Love and Tolerance

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic © Hasbro & Lauren Faust

By: TOO S0BER

-***::: Chapter 7 :::***-

Public

Empty.

The mall that my friends and I frequented was practically empty. Sure, there were still dozens upon dozens of people around, bustling around the stores and stalls, going about their business. The huge cavern of a room that encompassed the food court, and the front door to the movie theater, made those crowds seem small and sparse. Which was pretty odd, considering it was mid-November, and everyone should be shopping for the holidays. Truthfully, I was glad that there weren't hordes of people; it would mean less stares.

I was kind of hoping that there'd be more ponified people here. If for nothing else than to make the situation less... awkward. As it was, it seemed Ashley and I were the only ones... immediately visible anyways. Perhaps there were more further inside.

I was also glad that the chaos of what was happening hadn't affected the restaurants being open. At least some of the employees showed up for work.

Yay!

I liked this mall. It had lots of stores, a theater, etcetera; but the best part was the food court. It had so many dang choices! Sub sandwiches, fries and burgers, to Mexican and Chinese dishes. Just about anything for everything for every possible taste bud. And that made it a certain percentage cooler for it. The plethora of smells crossed my muzzle...

...and oddly, some of it made me sick.

Not literally, but the wave of nausea that followed was confoundedly horrible; and very confusing. I've been here dozens of times, probably hundreds, and never had this kind of problem. In fact, I had eaten at every single one of these fast food joints at least a couple of times; even the oriental place, despite my not being crazy about Chinese food. That, and I felt this sensation earlier when Marcus had raided my fridge for food, a tub of chicken fried rice.

I glanced over at Ashley, and noted the slight green that permeated her gray face. She must have been feeling the same nausea I was. Marcus looked unchanged, and hadn't yet noticed our queasiness; and Shelby was looking this way and that at the stores, even eying a nearby toy shop (three guesses why). If not for my loudly protesting stomach, I would have suggested skipping lunch.

"You two okay?" Aaand now he did.

"Ugh," I said, groaning and lowering my head, as if doing so would put my nose underneath the stench. "I don't know..."

"I feel it too..." Ashley chimed in, covering her nose with a hoof. A method I already knew to be futile. "It's odd though," she continued. "the place doesn't smell any different... yet... I get the feeling like I'm sniffing a garbage can. Ugh!" the unicorn groaned, rearing her head in disgust.

I had the same sentiment, "Well, let's try to at least find something to eat." Surely there must be something here that was edible.

The three of us spread out in different directions, with Shelby tagging along with the remaining human, but not before getting our money from Marcus; whom was in charge of my wallet and Ashley's purse, since we couldn't really carry or sift through the contents. I asked for a ten, not really planning on stuffing my face with much more than that, holding the folded bill in a wingtip. Again the appendage's flexibility and dexterity surprised me. Clasping the tiny paper almost, but not quite, like fingers. For one, the feathers (while articulate) didn't have any sensation of feeling like digits did. My eye twitched, and I couldn't help but think my wings were pretty weird now.

To avoid drawing attention, I folded the wing back down, swallowing the ten from sight.

Trotting from restaurant to restaurant, I weighed my options while trying to pin down the reason behind the mysterious sickening. I walked by one of the Chinese places, the smell of orange chicken, steaming rice and fried beef assaulting me. I gagged, quickly walking away before chunks started flying. Catching what breath I could, I headed for another option. A popular fast food joint that was found as commonplace as Starbucks; MacDonald's.

Again I was nearly knocked out of my socks by the horrid, fetid stench. Oh wait, not wearing any... derp, followed by a hoof to the face. That place was never my favorite, but there wasn't anything on the menu that could make me sick. So why was this happening? Standing as straight as I could, I glanced over the counter and observed the kitchen, trying to be as stealthy as can be. As far as I could tell, there was nothing abnormal or weird going on; the two employees both working. One was manning the register, attending to a customer while the other was flipping patties on a flat top.

My eyes locked on the sizzling brown discs, and my vision doubled. Suddenly their odor wafted up my snout like a fly on a mission in an outhouse. I nearly fell as my legs went rubbery, barely catching myself. The scent even felt like it was burning my nostrils!

Ugh...

Again, recoiling, I backed away from the scene. Okay. Roasted chicken, fried beef, and hamburger patties all gave me a case of the green face. But was it meat or processed stuff? Fried or baked? It could have been a dozen different things, and I had to learn more. This time I visited a restaurant of very different caliber: Subway. In fast food terms, it was as organic as it could get. They put exactly what you wanted on it, and did it right in front of you. As far as I could tell, there wasn't any time or room for shenanigans; not like with frozen patties or chicken.

My hunger redoubled when I approached, and... was it just me or did the lettuce, tomatoes and other sliced, fresh vegetables look... exceptionally good? I blinked, not sure what to make of this sudden interest... no, obsession... with the eye-poppingly vivid greens. I trotted a bit closer, and while the smell was slightly overpowered by the other restaurants, it was still clearly palpable. No nausea appeared, my stomach didn't lurch (in fact it growled), and there was simply no sign of any illness whatsoever. Basically, I felt now how I should have been feeling the whole time.

Although the sliced meats garnered a form of nausea, it was magnitudes smaller, since they were cold cuts and not actively cooking. Thus easily ignorable.

I blinked again, frowning and cocking an eyebrow. Weird didn't begin to explain it. Having one more suspicion, I trotted away towards the restaurant I frequented the most. It was an off-brand Italian place that served mainly pizza and pasta, but also had meat dishes, like lasagna, and chicken parmesan. The scent of melted cheese and baked bread wafted up my nose, with only a slight hint of meat. In truth, the herbs and seasonings pretty much dominated the scape of the smells in the vicinity.

Hmm, okay. I reared up on the glass and took a closer peak at the buffet of food. Eying each dish, I examined my body's reactions to each. The salad trays, as suspected, garnered the same hungry reaction from Subway. The pizzas with vegetable or no toppings had the same result, as well as pastas and sauces. The lasagna and spaghetti was another matter, making my stomach lurch once more.

So then, I though to myself. It's meat? Meat makes me react like that? I huffed, not liking this train of thought. So unfair...

As I was lamenting the fact that I may have to become vegetarian (groan), a cough caught my attention. I looked up, and a round service woman wearing a black employee apron, with the restaurant's logo stenciled on the chest, staring at me. She blinked several times as she stood there, frozen.

I gazed back, and so did she. The woman, probably in her mid-twenties, was someone I was partially acquainted to, because I was a frequent customer. Still didn't know her name, but we recognized each other; when I was human anyways. The stare down must have gone on for a few minutes, as I caught a small crowd of people joining in to look at the orange pegasus pony at the pizza place in my peripheral vision. Well, best break the ice... I still had a stomach to satiate!

"Uh," I said, and she almost jumped when I spoke. "I'd like a slice of cheese pizza and a soda..." I gave my order, and added, "please?" trying to smile, but not awkwardly so. Probably failed hard at that.

After a moment, she snapped out of her trance and placed one cardboard thin slice of cheesy heaven into the oven to reheat. I moved down to the register while she readied the soda, unfolding my left wing to get the ten ready. My ear tingled, and I took a glance around while waiting for my order.

More people, a lot more, had gathered in the proximity of the restaurant I was getting food from. I blushed, feeling my pointed ears mash against my skull. Even my tail pressed on my behind a bit. I felt like those dozens of pairs of eyes pressing in on me, an ease of claustrophobia encroaching on my mind, and a sweat broke across my brow. Damn it body! Stop it!

"What?" The cashier woman spoke up, speaking loudly enough for the crowd to hear. "Never seen anyone order plain cheese before?" she challenged, and I snapped out of my stage fright to look at her. She seemed annoyed, not liking what was going on at all. I furtively glanced back at the crowd, and the people began to disperse, slowly but surely. Still, many others stared at me, heedless of the service woman's words. Eventually though, they too went back to their business, occasionally returning that gaze to me.

"Some people..." the cashier said, shaking her head ruefully. "will that be all ma'am?" Twitch. How does everyone keep doing that!?

"Er, yeah..." I said. "thanks for um... that..." I gestured a hoof towards the area where the crowd once occupied. I unfolded my wing when she announced the total. She hesitated on taking the money when she realized it was a feathery wing 'handing' the bill to her, but quickly recovered.

Working the buttons, she said plainly, "Eh, no problem..." then she looked at me kind of strange. "you seem oddly... familiar."

"Uh..." I said, glancing around the room a bit nervously. "I, er, came here numerous times before. I always ordered the same thing..." I shrugged.

"Oh!" She smacked a palm on her forehead. "Plain cheese and a soda, sometimes gets baked ziti and marinara, duh!" she laughed. "Now I recognize you."

I smiled at that. It was nice to know that some people were not behaving all weird and rude at the sight of me. That initial shock doesn't really count, but what does is how people act after that same shock had worn off. And, I squinted at the name tag, Tina it read, had passed with flying colors.

"Wait a minute..." she squinted at me, processing something within her brain. "If you are, who I think you are, why does your voice... sound... like..." slowly she trailed off, and her eyes widened again.

She blushed, the facts donning on her. I blushed, and turned my eyes another direction. "Yeah, let's let that drop. Right there." I said flatly, embarrassment thick. She stared for a moment longer, then it must have occurred to Tina that she was being just as rude as the crowd she had scolded earlier, then found a task to occupy her attention. Okay, so maybe not flying colors, but she made a good effort.

"So, am I the first you've seen?" I asked as she busied herself with a fresh pizza, desiring conversation to distract my thoughts.

"Eh, yeah actually." Tina responded, acting as though the previous discussion never happened. Not surprising, my guess being that most ponified people were likely staying home or were somewhere else seeking help or something. "So, what are you?"

I balked, feeling like I was a little insulted... and actually was.

My expression must have been obvious (because I let it), as her eyes widened a bit, and she quickly amended, "No, what I mean is, you're not a regular horse." and she gestured at my wings.

"Pegasus," I stated simply, relieved that she didn't mean what I thought she meant. That would have been... bad.

"Makes sense," Tina shrugged. "and so that one is a..." she paused, wrinkling her nose. I followed her eyes, and saw Ashley a little ways down. She was looking back and forth between the Subway and another restaurant whose sign was obscured from me.

"Unicorn," I said. "see the horn?" gesturing with a hoof.

She paused visibly, then a small smile creased her lips, "Neat."

Another few seconds and Tina pulled the pizza slice from the oven, delicious steam now pouring from the top; my mouth watered at the sight. She handed me the bill change, and I gave her back half as a tip and a thank you for helping with that crowd. Initially she tried to downplay that kind act and hand me the money, but I insisted.

Tina presented me with the tray, setting it on the counter.

I stared at the red plastic, not sure how to approach my latest conundrum. I could try and use my wings, just like how I 'grasped' the cup at Ashley's, but were they strong enough to handle the weight? I wasn't sure, and didn't want to make a mess. Tina cocked an eyebrow at me, I guessed I had been staring at the tray for some time, and she asked if everything was okay. I nodded, explaining that I was just trying to figure out how to pick up the rectangle that held my food.

"Why don't you use your mouth?" Tina suggested.

Wow, that was... actually a pretty good idea. I smiled and she nudged the tray slightly over the edge. "Thanks, hehe." I chomped down on the slightly curved edge, nearly toppling the half that held the soda, evening it out before the beverage could tilt too much.

Phew.

Slowly I pivoted around, my jaw was already locking up due to the unaccustomed weight, eager to search for a seat. There was certainly no shortage of choices. Booths, tables with chairs and hybrids in between (tables that had one side with a couch like bench and the other side chairs). I saw one empty four seat booth that looked inviting, and started (carefully) trotting towards it...

...when it was snagged by some teenager wearing a decent amount of black denim attire.

Oh, well okay then, I thought, thinking nothing of it. There's plenty of other seats.

Looking around the court once more, I headed for one of the couch/chair hybrids. Once I sat down I would wave over Ash and Marcus...

My thoughts were interrupted when another young person, this one lacking a jacket, but looked very similar to the previous teen in black. I nearly lost balance when he rushed by and snatched up the seat. By some miracle the soda stayed perched on the tray, and I waited for my heart rate to decline from the surprise.

I righted myself and turned my attention to the punk that nearly shoved me to the ground to grab the table. He wore a contemptuous smirk on his face and tried to look at me out of the corners of his eyes, half-trying not to be noticed. I glanced back at the first guy, whom I paid no attention to at first, and he wore a similar expression; watching me 'discreetly'.

Oookie dokie then... I thought, cocking an eyebrow in his direction, not sure what was going on. Yet, I had an idea and I did not like it one bit.

Something fishy is going on here. There were plenty of seats to choose from, but that seemed to be beside the point. I doubted that it was coincidence that both of them were going for the same sitting spots I was. Especially since they were dressed similarly, like they thought they were in a gang or something. Most likely they were just some punks that thought it was cool. For a moment I wondered if they were associated with my younger brother. It would make a crazy kind of sense.

The fiery ache in my jaw steered my attention back to the matter at ha – hoof (still not used to this); I needed to find a seat and set this heavy tray down!

Maybe it was time for a test. This time I headed for a relatively remote table, switching my eyes between the two thieves from before. Just as I suspected, they followed me with their gaze, now no longer attempting to hide the contemptuous smirks on their faces. Uh huh, they were screwing with me, and apparently didn't like a pony being in, probably what they perceived as, their mall.

A third figure, similar in clothing but perhaps a head shorter, darted around a corner and snagged the seat I was heading for as I got close. I huffed around the plastic tray in my mouth and bristled, feeling my feathers ruffle. This was ridiculous! What's the point in doing that? I wanted to believe that they simply played that little prank on everyone, that it was just a bit of fun, and that I wasn't a 'special circumstance', but something just nagged otherwise at me as the anger built in my face.

Ugh, I thought, utterly annoyed; which was quickly building to outrage. I really, really, hoped this was just a passing thing and not something that was going to be permanent and on a daily basis. No amount of awesomeness garnered by flying would alleviate dealing with this kind of stuff constantly...

Still having some patience, I decided to try one last time for a table. After that... well I didn't really know what.

This table was another of the bench and chair hybrids, and seemed to be the closest to me while having a decent bit of distance from the trio of troublemakers. I knew I could beat those punks to the table, if I didn't have a tray of food to balance in my mouth. After all, I had four legs and they only had two (legs I was quickly becoming adept at using). This time I kept my ears at attention, listening for the tell tale sounds of movement, and was rewarded by hearing the sound of a chair screech as it was scooted back in a hurry. The first punk was making his way quickly to the bench/chair table, and I was about to pick up my pace. Even so he arrived well before I did...

When Marcus slid into the bench right as the punk was about to sit down, causing him to stagger.

"Sorry," he said half-apologetically. I imagined that he had been observing the whole shenanigan. "seat's taken bro." he added casually with a smirk. After that he waved me over, and Ashley trotted up with a blue tray in her mouth, followed by Shelby.

I tried to smile around the tray, which proved difficult, trotting over to the table and finally setting down the heavy thing. My jaw sighed in relief. I had never before appreciated just how much a large soda weighed before now! That and just how much I missed my fingers.

I climbed into the chair as Shelby joined next to me, Marcus and Ashley sat on the bench half across from us. It took me a moment to realize the punk was still standing there, dumbstruck by the foiling of their little game. Luckily his comrades had, for whatever reason, decided not to join in – yet.

"Wait, you're hanging out with these freaks?" he waved a jacketed hand at the two ponies sitting with the pair of humans. Ashley and I glared at him, but he paid us no mind, focusing on the African American. Marcus paused, just inches from taking the first bite of a triple decker burger.

"Problem?" Marcus smiled, and added with a slight tone of annoyance. "Bro?"

"No, but there's going to be." the punk threatened, and I saw his friends exit their seats. As they drew closer, the punk spat out an insult that made my ears burn and my jaw drop. A certain insult that pertained to Marcus and only Marcus. How dare he!? Instinctively I turned towards Shelby and ordered her to cover her ears. Thankfully the little girl obeyed without question, realizing the tension of the situation.

I knew that cupping her ears would do little, but I'll be damned if I let her innocence be ruined at the mall by a group of punks. Sure, innocence didn't last forever. Not in this world, but again, I'm going to make sure Shelby kept it as long as time allowed.

Now I was about to put this jerk in his place – when my chair suddenly lurched half an inch. I whipped around to stare at Marcus, and he was still smiling. How can he be okay with this!?

By now the other two had closed the distance and stood with their asshole of a friend. By the way they were standing, I assumed he was the defacto leader. Marcus had that look on his face; the one in his eyes that said 'I am not amused'... but with a smile on it. It confused the hell out of me. How could he be okay with what this guy was calling him? From what I was taught, that word was one of the worst things you could call someone like Marcus.

"Well, if there is a problem," Marcus started, speaking slowly but evenly. "you can take it up with my complaint department. Here's what you do. Write it on a napkin, take it to the bathroom and leave it in one of the porcelain bowls." he smirked, and added finally, "And I'll get to it when I give a crap."

Oh, you just got told! I portrayed a sly smile. Marcus caught my stare, and winked at me. For some odd reason that made me blush. Ashley snickered, but at what I couldn't tell. I hoped it was the man's snarky comment and not the unreasonable emotions I was displaying.

I glanced back at the punk, and oh he was blistering. I guessed he never had anyone bold enough to tell him off before, as he seethed with barely controlled rage. He looked down at me with murder in his eyes. Inwardly I balked a bit, but kept up a steely glare on the outside. Yes I was intimidated, but I sure as hell wasn't going to let him know that.

"Is there a problem here?" A new, deep and gruff voice stated with authority. All of us turned to see a large, balding man with a mustache and a long sleeved white shirt that bore the golden badge of a police officer – no, wait, not a policeman, but a mall security guard. He had his massive arms crossed as his iron gaze switched from person to person – and pony – with his stare lingering on Ashley and I. However, as those eyes landed on the equines, they didn't change; after a moment he entered into a stare down with leader punk.

"No sir," Marcus replied cheerily.

"No," the punk huffed.

"Uh huh," the mall cop sounded unconvinced with both of them. Then cocked an eyebrow at the kid, "I heard the whole exchange," he revealed. Really? How? I could barely hear anything over the background noise throughout the food court. Maybe working in this area day in and day out made him immune. "and I saw what you were doing."

Punk's eyes widened and my grin grew. He'd actually seen their little shenanigans with the tables! Yes! I take back everything I've ever said about cops being lazy and never being there when they were needed!

"I... that was... we were just..." he stammered, trying to come up with some excuse. Mall cop huffed and held up a meaty palm to stop him, not taking any of his crap.

"You were disrupting patrons of this mall," he said flatly, yet with a surprising amount authority as he listed off their crimes. "causing a scene, and picking a fight. I'm going to have to ask you and your friends to exit the mall." he finished.

At that moment a couple more figures in similar uniforms approached, younger and slimmer officers who looked ready for a confrontation. It donned on me that maybe the bigger cop had called for back up. Smart. Obviously he was a veteran of dealing with stuff just like this.

Punk and his friends looked mad, but they shrank under the array of authority that now faced them. They gave a last look at the four of us, still seated at the table, and slowly departed. None of us spoke as we watched the three walk away and exit through the doors. Super size mall cop sighed, and dismissed his fellow officers, whom resumed their previous duties, and then turned to us with a hint of a smile.

"Apologies for that folks," he said, placing his hands on his wide hips.

"Not a problem officer." Marcus replied nonchalantly.

He glanced over us, even the ponies, with expression unchanged. "You lot frequent here?" he asked.

Marcus and I nodded in response.

Mall cop nodded a few times and took out a notepad and pen. He jotted something down and handed it to my friend, explaining. "I work morning to late afternoon shift. That, is my cell number. If you all ever have problems again – especially with those three – give me a call or text, and I'll come running." he finished with his generous offer, and added, "Name's Paul Blonk, Mall Cop."

That name rang a strange bell with me, and I had to ask. "I feel like I know you."

He stared at me again, "Oh? That right?" he paused, and I got the feeling like he wanted to say the same, but... yeah.

"I come here often for midnight launches."

"Oh I see," he said after a moment. "one of the gamers eh? Which one, if ya don't mind me asking? I'm familiar with most of the regulars since usually I volunteer, or get volunteered, for those shifts."

"Sam," I replied.

Paul mulled that around in his head a moment, then smiled. "Ah, I see." then his face scrunched in confusion. "Wait a minute... I thought Sam was a..." he trailed off when I stared flatly at him, my ears pasted back.

"Oh, uh..." he coughed awkwardly. "well, you folks enjoy your meal, and have fun..." and with that he quickly walked away to patrol the halls.

Ugh, I groaned, the other snickered at my expense. It just gets better and better...

_-***::: o :::***-_

The four of us sat, enjoying our meal. That seemed to be a chore in and of itself. Sipping the soda was made easy thanks to the straw, but the slice of pizza was another story. They didn't call it finger food for nothing. That, and I didn't really want to handle the food with what was essentially my feet. I'm no neat freak or germaphobe, but even I knew that would have been unsanitary.

I was okay with touching the paper plate with my hooves, manipulating it to point the edge of the slice towards one side, and using my muzzle to nudge the slice over a bit. Once the tip was sufficiently exposed, I bent down and bit off the end, chewing the cheesy goodness. The process was fairly slow, every couple of bites I would have to stop and maneuver again until the slice got wider to allow more chomps.

Unfortunately for Ashley, she wasn't able to mimic these movements, and stared at the six inch sub sandwich and plastic bowl containing a salad. Attempting to copy my moves had limited success with the sandwich, but the salad still defied her. She stared at it, frustrated, probably wishing for the return of her fingers as I had been doing all damned day.

"You can use telekinesis," Marcus suggested after downing the latest chomp of his burger. I groaned silently. How can he eat that!? I paused as I realized that that was the vegetarian pony speaking, recalling that I too once enjoyed the same food. Arrugh!

"Hey, yeah!" Shelby chimed in, grinning widely. She seemed excited at the prospect of finally seeing some true blue magic. I was still skeptical though.

Ashley jerked out of her trance to stare at Marcus, "I don't know if I can..."

"Just try," I encouraged. While I still had doubts, I had to admit that I was curious as well. "surely it can't be that hard can it?" I smiled, gesturing with a hoof.

Marcus and Shelby seemed unsure. I asked why, trying to make a point that that one unicorn in the show was able to perform all kinds of tricks, like teleporting and levitating items many times her weight and/or size.

"Uh yeah," Shelby said uneasily. "Twilight went to a school to learn that stuff. And before that she studied magic in books... a lot." Oh, that made sense. "And she was Celestia's student..." Celestia who?I didn't pay that much attention to the show. What little I did was focused on the pegasi and not... whoever Celestia was. I asked who that was, and both Shelby and Marcus face palmed.

Okay, I expected that from Shelby, but Marcus? Again, was this something I wanted to know?

"She's the ruler of Equestria," Shelby intervened. When I stared blankly at her, she huffed and added. "the land where they all live? Duh." rolling her eyes.

"Okay, well, anyways," Marcus turned his attention to Ashley as Shelby started to give me a lesson in girl cartoon history – help! I could feel the anesthesia in my brain. "focus on feeling the horn on your head."

Ashley nodded and squinted her eyes shut to better concentrate.

"Now, imagine the fork," the man said, and I got the impression that he was giving an art lesson. "every point, every curve. Imagine what it feels like, what it weighs. Picture it in your mind as though you were looking at it with your own eyes."

The unicorn grimaced, concentrating on developing the image. Once or twice she peaked at the plastic utensil, garnering more details from it.

"Okay," Marcus continued his Zen-like instructions as I chomped down on the pizza some more, interest growing. "now imagine that you are 'wrapping' the fork in a napkin."

With that, Ashley's forehead broke out into a sweat. She held a breath, cheeks puffing out, and her brows furrowed further and – was that a spark!? Suddenly nothing else mattered and I stared intensely at the horn's tip, determined to catch that detail a second time should it re-appear.

There it was again! A small spark, not much larger than a crumb, that fizzled out from the very tip, lasting for only a split second. And was it just me, or did it seem slightly... glittery? Okay.

"Hmmm," Marcus pondered the next step, and I pondered how he knew to provide such instruction. "maybe imagine that you are holding it in your hand."

"I'm..." Ashley winced, her voice straining. "trying..."

The unicorn's face began to change colors from the effort, her teeth grit and small gray body trembling. It appeared that nothing was happening, as the fork still sat serenely on the plastic tray. Then I glanced up from the still fork, and I thought something in my pizza was undercooked, as I caught the slightest yellow glow surrounding Ashley's horn.

My jaw dropped when the small light also enveloped the fork. Everything in my mind screamed at me that this was impossible, yet it was undoubtedly happening right in front of me! I glanced at Shelby, and her reaction couldn't have been more opposite of mine. She was beaming, staring in awe at the display as though she were observing a talented magician – which in a way she was.

"Good!" Marcus spoke up. "Now, imagine that you are picking it up... slowly, carefully."

I gawked as the small plastic utensil lifted slightly off the table. It was only a few centimeters, but it had definitely left the tray, defying gravity and every rule of physics that I only partially paid attention to in high school. This was beyond amazing, beyond belief! She was doing it! First time ever and she was levitating a fork! Never before had I ever been so interested in a ubiquitous utensil than right now.

In mid air, the fork began to tremble.

"Agh!" Ashley panted, the strain evidently becoming too much. Around her horn there was an explosion followed by a hissing pop. The yellow glow around her forehead, and the fork, dissipated immediately; the plastic utensil clattering down on the tray – falling a mere distance of two inches.

Thud.

I tore my gaze away from the now not-interesting fork. Ashley had collapsed her head onto the tray, breathing rapidly like she'd just galloped ten miles. Her tongue even lulled out as her eyes appeared glazed over. From her horn there was the slightest trail of something that looked like steam, or cigarette smoke.

"Ashley?" I said, rearing up with my hooves on the table. "Ashley!" I shouted again, leaning closer to her face. She didn't respond. My blood ran cold and my ears pointed back, nervous sweat accumulated on my own brow. Oh my god, was she hurt!? I knew she wasn't dead, her body still heaved from her breathing. Worry etched across my face and permeated every corner of my mind, numerous possibilities raced in my thoughts at what had potentially happened; I thought maybe she had gone comatose or something. I repeated her name once more...

...and was rewarded by her eyes squinting shut, acknowledging my attention. "Do... you mind... keeping your... voice down?" Ashley said between pants. I sighed with relief, collapsing back down into my chair. She'd be okay, or at least as far as I could tell.

"That was – " Shelby shouted, then when Ashley winced, she adjusted that to a whisper. "That was so awesome! You almost had it!"

"Indeed," Marcus said smugly, crossing his arms. "just need to practice is all. Develop your... magic muscles." he quoted with his fingers.

"Magic feels like a hangover..." Ashley deadpanned, I imagined her head must have been throbbing intensely. Her breathing had slowed significantly, but didn't appear to have the strength to lift her head up yet. She adjusted her head and stared longingly at the salad, and then I heard the loudest stomach growl ever, which made me jump. Apparently magic was also greatly exhausting.

Frowning, I tried to think of something to do to help. Anything for her...

I reached over to Ashley's tray and snatched up the fork with a wingtip. I poked at the salad, impaling a bites worth, and floated it to her muzzle. She stared at it, and then at me, and smiled warmly. "Thank you," and bit down on the green food.

"Anytime," I smiled back, my heart fluttering. Damn me if that blush appears!

Thankfully it didn't rear its ugly head... on my head. Ugh.

The male human and I exchanged seats, so I could better finish feeding Ashley her salad, Marcus cutting up the sub sandwich into smaller, bite-sized portions. Even Shelby helped, standing by with the straw of the unicorn's drink, directing the tube to the tired mare's mouth when requested.

"Oh," Ashley distressed. "I feel like an infant..."

I stared at her and cocked an eyebrow, Marcus doing the same.

"There's no shame in accepting help when you need it," Marcus said comfortingly. Shelby and I simultaneously nodded in agreement. Despite this, it didn't appear to make her feel much better, as she stared at the tray beneath. I couldn't help but think the same way. Losing one's independence is, well, it sucks. I don't know what'd I would do if I lost the apartment and had to move back in with the folks... especially now. Of course this was no where near the same thing, but the principle was similar enough.

Random and only semi-related thoughts aside, the food seemed to be rapidly recovering Ashley's strength. With effort, she managed to sit up straight, staring at the now used fork.

"I know it must only weigh an ounce or two," she stated, staring at the small utensil. "but I swear it felt like it weighed as much as a boxcar."

"Don't worry about it," I spoke up. "like Marcus said, you just need to practice." I was still very impressed with what little she was able to do. The possibilities with just telekinesis alone were mind boggling. In a way, she now has something that could potentially surpass fingers by a long shot. Again, if half the stuff from that kid show was true, Ashley might be able to pull off absolutely incredible things! If I didn't have these wings, I would have felt extremely jealous. Okay, maybe I still felt jealous... just a little.

We all sat there for several minutes longer to give Ashley more time to recover. When she felt confident enough to walk without collapsing on the floor, we headed off towards the movie theater. The whole time Ashley and I garnered stares from people as we made our way to the counter, but at this point I started to not care. Well, that wasn't completely true, and not for the reason I was a pony.

Even with the promise of rapid clothing delivery, it was still a few days away... at least. And of course here and now is what mattered, and here and now I was essentially naked. I sighed, and decided to just try not thinking about it. It proved more difficult than it sounded, every breeze by my fur coat gave me a little bit of the shivers. In the desert we don't have much of a winter, and the mall had the air condition going. Hmm, that may be one advantage, would be easier to stay warm... or I could die during the summer months... ugh. Not looking forward to that.

"So," Marcus spoke up as we stood just outside the queuing line. "what shall we see?"

The movie board held several dozen titles on it, showing off up to five different show times for each entry. I gazed at the selection, and honestly, didn't see anything I was crazy to watch. For whatever reason this holiday season just didn't have anything good out this year. So I voiced that I didn't really care what we saw. We would have to see something kid appropriate, since Shelby would be with us, but there didn't seem to be much of anything rated above PG-13 (true Shelby wasn't thirteen yet, but usually such movies had something of an overblown rating anyways). The MPAA, in my opinion, was too sensitive when it came to age ratings.

"What about 'The Hobbit'?" Shelby suggested, still finishing up her soda.

That kind of surprised me. Mom and Dad let her watch Lord of the Rings? Undoubtedly puppy eyes must have been involved when she initially asked. But then again, I'd seen Lord of the Rings and they didn't have anything beyond some gore and fantasy violence, so I could (maybe) see them allowing my little sister to see it. I chuckled as I thought about how many times I had snuck out, defying the parental laws. Living close to a movie rental store allowed me to easily smuggle less-than-age-appropriate titles when I was younger.

I listened, and no one seemed to have any other suggestions or objections.

So with that we purchased our tickets and made our way upstairs.

_-***::: o :::***-_

Stairs. Right.

Why the hell didn't this mall have escalators? That would have been so much easier than trying to navigate up the individual steps with barely familiar four legs. Arrugh!

Marcus, out of kindness, had offered to carry us up the several flights. Ashley politely declined, while I stared at the human like he was crazy; I still had my dignity (despite walking around in public essentially naked).

I sighed as I looked at the first flight of maybe a dozen or so steps. Okay, I thought, trying to get my hooves to stop trembling. You can do this... you can do this, it's only stairs. Stepping up on the first step, then reached up with the opposite forehoof, landing on the one above it. And now it gets awkward. I examined my hoofing, trying to figure out which rear hoof to elevate next. Right or left? I chose left, and brought that hoof up to its left side cousin. It felt intensely awkward, like my body wasn't meant to do that or something.

Raising my left forehoof again, and placed it another step up; aaand now I was unceremoniously stretched on the flight. Why was this so hard! I groaned, realizing I forgot all about the fourth leg, which was still perched on the ground level. Yeah, it would help to move that one too. After maybe a moment, I tentatively got the pattern down.

Chancing a look around, I saw Marcus and my little sister waiting (semi) patiently at the top of the first flight of three. Turning, I went to see how Ashley was fairing, and expected her to be at the bottom still – but was surprised when she trotted right past me! Apparently, for some cheating reason, this was a lot easier for her as she ascended each step at a reasonable pace. Even though it was a moderate climb, my friend left me in the dust.

Damn it! I clenched my teeth. It felt like a challenge. And I didn't like to lose! Of course it wasn't a race, but even so...

Wait a minute... I paused, the sudden thought occurring to my brain. Why don't I just fly up? I don't have these wings for just show after all. That manic grin reappearing on my muzzle.

First of all, I checked the clearance between the floor and the ceiling – the last thing I wanted was to kamikaze right into the roof. Second, I scanned the top of the stairs; since the mall, and by default the theater as well, wasn't busy, there weren't very many patrons exiting at the moment. Again, I wanted to avoid crashing right into some poor chump that was just trying to leave for the day. That would be bad news bears right there. Briefly I recalled Shelby's linebacker tackle back at the parent's home. Although I doubted that my small pegasus body would have much of an impact on a full grown human, unlike the nine year old girl versus pony.

Unfolding the wings, I evened myself out on the stairs best I could, straightening for take off. Okay, now to flap. I conjured up every mental image of birds I could from my mind, as well as the brief show time of the pegasi from the kid's show. Slowly, I worked the wings several times, just to work out the motions. The first time I did this, it was in a fit of rage at Dan for... whatever he'd said back home, but I still remembered the way it felt.

Once more I closed my eyes to better concentrate on the task at hoof, but not before checking one last time that the coast was clear. Satisfied, I blinded myself to the world.

Tensing, the wings moved up and down. Letting them curl upwards into the air, before going taught as they thrust back down towards the ground, gaining speed and momentum; the tips of the feathers were felt brushing the standardized carpet of the stairs. No altitude was gained yet, and I intensified my flapping. An artificial wind was blowing weakly across my coat, and pressure began to subside from my hooves. The slight noise associated with flapping was now softly playing in my eardrums, escalated with my efforts. Yet, I still hadn't left the ground.

With each rapid cycle of the wings, that same burning sensation from before started to seep into my shoulder blades. I grit my teeth, certain that sweat must have been accumulating on my brow, not about to give up. Not yet. I still wasn't completely sure this would work; that first flight had been under impulse, rage and reflex. Would I have to repeat those same circumstances for this to work? I hoped not. Against my better judgment, which was telling me to quit now, I turned up the power some more.

This time I was rewarded with a weightless vertigo as I felt the world disappear beneath me, and gravity become nullified. Reflexively, my hooves tried to gain purchase on the ground that was no longer there. I opened my eyes to witness. Just as suspected, I now hovered just a foot above the staircase, no longer connected to the ground as everything else was.

Yes! Yes! YES!

"Haha!" I laughed out loud in my changed voice (wow, that laugh), grinning from ear to ear. I likely drew more stares from what few people that were around, but I didn't care in the slightest; I was flying!

Well, hovering technically, but that still counted in my book! I hadn't felt this kind of joy in forever. A dream had come true from something that was a freaky accident. All the depressing and confused feelings were thrown out the window at this wonderful discovery. Oh I was so glad right now to be a pegasus! Ashley can keep her horn and fancy magic shenanigans, I'll take these wings any day! Oh the possibilities. I might not even require a car anymore; especially since I couldn't see over the damned dash anyways.

While I was caught up in my reverie, some subconscious instinct took over and the wings kept me aloft while I was distracted. It took a moment for my intense panting and the growing sweat on my brow to register. Flying was still very new, and like Ashley, I would need to develop those muscles which are completely foreign and new. Which meant I would have to hurry before what strength I had left disappeared completely.

Okay, now how to go forward?

I metaphorically sat there and hovered mid air while I tried to dig up thoughts on how to proceed. Helicopters gained their forward momentum by tilting their rotors, thereby changing the direction of air flow, thrusting the vehicle forward. Perhaps the same applied to angling a pegasi's body? To confirm, I conjured up a few images from the show, and if memory served, those winged ponies used the same idea. In theory this should totally work. If not, well, then I'll have to slowly brave the mountains of stairs.

Okay, I stared forward and lowered my head, thrusting my rear up slightly, shifting my center of balance...

… and started moving forward slowly, picking up bits of speed as the seconds passed by. It was working! The higher staircases loomed up ahead, but I was somewhat ready for this problem, and further increased my flapping. As expected, my altitude grew, and colliding with the flights of stairs was no longer a problem. Within no time I was already at the top of the stairs...

… and going a lot faster than I was prepared for! I neglected to consider the brakes! Eep!

Panicking at the sudden influx of speed and height, I flailed my hooves at the wall decorated with large signs advertising various feature films yet to be released, and collided with the massive, flat form of a man wearing red armor with a gold trim, holding out a hand with a glowing circle in the center.

Oof! I grunted as I smacked the hard wall. For just a moment my body hung their, flattened against the surface in a comical manner. Slowly I felt myself peel off as gravity resumed control, and again that weightless vertigo ensnared me, except this time it was free fall. I was already feeling the exhaustion from flying up here, and didn't have the energy to try and right myself.

I expected to land hard on the carpeted floor, but instead impacted something far softer that gave way to my tiny falling body. My muscles, especially those that resided between the shoulders, ached furiously. Alight with a burning fire that could probably put an expensive grill to shame, with more of those ant-like tingling sensations spreading across the feather wings.

"Ohhhh," I groan weakly, still splayed out on the... whatever I landed on. I opened my suddenly tired eyes, and stared. My torso and hooves were unceremoniously splayed and elevated on a dark, cloth-like form of one of the bean bag chairs that served as lobby furniture. The poster I had crashed into was advertising one of the Iron Man sequels – ironic, since Tony crashed at least once in when he first flew the suits. And here I was, flying for the first time and crashing almost immediately after.

I chuckled despite the aching pain, "Woohoo..." I said meekly. A few seconds later, two humans and a gray unicorn entered my dizzy vision.

"You okay?" the larger one with dark skin asked.

"That was so cool!" the youngest one gleefully shouted, and I cringed. My head hurt.

"Not so loud..." I whispered, feeling my brain complain. "please?"

The unicorn, sensing I was okay, just rolled her brown eyes.

"Maybe a little less crashing next time," the unicorn suggested, smirking at me. "eh dare devil?"

I held up a hoof, intending to 'thumbs up' the pony, oblivious at the fact that I lacked thumbs. "Will do..." I groaned again and tried to sit up, pegasus body refusing. I made it up maybe an inch before collapsing back down into the beanie chair.

"I think..." I say through strained breaths. "maybe I'll take that... 'carry me' offer now..." Truth be told, I doubted I could walk right now. And besides, who needs dignity...

Shelby eagerly volunteered, waving her arms up and down enthusiastically. Marcus and Ashley chuckled as Shelby lugged me onto her shoulders. Once more I felt like a stuffed animal, and couldn't help but blush. Oh well... at least now I wouldn't be stumbling down the hallway like a derp-eyed fool, and soon enough we'd be sitting down to a nice, long movie.