Drifting Down the Lazy River

This story is a sequel to The One Who Got Away

A frustrated young orphan colt with a talent for painting is determined to run away from his dead-end rural village for the distant cultural haven of Baltimare. All he needs to do is slip aboard a raft and drift down the river Fen until he reaches his destination. It’s a simple plan, and would have worked just fine except for one thing.




17. Fatherhood

"…because a body don't see such a storm as that every day in the week, not by a long sight. My souls, how the wind did scream along! And every second or two there'd come a glare that lit up the white-caps for a half a mile around, and you'd see the islands looking dusty through the rain, and the trees thrashing around in the wind; then comes a H-WHACK!--bum! bum! bumble-umble-um-bum-bum-bum-bum--and the thunder would go rumbling and grumbling away, and quit--and then RIP comes another flash and another sockdolager."

— The Adventures of Buck Fin

The adventure book which had given Turpentine the idea to drift downstream on a raft had a scene in it where a fierce storm rocked the character’s raft, all crashing and booming with thunder and lightning filling the night and the wind screaming along. It was all fantasy, of course, because no pegasus competent enough to get on a weather team would ever let a storm get out of control like that, but it was something to fantasize about while he would lie in bed at the house of whatever family was trying to adopt him and listen to the rain fall in long, gentle sheets. The families always tried to give him his own room, mostly painted in what they considered creative patterns with appealing colors. It never really made him feel comfortable as they had hoped.

When the nighttime thunder rumbled at the orphanage, Turpentine would always creep down the hallway and sneak onto the little rug right next to Mother Windrow’s bed, listen to her soft snores until the storm was over, then sneak back to his own bed without anypony noticing. He never did that at the foster parents’ houses, no matter who it was attempting to adopt him or how colorful they had made his room. He was a big colt. He did not need to go hide from the thunder like Ripple when the storms were rolled in. Hearing from Gaberdine’s mother how the brave and kind baron acted when he was Turpentine’s age had been a little disconcerting. After all, Turpentine was eleven now. Next year he would be twelve, and the year after that, thirteen. Someday he would be old, like twenty or something, and with that age always came nose-dribbling and stinky-ended foals who would be afraid of thunderstorms and want a big strong father to hold them like he had never been held.

The unwelcome realization really would not have been that bad if Turpentine had not been in the bed of the Speedy Delivery wagon while the pegasus sisters descended into the rainstorm covering Baltimare, and might not even have been so bad if the rain slicker they loaned him had not been only slightly worse than useless, and seemed in an oversized way to be funneling all of the pouring rain into the insides of the waterproof garment. At least there were wingholes in it to drain, or Turpentine thought he might drown from all the water he had picked up during the trip.

He heaved himself over the edge of the wagon to land with a sodden splash in front of The Painting Palette and scurried for the relative dryness of the overhang. The traffic was thin, which was why they managed to drop him so close to the store, but Turpentine only had time for a brief wave over his shoulders to the sisters before they hopped back up into the air and vanished into the driving rain. The marketplace they were headed to was covered, and therefore dry, but Turpentine would much rather be inside and dry than try to keep himself warm with the outdoor firepits scattered around the market stalls which let the native Baltimare residents enjoy their fresh vegetable and fruit shopping even in the upcoming winter snow.

It only took a moment for Turpentine to shoulder open the door and stand dripping in the atrium of the paint store, which made it obvious why there were hooks by the door. He shucked out of his oversized rain slicker, hanging it on the second hook to drain into the loose grating under his hooves, and most likely into the sewer system below. Likewise, Turpentine also dripped, or more correctly streamed water off his sodden coat in a way that somehow felt even wetter than when he had been swimming with Ripple in the lagoon.

The store was quiet, but it had been so both times Turpentine had visited before, plus one of the hooks already had a rain slicker on it and the store lights were on, so somepony was in. The difference this morning was in the clerk who came around the corner and spotted Turpentine, giving him a brief frazzled smile before darting back into the store.

“Hold on, little dude!” The young pegasus returned, bearing a fluffy towel over his back, and winged it over to the sodden little earth pony still dripping in the doorway. “You better dry yourself off before you catch a cold.”

Turpentine had really been expecting the much older Caractère. This young pegasus was just barely out of his teens if that, and had a number of metal or plastic objects jutting out of his face and body which made him look somewhat like an unfortunate victim of some sort of explosion, even if they did go well with the dark blue of his coat. It would have been easy to stare, but Turpentine restrained himself and tried to get dried off as much as he could while sneaking glances in the direction of the teenaged store clerk, who he could not help but think looked a little like one of Mother Windrow’s pin cushions.

“Sorry we’re not quite ready for business, little dude.” The young clerk had scurried off to the back section of the store and his voice sounded oddly muffled. “The old lady had to go into work this morning and I’m covering for Gramps. Just go ahead and pick out what you want to buy and I’ll ring you up in a minute.”

“Actually, I wanted to talk to Caractère.” Turpentine finished drying his mane and hung the towel on a nearby empty rack next to another damp towel. “Is he in?”

“Naa. Grandpa-in-law went to do physical therapy this morning. He’ll be in this afternoon, once the rain is over.”

Turpentine followed the sound of the clerk’s voice, and far too quickly found a familiar scent wafting on the stale air of the shop and competing with the much more preferable scent of fresh paint. The teenaged pegasus stallion was hunched over the floor and engaged in a wrestling contest with a little half-diapered foal, a match in which he seemed to be winning, although a few poop-smeared wipes in the general vicinity made Turpentine stop cold and eye the ground for potential land mines. Just in case, he looked behind him before stepping back out of the potential splatter zone. Mother Windrow had been very determined to share the experience whenever she had to take care of a newborn foal, and his reluctant education had included—

“Just a minute, little dude. Do you want to help diaper?” asked the clerk.

“No!” Turpentine took a breath at the sudden surge of guilt that swept over him and quickly moved to clarify his position. “I mean, let me help… pick up.”

The young stallion was obviously unpracticed at this odious task and unwilling to go diving in nose-first, which really was understandable. The few foals who had passed through the orphanage were all endlessly hungry or poopy, even the little foals from the town who Mother Windrow foalsat on occasion. It really did not make Turpentine resentful of the way that they soaked up most of the attention in the house…

Actually, that might have been it.

He sat nearby and helped out with the wet wipes, watching foal and father work their way through the process and even holding the wriggly little pegasus filly while the clerk rolled up the changing mat. She seemed to have an unfair advantage in number of limbs to wriggle with the wings included, and even managed to thwap Turpentine across the nose, although she looked apologetic afterwards and made it quite impossible for him to be angry about it.

“Thanks, little dude.” The clerk shoved the diaper bag and foal carrier combination pack under a nearby shelf and took a deep breath. “I didn’t think she’d be that hard to get cleaned up— Hey!”

The clerk lit up with a metal-punctuated smile and stuck out a hoof, which thankfully did not have any jewelry sticking out of it or any poop still sticking to it. “You’re the little dude Gramps has been talking about! Cool beans! I’m Pierce, and this is my daughter, Gleaming Dawn, but you can just call her Dawn because like most little pegasus fillies get a name like that because like weather and stuff.”

Turpentine cautiously shook hooves before Pierce scooped the little filly up in the crook of one leg and took off across the quiet store over to a corkboard next to the window. There were a number of photographs stuck there under the title of ‘Budding Young Artists’ in several rows, including his familiar paintings as well as two labelled empty spots for the past painting of Luna and the future painting of Celestia.

“You’ve got some righteous vision, little dude. Grandpa says you could probably sell your pictures of him and my old lady for a bunch of bits, but he’d rather take them home and hang ‘em on the wall,” bubbled Pierce happily while boosting Dawn up to look at the two paintings. “Still, dude, it’s your decision. Look at your mama, Dawn. Say ‘Mama.’ Come on,” cajoled the young stallion, but all he got out of the little filly was a toothless yawn.

Both paintings Turpentine had made of Caractère and Sympathique were still up on the wall with the precautionary ‘Wet Paint’ signs to discourage any unwanted touching, although there was an additional ‘Not For Sale’ sign added more recently. He could remember Baron Gaberdine asking for permissions to photograph some of his pictures and Sen taking the resulting used film into town to have it developed, but Turpentine had never really considered showing them to Caractère or anypony else, for that matter. He had always been thinking of his next painting instead of what happened to the one he had just done.

“We’ve gotten a lot of requests for prints, and some mare from the restaurant said she’d give you a hundred bits for the second original painting with the wings done up so good,” said Pierce, stating the impossible number as if it were pocket change. “I dunno, though. I get upwards of a thousand for my stuff when I get a painting commission, and you’ve got some primo colors and stuff.”

The young pegasus pointed with a wing at a set of other photographs showing colorful hot air balloons soaring through the sky. They looked like they had been vigorously bombed by pegasi with paint buckets, but after a moment of introspective observation, Turpentine could see a certain attractive vigor to the explosions of color splashed across the aerial vehicles. Since most ponies could not fly on their own, there was a prideful appeal to showing off their purchases to their fellow ground-bound brethren. When he had surprised Powderpuff and Lemon Drops by secretly repainting their wagon one night last week, the sisters had been overjoyed and insisted on covering his cheeks with kisses, so even pegasi were not immune to wanting to fly in style.

“Whoops,” said Pierce when the bell over the front door of the shop chimed. “Can I get you to watch Dawn for a few minutes thanks I gotta go—”


The yawning filly was abruptly passed to Turpentine when Pierce darted past, headed for an important-looking unicorn carrying a magically-levitated umbrella, which she was just tucking to one side of the door. The additional weight of the filly was a little unbalancing, but Ripple had provided good practice for keeping his balance over the last few weeks, so at least he did not tip over. He took a quick trip back to the counter to grab a blanket and some toys, then went back over to his windowed painting spot with the intention of doing what he always did with something new. After all, the little filly smelled of poop and spoiled milk, so Turpentine would have been much more comfortable behind his painting easel at a safe distance. A few miles would have been nice.

He settled Dawn into the store window display on a pale blue blanket with more than a few frazzled spots and a patch on it, showing that the young stallion must have purchased it secondhoof. According to the Rules of Foals, she was supposed to want to sleep now that she had a new diaper, or at least curl up and look paintably cute, but every time Turpentine managed to get the pencil into his teeth, there was a rumble of thunder outside that attracted her intense attention and made her look away. Either that, or she would look up at Turpentine, all bright-eyed and alert to the scratching of his pencil while moving forward toward the edge of the window sill and a certain tumble onto the hard floor. It took five captures before he gave up on drawing and settled for just keeping her caged in the window display, splitting her attention between him and the ponies splashing by in the rain.

Since he could not draw or paint, Turpentine thought. Since Caractère was not around, and the concept of where to paint Celestia if she showed up tomorrow was a topic he had beaten to death in his own mind to no result, he thought about other things.

And since Dawn seemed determined to play instead of napping, he thought about little fillies, and in particular, how Ripple would react to her mother bringing another little seapony into their lives. It seemed to be an inevitable addition to the riverboat in the future. Once older ponies started sneaking off for activities they did not want younger ponies to see, foals happened. Pearl was a fine mother, and had proven it by raising Ripple, which certainly could not have been easy for the shy seapony. Gaberdine, however…

The baron seemed to get along just fine with older ponies like Pearl and medium ponies like himself and Ripple, but little fillies were difficult. They pooped and cried and needed bottles and all kinds of things Gaberdine had never done before. Pearl could help teach him, but it still seemed about as awkward a situation as if Gaberdine were to paint Celestia’s portrait while Turpentine tried to put the steam engine in Castle Paradise back together again.

“Hey, little dude. Thanks for watching Dawn.” The young pegasus clerk plunked down on the floor right next to Turpentine and held out a pacifier for his infant daughter.

“That’s not how you do it,” said Turpentine with an authoritative air. He took away the binkie and stuck it with the small stash of foal toys he had brought over to the window display area. “She’s not hungry yet, so you’ll spoil her by giving her a pacifier. How old is she?”

“Four weeks,” declared Pierce proudly. “She sleeps through the night and everything.”

It made Turpentine think about what really made up a family, and how his own definition had changed over the last few weeks. The little batwinged foal who Mother Windrow had taken care of for a little while was now in Canterlot with a whole family full of ponies just like it, while Turpentine had not even been able to find a pair of parents. That was not the end of it, though. Somewhere, there was a little foal just like this one who had been traded for the batwinged brother or sister she had never met, and that foal would also be raised by strangers who had no real connection to her. It would be accepted for who he or she was and not have to go from family to family like Turpentine had.

The unfairness grated on him. Dawn had it easy. She had her own father and mother without having to go looking, even if her father was kinda-sorta young and had odd chunks of metal sticking out of him in weird places. There had to have been some sort of class he passed to become a father, with tests and study guides since it was such an important job, but Pierce seemed like he had skidded through with a barely passing grade. Still, it looked as if he liked having to deal with the heavy responsibility, and did not have the expression of strained patience that so many foster parents had gotten after only a few hours with Turpentine.

“What’s it like being a father?” asked Turpentine during a brief lull in Dawn’s game of Hoof-Pounce.

“It’s cool.” Pierce moved his hoof back and forth, making the little filly angle her wings back and crouch as if she were some sort of hunting cat, watching the elusive hoof for a weakness to pounce upon.

“No, I mean what’s it like?” asked Turpentine. “You’ve got this helpless little pony depending on you for everything. She can’t eat on her own, or clean up her own poop, and she sure can’t tell you what’s wrong if she gets sick, and you’ve got years before she’s a big pony like me and can be left alone for any length of time. You’ve got to watch her so she doesn’t eat any oleander leaves or gets into the pantry and dumps the flour or hurts herself with a fork. There’s shots and school and teaching her everything she’s going to need in her life, and it’s all on you.”

“Whoa.” Pierce stopped moving his hoof. “Grandpa was right. You are a deep little dude.”

Turpentine nodded, but with a frown. “Yeah. I like to know things. It kinda makes families a little weirded out, so I haven’t gotten adopted yet. Well, none that stuck.”

“Bummer, little dude.” Pierce scooped up the little pegasus filly and rocked her in the crook of his foreleg. “My old man and lady were never there or drunk, so I grew up all on my own, like an eagle, flying free. Worked a few odd jobs doing weather or delivery when I could. Ran with a rough flock for a while, until I met Sy and she made me straighten up and fly right. I’ve never really had a father before, but that don’t matter now.” He brushed a strand of mane back from the foal’s forehead and smiled in such a way that his entire face seemed to light up, even the little bits of golden metal in his lips and ears. “She’s gonna be different. I’m gonna be the father I never had, and it’s all for her.”

“So… were you afraid?” It was a very practical question, because Turpentine knew he would have been terrified in the same situation, but the young stallion nodded too.

“Buck yeah. When Sy told me we were going to have a foal, I freaked. No job, no family, and school was going to kick me out anyway. Gramps really came through for us. Set me up with a couple of artist gigs from some old friends, and cleared out his workroom so we could use it as a bedroom. We’re packed into that apartment tighter than— Um, really tight.”

Dawn did not look sleepy enough to finally take a nap, but Turpentine tried to keep her entertained while his mind whirled along. He really wasn’t concentrating on his work or even his upcoming portrait session with Princess Celestia. An unexpected perspective filled his head, because he had never really thought about the adoption process from the other end.

If he were to have a father for the first time in ever, somewhere there needed to be a stallion who wanted to have a son, and to complicate matters, they both would need to be the same pony. Just like Gaberdine’s puzzle piece cutie mark, the two pieces of father and son would have to match. It was obvious that Pierce loved his daughter, but she was a pegasus just like him, much the same as Pearl loved Ripple in their home under the water, but finding the elusive match for himself seemed both closer and further away than ever.

“I have another question. It’s about batponies.”

Turpentine described as best he could about the adoption process when a nocturnal pegasus was born into a non-nocturnal family and vice versa, which was made more difficult by the way Dawn constantly attempted to pull the conversation into how cute and adorable she was with flutters of her tiny pink wings. What was worse, every time Turpentine was about to ask his question, the bell over the front door would ring and Pierce would have to scurry off to help a damp customer. Earth ponies would hang up their extensive raingear, unicorns placed umbrellas to one side, and pegasi…

The first time a sodden pegasus stopped in the glassed-in atrium between the street entrance and the front door, Turpentine expected him to take a brisk toweling instead of the sudden explosion of shaking feathers and mane that sprayed water in all directions until it was streaming down the glass walls and into the slots in the floor. Afterwards, the ruffled pegasus proceeded into the store and made his purchase, with the only concession made to the constant rain outside being a plastic bag to carry the results.

“Don’t they know it’s raining outside?” muttered Turpentine when Pierce darted away for the umpteenth time. The only pony listening to his complaint was Dawn, who was more interested in the sharp cracks of lightning and the low rumble of thunder that followed, giving each loud noise an enthusiastic applause of beating winglets and giggles. It was a far cry from what Baron Gaberdine’s mother, that is what Lily said about her son’s reaction to thunder and lightning.

“She’s gonna be a flier, that’s for sure. Wants to be right out there in the action.” Pierce slid down next to where Turpentine was entertaining the little foal and gave her a quick wing-ruffle across the mane. “So, what was it you were wanting to know again, little dude?”

Quickly, before the next customer showed up,Turpentine blurted out, “I wanted to know if you would be able to be a father to an adopted pony just as well as you’re being a father to your own.”

“Oh.” The pierced pegasus seemed set back at that. “Err… I dunno, little dude. I mean if Sy hadn’t gotten pregnant, I don’t think I’d ever… I mean we wouldn’t have adopted. It’s a big step. I aged about ten years in the last few months.”

“Me too.” Turpentine thought back on the last few weeks and how his life before Ripple seemed faded and fuzzy. “I don’t want to grow up wrong, though. I mean… not like you, I mean. Not like that. Sorry.”

“Chill, dude. I don’t mind.” Pierce held a dark wing across his chest. “The hard cases I ran with a few years back? Didn’t none of them have fathers worth a drizzle. I don’t think I’m the right pony to be your father, though.”

He had done it again. Turpentine winced inside, but kept his external expression down to a thoughtful nod. He had not really thought about being adopted by a pair of ponies just barely out of school, because it would be too much like having a big brother and sister. Or in Pierce’s case, a really strange big brother.

At this rate, I’m going to be in a cardboard box beside the street in Baltimare with a sign. Free to good home.

- -  - -

Once the leftover clouds had been cleared away and the sun shone down, the little filly curled up in a sunbeam coming through the window, most likely saving up her energy for sometime late at night when she could keep her young parents awake.

Taking advantage of her distraction, Turpentine eased over to the easel and began to work in earnest. Gentle touches of pencil against canvas made too little noise to awaken the little filly, but when he switched to the brush and began to work on the texture layer in acrylic, she settled down into the most perfect pose of pure pegasus happiness imaginable.

He had to admit spending time dozing in a sunbeam was pretty awesome, because Turpentine had spent quite a few hours of naptime in the same position, but he had big colt work to do now, and as much as he would have liked to curl up with her and take a nap, capturing that elusive moment was his goal. Images of that horrible portrait with Princess Celestia surrounded by little foals kept coming back to Turpentine while he painted, and he concentrated as hard as possible to keep his mind on his subject. The last thing he wanted to do was make a portrait of Dawn looking like that.

The shadows and sun made Dawn’s pink coat seem dappled in shades of gold, which was devilishly difficult to reproduce in paint even with several trips over to the store’s paint selection, and even a few tubes of the really expensive tints. Price did not matter, because he still had quite a few bits in the bag Gaberdine had given him, and he would have spent his way down to his bare hooves in order to make this painting the best he had ever done. It was a long and difficult process, but Caractère’s advice was a great help when he pointed over his shoulder and gave little suggestions on tint mixtures, as well as giving Dawn a bottle when she woke up and started to get fussy. It was a warmer and more pleasant experience than Turpentine had expected, and little thoughts of what an infant seapony might look like kept creeping into his head.

What kind of older sister would Ripple make? She’s certain to get them both into trouble or get hurt.

For a while, Turpentine was slightly tempted to add seapony flippers to the portrait, but there were quite a few ponies outside the store window who stopped to watch, and his caution overrode any mischievous feelings he had. Celestia must have looked like this when she was young, a sun-warmed little filly who had to grow up far too soon, and with a little sister so different from herself, cool ice to her burning fire but still sisters to the heart. Regret would have made it far too easy for the immortal alicorn to hide away in some cave for the centuries that her sister was imprisoned in the moon, but she remained with her little ponies instead, taking the doubly heavy burden of guiding and protecting them on her own shoulders.

How much guilt must she have felt after defending herself against her own sister and hurting her that way even though she had no other options. Turpentine had only known Ripple for a few weeks, but he would rather chew off one of his own limbs than hurt her, even if she turned into some sort of seapony Nightmare… Ocean or something. Regardless of his own will, his mind skipped forward several years and tried to imagine Ripple the same age as Caractère’s granddaughter. Someday, the seaponies’ war beneath the waves would be over and she would be old enough to go home. Ripple was just as brave as her father, and would be able to protect Pearl when they…

Turpentine put his last brush into the solvent and bent his efforts into cleaning up his workspace. The fumes were getting into his eyes, and it was difficult to see the places where he could have dithered on touching up for hours. There was a time in every painting project where the brushes needed to be put away and the painter needed to move on.

“Something bothering you, s—” Caractère cut off with a sharp coughing which almost woke up the little filly he was cradling in the crook of one foreleg. “Turpentine,” he added much quieter, “is there something wrong?”

“Oh!” Turpentine had been concentrating so hard on the painting he had not even really realized the old pegasus had returned to the store. All of the ‘wrong’ that had been building up in his head for the last several weeks fought to get out, but thankfully stacked up in the back of his mouth because Turpentine could not immediately decide which one of them was the most important. After a few moments of spluttering, he decided to state his situation first, then the problems in whatever order they came out, followed by the goal he was attempting to reach. Baron Gaberdine had taught him the technique while they were painting Castle Paradise, side by side and all covered in white paint drips. It had worked fairly well then to deal with minor painting panics, and it was worth another try now.

“Princess Celestia says I can go to her school in Canterlot and become the famous artist I want to be, but I need to find a family first. That means I need to find an orphanage in Canterlot and start searching the prospective parents there, but I’m… afraid.” Turpentine finished washing his clean brushes and put them to one side to dry. “I’ll never become as great as I know I can be if I don’t get an education. There are so many things I don’t know.”

“Ah. It is a wise pony indeed who knows how little they know.” Caractère’s eyes crinkled up as he fought to keep a straight face instead of smiling. “First, what do you fear?”

“I’m… afraid of failing,” said Turpentine in a very small voice. “And succeeding. Painting has always been the only thing I’ve been good at, other than making families give me back to the orphanage. If I goof up, I know I can always go back to Mother Windrow, but that’s where I always went when I failed before.”

“And if you succeed?” asked Caractère. “If you become the famous painter that I tried to become and failed. What then?”

There were no words. Turpentine had always imagined his fame as being in an art gallery, surrounded by cheering ponies admiring his latest painting, but now that goal seemed as false as artificial sweetener, and tasting just as bad.

“You know,” started Caractère, “you’re already more famous than I ever dreamed of. You have two princesses wanting to put your work in their museum gallery. I had to sneak my first painting in by deceit and failed miserably on my second.”

“Really?” Turpentine could feel his ears perk up from where they had flattened against his skull unnoticed.

“You have something I never could understand until it was too late.” Caractère settled down on the floor with his foreleg still crooked around his sleeping great-granddaughter, who was making cute little snoring noises and twitching her nose. “Tell me, do you paint your pictures for yourself or for the pony you’re painting?”

The obvious answer was also obviously wrong. Even the study he had done on butterfly wings was somehow directed as thanks to the colorful insects, who liked to flutter around him to be admired instead of escaping. Nearly every painting he had ever done wound up being taken home by the subject, even the batpony nurse and Baron Gaberdine’s parents. Something inside of Turpentine was aware that paintings were supposed to be paid for, but they had always seemed to be a gift to the subject in exchange for putting up with being stared at by a little colt with a paintbrush in his mouth.

“I want you to have both of the paintings I did of you and your granddaughter,” said Turpentine abruptly. “When I get famous, they’ll be worth a lot of bits. And I want Dawn to have this one. After I touch it up a little in a few spots. Next week. She can sell it when she’s bigger and it will pay for any school or training she needs for whatever she wants to do.”

Caractère shook his head slowly. “I’ll never sell your painting, Turpentine, no matter how many bits it will bring. You were right about Celestia. Paintings like this are memories, and I never want to forget what you taught me. After all, I don’t think you really want to be just a famous artist. It sounds like you want to be a great artist, and greatness can come from the most unexpected places.” Caractère swept a little strand of mane out of the little filly’s eyes and remained looking down at her while he talked. “I forged that Bledoe because of me. I wasn’t doing it for anypony else. I tried to justify my actions that way, but in the end, it was just me. When I see you paint, you’re painting for the subject, not yourself, and… I’m a little jealous.”

It did make a lot of sense, but Turpentine took some time to mentally chew on this tough vegetable. The portrait of Baron Miller was a gift for Sen, and painting the castle was a farewell gift to both Ripple and Baron Gaberdine. It made Turpentine uncomfortable to think that he had been considering his portrait for Princess Celestia as some sort of bribe, like he was trying to buy his way into someplace he did not belong.

I’ve never found a place where I belong. If I ever do, how will I know what it feels like?

It was a disagreeable thought, but the school where he would learn how to truly utilize his gift was in Canterlot, so therefore, that was where he needed to go. Undoubtedly, as Celestia had said, a family would find him there. A little colt… that is a big colt with a talent for painting should find it a lot easier to locate a family in a city where there was so much art that even Princess Celestia had to burn some of it once in a while to make space.

“I can see why Sen likes you so much.” Caractère’s voice was a shock to Turpentine, who found himself staring out the window of the shop in the general direction of what he thought was the distant riverboat castle. The old pegasus was nearly in the same position as before, only Dawn had been moved to a blanket coiled up on the floor next to his forehooves and the sunbeam illuminating her had moved a little closer to horizontal. “I like having you drop by every week. You actually think about what I say. Whenever I talk to my grandchildren, I can see the words bouncing off their hard heads. They’re too much like me, I suppose.”

“I like visiting you every week too,” said Turpentine in protest. “You’ve been a lot of help with my painting, and… I like talking to you. And your grandchildren. Pierce is a lot smarter than you realize. He’s going to be a really good father to Dawn, and he’s really got…” Turpentine glanced sideways at the colorful pictures of hot-air balloons in flight, particularly one called Raspberry Sunrise which seemed unusually aggressive, possibly even to the point of wanting to jump out of the photograph. “Does he actually paint those with a brush, or drop buckets on them from the air?”

* *  * *

Holding a brush between his teeth meant idle conversation had never been one of Turpentine’s strong points, but he found talking with Caractère different than his usual awkward speech between clenched lips. Later this afternoon, the pegasus sisters would return to pick him up, but for now he just relaxed and let the time flow along much like the rain had done this morning. The concept of fatherhood mostly drowned out his normal questions about painting technique, and Turpentine sat in rapt attention while Caractère talked about his younger years when he and his wife Gratuité had been trying to raise four troublemaking children in Canterlot. It did seem as if brothers and sisters were meant to fight for the limited resources of parental affection, but on the other hoof, there never seemed to be a shortage of that affection to go around, even after Gratuité died and left Caractère in an empty house. It was weird to hear about fatherhood from the other side after Turpentine had been looking at it from underneath for so many foster families.

The arrival of Powderpuff at the front door of the shop signaled the end of Turpentine’s visit, and he quickly picked up his purchases to get ready for departure. It had been a worthwhile trip, with a pretty good portrait of Gleaming Dawn on the wall to dry and a few additional paints for his portrait sitting with Princess Celestia tomor—

Oh, fudge.

“Mister Caractère,” said Turpentine quickly while Powderpuff was chatting at the counter with Pierce and cooing over his tiny daughter. “When I paint Princess Celestia tomorrow, where do you think I should… I mean how should I have her pose… I mean—”

“Why ask me?” The old pegasus reached out and poked Turpentine gently in the chest. “It’s your life. I don’t have answers to your problems. The answer is right in there. You just need to follow your instincts instead of listening to the advice of old fools.”

“Hey, Turp!” Powderpuff strolled up to him and eyed the small bag of paints and things by his side. “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

“Yeah.” Turpentine nodded while running his tongue around the inside of his teeth. “I think so.” He looked up at the drying portrait of the little filly, all cute and innocent. Dawn only cared about the now, so she was happy. She had no idea what awaited her out in the world, success or failure, and it made no difference to her at all. Someday she might become an alicorn and bear the weight of the world on her pale pink shoulders, but for now she had a family to love and toys to play with, and nothing could make her happier. “Thank you, Mister Caractère. I know how I’m going to paint Princess Celestia now.”

“You’re welcome, Turpentine.” Caractère smiled just the slightest around the corners of his eyes even though he was trying to keep the straightest face possible. “You may make it my gift to Her Highness as well.”

“Great.” Powderpuff shook her attention away from the portrait of the adorable little foal and picked up Turpentine’s bag. “Let’s go home.”

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