Freeze Frame

by ToixStory

Chapter 1: Episode 1: Arrival

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I had to push my way past two young ponies to get a better look from the train’s window as we came into Fillydelphia. The flat grassland had given away to hills and valleys earlier, and it was into one of those gaps that the train descended into; the hills rose into mountains and the valley floor came to meet us. Fillydelphia was close.

I was practically shaking in my horseshoes in excitement over my first look at the city. It had only been a week ago that I had received a letter telling me that my job application to the Fillydelphia Chronicler had been accepted; I was going to be a reporter! I mean, the Chronicler wasn’t anything like the Manehattan Times or the Stalliongrad Gazette (and Celestia knows the actual city of Fillydelphia pales in comparison to Canterlot and Manehattan), but it was definitely better than working in my hometown’s small newspaper or, I shuddered, working on my parents’s farm.

Country ponies gathered at the numerous glass windows on either side of me, snapping me from my reverie. Uninterested, the city ponies continued to relax in their seats. The car was crowded with ponies who had been forced out of the Pullmare cars by some bigwig who rented them to herself. I felt myself being pressed against the nearest window by the gathering crowd as the train snaked around the last hill. There!

The hills turned to wind-swept plains as we neared the city. “It’s so big!” I heard a young pony to my left say, accompanied by murmurs of agreement from the country pony crowd around me. Like most of them, I had never seen a big city either, and Fillydelphia held over a million ponies!

As the train passed into the city, I managed to squeeze my way through the crowd and back to my unoccupied seat. I slung my bag over my neck and let it hang down in front of me, where it almost touched my hooves. My parents had made me pack way too much; it felt like I was carrying bricks around my neck! It didn’t help that the “city dress” my parents made me wear kept from wearing a proper saddlebag.

The train switched tracks and sped between rowhouses and over streets, allowing fleeting glimpses of glass-and-steel towers rising above the streets. Somepony was shouting about arriving at the station over the now-vocal crowd’s noise, so I slinked over to the car’s exit door, intending to be the first one out. I sighed when I saw that I wasn’t the only pony to have that idea.

* * *

The train hissed to a stop in the crowded station, and the conductor shouted, “Everypony out!” I fought my way onto the platform and looked around to find my bearings. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make head or tail of the numerous signs lining the platforms. All around me, ponies walked to and fro like they had somewhere to be, leaving me stuck in the middle.

“Oh, what the hay,” I muttered under my breath, turning and following the nearest ponies out of the train station.

I emerged out of the station under a sign saying, “Equestria Railroad Suburban Station,” blinking in confusion at the crowded streets. The letter confirming my employment had contained an address for the Chronicler, but I suddenly realized I had no way to get there. My hoof met my face in frustration when I remembered that the map Mother had given me was at the bottom of the bag around my neck.

“Need a ride miss?” a scruffy-looking stallion with a wheel cutie mark asked, seeing my look of confusion. There was a small, yellow-painted carriage parked next to him, the reigns resting around his shoulders.

“Can you take me to...the corner of Chestnut Street and South 40th Street?” I asked. I knew the address by heart but tried to act nonchalant about it. He gave me a funny look, but nodded his head anyways.

“Standard fare is a bit per mile; hop in.” A whole bit? I didn’t have much money with me, so I hoped the Chronicler building wouldn’t be far.

Stomping his hoof in frustration, he said, “Get in or let me find other customers miss, I don’t have all day.”

“Oh, right,” I said sheepishly, climbing into the carriage. The inside wasn’t very big. It contained a floor and two wooden benches; one of which was facing across from me. He started moving before I could set my bag beside me on the bench I was sitting on, causing me to crash into the seat in front of me from the weight around my neck.

“Careful!” he shouted, trotting along the roadway. I rolled my eyes and dropped the carpet bag to the floor of the carriage, before sticking my head out of the front window of the carriage for a good look of my ride.

Other carriages streamed past us on each side in seemingly random directions; a few of the carriages didn’t even have a driver, something I hadn’t seen before. The horseless-carriages all had smokestacks in the front like the train, and smoke billowed out. The cobblestone streets gave way to a bridge over a river, and on the other side was a part of town with less towers and more factories.

“What part of town is that?” I called to him, hoping he could hear me over the noise on the road.

He seemed to have heard me because he answered, “This here river we’re passing over is the Scullyhoof River, and over it is West Fillydelphia.” He held onto the last couple of words like releasing them would physically hurt him.

“Is something wrong with West Fillydelphia?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing that a pony like yourself can’t handle,” he answered, nickering. I restrained from returning his remark.

Instead, I reached up under my dress and massaged my sore wings. They sat folded and unused under my clothes most of the time, but even they weren’t used to the tight confines of a fancy dress. It would have been nice to have a Pegasus dress, but being born into a family of poor earth ponies left my options a little bit limited. Even now, the dress I was wearing was a hoof-me-down cute-ceañera dress.

The ride grew less smooth as we moved into West Fillydelphia. The streets here looked like they hadn’t been serviced since the return of Night Mare Moon. The bouncy road reminded me of going to the market back home, and gave me a little comfort in its familiarity.

* * *

The driver pony stopped the carriage in front of a group of shabby building and checked a strange-looking device on his front hoof. “We’re here; fare’s two bits, miss.”

I barely heard, still staring at the buildings in front of me; they were old and run-down, sagging wood and cracked bricks were numerous.

“This must be the wrong street, I need to go to the headquarters of the Fillydelphia Chronicler,” I said, practically pleading. He turned his head around, curious if I was joking. Seeing that I wasn’t, he pointed to the most run-down building of the group.

“Miss, that is the headquarters of the Chronicler.” Still shaking my head in disbelief, I stepped down out of the carriage and hoofed him the coins, leaving me with almost no spending money.

Tipping his head, he told me, “Much obliged miss,” and trotted away, carriage rattling empty behind him.

I looked up at the ratty building the carriage pony had pointed out and, sure enough, a faded sign said, “Fillydelphia Chronicler: We Don’t Just Report Stories, We Make Them!

Not much like what I had pictured the headquarters of a big city newspaper would look like. Still, my reporting would soon turn this paper’s reputation around anyway, they would see. I walked in the front door of the building, still trying to figure out who “they” were. A buzzing sound came from above my head and a bored-looking earth pony at a secretary’s desk gave a furtive glance in my direction.

The inside of the building wasn’t much better than the outside; the waiting room was little more than the desk and a few old chairs shoved in a corner. I walked up to the secretary’s desk and carefully tapped a hoof on the top of the desk. The pony sitting there reluctantly glanced up from her quarter-bit novel, but didn’t offer any words.

“I’m, uh, I’m here to see Ornate Vision,” I managed to get out, the nervousness in my brain finally spilling onto my tongue.

The pony across from me lazily flipped through some sheets of paper on a clipboard before asking, “Are you...Minty Flower?” I nodded my head enthusiastically, my once-straightened hair beginning to flop around. “It says here you have a meeting with Mr. Vision, but not for another hour,” the secretary pony said.

I couldn’t help but be shocked. “An hour?”

She rolled her eyes and picked up the book again, ignoring my question. I didn’t move, just hanging my head in silence; resigning myself to quietly waiting for another sixty minutes. For a few minutes, the secretary filly said nothing, only occasionally stealing glances over the top of her quarter-bit novel. I stood stock still, afraid to move an inch. A couple minutes later, she lay her book down with a huff and motioned to the door behind her.

“Well, Mr. Vision has always appreciated enthusiasm anyways: go ahead and go in early.” I swore I could feel the edges of my smile touch my ears as I thanked her. I was so close!

Stopping right before entering the newsroom, I barely remembered to re-straighten my orange hair (or Gamboge, as my art teacher always reminded me) and azure coat. Inwardly I groaned: I was not having a good coat-day. I could feel the secretary’s eyes burning holes in the back of my head while I fought to adjust my dress to cover as much of my coat as possible. The fifth time the dress fell back to covering only my back and flank, I gave up and pushed open the heavy, wooden double doors of the Chronicler newsroom.

As disappointing as the outside facade had been, the newsroom was everything I expected it to be. The air hummed with the electricity of frantic ponies working amid flying papers and galloping hooves. My mouth was constantly running with apologies as I shoved my way through a crowd gathered around a clapboard with news stories hanging off of it. Standing defiantly in the middle of the chaos was a large, green-orange stallion with a pair of crossed pencils for a cutie mark. He was talking rapidly with a violet unicorn, his back turned to me.

I cleared my throat rather loudly--maybe a bit too loudly--in an attempt to get him to turn around. Much to my surprise, he did.

“And just who the hay are you?” Ornate Vision asked in a deep voice, draining all the confidence I had managed to gather up so far.

“I’m, uh, your new employee...um, sir,” I stammered, wincing as I heard my voice crack.

“Right, you’re that new pony, Moldy Dandelion or something,” he said, an eyebrow raised.

My voice still squeaking I tried my best to sound assertive, “Minty Flower actuall-”

“Did you bring your camera like you were asked in the letter?” he interrupted. I felt better almost instantly: I had actually remembered to bring it for once.

“Yes, sir, it’s right here and I would just like to say-” He already had his back turned and was talking to the violet mare from before.

“Alright Grapevine, I got you a new photographer. Now for the love of Luna get out there and get me a new story!”

A new what?!

I tried to tell him how there must be some mistake and how I was supposed to be a reporter, but Mr. Vision was already on the other side of the room, talking with a couple of confused ponies at a hoof-cranked copy machine. That left the purple mare, Grapevine, standing in front of me.

An intense bout of staring followed as she appeared to size me up. Not one to be left out, I looked her over, too. Her violet coat and a roughly-cut mane colored an even darker purple were offset by a trio of white question marks on her flank.

“So what kind of a name is Minty Flower, anyway?” she asked. I felt myself blush with the same embarrassment I’d had the first day of school.

“Well, my parents are from Germaneigh, but wanted my name to be an authentic Equestrian name, but they didn’t know a lot of the Equestrian language, so...” She nodded slowly, accepting my explanation.

“That would explain the accent.” I couldn’t help but roll my eyes inwardly; saying that as if she didn’t speak with an accent too. At least my voice didn’t sound like a Canterlot accent ground up with a Ponyville inflection. I was still frozen in place when she turned and began to trot toward the waiting room, back from where I’d come.

“Come on,” Grapevine said, “We don’t have all day.” Wearily I followed her, still clinging to the hope that my assignment as a photographer was a mistake.

* * *

Grapevine didn’t get any friendlier out on the streets, giving me one word commands to follow or answers to my questions.

“So why is one side of the city so much shinier than the rest?” I asked, still trying to coax her to talk to me.

“Parasprites,” she answered coldly.

See what I mean?

I sighed and resigned myself to silence for the duration of our trip, assuming Grapevine knew where she was going. The air in the factory districts stuck in my throat and stained my dress gray. I very nearly ran into Grapevine’s rear when she stopped in front of yet another dingy building, this one a pub.

“We’re here,” Grapevine said evenly, walking inside. I followed, and was trying to make my way to the bar when a violet hoof appeared in front of me.

“Not on assignment,” Grapevine hissed, “And get out that camera of yours, we need to look like we belong here.” There were other reporters in the pub, mostly just sipping drinks around the center tables. They all watched as Grapevine walked past, their expressions ranging from confusion to laughter.

“She decided to show up after all, and with a greenhorn no less!” a light red mare called, laughing. Some of the gathered reporters and photographers joined in. I tried to keep my head low on the long walk to Grapevine’s table, but smiled when I saw some eyes widen at the sight of my camera. Fillydelphia being an earth pony town, most of the reporters haven’t seen a magical, compact camera before-so different from the bulky and inefficient models I had during my days as Derbyshire Schoolhouse’s number one (and only) reporter. I sat down at the far corner booth across from Grapevine, who still refused to talk.

A light gray mare cantered up to our table. “You’re Grapevine, right?” she asked. I wished I could tell her not to bother with being nice to Grapevine.

Much to my surprise, Grapevine almost giddily spoke, “That’s me, and you must be Gray Girder?”

“Call me Girdy, please,” she said. “Girdy” sat down and looked expectantly at the bar in the center of the room.

Grapevine nudged me. “Minty, be a dear and get a drink for our guest.”

I sighed and got up out of the booth.

“I’d just like a sarsaparilla,” Girdy said.

“Make that two,” Grapevine told me as she placed some bits in my hoof. While the bartender was getting the drinks, the pony who had shouted earlier sidled up next to me.

“You the new camera pony for Old Stallion Ornate?” she asked.

I nodded. Keep it cool, Minty.

“You do know what happened to Grapevine’s last photographer, right?” the mare asked. I shook my head in what I hoped was a noncommittal way, but I couldn’t help but be interested. “Well,” the red earth pony said, “Grapevine was chasing down somepony out in Cloudsdale when she and her camera pony got a little too close to the edge.”

She used her hoof to indicated somepony falling from a great height. “Woooooo, splat!” She laughed. “The paper hasn’t been able to hire anypony since, and Grapevine can barely get a story.” Despite the cold welcome from Grapevine, I felt I had to defend her.

“Maybe she just finds stories where you can’t,” I said.

The mare reared herself to her full height, which was half a head taller than me. “Those are big words for a greenhorn. Rookies with big mouths tend to have accidents.”

I stood on my tiphooves and stuck my nose in her face. “Just what are you implying?”

Before the confrontation could escalate, the bartender coughed and tossed his head toward the shotgun leaning against the side of the bar. The red mare slowly backed down and walked back to her table.

“We’re not done,” she hissed. I rolled my eyes and retrieved the drinks after paying the barkeep. Grapevine and Girdy were deep in conversation when I came back to the table.

“What took you so long?” Grapevine asked. I declined to comment and instead set her drink in front of her. Frankly, I didn’t listen to the rest of the conversation, my mind still caught up with that mare. What little I heard from the two of them made little sense anyways, all about “Unions,” and “Scabs,” and “Bosses.”

After polishing my lens for the fiftieth time--not easy without magic--Girdy got up and bumped hooves with Grapevine.

“You’ll be there?” she asked. Grapevine smiled and nodded.

“You can count on it.” With that, the gray pony left, leaving me alone with Grapevine. She didn’t wait around long.

“Come on, time to get some real food,” she said. Famished after foregoing the expensive meals on the train, I happily agreed. Finally, a chance to visit a real Fillydelphia restaurant!

* * *


Grapevine had halted--once again, abruptly--in front of the concrete steps leading up to a library. The building was much nicer than the rest of the district’s architecture, being done up in ancient Pegasopolis architecture and everything.

This is where we’re eating?” I asked.

“Yep,” Grapevine replied, trotting up the steps. I sighed and followed her up the steep steps. I was so hungry, I was seriously considering finally finding out what paper tastes like.

Inside, the library was quiet; only a few ponies milled about the massive shelves. My neck popped as my head tilted all the way back to look at the ceiling. The worn carpet felt good under my hooves, a welcome change from concrete and wood. Behind an oaken desk sat a stark white mare, concentrating intently on the book in front of her. She yelped as Grapevine smashed a hoof on the bell on the desk.

“G-Grapevine, I didn’t see you there,” she said in a soft voice, peeking out behind her golden mane.

“Sorry about that Marshmallow, I figured I’d drop by with the new kid for some food- if you didn’t mind, that is.” Marshmallow noticed me for the first time and smiled timidly at me.

“Hi, I’m Marshmallow. What’s your name?” All I could think was: This is the kind of friend Grapevine makes?

“Oh, uh, I’m Minty Flower,” I stuttered out, trying to put a friendly smile on my face. With the look she gave me, I probably landed somewhere between stalker and clown.

“She does that a lot,” Grapevine commented, ignoring my glare. “So, food?” she asked, turning back to Marshmallow.

“Ah, yes, right. I made some just a little while ago,” Marshmallow said, getting up from the cushion she had been lying on. “I could heat it up, if you would like.”

“That would be great,” Grapevine replied, taking her by the hoof through some doors behind the library desk. “Marsh, you would not believe the day I’ve had...”

Figuring I was being left out, again, I looked around at the gargantuan wooden shelves. I’d never seen so many books in my life, and I was almost excited. My excitement quickly died when I started looking at some of the titles. An Unabridged History of Equestria? Practical Studies in Earth Pony Magic? Booooooring!

I was trying to see if the library had any good adventure books when I heard Marshmallow’s voice calling me.

“What are you doing out there? You can come inside- if you want.” Surprised, I wordlessly walked back to the door behind the front desk and followed Marshmallow to the interior of the building. The inside looked like a kitchen and an office smooshed together; pots and pans were strewn around with papers and cards from the card catalogue.

“Sorry for the mess. Feel free to look around, though,” she said, grinning nervously. I returned the smile and walked over toward the kitchen side of the room. There was an iron oven-slash-stove thingy pressed against one wall, and makeshift counters around it. A sink held a large pot of still-boiling food. What amazed me the most was what sat in the corner, however.

“What is that?” I asked. It looked like an icebox with a parasitic machine attached to its back. Sure, I had seen magical refrigerators before, but nothing like this.

“Uh, something a friend made for me,” Marshmallow replied, opening the door. Cool air blew out from the inside, despite having no visible magic source.

“That’s amazing!” I gasped, awestruck. Marshmallow looked like she was going to say more when Grapevine walked back into the kitchen from a stairwell near the back of the room.

“I got those parsnips you wanted from the upstairs freezer,” she said. Her eyes passed quickly over me as she handed the odd vegetables to Marshmallow. Grapevine sniffed the air. “Mmm, smells good! Is it nearly done?”

“It should be ready by now,” Marshmallow replied, meekly accepting the compliment. Grapevine happily filled her plate with...whatever was in the pot and beckoned to Marshmallow.

“Want to join me on the second floor? I need to get some reading done while I eat.”

“I was, uh, actually thinking about introducing your new friend to the library,” Marshmallow replied, wincing. “Would you like to join us, Grapevine?” To her credit, Grapevine hid her shock fairly well.

“Nah, I’ll let you get her up to speed; like I said, I have some reading to do.” With that, she was off.

“You don’t have to-” I began, but Marshmallow stopped me.

“I’m sorry about Grapevine, she not usually like this, honest.” I nodded my head, though I didn’t really believe her; I’d never met a more grumpy pony in my life. “Poor Spotlight was a good friend of her’s, and well...since the accident...things haven’t been the same,” Marshmallow explained. “And now that Ornate hired you...”

“Oh,” I muttered, not quite understanding, but accepting the explanation anyways. “So that’s why she’s like...?”

“Yeah,” Marshmallow confirmed. Silence.

“Could I try some of that...food?” I asked, trying to break through the newly-gathered tension. Marshmallow’s face brightened as she walked over to the pot. Her horn glowed gold and two plates floated up next to her, which she magically filled with food before floating it over to me.

“It’s called Eggplant Parmesan,” she said.

“I think I’ve heard of that before,” I lied. I looked at the glob in front of me. Gingerly, I lowered my head to the plate’s level and took a bite. My taste buds exploded with pleasure, and I began to inhale the rest of the food.

“‘s good,” I said, my mouth full. Marshmallow let out a sigh of relief and dug into her serving. I was tempted to go for seconds once I’d finished, but decided against it. “You’re a chef and a librarian?” I asked once Marshmallow had cleaned her plate. She blushed.

“I wouldn’t say chef, but I do love to cook.” She pointed a hoof to the skillet and crown cutie mark on her flank. “It’s just, after I left the castle, it was hard to find a cooking job here in Fillydelphia.” Her eyes glanced through the doorway to the ponies milling around in the library. “Or, at least, where I could cook for real ponies.” I was nodding when I almost felt a light go off in my head.

“Wait a minute, back up,” I said. “When you say castle, do you mean Canterlot Castle?” Her eyes went as wide as saucers.

“Well, um, yes I did say that.” She started to get up and gather the dirty dishes, obviously hoping I wouldn’t say anymore.

“Sooo?” I asked, holding my hoof out in front of me. Just because I wasn’t officially a reporter didn’t mean that part of me was dead.

“I’m, uh...well, it’s nothing big really,” she stammered.

“No really, you can tell me,” I said, saddling up closer to her.

“I-I’m just, uh,” she looked at me and gulped. “M-My full name is Marshmallow Bauble...Blueblood.” She gasped for air.

“Blueblood as in the Royal Family Blueblood?” I asked, incredulous. Even in Derbyshire, everypony knew about the royal families, and the Bluebloods were closest in relation to the Princesses. And to think, I’m actually meeting one, right here in Fillydelphia!

“Please don’t get mad,” Marshmallow squeaked, close to tears after I hadn’t said anything for a good thirty seconds.

“No, no, I’m not mad, not in the slightest!” I said quickly, putting a hoof on her shoulder. “It’s just not everyday I meet royalty, you know.” Marshmallow grinned a little, her tears stopping.

“So what’s a Blueblood doing here in West Fillydelphia?” I continued, trying to act nonchalant, like I met royalty everyday.

“I hated it there,” Marshmallow said quickly. “I mean, I liked the castle, but the uptight ponies and the rules and etiquette and grammar and not even caring or helping anypony...”

I laughed. “Doesn't sound like my kind of place either.”

“Oh, so where are you from, then?” she said, quick to change the subject away from her.

“Derbyshire,” I replied, a small swell in my chest. Funnily enough, it had only been a few days ago that I had told mother I couldn’t wait to be out of that “dinky, rundown town.” Marshmallow’s eyebrows shot up.

“So far away! What are you doing this far south?”

“Well,” I said sheepishly, “I was under the impression that I was coming to accept a job as a reporter for the Fillydelphia Chronicler, but, you see...” My gaze traveled to the camera still around my neck. Marshmallow giggled a little.

“That does sound like Ornate.”

“Yeah, a nice stallion, there,” I muttered.

“He doesn’t like doing that kind of stuff,” Marshmallow said. “He’s just a stallion in a mare’s position; he has to cut corners sometimes.” I glanced at her inquisitively.

“You sound as if you know him,” I said.

“Let’s just say he’s a little bit of an avid reader. And drinker. And talker.” She giggled. “At the same time.”

“Oh.” Awkward.

“Maybe we should go check on Grapevine?” Marshmallow suggested eagerly.

“Might as well.” We hurried out of the room and into the library, passing under a sign that proudly announced, “Exposition!”

We found her with her nose buried in an architectural book, her food untouched. My stomach grumbled at seeing more of Marshmallow’s cooking. Grapevine apparently read my mind and wordlessly slid the plate over to me, not even looking up from the book.

“Grapevine?” Marshmallow asked. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure, whatever,” Grapevine replied, waving her hoof in the general direction of Marshmallow.

“Do you need any help?” I asked. I figured that if I could provide some assistance to Grapevine’s work, she might warm up to me a little bit. Grapevine’s answer was to roll her eyes and grunt. So much for that plan.

I sat down on a cushion across from Grapevine, laying my head in my hooves. When I looked up, Marshmallow seemed to be rapidly looking back and forth between Grapevine and me.

Once she saw me looking, she asked, “So Minty, do you have somewhere to stay tonight?”

“Well, no, actually,” I replied bashfully. I knew I had forgotten something.

“Well,” she said, having gotten the answer she wanted, “Why don’t you have Grapevine take you over to Joya’s place? She’s always looking for renters, and I believe she has a room open.”

“Say what?” Grapevine asked, looking up from her work at the now-grinning Marshmallow. “I have too much work to do; I don’t have time to find a place for anypony, let alone...her,” Grapevine said, continuing. Her words only seemed to increase Marshmallow’s resolve, who slammed shut the architectural book with a spark from her horn.

“You have plenty of time to study later, Grapevine,” she said, floating the book away from the stretched hooves of a shocked, violet reporter. “Honestly, you could show a little hospitality.”

“You can’t be serious,” Grapevine said, incredulous.

“I can and I will be, Grapevine,” Marshmallow countered. “Now get going, the factory shifts end soon and there will be a lot of hungry ponies to feed.” I could almost hear the sound of teeth scraping together as Grapevine got up from her cushion and started walking down the stairs to the main floor, not even looking at me.

“Thanks,” I told Marshmallow. “For everything.”

“Don’t mention it,” she said, her smile genuine. “Oh, and see if Joya can fix up that pretty dress of yours, she’s a tailor, you know.” I thanked her again and had to gallop down the stairs to catch up to Grapevine. “Come back anytime!” I heard her shout, but by then I was already out the door and back onto the streets of Fillydelphia.

* * *

Joya’s place was even farther into the factory district; as a side-effect, the gunk in the air covered the buildings too. The building before us had a tailor shop on the bottom and normal rooms on the top. A sign over the building proudly proclaimed the store to be “JOYA’S.” A little bell jingled overhead as Grapevine and I walked in, eliciting a call of, “Just a minute!”

Her voice sounded funny; it was a different accent than most the one most ponies had in Fillydelphia. Grapevine ambled off to the back room where, presumably, Joya was working, leaving me behind. I took the time to look around the shop.

The tailor’s was nothing like the clothing store in Derbyshire; all the clothes on display were utilitarian in nature. Subdued colors and rough material were the most common, though here and there more ornate dresses and suits stood out. At least with all the drab colors my grime-covered dress fit right in, now looking more gray than white. Still, I couldn’t deny the simple style in the utilitarian; whoever Joya was, she was good.

“This is her,” I heard Grapevine say. I turned around to say hello, but the words were lost somewhere in my throat as my eyes set on Joya. Standing in front of me was a tall, brown...donkey.

“Um, uh,” I stammered, brains going to mush. To my relief, Joya didn’t take my reaction as an insult; in fact, she hardly seemed to notice. Faster than it seemed possible, she was in front of me, shaking my hoof.

“It’s so nice to meet you Minty! Grapevine’s told me sooooo much about you!”

“Really?” I asked, smiling weakly. Joya laughed.

“Well, not really, but I feel like she did!” Her smile didn’t seem to fit her head properly, being almost too big for the face it resided upon.

She’s friends with Grapevine?!

“Ooh, what a pretty dress you’ve got,” Joya enthused, running a hoof along the edge. Some of the gunk had come off the dress onto her hoof, and she looked at it curiously before wiping it on the pink-polka-dotted vest she was wearing. Speaking between measuring tape she had grabbed from a side pocket with her mouth, she asked, “Why are you wearing your dress anyways? Is it your birthday?”

She looked mournfully at Grapevine. “Don’t tell me you didn’t bring me some birthday cake!”

“No, no, it’s not my birthday,” I said quickly, putting a hoof on her shoulder.

“It’s not?” she asked. “Well then, why are you wearing it? Nopony around here likes to wear any clothes except for work or special occasions.” That would explain the designs displayed in the shop. Joya dropped the measuring tape from her mouth and ran over to a precariously-stacked pile of fabric bolts.

“I actually wore this for my job interview,” I explained. “My nonexistent interview for my nonexistent job,” I muttered under my breath.

“Did you get the job?” she called from atop the pile of fabric, comparing two samples of white cloth that looked almost exactly alike. Satisfied, she tossed one behind her and slid down the pile to the floor, causing the stack to teeter dangerously. I was about to gesture to my camera again for explanation, when I realized it wasn’t there. Inwardly, I groaned: I must have left it at the library, along with the carpet bag full of my stuff.

Grapevine answered for me anyways. “She’s my new camerapony, just started today.” Recognition seemed to light up the donkey’s eyes.

“Ohhhhh, so that’s why you’re being such a grumpy pony.” I’d always thought donkeys would be heavier on their hooves than ponies, but Joya seemed to have no trouble weaving around us as she gathered material in the shop. “Well, Miss New-In-Town,” Joya said, dragging one of those new ‘mechanical sewing machines’ out into the middle of the shop, “Do you have a place to stay?”

Grapevine harrumphed. “That’s what Marshmallow sent us over here for.”

“You’ve met Marshmallow?” Joya asked me. “I didn’t know her until Grapevine introduced us, but now she’s one of my best friends.” Joya stood next to the sewing machine looking at all the materials she’d gathered.

“Looks like I’ve got everything,” she thought aloud.

“For what?” Grapevine and I asked at the same time, eliciting a glare from the purple reporter pony. Joya looked at the both of us like we were foals asking who Princess Celestia is.

“For fixing Minty’s dress, sillies. Or did you come in here just to rent out a room?” I remembered Marshmallow’s advice.

“Well, if it’s not too much trouble,” I muttered, looking down at my worn attire. Before I knew what was happening, Joya had my dress over my head and on her sewing machine. It felt good to be out of the dress; it looked nice, but constricted way too much. As I sighed and shook my blue coat, Grapevine had her chance to stare open-mouthed at me.

“What?” I asked.

“You-you have wings?!” she half asked, half yelled. I grinned sheepishly and fanned the sore appendages out from body, glad to have them free.

“Well, I’ve had them as long as I can remember,” I replied lamely.

“You didn’t know that, Grapevine?” Joya called. “All Pegasi walk differently than other ponies. Sheesh, for a reporter you don’t pick up on these things very well.” Grapevine’s amber eyes remained locked on my wings for a few seconds more, until she noticed me returning the stare. Quickly, she averted her eyes and walked over to Joya.

“So it is alright for Minty to rent a room, then?”

Joya’s voice was practically muted over the clatter of the sewing machine, on which my dress now rested. “Oh yeah, it’s noooo problem at all! She can stay here as long as she wants; as long as she pays rent, of course.”


“Then if she’s all set, I’ll go ahead and leave,” Grapevine continued, walking toward the door.

“Alright, see you later,” Joya replied offhandedly, her lips bunched in concentration as she worked rapidly to repair the tears my dress had gathered on the streets. I grimaced at seeing so many holes; it looked I would need to re-learn how to walk in this city. With one last look at me, Grapevine walked out the door. What startled me was that her look hadn’t been anger like earlier but...what? Sadness?

“Well, that didn’t go very well,” I said to myself once the door had shut. I sighed and turned back to Joya, still busily hunched over her machine. “I think I’m going to go up to my room,” I said.

She took her foot off the machine pedal and turned to me, peering over glasses that had appeared on her face sometime between our conversations. “You should go talk to her, you know,” she said. The cheerful tone in her voice was still there, but a little bit of force had been added to it, like a grenade in a wedding cake.

Joya didn’t wait for me to answer, and instead turned back to diligently sewing my dress back into something presentable. I looked up the stairs toward an enticing hallway that almost certainly contained a soft bed, and back at the wooden front door. Someday, I thought while carefully shutting the shop’s door behind me, I was going to learn how to ignore my conscience.

* * *

My hooves clopped on cobblestones as I cantered back through the streets of West Fillydelphia. It was weird walking around without a dress. I felt so...exposed. It’s not like, you know, everypony besides you doesn’t wear clothes.

The sun was only barely peeking over the distant mountains now, and the moon was beginning to slide into the night sky. A bright orange pony with a candle cutie mark was lighting the street lamps by hoof; electricity didn’t come out this far from the city.

I almost gave up my search for Grapevine when I found her on a street corner under a “Trolley Stop” sign.

“It’s a light bulb, like in a camera,” she said when she saw me trotting up.

“Wha-?” I asked, once again confused. If everyday was going to be like today, I was probably going to be saying that a lot around her.

“Your cutie mark,” she said, pointing. “It looks like a light bulb in the earth pony cameras.” I looked back at the picture of a glowing bulb on my flank. I’d always thought it symbolized that my special talent was thinking of lots of ideas, which would help me be an amazing reporter. After today’s events, I guess that was another thing I had been wrong about.

Sighing, I said, “Yeah, I guess that’s what it is.”

“Spotlight had one just like it,” Grapevine whispered, probably meant to only be heard by herself.

“I-I’m sorry about...whatever happened,” I said, acting as concerned as I possibly could. At this point, I wasn’t sure how sorry I should feel for the mare who had spent the better part of our day belittling and ignoring me. Sure enough, my tentative question was ignored.

“Is there a reason you followed?” she asked. “Or did you have nothing better to do?” Any sadness in her voice was gone, replaced with a tone better fitting an interrogator than a reporter.

I sighed. “I just wanted to know if you still, uh, wanted me to be partners...you know, if you don’t hate me or anything.” My voice hadn’t been so shaky since the time I was picked to narrate our school’s Hearth’s Warming Eve play.

My eyes clamped shut, ready for the inevitable speech about how we were too different to work together when I felt a hoof on my shoulder. Cracking open one lid revealed a purple face not too far from mine, and golden eyes filled with what resembled genuine concern.

“Look,” she said gently. “Ornate put us together, and like it or not, that makes us partners. I don’t abandon my partners.” A trolley unceremoniously shuddered to a stop behind Grapevine, the seats packed with ponies on their way back from the factories. Grapevine quickly removed her hoof from my shoulder and walked toward the awaiting trolley.

“So I’ll see you tomorrow?” I called. Grapevine turned back, but didn’t say anything; she just smiled. I decided to assume that meant yes as I walked back toward Joya’s through the coal smoke the trolley car had left behind.

Next Chapter: Episode 1: Serenity Estimated time remaining: 12 Hours, 18 Minutes
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