by Taialin

Chapter 1: Ephemeral

I tap my hoof on the ground impatiently. She's never quite this tardy. Perhaps a few minutes here or there, promptly followed by her profuse and superfluous apology, but half an hour? She doesn’t tend to be fashionably late, and being late to an appointment like this isn't all that fashionable in the first place.

If it were somepony like Rainbow Dash, it would be easy to explain her absence by saying she forgot about the appointment. But Fluttershy never forgets. I can tell her about an event happening six months in the future, and she'll remind me two weeks prior to it when I forget. Plus, this appointment has been set up so many times, it feels like a ritual for us—it's almost blasphemous to not attend.

The wall clock ticks continuously, counting down to the time when Fluttershy comes through the spa doors and we can start our pampering session. But with every second that passes and every tick that rings through the vacant spa, I become less and less confident that she will.

Thirty-five minutes.

Fluttershy couldn't have simply forgotten. And I can't see her as being this late to any appointment, least of all this one. It's just not in her nature. I start reading one of the months-old magazines on the waiting room table, but I can't bring myself to understand the words. My mind is full of that ticking sound.

Forty minutes.

Perhaps—Celestia forbid—something happened? Yes, we've all been in our fair share of potentially injurious perils, but we've always emerged unscathed. Today simply could not be the day that fate decided to catch up to poor Fluttershy alone.

Forty-three minutes.

I can't wait any longer. I don't want to imagine what event has befallen Fluttershy, but if it's capable of rendering her this tardy, I can't lollygag while she is, as of yet, absent, and dealing with it. I turn to Lotus, who is standing at the front counter, and say, "I'm sorry, darling. Cancel our spa appointment and rebook it for a week from this date and time, if you would. I . . . I don't believe our friend is coming."

I can't remember whether the sisters charge for late rebookings, or whether they would charge me for it, but I leave a hoof-ful of bits on the counter in any case. And whatever Lotus' parting words, I don't hear them as I exit the Ponyville Spa and head straight for Fluttershy's cottage at a swift clip. My mind is too otherwise preoccupied to worry about lost coins.

I can't hear the tick of the clock anymore, but every passing second still has me walk a little faster, anxious and worried beyond rationality. It is no hyperbole to say that, in all the time I've known her, I’ve never seen Fluttershy this late before. The only conclusions I can draw are the worst ones. It isn't long before I'm running down the street, bouncing my saddlebags over my withers, gathering stares from nearby ponies. But I can't be bothered to pay them any mind when one of my best friends is undoubtedly in trouble.

As I approach Fluttershy's cottage, the first thing that strikes me is the lack of any turmoil. There is no bugbear nor chimera nor dragon nor any other vicious creature around. Indeed, her cottage looks exactly the same as it normally does. Even the breeze is normal, a tranquil wind that rustles leaves and nothing else. Regardless, what is decidedly not normal is the lack of Fluttershy at the spa. The unremarkability of her front lawn explains nothing and offers me no comfort.

I pause for just a moment at the fringe of Fluttershy's yard before resuming my run, this time to Fluttershy's front door. Out of habit, I stop and knock on the door three times, but I am fully prepared to buck the door in and scour her home for any hint of what happened—

The door opens slowly, revealing Fluttershy's familiar face and figure. I crane my head to look behind her. Her cottage is not an unorganized mess inside nor torn half open; it looks completely normal. Fluttershy, too, looks quite normal. Her mane is combed, her coat is clean, and she is walking of her own power. Though she does shrink back from me when I meet her eyes. My anxiety turns to confusion. "Fluttershy, is something wrong?" I say. "We had a spa date scheduled for three o'clock this afternoon, and I was waiting for nearly an hour for you."

Fluttershy blinks and backs up a few steps more. "O-oh! I'm sorry, Rarity. I guess I forgot."

I furrow my brow. That's a lie if I ever heard one. Fluttershy never forgets. Not marginalizing Pinkie Pie's unassailably fastidious logging of everypony in Ponyville and their preferences, but Fluttershy could name what present she gifted me six birthdays ago and how long she took to sew in the buttons.

Her lie warrants a closer look. And on closer examination, I find that Fluttershy is, indeed, not quite normal. Yes, her body is healthy, but her face is ill. In particular, her eyes are red, like she just woke up or was just recently weeping. And upon moving down her body, I also see that her left forelock is matted down and a bit disheveled, as if it's been heavily used to wipe tears.

I step forward, matching Fluttershy's retreat. "Fluttershy, have you been crying?" I ask, concerned.

Fluttershy steps back again. "Rarity, please don't—I-I'm okay, really." She intonates her words like she's desperate for me to believe them.

There's more to her story, and I need to know what it is. Why she was unable to come to our spa date, and why she finds it necessary to conceal the truth to me now. Moving my gaze to the room behind her, I see nothing of interest. It's a clean living room, devoid of most furnishings, besides a table, a couch, and some bird houses. Utterly normal . . . which is, in of itself, odd. Every time I've visited her in the past, her foyer has been a lobby of activity, full of animals scampering about. Some on the ceiling, others in holes in the walls, other still tugging on their caretaker's hindlegs, trying to get her attention. But now . . .

My ears scream of silence.

My curiosity and familial concern win out over my instincts of social propriety. For her sake, I need to know. "Fluttershy, where are your animals?" I ask.

"Rarity, Rarity, I'm fine!" Fluttershy calls to me. But her words are shaking, and I see the beginnings of tears in the corners of her eyes.

With Fluttershy’s cottage as strangely motionless as it is, the brief flicker from behind a wall calls to me to investigate it. I walk inside her cottage and move closer to the source. There, I see where all her animals have gone. Hiding behind a corner in the kitchen, I see all matters of rodents and birds and reptiles and other small animals. They're all circled around a single figure: a rat on its back, limbs splayed out. Motionless.

I slowly turn back to Fluttershy. "Is it . . ."

My words die on my tongue. Fluttershy's face is covered by her hooves, and her chest is shaking. "I didn't want you to see, too!" she says, voice broken by sobs.

My mouth is frozen half-open. Such a strong reaction from herself and her animals to a dead rat. I wouldn’t want any scampering around my kitchen, in any case.

Nevertheless, it's a sight that triggers something visceral in me. Fluttershy is such a pleasant, beautiful, and kind young mare. To see her in such a state, so broken and feeble, even in reaction to a dead rat, it coerces me to find my way to her and hug her tight. I can't stand to see her suffering alone while I am here. She accepts the hug and wraps her hooves around me but continues crying. I stroke her back a few times and look back to the scene.

The rat in the middle of the circle hasn't moved. It's very clearly breathed its last. Passed away. Died. But the youngest of the animals don't seem to comprehend that. Some small rats push and shove the dead one, trying to get it to wake up. Other rats pull these ones back, having already learned the truth.

"I'm sorry, Rarity," Fluttershy says into my breast. Her words are still choked and halting. "I-I knew I was supposed to join you in the spa today, but I just couldn't go because . . . because . . ." She points to the scene but doesn't raise her head, refusing to look at it. She sniffles a few more times.

"No, Fluttershy, don't worry yourself over that. I don't mind missing our pampering session." Too much. "I was just worried that something tragic had happened to you."

There is a circle a foot wide surrounding the dead rat. Even the youngest rats have since been tamed. They don't dare cross the barrier, instead watching the rat with unblinking eyes, hoping that it will start moving again.

"How did it pass?" I ask.

". . . Her name is Garnet."

Ack. Her words drive a blade into my heart, and a flush of cold suffuses my body. I mentally chastise myself. Of course she has a gender, and of course she has a name. Fluttershy names all her animal friends. Hummingway, Harry, Angel. Even the tiniest animals to which I wouldn’t give a second glance. How crude for me to depersonalize Fluttershy’s animals, and how foolish of me to forget. To me, it is easy to see a rat as just another dirty pest who gets into food barrels and bites holes into expensive garments. To Fluttershy, she cannot just be a rat—she is a friend.

"She . . . she just starting getting weak all of a sudden," Fluttershy continues. "First, she wouldn't eat; then she wouldn't drink; then she wouldn't move and started sleeping all day; then, I had to . . ." She doesn't finish the sentence. Fluttershy hugs me a little tighter and starts sobbing in earnest, unable to speak further.

I start stroking Fluttershy's back again, looking away, not bringing myself to look at Fluttershy nor the dead r—Garnet. That was entirely the wrong question to ask. This is not just any rat; this is a friend of Fluttershy's, and it is incredibly callous to ask her to detail how a friend passed away, forcing her to live out those dying days again.

The rat passed away. Garnet passed away. The gravitas of the situation finally finds its way to me. I rock her back and forth gently. The terror I would feel if Opalescence stopped eating one day, grew lethargic, and wasted away in front of my very eyes. What I would feel if she grew thinner by the hour and there was nothing I could do to stop it . . . A tear drops unbidden from one eye and rolls down my cheek. Something incredibly tragic has indeed incapacitated Fluttershy.

Fluttershy is still crying, and I still need to comfort her as a friend should. Hopefully, with more respect to all her animal friends. I try again. "Was Garnet a good rat?" I ask.

She doesn't respond immediately. She spends a few more moments hacking her breaths into my coat and wiping her eyes. "She was a very good rat," she finally says. "I miss her a lot. I miss her already." Her final words are but a feeble squeak.

I squeeze my eyes shut, and I feel a few more tears escape. I can feel the pain bleeding from her words. Fluttershy's love is boundless—she extends it to everypony and every creature that she finds. It means that every animal she meets is special to her and cared for like a member of family . . . and it means it hurts all the more when they are untimely ripped from her heart.

"Well . . . at least she had the best animal caretaker in Equestria to see her off." And now, more than any other time I've said it before, is when I can see how true and appropriate that epithet is.

Another sniffle. "Thank you," she whimpers so silently I can barely hear her. "I tried my best."

"And I know you did wonderfully."

For several minutes, the only sound in the cottage is that of Fluttershy's quiet weeping. Rabbits do not thump their feet. Squirrels do not gnaw their teeth. Even the birds, who are normally such noisy animals, chirping and squawking and whistling whenever they pleased, are holding their tongues. It's almost as if they are paying their respects to those who are eternally silent.

It is a grim, grim scene to behold. It seems that every animal, regardless of species or intelligence, has an intuitive understanding of death.

"C-can I ask you a favor, Rarity?" she says.

"Of course, my dear." Anything to help her cope with her loss.

"Can you—" she sniffles again "—can you help me bury her? I know it's dirty and not very nice work, but she needs to have a grave. I'd normally ask Harry to help me, but he's not—"

"I will help you bury her, Fluttershy," I interrupt, giving her another squeeze. "You needn't worry about a thing."

The clouds in the sky seem to sense the collective sorrow coming from the ground, as they have started to weep as well, dropping warm raindrops onto the earth and raising a thick fog into the air. The unpierceable fog reflects a bottomless grief.

It is a funeral procession coming out of Fluttershy's cottage, led by Fluttershy herself, holding the late Garnet in the cradle of a forehoof. The rats come next, followed by the birds, the ferrets, the squirrels, the snakes, and all the animals I can't identify. It's only a small handful of Fluttershy's animals that follow, but they make a sizeable train. I bring up the rear, staking a slow walk to wherever Fluttershy wants to bring us.

It takes ten minutes of walking into forests, over bridges, and through marshes I never knew existed. We arrive at a clearing surrounded by dense foliage. It's sheltered from the rain by a high canopy above, though I can scarcely see it through the fog. A network of widely spaced square paving stones are laid on the ground.

Eventually, Fluttershy stops walking, and her animals that followed form a line behind her. Fluttershy has stopped weeping, but even after the silent walk, her eyes are still bloodshot and betray a sorrow miles deeper than she reveals. What pain she is holding in. She doesn't say anything or gesture, but I know what she wants me to do.

I wrap around the animals to frame a plot of land between us. With surges of magic, I tear gouges in the dirt in front of me, loosening it. My horn lights in a bright halo, illuminating the fog around, and I heave the dirt out, forming a loose hole. I flash my horn, and the cycle starts again: tilling the dirt and lifting it out. It comes to me that "gravedigger" is not normally a reputable occupation. But I do this for a friend with pleasure.

Just as the hole is about three hooves deep, enough for a small pony to lay in comfortably, I step back and nod to Fluttershy. She nods back.

Silently and slowly, she lays prone on the ground and gingerly sets her charge into the grave. Her final resting place. There, she stays for a few moments. I don't know what she's thinking, but I can only imagine. Her eyes remain trained on her lost Garnet, moisture glittering in her eyes but not finding the means to escape.

She gets back to her hooves but does not take her eyes off the body. She speaks in a soft and melancholy drawl:

"Garnet. You weren't the most beautiful rat when I found you, but you were very spirited. Even after things went bad and you had to go to the forest and ponies’ garbage and underwater to find food, you were still willing to do it. You never gave up. Like a fire that never goes out. That's why I named you Garnet.

"And when you came home with me, you kept that spirit. Once you started getting along with the other animals and ponies, you never stopped helping them. When the blue jays were looking for just one more twig to finish their nest, you would find it even if it was raining outside. And when Rarity lost all her sewing needles, you ran around all the rooms of her house to find them again."

I blush. Is that what happens when Fluttershy says she'll find my missing supplies, but I have to be shopping while she does it? What a devious little mare . . . and what a helpful little critter.

"I know you'll keep being that spirited and helpful rat you always were. Everyone here will miss you very much, Garnet. I m-miss you, too." As Fluttershy finishes her eulogy, her voice breaks at the very last sentence. I sneak a little closer to her and embrace her with a hoof, offering my support. She draws close and hides her face in my chest as before.

As Fluttershy recovers and grieves with me, her animals pay their respects in their own way. The rats squeak and chitter in their own tongue saying things I can only hope to understand. A bird breaks its silence and whistles a song, though it's clearly not proclaiming territory or impressing a mate: it's singing a dirge. Other creatures drop physical tokens into the grave: flower clippings, acorns, small gems . . . the last relics of love and respect from the living to the dead.

Some of the smallest rats are unable to cope with the loss they've learned about and run from the grave. They're followed by other animals, older ones who have undoubtedly been acquainted with death before. They grieve just as we do, and their pain must be just as terrible. They find their own ways to cope.

Even as the animals finish their own rituals and return to Fluttershy's cottage, Fluttershy and I remain motionless by the grave. Once the last animal leaves, I light my horn again, taking hold of the loosened earth I took out of the hole. I spill it back into the grave, covering Garnet underneath and completing the ritual.

Fluttershy sniffles one last time and steps back. "Thank you, Rarity. I know I never asked you to help me with this . . . but it doesn't hurt so much with a friend." She procures a small, square stone marker and places it flat on the grave.

"Shh." I wipe the tears from her face. "You're going through a very hard time, and it is only expected that you would like some support. I am happy to give it to you." I glance back to the grave. There's a sense of finality to it, like the past has been sealed away and can bother her no more. Even though I know that cannot be true, and the loss will echo for a long time to come.

"Thank you, Rarity. I'm lucky to have you as a friend," she says, offering me a small smile, the first I've seen since I arrived here. It's forced, but it foreshadows a hope that her wound will heal with time. She turns to the path out of the clearing and starts walking there. A few moments later, she turns back around. "Rarity?" she asks.

Fluttershy has moved, but I haven't budged from my spot. My body is paralyzed by the sight before me.

They looked just like paving stones before, subject to no further scrutiny. I even stepped on one on our way here. But now, seeing how Fluttershy marks her graves and the bodies under them, they become so, so much more significant. So much more meaningful and horrible.

This isn't just a clearing in a forest. It's a graveyard. I shiver.

And the stones . . . they go on endlessly! My eyes flick around erratically, making note of at least a dozen identical-looking flat stones, every single one marking a grave, a death, a loss of a friend. And those are only the ones I can see, not concealed by the fog. Just how many more graves are there? How many friends has Fluttershy laid to rest?

I can't breathe. So devoted and confident I was to aid Fluttershy before, but this arrests every shred of my personality and leaves in its wake only a shock and despair so deep and endless I can't possibly fathom it all.

"Rarity?" Fluttershy says, having returned to my side. "Is something wrong?"

I raise a trembling hoof to point at the stones. "Wh-What are those?" I ask, hoping against hope that I am wrong.

Fluttershy follows my eyes, and she lets out a small gasp when she sees what I'm looking at. "Oh, Rarity. That one's Missy. She was a little dog of mine who was with me when I came to Ponyville. I always loved it whenever I came back from a shopping trip and Missy would jump to her hindlegs and lick my face. Sometimes, she would bowl me over; she was so eager. She was like my first little Angel."

She walks to the next stone down the line. I follow her in a horrified trance. "This one's Mister Beaverton Beaverteeth. He was the strongest beaver in his family, but he loved to cause mischief, too." She points to other stones. I can barely stand to hear her. "That's Lady Belle, Fuzzy Legs, Cornicus, Webster—"

"Stop! Fluttershy, please, stop!" I exclaim, the anxiety in my voice strangling it to a squeak. I can scarcely believe what she's doing. There can't really be the lifeless bodies of every animal Fluttershy's ever lost here, and she can't really be reading every one of their names. That's simply too much for anypony to take. "They're . . . They're not all . . ." I whimper.

Fluttershy turns back to me and nods solemnly, a mix of pain, melancholy, and pity on her face. Then she looks away, those emotions replaced by guilt. "I'm sorry, Rarity. I shouldn't have brought you here."

I really don't know how to respond to that. I can’t regret coming here to help her, but did I really need to know about the literal skeletons Fluttershy hides in her backyard? "H-How many?" I manage.

Fluttershy looks around. When she looks back to me, she looks like she's ready to give a number, but she says instead, "Birds and rodents and insects don't live very long."

Suddenly, my hindlegs buckle beneath me, and I collapse into a sitting position. I have been to graveyards before, but this hits closer to my heart than any I’ve seen before before. Every single grave is a animal of Fluttershy's: one that she's cared for, patched up, fed, taught, loved. Every one a friend. Every one a Garnet.

All those animals around the body. That grave funeral procession. That emotional eulogy before Garnet's burial. The tears and the heartache. All that, a terrible event no pony would ever want to experience. And Fluttershy has experienced it at least . . . I don't know how many times before! And she'll experience it again I-don't-know-how-many times in the future. Every one a friend. Every one a Garnet.

Tears have started coming down my face again, heavier than before. I can't take any more. And the awful, awful thing about this is that I'm not even the one who's taking it. I'm surrounded by broken bonds and shattered hearts multiplied over and over and over again. What kind of pony can Fluttershy be to take this?

Before I know it, Fluttershy comes close and wraps her hooves around me. How ironic that I was offering my support just hours earlier, and now she offers her support to me. Nevertheless, I accept her hug and hug back, leaning against her.

Two sentinels in a sea of death.

"How, Fluttershy? How do you cope with all this? Does it ever get any easier?" I ask, my voice feeble.

Fluttershy sighs. "No, Rarity, it doesn't get any easier. I love all my animal friends, and it hurts every time one of them has to leave. Garnet was just s-so sweet." Her voice breaks and goes quiet at her last sentence. Her breath hitches and she hugs me a little tighter, like she's holding back tears.

But she continues. "Someone needs to teach them, Rarity. If I don't do it, the animals around Ponyville would just steal and hurt each other and burn things for food. Someone needs to show them that there's another way, that they can be nice and cooperate with each other. If I don't do it, who will?"

Oh, my darling. How kind can one pony be? Fluttershy is selfless, of that there is no doubt, but all this ceaseless loss is enough to drive anypony mad.

Fluttershy answers my unasked question as she continues. "And they give me things, too. They teach me things I never knew about their species and others. They give me perspectives I would have never thought of. And they just make me so, so happy. Their beautiful faces when I scratch them, their eagerness when I feed them, the happiness I feel when they help their fellow animals and when they help me.

"It does hurt so much when they pass away. But the things they teach me, the things I teach them, and the joy they give me . . . It's worth it, every last time."

Tears still come down my face. I've never seen any graveyard as anything but a field of sadness. And indeed, this one is as well. But for Fluttershy to somehow keep that in perspective and value an animal's life as much as she honors their death . . . I've always knew she was strong, but she is a far stronger mare than I ever gave her credit for. Stronger than I am. Strong enough to hold and comfort me when she is the one who's lost her friend, and when she’s the one who’s lost countless more.

As if on cue, the rain stops, the fog lifts, and the sun emerges from behind the clouds, casting its sunrays and drawing light on the clearing. With the fog gone, I can see the full extent of the graveyard and all the stones in it. There must be hundreds of them.

But with them, I see flowers and young saplings and hedgerow-demarcated alleys between the stones. A stream cuts through the middle of the clearing, over which there is a bridge, and across which there are more endless stones. The gentle roll of the stream and the wind through the leaves above are the only sounds here. A canopy of branches and leaves stretches overhead, diffusing and mottling the light streaming in. It’s beautiful.

Wolves prowl on the outer edge of the clearing, but somehow, I’m not afraid. This is a sanctuary for animals who have lost their life, and they deserve to be left to their peace. If the wolves honor their fallen brothers, and if they perhaps even wish to be buried here themselves when their time comes, they must respect its sanctity.

My eyes are again drawn to the stone in front of us. And with the air cleared, I can more clearly read what is written on it.


There are no etchings or ink marks or any identifying marks at all on the stone. In fact, every stone looks exactly the same: a smooth and perfect square that marks that there is an animal underneath, but nothing more. Once the truth dawns on me, I draw a quiet gasp.

Fluttershy wasn't reading the names of her fallen friends; she was reciting them.

I point to the stone in front of us: identical to every other stone in the field, but undoubtedly special to Fluttershy in some way known only to her. "Tell me about this one," I ask.

Fluttershy doesn't hesistate in her response. "That's Marceline. She was another rat of mine, and she was actually the only one I had when she . . . went away. It was just so tragic; I wasn't expecting it at all. I should have locked the door that day, but I guess she found a way out and . . . n-never found a way back."

Another terribly sad story. I know Fluttershy has hundreds of them, but I couldn't handle too many. And I don't want her or I to listen to them. "Tell me about . . . Tell me how she made you smile, Fluttershy. Surely, she gave you joy."

Fluttershy nods. "She did. Marceline was so fun to care for. She was always so energetic, and she always seemed to find a way out of her cage at night, even if I made sure to lock it before I went to bed. Sometimes, I would find her sleeping on top of the cage. Sometimes, she would snuggle up with one of the squirrels. And one time, she fell asleep on my head and tumbled off when I woke up!"

Despite the situation, Fluttershy laughs. I give a half-hearted chuckle as well.

"She also got up to all kinds of mischief when I was away. Sometimes she would open the cupboards and find the rat food or bird food and spill it all across the floor for fun. It took some weeks of scolding her before she would listen and stop making such a mess. I think she started listening after I told her to clean up one of the messes she made. I told her that it's easy to spill birdseed all over the floor, but it's hard to sweep it back up. Then I left her with a dustpan. She was very cooperative an hour later."

And so she continues to tell stories about little Marceline and all the things they did together. And if ever I point at another grave, we walk to that one, and she tells stories about the animal there, waxing on the good and the bad, the pain and the joy. At every grave is a collection of stories. A sketch of a life well-lived under Fluttershy’s care.

As she talks, I come to a final realization, this one the most significant of all. As I've mentioned before, the animals under Fluttershy's care are exceptionally lucky to be there. But I don't think they realize just how lucky.

A wise pony once said, long ago, that every being in this world dies twice: once when they take their last breath; twice when the world ceases to remember them, and eternity breathes their name for the last time. Eternity is a very long time indeed. But these lucky, blessed animals, even after death, have the vested privilege of living forever and having their names written into eternity.

After all, Fluttershy never forgets.

Author's Notes:

Dedicated to Eloquence's Garnet, Missy, and Marceline.

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