The train cart jerked as it started to get pulled away from the station platform at Hollow Shades, and I felt an odd mix of emotions pass over me as I looked at the forest swallowing the last visual remnants of the town. Soon enough there were only trees passing by the window at increasing speed, and I let my yellow eyes wander to the Earthpony stallion sat across from me.
Oval peered back at me with his auburn eyes from under the overhang of his red mane, dislodging the reading glasses from his snout until they fell down to dangle around his neck. He put the folder he had taken from the station down beside him and raised an eyebrow my way.
"What's wrong, Pearl?" he asked, and I gave a light shake of my head, barely enough to set my green mane in motion.
"Feeling like I'm turning a new leaf, I guess," I remarked. "I feel like I'm leaving part of myself behind, a bit of budding homesickness perhaps?"
"I feel like that every time I leave Hoofton," Oval suggested with a smile. "It's fine, really. We can visit any time you want once you've settled in with us."
"That's not what I mean," I returned with a light furrowing of my brow. "You know I can't visit where I want to visit for a while yet."
"Ah, yes, that," Oval realized, giving a glance at the window beside us. "We can't let my mare know about that, but she'll probably welcome you into our home without too many questions."
"I'm not sure I'm following," I started, but Oval's right hoof raised up to shush me.
"Let me finish," he demanded in a soft tone of voice. "I mean she will fire off a few questions, expect answers from the both of us, but as long as you're friendly with her she will accept you for who you are, and leave our secrets at rest."
I stared at him, not knowing where he was going with this.
"Once my mare is satisfied you're not going to upset my relationship with her, we can take trips around Hoofton and I can teach you what I know," Oval continued unabated. "We'll meet with your friends in Ponyville in a year's time, and I hope I can help you to hone your skills before that time. With help from Breeze, Blaze, and the rest, I'm sure you can manage to find a way to return home without issue."
"Yeah, I had thought about that as well," I agreed. "I am going to need a lot of training before I'm ready to tackle that issue."
"As soon as you feel you're ready, my earlier statement still applies; we can go visit it any time you like," Oval repeated. "I'd personally love to see it myself some time."
I thought back at the portal through which I entered into the realm of Equestria and the world beyond it where I now had a criminal record. If nothing had been done about it, I was facing unemployment, potential homelessness, and had nothing left to my name, especially if I had basically disappeared off the radar for a whole year. If I did return at some point, I would have to overcome those issues in turn, possibly while dragging Oval or some other friend along for the ride.
Oval leaned in a bit. "Your ears are drooping."
"If I stop to think about it all, it's still overwhelming," I replied in a whisper. "I'm going to need to find solutions to so many problems, and help my abducted siblings do the same."
"Who knows? In a year's time they may seek you out and have the solution laid out for you? I heard say there were some smart foals among them," Oval suggested with a wink. "You can't carry all that weight on your own shoulders. You'll have to accept you have to spread it around some. Trust an Earthpony on that."
I chuckled weakly at the obvious attempt at a joke, giving her a nod. "Thanks. How long is the trip to Canterlot?"
"About an hour or two," Oval returned, leaning back on his seat. "We'll have to switch trains there but may be able to get something to eat before it leaves. The trip from Canterlot to Hoofton is a lot longer, with a few stops along the way, but there are no stops before we reach Canterlot."
"Define a lot longer?" I repeated while settling on my own seat.
"I keep forgetting to time it. I think it's about three hours? Three-and-a-half?" Oval muttered uneasily. "It's long enough that I forget when I left Canterlot by the time I arrive at Hoofton, or vice-versa."
"Three hours and fourty minutes from Canterlot to Hoofton," another pony remarked, and I looked up to see the conductor standing in the aisle between seats. "Baltimare's an hour past that on the same line. May I see your tickets please?"
"Oh, thank you," I replied, using my mouth to pull my ticket from the bag sat next to me on the seat and offering it to the Unicorn stallion in his blue uniform.
He quickly scanned it and snapped a hole in it with a small device, then turned to Oval who was still digging through his own bag.
"Sir? Your ticket please?" the conductor pressed, and Oval groaned in return.
"I know it's in here somewhere," my travelling companion mumbled with his face half-buried in the bag.
"Didn't you put it in your coat pocket?" I remembered, motioning to the brown overcoat folded up on Oval's other side. "I thought I saw you slip it in there because you didn't want to open your bag on the platform?"
Oval brought her head up, frowned at me, then reached for his coat. "I'm sure I put it in the bag, Pearl," he mumbled as he checked the pockets. "Oh, here it is... huh. You're right."
The ticket was quickly checked and a hole punched out by the conductor, who failed to remark about Oval's difficulty in finding his ticket due to sheer professionalism.
We waited for the stallion to continue on his path through the train before I just had to jab at Oval to release some tension.
"I see why Blaze thinks you should be supervised in your daily life," I suggested. "Is dementia a thing in this world? Are there other ponies who are as forgetful as you, 'cousin'?"
"Watch it, Pearl," Oval warned me with a snort. "I could just leave you in Canterlot to fend for yourself, or convince my mare to let you cook your own meals while you stay with us."
"I might burn the house down trying to cook for myself," I reminded him. "I am not sure your mare would want to take that risk. What was her name again?"
"Celery Stalk," Oval repeated for the fifth time today. "She's the most wonderful unicorn you'll ever meet."
"So her family are the Stalk family, then? Like how Pinkie Pie is from the Pie family?" I tried, pony genealogy still being somewhat of a mystery to me.
"No, hers is an offshoot from the Seed family. Her mother, Celery Seed, married to Sugar Stalk, who was himself part of the Cane family. I actually met his mother Candy Cane before she died," Oval listed.
"...and that makes sense to you, does it?" I tried, finding it exceptionally difficult to figure out how that family tree stuck together.
"It took me a while to accept it for what it is," Oval offered back with a shrug. "The best thing to do is not to overthink it. It makes sense to my mare, so I accept it as part of who she is."
I closed my eyes and reached up to rub with my forehoof at my temple for a moment. "I've known families back home who were so entwined that someone's uncle was their stepdad as well, but this just makes my head spin."
"Doesn't help you figure your own family tree out, does it?" Oval suggested calmly.
"Not really. I mean, if you're Hammer Hoof, and I'm Pearl... how do I relate to the Hoof family?" I wondered out loud.
"We could say you came from a far-away town somewhere only Blaze knows of. What was that one she mentioned before? Tall Tale?" Oval pondered. "I think that's over on the West Coast. Most of my mare's family has stuck to the East Coast, so they would not know the first thing about towns around there."
"Tall Tale sounds fitting," I remarked flatly, opening my eyes to look over at him again.
"If I remember correctly it's near a beach on either the Northern Lunar Ocean or Southern Lunar Ocean," Oval mumbled to himself. "We should find a map in Canterlot."
"I've always wanted to live near a beach, and now you're telling me that Pearl grew up near one? I'm getting jealous of my own guise," I chuckled weakly, leaning a bit closer to the window as the train sped out of the woods and the view opened up.
Oval turned his head as well, motioning out into the distance with his left forehoof. "There's a second set of tracks over there, leading to Manehattan. They will merge with ours shortly before we pass the Neighagra Falls. Sometimes you can catch the smoke rising from the other trains, but the ponies made sure the schedules differ enough that they're not in danger of crashing into us."
"Considering we still have half a day left in trains, I really don't want to consider crashing," I mumbled, shirking up a bit closer to the window so I could get a better view.