Protest Too Much

by Estee

Chapter 1: Based On An Actual Advertising Circular

Based On An Actual Advertising Circular

Mr. Rich didn't hire yes-ponies, and that was why every Barnyard Bargains in the franchise was capable of running itself. He wanted employees who could think, who had the courage to not only express their own ideas, but tell him (to his snout or, for the most distant locations, in a shakily-mouthwritten letter) when he was wrong. And when it came to the Ponyville branch, the one where he so often served as nothing more than the store's manager... that was where intelligent, free-thinking ponies were essential. He not only needed to be challenged with fresh concepts, but the needs of the business required him to travel a lot. His home store (the original, the one he took the most pride in) had to be capable of operating without him. And it was well-known that if Mr. Rich was on the verge of a trip, trotted up to you, hoof-tapped a shoulder, and said you would be in charge until he returned... that was a level of trust which employees both longed for and feared.

Ponies dreamed of the day when Mr. Rich would tap their shoulder, because it was the surest sign of true accomplishment. They'd come so far in the ranks as to be trusted with the dearest possession in the line. But those same ponies also had nightmares about that moment of contact, because to be put in temporary charge of the Ponyville branch meant Mr. Rich was evaluating them. Considering them for greater things. A promotion, perhaps, or somepony had said that the Vanhoover manager was retiring next year: everypony knew Mr. Rich liked to create advancement from within. And he'd been talking about opening the sixteenth franchise in the chain, placing it in one of the desert settlements: that store would need somepony to run it...

In this case, it was the first week of summer, a mere two days after school had let out, and Mr. Rich was traveling again. However, this particular trip was distinguished by two special factors: the trip itself had very little in the way of business attached, for a father had carefully arranged some time for simply being with his daughter. And he'd put Invoice in charge.

Invoice thought he was ready. (Based on when the nightmares had first begun, he'd believed himself to be ready for at least two years.) But now he had to prove it. To do so in an exemplary manner might just have him checking the one-way train fare to Appleloosa.

The staff meeting didn't seem to be going badly, even with the weight of everypony's eyes pressing against plum-hued fur (and completely ruining the grain): there wasn't supposed to be a unicorn on that bench, and it made the others react the same way they reacted every time a new pony had the helm for the first time. They were worried about him -- but they were just as worried for him. And Mr. Rich had told everypony to treat Invoice exactly as they would treat the store's true manager, which meant that if a decision sounded as if it had to be challenged, somepony had better challenge it. Invoice just felt as if it was happening a little more often, and with a subtly-increased level of desperation.

He was running the store. Not for very long -- Mr. Rich would be back in a few days -- but it was his to command. It had him doing things which he hadn't put horn and corona to since his first two years of employment, because Mr. Rich was involved in every aspect of operation. When Mr. Rich wasn't trying to forecast sales trends or pulling economic levers which shifted bits across the continent, he was designing endcap displays or straightening up the pegboard sections of the aisles. It meant his substitutes had an unvoiced obligation to do the same, and so Invoice, who normally concentrated on paperwork, had been regularly cleaning for the first time in years. And he hated cleaning. Mr. Rich might feel the need to keep his hooves and mouth that close to the sales floor, but for Invoice to be back at gruntwork again...

He was expected to straighten, because Mr. Rich did it. He was doing it, he loathed it, and in the end, that loathing would become his sole, completely-failed defense.

"That brings us to the advertising circular," Burma noted from the far left of the long table. "Mr. Rich left us with some basic instructions for what he wanted on sale this week. But he also left some space for adjustments and ideas. I'm printing this tomorrow, and it'll be delivered around the settled zone the morning after that, same as usual." Such deliveries took place under Moon, and bleary-eyed Ponyville residents on their way to work had been known to literally trip over a third-off sale. "So if there's anything which anypony's noticed while taking inventory, anything which isn't moving and has to be cleared out..."

"Remember," P.R. reminded the room, "school's out. We're looking at more than two moons of kids in the aisles, and most of them are going to be carrying their allowances. This is a great time to start planting the seeds for the Hearth's Warming toy gallop."

"We can put up some of the advertising posters which Mr. Rich brought back from the vendor show," Jestine suggested.

P.R. smiled, nodded. "Let them get some idea what's coming in... Invoice, what do you think?"

He thought it meant more kids in the store. Looking at the posters. Talking about the upcoming toys. For hours.

What would Mr. Rich do?

"Put them up," he finally said, with the swallowed reluctance forming a churning ball in the pit of his stomach. "Burma --" and was this a mistake, not having memorized it in advance? "-- show me what we're already putting on sale this week?"

The papers were carefully nosed down the table, and Invoice looked over the mockup. Most of it was standard for early summer. The store was putting an early jump on harvesting implements. There were huge squares of cotton meant to be spread across the ground near swimming holes, for some ponies liked to finish their post-shake drying by rolling around for a while. And of course, there were lures for the children of the settled zone, because they were out of school and roaming around town and that meant they were coming into Barnyard Bargains and...

...Invoice had been cleaning. Outside of the occasional in-store disaster, it was more than he'd cleaned in years. He'd won the relative safety of an office, and so the trauma had been given a chance to fade.

He'd forgotten what children did to a store.

When it came to the colts and fillies of the settled zone, Barnyard Bargains had several problems, and the most major was known as 'the toy aisle'. Yes, Ponyville had a dedicated toy store, one which sold nothing but -- and it was smaller. Two dozen children couldn't crowd into it at the same time. They didn't have the same amount of room for roaming. As the toy store sold nothing except toys, it could be presumed that any colt who carried an item around for an hour or so before realizing they didn't have the money to pay for it anyway would be randomly dropping it in the right department, while Barnyard Bargains got to locate the discarded pieces within a range which stretched from Household Goods to Gardening. The toy store also didn't carry books and magazines, which meant it didn't have kids reading the entire thing before putting it back on the shelf (not always in saleable condition), and the town had a library, but no, they just had to use Barnyard Bargains instead. And when they did buy, they would take entire shelves apart in the quest for that one thing they wanted (which adults did as well, did for all of those things and often to greater degrees, but Invoice wasn't currently cleaning up after those), they would count out their money for the cashier and somehow come up two-tenths of a bit short before abandoning the item right there and promising to come back tomorrow. In the worst case, they actually would.

For the other three seasons, it was an intermittent sort of constant: weekends existed, as did holidays, and there was always a chance to get the younger category of shopper after school hours. But for the most parts, those children would be found with their parents, who theoretically kept them from doing too much.

They were two days into summer vacation. The children were free-roaming, almost completely unsupervised on a weekend which felt as if it would never end. And Invoice had been cleaning up after all of them.

Ultimately, he wasn't a bad pony. Invoice didn't hate kids. He just wasn't married, wasn't dating anypony who had children, and didn't remember very much about having once been one. And he hated cleaning, needed a reassurance that it would end, or at least drop back to the intermittent level of endless frustration.

So he made the first mistake.

"We've got a blank space on the front page of the circular," he observed. "And a larger one on Page Four. That's for the usual, right? Announce a special category, then list the full contents inside?"

Burma nodded, and it felt as if everypony at the table was watching him.

"Let's have a Back To School sale."

And now some of them were staring.

"...school let out," Burma (who had three children of her own) slowly said, "two days ago."

"Right!" Invoice declared. "So it's the perfect time!"

"I don't think I follow," Export (whose youngest had just started magic kindergarten) carefully stated.

"The parents," Invoice brilliantly deduced, "know their kids are out of school. They've been out long enough for the adults to realize that it's going to be a while before they're back in. Children running around, getting underhoof, disrupting normal plans because those hours aren't being spent at school right now, needing extra time and attention -- and when they can't get it? They come here. Everypony's seen the toy aisle!"

"But that's normal," Jestine (only dating, but it was getting serious) declared. "And it's nowhere near as bad as what the parents do at Hearth's Warming --"

"-- two days," Invoice unwisely interrupted, "is enough to make the parents realize it's going to be more than two moons before things settle down again. Go back to normal. And when the circular arrives, it'll be four days in. Enough that more than a few will be wishing summer break would end right then and there. They'll be ready to buy school supplies, maybe more ready than they are in the usual sale season. We can try a lesser discount on a few items, see who bites down as first adopters..."

"Four days in?" P.R. (divorced, shared custody) questioned.

He was now starting to wonder about the sheer level of questioning, while completely forgetting all the times he'd been on the other end of it. "We put out the first of our Nightmare Night inventory after the Celebration," Invoice reminded everypony. "This is a retail business. Our calendar always runs ahead of the clock."

"But --" and that came from multiple ponies, all around the table, and if he'd thought about it, he would have realized that every one of them was either fairly young or had children themselves. He didn't.

"Mr. Rich," Invoice stated, wondering how that absent leader got anypony to listen, "always wants us to try new things. I'm just trying to focus business on a category a little ahead of schedule. It fills spaces on Page One and Four. It lets us experiment with shopper patterns. It's not going to do any harm."

They all looked at him again. And if he'd truly been thinking about anything other than how much longer the straightening would go on for, he might have remembered something else which Mr. Rich had said regarding temporary managers. Those who were being tested.

"If it doesn't put the store at risk, then let them make their own mistakes. It's one of the ways they'll learn."

But he didn't think of that, because he felt he wasn't making a mistake. Quite the opposite. And he was wrong.

"Back To School Sale," Burma slowly agreed. "...okay..."

He understood why everypony looked worried: it was, after all, something new. But he was certain he had it right.

Invoice planned out the sale, and did so at less than full attention. Part of him was thinking about the Sun-bleaching which could strike any item which was left on display in the front windows for too long.

He wondered if that would happen more quickly in Appleloosa.

The circulars were printed the next day, set on the doorsteps, stoops, and molded vapor of every Ponyville resident on the day after that. For the most part, Invoice missed nearly all of it. He'd been through a final review of the mockup before it went to the in-store printing press (because every so often, a decimal point would try to migrate when nopony was looking), and he hadn't done delivery since his first year: Mr. Rich insisted it was a good way to learn the ins and outs of the settled zone, and it was also a fantastic means of making Invoice's hooves sore.

He was keeping Mr. Rich's hours, and that meant he arrived later on some days than others. The owner occasionally trotted in pre-dawn and left long before closing -- and that was balanced out by the times when he clocked in closer to noon and didn't depart until well after Moon had been raised. It allowed Mr. Rich to spend time with all of the store's shifts, and Invoice was trying it out himself. So far, the most interesting part of the experience had been the chance to sleep in.

He approached the store at around ten in the morning, which turned out to be a rather unfortunate hour for doing so. A little earlier, and he would have been told about the whole thing in his borrowed office, instead of having to confront its beginnings directly.

The first sign of trouble (which came before he got within viewing range) was more of a sound, and it made his ears twist when it reached him, just before they started to tremble. It was a voice dreaded by every retail operation in Ponyville, because there was no telling when somepony was merely shopping to gain supplies for the next disaster, or if the act of purchase would somehow manage to trigger it.

"All right!" Scootaloo called out. "Let's rehearse this!"

There was a long moment of silence, most of which Invoice used for reviewing any possible law which might exist to prevent street theater.

"What do we want?" Scootaloo called out.

A brief pause. It let him pick up on the multiple taps of milling hooves on cobblestones.

"I thought we all knew what we wanted," he heard Twist state. "That's why we're here."

"No! It's a chant! I say 'What do we want?' and then everypony says what that is! And then I say 'When do we want it?' Then you all say 'NOW!'"

A lot of milling hooves, which seemed to be a little smaller than usual.

"So everypony's got that? What do we want, what we want, when do we want it, NOW! Let's try it! What do we want?"

Immediately, "A better angle!"

"Ah'm pretty sure," the second voice belonging to a known member of The Trio Of Death decided, "that ain't it."

"I'm getting a shot of this for the record," Featherweight protested. "To make sure there's a record. I need everypony to move a little to the left."

"Still ain't what she means, Feather."

"I want to be on the ground," Cotton Cloudy said.

A softer voice completed the nightmare. "We need two lines," Sweetie Belle stated. "And one of them has to be in the air, or this doesn't work."

"There's white puffballs everywhere," Cotton sighed. "If I'm in the air, nopony's going to see me. I've been flying for seven moons and all I ever get is adult heads going into my sides."

"Ah'll give you an orange sign," Apple Bloom offered. "With bright green letterin', once Ah finish makin' em. How's that do ya?"

In the tones of a youth who was just starting to figure out that a few members of her class wouldn't mind an excuse for unexpected contact, "It clashes with my fur! That would clash with anything!"

"Yeah, that's kinda the idea..."

"You're getting off track!" Scootaloo shouted. "Come on, everypony! What do we want?"

More silence.

"I could do with an early lunch," Truffle decided. "I'm going into Barnyard Bargains for some food --"

"-- that's what we can't do!"

Which was when Invoice, whose trot had progressively slowed as he became increasingly reluctant to approach what was sure to be Ground Zero (and one which was apparently taking place just outside a store which was currently his responsibility, something he had to confront), finally turned the corner and saw what was happening.

There were approximately two dozen children: the age range went from first-year primary to something fairly close to graduation. For the Crusaders, one was slipping on hoof-hammer shoes and approaching a pile of wood, another was now mouth-painting something on posterboard -- he was too far away to see the words -- and Scootaloo had somehow come into possession of a neck-hung megaphone.


"Ten minutes," Truffle replied. "Ten minutes to get home and get something for later."

"OH, FOR...!"

There were also adults. Some of them had stopped to watch the activity, while others were staring out from the huge glass which marked the front of the store. The majority of that latter category was employees, and they all seemed to be observing rather closely.

Invoice forced himself to approach, and made it through all of six hoofsteps before being spotted.

The orange filly spun, raced towards him. He held what didn't quite feel like his ground.

"YOU'RE IN --" stopped. Spit out the megaphone: the overlong neck cord almost had it dragging on the ground. "You're in charge, right? That's what they said inside. Mr. Rich is away, so the plum-colored unicorn with the grey eyes was in charge."

"...yes," Invoice cautiously tried.

"So you did the sale?"

He squinted past her, tried (and failed) to read what Sweetie Belle was writing. There was still a faint hope for Those Wishing To Buy Notebooks Should Form An Orderly Line. "Yes."

"Good," Scootaloo stated. "Then you're the pony I'm supposed to say this to."

She drew herself up to her full lack of height.

"You're being boycotted."

He stared at her, and couldn't seem to do anything else. There were several reasons for that reaction: disbelief, a complete lack of understanding as to why anything was happening, and oncoming surprise that nothing had exploded yet.

"...coltcotted?" Scootaloo tried. "No, I think it's boycotted. Because they happen all over the world and boys are everywhere, but colts are mostly here. Anyway, it's a boycott. Only with fillies involved. And girls."

She briefly frowned.


He still hadn't found words.

"I think," she decided, "this might be sexist." And, possibly because he was a stallion, glared at him all the harder.

The first syllables put on a tentative appearance, mostly while keeping an eye on all available exits.

"What?" It seemed important to get all the facts.

"We're boycotting you!" Paused, and her lips worked for a moment. "The store! Which you're in charge of!"


"Because of that stupid sale!" Her right forehoof angrily stomped against stone. "You're having a Back To School Sale in the first week of summer! And we want you to call it off!"

"Or...?" It might have helped to be working with sentences of more than one syllable.

"Or," a near-shaking Scootaloo declared, "none of us will shop here!"

He blinked at her.



They were watching him from the windows. They were giving him his chance. To rise, to prove himself. To show he had the potential to manage the next store to enter the chain.

And in this case, they watched him make his next mistake.

Invoice smiled.


Her wings flared out. She reared up on her hind legs, flapped as hard as she could in the attempt to keep herself elevated.


"Oh, no," Invoice mockingly declared. "No kids in the store! No fractions of bits entering the till! Whatever shall we do?" His pitch dropped. "I know -- we'll spend a lot less time on cleaning."

That was the point when her outrage started to become funny. "You don't know what you did! We've got complaints! Grease -- green -- grievances! We're boycotting! Until you hear our demands and fix --"

"Right," Invoice solemnly declared. "Have fun with that."

He trotted past her as if she didn't exist, stepped on one of the incomplete signs along the way, and entered the store. Jestine immediately trotted towards him.

"It's hard to hear through the glass," the recently-promoted pegasus timidly said, "but that... that didn't sound like you were trying to deal with them. Especially since they're still working on the signs. Only faster. Invoice, I tried talking to a few of them when they first arrived --"

He kept moving, trotting towards his borrowed office. She scrambled to follow.

"-- and they were arriving in little clumps. Like they'd all had the same idea and they were just showing up at different times. Then they all started talking to each other, I went outside and talked to them when the signs came out -- Invoice, this is about the sale. They're angry about it, and --"

"-- good."

She took off. Flew just far enough to get in front of him, hovered there.


"They're outside the store," he told her. "You just got out of straightening, Jestine: you know they're better out than in. They don't bring enough business to matter for the bottom line. They'll get bored. And if they don't get bored, I can get them removed from the street. Just give them a few hours to finish being angry." Whatever they were angry about. "And then they'll be gone. They can't do any damage." Thought about just who was involved. "Well, if there's any damage, it'll be done outside."

"But --"

"-- I have to review today's deliveries," the temporary manager said. "That's important. This isn't."

She looked at him for a few seconds.

"You don't want to be bothered with this." Not quite a question.

"It's not worth bothering about."

Jestine's light blue wings moved a little faster, and she went over him. Landed almost immediately, because you really couldn't stalk off in frustration while in the air.

"Mr. Rich," she declared as she trotted away, "would listen."

Invoice doubted it. Mr. Rich listened to one child and, in his opinion -- one which wasn't exactly solitary -- did so far too often.

"Mr. Rich," he said, "isn't here."

She didn't answer. She just headed for Decorations.

The front doors opened as a real, adult customer came in. Sound followed him.

"Okay, one more time! What do we want!"

"Temporal compliance!"

"...no, Twist! We want --"

"-- Ah've got the signs ready!" Apple Bloom declared. "Mouth grips an' all! Come on, everypony: take one! Yeah, that's right: just clamp your jaw down right there... okay, back in line. You trot, y'all flap... yeah, that looks good! Ah think we've got it! Now we've jus' gotta keep it up!"

"We're going to do this right, everypony!" Scootaloo crowed. "Now, repeat after me! What do we want?"

There was a great clatter, as if multiple pieces of posterboard attached to hastily-nailed wood had just hit cobblestones.

"...Ah think," Apple Bloom eventually said, just before the closing doors cut her off, "we wanna remember that we can't chant when we're holdin' signs."

He worked for a few hours, which was long enough to start questioning Mr. Rich's open door policy. The owner hardly ever closed the entrance to the office, reasoning that ponies were in and out all day anyway. With Invoice... heads kept peeking in. Checking on him. Observing. And some of those heads would open their mouths, begin to mention something about the children, and he would keep having to repeat himself: let it go on, it didn't matter, they would get bored and leave soon enough.

Four hours into his shift, he trotted out to the sales floor (because Mr. Rich would have done that), and it let him learn that 'soon enough' wasn't.

Invoice slowly trotted up to the front windows. It was an easy trot. There were somewhat fewer customers in the aisle than usual.

There had been roughly two dozen children. It was now closer to three.

They weren't all active. Some of them were resting in the shade of nearby trees, recovering from their efforts. But there were eight in the air and considerably more on the ground, some with signs, others chanting, and two were free-roaming. They made no effort to block anypony who approached the store: they simply went up to those adults and tried to speak with them. One of the elders ignored Snails, choosing to go past him and into the store.

The second paused, leaned closer to Pipsqueak, listened for a few seconds, and then nearly spun on a single hoof, moving away from Barnyard Bargains faster than she'd ever approached. Stomping her hooves all the way, her tail lashing as if she'd just been enraged by something.

He just herded a customer away from the store.

Invoice blinked. Examined the thought, and found it didn't change.

Well... it did add a plural.

How many customers have they...?

He'd let them have their fun, or whatever was supposed to pass for it. But they weren't becoming bored quickly enough, and while their minuscule purchases didn't seem to really matter, those of adults did. It was time for the backup plan, and he called one of the summer hires over.

"Gallop down to the police station," he calmly said. "Tell them we have a problem."

Given a little more thought, Invoice might have reasonably expected to have Ponyville's police chief personally respond: Barnyard Bargains was just that important. Instead, he just got to have a moment of satisfaction as Miranda Rights, badge prominent against her barrel, came down the street, right up to the protest line. A dark foreleg signaled the children in, and multiple hoofsteps dragged their way up to her, even as wings reluctantly slowed and brought their owners back to ground level.

He watched as the unicorn spoke to them, words too soft to make out through the glass. Noted the head-dipped postures of the Crusaders, who'd all been in her office many times before, and the worry which was spreading through the rest of --

Are there fifty of them out there?

-- the group...

She talked for a while: posture calm, tail still. And then she trotted past them, up to the doors, and went inside.

"Invoice." Her voice was slightly low for a mare, and as calm as her posture had been. "Berg told me that Mr. Rich is out of town right now. So you're in charge?"

"For roughly another two days," he confirmed. "Thank you for dealing with --"

"-- do you," she cut him off, "know what 'peaceful assembly' is?"

He blinked.

"They've peacefully assembled," Miranda continued. "They're talking to ponies, but they're not blocking them. They're in a public street. They haven't hurt anypony, and they're not loud enough to be breaking noise ordinances. They're exercising their rights, Invoice."

The next mistake arrived, and did so right on schedule.

"They're children," Invoice said.

Carefully, "So?"

Wasn't it obvious? "Rights only apply to adults."

The dark-hued mare looked at him for a while. Just -- looked, with the steady gaze which had broken so many in the interrogation room. It wasn't a Stare, and it also wasn't anything a pony wanted to be on the receiving end of for long.

"When I was promoted to chief," she finally said, "a lot of ponies had doubts about whether I could manage the job. Because I'm young for a police chief, Invoice. I'm not the youngest one in history, but I'm the youngest on the continent. And there's still ponies who think somepony else should be in charge, especially for the settled zone which hosts the Bearers. Somepony with more experience. After today, you're going to be one of them. And if -- no, when you drop by the station, I'll have somepony give you the complaint form. Several complaint forms. I think you're going to be filling out a lot of them."

He didn't know why she was saying that. He didn't understand what she meant. He just knew she wasn't doing her job, and so he was going to have a full ream's worth of complaints. "Chief Rights --"

"-- but I am young," she softly continued. "And I saw the circular this morning. I looked at the first page, and then I looked at the fourth, and... Berg told me it was you, who wanted the sale. It was all you." She closely scrutinized his face. "You're what, twelve years older than I am? Fifteen?"

He managed a nod.

"No," she immediately countered. "You're a lot older than that. I think you've been old for a long time. Old enough to forget."

She started to turn away from him. Stopped.

"It's a peaceful assembly," she said, mostly speaking to the windows now. Looking at the children, none of whom had dispersed. Watching as two new ones approached, began to work on their own signs. "They have the right to assemble. And on this one... I think they also have the duty."

Desperate now, and not even understanding why. "You have to --"

"-- go back to the station and see if there's anything real to deal with," she cut him off again. "I hope there isn't. I'd prefer a peaceful day, and that's hard in this settled zone. If the worst thing which happens is this lawful protest, then I'll call it a win. Invoice, if they hurt somepony, if one of them gets hurt -- then you send for me. If they break a window, steal the store's goods, I'll be here. But if you want this to end today, you go out there and talk to them."


The dark tail lashed, just once. "Because?"

"Because they're kids." The anger was starting to rise now. "They're kids and you're an adult, one who won't do her job --"

"-- I had the early shift today," Miranda interrupted him. "I'm off in an hour. You want me to do what I really should? I'll be back then."

"Fine," Invoice stated. "One hour."

"Good," Miranda replied.

"See you then." And with a full squadron for backup, no doubt.

"You will."

He did. The chief had unusual fur, multiple dark shades blended into a single coat, something which could make her almost impossible to spot on a new Moon night. But in daylight, she was easy to make out: those same hues stood out under Sun, turned her into a mobile patch of shadow.

In this case, she was also easy to distinguish because among the sixty trotting and flying protestors, she was the only adult.

It ended around six in the afternoon. Not every child had stayed the whole time: some had left, others had entered, and a few had gone on food gallops. But on the whole, the numbers had gradually increased throughout the day, until Miranda quietly asked them to go home. And as those hours wore on, less and less adults entered the store. It picked up somewhat for the two hours between the children's departure and closing -- but Invoice stayed well beyond that, counting and recounting the day's receipts. Looking at the drop.

He stopped by the police station on his way home. It was necessary: the complaint forms weren't going to fill themselves out. And as soon as he got home, he checked the weather schedule, because he'd just thought of something and he wanted to confirm it.

Rain tomorrow. Heavy at times, especially during mid-morning. Nothing washes out a protest like rain. They won't be able to stay out there with wet fur and feathers, ink running off their signs...

He wasn't a bad pony. But he also hadn't thought about why the children might be out there, why he should talk to them. What Miranda had said. Why she'd been right.

He wasn't a bad pony, and he wasn't a particularly old one. But he hadn't been young for a very long time.

There were at least eighty of them in the street when the weather team swooped in to start the changeover, and that number included four adults. Half of them had signs which he couldn't be bothered to read, and the rest were chanting words which he wasn't listening to. But now the pegasi were approaching, herding in dark clouds, and that he had to see. So he was at the front of the store, watching through the windows as the light diminished and a strictly-inner Sun got ready to shine.

Burma (rather pretty and extremely taken, which was why she already had three children) trotted up on his right.

"I've been thinking," she began, and he listened, for Burma was the most creative among the staff: the head of Advertising had to be. "About how... there aren't that many single ponies on the staff at the higher levels. I think part of that is Mr. Rich. He's a parent, so he prefers having them around. And of course, some of us get married after we start working here. Becoming a parent... it's natural for a lot of ponies. But it doesn't keep him from hiring singles."

He wasn't really listening any more. It wasn't about business and besides, the sky was getting dark fast. It was just barely possible to spot the cyan blur who was doing most of the work, although tracking her required a lot of head movement.

"You're trying, Invoice," she went on. "We all know it. And you've been here for years. Longer than me. I know you, I respect you, I even like you most days. But you closed the office door."

Well, of course he had. Filling out complaint forms required a certain amount of concentration. Blocking out interruptions helped.

"You've got a blind spot," Burma softly told him. "I didn't know that until this week. I'm trying not to think less of you for it. And... Mr. Rich told us to let you make your own mistakes. He's said that to you for other employees who took over for a while. As long as it didn't risk the store. This doesn't. But it's hurting you, Invoice. It's hurting your chances. You have to go out there and talk to those kids, and you have to do it now."

"No," he replied, and let the satisfaction come into his voice. "I don't."

"Yes," she carefully insisted. "You do. We all talked before you came in. You came via the loading dock, Invoice: you know that's a bad sign. We all talked, and we agreed I'd try to get through. You have to go out there --"

"-- I don't," he repeated, and watched the last of the gaps close. "Because I'll get soaked."

The cyan blur had slowed and in doing so, resolved into a pony. The town's weather coordinator had paused, hovering some distance over the twin picket lines.

"Probably going to give them a warning," Invoice decided, starting to feel satisfied again. "That they've got a minute to get home before they start the downpour -- yes, there she goes. Right up to Scootaloo. Well, above her. And now they're talking..."

At first, the weather coordinator seemed to be speaking rather quickly, and that was perfectly natural. The increasing speed of her foreleg gestures were also to be expected. However, the part where she landed shocked everypony in viewing range.

All four hooves planted themselves against stone. The sleek head slowly turned, stared at the store's window. Magenta eyes seemed to be locking onto Invoice, nearly drilled through the glass. And in that moment, Loyalty's expression swore allegiance.

The pegasus took off again, wings beating furiously, heading for the clouds.

He was watching the rain come down.

Invoice took weather manipulation for granted. It was background magic for him, something where he truly didn't understand the mechanisms involved. He'd never really had much interest in studying the topic: practically no unicorns did. But he was capable of recognizing when true expertise was in play. Ponyville's weather coordinator was younger than many who might be found in that post, perhaps the youngest on the continent. It didn't mean she wasn't good.

He imagined it took a great deal of skill to arrange a downpour so quickly. Even more to leave a strip of blue sky and sunlight, just wide and long enough for the protest to continue in the dry.

Of course, there weren't many ponies venturing out in that weather. So at least that meant the numbers had currently stabilized.

Well... stable, plus one furiously-flying weather coordinator, who only occasionally lost her sign when she tried to join in on the unheard chant.

He was starting to consider the design requirements for an Appleloosa store. For starters, it needed to have more entrances for staff, and it was possible that at least one of them needed to be underground. But then, they would be in the desert, and he wasn't sure it was possible to make a stable tunnel through sand. He'd have to ask somepony.

P.R. intercepted him before he reached the office.

"You know Mr. Rich is due back today," the pegasus mare reminded him.

"This afternoon," he acknowledged. A sunny one, not that it mattered.

"Do you know what it's like out there right now?" she continued. "There's two hundred ponies. A tenth of that is adults and when I spoke to Pinkie, she told me she'd only waited this long because she had to be on her half-day before she joined the line. Spike is out there, and he doesn't even go to school. And do you know what he can do?"

"He sets things on fire," Invoice tried. "He... sends off letters to the Princess?"

"He can carry a sign and chant. At the same time. Invoice, you have to resolve this. If Mr. Rich comes back and they're all still out there --"

"-- he'll know I'm right."

"You don't know that!" P.R. half-barked, doing an unintentional (and accurate) Diamond Dog imitation. "You can't!"

"He's one of the greatest businessponies on the continent," Invoice softly said. "He knows it's just kids. He won't put up with it. There's only one child he would let get away with something. I'll tell him what happened. We had a sale and ponies who don't spend enough to count got upset for no reason --"

"-- the sale isn't working! We haven't sold much of anything from that section, and our receipts... Invoice, you've got four hours before he's due back! I don't know what's gotten into you this week, but Burma asked me to give you one last shot! I've got the best chance of getting Appleloosa if you fail, and I'm still trying to talk to you! You need to --"

He trotted away from her.

Actually, it was more of a gallop.

I have to get this right.

He'll see I was right.

They're just kids...

Invoice moved through a nearly-empty store. There was very little to straighten along the way, because there had been very few ponies to mess anything up. Felt employees staring at him. And finally, he reached the front window, where he saw nearly two hundred ponies, about twenty adults, one dragon, and --

-- Diamond.

Technically, he spotted the tiara before he saw the filly. Most of the staff was attuned to the flash of light which came off that piece of jewelry, and some of them had learned how to use a few of the store's little nooks for hiding spots accordingly. Diamond, when on store grounds, was technically better than she reportedly was in the outside world. She understood that she had to pay for anything she took (although she did so at the employee discount), and she couldn't boss anypony around because her father wouldn't be happy about it. And the filly actually had a decent amount of innate business sense: Mr. Rich used her as a purchasing advisor for the toy aisle, and her instincts were generally quite good.

It was just that... there were ponies who felt that when she grew up, she would inherit the franchise. Diamond would be in charge, and if the only thing currently keeping the reins on her personality was the knowledge that her father could override anything she did...

There were employees who kept a very close eye on Mr. Rich's health, and all of them also kept their résumés fully updated.

The filly was slowly trotting towards the store. Too slowly, her movement slowing as she stared at the line. And doing so -- alone.

He's back early.

He's right behind her.

He'll know I'm right.

None of the protesting ponies tried to intercept or speak with her. It was, after all, Diamond.

The front doors opened, and the filly trotted in like she owned the place: something which wasn't so much statement as long-range forecast.

"What's going on?" was the first demand.

"Where's your father?" was Invoice's instinctive counter.

She turned, spotted him.

"Daddy's a few hours behind," she said. "He had to stop in Canterlot, check on the store there before we came home."

"And he -- sent you ahead? By yourself?" She was certainly old enough to travel alone, but --

"It's Silver's birthday," Diamond told him. "I had to be home in time for the party. We planned everything around getting home for the party. But I went to her house early, and --"

She glanced out the window. Filly and adult watched sunlight reflect off shifting glasses.

"Oh," Diamond said. "There she is. Her parents just said she was here. I thought they meant in the store." A tiny hoof stomp: Diamond's usual expression of frustration with adults. "Why is she out there with everypony else? Why is there a picket line? What's going on?"

She was a child, and technically didn't need to know anything. She was also Mr. Rich's daughter, and to not tell her suddenly felt like a very big mistake.

"We ran a sale," Invoice tried.

"A sale," the filly repeated. "They're protesting over a sale?"

He explained everything.

To his amazement, she listened. That was unusual for Diamond, to see her ears taking everything in with no visible thought as to how the words could be distorted for her own benefit. She truly listened and at the end of it, the striped mane subtly vibrated as she slowly shook her head.

"I don't believe this," she softly stated. "They're all so stupid. Even Silver is being dumb."

And he'd won.

If there was anything those around Mr. Rich knew (and often regretted), it was that to get the daughter meant acquiring the parent. He would follow her...

"I'm glad you feel that way," Invoice smiled, feeling better than he had in days.

She stared at him.

Diamond had a very interesting sort of stare. It was the expression of a pony who'd just seen a tick crawling across her foreleg, one which didn't know it had just been spotted. It was the face a stomping hoof would have worn just before impact.

"Stay here," she told him, and he almost obeyed. His legs did freeze for a moment, and he wondered about why that had happened. But after a few seconds, he followed her. Not too far: she left the store, stalking towards the twin lines, and he stopped in the open doorway, all the better to see what happened next.

"Listen up, dummies!" Diamond shouted.

It felt like a promising start.

Two hundred ponies (and one dragon) abruptly stopped moving. It was possible to watch as Crusader morale collapsed in on itself, and even a few of the adults were starting to wince in anticipation. Diamond had something of a reputation.

"How stupid are you?" the filly challenged. "Marching and flying in lines in front of my daddy's store!"

It was actually something to see, the way even Pinkie's tail was beginning to tuck itself against her body --

"-- because you should be moving in curves! Right now, ponies can go around you!" She reared up on her hind legs for a moment, waved forelegs left and right. "Spread out! Go into an arc! It'll let you intercept more of the traffic! And you, that sign is spelled wrong! How do you expect ponies to take you seriously? Spit that out right now! And Silver, fix that sign. Now, somepony let me hear what you're chanting again -- oh, come on, that doesn't even have any real rhythm to it! We need to balance out the syllable count! Who came up with -- oh, you." And now she was glaring at Scootaloo. "Why didn't you let her do it?" A glance at a blushing Sweetie. "At least she could manage something more like a lyric! Okay, somepony come over here and we'll work out a real chant! -- okay, that looks good, keep curving, we want to get ponies coming in off that side street. And it'll stop ponies from trying to sneak in through the loading dock. Now, has somepony been recruiting or are you just counting on ponies showing up? Has anypony thought about getting a banner flyover to bring in some extra help?"

Invoice stood there until the doors closed on him, watching as the protest got organized. And it occurred to him that if Mr. Rich were to pass the franchise on to his daughter, it would actually be pressed between rather skilled hooves.

Also that he had to quit before that happened.

If I don't get fired.

No. It was a good idea.

I'm right...

Three hundred ponies, with most of the reinforcements summoned via flyover. And that didn't count the ones who were just watching from the sidelines, for ponies loved street theater.

"Congratulations," Burma quietly said from behind him. "You don't see that every day."

He didn't answer. He just kept staring through the window. Waiting for his ultimate reinforcements. His ally, who had to be but minutes away.

"Diamond and Apple Bloom," she continued. "Doing something side by side. If Cheerilee wasn't out of town, I would have galloped to her house and brought her here, just so she could see it. But I had Featherweight take a picture. Just for the record."

He'll fix this. He'll solve everything. I'm all right...

"Invoice..." The mare's voice was oddly gentle. "Have you listened to them? What they've been chanting, the first version or the new one? At all?"

I'm okay...

"Or do you ignore them because they're just kids? Miranda told me what you said, and..." A soft sigh. "She said... your mother must have had an interesting labor. Trying to give birth to an adult --"


"-- oh."

And there he was.

It was funny, how ordinary he looked. A middle-aged brown earth pony: nowhere close to being unique. If you didn't know who he was, he would simply blend into a crowd. He didn't move like somepony with power, like a stallion who owned the place. He had been trotting quietly, and that approach had just barely been visible through the arcing line. An approach which was being made without confusion, with the police chief trotting at his side.

"I guess she intercepted him," Burma quietly stated. "Made sure it wouldn't be a surprise --"

-- but Invoice was already moving for the doors, because he'd seen the next thing.

Miranda had told Mr. Rich about the protest. But she hadn't known about Diamond, and the father had just spotted his daughter.

The stallion slowly approached his child, who stopped her march and quietly waited for him. Everypony stopped: the entire protest, air and ground. Everypony except for Invoice, who cleared the doors and listened under Sun.

"Daddy..." The filly's voice was awkward. "I don't know what she told you..." That with a quick look at Miranda.

"Enough," the calm-seeming stallion said. "Now what are you going to tell me, Diamond?"

She looked away from him. Up and down the curve of the protesters before going back to her father.

"We're kids," she quietly said.

He waited, with ears rotated forward.

"And... when you're a kid... everypony tells you what to do," she softly continued. (So soft, and yet her words reached everypony around her.) "All the time. When you can play. Where you're allowed to go. Things you're not supposed to know about yet, but not why you can't know. When to go to school, and bed, and... everything, they tell you everything for moons and moons and years until you grow up and then maybe if you're lucky, you get to tell somepony else. But we're kids..." A brief look at where Pinkie stood. "...and bigger kids. Who always have to listen, to do what everypony else wants, and... all we have is summer. A couple of moons where maybe we can do what we want, at least a little. We just wait for summer, all the time, and... it was four days into summer and the circular came which said summer was going to end. Nopony wants to think about that, not in the first week. We know we have to go back, but..."

Her head dipped.

"...it's not fair. All we have is summer. All they want, all anypony here wants, is summer. The kids, and the adults who remember being kids. We know we have to go back, and... not after four days, not after only four days..."

He was looking at her. Simply regarding his offspring.


The stallion sighed.

"Apple Bloom?" The other filly looked at him. "Would you please move over? Let me through?"

She did so, and Mr. Rich stepped forward. Oriented his body, pitched head and neck back. Took a breath.

"What do we want?" the stallion called out under Sun.

There was a moment of perfect silence.

"SUMMER!" Scootaloo shouted.

"And when do we want it?"

Three hundred ponies, one dragon, and a number of spectators found their youth, along with a point of complete agreement.


All four of Invoice's knees collapsed.

Mr. Rich was on the other side of the desk. The wrong side.

"These," Invoice's superior said, "are our demands."

The temporary manager, who'd just recently been revived, responded by dripping sweat onto the office floor.

"There are to be no back-to-school sales advertised until two weeks before school begins," Mr. Rich stated. "There will also be an apology in the next circular."

Invoice managed a nod.

"Also, twenty-five percent off all candy for the next week."

"...they demanded that?"

"No," Mr. Rich said. "I suggested that. And now I'm demanding it."

"...you're in charge," was the next bit of weakness to reach the air. "You could give them anything --"

"-- I represent the offended parties," Mr. Rich said. "I'm not officially back until this matter is resolved. As the manager, do you agree to our terms?"


"Good. Step out from behind my desk, please."

They switched places, Invoice dripping all the way. Looked at each other from the proper sides of the desk.

"I'm..." Invoice swallowed hard, felt sweat and nearly two decades of employment evaporate from his fur. "...I'm fired, aren't I?"

Mr. Rich shook his head.

It wasn't much of a comfort. Being fired would have at least meant escape.

"...but I'm not getting Appleloosa."

"If we expand there," Mr. Rich quietly said, "then no. Not as you are right now. You're not ready, Invoice. A manager has to respect all of their customers. Even the youngest. They don't spend much, I know. They make a mess sometimes. They hang out in the store. Because they're kids. And children grow into adults who remember that they were allowed to have fun here. Who keep spending in a place they connect with joy, who eventually bring children of their own. We look to the long term, if we want to have one. And that means letting kids be kids. Letting them have summer. You understand business fairly well. But you need to know more about children."

The unicorn slowly sank down, hindquarters first. Lowered his body until both barrel and belly were pressed against the floor.

"How am I supposed to do that?"

Mr. Rich began to move, with the sound of hoofsteps indicating the direction: the leftflank wall, where the private safe was. Dials turned.

More hoofsteps, and then a small bag of bits fell in front of Invoice's snout.

"Trot to the bookstore," the owner said. "I have a job for you. Oh, and take the largest cart we have. You're going to need it."

"That's a penalty!" the latest coach of Ponyville's youth hoofball team (proudly sponsored by Barnyard Bargains) screamed, aiming decibels at the nearest referee. "How could you miss that! It says right here --" his corona went double just long enough to turn several hundred oversized, small-printed pages "-- in Addendum 4:2983:7 that the spell he just cast was outlawed from the playbook in 1122! What's wrong with you!" A strategic pause. "Other than being half-blind and the son of a concussed manticore!"

"Go get 'em, Coach!" Scootaloo cheered as the furious referee began to stalk towards their sideline. "You can do it! You've almost got the record!"

Invoice, who had been getting ready for his next volley, paused. "What record?"

"Most Times Kicked Out Of Game, Season! Two more! What do we want? Coach kicked out! When do we want it?"

Invoice grinned, then went for it. After all, a record was a record and besides, Appleloosa might have a team of its own.

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