How much longer, indeed. Boxcars pulled her shivering little brother closer and when she did, she could feel and hear his stomach growling. How long had it been since he had eaten anything? She had lost track. He had eaten the last of what little food they had a while ago, and she had saved every last morsel for him. It was fine, really, because for some unknown reason, she had stopped being hungry days ago.
“Not much longer, Domino,” she said to her brother and she had a hard time hearing her own voice over the sounds of the steamer ship and the ocean. Black, sooty smoke belched from a nearby stack and blew sideways from the ship due to sharp winds. “It won’t be long at all, Dom, and we’ll be in the magical land of Equestria. There’s so much food there that they don’t know what to do with it all and everypony lives safe and free under the protection of the Princesses.”
The tattered remains of her brother’s cast aside wool coat were tugged on by the sharp, cutting wind and she could see tears in his eyes; from the gale of the wind, her words, or his hunger, she had no way of knowing. Trying to pull him closer, she did her best to shield him from the worst of it and ignored how the icy, stinging gusts cut through the ragged remains of her own jacket.
“The world didn’t end,” Domino said in a weak voice that was difficult to hear.
“I told you it wouldn’t, silly.” Even with her own infirm condition, Boxcars laughed because of her brother’s irrational fear of sailing over the edge of the world and falling off. The idea of getting onto a boat terrified him and she had dragged him aboard against his will when they had departed from Monkeylore.
Leaving Windia had been her idea, her great gamble.
She and her brother were part of the Great Unwanted, half Grittish and half Kathiawari, a product of the Colonial efforts of the Grittish. Undesired by the Grittish for polluted blood, and a painful reminder of Grittish rule to the Kathiawari, she and Domino had no real future in Windia, so she felt, so she had smuggled her brother and herself out of Windia. Thus began The Great Equestrian Gamble, a journey around the world that would end in Equestria, the great and fabled promised land.
The journey had begun with her bonking the fantastically cruel Grittish marm of the orphanage over the head to subdue her, and escaping with her brother before the nightmarish Miss Blackstrap could recover. After escaping the workhouse that served as the orphanage, she and her brother had stowed away on trains and with a little luck, managed to cross the entire sub-continent, reaching the coastal city of Monkeylore.
In the city of Monkeylore, Boxcars did whatever had to be done to secure passage, and a number of those things were acts that she wasn’t proud of. Swallowing her pride had almost choked her, but she had her brother to look after. For Boxcars, securing passage meant dishonourable thievery or degrading acts of prostitution. She had chosen dishonour to spare herself from the worst that Monkeylore had to offer.
But all of that unpleasantness was behind them. Equestria had jobs aplenty, food, and all of their problems would soon be over. Getting here was the hard part, and the hard part was almost over. Hopefully Equestria had warm places, because the cold was particularly cruel after living in the warm, tropical jungles of Windia.
“What will it be like?” Domino asked, a question that he had asked at least a few hundred times.
Sighing, Boxcars summoned her patience and gave answer to her brother’s question once more: “I’ll get myself a job and we’ll find a place to live. It might not be a nice place, not at first, but things will get better. In Equestria, there is a job for everypony and everypony has a job. With luck, everything will be fine.”
Just as she was about to continue, Boxcars saw lights on the horizon.
The ship heaved and was thrown in the heavy waves as it approached the shore. Fearing that she and her brother would go overboard, they had retreated from the rail and were now indoors in the tiny room where stowage passengers were allowed to congregate. It was a dirty place, yellowed with cigarette smoke, and the floor appeared to have never been cleaned. Ever.
A whistle blew, a bell rang, and the entire ship lurched as the engines powered up. Once they could slip into the harbour, there would be safety from the rough waters. One of the pipes overhead—which suffered a leak—hissed and filled the tiny observation cabin with steam. This made the yellowed walls rather slimy and they glistened with an unwholesome sheen.
“Don’t be scared, it’s been worse,” Boxcars said to her brother. Domino was many things, but brave wasn’t one of them. At least not yet, but he had a good, forgivable excuse. He was far too little and helpless to be brave. Perhaps when he was older he would find his courage and her job was making sure that he lived long enough to do so.
For a moment, it felt as though the boat was going to capsize and she found herself sliding along the sticky floor. With a terrific thump, she banged into the wall and a second later, her brother smacked into her. At least she had spared him from the cruel, unyielding wall of rusty, flaky steel. Reaching out with one foreleg, she circled it around her brother’s neck, pulled him close, and held him tight.
This would all be over soon.
The city of Baltimare was a glittering jewel and was unlike anything that Boxcars had ever seen before. She had seen cities—Monkeylore was a vast city that was mostly made up of sprawling slums—but the sheer wealth on display in Baltimare flummoxed her. Buildings were made of glass, steel, and brick. Some of them were so tall that just looking at them made her dizzy.
Now in smooth, almost tranquil waters, the steamer ship chugged towards the docks. The journey was over… the long, dreadful, sometimes terrifying journey was over, and she had brought her brother to the promised land, doing the job of big sisters everywhere. He stood beside her, reacting in much the same way that she did, with his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide.
“Are those griffons?”
Hearing her brother’s voice startled her, and she looked to where he was pointing. She had never seen a griffon before, but she knew their description. This looked like a griffon made of nightmares, and there were two of them. A long curving beak protruded from a strange, distorted face that was obscured by a broad-brimmed hat. Heavy black cloaks hid their bodies, making it impossible to see if there were wings. As the ship drew closer, more and more details became visible.
What strange creatures were these?
The city was now forgotten because Boxcars was so focused on the curious figures that stood on the dock. Never had she seen anything quite like them and she was quite captivated by what she saw because there was so little to see. She blinked and when she opened her eyes, one of the figures was no longer standing on the dock, but on the deck right in front of her.
Her little brother was already screaming at the top of his lungs and she struggled not to do the same. In her terror, she resorted to the only option she had left and she pulled the rusty, heavy revolver out from beneath the tattered remains of her coat with her magic. It trembled in the air and she pointed it at the tall, terrifying figure, who breathed like a chuffing train. Round red eyes flashed beneath the brim of his hat and she realised that he was wearing a mask.
“Give me that!” The monstrous creature’s voice was every bit as terrifying as his breathing and unable to help herself, Boxcars screamed as the rusty old revolver was plucked from her telekinetic grasp. The cylinder was opened, two bullets went clattering down to the deck, and then the gun was thrown overboard.
So loud were her own screams that she failed to hear the splash of the revolver hitting the water.
“What is the world coming to when some disease-ridden little waif pulls a gun on you?” A sound almost like a clucking tongue could be heard from beneath the mask and the figure shook his head from side to side. “If you don’t stop screaming, I’ll be throwing you overboard next!”
Quaking with terror, Boxcars began to back away and she pulled her brother with her. After several steps, she felt the warm tingle of magic surround her and she along with her brother were lifted up into the air. She wrapped her forelegs around her brother’s neck and held on tight as the masked figure seemed to be examining them or inspecting them.
“The both of you are covered in fleas. Ugh! Now, will you let me help you or will there be other surprises? Another gun perhaps? A knife? A shiv? A stick of dynamite? Any further surprises and I’ll be very cross with you!”
“Who are you and what do you want!” Boxcars cried as she found herself just inches away from the terrifying masked figure. “Do with me what you want! Just don’t hurt my brother!” Pulling her brother closer, she tried to wrap as much of herself as she could around him to shield him from the nightmarish stranger.
“Oh… oh crap, I knew I was forgetting something. Sorry kid.” More locomotive chuffing could be heard from the mask, like a steam boiler letting off pressure in puffs. “My name is Doctor Needle… Doctor Cactus Needle, not the stab you in the ass kind of needle, though I do that on occasion. Sorry kids, it’s just part of the job, nothing personal.”
“What do you want?” Boxcars demanded while she clung to her sobbing brother.
“To do my job,” the masked figure replied. “This ship is loaded with rats and disease. It has to be quarantined and so do you, by the looks of things. You feeling alright, you adorable little murderous gun-toting psychopath?”
The gun was gone, and with it all hopes of protecting herself and her brother. A keen sense of loss filled Boxcars, and she wasn’t sure how to recover from this. Closing her eyes, she clung to her brother as she was turned in the air. She felt the shredded remains of her jacket being lifted as she was examined and the cold, salty air tickled at the now exposed places. Her brother had quieted, but was still crying.
When she felt her tail being pushed aside, she froze, paralysed in terror, not knowing what to expect.
“Had the squirts?” Doctor Needle asked. “The wet and runny shits?”
Overcome with shame and fear, Boxcars had a hard time responding. “For a few days now. I haven’t eaten much… my brother has had them too.”
“I’ll tell you what… you cooperate with me, and I’ll see that you get something good to eat. You’ll also get nice, warm beds in a nice, warm room. I’m guessing that you don’t have parents.”
“No.” Boxcars felt herself being lowered, and she was set down on the deck.
“What happened?” the doctor asked.
“War,” Boxcar replied with nothing else to say. That one word alone was enough to bring to mind all manner of unpleasant memories, memories that her brother was too young to remember, and memories that she could not forget. The cold air now stung her eyes as tears made them glassy.
“Shit, kid, I’m sorry. Well, it’s pretty obvious why you are here, so welcome to Equestria.”
Sitting on her haunches on the cold wood, holding her brother tight to her, she looked up at the strange masked creature, whose unexpected kindness had warmed her somewhat. With a crackle of magic, something that was a dull, dark grey manifested near Doctor Needle, and when he gave it a shake, she saw that it was a blanket. When it was wrapped tight around her and her brother, she began sobbing with relief and it wasn’t long until she was shivering to get warm.
“Kid, I’ve seen a lot of shit in my day, but I’ve never had a filly pull a pistol on me—”
“I’m sorry,” she bawled as her emotions poured down her cheeks.
“No, no, it’s okay!” The doctor sat down beside her on the deck and slipped a foreleg over her withers, which was heavy and somehow reassuring. “I’m guessing that you are a brave little filly that’s never been coddled. A scrappy little survivor. As it just so happens, Equestria needs scrappy little survivors, so you came to the right place.”
Without even realising that she was doing so, Boxcars pressed against her masked benefactor, glad for his warmth. One foreleg slipped from around her brother, reached out from beneath the blanket, and wrapped around Doctor Needles’ foreleg. Something about him reminded her of her father, who was now a distant but vivid memory.
“Here is what is going to happen next… you and everypony on this ship are going to go into quarantine and my friends and I are going to make you better. You are going to get food, and medicine, and the care that you need to get you healthy. My friends and I, we fight disease and the causes of disease. We’re part of what makes Equestria great, but ponies really don’t know much about us and we never get thanked for our job. Probably because we stink like the sewer most of the time.”
Boxcars hardly heard a word as she shivered and sobbed, but was thankful for the kindness of the masked stranger. It wasn’t the greeting that she expected upon her arrival in Equestria, but the great nation had welcomed her. She didn’t know what was going to happen next, or how she was going to take care of her brother, but these worries seemed distant.
For now, somepony was going to take care of her, and for this, she was grateful.
“Hello,” a strange mare said while introducing herself. “My name is Bertie Bunsen. You’ve already met my colleague, Doctor Needle. He’s a parasitologist and I am a pathologist.” The mare spoke with a familiar Grittish accent that Boxcars found comforting. “First things first, food is coming. Second, I would very much like to speak with you and I need your help. I’m trying to understand what took place on the ship you were on.”
Confused, but also hopeful for food, Boxcars blinked and felt her brother press up against her side. He was a bit miffed about being bathed, but she thought it felt good to be clean again. Together, they sat on a steel table that was covered in a clean green blanket that was a little bit scratchy. Bright overhead lights shone down upon them, which made it difficult to see, and the lights made it a little bit warm as well.
“I need to draw blood and give you both a thorough examination. I know it is scary, but I’d like to get a few samples before you have eaten. I promise I’ll be gentle and I’m told I have a much nicer bedside manner than my associate, Doctor Needle. He has a scary name for a doctor, doesn’t he?”
Domino nodded, but Boxcars did not respond, because she rather liked Doctor Needle.
“If you cooperate with my examination, you’ll get ice cream.”
“What’s ice cream?” Boxcars asked.
Doctor Bunsen paused and now had a look that was very much like distress. Boxcars studied her and she could hear her brother’s stomach growling. The doctor stood there with her mouth hanging open, and Boxcar’s decided that the doctor with the bright orange mane and screaming yellow pelt was pretty. She also had an accent that made Boxcar think of her father, a distant memory indeed.
“Excuse me, I lost my composure for a moment. I hope you will forgive me.” The doctor blinked a few times, shook her head, and then began writing something down upon a clipboard. “Let us start at the beginning, shall we? Did you notice anything strange about your fellow passengers on the ship? Were they acting funny? Did you notice when they stopped leaving their cabins?”
“No,” Boxcars replied. “I avoided them. I was scared of what they might to do to me and my brother. I kept away from them to stay safe.”
“Hmm, how peculiar.” Doctor Bunsen’s face wrinkled into a thoughtful expression. “The both of you are still sick, which means you were exposed, and if you were exposed, you should both be just as sick as the rest of the crew and passengers. Yet both of you are in relatively good condition compared to the rest. Perhaps you just got lucky by limiting your exposure.”
“We’re sick?” Boxcars asked.
“Nothing life-threatening like everypony else has,” the doctor replied right away. “We don’t even know what they have, at least not yet, which is why I am so interested in you. You seem to be almost okay. Doctor Needles thinks it might be some kind of new influenza, but he’s a parasitologist and not a communicable disease specialist.”
Confused, Boxcars didn’t understand what any of this meant.
“It’s hitting the foals of the steerage passengers the hardest and I don’t think most of them will survive.” Holding her clipboard aloft, Doctor Bunsen peered at the two foals in her care through narrowed, squinty eyes. “Did you share food with any of your fellow passengers?”
“No.” Boxcars wiggled a bit because her brother’s squirming was tickling her. “I stayed away from them because they scared me. I know what can happen to a filly for the cost of a meal.”
The doctor sighed and her ears drooped as she wrote something down. “Yeah, the world is a rough place. You sound pretty smart, Boxcars.”
“Did you sleep in a common room?” Doctor Bunsen asked.
“No.” Boxcars shook her head. “My brother and I snuck away and found a storage closet. It had a steam pipe along the back wall and it was warm.”
“Hmm.” The doctor’s pen moved with great rapidity and her eyes now focused upon her clipboard. “You’re a very lucky little filly indeed. In trying to keep you and your brother safe, you might’ve saved your own lives. Anyhow, your seemingly limited exposure is why we need to get blood samples for you. I’m like a detective that tries to figure out what is going on, and your blood is a valuable clue for me. Do I have your permission to draw some blood?”
“No!” Domino cried.
Reaching around, Boxcars grabbed her brother, dragged him in front of her, and looked him in the eye. “This is our home now and we must do our part to help. Behave, Dom.” She looked down at her brother, studying his face, and noticed how scared he was. It was awful, but there wasn’t much she could do. “I’m in charge and you will do what I say. Got it?”
“No,” her brother whined, and Boxcars was forced to shake him a bit to get his attention.
When this failed, she tried something else. Wrapping her forelegs around him, she pulled him close and began rocking him a little, knowing how this comforted him. She was all too aware of the doctor’s eyes upon her, and there was a part of her that was more than a little fearful about the consequences of refusal. This was a new land, with new rules, and she didn’t know what might happen. Domino’s stomach rumbled in protest, and then made a squelching, gurgling sound.
“I need to go potty,” he whispered.
“Excellent, maybe I can get a stool sample.” Doctor Bunsen had far too much enthusiasm about the whole thing and Boxcars gave her a suspicious stare. “Look, I’d really like to feed you, but I need samples before you eat. Can I please get just a little bit of blood after you go potty? Please? Pretty please with shredded carrots and honey on top?”
“Do as she says, Domino, or I’ll spank you.” For Boxcars, this was pretty much the worst threat she could think of, and she felt her brother shrink in her embrace. She felt ashamed, but understood the desperation of the situation. A good spank or three was usually enough to get her brother to cooperate and do exactly what he was told to do.
“Fine, I’ll do it… but I need to potty right now!”
This room was different, but also the same. It was small, the walls were covered in pale green tiles, and the floor was an unpleasant shade of yellow. There were no windows, but there was a big brass vent that blew in warm air. There was a metal table in the middle of the room that did not move because it was stuck to the floor and there were four short steel chairs around it that had some kind of weird, slick fabric cushion that Boxcars didn’t like sitting on.
They had only been in here for a short time, but it felt much, much longer. Doctor Bunsen had promised to return with food and had left, leaving Boxcars alone in the room with her brother. Domino was still weepy eyed from crying over having his blood drawn, and she was too. Even after mustering all of her courage, she had still cried like a yearling when the big needle had poked her in the neck so that a vein could be tapped.
“I’m proud of you, Domino,” she said to her brother, and he turned to look at her, he did not reply. No doubt he was upset by everything that had happened, and the threat of being spanked by his big sister no doubt had done terrible things to his mood.
“These ponies have funny ears,” Domino said, saying something but changing the subject.
They did, but Boxcars said nothing aloud because she didn’t want to be rude. Reaching out with her magic, which was weak and flickery, she tried to do something with her brother’s unruly mane. He squirmed, but could do nothing to stop her as she slicked it back away from his horn and his face.
“Stop!” he whined as he backed into a corner. “So mean!”
“Who’s being mean?” a masculine voice said as the door opened.
Boxcars whirled about to face the stranger and saw a stallion with Doctor Bunsen. Now, she too backed into a corner, the same one with her brother. The stallion had a scary face, almost as if some of it was made of wax and had been melted. The scent of food filled the room, and Doctor Bunsen was carrying a tray loaded down with containers.
“Oh, shit, sorry kids,” the stallion said, “I didn’t mean to scare ya.”
“Watch your mouth, Doctor Needle or I’ll smack what’s left of your face into next Tuesday.”
“No way,” he replied, “my mouth is gross looking and I don’t want to look at it. I don’t see how you kiss it every night.”
“I turn off the lights first so I don’t have to look at your gross-looking mug, you imbecile.”
At this, Doctor Bunsen rolled her eyes, and Boxcars heard her brother laughing just a little. It was a happy sound, a good sound, because she liked hearing Domino laugh. His laughter had been in short supply for a long, long time. The tray was set down on the table and Boxcars could feel her mouth watering. Something smelled amazing, but she had no idea what it was, not yet. The food smelled foreign and strange, but also familiar and comforting.
“You were on the boat?” Domino asked while he clung to his big sister’s hind leg.
“Yeah, that was me on the boat.” Doctor Needle lowered his head. “Wow, both of you are white… I had no idea. I thought you were grey, or brown. Look at you and how clean you are. What a difference a bath makes, eh? Are you hungry? Did you find another gun to pull on Doctor Bunsen when she drew blood?”
Domino was giggling now, and Boxcars found herself smiling, but only just a little.
“It isn’t often that I get to sit down and have a meal with my husband,” Doctor Bunsen said with a wry smile. “We’re both very busy sorts. So, we’re going to sit down and how about we pretend that we’re a nice, happy family together, okay?”
Still chuckling a bit, Domino replied, “Okay.”
Ice cream was a magical treat indeed; cold, creamy, soothing, and delightful, it melted in Boxcar’s mouth and trickled down her throat. Doctor Bunsen was feeding Domino, trying to use a spoon and fighting a good fight to keep her brother’s head out of his bowl. As for Boxcar’s own ice cream, it was gone, much to her dismay, but there were other things to eat.
Good things. Amazing things.
There was some kind of chickpea stew served over rice that was almost like Windian food; it had some of the same flavours, some of the same seasonings, which is why it smelled so familiar, but it was entirely unlike anything that would have been served back home, except for maybe the very rich. It seemed that Equestria had its own Windian food, and it was delicious. Her spoon trembled in her weak telekinesis and it was a struggle not to drop it. As weak as she was, she was determined to have her best manners.
“You have to be quite a special little filly to have somehow managed to travel halfway around the world with your brother,” Doctor Needle said as he paused between bites. “Most kids these days, they can’t even be trusted to cross the street by themselves. To do all that you have done and to keep your brother safe, that takes guts, kid.”
“I made a promise,” Boxcars replied after she swallowed the food she had been chewing on. Thinking back, she had trouble remembering that promise because it had been so long ago. Her brother had been quite tiny, hardly even a weanling at that point, and she had been so little and helpless herself. The memories troubled her and she felt the unwanted sting of tears.
“Kid, the world is a better place for bossy big sisters.” Cactus Needle made a circular gesture with his spoon and smiled. “I saw that look in your eye when you pulled that gun on me. I think you would have done it… I’m pretty sure you would have shot me. Good thing you didn’t, because the barrel was crooked and the gun probably would have blown up in your face. You’re a very lucky filly that nothing happened.”
“Did you really pull a pistol on Cactus or is he just telling tall tales again?” Bertie Bunsen spoke with her mouth full and a few grains of rice dribbled down her chin.
Ears drooping from guilt, Boxcars nodded and thought about what Cactus had said. Getting to Equestria was just one long streak of good luck, it seemed. Not dying of disease was just more good luck. Keeping her brother alive and safe no doubt had something to do with good luck. And now, she was eating a fine meal because she was lucky enough to run into some kind ponies.
“Holy alicorn shit, I thought you were pulling my leg, Cactus. I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry that you somehow let a teeny, tiny little filly get the drop on you—”
“Hey!” Cactus turned to look at his wife while he fought to hold in his laughter. “You weren’t there! She was a quick draw. Happened so fast that I almost had me some trouble on my hooves. I still managed to take the gun away from her before anything bad happened.” Waving his spoon at his wife, Cactus sat there, laughing for a moment, and then added, “You know, she could be one of us… I mean, look at what she’s done, Bertie. You came by boat too, all by yourself.”
“Later, Cactus… not right now—”
“Aw, but she’s so scrappy.”
“Hey, kid, you want a job?”
“Cactus, I swear, I woke up this morning with one nerve left and right now you’re treading on it!” Bertie elbowed her husband in the ribs, which made him grunt, and then turned to look at Boxcars. “For right now, just focus on eating. You need to eat. It’s scary how skinny you and your brother are.” While she spoke, she spooned more ice cream into Domino’s mouth as the colt sat laughing, and then scraped some from the colt’s chin in a practiced motion.
Boxcars did want a job, and she wondered what Cactus had in mind. She could sweep, mop, do dishes, clean all manner of things, remove spots from glass, polish silverware until the tarnish was all gone, she was more than capable of all manner of domestic work, thanks to her time in the orphanage and having been loaned out to do labour. Hard work was better than the shame of prostitution and she was no stranger to menial, degrading work.
“Serves me right for marrying a scrappy mare,” Cactus mumbled to himself while he rubbed his ribs.
Watching all of this, Boxcars thought of her parents, and how they had loved one another. She understood all too well how most of the Great Unwanted came to be and how little love was involved in their creation, but her parents loved one another. She could remember her father dancing with her mother, how happy they had been.
But that happiness did not last. When the trouble came, her father, an officer in the great Grittish Empire, sided with the natives and fought to defend them. The uprising was crushed, as most of the uprisings that happened around that time had been. Closing her eyes, Boxcars didn’t want to remember, but it was a memory that she couldn’t forget: both of her parents had been hung for their part in the uprising, and she had been made to watch so that she might understand the fate of those who resisted Grittish rule.
Reaching up, she rubbed her eyes, determined to scrub the tears away. She had kept her promise, at least, and now that she was away from the land of her birth, she had to find a way to care for her brother. When she pulled her forelegs away from her eyes, they were red and glassy with tears.
Equestria was her best chance to start over and give her brother a good and decent life.
“Hey, kid, you okay?” Cactus asked.
“I’m fine,” she replied and too late, she realised that her husky voice had given her away.
“See, Bertie, I told you she was scrappy.”
Fighting back tears, Boxcars focused on eating her chickpea stew with rice
Now that she was clean, Boxcars began to itch. Where before the itch was a mild annoyance, now it was a driving need that could not be ignored. It seemed that her brother was inflicted with the same problem, as he too began scratching like mad. However, their attempts to relieve their itchies were met by Doctor Bunsen’s rather stern rebuke.
They were in a room with a window now and she could see that it was getting dark outside. The overhead electric light burned bright in defiance of the coming darkness and the room was almost as warm as the jungle they had once called home, due in no small part to something called a ‘radiator’ that was mounted against the wall. It was hot and they were warned not to touch it.
“So, you sailed up the coast and picked up passengers from several major ports of call.” Doctor Bunsen had a map of the world pinned against the wall and she was looking at the route that the ship had taken. “You also let passengers off in many places. Hmm, not good, not good.”
“Bertie, give it a rest for the night,” Cactus said to his wife and then, he turned to face Boxcars. “We’ll be staying with you throughout your quarantine. We volunteered to keep you and your brother company for the duration of your stay here. You feeling alright, little lady?”
Blushing from Cactus’ affectionate tone, Boxcars squirmed for a bit and then began rubbing her ribs with her hoof. “I’m itchy, my tummy hurts, and I feel a little tired.”
“But other than that, you’re okay?” Cactus sounded worried and his scarred, melted face tried to make some manner of expression, but failed. “Remarkable. You really are a lucky little filly. What are the odds…”
“What’s that?” Domino asked as he pointed at the window and Boxcars turned to look.
Something was coming down from the sky and the lights of the city reflected upon them, turning them into tiny, glittering jewels. Domino stood up, placed his front hooves against the windowsill, and then stood there, trembling as he watched whatever it was that was falling from the sky. Cactus got up from where he was sitting, strolled over to Domino, and then stood there beside the little colt so that they could look out the window together.
“It’s snow, little guy. We get a lot of it in Equestria. Well, sometimes. In some parts.”
“It’s pretty,” Domino said in a voice so soft that Boxcars had trouble hearing him.
“And how are you feeling, little guy? Do you think you can tell me?”
Domino’s head turned to look up at the much larger stallion beside him. “My tummy hurts and I’m thirsty.”
“You’re thirsty?” Cactus clucked his tongue. “Well, you should have said something. If you need something, you only need to ask. Hang on, I’m going to get some drinks and then I’ll be right back so we can watch the snow coming down together. It’ll be great.”
With that, Cactus backed away from the window and left the room.
Outside of the window, the snow came down sideways and Boxcars watched it while she sipped at her chocolate milk, something she had never had before. Bertie was worried about her weight and wanted her to have sweets, which was just fine with Boxcars, who liked sweets. The radiator creaked, popped, and pinged, which no longer startled her.
Cactus complained about the couch and the furniture in general, but for Boxcars it was the nicest, softest thing she had ever sat on, even if the strange, slick surface was kind of clingy. Everything was made to be easy to disinfect, or so Bertie had said. Domino also sat on the couch, sulking over having his temperature taken and complaining about the cold glass. Boxcars too, had endured the indignity of having her temperature taken, but she had not complained. She bore the awkward, uncomfortable moment by reminding herself of all the nice things that had been done for her.
Bertie continued to work on her map, doing stuff that Boxcars could not comprehend.
Boxcars was quite enchanted by the window and the city beyond. The tall buildings—skyscrapers they were called—pushed back the night with brilliant electric lights. This was Equestria, an electrified land so wondrous that even magic seemed to pale by comparison. Nothing seemed to be constructed of mud, or clay, or crude bricks, but everything was made of steel, stone blocks, or glass. Indoors, it was as warm as summer, thanks to the magic of the radiator.
“Why is your face like that?” Domino asked the stallion beside him.
Almost right away, Boxcars wanted to spank her brother for being so rude and her head swiveled around so that she might glare at him. She did her best to communicate her displeasure about this, but Domino seemed to be ignoring her. How typical, she thought to herself. Eyes narrowing, her ears angled forwards out over her eyes and her tail began to swish from side to side, the look of irate big sisters everywhere.
“Oh this…” Cactus sighed the words and leaned over to be a little closer to the much smaller colt beside him. “This is Bertie’s fault.”
“She did that to you?” Domino’s mouth fell open and the heavy sounds of his breathing could be heard.
Sitting by her map, Bertie let out a wistful sigh.
“She and I, we were just a little bit older than your sister is now. Maybe by a few years.” Cactus reached out with his foreleg and draped it over Domino. “Bertie was a little busy trying to write woowoo notes—”
“Woowoo notes?” Domino asked.
“Yes, woowoo notes… love letters and the like… anyhow, she wasn’t paying attention, that’s the point, and she didn’t listen to the instructions given to us by our alchemy teacher. So when she went to do her class experiment, there was a bad reaction. When it started to smoke and bubble in a scary way, I kicked her stool out from beneath her and shoved her beneath the table to save her. Didn’t quite save myself. When the glass beaker exploded, my face heroically blocked the worst of it to save my classmates in the rows behind me.”
“Oh.” Domino leaned over against Cactus and then went still. “And you married her?”
“Well, uh, yes… yes I did. You see, um, well, it was complicated.” Cactus began rubbing his neck with his free foreleg and he stared up at the ceiling with his eyes unfocused. “After the accident, Bertie was given a choice… take a flogging or take her walking papers. She chose flogging of course, and it was a bad one, because the guild master made an example of her for her carelessness.”
When Cactus paused for a time, Domino asked, “So why did you marry her?”
“I’m getting to that.” Cactus rubbed his neck a bit more and his head tilted off to one side. “Poor Bertie, she was eat up with guilt after that, and for the next several years, she asked me every single day without fail if I had forgiven her and every day I told her that I had. It didn’t matter what I said though, because the next day, sure enough, she’d come along and ask me again.”
“But it’s her fault,” Domino said, and his soft-spoken words made Boxcar’s ears stand up. “Why forgive her?”
“Because, it was the right thing to do,” Cactus replied and there was another sigh from Bertie, who stuck a bright red pin into her map. “We Equestrians have this thing about forgiveness. Princess Celestia lived by example and forgave her sister, Princess Luna, so most of us Equestrians try to do the same. Well, maybe some of us. Okay, let’s be honest, a vast majority of us need to think about the importance of this and learn to forgive one another. I consider it to be one of the great Equestrian ideals.”
“So you married her?” Domino’s head tilted back to look up at the stallion beside him.
“Well, I couldn’t think of any other way to convince her that I had forgiven her. One day, she comes up to me, it was at breakfast, it was, and she trots out her daily question, wanting to know if I had truly, really, honestly forgiven her. I didn’t answer that day. Nope, that day I was feeling brave and I turned the tables on her. I asked her to marry me and I refused to say if I had forgiven her. See, I figured that would be the only way to shut her up.”
“Equestrians are funny.” Domino’s head dropped back down and the colt closed his eyes.
“I suppose we are,” Cactus said and his head bobbed in agreement. “But forgiveness is important and more ponies should do it.”
Neck aching, Boxcars turned to face the window once more so that her muscles could relax. Try as she might, there were ponies that she could never forgive, like those who had hung her parents, or mean Miss Blackstrap, who had said that she was getting old enough to be auctioned off for marriage. That would have split her and her brother up, and she had made a promise to her mother and father to look after her little brother, no matter what.
No, some things were unforgivable.
“Boxcars… your cutie mark…”
“Yes?” Boxcars didn’t turn around to face Cactus, but her pointed ears pivoted around backwards to hear him better.
“I can’t help but notice that you and your brother share similar cutie marks… you have two dice with double sixes showing, and your brother has a domino, also with double sixes. The statistical likelihood of this staggers me.” Cactus’s voice lowered a bit when he continued, “Your brother seems awfully young to have his cutie mark.”
Boxcars set her glass of chocolate milk down upon the windowsill and tried to think back as far as she could remember. “He got it right after he was born”—for a moment, she stammered, struggling to remember, but she couldn’t recall getting her cutie mark at all—“and mine just showed up one day when I was too young to remember. My dad, he said that I was his good luck charm. His cutie mark was playing cards, a royal flush of hearts. He said it made him lucky in love, because he found my mother, and she was the greatest mare in the world. I was named Boxcars because of my mark and so Domino got his name for the same reason. My mom said we were lucky to get them so young.”
“You strike me as a very lucky filly,” Cactus said in a low voice and each word was spoken with great care. “By sheer luck, you left Windia, traveled halfway around the world, and somehow didn’t die of whatever disease ravaged that ship. You are a very lucky filly indeed.”
“I don’t feel lucky sometimes,” Boxcars countered, and she felt the first stirrings of anger. “I lost my parents. One by one, I watched what few friends I had get auctioned off for marriage. My home, my entire life, it was torn apart by war and fighting. I lost everything and it was only a matter of time before I lost my brother if I had stayed in Windia.”
Hearing hooves, Boxcars began to sniffle, and when she felt a light touch upon her back, she pulled away. Bertie sat down beside her and even though Boxcars resisted, she found herself pulled into the embrace of the much larger, far more powerful mare. After a bit of struggle, her will to resist fled from her, and she huddled up against Bertie’s side while fighting to hold the tears in. She was tired of crying, she was done with crying, and she never wanted to do it again.
“I left home too,” Bertie whispered, “and I crossed the ocean looking for a better life. I came here to Equestria for the same reasons… I was seven when I ran away from home, because I couldn’t take another minute of living there. So I ran away and I stowed away on a ship and I ended up here, in the wonderful land of Equestria. A really scary pony wearing a spooky mask found me before I had a chance to sneak off of the ship, and I was so scared that I crawled into some ducts so he couldn’t reach me. He sent his apprentice into the duct after me, and that was the day that I met Cactus. I gave him two black eyes when I bucked him in the face for trying to grab me.”
Boxcars didn’t know what to say, but she did slip one foreleg around Bertie’s foreleg and held on. The mare had a confusing amount of muscle, and with all of that muscle there was a reassuring hardness. Boxcars rubbed her cheek against the velvet, angular ridge of Bertie’s elbow and wondered how a mare could be so strong.
“It is getting late, my brave little traveller, and it is just about time for bed, I think. You and your brother both need the rest. While it isn’t life threatening, you are sick with something, but we’re just not sure what it is yet. Best not push your luck too far. Cactus and I will be with you all throughout the night so that if you wake up and need anything, anything at all, we’ll be there to help you.”
When Boxcars tried to reply, a yawn came out instead, which she was not expecting. She cast a final glance out the window at the magical, wonderful world beyond. She was, indeed, a lucky filly to have ended up here, and she was excited for the bright new day that would come tomorrow.
“Come, little one, let me carry you to bed,” Bertie whispered, and Boxcars felt herself being lifted from the floor...
Breakfast was a thick, hearty oatmeal filled with chewy bits of stewed fruit. Boxcars awoke feeling mostly fine, but the condition of her brother made her worry, despite Bertie’s near-constant reassurances. Sitting at the table, Boxcars watched as Bertie patiently spooned in bite after bite of the nourishing oatmeal, and her brother’s ears bobbed as he chewed up the rubbery fruit-bits.
Across the table, Cactus was reading a newspaper, and when Boxcars turned to look at him, she was hit by a powerful wave of memory, an incoming tide from an almost forgotten time. Her father too, read the paper at breakfast, and her mother was always chiding him that he needed to eat. At some point, the chiding and the scolding would become too much, and her father would rise from his chair, sweep up her mother into a tender embrace, and dance with her around the room.
The incoming tide caused Boxcar’s vision to blur over—everything in the room around her became rather fuzzy—and some of the waves went rolling down her cheeks in the form of salty tears. Each breath became a struggle as the tidal surge of emotions held inside threatened to escape. Pressing her front hooves together on the table in front of her, Boxcars did everything within her power to hold it all together.
Just as it was starting to become entirely overwhelming, Domino belched and dribbled oatmeal down his chin. Boxcars stared at her sibling in stunned shock, watching as his ears raised and lowered in concern, and she heard Bertie say, “Domino, do you have anything to say for yourself?”
“More please?” the colt replied and he tapped his front hooves against the table’s edge.
“Why, you cheeky little blighter…” Using the spoon, Bertie scraped oatmeal from Domino’s chin while shaking her head from side to side. “At least you said please. Here in Equestria, we say, ‘excuse me’ after we let rip like that. At least, we civilised ones do. Cactus over there still hasn’t figured it out just yet, but in his defense he grew up on the prairie.”
“I take long walks through the sewer, so a little burp now and then is the least of my sins,” Cactus remarked from behind his paper.
So overwhelmed by everything was Boxcars that she didn’t have it in her to be sad. She sat in her chair with damp cheeks, almost amused by her brother’s antics, curious about life on the prairie, and reminiscing because of Bertie’s strong Grittish accent. Her father’s accent was strong, and her mother, having grown up around the Grittish, had a pronounced—but also clipped—accent.
“You’re cute as a button,” Bertie said to Domino. She began spooning more oatmeal into the colt and Boxcars watched in silence as somepony showed her little brother some much needed kindness. “Are you feeling a little better now that you’ve eaten a little?”
The colt nodded, but couldn’t say anything because Bertie stuck a spoonful of oatmeal and fruit into his mouth. Now with his cheeks bulging, the little yearling sat there chewing and smacking his lips all while looking at Bertie with outright adoration. Boxcars felt a strange pang, a lurch in her stomach when she realised that her brother’s heart would be broken when the inevitable separation from these two kind strangers would happen—and it most certainly would happen. It would be just the two of them once more and she would be stuck mending his broken—if not outright crushed—heart. It was rare for her brother to open up to anypony and to see how he was with Bertie…
More tears fell and Boxcars heard a faint plop when one hit the table.
“When we get done here you’re going to need a bath—”
“No!” This single word of protest was accompanied by a considerable dribble of oatmeal that ran down Domino’s chin and onto his barrel, further facilitating the need for a bath.
“Shush and don’t be cheeky. We want to keep you clean and tidy and I can’t have you turning out like Cactus. He’s a scruffian, he is. Been up for an hour or two and hasn’t showered. What a manky git.” When there was a sigh from behind the newspaper, Bertie turned to look in that direction, but not a word was spoken. Returning her attention to Domino, she began to chuckle, which made the many ringlets in her mane bounce.
Smiling a little, Boxcars wiped her eyes and wondered what the day would bring.
The map on the wall now had more pins in it. Boxcars watched with interest as Bertie studied the map, but she also watched her brother, who was wrapped up in a blanket and sleeping on the couch. He looked a little sweaty, but Bertie insisted that he would be fine, and Boxcars wanted to believe her.
Cactus returned to the room from elsewhere and passed Bertie a heavy paper envelope. Sitting on the floor beside Bertie, Boxcars watched as the mare pulled open the envelope and began reading. After a little while, she pushed more pins into the map, little pins with bright red heads. Looking at the map, something didn’t seem right.
“That’s Equestria, right?” Boxcars asked.
“Yes,” Bertie replied in a muted voice so that Domino would not be disturbed. “That’s Fillydelphia, to the north of us. The disease is spreading, it seems.”
“How?” This was as intriguing as it was scary.
“Some pegasus ponies might have flown off of the ship when it was close to Equestria, and they might have flown to Fillydelphia. We don’t know yet, but the hospital reports say the patients are pegasus ponies, so it is a good guess. It is difficult to keep disease contained when there are flying ponies that can go anywhere.”
“What are they sick with?”
“We don’t know yet.” The sound of distress could be heard in Bertie’s voice, as well as frustration. “Right now, your blood is being studied and we’re trying to figure out why you and your brother aren’t dead. I don’t mean to scare you, or disturb you, Boxcars, but this disease, whatever it is, is downright cruel to the very young and the elderly.”
Boxcars felt a soft touch when Cactus sat down beside her and then he pulled her close. “Little lady, we might need to get more blood from you, if that’s okay. We might need a lot of blood, to be honest, and if you gave it to us, you might just end up being a hero.”
“Cactus, we discussed this—”
“How could I be a hero?” Boxcars asked, cutting Bertie off mid-sentence.
“You’re a very lucky filly,” Cactus said in a gentle whisper that made Boxcar’s ears twitch. “You might just be the luckiest filly I know. You and your brother, you’re getting better, or so I reckon, which means you’ve fought a mighty, mighty battle inside of your body. Your blood, in order to win this battle, it had to make soldiers… it had to make an army to fight off the invaders that would do you harm… do you understand?”
Boxcars nodded, but she understood very little and it sounded like make-believe.
“Well,” Cactus continued, “if we take more blood from you, those soldiers that won the battle inside your body could help us out… we might be able to take those soldiers and make more of them, so that they can help other sick ponies. We don’t know yet, but we should know soon. Now Bertie here, Bertie likes to play it safe, and she didn’t want to talk to you until we knew for certain, because she was worried about you feeling bad if you didn’t have what we needed… I myself, I see a plucky little scrapper when I look at you, so I think you’ll be fine.”
“I want to help,” Boxcars said and she pushed herself up against Cactus.
“Of course you do, because you’re a good filly.” While Cactus spoke, Bertie pushed in another pin and let out a sigh. “In fact, Boxcars, because you are such a lucky filly, your blood might be able to help us fight other diseases—”
“Cactus, that’s just speculation.” Holding up a pin, Bertie threatened her husband with it. “Stop that. Right now, she needs time to recover and get better. I know you feel excited about this, but now is not the time.”
“Fine, Bertie, you buzzkill.”
Curious, Boxcars turned her head and looked up at Bertie, who was still waving a pin at her husband. The mare looked down while the filly looked up, and the two of them had a silent exchange where Boxcars expressed her inquisitive interest in the subject. After a bit of staring, it was Bertie who broke first and turned away. Boxcars blinked in victory as Cactus let out a soft chuckle and Bertie made a dismissive wave at her husband with her hoof.
Somewhere, a distant bell rang, which caused her brother to bolt awake with a snort.
“Oh look, Hearth’s Warming came early this year!” cried Cactus as he came barreling back into the room bearing boxes wrapped in strange, shiny, beautiful paper and tied up with fancy bows. “Our brethren and sistren came up from out of the sewers and into a department store to fetch these. What noble sacrifice—”
“Shut your gob, Cactus, some of us like shopping!” In the same breath she added, “Ooh, pretty! I wonder who did the wrapping and the bows!”
“Okay, this one is for the little colt.” Cactus held out the box to Domino, who just blinked at it with in a half-awake stupefied stare. “The tag even says it is from the Rat Catcher’s Guild. What a lovely bit of advertising. Now go on, take it.”
“What do I do with it?” Domino asked while he tried to blink away the sleepy from his eyes.
“Why, you tear off the paper and open it!” Cactus replied.
“No.” The colt shook his head. “Too pretty. Too nice.”
“Oh, come now,” Bertie said as she tried to coax Domino into opening the box. “You won’t get in trouble. This is an Equestrian tradition and as somepony from another country, I find it just marvellous. Cactus here gave me my first Hearth’s Warming present, because he’s a sap about this sorta stuff. Only as I recall, he wrapped it up in newspaper.”
“I wasn’t made of money!” Cactus whined while he gave his wife a sour look.
“The paper is expensive?” Boxcars asked.
This made Cactus and Bertie both pause, and the pair of them both turned to look at Boxcars. A threeway glance was exchanged, and afterward, it was Cactus who glanced at the pretty packages while his ears twitched. Domino sat on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, staring at the pair of boxes, that is until he yawned so hard that his tongue lolled out.
“If the paper is expensive it shouldn’t be ruined.” Standing on the floor and looking up at the presents, Boxcars shook her head in disapproval in very much the same way as she would do to her brother.
Ignoring Boxcars completely, Bertie sat down on the couch beside Domino and set the box down in front of him. The box was almost as big as the colt was and the big white and blue ribbon threatened to tickle his nose with how close it was. The mare wrapped one foreleg around the yearling colt, pulled him close, and then she had this to say:
“It isn’t about the money or the cost. It is about how much we appreciate and love one another. This represents one of Equestria’s finest traditions and it is a reminder of our unity, which has made us the great nation that we are. This is why you came here, isn’t it? This is why I came here. The Founders of Equestria, they came here too, which makes most of us immigrants. Being from different cultures, and backgrounds, and nations, many of us squabble and bicker a bit, but then Hearth’s Warming comes along to remind us of unity and what makes us great.”
“Equestria just had itself a bit of a falling apart,” Cactus said as he sat down on the floor beside Boxcars and pulled her close. “There was a real jerk and he was rather successful, at least he seemed to have the upper hoof at first. For a moment, it seemed as though our great nation was about to topple over, but now, as we Equestrians remember the lessons from our past, we’re coming back together stronger than ever. Every year, Hearth’s Warming serves as a time for us to re-establish our unity… to re-affirm it. Every year, in the dead of winter, when things are bleak and dull, we all come together and remind one another of how we survive the winter in the first place.”
“Yes… so during this bleak time of quarantine, Cactus and I would like to share our traditions with you. We want you to have fond memories of this time, so that way, you too will share in this great Equestrian ideal. One day, you’ll be all grown up and you’ll remember all of this and maybe you’ll be able to pass it along.” Bertie leaned down and kissed Domino on the top of his head and Boxcars saw her brother shiver at the kind mare’s touch.
“Help me open it,” Domino asked.
Smiling, Bertie looked down at the colt wrapped up in a blanket beside her. “You want a little help?”
Without realising that she was doing it, Boxcars pressed up against Cactus while watching her brother open up his gift. He just sat there with an odd look upon his face while Bertie began tugging on the ribbons tied around the box. The magnificent bow came undone and the paper was dealt with next. It was peeled away with great care—somehow it wasn’t torn—and a brown box was revealed. The top flaps of the box were opened, and from inside the box, something strange was pulled out.
“Oh look, it’s a penguin!” Bertie cried as she pressed the toy up against Domino, who seemed rather freaked out about it. “It’s a penguin stuffy and look! He has a monocle! He’s a posh penguin, he is.”
“What do I do with him?” Domino asked.
Bertie now seemed flabbergasted. She sat there with her mouth hanging open, trying to come up with some response, and after a few failed attempts she managed to say, “Why, you have adventures with him. You play with him. It’s great fun to play pretend and he’ll be your friend and at the end of the day you can snuggle with him because he’s all soft and plush.”
“I snuggle with my sister and she talks to me,” Domino replied.
Undaunted, Bertie searched the box and pulled out two more items. “Oh look, he has a top hat and a pith helmet. He’s a very posh penguin indeed. Here, hang on to him and give him a hug.”
Domino didn’t seem impressed, but he dutifully embraced the stuffed toy and held onto it while Bertie hugged him. Boxcars began to snuffle a bit, she didn’t know why, but at this moment she was just as confused as she was happy. The penguin was almost as big as her brother, and she had no idea what to do with it—it would be something that would have to be dragged around as they went from place to place, looking for work and shelter.
“Hey, look, you have a present too,” Cactus said to Boxcars. “Go on, open it up.”
In a moment that felt far too awkward to be pleasant, Boxcars went to work on the package. Using her telekinesis, she pulled away the ribbons and then began to study the box. The paper was held in place by some kind of see through sticky ribbon, which was difficult to pull away and it tore the paper just a tiny bit when she tugged at it. She persisted though, and soon enough, the paper was peeled away, revealing a box inside.
With care, she sat it down on the floor in front of her and saw a pretty picture on the top of the box, but she didn’t know what it was, so she had to ask, “What is it?” She guessed it was the two great princesses, but the box and it’s contents baffled her.
“That is Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, the Royal Pony Sisters. This is a picture puzzle… it’s like a picture that is broken into a bunch of little pieces and you have to put it together. It’s fun, if you like puzzles, and it keeps you busy.” Cactus slipped a foreleg over Boxcar’s withers and gave her a quick hug. “We can put the puzzle together and drink hot cocoa, it’ll be a good time in this boring place.”
“What do I do with it?” Boxcars asked.
“Like I said, you put it together—”
“No…” Boxcars felt bad for interrupting, but she had to make herself clearer. “What do I do with it? How do I carry it with me when I leave this place? For that matter, how are my brother and I to take care of this penguin? These things will only slow me down when I go looking for work.”
When she was lifted from the floor, Boxcars was quite startled and she was pulled into Cactus’ near-crushing embrace. She began to panic, being so close and so entwined with him, and squirmed to get away, but her efforts seemed futile. The panic gained strength, until it was almost overwhelming, and then Boxcars thought about her father. How long had it been since she was comforted? Since she had been loved? These things were a distant memory—safe stallions that meant her no harm were a distant memory—and she longed for a return to those happier days.
With a sob, she went limp, wriggled till she twisted about, and somehow managed to get her forelegs around Cactus’ broad neck. She clung to him, overwhelmed, and he redoubled his grip around her. As she bawled from the pain that overwhelmed her, this moment, this precious moment of safety and trust meant more than presents wrapped in pretty paper and tied with ribbons.
Feeling safe once more was the greatest gift of all, and it had been too long since she had felt it last.
One thousand pieces. That was quite a number, one that was difficult to conceive for Boxcars, because she couldn’t count that high. She could count, and read, but her schooling had been interrupted by the death of her parents. As scary as that big number seemed, Cactus assured her that everything would be fine, because a puzzle was just a whole bunch of little tasks masquerading as a big scary task.
They had to find all of the edge pieces—the pieces that had a flat side to the them—and the corner pieces, which had two flat sides. This meant digging through the lid and the bottom of the puzzle box and sorting out which pieces were which. It also meant that her telekinesis was getting quite a workout, because this was a completely different set of actions than scrubbing, sweeping, or mopping. The constant, careful sorting left her a bit headachy in the base of her stubby horn, but it was a good sort of headachy.
Cactus had brushed her mane and then pulled it into two pigtails, which were tied off with some of the ribbon from the presents. It left her feeling silly, and special, and there was now a warm sense of affection for Cactus, whom she had found herself trusting in spite of her reluctance. He was a good sort, even if he wore a scary, spooky mask and had a frightening, nightmarish face that made her butt bones feel tingly every time she looked at it. She found that she didn’t mind his face so much, because he was kind.
It was obvious that Cactus was a soldier, just like her father, because he just had that way about him. Bertie did too, but her mannerisms seemed a little softer. Boxcars instincts told her that these were dangerous ponies, but the good kind of dangerous. Cactus started humming to himself as he sorted through puzzle pieces with her. Meanwhile, Bertie was wrapped in a blanket with Domino and reading a book about about the founding of Equestria to him. At the moment, the story was about how the different tribes couldn’t stop bickering even as the dreadful winter had chased them from their homes.
Outside the window, the snow was now falling so thick and so fast that the view of the city was obscured. The radiator sang a cheerful tune as it filled the room with cosy heat and everything was perfect. Too perfect. The idea that all of this would come to an end had slipped into Boxcar’s mind and it disturbed her so much that she dropped the puzzle pieces that she was holding.
To distract herself, she asked a question of Cactus: “What is your cutie mark?” On the couch, Bertie ceased to read and Boxcars saw her eyebrow as it arched in curiousity.
The stallion stopped humming, turned his head, and looked at Boxcars. “It’s a microscope. There was a biologist that came through and stayed with my family on our homestead. He let me look through his microscope and BAM! Destiny hit me like a train. I saw the parasites in our drinking water… and a whole new world opened up to me. After the biologist left, my Pa, well, he done took me to Las Pegasus and began to hunt around for a boarding school that would take me at a price he could afford. Turns out, he couldn’t afford anything, but as luck would have it, he found a teacher for me. I was taken in by the Rat Catcher’s Guild and I was paid to be educated. My Pa was so proud because I was accepted, but the simple truth is, they were desperate for members and I was a warm body.”
“You were a foal?” Boxcars asked.
“I was… about five or so… I think.” Cactus’ face scrunched up in concentration and the overall effect upon his appearance was almost nauseating. “I missed my family, sure, but I was making money and I got the education I was needing. Learned magic too. I’m no Twilight Sparkle, but I’m no slouch in the magic department. I can teleport for several miles, which is pretty impressive, and that’s how I got onto the boat to meet you. I can’t do a whole lot of fancy magic, but I am rather good at wind manipulation, which is really handy in my line of work, because it allows me to move around deadly clouds of gas.”
“Most of the time, he makes those deadly clouds of gas too.” Bertie, still holding her book, began to titter.
“So says my lovely wife, who is forbidden from eating her beloved meal of neeps and tatties in the guildhall.”
“I gotta go potty,” Domino said, and there was great urgency in his voice. “I gotta go potty now!”
The hot cocoa was warm, soothing, and pleasing. Sweet, but also a little bitter, it was full of flavours that Boxcars didn’t recognise. There were cookies too, and all kinds of sweets, all of which she was allowed to eat as much as she wanted because her caretakers said that she needed to gain weight. Outside the window, it was grey and rather dark, and the snow showed no sign of letting up.
On the floor a great many puzzle pieces were now spread out, some of them connected to one another, forming little islands on the green tiles. Boxcars was quite taken with the puzzle, and she enjoyed doing it, but she had a constant worry of how she was going to take it with her when she left. Bertie had finished the story about the founding of Equestria, and now cuddled Domino on the couch, talking to him in low tones about his posh penguin, trying to coax a name for his new friend out of him.
But amidst all of this pleasantness, the great unknown lurked like some terrible beast, and Boxcars had trouble ignoring it. With each second, with each passing minute, with every hour that was wiled away, the need for answers grew stronger, and it gnawed at the back of her mind, a relentless need that could not be ignored.
It seemed that Boxcars was not the only one who worried.
“How long will you keep us?” Domino asked Bertie in a low whisper.
“Domino… I’m sorry… I…” Bertie seemed caught off guard and she pulled the tiny yearling into her embrace, along with the penguin, who bore the crushing hug with stoic dignity.
“Can you keep us?” Boxcars heard her brother ask and his voice was muffled as it came out from behind the penguin, but she heard him loud and clear. She felt herself sinking into the floor and for a moment, it seemed as though her heart had stopped beating. “Can you be my mum?”
At this, Boxcar’s heart shattered completely, and she had vivid memories of her own mother, memories that her brother did not have. Squeezing her eyes shut, Boxcars could not bear to even look at her brother right now, and she hated him just a tiny bit for betraying the memory of their parents.
“I don’t know,” Bertie replied and her husky voice was on the verge of cracking. “It’s so complicated… Cactus and I, we don’t even have a house. We don’t have a place for you to live. I don’t know how how to sort this out, I’m so sorry.”
“Can’t we at least try?” Cactus asked of his wife.
“We can’t just throw caution into the wind and run about willy-nilly,” Bertie replied and this time, her voice did crack. “We’re not prepared for this, Cactus—”
“Bertie, you and I both know what is going to happen.” Cactus’ voice sounded commanding and firm in Boxcars’ ears, and her eyes were still squeezed shut. “They’ll shuffle them into some overcrowded orphanage and they’ll get separated when Domino gets shipped off to live with somepony who wants him because he is little and cute and because he’s at that perfect age when there are no diapers but he’s still small enough to be babied—”
“Cactus, stop! Not only are you successfully making me feel guilty, you’re scaring them! Just stop!”
“We can do something!” Cactus said, and now he was almost shouting. “Bertie, I want foals—”
“Cactus, I can’t give you foals, you know that! Don’t you dare make me feel guilty over that!”
“I’m not trying to make you feel guilty, I’m trying to get you to see that we have an opportunity! We just have take a little risk and stick our necks out! Just… work… with… me!”
Boxcars opened her eyes to find that the two adults were a mess. Both were teary eyed, and she felt bad that they were fighting. She felt even worse that Bertie couldn’t have foals, and from the sounds of things, Domino was crying behind his penguin. Just as she was about to say something, Cactus grabbed her and she let out a terrified squeak as she was snatched up. He held her in a fierce embrace, and for a moment, she almost screamed. But then, the embrace felt good, it felt right again, and she wanted to be held. She longed to be held, she was starved for it and this felt so right.
“Our lives are too dangerous, Cactus. We don’t have a house. We have no safe place to leave them while we do our work. There is no way that we’d ever be seen as fit parents and it’s cruel of you to get their hopes up… I can’t believe you’d do that, Cactus.”
“If there was a way, Bert, would you do it?”
“Cactus, I don’t see how—”
“Just yes or no, Bert… if there was a way, would you?” Cactus’ voice was hard, flinty, and something about his sense of command was comforting to Boxcars, who was held tight in his embrace. Once more, she put her forelegs around his neck and held on, hoping to ride this awful storm out.
“Yes, of course, I’ve grown quite attached to Domino already, and Boxcars too.”
Cactus drew in a deep breath, held it for a moment, and then he had this to say: “When Equestria was founded, each tribe was allowed to keep one tradition that was exclusive to their tribe, just so long as it did not infringe upon the rights of others. It was a fresh start, and many of the old ways were cast aside with the hopes to find new ways.”
Boxcar’s ears stood up, because this wasn’t in the story that Bertie had just read.
“The unicorns held on to the ancient rite of apprenticeship. Princess Platinum and Clover the Clever both ensured that this tradition was written into the law of the newly founded Equestria. The rest of the founders saw the great wisdom in this and agreed that this was something worth keeping.”
Boxcars felt herself lifted up and then she was set down upon the floor. She found herself looking into Cactus’ eyes, and he leaned down until his face was mere inches away from hers. This sudden, unexpected closeness made it difficult for her to breathe, and she found it quite uncomfortable. His eyes blazed with a fiery purpose that both scared her and gave her courage at the same time.
“The rite of apprenticeship supersedes all other laws, Boxcars. It takes somepony of high authority to break this agreement. Take a gamble with me, Boxcars, and become my apprentice. I’ll see to it that you keep your brother and I won’t let anypony separate you, I promise. Everything you’ve done so far is a risk, and you’ve been such a brave, brave filly… now, I am asking you to take just one more risk… throw caution to the wind and take a little gamble with me.”
Overwhelmed, Boxcars had no idea what to say, but keeping her brother well cared for and happy was tempting, so tempting.
“Even if it is only temporary,” Cactus continued, “it would give Bertie and I some much needed time to sort everything out. More awaits you beyond apprenticehood, however, should you want it. Stay with me and I’ll give you an education and I’ll teach you a trade, but we can discuss that later. For now, just give me the time I need so I can look after you and your brother. Please?”
Turning her head, she saw that her brother was looking at her with big, pleading eyes, begging her to say yes. Bertie too, was staring, her eyes were wide, glassy, and there was something… hopeful about them. She returned her gaze to Cactus, who was now almost snoot to snoot with her. Just looking at his disfigured face gave her butt bones horrifying tingles that made it difficult to sit and made her want to squirm.
“I’m reckless, I gamble, and I take risks. I never should have teleported aboard that boat all by myself, but I did, and I know that I’m going to be reamed arsewise for doing that, but I don’t care. My curiousity got the better of me when I saw you and your brother on deck. You both looked so little and so helpless, even from the shore. Take a chance, Boxcars.” Reaching out with both forelegs, he placed both of his front hooves on Boxcar’s withers and held her.
Now, Bertie had to have her own say in the matter: “Please, please for the sake of your little brother, say yes. I can’t believe that I’m going along with one of my husband’s harebrained schemes, but please agree!”
“If I say yes, you’ll teach me magic?” Boxcars asked.
“Yes, everything I can and I will see to it that you have an extensive education in all things magical and scholarly. Doesn’t that sound nice? Wouldn’t you like to be a smart filly? Smart fillies grow into smart mares, and smart mares are the best kinds of mares. Trust me, I know, this is an indisputable scientific fact.”
She missed going to school and the temptation was almost too much to bear. Boxcars was unable to see any sort of downside to this, but there was so much that she didn’t know. She didn’t want this to end, she wanted to stay with Cactus and Bertie. Her brother needed to be provided for somehow, and this seemed a far, far better option than doing chores as a housekeeper.
The more she thought about it, the more it made sense.
“I will be your apprentice,” she said to Cactus, and no sooner than the words had left her mouth then she found herself being crushed once more in his embrace, which she returned, wholly, completely, and without reservation.
“Welcome to Equestria, Boxcars, thanks for taking a gamble with me! I’ll make it worth your while, I promise! I am a pony of my word! Oh, this is going to be the best Hearth’s Warming ever!”
For Boxcars, it seemed that the great Equestrian gamble had just paid off.