Part 32 - Holding Patterns
The sun was low on the horizon as Strongheart gave a huff and gently butted one of her more fervent tribesbulls to move him along. "Go home, Wool Over Eyes, he's not The White Buffalo. He's a very naughty boy!"
She cast a glare up at Flies Like Thunder, who cleared his throat sheepishly and avoided her gaze. The buffalo princess and a contingent of tribal elders had been working tirelessly all afternoon to disperse the ecstatic herd of Tatanka's adherents.
Finally, the flying buffalo shaman and his faithful pegasus pony sidekick Long Range had space to touch down on the street, which was pockmarked with a million cloven hoof prints. Townsponies were just beginning to poke their heads out of their doors and windows to survey the aftermath of the stampede.
Flies Like Thunder pawed at the ground, still not quite able to meet Strongheart's eye. "Thanks for your help, cousin. I'm heap sorry about all this."
The honey brown buffalo cow rolled her eyes. "It is fortunate for you that you are father's favorite nephew and godcalf."
She shook her head and beckoned him with a hoof as she turned to leave. "Now come along, he expects you at the council fire to explain just how all of this has come to pass." A faint smirk flitted across her deadpan features. "It should be quite entertaining."
The bleached bull traded a nervous glance with Long Range, gulped loudly, then fell into step behind his cousin.
It had taken Appleloosa's law enforcement cohort most of the afternoon to book the participants of the Salt Lick brawl, herding the stallions and mares into separate cells in the town's modest jail house. Each combatant got their information recorded, including a photograph and hoofprints, and were then searched by a dour faced matron with very cold hooves.
Those that needed medical attention for assorted bruises and contusions were seen to. All clothing and belongings were confiscated, catalogued, and interred in cardboard boxes, replaced by a jail house issued black and white striped smock and cap, with wing bindings for the pegasi and other flyers and magic suppressing safety corks for the unicorns.
Applejack sat at the bars of the cell with a beatific expression of contentment on her freckled face, as she calmly weathered the attentions of a a thoroughly bored Rainbow Dash.
The cyan pegasus mare paced a circle around her old friend, singing to her in a gleefully mocking tone of voice. "AJ and Soarin, sittin' in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes AJ with a baby carriage."
Spitfire snarled across the cell from her bunk bed, as she laid on her back staring at the crudely carved (and downright crude, for that matter) graffiti on the wooden planks above her. "Will you cut that out, Dash!? It wasn't that funny the first time and it's still not funny the three hundredth time."
The rainbow maned stunt flyer shook her head, giving Applejack a wicked grin. "Nope! You'll see how funny it is once I wear AJ here down."
In the bunk above her a frazzled Granola Bay let out a sigh as she sat in a lotus position, struggling to attain a state of calm through meditation. The other occupants of the cell, an assortment of saloon girls and female patrons from The Salt Lick who'd gotten caught up in the fight, ignored them in favor of a half hearted game of gin rummy played with a deck the jailer had kindly provided them.
Greta, Baron Redtail's griffin maid, sat huddled in the corner looking dejected with a bandaged beak, bound wings, and burlap sacks stuffed with cotton tied on over her talons and paws to neutralize her claws. Her hostile glare at Applejack upon entering the cell had been met with the fierce, growling defense of the Wonderbolt mares, quickly convincing her that discretion was the better part of valor in a three to one matchup.
She growled softly to herself and clapped her pillow bound claws over her ears as Rainbow Dash started up again. "AJ and Soarin, sittin' in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes AJ with a baby carriage."
Spitfire heaved a sigh, scraping a new line on the tally she was keeping with the tip of her hoof on the planks above her. "Three hundred and one..."
Applejack grinned, savoring the upcoming effect she knew would come from her response. "Ya ain't gonna get a rise outta me, Rainbow, 'cos everything yer sayin' is one hundred percent true."
Dash rounded on her, stopping mid rhyme with her maroon eyes going wide. "AJ and Soarin sittin' in a WHAT?"
The blonde farm mare grinned wider. "Eeyup. Him n' me just got engaged. We're gonna get hitched once all this Pegathalon nonsense is done with."
At this, Spitfire sat bolt upright on her bunk, banging her head on the graffiti scrawled planks and causing Granola Bay to lose her balance and topple onto her side, where she cursed under her breath while trying to untangle her hind legs. The blaze yellow mare's expression was equal in shock to Dash's. "What? When did this happen?"
Applejack gave her a fond smile. "In th' middle o' that big dustup, of all places."
She winked at the Wonderbolts' captain. "I reckon he'll wanna ask ya about bein' his best mare once we get outta th' hoosegow."
She turned to look Rainbow Dash in the eyes. "And I figger I'll be needin' bridlemaids. Ya want in, RD?"
The cyan pegasus let out a high pitched squeal as she surged forward and threw her fore hooves around Applejack's neck in a tight hug. "OhmygoshohmygoshohmygoshohmygoooooOOOOOsshhh!"
Spitfire climbed down from her bunk, raising a hoof to rub the new bruise on her forehead with a wince before crossing the cell to join in the embrace. "Congratulations. I know you're gonna be good to him, but I think you're gonna be good for him too."
The three mares looked over warily as they became aware of a faint sniffling sound off to their side. Greta stood regarding Applejack, her feathered cheeks damp beneath her puffy, red rimmed eyes, and she abruptly extended a comically pillow-wrapped talon as she spoke in a voice made thick by swollen sinuses and a welling of emotion. "Dad iz da mozt touchingk ding I hab ebber heard. Profezzing vun's lub id da heed ub glorioudz baddle, how robadingk! You hab by congradulashuds, pody!"
Applejack took her swaddled claw in hoof and gave it a firm shake. "Well, I reckon I appreciate it, ma'am."
She gave a conciliatory nod toward the griffoness' bandaged beak. "I hope ya can find it in yer heart t' forgive me fer buckin' ya in th' kisser. I'm powerful sorry, but I had t' do it t' get my point across t' yer boss."
Greta drew herself up with a dismissive wave of her talon. "Zay doh bore. I doh wad id iz do vant do defed da bale you lub vid body und zoul. I rezpegd a varrior baid who fides for her lub zo fiercely."
The blond mare chuckled gently and shook her head. "Warrior maid? Shucks, ma'am, I ain't nothin' but a simple apple farmer who wants t' protect th' ponies she cares about. Simple as that."
The griffoness slumped her shoulders, shifting her wings in their bindings with a sigh. "Id trudh I enby you. Da vun I lub cad debber doh aboud by true feeligs."
Applejack laid a hoof on her shoulder. "Well, I ain't gonna tell ya how t' run yer life, sugarcube, but if'n them feelin's are true, then tellin' th' one ya fancy 'bout 'em might not be th' worst thing y'can do. Keepin' that sorta stuff bottled up inside can be a powerful source o' misery fer anypony. Sometimes it's worth takin' th' chance n' tellin' it like it is."
Greta shook her head with a sad, fragile smile. "Libe iz zo budge zibbler for you podies."
She blinked her wistfulness away and gave a bow. "Bud doh madder, I vish you da bezd ub lug, pody, ad bay your dedst be woben tide ad hab beddy strog chiggz id id."
The blonde mare smiled back at her. "I'm sure the same goes fer you with whatever it was ya just said. And ya can feel free t' call me Applejack if'n ya like, sugarcube. Yer only a stranger 'til ya reach out a hoof, or claw or whatever, in friendship to a member o' th' Apple family."
The griffoness bowed again, a smile curling at the sides of her bandaged beak. "I ab Gredda Vod Beegsteid, and I ab oddored do call you fred, Abblejagg."
She laid one of her bag bound talons to her forehead, her tail drooping as she weaved a bit on her other feet. "Dow iv you vill eggsguze be, all diz dalkig idz gibbing be a beeg ache. I deed do lie dowd."
As Applejack, Spitfire, and Dash watched her cross back to her bunk, their ears perked at the sound of keys jangling outside the bars. They turned to see the stern faced matron standing there glaring at them. "Prisoner Applejack Apple. Ya got a visitor."
The blonde farm mare let out a weary sigh as they led her into the visitor's room and she saw her younger sister sitting in the chair opposite the row of bars dividing the small chamber.
Apple Bloom shook her head as she regarded her black and white stripe clad sibling enter, her leg irons clattering on the hardwood floor. "Tarnation, now that is a sight I never reckoned t' see in all my born days."
Applejack slouched into her seat opposite the red haired handymare, meeting her gaze with morose green eyes. "Yeah, I was fixin' t' give ya a li'l piece o' my mind about that fight ya got into with Scootaloo in Manehattan, but I guess I ain't quite got th' high ground 'bout that sorta thing anymore."
The younger mare shook her head with a wry smile. "I reckon not, but I woulda taken a couple nights in th' slammer over what me n' Pip went thru afterward."
She propped her chin up on a hoof, leaning on the wooden table bisected by the bars. "Havin' a special somepony sure ain't always easy."
Applejack nodded ruefully. "Eeyup. Sure 'nuff." A fond smile spread across her face. "It can be worth it, tho."
Her expression brightened. "By th' way, 'fore too much more time goes by, I wanted t' tell ya, me n' Soarin are engaged t' be hitched now! Y'wanna be my maid o' honor?"
The hard stone walls of the room echoed with the clatter of furniture on hardwood as Apple Bloom toppled backwards out of her chair. The young mare climbed painfully to her hooves, cocking an eyebrow at her sister. "Land sakes! Wait 'til I'm sittin' down t' spring stuff like that on me."
Applejack cocked an eyebrow right back. "Y'were already sittin' down, sugarcube."
The red headed handymare huffed as she set the chair back on its legs and sat down again. "Then wait 'til I've properly secured my seat with a few nails n' some wood glue."
Her indignant expression shifted to a smile of earnest joy. "Well, congratulations. I'd be right proud t' be yer maid o' honor. Soarin's a right good stallion and I reckon he'll make a fine brother n' law. "
The younger Apple sister's pale yellow face became thoughtful as she leaned forward and propped her chin on her hooves. "Y'know, speakin' o' brothers, I dunno if'n that bit o' news will make ol' Mac feel better or worse once he hears ya landed yer rump in th' hoosegow. He might be set on hammerin' Soarin into th' ground like a fence post once y'all get back t' Ponyville."
Her older sibling snorted and waved a hoof. "If'n he wanted t' try it he'd have t' go through me first."
Apple Bloom grinned at her. "I don't figure there'd be enough of him fer ya t' trouble yerself over once Fluttershy got through with him."
Applejack nodded matter of factly. "Yeah, I better break th' news t' her next after I tell Granny Smith."
The young handymare sighed as she crossed her fore hooves on the table and rested her chin on them. "So... three days, huh?"
Her elder sister nodded. "Eeyup. T'ain't bad as all that. I got some good company in there with me, n' the grub's passable if uninspired. It's a bit o' bother t' miss a couple days work on th' farm, but that's just a l'il extra overtime for th' farmhoofs, n' Mac n' Granny can pick up th' rest o' th' slack management wise."
She huffed and propped her hoof on her chin. "The worst part of it, t' be honest, is that it's gonna drag this ol' Pegathalon business out another half a week. I'm only gonna get t' see Soarin' long enough t' say goodbye before y'all go gallivantin' off across th' San Palomino desert. Then it's back t' Sweet Apple Acres n' bitin' my hooves all day long fer me."
Apple Bloom gave her big sister a smile and reached through the bars to take her sister's hoof. "Save them hooves fer buckin' apples, sis. We're gonna make it all th' way and be back before ya know it."
Both sisters looked up curiously as a knock came to the door, and a deputy poked his head in through the door. "Pardon, y'all, but y'got a couple more visitors."
He stepped aside as a frazzled looking Twilight and Rarity stepped into the room and joined Apple Bloom on her side of the bars. Applejack gave them a sheepish wave. "Howdy there, gals. How's it goin'?"
The lavender unicorn sighed as she dragged a chair over with her magic and plunked down in it. "Nowhere, for three whole days. Not without Soarin flying as wingpony for Pip. That judge is the stubbornest, most cantankerous old pony I've ever had the displeasure of spending an afternoon arguing with, and that's counting tenured faculty at Canterlot U."
Rarity took a seat beside her, daintily dusting it off with her tail before sitting. "He's a sharp hoof at canasta, though. I'll grant him that."
She cast a pitying look through the bars at Applejack. "Darling, those black and white stripes aren't doing you any favors. The only mare I've ever seen that look work for is Zecora."
The blonde mare rolled her eyes, then let out a sigh. "Well, I reckon it serves me right fer causin' everypony so much trouble."
Twilight ground her hooves on the tabletop. "It wasn't you, it was those... those... those two..." She lapsed into a growl as Rarity gave a weary sigh and patted her on the shoulder.
The lavender scholar huffed. "I have a mind to write a strongly worded letter to Princess Celestia about this team she's sponsoring."
Apple Bloom tapped a hoof on her chin, a thoughtful expression settling on her face. "Y'know, we got a princess on our side too. What if we wrote t' Princess Luna, see if'n we could get some kinda royal pardon fer Soarin."
Twilight's expression became pensive. "You know, that's a good point. It's worth at least asking."
Applejack pursed her lips. "I dunno, gals. I know how important winnin' this race is t' y'all, but just 'cos it's inconvenient fer ya don't mean it ain't right fer Soarin t' serve out his sentence. Deserved or not, he did fetch that Shootin' Star colt a beatdown fer th' record books."
Apple Bloom cocked an eyebrow as she tapped a hoof on the tabletop. "Well, Princess Celestia gave them no account Flim Flam brothers a commuted sentence fer disruptin' our demonstration in Canterlot n' causin' a general panic in th' first place. It only seems fair fer Luna t' do th' same fer Soarin."
Rarity favored her with a fond smile. "Darling, what would we ever do without you?"
The young mare shrugged, rubbing the back of her head self consciously. "Well, I'm an engineer. I solve practical problems..."
Twilight brightened up, her eyes filled with resolve. "Yes! I'll need to find Spike so we can get those letters written up."
The alabaster fasionista and chuckled slyly into her hoof. "Last I saw him he was hurrying over to welcome a certain dainty dragonette to Appleloosa when he saw her touching down on the outskirts of town with her entourage. You were just getting into it with Judge Bean when he left."
The lavender mare let out a long, weary sigh as she rubbed her temple with a hoof. "One problem at a time..."
Rarity rubbed a hoof down her back with a wry grin on her pale face. "I think you mean project, darling. One project at a time." Twilight let out another mournful sigh and let her face slam down on the table.
Apple Bloom rolled her eyes, and hopped down from her chair. "Well, whatever y'all wanna call it, we better get crackin'." She turned to give a wave to Applejack. "Okay, sis. I'll make sure we come by n' see ya 'fore we head out. Congratulations on yer engagement t' Soarin."
At this, Twilight and Rarity's heads whipped around, their eyes going wide in surprise as they spoke in unison. "WHAT?"
The blonde farm mare propped her chin on her hoof. "I guess I'm gonna be goin' through this a lot over th' next few days."
As darkness finally crept over Appleloosa, Professor Destiny and Doctor Insanity finally crept out from under the half ruined remains of the Salt Lick, crawling on their bellies carefully to keep from jingling the chain that held their front legs together via manacles secured around the fetlock.
When they saw that the coast was clear, they got to their hooves and set off at an awkward canter down the darkened streets, their hoofcuff linked forelegs making it very difficult to maintain a regular pace without falling down or breaking into a heated, whispered argument.
As they rounded an out of the way corner, Doctor Insanity screeched to a halt, his bloodshot eyes going wide behind his cracked spectacles as Professor Destiny pitched forward onto his snout with a yelp. He staggered forward, dragging his supine brother forward through the gravel and dirt as he intoned in horror. "Egads! Where are our flying harnesses!?"
Destiny's head shot upright like the flag on a mailbox, bits of gravel dropping out of the frazzled wreckage of his mustache as he stared at the empty space where he and his sibling had left the winged B.A.T. 19s. "No! NO! We've been robbed! Guards! Help! We've been ROBBED!"
Insanity snarled and bonked him on the head with a hoof. "Enough! Do you realize what you're saying?"
His brother scowled back at him, rubbing the bruise petulantly as he averted his gaze. "Oh... Right. Of course..."
They both recoiled with a startled cry as the top half of a nearby door flew open with a bang and an elderly earth pony craned her scrawny neck out to get a look around and brandished a cast iron skillet in the crook of her hoof. "Scram, ya consarned crazy buffalo! T'ain't no dagnabbed Tatonto here!"
Doctor Insanity cleared his throat and tried to sound ingratiating as he turned to face her. "Er... pardon me, madam..."
She squinted at him in the gathering darkness. "I ain't no madam, sonny, I'm a concierge."
He pressed on, scowling at Destiny as his sibling's attempts to climb to his hooves pulled him a bit off balance. "I... Ow, stop that you simpleton..."
She narrowed her eyes. "What'd ya call me, sonny?"
Insanity lashed his tail as he attempted to widen his smile, turning it from an oily grin to a rictus grimace. "I was speaking to my brother, ma'am." He snarled and yanked the Professor upright, then went back to an obsequious tone and manner as he turned to face her again. "I was wondering, ma'am, whether you might have seen what happened to the devices that were left in this alley?"
The elderly pony furrowed her wrinkled brow. "Y'all mean them bat winged contraptions?" She gave a shrug of supreme indifference. "Sheriff's deputies took 'em away. They was blockin' this here alley n' had to go."
The self proclaimed Doctor fought to keep his voice even as he replied. "Ah! Ah... W-well, would... would you know where they might have taken them?"
The pony crone rubbed her stubbly chin with a hoof. "Hmmm. Well, I reckon they'd take it t' the impound shed out back o' th' jailhouse. That's where they take wagons n' suchlike what need hauled away."
She gave another shrug. "Or they mighta just took 'em off to chop up fer firewood. I dunno."
Upon hearing this, Professor Destiny's eyes rolled back in his head, and he toppled sideways with a bubbling froth dribbling from underneath his frayed mustache. Struggling to keep from being pulled to the ground by his sibling's fall, Doctor Insanity also fought to keep the note of hysterics out of his voice as he galloped awkwardly away, hauling his insensate brother behind him through the dirt and gravel by their chain linked hooves. "Well, thank you for your help, madam. Now... now if you'll pardon us."
She brandished her skillet after them. "Pardon ya? Y'all look like ya woudn't even get parole. And I ain't no madam! I'm a concierge!"
The waxing moon gleamed like the eye of an angry cat over the stone towers of Baltimare's harbor citadel. Gillaume LaFish scowled as he banged a tin cup on the bars of the cell he shared with his brothers, shouting after the burly earth pony jailer who'd just delivered their evening meal. "We want somethin' else besides freakin' plain oatmeal, eh?"
The guard gave a dismissive flick of his tail. "There's plenty of hay if you want."
The bedraggled prisoner stuck out his pointed tongue in disgust. "We're griffins, not ponies, eh? We need some meat, or some fish! There's a whole bay full of fish out there for us to eat."
The earth pony looked back at them with a steady glare. "Anytime you want to tell us why you lot tried to send two good ponies to the bottom of that bay, we'll consider sending somepony out to catch some fish for you, but until then you eat what the other prisoners eat."
Gilliaume shoved a talon between the bars and made what was probably a very rude gesture beneath the mitten covering his claws. "Get bent, flathoof. We ain't talkin'."
The guard flicked an ear in irritation and continued on his rounds, the clack clack of his iron shod hooves ringing hollowly down the concrete hallway.
Gaston sullenly stirred his blunt spork through the thick, steaming porridge in his bowl, casting a wan glare at his brother. "Why ain't we talkin', mon frere? I'm gettin' sick o' chokin' this slop down."
His heavyset brother turned and gave him a grin, laying a canvas wrapped claw alongside the tip of his beak. "'Cos I sent a letter to you know who..."
Gervais looked up from his dinner, popping the straw loose from his bandaged beak. "Oo?"
Gilliame rolled his eyes. "The one who hired us, clamhead."
The scrawny griffin nodded in dim understanding, and went back to sucking up oatmeal through a gap in the bandages. His older brother huffed and continued. "Like I said, I sent a letter, letting her know that if she didn't want us sayin' her name to th' guards, she'd have to pay us a lot more money."
Gaston took a bite of oatmeal, grimaced, and then cocked an eyebrow at his brother. "How we gonna spend all this money if we're in the pony pokey, mon frere?"
The burly griffon opened his mouth to respond, closed it, then stroked his chin in thought. He ruffled his wings and scowled irritably at his brothers. "I'll figure that out, just let me sleep on it a little, eh?"
The cell went dark, shadows seeming to bleed from the cracks, crevices, and corners of the rough stone walls, as an eerie female voice with growling undertones of something deep and ancient rumbled in the suddenly oppressive air. "I wouldn't count on getting much of that, my little kittenchicks. Not while I rule the night."
Bowls of oatmeal splattered on the floor as the three griffin brothers scrabbled to their feet and huddled together, their eyes wide, their tail tufts frizzed, and the feathers on their backs bristling in terror between flared wings. They backed into the cold stone of one of the corners of their cell, as the blackness coalesced into the ebon outline of a tall, winged mare with a tapering horn rising from the diadem over a pair of freezing white eyes.
It stepped forward, the sound of its hoof on the concrete like a claw dragging across a tombstone, and spoke again in the terrible voice. "You have attacked those who bear my sigil and fly beneath my banner, and what's worse you have attempted to do harm to a young pony who is very dear to me. I would know the reason why, or none of you will know a peaceful night's sleep until I do."
The LaFish brothers quivered and sobbed, as the shadow spread its wings over them, blotting out all light and leaving them feeling plucked and defenseless in an endless cold void. "So what'll it be, boys? Ya gonna put me some knowledge, or should I put you some nightmares?"
The sound of thunder crackled through the blackness, as the trio of griffins screamed like little chicks and started to blabber everything they knew.
A short, stumbling flight through the twilight streets of Appleloosa, and a dunking of a half conscious unicorn's head in a public watering trough later, Destiny and Insanity crouched at the perimeter fence surrounding the municipal impound shed. Several large, very mean looking dogs paced the grounds between the stoutly built building and the jailhouse, and a heavy padlock secured the doors.
Doctor Insanity narrowed his eyes over his cracked spectacles, whispering to his mustachioed sibling. "I think we're going to need Otto for this one, brother."
Professor Destiny looked over the security surrounding his precious invention, his left eye twitching fitfully. "Yes, him and a heavy cavalry regiment."
The clean shaven unicorn turned and jabbed his free hoof hard in his sibling's chest. "Don't you DARE lose your backbone on me now, brother. You've dragged me halfway across Equestria for this, and by Tartarus' tea trolley we are going to see it through to the bitter end."
He jerked at the chain binding them by their fore hooves. "Now come on, your pet troglodyte should be waiting for us at the rendezvous site by now."
Destiny glanced nervously over his shoulder at the well guarded shed, and meekly followed Insanity into the shadows.
Warden Lockdown sat nervously at his desk, shuffling papers as a pair of leathery winged negasi in the violet and midnight blue armor of Princess Luna's personal guard stood in his office, staring at him impassively with their lambent yellow eyes. He climbed to his hooves at the sound of his door opening and the delicate tap tap of silver horseshoes on the concrete outside, and bowed his grey head as the moon's immortal mistress entered the room, grinning to herself in satisfaction.
She bobbed her horn to bid him rise and be seated, then gave a toss of her starry mane. "Well, that went swimmingly. Didn't even have to break out the ol' plastic fangs to get those birds singing."
She gave the warden a wry smile and a wink. "Although you might want to change the paper lining the bottom of their cage."
Luna waved her horn and her guards snapped to attention. "And speaking of paper, I've got an arrest warrant for a certain pink pill of a princess that I want going out over the wires on the A.S.A.P., okay colts? Somepony's just earned herself a royal flank spanking."
With that she wheeled and sashayed out of the room with her guards in tow. "Okay, TTFN, Warden. I've got to get back to Canterlot so my sister can get to bed. You've been a total doll. Have a nice night."
The warden breathed a sigh of relief after she was gone. Like many bureaucrats, he often felt a vague unease around those who could make decisions as fast as new information came to them, and the constant sense that the night princess was enjoying a private joke that nopony around her was capable of getting made him feel downright skittish.
He let out a yelp as a greenish flare burst over his desk, releasing a spiral of glittering smoke that coalesced into a roll of parchment bearing Princess Luna's silver crescent seal on the purple ribbon holding it closed. He blinked at it as it landed lightly on the stack of paperwork he'd been working on, then let out a gasp as he realized its significance.
He lurched to his hooves, plucking the missive in his teeth as he galloped into the hallway. "Your highneff! You got a meffage!"
The portly earth pony skidded to a stop next to a wide open window, huffing and puffing as he watched a bat winged chariot disappear in the distance, trailing a cloud of twinkling stars in its wake. He dropped the note into his hoof, and shook his head. The message would just have to got out with tomorrow morning's mail.
The dim orange light of what passed for day in the badlands had faded to pitch blackness, the night bringing with it bone chilling cold in the wake of the stifling heat that radiated from a trackless expanse of cracked, brick colored dirt. The wind stirred fitfully between the large, nightmarish rock formations, blowing shifting clouds of sand into the oppressive atmosphere.
Diamond Tiara had been walking for hours, the blowing grit sticking to the rapidly dried changeling slime that had coated her from snout to bedraggled tail and covering her with a nasty brown crust that seemed to suck the very moisture out of her, leaving her feeling parched to her very core. A dull pit of hunger in her belly was rapidly sapping the rest of her vitality, drawing every scrap of energy into itself beyond the bare minimum needed to feel miserable and put one stumbling hoof in front of another.
She'd screamed her disbelief at her situation, demanding that it all be some kind of terrible dream. She'd raged and kicked and shrieked, threatening a thousand brutal and meticulous forms of revenge against any and all tormenters. She'd offered the monsters lurking beneath the uncaring stones wealth and treasures beyond their alien minds' dreams of avarice in exchange for solace. She'd collapsed in a sobbing heap, weeping and groveling in the sand, crushed beneath the weight of her self pity. Finally, with no answer but the moaning winds, she'd climbed to her hooves and shuffled away, realizing that to stay where she was was to perish in the desert.
Finally, as darkness enveloped her, a misstep, a fall, and a painful impact that rattled the teeth in her head. She found herself lying sprawled on the jagged gravel, the last of her strength leaking out of the corners of her heavy lidded eyes as a sickly trail of tears. She let out a sound more like a rattle than a sob, knowing in her heart that this was the end. She would expire here, her sad little body vanishing as the wind dried it out and blew it away.
She knew. In the depths of her withering heart, she knew. Nopony would care. Nopony would mourn her. Nopony loved her. Nopony even liked her.
Her miserable, useless lump of a husband would probably kick up his hooves and drink away the fortune he'd inherit from her, then turn his loathsome charm on some other well to do mare to keep himself living in the style to which he was accustomed.
Her father and mother had thrown up their hooves over her long ago, which at the time had been quite all right with her as she'd gotten heartily sick of their lecturing. They mostly communicated via lawyers since she'd taken over the family business empire and shoved them off the board, sending her despairing father into early retirement and her bitter snipe of a mother off to a "resort" staffed by ponies in clean white coats.
The last pony she could call a real friend she'd betrayed back in high school, breaking their bond with a terrible public humiliation for the crime of being crowned Prom Princess in her stead. That had been the last straw for many of her classmates, who turned their backs on her in disgust leaving her the only one laughing.
She'd left Ponyville behind soon afterward, intent on climbing to the top of her own mountain and not caring who'd be left tarnished and discarded in her wake.
Now she was the one who'd been discarded, and now she had nothing. They would all probably laugh at her. They'd tell her she deserved it. To expire in the freezing dirt, starving, exhausted, alone.
It wasn't fair. Somewhere, a certain red headed bumpkin of a mare was laughing around a cheery fire with her family and friends, well fed, well hydrated, well rested, well loved.
It was always the same, and it wasn't fair. Oh how she hated the little hayseed, with a hate that had grown like an ember kindling into an orchard fire since the day this grubby little interloper with her big pink bow and her annoyingly friendly smile had been set down in her playpen. She'd been asked, nay, commanded to share her toys with the Apple kid while her busy Daddy diverted his precious attention from his princess to talk business with the intruder's wrinkled old Granny. That first meeting, the day that ruined everything forever.
It was too much, the idea that somewhere, she was happy while Diamond Tiara lay gasping out her final breath in misery. A spark kindled in her heart, sending a sluggish surge of energy along her weary limbs. A low, feral growl rattled in her throat as she feebly pushed herself up onto unsteady hooves. She wasn't going to give her despised rival the satisfaction. She absolutely refused with every fiber of her being to let her win by default.
Her cracked lips parted, and two words dripping with primal loathing surged forth as she took one step, then another, then another, then another. "Apple... Bloom..."
The young handymare sneezed violently, then sniffled and rubbed a hoof across her snout as she shook it off and leaned back in to Pip's side in front of her Aunt Pan Dowdy's fireplace.
The warm glow of the flames glinted off of the youthful stallion's smile as he pulled the wooly blanket they were sharing a bit tighter. "Bless you, luv. You cold?"
Apple Bloom shook her head. "I'm just fine, sugar. I guess th' dry desert air 'round here is gettin' t' me or somethin'."
She turned with a smile as her bustling aunt set down two cups of hot tea on end table beside them. "Here's some tea with honey n' lemon. Don't want you kids t' catch a chill, and it'll keep y'all from gettin' a cough from a dry throat."
The redheaded earth pony smiled up at her aunt. "Thanks a bunch, Auntie Pan. Y'all're too good t' us."
The chubby older mare chuckled as she headed back into the kitchen. "It's always good t' have a few more seats bein' warmed 'round th' fire, 'specially when it's family."
She cast Pip a wink, causing a blush to blossom on the spotted stallion's cheeks. "'And family t' be, too."
Apple Bloom let out a chuckle. "Not so fast there, Auntie. Me n' Pip are still new t' this, and it's way too soon t' be ringin' weddin' bells fer us when AJ's just gettin'
hers off th' ground."
The matronly earth pony smiled and nodded indulgently. "All right, dumplin', all right. Plenty o' time t' work it out."
Her voice took on a singsong quality as she paused in the doorway. "There's more pie in th' icebox if'n yer still hungry. I'd be right happy t' warm it up fer y'all if'n ya like."
Apple Bloom shook her head after sharing a grin with Pip. "No thank ya, Auntie. I'm still feelin' stuffed fit t' bust buttons from supper."
Pip spoke up with a wide grin. "Fear not, ma'am. I intend to taste your exquisite pastries again ere I take wing on the next leg of my journey, and I'm fairly certain my good chum Soarin will be quite enthusiastic about your delectable brand of culinary magic as well, once he can rejoin us."
Pan Dowdy tittered into her hoof as she vanished through the door. "Oh Mister Pip, you are a caution!"
Apple Bloom cast him a sidelong glance with a wryly cocked eyebrow. "Still charmin' the horseshoes off o' all th' ladies, ain't ya?"
He smiled at her. "Well, your dear auntie has done much to fill my belly, but there's only one mare who can fill my heart, dear."
She smiled back and gave him a peck on the cheek, then snuggled in tighter as he slipped a foreleg around her shoulders. "It's been quite a day, ain't it?"
He shifted slightly as she laid her head on his shoulder, smiling as he smelled the faint scent of wood shavings on her apple red tresses. "Rather. But any day I can spend with you is a jolly good one, luv, no matter what happens."
She gave a cooing murmur in return as she drifted off to sleep, surrounded by warmth and contentment.
The characters depicted in this fiction are copyright and trademarks of Hasbro, Inc. This is a work of fan fiction, and the author makes no claim on Hasbro's copyright or trademarks.