Oh…wake up…wake up…this can’t be happening…this can’t be happening…it’s all a dream…
In her terror Fluttershy thought the words over and over, wishing they would come true. She prayed as hard as she could to just wake up and leave the horrible nightmare. The Void swirled around her, its blackness stretching to infinity. Her eyes were shut tight. She didn’t want to see the transformation that left her feeling so cold.
She knew it wasn’t a dream.
Still, she prayed...
A light suddenly flashed in front of her. Still caught between blind terror and denial, she forced an eye open to see the side of a building rushing towards her. She didn’t have time to prepare for the impact, or the pain. She fell to the concrete seven feet below. Her last thoughts before blacking out were how cold it was, how much it hurt...
Oh please, let it all be a dream…
The rain didn’t wake her.
The sound of a four cylinder Henderson motorcycle cut through the night, the large single headlamp bathing the road in warm light. The man riding it confidently blazed through the storm, ignoring the foul weather.
The run down tenement building that housed his apartment came into view. He expertly maneuvered into the nearby alleyway, killing the engine and removing a set of keys from his pocket. He unlocked a small shed he’d built to protect his motorcycle from theft, wheeled the bike in and locked the shed door securely.
Time passed - Fluttershy couldn’t tell how long it had been before she’d heard the sound; a deep rumbling not far away that abruptly cut out. She heard a latch being moved and the clear click of a padlock closing. She heard muffled steps, like the sound of a covered hoof on a stone road. Unable to move or even focus her thoughts, she couldn’t call out to the source of the sound - even if she could, she knew it would never hear her. She sank back into unconscious oblivion.
The man was about to head inside to get out of the rain, when out of the corner of his eye he saw an odd shadow on the pavement, cast by the street light around the corner. Curious, he looked around the bend. He froze at the sight, but didn’t panic.
The shadow belonged to a young woman lying on her side. From this distance, he could see what looked like a tattoo of three butterflies on her hip. Her pink hair covered most of her face.
She’s dead, was the first thought that crossed his mind, but he had to be sure. He knelt down by her form and gingerly checked her pulse. He could feel a faint heartbeat.
He brushed aside her hair and saw a large gash on her forehead. He took her chin in his hand and moved her head to get a better look. Her face was deathly pale. She was slipping away. He had to get her inside quickly. There was no time to go searching for a phone.
He removed his jacket, draped it over her midsection and then hoisted her into his arms.
It was well past midnight. The man was exhausted but still took a moment to write out a note before he left her alone in the room. The woman was asleep, and had stopped shivering. He guessed her age to be around 20, maybe 22. She lay there now, covered by the few blankets he owned. He got up and stretched, admiring his handiwork with the bandages that wrapped around her forehead, stained in places from what little blood there was mingled with rainwater. Poor girl. Even in this sorry state he could see she had a beautiful face...
He pondered what the girl’s story could be. Perhaps a fight with a lover...? No, that would have left more bruises, and didn’t explain the cut. A mugging, then…? No, that didn’t make sense either. A mugger who would take her clothes would have just killed her.
The man sighed. It didn’t matter. She’d be awake eventually, and he’d hear her story soon enough. He finished scribbling the note, and left it on the small bedside table.
He snapped the First Aid kit closed and screwed the top back onto a green container filled with rubbing alcohol. He removed his jacket from the foot of the bed and tugged on a string hanging from the ceiling to turn off the uncovered light bulb before gently shutting the door behind himself.
He retired to the kitchen, tossing his jacket onto a handmade coat rack standing by the door, then sat down heavily on the single chair next to his table. He glanced outside at the rain beating against the windows, and shook his head, laying it on the table on top of his arms.
Whoever she is, she didn’t deserve what happened to her, he thought to himself.
His eyes lingered on the calendar tacked to the wall just before he drifted into dreamless sleep:
September 15, 1935.
Fluttershy’s dreams started off pleasant and warm, typical of her dreams. They were the kind she didn’t remember later, mostly filled with visions of home and her friends. They started to change as her mind kept screaming that something was wrong, and that all was not well. Her dreams turned vivid, and in them she became self aware. She asked her friends what had happened to her. Nopony was concerned; they all seemed oblivious to any danger.
Twilight would shake her head, giving Fluttershy a reassuring word, and return to her studying.
Spike would merely shrug and keep filing away books.
Pinkie would laugh it all off, bouncing as she went.
Rarity would just look at her over those glasses of hers and ask her opinion on some new stunning piece of dress work.
Rainbow Dash would keep on sleeping on the tree branch, Fluttershy too timid and courteous to wake her in the first place.
Angel would throw her a look like she was crazy, crossing his arms and rolling his eyes.
Finally, Applejack would offer her a snack, but every time Fluttershy gratefully bit down into one of those juicy looking apples she would only taste dust.
Each time, blackness swam around her, followed by sensations of crashing and flashes of pain. The last thing she would see was a pair of iceberg blue eyes staring down at her, far too small to belong to anything but a monster.
The nightmare repeated. Hours passed.
When she woke up, she kept her eyes closed. Something felt wrong. Her mind raced, she started breathing faster, her head ached all over - but she wasn't cold anymore.
She raised a hoof to rub her eyes...and found it wasn’t a hoof anymore. Her eyes shot open in a sudden panic.
She forced herself to look at the room around her. The morning light was gray and bleak, filtering through a rain battered window. The room itself was small and rundown, the blue wallpaper peeling off in some places. A bare light-bulb hung from the ceiling. A strong and unfamiliar smell permeated the room.
Knowing it had to come sooner or later, she took three very deep breaths and forced herself to look down at her forehooves that were no longer hooves.
She saw a pair of …things. They reminded her of Spike’s hands, except hers had five fingers on the end, the arms were longer, and they didn’t have scales or claws. She realized she had no coat at all anymore; her hide was bare. She shut her eyes again, forcing herself to remain as calm as possible. She gulped, settling into the bed. As she felt the mattress press against her back, a new wave of horror struck her. She realized her wings and tail were completely gone.
“Please, please, please let this all go away,” she squeaked, eyes glued shut, shaking her head back and forth. She shuttered, thankful that at least her mouth still worked. Breathe in, breathe out, she thought to herself. Although her head still hurt, not much else did. Whatever had happened to her body wasn’t going to kill her.
She took a second look at her…hands? She flexed the fingers unconsciously, amazed at how quickly they responded. Tentatively, she reached up and brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. At least her hair was its normal color. Her hand brushed against what felt like a gauze bandage.
As she set her hair back into place, she noticed a piece of paper placed on a bundle on the bedside table. Curiosity getting the better of her, she leaned over and was about to pick it up with her teeth when a novel idea struck her. She reached out and pinched the paper between forefinger and thumb instead. Amazed at how easy it had been, she brought it up to eye level. She hadn’t expected there to be anything of interest on it, but there was. Scrawled in a neat hand in what was clearly pencil was a message...addressed to her. In plain Ponise, strangely enough. She found she could read it, clear as day:
I’ve left you some clothes. I’m sorry they won’t fit you properly, and that a few key things are missing, but I had to throw it all together on short notice. I’ll probably either be out or asleep when you read this. Feel free to walk around or get something from the kitchen. I have to admit, there’s nothing keeping you here, but..well, the circumstances were strange. I’d like to talk.
“Asagee....Asa...jee...As..a...gee...A..saw...jee..” Fluttershy repeated the name several times, turning it over until she thought she could pronounce it. She glanced back at the small pile on the nightstand and saw a shirt, and what looked like…pants? Nopony in Ponyville ever bothered wearing them. Not even the rich city ponies wore pants.
Without really thinking about it, she sat up and tossed the covers off.
She hadn’t been prepared for the sight, but she didn’t scream. Her mouth hung open in stunned silence as she got her first good look at what was now her body. It took a few seconds to get over the shock, and a few more to reach over and grab the shirt. The clothes made sense now, not only because of her new body, but also because she was getting cold.
She had to roll up the shirt sleeves and the pant legs several inches to keep her arms and legs from swimming in the fabric. She worked the buttons on the shirt clumsily, but correctly. The belt, at least, looked familiar to her. In Equestria belts were usually only used on saddlebags, but since this one was already looped around the pants its purpose was obvious.
The clothes were keeping her warm and comfortable. The next thing, Fluttershy decided, was that she needed to walk. She peered down at her feet resting on the scuffed, aged floorboards, her toes poking out from pants that were clearly a size or two too large. She looked at her arms, and then at her body. Realization dawned on her; she couldn’t walk normally like this. There was no choice but to walk upright, a feat she had only ever seen Pinkie manage to master. Feeling she was sure to lose her balance and fall on her face, she lurched unsteadily onto her legs, holding onto the bedside table for stability.
At first, her knees buckled, not used to the bipedal sensation. Soon however, she found that it was easy to right herself; easier then she had ever guessed. She took her first steps in the new body, amazed that walking had come so naturally.
A shooting pain in her temple reminded her to take it slow. She edged around the perimeter of the room, a hand against the wall for support. The door was unlocked and she found it easy to open.
The door from the bedroom opened directly into a small kitchen, dully lit by the morning light filtering in through another rain streaked window. A table was in the center of the room, and slumped over it, sitting in the nearby chair was...
She backed away, barely peeking beyond the door frame. The figure in the chair didn’t stir. Taking a few deep breaths to help work up courage, she took one step and then another into the kitchen. She looked around, again taking in the details.
It was even smaller than it looked. The counter-top by the metal sink was covered with oily rags and metal parts that Fluttershy couldn’t identify. There were nuts, screws, metal rods, a disassembled fuel pump, gears, ball bearings, intake valves, and a crankshaft. There was also the aroma of fresh engine oil, not that she’d recognize it. The parts were coated with the stuff. Fluttershy did manage to recognize it as the strong smell from before though. The sink also had a layer of oil on its sides, but otherwise it still looked clean. A large teakettle took up most of the space inside.
The rest of the kitchen was more or less bare, with a stove in a corner and a beat up refrigerator by the far wall. Another uncovered light bulb hung from the ceiling.
Having seen all she could of the tiny kitchen, Fluttershy looked back at the sleeping figure. She could tell it was male; he had a thin beard just like the Ponyville postmaster. She blinked, moving closer.
“…um...Asa..ji..?” She whispered. The figure in the chair didn’t stir.
He looked like an adult, with what she thought to be a somewhat muscular frame. His shirt was cream colored, sleeves rolled up to the elbows. His pants were made of a rough canvas. She noticed that the boots covering his feet looked tough but worn out. She started to concentrate on his face... well, what she could see of it. Most of the face was hidden in his arms on the table.
His uncombed black hair only covered the top of his head. His hide was pale- but not in a sickly way. His ears were small, and on the sides of his head. Putting her hands up and feeling the same spots, she found that her ears were in the same place. She realized that she must resemble this…thing sleeping in front of her.
Well, he had wanted to talk to her. Growing bolder she reached out and gently tapped his shoulder.
His eyes flew open but she was prepared for it, only flinching instead of screaming like she had wanted to. The creature’s small eyes were iceberg blue; the same eyes from her nightmares. Somehow they radiated warmth, even as its face lowered into a frown. It blinked, looking back at her.
She’s up, Asaji thought to himself. He got up off the chair and stretched his back and neck with a few dramatic pops. He yawned widely, blinking the last bits of sleep out of his eyes. He turned his gaze back at the girl, who looked absolutely terrified. He couldn’t blame her.
“Hello,” he said in what he thought was a soothing tone of voice. Instead of responding like he’d hoped she would, the girl made a squeak like a mouse and backed into the kitchen wall. Her expression was a mix of indecision and fright. Undeterred by her display of trepidation, he decided to try again.
“My name’s Asaji. What’s your name, Miss…?”
She didn’t respond. Instead, she hugged her arms around her body and tried to sink into the floor. He sighed, but persisted.
“You can understand me, can’t you?”
The girl hesitated, and then nodded. At least, he took it for a nod, what with her shaking so much.
“Are you in much pain?”
She shook her head no. Good. They were getting somewhere now.
“I’m happy to hear that,” he said.
He doesn’t look happy, though, Fluttershy thought to herself. She tried to make her mouth work, but she just ended up stammering.
Asaji decided to try again. “If I put on some tea, will that help calm you down some?” This got another nod from the girl. Satisfied, he removed the blackened kettle from the sink and filled it with water from the tap. One match later and the stove was lit with the kettle on. “This’ll only take a few minutes.” He turned to look back at her.
The girl was still pressing herself against the far wall of the kitchen, not having moved an inch. He motioned to the chair, offering it to her so she could sit down. She nodded, slowly edging her way over to the table. Once she finally did sit down, she started folding and unfolding her hands in a flurry of nervous shaking. She looked trapped, like a caged animal.
An idea suddenly struck him, and he removed a deck of cards from a shirt pocket. He put them on the table in front of her.
“Shuffle them.” Asaji said to her. “The motion with your hands will help you relax.”
Fluttershy had no idea what he meant. Shuffle them? She’d seen cards before, but only dragons like Spike and Unicorns like Twilight could manipulate them properly.
“Like this,” she heard him say as he scooped up the cards. She watched as his dexterous fingers split the deck, and then pushed the two halves close again, letting the cards loosely slide together. He coaxed the cards into place with one hand, while the other kept hold on the deck. “Move them with your fingers.” He repeated the motion again, a little quicker this time.
“Try it,” he suggested again. Not wanting to disappoint, Fluttershy reluctantly picked up the cards and tried to mirror the movements.
He watched bemusedly as she managed to get it on the first try, albeit with a little fumbling. Hearing the kettle whistling, he turned to deal with it. It didn’t take long to pour the tea. He returned to the table with two full mugs, pleased that she was shaking less now. The cards always worked. Seeing the tea was ready, she set the cards down carefully on the table and drew a mug towards herself.
...Well, hands were more dexterous then she’d first thought. Her success with the cards made her vow to give her hands more of a chance. She drew the mug of tea close. It was hot, but not too hot. He knew what he was doing. Fluttershy took a deep breath, the cinnamon scent tickling her nose. She brought the mug up and took a drink. The taste was so good; she couldn’t help but sigh out of pleasure. She was ready now.
“Um…thank you As..asji. It’s good.”
“It’s Asaji,” the man said, nodding. “Say it with me. Asaji.” He said it quickly, focusing on no individual syllables.
“Asaji,” she repeated, a little louder this time. He nodded.
“May I ask what your name is now, Miss…?”
“Um, oh..” she vocalized while she thought to herself. “Fluttershy.”
She saw Asaji’s raise a single eyebrow, but saw no other change in his expression. “Fluttershy?” he repeated. “It suits you. Your mother must have been an excellent judge of character.”
She thought she saw the beginnings of a smile flash across his face, but when she blinked again it was gone.
“Well, at least you speak English.”
“English?” she heard herself ask back, too quickly for her voice to drop in volume again.
Asaji gave her a look. “English.” He repeated. “The language you’re speaking to me right now?”
“Oh.” She said, lapsing again into a softer voice. “Um, I think you mean Ponise. I’ve..never heard of anything called Eng..gleesh before.”
He shrugged, apparently unconcerned. “As long as we can communicate, there’s no problem.” He paused to take a sip of his tea, letting a silence settle around the table again.
“Um..Asaji, I wanted to ask you…something.”
“What’s that?” he said. “Please speak up some. I can’t hear well in my left ear.”
Fluttershy cleared her throat and downed some more of the delicious tea. She took a deep breath.
“Where am I?”
She watched Asaji pause, blinking back at her. “You must’ve been in more trouble than I thought you were, if you don’t know where you are.” He stole a sideways glance out the window. “You’re on the edge of Manhattan.”
“Manehatten?” Fluttershy said quickly, using the name of the big Equestrian city.
“No,” he corrected. “Manhattan. New York. The Big Apple.” He cocked the other eyebrow at her, but said nothing more. She listened as the rain drummed against the window.
Asaji watched as her expression turned from confusion to dismay. He could tell she was thinking hard, although about what he couldn’t guess. When she spoke he almost didn’t catch the question.
“What am I, Asaji? What are you?”
He blinked twice, not sure what to say. She continued, and what she said confused him even more.
“Um…I mean...you’re not a pony. I’m not a pony anymore. What am I?”
A pony? He thought incredulously to himself. He disregarded her choice of word, writing it off as head trauma.
“You’re human.” He said plainly, bringing the cup of tea to his lips again. “And so am I. We humans live here, you know. Always have.”
“So…” she started, faltering. “So, this isn’t Equestria…”
“America. On planet Earth,” he said bluntly. “If you don’t mind, now I have a question… a difficult question. If you don’t want to answer it, you don’t have to.” He saw her slowly nod. “Why were you lying naked and unconscious in the alleyway beside my apartment building?”
She trailed off, obviously trying to come to terms with the question. He noticed she wasn’t shaking anymore, and at least spoke a little clearer now. She was taking it better than he expected.
“Where I come from….we don’t..normally wear clothes..”
Asaji crossed his arms patiently. “Continue.”
She paused, thinking hard. Asaji maintained his cool stare, drumming his fingers along the rim of his mug.
“It was a machine.”
“Pardon?” Asaji asked, not sure he heard right.
“It was a machine.” She took a deep breath and started to explain. “A machine, in the shape of an archway. I don’t know why we didn’t leave well enough alone, but we didn’t. Like foals, curiosity got the better of us. I mean, it was in the heart of a mountain at the bottom of a real big cave system, and we would have missed it completely if Pinkie Pie’s ‘Pinkie Sense’ hadn’t told her there was something really powerful and magical close by in an antechamber...or that’s what Twilight called it at least. It had been hidden away forever. We didn’t know what it did.” She paused for a while to take another sip, and sighed, on the verge of tears. “Well, now I know what it does…” A hot tear dropped into her mug as she fought back the urge to break down in front of him.
Asaji felt awkward, even as his mind kept telling him she was nuts.
He cleared his throat, and she looked up. He made a motion with his head to a nearby door.
“If you need a moment alone, bathroom’s over there. Splash some water on your face, you’ll feel better. Get it out of your system.”
She nodded gratefully, setting the mug down and shakily getting to her feet. As she shut the bathroom door, he refilled it with more tea. Quiet sobbing came from behind the door. He chose not to interrupt her emotional moment. Knowing his luck with women, that would probably just make it worse.
He leaned over by the window to look at the rain slicked streets, allowing his thoughts to drift. Today was Sunday so he didn’t have work. It was for the best - he would have taken work off today anyway. He finished off his own tea and poured himself another cup.
When she finally did come out of the bathroom she was calm again. Her eyes were red but dry. He nodded at her, glad she looked stable again.
“Are you hungry? I can make breakfast while you keep telling your story,” he said considerately. Perhaps she would start to make more sense if she was fed.
“Oh...thank you.” She said. “Do you have any daisies?”
“Nope,” Said Asaji, his face completely deadpan. “I’ve got some oatmeal, some fruit, some sausages...?”
“What’s a sau...sage?”
“Well, it’s made from ground pork-”
It was like he had punched her in the stomach - the wind left her sails that quickly. She shook her head rapidly.
“Nonononononono…” Her voice was barely audible. “How can you talk about eating innocent creatures like it’s nothing?”
Asaji shrugged indifferently. “Mostly because I find them delicious.”
Fluttershy’s mouth hung open, momentarily frozen by her disbelief. She knew that some animals, like the hawks and snakes she treated, ate other animals...but they didn’t know any better. She had tried to convince them to give a carrot a chance. Asaji - this human - he had a choice; he could go either way. He had offered her the choice of breakfast after all. He took the whole issue so lightly - even joking about taking the life of another creature. It didn’t sit well with her, not one bit.
She felt her eyes widen and bulge. The sudden anger triggered as much of The Stare as she could manage as a human.
The Stare had once brought a dragon to its knees and bested a cockatrice while she was turning to stone. Asaji would have no chance against it. Her voice suddenly turned harsh and a fierce scowl appeared on her face.
“You should be ashamed of yourself... you’re a monster for saying that!” She was breathing harder, her voice increasing in volume with every word until she was actually, truly shouting. “You could choose not to, but you think it’s funny to eat animals? You’re joking about it like its nothing!? How can you be so heartless!?”
Asaji just took another sip of his tea. Fluttershy blinked twice, taken off guard. He hadn’t so much as twitched. His face betrayed no fear or discomfort. He hadn’t locked eyes with her because he was frozen by The Stare... he was doing it because he wanted to.
With a sickening jolt, Fluttershy realized that The Stare wasn’t affecting him, and it wasn’t because Asaji was somehow immune; it simply wasn’t working at all. All she’d done was shout at him.
When he spoke his voice was quiet, and she had to strain to hear it.
“...I won’t apologize for something that - to me - isn’t immoral, especially not when I’m being screamed at.”
Asaji glared coldly at her, visibly trying not to raise his voice. She could see the teacup shaking in his hand as he clenched it far tighter than he needed to.
“I’ll forgive you for that this one time... but I’d like you to think carefully before you ever judge me like that again, because by your logic, every man and woman in this city is just as ‘heartless’ as I am. You’re being unfair.” Snidely, he then added, “Is jumping to conclusions something you do often, Fluttershy?”
As Fluttershy’s scowl vanished, so did her confidence and the weight from her accusations. She realized she had just made a mistake, suddenly remembering Philomena and how jumping to conclusions back then had nearly landed her in big trouble.
Fluttershy didn’t like it, but had to accept that he had a point; it was unfair to call him heartless because of what he ate. After all, Dragons and Griffins were known to eat meat every once in a while, and neither species was so bad. If what Asaji had just said was true, that humans like him ate meat too... why should they be any different? The only difference was that Griffins and Dragons didn’t mention it around ponies, and Asaji probably hadn’t known any better.
She wanted to say something to try and explain her position. Before she could though, Asaji asked her another question, his voice back to normal and the glare gone.
“Look, now that we know meat’s out of the question, how about some of that oatmeal instead?
She managed a small “yes please” in response, and he got to work.
Asaji decided to just let Fluttershy talk without interrupting. This was partly to make amends for his tasteless joke from before, but also because he’d figured that the more she talked, the more she would remember about her real life and the real reason he’d found her outside. However, the longer he sat in the kitchen and listened to her talk, the more concerned he became for her sanity.
Her soft words painted a picture of a world she called Equestria, where everyone she knew was a pastel colored pony. She described five of her dearest friends and the magic that tied them together as the bearers of the ‘Elements of Harmony’. She explained the difference between the earth ponies, the unicorns, and the pegasi that lived there too. She said she had been a pegasus, and her job was to take care of all the little animals around Ponyville. She described a world held together by the magic of friendship where feuds were uncommon and wars were unheard of. She also told Asaji about the rulers of Equestria, two Alicorn Princesses named Celestia and Luna.
He decided not to ask if there was a King or Queen. He decided not to say anything at all. What she was describing was a fantasy- something that might be swallowed by children as a bedtime story. What struck him as the most worrying was that she really looked like she believed what she was saying.
He fought off the strong urge to take a few shots of whiskey, find a phone, and call the men in white coats. He offered her lunch instead.
As the day marched on and Fluttershy went into more and more detail about Equestria, Asaji stopped thinking she was crazy, and just started thinking. She wasn’t acting like she was crazy, and her stories were too well fleshed out to be something brought about by head trauma.
An hour ago, she had told him all about these things called parasprites, and how they came close to completely trashing Ponyville; that is, until her friend named Pinkie Pie distracted them with a one pony marching band.
Half an hour ago she had been telling him about a trek up a tall mountain to confront a dragon.
Right now, she was just finishing a story about something she called the Grand Galloping Gala, and how it had gone so wrong.
“I hadn’t ever experienced animals running away from me,” Fluttershy murmured, her face staring into her seventh cup of tea. “It was so...frustrating. I guess I let things get out of hand.”
She continued her story, a look of genuine embarrassment flitting across her face as she recounted what happened next.
It wasn’t helping. Her emotions surrounding the countless events she had described seemed too real to be fake.
Pushing the thought out of his mind, Asaji instead focused on the fact that she was comfortable speaking to him and her voice no longer dropped to a whisper.
Time continued to drift past, and evening turned into night. When Fluttershy started to yawn, he knew it was time to stop the conversation, and suggested some rest. He insisted that she use the bed; it really wasn’t any trouble for him to sleep in the kitchen again.
He had a feeling there was something else she wanted to say before turning in, so he asked. She nodded, a smile flitting across her face.
“Thanks for listening, Asaji. And... and thanks for believing me.”
It hit him hard, that she thought he believed her. Still, he kept his thoughts to himself and just wished her a goodnight.
After the bedroom door was closed, the first thing he did was grab the half empty bottle of whiskey and the shot glass he kept under the sink and pour himself a serving of the amber liquid, gulping it down to speed up the process. Then he poured himself another. He needed four drinks total before the familiar and relaxing numbness finally washed over him. He opened the window to let in the night air and took a deep breath.
He had a woman in his bedroom, who he had been so sure was crazy. Now he didn't know what to think anymore. The alcohol helped push forward a thought that he had been holding back for several hours.
...She’d been telling the truth all along....
Fluttershy had opened the bedroom window. The night air smelled fresh. She looked up at the sky. She was saddened that she couldn’t see any stars, but it was easy for her to guess as to why. The bright lights of the city obscured the stars here, just as they would have in Manehatten, Fillydelphia, or New Yoke City. She gazed up at the starless sky and this time saw the moon.
How many more things does this world share? She found herself thinking later, just before drifting off to sleep.
Asaji didn’t want to admit that he believed her. He needed something else to focus on, a distraction. When he couldn’t sleep he would often lay out a mammoth sheet of paper completely covered with intricate blueprints for his motorcycle. It was something he often got lost in.
He’d bought his motorcycle new in 1931, and had been painstakingly making improvements to it ever since. It was a challenge he issued himself - one that made use of all of his engineering knowledge. The sheet of paper documented four years’ worth of his ideas - every addition and every modification he’d made to the bike. No detail was ignored.
There were references for scale, estimates for weight, and even cutaway sketches showing what the inner workings looked like. He knew every inch of the motorcycle and that’s exactly what the paper captured.
He had been sketching out an idea to further improve the valve timing when he fell asleep with the light still on and the pencil still in his hand.
As a general rule, Asaji didn’t dream much. He hardly ever remembered his dreams and he had never had a lucid dream before. He thought he was in one at the moment though.
He was standing on what appeared to be an endless white floor, expanding out forever in every direction. A deck of cards were clutched in his right hand. They must have been the creation of his restless mind - he often shuffled cards when he was thinking intensely. At hearing a noise off to his right, he wheeled around to see Fluttershy standing in front of him.
“Asaji?” she asked, looking directly at him. He could hear real uncertainty in her voice. He watched as she reached up to touch her forehead to not find a bandage or a cut. She looked around at the empty whiteness before looking back at him... like a real person might. Not a mirage.
She looked different than he remembered her from just a few hours ago. She seemed healthier - happier even. Asaji thought it strange to see her like this - and in what he thought was supposed to be his dream. He had just met her a day ago and here she was, right in front of him - talking to him. Something was off. This wasn’t any normal dream, and he could tell this vision of Fluttershy felt it too. She was clearly uncomfortable in the large empty space; wrapping her arms around herself, trying to become as small as possible.
For the second time that night, he had another crazy notion. This vision of Fluttershy in front of him wasn’t a vision; rather, it was the real Mcoy.
“What’s going on, Asaji?”
“....I’m not sure, Fluttershy.”
“The two of you are sharing something similar to a dream,” said an unfamiliar voice. Asaji turned to find himself facing... well, what he guessed had to be ponies.
He looked intently at the trio, absorbing as many details as he could while somehow managing to maintain his pokerface. They didn’t look anything like any pony he had ever seen before. They all had brightly colored coats and large, expressive eyes. Two of them had wings and horns, which made them alicorns. The third was a regular unicorn - if you could call unicorns normal. The tall white one- who stood a good two feet higher than him- had a long multicolored mane that billowed in a non-existent breeze. The other alicorn, roughly half the size of the first, had a dark-grayish-blue coat and a flowing starry mane. The third - the unicorn - was just slightly shorter than the last and purple all over; her coat light and her mane dark with a long highlight down the middle. Her horn was much shorter than the other two’s had been. All three of them seemed to have marks on their flanks but he couldn’t make out what they were from the way they were standing.
Fluttershy broke his train of thought when she suddenly exclaimed, “Twilight!” in what he could tell was pure joy. He watched her run towards the small purple unicorn, tears streaming down her face. She embraced the pony warmly, hugging her around the neck. A look of shock played across the unicorns face, soon replaced by sadness.
Asaji wasn’t surprised in the slightest when he saw the pony (who must have been the Twilight he’d been told so much about) wrap a leg around her to return the hug.
“I thought we’d lost you!” he heard Twilight choke out. “It’s all my fault that you got into this horrible mess....” She broke down crying - sobbing - with her eyes shut tight. The both of them were crying now. Fluttershy and Twilight started talking quietly but Asaji couldn’t make out what they were saying. In any case, it wasn’t any of his business. He let the friends have a moment alone by turning his attention to the two alicorns.
“You two must be Celestia...and Luna” he said, turning his gaze from the larger alicorn to the smaller. He stopped shuffling for a moment, instead tapping the deck against his palm. “Fluttershy’s told me quite a bit about you two...and Equestria. My name is Asaji. I’m called a human.”
The pair glanced at each other without speaking, Celestia training her eye on him before nodding slowly.
Not the best way to greet royalty, but nice and direct.
Silence filled the conversational gap as the pair of reunited friends finished crying but continued their whispering. No one had moved. Asaji maintained eye contact with Celestia, who returned his gaze. He resumed his card shuffling.
“Fluttershy was wise to tell you the truth.” said Celestia finally, breaking the silence. “I’m glad that you found it in your heart to believe her. I’ve met creatures before that wouldn’t have.” She walked around him as she spoke, examining Asaji as best she could. “....I’ve never seen a creature like you before, though” she confessed, leaning down to get a better look at his face.
“And I’ve never seen a creature like you, Celestia,” countered Asaji. “Alicorns... aren’t exactly common on Earth...” He chose his next words carefully before continuing. The cards in his hands were practically a blur. “...but this isn’t Earth. This is a dream... So why are you in my dream?” He drew out his last words slowly to emphasize the question.
Celestia sighed, uneasily. “You... you have little to do with this. I’m actually here because of Fluttershy,” she said. “I’m using magic to communicate with her...” trailing off, she gazed at Asaji with what he took as puzzlement, “...but only with her. I never expected to see some... some... some-human like yourself here too.” Asaji could tell she had the same habits as Fluttershy when it came to referring to people. He guessed she had wanted to refer to him as somepony. While he wasn’t offended in the slightest, he did notice that Celestia had dodged his question and he called her out on it.
“I understand that you’re only here for Fluttershy,” he replied as patiently as he could, “but you still haven’t explained what I’m doing here...”
While he had directed the question at Celestia, it was her younger sister Luna that interjected to try and answer it.
“We used Fluttershy’s element of harmony, kindness, to track her. It was not difficult.”
Her voice blasted out at an unbelievable volume, making both Asaji and Celestia wince. She leaned down to lock eyes with her younger sister.
“Can you turn it down a bit, dear sister? He is not one of our subjects. The Royal Canterlot Voice isn’t necessary here.”
“He is not a subject of ours, but he is a... diplomat of sorts, is he not? Is it not tradition to … Very well, Tia,” she sighed in resignation, her voice dropping to a level that wasn’t painful, but still powerful and properly regal. “We will do our best to reign it in.”
“It figures that she’d be ‘kindness,’” said Asaji, his ears still ringing. “But what exactly is an ‘Element of Harmony?’ Fluttershy only mentioned them in passing after I found her. What are they?”
“The true nature of the Elements of Harmony are still unknown,” confessed Luna. “Together, the six elements - Honesty, Loyalty, Laughter, Generosity, Magic, and Kindness - are the strongest magic known to ponykind. My sister and I have used these magics before in time of great need. The details are unimportant. The most important thing for thou to know is that Fluttershy bears the spirit of kindness and that the Element of Kindness led us to her. In a way, we used one half of the Element to find the other-”
“I hear you saying the Element is responsible,” Asaji cut in again, “but that still doesn’t tell me why I’m here. Are you trying to say that her Element brought me here?”
“Like we said, there isn’t all that much known about the Elements to begin with” said Luna, somewhat crestfallen, “so we couldn’t tell you why thyself is here. Only the Element itself would know, and even then it isn’t exactly able to tell us.”
You hate to say it, but it’s magic. Isn’t that how it always works in the stories?
The younger alicorn looked disheartened after having to give her not-very-regal and lackluster explanation, but Asaji found it hard to be upset with her. If there was anyone who could explain magic and Elements of Harmony to him, it would have been her, or her sister. If she didn’t know what had happened, then no one did.
With that explanation, or lack of one, out of the way, a new question begged to be asked.
“Fluttershy said she was brought here by some kind of machine - or at least that’s how she described it. If you used the same thing to get here then why aren’t you human too?” He said the last few words while gesturing towards Fluttershy.
“My sister and I have experimented with the Gateway before - in our youth”, Luna answered. “We learned the hard way that the body only changes if one actually steps through. It’s possible to magically project oneself through the Gateway. That way, we don’t have to actually leave Equestria.” Luna paused, thinking about how to explain further. “We don’t know how the Gateway is set up, but once one actually steps though it and into The Void, it changes the body into the form of the most... we don’t know how best to phrase it. The sentient species of wherever it’s taking you to? We don’t know how, but it knows what to change you into, and-”
“Excuse me, Princess Luna,” Twilight cut in suddenly, her conversation with Fluttershy apparently finished, “but I couldn’t help but overhear just now. Why didn’t you mention that Princess Celestia and yourself knew about the machine?”
Asaji noticed that she and Fluttershy had joined the small circle that had first formed when he began talking with the Alicorns. Luna seemed to be having trouble answering right away. When she did answer, she sounded nervous, like she still didn’t know how to respond.
“...Tia and myself have known about Equestria’s Gateway for most of our lives and it’s most likely that it’s been around much longer than we have. Neither of us had thought of the machine since we first found it. It shouldn’t exist right now. We’d thought for sure we had destroyed it... It’s such a powerful tool. If it should have fallen into the claws of one like Discord, well...” she began to trail off, but caught herself and continued. “It would have been better if we had destroyed it - none of this would have happened. When Tia explained the circumstances of what had happened to you,” she nodded at Fluttershy, “We didn’t think to say anything because we honestly didn’t believe it...until I saw that machine again with my own eyes. The Gateway, still there...” Her last words were almost a whisper, a true testament to the shock and horror she must have felt.
“Princess Luna - what is the Gateway?” Twilight asked suddenly, trying to reorient the conversation. “I heard you explain what it does, but not what it is. Understandably, it isn’t in a single one of my books but I still can’t grasp how it works, where it came from, or what kind of magic it uses!”
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” mulled Asaji. Twilight shot him a curious look which he shrugged at. Celestia on the other hand, smiled at him.
“That sums it up nicely, actually.” she said. When Twilight gave her a blank stare, she began to explain:
“The Gateway doesn’t use magic...at least, not any magic I’m familiar with. It’s really a product of science. That’s why I said Asaji’s statement was appropriate. As to what the Gateways are..... I’m not exactly sure.” Her voice took on a brutally honest tone as she continued.
“I don’t know where they come from. I don’t know how old they are. All I know for certain is what happens when you step through one. Luna just explained how Gateways connect different places to one another - in that context, you can think of Equestria’s Gateway as an entrance, with another Gateway at the end acting as the exit. The Void is like a hallway between those two doors. The Gateway sent Fluttershy into The Void, transporting her between planets and across galaxies. In the process, she took on the body of a ‘human’. Now, as for where they came from - my best guess would be that they were left behind by another race of beings probably long gone by now. Whoever or whatever they were doesn’t matter now though. The Machine on Equestria should have been destroyed long ago, and I won’t leave Fluttershy stranded here because of my mistake.”
“Nor mine,” added Luna. “We should have been more thorough when we tried to get rid of it the first time. Tia is right; we’re going to help you!”
“Well, um...” started Fluttershy. “Thank you both -Princess Celestia, Princess Luna. It’s very kind of you to say those things, but...well...can I even get back home?”
Celestia frowned, but to her credit, she put on a brave face before answering.
“Yes, you should be able to return to Equestria. There’s a Gateway on this planet as well. There has to be - you wouldn’t have made it here otherwise.”
“You don’t sound convinced,” said Asaji, raising an eyebrow. “Is there a problem?”
“...Yes, there is.” Celestia admitted. “I know from experience that when you use the machine, you should reappear right outside the Gateway on the other end.” The frown returned to her face, as she chose her next words carefully. “The problem, Asaji, is that she didn’t appear right outside. Something is...blocking the exitway. She exited somewhere completely unexpected - we don’t know why.”
“Wait,” countered Asaji. “...Not that I know what I’m talking about, but if the exit was blocked, how was she able to enter in the first place? She should have been turned back in the other direction, right...?”
Celestia shook her head. “I won’t pretend to know why it worked out that way, but it didn’t stop her from entering this world. Being spat out at random could have been disastrous. At the very least, I’m sure it was unpleasant... ”
Fluttershy could only nod.
“So where’s the Gateway on Earth then?” Asaji was clearly getting tired of the discussion. He had the feeling that the three ponies were deliberately stalling to avoid the most important bit of all.
“How will Fluttershy get back home?”
“That’s the difficult part,” admitted Luna this time. “It would be easier to explain the problem if we could show it to you.”
Luna’s horn began to glow and before Asaji could admire the sight, she had conjured an old fashioned quill and ink-pot from nowhere, leaving behind just a small puff of smoke. Moving the pen towards the bright white floor, Luna began to sketch out what appeared to be a coastline. The pen moved hurriedly from side to side, repeatedly dipping itself back into the pot before returning to its task. Gradually, the makeshift map took form and Asaji recognized the coast of California. Luna made a mark near the northern end of the state, just on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
She wasn’t done however - she began to draw a second map, this one less detailed than the first. Asaji instantly recognized it as North America. She made a mark where New York was and another close to California. If Asaji’s guess was right, it was as close an approximation to their real position, and their final destination, as possible.
“When we projected ourselves through The Void to try and track you down, Fluttershy, we got a good look at where the machine is and its relative position to you. This point here,” Luna said, tapping the mark on California’s coastline with the pen, “is the location of a concealed sea cave. You can see it in more detail on this other map. The Gateway is somewhere inside.”
“Wait.” This time it was Twilight who raised an objection. “The Gateway I saw in Equestria was huge! Sea caves are usually small, with just a few feet of space on the inside - there’s no way it could fit into such a small space!” She paused, remembering who she was talking to. “I’m sorry Princess Luna; I don’t mean to doubt you, but...”
“We don’t take offence, Twilight.” Luna assured her. “In most cases thou would be correct, but - as bad luck would have it - this particular sea cave widens onto a fault line...a very large fault line...” A frown flitted across her face once more. “That’s the problem. The entire cave is extremely unstable, and the machine has been there so long that it’s embedded in the stone and it’s become part of the support structure. Rock has completely filled in the archway too. With a bit of work on our end, we could force the rock out by transporting it to Equestria, but without the extra support, the cave will collapse around it and completely destroy the Gateway.”
“And that’s not even the worst part,” she continued. “We said before that the sea cave opens onto a fault line. Well, that fault is about to give. We give it four days at most before there’s a massive earthquake in the region.” She stopped for a moment, scratching her chin with a hoof. “Well... maybe not a massive earthquake. Geology was never our strongest subject. The fact still remains that the Gateway is likely to be destroyed, or reburied. As it is now, it’s only just showing through the stone.”
A silence fell among the five as they all pondered the implications. Asaji was first to break that silence with a question.
“So Fluttershy needs to get to this sea cave within four days so she can go through the machine before it’s destroyed by an earthquake?” He hemmed and hawed to himself while shuffling his deck of cards, buried deep in his thoughts. “...That’s easy enough.”
“Easy??” the others exclaimed together.
Asaji was especially surprised by Celestia’s incredulity. Her face was the very image of confusion.
“How can it be easy?” she asked, speaking quickly. “Fluttershy is on the opposite side of the continent and there are thousands of miles separating her from where she needs to be. It can’t be possible to get her there in time.”
A flurry of clicking sounds caused everyone to look back at Luna, who was working furiously with a levitating abacus she had conjured. She calculated as she made notes with the quill next to the image of North America she had drawn up.
“We can roughly estimate the distance at 2,919.71 miles in a straight line. Realistically, on hoof, it could be much longer.”
“....So what’s the problem?” Asaji was getting more impatient by the moment, but didn’t allow it to show. He just shuffled the cards faster.
“W-well,” Luna stammered, not sure what to say. “It’s just so far. The new steam trains might be able to cross such a distance in a week, at full speed. A feat such as thou is suggesting is impossible.”
Asaji was beginning to see why this was a big deal to them. This time he couldn’t hide his smug expression.
“How large is Equestria? You know...all of Equestria?” He emphasized with his hands.
“Yes. How large it it compared to my planet?”
“Smaller than...what did thy call it before?...Earth?... Yes.” admitted Luna. “Our planet is much smaller than this one is.”
“I knew it.” Asaji nodded, eyes closed but the smug look still holding firm. “If your planet is smaller, your people have no need for fast machines to cross great distances. Mine do. Rest assured that it’s possible to get her there within four days...”
Asaji stopped. His smugness was replaced by a feeling of dread that had settled in the pit of his stomach. He knew he’d regret his next words, but he’d signed on the moment he’d saved Fluttershy’s life.
“I’ll take her.”
END CHAPTER 1
“And then we’ll leave...”
Fluttershy whispered what Asaji had said to reassure herself as she shivered in the cold morning breeze. She finally started buttoning up her jacket. The clouds that seemed to hang in the sky were thick and dreary; the sun was just starting to come up as its light barely made it over the horizon and through the heavy cloud cover. She thought that the weather patrol must have planned it far in advance. How else could the clouds block the sun so well?
They`re all so high up too... she rubbed her eyes, then checked again to make sure she was seeing things clearly. The clouds were impossibly high up, so there was no way they were put there. If something as constant as the clouds didn’t behave the same way on Earth, then who knew what else didn’t? She hadn’t used her wings much when she was still a pegasus, but clouds were still extremely important to her and other fliers. These were too far away to be of any good use and-
Fluttershy forced herself to stop thinking about the clouds when she realized how lost in them she had gotten. She took another look at the grey buildings around her and shivered again, though not from the cold this time.
We can’t get out of this place soon enough, she thought bitterly. She hadn’t even been outside of Asaji’s apartment for twenty minutes and she already hated what she’d seen of the city.
A few minutes passed in silence while Asaji finished packing the things he’d brought down from the apartment. The two large canvas bags he’d been stuffing looked remarkably similar to saddlebags, only much larger. After checking the temperature of the welds, he slipped the bags over the rear fender and vanished into the shed again. Fluttershy noticed that the frame for her seat was also meant to keep them in place. The fact that he designed and pieced together the frame in just a few hours while making sure it could hold the bags as well...
“Asaji,” she asked him, “do you do this for a living? Do you...you know, design and build things? You’re really good at it!”
“Nope.” He ducked out from inside the shed and raised an eyebrow at her. “...I’m surprised you didn’t ask if I weld for a living instead. What you’re suggesting sounds like fun, but the answer’s no. If you really want to know, the truth is that I fix cars. It’s nothing special, but the job’s fine.” He emphasized the last word with a venom that Fluttershy wasn’t expecting. “I love cars,” he continued, unaware of the slip, “but some people do the stupidest things with them and then expect me to fix it. There was a guy who brought in a ‘27 Packard last year...and the oil had never been changed.” He shook his head sadly. “Such a waste. The engine was ruined.”
Fluttershy wasn’t convinced his job was “fine” but there was no way of telling for sure. She decided to change the subject instead of pressing him further. “You’ve mentioned ‘cars’ before, Asaji, but I haven’t seen one yet. What are they? Are they like the motorcycle?”
“That’s a good guess and you’re closer than you think. You’ll be seeing plenty of them soon.”
He was back in the shed again, not really listening. She heard the sounds of things being moved around inside.
Well that was helpful, she found herself thinking, getting a little frustrated. He was being vague on purpose when he didn’t need to be. He probably thought that seeing a car firsthand would be better than his explanations, but that didn’t change the fact that he’d ignored her question for no good reason and she was feeling left out. With nothing else to do, she dropped the issue and waited for him to finish whatever it was he was doing in the shed.
“Ah, here it is,” she heard him say. He came back brushing the dust off of a tough black helmet held together with small rivets. He handed it to her and asked for her to try it on. It was a little big, but it still fit. He raised a hand to his chin, clearly thinking hard about something.
“Is there any way we can hide your hair?”
“Why?” she asked innocently. “I thought you said it made me unique.”
“A little too unique,” he muttered under his breath.
“I said your hair is too long for it to be blowing around loosely. Can you at least tie it up?” He gave her a small length of string along with a pleading look. She sighed in resignation before reaching back to tie it into a ponytail and slipping the helmet on. Buckling the strap under her chin, it completely hid the bandage around her forehead. He went to lock the shed and slipped the key into a pocket.
“Now then...” He turned to gesture at the motorcycle. “I’m gonna start the engine. There’s no reason you should be scared of it; it won’t hurt you and you’ll have to get used to it anyway. Just, uh...be ready for the noise.”
Asaji opened the two fuel taps on either side of the engine, grabbed the handlebars, and set his foot on the kick starter...
Fluttershy had no idea what Asaji was doing or what would happen when he finished doing it. Thinking back, she also didn’t know what he’d meant when he said he was going to “start” the motorcycle.
When he actually started the motorcycle with a single kick, the bike came alive with a loud roar that Fluttershy couldn’t have prepared herself for.
After a few seconds the sound tapered off into an even rumbling that reminded Fluttershy of thunder; another sound that sent shivers down her spine.
She seemed to be taking things far better then Asaji thought she would. That, or she was petrified with fear. He didn’t know which yet.
Since it was a cold morning, he let the engine warm up a bit before trying anything. After letting it idle for a minute, he started shifting through the gears to help loosen the clutch plates. Fluttershy stood silent, just watching him. For once, he noticed, she wasn’t shaking or looking for a place to hide. This would undoubtedly be the first time she’d seen a machine like his, but her reaction convinced him that she wasn’t afraid of it. She almost seemed amazed, or transfixed...
Satisfied that everything was working, Asaji began to explain some of the specifics of riding the thing. He demonstrated proper posture and how to hold the handlebar he’d welded on for her. He stressed that riding a motorcycle wasn’t so difficult, assuring her multiple times that she had nothing to worry about. He’d be doing all of the driving anyway. Having finished his hurried explanations, he took a moment to look up at the sky.
The sun was just beginning to peek over the cloud covered horizon. He checked a battered pocket-watch to confirm the time and just as quickly stuffed it back into his jacket. They were slightly ahead of schedule because Fluttershy had woken up sooner then he’d expected. It was definitely for the best because the very last thing he wanted was to drive through the city with everyone out and about. He wasn’t sure how she’d react to large crowds, but he guessed that it wouldn’t be good.
That aside, she still needed some time to get used to riding. No amount of suggestions or tips could match the first hand experience of actually riding on a motorcycle. She needed practice and it was unfortunate that she would be getting it while they rode out of town.
He inched the bike forwards to fold up its stand before turning to face her.
“Fluttershy,” he asked coolly, motioning towards the passenger seat, “can you please get on? We need to get moving and hit the highway if we’re going to make the deadline.”
She nodded, not breaking eye contact with the motorcycle.
She’s definitely taking this better than I thought...
Reassured that she wasn’t having a panic attack like he’d expected she might, he helped her onto the seat before getting back on himself. He made sure they both had their goggles on before he took a last look around, shifted the bike into first gear, and slowly rolled out onto the street. A slight twist of the throttle and the bike sped down the road.
Fluttershy had her set of handlebars in a death grip but was too amazed by what was happening to be scared. The motorcycle moved on its own as its sounds rose and fell and Asaji did various things with his own set of handlebars and a lever on his left. It almost felt like magic.
The motorcycle’s speed and consistency were what amazed her most of all. It was speeding along at a hard gallop with virtually no effort. Even the best Earth Pony sprinter would have trouble keeping up with it for long. It made riding it feel incredibly strange.
There was hardly any vibration coming from the machine underneath her, and the ground whizzed by so quickly that it almost felt like she was flying again. When she closed her eyes and felt the wind in her face, she could see herself soaring through the sky. The thought made her smile in spite of the fear she was feeling, and even that little bit was quickly fading away.
She looked around as the city flew past, trying to take in as many details as possible. The dreary tenement buildings Asaji lived among soon gave way to storefronts and an outdoor market - none of which were open for business yet. As they turned a corner she saw something large and metal on four wheels trundling along the road. An open cart in back was stuffed with bottles of milk that clinked together as it slowly puttered along. As the traffic light up ahead turned from green to red, both their motorcycle and the other vehicle stopped next to each other. Fluttershy got a good look into the front and the person behind the wheel gave her a friendly wave. She made her best effort to smile back.
“That’s...a car, right?”
“Yeah,” Asaji answered, tapping a finger impatiently as he waited for the light to change. “Eh...actually, that one’s a milk truck, but you get the idea, right?”
That’s all a car was? Just a carriage that moved on its own? That didn’t make it much different from the motorcycle; it was just another machine. “You could have just told me what they were before,” she muttered under her breath.
“Would’ve been easier to just let you see one,” he answered right away, surprising her.
I thought he said he couldn’t hear very well...?
The light turned green before she could say anything. With Asaji’s attention now back on the road, he wasn’t about to speak to her anytime soon. That was fine; it gave her time to think while he navigated the labyrinth of streets.
I guess it makes sense he didn’t tell me what a ‘car’ was since it was faster to learn this way... she’d already seen at least seven more while she was busy thinking, ...but why is he suddenly so reserved? Asaji hadn’t exactly been warm from the beginning, but he was especially quiet and tense when he was driving. She wished Applejack were there. She’d be able to figure Asaji out right away - she was a great judge of character...
A new thought made her cringe as the motorcycle continued down the street; had he been completely sincere when he spoke to the Princesses? They had been so doubtful about being able to cover the distance in just four days... The motorcycle was moving pretty fast, but Asaji’s intense focus on the road ahead made Fluttershy wonder... Does he think we won’t really make it?
In a sudden moment of clarity, she realized that there was no way Asaji could have come up with this plan so quickly if he hadn’t thought they could do it. One moment he’d been told about the Gateway, and the next was saying he could take her to ‘California’ and explaining how they’d get there. He wouldn’t have taken on the task if he couldn’t manage it, and there was no reason to try and go through with it otherwise...
Even if they didn’t end up making it, Asaji was trying his very best. Princess Celestia had been okay with everything he’d said, and that meant she was in good hooves...or hands in this case.
She took a deep breath and tried to relax. I can’t go jumping to conclusions. Everything is going to work out just fine...
We’re making good time.
So far, everything was going well. The traffic was light and there weren’t many people walking around yet; leaving before the city ‘woke up’ had been a great idea.
Asaji called up a mental map of the streets he’d have to take to get out of town. Once they actually hit the main roads, there was still a matter of getting to the highway. He’d be able to pick up more speed once they were were outside the city limits, but even then it would take at least a day’s worth of riding to get to Route 66 and then from there...
The feeling of dread from when he’d agreed to take Fluttershy to the Gateway returned. The gravity of the situation hit him like a freight train - just like when he’d remembered the dream.
He bit his lip and tried to concentrate on the road, but the further he drove the worse the feeling got.
Asaji didn’t know whether it was overconfidence from his travelling days or the whiskey doing the talking, but somehow, when he was speaking with the Alicorns, he’d really believed he could make the trip. Realistically, he knew he’d very stupidly agreed to do something that was very nearly impossible.
As he pulled up to another red light, he took a second to hold his head, trying in vain to ward off the headache that hadn’t left him since that morning.
Why’d I have to open my fat mouth? There’s no way I can-
His train of thought was suddenly derailed by the sound of catcalls coming from the sidewalk.
Without noticing, he’d taken the street that passed the local Soup Kitchen. A group of five young men in the middle of the line outside were all whistling and pointing at Fluttershy. One even had to nerve to proposition her while the others slapped him on the back and hooted in laughter. Asaji threw the whole group a rude gesture before hitting the gas and speeding through the red light to the sound of shouts and curses from other motorists.
If he’d bothered to look back like Fluttershy had, he’d have seen the rest of the men in the line teaching the five youths some manners by beating them into submission.
He drove for at least five minutes before he finally thought to stop and look back at Fluttershy. She was shaking, her face was beet red, and she seemed especially interested in the ground.
“....Fluttershy, you okay?”
He knew she wasn’t; no one would be after something like that. When she finally answered, he had to strain to hear her.
“Were they...suggesting what I think they were...?”
“No...” he lied. “Ignore them, they were just some deadbeats.”
It wasn’t what she needed to hear, but the right words escaped him. All he could do was rev the engine and keep driving.
They were almost out of the city. Soon there would be nothing but the open road, and if it had the same effect on her that it did on him then it might help her forget...about everything...
At least, he hoped it would.
Fluttershy seemed to be doing better now. When they’d stopped for a quick stretch after finally getting out of the city she was wearing her smile again. It was encouraging to see her forgive and forget so quickly. He guessed it had to be a side-effect of that kindness; it was probably impossible for her to hold a grudge.
Kindness was all well and good, but she’d need nerves he wasn’t sure she had. He’d been encouraged by the fact she hadn’t screamed or shouted while he was driving through the city, but now that they were well outside of the city limits he had to start breaking the speed limit. If he didn’t, they’d never make it in time; the only reason they’d be able to make it at all would be because of his motorcycle’s speed.
He knew first hand that most cars would struggle to go faster than 75 and when he’d bought his bike new, it could go to 110. Not that he’d ever found a road he could reach that on...
He’d always thought the national speed limit of 45 miles an hour was stupid, but then again, the roads didn’t support his argument. The majority were horse trails: relics of thirty years ago when it was rare to see a car outside a city. Finding a good road out here would be like trying to find an honest politician.
Though she hadn’t said anything about it, Asaji wondered how she was handling his driving. He couldn’t go any faster yet since there were cops everywhere. He’d been lucky there weren’t any around to see him run that light...
That would have been a good time for a cop to show up, he fumed. Sexual harassment? In broad daylight? It was a charge that would stick, and there were at least a dozen witnesses to back him up. Why is there never a cop around when you need one? He grimly imagined the five men locked up, the key thrown away. That’s not gonna happen though, is it? Jerks like that get away with everything, and-
He was getting off track again. He needed to focus on the road. He needed to pick up the pace, try and make up time wherever possible.
“Flutttershy!” he called back, looking over his shoulder. “How are you holding up at this speed?”
“Fine!” As he expected, her voice was almost lost to the noise and the rushing wind.
“Well look,” he continued. “I need to start going faster, do you think you can handle it?”
“It goes faster!?”
He made a noise that sounded like ‘hmph,’ turning back to look at the road. Makes sense that she’s surprised to hear that...she’s really a pony after all, he reminded himself, fighting back the urge to smile.
His own words from the dream came back to him:
“Your world is so far removed from mine that our concepts of speed and distance are completely different.”
He wasn’t really that sure about that first point now. He’d since remembered that horses could gallop close to 30 miles an hour or so. This was about ponies though, and Fluttershy wasn’t a normal pony, she was supposed to be a pegasus.
It’s funny... he thought, if she used her wings a lot, she should have been more...panicked about losing them. It’d be like losing a limb - no, two limbs. It was difficult to imagine the girl behind him soaring through the sky in the first place, and without any idea of what she really looked like as a pony he drew a blank when he tried to picture it-
He wanted to slap himself for letting his mind drift yet again. He wanted another drink to get his head out of the clouds, but he wouldn’t allow it. He needed to drive and he’d had enough whiskey in his life to know that the two didn’t mix. He relied on willpower alone to suppress his cravings.
Asaji realized that the point he’d been trying to get at before was that Fluttershy was really a pegasus and he had no idea how fast pegasi flew. 15...30...40? Higher? It didn’t really matter since those speeds were too low. He had to get her to the Gateway in 4 days and to do it he’d need to go faster. There wasn’t any other way around it.
He’d picked a road that usually didn’t have any policemen patrolling it, and it had been at least an hour since they’d left the city. It was time to speed things up.
“Right,” he called back. “Hang on!”
With a twist of the throttle and a quick shift into third gear, everything else was lost to the roar of the wind in his ears.
In just a few seconds, Fluttershy had gone from enjoying the ride to being scared out of her mind. This speed was something she’d never expected - something she’d never experienced even back home. The motorcycle was roaring down the road, faster than any Earth Pony sprinter in history. Any normal pegasus would struggle to keep up with its pace for longer than ten minutes - and it was still going faster and faster! The grass, the trees, everything - it all went past in a blur of color.
It felt like they were flying just above the ground, but without any danger, she realized. Asaji wasn’t weaving in between trees; he was driving down a road. All he’d done was go faster. There was nothing to fear, as long as he was the one doing the driving. She took a few deep breaths to relax herself and sat up straight. It wasn’t so bad, actually. The feeling of speed, the wind in her ears...now more than ever she really felt like she was flying again. She smiled widely, enjoying the moment.
It would be another three hours of riding before Asaji pulled over by the side of the road so they could both take a quick breather and another five hours before they stopped for a late lunch at around 3 o’ clock.
Fluttershy found it hard to believe at first that the motorcycle had sustained its breakneck pace the entire time, hardly slowing down at all. From what she could remember of the past few hours, there was only one time when it had...
There’d been a stretch where Asaji had slowed down after passing a black and white motorcycle on the side of the road, but she hadn’t seen its owner anywhere. Maybe he knew who it belonged to...?
Regardless, she was famished and welcomed the break, eating her lunch while lounging under the shade of a large oak tree. Asaji was clearly rationing the food he’d brought; she’d only seen him eat one orange, and drink a little of the water. She did the same, even though her stomach would have preferred a little more.
Perhaps there was something else around she could eat? The grass they were relaxing on was...well, dead and dry. There were a few flowers growing nearby in the shade of the tree, though...
She guessed no one would miss them; they didn’t belong to anypony. Eager to give the flora a try, she picked one of the best looking daises and popped it in her mouth, expecting juicyne-
The acrid taste made her cough loudly as she spat it out, getting Asaji’s attention off the piece of paper he was looking over.
“Problem?” she heard him ask as she finished spitting out the last few petals. “...Oh, right,” he said, figuring out what she was doing. “If you’re still hungry, have another orange instead.”
“I just got a bad flower,” she protested. “...They’re not supposed to taste like this.”
“They’re all gonna taste the same. Here,” he said, tossing her another orange from a saddlebag. “We need to finish them off before they turn bad anyway.”
She wanted to groan, but could see his point; nothing had tasted right over the last few days, with the possible exception of the tea. Oranges didn’t taste as sweet as she remembered, the oats they’d had for breakfast hadn’t tasted quite right, and the daisy hadn’t tasted like a daisy either. She picked the orange up off the ground, started to peel it, and then looked over at Asaji. He was mulling over a large map - pencil in hand - muttering unintelligibly to himself as he made various notes.
As she popped a slice of orange into her mouth, she scooted closer and leaned over to take a look. The map was very similar to the one that Luna had drawn in their dream, but much more detailed. Lines crisscrossed everywhere, and small dots were labeled with names.
“Is that a map of this world?”
“No.” He made another mark somewhere near the top. “This is an old map of the country. Haven’t used it in years. Needed a refresher of the roads.”
“Have you done this before?”
“Travelled? ...Yeah.” He glanced over to see her studying the map intently.
“Here,” he said, shifting it so she could see it more easily. “Maybe this’ll make what we’re doing for the trip seem clearer.” He tapped a mark on the west side of the map. “This is where we’re going. And this,” he said, tapping a mark a few inches off the Eastern side of the map, “is just about where we are.”
“We’ve only gone this far after this long?” She couldn’t hide the surprise in her voice, and Asaji noticed. He shrugged, clearly trying to play off her concern as unwarranted. She wasn’t buying it, but didn’t say anything, instead finishing off her orange and tossing aside the peel.
“We still made really good time, Fluttershy. It’s a big country. Once we hit the highway it’ll be smoother sailing and besides, we can go even faster at night.”
“....What?” That got her attention.
“Well, I figure during night there’s less of a chance the Cops’ll see us, and-”
“Um, wait...please.” Once again, he’d stopped to let her talk. “No, that’s not what I meant at all. I meant....your motorcycle can really go faster?”
“....Yeah. It can.”
“How fast can it go?”
“I have no idea. I’ve never found a road straight enough.”
“Well, how fast were we going before?”
“Hmm...I’m not sure. Lemme check.”
He got up off the grass and checked one of the dials on the dashboard. He motioned her over so she could see what he was looking at.
“This bike has something called a ‘tell-tale speedometer’.” He pointed out two needles, one white, and one red. The white one was resting over the ‘0’ on the dial, while the red one was at 73. He looked pleased at the number.
“The red needle stays at the fastest speed you were going at. Press this,” he said, hitting a small button nearby, “and the red needle goes back to zero. Cops like these things on their own motorcycles. When they catch you, they use this red needle as evidence for you speeding.”
Somehow, she had a feeling he was speaking from experience.
“And...how fast is ‘speeding’?”
“That’s not important,” he answered quickly. “It isn’t speeding unless you get caught. I won’t get caught, I guarantee that. Normal speed limit’s too low anyway.”
“Isn’t it bad to ‘speed’, though?”
“Technically.” He sat back down on the ground, focusing on the map again. “Give it ten years, and they’ll raise the speed limit another ten miles. Only reason it’s so low is because the cars were all slow until a few years ago.”
“...Does that make your motorcycle special?”
“I guess so.” She saw him steal a glance at it before continuing. “Well, yes. It is special. It’s the only reason we can make it to California in time.” He pointed the pencil at her from his spot on the ground, a serious look on his face. “I’ll be clear here, Fluttershy. Once we’re on 66, we need to be going faster than 60, whether you like it or not. You need to be prepared for that. Can you handle it?”
“Yes,” she said truthfully. “As long as you’re the one driving, I’ll be fine. It’s actually...nice. To ride it I mean. It’s much faster than I normally fly. It’s fun.”
“Fun, huh?...Well...that’s good to know... You relax for a bit. I still need to go over this before we can leave.” He fell silent again, his attention fully back on the map.
Fluttershy laid down on the grass, enjoying the sunshine and watching the sky. She was feeling positive about the journey for the first time since they’d left and wanted to enjoy the moment.
“...It really is a wonderful thing,” she said out loud to herself. “Its so pretty, and it can go so fast...it needs a name,” she announced.
“What? The motorcycle?” Asaji snapped his eyes back to her, his scowl back in place. “Why? It’s nothing special, it’s just a machine.”
“A machine you built,” she pointed out. “It’s full of your passion and I can tell you’re fond of it. You’ve put enough of yourself into it for it to deserve a name.” She smiled, thinking of all kinds of names that would suit it. “How about Rolling Thunder?” she asked, the sounds it made still fresh in her mind.
“Nope,” he said, turning back to the map again. “If you’re gonna name it anything, name it... ‘Gears’.”
The conversation over, Asaji turned his attention to the map again. He hadn’t had the chance to plan out the entire trip that morning - something he should have done already - so he’d have to make use of the time he had now to at least get started on it. He double checked and the best way was still Route 66. It would take them south, then west through the Dust Bowl and finally bring them out at Los Angeles, at the southern end of California...a true inter-state highway, as far as he was concerned. From there it would probably take an entire day to get to the Gateway.
He grimaced at the thought of the Dust Bowl; Fluttershy was still blissfully ignorant when it came to the depression, and the true state of the country. Having to go through it would undoubtedly upset her, but there wasn’t any other way. He was happy to put off explaining it if it meant he wouldn’t have to at all. She didn’t need to know details about it; it was a human problem after all.
The biggest issue at the moment wasn’t anything like that though; it was him. Asaji had been exhausted all day and it was starting to affect him despite his best efforts. His hands were shaking again and his headache had only gotten worse.
The first plan he’d thought up called for at least ten hours of driving per day. He could manage four more hours now if he focused, but not much more. While that would meet the day’s quota, it still left them farther off the mark then he’d planned. He’d hoped that by evening they’d be well onto the highway. The plan called for them to sleep by the side of the road, but-
What the hell am I thinking? He rubbed his eyes, trying to focus. We can’t sleep by the side of the road. He must have been farther gone then he thought to ever think that was a good idea. At the same time, it only made it more obvious that he was getting too tired to be driving for much longer.
Well... he forced himself to continue thinking, the pencil hovering above the maze of lines on the map, if we can’t sleep by the roadside, we should find somewhere else to....ah. Something caught his eye - an option that he hadn’t even considered before. He touched the pencil to a circled mark on the map.
Would this work? I’d have to take a few detours to get there, but his place is right by the highway. He’ll probably help, but... he glanced up at Fluttershy, still lying on the grass and watching the clouds drift by.
He couldn’t allow himself to forget that this was about helping Fluttershy. He couldn’t make decisions with just himself in mind anymore. Making a choice like this wasn’t one he made lightly, but they needed a place to sleep and this was the only one he could think of.
There are worse people to ask than Sal...
Fluttershy sat leaning against the tree, watching the sky and thinking. She was convinced now that Earth had no weather patrol. In Equestria the clouds were selectively placed to ensure either sun or rain as needed. Partly cloudy days were rare, mostly used to provide shade during summer. The way these clouds moved was haphazard, and at the whim of the breeze. Being on a world with uncontrolled weather was...interesting.
She couldn’t call it scary, because so far there hadn’t been anything to be scared about. Nasty weather often came from the Everfree forest, so she’d always thought of uncontrolled weather as ‘bad’. She hadn’t seen any bad weather here yet though. This wasn’t a world of unchecked storms or constant rain; it was actually very comfortable. The mild temperatures, cool breezes, and nice scenery made Earth a pleasant place. Even though the grass around her was brown and dry (something that would never happen in Equestria) the trees were healthy, and so were the flowers.
If only they tasted better, she thought wistfully.
Asaji chose that moment to get up off the grass, bush himself off and refold the map. He had a grim look on his face that worried her.
“Fluttershy, we need to get going.” She nodded and got up too. “Can you get ready?” he asked. “...We’ll be driving for a while yet before we get to where we’ll be spending the night. Just be prepared.”
The open fields and trees had changed back to large buildings, train tracks and busy roads within the last hour of their driving. Asaji had navigated another labyrinth of streets to bring them to their destination in the heart of the small city they had stopped in. It was late in the day; the sun was already dipping below the horizon.
He’d parked in an alleyway across from a brightly lit two story building. A sign over the door of the place read: “Blue Room”. The lights spilled out across the street and spread long shadows into the distance. Asaji led Fluttershy across the street slowly, a hand on her shoulder. She could tell by the way he walked that he was both guiding her and supporting himself - he was exhausted.
“Fluttershy...this guy we’re going to meet...” Asaji sounded concerned, but it was difficult to read his face in the dim light. “...This guy we’re going to meet is...someone I know. I think he’ll agree to help us, but I don’t want you talking to him.”
“Asaji, why shouldn’t I-”
“Fluttershy.” His tone was deadly serious, stopping her mid-sentence. “I don’t want you talking to him. He’s not the kind of guy you should know.”
What kind of a person is he taking us to? She could tell he was nervous, like he didn’t want to talk about it.
“Is he...a friend of yours?”
“An associate,” he said defensively.
They were almost at the front door.
There was a large man standing outside and leaning on the door with a bored look on his face. Even though he was only a few inches taller than Asaji, his wrestler’s build and sharp black suit made him seem more intimidating. When he saw that they wanted to go in, he held up a hand to stop them, his impassive look changing to a scowl. Fluttershy had wanted to hide behind Asaji again, but she was stopped by his hand on her shoulder. He gave her a nod that said she shouldn’t worry; he seemed unaffected by the man’s change in attitude.
“Two please,” Asaji said politely.
The doorman laughed curtly.
“You can’t come in looking like that,” he announced sternly. Fluttershy blinked and took a quick look at her clothes. They were extremely dusty and rumpled from their time on the road. The bandage around her head was damp with sweat and she could tell that her hair was matted from wearing the helmet all day. Asaji didn’t look any better. His face and hair were filthy with the exception of the rings around his eyes where he’d been wearing his goggles. He merely smiled in response.
“Is Sal Girodino around tonight?” he asked, his sarcastic tone implying he already knew the answer.
“Sure, but he won’t see a deadbeat like you. Get lost.” The man jerked his thumb towards somewhere off in the darkness. Asaji stepped even closer.
“So the name ‘James Heath’ doesn’t mean anything to you, huh?” The doorman shook his head. “You must be new.”
The man shifted, straightening himself to his full height, and jabbed a meaty finger into Asaji’s chest.
“The name ‘James Heath’ means shit to me and it means shit to Mr. Girodino too. I see guys like you all the time - thinking they know the owner. If you really knew the owner, you’d be inside, at the best seat in the house, with a girl on each arm.” The implications of the statement weren’t lost on Fluttershy, who reddened a bit. “So I think you’d best turn around and go right now, ‘Mr. Heath’,” he finished. “You ain’t welcome here.”
Fluttershy almost missed it; for a split second Asaji’s eyes turned just as cold as when she’d tried to use The Stare on him. She could almost feel the anger flaring up inside him before it quickly faded away. He relaxed and brushed some dirt off his jacket, casually asking the doorman a question.
“I bet this is a nice cushy job and I know it pays well too. You must have been lucky to get it. It’d be a shame to lose it, right?”
“What are you trying to say, you-”
“I’m saying that I think you should go ask Sal before things get unpleasant.” He smiled grimly, showing a few teeth. “If you don’t, I’ll just get Steven to let me in through the kitchen, and then have Michael get Sal from upstairs and you’ll be out of a job. You wouldn’t want that in tough times like these, right friend?” His politeness was unnerving.
At Asaji’s threat and the mention of two members of the staff, the doorman started to look very uncomfortable. He tugged at his collar, clearly thinking hard.
“...All right, you’ve made your point, Mr. Heath. I’ll mention your name to Mr. Girodino. Just give me a few minutes.”
“Good,” said Asaji, satisfied. “I’ll meet him out back by the trash cans.”
“So, Sal is the name of the person we’re meeting?”
They were both waiting outside the kitchen doors. Personally, he wished she wasn’t so interested in someone she shouldn’t have been meeting in the first place. Sal was a charismatic guy, sure; it was part of what made him so successful, but-
The twin service doors opened, and Sal Girodino walked out into the alleyway.
He was very short and very fat. His salt and pepper hair was neatly parted to the side and his face, as always, was rosy. He was a small man that smoked big cigars to go along with his big appetite, big voice, and his even larger presence.
“James!” he boomed, giving Asaji a firm handshake.“Its been a while since you showed up. Month or so overdue, eh?” Sal had to reach up to give him a gentle pat on the cheek. Asaji saw him glance over at Fluttershy standing in a corner, trying to make herself invisible. “Who’s the broad, James?” he asked, pointing with his cigar. A wide smile crept across his face. “You sly dog, keeping your hand close to your chest until the very end. Go on, introduce her,” he urged.
Without missing a beat, Asaji motioned her over. “This is Sarah Vane. She’s the reason I’m here tonight, Sal...”
Sal was already reaching for Fluttershy’s trembling hand, shaking it firmly but warmly.
“A beautiful girl indeed, James. Wonderful to meet you, Miss Vane. Such lovely hair.” His eyes shot up to her forehead, finding the bandage. “But what’s this?” he asked, again using his cigar to point it out. “Are you responsible for this? Oh, James, I misjudged you.” Sal said, shaking his head in mock disappointment. Fluttershy clearly didn’t see the sarcasm, but before she could open her mouth for a reply, Asaji had started shaking his head and caught Sal’s attention instead.
“Sal, can I talk to you over here for a moment?”
“Sure, sure.” Sal turned, following Asaji to the doorway. “What’s this about, James?” His voice turned more serious, but the smile didn’t leave his face. “You’ve never brought a girl with you before. You just get lucky this time?”
“It isn’t like that at all, “ said Asaji. “Look, we just need a place to stay tonight. I’ll make up for it like usual.”
“Fine,” said Sal, waving a hand. “That’s no problem. I’ve got a few things I could use your help with anyway.”
Here it comes. “What kind of things, Sal?”
“Oh, just some small things this time, James. Water heater’s busted again, my car’s bumper broke off, I need you to cut through a safe-”
“What was that last one?”
“The bumper? Shit, you wouldn’t believe it. Just the other day, a bunch of fuckin’ mooks-”
“Sal.” Asaji rubbed his forehead in exasperation. “Sal, I don’t have the patience for this right now. Its been a long day.” He dropped his hand, sighing. “Why is it always me? Don’t you have other people who can do this stuff for you?”
“Well, sure. But this safe has some very important papers in it. Can’t let just anyone get a look at them. I need a guy I trust to do this.”
“...How big is it?”
“I knew you’d come around!” He reached up to give Asaji another pat on the cheek. “And that’s why I like you. Safe’s in the basement. Let me worry about getting the torch ready.” Sal glanced back at Fluttershy, still in the corner, and still looking like she wanted to be anywhere but there. Sal made a quick gesture back in her direction. “What’s her story, James?”
“...It’s complicated. She’s very shy.”
“If she didn’t want attention, she shouldn’t have colored her hair.”
“Of course it is. Those your clothes she’s wearing?”
“All right, fine. It can stay that way for all I care. At least let me find something that fits her. Just a gift, from me to her.” He paused to take a long draw on his cigar, then stopped when he realized it had gone out. He fumbled around for his lighter while asking his next question. “This isn’t a normal visit for you, is it?” Asaji shook his head. “Where’re you two heading?”
“...California.” Sal shot him a strange look, but the smile was still on his face. “I’m taking her there because of a promise,” he explained lamely.
“Noble of you. Is your bike parked nearby?”
“Across the street in the alley.”
“I’ll have Steven bring it in.” Sal tossed her another look before patting Asaji on the arm. “You two go inside and get comfortable. I’ll inform the staff about Miss Vane and I’ll see that she gets the same treatment you do.”
“Well...” Asaji didn’t think she’d go out into the actual restaurant, but... “...If she does go into the restaurant, don’t let anyone offer her meat.”
“Just don’t. Trust me on this one. Stick to salads.”
“Ah, that reminds me. What does she like to drink?”
“She doesn’t drink,” said Asaji, reasoning that she wouldn’t know anything about human alcohol. “Perhaps a soda or something, but nothing too strong.” Sal laughed.
“You found a shy girl who doesn’t drink? With pink hair? James, there are times when I just don’t understand you. She isn’t your type.”
“For the last time, Sal. This isn’t that-”
“Its just a favor, I know.” Without another word, Sal walked through the twin doors and was gone. Only after he left did Fluttershy walk back up to Asaji.
“...He seemed like a nice person. Why didn’t you want me to talk with him?” Asaji shrugged, unsure of how to answer. “Are you okay? You’re sweating.”
What am I supposed to say? That he makes me nervous? “I’m fine,” he lied. “Lets just get inside.”
Asaji led Fluttershy though several service corridors (which she noticed were mint green, ironically) past the kitchen and the door leading to the basement. They could hear the music coming from the main room through the thin walls; it was mostly piano that night with some percussion and trumpet accompaniment. It was soft jazz, the kind of music he liked best. If the circumstances had been different, he’d be outside enjoying it with everyone else.
Instead, he lead her to a plain white door with “Break Room” stenciled across it in black paint.
He saw that Steven was just on his way out. He was blond, a few years younger than Asaji, and dressed in the formal black clothes all the employees wore. At the sight of Asaji, his face brightened.
“Hey James. Sal just told me you were here.”
“...He works quick.”
“Is this Miss Sarah? How do you do?” Steven held out his hand to shake hers, but Fluttershy hid behind Asaji with a small squeak. Steven laughed. “She’s cute, James.”
“Not you too, Steven. Look, all we need is a place to sleep.”
“I’ll bet,” Steven joked, a sly look on his face. He backed off once he saw the icy glare on Asaji’s face. “Fine, fine. Not my place to say anything. You want your motorcycle in the usual spot?” Asaji nodded, just wishing he’d leave.
Asaji ushered Fluttershy into the break room after Steven left. It was just as he remembered it from last time; spartan, with a table, two chairs, a sagging couch against the left wall and a small door in the back leading to a bathroom.
“It’s...cozy,” he heard Fluttershy say.
“You’ll sleep here and I’ll sleep somewhere else later.”
“...Asaji, you should sleep now. You look tired.” He blinked, swaying on his feet.
“I can’t do that,” he answered. “I gotta do some stuff for Sal first, and I gotta get you something to eat too.”
“Oh...you don’t need to do that. I’ll be fine.” She paused, watching him splash some water on his face from the sink in the bathroom. “What did Sal mean by, ‘give me the same treatment’?”
“....Dammit,” he swore too softly for her to hear him. “How much of that conversation did you hear?”
“Bits and pieces. Not too much, but that’s okay.”
“Hmph,” he snorted, rubbing more water into his hair. “Well...‘same treatment’ only means that all the food and drink is free, but the only reason its free is because I’m helping Sal. You can stay here, or you can go out into the restaurant if you want. I don’t recommend the restaurant though.”
“I don’t think you’ll do well in crowds.”
“Well...” he was mostly right, there was no question about it. Still... “That’s not much of a reason though.”
“I guess not. You’re your own person, so it’s perfectly fine for you to go there if you like.” He turned, wiping the water off of his face. “You know Fluttershy, I don’t get you. When we first met, you wouldn’t speak to me and when you did your voice was so soft that I could barely hear you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you’re more comfortable with me now, but you’re back to acting timid around strangers. How can you be so shy with them, but confident when it comes to going into the restaurant?”
He was making sense, but she knew what to say.
“It just takes a while for me to get used to new people...especially since everything’s even newer here. It used to be a lot worse before...but I think it kind of...got better after I made friends with Twilight. I already knew everypony else. After I met Twilight though, we all started having adventures together. Meeting new ponies helped me be more assertive...”
“So, the restaurant?”
“Well...you said it’s okay to go there... There’s nothing to be scared of if you know a place is good...like reading a book that you know has a happy ending!”
“...Well, you do whatever you want to. I’ll be in the basement - down the hall to the right. If you go the other direction, it’ll put you in the main room of the restaurant. If you have any problems, Sal’s people will help. Mike runs the bar and Steven waits tables.” Asaji took a last look around before opening the door to the hallway. “I guess that’s it,” he finished. “Try to get some sleep, Fluttershy. We’ve got a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”
She nodded as he shut the door, leaving her alone. She wasn’t very tired, and knew she wasn’t going to sleep right away.
...Well, no point in sitting around, doing nothing. She took the opportunity to brush some of the dust off her jacket and wash the dirt off her face. Then she reached up and finally undid the bandages around her forehead. The cut had started healing nicely, and the scab could be hidden behind her hair.
She definitely wanted to see the restaurant - this was a chance to learn more about Earth. The music she’d heard on her way in was already making her curious. All that, and these people knew Asaji. That meant they couldn’t be bad people, right? Granted, none of them had actually called him ‘Asaji’ so far, but it fit with what he’d been telling her earlier. She decided to follow his lead and use the name he’d introduced her with.
It’s interesting that he knows people this far away from home. She remembered from lunch he’d mentioned he’d done some travelling...he had to have met these people while doing so.
She laid her jacket on the couch and checked her face in the mirror, making sure that she looked presentable. This was a high class restaurant, if what Steven and Sal had been wearing were any indication. Her clothes weren’t fancy at all, but at least the jacket had kept her shirt clean. It wasn’t perfect, but this was the best she could do for the time being.
She stepped out of the room, and turned down the hall to her left, the music getting louder the further she went. She could hear a piano and the overlap of many different conversations. She pushed open the door at the end of the hall...and had to stifle a loud cough. The restaurant was completely filled with cigarette smoke. Some ponies smoked in Equestria, sure, but it wasn’t a common habit. Almost every patron was smoking - creating a haze in the room that made her eyes water.
She got over her surprise quickly and went to find an empty table. No one had seen her come in; the room was dimly lit and most of the patrons were busy talking or watching the piano man. As she slipped into a small booth, polite clapping rang through the room as he finished his song and started another.
A menu was placed in front of her before being quickly scooped up again. Her eyes shot up to see Steven standing there, tucking the menu back under an arm. He must have already moved Gears to ‘the usual spot’.
“Sorry about that,” he apologised. “I didn’t recognise you at first, Miss Sarah. This menu’s no good for you, but...can I get you anything?”
“Oh. Um...no, that’s fine...” Why was this part always so hard for her? It was terribly awkward to go through this every time she met someone new, but she couldn’t help herself. She broke eye contact, staring at the table instead.
“Should I just get you a salad?”
“Um...I’m fine...I’ll have something later..”
“...I’ll get you some water.” With that, Steven walked off into the haze of smoke, leaving her alone at the table. She let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding in.
Oh Celestia, why is it still so hard to talk to strangers? She crossed her arms and sat back in the booth, frustrated. She wanted to make a good impression - these people knew Asaji, after all - but it was so hard to talk to any of them. Well...if I give it time, I’ll get over it, just like I did with Asaji.
The piano music was soft and sweet and reminded her of the cool spring nights in Ponyville. She let herself be carried away by it, tapping a finger on the table in tune with the beat. When the song ended, she joined the crowd in applause, clapping her hands together like everyone else. The people in the restaurant were all enjoying themselves; there was laughter all around, and smiles everywhere.
She looked over to a long table along the far wall, where a man standing behind it was mixing drinks together and handing them off to Steven to serve to the customers. That has to be Mike, she reasoned. And that must be the ‘bar’ he tends. Well...being a friend of Asaji’s was a good enough reason to introduce herself to him. She vowed not to go quiet around him like she had around Steven.
With a deep breath to help strengthen her resolve, she got up from the table and took a seat at the bar. There weren’t any people sitting next to her, but there was a large group of people on the other end that Mike was taking orders from. As the piano started up again, she found herself tapping her finger to the music again and closing her eyes. A minute passed peacefully.
“...You’re Sarah.” Her eyes shot open to see Mike standing on the other side of the bar glaring at her. It hadn’t been a question.
Mike was in his thirties, a very slim man with a haggard but clean shaven face. A cigarette dangled from his lips, the pungent odor making Fluttershy cough. He wasn’t wearing a suit jacket like Steven had been; instead he’d settled on a grey vest and tie that hung loosely around his neck. There was a scowl on his face that rivalled Asaji’s, and his tone suggested he was in a bad mood.
Fluttershy gulped, her resolve to keep her voice strong draining away.
Mike snorted, unimpressed and uninterested. “You came in with James, didn’t you?” he said with venom in his voice.
“Yes,” she managed to say, a little louder than before.
“Two whiskies and a bourbon,” said Steven, appearing at her side, throwing the orders at Mike. “Oh,” he said, suddenly noticing Fluttershy. “I was wondering where you went, Miss Sarah. I have your water right here.” He set down a tall glass of ice water with a sprig of mint on top. She took it gratefully. “Mike, you introduce yourself to Miss Sarah yet?” Steven asked, the smile still on his face.
“...Sure,” came the gruff reply. Mike already had the two whiskies poured and was working on the bourbon. “So where’s that deadbeat, James?” he asked without looking away from the glass he was filling.
‘Deadbeat’? She’d heard the word used a few times that day - it was obviously an insult.
“Cmon, Mike,” Steven said, his smile suddenly gone. “This isn’t the time for that. He’s helping out Sal with a few things down in the basement.”
“Ha!” Mike set the drink down, turning his glare onto Steven this time. “Its always favors with that guy. Damn pathetic.”
He was suddenly called away by a crowd of patrons at the other end of the bar. Grimacing, Steven placed the three drinks on a tray and lifted it - balancing them with surprising grace - before turning back to Fluttershy.
“...Don’t let Mike get to you. He’s been drinking more than usual tonight.”
That doesn’t sound very good. She just nodded at Steven who left with his grin fixed back in place. Mike returned soon after, pulling bottles off the shelves behind him and glasses from under the bar. He shot her another cold look. She was starting to feel uncomfortable again.
“Um...Mike? You...you look mad. Did...did I do something wrong?”
“You didn’t do nothin’,” he replied, as stern as ever. “Its that dirtbag you came in with that rubs me the wrong way.”
“Why?” she asked. The surprise had brought her voice back up to a normal volume without her noticing. “Is there something about...James that you don’t like?” She had to remind herself not to use Asaji’s real name. It was taking some effort.
“Something I don’t like?” He laughed, continuing to pour the drinks without losing a beat. “You’d be better off asking me if there was something I did like about him. That guy’s an asshole.”
“What...?” The curse word caught her completely off guard. She’d only heard it uttered one other time in her life and nopony had ever used it in all her years in Ponyville. She was back to a whisper without even knowing it. She had to struggle to bring her voice back above the noise of the bar. “Why would you say that about him?”
“It should be obvious. The better question is why you’re travelling with a guy like him.” He poured a drink with a flourish and set the bottle aside. “Half the times I’ve seen him in here he’s been drowning himself in whiskey, but he still tries to hide the fact that he’s nothing but a washed up drunk. He can’t hide it from me; I work with the stuff all day.”
“That was uncalled for, Mike.” Steven was suddenly at Fluttershy’s side again. “James is okay. Do you really have to bring this up in front of her?” He turned to Fluttershy. “I’m sorry Miss Sarah, Mike’s just had too much of his own stuff, and-”
“I’m sober, goddammit!” Mike yelled, suddenly pounding the bar. “And I’m sick of putting up with this shit!”
“He’s a good guy!” Steven said, stepping between Mike and Fluttershy. Half the diners in the restaurant were watching the argument intently. Even the music had stopped, the piano man himself listening in. Mike, oblivious to the sudden silence, slammed the bottle he was holding onto the bar before pointing threateningly at Steven. The small man gulped, but didn’t budge an inch.
“No he’s not a good guy, and I don’t care who knows it anymore! He’s dirt poor but I always have to fix his drinks for free. I don’t know how he got the money to buy that stupid motorcycle of his in the first place. I don’t know why Sal puts up with his freeloading all the goddamn time. He treats him like royalty, and for what? A couple of favors every now and then? He’s not worth Sal’s time. If I had my way, that lousy, no good bum wouldn’t step foot in this place ever again!”
“He’s a good man!” Fluttershy suddenly exclaimed. “He...he’s helping me when he doesn’t have to...”
Mike snorted. “Like hell he is. Why’s he suddenly doing you favors? What’s he getting out of it? He always wants to play the big damn hero, but he never delivers. He’s got enough problems of his own and suddenly he’s helping you? The guy can’t even help himself! He’s only ever looked out for himself and it’s never done him any good! You’ll find out sooner or later sweetheart, so I’ll tell you now; James Heath is a deadbeat loser with no future.”
“Mike, that’s enough!” Steven was suddenly shouting too, his face flushed red.
Fluttershy couldn’t believe what was happening . The restaurant was dead silent now; all eyes were on them. “I thought you were supposed to be his friends! The both of you!” She didn’t know what else to say.
“James doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘friend’,” Mike growled, finally dropping his voice a few notches. “I’ve seen the guy come in and out of here for five years now and I’ve never even seen him give a handshake except to Sal. He’s always wearing that scowl of his; he’s never smiled. Not once. Nobody’s like that. You’ve gotta try to be that grim.”
Mike paused for a breath, looking around at the diners still watching him. As his gaze shifted around the room, some of them resumed their conversations and the piano man started playing again. This time Mike leaned across the bar to question Fluttershy a little more directly.
“Did he ever tell you he travelled?” She slowly nodded yes. He seemed a little surprised at her answer, but pressed ahead anyway. “Did he ever tell you why he travelled? Or for how long? ...He didn’t, did he? He’ll never tell you anything about himself and that’s why he doesn’t have any friends. He’s a bum, an alcoholic, a freeloader, and a failure. He’s gonna die in a gutter someday and the world’ll be better off without him.” Without another word, Mike turned around to calmly grab another bottle from the wall and started to pour out another glass of bourbon.
No friends...? But...that can’t be true... Despite her best intentions, everything started making a horrible kind of sense for Fluttershy. He only had one chair in his kitchen and there weren’t any pictures of his family anywhere in the apartment, she realized, almost sickeningly.
What Mike had said was sinking in the longer she thought about it. He called him an alcoholic...he must have been drinking whiskey before. Whiskey must have alcohol in it, and he’s always scowling, and...oh, Celestia! Mike can’t be right! Asaji’s a good person! He’s helping me get home! She refused to believe any more of what Mike had told her, instead holding on to whatever positive thoughts she had. Then she came to a sudden and happy realization: Asaji has smiled, and he has told me about himself, or otherwise I wouldn’t know his real name! Mike doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or else he’s just a liar...
She watched Mike pour a drink with a smug look stretched across his face and his thin, ugly mouth. He thought nothing of insulting Asaji in front of everyone, but the question of why still remained. Did he hate him because he was poor? Because Sal liked him better? There wasn’t a single reason that Fluttershy could think of and she wouldn’t let that stand.
“...How dare you.” She felt the glass of water trembling in her hands; not from fear but from anger. She was mad , and getting madder by the second. Asaji’s joke about eating meat was nothing compared to the white hot rage she felt growing in the pit of her stomach. Mike was a miserable and hateful person who had no business calling Asaji such terrible names! He was nothing more than a common bully! Fluttershy was mad as hell and she wasn’t going to take it anymore.
She got up off the stool, put both hands on the bar to lean across it and looked Mike straight in the eyes before practically shouting at him while hot tears welled up in her eyes. “How dare you talk about my friend like that!”
Steven stood slack jawed at her sudden outburst, amazed that such fierce sounding words could come out of something so small. As for Mike, he looked like he’d been slapped across the face. The cigarette dropped out of his mouth and he stood stock still with the bottle of bourbon clenched tightly in his right hand.
“You don’t know the first thing about James! He’s not a mean spirited and unhappy person like you are! He’s one of the most generous and kind people that I’ve ever met! He saved my life without thinking about any rewards! He doesn’t need rewards to do kind things! You! What do you do!? Serve drinks and spread rumors about people you don’t even know!? Have you ever done a single kind thing in your life? So what if he’s poor! So what if Sal wants to give him free drinks for his help? Sal’s his friend, a real friend! You’re nothing but a miserable, no-good bully and I’m ashamed that I ever thought you could be James’ friend; you don’t deserve a friend like him! You’re probably the one without any friends!”
She was panting hard and worn out at the end of her tirade. Leaning on the bar, she’d kept eye contact with Mike the entire time. He had gradually backed up until he bumped into the shelves behind him.
The restaurant stayed silent for a full five seconds after Fluttershy’s outburst before there was a sudden outburst of laughter and applause from some of the regulars. A few were even cheering.
Fluttershy could hear some of them calling out now:
About time someone said it!
You tell him, girl!
Mike’s a fucking jackass!
The guy’s a lousy bartender too!
Kick him out!
The bottle of bourbon slipped out of Mike’s hand and shattered on the floor.
“You...” Mike suddenly looked very, very angry. “You Bitch!” He lunged across the bar, trying to grab at Fluttershy. She barely flinched in time, fear suddenly flooding into her. Oh Celestia, what did I just do...?
Steven suddenly shoved her aside, and shouted over the sudden din from the onlooking patrons, “Run! Get out of here!”
Mike was already out from behind the bar, running directly at her, an insane and murderous look on his face. As she ran back into the service hallway she missed seeing Steven tackle Mike to the ground and pin him to the floor.
Retreating to the break room she locked the door behind herself and leaned against the far wall, shaking and sobbing and finally sinking into a heap on the floor.
No...no, no, no....what did I just do?...What...did I just ruin everything...? In a panicked haze, a thousand different scenarios flashed through her mind, each worse than the last. She saw Asaji and herself being tossed out on the street for causing a ruckus, Mike breaking through the door at any moment, everything falling to pieces around her...being trapped on Earth for the rest of her life...
Gradually, the loud sounds of shouting in the main room faded away, leaving her to sob quietly for a few minutes, alone and afraid.
Then she heard the soft click of the door being unlocked from the outside. She looked up to see Sal shutting it behind himself, cigar in hand and a grim look on his ever rosy face. He looked at her silently for what felt like an eternity. She sniffled weakly, wiping the tears away on her shirt, trying her best to compose herself. She must have looked like a wreck. She tried to talk, but nothing came out. She buried her face back between her crossed arms.
Still silent, Sal extinguished his cigar in an ashtray on the table before looking directly at her.
“I’m sorry.” The sincerity in his voice surprised her, making her look up again. He sat down in one of the two chairs and sighed. “I’m sorry that you had to go through that. I’m ashamed that it happened. Please forgive me, Miss Vane.” He reached into his suit jacket and removed a small metal hip flask, taking a few slow gulps before screwing the cap back on and continuing. “I’ve called the police. Mike won’t be working for me, or anyone else in this town, ever again. He was crass, loud, stupid, and vicious. He tried to attack you in front of every single guest.”
He looked back at her. Reading her stunned expression and guessing the reason for it, he explained:
“The regulars and Steven told me everything that happened. It isn’t the first time that Mike has expressed dislike for James, but he’d always done it directly to me and in private. He’s never exploded like that before. I won’t have a man working for me who yells at a guest or tries to lay a hand on a lady, no matter the reason. You’ve done nothing wrong, Miss Vane; you were just defending James.” He paused, thinking. “You called him a friend, too.” A smile stretched across his face. “Its good to finally hear that...to know that James finally has a friend...”
She choked back a sob and took a deep, shuddering breath to try and calm herself. It’s allright...
“I... I just couldn’t let him say those h-h-horrible things about A-Asaj-” She caught herself with a sudden gasp, slapping a hand over her mouth. Oh Fluttershy, you big loud mouth...
“Did you just...?” Sal suddenly looked both intrigued and confused. “Did James tell you...?”
Fluttershy could only nod, tears welling up again.
“...He told you his name,” he said flatly in disbelief. The two of them stared at each other for six whole seconds before Sal’s smile returned, bigger than ever. “He told you his name! His real name! I can’t believe he finally told someone else! This is great news! Why didn’t he say anything about it earlier?”
“I...don’t know. He didn’t tell me you knew his name either.”
“I see...I understand why, but still...” Sal broke into raucous laughter, sliding a hand down over his face. “This is just such good news, I don’t know where to begin. I’ve known Asaji since...since he was a kid. I’ve known him for twelve years now, and he’s never told his real name to anyone else...”
Twelve....years? “How....” She struggled to find the words. “How is that possible? How can he have known you for that long? This place is so far away from his home...”
Sal stopped laughing. He looked like he was thinking very seriously about something, like a man debating whether or not he should break the rules. “I’ve probably said too much, but...has he told you anything about himself besides his name?” he asked cautiously.
“Yes. He’s...he mentioned he’d travelled. And he said he kept his name because it was a name no one else had.” She paused as she racked her brain for something else, but came up with nothing. “That’s about it... I guess it really isn’t much.”
“Huurm....” Sal closed his eyes, deep in thought. “That’s still more than he’ll tell just anybody, Miss Vane. I only-”
“Please...” she said, making up her mind; if Asaji could be honest with this man, so could she. “Call me Fluttershy, Sal. It’s what Asaji calls me.”
Sal smiled again, chuckling. “I knew he was soft on you, even if he won’t admit it. You really are a friend to him.” She nodded. “It’s a shame that you’re not really his type, but still...it’s a sweet nickname” he said. “I’d love to tell you what I do know about him, but that isn’t much. Even after all these years, he still hasn’t told me his whole story and it isn’t my place to pry.”
She might have been better off not knowing, but Mike’s words - as hollow as they might be - still stung her. Fluttershy needed to know and hoped she was making the right decision.
“Please, Sal. Tell me everything you know about Asaji. I...I want to know who he is.”
Sal was quiet for a long while before he lit another of his large cigars and, blowing smoke rings towards the ceiling, started talking again.
“Back in ‘23, I had a place in Chicago - dance club, restaurant; like this one but not as nice. Kind of a meeting place for new money. Dunno how much you remember of the 20’s, Fluttershy, but there was a lot of it floating around.”
I don’t know anything about it, she thought, a little frustrated. He’s going to be saying things and expecting me to know what he’s talking about! I guess I should just agree for now...
“I found Asaji in the alleyway behind the place one morning. He would’ve been 14 at the time... He’d been beaten pretty badly: broken leg, three broken ribs.”
“Tough kid. Must’ve been in all kinds of pain, but...I don’t remember him crying. I wouldn’t have done anything for him ‘cept call an ambulance, but I saw something in his eyes you know? He looked like someone who took what the world threw at him and never complained. After the hospital wrapped him up, I paid the bill and gave him a place to sleep that night. It was supposed to be a one time thing, but-”
There was a sudden knock on the door that stopped him mid sentence. Steven opened the door, popping his head through and setting eyes on his boss. “Is this a bad time, Sal?”
“No, Steven. Is there a problem?”
“No problem at all,” he assured him. “The police just left, and I have what you asked for.” At Sal’s motion for him to enter, he placed a large plate on the table across from where Sal was sitting. On the plate was a decadent and succulent salad. Lettuce, tomato, carrots, cucumbers, even some fruits and vegetables that she didn’t recognise all graced the plate, begging to be eaten.
Fluttershy suddenly realized how hungry she was. With a nod of approval, Steven set down a fresh glass of ice water (complete with a sprig of mint on top) and shut the door behind him, leaving the two of them alone again. Sal motioned at the plate.
“Steven told me you didn’t have a chance to eat before. I thought you might like this.” She was already settling into the chair and picking up her fork.
“It looks delicious, thank you Sal. I’m starving.” She paused as she tasted the first mouthful of greens. Not as good as salads from back home, but more than good enough. Sal took the time to take a long draw on his cigar. She was getting used to the smell by now and didn’t cough.
“Who attacked Asaji, Sal?” she asked in between bites.
“Couple of nobodies, thugs, hooligans. Something to do with his name and them not liking foreigners. I suggested later that he use another name instead, which is why he goes by ‘James Heath’ now. Anyways, I was gonna give him shelter for the night, as an apology of sorts for getting beaten up behind my restaurant, you know? That’s when he told me he had no money and was from New York. Confessed that the only things he had on him were a deck of cards and a lighter.
“Apparently, he’d gotten into the city by riding the rails. Must have been looking for his fortune or something I guess. It wasn’t that strange to see runaways back then, but he told me he wasn’t one. If he was, he said, it meant there was something to run away from and go back to.”
Sal took a long drag on his cigar, considering something while Fluttershy sat quietly, trying to process the new information.
“That’s always bothered me. He never told me anything about his parents, but that’s telling in itself. I’m sure you’ve had some thoughts on it too.”
“No...not really.” Sal gave her a strange look, but quickly dropped it.
“He had to have interesting parents. Asaji looks white, but doesn’t have a white name. I think there’s something there, but...I never asked. He wouldn’t have told me anyway. He was adamant that there was nothing to go back to. I believed him then and I still do today.”
“So...what happened then?”
“Well...on the first day, not much. But that evening, when the night crowd started coming in, he visited my office. He came in to see me, that scowl on his face, walking with crutches, bandages around his chest, and he says he wants to help me. That he’s grateful.” Sal shrugged. “I saw no problem with that. I asked him what he was good at and he told me he didn’t know, but then he said he could play the piano. The piano man I usually hired had the flu that week.”
“Asaji can play the piano?”
“He’d told me he took lots of lessons when he was younger, but hadn’t played in a while. Didn’t tell me why. I dunno if he can still play.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him I ran a top class joint, and I couldn’t have a greenhorn kid who was out of practice play for paying guests. He thanked me, backed out of the room, and I thought no more of it until the next morning. I come down from my apartment above the restaurant, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t hear him playing Joplin! He was rough around the edges, sure, but he was good! Especially for a kid with broken ribs. I asked him to play me something else, and...” Sal trailed off, a misty look in his eyes.
“And he starts playing this piece, I don’t even know the name, but it was this sad sounding piece that I’ve never forgotten. After that, I agreed to take him on as a temp.” He smiled, putting the remaining stub of his cigar out in the ashtray and reaching into his jacket for another.
“I let him play it in the late afternoon, before the nighttime rush. I’ll be the first to admit it was strange at first, but the guests enjoyed his playing. They were very encouraging and forgiving when he made a mistake. He didn’t want any money though, so I paid him in food, lodging...and a bottle of whiskey,” he finished guiltily.
“What do you mean you paid him in whiskey?”
“Well...” Sal looked uncomfortable, scratching the back of his neck. “This was prohibition, you understand? I ran a nice restaurant. It wasn’t much of a secret I was getting whiskey from Canada.” A dark look crossed his face while he stared at his cigar for a while, trying to put his thoughts into words. “It’s just that... I thought he was just a curious kid wanting some forbidden fruit. When I gave in, I figured it’d be a quick lesson; he’d try some, get sick, and forget about it. Instead, he opened it up, took two shots and walked away.”
“Is that, um...what are you saying, Sal?”
“What I’m saying is that he was already used to the stuff. When I pressed him on it, he told me he’d been drinking for a year. He just wanted a little that night. Week later, he asked for a bottle of the stuff. I don’t know if he drank it, or what happened to it, but I know I never saw him drunk.”
“...Sal, I want you to be honest with me,” Fluttershy said, very seriously. She’d heard that word so many times without knowing what it really meant, and that bothered her. “Is Asaji a ‘drunk’? Was Mike telling the truth?”
“...I don’t think so. Real drunks need to be drunk to be happy. Asaji’s a strange drinker...strange because he’s hard to get drunk, and doesn’t like being drunk. What he likes is that feeling of warmth you get right before your senses start to go, but it takes a lot of stuff to get him there. I don’t think he’s that way because he started young either. He’s just got this...strange tolerance for alcohol. I think that’s something that Mike never understood. Asaji never ‘drowned himself in whiskey’ for the sake of getting drunk, he did it because that was the only way for him to get a buzz. Either Mike wasn’t aware of his drinking habits...or he was bitter that Asaji drank him under the table in front of all the regulars that one time.”
“...Is that why Mike was so angry with Asaji?” she asked. Sal chuckled to himself in agreement before realizing that they’d gotten off track.
“Anyway,” he continued, “Asaji was a quiet kid, played the piano in the afternoon, did odd jobs around the place for me in the morning, and never took any money for his work. He’d draw during the night; all kinds of things. I think he’d been doing that sort of thing for a long time before I ever met him. This went on for a few months until he was all healed up. Three days after the final bandages are off, he thanks me for helping him and then tells me he wants to leave. That he still had places to go. He left town the same way he came in - on the top of a railcar. I didn’t see him again for eight months. Shows up one day calling himself ‘James Heath’ and asks me for a proper job.”
“Eight months?” She tried to imagine what Asaji had spent that time doing, but drew a blank. “What was he doing all that time?”
“He never told me, and I never asked.” Sal gave Fluttershy a hard look. “You’ve got to understand, he’s not the kind of person who normally tells you things. Its only gotten worse as he’s gotten older.” Once again, the smile left his face. “I don’t know what made him like that. He never smiled as a kid, and I still haven’t seen him smile yet. He’s always scowling. It’s made sticking up for him a little bit harder, especially with Mike. Asaji really doesn’t act like a guy you want to know.”
“But you do know him. As good as anybody, right? He trusts you enough to ask for your help. You’re his friend.”
“...I’d like to be,” said Sal, sadly. “I don’t think he thinks of me like that though. I know that I make him nervous.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think it was the fact I was a bootlegger that bothers him. Everyone smuggled or made their own liqueur during the prohibition. I’ve tried to be fair to him all these years. I was fair to him when he came back asking for a job; I hired him part time as a handyman. He was still distant, even worse then he was before, but at least he took proper wages. He spent all his free time sketching and drawing, not just the evenings like before.
“That was probably the biggest change I noticed in him after he came back. A few weeks later he got an apprenticeship with a local garage, then got certified as a mechanic. He still slept at the club though; he left in the mornings for his job at the garage and came back in the evenings to do his odd jobs, draw, and sleep.”
“...So you were like his...”
“Like a father? A family? If he thought that, he never said anything. I think he thought of my place as more of a flophouse. Didn’t bother me any, though. He was too young to own property.”
“...But he was old enough to drink?” Fluttershy asked the question cautiously, taking a gamble on it. She had gotten the feeling from what Sal was saying earlier that he wasn’t, and the look on his face proved her right.
“Look, I never forced any on him. He took a few bottles of whiskey every month as part of his pay. I’m sure he drank some of them, but again, I never saw him drunk - not once. It didn’t really matter that much in the long run. When he turned seventeen, he stopped working for me entirely. He got an apartment. When I sold the old restaurant to buy this place, we lost contact. He only started visiting me again in ‘29. Not much else to say... I guess that’s about all I can tell you.”
“...Isn’t there anything else?”
“I’m sorry. I told you I didn’t know much about him.” Sal got up from the table, extinguishing his cigar’s stub in the ashtray. “You know, he must really trust you, Fluttershy. I wasn’t lying when I said that. He trusts you more then he’s ever trusted me.”
“Well...maybe you should try talking to him sometime? He told me about his name because I asked him...he’s known you for longer...I’m sure that he would be willing to talk if you just ask.”
“...Goodnight, Fluttershy. I’ll give your regards to Asaji.”
Sal shut the door behind himself, leaving Fluttershy with nothing else to do but lock the door behind him and think about what he’d told her.
Goddammit. Why does it always have to be a hundred degrees in here? Asaji knew the answer, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. The antique, wood-burning, water heater radiated heat into the small, now sweltering basement. Having finished his work on the heater, Sal’s car, and more recently the safe, he was left with nothing else but the heat to cope with, whiskey to drink, and a newspaper to read. The bottle on the table was half empty, the glass next to it freshly stained.
The newspaper lay off in a corner. It was a few days old, but the contents had been enough to make him feel sick. He hadn’t seen a paper since the night he found Fluttershy and he wished he’d never seen this one. A particular article had been enough to drag up old thoughts...old fears.
A knock at the door interrupted him. Thankfully.
“Come in, Sal,” he called out towards the staircase. He heard the door open and shut before he saw Sal coming down the stairs, all smiles. Business as usual.
“Just seeing how you’re doing, James.” How he was doing? He felt like shit. The dark circles under his eyes made him look like a dead man. He’d seen his face in the bathroom mirror.
Asaji said nothing, motioning over to a pile of papers on top of a safe with a large, fresh hole in the side. Sal scooped them up, gleefully flipping through them like a bank teller flips through dollar bills. Asaji found the comparison darkly humorous; he knew what was printed on those slips of paper.
“Why do you keep doing this kind of thing?” Sal looked up, raising an eyebrow. “You don’t need this kind of money. Prohibitions over. You make enough off your club. Why do you keep doing this?”
The sweltering temperature of the room was making Sal sweat just as much as Asaji. A long silence passed before he finally answered.
“It’s all preparation for the future. For when the depression is over.”
“What future?” Asaji’s question was flat, monotone. Sal set the papers aside and put a hand on his arm.
“James, what’s wrong?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I want you to tell me what’s wrong with you. What do you mean, ‘what future’? The future is bright, everything is getting better day by day. The depression will be over soon. We’ll enter a new golden age of wealth, just like we did in the twenties. It’ll be like old times again.”
“You really believe that?” He brushed aside Sal’s hand. “It won’t be like that. If anything, it’ll get even worse. There’s gonna be war before that happens.”
“Where’s this coming from?” The confusion in Sal’s voice was clear. “What do you mean, ‘war’? What makes you think that?”
“I don’t know,” he confessed.
“War with who? Why?”
“I don’t know who. Europe. Its just been bothering me lately. More than usual.”
“More than usual?” Sal stopped, apparently seeing in Asaji’s face what he was trying to hide. “You’re paranoid. You shouldn’t let thoughts like that bother you. We won’t have war, not for a hundred years. After the Great War, no one’s gonna want to do any killing.”
“It’ll be a lot sooner than a hundred years, Sal. I give it five, six, seven at the most. When it comes, I won’t have a choice. The government will decide for me. They’ll send me away to die, just like...” he trailed off suddenly, leaving the sound of the water heater to fill the silence.
“...We’ve never talked like this before, James.”
“Yeah, I guess not.”
“Have you been drinking?”
“Just a bit. I’ve been thinking - Sarah’s lucky. She’s going somewhere better than this; she’s going home.”
Sal gave him a long stare before finally gathering together the papers and putting them under an arm. “You’ve done enough thinking for tonight, Asaji.”
Asaji trained his bloodshot eyes on Sal, shaking his head. “...I’d hoped you’d forgotten that name.”
“You’re tired. Get some sleep. See me in the morning. We’ll talk more then.”
Sal gave him a final pat on the arm before turning and leaving.
“...Goddammit,” was all Asaji could think to say as he sidled his chair closer to the table, pulling the half empty bottle of whiskey and his glass towards himself. He stared at his reflection in the amber liquid.
Sal was right, and he felt disgusted for letting such unimportant thoughts dominate him. None of them mattered now. All that mattered was getting Fluttershy home and keeping his promise. She had friends waiting for her; a life to go back to; a world to go back to. She didn’t need to be burdened with his petty worries and problems. He was just the chauffeur. He’d get her home.
...It’ll work out...it’s always worked out before...
END CHAPTER 3
Note From Lysis: Consider this story on Hiatus for the moment. It will get done eventually, trust me on that, but I have other projects I’m working on at the moment. Your best bet for contacting me is either by Email, at [email protected], or on my Fimfiction account, at http://www.fimfiction.net/user/Lysis .