Tangled Roots

by Bad_Seed_72

First published

The CMC know that Babs Seed was bullied in Manehatten, but how bad could things really have been?

The Cutie Mark Crusaders know that Babs Seed was bullied back in Manehatten, but how bad could things really have been? And how does Babs feel about returning to the city and the ponies who have hurt her the most?

(Note: to avoid confusion, the first few chapters of this story deal with past events that occurred before "One Bad Apple". I will add an Author's Note to the chapter that begins the "present" state of events and continues forward from there.)

Followed by Sweet Apple Anthology and Severed Roots.

Now with a TVTropes page! Thanks to vren55 for putting it up!

Rated Teen for some violence, language, and darker elements.

Diamonds And Rust

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Diamonds and Rust

A city’s true nature is known only at night.

When the streetlamps and fireflies come out to play, all facades of normalcy drop and shatter. During the day, anypony can put on a smiling face, bustling through the busy streets to their places of work and learning, but at night, there is no more hiding.

Manehatten in the daytime was a glorious city to behold, a pulse in the heart of Equestria itself. Just as Canterlot was the refuge of wealthy and influential unicorns, so was Manehatten a haven for Earth ponies whom were similarly blessed. Beautifully constructed shops lined its streets, offering a myriad of wares, from the bare essentials to the most grand of luxuries. Merchants with carts made from expertly-forged steel and painted with wondrous colors offered snacks, meals, drinks, and event tickets to all passing by. The market road was bustling from dawn to dusk, bits being gleefully exchanged and counted all the while.

Beyond the marketplace, in the hills, laid estates of all sizes competing with each other in a true pissing contest of wealth and prestige. Manicured lawns, enormous gardens, and trains of hired help displayed themselves proudly at the gates of their masters, each home in an unspoken race against all others. The hills were a testament to capitalism’s success, to inheritance and affluence, a beacon to all those below who were not yet worthy of living on Manehatten Hill.

Such was Manehatten in the daytime.

At night, the truth crawled and seeped through the streets like demons peeking out from under the rug of repression. As soon as the streetlamps began to be lit by the sore hooves of the city’s light-tenders, the merchants, vendors, and shopkeepers quietly packed their wares and bolted their doors for the evening. Ponies made their journeys home, traveling in groups of no less than two, eyes watchful and cautious for the dangers of the dark.

By the time the streets were empty of the daytime lies, the nighttime truth began to stir, stretch, and smile.

Now came the undercurrent of Manehatten, the river under the deep facade flowing and gushing through the Earth to rain upon the night.

Gangs of Earth ponies, composed of both fillies and colts of all ages and sizes, roamed the streets at night. Most of them were mere juvenile delinquents, engaging in petty theft and vandalism or gathering in parks to drink cider or smoke sticky plants that took away their fears. Some of those gang-ponies were much more malicious, and the lesser groups steered far clear of them.

Card Slinger was one of those ponies.

A strong, proud colt, Card Slinger was not even a grown pony. Yet, he led a small group of four other ponies on their night romps through the dark streets of Manehatten. A blood-red colt with a mane black as night, Slinger had years of street fights and petty crime tucked behind his ears. His cutiemark was a pair of cards—“Big Slick,” or an Ace and a King—crossed on his flank. He had been blessed with his cutiemark early in his colthood. Now he was in his later years of school, where a cutiemark was not so much a sight to behold as it was an expected milestone. All of the other fillies and colts at the Manehatten school had their cutiemarks now.

Well, except for one.

Tonight, two of their members were home sick, but that did not stop the gang from their traditional romp of mischief. Card Slinger and his two followers trotted slowly through the cobblestone streets, Luna’s moon rising boldly through the night sky. The two other ponies with him, a filly and a colt, kept a watch on all compass directions as they strode. Gang rivalries were a mere fact of life for the Manehatten toughs, and constant vigilance was required on their outings.

Lucky Toss, an orange colt with a white mane and a cutiemark of a pair of dice, whispered, “Slinga? Slinga… what’s on the agenda fo’ ta-night?”

“Youze remember the new bar dat opened at the end o’ town?” Slinger hissed back, voice low, ears pricked for hoofbeats in the dark.

A beautiful young mare with a pink coat and a white mane, a cutiemark of a pointed flail adorning her flank, gasped and replied, “Oh! Youze mean ‘The Waterin' Hole,’ right, Slinga?”

Chuckling, Slinger said, “Youze got it, Fencer. I figure we can get ourselves summat dat there cider from the dock. I’m feelin’ a hot buzz ta-night.”

“As long as we don’t run inta some hot fuzz, I’m down,” Lucky said.

“Me too,” Fencer added.

Slinger laughed as they reached their destination, rounding the bar and slipping through an alley to the loading dock area where the vendor carriages were kept. “Youze fools forgettin’ where youze at? Dis is Manehatten, city o' angels an' demons. An' the angels are all tucked in their beds fo’ now.”

The other two couldn’t help but laugh along with him. The eyes of the law in Manehatten were keen and wide for daytime drama—petty thefts, arguments between merchants and customers, even the occasional domestic dispute—but, at night, they were slow and weary, if open at all.

After forming their little group and taking the streets every night for about a year and half, this gang of Manehatten juvenile delinquents had only seen uniformed law-ponies twice. Both times, they had seen the boys in blue from the safety of a bush or dumpster, and watched as the eyes of the law took hold upon a mare of the night and led her to back to their offices.

That was all the proof they required. There was no law in Manehatten at night.

Living After Midnight

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Living After Midnight

Babs Seed tossed and turned in her grand canopy bed. Her sheets were made from the finest cotton and imported from Saddle Arabia. Her blankets were stitched thread-by-thread bt a grand Canterlot designer. Her pillow was stuffed with down feathers from the best pegasus fliers of Cloudsdale. Luxury and comfort surrounded her—yet, she could not find slumber.


In her restlessness, Babs Seed recalled yet another day of teasing and trembling. Today, one of the biggest bullies in her class, a callous colt named Card Slinger, had decided that her head was lacking a necessary hat. “Ta hide dat hideous pink mane o' youze!”

To be fair, Babs thought her mane was more of a go-between of red and pink—surely there was a fancy word for this particular color?—but it did not matter. Card Slinger threw a small trash can over her head as she tried to walk home from school, to the laughter of the four other fillies and colts who surrounded him.

Humiliated, fighting tears, Babs took off as fast as she could, ignoring the literal garbage seeping onto her mane and face.

“Yea, youze run off, worthless blankflank!” another colt, Boone, called out as she ran, her hooves hitting the ground as fast as she could pump them. Their laughter echoed in her mind even as she took the back way home, away from the marketplace and the prying eyes of high-class society. That society, while it did not throw trash cans on her head, was little better than Card Slinger and his gang. It judged with a silent tongue that felt like a razor across her bare flank.

No, Babs Seed had had enough of that for today.

Once she had arrived to her home on Manehatten Hill, where her parents—the wealthy Orange entrepreneurs—had built the most envied mansion of all, she threw off the disgusting trash can outside the front door and burst inside, fighting back tears.

To anypony else, the Orange Family home would be a sanctuary and paradise. Two stories of high-quality lumber, brick, carpet, and steel constructed in harmony created a beautiful dwelling adorned with imported art and fragrant houseplants. Five hired helping hooves—a butler, a maid, a cook, and two servants—took proper and loving care of all nine rooms in the house each and every day.

The hired help lived in a small building off the main property, a miniscule shack that barely rivaled the size of Babs's classroom at school. This building had no bathroom or kitchen of its own, so the employees were welcome in the Orange’s home for those needs. However, once night fell, the division between master and servant became apparent, as those five ponies would retire to their miserly shack and Master Orange, Madame Orange, and their two fillies would retire in luxury in their mansion.

However, to Babs, all of this space, these rooms—this work of master carpenters, plumbers, masons, and architects—was nothing more than a hollow shell where love should have been.

Predictably, as Babs shook the filth from her long mane and flowing tail and slowly entered through the front door, she heard no sound coming from inside. If her parents were home, they would be at the dinner table by now, laughing and talking about stocks, bonds, and other things that had to do with money.

It’s all 'bout money, Babs thought. An'… cutiemarks.

“Miss Babs!” A gray Earth pony stallion trotted up to the filly as she shut the door behind her. He wore a suit and tie—the dapper cloth barely covering his cutiemark, which was a serving dish and bell—as well as a tired look on his long face. “I was beginning to get worried, my dear. Hasn’t school been out for about an hour already? It does not usually take this long…”

“Oh, yeah… dat,” Babs said, her long tail instinctively flipping itself and covering her flank at thoughts of the bullying. “I was... um… talkin’ ta the teacha. 'Bout the test tomorra.”

The stallion nodded thoughtfully. “Very good, Madame. It is always good to be prepared. Is there anything I can get for you, Miss Babs? A snack, perhaps? The cook will be preparing dinner in about two hours also.”

“Oh, well, um… dat's alright, Greyhoof.” Babs smiled weakly at her butler. He was always so polite—sometimes too polite. Always complimentary, always willing to fetch Babs anything she would like. And yet, he never asked her the deep questions, the questions that Babs ached for somepony to ask of her.

Greyhoof nodded. “Well, Miss Babs Seed, if there is anything you require, please do not hesitate to call or ring for me.” The stallion bowed low, then turned and began to walk away from his young boss.

As he began to head into the library—to do some straightening up, most likely—Babs Seed called out to him, “Wait! Greyhoof!”

Turning, the tired eyes meeting hers, Greyhoof smiled and said, “Yes, Miss Babs?”

“Where are ma parents?”

Greyhoof frowned. “They did not tell you, Miss Babs?”

She felt her tail sliding off her blank flank and resting between her legs. “Tell me… what?” Babs asked quietly. Did dey… do it again?

The butler's countenance fell. His own heart ached at times for Madame Babs Seed, a filly who seemed to be poor and deprived in ways that scratched at his conscience.

“Madame Babs… your parents are at an important business conference. They will not be returning until this weekend.”

Yup, dey did it again.

“Oh,” Babs said, her gaze falling to the floor. “I see. Thank youze, Greyhoof.” Without looking up to see his reaction, she turned and began climbing the stairs to her room, trotting in a haze.

Dey abandoned me again.


After reaching the top of the stairs, Babs Seed knocked on her sister’s door, offering a silent prayer to Celestia that she was still home. Citrus Blossom was about six years older than Babs, a full-grown pony and a beautiful mare. The little seed adored the blossom, comforted by her presence when she was there, missing her dearly when she was not. Citrus usually seemed to find a way to make Babs feel better, even when Babs was lying to her (or at least withholding the truth).

Knock, knock.

“Citrus? Are youze there?”

Knock, knock.

Babs Seed placed her ear against the door, the warm oak wood, listening for signs of her sister.

There was nothing. No noise at all.

Babs tried the knob. It was locked.

Of course.

Sighing, Babs turned and entered her bedroom, greeted by a burst of happy colors. The walls and ceiling were painted shades of yellow, orange, and red. Like the sunset. Like she had wanted.

A bookshelf held her favorite books in one corner. A toybox held her favorite playthings in the other. In the middle was her glorious, luxurious, comfortable bed.

Directly below her room was the kitchen. When the cook, Allspice, was brewing something tasty for supper, the smell would waft through the thickness of her floor and tease her nostrils with its scent.

Two windows on either side of the bed offered amazing views of Manehatten. One to the east would expose her to Celestia’s welcoming rays at the dawn of every new day. She liked feeling the sun on her face as it rose.

The other window to the west allowed her to watch with wonder as the sun would disappear into a place unknown to everypony but Celestia and be replaced with the steady rising of Luna’s illuminating lantern. She liked counting the stars, naming them, and looking at the moon.

In both windows, she could see the streets and shops of Manehatten, observe them all, watch them bustle and fade with the hands of the clock.

As she sat down on the bed, Babs Seed thought, as she usually thought each time she entered this room, that she was one of the luckiest fillies in Manehatten, if not Equestria itself.

“Why…” She whispered to nopony in particular, “Why am I so unhappy, then?”

Babs Seed laid down and cried.


Greyhoof knocked sometime during the evening, announcing that dinner was hot on the kitchen table downstairs. Babs respectfully declined with silence, sniffing her tears and quieting her sobs until she heard the slow trotting of the butler’s hooves away from her door. At some point, she fell asleep, only to wake up a seeming minute later, when the moonbeams were casting light into her bedroom and the demons of Manehatten began to play and tumble in the streets.

She rose from her bed and looked out her west window. The stars were twinkling brightly, the moon a gentle parish lantern against the darkness of the streets below. Babs Seed always thought that the streets looked far more beautiful at night.

No mo’ money, no mo’ chaos, nopony fightin' anotha over a bargain o' summat. Jus' peace. Black as night. Like a blanket. A blanket o' stars.

Babs was not the innocent filly her servants (and perhaps her parents, but she didn’t know for sure) believed her to be. Although she was on the second story, Babs was a nimble pony, quicker and stronger than many others her age. She could easily trot across the shingles of the strong roof and leap down to the bushes or garden below without harming herself. She could slip past the servant’s quarters without waking them, quiet as a mouse.

She had done this several times before. Lost in thoughts of bullying and aching for her parents—their divided attention, as it always was, was better than them not being home at all—Babs Seed had wandered the streets of Manehatten a hoof-full of times before, looking upon the darkened homes, shops, and streets in wonder. In the night, she felt free, happy.

In the night, the emptiness matched her heart, and made it feel less lonely.

Tonight, Babs Seed could not sleep, and did not want to think. She wanted emptiness. She wanted escape, however brief, from this cruel joke of a day.

With strong forehooves, a window to the second floor was opened. With a jump and a small WOOSH! of air, the window was closed, Earth pony foal on the roof.

Carefully, she trotted across the shingles, grateful that her parents had chosen to build a mansion with a flat-top roof rather than a traditional, arched one. She remembered that her father had waxed haughty about it one evening, explaining that it was “innovative” and “unique,” sure to start a trend among architect ponies everywhere. This was one of the earliest conversations Babs could remember—she must have been a very, very little filly then, because, as long as she remembered, many of the homes on the Hill shared this sort of roof. Her father must have been as influential as he bragged.

Hopping down into the bushes, Babs Seed landed on all four hooves, grateful that she had not chosen a rose or blackberry bush this time. Thorns and burs were a pain to clean out, and often left small scratches that were hard to explain. Luckily, other than Greyhoof, most of the hired help did not pay too much attention to the Oranges’ youngest daughter, and hence asked no explanation of the scratches. If Greyhoof asked, Babs Seed would just tell him she had played with a puppy she found on the street… or something like that.

I can be a good liar.

The grass rustled in the wind as she began her trek out of the bush, pausing every couple steps to shoot a glance at the servants' quarters. From the shack came sounds of ponies snoring, exhausted from a long day of flank-kissing and domestic work. Babs detected no movement in the squalid building. She trotted on, pausing and checking, pausing and checking, until she was at the edge of the property line. Once her hooves met the road, she burst into a gallop.

Babs Seed wanted to scream, but decided to scream only within the confines of her mind. I’m free! Free! Woohoo! She laughed as she ran, chasing the road down the grand hill, down the street, finding the moon and then pursuing it, too. The filly ran and ran, sweat pouring down her coat, down her face, through her mane. She ran harder. Her heart raced like a foal in her chest and her hooves began to burn. She didn’t care.

Babs Seed thought about the bullies, about Card Slinger and the other filthy foals he ran with. Celestia, how she hated them. It seemed like for the past year and half, ever since that ugly pair of cards had appeared on his rear, Card Slinger had tormented Babs. First, it was just him, and it was just every now and then. Then, his four followers slowly began to join him in their maturity, and the teasing increased, so much that Babs contemplated running away, or at least dropping out of school.

But I can’t do dat… Ma an' Da’ would never give thought ta summat like dat.

Babs had not observed it for herself in a while time, but she knew from the servant’s whispers that her father still drank. She wasn’t sure about her mother. From these whisperings, Babs Seed deduced that her father drank when things were rough—when business deals went bad, or profits from orange sales were down, or when he and her mother argued. Following that pattern of behavior, Babs Seed knew that cider—any type of alcohol, probably—must be a means of escape, a key to disassociating oneself with the harshness of the cruel world.

Instead of stealing her father’s cider, Babs chose to run the streets of Manehatten at night, or dream. In her dreams, she ran too. Running, physically and mentally, emptied her of her thoughts and made the next day possible to bear.

Reaching an alleyway, oxygen running out, Babs Seed ground her hooves to a halt, breathing deeply and rapidly. A new record! she thought with glee. She had ran all the way from home, down the hills, down the street, and to the corner of downtown without stopping. She smiled as she caught her breath, proud of her strength.

In the dark, she looked up, barely making out the letters on the sign above her. “The Watering Hole”? Dat’s a new one. It must be a bar…

Trotting now, Babs Seed rounded the corner, eager to explore this new corner of downtown. Previously, this had just been a vacant lot, and she had raced her shadow back and forth across it here for some time. Now that it was a business, Babs wanted to see what she could find, what she could learn about the ponies that frequented this place.

Turning the corner, Babs gasped. Next to a vendor's carriage lay three of her bullies, bottles of hard cider in their hooves as they laid prone with wide eyes.


She darted her head back, pulling into the dark, leaning into the alleyway. Now she could not see Card Slinger, Lucky Toss, and Fencer. Maybe they couldn’t see her, either.

Babs Seed’s breath caught in her throat. She pricked her ears as high as they could go, realizing that the three of her tormentors were whispering amongst themselves. She softened her breathing to listen.

Hic! Slinga… man… youze the damn stallion.” Lucky Toss gurgled, his voice slow and thick. "Dis cider… I mean… dis cider is the best thing I’ve eva tasted in ma life…”

Fencer giggled. “So much betta when it’s FRESH from the cart… not some leftover swill in the dumpster…”

Card Slinger roared with a hearty laugh. “Ha, now who’s the baddest colt in all o' Manehatten? Dis colt!” Babs Seed heard the three of them knock hooves and gulp down another swig of hard cider.

Lucky Toss burped. “Damn. Horseapples, I’m drunk.” Babs Seed heard the intoxicated colt attempt to stand, then knock himself back into the vendor’s cart.

“Damn it, Toss!” Fencer hissed. “Youze gonna get us caught back heeya!”

“Aww, Fenca, youze is such a pussy sometimes."

“You can’t call me dat! I’m a filly!” The night was pierced with the sound of a hoof striking across a pony’s face.

“HEY!” Babs retreated further into the darkness, hearing the clang of bottles falling over and hooves hitting the cobbled street. “Youze wanna start somethin’ wit me, Fenca, huh? Youze wanna act like a colt? Then fight like one!”

Babs began to shake. Things were getting bad, and she knew she should run, or at the very least, slowly back out of the alley. Yet, her hooves were glued to the pavement, held by an adhesive stronger than fear. She didn’t really care what went on between the three bullies—they could go to Tartarus for all she cared—but she could not bring herself to move.

I should… I should leave…

She moved a forehoof up, and then moved it back down, but did not move out of position, even as she heard the three foals begin to argue, hard cider slurring their words and injecting rage and weight into their voices.

Slinger, Toss, and Fencer began to tussle, hooves barely missing faces, bottles strewn everywhere. All of this activity began to toss up a thick cloud of dust. The wind began to pick it up and play with it.

Babs shut her eyes as the dust in the wind blew towards her, finding home in her long mane and tail… and her nostrils.


The three juvenile delinquents froze. Slinger grabbed a broken bottle from the ground and took a bold step towards the darkness around the corner. “What was dat? Who’s there?!”

Oh Celestia, no, please…

Before she could turn tail and run, Babs Seed felt a strong hoof yank at her mane, pulling her out of the dark alley and into the moonlight behind the loading dock of The Watering Hole. There, she found herself snout-to-snout with Card Slinger, Fencer and Lucky Toss staring at her in shock against the vendor’s cart.

“Well, well, well… look at what we have heeya.”

Bobtails And Bartenders

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Bobtails And Bartenders

Digging her hooves into the cobblestones, Babs Seed struggled against the pull of Card Slinger’s rough hoof. A hoof-full of her long, streaming mane was held captive by the drunk colt, a look of unconstrained glee upon his face. She could see the moonlight shine off his devilish grin from the corner of her eye.

Celestia, please, no, please…

Card Slinger cruelly laughed as the smaller foal whimpered in his grasp, her hooves falling short of the strength she needed to break away from him. “I don’t think so, blankflank. Even if youze did get 'way, I got me main colt Toss heeya, an' Fenca, too.”

Fencer giggled and approached Slinger’s quarry, swaying as she did so. “So, what’s a bad seed like youze doin’ out in Luna’s night? I didn’t think dey let crybabies like youze outta youze crib!”

Babs Seed swallowed the tears that were threatening to flood her eyes. Not heeya, I can’t let ‘em see what dey do ta me. It’ll just make it worse. “I… I snuck out! But I’m leavin’ now, so jus' let me go, will youze?!” She contemplated bucking Card Slinger with one of her powerful hindhooves. She restrained herself only once she saw the broken cider bottle, its ends sharp as knives, held tightly in Slinger’s other forehoof.

“Heh, well, youze tryin’ ta be a gangsta-pone, are youze, bad seed?” Lucky Toss mocked, his slurred words cutting at Babs with a razor edge. “Youze think youze can be one o' us, eh?”

She shook her head rapidly. “No, sir! No!”

Snickering, her captor yanked her mane harder, eliciting a sharp cry of pain. “Good! We ain’t got no room fo' blankflanks like youze!”

Babs flailed her hooves wildly, wondering if she should scream for help. Would it make things worse? O' would it scare 'em off?

“So… Slinga…” Fencer asked, circling the terrified filly with hungry eyes, “What should we do wit' dis one?”

“Please…” Babs said, “Please, let me go… I didn’t do nothin’ ta youze!”

“An' let’s keep it dat way, lil’ seed,” hissed the gang-leader. Babs Seed felt his hot breath on her ear. She could smell the awful stench of fermented cider on his poisonous tongue. “Youze don’t put up a fight, an' we’ll let youze off easy.”

Let me off EASY?!

“Heh, youze know what I think… Slinga?” slurred Fencer, grinning wildly with excitement. “I think I like dis mane o’ hers…” Fencer grabbed a hoof-full of red-and-pink mane. “I think I want some o' it fo' maself.”

“W-W-What?!” Babs shrieked.

Fencer lowered her gaze, something dark and primitive crawling from within the crevices of her heart and into her eyes. “Cut it, Slinga.”

“Huh? Whaaat?” Toss stumbled and swayed, not sure if what he heard was the product of reality or yeast. “What didja say there, Fenca?”

“Cut her mane.”

Sobering up in a matter of seconds, as far as her voice was concerned, Fencer boldly stepped in front of Babs Seed and grasped her by the chin. “A blankflank like youze doesn’t deserve such a beautiful mane. I want it. I’ll use some o' it ta decorate ma swords.”

“Youze… youze can’t do dat!” Tears were becoming impossible to resist now. Babs Seed was utilizing all of her mental escape techniques as best as she could, though she wanted to cry until her eyes bled. Her mane were one of the few parts of herself she liked. And now, this awful foal wanted to steal that away from her, too, just like everything else.

“Like hay we can’t." Card Slinger sneered, yanking on Babs’ mane as she yelped. Slinger lifted her up to look him in the eyes. “Would youze rather we take summat else from youze?”

What else do I have dat youze would want?! The answer hit Babs cold in the stomach once she realized it. She felt like she was going to vomit. Her tail shivered and swept between her legs. A sharp pain rang out as she felt Fencer yank and grasp her tail, stretching it out.

“Cut her tail too, Slinga. I want half o' dis. Make fine tassels, it will.”

Lucky Toss began to chortle, snorting as he did so. “Fenca, youze a crazy mothabucka. Just let the blankflank go. Iffa she ain’t no snitch, we oughta. Youze is soundin' crazy.”

Fencer smacked Lucky Toss with her forehoof again, this time with much more force. Blood trickled from his jaw, a look of shock upon his face. Lucky Toss whimpered, but said nothing more as he leaned against the alleyway.

Card Slinger handed Fencer the broken cider bottle. “Here’s youze knife, m’lady." He snorted and dropped Babs to the ground. She landed with a THUD! as Slinger growled at her. “Youze lay nice an' pretty while the lady gives youze a manecut, an' we’ll let youze go.”

Babs Seed nodded rapidly, trying to run within her mind, far away from this dark place.

Luna’s moon smiled down at them, Card Slinger and Lucky Toss watching as Fencer took the broken cider bottle to Babs Seed’s tail. Babs Seed lay silent, willing herself not to cry. She could hear Fencer curse as she sawed the glass through the thick red and pink fur, but she felt no pain at all. She thanked Celestia for that, at least.

“Dammit, dis bottle sucks.” Fencer groaned, hiccuping. “Either o' youze have knives?” Both Toss and Slinger shook their heads. She laughed and gazed down at her quarry. “Ironic, but do youze have one, stupid blankflank?”

“No, ma’am,” Babs whispered quietly.

“Aw, well, dis’ll have ta do.” With a final slice, Fencer dropped the cut portion of Babs’s tail to the ground. Babs turned to try and see what remained, but Fencer was already grasping her mane, forcing her to face forward.

Babs Seed watched in dreamlike horror as Fencer began to saw through about half of her mane, cutting drunkenly through the thick strands of hair with the cider bottle. The silent foal made a mental note to never drink hard cider.

It brings the monsters out from behind their masks.

Suddenly, Babs heard both Toss and Slinger gasp and rise from their relaxed pose against the alleyway wall.


“RUN!” Slinger yelled. He turned tail and bolted from the scene, a drunk Lucky Toss staggering after him as fast as his intoxicated hooves could carry him. In horror, Fencer dropped the hard cider bottle, barely missing the face of her victim, and let the filly's mane drop to the ground.

“Consider youzeself lucky, bad seed." She hissed and then galloped away, the combined hoofbeats of her three bullies pounding in Babs’ ears, fading away gradually into the wind with the night.

A beige Earth pony stallion wearing an apron and a bowtie rounded the corner, a look of rage shining upon his muzzle. First, he saw three sets of hoofprints leading away from a crumbled mass on the ground. Next, he saw a large pile of empty cider bottles at the far end of the loading dock. And, finally, his eyes met the shivering filly beneath him, a pile of red and pink hair near her tail, a broken cider bottle by her face, and her mane half-cut by, he presumed, the broken bottle.

“Are youze okay, kid?” the stallion asked gently, leaning down to meet the gaze of the frightened foal below him.

“Yeah... I... I think so." Babs gasped as she began to rise on all four of her own hooves. She swished her tail so she could look at it. It had been roughly cut in a bobtail manner, but it was still long enough to cover her blank flank when she twisted it towards herself. She could not see the state of her mane, but she could feel that it had not been fully cut, her tormentors having been scared off at the last second by the angel standing in front of her.

Oh, Celestia, thank youze fo' listenin’ ta me.

“Thank youze,” she said, feeling her heartbeat begin to slow as the danger and fear had passed. “Youze saved me… ma mane, at least.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t have been heeya soona …sorry 'bout youze tail, kid.”

“Oh, it’s okay..." Babs Seed swished her tail back to her flank, happy to see that it still could serve its purpose. “It coulda been worse. But… ma mane…”

“Yeah, youze gonna have ta have a proper haircut, now… no savin’ dat, kiddo. I’m sorry.” The stallion sadly shook his head. “Say,” he began, looking over the scene of empty cider bottles and hoofprints, “do youze happen ta know the names o' dem awful ponies? Looks like dey stolen some o' ma cider, too."

Babs immediately shook her muzzle. “No, sir. No.” Celestia knows what dey’ll do ta me iffa dey know I snitched on dem.

Her angel frowned. “Ah, dat’s too bad. Hey, kid, I can give youze a manecut now, iffa youze like. I know it’s late—an' youze shouldn’t have been out heeya, anyway!—but, iffa youze want, I’m also trained as a barber along wit' a bartender.” Giving her the best smile he could muster in such a situation, the stallion's teeth shined like stars in the darkness.

In spite of everything, Babs Seed could not help but grin. “Sure. Dat would be great, mista.”

Under the guidance of the watchful moon, she followed the stallion into The Watering Hole, thanking every lucky star she had ever wished upon for saving her.


The Watering Hole could be best described, in Manehatten terms, as “working-class". The walls were adorned with paintings and photographs of rivers, lakes, sunsets, mountains, and meadows: scenes of country life. Pitchforks, axes, saws, and hammers painted various metallic shades—gold, silver, bronze—filled the space in between the paintings on the wall. The bar was stocked to the brim with all colors of liquors and labels, most of which Babs had never seen before.

A few dim lights buzzed near the rafters. The air smelled sweet, like sugar and smoke tangoing together. Babs recalled that she had seen Greyhoof smoke a pipe a few times in the garden. Perhaps ponies had done the same in this bar earlier that evening, filling the room with tobacco’s sweet, musky scent.

Her savior caught the foal gazing with wonder at his bar. “Youze like it, huh, kid?”

“Yes sir!” she said, smiling.

“Heh, heh. Well, dis’ll be the only time youze be seein' the inside o' a bar before youze is o' age, so enjoy it, okay?”

Babs nodded. One of her most treasured hobbies was discovering new places in Manehatten, seeing new ponies, eying new treasures she had never laid her eyes upon. There was more joy and wonder in this establishment than all the square feet of Babs’ home. Authenticity proudly announced itself in each tool, each picture, each bottle of liquor that decorated The Watering Hole.

Maybe ma’ cutiemark could be in bartendin’. Dis place is amazin'. In spite of the terror of only minutes before, the adventurous foal was glad she had snuck out tonight, if only to have found such a place as this.

The stallion lead his guest to a strange chair she had never seen before. The chair appeared to be made of rough denim, leaned back in an acute angle next to a sink. “Sweetie, dis heeya’s a barber’s chair. The sink is fo' shavin’. But youze is a filly, so youze'll never need ta worry 'bout dat.” He chuckled heartily. “Youze can call me Turner, by the way. Now, come on up on dis chair an' I’ll fix dat mane fo' youze.”

Nodding eagerly, Babs leapt upon the chair, settling herself comfortably in its grasp. She sighed as she relaxed into the fabric, feeling the joints of her back and neck pop. She didn’t realize she had been so tense. No kiddin’ I was, though.

Turner picked up a pair of scissors in his mouth and laid them on the sink, then searched through a box near the barber’s chair. “Youze eva had youze mane cut befo', kid?”

“Only by one o' the servants.”

Turner raised an eyebrow. “Servants?”

“Yea… um… we have a couple o’ servants at home.” In that moment, Babs Seed realized that her living situation was a rarity at best and a foreign concept at worst to ponies who lived below the haughty gates of the hills.

“Hmmm.” The stallion located a long cape and grasped it in his teeth. Trotting over to his guest, Turner threw the cape over her. “Now, dis is ta catch any hairs dat might fall on youze while I cut. Iffa it’s too tight, jus' lemme know,” he added, tying a string behind the filly’s neck.

“Thanks, Turner.” It was a bit tight, but Babs Seed said nothing. Doesn’t really matta, an' I can’t be too picky, right?

Turner took the scissors between his forehooves and chuckled. “Now relax, sweetheart. Dis looks difficult, but I’ve been doin’ it fo' years. It’ll be jus' fine. Now… what kinda cut do youze want?”

“Hmm… Summat cool!”

“… Cool?”

“Yeah! Summat dat makes me look…” Babs searched for the proper word. Like a flank-kicker? Somepony who don’t take no horseapples? A filly from the gates o' Tartarus herself?

“Tough?” Turner guessed.

“Yes!” Babs clapped her forehooves together excitedly. “Yes, yes, please!”

Turner laughed merrily. “Alright, kid, youze got it.”

Babs Seed closed her eyes as Turner went to work, finishing the crude cut Fencer had attempted, shaping her mane with careful clips of the scissors. Feeling herself relax, she let her mind drift to thoughts of the three bullies. Will dey come back fo’ me? Can I go out at night anymo’? Maybe I should get a knife o’ summat. The filly had never contemplated violence before, but if it meant keeping herself out of the hooves of her tormentors, free to roam the streets where her troubles could not find her, then she would do it in a heartbeat. The kitchen back home was full of knives. Allspice would not miss one from the vast collection in the drawers.

Turner stayed silent, working diligently, beads of sweat forming on his brow. He had never seen this filly before, yet he felt déjà vu tugging at his mind. Perhaps she was the daughter of a stallion or mare he knew? Or… could she be…

“Hey kid,” Turner muttered softly, "how old are youze?”

“… Twelve…” Babs replied breathlessly, lost in thoughts of sharp objects.

The stallion internally sighed with relief. Much too old to be her. Good.

“Ah. Jus' wonderin’.”



Gently removing the cape from his guest’s neck with his teeth, Turner dropped the scissors in the sink and began to run water over the blades. A pile of red and pink tangled mane lay at his hindhooves, but he didn’t mind. He could clean that later.

“Alright, kid, youze ready ta see it?”

“Yes, sir, please!” Babs said.

“Alright, heeya’s youze go,” Turner said, picking up a small mirror and holding it in his pearly whites for her to see.

Babs gasped with delight. It was far better than she had imagined. Turner had taken her long, bushy, frazzled mane, parts of it hanging and half-cut crudely by that awful foal, and shaped it into something that gave Babs a feeling of power and strength. Her mane now was barely past her neck, but it shaped her face perfectly, reminiscent of “punk” manecuts she had seen at a rock concert once. (Her parents and servants, of course, didn’t know she had briefly caught the last set of the show during one of her midnight romps.)

Well, almost perfectly. One long strand of her mane hung in front of her right eye, but it was small enough that she would be able to blow it away.

Seemingly telepathic, Turner laughed. “Youze know, kid, I was gonna cut dat one strand right there, but I figured it gave youze an air o' mystery, no?”

Hey, it kinda does, doesn’t it?

Gratitude overwhelmed her. “Oh, Turner, it’s amazin’! An' yes… youze is right, it makes me look… mysterious,” she added, hissing the last word like a serpent in the desert sand. The eyes, they said, are the windows to the soul, and gave away more emotion than she desired sometimes. Now, she could hide at least half of that with the proper angle.

“Well, I’m glad youze liked it.” Turner chuckled. “Now… do youze want me ta walk youze home, o' do youze think youze'll be alright?”

The stallion looked tired for the first time that night, and a quick glance at a clock on the wall confirmed that it was the darkest part of the night—the Witching Hour. Two A.M., 0200, the time when all kinds of magic (both black and white, good and evil) is strongest.

Yet, though Babs wished she could gather the courage to say, “Yes, sir, please, sir,” she knew that, when it came down to it, her savior would not be by her side for much longer. Even after tonight’s chaos and scares, Card Slinger, Lucky Toss, and Fencer would be waiting for her at school tomorrow morning, and many mornings after that. The streets would still be crawling with their demons, their gangsters and groupies. Turner could not change that.

And, in spite of his kindness, Turner couldn’t make Babs Seed feel safe, or wanted, or loved.

“Um… I think I’ve got it,” she said weakly, feeling her tail brush against her flank, a nervous tic she was grateful she could still satisfy. “I’ll be much mo’ careful, though,” she added, after seeing a drop of disapproval fall into the stallion’s eyes.

“Youze betta… Youze know, kid, I don’t know how long youze been in Manehatten—maybe youze been heeya longer than I have—but lemme tell youze summat ‘bout it. Dis city does not discriminate. Well… not in the way many think. The city is a vengeful beast upon us all, angry at us fo' simply existin'.” Turner trotted away from her, staring at some point in the moon through the window.

“She does not care who we are, who youze are. She will chew youze up, spit youze out, like youze is nothin’. Wit' a smile on her face, too. See… money is what it’s all 'bout. Money… an' names.”

An' cutiemarks.

“An' sure, the rich got it betta… but how much, do dey, really? Dey pay their bills, dey work, dey make mo’ money. Then dey buy more things, so dey got mo' bills. Dey work mo' an' mo'. Dey don’t get ta know their wives, o' husbands o' whatnot—I don’t judge!—or their foals, neitha.”

Even after being held down, threatened, forcibly barbered, and terrified by three of her biggest enemies, Turner’s last sentence hurt Babs Seed the worst. She felt one solitary tear escape, sparkling like a diamond before it fell to the floor.

“But youze know,” Turner continued, looking at the moon with a mournful expression, “dey don’t know how unhappy dey are. Dey jus' keep goin'. And' we all go wit' 'em. It’s economy. It’s the way o’ the world. Dat’s what Manehatten is… a cycle, a wheel o' wants an' needs fueling each other’s fires, never bein' met. An' when ponies have enough… dey either leave, o' dey become like those pricks who attacked youze.”

Facing her now, age and stress showing clearly on his weathered muzzle, Turner said, “Sweetie, whateva youze do, choose the former over the latter, always.”

“I will, sir," she said quietly.

“Good kid.” He smiled. “Now… be safe.”

Without a word, he turned and trotted past Babs to the back of the bar. Babs Seed took that as her clue to leave.

As she barreled through the doors of The Watering Hole, galloping off into the night, Babs offered a final, silent prayer of thanks to Celestia. Faith was not her strong point, but she knew somepony must have been watching out for her. She also remembered what Turner had asked of her, and vowed to keep it.

Wind tossing through her short mane and tail, Babs Seed whispered to nopony in particular, “I will never be like dem. Eva.”

What Siblings Know

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What Siblings Know

They say that the journey from one’s destination back to home always seems like a longer trek than it was in the previous direction. As cliché it as it is, “they” were right in this instance, as "they" have been in many others before.

Babs Seed galloped as fast as her hooves could carry her, fresh manecut and bobtail flowing through the gentle breeze. She stuck towards the main roads and carved her path along the rows of streetlights, no longer caring if anypony saw her. The dangers of creeping through the dark outweighed the benefits, at least for tonight.

The filly pushed her limits, her lungs gasping for air, her limbs aching from rough impact after rough impact on the cobblestone streets. Jus' a little further, she coached herself, pressing on through the high-society hills of Manehatten, seeking and needing refuge in a familiar mansion at the very top.

At long last, Babs reached the gates, halting herself before she slammed into the iron bars. “Horseapples!” she cursed. She had forgotten entirely about the front gates. Greyhoof usually woke up around this time to check the gates and make sure they were secure. Whenever Babs chose to live after midnight, she had always left the gates unlatched, but otherwise closed.

Greyhoof, in his age, did not draw attention when he found that the gates had been unsecured during his check, believing that he had simply neglected to latch them. Although he was a faithful and loyal servant to the Oranges, Greyhoof did not go much beyond the call of duty. He wasn’t paid enough to do things like sweep the property when he found an unsecured door. He wasn't a security guard, for Celestia's sake.

Nevertheless, Greyhoof had beaten her this time, and now the adventurous filly would have to find another way inside. She was too big to slip through the bars, and her hooves were too tired for her to even contemplate scaling the gates, which were the height of two full-grown stallions stacked on top of each other.

Summat like twelve feet. Ugh. Damn ma parents an' their security measures.

Babs Seed wandered around the perimeter of the property, searching for a gap in the fencing or a mole hole she could dig through to slip under the bars. Discouraged, she had rounded nearly the entire circumference of the Orange Family Mansion when she heard a mare’s voice.

“Where could she be…? Oh, I knew that if she kept staying out like this, something bad would happen…”

Citrus Blossom!

Peeking through the bars of the security fence, Babs Seed saw her adult sister—a cream-colored mare with a bright orange mane—standing alone in the garden. Even from this distance, Babs could see that she had been crying, her eyes red and puffy. “I know you do this, sometimes, Babs, but I’m worried… you’re never gone this long,” Citrus whispered.

Wait… why isn’t she wakin’ up Greyhoof an' the others? Why is she out heeya all alone?

“Psst… hey… Citrus…”

Citrus's ears pricked. “Huh? Is somepony there?”

“It’s me, Babs!” The foal made her best effort to poke a hoof out between the bars, waving to her sister.


Cantering happily towards her sister’s hoof, Citrus Blossom cried out, “Oh, you’re alright! You’re alright, lil’ sis!”

“Heh heh, yea… 'ey, could youze open the gate fo' me? I’m locked out.”

“Of course! Meet you there!”

Babs Seed rushed to the other side of the property, just meeting Citrus Blossom as she swung the gate wide open. As soon as she saw her younger sibling, Citrus jumped over to her, bouncing happily. “You’re back! You’re back! You’re… wait… what happened to your mane? And your tail??”

“Ma mane? … Oh, dat.” Babs blew the one strand of red-and-pink mane out of her eye, refusing to meet her sister’s gaze. “Um… er… I decided ta get a manecut, dat’s all. Makes me look tough, youze know? Heh...”

Eying her suspiciously, a look of disapproval on her face, Citrus raised an eyebrow. “Hmph. Well, you should have asked me what I thought first. You look like a colt now.”

Babs Seed blushed. “Oh, um, I didn’t realize dat.”

Citrus ran a hoof through her own long mane and sighed. “Oh, whatever. It doesn’t really matter. I’m just glad you’re back,” she said, pulling her younger sibling into a hug. Babs latched onto Citrus, returning the embrace. “Where did you go, anyhow?” she asked, Babs reluctantly letting her go as she began to trot towards the front door.

Striding alongside her, Babs thought of a quick and easy lie. I’m a good liar. “Um… well… I was jus' meetin' up wit' some friends. We gave each otha… makeovers?” Dammit, dat wasn’t supposed ta be a question!

Citrus snorted. “Pish-posh,” she replied dismissively. “You better seek out more fashion oriented-friends. I don’t think makeovers are their specialty, per se.”

“Heh, right.” Babs followed her sister into the mansion, gently closing the door behind her and bolting it tight. No more monsters would be following her tonight. Back under the rug they went.

“Wait… Citrus…”

“Yes, hon?”

“… Youze not gonna tell Ma’ an' Da’ 'bout dis, are youze? O' Greyhoof?”

Ascending the stairs, Citrus answered, “Nope,” without missing a step.

A few times previous to this night, Citrus had caught her younger counterpart sneaking back in, though it was usually earlier than tonight’s adventure. She pretended not to notice as Babs slipped through the unlatched gate, quietly opened and locked the front door, and trotted up the steps to her room. She never confronted her about it in the morning, or any other time. She really wasn’t sure why.

Citrus Blossom did care about Babs Seed, but didn’t know how to handle the rebellious filly. When she wasn’t sneaking around at night, getting into Celestia-knows-what, Babs was usually hiding up in her room or wandering through the garden. She appeared to have no interest in Manehatten society—fashion or otherwise.

When Citrus sat at the dinner table with Mother and Father Orange, excitedly discussing business, stocks, bonds, profits, parties, fashion, or celebrity gossip, Babs Seed usually sat silent, eating her meal and waiting to be excused. If prompted, she would utter a few sentences about school—what she was learning, what somepony had brought for a class project—but nothing more.

A few times, Citrus had stepped outside of her comfort zone, and confronted Babs Seed. Things did not… go as planned.


The most recent time was about a week ago. After a delicious dinner of mandarin orange salad and orange sorbet, Citrus Blossom followed her sister up to her room. The foal seemed surprised to have her sibling follow her, but said nothing, and even opened the door for her as she entered.

“Why, thank you, Babs. So polite!” Citrus gushed.

“Yup,” Babs said flatly, trotting over to her bed and sitting down on the soft comforter. She gazed out her west window, pleased to see that Celestia was beginning to lower the sun for her equally beautiful sister.

Citrus Blossom joined her on the bed, sitting down next to her on her haunches. “How’s school going?”

“Eh… same ol’, same ol’. We’re learning 'bout geology right now.”


“Rocks,” Babs explained, her eyes still glued to the horizon, watching as the sun slowly fell in the sky towards that line where the world disappeared. “Sedimentary, metamorphic, igneous. All kinds. How ta identify 'em an' such.”

“Oh, that’s… interesting." Citrus nervously ran a hoof through her mane. Science had never been her strong suit. She wasn’t even sure if she had studied geology herself while in school.

“Mmhmm.” Babs did not tear her eyes from the window. A majestic sky of blue began to fade to purple and orange, fire on the horizon, providing a warm landing for Celestia’s burning sun. It would not be too much longer, now, that it would be dark and she would have to pretend to sleep.

“Um… Babs…”

“Yea, Citrus?”

“Is there anything you want to tell me?”

Turning at last from that enchanting window, facing her sister, Babs asked slowly, “Like… what?”

“Well,” began the older filly, stroking her own mane with a more rapid forehoof, “um, you just seem… distant. Sad. Is something wrong?”

Pausing, several different streams of thought ran through the foal's mind. Should I tell her? Will she believe me? Will she help me? O' is dis all ma fault anyway? Not havin’ a cutiemark an' all…

Lost in thought, Babs blushed hot anger at herself, Citrus watching with confusion. “You don’t have to tell me what’s wrong, sweetie, if you don’t want to—"

“Well, fine, then,” Babs snapped. “I guess youze don’t want ta know anyway.”

Confused even more, Citrus Blossom said slowly, “No, hon, I never said that… I just said—“

“Ah, whateva!” Jumping down from the bed onto all four hooves, Babs dismissed her sister with a flick of her long, streaming tail. “Youze wouldn’t understand, anyhow.”

Thinking she may have accidentally revealed a bit of her problem, a cartoonish light switch flicked above Citrus’s mane. “Oh! Is it a colt?”

What the hay?! “What?” Babs exhaled, glancing at her older sibling, seeing a cat-like grin spreading across her muzzle.

“A colt!” Citrus squealed. “A colt you have a crush on? Or maybe he has a crush on youze? Ooh! I know!” She giggled, imagining all sorts of outfits she could dress Babs in to impress her suitor. “We could do… makeovers! That’ll get him to notice youze!”

Lost in her own world, Citrus didn’t notice her sister's eyebrows furrow in anger, or see her muscles tense. Babs Seed trotted slowly towards Citrus, trying to hold back a storm of rage that was brewing within her.

She couldn't hold back this storm.

“Youze think dis a damn joke?!” Babs screamed, fires lighting within her eyes. “Youze think dis has ta do wit' some silly-filly lovey-dovey horseapples?!”

Citrus Blossom gasped. “Babs! Watch your tongue! It is not proper for a filly your age to speak like that!”

Buck what fillies ma age are supposed ta do!” Blood soared through her veins, pumped by a hurt and enraged heart. How dare she so callously ask me what’s goin’ on, as iffa she cares at all, then write me off like I’m some lovestruck filly pinin' afta some ugly colt!

“Youze wanna really know what ma problem is?!” Babs yelled, her sister’s eyes growing wide with fear with each step she took closer to the mare. “Youze really give a damn what my problem is? Huh?!”

“Babs! Settle down!” Citrus raised both her hooves in surrender, scooting herself further back on the bed as the wild seed approached her. Never before had she seen Babs like this, so full of anger and rage and… fire.

“No, YOUZE listen ta me, right now.” Pointing an accusatory hoof at her sister, Babs spat, “Ma problem… is ponies like YOUZE! Youze is so fake, right down ta youze eyelashes, fo' Celestia’s sake!”

Citrus gasped in shock. “But… but… the salespony assured me that nopony would be able to tell they weren’t real!”

Babs’s flaming anger missed a beat as she processed her sister’s words. She actually thinks I care. 'Bout. Her damn eyelashes. Right now.

“Youze… youze… IDIOT!” Leaping upon the bed to make eye contact with Citrus Blossom, Babs snorted with a rage so hot, she was surprised smoke didn't billow from her nostrils. “It’s ponies like youze, youze don’t care 'bout nothin’ important! It’s all gossip an' stocks an' money wit' youze! When was the last time youze really cared 'bout anypony o' anythin' otha than youzeself o' money?!”

Babs Seed was panting at this point, each of her words a forceful expression of pent-up anger, anger at all of the lies and facades their little family told themselves each day through their mere, irrelevant, shallow existence. Sure, they lived in a mansion, with hired help who would wipe their flanks if they wanted to, but when was the last time they had bonded? They had group-hugged? They had even said, “I love you,” to each other? They had had a real conversation? Babs Seed didn’t remember when, if ever.

Citrus Blossom blinked, slowly formulating her words mentally, running them past a very slow (if well-intentioned) word processor. What could she say to calm her sister down?

“Sweetie…” Citrus tried to pull Babs into a hug, only to be shoved away. She didn’t comment on the brush-off, and continued, “I do care about you, hon, I really do. Even if I don’t always show it. I’m… I’m trying to get better, okay? Now… I know you got really mad when I said something about a colt, so….” Her words trailed off into the distance as she chose her next words with extreme care. “If, um, it’s a filly, I don’t judge, hon, that’s okay too, and I can help you with…. that…”

Oh, no, she didn’t.

Blushing furiously, Babs Seed utilized her most hard-wired self-control skills to avoid flat-out punching her sister in the face. Her voice shaking with anger, she hissed, “Dis… is not 'bout… dat… either… how dare youze!”

“What? It’s not a big deal, dear,” Citrus Blossom said nonchalantly. “Lots of ponies are that way. My hairdresser is. He’s this dapper young stallion, oh, how I wish he wasn’t—“

“Get out.”

Citrus blinked. “What?”

“Get. Out.”

As hard as she could, Babs pushed her older sister off the bed, using only her snout and the steam rising from her hooves. Lucky for Citrus, the little filly was not as strong as she wished to be, and Citrus was able to catch herself as she landed.

“Well! I get it, Babs!” Citrus huffed, trotting over to the bedroom door. “If you need me, I’ll be next door. Don’t knock if you want to pull this crap with me again.”


Babs Seed wandered over and deadbolted the lock. “Whateva,” she muttered, speaking to nopony in particular.

That night, Citrus Blossom did not try to make contact with Babs Seed again. A few times, she could’ve sworn that she had heard crying coming from the next room, and pressed her ears to the wall between their rooms. Each time she had done so, however, her efforts were met with only silence. Citrus Blossom was not sure if her sister was just clever, or if she was going insane.

She would’ve placed a bet on both, and another on red, to be safe.


“Okay, thank youze, sis,” Babs said gratefully after her sister assured her that she would not be speaking of her late-night antics to anypony. Citrus Blossom nodded and headed to her bedroom door.

“I’ll be going back to bed, now, but if you need anything, just let me know… alright, lil’ sis?”

With a smile, Babs nodded happily. “Will do, sis. Goodnight.”

Babs Seed waited until she heard the door close behind Citrus Blossom before she entered her own room. Familiar, happy accent walls greeted her, moonbeams shining through her west window and lighting up a spot on the bed. That was her favorite spot, under the light of the moon.

Trotting over to the windowsill, she looked down at the streets once more. They didn’t seem as magical or friendly anymore.

Mean streets.

“By the light o' the moon… youze do your work,” she whispered. “Because youze are afraid o' youze deeds comin' ta light.”

She sighed and climbed into bed. Tomorrow would be a busy day. A geology test, and then Card Slinger, Lucky Toss, and Fencer, of course.

Perhaps things will be betta. Maybe Turner scared ‘em good.

Pulling the covers over her head, finding sleep whispering in her ears, Babs Seed hoped for the best, hoped against hope that she was right.

Stained Class

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Stained Class

A gentle ringing of the butler’s bell at her door woke Babs Seed. She had dreamed of running through the same cobblestone streets, the exact ones she had roamed that night before, only, this time, Turner was running with her.

It was nice ta have somepony care 'bout me like dat, iffa only fo' a night.

“Madame Babs Seed?” Greyhoof said, rapping a hoof on her bedroom door. “It is time to get ready for school. Breakfast is on the table, m’lady.”

“Thanks, Greyhoof,” she called, rolling out of bed reluctantly. Never an early riser, always a night owl, Babs groaned as she stretched. Too early. Why can’t school start at noon o' summat?! Sheesh.

Forcing herself to trot out of the bedroom and into the second-story bathroom to get ready for school, Babs felt her thoughts turn to her dream once more. Now that she could reflect on it, she realized how was strange it was, what that Turner did.

Why didn’t he immediately assume Babs had stolen the cider? Why had he been so nice to her? He hadn’t been responsible for what had happened, and had made no investment, placed no derivatives on Babs Seed’s happiness. She was not his foal, nor his ward.

And, yet, the weathered stallion had not only not called for the law and not accused her of any crime, but stayed up for over an hour repairing her mane and talking to her… talking to her as if she were an equal.

Such kindness was strange in this city of bits and bloodlines.

“Prolly felt sorry fo' me,” Babs growled under her breath, flicking a light on in the bathroom. A few splashes of cold water made reality more tolerable, if not more tangible.

Babs Seed didn’t have anypony she could truly call “friend”. There were a couple foals at school who were nice to her, or at least tolerated her. Truly, other than occasional foals joining in the teasing, Card Slinger and his thuggish followers were her only real antagonists.

Those facts didn’t comfort Babs at all. To her, the bullies weren’t as bad as the void left by everypony else.

Ain’t it too early ta be throwin’ a pity party fo' youzeself, already? Babs scolded her thoughts. Sighing, she finished getting ready for school, brushing her teeth and new manecut. Staring herself down in the mirror, she couldn’t help but agree with Turner’s words once more. She did look tough, and mysterious.

Heading down the stairs, she said, “Hope everypony else thinks so.”


Thankfully, the journey to school was devoid of any theatrics this morning for Babs Seed. Fog had settled over the city while she slept, dissipating with the slow rise of Celestia’s burning ball of fire. The stores were beginning to open, vendors busily firing up their snack carts for yet another day of sales madness.

Reaching the door of the schoolhouse, Babs Seed took a deep breath. She had read once, in one of her mother’s books about something called depression, that deep breathing was a good exercise for centering oneself before a stressful event or experience. Every morning, she did this, and it seemed to keep her cemented to the steps, rather than galloping away from them.

It’ll be a good day ta-day.

The little seed was a late bloomer in more ways than one, usually one of the last foals to slip inside the classroom before the bell accused them of delinquency and tardiness. Today was no exception. Babs trotted to the back of the classroom, grabbing one of the last desks available.

The teacher, a mysterious, stern stallion addressed by the students only as “sir” or “mister”—he had never given them the pleasure of knowing his name—cleared his throat and rose from his desk at the head of the class.

“Good mornin', foals. Please take out youze pencils an' settle down. Today will be the last science final o' the quarter befo' harvest break…”

Harvest break? Shoot, how could I have forgotten ‘bout dat? Two weeks o’ freedom from dis stinkin’ joint!

A smile spread across her cheeks. Just one more day. One more test. Not even eight hours. On test days, school was finished as soon as the students gave up their last shreds of hope and faith on the test papers—as soon as they turned their academic fates into the gleeful hooves of their no-nonsense instructor and his angry red pen. Babs Seed often found herself trotting happily back home, a spring in her step, usually less than an hour after her forehoof first met paper. Today would be no different.

A rough forehoof with an overgrown fetlock poked her from behind. Babs Seed whipped herself around in her seat as the instructor continued to drone on about the ramifications of failing to demonstrate proper knowledge of rock identification.

“What are youze grinnin’ 'bout, blankflank?” Boone, one of Card Slinger’s cronies, said. “Youze think youze got off easy, didja?” he jabbed, mocking her with his cutting tongue.

From her peripherals, Babs came upon a startling discovery. Fencer, Lucky Toss, and even Slinger himself were absent today. The fifth member of Slinger's crude crew, a filly named Switch, was not here either. Many of the foals in her class were known juvenile delinquents and troublemakers. Fights, harassment, and truancy were ridiculously common, and her three attackers were the biggest offenders of all.

However, she could not help but feel an eerie sickness in her stomach at their absence. At least when they were in the instructor’s eyes, on the city’s clock, Babs Seed would be safe from their eyes and hooves.

Where are dey? Are dey gonna ambush me? Did somepony else catch dem last night? Will I be seein' dem again?

One of her classmates was handing out copies of the geology test. Babs took a copy and watched with shock as the instructor yawned and headed out of the back door of the classroom without a word of warning to anypony, seemingly abandoning his salaried position for greener pastures.

Dis crazy bunch musta finally got ta his head.

Excitedly, the schoolfoals began to talk amongst themselves, neglecting their test papers or folding them into paper airplanes. Only the most studious bookworms began scribbling out answers. The rest rejoiced in their newfound anarchy.

“Heh, heh." Boone chortled, nodding in the direction of the empty teacher’s desk up front. “Looks like youze guardian ain’t heeya now. Maybe somepony will give youze another manecut… looks like youze need one.”

“What do youze know 'bout dat?” Babs snapped back.

“Enough. Iffa youze snitched, youze is as screwed as Luna right befo' she became a part o’ the moon,” Boone warned. An impish grin spread across his speckled muzzle. “Iffa I was youze, I wouldn’t be stickin’ in town durin' Harvest Week. An Orange bitch like youzelf might get squeezed.”

“What did youze jus' call me?!” Babs jumped from her seat, raising a hoof to strike Boone. Dat’s goin' too far! “Youze filthy piece ‘o—“

“O’ what?!” Boone was now the one to rise and met her gaze, hoof pointed straight at her. “At least I ain’t no pussified blankflank like youze! Cowerin’ in the streets, not even savin’ ma own flank!” Volume amplified in his vocal cords and he leapt upon his desk, several foals turning to watch the spectacle.

Height could no longer offer any feeling of power to Babs Seed. She was big for her age, possessing height and weight on other fillies, but would never be able to match a colt in size, especially one standing tall on a desk.

Looking down at his prey, Boone said, “But youze ain’t have nothin’ ta save, do youze? Do youze know what a blankflank is? It's worthless, garbage!”

Displaying his cutiemark proudly—a liquor bottle, of all things in the crazy, topsy-turvy world, his was a liquor bottle—he mocked, “See, even I have one. It’s a crappy mark, sure, I’ll give youze dat, but it’s worth mo' than every bone in youze body! Oh, but youze got no bones, do youze? Well, wit' dat manecut, maybe youze is hidin’ one….”

Nearby, a couple of colts busted into laughing fits, catching the innuendo. Babs blushed with a mixture of embarrassment and rage. The teacher’s absence accelerated this vicious brand of teasing and mockery to new levels. Not even twenty minutes into the school day, Babs was ready to leave.

Not befo' I have some fun.

Babs Seed drew her hoof back somewhere between Appleloosa and Manehatten and pushed forward with a year and a half of burning rage, meeting Boone across the cheek where his wretched smile began. Her hoof connected with marvelous accuracy for such an unskilled fighter, and she felt and heard a satisfying WHOMP! as bone struck bone.

Time seemed to slow as she watched Boone stagger backwards, falling off the desk, landing on his rear end on the floor, his eyes incredulous and pained. A filly screamed somewhere behind her. A colt’s hooves met the floor and began rushing towards her. Her heart pumped excitedly, erratically, and in her muscles she felt righteous, hot, sweet, delicious anger.

She cried out in surprise as a strong forehoof snaked around her neck, lifting her up. Boone was lying on the ground, his eyes barely open, with a steady stream of blood dripping down his chin. Her fun had been short-lived. The instructor was back from his venture—he had simply graced the outhouse with his presence for a few minutes—and had seen the whole thing.

“Youze rotten little filly!” he barked in her ear, making her flinch. “Get outta ma classroom!”

As the teacher roughly carried the squirming foal out of the classroom and towards the steps of the schoolhouse, a room full of fillies and colts watching with wide eyes, Babs Seed only had two thoughts in her head, both circling and chasing each other in a sickening carousel of exhilaration and dread.

I finally did it! I finally freakin’ did it!


Oh, Celestia, I’ve really done it now, I've really done it now...


Knock, knock.

Greyhoof looked up from his newspaper, enjoying one of his legally-obligated fifteen-minute breaks on his master’s plush recliner. “Who could that be?” he wondered audibly. Master Orange and Mistress Orange were not expected to return until tomorrow evening. Madame Citrus Blossom was up in her room above the stairs, reading a celebrity gossip rag he had picked up for her from the marketplace. Madame Babs Seed was at school, hopefully performing well on her much-anticipated geology test.

And, of course, all of the hired help possessed keys to the premises, so that ruled out Allspice or the other servants. No, Greyhoof knew this was truly an unexpected arrival seeking shelter at their door.

Hoping it was not salesponies with suitcases full of chocolate bars—again—or traveling preacher ponies denouncing the evils of money-worship and cutiemark-envy—again—Greyhoof rose from his comfortable seat and headed over to the door, grumbling to himself.

Knock, knock.

“I’m coming!”

Greyhoof opened the front door to his master’s majestic mansion, eyes alighting upon his visitor with a gasp.


It had been a typical day, nothing to write the folks back home about. Allspice had prepared a scrumptious breakfast of buckwheat pancakes with orange marmalade. Greyhoof had courteously finished the two that were presented to him, although his stomach growled for a third. Mindful of manners and calories, he had refused anything further, instead offering a stack to Madame Babs Seed before she departed for school. The foal looked despondent, sitting at the table with her head hung low, taking reluctant sips at a glass of orange juice in front of her.

“Here you are, my dear. Buckwheat pancakes with orange marmalade. Your favorite,” he encouraged, smiling. He noticed that she had not been eating well lately. It was such a shame. She was beautiful, but would remain stunted if she continued to neglect her nutrition.

Babs Seed pushed the plate away. “I’m not hungry.”

The butler frowned. “Surely, Madame, you can find it in yourself to take a few bites?”

“No, thank youze.” Babs shook her head. “I oughta be goin’ ta school anyway. I don’t wanna be late.”

“Well, if you insist.” Greyhoof rose and took the plate away, discarding the remains into the trash. “I do wish you good luck today, Madame Babs Seed. I know you studied hard last night.”

Ha. Ha.

“Thanks, Greyhoof.” She offered him a weak smile before grabbing her saddlebags, heading out the door into the early morning mist.

Allspice looked up from the sink of dishes to Greyhoof, worry shining on her muzzle. “She didn’t eat 'gain, did she?”

Greyhoof sighed. “I tried my best.”


“Madame Babs Seed! What happened? Why are you not at school?”

Brushing roughly past him, the foal ignored his questions, making a beeline for the stairs. There was only one pony she could speak to at this moment, and that pony did not parade around in a suit to please ponies who threw her crumbs.

“Madame…?” Greyhoof closed and locked the door, then took a few, cautious steps towards his employer’s foal.

Although he had yet to witness it for himself, the butler had heard the depths of Babs Seed's rage before, merely a week ago towards her sister this time. Citrus Blossom had hidden in her room for hours afterwards. He dared not tread on the same flaming road; he was getting too old to argue or deal with such foolish, uncouth behavior, such lack of class.

“Go away, Greyhoof,” Babs barked, turning to meet his eyes. He could clearly see tears shining in the deep, green pools of her soul. The windows were threatening to break.

“Madame Babs, I—“

“Just… go... AWAY!”


Babs Seed rushed up the remainder of stairs, reached her sister’s door, and began to pound on the oak with such force that she was afraid she might break it.

Come on, sis, come on, please, I need youze now, fo' real, fo' true, please, open… She knocked over and over again, scraping her hooves desperately against the door, to no response.

It’s a cycle. It’s jus' like yesterday. It’s repeatin' itself.

Panicking, Babs knocked harder, reality spinning around her, over and over again. She needed out. Now. Out of what? Everythin'. Anythin'. Nothin'. To where? Ta anywhere. Wherever her hooves could take her. Wherever the wind could lead her. Wherever she didn’t have to deal with the bullies anymore. Wherever she could be with other ponies, other ponies who didn’t wear masks, other ponies who had never known her before.

Babs was losing control, scraping against the door faster and faster, losing the ability to perform a proper knock. Tears were streaming down her face at last, the events of the night before and this morning combining and multiplying in their biting memories.

“Sis… Citrus!... Sis!” she cried, praying for a response, just a murmur, just a whisper.


She spun around. Behind her. Citrus had been in the bathroom across the hallway. She was here now, her eyes wide. She said nothing, extending a forehoof to Babs. The filly leapt upon it, leapt into her grasp. Thoughts were short now. Tears were thick and salty.

Crying into Citrus Blossom’s chest. Feeling hooves tightening around her. Vaguely hearing Citrus whisper words of comfort into her ear, though she could not distinguish them. So many tears. Her sister’s fur became matted and wet. Sobs racked her body, making it hard to breathe.

Babs Seed wheezed and coughed, gasped for breath. Her inhalations were getting shorter, more rapid, trying to compensate for the demand for oxygen within her cells. Her heart was racing so fast it hurt. Blood rushed rampant in her veins, filling her muscles with adrenaline, her whole body on fire.

She wanted to run, to run and run and run until there was no energy left, no caloric reserves to allow her any last words. But she sat there, in the hall, latched to her sister’s hoof like a buoy in an unforgiving, treacherous ocean, as it all crashed down around her.

I’m… I’m breakin'.

Dreamer, Deceiver

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Dreamer, Deceiver

Hyperventilation, or literally “over-breathing," is an example of how any overwhelming amount of something, even something as vital and life-giving as oxygen, can throw anypony’s equilibrium out of whack. Balance in all things is paramount, from study habits to molecular concentrations.

Carbon dioxide decreases in the bloodstream as an overall ratio alongside the increase of oxygen molecules during over-breathing. Continued hyperventilation, if the sufferer is not calmed, can lead to fainting—the world going black, if only for just a seeming second, if only harmlessly.

Clinging to her sister like an infant to its mother, Babs Seed found this medical truth as reality closed in around her, a tight cone and tunnel getting tighter and tighter, darker and darker, until there was no more light.


Citrus caught her sister before she hit the floor, her limbs slack. Her body was like a ragdoll in her hooves.

“Greyhoof! Greyhoof, come here, quick!”


“Do you think she’ll be okay, Greyhoof?”

“Yes, Madame. She is merely resting now.”

“Oh… Celestia… what’s happened now?”

“The teacher stopped by earlier. I think there was a fight.”

“Oh… my sweet, sweet sister. Is this because she’s…?”

“… I’m afraid so.”


Babs was swimming through an icy lake. It was mid-December, and snow was falling all around her, soft and slow. She stuck out her tongue, giggling with pleasure as a flake landed square on it, melting on its surface. It was sweet, yet satisfying; not as thick and syrupy as juice, but not as flavorless as water. It was her first snowflake, and she ached for more.

Though the lake was deep and dark, stray platforms of ice floating through it and passing each other like ships in the night, the filly felt no semblance of cold. She felt strong. No. She was strong. With her forehooves alone, she swam laps about the lake, catching snowflakes on her tongue.

She was alone, but it was not an unwelcome loneliness. Here, in nature, with the snow, ice, and water, she felt at home. There were no doors to be opened, no windows to be cracked.

She had returned to her roots as a creature of nature, a child of the Earth, as deserving of existence as the trees, sun, and stars… and she was free.


Citrus Blossom held Babs Seed in her forehooves, her eyes glued to the slow rising and falling of the filly’s chest, counting each breath to make sure it was there. Greyhoof sat patiently on a stool in the corner, smoking a pipe of cherry tobacco. He chewed at the end of his pipe between drags, his brow furrowed, but otherwise he sat, silent.

When Babs had lost consciousness, the two adult ponies had contemplated calling for a doctor or the Orange parents. Citrus, however, considered Babs’s emotional state and decided not to drag anypony else into the situation. Instead, they carefully carried the unconscious foal into her bedroom, where Citrus held her, stroking her red-and-pink mane and waiting for her eyes to open.

It had been about half an hour before Babs began to stir in the hooves of her sibling. Citrus gasped.

“Easy now, Madame Citrus,” Greyhoof whispered. “Let her wake up on her own. It’s for the best.”

His employer nodded, and waited with baited breath.


Her eyelids felt like they were weighed down by iron chains bolted to a sturdy stone floor. She swore that she could hear them creak, needing oil, as they opened. The world was bright. Too bright. She needed the snow and the ice again.

Why are the walls such funny colors?

Babs Seed blinked slowly, taking in her surroundings. Red, orange, yellow, on the ceilings and the walls around her. A gray Earth pony stallion sat on a stool near a bookshelf, a smoking pipe in his teeth. A beautiful cream-colored mare with a fiery-orange mane smiled down at her from above.

“Citrus…? Wha… what happened?”

“Are you okay, sweetie?” Citrus asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

“Ah… Ah… I think so.” Babs Seed blinked again, expecting the world to dissolve before her and be replaced with a jet-black lake and a steady stream of snowflakes. Nothing changed.

“I think…” She began to wonder out loud, “I think I’m in ma room…”

“Yes, you are, my dear,” Greyhoof said, taking a deep drag of his pipe. He exhaled a trio of rings and added, “You’ve been out for a while, Madame Babs Seed.”

“Out”? What the hay is he talkin’ 'bout? “What do youze mean?” She stretched and wiggled out of Citrus’s hooves, joining her on the bed. She looked into her sister’s eyes, noting their sadness. Her normally chatty and catty sibling was a solemn as a judge. It made her twinge with guilt as the events of the day began to roll back into her mind like fog upon the valleys.

“You passed out, sweetheart,” Citrus said gently. “But… don’t worry. I’m not mad at you or anything like that.” She smiled softly, prompting a similar smile from the foal next to her. “But… I am worried about you, Babs. I think…. I think we should talk.”

Taking that as his cue, Greyhoof rose from the stool, stretching as he did so. His old bones were too weary to sit in such an awkward pose without much discomfort. Turning to his masters, he said, “I’ll leave you two beautiful fillies alone for now. I’ll knock when supper’s ready. If you need anything, please, don’t hesitate to call for me.”

“Thank you, Greyhoof.” Citrus Blossom sighed, offering silent blessings and prayers upon the faithful butler.

Winking, the stallion gave his employers one final smile before exiting the room, slowly closing the door behind him.

“I’m getting too old for this,” he muttered as he trotted downstairs to the kitchen.


Babs Seed knew that silence could only get her so far. Her sister, however well-intentioned she was, liked to pry, and would be taking a crowbar to the front she had built for herself. Even as her older sister smiled at her, saying nothing, she knew the questions and accusations were coming. Nothing could stop them.

Babs decided to stay ahead of the game.

“Citrus… I’m really sorry. 'Bout everythin'.”

“No, no, honey, you have nothing to be sorry about.” Citrus shook her head, placing a hoof over the filly’s shoulders. “Your teacher came to the door a little bit ago—you were still resting—and explained that there had been a fight at school. I guess he kicked you out for the day, yes?”

Horseapples. Looking away from the orange, prying pupils of her sister, Babs stared at the floor. “Yes. Yes, he did.”

“And… I guess that the colt you, um… punched… had been teasing youze?”

Wait… the old stallion heard dat? Then, maybe…

Babs blushed, ashamed of her victimhood. It was a title she wished upon nopony, and she hoped to give it away as soon as she could. “Yeah," she mumbled.

“Is it…” Citrus Blossom chose her words carefully, gently, as each of them bore a weight she could not imagine. “Is it… because you don’t have a cutiemark?”

Nodding was the only response Babs could muster, a tear sliding down her cheek.

“Oh, sweetheart.”


The Oranges were one of the cornerstones of Manehatten’s economic empire. True to their name, they were orange fruit salesponies—salesponies, not farmers. A life of sweat and sun, livelihoods dictated by the changing and oftentimes unpredictable natures of the weather and crop yields, was not in their cards. They were far too proud for that.

Father Orange was gifted in manners of tongue and treaty, of making incredible business deals and seizing investment opportunities nopony had seen from a mile away. His cutiemark was a whole orange resting against a stack of gold bits.

Mother Orange, an equal to Father Orange in intellect but not in daredevil disregard, served as the Libra scales to Father Orange’s reckless spending. If they were at a casino, the paternal guardian of the Orange clan would head straight for the roulette table, all bits on black—his lucky color. The maternal protector, however, was a mare of caution and strategy, and adored games like poker or blackjack, where the falling of the cards was not the entire story. They had to be played carefully and cleverly for a profit to be made. Her cutiemark was a set of Libra scales with an orange on one side, an equally-weighted stack of bits on the other.

Citrus Blossom had followed in her parents’ hoofprints. She knew well the ways of Manehatten, the corporate games, the doublespeak, the ways of getting what she wanted. She was not manipulative, or lawless, mind you; she just knew all the rules to the game, and played them expertly. Set to take over the Orange Family business once her time came, her cutiemark had appeared relatively early on her flank—a cut slice of the orange fruit crossed with an orange blossom flower.

Babs Seed had always been a wildcard, a wrench in the system, a ghost in their machine. From an early age, she’d shown no interest in the family business, or wealth in general. She had always sort of… kept to herself. And now, she was teetering at the brink of childhood and adulthood, one hoof on each drifting continent, and still her flank was plain.

Citrus Blossom worried a lot for her.

Tonight, she worried even more.


Running a forehoof through her stray strand of fresh manecut, Babs Seed told Citrus Blossom what had happened that morning, about Boone, the teasing, and the teacher’s rough and incomplete handling of the situation.

Each word was careful, cautious, rehearsed from within before she uttered it. She did not talk about Card Slinger, Fencer, Lucky Toss, or Turner. She did not reveal the true reason behind her bobtail and manecut. She did not confess of the reasoning behind her midnight romps. She did not touch upon the isolation she felt, living in the cold, vast mansion. She did not speak of the alienation she felt at school, being the only foal in her class without a cutiemark. She did not explain how she missed her parents when they were gone, and felt like they were merely ghosts when they were there. She did not enlighten her older sister on her confusion, her fear, her uncertainty of being so young and so very, very different, and how much that scared her.

I’m a good liar.

When Babs was done, she looked up into Citrus’s eyes and felt her heart break from their poorly-hidden sorrow. Now I’ve done gone an' made youze sad, too.

I can’t do anythin’ right.

“Babs, sweetie, do you know what I think you need?”

Sniffling, Babs asked, “What, Citrus?”

“Some time to think. Some time away from here.”

Citrus rose from the bed, getting down on all four of her hooves. She began to pace, willing herself to think of somewhere Babs Seed could go. Clearly, Manehatten was poison to her, at least right now, and she needed fresh, clean air to clear her mind.

Citrus Blossom paused and looked out of the east window. In a garden below the Orange Family Mansion on the hill, she spotted an apple tree, bursting with delicious fruit.

Apple tree, she thought.

Apple. Tree.


“Huh?” Babs Seed rose from her own position on the bed and trotted over her sister to join her. Citrus was smiling gleefully out the window, looking at something far-off in the distance. “What’s out there youze see?”

“Look, Babs Seed,” Citrus said excitedly, tapping on the window towards the garden of her discovery. “An apple tree.”

“Meh,” replied the unimpressed foal. “It’s jus' a silly ol’ apple tree. There are a lot o' those around heeya.”

“No, don’t you get it?”

“… Get what?”

A broad, sparkling grin spread its presence across Citrus Blossom’s muzzle. Of course! she shouted in her thoughts. Why didn’t I think of it sooner?

“Babs Seed… how would you like to visit your cousins for this year’s Harvest Day Parade, in Ponyville?”

Author's Note

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Author's Note

Thank you to everypony for the views, comments, and votes so far. I really appreciate the feedback; it helps me grow as a writer, if nothing else.

At this point in the story, Babs Seed takes the train to Ponyville, and the events of "One Bad Apple" (best episode of Season 3 so far, by the way!) occur in their delightful manner. I was at first contemplating writing a sort-of "introductory" portion of the chapter, detailing Babs' feelings and thoughts on the train, but I found it best to just let her get to Ponyville and learn her important lesson.

This story shall now continue from the point after Babs Seed becomes a member of the CMC, but before she leaves home for Manehatten and shows Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon what's up at the train tracks. (Oh, come on, they deserved it, everypony knows that.)

Thanks again everypony, and I hope you enjoy the next chapter.

The Last Night

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The Last Night

Babs Seed had never tasted apple pie before. Applejack told no tales when she said she could bake up everything from fritters to pies in a blink of an eye. She scarfed down her first serving like it was the last piece of apple pie left in Equestria. (Celestia would tolerate such an extinction, as long as there was still some apple cake left.)

“Heh, heh, heh.” Applejack chuckled, watching Babs devour the pastry. “You sure do like apple pie, don’t ya, Babs Seed?”

“Yes, ma’am,” she muttered between bites, searching for every morsel and crumb left on the plate and shoveling the dessert into her mouth.

“Applejack makes the best apple pie in all o' Ponyville!” Apple Bloom chipped in, smiling proudly at her sister, who promptly blushed and averted her eyes.

Even the soft-spoken Big Macintosh agreed. “Eeyup!”

“Now what’s that now, young’un?” Granny Smith mumbled, grabbing her ear trumpet.

“SHE LIKES THE PIE, GRANNY!” Apple Bloom shouted into the antique instrument.

“Ooh, okay, then,” Granny Smith said, her pupils going wild from the vibrations. The old mare put a hoof on Babs’ shoulder and smiled. “What are ya waitin’ fer? There’s more where that came from! We need ta put some mo' meat on them bones!”

Babs felt her tail swish to cover her (in her mind, at least) ridiculously large flank. … Dat’s the opposite o' what dey say in Manehatten.

Apple Bloom noticed and hugged Babs Seed. “Aww, Babs, don’t be shy. Granny’s jus' old-fashioned like that. Ah think you’re great jus' the way ya are!” Babs Seed blushed and released her bobtail from its hiding place.

Applejack nodded, again unable to contain her chuckles. “Aww, ain’t that sweet? See, Ah knew you two would get along jus' great!”

Big Macintosh cut another two slices of the pie, one on Babs’ plate and a larger on his. “Eeyup! Family’s what’s most important, after all.”

“Yes… family..."

Babs Seed took another bite of her pie, slower now, observing the dinner table before her. The four members of the Apple Family varied greatly in appearance, mannerisms, personality, and prowess.

Big Macintosh, the stallion of the house, was quiet and even-tempered, although he spoke with a wise and cutting tongue when necessary. He was strong, powerful, and masculine. However, the Cutie Mark Crusaders had caught him cuddling “Smarty Pants” more than once, revealing that he wasn’t such a flat character after all.

Granny Smith, the matriarch and elder, was, as Greyhoof would say, “getting too old for this,” but she kept on anyway. Her ways were strange and foreign, even within her own clan, but she was welcomed and loved dearly, looked to for assistance in times of crisis and chaos.

Applejack—the Element of Honesty—adored her grandmother and brother, although she, too, was their contrast. Applejack maintained that humility was a virtue, though she had let her pride drag her down at times. Always eager to help somepony, hard-working, forgiving, and wise, Applejack would do the Apple Family name proud, keeping the family farm running like a well-oiled machine.

Last, but not least, Apple Bloom. The youngest of the clan, the blossom that was beginning to discover itself and unfurl, was the most unique of all. Cutiemark or none, Apple Bloom was talented in many aspects. Babs Seed still couldn’t believe that the Cutie Mark Crusaders could construct not just one, but two Harvest Day’s Parade floats on their own, and one within a matter of hours.

Unlike Babs, Apple Bloom didn’t let her lack of a cutiemark stop her or change her behavior. No, she just plowed through the days, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo loyal to her side, all three of them searching for meaning in a vast world.

Time after time, Apple Bloom took her hoof to a new hobby, sport, or activity, and would glance upon her flank for destiny’s imprint. Nothing. But that didn’t halt her journey. That’s what Cutie Mark Crusaders did; they continued in the face of their own uncertainty.

Dat, Babs Seed thought, is what true courage is.

“Ya alright, Babs?” Applejack asked, seeing her young cousin staring blankly at her empty plate.

Babs shook herself away from the depths of her observations. “Uh, yeah! Jus' spacin’ out, I guess…”

“Hmm.” Applejack eyed her suspiciously. “You sure yer okay?”

“Do ya want some mo' pie?” Apple Bloom held a piece out to her.

“Um, no, I’m fine… I’m jus' gettin’ tired, I guess.”

“Tired?!” Apple Bloom groaned. “But… but, the sun hasn’t even gone down yet!”

“Y’all have had a long day. Maybe it’s time fer bed.” Applejack rose from the table and began to put the dirty plates in the sink. “Come on, y’all, help me clean up the kitchen. Then it’s straight ta bed fer you two!”

In unison, both foals rolled their eyes and mumbled, "Fine," to the laughter of the adults.


Apple Bloom set to work making the spot on the floor she’d called “bed” for the past week and half comfortable, fluffing the coarse hay with her hooves and straightening the newspaper out of its tangled mess.

Babs Seed was helping Big Macintosh check the barn before lights out on the farm. Normally, Apple Bloom would have leapt at the task and would be out under the slowly setting sun with her cousin and brother, but several thoughts pressed heavy on her mind and ordered her to retreat upstairs.

Apple Bloom knew that she didn’t have to sleep on the floor—she was sure Babs wouldn’t mind if she could, possibly, sleep in her own bed for a night—but, ultimately, Apple Bloom didn’t mind. It was a trivial thing, anyway, and Babs Seed was her guest. A good host must make sure her guest is taken care of, first things first.

In spite of their mutual confessions of wrongdoing, and Babs's initiation and inclusion into the CMC’s bumbling little group (cape and all), Apple Bloom still couldn’t help but feel awful about what she mentally marked as “the parade incident”. Ponyville residents would be talking about it for days (if not weeks). Although Babs would be back home in Manehatten, the whispers and laughter would plague Apple Bloom with guilt for some time. She hadn’t felt this bad about anything she had done since the wretched “Gabby Gums incident”.

Apple Bloom made a glaring mental note to stop getting into situations that later needed to be referred to as “incidents”.

“At least Babs won’t be here while Ponyville is still laughin’ 'bout it, the poor gal,” she offered her guilty conscience, the bed on the floor at long last comfortable enough to her liking. She laid her head on the pillow and snuggled into the newspaper. “She don’t deserve ta be made fun o' like that. She’s got enough on her plate at home…”

Just about to close her eyes, Apple Bloom’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of little hooves trotting up the stairs. She silently cursed her hesitation. As the door to her bedroom began to creak open, part of her wanted to feign sleep and forego any conversation with her cousin. She wasn’t exactly sure why. The other half of her, was more forceful, and it rolled her over to smile at Babs Seed as she entered.

“Hey, Babs...”

“Apple Bloom… why are youze sleepin’ on the floor?” Babs asked, surprised by the familiar sight of the makeshift bed. “Youze can sleep in your bed, youze know." A forehoof dug at the unforgiving wooden planks below. Babs needed a new nervous tic to replace her compulsive flank-covering. The floor is too cold fo' youze anyway… why did youze let me kick youze outta youze bed ta begin wit'?

“Oh, heh heh, um..." Apple Bloom awkwardly laughed. “Well, since it’s yer last night here, Ah figured ya could go ahead an' have the bed again. Ah don’t mind, really. Ya have that long train ride tomorrowa an' all. Sleeper cabs ain’t real comfy, are they?”

Train ride. Tomorrowa. Much too soon.

“They’re alright, I s’pose,” Babs said quietly.

“Ya see? So go ahead, Babs. You can sleep there again tonight. Ah'm not gonna make ya sleep on the floor.” Her cousin put on the bravest, most convincing smile she could generate from the depths of her white lie.

Babs sighed and shook her head. “Alright, Apple Bloom, iffa youze say so.”

Babs Seed climbed into Apple Bloom’s bed as she had every night she had been in Ponyville. This time, it felt wrong.

Babs had been a bully, a brute, an unrelenting victimizer to Apple Bloom and her friends. She had been little better than Card Slinger and the other rotten foals back home. Unable to endure more nightmares here in Ponyville, where she’d sought refuge from her troubles at the Orange Family Mansion, Babs Seed had sided with Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon. The spoiled brats had little on their side but words, and would have been eaten alive by the Manehatten streets. The city would’ve chomped them down, accessories and all, with a smile on its demonic face.

Her cousin and her friends had tried to welcome her, to make her feel wanted and needed—desires she dreamed of fulfilling—but had brushed it off, all due to some opposition from those spoiled little brats.

An'… an' I broke Turner’s promise.

Settling into Apple Bloom’s plush bed, Babs Seed was ashamed of her failure to uphold her savior’s end of the bargain the most.

Things were good between Babs and the CMC, the three fillies thankfully accepting her offer of a “reset”. All her sins had been forgiven and forgotten with a long list of synonyms and lots of erratic drumbeats, but that didn’t change the heavy feelings in her heart.

Glancing over at her cousin, Babs felt shame burning within her. She has ta sleep on dat cold floor, all ‘cause o' youze, ‘cuz she feels sorry fo' youze. An' youze the one who made her an' her friends miserable, all cause youze got youze own issues ta solve!

She looked at the ceiling, searching for a pattern among the wood grain. All of the heaviness that had been dragging her eyelids to the ground while she performed night-checks with Big Mac had disappeared. Babs Seed was awake, with no intents of sleeping, guilty thoughts swarming in her brain like the Windigoes of legend.

A thought came to her mind, and left a small blush on her cheeks in its wake. Maybe…?

“Apple Bloom?”

Apple Bloom rolled over, her eyes bearing no sign of fatigue either. “Yes, Babs?” she whispered back in the dark.

“Could youze… um…” Babs dug one of her forehooves into the covers next to her. “Could youze sleep wit' me ta-night? I, um… I don’t wanna sleep alone.”

If they had been in the clubhouse, Scootaloo would have flicked on a light above Apple Bloom’s head.

“Sure, Babs,” she replied sweetly, rising from her makeshift bed and climbing next to her cousin under the covers.

“Heh, thanks.” Babs turned and faced the other wall as the other foal settled in behind her. She gasped as ice brushed roughly against her flank. “Ahh! Youze back hooves are freezin’!”

Giggling, Apple Bloom retracted her hindhooves. “Sorry, cuz. How 'bout this?” Apple Bloom snuggled in closer to her, wrapping her forehooves around Babs' shoulder.

Now, there was that heat in her cheeks again. What did it mean?

“Um, Apple Bloom…” Babs Seed muttered awkwardly, her voice trailing off as she felt Apple Bloom snuggling into her back and shoulders.

“What is it, Babs?”

“What are youze doin’?”

“Just gettin' comfy, that’s all.” The twang in Apple Bloom’s voice was silenced, giving way to a softer, gentler tone, smooth and musky.

What the hay is she doin’?

Babs shifted awkwardly on her side of the bed. She had been to a sleepover once before, for a classmate’s slumber party, but all of the guests had slept on the floor. Citrus, though affectionate, almost never slept in the same bed as her, at least not for a long time. This stay at Sweet Apple Acres had been one of the few nights in a long time where Babs Seed did not sleep alone in a room.

“Apple Bloom…” She felt her cousin’s breath upon her neck, creating a strange nervousness gnawing in her belly that she didn’t recognize. Yet, the anxiety coupled with the guilt, churning it into a strange concoction that demanded to slip past her vocal cords. She could not stay silent and resist.

“There’s summat I need ta tell youze.”

Apple Bloom had found so far, in her short, relatively peaceful life that the particular combination of words her cousin had just uttered usually led to trouble, or, at the very least, a long conversation.

She gulped and replied, “Well, Ah think ya can go ahead an' tell me.”

Babs flipped herself so that she was face-to-face with Apple Bloom, snouts mere inches from each other. Anxiety became a wild foal in her chest, hooves pounding upon the cobblestones, causing her heart rate to increase. In the dark, she hoped Apple Bloom could not see the beads of sweat forming on her forehead. A moment passed between them in silence.

Come on, now, Babs, youze need ta start talkin’.

Carrying on in spite of the thundering hooves in her chest, Babs said, “I still feel real awful ‘bout everythin’ I did ta youze an' youze friends. I mean… it ain’t right, youze know? It’s not youze fault what happens ta me back home in Manehatten.”

Babs Seed paused briefly, gulping down painful memories. In her mind, she was lying on the street again, Fencer holding her mane taut…

No, not dat, not now.

Apple Bloom said nothing, waiting patiently for her to finish.

Shaking her head, Babs continued, “An' youze didn’t deserve how I treated youze, how I made youze lives miserable fo' damn near two weeks. An' I know I’m a Cutie Mark Crusada an' all, now, but I still… I don’t deserve ta be one, much less youze cousin, o' youze friend, Apple Bloom…” A tear formed in her eye and threatened to take the plunge down her cheek, even as she felt more swelling behind it.

No, please, not now… Babs Seed squeezed her eyes, trying to will it all away, refusing to let anypony see her cry again.

Apple Bloom found a spark of bravery within her and rolled her guest gently onto her back, then climbed on top of her. Babs turned an even darker shade of red, her heart and breath missing a beat.

Babs Seed's mind went blank; she had never been this close to another pony before.

Apple Bloom...

“Tell me 'bout home,” Apple Bloom whispered.


“Tell me… 'bout home. What life is like fer you there.”

Babs hesitated before answering. Can I tell her these kinda things? Can I tell her all o' it? Will she laugh at me? A devilish pony appeared on her mental shoulder, shaking his head disapprovingly. There were some secrets that should just be kept in the dark where they belong.

And, yet…

Babs Seed looked back into her cousin’s eyes, searching the windows of her soul for deceit. She had grown skilled at reading other ponies, finding what intentions lay beyond their pupils. Apple Bloom had beautiful, red-orange eyes, a shade of which was only slightly brighter than Babs’s own fur. They were connected by genes, but only slightly—one-eighth a part of the other. Nevertheless, Babs Seed found it comforting to see a part of herself in another pony, and to have that part look right back at her.

In those eyes, she detected no malice.

But that still left the question: should she speak? She had lied to Citrus Blossom, or, at least, omitted the truth. She had kept quiet about what basically amounted to assault, had not been the snitch she accused Apple Bloom of being, not wasting time on the corrupt law enforcement ponies back home. She had gone this long with silence. Perhaps silence would serve her now.

An angel appeared on her mental shoulder opposite the devil. The angel looked a lot like Turner, and whispered telepathically into her flattened ear, Maybe it’s time fo' some windows ta be opened… time ta let the air in…. don’t youze think, kid?

At that thought, Babs Seed whimpered as she could hold a tear back no longer, the glistening pearl slipping down her cheek.

Apple Bloom wiped Babs's tear with her forehoof and whispered softly into her ear, sending a chill down her spine, “Ya don’t have ta talk 'bout it if ya don’t want ta, Babs…”

“No…” Babs whispered back, her voice shaking, “It’s jus'… I… I…”

She couldn’t finish. She felt her breath being stolen from her by some demon in her chest, leaving her to shallow, ragged inhalations and rapid exhalations. Trying her best to keep her breathing even, Babs willed herself to focus, to do her mental exercise, to keep herself conscious.

Worriedly, Apple Bloom wrapped her forehooves around Babs' neck, pressing her body against her. She held her tight, whispering soothing words into ears as her cousin continued to hyperventilate. Apple Bloom had no idea what to do or say, so she stayed silent, stroking Babs's back until she began to breathe normally.

Feeling Babs Seed come back down to Equestria, Apple Bloom loosened her grasp as she embraced her. She gently moved the long strand of red-and-pink mane out of her beautiful green eyes, the pools of emerald shining with the flood they could barely hold.

“Ah'm all ears fer ya now, Babs, if you want ta. Ah'm here fer ya.”

Babs Seed surprised herself and threw her hooves around Apple Bloom, pulling her closer in the darkness. She felt a new and brief boldness, even as her heartbeat quickened beneath her coat. Strength came to her from somewhere deep in her heart, urged by the little Turner-angel, which whispered in her mind, What betta time than now, kid? What betta time than now?

The tears rushed through the gates with a vengeance, and Apple Bloom wiped them all. Babs Seed’s story had no coherent flow, no meter or rhyme or reason. It was just her story. And she told it all, everything that she could remember, about the bullies. About Card Slinger, Lucky Toss, and Fencer’s crude knife. About Citrus Blossom and her failed attempts to reach her. About her parents, their absences both physical and emotional. About Manehatten itself, its mean streets, cut-throat attitudes, and the empty space that dominated the Orange Family Mansion.

Apple Bloom listened all the while, wiping her tears away, saying nothing, feeling her own heart sink and break with Babs Seed’s.

At some point in those long moments, during that longest of nights, Babs Seed felt fresh, new tears from above mixing with hers, and could not help but pause and smile.

“W-w-what are ya smilin’ 'bout, silly filly?” Apple Bloom asked, trying to stop the flood of tears that were roaring at the gates of her own eyelids. She wasn’t sure if she could handle her own sorrow alongside everything else.

“Youze… youze was cryin’ wit' me,” Babs answered, feeling a slight grin light upon her face.

“Well… o' course Ah was! You don’t deserve all o' that, Babs.”

Babs wished there was a hard surface nearby, so she could fiddle her hooves on it.

“Ah, but, yes, I do, Apple Bloom. I… Dey’re right. Dey’re all right. I’m… I’m… worthless.”

A forehoof silenced her lips. “No. Don’t ya ever think that.”

Another forehoof, this one stronger, pushed the first away. “Why not? It’s true.”

“No, Babs Seed, don’t—“

“Don’t what? Believe everythin’ I’ve been told since I can remember?!” Babs felt the foal in her chest start to awaken again, quickening, releasing adrenaline-laced blood through her muscles.

Apple Bloom frowned and began stroking her cousin’s mane, trying to distract her. “Ah’m sure that’s not true, Babs.”

“Iffa it’s not,” Babs Seed snapped back, Apple Bloom flinching back at the anger in her voice, “why does everypony say it ta me, in mo' ways than one?”

Oh, youze done it now.

Sobs wracked Babs Seed's body, her deepest fear and insecurity revealed. The first cut is the deepest, and this was, indeed, the first one she had experienced. She knew that her parents would never explicitly say it, but she knew it was true, all the same. Babs Seed was not their favorite foal, or their favorite anything. She had no interest in becoming the mare they wanted; she had heard their conversations.

Apple Bloom's head swam, holding Babs tighter to herself. She had no idea what to do, as sob after sob cut through the dark night like an unrelenting knife. Her heart broke at each cry. Apple Bloom had no words to calm Babs Seed, but she knew she had to do something to calm her down, to give peace, relief, reassurance and love to the beautiful foal in her hooves.

A thought came to her, and her cheeks blushed bright red in its wake.

“Babs Seed,” Apple Bloom whispered, her voice smooth as still waters.

Swallowing her tears, Babs looked into her eyes and whispered back, “W-w-what?”

Babs Seed realized that Apple Bloom was close to her. So close, so close, I could… She blushed crimson in the darkness. No, dat’s not… I….

She could feel Apple Bloom's exhalations upon her face and her heartbeat pounding against hers, matching the speed of the foal thundering down the cobblestones of her heart. She could hear her breathing quicken in time with her own.

The moment seemed to freeze in time, no longer bound by the laws of Luna, Celestia, Mother Galaxia or even Discord in all his chaos.

Apple Bloom pressed her lips to Babs Seed’s own.


Babs Seed was devoid of all thoughts anymore. She felt warmth spreading through her, slowing her mind and empowering her hooves. Cold fire, molten ice filled her veins. She could do anything, and she was safe. In this moment, she was right where she belonged.

Babs Seed kissed Apple Bloom back, just as hard.


The two fillies swam up from the depths of their first kiss, coming up for air from an ocean of mindlessness, warmth, and need.

Apple Bloom realized what she had done and began to panic. “Babs! Ah... I’m so sorry! I’m, I’ll, Ah, uh..." She fumbled, blushing furiously, beginning to raise herself off Babs Seed, beside herself. Oh, she would be in so much trouble…

Strong hooves yanked her back down, landing on Babs Seed roughly, chest-to-chest.

“Wait… Apple Bloom…” Babs Seed said, her face reddening in spite of herself.

Now she was trapped. “Babs, Ah, um, well, you were cryin’ an' Ah didn’t know what ta do, an' Ah jus' wanted ta make ya feel better so, Ah, um—“

Babs Seed took Apple Bloom's muzzle in her forehooves and kissed her again, softer this time.

She felt Apple Bloom melt in her hooves, her body go slack. Then, she came back to Equestria again and met a pair of soft green eyes with her own, feeling strong hooves wrap around her waist.

“Dat was ‘thank-youze’,” Babs Seed whispered, smiling gently. “Because… youze did make me feel betta.”

Returning the embrace, tension ebbing away from her, Apple Bloom nuzzled Babs Seed’s neck, breathing in the sweet scent of her fur, committing it to memory. She counted the passing minute, expecting in any second to wake up in a pile of hay on the floor.

The two fillies laid there in silence, the moon beginning to rise, minds wiped clean, tears dried. For what seemed like an eternity, they shared the moment, not sure if it was real, not sure if it would last... just feeling right.

Sometime between now and never, Apple Bloom finally spoke.

“So… yer not mad?”

“Why… why would I be mad?”


“Because why?”

“Ah… Ah…”


“… Ah really like you, Babs.”



“I really like youze, too.”

Reunion And Dissolution

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Reunion And Dissolution

Beaming with pride at her new Cutie Mark Crusader cape, Babs Seed excitedly waved goodbye to Applejack, Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo through the train window. She waved and waved until her new friends became dots on the horizon.

In spite of all that had happened, Babs Seed liked Ponyville. Far more than she imagined, really. Listening to Citrus Blossom’s description of the town, she had expected to be taken to a series of slums full of careless, uncouth ponies shouting obscenities in the street and throwing mashed alfalfa at each other. While Citrus was not as haughty as her parents, and did not assert that Manehatten was the be-all-end-all of Equestria, it had been hard for her to hide her displeasure while seeing Babs off.

Sitting down in the sleeper cab, Babs's thoughts drifted to the promise she had made to the Cutie Mark Crusaders. She intended to keep this promise, unlike her broken vow to Turner.

But how am I supposed ta start a new Cutie Mark Crusaders chapta? I’m the only foal in ma class without a cutiemark…

Frowning, Babs felt discouraged from the start. The numbers were against her already. It required at least two foals to have a club. Having only one would look, well, just pathetic.

“Think, Babs, think, think, think." She groaned, whacking herself in the head with a forehoof as she did so.

Only foal in ma class without a cutiemark…

Only foal… in ma class without…

… In ma class…

Now, it was Babs Seed who needed Scootaloo’s conveniently-placed lightbulb above her head. She shot up from her seat as she realized it. “O' course!”


For the first time in weeks, Babs Seed finally saw her parents again. They were sitting on a bench in the Manehatten train station, bored, her father with a newspaper and her mother giving herself a hooficure. Citrus Blossom was there too, impatiently bouncing her hooves on the marble floor of the station.

Cantering over to them, Babs exclaimed in joy, “Ma! Da’! Sis!”

“Babs!” Mother Orange called out, dropping her hoof-file on the bench and rushing over to her daughter. The white, tangerine-maned mare caught her daughter in a tight embrace as she jumped into her hooves. “Oh, Babs, honey, it’s been far too long!”

Squeezing her mother, Babs said, “I missed youze!”

“I missed you too, darling!”

“You were late,” Father Orange barked, folding his newspaper and securing it under one of his shoulders. “What, don’t they have clocks in that dirt town your niece loves so much?” he jabbed, casting a disapproving gaze at his wife.

“Seriously, Bernie, do you really have to start this crap up already? The poor dear hasn’t seen you in two weeks!”

“Dammit, Libra, I told you not to call me that name in public!” he snapped back.

Father Orange’s real name was “Bernie Madhoof,” a terrible combination of names he swore his guardians had bestowed upon him out of pure spite. In the business world, he was “Sir,” “Mister,” “Boss,” or simply “Mister Orange”. At home, he was “Sir Orange” or “Master Orange” from the servants, “Father” or “Darling” to foals and wife.

He was seething at Libra Scales’ use of his past name, the name that cursed him until he had enough bits to will it away out of pure power and prestige.

Libra Scales released Babs, who sensed a storm brewing and decided to catch up with her sister instead. As the guardians of the Orange Family began to tell each other how they really felt, in public, to an audience of several confused station customers, Citrus Blossom quietly led Babs Seed outside to the awaiting taxi-carriage.

“So, um, hon, how was Ponyville?”

“It was ah-mazing!” Babs said, smiling brightly. “Well, at first it wasn’t real good—“

Familiar tales crept back up Citrus's spine. “Did… did anypony tease you?”

“Well, um,” Babs said, “a little. A teeny, tiny little. Nothin’ like back heeya. But… I sided wit' dem bullies.”

Citrus paused, pricking her ears towards her parents, waiting to hear the inevitable heavy hoof-steps and frustrated harrumphs that translated to "we are going home now and everypony shuddup or it’ll just light our fuses again". She sensed that there was a long, long story for Babs Seed to tell, and didn’t want it to be interrupted by the foalishness of their parents.

However, there were no such hoof-steps. The taxi-carriage driver cast a quizzical look at Citrus Blossom and asked, “Ma’am, ah… where’s the otha two o' youze?”

“Um… it might… be a while on them.”

“Ah. Well… dat’ll cost youze. Time is money.”

“That’s fine,” Citrus Blossom said. “We’ll pay the extra. Um… will you excuse us for a moment?”

The taxi-pony shrugged, unhitching himself from the carriage. “Sure. Whateva, lady,” he grumbled, heading off towards a bench down the road to light his tobacco pipe.

“Come on, Babs. Let’s talk in here for a second until Mom and Dad are… finished.”

Babs turned around and saw that her parents were still near that same train station bench, her father’s forehooves in the air and a vein beginning to twitch in her mother’s neck. Ha, dis’ll be a long, good one. “Okay, Citrus.”

Following her sister into the taxi-carriage, making sure her cape didn’t get caught on the steps, Babs Seed couldn’t help but worry. Is she gonna scold me iffa I tell her what I did back in Ponyville, how I sided wit' dem bullies?

Patting the seat next to her, Citrus beckoned, “Come here, little sis.”

“Uh, Citrus, why did we have ta go in the taxi?” Babs asked, scooting next to her.

“I just didn’t want youze to feel embarrassed talking about things in front of the taxi-pony,” Citrus Blossom lied, putting her pearly whites on display.

In truth, she was attempting to shield Babs from their parents' latest fight, which sounded like it was going to be a long one. Citrus had noted the pure, unrefined joy in Babs Seed’s eyes when she was talking about how great Ponyville had been. She was not naive—she knew her sister had lied to her before, and was capable of lying again—but something in her vibrant eyes told Citrus that Babs was not fibbing. Whatever caused her happiness, she wanted to seek and find, treasure and keep, utilizing it when it would be needed in the future.

“Oh. I don’t mind him.”

“Good, sweetie. Annnyway… tell me about Ponyville.”

Cautiously, Babs Seed recounted the near-two weeks of torment she had inflicted on the Cutie Mark Crusaders, words tingling with regret, but not as difficult to recount this time. She would never be truly over the guilt, but, for now, it was but a scar—a little uncomfortable to pick at, although the bleeding and pain had ceased. She left out no sin, however small it was, and her sister laughed, gasped, and muttered incredulously appropriately. Just how had Babs Seed crawled out of that movie screen, anyway?

“So… they saved youze from crashing into the lake, huh? That’s pretty sweet of them. You were lucky they have the hearts they do,” Citrus scolded, shooting her a disappointed glare. “You, of all foals, should’ve known better.”

Celestia, I did know better, but it’s not so easy ta do the right thing all the time, don’t youze realize? Babs sighed, nodding slowly. “I-I know. But… we forgave each otha, an' now I have dis awesome Cutie Mark Crusada cape!” Holding out the fabric to her sister, proud of its crest, the filly shot a most hopeful smile towards her sister.

Citrus Blossom examined the cape, impressed with its craftsmanship. “My, my, this is lovely fabric, Babs. You say the Crusaders made this?”

“Sweetie Belle made it. Out of her sister’s fabric, that is.”

“… And who is her sister?”

“Hmm… I think it’s… Rarity? Yeah, Rarity.”

Citrus Blossom's eyes grew large as bits. “Rarity? The Rarity?!” She gasped, shaking Babs Seed by the shoulders. “Are you serious?!?!”

“Y-y-yes C-C-Citrus!” What the hay’s gotten inta youze?! “S-s-stop it!”

Shocked at her foalishness, Citrus Blossom immediately released her sister, who fell back into the cab seat with an OOF!

“I’m sorry, Babs, sweetie! It’s just… Rarity…” Her eyes began to sparkle and shine, fashion lines of past and present rushing through her mind. “She is such an excellent designer! I have several from her collection, and… oh, I didn’t know she lived in Ponyville! If I knew, I would’ve come along with you just to meet the mare!”

Babs face-hoofed as Citrus Blossom sat in her own, fangirlish world, muttering excitedly to herself about rhinestones and glitter. I love youze, sis, but youze is damn crazy.

Just before she was about to slap her sister out of her jeweled reality, Citrus continuing to babble about fashion over and over again like a psychotic record with its needle stuck, the door to the taxicab opened. In came Mother and Father Orange, both with frazzled manes and unimpressed expressions.

“Scoot over, Babs." Father Orange growled, buckling himself into the carriage. “Hey, where is that damn driver?” Sticking his head out the window next to his wife, he barked, “Hey! Jockey! Can I get some service here?! Horseapples!”

With many hasty apologies and a quick fitting of a horse-collar, the Orange Family clan was on its way back to Manehatten Hill, where it belonged.


At the dinner table, Babs Seed couldn’t help but note the contrast between this dinner and the one at the Apple Family home. She was beginning to annoy herself with her observations, contradictions seemingly popping up at her everywhere like crude jack-in-the-box toys planted by a gleeful prankster. She couldn’t help but feel that something was definitely... off here.

Greyhoof and Allspice sat the foot of the table, saying nothing to anypony but springing to their hooves whenever Father Orange pointed a hoof at his glass, refilling it with cider or wine to his liking. Mother Orange was not much better, and halfway through the meal complained that the kale was overcooked, prompting Allspice to prepare a fresh batch for her.

Why don’t dey jus' do it demselves? Why do we have ta have servant-ponies? Is cookin’ real hard anyhow? Applejack sure made it look easy.

“Babs, honey, how was Ponyville?” Mother Orange asked, nudging her husband in the side. Her silent stare read, Why don’t you ask her too, you mook?

Clearing his throat, her father tossed in, “Er, yes, Babs, how was… Dirtville?”

“It’s not dat dirty!” Babs snapped. “It’s not dirty at all. Just because dey stay on a farm, doin’ real work, doesn’t mean dey’re pigs!”

Citrus Blossom mouthed “Don’t!” to her, sensing yet another storm rolling in. Babs Seed felt it, too, and began to summon her mental prowess to calm it. Give the ol’ stallion credit. He hasn’t left Manehatten in years, the haughty—

“Young filly, don’t you dare raise your tongue at me!” Father Orange growled, knocking back another shot of cider. “You’re damn lucky we sent the bits to get you to that crapshack in the first place, Celestia knows what for.“

“Heh, heh, she just wanted to see the Harvest Day Parade, right, Babs?” Citrus assured him, winking at Babs.

Ha! “Yea, o’ course. Sorry, Pops.” Babs Seed feigned a frown as best as she could, secretly busting up in laughter within her mind. Oh, it was sundown and he was already buzzed, she could tell.

Normally, she would be fearful of her father when he met with his first and true love, alcohol. Being a Cutie Mark Crusader now, she felt no fear, because she could tell him off, just as she had told Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon where to go.

“Bah, whatever. Anyway, how was your stay? Did they have a room, or did you stay in the pigpen?”

Allspice and Greyhoof exchanged curious glances. Master Orange was rather rowdy on a night that was just beginning. How many more shots and glasses would they be ordered to pour him until he lost himself and his consciousness in the yeast?

Snickering, Babs said, “Oh, no… it was much mo'… comfortable than dat.”

“Please tell me, dearie, they at least had a guest room for you?” her mother offered, attempting to inject some positivity into the conversation.

Babs Seed shook her head. “Nope, I slept in Apple Bloom’s room.”

Father Orange nearly spat out his wine. “… You shared a room with that filly?”


Her eyes narrowing, Babs hissed, “What do youze mean…’ dat filly’?”

“Well, in case you didn’t notice, darling,” Bernie Madhoof spat mockingly, “she doesn’t have a cutiemark.”

Oh, no, no, no, no. Not dis crap again.

This wasn’t the first time the subject of cutiemarks had been brought up by the Orange patriarch. In fact, he sometimes seemed obsessed with the subject, braying on and on to his daughters—his youngest daughter in particular—about how he received his, how old he was he was when it appeared, how proud he was when Citrus Blossom’s mark had came, etc. etc. ad nauseum.

Sometimes, when he thought Babs Seed wasn’t listening, he would remark to his wife that he was afraid Babs would never get hers, and her development would arrest, transforming her into a basement-dwelling mare who sat around and wrote Daring Do fanfiction all day.

“So what?” Babs challenged. “I don’t have ma cutiemark eitha. Do youze call me ‘dat filly’ too?”

CRASH! A wineglass fell to the ground, dropped by the careless hoof of… Citrus Blossom?

“Oh! I’m so sorry! Um, uh, Greyhoof, can you, um assist?” Citrus Blossom stuttered, eying her sister sternly. She turned to her father, laughing nervously. “Sorry Da’, I didn’t mean to inter—“

“Yeah, I do.”

The dinner table went silent, Greyhoof freezing in mid-rise from his seat as he reached to grab a broom to clean up the broken glass.

Youze… youze…

“Really?” Babs sneered. “Are youze serious right now?”

The stallion rose from his seat and threw the stool on the ground, wood hitting marble with a CRACK! of splitting cellulose. “Yeah, I am. You know what? It’s been almost two years since a buckin' mark should've appeared on that huge flank of yours. Yeah, I said huge.” The stallion uttered a low growl, swaying as he spoke. “For a daughter of mine, you look like a colt.”

Stay strong. Babs smirked and remarked, “Ma manecut looks good. Other ponies like it.”

“Fillies, I bet!” The stallion laughed cruelly at his daughter as a blush graced her cheeks. “Oh ho, so I was right. Knew it from the moment we brought your ungrateful hooves into my house.”

Another stool shattered into pieces against the marble flooring as Citrus Blossom had had enough. “Dammit, Dad! Go to bed, you’re drunk!” Citrus whipped past Babs Seed, blocking view of the filly from her father. “You’ve said enough. The cider is just talkin’ through youze.”

'Gain, Babs Seed mentally added, rolling her eyes.

“Bernie, that’s enough,” Libra Scales said, throwing a hoof around her husband’s shoulders. “Luna is starting to bring the moon down. Let’s go to bed. We can talk about this tomorrow morning.”

While sweeping up the remains of the wineglass, Greyhoof said, “There is going to be a comet passing by tonight, sire. Perhaps if you retire soon, you’ll be able to see it?”

Bernie Madhoof gazed about the scene, barely registering the words spinning around him. He had just been angry, but with which pony? Somepony had just called him out, but which one was it? They all seemed to blend together, like paper pony dolls at Hearth’s Warming Eve-time.

He decided it was that gray one over there, in the corner.

Babs Seed saw the forehoof coming down against the butler's cheek, heard the cracking of bone on bone, felt the vibrations in the marble as the elderly stallion landed hard on the floor.

She just couldn’t believe it.

“Greyhoof! Greyhoof!” She rushed over to his side, where Allspice had propped him up against the wall and was examining his wounds.

Mother Orange dragged her husband out of the dining room, even as he continued to drone on and on about cutiemarks, telling the same familiar story of his own self-discovery to an audience of none.

“Greyhoof, are you okay?” Babs whispered, her eyes filling with tears.

The butler opened one of his eyes, the other beginning to swell shut. He smiled weakly, answering breathlessly, “I’m fine… better I take the blame than you, Madame.”

But nopony should’ve taken blame fo' anythin’… nopony should’ve given him dat much. Dat, o' he shouldn’t drink anyway!

Pleading with her sister for guidance through pained eyes, Babs Seed kept looking back to Citrus Blossom, then back to Greyhoof, then back to her again. Citrus, unfortunately, was just as stunned as the foal below her, and had no wise words to offer, nothing to say to turn this sudden act of violence into a life lesson.

Greyhoof took the reins instead. Wobbling on his hooves, he slowly began to stand up with the aid of both mares, and politely asked Babs Seed to bring him some ice.

As she galloped away towards the ice chest in the basement below, the withered old butler-pony turned to Citrus Blossom and remarked, “M’lady, consider this my resignation. Once I can stand well enough to pack, I’m leaving this Celestia-damned mansion.

Unleashed In The East

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Unleashed In The East

Sixteen years of loyal service, sixteen years of unpaid overtime, no holidays off, no vacation, and pay that would make the most desperate of vagabonds turn back to the road, all down the drain. For sixteen years, he held his tongue taut, letting its only vibrations be mutterings of respect and complacency. He had been asked to do literally everything in the book but sexual favors (though he would have had no choice but to indulge even those), reducing himself to a mere footstool under the hooves of the most powerful pony in Manehatten.

Greyhoof had enough.

Pressing a bag of ice against his swollen and painful eye with one hoof, tossing his meager belongings into a suitcase with the other, Greyhoof found the circumstances of his resignation quite fitting. He had put up with Madame Orange and her obsessive need for perfection in all forms of sensory input, Citrus Blossom’s fussing and worry over absolutely everything, and Babs Seed’s rebellious and reckless ways. Oh, he could handle the mares just fine. Stallion-to-stallion, he couldn’t take it anymore. Bernie Madhoof was a wreck of a pony.

Drink or no drink, punch or no punch, the butler had read the writing on the wall some time ago, noting that the cheese had long been stolen away at the end of his maze. All the promises of almost two decades ago had disintegrated like dust in the wind.

“Ten percent stock options? Full medical coverage? Paid vacation? Buck me.” Greyhoof growled, packing away his pipe and last container of tobacco. “Oh, that ol’ fool is damn lucky I have no patience for the incompetence in this wretched town. If this were Canterlot, Trottingham, Ponyville even… oh, he would be finding himself a cot and a coltfriend right now!”

Suitcase packed, one hoof gripping his feeble attempt at self-care, Greyhoof took a mournful last look at the servant’s quarters. No, the servant’s shack. That’s what it was, what it had always been.

Sixteen years ago, Madame Libra Scales had planned to start a greenhouse and learn the basics of hydroponic farming, fascinated by its efficiency. Madhoof would have none of that nonsense, and made an incredibly economical business decision: rather than build an extension to his grand home, or maybe an extra room or two, or, hay, let the servants have the unused rooms, he halted Libra Scales’ blueprints and threw some beds in the greenhouse for good measure.

“Servant’s quarters now,” he had droned, cocktail in hoof. “You got your roof, your walls, your floor, your bed. That’s all you need.”

Greyhoof was not a material stallion. Shunning the pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake—one of many ironies in the twisted tale that was his life—he had kept few possessions through his stint at the Orange Family Mansion. Not that it could have been any different. Bernie Madhoof’s bits had paid off the butler’s debts and kept him fed and clothed, but that was about it. A small stash of bits under the bed was the last item Greyhoof packed, knowing it wouldn’t last him long.

Greyhoof didn’t care. He’d heard rumors of gold mines and oil fields discovered far out west in the desert plains, beyond the settlement of Appleloosa. Service jobs would be in pleading demand once the first lines and claims were discovered and tapped. A taxi-carriage was on its way, and, after that, the steam of the train’s engine would propel him to his final outpost.

Shaking the dust from the floor of the shack off his hooves, Greyhoof gave the room one last sigh, and exited. A foal waited on the welcoming mat for him.

“Madame Babs Seed. What are you doing out here, my dear?”

“Seein’ youze off.” The filly’s deep green eyes met the withered stallion’s, the stars reflecting as beacons within her windows. “Citrus says it’s too hard fo' her ta say goodbye, an' Ma’s dealin’ wit' Da’ now. I didn’t want youze ta walk outta heeya alone.”

A gentle smile spread across his tired, sore muzzle. “That’s very kind of you, Madame.”

“Aw, cut wit' the names, will youze? I ain’t the boss o' youze. I never was.”

Greyhoof chuckled. At least she had that part correct.

Babs Seed laughed with him, finding a strange but welcome sense of familiarity with the butler. Even though he was a total rear half the time, he still cared 'bout me, an' dat’s what’s important. “Greyhoof… I’m gonna miss youze. Allspice jus' isn’t a good substitute.”

He couldn’t help but sigh, realizing that the burden of his duties would fall on the poor chef. She was the second senior and would now become the whipping mare to all of Bernie Madhoof’s convoluted demands. Greyhoof made a mental note to keep in touch with Allspice. At first sign of trouble, he would pay his old employer a personal kind of visit.

Leaning down to Babs's level, Greyhoof said, “Babs Seed, there’s something I want you to know. You need to listen very carefully, okay, m’lady?”

She nodded, urging him to continue.

Plucking his words with care, the stallion said, “You see, Babs Seed, ‘family’ is a funny word. We think of it to mean our mother, our father, our sister, our brother. We take it to mean all those ponies who are bound to us by blood. You understand that, of course, don’t you?”

“Yes, Greyhoof,” Babs said, nodding.

“I thought so. But, Babs Seed, do you know what the other kind of family is?”

Anotha kind o’ family? Babs felt her eyes widen as she shook her head.

Feeling truth rising up from the Earth into his hooves, the source of all Earth pony magic, Greyhoof said, “There is a kind of family that is entirely yours. It is the family you create. And though you didn’t choose to belong to the one you were born into, you cannot leave it. Even if you run, far, far away from this place, you will always be your father’s daughter, Babs Seed.

“But… someday, when you are ready, you can choose to craft a family of your own, whether they are bound to you by blood or not.”

Lifting her head by the chin, staring into her eyes, Greyhoof whispered, “Do you know what is thicker than blood, Babs Seed?”


“Love,” he answered, and pulled the filly into a hug as her tears began to wet his shoulder.


Citrus Blossom and Babs Seed got to work in the library, creating flyer after flyer by hoof. Remembering her vow to the Cutie Mark Crusaders back in Ponyville, their newest member would waste no time searching for new recruits. She remembered the words of the Turner-angel on her shoulder. What betta time than now, kid?

“Youze’s sure the teacha ain’t gonna mind iffa I use the classroom afta school ta hold the first Manehatten CMC meetin’?” Babs asked, reluctant to do anything that might provoke the instructor, whom she was pretty positive had not forgotten the last time she had graced his classroom with her presence.

“Oh, darling, just relax,” Citrus said, putting the finishing touches on one of the flyers before picking up a new leaf of paper. “I’m sure he won’t mind. You have the same teacher I had when I was a foal, you know. If youze like, I could… pull some strings,” she added, giving her a wink and a smile.

Babs grinned. “Aww, Citrus, youze would do dat fo' me?!”

“Of course, little sister." Citrus chuckled.

Excitedly finishing up the flyer she was working on, Babs Seed felt a spring of hope, a blade of grass struggling and bursting through the cobblestone. Maybe I can do dis.


The sun is, quite literally, a big ball of gas—hydrogen—burning at ten thousand degrees Fareneheit, constantly producing another gas—helium—via nuclear fusion. Without this powerful orb in the sky, life in Manehatten, Equestria, and Earth itself would cease to exist. It went without commentary that ponies worshiped and reveled in the alicorn who made it rise and fall each day. The sun was being, life, and meaning itself.

This morning, Bernie Madhoof hated the sun.

Waking up in his empty, king-sized bed, Bernie rolled over, groaning and clutching his forehead. The hangover struck with a vengeance, sending hammers upon blacksmith’s anvils, scorching hot in his brain. His throat felt as if he’d been wandering through desert sand dunes without a canteen. The stallion barely made it to the bathroom, swinging his bedroom door wide open and nearly sending Allspice to her hooves in his wake—“OUTTA MY WAY!”—before the dry heaves came, and then the pre-digested kale, all over the sink, splattering the walls.

Panting as a second wave of nausea wracked his body, Bernie Madhoof was already contemplating his cure. There would be a business meeting with a few merchants in town at noon and a round of golf with another business partner at five. That didn’t leave him too much time to sleep, he reasoned, bowing low to the porcelain goddess. No, the dog had bit him, bit him good, so, now, it was time to pluck its hairs once more.

Stumbling back to his bedroom, leaving the mess in the master bathroom to one of the servants, Bernie went straight to his desk. There, in the one of the drawers under a small typewriter and a day planner, was his salvation. Applejack Daniel’s. Only the finest apples in Equestria, aged to perfection, extracted by masters of their art and distilled in aged oak barrels.

The taste never got old.

One shot down, two more to go. His memory was beginning to fail him, though little gray speckled through his mane. He vaguely recalled an incident the evening prior. Perhaps a business deal had gone bad?

No. “Greyhoof.” He growled to himself. That piece of crap. He always resented that butler, that fake, greedy stain upon his household. He had no regrets; Greyhoof was a coward. He didn’t even have to ask; Bernie knew that the shack held one less scumbag now, and nopony would miss him.

There was something else. Had the markets taken a turn for the worse? Were customers beginning to see the value in apples again, rather than oranges?

Ah. It came back to him. Babs Seed. Such a bad, bad seed. His youngest foal. Well, the youngest one he knew of.

Bernie Madhoof couldn’t lie to himself; he had not kept his marriage vows clean. He doubted Libra Scales had either. From the day she was born, twelve years ago, Father Orange had been suspicious of Babs Seed. She didn’t look a thing like him, only like her mother—if somepony squinted hard enough. And her name… Libra had chosen her name. He'd had no say. What was up with that?

Another shot, down the hatch.

For a while, Bernie Madhoof had been forthright with his wife, accusing her of gestating another stallion’s foal. He searched for any stallion who might have been legally-or-nick-named Babs—what the hay was that short for, if anything?—feeling his wife was taunting him with that name. Babs… Seed. Not his seed. It couldn’t have been.

He remembered his foalhood, his own relationship with his father. His father had been stern, wise, bold. Teaching his son all the ways of being a stallion, the most important lesson Bernie recalled from his father was a quick one. It was about blood. No, not violence, although his father used it oftentimes to make his point.

No, blood was all that mattered. One’s blood, one’s genes, one’s chromosomes, one’s essence. Foals were a continuation of oneself, an extension beyond the realms of death into eternity. It was important, his father had told him, to sow his wild oats as far as his eyes could see, to bring himself eternal life through the eyes of another.

Beyond blood relations, ponies were for two things: manipulation and exploitation.

And, so he had created life, filled the Earth with more of himself. More than twice, he assumed, though nopony confirmed it for him. Well, more than once, he guessed. Second times don’t always count, do they?

Libra had been hurt at his piercing accusations, even offering to see a unicorn doctor in Canterlot to perform a paternity spell to prove the bad seed was his. He refused. It wouldn’t matter anyway. Even if Babs Seed shared 100% of his DNA, the entirety of her double helix intertwined with his, she was still not his daughter. She was nothing like him, and never would be. There would be no grandfoals. Oh, he saw the signs.

Oh, his father had taught him those, too. Taught him all the ways that the devils hide. The demons were within her now, as they always had been, but now they were raging. She was a bad seed, indeed. Her lineage would end where it had began, in her. Bernie didn’t care. She wasn’t his daughter, even if Celestia herself said so.

“It would be such a shame,” he said coldly, licking down the last drops of whiskey from the bottle, shaking it onto his tongue, “for the apple to think itself an orange.”


Aw, horseapples, come on, work wit' me, clock…

The school day was winding down to a tight close. Today’s lesson had been about, of all things, geology, again. The stern and no-nonsense stallion had noted the remarkable number of failures two weeks ago, and in his disapproval, chose to repeat the lesson plan all over again.

He whacked a yardstick at the chalkboard. “Pay attention, foals! Now, who can tell me how igneous rock is formed, an' its characteristics? … Nopony? ... Nopony whatsoever? ... Ah, youze rotten bunch ‘o’ brats, I oughta—“

His voice droned on and on into the recesses of Babs Seed’s brain. Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes and the first meeting of the Manehatten branch of the Cutiemark Crusaders would begin.

Following her remarkable lightbulb moment, Babs Seed had posted flyers advertising the club all over the lockers, doors of other classrooms, and even doors to the bathrooms throughout the schoolhouse. Surely, there oughta be at least a few foals who’ll come an' see what’s up, right? I can’t be the only pony in dis entire school without a cutiemark, right?

The day had dragged on and on like carriage wheels through the mud. All five of her tormentors were absent, their desks empty and barren. Nopony had jumped her during her morning routine, nor at recess or lunch. Babs refrained from thanking her lucky stars a second time. She sensed that, sooner or later, they would make their presence known again.

And dis time… I’ll be ready.

“… Metamorphic rocks include shale, marble, an' thundereggs, formed by intense heat an' pressure under the crust o' the Earth, inside the mantle… mwop mwop mwop mwop…” The teacher's words became pure and utter nonsense.

Babs groaned, burying her head in her desk. If it had not been for Boone, she would have aced that test. At this point, she could have become a “Cutie Mark Crusader Rock Identifier”.



Saved by the bell, Babs Seed ruffled through her saddlebags, finding her Cutie Mark Crusader cape and fixing it tight around her neck. It’s now o’ neva.

Trotting gently up towards the teacher’s desk, the stern stallion grumbling to himself as he packed up supplies, she asked, “Um… sir?”

“Bah! What is it?”

“Um… is it okay iffa I use youze classroom fo' ma club meetin’?”

Shrugging, her instructor locked up his suitcase and grabbed his coat. “I don’t see why not. But don’t youze trash dis classroom, young filly, o' youze’ll be cleanin' it wit' youze own toothbrush!”

He shot her a warning stare, then cantered out of his own classroom, leaving it in her hooves. The door slammed behind him, heavy and final.

Blinking slowly, Babs whispered, “It’s a deal… I think?”

... How the hay would I even…?

A creak of the door on the opposite side of the class brought her to stand at attention. Babs Seed spotted four younger foals—two fillies, two colts—poking their heads through, nervous looks on their faces, scanning the classroom with wondering eyes and looking ridiculously out of place.

A peregrine colt with a dark blue mane looked to his left, than his right, then at the only remaining pony in the room and inquired, “Um, is dis the ‘Cutie Mark Crusaders’ club meetin’?”

Her cape flowing behind her, Babs Seed trotted over to the little group and smiled.


Point Of Entry

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Point Of Entry

“So… lemme get dis straight… We stick togetha, help each otha find our cutiemarks, an' on top o’ dat, we get ta wear awesome capes like youze?” one of the newcomer Crusaders, a light-green filly named Flora, gushed, excitedly pointing at the leader’s silken cape.

Beaming with pride and displaying the CMC crest for everypony to see, Babs Seed grinned and answered in the affirmative. “Youze got dat right! Sound pretty fair ta youze?”

Excited murmurs passed among her four recruits, eyes wide with wonder and surprise. The four blankflanks had been expecting both something cool and something to do with cutiemarks, but weren’t ready for something this cool.

Babs felt like a five-star general rallying her troops on the battlefield. Leadership opportunities had never been presented to her, though she technically had employees working underneath her. Management had never been one of her interests, seeing what it entailed for her parents: lots of paperwork, lots of unexpected telegrams, and little home-time. However, this management was a different sort of breed, and the idea that (if only in this moment) foals were looking up to her made Babs Seed aware of her own inner strength.

Now, now, don’t let it go ta youze head, youze mook. Youze managed ta bring ‘em heeya, but youze hasn’t made Crusadas o' ‘em yet!

Grabbing a piece of chalk from the board, Babs said, “Now, I’m sure youze is wonderin’ what the rules o' dis heeya club are, am I right?” Four nodding foals gave her unspoken confirmation. “Well, then, jus' gimme a second an' I’ll write ‘em down—youze might wanna take some notes too, while youze at it.”

Playing schoolteacher, creating a fog of chalk dust and abusing several innocent erasers, Babs wrote as well as her awkward hoof-hold allowed. After several minutes, she had scribbled out four rules on the board.

They appeared as the following:

1) Once a Crusader, always a Crusader.
2) Do not bully anypony for any reason.
3) Do not fight, except in self-defense.
4) You are not defined by your flank.

“So… what does everypony think?” she asked, a shy smile and blush spreading across her muzzle.

After a few seconds, the peregrine colt, a brave little foal named Rustler, raised a hoof.

“Yes, Rustla?”

“Um, Babs Seed, what does the fourth one mean?” he asked, squinting at the blackboard. “Iffa we aren’t defined by our flanks… then… what do we go by? How do youze measure anythin’, iffa youze have no cutiemark ta measure against? Youze must have noticed tons o’ ponies have cutiemarks dat match their names—shouldn’t we jus' go by dat?”

“Yea, he’s right!” piped a sparkling white filly with a pink mane named Quick Step. “Like… shouldn’t youze be a farmer o' summat?”

Farmin’? Me? Like, Apple Family farmer?

“Ah, heh heh, um...” Babs chuckled, confused. “I, uh, don’t know what youze mean by dat.”

“Well, duh.” Quick Step rolled her eyes. “Youze name is Babs Seed. Youze know, seed. Like, apple seed? O' orange seed? O'—“

Shaking her head, Babs interrupted with a rough, “I get it, I get it!” She stomped a hoof on the floorboards for emphasis. “No! I don’t have ta be a farm-pony iffa I don’t wanna. I don’t have ta be anythin’ I don’t wanna be. Neither do youze.”

Rustler waved a hoof in the air again. “But, Babs, why do so many ponies have names dat match their cutiemarks?”

Rustler brought up a point that philosophers all over Equestria had pondered over the ages. Although it was a strike against the colt’s ego (if he was aware of the fact), he wasn’t the first pony to figure that out.

The majority of ponies, borne blank and clean into a brave, new world, would come to find in their growing pains that their hidden talent matched their birth name. If literalism didn’t prevail, the metaphorical often did. Hence why Libra Scales had a knack for maintaining impartiality instead of becoming a merchant of balances. In such a coincidence, she, too, maintained the principle, as did many, many other ponies.

Few answers had been given to this riddle. The more faithfully-inclined ponies would muse that such happenstance was a tally on the side of Fate, destiny being chosen and intertwined from birth by the trickster ways of Mother Galaxia. Tinfoil-hat wearing ponies, in their suspicion of all things similar and coherent, rumored that cutiemarks were actually spells cast by Celestia per the demands of a foal’s parents—that they were no mark of self-discovery at all. Still others scratched their heads and continued to sleep under their thinking trees.

Babs Seed was no philosopher, but four pairs of expectant pupils demanded that she be.

“Dat’s an excellent question, there, Rustla. Dat’s showin’ some smart thinkin’. Uh…” Come on, kid, hurry it up! she heard the Turner-angel urge her. Youze know dis. Come on.

“… Maybe youze don’t have an answer?” Turn Key, a little purple colt with an orange mane, said. “It’s alright, Babs, iffa youze don’t. I still wanna be a Cutie Mark Crusada!”

“Me too!” Flora exclaimed, raising a forehoof.

Quick Step nodded. “Makes three o' us.”

Rustler, however, was not impressed. “I still wanna hear youze take on dis one. I mean, ma name’s Rustla. Rustla. What—do I have ta move ta Appleoosa o' Ponyville an' start lassoin' cows fo' a livin’? What say youze, Babs?”

Babs Seed gulped. Never one for philosophy, she decided to cast her die in the dark and see where it landed.

“Nopony knows fo' sure, Rustla,” she said, clearing her throat. “Sometimes, things happen dat way. Sometimes…” Her thoughts drifted back to Ponyville, to the Cutie Mark Crusaders, to the parade.

“Sometimes, things jus' kinda happen in a way dat matches everythin’ youze thought before. Patterns in the sky, in the stars, the constellations. Think 'bout those. Dey are constant, aren’t dey? Draco today is Draco tomorrowa. Some dominoes fall inta place where dey belong. Some things are what dey appear ta be.

“An’, sometimes, dey aren’t. Life can make a fool o' youze iffa youze ain’t careful. Fo' example, see rule numba one. Youze may think youze can only get youze way in the world by bein' a bully—bitin' the dog before it bites youze. But the world will show youze what it thinks o’ dat. It’ll challenge youze. It’ll shake youze up an' grab all the bits before youze can squeal.

“So, I dunno. All I know is dat youze can’t predict anythin’. Iffa youze don’t wanna try ta find out who youze are, well, youze pay the price an' takes youze choice. Thinkin’ on it never hurt nopony, but it never made no cutiemark appear, neither. Does dat make sense?”

Her troops were silent, drinking in the depths of her words, letting them burrow into their brains and plant their roots. The general waited to see the state of her soldiers’ morale, to determine if it was time to board up the gates and deflect, or if they were ready to charge.

Rustler rose and saluted Babs Seed. “Ma’am, I would be proud ta be a Manehatten Cutie Mark Crusada alongside youze.”

As the other foals cried out in agreement, Babs sighed in relief. “Glad ta hear it from all o' youze. Anypony know how ta sew? Iffa youze are gonna be crusadin’, youze need a cape!”

Quick Step’s forehoof waved excitedly. “Oh! Me, me, me!”


Leaning low, parallel to the table, feeling the smooth, green felt under one of his hooves, the grain of the cue against the other, Lucky Toss connected with the cue ball, banking a shot against the bumper and tapping a solid ball into a pocket.

“Heh, o’ course youze made dat shot. ‘Lucky’ bastard.” Boone snorted, leaning against his pool cue. “Ten bits says youze can’t clear the table.”

“Ten bits? It’s on, buddy boy!” Two hoof-fulls of spit were exchanged and united, and a pot of bits thrown into a Mason jar. Lucky Toss stared at the pool table, considering his next shot.

“Hey, Boone, have youze been back ta school, eitha?”

Card Slinger was slumped in a beanbag behind the pool table, shuffling and re-shuffling a worn deck of cards. Fencer and Switch were on the opposite corner of the room, Switch taking a sharpening stone to the other filly’s sparring flail. Night had not yet fallen as the sun still shone its bright rays into the gang’s shack. Cursing the daylight, Slinger squirmed out of the beanbag and trotted over to the bay window, drawing the blackout curtains.

“Dammit, I’m tryin' ta play some pool heeya!” Toss whined, all of his angles lost in with the dilation of his pupils.

“Shuddup, Toss. Youze a cheat anyway.” Turning to Boone, Card Slinger asked again, “Have youze been back ta the classroom, Boone? Still hot fo' teacher?”

Barely dodging a swing from Boone, Card Slinger bust up in laughter. “Hahaha! Youze ain’t helpin’ youze cause, Boone! Youze throw like such a little faggot!”

Glaring up at Card Slinger from the sharpening stone in her hooves, Switch hissed, “Slinga, jus' cut it out already! Youze know he hasn’t been back yet… he’s been here all damn day, fo' Celestia’s sake!”

Slinger swayed a little, still trotting above Cloudsdale within his pickled brain. “Ah, youze right. I forgot, he's afraid o' dat namby-pamby blankflank beatin' his sorry ass up." Snort-laughing and stumbling, becoming even more amused at Boone's glare and blush, the buzzed colt almost fell onto the pool table.

"Sorry, there, fellas. Boonie-Boy, me an' youze last bag o’ veggie salad had a dance dis mornin’. Don’t worry, I’ll pay youze back once the check comes. Heh, we’ve all been learnin’ so much heeya instead, haven’t we?”

CRACK! The cue ball slammed into another solid, making sweet love on the stone, sending it home with its tail between its legs. “Dat’s anotha one, Boone! Might as well pay up!”

Shaking his head, Boone turned to his intoxicated leader. “O’ course we have. But, back ta befo'. School. It’s been damn near three weeks at dis point. Don’t youze think we woulda been busted already iffa the Orange bitch was a snitch afta all?”

Blade sharpened at last to a killing edge, Fencer admired Switch’s craftsmanship, running her hoof around the dull side of the blade. “Iffa she knows what’ll come ta her, she’ll keep her crybaby mouth shut. We can’t keep hidin’ heeya foreva, though… some o' us have parents ta lie ta, youze know!”

The ward of an incompetent uncle who split half the government dole with him on marijuana and alcohol, Card Slinger snorted into his hooves, rocking himself back and forth. “Oh, the plights o' youze normal foals! How youze must envy me an' ma family gravestones! Not ta mention the trust funds in the bank… heh, heh, heh.”

Boone groaned as Lucky Toss made another expert shot on the pool table, leaving only one solid and the eight ball waiting. As he calculated the complex geometry of billiards with one eye open and tense hooves, Lucky said, “Come on, man, dat’s jus' temptin’ fate right there. Trust funds are fo' adults only. Youze got about five years ta go.”

“Like dat stops him from doin’ anythin' else.” Switch rolled her eyes as she cleaned metal shards off her sharpening stone.

“Ah, buck all youze. Anyhoo, I think we oughta keep layin’ low heeya. Maybe give it a few mo’ weeks. Those Oranges have bits, though. Maybe we could get ‘em ta cough some up in exchange fo' leavin’ the worthless one alone.”

“O'… we could give that little brat another manecut,” Fencer said darkly, twirling her flail, feeling it bounce and slash the air in her hooves. “Dis blade is hungry fo—“

“NOOOO!” With a final crash of sphere against sphere, Boone was out ten bits. That damn little gambler.

Card Slinger rolled his eyes. “Fenca, don’t even start with me. Now dat I think 'bout it… youze all should go back ta school. Back ta bein' little bookworms.”

“An' why do youze say dat, Slinga?” Switch sneered back at him.

Card Slinger rubbed his forehooves together, creating tiny sparks within them. A hideous, toothy grin spread across his face, spreading like flames through a parched forest.

“I’ll take care o' the Orange bitch. Dis one is mine.”


After introducing the new Cutie Mark Crusaders to the concept of the group high-hoof, the four new recruits departed the classroom, chatting excitedly. Quick Step had taken down all of their measurements and studied Babs's cape, relieved to realize that she had the same fabrics back at home. The Manehatten CMC scheduled their next meeting for Friday, leaving the gap between meetings for the capes to be finished.

Happily waving good-bye as they trotted out the door, Babs Seed could no longer contain her joy. She cantered a few laps around the classroom, her cape flowing behind her, the very first club meeting a total success. Deep conversation notwithstanding, none of her fears had come true. One foal was all she wished for, all she asked of her lucky stars. The Universe surprised her and gave her four instead. Apprehensive curiosity was all she required. The cosmos again exceeded her expectations, dropping excited, deeply interested foals into her hooves.

Erasing the afternoon’s meeting notes from the board, Babs Seed said to herself, “What a great first day o’ the Manehatten CMC. The girls back in Ponyville will be so impressed ta hear 'bout dis! I better whip up a letter ‘bout dis ta dem, soon as I get home.”

Closing the door to the empty classroom behind her with a hindhoof, Babs found her thoughts drifting to Ponyville, strangely. She had been away from the western land and the Apple Family farm for barely two days. Regardless, she couldn’t help but wonder what the Ponyville CMC and Apples were up to.

Would dey be proud o' me fo' today? Are Diamond Tiara an' Silver Spoon playin’ nice? Iffa I hear dey are doin’ anythin’ ta Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, o' Scootaloo, why, I oughta…

“Nah, everythin’s gonna be fine,” she dismissed, shaking away those thoughts. Ponyville, in spite of dragon attacks, parasprite invasions, Nightmare Moon, and Discord had stood strong, a powerful and menacing cliff in the ocean spray. By virtue of its very existence, it seemed to challenge all comers, mocking, “Can you take me down? Many have tried, all have failed… and who are you again?”

The Elements of Harmony—her own cousin one of those destined warriors—could handle any threats that Fate had smacked their way. Schoolyard bullies like Tiara and Spoon were no match, especially since Apple Bloom and Scootaloo were over their fears of snitching.

Fears I induced, Babs thought, ashamed.

The sun beginning to set, Babs Seed galloped through the vendors’ roads as they began to empty, the dark curtain of night threatening to plummet. The monsters were beginning to stir under their rugs, and in spite of her cape and her earlier assurances to the contrary, she was not ready to face them.

Fears I hold tight.


Wind rushed through her ears, teasing the hammer and anvil within them, whispering her name. She tried to resist. She tried to stay on the straight and narrow path before her. It was too late. The wind was a fisher-pony and she was a rainbow trout.

Hook and line met sinker.

Babs Seed cantered, then galloped, as the thermals screamed her name, seeking her, needing her. Drawn to their source with hypnotic desire, she felt her hooves pounding harder and harder upon the cobblestones. Adrenaline injected deep into her bloodstream and her nostrils flared open. She felt herself becoming more equine, more primitive, sinking into her roots as she ran through the dark streets of Manehatten.

Losing all self-control, her pace increased as she passed row after row of abandoned buildings in the twilight. The darkness beckoned, raised a forehoof, and ushered her towards it.

She reached The Watering Hole, turned the corner. Found the loading dock, the alleyway.

Graffiti decorations graced the concrete jungle surrounding her. She turned to see that her exit was blocked by a sudden shift of the alleyway, as if it had picked up a wall and thrust it behind her. Surrounded by stone on all sides, Babs Seed was reduced to pure livestock now, a mere animal.

Panicking, she slammed her hindhooves, solid as iron, into the walls around her. They gave no relief. She took her forehooves into battle, kicking and punching, tears rolling down her face.

Suddenly, a hoof tugged at what remained of her mane, pulling her to the ground.

Lying prone, she looked up at a blood-red colt staring back at her, licking his lips.

“What a naughty little seed, out in ma streets. It’s a pittance youze still try ta sprout."

The broken cider bottle glistened in the moonlight in his hoof, its end jagged and angry. It looked as hungry as the pony hovering over her.

She tried to move, but her muscles had lost all communication with her nervous system. Neurons fired, releasing electricity and chemical signal, receiving only silence. Her brain began to panic, flooding her veins with more adrenaline, firing neurotransmitter after neurotransmitter. They all dissipated and changed, energy failing its purpose and instead becoming the falling sweat on her brow.

The colt lifted her by her mane, making her wince at the pressure. He looked her deep in the eyes, the windows to his soul reflecting no light. There was nothing there. He was hollow, soulless, psychotic.

She tried to gasp, tried to cry out, but her voice strangled in her vocal cords as he stretched her neck, heightening her pitch. Her cerebral cortex disconnected communications with the rest of its system, and her noises became high-pitched gibberish, eliciting cackles of laughter from her captor.

Pressing the shards of glass against her throat, anticipating the warm flow of lifeblood to follow, Card Slinger whispered, “Ta-night, I finish what we started.”


Babs Seed woke with a start, gasping for breath, coughing and sputtering saliva all over her sheets. Heart racing, she began to feel for her throat, searching for the wounds and blood she was sure were there. She stared back at her hooves as she retracted them, finding them clean.

Panting, she said to nopony in particular, “Bad dream. Dat’s all it was. A bad dream.”

She waited for the thundering foal in her chest to seize her run, for the shivers down her spine to end. Three days. It had been three days since her last nightmare. While staying at Sweet Apple Acres, Babs Seed had experienced a nightmare in one manner or another every night, waking up in a pool of cold sweat. Somehow, her tosses, turns, and cries in the darkness didn’t bring Apple Bloom out of her own slumber on the cold, hard ground.

The last night she had slept there, with Apple Bloom in her hooves, the nightmare had ceased, but all other moons that had watched her slumber graced her with night terrors.

Maybe I jus' can’t sleep alone anymo'.

Coming down from her adrenaline high, Babs quietly slipped out of bed, taking careful steps on the creaking floorboards. Performing the best imitation of a mouse she could muster, she slipped past her door, then tried the doorknob of her sister’s room.

To her surprise, it was unlocked.

Spread-eagle on the bed, snoring with a deeper voice than she had ever used in the daytime, Citrus Blossom was dead to the world, dreaming of fashionistas and designer jewelry. Babs paused, shooting a sideways glance at the clock. 0200. Witching Hour. The magic was strongest right now; perhaps that was why she had awoken.

Poking Citrus in the shoulder, Babs whispered, “Pssst… Citrus? Psst… hey, Citrus? … CITRUS!”

With an abrupt snort, the mare woke with a start. “Huh? What?!”

“It’s jus' me, sis.”

“Oh, Babs, honey. Did you have a bad dream?”

Tail between her legs, the foal nodded sadly in affirmation.

Positioning herself one one half of the bed, Citrus Blossom replied sweetly, “Come here. You can sleep with me tonight.”

“Thanks, Citrus.” Climbing into her sister’s bed, Babs said, “I’m sorry ta wake youze up. I…I jus'—”

“Shhh.” Citrus wrapped her hooves around her sibling, pulling her close. “It’s alright, my dear. The moon doesn’t always grant us sweet dreams. Even I get them sometimes.”

Eyes wide, Babs whispered incredulously, “Youze really do?”

“Oh, but of course! Could you imagine what it would be like to visit one of your mentors, one of the best dressmakers in all of Canterlot, and find out that the dress she custom-stitched for you, thread by thread, all by hoof was three sizes too small? And she expected you to show it off for her on the runway on top of that?!”

Youze is so ridiculous. Superficial, sure, but it’s a special kind o' superficial.

Babs Seed snorted. “Naw, I guess I couldn’t imagine summat like dat.”

“You see?” Citrus smiled gently. “Nopony is immune. But you don’t have to go through these nights alone if you don’t want to, okay?”

Sighing, feeling gravity begin to pull her eyelids to the crust of the Earth, Babs Seed replied, “Oh … kay.”

Soon, the filly had drifted off again, snoring peacefully in Citrus’ hooves.

Slumber would not return to the older Orange as easily. She stared off somewhere beyond the moon, worry on her brow.

Babs Seed told her it had been a good day, excitedly weaving a tale of the Manehatten CMC’s first meeting, proud of her leadership skills. Citrus had beamed, pulling her sister in a tight embrace and expressing the utmost pride. It seemed like the little seed was beginning to sprout at last.

Dinner had been uneventful, collard greens and sweet potatoes with cinnamon and sugar. Delicious. Father was engaged in a long round of golf, eighteen holes hanging a business deal in the balance, and Mother was busy in the mansion’s office, typing away lines of figures on a small typewriter. It was just Citrus, Allspice, and Babs, digging deep into their plates and begging for more.

After dinner, Babs had retreated to her room with a pile of homework, and Citrus had perused a fashion magazine until sleep called her name. She’d heard no cries, no whimpers, no frustrated screams beyond her western wall. All seemed quiet on that front.

No, it had been a rare, calm evening, and she could think of nothing that would prompt Babs Seed's night terrors.

Finding the night beginning to whisper her name again, teasing her eyelids, Citrus Blossom relaxed into her bed, marking it in her brain to ask Babs Seed about the nightmares, to probe right down into their depths, even if she had to drag Luna alongside her.

One Shot At Glory

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One Shot At Glory

It was the call of a raven that woke Babs Seed up with a start this time. Still lost in her fevered, hazy R.E.M sleep, coming up slowly from the deep and back to reality, she jumped from the bed. Rubbing her eyes, she groaned and muttered, “Horseapples… what time is it?”

Light began to break on the horizon, Luna’s moon held high above the defiling steeples of Manehatten office buildings. The architects of the new age of industry and commerce considered themselves to be builders among divinity, and made their artifices as so. Unfortunately for them, Heaven laughs at all attempts to outsmart it, and their points of entry towards the sacred would never be completed.

Shaking her head, Babs went over to her sister’s east window, opening it slightly. Feeling the cold morning mist wash over her face, she spotted her alarm clock: a particularly irritated crow perched in an apple tree a few gardens down the lane. “Dammit, it’s too early fo' dis.” The school-bells still had about two hours before they would chime their way into another mechanized ritual.

Babs Seed had never been one to skip school. Among ponies her age, she was one of the most studious, devouring text and data with all the voracity of a starving timberwolf. Although she knew that she probably could have gotten away with skipping now and then, where would she go? What would she do? She was not a shopper or a criminal, so the majority of her choices were shot right there. There was a lake on the other side of the Manehatten Hill that she would visit from time to time, to feed ducks crusty bread or just sit and think. Otherwise, Babs Seed had no place to escape during the day.

And now, with the Manehatten CMC to lead, she had an example to set and morals to uphold. Truancy, however tempting it could be, was no longer an option.

Sighing, Babs turned from the window, eyes catching her sister, spread-eagled and drooling, mane looking all manner of adjectives. Giggling at the sight of the usually well-groomed pony reverting to an unkempt mare in the warm embrace of sleep, Babs trotted out the door, careful to miss the floorboards that tended to creak underhoof.

I could wake her up, but I’ve already done dat once befo’. Maybe Allspice is up. I sure could go fo' summat sweet right now.


“… Buckwheat pancakes? Again?” Allspice asked, raising an eyebrow in annoyance.

“Please, Allspice?”

“Miss Babs, we’re almost out o'—“

Her pupils dilated, reflecting all light possible. Wearing the most convincing frown she could muster, Babs replied, “Pleeeease?”

Sighing at her hooves, Allspice relented. “Fine. But this is the last time! Youze is lucky I happened ta be up an' 'bout at dis hour.”

Allspice had not yet reverted to the habits of foalhood, sleeping with the dusk and rising with the dawn. However, at this time in the morning, she was usually a ragged mess with a mug of steaming caffeine and her mane in curlers. Thankfully, the foal had not been downstairs for that sight; Allspice had no patience this morning for antics.

Swishing her bobtail happily, Babs Seed plopped down into her stool, rubbing her hooves together in anticipation. Allspice makes the best breakfast I’ve eva had. Iffa I was stuck on a desert island, I’d bring her along, jus' fo' the pancakes.

But, wait, a rational voice in her mind objected. How would she make pancakes iffa she didn’t bring a carriage-load o' flour a' such wit' her? An' what would Earth ponies like youze two be doin' out in the middle o' the ocean anyhow?

Shuddup, youze! Dis is no time o’ day fo' logic!

Drumming a forehoof on the dining table, Babs Seed said, “So… youze look real nice ‘dis mornin’, Allspice.”

Holding the handle of a frying pan in her mouth, Allspice turned, eying the foal suspiciously. Whereas Greyhoof had been much more personal with Babs—almost as if he were a father figure substitute—Allspice and Babs had held maybe two or three conversations she could remember in all her serving days.

It wasn’t as if she didn’t like the foal, her thoughts continued as she splashed a cup of almond milk into the pan before adding the dry ingredients. She was adorable in her own awkward little ways, and though she would never mention it to her masters, when Babs Seed stood on her own four hooves, Allspice had to fight her own urges to stand with her against all opposition.

Something had changed in her employer’s foal since she had left the gates of glorious Manehatten.

“Uh… thank youze?” Allspice muttered, sparking the pilot light on the stove, the batter hissing with gratitude as she did so.

“Didja do somethin’ new wit' youze mane?”

“No…” the chef said, drifting off into awkward silence.

“Ah. Well, it looks good!”

Babs Seed beamed, offering Allspice the most genuine smile she could conjure. Youze is the new head honcho ‘round here, servant o' no. Best I’d git on the good side. Plus, we’ve never been much fo' talkin’, so might as well start now, right? What time but now?

Babs waited patiently as the cook fulfilled her duties. Two golden discs, finding that perfect balance between fluffy and crisp, plopped down on the plate in front of her.

Returning the frying pan to the stove to whip up some of her own, Allspice replied grudgingly, “Thanks… Madame.”

… Dis might take a while.


Citrus Blossom stirred, her ears teased by the chirping of sparrows.

In her dreams, she was trotting proudly on a runway before a crowd of awe-struck ponies, who captured her with their eyes and cameras. She wore a dress of fine lavender silk, speckled to and fro’ with what surely amounted to pounds of rhinestones.

Destiny was not deaf to her whispers. She had made it out of Manehatten at last, leaving behind all facades and routines. She was a star in her own right, orbiting the bounds of glory and fame.

Taking Hoity Toity by the forehoof, she began to weep from joy, exclaiming, “Yes! Yes! I’ll take it! Of course!” The contract laid before her at the end of the runway, this supermodel of a mare grasping her quill like an escape rope. Her movements were calculated, complex, each looping letter one step closer to becoming all she’d ever wanted.

Hoity Toity smiled, and replied with a shrill SQUAWK!


Celestia disapproved of ponies who lived after midnight or made the unfortunate decision to become one with the dead, slaving away at the aptly-named “graveyard” shift. Rising her zombies with the climbing of the morning sun, usually by 1000 sharp, Celestia had no more time for tricks.

Celestia, by virtue of the transitive property, thrust Citrus Blossom’s eyelids open, trapping her dream in a jar. It would be released back to her once the Royal Duties were finished and Luna rose her hypnotic lantern once more.

Citrus groaned, feeling for the familiar shape of a foal next to her. Nothing. The clock mocked her. 1003. Babs Seed had been in school for a little over two hours now.

Yawning, Citrus slowly climbed out of bed, cursing herself for oversleeping. “Heh… guess I’ll have to catch her after school.” She sighed, flicking the Sandmare’s dust from her mane as she exited.

Many moons had passed by uneventfully for Citrus, dreams little more to her than escapist fantasies. Nightmares hadn’t visited her for as far back as she could remember. Babs’s night terrors worried the mare.

Was there something she hadn’t told her? Was anypony picking on her again, throwing up their hooves in challenge? Was she still feeling guilty over how she’d treated the Ponyville CMC? Or was there something else that had happened back there?

Or was it…

“No, no, of course not.” Citrus scolded herself, flicking cold water from the bathroom sink onto her face. A pit formed in her stomach at the mere thought of her suspicions. She chastised herself for even flirting with such an idea, as if thinking of it breathed life into its bones.


Feeling serendipitous, Babs Seed whipped into the classroom just before the great oak doors called her a juvenile delinquent. After savoring ever last morsel of her favorite breakfast, the foal had wandered around the Orange Family gardens, stopping to smell the roses a tad too much in her glee. Luckily, with quick hooves and only a trickle of traffic, she’d outsmarted that blasted bell one more time.

Of course, the only desk remaining was in a corner, adjacent to Fencer.

Cautiously, Babs slipped into her seat, prepared for the inevitable. Come on, bitch, hit me wit' youze best shot. I’ll show youze right where ta go, right next ta youze buddy Boone on the concrete!

Fencer said nothing.

Stealing a glance over at her adversary, Babs Seed expected to be impaled by glaring daggers, or at least dismissed with a flippant sneer. Fencer gave her no satisfaction, staring straight ahead as the stern stallion began to take roll call.

What the hay?

She stared this time, searching for malice in her assailant’s eyes. Not even a twitch. But what 'bout the others? Are dey all heeya too?

A quick scan of the packed classroom confirmed her suspicions: Boone, Fencer, Switch, and Lucky Toss were all present and alert, displaying a depth of attention and intensity towards the droning instructor's lecture on laws of motion that Babs had never seen before. Normally, these delinquents, if they attended class at all, lost themselves in paper airplanes, note-passing, doodling or, their favorite pastime, teasing the blankflank foal. Today, they were enthralled by something as rudimentary as a lecture, taking down extensive notes from the chalkboard with pure tunnel vision.

Odd as that was, there was one more curveball thrown the Babs's way, which smacked her straight between her eyes.

Slinga’s still gone. All his cronies are heeya… but the big cheese is rottin' somewhere else.

Babs shifted uncomfortably in her seat, unable to pay even a cent of attention as the teacher began to explain the basics of motion and gravity. Was this a sign of things to come? Had the storm passed over her at last, sparing any further destruction… or was she within the eye of it now?

An' was Slinga dat storm headed ma way?

“Youze! Filly in the back!” shouted the instructor, pointing his forehoof towards Babs.

“What is Isaac Newpony’s first law o' motion?”

“Um… er…”

A yardstick slapped down on a wooden desk with an angry WHAP! “Don’t tell me you’ve been zoning out dis entire lecture, young filly!” The entirety of the classroom turned their heads expectantly. It was always a pleasure watching another fail—no, it was delicious.

Poof! The Turner-angel was on her shoulder again, shaking his grizzled, stubbly muzzle. Come on, kid, youze got all eyes on youze, cream o’ the crop an' bottom o’ the barrel both. Think o' summat!

“Um…” Horseapples! I was jus' readin’ ‘bout dis a few nights ago… wait… “An object at rest will stay at rest, an' an object in motion will stay in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force, sir?”

“Was dat a question o' an answer?!” the stallion snapped back.

“… An… answer?” Babs hesitated, eyes wide. She realized her mistake. “Yes, sir, dat is ma answer.”

Snorting, the stallion granted his student no affirmation of success. “Dat’s correct, but iffa I catch youze lost in la-la land one more time, young filly, youze’ll be cleanin' dis entire classroom wit' youze own toothbrush!” The instructor, along with the disappointed foals, turned their backs to Babs and continued with an elaborate diagram on the chalkboard depicting a foal at rest receiving a brick to the face in motion.

… Why does he always threaten dat? Does he have a toothbrush fetish o' summat? Sheesh.


Recess usually was a time of quiet contemplation for Babs Seed (on the days she hid in the library, bribing the librarian with some manual labor for her stay) or a time to practice her chameleon skills (when Slinger and his gang came out of the background).

Feeling bold, empowered by her worst enemies’ seeming disinterest, Babs wandered out to the playground during government-mandated playtime, seeing things with new eyes. A large group of foals were organizing a game of hoofball in the fields beyond the blacktop, and a smaller group appeared to be starting a round of four-square. It had been ages since she had joined in any of their pony games. A year and a half, at least.

A familiar colt rushed over to her.

“Hey, Rustla,” she greeted, smiling.

“Hey Babs! Do youze wanna join our hoofball game? Quick Step, Turn Key, an' Flora are playin’ on ma team, too!”

Blushing, digging one forehoof into the blacktop, Babs Seed replied shyly, “Um... I dunno, Rustla. I haven’t played hoofball in eons.”

“Eons? Come on, Babs Seed, youze ain’t the Princesses!” Rustler whined.

She chuckled. “Well, youze got dat one right, bud. I guess I’m not.”

“C’mon." He motioned her over, pointing a forehoof towards the field. “It’s a sunny day! We won’t be havin’ too much o' those soon. An' don’t worry. We can teach youze how ta play iffa youze don’t know how.”

Overflowing with gratitude, she said at last, “Alright, youze got me. Let’s play.”

The Manehatten CMC team won, and Babs Seed never felt a greater victory in her life.


Bernie Madhoof sat at the dinner table, a full glass of wine comforting him among the piles of tax forms and vendor invoices that threatened to swallow him whole. Libra Scales sat next to him, typewriter under her hooves, tallying the month’s revenue.

Taking a deep gulp of Merlot, Bernie turned to his wife and grumbled, “What’s the damage this time?”

“Not too much, really.” Cross-referencing last month’s spreadsheet, Libra said, “It looks like profits are slightly up this month from last.”

“Strange.” Madhoof drummed a hoof on the oak in time to his internal rhythm. “You would expect to see decreased demand. Celestia is beginning to usher in autumn; the time of the apple is near.” A scowl adorned his muzzle. Bernie hated apples. They were far more versatile in all manners of nutrition and culinary arts than oranges.

Pectin and fiber slammed the worst effects of sugar to the curb, if not downright negating them, and the orange contained almost no fiber or pectin. Even their treasured nutrient—Vitamin C—was matched by the apple. Ultimately, beyond Vitamin C, oranges were Nature’s cookies—delicious once in a while, but coming with a heavy price tag if consumed frequently.

Applesauce was a staple among bakers, even in his own home, giving cakes and cookies rise and fluff. Fermented orange juice was consumed by despairing inmates alone—“prison hooch”—while fermented apple cider had its own season. Apple pie, apple crisp, apple cobbler… the list went on and on for all things oranges just quite didn’t fit.

It was so unfair.

Bernie Madhoof had not been blessed into this world with his riches. Bit by bit, he had conquered Manehatten and the entire orange fruit industry, distributing his products far and wide throughout Equestria. The company was his lifeblood, his livelihood, his entire reason for existence. The loss of any revenue, as miniscule as it would seem to some, terrified him. The fever-dream of returning to a diet of beans and corn, sweating in a textile factory somewhere beyond the reach of foal labor laws, had made economic loss nothing short of a phobia to Bernie Madhoof.

He would sooner sell his own foals then go down with the ship.

Offering a slight grin, Libra replied, “Well, it doesn’t look like our customers see it that way. With the extra left over from this month’s sales, we’ll weather any hits that may cross our paths.”

“Be damned if that’s true.” He ushered to Allspice, who was busying herself with tonight’s recipe in preparation of Babs Seed’s arrival from school. “You! More wine!”

“Yes, sir,” Allspice said quietly, trotting over and pouring her employer a fresh glass. In the wake of Greyhoof’s absence, Madhoof’s manners had disintegrated even further, and it was rare for Allspice to hear her own name from the stallion’s lips.

It didn’t matter. She hated him anyway.

“Come, now, darling, things aren’t that bad.” Libra placed a forehoof over her husband’s own. “You worry too much. Barring the worst-case scenario, we can just increase prices a li—“

Pulling his forehoof away and crossing both of them across his chest, Bernie Madhoof barked back, “And alienate our shareholders? You have to be kidding me. No, we better bring our best once the leaves start changing.” His eyes narrowed as he sighed, “If only that ungrateful niece of yours would’ve taken your offer when her hide was dirtying my floorboards.”

Libra Scales loved her husband, loved him beyond all rationality. She was aware of her own misguided emotions. Within the Manehatten elite, their marriage was known to be stagnant at best—rocky at worst. Indeed, he was not the same stallion she had fallen in love with two decades ago.

Back then, at the academy, he had been a sorcerer, winning her heart and hoof with the quickness of his thinking and the depths of his dreams. All that seemed to have whittled away in the rat race, along with his tolerance for anypony and anything that did not resonate with him. His mind was as closed as the boundaries between Heaven and Earth, only (hopefully) opening upon death.

Her patience was tried the hardest when he mentioned Applejack, and the Apple side of the family in general.

“You know she loves the farm,” she said soothingly, taking his hoof once more. “You know that’s where she belongs, where she’s needed. Big Mac and Granny Smith—and Apple Bloom now—love their industry as much as we love ours.”

“Bah!” He retracted again, knocking back his second glass of Merlot.

“You’re drinking awful fast tonight.”


“So… is there anything specific as to why?”

“Don’t you try to psychoanalyze me, Libra.” He sneered and slammed the glass down into the oak. “Everything’s fine.”

“Is this about Greyhoof? We can always hire a new butler, dear.” Libra fumbled around through her paperwork, grabbing a yellow legal pad. “I can make a note of it and go down to the newspaper offices tomorrow, put up a wanted ad.”

“No. We’re fine as we are. Cheaper, too.”

“Oh.” Disappointed, Libra Scales put down the notepad, offering her husband a fake smile. “Well, that’s okay, too. You’re right, we’re fine.”

As I always am, Bernie Madhoof thought.

“Oh! Before I forget, darling… has Citrus told you?”

Raising an eyebrow, he asked, “Told me what?”

“About Babs’s new club at school. The Manehatten… what was it again? Cutie Mark Conquerors? Cutie Mark Friends? No… Oh! The ‘Cutie Mark Crusaders’, that’s right.”

Feeling old demons stirring in his abdomen, the stallion scowled. “And what is that little group supposed to be about?”

Feeling as if she were navigating through a vast minefield, Libra Scales began to pluck her words from the path of least resistance. Her little foal was beginning to grow up, the little seed finding roots of her own in the Earth. She had been pleasantly surprised (though not as surprised as Citrus) to hear of her daughter’s newfound leadership skills. And, hay, if would help her get a cutiemark, then maybe it wasn’t such a strange idea after all.

She feared Bernie wouldn’t share her excitement.

“Well… it’s a group for foals who don’t have their cutiemarks yet. Apparently, there are four little foals at her school that don’t have theirs either. It’s to help them figure things out, self-discovery and whatnot,” she said nonchalantly, offering silent prayers that yeast had not yet began to take hold of her husband’s brain.

Without wine, cider, or whiskey, Bernie was able to hide his prejudices, keeping them locked away in some recess of his mind. Beyond foalhood, most ponies gave little thought to cutiemarks or blankflanks, reminding themselves that there was a time for everything. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to rejoice, and a time to mourn; a time to be blind, and a time to see.

A time to question, and a time to know one’s destiny.

But the yeast brought all of the evil out of the stallion, displaying it proudly for the world to see. It was nights under the influence that made Libra Scales question her love and devotion. In her dreams, she was a pegasus, not an Earth pony, and she would soar.

After a long, awkward wait, feeling expectant beads of sweat slip down her neck, Libra was relieved to hear Bernie dismiss her explanation with, “Pish-posh. If it brings that little brat one step closer to getting her orange mark, I’ll allow it.”

Orange mark?

“And what if she doesn’t get an orange mark?” Libra challenged, pretending not to notice Allspice slip out of the room to the basement to get some ingredients from the storage shelves. Or, that’s what she would've said if asked.

Bernie laughed heartily. “I'm not going to support a blankflank all my life. If she has no ambition, then she can become a street-sweeper or something and support herself.”

“No.” Libra Scales shook her head, nearly face-hoofing at his misinterpretation. “No. Bernie. What if… what if Babs gets her cutiemark, and it’s not an orange?”

Smiling, feeling a particularly prickly demon stretch and yawn, the stallion said, “Then she’s no daughter of mine, and she can become whatever she’s cursed to be, under some other stallion’s roof. Or mare’s, most likely.”

Line, meet sand.

Slamming her forehooves down into the table, leaping from the stool, sending forms flying to the ground, Libra cursed, “Dammit, Bernie! Can you drop that act?! I’m getting buckin’ tired of you saying nonsense like that!”

Stretching his hindhooves onto the now-cleared table, Bernie Madhoof leaned back in his stool and asked as innocently as he could, “What are you talking about, Libra? I don’t know what you mean.”

A torrent of incomprehensible gibberish issued from his wife’s muzzle, stumbling over her words in pure frustration.

He pressed a hoof to his ear mockingly. “I’m sorry, Libra, what was that?”

“You… You… You bastard! You know exactly what I mean!” The mare felt her muscles tighten, nervous adrenaline shaking her with its demands. Fight-or-flight, though it was an evolutionary option, seemed ridiculous to her—fight was all that should remain.

“You don’t know if Babs is a… a…”

“A fillyfooler like your sister?” He guffawed, amused at his own punchline. “Oh, we can argue all day and night if she’s my foal, but she is certainly yours, and if she turns out to be a carpet-muncher, blame your own disgusting genes.”

Libra snatched the wineglass from the table and thrust it at a wall, barely missing the stallion’s muzzle, shattering it into a million little pieces on the floor. He stared at his wife, jaw agape. In all twenty years of marriage, he had never seen her commit an act of violence or destruction. Never.

Before he could babble and request an explanation, Libra Scales swiftly exited the kitchen, making a beeline for the door. “I’ll be in the garden. Don’t come running if you want to remain a stallion.”

Bernie Madhoof rang for a servant to sweep up the glass, and he stared into the table, wondering where he’d just went wrong.

Love You To Death

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Love You To Death

The rest of the school day came and went without obstacle, her antagonists acting as if she were a mere ghost or shade. Babs Seed hesitated to thank any heavenly bodies just yet; there was still the absence of Card Slinger, and whatever that might mean. She had to stay on guard.

On her way out of the schoolhouse doors, Babs Seed caught sight of her four little Crusaders, banded together as they exited, chatting excitedly about the events of that school day. She waved and called out to them, beaming with joy as they waved back, if only for a few seconds as their paths split.

It’s sure nice ta have friends.

Babs Seed noticed that the afternoon was slightly darker than yesterday as she trotted home, a sign that autumn was well on its way. Leaves were beginning to brown or fade, but had not yet blossomed into their full spectrum of shades. Autumn was a magical time of the year, a reminder to all of the circles of life, of death and dying, rebirth and renewal. Babs Seed didn’t quite reflect on such philosophy, though she did lose herself in wonder at the transformation of the trees, the shift of things as old as time themselves.

Rounding the Manehatten Hill, Babs wondered what fall was like in Ponyville.


Citrus Blossom lazed the day away on the couch, pretending to read a gossip magazine and be deaf to her parents’ shouts and slams. She ignored her mother’s hasty departure, Libra muttering something about the garden, picking her battles. Babs’ nightmare had been running through Citrus's mind all day, leaving her too exhausted to think of anything else.

She’d lost herself in tales of celebrity and scandal, risen stars and fallen comets, letting her thoughts frolic as they may. She went over countless scenarios within the confines of her mind, debating how to best ask Babs Seed about the dreams.

Being forthright with the filly seemed to have worked the last time, but unless Babs came running into her hooves with a river of tears and an abundance of oxygen, she didn’t count on seeing that painful spectacle once more. Assumption and accusation would only anger her sibling, resulting in more slammed doors and silent nights. It seemed that Babs Seed responded the best to passivity, letting Citrus beat around the bush until she could take the suspense no more and spat the foul truth out herself.

Gentle words would be Citrus’ ally. She would pour out a shot of pure clover honey and take it straight if need be.

Citrus escalated the speed of her faux reading, turning pages with such pace she feared she would rip them. She spotted her father stomping his way back up the stairs to the master bedroom. He said nothing, each hoof-step vibrating with as much magnitude as the shift of techtonic plates. With the slam of a door, Bernie Madhoof retracted into his cave, where Citrus hoped he would stay for a while.

Citrus Blossom, satisfied with her plan of attack, began to fall back into the magazine, processing words correctly for the first time in hours without having to re-read them, when her milliseconds of peace were interrupted by a hollow THUNK!

She rose, pricked her ears, scanning the empty floorboards for any sign of invasion.


She was a lover, not a fighter. But she would do what she had to, if the time came.


Abandoning the couch, feeling that a rolled-up magazine wasn’t as good as a weapon as it had first seemed, she cautiously began to sweep the first floor, ready for a deranged murderer to leap at her from somewhere behind the curtains.


Citrus entered the kitchen. Allspice was chopping leeks and celery for a stew, seemingly oblivious to the pounding noise that threatened to burst her employer’s eardrums with its pitch and her heart from its anxiety-inducing implications.

“Allspice, do you hear that?”

“Hear what, Madame Citrus?” Allspice continued to slice and dice roots from the celery stalks, lost in the monotony of her task.

“That… that thumping noise.” THUNK! Citrus jumped with a start and landed on all fours, searching all crevices of the kitchen with wide eyes. Had she fallen asleep on the couch in her jumbled string of thoughts and encouragements? Was this all an ominous dream—her first nightmare in a long time?

Turning to Citrus, Allspice chuckled. “Ah. I get it now. Youze haven’t been downstairs on days like dis. Go out back, where the trees are kept, an' youze’ll find youze perpetrator.”


The ability of a tree to survive the harsh demands of winter upon its physiology—the ice and snow of the darkest season freezing the water within its cells, (fatally, usually) of course—is called acclimation. Trees that naturally grow in northern, higher climates, such as conifers (pines, spruces, firs) and those that are able to suppress ice accumulation (oak and walnut trees) exhibit acclimation at an impressive capacity. Temperatures can dip as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit, and still a spruce or walnut will stand, a testament to the power of change in the face of changeless Nature.

Trees that have been planted where the intentions of Nature never reached, their roots plucked and packed and re-purposed, were not always so lucky. An orange tree is a sub-tropical species, suited to drink the rays of the sun and withstand the spray of an unforgiving sea. It is not meant to withstand the fall of snow or the temperamental desires of the frozen north.

The orange tree in the garden, along with the Orange matriarch’s foalhood dreams, had long ago succumbed to the disconnect between its existence and reality.

Libra Scales could not bear any ill will against the tree. It was a being as much as she was—albeit with many more limbs. It had done her no wrong. It had simply done as it should in the environment it had been stolen into, and passed away.

Eighteen years ago, with a foal growing and changing inside her, Libra Scales had planted this orange tree with Bernie Madhoof. Their dreams were mere seedlings then, sprouting with a meager house and one orange tree.

The tree had died within the year.

Libra didn’t remember exactly when her dreams were buried alongside it.

She kicked the withered, grizzled trunk with her hindhooves once more, hypnotized by the satisfying THUNK! it screamed as her hindhooves met the heartwood. Bark long had stripped and bled away in coats of sap, leaves and rotting oranges had been shaken free in memories of yesteryear, and all but the strongest branches had fallen victim to Libra Scales’ unrelenting hooves. She took her hooves to the orange tree, instead of taking them to the Orange stallion.

The foal of loving, close parents, Libra Scales treated the word divorce with the same disdain and fear as the word cancer. She had long vowed to nopony but her own inner critic that, until the day came when Bernie took a hoof to her or the foals, she would stay. She would stay, and smile, and make love, and run the family business, even if her stallion ran it into the ground. She would go down with the ship, whistling in the moonlight a mournful tune of love and sacrifice as she drowned.

She couldn’t take the fillies away from their father, as much as a bastard he could be. And… she wasn’t sure if she could take the world by its mane anymore, pushing forty and so, so tired.

So, she kicked the tree. She kicked it at least once a week, sometimes twice. Occasionally, there would be weeks when she wandered into the garden every day, slamming her hooves into the soft heartwood (all that remained) until sweat blinded her eyes. The mare knew there would be a day when the trunk would burst, unable to absorb her catharsis any longer.

Libra Scales didn’t know what she would do then.

Closing her eyes, marching all of Bernie’s hissing insults and mocking words before her like soldiers into the firefight, Libra kicked the orange tree over and over, unaware that the show now had an audience.


She paused, her hindhooves in mid-strike, meeting her oldest filly’s eyes. Retracting her agents of death and destruction, Libra generated what surely amounted to the most plastic of smiles. “Hello, Citrus.”

Trotting over, drinking in the sight of the tree—it looked like a skeleton with its hooves pleading towards the heavens in desperation—Citrus quietly observed, “I don’t think you’ll be getting any oranges out of this one, Mother.”

“Heh, heh. You’re always quite the comedian, my dear.” Libra Scales left the tree to its own misery, silently apologizing as she always did, and nuzzled her filly’s mane. “Always so observant.”

Returning the gesture, Citrus chuckled weakly. “Um… thanks, Mom?”

Libra ushered to her daughter, leading her away from the memorial tree to a thicker part of the garden, where bushes of herbs grew proudly, not yet dormant in the face of autumn’s approach. She motioned to two chairs near a pot of thyme, and Citrus acknowledged, plopping her flank into one. Mother joined daughter in the garden.

They paused, listening to the breeze begin to whisper. The leaves had not yet transformed, chlorophyll hanging on by its cellular threads. Change was crisp in the air and could not be halted.

“I suppose you’re wondering what that is all about.”

“Well… I had some ideas. I wasn’t really reading in the living room.”

Her mother, the mare she had adored and idolized since her earliest memories of foalhood, sighed, sounding much older than she claimed to be. “I know.”

“Do you… do you want to talk about it?” Citrus asked.

“… I don’t know if there is anything to talk about. Things are have they always been, Citrus. Bernie and I, well... we don’t see eye-to-eye on some things.”

That was an understatement, and both mares knew it.

Taking her mother’s hooves in hers, Citrus Blossom said, “Please, Mother. Tell me.”

“There is nothing to tell. He is not the same stallion I loved, and neither am I the same mare. Evolution is not just a series of test questions in biology, my dear.”

“I know.” It was Citrus's turn to sigh. “Are you… are you going to—"

“No,” Libra said, shaking her head. “He has not given me a reason to.”

“But…” Citrus drifted, watching as the skies began to darken. She could not suppress the mournful tone in her voice, realizing with a deep sadness why her mother had chosen the orange tree as her scapegoat. “But what about what he said about Babs? And… and Auntie?”

Citrus had been told little about her lost aunt, Libra never seeming ready or willing to tell the entire tale. She knew that her aunt had run a marvelous farm out west in Appleloosa, planting some of the very first apple trees to grow in the desert sands. She knew that her aunt had a lovely and beautiful partner who survived her and later went on to become a nurse in one of the big cities, leaving behind acres of bittersweet memories.

She knew about the curse, the curse that crept and stole ponies away from those they loved with or without warning, all magic and prayer powerless in its presence.


“I… I can’t forgive him for that… but… it is still not physical violence.” Libra Scales, leading the company by default if not by public acceptance, willed her tears away, finding the fractured places within her soul beginning to crack at their mentioning. She was not one for words when it came to the sister whom Fate had stolen from her.

“But… what about what he did to Greyhoof? Isn’t that enough for you to justify it?”

“Greyhoof is an elderly stallion, Citrus. Elders can fall down the stairs, you know, or over their own hooves.”



“… You’re just in denial. No. You’re drowning in it.”

“So maybe I am,” Libra shot back, releasing her grip on her daughter’s forehooves. “Can you blame me? Twenty years, Citrus. Twenty years don’t just disappear in the twinkle in an eye or the shaking of lawyers’ hooves.”

Feeling ancient, Libra Scales looked down at Manehatten below the hill, wishing to a deaf genie that she had chosen a butcher, a baker, a candlestick-maker... anything but a business-pony.

Citrus Blossom had no room to speak, and she knew it. Her own excursions into the deep, black, treacherous sea that was love had been shallow and short-lived. Colts of all stripes, beyond, within, and below her league saw her beauty, saw how she simply glowed. None of them had been able to capture her heart, and some hadn’t even given her the morning-after.

Citrus was not yet at desperation levels, but she imagined if she was—or if her life had become deeply intertwined with a stallion’s, to the tune of her mother’s marriage—it would be better to be imprisoned and stable, than free and tumultuous.

The road and what lay beyond Manehatten was tempting, but still, it was the unknown, the dark horse of the show, the winking Joker in the deck. The wild card is always the feared one.

“I guess you’re right. I just wish… I just wish he’d leave Babs alone.”

Citrus had been lucky, the apple (or orange, really) of her father’s eye. Her foalhood had been an endless parade of wonder and joy, gifts and candy and cake—between the arguments, of course. Citrus often looked into her father’s eyes as he looked at Babs Seed, hoping to catch a glimmer in what she’d seen there in her youth. It was never there.

“As do I.” Regretting her disconnection, Libra Scales took her daughter’s hooves again and whispered, “Citrus, you know that I do love you no matter who you are, right?”

“Of course,” Citrus said, nodding.

“I’ll love you no matter who you become, whether you’re a queen or a little street-sweeper. I’ll love you even if your husband is a mare, or a mare and a stallion, or something in between, or if you take a liking to taxi-carriages and just marry one of those.”

Citrus Blossom couldn’t help but giggle. How would… things… even work with a carriage? Her thoughts began to wander into uncharted territory before she swiftly whisked them away, scolding her perverse imagination.

Libra Scales smiled weakly, her own imagination running wild. “And,” she continued, losing her words in the whisper of the wind, “that goes for Babs even more so. Do you know whom I see when I look in that little filly’s eyes, Citrus?”

“Who, mother?” her eldest whispered.

Unable to bury all of her memories alongside the withered orange tree, feeling salt and sadness trickle down her cheek, Libra Scales replied softly, “Her.”


“Citrus! I’m home!”

Babs Seed burst through the front door to the Orange Family Mansion, finding herself disappointed for the second day in a row that Greyhoof was not there to greet her. So many things had changed for the foal in such little time that her system was still recovering from the rearrangements.

Dat’s strange. She’s usually down heeya by now. Suppertime’s soon.

Shrugging, Babs trotted into the kitchen, greeted by the sight of Allspice at the table. The chef had set the table for two and taken one of the seats, two full bowls of hearty stew steaming amongst the empty space of the oak. Babs stumbled into her seat, sniffing the bowl. Root vegetable stew. One of her favorites. Allspice had kicked one into the goal again, twice in the same day.

“Hey, Allspice!” Babs smiled. “How are youze doin’ today?”

Tipping her mug of coffee back into her aching throat, looking frazzled as usual, Allspice said flatly, “Same as every day, kid. Eat up. There’s plenty mo' where dat came from.”

Not needing to be told twice, Babs dug into the bowl, ravenous from hunger. A newfound love of sports had sapped her muscles and bones, demanding replenishment. She savored her meal, neglecting manners in the process, dripping vegetable juice all over herself.

Allspice said nothing, merely raising an eyebrow.

“Celestia, Allspice, dis is great!” Babs said, slurping down the last drops of stew onto her thirsty tongue. “Makin’ botha ma favorite meals in one day? Youze is ma new favorite pony!”

Laughing into her coffee, newly spewing caffeine all over the table, Allspice replied, “Aw, kid, cut the flattery. I’ve made dis fo' youze a thousand times.”

“But… but, surely youze have done summat different! Mo' celery? Less leek?”

“Pish-posh. Same ol’, same ol’. Heeya, give me youze bowl an' I’ll get youze mo', Babs.”

Watching Allspice lazily ladle another batch of heavenly stew into the ceramic bowl, Babs released her question at last, satisfied that Allspice would at least reluctantly answer it. “Where is everypony, Allspice?”

“Youze father is workin' on an important business presentation upstairs, Babs Seed. It would be best youze not disturb him. Madame Citrus an' Madame Libra are in the garden discussin' business matters also, an' I would recommend youze still clear o' dem until dey come back inside.” The mare set the warm bowl of her life’s work, her under-appreciated devotion, in front of the filly. She smiled slightly, regretting her lies, but finding them sweeter and smoother than the jagged truth of the Orange family ties.

“Oh,” was all Babs Seed could reply, before hunger beckoned her again.

Babs polished off her second bowl of root vegetable stew, slower this time, savoring each morsel as slow as she possibly could, listening for the sound of hooves down the stairs or at the door. Today was such a good day… at least I thought it was… I want ta tell youze 'bout it, Ma’ and Da’. An' Citrus, too. I want youze ta be proud o' me. I’m proud o' me…

“Why the long face, little filly?”

Allspice softly dropped her mug to the table, finding that no amount of caffeine would awaken her from this reality. Greyhoof was gone, the Orange guardians were fighting again, Citrus had discovered her mother’s secret (well… that had been Allspice’s doing, but it had been a secret), and Babs Seed was oblivious to it all.

Empathy stirred in the recesses of her hardened heart, iced by years of wage-slavery and humiliations both large and small. It had been a lonely twelve years, and though she longed to leave the mansion, to just up and quit and see where the road would take her, Allspice could never find the strength.

She realized that she probably had more in common with Babs Seed than previously thought.

Babs sighed into her empty bowl, letting her head hang. “Today was such a good day, Allspice. I even played hoofball fo' the first time in… I can’t remember when. An'… the bullies didn’t say two words ta me, neitha Not a single one. It’s… nice. Strange, but nice. An'… I dunno. I guess I jus' wanted ta share those things, dat’s all. I thought dey were important.”

Allspice smiled, seeing herself reflected in those innocent green eyes. “Dey still are important things, don’t youze think? Does a rose not smell as sweet because nopony is around ta smell it? Does it lose its scent?”

But, isn’t scent only defined by the nose o' the sniffer? Does sense exist in a world where nopony has sensory organs anymo'?

Though she felt a stirring debate itching within her mind, Babs Seed decided that Allspice’s disguise was beginning to wear thin, and put logic aside at the opportunity of seeing the mare as something more than a servant. “I… I guess not,” she muttered.

“Youze see? It’s still wonderful, even in the winter. It still grows. It still has its roots. It’ll come back, once the skies are a bit brighter all around. An' youze parents an' Citrus will be ready ta hear the story soon, an' it’ll be as great ta tell as the moment it happened.”

Allspice began to reach for her cup again, but, remembering futility, decided against it. She offered up a smile to the little filly, and found it not as forced as before.

Babs Seed returned the gesture and asked, “Befo' dey’re ready… do youze wanna hear 'bout it, Allspice? 'Bout the best game o' hoofball in Equestria itself?”

Laughing, Allspice replied, “O' course. Tell me all 'bout it.”


The alicorn of the night, catcher of dreams and painter of the stars, had just begun her patrol of the night skies, dragging her lantern from its hiding-place beneath the void when the stallion heard his doorknob turn. There had been no need for a lock. The only ponies who grasped that doorknob knew their names, and he had no need to repeat them or bar them entry. His home was his castle, his bedroom his throne room. A king had no reason to fear his subjects. He was far too much for them to handle, regardless of their number.

Bernie Madhoof, unable to name his trespasses and pray away his sins at the altar of the Most High, had retired early, warming his hooves between expensive layers of cotton and silk. He felt his bride join him, brushing her hooves against his back and flank. They were cold, but not unpleasantly so.

He flipped himself, running his hooves over her stomach, taking one of her ears into his maw. She stirred but did not move, neither rejecting nor accepting his advance.

“Libra…” He moaned, blowing hot air into her ear. The night was young, and so was his blood. He was hot from the wine, riding his buzz into the night sky, ushering his bride to come with him, to soar above the stars together.

He never dreamt of pegasus wings. He didn’t need to. He was Bernie Madhoof, the most powerful stallion in all of Manehatten. He could do anything.

“Libra.” He felt himself growing hot, tightening his hooves around his mare. He ran his muzzle through her thick mane, memorizing her scent. He wanted to bathe in her fragrance, roll around in it until he was consumed by it. He felt his need gnawing in his stomach, increasing his heart rate, flooding his muscles with blood.

It had been so long.

Libra Scales rolled out of his hooves, inching closer to the edge of the king-sized bed. “No, Bernie,” she spat, thoroughly sickened by his nerve. “No.”

“Come on, Libra, please…” Madhoof forward in the darkness, pulling his youthful bride towards him once more. She was just playing coy. Mares always did this. They would wink and smile, circle and nuzzle, nibbling on his ears, giving off all the mating signals of ancient times. Then, once the dance of love and flesh began to beckon, they would play shy, play coy, denying their urges until he was forced to read between their lines.

Libra Scales had never played this game with him, but other mares had, and he would always win.

“No,” she repeated, flipping herself only enough to face him for a second, forehooves thrusting him away from her in the dark. She could barely believe that she was still here, still under “his” roof, still sharing the sheets with him. Mustering all her patience, Libra Scales had been able to enter the bedroom. If Bernie continued, she would be totally bankrupt of it.

Knowing that the game was almost over, the stallion reached over a third time, towards her stomach and the heat below.

His forehoof had barely touched her fur when the pain began.

Patience had been a chain to an anchor, and then a rope across an acrobat’s stage, stretched taut. Then, with Bernie’s rough hooves, sickeningly-sweet breath, and unwillingness to comply with the most basic of requests, patience had snapped and fallen, striking the Earth.

Patience took Libra’s hindhoof with it, and connected to Bernie’s genitals.

The stallion screamed in pain, reaching octaves he had abandoned past puberty. He rolled, clutching his family jewels, his coin-purse, his blackened and bloody balls that ached and hissed and burned from Libra’s iron hoof. He rolled off the bed, landing with a heavy THUD! on the shag carpeting, sending yet another yelp of pain through his body.

“Don’t you know what ‘no’ means, dipshit?!” Libra screeched, rising from the bed and meeting him on the floor. She took his muzzle in her hooves, eyes wild with fury.

“Libra, I… I…” he managed to squeak, clutching his most private of parts, fighting back waves of nausea. He had never known such pain in his life. Nothing in the textile factories could compare to this agony, his body sounding all sorts of alarms as the most precious parts of him—his DNA, his seed, his legacy dying by the millions now—threatened to burst.

“Yer gonna start listenin’ ta me, ain’t ya, boy?” Libra Scales lost her manners, lost her pride, lost her eloquence and returned to her roots. She grabbed her husband by the muzzle again, squeezing his head between her hooves. “Ain’t ya?”

Bernie Madhoof said nothing, two demons in his brain arguing over the need for relief and the need for truth.

Libra Scales stomped her hoof down again.

Bernie Madhoof howled like a timberwolf and felt shameful tears begin to dot his eyes.

His father would’ve been so ashamed, so disappointed, so utterly disgusted with his pussified wreck of a son. His father had kept his mother in line with a stern hoof; his son feared too much for his business reputation to dare take a hoof to his foals or his mare, though the thoughts ran through his mind too many times to count. It was too late now. Libra had him by the short hairs… literally.

“Answer me, Bernie Madhoof!”

Libra, in her mourning for her sister long dead and her foal (she feared) drifting away, found a new truth in the depths of her irrationality: there was nothing left to lose now. Her dreams were dead. Her sister was dead. Her parents were dead. She was dead, in a sense.

She was a slave to the facades of business, to the subtleties of high-class society, to a set of social expectations and manners and mores that were, frankly and utterly, alien to her. And, most of all, she was a slave to Bernie Madhoof, letting too many ignorant and hateful things slip out of his tongue, letting too much go unpunished.

Libra decided, without breathing a single word of it, through tearful hugs with her eldest, that enough was enough. She couldn’t take it anymore. She couldn’t let the stallion defecate all over her sister’s grave, or poison her foal’s future. Babs Seed could date rocks for all she cared, as long as she was happy. Her cutiemark could be of a broom or a frying pan, as long as she was content. It was impossible for her to be happy or content with a father so judgmental, so bigoted, so downright rotten.

Libra Scales would stay with Bernie Madhoof, provided he made a few… concessions.

“Libra! What do you want me to say?! What do you want?!” he shrieked back, tears flowing freely now, his genitals in the vice grip of some twisted monster, some cruel joke of Discord’s creation. He prepared to offer the company, his wealth, and even his life, if his wife would stop him from suffering so.

“Leave Babs Seed alone. And my sister, too. Leave them be. Let them be what they are, whatever they are.” She hissed, bringing his muzzle to meet hers, her eyes intense and wide and fiery. “You’ve got one ball against ya now, buddy-boy. Three more, and you’ll walk off this diamond, ya hear? This will be ma show to run.”

She couldn’t do that… could she?

“You can’t do that!” He growled through the pain. “Orange Enterprises is my company, Libra. You’ve got 50% ownership, and that’s if I’m being generous.”

Libra snapped her head back and laughed, hoping that Princess Luna was enjoying this most unusual of evening escapades. Returning to the stallion’s deep, dark eyes, Libra replied, “Bernie… why do you think I do all the book-keeping?”

He felt his jaw unhinge, and the mare smiled as she stepped off of his bruised, aching body at last.

“It’s 75-25, darling.” Libra Scales giggled, trotting back towards the bed, amused at her ingenuity. “25% of ten million bits is still plenty to retire on, maybe git yerself a nice cabin in the woods somewhere. Or another mansion, really. Ya like mansions, don’t ya, darling? But no, dear, ya’ve got two choices: call or fold. Call, match my bet, start being a better parent and I’ll switch the paperwork back in your favor.

“Fold… and I’ll kick your flank to the curb so fast, ya'll think a bullet train hit ya.”

Pearly whites gleaming in the darkness, Libra Scales met her husband’s eyes with a wide grin, expectant as a dealer in one of the Las Pegasus casinos. What would be his wager now?

“… If I call, will you get me some ice?”

She nodded. “Of course.”

Swearing he could hear the moon laughing at him, Madhoof sighed and conceded, calling the dealer’s bluff with all of his remaining chips. The flop, turn and river had been against him already, so his hopes were low for the final act.

He assumed he lost the showdown, and with a quick flip of the cards (and a smile on Libra’s muzzle), he was right.

Evening Star

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Evening Star

Watching her mother slink away through the cold mansion, heading up to the master bedroom, Citrus Blossom shut the front door behind her, securing every latch and chain available. Though her heart had ran wild with fantasies of a burglar or worse—and she found that source of fear to be only Libra—she could not shake her paranoia. Citrus had heard many tales about the Manehatten streets. A few were bound to be too tall for their stature, but as for the rest… she didn’t want to gamble it.

Assured by the satisfying click of secure strikes and armed tumblers, Citrus sauntered casually over to the dinner table, catching Babs Seed in the midst of an exciting story, Allspice listening intently.

“An' then, I kicked the winnin’ goal, right befo' the bell rang! Saved by the bell again! POW!” Babs motioned with her hooves, imitating the proudest moment of her day. “An' then Rustla an' the others said, ‘We’ze gotta meet up every recess, Babs, an' show ‘em what the Manehatten CMC are made o'!’ Tough as nails, dat’s what we are!”

Chortling heartily into her now-tepid bowl of root vegetable stew, Allspice caught eyes with Citrus Blossom and choked, “D-Do youze hear dat, Citrus? Our little seed has become a regular ol’ athlete now!”

“It sure sounds like it,” Citrus said, smiling uneasily. Taking an empty stool at the dinner table, she turned to the foal with green eyes full of magic. “So, I take it that you had another good day, then, Babs Seed?”

“O’ course! An' youze know what’s the best part, Citrus?”

Allspice nudged Citrus, gesturing towards the pot of hot stew still simmering on the burner, inviting more ponies to come and lose themselves in its flavor. Citrus shook her head, knowing that any amount of food in her stomach would later betray her. Shrugging, Allspice rose from the table, grabbing another warm bowl while it lasted.

“Sorry about that, sweetie.” Strands of her mane falling in her eyes, Citrus Blossom leaned down and urged her sister, “What was the best part?”

“Boone an' the others. All o’ dem. Dey jus'… left me alone.”

At the mention of the name Boone, Citrus Blossom braced herself, prepared for tales of another bloody battle or relentless teasing. But his name had graced the foal’s muzzle with nothing but a wide smile, as if he were her best friend in the world.

Confusion racked her mind. Had not that colt been the same one whose comments had driven her to the edge a little over two weeks ago? Had not those foals made her sibling’s life a living nightmare for, as Babs had said, almost two years? Why would they just fold their cards after having thrown so many chips into the pot already? It made… it made…

“That makes no sense, Babs,” she blurted, flabbergasted. “These… these are the same bullies as before, right?”

Babs nodded. “Youze got dat right.”

“… Do you know what caused this?”

Babs Seed shook her head. “Not a clue in Equestria. I ain’t complainin’ though, Citrus. How can I? Things jus' got a million times betta, between dis an' the Manehatten Cutie Mark Crusadas.”

Citrus Blossom could not deny this truth, though it was a hard pill to swallow. She had a habit of celebrating early, of counting her chicks before their beaks had even begun to chip at their eggshells, and she wanted to dance and sing and spin her sister around in joy.

Things like the orange tree in the garden and the recollection of a shivering foal in her hooves crashed the party before it even started.


Before releasing her into the grip of homework, Citrus Blossom had warned Babs Seed that she would be knocking at her door later, that she had something important she wanted to talk about. Chills ran down the foal’s spine at the latter fragment, knowing that phrasings like that preceded nothing easy to say. Sometimes the right words followed those kind of introductions, sometimes not—but the right way is never the easy way.

Breezing through a round of physics papers decorated by her instructor with diagrams of foals as objects in motion meeting brick walls at rest (the stallion’s dark humor never leaving her without both a laugh and a sideways glance), Babs sat on the ground, bouncing a ball against the wall of her bedroom, bored out of her skull.

Across the Orange Family Mansion, in the master bedroom, she could hear her parents raising their voices, and accelerated the pace of her play.

Throw the ball at the wall. The wall tosses it back. Catch it in your hoof. Throw it again. Rinse, repeat. Lather, rinse, sanitize, dry.

Babs heard a crash and several more minutes of loud voices before the cries were silenced.

Throw the ball again. And again. Welcome to Boredom, population Babs Seed.

Several minutes passed before her hoof connected at an odd angle, sending the toy rolling under her bed. “Aww… c’mon!” She groaned, unwilling to wage war against years of dust bunnies that called the space between floorboard and box spring home. She had never been one to order servants around, and felt violated when their schedules demanded that they tidy up her room. None of them seemed to remember to dust under the bed, and she didn’t seem to care enough to mention it.

Now I need ta get a new ball. Dat one’s good as gone. Sighing, she rose from the floor, trotting over to the window. The light-keepers had just begun their rounds, putting a few torches to streetlamps, the greatest star of all beginning to ebb and fade with the tide of oceans far beyond. Wind teased a few leaves from some trees in the gardens below her height of heights, sending them on a trajectory down the cobblestone streets.

Sometimes… I look at these streets, an' I feel at home. In spite o' everythin’… I feel at home when I think o' runnin’ again. Wind through ma mane, silence o' the dark envelopin’ me, like a blanket o' stars. I… I know I shouldn’t, but…

Babs Seed had not forgotten her nightmare—the cold, dark void in Card Slinger’s eyes appeared in her mind when she least expected it, rushing adrenaline through her veins. The line between reality and fantasy began to blur the more she thought on it. The cobblestones had been as solid as they ever were, the night air as tempting as it had always been. She could still feel the pierce of alcohol-stained glass against her throat, expecting to fall inside the black once the colt had had his vengeance…

Though the wind possessed no bite, she shivered.

No. Stop it. Youze is scarin' youzeself.

Shaking herself out of it, Babs Seed rose from the window and headed over to her work desk in the opposite corner of the room. “How could I’ve forgotten?” she wondered aloud, nearly smacking herself. “I still need ta write dat letter. The fillies back in Ponyville will be so happy ta get it!”

Digging through a box of school supplies and finding her weapons of choice—a sheet of clean parchment and a sharpened graphite pencil—Babs set to work putting hoof to paper. She scrawled quickly, expecting at any moment to hear the thundering of Citrus’ hooves on her oak and face the waves of anxiety that churned against the cliff-faces of her soul.

Feeling pragmatic (and wanting to say a few specific words to only one of the three Ponyville residents), Babs Seed addressed her letter to Apple Bloom.

“Apple Bloom,

How are you and the girls doing? I hope the CMC is having a lot of fun back at the clubhouse and you got a lot of crusading in. I hope, too, that Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon keep their dirty hooves out of it. If they didn’t get the message the first time, just let me know and I’ll come and show ‘em how we do things in the big city. Heh, heh. No, but seriously, have they wised up yet?

You wouldn’t believe what’s happened here! Greyhoof, our butler, quit a few days ago. He…”

She paused, wondering if writing to Apple Bloom could be as safely free as speaking with her. Wouldn’t Applejack be able to open the letter before she could see it?

Of course she would. Applejack had the farm to run and her hooves within reach of the mailbox all day, while Apple Bloom had school to attend and would be at least a mile out of the cross-eyed mailmare’s delivery. Maybe I shouldn’t… but… Applejack wouldn’t read a letter dat wasn’t addressed ta her… right? Dat is kind o’ dishonest.

Remembering her cousin’s Element, though still reluctant to spill the beans all over the ink, Babs Seed settled on a compromise in her composition.

“He’s had enough of it here. I’ve heard whispers at school that there are big things happening out west right now. Not west as in Ponyville, but way beyond there. Appleloosa and beyond. Speaking of which, have you ever met Braeburn? I never have, though Mom says we’ll head out there someday. Citrus says he’s sweet, and that he’s close to the Buffalo tribe. I wonder what they must be like.

Anyhoo, I’ve started the Manehatten branch of the CMC here, and I have FOUR members! FOUR! Can you believe it, cuz?! I’m a leader now. It still sounds strange when I say it. The foals trust me now, and even let me join their hoofball games at recess. I’m one heckuva athlete, I guess—we won today.

I hope things are good back home, and I hope I can see you and Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo and Applejack and Big Mac and Granny Smith real soon. Oh, and Winona. And I can’t get over that apple pie. Seriously. Allspice could never come close to it.


P.S. Don’t show the next few lines to anypony."

Blushing furiously, she scanned over her shoulders, searching for watchful eyes in the shadow of the setting sun’s dusk. She was alone, hunched over her desk, pencil smashed against paper. Nopony would be able to read any of her words unless she allowed them. She was safe.

Babs blushed anyway, turning an even deeper shade of red.

“P.P.S. I think about the last night sometimes… I miss you. When are you gonna come up here, or am I gonna have to come to you again? I don’t think I can convince Dad to get me another train ticket.

P.P.P.S. Seriously, you didn’t tell anypony about that, did you??”

The room suddenly grew very hot, and Babs had to run to the open window, taking in deep hits of the night air within her lungs until she didn’t feel as dizzy.


Knock, knock.

Oh, heeya we go.

Knock, KNOCK.

“Comin’, Citrus!”


Madhoof held the bag of ice between his legs, clenching his teeth so tightly he could feel his molars beginning to whittle down enamel on both halves of his jaws. Two of his lesser servants—both black stallions with greased-back manes and finely pressed suits—tended to his every need, bringing him everything but liquor. Libra had been firm in her instructions.

He rolled back and forth in his fetal position on the floor, feeling rays of moonlight illuminating him, highlighting his humiliation for all the world to see.

“More ice,” he cried, his body a furnace that melted away his only source of relief.

“Of course, sire,” one of his nameless cronies replied, bowing, stepping back into the dark. They had sworn by their necks not to speak a word of this. Their master knew they would keep their promises, as long as they valued the sight of the rising sun or the sensation of breathing.

Libra Scales had made arrangements downstairs in one of the guest bedrooms, seeking shelter from the storm that began to churn in the high seas, gathering speed by the minute. With every drop of blood and sweat, the waves climbed, threatening her with a tsunami.

No sirens or strobe lights were needed to get her to evacuate. She would huddle in the dark, listening for signs of betrayal, until the storm passed, until the time for mourning had gone away and the time of rebuilding drew her near.

Bernie Madhoof, however, had other ideas, and every neuron that fired electrical signals of agony, from his forehead to his hooves, only fueled his fantasies.


Listening to the crickets begin their symphony, a chorus of insects raising their fiddles to the rising of the moon, Babs Seed and Citrus Blossom laid on the foal’s bedroom floor, searching for patterns among the accent walls. Babs Seed had asked to go down into the garden so they could identify the constellations, but Citrus had demanded as gently as possible that they needed to stay indoors, and in Babs's room specifically.

Accent walls were nowhere as wondrous or vast as the canvas of Princess Luna, but they fit the bill well enough.

“I always thought dat corner looked the most like a dragon,” Babs explained, pointing towards the southwestern intersection of drywall.

“Hmm… I guess…I guess I see it.”

“Youze have ta look pretty hard. Prolly won’t see it unless youze give it enough looks.”

“Ha, you’re probably right. I always wondered why you liked these colors so much, sweetie. Red, orange, yellow. The colors of sunset, aren’t they?”

“An' flame,” Babs said, watching her sister’s reaction from the corner of her eye. “Fire. Dat’s what I think o' when I see sunsets. It’s like the entire atmosphere is on fire, like the sun’s fallin’ off the edge o' the edge an' takin’ everythin’ down wit' it. Dat’s what I used ta think when I was littler. Dat the sun was on fire.”

Citrus giggled. “You have quite an active imagination.”

Laughing back, Babs Seed said, “Yea, I guess youze is right. I’ve had a lot o' time ta think fo' myself, youze know? Lost in thought an' all o' dat.”

“Yeah.” Citrus exhaled, turning to face the foal. “Speaking of which, I—“

“Dis is 'bout the dream, right?” Babs said, anticipating Citrus Blossom's next steps in this tango of words. “Youze wanted ta know what I was dreamin’ 'bout last night.”

Taking the foal’s forehooves in hers, Citrus began the dance, leading with grace and subtlety. “Well… actually, I was going to share my dream with youze. It was rather interesting, too. But, now that you mention it, dear, I am quite curious. You were quite distressed, after all.”

Cornered like a beast fat for the slaughter. Plucked like a ripe grape off the vine. Card Slinger’s eyes grew wide and dark. “... Finish what we started,” he said, his voice smooth as saw blades, carving the glass into her as if she were a weakened tree with dried-up roots…

Citrus caught the flash of reminiscence in her sister’s eyes, a spark before the wildfire. “Honey, I would never, ever,” she began, squeezing one small orange hoof between her two cream ones, “ever make you talk about anything you don’t want to… I just… I’m worried, alright?”

“When are youze never worried?” Babs snapped, reaching deep into the corners of her mind with a broom and dustpan, sweeping up all semblance of blood-red colts and broken cider bottles.

“Please! Don’t be angry,” Citrus said gently, letting her mask chip away. “I just want to help, Babs.”

“Help what?”

“Youze. You’re not happy, are you?”

… Don’t go there…

“Are youze deaf? Things have been goin' great!” Babs retracted her hooves, brushing off the intimacy, gesturing wildly at the accent walls. They were her audience of choice now, eyes refusing to meet the mare beside her. “I’ve got ma own branch o' the Cutie Mark Crusaders, been kickin’ flank on the field, ‘nother meetin’ scheduled fo' Friday—can’t wait, by the way—an' dem bastards at school act like I’ve up an' gone ghost. Hay, the only thing dat could make things better is iffa Greyhoof came back, but I wouldn’t do dat ta him.”

“There!” Citrus snapped, rising from her back to her hooves. “There! You see? Greyhoof! Is that what you’ve been dreaming about?”

… I don’t wanna insult the stallion, he was a nice guy an' all, but I would never think o' him like… dat... “Youze is ridiculous, Citrus,” Babs said, sticking her tongue out in disgust. “Greyhoof was like, what, sixty?”

Blushing at the innuendo, Citrus Blossom felt her cheeks begin to match her mane. “That isn’t what I meant! You know what I meant! I mean, what happened between him and Dad, how do you feel about that?”

Babs hesitated. She had not given much thought to the words of her father, to the force of his hooves against the butler’s cheek.

In spite of the stallion’s venom and the sight of his fangs, Babs could not crush this adder beneath her hooves quite yet, could not dismiss her “old man” completely. Though she knew what it was like to feel abandoned, Babs Seed could not yet toss that burden upon another, even a stallion like her father. What am I supposed ta feel? When he isn’t gone, o' locked up in his room, like he usually is, he doesn’t say much ta me… an' when he does, it’s never pretty.

“I’m happy fo' Greyhoof, sis. Even if dat would have never happened, he’s got the wild callin’ ta him. Youze have heard 'bout the west, right? The mines an' fields?” Citrus nodded as Babs continued, “Well, there youze go. He wants a fresh start. An' he don’t deserve what Da’ has done ta him.”


Citrus sighed, reluctant to declare that her hopes had been dashed, Babs a much more experienced dancer than her, sashaying around topics that were too deep and difficult. She wanted to grab Babs Seed by the forehooves and pull her into the depths. Instead, she happily pony-paddled in the shallow end.

“So… there’s nothing wrong, then?”

Focusing on memories of the hoofball goal and the Manehatten CMC’s first group high-hoof, Babs Seed smiled and answered, “Nope.”

There was one card that Citrus had not yet pulled from her sleeve. Citrus tended to side with the voice of conservatism, looking to tradition for guidance. Tonight, however, she needed everything hidden in her bag of tricks against this magician of a foal.

Citrus cast her spell. “Okay, then, answer me this… did anything happen in Ponyville to cause the nightmare, then? Is there something that happened there that I don’t know about?”

Babs's smile sank like a stone in the sea, feeling her heart begin to race. Oh, Celestia, does she… how could she… no, it’s impossible! I—

“Anything at all, Babs?”

Sputtering, feeling her cheeks begin to match her own mane as well, Babs gasped back, “L-like wha? W-what are youze t-t-thinkin’?” She felt the thundering foal within her ribcage stretch and stir, beginning a steady uphill climb, sweating through her coat. Oh, c’mon, Babs, youze can deflect dis one… youze don’t needa tell her dat jus' yet…

Babs rose to her hooves and began to dig one of them into the floorboards beneath, as if the room was a desert and she was searching desperately for a spring below the sands. Citrus Blossom eyed this behavior curiously, not sure of what it might imply.

“Well… I just want to make sure those fillies—Metal Crown and Brass Fork, weren’t they? No? Oh, well, that, whoever they were, that they hadn’t… done more than you said—”

“No! Diamond Tiara an' Silver Spoon? Pfft!” Babs let a hoof flop at her sister, pushing away her anxieties as she realized that Citrus Blossom had no idea what had been running through Babs’ mind. “Dey’re nothin’! Why, youze shoulda seen their faces at the train station, Citrus! Dey won’t be givin’ Apple Bloom an' her friends any guff iffa dey know what’s good fo' 'em!”

A slight twinge of relief vibrated across Citrus's heartstrings. “That’s good, sweetheart. I’m glad. I was just worried, youze know? I mean, nightmares are never good. Dreams are the way our mind works out our own fears and desires, and bad ones mean… well… they mean something’s off.”

Giving her one last opportunity to fess up to some real or imagined trauma, Citrus Blossom waited. And waited. A minute passed.

More silence.

Sighing, Citrus rose on all fours, stretching her limbs. She looked down at her sibling, searching for lies escaping from those green windows. She detected no fibbing in those pupils.

“See?” Babs said, as if she had been suddenly blessed with telepathy. Trotting to meet her sister in the slowly rising moonlight, nuzzling locks of Citrus's mane, she added, “Youze worry too much.”

Citrus pulled the foal into a hug against her hooves, brushing one long strand of mane out of Babs Seed's eyes. “That’s what Mom says, too.”

“Maybe we should listen ta her more, o' summat.”


“Oh! Befo' I forget, Citrus…” Wiggling out of the embrace, Babs Seed happily trotted over to her desk, returning with a tightly-wrapped scroll in her mouth. “Can youze send dis ta Sweet Apple Acres?”

Gently taking the scroll, shaking saliva off it as she did (to her sister’s awkward grin), Citrus Blossom nodded. “Of course, sweetie. I’ll send it first thing in the morning. I’m sure Applejack and Apple Bloom will be happy to get it.”

“I sure hope so,” Babs Seed whispered as her sister began to turn and trot away, feeling all kinds of nerves begin to fire again within her chest.


Hoisted into bed by the two lesser beings, Bernie Madhoof could no longer fight against the call of the Sandmare. He still ached, but after emptying both the kitchen and basement ice chests, he felt that his blood had cooled enough to allow him rest. As a final request, one of the servants brought a fan into the room, angling it to chop and cool the air where it counted.

Without a single word of thanks, Bernie Madhoof dismissed his subjects from his throne room, the king wishing to recover from his battle-scars in peace.

75-25. Those four numbers broke all treaties, a banner of warfare flying rebelliously in the sanctity of his own four walls.

75-25. Mutiny.

“It should be 0-100,” Bernie Madhoof muttered, the whirring of the fan his only companion in the dark.


The night was so beautiful, so pristine, incredible beyond the boundaries of language. There was no way it could have been real. The hooves of the night alicorn must have commissioned it herself, giving up her talents to the Most High. And the Most High never failed to deliver, creating a masterpiece that brought tears to the deep-blue alicorn’s eyes. She shared it with all of her subjects, young and old, male and female, beckoning them with winking stars to join in its revelry.

Babs was powerless in the grasp of true beauty.

She wandered the cobblestone roads, searching for a companion. This most wondrous of nights demanded love cast its spell beneath the skies, and oh, how she ached for love in all its forms. She searched the alleyways, peeked around all corners, finding nopony, the last remaining survivor in a post-apocalyptic scene of wonder and terror.

She laid down in the middle of the street, weeping. Her heart was breaking in all its broken places, and cracking in what little solid foundation that remained. She had tried so hard, searched both high and low, and what did she find? She was abandoned, again. Left alone to suffer and cry beneath a mocking blanket of stars. The cold, hard ground, then, was her pillow, and she laid her head down, closed her eyes.

Slumber did not grace her, but somepony else did.

Lifting her muzzle at the trotting of hooves behind her, she turned to see her savior, her messiah, her rescuer, her superhero, her first friend in all of the cobblestones of Manehatten. White-aproned and bow-tied, the bartender and barber stared down at the filly lying at his hooves.

“Turner!” Babs leapt to all fours, shaggy bobtail and expertly-shaped mane waving excitedly in the night breeze. “Oh, Turner, I’d thought I’d neva see youze again!”

The stallion said nothing, stoic, unmoving.


His eyes met hers, saying nothing. His maw was expressionless, his deep, brown irises staring somewhere off into the distance.

Fearing he had gone deaf, the foal took a step towards her savior.

She was greeted by a wall of flame.

Fires hissing with the rage of dragons sprang inches from her hooves, sending her flying backwards onto her haunches. A few spirals of burning heat became tenfold, surrounding her in a circle, separating her from the stone-cold stallion.

“Turner! Turner, help me!” she pleaded, feeling the flames begin to glow with white-hot intensity, waves of heat making her nauseous, making it hard to breathe.

“He won’t help youze.”

Turning on the diameter of a bit, Babs screamed, muzzle-to-muzzle with her greatest enemy. Card Slinger stood before her, unaffected by the flames. Unwavering in the face of the heat, Card Slinger laughed cruelly, his teeth razor-sharp and blindingly white in the darkness. “Don’t youze get it, bitch? Youze broke youze end o' the bargain, an' now, youze is all mine.”

“He is right,” Turner called from beyond the wall, his voice booming like the voice of an ancient god. “We had an agreement, kid. You broke your promise, you rotten foal! Do you think you could torment three little fillies and get away with it? And you had the nerve to get funny with one of them on top of that?”

“Turner, please!” She felt tears begin to flow down her cheeks. “I didn’t mean ta be such a bad foal, such a bad seed! I... I was jus' scared, an' angry, an' tired, an'—“

“What does it matta, blankflank?” Slinger hissed, his eyes becoming pools of deep, dark nothingness, a void that threatened to swallow her whole. “Vows are vows. Even lowlifes like me know dat. Youze picked youze poison, youze made youze choice, an' now… it’s time ta pay the piper.”

She felt the full weight of him barrel down against her, trapping her on the cobblestones, one forehoof revealing a large, jagged, black dagger, the other pressing down on her trachea.

Eyes full of tears, she looked up at Turner, only to see that he had been joined by several other ponies. Father and Mother Orange, Citrus Blossom, Greyhoof, Allspice, Applejack, and even the Ponyville CMC joined him. Their eyes became shallow pools of blackness, drilling into her, watching with emotionless muzzles as she struggled against the colt’s hooves.

“Your sins have brought you here,” Turner bellowed, his voice shaking the Earth, “and they will take you away with them.”

Card Slinger brought the blade into the moonlight.


Bolting upright, Babs Seed felt her chest rise and fall rapidly, her lungs burning with need. She gasped, a fish out of water flailing under the unforgiving blaze of the desert sun.

It’s jus' a dream, she thought, repeating the phrase as if it were her salvation. It’s jus' a dream, jus' a dream, jus' a dream, jus' a DREAM!

She shoved her face into her pillow and screamed, feeling sobs begin to wrack her from the soul outwards through her bones, blood, muscle, nerves, and fur, unleashing a torrent of fear and anger. Weeping into the pillow until the down feathers within it were soaked, she collapsed, exhausted.

Somewhere in the Heavens, the guardian of the evening star, the mare in the moon herself, began to stir.

A Dangerous Meeting

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A Dangerous Meeting

None of the Orange Family members slept well that night, insomnia a trickster tormentor. Some waged wars within the confines of their minds, planning their next wave of attack. Others sought peace, pleading with Fear and Worry—the two demons that haunt us all in our darkest hours—to leave them be.

The servants’ shack was no luckier, the three remaining help-ponies whispering amongst themselves, sensing the change of powers and principalities.

“So… youze is sayin’ dat there’s gold in the West, Allspice? An' oil, too? How can youze be so sure?” one of Bernie Madhoof’s hoof-servants asked, his pupils wide with wonder.

“Greyhoof was a lot o' things, but he was no liar,” Allspice said. “He put up wit' mo’ than youze will ever know from dat bastard. There were otha things callin’ his name than the feel o' Bernie’s hoof ‘cross his maw.”

The other stallion was not as hopeful, having heard of more than one boomtown-turned-bust-town in his young days. Skeptically, he asked, “But, what if you’re wrong, Allspice? What if we hoof it to the hills, leave everything behind, and find nothing to greet us at dawn?”

Allspice laughed. “Youze fools. Did I eva say we should hoof it?”

“Well, what do you suggest, then?” the skeptic snapped, shifting the burden of proof back to the head servant.

“Bide. Watch. Pack. Accumulate. The signs will come. Youze’ll know.”

The three began to argue over the exact size, shape, and sense that these “signs” would take, as the lantern’s tiny flame began to disappear into a flicker, and then into nothingness.


Babs woke with a start, her wind-up alarm clock yanking her from the depths of what little sanctity she had found. Hours after the nightmare, Babs Seed had tried everything she could to will herself back to sleep, pacing, fidgeting, doing push-ups on her forehooves until her limbs were gelatinous. A few hours before her alarm was scheduled to pull her back to reality, she’d found rest at last, dreaming of blackness and silence.

Groaning, rubbing the last remnants of the Sandmare’s dust from her eyes, she hopped out of bed, trotting over the demonic device and slamming it quiet. “Enough o' dat,” she yawned, stumbling over her own hooves as she crept out into the hallway.

Jealous, hearing Citrus Blossom snoring the morning away yet again, Babs slicked into the bathroom. She stared at her reflection, her disheveled, tangled mane and her eyes that were still slightly bloodshot. From insomnia or from tears, she didn’t know.

Slicking back her hair with a hoof-full of cold water, Babs sighed and said, “Ohhh, Celestia, dis is gonna be a looooong day.”


Luckily for Babs Seed, Allspice had been feeling generous that morning, greeting her at the table with a stack of buckwheat pancakes. She devoured them all, and a few extra, making a mental note to compliment Allspice on her mane a little more often. Allspice was starting to warm up to the foal, and a little flattery usually helped to accelerate the temperature.

Galloping down the streets as Celestia’s rays began to burn her pupils, Babs's mind formulated a goal for the day: track down one of her tormentors and demand an explanation. Relaxation, let alone celebration, could not be truly had until she knew the reasoning behind their sudden change of heart. It was so out of character for the gang-ponies that Babs Seed couldn’t believe it was happening.

Rounding a corner, she let her thoughts wander into dark places. Maybe dey are jus' bidin’ their time, waitin’ fo' me ta relax, an' then when I least expect it, dey’ll strike? Rattlesnakes, are dey? O' maybe they’re timbawolves, an' I’m jus' some little foal who wandered inta their forest. Maybe I scared ‘em good, when I got Boone—straight in the faaace!—an' now dey don’t wanna mess wit' me! Yea! I’m a royal flank-kicker, aren’t I?

Approaching the schoolhouse at last, Babs Seed almost galloped right up the front steps. She caught Fencer walking up behind her out of the corner of her eye and jumped sideways, allowing Fencer to pass her by.

… Cold, hard ground on a dark night, tail pulled taut, feeling Fencer’s drunken and unskilled hacks at the long strands of red-and-pink mane, hoping against all hope that it would be over soon…

Babs shook her head, banishing the flashback to another realm. Fencer had said nothing, not even giving her a passing-glance or commenting on the hour and minute.

Somehow, that silence scared her, and Babs performed her mother’s breathing exercise before finding it within her to trot into another school day.


Bernie Madhoof laid against the sheets, back arched as he stretched. He was still sore, but not enough to cripple him any longer. He would feel like an invalid no more, he reasoned, rising slowly from his aptly-named king-sized bed.

The demands and facades of the corporation had not dropped at Libra’s kick, though the mare would’ve ceased all operations if she could have. Her husband knew that underneath her high-society masks and airs, Libra Scales was still an Appleloosan mare, mere dirt under Manehatten hooves. A train ticket and an academic scholarship couldn’t purify her blood of its influence. Why he had let himself marry such poor stock, he would never know. He was a different stallion back then, weak, flexible, open to all sorts of foolish ideas.

No matter. The pendulum would swing his way once again, and soon.

Rummaging through one of his finely-carved wardrobes, Bernie Madhoof found his salvation: a pair of loose-fitting black cotton slacks. These would hide his shame and his wounds until his body returned to its former strength.

Until then, there was business to attend to.


The corner desk was next to Lucky Toss this time, and Babs Seed seized upon it as roll call began. The instructor was dressed in a military uniform today in preparation for his lesson on nuclear energy, or, as he called it, “the beginnin' o' the end times, maggots!”

The schoolfoals paid no special attention to his antics. Nuclear energy was a new, emerging science, offering itself to the lips of the wisest scientists in all of Equestria. These scientists, of course, spoke of it like it was the fabled Fountain of Youth. Nuclear promised to be the cleanest, safest form of energy ever tapped, far beyond the limitations and drawbacks of coal or gas. Only time would tell.

“’Ten-shun!” the instructor bellowed, smacking his yardstick on the desk. “I see dat we’ve got ourselves a colt who’s gone AWOL! Dis will not be tolerated, seedlings! Youze there!” He pointed an accusatory hoof at Lucky Toss, who merely blinked in response.

“Hey, kid! Where’s youze friend? Why’s he been playin' hooky fo' almost three weeks?!” the teacher demanded, striking the measuring device again for emphasis.

“Sir, I don’t know who youze is talkin’ ‘bout,” Toss responded mechanically. “I’m not sure who youze is referrin' ta.”

“Dat red one! Youze know… red colt, black mane, horrible color scheme? Always causin' trouble in?!”

“Sir, I’m sorry, but I don’t know what youze is talkin' 'bout,” Lucky said, his voice deadpan, devoid of all emotion.

Babs blinked rapidly, then shook her head, then blinked again. Nope, she was still awake.

This had to have been the work of some twisted sorcerer. Surely, Lucky Toss must be under a powerful spell, his mind wiped clean of all memory and independent thought. That, or he had been bashed on the head several times, hopefully with a large object. Beyond brain-damage or hexes, Babs Seed could think of nothing to explain the utterly bizarre exchange.

The stallion’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “I’m watchin’ youze, boy,” he muttered before turning back to the chalkboard. “Enougha dat, troops! Now, today we shall learn how Equestria will end an' the Earth, pathetic pale blue dot it is, will turn ta dust…”

Aw, forget him. There’s more important things goin’ on right now. Stranga things.

Pretending to take notes, Babs Seed shot intermittent sideways glances at Lucky Toss, hoping to catch him glancing back, to confirm that he was still in possession of all of his mind. The colt fidgeted in her gaze, but did not move or speak. As the instructor continued to drone on and on, crafting a dark tale of future doom and destruction—“An' the heavens will BURN from our arrogance!”—Babs tried a new tactic.

“Hey, Toss. Pssst. Toss.”

Lucky Toss yawned and stretched, then took more rapid notes, balancing a pencil between his hooves. Writing had never been his strong suit; but then again, what had, other than gambling? The colt paid her no mind.

Disappointed, Babs Seed tore a piece of paper from her notebook and crumpled it up. She drew her hoof back and whipped it at the colt’s head, barely missing his ear as it passed.

Mwop mwop ancient pony prophesy mwop mwop incomplete calendar… Hey! Quit passin' notes back there!” the teacher yelled, not once removing his eyes from the chalkboard. He continued to spell out the meaning of life and death for the young ponies in chalk, no need to turn his head, letting his warrior’s instincts detect all tomfoolery.

A foal sitting in the desk directly ahead of her turned to Babs Seed, glaring with disapproval.

“Heh, heh, sorry…”

“Shh! You’ll make him repeat himself,” the filly hissed before turning back. There was no fate in Equestria crueler than interrupting the eccentric instructor, especially when he waxed dramatic. The hot air in one of his lungs alone could keep an entire family of ponies warm through relentless winter.

Horseapples. He won’t fess up ta knowin’ Slinga, nor will he speak ta me, nor will he turn… what does dat leave me ta do?

Watching the strange stallion at the front of the room—the treasured and trusted government-funded guardian of a class full of impressionable foals—begin to draw one of his twisted diagrams upon the board again, Babs Seed knew her answer, and grinned.


Perched in the top floor of the highest office building in all of Manehatten, Orange Enterprises held its doors open for business 365 days a year, twelve hours each day with the rise and fall of the morning star.

With the bits he saved from keeping such a skeleton security crew (employing them just under the hours cutoff for decreed benefits), Bernie Madhoof decorated the offices of his life’s work with fine, hoof-carved furniture, imported art from all over Equestria, fragrant houseplants and expertly-woven throw rugs. His office overlooked Manehatten Lake and the hills leading to his humble estate—the finest sight in the city—with a pair of grand bay windows. Yes, the stallion had it good.

Well, at least, he used to, before this madness with Libra.

He couldn’t make up for lost time. He possessed no device that would allow him to bend back the hands of the clock, sending him to a place and time where he could have instilled fear in the mare. No, Libra was too headstrong for her own good, and much, much too clever.

Hopefully, the stallion’s guest would be able to assist in that department.

Bernie Madhoof laid back in his chair, kicking his hooves up on the desk while he waited for his visitor. He closed his eyes for a moment, catching a few winks in his sanctuary. Interrupted a few minutes later by a light rapping of hooves on mahogany, Bernie called out, “Come in!”

A stallion dressed in a black, pinstriped suit casually strolled through the great mahogany doors, letting them shut behind him. He tightly grasped a large, metallic suitcase in one of his hooves and a solid black cane with a diamond pommel in the other.

“Mista Orange, it’s a pleasure ta see youze again,” the visitor, trotting over to the grand desk in the center of the oval office. “Do youze mind if I set dis on top?” he asked, gesturing to the heavy suitcase.

“Of course not, my dear friend. Please. Make yourself comfortable.”

The stallion nodded, sinking into the guest’s chair opposite the desk. He put the luggage down as lightly as he could, careful not to scratch the polished surface of the cherry wood, and leaned his cane against the desk as well. Smiling, he began, “So… from what youze telegram said, youze is in a bit o' a pinch, ain't youze?”

“That’s a bit of an understatement.” Bernie chuckled. “More like a… vice.”

“Hmm. Mare troubles again?”

“To say the least.”

“Ah. So… who’s it now? One o' the reception-fillies? The nice bar-pony down the street?”

“No,” Bernie said. “That little ditty is gone for now, and that temptress with it. They replaced it with some blue-collar horse-hockey. Nothing but hicks and thugs drink there anymore, and the bartender’s some kind of tramp who cuts manes in his pub. Disgusting. No, this one’s a bit more… personal.”

His guest raised an eyebrow. “How personal are we talkin’, sir?”

Bernie Madhoof sighed. “Let’s just say… bits can’t buy off this one.”


The rest of the school day had dragged for Babs Seed, each second warping and stretching into some cursed minute, each cursed minute evolving into an agonizing hour. Recess had been another great success, the Manehatten CMC inviting her to a game of four-square this time. This was much more of an individual game rather than a team sport, and Babs hadn’t dominated in any sense of the word. Regardless, it had been fun, and she looked forward to tomorrow, when, at the Crusaders’ insistence, she would get to pick the game to play.

Finally, after mustering all of her Earth pony magic to speed the hands of the clock, the bell rang for the end of the school day, releasing a classroom full of foals from the choking hooves of Boredom itself.

“Awwwright, youze bunch o’ brats, start studyin’!” called the instructor as his wards began to file out. “Test is in two days—not two weeks, fools, two days!—an' youze better bring youze best!”

“Yeah, right,” Babs muttered, waiting for the gang of hopefully-ex-bullies to pass her by before she exited. I can do dis madness in ma sleep, fo' all youze repeat it.

All four gang-foals—the complete Manehatten juvenile delinquent crew, sans one Card Slinger—chatted amongst themselves excitedly as they headed out the back door to the classroom and into the locker bay. Babs followed a few feet behind them.

A swarm of fillies and colts began to flood the locker bay as the other classrooms emptied their contents, lesson plans thoroughly trashed and useless at the call of the bell. The four Manehatten toughs made no stops at their lockers, continuing to tread through the sea of ponies towards the opposite end of the hallway.

There, Babs Seed saw, foals of a lesser grade began to march out of their classrooms as well. They were small ponies, barely half of Babs’ height and even shorter than her Manehatten CMC recruits. Manehatten, in spite of all its economic prowess, used the same schoolhouse it had built in its founding year to this present day. As a result, foals of ages ranging from six to sixteen roamed the halls, seedlings and saplings alike. It made for some problematic situations at times.

As one of those tiny foals smacked into Lucky Toss’s chest, oblivious to his surroundings, it appeared that one of those situations was about to unfold. Babs Seed ducked behind a row of lockers as she saw her tormentor’s fuse begin to spark.

“Hey! Watch it, youze!” Lucky Toss thundered, glaring at the small Earth pony colt below him. The little guy barely made eye-level with Toss’s die-crossed flank.

“I-I-I’m sorry!” the colt squeaked, backing himself into a corner as the much larger male approached him. “I-I-I didn’t see youze there!”

“Well, dat’s jus' a shame, isn’t it, pipsqueak? Perhaps a little pussy like youze should be walkin’ on stilts, huh?” Lucky snapped back, stomping his hooves towards the tiny offender. Fencer, Switch, and Boone began to urge him on, hooting and hollering to their de-facto leader to rile him.

He’s jus' a kid! Babs growled inside her mind. Youze worthless piece o’—

Babs jumped from behind the locker bay, feeling her muscles spring into action. As a Cutie Mark Crusader—and a leader, no less—it was her duty to protect foals from bullies like these. Lucky Toss may have been able to lie to the teacher, but he was still the same colt he’d been in the alleyway. This spectacle proved it beyond all reasonable doubt.

“'Ey! Youze, stop da—“ She was interrupted by the squeak of a colt’s voice, the tone even more soprano than hers.


Rustler emerged from around the corner, calling out Lucky Toss with his eyes. “Youze leave him alone! He’s jus' a lil’ foal!”

“Oh? Really? Is dat so?” Lucky Toss turned his glare from his prey, who promptly took his cue and exited stage right. Trotting to meet Rustler, Toss bellowed, “An' what are youze gonna do 'bout it?”

“I’ll… I’ll… I’ll kick your flank!” Rustler warned, pushing his muzzle towards the older male’s.

The group of bullies burst into laughter.

“Heh… heh… youze hear dis kid, guys? He… he thinks he can kick ma flank!” Toss hooted, throwing his mane back in laughter. Rustler said nothing, standing strong, standing his ground, however uneven it was. His face gave his antagonist no relief or satisfaction.

Babs Seed began to draw a deep breath, prepared to rumble out a baritone battle-cry and leap to her soldier’s side, when out of the woodwork came the rest of the Manehatten CMC, forming a triangle behind their brother-in-arms. One solitary foal was suddenly four defending together.

“No, we think we can kick youze flank!” Flora said, bracing her hooves on the tile. “An' youze know what, Lucky Toss? My Da’ works wit' youze Da’ down at the marmalade factory, an' I’ll tell him ‘bout youze bad attitude, too!”

As if the filly had just shoved a cork into his maw, Lucky Toss ceased his torrent of laughter, turning white. To the disdain of his fellow bullies, the unlucky colt threw his hooves up in surrender, shaking his head. “No! No, dat’s not necessary, Flora, I—“

“Wait! Toss, youze know dis blankflank?!” Switch shrieked, turning to the de-facto ringleader, charging him with guilt by association.

“No! No, she’s jus' a foal ma pa knows, from his work parties o' summat! It’s nothin'!”

“Oh, sure, youze say dat now, Toss,” Flora mocked, beginning to circle around him, “but youze weren’t saying dat last year at the factory Hearth’s Warming Eve party, were youze? Tryin’ ta catch me beneath the mistletoe…”

Now, Lucky Toss had two gangs of ponies (and one extra foal hidden behind the locker bay) laughing at him. At him. Not with him.

“C’mon guys, I was… I was high then! I didn’t know what I was—“

“Oh, stop, it,” Flora said, taking his muzzle in her forehooves. “But, I think I’ve made ma point, don’t youze? Now, leave ma friend alone, iffa youze know what’s good fo' youze!”

Nodding so fast, it was hard for her hooves to keep a grip, Lucky Toss said, “Yes, Flora! Yes! O’ course!” He turned to the Manehatten CMC, mumbling an apology, leaving only when he saw that his original victim had long ago crept away.

Lucky Toss had got out of this one easily—without a report to his father, there would be no branches waiting for him at home—or so he thought.

“Babs Seed!” the Manehatten CMC cried in unison, seeing their leader finally emerge into the hallway. The three remaining victimizers shot her a quick glance before suddenly splitting directions, mumbling sudden pressing needs to excuse their departure.

Rustler was just about to turn to Babs, beaming with pride, wanting to celebrate their success, when the foal took off on her hooves, galloping out the door after Lucky Toss, calling his name.


“… I see,” his visitor said at least, squirming uncomfortably in his seat at the details of Libra’s assault. “An' dis jus'… came outta nowhere?”

Bernie Madhoof nodded. “I’m afraid so, my friend. I fear what she may do to the fillies when I’m not around. Her anger has just escalated over the past few days. And her decisions have been, well… less than exceptional. Do you know what she’s done to the account?”

“Oh, I know, sir. I was reviewin’ the paperwork on ma way ova, per youze request.” The stallion tapped the suitcase. “I think I may have found us a loophole heeya, summat we can use ta untangle dis mess. I’ll have ta do a bit more diggin’, especially wit' the details youze have kindly provided heeya, but I think I can get the balance shifted back ta normal.”

“No!” Madhoof barked, lurching forward in his seat. The stallion pounded the desk, his eyes wild with rage. “Weren’t you listening to anything I was saying, you nitwit?!”

Holding up a hoof in surrender, the visitor stuttered, “Sir, I thought youze wanted—“

“You thought wrong!” WHAP! sounded the other hoof against the rich cherry-wood of the workstation. “I told you—or ‘youze,’ you illiterate ruffian—that the clause needs to be switched completely in my favor! Libra Scales shall have nothing of this company, especially when she’s trying to run it into the ground!”

Shaking, the stallion slowly pulled his suitcase off the desk and into his grasp, fumbling with its locks. “But, sir,” he said hesitantly, ruffling through a stack of papers, “I have the TPS reports in heeya somewhere. I remember the results, plain as day. Eva since she has had a hoof in… more o' the accountin’… youze profit margins have… have…”

Bernie Madhoof rose from his desk, trotting on his hindhooves to the bay window, forehooves folded in defiance. “Oh, I know. Trust me, I know. I’ve read those reports as much as you have. I may not be able to decipher them as well as that walking encyclopedia known as Libra, but I know what’s going on. Orange Enterprises is doing much better than expected under her watch.”

“… Sir… I… forgive me…. but… Why… why do youze want me ta do dis, again?”

Turning slowly, the stallion taller in stature (but not in spirit) smiled, licking his lips. “Revenge.”


“Toss! Toss, youze brute! Come back heeya!”

Her hooves pounded through the grass, pursuing her quarry through a vacant meadow south of the Manehatten schoolhouse. She gulped down as much air as she could, sending up unseen offerings to the Most High in need of its blessing. Jus' a little faster, she urged herself, only a few feet from the colt’s long, full tail.

Running through the burning sensation in her lungs and the trickle of sweat down her neck, Babs Seed continued the chase, unwilling to leave the toss of the dice to the colt himself. She knew that only if she had cornered one of the bullies, she would she find answers to those haunting questions. She needed to know why she had become a ghost to her tormentors, if it was by reason of religious revelation, sickening guilt, snitching fears, or something far more sinister.

The colt’s muscles began to burn, his throat drawing in insufficient oxygen to his lungs, resulting in a buildup of lactic acid. He trudged on through the pain. He continued to pant as he led Babs Seed all over the meadow in a zig-zag pattern, trampling both flowers and weeds underhoof. He prayed to his own dark gods that Babs would run out of steam soon, as his body began to betray him.

Unfortunately for Lucky Toss, Babs Seed was no steam locomotive. She was a bullet train.

Once she felt the very tip of his tail brush her snout, Babs Seed knew that it was time to strike. Now! She pushed off her hindhooves, launching herself forward towards the colt, forehooves stretched out to meet him. POW!

Lucky Toss howled as he came crashing down, the heavy weight of the filly on top of him. There was a quick struggle, two orange coats wrestling against one another, the colt raking his hooves across the field in hopes of gaining an edge. Lacking claws, he found no traction, and was pulled cruelly into the ground, feeling powerful hindhooves squeeze his torso.

“I’ve got youze now, buddy-boy!” Babs shouted, leaning down into his ear. “I guess now youze know what it feels like ta be trapped, huh? Do youze like it?!” She shoved her face down at his, aiming for his eyes, making him flinch right before she pulled back. “HUH?!”

“Please! Please, let me go!” Lucky Toss cried, struggling against her vicegrip around his organs. “Please! I didn’t do anythin’ ta youze! I don’t even know youze!”

Are youze buckin’ SERIOUS?

“Seriously?” Babs took one hoof to his chin, forcing him to look up into her intense eyes, wanting him to see the fire burning within them. “Youze don’t remember? Well, allow me ta refresh youze memory.” She let go of his muzzle, letting gravity smack it back into the dirt with a hollow THUD!

Toss moaned in pain. She grasped his jaw again in both hooves, forcing it up towards the sun once more.

“Okay, okay! Stop! Please! Please, Babs Seed!” Lucky Toss whined, terrified of the filly’s strength and his sudden helplessness in her hooves. “Please! Babs! I’m sorry! It wasn’t ma idea! I’m sorry! Youze had a beautiful mane!”

“’Had,’ huh?” Babs released him, slowly bringing his head down into the grass but otherwise keeping him trapped. “Hmm. I guess I’ll take what I can get from the likes o' youze. Now tell me... why have youze all been actin’ like I up an' went invisible? It’s nice, I won’t lie,” she said coldly, refusing to pry her eyes from his, watching for any signs of betrayal, “but it’s kinda creepin’ me out.”

The colt took a deep breath, and bit his tongue.

“I… I don’t know anythin' 'bout dat.”

She clenched her teeth, then leaned down and grasped his muzzle again. “Wrong answer!” Babs said as she tightened her grip. “I’ll give youze one mo' chance. That’s mo’ than youze gave me.”

“Dammit, filly, I don’t know who youze are o' what youze is talkin’ bout! I’ve never talked ta youze outside o’ class, an' even then I don’t talk ta youze, so I don’t know what’s goin’ on heeya!” Lucky Toss bucked against her weight and flailed his head in her hooves. Babs Seed held tight, digging herself deeper into the dirt. “Why don’t youze quit bullyin’ me?!”

“Me?! Bullyin’ youze?!” Babs Seed spat back.

“Yes! I’ve never met youze befo' an' I haven’t met the red colt either an'… oh, dammit, don’t youze get it?!

With his last line, Lucky Toss’ strength returned, and he bucked again with all his might. The filly's hooves separated from the Earth, and in the split-second of her hangtime, her prey slipped out from under her. She smacked down to the ground, feeling pain vibrate through her ribcage, crying out. She looked up to Lucky Toss’s eyes, and found a curious thing hiding there: fear, and… pity.

“Babs Seed,” he said as he gasped for breath. “Dis conversation neva happened, but… youze need ta get outta heeya. Outta all o’ heeya. Slinga… he’s… he’s—”

“He’s what?!” She choked, coughing at the dust the colt’s hooves had sent flying into her trachea.

“I… I can’t. I’m… I’m sorry.”

Before she could stop him, Lucky Toss gave the filly one last look, almost appearing to be a pony instead of a demon. In that instance of independent apology—nopony on his back demanding it—Lucky Toss almost looked sad for her, as if his magic eight ball had spoken some sort of ancient and vital proverb instead of the gibberish hers had issued.

Spitting out dirt, Babs Seed let his words echo through her mind, attempting to decipher the meaning within his cryptic words.

Sins Of Our Fathers

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Sins Of Our Fathers

The journey back up the rolling hills of Manehatten’s finest estates felt much longer than usual. Babs repeatedly needed to remind herself to trot, finding her hooves frozen in place more than once as her thoughts raced.

Though she had an aerodynamic edge by being lighter and more streamlined than the colt, Lucky Toss had slipped past Babs Seed’s hooves once more, galloping off towards downtown. She had let him go. He offered her no more aid anyway.

He… felt sorry fo' me. Him. One o' dem. One o' dem bastards, one o' dem who started all o' dis madness. He’s one o' the reasons I can’t sleep… one o' the reasons I keep havin’… flashbacks… how… how can he jus' up an' change his mind? An' what was he sayin' 'bout Slinger?

More questions than answers attacked Babs's psyche as her hooves met the sidewalk, climbing up the steep Manehatten Hill. The skies were even darker than yesterday, autumn knocking at the city’s door even louder, threatening entry. The trees hadn’t changed yet, but she still hung onto hope that the transformation was nigh. One of the best parts of the season was gathering the fallen leaves into a large pile and plunging within, becoming lost in a mess of orange, red, yellow and brown. Perhaps if she piled up enough leaves, she could hide her tracks, tunneling underground to some faraway place where there were no more riddles.

“No, dat’s jus' stupid,” she scolded herself, reaching the top of the hill and pivoting her hooves towards home. “Youze can’t run from youze troubles. Youze gotta face ‘em—head on, directly ta the forehead—no matta how scary dey may seem.”

Babs Seed trotted over to the mailbox, feeling her heart begin to race in anticipation. Without a stool to assist her, she jumped into the air, grabbing the lid of the mailbox and pulling it wide open. She stretched on the tips of her hooves, feeling around within the cavernous container, searching for the corner of an envelope or the curl of a scroll.

There was nothing but emptiness.

“Maybe Citrus o' one o' the servants already got the mail,” she wondered as she slammed the hinged lid shut, picking up her pace as she made her way to the front door.


Another day had passed. He could tell only by the shadow of the sun as the Earth tilted on its axis, indicating it was just before the dusk now. The days had begun to jumble together into one hot mess. Three weeks, it had almost been. Three weeks. Nearly twenty-one days. It felt like forever.

The colt was alone now in his most holy of holies, playing priest in his temple, blackout curtains hiding his face from the cruel probing of daylight. Lying against the cold felt of the pool table, joint in hoof, he took a deep drag of his salvation. There was nothing more sacred than escape.

As he exhaled slowly, feeling the warmth of smoke tunnel through his body, the colt’s thoughts turned to the task that lay before him.

Law-ponies were no longer at the forefront of his mind. He knew that they would have come with a battering ram if they were to come at all, and days had gone by without a single knock at his door. The shack was no secret. There was no need. The inmates had been running the asylum for some time now, and nopony knew the feel of a straightjacket against his fur like him. He was King Crazy, and all the other crazies feared him, giving him the distance he required.

Puffing deep, letting his thoughts evaporate with the smoke, Card Slinger felt himself falling into the teasing hooves of sleep. Since his official declaration the day prior, he had been left to his own devices, burning through both plant and bottle at an alarming speed. He savored every drag and every drink, not sure how many more would await him at the other side of his quest. His eyelids began to plummet towards the ground.

Just as his limbs started to go slack, he heard the steady knock of a hoof at his door.

He was alert in an instant. Rolling off his back, careful to land on all four hooves rather than his face—the world drifting away from him—Slinger answered the summons, pleased to see his right-hoof colt looking back at him.

“Toss, buddy, come on in,” he said, slamming the door shut as Lucky Toss followed behind him. “Youze want anythin’ ta drink? Ta smoke?”

“No… No, thank youze, Slinga,” Toss replied, eying his surroundings. The gang’s shack appeared the same as usual, complete with pool table and accessories, a dartboard, tables, chairs, and beanbags. Manehatten and Equestrian flags and old-timey metallic signs decorated the walls. The colt questioned his scanning. Lucky Toss had seen the inside of the structure more times than he could remember.

Yet, it didn’t feel the same.

“So…” Card Slinger plopped his intoxicated hooves down into one of the beanbags. “Take a seat. What pass-downs do youze have ta bring me?”

Joining him on the floor, Lucky Toss said, “Nothin’ too much. Same ol’, same ol’. Everypony has followed the orders so far.”

Burning the antidote to his overdose to its last end, Card Slinger took one last, deep hit, flicking the roach into an ashtray. “Good.” He exhaled, filling the room with a dragon’s-worth of smoke. “Nopony talkin’ ta the Orange bitch, right?”

“… No, sir.”

“Good. I knew I could count on youze, Lucky Toss, ma main colt, ma partner in crime.” Slinger chuckled softly. “Youze is ma second-in-command. I can count on youze fo' everythin’… includin’ our lil’ secret.”

Card Slinger had not stopped at telling his followers that he would take care of Babs Seed. No, Slinger had flat-out ordered his troops to forget about her, about anything they had done to her, and to ignore her… to act as if she were a new filly on the block, a stranger from some far-off land they had just met and didn’t want to know.

Furthermore, Slinger had decreed that the gang-shack was off limits until further notice to everypony but Lucky Toss. He had reassured his disappointed followers that they would know when the Manehatten gang was open for business—“youze will know when I thirst fo' mischief again.”

These insane thoughts had leaked out of his membrane later during the night of their meeting (after Boone’s lost bet of ten bits) in a surprising moment of sobriety. While the other foals had partied, drinking and smoking their thoughts away, Card Slinger had sat in a corner, rubbing his forehooves together and whispering to himself.

Lucky Toss feared his best friend had finally lost it.

The two colts had not always been this way, serving the dark gods of immorality and worshiping at the altar of hedonism, roaming the streets with sharp tongues and reckless hooves. They had once been younger foals, free of all the decaying blackness in their hearts. They had once been… happy. Lucky Toss had once been on the path of the good and just.

Card Slinger once had parents.

“… Do youze remember, Toss?” Card Slinger sighed, looking at his friend through bloodshot eyes. “Do youze rememba dat day, two years ago?”

“How could I forget?” Toss replied, his mane more pure than any remaining corner of his heart. The unmarred places had all but disappeared, replaced by his misdeeds and his anger.

Two years ago, a mare and a stallion had owned a prosperous shop in Manehatten, operating a printing press. Beyond the local newspaper, the couple made a decent living through printing textbooks, novels, and decks of cards. Nightlife in Manehatten had been far more active back then, and games of poker and blackjack sprang up in neighborhood bars and restaurants like wildfire.

After accumulating some generous profit, the mare and stallion sought a new location for their corporation. “It takes money to make money,” as the wise They had said, and the two ponies sought to take Their advice. Assets and liabilities not quite in balance, the pair turned to the most powerful business-pony in Manehatten, begging for a loan. With some consideration, the stallion relented.

A heavy price tag came with their newfound bits. Usury, of course, is a common business practice, but this stallion enforced the terms of his agreement with hired muscle and bricks thrown through more than one window. The interest rates climbed with each missed payment, until the minimum payments alone threatened to swallow their debtors whole.

Seeing no end in sight, the mare and stallion hoofed it, leaving the care of their foal to the stallion’s brother, trying to outrun their collector's pursuit. A few days later, the two ponies were found in the desert, their bones picked clean by vultures.

No autopsy was performed, as they were presumed to have died of dehydration—not foul play. Nopony could rule it out for certain, but the case had long been closed.

“It’s… it’s crazy,” Card Slinger muttered, searching for patterns on the blackened ceiling. “I… I neva put two an' two togetha. I mean, I was told Ma’ an' Da’ had turned tail afta gettin’ involved wit' a gang at first.”

“A gang… like ours?”

He snorted in response. “No, Toss. A gang o' adults would make our little scheme look like, well, foal’s play. No, I was told dat dey had crossed the wrong Don, delayed their repayment a lil’ too long. I thought dey got the extra bits from the streets, not some weasel’s coffers. Dat’s why I founded all o' dis,” he explained, gesturing to a hoof around their cave. “Ta clean up the streets. Ta be a better gang-pony. Ta set an example, an' create ma own lil’ family. Ma’ an' Da’ would’ve liked dat, don’t youze think?”

“I… I guess…” Toss mumbled uneasily.

Card Slinger sighed. “But… no… it’s only recently dat I’ve learned the whole truth. Ol’ man Applejack Daniels freed ma poor uncle at last from his chains. Bernie Madhoof, dat’s who it was, who pretty much killed ma parents.”

Lucky Toss felt the last shades of orange begin to drain from his coat.

“An'… now… I have… dat filly… in the crosshairs.” Card Slinger fell onto his back, forehooves behind his neck, feeling the full effects of the drug at last. “An'… I’ll have my way, Toss. I’ll have the last laugh. Youze jus' gotta keep dis under wraps, see.”

Lucky Toss hesitated, unsure if he could keep such a secret. But, what other choice did he have? Mutiny was out of the question. Snitches get stitches. Blood in, blood out. There was no going back. The coffin and the cell were his only tickets to freedom at this point. Disobedience would surely be punished, but would Slinger really follow through, especially towards his best friend?

He shuddered.

They were only colts, sure, but Lucky Toss would put nothing past Card Slinger. In the aftermath of his parents’ deaths and an escalating chain of addictions, his best friend had transformed over two years, evolving into something more demonic than equine. Slinger’s intentions had become far more sinister, almost if they were implanted into his brain by Old Scratch himself.

And it had taken the sight of a scared little filly on a cobblestone road for Lucky Toss to question his own path, to question what kind of stallion he wanted to become.

Noting the silence, Slinger whispered, “Youze ain’t goin’ turncoat, are youze, buddy?”

Lucky Toss’s pupils caught sight of a large, black dagger on the table across the room, its killing edge sharp and jagged. He felt his breath catch in his throat.

“… What are youze plannin’, Slinger?”

“Revenge. What else?”

“… What kind o' revenge?”

Slinger lifted his head, squinting his eyelids even narrower at the interrogation. “What otha kind is there? An eye fo' an eye, Toss. An eye fo' an eye.”

“An’ what does dat mean?”

“It means… whateva happens, happens,” Slinger answered. “An',” he added, seeing the faith he had instilled in his underling begin to waver, “it means dat dis conversation neva happened, an' youze don’t be comin’ 'round here until youze see the signal.”

The signal. Until Lucky Toss found Card Slinger’s tag—graffiti of an Ace and King crossed—crying out in victory throughout Manehatten, he was to remain off the premises, keeping his vow of silence and ignorance.

Sensing his hesitation, Card Slinger casually asked, “Is it me o' dat filly, Toss? Where do youze loyalities lie?”

Feeling the last corner of his heart blacken into ash, Lucky Toss replied, “Youze, Slinga. Youze, as always.”


“I’m sorry, honey. There was no mail today.”

Mother Orange’s words echoed within the recesses of her daughter’s brain as she sat at the dinner table, staring down at her empty plate. Allspice was busying herself with a cornbread-and-sweet-pea casserole in the oven, Citrus Blossom was chatting excitedly about a new fashion line, Father Orange was gazing longingly at his empty wineglass—staring at it so intently that it might burst—and Babs Seed just sat, waiting for her supper.

She shoulda got my letter by today! Dat derpy-eyed mailmare may not be the most graceful pegasus there is—I’ll never forget dat one time she almost crashed inta Dad’s office buildin’—but she’s a fast flyer. Ponyville ain’t more than an hour o’ so by pegasus wing. Hopefully it didn’t get lost.

“Babs, is something wrong?” Libra asked, eyes filling with concern. Beneath the table, the mare’s forehoof nudged the lone stallion's flank.

Clearing his throat, Father Orange tossed in, “Yes, um, darling, is everything… alright?”

Unfazed by her father’s sudden interest, Babs said, “Nope, everythin’s fine, thanks,” without missing a beat.

“Oh, hon, is this about the letter?” Citrus chimed in.

Am I really dat easy ta read?

“Letter? Beg pardon, Citrus?” Father Orange asked.

“Oh, yes, Father. Babs Seed wrote a letter back to the Cutie Mark Crusaders in Ponyville telling them all about her new club! Well, to Apple Bloom, anyway. Isn’t that exciting?”

Mustering a grin from somewhere only a magician could conjure it, the stallion chortled weakly and added, “Oh, yes, that’s… very interesting.” His wife narrowed her eyes at him, speaking volumes of warning, unsatisfied with his current display. Picking up what his irritated mare was putting down, the stallion pressed, “Do tell us about it, Babs Seed.”

“Aw, there’s nothin’ new ta tell,” Babs mumbled, her head hanging. “We’ve got our next meetin’ on Friday, but ‘till then, jus' hangin' out. Played four-square today. Dat was kinda cool.”

“Did youze win again, Madame Orange?” Allspice asked, placing the hot casserole on the table. She grabbed a set of utensils and began to slice, supplying the stallion of the house with the first and most fresh piece.

Her spirits lifted by the aroma of yet another expert Allspice creation, Babs peeled her eyes from the empty plate at last and replied, “Not dis time. It’s a much harder game than it looks! But tomorrowa I get ta pick what game we’ll be playin’, so I think it’ll be hoofball again.”

Citrus Blossom smiled. “And my little sister owns at hoofball!”

Babs nearly face-hoofed. “Citrus, did youze jus' say… owned?” she asked, baffled by her normally formal sister sinking to the level of slang.

Sheepish, Citrus upturned her hooves into a shrug. “What can I say? A lot of the columnists in my magazines talk like that! It’s definitely chic right now!”

Babs Seed giggled. Only her big sister would worry if slang was “in” before adding it to her extensive vocabulary.

Father Orange tapped his glass at his servant as she began to turn from the table, all plates graced with an appropriately-sized slice of the casserole. “Ah, Allspice, could you please bring me some… water?”

Water? Since when does Da’ drink WATER? Babs Seed turned to her sibling curiously, mouthing, “What the heck?!” Citrus shrugged back, watching with equally curious eyes as a wary head servant took the wineglass from the stallion.

Allspice filled the glass quickly with cold water from the tap, offering it to her master. “Here youze are, sir.”

“Why, thank you Allspice,” he graciously thanked the mare.

Mother Orange smiled. Together, the little family and its favorite servant had the quietest dinner in a long while.


Libra Scales slept in the master bedroom after dinner, promising her stallion that she would resuming sleeping next to him as long as he kept both his mouth and his liver clean, and his hooves to himself. She was pleased to see that his first day without liquor had not brought about the delirium tremens—the terrible shaking of hooves that cursed victims of alcoholism—nor had he stumbled upon his newfound kind words at dinner.

“If you keep this up, Bernie,” she whispered, “then I’ll uphold my end of the bargain. Three-quarters of Orange Enterprises will be yours again.”

“But of course, my dear,” he replied quietly. “You were right. You always were. I’m sorry my ways were so twisted and dark; now, I shall walk the straight and narrow.”

Unable to process his sudden change of heart and heaviness of words, Libra clarified, “I wouldn’t go that far, darling, but just give this a chance. Give sobriety a chance. Give Babs Seed a chance.”

An actor in one of his past lives, the stallion grinned in the moonlight, his molars revealing none of his intentions. He said nothing and pressed his lips to his wife’s forehead, mumbling, “Good night, sweetheart.”

Beneath all her rage and demands, her fear and loathing, Libra Scales was still a mare, and Bernie Madhoof was still a stallion. Biology has its way of interfering with rationality’s questions, and though there was no logic in it, Libra Scales let that display of love cast away her fear, beginning to feel hopeful at this small success.

Perhaps Bernie Madhoof still had a soul, and she could still save him.


The night passed for Babs Seed with nothing of much interest to report. After a simple round of homework and a vigorous series of push-ups on her forehooves, tearing her muscle fibers until she almost cried out from the soreness, she fell into a deep sleep. This time, she was visited by no dreams, falling into an enveloping blackness.

In this haze of slumber, the foal tossed about her worries regarding Lucky's words, the darkness echoing back in response. It had nothing to make of the riddle, either. When she awoke, she felt refreshed, ready to face another school day, the fear and confusion of yesterday pushed to the back of her mind.


Allspice awoke that same morning to find that the youngest Orange Family servant, the maid, had packed her bags during the night and left with the rising sun. There was no note or clues to her destination scattered behind in a careless rush.

Good riddance, she thought, as she suspected this servant was one of the reasons her pay (in cold, hard bits, of course, no paper trail) always seemed a little short every two weeks. Good riddance.

Now, Allspice and Bernie Madhoof’s two male servants shared the entirety of the mansion’s upkeep, adding more logs to the fires of fury burning within them. Master Orange had made no mutterings of hiring a replacement for Greyhoof, and he made no announcement regarding the maid either.

Knowing that their employer always placed the almighty bit at the very top of his priority list, the remaining help did not hold their breath, knowing that they would most likely remain short-hoofed for the duration of their stay. Their workdays, already over twelve hours in length, were about to get much longer, leaving only room for late-night ranting and sleep.


Thursday came and went like a thief in the night. Babs Seed chose hoofball at recess that afternoon and led her troops into the heat of battle, proving herself to be an excellent strategist on the field.

Another victory tucked securely behind her ears, the Manehatten Cutie Mark Crusader leader began to feel like she was back in Ponyville in a sense; this CMC was just as accepting—if not more—as the Ponyville CMC. Manehatten, if only for a day, began to feel like home.

The instructor bellowed out a final warning as the classroom emptied, test day nearing. Babs did not worry. I’ve got dis one in the bag. Nuclear fusion, nuclear energy… foal’s play.

After the test tomorrow, Babs planned on returning home for a quick nap. Unfortunately, the other members of her squadron were not as lucky as she and her classmates, and had a full day of school Friday to plow through. No problem. Babs welcomed the idea of extra sleep, still feeling much more indebted to the Sandmare than she had ever intended to be.

Spotting her tormentors in the pack ahead, Babs Seed began to quicken her pace, trotting past them proudly in the halls. From the corner of one of her eyes, she could’ve sworn on all that is sun and moon that Lucky Toss had met her gaze. None of the others seemed to notice her presence.

There’s nothin’ I can do, nothin’ I can change ta make their intentions known. Fo' now, I’ve jus' gotta play it cool, but stay on guard. If dey try any funny business… I’ll be ready.


“I trust that you have brought me good news.”

Bernie Madhoof sat in his chair, still-sore private parts protected by a pair of pressed pleated pants, staring out of his grand bay window. He watched ponies of a lesser degree fret to and ‘fro far below his skyscraper, scurrying about their daily lives as if there was meaning in their haste. There was no meaning to be found, just more bits. More bits that would be his, if his assistant had fulfilled his obligations.

The stallion trotted in slowly, surprising himself to have expected a proper greeting in the first place. Cane in one hoof, even heavier suitcase in the other, he made his way to his client’s desk, replying, “Ah, sire, only the best fo' youze.” He gently sat the suitcase back down on the desk and took the same seat as yesterday.

Madhoof said nothing, feeling like a great eagle soaring above a field of mice. The lives of layponies had always amused him. They seemed so troubled, so full of fear, so easy to crack and break. Some castles were built out of sand. His was a stone tower.

Turning at last to his guest, Bernie took the suitcase in his hooves, snapping the locks open quickly. The very top document caught his attention, stamped with a red mark that screamed, “CONFIDENTIAL.”

The stallion, wearing another black pinstriped suit, laughed as he explained, “Oh, yes, sir, forgive me. Dat is the details o' ma operation, intended fo' youze eyes only, ta docum—“

“Fool!” Bernie exclaimed, seizing the report in his hoof. “Have you been living under a rock? Documenting this sort of activity? Exactly whose side are you on?!” The stallion rose from his seat, pressing his muzzle against his hire’s, shooting daggers poised to stab into the other male’s eyes.

Raising his hooves in surrender, the omega shook his head at the alpha, apologizing profusely for his foolishness. “Sir, yes, sir, I’m sorry! I don’t know what I was thinkin’! I—“

“Has anypony else seen this?!”

“No, sir, no!”


Bernie Madhoof fetched a match from one of his desk drawers, striking the tip against its backside. Holding the dreaded details of his misdeeds over a wastebasket, he brought the flame to paper, watching it in silence as it burned. There would be no trace of his crimes.

“Now,” he said as he stomped out the flames, “tell me what I really want to hear. Tell me that all of that whore’s tricks have been relinquished.”

“I… Yes, sir,” stuttered his contractor, fidgeting in his seat, taking a deep breath.

“I’ve gone inta the account, made ma merry way through the bank itself. I represented maself as youze attorney acting on youze behalf, tellin’ ‘em youze were at an important conference in Trottingham an' needed some emergency changes ta youze account. The teller weren’t too bright, took ma seal like it was from Celestia herself.

“Once I had access, I simply transferred bits between the accounts o' youze an' youze wife an' removed all beneficiaries from youze account, sir. Youze now is the sole payout recipient o' all the bits in case o’ emergency—an' Libra’s name ain’t anywhere on ‘em, nor the foals’. She’ll still have access ta the statements o' both accounts—an' she’ll think she has access ta both fo' transactions—but she’ll only be able ta withdraw from one o’ dem. Hers. Which is zeroed out.

“But she won’t know dat; the digits I manipulated as well, wit' a few bits towards the head accountant ta keep him quiet. He’ll keep her runnin’ balance accordingly, an' the bank’ll loan her the bits she requests. But once a limit has been reached, it’ll be time ta pay the piper an' the true numbas will be revealed. She’ll be in debt, an' you’ze won’t owe any o' it.”

Bernie Madhoof returned to his grand, plush chair, turning away from the now-useless body before him. Cekestua was beginning to cast her magic from her Canterlot throne, turning the whole sky into a sea of holy fire—red, orange, and yellow blazing before him. Manehatten never looked as beautiful as it did in that moment.

“Excellent. I’m impressed. You’ll have your payment soon, my friend. That will be all. For now, let me relish in my victory.”

Anticipating the sweet music of bits rustling in his pockets, the stallion rose and bowed, leaving the suitcase for his master’s evidence and trotting away with his cane. If Bernie Madhoof paid him as well as he always did, more gems would soon come to join the diamond on its pommel.


C'mon… jus' a lil' bit higher…

Babs Seed stretched again on the tips of her hindhooves, reaching up into the mailbox. Frantically, she thrust her hoof all around its innards, searching around. To her surprise, something was in there this time. She yanked back, hard, falling on her rear as she did so.

It was a letter in a plain yellow envelope, marked, “To: Babs Seed. From: Apple Bloom.”

Nearly squealing with delight, Babs almost ripped the envelope in the process of opening it, and began to read.

To her dismay, all it said was:

“Babs Seed,

I have a surprise for you soon. Look out for checkered flags.

—Apple Bloom

P.S. You’re cute when you’re mad.”

Blushing furiously, as embarrassed as she was confused, Babs seed threw her head to the Heavens, incredulous, repeating, “Cute? Me?? Cute?!

Shadows Of The Night

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Shadows Of The Night

“Citrus, do youze know where youze would see checkered flags?” Babs Seed asked, sitting at the dining room table with her sister.

Supper had been a quick mishmash of leftover casserole and blanched carrots on the side, Allspice feeling much too tired to whip up an entirely original menu. The two fillies didn’t mind. The Orange guardians had missed the nightly meal, Father Orange meeting with an important client in the city and Mother Orange cutting vendors’ paychecks at a distributor’s shop. The three shared in an excellent feast, stomachs full to bursting, politely declining Allspice's prior mention of dessert.

“Checkered flags? What, are you wanting to enter a race, Babs?” Citrus Blossom answered, posing a question of her own.

Babs shook her head. “No, I was jus'… wonderin’. Somepony in class was talkin’ 'bout ‘em.” Nice catch.

Allspice similarly had no expertise to offer in this field. “Sorry, kid. I can’t think o' anythin’ dat would involve flags wit’ checkered patterns on ‘em, except races.”

Swallowing her disappointment, Babs Seed replied, “Dat’s okay. Thank youze both fo' tryin’.” Sheesh, iffa it ain’t one riddle, it’s another, ‘round here… checkered flags… checkered flags… races… racin'…

“So! Tomorrow is a big test day, isn’t it, Babs?”

Babs grinned, confidently flashing her pearly whites. “Youze betcha!”

“’Bout what dis time? Don’t tell me youze teacha is drawin’ diagrams wit' foals hittin' brick walls an' frozen lakes again…” Allspice muttered, wary of her employer’s apparently eccentric instructor (and that was putting it in polite, corporate terms).

Giggling, her fears were relieved and then exacerbated with, “Nope! No mo’ gravity lessons! Dis next test is 'bout nuclear energy!”

Allspice face-hoofed, mumbling something about tax evasion and public schooling.


Declining Citrus's generous offer of studying assistance, Babs Seed sought sanctuary in her bedroom after helping Allspice clear the table. The Orange Family Mansion was quieter than usual, neither of its breadwinners reunited with the rest of the family. Business is known to be a jealous mistress, and she had stolen away both of her lovers for the night.

The moon had begun to grace the sky as Babs poured over her preparations, burying her desk under stacks of notes and textbooks. Her mind wandered with rebellious frequency, lighting upon much heavier subjects than the test material.

Try as she might, she couldn’t bring her mind to completely focus. After she’d caught herself reading the same sentence about nuclear fusion five times in a row, comprehending nothing, Babs Seed slammed the tome shut and rose from her desk.

She ruffled through her saddlebags, retrieving her crimson Cutie Mark Crusaders cape. She tied it around her neck and trotted over to the window, letting the cool night air send it hovering in the breeze.

Tomorrow was much more than just a simple test day; it was the day Quick Step would be bringing in the new capes. Tomorrow, they would truly become Cutie Mark Crusaders at last. Only in appearance, however, not in spirit, were they deficient. It seemed that the new Crusaders had already exceeded the benchmark for strength of character.

Though the troops hadn’t mentioned the Lucky Toss incident to her, its significance was not lost on Babs. Whereas, prior to the founding of the little club, bullies like Lucky Toss would be permitted by silence to commit their acts of disgrace without backlash, now there were four foals who challenged their tyranny. They had done it without prompting, without warning, without training. They had simply stood up against the juvenile delinquent because it was the right thing to do.

The right thing, Babs thought, watching moths begin to seek out the flickering flames of the streetlights below. Dey knew what ta do without bein’ told. Dey didn’t have ta learn no lesson, do no damage, almost crash a giant golden apple inta a lake ta learn how ta behave…

As much as she wished to be over this, to move beyond the past, Babs could not find true forgiveness for her own self. The last nightmare had escalated all feelings of remorse.

Unfortunately, there was no sacrifice she could make at the altar of Mother Galaxia, no letter she could write to Princess Celestia, no candy she could donate to the statue of Nightmare Moon to erase her guilt. Even the Turner-angel, the representative of her conscience, brainstormed no solution; “he” seemed to be absent these days, as disappointed as the vision of the stallion within her dreams.

Babs sighed. It’s gonna be anotha long night. Time fo' mo' exercise.

She sidled away from the window and lowered herself to all four hooves. As she began a furious set of push-ups, feeling the muscles in her shoulders and chest flex and tear, her thoughts turned to the CMC again. Dey’re mo' than I imagined, mo' than I expected… braver foals than I’ll eva be. Maybe dey don’t even need me there, or in the first place.

No, another voice echoed within her consciousness. You’re mistaken. You were and are necessary. Everything happens for a reason.

Everythin’? she challenged. Tell me ‘bout reasons when I tell youze 'bout gang-ponies an' glass bottles, Diamond Tiara an' Silver Spoon an' all o’ ma madness.

“Tell me then,” she hissed, accelerating the pace of her calisthenics, feeling her hooves begin to burn. The voice gave no response this time, filed somewhere in her depths by the discriminating hooves of Doubt and Skepticism.

Within less than an hour, her body began to betray her in its caloric depletion, and Babs Seed fell to the carpet, falling asleep almost instantly as she landed.


The streets sang their siren song, calling out to the expectant, pricked ears of everypony in Manehatten. They sang of freedom and wanderlust and fulfillment of dreams. Chained by society, imprisoned by debt, ostracized by expectation, ponies far and wide flocked to the street’s pathways for relief. The roads burst at their expertly-stitched seams, flooded with equines of all sizes, statures, colors, races, and temperaments.

Pegasi zipped throughout the blue skies, performing barrel-rolls and daring dives to awed audiences. Unicorns drew their own crowds by casting levitation and minor transformation spells, drawing gasps of wonder and delight. Earth ponies, through it all, kept the bustling roads secure, stable, clean, busy, and happy.

They were the merchants, the vendors, the business-ponies, the security officers, the law-ponies, the street-sweepers, the light-tenders, the backbone of service and society itself. They possessed their own kind of magic, wisdom and strength channeling through the mantle of the Earth itself through their hooves. They were lesser in no way to the others, the foundation on which all depended.

Truly, it was a majestic scene of harmony, that Manehatten street.

Babs Seed trotted up the road, amazed at the sight of the bustling street. So many ponies were here. So many new friends could be made.

She galloped over to an ice cream vendor’s cart and politely asked for a strawberry milkshake.

A sea of dark, deep, emotionless eyes turned to her, pupils widening into blackness. The whole of the street stared at her, as if her speech was an accident of Nature or a cruel science experiment gone mad.

The ponies gritted their teeth as the skies blackened, high noon turning to the grim of twilight in a wink as it had in Discord’s days. The mass of equine flesh began to stomp towards the foal, one hoof at a time, whites of their eyes glowing yellow and those demonic pupils hungrily gazing upon her.

She felt herself backing up, backing up, backing up, squeaking out tormented cries. “W-w-what’s wrong? Why are youze all lookin’ at me like dat?!”

“Blankflank,” one of them seethed, the offender’s identity impossible to judge in this ominous clump of enraged populace.

“Fillyfooler,” another spat.

“Sinner. Traitorous, incestuous, worthless sinner.”

This time, the voice was not one but many—no, not many, but all. The entire ocean of quadruped flesh, blood, and soul moved towards her—one mass, one mob, holding no torches or pitchforks in their hooves or jaws. Their lack of ornamentation mattered not. They were a sight to behold, and just as deadly as lynch-riots of old.

They began to laugh, every mare and stallion and foal in time, approaching her with torturous hesitation. In the crowd, Babs saw many she knew—including some belonging to her own family and friends—among the ranks of the army approaching. She cried out to them, screaming their names.

“Why?” she pleaded, feeling the scene begin to close in around her, awkward backward steps jettisoning her into a narrow alleyway. “Why? What do youze want?!”

“Revenge,” came the crowd’s answer.

Her hindhooves met a graffiti-stained wall of concrete behind her. She panicked, turning to her obstacle and running her hooves over it in a desperate search for a something to climb. The wall was as smooth as glass and far too tall.

She turned to her left and right, scanning for any sign of escape. Her only way out would be past the crowd, which had begun to proliferate into the alleyway, filling the small corridor with lines of soulless ponies. All eyes were on her, and they looked ravenous.

The attention she craved and yearned for all her young days seemed laughable now. The entire population of ponydom—the weight of Equestria itself—bore down on her, mere inches away, sure to smother or trample her under its hooves.

Claustrophobia stealing her breath, the cowardly filly laid down on the cobblestones, head in her hooves, bobtail shielding the sight of her blank flank in a last plea for mercy.

Suddenly, the wind began to howl like a pack of timberwolves, clouds gathering and darkening the sky to a pitch black around her. Lightning blazed and thunder boomed, a crack of a whip halting the march of the mindless ponies in their tracks.

With wings spread and eyes glowing white, the evening star descended from the heavens.

Shivering, Babs Seed peeked through her hooves to see a tall, violet alicorn protecting her, powerful wings spread wide in defiance.

“BE STILL, AND DISSIPATE, SPIRITS OF THE DEEP,” the ruler of the darkness bellowed, voice making even the concrete walls tremble at its significance.

Babs gasped as the entire crowd disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Her tormentors had been nothing but mere shadows.

The alicorn spun on her hooves, offering a hoof to her ward. “Rise, Babs Seed. I am Princess Luna, guardian of the night, warden of dreams, riser of the moon.”

Babs Seed accepted the gesture, pulling to her hooves before she bowed low in respect. “T-thank youze fo' savin’ me, P-Princess Luna,” she said, eyes to the ground, voice humble and shaking with gratitude.

“Rise from your hooves, child. No need for formalities,” Princess Luna said.

Stumbling as she rose on all fours, feeling drained of all strength, Babs Seed asked, “Where am I? Is dis jus' a dream?”

Luna nodded. “Indeed, child. I assure you, you are asleep. Your slumber these past moons has been dreadful, and full of nightmares, has it not?”

“Yes, Princess.”

“Why is your heart so troubled, young one? Walk with me, and tell me your worries.” Princess Luna strode alongside her subject as the pair trotted out of the alleyway, an empty Manehatten marketplace greeting them under the moonlight.

“I… I don’t know, Your Highness,” Babs said. “I… I jus'… I can’t—“

“Truly, you do not know? Are you so certain?” The alicorn’s eyes met with the foal’s, casting no judgment. Smiling softly, she added, “The eyes are the windows to the soul, young one. The trouble in yours is evident. There is a storm brewing in your spirit, is it not?”

Confused, Babs bounced back, “Iffa youze already know, why do youze ask? Forgive me, Princess…”

Luna giggled, stifling her gentle laughter with a forehoof. “Oh, Babs Seed, it is because you are the one who is in the dark, not I.

“Some things are hidden deep within our hearts, little one,” she whispered, majestic mane illuminating her as she spoke. “Some fears, some troubles, some nightmares we sweep under the rug, hoping that they will go away. They will not. The nightmares will continue, until your fears are faced.

“What are you afraid of the most, Babs Seed?”

Princess Luna stopped in her tracks, purple irises meeting green below, the streets of the mob empty and silent but for the whisper of the wind.

“… Bullies?” Babs Seed offered.

“Really? That’s it? Is there anything else?” Luna asked. “Anything more than the hooligans of Manehatten cobblestone?”

“… I… I don’t know.”

Without a word, Princess Luna began to focus her magic, gallant horn glowing with holy white light, her irises and pupils disappearing into a blinding absence of all color. Babs watched in a mix of amazement and terror as her guardian rose off her hooves, powerful wings spreading and levitating the regal evening star into the air.

“Let us explore, then, your deepest fear, what you have wanted so long to forget,” Princess Luna thundered, and the atmosphere exploded into a blinding flash of white light.


Babs Seed was falling.

She struggled against gravity, flailing her hooves, seeking a branch or a root she could grasp onto as she sped down, down, down, a raindrop falling from the cloud cover to the ground below.

Finding no escape rope, she screamed, “Luna! Luna! LUNA!”

With a cloud of smoke, Princess Luna appeared and began to fall beside her, immortal and mortal plummeting together to their doom.

“What do you feel right now, child?” Luna called over the rush of velocity in their flattened ears.

“Scared!” Babs shrieked, stunned at the regent's insane question. What did it matter what she felt if she was going to die?



“Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere,” hummed the princess, smiling. The pair increased in momentum as they fell into the bottomless pit, blood defying gravity and staying still within their veins.

Incredulous that she was still conscious, Babs Seed cried out, “Princess Luna! Please… make it stop!”

“Not until you come clean, Babs Seed. You are safe now. This pit is endless, and here I am, falling with you. Do you really think I would let anything happen to one of my most precious subjects?” Princess Luna asked, raising an eyebrow on her upside-down muzzle.

“I-I guess not!”

“See. Do not worry. My method may be madness, but I mean you no harm.” Against her better judgment, Babs Seed chose to believe her and nodded rapidly.

Granting her one more grin, Luna continued, “Now. Think, my subject. If this pit had an end, what would be going through your mind right now? Who would you be thinking of?”

“Ma’ an' Da’… Citrus… an' Allspice too… the Ponyville CMC… Applejack, Big Mac, Granny Smith… Turner… the Manehatten CMC,” she answered between breaths.

Princess Luna asked, “And of those ponies… who makes you feel loved? Who makes you feel at home, makes you feel that you belong? The Ponyville residents, or the Manehatten ones?”

Though the answer seemed obvious to Babs Seed, almost too easy, she could not bring herself to respond. She had never considered such thoughts before. Was Luna tricking her? Isn’t home the place you’ve always been, the place you were raised? Isn’t love what is given to you by the ones who’ve brought you life, regardless of how harsh or distant or jumbled it may be? Isn’t belonging a reflective question—wasn’t everypony born where they should stay?

Babs Seed wanted to ask those questions, but her vocal cords did not comply, software disconnected from hardware in the space between mind and muzzle in her continued freefall.

The evening star, one of the two wisest ponies in all of Equestria itself, found her answer anyway.

“You see, Babs Seed, what you fear the most is not Card Slinger or his drones, nor the wrath of your savior, Turner, nor the judgment of others for your flank or your actions. These are manifestations of your troubles, sure, but they are mere illusions in the face of your true fear. Your true fear... is powerlessness. You feel powerless, playing the cards that are dealt to you. You have had little choice in the matters that have defined your life, that have cultivated you as you are in the present.

“You were born in a city of power and prestige, yet you value neither of these things. You were born into a family of wealth and want, though you desire something you have never truly received from them. You were made to be a late-bloomer, a little seed to develop its roots on its own, yet you came into a community that has no patience for the smallest delays, let alone true soul-searching.

“Now, do you see, Babs Seed, why we are falling? We are facing what you have faced for so long, yet you do not acknowledge your struggles. Your life is defined by your fear—your powerlessness, your lack of control. But, there are two sides to our coin, little sapling. You also fear the possibility of your own power—you have little experience wielding it and you fear becoming corrupted by it, should you taste it one drop more.

"Your mistake in Ponyville and your siding with their bullies seems to confirm your fears of yourself. So, you choose the devil you know and let fear take you instead of leaving yourself to your own devices, in the event you may choose wrongly again. Hence, your dreams of being trapped or pinned or surrounded are realizations of your true fear.

“Remember... Fate has not given you much of a choice in your circumstances, young one... but she will not be this ruthless for long. My little pony, there will come a day, very, very soon, where you must become the master of your domain, the captain of your soul, lest your ship meet an iceberg in the fog and be lost at sea. The road shall fork before you, and only you can make the choice of where to blaze.

“Do you understand, Babs Seed?”

Babs Seed felt gravity release its grasp, velocity decelerating into a gentle stop as the bottomless pit began to lose its definition. Below the alicorn and the filly was a deep, black lake, snow falling in steady flakes and ice floes decorating the scene.

Understanding at last, she answered, “Yes, I do, Princess Luna.”

Princess Luna smiled as her horn began to glow again, magic taking hold of her form. “Follow your heart, little seed,” she called as she began to dissipate into the background, the winds howling as their master returned to the molecular moon once more.

Babs Seed was falling again, and this time, she was ready. Priming her hooves for landing, adjusting her body in a cat-like pose, she reached bottom at last, diving deep into the cold waters.

As she swam up to the surface, she felt no more fear.

Crimson Capes And Checkered Flags

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Crimson Capes And Checkered Flags

The daybreak was gentle and slow, Celestia and Luna meeting and separating, coming together and drifting apart over the horizon. Rays of sunlight peeked through Babs Seed's window. She felt herself stretch and rise in a trance-like vision, as if she were an observer in her own story.

She felt no pain in her hooves, no kink in her neck, no tiredness in her muscles. Her mane was still mostly combed and in place—a sign that her slumber had been much more peaceful than usual. Whites of her eyes pure and free of all injury or irritation, her green irises sparkled in the glow of morning, pupils flooding with light.

She strode over to the eastern window and thrust it open, breathing in sweet morning air. Autumn had arrived like a thief in the night, painting rows and rows of trees down the Manehatten roads shades of orange, yellow, red, and brown. The equinox had come. The days would be getting shorter.

Looking down upon the Manehatten streets, watching the skies begin to come alive, Babs Seed felt like she had emerged from the other side of the fire. Something had changed in her, something irreplaceable and sacred and holy.

Babs Seed took a deep breath, on her day of reckoning.


Bernie Madhoof rose to greet the dawn while Libra Scales snored beside him.

The stallion stretched and yawned, hooves reaching to touch the empty heavens above. The utmost entirety of his injuries had been cast away, only a faint pain crying out in his groin as he moved. No matter.

Bernie strode beside his bay window, pacing, watching the city below him begin to stir. The first transaction had been completed with the cutting of vendors' checks. The second would trigger the trap, snapping his wife’s treacherous hooves within its jaws. Whether it was for a candy apple or a new condominium, the second withdrawal would reveal the truth of her debt and his dominion.

She would become as a slave to her master, begging for bits, relinquishing the upper hoof she held over him and falling to his hooves in mercy. The balance of power would restore at last; things would be as they should be. Oh, how he loved it when ponies would grovel to him.

Bits. Money. Mammon. His god. The stallion served his deity well, paying tribute in the form of acquisitions and mergers, price hikes and expense-slashing. For twenty years, he had slaved and saved, enduring months of sleepless nights, years without rest, to build his empire.

One would be quick to say that his hard work had paid off, but Bernie Madhoof knew no end of his offerings to Mammon. His god was a thirsty and unforgiving beast, roaring for more, demanding only the finest treasures and pleasures. Even the Orange Family Mansion had begun to disappoint him, blueprints beginning to formulate in his mind. New rooms were needed to properly revel in his status as the most powerful stallion in Manehatten. A pool hall, perhaps? A bar and lounge? Both were tempting options. Both would relieve him of the need to interact with the undesirables, to leave his castle and socialize among the subjects.

No, this king met only with nobles, and only reluctantly.

Briefly, as his stomach growled, Bernie Madhoof remembered a colthood of poverty and hunger, of squeezing out the last bit until it bled, of brewing stone soup when the cupboards went bare. Such a life of shame haunted him. Such a past made interaction with the lesser ponies of society an unbearable act of remembrance and mourning.

Luckily for him, as each agonizing day of sobriety and servitude to Libra passed, less and less torture remained, and once he found himself free, he would drink away that memory. He would bury it where even the most determined of Diamond Dogs could never find it.

He could do anything. He could rewrite the past, and create the future.

Watching his wife slumber, oblivious to the knocking of Fate on her door, Bernie Madhoof found himself wondering out loud, “Perhaps it is time to upgrade… insurance policies.”


He was all cleaned out.

Card Slinger stared at his forehooves, unsure if he was in possession of two or four or some other number the geniuses of Canterlot had not yet discovered. He was drenched in sweat, curled up into himself in one of the corners of his hiding place. The blackout curtains could not stop the arrival of Celestia forever, and she lit her fires in a momentous rage, her rays burning his wide eyes.

Shuddering, hiding his face in his hooves, Card Slinger groaned. Insomnia had been his mistress, keeping him awake all night with her whisperings of doubt and regret.

He had never been a good son.

His mane and tail a disheveled mess in his tossing and turning and pacing, the colt cursed his impatience. Throughout that long night, memories of a beautiful mare and handsome stallion had tortured and taunted him, whispering things that would never be in his ears. The demons had come out in full swing. They tore what little happy visions of the past, what fragments that had kept him sane, to shreds, and handed him bottles and blunts instead.

From dusk ‘till dawn, Slinger had consumed the last of his reserves, downing and lighting substance after substance, sin after sin. How he was still conscious and not lying in a pool of his own vomit, he had no idea, thanking the toss of the dice for their mercy.

Beyond sheer luck, there were no deities for him to pray to; his faith had died with his guardians in the desert. He had only himself and his crew to lean on, and he wasn’t so sure of either.

Numbness overtook him, sleep calling his name. Wanting to fight its intrusion, Sliniger stumbled to his hooves, almost toppling over one of the decaying chairs of the gang-shack in the process. He mumbled to nopony in particular, “I’m… I’m fine. I’ll be… good fo'… today… I…”

Sentence drifting off into blackness, he met the floor, limbs twitching as he lay spread-eagle and prone. Now that he had been depleted of all forms of escape—both budding plants and fermented liquid nowhere to be found anywhere except for his stomach—there would be no more waiting. He’d thrown his last party, indulged in his last binge. Now there were no more excuses to delay his final act of defiance.

Feeling himself begin to black out, Card Slinger clung to the darkness, knowing that sobriety, however painful, would be his secret weapon.


The day seemed surreal to Babs, test answers flowing from her pencil from someplace other than her consciousness. She had never finished her homework from last night, she realized. In spite of being caught off-guard, she found herself blazing through the instructor’s inane test.

Nuclear fusion… horseapples… I never even paid attention ta these parts… The writing utensil hovered over the last question, echoing within Babs Seed’s mind. “Why is nuclear fusion not currently being used in Equestria?” it asked mockingly, begging for an answer.

Tapping her pencil on the desk, scanning every nook and cranny of her mind for an answer, Babs finally scrawled, exasperated, “Because we don’t know how to do it ourselves, yet. Just the sun can do it, hydrogen into helium. And nopony messes with Celestia.”

Good as any answer, she grumbled silently, quietly walking towards the front of the classroom with her completed packet. The majority of the class appeared to be splitting atoms and manes of their own, heads in hooves, hind limbs tapping in panic, entire classroom as silent as the calm before the nuclear storm.

“Here youze go, sir,” Babs Seed whispered, placing the packet on the teacher’s desk. He appeared more bored than usual, reading a Playpony magazine (whatever that was), ironed military uniform displaying a few unbuttoned cuffs.

“Thanks, kid,” he replied. “Hey, befo' youze go, let me grade it fo' ya.”

“Oh, no, dat’s okay, sir,” she said, looking uneasily towards the door. “I was actually wantin’ ta—“

“Stay right there, mook!” the stallion interrupted, his voice snapping a classroom full of worried foals up from their papers. Babs Seed chuckled uneasily as their eyes narrowed, her classmates jealous that she would be the first to escape this asylum as they turned back to their papers.

The longest two minutes of her life passed Babs by, an angry red pen in the stallion’s forehoof threatening to send her plummeting years and years back to Earth pony kindergarten.

With a smile on his face, the instructor returned the paper to his ward. “Good job, kid. Youze get an A. Nice catch on the last one, by the way.”

Really? He liked DAT answer? I was jus' pullin’ dat out o' ma—

Blushing, stumbling over her phrasing, Babs said, “Oh, um, thanks! It’s jus', uh, summat I put togetha last minute.”

“Truth be told, I don’t even know dat answer maself, heh heh. Now, git outta heeya befo' I change ma mind, youze maggot!”

The instructor turned his attention to the magazine again, his eyes growing wide and a smile appearing on his face at the page in front of him. Babs Seed took her cue and exited, stage right.

The hallways and locker bays were empty, all other classrooms succumbing to the injustice of full school days on Fridays. Feeling only the tiniest bit sympathetic, she found herself skipping out of the schoolhouse and down the steps, hooves light.


Sharing a loaf of banana bread and three mugs of steaming hot coffee between them, the mares of the Orange Family Mansion chatted amongst themselves, waiting for the inevitable knock at their door. Knowing that today was test day and hoping that Babs Seed had studied hard, Citrus Blossom, Libra Scales, and Allspice kept their ears pricked in the kitchen.

“How’s the banana bread, ma ladies?” asked Allspice, caffeine just beginning to kick into her weary bones.

“Excellent!” Citrus said, flashing a smile.

Libra nodded. “Indeed, Allspice, you have made a fantastic breakfast.”

“Thank youze kindly, Madame Orange,” Allspice said. “Pity the little foal beat me awake dis morn. Musta been excited ta go get done wit' dat test already.”

“Probably. She told me last night that she would be coming home for a nap, and then there’d be a Manehatten CMC meeting once mid-afternoon rolls around,” Citrus Blossom explained, taking a deep sip out of her cup.

“Napping? In the middle of the day? That’s not like Babs,” Libra said, concerned. “Is she feeling alright, Citrus?”

Waving her mother’s worries off with a forehoof, Citrus dismissed, “Oh, Mother, everything is just fine. She’s just been working hard at her studies, that’s all.” This filly had never been as good of a liar as her sibling, and Libra glared at her in suspicion, not quite sure if she should believe her or not.

The sound of hooves stomping down the stairs broke her thoughts. Dressed in a finely-pressed, hoof-stitched, three-piece suit and a pair of blue trousers, the stallion of the house made his way to the front door. He called out to the mares as he made his descent, “Gonna be out all day and night, darlings. All-day conference to attend to in Trottingham.”

Libra Scales jumped from her stool, trotting to meet her husband at the door. “Bernie, why is this the first I’ve heard of this?”

“Well, um, sweetie,” he stuttered, “I, ah, forgot to mention it to you last night. You were already asleep and I didn’t want to disturb you.”

“But I came home after you did, Bernie. You were the sleeping one.” The mare’s eyes narrowed, accusing him of what she had come to expect, in spite of her attempts at positivity—lies.

“Oh! Ha, ha, well, I guess I really was tired,” reasoned Madhoof, his mask beginning to crack at the corners. “But, either way, honey, I’ve forgotten, and I’m sorry. But the train awaits at the station, and I must be going soon to catch it.”

“Babs Seed will be home this weekend for the first time in two weeks, Bernie. Don’t you want to spend some time with her?” Libra Scales accused, taking a step towards her husband.

Madhoof hesitated as he stepped back, jumbling together a proper response in his twisted circuitry. “Of course I do,” he began, speaking as gently as possible. “But this is an important client, Libra. If I miss this conference tonight and lose his sales, how will we get through winter? You know that we are going to have to rely on back stock soon. Have you seen the leaves?”

Sighing, Libra relented at last, “Fine. I’ll see you in the morning.” She threw her forehooves around his neck, pressing her muzzle to his. “But… no more late-night meetings for a while, alright?”

“Yes, my love,” he cooed, and kissed her on the tip of her snout. He offered her one last grin, teeth as pure and white as those of a piano, as he exited into the cool morning mist and out of his prison.

Citrus Blossom trotted over to her mother, placing a hoof across her shoulders. “It’s okay, Mom. He’ll be back in the morning, just like he said. Maybe we can do something as a family, go to the lake, maybe have a picnic?”

Libra turned to her daughter, eyes full with a combination of sadness and doubt. “That would certainly be nice, wouldn’t it? We haven’t done that in years.”

“I can start makin’ some sandwiches fo' youze,” Allspice suggested, putting on her brightest smile.

“That’s alright, Allspice. I wouldn’t want to create extra work for you, things as they are.” Mother and daughter returned to the kitchen, pulling up their stools to their now-tepid mugs. “I know things must be hard on you and the other two lads now," Libra sympathized.

Pleased at her self-control, holding back a dam of complaints, Allspice painted her smile with brilliant strokes and commented, “Oh, no, Madame Orange, it’s no trouble at all.”


Once home, Babs Seed found not one speck of sleepiness within her. It was nearing noon now, the Manehatten Cutie Mark Crusaders meeting at least four hours away. That time stretched and dragged, taunting her, threatening to swallow her sanity whole in its wake.

Driven by boredom, the foal passed the hours that remained with a sudden attention to detail and cleanliness, going through each shelf, corner, and closet within her room. There, she found both forgotten treasures and confusing artifacts of days long past. Both foalhood toys and those ever-missing socks were found, bearing layers of dust. With Allspice’s assistance, after about three hours of work, the little seedling had whittled down her possessions into three piles—keep, donate, and trash.

“Why are youze gettin’ rid o’ so many o’ youze things, Babs?” Allspice asked, trudging slowly down the stairs with the filly, saddlebags full of charity-ready toys and books nearly bursting upon her back.

“It’s jus' time ta move on from some things, youze know, Allspice. Don’t youze ever feel dat way?”

Pausing, Allspice sighed. “Yea. I know what youze mean, kid.”


The intercom buzzed, pulling him from fantasies of might and magic. In his mind’s eye, he was sailing on a yacht in the seas beyond Equestria, sail hoisted proudly towards new lands. Orange Enterprises was becoming far too big for ponies alone. Perhaps dragons and griffons would see his genius as well.

“Sir, you have a visitor,” his receptionist announced through the device.

“Send him in,” he answered, pressing the button back in response.

A short, fat stallion, gray mane thinning, trotted in the door, carrying a thick stack of legal papers. “Ah! Sir Orange. Such a pleasure to see you on this fine autumn day.”

“Cut it, boy. I’m a busy stallion today. Did you bring the paperwork I requested?”

His visitor smashed his flank into the seat provided to him, nearly crushing the chair under his weight. “Yes, sir,” he said, feeling sweat trickle down his neck at the effort. “Life insurance, correct?”

Madhoof nodded. “What is the highest-paying policy you offer?”


Galloping at full speed through streets bustling with capitalism and commerce, Babs Seed was a mere blur, all orange fur, red-and-pink mane, and crimson cape. The Cutie Mark Crusader banner displayed proudly on her most prized possession, Babs Seed stopped for nopony, retracing her hoofsteps back to the Manehatten schoolhouse.

Allspice had required more assistance than she’d assumed to transport the donated goods to the nearest thrift shop in town, but Babs didn’t mind. The receiving-pony’s genuine smile of gratitude had made up for all the work, and it made that treacherously slow drip of Time’s candle wax pass by even quicker.

Now, she was closing in at 1500, getting down to the wire, to the initiation ceremony, to the day when Rustler, Flora, Quick Step, and Turn Key would join her in the ranks of the caped and the crusading. Today would be the day that the sins of her past would finally have been worth it—for, if it had not been for her own darkness, Babs Seed would have not been able to bring a small packet of light to the schoolhouse halls.

Babs Seed had lit a candle in the dark.

Rounding the corner, pivoting with grace, the filly reached her destination. She ran up the steps just as the bell sounded its final cry for the week, foals of all ages and sizes bursting through the doors at her. With what seemed like a hundred cries of, “Excuse me! Sorry ‘bout dat!” Babs Seed finally climbed to the top, and dashed inside.

Slipping past her classmates, who seemed as depressed as if all the strawberry milkshakes in the world had slipped into the gap between dimensions, never to be seen again—stop it, youze are makin’ youzelf teary again!—Babs took a deep breath, and opened the door to the classroom.

Inside, the four foals waited patiently, sitting on top of the desks in the front row. A stack of crimson capes was given its own honor, placed on the instructor’s station in expectation of the leader's hooves.

“Sorry I was late, youze guys,” Babs said, blushing slightly. “Guess I jus' lost track o’ time.”

“Dat’s alright, Babs Seed!” Quick Step chirped, a wide smile upon her face. “We waited all week ta become Crusadas, we decided we could wait a few mo’ minutes.”

Flora giggled. “Yup, an' we left the capes up there, fo' youze ta pass out.”

“So… youze already tried ‘em on, made sure dey fit all o' youze?” Babs asked. Four smiling foals nodded in affirmation.

“Well... in dat case… let us begin.”

The four new recruits stood at attention as their leader cleared her throat. Lacking bongos or a mile-long canned speech, Babs Seed spoke from her heart, letting her words flow from a place within her soul she had never tapped.

“I’m jus' gonna start by sayin’, I’m real proud o' youze four already. I know we haven’t discussed it—nor do we need ta, really—but I saw how youze all stood up ta Toss. An' it was… dang near inspirational, fillies an' gentlecolts.” She paused, taking a deep breath to hold back her joy and pride, overcome by the depth of their strength. Such brave, brave little crusadas dey are… an' will be…

“I had no idea dis would be so easy,” Babs continued, locking eyes with each of them, one by one, as she strode back and forth in front of the desk. “I was expectin’ nopony ta show up, maybe one foal iffa Lady Luck smiled down on me. I was expectin’ ta hafta fight tooth an' hoof ta get youze recruits ta band togetha, ta accept one ‘nother. ‘Cause blankflanks like us, well, we’ve gotta stick togetha, ain’t I right?” Nodding confirmed her pearl of wisdom. “Exactly. But, youze see… there’s summat I gotta come clean ‘bout…”

“What’s dat, Babs Seed?” Rustler asked.

Come on, Babs, dis shouldn’t be so hard…

“Well, I… I was a bully, once.”

All oxygen in the room split from its gaseous form, covalent bonds breaking under the tremendous force of her words. With wide eyes and flattened ears, the new Crusaders stood in shock, muzzles blazing with questions as to how and why.

“I… I know. I was awful. I… I went ta Ponyville, youze ever been there? … No? Well, it’s a beautiful place, dat town. It’s… it’s nothin' like Manehatten. Dis city heeya, she gives no bothers, she cares not fo' youze. But Ponyville, it’s full o’ carin’, youze see. An' I went there, an' I was scared. I went there ta get away from heeya, ta get away from the teasin’ an' the torment. Lucky Toss didn’t jus' tease some innocent little colt, youze see.”

“Oh, Babs,” Flora whispered, frowning. “I… I had no idea he—”

“No,” Babs said. “No. Dis is not ‘bout him, youze see? Dis is lesson time. Lesson time fo' youze Crusaders, so youze don’t walk in ma hoof-steps, understand?”

Acknowledging their affirmation, Babs Seed started her speech back up again once more. “Anyhoo… there was these two fillies, mean ol’ fillies, dey are. Pompous. Arrogant. An' dey picked on the foals dat welcomed me, ma cousin an' these two otha little fillies. An' dey picked on me, too, but jus' a lil’. But, it made me scared, youze know, ta be in dis new place an' already everypony’s judgin’ me. I wasn’t even given a chance, youze know?

“So, I sided wit' dem, the bullies. I teased ma own cousin an' her two friends, jus' so I could feel better. I destroyed their float fo' the Harvest Day’s Parade, followed dem all ‘round town, made their lives pure hay. Yeah, I was a grand ol’ bully, all right.”

Silence. The room chilled, becoming immensely cold, as if winter had conquered autumn, stealing her throne and reigning from on high. Babs rubbed her hooves together nervously, scanning the blank faces in front of her for any indication of response.

Breaking the ice that froze beneath them, Rustler asked, “So… so, what changed youze?”

“Well… ma cousin an' her friends weren’t too happy wit’ me, as is their right. An' dey got back at me, scheme o’ their own. Dey rigged the float I ended up drivin’ at the parade, made the steerin' wheel go out o’ whack an' lose all control. I would've crashed inta the lake. I was fallin’ ta ma doom, when dey caught up ta me, leapt in pushed me out. Dey weren’t hurt, so I don’t think anythin’ too bad would’ve happened, but it was still real scary. Like, life-flashin'-in-front-o-youze-eyes scary.”

“Wow.” Quick Step shook her head. “So… wait, why are youze tellin’ us dis again?”

Babs smiled weakly. “Youze see, what I’m tryin’ ta get at is dat I ain’t no perfect filly. I paid ma bits an' made ma choice, an' I paid in full price. We worked it out from there, an' dey made me a Cutie Mark Crusada in Ponyville, gave me dis cape,” she explained, displaying the crimson fabric with its blue and yellow crest. “An' I vowed then ta neva bully again, an' ta create ma own lil’ chapta in Manehatten. An'… well, dat brings us ta youze all heeya, an' wowza, are all o' youze smarter than I was!”

“But… youze ain’t stupid, Babs,” Turn Key challenged, raising a hoof in protest. “Youze jus' made a mistake. Nopony is perfect, right? An' yea, maybe we neva bullied nopony, but we’ve barely crossed paths wit' the likes o' Lucky Toss.”

“Really?” Babs's eyes grew wide in disbelief.

“Yeah,” Turn Key said. “In fact… come ta think o' it, we’ve only really been harassed by him when Card Slinga was around. Now dat he seems ta have up an' left, Toss has calmed down a lot, don’t youze think?” The other foals murmured in agreement.

“Hmm. Well, regardless, ma point still stands,” Babs reiterated, striding before them. “I’m all so proud o' youze. Youze make a great team, stickin’ togetha like dat. Youze proved youzeselves ta be true Cutie Mark Crusadas, an' I’m proud ta have brought youze togetha.”

Rustler trotted up to Babs, sticking out his right forehoof. “An' we’re lucky ta have been brought togetha by somepony like youze, Babs Seed. Past o’ no past, youze got guts fo' bein’ who youze are, an' we like the pony youze are.”

Though she stuck out her forehoof to meet his, Babs found it useless, the other foals clamoring around them and squeezing them into a group hug.


Quick Step proved herself to be a budding seamstress—all four crimson capes fit like a charm upon their new bearers. Babs Seed had granted them each her blessing, welcoming each colt and filly into the Manehatten Cutie Mark Crusaders as a fellow fighter in the battle against hatred and malice, and as a fellow wanderer in the journey to discover who they truly are. She had no prouder moments than the feeling of tying each of the four capes around her new friends' necks, seeing their eyes shining with unfiltered joy back at her.

After the christening and initiation, the Manehatten CMC took their first shake at crusading for cutiemarks, building up large piles of fallen leaves on the recess fields and diving in until they were silly with glee. Sure, “Cutie Mark Crusader Leaf Rakers” wasn’t exactly possible without rakes (and spreading the leaves in their jumping didn’t help the cause, either) but it was all in good fun. The foals laughed and laughed, creating and destroying their mountains and molehills until Luna threatened to steal Celestia’s crown, autumn day beginning to fade.

“Well, thank youze so much fo' comin’!” Babs Seed called, her wards beginning to group together in anticipation of the long walk home. “I’ll see youze all on Monday, okay?”

“Alright, Babs!” Rustler replied, smiling. “'Ey, wait, do youze wanna walk home wit' us, too? We all live downtown.”

“Ah, no, I’ve got it. Thanks, though,” she said kindly, touched by the offer.

“Okay, then. Well… see youze Monday!” Rustler exclaimed, the group beginning to turn away towards the Manehatten streets below. Four pairs of hooves waved goodbye, and a fifth returned the gesture, watching them leave until they were dots on the horizon.

Today was a good day, Babs thought as she began to head off towards her own home on the hill, hooves picking up speed as they thrashed against the cobblestones. Dey know now, an' dey accept me still. Maybe I ain’t so bad afta all.


Citrus Blossom lazed on the couch in the living room, fighting the hollow sleep that only comes when boredom ceases to release its grasp. The day had been uneventful, Allspice and the two stallion servants performing a deep cleaning of the house, Citrus finishing the last pages of her latest fashion magazine, and Mother Orange pouring over financial documents in the upstairs office.

There had been no discussion of her father’s absence beyond the mid-morning exchange over coffee and banana bread. Libra Scales seemed to accept the lack of one more set of hooves in the increasingly drafty and empty Orange Family Mansion, busying herself with more work.

Citrus couldn’t help but notice that work had seemed to become even more of an escape for her parents in the absence of alcohol. Citrus had brought no attention to the trash can full of drained wine, cider, and whiskey bottles at the front gate, hoping against all hope that this would be the last time she would see another cursed bottle from their home fill a Manehatten dump. Citrus Blossom, in her youth, had experimented with alcohol, as did most foals, but events as of late had persuaded her to seek other interests. Her liver couldn’t help but thank her.

Knock, knock.

Citrus groaned, pulling back one of the curtains to check the skies. It was still light outside. Hadn’t Babs Seed told their mother that she would be back once Luna reigned supreme? It was too early. Perhaps something had happened?

Citrus Blossom rose on her hindhooves, standing out the couch, peering out the window to the front gates of the Orange Family Mansion, searching for a clue to her guests’ identity before opening the door.

There, in front of the iron gates, a taxi-carriage was beginning to be hitched back up, the driver excitedly counting his bits. The black-and-white checkered pattern on its side, along with a flag of similar appearance, meant that her visitors could be anypony but Babs. She never carried bits on her.

Knock, knock. An impatient hoof drummed on the oak again.

“I’m comin’, I’m comin!” Citrus called, annoyed as she rose fully from the couch and walked over to the door.

As she opened the door, sending gusts of wind spiraling through the living room, Citrus Blossom could not stifle her gasp.

There, on the doorstep, stood an orange Earth pony mare wearing a grizzled Stetson hat, a little yellow Earth pony foal with a crimson cape and a big red bow in her mane standing next to the mare. Both of them displayed eager grins.

“Well, hooooowdy, cuz!”

Running Wild

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Running Wild

“Well, Citrus, are ya jus' gonna stand there, o' are ya gonna let us in?”

Citrus Blossom shook her muzzle, snapping herself back into the trickster hooves of reality. No, this had not been a strange dream brought about by one too many gossip columns and a severe case of boredom. Yes, Applejack and Apple Bloom were here, on their Manehatten doorstep, unannounced.

“Er, um, yes, please come in,” Citrus mumbled, holding the door for the two to enter, watching as the taxi-pony snapped himself back in and his checkered carriage began to pull away at last. Nervously closing the door behind her, Citrus called, “Allspice! We have company! Could you please start supper a little early?”

Allspice rounded the corner into the hallway. “But o’ course, Madame Orange. Now who is—“

“Hiya! Ah’m Apple Bloom, Babs’ cousin!” the foal said excitedly, striding up to the chef.

“Aww, well aren’t youze the talkative one, little filly?” Allspice chuckled. “It’s always nice ta have guests. Do youze like quinoa an' lentils, Apple Bloom?”

Apple Bloom raised an eyebrow. “Kee-what?”

“Nevermind her, ma’am, Apple Bloom’s jus' a right ol’ disposal when it comes down ta it. That’ll be fine,” Applejack said, trotting up to the culture clash. “Right, lil’ sis?”

“You betcha!” Apple Bloom exclaimed, offering Allspice a smile as she headed back to the kitchen, due diligence calling. “Hey, wait a minute! Where’s Babs? Isn’t school out already?” she asked, looking around.

Citrus Blossom smiled and replied, “She should be home any minute now, Apple Bloom. She was at her club meeting. She’s made a CMC here, just like you, you know,” she added proudly.

Apple Bloom gasped, clapping her hooves together in delight. “Oh Ah know, an' Ah'm so, so happy fer her! Ah can’t wait ta hear all 'bout it!”

Rustling her sibling’s mane with a gentle hoof, Applejack laughed, “Good gravy, Apple Bloom, aren’t ya excited! Why don’t ya wait outside on the porch until she gets here? Citrus an' Ah have some things ta discuss.”

Two pairs of eyes, one fiery-orange and the other green, met in a mix of confusion and concern.

Apple Bloom nodded and obliged, practically barreling down the front door in her haste.


Autumn had not come without a price. As Babs ascended the summit of the Manehatten Hill, she met a wall of resistance, wind throwing up its hooves in battle against her. Crimson cape open and flying proud, Babs dug her hindhooves into the cobblestones, bracing against all opposition. With careful hoof-steps, she climbed in spite of the face of the wind, one hoof after the other.

As she rounded down the most familiar street of all, a taxi-carriage whipped past her, driver galloping with the glee of bits jingling in his saddlebags. The vehicle’s black-and-white-checkered decals and matching flag caught her eye as it sped away.

“Checkered flags.”

Madness turning into method, Babs Seed felt a new wave of strength wash over her heart, waves breaking through the powerful call of the wind. Adrenaline released and proliferated in her veins, sped on by excitement, aggravated with a drop of fear.

Could dis be it? Could dis be what she meant? An' iffa so, what will we…

Her cheeks burned hot, brushing away such thoughts.

The space between the end of the sidewalk and the Orange Family Mansion iron gates became the greatest distance in all of Equestria, the bane of marathoners and sprinters alike. Each step felt as if it might be her last, could she be wrong and cardiac arrest in the stress of her error.

Babs caught her hooves in time, her muzzle landing inches away from the iron bars. Cautiously, she pushed the gates open, and had no sooner trotted inside the property line when a blur of yellow and crimson darted towards her like a javelin.


“Apple Bloom!”

In a rush and tangle of hooves, cape, and mane, orange, yellow, and red clashed and met in the middle, the apple leaping upon the orange, sending them crashing to the grass below. Like flames they wrestled and rolled, gripping each other tightly, laughing until they were soaring high above the clouds from their dizziness.

They came to a stop, Ponyville above Manehatten, both foals breathing deep. With hooves pressing against her cousin’s shoulders, Apple Bloom taunted, whispering into her ear, “Heh heh, pinned ya.”

Chucking softly, feeling steam rising from her hooves at the absence of her distance, Babs Seed said, “So… I guess youze missed me, huh?”

“Missed ya?! Aw, ya think Ah missed you, silly filly?” her attacker giggled back, releasing her grip and helping the other foal to her hooves. “Ah wasn’t the one writin’ love letters!

Sputtering nonsense, Babs Seed began to turn a shade closer to her cape, all eloquence and vocabulary gone with the relentless autumn wind. “I! Youze! I told youze! Ta keep dat quiet!”

Giggling, Apple Bloom said, “Aw, yer pretty easy ta rile up, ain’t ya, Babs? Ah'll hafta keep that in mind. C’mon now, let’s go inside. It’s lookin’ like it may start ta rain.”

Muttering to herself, shaking her head, Babs Seed led Apple Bloom up the path to the Orange Family Mansion, clouds beginning to cast their judgment upon Manehatten.


“… An’ that’s why we’re here. We had some extra cider left from the harvest this year, an' it’d be a cryin’ shame if it went bad,” Applejack finished, sipping at a mug of pure caffeine, warming her blood. “Lots o' it, too. That driver out there, why, Ah sure as sugar tipped him good fer all the haulin’ he did. But now there’ll be lots o' cider out in the shops fer y'all ta drink!” She beamed, pleased at the results of this year’s harvest.

Cider sales had been stronger than ever, Sweet Apple Acres taking its encounter with the Flim Flam Brothers to heart. In exchange for a share of the cider, the other Elements had assisted the Apples with their harvest this year, increasing their yield and production tenfold. For the first time Applejack could remember, they'd had enough product left to extend their business beyond Ponyville’s borders. There was no better place to start than the commerce center of Earth ponydom itself, Manehatten.

“Well, dat’s good ta hear, Madame Applejack,” Allspice said, busying herself over the stovetop and a hot pot of green lentils. “It’ll be good ta have some non-alcoholic cider fo' once.”

Stetson shaking on her head as she laughed, Applejack spat back, “Oh, ya know we make an alcoholic version, right?”

“Applejack Daniel’s, correct?” Citrus guessed.

“Ya got it, cousin. But, naw, this weren’t the heavy stuff. That’s been long sold out, usually is first ta go once the apples are fermented an' ready wit' the summer bumper crop.”

Citrus Blossom remembered the overflowing refuse can and how many bottles of that whiskey stuck out from under the lid. She shuddered. “Well, I’m glad to see you, Applejack,” she said, smiling. “It’s been far too long.”

“Same here,” Applejack replied. “An' Apple Bloom really wanted ta see Babs 'gain, so Ah figured she could come along, too. Oh, that reminds me… Ah've got the bits fer a hotel, but Ah was wonderin’ if—“

“Oh, of course not! No relatives of mine are going to be risking their hooves at some seedy hotel!” Citrus interrupted. “Do you know what kinds of activity go on in Manehatten hotels, Applejack?!”

The honest pony had quite a few wild assumptions, but voiced none of them, muttering, “Ah, well, heh heh, Ah guess Ah didn’t think o’ that.”

“Nonsense,” Citrus chided. “We have many guest rooms here. You and Apple Bloom are more than welcome to stay. I presume you’ll be returning to Ponyville first thing in the morning?”

Taking the weathered hat into her hooves, rotating it in her grip, Applejack considered a lie, tossed and turned it within the confines of her mind. Her conscience would have none of it. Settling on a half-truth, she answered, “Well, not exactly, but we’ll talk 'bout that later. Fer now… where’s Aunt an' Uncle Orange?”

Not missing a beat, Citrus Blossom explained, “Oh, well, Father is away at an important business conference, and Mother is upstairs working on some sales reports.”

Appleajck sighed, mumbling, “Why am Ah not surprised?”

“What’s that, Applejack?”

“Oh! Um, er, nothin’,” Applejack said, darting her eyes away from Citrus’s accusatory pupils as the mare’s eyes narrowed. Being the Element of Honesty had few drawbacks in Ponyville, a town with few secrets and many open hooves; in Manehatten, Applejack knew, she would have had to go gray to succeed—maybe even to survive.

Applejack's quick excursion into the realms of Discord was cut short by the hammering of hooves at the door. “That must be Babs Seed,” Citrus said, rising from her stool. Allspice turned away from the stove, motioning towards the door, but Citrus dismissed her with a hoof. “I’ve got it, dear, pish-posh.”

“As youze say,” Allspice said, returning to the pot on the stove, which had begun to boil over. “Horseapples!”

Seizing the opportunity that presented itself before her, Applejack rose from the table and climbed the stairs, watching as two little foals burst through the door, wind churning the atmosphere behind them.

Once reaching the second story, Applejack turned about the scene, confused. There appeared to be eight rooms on this level for four residents—several more if one counted the chef and probable other servants that called the mansion home. The Apple Family farmhouse held four ponies as well within its walls, but bore only one bedroom for each resident. There were no guest rooms, only one bathroom, and one tiny kitchen to boast of back in the West.

The difference between Apples and Oranges could not be disregarded in even the simplest of matters.

Applejack strode to each door, listening for the clink of hooves on typewriter or calculator or the tapping of telegrams. Five rooms bore naught but silence, but in the sixth, she heard gentle weeping.

Concerned, Applejack rapped her hooves on the oak.


Serving platters heaping full of quinoa, lentils, and curry onto the dining room table, Allspice’s simple, everyday gestures were met with a thundering of thanks from the littlest guest.

“Wow, Babs, Citrus! Ya have a great cook here, Ah tell you what!” Apple Bloom squealed, rubbing her forehooves together in anticipation of simply devouring the plate before her.

Laughing, Allspice replied, “Youze hasn’t even tasted a bite o’ dat, kiddo. Nothin’ like youze prolly had befo'. Jus' try it, first, befo' youze praise me.”

“Youze’ll like it, Bloom. It’s… interestin',” Babs Seed said cautiously, never one for unusual foods. Her culinary palate was much more simplistic. Though the house chef had many marvelous recipes hiding under her mane, nothing would beat a strawberry milkshake, at least to her.

“Babs, dear, be nice,” hissed Citrus, scolding her sibling. “Allspice works her hooves off for youze.”

Blushing irritation, Babs spat back, “Yes, I know! I wasn’t sayin’ it was bad.”

“That’s what you were impl—“

“No, I wasn’t!” Dammit, Citrus, o’ course youze gonna make me look bad in front o'… in front o'…

Citrus and Babs Seed's impending argument was interrupted by a series of uncouth sounds. Their guest gobbled down the entirety of a serving plate to the point of licking the last remaining smears of curry clean off it. In the age of washing and drying dishes by hoof, Apple Bloom would someday find gainful employment.

“Ah, heh, heh… thank ya ma’am, can Ah have some more?” she asked, turning to Allspice, blushing as both her cousins merely blinked at her.


Knock, knock.

Libra Scales swallowed her tears, rubbing her eyes quickly to wipe away the trails that remained. She had sought sanctuary here under the presumption of business, warning Allspice before she’d retreated that she’d have no appetite tonight. Caught between the vicegrip of cold, harsh, cynical reality and the whispered pleas of optimism, Libra's mind had raced, leaving no stone unturned in its wake.

Was Bernie Madhoof really a changed stallion, or was this merely another one of his theatrics? Would he see the world with sober eyes at last, even if it meant alcohol had to be forbidden in the entire mansion—Libra Scales had never been much for anything but fine wine, and she could forego that—or were there bottles of whiskey and cider hidden among the desk drawers of the downtown office?

Did she have any reason to trust him? Had she ever?

The time for introspection had passed. “Come in,” she weakly called, running a forehoof through her mane to straighten out all its frazzled patches.

To her surprise, her niece strode through the door, gently closing it with a hindhoof and greeting, “Well, howdy, there, Aunt Orange!”

“Applejack!” Libra exclaimed, making the bound from the stool at her vanity to the threshold of the door, meeting her sister’s filly. “Oh, darling, it’s been far too long!”

The two embraced, Stetson nearly tumbling to the carpet in the process, almost a decade of lost time shattered between them.

“Oh, Applejack, tell me what brings you here,” Libra Scales said at last as they separated. “Tell me… is Apple Bloom here, too?” Beyond the day of her birth and a few select birthdays of foalhood, the mare had rarely seen her younger niece. Time was bits, and she was often impoverished.

Applejack nodded. “Eeyup. She’s down at dinner wit’ Babs an' Citrus. Right excited ta come here, Ah might say,” she added, winking.

Clapping her forehooves together in delight, Libra said, “You don’t know how happy that makes me, Applejack. I know Babs has been all sorts of excited since she’s come back home from Ponyville. Why… she’s a completely different foal now. So happy. So full of… life.”

Applejack could hear the wind beginning to die down outside the bay window, judgment of Celestia fading as the alicorn began to lower her star. The night would not last forever, but it seemed it might delay the storm that brewed in the heavens, the Most High withholding judgment—at least for now. However, Applejack found little solace in those thoughts, knowing that she’d brought a tempest of her own beneath her pleasant demeanor.

Taking a seat on the master bedroom’s king-sized bed, Applejack asked, “Could… could ya send fo’ Citrus, Auntie? There is somethin’ we all need ta discuss.”

“Don’t you want any supper, dearie? There’s plenty to go around.”

“No,” Applejack answered, feeling her innards begin to shake at the mere thought of digestion. “No, Ah’m not hungry. Can ya call Citrus up here, please?”

Nodding, Libra Scales said, “Of course,” and opened the door, calling out her daughter’s name.


Babs Seed and her guest assisted Allspice with the after-dinner chores as Citrus Blossom answered her mother’s summons. Together, the two caped Crusaders helped a very gracious Allspice, who seemed to age faster with each passing day.

After their chores, Apple Bloom asked her cousin, “So! Whatcha wanna do now? It’s the weekend, after all!”

Digging at the floorboards beneath her with a hindhoof, Babs Seed averted her eyes and muttered, “Um, ah, I dunno… what do youze want ta do, Apple Bloom?”

“Hmm.” Apple Bloom tapped her chin with a forehoof. “Hmm… wanna go be Cutie Mark Crusader Explorers?”

“Sure,” Babs said. “I don’t think youze ever seen the gardens out back.”

“That would be great!” Apple Bloom grinned. Her host chuckled and led her guest out the back door, struggling to maintain neutrality and avoid the temptation of skipping all the way to the gardens.

Watching the two little fillies slip beyond the shadowy corridors and out the door into the majestic rows of vines, trees, bushes and shrubs under the Manehatten skies, Allspice caught herself sighing like a bellows, icy heart melting. “Now, those two… are adorable.”


Applejack had fought against powerful foes more than once, from the goddess of the night herself to a Changeling Queen in far-off Canterlot. Through it all, she’d saddled up in spite of her fear, knowing the meaning of courage as well as truth. Courage, of course, does not mean that a pony is never scared; it means that he marches on, in spite of his fear. Courage was not arrogance or brashness—Applejack, unfortunately, had to teach the Element of Loyalty that more than once.

Yes, Applejack knew courage, but knowing and doing are not the same action.

Fidgeting with her father’s Stetson in her hooves while both her cousin and aunt sat beside her on the luxurious bed, Applejack realized that she had already completed the saddling up portion of being brave… it was just the marching on anyway part that was difficult.

“This is gonna be hard fer me ta say,” she began, four eyes watching her with calm expectation. “Ah’ve been strugglin’ all day wit’ how ta say all that needs ta be said. Why, sometimes Ah wish Ah woulda brought Twilight wit’ me here, she would know best how ta put this—”

“Twilight?” Citrus asked, confused.

“Never mind that,” Applejack said. “Look… let me start off by askin’… how much do y'all know 'bout Babs Seed? 'Bout what she’s gone through?”

Libra and Citrus exchanged quizzical looks. “What do you mean… ’what she’s gone through’?” asked Libra Scales. “We’ve always loved Babs. She’s gotten everything she could ever want, Applejack… toys, books, games, clothes—though she doesn’t appear to be much interested in those, I’ll add. She’s never known hunger, or poverty, or illness.”

“Well, what 'bout… other things?” challenged Applejack. “What 'bout… safety? Inclusion? Belongin'? Togetherness? Family? Has she known those, o' does she know ‘em now?”

Libra Scales felt something begin to stir in the depths of her soul, a spark struck upon a flint at her niece’s implications. “We love Babs Seed, Applejack. I despise favoritism. She is just as much my pride and joy as is Citrus. Are you suggesting that we don’t love her?”

Sighing, Applejack replied, “See… Ah knew this was gonna be hard. No, Ah ain’t sayin’ that y’all don’t love her. Ah believe y’all, alright? … Okay, good. It’s jus'… there’s some things that’ve happened, that Ah don’t think y’all are aware o'—"

“Applejack, just spit it out,” Citrus snapped, beginning to tire of this. “What are youze talking about?”

Emerald-green eyes rising from her Stetson at last, Applejack answered, “Do y'all really know why her tail is that short?”


By the light of the moon, the two foals wandered throughout the garden, night beginning to obscure their colors in the darkness. Crimson capes followed them like comet-trails blazing across the skies. Together, the Apple and the Orange made their way from plant to plant, tree to tree, tasting their yields and filling in the gap between their last meeting and their present time.

“So, Diamond Tiara an' Silver Spoon have been leavin’ youze alone, right?” Babs Seed asked, offering a strawberry to her cousin as they rounded the bush.

Accepting the gift, Apple Bloom nodded in the affirmative. “Ya sure scared ‘em, Babs! They haven’t as much as even looked at me o' the gals the wrong way since ya told ‘em off at the train station!”

Good! Somepony takes me seriously at last! Puffing out her chest with pride, Babs said, “Great! Iffa anypony forgets their lesson, jus' send me a letter, Bloom, an' I’ll be back!”

Apple Bloom nuzzled her neck, making her countenance steam. Red-orange eyes met green and whispered, sultry, “Ya jus' tryin’ ta protect me, ain’t ya? Silly filly.”

“Heh, heh, heh… um… hey! Wanna see our orange tree?” Babs deflected, bobtail swishing as she cantered away, past the rows of shrubs and towards the hill overlooking the city below. “Race ya!”

“Hey!” Apple Bloom exclaimed, taking to her own hooves after Babs Seed.


Pounding a shot of pure balsamic vinegar, the colt retched over the garbage can, groaning as the last of his binge expelled from his esophagus into the liner. He coughed and sputtered, firewater stinging his throat as it sought vengeance.

The last remains of his digestive system emptied, Card Slinger rose to his hooves, shaking his head in an effort to calm the hammer pounding at his brain. He’d had too much, as always, but the hangover couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time.

“Aw, buck it,” he said, trotting over to the table where the weapon lay. “Buck it all, afta ta-night.” Knowing that the end of his days was most likely near—at least, his days of freedom—Slinger enjoyed the hours he’d passed in gleeful intoxication.

Now, the night of his reckoning had come at last. There would be no more turning back.

He studied the dagger in his hooves, seeing how it sparkled in the moonlight. The blade itself was about six inches long from tip to pommel, the hilt adding another few more. He grabbed Switch’s sharpening stone, forgotten in the haze of her buzz, caressing the stone to the steel. It cried high notes as he gave it an even sharper killing edge, almost sparking flame in his haste. One side of the knife was serrated with menacing teeth, like a saw; the other angled off to a point that he’d sharpened to a painful puncturing capability. Whether it would be used to slash, stab, or saw, the dagger would get the job done.

A gift from his late father, Slinger had protected the weapon through more than one move, hiding it between his box-spring and mattress. His neglectful uncle, though ridiculously absent throughout most of his substitute-guardianship, would have been right to confiscate such a blade. Nopony would argue that it was a fishing or cooking knife, or even one for whittling wood.

It was a killing weapon.

Card Slinger smiled to his dark gods and sheathed the blade, strapping it to his left shoulder where it would be easy to draw. He took one last deep look at his hideout, drinking in all of its details, before he trotted slowly to the door.

If things went right, the next thing he’d probably see in his young life would be the inside of a jail cell.

If things went wrong, he would be lucky to watch the coffin lid close, and nopony would mourn his failure.


Babs Seed sat with Apple Bloom as they gazed up at the skeletal tree, its branches reaching up in pleas for mercy towards the Most High. Babs Seed knew very little about the tree, other than the fact that it was old and dead. She had often wondered why it had been planted to begin with; this was no place for an orange tree, far too cold and dark.

“How long has it been like that?” Apple Bloom asked, leaning into the other foal they sat silently, counting branches and stars.

“As long as I can rememba,” Babs said quietly, captivated by the constellations above. “Ma an' Da’ say it’s at least twenty years old. I can’t believe it’s stayed heeya through dat long.”

“It’s strong,” explained Apple Bloom, looking up into those emerald eyes that she’d begun to adore so much. “Like you. Yer strong.”

Me? Strong?

“No, Apple Bloom, I’m really not…” Babs said, voice trailing off into the night. “Iffa I was strong, I would’ve stood up ta dem bullies in Ponyville the first time I saw their smug little faces.” Her eyes began to sparkle with regret, but she said nothing, searching for Cassiopeia and Draco above.

“Yer much stronger than me,” Apple Bloom whispered. “Ya've been through so much, Ah—“

“Stop it,” Babs said, turning her gaze from the blanket of night above them at last. “Stop feelin’ sorry fo' me, will youze?”

Hurt, her cousin’s face fell to the grass. “Babs, Ah, Ah didn’t mean—“

“Does anypony eva?!” Babs shrieked taking a step backwards and breaking their connection. “Does anypony eva mean ta hurt me, Apple Bloom? Because dey all say dey don’t, an; yet, dey do. Don’t youze think I get tired o' dis crap?!”

Apple Bloom's eyes filled with confusion. What could she possibly be referring to? “Babs, Ah, Ah’m sorry, can we jus'—“

“No! I don’t wanna mope out heeya wit' youze talkin’ 'bout how shitty ma life is, iffa dat’s what youze wanna do!” A surge of rage tunneled through Babs Seed's veins, shooting straight to her pounding heart as she stepped back. This was not how things were supposed to go. This was not how things were supposed to be.

Eyes filling with tears, Babs Seed asked of her comforter, “Is dat why youze like me? Because youze feel sorry fo' me?”

Apple Bloom panicked, springing to all her fours, taking a gentle step towards her cousin. “No, Babs, Ah never… Ah liked you befo'—”

“So, then, youze thought it would be okay ta try ta humiliate a pony youze liked in front o' the entire town?!”

Babs could not contain her anger, questions that she had pushed to the back of her mind rising and stirring and roaring with a vengeance. The details of their budding relationship—if it could be even called that—had for the most part been left alone in the crevices of her consciousness, questioning if she would even see Apple Bloom again. If she hadn’t, there would be nothing to worry and wonder about; no use brewing up a storm if the pegasi wouldn’t be working that day.

But, she had returned, and with her arrival, all of Babs's doubt and fear and awkwardness bubbled to the surface, spouting off at the most inopportune time.

Within a few seconds, Babs Seed wasn't the only one trying not to cry. “Babs… Ah… Ah was stupid, Ah’m sorry, Ah—“

“Ah, buck youze!” Babs Seed, the bully from the East, screamed, her voice a knife slashing through the clouds that had begun to threaten them from above. Without warning, she spun on a bit, hooves kicking up dew from the grass as she thundered towards the iron gates of the Orange Family Mansion, down the street and out of her mind.

Cape soaring behind her, bow hanging on by its threads, Apple Bloom took to her hooves as the skies darkened, galloping after her.


Citrus Blossom and Libra Scales listened to Applejack’s tale, reciting the story exactly as she’d remembered Apple Bloom had told it to her. She spore no detail, leaving no unimaginable imagery out of the story, revealing the truth behind the foal’s lies.

“She coulda damn near been raped, o' killed out in ‘em streets, y’all!” Applejack screamed, her hooves shaking at her poor attempt to hide her rage. “This city is dangerous! Downright dangerous! How can y’all be raisin’ an innocent filly in this Celestia-damned place?! Do y’all even sleep well at night?!”

The mare of the house leapt from the bed, hooves landing with a deadpan WHAM! as gravity embraced them. “Dammit, Applejack, we had no idea!” Libra snapped. “Don’t you think we would’ve done something about something like that? Do you think we abuse Babs, for Celestia’s sake?!”

Mimicking her aunt’s position, Applejack growled back, muzzle-to-muzzle with her aunt. “Ah don’t put it past y’all, way that poor filly screamed an' cried. Y’all think Ah'm deaf?! She had nightmares each night she was wit’ us! Ah could hear it from ma own bedroom wall!”

“So, why didn’t youze do anything about it?” Citrus challenged, joining the other two mares on her hooves, taking her turn to cast judgment.

“Because, unlike you, Apple Bloom was able ta comfort her, an' calm her down, befo' Ah needed ta bust in!” Applejack hissed, unfazed by the blame thrown her way.

“Well, considering what ponies like you tend to do on farms, that concerns me!” Libra exclaimed, feeling old prejudices begin to rise to the surfaces. “I think you forget who I am, Applejack, or at least, who I used to be. I have farmer roots, ya know. I haven’t forgotten about how connected some families are in Appleloosa and Ponyville.”

This time, Libra was the line, meeting Applejack’s sand.

“Hold on jus' a damn minute, here!” Applejack felt her muscles flood with righteous anger. “Ah ain’t one ta judge, y’all should know that. If they end up bein’ kissin’ cousins, Ah have no problem wit' it! Befo' ya start makin’ jokes, Ah've got no eyes on you, Citrus, o' Braeburn for that matter, neither! But they’re foals, they’ve still got many years an' broken hearts ahead o’ ‘em, if they end up bein’…. like that… when they’re older, so what? ‘Specially when no foals wit' extra hooves’ll come o' it. But it takes two ta tango, Auntie, an' Ah will not have y’all insultin’ ma sister fer havin’ a heart!”

Applejack began to breathe heavily, the amount of feeling behind her words depleting her of oxygen and sense. Libra Scales said nothing, but did not lower her gaze, both mares glaring deep into unrelenting pupils.

Finally, Citrus Blossom was the one to break the silence with, “Mother, what does that even matter, if you are right or not? Aren’t there more important things to worry about than if Babs has a crush on anypony, cousin or not?”

Unable to acknowledge defeat, Libra did not break her stare, merely conceding, “Yes, I suppose you are right. There are more important things… aren’t there, Applejack?”

“Eeyup,” Applejack said, locking eyes with the mare that bore her relation in blood only, sharing none of her sense. “That reminds me. Ah have a proposal fer y’all.”


The parish lantern lit her path through the roads of Manehatten cobblestone, down the other side of the Manehatten Hill and all its sleepy real estate. Propelled by adrenaline and anger, Babs Seed sped through the night, her cousin hot on her hooves.

Dammit, Apple Bloom, why won’t youze jus' go? she screamed within the confines of her mind, lactic acid beginning to spread throughout her muscles in burning pain. Why don’t youze jus' leave me alone? Don’t youze get it?

“Babs! Babs! BABS!” Apple Bloom called from several yards behind her, relentless in her pursuit. Meeting only with silence, the Apple pressed on, following the Orange's trail down, down, down, until the road became no more and turned to grass as they entered a park.

The lake here was clear and pristine as glass, reflecting the moon and a galaxy of stars within its depths. Babs Seed pivoted, then turned, rushing towards a thicket of woods, unwilling to be captured by her latest tormentor. She wasn’t ready to talk. She wasn’t sure when she would be.

Cape fluttering behind her, Babs Seed made her way through the brush, nearly crashing into several thick tree trunks as she continued. She could hear the panting of the filly behind her, and as the trees begun to get sparser and sparser, the side perimeter wall of the park coming into her vision, she knew there was nowhere to hide.

“Dammit, Apple Bloom, jus' go away!” Babs shouted, reaching the clearing at last, almost falling to the Earth in exhaustion. Plopping down on her haunches, she attempted to catch her breath and pretended not to notice Apple Bloom join her.

“You… can run… real fast…” Apple Bloom panted, searching for breath alongside her cousin. ”But… Ah… gotcha…”

Surprised by her own violence, Babs grabbed Apple Bloom by her shoulders, bringing her muzzle to meet hers. “What the hell is wrong wit' youze?! Don’t youze listen?! Do youze realize how dangerous it is fo' youze ta be out heeya?”

“Quite dangerous.”

Two pairs of irises, one emerald and one fiery-ruby, turned in unison, searching for the source of the voice. They were no longer alone.

With only a rustle of bushes and the clip-clop of iron hooves, Card Slinger emerged from the darkness into the clearing, eyes wild with hunger and fury.


“Slinga!” Babs took a step in front of her cousin, shielding the smaller foal. “What do youze want, youze mook?!”

With a satisfying clink! Card Slinger withdrew his weapon, jagged black dagger held tightly in his forehoof.

For a moment, Babs Seed froze, all her darkest dreams coming true as he whispered, “Revenge.”

“Revenge?!” Apple Bloom exclaimed, emerging from beyond Babs's crimson cape. “Revenge?! Fer what? Do ya even know us?”

Card Slinger laughed, the sound sending chills both fillies’ spines. “Oh, no, I don’t know youze, little foal, though I am not surprised ta see our pal Babs Seed heeya wit' a filly in the middle o' the night, alone in dis clearin'. I’m sure youze are havin’… a gay ol’ time.

Blushing, feeling a fetid concoction of embarrassment, rage, and fear brew within her soul, Babs growled. “Leave her alone, Slinga. Dis is between youze an' me.”

“Oh, no, no, Babs Seed, I’m afraid youze must be mistaken,” Slinger said, slashing his blade in the air with a few practice strokes, making his prey jump. “Dis isn’t 'bout dat night a few weeks ago, dat night we made youze look mo’ like the piece o’ shit youze are. No. I’ve got an old bone ta pick wit' youze… wit' all o' youze.


“What are youze talkin’ ‘bout, youze swine?” barked Babs Seed, as her cousin said nothing, frozen in fear beside her.

“Heh, heh. I’m sure youze fatha never told youze, an' I’m not ‘bout ta recount the entire sad little story right heeya. Dat’s never fun.” A wicked smile spread across his countenance, rows and rows of soulless piano teeth glistening in the dark. “But, either way, youze an' youze friend heeya will be the first ta taste ma wrath, an' the rest o’ youze family afta dat.”

… Celestia…

Babs Seed turned to Apple Bloom, one eye on her antagonist. “Go, Apple Bloom. Git outta heeya.”

“No!” Apple Bloom shouted, standing defiant. “No! If we leave, we’re leavin’, together!”

Card Slinger threw back his mane and laughed, mocking the empty heavens above. “Oh, so youze want ta run, huh? Well, suit youzeself.”

Time slowed to a grinding halt, and Card Slinger jumped towards Apple Bloom, raising his dagger high, Babs Seed’s eyes wide, watching him as he rose.


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“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars…
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
It is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”

There was no organized religion in Equestria.

The Princesses, Celestia and Luna, were known to be immortal, as timeless as the rising and falling as the cycles of the sun and moon themselves, forever continuing their carousel until the end of Equestria and Earth. Once the continent and the planet itself had passed away, the Royal Sisters would continue, ruling over whatever next life-forms plucked themselves from the oceans and discovered speech.

No faith was required to believe in the Princesses; they were as immanent and transcendent as the sea and the stars.

However, though the two sisters were undoubtedly either the most powerful magic users in all of existence or the most knowledgeable about the subject, with powers both great and terrible, their reign ended at the last breath of their constituents.

Philosophers, sorcerers, magicians, musicians, and writers all speculated on the possibility of the afterlife, giving it all sorts of names and attributes. These mystics, in their desire to see justice wrought in the hereafter, claimed that the heart and soul were the most important possessions of all. Not bits, not homes, not gems or fancy clothes or wide enterprises.

One’s actions in life would determine one’s fate in death. The innocents and those who had performed enough good deeds to outweigh their trespasses would visit a place of hope, wonder, happiness and freedom from all fear and pain—Paradise, Eternity, Heaven. Those who had sinned against Life and Love themselves, harming and sabotaging others, would find themselves in a prison of their own creation—the Underworld, Hades, Hay, Hell.

Other ponies believed in reincarnation, seeing life as an endless wheel, with each lifetime merely a hop to another spoke, circling again and again and again. The wheel, they reasoned, spun through the entire cycle of life, death, birth and rebirth, forever and ever, matter and energy constantly obeying their First Law of Conservation in all forms, including the soul and consciousness.

Still others did not know, or believed that life after death was the same as life before birth: nothingness. No pain but no joy. No punishment but no redemption. Peaceful in its ultimate end of all aches, pains, needs and burdens. It was not to be feared, but it was not to be embraced.

Mother Galaxia, also called by the androgynous name The Most High, however, was a different story. The Most High—the cosmos, Gaia, the Universe, the All, the Ground of Being, the Source From Which All Things Flow—reigned over all realms, dimensions, universes and realities. It was the ultimate seed, the true roots, with branches reaching and touching and caressing every being that ever rose out of the primordial soup and became life.

There were no priests of Galaxia, no preachers waving leathery tomes of her supposed words, no followers passing out flyers and organizing potlucks. There was just mystery, and mysticism, and faith among the faithful, the hopeful, those who sought to know love and unity with The All around them—those who wished to lose themselves in meaning and meaninglessness.

Life. Life had meaning, or at least, that’s what ponies told themselves, from the darkest streets of Manehatten to the highest heights of Canterlot. Whether that meaning was money, fame, fortune, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, friendship, magic, faith, doubt, skepticism, science, or just plain ol’ living, nopony knew.

Nopony knew life, and nopony knew death.

Babs Seed was just a foal, and she had learnt very little about the realities of life and death. The few instances when Fate had crossed her path carrying those difficult lessons, she had been shielded away. The death of her aunt was the prime example, but there were several others, instances during which she asked questions too deep and too haunting.

Babs Seed was just a filly, and she knew little to nothing about the afterlife. She believed in the afterlife because it provided her with hope, to know that, in spite of everything that had happened to her or she feared would happen to her, there was a beautiful place waiting for her somewhere, a place she could truly call home.

Babs Seed was just a pony, just a small, orange, freckled, red-and-pink-maned Earth pony with a colt’s manecut and a bobtail, caught up in a tangled web of lies, secrets, betrayals and prejudices that predated her very conception. She was not a perfect being—but who could claim to be?—and she had trampled promises, hearts, and good judgment under her hooves more than once.

Babs Seed was just a seedling, not yet a tall, proud plant or even a fledgling sapling, desperately searching for a safe place to root within the Earth. She was not welcome in her own city, in her own home, or, by some measure, in her own world. She was a wild card, a wrench in the system, a ghost in the machine, a black sheep, a bad apple.

She knew not what she was destined to be, whether she’d become a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, a bartender, a business-pony, a magician, a musician, a writer, a guards-pony, an officer of the law, a soldier of the Royal Guard, or a sweeper of the street.

She knew not if she was a good friend, a good daughter, a good sister, a good leader, a good cousin. She knew not if she was in romantic love, and if she was, if she was doing that right, or if she was doing it horribly, horribly wrong, and if it would stay this way, or it was just a phase, or just a crush, or just her mind playing tricks on her.

She knew not if her savior would be proud of her, or her parents, or her sibling, or any of the Crusaders in either of the cities that had wrapped their hooves around her.

She knew not if she would ever become a mother, or if she wanted to, or how she would if she did, or if she could even do so, or if her genes were destined to end within her, or if she would head a great lineage.

Babs Seed did not know whether she would live, or die.

All she knew was that, in the deep, dark crevices of her heart and soul, she was not the same foal on the cobblestones anymore.

All she knew was that she was no longer afraid to find out how the dice fell or the cards turned.

All she knew was that she had changed, forever.

All she knew was that, whoever she was, she was loved.

All she knew was that, whoever she was, she was brave.


Babs Seed leapt in front of the knife.

Between The Hammer And Anvil

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Between The Hammer And Anvil

The knife tasted blood in that thick haze of milliseconds as the bobtail foal leapt in front of the filly with a bow in her mane, in the moment that would later come to define them forever.

Card Slinger met Babs Seed in the air, and sliced.

Her scream was primal, coming from some place deep inside her soul, flooding the night with her agony. It was a pain she could never predict, blood rushing to the site where the blade had kissed her with its demonic caress, burning through her flesh.

The dagger had connected to her left ear as they had jumped together, slashing downwards, cutting as if he were a particularly sadistic piercer.

As Card Slinger landed, he turned his attention to Apple Bloom once more, his eyes devoid of all emotion or light. His irises turned pitch-black and his pupils widened as he drew the blade once again, covered in Babs Seed's blood.

The filly was unable to speak, or move, or even close her eyes.

Time slowed. Babs Seed forgot her pain in a serendipitous instant and kicked her powerful hindhooves into the colt’s chest, sending him flying. His weapon slipped and flung out of his grasp and landed with a hollow THUNK! against the grass, the pony making a similar noise as he narrowly missed slamming straight into a tree on the other side of the clearing.

She launched herself towards her antagonist, landing on all four of her hooves, standing over him, as her blood began to drip and stain her Cutie Mark Crusaders cape.

She could speak no words. She could only fight.

Her hooves pummeled Card Slinger’s face and stomach and groin, over and over, all the fear and anger and a deep, deep sadness from within her soul released as fire from her hooves, fire and smoke and steam and iron and so, so much blood. She was the hammer, the ground was the anvil, and the colt was a white-hot piece of steel tempered by her vengeance.

In a moment of hesitation, her eyes met his, and in spite of their previous emptiness, she saw fear. She saw not a monster or a mad-pony. She saw, in spite of everything, a victim, a shuddering foal on the cobblestones.

She paused, looked at her work.

Card Slinger’s snout and jaw were bleeding, blackened, and bruised. She’d stomped on his groin more than once, his howls echoing hauntingly throughout the clearing. His chest and his flanks had met her wrath as well, dark, purple bruises erupting all over his flesh.

All through this, she had said nothing, voicing all of her emotions through her iron hooves, through the strength that rushed through her veins and gave her life... that saved her life, and the life of the one she loved.

Looking down at the colt below, the corner of her eye focusing onto the knife at the end of the clearing, Babs Seed spoke at last.

“Give me the knife, Apple Bloom.”

Hypnotized by fear, traumatized by the scene before her, Apple Bloom went mute.

Babs turned to Apple Bloom. “Give me the knife.”

Apple Bloom whimpered as she reached over, taking the bloody dagger in her hooves, handing it to her. Babs Seed grasped the hilt tightly and stared at her quarry below.

Together, the two fillies, the Apple and the Orange, watched as Card Slinger lay helpless at their hooves, all fight in him drained, panting, his breath surrounding him like dragon’s smoke on that cold, cold night.

“So… so… dis is how it ends…” The colt exhaled in between breaths. “So… youze gonna kill me, are youze? Well… go ahead. Fuck you. Go ahead.”

Babs Seed looked at the knife, then looked at Apple Bloom, and, finally, looked at Card Slinger, the blood-red colt with the mane black as night.

She stabbed the knife into the grass, pressing the hilt down with one of her hooves, practically burying it into the Earth.

“Go,” she hissed.

“What?! Are youze fuckin’ crazy?! Youze jus' gonna let me go?!” he demanded, eyes wild and mind running in circles with all sorts of torturous possibilities. Truly, this bad seed, this daughter of a devil—the child of Old Scratch himself—could not be full of such mercy.

He was wrong.

“GO!” Babs Seed barked, pressing her muzzle against his. “GO! Get outta my sight. If I eva, I mean, EVA catch youze on ma property o' harmin' anypony else again… whether it’s me, o’ ma family, o' some foal down the street… I will find youze, Card Slinga. An' I will kill youze.”

The injured colt stumbled to his hooves, making no effort to wrestle his weapon from its resting place in the Earth. Meeting her eyes, Card Slinger remarked to his adversary in the closest he’d ever come to a compliment, “Youze are a better pony than youze father eva was, Babs Seed.”

She said nothing, giving him no affirmation or denial, watching him trot away, limping, through the bushes and out of the woods, until he was a mere shadow, a demon exorcised.

Apple Bloom cried out her name and clung to her, burying her muzzle in her chest.

Babs Seed remained silent, wrapping her forehooves around her as she felt tears began to dampen her fur, sobs wracking the body of the one she protected.

Above them, the clouds let loose their judgment, and wept with a torrent of rain.

The rain soaked through their manes, their capes, their tails, their fur, washing away the steady stream of blood that continued to drip from Babs Seed's ear. The wind remained silent, almost respectful, the heavens crying with Apple Bloom in the hooves of her savior. That savior stood, as still as stone and statue, holding her tight, holding her close.

Finally, one of them spoke.

“Yer… yer an idiot,” Apple Bloom whispered, her little heart racing so fast Babs Seed could feel it through her own thick coat.

“What?” Babs Seed whispered back, over the pouring rain.

“Yer… an… idiot. Yer… stupid.”

“… Why would youze say summat like dat?” Babs could not bring herself to squeeze a single drop of anger into her words. There seemed to be no reason to get angry over things like this anymore.

“Because! You… ya didn’t run…” Apple Bloom sobbed through her tears, not sure if Babs's coat was slicked because of her or the rain anymore. “You coulda saved yourself… but ya didn’t run, you didn’t run an' look what’s happened now! All because o' me…”

The bobtail filly placed a hoof under the chin of the filly with a bow in her hair, raised her head to meet her eyes, emeralds and rubies.

“I’m still heeya, aren’t I?”

Apple Bloom sniffed, her messiah’s words offering little comfort. “But… yer bleedin', Babs. Real bad.”

Babs smiled. “Am I, huh? Funny. I don’t feel a thing, any pain.” Endorphins had flooded into her bloodstream after the adrenaline high had ceased, proliferating through her veins, making Babs Seed feel peaceful and strong, soaring amongst the stars.

“It’s yer ear. It’s… it’s yer left one…”

“Can youze show me?”

Apple Bloom nodded, and gently caressed the injured ear, tilting the cartilage so Babs Seed could see it. “See? There’s a whole… part… o' it… missin’.”

“Hmm. I might as well get it pierced, huh?” Babs said, giggling. Apple Bloom chuckled weakly with her. The sound was music to both of her ears, bleeding or not.

“Yer silly.”

“… I know.”

The two fillies stood there for a moment, Ponyville saved by Manehatten grace. The heavens continued their downpour, soaking them to their marrow, huddled even tighter against each other for warmth.

Suddenly, Apple Bloom reached up and kissed the wound.

“Apple Bloom, I don’t think dat’s very… sanitary…” Babs warned.

“Ah'm sure it’ll be okay. Ah'm jus'… Ah'm jus' makin’ it better,” Apple Bloom said, pressing her muzzle to her hero’s, her tears ceasing at last.

Even though it was artificial, the short, bobbed tail of the Orange fit no more perfectly than it did in the full tail of the Apple as they intertwined.

Above, in the Heavens, in the throne of the moon, the evening star smiled, and halted the rainclouds, granting the two fillies—brought together by destiny—a moment of peace as they caressed under the stars.


The road to the Orange Family Mansion was a long one for Apple Bloom. She had made no trek that could compare to this journey before, and doubted that she ever would hence. Even the path out of the Everfree after almost being turned to stone by an angry cockatrice had been easier; she’d at least had Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and Fluttershy to keep her alert and calm through the foreboding dark.

Babs Seed, in spite of her reported lack of malaise, had not been able to make it further than the few yards out of the thicket of woods in the park. Apple Bloom had barely caught her as the world spun to black, slipping under her hooves and carrying her on her strong back. Though they were the same age, Babs had both height and weight (muscle, of course) on Apple Bloom, and each step was an act of Celestia itself.

The bleeding had stopped by now. Apple Bloom checked over her shoulder every so often to verify, but that didn’t cease her worries. She trotted as silently as she could, making each hoofstep gentle, so she could hear if her cousin’s breathing suddenly ceased in its rhythm.

She had reached the top of the hill now—or they had, rather—Luna’s parish lantern a candle in the dark, a light to guide them home.

“Don’t worry, Babs,” Apple Bloom whispered, though she knew she would not hear her. “We’re almost there. We’re gonna be alright.”


Allspice drummed her hooves on the table, sighing.

It had barely been an hour, yet, something didn’t seem quite right. She’d busied herself with minor cleaning tasks, tidying up the guest room for Applejack and Apple Bloom and laying out dishes for tomorrow’s breakfast. With two extra mouths to feed—three if Master Orange joined them in time—she would need to rise an hour earlier than usual.

She sighed again at the thought. Sleep had been so hard to come by recently, though it had never been as peaceful. Allspice had been far too exhausted to dream.

She’d hear the voices of the three mares arguing upstairs, and the pitter-patter of little hooves running about the garden, but interrupted neither activity. As much as she wanted to toss her own dice in the upstairs argument, wagering on the winner, or watch the foals frolic beneath the starry night, duty calls with a demanding voice.

Come to think of it, Allspice hadn’t heard the foals for a while, and the raised voices above had similarly halted. Strange.

Allspice rose from her stool and began to walk over to the back door. Just as she’d reached the end of the corridor, she heard furious knocking at the front entry, frantic hooves pounding on the oak.

“I’m comin’! I’m comin’! Sheesh,” Allspice muttered to herself as she trotted over to the door.

She opened the door, hinges nearly breaking as the wind flung it wide open.

Her countenance went white at the sight of her visitors.

“Hey… Allspice…” Apple Bloom swayed, an unconscious Babs Seed on her back, dried blood covering the other foal’s left ear.

The world began to spin in Apple Bloom’s eyes, vision tunneling to a tight ellipse, watching the mare in front of her begin to panic. The weight of the foal on her back and the events of the night began to hit her at last. She’d stared Death in the face, and still lived to tell the tale.

It was too much. Far too much.

“Ya might wanna… go get Applejack…” Apple Bloom mumbled, and then fell down onto the welcome mat of the Orange Family porch.


There was nothing but green grass. Freshly-trimmed, comfortably thick patches of green grass as far as the eye could see, surrounding one tall, proud oak tree at the top of a gentle hill.

Babs Seed turned about the scene, searching for a companion. At the base of the tree, Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle were chasing after each other in a game of tag, Cutie Mark Crusader capes flowing behind them in the gentle breeze.

Babs felt around her neck and realized that she, too, had her crimson cape, and was one with them. She trotted excitedly up the rolling hill, thick blades of grass tickling her fetlocks, and joined the other foals near the oak tree.

“Can… can I play wit' youze girls?” Babs Seed asked shyly, her tail creeping up to cover the spot where her cutiemark should have been.

“Sure!” Apple Bloom exclaimed, smiling. “Except fer one thing, Babs… Well, two things.”

“What are dey?” Babs asked.

“Well, first, you don’t have to be ashamed of your flank!” Sweetie Belle said, face lighting up with happiness.

“Yeah!” Scootaloo chimed in. “You aren’t defined by your flank, remember?”

“Oh, yeah… youze is right. Well, what’s the otha thing?”

“You need ta wake up, Babs Seed,” Apple Bloom answered as she strode over to the foal, nuzzling her neck.

“Wake up?” Babs asked, returning the gesture and nuzzling her filly. “But… but… it’s so beautiful heeya. Dis is the most beautiful place I’ve eva seen.”

“But, there’s lots of ponies worried about you,” Scootaloo explained, her fragile wings fluttering and levitating her into the cool, crisp air. “And they need you to wake up.”

“But… but what iffa I don’t wanna? What iffa… what iffa I’m scared?” Babs asked in panic, unable to comprehend the possibility of leaving such a paradise.

“Then… we’ll be right here wit' ya,” Apple Bloom said, holding her muzzle in her hooves.

“Heeya? Where is heeya?”

Apple Bloom pressed a forehoof to her chest, feeling for her heartbeat. “Here.”

Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle trotted over to the two, smiling proudly.

“We’ll always be wit' ya, Babs Seed, in yer heart. An' you’ll always be in mine,” the Apple explained to the Orange, grasping one of her forehooves and leading it to feel her own heartbeat.

Babs Seed could say nothing, only smile.

Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle clapped their hooves together and said, “All right. Enough of that, you two. It’s time to wake up, Babs.”

Babs gasped as she began to hover, lifted into the air by the unseen hooves of the Most High. The three fillies below her waved goodbye excitedly as she rose from the field, from the one oak tree on the one tiny hill in Paradise.

In spite of her lack of pegasus wings, Babs Seed felt no fear, as she rose up, up, up, into the air and out of her dream.


She was lying in her parents’ bed, spread-eagle, with four mares and one foal huddled around her. Her Cutie Mark Crusader cape was gone. Her ear was burning.

And it was much, much too bright.

“She’s awake,” Citrus Blossom whispered.

Babs Seed groaned.

“Step back, y’all, give her some air!” Applejack ordered. The others took a few hoof-steps back as Babs began to sputter and cough.

“What… what happened…”

“There’ll be a lot of discussion about that later,” Libra Scales said as she walked over to her daughter. “For now… can you move your limbs, darling? Move your hooves. Move all of them.”

Babs tested each of her hooves, feeling a supreme weakness flood her body at last. She barely had the energy to do much more than lift each forehoof and hindhoof for a few seconds, but those mere actions caused the adults in the room to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

“Allspice, bring us some iodine, cotton balls, gauze, and roller bandages, please,” Libra ordered, turning to Allspice.

Allspice nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” she said, slipping out of the master bedroom towards the second-floor bathroom and its First Aid kit.

“Are ya okay, Babs?” Apple Bloom whispered, forehooves on the bed, eyes full of concern and threatening tears.

“Thanks ta youze, I am,” Babs said weakly, cracking a smile. Each muscle that moved—even the ones in her face—burned with an intensity that spoke of something beyond mere exhaustion.

Ma whole body feels wounded.

Allspice returned, handing the requested supplies to Citrus Blossom. “Um, I don’t think I should—“

“Ah’ve got it,” Applejack said, grabbing the items from Citrus’s unsteady hooves. “Ah’ve had ta fix up Big Macintosh Celestia knows how many times. Stupid stallion’s always hurtin' himself in one way o’ the other,” she grumbled, making her way past Libra Scales to Babs Seed.

“W-w-what are youze gonna do?” Babs Seed asked, eying the bottle of liquid that was emblazoned with a skull and crossbones.

“Ah’m sorry, honey, but this is gonna hurt. A lot.”

“Then why are youze doin’ it?!” Babs panicked.

Applejack sighed. “Would y’all rather Ah don’t fix ya up, an' in a few weeks we have ta rush ya the hospital because it got infected?”

What kinda STUPID question is dat?! “No!! O’ course not!!”

“Then, close yer eyes an' bite yer tongue,” Applejack said, leaning down over the foal and examining her ear. “Horsefeathers. That’s a big ol’ chunk gone. This’ll be fun.” She pulled the cork out of the bottle with her teeth, tossing it aside. Taking a cotton ball from the bag, she carefully soaked it in the foul-smelling liquid, then asked, “Ya ready?”

Seriously?! “No!” Babs Seed cried, heart pounding in the anticipation of even more pain.

Apple Bloom took one of her outstretched hooves between both of hers. “It’s alright, Babs, Ah’m here.”

Applejack nodded and looked to the other three mares. “She’s got the right idea, y’all. Hold her hooves down.”

Babs Seed gulped and squeezed her eyes shut as she felt Applejack's hot breath near her ear, strong hooves pinning her to the bed on all sides. The iodine made its contact with the open wound, and she howled in absolute agony, voice shaking the walls. “Ahh, dammit, oh, DAMMIT, Celestia, it BURNS!”

She burst into tears, almost wishing for Card Slinger to be there and slice the other ear open wide to distract her from the pain, to make this current hurt pale by comparison.

Citrus Blossom could take no more. Once Applejack had finished cleaning the wound and begun to bandage it up, she galloped out of the master bedroom, tears of her own falling from her eyes.

“Citrus!” Libra Scales yelled after her, taking to her hooves in pursuit of her daughter.

Libra slammed the door behind her, leaving Allspice, Applejack, and Apple Bloom with Babs Seed. Babs's chest was rising and falling slowly, sleep beckoning her with expectant hooves.

“Is… is dat it?” Babs asked, breathing heavily. “Are youze done?”

“Yes, Babs Seed,” whispered Applejack. “That’s the honest truth. There’ll be no mo'. Tomorrow, when ya wake, Ah’ll change yer bandages fer ya, but there’s gonna be no mo' cleanin’ of it. What I just used will keep everythin’ bad outta it.”

Summat ta keep the bad stuff out… should’ve used dat stuff a long time ago. Do dey make dat fo’ bullies an' murderers?

Babs Seed closed her eyes and exhaled. “Good. Cousin AJ?”

“Yes, hon?”

“Can… can youze an' Apple Bloom stay wit’ me tonight? I… I don’t wanna be alone.”

Applejack looked to her sibling, who smiled and nodded. She then turned to Allspice and offered, “Why don’t ya take the guest bedroom tonight instead o’ us, Allspice? We’ll be fine up here.”

Allspice blushed at the gesture. It would be the first time she had slept in a real bed in almost twelve years. “I… Youze honor me, Madame Applejack. Thank youze.” She bowed and left the room, softly closing the door just as Applejack began to turn off the lights.


Citrus Blossom wanted to kick the tree, wanted to burst through the heartwood, wanted to knock it down and let it fall to the city below, crushing all evil beneath its trunk. She wanted to stamp out all of it, every bully, every criminal, every crooked law-pony and business-pony, maybe even Bernie Madhoof along with them.

Of course, he was conveniently absent tonight… almost too conveniently, Citrus thought.

She wanted to brush away such possibilities, fearful of what her thoughts might create, but what did it matter? The dark night had risen and almost stolen the sister she loved from her in its fury. What did it matter, what she thought?

Did anything matter anymore?

She sat under the memorial orange tree, tears watering the long-dead roots. Citrus Blossom thought of her own dreams of fashion and fame, dreams of leaving Manehatten in her dust and becoming a model in Canterlot. Her dreams seemed so superficial now. What did it matter if her name was not a household phrase? What did it matter if she’d never see it written in lights?

She thought of her wardrobe full of clothes, the five-star meals they ate year ‘round consisting of ingredients imported from all of Equestria, their luxurious and glorious mansion. Citrus remembered that her father had once ranted during one of his drunken stupors about beans and corn, about owning no clothes but for one tattered winter coat, about sharing a little shack in the woods with his parents and brother. Poverty always seemed to be a monster in his eyes, an unholy demon that demanded exorcism.

However, her father had no tales of forced barbering or being attacked in neighborhood parks by rabid foals with knives, so perhaps poverty would be preferable to the life of twisted luxury the Oranges had led.

And… Applejack. How could she have asked such a heavy question of Citrus and her mother? How could she have barreled into their home, filling the miles between them to propose such an awful thing? Did she even care about her cousins, aunt, and uncle, or was she merely exercising what little authority she had as one of the Elements of Harmony?

“Hey,” a mare whispered behind her, dragging her from the depths of her swarming thoughts.

Citrus Blossom rose her head to meet her mother’s eyes, tears staining her face. “Hey, Mom.”

“So… how many licks did this ol’ thing get, this time?” Libra Scales asked, taking a seat next to her daughter on the dew-kissed grass.

“None,” Citrus Blossom said, sniffling. “I… I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’m just so, so—“

“Angry, confused, afraid, sad, helpless?” Libra offered, reaching a forehoof across her daughter’s shoulders.

“All of the above,” Citrus answered, leaning into her mother.

“Me, too, kiddo.”

“I… I just… I can’t believe Applejack’s nerve. Buying an extra train ticket, just for Babs, so she could come back with them to Ponyville? Not just to visit, but to… to—”

“Move. I know. I was there,” Libra Scales said.

“I know. I wasn’t saying you weren’t.”

“I know. Sorry. I’m just…” Libra’s voice trailed off into the distance somewhere, and she sighed. “I’m just… torn. At first, I was pretty angry, darling. I was ready to tear Applejack a new… you-know-what. But, then this up and happens… I… I don’t know. I love Babs Seed, honey. I love her so, so much.”

“Me too, Mom,” Citrus whimpered, nuzzling the mare’s shoulders. “Me too.”

“You know, when she was born, your aunt was so, so happy. That first time she held that little foal in her hooves, why… it was like watching an angel hold her.” Libra's eyes filled with tears of joy and sadness at the memory.

Watching the clouds above begin to part, revealing a cosmos painted masterfully with stars, Citrus Blossom said, “Maybe she was the angel that was protecting Babs tonight. Maybe she pushed the knife outta the way.”

“I don’t know, Citrus. I don’t know if there’s life after death.”

“I hope so, Mother.”

“Me too.”

The two sat in silence, watching as a comet passed across Luna’s canvas, leaving a trail of stars in its wake. “Make a wish,” Libra Scales muttered.

Citrus Blossom giggled and whispered, “I thought youze didn’t believe in things like that, Mom.”

Libra Scales chuckled. “I don’t know what I believe anymore. But it’s nice to think about.”

“I guess.”

Libra pulled her eldest into a hug, embracing her tightly, watching the moon as it rose to a new day, city clock chiming in the distance for the flipping of the four zeroes. Yesterday, Libra Scales greatest worries had been Bernie Madhoof’s sudden change in behavior and the future of Orange Enterprises. Now, in the approaching twilight of a new day, all of those fears seemed downright ridiculous and superficial.

Now, she worried about her youngest foal, if she was safe now, and if she would be if she remained under her care. The mare let her thoughts wander, running a hoof through her daughter’s fiery mane, lost in repetitive motion.

Breaking the silence, Citrus Blossom asked, “So… what are we going to do? Are we going to stay here? All of us?”

“We can’t all leave,” answered Libra, shaking her head. “I still have an entire company to run. Regardless of your father’s current turnaround, I still do most of the accounting and paperwork. My name is tied to that entire corporation, Citrus. If the ship sinks, I’ll be going down with it. And you… you have your own dreams to follow, don’t ya? Do you want to stay?”

A thousand points of lights above all whispered to her, urging her to speak the truth, to let her deepest desires roam free. Citrus pretended to be deaf to their voices.

Regardless of her own reservations, she could not abandon her mother. Libra Scales would wither away if she did, and both of them knew it.

“… No. I want to stay and help you run the company, too. It’ll be mine someday,” Citrus reasoned at last, the moon itself sighing in disappointment at her lies.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Yes, mother, I am sure.” She offered the best grin she could muster in such dark times.

Libra sighed. “I see.”

Citrus looked away from the stars and back to her mother. They had both been dancing around the central question, tiptoeing around the elephant in the room, afraid to wake it and send it stampeding. They couldn’t do this forever, Citrus knew, and let the hammer drop.

“And what about Babs Seed? Where shall she go? Will she stay?”

Libra Scales dropped her gaze to the ground, where the withered roots of her sister’s memorial tree tangled beneath the Earth, never to know life again. Her sister would’ve been able to handle this dilemma much better than she; she’d always been the stronger one. She missed the mare daily, but more so in times like this, in times of crossroads and crisis.

She could not hold back her tears again. “I don’t know,” Libra said, crying.

“I don’t know.”


Applejack was used to sleeping on hard, barn floors, and the plush carpet of the master bedroom was definitely much more comfortable than that. Still, Applejack could find not one single drop of sleepiness within her brain, could not allow comfort to sway her asleep, though the darkness must have flooded her mind with melatonin.

She arched her back, placing her forehooves behind her neck, counting stars outside the bay window. Next to her, Babs Seed was snoring, the poor foal having slipped into the waiting hooves of the Sandmare the moment the lights had been shut off. Apple Bloom was curled up beside her, but the sound of the filly’s tossing and turning meant her sister wasn’t finding this any easier, either.

“Applejack,” Apple Bloom whispered, peering up from the covers and past Babs's slumbering body.

“What is it, lil’ sis?” Applejack whispered back.

“Ah can’t sleep.”

“No, really?

“Yeah! Ah really can’t!”

Applejack face-hoofed. “That’s not what Ah meant! Now, hush, Apple Bloom, you’ll wake yer cousin!”

“Are ya kiddin’? She is out,” Apple Bloom replied, sitting up in the darkness.

Her sibling raised an eyebrow. “And how would ya know that?

“Um… lucky guess?” Apple Bloom replied, blushing, hoping the night would conceal her cheeks.

The Element of Honesty, true to her title, saw through it anyway, and grinned. “Ah thought as much. You were way too excited ta take that four-hour train ride wit' me here, sugarcube.”

Chuckling awkwardly, Apple Bloom began to fidget with her forehooves. “Heh, heh, Ah dunno what ya mean, Applejack…”

“We can talk mo’ ‘bout it in the mornin’,” Applejack said, her grin still wide and gleeful. “It’s not a bad thing, though, if yer worried. But let’s try an’ sleep, okay?”

“Okay, big sis. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Apple Bloom.”

Applejack closed her eyes, breathing deep, feeling her back ease into the carpeting, all muscle tension melting away. Tomorrow would be a momentous morning full of might and meaning. She’d expected that from the moment she’d bought the tickets. With the events of this evening, however, her proposal carried a much more urgent and serious weight.

Even if Applejack had her way, and escorted two foals instead of one on the train ride back home, there would be really nothing to celebrate.

She lifted her gaze to the foals on the bed, watching Apple Bloom nuzzle Babs Seed's chest as she settled into her covers. That filly, regardless of who she would grow up to become, was one thing the Ponyville mare hoped nopony would ever forget.

A hero.

Applejack fell into the deep embrace of Princess Luna’s night, under the glow of the Manehatten moon.

Applejack's Ticket

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Applejack’s Ticket

Bernie Madhoof shook the dust of a seedy Manehatten hotel off his hooves as he trotted up the pathway to his grandiose castle. The mare of the night had put up a grand ol’ fight this time; her neck had met his molars more than once, shuddering with delight. The encounter, along with a few glasses of fine whiskey—not enough to intoxicate him, in case Libra was still awake—had been his celebration, his party of one.

He let loose a contented sigh, his breath permeating the night air like dragon smoke. All would come to pass, and very, very soon. Kerosene and gasoline, smoke and flame would set him free at last. All he had to do was wait and bide, and strike when the guards had left the gates around Libra’s heart.

The stallion had hoped it would never come to this, that his wife would learn her place at his hooves and his fillies would grow into fine, respectable, submissive daughters alongside their mother. Of course, Fate laughed at Bernie Madhoof, granting him all of the bits in Manehatten but none of his other dreams. He’d asked for fillies, and he’d been granted colts.

He hated other males, and that included the father who molded him with heavy hooves and the brother who’d abandoned him long ago for some foolish, vagabond dream. There were a few other stallions who’d dared to cross him, but the cruel hooves of Fate had snipped their threads short. One of the thugs had passed away in his sleep; the other had collapsed in the desert with his whore of a wife.

Sometimes, Bernie Madhoof didn’t even have to make an effort to get what was rightfully his.

As he fumbled with the front door key, Bernie found himself wondering whether Libra Scales had visited the bank today. He certainly hoped so.

Key met lock, and tumbler turned, as the king returned to his royal home.


Citrus Blossom and Libra Scales were not particularly tall or muscular mares, and both paid sufficient attention to their figures to fight an influx of adipose tissues brought about by far too many sweets. They would have gobbled up every last pie, cake, and cobbler in Manehatten if they could, but Life is never that forgiving. Everything has its price.

The two were grateful for their self-control, huddled on Citrus Blossom’s full-size bed, barely enough room for them to stretch their hooves. They didn’t particularly mind. Sleep beckoned but did not arrive.

“I wish we would’ve bought more than one king-sized bed for this Celestia-damned place,” Libra Scales said, doing her best to get comfortable and not fall off of the edge of the mattress.

“A-greed,” Citrus replied. “Or at least a queen.”

The Witching Hour blared its arrival on the wind-up alarm clock from across the room. Dawn would be breaking within a few hours. It seemed more practical now to just stay up for the rest of the day.

Citrus Blossom groaned, burying her head in a pillow. “Ugh. It’s way too late to still be awake still, but my brain doesn’t understand that.”

“Brains are finicky things, sometimes,” Libra Scales said in agreement.

“That’s puttin’ it lightly, Mom. Sheesh. I just… I can’t let this ticket thing out of my mind.” Citrus flipped herself over and sat upright under the covers. “How can we decide? And what about Dad? What would he think?”

A deep sadness appeared in Libra's eyes. “He’d probably offer to send Babs off with a huge celebration, inviting all of the Manehatten elites and telling them that she was going off to some grand boarding school. And then he’d get drunk in that room over there,” she added, motioning with her muzzle towards the wall of Babs Seed’s bedroom.

Citrus said nothing as she digested her mother’s words.

Silence fell between them.

And then, “But… but…y ouze said Dad was getting better, didn’t you? He’s certainly more polite than usual, more… warm—”

“Who am I kidding here, Citrus?” Libra said, meeting Citrus's sorrowful eyes. “Who am I kidding? He’s gone, he’s been gone for a long time. His mind isn’t the same. It’s… changed, long before any of this, years ago.”

“… Do you know what prompted the change?”

“I don’t know." She sighed. “I’ve tried to unravel the mystery myself for some time now, tried to pinpoint what happened. I think it started when Orange Enterprises really took off. That’s when we upgraded the house and started expanding the business. You were just a little foal then. He started buying more and more things, some of which were actually quite useful, or at least beautiful. He’d bring me expensive jewelry, and fine art, and rare bottles of wine. And he hired more servants to take care of the mansion. Greyhoof was the first, but then, over time, he hired more and more hooves. He also started staying out later and later, playing golf or meeting with clients—at least, that’s what he’d claimed—and it’s only been the past few years that the drinking escalated. I’m not sure what prompted that. His father died, not too long ago, your grandpa… Do ya remember him?”

Citrus Blossom shook her head. “I must have been too young, Mom, to remember.”

Libra Scales replied, “You didn’t miss much. He downright despised the fact that your father and I both ran the company. He seemed to think that a mare’s place was in the home, and the home alone.”

Citrus sneered and spat back, “What a stinkin’ a—“

“No, no, Citrus, he was from a different era and a different mentality,” Libra scolded, cutting off the insult. “We didn’t see eye-to-eye, but I wished him no ill. It’s just who he was. And who he was, your father has become… and will always remain.”

Citrus blinked. “Always?”

Libra buried her face in her forehooves. “I fear… I fear that he hasn’t changed, that he will never change, Citrus. That I'll just let another twenty years pass me by, and I’ll be in this same, dark place.”

Citrus embraced her mother, tears filling her eyes. “But… but… Mom… can’t youze just… just…”

“No,” Libra said, her voice muffled by her forehooves. “No, Citrus. I promised myself that I wouldn’t, as long as he never... as long as he never…”

“… Hit us?” Citrus Blossom guessed.

Her mother leapt from her tears, slamming a forehoof over her daughter’s mouth. “Don’t you ever say that again. Don’t you. Say that. Again. Citrus.” Her words were deadpan, bred of fear, reared by superstition. Speaking of awful things could summon the demons of such dark possibility from below, and make them possess Fate and change its course.

Though she hated herself for thinking such a twisted thought, as she attempted her best smile and slow nod, comforting her weeping guardian, Citrus Blossom wished Bernie Madhoof would just cross the threshold and strike them all, if it meant they could run.


The stallion trotted up the stairs, doing his best not to make a sound, quiet as the mice he had long exterminated from his paradise. His blood was flooded with testosterone, his virility proven once already and crying out to be tested again. Perhaps Libra was still awake.

As he rounded the second level, making his way to the master bedroom, his plans were jolted off their pedestal by the noise of somepony snoring.

Libra Scales never snored.

Bernie Madhoof gently creaked open the door to his throne room, just a crack, just wide enough to see the Dirtville duo themselves and that rotten filly defiling his marriage bed with their dust and drool.

He clenched his teeth, catching the sound of his fury before it dissipated into the atmosphere. The injustice of the sight infuriated him; couldn’t these awful Apples dirty up one of the guest rooms instead? And hadn’t he provided that so-called foal of his with an entire room to herself? The servants had far more use, and they were regulated to the shack on their masters’ property.

Madhoof let loose a low growl, unable to fully adjust his mask in the face of this insult. Across the room, he saw a Stetson move and heard a mare yawn.

Applejack sat upright, lacking Pinkie Sense but suspicious still. The Apple’s eyes met the Orange’s across the room, the latter’s jaw agape, the former feeling a satisfied smile creep across her countenance.

“Good evenin’, Uncle Orange,” Applejack whispered, smug as she rose to all four hooves and strolled over to meet him.


The thicket of woods beckoned and called, its voice a pleasant melody into both of her ears. Though the left one was still incomplete—and always would be now—it nevertheless felt none of its previous pain, pleased by the vibrations and sound waves it sensed.

Babs Seed knew that she should not wander the streets anymore, Mother Galaxia having granted her more than one chance for redemption, but the melody continued. It swam in her psyche, pony-paddling across the surface and then breathing deep before diving below, piercing her subconscious. It would become a part of her, tormenting her with its serenade, until she finally fell to her hooves in submission.

But Babs was a leader for a reason; she was no follower, served no master. She decided to take to the Manehatten streets, down the hill of prime real estate and hidden misery, before the song dragged her there itself.

Babs answered its summons, and she was not afraid.

There, concrete and cobblestone faded to long, lush blades of dew-covered grass. The moon reflected in the lake before her, frogs and crickets offering an accompanying harmony to the echoing melody.

There, on a log, waiting, was the bartender and barber of The Watering Hole, her savior.

“Turner,” Babs Seed greeted, trotting slowly towards him. It had been so long since he’d even been a ripple in her conscience, or a nudge in her subconscious. She’d feared she’d been abandoned by another pony once more.

“Hey, kid," Turner said as he smiled. “Come heeya an' talk ta me.” He patted a spot on the log next to him, scooting over as she jumped up to join him. The stallion ruffled her short mane as she grinned at him, both ponies watching the moon as it rose high in the heavens.

“Where have youze been?” Babs asked, locking eyes with her hero.

“Watchin’ youze,” Turner answered, his pupils sparkling in the starlight. “Guidin’ youze, kiddo. Youze been a good foal. Been strong.”

“Youze really think so?!” She gasped, clapping her forehooves together excitedly.

He nodded with a knowing smile. “Yes, lil’ one. Although, there is summat I need ta mention ta youze, befo' I have ta get back ta work.”

“What’s dat?”

“Come heeya, little filly,” he beckoned, motioning for her to approach him even closer. She complied. He lowered his voice, as if to defy the eavesdropping ears of the night guardian. “Youze need ta continue ta be the curious foal youze are, Babs. Youze cannot stop wit’ youze questions, even iffa the obvious is seen. Do youze understand?”

Confused, Babs Seed asked, “What questions, Turner? Why are youze speakin’ in riddles?”

Turner chuckled. “Dear, it’s a riddle only until the curtain falls an' our greatest fears emerge only as actors upon the stage. When all youze demons dance befo' youze, look ‘em in the eye. Look at ‘em, hard. Dey are phantoms. Dey always are. An' youze are a priest in youze own right, an' youze can exorcise them.”

Babs shook her head, finding little clarity in the stallion’s words. “Priest? But, Turner, I know nothin’ o’ religion.”

“An' neither do I,” Turner said, pointing his hooves towards the skies. “But youze see the skies heeya? The stars, the galaxies, the comets, the planets beyond?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Do youze need any faith ta see dis blanket o’ night? Ain’t it beautiful, gods o' no gods? Summat made the stars as dey are, an' regardless o' what dat is, the stars are beautiful. Not everythin’ immaterial requires faith ta face. Not everythin’ dat is real is material, o' visible.

“An' the demons dat chase youze, an' the questions dat haunt youze, dey are not visible o' material things. But, dey are still there, waitin’, an' only when youze face dem, will dey reveal themselves at last—an' youze shall see what dey really are—an' disappear.”

Babs blinked slowly, chewing on his words, swallowing them in bits and pieces in an effort to digest their meaning. Unfortunately, it was still not clear.

“Turner, Slinga, he’s… I faced him already, so is dis ‘bout him?”

Turner shook his head. “Do youze really think he was youze enemy through all o' dis? Dat he is the only demon following youze around?” He rose from the log at last, all four of his hooves groaning with ancient aches as he came back into his natural pose. “Babs, there is one mo’ demon knockin’ at youze door, an' dis one… youze cannot punch away. Youze must ask youzeself the most important question ta vanquish him.”

Joining him on the grass, Babs Seed asked, “An' what is dat?”

Turner smiled, his eyes aging him beyond his years. “The most important question o’ all, in dis twisted world o’ ours, is, ‘Am I where I need ta be, doin' the right thing?’”


Applejack met her Uncle Orange at the door, motioning for the stallion to follow her down the stairs. To her surprise, he obliged. She stole a last glance at the foals, moonlight illuminating them, and smiled, not sure if it was the stroke of the twilight hour or something far more mysterious that gave them their halos.

Nearly stumbling as she trotted, the mare followed the stallion, down, down, to the level below, all the while words beginning to form and fight within her consciousness, besting each other for the honor of slipping past her vocal cords.

Without a word, Bernie Madhoof led Applejack to the kitchen, offering his niece a stool as he took one of his own. “Thank ya kindly, Uncle Orange,” she politely remarked, joining him at the table.

“I presume you have an explanation for this.”

Applejack flinched at the sudden venom in his tone. She had not seen the stallion since the days of her foalhood and her own journey of self-discovery. Sure, they had not parted on the best of terms—how can one say, “I cannot live the way you live,” without trampling some feelings underhoof?—but he was still her family, and she expected far much more warmth in his voice in the light of their reunion.

“Well, it’s a long story, really, Unc—“

“You will address me as ‘sir,’ Applejack,” Bernie Madhoof said, drumming a forehoof on the table. “Do you have any idea what time it is? Hurry up with it.”

Applejack felt steam rush out of her ears, almost levitating her Stetson as her temperature rose. “Well, sir, Ah’d be right pleased ta tell ya all ‘bout it, if ya would jus' be patient wit’ me, ‘cause it sure ain’t no simple tale.”

Madhoof just blinked at her, saying nothing. Then, he narrowed his eyelids and snapped, “I’m sorry, were you speaking? All I heard was a bunch of garbage flowing out of your mouth.”

Applejack sputtered, the angel and the devil within her coming to brawls for the prize of a response. “Now jus’ ya hold on one cotton-pickin’ minute right—“

SLAM! The dining room table shook with the force of Bernie Madhoof’s rage as it silenced his niece, hoof meeting oak. He rose from his seat, pointing an accusatory hoof at the mare. “Why. Are. You. And those. Rotten. Foals. In. My. Bedroom.”

The forces of darkness and light, good and evil, are in constant harmony; one cannot exist without the other, and the shadow of each reveals the countenance of its counterpart. They are opposites, indeed, yet sometimes they meet in the middle, seeking and needing balance.

The sacrifices we offer on the altars of hate and love, sin and righteousness, eventually make their way to the same destination, fumes and smoke mixing in the nostrils of our token mysticism—the Most High, Karma, Fate, Life—and it is only by the toss of the dice if our offering is met either with gratitude or refusal. Gods and realities are fickle things.

In Applejack’s case, the little devil within her heart burnt a grand offering to his dark gods, and it was met with songs of praise.

“What the buck did you jus’ say ta me?”

Applejack kicked the stool back with a powerful hindhoof, wood nearly splitting as it thrust against a kitchen cabinet. She strode over to him, pressing her muzzle to his. “Ya did not jus' insult Babs an’ Bloom wit' that lyin' tongue o’ yours. Did ya… Bernie?”

The stallion felt a spring of rage begin to surge beneath his mantle, threatening to erupt like a geyser. However, in a moment of clarity, he remembered kerosene and gasoline, smoke and flame, wait and bide, bribe the guards.

“I’m… I’m sorry, Applejack,” he said slowly, each word feeling absolutely disgusting as it rolled off his tongue. “I… I have been drinking.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Oh, really? Ah coulda never guessed. Why, Bernie Madhoof, a drinker? Nopony could ever know.”

“Yes… I’m… troubled,” he continued, summoning all of his might to force the words past his molars. “I have been… working on an important sale all night. Very stressful. But, I am back now, and would like to sleep in my own bed.”

“Well, ain’t that mighty nice.” Applejack stood tall, not moving her muzzle or her eyes from his, lassoing her fury in as tightly as she could. “Unfortunately, sir, yer foal an' ma siblin' were attacked by some crazed mugger in the park ta-night. Damn near cut yer daughter’s ear right clean off, so Ah ain't gonna be wakin' 'em.”

“What?” Bernie Madhoof whispered, the slight feeling of submission that washed over him as he stepped back from the mare overruled by his surprise. “Who did this?”

“Aw, don’t ya pretend ta be concerned!” Applejack sneered. “Ah can see right through yer mask, Madhoof. We’ve known ‘bout yer scandals in Ponyville fer years. Ya might be able ta fool Citrus an' Auntie, at least fer now, but Ah ain’t no ordinary pony.”

Madhoof's mind raced. Had somepony caught wind of his plan? Did he have a brother-in-arms hiding among the hooligans of downtown Manehatten? The Apple foal had not been in his crosshairs, but collateral damage mattered not. Just flame and fuel.

“No, Applejack, I’m serious. Who attacked them?”

Narrowing her eyes, Applejack said, “Not sure! Babs Seed was in no state ta talk ‘bout it, an' Apple Bloom didn’t know him, either. Somethin’ 'bout black an' red. The colors o' evil.”

How fitting, thought the stallion. He said, “Well, in any case, I apologize for my outburst. You see, Applejack, I am very tired, and would like to go to sleep.”

“Again wit’ this? Don’t ya even care 'bout her?!” Applejack demanded.

Bernie Madhoof raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I follow?”

There it was again—that stuttering and stumbling over her words as the angel and the devil knocked their hooves together. Applejack longed to put her hindhooves to work against something far more sinister and satisfying to kick than any apple tree on Sweet Apple Acres. If it weren’t for the slumbering foals above them, she was not sure she could have resisted such temptation.

Pulling through above the sparring entities, she answered, “Babs Seed. Do ya even care 'bout her, Bernie? Forget me an' Bloom. There’s a reason Ah haven’t been back since ma foalhood, ya know. This city is not fer ponies like me an' the rest o’ ma clan.”

Madhoof marveled at his self-control as he swallowed a laugh.

“In fact,” she continued, “if it weren’t fer Babs Seed, Ah probably wouldn’t have come up here. Ya see, Ah had some extra cider, an' Ah coulda sold it ta anypony, anywhere—Trottingham, Canterlot, hay, even shipped it up ta Cloudsdale. But ya know what? Ah brought it here, wit' one foal, an' Ah intend ta leave wit' two.”

Fate indeed performed most of his dirty work for him, by both strangers and so-called “family”. Bernie Madhoof let his true colors shine, if for only a moment, as he smiled and replied, his voice smoky with pleasure, “I would have no problem with that.”


Trotting slowly out of the kitchen, Madhoof said, “If you need me—I’m sorry, if ya needs me—I’ll be in one of the guest bedrooms for tonight. I’ll let this one slide.”

Applejack growled through her clenched jaws as she watched pure living, breathing slime slink and sludge its way out of the dining room, contaminating everything it touched.


As the dawn broke, Apple Bloom stirred, eyes fluttering open to an unfamiliar world.

She panicked for a second, the events of that momentous evening prior playing hide-and-go-seek with her conscious mind. The room was far too grand, far too fancy, to belong to any house in Ponyville—even Rarity could not match such glamor. The room was also too large and too heavily decorated, expensive paintings hanging on the walls, for any hotel Applejack could afford.

The foal snoring gently next to her rushed reality back into her hooves and straight to her heart. Apple Bloom shivered, feeling all of her limbs, checking to make sure that she was still alive. She kicked, just to make sure. Yes, she was alive, not yet a phantasm or poltergeist in the gap between dimensions.

Babs Seed’s bandages were dotted with dried blood but appeared to be otherwise in fair shape. She was still lying in the same position that she’d fallen asleep in last night, hooves curled where Apple Bloom had been.

Even in slumber, she wanted to protect her.

Apple Bloom’s stomach growled. She was surprised by her own hunger. One would think nausea would be better suited for such a morning. Perhaps the return of biological needs signaled a return to normalcy. Or, maybe, Nature is just as heartless as natural selection would make it seem.

If it had been any morning but that morning, Apple Bloom would have barreled down the door and galloped down the stairs to meet Allspice in the kitchen, the scent of breakfast beginning to waft through the floorboards.

However, Apple Bloom was not starving, and could wait a little longer to eat. She could wait for her hero to join her.

Apple Bloom feigned sleep, and laid back down next to Babs Seed, waiting for her to wake.


Four mares and a stallion, all adults who should have taken charge of the tumultuous situation that lay before them, sat silently at the dining room table in the Orange Family Mansion, some sipping mugs of coffee, others pretending to be particularly interested in a glass of orange juice. None of them appeared to have much appetite. Other than the occasional cough, clearing of the throat, or drumming of hooves, there was silence, no wisdom shared or solutions offered up.

Libra Scales looked into the eyes of Bernie Madhoof, scanning them for malice or benevolence. They were blank, empty. Nothingness.

Libra had found little sleep. She and Citrus had tossed and turned until they were exhausted. Libra was not sure exactly when Bernie had returned from his business venture, though Applejack had quickly recounted her encounter with him to Libra before he had joined them at the table. From her understanding, Applejack had hurled her proposal at him as well, and he remained unfazed, almost neutral.

It infuriated his wife how absolutely heartless he could be.

The idea of her foal leaving her terrified Libra down to her marrow, down the very core of her heart and soul. Even if it was only finalized by the calm punching of a train ticket, the loss of her filly made Libra Scales want to vomit up every meal she’d ever enjoyed. Babs Seed was the last link in the chain in connection to her deceased sister, and if she left, all she would have left would be memories and regret and unanswered questions.

Libra Scales also feared that it would mean she had failed at her most important job of all, if her own foal abandoned her for greener pastures.

Libra knew she was being selfish and irrational, betraying her cutiemark and her better judgment. Excrement had met the rotating blades of a cooling device; a decision needed to be made. However, if she didn’t have the strange ways of her husband to worry over and the fear for her niece’s and daughter’s safety to deal with as well, perhaps she could think about Applejack’s proposal in a much calmer manner.

And perhaps hogs would sprout pegasus wings and join the Wonderbolts.

Allspice cleared her throat, looking to her masters and guests, breaking the silence with a hearty, “Does anypony else want summat more ta eat o’ drink?” The others shook their heads, staring deep into the heartwood of the table.

“Youze all sure? I made buckwheat pancakes,” she said, injecting a thimble full of positivity into the room. It didn’t work.

“Babs’ favorite,” Citrus Blossom whispered sadly.

Allspice turned and asked, “Um, speakin’ o’ which, will Madame Babs Seed an' Madame Apple Bloom be joinin’ us dis morn?”

“Ah don’t know,” Applejack said, voice flat with neutrality. “Ah have no clue. Ah suppose they’ll be down here soon if they’re hungry.”

The stallion chuckled, filthy thoughts passing through his wretched mind.

“What is so funny, Bernie?” Libra snapped, narrowing her eyes at the stallion.

“Oh, nothing, darling,” Bernie Madhoof said, raising the glass of orange juice to his lips. “Nothing at all,” he said as he gulped the lifeblood of his bank account down his throat.

“Don’t you have some sort of business meeting this morning, Dad?” Citrus asked, eyes meeting with both her mother’s and her cousin’s as they caught her implications.

The stallion harrumphed, clearing his parched throat, and then stole a glance at the clock on the wall. “Hmm. It is early, but Celestia has blessed us this day with glorious sunshine. Perhaps I can start my practice putts a little bit earlier than planned on the green.”

Libra Scales mustered the most genuine grin she could find, and lied through her teeth, “Oh, honey, that sounds so fun, but we’d miss you so if you went now! Apple Bloom and Applejack will be leaving soon.”

Applejack nodded rapidly, turning her attention to Madhoof. “Yup, sir, we’ll be leavin’ soon. In fact, ya might miss us if ya go golfin’ this morn. That’d be a cryin’ shame, don’t ya think?”

Holding back a torrent of laughter, Bernie Madhoof shot back, “Indeed. However, duty calls. The best of business ventures can happen on the green, you know. I’d best be going.”

None of the mares resisted as he finished his glass and trotted out of the door into Celestia’s early morning rays.


Babs Seed stirred, feeling a hollow soreness in her limbs and a spreading heat in her left ear. Somehow, she was lucid, and remembered all of it at once: Card Slinger’s rows of piano teeth, Old Scratch’s instrument of choice; the agony of the blade and the iodine; and Apple Bloom in her hooves, sobbing, calling her a Celestia-damned fool and a hero in the same breath.

Surprised I didn’t have anotha nightmare. But it was sure nice ta see Turner again, ta know he’s proud o' me. I missed him.

Apple Bloom peeked open her eyes and whispered, “Good mornin’, sleepy-head.”

Babs chuckled, “Sleepy-head? But I was watchin’ youze open youze eyes, not the otha way ‘round.”

“Oh, yer a silly filly, Babs." Apple Bloom giggled. “Ah’ve been up fer a while now. Ah’ve jus' been waitin' fer ya, that’s all.”

“An' why is dat?”

“Ah figured Ah waited this long ta meet ya the firs’ time, Ah could always wait a lil’ longer ta meet ya every mornin’ again.”

Babs Seed blushed, blood rushing away from her injury to her cheeks, which were now mimicking the shade of her cousin’s mane. “Dat’s… dat’s.. the silliest thing I’ve eva heard.”

The bloom grinned at the seed and said, “But, it made ya smile! Mission accomplished.”

“Youze are ridiculous.”

“Maybe, but ya think Ah’m cute anyway, don’t ya?”

Babs fidgeted, darting her eyes away, and mumbled, “… Maybe.”


“So. Enough o' this silence,” Applejack said, pounding a hoof down on the table, sending mugs of coffee and juice nearly ceiling-wards in its wake. “Ah’ve told y’all what Ah’ve done. The colts back at the train station know me well, so Ah got a special one o' these here tickets.”

Applejack reached onto the top of her head, removing her Stetson and retrieving the ticket she’d hidden in the liner of the hat. She gently placed the precious piece of paper—white-and-red patterned with the words, “One-way, Manehatten to Ponyville,” emblazoned on both its sides—in the center of the table, letting it rest with its significance.

“That there ticket has no expiration date. It’s one o’ a kind. They don’t print tickets like this very often, fer obvious reasons. Counterfeitin’ an' whatnot. But Ah’m a regular customer o' this train line, so Ah pulled a few strings.”

Allspice took a deep sip of her coffee, sending the stimulant straight to her heart and hooves. She blinked. the ticket did not disappear. The last vestiges of her slumber, the most peaceful and comfortable she’d had in years, had truly retreated, and here was the truth. “Applejack, youze weren’t kidding.”

“They don’t call me the Element o’ Honesty fer nothin’,” Applejack replied, unable to grace her muzzle with a proud smile. There were far more serious things for her emotions to seize upon and display; no need to throw her pearls before such an insignificant swine as her own pride.

Citrus Blossom and Libra Scales exchanged wary looks. Citrus was the first to speak up. “So, Applejack, if… if Babs does go with youze… what about school? Is Apple Bloom homeschooled?”

Applejack shook her head. “Nope. We’ve got a fine schoolhouse in Ponyville, lovely teacher by the name o’ Cheerilee. Sweetest mare Ah’ve ever met, an' she’s right passionate 'bout her job. The school’s a tad smaller than Manehatten’s, but the education is all the same.”

“I see,” Citrus said. “And the farm? Will Babs be helpin’ you on the farm?”

“Oh, cut it out!” Libra Scales snapped, the next (but not last) pony to vent her frustrations on the innocent dining room table. “Cut it out, Citrus!”

“Mother, what’s wrong?” Citrus asked, worried.

Aunt Orange rose from her seat at the table and turned with wild eyes at Applejack. “Do ya think I’m a bad mother, Applejack? Is that it? Is that why you’re tryin’ to take my own foal away from me?!”

Muzzles met as Libra Scales and Applejack stood against each other, teeth clenched and hooves poised for battle. “Now, ya know Ah don’t mean that, Aunt Orange. Ya know Ah would never be so uncouth ta—“

“No, I don’t know.” Libra growled. “I don’t know anything, Applejack, or at least that’s what you must think! Ya come here, and tell me these awful tales about my own little filly, my own child, and tell me all I’ve missed and am missin’, and you just up and expect me to fall to your hooves in worship and give her up?!”

“Ah never would believe somethin’ as selfish an' dishonest as that!” Applejack snarled back. “Ah even said that this would be a hard thing ta do, an' wasn’t Ah right? Ah can’t imagine what kinda hay ya must be goin’ through, Auntie.”

Libra paused for a moment, three sets of eyes watching her contemplate, before she mumbled back, “I pray you’ll never have to know something like this. You’ll never know, until you become a mother, how much that awful little piece of paper breaks my heart,” she said, pointing a hoof at the ticket as her eyes began to fill with tears again.

Citrus Blossom crossed their war zone and reached towards her mother, shocked as Libra Scales jumped back at her advance.

“I… I should be going to the office… there’s… paperwork…”

Libra Scales heard the cries of her niece and daughter as her hooves echoed throughout the empty floorboards of the Orange Family Mansion, their pleas taunting her ears even as they had long given up any chance of catching her.


Apple Bloom guided Babs Seed as they slowly made their way down the stairs. Babs Seed breathed a silent sigh of relief and offered an unspoken prayer with each step, feeling extremely sore but nothing more painful or dangerous. Apple Bloom kept close to her, bracing her in case she went limp again.

It was only twenty steps, but to Babs Seed, it felt like a mile.

No sooner had they reached the foot of the stairwell when Applejack and Citrus Blossom trotted over to them, both mares wearing concerned smiles but otherwise elated to see that their sisters had survived that long, cold dark night.

“Babs, sweetheart!” Citrus embraced her sibling carefully to avoid touching her injury. “Youze can’t imagine how happy I am to see youze walk down the stairs all by yourself.”

Hugging the mare’s neck tightly, Babs replied, “Aw, Citrus, I didn’t do it alone; I have Apple Bloom ta help me.” She looked over to the other foal, who blushed.

Applejack chuckled. “Aw, shucks, ain’t that the sweetest thing ya’ve ever seen, Citrus?”

Citrus Blossom connected the dots at last and nodded with a growing grin. “Why, I do believe it is, Applejack.”

Two mares from different cities, different worlds, and different hearts exchanged knowing glances as they embraced their siblings, connections of all sorts brought to the surface and declared holy. The two foals in their hooves caught eyes also, and though they could not understand the significance of their sisters’ exchange, they felt a weight lifted from their shoulders.

Releasing her hooves from her little sister at last, Applejack said, “Well, we’d best be gettin’ a move on, here, Bloom. If yer hungry, there’s some breakfast in the kitchen fer ya. Eat up befo' we leave. An' you, too, Babs Seed,” she added, winking.

Actresses on Life’s grand stage, Apple Bloom and Babs Seed took their cue, slowly trotting towards the waiting kitchen and the scent of Allspice’s famous buckwheat pancakes.

Citrus Blossom nuzzled Applejack’s neck, chuckling softly, “You’re a lot more open-minded than I’d thought, Applejack.”

Returning the gesture, Applejack shot back, “Ah’m not sure if that’s a compliment o’ an insult, but Ah’ll take it either way. Now,” she began, crossing the threshold and turning to the door, “there’s one mo’ thing Ah want ta tell ya befo' Ah sit out here on the porch an’ wait fer Apple Bloom ta join me.”

“What’s that, Applejack?”

Applejack took a deep breath and said, “Ah know Aunt Orange ain’t gonna give this a true chance; she can’t face facts. An' Ah know Uncle Orange, regardless o' what he thinks, ain’t gonna convince her ta do it, neither. An' maybe you can’t make that call, neither, Citrus. But, there’s one who’s opinion we’ve left clean outta this mess, an' Ah need ya ta speak ta that one.”

Citrus's mind swam with confusion, then suddenly leapt from the sea with realization as she stuttered, “Youze can’t… youze can’t possibly mean…”

“Look,” Applejack said, eyes shining with confidence, “sometimes paradigms shift, Citrus Blossom. Sometimes, things change, an’ quicker than the seasons o’ the stars. That little cousin o’ mine, that little sister o’ yers, Celestia bless her an' keep her safe, may be a blankflank, but she ain’t no child no more. No child can look at Death, no matter if Death comes knockin’ as a child himself, an' emerge the same. That goes fer Apple Bloom, too, an' Ah’ll have ma own things ta discuss wit' her. But fer ya, Citrus Blossom, Ah jus' have ta ask ya ta do this one last thing.”

Fiery mane becoming more frazzled as the weight of her words began to crash down into the floorboards, shattering the Earth, Citrus Blossom said, “And what is that one thing, Applejack? Please, please tell me that my imagination is just running wild."

Stepping away from the door, crossing the threshold to meet her, Applejack said, “Ah wish Ah could, but that would be a lie. No, Citrus, if ya don’t ask Babs Seed what she wants ta do—if ya don’t give her a choice, herself—then Ah might as well have never come here. Sometimes, we have ta take matters into our own hooves, ya understand?”

As she listened to the sound of her sister’s gentle laughter in the kitchen, contemplating the sound of silence that could follow such a gamble, Citrus Blossom looked at the hand Applejack had dealt her, unsure if she should call or fold.

Applejack waited for Citrus to answer. She was a dealer-pony patiently delaying the game for the decision of a lifetime, the decision that could affect the outcome of the entire game itself.

Citrus had never been a gambling mare, but the angel on her shoulder whispered for one more try, one more toss of the dice, one more flip of the cards.

The king, the queen, and the jack had all found their place in the deck, their own spaces in which to shine. It was time now for the wild card, the joker, the bad seed, to have a choice in its own play—in its own fate.

Citrus Blossom nodded, and took Applejack’s forehooves into her own in her sincerity.

Babs Seed's Choice

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Babs Seed's Choice

Together, Applejack and Apple Bloom sat in silence, one watching out the window as miles and miles of meadow, trees, streams, and deserts in the distance became insignificant blurs in the haste of the locomotive’s steam. The train was a ravenous hellion, devouring the miles and miles between Manehatten and Ponyville with a vengeance, the track leading the farm-ponies back to the West and the best.

Transactions had been completed, words had been exchanged, many tears and hugs had been shared, and Applejack had departed the iron gates of the Orange Family Mansion, sibling in tow, slamming the twisted steel with her hindhooves on her exit—nigh short of shattering it all.

As they’d walked away, leaving Babs Seed on the porch with Citrus Blossom, Applejack had to fight against all of her protective, primal, loving instincts to take Babs with them, even if she had to lift the foal by the scruff of her neck and drag her to the train station. Harsh, it would have been, but the prospect of causing a little pain seemed favorable to leaving Babs Seed behind.

It didn’t matter anyway. All of Applejack’s thoughts amounted to nothing more than dust in the wind, sand caught in the drafts created by the velocity of the locomotive as they headed home on the highway. She had played all of her cards as best as she could, and still the dealer revealed that she had a losing hand.

Apple Bloom had not been privy to the conversations between her sister and the older mares. Yet, she was no fool. The Stetson had served as a hiding-place for the third ticket, but Applejack hadn’t been sly enough to conceal it without the foal noticing.

In the wake of the argument and the attack, Apple Bloom had brushed aside all of her questions to either Applejack or Babs Seed regarding that ticket, praising every lucky star and comet she’d ever laid eyes upon for leaving both her body and her heart not terribly broken. Questions required more energy than she could’ve mustered in the aftermath of her encounter with mortality.

Oh, but though Apple Bloom was an Apple all the same, she was no Element of Honesty, and could still lie without too much backlash from her conscience. And she indeed lied to herself, convincing a skeptical consciousness that her heart was not broken, as the two shared a seat meant for three.

Applejack looked over to her sister, watching out of the same train window as they sped, metal monster of a train chewing and spitting out the last shreds of their optimism. The mare felt much older than she should have been, and even the normally-perky bow in her sibling’s mane appeared to be depressed.

“Hey, why don’t ya lookit that?” Applejack whispered, tapping on the windowpane. “Look out there, Apple Bloom. If ya look far enough, ya can see an eagle soaring out over them hills.”

Not even breaking her gaze, Apple Bloom merely shrugged and said, “Cool.”

“An' way, way out there, if ya go a little northeast o’… o’ where we were… there’s Trottingham, lil’ sis. That’s another important city among us Earth ponies. Not as big as… the others, o’ course. But, important nonetheless. Ya remember that little colt who dressed as a pirate on Nightmare Night? Pip, Ah think he was? He’s from over there.”

Her tone flat and disinterested, Apple Bloom again said, “Cool.”

Applejack sighed and snaked a forehoof around the foal’s shoulders. “C’mon Apple Bloom, look at me.” Apple Bloom did not move, even as Applejack attempted to pull her close into a hug, her eyes frozen in some place that probably wasn’t visible within the four known dimensions. “C’mon, lil’ sis, look at me,” Applejack urged again, tugging gently.

Apple Bloom turned at last, eyes sparkling with tears. “What, Applejack? What do ya want?” she asked, voice shaking, cracking at the transition of syllables.

Applejack said nothing, only opening her hooves to her sister, who promptly jumped into her chest, nuzzling into her fur, breathing deep to stifle her cries. “Shh. It’s okay, sugarcube. Don’t forget ta breathe. It’s okay. Ah’m here,” she soothed, as Apple Bloom fought against her emotions, willing herself not to cry, feeling as if the entire ocean tides were flinging her against the cliff-face of her despair.

“It’s… it’s jus’ not…”

“Shh, Apple Bloom. Take a deep breath.”

Breathing in through her nostrils, exhaling out her mouth, Apple Bloom, feeling undeserving of her cape, looked into the calm emeralds of her sister’s eyes and gasped, “It’s… it’s jus’ not fair.”

“What’s not fair, sugarcube?”

“Why… why didn’t Babs come wit’ us?”

Though honesty is valued greatly among those who walk in the light, a supreme virtue in its own right—one of the five that compromise Friendship, and, ultimately, Magic—the truth is not an easy lover or a fair-weather friend. It is there even in loneliness, and darkness, and misery, and despair; it merely sits and waits to be discovered, wrecking whatever havoc its nature demands at its revelation. It is far easier and sweeter to be a liar.

Discord may have been a trickster spirit, a laughing demon of Chaos itself, but he and his creepy talking apples did have one wise proverb to share, and it stuck with his first victim: sometimes a lie is easier to take.

Applejack looked at her hooves, realizing they were as orange as ever, not one drop of gray spreading to forgive her temptations, and took a deep breath of her own.

“Ah’m… Ah’m leavin’ it ta her, Apple Bloom.”

Apple Bloom's eyes grew wide. “W-what?”

“Ah’m… Ah’m lettin’ Babs make that choice, Apple Bloom,” Applejack repeated, lifting the filly’s chin with a hoof so she could see the weight of her abdication in her eyes. “’Twas a hard decision, sugarcube, but it’s our only shot in this dark. Ah love Auntie Orange an' Citrus, an' Ah still love Uncle on some level, too, even if it’s an entirely separate one.” She paused, glossing over the complicated details of that familial relationship, and continued, “Ah love ‘em, but they don’t trust themselves enough ta make such a decision.”

“But… but… they’re grown-ups,” Apple Bloom reasoned. “They’re adults. Aren’t y’all who are grown-ups supposed ta have everythin’ down-pat?”

Mustering a chuckle, Applejack replied, “Oh, Apple Bloom, jus’ give it a few mo’ years, an' you’ll think the opposite o’ that. Then, there’ll be a day when you’ll be a big pony—an' not because Ah’ve been the victim o’ some Poison Joke, mind ya!—an' you’ll see that things aren’t always easy.”

Their eyes met. Apple Bloom sniffled and sighed. “Ah… Ah guess yer right, sis. But… still… what’s gonna happen? Are we gonna see Babs again?”

“Ah sure hope, so, sugarcube.”

“But… doesn’t she love us?”

“Ah know she does, Apple Bloom, you an' me both,” Applejack said gently, taking the foal into her hooves, watching the scenery pass them by out the window together. “That won’t change no matter how many miles separate us. Love is like that.”

Apple Bloom nodded and smiled slightly. “Well… Ah… Ah jus' hope she makes the right choice.”

“An’ what choice would that be, sugarcube?” Applejack asked, curious as to her answer.

Apple Bloom thought for a second, stroking her chin with one of her forehooves, before the cartoonish lightbulb appeared over her head again. “Whatever makes her happy, Applejack. An’ Ah’ll be happy, if she’s happy,” she finished, smiling.

Applejack smiled and nuzzled her sibling’s cheek. “Ah’m proud o’ ya, Bloom. That’s the right answer.” The foal said nothing, only nuzzling her back. “Although… speakin’ of that devil, there is somethin’ Ah need ta tell ya ‘bout love, an' you’d better listen good.”

Ears pricked, attention caught, Apple Bloom met her sister’s gaze and replied, “Yes, Applejack, what is it?”

A gleeful smile graced Applejack's muzzle. “If Ah ever, an' Ah mean ever,” Applejack began, grinning, “catch ya an' anypony else, filly o’ colt, explorin' what ‘love’ means ta y’all—‘specially in ma room—Ah’ll make yer hide work so hard you’ll never wanna eat another apple again in yer life, an' Ah’ll make sure yer loverboy o’ girl knows what true fear is.”

Apple Bloom began to blush as she realized exactly what her sister had implied. “Um, heh, heh, Applejack, Ah don’t know what yer talkin’ ‘bout, ‘bout—“

“Aw, horsefeathers,” Applejack mumbled, rustling the foal’s mane. “Ah was yer age once. Now, Ah’m not gonna repeat what Ah jus’ said, so remember it well, got it?”

Nodding her head rapidly, the filly stuttered, cheeks mimicking her mane, “Y-y-yes big sis! I-I w-will!”

“Oh, an’ one mo’ thing, Apple Bloom…”


“If Babs breaks yer heart, o’ vice versa, Ah’ll tie her—o’ you, if yer the cheatin’ kind—ta the barn roof, in a rainstorm.”


Citrus Blossom hovered above Babs Seed, fiddling with the bandages on the foal’s ear as gently as she could. “Youze know, Applejack forgot all about this. Convenient, huh, sis?”

“Ha ha, so convenient.” Babs groaned, clenching her teeth as the bandages were peeled away, pulling some of her fur along with them. “Arggh, Citrus—“

“Shh, it’s almost over now, sweetie,” Citrus said, tearing away the last of the dressings. Fresh air hit the wound and the foal began to relax, releasing the tension in her muscles as Citrus continued to examine the extent of the mugger’s damage.

“How’s it look?”

“Hmm. How youze managed to stop the bleeding on your own, I don’t understand, Babs. You should’ve needed stitches here…”

Needles an' sutures?! “S-s-stitches, huh?”

“Oh, no, don’t worry, hon. Somepony must have been looking down on you, because it’s starting to seal up on both sides."

The slash of the dagger had ripped a small triangle of flesh out of Babs Seed’s ear, about half an inch in diameter. However, the blood had clotted thick and fast, the foal’s tissues burning the midnight oil to begin to cover both slopes of the triangle that had been created. Once it healed completely, it would appear as if it were a defect of birth, not of violence.

With the application of the flaming antiseptic, Babs would be safe from sepsis, and now Time would do its healing work to cover the dagger’s tracks. For now, the filly was out of the thicket of woods, the greatest danger having passed. Citrus Blossom thanked Celestia for that.

Citrus Blossom continued, “I’m just going to clean it with soap and water and then wrap it back for you. Is that okay?”

Babs Seed nodded, rolling onto her stomach for easier access to the injury. “Jus' be quick, ‘bout it, Citrus. I’m tired.”

Citrus raised an eyebrow. “Tired? But it’s not even noon.” She dipped a washcloth into a bucket of warm, soapy water and began to gently wipe away dried blood and plasma from the sliced cartilage.

“Ahh, Citrus…” Babs Seed gritted her teeth again, a mix of comfort and irritation flooding her neurons at each touch of her sibling’s hooves. “Ah, hurry it up, will youze!” she barked, bracing herself into her bedspread as the soap came and stung away all of her previous relief.

“I’m sorry, sweetie. I’m almost done.”

“Youze jus' said dat a few minutes ago!”

With a few more quick swipes and a toss of the dirty rag into the soapy bucket below, Citrus sat next to her sibling, ruffling a hoof through her mane as she said, “Well, now we’re done.”

Babs Seed giggled, meeting her sister’s forehoof and pushing it out of her mane. “Dat tickles, Citrus! Youze never done dat befo’!”

Citrus Blossom grinned and said, “Well, youze could say I picked it up from a very, very good mare that we’re very privileged to know.”

Babs caught the reference and flipped on her back to look up into her sister’s eyes. Her voice quivered as she asked, “A-Applejack does dat ta Apple Bloom, doesn’t she? Dat’s where youze saw it, right?”

Citrus nodded. “Yes, Babs Seed, that’s right,” she whispered, her irises meeting the emeralds below as they began to shine. “Applejack is a very, very good pony, and Apple Bloom too. It was sure nice to see them, wasn’t it?”


Allspice possessed far more qualities and traits than merely being able to follow recipes, measure ingredients, and avoid starting small fires in the kitchen. Though not as warm or as personal as Greyhoof, the mare was still wise, and when the two foals had finally joined her for breakfast before the Apple sisters’ departure, she had seized upon the ticket, hiding it in her apron. Citrus Blossom approached her after the saddening farewell of Apples and Oranges and requested that the mare relinquish the momentous piece of paper.

That ticket now was locked away in Citrus's bedroom, subject to her mercy. If she had wanted to, she could have thrown away all of her words to Applejack with a few quick snips of scissors or a flush down the toilet. A part of her wondered why she didn’t just destroy the damned thing, havoc that it had brought into the Orange Family Mansion. There was another part of her, however, that whispered and beckoned for her to call the bet again, to take the next step towards the summit and leap boldly over the horizon.

Ignorance was still on Babs's side, oblivious to the hammer that threatened to strike her against an anvil of Applejack’s own. No, of everypony’s own, Citrus silently reasoned. She could not blame her cousin for her compassion, though it brought even more incomprehensible chaos into their already demented lives. Applejack was just doing what she felt was right.

Now, it was time for Citrus to pick up her cousin's baton.

Hugging her sister tightly, feeling the foal begin to sniff back a threatening torrent of tears, Citrus soothed, “It’s going to be alright, Babs. Everything will be alright.”

“No, it won’t,” Babs Seed jabbed back, shaking her muzzle, fighting against geysers beginning to reach towards the mantle of her countenance.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because! I… I…”


Lifting her chin to meet her sister’s eyes, Babs answered, “I’ll… I’ll neva see dem again! Not afta what happened! An' it’s all ma fault!”

Babs Seed began to sob.

“No it’s not, honey,” Citrus Blossom cooed, embracing the foal tightly. She leaned down to meet the Babs's level. The little one who could take down a crazed colt with a blade began to crack in her broken places, guilt erupting magma through the charred Earth at last. “Youze didn’t do anythin’ wrong.”

I only ran away, bein’ stupid, an' walked right inta a trap. I only almost got maself an’ ma favorite cousin killed. Oh, Celestia, youze is right, I didn't do anythin' wrong.

“Youze… don’t… know… dat.” Babs hiccuped between cries.

“Yes, I do. Do you wanna know how I know that? Look at me.”


“C’mon, Babs, honey, please—“ Citrus attempted to slide a hoof under her chin, only to be slapped away.

“I said no!” Babs deadpanned, pushing away from Citrus’s embrace and flipping back onto her abdomen. “Jus'… jus' leave me alone, okay?” She sobbed, muffled by the fine cotton and goose-down of her escape of choice, the pillow.

This particular exchange had occurred many times before, Babs Seed slamming and securing the door behind her at the probing of questions too personal or too painful from Citrus Blossom. Although the subject matter instigating the brick wall differed from time to time, Citrus's reaction did not: she would sigh, or shake her head, or face-hoof, and walk away, and leave the filly to her own devices and thoughts, never to bring up the incident again, unless Babs Seed prompted it first.

Today was a first in many of ways for both of the fillies, and for Citrus Blossom, it was the first time she wouldn’t shy away from this challenge.

“That’s not going to work this time, Babs,” she replied sternly, stretching out her hooves, lining herself up against her sister. “I will wait here all day if I have to, but we’re going to talk one way or the other. There’s something important I need to tell youze, and it sounds like there’s a lot you need to tell me.”

Babs Seed looked up at her sister, eyes full of tears, saying nothing. … Afta all dis time, an' all these hints, youze finally stay. Youze finally don’t run from me an' ma fear an' anger. Dis… dis must be important.

“Yes, Babs Seed,” Citrus continued at the foal’s silence, “I’m not running away anymore. And don’t say that I won’t understand—“

“But, Citrus, there are some things youze jus' can’t possibly understand!” Babs whimpered, rubbing her eyes.

“Oh, really?” Citrus challenged. “Try me.”

“Fine.” Babs turned onto her side, locking pupils with her opponent. “Youze don’t know what it’s like ta be me, Citrus. Youze don’t walk around wit' a huge blank flank in dis city, in dis city where names an' cutiemarks are all dat matter. Bits, too. Oh! An' dat’s anotha thing. Youze know dis mansion, an' the bits, an' the business?”

Citrus Blossom nodded.

“I want none o’ dis,” Babs continued. “I don’t wanna be like Ma an' Da’, always runnin’ around wit’ their heads cut off like the world’s gonna end ‘cause there’s work in the mornin’. I don’t care ‘bout havin’ a big mansion like dis, o' tons o’ servants—though I did like Greyhoof, an' I like Allspice, too—o’ nice things.” Furrowing her brow, Babs Seed hissed, “But youze wouldn’t understand any o' dat, would youze, Citrus?”

Citrus Blossom smiled and softly spoke the truths hidden in the night skies and her own soul. “Babs Seed, have I ever told you about my dreams?”

Huh? What are youze talkin’ ‘bout?

“What dreams?”

Citrus took one of her sibling’s forehooves between both of hers, enhancing their connection as she explained, “At night, when I dream, I don’t dream of Manehatten, Babs. I don’t dream about this mansion, about filling its rooms with more expensive gifts or swimming through a pool of gold. Hay, I don’t even dream ‘bout Orange Enterprises, or being a business-pony. What I really dream about, is Canterlot.”

The unicorn capital o' Equestria? “Canterlot?” Babs said, confused.

“Canterlot,” Citrus confirmed, nodding. “The city of glitz and glamor, fashion capital of Equestria. Why, I couldn’t even count all the times I’ve dreamt of walking down some runway in Canterlot, elites from far and wide marveling as I strike poses for their cameras, wearing fine silks and unique designs. That’s where I truly would be, Babs Seed, if I could be. So, yes, I think I understand a little bit of what you feel.”

With tears in her eyes, Citrus Blossom declared, “I don’t want to be here, either, Babs Seed, but I mustn't leave.”


Libra Scales and Bernie Madhoof sat in silence in their downtown office, one typing away furiously at a miniature typewriter, the other nursing a glass of orange juice and watching the clouds begin to gather beyond the bay window.

“You’re just drinking juice again?” Libra muttered, hunched over her desk, losing her mind and her worries in the repetition of numbers and their order of operations.

“Indeed,” Bernie said, taking a deep swig. He wished the mare hadn’t stowed away in the office for the afternoon; a bottle of Applejack Daniel’s in the desk drawers cried out to its long lost lover—the orange juice in his glass—seeking reunion. Unfortunately for the stallion, he would need to wait a little longer. The guards were still on patrol, darkness not yet falling upon the mare’s reign of terror.


“Are you not pleased?”

His wife looked up from her spreadsheets for a second, in mid-type, and narrowed her eyes, replying, “I’m not sure if I should be.”

The stallion spun in his chair and smiled. “Darling, I assure you, I am a changed stallion. Things are different now, and will continue to change. Very, very soon.”

Somehow, those words made the whole room grow cold, and Libra shivered.


Uniting in their tears, fledgling argument quelled at last, Citrus Blossom had left Babs Seed’s bedroom for the rest of the afternoon, little foal yawning in her embrace. In light of the attempt of some crazed colt in the park last night, Citrus could understand her sister’s weariness. Though she wished to speak further with Babs regarding that violent encounter, the elephant in the room could not hold back its stampede for much longer.

Daylight beginning to fade into dusk, Citrus knew that she could not draw out her delay for too many more hours. The ticket did indeed have no expiration date, but her courage did. She feared that if she procrastinated enough, she would eventually give up on the entire conversation, becoming more and more terrified of it the longer she waited.

Citrus Blossom was an Orange, not an Apple, and certainly was no Element of Honesty. The sharing of blood was not sufficient to call her and Applejack’s temperaments, personalities, or even values the same. Some were quite radically different. For example, Citrus could not comprehend why Applejack chose to wear that Stetson with every outfit, regardless of its season or intention. Didn’t she have other hats to wear?

In that same vein, Citrus envied Applejack’s courage in the face of opposition, the daredevil nerve of her to make that reckless—if not understandable—proposal to her aunt and cousin.

Yet, Citrus could not bring herself to break the promise she’d made to her cousin, even if the cards she held were weak and she was sure the odds were against her. Truth be told, in spite of her own confession of wanderlust, Citrus hoped Babs Seed would stay in Manehatten.

The corridors of the mansion were becoming colder with each day that passed, temperature plunged by much more than just the arrival of the equinox and the approaching hooves of winter. As servants left, sales began to decline, and Father Orange’s change of heart waned, the floorboards would become even emptier as the inevitable continued to arrive. The entire mansion would eventually become drafty, desolate, devoid of all light or laughter, save for whatever candles Babs Seed lit in the dark.

Citrus Blossom poked at her plate, sharing leftover lentils and quinoa with Allspice, both mares barely eating or speaking. With each tick and tock, the clock on the wall seemed to mock her, minutes trickling by and threatening to awaken the foal upstairs as time passed.

“So… youze still have dat ticket, Madame Orange?” Allspice asked, looking up from her mostly-full plate.

Citrus nodded. “Yes, Allspice.”

“… An', do youze intend ta… use it?” Allspice asked, taking a fork in one of her forehooves and making it dance on her dish.

“That’s not my decision.”

“… Who’s decision could it be, m’lady? Forgive ma ignorance.”

“The one who should’ve been asked this question in the first place,” Citrus said, taking a bite of the delicious dinner. It felt like sawdust as it slipped down her esophagus, but through no fault of the chef’s. Nerves rendered her taste buds thoroughly useless.

Allspice's eyes matched the size of her serving-platters as she brought her trademark mug of coffee to her lips, drinking deep in an attempt to shake herself into reality. Finding no success, she simply replied, “Oh, I… see.”

Burying her face in her forehooves, Citrus Blossom lamented suddenly, “Oh, Allspice, I wish I would have never made Applejack that promise. I wish I had just ripped up that ticket once she laid it out.”

“So… why don’t youze jus' do dat, Madame Orange?” Shrugging her hooves, Allspice added, “Do youze see Applejack heeya anywhere? I sure the hay don’t. An' small things like tickets can be lost extremely easily, Madame Orange.”

Shaking her head, Citrus explained, “No, I can’t do that. As much as I don’t like the idea, I made Applejack a promise, and youze don’t break promises to family.”

“Oh, Citrus, when youze reaches ma age, you’ll understand how silly dat statement is.”

“How so?”

“Just because somepony is family, don’t mean dey ain’t an idiot o’ a fiend. In fact, Citrus Blossom, youze will come ta find dat the ones who hurt us the most are the ones who are supposed ta love us the most.” Allspice looked much older then, as old as Greyhoof, voice somber, hinting at a life full of proof to that statement.

Sighing, Citrus began, “I suppose you’re—“


Turning in her stool, Citrus Blossom’s countenance lit up with a happy grin, pleased to see that the youngest of the mansion was not only awake, but had managed to descend the summit of the stairs all by herself.

“Well, good evening, Babs. It’s so good to see that you’re awake. How do you feel?”

“Betta,” Babs Seed said as she trotted over to the mare. “I don’t feel as fast, o’ as strong, but I can walk pretty good now, an' ma ear doesn’t hurt as bad.”

Clapping her hooves together, Citrus exclaimed, “That’s great to hear, sweetheart! Do you want something to eat before we go talk?”

Glancing at the table, Babs Seed recognized the meal as the one from the evening prior—the last thing she ever wanted to eat again, due to association and not taste—and shook her head. “No, I think I’m okay.”

“As you say,” Citrus Blossom said. She rose to all four of her hooves. Both fillies slowly walked towards the gardens, while Allspice stared into her dish, not sure what outcome she hoped for in the depths of her own honesty.


Libra Scales and Bernie Madhoof stood by the bay window of their office within Orange Enterprises, watching as the roads of Manehatten began to clear of their bodies, surrendering their citizens to the call of home and safety. The mare and stallion watched silently as Celestia was defeated by Luna, the goddess of the sun swallowed by the horizon and the gap between dimensions of space and time. They knew not the tilt of the axis, nor each other’s gnawing intentions.

The day’s work had been completed at last. It was now time to celebrate. Turning to his bride, the stallion asked, “My dear Libra, how would you like to go out to dinner tonight? Just the two of us.”

LIbra Scales blinked. They hadn’t had a date in almost six years.

“How about that little spaghetti restaurant downtown? The one you’ve always wanted to try?” he pressed, nuzzling his wife’s neck, letting his breath warm her ear and chill her spine.

“I… I… I don’t know, Bernie.”

“Why is that?”

“After what’s happened with Babs Seed and Apple Bloom—with that awful ruffian out there on the streets last night—shouldn’t we be at home? Don’t you think it’s wrong to go out on a day like this?”

Smiling, Bernie continued to tempt her. “They have the rarest wine there, Libra. Gentle music performed by a famous Canterlot cellist. Citrus and the servants are home. Babs should be fine.”

Draping one of his mighty hooves around her shoulders, Bernie Madhoof said, “You can’t keep her in a glass jar forever, you know, darling. And she’s proven to be far more…” He wanted to say masculine or butch, but knew all too well what those kind of words would bring in their utterance. “Independent than I had previously thought, wouldn’t you agree?”

Libra Scales was just a mare, and Bernie Madhoof was just a stallion. Not all ponies would be subject to the whims of the opposite sex—some have hearts that seek and need sameness instead of otherness, as Nature and Fate and the Most High wills it for them, the minority—but Libra Scales feel into the category of those who were. In the aftershock of the attack and all other accompanying stress, she wanted nothing more than to drown her troubles away with wine and music and food and maybe even sex, if Bernie Madhoof made his facade more convincing.

Libra Scales nodded, hooking one of her forehooves through his offered elbow, following him out of the corporation they had built together.


At the top of the gentle hill in the garden of the mansion, near the tree the two most powerful ponies in all of Manehatten had planted nearly two decades prior, the streets of the city are as candles in the dark at the dusk. Lights in the distance, in the windows of homes and stores, began to flicker and fade with the call of the moonlight. In another side of Manehatten, others tended their lamps, burning brightly, the bars, nightclubs, and poker halls awakening from their feverish graveyard-shift dreams. Anypony watching the ebb and flow of light and darkness from this hill, even the most bitter and hardened among them all, could not deny this fact: Manehatten was beautiful from afar at night.

“I always get chills when I look at the city this way,” Citrus Blossom said, sitting at the crest of the hill with Babs Seed right next to her, viewing the city come alive and rest in peace simultaneously.

“Yea, it sure is an amazin’ thing.” Babs Seed sighed, her mane rustling in the gentle breeze. “Like the stars… a thousand points o’ light. An' nopony knows where dey came from.”

“I’m sure some scientist in Canterlot knows, Babs.”

The filly shook her head, smiling as she replied, “Somepony very wise told me once dat nopony knows, but it don’t matter, dey are still beautiful.”

Citrus returned her grin and said, “Whoever said that, hon, youze should continue to listen to them. Such a statement is simple, but very true.”


The two sat in awe and wonder as lamps in the streetlights below began to glow in the same breath as windows of skyscrapers and townhouses went dim. The wind continued in its game, playing with their manes, running its hooves through their fur, but stayed pleasant, not wanting to send them scurrying back inside in the cold. Nature is not always a serious entity, needing recreation as much as anything else.

“So… what do youze want ta tell me?”

Those eight words left Citrus speechless, even as her sibling turned to her, eyes wide with expectation.

“Well, Citrus?”

“Babs, honey… I… you know I love you, right?”

Uh-oh. Nothin' good starts dis way. “Yes,” Babs uneasily answered, adding, “I love youze too.”

Citrus met her gaze, saying nothing, breathing slowly as her heart began to race with anxiety.

“Babs Seed,” Citrus said slowly, “I haven’t been entirely honest with youze today.”

Fearing the drop of some thunder-god’s hammer, Babs inquired, “Honest 'bout what?”

“Applejack… Applejack bought a third ticket at the Manehatten station when she got here, Babs. A third ticket to Ponyville. For you.”

“Fo’ me… ta visit?”

Citrus Blossom shook her head.

“Then…what was it fo’?” Babs Seed asked, confused, all her previous twelve years of life experience failing to connect the dots her sister had drawn on her mental chalkboard. Why would she buy me a ticket, iffa she didn’t want me ta come back wit’ her? Unless… no… no, it can’t be…

Knowing that the next few words would release the cards, toss the dice, throw away every last remaining ounce of control she possessed over the situation, Citrus Blossom spat the words out fast in case she changed her mind during their pronunciation. “To move. So you can move with them. To Ponyville.”

“Move?!” Babs shrieked, reacting to the answer as if it had been a forehoof across her cheek. “But, but, Citrus! Why would she wanna do summat like dat? Are youze…” No, it can’t be, dey have no way o’ knowin’, how could dey even do summat like dis even if dey knew? “Are youze kickin’ me out? You an' Ma an' Da’?” she squeaked at last, voice cracking at the possibility. Is it because I’m—

“No! Honey, no, no, never. We would never do that to you,” Citrus sputtered, wrapping quick hooves around the foal, pulling her close. She held onto Babs Seed tightly, fighting a torrent brewing within her, as tightly as she would if the foal had been borne a pegasus or a unicorn prone to teleportation. “We love you, Babs, and Applejack and the other Apples love you, too.”

“Then… then why? Why would she want me ta move wit’ 'em? Why did youze even tell me 'bout it?” she demanded, wrestling out of her sister’s hooves, anger beginning to beat war drums in her chest.

Citrus Blossom mustered every speck of self-control that she possessed to hold back screaming regret at even starting this conversation.

However, she remembered a sea of broken images that festered in her psyche: her sister, held down by three servants of Switchfoot himself, little demons on the Manehatten cobblestone threatening the foal with broken glass and broken bones; her father’s alternating absence and anger; her mother’s attempts to pick up the pieces while still shaping the foal—and hating herself for being less than a superhero; and the tears, the screams, the nightmares, all these things that had plagued Babs Seed’s life like a pox or a curse.

She remembered, too, the joy on her sibling’s face upon both her own return and the reunion of the Apples with the Oranges—that light shining above the fog, raising her up, making her forget the next tempest that was brewing in the Orange Family Mansion. On the other hoof, the Manehatten CMC was a ray of light cast from the city—one that was just beginning to shine.

Citrus Blossom admitted to herself that, if it were in her hooves, she would have had to check the table until somepony else made a bet. Hanging with indecision, letting the cards fall where they may, however, is not always an option; action is required in the end, no matter how long it is delayed.

Citrus Blossom was running out of time as an angry foal demanded again, “Why are youze tellin’ me dis? Huh? Do youze want me ta leave?!” Babs was on all for hooves now, muscles tensed and ready for a battle to justify her own existence.

“No,” whispered her sister, staring at the ground.

“'No'? Really? Dat’s all youze have ta say?!”

“… It’s not, Babs. There’s… there’s a lot more. But… I won’t fight youze. I… I just want to help youze, that’s all,” she muttered, unable to meet Babs's eyes, finding no more fight left in her.

Help me?

“Help me wit’ what, Citrus?” Babs Seed asked, filling the distance between them, trotting close over to her sister. Aw, see, youze done it again, Babs, jumpin’ all over the conclusions. Look at her. She looks like she’s gonna cry.

Citrus didn't. Instead, she swallowed her sadness and locked eyes with her sibling. “Babs Seed, honey, Applejack told us about what happened to you. Why your tail and mane are… like that.” Citrus nearly choked on the last two words, that heap of broken images rising to the surface before she forced them back down.

“And… Applejack is worried about you, Babs. And Apple Bloom, and Granny Smith, and Big Mac too. They don’t think that you should have to go through these kind of things… here… anymore. They… they want to give you a choice, Babs Seed. They want you to have a choice in where you live, and who you want to be. They don’t want you to get hurt, and they don’t want to hurt anypony’s feelings—not mine, not Mom or Dad’s, not any of your friends’—but they feel that you’ve endured enough that you should have a choice.”

Have a choice. A crossroads. Ponyville an' Manehatten… what I’ve always known, an' what I’ve barely seen.

Babs Seed said nothing, falling back on her haunches, chewing over the words of her sister, letting the meaning sink in.

“Applejack… she tried to talk to Mom and Dad about this, but… they can’t choose. And I can’t choose, either, sweetheart. It wouldn’t be fair to send you off, but it would be just as unfair to make you stay somewhere where you don’t feel… home.”

No, Citrus…

A tear sparkled in Bab Seed’s emerald eye. “But… dis is home. You are ma home,” Babs Seed whispered, as that one tear escaped and made her a fool. I thought I was done cryin’ an' bein’ a crybaby. I guess I was wrong.

Citrus Blossom watched as the foal struggled to contain herself, rubbing her eyes, blinking rapidly, looking over to the city crouched below them. She heard Babs begin to count her breaths, one inhalation, then two, and before she knew it, it was up to ten and then back down again.

“Babs Seed. This is up to you,” Citrus Blossom said as her sibling reached one. “I will place the ticket on the kitchen table, and whatever happens, happens. You can throw it away, or keep it in your journal, or make a paper airplane out of it… or… or—”

“No! I can’t do it… I can’t leave youze,” Babs cried out, leaping into her sister’s waiting hooves, forgetting her rejection. “I… I can’t leave dis place, dis is where I’ve always been.”

“Babs, do you remember what I said about Canterlot and modeling?” Citrus Blossom asked, embracing her sister, who looked smaller and more fragile than she’d ever been.

“Y-yes,” Babs said.

“Do youze want to know why I don’t leave?”

“Youze jus' said youze ‘mustn’t’ leave,” Babs recalled. “Like it was law.”

“No, there are no laws saying one must remain in the city or the building of one’s birth, Babs Seed. There are no laws saying that you can’t move, or leave bad memories and bad ponies behind. There are no rules or declarations or decrees that make you a bad pony if you do. But, no, Babs Seed, I mustn’t leave because the mere thought of leaving terrifies me so. It keeps me here, that fear does, and I wish I was brave, like you… if I was, I could leave.”

Me, brave? Dis crybaby, brave?

“I’m… I’m brave?”

“Yes,” Citrus soothed, stroking the filly’s mane, feeling its soft strands in her forehooves, as if this would be last time she could know their touch. “Yes, Babs Seed. You are the bravest foal—no, the bravest pony—I’ve ever known. You’ve been through so much, and yet, you’re still heeya, aren’t youze? You’re still heeya, and you’re strong, and…”

Citrus Blossom took one last long, sorrowful look at the Manehatten streets below, watching them snake and burrow and twist away into the roads leading West, and finished, “And I know you’ll make the right choice.”

Babs Seed looked up at her sister and asked the penultimate question, the base of all morality. “An' how do I know what the right choice is?”

While the wind whispered around them, the Earth itself began to mutter its ancient secrets, its hidden knowledge, chasms beneath the deep lending their magic to their hearts and hooves.

“The right choice is the one that, deep in your heart of hearts, you long for, so much you dream about it. The right choice is the little angel on your shoulder whispering that you could have so much more, that you could be so much more. The right choice is the choice that brings you one step closer to being who youze want to be, how youze want to be.

“Babs Seed, this tree—this orange tree right before us—was not intended to be so, but Mom calls it Auntie’s memorial tree. Sometimes, I think, on nights like this, if you listen close enough, you can hear her. And, even if you can’t, I think you need some time alone.”

Babs Seed back to her, and the dealer added Citrus’s chips to the pot before the showdown.


Allspice and Bernie Madhoof’s two lackey stallions huddled in the servant’s shack around a lantern, midnight approaching. Whereas the past few days, the three had spoken of nothing but the West and the best, tonight, they could find little to discuss. The signs that they had been waiting for drew near, they felt, hanging over their heads like an anvil waiting to be dropped by the careless hooves of some cross-eyed mailmare. The time of reckoning was near.

Outside, they heard Madame Orange’s drunken laughter, and Master Orange’s forced chuckles as they made their way up to the front door of the Orange Family Mansion.

“Sounds like somepony had too much ta drink, an' it ain’t the usual offender,” Allspice said, shaking her head. “Gettin’ drunk in times like dis? I can’t… I can’t wrap ma mind ‘round dat.”

“Oh, hush your haughtiness, Allspice,” the older stallion shot back, waving away her disapproval with one of his forehooves. “If my daughter and niece had nearly been slain by some transient, I wouldn’t just be getting drunk. I’d be getting cirrhosis.”

“Youze an idiot.” She snarled. “It’s fools like youze who think dey can jus' drink their problems away who are the problem in dis world o’ ours. All escape wit' youze, no solutions.”

“Well, what would youze do, iffa youze were Bernie’s wife?” the younger servant challenged.

Without missing a beat, Allspice spat, “Kick him right between the temples, until the world goes black, an’ then, take the fillies an' run.”


Bernie Madhoof led his wife calmly up the stairs to the second level, Libra Scales putty in his hooves. Just one glass of fine wine had become two, and then three, and then an entire bottle, the stallion pleased with his resolve as he stuck to orange juice throughout the whole dinner. She’d flapped many jaws at him, dragging on and on about Babs Seed and the ticket, and he’d put on a stellar performance pretending to listen. Somepony should’ve given him a medal for his efforts.

The stallion couldn’t understand her dilemma. Weeds needed to be plucked from Bernie Madhoof’s garden, regardless if the deed was done by gentle re-planting in a pot far, far away from him or a violent spray of holy flame.

Flame. That reminded him of Monday.

It was Saturday evening—Sunday, really—and in her intoxication and tears and throwing her hooves all over him, Libra Scales had dropped the guards around her heart at last, sent them all home without pay. All it would take would be a little more sweet-talk and a little more white-lie, and she would fall into submission… or, at least, neutrality. Either way, there would be not much more of this nonsense.

Monday, would come the tempest.


Babs Seed sat alone under the orange tree long past its prime, cursing it for bearing no fruit. It, like most things, was utterly useless at this point—as useless as her own thoughts.

Should I stay o’ should I go? I can’t abandon Citrus, o’ Mom… hay, I’d even miss Da' some days. An' Allspice, too. We were jus' startin’ ta become friends! An' tha Manehatten Crusadas… what will happen ta 'em iffa I leave? But, on the otha hoof, it’d be nice ta be somewhere where I could be safe, an' wouldn’t have ta worry ‘bout things...


It’d be nice ta be… happy…

She shook her head in an attempt to collect her thoughts, to cease their contradictions and make them coherent and knowable. The orange tree gave her no relief in spite of Citrus’s advice.

Useless tree, she thought, good enough fo’ only one thing. Babs Seed turned and began to kick the tree with her powerful hindhooves, THUNK! THUNK! THUNK! The rhythm shattered the night’s calm atmosphere, but not her indecision.

Babs had continued to assault the long-dead tree for what seemed like hours when, with little more than an inaudible POOF! the Turner-angel returned from his hiding place in the void, resting upon her conscience.

“Oh. It’s youze again,” she mumbled in irritation.

“Hey, kiddo. Youze think I would miss somethin’ as excitin’ as dis?”

“No,” Babs grumbled, continuing her onslaught, wondering if there was possibly an orange or two hiding among the tree’s skeletal branches, and if it would still be edible.

“Edible?! Kid, youze don’t pay attention very much, do youze? Oranges don’t last twenty years, kid.”

“Whatever. So, why heeya so late?”

“Late? I thought I showed up jus’ in time!”

Babs Seed rolled her eyes in protest.

“Well, enough o' dis talk,” the Turner-angel dismissed, pegasus wings flapping in the gentle breeze of the night in protest. “Look, kid, I’m guessin’ youze want me ta tell youze what ta do, eh?”

“Dat would be nice,” the filly growled back.

Her mental interpretation of her savior laughed. “Oh, youze want ta talk ‘bout nice, eh? Well, we all want things, kid, but not all o’ us are so lucky ta have family like youze. Like dat Applejack. Is she single, by the way?”

“Youze… youze blockhead,” Babs replied, sure that anypony watching her bucking the dead tree and talking to herself would be calling for the ponies in white coats any moment now. It didn’t matter. The world had seen the depths of her madness and fury before, what was the harm in a little more insanity?

“Jus’ kiddin’. But no, kid, youze have the chance o’ a lifetime right now. Now, I’m not sayin’ go fo' it, ‘cuz in the end, YOUZE will be the one dealin’ wit' the consequences o' the choice. Dat’s what bein’ a grown-up really means, Babs Seed. It’s not havin’ all the answers; it’s dealin’ wit' livin’ youze answers ta the big questions. Nopony will bail an adult out iffa he o’ she makes a bad choice, not usually at least. So, youze is bein’ thought o’ as an adult right now… ain’t dat flatterin’?”

“… I guess,” she conceded, halting her abuse of the innocent tree, hooves re-connecting with the ground and the source of her strength.

“Ah, youze see? Youze is an old soul, little seed, though youze may not know it yet. An’ old souls never have it easy. Trust me, I know. But youze will make the right choice, I trust youze.”

“What does dat matter, iffa I don’t trust me?”

“Ah, but youze will. It’s simple.”

“Simple?! How the buck can dis be simple?”

“… Why don’t youze jus' stop an’ think fo' a while? Youze been floodin’ youze mind too much. Just wait ‘n’ bide, an' watch fo' what makes youze spine run hot an' cold with awe an' revelation. Then, you’ll have youze answer, kid.”

With the blink of an eye, the Turner-angel was gone from her shoulder, molding back into her subconscious.

Babs Seed spun her hooves in a circle, so that she was facing the orange tree directly now. She noted that it didn’t seem as pitiful anymore, as worthy of her abuse. Indeed, through twenty years of storms, seasons, and relentless hooves, it still stood. It may have been stripped to its heartwood, all illusions cast aside, but, still, it was here. Its branches were outstretched towards the heavens, not in despair but in prayer, in praise that it still remained, that it still could serve a purpose—even if that purpose was far from its place of origin.

For, though it was no longer in the land of its birth and fulfilling the intentions of its genes, the tree still held purpose. There was meaning in its meaninglessness. It was not the same and never would be as it was when it was young and healthy and vibrant, but it remained. Where others had fallen by the wayside, it still stood, tangled roots stronger than ever in the foreign soil.

The tree bore no orange fruit, and it could no longer be called an orange tree in the depths of anypony’s blunt honesty. It was just a tree, or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was something more.

Something holy.

Babs Seed stared at the Manehatten skyline, followed the cobblestones of the streets with her emerald eyes, contemplating her own roots, her own tangled web that had been woven within and without her. Looking at those streetlamps below and the stars above, deep in her heart of hearts, Babs Seed knew which one she wanted to be her lighthouse guiding her, and which one she wanted to be a strobelight warning her.

Hearing the wind whisper in her ears—one partially sacrificed for love and righteousness, the other still intact but just as willing to fall in the name of the right thing—Babs Seed found her answers, Earth pony magic casting aside all illusion as it surged through her hooves, the ground itself testifying to the truth.

Though she would never know, Citrus Blossom was right: there was somepony watching the bobtail filly, urging her to dive deep and take a chance on a new tomorrow, question all she’d ever known, and break the chains within her soul.

The moon would never look as beautiful as it did now, as it glowed in her shadow.

Apples And Oranges

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Apples And Oranges

Citrus Blossom was not an insomniac by nature. From her fillyhood onwards, she had slept as peacefully as any angel from beyond the realms of Equestria. The Sandmare, up until recently, had welcomed her with open hooves, guiding her into the depths of her dreams of fashion and fame. If things had not occurred as they did—if there was nothing to pin this restlessness upon—the mare would have been concerned for her sanity.

That didn’t matter now.

Toss, turn. Stare at the west wall, towards the slumbering sun. Nothing. Toss, turn again. Stare towards the east, towards the triumphant rising moon. Towards Babs Seed’s wall. She pricked her ears, listening for the stomping of hooves, the opening of closet doors, hasty packing in the night. She listened for tears, screams, whispers, self-talk.


Anticipation churned in her innards, devouring her from the inside out. Citrus began to sweat profusely, her heart rate rivaling a marathon sprinter. She chanted mantras of calming within her mind, taking breaths deep and slow.

Tick, tick, tick.

True to her word, Citrus had retrieved that dreaded ticket from its safekeeping in her room, leaving it on the dining room table downstairs as Babs Seed emerged from the gardens back into the mansion.

Babs Seed had fire burning brightly in her eyes as they hugged, both sisters lost for any words other than, “Goodnight, I love you.” Babs seemed to shine in the dark as she’d crossed the corridor and trotted up the stairs, muzzle giving no clues as to her decision or demeanor. She seemed… guided.

Citrus Blossom had promised herself that she would let it go, that she would let Babs Seed have her choice. She was leaving the filly’s fate within her own hooves. She had led her sister to a fork in the road, abandoning her to choose the next path. She had vowed upon Celestia’s sun and Luna’s moon that she would absolve herself of all responsibility, abdicate her name of all influence on the ultimate turn of the cards. She was tossing the dice now, and possessed no magic to manipulate the fall of the cubes.

Tock, tock, tock.

Every memory she had ever formed of Babs Seed taunted her in her restlessness: the day the little foal had been born; her first tentative steps; her first garbled words; her first day of school. All the happy milestones brought a smile to her face, where she held them tight and vital.

Yet, for each saccharine sweet recollection, a painful past pierced and shattered through all semblance of normalcy and harmony—truths that exposed things as they really were.

Babs Seed had never fit in among all the empty square feet of the Orange Family Mansion. She never truly belonged. There were bad days and there were better days, but through it all ran an undercurrent that Citrus could not deny.

“Not every orange tree bears fruit,” Father Orange had once commented, and his eldest knew why.

Citrus Blossom was all that her parents had ever wanted: smart, elegant, loyal, respectful, courteous, conforming, eager to uphold the family mantle and wear the title of Orange upon her crest. Babs Seed was orange in coat and in heritage, but otherwise might have well been a visitor from beyond the stars.

And, though their parents must have meant well, it was their oldest daughter who took on the role of Babs’ guardian, protector, comforter, provider and parent more than occasionally. In her father’s case, this was by intent. Father Orange, though a great business-pony, did not know how to be a father, Citrus knew, especially to the wild card that had been dealt to him.

Mother Orange, on the other hoof, was bound not by the lack of parental instincts or personal feelings for the foal; instead, she was wrapped up in the demands and facades of the corporation, playing roles and wearing masks that stripped away the mare’s true self and kept her from truly being present in her daughter’s life. She undoubtedly regretted these distractions, but still the corporation needed her and her talents.

While trying to give them everything imaginable, the fillies’ parents had neglected to give them the most important things, the kind of things that no mountain of bits could buy.

In the absence of peace or calm throughout most of her young life, Babs Seed was tossed and to and fro’ by the winds of chaos and change, no stable footing on which to brace herself. She was brash, bold, wild, manic, and hungry for thought, feeling, and experience when she roamed in the light. When her days grew dark and lonely, she was despondent, quiet, moody, enraged, fearful, and reckless. There was no balance for her, no equilibrium, no harmony, no... normal.

Except… there was normalcy available to her, beyond the train tracks.

The days that had passed since she had touched that Ponyville dirt and licked it clean off her hooves had brought about an incredible, unimaginable change in the foal Citrus loved so dearly. In spite of the attack in the park or Father Orange’s wicked behavior, Babs Seed continued to shine, the light from within her awakened and radiant. She possessed a strength and aura that Citrus had never seen.

Babs Seed had transformed. Evolved. Reached a higher plane, a higher state of being.

And, the Citrus Blossom reasoned, if that was all true, and if she really would be so much happier living in Ponyville…

“Why does this have to be so hard?” Citrus Blossom sobbed, burying her face into her pillow, tongues of flaming-orange mane billowing around her and blocking the little light that remained.

She fought with herself, irrationality biting down on the rational, emotion and knowledge coming to blows, making each other bleed, until she could fight no more forever. Against her own wishes, sometime when the moon reached its highest point, Citrus Blossom could take no more of her internal violence, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.


Citrus Blossom woke with a start. She sat up straight in bed, gasping for breath. Fumbling for the clock on her nightstand, she hoped against all hope that it was still the time of the twilight, or at least the dawn. Unfortunately, the hands of the clock and rays of the sun betrayed her.


It was 1003 on an autumn morning, and the sun was hot with vengeance, the light blinding with its demands of productivity, scolding her for her laziness.

Scrambling out of bed and barreling down the door—not even waiting for the release of the strike—Citrus cantered, no, she galloped down the stairs, down to the dinner table in the dining room, down to the wire.

Allspice was sitting half-asleep on one of the stools, her mane in curlers. A mug of steaming hot coffee waited beneath her forehooves, but hadn’t been touched. She was staring at the table.

“Allspice, I—“

“You’re too late.”

There were no three words that would ever define Citrus Blossom’s life as deeply as those. The entirety of Manehatten, Equestria, and the Earth itself shook with their magnitude.

The table was clear.

The ticket was gone.


Allspice followed in Greyhoof’s hoof-prints that Sunday afternoon, reading the writing on the wall and packing away her meager stash of belongings. The stallions beat her to it, fleeing with the morning mist once the news had reached them. Waiting and biding could serve them no longer; the road beckoned.

The three servants took the decision of their youngest employer as the final and ultimate sign, bushes in the western distance burning brightly with the voice of the Most High, beckoning them to lay down their yokes at last. Boom-and-bust towns had begun to raise their beams, bringing with them all sorts of service-sector labor. Even if it would be temporary, it beat their current monotony. Forgoing the “respect” of a two-week notice, the servant-ponies of Orange Family Mansion fled before Bernie Madhoof woke, heading to greener (if sandier) pastures.

A taxi-carriage waited patiently for Allspice beyond the gates of her longtime home. Twelve years had passed, leaving a gulf of time and memories behind. Some of them were quite happy in spite of everything, and she would miss the place that had created them. However, there would be no time for mourning; she was going west, where the skies were a little brighter all around.

Luckily, in her wage-slavery, her life’s possessions fit in one suitcase. Light and easy travel made the best travel, after all. She was grateful for minimalism in that moment.

As she double-checked under her bed in the servant’s quarters, making sure she had procured and secured every last sock, her eyes turned to Greyhoof’s empty bed, which remained in the same state as he’d left it nearly a week ago with one minor exception. A small piece of paper, previously absent, adorned the pillow, inviting her to cease upon it.

She trotted over, picked up the note in her forehooves, and began to read.


I hope you read this note before you leave. And if you weren’t already planning on leaving… I think you should consider it. You deserve better than this. I think you could be a famous chef anywhere in Equestria. Although, you should probably make more strawberry milkshakes.

I know you probably don’t care all that much—I’ve always thought you were more of a professional than a personal kind of mare—but there’s something I want you to know.

I know I wasn’t the best filly to care for, and we never really were that close. I’m sure I added more gray in your mane than you could have ever imagined. But I just wanted to say thank you for everything you’ve given me. This mansion is lonely, but it always felt nice when at least you were there.

Maybe I’ll see you out west sometime.

Your friend,
Babs Seed”

The taxi carriage-pony beeped his horn with impatience. Allspice didn’t care. There would be plenty of time to run away. For now, she read and read, dotting the note with an occasional tear, until she was ready to meet the foal in the west.


The Orange Family guardians woke around noon that day, one with a hammer pounding in her skull and the other with a demonic grin on his face. Their remaining daughter met them downstairs at the dining room table and dropped the dynamite.

Libra Scales’ fury at Citrus Blossom was amplified by the pounding of her hangover, dehydration and nausea dumping salt into her new wounds. As the two mares began to scream and shout, rage building from the pony whose cutiemark symbolized rationality and reason, the stallion slicked quietly out the front door, appointments to keep and miles to go before his tormentors would sleep forever.

Mother and daughter continued in their onslaught against each other, kicking the issue around until it lay deceased on the ground, all logic and emotion drained from its veins. Tears were shed, truths spoken, and as a few hours passed, they came to a conclusion: it was for the best, and in spite of the distance, this was not the end. Their paths would cross again as always, the Oranges and the Apples. Such is the nature of family and Fate.

Before long, however, the two mares were not alone, a knock at the door shattering their peace. They crossed the corridor and threshold together, the quick trot over to the front entry feeling infinitely longer than it should have been.

Libra Scales opened the door, revealing a grizzled stallion dressed in a finely-pressed suit with a briefcase and a fine cane—expensive and regal, with a grand diamond as its pommel—standing in the doorway.

“Are youze Misses Bernie Madhoof?” the stallion asked, muzzle blank of all emotion.

“Yes, yes I am. And who are you?” Libra answered, raising an eyebrow.

The stallion set his suitcase on the ground, clicking its locks open, ruffling through a thick stack of paperwork. “Dat matters not, madam, but iffa youze jus' give me a sec heeya, I will get youze summat dat will answer all youze questions.”

Citrus cast a confused glance towards her mother, who merely shrugged in her own uncertainty. She had never seen this stallion before, and hoped that he was not some traveling salespony with a time share up his sleeve. Such encounters always proved draining, and Libra Scales had little energy to spare.

“Ah! Heeya youze are,” he said, passing a few leaves of paper to her. He bowed, and then added, “Iffa I were youze, Madame Orange, I would take the implications o’ dem papers ta heart. The West is always a good place ta hide.”

Voice shaking, Libra asked, “H-h-hide? From what?”

The stallion gestured again at the paperwork in reply, packing up his briefcase on the porch, locks snapping shut. As he turned, he added, “Oh, an’ next time youze see dat husband o’ youze, tell him I ain’t doin’ him no mo' favors. Not when he pays ma brotha before me. I still want ma gems.”

Trotting off down the pathway to the iron gates of the Orange Family Mansion, sliding out past the gates with the ease of greased lightning, their visitor departed as quickly as he came. Libra Scales led Citrus Blossom back into the kitchen after dead-bolting and chaining the door shut to deter any more slimy creatures who may arrive.

Together, the mares poured over the paperwork, jaws agape and minds reeling from the details of Bernie Madhoof’s treachery. Embezzlement and fraud, secret meetings with insurance sales-ponies and mail-orders of kerosene and gasoline were all reported in full, signatures and snapshots of other documents confirming the fullest extent of the stallion’s evil.

Silence passed between them after reading, ticking of the clock in the kitchen the only confirmation that they were still in the land of the real.

And then, Citrus Blossom said, “We should run away.”

Libra Scales nodded and replied, “Yes, yes, we should.”

Quickly, not sure of how much more time Fate had allotted them, the mares of the Orange Family Mansion—its only remaining occupants, minus the devil walking the Manehatten streets—packed away their most precious of belongings, compromising on two saddlebags each to tuck away their lives. Being a clever mare above all else, Libra Scales, using a claw hammer, pried away the floorboards of the master bedroom, and searched through the dark, praying with all her faith and hope that her salvation was still there.

Her hoof made contact with a cylindrical object, and she breathed a sigh of relief.

Libra Scales did not remember when exactly she had begun her bit-hoarding, whether it was before or after her husband had become a slave to the bottle and the business. It didn’t matter. The mason jar she retrieved, blowing the dust off the container as she removed it from the space under the floorboards, contained at least several thousand bits. It was not much in comparison to what she’d thought her bank account had amounted to, but it would get them train tickets and hotels for a few weeks until they could find work.

Citrus Blossom slipped through the door, joining her mother in the master bedroom, saddlebags full to bursting with her most prized of possessions. “What is that, Mother?” she wondered, pointing at the dusty jar Libra Scales was turning over in her forehooves.

“A nest egg, Citrus. The one that the mother bird protects in secrecy, and carries with her when the nest is no longer safe,” she answered mournfully, realizing that the rainy day she’d dreaded had come at last. She would have never guessed it would be a rain of fire.

Libra Scales looked up to her daughter, eyes shining with tears of both rage and despair, and whispered, “Are ya ready, kiddo?”

Citrus Blossom nodded and helped her mother to her hooves. “Where are we going?” she asked as they walked down the cursed stairs from the second level to the first for what would probably be the last time.

“Appleloosa. We can stay with Braeburn for a bit, if we need to.”

“… Why not Ponyville?”

“I don’t want to risk Babs’ life any more than I already have, Citrus,” Libra Scales choked, fighting the tears, reasoning that there would be plenty of time to feel once they had shaken this awful dust from their hooves.

Citrus Blossom nodded and did not argue. The two mares did not bother to lock the door behind them, dumping the keys on the porch, leaving the front gate swing wide and unsecured as they exited. All the thieves and thugs in Manehatten could loot the mansion now for all they cared, as long as they could get to the robber-baron who would soon be returning.

As Citrus Blossom and Libra Scales galloped off into the horizon, down Manehatten Hill and into the cobblestone streets below, Citrus realized, in the depths of her anguish as her hooves began to burn, that if it weren’t for her father’s forgetful nature and inattention to detail, they would be going down in flames.

And if it weren’t for Citrus' stupid, irresponsible, risky, reckless abdication of her own, letting the foal make the wretched decision, Babs Seed would have joined them in either their homelessness or their demise.


Bernie Madhoof came home to his dream.

He searched all the rooms, sure that he was fooling himself, sure that somepony must be hiding in one of the closets, or under a stairwell, or in the gardens, or in the servant’s quarters, ruining his existence with their haughty and inconvenient presence. He swept through the mansion with a fine-toothed lice comb, finding none of the servants, the fillies, or his wife.

Although he found many signs of disarray—drawers left open, perimeter doors propped, rugs moved into strange positions—the stallion could find no signs of a struggle.

However, he did find, on his desk in his throne room, a note from Libra Scales.

It simply read:

“Your lackey came by and told us everything.
Don’t come after us. You won’t find us.
Fuck you.


P.S. Your lackey says you owe him his gems.”

Realizing his error, Madhoof panicked at first, wondering if there would soon be the strong hooves of the law barreling down his door. Then, he remembered his riches, and laughed a hearty laugh. Nopony could touch him, and with the departure of those awful iron hooves, nopony would hurt him again.

By forgetting a promise, the stallion had made all of his dreams a reality, and would be able to cancel his order of flammable liquids and a hired thug to do the dirty work. Fate had indeed smiled upon him with her dark grin, and he raised his hoof in triumph.

Bernie Madhoof had always dreamt of this: the absence of anypony else in his castle, the king no longer having to play the role of jester, wearing masks and dancing to amuse the lessers among him. Now, he was just the king. He had no more obligations, responsibilities, or burdens.

Regardless of why, Bernie Madhoof was finally free.

To his own surprise, as he sat in the master bedroom, bottle of Applejack Daniel’s opened in celebration, King Orange felt a hole in his soul, and soon found himself stumbling into his youngest daughter’s room with an emptied shot glass and a mind full of regrets.

Alone, in his castle, King Orange contemplated the emptiness, the draftiness here, the way the whole building seemed to plummet to tundra temperatures. The stallion was confused, alarmed by his strange feelings, and refilled the shot glass again and again, downing drink after drink, sin after sin, to push those odd emotions away.

In the hollowness of his victory, King Orange re-discovered his love of the bottle in the same way he had as a colt, lost in the shadow of his newfound freedom.

He would soon begin to see the world with yellow eyes.


Manehatten remained a city of angels and demons as much as it had ever been.

The Watering Hole, after dealing with a third rash of thefts, packed up its gates and shook the dust of Manehatten from its horseshoes. Patrons came in one evening to find the building empty, a simple note left on the bar counter reading, “Had enough of this shit.”

A highly-respected law enforcement officer was caught soliciting from a mare in the night by an undercover Royal Guard investigation. This led to a thorough “broken-window” operation, and all but a few of the law-ponies in Manehatten found themselves suddenly without badges, batons, or paychecks. During the transition between old firings and new hirings, the gangs and petty criminals found themselves in paradise, and the streets became even meaner.

Soon, with a few Royal Guard transfer jobs, Manehatten began to see its demons shrink and squeal, disappearing under the rug where they belonged.


The Manehatten branch of the Cutie Mark Crusaders outlived their founder’s absence.

Word had reached their ears of their leader’s departure, the rumor mill theorizing that the owners of Orange Enterprises had divorced and that the fillies had gone with their mother out to the West and the best. At first, the Manehatten Crusaders were hurt and enraged, their celebration feeling so short-lived as to be meaningless.

Rustler, however, stepped up to the hoofball plate, and calmed the others, explaining that their ringleader had only done the right thing. He was sure, he told them, that the choice she had made to leave had not been an easy one, and that she would have wanted them to continue in their quests and battles.

“Besides,” he reasoned, “iffa even Lucky Toss couldn’t take us, then we really are strong, togetha, an' we shouldn’t jus' leave the whole school unprotected, should we? Are youze really Crusadas, o’ not? Once a Crusada, always a Crusada!”

His speech was met with hoots and hollers of affirmation. Rustler made a silent promise to his former general, seeking to fill the big horseshoes she'd left behind, and fill them well he did.

A new wave of fillies and colts, just entering cutiemark age, found themselves struggling with the ancient battle between the have’s and have-not’s, and the four who remained welcomed them with open hooves. The Manehatten CMC was a refuge for those still on their own journeys of self-discovery, and the newcomers took up the cape proudly. Bullying wasn’t eradicated, but it was nowhere as vicious as before, and nopony got a manecut unless they wanted to.

They still spoke of Babs Seed with honor and respect, for if it had not been for her, they would still be lost and apart, rather than found and together.


Card Slinger finally made a date with the law for the first time after spray-painting Big Slick on the back of a chimcherry (or was it cherrychonga?) restaurant, broadcasting his signal in an attempt to organize his troops. His luck had run out, one of the Royal Guards testifying to this truth, hoofcuffs slapped across the colt’s fetlocks and batons beating him black and blue as he resisted, unwilling to face yet another failure. He was sent to a rock farm for a year to work off his debt to society.

Lucky Toss, in the absence of his ringleader and best friend, turned his attention to schoolwork, finding a knack within him for probability and statistics. He tossed dice rather than insults, and began to dream of opening his own casino. The Manehatten cobblestone soon held no more mystery for him, and he steered clear of the life entirely.

Fencer focused on her sport while Slinger was doing hard time. She won a few competitions and earned enough bits to buy her way into a fencing academy in Canterlot, jumping at the opportunity to leave Manehatten and regret behind her. She vowed one day to make it up to the foal she had tormented, and atoned each day with prayers to the Most High, begging for forgiveness. In time, she learned the dance of friendship in Canterlot, gathering her own little group, and pledged never to bully again. Fencer kept her eyes wide open for her victim, heart heavy and unforgiving of itself in the absence of true repentance.

Boone became one with his destiny, following his addictions and his cutiemark, drinking hard cider and whiskey as often as he could. The Royal Guard stopped him when his deadbeat father wouldn’t, and sent him to the rock farm as well. Boone and Card Slinger met and rekindled their friendship, making big plans for when they were released back into Manehatten.

Switch took up blacksmithing and abandoned the gang, unwilling to take the risks of lawlessness now that the Royal Guard took up Manehatten badges and her ringleader was slaving away in the quarry. Fortunately, the hammer and anvil kept her occupied, and even brought in a few bits from occasional clientele. She waited, biding her own time for the return of the colt of her dreams.


Powerful hindhooves sent a torrent of apples crashing from the trees, unshaven cherry-red fetlocks rustling in the breeze as iron met bark. The stallion moved from tree to tree, bucking the harvest, autumn wind warning him of the cold that was soon to come.

Big Macintosh was not alone in his work that Sunday afternoon. On the other side of the orchard, a strong orange mare and a little yellow filly joined him in the monotonous labor, all three gathering fruit as quickly as possible before the moon rose and forced them inside. He could see his sisters across the field pummeling the tree trunks with all their might, seeking redemption in their mindless task.

The quiet stallion couldn’t blame them. Seeing only two ponies return from that ghetto of Manehatten the prior afternoon broke his heart, though he'd shed his tears in silence and solitude.

Big Mac knew, however, that it was not good to dwell on the past, on what could have been. Time waits for nopony, and Life is what happens in between all of our navel-gazing and quiet contemplation. The Apple Family still had a farm to run.

Filling up baskets of apples, gathering them into a cart, and bucking until his hooves were sore distracted the freckled stallion from the unrelenting waves of his own thoughts.

He was zoning out so much that he swore he had begun to hallucinate.

There, in the distance, his eyes caught a flash of red-and-pink mane and orange fur, galloping towards them, a star shooting across the cosmos.

“Naw… it can’t be…”

Over the hills and through the ticket of apple trees, the blur came closer and closer, more solid than ever, and his heart nearly leapt from his chest at its understanding.

“APPLEJACK! APPLE BLOOM!” Big Macintosh roared, waving his hooves excitedly.

“What’s that, big brother?!” Applejack yelled across the distance.

“COME HERE, Y’ALL!” he bellowed, betraying his own reputation, making more noise than he’d ever remembered.


Four hours. She had paced, rubbing her forehooves together with enough force to light a fire and make her an arsonist, pleading, praying, waiting, nearly falling over in the cab as the train lurched and sped across the plains. She’d reached the station around mid-afternoon, sun still hanging high in the sky. It couldn’t have possibly been four hours.

She had worn herself out, exhausted by the steam of the engine, second-guessing herself with every breath. Napping in the train station passed another four hours by, until a thickly-bearded stallion had gently awoken her, wondering if she was alright.

Denying his assistance, she set her hooves towards her destination, hoping against all hope that she had made the right call and bet and choice.

The roads were not paved, held no cobblestone, and did not separate her from the source of her strength, cool Earth whispering to her with each step. Each hoofbeat and heartbeat that followed her as she ran filled her with nervousness and anticipation, a little voice within her mind chanting, What time but now ta make the right choice, kiddo? What time but now?

Now, indeed. She’d snatched the ticket and made her choice, following the piper out of the East, heading back towards Eden. The decision had been the most agonizing, terrifying, difficult choice she’d ever made in the time she’d blessed the Earth with her soul. That soul cried out with the burst of her hooves, struggling against its chains, rushing her out of the belly of the beast as the sun rose that morning.

Now, she would know if she’d been granted freedom, or built a new prison out of her foolishness.

Closer and closer she came to her destination, the red-and-white barn, silo, and farmhouse urging her through her pain and breathlessness. In the distance, two fillies and a stallion reaped the bounty of their harvest, releasing apples from their trees.

The stallion suddenly began to wave his forehooves frantically, calling out to his fellow laborers in the field. She galloped faster, her saddlebags hanging on by their threads around her shoulders as she ran faster than she’d ever imagined. Reaching the crest of the hill and going down, down, down with gravity, leaning back against the force of her momentum, she felt more alive than ever, heart beating in fluttering excitement.

On that stallion’s face, she saw elation, and she knew this was no longer a dream. And as she sped on through a thicket of apple trees, turning corners with impressive ease, she saw the mare and filly reach him, eyes wide as he pointed to her.

Then, they saw her, and the three ponies set off towards her, bolts of lightning across the fields, and she wished to be struck.


Apple Bloom was the first one to meet her, leaping with her forehooves stretched as far as she could extend them. The blur of orange crossed paths with the blur of yellow, and they joined in the middle, crashing into the ground.

“Babs! Oh, it’s really you, Babs!” she cried, eyes welling and bursting with tears of joy, holding the foal tight. “Ah thought Ah’d never see ya again, an’ Ah was ready ta write ya letters everyday, an'—“

Shushing her with a forehoof over her mouth, Babs Seed just smiled, blushing.

Apple Bloom felt her own cheeks burn, and nodded, helping her cousin to her hooves. Applejack and Big Macintosh met them, greeting the foal’s return with exclamations of reunion and joy.

The three Apples took a step forward to their newcomer, planning on ambushing her into a tight, welcoming embrace. A flash of light stopped them in their approach, her cousins all shielding their eyes from the sight.

“What was dat?!” Babs shrieked, seeing the light in her peripherals but unable to pinpoint its cause, eyes sweeping the scene, blood flooding her muscles as adrenaline pulsed and prepared her to defend those she loved.

The three Apples gasped in unison.

“Look, y’all,” Big MacIntosh said, gesturing to the filly’s flank.

There, in a union of destiny and will—of holding the cards she was dealt, and playing them well—the stars had aligned at last, and in a glimmer of light and magic, the bobtail foal was a blankflank no more.

There, the cutiemark appeared, revealing at last not only her special talent, but her true roots, her true self, shining for all the world to see.

It was a proud purple shield adorned with a shining red apple slice in its center.

The Orange had become an Apple, finding her own roots in the Earth, rising above her powerlessness and fear and sadness and anger and despair. Tried by the dark flames her of past, she had powered through and risen above it all; she’d been dragged down to Hell, but refused to be a demon. She remembered her savior’s words, and instead of becoming like those who harmed her and her family, she escaped.

She’d triumphed over her greatest foe with her choice, vanquishing her circumstances, becoming the master of her fate and the captain of her soul. Powerlessness lay fallen on the charred terrace, slain by her courage. By virtue of the victory, her true self shined through, at last.

Applejack, Apple Bloom, and Big Macintosh embraced her at once, their little seed having sprouted, bursting through the concrete and the cognitive dissonance.

The stallion grabbed her into a bear hug after the others retracted, lifting her up and spinning her around in the air as she laughed and laughed in dizzy glee. “I’m so proud o’ ya!” Big Macintosh exclaimed as they spun, chortling himself silly in his delight.

Finally, feeling nauseous, Big Mac set her down, both ponies seeing stars but still smiling, the fillies catching them until everything became clear again.

Babs Seed had just begun to see normally when she was tackled to the ground again, Apple Bloom crushing her into a hug. “Babs! Ya did it!” she gushed, squeezing her tight, feeling nothing but untainted joy. "Ah knew ya could do it!”

That hero of hers—to which Apple Bloom owed everything—had not only leapt into the dark unknown and came out in the light, but had emerged a new pony, a new soul.

Happy tears in her emerald eyes, Babs Seed turned to Applejack and asked, “So… I can stay, right? Dis is real?”

The Element of Honesty nodded, and said, “Welcome home.”

Over the horizon, Celestia and Luna met in harmony, one half of the sky coming alive with holy fire of orange, yellow, and red, the other a violet blanket dotted with shining, twinkling stars. Above the four Apples, three comets streaked across the skies, spirits of those they’d loved watching down on them, having never truly been lost.

Neither miles, nor twisted ties, nor even death itself can separate us from those we love. Home is where the heart is, where the love is, and neither of the twain can be bound. There are no limits to the heart and what it may hold.

The spirits of two mares and a stallion—two Apples, one Orange—gathered in the farm-house of Sweet Apple Acres with their children and Granny Smith, joining in the celebration and homecoming of the one who’d dared to find her own way.

Babs Seed was where she was supposed to be, the way she was supposed to be.

Epilogue: Desert Plains

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Epilogue: Desert Plains

What is “home,” really? Is it a stable structure, an enclosed building, with a living room, kitchen, bathroom and at least one bedroom? Is it something somepony acquires when a title deed is signed? Can only houses and mansions be homes, or are apartments equally valid? What about shacks, barns, hotels, carriages, boats—are these also homes? And if so, what is a home then, if it ceases to have a concrete, architectural basis?

Or, maybe, home is a feeling, a feeling as old as time, a feeling of belonging and love and inclusion. “Home is where the heart is,” as wise ol’ They always say. Perhaps, then, home is wherever somepony feels the safest, the warmest, the most known and understood.

Could the road also be home?

Travel was traditionally reserved in Equestria as a hobby and a pastime, a special occasion for vacations, breaks, holidays, reunions, and last-minute rushes to dying relatives. Full-time travel was the pursuit of traveling sales-ponies, musicians, magicians, jugglers, and others whose careers ebbed and flowed with local economies. Foals could reasonably expect maybe one or two moves in their lives—usually initiated after marriage or in search of a stable career.

Ponies who traveled and did not met the terms and conditions society demanded were called several different names: tramps, hoboes, vagabonds, nomads, wanderers. Oh, and scum.

Society, as it often is, was wrong about that.


The Earth pony stallion trudged on through the desert night, matching hoofbeats to the rhythm of the cricket’s chirps. Cacti and tumbleweeds were his only companions, and he welcomed their presence. Traveling from Appleloosa to the boomtowns was no easy feat. His back ached, about fifty pounds of gear and supplies weighing him down. Nevertheless, he could see the smoke from cooking fires in the distance, and he pressed on.

The stallion had always known that this would be his fate. His life had been fairly normal, though his childhood was harsh, raised in a tiny cabin in the woods with an abusive father and a strange, distant brother. Whereas some ponies may have continued the cycle of poverty and violence he survived, this stallion vowed never to fall into such traps.

He earned his cutiemark, graduated school, learned several trades, had brews with his buds, dated a little, and buried his parents. Things went according to life’s stereotypical plans… other than the lack of a mare waiting for him back home, of course, but that is another story for another time.

Through it all, he found himself reckless, itching for something else.

Earth pony he was, he gravitated towards nature, towards the sun and the stars, the moon and the rain, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts. He felt most at peace during travel, exploring new places, meeting new ponies, making memories of things both big and small. Sure, he still needed bits, but they were not his aim or goal. Even so, he didn’t shy away from work, and took various odd jobs throughout his youth.

However, he found himself bucking the system, and yearned to be his own master.

So, when he came of age and skill, the stallion opened his own business. And, Celestia, was it a grand ol’ adventure! Bowing to nopony, counting bits by hoof, proudly closing the doors to his enterprise himself when quitting time came… the stallion would never work for a master again if he could help it.

Still, after a few months, he felt the itch, the need to pack up and move, to sell his belongings and follow the road as long as it went. He ached to chase the sun, to pursue it into its void below the horizon and greet it. He wanted to lasso the moon or, at the least, play with it under the stars.

He grew restless as life began to fall into a predictable pattern and he fell asleep at the wheel, carriage on autopilot, more and more. Entire days would pass, and he would struggle to vaguely remember any of them.

Then, he walked into his business one morning to find that the register had been forced, all but a few bits stolen away in the night. In spite of the rage he expected from himself, the stallion felt a strange sort of peace. He felt like the camel whose back is broken under the weight of the final straw: pained, but relieved.

He left the very same evening.

Recounting the circumstances of his journey, the grizzled stallion smiled to himself. That had been almost seven years ago, and during that time, he had been to all corners of Equestria and met ponies of all statures and varieties. He had slept in dumpsters and gotten drunk with Canterlot elites. He had learned how to fix carriages, deliver mail, cook and bake all sorts of delicacies, provide security, build houses, and all sorts of other trades along his journey, taking whatever temporary work he could find to fill his belly and get him back on the road.

Now, he was heading out in the desert plains, towards a small, unnamed boomtown under Celestia’s scorching sun. Oil and gold had already created their own cities, far north of here. Silver was whispered to be hidden in these parts, and he was hoping to jump on a mining claim as soon as he found a hotel room and a cold glass of whiskey.

As temperatures dipped into their lowest lows, the fiery heat of the desert matched by the vengeful chill of its night, the stallion continued forward, urged by the smell of cooking fires and the thought of whiskey on his lips.


Stumbling over his aching hooves, the stallion sighed with relief as he arrived. He had made it through the desert plains intact, starving the buzzards of an easy meal. Such was always an occasion to rejoice and thank the Most High.

He took in the tiny settlement. From the looks of it, he guessed less than fifty ponies called this town home. There was no welcoming sign, no declaration of a name, just an Equestrian flag stuck in the middle of the sand, an epicenter in a circle of buildings.

Trotting as he went, the stallion squinted through the wind and saw that, at the very least, the buildings had been christened by some painter-pony. There was a general store, a hotel—he sighed with relief—and a saloon—his heart skipped a beat with joy—among a few others.

Called by the laughter of ponies within, and a thirst for liquor, he sauntered through the doors of the bar.

In a corner, a few stallion pegasi were playing a hand of poker, sheathed knives tied around their flanks in a dare to the others to cheat. A rambunctious-looking pink Earth pony mare hammered out a happy tune on the piano, looking way too optimistic and light-hearted for such a place. Two unicorn stallions sat in another corner, eying the newcomer with suspicion. The outsider could see lone-star badges pinned to their saddlebags on the table, and decided that, even if they were fake, he wasn’t going to take his chances.

Exhausted, he trudged over to the bar and pulled up two stools, one for himself and the other for his saddlebags.

A beautiful, yellow Earth pony mare with a long, wavy red mane was cleaning a glass behind the bar. She walked over to him, red-orange eyes warm with welcome and a smile across her face.

“Well, howdy there, stranger! Good ta see a new face ‘round these parts.”

The stallion chuckled. “In ma case, good ta see a face at all. I’ve been out on dat there trail from Appleloosa fo' 'bout damn near four hours. But I’m glad youze folks are still open.”

She smiled at the appreciation. “Yup, you’ve come ta the right place! Finest draughts in all the sands, ya found yer oasis! Let me go git ma partner, though, ta help ya. Ah’ve got a lot o' cleanin’ ta do, if ya don’t mind, stranger.”

He had waited four hours already. He could wait a few more minutes for a drink. The grizzled stallion smiled softly and nodded.

She gave him a final grin, winking, and headed through a door behind the bar. “Honey! We’ve got company!” he heard her call out into the dark.

A tall, orange Earth pony mare with a short, red and pink mane, one of her ears missing a triangle of flesh and pierced with a golden hoop, entered through the door, short bobtail swishing behind her. Her cutiemark was unique as could be, a purple shield shining with a red apple slice in its center.

The traveler had never seen a cutiemark like that before, and knew that its bearer must be very special.

This bartender, in contrast to the other mare, did not look as happy to see a customer, muttering to herself, “Dammit, Apple Bloom, I was just finishin’ up a letter and—“

The mare’s eyes met the stallion’s, emeralds crashing into onyx. She realized, as the laws of physics, space, and time began to slow, that she had seen this stallion before, on a night she had never been able to forget.

In that same suspension of Nature, her customer found a thousand points of light within his mental library, as many memories as there were stars in the sky, and he located one from a dark night almost seven years ago.

“… Turner?”

She walked hazily over to her bar, not sure if she was awake and alive, or dreaming of days long past, or perhaps dead and gone to an alternate universe.

“Turner… is dat youze?”

“Kid.” He took a deep breath. “Kid, youze remember me?”

She smiled. “How could I have forgotten somepony like youze?”

Turner remembered a little orange filly, scared and sniffling, lying on the ground of a cruel Manehatten street, her tail halved and her mane nearly whacked off by a gang of delinquent punks who needed an outlet for their evil.

He remembered the wonder and joy in her eyes at her new manecut, that foal forever sticking out in his mind as his favorite customer of all time during his barber days.

He remembered the promise she had made to him, and recalled how his mind would sometimes drift to that day, wondering what had become of that little filly and if she had kept her vow.

Now, Turner didn’t need to wonder any longer.

“Kid… did youze… did youze keep youze promise?”

Smiling, a little bit of pain and regret behind her countenance, she said, “As best as I could, sir.”

Turner nodded, smiling as he exhaled. “Good kid.”

“Now,” the barpony began, reaching for a glass beneath the counter, “what are youze doin’ here?”

“Followin’ the tumbleweeds, just like everypony else. I hear there’s silver in these lands heeya.”

“Heh heh, well, youze'd best be gittin’ on dat as soon as youze can, Turner. Mo' ponies are expected ta be headin’ out heeya soon ta get a piece o’ dat pie,” she remarked, laughing.

“Heh, heh. Youze is right.” The stallion added, “Oh, where are ma manners? What’s youze name, lil’ lady?”

She smiled. “Babs Seed.”

“Babs Seed, eh? Well, I’d always wondered how things had turned out fo' youze. Youze seem ta be doin’ good. Dis is a grand ol’ place,” Turner observed, stretching out a hoof and marveling upon the bar, at its sturdy structure, its decorations—paintings of nature and metallic tools and horseshoes hanging on the walls—and its well-stocked wall of liquors and labels.

“An',” he began, giving Babs Seed a sly look, “dat’s youze mare, ain’t she?” He motioned his muzzle towards the door behind the bar.

Babs Seed blushed and dug one of her forehooves into the floorboards. After all these years, she still felt shy about matters of the heart. Some things never change.

“Yes,” Babs Seed said. “Yes, she is.”

Turner chuckled in delight. “Good kid. Youze did well. Treat ‘er right… bloom ta youze seed, she is.”

She giggled. “I've never thought o' it dat way.”

“Well, sometimes, we jus' need somepony else ta point things out fo’ us. Ta untangle our roots, youze know?”

Eyes shining, Babs Seed answered, “Yes, yes I do.”

The wise and weathered stallion leaned back in his stool, thousands of life lessons, anecdotes, observations and truths tucked in his saddlebags. He had been to places Babs Seed could never imagine, huddled around campfires with ancient ones, counting the stars and asking them for meaning. There was so much lost time to compensate for, so many stories he wanted to share, and now that Fate had crossed their paths once more, he would seize upon every opportunity he had to speak with her.

For now, though, he wanted a drink.

Remembering her responsibilities, Babs Seed laughed and said, “Now, ma favorite customer, what can I get youze?”

“A glass o' Applejack Daniel’s, m'lady. On the rocks.”

“Comin’ right up.”

Turner leaned over to his saddlebags, searching for one of his stash-cans. He retrieved a few bits from one, and sat the coins on the counter.

“Youze know, kid, who youze always reminded me o'?” he asked, watching her twist the cork out of a new bottle.

“Who’s dat?”

“My daughter. The foal I’ve never met.”


Their eyes found one another, and knew.

Babs Seed set down a glass of fine, cold whiskey, only the finest for the savior of her youth, but shook her head at the bits, gently pushing them away.

“For you, this is on the house.”

Closing Credits And Notes

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Thank you to all who read, commented, favorited, or voted on this story. It has definitely been an emotional journey for me writing this story--no, this novel, really. I never intended for this story to be this long, detailed, or deep, but such is the writer's journey. Sometimes we author our stories, and sometimes we are authored by them.

A Note On OC's and Canon Characters

The following characters in this story are original characters drummed up by my imagination:

-Greyhoof, Allspice, the maid, and the stallion servants of the Orange Family Mansion;
-Turner the bartender/barber;
-Card Slinger, Lucky Toss, Fencer, Boone, and Switch;
-Rustler, Flora, Turn Key, and Quick Step;
-the unnamed, slightly insane instructor of Babs Seed's classroom;
-Babs Seed's unnamed, deceased aunt;
-both of Bernie Madhoof's "lackeys" (the account manipulator and insurance agents).

The following characters in this story are referenced in the canon, but their appearances, personalities, backstories and experiences have been created by me:

-Citrus Blossom (in the canon as the nameless older sister of Babs Seed);
-Aunt Orange/Libra Scales (in the canon as Aunt Orange, with a different appearance that I assign to her):
-Uncle Orange/Bernie Madhoof (in the canon as Uncle Orange, with a different appearance than I assign to him).

The following characters are canon characters that I have used in this work of fanfiction, altering/using their backstories, personalities, actions, and experiences for the purpose of this story:

-Babs Seed
-Apple Bloom
-Big Macintosh
-Granny Smith
-Princess Luna
-Sweetie Belle

Thanks again for all of the support and Happy Holidays!