Seventeen: Under A Sacred Moon
Princess Luna's exquisite moon was just rising, the last wisps of delicate twilight melting away at the horizon. The stars were coming on, just a few at first, then more and more, in waves and ripples across the sky. Sometimes the stars began to shine in waves, like those on an ocean, other nights they began to glow in clusters, or even in kaleidoscopic patterns. They were always in the same place, they rarely moved, but the way in which they became visible seemed up to whim.
Tonight, the stars began to shine in almost a playful way. For the delicate, graceful gardener Sweetpepper, the stars guided his mood as he performed his evening tending. Sweetpepper always sang his Galloping Gardens to sleep every night. The flourishing plants loved him for it; and he loved them back.
Sweetpepper sang ballads to the tomatoes. They seemed to like ballads; the tomato was a ponderous fruit, sanguine and cheery, tomatoes liked a good story. Now celery seemed to like classical; understandable, really, stolid stoic stocks standing with such a superior air.
Beets liked opera; unfortunately Sweetpepper only knew one piece and that incompletely, he compensated by humming Bach. Carrots, oddly, seemed to like pop music. Hay, fescue, oats and barley all liked western songs, no surprise there, but kinky little alfalfa had a penchant for naughty nautical songs. Happily, Sweetpepper knew more than his share of those.
But his favorites, of course, were the bell peppers. Gentle, sweet, dignified and yet just a little sassy, the bells of the garden ball loved musicals. Here was a botanical fruit fabulous enough to relate to. Sweetpepper knew a lot of musicals, and by now, so did his rather incredibly sized bell peppers.
Sweetpepper was singing them one of his favorites, from a Pre-Collapse author named Sondheim, a song called 'No One Is Alone' It was originally from a musical play that combined the stories of many fairy tales all together. Sweetpepper had once had an adequate voice as a human, but as a pony he was delightfully surprised to find that his voice was almost... excellent. He delighted in the tenor sound of it, the tone, the vibrato, he pegged himself as almost being a proper Leggero tenor now, and wished he knew how to use it more knowledgeably.
When he had tended his garden on a roof back in San Francisco, he had used a bicycle generator to store up enough electricity to run his romcube player. The holographic data in the romcubes contained a vast musical collection, spanning countless eras and forms. Sweetpepper had always loved music; he dearly missed the machine and his collection of romcubes. The only place his music remained now, was in his head and in his throat; the works of Man were forever closed off to him now. It was his only real regret in becoming a pony.
The song was intended for two voices, for Cinderella and a Baker, and Sweetpepper was doing both, alternating pitches between the male and female parts. He had just finished with a solo section for the Cinderella character, when the next line for The Baker sounded behind him. The voice was deep and mellifluous, and knew the song well.
This was delightful and mysterious! Whoever the stallion was, he knew his Sondheim. Sweetpepper picked up the next line, alternating with the mystery voice; it took all of Sweetpepper's self control to remain facing away, to avoid turning around. It was just so magical, standing there, singing with a mystery pony who shared his love of music.
The song reached its abbreviated end; in the play, the characters had been interrupted. Sweetpepper stood still, letting the silence enfold them both, himself and his mystery stallion. Slowly he turned around, smiling, to greet his partner in song.
Pale, green eyes met his, the face framed by a white, shaggy mane. The earth pony stallion was topaz in color, with a strong, well muscled stature. It was the ex-corporate navy petty officer who had named himself 'Goldrivet'. This was quite the surprise; Sweetpepper would not have pegged him as a fan of musical theater, and Sweetpepper had a very good sense for such things.
"You have a lovely voice." Sweetpepper genuinely thought so; he had really enjoyed the duet with Goldrivet.
"You have an even better one." Goldrivet approached, carefully stepping over the neat rows of vegetables. "I've stopped to listen to you sing to your garden many times. I guess I just couldn't help myself tonight. I hope you didn't mind." Goldrivet stood now, just a short space from Sweetpepper, his mane swept down half over one eye.
"No, it was wonderful, actually. Thank you." Sweetpepper didn't know what to make of this; his usual sense of things was giving him conflicting results. Alone in the garden, in the moonlight suggested one thing, but Goldrivet had never seemed to be the least bit the sort of stallion that would... enjoy the company of other stallions. Yet, here he was.
More than this, it had been clear for some days now that the roan mare Grassdancer had been pursuing the topaz stallion with clear and determined intent. It had been a forgone conclusion that the two would end up a couple. She never left him alone. Goldrivet was a stallion's stallion, strong, fierce, tough as iron.
Yet, here Goldrivet was. Singing Sondheim. In the bellpeppers, in the moonlight.
To hell with his 'Pepper Sense'. Sweetpepper took one step closer, his eyes drifting over the taught flanks and strong back. Goldrivet did not back away. He stood tall and strong, his large frame contrasting with Sweetpepper's lithe and slender shape.
"So... you've been listening to me sing, you said?" Sweetpepper carefully lifted his eyes to look directly into Goldrivet's ocean-deep green gaze. It was too much to hope for; with a population of only 152 ponies, only half of them male, Sweetpepper had all but given up hope of finding anypony for himself. Statistically there could only be six potential mates in the entire herd, and being a matter of probability, it could also just be zero. Add to that the unlikelihood of finding a single stallion that was the least bit compatible, well... it just seemed to Sweetpepper that it was his fate to be lonely - potentially for the rest of his entire life.
But Goldrivet was there. Alone. In the bellpeppers. In the moonlight.
And he was only a hoofstep away. And he was gorgeous. And he loved music. And... he had deliberately chosen to be here.
Sweetpepper trembled. It was too good. It couldn't be true. Good things didn't happen. Not like this. It just wasn....
The kiss was warm and soft and gentle, and unexpected. Sweetpepper shivered; his mind reeled. It was impossible. Good things didn't happen.
Apparently, under Luna's beautiful and enchanted moon, they did.
Flight Team Alpha had finished the construction of the seeder cloud; the woven structure would act as a kind of atmospheric sponge, gradually accumulating any ambient moisture. In a few days Droplet would lead the team back to check on the cloud; with any luck it would be fat and swollen with water vapor drawn from miles around. Then would come the somewhat arduous task of pushing the cloud across the sky back to Summerland Village.
Once home, the cloud could be parted out to various uses; additional building material for Cirrus's Cloudcastle project, additional material for pond seeder clouds, or even used to extend the boundaries of Summerland 'County', the green land that extended far beyond the village proper.
Droplet was eager to get home for several reasons. A second, smaller pavilion was under construction now, the first official 'home' for the village. Until they could get a proper forest growing from the provided seedlings found in crate nineteen - thankfully still alive, though even Sweetpepper had been unable to explain why - the only buildings in the village would be the prefabricated tent-structures from the crates. Droplet wanted to check on the progress of the second building. There had still not been any agreement on how the prefab homes would be parceled out.
She wished Alexi would get back on the job. His little 'vacation' was causing problems; and she did not feel properly qualified to lead the herd, a job she was increasingly being forced into. She had never worked for the Conversion Bureaus, she had no special training of the kind she assumed he had been given. She had just been a normal favela dweller, trying to get by in a post-Collapse world.
But the real reason she was so eager to get back to Summerland was not a building, nor was it the chance to tell Alexi to get off of his flank. The real reason was... Ren.
Renaissance had been invaluable to Droplet and to the construction effort. He understood two valuable things; carpentry and sixteenth century technology. He knew what the artifacts in the crates were, he knew how they went together, and how to make use of them. It was astonishing, really; even for those who lived in the slums, life had always been a quantum world; they may have been without jobs, living in ramshackle housing made from scavenged materials, but there were always the holographic media kiosks blaring world government-sponsored media, and almost every family had at least one old romcube player or holoscreen.
Droplet's own father had been a consumer electronics repairman. It was a prized profession in the favela, rating higher than doctor. Her father had made her childhood a happy one for the slums, thanks to an uncanny ability to get older devices working. There was always a demand to have something fixed, and the community worked together to protect and defend his large cache of spare parts and tools.
Her father had joked that the last man at the end of the world would be clinging to a holoset as though it were his lover.
Soon the Earth would end, likely within five to six years, and she could actually picture his joke coming true. The thought of him made her smile as she beat her wings in formation with the pegasai of Flight Team Alpha.
The sun was already down, the moon just beginning to rise as she, Cherry, Gasket and the others set hoof on the flat ground of Summerland. It was clear that the evening graze was already over; everypony had gone to their favored sleeping locations. Most clustered together in one large group around the new town hall pavilion, many having a favored spot relative to it; a few, like Alexi's family, found more isolated locations for various reasons, one of them being... privacy.
The bright sunshine of Celestia's day had encouraged an increasing desire for privacy among some of the newfoals; there were quite a few couples now, and at least two polyamories; families were being constructed along with the new pavilion buildings. Summerland had become a home now, and the newfoals were doing what anypony would do in such a circumstance; get on with life.
Droplet thanked her team, said goodnight to Cherryblossom and Gasket, and began to look around for Ren. He was, perhaps, not the easiest stallion to find amidst the hundred plus citizens of the herd; he was the color of the night itself, dark and delicious, but his golden coin eyes would surely stand out in the moonlight, if only she could spot them.
He wasn't by the crates, now almost entirely unpacked. Carefully stepping around the bodies of the resting ponies - some trying to sleep, some whispering in the dark, talking over the days events - Droplet made it past the piles of materials and tools, and checked the other side of the town hall. Ren wasn't there, either.
She decided to check out the new building. Droplet briefly considered flying over to it, but dismissed the idea; with so many villagers sleeping all over the center of the village, she feared accidentally landing on somepony in the dark. That would be uncomfortable and embarrassing. She cautiously navigated a path to the construction site.
They had managed to nearly complete the floor of the new pavilion house, only a few of the polished, pre-shaped planks were missing. It was clear that the earth ponies were getting quite adept at using tools now; Droplet shook her head in amazement. Ponies using tools. The part of her that remembered being human found that amusing. Then again, as she ruffled and straightened her wings, look who's talking. Bizarre, she thought. I am bizarre, and this is bizarre and the entire situation is bizarre.
Bizarre felt pretty good, actually. Droplet stretched her wings all the way out, and found herself yawning. It had been a long flight, and her wing muscles were tired. It was amazing how quickly all of the pegasai had grown in strength; now flying for most of an entire day was natural to her; only a month and a half ago it would have been unthinkable. Equestria was a very generous realm; it was not the frugal, cruel Nature of Earth, red of tooth and sharp of claw. Here, a body could be brought to the peak of ability in mere weeks, here injuries healed in mere days.
Looking up at the moon, Droplet caught the light on her feathers. She tilted her wings so that the moonlight shimmered in a wave down from her scapular feathers across the soft plains of her coverts, right out to the tips of her primaries. She smiled; she had remembered the parts of her own body. That was one of the little fads going through the village of late; the newfoals had made a sort of contest of knowing their own new bodies. There was some prestige in being able to rattle off the names of joints or feathers or parts of the ear.
Perhaps this was normal for any group who had no threevees, no romcubes, no MicroSony Mindstations, and who had to find ways to occupy themselves somehow. As ponies, with little in the way of physical objects to fuss over, all there was left to them was talk. Word games, memorization games, telling stories, singing songs, inventing poems; these were the current recreations that the newfoals had available to them. That... and the gifts of the sunshine days, of course. Droplet blushed at the latter.
"Thy beauteous wings, a repast of light, glow brightly tonight under Luna's soft caress." The voice was what she had been longing to hear all day. Droplet slammed her wings to her sides, turning to face the shining golden eyes and flame-colored mane of her lover.
In an instant she was pressing her shoulder into his chest, her neck far over his back, her head resting on his far barrel. "I'm sorry I was late. We found a big patch of vapor, just huge, and it took time to..."
"Shhh..." Ren began grooming her withers; Droplet shivered, she loved it when he did that. "Shhh... it's fine. I am hungry though. I waited so that I could dine with thee." Droplet could almost feel Ren grinning in the dark.
"You are a silly romantic, you know." Droplet rubbed her head up over Ren's side, and caressed his coupling and croup with her chin.
Ren laughed softly. "Of course I am, what else could I be, with such inspiration. Hey... speaking of Hay, I know a delightful little late-night cafe just beyond West Hill. They serve some wonderful lawn, I hear." The large pond next to where Sweetpepper had set up his Galloping Gardens farm had collectively been decided to be 'North', the remaining directions radiating out from the four hills that defined the village had therefore become the remaining cardinals. Alexi's hill was the north-east one; the town center was in the middle of the hills, the crates between the pavilion and Alexi's hill. West was therefore a very private direction at the moment.
Droplet giggled. Lawn sounded delicious. "I just adore lawn, why it's my second favorite dish!"
Ren chuckled softly at that.
"Really? You actually visited all of those places?" Pumpkin was whipping her tail left and right, just ahead of Buttermilk, who was trying to catch it in her teeth. Buttermilk seemed to like 'keep-away' styled games, she liked to chase things, but best of all she liked to catch them. When she finally succeeded the little unicorn paraded about, stomping her hooves in triumph and making little noises. Pumpkin was not making her tail an easy target; a triumph by Buttermilk would probably be mildly painful. She now wished she'd thought of that before going along with the little game.
"That's how I got my human name. It was where I was born. I never got to go back, though. That's the one place Daddy absolutely refused to take me." Caprice had begun to open up to Pumpkin about her life and her self during Alexi's absence; at first she had been terrified. She was convinced that Pumpkin would hate her for who she had been, just as she hated herself; much to her surprise, Pumpkin had been completely supportive. Caprice had been shocked by this and unable to understand.
"Pumpkin, how... how can you say that it's OK? After everything I've just told you?" Caprice had just told the story of her past to Pumpkin, this had been a few days previous to tonight. "I... sort of worried that you wouldn't want to be my sister anymore."
"Of course I want to be your sister! Besides, you said we would be sisters forever, remember? You're not getting out of it just because you failed at being a human. Like you said, we're ponies now. Now and for the rest of our lives, right?" Pumpkin glared at her, but there was humor behind her expression.
"So, new body, new life, and all is forgiven, is that it?" Caprice wondered if it really could be that simple. No, that was silly. If it were that simple, Alexi would still be at her side.
"No. If what you told me is true, you were a pretty bad person back then." Pumpkin thought for a moment "If you were the same person, I don't think I could be your sister. I don't even think I could be your friend. But you aren't that person anymore. As a pony... you kind of do still use the same tricks, I can see that now."
At that, Caprice hung her head low; it had been hard telling Pumpkin about herself. But Pumpkin had listened with compassion and a great deal of understanding.
"Maybe you use the same tricks, but you don't use them for the same reasons, and you really do seem to care about others now. I've never felt like you didn't care about me, and it's really obvious you care about Buttermilk."
It still didn't make it right. Worse, the old tactics had ultimately failed Caprice; Alexi was gone, maybe for good, and it was a miracle that Pumpkin was still around. At least it felt like a miracle. Caprice was grateful for Pumpkin, grateful just to have her near.
"Caprice, everypony makes mistakes and does stuff that they regret, or that they feel bad about. What matters is whether or not they can get better. You got better. You're getting better all the time. I mean, you told me about yourself, right? That's a lot of trust. You could have just told me a lie or something."
Pumpkin was right. In her previous, human life, that would have been her first and preferred choice. 'A lie is twice as good as the truth' she used to think. Telling Pumpkin had been a big risk. She'd just felt so... bad... after Alexi left that she... why did she tell Pumpkin? She didn't really know. If she had never said anything it would have been easier. It definitely wouldn't have hurt so much.
Maybe she was trying to punish herself; push everypony away or something? No, that was not it. In a way, telling Pumpkin was like what she wanted to do with Alexi. She wanted to tell Alexi everything. She wanted to try to be honest with Alexi, completely totally honest. Maybe, maybe if she tried something new, maybe if she tried being really open, if she really tried, Alexi might... want to stay.
In that realization, in that moment, she had understood something that had amazed her. Alexi wasn't just a component. He wasn't just a Best Choice to serve her needs. He wasn't an augmentation to help her be a better person. She really, genuinely missed him. It wasn't being in heat, and it wasn't because her plans had been spoiled.
She felt something - she didn't know what it was - but it made her feel really sad that he was gone, and it made her unable to concentrate on anything but trying to make up for anything and everything she had done to push him away. She just wanted him, Alexi, to be around. Just to see him. Even if he didn't want her, even if he never came back. Just to know he was OK, just to see him at all. The feeling burned. It scalded and it ached. Something was wrong with her, clearly, but... what could she do?
That had been three days ago. The ache had never stopped. The days had gone on, talking with Pumpkin, caring for Buttermilk, telling other ponies to "Go Ask Droplet!" - Caprice had no more answers for them, she had no more ability left to lead anypony anywhere. It was hard enough just to get through each day.
Now, the moon was halfway to the zenith, the stars fully bright in the night. Caprice and Pumpkin and Buttermilk all laying together on the grass, next to the empty space where Alexi once had lain, his absence haunting the hill like a ghost.
"Caprice..." Pumpkin looked down, uncomfortable "...back in those days, in your human days, did you... did you ever feel ...ashamed?"
Caprice idly pushed at the grass with a hoof, concentrating intently on the act. "No. Not even once. I'm sorry." Caprice felt like a monster; which, perhaps, she had once been. "But I did feel... hollow, sometimes. That was the feeling that kind of woke me up a little, even before Equestria emerged. I'd be going about my... life... and I'd just feel all hollow inside, like, I don't know, like being sad only... it was more than that. I felt like I was lost, like being out in a limo without central navigation, stuck in the favela with all the stupid eaters. I mean... the people. Oh shit. Sorry. Just... AUGH. Alexi deserves better than me. You do too. Dammit."
Caprice felt tears falling down her muzzle. Her hoof had begun to dig up chunks of soil. "I'm really sorry, Pumpkin. I'm sorry you have to have a sister like me. I'll... I will do better. I will be a good sister, I promise." Caprice's eyes were wet, shimmering in the moonlight, and the look in them made Pumpkin want to cry too.
Pumpkin leaned forward to nuzzle her sister. "Oh, Caprice..." She hardly noticed Buttermilk grabbing her tail and shaking it like a bulldog, teeth biting hard. "It's not like you're the only mess-up around. I abandoned my parents and ran off with a complete jerk. I probably broke their hearts. I feel bad about that a lot. They'll never know what became of me. They'll never know their grand...filly. Grandcolt. Grand-foal. I don't know the right word, but they'll never see me, or my child ever again. We've all done things we regret, Caprice."
"What?" asked Pumpkin.
"Grandfoal. That's pretty cool. I like it." Caprice was smiling through her tears. Pumpkin grinned. "Yeah. Grandfoal. Ok, that's the new official word then." The two sisters rested their polls together, head to head. Caprice sniffed. "I guess I'm a big mess now, aren't I?"
Buttermilk had tromped around, bored now with her victory over the evasive tail. She stuck her head in close to where Caprice and Pumpkin had their heads together. "Gaffol!" She announced.
Caprice and Pumpkin slowly turned their heads, still pressed together at the polls, in unison, to stare at the little unicorn.
"Did she just?" Pumpkin spoke in a hushed, shocked voice.
"Grandfoal!" Caprice said, calmly and carefully.
"Gaffol!" Buttermilk stomped her front hooves just as she did when she won a game of keep-a-way. "Gaffol!"
"Wow! It's her first word!" Pumpkin lifted her head and began nuzzling Buttermilk, praising her and licking her behind the ears the way she liked best. "Good girl, Buttermilk! Wow! Very good girl! Can you say 'Pumpkin?'"
The two sisters laughed at this. "What was your first word, Pumpkin?" Caprice was nuzzling and grooming little Buttermilk now, proud and happy at her daughter.
"Nothing big, probably just 'mama', if I remember. Certainly not 'grandfoal'. What was your first word, or were you ever told?"
"'Light.' My very first word was 'light'. Apparently I wanted the light turned on. I hated having the light turned off or something." Caprice began grooming Buttermilk's crest, working her way down to her tiny withers.
"Seriously? 'Light?' That's so cool!" Pumpkin seemed truly impressed.
"I was probably just being bossy and controlling right from the day I was born." Caprice seemed sad at the thought. Buttermilk squirmed away from Caprice's grooming and went to see if Pumpkin's tail wanted to play anymore.
"No. I don't see that at all." Pumpkin smiled at Caprice with kindness. "I think you just wanted light. And I think that says a lot of good things about you right there."
It took Caprice a moment to grasp the sentiment, but once she did, she smiled. "I'm really glad you're my sister, little angel."
The moon, Luna's moon, made a wonderland of the four hills of Summerland Village. It rippled across the wide fields of grass, following the faint breeze. The moonlight shone on two lovers far to the west, and on two more deep in the peppers.
And the moonlight also shone on the wide, white back, and bright blue mane of a pegasus, who stood on the ground, looking up at a certain hill.