Chapter 8: Departures
CEO Office, Rich Industries, Manehatten.
Six weeks after the Cutie Mark cascade.
Sweetie Belle stood nervously in the foyer. It was taking most of her willpower to avoid pacing, even though pacing—with the loud echo of hooves and the clink of her metal paw on marble—made things even more oppressive. The place was just so cold, she thought, with its high stone walls and ceilings, dark wood furniture and accents. The lighting didn't help either; yellowed glass lamps casting a sickly hue on everything inside, and no windows to be seen. It was, Sweetie felt, more like a mausoleum than a place of business. But, she chided herself, that metaphor was perhaps a bit too apt.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the secretary, whose quiet voice none-the-less echoed through the empty hall. "You can go in now." She nodded toward the massive double doors to the right of her desk. Sweetie went through.
Inside, the lighting was improved, if not the decor. Massive floor-to-ceiling windows lined the far wall of the office, providing views looking down upon the entire skyline of Manehatten, but the marble-and-mausoleum motif otherwise continued. Centered between the windows was a great oaken desk, belonging to the new CEO of the company.
"Sweetie, it's good to see you!" Diamond Tiara said, standing up and walking around her desk. "I'd heard you were in town, but..." The pink mare's eyes looked to the floor. "Well, I've been rather... busy."
Sweetie nodded in sympathy, "I was so sorry to hear about your father. He was..." She searched for the words.
"A good pony?" Diamond said with a bit of a sneer.
Sweetie nodded again, though that wasn't really all she wanted to say.
"Ha," Diamond snorted. "Lying doesn't look good on you, Sweetie."
Taken by surprise, Sweetie tried to recover. "Well, he was at least—"
"He was my father," Diamond cut her off. "That's enough, I think. At least, I tell myself it has to be."
"In any case, I truly am sorry," Sweetie Belle stepped forward and hugged Diamond Tiara.
"Thank you Sweetie," Diamond said, stepping out of the hug a moment later. "Sorry for snapping, it's just... just so many ponies have been saying those same platitudes, and none of them even had a clue who he was."
"I suppose I didn't really know him that well either, but I do know he loved you, at least in his own way."
"If that's true, he had a funny way of showing it."
"You mean spoiling you rotten as a filly?" Sweetie gave a soft smile.
Diamond thought back to when she was little and first received her cutie mark. Her father had thrown her the biggest party she could've asked for, with more sweets than could be eaten, and more presents than she knew what to do with. He really had tried so hard to make her happy on her special day, even if he didn't know how to do more than buy her things. She smiled remembering that father from years ago, so different than the bitter old stallion that she'd been fighting and arguing with until a few months ago.
"I guess he did love me once upon a time," Diamond admitted. "But somehow..." She began to sniffle. "Somehow it all went wrong."
"Oh Diamond, I'm so sorry."
"He used to be a good pony... I think. But something changed in him by the end. He didn't care about anything except profits and quarterly reports, and he was always yelling at everypony all the time."
"Especially me!" Diamond shouted. "And apparently," she continued, before dropping the volume a notch "I got in the habit of yelling back."
Unsure what to say, Sweetie just gave a warm smile, hoping Diamond would find it reassuring. When the other mare met her eyes a moment later, she was glad to see Diamond smiling back, even though the corners of her eyes were glistening with the threat of tears. Before either could say anything further however, they were interrupted by the sound of hooves clacking on the marble behind them.
"Di, honey, is something wrong?" Silver Spoon asked, a note of worry in her voice as she entered the room.
Sighing, Diamond Tiara turned to face Silver. "No, it's fine. I just started talking about father again."
Silver Spoon trotted over to Diamond and leaned against her as she set a small pile of letters on the desk. "You have to stop letting him get to you, honey."
"I know, I know," Diamond said. "I just... I hate him for how he was, then I hate him for being gone, and now I hate me for hating him. I don't know how to stop."
"You'll figure it out," Silver said, giving Diamond a quick kiss on the cheek. "Because I know I didn't fall in love with a quitter."
"Thanks, babe," Diamond muttered, blushing. "I love you too."
"She's cute when she's flustered, isn't she?" Silver Spoon looked toward Sweetie Belle as she spoke, finally acknowledging the other pony's presence.
Sweetie wasn't quite sure how to respond, faced as she was by one blushing mare, and another grinning impishly. Yep, no good answer. Time for impressions. "As my good friend Apple Bloom would say, 'I ain't touchin' that one with a ten-foot polecat.'"
"Ha!" Silver let out a quick bark of a laugh. "You sound just like her."
"Seriously though," Silver said, going over to Sweetie and initiating a hug, "It's great to see you."
"You too. Just sorry it's not under better circumstances."
Silver Spoon nodded. "But we persevere." There was a moment of weighted silence, then Silver spoke again, with a more chipper note. "But how have you been? I don't think we've seen you since... well, since the wedding!"
"Has it really been that long?" Sweetie asked, frantically trying to remember something more recent and failing. "I guess it has."
"Time flies, doesn't it?" Silver said, then turned to wink at Diamond. "Especially when you're in love."
Diamond Tiara blushed yet again, and Sweetie felt the ghost of a smile on her own face, but it was short lived. "Well, I'm glad you two are so happy. Especially in spite of..." The smile faded. " ...things. I wanted to say I am so, so sorry! I'm sorry for... for..."
"It's not your fault," Silver assured her.
Sweetie knew what she wanted to say. That it was her fault. She wanted to say she was sorry she'd let Filthy Rich die. She hadn't known at the time, of course, but it was still her fault. The fact was that she'd not been good enough, that she'd not been strong enough that day in Fillydelphia, and so many ponies had died because of it. But she couldn't get the words out. Or rather, she was afraid that if she did, then all the others would escape her mouth as well, her whole being exiting between her teeth as the guilt at so many lives lost ate her from the inside out.
"Rubbish!" Silver Spoon said. "We know you had other things to worry about. We'd all be dead if it wasn't for you and the others. At least you stopped Nemesis that day, even if you couldn't save every pony."
Logically, Sweetie Belle knew that was true. They'd done their best, and that's all anypony could expect; but in her heart, she felt the weight of all those lives the volcano and the other chaos had taken before she and the others had arrived. They could've flown faster, they could've left sooner, they could've been smarter... the list was endless.
"Stop it!" Silver Spoon said.
"What?" Sweetie asked, jolted out of her own thoughts.
"I can see you blaming yourself, even if you aren't saying it directly. So, like you told me all those years ago: Just stop it!"
Now Sweetie felt a genuinely warm smile growing on her muzzle as she realized her own advice was being turned back on her. She remembered when she'd been consoling Silver about her own mother's passing, and how the filly had kept blaming herself.
She'd heard of the technique from Fluttershy. Feeling afraid of something for no reason? "Stop it!" Worried about things you can't control? "Stop it!" Blaming yourself when it's not your fault? "Stop it!" So she'd yelled that at Silver one day, and it had jarred her enough that—when she recovered from the shock—she'd actually laughed for the first time in months. Now here was the grown mare, smiling and happy, trying to jar her out of her own spiral of blame. So she did her best, and just decided to stop it!
"Thanks, Silver," Sweetie said.
"Just paying it forward," Silver said. "But now... surely you didn't come here just to apologize for saving the world. What's up?"
Ah yes, that, Sweetie thought. How does one ask for something on that scale? She'd been trying to think how to phrase it for the better part of a week now, and still nothing eloquent had come to mind.
"Umm..." Sweetie hazarded. "I kinda need to borrow your company."
Diamond Tiara quirked an eyebrow, awaiting further explanation.
"I imagine," Silver Spoon said. "This has something to do with saving the world yet again?"
"Oh, yes, definitely!" Sweetie felt her voice squeak in a way it had rarely done since her childhood. "Totally a good cause here."
"Okay," Diamond Tiara said, motioning to some chairs around a low table in the far corner. "Let's hear it."
The three sat down, and Silver Spoon poured drinks from a crystal decanter set nearby. Sweetie Belle began to explain. "Well, we need to build an underground city on the moon by this time next year."
As is the rule in such situations, this was uttered just as Diamond took her first sip. "You can't be serious," she finally managed a moment later as she wiped the spewed beverage off her chin.
Diamond looked at Sweetie, whose expression was uncharacteristically dour in the face of such shenanigans. Diamond sighed. "No," she sighed. "Of course you're serious."
"Very much so," Sweetie said. "We think it's the only way to fix the sun."
"Wait," Silver said. "First off, didn't you guys already save the world? I mean, sure, magic's a little weaker now, but... Well, far be it from me to criticize royalty, but the days and nights are actually rather more predictable than when the Queen and Princess were in charge."
She had a fair point, Sweetie thought. It seemed that Celestia and Luna did get involved in some sort of fiasco at least once every few years that completely disrupted the solar cycle for all the rest of the world. But Silver didn't know the full story.
"Sadly, that's only a temporary fix."
"But," Diamond said. "The news reports all said the orbital system was stable and we had nothing to worry about."
Sweetie simply gave her a look. Diamond knew better than to trust the official line.
"Okay, how bad is it?" Diamond finally asked.
"We've got a couple of years at best. Nemesis grows stronger, siphoning magic off the world. If he breaks free again, I doubt he'll be as foolish as he was last time, and will skip the taunting and toying in favor of direct annihilation."
Looking at each other, Silver and Diamond frowned, then turned back to Sweetie. "Okay," Silver said. "Second thing... Who's this 'we' you mentioned? You, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom?"
"And the rest of the Cutie Mark Crusaders."
Diamond gave Silver a knowing look. "Hey," Silver said. "I warned you what happens if you give a mouse a cookie."
The dots connected in Sweetie Belle's mind. "It was you!" she proclaimed. "You're the ones funding the CMC!"
Silver Spoon gave a mischievous grin and shrugged.
Diamond Tiara rolled her eyes and shook her head at the feigned ignorance. "Yeah, it's us. I saw an article on what Babs had been doing for local foals, and started sending her some donations. When my... when I took over, one of the first things across my desk was a real estate liquidation for an old dockworks we'd had that was obsolete. We were just going to dump it at a loss, but I saw a picture, and remembered how much I would've loved to have a clubhouse like that as a filly. I figured Babs could put it to better use than any other pony that might buy it."
Grinning, Sweetie said, "You have no idea!"
She went on to explain about the Cutie Mark Cascade and the plan they'd concocted to build a base on the moon, recover the obelisks, and hit Nemesis where it hurt. The ponies spent an hour or more going over the details that the Cutie Mark Crusaders had figured out, as well as the giant gaps that they hadn't. When it was all done, Diamond leaned back from the table and the sketches they'd hastily made of things.
"So," she said. "All you need is for me to turn the entire might of Rich Industries' manufacturing capability toward building infrastructure for use on the moon. Infrastructure that is, for all intents and purposes, absolutely useless and commercially worthless anywhere on the actual ground."
"That's pretty much the size of it," Sweetie Belle said, then amended. "Oh, and I need a ship!"
"For an arctic expedition. We need to retrieve the relic we believe is hidden somewhere in the tundra north of the Caribou nations."
"Sure! A ship as well. Why not! Take two while you're at it!" Diamond leaned back and rubbed her eyes. "You know this will basically bankrupt the entire company, right?"
Frowning grimly, Sweetie nodded. "The royal treasury is willing to pay what they can, but... yeah, switching all those factories over to produce things you can't sell. It's a big ask, I know."
Letting out a sigh, Diamond closed her eyes and rested her head in her forehooves.
"Come on, honey," Silver Spoon said, leaning in to nuzzle her wife encouragingly. "You know you're not going to say no, so just get on with it."
"I know!" Diamond said, a bit more forcefully than she intended. "But... Look, I just buried my father a few months ago, or what was left of him. I know he wasn't that great of a pony, but business—this business—was the one thing he did excel at. Destroying that... it's like... I don't know, burying him all over again." She stood up and started walking toward the desk across the room. "Just give me a few minutes, okay?"
While Diamond paced in the far reaches of the room, Sweetie and Silver watched the sun go down over Manehatten.
"Quite a view, isn't it?" Silver said after a moment of silence.
"It's lovely," Sweetie replied. "I can't believe I've never been up here before."
"Well, it took some years for that old plan to come to fruition. Rich Industries only bought this tower about two years ago. Mostly thanks to all the money your Equium deal brought them."
"And what about your part?"
"Oh, I've got the biggest candy cane company running! It's nothing compared to this, of course, but I'm happy to do my part. Thank you, by the way, for letting me."
"It was Apple Bloom really."
"I know, but... I know if you'd said no, she would've too. So thank you both... thank you all for trusting me and Diamond back then. It's hard for her to admit, but she really is grateful too, you know."
"I understand. It has to be a rough time for her."
"Very much so. She's really, for the most part, quite happy and cheerful, so please don't hold her current mood against her."
Sweetie gave a smile and nodded as she took a sip of her drink. The fizzy cucumber water was one of those small luxuries that only ever appeared in places like this; a grand office, a fancy ball, or, she smiled to think, her sister's boutique. No pony ever offered you cucumber water at a normal restaurant, and it certainly wasn't something one just kept around the house for when you were thirsty. Why was that? she thought. It's not like cucumbers—or fizzy water—were expensive, yet somehow the combination seemed reserved only for the rich. Strange.
Noticing the unicorn staring into her drink with an odd expression, Silver ventured "I know, I don't like it much either. Give me a good cup of coffee any day!"
"Coffee?" Sweetie said, always having pegged the earth pony for a good cuppa.
Silver Spoon nodded. "And not the fancy kind either. Just bottom-of-the-pot, cheap, train station cafe dregs! Nothing better!"
Sweetie chuckled. "You learn something new every day," she said. "Silver Spoon prefers the greasy spoon. Who would've thought?"
Silver leaned in. "Just don't go spreading it around," she said in a stage whisper. "Have to keep up appearances and all for the wife, ya know?"
Hoof moving across her mouth, Sweetie zipped her lip, just as Diamond returned.
"Hey babe, what's this?" she said, holding out a letter.
Turning to look, Silver explained, "Letters I picked up on the way over here."
"But this one's from Fillydelphia. And I've never heard of this pony." She pointed to the return address. "I told you to throw out all those stupid letters."
"What letters?" Sweetie asked.
Silver Spoon shook her head and explained. "Ever since Filthy Rich passed, the company has been inundated with letters for Diamond, all claiming to have known him, or be in a half-finished deal, that he owes money, or any other number of things."
"Vultures circling," Diamond added. "Hoping to get a piece of the carcass while things are still a bit chaotic. Which is why I told her to toss them all out." She gave Silver a strong glare, as if trying to bore through to her intent.
"But that one didn't come to the company," Silver said. "That's mail I picked up from home. Most ponies wouldn't know that address."
"Great!" Diamond threw her front hooves up in the air. "Now they've figured out our home address! Fan-bucking-tastic!" She moved to toss the letter into the trash, but Silver snagged it from her hoof.
"Hang on!" Silver Spoon said. "Let's just see what it says.”
Diamond just glared at her.
Ignoring her wife's burning gaze, Silver quickly skimmed the letter. "You're going to want to read this," she said after a moment. "Trust me."
Diamond Tiara huffed as she yanked the letter out of Silver's outstretched hoof, but turned away and began to read it, rather than bin it.
Sweetie couldn't help herself. She didn't want to interrupt, but... "What's it say?"
Diamond turned back, a tear in the corner of her eye, and she thrust the letter into Sweetie's hooves. "Here," she sniffled. "You read it. I can't."
Sweetie took the letter in her aura and straightened it out in front of her. She noticed that it was rather worn looking, with smudged spots on it, and some definite water damage. The envelope even had one of those postal service stickers that let you know they'd lost and then recovered it from who knows where. Still though, it seemed to be legible enough, so she cleared her throat, and read the letter aloud.
Dear Diamond Tiara,
You don't know me, but my name is Autumn Leaf. I was living in Fillydelphia with my two foals the day your father died, and was likely the last pony to see him alive.
It had been a day like most any other. While we'd heard about the other attacks by Nemesis, they were all so far away. Sometimes, I guess we get used to disaster in the news, as there's always some tragedy unfolding for ponies somewhere. You just never think it's going to be you. But that day it was.
I was home with my children that afternoon, thankfully. My youngest, Starshine, he was in his room coloring. My older daughter, New Leaf, was down the street at her friend's apartment. When the shaking started, we weren't really sure what to do. We're not exactly in a major earthquake zone. I rushed upstairs and grabbed Starshine, and got under the doorframe like they tell you. It stopped a moment later, and I wandered into the street to see what was going on.
That's when I saw it. Just on the edge of the city was a massive volcano, spewing lava into the sky. How something that large can just appear is... well, nothing is impossible with magic I suppose, but as an earth pony, it seemed like it must be impossible. I think I must've just stood there, transfixed for I don't know how long. Then one of the plumes of lava—or some sort of fireball anyway—well, it exploded out of the top of the thing and hurtled straight toward us. I didn't even realize it at first. Things that large, they seem so slow, and you think it can't possibly reach you. But then...
The end of the block just exploded. I was knocked off my hooves, and ponies closer were thrown past me even. There was debris everywhere, and just... just chaos. There's no other way to put it. What had been a nice day was suddenly this horrid landscape of fire and ash and smoke. I turned and saw that my little Starshine was safe, poking his head out of the front door of our apartment building. I yelled at him to stay there, and ran down the street, hoping that my daughter was safe.
I got to the building and it was right at the edge of things. The impact had flattened everything from the next building on down. Everything was on fire, and there was lava starting to ooze up out of the crater where it'd hit, setting more things on fire. I looked up toward the third floor balcony, where my daughter's friend lived. Normally I'd just shout up at her when it was time to come home for dinner, rather than go all the way up the stairs. Lots of shouting moms in that neighborhood around dinnertime, actually. I shouted, and saw two ponies lean over the railing, my daughter and her friend.
I was about to run into the building when the ground shook again. This time, I wasn't so lucky. The remnants of the building behind me collapsed, and it's not like it is in the stories. You don't have time to run. Bricks just rained down and I was half-buried before I could even take a breath. Miraculously though, I was still alive. I cried and I screamed out for help through the choking dust, hoping that somehow my children were still safe.
I don't know how long I screamed. It felt like ages, but couldn't have been more than a minute or two in reality. I heard scrabbling, and realized the crushing weight was getting lighter, though every movement of the stone was agony on my broken ribs. I couldn't do anythingbut scream. A moment later, I felt fresh air and saw the face of a pony, your father, digging me out. He got me clear a couple of minutes later, and once the pain subsided enough for me to get in more than the faintest gasp of breath I asked about my daughter.
He leaned in close, trying to hear me better, so I pointed up at the balcony with my hoof, and he looked and saw the two fillies, and the fear in their eyes. "My daughter," I gasped. "Save her. Please."
He nodded, and I saw him going into the building as I tried to stand. My back leg was crushed entirely, and my ribs were broken as well. I managed to get my other hooves under me, and started limping toward the building myself, but with my injuries, couldn't make it over the fallen bricks in the doorway before he returned.
When he did, he was burned very badly on one side of his body. The fur was gone entirely, and singed, red flesh was all that could be seen on half his flank. Still though, he had my daughter and her friend with him, and they only had a few bruises. He put his shoulder against the hock of my bad leg to take the weight, and helped me back to the safer end of the street.
"Thank you!" I cried. "Thank you so, so much! How can I ever repay you!"
He shook his head no, and just asked. "What're your daughters' names?"
"New Leaf," I said, nodding toward my child.
"And her?" Indicating the other filly.
"That's my daughter's friend..." I felt like such an awful mother at that point, as I'd forgotten the filly's name. She was one of New Leaf's newer friends, but still, a mother should know these things, and I didn't.
"My name is Tail Wind," she said, sniffling a bit, but trying to be polite.
"And where's your mother?" Filthy Rich asked.
The little one raised a shaky hoof and pointed back toward the building they'd come from.
Filthy Rich look forlorn as he stared back toward the destruction. Then he turned to me, handed me his wallet, and said "My own daughter is named Diamond Tiara. All the addresses and stuff are in here. Please let her know that I tried."
He turned and trotted—as much as he could with the seared pain on his flank—back toward the burning buildings to go search for Tail Wind's mother.
I saw him just enter the building through the thick smoke in the distance, and then everything exploded in another impact.
Starshine, who'd waited exactly where I told him for once, came running out the moment I called, and I took him and the two girls away from the destruction and into the city.
I'm very sorry I'm only writing to you now, nearly two weeks later, but I've been told the mail service won't resume until at least the end of the month anyway. We went back for the first time today, to see if there was anything to salvage from the apartment. Nothing much was left. The entire block was pretty much flattened, the only exception was the lower two floors of our building on the very far end, right where Starshine had been hiding. I count myself amazingly fortunate for that, but also for meeting your father. He saved my little girl, her friend, and me as well. I know that can never make up for the loss you must be feeling, but I hope it might at least bring you some comfort to know he didn't die in vain.
I've enclosed a photograph of the family he saved. Oh yes, did I mention, I'm working to adopt Tail Wind. There were... well, there are a lot of new orphans here lately, and while I know I can't replace her mother, at least she can start off with a friend close by.
As for the photo, I hope it might be some consolation for you to see it, but if it's heartbreak instead, feel free to destroy it. Either way, you have our eternal and heartfelt gratitude.
May your life be long, and full of joy,
--Autumn Leaf, Starshine, New Leaf, and Tail Wind
Finishing the letter, Sweetie Belle pulled the photograph out of the envelope behind it. There was an older earth pony mare in the center, with a pale red coat and orange mane. She had a cast on her back leg, and bandages around her middle. In front of her was a small red colt, a pink earth pony filly, and similarly aged, grey-coated filly. Sweetie looked from the photo to the two mares across from her, and couldn't help but wonder if Filthy had seen a bit of his own daughter and her friend when he'd looked up at the scared youngsters on that balcony.
Diamond Tiara had tears running down the fur of her cheeks as she pushed out of the tight hug Silver Spoon had been giving her. She turned toward Sweetie Belle with a fierceness in her eyes the unicorn would never forget. "Fuck the company," she said, her voice preternaturally calm. "Take whatever you need and go get that bastard."
Hard to follow that last bit with any lighthearted comments, so give it a minute and read the rest of this once it sinks in.
Better now? Okay... So, only about five months since the last update! I'm getting better at this! Seriously though, at least it's not as delayed as last time, even if I'm still nowhere near the goals I set for myself. I'm working on the next chapter already, with Sweetie's aforementioned trip to the arctic. This should be another long segment, and an adventure in its own right, similar in scope to the Tomb Raiders chapter. I've got some really interesting surprises planned for this one, and hope it'll be one of the more memorable parts of the overall tale.