Now I knew what my mother felt like.
At least on a small scale.
I didn't leave my apartment for days, a thin layer of dust smothering the keys on my typewriter. The same ones that usually filled my flat with the sound of their happy clicking now sat, cold and neglected. I displayed almost the same attitude. I was listless, forlorn. Every waking thought I had somehow connected to the tragedy that had occurred just beneath my hooves. While I slept, my friend was being murdered. The officer had not masked that detail from me. He made it clear that this was no "natural cause" or "accident".
I didn't even want to think about how somepony could be so callous. Although this fact bothered me, I found myself worrying about something else entirely. Why? Why had Sterling been the target? Everypony knew that something as violent as this couldn't be random. It had to be somepony with a motive, who knew my friend.
I recited details with all the zeal of a new detective, obsessed with trying to find an answer. It was all I could do to keep from centering my attention on past conversations with Sterling, every facet of our friendship all the times he'd barged into my flat after a night of escapades. It was funny, though, he never came empty hooved. I may have been the author, but my friend certainly knew how to tell a story. His eyes would light up in excitement whenever he told me about his latest adventure on the sensational streets of Manehattan. He often spoke of negotiating with some of the most well-known names in equestrian entertainment, but besides that, it was rare that he mentioned any of his actual work. Sterling played up the, what he called, "exciting parts of the job"; the lunches with actors, especially. I heard all about their scandals, daily lives and their dirty secrets.
Sterling did that.
He made you comfortable enough to tell him everything. The way he'd get absorbed in whatever you were telling him only urged you onward. The sickening reality of what danger all those secrets put him in was finally dawning on me. I also thought more about our relationship. Maybe that's why we were so close. He was a storyteller, a good listener by nature. I was a novelist, who needed a friend and an ear to test my ramblings on; somepony to bounce ideas off of. On more than one occasion I had come to him for advice, and he was never afraid to tell me if my rough drafts were complete rubbish.
Reliving these fond memories only made the reality of his loss more painful.
Especially the circumstances.
Somepony had hated my friend enough to take his life away from him. That took a long time to accept. I was kidding myself, though. I didn't accept that. I was angry in fact. Who was the pony who had taken my friend's life, and turned mine inside out and crushed it, then left me broken with irreplaceable pieces missing? It was a wakeup call when I was called in repeatedly for questioning.
They honestly thought I had the motive and means to murder? Apparently, I was the last to be seen with him. That phrase had struck me. Seen with him. The last time anypony else saw Sterling was out at the pub, where he had met some young stars for a night of excitement. He'd left early, they reported, seeming spooked and hurried home. I was certain I was the absolute last to see him alive, which was haunting in itself.
Whilst pondering all this, a disquieting thought occurred to me. All of the details of that night fell into order, and a similarity became evident. I saw myself escorting Sterling to his flat, leaning against him for support. I saw the dimly lit hall. And there, lurking in the dark corner of my memory, close to being forgotten, was a face. Yes, a face I had seen soon after. With a sinking realization, I recognized the orange mare. It was her. She had witnessed me with Sterling. Did she think I'd done it? Took advantage of his inebriated state and killed him in cold blood?
I paced my floor, brooding in the midst of an agonizingly sleepless night. One of many since his death. What was my motive? I knew I was innocent. What reason did she have for suspecting me? Another equally as resonating thought occurred. When trying to divert attention from oneself, it would be logical for that one to present another specimen; one of equal interest.
Had she seen something she ought not? Even worse and more troubling, committed a shameful act? Or was this all the mad rationalization of the mind of a writer?
How was the mare involved? Bystander? Accomplice? Murderer?
I was driving myself mad. I spent every hour planning, strategizing, and trying to think like a criminal. Maybe I needed some air.
I had cared little about appearance in the days since Sterling's death. But it stood to reason that anypony who saw me as unkempt as I looked now would have reason to suspect that I needed some sort of mental assistance.
After dragging a comb through my mane and coat, returning it to its normal shine, I felt a bit more confident about facing the world again. As soon as I stepped out the door, my hooves carried me through town. I wandered past landmarks and tourist attractions, heading into the shopping district. It was only after my stroll was halted by a traffic signal that I had begun to wonder about my location. And the weather, as the chill in the air was making me reconsider my decision to leave home without my scarf. Imagine my surprise when I found myself standing on the exact same corner where Open Hooves Animal Shelter was sited. Even more surprising, I had almost no reservations about opening the door, setting off a pleasant chime of a bell, and peeking inside.
I hadn't spent an enormous amount of time in pet shops or shelters as a colt, but this one seemed to be ordinary in appearance and makeup. A low counter stood on the far side of the room, which appeared to be a waiting area. On either side leading up to it, couches and coffee tables strewn with pet care guides with titles such as: You and Your Feline, A Guide to the Care of Exotic Birds and Raising Your Baby Alligator. I did a double take on that one.
Behind the aforementioned counter seemed to be the rest of the shelter, which as far as I could tell was a hall lined with pens and cages. As I took all of this in, a small, pale blue unicorn exited a room lining the hall, which I could now tell led to a larger, open space. She paused, a bird cage housing a canary floating in her aura of magic beside her, as she sensed another pony's presence in the shelter. "Have you been helped?" she said, an air of hurriedness evident in her tone despite the empty waiting area.
"Um, no actually, but I—"
"I'll see that somepony comes for you. Just a moment." The mare nudged open another door, disappearing with the bird and leaving me alone again. I hadn't planned on staying, obviously, but now I felt trapped by an obligation to stay since she had most likely already informed somepony of my presence there. Shifting awkwardly, I move my gaze to a poster of the skeletal system of a rabbit before seeing yet another employee approach the counter.
In all my agonizing over killing and motive, I had put her out of my mind. But seeing her in front of me again caused a reaction more or less similar to the one I experienced in seeing her for the very first time.
"Fluttershy…" I breathed, savoring the taste of the name on my lips once more. Her face lit with recognition, the dazzling smile making her seem even more beautiful. "Hi Crimson." She said bashfully, as if not knowing what else to say. For the first time in ages, I actually grinned back. It felt strange after all this time, almost like a betrayal. How dare I be so cheery when my friend's killer had not been found? My smile faded quickly. Fluttershy took no notice of all of this, and instead regarded me curiously.
"What brings you here?" Perhaps it was the animals, but the pegasus seemed much more at ease here. The anxious tremble was gone from her voice, and she held her head high. "Ooh, are you here to see the bunnies?" she asked excitedly, giving her trailing pink tail a toss. And although that may not have been my intention when I wandered in that place, I found myself agreeing to what she was saying anyway. I nodded, summoning all the eagerness I could about seeing the fuzzy creatures. "Right, the bunnies. You told me about them at the park, so I thought I'd stop by and see."
This was all the confirmation the mare needed. With the slightest nod, she motioned for me to follow her behind the reception desk, into the wide halls of the clinic. I took the opportunity to glance into a few of the rooms, never having been in a place like this before. Mother never allowed pets. I'm sure this fact would appall Fluttershy, with the loving nature she displayed to the creatures. We took a small detour from the corridor she explained would lead to the kennels so that she could ask another pony about the state of a certain cat. The animal had its nose tucked peacefully under its tail as it napped atop a gleaming table.
"Poor thing came in with pneumonia." Fluttershy murmured, hovering a bit off the ground to peer at the sleeping form.
"And it might not have survived if it weren't for our favorite volunteer," added an older stallion in a white coat stood further off, looking the part of the doctor completely with his stethoscope and patient file.
My companion ducked her head, settling back to the floor in a graceful extension of her feathery wings. "It was nothing… she just needed to warm up."
The doctor smirked. "Not many ponies would have the patience to stay all night to watch for us. Especially without having to be asked." I pictured Fluttershy in the shelter, holding the kitten in a blanket and encouraging it to eat until morning. She wouldn't have hesitated, of course. I was on my second encounter with the pegasus and had no problem believing that she would have done whatever it took to nurse this forgotten critter back to its normal vigor. She just exuded an air of… kindness. Maybe that's why I was standing in an unfamiliar place with a pony I hardly knew with an intention of seeing something that didn't really interest me. I felt welcomed into her world, and I would gladly take that sneak peak.
Maybe she reminded me of Sterling. Up until now, I didn't have friends. I had one. Also, for the first time, I was interested in what she understood about me. My thoughts after meeting her the first time had been primarily on her charm and allure that her impression of me had only crossed my mind once. I allowed myself to muse over this whilst the mare and the doctor chatted about antibiotics and vitamins and the diet that would be best for their patient. I knew I wasn't a particularly striking stallion. Was Fluttershy taken with me the same as I was her? I couldn't help but doubt it. Maybe to her, I was another helpless being. Perhaps my insecurities were apparent to her from the start, and this was her helping me like she did the kitten. I didn't want to think that her kindness was out of pity. For some reason the smile that curled onto her lips suggested a real friendship was being built.
I was overanalyzing this. Forcing myself back to the present, I saw that Fluttershy was standing back by the door, obviously waiting for me to catch up. Turning on my hooves, I quickly flashed the doctor a smile, silently thanking him for sharing his time. I trotted shoulder to shoulder with the pale yellow pegasus, down the blank halls that seemed to be washed in a stale yet clean scent. The bright overhead lights shone unforgivingly, all aspects of this place making it seem cold and unfriendly. Fluttershy didn't seem to think this, however. If what the doctor said was any indication of her overall attitude towards the shelter, I could easily see that she must have thought it was wonderful. The animals did seem to bring a certain cheeriness to it, though. This was more evident when I entered one of the rooms at the end of the hall, holding the door open with my magic as Fluttershy trotted in front of me.
"This is where our little bunnies sleep," she explained, turning on a dim light to allow me to see pens that were comfortably full with the little creatures. The room itself wasn't very large, but the two sides were separated by tiny fences that barely reached my shoulders. I noticed a corner of newspaper peeking out from underneath the floor of the pens, obscured by straw and the huddled forms of the cotton-tailed animals. The mare stuck her neck out over the fence, her mouth moving wordlessly as she seemed to take a count. I took this opportunity to peek into the other enclosure, admitting now that the little animals were adorable. The room was dim, but I noticed a small heater in the corner, warming the chilly air from the rest of the clinic to a comfortably warm temperature. I looked up, noticing that my companion had finished her inventory and was now speaking with her normally soft tone.
"It's my primary job to look after these little guys," she informed me, turning around as well but cradling a sleeping bunny in her hooves as she hovered just slightly above the ground. With a nod of affirmation, I sweep my gaze around the room once more, matching her soft tone so I didn't disturb the little creatures.
"And it looks like you do a good job. What got you interested in animals?" I asked, genuinely inquisitive about the origin of the tender care I was witnessing. Fluttershy didn't look back up at me, but instead seemed to be watching the pens and the almost imperceptible rise and fall of their chests to indicate they were breathing.
"Oh, that's a long story…" she began, the first word sounding more like a sigh. I chided myself in my mind for asking too many questions too soon. But I couldn't talk about myself either, I reasoned. Besides recent events, the only marginally interesting thing I'd done was move from the countryside around Manehattan into the city. I had been a young colt still, craving freedom and new opportunities. Fluttershy was now shutting the latch on the fence, and was silent for another moment before training her cyan hued eyes on me. "A long time ago, I had a very good friend who loved to fly, and fly fast. She was very…" She paused for a moment here, as if trying to find the right word for the quality she had in mind. "Trustworthy. So when it came to defending me against some older ponies, she challenged them to a race." Her expression, which had before been pursed anxiously, tipped back up into a reminiscent smile. "During which, I was inadvertently sent fleeing to the ground. And when I saw all the lovely creatures that lived there… I knew I wouldn't be leaving for a while."
Fluttershy finished her story, trailing her hoof in a circle on the floor of the shadowy room as she appeared to still be lost in the pleasant memories. I could tell how much it had meant for her to tell me about this. It was another peek into the past of the mare I knew next to nothing about. I also got the impression that she didn't trust most ponies very easily. It made me think about the other pegasus she had mentioned, and how they became friends. What was she doing here in Manehattan now, all the way from where she had grown up?
Forgetting all my questions, I took a pace forward and stopped with one of my hooves raised. "Thank you… for telling me that." I said simply, letting her know I recognized the meaning it had in our friendship. Instead of dropping the matter, like I had now expected her to do, her gaze lost the haziness of nostalgia as my words brought her back to the present. "For a long time, I didn't understand the affect opening up with other ponies could have," she continued, her calm voice getting even softer. "But I can tell when somepony is sad, Crimson. The story was me opening the way for you." She spoke with a wisdom that seemed beyond me, and I found myself unable to make any sound, my mouth agape slightly. "I hope you'll be able to trust me. I do want to be your friend."
Without uttering another word, Fluttershy turned away from me, exiting the room and making a clear signal that our time together was done for the night. Still, I remained stuck to my spot, my mind racing to scrutinize every aspect of what had just happened. And again, my hooves appeared to be moving at their slow, unauthorized pace and moved me out of the shelter. Past the examining rooms and countertops until I once again set off the little bell at the door to the shelter.
Outside, it had started to snow. The flurries came down in jumbled clumps, illuminated by the streetlights and seeming even more brilliantly white. It was snowing now, but I wasn't as cold as I was before.