The 'talk' that the new leader of Summerland Village had given him had not changed anything; he had already intended to go deal with Caprice. Still, Droplet's words stung; Alexi didn't think he was being childish. He just needed some time to consider, time to figure out what he really wanted in life, time to assist in important meteorological... stuff. If he hadn't spent all the time that he had in Cloudcastle, Cirrus might have broken that cup. He might have broken several cups.
They had a limited number of cups. Droplet should understand that. It was a matter of practicality!
He had also helped with construction of the castle in the sky over Summerland. Alexi alone had finished his tower, and he had started another; he had also single-hoofedly invented a cloud-portculis, with a working gate of cloudstuff 'bars'. It had taken forever to roll and compress those bars to make that gate. Alexi felt sure that not many other newfoal colonies in Equestria could claim they had an actual sky castle. He had been working for the glory of Summerland itself! Sometimes mares just didn't get it. The important things.
Alexi stood at the edge of the cloudland that supported Cloudcastle. This was the original packed cloud surface they had created over two months ago when the first team effort to create rain had begun. The borders of the white landscape had been increased; it was quite the little island in the sky.
Alexi wasn't sure how to approach things. He had come to several decisions, however. One was that he just couldn't help himself; he wanted Caprice. He couldn't stop thinking about her, he constantly wished she could see the things he had accomplished in the name of meteorology, he felt sorry that she would never be able to lay on a bed of cloud. The fact of it was that he just couldn't stand her not being around.
Alexi sighed. There was no question; devil or angel, he had it bad for Caprice. This he must admit, because it was true.
But there must be some rules! He would have no more of such manipulations. Things would take their own time. No more of the smug, 'here is what is what' Caprice from before. No, Alexi is wearing the pants in this family, even if there is no more need for pants. Alright, not pants. The horseshoes in this family. If there ever were any, Alexi would be wearing them!
Alexi would accept Buttermilk as his daughter too. But not because Caprice had told him to. Alexi just could not keep from thinking about her as well. He remembered the day Caprice had told him that he was a daddy now, how he had held the little foal in his arms in the clinic. How tiny and helpless the baby unicorn was. How she had looked up at him with those big yellow eyes and...
Of course Buttermilk would be his daughter. It was his choice, though, because Buttermilk needed a father in her life, and because Alexi wanted to be that father. Alexi could provide that. Alexi was good at providing, and his daughter would have the best of everything. Caprice must be made to understand that this had nothing to do with her. It was entirely the choice of Alexi!
Lastly, Caprice must understand that her times of being in heat would not dictate his sex life. Well, actually, that probably couldn't be avoided, considering that is how things actually worked here. Alright, perhaps Alexi would have to bend with regard to that fact; even the strongest man... the strongest stallion... could not fight Nature herself. Or whatever passed for Nature in Equestria.
But even so, she would see that.... never mind. The fact was, Alexi missed Caprice. And Buttermilk. And Pumpkin. He missed having a family, and the truth of it was that sitting on the cloud with Cirrus had gotten very lonely, and very old.
Perhaps Droplet was right. Perhaps Alexi had been acting like a colt a little bit. Just a little bit. Not that much. A little. Maybe.
Alexi kept staring down at the landscape below. They had done a very nice job on the town hall. Droplet had mentioned that; the big pavilion with the spiral roof was pretty impressive. Apparently the cottage they had begun next had suffered some trouble; the roof had ripped somehow. He could see the fabric spread out, dozens of newfoals working to sew it back together. They looked like ants on a candy wrapper from up here.
Alright, so. If he was to have this talk with Caprice, then when would be the best time? Definitely not morning, no. Morning was a terrible time for talking; everypony was just waking up. Nothing serious could be decided with a head full of sleep.
Lunchtime then? No, of course this would be a bad time. The bright sunlight, the crowd talking and making a fuss; no, this was not a time for serious talking. Lunch was for eating and enjoying the daylight.
Dinner then? The evening graze was relatively sedate, but still, too many ponies. No, not dinner.
After dinner then; the early evening! He could swoop down like an angel from on high, and set forth the Word Of Alexi to the masses of... Caprice. In the light of the setting sun, he would strike an impressive figure, dominant, strong, and she would see how things would be from now on. Yes, this was the perfect time, and it would be glorious.
Then, everything would be perfect. The ache in his heart would end; she would say she was sorry for everything and he, Alexi would become her hero and take care of her and their daughter and all would be right.
He missed her. He missed her so much. Why did he leave? He couldn't even remember anymore. Stupid Alexi, stupid. It didn't matter what she had done. Alexi hung his head, his ears drooping.
He was a proud, stupid, silly Alexi. All his life he had wanted a beautiful... well, to be fair, he had wanted a beautiful woman, but that was before Equestria. There was no question that Caprice was beautiful, and she was a woman, if perhaps a pony kind of woman. But then, Alexi was a stallion kind of man. It took time to get truly used to these things.
No. He must stop thinking in those terms. Once again, Caprice was right. Always it was so maddening; she was right about so many things. They were ponies now, she often had said. They were ponies now, and they would be forever, for the rest of their lives. This was so. She had accepted this completely. Caprice had embraced it! There was nothing else to be done. Alexi could do this too.
Alexi paced back and forth near the edge of the cloudfloor. He was a stallion now. A pegasus stallion. He could fly, he could run, he dined on the green grass of the land, and the vegetables of the garden below. This is what he would be for the rest of his life. This was, as Caprice had said, what was right, and what was good, now. Because he was a pony.
A stallion needed a mare. Unless they needed another stallion, like Sweetpepper and Goldrivet. But that was not for Alexi. Alexi needed a mare. Alexi needed... Caprice.
For a moment, he wanted to fly to her, right now, without hesitation. He wanted to apologize, to just have things back the way they were. Why did he get so upset? Everything in life was manipulation of some kind, and all Caprice had wanted was a family. That was all Alexi wanted. For a while, he had made Clinic 042 his family. But, really, it wasn't what he had truly needed.
Caprice had given him what he had always wanted, and he had stormed out. Silly, stupid Alexi!
Enough. Droplet was right. Enough was enough. He would go to Caprice now, and work things out. Somehow. The time did not matter. Now was always the right time. Now.
Alexi spread his wings and began the long, spiraling glide down.
Caprice, Buttermilk and Pumpkin had set out for their picnic by South Lake. Droplet had not been wrong; a vast patch of colorful flowers had grown up as the lake had filled once more with rain, and they looked like candies scattered on the green. Caprice wore saddlebags, borrowed from the colonies shared supplies, and they had been filled with goodies from Sweetpepper and Goldrivet's farm; when she had last seen them they were laughing and singing silly songs in the hayfields.
It was a bright, warm day, and Caprice wished she had a hat. Her poll and forehead felt hot, and a hat would have been so nice, and kept the sun out of her eyes. Maybe someday there might be things like hats in Summerland Village; recently, anything seemed possible.
The Galloping Gardens were constantly expanding, and the rate of food production was prodigious. The subtle magic of earth ponies did not seem the least bit subtle in this growing colony; they had gone from a diet only of grass to feasting on all manner of delicacies. Entire crops could be raised to harvest in less than a month; some in mere days. Caprice had even noticed a little of her own earth pony magic at work; the top of Alexi Hill grew greener and more lush than the other three hills, and it had more flowers around it as well. Pumpkin was convinced this was because Caprice had spent so much time there.
Pumpkin was beginning to become strong of wing, and this made Caprice very glad. Back at the Clinic, Pumpkin had seemed so proud to have wings, and she loved being called a little angel. But she had made no actual use of her lovely wings, and Caprice felt pretty sure it was mostly her own fault that this was so; her issues and problems had consumed her doting sister. No more! They had all decided to make a clean start of things.
Pumpkin hovered just a few feet above the ground, her wings following a steady beat now, instead of the aimless flapping she had begun with; she enjoyed low flight because it was a strength-building exercise, yet allowed her to remain close as they traveled. Buttermilk seemed entranced by Pumpkin's flying, and followed around underneath her, occasionally trying to leap up, as if to catch her. Occasionally, Pumpkin would lower her tail and tease Buttermilk with it; this resulted in squeals of laughter and giggling on both their parts.
Caprice lowered her head, watching the rhythm of her own peach-colored hooves. They really were rather pretty, these things called hooves. Very stylish, in a way. Clop, swish, clop, swish as she stepped through the tall, untrodden grass. It was so nice to see everything green and lush again. Looking up, the lake shone blue, as if the sky somehow had come to rest on the land for a while. On the far side of the lake, the large patch of flowers made her mouth water; she couldn't wait to try them.
Pumpkin flew out over the lake a distance; Buttermilk stopped at the edge unsure of this new, wet thing. That's right, thought Caprice, Buttermilk had not really been to any body of water as large as this. She'd seen the pond beyond the gardens, that was where most ponies went to drink, but it wasn't truly large. She'd certainly never approached it closely.
No reason to, really, Buttermilk got everything she needed from the milk Caprice provided her.
This was a perfect day to play in the water!
Caprice carefully set down her saddlebags; there was an art to it. If done right, they would be easy to pick up again, without help. Caprice lowered her body, so that the durable saddlebags stood upright, the reinforced material linking them forming an arch. Carefully, Caprice wriggled backwards out of the arch, leaving the bags standing on their own. If they didn't get knocked over, she could slip them on by sticking her neck through the arch and sliding them down her neck to rest on her back once more. She felt proud when she accomplished a perfect saddlebag maneuver.
Free from the bags, she turned to see poor Buttermilk complaining at the horrible unfairness of Pumpkin breaking all the recognized rules of Catch-A-Tail by flying out over the scary, wet blue thing. Oh, what a cruel, cruel meany!
Caprice came up beside her little yellow unicorn, who immediately turned to her for help; Pumpkin wasn't playing fair and Buttermilk wanted some kind of authoritarian adjudication to correct this injustice. There there, Caprice comforted the buttery foal, it isn't as terrible a travesty as you imagine.
To Buttermilk's shock, her mother had sided with mean auntie Pumpkin and stepped into the big wet thing; worse, she was calling for Buttermilk to join her! Calamity! Buttermilk stomped her hooves and moved first right, then left along the shore, unable to cope with this terrible new reality. What was she to do? Didn't her mother understand that it was wet and blue out there? What had gone wrong with the world to make stepping into wetness a real thing?
Even the rational solution of bleating and saying 'Gaffol!' did not fix this; it had become an intractable dilemma. On one hoof, mother and auntie were right there, just a few steps away, and whenever things were troublesome, being near them was the final solution. Everything was always fixed whenever she was near mother. But the very nightmare that was the problem happened to be what mother and auntie were currently standing in, and this paradox tore and ripped at poor Buttermilk's mind. Water, scary, need mother, mother in water - HAD THE VERY COSMOS ITSELF GONE INSANE???
Mother wasn't leaving the water. Buttermilk tentatively tried her other word, 'TAHEL', but this only made mother and auntie Pumpkin laugh. That wasn't fair. This was just too much. She needed mother! Couldn't they see that? Something had to be done. Suddenly, Buttermilk knew the answer! Of course, it was so obvious! The logic had been there all along, it simply needed some panic to bring it into focus. Mother equaled safety, there was scary water between her and mother, the answer was clearly to get to mother as quickly as possible and everything would then be fine! Nothing more needed to be understood.
Buttermilk began wiggling her hindquarters; this was a proper and necessary traditional behavior for the type of action she would have to take; all of her several months of life assured her of this fact. Wiggling, check. Ready hind legs. Hind legs ready. Prepare forward hooves. Forehooves are go. Do we need more pacing left and right first? No, all indications are that sufficient pacing has been achieved. Operation Mommy Leap is go, repeat, Operation Mommy Leap Is Go!
The soft yellow unicorn foal leapt like a cat, springing forward from the shore of the lake. She soared majestically, like the eagle, like the condor, like the griffon, the full, incredible six inches straight to her mother! Miscalculation! Buttermilk's mother was a solid object, something she had forgotten momentarily. Buttermilk impacted on the soft, peach-colored surface; we're going down! Alert! The foal is going down!
Buttermilk made a splash as she hit the water. It was cool and wet, and it made her hot coat feel nice. As she stood up, dripping, she pressed into her mother unsure of her own complex emotions over all of this. She sort of remembered something about a scary blue thing and how she needed to get to mommy. But now, there was this really interesting wet thing she was in, and it splashed and plooped when she stomped. Whatever mommy wanted could wait. This stomping and plooping was incredible. She'd get back to mother later; this really needed to be explored thoroughly.
Caprice and Pumpkin laughed in delight as Buttermilk, apparently completely oblivious to her previous panic, began stomping about trying to make bigger and bigger splashes. Now she was trying to bite the splashes in mid-air; this seemed an amusement that totally captivated her. Buttermilk looked up at Caprice and Pumpkin, her muzzle dripping, her coat soaked, the look on her face almost seeming to question why nobody else was stomping and biting. Clearly it was the single most important thing in Equestria to be doing, why was it that she, Buttermilk, had to pull all the weight around here?
Caprice was curious to see if she could swim. "Pumpkin? Would you keep an eye on Buttermilk for a moment? I want to try swimming!"
Pumpkin waded closer to Buttermilk, ready to grab her mane if she decided to try to join her mother in the deeper water.
Caprice had once been quite good at swimming. In her human life, it had been yet one more rare and special luxury her daddy's position had afforded her. Now, however, she wasn't quite sure if she even could swim. Did ponies swim? Could they?
She decided to wade out to where her hooves just barely touched the bottom. She began moving her legs, trying to find something that worked. Much to her delight, she found herself swimming fairly easily. It wasn't unlike treading water, only with double the legs to achieve lift and stability. It was actually pretty easy.
It was clear that she wasn't going to be doing human swimming styles ever again, but then, she was a pony now. It felt good to tread through the water, it was cool, and she felt buoyant and light. She wondered if hovering, like Pumpkin could do, felt like this. For a moment she regretted not having wings herself.
"Hey! Pumpkin, I'll head back so you can swim!" Caprice started back to the shore.
"It's OK! I don't want to get my wings wet. They take forever to dry out!" Pumpkin tried to grab Buttermilk, but she was too fast. The little unicorn was swimming out to meet her mother, just like that. "Caprice? Look! Buttermilk can swim!"
There was no doubt about it; Buttermilk was just chugging along as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Maybe it was. Maybe ponies could just swim. That was something that Caprice had never read about, but... it seemed to be the case. Still, better not to do too much on a first trip to the lake. Caprice aimed straight for Buttermilk and met her; together mare and foal made it safely back to shore.
Out of the water, Buttermilk shook herself, the water spraying out all over Caprice and Pumpkin. This carefree act brought a giggle from both of them; Buttermilk just kind of lived in the moment, and somehow it was endearing.
Caprice walked a short distance away before attempting Buttermilk's way of drying off; it wasn't as easy or as automatic for Caprice as it had been for Buttermilk. She did her best, though, shimmying her body to throw off as much water as she could from her coat. The sun would dry the rest; fortunately pony hair was short, and dried fairly quickly. Her mane and tail, on the other hand, would take longer. Nothing for that, though she did briefly recall with some fondness her old hair-dryer from her human days.
With one smooth motion, Caprice slipped her saddlebags on. Beautiful! She was really getting good at such things. It was strange, really. As a human, she had depended utterly on having hands and fingers; she probably wouldn't have been able to even imagine putting on saddlebags without them. Not that she could have worn saddlebags before, of course. But still.
At the Conversion Bureaus, when they said that the lack of thumbs would not be a problem... it had actually turned out to be true. Caprice tried to remember what having hands felt like. She couldn't, not exactly. Her mouth was much stronger, she knew that for sure, than her hands had ever been. It was just normal to move things with her mouth, and sometimes to guide with a hoof. Walking was better with four legs; trying to balance on only two seemed scary to her now. How in the world had she managed it back then? It would be so easy to tip over!
As they ambled to the patch of flowers, their coats drying in the sun, Caprice thought about all the things that seemed to matter to her, back in her old life. Clothing. That was a big one. She always had to have the fanciest, most expensive designs. Now she was always perfectly dressed, in shiny peach, with a lovely peach mane. Shoes, oh, she had once owned a mountain of shoes. Her hooves were a thousand times prettier, and they never went out of fashion.
Caprice felt a little sad. If only Equestria had risen ten years earlier. What would it have been like to grow up as a filly instead of as a girl? She found herself envying Buttermilk. Lucky little filly. All she would ever remember was green, flowers, and galloping about. So... lucky.
Then again, Caprice ruminated, Buttermilk would never appreciate things the way she and Pumpkin did. They had escaped the hell that was earth; for them every little thing was precious. Natural born Equestrians could only take the world for granted; it was all they knew, they had no comparison. For all intents, Buttermilk was a native; she could not possibly remember anything of her brief glimpse of the human world.
The family picnicked in the middle of the tasty flowers. They were indeed delicious, though the blue ones were slightly sour, the rest were light and sweet. In the saddlebags was hay and oats, carrots (of course!), celery, bell peppers (sweetpepper insisted, they were his specialty after all), tomatoes, and the first of the strawberries. Well, what was left of them; it had been impossible to keep from nibbling at the supply on the way over. Fruit, oh... delicious fruit. There were more berries growing, blackberries, boysenberries, even huckleberries. They weren't ready yet, but the strawberries were, and they were so good that Caprice had already decided to spend more time helping in the garden; there Must. Be. More. Fruit. Soon. It was just too good.
Buttermilk seemed to like the strawberries too; she kept sucking on one until it disintegrated in her mouth. Caprice wasn't sure if this was alright entirely; it was clear that Buttermilk was swallowing a significant amount of the berry. Then again, she would have to be weaned one day, and for all Caprice knew, that day had come and gone. She just didn't know enough. If Buttermilk started liking solid food, then it must be natural; Caprice trusted these new Equestrian bodies to have some animal sense about them.
"Pumpkin? You said you used to read about horses when you were younger. Do you know anything about weaning? I don't know when Buttermilk should start on solid food. It just wasn't part of the kind of research I did before I went to the Bureau."
Pumpkin finished munching a mouthful of oats and flowers; she said the taste reminded her of oatmeal and syrup, sort of, only better. Finally she swallowed. "Mmm...yeah, I read about that stuff once. Let me think." Pumpkin nibbled at some white blossoms, savoring them as she tried to remember "Back when there were horses and they raised them, they kinda just ripped mares and foals apart after a few months. It sounded mean to me even then. I saw an old program about wild horses - there used to be actual herds of wild horses that ran around before the Collapse - and they talked about how long foals would nurse in the wild."
"Ulp!...and?" Buttermilk must have somehow gotten the idea of what they were talking about, because she had gone straight for the milk bar, which was always a little uncomfortable when Caprice was laying down. Caprice felt too lazy to stand at the moment, so she decided to endure Buttermilk's occasional nips in order to remain comfortable otherwise.
"If I remember correctly," Pumpkin smiled; seeing Buttermilk nurse always made her tingle inside - someday she would be nursing her own foal. She figured she was just past the halfway mark, if those keeping track of the days were correct. "wild horses basically nursed their foals until they got pregnant again. It could be as long as a year, even two. Pretty much as long as mare and foal both... I don't know... felt good about it?"
"Whoa. That's a lot longer than I expected." Caprice was surprised. Humans didn't nurse their babies for years at a time. Did they? That was another thing she had never bothered to study anything about. Maybe this was normal for both humans and ponies. She just plain didn't know. Then again, it wasn't like nursing Buttermilk was unpleasant. Most of the time she actually looked forward to it; it was a tender, loving time, and since she had learned to stand up when nursing her foal - most of the time anyway, right now was an exception - there was no discomfort.
Actually, she never felt more loving, and loved, than when she was feeding Buttermilk. "I guess I really don't need to worry about it at all, do I? Things will take care of themselves." Caprice felt some joy in that notion, and gave her little love a nuzzle. Buttermilk really was such a good little foal. She'd just nurse Buttermilk... as long as Buttermilk wanted to nurse. That was simple enough. Solved.
"That's what Dr. Pastern told me." Pumpkin was rooting around in the saddlebags, probably looking for any strawberries that might be hiding under the last of the hay.
"Dr. Pastern? What did she tell you?"
"When I was dithering like an idiot about whether to be converted - before you came over and helped me - Dr. Pastern tried to answer some of my questions about what would happen with my foal... my baby... anyway, she said that the whole thing would be really easy as a pony. A lot easier than it is for humans in every way. It was one of the things that kinda helped, you know?" Pumpkin lifted her head up with a strawberry in her teeth, proud at the discovery "Al schyar ih wih you. Wan hath?"
"Mmm!" Caprice leaned way over and bit half of the strawberry away. "Mmm... thanks. Oh, those were good, weren't they?"
"Pretty soon, we won't eat grass outside anymore. We'll probably be baking cakes and pies and casseroles. They found parts to make stoves and other kitchen stuff you know. With the garden and a kitchen, we'll be eating like regular Equestrians do!" Pumpkin was excited at the thought.
Caprice felt happy about this too, but also just a little sad. "It all sounds wonderful. I am looking forward to it... but in a way, I think I will miss our days of grazing together, out on the plains. One day, we'll all be cooking at home, each in our own little house. It won't be the same. All of us together, one big herd. I... kind of like that, you know?"
"I hadn't thought of it that way. Huh, I guess you're right." Pumpkin brightened "Still, Caprice - pie! And cake. And muffins. And biscuits. And haycakes! Remember Miriam's hay pancakes?"
That was a happy thought. Caprice had only eaten at the Bureau for a few days, but they were very tasty days. Miriam ran a really good cafeteria. Those haycakes were pretty darn good. So were the apples. Like the apples she had shared with Alexi.
"Caprice? Are you alright?" Pumpkin was leaning over "Your ears suddenly dropped and you looked really sad."
"Just thinking... about... stuff."
"Alexi, right?" Pumpkin sat back. "I understand." Pumpkin looked around at the lake and the flowers. "You know, we could still ask Droplet to go give Alexi the what for. I know she'd do it."
"No. No." Caprice lifted her head and consciously raised her ears. "If he wants to come home, he will. That's the only kind of coming home that will matter, sis. Whatever is between us shouldn't be a contract or a burden. If he wants me, I'm here, just like I told him at the Bureau. I told him that I chose him, and that my choice wouldn't change."
"Maybe you should reconsider that." Caprice gave Pumpkin the kind of look that had a bodycount measured in megadeaths. "Come on Caprice, seriously. You can't just wait for him forever. That would be dumb. That's all I'm saying."
Caprice softened. "Sorry. Yes, I suppose, eventually... but not yet. Not for a long while, OK?"
"Whatever you say, sis. I just want you to be happy. That's all." Pumpkin tried searching the saddlebags again, but that had been the very last strawberry. There weren't any more.
"It's getting late in the afternoon, little angel." Pumpkin smiled at that. She practically beamed when Caprice used that endearment. "Maybe we should start heading home."
"Yeah. We're out of the best goodies anyway!" Suddenly a shadow passed overhead, and the sun's light was briefly blocked. It took a few moments for this to be processed. "What was that? Did you see that, Caprice?" The two mares looked up, but whatever had flown over them was not in the sky now.
Caprice began to look around the landscape. Lake. Across the lake, the village and the town hall, the hills... Pumpkin, flowers, more flowers, big tall shape with the sun behind it. The big tall shape folded its wings.
Caprice's heart suddenly began racing like the wind.