Three-act Play

by Dave Bryant

First published

Wallflower Blush didn’t show up for graduation. Sunset Shimmer is worried—but luckily she knows just the person to consult about it. If Rose Brass can’t help, no one can. • A Twin Canterlots story

A Twin Canterlots story—conclusion of Brass Ring

Warning tag refers to an attempt and aftermath.

Rose Brass, retired army captain, has found a second career as a youth social worker. She has a tough attitude, experience, and a security clearance. Naturally she’s the perfect expert for Sunset Shimmer to consult after Wallflower Blush fails to show up for graduation.

A collaboration with Scampy. Thanks to I-A-M for additional assistance.

Begins immediately after graduation from CHS and ends with the start of Virga—latter half of season seven.

Hit “Popular Stories” and non-M feature box within an hour of publication and the all-ratings feature box 2 August 2020! Huzzah!


View Online

Sunset Shimmer slouched on the battered old metal-and-plastic stacking chair and stared down at the amber-complected hands lying open on her lap. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it all the way through the ceremony. Everyone was there—we tried to keep track, and if I couldn’t look for somebody, one of the other girls did—except Wallflower.” Her hands turned over to rub along the fine fabric of dress slacks chosen to match an elegant blouse, formal enough for the morning’s pomp but simple enough not to interfere with the rented cap and gown she’d left in the care of her friends before her hasty departure.

The middle-aged woman on the other side of the ancient metal-and-laminate desk rocked back and forth slightly on her creaky swivel chair. “You said she’s shy. Do you think maybe she just didn’t want to face a big, intimidating crowd?” The question could have sounded skeptical; instead its gentle tone suggested a genuine probe, and maybe playing devil’s advocate. “She could have her diploma mailed to her, after all.”

Red-and-yellow hair bobbed with an emphatic shake of the head. “No. She was doing better, I’m sure of it, and we were trying to encourage her; she seemed thrilled when I gave her a yearbook with our signatures already in it. I was a little concerned because I hadn’t heard from her for a few days, but all of us—I mean, the whole graduating class, not just the Rainbooms—were busy with last-minute stuff, so I just figured she was too. Now, though . . .” Sunset glanced up, brows knotted, at her hostess. “I’m really worried, Rose.”

Captain Rose Brass returned her guest’s look with her single good eye, narrowed now in thought. Despite her trim, modest powder-blue business suit and white blouse, the tall, sinewy figure exuded an air of tough, raffish competence, from her platinum-blonde military buzz cut to the shiny-polished black closed-lace shoes currently hidden behind the desk’s modesty panel. Scars spilled across her brass-colored left cheek and forehead, visible all around the ostentatious black patch covering the eye on that side. A state-of-the-art prosthetic right hand drummed fingertips on the worn desk blotter for a long moment, then paused. “Okay. I’ll look into it.” She didn’t say I promise. She didn’t need to.

Sunset nodded, relief clear on her face. If there was anyone in the world who could find out what was going on with Wallflower Blush, the retired army officer turned youth social worker was that person.

Rose’s chair pivoted a few inches left and right as she gazed up at the water-stained ceiling tiles of her tiny bare-bones office. Sunset was long gone—no doubt to rejoin her circle for a well-deserved celebratory meal in some medium-fancy restaurant, surrounded by the warmth of a half-dozen families dragged together at the insistence of their daughters. The childless divorcée quirked a brief bittersweet grin and silently wished them well before returning to her train of thought.

The timing of Sunset’s early-afternoon visit was fortuitous. About a year ago Rose’s case load had been cleared almost completely, and somewhat mysteriously, to make way for a set of three clients named Adagio Dazzle, Aria Blaze, and Sonata Dusk. She had been the only social worker in town with the experience and, more importantly, the security clearance needed to deal with a trio of magical sea creatures punted out of their world, and apparently inadvertently into this one, as a consequence of their misdeeds. Further misdeeds—for they plainly had not learned their lesson—and the efforts to resist them had left the now-human troublemakers even more bereft than before, utterly lacking even the vestiges of magic they’d brought with them, homeless and alone.

Contact with Sunset Shimmer, and all the connections in both worlds she trailed behind her, of course had come along for the ride. Rose had taken the opportunity to provide a little discreet guidance to the young unicorn mare-turned-woman, and was gratified by Sunset’s efforts to reach out and to make amends for her own mistakes. By all accounts Ms. Shimmer was becoming a fine, upstanding individual in either incarnation, though it looked like she was determined to stay in the human world for the long term, even making plans for university.

At any rate, the months since a thick stack of briefing papers had turned Rose’s world upside-down had been a roller coaster, but by the spring just passed a lot of it had settled out. In fact, matters pertaining to the three ex-sirens had become routine enough she’d been on the verge of requesting more cases. She still might, depending on how the current inquiry fell out, but until she had an idea what the situation was for this Wallflower Blush, she didn’t want to commit to anything that might lead to a case overload. It had happened to her a couple of times, and the results were always unpleasant for everyone concerned.

She’d finished the preliminary work, starting with standing up a new case file. It was unusual for one to be established from the inside like this, but not unheard of. As a youth social worker she normally worked with minors, but there was provision to override that in special circumstances. Unique knowledge of a case, explicitly including classified information, was one of them; that box duly had been checked. Anyone looking at it would wonder why the blank was filled in with the same coded explanatory phrase as the Dazzlings’ file, but that was all they could do unless they were willing to break the rules. Also, the subject had turned eighteen within the last six months, so she was covered that way as well.

Next came building a dossier, using all the public records Rose could access from her office computer or telephone. Sunset already had provided as much information as she could about Ms. Blush—including a small clutch of recent photos downloaded from her smartphone—along with the bizarre artifact the other girl had discovered some months back, since shattered to pieces in yet another confrontation. The captain shook her head, wondering how many other such time bombs were scattered around the city, and why they hadn’t been destroyed rather than squirreled away. No doubt it had seemed a good idea at the time, but if she had a penny for every young butter-bar or NCO who’d told her that after some minor, or not so minor, disaster . . .

She sat up abruptly and reached for her keyboard. Now she needed to generate some decision trees and plans of action.


View Online

Rose would be wrong about the meal.

A few blocks from the hulking brutalist building she’d departed minutes before, Sunset leaned against a downtown lamppost and held her phone to her ear, opposite forefinger blocking her other ear against street noise. Text messages had gone unanswered, starting a couple of weeks ago with one or two a day and, by logarithmic progression, today culminating in one every few minutes other than during the commencement and the meeting with Rose. It was harder, she’d found, for people to ignore a phone ringing—not impossible, but more difficult.

She’d lost count of the rings when the phone clicked and after a few seconds a low, slightly hoarse voice answered, “Sunset?”

“Wallflower!” Sunset’s response was just a little breathless. “Where are you?”

“Home.” A voice-activated digital assistant used more inflection.

“Where’s that?” It suddenly occurred to Sunset she’d never been there, wherever it was—never even been invited there.

When the following pause lengthened into awkward territory, Sunset blurted on impulse, “Let’s meet up! We haven’t seen each other in a while, right?”

“Uh . . .”

“I mean, I could swing by your place, or we could go to a diner or something,” Sunset suggested in a cajoling tone. Even for Wallflower this was like pulling teeth.

“No, I—” At least now there was some emotion, though Sunset would have felt better if it didn’t consist of agitation and confusion. “I dunno.”

Sunset relaxed, but only a little. At least it wasn’t an outright refusal. “Give me an address.” The longer this went on, the more she doubted letting it go was a good idea.

It took a few more rounds of breaking down the other girl’s stalling, but eventually Sunset managed to extract a location. “I’ll be there soon,” she vowed, trying to infuse the statement with the same firmness Rose seemed to project so effortlessly in every word, before hanging up and sliding the phone into her messenger bag. She looked around to reorient, then stepped off briskly.

Sunset didn’t know what she’d expected, but this wasn’t it. From the fact its address included a unit number, the dwelling might have been a flat or part of a multiplex, even a townhouse, but the building turned out to be a ramshackle boarding house. It wasn’t much bigger than the renovated row house, last of its kind in a neighborhood now zoned for commercial and light industrial buildings, Sunset herself lived in. It was, however, in considerably worse shape, to the point she was astonished it wasn’t condemned.

The visitor took a breath and stepped up to the sagging farmer’s porch. Midafternoon on a weekday, she wasn’t surprised not to see anyone else about. Given the kind of place this looked to be, she was just as glad. If she was uncomfortable, it obviously wasn’t someplace she’d want to find any teenage girl—young woman—living in. She glanced down at the mailboxes, not expecting to see any familiar names, and was surprised to find the legend BLUSH, on label-maker tape, adhered crookedly in the window of the one bearing the right number. She frowned and shook her head as she opened the glazed front door to the tiny vestibule.

Finding her way to the upstairs door, one of a few facing a drab little hallway, reminded her of the survival-horror video games she’d played and once in a while streamed. At least the sun was nice and bright, elevating the corridor from utter gloom to half-hearted twilight. She stopped in front of the door she sought and hesitated. Everything about this rang alarm bells. She shrugged. All the more reason to charge ahead.

Nothing happened for almost a minute after she knocked, the sharp sounds echoing in the passage, but she wasn’t about to give up at this point. At last the door opened an inch or so and a flash of familiar green hues showed in the crack.

“Wallflower? Let me in.” Sunset stood tall. She wasn’t that much bigger, but what she had, she used. “Please.”

An inaudible mumble answered, but after another couple of seconds the door creaked open. Sunset stepped forward; if she had to, she absolutely would crowd Wallflower into giving her some answers. She straight-armed the door aside and pressed on, forcing the other girl back by intruding ruthlessly on personal space, until she could look around.

Wallflower was holed up in a single room, barren of decoration, about the size of Sunset’s sleeping loft—including the walk-in closet, though at least there was a tiny bathroom adjoining it, shared with the neighboring room. The self-invited guest looked around as her putative hostess retreated to flop on the bed that dominated the limited square footage. Only Sunset’s long practice at controlling her expression, left over from her scheming days, prevented an appalled look from crossing her face.

It was a mess. Oh, there wasn’t garbage everywhere or piles of hoarded items, but dirty laundry lay in small drifts against furniture and unmade bedclothes heaped on the twin long mattress and foundation; there was no sign of a frame. Being guilty of the same sin, Sunset could hardly kick about the handful of take-out containers crusted with dried residue here and there, but it was like the cherry on top of the sloppiest half-melted hot-fudge sundae ever. She blinked and decided Pinkie Pie had played the “read my mind” game a few too many times, then shook her head again.

Most heartbreaking of all was the lonely potted plant, brown and dead, on the scratched and gouged dresser. On top of that, the place . . . smelled, too. Part of it, she was convinced, was an unwashed Wallflower, wearing unwashed baggy T-shirt, jeans, and socks. The aroma wasn’t overpowering, but it added an emphasis all its own. “Wallflower,” she said quietly, more so than she originally had in mind. “What’s going on? Where’s your family? Why are you here?”

Wallflower sat like a lump, never meeting Sunset’s eyes, and answered a relentless barrage of questions in a muttered monotone. After the first few, Sunset, unable to keep still, began collecting detritus and sorting it, laundry in pillowcases and trash in plastic take-out bags.

The tale that unfolded in fits and starts was baffling. Sunset pieced together a bleak portrait of an only child grappling with . . . what, exactly? Even Wallflower didn’t seem to understand, at least not completely. A moody father, hard to please; a mother who always sided with him—that much seemed to be a constant in the girl’s life from childhood, as far as Sunset could tell. Harsh words and gratuitous carping alternated with extravagant expressions of remorse and affection. It would never happen again, until it did, but it was never his fault, her mother assured her. Sunset winced.

Then, right around the Fall Formal that loomed so large in Sunset’s life—now more than a year and a half in the past—something else happened, but they wouldn’t say what. The swings gradually got wider and scarier. “. . . And then he slapped me,” Wallflower all but whispered. Despite her determination not to react, Sunset’s breath drew in and she dropped the pillowcase she was stuffing full of discarded garments. Wallflower made no sign of noticing. “He was sorry after, and he said he wouldn’t do it again, but I knew he would. And he did. Just once in a while—but every time, he hit me a little harder, or someplace that hurt more.”

Sunset bit her lip, but she knew now she’d opened the door, she had no choice but to follow this out to the end. She resumed picking up the laundry and kept silent. She couldn’t remember seeing recently any telltale cuts or bruises, but then if he’d been careful not to strike at his daughter’s face, they might’ve been covered by the frumpy sweaters or other long-sleeved tops Wallflower always wore. And as an upperclassman Wallflower could opt out of PE and the shorts and tank top—not to mention showers—that went with it.

Then it all came to a head. Some minor infraction, an enraged tirade, a not sufficiently cowering response, and a sudden chase down the hall. Sunset found herself unable to breathe as Wallflower’s trembling voice continued, “I got the door locked, but he started banging on it hard. I knew he was gonna knock it down if he kept going long enough, and then it was gonna be my turn. I didn’t know what to do. Then I tripped on my bookbag and . . . and the Memory Stone fell out.” The last few words came out almost in a squeak.

“After that I got outa the house as fast as I could. I hadda use the Stone on them a buncha times before I got everything together and ran.” Wallflower seemed to run down like a wind-up clock and slumped even further.

“Wallflower—” Sunset had to clear her throat. “Wallflower, when was this?”

The answer was just what she expected: a week or two before the other girl had started clear-cutting the Rainbooms’ memories. Sunset wondered about the logistics involved, leaving behind a roomful of evidence documenting the existence of a teenage daughter neither parent could remember, but this was not the time or the place to pursue that line of questioning. “Then what happened?” The effort of keeping her voice soft and even was greater than she ever thought it might be.

“I found this place,” was the simple answer. “I took a bunch of money with me, so I was able to pay for a couple of months up front. Since I was eighteen, they didn’t ask too many questions.”

Sunset opened her mouth, then closed it again. Again she wondered about means and timing, but again she had to stay on track. She couldn’t short-circuit this with her magic; it wasn’t any kind of emergency, and after they’d made up in the wake of the Memory Stone’s destruction, Wallflower had wrested a promise from her not to do so again. She had to do this the old-fashioned way.

“So you paid for a couple of months,” she said slowly. “But you’ve been here longer than that, if I’ve worked it out right. How did you keep paying? Do you have a job?”

Wallflower shook her head, the seaweed-like masses of her forest-green hair waving limply. “I used the Stone to make people forget when I came into stores. Sometimes I’d take food and stuff. Sometimes I’d take other things, and sell them somewhere else or try to return them. I made sure the stores didn’t have cameras.”

Sunset’s brows drew down in consideration. “But the Memory Stone is gone. What are you doing now?”

There was no answer.

“What are you going to do at the end of the month?”

Wallflower remained quiet, still looking down, unkempt hair nearly covering her face.

“Wallflower. What happens when you have to move out?”

The silence stretched, and after most of a minute Sunset’s eyes widened and her mouth opened, then froze. After another few seconds she shut it and thought furiously. In the most casual tone she could manage, she said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea! Let’s go get some pizza. My treat—oh, and how about a sleepover? I don’t think you’ve seen my place yet. It’s, uh—I think you’d like it.”

At the mention of food, Wallflower finally looked up, which was almost worse given the baggy, vaguely bloodshot condition of her eyes. Knowing she wouldn’t get much more than that, Sunset went on, “Look, we’ve got things almost cleaned up here, right? So why don’t you take a shower and put on something nice, and we’ll head out. I mean, it’s graduation day! We should celebrate!”

In the end she nearly had to bundle Wallflower into the bathroom by main force, but once she’d shut the door and leaned against it, only a short while passed before, to her vast relief, water started to flow audibly through the uninsulated pipes. She heaved a great sigh, open-mouthed for quiet, and pulled out her phone. Busy fingers scrolled through the contact list until Rose Brass slid into view. She tapped the name and started typing.

Found her. She’s in bad shape. Help pls.


View Online

Rose Brass leaned back on her chair and examined the huddled form across from her. A porcupine could not be more prickly; fear, despair, resentment, and just about every other negative emotion radiated from the young woman. Some showed clearly in face and posture. Others demanded a more discerning eye. The social worker didn’t have a degree in psychiatry, but she did have a basic grounding—along with years of empirical experience in both her careers—to assist in her current profession.

A sense of betrayal lurked under the resentment. The sporadic flurries of text messages passing between Sunset and Rose the previous evening outlined a plan of action that ended with delivery of an unsuspecting Wallflower to the brooding edifice that housed the small office where she and Rose now sat. Wallflower really had needed the food, support, and social contact Sunset provided with the dinner and overnight stay in the latter’s studio apartment. Rose nursed a shrewd suspicion, however, she had expected to be returned this morning to her mouse hole and isolated misery.

No doubt she had been bewildered and apprehensive when their journey unexpectedly beelined into downtown instead, but had gone along with it out of apathy. It was only when the prospective client spotted the brushed-metal lettering on the facing over the main entrance she realized where the pair were headed, literally and figuratively. Sunset had been forced to grab her upper arm and all but drag her to the doors opening on the echoing lobby where Rose waited, having anticipated the balk. There the older woman had taken charge and Wallflower had subsided meekly, allowing herself to be shepherded to their destination; her guide they left to linger, and probably pace, in the waiting area.

This one was different. Most of Rose’s usual techniques and scripts, crafted for rough or indifferent personalities, would not work and might even backfire. The withdrawn girl sitting on the same chair Sunset occupied the day before was fragile in a way most of her clients weren’t, and the bluff military officer took a deep, unobtrusive breath, feeling an unwonted trepidation, before taking the plunge.

“My name is Rose Brass, but you can call me Rose,” she said in a quiet voice. “Sunset told me your name is Wallflower Blush, and she’s very worried about you.” This brought the young woman’s face up in an unguarded reaction, and Rose smiled, lighting the scarred face in a way that often caught others off-guard. “She asked if there was anything I could do. I said yes.”

Rose’s questioning was gentle but implacable. At first her new client tried to stonewall or sidestep the uncomfortably incisive queries, no matter how delicately phrased, but time, repetition, and greater rhetorical skill wore down Wallflower’s resistance. Finally answers began to emerge, more comprehensive thanks to the training and greater years Sunset could not bring to bear in the previous evening’s informal interrogation. For the most part it seemed to be a pretty standard pattern, though of course that offered little comfort.

After more than an hour of this quizzing, the account reached the point at which it became decidedly non-standard. The girl froze mid-sentence, belatedly realizing what she was about to reveal to a stranger. For once her reticence was a point in her favor.

Rose smiled again, more faintly, in reassurance. “It’s all right, Wallflower.” She paused in her own version of the same hesitance. “Normally I wouldn’t tell you this—it’s very much against the rules—but I was the one who worked with the Dazzlings. In order to do that I had to learn all about where they came from and the magic that’s started to show up.”

Green hair parted as Wallflower’s face rose. “Wait. How did you know I was gonna talk about magic?”

The smile disappeared, lips pressing flat in the only sign of consternation Rose dared show. After a moment she said calmly, “That’s how Sunset and I got to know each other, too. When you stopped talking just then, I figured there must be magic involved. You’ve been pretty cooperative otherwise, so I knew it had to be something out of the ordinary, and for Canterlot High School, that probably means magic.” She shrugged; QED.

Wallflower had been anything but cooperative, actually. However routine prevarication and omission might be, Rose usually tried to avoid bald-faced lies—but she needed a quick way out. She’d gotten ahead of herself and almost disclosed to her client how much private information she’d learned from someone else and, worse, who that someone else had to be. Moreover, the rhythm of questions and answers she’d established had been broken, and she’d have to rebuild it. Least said, soonest mended wasn’t a philosophy she followed often, but this was an exception.

It took a while longer, but eventually Rose was able to coax Wallflower through the story’s harrowing crescendo. The epilogue required only a few minutes more, after which they both sat in silence for a few beats before Rose sat up straight and rested her forearms on the desktop. “All right,” she said firmly. “I want you to know, I think you did the right thing when your father was pounding on that door. Was it ideal? Maybe not. Was it the best of a bad situation? Absolutely.”

The bracing tone covered Rose’s own doubt—certainly it could be argued as a form of armed self-defense in the face of threat to life and limb, if rather outré, but there were aspects of the resolution she wasn’t entirely happy with, not all of them related to wider concerns. Still, it reminded her of a precept that had been drummed into her skull a very long time ago, one this young woman, almost the same age she was when she learned it, desperately needed right now.

“I used to be an officer in the army. One of the things they teach in the academy is, sometimes—a lot of times—you have to make a decision fast. You can’t wait, you don’t always know or have everything you need, but you still have to choose. And you did. It got you out of there in one piece, and that’s the most important thing.”

Rather like her namesake, the girl sitting across the tiny room had opened up, possibly more than she realized. Now she hunched down, hiding her face again in her long, lank hair. The hands curled around the front edge of the chair seat tightened. “I shoulda just let ’im in.” The comment was barely audible, barely seemed to acknowledge Rose’s words of encouragement. “It’s not like I didn’t deserve it.”

Out of sight of the downcast eyes, Rose bit her lip; that wasn’t the response she’d aimed for. Time to try a different tactic. “What makes you say that?” Her voice was as bland as she could make it.

“’Cause I always deserve it.” The matter-of-fact delivery made Rose blink.

A flat denial was right out. Most likely it would drive Wallflower into defensiveness, and that was the last thing Rose wanted. She kept up her detached mien. “Did he tell you that?”

“He didn’t have to.” Now there was a sullen tinge to the words.

“Why not?” This felt like a chess game. Rose was better at poker.

To the painfully neutral questions Wallflower doled out convoluted, elliptical rationalizations that would make no sense to anyone else—which, in context, made perfect sense to Rose. Her client had become a vessel into which far too much vitriol had been poured. Now that vessel was filled to the brim with the wrath and reproach of others, leaving room for little else. More bluntly, Wallflower had been told, explicitly or implicitly, so constantly and for so long everything was her fault, she had become convinced of it. Now most of her identity was tied up in it.

Anger-management issues in the girl’s father presented as swings between rage and repentance that never ended because he was never the problem. His wife was a classic enabler, abetting his tendency to blame anything or anyone else, even their own daughter. Rose wasn’t certain exactly what the causal factor was that led to the increase in severity and frequency of emotional and occasional physical abuse, but if she had to guess, she’d put her money on employment or financial issues. One could lead to the other, and probably had in this case. Wallflower didn’t mention radical changes in living conditions; on the other hand, one of the most frequent punishments she endured was restrictions on buying and spending, which might camouflage constraints on the household at large.

Sunset’s version of the story, fragmentary as it was, matched pretty well all down the line. Rose could reconstruct a course of events and a fair amount of background, adequate for filling out the case file. Once she had a chance to type it up, something she avoided doing in front of a client, she was confident she had most of what she needed for the moment.

“We’re almost done here, I promise.” Her approach had returned to brisk and businesslike, but with a tinge of warmth. “Before we wrap it up, I’m required to tell you I’ll be talking to your parents as well.” The rules didn’t anticipate a magical artifact that could wipe people’s memories, but they were unequivocal, and Rose should be able to glean something useful from the trip even if the parents didn’t remember their daughter.

That merited a pout and a snort. “Don’t bother. They’re happier without me.”

Rose raised a brow. “What makes you think that?”

Wallflower’s Gallic shrug was eloquent. As if observing the sun rose in the east, she asserted, “Everyone would be.”

Feigning ease, Rose sat back and rested her forearms along the arms of her swivel chair. “Okay, Wallflower, that’s all.” She’d expected to continue with another round of questioning, but the response she just received told her what she needed to know. “Tell you what: it’s a bit late, but why don’t we go grab some lunch?”

Wallflower’s mouth worked, the picture of ambivalence. Rose thought she understood both sides of it. She knew how intimidating she looked. For most of her clients that was a plus, but to Wallflower—and Sonata Dusk before her—it could be more of a barrier. Besides, she’d just administered the third degree, which was bound to be off-putting to anyone.

On the other hand . . . the girl had to be starving. It was hard to tell under that shapeless sweater—probably not by accident—but Rose thought Wallflower had lost weight in the last few weeks, based on Sunset’s photos. Sunset also had commented on the reaction to her offer of a pizza dinner.


“Let me go downstairs and talk to Sunset, see if she wants to come along. I’ll be right back, okay?” Rose gave Wallflower no chance to refuse before getting up, stepping out, and closing the office door behind her. She didn’t lock it, but she ran her keycard through the reader and tapped the code for an alert that would buzz her smartphone if the door was opened.

The waiting area off the main lobby could have been in just about any modernist Jet-Age institutional building. Rows of scuffed and chipped fiberglass bucket chairs on chromed rails. Polished cultured-stone flooring, white with tiny colored speckles. Shopworn wall paneling, darker than it really should be for the cavernous space. Not enough can lights in the ceiling. Sunset sat near the elevator vestibule, bent over her phone and tapping away intently, tension in every line of her body. When Rose strode close enough for her to notice, she straightened up with a definite air of relief. “Rose! Where’s Wallflower?”

“Sunset. We don’t have much time. Listen up.” The snap of command could be useful in civilian life, too. “All three of us are going to lunch.” When Sunset’s mouth opened, Rose held up a hand for silence. “You were right; she’s in bad shape. I’m flagging her for admission to an inpatient facility, but the last I checked, there won’t be a bed open for a couple of weeks. In the mean time I can get her placed in a halfway house temporarily, but even that will have to wait until tomorrow. Can she stay at your place again tonight?”

Sunset, eyes huge, nodded; Rose went on in the same hard, no-nonsense tone. “Good. I know you, and the girls, will be busy this summer, but any time you can spare to visit her in the halfway house would help—a lot. She trusts you, and she’s in a pretty delicate state right now.”

“But—” Sunset burst out. “Inpatient facility? Why?”

Rose’s lips thinned. “It’s mandatory for suicide risk. I don’t have the training or certification to handle that. They do.”

The breath went out of Sunset in a rush and she sat back down abruptly. For a moment Rose considered telling her not to blame herself, that the situation wasn’t her fault, but—could she, in conscience? Sunset had spent more than two years terrorizing Canterlot High School; who knew what she’d done to Wallflower in that time? Sunset herself might not know thanks to the Memory Stone.

Instead she sighed and rubbed her forehead. “I’ll go get Wallflower. That’ll give you a little time to pull yourself together. And think about where you might want to go for lunch. Be back in a minute.”


View Online

“You just have to get her through the night and bring her back in the morning.” Rose’s last assurance, delivered in an undertone while Wallflower’s attention was diverted by the fast-food billboard menus, echoed in Sunset’s memory.

A whole cacophany of other thoughts tumbled through her mind at the same time, their intensity and tumult nearly paralyzing. For a young woman who normally forged ahead, self-assured to a fault, the sensation proved unaccustomed and unpleasant. The last time she’d felt this way—at least to this degree—she was looking up from a crater, battered and bruised.

A sudden insight coalesced out of the mælstrom. This, or something like it, must be how Wallflower felt all the time. Sunset’s breathing steadied, no longer on the verge of hyperventilation. The epiphany gave her an anchor, a handle on the problem she faced. Now to climb the chain, not only for her own sake but for a friend who needed that lifeline.

She rolled her head to look over at her companion. “Hey, Wallflower, it’s been a pretty rough day.” She tried to balance sympathy and nonchalance, not wanting to come off as patronizing—but Wallflower really might as well be a glass figurine right now.

Both of them half-reclined on the comfortably shabby overstuffed armless couch, the afghan thrown across it a splash of cheerful color, facing the big-screen television set on its makeshift shelf over game consoles and related electronic boxes. Indirect early-evening summer sunlight lit the other half of the long, tall room. Enough of it spilled over they weren’t sitting in total gloom, but the dimness was cool relief after the hothouse events of the day.

Sunset had no idea what the place used to be originally. It had been billed as a refurbished row house, last of its kind in a changing neighborhood—but the room’s brick rear wall, old-fashioned electrical conduits bracketed to it and institutional-style bathroom behind it, suggested a previous life as a workshop of some kind. Either way, even in Equestria such chic urban loft or studio conversions were not unknown, though at least here building codes assured they were more likely to be safe and livable. Truth to tell she’d fallen in love with the quirky space, whatever it once was, sandwiched between two much more modern light-industrial storefronts. She wasn’t sure what she would do when the time came to find a new domicile.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m too pooped to pop,” she went on into Wallflower’s continued silence. “How ’bout I call out for dinner, get it delivered, and we just veg out in front of the boob tube tonight?” She pulled out her phone and waggled it in her hand.

Wallflower blinked at her; Sunset would swear she could hear a hard drive spooling up in the green-haired head. “You don’t have a kitchen, so what else would we do for supper?” It seemed a sincere effort at teasing, though the jumble of acid emotions underlying the words made Sunset want to wince.

“You’ve got a point,” Sunset conceded sheepishly. The previous evening she’d scurried around tidying up for her unexpected guest, most notably take-out boxes, soda cans, and assorted other meal-related detritus. While a far cry from the mess that had accumulated in Wallflower’s much smaller room, it was similar enough to be a bit embarrassing. It also reminded her how little domestic effort she’d made beyond a bar refrigerator and a microwave oven. For a sixteen-year-old that might be excusable. At twenty . . . maybe not so much. “So, anyway, whattaya wanna get?”

After half a minute or so, when Sunset realized they were sliding toward the dreaded “I dunno, what do you wanna get?” back-and-forth, she made an executive decision and simply called her favorite stand-by, then rattled off from memory a family-style dinner order for two. Wallflower didn’t object to any of the choices, which she hoped was a good sign. The familiar voice and mannerisms of a regular customer sped the order to completion, and the order-taker at the other end recited the delivery address without prompting. Sunset confirmed it all, finished with the usual exchange of pleasantries, and hung up. As she dropped her phone back in a pocket, she grinned at Wallflower. “They said it’ll be between a half-hour and an hour. Meanwhile, let’s see what there is to watch.”

Jumping directly from the Industrial Revolution to the digital age had been a rough transition, but once Sunset had navigated it, she’d embraced the new technological wonders with the same fervor, and in much the same fashion, as pretty much any other teenager in the city. She never had bothered with cable television, instead skipping straight to the streaming services currently proliferating like so much yeast. Many were available through the top-of-the-line console that had soaked up months of discretionary cash, so why spend yet more money she didn’t need to?

The aftermarket remote control made using the console’s central video interface easier, but the individual services’ uneven hodgepodge could be exasperating. Sunset kept up a running commentary—a couple of times succeeding in provoking a snicker from the other girl—offering suggestions or ideas. Wallflower watched wide-eyed and gradually began to respond to the carefully laid-back tourguide patter.

By degrees it became obvious Wallflower’s exposure to video games, consoles, and just about anything else in the world of electronics beyond the bare minimum had been unusually limited. Lack of interest, lack of budget, and lack of parental acceptance all figured in, Sunset gathered, though it was harder to tell how much of each was involved. The same was true, if to a lesser extent, when it came to movies and television series.

Sunset finally hit the jackpot when she brought up a service specializing in animation from overseas. Wallflower visibly perked up, sitting a little straighter. Eyeing her sidelong, Sunset asked casually, “Wanna take a look?” At Wallflower’s nod, she suppressed a smile and obliged.

The wonderland that unfolded on the big screen was a revelation, albeit a very different one for each of them. Sunset watched Wallflower’s reactions out of the corner of her eye. “Have you seen much of this stuff?”

Wallflower, still riveted by the menu system promising riches aplenty, shook her head. “Nuh-uh. Wasn’t allowed.”

“But you’ve seen bits and pieces, huh?” Sunset guessed, nodding sagely. “That’s how you know about it.”

“Yeah.” Mournfully Wallflower explained, “But Mom an’ Dad—they didn’t approve.” She stopped short, not going into detail; at the same time, the longing in her words clearly went beyond the desire to watch forbidden television shows.

“Oh.” Sunset fell silent as well and turned back to the television set. Everything seemed to lead back to the same place, and she regretted bringing it up again. She had no idea how to cut through this tangle of emotions and associations and frayed family ties, severed now by the Memory Stone as thoroughly as if parents—or daughter—were physically gone. She suppressed a shiver. Even Rose admitted she didn’t know how, that this was beyond her skills and abilities, and Sunset found that surprisingly daunting.

When had Rose become one of the pillars of her world? Maybe not the same way the other Rainbooms or Princess Twi or both Celestias and Lunas might be, but even so, Rose and Cookie Pusher, the diplomat sent to keep an eye on the burgeoning magic and the circle of friends it had chosen, were important in her life. And at least she still had a family, even if she hadn’t seen that family in . . . had it really been more than four years?

Sunset squeezed her eyes closed for a long moment. She needed to think about this, but it would have to wait. Right now the girl sitting next to her deserved more of her attention.

It was like deciding on dinner all over again. The tyranny of choice held Wallflower captive; she made plenty of interested noises, especially considering the state she was in, but never moved that extra step to selecting something in particular. It was a little frustrating, but Sunset possessed her soul in patience; in fairness, there really was a lot to take in all at once.

When she’d exhausted the whole menu without result, Sunset took charge again. In a breezy tone she commented, “Well, there’s the nickel tour,” as if it had been her plan all along. She paused, affecting a thoughtful look. “You know what we need? Something that’s not too heavy—something we can watch while we eat dinner and just relax. Let me see . . .” She noodled around with the remote control, trying to look aimless, until she reached the right list. She scrolled idly downward, pursing her lips and emitting occasional hmms, until the entry she really was looking for hove into view.

“Perfect!” she exclaimed as the focus highlight settled on it, screen shot and series description fading in to replace the previous one. “I know this one; it’s pretty good, and I think you might like it too. It doesn’t get too intense, but it’s more than just fluff, which is about right for tonight. Let’s give it a try—we can always go on to something else after a couple of episodes if you decide it’s not for you.”

The last point neatly scotched Wallflower’s reflexive contrariness, but gently enough not to sting. She closed her mouth and settled against the couch back as Sunset hit the play button. By the time the cold open gave way to the strains of “Moonlight Legend”, Wallflower already was leaning forward, forearms on her crossed legs. Sunset permitted herself a small smile. Bingo.

The food arrived during the second episode. They ate like the perpetually ravenous young people they were, absent-minded slurps and all. Wallflower sat up, absorbed by the animated antics, explosions and melodrama and fantastical menaces alike. Sunset lay back, barefoot legs curled under, again lost in the thoughts that refused to leave her alone. She didn’t know what she could say that would help make things at least a little better. She certainly didn’t know what she shouldn’t say that would make things worse. So she said nothing and simply watched over the vulnerable girl beside her, enjoying the enjoyment that had drawn Wallflower out of her shell.

Episode upon episode played back to back; daylight faded into the timelessness of night. It was only when Wallflower abruptly broke into a massive yawn and blinked several times that Sunset glanced at the huge analog clock hanging square over the entry door—and yelped in dismay.

“No wonder we’re so tired!” she exclaimed, waving a hand at the accusing timepiece. “It’s after midnight, and it’s been a long day.”

Wallflower’s heavy-lidded gaze took in the late hour and she slumped, crestfallen. “Oh.”

“Hey. Hey. We can always watch more later,” Sunset soothed. “It’s not going anywhere.”

“I guess not.” The brown eyes still seemed a little wary, but Wallflower went on, “How many episodes are there, anway?”

“Umm . . .” Sunset picked up the remote control and stopped the playback, then returned to the season list. “Forty-six in the first season. Wow.” The screen dissolved to the series overview. “And there are four more seasons. Two hundred episodes on the dot. I forgot it was that big.”

“That’s a lot, yeah.” Wallflower watched as Sunset went about shutting down the electronics. “So she found two others, right? One in the fifth episode and one in the seventh episode, I think. But aren’t there five of them in that poster-thing on the main page?”

Sunset nodded in confirmation. “The other two show up later in the first season, but I don’t remember exactly when. It’s been a while since I last watched it.”

“And they all have different powers and abilities, I bet.” Wallflower’s expression was sleepy, but a heartening trace of a smile also graced it. “Y’know who that reminds me of?”

“No, who?” Sunset replied absently as she stood.

“The Rainbooms.”

Caught mid-yawn and mid-stretch, Sunset nearly fell over in surprise. An inarticulate noise emerged.

Wallflower actually giggled, obviously pleased by her friend’s reaction. “I mean, think about it. You turn into superheroes with fancy costumes and magical powers, right? And you’re all girls, and we all just graduated from high school. No wonder you liked that show!”

Sunset gaped for a second before closing her eyes and covering them with one hand, flapping the other to forestall further analysis. “Okay, okay. Maybe you’re right. But, um, I’m not sure what the others might think of that.”

Wallflower’s enthusiasm dimmed, but she nodded solemnly. “It’ll be our secret,” she promised.

Sitting back down, Sunset slipped an arm around Wallflower’s shoulders. “Listen, it’s been a long day, and we’ll need to get an early start in the morning.”

Wallflower turned and threw her arms around Sunset for a fierce hug, as if one of them were about to vanish without trace and only her embrace would prevent it. Sunset returned it with equal intensity, her own eyes closing tight and a hint of moisture glistening in her lashes. Tomorrow was a door to the unknown they would face all too soon.


View Online

“I’m here to speak with you about your daughter, Wallflower Blush.” Rose sat as upright as she could on the shabby but still reasonably sound overstuffed chair.

The late-thirties couple facing her from the equally worn matching love seat glanced at each other with mixed emotions, few of them positive. She looked puzzled and worried. He looked puzzled and irritated. Rose suppressed a sigh; it was nothing unexpected, but there was a protocol to follow.

The wife was barely audible. “We . . . we don’t have a daughter.” Her brown eyes flickered in her round green face, glancing all around the small, rather stark living room—especially at the archway opening on a currently unlit hallway. Her simple flower-print dress was old but clean, making her look like a photograph from a housewares advertisement in a magazine of fifty or sixty years ago.

The husband definitely was more than adequately audible, riding over her last word. “And even if we did, I don’t see what business it is of yours.” He leaned forward, hands on knees and chin thrust out. His T-shirt and jeans were as generic as it got, and not quite as pristine as the dress.

Coolly Rose pointed out, “Once a case file is opened and approved, which I saw to personally, I have all the authority I need for this interview.” Indeed, she had gone to bat with her supervisor the day she’d opened it, though he hadn’t required much convincing. In his words, if Mama Bear thought it was a case worth pursuing, that was good enough for him. The nickname still made her a bit uncomfortable, but she long since had realized her discomfort arose from its essential accuracy, and she certainly was not going to be able to dissuade anyone else from using it. “I’m required to ask you, as her parents and guardians of record, a series of questions, and I need you to answer them as honestly as you can.”

Without consulting her case histories, Rose could not count how many such examinations she’d conducted, but this one became easily the most eerie experience of her second career—not excepting anything to do with the Dazzlings. She blessed the long sleeves and trim slacks of her business suit for concealing the gooseflesh that refused to abate.

For their part, the artificially amnesiac parents struggled with the queries thrown their way, all too often having no idea how to answer. Their moods became increasingly disturbed, the mother withdrawing much like her daughter did and the father growing ever more choleric. Being forced to review almost two decades of memories shot through with enough holes to remove a family member had to be terrifying as well as baffling. Rose suddenly realized she should have sat Sunset down beforehand and squeezed the young telepath dry of impressions about how that worked.

Every now and then, though, one or both of the couple would show a flash of recall. In general, Rose gradually discovered, the more a query involved external factors, the more likely she would get anything other than a shrug or a verbal equivalent. Eventually she began to slant her phrasing to emphasize events in their lives rather than their daughter’s. It wasn’t completely kosher, but the regulations allowed her a certain leeway to get at information, and she abused that loophole ruthlessly.

All in all it was a most unsatisfactory experience for everyone involved. By the time Rose wound it up with, “That’s the last of the questions,” both of the others appeared completely frazzled. On the mother it looked like a desire to sink into the cushions and disappear. On the father it looked murderous; Rose suspected only her official status and military bearing prevented anything more . . . demonstrative. For her own part, Rose wanted nothing more than to go for a good long cleansing run—somewhere up in the hills, green and quiet—but she wasn’t finished here.

Their disappointment was plain when, instead of making preparations to depart, she went on, “The other part of this is to inspect the client’s living conditions, current or former. For that I’ll need to tour your home.” A dawning realization lit in the mother’s eyes; on the other hand, the father’s slow burn seemed to interfere with his clarity of thought. Rose replaced the clipboard and yellow legal pad, with its neatly handwritten notes, in her messenger bag, hoisted the latter to her shoulder, and stood to wait expectantly, tapping her pen against her thigh.

After a fulminating pause, the husband snorted and pushed himself back on his seat. “Fine. Whatever. Help yourself.”

His wife glanced at him nervously out of the corner of her eye and, reluctantly, stood as well. In the same low tone she’d used throughout the visit, she muttered, “Uh—this way,” and gestured tourguide fashion.

Rose pocketed her pen, then pulled out her smartphone to snap stills or capture snippets of video as needed.

The tour wended first through all the communal spaces. The place was in reasonably good shape, adequately clean and tidy. The cheap discount-store furniture probably dated to the early years of their marriage and showed it in wear and tear. Almost none of it held books of any kind. Knick-knacks were sparse and, Rose suspected from their aggressively masculine character, nearly all his. Nothing hung on the walls—no art, no posters, no photographs—though she did spot scattered tack holes here and there, most showing miniscule lips of split and crumbled drywall at the lower edges. Magnets, all of them flat business-card advertising tchotchkes, held only a few scraps to the refrigerator door, mostly menus from cheap eateries.

When the two of them ran out of other rooms to visit, they fetched up at last before the narrow arch and the dim corridor beyond it. From the apprehensive manner of Rose’s companion, it might as well be the entrance to a sabertooth’s cave lair, but a flick of a light switch revealed a perfectly ordinary, and fairly short, passage. Only three doorways opened on it; cupboards and an abbreviated countertop capped its dead end.

Behind the two closer doors were a small but complete full bath and the utterly unremarkable master bedroom suite, tiny closets, restroom, and all. Rose dutifully followed her guide through them, but paid only cursory attention, just enough to use her phone camera. All her experience told her it was the other doorway, and the room behind it, she needed to focus on.

Stalling strategems finally ran out. Rose came face to face with the remaining door.

It was, of course, the same sort of cheap hollow-core interior residential door found in the millions throughout the industrialized world; Rose had learned all about door construction from similar scenes in both her careers. The hall-facing side showed a trio of shallow craters, as if a mallet had been applied forcefully and repeatedly. The upper one, at shoulder level, was the least of them. On the lower one, at shin level, a few black streaks were visible against the landlord-white paint. The largest, at waist height, also showed black smears, and splintered edges showed in rough arcs around its rim. Rose raised her prosthetic hand and placed her spread fingertips on the door panel beside the doorknob, then pushed. It opened easily.

The social worker nodded to herself, stepped into the small bedroom, and scrutinized the interior side of door and frame from top to bottom. The hinges looked sound—but the strike plate and the screws holding it in the doorframe were missing entirely, screw holes stripped and ragged. Once it had given way, the latch, held in place by the simple privacy lock, looked to have dug a furrow right through the soft wood of the jamb. The inner doorknob showed drywall dust, and the right-angle wall behind the door was damaged. Rose’s lips tightened as she reconstructed what probably happened, as clearly as if she’d been there.

Rose turned to look at the single aluminum-framed window. The sill was at chest height on the room’s former occupant, and the screen was still firmly in place. Flimsy children’s shelving stood below it, more obstacle than help for hasty climbing. She shook her head and turned her attention to the rest of the room.

It was like a high-schooler’s room, only bleaker. Again there was nothing on the walls. At least there were books, as many as in the rest of the place combined, most of them related to gardening. A few small potted plants stood in place of knick-knacks, all dead or dying. Bureau drawers were open and ransacked, a couple of garments dangling forlornly, and the wall closet’s sliding door stood half-open. The bed was messy, with sheet and blanket trailing off the mattress. Otherwise, aside from a little dust, the chamber was neat and tidy.

Rose frowned as she stood as close to the middle of the room as furniture permitted and pivoted slowly on a heel, her one good eye sweeping the whole of the space. No computer, and no evidence there ever had been one. No phone charger, but that wasn’t a surprise. No sign anywhere of the strike plate or screws, not on floor or furniture top. In many ways it was as blank and bare as a guest bedroom, evincing few personal touches other than the plants and books. With a sigh she raised her camera and made another turn for stills, then a last one for video.

Tour more or less complete, Rose turned back to the doorway, phone still half-raised, and silently beckoned to the woman still standing in the doorway dry-washing her hands. Unwillingly the other complied, glancing back up the hall before stepping in.

Rose had seen no framed photographs anywhere. No smiling faces, no cherished keepsakes, no proud achievements, no family groups—nothing. A sudden image flashed to mind of Wallflower dumping a stack of picture frames, hurriedly yanked off the walls of her former home, in a random trash can or waste container, maybe blocks or even miles away.

She waited until the girl’s mother stopped an arm’s length away, then spoke in a low voice. “I thought you should see who it is we’ve been discussing, who lived in this room.” She tapped her phone’s screen a few times, then rotated it to show the image glowing on it.

The younger woman drifted forward another step, drawn in spite of herself by the photo of a giggling girl, all greens with scattered freckles and wild hair, brown eyes twinkling and small hands raised, half-obscuring the round jawline. She blinked down at it, face sagging and brows working. “She looks . . . just like me,” came the bare whisper.

Rose nodded again. “Yes, she does. I noticed that right away when I arrived.”

One green hand reached out tentatively, as if to touch fingertips to the screen, then withdrew. Rose held the phone up a few seconds more, then turned it back and shut off the screen before sliding it into a pocket. “All right then. Thank you for your time and cooperation, Ma’am,” she spoke up in a brisk tone. “After you.” She gestured toward the door.

They returned to the living room where the father waited, still seated on the small couch. “Are you done?” he demanded as soon as Rose reappeared.

“There’s one last thing,” Rose replied, unruffled. “Would you care to see an up-to-date photograph of your daughter?” That was part of the official list, but only at the social worker’s discretion. In this case the circumstances seemed to warrant it.

“Why should I?” He sat back, arms folded, and glared up at her.

“I thought I explained that.” Rose shifted her messenger bag farther behind her and raised both hands a little, near her belt buckle, palms toward her. At least, given his seated position, she should have plenty of warning if things slid into the pot. He didn’t seem to notice the change in her stance.

The man snorted impatiently. “Yeah, you claim some girl we don’t even remember is our daughter. Maybe she is, maybe she isn’t. But even if she is, she left, right? And you said she’s eighteen, so she’s an adult. I don’t see why we should have to pay for her now.” He unfolded his arms to gesture backhanded in dismissal; Rose couldn’t help visualizing that hand meeting a green cheek. “She made her choice, let her live with it. We’ve got better things to do.” He didn’t even glance at the wife who stood, eyes downcast, to one side. After a moment, apparently remembering where the conversation started, he added with a sneer, “No I don’t want to see a picture of her! Now, are you going to leave?”

Rose’s face lost all expression and her breathing steadied and deepened. Also without looking aside, she said in a rock-steady voice, “Ma’am? Do you have anything to add?”

A mumble was the only answer.

After a long, deep breath, Rose pulled a small metal clamshell case from her jacket pocket and withdrew a business card. “This is my contact information. If you think of anything else or have any questions, please get in touch with me.”

Neither of them made any move to take it. After a beat she shrugged and bent cautiously to place it on the coffee table. “Thank you for your time and cooperation.” No hint of warmth colored the token pleasantry. She straightened and strode for the door, movements rigidly controlled.

As if compelled by ingrained habits of courtesy, the woman of the house twitched and scurried after Rose, meeting her by the front door and opening it for her. She mumbled something that probably was some sort of polite farewell, which Rose returned with a nod, eye watchful.

Once she stepped out the door she turned back to face the woman who stood in the half-open doorway, blocking the view of the man who still sulked in his seat. In an undertone she murmured, “Here.” The second card she’d palmed made its way from hand to hand, then disappeared into the kangaroo pocket of the other woman’s dress.

As she turned away to step down the stoop, Rose reprimanded herself. It was not proper to be wishing Wallflower had used a shotgun instead of the Memory Stone.


View Online

The four-story brick mansion was a time capsule. Fortunes built on lumbering and the gold rush more than a century and a half ago had cultivated a whole crop of rambling estates on what, at the time, had been the outskirts of small but explosively growing settlements. Many of those financial flowers had withered over the following decades, leaving their architectural blossoms to decay and disappear in various waves of urban renewal, but this was a fascinating exception.

The last of the family line had been a public-spirited soul. Wartime brought with it a tremendous demand for hospital capacity, and the rambling home amidst somewhat dilapidated gardens underwent its first transformation. After the war and probate of that final scion’s will, the deed passed to the city in a surpassing gesture of generosity. Even so, the legacy became something of a white elephant; nobody was sure quite what to do with it, yet nobody wanted to discard what remained a large, sound building on a sizable plot in an area of increasing urbanization—and land prices.

For a time it stood mostly empty as a sort of municipal attic, storing odds and sods that didn’t fit anywhere else. Its slow decline seemed destined to end with demolition until, some forty to fifty years ago, a movement to improve social services swept the nation. Awareness and budgets increased, and a study commissioned to examine the problems and possible solutions suggested the derelict site, already owned by the city, house some of those services.

Nowadays, renovated and surrounded by lightly wooded parklike landscaping, it stood proudly as one of the largest and best halfway houses in the country. Sunset had been impressed by the place when she’d helped Rose and Wallflower move the latter’s pitifully small collection of belongings a few days before. It was a little bare and institutional, but it also was clean and bright. Halls and rooms betrayed both its previous life as infirmary and its age, when chambers often tended to be less expansive than they’d grown in this modern era. All in all the preserved old-fashioned interiors gave Sunset an odd touch of nostalgia for the world she’d left behind.

Following the original ward lay-outs, wings and stories had been designated for specific groups and situations. Wallflower thus had been placed in a closet-like room at a northeast corner of the top floor, a tall if not especially broad sash window on each exterior wall. Both looked out over rolling lawns and duff-strewn circles of mulch from which native conifers, maples, and alders stood tall. Subdued indirect sunlight gave the room a cool, low-key air.

Today Sunset—neat and tidy in newish T-shirt, jeans, and high-tops—stood in the doorway, offering a tentative smile and, in both hands, a cheap pot of green plastic. A single spindly vine trailed over its side, bearing green leaves and a couple of brilliant purple flowers. “Hi, Wallflower! I thought you might like some companionship.”

Wallflower looked up in bemusement from the print magazine on her lap and blinked. “Sunset. Oh. Hi. That’s right, you said you’d be visiting today.” Her voice was hushed but reasonably clear. “Um—come in.” She put aside the magazine and sat up from her half-reclined position on the cotlike bed, knees lowering and back rising from the thin pillows piled against the iron headboard. Her outfit was pretty much the same as it had been the evening Sunset found her in that dreadful little boarding room, other than a long-sleeved shirt, but at least this time it was freshly laundered.

As she finished speaking, Sunset stepped in and held out the small plant. “So, like I said, here’s a little company for you.” Uncertainty leaked into her forced heartiness.

Green hands reached automatically to accept the gift. “Th-thanks.” Wallflower looked over the plant, turning the pot, and added without looking back up, “Uh, have a seat.”

In answer to the invitation Sunset grabbed the straight chair in the corner and turned it backward, then plunked down on it and crossed her forearms on the back. There was a moment of silence, then Sunset spoke up again. “So, ah, how’re you doing?”

“I’m fine.” The words fell flat on the floor.

Instant denial rose to Sunset’s lips before she forced it back. She also rejected the second, third, and fourth responses that came to mind. “Okay,” she said at last. “Staff treating you well?”

“I guess.” The accompanying shrug was more of a twitch. Wallflower continued to examine the plant and pot as if for booby-traps.

“Uh-huh.” Sunset reminded herself it would not do to roll her eyes. “Are they feeding you enough?” Rose, too, had noticed the slight gauntness and the response to food. If Wallflower had gained any of that weight back, Sunset couldn’t see where.


Aquamarine eyes narrowed. “You’re getting enough to eat, right?”

Abruptly Wallflower jerked to her feet and shuffled around the bed, potted plant in hand. “This’s prob’ly the best place to put this morning glory,” she threw over her shoulder as she placed the small pot on a windowsill. It just fit.

Sunset had aired the inspiration to Rose after they’d finished moving Wallflower in and left. The social worker had endorsed the idea but cautioned against a traditional clay pot, pointing out how sharp the shards could be if it shattered. When Sunset followed the train of logic to its conclusion she’d felt a wash of shock, but she’d promised to get a plastic pot instead.

“Wallflower, you’re not getting enough to eat, are you?”

The shorter figure froze as Sunset called her bluff of evasion. Sunset softened her tone. “Why not?”

An expression of near-panic answered her, sparking a flash of memory. I don’t like confrontation . . . literally any public speaking—

“Hey. Are you having trouble talking to the staff?”

A wordless nod confirmed her guess, and a sigh escaped her. “Okay, I think I get it. Listen, would it make things easier if I brought some snacks and stuff next time I swing by?”

The sheer gratitude in Wallflower’s face nearly brought tears to her eyes, and was reply enough.

For the next hour or so Sunset made a conscious effort to do nothing more consequential than chatting. She filled Wallflower in on the doings of her own circle and, as far as she knew, those of other mutual acquaintances. By the time her phone chimed insistently, after being quieted once already, her efforts seemed to have succeeded in soothing the other girl’s anxiety. After a parting hug and another assurance she would continue to visit a couple of times a week, she left the room and the building with a faint stir of hope in her heart. Maybe things were looking up after all.

Sunset held a pair of grocery bags aloft by their handles, one in each hand. “Ta-da!” This time she wore a simple summer dress in purples and reds that flattered her warm colors.

Wallflower, after a quick double-take, sat up and put aside the book she’d been reading—from the cover, something about gardens or flowers or both. “Sunset! Uh—here, let me help with that.” She stood and reached for one of the bags, which Sunset surrendered willingly, then held the handles apart and peered into it. Again she wore jeans and socks, but at least today’s top was a short-sleeved T-shirt. Progress, of a sort.

Sunset sidled into the room and stage-whispered, “I got stuff you can stash in a cabinet or a drawer, so you won’t need a refrigerator or microwave or anything like that.” After a pause she added, “And I also tried to get stuff that isn’t just junk. You’re a growing girl, after all.” How much of the last was joke and how much serious wasn’t clear even to her.

Getting into the spirit of it, Wallflower made something of a show, hefting the bag and tiptoeing over to the simple and incongruously modernist wardrobe that served in place of a closet. There she opened both doors of the hanging cupboard and unloaded the groceries onto its shelf-bottom, under the scant few garments occupying it. Sunset grinned and joined her, emptying the other bag package by package and letting Wallflower arrange them as she wished.

“Thank you so much, Sunset,” Wallflower said with evident sincerity as she stacked a last few small boxes. “I really appreciate you taking the time and trouble to get these.”

“No trouble,” Sunset replied, waving away the notion. “I was happy to do it.” As the movement brought her around, she caught a glimpse of the little pot still sitting on the windowsill and frowned.

Wallflower followed her gaze and slumped, the energy of a moment before draining away. “Oh.” In the same low tone Sunset remembered from the previous visit a few days ago, she explained, “I can water it, but it’s not getting enough light and I don’t have any plant food for it.” Indeed, the little vine was visibly wilted, its hues less vibrant, though the single flower still lent a spot of bright color to the mostly white room. “It’s okay for now, but . . .” She shrugged helplessly; this time Sunset could hardly blame her.

“Well, let me see what I can do for next time, okay?” Sunset tried to sound as reassuring as she could. “Meanwhile, how are you doing?”

“All right—considering.” Wallflower sat on the foot of the bed, shoulders hunched a little.

Sunset set next to her. “Still nervous, huh?”

The other girl nodded, face a bit pinched.

Sunset reached a hand to rub Wallflower’s back gently. “It’s okay to be nervous any time you’re dealing with something new you don’t know much about.” She paused, thinking. “I’ll tell you a secret. Everyone thinks we have it great—the Rainbooms, I mean—magical adventures and spiffy outfits and cool superpowers. But nobody ever thinks about the flip side of it, except maybe the girls’ families.” She cocked her head, eyes gazing into the middle distance. “Well, okay, one other person does, and he nags us about it every now and then. Anyway, what I don’t think anyone else has figured out is, any time we pony up, we’re dealing with a lot of responsibility and a lot of risk. We don’t have any idea how things are gonna turn out either. It’s pretty scary.”

“I—you’re right, I never thought about that part of it,” Wallflower confessed. She gave Sunset a worried look. “And I guess I was part of that, wasn’t I, with the Memory Stone?”

Sunset’s mouth compressed. “I didn’t mean—look, all I’m trying to say is, what you’re feeling right now is natural, okay? But you can depend on Rose . . . and me. We won’t let you down.”

Rain drummed in the background and muted the daylight; lighting brightened the halls and rooms as if dusk had descended early. The apparition in the doorway wore hoodie, heavy stretch pants, and familiar chevron-bedecked boots against the weather, all of them soaked. Even the red-and-yellow hair had suffered somewhat, a few locks plastered against cheek or forehead. Both arms were full, juggling a dripping umbrella and a long box of corrugated cardboard. “Hey, Wallflower.” The voice was preoccupied but good-humored.

Wallflower stared at her visitor from across the room, having turned from the still-open hanging cabinet of the wardrobe. “Sunset!” She hastened around the bed. “Are you all right?” T-shirt, jeans, and socks again, but then her wardrobe didn’t include a lot else, especially after its brutal winnowing during her escape.

Sunset looked up from her odd-shaped burden, and Wallflower drew in a sudden breath. The amber-complected face bore some minor scrapes and bruises, and a large adhesive bandage covered part of the forehead over one eyebrow. “I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine,” Wallflower pointed out, one hand waving at the other’s somewhat battered face.

The mysterious box was shifted under one arm and the umbrella hooked over the other. The latter hand rose to touch the bandage as if it somehow materialized from nowhere. “Oh, that.” Sunset shrugged. “We had to clean up another one of those da—uh, stupid magical artifacts yesterday. It went okay.”

“Shouldn’t you be, I dunno, resting or something,” Wallflower persisted, “instead of wandering around the city in the rain?”

The free hand came down from the bandage in a casual wave. “I promised to visit today. Besides, I’ve got something for you.” She raised the box with a flourish, balanced on both hands.

It bore the logo of a big-box hardware store, specifically the lawn-and-garden section. Wallflower took it and turned, putting it on the bed. The top lifted off easily, designed strictly for temporary protection during transport. Within, a whole row of morning-glory vines lay bedded in a plain white vinyl windowbox, all the hardware ready for mounting. She looked up, astonished and speechless.

Sunset grinned in delighted triumph. “I told you I’d see what I could do about it!” She fished in a hoodie pocket, then dangled a key on a fob from thumb and forefinger. “I got the staff to let me borrow a window key. Come on, let’s set it up.”

Wallflower watched as the other girl brushed past, rounded the bed, and unlocked the window. With both arms Sunset heaved the sash upward, letting in the sound and fresh damp smell of the rain, spiced with concrete and asphalt, clean earth and pine. Wallflower’s breathing hitched audibly, not quite a gasp.

Sunset turned back, still grinning. “Hey, what’re you waiting for?”

With a start, Wallflower came back to herself and nodded. She picked up the windowbox carefully in both hands. “You’ll have to bring back the key, right? So how’ll I water ’em and take care of ’em?”

“We just leave the window unlocked,” Sunset told her in a conspiratorial tone. “That’ll work, right?” She looked down at her messenger bag, rummaging in it and coming up with a compact toolbox.

Wallflower nodded solemnly. “Sure, that’ll work fine.”

“Sorry I’m late!” Sunset stood at the door catching her breath. “You did get my text message, right?” Her simple blouse and knee shorts had suffered somewhat from her scramble.

Wallflower uncrossed her outstretched legs, unlaced the fingers behind her head, and sat up with a small, wry smile. “Yeah, I got it, don’t worry.” She already was dressed for the night in flannel pajamas, printed in a night-sky motif, that looked almost sinfully comfortable.

Sunset put her other hand on the doorframe to steady herself. “Oh good,” she said between puffs.

“Come in and sit down, Sunset.” Wallflower scooted to one side and patted the thin mattress. “You didn’t have to hurry so much, y’know.”

Steps a little wobbly from exertion, Sunset wandered over to the cot, turned, and flumped down. “I wanted to make it here before they locked up for the night, ’cause I won’t get another chance to see you before the transfer tomorrow.” Her brow furrowed, wrinkling the smaller bandage that had replaced the dressing on her forehead, and she added in a forlorn tone, “I was just getting used to doing this twice a week, and now I won’t be seeing you again for at least two weeks. From what Rose said, the policy is no visitors at first except immediate family.”

A serene nod of confirmation was the only response.

Sunset bit her lip and paused a long moment, fearful of jinxing things, before advancing a tentative observation. “You seem . . . I dunno, a lot calmer now.”

“I guess I am.” There was a trace of surprise in the admission.

When nothing more seemed to be forthcoming, Sunset ran her fingers through her hair and sat up. “Oh yeah. So how’re the flowers doing?”

“C’mon, I’ll show you.” Wallflower got to her feet and started to pad around the bed.

After that things got easier. With more animation than Sunset could recall seeing in her since before graduation, Wallflower held forth on morning glories in general and those under her care in particular. “They bloom every morning,” she pointed out, scooping up a withered blossom lying loose and holding it out for Sunset’s inspection. A few others were scattered on the soil, on the outer windowsill, and for all she knew on the lawn below.

Fascinated, Sunset took it between thumb and forefinger and peered at it. “So flowers on fast-forward?”

“Yeah.” From the sound of it, that comparison hadn’t occurred to the other girl before. “Something like that.”

Eventually even Wallflower ran out of things to say about the garden in miniature; they returned to the bed and, snagging it from the corner, the chair. They talked about everything and nothing, friends and acquaintances, anything except the impending change. Hours flowed gently past, water under the bridge, until deep in the night Wallflower began nodding.

“I guess it’s time I let you get some sleep.” Sunset glanced at her phone’s display. “I guess it’s time I get some sleep—and I have to go home first!”

Nothing would do but to make sure Wallflower was tucked in for the night. She put up a token resistance at first, then surrendered to the inevitable and slid under the covers. As she sat there, not quite ready to lie back, Sunset leaned down and gave her a parting hug. “Y’know, I’m gonna miss you,” she murmured.

Wallflower hugged her back, as fiercely as the night they’d watched magical girls battling magical threats. “You’ll be okay.”


View Online

The side street encapsulated city history in its patchwork of old and new buildings, architectural styles cheek by jowl—whatever had been in fashion at the time of construction, without regard for visual harmony. Its relative quiet, neither bustling nor deserted, made the civic center seem miles rather than blocks away. Before the two of them stood a little hole in the wall, sash windows above the vintage storefront on the ground floor, plate glass on either side of a classic trapezoidal inset for the age-blackened single-leaf door.

A casually dressed Sunset took a last bemused look up and down the sleepy block as Rose, as usual in one of her trademark pastel business suits, turned to pull on the decorative brass doorhandle. Over her shoulder, the older woman commented, “It’s early yet; we’re here before the lunch rush. Enough folks live around here to make the dinner hour fairly lively too, but weekday mornings, everyone’s at work.”

The interior was cool and dim, an impression reinforced by dark wood paneling everywhere. Bench seating and a few chairs made small waiting areas of the glazed extensions to either side of the doorway, unoccupied at this off hour. A neatly dressed young woman behind the nearby lectern pasted on a noncommittal smile, which immediately dissolved to startlement. “Ms. Brass! This is a surprise.”

“Well, a certain someone skipped breakfast this morning, so I decided to split the difference and get some brunch.” Rose shot her companion a glare half humorous, half reproving.

Sunset looked as if she couldn’t decide whether to hide or roll her eyes, so she settled instead on a persecuted sigh. “I already said I was sorry about oversleeping.”

“Mm. And how many times did you hit the snooze button on that ancient alarm clock of yours?” Rose didn’t bother to wait for an answer before following as the determinedly silent hostess set sail across the dining hall.

Not unlike the street outside, a few people populated the long, narrow room through which the hostess conducted them, most sitting alone or in pairs at various tables and booths. After a word sotto voce, Rose and Sunset ended up at a side booth a discreet distance from other parties, where they were left to their own devices, brick-red leather folios and all.

Rather than pick up the menu immediately, Sunset looked around in unabashed curiosity. The boiserie walls bore on their panels neat arrays of picture frames, each built around some large photograph, usually but not always monochrome, and usually but not always showing groups of smiling or grinning men in battle kit of one sort or another. The other frames displayed embroidery patches, enameled brasses, medals, or other military memorabilia. “I can see why you like this place,” she murmured absently.

Rose grinned. “Well, that and veterans get a discount.”

The food was hearty and plentiful, the coffee more than just decent. Everything about the place sought to balance the bluff, straightforward manner affected by so many military officers with the elegance of a restaurant that aspired to its own guidebook star. Sunset’s insistence on paying her part of the bill had faltered in the face of printed prices, not to mention Rose’s veteran discount and expense account.

As they ate Rose held forth one last time on the clinic to which Wallflower would be transferred. She knew full well Sunset had heard it all before, but ingrained officer habit combined with the youth of her audience punched a well-trained button deep in her brain labeled “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them.” Besides, it gave Sunset time to stuff a starving face with eggs, toast, orange juice, and all the other parts of a complete breakfast.

“So you should be able to start visiting her again after a couple of weeks.” Rose raised a forkful of breakfast sausage. “I’ll be sure to let you know when things loosen up, just in case. A lot depends on the progress of her case.”

Sunset, still chewing, nodded, then swallowed with a gulp. “What about the rest of the girls?”

Rose gave that question the serious consideration it deserved. After a moment she shook her head, not without a small measure of regret. “Probably best it be just you at first. Maybe later, if things go well, you can take one or two of the others with you.”

She could tell that stuck in Sunset’s craw, but after a flicker of hesitation, another, more reluctant, nod accepted the verdict. “Wallflower seemed a lot calmer yesterday. Well, I mean, she was a little bit better every time I saw her, but I really noticed last night. Does she still have to go—”

“Yes.” Rose’s interruption was firm, almost hard. “Nobody gets that much better after just a couple of weeks in a halfway house.” She paused and took a breath. “Think of it this way: if she really is better, let the experts make that determination and certify it. Otherwise, let them do the jobs they’re trained for and give Wallflower the help she needs.”

Sunset flinched, face blank, and Rose sighed. “I’m sorry, Sunset; I didn’t mean to lecture. But the process is important and pretty well established for good reason.”

This time it was Sunset’s turn to sigh and slouch a little. “I just wish . . . I just wish I could help somehow. Like, if I could . . .” She reached up to finger the coin-size pendant that hung on its fine gold chain.

A headshake answered the uncompleted suggestion. “Didn’t you tell me you made a promise? And—I don’t know if you’ve thought about this, but technically, touching someone who didn’t give you explicit permission could be construed as assault and battery, especially if it’s to do something like use that.” Rose nodded toward the crystalline medallion and the magical power it contained.

From the stricken expression, Sunset hadn’t considered that little wrinkle. Rose rubbed her forehead with her good hand. She was not batting a thousand today, was she? “That’s enough business for now, I think. How are you and the girls doing? Getting ready for university, right?”

It was a fine, if rather too warm, midday when the dependable old white panel van turned off the boulevard onto the parking lot that had displaced a goodly portion of the gardens that once surrounded the big old mansion. Rose sat quietly on the front passenger seat as the competent and companionably laconic driver cruised among the lanes and stalls, headed for the white-painted stretch of curb along the inner part of the lot. Outward tranquility belied the furious mental recitation of checklists, dependencies, and contingencies. The process wasn’t quite as straightforward as she’d led Sunset to believe, but she wanted neither to trudge through the tiresome details nor to alarm Wallflower’s friend unnecessarily. To be fair, Sunset’s age wasn’t a factor in that decision; she would have done the same with any friend or family member.

After a final nod, Rose concluded her double-checking and looked up as the van pulled to a neat halt on the loading zone, otherwise unoccupied thanks to careful scheduling procedures. Through the glass beside her, she caught a glimpse of a familiar wild-haired figure framed in an end window, sash raised, on the top floor. One smallish hand rested on a plastic watering can standing on the windowsill, and the round face was lowered in a pensive examination of the flowers in the box just outside. Rose smiled wryly at the last gesture of care for the small row of plants with their brilliant purple flowers, their predecessors no doubt littering the sill and, more visibly, the sidewalk below. The girl’s head rose just as Rose looked down and unbuckled her seat belt.

The driver hit a series of studs, unlocking both curbside doors and popping the tailgate; Rose opened the front passenger door beside her and exited onto the concrete edged by the curb, too wide to be a sidewalk, too narrow to be an apron. The quarter-inch heavy-gauge wire mesh that normally segregated the front and back seats had been removed for a routine transfer of a client judged not to be any kind of hazard—and who might take its presence amiss. She leaned back in to exchange a last few words with the driver, who nodded in confirmation he understood the intended sequence of events, then stood again and turned.

Wallflower stood with her back to Rose. One foot balanced on the windowsill and the matching hand braced on the underside of the window sash. The other arm stretched toward the shiny-polished vertical course of stone quoins reinforcing the building’s corner while the foot below it groped sideways along the small decorative ridge that continued the sill horizontally along the exterior façade.

By pure reflex Rose exploded into a sprint straight across the lawn toward the pavement under Wallflower’s window, already knowing it was too late. Even if she won the race, she would lose, but she was constitutionally incapable of not trying anyway.

It was a hairsbreadth too far—fingers and sock-clad toes slipped on the slick stone, the skinny figure swung out on the pivots of the other hand and foot, torque slid them free of their precarious grip. Wallflower seemed suspended an eternal moment, four floors up, before gravity took over and she arced downward back-first.


View Online

Sunset stormed into the lobby like an invading army, barely clearing the automated doors as they jerked and swung open. Her gaze settled instantly on the high counter and the receptionist behind it; her peripheral vision was a monochrome blur of irrelevance. Without breaking stride she beelined toward the functionary who, through long experience, looked up expectantly as she approached.

“Wallflower Blush,” Sunset said in a clear, hard voice. The individual behind the counter opened their mouth to answer.

“Sunset.” Rose sounded washed out and exhausted.

Sunset pivoted on a bootheel to see Rose standing a few feet behind her and to one side. In the same harsh tone she responded, “If you wanna talk, we can do it in her room.”

Rose shook her head. “You can’t see her yet.” Her tall form looked tired and hunched, shoulders rounded, good eye red and puffy. The rumpled business suit bore grass stains and even a couple of burst seams.

“Why not?” Sunset’s whole being seemed to blaze with anger and purpose, right down to the warm maroons and golds of her turned-cuff jeans and patterned top.

Rose straightened and her lips firmed. “Because she’s still in surgery. She will be for a while yet.”

Sunset’s mouth, already open for a retort, hung for a moment. “W-what?”

“She is in surgery.” Rose bit off each word. “Nobody knows when—or if—she’ll go to ICU.”

If. If. The heat drained out of Sunset’s face and her legs wobbled.

Rose’s account was no less horrifying for its detached, clinical nature, as if delivering a report to another officer. Maybe it was the fact she started not with the fall but with the window Sunset had unlocked. Maybe it was the way no detail was overlooked. Maybe it was the dreadful clockwork inevitability of physics in action.

Only Rose’s military first-aid training, which included measures not taught in civilian classes, had made the call for an ambulance anything but moot. Once the paramedics took over, she had fired off the text message that summoned Sunset—nothing more than the hospital’s name and the terrifying abbreviation ER, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out Wallflower had to be the reason. Then, in the panel van following on, she had received a phone call. “It was Wallflower’s mother, asking if it was possible to see her daughter. I had to tell her—” For the first time the hardened veteran’s voice broke. There was a long, long minute of silence before Rose was able to continue. “That was not a conversation I was ready to have today.”

When the tale was told, they gave the receptionist Sunset’s particulars before retiring to sit side by side, backs to the exterior wall, where they could watch the counter and the busy person behind it. Others came and went, mere passing shadows in their hollow unseeing eyes. Over and over Sunset’s memory shuffled fragments of the story, especially the evening she shoved up the window sash to make way for Wallflower’s new planter, and laid them out like bad hands of cards. Rose clearly was lost in her own thoughts as well. Neither of them looked at the clock.

A phone buzzed. Rose pulled it out for a quizzical glance, then hurriedly answered. “Rose Brass.” After a pause she cleared her throat and gave directions in the calm, remote voice that had served her so well this day. After closing with “No news yet,” she hung up and slipped her phone back into a pocket.

Sunset blinked at her and asked in a rusty voice, “Who was that?”

“Wallflower’s mother.” Rose was back to gazing at something far, far away. “Her name is Holly.”

“What?” Sunset jumped out of her seat in renewed outrage. “She’s coming here? Why did you—”

Rose’s head snapped around for a cold stare. “What, you want me to keep this woman from her own daughter? When she actively wants to see that daughter, maybe for the first time in years? When we don’t even know if she’ll get a chance to? Is that what you want, Sunset?”

Tears swam in Sunset’s eyes. “I—” She could get no farther.

Suddenly Rose slumped in her seat wearily. She rubbed her forehead with her good hand. “Just sit down and be patient, Sunset, okay? This is not a good day for any of us.”

“Ms. Brass? Ms. Shimmer?”

Both of them started, yanked from head-nodding somnolence by the call from across the room. The receptionist peered at them, awaiting their more immediate presence. They staggered to their feet and trudged up to the counter.

“Ms. Blush is in ICU now.” The words were quiet, meant not to be overheard. A pair of badges with breakaway lanyards appeared on the countertop, each labeled with a giant V, coded shapes and colors, and a prominent room number. Accompanying them was a set of verbal directions along with a finger pointing toward the correct door. They donned the badges and set out.

It was not a lengthy sojourn, but like every other hospital the corridors were bewilderingly mazelike; even with the instructions they made a couple of wrong turns. Still, they fetched up soon enough at their destination, where a nurse in pale-green scrubs awaited them patiently just outside the door.

When they stopped a short distance away, she looked both of them over, took a breath, and delivered a quick brief in an undertone. “The short version is, she’s in critical condition. The longer version is, she has a lot of issues, the most serious being internal bleeding leading to dangerously low blood pressure. Luckily the head trauma wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. The damage to the rest of her body is moderate but survivable. If and when she wakes up they’ll be better able to determine how severe the loss of feeling and function is from spinal injury. You can go in now.”

They nodded mutely and edged into the small room. Equipment crammed it to the point there seemed almost no space left for them to stand in. Tall thin poles supported boxes trailing wires or hoses. Rising from the tops of sturdy-looking cabinets on casters, articulated arms presented flatscreen monitors, which displayed colored abbreviations, numbers, and squiggles—some moving, some not. Soft beeps and boops sounded in a syncopated mix of rhythms.

The centerpiece was a patient bed, side rails up and head end raised slightly. The shape on it was draped with a thin hospital blanket over a pastel blue patient gown. The other ends of all those wires and hoses snaked over, or disappeared under, either or both of the coverings. Hoses even fastened to the side of the frail neck and the mouth, both hidden under wads of medical tape. A thick bandage wrapped around the head, covering the forehead.

Wallflower was barely recognizable. Arms lay along her sides, hands palm-up. Brows and lashes in expressionless repose framed closed eyes. Only a few tufts of the wild green hair were visible. Even her complexion looked strange, pale and bluish. Sunset reached a trembling hand to touch fingertips delicately to unresponsive fingertips, then drew it back with a gasp at the unexpected coolness. The same hand rose to her mouth. After a pause to make sure her voice was steady, she asked, “She’s gonna be okay, right?”

The nurse’s silence was answer enough.

Before she left, the nurse pointed out the one open corner of the room, where two ruggedly simple visitor chairs, and nothing else, sat on a small rectangle of floor marked off by a wide tape of black and white diagonal stripes. “In case of an emergency: if you can get out of the room quickly enough, do, but don’t block the doorway. Otherwise go over there behind the stripe and stay out of the way while the staff works.”

Shortly after Rose vanished as well. The social worker had said something—probably where she was going—but Sunset had no idea what, just as she had no idea how long she sat transfixed, struggling to make sense of this calamity.

An indrawn breath broke into her spinning thoughts. How it did so when Sunset had been deaf to Rose’s earlier comment was another mystery. She swallowed and briefly clenched shut eyes and fists before looking toward the doorway and the woman framed in it.

She was older, of course, and definitely dumpier. Her dress was simple, but faded and just as frumpy. Green hair was straighter, less wild. The round green face, the brown eyes, the mousy manner—those were the same. Whatever guide had piloted her here must have gone on to other tasks, leaving her to stare at the medical tableau vivant before her.

It was another few seconds before the newcomer shuffled forward as if drawn by a geas to stand at the foot of the bed. She huddled into herself, hand covering mouth and eyes darting, the picture of shock and incomprehension. Sunset started to hyperventilate, but the other visitor didn’t notice immediately. When she did, she half-turned and edged away a half-step. “H-hello. You . . . you must be Sunset Shimmer. Ms. Brass told me you would be here. I’m—”

“Holly.” Sunset’s voice was deadly. “You’re Wallflower’s mother. Rose said you were coming.”

A bare twitch of a nod confirmed all of it. “I don’t even remember her, I don’t understand why, but Ms. Brass had so much information, and I looked up a few things, like a birth certificate. I—I even found a photo.” She looked down at her purse with evident relief and started digging in it. Before Sunset could do more than narrow her eyes, the hand came back up with a worn little portrait photograph, a bit creased and discolored. The young girl in it beamed sunnily, not yet shadowed by the gathering clouds that would darken her adolescence. “It must’ve been in the bottom of my purse for a long time.” Her glance shifted over to the bed again.

Sunset could hold her peace no longer. She shot to her feet, took a step forward, and in a low, taut hiss burst out, “Wallflower told me all about the night she left home, y’know.” An amber hand swung toward the comatose patient. “She can’t tell you about it—but I can.”

The words proceeded to pour out of her, cold and thick and bitter. She spared nothing, though she retained enough presence of mind to gloss over the larger story and dance on the edge of the truth with the technicality Wallflower didn’t know where the Memory Stone came from when she found it. Perforce Holly had to believe her; fantastic as the story was, any other explanation would be even more incredible. Rose and Cook would be upset, but they could pound sand.

“You didn’t try to stop him. You let it happen.” Raw contempt edged the accusation, and once more a hand gestured at the victim. “You let this happen.” She heaved another couple of ragged breaths before stepping back, literally and metaphorically. Both hands raked through her hair and she closed her eyes again, trying to regain something resembling equilibrium.

“If . . . you say it happened, it must have.” The soft voice was shaky but surprisingly determined. “And you’re right. I can’t let it happen again.” A small sniffle puncuated the admission; the edge of a hand swiped at damp eyes. “I need to go talk to Ms. Brass. Goodbye, Ms. Shimmer, and—thank you.” With that she turned and departed, leaving Sunset to gape after her in astonishment.

She didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to stay. Nothing moved in her tiny universe other than little bits of the displays and the hands of the cheap, plain wall clock; even Wallflower’s shallow breathing was almost imperceptible. Nothing was audible other than the low electronic and mechanical noises keeping time, all at nerve-wrackingly different rates, and the occasional relief of human sounds growing and fading in the hallway outside. A couple of times the excitement of alarms and accompanying bustle, probably in nearby rooms just like this one, drew Sunset back to her feet, but each of them tapered off soon enough as well.

It was this ambivalence that paralyzed her when Rose—who somehow had changed clothes to a black T-shirt blazoned with a white fortress on a red rectangle, desert-tan BDU pants, and tactical boots—showed up again at the door with a demand she come along to get something to eat. When she hesitated on the edge of her seat, Rose eyed her sharply, then sighed. “How about we go down to the cafeteria? That way we don’t have to leave the building.”

“I don’t—what about Wallflower?” It was barely above a whisper.

Rose shrugged. “So Holly gets a chance to sit with her daughter for a while. You won’t begrudge her that, right?” A fleeting hint of steel marked the last word, and Sunset had to acquiesce with a nod.

Dinner was . . . something. The instant she finished it she forgot what it had been, though she couldn’t tell how much was her own preoccupation and how much was mediocrity of the food itself. Under the authority of a repressive glower, Rose took her in tow for another stint in the waiting room, where they failed to while away the time in small talk. Eventually Holly reappeared, Rose took charge of her instead, and Sunset was left to find her way back to Wallflower’s room.

More hours passed in an endless battle against dozing off, from sheer boredom if nothing else. Sunset was breathlessly afraid if she fell asleep, when she woke up she would be alone. On top of that the jagged memories gnawing at her loomed larger and more frightening when she started to drift.

She snapped upright again for the umpteenth time after nearly falling off the chair. The heels of her hands rubbed her eyes; her breathing took a moment to steady.

“I don’t . . . I don’t understand.” After so long in near-silence the sudden sound of her own voice came as a shock. Her breathing paused. Her glance at the motionless body at the center of the small room reminded her there would be no reply.

“Betcha think I’m an idiot, huh?” Sunset leaned forward, bracing forearms on thighs and lacing her fingers. Her head lowered and her lips pressed together in an unhappy parody of a smile. “I mean, all those good grades don’t mean a thing if I’m t-too stupid to—” She swallowed and looked up again.

“You wouldn’t believe how many times Rose warned me to be careful, even about little things. I just—I wanted to do something nice for you, y’know? I wanted to see you smile. I never thought you might—” She drew a sharp breath in through her nose. “It never crossed my mind. I—I still don’t understand.”

Standing was much harder than it should be, the more so because what hung from her neck suddenly felt like a millstone rather than a glittering slip of crystal. Surely it was only a few steps to the bedside, not the mile it seemed.

One hand closed around the pendant of red and gold. “I know I made a promise,” Sunset whispered. “But I need to understand. I have to find out why, so I—we can make sure you n-never feel that way again.” The other hand reached out, trembling with the tension in every muscle of her body, and she touched Wallflower’s arm.

Whiteout. Disorientation. Jumble. Focus.

Her nose was close enough to the bricks she might scrape it any second. Her socked foot slid along the curved moulding, barely able to get any purchase. Her hand reached for the corner, stone slick under green fingertips. Below was lawn as well as sidewalk, but around the corner there was a patio—an expanse of colored concrete cast to resemble a quaint pattern of pavers—more than big enough to do the job. It would’ve been easier if the other window, directly over the patio, was unlocked, but oh well.

She was doing the right thing. Sunset would understand. Sunset would be okay. Sunset might even be grateful.

The foot slid out and off; the hand waved reflexively for balance. A moment later she was in mid-air. She couldn’t even do this right—

The pendant’s enchantment seized that instant, pinpointing it as foundational. From there it groped for associations, guided by its user’s half-expressed desires and goals. Every brain was different, as alien as another planet, and needed to be learned from scratch. A kaleidoscope of images, sounds, odors, flavors, impressions bombarded her like a bizarre mental version of the microfiche reader still maintained by the city library branch as the spell explored along the unique webwork of engrams at breakneck speed, chasing down the best matches it could find. It was more like experiencing dreams than anything else, subjective and all too often distorted, fuzzy or murky where they didn’t involve things that particular brain understood or considered important.

Her body felt light and fluttery, trembling with the need to run, to escape. The scary one-eyed woman on the other side of the desk was talking, but none of the words made any sense. She didn’t know anything about this “inpatient” place. She wouldn’t see anyone she knew, or who cared about her—like Sunset—for weeks. She was too sick and useless to be anywhere else—

She was starving. Now the Memory Stone was gone, she couldn’t keep stealing food. The only thing she ate any more was lunch at school, because she still had the food-program card. She deserved this; after all she was a useless idiot. She couldn’t bring herself even to look for a job. Besides, how would she do that and attend classes? The little white room with its accumulating mess closed in around her—

Sunset Shimmer screamed her friends’ names and flailed her arms in vain, trying to recapture the visible ribbonlike manifestations sucked out of her head. It looked horrible. Sunset collapsed on the asphalt, which was even worse. Sunset was a big meanie and needed to be taught a lesson, but it wasn’t supposed to hurt this much! Sunset got up, but didn’t stand, instead staying on hands and knees and saying weird things nobody seemed to understand. It was a nightmare—

She heaved huge breaths of exertion and panic and looked around wildly at the quiet side street of houses and small apartment complexes surrounding her. It was full dark by now, and she had no idea what to do next. One thing at a time. Okay. She clutched the stack of picture frames to her chest, pressing on the padded straps of her bookbag; she’d dump all those photos in a trash container in an alley behind a strip mall or something. Then she could think about a plan—

Mom was telling her Dad was right. Dad was always right. Mom never seemed to think she was right, and Dad always thought she was wrong. She quit listening and just waited for Mom’s mouth to stop moving, then nodded and asked to be excused, carefully waiting for permission. She couldn’t remember the last time Mom said something nice to her, and when Dad did, she knew he didn’t really mean it, because sooner or later he—

Even worse than the pain was the shock of it. Dad’s hand, open and flat like a blade, continued on its arc away from her cheek after snapping her head to the side. Mom’s eyes were huge but she didn’t say or do anything. What was happening? Why was it happening? She didn’t understand—

She hated passing periods. The halls always felt too crowded, too many students walking or even running, too close to each other, too close to her, in clumps and groups paying attention to each other but nothing else they might bump into or vice versa, their chatter drowning out everything, nobody ever noticing her, ever taking a moment not to run her down—

“. . . After all, nobody would even care if you just disappeared.” The Shimmer girl sneered, malicious cruelty cutting as a whip—

She sure tried to disappear, all right.

It might as well have been a bolt of electricity snapping across the contact of amber fingers on blue-green wrist. Sunset stumbled back, both arms waving slightly as she caught her balance. Her vision cleared, only to cloud up again as tears sheeted down her cheeks. She didn’t remember saying that—but of course she wouldn’t! The mocking words scraped from her mind, only to be seared back into it, had become the seed of a hideous pearl of thoughts, fears, bullying, tortured justifications, growing until it almost killed Wallflower.

It still might.

Sunset leaned forward and gripped a side rail with both hands. “Wallflower,” she pleaded in a tight voice. “I was wrong. I care. Rose cares. Don’t go. Come back. Please come back.”


View Online

“Thanks, Sarge.” Rose knew she sounded utterly drained. “Anything else I need I can grab in the gift shop or a convenience store somewhere around here. Head on back to the barn and get a good night’s sleep.” Despite the indomitable front she took such pains to project, even her stamina was finite, and the last half a day—or half a lifetime—had stretched it perilously close to its limit.

The taciturn driver nodded in acknowledgement and touched fingertips briefly to forehead in an informal salute before striding toward a side corridor and the parking structure at its other end. Once he was out of sight, Rose sighed, lowered her head, and rubbed her forehead with her good hand. What next?

With an effort she straightened her spine, shifting the dufflebag over her shoulder, and raised her head again for a look around. Like everything else about the chain hotel, the lobby was about as generic as it got: beige walls, curtained full-height storefront-style commercial glazing, rugged hard-wear carpeting out of a catalog from a decade ago. It seemed larger than it was—scattered clusters of lounge chairs around drumlike coffee tables left much of the space open; ceiling fixtures provided fashionably, and maddeningly, dim lighting. At this late hour it was empty other than herself and the single attendant behind the reception desk tucked away at the side of the room.

Well, not quite. A lone figure occupied an ell at the far end, glassed in during some long-ago renovation. To Rose’s half-knowledgeable eye it probably had started as one of those “business centers” that were all the rage in the early days of the public Internet. Then, when that became passé after a few years, it no doubt had been converted into a “smoking lounge” as laws on public smoking tightened. Never mind how awkward and inadequate the small space had been for either use.

Her brow crimped. That occupant looked familiar.

Holly stared down at the pack of cigarettes sitting unopened on the small table in front of her. She had gotten no farther than pulling the tab that stripped off the top of the outer cellophane wrapper; her hands sat, fingers spread slightly, on either side of the small paperboard box. Her head popped up in surprise when the glass door opened. “Uh . . . Ms. Brass! I—I didn’t expect to see you . . .”

“I didn’t expect to see you tonight either, so I guess we’re even.” Rose entered and let the door close behind her with slow pneumatic grace. Another couple of steps brought her to the chair opposite Holly. Without invitation she unslung her duffle and dropped it beside the chair, on the side away from the door, then dropped herself onto the chair.

Only a whiff of tobacco smoke scented the air. Rose suspected the “lounge” hadn’t been used in a while, and at least the management had sprung for a heavy-duty HVAC vent and return in the ceiling. “I didn’t know you smoked.” Neither approval nor condemnation marked the toneless words.

“I haven’t in almost twenty years.” Holly returned her gaze to the neatly arranged packet. “But if there’s ever a time to do it . . .”

There was a stretched pause before Rose acknowledged, “Yeah. I can see that.” After all, this day had turned out to be as rough for Holly as it had been for her and Sunset. “So . . . you left your husband.” She wanted to swivel her seat, but it was one of those solidly built overstuffed chairs designed to withstand years of abuse from uncaring guests.

“Yeah. That was hard.” A world of understatement, on so many levels, had to underlay Holly’s stark admission. “I called you once I was out of there, and that’s when you told me—” A hand gestured not even in the general direction of the hospital. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, about her, about tonight, about anything.” She hunched a little, apparently more in fatigue or relief than discomfort, then sat up again. “Oh—I didn’t thank you before, for the room. And thank you for helping me with Mister Sticky Note and all.”

The prosthetic hand waved away the need for gratitude. “Part of the job. Social Services maintains a small block of rooms here, partly because of the hospital down the street. I just tapped into that for a single.”

“And a room for you too?” The furtive brown eyes in the downturned face flicked upward briefly. “You have a bag with you.”

“Mm.” Rose couldn’t deny it, but felt no inclination to elaborate. At the same time she had reserved Holly’s room, she’d snagged a double for herself. She wasn’t sure why—it wasn’t like being nearby could have any impact on events at the hospital. She just wanted to stay close, and she might be able to use the second bed as a way to entice Sunset to get some sleep.

Time to change the subject, or return to the original subject, or whatever. “I’m in the youth division; I’m not certified to work with adults. Besides, it would be a conflict of interest, since your daughter is one of my clients. Sticky’s qualified to work with you, and he’s got experience with women in your situation. He’s a good egg.” Standoffish and abrasive, sometimes, but a good man. Well, Holly would find that out soon enough, and it would be his job to make sure she shaped up.

Holly’s nod was equal parts trusting and wary, which seemed contradictory, but in Rose’s experience was entirely too common for someone in her position. She was silent for a long moment, plainly groping for something else to say before making up her mind. “My hus—boyfriend, then, got me to start smoking.” Her voice had gone back to the low mumble Rose remembered from the first time they’d met. “I stopped just a couple of years later. I didn’t understand why. I was pregnant, wasn’t I?”

“I wouldn’t know, but I’d say yeah, probably.” Rose didn’t bother to hide the weariness in her voice. “You must’ve been, what, twenty?” The same age Sunset currently was, though she kept that to herself.

A nod confirmed the estimate. “We got married right around then, too. It was . . . kind of sudden. So much wasn’t making sense, but now—it’s like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing, and there’s no box to look at.”

Rose blew out a breath in unwilling sympathy. Memory was a tricky thing, more fluid and protean than most people were comfortable considering. It’s hard to think about something that isn’t there, like the old chestnut about trying to prove a negative. If the gaps are small, they get glossed over, not even missed. If they’re big, the brain tries to fill them in, however nonsensical the results. How much of Holly’s unease had been stirred up by the very interview Rose subjected her to? Would it have been better to let sleeping dogs lie? She shifted on her seat.

“Or maybe it’s more like a window that was so dirty I couldn’t see through it, and then half of the dirt got wiped away somehow.” Holly rambled on, oblivious to Rose’s disquiet, struggling to articulate her own tilted perspective. “We weren’t ready for getting married or being parents, either of us. Now I can see it, and how he bossed me around. B-bullied me. He didn’t care about anything but living the way he wanted. I couldn’t get him to stop drinking.” She paused, and something that might almost be a smile flitted across her face. “At least he stopped doing it as much, and he did stop smoking.”

It was Holly’s turn to sigh. “I guess not being ready isn’t a good excuse, though, is it? I never liked getting into arguments or fights with people either, but look at me. Look at my—my daughter. Have you heard the old saying about going along to get along?” At Rose’s silent nod, she went on, “Look at what that got me and my baby.” She sat up straighter and for the first time raised her head to look Rose in the eye. “I have to do better now. I have to stand up for myself, and for her.”

Rose’s eye narrowed and her mouth compressed; her whole muscular body coiled a little. As far as she could tell, Holly’s track record over the last twenty years of standing up for anything, let alone herself or her daughter, was—to put it very politely—not good at all. Why believe her now?

The social worker couldn’t count the number of times she’d heard a client, or a parent, blather on about wanting to change, offer up abject apologies, swear it would never happen again. But with vanishingly rare exception the change never happened, the apologies were forgotten, and it did happen again. The bad habits were just too ingrained, the chowderheads who jerked and twitched in obedience to their demands unable to fathom any other way of behaving. That went for enablers every bit as much as the abusers they enabled.

Wallflower was Rose’s client. Holly probably wouldn’t hurt the girl, but if she wanted a chance to prove herself to her daughter, first she had to prove herself to Rose. Assuming Wallflower had a future, Rose’s job would be to do what was best for her. Right now, it didn’t look very likely that should include letting Holly back into Wallflower’s life at all, let alone helping the two of them reconnect. She clenched her teeth on the urge to tell the woman across the table just that.

At Rose’s sudden tension, Holly’s face blanked and she drew back a little. “You—you’re mad at me.” It wasn’t a question or even a protest, just a simple observation. The dumpy little form sagged. “I guess I’m mad at me too.” Green hands rose to knuckle brown eyes.

Out of Holly’s sight, Rose closed her eye and took a long slow breath. None of her thoughts were new or untrue, but it was time for a little benefit of the doubt. Even in its absence the Memory Stone loomed large. Maybe those bad habits as much as Holly’s memories had been shot full of holes; she did seem more determined, more willing to shoulder some responsibility. Not shuffling off all the blame onto her husband also was a point in her favor, as long as she didn’t take it too far.

A minute passed as both of them strove for a semblance of equanimity. Finally Rose ventured more gently, “Why are you here? Instead of sitting with Wallflower, that is. Why let Sunset be there instead?”

A hint of fire guttered in the mild eyes. “Of course I wanted to stay with her! When you two were eating dinner and I was in there, all I could think about was how she had to be my daughter. I don’t remember anything, y’know, like mental pictures or things like that, but I just had—have this feeling about it. Like—like maybe there’s still something deep down inside telling me she’s my baby and I’m her mother. That’s all I need.” A shrug reinforced her conviction.

“But . . .” Hesitance returned. “. . . it’s not what I want that’s important. It’s all about what’s best for Wallflower, isn’t it? Right now, m-maybe that isn’t me. I don’t know if my face should be the first one she sees when she wakes up. Heaven knows I want it to be, b-but if she felt so bad about her parents she ran away—” A helpless, inarticulate gesture ended, rather than finished, the sentence.

Rose did not miss Holly’s unconscious assurance Wallflower would regain consciousness, and by extension that the girl would survive and recover. Experience told the army officer and minder of troubled youth how misplaced that confidence was. Sometimes people who should have made it didn’t; sometimes those who should have given up the ghost pulled through.

It was this lack of certainty, like the gruesomely appropriate thought experiment about the cat in the box, that was so agonizing—far more than when Adagio Dazzle had slit her wrists. Then, it had been no more than an hour before she knew the ex-siren would be all right. Now? It could be days or weeks, even an eternity, before the verdict would be known.

Telling Holly the odds might undermine her fragile confidence. Silence might leave her all the more devastated should Wallflower fail to awaken. There was no good choice, just a choice.

Once more Rose rubbed her forehead. Later. She would think about this later. “Tell you what: how about tomorrow?” For now she would keep to herself the acid proviso assuming Wallflower is still alive. “Sunset’s gonna be a wreck by then. She’ll need the sleep anyway.”

For Holly to stay, Sunset had to leave—only one long-term visitor at a time was allowed. Being next of kin, Holly’s decision would trump Sunset’s or even Rose’s, but she hadn’t asserted her right; exactly why wasn’t clear. Perhaps she just didn’t know. Perhaps she hadn’t thought of it yet. Perhaps she wanted the validation of Rose’s concurrence. Perhaps she’d figured out Sunset’s hair-trigger temper held the potential for a major scene unless Rose was the one to try prying her daughter’s friend out of the room, though that reasoning seemed a little sophisticated for Holly, especially under these conditions.

Holly’s preoccupied nod seemed to seal the deal, but her next words struck like a thunderbolt. “She didn’t just run away, though, did she? Was . . . was that Sunset girl telling the truth about a magic rock?”

“What did she tell you?” The words came out hard and sharp, all officer and no social worker. Rose regretted the tone instantly.

The brown eyes grew large, and a frightened stammer made the story almost unintelligible. Rose listened, irritated Sunset had let it slip, relieved Sunset had exercised any discretion at all about the Stone’s origins. She made a mental note. There would be words about this.

“But—but why Wallflower?” The flood of words slowed to something less than a torrent. “She never shoulda come across something like that. She’s not magic. She’s just a normal kid from . . .” Holly wound down, realizing where that thought led, then shifted tack. “I mean, it had to be dangerous, like somebody leaving a loaded gun or a bottle of booze just . . . just lying around!”

Part of that skated dangerously close to blaming the victim, something Rose couldn’t let pass. In a tightly controlled voice she pointed out, “Yes, well, if that ‘normal’ family—and her schoolmates, to be fair—had been more supportive, if she hadn’t been made to hate herself so much, she might not have been convinced all her interactions were so screwed up she had to wipe them away.” She paused a beat before conceding, “But yeah, it was dangerous. When I was in the army, I saw too many kids who ended up finding unexploded mines or bombs the hard way.” Everything she had learned about magic from the other world indicated it wasn’t always fun and happy and rainbows and music. Sometimes it was a primordial force able to destroy lives. The Memory Stone absolutely fell into the latter category.

Holly’s eyes glistened. “You—you’re right. If she trusted me more, if she could’ve trusted me more, she might’ve said something, and we could’ve done something about it before things got so bad.”

Rose sat back in exhaustion and glanced up at the ceiling. “There isn’t anyone to blame, any more. I have no idea how long it sat buried before Wallflower found it.” Another technicality; she would bet somebody—or somepony, to use Sunset’s native vernacular—probably knew how long it had ticked away like one of those unexploded bombs, but that somebody wasn’t her. Perversely it annoyed her to borrow that trick from Sunset.

It was clear Holly felt profoundly ambivalent about Wallflower—wanted to be angry, and ashamed of that anger. Rose was painfully aware of her own mixed feelings of anger and sympathy toward the girl at the center of the tangle. She was convinced Sunset too harbored the same confused emotions, though the fiery young woman doubtless wouldn’t admit it even to herself.

“But do you have any idea what Wallflower is like?” A plaintive note haunted the question.

Rose blinked and sat up again. “Sorry, what?”

“Can you tell me what Wallflower is like?” Another gesture, this time with both hands, expressed bafflement. “I don’t remember her, so I don’t know her any more, really.”

“Oh.” Rose’s shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry, Holly, I don’t have a good answer for that question. I’ve had only a few conversations with her.” And what she did know, Wallflower’s mother didn’t need to hear tonight. “Truthfully? The person who might know her best is Sunset—and Sunset definitely is not up for that right now.”

Holly deflated, the picture of disappointment, but muttered, “He doesn’t remember anything either. I can’t decide if that’s good or bad. He doesn’t care that he doesn’t remember, which is bad, but he doesn’t remember anything he did, which is . . . good?”

In a flash Rose caught on to what Holly really wanted to know. “He abused Wallflower verbally and emotionally, gradually escalating through her childhood. If I understand correctly, he didn’t start any kind of physical abuse until early in her junior year at CHS, about twenty months ago. It started with a slap, and it didn’t happen often, but toward the end he was using a fist about once every week or two.” In the same emotionless voice she provided more details, outlining the scope and extent of the abuse.

Holly’s expression was sick and a tear tracked down her cheek as she listened, but she didn’t look away. When Rose finished she whispered, “Did he do . . . anything else to her?”

“No.” Small mercies. “No, he didn’t go any farther than that, thank goodness.” Rose had been forced to give worse answers in the past, something that never, ever got easier.

Holly squeezed her eyes closed and her lips moved. Maybe it was a prayer. It was a good time for one.

It was a good time for a little encouragement, too. “What matters now is making sure Wallflower has a future worth waking up to.”

To that Holly nodded emphatically.


View Online

“Holly.” Sunset stood straight and tall in the ICU doorway, face and tone carefully neutral. A bright, cheery frock, one of Rarity’s elaborate gifts—and of course a trial run for a possible saleable design—balanced ease and formality. From one of her hands dangled a take-out bag; the other hand rested on the metal doorframe.

The older woman started and looked over at her. “Oh. Hello, um, Sunset. I guess it’s time, isn’t it?” Only the different colors and floral pattern gave away the fact she wasn’t wearing the same dress as the day before.

“Yeah.” Sunset stepped in and edged to the side, careful to clear the way just in case. “I had dinner earlier, and I’ll bet you’re hungry, so I got you something. I hope you like it.” She held up the bag.

Holly gathered up her purse from the floor beside her chair, then stood and approached with a hand extended. “Th-thank you. For the food, and for this morning, when Ms. Brass . . .”

“When Rose knocked our heads together,” Sunset finished ruefully as she gave over the bag. “Mostly me. But—she was right, and I should apologize.” It hadn’t been a shining example of civility for any of them. Sunset herself, strung out after a day and a half without sleep, hadn’t held back at all. Holly had dug in her heels with dull stolidity. Rose had taken a long deep breath and proceeded to lay into both of them, her growled words plain and searing. Once she had their full attention she proposed a simple compromise: split the time, turn and turn about.

“Is that why you said you’d stay here at night and in the morning, and I could stay during the afternoon and evening?” Holly seemed honestly curious.

Sunset leaned back against the narrow stretch of wall that didn’t have any equipment or furniture against it and rubbed her face with both hands, then let her arms drop. “Yeah. Rose said you needed some time during the day you could talk with Mister Note about your case. I figured the morning would be okay for that, and I didn’t see a good reason to make you stay up all night.” She shrugged.

“Did you get any sleep after that?” Holly certainly sounded like a mother just then.

“Uh, yeah. Yes I did.” Sunset blinked in surprise. “Thanks for asking. I didn’t think I would, and I kept telling Rose that, but she made me lie down anyway. The next thing I knew, it was dinner time.”

“She’s very . . . firm,” Holly observed.

“No kidding.” Sunset frowned down at the worn floor tiles. She suspected Holly really meant intimidating or even scary. That wasn’t how she saw Rose, but it wasn’t hard to imagine how overwhelming the tall, powerful, raffish-looking woman’s sheer presence could be for someone like Holly or Wallflower—even Fluttershy. “Anyway, like I said, I’m sorry I was such a pill about it.”

“Well, you didn’t know about what happened to me yesterday.” For once the soft voice seemed more thoughtful than timid. “And you’re Wallflower’s best friend, so of course you’re worried too.”

Sunset shifted her weight. “Best . . . yeah, maybe I am. I mean, at the end of the school year she was getting better about making new friends, and the gang and I were trying to help her, but she hadn’t been working at it very long. A few other students did join the gardening club before the year ended, especially after we showed off the garden she built behind the school.” She wondered if Principal Celestia and Vice-Principal Luna would name it after the student who created it. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that idea, especially right now.

“She likes gardening.”

Was that a question? “More than that.” Sunset stood away from the wall again. “I think for her it’s a passion.” Details began to spill forth, overflowing the dam she hadn’t realized was there. Her voice thickened a little, but she literally could not stop. It was only the last couple of weeks she shied away from, concentrating instead on happier memories. Little moments, small joys, the faltering steps Wallflower had been taking from the dark place where she’d been hiding.

When Sunset paused for breath during this stream of upbeat reminiscing, Holly interjected, “That’s not all, is it? Ms. Brass told me all kinds of . . . bad stuff was happening too.”

Sunset’s mouth snapped shut and her face worked. A string of the most sulphurous curses she knew—from both worlds—flashed through her mind. She would bend Rose’s ear about this. Finally, when she could loosen her jaw enough, she grated, “Are you really sure you want to hear about that?”

Holly bit her lip briefly. “I need to understand—as her friend, do you have any idea why she might have done . . . this?” She tipped her head toward the bed surrounded by medical sentinels.

It was like slamming into a brick wall, hearing the same anguished question from someone else’s mouth. Sunset paled and stiffened all over. She opened her mouth to disclaim any knowledge, only to pause at a mental picture of Applejack’s disapproving scowl. Seconds trickled past before she could reply stiffly, “I can’t say.”

Sunset shifted again on the visitor chair. After enduring increasing discomfort over the previous nights she’d decided in favor of more practicality. A pillow from the hotel added a little cushioning to the thin padding of the pleather-upholstered seat. A sports bra under a trim top, along with boot-cut slacks and slip-on shoes, were adequate if not fancy.

She hunched over her lifeline to the outside world and flicked a thumb across it absently; the smartphone’s screen scrolled and coasted to another stop, nothing more than a glowing blur in her distracted eyes. The two nights since she had broken her promise, empty hours measured out by beeps and ticks, had passed in a like blur. Surely there would not be many more before the medically supported stillness ended and Wallflower would be wheeled to another more welcoming room to begin the process of recovery.


Be careful what you wish for, the old saying whispered, you just might get it. She had wished to know why, and now she did. Was it worth the price? What would she say once Wallflower was awake again to hear? Should she say anything at all?

She tapped the phone again, dropping back to a screen full of icons, and glanced at one in particular. A red badge clung accusingly to one corner, and the number it bore made her sigh. Even as she’d scrambled around, meeting with Rose, trying to help Wallflower, she’d been conscientious about responding to the other Rainbooms—until this had happened. The last message she’d sent out, from the lobby after the completely unmemorable cafeteria dinner, laid out nothing more than the bare bones of the situation, though at least she did think to mention the hotel stay.

She’d glanced at the message client a few times since then, reading her friends’ words. Shock at first, then supportive well-wishes, eventually turning to worry when she failed to communicate. Too many of those words, Sunset felt, were for her rather than Wallflower. Surely the girl hooked up to all those wires and hoses deserved more of their attention and sympathy than Sunset did after everything she’d said and done.


The hand holding the phone fell back to her lap and she leaned back on the chair. Without looking she pressed the button to turn off the screen. They all would be asleep right now anyway. Rose too, probably. Besides, she didn’t think she had anything to say, and even if she did, she didn’t think she could come up with a way to say it. Some genius she was.

Pinkie Pie had ordered a bouquet, just a simple store-bought arrangement in a cheap plastic vase, and had it sent to the hotel in care of Sunset’s name. It was still in the room. Sunset couldn’t help but remember the last time she’d brought plants to Wallflower. Besides, she vaguely remembered reading somewhere hospitals actually didn’t like people bringing in live plants—allergies and sensitivities, that sort of thing.

Still, the girls shouldn’t be left hanging like Sunset was hanging, waiting in limbo for something to happen, for someone to wake up and answer. She lifted her phone again and lit the screen. E-mail would work. She could peck out something a little more substantial than just a quick phrase or two, and it would keep until they were awake. Surely the sooner Sunset broke her silence, the sooner Wallflower would break hers.


An abrupt blaring tone stabbed straight through the ears into the brain, piercing as a smoke alarm. With a convulsive start Sunset—this night dressed in basic T-shirt and jeans—snapped upright on the visitor chair, eyes popping open and hands white-knuckled on its arms. Her breathing had just begun to settle when a second urgent warning kicked off, heterodyning with its predecessor in an ululating howl.

She hadn’t been sleeping, exactly—more mesmerized by the accumulated hours of isolation and monotony, rather like road hypnosis. It made her logy and slow, scattered thoughts unable to gel under the electronic screams filling the small space, tachypsychia distorting the world around her. She struggled to her feet and took a couple of sluggish, dreamlike steps toward the door before freezing as a tornado of people swept into the room.

Her eyes blinked, trying to focus, but caught only fragmentary snapshots. Tight faces. Scrubs of a brilliant azure she hadn’t seen on the staff before. Glossy identity cards proclaiming CRASH TEAM in giant bold letters. An arm rising to point an imperative finger at her, then swinging to indicate the marked-off safety zone from which she’d stepped; a mouth calling out words she did not hear. She retreated, hands reaching behind her, and sank back onto the chair and the pillow she’d forgotten.

It was a well-choreographed dance. One of them worked at the touch-screens, turning down the alarms and making adjustments. Another exchanged some of the boxes on the tall slender pole with the disciplined haste of a pit-crew mechanic at a race track. The one in charge leaned over to glance down at the patient and up at the monitors, snapping out polysyllabic words full of prefixes and suffixes Sunset thought she might recognize, but with the havoc and noise and Wallflower looked so pale she couldn’t find the meanings in her brain. All she caught was the phrase hemorrhagic shock. The surgeon—he had to be a surgeon—and two others started a rough-and-ready examination for external bleeding from which Sunset had to look away, burying her face in her hands.

Seconds and an eternity later the physician’s voice rasped, “exploratory laparotomy, stat,” followed by a chorus of acknowledgements, mostly grunts or the merest hints of words, exactly the sort of truncated responses she and her friends flung at each other out of long familiarity. Sunset looked up again. The bustle shifted, concentrating more on the body in crisis, and less than a minute later a moccasined foot kicked the wheel stops to free the gurney. The whole group gathered around it like an honor guard and whisked it out the door with the speed and ease of long practice.

The last of Sunset’s hope went with it.

Sunset slumped on the chair, fists thrust into the pockets of her oversize hoodie and outstretched legs shapeless in loose sweat pants. Her gaze was fixed on the worn linoleum floor and her phone was in a pocket, set to do not disturb.

She wasn’t sure why she’d bothered to come this evening. Everything was the same as before the panic of the previous night—except now she felt empty as an abandoned building. She couldn’t even summon tears; her eyes probably looked dry and red. Sooner or later, she was convinced, the rhythmic sounds of the machines would transform one by one to steady tones until someone came to shut them off and shoo her out of the room.

She couldn’t look up at the clock either, or even at the gurney. She just sat, drifting, waiting, in an unchanging bubble, thoughts slowly working their way through her head. For all the awful things Sunset Shimmer had done in her life, at least she’d never gotten anyone killed. She lifted her head and looked across the small room.

Not yet, anyway.

She closed her eyes again and listened to the endlessly patient beeping and ticking of the technology around her.

. . . No, there was a change. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something about the metronomic noises wasn’t quite the same as her ears had become accustomed to over the last four nights—well, four and a half, now. A prickle of curiosity brought a faint frown to her face. After another minute or so she opened her eyes and pushed herself to her feet. She caught her lower lip in her teeth as she tiptoed over to look down at a green face.

Half-lidded brown eyes stared blankly back.


View Online

It was a cramped, stuffy little space—the same size and architecture as the ICUs and countless other cubbyholes all over the hospital, designed for easy adaptation to a variety of uses. In the center stood a three-foot round pedestal table, cheap and serviceable. Three equally utilitarian chairs, all occupied, attended it; the others had succumbed to hard use or been carried off to other rooms, never to return. A business-suited Rose sidled awkwardly through the door from the hallway, the back of a mismatched fourth chair under her prosthetic arm. She set it down at the table and dropped onto it, then glanced around.

Decades ago, in a misguided attempt to brighten the close windowless space, someone had plastered cheap four-color travel posters on the walls. Over the intervening years the merciless fluorescent lighting in the ceiling had leached away all the magenta and most of the yellow, leaving the photographs of distant exotic places a uniformly faded and doleful blue-gray. Everything about the tiny conference room was worn and a bit tired, rather like the people who met in it.

This morning those people included not just her but Holly and Wallflower’s attending physician. The fourth individual, vaguely scruffy-looking and dressed in a simple pantsuit, sat quiet and aloof, composed as a cat. Sunset, by contrast, was absent, still attending the semiconscious girl about whom the rest of them were meeting.

The physician cleared his throat. “All right.” He was a big bear of a man, plump and by nature cheerful. For this gathering he had gotten his professional face on straight and shown up in white dress shirt, dark slacks, and lab coat, which Rose knew was effectively a costume for reassuring a patient’s anxious friends and relatives. He jogged a sheaf of records on the tabletop in front of him. “Let’s start with Ms. Blush’s physical condition—what we know, what we don’t, and what we’ll be looking for over the next couple of weeks.” He took a small, unobtrusive breath.

“Comas don’t work like you might have seen on television, and that includes waking up from them. Scriptwriters only have a few minutes to move their stories along, so they speed things up a lot. In the real world, it can take quite some time to come all the way back to full consciousness. On top of that, every coma is different, and so is every patient. That’s why we still don’t know a lot yet and we’re still gathering information.” He listed the few facts and figures they did have, simplified for his lay audience, seasoned with just enough technical detail to sound authoritative.

From the present he moved on to the future, describing what they would guard against and what they would try to pin down. Concussion. Potential loss of memory. Potential loss of feeling and motor control in the lower body. How severe the loss might be. Whether physical therapy could reverse it and by how much.

Rose recognized in his presentation many of the same tricks and techniques she’d learned, directed toward setting expectations and establishing goals. She took a few notes. She wasn’t a physical therapist herself, but that was something she could make preparations for as part of her casework. If it turned out not to be practical, she could cancel those plans easily enough. She hoped she wouldn’t have to.

“Wh-what?” Holly was practically vibrating on her seat. “It could happen again?”

Returning her attention to the here and now, Rose blinked and looked up from her yellow pad. Irritation flashed across her mind—normally she didn’t tend to zone out like that.

“We’ll do our best to make sure it doesn’t,” the doc answered in a soothing tone. “That’s why we’re taking this slowly and carefully. We want to keep her under observation for at least two weeks, partly to let the stitches close up properly, before we release her to the inpatient clinic.” He nodded to the fourth person, who nodded back in acknowledgement and possibly agreement.

That gave Rose the clue she needed to catch up. Holly hadn’t taken it well when, upon arriving the following morning and finding Wallflower looking even more pale than before, she’d learned about the emergency surgery a couple of nights ago.

“But I thought when she woke up . . .” Holly looked crestfallen and more than a little frightened.

In the same gentle voice the surgeon pointed out, “The human body is one of the most complicated things around, and it doesn’t always work the way people think it does—or the way people think it should. That’s why we want to keep such a close eye on her and make sure she really is healing.” He looked around at his small audience. “That about sums it up. Are there any questions?”

A silent shake of the head indicated the pant-suited stranger was satisfied; Rose suspected this wasn’t their first rodeo. Holly’s few ventures tended toward the simple and naïve, but she seemed to be striving to learn and to emulate the cool, balanced professionalism she saw in everyone else. Rose herself sought to clear up a few points, mostly to help in building a new timeline and the associated decision gates. Soon enough the awkward little silence fell that signified nobody had anything else to say, and after a few parting pleasantries the surgeon stood and took his leave.

When neither of the other two made any move to depart, Holly looked confused but settled back on her chair. Her wary glance at the individual whose dress and appearance sent what she probably regarded as mixed signals suggested more than just uncertainty. Rose ignored it, and suspected the person sitting across from Holly of doing the same, but made a mental note to put a word in Sticky’s ear about the issue. Besides being a potential problem in its own right, there could be consequences for Wallflower’s treatment.

“My name is Even Keel. I was assigned as your daughter’s personal counselor when Ms. Brass referred her to our clinic.” The counselor’s speaking voice was one of the loveliest in Rose’s experience, melodious and almost perfectly balanced in its androgyny—something of a contrast to their somewhat homely looks. “I wish I could offer something more positive, but until we know more about Wallflower’s physical state, it’ll be hard to do much planning. When I first spoke with Ms. Brass, it seemed as straightforward as such a case can be.” They held out both hands palm up in an abbreviated shrug. “But of course things have changed. Now it’s much more of an outlier.”

Holly hesitated, then asked, “What does that mean? For Wallflower?”

Rose replied absently, “You heard the bad news already, that we can’t do much planning until we have more hard data. The good news is, we’re free to . . . get more creative about the rules. Think more outside the box.”

Keel’s brief glance at Rose was enigmatic as a sphynx’s. “Before we get into that, I should give you both an idea what the normal process is, to provide a baseline.” The ensuing speech was as rote as Rose’s scripts and a trifle more stilted—but then, Rose’s audience was more likely to deliver a critique of her performance by knife-point, a powerful incentive to polish one’s acting ability.

On the other hand, the recitation laid out the process and goals clearly and simply. From there it branched out, touching on related concerns. Visits from family or friends were limited, especially at first, giving clients time to adjust to the inpatient environment and find their own footing, neither clinging to outside life nor totally isolated from it. The clinic’s physical lay-out balanced the privacy of personal quarters against communal spaces, such as cafeterias and rooms for group activites or therapy, to encourage social behavior. Holly nodded at intervals, her attention more or less unwavering. Rose went back to her note-taking. Eventually Keel concluded with, “Of course the facility is compliant with building code relating to accessibility requirements, but that’s only half the problem.”

Holly’s brow knit, and once again Rose interpreted. “If Wallflower’s injuries mean she’ll be disabled for the next several weeks or . . . longer, getting from place to place and even taking care of simple chores will be a lot tougher. That’s part of what we have to think about right now.”

The counselor corroborated this with another nod. “My guess is she’ll need an attendant to wheel her around and help with almost every part of daily life, even the most intimate.” They were good, Rose granted readily, showing only the barest hint of hesitation over the delicate topic. “A total stranger being that close could have a negative impact on the socialization aspects of treatment, and even with that assistance she may not be able to participate in the full spectrum of activities.”

“Well—” Holly blurted, then stalled. At Keel’s encouraging gesture she resumed in the same low, mechanical tone Rose had become familiar with. “If a stranger doing it isn’t a good idea, maybe . . . maybe I could instead?” Even she seemed unconvinced by the notion.

With marked reluctance Keel responded, “In principle, it might be an idea worth exploring, but—” Their eyes flickered in a brief sidelong glance at Rose.

“You’re gonna be spending most of your time just trying to rebuild your own life, Holly,” Rose pointed out in a bracing tone. “This would be pretty intense. You’d have to be there twenty-four–seven, and that just isn’t gonna happen. I don’t think Sticky would sign off on it either.”

“Oh.” Holly hunched down a little in patent disappointment. “I—I guess it wasn’t that good an idea anyway. I mean, the other night I did say I wasn’t sure if what’s best for Wallflower included me.” Trying to convince herself, no doubt.

Maybe it was time for a little positive reinforcement. “The best thing you can do right now is to focus on getting yourself to a better place. Let us help Wallflower do the same.” Rose’s mouth twitched. “If it’s any consolation, Holly, you’re not the only one having a rough time with this. I am too, and so is—” She paused thoughtfully. “So is Sunset.”

Struck with inspiration, Rose turned to an attentive Keel. “I might have just the candidate. Sunset Shimmer is Wallflower’s best friend, and she’s taken the whole thing pretty hard. I think she blames herself for a lot of it. She’s smart, she’s dedicated, and she has bags of staying power. I think she could do it.”

Keel frowned. Holly frowned too, though on her it looked more like a pout. Rose sat back and waited, marshalling her thoughts to deal with whatever objections either of them came up with.

“That name . . . isn’t she part of that teen pop band? The Rainbooms? Their music video played for months over at the mall. I’ve listened to a few of their other songs. They have promise.” Keel was trying hard to sound magisterial, but there was a definite undertone of genuine interest.

Rose blinked, caught broadside. “Ah—yeah, rhythm guitar and backing vocals.” The last thing she expected was a fan, for heaven’s sake. “The whole band—and Wallflower too—just graduated from Canterlot High School. Sunset and a bandmate snagged summa cum laude.” Pointedly she added, “Honors like that don’t come in cereal boxes. CHS is a good school.”

The counselor’s brows rose. “Hm.” They sat for a moment in deep thought, clearly considering pros and cons; Rose was sure they were trying to bend over backward not to be influenced by their liking of the Rainbooms. “Well . . . I’ll have to see about lining up some alternatives, just in case, but—all right. If you’ll vouch for her, I’ll accept the recommendation at least provisionally.”

Holly looked conflicted. Rose couldn’t blame the other woman, since she too felt a strong ambivalence in the wake of throwing out a suggestion almost without considering it. She simply had to trust her judgment; it had a pretty good track record.

Except when it didn’t. Rose suddenly became conscious of an ache where the stump of her arm met the prosthetic that had replaced it, sparking a momentary flashback to the terrible moment an IED put an end to her army career and two other lives.

She shook her head to clear away the memory. No, she could handle this, and so could Sunset.


View Online

“Hey, Wallflower.” Sunset stood in the ICU doorway, wearing the same cheerful dress in which she’d started her vigil four nights ago, along with a fragile smile pasted over gnawing worry. “So, uh . . .”

A passing nurse in scrubs murmured, not unkindly, “In or out, please. You’re not a cat who can’t decide—”

“Oh! Sorry.” The visitor literally skipped forward a step, startled and embarrassed, before shuffling farther from the door. She paused more or less in the middle of the room and shifted from foot to foot. “. . . Anyway, yeah, the doctor told me they don’t know whether you’re able to say anything right now, but they’re pretty sure you can hear me, and Even Keel said talking would help.”

Wallflower didn’t move; only her half-lidded eyes indicated she was conscious at all. Still, there was a hint of animation to her features, almost subliminal.

“Oh, right.” Sunset didn’t quite smack her forehead. “Even Keel’s gonna be your personal counselor at the clinic, once you’re in good enough shape to go over there. From what they told me, that’ll be a couple of weeks, maybe a little more.”

Silence fell again with a metaphorical thump.

“Right now I’m just glad you’re—you’re doing better.” Sunset changed course at the last instant; Wallflower definitely was not “okay” by any definition. “I was so worried the last few days. I . . . had a lotta time to think about everything that happened, and everything I did. And, I guess, everything I didn’t do.” She couldn’t keep still. As if her saltwater sandals were seven-league boots, she started to pace.

“I’m really sorry about the plants, and the window, and not being more careful. Rose warned me, but I was so stupid I just didn’t think about it.” Pent-up relief, remorse, guilt spilled forth in words she hardly listened to herself until, with another shaky breath, she managed to drag her mouth, if not her feet, back under control.

“But now—now I’ll do whatever it takes,” she vowed through clenched teeth as she turned for another lap across the tiny room. “Once we’re at the clinic, I’m gonna help any way I can.” With honest enthusiasm she described the idea Rose had proposed, Even Keel had endorsed, and she had accepted almost before they had finished laying it out. “I’ll be there with you the whole time. I’ll do anything and everything, no matter what, and we’ll get through this together. You’re gonna be okay, I promise.”

That’s when another voice croaked, “No I won’t.”

One of the rides at Equestria World rotated a long boom like a propellor, with a car at each end that also swiveled freely. It looked simple enough—but none of the girls, even Rainbow Dash, had been willing to ride it twice. Sunset felt as if she’d been stuck on that ride since the day she’d asked Rose’s help.

Tonight she listened to soft, regular breathing from the other bed and spared a flash of envy for the social worker’s ability to switch off like a light, apparently at will. Instead she lay on her back and stared up at the hotel room’s high cottage-cheese ceiling, barely visible to her dark-adjusted eyes. No sooner had she gotten used to flipping her sleep schedule than things changed again, and now she was struggling to flip it back.

It wasn’t just that, though. She no longer trembled from anger and adrenalin, but she remained wired enough for sleep to elude her. With a sigh she rolled onto her side, shifting a little to settle the inevitable wrinkles and twists in her favorite mulberry pajamas—the ones Rarity had embroidered her mark on—and resolutely closed her eyes.

Wallflower could have spoken up any time. She could have spared Sunset the worry of wondering whether she was able to hear and understand anything going on around her. She could have stopped Sunset from babbling like an idiot. When she finally did answer with what were, as far as Sunset knew, her first words since the night before it all fell apart, they were completely the opposite of that parting encouragement, and even worse than her alarming silence.

Sunset had succeeded in rousing Wallflower to a reaction. It just was the wrong one.

She’d tried to be optimistic and supportive. In return she’d been stonewalled, left floundering when Wallflower’s roughened voice had offered nothing—not even acknowledgement Sunset over the past few days had spent all the time she could in the ICU—other than direct answers in the shortest and most unhelpful sentences possible. Rose might have known what to do. Even Keel definitely would have. Friendship magic couldn’t make up for the training they had and she didn’t.

No, all she could do was break a promise and break her heart finding out Wallflower thought she would be grateful if her friend died. Why would Wallflower think Sunset would be so heartless?

After all, nobody would even care if you just disappeared.

Yeah, that was why. Sunset wriggled onto her other side, eyes still squeezed shut, with a rustle of sheets and blankets.

From the start of this whole mess Sunset had tried so hard to help, and to find help from others, only for Wallflower literally to throw it all out the window. She wanted to scream, to rant at the top of her lungs until she was red in the face, but the last time rage had driven her to say something unkind to Wallflower, it had led to . . . this.

The horrifying realization was dawning just how much power to destroy anger had—how much power to destroy her anger had. She was so good at hurting others out of fury, not at all a talent to be proud of. Defying and then running out on Princess Celestia had been only the start, hadn’t it?

How had Sunset not noticed her mentor’s brief expression of pain and dismay when last they met, before her sixteen-year-old self had fled through the portal? The patient, ageless face hovered in her mind’s eye, disappointment clear in the gentle gaze, and her pique shriveled under the wise magenta eyes, leaving behind a leaden dejection.

She wished Wallflower were more willing to talk, but after days with a tube in the throat, it probably was physically painful to do so; Wallflower’s voice sounded terrible, dry and cracked. She wished she could bring the past out into the open, so she could apologize for what she said to Wallflower those years ago, but that would bring her broken promise with it. Wallflower might never trust her again, might shut her out and actively fight any further help she tried to give.

And when all was said and done, the foremost focus of her life right now was to help her friend through this. She took a deep breath, released it slowly, and settled onto her back again.

With a click, sudden light leaked through her closed eyelids, and a tired voice rasped, “You wanna talk about it?”

By now the route was burned into Sunset’s memory. She couldn’t navigate anywhere else in the hospital building’s mouse-maze, but she was sure she could get to Wallflower’s ICU in her sleep. She’d walked to or from it . . . how many times now? Not hundreds, that was ridiculous, but it certainly felt that way. And today she practically was finding her way in her sleep, what with spending half the previous night tossing and turning or unburdening herself to a patient—if wearily irritated—Rose, organizing her swarming thoughts into something more than a nebulous cloud of “bad”.

At least this morning when she got dressed she’d managed not to put on her jeans and top backward or something equally humiliating.

She drew a deep breath in through her nose. Enough of that. It was time to let go her anger from the day before. Time to be positive, be hopeful, be helpful.

She blinked heavy eyelids upon spotting Even Keel, in yet another pantsuit, stepping out of the doorway toward which she was headed. A moment later they saw her as well. Their stride became purposeful as they beelined toward her, not that the corridor’s limited width allowed much choice about it.

As soon as Keel got close enough Sunset asked in a hushed voice, “How is she?”

Keel stopped in their tracks, but then a lot of their movements came off a bit abrupt. They paused for thought before offering a guarded, low-voiced “We’ll have a lot of work to do.”

Sunset searched their bland expression for clues, but found none. Maybe because she’d been spending so much time with Rose, the stray thought popped into her head that Keel probably would do well at poker. “Uh, okay.” After a brief rummage she dredged up, “This’s the first time you talked to her, right?”

A single nod answered. There was another awkward pause, then Keel appeared to take pity on her and expanded with, “Yes, it was our first consultation. I learned a great deal, and now that I’ve had a chance to talk to her, I’d like to sit down with you as well to go over everything that’ll be involved. Not right now, of course, but soon would be best.”

“S-sure.” Nothing in Keel’s tone or posture seemed overtly ominous, but Sunset couldn’t shake a slight sinking feeling as the two of them arranged an afternoon meeting in the hotel room, for the privacy that would afford such a sensitive discussion.

At length Keel flicked a glance over her shoulder. “I shouldn’t keep you any longer, Ms. Shimmer, and we’re blocking traffic. I’ll see you then.” They detoured around her and headed down the hall.

Sunset turned her head, and in the corner of her eye glimpsed a couple of nurses trundling more caster-equipped electronic cabinets in her direction. With alacrity she scurried ahead of them to her destination and, a bit flustered, popped through the door into the now-familiar little room where Wallflower lay. “Wallflower! Hi.”

It could have been minutes, not hours, since she last saw the limp girl on the bed. Wallflower didn’t seem to have moved a muscle in the mean time, though Sunset knew that couldn’t be true. She pressed on. “I just saw Even Keel. They told me they talked to you. How’d that go?” There was no answer. “I’ll be meeting with them later too, since we’ll be going to the clinic together.” She strove for a brisk, businesslike tone; the information was genuinely important, something Wallflower deserved to know.

The lure of curiosity didn’t work either. Sunset pressed her lips together and tried to press away a flare of temper before pleading, “Please talk to me, Wallflower.” A bizarrely appropriate comparison sprang to mind. Some months back her tower computer had gotten balky with a maddeningly elusive fault; only consultation with a Twilight full of technobabble had solved the problem. “I can’t stand seeing you just—just shut down like this.”

“Then you shoulda let me die.”

Gritting her teeth helped Sunset not to snap something rash, like pointing out it was Rose, not she, who had saved Wallflower’s life on the halfway house’s lawn. When she could unlock her jaw, she asked in as even a tone as she could manage, “So how are you feeling?”

This time she got a grunt. Was that progress? At any rate, it was a legitimate question; if she was going to help as Wallflower’s attendant, she really did need to know where Wallflower was physically. She remembered what the nurse told her and Rose before the first time they’d walked into this room, that the patient needed to be awake before the medical staff could figure out how badly she’d been affected by her injuries.

. . . How badly had Wallflower been affected? Sudden fear gripped Sunset by the throat and the bottom fell out of her stomach. She hadn’t allowed herself to dwell on just how bad it could be, but a sudden realization bubbled up from the place deep down where she’d tried to hide it away.

Wallflower might not be moving because she couldn’t. Sunset swallowed and cleared her throat. “Well—how do your legs feel?”

“They don’t.”

Sunset couldn’t breathe. Her mouth flapped uselessly; tears blinded her. Something horrible happened to her friend, and it was her fault, but that wasn’t the worst of it. No, even more frightening was that Wallflower didn’t seem to care.

What was she gonna do?


View Online

“Physically, she’s progressing.” Even Keel, smarter than usual in a sarong and bolero of conservative cut and color, looked up from their tablet and met Rose’s eye again. “The attending physician is confident she’ll be healed up enough to make the transfer on schedule.”

Rose sat back, eliciting a creak from her swivel chair, and shot the cuffs of the simple but fine blouse of her suit. “So once Wallflower and Sunset are at the clinic, primary responsibility for the case passes to you, and my role scales down to administrative oversight for Social Services.” After a moment’s hesitation she went on, “I’ll be sure to get all the casework information I can to you within the next week.” Her eye narrowed in thought. “You mentioned the healing specifically, I noticed. No improvement in motility?”

A faint grimace crossed Keel’s face, which said quite a lot considering their usual reserve. “A little—enough to hold out hope, I gathered from the hospital staff handling her case. Part of the problem is how uncooperative she’s been. How much of it is can’t and how much is won’t remains an open question. Even Sunset hasn’t been able to boot the girl into motion, and she’s tried.”

Rose sighed and rubbed her forehead with her good hand. “I’ve seen some pretty mulish kids in my time, but Wallflower . . .”

“If you’ll forgive me, Captain—Rose, I looked up your background when I got this assignment.” The words were deferential; the tone, polite but firm. “I couldn’t get much detail on your last case, but even that seemed to be more similar to your usual line than this is. Frankly, I’m surprised you’re dealing with it at all.”

Rose gave them a gimlet eye; just because the questions weren’t asked didn’t mean she couldn’t hear the curiosity lurking. “I’d have been disappointed if you hadn’t looked me up.” She elected to gloss over the past by focusing on the present. “Sunset and I got to know each other as a result of that last case.” A brief sanitized version of Sunset’s original visit bringing her concerns about Wallflower to this self-same office appeared to satisfy the counselor, but Rose was uneasily aware how little that meant. “I made a promise.”

“And you never break a promise,” Even Keel surmised.

“Not if I can help it,” Rose rejoined with a flash of irritation.

The counselor gave her an odd look and paused before continuing. “Sunset certainly seems to be doing her best; you were right about her dedication and her sense of guilt and responsibility. If I have any concerns over her involvement, they would rest there.”

The nod they got in response was rueful. “Definitely something to watch. She does have a temper . . . and if she thinks it’s the order of the day, she’s perfectly willing to immolate herself for a friend.”

This time the look was more than just odd. “I think I’m getting to know someone else who’s perfectly willing to do that.”

“Sunset told me you’re the reason I’m still here.”

Rose faltered in the ICU doorway and tugged at the bottom hem of her suit jacket in a reflexive twitch. She had been about to utter almost exactly the same words Wallflower just blurted out. And when had Sunset mentioned it to Wallflower, anyway?

Well, it could have been during any number of one-sided conversations over the last several days. Right.

It suddenly occurred to Rose the little room full of beeping cabinets and patient bed actually was bigger than her office. She gave her head a brief shake and finished entering. “That’s right. I learned first aid in the army, and I’ve kept up my certification ever since. I have a whole shelf of army field manuals, including those; the ones that aren’t classified are in the public domain and available to anyone.”

Her mouth clicked shut on further words—how hard certification was when military authorities weren’t keen on bestowing it on anyone who wasn’t on active duty, and civilian authorities weren’t keen on bestowing it on anyone who’d learned the military way, with all the hair-raising techniques they didn’t teach. She already had said more about it than she should.

Wallflower had no answer to that, but for once Rose couldn’t blame her. “Really, though, the docs and nurses here have done a he—a lot more for you than I did.” She simply could not resist the urge to needle the apathetic lump on the bed, even if only a little, with a pointed reminder. Maybe, just maybe, it might get a rise out of the girl. “If you want to thank anyone, thank them.”

At least it got a frowny-face out of Wallflower. And did she hunch down a little? Any movement was better than no movement, wasn’t it? In a gentler tone the social worker asked, “Did Sunset also mention she spent all the time she could in here, staying through the night to watch over you?”

That earned a grunt, so Rose carried on. “Sunset really cares about you, Wallflower. You know that, don’t you?”

The mumble that floated back had to be more than just another grunt. “What was that? Speak up, Wallflower, I can’t hear you.” It wasn’t the bellow of a drill instructor, but it was the snap of an officer.

“I said I wish she didn’t.” The words positively dripped with resentment and obduracy.

“Well, that’s not up to you, now is it?” Impatience sharpened the question. Rose’s eye narrowed. This was the longest conversation she’d had with her client since the day of that first interview weeks ago—it only felt like years. She’d imparted a piece of advice from her academy days then; maybe it was time for another. “Wallflower. You can’t control the actions of others, much less their thoughts. You can work to control your own thoughts and actions. You can’t change the way Sunset feels, or the way she acts on those feelings. But you might wanna think about how you’re gonna deal with that. And I don’t mean sulking.”

Abruptly Rose cut herself off again, appalled. Wallflower blinked up at her owlishly. A long, awkward silence stretched.

Rose sighed. “I . . . apologize, Wallflower. That was over the line. Look, just think about it, okay? If nothing else, you and Sunset will have to work together at the clinic, so at least cut her some slack. I’ve got to go, so I’ll talk with you later.” She pivoted in a crisp about-face, back stiff, but before she took more than a step, a low, shaky voice sounded behind her.

“R-Rose? Um, listen, I’m sorry I put you through all that stuff.”

A short nod was all the answer Rose could muster—or would dare. It wasn’t gratitude, but at least it was an acknowledgement of someone else’s feelings, and that was more of a gesture than she’d have expected of the wounded, vulnerable, self-absorbed girl on the bed.

Not until after Rose left the building did she realize she really hadn’t accomplished most of what she’d come to do.

Military or civilian, bureaucracy is largely the same everywhere—similar problems, similar solutions. Rose sat quietly in her office, absently tapping keys and jiggling the mouse that sat nearby as she peered at the cheap flatscreen display set on the small computer trolley at right angles to her putty-colored government-issue metal-and-laminate desk, out of the sight lines that let her converse with visitors, especially clients. Some of her co-workers had track pads, others had track balls, but good as her prosthetic was, it didn’t work well with those devices, so she’d stuck with the older style of pointing device.

At least she’d learned to shoot left-handed; that hadn’t been nearly so difficult. She could use some range time, come to think of it. Maybe some trail-running time, too. And she hadn’t been keeping up as well as she should with the tai chi

She shook her head to clear away the woolgathering; right now what she needed to do was clear away the administrivia on her caseload. The Dazzlings had been ratcheted down to the bottom tier, but that just meant less oversight, not no oversight. They always would be prickly and difficult personalities, but some might argue she was too, and look where she’d gotten. She read and initialed reports, approved a few requests, noted the itinerary for their musical tour of nearby cities, puttering around in their spray-painted rattletrap van. At first she’d been concerned, but they’d been making it all work somehow.

The handful of other cases over which she bore partial or full authority likewise passed across her monitor, one after another, those that had sat idle longest going first. They too required only perfunctory action, checking a box here, stamping an electronic signature there. She fell into a familiar rhythm and the humming mood that went with it—not contentment exactly, but focus and balance, a sense of work accomplished and tasks fulfilled.

The screen blinked as the system regurgitated the next electronic jacket from its bowels, and Rose blinked in return. Wallflower Blush. The breath went out of her in a rush and her head jerked back.

It always was a bit of a letdown when Rose handed off a client to someone else, as if somehow she was shirking or failing in her obligations. She knew better, of course—after all, part of her job was to determine who was best suited to help a client and to arrange for that help to happen—but somehow that wasn’t enough this time around.

Rose leaned back on her chair and looked up at the water-stained ceiling tiles. She was slipping. It was just that simple. Wallflower nearly died on her watch, right in front of her, because she screwed up and failed to cover all the bases properly. She promised Sunset she would do her best . . . and she hadn’t.

Now the thought that someone else would be taking over, that she would be handing off Wallflower to another professional because she couldn’t handle it, was a relief. Her face tightened and she sat up again to look around the tiny cell of an office. What was she doing here, anyway?

Location, location, and location, the old punch line ran, but like a lot of jokes, it oversimplified for the sake of its kernel of truth. The bustle and density of the nearby downtown likely had been factors, but sheer quality and quirky charm no doubt also contributed to the survival of the independent coffee house—a literal former house in its case—as big-chain competitors flooded in like the tide a generation or so back. In the winter Cuppa’s was a cozy refuge of hot bracing beverages; in the summer, as now, it was an oasis shaded from the blazing sun, offering chilled as well as piping refreshments.

Its customers were as eclectic as its comfortable furnishings, and sometimes as shabby. College students and office workers alike jockeyed for space at the order counter and the half-dozen communal tables surrounded by stained and mismatched overstuffed chairs. The much smaller seventh table stood in a corner, only two chairs drawn up to it like a castle’s curtain walls. The crowd’s rooba-rooba provided a modicum of privacy for its occupants’ shop talk in a less formal venue than either of their offices. It was a habit of Sticky Note’s that had taken Rose a while to get used to, but she’d learned to enjoy it.

Sticky’s dry voice recited details, precise and concise. Rose sat back and listened, nodding occasionally in understanding. The man didn’t have a military bone in his body, but she could remember fellow officers decanting after-action reports in the same academy-approved fashion—just as she did. Sticky had a real knack for mirroring exactly the right mannerisms to set someone at ease, a tremendous asset in their shared profession. It helped that verbal military reporting had been honed to a fine art over the last couple of centuries, which made this particular mimicry practical as well as . . . comforting. Well, after a fashion. Maybe reassuring was a better word.

Otherwise he was quite a contrast to his tall, athletic companion. Medium height and rail thin, he managed to look stooped even when he sat—or stood—straight. Short sooty hair with a streak of purple capped a dark red complexion from which slightly watery gray eyes gazed through the squarish glasses perched on his nose. Dark jacket and slacks over a button-down white shirt were as nondescript as it got. Not the sort to stand out in a crowd, and he clearly preferred it that way.

“For the moment, then, Holly’s doing all right,” Rose summed up when his informal lecture concluded. She sipped at her iced coffee and put it back on the table with due care not to end up with blotches on her seafoam-green business suit.

After a judicous pause, Sticky nodded, lips pursed. “Yes, I’d say so. Very middle of the road, which I think is a good characterization of her in general.” He opened a hand palm up. “She isn’t progressing by leaps and bounds, but then she also isn’t dragging her feet or causing trouble.”

Rose’s mouth quirked as his last few words released a cascade of memories, still vivid even after so many years. Sticky “Fingers” Note the more or less ex-pickpocket standing in her office, one hand gripping the upper arm of his friend Bright Eyes—who wasn’t living up to his name very well just then, thanks to the shiner marring one of them. The latter fellow would be one of her first cases, and both of the young men, just out of their teens, definitely caused more than their share of trouble.

Still, she felt a stir of pride at how well it all had turned out. Two of the most cherished moments of her second career were learning of Sticky’s decision to follow in her footsteps and attending his and Bright Eyes’ wedding.


She blinked away the reverie. “Sorry, Sticky. What was that?”

“I asked what’s wrong.” Sticky’s voice was patient but determined. His fingers were tented under his chin. She knew that gesture; she’d caught his full attention.

“Wrong?” Rose’s brow furrowed.

“Yes. The last month or so you’ve changed,” he observed with scientific dispassion. “Quite a bit, actually.”

Rose rubbed her forehead. “It’s . . . been a pretty rough month.”

“So I see. Your report on Wallflower—and Sunset—made that pretty plain.” The hands separated, and he took a sip of his own coffee, hot but equally black. “You’ve dealt with difficult cases before, though. This is different. Why?”

For a moment she hovered on the edge of passing it off, but then he looked up again with a familiar scalpel-like look. He wasn’t going to buy it for a moment. She knew from experience he would cut through a mountain if that was the most direct path to the heart of the problem, and hang the consequences. She sighed and sagged a little.

He listened with the same unflappable calm he brought to any meeting, whether with client or co-worker. She laid it out, all the subtext that never made it into the stilted emotionless officialese of formal reports—the doubts, the stumbles, the mistakes and regrets. It seemed longer than it was before she wound down and leaned back again, all out of words.

They sat silent for a stretch, Cuppa’s obliviously busy around them. Finally Sticky blew out his own sigh. “Then I have my answer.” He leveled a finger at her. “You’re burning out, Rose.”


View Online

He looked like a gym teacher to Sunset’s eye—not much taller than Sunset herself, but built like a fireplug, solid and muscular in his shorts and employer-mandated polo shirt with embroidered logo. He could have been sent down by central casting for the role, as Mister Doodle once put it. Even his lively attitude fit the image, though it seemed to serve a far more sensitive and supportive manner than the stereotypical early-middle-age jock personality. His brisk speech about means and goals didn’t sound rehearsed, quite a trick considering how often he probably gave it.

She glanced down at the stick figure muffled in loose gray sweats who slumped on the wheelchair in front of her. Wallflower appeared barely awake, let alone attentive, but after all it wasn’t like listening demanded much visible activity. Sunset, herself clad in practical T-shirt and jeans, looked up again at the physical therapist holding forth.

“Most of it will be helping you through each motion you need to relearn.” His powerful hands moved continually, reinforcing the man’s words and adding to his kinetic impression. “Over time, the assistance ramps down as you pick up the slack. It’s a lot of work, and it isn’t a lot of fun, but when you succeed, it’s hugely rewarding.”

Both brawny arms waved broadly at the fittings and furnishings bolted solidly to the floor, walls, or ceiling of a room that otherwise could have been a dance studio, aside from the lack of a mirror-wall. “Okay then. We’re going to start with something simple—get you into a harness and help you stand. We won’t try walking or any other activities yet, but everything we do in the future will build on what we do today.” He took hold of the suspended harness beside him, pulling it closer with a hiss of the bearings in the ceiling race above, and advanced on the wheelchair. “Now. Let’s begin.”

Sunset in turn stepped back to lean against a wall, out of the way, and drew a deep breath—what felt like her first in the last day and a half or even longer. Wallflower had been moved from place to place three times since Sunset had kicked off this whole ordeal. The first had been hopeful and not too different from settling a friend into a small apartment. The second hadn’t involved her at all, and once she had the attention to spare, she’d worried what would happen to Wallflower’s pitifully small collection of possessions.

The third, yesterday, had been confusing and exhausting until she forced herself to relax and simply concentrate on her own tasks. Rose’s dry observation the inpatient clinic’s staff had done this before and probably knew what they were doing still smarted a little, but it had helped and in the end proved accurate. When Sunset realized Wallflower’s clothing and her few other other odds and ends of belongings had made their way successfully from the halfway house, she’d felt a relief out of all proportion.

Sunset’s part of the job had consisted mostly of moving Wallflower herself, for which she’d prepared over the previous several days by running through the wringer of a short but intensive course on acting as an assisted-living aide. She had considered it overblown at first, but her mind was changed in a hurry by a laundry list of potential injuries to either or both of them that could result from a lack of training in how to lift and move Wallflower—not to mention another list of blush-inducing topics regarding personal care. In the event the other girl proved a literal and metaphorical dead weight throughout the transfer, which at least meant there’d been no active opposition; on the other hand there’d been no active cooperation either.

Well, the therapist was a professional at this, certainly more than Sunset was. While the program he just outlined wouldn’t be fast or easy, she knew eventually it would get Wallflower walking again, maybe even running. The injuries had been serious, and there might be some permanent damage, but the doctor had assured her Wallflower should be able to resume something resembling a normal life. She smiled at the thought and looked up again to watch the first modest endeavor that held such promise.

The therapist’s movements were efficient and businesslike, but not as rapid as she expected from the energy of his initial body language. Instead patience and forbearance came to the fore. The cadence of his speech slowed and softened. He described each action before carrying it out, never failing to ask permission before touching Wallflower in any way, even if it was nothing more than a double-checking “okay?” at the end of a sentence.

The responses he coaxed out of the patient—client; the word was important, Even Keel had stressed to her—amounted to little more than nods with the occasional monosyllabic grunt or mumble. Sunset almost missed the brief flicker of consternation on his face before he adapted smoothly. Wallflower’s surly passive resistance couldn’t be anything new, so he probably had a whole procedure for dealing with it.

Procedure. A nagging sense of familiarity snapped into focus as Sunset recalled a documentary on the space program that included a brief segment of a spacewalk and the radio chatter between astronaut and mission control. It wasn’t exactly the same, but the astronaut’s calm, unhurried step-by-step recitation did bear a similarity to the therapist’s painstaking explications.

“There we go.” The tone was hearty and encouraging as the therapist carefully adjusted the straps to accommodate Wallflower’s height and weight. Sunset, brow furrowed, glanced at the wall clock. That took longer, and the therapist worked a lot harder, than she expected. She straightened a little, attention now fully on just what was happening across the room.

The therapist started talking Wallflower through the rest of the process, but she leaned unmoving on the straps, apparently oblivious. Arms and legs and even head dangled limp. Sunset could see the downturned snub-nose profile only because the wild green hair surrounding it was pulled back in a rough pony tail.

The harness turned lazily a few degrees in a fashion gruesomely reminiscent of a . . . hanging, at least as depicted in the movies. That was a mental image Sunset didn’t need; a quick mind and an artist’s imagination weren’t always blessings. Wallflower’s half-visible face twisted in a fleeting wince—the kind Rainbow Dash made when struggling to hide the pain after pulling a muscle or something—but other than that didn’t move a muscle. Sunset’s heart sank. Would Wallflower rather suffer than exert herself in the slightest?

“Team effort!” The note of determination in the therapist’s voice sounded to Sunset’s suddenly anxious ear a little forced. “Let’s start again. You have to try too, okay?”

Sunset always had to wake up first, and even before a school day she hadn’t rushed quite so much.

In the week or so since their arrival at the clinic she’d managed to pare down her morning ritual to less than ten minutes. In the seconds she could, she snatched glances at her smartphone and mentally rehearsed the day’s agenda presented by the calendar application. When she wasn’t, say, brushing her teeth, she tended to mutter bits of it to herself under her breath. Once she was finished, and sure she had the schedule straight in her mind, she bounded out of the bathroom—still in her pajamas—and plunged into the chores entailed in likewise preparing Wallflower.

Rouse Wallflower if she wasn’t awake already; sometimes Sunset couldn’t tell whether she was or not, even afterward, because either way she always gave off the same grouchy grumbling. Hoist her from the bed to the wheelchair standing nearby, wheels locked to keep it steady. Unlock the wheels and maneuver her across the bedroom and into the bathroom, to the toilet and the wall-mounted transfer bars beside it. Place the chair just so and lock the wheels again. Leave the room and let her have a modicum of privacy to deal with the single task for which she would bestir herself at all. At least she got a little exercise there. Come back after hearing the toilet flush. Sunset had the whole operation more or less memorized by now, but still couldn’t help red faces and twitchy nerves.

Next came the shower. There was, unfortunately, no practical method other than to share the stall and the experience. Sunset had spent enough time in the human world to internalize local ideas about modesty and personal space—at least while human herself—and still more had worried at first how Wallflower would react. To her own surprise and discomfort, Wallflower seemed completely unfazed right from the start, accepting it with the same stoic apathy as pretty much everything else.

This morning’s bathing proceeded in silence minute by minute, Sunset alternating between washing herself and washing her charge. Any time she stole a few seconds for her own ablutions, she made sure Wallflower was braced upright on the bench in the stall’s middle. As she scrubbed away busily at her arms, she glanced down at the skinny green form leaning against one of the access bars that lent the bench a resemblance to a pool stair. The normally tousled seaweed-like hair was plastered in long, straight cascades along the bent neck, rounded back, and hunched shoulders.

Aside from Wallflower’s groggy mumbled complaints about returning to the waking world, neither of them ever said more than a few brief phrases to each other. Sunset felt as if unsaid words were dammed up inside her head; it was a wonder she wasn’t suffering a constant headache from all that pressure. On top of that the job at hand was pretty much rote by now. Her mind wandered in something like a fugue state, and her eye traced the shapes and contours around her, human or not, with an artist’s abstract regard. A remark escaped over the spillway.

“Y’know, Wallflower, you’re really pretty.” It was true—or at least it could be, if Wallflower cared enough to let someone like Rarity lavish some advice and attention on the matter. Sunset bit her lip. It was too late to call back the words, but maybe something good would come of them. And didn’t Even Keel say something about encouragement and positive reinforcement?

“No I’m not.” The retort was barely audible over the roar and drum of water.

Sunset sagged and closed her eyes. A split second later, belated realization stiffened her back and popped her eyes and mouth open. She’d meant the comment as a simple observation, but the echoes in her head took on a far less innocent quality. The slight flush in her cheeks and upper chest intensified. What did she just say? That wasn’t at all something Even Keel or Rose would approve, was it?

She strangled a hasty attempt to clarify down to a short squeak as her mental Applejack again came to the rescue. The summer before, they’d been working on the truck garden at Sweet Apple Acres, hot and sweaty but in good spirits. During a break for sport drinks, salty snacks, and meandering conversation, the farm girl had related a humorously cautionary anecdote ending with the moral, “First rule o’ holes is: when ya find yerself in a hole, stop diggin’.

It definitely was time to stop digging. Luckily the unsavory implication seemed to sail over Wallflower’s head, absorbed as she was in her own little world. Did she really think of herself as ugly? How could she? It was so obviously untrue; she had so much potential, if she could just see it! Or did she think Sunset was just trying to make her feel better? Twilight could get that way sometimes, after all, if not nearly to the same degree. The shower finished as quietly as it had started, and what followed was no less uncomfortable even on the best of days.

It was like dressing a rag doll. Sunset hadn’t played much with dolls as a filly, and by the time she’d run away through the portal she’d outgrown them. Still, she’d seen other foals and children playing with them, and of course toy advertisements were ubiquitous in both worlds. As with the showers, the doll in question evinced not the slightest embarrassment.

“You seem . . . pretty calm about this.” Sunset strove for a casual, only mildly curious tone. She was just making conversation, after all.

“What, never seen a girl’s body before?” Wallflower’s blunt scorn skewered Sunset’s bid for polite circumlocution.

Sunset’s face heated again, this time with irritation as much as discomfiture. Of course she had—her own, as well as occasional if inadvertent glimpses caught in the course of everyday teen and young-adult life in digital-age suburbia—but she suspected Wallflower also had in mind the fact she’d spent only the last few years in human skin.

Her teeth gritted, but she didn’t rise to the bait. Instead she fell back on routine with a cool, “Okay, here’s what we’re doing today.”

“I’ll be right outside if you need anything.” As usual, Sunset offered the low-voiced assurance before departing. As usual, Wallflower returned no acknowledgement. Sunset restrained a sigh and turned to stride from the bright, cheery room with its circle of chairs facing inward, the wheelchair occupying a break in the line provided expressly for it. Some chairs were occupied, others yet to be filled; a few minutes remained before the official starting time. The group therapist maintained a absent smile, but Sunset felt sure she was keeping a close eye on the people already gathered, no doubt monitoring their actions and reactions even in this unstructured time. Sunset certainly would, in her position.

Once in the corridor outside Sunset let the door close quietly behind her, then took up her customary position leaning against a wall nearby. A glance both ways assured her nobody in eyeshot seemed to be paying any attention, so she vented her disquiet with a slow shake of the head. The last three weeks had been a treadmill. Even their wardrobes didn’t vary much; every day Sunset wore T-shirts and jeans, and it was easiest to dress Wallflower similarly for anything other than the mostly unproductive PT sessions. Sunset wasn’t allowed to stick around for the group sessions like this one, or for Wallflower’s personal sessions, but she had an unpleasant suspicion the psychological therapy might not be any more fruitful than the physical therapy.

Her phone buzzed. She hauled it out to see a message from Cook on the lit screen before it darkened again. This time she did sigh. They didn’t have to meet in person very often these days, but even so, she was overdue, and she couldn’t put him off any longer with brief noncommittal assurances everything was fine. Her head tipped back against the wall and she spent a moment in thought.

Cook probably had no idea what was going on. This manifestly wasn’t his business, and Sunset was not about to drag Wallflower into it. Cook was a good guy, really, and she’d told him about the Memory Stone, as well as a little about the poor girl who’d gotten mixed up with it. Once the stone was destroyed, though, his and his bosses’ interest went with it, and even he agreed.

She’d hoped things would move a little faster, and she could slide out of here before too much time went by. Now she could see how forlorn that hope had been, and the bind it put her in. She lifted the phone and lit the screen again.

Hi. Have to cancel. Sorry.

A lull filled with a little strobing ellipsis, then: What’s up? Hope it’s not serious.

Just the bare gist of the situation took a whole minute of pondering and pecking. Immediately she started typing a follow-up, only to falter when Stop materialized on the screen.

Don’t tell me anything else, she read. Just give me the case number. I’ll check it with Social Services. If it’s legit, everything’s hunky-dory. A small grin crossed her face. Kind of like Applejack, but from different sources, Cook was full of odd little turns of phrase.

She shrugged and typed in the number. If it had been anyone else, she wouldn’t have done it—but Cook’s phone, and the software on it, were not the ordinary consumer products they appeared to be. Secure connection or no, though, she didn’t give any names. Don’t know when this will be over. I’ll try to keep in touch. Sorry.

There was a longer pause before she got back I know. I hope your friend gets better soon. Best wishes to you both. And that was that; Sunset turned off the screen and slid the phone back into a pocket. Why did something so simple make her eyes sting? Was it because Cook trusted her enough to bet the diplomatic career he’d wanted since childhood on her ability to come through?

She glanced at the now-closed door to the room where Wallflower and a couple of dozen other people conferred—or didn’t, as the case might be—with each other and the therapist. Considering how bad a job she’d done so far, should he?


She nearly jumped out of her skin at the sudden question, and whipped her head back the other way. There stood Even Keel, in a suit rather more severely tailored than Rose’s, obviously having approached from the hall’s other direction. Sunset cleared her throat. “Uh—h-hi. What’s up?”

The voice was beautifully modulated as always, but utterly without emotion. “I need to speak with you.”

That wasn’t ominous or anything. Sunset swallowed, nodded, and followed as the counselor set sail again.

As part of the transfer process Wallflower had signed a whole stack of forms, pretty much without bothering to look at any of them. One was a release listing the people with whom treatment information could be shared. Holly, as next of kin, was on it—though not her soon-to-be-ex-husband. As the case worker, Rose was listed too, which was routine but, since she wasn’t part of the treatment team, not automatic. Sunset had been included at Even Keel’s request; she was spending more time with Wallflower than anyone else and thus had a need to know.

Sunset had a sinking feeling that form was why she was following Keel now.

A good couple of minutes and at least two doors labeled STAFF ONLY later, they arrived at an office bigger and far less sterile than Rose’s little cubbyhole. Keel waited for Sunset to enter, closed the door, and breezed across the room; in passing a hand waved at one of the chairs facing the front of the desk. “Have a seat.”

Once they faced each other across the smallish, but well-built, wood desk, Keel leaned forward, fingers laced and forearms on blotter. “Wallflower’s suicidal thoughts have not abated. More than that, she’s hinted she would try again if she could.”

Just that suddenly the mælstrom was back, tumbling Sunset in a flood of emotions she could not sort out. Her eyes squeezed shut as she struggled to breathe, to comprehend, and most of all not to drown in the undertow. Keel kept talking, but she couldn’t hear the words as she strove not to hyperventilate and pass out right there.

“. . . But the bottom line is, Wallflower may have to transfer to a hospital-run clinic.” Keel sounded just as calm and indifferent as ever, which sparked a flicker of anger in Sunset. “You wouldn’t be able to follow her there.”

“I don’t—I don’t understand.” Her voice sure sounded different, rusty and wavering.

Keel actually sighed. “Our clinic offers a lot of freedom for clients to help in their own treatment, but if safety’s a concern, this isn’t where Wallflower needs to be. When a client can’t make progress in a relatively unrestricted context like this one, the only alternative is to send that client to a more closely monitored and controlled environment.” The laced hands turned, thumbs out and palms up, in a gesture of finality. “It’s never an easy thing to do, but if there’s no significant improvement in the next week, we’ll have no other option.”

“Hey, d’ya wanna talk for a while before we sack out?” Sunset didn’t look up as she finished tucking in Wallflower, both of them in their pajamas for the night. Keeping up a straight face since Even Keel’s devastating, if inadvertent, ultimatum earlier in the day had been an agonizing challenge. Meeting the other girl’s eye now might shake the illusion of nonchalance suggested by her idle-sounding question.

“No.” The short, sullen answer went perfectly with Wallflower’s usual porcelain-doll stare into space, well over Sunset’s bent head.

Sunset’s mouth pursed in frustration before she could smooth away the expression. The indirect approach hadn’t worked for her—or anyone else, to judge from Keel’s revelations. Talking around the problem to spare delicate feelings just let Wallflower spike the discussion with snappy sarcasm, like a volleyball straight to the face. Time to try something different.

So far Sunset had done her best to help Wallflower without intruding on painful subjects or a therapy program run by people who knew the ropes far better than she did. As Even Keel had described it to her, therapy couldn’t cure anyone. All it could do was guide clients and help them try to overcome their own obstacles. Nobody else could do that for them.

Rose, as always, had been more colorful. “It’s like moving a boulder. You can’t reason with it or convince it to move—or wait for it to move on its own. The only way you can get it to move is to push it.” After a pause, she added in a reminiscent tone, “With a bulldozer, if you have one handy. We didn’t always. Then we just had to slide on work gloves and put our backs into it.”

Wallflower was doing everything possible to avoid trying. Reasoning and convincing hadn’t budged that boulder an inch. Sunset would have to put her back into it. “Well, I do.”

Even the doll’s willful lassitude couldn’t resist a reflexive jerk, though she managed not to let out a peep. Feeding Wallflower a taste of her own medicine filled Sunset with a vile flash of satisfaction. Wasn’t the goal to grow away from that sort of spite? A grimace and a shake of the head dismissed the distraction.

Wallflower in the mean time apparently decided to steal a march. “So fine.” Resentment colored the low voice. “Why’re you still here, anyway?”

“Excuse me?” Sunset’s eyes narrowed in genuine perplexity.

“This!” A hand turned as if to lift and gesture before Wallflower apparently remembered her rebellious inertia. “All of this . . . it’s a waste of time—for you more than anybody.”

Sunset shook her head. “I don’t see it that way.”

A note of exasperation leaked past the ennui. “You should be off having magical adventures and doing amazing things with your life—like always—but here you are wheeling around a crippled girl in a clinic.” Sheer vitriol imbued the last word with scare quotes. “You got better things to do!”

“Better than helping a friend?” Sunset was regaining her balance; she thought she had an idea where this was going.

“I don’t have any friends.” The intransigence was back.

A sigh slipped out before Sunset could stop it. “Wallflower . . .”

“You can’t do anything to make me feel better,” Wallflower assured her in mingled defiance and despair. “Nobody can.” The pause that followed dragged out long enough a trace of bleak triumph glinted in the brown eyes.

Finally Sunset told her quietly, “You’re right. I can’t make you feel better, and neither can anyone else. Only you can do that.”

Wallflower hunched down a little. “Maybe I don’t want to feel better.”

They were getting close to something important, Sunset was sure. She did her best to emulate Rose’s understated style of leading questions. “Why not?”

The effort was rewarded with a snide glare. “Don’t play dumb. You know why not.”

She should have known that wouldn’t work. Sunset sucked in a breath. “Do—do you really want to try again?” The words stuck in her throat as if they had sharp spines all over.

“Do what?” Wallflower challenged her. “Go ahead and say it.”

Sunset’s eyes hardened in turn. “You know what I mean.”

Wallflower’s gaze flicked downward. “And that’s why you can’t help me. You can’t fix a problem you won’t talk about.”

It took all Sunset’s fading strength to push out, “. . . Do you still want to kill yourself? Tell me the truth.”

Bluff called, Wallflower tried to roll over and look away, only to stiffen in pain. Sunset watched, her own torment no less real, no less intense, for being emotional rather than physical. She could feel tears prickling, but she dared not let them out. She was running out of time—or rather Wallflower was. No matter how much it hurt either of them, she had to push on.

Panic was rising in the eyes that darted back and forth but couldn’t escape Sunset’s. Wallflower probably blamed herself for getting backed into a figurative corner, like she blamed herself for everything else, and must be looking for any way out of it. When they steadied again, Sunset guessed Wallflower thought she’d found one.

“You’re here just because you want to fix all the things you broke, aren’t you?” The vicious accusation stung. “You feel guilty, and you think if you help out a little, you can make it all better, right?” The very phrasing made Wallflower sound like an object, not a person, yet another irritation.

Steady breaths. Sunset couldn’t let her temper get the better of her, now of all times. “I’m here to help any way I can, yeah.” Only a slight tremor betrayed how hard-won her calm was. “I can’t fix everything. Maybe I can’t fix anything. But if I’m gonna be a better person—or pony, whatever—I have to try. Besides—” Her voice broke despite her best efforts. “—that’s not the only reason I’m here. I care about you, whether you want to believe that or not. You mean a lot to me, because you are a good person and a good friend.”

A scowl of disbelief greeted the assertion. “Stop pretending you care. We both know I don’t matter.”

Sunset closed her eyes for a beat. “I’m not pretending, Wallflower.”

“You are!” It tried to be a shout, but Wallflower’s weakened condition muted it to a raspy cry. “Stop lying to me! Nobody would even care if I just . . . disappeared.” The words ended with a half-sob, half-hiccup.

They might as well have been a slap to the face. Sunset flinched, the shards of her broken promise suddenly and horribly sharp. Holly she could fob off with a little verbal sleight of hand. Wallflower . . . not so much, not after hearing the same cruelly wounding words parroted back to her. This was gonna hurt.

Her only hope was it would hurt like physical therapy and not like a knife to the heart.

“An’ why’re you talking about this now anyway?” Wallflower sounded bewildered as well as suspicious. “Why all of a sudden? You been really quiet all this time, but now you wanna talk?”

“You . . . you wanna know why?” Everything blurred. Sunset’s voice thickened. She bent over, breaths heaving and unsteady. “If th-things don’t change—now—you’re, you’re going to a hospital and I can’t go with you.” It all poured out, a waterfall of consequences, blunt and brutal, the whole inexorable stream of institutional logic.

Head down and unable to see past the flood of tears, Sunset had no idea of Wallflower’s reaction. Was that an attentive silence, a distressed silence, a baffled silence, an apathetic silence? “I hurt you so much, I hurt everypo—everybody so much.” This was even worse than facing Princess Celestia again. She literally could not stop babbling. “I was such an awful person, such a b-bully. I’m sorry—I’m so sorry for everything I did to you and everyone else, even the things I don’t remember! Like—” She paused for a deep shuddering breath. “—Like telling you nobody would care if you disappeared.” She did stop then, blinking and sniffling, eyes and nose still inconveniently and annoyingly runny.

The silence dragged on until a single word broke it. “How—?”

It took no effort of thought to guess what Wallfower wanted to know. “I b-broke my promise. The first night you were in a coma . . . I used my pendant.” Sunset paused to let her breathing settle again. “Just something else to be sorry I did.” Her whole expression screwed up as if she were spitting out something bitter and raw, as indeed the words were, but she forced her head up to face squarely her friend—her victim.

Wallflower’s wide-eyed face was contorted with a surfeit of emotion, though far more of it was shock and far less of it anger than Sunset expected. “I totally forgot about that.” The whisper held a note of something with a family resemblance to wonder. “I made you forget about it too, didn’t I?”

Sunset swallowed and rubbed her damp eyes with the heels of her hands. “I guess so.” Biggest meanie. A yearbook page leaped to mind. She could remember hauling off, her dim-bulb henchmen laughing behind her, the camera falling—but who was the photographer at the other end of the punch? “I mean, I coulda just forgot about it ’cause I was a bully and it was Tuesday, but it doesn’t feel like that.” She cleared her throat, then added delicately, “You, uh, you remember it now, though, right?”

A nod was the only immediate reply, but it was enough.

In an even smaller voice, Sunset asked, “Are we still friends?”

After a heart-stopping hesitation came another slow, uncertain nod. Sunset closed her eyes momentarily in sheer relief.

“But why?” Wallflower sounded puzzled rather than angry or hopeless; at least Sunset had accomplished that much. “Why would you do that?”

The words stuck in Sunset’s throat; she forced them out with a squeak. “Because I was asking why too. Why did you do it? Why did you t-try to—” She just couldn’t finish the sentence. “I wanted to make sure you never felt that way again.” Now she couldn’t even look at Wallflower. “I haven’t done a very good job so far, have I?” The tears were threatening again.

“When I found out you thought I’d be grateful if you d-died, I—” She blinked several times. “After I got over being shocked, I got so mad.” The watery sound she managed wasn’t exactly a laugh. “Like I always do. But now?” A deep sigh left her slumped in defeat. “Now I’m just so, so sorry about all the things I did to make you feel that way.”

She half-straightened and put her hands on Wallflower’s frail shoulders. “I want to do better. I’m trying to be better. I don’t know how but I’m trying, even when it’s hard and it hurts and I mess up all the time, even though I never feel like I’ve made up for it all.” She leaned forward and enfolded the other girl in her arms as if embracing a sculpture of blown glass. “Please, Wallflower. I have to try, and I need you to try too. You don’t need to feel better right away—just, please, you need to try, okay?”

The glass doll was limp against her, forehead on shoulder, and fear rose in Sunset’s chest again. She suppressed another sob and began to rock Wallflower like a child, slowly and gently. All she could hear and feel was breathing, in two different but equally shaky rhythms. All she could hope was the continued hush signified thought and not obduracy, because she felt wrung out, unable to think of anything else to say.

“Okay.” It was a bare husk of a reply, and only the tiniest nod against her shoulder accompanied it. But what convinced Sunset was when Wallflower tentatively reached up to return the embrace—and began to weep as well.


View Online

“In every way, she’s progressing.” Even Keel, a bit drab in another plain pantsuit, wasn’t bothering to consult any notes, whether on screen or paper. “I won’t say I’ve never seen anything like it, but the last week has been quite a dramatic turn-around.” They turned their hands up, fingers spread, on the blotter of their desk.

Rose’s eye narrowed thoughtfully as she leaned back on the visitor chair. “You seem . . . pretty impressed.” She too was dressed as usual, her suit trimmer and finer as they tended to be. She balanced a yellow pad and clipboard on her lap and studiously refrained from looking enviously around the bright, pleasant office, maybe twice the size of hers.

Keel looked unamused. “I know it might not seem like much from the report, but believe me, even a small change can be earthshaking in this context.” They tapped a fingertip on the blotter. “She has a long way to go, of course. She still is timid and unsure; she even backslides occasionally. But sooner or later she makes the effort to come out of her shell and try again, and she always seems to be willing to work with the physical therapist—I think because there isn’t as much talking involved, and it’s okay, even expected, for her to be awkward and clumsy.”

“So why the big change?” Rose gestured broadly with her prosthetic arm, palm up. “And why so suddenly?” The pause that followed was uncharacteristic enough to raise Rose’s brow.

“Wallflower hasn’t come right out and explained it,” Keel finally answered, words slow and measured. “She’ll mumble things like ‘it was time’ and ‘I changed my mind’, just enough to deflect further inquiry, but . . . I have my suspicions. You recall my last report—specifically, my conclusion Wallflower might have to go to hospital if things didn’t change?”

At Rose’s attentive nod, the counselor continued, “I informed Sunset of that the same afternoon.”

“Huh.” Rose sat up again. “And the next day Wallflower suddenly got more cooperative. Fancy that.”

“Yes. Whatever it was, it worked, but it almost certainly involved divulging privileged information.” Keel briefly pinched the bridge of their nose. “Well—there’s no proof, and results are what matter most, so I suppose I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Rose bit her lip hard; it would never do to grin or, worse, laugh out loud. She definitely did not want to explain the joke.

“So what did you do?” Rose didn’t use that singsong tone often—it could be a bit jarring coming from her scarred face and hard-bitten persona—but this was a special case.

A slightly frazzled Sunset, in worn T-shirt and jeans, stared at her with a genuinely baffled expression. Her paper cup of coffee steamed gently on the chipped laminate table in the clinic cafeteria. “What did I do? When?”

“Oh, about a week ago,” Rose replied airily. “You know, the day before Wallflower suddenly stopped being a bump on a log.”

Sunset reddened dramatically. “I, uh, I dunno what you mean.”

“Mm-hmm.” Doubt suffused the syllables. “Not a clue, huh?” Rose picked up her own coffee and sipped, though her gaze never left the younger woman’s deer-in-headlights expression.

With a sudden thump Sunset’s elbow landed on the tabletop and her forehead pressed against that arm’s upraised fist. The aqua eyes squeezed shut, betraying a slight glisten in the lashes. Most alarming was the hitching in the younger woman’s breaths.

“Hey.” Rose’s voice was much softer. “You okay there? They should be helping you too, as a caregiver. I know Keel told me you’re supposed to be getting your own support counseling.” She put down her coffee and slid it to the side.

An emphatic, if jerky, nod answered, but it was another minute before Sunset was able to pull herself together enough to straighten a little with a sniffle. “I’m okay. Yeah, I get a daily session too. It’s just that I’m so relieved Wallflower’s . . .” She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands.

Rose frowned in concern before hauling on a straight face as Sunset blinked the moisture away and let her hands fall to the table. “If you’re sure. I’m sorry, Sunset, I didn’t mean to upset you. I do have to find out what happened, though.” She hesitated. “You know I do, right?”

Sunset sighed and looked away. “Yeah, I do. I guess I just hoped you wouldn’t ask.” She fell silent. The hot drink still steamed in front of her, apparently forgotten. The social worker waited her out patiently. Sunset deserved the courtesy of being allowed to address it in her own good time—so long as she did address it. Before Wallflower’s current group therapy time ended, preferably.

Finally, with a deep breath that was almost another sniffle, Sunset visibly summoned up the courage. “I told Wallflower she was gonna go off to a hospital if things didn’t change, and I couldn’t go with her.”

Rose nodded. “Keel and I figured out that much.” She let the sentence trail off expectantly; there had to be more to it.

Sunset seemed unable to meet her eye, and her answering mutter sounded more like Wallflower, or Holly, than the normally forthright girl’s plainspoken manner.

“What was that?” Humor and worry mingled in the question. “You’ll have to speak up, Sunset.”

“I said, I broke my promise.” Sunset swallowed. “Like you told me not to do.” The rest of the story took only a few more sentences, after which she looked as if she expected Rose to bite her head off, maybe literally.

It took a moment for Rose to make the connection, having nearly forgotten the brunch preceding that horrible afternoon in front of the halfway house. She rubbed her forehead and sighed. “All right, Sunset. Yes, you broke your promise, and yes, I take promises seriously. But there comes a point when you have to balance that against other imperatives. Would you feel better right now if you’d kept your promise then, but as a result Wallflower would be in worse shape and might be going off to the hospital clinic?”

Mutely Sunset shook her head.

“You had to decide what was best for your friend under pretty bad conditions, on little or no information.” Rose gave her a level look. “I don’t think for a moment you threw away that promise on a whim, Sunset. You did what you thought you had to do, and I can’t say you were wrong to do it.”

Originally it had been a stopgap, someplace to sleep out of the rain when Rose moved back to the city after being drop-kicked from active duty, but that was . . . a long time ago. She had to stop and think just how long she’d been there, and when she dredged up the answer it turned out to be a little disquieting. On the other hand, she probably paid something like half what a new resident would, thanks to rent control. It was a small consolation.

The studio packed the bland but livable quality of a mid-tier hotel room into little more than half the area—the minimum square footage the law allowed—by means of the usual space-saving tricks. Most of them, anyway; the fittings were getting long in the tooth by now, too old for the newest gimmicks. The few other furnishings had come from big-box discount stores, albeit selected with care and something approaching taste. Appearance was secondary to practicality in her lexicon, but if it looked halfway decent too, especially sleek and modern, that was a bonus.

Well, it wasn’t like she did much entertaining. It wasn’t like she knew much of anyone outside of work, come to think of it. Most of the time she didn’t even bother tucking away the wall bed, though with ingrained military habit she made it up every morning, all right and tight, and kept everything else equally clean and tidy. The apartment could have been a show unit were it not for her more idiosyncratic choices, such as a couple of so-called “zero-gravity” patio chairs, cheaper, lighter, and more compact than conventional overstuffed recliners. One, dressed up with a colorful afghan thrown over it, served her for every seating need. A swiveling laptop desk next to it was by turns side table or TV tray.

The other chair usually stayed folded flat, hanging from a pair of bicycle hooks high on a wall; the two were swapped every month or so for even wear. She’d bought the pair with an eye to accommodating a guest, but offhand she couldn’t recall actually needing to. Beside it another set of hooks supported a basic but rugged touring bike, festooned with a complete set of baggage, for the daily commute and weekly errands. Riding helped keep her in shape, but it wasn’t a patch on trail-running, both for herself and the occasional charity event in support of youth or veteran causes, or tai chi.

Nothing else hung on the walls—not that there was much room, what with the full-height bookcases shoehorned in wherever they would fit, shelves completely filled. Field manuals. Proceedings. Engineering, civil and military. History, likewise. Architecture. Cultures. Travel. Art. Photography. Sociology. Psychology. Pharmacology. Childhood growth and development. Administration and management. Process and procedure. Organization and structure. Whatever caught her eye or fancy, but almost no fiction and certainly no knick-knacks. A trickle of new volumes steadily displaced the oldest or least of her library. The cast-offs went to libraries or used bookstores, including Lectern’s now that she’d discovered it.

Her only other extravagances hid behind the world’s skinniest sliding doors, in the closet by the front door. A dozen or so pastel business suits, along with a bomber jacket and a greatcoat for inclement weather, marched from wall to wall; not a single uniform shared the rod. Rubber rings at regular intervals prevented hangers from bunching up. On the shelf above sat a rabbit-fur ushanka, a boonie hat, and some other headgear. On the floor underneath stood a narrow plastic drawer organizer for T-shirts, BDU pants, sport bras, undergarments, and a smattering of other simple, casual clothes. Cheek by jowl with it were two stacks, front to back, of filing boxes. Dusty papers, mementos, and other random detritus from times past languished within.

The bottom back box, a mere shell reinforced with a simple framework to support those resting on it, fitted over a small gun safe bolted to the floor. It was the best on the market, according to some of Sticky Note’s shadier acquaintances. It didn’t hold a lot—accessories for the compact service pistol she habitually carried in a concealed shoulder rig, her most critical papers, and remnants of the “I love me” office wall every military officer maintained, never discarded but never exhumed. When she sought to install the safe the management had raised a fuss, but she cited chapter and verse of the law, and they subsided grudgingly. After so many years and so much turnover, she doubted any of the current staff even knew it was there.

The kettle started shrieking on the vestigial kitchenette’s two-burner cooktop. Rose, relaxed in a set of army-green sweats, bath towel still draped over her shoulders, came back from her woolgathering to flip up the steam whistle and remove the pot from the heat. She sucked up an appalling amount of coffee during the day, but in the evening she generally brewed a mug of caffeine-free cinnamon tisane instead. Maybe it was time to cut back on the joe. Gradually, of course; she’d seen what happened to people who quit cold-turkey.

As she poured the water and started the infusion steeping she wondered idly what to do with the evening. She hadn’t cracked a book in at least a week and didn’t feel like doing it tonight. Maybe watch a movie.

The thought of going out, much less inviting anyone in, never occurred to her.

Rose saw a lot more of Cuppa’s these days. Truth to tell its beehive activity and constant noise had begun to pall, but she’d sooner have her remaining fingernails pulled out than admit it to Sticky, who she suspected would live at the place if he could. Well, maybe that was an exaggeration, but still, she was determined not to dampen his enjoyment.

They sat at the same corner table they always did. They even wore the same business informal they always did. At least they didn’t place the same orders every time. Sticky gestured with his mug before putting it down and holding forth again in his usual understated style.

“For now she’s moved in with an old friend.” Unidentified, of course; it wasn’t Rose’s case, and she had no need to know who Holly’s friend was. “Quite an eccentric sort, but harmless and definitely eager to help. The place is a bit crowded, but it’s safe and stable. They haven’t seen much of each other in years, and never roomed together before, so there’s a bit of friction as they get to know each other again in somewhat close quarters. On the other hand they also are renewing their friendship and rediscovering each other as personalities, so it’s balancing out.”

Rose nodded absently. “And that’s why you think Holly should be okay there for a while.” She jotted a few notes. Holly’s estranged family, she already knew, had been less than supportive of their wayward lamb—hence the need for a friend to step up instead. “How’s the divorce going?”

“Acrimoniously.” Sticky grimaced in distaste. “Mostly on his end. Holly just hunkers down and puts her back to the wind. It’s not the healthiest coping mechanism in the world, but it’s working and it does mean less in the way of courtroom fireworks. From a couple of things she’s said, she knows; she’s using it just to get through this. To be fair, it’s a pretty traumatic experience, and Holly’s therapist is confident this shouldn’t set her back too much, so I’m not worried.”

“Mm-hm.” More notes, then a sip of tea. “And on the work front?”

“You were right, she has no employment experience to speak of. I’ve been asking around, but so far not much has come up.” Sticky shrugged. “Her friend helped her get a supermarket job. She’s trying hard, but it’s a real struggle for her, and I doubt it’ll last.”

“Yeah. I’ll bet she feels like a fish out of water, too. She needs something she’s better suited for.” With a thoughtful frown Rose leaned over to rummage in her messenger bag.

Sticky watched patiently as she pulled out a stack of yellow pads and sorted through them. Finally she slipped one onto the table and returned the rest. “These’re the notes from my visit, way back when all this started.” She flipped through the pages, skimming the neatly written lines. “Here we go. The place was pretty well-kept, even with a layabout husband, a teenage daughter who likes grubbing in the dirt, and being, ah, kind of a mouse herself. Maybe that’s something to look into.”

“Janitorial?” Sticky’s brows creased in doubt.

“I was thinking more residential housekeeping—or better, maybe a maid service, at least to start with.” Rose twitched a half-smile. “They often send out maids in pairs, so she wouldn’t be braving the unknown all alone.”

“Hm!” Sticky looked intrigued. “That has possibilities. I’ll start checking into it this afternoon.” His head tilted briefly in consideration. “That about does it. The only other thing I’ll add is, Holly carries that photo of Wallflower everywhere. She got it laminated in a copy shop and put it in a little wallet. She’s serious about trying to rebuild her life and trying to connect with her daughter again.”

“Okay, point taken,” Rose acknowledged. “I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.” She glanced down and slid the pad back into her bag.

When she looked up again, Sticky looked pensive, even calculating, and his fingertips drummed on the tabletop in a distinctive syncopated rhythm barely audible over the crowd. Her eye narrowed. “Something on your mind?”

Sticky’s fingers flicked open as if brushing something away and his breath blew out. “Seeing Holly with her friend brought up something else.” He met her one-eyed gaze with his usual faintly unsettling steadiness.

Rose’s brow went up. “This isn’t coffee-break chat, is it?”

“No.” Sticky’s lips thinned in a flat smile. “I’m going to ask a personal question. Feel free not to answer—”

Her brow knotted. “Even if I say nothing, that’s an answer.” After a beat she added ruefully, “And I’m not gonna stop you, am I? Fine. Go ahead.”

“Do you have any friends?”

Rose rocked back on the wing chair. Sure she did—Sticky himself for one. Sunset probably qualified, sort of. . . . Who else? Most of her co-workers weren’t as close even as Sunset, let alone Sticky. She saw various sparring or shooting or trail buddies—especially at the charity runs—once in a while; acquaintances, certainly, but were they friends? Finally she settled on, “A few. What brought that on, anyway?”

“I presume I’m one of them, so it looks like it’s up to me.” He sounded entirely matter-of-fact. “You told me once this job is like running into a burning building to rescue the people inside. The fires are a lot slower but just as deadly for anyone trapped in them.”

She had indeed, almost word for word. “Nice to know that made an impression.”

Sticky ignored the sarcasm. “You’re still burning the candle at both ends, Rose. Every day you’re here, a little more of you melts—less of a person and more of a purpose.” He leaned forward a little. “You’re stuck in your own fire now. What are you doing about it?”

Her eye hardened. “I still have clients, Sticky, if you somehow forgot.”

“And how much good will you do them if you crash and burn?” Sticky inquired with polite interest.

Rose shot him a fulminating glare and opened her mouth for a scathing reply, then froze. Sticky was blunt to a fault, but he wasn’t gratuitously confrontational. He had to be seriously concerned to push her this hard. Her eye and mouth shut tight as she fought for equilibrium. The academy, the range, the kwoon, each taught a form of intellectual and emotional discipline, yet it took far too much time and effort before she was able to reopen her eye with a semblance of calm.

Sticky was right to be worried.

Even now he waited with a veneer of serenity over sincere unease as Rose sighed and rubbed her forehead. Taking that for the sign it was, he continued as quietly as their surroundings allowed, “Why do you think I stay with Bright?”

Wearily she replied, “Because you know he wouldn’t leave you even if you caught a red-eye to East Bumf—ah, some hole in the wall.”

His brief smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Well, yes—but leaving that aside, it’s because without him around I . . . lose myself. It would be too easy to forget how other people feel, too easy for this work to become just a job. When was the last time you knew anyone like that?”

“Anyone else, you mean?” Rose shook her head. “I don’t know that I ever have. Not my husband, that’s for sure. Maybe my family, what there is of it.” This time it was Sticky’s brows that flew up. Rose knew why; she almost never mentioned her ex or her widely scattered, mostly military relations. She wouldn’t have now but for Sticky’s insistence. “What’s your point?”

“I’m the only one who can—or will—tell you what you don’t want to hear. At least, the only one you’ll listen to.” Sticky aimed a forefinger at her. “Your problem is the opposite of mine. You don’t know how or when to stop. It’s made you one of the best social workers in the city, but looking back now I can see it’s been burning you up slowly.”

The pointing hand opened to wave, as if sweeping aside a pile of ash. “We’d be having this talk sooner or later. The only reason it’s now, and not in another two or three or five years, is how much gasoline’s been poured on the fire by this case of yours.” His expression softened as much as it ever did. “You’ve worked hard to make the world a better place, but if you burn yourself out, that’ll change. You’ve made my world a better place, and for that I owe you the best advice I can give.”

He drew a breath. “Rose, you need to get out.”

It took a moment for Rose’s clenched jaw to loosen enough to respond. “Where? Where do I go?” Both hands, one of flesh and bone and the other not, flexed on the table. “I could buck for promotion here, but would that be an improvement? I could look for another job, but what?” Her tone wavered, and she cleared her throat.

Sticky’s eyes widened—just a little, but that was enough. “Could you go back to the army?” he asked with the velvety, low-key delivery he used on a client.

She gave him a searing look of disbelief before she could stop it. “Sticky, I’m on the permanent disability list. That’s why I’m here in the first place.” She raised her artificial hand and pointed to the eyepatch. “I can’t go back. I’m not eligible for active duty except under the most extreme circumstances, like a losing war or some weird specialized job they can’t find someone else—anyone else—to fill.” When did her breathing get so heavy and labored? She blinked a few times to clear her vision of the blurring that unaccountably made it hard to see him and went on in an unsteady voice, “In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re not fighting for our lives at the moment, and I’m just another captain whose technical education is more than a decade out of date.”

The distant thought intruded she’d never seen Sticky completely speechless. His mouth opened, but nothing came out. Finally he managed a faint, “Oh.”


View Online

Dear Princess Twilight,
It still feels weird to start one of these with something so formal when we’re such good friends, but I guess the journal’s enchantment is happier with it. Anyway, sorry I haven’t been in touch the last few weeks. I should fill you in on what’s happened since then, because otherwise nothing new is going to make any sense, but it’s been rough. I mean, really rough, so hang on tight. Wallflower didn’t go to the inpatient clinic right away. There was kind of a detour first. . . .

“Sorry I’m late!” Sunset’s words were a little winded as she finished striding hastily, not quite trotting, across the cafeteria. The staff didn’t approve of running in the halls or communal spaces and were not shy about reminding people, which clashed occasionally with Sunset’s energetic approach to life. She pulled up short by the small square table where Wallflower waited and took a moment to catch her breath, still clutching to her chest a finely bound quarto complete with iron spine reinforcements and brass corners. “It took longer to zip home and grab more clothes and stuff than I expected, and then I had to drop it all off in my room.” Indeed, the T-shirt and cargo shorts she wore were new, at least to her current surroundings, though her somewhat battered high-tops were the same.

Wallflower blinked up at her and lifted chin from palm. “It’s okay. At the end of the PT session Mister Gracilis went and just kinda yelled out the door to see if anyone could come and help, and someone did. He said he was headed for the cafeteria anyway, so it’d be no trouble.” Her last few words got wavery and by the time she finished the sentence her eyes were brimming with tears.

Sunset slid onto the chair opposite and let the book down on the tabletop, showing the peculiar half-and-half design on its front cover. Her face clouded with concern. “Hey. What’s wrong?”

A quick shake of the head was the initial answer, but after a shuddery breath Wallflower answered with a bit of a squeak, “Everyone’s so nice. It’s—” She broke off and drew a sleeve of her gray sweat suit across her face, trying to dry her eyes.

“It’s hard to accept?” Sunset finished in a gentle tone. The six months between the Fall Formal and the Battle of the Bands had been a tough time for her. Looking back it was easy to see she’d been pretty depressed, and afterward it had taken a long while to shake her doubts people really were changing their opinions of her—much less that she deserved for them to. So, yeah, she could believe Wallflower was having trouble turning things around, though it hurt to see her friend suffering like this. But Even Keel had pointed out it was good Wallflower wasn’t bottling up emotions any more, even when they were negative emotions, and was starting to talk more, often without prompting, in personal and group therapy.

The night Sunset had persuaded Wallflower to start trying again, to live, had felt like such a breakthrough. Now she was starting to see it wasn’t going to be smooth sailing from there. That had been just the beginning of a long hard journey.

“Y-yeah.” Wallflower started crying with a quiet intensity. In a tight voice she added, “It all is.”

Sunset stared at her for a moment. This wasn’t about feeling unworthy of a little kindness. “Wallflower, what’s wrong?”

“PT—” A few moments went by before Wallflower could go on. “—PT was really hard and it hurt a lot and I didn’t do as good as I wanted to—”

“Hey,” Sunset broke in firmly. “Wallflower, getting better’s gonna take time, maybe lots of time, and that’s okay.” She had to watch her wording. Even Keel had given her a long lecture, more of a seminar, about how to phrase things to be positive, on the one hand, without being patronizing, on the other.

“But what if I don’t get better?” Wallflower looked back with desperation. “Before I didn’t worry about it, because . . . because, but now—” From the stricken expression Sunset guessed a vision of a whole lifetime in a wheelchair flashed across Wallflower’s mind, a lifetime she had given up on until Sunset convinced her otherwise.

“You can do it.” Confidence born of assurances from physicians and therapists filled Sunset’s assertion. “I know you can. You’ve done so much already.” She listed achievements large and small, ticking them off on fingers. “If you can do all that, you can do this too. And all of us are here to help you—me, Even Keel, Mister Gracilis, Rose, everyone.”

Most of Sunset’s little speech didn’t seem to make much of an impression, but right at the end of it Wallflower appeared to perk up a little, sitting straighter and knuckling eyes. Sunset had no idea what about it had worked, but whatever it was she’d take it.

“So, uh—” Wallflower cleared her throat of the congestion and anxiety that had clogged it. “That’s the ma—the special journal you told me about, isn’t it?”

The bid at distraction couldn’t be more transparent, but after a moment’s thought Sunset decided to go along with it. Wallflower had managed to get past being stuck in her own head, and for now that was enough. “Yeah. Unless there’s a reason to write some other time, like an emergency or something, I write in it before I hit the sack.” She lowered her voice a little but carefully did not look around furtively. “Usually she’ll write back as soon as she can, and if she knows she’s gonna be away for a while, she’ll warn me, and I try to do the same.” She peered more closely at Wallflower. “Feeling better? Are you up for some lunch?”

Wallflower sniffled and nodded.

Dear Princess Twilight,
I’m doing a lot of lurking outside doors these days. It makes me feel like an eavesdropper or a vo something even ickier.

Wallflower suddenly decided she has to do everything herself if she’s going to get better. It makes sense, sort of, and it’s better than when she wouldn’t do anything, but it seems to me like she’s biting off more than she can chew. . . .

The hiss of the shower head tapered off. Sunset leaned against the wall beside the archway to the bathroom and listened to echoey grunts and muffled thuds. That went on entirely too long before Wallflower spoke up more clearly. “Okay, Sunset, you can come in now.”

Instantly Sunset pushed off from the wall and pivoted to pop through the archway. Wallflower’s renewed sense of modesty was a measure of progress, but in practical terms it was a little awkward. As she expected, Wallflower sat on the shower bench draped in a white terrycloth bathrobe, the bottom hem wet where it wended over shower floor and seat. Careful not to slip on the slick tiles, she helped Wallflower up from the bench.

Maneuvering into the bedroom still was tricky, but less so now that Sunset could expect at least a little active cooperation. Once deposited on the bed beside the clothes laid out for the day, a pleased-looking Wallflower told her, “Thanks! I’ll get dressed and then we can go.”

Taking the hint, Sunset retreated to the bathroom and leaned against the other side of the same wall. Rustles of fabric were followed by a minute or more of straining and cursing and grumbling. The longer it went on, the more winces Sunset pulled, until finally there was a yelp and a thumpity-bump. She rushed back into the bedroom to find a mostly dressed Wallflower twisted like a pretzel on the floor, jeans halfway up her bare legs. Sunset uttered her own noise of alarm and bent to help. The cheap low-pile commercial-grade carpeting wasn’t much, but it was better to fall on than hard tiles, which was a small relief.

Sniffles and tears greeted her, but at least Wallflower wasn’t bawling. Sunset bit her lip for a moment. “Are you okay? Does it hurt?”

“It always hurts,” Wallflower told her tearily.

“Yeah, I guess it would.” Chagrin colored her answer. Even numbed, she remembered the bustling Mister Gracilis commenting, messing with a spinal injury caused a good deal of pain. The jostling of an uncontrolled fall couldn’t help but make that worse, so it wasn’t just frustration that had brought out more tears.

“Look, Wallflower, you did great,” she assured the unhappy girl with all the heartiness she could muster. “Especially for the first time in a while. It’ll get easier with more practice.”

Dear Princess Twilight,
I was allowed to invite a friend to come visit us! Just one, though. I knew right away which of the Rainbooms to ask, and I’ll bet you can figure out who. If you guessed Fluttershy, you’re right!

At first Wallflower wasn’t sure about the idea. I think she was anxious and embarrassed about being seen in a wheelchair, but Fluttershy was really good about pretending not to notice. That’s not quite right. Let’s say she was really good about not bringing it up. I’m not surprised. It’s hard for Fluttershy to break the ice, but once she does, she can put people at ease pretty quickly. . . .

“Oh, it’s so good to see you, Wallflower!” Fluttershy clasped her hands under her chin, the picture of sincerity. The skirt of her simple sundress swirled around her sandaled legs. Sunset couldn’t help but beam at the understated enthusiasm from the quiet friend she hadn’t seen in too long.

“Uh—hi, Fluttershy,” Wallflower answered politely. She shifted a little on the wheelchair’s sling seat. Given how painful any such movement was for her, that spoke volumes.

“And you too, Sunset.” Fluttershy’s impish, teasing grin was like a shaft of sunlight on Sunset’s soul.

Sunset leaned back on her chair with an amused expression. “I see you’ve got your priorities straight.”

Fluttershy giggled and nodded as she pulled out another of the patio chairs. Even Wallflower quirked a smile.

The day was balmy and breezy, perfect summer weather for the T-shirts, blue jeans, and sneakers Sunset and Wallflower wore. For their first visit from the outside world—other than Rose’s rather more official manifestations—they sat around one of the plain metal-and-glass patio tables, complete with shade umbrellas. Staffers and clients alike were dotted around the courtyard surrounded by the deliberately rambling structures of the clinic.

Once seated Fluttershy glanced around and observed in mild surprise, “This is very pretty.” Lawn, mulch-covered swatches landscaped with indigenous plants flowering or not, a few trees—even a water feature with monolithic sculptures—made the courtyard a pleasant rendezvous. “Do they let you help out with the plants, Wallflower?”

“Some,” Wallflower admitted. “It’s kinda hard for me to do any gardening right now, but they have some tools I can use and a little greenhouse. Sometimes there are other chores I can use a work bench for, like when there are new plants to get ready for replanting.”

Sunset added, “They really want to make sure clients are able to do things they’re interested in, especially if it helps with getting better. And don’t let Wallflower fool you; she’s doing a pretty good job. The other day she suggested changing a few plants in one of the beds to reduce allergens that might bother some of the other clients. The new plants would make the bed look different, but almost as nice.”

Wallflower colored and looked down, but she didn’t seem displeased, especially when Fluttershy gushed, “That’s lovely! You know, there are people who do that kind of thing for a living. I think you’d be good at it, Wallflower.”

Sunset pretended not to notice Wallflower’s sudden introspective expression. “Now I wish I’d taken a geology class at CHS—then we’d have everything covered: animal, vegetable, and mineral.”

Fluttershy shot her a look of knowing amusement. “Ray’s doing fine. He misses you, but I told him you’re doing something important and you’ll come back when you can.”

From the mention of Sunset’s leopard gecko the conversation drifted through other creatures to their owners, or in one case friend, all of whom had sent best wishes Fluttershy dutifully conveyed. When she noticed Wallflower seemed a little overcome by the surfeit of attention, even at second hand, she paused. “I’m sorry, Wallflower, I didn’t mean to make you feel overwhelmed. The girls were so worried about you. They wanted me to let you know, and I just didn’t think about it.”

“It’s . . . it’s okay.” Wallflower pulled in a cleansing breath. “Of course they were worried,” she said, as much to herself as her companions. “Friends are always worried when something isn’t right with you, right?”

“That’s right.” Fluttershy’s voice went soft and sweet, the way it did when she dealt with an injured animal at the shelter. “It’s wonderful when people care, but sometimes it’s hard to deal with all the attention, isn’t it?”

Wallflower swallowed and nodded. “Uh-huh. Most of the time. I don’t like people staring at me. I really have to work at it in group sessions, actually saying something instead of just trying to hide from everyone.”

Sunset opened her mouth for a stout assurance Wallflower was getting better at doing so, but decided to leave well enough alone and closed it again.

“I know what you mean.” Fluttershy nodded firmly at Wallflower, both of them seemingly unaware of Sunset’s antics. “We both have trouble with being around people.” She tilted her head in consideration. “Just not exactly the same way. I get worried about what people may do around me—or to me. I think you get worried about what you might do instead, right? And that’s why you used the Memory Stone so much, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, that makes sense.” Wallflower tipped her head toward one of the nearby buildings. “Even Keel, that’s my personal counselor, called it ‘social anxiety’ and said it’s pretty common, actually. Even if you and I prob’ly are more anxious about it than most people.” Wonder of wonders, a small, wry smile blossomed briefly on the round green face. “Course, I can’t talk about the Memory Stone with anyone here except Sunset! I think they know I’m keeping some kind of secret, and if I’d just be more honest they could help me better, but—” She raised both hands in an abbreviated shrug.

“Well, you can talk about it with us,” Fluttershy pointed out practically. “Maybe not right now, but when you’re better and we can see you more often.”

Wallflower blew out a breath. “You know, I think . . . I think I’d like that.”

Dear Princess Twilight,
I’m home now. I don’t know how I feel about it. I thought I’d be really happy, and part of me is, but it’s all mixed up with a lot of other stuff too. I hope you don’t mind, but I think I need to sort through this, and you’re a good listener, or reader, or whatever. . . .

“M-mom?” The hoarse voice carried more raw ambivalence than Sunset could remember hearing before, at least in real life. Wallflower sat tense on the wheelchair beside her bed, hands white-knuckled on the armrests. At least she was neatly dressed in blouse and slacks, as was Sunset, in anticipation of the reunion.

Holly, as usual wearing one of her flower-print dresses, froze in the doorway and blinked rapidly a few times. “Hello, Wallflower.” The answering whisper was barely audible.

“Where’s Dad?” If before Wallflower was hesitant, now dread outweighed welcome.

“You don’t—you don’t need to worry about him.” The sentence started out faint, but after Holly’s voice broke, it resumed with surprising firmness. “The judge said we don’t have to see him any more if we don’t want to.” She shuffled into the room toward the vacant office-visitor chair set to face Wallflower’s wheelchair.

Sunset sat quietly beside the wheelchair, on another chair brought in for the occasion, ready should she be needed for . . . anything. She bit her lip and tried not to fidget.

As Holly lowered herself onto the chair facing them, she asked, “How’re you doing?” It didn’t seem to be a token pleasantry.

“I’m doing okay,” was Wallflower’s guarded reply.

“Wallflower’s recovering physically, but slowly,” Sunset put in, her words more formal and precise than she normally bothered with. She leaned on her memories of Rose and Keel, and how they delivered information, as she considered how to continue. “They think she’ll need a lot more physical therapy, and even when that’s finished she probably won’t be a hundred percent. She should be able to walk, but maybe not run—at least not flat-out.”

Holly leaned forward a little and listened closely. Sunset was hard put not to let out a snicker as Wallflower’s hands fluttered in embarrassed discomfort, and her next few words were a little unsteady with the effort. “Counseling will take a while longer too, but she’s done really well so far.” More quietly Sunset added, “I’m very proud of her.”

Almost before Sunset finished speaking, Wallflower planted her hands back on the armrests and asked stiffly, “Why are you here?”

Holly’s mouth worked for several seconds. Sunset had the impression she was trying to come up with an answer, sorting and rejecting what came to mind. What finally came out was, “M—uh, Even Keel and Mister Sticky Note thought it would be good, now the divorce is final and everything, if I could take over from Sunset.” She dry-washed her hands in the awkward silence that followed.

“You—what?” Wallflower blurted. “But—”

This was a good time not to say anything. Sunset pressed her lips together.

The older woman’s face fell. “I—I thought it was a good idea. And Sunset’s been doing this for a while, so—”

Sunset’s face turned stormy. Was Holly trying to throw her under the bus or something?

Wallflower didn’t seem to take it any better. “Sunset’s been doing a good job,” she pointed out in a brittle tone. “And she said she’d stay as long as she had to.” Her head turned a little, though her gaze stayed on her mother. “Right, Sunset?”

No answer was the right answer, so Sunset settled on . . . no answer. Her mouth opened before she could stop it, but she shut it again with a slight click of teeth. Wallflower’s eyes flickered when she didn’t speak up with a stout confirmation.

“I . . . I wanted to help.” Holly’s eyes glistened. “Because that’s what a mother should do. And I thought, since that magic stone took away all my memories, so I don’t really know you now, I could—”

“You never really knew me,” Wallflower cut in, the hiss low and vicious. “Even when you did have all those memories.”

Sunset’s breathing quickened. She really, really didn’t want to be here for this, but now she was trapped.

A single tear tracked down Holly’s green cheek. “I guess I didn’t. And I’m sorry.”

Wallflower sat back as if slapped. That wasn’t quite right, but Sunset didn’t know what was right. For the first time since her mother walked in, she didn’t look fearful or nervous. Instead she just looked kind of blank.

Holly blinked again and reached up to rub the heel of her hand across her cheek. “I’m so sorry, Wallflower. You’re my baby girl and I love you and I want to protect you and keep you safe. You deserve a mother who’ll do that, but I didn’t. You were all alone, and Ms. Brass said I let your father do horrible things to you, and I didn’t stop him, and I even helped him!” She sniffled a little. “I can’t do anything about that now except start over and maybe do better this time. If you’ll let me.”

Both of the younger women were dumbfounded. If Holly had loomed like an ogre in Sunset’s mind, she couldn’t imagine how Wallflower felt, even after her sojourn through the other’s memories. It was like looking in a mirror and seeing a stranger, unsettling and disorienting. Sunset frankly had no idea what to do; she stole a sidelong glance to see if Wallflower had any better notion.

Nope. Not a clue. Wallflower sat and stared, almost as vacant as when the two of them arrived at the clinic. Sunset cleared her throat. “Wallflower?”

The other girl twitched as if stuck with a pin and whimpered. With another breath she shivered and doubled over, then began crying in great, wracking sobs that must have been just short of agony. Sunset jumped.

Holly put a hand to her mouth in distress; her eyes were urgent, but she didn’t reach for Wallflower herself. Belatedly Sunset realized touching Wallflower, in this delicate moment, might be the worst thing Holly could do. In her place, Sunset slid down to kneel beside the wheelchair, offering comfort with meaningless noises and stroking of wild green hair.

A hint of motion in the corner of Sunset’s eye brought her head up. Behind Holly a staffer wearing the ubiquitous polo shirt and slacks stood in the doorway, face and stance radiating concern. Sunset frantically flapped her free hand at him, which earned her a brief twinkle, not quite a smile, before he nodded and stepped away to continue his errand. By the time Holly twisted around to look, he was gone.

After a few minutes that felt like hours, Wallflower ran down to sniffles and hiccups, still bent over. “Hey,” murmured Sunset. “Hey, let’s get you sitting up again, okay? That’s gotta hurt.” A smeary mumble and a nod, forehead against knees, was the only reply, but it was enough for Sunset to stand and help unfold Wallflower.

Throughout Holly had sat stricken, clearly torn between wanting to help and knowing she probably shouldn’t. Her arms were crossed, almost hugging herself, and Sunset wondered if she’d managed to bite through her lip. Even now she restricted herself to watching Wallflower with a tense look of worry.

Wallflower’s return look was wary. “How do I know you really mean it?” she asked plaintively.

Holly blinked again as she dredged up an answer Sunset suspected made her sad. “I don’t know. Maybe you can’t.”

That gave Wallflower pause. After almost a minute of silent, withdrawn thought she came back with a sigh. “Maybe—maybe you’re right.” The admission was grudging, as was her glance at Sunset. “And I guess it isn’t fair to take up all your time, too.”

Holly had the wit to keep mum, though a brief light shone in her eyes. Sunset blinked a few times. “A-are you sure? I mean, it’s no trouble.” One amber hand waved in dismissal of the very idea of inconvenience.

The look Wallflower turned on Sunset burned with ambivalence but conveyed as clearly as words she wasn’t fooled. “It’s a lotta trouble, Sunset.” Her head lowered a little and for a moment she studied her lap with a meditative air. “I mean, if it wasn’t you wouldn’t need to be here, right?”

Still standing beside the wheelchair, Sunset shifted her weight from one foot to the other. There wasn’t any good way to gainsay that logic, was there?

Wallflower tilted her head back to glance up again, her eyes once more a little damp. “I don’t want you to go either. You’ve—you’ve helped me so much. But you haven’t seen your, your other friends for a long time.” A note of wonder graced the implication she counted as a friend too. “And I bet Even Keel would say I have to give M-mom a chance to start over too.”

Sunset slumped a little in defeat. “. . . Okay. I’ll stick around a little while longer. Somebody has to show Holly the ropes, right?” And, though she didn’t want to say it out loud, make sure Holly meant what she said. “Then I—I’ll pack up and go back home.”

Wallflower rolled back the wheelchair, gripped its arms, and struggled to rise. Sunset automatically stepped closer, ready to catch her if she stumbled, but Wallflower seemed steady enough. She reached out to hug Sunset tight, and said with conviction, “You’ll be okay.”

Dear Princess Twilight,
Is everything all right? You were going a mile a minute there for a while, with all those updates on your planning for the Friendship Festival, but then you stopped suddenly and now it’s been more than an hour. I know you’re probably busy there, but when you can, please let me know what’s up. It’s fine if you can’t keep going with the updates, but I’m a little worried here and it would be nice to know you’re okay.


View Online

Wallflower Blush raised the plastic bottle in one hand, aimed carefully at arm’s length, and spritzed a fine mist. With a careful eye and the aid of a hobby magnifier she examined the results, then nodded in satisfaction and readjusted the spray head back to stream. The magnifier was released to swing on its lanyard around her neck; the bottle went back into a plastic caddy tray full of gardening tools. She shuffled forward a couple of steps, keeping a firm grip on the handlebars of a bright green rollator, then pushed the brake levers back down to lock the wheels again. The caddy swayed a little on the small cargo net of elastic cords holding it like a hammock at handlebar level.

The greenhouse was almost never crowded, but on this clear and chilly late-autumn afternoon it was emptier than usual. Wallflower barely recalled any details of the papers she’d plowed through in the hospital, signing and initialing here there and everywhere, but she definitely remembered the features listed in the clinic’s brochure. The greenhouse practically jumped out at her, though at the time she pessimistically assumed it was one of those little do-it-yourself wood-framed backyard kits. After Sunset had convinced her to . . . keep going, she had been pleased to discover it was instead a mid-size, mid-range commercial-grade model. The installers had gone the extra mile, brushing the concrete slab foundation that doubled as floor, the pattern of scale-like marks clearly visible.

It was mild inside, of course, so T-shirt, jeans, and slip-on shoes were just fine; a newish fuzzy sweater was rolled up in the cargo basket under the walker’s seat. During a recent visit, Rarity and Fluttershy had given her the latter garment as an early holiday present. It was much more stylish than anything Wallflower had before, hand-knitted by the fashionista from yarns bought by the rest of the Rainbooms. Even now thinking of the gift brought a smile to Wallflower’s face before it faded away as she concentrated on what she was doing.

Along one side of the building, sections of bleacher-like risers sat in a row, interrupted by gaps for access from the sides. Wallflower could squeeze the rollater into those gaps, but she shouldn’t need to for this routine visit, watering, feeding, and inspecting the vegetation arranged in pots and planters on the riser shelves.

Behind her, the rest of the greenhouse was left open for a row of round patio tables, surrounded by matching chairs and shaded by market parasols. In each of the corners on that side was a glassed-off entryway with two sets of double doors, to keep the cold—or hot—outside air from affecting the inside temperature too much.

A voice came to her from the only other person in the place, sitting at one of those tables. “Everything still okay, Wallflower?”

“Yeah, Mom.” In spite of Wallflower’s best efforts she sounded a little impatient. In a more positive tone she added, “Thanks.” Her mom was just checking in, after all, as a mother and caregiver should. It could feel stifling sometimes, but Mom was trying, and Wallflower had to admit it was an improvement over years of neglect. At least Mom had stopped hovering all the time. Of course, Wallflower graduating from wheelchair to walker as a result of the ongoing PT probably helped as much as the continuing joint sessions with Even Keel and other therapists.

Some advice from one of those sessions crossed her mind. “And, uh, everything still okay there too?”

“It’s pretty complicated, but I think so.” The answer didn’t sound completely certain. “Maybe you can help me with it later.” Was Mom thinking about the same advice? The wry humor sounded real, at least.

Wallflower felt a flash of half-unwilling sympathy. For her it was exhausting, often painful physical therapy; for her mother it was endless tons of homework, picking up some continuing education to improve job skills and general knowledge. She didn’t need to look back to imagine the books and papers spread across the table, Mom poring over them. “Sure. If you really do need some help, we can figure it out together after I finish up here.”

“No rush . . . dear.” The term of affection sounded kind of shy, as if Mom still wasn’t sure whether it was okay.

Wallflower pretended not to notice. She’d learned a lot of lessons over the last several months, not all of them in therapy, and two came to mind now. One was the real meaning of the old cliché silence is golden—not everything needed an answer, and sometimes it was better not to answer. The other was the truth of the old saying slow but steady wins the race; sometimes inching along was the only way to make any progress. Even Keel had told her, when she felt discouraged because things didn’t seem to change much from one day to the next, it could help to look back months rather than days to see how far she’d come.

That also meant looking ahead months instead of days for more change, but as Ms. Harshwhinny had said once, what felt like a lifetime ago, they lived in a less than perfect world. Wallflower let out a sigh, quietly so Mom wouldn’t hear and think her daughter was upset with her, and turned to the next batch of plants waiting for a little attention. She wanted to finish before her next appointment later in the afternoon.

Wallflower was near the end of the row, tending to the plants on the last riser assembly, when a muffled mechanical thump sounded from the far entryway. She stopped working and frowned a little in puzzlement. By now she knew that sound pretty well; the outer pneumatic door just shut behind someone on their way into the greenhouse. She turned in place, steadying herself with a hand on one of the rollator’s goosenecks, to see who in the world had braved the cold to come out to the greenhouse.

When the partly obscured figure stepped through the inner doorway, Wallflower’s eyes and mouth opened wide. After a shocked moment she burst out, “Rose!”

Rose had been gone for months, but only now did Wallflower realize just how much she’d missed the older woman. Tears blurred her vision until she could blink them away and make sure she wasn’t seeing things.

No, Rose really was there, somehow looking taller and straighter than ever. Instead of a pastel business suit, the long, lean body wore a sharp blue uniform. The artificial hand had removed a black beret with some sort of light-blue patch on it, tucking it neatly under the other elbow. A dark-blue jacket shone with bits of bright metal and colored cloth, like a whole garden of flowers, over a white shirt and black necktie. Trim slacks were a lighter blue, and a sunflower-gold stripe ran up the outside of each leg. Below were shiny black shoes.

The biggest difference of all, though, was a broad grin that made the scarred face light up like the sun. Wallflower couldn’t remember seeing Rose smile very much, and even then it usually wasn’t a big or happy smile. Now Rose looked like a flower in full bloom as she started walking—marching—toward Wallflower. “Hey, kiddo! You look great, up and around on your own two feet.”

A blush heated Wallflower’s cheeks, but rather than argue over the flattery she fiddled with the walker, getting it turned around so she could go meet Rose. When she raised her head again, Rose had stopped by the table where Mom sat wearing another of those flower-print dresses and surrounded by books and papers.

“Holly.” Rose’s tone was brisk and courteous, but that was about it.

Mom looked up at Rose, her eyes shifting back and forth as she tried to figure out all the stuff on the uniform. “Uh—”

Rose’s brow went up for a second, then came back down. “Major,” she said helpfully.

“—Major Brass.” Mom’s voice was polite too. “It’s good to see you. Wallflower was worried about you.”

“Mom!” Wallflower protested in embarrassment.

Rose’s grin flashed on again. “That’s fair. I was worried about Wallflower too.”

Mom actually smiled back before looking down at the table and starting to shuffle her papers together. “I guess I should let you two have some time to chat, since you haven’t seen each other in so long.” It didn’t sound quite as cheerful as she probably wanted it to, but that was okay. “I’ll come back before your next appointment, Wallflower.”

Wallflower nodded. “That sounds like a good plan.”

Rose stood by quietly as Mom finished putting everything in the same green backpack Wallflower had used at school. It was cheaper than buying a new one, after all. A minute later she was gone, headed out the same door Rose had come in through. Rose put her beret on the now-empty table surprisingly carefully, as if it were a bouquet or something.

Neither of them said anything as they looked at each other. Wallflower wondered if Rose was feeling the same sudden shyness that made her own tongue feel like it was twice as big as usual. She should say something.

“You, uh, you look pretty good too, Rose,” she managed to blurt out. “Sunset said you were back in the army and you got a promotion, but she couldn’t tell me a lot else. She said she didn’t know everything about it, and what she did know was pretty complicated.”

The smile twisted a little. “That’s putting it mildly. I won’t go into the boring details—and they really are boring, trust me—but there’s a lot of paperwork involved in returning to active duty, especially for someone coming off the permanent disability list. Among other things. It’s all kept me . . . pretty busy, or I’d have been here sooner. I’m glad Sunset was able to get here, though.”

“She also told me about how you two and that Mister Cook guy were stuck in Equestria.” Wallflower made a face. “It sounded really scary.”

The smile disappeared. “Parts of it were, yeah.” Suddenly Rose glanced around. “Hey, look, do you want to sit down?”

Wallflower shook her head. “Standing or sitting isn’t too bad, but getting up or sitting down still hurts a lot.” Which was why Mister Gracilis had suggested the magnifier, so she could get a good look at the plants on the risers without leaning forward or bending over. “I’m fine for now.”

“If you say so.” Rose looked a little doubtful, but didn’t push it. “Anyway, while we’re on the subject, I can’t stay long. All the hoopla is finished now, and I have new orders. I’m being sent back through the portal. They didn’t tell me why, but apparently it’s some weird specialized job they can’t find someone else—anyone else—to fill. I have no idea when I’ll be back, so I wanted to squeeze in this visit before I left.”

“You—you’re leaving again? Already?” The words flew from Wallflower’s mouth before she could stop them. “But—”

“I know, honey. I’ll miss you too.” The smile was a little sad this time. “That’s part of the price for a military career. Besides, you’ve got a lot on your plate as well.” The artificial hand waved up and down as if trying to measure all the changes in Wallflower’s life. “You really do look a lot better, by the way. I wasn’t just blowing smoke.”

Wallflower’s phone buzzed. “Uh, sorry. Hang on a sec.” She pulled it out of the cargo bag strapped to the side of the rollator and glanced at the screen, then tapped out an answer as quickly as she could before putting it back and looking up again. “That was Twilight. She just wanted to see how things were going. I told her you were visiting.”

Rose rubbed her forehead with her good hand. Some things hadn’t changed. “I didn’t mean to interrupt anything—”

“It’s okay,” Wallflower said hastily. “While you and Sunset were gone, they took turns coming to visit, and when I got permission to use my phone again they started sending messages once in a while to chat and stuff. At least one of them does it every day, so it’s no big deal. I’ll send another message later.”

“All right.” Rose took a breath and went on. “Ah, anyway, you seem to be doing pretty well with the physical therapy, but how’s the rest of it going?”

That took some thinking, more to find the words than anything else, but wasn’t that what “the rest of it” was supposed to be? “It’s tough. Even Keel said it would be. I mean, they used fancier words, but that’s what they meant. I guess they have to be encouraging even when things aren’t good.”

“Probably.” The word sounded muffled, the same hand that rubbed Rose’s forehead now rubbing her lips. She lowered the hand and cleared her throat. “Go on.”

“Some days are better’n others. I still have trouble with bad thoughts and feelings, but I’m getting better at figuring out when they’re happening and trying to push ’em back. It doesn’t always work, but now I know I can do it.” She waved both arms vigorously, then grabbed the walker handles again before she could lose her balance. “That helped a lot, ’cause now I don’t feel so, so helpless all the time.”

“Two steps forward, one step back?” Rose suggested. “Hey, it sounds like you’re making progress, anyway. That’s what matters.”

“I just wish it wasn’t so slow.” Wallflower sighed, then brightened. “Mom and I are doing a little better now. That feels kinda weird, but in a good way.” She bit her lip. “I did some yelling at first. Well, a lot of yelling. Mom didn’t like it, and she cried, but she stayed.”

Rose looked off into the distance. She sounded far away when she said, “After I first talked to her and . . . your father, I was so angry at them. I thought it was a shame you used the Stone on them instead of—well, never mind. Shooting their memories full of holes was horrible, even if you needed to do it, but—now I wonder if it was a blessing in disguise.” She came back and looked Wallflower in the eye. “Do you think your mom would be making such an effort now if she still had all those memories?”

It felt as if Wallflower’s brain was being turned upside-down, the same way it did when Even Keel or one of the other therapists said something that changed everything. “Uh—wow. N-no, I don’t think so.” She blinked at Rose. “Nobody else knows about the Stone or the magic, so I don’t think anybody else coulda told me that.”

That reminded her. “Oh! A while ago, I guess Even Keel finally got kind of annoyed I wouldn’t talk about that and started going on about how much easier it would be to help me if I’d be more honest.” She looked down and poked at some of the tools in the caddy. “I don’t think they believed me at first when I said it was a real secret, y’know, like in a spy movie or something, and I couldn’t talk about it.”

“I’ll bet.” Rose looked and sounded like she was trying not to laugh. “So what happened?”

“Later, they said they were sorry for doubting me, and they were proud of me for ‘setting boundaries’.” She shrugged, then winced as a stab of pain. “They must’ve asked around and found out it really was a secret.”

“Yeah, probably.” Rose was back to forehead-rubbing again, and now it was Wallflower who was trying not to laugh. “After all, why would a high-school student know anything about classified material?” The hand dropped. “Did Keel leave it alone after that?”

Wallflower nodded. “They made me promise not to use the secret as an excuse for not talking about something, but yeah. Sometimes I have to think about whether something is okay to talk about, but most of the time it actually isn’t that hard to decide. I mean, magic rock, right? Well, okay, and big rips opening up another world, and a girl band trying to take over the world, and—”

Now Rose did laugh. More of a snort, really. “Most classified compartments—ah, secrets—are like that.” After a pause she added in a completely serious tone, “I’m proud of you too. It’s not easy at the best of times to maintain the kind of honor and discretion required to hold something like that in confidence. Balancing it against dealing with everything you’re going through is a real challenge, and you’re doing a great job.”

That sounded like Rose was talking to one of her soldiers, or someone her own age. Wallflower couldn’t stand as straight as Rose because it still hurt a little too much, but she smiled and felt better than she expected to. Even so, she had to try a couple of times before she could work up the courage to speak again, and when she did her voice started out a little squeaky. “You did too—you and Sunset both. Even when I didn’t want to do anything, or I hurt too much, or something wasn’t working out right, you two kept trying to push me to keep going.”

Another memory popped up, and she kept talking in a rush. “Like, one time after I had a bad day in PT, I remember Sunset telling me over and over I could do it, and listed all the people who were helping me do it. I didn’t wanna listen, but then she mentioned you. For some reason I thought about all your scars and your eyepatch and your arm, and how you never made a big deal about ’em. You just did what you hadda do, no matter how hard it was, and I bet sometimes it hurt, too.”

She stopped to think for a second, then went on more slowly. “You got hurt so bad you couldn’t be in the army any more, but it didn’t stop you. Even though you were, uh, disabled, you got another job helping people. And I figured, if you could do that—”

Rose’s smile turned into a huge grin as she listened. “—You can do anything, Wallflower. Anything you want. I know you can.”

Wallflower started blinking because the tears were back. She pushed the walker awkwardly out of the way and staggered forward a couple of steps, hardly able to see, until she was close enough to give Rose the biggest hug she could—the first time either of them had touched the other.

Caught by surprise, it took Rose a second to hug her back, unscarred brass cheek resting on the top of Wallflower’s green-haired head. Rose said nothing, just rocked Wallflower a little, but it sounded like maybe she swallowed. Was she crying too?

“Thank you, Rose.” It was a raspy whisper, but Wallflower got the words out. “Thank you for everything. Thank you for saving my life.”