. If somepony wakes up and you aren't there, you'll get in trouble. You don't want that, do you?"

She shakes her head and searches faster. She has no idea what is valuable, so she strips the corpses of everything but their barding, filling a bag one of them was carrying before turning to trot back to the camp. As she nears her family, she realises they are awake and trots a little faster. She doesn't want them to get upset with her. She wants them to think she's a good pony for protecting them.

---------------------------------------------------------------

The next few years passed without great incident. The filly became a young mare, discovered the joys of bubblegum, and learned to speak to ponies outside of her family, however reluctantly.

She had convinced her aunt and uncle to let her work as a guard for the family caravan, and passed much of her time either reading quietly, playing with her big sister, or trying to teach her big sister to shoot.

In time, she found herself in a small bar with her big sister, awaiting the return of her aunt and uncle, while savoring the burn of her first ever bottle of whiskey. It reminded her of happy nights with her parents, her papa promising to let her try the drink when she was old enough, and singing along to songs that she was quite sure little fillies weren't meant to hear.

It was also a nice distraction from the griffin blathering on across the table.


"I went straight up, waited in the clouds until they stopped looking." The big griffin, finished with his story, winks one golden eye at the cream unicorn leaning on the table. "My gun was laying back in the tunnel, all shot up, so fighting back would've been kinda hard. I could've dealt with them, I just didn't wanna get my claws dirty."

The white mare snorts, unimpressed. She knows the griffin is exaggerating, and doesn't understand why her sister is so interested. She dislikes males in general, and this one makes her mane itch. At least he wasn't a colt. All colts were the same. All they wanted was to use any female they saw for their own release. The mare knew this for a fact, as she could feel their desire every time they saw her big sister. One of them had even gotten the cream mare drunk and tried to force himself on her. The white mare remembers the feel of his face under her hooves as she beat him senseless. The voice had congratulated her that night, saying she was a good pony for protecting her big sister. It had also felt... Good... Like beating the male had relieved some of the pressure in the back of her mind.

"Oh, so you don't believe me?" The grey griffin grins at the white mare, reaching across the table with his questing claw, trying to touch something the mare considers quite precious.

"Aren't you going to stop him?"

The voice had become a constant companion over the last few years, and the simple question is enough to spark the mare into action. "Pass the booze and I'll tell you about the time I-YEEOW!" She sinks her teeth into his claw with all her might, protecting her bottle of whiskey from the giant Mister Chicken.

"Mine." She glares at the grey griffin as he yanks his claw away, daring him to try again.

Her sister scolds her, but she is too busy trying to comprehend the griffin. She bit him, so he should be angry at her. Instead, he seems... amused. She doesn't like the way he is smiling at her, either. It makes her mane itchy.

She does her best to ignore him, confident that he will be out of her life within a few hours. Her favorite benefit of being part of the caravan, other than being near her sister all the time, is that she doesn't have to get to know anypony. She just stays near her sister, ignores everypony else as much as she can without being impolite, and tries to block out the constant stream of emotional white-noise coming from those around her.

Waving one hoof, she tells her sister they should get going, making a mental note that the griffin has a name and that he should be avoided at all costs, before staggering out of the bar, her bottle of whiskey still gripped in her mouth. While her sister shops for essentials, no doubt sweets or snack cakes, the mare drains the rest of her drink. It burns and leaves her feeling woozy, but she enjoys it nonetheless... Until she has to throw up. That isn't very fun.


Eventually, they make it back to the caravan in one piece, and the white mare flops down in the back of the wagon, trying to ignore the sense of impending doom that draws ever nearer. Her sister makes her drink some water and she appreciates it, the cool liquid clean enough she can swallow it without choking. She'll still take a rad-away later, though. One per day just to be sure, just like papa taught her.

Her mane begins to itch as she feels something approach, a presence that sets her teeth on edge and confuses her. The urge to start hurting things, specifically big grey things that are part lion and part eagle, begins to rise as she lifts her head, hoping against hope that she won't see what she thinks she'll see. "Hey, Lily! Where's your sister?"

With a groan, she flops down again, burying her face in her duster. That frustrating creature has destroyed any hope she had of enjoying the rest of her day, and she is tempted to shoot the overgrown Mister Chicken where he stands. The voice chimes in, and it sounds like it's laughing.

"I think he likes you."

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All in all, he wasn't so bad... For a male. The white mare watches the grey griffin fly ahead of the wagon. She knows he is sulking over his poker losses, but she also knows he is less upset than he puts on. For whatever reason, he enjoys being near her, despite his constant losses and the bruises she inflicts every time he touches her. He had taught her to play poker, poker was an easy way to make caps, and caps made her big sister happy, so... His presence was acceptable. That he looks like her foalhood toy, Mister Chicken, also helps her cope with having him nearby. Now, if only he would listen to his mother and stop touching her.

As she opens her new comic, she tries to get her mind off of the griffin. Does the big grey nuisance understand how much she loathes his persistence? She has no idea why he is so dedicated to making her smile or why he keeps trying, even after being thrown out of the wagon repeatedly.

"I told you, he likes you."

The voice was right, of course. Despite their different species, the griffin had quickly become attracted to her. That much was simple, a physical desire she was able to ignore no matter how strongly he felt about her. What was more frustrating, and a large part of her dislike for him, was the other feelings he had developed for her. It was like... like...

"He. Likes. You. Not just wants to have sex with you, but really likes you."

The mare ignores the voice. Why would any sane male be interested in her, when her beautiful, smart, amazing big sister was nearby? The griffin likes the cream mare, but it is merely friendship, with neither one attracted to the other. Then again, she has never seen a sane male, and the griffin is quite different from the colts and stallions she is used to...


Dread creeps down her spine, and she turns to stare at her big sister. The cream unicorn has her face buried in a magazine and is clearly planning something. The intensity behind the younger mare's cold eyes makes her shudder and turn, looking back at her little sister.

"Um, Rose? Can you, y'know, blink? That's creepy." The white mare slowly winks one eye, then the other, deliberately freaking out her big sister. "Quit it. I'm not kidding!"

"Whatever you're planning, Lily, leave me out of it." She turns back to her comic, ignoring the growl her big sister lets out.

"Who said I'm planning anything?"

"You are. And it involves me."

"How did you know? Can you read my mind now?"

"No. You're just easy to understand." The cream mare is mad, and leans over to grab a mouthful of bright red tail before pulling on it. Hard. Lightning shoots up the younger mare's spine, the sharp pain awakening new sensations she has never felt for herself. Trying to block out the alluring mix of pain and pleasure dancing through her body, she turns to glare at her sister. "Lily! D-don't do that!" Her cheeks are burning, the sudden yank making her body surge with needs she would rather not have to deal with. Ever. When the griffin lands in the wagon, it's obvious he's aware of the effect pulling her tail has on her.

Less than a minute later, the grey monstrosity is unconcious and sufficiently bruised to satisfy the white mare, and she keeps her tail to herself for the rest of the journey. Even though the griffin was joking when he offered to pull her tail, she doesn't trust him, or the feelings she gets when she thinks about having him pull it. The voice seem extremely amused by this, and encourages her to be friends with the griffin. She does this in her own way: By beating up the giant Mister Chicken at the slightest provocation. It's the closest she'll come to actually being nice to him, and for some wierd reason he doesn't mind her attacks.
She does like his mother, though. The black and white griffin is nice.

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The city rises around the white mare, enormous cathedrals of steel and concrete dedicated to the excess and madness of the prewar world, the streets great ravines filled with ghosts who have forgotten their own names yet wander endlessly, seeking some reminder of who or what they once were, unable to move on or rest. A maddening laughter echoes endlessly, howling and insane, finding perverse fascination in the suffering of the trapped spirits. All of this fails to bother the mare, as she finds it... peaceful. The city is free from the background noise of the living, filled only with the simple emotions of the ghosts. Few have any semblance of self remaining, the untold years wearing them down like wind upon the desert dunes, becoming as hollow as an empty jar. Or the head of a certain grey griffin.

The mare watches with fascination as the shades relive their final days around her, none of the ephemeral remnants able to see her, few more than vague shadows and outlines that are more felt than seen. She wonders why she has never seen such things before, since the wasteland is full of death.

"They aren't here by their own choice. They're trapped."

The voice says no more, and the mare does not press. It sounded disgusted for some reason, and she decides that if it is important to know more, then the voice will tell her when the time is right. She does not wonder why the voice knows so much, content in the belief that her conscience, for that is what she long ago decided the voice is, will always help her do the right thing. As the wagon rolls towards its destination, she begins to relax in the relative silence of the city, hoping it will take at least a few days to find the device they seek.


The mare enjoys her time in the Robronco building, chatting happily with her new friend, Tequila Sunrise, one of the few shades to react to her presence. Her conversation seems to make her family and the griffins nervous, but the white mare is fascinated by what the lovely red & gold maned pony spirit describes. The party she had been planning with her friends, how her niece, an earth pony named Roseluck, looked similar to the white mare, except for being an earth pony instead of a unicorn. Tequila tells the young mare many things, but cannot remember the day she died. When her bracelet is returned, Tequila is very happy, but her words of thanks creep out the cream unicorn for reasons her little sister cannot understand.

The next morning, Tequila Sunrise and all the other spirits trapped within the Robronco building depart, free from the force that had kept them trapped and lost for so long. Their freedom pleases the voice and makes the white mare happy, because she knows she was a good pony and helped them.

The young mare also discovers that she is afraid of both elevators and great heights. Seeing the city spread out before her, like a foals playset, will haunt her dreams for years to come. She appreciates the grey griffin trying to help her overcome that fear, and begrudgingly admits that he is pleasant to have around. Not out loud, though. Only the voice is aware of her admission and it encourages her to get as close as possible to him, and overcome her fear of males. She thinks about it, for all of several seconds, before refusing, at least for the time being.


It is with great reluctance that, with their objective found, she prepares to leave the city. The countless shades watch her go, many having awoken from their endless slumber with the departure of their fellows, but she ignores them, busy trying to fix her big sister's new pipbuck.

Upon their triumphant return to town, she learns about her parent's past, the origin of her name, and that singing dirty songs with her uncle while drunk is very fun. She also learns that, while drunk, she makes some very bad decisions, like beating the grey griffin at poker so badly she owns his contract for six months. The voice points out that she wanted to keep him around anyway, and she agrees it isn't so bad... Because, since she owns him, she can do anything she likes to him.

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The next month would live forever in her memory as one of pain, betrayal, and life-destroying decisions. The scars inflicted upon her heart and soul would never truly heal, even when her big sister apologized. Sometimes, saying sorry just isn't enough to fix things completely.

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The eye of the mind was shut. The body was only meat.

Near death and emotional trauma stripped her of her magic and memories, but the greatest loss was that of her empathy. The ponies of the wasteland became expressionless dolls with paper faces, like some grand masquerade where nopony was real, fading into nothingness as soon as they left her view. She could feel no connection with those around her, truly alone for the first time in her life. The only constant in her life became the grey griffin, and she latched onto him, desperate for anything real. The voice poked and prodded, driving her closer and closer to him, subtly nudging her to seek not only emotional comfort, but physical comfort as well.

In time, her need won out over her fear and in the depths of Stable 77, she allowed the griffin, now the only one she could remember caring for, to touch her. That single moment of pleasure, of vulnerability, of unbearable ecstasy, lit a fire within her, a hunger to know more of what he could offer. Her fear began to grow as well, her dreams becoming nightmares where, once again, she lost Mister Chicken, but this time it was not her toy that went missing, but her... her boyfried, as the voice called him... that left her. The fear battled with her new-found need, and she couldn't bring herself to be so vulnerable again.

The griffin, now her boyfriend, did not push her. He seemed to understand, but she couldn't be sure, only hoping he did.


Soon, yet another nightmare would enter her mind: The death of her griffin. An attack by raiders drove home just how much she needed him, and all it took was a missile to do it. The voice encouraged her to kill, to destroy those who would take everything from her, and she did so, enjoying every moment of the slaughter despite the fear she had just lost the one being she could remember caring for.

The discovery that he was alive was a relief, and through the haze of pain and adrenaline she had dragged him to a safe place and treated his wounds with what little medical knowledge she had before standing guard, determined to protect him. Blood loss and sleep deprivation took their toll, however, and she only discovered the loss of her voice when the griffin awoke. It didn't matter much, though. As long as he was nearby she was happy and when he braided his feather into her mane, her heart began to soar. That simple token became a reminder, not only that he was near, but that he truly loved her, that there was something real in her life.


Perhaps, she mused, her special talent was boxing. She certainly enjoyed it. The thud of hoof against flesh, the feeling of her body being pushed to the limit. Every bout seemed to lessen the pressure in the back of her mind, and the pain that washed over her was almost as enjoyable as Stable 77. The voice seemed happy, cheering her on, encouraging her to sink deeper into the bloodlust and battlerage, and she did so gladly. The ring had become a sacred place to her, where nothing mattered but the fight, where blood and sweat cast rainbows beneath the burning lights and the roar of the crowd surged against her with almost physical force.

And then, she died.

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Two unicorn mares stand beside a fresh grave. They could almost be twins, and would seem so at first glance, but then the differences become apparent. The smaller of the two has cold, grey eyes, her expression nuetral and unreadable. Her mane is a dark red, her coat off-white. The other is tall and regal, slender and graceful, her eyes a burning blue, her intense gaze seeming to mock the world. Her mane is longer, a deep, vibrant red that seems wet, as though dyed with fresh blood. Her coat is purest white, something that seems out of place against the wasteland.

"Well now, this was unexpected." The taller mare speaks, her voice familiar and comforting. The smaller, normal sized mare turns to her in surprise, cocking her head.

"I know you..."

Blue-Eyes smiles warmly at Grey-Eyes. "Of course you do. We've been together for so long, I'd be surprised if you didn't."

"That's right, you're my conscience." Grey-Eyes frowns when Blue-Eyes chuckles. "What's so funny?"

"My dear girl, you don't have a conscience."

"But... Everypony has a conscience..."

"Not you, my dear. Think about it, have you ever felt bad for anything you've done?"

Grey-Eyes blinks. "Of course I have. When I've been a bad pony, I feel bad about it."

"Is that because you did something wrong, or because you broke the Good Pony rules?"

"I..." Grey-Eyes has trouble speaking, and Blue-Eyes smiles at her again.

"When you kill, do you feel bad?"

"No."

"You enjoy it, don't you?"

"Yes." Grey-Eyes doesn't hesitate. She knows she enjoys killing, she savors the pain she causes to bad ponies. But that's only because good ponies stop bad ponies, even if they have to hurt them to do it.

"And boxing? Would good ponies fight for caps like that?"

"I don't fight for caps."

"Then why do you fight?"

"Because... Because it's fun."

"And would you kill in a boxing match?"

"No."

"Why?"

"Because it's against the rules."

"Not because you would feel bad about it?"

"..."

Blue-Eyes laughs. "See? You have no conscience at all. If it weren't for your Good Pony rules, you would be worse than any raider, my dear."

Grey-Eyes blinks, then looks at the grave before them. The revelation doesn't bother her much. "Oh... Well, I'm still a good pony, even if I'm dead... I am dead, aren't I?"

"Oh, yes. Quite dead."

"Then... Where are mama and papa? If I'm dead, I'm meant to see them, like in my books..."

"Mmm..." Blue-Eyes stands and begins to circle the grave and her companion. "You're dead, but you're still in your body. You see, I'm going to give you a choice." Grey-Eyes blinks, waiting like a good pony for the taller mare to finish speaking. Blue-Eyes laughs. "Yes, you really are a good pony. Very well, here is your choice. You can move on, rejoin your parents in the afterlife. You can even see the Goddesses, if you want. But, you can never come back, never see Lily or Ibis again. Do you understand?"

Grey-Eyes nods. "And my other choice?"

"I give you one more chance. I can fix just enough to bring you back to life, but it's up to you to keep living and find a doctor. If you manage that, then you get to live your life, with all the pain, all the suffering, and nopony to blame but yourself. But, you get to see Lily and Ibis again. Is that worth it?"

Grey-Eyes nods again. "It's worth it, miss Starfall."

"Starfall?" Blue-Eyes blinks, confused.

"Starfall. Because of your cutie mark." Grey-Eyes points at the taller mare's flank, where the image of a shooting star is outlined in black. Blue-Eyes laughs, a merry, haunting sound.

"Very cute. You can call me Starfall, if you like. Now, any questions before you make your choice?"

"Just one. What's the price?"

"Price, my dear?"

Grey-Eyes blinks and stands, stretching. "There's always a price. That's what happens in my books."

"Oh, no price. You just keep being a good pony, and that's enough for me." Blue-Eyes smiles sweetly. "Of course, I would so enjoy it if you took revenge on all those ponies that hurt you."

"Revenge is for bad ponies."

"Are you sure? It's okay to say no, you know."

"I won't hurt anypony for revenge. If you want to, then you can."

"Oh, very well. I take it you've made your choice, then?"

Grey-Eyes nods. "Yes. I want to see Lily and Ibis again."

"This is going to hurt. Are you ready?" As Grey-Eyes nods, Blue-Eyes raises her hoof and smiles.

"One last thing..."

"Yes?"

"Will you still be my conscience?'

Blue-Eyes laughs. "Of course, my dear. I'll never leave you. I promise." She brings her hoof down on the fresh soil of the grave.

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Pain. It courses through my ruined body as I claw at the dirt, digging to the surface, lungs screaming for air. Starfall did as she said she would, healing just enough for me to stay alive. Now, it's up to me. My hoof breaks through, and soon the rest of my body follows as I cough and gulp air. Dying hurt. Coming back hurt even more. My vision is blurry as I climb to my hooves and stagger away from my grave, heading for the mass of shapes I can only assume is the town of Little Fillydelphia. It feels like I've been put through a meat grinder, bones and organs ruined, but I ignore the blinding agony, intent on finding a doctor.

I stagger and fall, the sudden motion making something in my chest tear, rolling from the raised graveyard and hitting the barbed wire fence. A loose coil catches my foreleg, but it's just so much meaningless pain. I stand again, feeling the bones in my legs grinding, and start forwards, only to collapse. "Gotta... Find.. Doctor... See Lily... and Ibis..." The world starts to go black, even as I try to drag myself forwards.

"Poor thing. I really shouldn't do this, but go to sleep for a little while, okay? I'll get you someplace safe."

"Thank you... Starfall..." I mumble my thanks, glad that she's still with me. I need my conscience. Without her, I wouldn't know what to do. With that final thought, darkness overtakes me.

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The white mare falls to the ground, her grey eyes closing. When they open again, they burn from within, lit by an unnatural blue flame. She stands effortlesly, stretching like there is nothing wrong with her. The open wounds, the broken bones jutting from her flesh, none of it seems to bother her. She giggles. "It's been so long since I had a body, I'd almost forgotten how wonderful it is. I feel so... Powerful! Mmmmmm!"

She archs her back, paying little attention to the sounds of bone grinding against bone or tearing muscles. "Well, I do believe my little Rose said she wouldn't take revenge, but I could." She pauses long enough to wrap the coil of barbed wire tightly around her foreleg, like a piece of jewelery, then trots towards the jumble of buildings before her, humming tunelessly. "And I know just where to start."



FOOTNOTE: 50% TO NEXT LEVEL



A/N: Thanks to KKat, Somber, No-One and Mimezinga for being great inspirations, and making the FoE world a fun place to explore!
Extra thanks to my underpaid part-time prereaders Winter Storm and Midnight Stalker, without whom this chapter would have been severely delayed by my indecision and wandering mind.
All you readers out there, feel free to leave me some feedback. You guys are the reason I write, you know!

Chapter 12: Doubt

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---CHAPTER 12: Doubt---

“She's going to be fine. Luckily she has friends like you who got her over here in a jiffy.”

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I galloped through the twilight streets of Little Fillydelphia as fast as I could, dodging ponies as Ibis soared above me. My hooves beat against the harsh pavement, the scattered streetlights painting the town a nauseating shade of pus yellow, but I was focused on just one thing:

Finding Rose.

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"Mom, where's Rose?" The first thing me and Ibis had noticed when we got back from our shopping was that our white mare wasn't where she should have been. Her spot on the bed was empty, her things left like she would be right back. Magpie was pacing back and forth, her wings rustling, claws flexing every few steps... Agitated griffins are scary.

"I don't know!" The old griffin snapped at us, pausing to glare. "I had to use the bathroom, and when I came out, she was gone..." She stepped towards the bedside table and picked something up, turning to show it to us. "I found this, just sitting there."


Ibis stepped forward to take the thing, but I grabbed it with my magic and pulled it over. It was a note.

Gone to see Jungle. Urgent. Back soon. Rose.

I sighed in relief and floated the paper to Ibis before looking up at Magpie. "It says she'll be back soon." Ibis visibly relaxed when he saw the note as well. Magpie snorted.

"She's been gone for over an hour." That made my heart jump. Rose wouldn't have stayed out for that long!

"Ibis, who's Jungle?" I turned to the grey griffin and stomped, starting to freak out. "Who is she, and why would Rose just run off like that?! Nopony is important enough for Rose to take off without saying anything to one of us!"

Ibis scrunched up the paper. "Mom, stay here in case Rose comes back. She trusts you." He stepped towards his mother. "Just... Don't let her leave this room until we get back... Please? I think I know where she is, but if she's already on her way back, and we miss her..." Magpie nodded and put her claw on Ibis' shoulder.

"She'll be fine, son. I saw her fight, and I don't think anything in this city could hurt her. I'll wait right here, don't you worry."

"Thanks, mom." The griffins smiled at each other, then Ibis grabbed me and dragged me out of the hotel.


"Ibis!" I struggled and the grey griffin set me down on the pavement outside. "Who the hell is Jungle?!"

He narrowed his eyes and waved his claw at the street in front of us. "Talk and walk, Lily. I'm not leaving Rose alone any more than I have to, and I wouldn't think you want her out here, by herself, any more than I do." We set off at a brisk walk, but we slowly started picking up speed as Ibis explained who Jungle was. "Jungle's the short, foul-mouthed runt of a pony that runs the gym. He set up all of Rose's fights."

We were running now. "Why... would Rose... go see him?" I panted a little. "She... hates... stallions..."

"The note said it was urgent..." Ibis jumped over a startled, drunken pony, while I went around. "It must have something to do with that last fight..."

"You mean... against... the big pony?"

"Yeah. Jungle said Ironchops is a bad loser... If he's hurt Rose..."

My heart leapt into my throat and I put on as much speed as I could, Ibis taking to the air and leading the way to the gym. That big pony could have crushed me like a bug, but Rose had already beaten him once... She'd been dosed up on med-x when we left the room, though... Could she have fought him off like that?

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I stomped back and forth in front of the gym, glaring at the locked doors. Ibis knocked as hard as he could for what felt like the twentieth time before turning to me.

"Doesn't look like anyone's in there."

"I can see that!" I snapped, only to flinch when Ibis stepped towards me, his eyes narrowing. "Sorry! I... I'm just worried about Rose..." He sighed and flexed his wings.

"I am too..." He slammed his claw against the doors one last time, and we walked away from the gym slowly. "Jungle never locks up... Something doesn't seem right..."

"Maybe he's someplace else?" I tried to sound hopeful, but I was really worried. Little Fillydelphia wasn't the sort of town a mare should be on her own in, even if the mare was Rose.

"Maybe... I can't see him meeting Rose anywhere else, though... The only time we saw him was at the gym, and Rose wouldn't go anywhere she doesn't know without me..."

"What if they're in a bar? Rose still likes bars, you said so yourself! I bet they're- OOF!"


A fast moving light-brown blur slammed into me and we hit the pavement hard, a tangle of flailing limbs as we rolled around before seperating. I shook my head as I stood, trying to focus on the thing that had hit me like a runaway wagon.

"Ouchie..." A young earth pony mare with a pair of linked horseshoes for her cutie mark lay in front of me, her sandy coat filthy and her short brown mane a total mess. She had her hooves pressed over her muzzle and was groaning. "Watch where you're going, stupid head!" She sat up and shouted at me, glaring. "That hurt!"

I stepped back, shocked. She'd run into me! The young mare gingerly touched the graze on the side of her freckle-covered muzzle, wincing. "Ow... My poor face..." Suddenly, her ears shot up and she started feeling around on top of her head, her eyes wide. "My hat!" She jumped to her hooves and, in a flash, had her face pressed to mine, shouting. "Where's my hat?! Give it back, thief!"

"Wha- I- You-" I was speechless. First she blamed me for our collision, then she thought I had her hat?!

"Hey!" Ibis stepped between us, narrowing his golden eyes at the rude mare. "Enough!" She leapt backwards, pawing the ground like she was going to charge at him. She must have been crazy!

"Where's my hat?!" She yelled again before lowering her head. "If you don't give it back right this second, I'll.. I'll..." I stared in disbelief. It looked like she really was about to charge! I was looking at the craziest pony in the wasteland!

Ibis wasn't having a bit of it though. "The only hat here is the one behind you!" He pointed and the young mare whirled, pouncing with a happy squeal and plonking the most ragged, well-loved hat I'd ever seen, faded red with daisies printed all over it, onto her head before turning back to us, a broad grin plastered across her face.

"Thanks! Oh, sorry for running into you like that, and-" She trailed off, staring at Ibis with wide eyes. "Hey... You're the griffin that's always with Bloody Mane- I mean, Miss Whiskey, right?"

"Uh... Yeah?" When the mare took a step forwards, grinning eagerly, her eyes shining with delight, Ibis took a step backwards, almost bumping into me.

"That's so cool! I bet you're Miss Whiskey's trainer or something, right?! I mean, everpony knows griffins are, like, the strongest ever, and I really should have asked Miss Whiskey who you were before but it was just so awesome meeting her that-"

"HEY!" I slipped between them and waved my hoof in the chatterbox's face, cutting her off. "You saw Rose? Where?! When?!" The sandy mare paused for a second, staring at me in confusion.

"Sorry, who're you?"

I stomped and glared at her. "You tell me where my sister is or Luna help me, I'll-" She squealed and my ears went flat to protect my hearing. I thought I heard glass breaking somewhere nearby!

"You're Miss Whiskey's sister?! That's so neat! Are you a boxer too?! I bet you're almost as good as- Right, sorry!" I glared at her again and she grinned sheepishly. "Mr Jungle payed me to tell Miss Whiskey he wanted to meet with her about an hour and a half ago, 'cause that's what I do: I run errands for everypony. Best courier in Little Fillydelphia!" She smirked, looking really proud of herself.

I growled, sick of her nonsense. She was keeping me from Rose! "Where is she?!" Ibis put his claw on my shoulder and stood beside me.

"We really need to find her. It's important." He sounded a lot calmer than I did, but he managed to get an answer out of the young mare.

"Oh, they're meeting in the graveyard outside of town. I'll take you there free of charge, since it's for Miss Whiskey and she's the coolest ever! C'mon! This way! I'm Jacknife, by the way." Making sure her hat was on tightly, she turned and bolted, leading me and Ibis through the city and keeping up a stream of chatter the whole way. I tuned her out, too worried about my little sister to listen.

Why was Rose meeting Jungle in a graveyard? What could have taken her so long?


After a while Jacknife started to slow down, going from a full-on gallop to a fast trot, and I moved up beside her. She looked... worried. "How long until we reach the graveyard?"

"A few more minutes... We're nearly there, but... something's wrong..."

"Wrong?"

"Yeah..." She came to a sudden stop and looked up, calling out to Ibis. "Mister Griffin! Can you see anypony from up there?"

Ibis swooped back and forth a few times, high above the town, before coming in to land a few feet in front of us. "No... Nobody at all..." Now he looked worried. I didn't get it.

"So there's nopony around. So what?" I stared at them, confused. Jacknife started to trot in place, glancing around. I was starting to think she couldn't stay still for long. Ibis sighed.

"Lily... This is a big town..."

"Yeah..."

"Since you got here, have you seen the streets this empty?"

"Uh..." I looked around us. Sure enough, the street was deserted, the only sign of life a couple of bottles laying in the glow of the streetlights. "It's getting late, so maybe they're all at home?"

Jacknife was practically bouncing now. "Mister Griffin, is she serious?" She trotted over to me, frowning. "Are you serious, Miss Whiskey's sister? There's always somepony out here! The homeless ponies, the drunks and junkies, somepony!"

"So what?!" I snapped at her, getting impatient again. "What does it matter where everypony is?! And my name is Lily!"

"Lily, huh? Nice name. Can we go now? I'm gonna help you find Miss Whiskey and then go home and hide 'cause it feels like something really bad is gonna happen and I don't wanna be around when it does."

I stared at her blankly as we started off again, moving slower now, at a normal pace instead of Jacknife's flat-out run. "It doesn't feel like anything's going to happen to me.

Ibis was jogging along beside me and he groaned. "Lily, you're unbelievable. Can't you feel it? Something's coming, and it's not going to be good."

I shook my head. "Nope. Can't feel a thing. Are you sure you're not just imagining it?"

He groaned again. "How can anyone have lived so long without a survival instinct?" With a flap, he spread his wings and took to the air, leaving me alone on the ground with a very jumpy Jacknife. I sighed, hoping we'd reach the graveyard soon, so I could see Rose and hug her to death for making us worry.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Oh, Celestia..." I was frozen, staring at a pool of blood beside an open grave. "Please... Please don't let that be from Rose..."

When we'd arrived at the graveyard, Jacknife had said goodbye and taken off, heading for her home to hide. I was glad she hadn't stuck around. Ibis stuck his claw in the blood and turned to me, frowning. "It's a couple of hours old, at most... That's about when Rose left..."

"Ibis, no!" I shouted, stomping for emphasis. "It's not from Rose! If she lost that much blood, then..." I choked down a sob, unable to say it. Ibis stepped towards me, putting his clean claw on my shoulder with a small sigh.

"Lily... I won't believe Rose is... dead... unless I see her for myself. All we've got is a pool of blood, a grave that looks like something crawled out of it, and some hoofprints leading towards town." How could he say that so easily? I had trouble breathing from just thinking about Rose dying, and he said it so bluntly... Wait.

I perked up and stared at him. "Hoofprints?" He nodded.

"Small ones, about Rose's size. There're really small ones as well, probably from Jungle... Or a colt." He pointed at some bloody scuffs in the dirt. "They're headed for town, but... There's also some really big ones. Maybe Ironchops."

"See? I knew Rose was okay!" I laughed, overjoyed that the blood hadn't been from Rose after all. I didn't care where it came from, as long as my sister was alright! "You can follow the tracks, right? So let's go!"

"Lily-"

"NO!" I glared at him. "Rose isn't here, and we need to find her! So do your freaky predator thing and take me to her!" I wasn't going to let anything keep me from my little sister any longer.


With a sigh, Ibis started following the trail of scuffed dirt and bloody hoofprints, pointing it out to me as we went. As dirt turned to concrete, we had to rely on the blood instead of the hoofprints to keep on track. Some small part of my brain kept pointing out that there was a lot of blood, and not all of it could have been on Rose's hooves...

I did my best to ignore that less-than-helpful part of my brain and focus on finding Rose.


We made our way through a ruined barbed wire fence and I tried not to look at the little pool of blood that was drying next to it, or the steadily growing trail we were following through the empty town.

As we walked, I started to shiver, finally understanding what Ibis and Jacknife had been talking about. It really did feel like something bad was coming, and the deserted streets were giving me the creeps. There wasn't even any wind, the air dead and heavy as we passed through shadows and flickering streetlights, drawing ever closer to what felt like the eye of a storm...

---------------------------------------------------------------

I stared at the large building before us, my jaw hanging open. "T-the... Gym...?" We'd wound up back at the gym, but now the doors weren't locked... They weren't even attached to the building, laying just inside the entrance, twisted and broken like a runaway wagon had gone through them.

We'd followed the blood trail all the way back to where we'd started and it vanished into the gloomy gym, but neither of us wanted to rush in to investigate... Ibis was shifting his weight from claw to claw, nervous. "Well, at least the doors are open... kinda..." He took a tentative step forwards, and glanced back at me. "Coming, Lily? Or are you chicken?"

I scowled at him. "You're the chicken, Ibis... But... I'll be right behind you... 'kay?" He forced a smirk onto his face and kept walking, stepping over the pulverised doors and into the half-lit gym. I hesitated for a moment, then followed him.

Despite the damage to the doors, the inside of the gym was perfectly normal. I'd half-expected to find Ironchops waiting inside or something, but the place looked completely empty. Ibis started weaving carefully through the room, following the crimson spatters on the floor, while I stayed near the entrance... Just in case I had to run for help or something, honest! Not because I was freaked out or anything!

"Lily!" Ibis called out, making me jump. He was over by the boxing ring, and I tried to keep my voice steady as I yelled back.

"What? Did you find Rose?"

He shook his head. "No... I found Jungle. He's dead."

Dead? I swallowed nervously and crossed the gym, coming to a quick halt when I saw the short pony... or what was left of him. He was slumped against the ring and covered in blood, his throat torn out so badly that there wasn't much left holding his head on, just something white sticking out from the torn flesh... I stumbled away and threw up. Ibis' wings were twitching, and he was looking around for any clue where we should go next. As I wiped my mouth, he pointed at some small, wet hoofprints leading away from the body, towards the back of the gym. "We need to find Rose. Now."

I nodded and followed him to a door that, if I remembered right, led to the locker room. I spared Jungle one last glance and said a small prayer for him. He'd been rude, but nopony deserved to die like that.


"Why'd you stop?" Ibis had pressed himself to the wall beside the door, and I frowned. What was he doing?

"Listen." He motioned for me to be quiet and move closer to the door so, with a sigh, I did. I had no idea what he was doing at all, and- "Hear that?"

I nodded, eyes wide. I could faintly hear a wet ripping noise and small whimpers, as well as someone talking in a low voice. A sudden crunch and a muffled scream made my stomach clench. It was a good thing my stomach was empty, or I would have thrown up again.

"On three, we go in... I'll jump Ironchops, you grab Rose and get the hell out of here, okay?" I nodded again, and steeled myself to run in, grab Rose, and run out. Ibis pulled his knife from his belt and put his claw on the doorhandle. "One... Two... Three!"

He slammed the door open and lunged into the locker room with me right behind him, and we stopped just inside the doorway, staring at the horrific scene before us.

Only one light was working, casting a flickering, sickly glow across the walls and floors, tiled surfaces shattered like something large had been thrown into them. The lockers and benches were crushed, smashed beyond repair, and blood covered almost everything, like a foal had gone mad with a bucket of red paint. A white shape stepped forwards from the gloom, and spoke with a voice that made my flesh crawl.

"My, my... New guests for the party?"


Rose smiled at us, and her eyes... Oh, goddesses, her eyes... It was like looking into the eyes of the devil... They were the deepest blue I'd ever seen, even bluer than when she'd been a filly, and they were glowing. "I do so apologise for not inviting you myself, but there was a little issue. You see, my friend here..." A low groan made me tear my eyes away from my little sister and I dry-retched, thankful my stomach was empty. Ironchops was was hanging from the back wall, broken metal pipes rammed through his forelegs, pinning them above his head. That wasn't the worst of it, though... It looked like all four of his legs where broken, bent at angles that were just wrong, bones sticking out in places. He'd be torn open from crotch to throat, and I could see...

I thanked the goddesses for the poor lighting, even as I collapsed from the shock of seeing something like that. I could see inside him! Rose trotted over to the huge pony, stroking his face with one bloody, gore-soaked hoof, smiling all the while. "Well, he took something that doesn't belong to him. Didn't you, my boy?" I thought I could see barbed wire wrapped around her leg, and... Oh, no... The flickering light stayed on just long enough for me to see that Rose shouldn't have been walking around. Blood was dripping from more open wounds than I could count, bits of bone were sticking out of her legs and sides, her horn was shattered with just a cracked and broken stump remaining, blood-caked dirt clung in wet clumps to her coat and there was a huge, raw, gaping hole in her flank, right where her cutie mark used to be...

I was looking at a pair of dead ponies, but somehow, they were still alive.


"Rose... What happened to you? What have you done?" I found my voice and spoke up, the sound weak, barely audible over the dripping of blood and Ironchops' moans of agony. She turned her head and gave me the sweetest, most innocent smile I'd ever seen... I can't tell you how utterly wrong it was to see something like that. She didn't say a word, though.

"Lily... That's not Rose..." Ibis sounded like he was about to die, and I found just enough energy to lift myself up and turn to him.

"W-what do you mean? That's Rose! She's just hurt, that's all!"

"Oh, no. I'm afraid Ibis is quite correct, my dear little Lily. You see, Rose is sleeping right now." The blue-eyed mare smiled and tapped her hoof on Ironchops' exposed ribcage. "This fine fellow killed her." She shifted to a sing-song voice. "Stabbed, stomped, beaten, buried."

"You're lying... Rose, stop lying! You're not dead!" I screamed at her, and she just chuckled.

"Not dead, my dear, just sleeping. I gave her a choice, and she chose you." She stepped towards me, and I tried to back up, but her eyes... I couldn't look away from them... I could see Ibis from the corner of my eye; he was pinned in place just like me. "She could have been with her parents, free from all this pain, all the horrors of the world, and yet she chose to come back to you, Lily, and you as well, Ibis. Don't you two just feel... Special?"

The monster chuckled again. "She was so worried about letting you two down. Little Rose always wants to be a good pony, do you know that? She follows her silly little rules, convinced everything will be okay if she's a good. Little. Pony." With each word, she came closer to us, smiling so sweetly, so innocently... "But, she was wrong. She was betrayed and murdered... So much betrayal in her life... Don't you agree, Lily?"

I tried to swallow, but it felt like I was choking. This thing in front of me wasn't Rose... I was terrified, but something made me nod, agreeing with that creature.

"Yes, you know you betrayed her... And you're going to make it up to her, aren't you?" I nodded again, and the mare threw her head back, laughing. "Good, good. You too, Ibis." She narrowed her eyes at the griffin. "You've done well, keeping my little Rose alive... But it's not quite good enough, now is it?"

"N-no..." Ibis croaked out the word, able to speak despite the soul-defiling eyes focused on us.

"No, it isn't." The mare turned away and walked slowly back to Ironchops. "You two are very important to Rose, do you know that? She'll do anything for you, even give up her life. And all she asks in return... Is that you love her." She put her hoof under Ironchops' chin and lifted his head. The big pony opened his eyes and looked at her.

"Please... Kill me..." I felt a fresh wave of nausea. He was still conscious.

"All in good time, my boy." The mare turned back to us. "Both of you, listen very closely: When I'm done here, I expect you to get my darling Rose to a doctor. She won't live very long on her own, you see." She gave us a small, sad smile. "Stay by her. Show her you love her. Most importantly... Tell her she's a good pony. Understand?"

I nodded, and so did Ibis.

"Good... Now, are there any questions?"

I managed to find my voice. "Who... who are you?"

"Mmm... That is a very good question, my dear..." She grinned, baring her teeth like a hungry predator, and a vice tightened around my heart. "My little Rose gave me a very nice name, and I suppose you can use it as well. Call me... Starfall..."

The mare... No, Starfall... stretched slowly, and I could see the ruined muscles beneath her ragged, torn flesh. I could hear shattered bones grinding and, out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ibis looking horrified. Starfall just gave a sensual purr before smiling at us. "Rose's cutie mark is in that bag beside you. Do try to get it back on, won't you?" I turned my head a little, barely able to see a sack, red-stained and damp, only a few feet away.

"H-her cutie mark... Is in there?"

"Mm-hm... I do believe this big fellow wanted a trophy... He cut it off with a rusty knife, and I've been explaining to him why that was a bad thing to do... Haven't I, my boy?"

Ironchops opened his mouth feebly, but no sound came out. Starfall smirked. "Mmm... I've had my fun with you, and I'm sure there's plenty of suffering waiting for you in the afterlife. Goodbye." She raised her leg, the one with the barbed wire wrapped around it, and backhoofed Ironchops' face so hard there wasn't anything left but the back of his skull before turning back to us. I tried to turn and run but, just like before, I was frozen, helpless. Even Ibis looked like he was ready to faint as she approached us.

"Now, my friends, I have a little... business... to attend to. When I get back, I expect to find Rose in the care of a doctor. Do I make myself clear?" She waited for both of us to nod, before chuckling again. "Very good. I leave my little girl to you, then. Ta-ta!" Smiling like a filly with a new toy, she slowly closed her eyes. Suddenly, the sense of dread that had pervaded the city was gone, fading away as the white mare dropped limply to the blood-caked floor, her chest rising and falling rapidly, gasping like every breath was pure agony.

My mouth opened and closed as I tried to speak, still in shock. A small, pained moan broke the silence and, as one, Ibis and I rushed to our dying mare.

"Rose!"

---------------------------------------------------------------

I paced back and forth in the almost-clean waiting room of Little Fillydelphia's only medical clinic, glancing up at the clock on the wall every few steps.

They'd been in there for hours.

With a snort, I went back to pacing, counting steps, tiles, cracks in the walls, anything to keep my mind off of how badly hurt Rose had been, or what the doctor must have been doing to her in there... Ibis was sitting completely still, the only sign of life the occasional movement of his wings. His golden eyes stayed focused on the door to the operating room, like he was trying to burn a hole through them with his stare.

After a while, I sat down beside him and tried to think of something to say. If I didn't break the silence, I was going to go insane. "That clock's too loud." I pointed at the ticking time-piece. "And I think it's running fast. There's no way they could have been in there for this long."

"The clock's fine, Lily." The grey griffin turned to stare at me. He looked really tired. "Surgery takes a long time, and Rose... She was really messed up..."

"No. Nonononono! No, Ibis. Rose was hurt, sure, but she'll be fine! I mean, she pulled through after... after..."

"After you slept with Lucky?"

I flinched. "Y-yeah..."

He went back to staring at the door with a sigh. "She was in better shape then, and I still thank the Goddesses every day for whatever miracle they sent us to keep her alive... Now, though..."

Slowly, with tears in my eyes, I put my hoof on his shoulder. "Rose'll be fine, Ibis. We can't think anything else, or... or..." As I burst into tears, he sat up and wrapped his arms around me, pulling me against his chest, his feathers covered with dried blood from carrying Rose here. "She'll be okay, Ibis... she has to be okay... I can't lose her again..."

"Idiot..." He stroked my mane, and I could tell he was trying to keep from crying as well. "What would Rose think, seeing you cry like this?"

"Y-you're crying too!" He squeezed me tightly.

"I've just got something in my eye, that's all..."

"Liar."

"Idiot."


Eventually, I pulled away and wiped my eyes, looking up at him. "Ibis... she'll be okay... won't she?"

He nodded, giving me a small smile. "The doc's the one who treated Rose's opponents after all her fights. If anyone can pull our mare through, it'll be him..." He glanced at the door seperating us from the most important pony in our lives and said, very quietly, "I hope."

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Lily... Lily!"

I woke up with a start, wiping the drool from my chin and looking around, confused. "Huh? Wazzat?"

Ibis was poking me awake (not very gently, either) and the doctor, an old unicorn wearing glasses, was standing beside him. "About time. The doc's finished operating."

I rolled to my hooves and stood up, shaking myself awake and realising, with a little shock, that it was morning outside. How could I have slept for so long?! "How's Rose? Is she..."

The doctor answered slowly. "She's alive." I sighed, relieved. "But..." But? But what? He looked at the door to the surgery-slash-recovery room, frowning. "It doesn't look good. I'm sorry."

"What do you mean?!" I started towards him, almost shouting. "What's wrong with her?! You're a doctor, you can fix anything!"

Ibis put his claw on my shoulder and turned to the doctor. Goddesses... I'd never seen a griffin look so tired... "Doc... Be straight with us... Will she live?"

"She'll live, but... It won't be much of a life... I had to perform extensive surgery, and there was just no way to repair all the damage..."

"How bad is it? Be honest with us, Doc." How could Ibis sound so calm?! I was ready to burst into tears! The doctor sighed.

"Alright, Ibis. I'll tell you the truth, but only because that mare of yours sent me so much business over the last couple of months." He paused for a moment, as if steeling himself for what he was about to say. "By the time I was finished removing bone fragments, I'd taken out almost an eighth of her skeleton. Her spine was crushed and almost severed in several places, and her skull looked like a jigsaw puzzle. I don't think she has brain damage, but we won't be able to tell until she wakes up... If she wakes up."

He paused, and I felt like I was going to die myself, unable to understand how anypony could have survived something like that. As I went to speak, I realized the doc wasn't finished yet, and I forced myself to listen. I had to know how bad it was, had to know if there was anything I could do to help.

"Most of her organs were ruptured, and the ones that weren't... If I didn't know better, I'd say she'd been through a butcher's shop, she was so badly cut up... You said Ironchops did this?"

Ibis nodded. "Yeah. I don't know exactly what he did to her, though... Just that it was bad."

The doc frowned. "He's always had a temper, that one. I've patched up enough of his victims to know... Never seen him get this violent, though. I warned Jungle about the big bastard's habit." We gave him a confused look, and he sighed. "Ironchops is addicted to Stampede and Buck. What, do you think he got that big naturally? Goddesses no! I'll be having a few words with those two later; this is getting out of hoof."

"Good luck with that. They're both dead."

"What?" The doc stared at Ibis, not believing his ears.

"Rose killed them."

"She killed them? Bloody Mane? That crippled, ruined, broken mare I spent the entire night trying to put back together? The one who didn't have enough bones or muscles intact to raise her hoof, let alone kill the biggest, meanest sonuvabitch I've seen in my entire life?" Ibis nodded, and the doc looked stunned.


Ibis spoke up again when it became apparent the doctor was still trying to process what he'd just heard. Me? I was standing there, with my mouth open like an idiot, as the extent of Rose's injuries sunk slowly into my brain. "Is there anything we can do? Healing potions, Hydra, anything at all?"

The doc shook his head.

"I had to use every healing potion I had on hoof just to get her stablised... I've heard of some ponies building up a resistance to healing magic, but I've never seen it myself... Until now, anyway." He straightened his glasses with a sigh. "As for Hydra... Giving it to a relatively healthy patient would be risky enough, but I have no way of knowing what would happen if we gave your friend a dose in her condition."

"So... You mean there's nothing we can do?" My voice wavered, and the doctor looked away from us.

"I'm sorry. Her best hope right now would be a full-body regenerative treatement, but while we have the machine... We don't have the talisman to make it work."

I perked up. "If we find the talisman thingy, can you make Rose better?"

"Maybe. It would still take weeks for the treatment to have any real effect, especially with her resistance to healing magic, and the talismans are very hard to find. That's why we've never gotten the machine working."

"They can't be that hard to find!" Finally, something I could do! There had to be one for sale somewhere, and I'd find it no matter what! "Maybe somepony has one they'd sell us?"

The doc shook his head. "As I said, they're rare. The machines were designed for the long-term recovery of critical patients and only larger hospitals, like the one in the ruins of Fillydelphia, had them. Unfortunately, most of the city is infested with bloatsprite nests and raider gangs. We tried sending salvage parties in a few years ago... It didn't end well."

The mere mention of bloatsprites gave me the horrors. Ugly, gross, nasty flying bugs... Ugh... Ibis stepped forwards, taking my place in the conversation while I tried to stop shaking. Bugs... I hate bugs...

"I'll go, doc."

"I know griffins are strong and your friend means a lot to you, but it would be suicide! The ruins are a deathtrap!"

"I said I'll go." He narrowed his eyes and the doc took a step backwards, fixed by the gaze of a determined griffin. "Just tell me where I'm going and what I'm looking for."

"Are you sure?"

"For Rose? Of course."

The doc sighed. "Fine. Come with me. I'll show you what you're looking for."


The old unicorn led us into the recovery ward and waved his hoof at a curtained-off area. "Your friend is in there, but I wouldn't suggest disturbing her. She's still in a very delicate state, and... it's not a nice sight. I'm not joking, miss." I'd started towards the curtain seperating me from Rose, but his no-nonsense tone made me stop in my tracks. "There's nothing you can do to help her right now, and you don't need to see her like this."

"Is... Is it really so bad?"

He nodded sadly. "Yes. It is. Please, let me just show you the machine... If you two are going to be risking your lives in the ruins, you should at least know what you're looking for."

"I'm going alone, doc."

"What?"

"Huh?!"

Me and the doctor stared at Ibis. "You heard me, Lily. I'm faster on my own, you'll just slow me down."

I stomped and glared at the grey griffin. "So I'll just slow you down, huh?! Maybe I should go alone myself, if that's how you feel!"

Ibis just shook his head. "Idiot. I'm a better fighter than you, I can fly, and besides... Bloatsprites. Hundreds of them."

"Bugs..." I mumbled, starting to shake. The thought of so many of the vile things made my legs feel like jelly, and I jumped when Ibis put his claw on my should.

"Just stay here, Lily. Keep Rose safe for me." He looked me in the eye and smiled. I managed a small smile of my own.

"Okay... But I'm not doing it for you... I'm doing it for Rose..."

"Just make sure nothing else happens to her, got it?" I nodded.


"Ahem..." The doctor cleared his throat. "If you two are quite finished..." We followed him over to a big, donut-shaped machine with a bed-type thing attached to it on rails, so it could slide in and out. "You'll be looking for something similar to this. There's a panel in the side, where the healing talisman is supposed to be." He flipped a little hatch open with his magic, and pointed to a hollow space about the size of my hoof. "With luck, you'll find what you're looking for right there."

Ibis nodded. "And if it's not there?" I glared at him. It had to be there!

The doc gave us a small shrug. "It may be in a storage room. If you can bring back any other medical supplies as well, I'll see about reducing the bill for the surgery." I stared at him in disbelief.

"You're kidding? You're kidding, right?"

He shrugged again. "I used my entire stock of healing potions, and my nurse had to go home after she suffered magical burnout trying to stop your friend from bleeding to death during the operation. It'll be days before she's ready to work again. The least you could do is bring back some equipment and supplies I'm lacking."

I started to speak, indignant, but Ibis cut me off. "I'll bring back everything I can, doc... Is there anything else I should know before I go?"

"Hmm..." The doctor led us back into the reception area and I cast one final, forlorn glance back at the curtain concealing my little sister. "Other than the heavy radiation? I'd suggest waiting until tomorrow before going on your little suicide mission."

This time, I couldn't help myself. "Why?! We know what we're looking for and we know where it is! Why should he wait?! Rose is in there, and she's in pain, and... and..." I choked back a sob, and Ibis put his claw on my back, trying to comfort me.

"She's right, doc. Every minute I waste is a minute Rose suffers."

The doc floated his glasses off of his face and started polishing them with a rag. "Your friend is in no pain, I can assure you. I've got her hooked up to an intravenous Med-X drip. The dosage is higher than I'm honestly comfortable with, but with the state she's in..." He put his glasses back on and stared at us through them, frowning. "She's stable, and as long as there are no sudden shocks and nobody disturbs her, then she'll stay that way. Rushing off now wouldn't help her. You should spend the rest of the day preparing, because the city proper is as close to Tartarus as any place I've ever seen. Get some rest and a good meal, and for the love of the Goddesses, clean yourselves up."

Me and Ibis looked at each other; we were both covered in dried blood. I'd gotten it all over me when I tried to stop Rose's bleeding in the gym, and Ibis had carried her, still bleeding, all the way here. We looked terrible, and we knew it.

"Alright..." After the doctor wrote down the directions to the hospital, we followed him to the front door. As we were about to leave, I realized I'd forgotten to ask something very important. "Doc?"

He sighed. "What now?"

"Did you manage to get her cutie mark back on?"

"It's messy, but we did manage to reattach it." Relief washed over me. Losing your cutie mark was unthinkable and, even if Rose didn't really care about it, that mark was still part of her.

"What about her horn?"

"With enough time and a working regenerative talisman, we should be able to regrow it."

"Thank the Goddesses..."

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Be safe, guys." I watched as Magpie and Ibis finished tightening the straps on their equipment, checking their weapons, and filling their respective bandoleers and belts with ammo and healing stuff. "And.. hurry back... please?"

Magpie cocked her gun, a big griffin rifle, and nodded. "We'll be as quick as we can, kid. You got the directions memorized, son?"

Ibis tapped the side of his head. "Of course. They were rough, though. Sounds like nobody's gone that far in for a while."

"Pass them over, I'll take another look myself." Ibis tossed a piece of paper with the route to the hospital written on it to his mother, and went back to checking his shotgun. While Magpie recited the directions to herself quietly, I went over to Ibis and sat beside him, watching him work.

"That's... Garden, right?" He nodded. "Looks kinda funny..."

"It's meant to be mounted on a battle saddle. Rose had to modify it for me..." He held the gun up, showing me the duct-tape wrapped grip with a small smile. "She was so proud of her work..."

I blinked back tears. "She's always been like that... Like a little filly showing off everything she does, just for a little praise... A little love... It's just like that... that thing said... Starfall..."

Ibis shuddered when I said the name, his claws tightening on his gun.

"Ibis... What do you think that was? She wasn't Rose..."

"Lily, I have no idea who or what was in that room, and I sincerely hope I never have to see it again..."

"D'you think Rose knows about her? I mean, the way Starfall was talking, it's like they're friends or something..."

He sighed and set his gun down. "Rose never said anything, but I guess it wouldn't hurt to ask... After she's feeling better, though."

I nodded and gave a small smile. "Yeah... When she's all better, let's throw her a party, too... I bet she'd love a box of Fancy Buck Snack Cakes all to herself."

Ibis chuckled. "Idiot, that's what you want. Rose would rather have a box of bullets than a box of cakes."

"Would not!"

"Would too!"

We glared at each other, then started grinning when we realised there was only one thing Rose went mad for. "Bubblegum."

We burst out laughing, and Magpie rolled her eyes at us as she double-checked the spare magazines for her rifle and loaded them into her bandoleer.


As we caught our breath, Ibis sighed.

"I still haven't forgiven you for hurting Rose like that, Lily, but..." The grey griffin put his arm around my shoulders and I leaned against him. "Rose need both of us right now, and that's more important."

"Yeah..." I remembered what Rose had told me, so long ago, and smiled. "Y'know, Rose used to think of you as her big brother... I can see why."

He pulled away and swatted my head playfully. "I'm her boyfriend now, you idiot. We've been together for a long time... Speaking of which... When's the wedding?"

"Huh?" I looked up at him, confused.

"Remember? You said that if Rose and I ever started dating, you'd marry a hellhound."

Ugh... I glared at him. "You're not a real couple until I say so! Got it?"

He chuckled. "Not like we need your permission, Caravan."

"Don't call me that, you jerk!" I reared up and slugged him on the shoulder as hard as I could. He just laughed.

"Ooh, scary!" He grabbed my forelegs in his claws and smirked at me. "Whattcha gonna do now, Caravan?" After a moment of struggling to get free, I smirked back, looked past him to where Rose's saddlebags lay on the floor, and started to concentrate.

My horn glowed and for the first time, Ibis looked unsure. "What are you-OW!" The book I'd levitated from Rose's bags hit him square in the back of his head, and I pulled away when he let go of my hooves, sticking my tongue out.

"Next time, I'll use a bigger book!" I blew a rasberry at him.

He rubbed the back of his head, glaring at me. "Cheater."

"Featherbrain."


"Hey!" We both sat up straight at the sound of Magpie's voice, turning to the black-and-white griffin. "If you two are done screwing around, we've got a mare to save." She scowled at us.

"Right!"

"Ready to move, mom."

"Lily, go straight to the clinic when we leave. Take Rose's things with you, and stay inside. Old Doc Needles may be a bit of a grump at times, but he's a good one and he won't let anything happen to you." Me and Ibis stared at her. "What? I told you before, kid. This isn't my first time through Little Fillydelphia. I met the doc back when he was just starting that clinic of his."

"Jeez, mom. I forget you used to be a merc sometimes, it was so long ago. What was it like back before they had guns?" Ibis chuckled and his mother faceclawed, shaking her head in mock dismay.

"We had to use boneheads like you as clubs, son. Lily, just tell the doc it's a favor for me, that should smooth things over. Understand?" I nodded, and she stood up. "Good. Everyone got everything?"

I lifted both Rose's saddlebags and mine with my magic, setting them comfortably on my back. "Yep."

Ibis cocked Garden, slipped an empty duffel bag onto his back, and made a show of checking the case of spare shells that hung from his belt. "All set."

Magpie hung a duffel bag of her own from her bandoleer, then led the way out of our hotel and onto the street.

"With any luck, we'll be back before nightfall. Remember what I said, Lily. Stay in the clinic. You go out alone at night, this town'll eat you alive." I shuddered, and the old griffin smirked. "You're gonna run straight there when we leave, aren't you?"

"Like I had a hellhound on my tail." The griffins laughed.

"Pretend it's a bloatsprite; you'll get there quicker."

"Ibis!" I glared at him. Feathery bastard knew I hated even thinking about those gross things!

"Alright... Enough playing around. Ibis, take some Rad-X. We should be high enough to avoid the hotspots, but I don't want to take chances."

They both took some of the little red-and-yellow pills, and got ready to fly off. "Guys... Good luck."

"Thanks, kid. Don't you worry, we'll be back as soon as we can."

"Take care of Rose while I'm gone, Lily."

Ibis smiled at me and I nodded. With that, they took to the air, flying towards the ruinous city that lurked on the horizon.


With a sigh, I tightened the straps on Rose's saddlebags and turned to go myself, only to be wiped out by a sandy-colored blur.

"ARGH!"

"Ouchie!"

I kicked the projectile-pony off of me and rolled to my hooves, only to have a familiar face pressed to my own.

"Hiyah Miss Whiskey's sister! Oh, right! Miss Lily! Sorry about crashing, but I wanted to see Miss Whiskey again and... Is something wrong? Did you find Miss Whiskey? Is she alright?"

I stepped away from Jacknife, the most hyperactive pony I'd ever met, and glared at her.

"Oh, please tell me nothing happened! Ironchops is really scary and I bet he was angry he lost but Miss Whiskey is way stronger than him and-"

I stuck my hoof in her mouth to shut her up and she blinked at me. "Look... Rose was hurt bad last night..." Tears started to form in her eyes and she tried to mumble past my hoof. "She's in the clinic, and I'm going there now." She mumbled again and I pulled my hoof out of her mouth, wiping her drool off on the sidewalk.

"Oh, no... I bet it's my fault... Jungle asked me to get her, and that's just what I did... Miss Whiskey got hurt because of me..."

She started to sob and I groaned. I was terrible at making ponies feel better when they were upset, and I was having a hard time coping myself. "It's not your fault... Ironchops is the one that hurt her, not you..."

"But... but..."

"You really like Rose, don't you?"

The sandy mare perked up, grinning. "Well, duh! She's like the coolest ever! She's so strong and super smart and she told me that good ponies always win in the end!" She gasped. "I know! I'll be a good pony and take you to the clinic right now! I'm the fastest ever and nopony knows shortcuts like me! C'mon, let's go!"

She took off and I was hard-pressed to keep up with her. She was so damn fast!

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I floated a kinda-clean hanky from my bag to Jacknife. "Here." She gave me a small smile and grabbed it in her hooves.

"Thanks, Miss Lily." She dried her eyes and blew her nose, then held it out for me to take back. Ick.

"Um, that's okay. You keep it." She smiled again and balled it up, then tucked it under her hat. Again, ick.


We were sitting in the waiting room of the clinic, and Jacknife had just stopped crying. All the doctor had told her was that Rose was really badly hurt, and it had been enough to set her off. She'd been sobbing for almost an hour, crushed that her hero was laying in a bed, so helpless and weak.

"Miss Lily... Can I ask you something?"

"Just call me Lily, okay?" She nodded, and I smiled at her.

"Miss Whiskey said if you're a good pony, things always turn out alright in the end... But she's in there, all hurt and stuff... Does that mean she lied?" Her eyes were wide as she stared at me, and I sighed before giving her a hug. Poor thing looked so young; she should have been at home with her parents, not running around a dangerous city making deliveries.

"Everything will be fine, you'll see. We're all good ponies, especially Rose, and our friends are going to get something to make her better. Just wait, they'll come waltzing in here tonight, we'll put Rose in that big donut machine, and she'll be all better. You'll see."

She buried her face in my neck. "T-thanks, Miss Lily... You're almost as cool and nice as Miss Rose, you know that?"

I stroked her mane. "Yeah... I'm awesome aren't I? Hey, how about some music?" Smiling, I levitated my bag over and hit the radio button on my pipbuck, tuning it to DJ Pon-3 only to hear nothing but static and the occasional clear word. Jacknife pulled away from me and stared at my pipbuck in amazement.

"You've got a pipbuck!"

"Um, yeah..."

"I can't believe it! That's like the coolest thing ever! Oh, you're trying to get DJ Pon-3? We can't hear his broadcasts out here. Dunno why, but we've got our own radio station and it's almost as good. Can I use your pipbuck? Please?" I sighed, unable to resist those huge eyes.

"Fine... Don't you dare break it, though."

She squealed with delight. "Yay! I'll be careful, promise!" She started messing with my pipbuck, tuning it into the local radio station, and quickly enough the quiet sounds of a lone guitar filled the clinic.


FOOTNOTE: LEVEL UP

New Perk: Pack Pony -- Spending your life as part of a caravan has taught you to make the most of your pack space. You can carry an additional 50lbs of stuff, and you're 20% faster at getting things from your pack when you need them.



As usual, thanks to KKat and all the FoE sidefic writers! You're all a great source of inspiration!
This chapter was originally going to be much longer, but rather than make everyone wait, I split it into two parts. Enjoy!

Extra thanks to Winter Storm, Midnight Stalker, and everyone who has been reading so far! You guys make all the hard work worthwhile!

Chapter 12.5: Crossroad Blues

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---CHAPTER 12.5: Crossroad Blues---

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Out in the Equestrian Wasteland, far from anything of note, there is a town. Not a town of great importance or worth, scarcely recognised as more than a place to stop for the night by those who pass through.

It is in this town, this place known simply as Crossroads, that we find a young unicorn stallion, only slightly more interesting than the town itself. His brown coat and mane are average, unlikely to catch the eye or hold one's attention for long. The four-leaf clover upon his flank might draw your gaze for a moment, but only because such a vibrant green is an unusual sight in a world so barren.

No, it is not his appearance that is interesting, just as the town around him seems simple and plain to outsiders. Rather, it is what will happen this night, an unusual occurrence even by the standards of the wasteland, that gives pony and place any significance in the great tapestry of life.


For the ponies of this town will, in years to come, speak of this night in hushed tones and fearful whispers. This is the night the Devil came to Crossroads.


Now, this is not a tale of grand horror, of ghosts and fiends from beyond the grave or unholy bargains forged with the blood of infants. Nor does it begin with arcane chants and profane rituals.

This tale, like so many, begins in a mundane and everyday way: With a pony in a bar.

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Lucky Break nursed his drink, a pleasant beverage which bore the label Golden Harp, yet he could not have cared less for the rich history of the drink or its fine flavour, with just a hint of candy-like sweetness. It was simply a way to dull the ache in his heart, to distract him from the longing and regret that had been his companion for almost a year.

You see, Lucky Break was not a bad pony. In fact, he prided himself on being as likeable and respectable as possible. He would smile and be polite, content to share the luck that was his namesake with those around him. Whilst he was a gambler, it was not the gambling itself that drew him, time and again, back to the table, but the company of his fellows. To win, to lose, to laugh and swap stories over cards and drinks. It was a good life, and one he had enjoyed for many years.

No, Lucky Break was not a bad pony at all. But, like all ponies, he made mistakes, and he regretted those mistakes, even as he cherished the brief happiness they had brought him.


Close to a year ago, he had met a lovely mare, one with emerald eyes and a coat of cream. Her name was that of a delicate flower and, as he took a sip of his beer, he sighed.

"Lily..."

That was her name. Lily. The mare who had stolen his heart. He did not regret their meeting, or the time they had spent together. Such things were moments of joy in a world where such a thing was far too rare to let pain or sorrow taint them.

It was what their meeting and their eventual intimacy had caused, the heartbreak and pain that had ended their relationship, that he wished he could take back.

For Lily had a younger sister, one who had hated him at first sight. At the time, he had simply accepted it, as such things were surprisingly common in the twisted parody that dared to call itself the world. He did not know the reason behind her hatred of males, did not wish to pry or cause her pain by bringing up things better left buried.

Instead, he had tried to make friends with the younger mare, despite her refusal to even acknowledge his existence. It had stung, of course, that she wouldn't even give him a chance, but Lily, the mare he loved, had said it would be alright.

She was wrong.


Lucky Break finished his beer, setting the empty bottle on the table before him and making his way to the bar for another. Upon returning to his table and regaining his seat, he frowned at the amber liquid. Alcohol would only make him forget for a short time and all the pain, the regret, would return in full force far too quickly for his liking.

Still, he took a long, slow sip, drowning his sorrows gradually. The sun was only just beginning to set outside, a diffused glow behind those accursed clouds, slowly plunging the world into a darkness unbroken by moon or star, the miracles of the heavens long ago hidden from the eyes of those who would walk the warped and broken land. There was a long, lonely night ahead, and if he was to slip into a drunken stupor, then it was best to do it gradually.


After young Rose, her sister, had run off, Lily had tearfully explained the reason the younger mare hated males. The death of her family at the hooves of raiders, her empathy allowing her to experience not only that dreadful time, but the needs and desires of every pony she had met since...

Lucky Break sighed.

He could only imagine what it was like, to be forever drowning in a sea made of the emotions and lives of others, seeking anything to hold onto, some small thing to remind her of who she was. Perhaps Lily had been such a thing; an anchor, a part of young Rose's life that she had believed would never go away.

If only he'd known... He would have spoken to the younger mare more, tried harder to become her friend, let her know just how much her big sister meant to him. He was sure that, with enough time, they would have gotten along... Maybe, just maybe, if he'd done everything right, the younger mare would not have reacted so badly when he made love to his darling Lily...

He sighed again. There was no way to change the past, and now he was left with nothing but his memories.

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The night wore on, ponies came and went, but still Lucky Break sat alone, listening more to the wind outside than the low conversations around him.

As was the way of so many small towns, strangers were treated with some measure of suspicion, and those who frequented the bar believed they knew better than to disturb a pony who drank alone. After all, they reasoned, why would he be alone if he wanted company?

So, when a strange unicorn mare sat across the table from Lucky Break, more than a few ponies turned, discreetly, to watch them.


She was tall and graceful, her neatly braided mane the rich, deep color of a fine wine. Her coat was the white of freshly fallen snow, as pure as the soul of a newborn foal and almost hidden behind a finely tooled leather duster of darkest umber. When she gazed upon the melancholic stallion across from her, it was with eyes of the deepest blue, fathomless orbs alight with some inner glow that tugged at the heart and soul, drawing the watchers in like the song of a siren, beautiful and terrible.

"Lucky. Break."

Her words were slow, precise, every syllable that left those softly smiling lips seeming to crawl across the flesh. It was not a question, but a statement. She knew the name of the stallion, the one she had come for, yet she said it all the same, in a voice which held the barest trait of an accent that, before the war, would have been called Fancee.


These nuances escaped our friend, for even drinking gradually may take its toll over time, and he had been doing little else for several hours now.

As it was, when he raised his head from the meaningless mental meanderings that had so thoroughly occupied him, his blurry vision revealed only a smiling mare that seemed vaguely familiar.

"Do I... know you?" A small frown crossed his muzzle as he tried to place the pale creature before him, inwardly wishing he hadn't drunk quite so much.

"Perhaps you do." Her smile grew a little. "And perhaps you don't. That's not important right now, though... Is it, my boy?"

"No... I guess not..." He agreed, then stared at her, puzzled, as his hazy mind tried to understand why he had so willingly accepted her judgement.

"Mmmm..." The mare rested her chin on her hooves, watching the confused stallion through hooded eyes. "You've had quite a lot to drink, haven't you..."

Lucky Break stared at his half-empty beer, frowning. What business of hers was it how much he had drunk? "Did you want something, miss...?"

His companion let out a small chuckle. "Oh, it isn't what I want that's important... It's what you want..."

"What... I want?" He was even more confused now, and didn't notice she hadn't introduced herself.

"Mm-hm." The strange mare nodded. "I can see you're having trouble taking all this in... If you don't mind, I'd rather do this while you're in your right mind... If such a thing exists for you ponies." There was no glimmer of magic from her horn, no sign she had done anything at all, yet he felt the fog lift from his mind. In moments, it was like he hadn't been drinking at all and, somehow, he knew this mare was responsible.

"What did you-"

"Uh-uh!" She waved a hoof at him, still smiling. "Who, why and how are not the questions you should be asking, oh no. The only question here is: What do you want? But I already know the answer..."

The brown stallion stared at her, trying to find something to say, but she carried on speaking, once more resting her chin on her hooves.

"You would like a chance to change things, wouldn't you? To undo all the pain you caused? I can see it in your eyes, my boy... To know happiness and have it stolen away... Such a sad fate... But I can change that."

Finally, he found his voice. "Who are you?"

Her smile turned into a smirk. "Let's just say... I'm someone who is willing to give you another chance, to let you try and change a certain moment in your life..."

"What's in it for you?" He narrowed his eyes, suspicious of this strange mare now that his mind was clear. Everything about her seemed... wrong somehow. From how impossibly clean she was, without a trace of dust, dirt or grime to mar her pristine coat, to the softly glowing pools of her eyes, as bottomless as the ocean, drawing him ever deeper and threatening to drown him in their gentle depths...


The world around him began to slip away as he gazed into her eyes, sinking into an abyss of contentment and emptiness, all desires and needs slowly leaving his body until nothing mattered anymore... He would have sat there for all eternity had the mare not blinked, breaking whatever hold she had over him and laughing softly as he gave his head a shake.

"What's in it for me? Why, nothing but a bit of fun, my boy. You see, I do so enjoy games, and I find they are even better with a prize... Don't you agree?" She batted her eyelashes at him, but he avoided eye contact, not wishing a repeat of... whatever had just happened.

"Oh, come now... You could at least look at me..." She gave him a sweet smile, and all those who could see her face, even in the dull light of the lanterns within the bar, felt an inexplicable sense of dread. Though her expression was one of innocence, they were reminded of a cat watching a mouse...

"What are you?" Lucky Break stared at her muzzle, trying to keep his voice level. Everything about this mare set him on edge and, though he had no way of knowing it, the other patrons of the bar felt the same way.

Still, the mare continued to smile. "As I said, I'm the one offering you your greatest desire, with no strings attached... All it takes is a simple game of cards. Should you win, you get another chance with your dear mare, Lily..."

He sat up straight at the mention of the name and, despite himself, looked straight into her eyes. This time, however, there was no sense of being drained of all he was. Only a deep discomfort at the amusement he saw within those eyes of indescribable blue. "How do you know about her?"

She giggled, the playful sound sending chills along the spines of all those present. "Oh, I know many things... Just like I know you'll accept... And do you know why you'll accept?" He shook his head. "Because this isn't the life you want... Because you would rather be with the one you love than wandering alone, seeking comfort at the bottom of a bottle."

He was silent, his thoughts a jumbled mess as he tried to prove her wrong. In the end, however, she was right, and there was only one question to be asked. "What if you win? If my prize is Lily, what's yours?"

Her smile became a grin. "I suppose the better question is, what would you put on the table? Your final bet, as it were. How much are you willing to risk for a better life, with the one you love?"

It was something he had wondered himself over the past months; the price he would pay to try again. Always, he came to the same conclusion. "Everything. I'll give everything I have, if your offer is for real."

"Oh, it's quite real, my boy... Now, be a dear and deal the cards, would you?"

"Not yet... How do I know you won't cheat?"

The mare laughed, genuinely amused by his question. "What fun is a game where you know the outcome? You alone shall handle the cards; place mine upon the table, if you believe I'm untrustworthy."

He nodded. "Very well." That was exactly what he would do and, as he used his magic to lift a well-worn pack of cards from his barding, he allowed a small, confident grin to show. His luck at cards was almost endless. Soon enough, he would be able to see his beloved Lily once more, and this time he wouldn't screw it up.

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Lucky Break stared at the cards on the table, wondering how he could have lost. It was not a severe loss, or even an overwhelming one. The difference between them had been that of a single card, yet it had been enough to steal his victory.

For a moment, he tried to think, to come up with some way of getting out of the situation he had gotten himself in... Only to sigh and resign himself to his fate. He sat up straight and proud as he gave the ever-smiling mare a level gaze. "I lost, but I'm a pony of his word... Whatever you want, it's yours."

His opponent merely watched him passively through hooded eyes for a minute, as dread twisted and writhed inside him, every moment spent waiting for her decision driving him towards madness.

When she began to speak, he almost welcomed the strangely accented words. "You played well, my boy, but not well enough... Luck was not on your side this day, and there is only one thing I desire..." As her smile grew, his chest tightened, and it became hard to breath. "For your sins, for the pain you caused my little Rose, I'm going to take the only thing of worth that you have... Your life."

He tried to speak, but he couldn't find the air to form words. His heart ached, beating slower and slower with each passing second, and he found himself sinking once more into those abyssal eyes as the cold embrace of death wrapped itself around him.

As he slumped on the table, his eyes closed, never again to open, the spark of his life extinguished like a candle, long before its time.

The mare simply smiled, stepped away from the table, and was gone.


Long minutes passed before the the bartender mustered enough courage to check the brown stallion, some small part of him hoping he had simply passed out, drunk. A single touch, and he shook his head, confirming that the poor stallion was truly deceased. A haze of gloom and sorrow filled the bar, touching each of the remaining patrons, some of them saying small prayers for the departed. As he wondered what to do with the body, the bartender looked slowly around the bar and came to a chilling realisation about the pale mare...

He hadn't seen her enter, and he hadn't seen her leave.

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To this day, the citizens of Crossroads will not gamble on cold and windy nights, or when whispers may be heard upon the breeze, for fear the Devil may come once more to join them at cards.

Those who laugh at the superstition are shown a grave belonging to an un-named stallion, the headstone bearing a crude engraving of a four-leaf clover, and told the story of that fateful night.

A daring few have actually played cards at the very table where the stallion is said to have lost his life, in hopes of meeting the mysterious mare and recieving what she had offered her first opponent: A better life.


What happened to those individuals, however, is another story, for another time.



A/N Well, here's a little side-chapter I wanted to get out before halloween. Hope it was creepy enough!
Thanks to KKat, for the awesomeness that is Fallout Equestria!
Winter Storm and Midnight Stalker rock, as usual!

Anyone who was planning to play cards this halloween, maybe you should rethink your plans... Just in case.

The End of The World As We Know It

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HUNT FOR THE GREAT WHITE FLANK

Part: The One And Only

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This is a gag chapter. Not to be taken internally.
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"First mate Jacknife, any sign of our prey?"

"No, Cap'n No-Beard! She's as elusive as ever!"

"Then stop yer bouncin' and keep looking!" I, the dread pirate No-Beard Lily, scourge of the big wet thing, straightened my fierce hat and glared at my hyperactive first mate, trying to intimidate her into doing something constructive for a change. It didn't work very well. "And for Luna's sake, you only get one hat!" The young mare, a former native of the port of Little Fillydelphia, had her usual red hat and, on top of that one, another hat; the ones we all got on graduating Pirate Academy.

Yes, Pirate Academy is a thing.

"Aye aye, cap'n!" She bounced to the edge of our ship, the mighty Wooden Waffle, and cast her ferocious pirate hat into the wind, letting it soar away into the distance, probably to reach the mainland and eventually hit someone in the face.


Scowling (because it was the pirate-y thing to do), I stomped across the deck as our ship rocked in the swell, waves crashing against our hull, keeping careful watch for the fell beast that haunted the seas: The Great White Flank.

For untold days, we had sailed the seas in search of it, hunting the greatest known prey in the world. It was a quest for glory, for booty, and revenge.

I set my front hooves on the railing that had kept my bosun, Rose, and our cook, Ibis, from rolling overboard during their frequent drinking sessions, and shouted to the seas. "I will have my vengeance, you foul thing! For what you did, there can be no forgiveness!"

As if in answer to my challenge, the skies darkened, clouds growing thick and angry as the sea grew ever rougher and I knew, without a doubt, that my prey was near.


"Booty off the port bow, cap'n!" At Jacknife's cry, I ran back and forth across the ship, frantically trying to remember what side was the bow and which end was the port.

"Where?!"

"There!"

Figuring it was better to be safe than sorry, I just ran up beside Jacknife and looked where she was pointing. My breath caught at the majesty, the beauty, the sheer size of the thing that breached the water, purest white and trailing an ephemeral flash of color behind it. "By Luna's velvety flank... BRACE FOR IMPACT!"

Jacknife and I wrapped our hooves around the railing and I could only hope that the rest of the crew was safe below decks as the beast struck the surface of the ocean, sending waves so fierce I feared they would capsize our ship. The towering walls of water smashed against us, but the Wooden Waffle stood strong in the face of adversity. We passed through the waves, steering on a steady course straight for our target, when I turned to Jacknife and, with as stoic an expression as I could muster, asked her one simple question. "Who's steering this thing?"

Her eyes widened and she ran for the wheel, grabbing hold and trying to control what was now uncontrollable, our vessel being pulled inexorably towards the creature, drawn in by the size of it as it splashed and thrashed, turning the once-calm sea into a malestrom which promised only doom.

With no other choice, I roared for the rest of the crew. "Rose! Ibis! It's time!"


First to the deck was Ibis, proudly wearing his angry hat and eyepatch. He'd majored in looking scary, so he got the angry hat when we graduated. Close behind him was Rose. She'd majored in being artillery, so she didn't get a hat.

The pair were by my side in a flash, saluting as I raised my hoof and pointed at the behemoth before us, jiggling and swaying, bouncing up and down in an obscene display. "Prepare the harpoon!"

With another salute, Rose pulled a suction-cup hat out of nowhere and plonked it securely on her head before leaping into Ibis' arms, the griffin spreading his wings and leaning back dramatically, waiting for my order.

"NOW! FOR VENGEANCE AND ALL THAT IS DECENT!"

Rose was hurled through the air like a javelin and I watched passively as she flew. Her path was true, Ibis' aim deadly, and, as she struck home, I whispered. "There can be only one full moon this night."

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Princess Celestia, Ruler of The Day and Goddess of The Sun, turned her graceful neck to look first at the suction-cup tipped dart sticking to her cutie mark, then at her sister. "Lulu, the royal baths are not a place for you to play."

Princess Luna, Ruler of The Night and Goddess of The Moon, smirked and gave her toy pirate ship a push, watching it bob and float in the enormous bath reservered solely for the Royal Sisters. "Nor are they a place for dancing, sister. Thy flank makes a merry target, with the way thou shakesth it."

The pale princess sighed and shook her head, splashing some water at her sister with a small smile. "This is the only place I can dance, Lulu, and you know that. The nobles would be mortified if I were to participate in any of their balls."

The dark princess smirked again and loaded another dart into the small cannon on her ship. "Tia, my dear sister... Since my return, I have learned something very important." She fired the cannon again, sticking the sucky-dart on the end of her sister's muzzle. "There is a place anypony can go to dance. It's called a nightclub."


And then they went clubbing.

THE END

Chapter 13: Wing And A Prayer

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---CHAPTER 13: Wing And A Prayer---

"Even though it provides great power, it also corrupts the user!"

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"I think... that's... the last of them..." Panting, I ejected the spent drum from Garden and slammed a new one home. My mom, not even out of breath, did the same with her rifle, a battered remnant from her mercenary days, and nodded.

"Looks like it. Help me check them; might find something useful." She'd been in mercenary mode since we got into the hospital, constantly alert and watching for anything out of the ordinary. That also meant a proper conversation would have to wait until we were somewhere secure. As we set about looting the now-deceased raiders that littered the hallway, I replayed the past few hours in my head.


We'd made it through the city just fine, flying as near to the clouds as we could without drawing the Enclave down on us to avoid all the shit on the ground. Even from so high up, though, it had been painfully clear why nobody had tried to clear out the city:

Fillydelphia was a deathtrap.

There had to be hundreds of raiders crawling across the city, in an unending war with each other, mutated wildlife and the packs of feral ghouls that would swarm out of structures without warning, only to vanish just as suddenly when every living thing in the area was dead. I couldn't help but wonder how many of those ghouls had been amongst the original inhabitants of the city, condemned to a fate worse than death when the bombs dropped, so long ago...

Of course, no matter how insane or mutated the hordes were, they all stayed well away from the bloatsprites. Entire city blocks were seething with the things, so thick with the voracious terrors we'd been able to hear their buzzing as we passed overhead...

I'd be sure to tell Lily about it later.


Things had gone south as soon as we'd reached our goal, the Redheart Memorial Hospital. After making a slow, spiraling descent to get some idea of what state the place was in, we'd set down on the roof of the oddly intact building, breaking down the roof-access door and heading in.

That was when we discovered that a group of raiders had made the hospital their base.


Several ambushes, a crap-ton of deranged ponies and most of our ammo later, we found ourselves stripping our attackers of anything even remotely useful. I didn't find any shells that would fit Garden, unfortunately, but I hadn't expected to. The undersized cannon took a larger round than most shotguns. Mom had more luck; some of the raiders had been using battle-saddles with heavy machine guns, and the rounds were the same calibur her rifle used.


When we were finished looting, we started a slow, careful sweep of the floor we were on, every hallway and room showing signs that the raiders had been there for some time. Bodies, graffiti, sharp metal spikes displaying skulls, the usual. Each room was cleared, entered and searched in almost-silence, my mother and I communicating with single words and gestures to keep from drawing any more attention to ourselves than absolutely necessary, despite the raging gunfight we'd been involved in mere minutes before. Better safe than sorry, after all.

Recovery wards, storage rooms and offices were pillaged, every last one of the yellow, butterfly-marked medical boxes picked or smashed open, their precious contents quickly filling our packs. I wondered why so many of the things had been intact, even though the hospital looked like it had been a raider base for months, at least, but shrugged it off. Smart raiders were few and far between, and since the earlier ambushes had consisted mostly of them running at us, screaming...Well, it seemed pretty clear that the hospital had found itself playing host to an especially stupid bunch of ponies.

After we cleared the top floor, we moved down to the next one, keeping our eyes open for the distinctive tube-and-donut shape of the full-body regen machine that would, hopefully, contain the talisman needed to get Rose on her hooves again.

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"Fuck!" I punched the side of the machine, leaving me with a throbbing claw, and glared at the empty space that should have contained the talisman.

After searching almost half the hospital and filling our packs with looted supplies, we'd finally found the intensive care unit, complete with not one, but two of the regenerative machines. Frustratingly, mine didn't have what we were after. I leaned around the bulky device so I could see the piebald form of my mother as she checked the other machine. "Anything?"

She turned to me, frowning, and shook her head. "Nothing. Doc Needles said it might be in a storage room, right?" I nodded. "Then let's keep looking. We're not leaving until we find something to help that mare."


As we resumed our search, I stayed beside my mother, needing to ask something that I'd been curious about since she showed up in Little Fillydelphia. "Mom... Why are you so worried about Rose? It's more than just our contracts, isn't it?"

My mom hesitated for a moment, before indicating a nearby door with a tilt of her head. "Let's check this room."

We went in, finding ourselves in a small room with several pony-sized beds along one wall and less raider detritus than I'd expected. My mom stayed quiet as we started to search, but spoke up after a minute or so.

"Ibis... How much do you know about your father?"

I set down the dirty bedsheet I was shredding for bandages and turned to look at her. She was just staring into an open medical box, looking more tired than I'd ever seen her. "I don't really remember much... Just that he was big and grey, and you looked so happy together..." She sighed again.

"I told you how he died, right?"

"You always told me he died saving some of your friends..."

"Yeah..." Mom stretched her wings a little, fluffing herself up and giving me a small, sad smile. "They held our contract for a few years... Let us out of it when we had you, though. Said there'd be time enough for work when you were older... Your dad, though... That old featherbrain... He found out they were headed someplace dangerous, tagged along to keep them safe..."

I sat there in silence; this was the most mom had ever said about dad.

"He said that he couldn't let them go it alone, not if he wanted to set a good example for you..." She let out a small, bitter laugh. "Sentimental idiot... They came back, he didn't." My mom reached into her bandoleer and pulled out a small, yellowed square of paper, holding it out towards me. "They said your dad was thinking of us at the end... Said he wanted me to have this..."

I got up and crossed the room, gently taking the little square from her claw and lifting it to get a good look. My throat tightened up when I saw what was on it. Mom just smiled sadly again.

"That was taken not long after you hatched... Where your dad found someone with a working camera, I'll never know..."

The little square held a faded, slightly blurred image. I recognised my mom on one side, looking younger than I could ever remember seeing her, with the feathers on her head spiked up and tipped with bright purple dye. Next to her, in the middle of the picture, was a young, rough-feathered hatchling that could only have been me. On the other side of me, with one arm around my mom's shoulders and looking as proud as could be, was a large, charcoal grey griffin with amber eyes...

"Dad..." I blinked away the tears that threatened to start flowing. All I'd ever had were fuzzy memories of someone big and strong, who made my mom laugh and made me feel safe, but now...

Mom nodded. "Yeah... A few years after that was taken, he took his last job... It wasn't even part of his contract, just him helping our friends..." She trailed off, and I couldn't bring myself to speak, losing myself in that small, fragile reminder of someone I had never really known... After a few minutes, I held the picture out for my mom to take, but she shook her head and smiled at me. "It's yours now, son. I've got my own memories, and you should have something to remember him by."

"Thanks..." With a small smile of my own, I tucked the photo into my belt, safe and secure in the pouch which held only my most treasured possessions, before leaning against my mother. She put one wing around me and, suddenly, it was like I was a chick again, sheltering from the world beneath her wings.

Mom was the first to break the silence. "Bet you're wondering what your dad has to do with Rose, huh?" I nodded, and she smiled, cheering up a little. "We were talking about having another chick before he died... A little brother or sister, someone to keep you from getting lonely..."

"Mom... I hate to break it to you, but Rose and me..."

She laughed and messed up my crest like I was a still a chick, making me cringe. "I know, you're a couple and all that, but it doesn't change the fact she's really grown on me. That mare's like a daughter to me, and if you want her to be part of our family..." Her smile grew sad again. "Your dad would have loved her, Ibis."

"You really think so?"

"I know so."


We hugged until I managed to pull myself free of my mother's grip. I didn't have a problem with hugging or all that emotional stuff, but my mom was still bigger than I was and it felt like she was squeezing the life out of me! Besides, I still had a couple of questions.

"Mom... what do you think about Lily?"

My mother frowned. "She's sweet and all, but..."

"She's too innocent?"

Mom nodded. "Exactly. It's like looking at a foal; she needs someone to protect her. And don't you give me that look!" I flinched when she scolded me. I hadn't been glaring that much! "I know you haven't forgiven her for what she did, but the kid's been tearing herself apart. Besides, what will Rose think if you don't give Lily another chance? The little idiot means a lot to her, after all."

I sighed, my head drooping. "Fine... I guess she deserves another chance after following us all the way out here... It's not like I hate her or anything, I'm just mad at her... Maybe I can knock some sense into that thick head of hers, keep her from doing anything too stupid in the future..."

I felt a large, heavy claw come to rest on the top of my head and looked up to see my mom smiling at me, tears in her eyes. "Your dad would be so proud of you... You're growing into a fine young griffin..."

I pulled away and turned so she couldn't see that I was on the verge of crying as well. "I'll make him proud, mom..."

"Yeah... I know you will, Ibis..."


We went back to searching the room, salvaging anything even remotely useful for the doc, but I kept thinking about the photo. It was a piece of my past I could barely remember, the only link I had to my father... I couldn't even remember the day we learned he was dead clearly, just a vaguely familiar group of ponies and my mom crying...

I pulled the photo out, taking a break from the search to have another look at the large, charcoal-colored griffin. He was big, alright. There was no mistaking it; both he and my mother were in the prime of their lives when the picture was taken. I wondered if I'd be as big as he'd been, or if I would take more after my mom and just be average... I shook my head to clear it and tucked the photo back into my belt, then went back to ransacking the room.

It didn't take long before something else got stuck in the back of my mind, and I spoke up. "Mom?"

"Yeah?" She was on the other side of the room, trying to open another one of those yellow boxes, but the lock must have been stuck or something if the look she was giving it was any indication.

"About the photo..."

Distracted from the box, she looked at me. "What about it?"

I smirked. "You had a nice crest. Purple really suited you."

I didn't duck fast enough and, as the yellow container was thrown across the room at my head, I remember thinking just one thing:

Why is all the medical stuff marked with butterflies?

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"All I did was compliment your crest! You didn't have to throw the damn thing at me!" I glared at the back of my mother's head as we walked through yet another corridor.

"You were being sarcastic." She didn't even turn around, stalking ahead of me and sticking her head into any promising rooms we passed. There weren't many; we were on the ground floor, and quickly running out of places to search. If this hallway didn't have what we needed, then we'd have to go into the basement... and that just seemed like a bad idea no matter what way we looked at it. "Besides, your thick head opened the box faster than I would have been able to. More than that, weren't you glad when it turned out to be full of healing potions? Cleared your black eye right up."

"I wouldn't have had a black eye if you hadn't thrown the damn thing at me." Muttering to myself, I kept close behind my mom, checking the doors on the other side of the hall. All too soon, we came to the final door: A big, sturdy metal one with a heavy lock, marked RESTRICTED. My mother and I shared a look, knowing full well that this might be our last hope, and she set to work picking the lock.


"Hell." After a few minutes, my mom sat back, giving the still-secure lock a deathglare. "Whatever's in here, son, it's gotta be valuable. This is the hardest lock I've seen for a long time."

I snorted. "You sure you're not just rusty? You had to break that locked box open with my head, after all." Mom turned her glare on me and I puffed myself up, trying not to let her intimidate me. To be fair, my mom was a lot bigger than me back then, and she could be quite intimidating when she wanted to.

"That box wasn't just locked, it was jammed. Now, let me see that gun of yours."

"Garden?" I blinked, surprised. "Why?"

"Because I want to scratch my backside with it, what else?." I didn't appreciate her sarcasm, especially when it concerned my gun. "I'm going to shoot the lock, idiot. With what it can do to raiders, I'm betting it'll get us through this door faster than Rad-Away goes through your guts."

With only a little hesitation (and a frown at the Rad-Away remark), I passed my mom the heavy weapon, taking her rifle as she passed it to me. "Safety's off, mom. Watch for the recoil."

"Yeah, yeah." She took a couple steps back from the door and took aim. I moved a bit further away; I already knew what happened when Garden went up against a locker, and I didn't think the door would fare much better. "I think I can handle it."

I rolled my eyes and, without further ado, my mom pulled the trigger, replacing the lock with a hole I could have easily put my entire arm through. She let out a surprised squawk at the recoil, and I smirked. "I thought you could handle it."

She turned to glare at me, holding Garden out for me to take and rubbing her shoulder. "I didn't think it would be that powerful. Thing's got more kick than a damn AM rifle; you seriously found that in a pony Stable?"

We each took back our respective weapons, and I nodded. "Yeah, it was in the armory. I think it belonged to one of the security ponies."

Mom shook her head in disbelief. "Arming their security forces with heavy weapons like that... No wonder they blew up the world; they were all fucking idiots."

I couldn't exactly disagree, so I just shrugged and we entered the newly opened room. When we saw just how many cases, crates and boxes were in there, we both groaned.

Clearing it out was going to take forever.

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I swept my claw across the case, cleaning the dust off and double-checking the label, before calling out to my mother. "Think I found it!"

She quickly came over, stepping around the large pile of bags we'd filled with salvaged medical supplies, and giving the label a close look. "Finally. Let's get this thing open and get the hell out of here."

With a nod, I tried the latch... with no luck. "Locked." I turned to my mom. "You wanna try your claw at it?" She rolled her eyes.

"Just break it open. We'll tape it closed after; right now we just need to make sure the talisman is in there."

A few seconds spent working my knife into the lock, a sharp twist and... "Open!" The lid popped up, revealing a half-dozen hunks of shiny green rock the size of my fist, covered in little red symbols and nestled into holes in a bed of foam. Mom checked the label again, then gingerly picked up one of the stones, holding it up to the light and looking it over.

"Huh... Thought they'd be bigger..." She set the stone back into its place before lifting another and repeating her examination. This carried on until she was satisfied they were all in one piece. "Okay... We've got a bunch of talismans for the Doc's regen machine and enough spare supplies to keep him in business for months. Ready to get out of here and back to your mare, son?"

"Almost... Let's take one last look; we haven't checked all these crates yet."

Mom frowned. "Unless you're stronger than you let on, son, we'll be having enough trouble getting back as-is." She waved her claw at the mound of assorted satches, sacks and bags piled in the middle of the storage room. The hospital had yielded quite the bounty, and we'd had to scrounge up extra bags so we could take as much as possible. "Much more, and we'll be walking."

"Just one quick look, and I'll only take the really good stuff. I'll even carry it. Promise."

With a roll of her eyes and a sigh, my mom set about taping the lid of the talisman case closed and trying to fit it into one of our bulging bags. I made a circuit of the room, checking labels and markings for anything worth taking.


"Bandages... Painkillers... Bedpans... Hello, what's this?" I shoved the crate of bedpans aside, trying to get at the small metal box that had been peeking out from behind it. A little shoving was all it took, and I was greeted by the sight of not one, but two very secure looking boxes, each about the size of an ammo box.

I picked one up, surprised by how light it was, and blew on it, trying to make out the words painted on the side. "Prototype... Regenerative... Implant... Hey, mom! Take a look at this!" I held the box up as my mother sighed and tugged the zipper closed on the bag she'd stuffed the talisman case into.

"What did you find?" She took the mysterious box from me and gave it a once over. Upon seeing the faded lettering, though, she looked a lot more curious. "A regenerative implant, huh?"

"That's what it says. There's another one, too." I indicated the second container with a wave of my head, and my mom nodded absently, busy checking the lock on the box she held.

"Uh-huh..." She set it on a crate in front of her and pulled out some bent pieces of wire and a screwdrivers, her usual lock-picking tools. "This is one hell of a lock... You take the other one."


We worked in near silence, trying to pick or break the locks on our respective boxes and getting more frustrated with each failed attempt. Eventually, there was a click from the case my mom was working on and I left mine where it lay, unopened, to investigate what she'd uncovered.

"That's... interesting..." There was a bunch of papers clipped together inside the box, sitting on top of another, smaller case. My mom nodded and passed me the papers.

"Take a look while I open this."

As she started work on the inner case, I studied the sheets, which were oddly intact... probably because they were sealed in the case for so long. Most of them were covered in charts, diagrams or techno-babble, but I could understand some of it.

"Project Pheonix... Development of surgically implanted talismans, intended to provide physical regeneration for decreased casualty rate among soldiers... Results unsatisfactory... Regeneration only activates when host is severely injured and functions at an unnacceptably slow rate... The implant is unable to heal critical or life-threatening damage without supplementary application of additional healing magic... Talismans become impossible to remove from host approximately one week after implantation, and sooner if host is injured before or after the implantation process... Unpredictable secondary effects, depending on host... Remaining prototypes to be stored at Redheart Memorial Hospital, by order of..."

I frowned; the name was blacked out. A quick flip through the rest of the pages revealed that every single name was buried behind black ink. Whoever made these things or ordered them to be stored here must have really wanted their identity to remain secret... Those pre-war ponies never seemed to do anything that made sense.

At least the contents of the case seemed promising. If I'd understood the admittedly confusing science-speak, then there was a talisman inside that could get Rose back on her hooves faster than the regen machine itself could.

"This thing's an implant?" The sound of my mom's voice drew my attention, and I looked up from the papers to see she'd gotten the inner case open. Inside was a deep red stone, almost twice the size of the other talismans. My mother took it out and held it up to the light like she had the earlier talismans, examining it.

I tapped my claw on the sheets of paper I was holding. "Apparently. According to this, it was meant to keep wounded soldiers alive in the field, but it wasn't effective enough to save their lives on its own."

"Let me see that." We exchanged objects, and it was my mom's turn to read through the paperwork. I held the stone up, having a look at it myself. It was blood-red and translucent, with a dark, opaque smear in the middle of it, like there was something stuck inside. "You're right." I looked back to my mom. "This thing was meant for soldiers, but..." She took the talisman from me and set it back inside the case, along with the documents. "Let's get these back to Doc Needles, son. I won't hold my breath until we get his opinion, but if we can put one of these in your mare..."

"Between the machine and one of these, she's almost certain to survive, right?" Mom nodded.

"Right. Let's stow these things and get moving. We've been gone too long already." We took one of the implants each and split up the bags. It was difficult enough to carry them and still have any chance of flying when we got to the roof, but we managed before leaving the storage room, only half-looted, and making our slow way back through the hospital.

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We half jumped, half flapped our way up the stairs, the stream of ghouls boiling up from the basement hot on our tails, pausing at each landing just long enough to fire at the lead ghouls, trying to slow the howling undead horde down long enough to make our escape.

My mom's aim was as good as it had been with the raiders, her rifle punching holes through rotting heads and bodies, turning undead ponies into obstacles for the rest of the horde to try and climb over to get to us.

I was doing a lot better than she was, though. With every roaring blast, Garden tore another ghoul apart, the heavy slugs often ripping through two or more jerky ponies before hitting the walls of the stairwell.


We burst through the roof access door, running for the edge of the hospital's roof with the screaming horde right behind us, flapping as hard as we could to try and get lift with the heavy bags of supplies weighing us down.

As we took to the air, one of the ghouls leapt at us, ripping several feathers from my wing before plummeting to its death, far below. I screeched, trying to stay level despite the damage my wing had taken, and my mom swooped in above me, grabbing the straps of my bags and doing her best to keep me steady as we flew. "You okay?" She yelled, and I could feel her wings beating above me. I flapped harder, and we began to gain some height.

"Y-yeah!" I yelled back, risking a glance at my wing. "Only missing a few feathers... Rose has done worse!"

"Think you can still fly?"

"No choice! Fly or die!"

I was more shaken up by anything, the sudden influx of ghouls from the basement and the subsequent chase having left me gasping for air. As my mom released me so I could fly under my own power, I took a quick look at the hospital, fading into the distance behind us. The ghouls, now dark, featureless blotches, had vanished, retreating to their dens and warrens under the hopsital and the city.

I really hated Fillydelphia.

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It was late evening by the time we got back to the clinic, exhausted and worn out by the long flight and the heavy bags of looted medical supplies we'd been carrying.

Lily was in the waiting room, talking to that courier mare... Jacknife, I vaguely remembered. When we entered the clinic they ran over to me, Lily frantically asking if I'd gotten the talisman for the machine and Jacknife running in circles around us and poking the bags I was carrying, trying to guess which one held her idol's salvation.

While I tried to shut the girls up and tell them what we'd found, my mom went further into the clinic to speak with the doctor. I spent the next few minutes shedding my bags and getting the girls to help me unpack everything, sorting the supplies while I described conditions in the city, turning Lily into a quivering ball of pony when I got to the bloatsprite swarms.

My mom and the doctor came out, deep in discussion, and took the crate of talismans for the machine into the surgery, leaving the rest of us with instructions to move the normal medical supplies into the back room. Jacknife took charge, and I got the feeling she spent a lot of time in the clinic from how quickly she got everything squared away. Lily wasn't much help; my description of the bloatsprites had put her into shock.

In the end, we were sitting in the waiting room with a pile of empty bags and the two implants, secure in their cases, when the doc and my mom came back out. They took the implants and vanished into the surgery again, re-emerging a short time later.

"Ibis, how much medical training do you have?"

I answered the doc, shrugging. "Some. Mom taught me how to get a bullet out, stitch up a wound or take care of a broken bone. Why?"

The doc nodded. "That should be enough... The implants you brought back... If I'm right, they're your mare's best chance at coming out of this able to live a normal life. You and your mother are going to help me perform the surgery."

"Huh?" I stared at him, stunned. "What about your nurse? Why us?"

"My nurse is still burned out from saving young Rose's life, and I'll need all the help I can get if I'm going to do this."

I turned to my mom, and she nodded. "I'll be right there, son. The doc and I will handle the surgery, all you have to do is assist."

With a sigh, I stood. "Okay... Let's do this, then."

As we went into the surgery Lily recovered from her phobia-induced coma, running up and getting in my way, glaring. "You'd better not let anything happen to her, Ibis! Just... Just don't..." Tears started to form in her eys. "Please... Don't let her down..." I sighed, remembering my promise to my mom, and hesitantly pulled the crying mare into a hug.

"She'll be fine, Lily. We'll do everything we can."

"Yeah! Mr Griffin is Miss Whiskey's trainer! He's gotta help her 'cause she's a good pony and Miss Whiskey said good ponies always win!" Jacknife came trotting up beside us, poking my side with her hoof and grinning. I wished I had some of her confidence, but I managed to force a grin.

"Exactly. You two wait out here, okay? We'll do this as quick as we can, get Rose in that machine and everything'll be fine. You'll see."

The pair nodded, varying degrees of certainty plain on their faces, and I took a deep breath before entering the surgery, mentally prepping myself for what was to come.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Morning. The surgery had taken all night, leaving me drained and numb.

Seeing Rose like that... She'd looked like a ragdoll, more stitches than mare, her shattered horn just a stump under her cropped mane. When we'd opened her up to put the implant in her chest, I'd almost frozen up. There were holes in her ribcage, huge gaps where pieces had been shattered or broken, and I could only imagine what the rest of her bones looked like.

In the end, though, we'd gotten the implant in place, the hunk of dark red stone nestled beside her heart, just where the doctor said it had to be. We'd sewn her back up, done everything we could to keep her alive, and carefully placed her in the machine. All that was left to do was wait and see.


I gave up on getting clean, my claws stained with Rose's blood, and made my slow, drowsy way back through the clinic, pausing at the door to the surgery. I poked my head in, seeing the piebald form of my mother stretched out on a bed near the humming regenerative machine. She was getting some much needed rest, and I assumed the doctor was doing the same, since he'd gone into his office while I was trying to scrub the blood off.

Sleep seemed welcome, calling to me, but I couldn't rest yet. I went into the waiting room, managing a small smile at the sight of Jacknife, sleeping on her back with all four hooves twitching, like she was running in her dreams. Lily was curled up next to her saddlebags, her head on Rose's duster, and I gently poked her, waking her up.

"H-huh? Ibis? Is Rose okay? Did something happen?" Still half-asleep she started to stand, but I put my claw on her shoulder, keeping her down.

"Rose is fine... We got her patched up... She's in the machine, and it's looking good..." I yawned, leaning on the relieved looking mare. "Just... gotta... wait and... see..." My head came to rest on her back and, as Celestia slowly rose behind the clouds, I said a small prayer to her and Luna before drifting into the oblivion of sleep.


FOOTNOTE: 50% TO NEXT LEVEL

Chapter 14: Recovery

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---CHAPTER 14: Recovery---

"You said you had a second bit of news? "

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For two long months, my sister lay in the cold embrace of the healing machine, the rise and fall of her patchwork chest the only sign she was still alive. Every day, Ibis, Magpie and me would go to the clinic to check on her, with the hyperactive courier, Jacknife, joining us in the evening, when she was finished running around the city.

For two long months, we watched and waited. Watched the wounds become scars, watched her shattered horn become a stump and then a spire, watched Doc Needles take her from the life-preserving device only long enough to remove the stitches from that ragdoll body, before returning her to the one place she could heal. Waited, longingly, for the day the doctor would remove the IV, stop the flow of drugs into her system, and wake her up.

For two long months, the three of us did what we could to keep her company and let her know we were there. I read to her for hours on end, every magazine and book I could get my hooves on, even the confusing ones with big words and diagrams that I had trouble understanding. Ibis would tell jokes and exaggerated stories, describing the dates he had planned and the things he was going to do to her when she was better. Magpie... she sang lullabies to the sleeping mare, or told the three of us about her days as a mercenary, of the friendships she'd forged when she was our age and how they had saved her life so many times.


Finally, after two long months, the doctor said it was time, and we all gathered in the clinic. The machine was shut down, the low hum we'd all gotten so used to replaced by a cold, empty silence. Magpie and Ibis, on the doctor's instructions, gently moved the pale mare to a bed, setting her down on the softest, cleanest blankets we'd been able to find.

The doctor set about checking her, lighting his horn and probing her body with his magic. His nurse, by now long-recovered from her magical burn-out, assisted, and the two of them spoke in hushed tones for some time before the doc turned to us. We all held our breath, hoping for the best. Even Jacknife was still, something I'd discovered was almost as rare as clean water.

"Well... I have good news and... other news."

"O-other news?" I looked at him, confused and worried. "Like, bad news?"

He shook his head, frowning. "Not bad, not exactly. It's... her implant."

"What? What about it?!" Magpie put her claw on my head when I interrupted, and I looked at her.

"Let Needles speak, Lily." She smiled gently, as the old pony cleared his throat and nodded his thanks to her.

"It... seems to have fused with her ribcage. Whatever the talisman is made of, it's started covering her ribs and spinal column in something similar." He paused for a moment, waiting for me to butt in again, only continuing when I ducked my head, embarassed. "Magpie, the files you recovered with the implants said that they became impossible to remove about a week after being implanted... I believe this... growth... is the reason why."

Another pause, and he looked at me expectantly. I hesitated, and Magpie asked the question that was on the tip of my tongue. "Is it dangerous?"

While I pouted at her (and got my mane messed up for my trouble), the doctor shook his head. "I don't think so. It shows no sign of spreading to her organs, and the cursory examination we've performed shows that it's magically inert, with none of the properties of the talisman itself."

This time, Ibis interrupted and I really, really wanted to kick him for it. "Magically inert? Does that mean it won't help her heal?"

"It's too soon to tell for sure, and the growth is minimal, but I shouldn't think so. We'll perform more tests when she wakes up, to make sure. That said, there is one last thing I should mention..."


We all held our breath,the only sound in the room Jacknife's hooves tapping against the tiled floor as she nervously trotted in place. After a moment, the doctor continued.

"According to the documents recovered with the implants, they only activate when the host is severely injured, providing enough regeneration to, at best, stabilise the host's condition. After observing young Rose's recovery, and factoring in the influence of the machine... I'm afraid it won't even be that effective on her."


"W-what do you mean?" This time, it was me speaking, but the doc looked at Ibis instead. I looked between them, confused.

"Ibis, how many healing potions has that mare taken in the past few months?"

The grey griffin looked away, tapping his claw on the clinic floor, frowning. It took a minute before he turned back to the doc. "Since we came to Little Fillydelphia... Maybe... a hundred? She took a beating in all those matches."

My jaw dropped. A hundred healing potions?! I hadn't taken that many in my life!

The doc just nodded, looking thoughtful. "And before that? Was she badly injured at any time?"

"She... almost died, once before..." Ibis glanced at me, and we looked away in tandem. I swallowed, knowing exactly when it had been that my little sister had almost died, and why. I couldn't blame him if he still blamed me. "It took a lot to get her back on her hooves after that... we've both had our share of wounds since, but nothing really... life threatening... not like that..."

With another nod, the doc looked over his shoulder at Rose, who hadn't so much as twitched since being taken from the machine. "I see..." He sighed and turned back to us. "It certainly adds up. You see, young Rose seems to be developing a resistance to healing magic. I thought it was strange how slow her body reacted when you brought her in, how ineffective even our best attempts to heal her were, but now it makes sense..."

I butted in again. "How is that possible? I mean, you can't really get used to healing potions, can you?"

He sighed. "I'm afraid healing magic in general, and potions in particular, are just like most other substances. Excessive use, over time, can reduce its effectiveness. Most folks will never consume enough potions to notice a difference. Young Rose, though..." He waved his hoof at her before giving me and Ibis a stern look. "I strongly suggest letting minor injuries heal naturally, from now on. Stitch them closed, bandage them up, but do not, under any circumstances, give her healing potions when time and care would do just as well."

"But-" I tried to argue, but the doc cut me off, glaring.

"No. She's built up enough of a resistance already; too many unnecessary potions and they may stop working all-together. Understand?"

When I nodded, he looked to Ibis, who copied me, and finally to Magpie who, looking completely serious, gave a single, slow, bob of her head.

The doc sighed, taking his glasses off and wiping them on his foreleg. "Alright, then. I've removed the drip, but it will take some time for the Med-X to work its way out of her system. I know you'll all stay with her, no matter what I say, but let her rest for now. Don't try and wake her up, don't move her and, when she does wake up, try to keep her from getting excited or agitated. There are still some tests I'd like to perfom before giving her the all-clear, but they'll have to wait until she's concious."


As the three of us nodded again and made our way across the room to where Rose lay, I heard the doctor speaking to Jacknife, who had stayed silent during the whole exchange and started towards the bed with the rest of us. "Jacknife, no."

"But I wanna stay with Miss Whiskey!"

"Her family is here, she'll be fine. Besides, you don't want to be late for your meeting, do you? Making them wait would be a bad idea, especially if you want them to agree with your plan."

"Ack! I almost forgot!" With the clatter of hooves on tiles the hyperactive mare was gone, and the doctor headed for his office, sighing.

---------------------------------------------------------------

With a yawn, I sat up and stretched, wiping the drool from my chin and looking around though bleary eyes. I'd fallen asleep on the bottom of Rose's bed, and from where I was sitting I could see Ibis stretched out on the floor, his wings twitching as he slept. Magpie was sitting on a bed on the other side of the room, cleaning her rifle and glancing over at us occasionally. When she saw that I was up, she nodded with a small smile, and I returned the gesture before turning to Rose.

She was sleeping as well, her chest rising and falling steadily under the sheet. What little I could see of her body was criss-crossed with lines where her coat hadn't quite grown back to cover her scars. I sighed, gently reaching out to stroke her side. At least it didn't look like she was in pain... not that she really could be, not after so long in that healing machine... or with that talisman in her...


A growl from my stomach echoed through-out the quiet room, cutting into my thoughts, and Magpie raised her eyebrow at me. I blushed and hopped off the bed, crossing over to the old griffin so I wouldn't have to raise my voice and disturb Rose or Ibis. "Morning."

She set her rifle down and nodded. "Morning. Sleep well?"

I shrugged. "I guess..." Another rumble from my stomach and I grinned sheepishly. "Um... you hungry?"

With a chuckle, she shook her head. "Already ate."

"Oh... well, can you... come outside with me?"

"Still don't like going out alone?" I shook my head, and she laughed quietly. Two months in town, and I was still scared to death of walking around Little Fillydelphia by myself. Don't judge me. Between the gangs and the junkies, the place was terrifying! "Wake my son, take him with you. I'll stay here, in case your sister wakes up or the doc needs help with something."


I nodded and started back across the room, but Magpie called out quietly. "Lily, wait." I stopped and looked over my shoulder at her. "If you get iguana, make sure it's whole. Don't get the diced stuff, got it?"

I frowned. "Why not?"

She half-shrugged. "Just something I heard about, back when I was still a mercenary. Iguana's not always iguana; some folks like to use... different meat, and just call it iguana."

"What else would it be?" I was confused now. Why would anyone call something iguana if it wasn't iguana? "Radhog? Radigator? Ugh, not bloatsprite?"

With a shake of her black-and-white head, she looked me straight in the eye. "Pony."

"Huh? Pony? Wait, you mean..." She nodded. "Oh... OH! GROSS! UGH!" That was worse than bloatsprite! I shuddered, horrified. "What kind of sick bastard would eat ponies?!"

The big griffin just shrugged. "Griffins, ponies with unusual tastes. Minotaurs, maybe."

"Wait, griffins?" I took a step back, suddenly afraid of the big, feathery predator in front of me. "So... have you..."

"No." She shook her head. "I don't like junk food."

"Oh... that's good..." I relaxed a little, then what she said sunk in and I glared at her. "Hey!"

She smirked and waved her claw at me. "You're too easy, kid. Go on, go get yourself some breakfast."


I rolled my eyes and trotted over to where Ibis lay, trying my best to ignore his mother's chuckles. I poked his side, trying to wake him up, but he just rolled over, mumbling in his sleep.

"Ibis... hey... Ibis!" My stomach grumbled again, and I poked him harder, all but whacking my hoof on his chest. "Ibis! Wake up! AH!" Suddenly his arms wrapped around me, pulling me tight to his chest.

"Rose..." Still sound asleep, he snuggled against me.

Oh, hell no!

I struggled, trying to break free. Pressed up against him like that was the last place I wanted to be, especially if he was dreaming about Rose!

As he began to rub my sides, I tried not to panic. "Ibis! Ibis! Wake up, you featherbrain! ACK!"

When his claws started moving towards my flank, I freaked and did the only thing I could think of: Twist my head, get a mouthful of feathers, and yank.

With a squawk, his arms tightened around me, claws digging into my sides and making me yelp in pain as he sat straight up, still clutching me to his chest.

He stared at me for a moment, confused. "You're not Rose..."

I glared at him. "No shit." I squirmed, trying to get free. "Wanna put me down?"

"Huh? Oh! What the hell, Lily?!" Finally awake, he shoved me away, glaring at me as I sprawled on the floor. "What the hell were you doing?!"

I picked myself up and jabbed him with my hoof. "You were the one feeling me up, you pervert!"

He leaned close to me, snapping his beak just in front of my face. "I wouldn't touch you with a ten foot pole, you little-"

"Children~♫." Magpie's voice rang out, interrupting us.

"What?!"

"What?!"

As one, we turned to glare at the old griffin, who just stared back at us patiently. "If you're going to fight, do it outside."

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Jerk."

"Idiot."

We made our way slowly through the town, drawing the occasional sidelong glance but nothing more than that. We'd only stayed in the clinic long enough to grab our stuff before heading out, Magpie 'gently' encouraging us to leave. Ibis had Garden, that huge cannon of his, slung across his back. I guessed that was the reason we were being left alone, since my revolver was out of sight, tucked into my saddlebag... not that I planned on using it. Having it just made me feel safer, that's all.

Other than the occasional insults, we stayed pretty much silent until we reached one of the small food stalls dotted through-out the city. While Ibis placed his order, I sat on the gutter and twisted to check my sides, where Ibis' claws had cut into me when I yanked his feathers out. "What are you doing?"

"Making sure you didn't leave me with any scars, you jerk." I turned back to him, shuddering when I saw the iguana skewers clutched in his claw. Ugh. At least they were whole lizards, so there was no way they could be pony.

The grey griffin rolled his eyes. "There's no way you'll have scars. Hell, there's not even any marks." He jabbed my side with his free claw and I swatted it away, glaring. "That healing potion cleared you right up."

"Yeah, well..." I sighed and hung my head, staring at the ancient asphalt that made up the road. "At least I can still take healing potions..."


Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ibis sit down, staring at his clawful of roasted reptiles with an unreadable expression. "She'll be fine, Lily. All we have to do is keep her from getting hurt, and she'll be fine."

"But-"

"Look at me." We turned to each other, locking eyes. "We are going to keep her safe. Understand?"

I nodded, the determination in his eyes convincing me that we could do it, that together we could hold all the bad stuff in the world at bay. "Friends to the end? For Rose?" I raised my hoof, holding it out for him to bump, seeking some final affirmation that, come Tartarus or high water, we were in it together.

He stared at me for a moment, frowning like he wasn't sure what to do, then raised the claw holding his lunch and bumped it against my hoof. "For Rose." With a smile, I set my hoof back on the pavement. "Don't make me regret this, Lily."

I glared at him, annoyed. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Just that you're an idiot."

"And you're a jerk."

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Just take one. Your stomach is starting to get on my nerves."

I opened my mouth to tell Ibis what he could do with the scaled snacks, but another growl from my stomach changed my mind. I hadn't bought anything to eat, after all, and they did look pretty tasty... "Fine." The familiar glow of my magic yanked the biggest skewer from his claw, and he gave me a dirty look.

"You just had to take the biggest one, didn't you?"

"Eeyup." I smirked and, setting aside all thoughts of Not-Iguana, took a bite of the delicious smelling food. It was even better than it looked or smelled, and as we continued our walk back towards to the clinic I devoured it, not even breaking stride as I reached out with my magic for a second one. Telekinesis is a wonderful thing.

"Hey! Get your own." Scowling, Ibis pulled his claw away, making me lose my magical grip.

"C'mon, you've got plenty! Gimme another!" I tried to snatch another one of the tasty morsels away, but he just kept stalking along, holding the dozen or so skewers out of my view.

"No."

"Just one? Please?" I gave him my best begging look, and he rolled his eyes.

"Fine. One more."

"Yay!" Grinning. I snatched the biggest remaining one, making sure to savor it this time. We didn't say much after that, both of us too busy eating, and as we approached the clinic door I licked my lips and let out a belch.


"That was good... WHAH!" Something slammed into me and we went down in a tangle of hooves, rolling a couple of times before bouncing apart. As I lay on my back, dazed, a dirty red hat floated down and landed on my muzzle.

Wait, hat? Oh... not again!

"JACKNIFE!" I got back onto my hooves, shaking the tattered old hat off of my face. It didn't even touch the ground before the projectile pony darted in, grabbed it and plonked it back onto her head, grinning and trotting in place as usual. "Would you stop crashing into me?! That's the eighth time this month!"

"Sorry Miss Lily but I'm super excited 'cause I've got good news and I wanted to tell the doc but you were in front of the door and I didn't see you and that's why I crashed but it's okay because you're not hurt at all! Uh, you're not hurt right?" She froze mid-bounce, frowning, and I shook my head.

"No, Jacknife. I'm not hurt."

"Oh, okay!" She started bouncing again, then zipped into the clinic, calling for Doc Needles. Ibis chuckled, and I turned to him, glaring.

"Let's just get inside already." I snatched another lizard skewer and pushed past him into the clinic, ignoring his squawk of protest. I headed through the lobby, passing Jacknife talking excitedly with the doctor, who nodded at me. I gave him a smile; not his fault the hyper mare seemed to like crashing into me.

Ibis caught up with me and tried to grab the lizard back, but I took a big bite out of it and poked my tongue out at him. "Get your own. This one's mine."

"You took it from me, so give it back." He glared at me, and I smirked.

"Want it? Come get it!" With that, I bolted down the short corridor to the recovery room, looked back to laugh at him... and ran straight into the doorframe.

"Ow..." Laying on the cool tiles, I shook my head, trying to stop the world from spinning as Ibis stepped over me, laughing at my misfortune.

"Idiot."

I snorted at him, before getting back up and following him into the room. "Jerk."


Inside the recovery room, Magpie was leaning over Rose, and we crept up beside her quietly. "How is she, mom?" Ibis spoke first, keeping his voice low as we watched the old griffin stroking our mare's head.

She ran her claw through the scarlet mane as Rose gave a small twitch, whimpering. "She's dreaming; started thrashing around a few minutes ago, but she's calmed down a bit."

"Is there anything we can do?" I propped my front hooves on the bed, shifting out of the way as Rose started kicking, trying to throw off her blanket and whinnying in fear of whatever was in her dream. A moment later she was still again, even though her breathing was still shallow, chest heaving as she panted in her sleep.

Magpie turned to me. "Get Needles. If she keeps going like this, she's going to wake up."

"Got it." As quickly and quietly as I could, I ran through the clinic. To my relief, the doc was still talking to Jacknife in the lobby. Seeing me, he held up his hoof to interrupt the babbling mare.

"Hold on, Jacknife. Is something wrong, Lily?"

"No. Maybe. Magpie says Rose might wake up soon; she's having really bad nightmares."

The doc nodded. "The Med-X should have worked its way out of her system by now, so she should be waking up soon anyway. It might be best if we're there when she wakes up."


I nodded and the three of us went back through the clinic and into the recovery room, where the griffins were sharing some of Ibis' iguana snacks. Rose seemed to have to quieted down, and was just twitching a little now.

"How is she?" The doc asked Magpie. The piebald griffin looked at the sleeping mare and gave a small shrug.

"Dreaming."

The doc nodded. "I see... Jacknife, careful." The younger mare, about to jump onto the bed so she could sit next to her idol, paused and pouted.

"But I wanna tell Miss Whiskey the good news!"

"Wait until she wakes up, okay?"

"But doc-"

"Jacknife, no."

"Fine." The hyper mare frowned and sat down next to the bed, instead of on it. Her hooves didn't stop twitching, though, and I stifled a laugh.

"You can tell me, if you want."

"Really?!" She bounced up into the air, landing on all fours, her eyes shining with excitement. "Because it's super awesome and I wanna tell Miss Whiskey but I guess I can tell you first and-" The doctor sighed and put his hoof on her withers.

"Jacknife..."

"Oh, right." She grinned sheepishly, before getting to the point. "Since Jungle's dead the bosses in town have been arguing over who gets to take over the gym but they don't want each other to have it and I really like boxing so I asked if I could run the gym and they said yes but only because I'm a good courier and they don't think I'll start trouble which is silly because all I wanna do is make Miss Whiskey proud and train lots of awesome Good Pony boxers like her so that there's lots of great fights to watch and don't you think that's just awesome?"

While the be-hatted mare beamed at me, the rest of us, sans the doctor, stared at her, waiting for our brains to catch up with her nonstop stream of words.

"So..." Ibis began, speaking slowly. "You're... in charge of the gym now... right?"

Just as Jacknife opened her mouth, the doc interrupted her. "Let me explain, okay?"

"Fine." The hyper mare pouted, and the doc rubbed her head before turning to us.

"How to put this... Jacknife may not seem it, but she's actually quite valuable to the various gangs who run Little Fillydelphia. She's completely impartial, with no loyalties or ties to any of them. Jungle wasn't one of the gang leaders, but his gym was a useful recruiting ground for them and he never played favorites. With him... gone... it's best that the gym remains in unaffiliated hooves. Hence, Jacknife's new position."

We all gave nods of varying degrees of understanding, but something was bothering me.

"What about that big pony? The one Rose..." I swallowed, hesitating. "The one she fought. Wasn't he with one of the gangs?"

The doc shook his head, grimacing. "Ironchops was a danger to everyone in this city. He won't be missed."

"Oh... Well-"

A hacking sound cut me off and we all turned to see Rose sitting up, coughing and weezing.

"Rose!"

"Red!"

"Miss Whiskey!"

She just weezed at us, her eyes unfocused, and the doc stepped forwards, putting his hoof on her chest and pushing her back down gently. "Jacknife, get some clean water from storage, she needs something to drink. Miss Rose, try not to talk; you've been unconcious for two months and what you're feeling is normal."

"Water!" Jacknife held up a bottle of clear water, and I had to blink to make sure I wasn't seeing things. I hadn't even seen her leave!

Magpie took the bottle before me or Ibis could, popped the lid off and held it to Rose's mouth, letting her sip at it. "Good work, Magpie." The doc nodded approvingly. "Miss Rose, take it slow. Don't drink too much, now."


After a few minutes, Rose finally let Magpie take the water away and the doctor stepped forwards, his horn glowing. As he checked her over, paying extra attention to her head, we waited nervously. Eventually, after the unbearable wait, the doc turned back to us. "It doesn't look like she has brain damage, but after so long unconcious she may be a little confused. You can talk to her now, but don't overwhelm her. Understand?" We all nodded, and he turned to the bouncing mare, who was already trying to sneak onto Rose's bed, giving us a sheepish grin when she realised she was busted. "Jacknife, you can talk to her later. She needs to rest now."

"But- gah, fine." The stallion pointed his hoof at the door, and the complaining mare trotted out. With a shake of his head the doctor followed her, leaving the three of us alone with Rose.


I moved first, hopping up onto the end of the bed and smiling as Rose tried to focus on me. "Hey, sis. How're you feeling?"

She sat up a bit, looking at me closer. "Lily?" With a groan, she shook her head. "My head hurts..."

Ibis sat on the side of the bed, next to Rose, and she leaned against him. I fought down the wave of jealousy; she was my little sister, I should be the one to comfort her! "Easy, Red... you got hurt bad again... What's the last thing you remember?"

Rose shut her eyes, and I moved next to her, stroking her mane and trying to get it to look neat. Ibis took her hoof in his claw while Magpie sat next to the bed, quiet and watching us. "I was talking to Jungle, and Ironchops was there... I think he was angry about the fight..." She opened her eyes and looked at me, unsure. "Lily... why would he be angry about the fight?"

I shrugged. "I... I dunno, Rose..."

"Probably didn't like getting beaten." Magpie spoke up.

Ibis nodded. "Jungle tried to convince me to talk Rose into throwing the match, said Ironchops was crazy... guess he was right..." He gave Rose's hoof a squeeze. "Anything else, Red? Anything at all?"

"I... Ironchops, he..." She shuddered, so I pulled her into a hug (and away from Ibis). "He killed me..."

I rubbed her head, trying to comfort her. Ibis wrapped an arm around both of us, and I saw Magpie nod to him out of the corner of my eye. "C'mon, sis... it's not like you actually died... you just got... hurt... bad. Right?" I gave a hopeful smile, but it was quickly wiped away.

"I died, Lily... I died."

"Rose, what-" Trembling, she shook her head.

"He killed me... then he buried me... Starfall brought me back..."


On hearing that name, the name that thing had given, me and Ibis looked at each other. We hadn't wanted to ever think about her ever again, and Rose had spoken about her so casually...

"Starfall?" Magpie raised an eyebrow at us.

"Mom, don't-"

"She's my conscience." Rose interrupted Ibis. "She helps me to be a good pony, and she brought me back when I died." For the first time since she woke up, she managed a small smile. Magpie didn't look convinced, though.

"Your conscience... right..."

Rose nodded, but I put my hoof on the end of her muzzle before she could speak. "Um, Magpie... don't ask? Please?" I smiled at the old griffin nervously, and she frowned, glaring first at me then Ibis.

"This has something to do with what happened to those stallions in the gym, doesn't it?"

"Eh... hehe... maybe?" The longer she stared at me, the more nervous I got. Rose looked at each of us, confused.

"What happened at the gym?"

Ibis saved me from having to answer, using our agreed-upon lie. "You fought Ironchops and Jungle, remember? You just said so. They must've taken you back to the gym, after knocking you out or something. When we got there, you'd already killed Jungle and you were..." He grimaced, "killing Ironchops."

Rose shook her head, her mane falling messily over her face. "Nuh-uh! Ironchops killed me at the graveyard! Starfall wanted me to kill them when she brought me back, but revenge is for bad ponies so I said no... she must've killed them."

Before me or Ibis could speak, Magpie leaned on the bed. I shrank back against Ibis; she was really scary sometimes. "Enough secrets, you two. Tell me. What. Happened."


With no other choice, me and Ibis told Magpie what had really happened. It took a little while, but when we were done she sat back, eyeing us. Rose didn't seem bothered in the least by what Starfall had done, and Magpie had kept her face carefully blank the whole time, so I had no idea what she thought.

"So..."

I fidgeted. Next to me, I could hear Ibis' wings rustling. Rose was between us, leaning on me with her hoof safely gripped in Ibis' claw.

"You're telling me that you really died, and that some voice in your head brought you back?" Rose nodded. "And you two say that voice managed to do that to Ironchops, using Rose's body, which was falling apart?" Me and Ibis nodded, and Magpie sighed, running her claw through her crest. "This is insane."

She shook her black-and-white head slowly, before sighing again. "You don't want me to tell your parents, do you Lily?"

"Um, please?" I gave her my best smile, hoping to convince her that it was for the best.

"I need to know something first." Magpie pointed her claw at my sister, who just blinked in response. "Rose, who or what is Starfall?"

Rose shrugged. "She's my conscience."

"What does that even mean??"

"She helps me be a good pony."

Seeing she wasn't getting anywhere, Magpie tried a different question. "Alright... where did she come from?"

Another shrug. "I don't know."


After a few more minutes of fruitless questioning, Magpie groaned. "Fine. I give up. I won't tell your parents what happened, because I don't understand it myself. You two," She pointed at me and Ibis, glaring. "can come up with something to tell them. And you..." She turned to Rose, and her harsh look softened as she scratched my sister's head. "no more running off, with or without my son. Got it?"

Rose nodded slowly, her eyes closed as she enjoyed the head scratch... until a loud growl, like a hellhound that just sat on a cactus, roared through the room.

As one, me, Ibis and Magpie stared at Rose, who blushed. "Um... Lily? I'm hungry."

Ibis started chuckling, then it spread to Magpie, who started laughing, and finally me. In seconds, we were all laughing our heads off. She hadn't had anything to eat for two months, after all.

---------------------------------------------------------------

I hopped up onto Rose's bed as quietly as I could, so I didn't disturb the two griffins. Ibis was dozing on the floor beside Rose's bed, while Magpie was stretched out on her usual bed on the other side of the room. "Hey, sis. Can't sleep?"

She shook her head before letting out a small cough. "My chest hurts. It's all tight and I can't breathe properly."

I sat beside her and she leaned against me, small tremors running through her body with each breath. "That's the talisman, remember? The thing the doc put in you?" She nodded, and I put my hoof on her back, rubbing in small circles. "It's not just that, is it?"

"No... I don't wanna sleep, Lily..." She shuddered. "I just wanna go home... see auntie and uncle again..."

"We'll go as soon as the doctor says we can, okay?"

"Okay."

I gave her a hug. "Anything else wrong, sis?"

"No... not really..."

"Okay." I hugged her tighter. "Rose, are you sure you're okay? I mean, you... you died..."

She buried her face against my chest. "It... it hurt, Lily... it hurt so much, but... but coming back hurt even more..." Her breathing, already shallow, grew quicker. She was still shaking, too. "I'm so cold... Lily, I'm scared... what if I'm not really alive? Starfall says I am, but nothing feels real..."

"Shhh.... it's okay, Rose." I hugged her as tightly as I could. "You're really alive, I promise. Me and... and Starfall both say it, so it's gotta be true, right?" I forced a grin onto my face, but Rose didn't look up. Instead, she gave a tiny nod.

"Y-yeah... Lily?"

"What?"

"I don't wanna sleep alone, and Ibis is too big for the bed..."

I chuckled. "I'll stay with you, sis. Don't worry."

---------------------------------------------------------------

It was just over a week before the doc cleared Rose to leave. Magpie and Ibis had brought back so many supplies from the hospital that we had a good supply, even after turning over most of them (including the second talisman) to the doctor as payment for taking care of Rose.

We spent the last day in Little Fillydelphia stocking up on food and bullets before heading to the newly renamed Jacknife Gym to say our farewells to the courier and the doctor.


"-and don't worry Miss Whiskey because I'll take super good care of the gym and you won't have to worry because nopony will ever be as good of a champion as you but I bet I can train all sorts of awesome fighters!"

Jacknife bounced from hoof to hoof, her grin huge as she finished her little farewell speech, and Rose smiled. "Just be a good pony, Jacknife... better than Jungle, okay?"

The courier nodded and gave an extra big bounce. "Yep! Jungle wasn't so bad though Miss Whiskey. He always payed good when he wanted me to deliver stuff and-"

"Um... what happened to the bodies? They aren't, y'know, still here, are they?" I whispered to the doctor, while Rose and Jacknife carried on their mostly one-sided conversation.

"Jungle's buried in the graveyard." The doc straightened his glasses. "Ironchops, on the other hoof, was dumped outside of town."

"Oh..."

"Don't look like that. He was an animal, and he got what he deserved."

"I-I guess..." I still didn't like the thought of somepony being dumped like that, just thrown to the wildlife.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Bye Miss Whiskey! Bye Miss Lily! Bye Miss Whiskey's Trainer! Bye Miss Whiskey's Trainer's Mom!" Jacknife bounced up and down, waving her front hooves in the air as our group left town. "Come back soon!"

The doctor was more subdued, waving one hoof farewell in response to ours as we began the long trek home. As the doctor and the courier faded into the distance behind us, I smiled. Rose was on one side of me, safely wrapped in her old duster, her precious gun once more holstered on her back. On the other side of her was Ibis, big and strong and, even though we had our problems, I knew I could count on him. On my other side, my trusty guardian, Magpie.


It didn't take long before I got bored, though. "Hey, how does some music sound?" Without waiting for a reply, I tapped my pipbuck, still secured to the strap of my saddlebag, and tuned into the Little Fillydelphia radio station.

The song that came from the speaker was one we all knew, and as we started to sing my heart soared. We were homeward bound, together again, and I could only see good times ahead.

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high
There's a land that I've heard of once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare dream,
Really do come true.

Someday I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops,
Away above the chimney tops,
That's where you'll find me.

Somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow
Why then, oh why can't I?
If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can't I?

Someday I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops,
Away above the chimney tops,
That's where you'll find me.

Somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow
Why then, oh why can't I?
If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can't I?

"Lily, your singing sucks."

"Shut up, Ibis."

Epilogue: Jacknife

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-Epilogue: Jacknife-

As she watched her idol walk into the wastes, friends and family at her side, young Jacknife was filled with confidence. She would turn her gym into a place that would make Bloody Mane proud.

No. Not Bloody Mane. The behatted mare smiled. Whiskey Rose. The pony behind the title, the unstoppable champion, and the source of Jacknife's newfound philosophy.

Good Ponies Always Win.


Over the years, the Jacknife Gym became a place of kinship and competition, a place where the violence of the world could be taken and lessened with comrades. The passionate mare denied none entry, played no favorites with the gangs who would recruit her fighters, and always preached the words of her hero with all her heart.

The gym became a home, a place for mares and stallions alike to strive for something better, a spark of hope in a dead city. There were no more ponies like Ironchops, the vicious or cruel snatched up to act as enforcers by the gangs. Only those inspired by their leader's infectious loyalty and enthusiam, those for whom the ring was a sacred place and the fighters within brothers and sisters all.

Respect. Loyalty. Amazing Fights. These were the founding tenets of the Jacknife Gym, the principles the mare herself strove towards. These were the things she taught, and the things burned into the hearts of her fighters.


All was good in the city of Little Fillydelphia for many years, at least by the standards of the wasteland. Order in the decaying city was kept by the gangs, the gym a neutral ground protected by dozens of fighters loyal to each other, their ever-energetic leader, and the sacred ring itself.

For a time, it seemed as though nothing could go wrong... until a certain red-eyed cyber pony appeared, with a vision for a better world.

Chapter 15: Homeward Bound

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---CHAPTER 15: Homeward Bound---

"We may have given you the teeny-tiniest bit of love potion... that may have turned out to actually be a love poison, and you may have gone just a teeny-tiniest bit nutty."

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Our campfire cast its warming glow across the four of us as we rested, a full day out of Little Fillydelphia, the town far behind us now.

Magpie had turned in for the night, tucking her head under one of her wings as soon as we were done with our meal of (undercooked, since Ibis was the who cooked it) radhog.

Ibis was sitting near the fire, his cannon of a shotgun leaning against his side, one claw stroking the mane of my sleeping sister, who was pressed tightly against him. She shivered every now and then, despite the heat of the flames.


Me? I was rooting through Rose's saddlebags, since I hadn't had the chance to see what new things she'd picked up in our time apart. She'd dumped everything from her replacement bags into her mother's bags before we left Little Fillydelphia, preferring the old, familiar ones.

"Whiskey... whiskey... Mare-Do-Well comic... whiskey... Swordmare comic... more whiskey... Wingboner magazine? What the hell?" I pulled the magazine out and flicked through it. It was full of pegasus mares. "Huh." Pegasus mares in very compromising poses. "Ibis, where the hell did Rose get this?"

The grey griffin glanced towards me. "Get what?" I held the magazine up with my magic, and he shrugged. "Somewhere. I think she likes the articles."

"Oh..." Despite my better judgement, I opened up to the first article... and slammed it closed (or came as close to slamming it closed as I could with a floppy, worn-out magazine) after getting partway through the first paragraph. "What. The. Fuck." After a moment, morbid curiosity took hold and I cracked it back open to keep reading. "That can't be physically possible..." The next paragraph described something even more ridiculous than the first. "How the hell... Ibis, quick question." When I had his attention, I floated the magazine, still open, over to him. "Would that even work? The second one, I mean."

He pulled it from my magical grasp and glanced at it. Immediately, his eyes went wide and his wings snapped fully open. "Whoa. That's... I don't even... wow." He looked from the magazine to Rose. "This is what she's been reading? Damn."

As he started to grin, I growled. "Don't even think about it, Ibis. You are not doing that with her."

He glared at me. "I'll do whatever she wants me to do."

I stomped. "No, you fucking won't! You perverted-"


"Shut. Up." Together, we turned to see Magpie glaring at us. "Some of us are trying to sleep."

"Erm... sorry, Magpie."

"Sorry, mom."

The old griffin shook herself and stood, approaching Ibis. "What are you two fighting about, anyway?" She reached for the magazine, but Ibis tried to hide it behind his back, out of her reach.

"Just one of Rose's magazines, that's all." Unfortunately for him, she was too quick and managed to grab it.

"Huh." She looked over the article that'd caused our argument, one eyebrow raised. "This is hers?" She waved the magazine at Rose, and me and Ibis nodded. "Try number nine. She'll love it." With that, she handed the magazine back to Ibis and went back to her spot by the fire, leaving both of us staring at her, dumbfounded. She cocked her head and blinked at us. "What? Something wrong?"

"What- how- I- you-" I spluttered, trying to make sense of what had just happened.

"Lily, close your mouth before you swallow a bloatsprite." My jaw snapped shut automatically, the very thought giving me the horrors. "Ibis, for the love of all that's decent, put your wings down." Ibis did as Magpie said, doing his best to pin his still-erect wings to his sides, and she nodded. "Thanks to you two I'm wide awake, so I'll take watch. You two can lay down, shut the hell up, and go to sleep before I knock your heads together. Understood?"

Me and Ibis started nodding frantically. Magpie was scary! "Yep!"

"Got it!"

"Good." The older griffin stretched her wings and fluffed herself up as protection from the night-time chill, and I curled up on my bedroll, watching Ibis getting comfortable next to Rose, who, still sound asleep, pressed herself tightly against his side.


A few minutes passed before I started to drift off, only to perk my ears up as I heard Ibis mutter "Number nine? What's so special about number nine?" A moment later, I heard him flicking through the magazine, then the tell-tale fwoomp! of his wings going straight again and something sliding in the dirt.

When I raised my head to look, I found a very confused and still half-asleep Rose glaring at a sheepish Ibis, whose wing had actually knocked her away on its journey skywards. Rose yawned, stomped over to him, and flopped down on his back, pinning his wings beneath her. A few seconds later, she was snoring again.

As Ibis did his best to get comfortable with a mare passed out on his back, I tugged my blanket up and tightly around myself, rolling my eyes. What's with his wings, anyway? I thought to myself. Every time he looks at that thing, they pop up like... oh. OH! Realization dawned. That's just wrong! He's got a wingboner?! UGH! And Rose is sleeping on it!

Shuddering, I did my absolute best not to think about griffins and their freaky wingies... until I started to wonder how Magpie knew what position number nine was like. I derailed that train of thought as quickly as I could, whacking myself in the side of the head before burying my face as deep in my blanket as possible.

Ugh. Bloody griffins.

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Morning found me going through Rose's things again while we waited for her to wake up. This time, though, I ignored all the magazines. I ignored the books, too, just to be safe.

"Whiskey... bullets... whiskey... rad-away... book... more books... book that rattles? Huh?" Curiosity got the better of me yet again, and I flipped the book open. I couldn't help but laugh. It had been hollowed out, and the rattling noise had come from a flask hidden inside. A quick sniff told me all I needed to know: The flask was full of whiskey.

"Oh, Rose..." I shook my head at my sleeping sister. "You little alcoholic, you..." She just snored in response, splayed out on the ground next to Ibis, who was looking at a little square of yellowed paper. Since they both ignored me, and Magpie was just a dot in the sky, circling, I went back to rummaging.

"Bullets... whiskey... knife... a bag?" I hefted the canvas bag in my magic, listening to it clinking. Underneath it was another, larger bag, practically bulging with... something. I could see a tear in the top, roughly stitched closed with the same heavy thread Rose had always used to repair her duster.

I floated the two bags up to about eye level. "Hey, Ibis, what's with these?"


The big griffin tucked the piece of paper back into his belt and glanced over, an unreadable expression on his face. Slowly, he looked from the bags, to Rose, and back to me. "The big one is... it's yours. Rose put it aside for you, even after... after she forgot you..."

"Oh." I looked back at the bag, and hesitantly opened it. It was full of caps. Hundreds of them, at least. "Ibis... this is..."

"Most her pay, from when we were wandering..." He stroked Rose's mane, still wearing that same hard-to-read expression. "and half of her winnings, from the fights."

I looked at my sister, feeling guilty as hell. "Ibis... I can't take this... it's Rose's money..."

The griffin shook his head, frowning. "Don't. Just, don't. She wanted you to have it, even though she couldn't remember you. Don't throw that away, Lily."

I couldn't think of anything to say to that, and just stared at the bag of caps for a long, silent minute before transferring it to my own saddlebag. Then, I did the only thing I could; I walked over to where Rose was laying, wrapped my hooves around her and pulled her up in the biggest, tightest hug I could possibly manage. "Lily?" Rose mumbled my name sleepily, and I hugged her even tighter.

"I'm sorry, sis," I whispered, my face buried in her mane. I felt her hooves closing around me as she returned the hug.

"Why? You're a good pony, Lily. You didn't do anything wrong."

I hugged her as much as I could, chuckling a bit. "Never change, Rose. Never change."

"Okay..." She yawned, and tightened her grip on me. I held out as long as I could, but she was too strong.

"Rose," I wheezed, "can't breathe..."

"Sorry, Lily." She let go and sat back, blinking sleepily. I gave myself a shake.

"Geez... you're strong, Rose." She just yawned and leaned against Ibis, so I rolled my eyes and went back to her bags, packing her stuff so we'd be able to set out when Magpie landed.


A moment later, a muffled "Mmmph!" made me look up. "Ew." I made a face, since my sister making out with Ibis was not something I'd wanted to see. It didn't look much like a normal kiss, but then again, griffins don't exactly have lips. When they broke apart, I frowned. "Doesn't that hurt, Rose?" I raised my hoof and pointed at her muzzle, where Ibis' beak had drawn blood. She just shrugged and went right back to it.

I shuddered. It looked about as painful as kissing a set of knives and, to make it worse, Ibis' wings were starting to go up again.

When I stuffed the little bag of caps back into Rose's saddlebag, a small box fell out. I raised it in my magic for a better look, and I swear my eye twitched when I realised what I was looking at. It was the same little toolkit that Rose had gotten so long ago, and which always seemed to turn up whenever I went through her bags. The same mysterious, enigmatic box of wierd tools that didn't look like they'd fit anything at all.

This time, though, I'd get some answers.

"Rose!" I called out, waving the little kit at the... couple. Blech. Griffin kisses. "Hey! Come up for air already, I wanna know what this thing is!"

They seperated, Ibis grinning stupidly as Rose blinked at me. "It's a pipbuck maintenance kit, Lily."

I stared at her for a second, processing what she'd just said. "Pipbuck. Maintenance. Kit. As in, I could be wearing my pipbuck," I jabbed my hoof at my bag, where the gizmo was still secured to the strap, "right now? I could've been wearing it when you got this kit?!" My eye definitely twitched. "And you didn't think to tell me?!"

Rose looked at the ground, her ears drooping. "I'm sorry, Lily... I kinda forgot about it when... when you met... Lucky..."

Ibis glared at me and started stroking Rose's mane, and I sighed, shaking my head sadly. So much had happened, I couldn't blame her for forgetting about something so small. "It's alright, Rose. Hey!" I perked up, grinning. "We've got the kit, we've got my pipbuck, and we're together again. So, how about it?" I undid the strap on my saddlebag and floated the pipbuck over, so it was hovering next to the toolkit. Everything in place, I gave Rose my best begging look.


She perked up as well, eager to try her toolkit. "Which leg do you want it on, Lily?" I offered her my left foreleg happily, and (while Ibis took off to circle with Magpie) she spent the next minute or so opening the pipbuck with her wierd tools and adjusting it around my foreleg so that I could still move my hoof properly, before snapping it closed and sitting back with a satisfied smile.

I wriggled my hoof, moving my leg around and making sure I could see the screen properly. "So... what now?"

Rose blinked at me. "Now I turn it on." She grabbed one final tool in her mouth, leaned in and...

"Whoa!" With a click, lines of green text started scrolling across my vision, and I tried to read them as they went.


-Initializing Stable-Tec Pipbuck Operating System (PIP-OS)

-System Integrity

-Eyes Forward Sparkle: OK

-Omni-Directional Compass: OK

-Vitality Monitoring: OK

-Inventory/Equipment Management: OK

-Environmental Monitoring: OK

-Equestrian Positioning System: Error

-Terminal Access Software: OK

-Stable-Tec Arcane Targeting Spell: OK

-Clock: OK

-Radio: Error

-Scanning

-Stations Found

-Radio: OK

-Quest Tracker: OK

-Synchronising with Stable-Tec Maneframes

-Fillydelphia: Error

-Canterlot: Error

-Manehattan: Error

-Cloudsdale: Error

-Hoofington: Error

-Baltimare: Error

-Scanning for Available Mainframes

-Error

-Critical Errors Detected

-Equestrian Positioning System

-Data Corrupted

-Repairing

-Time Remaining: [][]:[][]

-No Available Stable-Tec Maneframes

-Pipbuck Technician Required

-PIP-OS Initialization Complete

-Thank you and have a nice day.

Suddenly, the words vanished and the green outline of a unicorn popped into existence, different parts of its body flashing before being labeled OK, then that went away and was replaced by a bunch of bars, gauges and crap on the edges of my vision.

"Um... Rose, what's all this stuff mean?" I tried looking straight at some of the green stuff. It didn't work, the whole thing just moved with my eyes. Even turning my head wouldn't bring it into an easier-to-see spot!

"What stuff?" She blinked at me and I noticed that there was a little label with her name on it, just floating in front of her.

"There's all this stuff!" I complained. "There's a bar marked HP, another one marked... AP, I think. There's a little thing underneath it that just says zero of five, with a twenty next to it..." I paused for a second, realising there was something I kinda recognised, even if it looked really wierd. "I think I've got a compass, too." A quick turn of my head, and I nodded. "Yep, it's a compass. But there's these little yellow marks on it, and two of them keep moving."

Rose blinked again. "I remember that stuff from the article I read. HP is how healthy you are. If you get hurt, it'll tell you how bad it is."

I just stared at her blankly. "Seriously? It tells me if I'm hurt? Even though anypony with a brain can tell when they're hurt?" She nodded, and I facehoofed. "Prewar ponies..." Rose shrugged, then continued.

"AP is... a thing. It's part of the S.A.T.S., which helps you aim your gun." She paused, then blinked, a small smirk creeping onto her muzzle. "You'll need that one." I glared at her and she just blinked, still smirking. With a sigh, I shook my head and waved my hoof for her to continue. At least she was having fun, even if it was at my expense.

"The number under the AP says zero, right?" I nodded, and she sighed theatrically. "That's how many bullets are in your revolver. You forgot to load it, didn't you?"

I avoided making eye contact with her. "Maybe..."

"Lily..."

I snorted. "Hey, I haven't used the stupid thing in months! Let's forget about that, what's with the marks on my compass?"

Rose muttered something like "probably have to fix it again" and I glared at her until she coughed sheepishly and went back into teaching mode. "The marks tell you where everyone is. How many are there?"

"Three."

"One for me, one for Ibis and one for Magpie. Yellow marks are friends, red marks are things to shoot. Understand?"

I nodded. "Yellow good, red bad. Got it. Anything else?"

"I don't think so. Just that, if you want to turn the E.F.S. off, you stomp. It won't turn the pipbuck off, just the stuff you can see."

"Right." I stomped once to clear my vision of green, then looked up and yelled, so the circling griffins could hear me. "Hey! Magpie! Ibis! We're ready to go!"

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"But Lily, they're slimy evil!" Rose whined.

"That's no excuse! That poor frog didn't do anything to you!" I paused in my scolding to point at the little crater at the edge of the path. "You didn't have to shove a grenade in its mouth, y'know!"

Rose looked away, sulking and muttering "slimy evil" and "hoppy spawn of Discord" quietly. I shook my head in disbelief at how she'd reacted to a frog hopping on the path in front of her, and started trotting forwards to where Magpie was waiting, looking very bemused.

Rose followed me, but she kept looking around as if she expected another frog to show up at any moment as we set off on our way again.

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Three days out of Little Fillydelphia, on a glorious morning, with Celestia turning the clouds over a swampy forest a warm golden-orange, things turned wierd.

Me and Magpie were packing up camp, while Ibis watched the sleeping Rose twitching and letting out little moans. At Magpie's insistence, he poked her to wake her up. Then he shook her. Finally, he tried smacking her cutie mark, and that worked.

She sat bolt-upright, eyes wide, ears and tail twitching, before glaring at Ibis and smacking him across the face with one hoof. Before he could even say "Ow!" she grabbed him and gave him a massive kiss... then smacked him again.

While the grey griffin sat there, bewildered as the rest of us, Rose pulled her duster on, strapped on her saddlebags, secured her rifle holster on her back and sat there expectantly, waiting for the rest of us.

For the rest of the day, she was acting odd. She'd trot in front of Ibis with her tail raised, then turn around, block his path, and either kiss him or hit him. She didn't say a thing all day, to any of us, either.


By the time we stopped to make camp again, Ibis was bruised and limping from the beatings Rose'd given him. While he drank a healing potion to take care of it, and Rose trotted off to get firewood, I sat next to Magpie.

"What's wrong with that mare? It's like she doesn't know if she likes my son or hates him."

I shrugged at the older griffin's question. "I dunno... I've never seen her like this... I don't think Ibis has, either."

"You're her sister, Lily. Try talking to her." As Rose charged at a dead tree about four hooves thick and slammed into it, knocking several branches down and cracking the trunk, I considered my answer very carefully.

"Nope. How about you? She respects you; I'm sure she'll talk to you."

We both flinched as Rose charged again, this time hitting the dead tree hard enough to break the trunk and knock it over, leaving a splintered, jagged stump poking up from the dry dirt.

Magpie turned to me slowly, looked me straight in the eye and said, "Not on your nelly, kid."

We watched as Rose proceeded to snap off all the branches with her teeth and hooves and drag them, one-by-one, back to the campfire. When she was done with that, she approached the now fully-healed Ibis, and all three of us watched her nervously.

To our shock, she shoved him onto his back, climbed onto his chest, and just lay there, straddling him and staring into his eyes. They stayed like that all night, Ibis because he was too scared to move, Rose for whatever reason she had. Every now and then, though, she'd kiss him... usually followed by tearing out a feather or two.

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The next day, I worked up the guts to talk to her, since Ibis had taken to the air after she charged him for touching her flank. Magpie was up there, too, and they were swooping and circling above us as we walked.

"So... what's up, Rose?" She just blinked at me over the top of the whiskey bottle she had in her mouth. "I mean, you're acting kinda funny. Did Ibis do something?"

She shrugged, and I groaned. "Speak, Rose. What's wrong?"

"Dunno." She didn't bother to spit out the bottle, so her voice was a bit muffled. "Twitchy."

"Twitchy?" I stared at her, and she nodded before tilting her head back and swallowing a mouthful of whiskey.

"Twitchy. A bit fighting twitchy, a bit kissing twitchy."

"Oo~kay..." I kept staring at her as she tilted her head back, drained the bottle, stuck it back in her bag and came out with a fresh one. "Rose, how many of those have you had today?"

She blinked at me, then shrugged. "Two."

"Two whole bottles?" She nodded. "Since we broke camp?" Another nod. "Rose, give me the bottle." I enveloped it in my magic and tugged. "Please?" She gripped it tighter, her teeth locked around the opening. "Give... me... that... bottle... right... now... young... lady..." Instantly regretting that I sounded like my mum, I gritted my teeth and yanked harder, only for Rose to jerk her head back and drain the entire thing in one gulp before letting go. Since I was still pulling on it, I had to hit the ground to avoid getting brained as it flew towards me.


I spat out some dirt and stood, brushing myself off and glaring at Rose. "That wasn't funny." She just hiccupped and stood there, swaying, her eyes unfocused. Three bottles of whiskey in an hour... I shook my head in dismay. What's gotten into you?

A flapping sound alerted me to the griffins landing just behind me. "What was all that about?" Magpie spoke first, approaching slowly until she was just outside of Rose's reach. Ibis stayed a bit further back, not wanting to be at the mercy of Rose's erratic mood.

I sighed. "Rose is drunk."

The black-&-white griffin raised her eyebrow. "This can't be good."


On the other side of me, Ibis took a tentative step forwards, only to freeze as Rose's eyes focused on him, a big, goofy grin spreading across her muzzle. "Ibis." She charged before he could take off, knocking him over and pinning him down. "Ibis... wanna know a secret?"

He swallowed and nodded slightly, and Rose buried her face in the feathers of his neck. "I love you." She hiccuped. "let's... let's y'know..." She raised her head and kissed him, giving him what must have seemed like a sexy look to her boozed-up brain. "Let's do the thing... with your claws..."

"You mean, that? Here?" When Rose nodded, Ibis shot us a pleading look. "Uh, what about Lily?"

Rose glanced at me, then wrapped her hooves tightly around her griffin. "No." She kissed him again. "I'm not sharing. My Ibis."

"That's-" He was interrupted by her insistent kisses, "That's not what I... what I meant..." He wriggled, trying to get free, but Rose had him pretty well pinned. "You don't wanna do that out here, do you? I mean, that's... we..."

Magpie rolled her eyes, stalked over and grabbed Rose by the collar of her duster, hefting the amorous mare so all she could do was dangle and wave her hooves feebly as Ibis scooted away and stood up. The elder griffin spun Rose, who was busy flailing and trying to get back to Ibis, so she could look her in the eye. "Rose. Whiskey Rose! HEY!" With a screech, she finally got my drunken sister to pay attention... or at least look away from Ibis.

"Listen closely, young lady. You do not do that sort of thing out here, understand?" Rose bobbed her head, a kinda noncomittal nod. "If you really want to do that with my son," Magpie turned Rose to point at Ibis, only to shake her when she started trying to struggle free. "Hey! You do it in private, got it?" Another shake, and Rose nodded frantically. "Good."

Magpie released her grip, and Rose bolted straight over to Ibis the second her hooves hit dirt, cuddling and rubbing herself on him, much to my irritation. At least she wasn't trying for anything more this time.

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That's how it went for the rest of our trip. As long as Rose was drunk, she was practically glued to Ibis, flirting with him really badly. When she was sober, she got increasingly unstable, switching from affectionate and begging for his attention to wanting to kill him or anything nearby like she was on a hair trigger.

When we finally reached our destination, it was a relief to all of us.


"You're sure your parents'll be here?" Magpie asked me, and I nodded.

"Yep. This town's on our route and, if I'm right, they should be arriving in the next few days." I raised my foreleg and hit a button on my pipbuck, switching it to the quest tracker so I could check the date. "Which I am. Right, I mean. We just need to get some rooms, and wait." I smiled, glad to finally be back in familiar territory, but Magpie frowned and looked over at Rose, who was eyeing up Ibis like she wanted to rip his head off. He was perched safely on top of a building, though, well out of her reach... even if he was drawing some curious stares from the townsponies.

"You're keeping Rose in your room. The way she's acting, I don't want her near Ibis without one of us in the room."

I shrugged and called up my inventory, using the pipbuck's built-in magic to pull a bottle of Sparkle Cola from my bag. "Y'know, when she's drunk, she acts like she's in heat." I popped the cap and floated it back into my bag before taking a swig. While I drank and thought about the best way to keep Rose away from Ibis, Magpie watched Rose thoughtfully. One of her hooves was stomping over and over again and her tail was twitching, but she didn't budge from her spot, watching Ibis like a hawk... which was a bit ironic, actually.

"Huh. You think she might be?"

If anyone tells you that you can't do a spit-take, they're lying. As soon as my coughing fit subsided, I managed to stammer out "What?!"

Magpie tilted her head, like that could help her understand my unstable sister. "She might be in heat. Explains why she's so clingy."

I shook my head and snorted. "No. No way. Not a chance in Tartarus. Rose's never been in heat before."

The griffin cocked her eye at me. "Really?"

I nodded. "Yeah! I only had my first heat last year, and she's younger than I am!" I paused for a bit, blushing. "Um, forget I said that, 'kay? The whole first heat thing." Magpie chuckled.

"Well, that explains why you were so into... what was his name?" Larch?"

"Lucky." I muttered, my ears going flat at the memory. "Lucky Break."

She nodded. "Right. Him. Are you really sure she's not in heat, though?"

This time, I nodded. "Of course I am! Mares don't get all crazy like Rose when they're in heat! Mum's never tried to kill dad, and I didn't get all mean either. It must be her talisman, that's all. Or maybe she's just confused; she did say things don't feel right after.. y'know, coming back... and her magic's still not working, either... that can't be helping..."

"If you say so..." The old griffin muttered. "I still want her in your room, though, at least until she's calmed down."

I rolled my eyes, but smiled. "Fine. I've missed sleeping with her, anyway."

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Rose peered at me from the bathtub, everything from her nose down submerged in water that made my pipbuck click slowly as I approached. Her bag, duster and gun sat next to the tub, and every single bottle of whiskey she'd been able to get her hooves on floated in the water with her. Only a couple of them were empty, which was oddly heartening sice it meant she wasn't getting completely drunk. Just a little drunk.

"You awake?" She blew some bubbles in response, and I rolled my eyes. "I'm going shopping, want anything?" As she started to surface, I raised my hoof. "Anything that isn't whiskey?" With a glare and a snort, she submerged herself completely, hiding beneath the floating bottles. I shook my head and headed for the door to our room, calling out as I left. "Don't forget to take some rad-away when you get out, alright? And stay in the room!"

I paused, waiting for an answer, but there was just some splashing and the clinking of bottles. With a sigh, I popped the door open and headed out.

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It was evening when I got back to the room, and the first thing I did (after dumping my bags on the bed) was poke my head into the bathroom. "Rose? Helloooo! Anypony home?" I blinked in surprise: the bathroom was empty. The tub was bereft of mares, too, just the bottles, still floating in the filmy, slightly radioactive water.

On the plus side, there was only one or two more empties than there had been when I left, so I was confident Rose wasn't drunk.

As I walked back into the room, I heard a muffled thud and some groaning coming from the next room over. Ibis' room. I paused, and a second later I heard it again... and again... and again.

With a quick stomp I brought up my Eyes Forward Sparkle and, sure enough, there were two yellow markers so close together they might as well have been on top of each other, moving back and forth in my vision.


I started to freak and almost ran out of the room, only to skid to a halt as I put the pieces together.

There aren't enough empty bottles for Rose to be drunk, but she ignored me when I said to stay in the room. She's still acting funny, but that doesn't sound like she's killing Ibis...

I breathed a sigh of relief, shaking my head and smirking as the grunts, groans and thuds picked up in frequency, just like the last time I'd thought she was doing something she shouldn't have.

She must have wanted to hoof-wrestle again... yeah, that's gotta be it.

Grinning and convinced it was something stupid like hoof-wrestling, I trotted into the hall, opened the door to Ibis' room and stepped inside. "Rose, what did I tell-"


A wave of blinding green light slammed into me, Rose's voice crying out loudly as the world went black.

Chapter 16: Reunion

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---CHAPTER 16: Reunion---

"And here are the horse-drawn carriages!"

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I shifted on the hard wooden floor, my face buried in what felt like damp sheets, my chest resting on something furry that rose and fell gently as the world came back to me.

Where... oh, right... I was looking for Rose... My wings twitched sleepily and a beak ran through my mane, sending shivers of delight through my body, a matching response through the thick, pulsing thing nestled between my hind legs, near my desperate need. Then there was this green light, and... wait, I don't have wings.

Blinking, I sat up, feeling the utterly alien sensation of my beak, wings, claws and, as I took in the scene before me, something I really hoped wasn't what I thought it was.

As Ibis slowly woke up, though, running his beak through the mane of the white mare laying beneath him, I felt my -his- excitement growing, and there was no way to deny it. I forced myself to my hooves, doing my best to block out the feeling of that thing that was pressing against my -Rose's- backside, and utterly refusing to acknowledge that wonderful feeling and soreness that left absolutely no doubt what they'd been up to.

When Rose started to wake up as well, twisting her head to give the griffin a sleepy, lust-filled kiss (I don't know what was worse, kissing a beak or kissing with a beak!) I started to panic. I could feel everything.

Rose, her horn letting off green sparks, shifted, parting her back legs and inviting Ibis to press himself against her, and I screamed at the horrible, invasive sensation that promised to sooth the hungry heat nestled in my -Rose's!- lower body.

"Don't you fucking dare!"

Ibis' head jerked up, the griffin startled awake by my sudden protest. "Lily?! Where-gah?!" Unfortunately, his feathery head wasn't the only one to move suddenly, my -his!- hindquarters bunching up reflexively and plunging that thing into Rose's damp, welcoming warmth.


I fell over, twitching and completely destroyed by the overload of pure physical pleasure running through my... her... his... their bodies, the lovers' sensations magnified by what, I dimly realised, we were all feeling. It was wonderful, it was amazing, and it was utterly horrific, a violation that left me feeling dirty and confused.

Worst of all, it wasn't just the physical stuff we were sharing. I could feel every little emotion they did, mostly Ibis' obsessive, overwhelming love for Rose, which was overpowering everything else, even Rose's own feelings for him, the griffin's desire and love seeping into me, saturating my being until I started to lose myself... until Rose started moving, and Ibis did the same.

I picked myself up as fast as I could, my/his/her/our/their violently moving bodies totally throwing me off, the panting, heaving breaths, claws wrapped around hooves, lips and beak and tongues and- "TAKE IT OUT!!!" I screamed and loosed a blast of raw magic, not thinking of anything except getting Ibis off.

With an "Oof!" he flew off the bed and hit the floor, leaving my -Rose's- body feeling way too empty and unsatisfied, desperately seeking the thing that had left me -her- without warning.

Panting, I glared at the grey bastard, my -his- thing hanging out, pulsing, as he tried to pick himself up, stumbling at the unfamiliar feeling of being spread out across three bodies.

"The... the fuck..." He looked from Rose, who was splayed out on the bed and nickering as her hooves searched sleepily for her missing lover, to me. "Lily... what's going on?"

"I..." I licked my lips and shuddered as Ibis frowned, running his tongue over the edge of his beak in response. It felt wierd. "I think Rose's magic... went haywire or something..." I glared at him and stomped. "What. Did. You. Do?"

He looked at his claw, then my hoof, and flexed the appendage, frowning. I shuddered again, the horrible bendy things not something I was ever meant to feel like that. "We-"

"Ibis?" With a yawn, Rose sat up, her horn still sparking green, and I fell over again. Ibis all but faceplanted a second after me, his wings flaring in response to her movements. Now that they weren't sexing, me and the griffin got a full hit of what it was like to be her.

How do I put it...

It was like being made out of pure muscle. I'd known Rose was strong, but sweet Celestia that was scary! I felt like I -she- was made out of bundled violence and horny. There was a tightness in my -her- chest that I guessed was the talisman, and this really wierd feeling around it, like there was something spreading from it... the growth the doc had told us about, maybe.

She was still goofy and radiating love for Ibis, but even though it was really strong and enough to almost distract me from wanting to kill him for touching my sister, it paled in comparison to the thick, heavy, drowning emotions he felt for her.

Most telling of all, though, was that past the gooey warmth Ibis had left in her, under the satisfied soreness that came with a mare's first time, there was a deep, burning need inside her... a need I recognised.

"Ibis... what're you doing on the floor?" Rose crawled to the edge of the bed and blinked at her boyfriend, yawning again, only to turn and face me when I groaned, the events of our journey suddenly making sense as surprise washed over her. "Lily? Where'd you come from?"

"Rose..." I facehoofed. "Magpie was right. You are in heat!"

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"No touching!"

"But-"

"No! Now sit!" I shook my hoof and glowered at Rose until she scooted back to her spot, sulking, her horn still throwing off green sparks. The three of us were sitting on the floor, since the bed was... gross.

"So..." Ibis said, fidgeting. My eye twitched, since I really didn't feeling his body like that. At least Rose and I were both unicorns, and girls. Big feathery bastard... he kept glancing over at Rose, and I liked what that did to him even less. "Rose... you got your... thing back?" My sister blinked at him, then me, looked around for a bit and then nodded... before shuffling closer to her lover. I glared at her and she stopped, looking at the ground. Ugh, I could feel her disappointment!

"Is it-"

I cut Ibis off, not needing to see his face to know he didn't appreciate it. I could feel his frustration, and I knew he could feel how grumpy I was. "Is this what it's always like? Like you're everyone, and you, all the time and stuff?"

Rose nodded, and I felt her concentrating. No, I won't explain what that felt like. It was confusing enough at the time. "It used to be just you, Lily... but now I can feel Ibis, too..." Her horn sparked more, then the green glow steadied. I shook my head; her magic felt so different to mine. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ibis rubbing his forehead and frowning. Magic must've been totally new to him.


When Rose glanced at the grey griffin, I bristled, the needs and wants running through her body not something I enjoyed... no matter how good it felt. "NO. No feeling the griffin."

"But-"

I stomped, accidently bringing up my E.F.S, and stomped again to get rid of it. "No, Rose. No sex." She opened her mouth, so I cut her off, my tone softening. "Not like this, okay? I know you're in heat, but..." I shuddered. "I don't wanna feel you... and him..." I pointed at Ibis, who stuck his tongue out at me, "doing that. Yeagh..." I shuddered again. "I already felt it once..." With a sigh, I shook my head, staring at the floor. "Is that... how it felt when... when I was with Lucky?"

"Uh-huh..." Rose nodded, so I closed the gap between us and hugged her as tightly as I could, trying to ignore the strong, I-just-sexed-a-griffin smell she was covered with, or the sweat that was drying on her coat.

"Sorry, sis... if I'd known..."

"It's alright, Lily..." She hugged me back, a bit of sadness and more than a little happiness washing over me from her. "We're back now, and I'll never go away again."


I peeked at Ibis, who was staring at us curiously. "So, Rose is," He waved his claw at us, "like this, because she's in heat?"

I rolled my eyes and snorted, keeping my grip on Rose. She was comfortable, anyway. "Well, duh. What, you think she's always horny like this? Hell no!"

Ibis shook himself and stared at the white flank that, we both knew, was in dire need of a good seeing to. Rose looked up from where she had her face buried against me, and I tightened my grip in response to how she reacted to seeing her boyfriend. "Rose, no." I looked at the white spire in front of my face; it was still glowing. "And turn off your horn, it's freaking me out."

Part embarrassed, part sulking, she buried her face in my chest again. Her horn was still glowing that wierd green, too. I felt her twist to give Ibis a better view of her flank and bristled, but let it go. As long as he didn't look too closely, I wouldn't say anything. "Lily..." Rose spoke, her voice muffled by my coat. I could feel her curiousity, even past her all-consuming arousal and Ibis' room-filling love for her. "What's being in heat?"

"Uh..." My brain froze up, and I tried to remember what my mum had told me, so many years ago, and how to say it without embarrassing myself and Rose. Awkward questions suck. "It's... it's when you're becoming a mare, and... you start to..."

"Want sex?" Rose said, looking up at me. My cheeks burned, and I nodded.

"Um, yeah. You start looking at boys more... and you want sex..."


"Oh..." She looked over at Ibis, and the sudden surge of emotions from her, mirrored by Ibis, made me fall over. Rose took advantage of the situation and pounced forwards, locking her lips on Ibis' beak. The pair just started making out, right there! Worse, I could feel everything! Their arousal kept growing, feeding off of each other, but Rose was a lot more subdued than Ibis was.

The grey bastard's love and lust for my sister just kept flooding into me, and I found myself eyeing her flanks, her cutie mark... the burning, dripping, desperate place barely hidden by her swishing tail...

"AAAAH!" I smashed my head into the floor as hard as I could, sending the couple reeling apart as my pain spiked through them, clearing any thoughts of how sexy Rose was, or how good her lips and body felt, straight out of my mind.

The three of us were reeling, clutching our heads, when the door clicked and swung open, letting some fresh air disturb the thick reek of griffin-on-mare sex. As one, we all looked over, and it was hard to tell who was feeling the most dread: Me or Ibis. Not Rose, that's for sure.

Magpie stared at us from the entryway, her face carefully blank. "I'll give you a minute." She stepped back into the hall, closing the door behind her and leaving us to stare at each other, rubbing our heads.

I said what was all of our minds. "Fuck."

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A few minutes later, we were all gathered in mine and Rose's room (it smelled better) and seated around the table. Not Rose, though; I'd had to pry her off of Ibis with my magic and dump her back into the bathtub to cool her off. She was peeping over the side at us, though, her horn still throwing off green sparks and occasionally glowing green steadily.


"She really is in heat, huh?" Magpie asked, and I nodded. "And you know this because..."

I squirmed. "I... kinda walked in on her... and Ibis... doing it." She stared at me, and I continued. "Rose's horn... went off. Like, everywhere. And now me, her and birdbrain-" I pointed at Ibis, who glared at me and punched the floor. I yelped and shook my hoof, glaring back at him as my/his claw throbbed.

Magpie shook her head, groaning. "Just... what the hell happened this time?"

"We're like Rose now." I summed it up. "We can all feel each other's emotions and bodies and stuff." When the elder griffin stared at me in disbelief, I looked away. "I know it sounds crazy, but that's what happened... wait a second." I stared at Magpie, focusing, then called out to the bathroom. "Rose, why can't I feel Magpie? I thought you could feel everyone's feelings?"

Her head popped over the side of the tub and I felt her shrug. "I dunno. I can feel everyone, just like I used to. Magpie, the ponies downstairs, everypony in the town. Not like I feel you and Ibis, though." She submerged herself again, but not without a final glance at Ibis that got both of them feeling tingly.


Magpie just watched the space Rose's head had been. "Wasn't her magic white before?"

"Huh." I looked back towards the bathroom. "Hey, Ibis, when's the last time Rose used magic?"

The grey griffin frowned. "Not since she... ran away. Why?"

"Because it's green, that's why!" I glared at him. "It used to be white!"

He frowned again, ready to go into the bathroom. "It's... not dangerous, is it?"

I watched Rose surface again, peeping back at us with a bottle of whiskey sitting on her head. "I... don't think so." I shook my head. "That's a long time not to have magic, that's all... maybe it's backed up, or something?"

"Like magic constipation?" Ibis suggested, and I snorted.

"Maybe. I'm sure it'll be fine... right?" I turned to Magpie, who gave me a sceptical look.

"Don't ask me. Your sister is the strangest pony I've ever come across, Lily. Anything to do with her, all bets are off."

I sighed. "Okay, okay... Rose!" She blinked at me. "Keep using your magic, alright? Just, like, levitate stuff until it goes normal again." She blinked at me again and the glow around her horn steadied, a matching glow forming around Ibis.

"Hey!" Ibis squawked, thrashing around as he hung in the air, slowly being pulled towards the bathroom.

"Things you don't want to have sex with!" I shouted, reaching out with my own magic to pull the struggling griffin back. Rose's aura sputtered and faded, not as strong as it used to be, and she glared at me before blowing a rasberry and diving back into the cold water.


I felt a claw tap on my head, and looked to my side. Magpie was standing there, looking exasperated. "Lily, would you mind?" She indicated the indignant Ibis, who was just hanging there, trapped in my telekinesis.

"Hehe... whoops." I gave an embarrassed grin and released my grip, letting him hit the ground with a thump. He scowled at me as he stood, dusting himself off.

"Idiot."

"Jerk." I shot back.

"Ahem." We both looked to Magpie, who just shook her head, frustrated. "Save it for later, you two. We've got more important things to worry about. Is this," She gestured at both of us, "permanent?"

"Um... maybe?" I shrugged sheepishly.

"I hope not." Ibis shook himself. "This is wierd."

"It's fine for me." I smirked. "Me and Rose are both mares. You're just a boy."

The grey git glared at me, then started stretching, spreading his wings and extending his legs, then wriggled his claws, loosening up all his muscles. "Gaah!" In response to the utterly alien sensations, I hit him with my strongest stunning spell... which only dazed him for about a second. "Stop that!" He shook his head and glared at me, while I yelled "And you! Stop looking at him!"

A snort from the bathroom confirmed that Rose had, indeed, been watching him put on his little show, and judging from how excited she'd been getting I was right to yell at her.


Magpie groaned. "You two keep playing. I have to go give my daughter-in-law The Talk." As she stalked past us and into the bathroom, I looked from her to Ibis in shock.

"Uh, daughter-in-law?" When the bathroom door shut, blocking the piebald griffin and white mare from our view, I stared at the grey griffin in shock. "Ibis, did I miss something? You two are just dating, right?"

"Um, well..." Ibis looked away, tapping his claw on the floorboards nervously.

"Ibis..." My tone was nice and threatening; he wouldn't weasel his way out of this conversation.

"Fine." He fluttered his wings and looked back at me. "Griffins mate for life, Lily."

I stared at him. "What."

"Me and Rose, together forever." He rolled his eyes. "What's so hard to understand?"

"Hey, slow down!" I stomped and my vision was filled with green crap, so I stomped again to get rid of it. Again. Stupid E.F.S. "Ponies don't mate for life! Don't just jump to conclusions like that! I mean, Rose likes you and all, but-"

"Lily." He glared at me, and I felt his frustration bubble. "Rose loves me almost as much as I love her. I felt it, and I know you felt it too."

"Yeah, but-" He raised his claw to interrupt my weak protest.

"We're together, and there's nothing you can say to change it. Understand?"

"You... she... I... gah." I growled, but there was no debating it. Rose might not have been as obsessed as Ibis, so overwhelmingly in love as he was, but there was no way she'd leave him. "Fine." I sighed. "I guess I'm stuck with you, then." I glared at him. "There's no way I'm letting you take my sister away, though."

He smirked. "Fine. Just don't walk in on us again."

I stomped (using my other hoof this time)and snarled at him. "If you touch her again, I'll pluck you, you overgrown chicken!"

He laughed and made for the door. "You couldn't manage it if I was asleep, Lily." He ducked the empty bottle I sent flying at his head and headed for his room, leaving me fuming.

I jumped onto my bed, trying to ignore the feelings coming from him and Rose. "Jerk."

I actually managed to block most of it out... until Rose started getting really excited, and Ibis reacted to it, our link making everything way too obvious. "Magpie!" I yelled. "What are you telling my sister in there?"

Her reply was muffled by the door. "I'm explaining sex to her."

I groaned and buried my face in my pillow, praying to Luna and Celestia above that our link wasn't permanent. If this kept up, I'd probably end up chasing after Rose myself, with the way that grey bastard's feelings for her kept flooding into me. At least Rose kept herself to, well, herself.

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An hour later, the empathic connection had faded. I won't lie; while I was relieved to finally be rid of it, I felt... lonely. Like I'd been a part of something, like Rose and Ibis would always be there with me... I knew they would anyway, but there was something reassuring about being connected like that.

Not that I wanted to go through it again, though. Ugh, no way!


Not long after that, Magpie emerged from the bathroom with Rose in tow, her horn finally having stopped sparking. "Do you understand now?"

Rose nodded. "Uh-huh. Being in heat means I'm growing up, and that my body is changing, and that even though I really, really, really want sex with Ibis, I should only do it when we're alone."

Magpie nodded. "And?"

"And that griffins mate for life, but it doesn't matter 'cause I love Ibis and I'll stay with him forever anyway."

I rolled my eyes, but Magpie just smiled, proud of my sister. "That's right. Now, run along. I know you want to see my son again."

Rose trotted towards the door, but paused before leaving to look at me. "Um, Lily..."

I sighed and waved my hoof. "It's fine, Rose. I can't feel you or him any more, so go on."

She smiled at me and trotted out of view. I watched her flank as she left, admiring the view... then smacked myself across the face. AAAGH! Bad Lily! No ogling Rose!

"Do I want to know?" Magpie looked at me, one eyebrow raised in curiosity at what I'd just done.

I looked away from her. "Stupid Ibis and his stupid griffin feelings... I think I've still got some of him inside me..."


There was a sound of something breaking in the next room then some thudding and, as Magpie and I looked at each other in realisation, the thuds were joined by loud moans. "So," Magpie said hurriedly, "that pipbuck, it's got a radio, right?"

"Yep!" I nodded frantically as I bashed the button to turn it on and cranked the volume to full so we wouldn't have to listen to Rose and Ibis going at it. "See? Nice and loud!"

It wasn't nearly loud enough. Funny, I never would have taken Rose for a whinnier.

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A few days later, my parents finally arrived. Rose had moved into Ibis' room, and I'd spent most of my time out and about, or sleeping with my pipbuck's earbud in. It's not like they had sex constantly, but it sure seemed like it. She came out of her heat the day before my parents showed up, thankfully. The last thing I wanted was to be riding in the back of the wagon with them when Rose was desperate for sex. Bleagh.

We spent most of the reunion relating our adventures. Well, me, Magpie and Ibis did. My mum took Rose to one side for The Talk, even though Magpie had already given it to her. The Pony Edition of The Talk, I guess. Just in case griffins were different.


"Now, Lily, your mother and I have some important news." Dad said, giving me a serious look.

I went pale. "Oh, Celestia, don't tell me mum's pregnant!"

"Oh, no." Dad chuckled as I breathed a sigh of relief. "Our contact here's got a delivery he wants made, out to a new settlement. They aren't part of the regular routes yet, and they need some supplies."

"What's the pay?"

"Five hundred caps. About a week, round trip. Thing is, your mother and I can't take the time off of our rounds, so..." He eyed me carefully, waiting for me to get what he was hinting at.

"Oh!" It took a bit, but it clicked. I grinned, eager to get back to our old life. "And you want us to make the run, right?"

Dad nodded. "You got it, sweetheart. We'll even get you a wagon, too."

"YEAH!" I cheered. My very own wagon!

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"My very own wagon..." I let out a satisfied sigh, sitting back and setting the little brush and can of paint down. It really was a masterpiece. A genuine Highwaymare, with the loading ramp and everything! It even had the original paint! Well, spots of it, anyway. The freshly painted name shone on the side, the black paint still wet.

"The Serenity?" I jumped in fright, hurling the brush and tin at the voice. Ibis just ducked and rolled his eyes at me.

I glared at him. "Jerk."

"Idiot." He stepped up beside me to examine my handiwork. "So, why Serenity?"

"Oh, come on! You never heard about the Serenity?" He shook his head and I snorted. "Mal, Washtub, Corncobb, River? The rest of the crew?" He shook his head again. "They were like the greatest caravaneers ever! How could you not know the stories?!"

"If I asked you about griffin heroes, would you know about them?" He gave me a smug look., and I snorted again.

"Point taken. C'mon, let's get Rose so we can head out."


We headed over to where Rose was talking to our assorted parents. My mum was talking to her. "And you won't go anywhere alone?"

"No, auntie. I'll stay with Lily or Ibis."

"No running off?"

"No running off."

"That's my girl." They hugged, making me smile. It was good to have the family back together again and, when we parted this time, it would only be for a week.

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"We'll see you in a week!"

We all shouted our farewells and goodbyes, setting off in different directions outside of the town. My parents and Magpie on the old route, while me, Rose and Ibis went on our first solo delivery. The Serenity was full of cargo, our hearts were full of joy and, as our brahmin brayed and tugged our wagon along, I knew it was the start of a new chapter in our lives.

Chapter 17: Trials

View Online

---CHAPTER 17: Trials---

"You've got to share, you've got to care"

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"Here you go, Betsy. You too, Bessy. Rest up, now." I gave both heads of our brahmin a rub, then trotted back to our wagon as it started to graze on the coarse scrub around our campsite.

It was a cool night, with a gentle breeze that made me shiver as I approached our fire and the yummy-smelling chunks of radhog roasting over it... completely unattended. Groaning, I popped up my E.F.S. and looked around for green markers.

One there, that's the brahmin... I panned my head. And... one there. Or is it two? A nearby rock was grasped in my magic and flung into the bushes, drawing a feminine yelp, and I frowned. "Rose, you'd better not be doing what I think you're doing. Get out here, now! Both of you!"

To my utter lack of surprise, Rose and Ibis came out from behind the bushes, looking sheepish and dishevilled. "We were just kissing..." Rose grumbled, avoiding my gaze.

I sighed. "Rose... I can't take my eyes off of you for a minute, can I? And you, Ibis, keep your filthy claws to yourself."

The griffin snorted. "I'll put my claws wherever I want, Lily." He smirked. "Besides, Rose likes them. Don't you?" The grey bastard started scratching her head. Her eyes glazed over and her hind leg started twitching; she was loving it. I growled.

"Ibis, if you don't stop that, I'll-"

"You'll what?" He stared at me, one eyebrow raised, and I just smiled sweetly.

"I'll do this." I wrapped him in my telekinesis and threw him back into the bushes he'd just come out of. While he untangled himself and said impolite things, Rose pouted at me, unhappy at being denied her scratchies.

"Lily, don't throw my boyfriend. I need him for sex. And kissing."

"Then don't keep sneaking off with him." I glared at her, and she looked away. "I'm serious, Rose. We'll be in the new town by..." I paused to check my pipbuck, fiddling with it before turning back to my sister, grinning sheepishly. "Um, Rose? How do I get the map up again?" She rolled her eyes and came over to me, taking my foreleg in her hooves.

"Lily, I told you this morning, and yesterday, and the day before that. It's this button," She tapped it, "then you press this one." Another tap, and the screen switched to the static-y map. "And to see more places-"

"I do this, right?" I interrupted her, poking the control that zoomed out before shooting her a proud smirk. She just nodded.

"That's right, Lily. You finally learned how to work the map, and it only took you three days. By tomorrow, you might even know how to use the radio." I glared at her and she just blinked at me, the barest hint of a smirk on her face.

"I already know how to work the radio, thank you very much. I'm not an idiot."


"Could've fooled me." Ibis butted in, finally done untangling himself from the bushes, leaves and sticks stuck in his wings. I switched my glare to him.

"Want another trip into the bushes, featherbrain?"

He opened his beak, but Rose spoke first. "Our dinner is going to burn." She raised her hoof to point at the fire.

"Ack, no!" I bolted over to it, checking the spitted chunks of meat, then sighed in relief. "It's not burnt, Rose. It's just starting to get the crunchy black bits; that's how it's meant to be cooked. Rose?" I turned back around, only to groan. "Oh, for the love of... Rose!"

She was busy kissing Ibis again, and completely ignored me.

My eye twitching, I focused and wrapped the pair in my magic, tugging them apart and holding them out of reach of each other.

"Hey!" Ibis started struggling, while Rose just hung there, glaring at me unhappily. "Put me down!"

"Shut it, Ibis." I glared at him and Rose, then whacked the map buttons on my pipbuck, checking our destination and showing it to them. "We'll be there tomorrow afternoon, then you two can get a room and do whatever, okay? Until then, would you just behave?!"

Ibis glared at me, and Rose gave me a sullen look, but they both nodded, so I dropped them and turned back to the meat, making sure it wasn't burning. After a long, quiet moment, where the only sounds were the crackling fire and the scuffling of sneaky snoggers, I spoke up, not even bothering to turn around. "Rose, if you two are headed for that bush again, I'm taking your whiskey away and you won't get it back until we're done with the job."

With a muttered "Meanie McBossypants", I heard her trot towards the wagon, followed by a clunk as she jumped into it, and the sounds of bottles being hidden. Shaking my head in dismay at the little drunkard, I used my magic to tear one of the radhog chunks off and blew on it to cool it down. My mouth was watering from the smell, the tender morsel perfectly cooked, with just the right amount of crunchy black bits, so I closed my eyes and went to take that first wonderful bite.

"Huh?" I opened one eye when my teeth closed on empty air, staring at a considerable lack of anything where my food had just been. The sound of meat tearing beside me made me turn, and I growled. "Ibis, that's mine."

He chewed the robbed roast for a moment, then shrugged and opened his beak, giving me a good view of the chewed chunks. "Want it back?"

"What are you, a foal?" I scoffed at him, unimpressed by his attempt to gross me out. I reached out with my magic and pulled another piece off the fire, keeping my eyes on the griffin as I sunk my teeth into... nothing but air. "The fuck?" I glared at Ibis, but he just snickered and tore another beakful off the piece he'd stolen before, so I turned to my other side... and yelped. "FUCK!

Rose was sitting right next to me, having crept up and stolen my second piece of meat while I was distracted. She blinked at me over the top of the stolen food, holding it in her hooves and munching away.

My eye twitched again. "This is because I won't let you guys sneak off, isn't it?" She nodded, and I sighed, all but deflating in disappointment at my missing meal. "I hate you two..."

Something sheathed in a white aura hovered in front of me, and I looked up. Rose was levitating the biggest, juicest chunk of radhog in front of me. I stared at her, suspicious. "You're not gonna steal it, are you?" She shook her head and kept eating her own piece. Somehow, by some amazing miracle, I held back tears of overwhelming gratitude as my aura replaced hers. "Okay, maybe I don't totally hate you. You're still waiting until we reach town before you go off alone, though." With a grin, I finally set about eating my dinner.

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"Huh... guess you won't be getting a room after all." Our destination turned out to be nestled in some hills, and was made up almost entirely of tents and crude shacks built from scavenged materials. There was a lean-to, where most of the activity seemed to be centered, with some scrawny brahmin in a pen beside it and some rickety old wooden carts full of stuff. The biggest structure, though, which my pipbuck said was our goal, was a cabin that looked like it had been there for a good long time before the settlers moved in.

It was less of a newly-formed settlement and more like an ambitious camp that had heard about towns, but didn't quite understand how to be one.


Rose's disappointed groan came from behind me. She was seated, as usual, with Ibis in the spacious cargo bay behind the driver's seat. I rolled my eyes. "Rose, it's not that important."

"But Lily," she protested, "I need sex! I'll die without it!"

"You can't die from not having sex, Rose."

"Yes you can! Right, Ibis?"

"Huh?" I heard the birdbrain say sleepily, turning a bit so I could see what was happening behind me. He was sitting up and blinking blearily, obviously just woken up from a nap. Lazy bastard. Rose smacked him on the back of his head for not immediately agreeing with her and glared at him.

"I need sex or I'll die. Right?" She raised her hoof again, threatening him.

"Oh." He yawned and rubbed his head, where she'd hit him. "Yeah. Uh-huh. Sex or... whatever. Ow." Rose smacked him again, and I just shook my head and looked forwards, ignoring them and slouching low in the daggy, worn-out cushions that made up the driver's seat. While they moved on from bickering to kissing, I snapped the reins to urge our brahmin onwards down the path.

As we got closer, my pipbuck let out a chime and a little message popped up in my vision, letting me know we'd discovered Prospect. I blinked in surprise, wondering where it had pulled that bit of information from. From what my dad had said, the place hadn't been named yet, and I had more faith in him than I did the often-obtuse piece of techno-whatsit attached to my foreleg.


A small number of the settlers stopped their work to watch as we approached, some taking hold of picks and other tools, and I waved to the nearest pony with my best winning smile. "Supply delivery from the Silver Trails caravan company. Who's in charge here?"

The stallion gave me a wary look, eyeing the crates sitting in the back of our wagon, guarded by Rose and Ibis. "If you are who you say you are, that'd be me. Name's Mine Shaft."

---------------------------------------------------------------

Mine Shaft set a small cup of water on the desk for me before taking his seat. "Sorry about the chilly welcome. Can't be too careful, these days." I nodded and sipped the water. It wasn't the cleanest I'd ever had, but it always paid to be polite when dealing with customers. "Had a couple of run-ins already. Not the only group looking to control the mine, you know."

He gestured around at the inside of the cabin, where we'd gone to discuss business. Old photos of miners and some bits of rusted metal covered the walls, with a few yellowed pieces of paper sitting in filthy frames beside them.

"Ain't gonna let nopony run us off, though. This here's our claim." I nodded again, and he chuckled. "Ah, young mare like yerself, not one for mining I take it? Bit young to be running a caravan, either, ain'tcha?"

I shook my head and smiled. "No, sir. I've worked the trails my whole life. The Silver Trails company belongs to my family, in fact. Speaking of work," All business now, I pulled a clipboard out of my saddlebag and gave it a once-over before setting it on the desk. "Here's the inventory for the delivery. Food and medical supplies, mostly. A few miscellaneous items. Comes up to five hundred caps."


Mine Shaft pulled the clipboard over to himself, checked it and let out a low whistle. "Five hundred's a bit much. How's three sound? Good money."

I narrowed my eyes. "The contract was for five hundred."

He cocked his eyebrow. "Four hundred? Young mare like you should be grateful for the cash."

"Here's how it works, Mr Shaft." I sat back, glaring at him. "I take the contract, I deliver the goods. I do the job, and then I get paid. In full."

"Four fifty, my final offer. Take it or leave it."

I gave him a level look, took the clipboard back and stood, turning to go. "Thank you for your business, Mr Shaft. I'll be sure to let other caravans know about your town." As I walked slowly towards the door, I counted the seconds in my head.

One... two... three... four... five... six...

"Fine, five hundred." I smirked, but quickly hid it behind a neutral expression as I turned back to him. He was scowling at me. "You're a ruthless one. A damn thief."

I took my spot at the desk again, giving him a small smile. "Caravans live off their contracts, Mr Shaft. You agree to a price, you pay it. You try to welsh, leave us hanging, ain't no crew will do business with you." The clipboard was pulled from my bag again, and my smile grew. "Now, while you sign for the delivery, I'd like to see the caps."

Grumbling, he dug a bag out of the desk drawer and threw it towards me. I caught it in my magic and pushed the clipboard over to him, listening to the jangle of caps. Just to be sure, I poked it with my pipbuck-clad hoof, watching as the device dinged and added five hundred caps to my funds.


When the clipboard was returned to me, fully signed, we both moved for the door. Outside, I nodded to Rose and Ibis. "Go ahead and unload the cargo." Rose kicked the loading ramp down, and I turned back to Mine Shaft. "Where do you want it?"

He jerked his head, indicating the cabin. "Storage room in the back. I'll be checking it before you leave, to make sure you didn't rip us off."

I watched Rose and Ibis unload, not bothering to look at the stallion. "You wanna check, go right ahead. It's all there."

He just spat and went back inside. I rolled my eyes and went to help Rose and Ibis with the crates.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"He really didn't like you."

I snorted. "No shit, Rose."

She blinked at me. "Why didn't he like you?"

"Because I didn't back down." She blinked at me again, and I continued. "He thought I was some inexperienced little filly, tried to take me for a ride." I frowned. "Acted like we were thieves because I wouldn't let him rip us off." I leaned back in my seat at the front of the wagon and popped the top off of a soda, taking a sip and watching our brahmin graze. "Gonna let my parents know about this. Warn other caravans, too."

Rose shrugged and took a pull of whiskey. Ibis studied me for a moment before speaking. "Warn them about what?"

I sat up, resting my hooves on the back of my seat and eyeballing the griffin. "Are you serious? If he'll try that shit with us, he'll try it with other caravans. This place is getting a yellow mark."

"Yellow mark?" Ibis stared at me, confused, and I sighed.

"You really don't know anything about caravan life, do you?" He shook his head. "Rose knows about it. Right, Rose?" She blinked at me over the top of her whiskey bottle, and I rolled my eyes. "Fine, I'll explain it to you. Caravans have four marks for towns: Blue, Yellow, Red and Black. Most towns are Blue; that means they're safe and friendly, the best places for work. Yellow means it's a bit riskier to take contracts with that place, so you've gotta be careful. This place," I waved my hoof at the makeshift town; we were just on the edge of it, out of the way of everypony going about their business, "is a definite Yellow. Off the beaten path, and the guy in charge isn't exactly trustworthy."

Ibis nodded. "So, what would Red and Black be?"

I continued after another sip of my soda. "Red is high risk. A place that's run by criminals, is in a dangerous area, or should just be avoided. Contracts for those areas involve way more caps than a Blue or Yellow, even for the same level of service. If we'd made this delivery to a Red area, it would have earned us at least a few thousand caps. Now, Black areas..." I held my bottle up, watching the dull sunlight filter through the orange liquid. "Nopony goes near Black areas. Not without an obscene amount of caps involved."

"How obscene?" Ibis asked, looking at me curiously. Rose answered before I could.

"Enough caps to make Lily go into heat."

"ROSE!" My cheeks burning, I glared at her. She just blinked at me, while Ibis laughed his beak off next to her. "Oh, fuck you two." Rose shrugged and went back to her whiskey, passing the bottle to Ibis. I rolled my eyes and slouched low in my seat, ignoring them and chugging my carrot-y drink.


"H-hey! 'scuse me!" I sat up when a colt approached us, coming from the camp. "You that caravan?"

I nodded, eyeing him carefully. He looked a bit younger than me, and had the same coating of dirt that most of the ponies of Prospect had. An ancient and equally dirt-encrusted saddlebag was strapped around his middle, probably something left behind by the prewar miners. "That we are."

"I, uh... I'm Early." He fidgeted, looking at the ground. "You, uh, available? For work, I mean."

"Depends on the job."

"Well, see... it's the mine. Nopony's really gone too far in, since we're, uh, so busy with the camp." He kept fidgeting, but finally looked in my general direction. "T-the last group, though, they found a bunch of stuff, but, uh, the best stuff was too heavy to, y'know, bring back, and you've got a really big wagon, so..."

"So, you want us to haul some junk..." I sighed and looked to my pipbuck, switching to the map. "Alright, where's this mine of yours?"

"To, uh, to the south. Not far... about, uh, about half an hour?"

I raised my eyebrow, and he looked away again, leaving me to scroll around the little screen, looking south of Prospect. "Rose, this look about right to you?" I held my foreleg out to her, since she had an easier time reading the static-y topographi-whatsit map than I did, and she nodded. "Right..." I turned back to Early, who was digging at the ground nervously. After a few moments spent mulling it over, I came to a decision. "There and back, ten caps. A full load of salvage, an extra fifty-"

His jaw dropped, and he blurted out "B-but I don't have sixty caps!"

I glared at him. "Like I was saying, fifty caps, or-" I paused to see if he'd interrupt me again. "-or we come to an agreement about the salvage. Say, you let us take fifty caps worth?" He opened his mouth to speak, and I waved my hoof, stopping him. "Nothing you need for machines, or whatever. Just little stuff. Caps. Maybe some tools."

"Dynamite." Rose added, blinking at me. I rolled my eyes.

"Rose, there's no way you'd find explosives in a mine. They would have used shovels, or big drills, or something."

"A-actually... there might be, uh, dynamite..." Our attention returned to Early, who started fidgeting again under our combined gaze. "S-see, they used to, uh, use dynamite to, uh, open tunnels... you can, y'know, take that, if you want. We don't need it, much."


I turned back to Rose, who just blinked at me, then I looked at Ibis. He just shrugged. "You're the boss, Lily. Rose really likes her explosives, though." I sighed, and turned back to Early.

The colt straightened up and actually made eye contact with me. "D-does that mean you'll take the job?"

I nodded. "Looks like it. You'll pay your passage up front, though."

"R-right." He dug into his bag and pulled out a little pouch, extracting the agreed-upon price. I took eight of the caps in my magic, and he stared at the two left in his hoof. "I, uh, I thought it was ten caps..."

I deposited the meager sum into my own bag before giving him a friendly grin. "Discount. You're our first passenger, after all."

---------------------------------------------------------------

"S-so..." Early shifted in the passenger seat. "W-what's it like... being in a caravan?"

I shrugged, keeping my eyes on the road ahead. "Pretty good, if you like the open road."

"W-what about the, y'know, caps? 'c-cause the camp, i-it kinda needs... supplies... and... we can't sell the mining gear... and we won't be m-mining much, until... until we get everything out and... and running."

"Caps are good, if you know what you're doing. As for your camp... well, sorry to say, but it might not be seeing much business from caravans."

"W-why?"

I sighed. "Early, you seem like a nice colt, but... Mine Shaft, he's your boss, right?"

"Uh-huh."

"Well, he didn't want to pay the full contract. That's not a good thing. Caravans don't like to deal with ponies they can't trust."

"Oh..."

I spared him a glance. He'd sunk lower in his seat, and it looked like he'd taken the news pretty hard. Turning back to the road and correcting the brahmin's path a bit, I kept talking. "You should still get a few caravans coming through. Just, not us. It's nothing personal. You understand, right?"

He nodded, but didn't say anything. Just stared at his hooves, looking like he was thinking about something.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"This is the mine?" I stared at it. "It's just a hole." That's exactly what it was: a hole dug into the side of a hill, with a rusty set of tracks leading from where we'd stopped the wagon and into the old tunnel.

"Uh-huh." Early nodded and headed towards it, with me, Rose and Ibis following. "T-the stuff is, uh, pretty close. Just, uh, in the first storage room." We stopped just outside the entrance. "Don't, uh, don't wander off. The mine is... big."

I nodded, gazing into the blackness ahead, the mine burrowing deep into the hillside and away from the open air. The thought of going down there made me shudder. "Um ,what are we looking for, exactly?"

The colt scuffed his hoof in the dirt. "D-drills... rock saws... spare parts... maybe, uh, foreman's maps, if we can find them. W-we haven't got the generators running, so, uh, the lights don't work, and... it's kinda... dark."

"Alright... Rose, Ibis, grab some lamps from the wagon. Early, do you have..." I trailed off as the colt reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a tin helmet with a flashlight attached to the front. "Well, okay..." When Rose passed me my lantern, her own light held in her mouth, I swallowed nervously. I wasn't looking forward to being in those dark tunnels at all. "Let's get to it, then."

---------------------------------------------------------------

"T-the door is, uh, stuck."

At Early's words, I groaned. We were gathered around the door to the storage room, a lot deeper underground than I wanted to be, and our goal was behind a stubborn piece of wood. "Rose, open it."

My sister blinked, set down her lamp and took Early's place, the colt backing off to give her room. She grabbed the handle in her teeth, dug her hooves in... and ripped the door clean off of its hinges.

The disturbance showered us with dirt and loose rocks from the stone over our heads, making me flinch and glare at Rose. "Did you have to rip it out like that?" I thumped one of the old wooden support beams with my hoof. "Good thing these are tougher than they look, or else-"

"L-look out!" Early yelled, scrambling away as debris started to fall again, set off by me touching the beam. Startled, I looked up, only to see half the roof coming down.

"Oh, fu-" I threw my hooves up to protect myself and, as the first chunks of rock hit my forelegs, the world stopped.

What...

Everything was frozen in time. Chunks of rock hung in the air, some of them bigger than me. Early was wild-eyed, hooves raised to run. Ibis was mid-leap, claws outstretched and reaching for me. Rose was looking up at the falling rocks, mild surprise registering past the door still held in her mouth.

As for me... I was panicking, the fact that we were all about to be crushed painfully clear. The boulder that had frozen just above my head helped with that. I was also freaking out, but just a bit.

WHAT IN THE NAME OF CELESTIA'S FIREPROOF FUCKTOY IS GOING ON?! WHY THE HELL CAN'T I MOVE?!

Not much at all. Honest. I was almost calm, really.

WAIT, THAT ROCK'S GONNA HIT ME! OH LUNA, I DON'T WANNA DIEEEEEEE!

Well, maybe not that calm. Anyway, I did manage to calm down.

Oh, Celestia, I'm gonna die, aren't I?! It's not like they say at all! My life's not flashing before my eyes or anything! Is this it? Does everything just stop, then I'm flattened? I don't wanna be a flatpack pony!

Eventually.

Okay... okay... just breathe, Lily... still breathing? Good. That means you're alive. Just... frozen. Oh, Goddesses, it's like when Rose was teaching me about that... that SATS thing... Realisation struck like the stones bouncing off my pipbuck. It's like SATS... it's just SATS, isn't it? I looked towards my raised forelegs, and groaned. Well, tried to. One of the rocks had hit the little button that froze time. Okay... how did Rose say to turn this off again? Wait, I think I remember now.


Wishing I could take a deep breath, I readied myself and said a little prayer. Here goes nothing... Luna, Celestia, you get me out of this alive, I swear I'll give Early a discount. Half off, I promise!

With a click, time resumed. I stumbled, only to be caught and knocked aside by Ibis, my feathered savior wrapping himself around me as we rolled and bounced to safety. Dust filled the air, and I was deafened by the roar of rubble filling the tunnel.

When the only sound was the occasional loose pebble hitting the ground, I risked pulling my head from under the protective wing to see what had happened. "Fuck." I couldn't see a damn thing, since we'd all dropped our lanterns.

I fumbled around a bit, and managed to hit the light button on my pipbuck, illuminating Ibis' dazed face in the dull green glow. "What... what happened?"

"Rose brought the roof down. Totally not my fault."

He groaned and shook his head, wincing. "Of course it's not... where is she, anyway?"

I pointed in the rough direction of the supply room. "She's right over... there... oh, no." My pipbuck's light showed that the entrance was buried, the tunnel completely blocked off by tons of rock. "She was right there!" I stomped, green filling my vision as my E.F.S popped up. "Green... green... there!" I pointed again, this time at the two little marks.

"Where?" Ibis stumbled as he stood, still shaken up from the sudden cave-in. I scowled and grabbed his head in my hooves, pointing him straight at where the now-buried doorway had been.

"She's right there! I think she's trapped! Her mark isn't moving!"

Ibis pulled away, glaring at me. "I can't see any marks, you idiot. You're the one with the pipbuck, not me."

"Shut up and help dig!" I bolted over and started pulling at the boulders with my magic, straining to move some of the bigger ones. Ibis came up beside me, using the light of my pipbuck and magic to help, both of us calling for my sister.

"Rose!"

"Talk to me, Rose!"

There was a groan from under the pile, and we redoubled our efforts until, poking through the rubble, a mess of red hair emerged. "We've almost got her!" I siezed the last few chunks of rock and hurled them into the darkness, revealing Rose's tail end, her hind legs twitching. "Ibis, help me pull her out!"

My magic wrapped around her exposed butt, Ibis grabbed her legs, and together we tugged, groaning and straining to free her. With a pop and a spray of dirt, she came flying out, the three of us falling into a heap with Rose on top.

I wriggled free enough to look up at her. "You okay?" Looking utterly bewildered, she blinked past what little of the door had remained intact and attached to the doornob still gripped tightly between her teeth. I sighed. "Rose, spit that out."


She did exactly that, and blinked again. "Ow. Lily, why did you break the tunnel?"

"Never mind that." I waved my hoof, dismissing her question. "Is Early okay?"

Rose stared at the rubble for a moment, then blinked. "He's okay. Scared, but not hurt." She turned back to me, and rubbed her head. "Lily, you dropped the tunnel on me."

"You broke the door; it's your fault." I waved my hoof again, and started calling for our payday. "EARLY! HEY!" I listened for a second, but there was no answer. "Rose, did he hear me?"

She shook her head. "I don't think so. He's heading for the exit."

"Oh." I stared at the blocked path for a moment. "The exit's on the other side, right?" Rose nodded. "Fuck. Um, you guys still have your lights, right?" Rose shook her head, and so did Ibis.

"I put mine down so I could open the door."

"Dropped my lamp saving you."

"Double fuck. " I took a deep breath. "Okay... we're stuck underground, with just my pipbuck for light, no supplies, and no idea how to get out. Sound about right?" The pair looked at each other, then nodded. "Good." I let out a nervous laugh. "Thought I might have been having a nightmare. I'm gonna scream now, 'kay? AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-"

"Lily, we have supplies. I brought a bottle of whiskey and my gun. Ibis brought Garden, and he has some meat."

"-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-" I was running back and forth by this point, screaming my head off in absolute panic at being stuck undergound, in the dark, with no way out.

"Lily-"

"-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-" Back and forth turned into circles.

"Ibis, grab her, please. I need to fix her brain." The griffin pounced on me, pinning me to the floor.

"-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-" I flailed wildly, trying to break free so I could keep running and panicking.

"Would you shut up?!" He snapped, wrapping his claw around my muzzle. "Rose, do your thing before I have to knock her out!"

"-MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMmmmmmphblurgle...."


Rose's horn, glowing steady white with only the occasional green spark, jabbed against my forehead, and my mind went all fuzzy. My claustrophobia, my fear of the dark, the panic, it all just faded, and when Rose pulled away, I felt... calm. She blinked at me. "Is that better, Lily?" I blinked back at her, since Ibis was still holding my mouth shut. "Ibis, let her go. She's not crazy anymore."

When the griffin released me, still keeping his other arm around my middle so I couldn't escape, I made a face and tried to work the feeling back into my muzzle before glaring at my sister. "Rose, I could swear I told you not to fuck with my head."

She just blinked at me. "I wouldn't have had to if you hadn't gone crazy. And don't swear. It's not nice."

I sighed. "Fine, whatever. Ibis, wanna let me go now?" I squirmed in his feathery embrace. "Before Rose gets jealous?"

He snorted, then shoved me away. "Idiot."

Glaring at him, I stood and gave myself a shake. "Jerk." I looked around, my pipbuck barely illuminating the area around me, just bright enough to make out my friends. Thanks to Rose, though, I didn't lose it. I was still uncomfortable, and distinctly aware of how much rock was above us, but not about to start screaming and running again... not yet, anyway. "Alright... Rose, think you could get your lamp out from under there?" I gestured at the cave-in. She shook her head.

"No. I think it broke when you dropped the roof on me."

I groaned. "You brought the tunnel down, not me." She glared at me.

"Lily, you hit the support beam. It's your fault."

I glared back at her. "Your fault for tearing the door off like that. Right, Ibis?"

"I just want to get back to the surface. Griffins aren't meant to hang out in tunnels." He stretched his wings out; they extended well past our meagre circle of light. "Too small."

I sighed again. "Whatever... Rose, is Early still out there?"

She looked at the pile of broken rock for a moment. "He's near the entrance now."

"Right." I nodded. "We just sit tight then, and wait for him to come back with help."

Rose stared into the distance, then frowned. "Lily, I don't think he's going for help."

"Huh?" I cocked my head. "What do you mean?"

"Early just took our wagon."

---------------------------------------------------------------

"-spank the daylights out of that thieving little bastard!" Panting after my rant, I stomped to make my point. Then stomped again. Then I threw my head back, screamed, and bucked the wall for good measure. Ibis and Rose were standing well back of the resulting shower of dust and loose stones, talking to each other quietly.

"Uh, Rose, you wanna do your thing again before she buries us all?"

"Ibis, I don't want that much crazy in my head."

"I can hear you, you know." I growled. Ibis swallowed nervously and Rose looked away, doing her best impression of innocence, complete with unconvincing whistling. "We're gonna get out of here, find Early, spank him so badly he won't be able to sit for a month, take back the Serenity and leave this Luna-damned town forever. Got it?" I eyeballed them. "I said, got it?!"

"Uh-huh!" Rose nodded.

"Got it, boss!" Ibis stood at attention and saluted.

"Good." I turned and took a hesitant step forwards, deeper in the tunnel. My hesitation only lasted for a couple of steps, my fear of dark, enclosed spaces conquered with a healthy serving of righteous indignation at having my wagon stolen and Rose's freaky abilities. "Let's get the fuck out of here." I growled. "I really don't like the dark."

"Lily, why don't we use our light spells?"

Rose's suggestion brought me to a halt, and I slowly turned to stare at her. She blinked at me. "Rose, why didn't you remind me we could do that when I was freaking out?"

"Because you were freaking out. Lily, your eye is twitching."

Slowly, I turned to stare into the black ahead of us. "I know."

---------------------------------------------------------------

"FUCK!" I yelled, having come to yet another dead end, my voice echoing in the pitch black maze around us. A quick glance at my pipbuck showed we'd missed a fork not too far back, and I sighed. "C'mon, let's go." Me and Rose of us who were capable of magic played our beams of light across the walls and floor, looking for anything that would show us the way out. Ibis, for his part, stayed in the circle of light my pipbuck gave off, rustling his wings every so often, the darkness and tight tunnels starting to get to even him.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"-up Luna's cunt!" With my tirade finished, I let my light spell fade and slumped to the ground beside the latest dead-end. Rose and Ibis dropped down as well, both of them yawning. We'd been wandering for hours, and we were all tired, but I couldn't relax. Not while I was in the dark tunnels, while my poor wagon was in the hooves of a thieving colt.

"I hate live cargo." Rolling onto my back, I stared at the rubble blocking our path. "It's not worth the trouble." I sighed, just staring blankly at the rocks to take my mind off of our predicament.

Circle bit... pointy bit... round thing... black rock... brown rock... dusty rock... bone... pipbuck... wait. I perked up. A pipbuck? Here? Groaning, I rolled back onto my hooves and mustered the energy to cast my light spell again and examine my find.

It really was a pipbuck, attached to the skeletal foreleg of some poor pony who'd been crush by the falling rocks. I grabbed it in my magic and gave it an experimental tug, then yanked it free, taking the leg with it and disturbing some of the old rubble.

I turned my dust-coated prize over in my hooves, getting a proper look at it. It was bulkier than my pipbuck, more rugged, with a couple of wires leading to a part that was strapped just above the bony hoof. Sadly, the screen was shattered. "Hey, Rose," I called out, daring to hope, "think you could fix this?"

Grumbling, she crawled over to me and had a look at what I'd found. "No. It's too broken. Pity. That's a special model."

"Huh? What do you mean, a special model?"

She yawned and waved her hoof at it. "I saw it in a Robronco pamphlet. It's a-" She yawned again, covering her mouth with a hoof. "-a Search and Rescue pipbuck. Thicker case, better E.F.S., that sort of thing." She tapped her hoof on the little device connected to it. "And this, too. It's an Emergency Response Team pipbuck light."

"A pipbuck light?"

Rose gave a sleepy nod. "A hoof-mounted miniature searchlight."

"So..." I turned the boney appendage over to see the little thing better, and wiped the dust off with my foreleg. It was a little box with rounded corners and a curved, age-yellowed glass panel across the front and top, the whole thing attached to a strap that went around the skeletal hoof. "It's a pipbuck-powered flashlight, right?"

Another nod. "Pretty much."

I gave Rose a hopeful grin. "Think it still works?"

Another yawn, then a nod. "It looks okay." She sighed. "You want to wear it, don't you?"

I gave her a flat look. "Well, duh."

"Let me see your pipbuck, then."


Rose unhooked the little device from the ruined pipbuck, slipped it off the bones and then strapped it just above my hoof. "How does that feel?"

I wriggled my hoof, testing my range of motion. "Great! Now, how do I turn it on?"

"One moment." She opened a little panel on the side of my pipbuck and pointed to it. "Pipbuck attachements go in here." She started fiddling with the cables extending from the flashlight, plugging them in and checking them, then stared at it for a moment. "I don't know how to turn it on."

I frowned. "Are you serious?" She nodded, and I groaned. "For the love of... what if I just turn the normal light on? Will that do it?" She shrugged, and I rolled my eyes before flicking the switch that usually lit up my pipbuck's screen.

In an instant, the tunnel was flooded with bright light, the little device springing to life and blinding the three of us. Ibis squawked, shielding his face with his wings, while Rose blinked in surprise and fell over, clutching her eyes after being so close to the source. "Holy fuck!" Blinking the spots away, I pointed my hoof away from myself and towards Ibis, who screeched at me.

"Get that out of my eyes, Lily!"

Rose was rolling around, blinded and covering her eyes with her hooves. "Bright light! Bright light!"

"Alright, alright!" I swung my hoof around to point at the rubble. "Geez, it wasn't that bad." I snickered, watching them suffer. "Hey, at least we've got a proper light now, and... hello, what's this?" My new light had revealed a dusty, ancient bag, probably belonging to the pony whose broken pipbuck was now laying discarded on the tunnel floor. I grabbed it in my magic and dumped the contents out. "Empty canteen, some bits, a rope, medical kit..." I opened the little yellow box. "Make that a full medical kit. Bandages and everything. A couple more bits, too, and... huh." At the very bottom of the pile, there was a folded piece of paper. "What's this?"

Ignoring Ibis' muttered threats and curses, and Rose's continued rolling around in pain, I unfolded the paper. When I saw what was on it, I let out a happy cheer. "Guys... hey, guys! Look what I found!" I turned to them, getting another round of screeches and yelps as my light blinded them again. "It's a map of the mines!" I cheered. "We can finally get out of here!"

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Lily, there's something ahead. Not friendly." That brought us to a sudden halt. I turned back to Rose, keeping my light pointed away from her and Ibis.

"Ponies?"

She shook her head. "Animals. Grumpy ones."

I relaxed. "That's not so bad."

"Lots of them."

"Lots?"

She nodded. "Big, too. We should be careful."

I looked to our griffin companion. "What do you think, Ibis?"

He sniffed the air. "I can smell... something. Not sure what, though. Definitely predatory."

Rose blinked at me. "Lily, is there another way out?"


I pulled the old map out and lay it on the ground between the three of us. "I don't think so... this is the only tunnel that leads to the surface, unless you wanna backtrack for an hour."

Ibis peered at the map. "You're right. Fastest way out's this way."

Rose blinked. "Lily, they might be frogs. I don't have any grenades."

I rolled my eyes. "Rose, frogs don't live in mines. It's probably bats or something, and, for the last time, you're not allowed to blow up frogs!"

"Oh." She blinked again. "Bats are okay. We should try and sneak past, though."

"Why?"

"Because they might try and eat us."

"Oh. That would be... bad."

She pointed at my pipbuck. "You'll have to turn the light off, though. Bats don't like bright lights."

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"What the hell are those?" I whispered, peeking around the corner. We'd come to the entrance to a largeish room, lit by clumps of glowing mushrooms growing from the walls. It was full of striped, stomping, chuffing... things, all about a third my size. "They look like... zebra dogs, or something."

"I think they're badgers." Rose's voice came from next to me as she moved up for a look.

"Badgers?" Curious, I looked to her. "What's a badger?"

"According to Wild Life's Guide to Exotic Animals, badgers are striped mammals that bite."

I stared at her; she just blinked. "I like my name better. Badger sounds wierd." Rose blinked again, Ibis rolled his eyes, and I, satisfied that my name for them was better than what some prewar pony had come up with, poked my head back around the corner.


I was just in time to see a massive, all-white badger, easily as big as me, clamber onto a raised stone platform. It reared up, looking out over the assembled horde with its beady pink eyes, and opened its mouth. What came next startled me: It spoke.

"King Brian will speak now!"

All the stomping and chuffing stopped, every single badger looked toward the platform in a way that almost looked reverent. The big one moved to the side, letting a smaller one, with the same pink eyes and white coat, jump up beside it. This one had the biggest head I'd ever seen; it was easily half the size of its body!

Adding to my surprise, it spoke as well!

"Thank you, Plunky." It cleared its throat and addressed the crowd. "My friends, too long have we languished down here, in the darkness, while ponies ruled the surface. Soon, all of the pieces shall be in place, and my master plan shall be complete. We shall return to the surface, cast down the ponies, and reign over the entire world!"

As it raised its paws, eliciting cheers, roars and rumbles from its striped army, I fell on my butt, stunned. "Did... did that zebra dog just say they're gonna take over the world?"

"Lily-"

"Rose, tell me I was just hearing things."

"You-"

"There's no way I heard that right. That thing wants to take over the world? It has a plan? Who plans that sort of thing?!"

"Um, Lily-"

"What?" I snapped at Rose, only to notice she was pointing behind me. I turned, and almost had a heart attack. All of the badgers were staring at us, their King looking furious.

"INTRUDERS!" It raised its paw, pointing at us. "Do not let them escape! They will warn the surface!"


"Run." Rose only had to say one word, and we took off back the way we'd come, the badgers in hot pursuit.

I screamed the whole way. "BADGERSBADGERSBADGERS-"

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Stupid bloody zebra dogs!" I brained another one of the furry menaces as it leapt from a hole in the wall, adding another dead furball to the pile. "Just give up already!"

We'd barricaded ourselves into a storage room to escape the hairy horde, not counting on their ability to tunnel. Rose was having a great time, though, punching anything that came through her wall like it was some kind of game. Ibis was having a bit more trouble, since he didn't have her sixth sense, but none of the badgers that popped out of his wall got back up after he got his claws into them.

I was doing my fair share, as well. I'd learned that badgers don't appreciate being hit over the head with a shifter the length of my leg, and I was quickly taking a liking to the scavenged tool.

That said, swinging twenty-two pounds of steel around, even with magic, was pretty tiring, so I was very glad when my E.F.S. stopped showing red marks.

"Rose," I panted, "is that it? Are they all dead?"

She blinked at me. "Most of these ones are dead. The big ones and most of the others ran away."

"Most?" I cocked my head and raised my shifter again. "Which ones are still alive?" When she pointed, I followed her hoof... and groaned. "Ibis, please tell me you don't have a badger in that bag."

The grey git looked at the thrashing, growling sack in his claw, then shrugged. "Okay. I don't have a badger in this bag."

I narrowed my eyes. "If it's not a badger, then what is it?"

He grabbed one of the dead ones, raised it to his beak, and took a bite out of it, chewing noisily. "A snack for later. These things taste amazing."

I groaned. "Just, don't let it loose around me, okay?" He nodded, so I turned back to my sister. "Rose, open that door and lets get the hell out of here."

While Rose cleared our hasty barricade and Ibis had a meal of badger bits, I grabbed a rag from on of the rotted, collapsed shelves and wiped down my shifter with a smile. "I think I'll keep you."

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I sighed, the glorious light filtering through the clouds incredibly welcome after so long underground. A refreshing breeze played across my face and through my mane, and I closed my eyes to enjoy it.

Beside me, Rose stretched, while Ibis circled above, the three of us happy to finally be out of the mines.

We hadn't run into any more problems on the way out, thankfully, using the map and my pipbuck's new light to speed up our exit, and I had our goal firmly in mind: Prospect, to get back the Serenity.

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"Where the fuck is Early?!" I screamed, glaring at Mine Shaft.

"He left!" He yelled back. "Told us all about your plan, how you were gonna stop caravans from coming here! Unloaded all your junk and took that shitty rustbucket to go get supplies!"

My eye twitched. "Did you just call my Serenity a rustbucket?"

He sneered at me. "You heard me, bitch. What are you going to do about it?"

I punched him so hard he fell out of his chair. "I wasn't gonna blacklist this place before, but now I am." As he sat on the floor, rubbing his jaw, I glared down at him. "Now, where the fuck is our stuff?" He spat at me, refusing to answer. I wiped the glob of saliva off my cheek with a snarl. "Rose, if he does that again, stomp him. I think I know where our stuff is."

Jumping off his desk and passing the bewildered Rose and Ibis, I headed for the storage room. Sure enough, everything was in there... almost everything, anyway. When I pointed my hoof at it all, I realised our caps were missing. "He took our caps." My eye twitched again. "Thieving little bastard."

"You're the thieves." Mineshaft growled at me. "Gonna take our stuff, now?"

I resisted the urge to introduce him to my shifter. "We're not thieves. All we're taking is our stuff. You wanna try and stop me?" He sneered, but didn't say anything, and I wrapped my magic around all of our gear. I came pretty close to straining my horn, but I managed to strap Rose, Ibis and myself with everything and we were out of the door in under a minute, looking like a bunch of packbeasts.

Mineshaft spat at us as we stood on the porch, surrounded by angry miners. "You think you can come into our town, do this shit? You're fucked, filly. You're all-AAAGH!"

I grabbed Ibis' bag o' badger, ignoring his protest, removed the snarling critter and hurled it into Mine Shaft's face before giving the crowd a dark look. They tensed up, their leader screaming behind me as the badger tried to chew his face off "Get. Out. Of. Our. Way." When they didn't move, I went for Rose's supplies, pulling out some of her grenades and ignoring her protest. "Move. Now." I don't know if it was the grenades, or the way my eye was twitching, but they backed down and let us pass. It was tense, though, and I kept a close eye on my E.F.S. the entire way out of the camp.


After about two hours of walking, well away from Prospect, Ibis finally dared to speak. "Lily... what the hell was that?!" He moved in front of me, blocking my way and glaring at me. "We could've been killed! What were you thinking?!"

I took a deep breath and steadied myself, the adrenaline all but gone now. "Ibis, I want you to listen very carefully to me." I put on a sweet smile. "They tried to rip us off. That was bad. They left us for dead. That was worse. They stole my wagon, and that is not something I'll ever forgive. Know why?" Before he could speak, I grabbed his head in my hooves, pressing our faces together. "Because caravans are the lifeblood of the wastes. We," I paused to point to myself, then Rose, before grabbing his head again, "are the ones that keep towns like that," I pointed back the way we'd come, "alive. It's not sheriffs, or gangs, or miners, or anypony else. You know who the most valuable ponies in this great Goddess-Damned wasteland are? It's caravans, and traders. We move the supplies. We know the roads. We get ponies safely from town to town. Trade will save Equestria, Ibis, and I will not let some jumped-up miners with bad attitudes threaten my home, my family, and every fucking thing we have built since it all got burned to the ground for no good Goddess-damned reason!"

I was panting, and Ibis looked terrified, so I let him go. He half-flapped, half-jumped to get safely behind Rose. "Lily, you scared him." My sister scolded me. I stomped and glared at her.

"You already understood, right, Rose?" She nodded. "Well, now he does, too. So, here's the plan: We drop this stuff off with my parents, hunt down Early, spank him so hard he never sits down again," I waved my shifter to emphasise my point, "take back the Serenity, and never come back to Prospect again. Sound good?"

Rose and Ibis nodded, and so did I. "Good. Now, let's go." As I trotted forwards, taking the lead, I heard Ibis quietly talking to Rose.

"Is trade really that important?"

"Trade will save the wasteland, Ibis. Lily believes it, and I believe in her."


FOOTNOTE: LEVEL UP

Chapter 18: On The Road Again

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---CHAPTER 18: On The Road Again---

"Mmm, juicy!"

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I focused on one of our saved bags of gear, levitating it up and towards my dad, shifting a little at the unfamiliar feeling of my new many-pocketed jacket against my coat.

We'd had to wait a few days for my parents' rounds to bring them back to the town we'd been staying in, and it was only thanks to Rose being ruthless at poker that we'd had enough caps to stay in a hotel. She was also the one that made me buy the jacket; apparently, I'd been ranting and raving the entire walk back from Prospect, and in her funny little brain she'd decided that, to calm me down, I had to go shopping.

Not that I remember much about the trip back, other than being really pissed off and my hooves hurting from walking for days, but I did like the new jacket. I'd already stashed pouches of caps and snacks in all the pockets! Rose's wierd logic aside, arguing that merchant down on the jacket's price did make me feel better...

Rose said it was something to do with Cutie Mark Disassociation Disorder. Frankly, I think she just wanted to use big words.


"How are you going to find him, again?" Dad asked, taking the bag from my magical grasp with his own aura and floating it into the old wagon I'd practically grown up in.

"With my Pipbuck." I replied, pulling a few bottles of soda from a bag before passing it to my dad to put with the rest. The bottles were deposited in the saddlebag I was actually taking with me. "Rose showed me how to work the job tracker thingy on it," I paused, raising my hoof and switching to the screen I wanted, "and it says that little thief will be riiight..." A bit of fiddling, and I got the map to show up, "here."

Dad looked at my Pipbuck, and the town it said we had to go to. "Huh. You sure he'll be there?"

I nodded, then shrugged, slightly less sure than I'd like to have been. "Um, probably? Rose said Pipbucks are meant to be good at stuff like this, and it's the only lead we've got, so..." I gave my dad a sheepish smile. "I mean, what do we have to lose?"

Dad frowned. "Not much. He already got your wagon, and your brahmin."

I winced. "That's why we're going after him, dad. To get them back."

"I'm just saying be careful, sweetheart." Dad rubbed my mane, smiling a little. "He stole your wagon, and you didn't leave that place on good terms. If he's not alone when you find him... I don't want you getting into danger."

"Dad, we'll be fine." I pulled away, smoothing my mane down with a smile of my own. "He didn't get our guns, y'know, and he wasn't that big... if he tries to run away, or doesn't wanna give us back Serenity," I smirked and lit my horn, pulling out my shifter, "then he gets to meet Mr Smacky."

Dad raised his eyebrow at the sight of me brandishing the instrument. "Lily, you said he was just a colt. I raised you better than this."

"Aheh... um... I'm not gonna hurt him. Much." Feeling a bit embarassed, I tucked the shifter back into my bag. "Just send him home with his tail between his legs. And a sore butt." At my dad's skeptical expression, I bristled. "Hey, he deserves it! He stole my wagon, and he stole our caps! If we hadn't had some spare caps on us and Rose wasn't so good at poker, we'd have been sleeping on the street until you got here! A bruised backside is the least he deserves!"

Dad just shook his head and sighed. "Don't go overboard, okay?"

I frowned. "If you say so... you will tell the other companies about Prospect, though, right?"

He nodded. "Of course I will. Now, help me load up the rest of this stuff, sweetheart, then I'll help you plan your route, okay?"

I nodded and passed him the next bag. "You'll keep our stuff in the usual place?"

Dad smirked. "Thought we'd just dump it in a ditch. Save room."

I rolled my eyes at him. "Very funny, Dad."

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My mum fretted over me, checking my saddlebags and pockets. "You're sure you have enough caps? Food? Clean water?"

I rolled my eyes. "Yes, mum. Rose won us a bunch of caps, and we didn't lose our supplies."

Mum sighed and shook her head. "Lily, are you sure you want to do this? It's a long way, and he might not even be there."

I groaned. "Mum, he took our wagon! And the brahmin!"

"Sweetheart, I know how much it means to you, but it's just a wagon. We can get another."

I scowled at her. "It's not just a wagon, it's my wagon! It came out of my share of the company, and it's my job. I'm not gonna let him keep it, not while there's ponies depending on the Silver Trails!" I drew myself up to my full height during my little speech. It might've been more impressive if I was taller, but hey, passion counts.

My mum wiped a tear from her eye and smiled at me. "My little girl's all grown up. Oh, I'm so proud!"

"ACK! MUM! LEGGO!"

My mum pounced on me, crushing me in bonebreaking hug. I flailed around, trying to escape the sudden display of motherly affection. Ibis looked over from where he was talking to Magpie and snickered, before getting a wing to the back of his head and a hug of his own. Rose was busy talking to my dad, nodding to whatever he was saying, so they didn't pay any attention to us.


Eventually, my mum put me down, straightening my jacket and dusting me off while still giving me that proud, tearful look. "You're turning into a responsible young mare, Lily."

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We'd made a good start on the journey, and it showed. Our parents and the town were far behind us, just a speck on the horizon, by the time the fading light forced us to make camp.


"Gah!" I struggled free of my jacket, the thick cloth getting caught on my horn and tearing before I could free myself, but I had more immediate concerns. Twisting awkwardly, I spotted what I was looking for, and used my magic to pluck the irritating little bur from my coat. "Little bastard. How'd that even get there?" With a glare, I threw it off to the side and away from me. Damn thing had been driving me nuts all day.

Rose went trotting past with a mouthful of sticks, spat them onto the weakly flickering fire Ibis was building and turned to blink at me. "You picked it up when you pushed through those bushes to save time. I got some too. Ibis didn't, because he flew over."

I gave her a flat look. "Who asked you?"

She just blinked again, looking a little confused. "You did, Lily. Just then."

"Whatever." I snorted and went to pull my jacket back on... only to have my head pop out of a hole that wasn't meant to be there. I blinked and looked at the torn fabric for a moment, then scowled. "Fuck." I tugged it free again and levitated it over to Rose, who was still staring at me. "Here, fix this while I check the route."

She blinked at me, grabbed the jacket in her mouth and trotted over to our bags, rummaging around for her sewing stuff. "And use proper thread!" I called out. "Not the stuff you use on your duster."

One of her ears twitched, the only acknowledgement that she'd heard me as her head began to bob up and down over the garment, the needle and thread obviously held in her mouth instead of her magic (Earth pony with a horn, I swear it), and I rolled my eyes before looking to my pipbuck and pulling up the map.


"Where to next?" I almost jumped out of my skin when Ibis spoke up from behind me. I whirled and glared at him.

"Don't sneak up on me like that!"

He snorted and rolled his eyes. "I wasn't sneaking. So, what's the plan?"

I glared at him some more, but he just gave me a flat look, so I huffed and raised my pipbuck, letting the featherbrain see it. "A couple of days from here, there's a town we can stop in for supplies. I've been there before; nice enough." I scrolled it out a bit. "Then, we're headed to Fetlock."

Ibis examined the little green map. "Fetlock? Never heard of it."

I blinked at him. "Seriously? Outskirts of Manehattan?" He shrugged, so I kept going. "Y'know, Manehattan? Where Friendship City is? How about Tenpony? You've gotta know about Tenpony!"

He shook his head. "Nope."

I was stunned. "Tenpony. Ten. Pony. Tower. The richest, most exclusive settlement in Equestria? Home of DJ Pon3?"

He shrugged. "Everyone knows about DJ Pon3. Only decent radio out here. Tenpony, though? Never heard of it."

I shook my head in disbelief. "You- I- Seriously... okay, right, not a caravaneer. I get it now. Just, wow, Ibis..."

He shrugged again. "Um, sorry? Is it really that impressive, though? Sounds like a bore to me."

My eye twitched. Did he just say Tenpony wasn't impressive? "I know you've never heard of it, so I'm gonna let that go. Tenpony Tower is so exclusive, almost nopony gets in, but anyone who does... I've heard things, Ibis." I leaned closer to him, lowering my voice. He reared back a little, so I leaned even closer. "I hear they're so rich, they wear clothes all the time. And not stuff like my jacket or Rose's duster. Actual clothes. Like, dresses and stuff. They have a shop for just cheese, nothing else. And best of all..." I reared up, grabbing his head and whispering in his ear before he could pull free. "They've got a spa."


With a squee of delight at the very thought, I let Ibis go, hugging myself. He scooted back a bit, rubbing his earhole."A spa, Ibis! An actual spa! With massages and everything! Ooh, I wanna go so bad!"

"Well, why don't you, then?" Ibis glared at me, still rubbing his ear... thing. Griffins don't have proper ears. Just holes in their heads. They're wierd.

I scoffed at him. "You don't just go to Tenpony Tower, birdbrain. You've gotta be rich, or be working for them. I mean, sure, I'm rich, and Rose is too, but you're not." I snickered, and he gave me another flat look.

"Rich, huh?" He looked me up and down. "You sure don't look it."

I snorted. "Hey, I know what I'm talking about. Me and Rose? We've got a share in the Silver Trails! We could walk into Tenpony just fine, if we ever cashed out. Which we won't."

He rolled his eyes. "Yeah, right. You'd be worth, what? A couple hundred caps?"

I smirked at him. "Close, but not quite." I leaned close, rolling my own eyes as he started to lean away, and whispered a number to him. My smirk grew as his beak dropped open and he just stared at me in shock. "And that's not counting the Serenity."

His beak opened and closed a few times, before he managed to actually choke out some words. "Holy fuck, Lily." I nodded and gave him a smug grin, my eyes half-closing as I enjoyed what the little revelation did to him. "Is... is Rose..."

I nodded again, smirking even more. "Eeyup. Family business, Ibis. Equal shares means two rich mares."

He looked past me, at where Rose was holding my jacket up to inspect her handiwork. "That's ridiculous... does she know how much she has?"

I shrugged, wishing I'd taken a bottle of soda out of my bag before sitting down, but not feeling like getting up and getting it. "Probably. I don't think she cares, though. She's got me, booze, her gun, and... well, you, I guess. Caps don't mean much to her, y'know." I gave the griffin a sidelong glance; he was just staring at Rose, so I focused on my bag (which was with the rest of our gear, next to Rose) and managed to free a soda, my sister resuming her sewing as it floated past her.

After a moment of silence, which I spent cracking open my drink, Ibis turned to me, looking curious. "So... what's my share, then?"

I choked on my soda at that, the carrot-flavored liquid going down the wrong pipe and leaving me spluttering. "Y-you-" I started coughing, and Ibis thumped me on the withers. "T-thanks." Once I could breath again, I peered at the griffin through narrowed, tear-filled eyes. "Oh, Celestia, are you serious? You don't get a share! What part of family business don't you get?"

"Lily, Ibis is my boyfriend." Rose came trotting over, my jacket draped over her back, and blinked at me. "That means he's family, because griffins mate for life. Right, Ibis?"

He glared at me for a second. "Rose is right, Lily."
The mare in question just blinked at us, and I rolled my eyes.

"Oh, fine. He can have a share, then." I glared at Rose. "But not a big one! Like, a half share. And only in our group, not the company! Got it?"

Rose looked between us, then blinked again. "Ibis, what do you think?"

The big griffin looked a bit irritated, but he gave a grudging nod. "Good enough, I guess."

Rose stared at him for a moment, cocking her head, then turned back to me. "Lily, I finished your jacket." She twisted to grab it in her mouth and offered it to me; I took it in my magic, and pulled it over to myself. "I'll check your revolver later. I'm going to drag Ibis into the bushes and have sex now. Please don't throw things at us while we do it."

Ignoring my disgusted expression, she grabbed the bewildered griffin's wing in her mouth and hauled him out of sight. I watched them go with a shudder, before pulling my Pipbuck's earbloom out so I could listen to the radio, instead of their sexy time.


With the wonderful sounds of DJ Pon3's late-night broadcast filling my ears, I checked Rose's work on my jacket. I smiled when I saw that she'd used normal thread to fix it, and tugged the garment back on before heading over to the campfire to warm my hooves.

A packet of snack cakes floated out of one of my pockets, and I readied myself for the first bite as I plonked myself down next to the fire... only to jump up with yelp, twisting to see what I'd just sat on.

My eye started twitching. The damn bur was stuck to my butt.

A few seconds later, the bur was burning in the flames, I was munching a cherry-filled cake, and some prewar classics were playing in my ears so loud there was no chance I'd have to hear the horrible sounds of griffin-on-mare action.

All in all, it could have been worse.

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The next day...

"COULD THIS GET ANY WORSE?!" I screamed as we ran, windblown rain hammering down on us so hard it hurt and lightning ripping violent slashes through the night. One bolt struck so close I was left almost blinded, barely able to follow the little marker in my vision that promised safety.


"SHUT UP AND RUN!" Ibis yelled back, bounding alongside me, Rose in hot pursuit as we darted around trees and splashed through quickly deepening puddles, trying to make it to the cave my Pipbuck said was just ahead without drowning or getting hit by lightning.

"THERE!" I yelled at the top of my lungs, our goal coming into sight, a patch of darker-than-black. We put on an extra burst of speed, hooves and pointy bits throwing mud as we ran, bursts of light painting the landscape in absolute whites and blacks, the constant roar of thunder drowning out almost every sound.

"LOOK OUT!" Ibis slammed into me, the two of us rolling as a huge tree fell victim to the storm, coming down and almost crushing us. The griffin yanked me to my hooves, dragging me forwards. "C'MON! LET'S MOVE!"

I tried to pull away, the third member of our group suddenly absent. "BUT ROSE-"

A white shape popped into view, scrambling over the tree, her eyes wide and her ears flat with terror, and Ibis dug his claw into the collar of my jacket, forcing me to keep moving. "SHE'S FINE! GET US TO THAT DAMN CAVE, NOW!"

Seeing Rose pulling herself on top of the fallen log, I relented and took the lead once more, using my pipbuck to guide us the final few dozen meters to safety, slipping in the mud as I dived inside and out of the rain with Ibis hot on my tail.

We were both panting and soaked to the bone, shaking like a pair of rattlesnake's tails, but I managed a scowl, even with my teeth chattering from the cold. "I f-fucking h-hate p-pegasuses. S-stupid cloudheads."

"P-pegasi, you idiot." Ibis muttered. "T-they're called p-pegasi." He looked even more miserable than me, all his feathers plastered down so that he looked half his size. If I hadn't been soaked and cold myself, I would've laughed.

I shook myself off and glared at him. "Y-yeah, right. R-Rose, who's r-right?" I looked at where Rose should have been, and found the spot empty. "R-Rose? Rose? W-where are you?" Ibis and I stared at each other for a second.

"S-she was right behind me..." The griffin's eyes were wide. "She must still be outside!" As one, we turned to the cave mouth


Another burst of lightning lit up the world outside the cave, and my stomach dropped. Rose was struggling, one of her saddlebag's straps caught on the tree.

I screamed and bolted to the entrance, flipping my searchlight on to show her where we were and calling to her. "ROSE! GET OVER HERE RIGHT NOW!" She snapped the branch holding her in place and took off running, charging towards us through the torrential rain.


Then everything went white, the world vanishing in an ear-shattering explosion.

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I staggered to my hooves, my ears ringing. A glance at my pipbuck told me I'd only been down for a minute or so, but it felt like a lot longer. Something smacked me on the withers and I turned, blinking away the bright afterimage of the lightning strike to see Ibis, his beak opening and closing silently.

I stared at him for a second, wondering what he was doing and where that horrible noise in my head was coming from, then it started to fade and I realised he was talking.

"-ap out of it! Rose was hit!"

"Hit?" I stared at him some more, puzzled. "By... by what?"

"The lighting!" He tugged at my jacket, and I stumbled, unsteady, still shaken up from the near miss. "We need to get her!"

"Get her?" Slowly, the pieces clicked into place. "FUCK! ROSE!" I galloped out of the cave and back into the storm, to where I'd last seen Rose before the strike. She was just laying there, completely still, facedown in the mud. "Fuckfuckfuckfuck! Ibis, help me get her inside!"


The two of us dragged her back into the shelter, Ibis pressing his head to her chest as soon as we were out of the rain. "She's still breathing! Help me get her gear off!"

I siezed her bags in my magic and tugged them free as Ibis unbuckled her holster. "Hell... it hit her gun!" I glanced at it; a big scorch mark was on the holster, and another was on her duster. "Like a damn lightning rod... Lily, get some water, a medkit and a potion. Quick!"

"But potions-"

He snapped his beak at me in irritation. "I know, but she might need one. Just do it!"

By the time I'd pulled the supplies out, he'd removed her duster and chucked it with the rest of her stuff, examing the smoking, charred patch on her withers. "How is she?" I floated the kit over to him, wincing at the black, burned spot on her coat.

"Alive. Unconscious, but alive. It... it should've gone through her heart." He cracked the kit open and poured some water on the mark. "Hitting her there, it should've killed her. It's right above her heart..."

I shuddered, then something occured to me. "You... you don't think it was her talisman, do you? It's next to her heart, right? Maybe it absorbed the lightning? Stopped it from hurting her or something?"

Ibis shrugged and kept cleaning the wound. "Maybe. She's lucky either way. It's... not that bad, considering."

I frowned. "Not that bad? She got hit by lightning! How is that not bad?!"

He didn't look up from his ministrations. "She's alive, Lily. A bit singed, but alive. Don't question it or-"

A snort cut him off, Rose's eyes snapping open. "Gwa?!"

I leapt forward to hug her, squeezing her as tightly as I could. "Rose! You're okay!"

"Yibbles," she responded, and I pushed her back a bit so I could see her properly.

"Rose? Are you- YAAH!" I shoved her limp form away in shock, Ibis catching her and glaring at me. "What's wrong with your eyes?!"


Rose stared at me... or I think she did. Her eyes were pointed in different directions, and were completely different sizes. It was freaky. "Blarghle yip." Her tongue flopped out of her mouth and she blinked a couple of times.

Ibis gave her a shake. "Hey, Rose! C'mon, stop playing around!"

"Bottersnikes and Gumbles!" Her ears wiggled a little, and Ibis frowned.

"I think the strike scrambled her brain." He waved a claw in front of her face; one eye focused on it, the other crept towards the roof. "I don't know what to do, Lily. Rose is the one that fixes heads." She burbled a bit, blinked one eye, then the other.

"I've got an idea!" I rifled through my sister's bags and pulled out a bottle of whiskey, uncorking it and shoving it in her mouth. "Here you go, Rose. Nummies! Drink it all up, there's a good filly."

Ibis raised an eyebrow at me while Rose chugged the alcohol down, the bottle secure in my magical grip. "Foal talk? Really?"

I shrugged. "Hey, it worked. Look, she drank it all! She's already looking better!"


Rose blinked, both eyes coming to focus on me as she spat out the now empty bottle. "Platypus." Her tongue flopped out again, and she kept staring at me.

At Ibis' skeptical look, I gave a sheepish laugh. "Um... at least she's looking at me now. Maybe she needs more whiskey?"

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All three of us were miserable, huddled together in the back of the cave for warmth as the storm raged outside. My Pipbuck was the only light we had, since it was too wet to get a fire going.

According to the hoof-mounted gizmo, we'd been in the cave all day and evening was already on us. I was starting to think the storm would never end.


Rose let her latest empty bottle drop from her mouth, a clink coming from the small pile at her hooves as it landed, pulling me from my thoughts. I smiled at her. "Feel better now?"

She squinted at me through bleary eyes. One blue-grey orb started to drift off to the side. "My head is all fuzzly. Lily, why are there two of you?"

"You did get hit by lightning, you know. Hang on." I wiped my muddy hoof off on her flank and raised it to her face. "Stay still, okay? Just... don't... move..." Gently, I pushed her eye until she was looking straight at me again. She stayed perfectly still, like a statue, the whole time I was playing with her eyeball. "There." I lowered my hoof, ignoring the squelchy mud it landed in. "How's that?"

Rose blinked a couple times and stared at me for a second. "Better. I like having one Lily. Two is too many."

Ibis shuddered. "Don't even joke about it, Rose. One idiot's enough."

I snorted. "Oh, go fuck yourselves. Rose, you sure you're okay? Nothing hurts or whatever?"

She stared at me a little longer, then blinked. "My chest aches and my hooves and horn are tingly."

I stared at her. "So... nothing major, then?"

She blinked again. "You feel wubbly."

"I feel... wubbly?" I raised an eyebrow, and she nodded.

"Uh-huh. Wubbly. You feel wubbly, and Ibis feels wubbly, and I think I need more whiskey to fix it."

"Maybe the lightning messed with her empath thing?" Ibis suggested. Rose blinked at him, and I shrugged.

"Maybe. Rose, use your magic."

She blinked at me. "Why?"

I sighed. "So we can make sure your horn's still working. Just do a light spell or something."

She blinked again, and started to concentrate. A second later, a ball of flickering white light rose from the tip of her horn, illuminating her head. I studied it for a bit, then nodded. "Looks fine to me. You can stop now."

The light died and she stared at me without saying anything. "Uh... why are you looking at me?" She blinked and opened her mouth, then closed it. "You okay?" She went through the motions again, opening and closing her mouth repeatedly. "Ibis, I think she's broken again."

The soggy griffin poked Rose's side. "Hey, c'mon, Rose, spit it out."

She gave me a pained look, so I leaned towards her with a reassuring smile. "Whatever's wrong, you can tell me. Go on, let me have it."


Rose stared at me for a moment, opened her mouth... and sneezed.

Right in my face.

"Sorry, Lily. My sneeze got stuck." I just stared at her blankly, trying to pretend that what was covering my face wasn't what I thought it was. Ibis' guffaws weren't helping matters. "Lily? Are you okay? I have a hanky if you'd like it." While my sister blinked at me, waiting for me to answer, I just stared straight ahead, wondering if there was some spell I could use to go back and warn myself to at least close my mouth in time. There probably wasn't. The Goddesses didn't like me that much. "Lily, your eye is twitching."

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Something poked my side and I pulled my head out of the deep puddle I'd been trying to drown myself in to see Rose staring at me in the dull morning light. The storm had lasted well into the night, but everything was still drenched and muddy, with plenty of fallen trees and scorch marks showing how furious it had been.

"Lily, what are you doing? You aren't a seapony, you can't breathe underwater."

I shook my head, getting as much of the water off as I could (and soaking Rose, who just blinked at me), and glared at her. "First, seaponies aren't real." She opened her mouth to speak, but I cut her off. "I don't care what your books say, they don't exist. They're like breezies, or flutterponies. Stories for foals."

She pouted at me. "They are too real."

I ignored her. "Second, I'm still trying to wash your goop out of my mane. Seriously, Rose, it's disgusting." I pointed at the puddle and the gelatinous globs of green gunk floating in it. "That crap's like glue!" She at least had the decency to look embarrassed. Ibis snickered at me again and I shot him a dirty look. "I can't believe that came out of your face... ugh." I shuddered.


Rose blinked at me, her ears wilting. "It was an accident, Lily. I said I was sorry."

I sighed and waved my hoof at her. "Yeah, yeah. Your sneeze got stuck, I know. Just, don't do it again, 'kay? Aim at Ibis or something." She blinked at me, and I decided to change the subject to something less gross. "How's your back?"

She blinked again. "Itchy.

"And your feeling thing?"

"Still wubbly. Lily, can we go now? I want to check my gun since the lightning hit it, but it's too wet out here."

I rolled my eyes. "Fine. After last night, I want to stay in an actual bed for a couple days, and we're not that far from town."

Rose blinked at me and let out the flattest sounding "Yay" I'd ever heard in my life.


As we prepped our gear, I gave her a look. "Geez, Rose, calm down. If you get any more excited, you might hurt yourself." She blinked at me again.

"But I am calm."

I rolled my eyes. Again. "I was being sarcastic."

She blinked at me, looking confused. "Oh. I get it... I think."

I sighed. "You're not a clever pony, are you?"

She stared at me for a bit, one ear twitching. "Um... yes? No? Lily, I'm confused."

I shook my head in mock dismay. "Rose, Rose, Rose. Whatever will I do with you?" I pulled a bottle of whiskey from her bag and shoved it in her mouth before she could answer, then smirked at her. "C'mon, get that in you and start walking."

She blinked at me, and we started on our way, the alcoholic steadily and happily draining the bottle.


As we walked, I noticed Ibis looking at me and chuckling. "What? Do I have something on my face?"

With a grin, he nodded. "Yep. A little something, right there." He raised his claw and pointed to my forehead. I almost went cross-eyed trying to see what he was talking about, but sure enough, there was a green glob stuck to my horn.

Using my magic to pull the crud off, I smiled sweetly. "Thanks, Ibis. You've got something on your wing, by the way." He twisted his big birdy head to look, and I chucked the goop at him. Laughing at his squawk of dismay, I broke into a gallop, passing Rose with a shout of "Race you to town, slowpokes!"


Needless to say, with me running for my life from a grumpy griffin and Rose topped up with her favorite fuel, we made it to town in no time at all.

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I tugged my still-damp jacket off and started to wring it out with my magic, grumbling all the while and ignoring the small puddle it left on the floor.

"One room. How can they only have one stinking room? It's an inn, for crying out loud! And just one bed, too! You two better not get up to anything tonight!"

Rose ignored me. She'd taken over the sole bed in the room and was stripping down her rifle with a frown. Ibis snorted at me and went back to running his beak through his feathers and puffing himself up.

I watched the griffin for a minute before curiosity got the better of me. "Okay, I give. What in the name of Luna's Teats are you doing?"

He didn't bother to look at me, just tugged a feather out and examined it. "Preening."

I frowned. "What the hell is preening?"

He dropped the feather onto the small pile at his claws and stretched his wing out to start inspecting it. "Straightening my feathers, cleaning them, getting rid of broken ones."

I stared at him. "Why?"

He sighed and pulled his wing back against his body, looking irritated by my questions. "I have to take care of my wings, you idiot. Hard to fly when they're messed up like this."

I huffed. "Fine. You don't have to be a jerk, I was just trying to talk. What about you, Rose? How's the rifle going?"


Rose sat up and blinked at me. "Good."

We just stared at each for a second, so I waggled my hoof for her to elaborate. She just stared at me blankly. I sighed. "Nothing interesting? Not broken? Melted? Secretly possessed by the spirit of whoever owned it before the war and they woke up when it was hit by the lightning? Char mark that looks like Luna's butt? Something? Anything?"

She just blinked at me. "Lily, you're strange."

Ibis piped up, spitting a damaged feather out. "Total nutjob."

I frowned. "Hey, I'm bored! This is boring! You guys are boring!"

Rose stared at me. "Lily, why don't you clean your revolver if you're bored?"

"Ah... hehe..." I blushed. "Um... I kinda... don't remember how."

Rose didn't look impressed. "When I'm finished with my rifle, I'll teach you. Again. And I'll write down how to do it, as well."

"Yeah, fine." I waved my hoof. "But after that, we're going out."

Rose stared at me for a second. "To a bar?"

I shrugged. "Might as well."

She stared a bit more, then nodded. "Okay. After we fix your revolver, though."

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We staggered out of the bar at close to midnight, if the blurry numbers on my Pipbuck could be trusted.

Between my natural charm and Rose's poker skills, we hadn't had to pay for any of our drinks, and that meant all three of us were... well, I'll be honest. We were blasted.

"Oh, Luna's moon is big and bright, and she-" A hiccup interrupted my off-key singing, "she likes to show it everywhere, all throught the night! Take it away, Ibis!" I waved my hoof dramatically and staggered sideways into Rose, who barely seemed to notice, so I draped myself over her back while Ibis picked up our made-up song where I'd left off.

"It's big and blue," The grey griffin sung, sounding even worse than me, "and shiny too; I sure do like a full moon, it's such a wonderful view! C'mon, Rose!"

Rose didn't say anything at first, so I whacked the back of her head. I got the feeling she rolled her eyes, but since I was practically riding her my view was limited to the back of her head. "Nope... not gonna..." She hiccuped. "Not gonna sing. Luna... Luna'd be off... uffo... upset. She might-" Another hiccup, "-spank me!"

Me and Ibis burst into laughter. While he bumped Rose's side, I poked the back of her head again, teasing her. "Aw, widdle Wose scared of spankings?"

"N-no!" She protested, weaving a bit as she struggled to look over her shoulder at me and walk in a straight line at the same time. "Don... don't wanna upset the Goddesses. Spank... spanking's for bad fillies! I'm... I'mma good pony!"

Ibis chuckled drunkenly and threw his arm over Rose (and me, since I was on her back) with a dirty grin. "Good ponies can get spankings too."

"R-really?" Rose staggered, shocked by the news. Her face was bright red and her tail was swishing around.

"Uh-huh." I giggled and jabbed the back of her head with my hoof. "Hey, hey Rose... want Ibis to spank you?"

"N-no..." She stuttered, looking away from us. I could barely hear what she said next. "M-maybe... just a little..."

I cracked up. "Oh, oh wow. You're a... you're a pervert! Rose is a pervert! Rose is a pervert!"

"Lily!" She whined at me.

From my position on her back, I could see her ears turning bright red, so I kept up my sing-song teasing. "Pervert! Pervert! Rose is a pervert! Smack her buns and spank her flank, Rose is a pervert! OW!"


Something hard smacked my head, knocking me off Rose's back and onto the hard, unfriendly ground. I landed on my back and lay there, staring up the spinning world before Rose's blurry face hung over mine. "S-sorry, Lily. We... we're at the... the thing... Ibis, where are we? The out?"

"The inn, Rose." I could hear Ibis, but not see him. Rose blinked.

"Right... the inn... you bumped your head on the... the thing around the door... I'll... I'll get you, hang on."

There was a sharp pain at the base of my butt as something started tugging on my tail, and I managed to raise my hoof and shout out "Goodnight, everypony! Rose's gonna be spanked!" before I was dragged into the inn by my rump. As the door swung closed behind us, I could've sworn I saw somepony watching us from across the street, but I couldn't be sure since the damn door smacked me in the face so hard I blacked out.

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I woke up slowly, staying in that blissful state where you're still half asleep and the world's got that dreamlike quality where everything is warm and soft, especially your pillow and blanket. Unfortunately, I was also hungover with a headache the size of Celestia's cake-loving flank and the worst case of cottonmouth since the time I mistook a box of cotton balls for marshmallows.

So, I rolled back over and shoved my head into the soft warmth of my pillow with a groan.

My poor head... I thought to myself, burying my face against the squishy softness. And what's that smell? Smells kinda like... something good... meh, I'll figure it out. Later.

Somewhere outside, a rooster cut loose with its head-splitting crowing. I grabbed my oddly heavy pillow and rolled onto my back, bringing it with me and keeping it on my face so I wouldn't have to confront the day quite yet.

I know that smell... what is it? Gah... I fought back a yawn; getting a mouthful of pillow was gross. Smells kinda like Rose... but better. Sexier. I groaned. Oh, Goddesses, I think there's still some of Ibis in me. I'm thinking Rose is sexy! I pressed my pillow to my face as tight as I could. Stupid griffin feelings, making me think about my sister like that... I mean, we're not actual sisters or anything, but we're still best friends! I can't think of her like this! Besides, I'm straight! I like stallions! I like dick! I like Rose- NO! Bad Lily, no liking Rose! Rose is with Ibis, and you're both straight, so no thinking about her flank, how cute she is when she's confused, or- GAH!

I shook my head, trying not to yawn again. There was a small sound from next to me that sounded like Rose, but I ignored it. She was probably having a dream or something. It's too early for this shit. It's all Ibis' fault, anyway. Him and his stupid feelings, and Rose's stupid freaky magic. I snuggled into my pillow as much as I could as the damned rooster sounded off again. I should just... just...

With sleepy, hangover weakened hooves I lifted my pillow up so I could yawn... and dropped it right onto my open mouth. Bleagh, tastes like... like... huh. Doesn't taste like pillow. Tastes... good. My sleep-addled brain wasn't working right, so I gave an experimental lick. It's damp. Warm, too. And what's that sound? Is that... moaning?

All of a sudden, I had a really bad feeling about my pillow.

Oh, Goddesses. Please don't tell me...

Praying, I forced my bleary eyes open and stared in shock at the warm, soft, moist thing I'd been rubbing my face and horn against for the last few minutes. The very thing I'd just licked.


My brain chose that moment to wake up and take stock of my situation. Our gear? Where we'd left it, in the corner of the room. Me? All bits intact, no strange piercings, splitting headache. Ibis? Behind me, splayed out, still asleep. I'd been using one of his wings for a blanket. Rose? In front of me. Sleeping. Upside down. With her hindlegs straddling my face. Because I'd been using her mare bits for a pillow. And I'd just buried my face in them. And she was winking. At me. And not with her eyes.

I couldn't decide what was worse: That I'd essentially just made out with Rose's bits, or that I'd liked it.


I lay there for a minute, staring at the damp, winking thing just in front of my muzzle and tried to decide what to do.

Pretend it never happened? Nope, I'll never be able to look Rose in the eye again. Talk to her about it? Fuck no. Pick up where I left off-WHY THE FUCK AM I EVEN THINKING THAT?!

My eye twitching, I settled on hysterical screaming. It seemed like the smart choice.

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We made our slow way way to the edge of town, continuing our journey instead of staying another night. We walked slowly, all of us still suffering from the night's binge. I kept a disgruntled Ibis between me and the red-faced, twitchy-tailed Rose, unable to look her in the eye.

My face was sore from how much I'd scrubbed it, and my mouth burned from the vodka I'd gargled, trying to erase any memory of what had happened or how much I'd liked the taste and smell. It didn't work very well.

Ibis tilted his head to stare at me. "I can't believe you did that."

"Shut up. Accident. Your fault." I kept my response short, eyes focused on the path out of town. "Rose, tell him."

Rose didn't say a thing. Ibis snorted. "My fault? How the hell's it my fault?"

I growled and glared at him. "Because it is! Now shut up and walk, so we can get to the next town and get seperate rooms this time!"

He puffed himself up. "Idiot."

I growled at him again. "Jerk."


After that, we carried on in silence. Not long after we left the town, though, there was a sudden gunshot from right behind us, followed by a male voice. "That was just a warning shot. Turn around, slowly, and don't try anything funny, y'hear?"

The three of us turned and found ourselves facing a unicorn buck in body armor, his floating gun aimed straight at us. He stared at Rose for a second, then grinned. "I've got you now, Bourbon Rose."

Well, That Just Happened

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---Well, That Just Happened---

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This is a gag chapter. Not to be taken internally.
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The armored unicorn buck stared at Rose, his still-smoking gun floating beside him and pointed right at us. After a few seconds, a relieved grin split his face.

"I've finally found you, Bourbon Rose."

Rose, her tail still twitching from the morning's wake-up, cocked her head and blinked at him. "I'm not Bourbon. I'm Whiskey."

He frowned. "Are you sure?" His gun was lowered as he withdrew a piece of paper from his armor, holding it up in his magic and looking between it and Rose. "You match the description, and it's really important I deliver this message to the right pony."

Rose blinked again, cocking her head to the other side. "I'm Whiskey. Not Bourbon, Whiskey."

"What message?" I interrupted, waving my hoof for attention. The stallion looked at me, still frowning, so I continued. "I mean, maybe they just got the name wrong."

"Hmmm... might be." He pulled out another piece of paper and cleared his throat. "The message is as follows: We have found what We sought. Abandon thy charade; the Round One knows nothing. Signed, Blue Moon." He paused, looking from the message to Rose. "Does that make any sense?"


Rose stared at him for a second, then sighed. Her ears drooped and she gave me an embarassed smile. "I truly am sorry for this deception, my little pony, but please understand we did so with the best of intentions."

I just stared at her, dumbfounded. "Um, what?"

Ignoring me, she looked to the sky and continued talking as she lit her horn, pulling something wrapped in ropes from the bushes at the side of the road and dropping it in front of me. "I return your sister to you, unharmed." The ropes loosened and... out fell another Rose, naked and completely blotto with an empty whiskey bottle stuck on her horn.

"Gha. Wha? Bwuh?" I looked between the two Roses in disbelief, my brain scrambling to work out what I was looking at. The sober Rose turned her eyes from the clouds to me, still smiling. The passed-out drunk one just lay there and snored.

"Not to worry; she is quite alright. Perhaps hungover, but I did her no harm."

"I- you- she-" I stammered, totally confused. "How- when?!"

Sober Rose started to remove her duster, setting it beside Drunk Rose, still giving me that freaky smile. "Last night, when you all fell asleep. You all drunk quite a lot... I hardly needed the sleeping charm."

"Why?!" I cried out. She just kept smiling, as calm as could be.

"To prevent a disaster, of course. I believed you were the key, although my sister seems to have proven me wrong."

I just burbled, unable to so much as think straight.

"But now..." Sober Rose sighed again. There was a blinding flash, like the fabled Sun itself, and when I could see again...

"Gah... you... I... you... Alicorn?" I managed to squeak out, my legs turning to jelly at the tall, regal creature in front of me. With a smile, she nodded.

"Yes, my little pony. And now, I must return to my kingdom. There is much to do, and so little time... or perhaps, too much time." The former Rose spread her enormous wings to take off, but paused, her smile turning mischevious. "But first..." She leaned in close to whisper in my ear, "let me thank you for that wonderful wake-up this morning." Suddenly her lips were pressed to mine, the shock making me open my mouth to protest, to scream, to do anything... until her tongue forced its way into my mouth. My coat stood on end, my tail curled, my hooves turned weak and I fell to my flank as the most awesome kiss I'd ever had sent waves of burning heat through my body, building to a raging fire under my tail.


She pulled away from me, a strand of spittle hanging between our mouths. Her cheeks were bright pink, her amethyst eyes twinkling as the strand broke and I gasped for breath, looking like a fish out of water.

Her wings beat once, twice, and before my poor brain could catch up, she rose into the air, leaving me sitting in a puddle of my own juices. The white-coated, pastel-rainbow maned alicorn soared high towards the clouds, meeting a darker alicorn before vanishing in a burst of light.

"Gwah?"

Dimly, I was aware of Ibis coming up beside me, looking almost as bewildered as I felt. Drunk Rose just snored and giggled in her sleep at my hooves. "Lily, what the fuck just happened?"

Slowly, I turned to look at Ibis, my eye twitching madly as I tried to put it into words. "Ibis, I... I think... I think I went down on Princess Celestia."

Chapter 19: A Rose By Any Other Name

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---CHAPTER 19: A Rose By Any Other Name---

"Why, am I not royal enough for you? Don't you know who I am?"

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The armored unicorn buck stared at Rose, his still-smoking gun floating beside him and pointed right at us. After a few seconds, an unpleasant grin split his face.

"I've got you now, Bourbon Rose."

Rose, her tail still twitching from the morning's wake-up, cocked her head and blinked at him. "I'm not Bourbon. I'm Whiskey."

"And I'm the King of Prance." The stallion sneered. "I know exactly who you are, Bourbon Rose. You're the mare who's gonna make me rich. AH!" He aimed his gun at Ibis. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the griffin freeze, one claw raised towards Garden, the oversized shotgun slung on his back. "Not so fast, buzzard. Drop the piece, or I drop you."

Slowly, Ibis drew his shotgun and set it on the ground in front of him, giving the gunpony a deathglare the entire time. The stallion nodded. "Good. You too, Bourbon. And no magic!" He aimed his gun at Rose, who blinked in response. "I know all about your tricks. Your horn lights, I shoot."

Rose frowned. "I'm not Bourbon, I'm Whiskey."

The stallion growled at her. "You want to play it that way? Fine. The bounty's good no matter what you call yourself, so drop that fucking gun, Whiskey."

A bounty?! He was a bounty hunter?! What the hell had Rose done this time?!

"No." Rose flatly refused, and the stallion snarled before firing a shot into the ground just in front of her hooves. She just frowned at him.

The bounty hunter brought his gun back up, to point at Rose's head. "I said, drop it."

"No." Rose and the hunter glared at each other for a second, before the stallion sneered.

"Tough mare, huh? Just like I heard. But I bet your friend ain't so tough." His gun moved again, this time pointing at me. My legs started shaking, the end of the barrel a black circle aimed right between my eyes. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ibis tensing up. "Now drop. Your. Gun. Or fat-flank there doesn't have to worry about hats any more."

"FAT FLANK?!" Indignation almost beat out terror, but not quite.

Rose and the stallion stared at each, neither one backing down at all. "You've got three seconds. One." He started counting, his gun still pointed right at me. "Two."

"R-Rose..." My mouth suddenly dry, I swallowed nervously. "Rose, do what the nice bounty hunter says. Please?"

"But Lily-"

"Rose, just do it." Ibis cut her off. I could just see him motioning with his head; He must've had a plan. The bounty hunter was too focused on Rose to notice... I hoped.


Pouting, Rose reached back, hooked her holster's strap with her hoof and swung the whole thing off, setting her rifle gently on the ground, holster and all.

The hunter nodded. "Good. Your bag, too." At a nod from Ibis, Rose followed the instructions, her saddlebags hitting the ground with the tell-tale clink of concealed bottles. "Now, come over here." Another nod from Ibis, and Rose moved towards the stallion, stopping in front of him.

He floated a small ring out of his armor and towards Rose's horn. "You stay still, now. This'll keep you from doing anything you might regret. You move, and tubby there gets it."

"TUBBY?!" My eye twitched. I really wanted to hurt him now, gun or no gun.

The ring hovered over to Rose and slipped down over her horn until it was sitting at the very base. The stallion smirked as she tensed up, her expression going from annoyed to more agitated than I'd seen her since the last time she'd seen a frog. "That there's a suppression ring. Stops your magic dead. Cost me a bundle, but nothing compared to what you're worth." His smirk faltered as she gave him what I could only call a smashy look, but he stepped away and aimed at her instead of me. "Don't get any funny ideas, or else-"

"ROSE, NOW!" Ibis lunged forward from beside me, going for Garden. The stallion started to turn, but Rose slammed into him from the side and they hit the ground in a cloud of dust. The hunter swore, his gun went off and then there was just heavy thudding and incoherent yelling from both of them.

It was all over in a matter of seconds. I didn't even have a chance to move.

"Rose!" Ibis yelled, aiming his gun at the dust cloud as the yelling died down, the only sounds coming from it the heavy thuds of hoofstrikes. "Get clear! Rose?!"

Slowly, the dust settled... to reveal Rose atop the stallion, a crazed look in her eyes as she beat him. A particuarly vicious blow bent his head at an angle I was pretty sure it wasn't meant to be at, but she kept going. Ibis slung his shotgun and approached her carefully. "Rose, you can stop now." She ignored him and started jumping on the buck. "Rose. ROSE! He's dead! You can stop now!"

Rose froze and stared at the griffin, blinking in surprise. "Are you sure? I can't tell." Ibis nodded. "Oh." She looked down at the still form she was standing on and blinked again. "Good. I didn't like him. Lily, are you alright? He didn't shoot you, did he?" Still in shock, I shook my head, earning myself a blink from Rose. "Yay." With that, she hopped off the former bounty hunter, took a couple steps away from him... and smashed her face against the ground, running in circles and leaving a rut as her horn dug into the dirt.

Ibis watched her for a second before shaking his head and moving to inspect the bucked bounty hunter, leaving me to stare, dumbfounded, as Rose ground her head into the dirt. "Um, R-Rose... what're you... doing?"

Not bothering to stop circling, she replied "Getting it off."

Frowning, I cocked my head at her. "Getting what off?"

"The thing. The ring. I can't feel anything. Get it off, Lily." She finally stopped beating the ground up with her face, looking up and staring at me. Suddenly nervous, I took a step back; she looked really agitated. "Lily, get it off. Get it off." She slammed her face into the ground and started circling again, chanting "Get it off" over and over.

"Rose-" She ignored me. "Would you-" She kept chanting and circling, so I moved into her path. "Hey! Stay- WHOA! ROSE!" I yelped as she just kept moving like I wasn't even there, too set on plowing a furrow with her face to notice as I was bumped up onto her back. I scrambled to try and keep my balance as I was jostled around.

I heard Ibis chuckling and scowled at him as Rose started another circuit, barely even noticing that I was riding her. "Oh, fuck you."

He smirked. "That's Rose's job."

I raised my hoof and made a rude gesture, but that just made him smirk more. Scowling, I hopped off Rose's back and grabbed her in my magic, lifting her into the air to keep her from tearing up more of the wasteland. She kept trying to walk for a few seconds, looking like she was swimming in place, before finally stopping and lifting her head to blink at me. "Lily, please get it off. I don't like it. It stops me from feeling you and Ibis. And it makes my horn itchy."

"Okay, okay. Just stay still for a sec, would you?" Rolling my eyes, I floated her closer, so I could see the thing the bounty hunter had put on her horn. "Huh. So this thing's stopping your magic?" Rose nodded, giving me a pleading look as she dangled in my magical grasp. "Doesn't look like much." It didn't. It was just a dark metal ring, sitting snugly against the base of her horn.

"Lily," Rose whined, "get it off. Please?" I rolled my eyes.

"Oh, fine. Crybaby." For something that blocked magic, it was pretty easy to remove. It just slid right off in my telekinesis. "Better?" Rose nodded, so I let her drop. She hit the ground with a thump and turned her gaze to the floating ring. "What?" I stared at her, getting nervous. She had the smashy look again. "What's wrong?"

"Lily, can I break it? Please?" She kept staring at the ring; I moved it slightly and her head followed it. Up and down, side to side, even in a circle, her eyes were locked on it, unblinking. "Pretty please?"

Floating the ring in a figure eight and watching Rose follow it, I asked her "Why?"

"Because I don't like it," came the response as I started moving the ring up and down really quickly, so it looked like Rose was nodding.

"No."

"Lily, I have to break it. It's evil and bad and it stopped me feeling you and Ibis so pretty please let me break it."

I started spinning it in circles as fast as I could, then stopped suddenly. Rose's head kept following the path the ring had for a few seconds before she managed to stop, her eyes spinning in their sockets. She shook her head and refocused on the ring.

I frowned. "First, tell me what you did."

She blinked at me... well, at the hovering ring, anyway. "I didn't do anything. Now can I break it?"

I scowled at her, not that she noticed. "No. Rose, you must've done something. That bounty hunter was after you. Now, tell me what you did. Fess up already."

Rose frowned, her tail flicking around behind her, but didn't look away from her target. "He was after Bourbon. I'm Whiskey. He was stupid and I didn't like him, but now he's gone and I want to break it."

With a snort, I tucked the ring into my saddlebag, Rose's eyes locked on it the whole way, never once blinking. "Fine. You don't want to tell me what you did? I'm keeping the ring. He said it was expensive, after all."

"But Lily-" Rose started to whine, but I stomped my hoof to interupt her.

"No." I glared at her. She stared right back, stubborn as ever. "You're not breaking it. Now, behave or I'm putting it back on you myself." At this, her ears flattened and she took a step back. "Got it?" She nodded, so I smiled. "There's a good filly." She frowned at me. "Hey, your gun's in the dirt." To distract her, I pointed to where she'd set down her rifle and she trotted over to it, grumbling to herself.


While she plonked her scrawny butt down and tugged her gun free of its holster to check it, I turned to Ibis, who was busy stripping the ex bounty hunter of his gear.

"Hey, you find anything?"

Ibis paused in his looting as I moved up beside him, doing my best not to look at the deceased stallion. I really didn't like being so close to somepony who was dead.

The griffin shrugged, not bothered by what he was searching at all. "A few caps." He tossed a small pouch to me; I glanced inside, glad to have something to focus on, then frowned.

"Not a lot here." Ibis shrugged again, trying to unbuckle the armor the stallion was wearing. I gave a shrug of my own and tucked the pouch into my saddlebag. Any caps are good caps, after all. "Anything else? Like, something that'll tell us what Rose did to have bounty hunters after her?"

"Nope," came the reply as he yanked a heavily dented piece of the armor free and examined it. "Huh... looks like what the last group was wearing..."

I frowned. "Last group? What last group?"

He turned, showing me the armor plate. It was just a dull grey piece of metal; I didn't get it. "Before me and Rose got to Little Fillydelphia. A bunch of ponies in armor attacked us. Remember? I told you about it after you found us."

Shuddering, I nodded. That wasn't a time I liked to think about. "So... you think they were bounty hunters, too?"

"Must have been. Thought they were bandits at the time." He tossed the mangled plate aside and continued his search. My frown grew.

"Well, what did you do?"

Ibis paused and turned to me, looking confused. "Huh? What do you mean, 'what did we do?'"

I scowled and pointed my hoof at the corpse. "To get bounty hunters after you! Rose won't tell me, but he was after her! She must've done something!"


He stared at me for a second, then frowned. "We didn't do anything."

"I don't believe you." I glared at him. "Nobody has bounty hunters after them for no reason. Especially not you two. So, what did you do?"

With a snort and a shake of his big feathered head, Ibis went back searching the body. "Ask Rose, she'll tell you the same thing: We didn't do anything. Besides, he was looking for... huh. What's this?" He tugged a piece of paper out the stallion's belt and unfolded it, giving it a once-over. "A bounty notice?"

"Well, what's it say?" I tried to look over his shoulder, but he snapped his beak in front of my muzzle. I fell back on my butt in surprise and glared at him. "What was that for?"

"Personal space, Lily." Smirking, he made a big show of fluffing himself up, holding his wings out so I couldn't see the paper at all.

"Jerk," I muttered as I stood and shook the dust off my rear.

"Idiot," came the reply. I glared at the back of his head, then stuck my tongue out at him, just to show him who was boss.

"You gonna read it or not? I wanna know what you two did already."

"Yeah, yeah. I'm reading it." There was a slight pause before he kept talking. "Bounty's for one Burboun Rose... two hundred and fifty thousand caps? Fuck me."

"Buh." My jaw dropped. A quarter of a million caps?!

"Wait... that's dead. Alive, it's five hundred thousand- uh, you okay Lily?" Ibis turned to look at me, one eyebrow raised.

"F-f-five h-hundred thousand..." I spasmed a little, the thought of so many caps flooring me... literally. I was laying on my side in the dirt, since my hooves had given out from the shock and were twitching uselessly. "F-f-five... hundred... thousand..." It was a fortune. A cool half million. My tail started to rise as I envisioned it, a glorious pile of caps so big I could swim in it.

"Five. Hundred. Thou-OW!" I sat up, rubbing my forehead and glaring at Ibis, the piece of dented armor he'd thrown at me sitting where it had landed after bouncing off my face. "What the fuck?! Why'd you do that?"

"You were being wierd."

"Oh, fuck you. And let me see that." I snatched the bounty notice from his claw with my magic and brought it over, ignoring his rude gesture.

Let's see... Bourbon Rose... two hundred fifty thousand dead, five hundred thousand alive... hey, there's a description.

"Oi, Ibis!" I waited for him to turn back to me, another dented plate in his claws as he dismantled the hunter's armor, and waved the piece of paper at him. "Found a description. Ahem." I put on a big show of straightening it and ignored his eye roll. "Bourbon Rose. Unicorn mare. White coat, red mane and tail. Wears a leather duster and carries a rifle." I smirked at the griffin. "Sound like anypony you know?"

He shook his head and sighed. "Sounds like Rose alright, but her name's not Bourbon."

"Yeah, well, whoever put the bounty out must've gotten her name mixed up." I pointed my hoof at him, victorious. "Now, tell me what Rose did."

With a groan, he turned back to his grisly work. "We didn't do anything. That thing have a name on it? If we knew who was after us, we could just find them and sort this out." Holding up another piece of armor and examining it, he muttered "let Rose beat them up" before chucking the latest dented bit of metal aside.

I snorted and kept reading the note. "Let's see... bounty... bla bla bla... dead or alive, bla-dee-bla... nope. No name." I balled it up and threw it at the back of Ibis' head, ignoring him when he half-turned to give me a dirty look. Since he wasn't answering, and the note was no help, I decided to try Rose again and turned around to interrogate her some more. "Hey, Rose! Quit playing with your gun and-AAH!" Clutching my chest from the near heart-attack, I toppled backwards, away from Rose, who had snuck up and sat right behind me. "DON'T FUCKING DO THAT!" She blinked at me.

"Lily, why are you rolling in the dirt?"

"You- I- Gaah!" Taking a deep breath to try and calm my pounding heart, I rolled back onto my hooves and glared at her. "Stop sneaking up on me!"

She blinked again and tilted her head to the side. "I didn't sneak. I walked."

I growled. "Whatever. Help Ibis search that hunter. He's taking too long and I wanna get going before somepony else shows up looking for you." She opened her mouth to speak, but I cut her off. "I don't care that he was looking for Bourbon, he was after you."

Pouting, she tried to speak, but I'd just noticed something. "Rose, why're you bleeding?"

She glanced at her front leg, where a trickle of red was making its way down from her shoulder, then blinked at me. "I think he shot me when I jumped on him."

I gave her a flat look. "You think?"

Nodding, she held her foreleg out and looked it up and down. "Uh-huh. He shot me." She lowered her hoof to the ground and blinked at me again. "Is there a hole in my duster? I think there is, but I can't see where the bullet hit."

"Oh, for the love of..." I facehoofed. She'd just been shot and had bounty hunters after her, and she was worried about her precious duster. "Ibis, would you stitch up your marefriend?" As the griffin pulled out a sewing kit from his belt and settled beside Rose, who eagerly stripped for him, I turned to the corpse and checked its pouches for myself. There wasn't much; just a couple of bullets and a healing potion that found their way into my bag before I bothered looking at the armor... or what was left after Ibis had started yanking plates off. Most of it was mangled beyond repair, dented and ruined by Rose's attack. I groaned; there wasn't enough left to put on Rose, and she really needed armor if this was gonna happen again... and I suspected it would.


Eventually Rose and her duster were stitched up (the bullet had only grazed her), the former bounty hunter's gun was declared a lost cause (Rose had mangled it while she mangled him), and we were back on our way, headed for Fetlock.

---------------------------------------------------------------

"Fetlock, sweet Fetlock," I murmered, enjoying the clack of my hooves on ancient concrete as we walked a ruined city street. "Once a busy place, and now-" I had to hop-step as I raised one hoof and waved it, indicating the trashed buildings, "-a treasure trove, filled with salvage." The former suburb of Manehattan surrounded us, promising loot and caps in every abandoned building. Way off in the distance, Tenpony Tower was just barely visible, that elusive paradise in the wasted world, and I sighed, my eyes lingering on it until the other tall buildings got in the way.

It had been two days since our encounter with the bounty hunter, and we'd spent most of the time since walking, only stopping to make camp.

Now, though, we were in what I guessed used to be a shopping district, since most of the buildings had signs on them, made unreadable by time and weather. Weeds and scrubby grass grew through cracks in the pavement, stray dogs chased rats through abandoned buildings, and it was blessedly peaceful for a change. A feeling backed up by Rose's wierd empathy thing and my pipbuck showing an all-clear for red marks.

It didn't even bother me that Rose and Ibis were ignoring me; she was pressed up against his side as we walked, and they were looking at a magazine together. From their eager whispers, and the way Rose's tail was twitching, I was really glad I didn't know what they were talking about.

Instead, I switched my Pipbuck to the radio and cranked it up, singing along as loud as I could. Why not relax? It was a warm day, the clouds were shiny silver and we hadn't been shot at yet. The only thing missing was a cold beer, a pile of caps and a box of snack cakes.

So I guess you can understand why, when Rose stopped suddenly, I bumped into her. Glaring at her, I asked "what's up? You forget how to walk or something?" Then I took a step back, staring at her in surprise. "Uh, Ibis, did you do something to her?"

"No," Ibis replied, prodding her side with his claw. She didn't react, just kept staring at a massive building we were passing, her eyes absolute pinpricks. Every bit of her coat that was visible was standing on end, and I got the impression that without her duster she'd just be a ball of fluff. "Rose? Rose. Hey!"

He snapped his claws in front of her face, but she just ignored him. He looked at me and shrugged."Nothing. Should we get the whiskey?"

Shaking my head, I moved up beside my frozen sister. "No, I know what'll fix her..." With a devious grin, I wiped one hoof clean on Rose' frizzed-out flank and stuck it in my mouth, getting a nice coating of slobber on it. "Now, watch carefully, Ibis." He frowned.

"You're not going to do what I think you are, are you?"

"Oh, yeah," I snickered, then jammed my drool-soaked hoof into Rose's ear.

She shrieked and jumped straight into the air, over me and onto Ibis, latching onto him with her hooves around his neck. "LILY!" she yelled, "That was gross!"

I think she was glaring at me, but I was too busy rolling around on the ground and laughing my pretty plot off.

"B-breathe... Rose... can't..." Hearing Ibis start wheezing as Rose strangled him with her fear hug set me off laughing again.

"Sorry Ibis." I heard the griffin take a deep breath; Rose must've gotten off of him. "It was Lily's fault. She's wierd." I could feel her glaring at me, but couldn't bring myself to look... I was having too much trouble breathing.

"Just ignore the idiot, Rose. What were you doing, anyway?" I heard Ibis ask. "You looked like you'd seen a ghost or something."

There was a slight pause, then "I don't know." Another pause. "I feel twitchy. Run-twitchy. I don't like this place. There's something here."

Wiping the tears from my eyes, I managed to sit up and look at the pair. Rose looked confused and kept glancing back at the big building, while Ibis was rubbing his neck where Rose had grabbed him. "Oh, geez. That was hilarious." I snickered. Ibis glared at me.

"Idiot."

"It was funny, and you know it." I waved my hoof to get Rose's attention. "Hey, Rose." She turned and blinked at me. "What's up? There something in there, or what?"

She blinked again. "Yes. No. Lily, I don't know. Can we go now?"

I snorted and rolled onto my hooves. "Yeah, fine. We were waiting for you, y'know. " Another blink, and I rolled my eyes in response. "Talk my bloody ear off, you do. Hey, you dropped your magazine."

While Rose grabbed the magazine and dusted it off, I fiddled with my Pipbuck to see if I could get a better signal. Then, we were off again, Ibis and Rose side-by-side with me trailing behind. Before the big building was lost to the urban sprawl, I managed to spot a huge sign that had somehow survived the years.

The Pastern Mall? Huh.

With a shrug, I pulled a box of snack cakes out of my bag and tore it open. Prewar ponies weren't very good at naming things, it seemed. And what was a mall, anyway?


After a couple of minutes spent munching and walking, I got bored and trotted up behind Ibis and Rose to hear what they were talking about-

"Can we try number nine next time, Ibis?"

-and immediately dropped back to my nice, safe, quiet position, where I couldn't hear them talking about sex stuff.

Just to be safe, I cranked my Pipbuck's radio back up and chewed my snack cakes as loudly as I could.


It had been a good day, and I wasn't about to let anything ruin it.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Turns out malls are big, indoor markets. They're also prime targets for salvagers and scavengers. But I'll get to all that in a bit.

We'd been walking for almost an hour before Rose stopped again. This time, I was paying enough attention not to trip over her. Still, I gave her a flat look and jabbed her with my hoof. "What is it this time, Rose? See another building you don't like?"

She shook her head. "No. Somepony is coming." Blinking, she turned to me, her ears swiveling wildly. "Lily, I don't think they're friendly."

"Raiders?" Ibis asked, standing taller and looking around, one claw reaching for Garden.

Rose shook her head again. "I don't think so. They don't feel crazy enough."

"Then what?" Ibis asked. Rose shrugged.

"Not friendly." She blinked, then raised her hoof. "Look, there's one now."

As one, me and Ibis turned to see what she was pointing at. An armored pony emerged from an alley way and started, surprised to see us. As they started yelling, I checked my Pipbuck; there was a red mark on the compass, and more were popping up with every second.

My ears flat against my skull, I turned to Ibis. "Bounty hunters?"

Grimacing, he nodded. "Looks like it."

Rose blinked at us as a few more armored ponies joined the first one, pointing at us. "If we ask nicely, do you think they'll go away?"

"NOPE!" I screamed as the hunters started shooting at us, then I bolted for the safety of the nearest building, Rose and Ibis hot on my tail.


What followed was a lot of frantic running and screaming (the screaming was mostly me, I admit it), cowering in abandoned buildings as bullets ripped overhead and the bounty hunters searched for us, Ibis firing to keep their heads down while we ran and Rose stomping anypony unlucky enough to get close.

Eventually we came tearing out of the back alleys like our tails were on fire. Rose's tail was smouldering a bit, thanks to some nutjob with a flamethrower, but me and Ibis were fine.

"Think... we... lost 'em?" I panted, all but collapsing against a sign post. Ibis removed the drum from Garden, popped it into his bag and replaced it with a full one before looking around.

"Looks like it. What's your Pipbuck say?"

I glanced at it, then breathed a sigh of relief. "All clear. Rose, what about you?"

Rose blinked at me, then twisted to look at her own butt, then turned and blinked at me again. "My bottom is on fire."

Snickering, I waved my hoof dismissively. "You're not that hot, Rose... Ibis, why the fuck are you looking at me like that?" I frowned. The big griffin was giving me a dirty look. Then: "Oh." I blushed. "Uh, didn't mean it like that." He flipped me off and looked away, watching the street around us, so I turned back at Rose. "Oh, for fuck's sake," I complained, "Rose, your butt's on fire! Do something!" Smoke was coming from Rose's rear. I didn't think she meant it literally!

Rose blinked at me, then sat on her tail to smother the embers before her backside could burst into flames. Groaning, I shook my head. "You aren't a clever pony, are you?" She blinked at me again in response and I sighed. "Nope... not at all. Whatever. Do your thing and tell me, are we safe now?"

She blinked and looked around, then cocked her head to the side. "No."

I gave her a flat look. "No? What do you mean, 'no'?"

Another blink. "No. We aren't safe."

"Why not?"

"Because they know we're here and they're coming."

"Are you serious?" Rose nodded and I groaned before standing and giving myself a shake. "Ibis, Rose says we're still not safe."

Ibis glanced over at my sister. "How many?"

She blinked again. "Lots."

"Any way out?"

This time, Rose nodded. "I think so." She raised her hoof to point. "There aren't as many over there."

Ibis looked in the direction she'd indicated, and I could practically hear the gears turning in his head. "Enough we could take them on?" Rose nodded and he got a determined look in his eyes. "Right. Rose, you lead. Let's avoid the groups. Lily, keep an eye on your Pipbuck." I mock-saluted and he rolled his eyes. "Right. Let's go, then."


We set off, with Rose in the lead and guiding us around the hunters. She moved, we moved. She hid, we hid. I was really starting to appreciate her empathy thing, since it meant we weren't getting shot as much.

We even got off the streets and out of the open, when Rose busted down a door to the staff entrance of some big old hotel to avoid a group that was getting too close.

While Rose and Ibis tried to get the door back into its frame so it wouldn't attract attention, I had a look at the hall we'd broken into. There wasn't much to see, really. An overturned trolley with an old, stained sheet on it, a door hanging from its hinges on one side of the hall and another door at the far end, this one intact.

A loud thud made me jump and spin, glaring at the amateur door-repairers. Ibis rolled his eyes, but Rose bashed her hoof against the door with another thud, jamming it good and proper into the frame... and by good and proper, I mean it didn't look like it would ever open again.

I opened my mouth to tell Rose off, but she held her hoof to her mouth and shushed, one ear twitching. Ibis half-drew Garden and I glanced at my Pipbuck; all it said was that there was a bunch of red marks outside of the building, not how close they were or anything useful like that. Then, we all froze. We could hear muffled voices in the alley we'd just come from, and they were getting closer to the door.

Ibis' claw tightened on his shotgun and I made myself as small a target as I could, flattening myself against the wall. Rose just looked at the wall, her head slowly turning. It took me a second, but I realised she was following whoever was outside as they passed. Her ears flattened when the voices stopped by the door and it sounded like they argued, before one of them must've pushed on the door. Thanks to Rose being a brute and smashing it closed, though, it only rattled a bit. The voices spoke some more, then grew fainter as they must've moved on down the alley. After a minute Rose blinked at us.

"They're gone," she whispered, causing me to let out a sigh of relief. "But we should be careful. I think there are more coming."

"But we're safe for now, right?" I gave a hopeful grin, and Rose nodded. "Like, safe enough to take a break?" Rose looked around, her ears twitching, then nodded again. I sighed and almost collapsed. "Oh thank Celestia."

"Don't get too comfortable, Lily," Ibis warned. "We need to be ready to move."

"Yeah, yeah." I waved my hoof at him, tugging a bottle of Sunrise Sarsparilla out of my bag and popping it open. "Just, let me catch my breath, yeah?" While he rolled his eyes. I slipped the cap into my bag and took a refreshing swig. It was good to finally sit down. Relaxing a little, Rose gave Ibis a look that I really didn't like. This was no time for sexytimes! "Hey, Rose," I called as quietly as I could, waving my hoof to get her attention before she could pounce the griffin, "what's in that room?" I pointed at the door partway down the hall.

She blinked at me. "I don't know."

I rolled my eyes. "Well, go look then." She looked at Ibis again and I shook my head. "No. If you two go in there together, we'll get caught for sure." She pouted and I narrowed my eyes at her. "I saw the way you were looking at him, Rose. You're not quiet, y'know."


Grumbling to herself, Rose trotted down the hall and vanished into the room. I turned to find Ibis looking irritated. "Idiot. We wouldn't have sex at a time like this."

I snorted. "Yeah, right. Rose can't control herself."

He scowled. "Like you're any better? After what you did to Rose the other day-"

"Hey!" Nickering, I jabbed my hoof towards him. "That wasn't my fault! Your damn feelings are still in my head and they made me do it!"

"What are you on about?" He stared at me, eyebrow raised. I frowned and looked away.

"Rose's stupid empathy thing, when we all got... whaddya call it, connected. I got your feelings for her jammed in my brain and they're still there."

The griffin gave me a disbelieving look. "That doesn't make any sense. I haven't felt any different since then. I didn't catch your stupidity or anything."

"Yeah, well... it's because you're wierd," I stated, climbing to my hooves and draining the rest of my drink. "All mating for life and shit. And now I've got griffin in my head, thanks to you." Tucking the empty bottle back into my bag, I gave Ibis a dirty look. "I can't look at Rose without feeling all wierd, and it's your fault."


Ibis drew himself up, fluffing his feathers out and going all stiff legged. He half-spread his wings and stalked towards me, looking at me like I was something he wanted to eat. I forced down the urge to run and stood as straight as I could as he loomed over me. He was scary, but I wasn't gonna let him intimidate me.

We glared at each other for a few agonizing seconds, before he huffed. "Don't even think about touching her, Lily."

"Ugh." I grimaced at the thought of it. "Ew, no way! She's my sister, you freak! Even if I do have your stuff in my head, why would I... oh." Realisation struck and I snickered. "Oh, that's it, isn't it?" I gave the overstuffed featherbag a knowing look. "You're jealous, aren't you?"

He huffed again and took another step towards me, but I'd figured him out. He was just trying to scare me off from Rose! "You really are, aren't you?" I laughed and poked him with my hoof. He fluffed himself up more. "Big jealous birdy."

"Lily," he hissed, making me take a step backwards, my coat standing on end from the sudden jolt of fear the big, menacing predator had sent up my spine. "Rose. Is. Mine."

"Okay, okay. Yeesh." I did my best to act like he hadn't just scared the piss out of me, but didn't quite meet his eyes. "Geez, touchy much?" He just glared at me, so I kept talking. "Griffins mate for life, got it. But ponies don't, you do know that, right? We herd. Well, some of us do." I was rambling at this point and trying to smooth my coat down. "I mean, what if Rose meets a nice pony and wants them in her herd with you? What would you do about that?" I gave him a sidelong glance; he huffed, his tufted tail whipping about behind him.

"Nopony touches Rose." He clacked his beak at me, still glaring. "She's mine, and there's not a single one of you ponies that I'd let herd with her."

"What if you don't have a choice? It may be a herd of two right now, but it's Rose's herd, after all." I shot back.

He leaned in close and snapped his beak right in front of my muzzle, twisting his head so he could stare right at me with one big, golden eye. "Her herd, our flock, but my mare." I could see myself reflected in that amber orb, the big fierce eyeball just inches from my face. It wasn't a fun experience. "Nobody touches her. Ever."

I held my ground. "And if Rose wants somepony else to?"


Ibis pulled away and drew himself back to his full height, looking down at me, his expression and posture fierce and threatening. "Then I'll make damn sure they know whose mare she is, and what happens if they don't deserve her."

I snorted, but my reply was cut off by the door opening. We both turned to see Rose blinking at us.

She looked between us a few times, one ear twitching. "Lily, Ibis, please stop whatever you're doing. You feel strange and it's confusing. Lily, it's a locker room." She raised a hoof to point at her head, where a little round red thing with a gold band on it was sitting. "I found a hat."

Me and Ibis stared at her for a bit; she just blinked at us, then I shook my head with a snort. "That is the stupidest hat I've ever seen."

Ibis chuckled and smoothed down his feathers, his wings returning to his sides. "I can't believe I'm agreeing with the idiot, but Rose... that hat is ridiculous."

She blinked at us again while I stuck my tongue out at Ibis. "I'm not an idiot, you jerk."

"You're an idiot," he repeated, shoving past me and sticking a wing over Rose to guide her to the door at the end of the corridor. I growled.

"Wait for me, you... you jerk!" I trotted after them and through the door, finding myself in the hotel's kitchen. There was dust everywhere, and some fuzzy things that might have been food once upon a century. Rose (still wearing her hat) and Ibis had slowed to a leisurely walk since we were safe for the time being, so I caught up before they'd made it halfway across the room.

All the silverware and a few other odds and ends found a home in my bags before we left the kitchens. You never know when a skillet might come in handy, after all.

---------------------------------------------------------------

The hotel was actually intact and pretty nice, for an abandoned building. The ground floor was, anyway; we didn't bother going upstairs since we just wanted to get shot of the place.

The carpet was dirty, faded and torn in places, but at least it was still there, a nice soft surface to shuffle my hooves on after so much dirt and concrete. The walls still had some of their original paint, mostly in spots where pictures had been hanging, leaving clean-ish spots behind after being looted or knocked down.

Even the rooms we checked out looked decent, surprisingly. Except for the occasional rat nest, radroach swarm or feral dog, anyway.


Not much worth taking with us, though, and we couldn't spare the time for a proper search.

After about a half hour or so, we found ourselves in the lobby, just metres away from the outside. All that stood between us and the exit was a bunch of scattered suitcases that I gleefully kicked out the way as I pranced towards the broken glass doors. "Sweet freedom, here I come!"

"Lily, wait!" Rose called out. I ignored her and bucked the doors open with a huge grin... then froze, grinning like an idiot at the group of armed and armored ponies on the other side.

"Um, hi?" I laughed nervously. They just looked past me and got their own grins. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Rose darting up behind me; they'd seen her.

"It's her, boys! Bourbon Rose!" One cried out. "Get her!"

"Yipe!" I shrieked as a sharp pain in my rear let me know Rose had gotten hold of my tail, and I was yanked to safety just as the bounty hunters opened fire and blew the doors apart.


Rose dragged me flank-first back across the lobby, bouncing me over the discarded luggage in her haste, so I had a good view of the bounty hunters charging in after us... and the rocket launcher one of them had.

"Oh." I stared at the hunter with the launcher for a fraction of a second... then screamed. "RoserunrocketrunfastFUCK-"

---------------------------------------------------------------

I woke up from a lovely dream about Princess Celestia turning into a stallion and giving me a right good seeing-to and, even with my head as muddled as it was, I came to a very definite conclusion.

Waking up sucked.

Everything hurt and I could smell burnt hair... and something really horrible. Like, passed-out on the loo floor of a cheap bar on Half-Price Shots Night horrible.

What the fuck did I drink last night?

Slowly, my fuzzy brain let the memories through, of the bounty hunters and a rocket launcher, and flashes of ceilings and walls going by and I sat up in alarm... then fell over again, almost passing out from the pain of a thousand bruises. It was all I could just do to groan again.

"Lily's awake," came Rose's voice from one side, echoing eerily. I forced my eyes open and found myself staring at a mildew-covered, slimy stone roof. It was bathed in off-yellow light, and a quick (but blurry) glance at my foreleg revealed my Pipbuck's spotlight was turned on.

Ibis made himself heard next. It sounded like he was next to Rose. Big surprise there. "You dead yet, Lily?"

I just groaned.

"Lily is fine," Rose declared. I groaned again. 'Fine' was not how I felt. Every single part of me felt bruised like a cheap apple, and for some reason my dock really hurt.

"My-" I licked my lips; my mouth was dry, and I felt a little hoarse. "My arse hurts."

"Sorry, Lily." Rose sounded embarrassed. "We got blown up and you went to sleep. I had to pull you by your tail. Those ponies wouldn't stop to let me pick you up properly, even after I asked nicely." She paused, then carried on, sounding offended. "They weren't very nice. They even blew my hat up."

Yet again, I groaned. Anypony else, I would've thought they were joking about asking nicely. Knowing Rose, though, she would've done just that. "So no wild sex with a Goddess? It was just a dream?"

There was a long pause before Rose spoke again. "Lily, you're strange."

I sighed and slowly, agonisingly, sat up, focusing my blurry vision on the blobs I figured were Rose and Ibis... or a giant marshmallow being eaten by a buzzard. Not too different if you walk in on them at the wrong time, really.


It took a bit, and a lot of blinking, but my vision cleared enough for me to make out that Rose was standing, naked, with Ibis' face close to her butt.

"Seriously?" I gave them the flattest, most unimpressed look I could manage, considering the throbbing in my head... and everywhere else.

Rose just blinked at me curiously.

I shook my head... and immediately regretted it. Cupping my head in my hooves with a groan, I asked "Do you two ever stop? We're in a..." I looked around, and realised why it stunk so bad. "A sewer?" With a tired expression, I looked to Rose. She nodded. "A sewer, Ibis, and you're under Rose's tail again?"


Ibis pulled away from Rose and gave me a flat look of his own. "Rose got shot again, you idiot." He leaned in and I heard his beak clack, then he came back up holding a needle and some thread. He tucked them into his pouch and gave Rose a slap on the flank, making her leg twitch in a half-kick. "There. That's the last one. Go on, get your gear back on while I check Lily."

Rose blinked at him. "Lily's fine." She pointed at me. "They didn't shoot her. She just has bruises."

Ibis bumped his head against hers softly, holding it there. "I believe you, but we need to be sure. Okay?" Rose nodded, and he stepped away, letting her start pulling her duster back on. Slowly, he came towards me and sat down by my side. I stared at him; he looked exhausted.

"How long was I out?"

"Few hours," He shook his head and yawned, "I think." Closing his beak with an audible clack, he prodded my tender side, making me flinch. "C'mon, strip already."

"Ow." I scowled at him. "I'm not Rose, y'know."

He fixed me with his stare, looking tired and grumpy. "I know. I only had to ask her once. Strip so I can check you out."

I was gonna be a smart-arse, but the look in his eyes suggested it might not have been the best time. Instead, I undid my bags and tugged my jacket off, wincing with every bruised inch of my body it touched. Dropping it, I glared at the griffin. "Happy now? Just what happened after I got blown up, anyway?"

"They chased us all over the hotel," Ibis began, poking and prodding me. He was so tired he didn't even taunt me, even though I was yelping and squirming the whole time. Every touch was agony! I don't think there was a part of me that wasn't bruised! "Rose had to drag you the whole time. Did what I could, but we were outnumbered and outgunned." I hissed as he prodded a particuarly sensitive spot.

He just sighed and kept checking me. "Only reason we got away is because that lunatic with the rocket launcher collapsed the entrance to the basement behind us. We got into the sewers, Rose jammed the hatch behind us, and we settled in here to stitch her up."

With a groan he straightened up. "You're fine. Tenderised, but fine." One claw went into his belt, emerging with a syringe. He offered it to me. "Half-dose of Med-X. Won't knock you out, but it should help."

I looked at it, then up at him. "What about the bounty hunters?"

"We're safe enough down here." He sighed. "You're no good in a fight anyway, so just take the damn shot."

I wrapped the syringe in my magic and lifted it, examining it before returning my attention to the griffin. "Not yet. We need to find somewhere that's proper safe, not the middle of some stinky sewer." I waved my hoof at our surroundings; green goop oozed down the walls, stagnant, reeking pools of water were here and there, and it look horrible as far as my light could reach.


Ibis just sighed. "Whatever." He turned to my sister, who had managed to get her gear back on while we were talking. "Rose, you think there'd be, I don't know, a storage room or something?"

Rose looked between us, blinking. "Yes." She turned and stared off into the darkness for a few seconds, then blinked at us over her shoulder. "But we should go this way. It feels safe. And lonely. And sad."

Rather than question her, Ibis shook his head. "Right. Safe." He turned to me. "Lily, get your gear on so we can move out."

Nodding, I tucked the syringe into my bag and got dressed again. Magic made it a lot simpler than if I'd used my hooves, like a certain somepony.

With that, Rose set off at a slow walk, Ibis close behind, leaving me to bring up the rear with the light. After a few steps, though, something clattered out of my bag. Without breaking stride, I picked it up and floated it around to take a look at it. It was the syringe.

Craning my neck, I noticed a hole in my bag that hadn't been there before. With a frown, I opened it up and pulled the first thing I saw out, swearing quietly when I saw the big whole that had been blown in a perfectly good box of snack cakes before tucking them back in.

The next thing was big and made of metal. It was my new frying pan, and there was a large bullet embedded in it. My frown turned to a scowl and I shook the pan until the bullet fell out, leaving it with just a dent.


I tucked the pan back into my bag, followed by the Med-X, and followed my companions through the sewer to Luna-Knows-Where at a lethargic pace. It had been a hell of a day, I was tired and sore, Rose had been shot again, Ibis was grumpy, and my bag had a hole in it.

I really hated bounty hunters.

---------------------------------------------------------------

I stretched and turned off my light, glad to finally be out of the sewers. Behind me, Rose secured the hatch we'd climbed through and Ibis stretched out his wings.

It had taken way too long to get out of the dark, tight, gross tunnels, and we were all glad to be free of it. I was gonna be smelling centuries-old sewage for days, and I really didn't want to think about what was on my hooves.

Still, our new surroundings were a big improvement. A concrete hallway, big enough for a small group to walk down without trouble, pipes running along the walls and occasionally the ceiling. Some strip lights clung to life above, giving enough light to see by.

After the last couple of hours, it was like being outside again, and it was a lot easier to breathe.


"Rose," a yawn escaped, interrupting me, "h-how far to this safe place?" My jaw clicked when it closed and I rubbed it. It hurt. Just like everything else.

Rose looked around, her ears swivelling, then pointed. "That way. She's that way."

"She?" I gave Rose a questioning look, but she ignored me and just started trotting in the direction she'd indicated. Ibis and I exchanged glances, then shook our heads. It wasn't worth the effort to deal with my wierdo sister, not when we were that tired.

Whoever she was taking us to couldn't be worse than what we'd already been through, right?

---------------------------------------------------------------

Rose's trot had slowed to a walk to let me and Ibis catch up, and we made slow but steady progress through the tunnels. A couple of places had collapsed stairwells leading up, but Rose led us past them, following... something.

After a few minutes, I started noticing grafitti on the walls. "Griffins Rule?" I snorted. "Tunnel Snakes Rule? RE: Balefire: You Missed Me? Down with Stripes?" I shook my head. Some ponies had too much time on their hooves. Still, it was more interesting than plain walls, so I kept reading as we walked. "The Pegasi have the Phone Box?" I frowned at that one. "I don't get it. What's a phone?"

We kept walking, and I quickly got bored of reading the scrawls on the walls. Until Rose stopped suddenly. Caught unaware, Ibis bumped into her, and I bumped into him.

Me and the griffin grumbled at her, but she just blinked at us. "We're here."

I leaned to the side to see around the great grey galah in front of me. There was just a nondescript door, with the words "Bad Wolf" painted over it and most of the wall around it in massive letters. I frowned at Rose. "Where's 'here'?"

Rose blinked again. "The safe place. She's waiting inside."

I groaned. "Rose, who is 'She'?"

Another blink. "I don't know, but Starfall says she's been waiting for a long time." She paused for a second, then, "I think they knew each other."

Great, Rose's stupid conscience thing was talking to her again. Groaning, I shook my head. "Just, let's get inside, okay?"

With another blink, Rose pushed the door, then smashed her hoof into the lock when it wouldn't open and slipped into the room. Ibis and I shared another look before following her.


The room we found ourselves was long and wide. One wall was lined with pipes running from ceiling to floor, branching at big valve wheels. One corner was filled with tools and junk, piled haphazardly like it had all been shoved over there in a hurry. Most of the room was filled with cots, the sort that surfaced whenever somepony found a stockpile of emergency relief stuff or got into one of the old Equestrian Guard bases. They sat in three rows, with just enough space between them to walk, with piles of soiled bedding on them. The lights weren't as good as they were outside, dim and feeble.

"Hello? Anypony here?" I called out, looking around for this mystery mare Rose had been leading us to. There was no reply, but I noticed Rose creeping slowly down one row of beds. Curious, I looked down the row; there was a red unicorn laying on the very last bed with something draped over her. Rose paused, peeking over a cot at the figure.

I rolled my eyes and trotted on over, ignoring my wierd sister. "Um, hello? We don't want to hurt you, we're just looking for a safe place to rest... ma'am?" I paused. Something was off about the strange mare.

Then it hit me. She wasn't moving at all.

Swallowing, I trotted closer, until I was only one bed away, and called out again. "H-hello?" No response.

I looked to my side, where Ibis had padded up quietly. He shrugged and reached for Garden; further back, Rose slipped between cots and darted closer. She blinked at me when we made eye contact.

Swallowing, I flicked my Pipbuck's light on... and shuddered.

It was definitely a unicorn, but she wasn't alive. She definitely wasn't alive.


We were staring at a skeleton, laying on the bed. "Um, Rose... is... is this who you were talking about?" The bones weren't scattered or anything; it looked like whoever it had been had just laid down and died, somehow remaining undisturbed for who-knew how long. They were covered in... the only way I could describe it was as a glossy, dark red crystal or something. The tip of the horn and the very end of the muzzle still showed bone, along with the hooves, but everything else I could see was covered in the red stuff.

The rest of it was covered with a tattered old duster, shielding most of the remains from my view.

"Uh-huh." Rose popped up beside me, speaking quietly. "She was waiting for Starfall. She's been here for a long time, Lily."

"Huh." I couldn't think of anything else to say. Rose had been talking to ghosts again, it seemed.

"She says Starfall made a promise to her, a long, long time ago," Rose continued softly, "and now she wants Starfall to keep it." Slowly, she put her front hooves on the bed and bumped the skull with her nose, blinking. "She's very lonely." Her ears twitched. "Starfall says we should wait here. She's going to keep her promise."

I gave Rose a sidelong look as she nuzzled the skull again, looking sad. It sent shivers up my spine. Dead things weren't friends! "Um, what's the promise?"

Rose blinked at me. "I don't know."

I shook my head. "Ugh... fine. Just, please stop playing with it?" I waved my hoof at some crates and lockers. "Go check those or something." She blinked again and finally left the skeleton alone, trotting over to rummage. Ibis came up beside me. "So, what do you think happened to her? Why's she red?"

Ibis looked thoughtful, reaching out and prodding the crystallised bones. "I'm not sure... but this stuff looks... familiar." He tilted his head and lifted the duster, peering at the bony barrel. "Shine your light in here for a sec." I did that, and he hmmm'd to himself.

"See anything?"

He nodded and pointed. "Yeah. Look in there." I looked at the bones, trying to see what he meant.

"What am I meant to be looking at?" I glanced up at him, confused.

He set the duster back down and sat beside me, frowning. "I'm not completely sure, but it looks like..."

"Like?" I asked, waving my hoof to try and encourage him.

He turned to me, still frowning. "Like Rose's talisman."

It was my turn to frown. "The one Doc Needles put in her chest?"

He nodded, then looked back at the body. "Yeah."

"So... does that mean Rose is gonna end up like this?" I waved my hoof at the remains. "A... a crystal pony?"

Ibis shrugged, still frowning. "I don't know. The doc mentioned the crystal was growing, remember? Maybe this is what happens."

"Huh." I let my eyes wander to Rose, who was trying to chew the padlock off of a locker. "Do you think... we should be worried?"

"She seems fine, and..." Ibis shook his head, "there's nothing we could do anyway." We both watched Rose, who had gotten frustrated and started trying to yank the padlock off with her teeth. "Maybe it's not bad. Whoever this mare was, she must've lived a long time to have it grow so much, and-" We flinched as the locker tipped over, landing on Rose with a loud crash. One pale leg poked out from under it, twitching.

"Ow," came Rose's voice from under the mass of metal. "Lily, I'm stuck."

Ibis groaned and went over to help the dummy get free, so I turned back to the remains. "So... you had a talisman too, huh? Well, I guess it didn't help much... I mean, you being dead and all." I frowned. "How did you know Starfall? I thought that was just Rose being crazy... is that something to do with the talismans as well?" I shook my head, then noticed something under one boney hoof. Gently, I lifted it and removed... "A piece of paper?" I held my prize up to my light. It was a neatly folded piece of paper... which I promptly unfolded, being curious. "Huh." It was a letter.


To my big sister Lily

I don't know if you will ever read this, but if you do, I want to say I'm sorry. I should never have fought, should never have joined the war.

Luna forgive me, I killed so many...

If I had gone with you, we would still be together. I can only pray you are still alive, safe, outside of Equestria. I was wrong for what I did, and now I'm dying because of it.

The bombs fell. There were so many hurt, Lily. I did everything I could to help. We all did. We're safe here, for now, but it won't last. The air is poisonous now.

The refugees are going to leave soon. We don't have enough supplies, though. Even if we did, most of us won't live long enough make it out of the city.

I'm staying here.

I can feel it, Lily. Everything is wrong inside. Radiation sickness. The nurses here are nice, but they don't understand why I won't let them use any of the medicine on me. They think they can save us, save me. They're nice, but a bit silly.

...

I'll see you soon. Starfall promised I would see my family again, and she always keeps her promises.

Your loving sister, Rose


With a shudder, I folded the piece of paper up and slipped it back under the hoof. Her name was Rose? She had a talisman and knew about Starfall, and she had a sister called Lily?

There was coincidence, and then there was just plain creepy.

I noticed something hanging around the remains' neck and took it in my magic, lifting it so I could see. There was a couple of rusted metal tags on a chain, too damaged to be readable. "You were a soldier, huh? And you tried to help everypony, even when you knew you were dying?" I managed a smile. "Y'know, I bet your sister would forgive you... for whatever you did... and if Starfall's real, and not just some crazy talisman thing, I bet you will see your family again."

I released the tags, letting them fall back into the shadows cast by the duster, a low tink sounding as they bumped the crystal-covered bones. Hesitantly, I reached out and patted the bony shoulder before snatching my hoof back. "Um, rest well, okay?" I kept my smile up, then noticed something had fallen out of the duster's pocket. I took it up in my magic; it was a small key.


Looking over to where Rose and Ibis were, the locker having been rolled off my slightly flatter sister, I saw the pair trying to break the padlock. I looked at the key, then back at them, then called out. "Hey, guys!" I waved my hoof to get their attention, then tossed the key over to them. "Try this." Rose caught it in her teeth, blinked at me and pressed her face against the lock. A second later, while I was heading to them, there was a low click and Rose looked at me again.

"Yay."

"Gee, Rose, you're so enthusiatic," I snarked, "you really need to calm down." She just blinked at me, and I rolled my eyes. "Anything good in there?"

It was Ibis who answered. "Looks like armor." He reached one claw in and pulled out a bulky round thing, covered in a sort of mottled brown color. It was a hoof-boot. He dropped it and rummaged around in the locker some more. "Looks military... good stuff. Looks like a full suit, too." He sat back up and turned to me. "No helmet, but there's everything else."

We shared a look, then turned to Rose, who started to back away nervously.

"Lily, grab her."

I siezed Rose in my magic and dragged her back over to us. "Hurry!" I grunted, trying to keep the struggling mare from breaking free. "Get it on her, Ibis!"

"Hey! Rose, stop- OW!" Rose sunk her teeth into Ibis' claw, getting a pained screech in return. "You're wearing it! Don't- OW!"

Stripping her was almost as hard as actually getting the armor on, and Rose whinnied, kicked and bit the entire time, with the occasional yelp as sensitive bits got stuck in buckles. In the end, though, we got her armored up and I put her down, feeling very satisfied with what we'd accomplished.

Rose was neatly encased in armor. All four hooves were protected by the booties, with her forelegs covered by high greaves. The armored vest had a reinforced peytral to protect her throat and the front of her barrel, and reached back over her flanks and butt with a hole for her tail. Her shoulders and stifles had armor plates over them, and even the back of her neck had a small criniere to keep it safe. The only thing missing was a helmet, just like Ibis had said.


"There," I said smugly, "now you won't get shot so much."

Rose just gave me a baleful glare, laid down, rolled over and stuck her hooves in the air.

I stared at her. "What are you doing?"

She kept up her upside down glare, hooves extended straight up. "I don't like it."

I frowned. "Why not? Do you wanna get shot up again?"

"It's on my hooves. Lily, I don't like my hooves being covered."

I facehoofed. "If we take the boots off, will you stop being a foal about it?"

She shook her head. "All of it."

Ibis sighed. "Rose, just... wear the armor. You keep getting hurt, and we can't use healing potions on you."

She just glared at him, instead of me.


After a lot of arguing, we ended up taking most of the armor off of her, until she was just wearing the barrel armor and peytral. I sighed as she pulled her duster on over it, fidgeting and squirming to try and get comfortable with her new armor. "At least the important bits are covered."

"Yeah," Ibis agreed, "everything except her head."

I snorted. "No danger there. She's so thick-headed, that's the one place we don't have to worry about her getting hurt."

Ibis rolled his eyes at me. "Whatever. We're still taking the rest of the armor, you know."

It was my turn to roll my eyes. "Of course we are. Who's carrying it?" We looked at each other for a second, then back to Rose, who glared and nickered at us.


It only took a couple of minutes to stow the rest of the armor in Rose's bags. Most of that was spent rearranging her booze and book collection to make room.

But, once that was done, we were all even more exhausted... except Rose, who had taken shelter in a crate and refused to speak to us for forcing her to wear the armor.

So, we threw a sheet over the skeleton and settled down on some cots of our own. Ibis took the one nearest to Rose's hiding place, while I took the one furthest from the creepy coincidence corpse after using the Med-X Ibis had given me.


I was almost asleep when Rose piped up, announcing that "Starfall is back. She kept her promise."

Shuddering, I rolled over on my cot and pulled my pillow over my head. Rose could be really creepy sometimes.

---------------------------------------------------------------

We woke up in the afternoon, according to my Pipbuck. A quick meal of snack cakes, Sparkle cola and cram sandwiches was followed by our Rose saying a prayer for the deceased Rose, then our departure from the temporary sanctuary and back into the tunnels.

Of course, we had no idea where we were going, and ended up just looking for an intact staircase, rather than crawl into the sewers again.

It was the better part of an hour, wandering around that maze, before we managed to find one that was at least passable.


When Rose broke down the door at the top, we found ourselves in...

"A storage room?" I growled, kicking one of the boxes over. It spilled a bunch of random crap onto the floor, and I took a deep, calming breath, getting rid of the twitchy feeling I'd gotten after being stuck underground for so long. "Right... storage room... we can just..." I looked at Rose; her ears were swiveling again. I sighed. "Bounty hunters again?"

She blinked. "Lots of ponies. They're fighting."

"Is there a way past them?" Ibis asked.

Another blink. "I think so. There aren't many..." Slowly, she turned, staring at te walls, then stopped and pointed. "That way."

Ibis shook his head. "I'm getting sick of this."

I had to agree. Fetlock was turning into a bloody nightmare.

---------------------------------------------------------------

More following Rose, more corridors. I was sick and tired of corridors. I missed the sky. Something I didn't miss was running into Rose every time she stopped suddenly.

I just hung my head and groaned. "What is it this time, Rose?"

It was Ibis who answered, not my sister. "Rocket launcher," he stated, resignation clear in his voice. Then he shoved me to the side as the world exploded for the second time in as many days.


Coughing,I picked myself up and looked around, waving a hoof to clear the dust from in front of my face. I was in a corridor by myself, the intersection we'd all just been standing in filled with rubble and smoke. "Rose? Ibis?" I called out, hoping they were fine.

Ibis responded, yelling back and coughing. "I'm fine! You?"

"Fine!" I yelled back. "Is Rose with you?"

"No!"

"Hang on!" I checked my Pipbuck; there were red marks everywhere, and just two green ones. One was directly across from me, I guessed that was Ibis. The other was to my side, where a bunch of red marks were vanishing one-by-one. "Rose is fine!" I yelled, then started coughing. Smoke was starting to fill up the corridor. "W-we have to get out of here!"

"Lily! Ibis!" Came Rose's voice. "I have a rocket launcher now. Can I blow up the wall?"

"N-no!" Me and Ibis screamed at the same time, terrified by the thought of Rose with rockets.

"Run! We'll meet up outside!" Ibis ordered.

"Okay," Rose called back, "but please hurry. And be careful. There are lots of angry ponies here."

---------------------------------------------------------------

I got out of the corridors as fast as I could, and found myself in the Pastern Mall. How did I know? Well, the giant sign in the middle of the place was a dead give-away.

It looked like it would have been a great place, before the war. Two levels, stores packed tight against each other, a mildew-y fountain, food courts, even a few long-dead plants.

Now, though? It was a warzone. Scavengers and bounty hunters were going at it full-tilt. Stalls were blown apart, windows shattered, stuffed animals exploding into clouds of fluff and about half the place seemed to be on fire.

Near as I could tell, the bounty hunters were looking for Rose, and the scavengers were protecting their turf.


Me? I was busy running and screaming, hiding behind whatever cover wasn't occupied or full of holes, leaping through the ruined stores like a demented deer. I hadn't seen hide nor hair of Rose or Ibis, and finding an exit was proving difficult... until, in the middle of running from Barnyard Bargains to Oranges & Apples, I spotted a weakly flickering little sign, a speck of green that displayed the most glorious word I'd ever seen.

EXIT.

I banked as hard as I could, hooves slipping on the tiled floor as I tried to get to the sign without being filled full of holes. By some miracle, I actually made it, and hauled donkey down the corridor... then smacked into the wall when I didn't quite make the turn at the far end.

I shook my head and jumped to my hooves, ready to run again, but gunshots near where I'd just come from drew my attention and I turned back.

A familiar mare was standing just outside the corridor, snarling and firing her rifle, her blue aura spinning it and firing almost faster than I could see. Her red mane was sticking up and her duster was charred, but there was no doubt it could only be Rose. And if Rose was there, it meant Ibis would be right behind her.

"ROSE!" I yelled at the top of my lungs, waving madly. "EXIT! THIS WAY! C'MON!" Pausing only to make sure she'd noticed me, I took off again, barrelling down the corridor, following those happy little green signs that promised freedom.

In no time at all I found myself outside, hitting the exit door so hard I rolled across the concrete outside. A second later, Rose came flying out behind me. I turned to her. "Oh, thank Celestia you're okay..." Then I noticed something wasn't right. A lot of somethings.

The mare had a blue aura, Rose had a white one. The mare had brown eyes, Rose had blue. The mare had a lever-action rifle in her magical grasp, Rose used a bolt-action and never held it in her magic.


Groaning, I facehoofed. "You wouldn't happen to be Bourbon Rose, would you?"

"What of it?" The Not-Rose sneered, her gun aimed at me. "You one of them fucking bounty hunters?"

My eye twitching, I glared at her and got ready to let her have it. She was the cause of all the shit we'd been through for days.

Then the wall above us exploded in a shower of bricks and flames, causing us both to look up. A big feathery mass smacked into Bourbon and knocked her to the ground, while I got a faceful of an all-too-familiar backside.

"See, Ibis?" I heard Rose say from her seat on my face. "I told you we'd find Lily out here. All we had to do was blow up the wall."



LEVEL UP

Chapter 20: Two of A Kind

View Online

---CHAPTER 20: Two of A Kind---

"Don't tell me. You- you tied yourselves up?"

---------------------------------------------------------------

All I could see was Rose's rump, but my ears weren't covered by filly flank... unlike my eyes. And my nose. And my mouth, which, thankfully, had been closed when she landed on me. I still got a real good look at things I hadn't wanted to see again, though!

"See, Ibis?" I heard Rose say from her seat on my face. "I told you we'd find Lily out here. All we had to do was blow up the wall."

Ibis groaned. It sounded like he was hurt. Good. I gave Rose a few seconds, to see if she'd get off my face on her own... then poked her butt with my hoof when she didn't.

"Gmff rff ee!" I tried to tell her to get off without moving my mouth... it didn't work so well, especially when she shifted a bit, presumably to look down at me. There were bits rubbing on my face!

"Lily, what are you doing down there? That's where Ibis' thing goes, not your face."

Merciful Celestia, I didn't need that image. Bad enough I was muzzle-deep, but thinking about freaky griffin dick being up there first?!

With a scream I shoved her off and sat up, gasping for breath and staring straight ahead, doing my best not to picture Ibis' pointy penis poking Rose's perky pony parts... and failing miserably. Images ran through my head, matching themselves to the sounds I'd heard way too often. I could practically see Rose being buggered, could hear her whinnying in pleasure, the big grey bastard hunched over her and violating that soft, pink, wet, tasty-

Something blew in my brain, and all I could do was stare at the horizon, wondering where my life went wrong and what I'd done to deserve everything that had happened to me.


"You're being strange again Lily," Rose declared after a few moments of relative silence. Slowly, I turned my head to stare at her, my eye twitching. The things I wanted to say just wouldn't come out. Most of it would've been swearing. She blinked at me, then turned and started poking Ibis, who was slumped over the other mare in a duster. "Ibis, wake up. Lily is being scary."

"Gmmf..." With a start, Ibis leapt to his paws, birdy head twisting and turning every which way as he reached for where Garden was slung on his back. "Rose, are we..." He stopped, looking from Rose, who blinked at him, to Bourbon, out cold underneath him. "What the fuck?"

I took a deep breath, then let it out, thinking calming thoughts that had nothing to do with Rose's rear, before plastering a massive smile on my face. "Perverts, meet Bourbon Rose. She's the one the bounty hunters are after."


Ibis and Rose stared at me for a second, then Rose started poking the unconscious Bourbon. Ibis frowned. "What-"

I cut him off. "Rose, bring that-" I pointed at Bourbon "-with us. We're getting out of here." The gunfire and shouting from inside the mall was growing louder, so I shook myself off and hopped to my hooves. "Now, Rose!"

Rose blinked at me, then slipped under Bourbon and stood so that the bounty head was draped over her back like a sack of caps. "Lily, where are we going?"

"Fucked if I know," I declared. "Away, that's all I care about."

Another blink, and Rose started trotting off, presumably to somewhere her freaky thing said was safe, but not before grabbing Bourbon's gun in her mouth. Ibis came up beside me, strapping a dinged-up rocket launcher to his back. At least that answered the questions of what had happened to the rocket launcher Rose took from the pricks that blew us up, and how she'd blown up the wall to use me for a seat. "Told you they weren't looking for Rose."

"Go fuck yourself," I muttered before quickly trotting after Rose and her cargo, the griffin giving a quick glance backwards before matching our pace.

---------------------------------------------------------------

After an hour or so, the warzone of a mall had vanished behind us in the urban sprawl and, between my Pipbuck and Rose's thing, it looked like we were in the clear.

Stepping into the shade of an abandoned building, we all settled in for a break and I finally relaxed a bit... until I looked at Bourbon Rose, dumped unceremoniously to one side of our group since she was still out cold. My eye started twitching again. The source of all our misery was right there in front of me, and it was time to get some answers.


A few minutes later, Bourbon was stripped and hanging upside-down from a street lamp, all four legs tied together and her body supported by what I could only describe as a rope harness. There was no way she was getting out of it, especially since the suppression ring I'd taken from the first bounty hunter was secure on her horn. The way she was tied up made me curious, though.

"Rose," I began, staring at the bound, unconscious mare dangling overhead, "just where the hell did you learn to tie ponies up like that?"

Rose blinked at me, looking up from the pile of Bourbon's stuff she was investigating. "My books."

I gave her a suspicious look. "What books, exactly?"

Another blink. "Bit & Bridle magazine."

I groaned. It sounded like a perverted magazine. "Rose, why do you read that stuff?"

Rose stared at me for a second, cocking her head to the side. "Because I like it. There are lots of things that sound fun." She looked at Bourbon, pointing her hoof at the suspended mare. "Like being tied up." This time, she turned to Ibis, who was doing something to the rocket launcher. "Ibis, will you tie me up for sex?"


Ibis looked up from the launcher, glancing between the two of us in surprise. "Uh, what? What are we talking about?"

Rose blinked at him. "I want you to tie me up." She stuck her face in her saddlebag, pulled out a magazine with her teeth and, with a flick of her head, tossed it to Ibis. I only got a quick look at it as it went by, but I saw enough to confirm what I'd thought before: It was a magazine for perverts.

What other kind of magazine would have a slinky unicorn mare with a riding crop in her mouth on the cover?

Anyway, Ibis snatched it out of the air and stared at the cover for a second, his eyes going wide before Rose spoke again. "Page eighteen. It has pictures." The griffin flipped the magazine open, his wings springing open with an audible fwoomp!

"Gah..."

Ibis just stared at the pages, his beak hanging open. Rose blinked at him. "I like number four, but we don't have a bridle." She paused as Ibis' wings twitched, then turned to me, her expression hopeful. "Lily, can you help us find a bridle? You're good at buying things, and we want one for sex."

"NO!" I yelled, a shudder running through my entire body. "You- I- Just, no, Rose!" Grimacing, I shook myself, trying not to think about Rose tied up with a bridle on. "Ugh... leave me out of your pervert stuff, you... you pervert!" I shook my head, looking away from my disappointed sister and towards Ibis. "MY EYES!" I screamed, covering my face with my hooves. "IBIS! PUT THAT AWAY, YOU FUCKING PERVERT! EW EW EW!"

He'd stopped looking at the magazine and was watching Rose instead. Only, now his wings weren't the only thing on display. The sight of that thing was burned into my brain, and no amount of rubbing my eyes was getting rid of it.


"Lily, we're safe right now," I heard Rose say, completely ignoring my distress, "and Ibis really liked my idea, so we're going to go inside and have sex. Don't worry, there's nopony near us and Miss Bourbon is still sleeping." A pause, then "We're taking some rope."

There was the clattering of hooves on concrete, a muffled squawk and the sounds of Ibis being half-dragged by Rose, then the crunch of a door being yanked off of its hinges followed by silence.

I risked taking my hooves from my face and glancing around. Except for the pony pinata hanging from the streetlight, I was alone, the broken door to the building we were next to a clear indicator of where the two perverts had gone. Rose and Ibis' stuff had been piled up beside Bourbon's gear, including their guns and Rose's duster.


Those two were unbelievable. With a groan, I shook my head and turned my attention back to Bourbon, getting to my hooves and circling around the hanging mare.

The bounty head wasn't a dead ringer for Rose, but there was enough of a resemblance to be creepy. She was a bit bigger than my sister, and her dark red mane and tail were even less cared for, if that was possible. A big, ugly scar ran across one off-white flank, cutting her brahmin skull cutie mark almost completely in half, and I could see smaller scars where her coat hadn't quite grown in enough to cover them.

Frustratingly, she was still out cold. "Hey, wake up!" I jabbed her side with my hoof. All that accomplished was making her sway a bit.

I growled at her, then slumped. I was alone in a city full of bounty hunters, watching over the cause of all our problems, while Rose and Ibis were getting it on. Life sucked.


A couple of minutes later, a groan interrupted my misery wallowing. When I looked up, I realised Bourbon Rose had woken up, the bound mare groaning and shaking her head, blinking and trying to keep her eyes open.

"What the fuck hit me?" She managed to grumble, her voice raspy and harsh.

"An overgrown buzzard," I answered, moving to where she'd be able to see me and plastering a big grin on my face. I was going to be civil, I was going to be polite, and then I'd decide if the half-million caps were worth the hassle of dragging live cargo across the wastes.

Bourbon managed to open her eyes and peered at me for a second. "You!" Her eyes widened in recognition and she started thrashing around, only to look up at her bound legs when all she managed to do was sway a bit, like a pony pendulum. For a moment, it looked like she was concentrating, then she went cross-eyed, trying to look at her horn.

Figuring she was trying to use her magic, I smirked. "Like the suppression ring? Took it off a bounty hunter that was looking for you."

Her ears plastered back against her skull, she looked back to me and let out a snarl."Fucking bounty hunter scum! I'll fucking kill you!" She started struggling again, accomplishing absolutely nothing. Perverted or not, Rose had done a good job tying the bounty head up.

Frowning, I waved my hoof at her. "Hey! I'm not a bloody bounty hunter! Weren't you listening?!"


Bourbon snarled at me again. "Not a bounty hunter, huh? What, you one of Midvalley's lackeys? He get tired of using the wannabes, send you after me? Go fuck yourself, bitch!"

"Hey!" I stomped my hoof and interrupted her. "I said I'm not a bounty hunter, and I don't even know who this Midvalley is!"

She sneered, pausing her struggle for a second. "Sure. And I'm the Queen of Prance."

"Look, I just want to talk!" I snapped, stomping closer to the bounty head and glaring at her. "All those bounty hunters think my sister is you, dammit! What the hell did you do to get a half-million bounty on yourself?!" This made the upside-down mare snort.

"Yeah fucking right. You expect me to believe that shit? You knocked me out and tied me up, then expect me to believe you just wanted to talk?!" She swung her head forwards, trying to headbutt me, but I managed to pull back just in time to avoid a horn to the face. "Go fuck yourself."

I groaned. "For the love of... no, you know what, Rose can deal with you." I half-turned and yelled towards the building, "Rose! Get your plot out here!"

Bourbon scoffed. "Oh, this'll be good. You playing hardball, calling out your sister?" She sneered at me. "I'm so scared." She thrashed around as much as she could, mocking me and laughing. "Come on, tough mare!" She called out. "Come talk to me!"

Suddenly, she stopped struggling, looking past me. Her face changed, going from rage to disbelief in seconds. "What the fuck? Is this some kind of sick joke?"

I turned to see what she was looking at and facehoofed. Rose had just emerged from the building she'd dragged Ibis into, the griffin limping along right behind her, his wings half-erect. Rose's tail was hiked right up and an absolute mess, while the feathers on Ibis' chest and underside were roughed up, like something had been rubbing against them. No prizes for guessing what!

On top of it all, Rose was wearing a crude halter and bridle made of rope.

I could only guess what Bourbon was thinking, seeing her apparent twin looking like that.


Taking a deep breath and getting my smile back in place, I turned back to Bourbon. "Bourbon Rose, meet my sister, Whiskey Rose. Say hi, Rose!"

"Grfl mmble gmph," Rose stated. I facehoofed again.

"Ibis, get that out of her mouth."

While Ibis freed Rose from her bridle, and Bourbon just stared at them with a 'What the fuck' look on her face, I took the chance to set the record straight.

"You two sure look alike, don't you?"I kept on smiling. "See, we've been getting held up, chased, shot at and blown up-" My eye twitched a little, but I didn't let my pleasant expression slip, "-because bounty hunters can't tell the two of you apart. That half-million caps on your head-" This finally got Bourbon's attention, getting her to look back to me, "-is a giant fucking bullseye. Right, Rose?" I glanced over my shoulder, seeing that Ibis had finally got the halter off my sister.

Rose champed at the air for a few seconds before blinking at me and Bourbon, running her tongue around her lips. "Yes?"

Fighting the urge to sigh, I continued, "We're not bounty hunters, we're just ponies-"

"-and a griffin," Rose chimed in. This time, I did sigh.

"-and a griffin," I affirmed, rolling my eyes, "who don't want to get killed because of some stupid mistake. You understand, right?" I didn't wait for the pissed-off looking mare to answer. "So, who the hell is this Midvalley, and just what the fuck did you do to make him put a half million bounty on your head?!"

I'd dropped the grin and started yelling at that point, but took a deep, calming breath. Getting mad wouldn't solve anything.

Bourbon sneered at me. "Why the fuck should I tell you anything?"


Ibis stepped up beside me, lowering his big beaked head to eyeball Bourbon. During my little interrogation, he'd managed to smooth his feathers down a bit, but I could still smell Rose on him. My muzzle scrunched up at the scent. Bastard.

He clacked his beak. "Because if you don't, we're leaving you for the bounty hunters to find." Wait, what?! I stared at him in shock. Since when was he willing to do that sort of thing?! Even I wouldn't have threatened her like that! "They get you, they stop hunting my mare." Oh. Well, that's a reason, I guess. "So go ahead," he pulled back and sat down beside me, Rose coming up on his other side and leaning against him, one of his wings wrapping around her and pulling her close. "Give us a reason not to just hand you over to them."

Bourboun let out a bitter laugh. "Go ahead. They'll kill you fuckers and drag that mare of yours back to Midvalley anyway. You think they care she's not me?" Her eyes narrowed and she glared at Ibis. "That bastard'd pay for her, just for the fun."

She turned to Rose, who just blinked at her. "He'd fucking love you. Him and his entire gang." The twins stared at each other, one passive, the other defiant and agressive.


"Why the hell's this Midvalley want you so bad, anyway?" I asked, butting in and trying for answer yet again. Bourbon just sneered at me again.

"Cut me down, bitch, and I'll tell you."

I looked at Rose. "What do you think? We trust her?"

Rose cocked her head to the side, meeting Bourbon's glare with her usual blank expression. "Miss Bourbon, do you promise to be nice if we let you down?"

Grimacing, Bourbon rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I fucking promise, now let me down!"

After a few more seconds of staring, Rose blinked. "Okay." With that, she trotted over to the base of the lamp post Bourbon was hanging from, took the rope in her teeth and gave it a tug.

"Oof!" Bourbon hit the ground with a thud, all the ropes going slack at once. Rose moved to help her free of the tangle, but as soon as she was loose Bourbon grabbed Rose in a headlock. The bounty head gave me a cruel smirk. "Wanna know why Midvalley wants me? Too fucking bad! HEY!" She barked, tightening her grip and glaring at Ibis. "Drop it, catflank, or I break this little bitch's neck." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ibis, who'd dived towards our piles of stuff and was now aiming Garden at Bourbon, a scowl on his beak.

"Miss Bourbon, you promised to be nice," Rose said, looking completely unconcerned by the headlock except for a small frown creeping onto her face.

"You're not dead yet," Bourbon snarled, giving Rose's head a jerk and moving my sister between us as a mare shield. "That's as nice as I get. Now shut up, or I might change my mind. HEY! I said drop it, buzzard!"

"Better idea," Ibis replied coldly, Garden still trained on the mare. I was starting to think pulling out my revolver might be a good idea, but this was already too crazy! "You let Rose go, and I don't kill you."

"Hah!" Bourbon let out a short laugh. "Kill me?" She tightened her grip on Rose, who just looked mildly irritated by it all. "Fat chance." She looked to me, keeping Rose between herself and Ibis. "Hey, bitch, get this fucking ring off my horn." When I didn't immediately move to do it, she scowled and gave Rose's head a harsh twist, pulling it into a painful looking position. "I said, get it off my fucking horn! Now!"

"Miss Bourbon, you aren't being very nice," Rose stated before I could move, her frown growing to something that anypony could've noticed.

"Didn't I tell you to shut up?" Bourbon snapped, glaring past Rose's head at me. "HEY! What're you-OOF!"

Suddenly, Rose reared up on her hind legs, dragging Bourbon along for the ride before throwing herself backwards onto the ground... and onto Bourbon.

The bounty head wheezed and coughed, struggling to breathe after being bodyslammed like that. She lost her grip, Rose pulling free and rolling to her hooves. After giving herself a shake, Rose blinked at the stunned Bourbon. "Sorry, Miss Bourbon, but you broke your promise."


"Rose, don't let her get up," Ibis said, approaching the pair with Garden slung on his back once more. Rose just blinked at him and put one hoof on Bourbon's barrel. "She didn't hurt you, did she?"

Rose shook her head and Ibis relaxed a little, but still glared at Bourbon. So did I. You don't take my sister as a hostage, Luna dammit!

I joined them in staring down at Bourbon, who was starting to breathe normally again. "Now, I think it's time for us to talk." She just weezed at me. I took a deep breath and put on my most reasonable smile. "You tell me what I want to know, we let you go. Deal?"

"Go... fuck... yourself..." She gasped out.

Ibis scowled. "Let's just hand her over to the bounty hunters, forget we ever saw her."

I stared at him for a second in surprise. He was really pissed off. "Or we could do that." I turned back to Bourbon. "Up to you, really. So, what'll it be?"

"Like I... have... a choice?" The bounty head wheezed, trying to move but pinned by Rose's hoof. "I'll... answer... your fucking... questions... bitch. Just... let me... up."

Me, Rose and Ibis all looked at each other. Ibis cocked his head to the side and Rose blinked. I took that as a yes. "Fine. Rose, let her up."

Rose withdrew her hoof and sat down beside Bourbon, the winded mare shakily getting her hooves under her and giving me a look that could kill. "The fucking ring. Get it off."

Ibis spoke up, his eyes narrowed. "Answers first."

Bourbon sneered. "Fine. You wanted... to know about Midvalley?" She paused, taking a few seconds to get her breathing under control, then spat in front of my hooves. I took a half-step backwards, muzzle wrinkled in disgust. "Midvalley... is a fucking psycho." She bared her teeth at us. "Fucker's been hunting me for years. I killed his limp-dick brother. Did Equestria a favor, too." She let out a short, harsh laugh. "That answer your question, bitch?"

I frowned. "All this because you killed his brother? A half-million cap bounty?!"


Bourbon laughed again. "Killed him, and his whole fucking gang. Shot them dead like the dogs they were."

"Why?" Ibis asked.

"They deserved it," came Bourbon's reply, accompanied by a twisted grin. "Saw them burn a homestead to the ground. Dragged off the marefolk. I tracked 'em, killed 'em all. One. By. One." She laughed again. "Made their boss scream like a fucking filly when I gutted him, too. Bet they heard him down in Tartarus."

"What about the ponies they took?" Ibis again.

"Who fucking cares?" Bourbon sneered. "Weren't there when I caught up. Sold off as slaves, probably."

"What is wrong with you?!" I cried out, scowling. "You talk about it like they were nothing!" Bourbon just spat at me again.

"Fuck off. They were nothing. Less than nothing. They should've fought back or killed themselves, they didn't." She sat back, giving me a bored look. "There. I told you what you wanted to hear, now get this fucking thing off my horn."

"You're a fucking psycho!" My disgust was clear in my voice. What was wrong with this mare?! "Why the hell-"

"Lily," Ibis said suddenly, staring at Rose. "Look." She was looking around, her ears twitching, on high alert.

"What is it, Rose?" I asked, dread creeping up my spine.

"Lots of ponies," Rose stated. "Angry ones."

"After us?" Ibis asked, drawing Garden again and checking it, looking this way and that, like he'd be able to see what Rose was tracking.

Rose blinked, her ears panning, searching. "Maybe? They're coming this way." She looked around, then blinked at him. "We should leave now."

At this, I grabbed our gear in my magic and pulled it all over to us, getting my bags on and tightening the straps on my jacket, Ibis and Rose following suit. Bourbon looked at us like we were all crazy.

"What the fuck is going on here?" She demanded.

"We're getting the hell out of here," I replied, pausing in my packing for a second. "Rose says leave, we leave. Speaking of..." I met Rose's eyes and tilted my head towards Bourbon. My sister glanced at her twin, then nodded at me. "I still don't like you, but you told me what I wanted to know, so..." I pulled Bourbon's gear over and dropped it at her hooves. "Here."

She looked at me in disbelief. "What about the fucking ring?!"

"Rose, get it off her." Rose, fully dressed and armed once again, hooked Bourbon's head with one hoof, pulling the bounty head's head down and biting her horn. Bourbon let out an outraged cry and pulled away as soon as the ring was off, held securely in Rose's teeth.

Before Rose could swallow the ring or break it or whatever she was planning to do, I yanked it away with my magic and tucked it into my bag. Rose blinked at me, while Bourbon rubbed her horn with a hoof, glaring daggers at my sister.

"Fucking freak."

"Shut up and get ready to run," Ibis replied coldly.

"Why the fuck should I listen to you, buzzard?" came Bourbon's retort. I noticed she didn't hesitate to pull her gear on, though. Her horn lit up and she pulled her rifle from its holster on her back, working the lever and loading it without even looking, her glare still focused on Ibis.

I looked between Bourbon and Rose. They looked a lot more similar with their dusters and guns on... except that while Rose had her usual blank expression despite how she was looking every which way, Bourbon was staring at Ibis with obvious distaste.

Ibis just cocked his shotgun, giving Bourbon nothing more than a quick glance. "Stay here, then. You're the one they want, after all."

Bourbon spat on the ground. "Fuck you."


"We should go now," Rose declared, interrupting the argument. "They're getting closer."

At that, we all shared a look and, as soon as Rose started trotting away, we followed. Nobody wanted to get left behind, not even Bourbon.

That didn't stop her from muttering insults under her breath as we went, though.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Gunfire raged outside, screams and shouts coming from everywhere, their words lost in all the noise.

Me? I was cowering in a trashed building, desperately praying I wasn't noticed and watching the three green marks on my Pipbuck moving through the sea of red.


Why was I hiding under a desk in a ruined building? Sorry, I'll start again.

We'd been trying to escape from the 'angry ponies' when all of a sudden, Rose stopped dead in the street, me and Ibis coming to a halt right behind her. She stared at the buildings around us for a few seconds, then "More ponies coming."

Bourbon scoffed and looked around. "I don't see anything."

Rose blinked at her. "They're not here yet, miss Bourbon. There's lots of them though. I think we're surrounded."

"Yeah, right. Hey, bitch!" Sneering, Bourbon waved her hoof at my Pipbuck-clad leg. "Use that fancy bracelet of yours. See if the freak's onto something."

While Ibis looked like he was considering cracking Bourbon over the head and leaving her for the bounty hunters, I rolled my eyes. "Fine, but Rose is never wrong." I stomped, bringing up my E.F.S, then paused, turning slowly. "Um, Rose... How many ponies did you say there were?"

Rose blinked at me. "Lots."

"Lots sounds about right." Ibis gave me a questioning look. I ignored him and just kept looking around, trying to count the red marks and failing. I lost count when it hit double digits, and more were showing up all the time.

With a sigh, I turned to Ibis. "We're surrounded."

"No way out?" He asked. We both looked to Rose; she shook her head. Immediately, Ibis readied Garden, his head twisting this way and that, watching for anything moving that wasn't us.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Rose rear up and draw her rifle, aiming down the street. Bourbon gave her a disgusted look. "What's with the fucking zebra walk, freak?"

Rose ignored her, peering down her scope and tracking something none of us could see, so I answered Bourbon's question with one of my own. "What are you on about? It's an earth pony gun, so she uses it like an earth pony."

Bourbon sneered. "No earth pony uses a gun like that." She drew her own rifle with her magic, indicating Rose with a jerk of her head. "That's zebra shooting."

The only sign that Rose was paying any attention was one ear twitching in our direction. I scowled at the bounty head. "Earth pony shooting. She learned it from her father."

"Then he was a damned zebra lover." Bourbon spat to the side, defiance in her eyes. "No self-respecting pony'd shoot like a fucking stripe."

I could see Ibis puff himself up, his crest raising as he glared at Bourbon. There was no telling what Rose was thinking, since I could only see her back, but I bristled at the insult to my uncle and sister. "Listen, you-"


A sudden gunshot drew all our attention to Rose, her hoof working the action on her rifle as she took aim again. Where she'd been aiming was a dead pony, slumped against the red-spattered wall.

With that one shot, all Tartarus broke loose.

Ponies wearing badly made barding painted bright colors came pouring out from the buildings ahead of us, screaming, whooping and shooting wildly. Rose fired again and again, cutting them down one-by-one, but there were too many for her to manage.

Behind us, ponies in armor, the bounty hunters. They took cover, unlike the rushing raiders in front of us, sending a hail of lead towards us and making me hit the deck to avoid getting shot up. Ibis did the best he could, Garden roaring like the undersized cannon it was and tearing holes through ponies, armor and wrecked carriages alike, but there was only so much he could do.

Bourbon was snarling, her magic-gripped rifle spinning above her and firing almost without aiming, sending ponies on all sides tumbling to the ground.

Then both sides reached us, and it was chaos. The crossfire turned into a frantic melee. Rose barely got her rifle holstered again before leaping into the fray, kicking and punching. I heard a screech as Ibis took to the air, firing down into the thrashing equine mob. Bourbon completely vanished, but I could hear her screaming abuse and threats, her rifle providing punctuation.

Me? I fucking legged it, screaming my head off as I ran between ponies, jumped over bodies and even ran along the backs of ponies where the crush was thick enough!

One of the ponies in barding almost took my head off with an axe, but a red-and-white mare knocked them out of the way a loud crunch before charging back through the crowd, buying me enough time to bolt, heading out of the mob and for the safety of the nearest building.


Which brings us back to where we started. With me cowering in a graffiti filled building that stank of piss and filth. Lovely.

I don't know how long I was in there, but eventually the commotion outside started to die down, with just sporadic bursts of gunfire instead of the non-stop shooting and screaming.

Hesitantly, I stood up and poked my head out of the room I was in, looking up and down the hall. It seemed clear, but another set of shots from outside almost made me go back to hiding.

I found myself wishing Rose was there, or even Ibis. They had guns and...

I facehoofed, finally remembering my revolver.

Using my magic, I tugged my gun out of my bag, almost spilling the box of snack cakes it was wedged under. I tried to remember what Rose had drilled into me. "Right... make sure it's loaded... yep, bullets are in... next, safety off... check..." I tooked a deep breath to calm my nerves, held it for a second, then let it out. "Okay. And here I go. Any second now. I'm leaving the room and finding Rose. Right now."

Realising I was putting it off, I took another breath and stepped into the hall, my revolver at the ready.


The next few minutes were spent creeping down dirty corridors, their walls painted bright colors, just like the ponies who'd attacked us. I figured we must've stumbled into their territory, but didn't think too much on it. There were more important things to worry about, like getting the hell out!

Outside, the gunfire had almost completely died down, leaving me in relative silence.

So, when I heard hoofsteps approaching, I almost jumped out of my skin. My E.F.S only showed a few red marks in that direction, the three green ones moving in the corners of my eyes. Fearing the worst, I dove through the nearest doorway... and found myself in a janitor's closet, if the mop and bucket were anything to go by. Unfortunately, the door itself was missing, leaving me wide open and fully visible.

I held my breath as the hoofsteps got closer, floating my gun up and aiming at the door. Please don't see me please don't see me Celestia I'm begging you don't let them see me.

The hoofsteps stopped and, for a few seconds, the only sound was my heart, beating so loud I was afraid the pony outside could hear me. Then a head poked around the door and I slumped in relief.

It was just a colt.

He stepped fully into the doorway and I got a better look at him. He was an earth pony, so young he didn't even have his cutie mark. Bright slashes of color covered his coat, a crude dye job; probably to fit in or something. He was wearing a tatty leather band around one foreleg, but other than that was completely bare.

"Hey there," I said with a smile, keeping my voice low. "What are you doing here, little guy?"

He grinned at me, his lips peeling back to show off his yellowed, rotten teeth. "Hey, pretty mare..." He lowered his head to his foreleg, coming up with a small piece of sharpened metal in his teeth. "Gonna cut'cha, pretty mare. Get me a cutie mark." He took a step towards me, and I took one back, suddenly a lot less confident than I had been.

"Um, can't we talk about this?" I asked, going over my options in my head. He was in the way of the door, and the way he was looking at me, swinging the makeshift knife, I didn't like my chances of jumping over him without getting stabbed.

"Gonna cut'cha," he mumbled around the bit of metal. "Big bro ain't let me have no mare to myself before... gonna cut'cha, make him proud..." A strand of drool dangled from his mouth and he laughed. "C'mere, pretty mare..." He kept coming towards me.

I backed up as much as I could, holding my revolver between us. "L-look, just, go away, okay? I-I don't want to hurt you!" He ignored me, coming closer still, ignoring my gun and mumbling about what he was going to do to me. "Please?!" My gun was shaking, and so was I. "JUST STOP!"I cried out as he came face-to-barrel with my revolver... and stepped past it.

My magic failed, the gun falling to the floor with a clatter. I let out a sob; I couldn't do it! The colt laughed again...

And everything stopped.

The colt slumped to the ground, a dazed, empty look in his eyes. I followed, everything going numb, even my mind. I couldn't bring myself to move, but I didn't care. I wasn't even bothered by what was happening, or what had just happened.


Another pony came into the closet. Dimly, I recognised it as Rose, bloodied and limping, her horn glowing, the white light broken by sparks of bright green.

She paused for just a second, looking down at the prone, drooling colt, then drove her hoof into the back of his head. There was a crunch, the colt's eyes going dull, and she stepped over him without another look. She bent down and sniffed at me, then nuzzled me as her horn stopped glowing.

"It's okay, Lily. You're safe now."

Slowly, everything came back to me. As I got control of my body back, I sat up, leaning on Rose and looking down

The colt hadn't moved, hadn't gotten back up. He just lay there, completely still.

I realised what had happened, several seconds passing as I stared blankly at the small, limp body in front of me. Slowly, I started to feel again. "Rose... you killed him."

Rose pulled back and blinked at me. She was dishevelled, one ear had a notch missing, and she was favoring her hind leg.

"You... you killed a colt..."

She blinked again. "He was a bad pony, Lily."

My feelings were rising, building up now that Rose wasn't doing her thing anymore. "He was... he was just a colt... Rose, he was just a colt! He didn't even have his cutie mark yet, and you killed him!" I started hyperventilating, all the fear rushing back into me at once as I yelled at my sister. "You don't just kill colts like that! What the fuck, Rose?!"

Rose backed up, frowning. "Lily, he was going to hurt you."

"I don't-" I was panting, having trouble breathing. "I can't- can't- you-" Freaking out, I moved for the door. "R-Rose, don't- you- never-" I stumbled, tripping over the colt and sprawling on the filthy floor. Kicking wildly, I tried to get back up, darkness creeping into the edges of my vision, my breath catching in my barrel as everything went black.

The last thing I saw was Rose, frowning as she stood over me.

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"Ugh..." Slowly, I sat up, looking around. It was night, the ground hard underneath me, a camp fire burning low nearby. "Where..." I licked my lips, trying to get some moisture in my mouth. "Where am I?"

Movement caught my attention and I turned to see Ibis, his eyes reflecting the firelight as he stared at me, his wings flexing. "You passed out. Bourbon ran off. We got out of the city. Rose carried you." He let out a low hiss of displeasure. "She told me what happened."

"Where is she?" I asked, looking around. Another hiss drew my gaze back to Ibis, who looked pissed off.

"Sleeping." He shifted slightly and I spotted a red tail poking out from under one wing. He gave me a dark look. "She's hurting, and not just her body."

"But-" I started, but he interrupted me.

"You hurt her again, you idiot." He clacked his beak at me; he was definitely pissed.

"She killed a colt!" I cried out, stomping my hoof. He scowled at me.

"A colt that was going to do who-knows-what to you."

I stomped again. "That doesn't matter! He was just a colt! He didn't even his cutie mark!" I snarled at him. "He... he didn't know what he was doing! He couldn't have! It's not like he was going to... to..."

"He did," Ibis replied coldly. "You think he didn't? You think just because he was a colt, he was innocent? That he wouldn't have cut you open?"

I didn't have anything to say to that. I just couldn't believe that little colt would've seriously done that... or that Rose would just kill him like that... like she... like she knew what he was going to do...

"Oh, Celestia," I swore quietly. "Rose..." She would've known what he was going to do... I slumped, looking at the wing that hid my sister from view.

"She thinks you hate her," Ibis said, his voice softening. "She's scared you're angry at her." I met his eyes. "I want you to think, Lily. Think long and hard about what you're going to say to make this right." He paused, fluffing his feathers up and flexing his wings slightly, letting me glimpse Rose's bandaged body for a split second. "She won't run off, you know. She told me that she promised not to... and that she won't break her promise."


I didn't say anything. Even when Ibis tucked his head under his wing and went to sleep, I just lay there, thinking.

What could I say? Could I forgive her for doing that, for cutting a young life short? Would she forgive me for what I said to her? For making her think I hated her, even though I didn't?

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The next day was spent in silence, none of us speaking on the trip to the nearest town. Rose kept Ibis between us, sneaking glances when she thought I wasn't looking, none of her thoughts showing on her face. Ibis didn't snap at me, or even get angry. He just focused on Rose.

And me? I kinda just went along with them, thinking things over.

Even when we got to town, getting a couple of rooms for the night, I still hadn't come to a decision. After about an hour of staring up at the ceiling of my room, I rolled off the bed and onto my hooves, hoping a walk would help me get my head on straight. I strapped my bags on, stepped into the hall, and looked at the door to Rose and Ibis' room before letting out a sigh and turning away.


Everything kept running through my head. The look in the colt's eyes. The rusted, sharpened piece of metal. The indifferent way Rose had stepped over his body. What could have happened, but didn't.

I lost track of time, walking aimlessly through the town, going over it over and over again, never getting any closer to a solution.

Evening found me on the outskirts and staring off into the twilight wastes of Equestria. I just stood there, staring out at the horizon. Was this what Rose had felt, so long ago? Confused, lost and hurt? Unsure of what to do, not knowing what to say?

If I took off, just ran like she had, would that solve anything?

I didn't think it would. I couldn't run away from this, from Rose. She needed me as much as I needed her. Slowly, as I watched the hazy sunset, I felt a peace settle over me. I'd apologise to my sister, at least. It was a start, but it was a step in the right direction.


"Hey, pretty mare." A drunken voice broke into my thoughts. "What's a good looking thing like you doing all alone?" I turned to see a drunken stallion approaching. "How's about you an' me have some fun, huh?" He was slurring his words and staggering, leering at me with... Celestia help me, he was hanging out!

I took a nervous step backwards. "Um, no, that's alright." I looked around, hoping there'd be somepony to help me. "I'm... I'm fine..."

"Aw, don't be like that, baby," he slurred, staggering closer. "I'm just looking for a good time... don't gotta be shy, now. I'll make you feel real good."

I backed up more and bumped into something. Risking a glance, I saw that I'd been backed up against a large rock. "Hey, um, look, I gotta go and-" He'd kept coming and suddenly I realised how close he was, practically touching me. Panicking, I shoved him and ran down the deserted streets, trying to remember the way back to the hotel.

A wrong turn put me in a dead-end alley, facing a rusted fence. A shuffling sound behind me sent terror up my spine, and I turned. The stallion was blocking the exit, panting and leering at me.

"Yer a quick one you are..." He came towards me and I felt the panic start to grow, backing up against the fence, desperately praying for somepony, anypony to help me. "But we'll take it real slow..." He laughed and staggered closer.

There was no way around him, nopony there to help. My heart pounding, I yanked out my revolver and aimed it at him. "J-just go away! Don't make me use this!" I prayed that he'd take the message and leave.

"Ooh, scary." He didn't. "Playing hard-to-get? Betcha like it rough, huh?" He shook his thing at me and laughed. "I can do rough. You and me, pretty mare, rough as you like it."

He stepped closer, ignoring the gun gripped in my shaky magic.

I shut my eyes and whispered a prayer to the Goddesses.

Chapter 21: The Way We Are

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---CHAPTER 21: The Way We Are---

"I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to! It was a total accident!"



Ibis Greywing


Lily was an idiot. Just a couple of days ago she'd been cornered by some colt, and if it hadn't been for Rose she would probably have been killed. What does Lily do? She acts like Rose did something wrong by saving her life.

And now Rose was curled up on the dirty mattress beside me, staring at the half-empty bottle of whiskey in her hooves. She hadn't said much of anything lately, just that Lily was angry at her. I ran my beak through her mane, getting an ear twitch for my efforts, and sat back with a small sigh, looking at the forlorn mare.

She was starting to show signs of wear. One hind leg was bandaged from hoof to hock, torn up badly enough underneath to justify using magical bandages instead of normal ones. I knew that if I ran my claws across her flanks or front legs, I'd feel the lines of stitches under her coat, where the body armor that lay piled with our gear hadn't covered. Her hooves were chipped from the constant running and fighting, and one ear had a notch taken out of it near the base, courtesy of a stray bullet.

We'd all been having a hard time of it, but at least Lily and I could use healing potions. Potions didn't help with the exhaustion or stress that came with being hunted constantly, but it was one less thing to worry about.


Rose paused mid-swig, one ear twitching in the direction of the door, then slumped. "Lily is going out," she mumbled absently before taking another mouthful of whiskey. "She isn't happy."

I rested my head on her withers, letting her know I was there. "She doesn't hate you, you know." Rose didn't answer, just stared morosely at the bottle in her hooves. "She's just..." I trailed off, not knowing what to say.

Looking glum, Rose took another sip, but didn't respond. I moved so my chest was resting on her back and started preening her mane again in an effort to comfort her.

I really hoped Lily would get her head s