Chapter Sixteen - Getting Back on Your Feet
A dense fog rolled across the forest floor, licking at her fight, as if it wanted to crawl up her body and pull her down. Frozen, Riley hated the feeling of fear slithering up and down her spine, but she couldn't find it within herself to fight against it. The terror paralyzed her, and there was nothing she could do.
"My daughter, Riley. Please, protect her. She's all that's left."
She flinched, her mother's voice ringing in her ears. She shook her head, clenching her eyes shut. Riley could feel her fingernails digging into the palms of her hands, enough to break her skin.
All around her, the towering skeletal trees swayed to an unseen wind, dark figures standing just out of her line of sight.
"We are all dead."
"Mindoir is dead."
"You should have died you stupid bitch!"
Riley took a step forward, reaching out for the doorknob in front of her. She knew that whatever was behind it would be her death, but she deserved nothing less.
She opened the door and stepped through, out of the forest and into the living room of her families house on Mindoir. It was instantly recognizable with its pre-fabricated walls and printed couches and chairs. Outside and far in the distance, Riley could hear the screams and shouts of thousands of people, gunfire punctuating the atmosphere every so often.
Her heart jumped inside of her chest, and she tried to swallow the lump in her throat through her suddenly dry mouth. She could feel the eyes on the back of her head, and she wanted to run as far away as she possibly could.
"Are you afraid to look at us, Riley?"
Riley flinched at the sound of her mother's voice, squeezing her eyes shut. She started to shake.
"Turn around, girl!"
Even though every cell of her body was screaming at her to run, Riley turned. It felt like something had reached into her skull and grabbed her brain, taking control of her body.
She couldn't breath.
She couldn't move.
She couldn't think.
Standing behind her, Riley found her parents and younger sister standing behind her in the front door to the house. They stared at her with dull eyes.
"You need to listen to me the first time, Riley." Steven Shepard, her father, stared at her with three eyes. The third eye bled, and she could see all the way through the hole in his head. "If you listened, none of this would have happened."
"If you hadn't been so afraid, we could have escaped the house faster." Hannah Shepard, her mother, stood next to her husband. She glared at her oldest daughter, the bullet holes in her chest oozing blood in time with a lethargic heart-beat. "It's all your fault. You might as well have pulled the triggers yourself."
"It was all your fault." Standing next to her, her little sister Jane looked up at her with her once bright blue eyes. There was a gaping hole were her chest used to be, the remnants of a rib-cage poking through the gore. She took a step forward, a halting movement that was accompanied with the sharp cracking of bones. "I should have lived. Not you. Big sisters are supposed to protect their little sisters."
Riley shook her head, feeling her reality slipping away from her. They were right. No matter how much she wished it to be different, they were right.
They were all dead because of her.
"You've already gone and gotten yourself a new family and we're not even cold in the grave yet. What kind of daughter are you?" Hannah sneered at Riley. "If you stay with them,the same thing will happen to them too."
"I…" Riley shook her head, a ball of hate growing inside her heart. "I should have died."
"Yes." The three dead spoke as one.
The hate bloomed into a full grown animal, snarling and twisting about in her chest. She wanted to throw up. She hated herself, and they were right. "I should have died."
Jane stepped forward, pushing her hair out of her eyes and paying no mind to the bloody hand she did it with. Stopping in front of Riley, she held out their father's handgun to her, stock first.
Riley collapsed to her knees, looking up into Jane's face.
"Take it." Jane ordered simply.
Reaching out, Riley took the gun, wrapping her left hand around the grip. She glanced at it before looking back up at her little sister.
"Do it." Jane said it like she was asking for nothing more than a scoop of ice-cream.
"Do it." Riley parroted back. She nodded, the hate agreeing with her sister. Lifting the gun up, Riley placed the barrel against her left temple. "Do it."
"Do it." Hannah said.
"Do it." Steven said.
She pulled the trigger, felt an instant of hot pain, then woke up.
Riley woke up in her bed, alone and back in her new room on Equestria. Her dead family was not standing around her bed and she did not have her father's handgun still in a death grip. She could feel that the sheets were damp underneath her and that her hair was soaked and plastered to her forehead.
She only barely stopped herself from shrieking at the sudden knock at her door.
"Riley, breakfast is almost ready downstairs." Firefly's voice drifted through the door, sounding far too awake for…
Rolling over, Riley saw on her clock that it was eight in the morning. Her mother was far too awake and Riley wished that she could just pull the covers over her head and go back to sleep.
Well, she wanted to go back to sleep but that would mean having to confront why she hated herself so much. Staying awake meant that she had to live with the beast of self-hatred.
It was a no win situation.
The fact that her bed was soaked through was the deciding factor for her to roll out of bed and step into her rather large shower. A rather wonderful perk of living in a world built for ponies was that they built everything bigger than a human would need. The shower also doubled as what could be called a bathtub in theory. It was more of a square and large enough to be called a double person jacuzzi.
The Pegasi made the entire thing even better. If a third of the population wasn't able to fly, ponies would build things both wider and bigger, but also with much shorter ceilings. As for the fact that the average mare only stood as tall as a german shepherd, the height just wasn't needed. Pegasi liked to fly, and they did it everywhere, which equated to higher ceilings perfect for humans (and Alicorns).
All of this would have been absolutely amazing if it weren't for the fact that Riley hated herself. She didn't deserve any of it, and her family was right.
If she stuck around, she'd just end up getting her new family killed too.
The image of Rainbow Dash with her own chest blown open flashed through her mind and Riley had to reach out a hand to steady herself against the shower wall. She wanted to be sick, but that would raise too many questions that she simply didn't want to answer.
Turning the water off, Riley quickly dried herself off before stepping back into her room. She threw on a simple outfit, paying no mind to how it even made her look.
Heading downstairs at a sedate place, Riley entered the kitchen to find the rest of her family already sitting around the table. Rainbow was munching on her eggs while Prism read the morning paper and Firefly ate a bowl of cereal. They all looked up and smiled as she entered the room.
"Hey Riley!" Rainbow waved, a piece of egg flying out of her mouth and hitting her father between the eyes. "You're late for breakfast."
Prism glared at Rainbow for the egg, but it was half-hearted at the best. Rolling his eyes, he folded the paper and set it down, smiling warmly at Riley. "Good morning, Riley."
"Morning." Riley nodded back, sliding into the seat between Rainbow and Firefly. She shook her head as she got another flash of Rainbow, smiling at her while pouring blood from her eyes. Instead, she looked down at her plate and the generous helping of eggs, with a side of hash-browns and a cup of orange juice. "It looks good."
"Thank you." Firefly looked proud. "I made it myself."
Riley giggled, taking a bite of her eggs. In her own mind, she marveled at how easy it was to hide how she was really feeling from everyone. She just pasted on a smile and pretended everything was alright, and to everyone looking at her, she was.
Setting down his paper, Prism looked at Rainbow. "Are you ready?"
Scrapping the last remnants of food into her mouth, Rainbow smiled at her father, her cheeks bulging as she ferociously chewed.
"Yeah." Rainbow managed to say through the partially masticated eggs and toast in her mouth. She didn't look happy about it, but she hopped out of her seat and trotted over to her father's side anyway, though it was completely in protest. Swallowing the bite in chunks, she let her head hang low to the ground, scowling at the floor.
Hopping out of his own chair, Prism nudged Rainbow with a laugh. "Come on. You know you couldn't avoid this forever."
Rainbow merely huffed, letting her wings droop ever so slightly. "Yeah."
"There's no way you're getting out of this, Rainbow." Prism laughed, leading his daughter out of the kitchen and to the front door.
Riley looked at Firefly as the mare started to giggle to herself. "Where are they going?"
"Hmm?" Firefly took a moment to process that before her brain pinged. "Oh! Prism is going to the castle. He wants to speak with the Royal Guard to see if he could get a job."
"A job?" Riley felt a pang of worry in her chest. She had thought they had told her that they had money and she didn't need to worry about anything. If having her living with them was making Prism have to seek out a new job… she felt the beast of hatred grow even larger.
"It's nothing you have to worry about, Riley," Firefly said, seeming to sense what was Riley's problem. "Prism starts to get antsy if he has nothing to do during the day. Working part time as a Royal Guard would be an ideal choice for him. Everything that he learned as a Wonderbolt makes him very attractive for many of the roles that they fulfill."
Riley nodded, but she didn't quite believe what Firefly told her. "What about Rainbow?"
"We need to get schools transferred for the both of you." Firefly took a moment to enjoy the look of surprise on Riley's face. "Neither of you need to actually be there for it, but don't tell Rainbow that. Any chance to get the energy out of her before dinnertime is a good thing."
"School?" Riley blinked, and after a moment of thought understood. She needed to finish out her schooling, and all that was available were the schools of Canterlot.
"Yep." Firefly nodded. "Prism wanted you to go along, but I thought that we could have a day together. Explore the city, get some lunch, have some fun, that kind of thing."
"Alright…" Riley didn't really have anything to say about that. Her mind was still on the idea of having to go to a school as the only human in a world of magic. She had no idea what that was even going to be like, or what the overlap was going to be, but she had a feeling that it was going to be keeping her up at night. "That's fine."
"Great!" Firefly got out of her chair, setting her plate in the sink. The sink grabbed the plate, cleaning off the remnants of the food and shuffled the plate into the cupboard. She gathered up the plates that Rainbow and Prism had left in their places, doing the same. "I'm ready to go as soon as you finish up."
"Right." Taking a look at her plate, Riley decided that she didn't really have an appetite. She set the plate on the sink the same as Firefly. "I'm finished."
"Well," Firefly said, walking out of the kitchen. "Let's go."
By the time Riley caught up to her mother's smaller but faster stride, Firefly was already at the front door. She had found that ponies walked faster than humans, even at their general slowest. Firefly blushed when she noticed how far ahead she had moved from the teenage girl, slowing even further.
"I'm sorry." Firefly nuzzled against Riley's leg, keeping pace with her daughter. "I'm still new to all of this."
"I am too." Riley murmured back.
"We're both new." Firefly nodded, standing in front of the unopened door. "A day at a time. That's how we'll do this."
"A day at a time." Riley shoved her hands into her pockets. "Yep."
"Are you ready?" Firefly gave Riley a once over, checking to see if she could think of anything else that she would need. At her nod, Firefly opened the front door. "Let's go then."
They stepped outside into the bright morning air of Canterlot, the warm of the still rising sun warming the air as everypony started their day. There was no pony else out on their street, but Riley caught sight of a few Pegasi flitting about in the sky above, the faint dim of voices wafting to her ears on the mountain breeze.
"This way seems like as good a way as any." Firefly gestured down the right side of the street. The city of Canterlot gently sloped upwards beyond it, and its pinnacle, overlooking the rest of the buildings was the Royal Castle. "What do you think?"
"Alright." Riley didn't really care one way or another. "I'll follow you."
They started off walking silently. Taking in the rest of the houses on their street, Riley couldn't help but feel a little intimidated. On Mindoir, all of the buildings had been pre-fabs brought to the planet by three separate System Alliance fleets over the course of three years. Every house had been the same rectangular affair, the same layout, and if you were lucky, you might have been able to paint it a different color than everyone else. Her own house had been a very eye-catching cobalt blue. Her parents had the paint flown in with the second fleet arrival.
The houses on her new home street held more wealth than the entirety of her home colony put together. Most had pillars of marble and were built from exotic stone imported in from all corners of Equestria. Gardens were lovingly maintained, but not by the residents. Riley had a feeling that an army of gardeners were responsible for that. The street was paved with brick, and it was completely different from the dirt roads that she had grown up with. It was civilization.
It was the home of an empire that had lasted for a thousand years.
The steady sound of Firefly's hooves clopping on the ground was a reassuring sound as they passed out of the neighborhood and onto a minor street of Canterlot. Ponies of all three races were out in force, going about their day, and Riley paused for just a moment. It was only a moment, but all that she could hear was gunfire and screams.
She barely even stumbled, and Firefly didn't even notice.
"Have you been to Canterlot before?" Riley asked, trying to think of anything else than Mindoir. She never wanted to think of her home colony again.
"Once." Firefly paused for a moment before taking a left at the road. "It was a long time ago, just after the awakening. A lot has changed since then. A lot of new construction, and I don't really recognize anything… not that I saw much to begin with."
The street was lined with small businesses and shops, restaurants and bakeries, all of them hoping to bring in a piece of the dream that was Canterlot.
"We haven't had a lot of time to talk outside of all of the hullabaloo with the trial." Firefly offered smiles to everypony who met her gaze, giving them a harsh glare if they at all looked at Riley in a way that she deemed unfit. More than a few ponies took off running at the sight of an angry mother. "I want to know you, and you to know me."
Riley didn't say anything. She shied away from all of the ponies that looked at her with even a hint of anger or annoyance. She despised at how little she felt and wondered where her strength had fled to. She wondered if she had ever been strong to begin with.
"You know," Firefly laughed, falling back a little to walk next to Riley. "This would go a lot easier if you were willing to talk to me."
"Sorry." Riley murmured, ducking her head. She found her hand weaving her fingers into Firefly's mane as they started up the gradual incline of the street. "I'm a little distracted."
"It's not a problem." Firefly felt her heart jump a little at the contact. She knew that humans were nowhere near as good at expressing their emotions as any Equestrian. "I'm interrogating you, Riley. I just want to get to know my daughter."
"Right." Riley nodded. She wracked her brain for a moment before smiling. She knew something that would tell Firefly something new about her. "I'm a ballerina."
"A what?" Firefly stopped, and Riley stopped a second later.
"A ballerina." Riley blushed, ducking her head. She didn't want to see Firefly's certainly mocking gaze. It came from everyone who ever learned about it, and she didn't want to see it from her new mother.
"A what?" Firefly repeated.
Riley looked up, confused at Firefly's words. She found herself looking into the mare's eyes, and she saw nothing but genuine curiosity.
"A ballerina," she said for the third time. "Ballet is a type of dance, and I've been learning it for as long as I can remember."
"That's amazing!" Firefly's smile grew, and she nudged Riley encouragingly. "We can fly in a teacher. There's no reason that you shouldn't be able to keep learning."
Riley stared at Firefly for a long moment, a warm feeling bubbling in her chest. After a short laugh, she shook her head. "No. I… It's not for me. Not anymore."
"Why not?" Firefly frowned, watching Riley with careful eyes. "It's not a problem."
"No." Riley didn't feel strong, but she didn't want to live a pointless life. She wanted to do something meaningful. She wanted her survival to mean something. "It's not for me anymore."
"Alright." The pink mare didn't push the matter, though it was evident on her face that she really wanted to. "If that's what you want. Prism and I only want you to be happy."
"Thank you," Riley murmured. She tried to look anywhere else but Firefly's gaze.
The streets of Canterlot grew wider as they ascended higher into the city. The buildings grew taller, and quite a few of them were at least five-hundred years or older, and the signs of each business were proud to declare such.
Sofas and Quills, Maker of Fine Sofa's for Eight-Hundred Years
Fillington's, the Exceptional Toy Shop of Six-Hundred Years and Counting
Hay Burger, Established in the Year 1028 in the Age of the Alicorn
There was such age, and Riley could practically feel a physical weight of the history behind every stone and brick. Countless ponies who had lived their lives, who had smiled and laughed and cried, lived and loved, and died. For all of the advancements that coming forth into the ever advancing galaxy had wrought, there would always be a part of Canterlot that resisted such drastic changes.
There would always be a part of the city's heart that beat in time with two ancient goddesses, and their lives. When you counted your age in millenniums, sometimes change happened slowly. The Princesses personally had only adopted as much as they had needed to of the miraculous technological advances that the other races offered.
Riley didn't know any of that, but she still felt the past as an almost tangible thing around her.
Pony Joes, Serving Donuts for Twelve-Hundred Years
Riley paused, not quite understanding what she was seeing. Nestled between two much larger buildings was what looked like a diner. It sat at the edge of the cliff of the city, and through the windows Riley could see that it overlooked the southern parts of Equestria.
Firefly's voice startled Riley and she jumped at the sudden noise.
"Sorry," Firefly said with a wince. She hadn't meant to scare Riley. She pointed a hoof at the donut shop. "I've heard of Pony Joe's though. Every Pegasi who's visited Canterlot told me that Pony Joe's was the restaurant to visit."
She grinned up at Riley. "Want to go in?"
"We already ate." Riley wasn't really hungry, but she had only had donuts a few times before in her life. Mindoir wasn't a conducive place for pastry makers.
"I'm betting you still have room for a donut." Firefly grinned, nudging Riley playfully. "A single tiny donut, covered in wonderful, delicious, creamy frosting?"
Riley's stomach growled and she blushed.
"I thought so," Firefly said proudly. "Let's go in."
Firefly trotted to the front door of Pony Joe's and it slid open as soon as she neared it. She stepped in, waiting in the entrance for Riley to follow her inside.
Stepping over the threshold, Riley took a moment to look over the shop. It looked like something she might have seen back on Earth in the mid twentieth century. Vinyl seating, aluminum napkin holders, and even a jukebox sat in the corner of the shop. Behind a large counter on one side of the shop, a light amber earth pony stallion with a light orange mane and a pink donut for a cutie mark served the few customers in the shop with a smile, handing over a box to a pair of unicorn mares.
"There you go, ma'ams. A dozen donuts." He waved them goodbye as they left his shop, a warm smile on his face. "Have a nice day."
Seeing two new customers step aside to let the mare's out, he greeted them warmly. "Hello there! Welcome to Pony Joe's."
Firefly let out a small sigh of relief when the stallion didn't react at all to the fact that there was a famous human in his shop. "Hello."
"I'm Donut Joe," the stallion said. He took a moment to adjust the little hat atop his head before meeting both females in the eye. "What can I do for you?"
"We are here for the finest donuts." Firefly said this with a nod, a punctuation. "I have heard that Pony Joe's is the place to come for that."
"You heard right." Donut said that proudly, his eyes twinkling merrily. "No better place for Donut's in all of Equestria."
"What would you suggest than?" Firefly asked, looking over the display case and the donuts behind it. Dozens of types of donuts were artfully arrayed in what could have possibly been the most tasty showing that Firefly had ever seen.
"Right now, our classic glazed donuts would be the best. They are hot and fresh, and you can't ask for a better donut." Donut Joe waved a hoof over said donuts, his smile enticing. "What do you say?"
"Two glazed then, sir." Firefly pulled her bit bag out from under her wing, setting it on the counter.
"Please, call me Donut." He pulled two glazed donuts out and set them on a pair of napkins with a spatula he held in his mouth. "That'll be two bits please."
Paying the stallion, Firefly went to take her donut but Riley beat her to the punch. She picked up both and smiled at Firefly.
"I can get it. Having fingers is good for some things after all." She looked around the diner. "Why don't you pick the seat."
"Thank you." Firefly led Riley over to a corner table that looked out over the cliff. "This is good."
They both sat down, and Riley set one of the donuts in front of Firefly. She took a bite of her own, and she marveled at the absolute bit of heaven that burst into her mouth.
Firefly sat there, taking a bite of her own, chewing thoughtfully.
"How did you learn... ballet?" Firefly asked, curiosity filling her. It struck her as odd, and she truly wanted to know. "Mindoir wasn't a particularly large colony and I can't imagine that there was a dance school."
Riley took a moment to process that before smiling and giving a little laugh. "The mayor's wife was trained in the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. She came with her husband, but realized that she had left behind all of the art and class that she was used to. She started a dance school instead. It ended up being one of the largest organizations. Most of the girls ended up going to her classes at one point or another."
"That was kind of her." Firefly took another bite of her donut.
"Yeah." Riley nodded. "I was one of her favorites. She singled me out the first day, and ever since then she gave me private lessons two days every week. I thought for so long that I was going to go back to Earth as soon as I graduated and blow the socks off of the dance community, the poor little farm girl who could dance like an angel."
Riley leaned back, glaring down at her donut. "I was such an idiot."
"No." Firefly shook her head, reaching a hoof over the table to place it comfortingly over Riley's hand. "You were a girl with dreams. Dreams can change, but you were never an idiot."
Riley shrugged, unconvinced.
"Riley..." Firefly gently rubbed the back of Riley's hand, chewing on her bottom lip for a moment. "Prism and I have been talking."
Riley looked up, meeting Firefly's gaze nervously. "What about?"
"We know that you have been having nightmares, Riley." Firefly made sure that her voice was quiet, non-confrontational. She didn't want Riley in anyway to think that she was being judgmental. "You don't need to suffer alone. We're here for you, and you can talk to us at anytime, day or night."
Flinching, Riley looked down at her lap, pulling her hand out from underneath Firefly's hoof.
"If you won't talk to us, Riley," Firefly said, worrying away at her lip. "Then you can at least talk to a professional. You've been through a horrible experience, but you don't need to keep going through it every night. We can find somepony who can help you."
For a long moment, both Riley and Firefly were silent. What could Riley say to that? She hated herself. She didn't deserve to get better, and she would only drag others down with her if she told others about the nightmares that haunted her. She was alone, and that was all there was to it.
"I'm fine." Riley muttered, glancing down and to the left. "I don't need to talk to anyone."
Firefly stared at Riley for a long moment. She wanted to say so much. She wanted to tell Riley that she was worth every moment of it. She wanted to tell her that stubbornness and fear would get her nowhere in life. She wanted to take her in her hooves and never let her go. The girl needed a hug like no one else in the galaxy.
Instead, she did none of those things. Riley was still so fragile, and to push her to far might mean breaking her in ways that she would never recover from.
"Alright." Firefly nodded sadly. "But please remember this. We are always here for you. Always."
"Yeah." Riley didn't believe it.