The way she used to be: Chapter 1

The mist coming in from over Horseshoe Bay always seems much more prominent around Hearts and Hooves Day. Nopony knows for sure why this should be: the archivist at the Baltimare Library, who’s studied the records for half a century, says it’s purely a figment of everypony’s imagination, that the winds and the humidity levels are typical for late winter in this part of Equestria, and besides, twenty years ago the local Weather Patrol officially denied that they had anything to do with the phenomenon.

None of this creates a problem, necessarily, unless you happen to be on the Baltimare waterfront at sunrise and you happen to dislike getting a faceful of mist. The old pony, alone on a bench, gave no indication of his feelings on the matter: he kept his head down, as though he were in mourning.

“Hello,” said a voice.

The old pony looked up. A bright yellow filly, old enough to have a cutie mark, but not much more than that. And a unicorn, even. Unicorns usually didn’t come down to the waterfront; they conducted their business in the tall buildings that scowled down on the streets of Baltimare.

“Hello?” said the voice again.

“Oh,” said the old pony. “Hello. I apologize for my rudeness. I was … thinking.”

The filly looked up at him. “Are you all right?”

He nodded. “I’m fine. Just … thinking.”

No further explanation was forthcoming. “Well, bye,” said the filly, trotting on.

The old pony sat there in silence. Nothing to be gained, he reckoned, by chatting up underage females within a couple of blocks of the police station. Although he did wonder: what was she doing out here at this hour? Walking to school? Unlikely, he thought; most of the unicorn families he’d known sent their foals to the private school on the other side of the hill.

And then he realized he hadn’t even noticed whether she had a backpack, and wondered if maybe he was finally falling asleep. He dragged himself to his hooves and headed for home.

|—-|

He awoke about noon. It wasn’t a lot of sleep, but it would have to do. He stretched, rolled out of bed, and wondered if last night’s leftover pizza still counted as breakfast that late in the day. “And what does it matter anyway?” he said.

For a moment, he thought about going back to the plant. He had friends there still, and at least it was noisy; he wasn’t used to this much quiet, though in deference to his neighbors he didn’t make any noise of his own. But he suspected that the new management would not be happy to see him, inasmuch as they had paid him a rather ridiculous number of bits to go away. He’d never have to work another day in his life if he didn’t want to.

And he was bored out of his mind. In a week he’d made four trips to the library, hit up every museum, every gallery, everything within walking distance that looked even slightly interesting. He thought about that one mare he’d gone out with a couple of times shortly after he’d turned thirty-five; this was, he remembered, exactly the kind of life — “lifestyle,” she’d say, which always grated on his nerves — that she’d said she always wanted. Did she ever get it? He didn’t know; they had, after all, only gone out a couple of times, and nothing seemed to click. Then again, according to that book he’d borrowed the day before yesterday, of all the possible romantic combinations, the most problematic was unicorn/earth pony, what with their utterly different reactions to pure physicality. “In the heat of the moment,” the author had claimed, “the ferocity of the earth pony may overwhelm a unicorn used to reacting cerebrally.” He laughed. Obviously some unicorn had to have written that. At his scariest, he had discovered, he was about as ferocious as a newly-whelped puppy, and she had had desires he’d never so much as dreamed of. And then he stopped laughing, because he’d been the object of absolutely nopony’s desire ever since.

“Which is probably just as well,” he muttered, settling into a chair with a new book.

|—-|

About four the next morning, having once again failed to bore himself into slumber, the old pony clambered down the stairs of his townhouse and walked the two blocks to the waterfront. The mist, as usual, obscured the view of Luna’s current star arrangement, but he wouldn’t be looking toward the night sky; he might be gazing across the bay, toward the sea he’d never seen, or he might be looking in the opposite direction, toward what he’d once left behind.

The filly showed up just before sunrise, and this time she wasn’t alone. “There he is!” she chirped.

“So I see,” said a second voice. He looked up: another unicorn, this one a full-grown mare. Probably her mother. “You run along now,” said Mom. “I’ll take care of this.”

The filly obediently trotted away, and the mare introduced herself. “I’m Needful Way. I’m a social worker.” She offered a hoof; he took it.

“Broken Spoke. Former carriage designer.”

“Former?”

“The board decided I was too old to run my own company anymore, so they ran me off.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Are you … I mean, do you have a place to live?”

“I have a townhouse a couple of blocks away. Why?”

“My daughter has seen you on this bench several times, and she thought maybe you might be …” She choked for a moment.

“Homeless?” he said.

“I was looking for a kinder way to phrase it,” said the social worker, “but there really isn’t one, is there?”

“No, there isn’t.” He tried to force a smile. “If you’re looking for ponies who need a place to stay, there’s one who sleeps in the old Wheelwright warehouse.”

“Used to, anyway,” she said. “About a week ago he was found dead.”

He cringed. “Something got him?”

“Just exposure to the elements. He’d been hiding out there since before Hearth’s Warming Eve, and it eventually got too cold for him. Old earth ponies just don’t have the same resistance to the cold that the younger ones do. And sometimes they don’t realize that.”

“So your job,” he said, “involves telling me to beware of the cold?”

“If necessary, yes,” she replied. “That poor pony had no money, no family, and maybe if we’d found him earlier, we might have been able to save him.” She sighed. “And now he’s gone. I wouldn’t want that to happen to you. I wouldn’t want that to happen to anypony.”

He looked at her. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to impugn your profession. I’m just not used to being worried about.”

“And your family?”

“Long gone. Both parents died; never had a brother or a sister. It’s just me out here.”

She persisted. “Do you at least have a Very Special Somepony?”

For a moment, he looked beyond her, away from the coast, toward a place he barely remembered.

Finally, he spoke. “For forty years,” he said, “I have loved only one mare. Well, she was a filly back then, but … but she was always the one.” He shook his head. “If only she knew…”

|—-|

We never should have been in Ponyville in the first place, and we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t gotten confused in the Canterlot train station. Dad was sure he was right, Mom wasn’t about to correct him, and the pony taking tickets didn’t notice. So instead of a three-day ride back to Baltimare, we had a half-day ride to Ponyville, and of course it was too late to do anything about it when we arrived, so we planned to spend the night and double back the next day.

Apparently this town wasn’t big enough to have an actual hotel by the station, so we gathered our bags and trudged into town. The first pony to see us was this crazed mare who talked like a hundred words a minute with gusts up to one-forty. And for some reason she smelled like cotton candy, of all things. I’d never seen anypony so happy to meet perfect strangers, and she didn’t even flinch when Dad said that we were all tired out, dammit, and where was the nearest inn?

Mom tried to be polite to her. “What’s there to do here in the mornings? Our train doesn’t leave until noon.”

“Well,” said Crazed Mare, “it’s the first day of Cider Season at Sweet Apple Acres, just on the edge of town, and you don’t want to miss that! And you want to get there early, like just after sunrise, or maybe even before sunrise, but the main thing is getting there early, before Rainbow Dash drinks it all up.”

“We don’t do cider,” Dad said. “The colt here” — he pointed at me — “is too young for that sort of thing.”

“Aw, no he’s not. Just ask for the Foal Special. It’s safe for underage colts and fillies. Though I guess if they’re colts and fillies they’d have to be underage, wouldn’t they?”

“I think I’d like that,” Mom declared, and Dad gave in. “Okay, cider it is.”

So the next morning, right at sunrise, we were about fiftieth in line outside the gate to this apple orchard, and I was looking around to make sure I wasn’t the youngest pony there, because I always hated being surrounded by grownups. I knew they weren’t really going to gang up on me and make my life miserable, but I couldn’t take that chance.

And then, about ten places behind us, I saw her.

She was a little taller than I was, and her poofy scarlet mane made her look more so. She had these humongous spectacles taking up half her face, and a bulbous nose to hold them up. I suppose she wasn’t really beautiful, but the fillies back home were all trying their best to look exactly alike, and they all seemed to wind up equally boring. For some reason I got it into my head that this filly would not be boring. But what did I know? I was eleven and had never come close to having a fillyfriend, beautiful or otherwise. “And I probably never will,” I said to myself, falling back into line.

The gates opened, and what had been a well-behaved line suddenly turned into a stampede. I cut to the left to avoid being run over. Then, of course, I promptly got run over.

I was still pretty resilient in those days, so I got up quickly enough, and there she was. “I’m so sorry,” she said, with just a hint of a lisp. “New glasses. I’m not used to them yet.”

“It takes time,” I said, pretending I knew what I was talking about. “We better go get some cider before Rainbow Dash drinks it all.”

She flashed me the biggest smile I’d ever seen. “You — you know Rainbow Dash?”

“Uh, no, not really,” I admitted. “But apparently she has quite a reputation.”

She looked at me again. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”

“The newest. But we’re only here for today.”

“Oh.” Her face fell. She was disappointed that I wasn’t going to be around? That’s a first. “Where do you live?”

“Baltimare,” I answered.

“That sounds so exciting,” she said, still mangling the occasional S-sound. “I’ve never been anywhere.”

“It’s okay, I guess. Not a pretty place, but it’s home.”

Somepony brought us cups of cider and asked for four bits, which I paid because I thought it would make me look cool, and because I was grateful they hadn’t asked for five, which was all I had.

The filly smiled. “My coltfriend never has any money.”

It was my turn to be crestfallen. “You … have a coltfriend?”

“Well, I thought I did,” she said, “but he didn’t bother to show up. Again.”

I was ready to commiserate with her, but then I realized that after today, I wouldn’t be showing up.

Just then, a stallion’s voice rang out: “Twist! We’re leaving!”

She gulped down the last of the cider. “I have to go. Thank you for the cider, and I’m really sorry I knocked you down.” She trotted away, and it dawned on me that I’d never even told her my name.

The things I said to myself on the train back to Canterlot would have gotten me grounded for sure if I’d said them out loud.

“A sweet story,” said the social worker. “You know what you’re going to have to do now, right?”

“You can’t be serious,” the old pony said.

“You need closure, one way or another. Maybe she’s been waiting for you all these years, maybe she hasn’t. But you’re never going to get out of this … this mood you’re in, until you find out for sure.”

“Perhaps I don’t want to know,” he protested.

“Do you really believe that?”

He shook his head. “No, not really.”

She stood up. “I can’t tell you what to do. That isn’t my job. But I can tell you this much: you’re never going to find any sort of contentment until you find her.”

She left him there on the bench. The sun was up, the mist had begun to retreat, and the clouds began to clear out of his head.

He would go to Ponyville.

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