"Nanobars! My lord, I haven't seen these... well, since I was a boy. They stopped making them, but I have fond memories of the damn things. They're in perfect condition - they could have been made yesterday!" Anderson Ruffin let out a loud laugh "But then again, that was the deal with 'em. Claimed they'd keep near forever - where ever did you find these?"
Lillian was standing at the counter of 'Ruffin's Requisitions', the trading store run by Simon's father. Amelie was here too; trotting about excitedly, occasionally nosing at Simon, who was trying his eight-year-old best to stand still and act like a proper store owner. His jiggling leg betrayed the conflict in him between wanting to impress his father and wanting to run around with Amelie.
"I... well I found them in a corporate plantation. There was a lunchroom there, filled with vending machines. I kicked one open and stuffed my pockets. After eating my fill, first. I was... really hungry." Lillian couldn't help lowering her head slightly and grinning a bit; she felt unsure here, and a little embarrassed remembering her desperate late-night Nanobar chow-down. After everything she had been through, Anderson's friendliness was a little unsettling.
"Well, damn. I know that place, hell, everybody knows S1 - that's Saskatchewan One, the first and biggest of the farming prisons. Everybody and their grandpa's been over that ruin with a fine-tooth comb. You must be one lucky unicorn, I gotta say." Anderson was turning one of the bars over in his hands, studying it as if it were a priceless treasure. "I sure have missed these things. Used to love 'em as a child. My daddy'd bring me home one now and again, and it was always a treat. After all these years."
Anderson seemed to drift off for a moment in a sweet memory. "So, 'Graycoat' was it? You say you need a place to stay for a while and food to eat. Room and board. I think we can arrange something - in exchange for these babies, of course."
"Of course!" Lillian looked up with utterly unhidden joy at the prospect. She looked so relieved that Anderson couldn't help but grin at her. "We'll get you settled, then, come along 'Graycoat'."
It was a dumb name, probably, Lillian reflected, but she had been put on the spot. Trying to come up with a proper pony name had been the very last thing on her mind, and in the moment, she had frozen even trying to think of another human name to use. All she could think of was her own name, 'Lillian', and she did not want to use that, using her real name would just be foolish. She was wearing a gray trenchcoat. It was the only thing she could think of.
So now, she was 'Graycoat the unicorn'. Fantastic. Well, at least her actual coat was sort of gray. Maybe it worked. Then again, she had the feeling that Mr. Anderson Ruffin somehow knew that 'Graycoat' was an alias. He didn't seem to mind much, if so, though. It was more like he found it humorous, somehow.
'Ruffin's Requisitions' was once a recharge station, where electric cars could get service, repairs and juiced up, back in the days near the Collapse. Now it had been rebuilt as a his store; above the structure were a haphazard pile of ramshackle buildings. At least two transport containers had been piled up there and turned into apartments, several rounded structures reminiscent of water-towers made for turret-like homes, and clustered around these were a bizarre assortment of cobbled shacks, sheds and what looked like barns, all supported by a fairly dangerous looking mass of beams and trusses holding the mass together. Winding through the odd stack was a twisting staircase that occasionally branched off in odd directions; it mostly had a rail, or at least ropes, where it hung out over the street below.
Mr. Ruffin opened the door to what probably had been a boiler, once. The large cylinder had been outfitted with round porthole windows on three sides, and a big round door. The cylinder lay on it's side, the door was set into what had once been the top of the boiler. "Here's your new home, my good pony; as fine an apartment as anyone could hope for; rainproof, solid, and with a marvelous view of the city. It's also got a nice flat floor; put that in myself. In the back, there, you got some nice shelves, a pillow, and two comforters. One 'a them comforters is double thick; works just fine as a bed if you lay it out on floor."
The shelves were cobbled together from old crates, they looked sturdy. The floor seemed poured out of plascrete, the pillow seemed soft enough.
"Oh! Almost forgot -" Mr. Ruffin ducked down and went into the boiler-apartment, and lifted up an object on the shelf "wind-up LED lamp. Just wind this baby for a few minutes, and you got light for half an hour, maybe longer. We call this the 'Royal Suite'. If we still had a king, I'd be proud to have 'im stay here!" Mr. Ruffin grinned and put the lamp back on the shelf.
Long ago, before the Collapse, when there had still been nations and countries, Lillian vaguely remembered that Canada had enjoyed some connection with England - the Eurozone - and that they had been ruled by a king. There were no more kings, queens or presidents anymore. Just CEOs.
"Thank you very much, Mr. Ruffin! I really like it!" And she did, much to her surprise. It was strangely kicky, an eccentric little apartment that just looked cozy and friendly to her. In any case, it was wonderful just to have a dry place to sleep, and to feel that she was not being chased.
"I'll let you settle in; I need to tend my store. I'll send m'boy to call you for dinner. Come on, Simon, give our guest some peace!" The boy grumbled, but followed his father down the steps; Amelie, as always, tagged after Simon. "Bye bye, Mrs. Coat!" and with that, Lillian was alone in her new home.
Lillian closed her door with her teeth; the handle was wide and easy to grasp. It was quiet; she could hear the wind whistling at the edges of the door.
She turned carefully around in the narrow space and examined the shelves in the back; two comforters, one red and one blue, the red one seemed to be the thicker one. She tried to use the wind-up lamp; it was tricky to hold it with her hooves and turn the handle with her mouth, but she managed a few revolutions. In time she could probably get the hang of it. It was much harder to work the switch; that required biting and holding and was fairly tricky to do. She managed to switch the lamp off again and set it on the shelf with her hooves while resting on her elbows.
The porthole windows looked like they had been scavenged from a ship; they could be opened, but Lillian soon realized that she had no way to close them again. The porthole she had pushed open would require fingers to pull back from the inside; if she wanted it closed, she would have to exit the boiler and push the glass back in place from outside. Lillian was really missing her hands. She was missing being human. At the Bureau, they had claimed that not having thumbs would be no big deal, that newfoals would quickly adapt. They had lied.
Maybe, maybe in Equestria, where everything was designed and built for ponies to use, maybe having hooves was fine. But it wasn't at all easy for a pony on the run, trying to live among humans in the human world. At least it didn't seem very easy to her, right now.
Lillian was still damp, under her trenchcoat, and the rainwater soaking her coat made her back itch. She also found that her wings felt terrible; the weight of the coat made her bruised wing ache, and her feathers were also still damp, and that made however they attached to her both sting and itch. She tried to fling the side of her coat up and over her back so that she could examine her bruised wing; after some effort she was able to expose it. Lillian carefully lay down to tend to herself.
The feathers were bedraggled and sodden; they seemed to have lost whatever had made them shine. A few small feathers had fallen out; they landed on her folded legs and then the floor. Lillian tried gingerly to extend her wing; it felt stiff in the joint where it attached to her shoulderblade, she could see that it was slightly swollen there.
Lillian used her teeth to gently nibble the most itchy spots on her wing, it felt so... damn... good. She spent quite some time just engaged in that alone; the self-grooming not only helped with the itchiness, but it also somehow was terribly comforting. After a while, she whipped her body to cover that side again, and struggled to expose her other wing; it too needed attention, and before long, in the middle of nibbling at the base of her longest feathers, she heard a knock at the door.
"Daddy said to come get you, Mrs Graycoat! It's dinner time!" The knocking came again, the insistent effort of an impatient child.
"Just a moment! I'm..." I'm what? Tending my wings? No. "Um... just a moment." Lillian struggled to flop her coat back down so that it covered both sides again. It took longer than she expected, so that when she finally opened the door, Simon was hopping from one foot to the other, upset at having to wait.
"I'm sorry, Simon." Lillian gave her coat a slight shake and a look over, just to make sure it truly covered everything. "I'm right behind you."
Dinner was served in the trading store itself; shuttered for the day, the main counter also served as a dining table. Chairs and crates had been arranged around it; the chairs were for Simon and his dad Anderson, The boxy crates were wide and had pillows on them; they were clearly for Lillian and... Amelie. Apparently Amelie lived with the Ruffin's, or at least she was having dinner with them tonight.
A wok full of stir-fry was carried out by Mr. Ruffin; from the smell it was vegetarian, which was a relief to Lillian, she understood from her Bureau education that all Equestrians were compulsory lacto-vegetarians. The stir fry contained egg; ponies could digest eggs just like earthly horses could - back when earthly horses were commonplace. But anything actually made of animal flesh would only cause terrible gastric distress. Meat was no longer on the table for Lillian.
Simon was reaching into the wok to try to snag something red; possibly a bit of bell pepper. Mr. Ruffin grabbed the boy's hand and moved it away "What I tell you about reaching into the pot, huh? I don't want to see you doing that again, son, alright?" Anderson's face was stern but kindly; he just wanted his boy to learn some manners.
"Sorry, dad. I forgot." Simon looked down; his father's opinion mattered a great deal to him.
"Mrs Coat always wears her coat!" Amelie was rocking from side to side where she sat on her crate-and-pillow, giving a big pony smile to whoever might look her way.
Lillian was having trouble getting up onto her pillow-topped crate; the coat interfered with her legs, trapping them at the wrong moments.
"Looks like you're having a bit of trouble there, Graycoat. I can help you take off that coat, might make it a bit easier, dontcha' think?" Mr. Ruffin was already walking around the counter, ready to assist Lillian.
"NO! NO THANK YOU!" Lillian hadn't meant to shout the words, but the startled look on Mr. Ruffin's face made her feel bad. He was only trying to be nice. Lillian tried to think of what to say to make things better; she had to say something after such an outburst.
Briefly she considered just opening up to these nice folks. Mr. Ruffin surely wouldn't have any stake in her situation; he would probably be the kind of person who would be willing to help her. He just felt ...nice. Then again, Lillian knew nothing about him. For all she knew, he could be a covert agent for the... what? The PER? Not likely; he'd be a pony if that were the case, certainly his son would be by now. The HLF? Not a chance; it was clear that Amelie was either part of the family or a very close friend.
Still, Olivia's words came back to her: "You can't trust anyone!" It would be so nice to have someone on her side, someone she could be open with. But it was too soon; she had just met the Ruffin's... anything could be going on and she would have no way to know.
An excuse then. Some kind of excuse... but what? The truth, slightly bent. She didn't feel clever enough to fabricate anything decent. She's just have to bend the truth a little.
"Um... I'm really sorry for that, Mr. Ruffin. I'm sorry I yelled. I... I kind of have a reason for wearing this big coat." Lillian thought fast. She knew she wasn't the brightest of ponies, and she had never been good at telling lies; this was not easy for her. "I... had an accident when I was Converted." That much was certainly true.
"Something went really wrong, and... I kind of came out sort of... deformed. I... I'm really embarrassed by it. It's kind of gross, too." Yeah, make it sound disgusting, that couldn't hurt "So... I guess I'm still kind of ashamed of being all messed up like that. I'd rather keep my coat on, if that's OK." It seemed to be working; Mr. Ruffin's eyes showed concern for her. "Besides, I don't want to upset anyone's appetite with... how I look." Surely that should do the job. Hammer home the grossness factor.
"Um... I'm very sorry to hear that, Miss Graycoat. Can I at least help you get seated?" A little help would be pretty useful; the damn coat kept trapping her legs.
"I don't know what you..." Lillian began, but already Mr. Ruffin was rummaging off in his store. He brought out a short stepladder, just three steps, the kind of thing someone might use to get the cans on the upper shelf. He brought it over and set it down next to Lillian's crate. "This might help a bit." Mr. Ruffin gave Lillian a wink and went back to the counter and began dishing out the stir-fry.
"What's deformed?" Simon was as intellectually curious as he was uninformed about polite topics for dinner discussion.
"Heh, son..." Mr. Ruffin paused, tongs in hand and glanced in embarrassment at Lillian. Lillian had finally managed, thanks to the stepladder, to get seated on her crate. Mr. Ruffin put a bowl down in front of her. It smelled beyond wonderful.
"No need to stand on ceremony, dig in!" Mr. Ruffin began serving up his son and Amelie. Suddenly, Lillian didn't know how to act. How was she supposed to eat in this situation? Back at the Bureau, unicorns soon learned to levitate mouthfuls of food into their mouths, it was almost like eating as a human. Would they expect this of her? Should she just lower her head and start gobbling her meal? That's what her stomach was insisting on, and it was being quite adamant indeed.
Amelie was an earth pony, she was already wolfing down her dinner. To hell with it. Lillian lowered her head and began eating. After nothing but one meal of Nanobars, Mr. Ruffin's stir-fry was like heaven on a plate. Or in a bowl. It must have been prepared from vegetables grown in the covered gardens and window-boxes that decorated every part of the city; everything was fresh and really tasty. There were definitely bell peppers, but also celery, carrots, onions and cabbage. There was also rice to eat; Mr. Ruffin had brought out a rice-cooker and had served them all up bowls of brown rice.
Lillian really needed the rice; ponies thrived on grains. They weren't called oat-burners for nothing.
Mr. Ruffin didn't seem to raise an eyebrow at Lillian not using her horn; perhaps he just assumed that if she was deformed, she also wouldn't be able to use magic. Or perhaps he had seen the damping ring, and understood what it was for. In any case, nothing was said, and that was just fine with Lillian.
"So what brings you all the way out to Assiniboia, Miss Graycoat, and what possessed you to rummage through that old plantation complex?" Mr. Ruffin was just making conversation, though of course it was only reasonable to be curious.
"You can tell I'm not from around here?" Lillian swallowed another bite of rice; it was clear she was hungry, Mr. Ruffin kindly refilled her bowl.
"There isn't a Conversion Bureau in Saskatchewan. At least anymore. Folks pretty much have to go to BC if they want to get Converted. 'Course we do have the PER come through every few months with a wagon full of 'potion. That's a fun time; a lot a folks get converted, as long as the 'potion lasts." Mr. Ruffin nibbled on a bit of celery.
"The PER!?!" Lillian was shocked. "The PER? Ponification For The Earth's Rebirth? The terrorist group? Every few months?" The way Anderson had described them, it was as if they were a group of traveling doctors out helping the poor.
"Yeah, some think of them that way. I hear some folks don't approve of 'em, but the ones that come here never make any trouble. They just come through, set up their little clinic and do conversions. Mind you they go through the streets all day with loudspeakers announcing themselves; some folks find that annoying. But there's never been any trouble." Mr. Ruffin took a little more rice for himself. "Most everyone is kind of glad for them; they break up the monotony, and they save folks a long troublesome trip to Vancouver." Ruffin took a mouthful of rice and savored it.
"Well... wow. Just... wow. In Surrey, where I come from, all we hear is how the PER are dangerous lunatics, running around potion-bombing people and blowing up anything they think belongs to the Human Liberation Front. Wow." Lillian had never heard a kind word about the PER pretty much... ever.
"Well, you have to admit that we humans have pretty much ruined the earth; most anybody around her can't think about it anyway else. We're the center of the Last Crop. It started right at S1. That's where they first planted that wheat. It all spread out from right here. Now, nothing grows in the ground, and wheat, well, there just isn't any wheat anymore." Mr. Ruffin wiped his finger around his bowl, then licked it. "There aren't any forests anymore, and the oceans are all dead. Maybe more folks oughta be listening to the PER, rather than getting upset at them. Ponies are better than humans, you gotta agree with that, right? Wouldn't it be better if everyone was a pony?"
This was an unusual attitude from a human with a human son. Lillian didn't know quite what to say. Finally she asked the obvious. "Mr. Ruffin, if you feel that way, why... why haven't you been converted then? Why are you still a..." Maybe this wasn't exactly the right thing to be asking the person feeding her.
"A human? Why am I still a human? And my son, too? Simple enough question, Miss Graycoat." Anderson briefly picked his teeth with a fingernail. "The fact is that there are ways I can be useful... to folks... staying human, at least for now. And as for my son, well, they ran out of 'potion last time they came through. But I've got a promise that they'll save him some next time they come. Then he can join his best friend, Amelie, isn't that right, sport?" Mr. Ruffin looked over at his son.
"I wanna be a pony!" Simon proudly stated. "But I gotta wait until next time." He looked sadly at Amelie. "Sorry Amelie."
"It's OK." Amelie shrugged with her ears. "Can we be excused?" She was getting antsy now that dinner was over.
"Yeah, sure. Go on the both of you." Anderson waved his son and Amelie off. "But no screaming your heads off; we got neighbors, remember?" Mr. Ruffin ran his hand through his hair. "Sometimes they get to roughhousing. Kids, you know?"
The young boy and the younger filly ran from the table, and headed somewhere upstairs. Sounds of laughter occasionally echoed from above after that.
"Um... does Amelie live here too?" Lillian had been curious about the little filly's situation since the beginning of dinner.
"Yeah, she has her own room upstairs. Simon and her have been best friends since... well since Simon could walk on his own. Amelie got converted last year, when the PER came through, but they ran out right before they could do Simon. Broke his heart. It was my fault, really, he made a big mess, and I had him clean it up before he could go, and, well, they ran out." Mr. Ruffin looked ashamed. "That was a bad call on my part; exactly the wrong time to be disciplining the boy. I think he forgave me, mostly, but I should have taken him right beside Amelie. Especially with what happened to her parents and all."
"She lost them the next day; we had a group of Human Front bastards roll through, trying to get the drop on the PER. They shot up a lot of of the town before... before we dropped them. That's one of the reasons I stay human; ponies can't do what needs to be done against scum like that." Anderson looked away "If only I'd been faster, better." He looked back. "So I took Amelie in. Now she and Simon can be together all they want, and she has a family again. She's a brave filly, the way she acts, you'd never know she'd lost her mum and dad. But sometimes... sometimes she cries, late at night."
This was pretty devastating to hear. "I'm... I'm really sorry, gosh... I..." Lillian had nothing more she could think of to say to that.
"So you're from Surrey?" Suddenly Mr. Ruffin changed the subject. "That's a long way from here. You must have had quite an adventure, Miss Graycoat."
Crap. She'd made a slip earlier. To say Surrey was a long way away was an understatement. Anderson would probably be curious how she had managed to end up all the way out here, alone. "Um, can I help at all with the clean up? This was a delightful dinner by the way, really good! I especially liked, well, everything!" Lillian gave a big smile, hopefully it wasn't too nervous or fake.
Mr. Ruffin gave Lillian a strange look, then his demeanor suddenly changed. They worked together to clear the counter and clean up the mess of dinner; when it became clear that Lillian didn't know how to wash dishes as a pony, Mr. Ruffin took over the job. "It's nice of you to offer, Lillian, but I do this every night anyway. Why don't you go get some rest; it must have taken you all day to get to town from S1, that's an exhausting distance even for a pony like yourself."
Lillian said goodnight and went up to her boiler-apartment. As she climbed the stairs, she passed by a boxy room where Simon and Amelie were playing a board game by the light of one of the wind-up electric lamps; they were so engrossed that they did not even notice her pass by.
Once in her room, with the door shut, Lillian realized she could no longer stand the itching on her back and in her wings. Her coat was still damp, her feathers still moist, and it was beyond uncomfortable. The waterproof trenchcoat just wouldn't allow her body to dry completely. There was nothing for it. She had to take the damn thing off. She felt like she was developing a rash; things not only itched now, but stung.
Lillian used her left rear hoof to step on her left sleeve and tried to pull her foreleg out of the coat. That didn't work; the coat couldn't stretch, so there was nowhere to go. She looked around the room for something, anything, that she could hook one of her sleeves over, to try to pull her foreleg out. She tried catching the sleeve on the edge of the shelves, which only caused them to tumble forward with a crash. The fallen shelves, she found, were not heavy enough to hold any part of the trenchcoat, sadly. The handle on the door had nothing to catch a sleeve on.
She couldn't get out of the coat. She was trapped in a trenchcoat she had no means to remove, and her back was itching and stinging, her wings were in agony, and finally she was in tears.
"Miss Graycoat! Miss Graycoat! Are you alright?" It was Mr. Ruffin, of course; the crashing of the shelves and the noise of her efforts, not to mention her wailing in frustration had naturally brought him to her door. Lillian was too miserable to respond coherently; she was beyond the ability to cope at the moment. "Miss Graycoat, I'm coming in, alright?"
Anderson found her hunched over, tears streaming down her muzzle, and it took some time to calm her down. By then Simon and Amelie were peeking around the edges of the door to the small apartment, with worried looks on their faces.
There was nothing for it. Lillian needed help, and that meant she had to take a risk.
"Listen... Mr. Ruffin... I need your help. I need you to keep a secret, too. Please, I have nowhere else to turn, and I really need your help." Lillian still had tears streaming down, even though she was trying to speak calmly. "And... could we keep this private, between just you and me?" She nodded at Simon and Amelie, who immediately tried to hide behind the edge of the doorway.
After a short fuss, Anderson was back. "Those two really wanted to know what was going on. I made them promise me they'd stay in their rooms. I'll close the door, too, though it's a bit cramped in here for two, as you can see. Here, let me put the shelf back up, that'll give us a little more room."
Lillian swallowed hard, and decided to try to trust Mr. Ruffin. "Mr. Ruffin, I need your help to take off this damn trenchcoat. I'm wet and I'm itchy underneath; I got caught in the rain before I put the thing on, and I have no way to take it off." Lillian felt her heart pounding as she spoke. "I only sort of told you the truth that my conversion left me deformed. I'm not right; that's a fact, but it's not like I'm all gross and awful like I made out. That's the secret part I need you to keep. Nobody can know what I look like... what I am. Nobody. Not any pony, not any human." Lillian thought for a moment. "Well, other than you, I guess. But you can't tell anyone. Promise me? Please?"
Mr. Ruffin scratched his head. "I'll tell you what; if it doesn't mean any danger to my boy, or to Amelie, then I will keep your secret, whatever it is. But you got to understand; my boy means the world to me, so does Amelie, so if you are all radioactive or contagious or you got replicators eating you up under there, I'm gonna do whatever I have to to protect my family. I'm just being honest here, understand?"
"I understand, completely! It isn't like that. I'm not dangerous, and I don't have a disease or anything. I'm just... well, you'll see, I guess. Help me get this damn coat off... I just can't stand it anymore!" The desperation in Lillian's eyes was palpable; Mr. Ruffin wouldn't wish whatever she was experiencing on anyone.
"Ok, then. I'll help you."
Anderson Ruffin raised the trenchcoat up and off of Lillian's sodden back and over her head. She heard a soft whistle come from him, but beyond that outburst, he said nothing more. When the trenchcoat was over her head, he held both sleeves in his strong hands, while Lillian pulled her forelegs slowly out. In order to finish the job, Ruffin had to open the door and back out of the room, but in short order the coat was finally off.
Lillian's wings looked terrible; they were bedraggled and seemed ruined; this made her cry again. Anderson assured her that he had seen many pegasai soaked to the bone before; her feathers would dry out and with a little care, and a little oil, they would be good as new.
Lillian's back smelled just terrible; and after a short examination Mr. Ruffin confirmed that she indeed had a rash back there from the warmth and the wetness. In the end, Mr. Ruffin asked Lillian to trust him, and he drew a bath for her. The bathtub was the lower half of an oversize metal storage tank set in a room on the ground floor; she briefly was draped with the trenchcoat to get her downstairs unseen.
The tank was so built that Mr. Ruffin could heat it from below, as if it were a big metal pot on a stove, soon Lillian was soaking in lovely warm water mixed with some kind of bath salts that Mr. Ruffin claimed would help heal the rash. It certainly felt wonderful, and it also seemed to stop the itch.
After the bath, Anderson vigorously dried her, taking special care around her wings. He draped a small blanket over her, and sent her back to her room; he wanted to deal with the trenchcoat - it smelled strongly of wet, unhappy pony. He said he would be up in a bit; Lillian was to stretch out her wings and try to let them dry as completely as possible.
When Mr. Ruffin returned, he carried with him a bottle filled with some kind of light oil, a cloth, and a foam-tipped applicator. With practiced ease, he applied oil to Lillian's feathers; first applying the oil to the shafts, then wiping it carefully along the feathers themselves. It felt heavenly, and the oil was lightly scented with a sweet smell.
The gentle attentions made Lillian cry again; by now she felt both exhausted and embarrassed at weeping so much.
"Thank you... Thank you so much, Mr. Ruffin. I... I just can't express how grateful I am. Just... Thank you." Lillian felt, for the first time since her conversion, that maybe being a pony wasn't such a bad thing after all.
Mr. Ruffin spoke in a quiet, almost reverent voice. "It's my great pleasure and honor, princess Graycoat. It's not every day that we get authentic Equestrian royalty in our little town."