Chapter Twenty-Seven: Distress Signals
“When the walls come tumbling down, when you lose everything you have, you always have family. And your family always has tribe.”
It wasn’t a word I’d had much use for, nor a concept I’d felt any connection to.
I had never known my father (a quite uncommon situation for a filly growing up in Stable Two). When my mother had been my age, she had spent a large portion of her time being… well, there were other words I would use if describing other ponies. But this was my mother. And for her, I chose the words “promiscuous” and “inebriated”.
Growing up, I did have my mother. But my memories of her were largely of the “sit quietly while the grown ups are talking” variety. However, she did teach me games. And even though I came to realize (even as a blankflank) that she did so more to alleviate her boredom than my own, I cherished each happy memory of playing with her -- every game of boards and strategies and brightly-colored pieces that the Stable had to offer.
But even then, I never really thought of us as “family” in a way that attached special meaning to the word.
Now, through a haze of pain, I realized this was changing. Had changed already, in fact, without my knowing it.
With the painkillers worn off and adrenaline no longer propping up my body, I could feel just how much pain I was in. The bandages had helped and probably spared me from bleeding out through the deep slashes in my chest. However, continuing to push myself while injured had harmed more than just my magic.
But I was with my friends now. There was a feeling of completeness and safety. My body could finally relax and just hurt.
Velvet Remedy had slipped into mother-doctor mode almost at the sight of me. Now that I wasn’t mentally sniffing between her hindlegs anymore, I found myself comforted by her fretful ministrations, particularly considering that she did a much better job of mothering me than my actual mother ever had.
In truth, these ponies had become my family. Family in that deeper sense of the word that means finding “home” not from the location you are at but through the people you are with.
…And my family was having an argument.
*** *** ***
“She’s a zebra!” SteelHooves exclaimed. He had kept his silence until we were well away from The Wall. But as we had approached the crumbled ruins of Java’s Cup, SteelHooves had finally questioned the presence of my new companion. I made the mistake of simply saying she was a friend.
“Yes, she is.” I was weary and hurting. My breathing was shallow, and I felt like I was constantly drowning. I wanted a bath to wash off the blood caking my coat, the stinging powder still chewing into my flank and the last of the nasty little biting insects that somehow survived along with me. And I wanted a bed that was at least softer than cement. What I did not want was this argument.
“Who has clearly manipulated you into trusting her,” SteelHooves surmised. “You can’t trust them.”
Xenith had wisely remained silent, simply choosing to follow as we moved away from The Wall and the slave pits of Stern’s Fillydelphia. But now, nettled and perhaps feeling bolstered by my assertion of friendship, the zebra retorted:
“The war is long over, and I had no part in it. Just because I have stripes does not make me an enemy combatant any more than that armor makes you a soldier in Nightmare Moon’s army.”
“Princess Luna’s army,” snapped the Steel Ranger who had indeed served in the war two-hundred years over. “Not that your kind has any right to even speak the name!”
He turned to me, “Littlepip, what are your intentions regarding the zebra? Please tell me you don’t actually expect her to travel with us.”
“Oh heavens no,” Velvet Remedy chimed in. “I’m sure she doesn’t. After all, it would just be foolish to travel with the sort of creature known for degenerating into mindless, flesh-eating…”
Xenith drew up, staring at the charcoal-coated unicorn with a look of bewilderment bordering on resentment.
“…oh wait, those aren’t zebras.” Velvet casually finished. “Those are ghouls.”
SteelHooves stopped now too, and I was sure that behind his visor he was glaring. Xenith huffed, still confused. In her exotic accent, she slowly asked Velvet, “Are you saying… I look like a ghoul?”
I hung my head. This was going downhill fast.
Velvet Remedy’s eyes widened as she realized how Xenith had taken the statement. “No, of course not,” she assured the newcomer. Then cryptically mused, “But somepony here sure smells like one.”
Xenith sniffed at her own coat. I rolled my eyes. Then, just to be sure, sniffed at my own. And gagged a little. I was rank.
Calamity swooped up to us. He had been waiting for us in front of Java’s, Spitfire’s Thunder held in his mouth. (Java had apparently been -- based on the large sign collapsed over the door -- a milk-colored stallion whose mane was a wavy light brown with dark brown streaks and whose cutie mark was a steaming cup of what I hoped were coffee beans.) But when we stopped moving forward, he decided to close the gap himself.
He landed next to me, slipping the magically-enhanced anti-machine rifle into a newly-fashioned holster on his battle saddle, and offered Xenith a hoof and a smile. “Well howdy!”
I wanted to kiss him. (Which was not a desire I normally associated with bucks.)