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What the hay is up with this place?

That solitary thought kept resonating in Derpy’s mind as she darted about the South Side, no easy feat considering she wasn’t familiar with any of these new addresses or their inhabitants.  Her mail deliveries, in spite of the sizable amount she was carrying, had been uneventful enough so far, in no small part because she was moving faster and more smoothly than she ever had before.  But now, with mishaps and fits of bungling behavior no longer an issue for her, Derpy’s attention was fixated instead on getting a feel for this new area of town.  

And from what she’d seen so far, she was still struggling to believe it was an actual part of Ponyville at all.  No part of town had felt this upside down since it’d been literally upside down during that whole episode with Discord, and even then things had seemed less alien than they did now.

For starters, nothing positively looked like it belonged in Ponyville; most of the buildings here, although fairly new, appeared ramshackle and dilapidated.  Some looked like they’d been thrown up overnight, others as though they’d been lived in for a lifetime already and then abandoned for years.  The sturdiest-looking structures weren’t your typical small town businesses or residencies either; bars, nightclubs, even a couple of strip clubs seemed to dominate the business district.  While Ponyville had a couple of pubs and nightclubs of its own before Derpy had left last year, they were nothing like these.  The Dragon’s Hoard, Club Crimson Veil, Midnight’s Delight, Moonshine and Mares, Foggy’s Bottom; these all sounded like establishments one would find in a place like Manehattan or Baltimare, and they certainly looked the part as well.  From shuttered or obscured windows on some to what could only be described as salacious billing on others, Derpy felt like she’d stepped into a seedy part of a big city.

It didn’t end at seedy, though.  Looking around, dodgy was another word that came to mind.  Most of the ponies she saw wore cheerless faces and seemed rather standoffish, keeping to themselves as they listlessly moved about whatever business they were up to, and an especially destitute-looking few reeked of alcohol and sat at intervals along the street panhandling.  Those who weren’t lifeless seemed the sort anyone with a shred of commonsense would go out of their way to steer clear of.  Hulking bouncers stood outside some of the new establishments, and small groups of hoodlums and bruisers haughtily roamed the streets like they owned the place.

Derpy had already had to go airborne more than once getting out of their way, and every time they passed it was like she wasn’t even there.  Not that she took it personally; from what she could tell, they treated anyone not associated with them the same way, and most ponies seemed to shrink in on themselves anytime a group approached, trying their best to make themselves as small and inconspicuous as possible.

She didn’t like it.  Not one bit.  If these were the kinds of changes Carrot had been referencing earlier, no wonder she’d been hesitant to delve further into it.  How had all this happened in just a year?  Where had all these ponies come from, and for that matter, why these ponies?  Derpy couldn’t begin to imagine how an area of town like this had sprung up in just a little over a year.  That sort of thing didn’t just happen, not in a town like Ponyville.

I gotta ask Carrot about… all of whatever this is.  I mean, this is just weird.  We’ve certainly seen our fair share of strange characters come to town, but this isn’t just one or two new faces, this is a whole new neighborhood!  But one that’s as… un-Ponyville, I guess, as one could possibly imagine a place could be.  I wonder if– oof!

In a split second, Derpy found herself lying at the bottom of a heap beneath some unknown mass which seemed to have been flung into her.  Whatever it was, it was hefty, felt grimy, and stunk of sweat and booze.  Struggling to get it off of her, she quickly noticed the mass appeared to be writhing as much as she was, and laughs were coming from somewhere behind her.  Finally managing to wriggle out from beneath and raise herself back up, Derpy discovered that the mass in question was a very flushed-looking mule.  Despite a small cut over his eye, which appeared fresh, the clearly-tipsy fellow was giggling uncontrollably between hiccups as he vainly tried to roll over and get up.  Instead, his legs just clawed at air, and Derpy couldn’t help but think he looked like a giant bug stuck on its back.  It’d be kind of funny if she wasn’t so annoyed from being knocked over by him.

Somepony else, however, evidently did find it funny, as howls of laughter continued coming from behind her.  Turning around, Derpy spotted two rather sizeable stallions standing in the doorway of a bar she’d been passing by, both of them laughing up a storm, although their attention seemed focused on the still hapless chap lying on the ground.

“Oh yeah, you sure showed us, didn’t ya?  Hey, next time you’re seeing three of me, maybe you shouldn’t pick a fight.  Bucking jackass.”

The mule in question groaned at that.  “Hey… t-told yeh ta stop callin’ me th–hic–that.”

“Oh buck off, haven’t you had enough already?” the seemingly lead stallion returned.  “I told ya, I’ll call you and any other mule I see a jackass whenever I feel like it, and some dumb, drunk mule ain’t about to tell me otherwise!  Now why don’t you crawl back in some gutter where you belong?”

Oh wow, aren’t you just the nicest fellow?

The two stallions started heading back into the bar when it just came out.  “Little early in the day to be getting plastered and starting a bar fight, don’t you think?”  The second the words slipped out of her mouth, Derpy knew she’d stepped into something, and a rush of both adrenaline and dread swept over her.

What are you doing?  What are you doing?  What are you doing?

Both stallions stared incredulously at her for a second, like they were just realizing she was even there.  Those incredulous stares, however, quickly became dangerous glares.

OK, you got this.  Just… don’t make anything worse than it already is.  Defuse, Derpy, defuse.

“The buck you say?” one of the stallions asked, as though daring her to even utter another peep.

Defuse?  Come on, is that what you really want?

Derpy didn’t say a word, but she didn’t shrink either.  Instead, she just stared right back at them.

If you really wanted to defuse anything, you wouldn’t have said a word.  Come on, you want this.

The stallions glanced at one another then back at Derpy.  “Hey, what the hay you looking at?” the other asked.

If you wanted to, you could turn them inside out.  Chew them up and spit ‘em out.  Come on, what are you waiting for? Do it.

Slowly, very deliberately, Derpy took her postal worker cap off and lowered her mailbag to the ground.

Do it.

One step forward.  Two steps.  Three steps.  She was now mere feet away from them.

Do it.

“I’m looking at a couple of jack-”

“Oh hey look, the mail’s here!  Got anything for me today, Miss Mailmare?”  Both Derpy and the thugs snapped out of their tense standoff at that, and turning to her left, Derpy saw a young unicorn mare shuffling through her mailbag.  That set off a few alarms in her mind, and Derpy quickly remembered her earlier priorities.

“Hey hey hey, that’s post office property!  You can’t just go through my mailbag.”

“OK, OK, sheesh, sorry!” the mare exclaimed, holding her hooves up apologetically.  “Say, you look new around here.  Want me to show you around?”

Derpy raised an eyebrow, trying to figure out what angle this mare might be coming from.  Her thoughts were interrupted, however, by an annoyed snort behind her from one of the stallions she’d been seconds away from picking a fight with.

“Hey Flake, do you mind?  We were kinda in the middle of something here.  Beat it.”

The unicorn simply made an exaggerated pouty expression in response.  “Awww, that’s not very nice.  I wonder what my sister would think when I told her just how not nice you are?  Wonder if she’d tell Foggy.”

Derpy had no idea what was going on, but whatever was happening, that definitely got a rise out of the lead stallion.  His companion, however, nudged him in the side, shaking his head.  “C’mon man, let’s just go back inside.  Ain’t worth it.”

He turned to leave, but the still-fuming stallion didn’t budge, staring daggers at the mare now flashing a cheeky smile.  “Don’t you dare forget how damn lucky you are to be Firecracker’s sister,” he spat venomously.  “Anyone else talked to me like you do, their face would be buried in the mud beneath my hoof, and that’s just for starters.  You best pray you’re never one of ‘em.”  With that, he turned and slunk back inside with his partner.

Derpy carefully watched both stallions retreat back inside, making sure they were gone for good, before retrieving her items she’d set down.  “Uh, thanks for that… whatever you just did back there, Miss, er, Flake was it?” she asked the oddly unfazed mare.

The mare smiled back at her.  “Snowflake.  Er, just Snowflake, no need for all that ‘Miss’ nonsense, never been a fan.”

Snowflake, eh?  Well you certainly look the part between your ice blue mane and white coat.  Even got a snowflake cutie mark to go with it.  Very interesting hooves though; bottom half of the coat is the same ice blue shade as your mane.  Never seen that before.

“And it’s no problem, happy to help a newcomer who didn’t know any better!”  Derpy blushed a bit at that, but quickly shrugged it off.

“Oh, I’m not exactly a newcomer.  I lived here long before anyone in this part of town did, I’ve just been… gone a while.”

“Well I ain’t ever seen ya till today.  How long a while?” Snowflake asked.

“Oh… a year.  Maybe a bit more,” Derpy replied.

“Wow, that sure is a while!” Snowflake remarked.  “So what brings you back, er…?”

“Derpy.  Derpy Hooves.  But, just Derpy’s fine.  And I guess you could say I was feeling homesick, is all.  Quiet place like Ponyville, it grows on ya after a while.”

“I know what you mean,” Snowflake agreed.  “I haven’t even been here that long, but there is something real special about this place you can’t help but notice.  Though I imagine it wasn’t quite like this when you left, huh?”

“How’d you know?” Derpy asked.

“Well it just stands to reason,” Snowflake explained.  “I mean, most of us in this part of town came here in the past year.  My sister and I came about ten months ago ourselves, straight from Baltimare.”

Baltimare? That’s strange, don’t know too many ponies around here who came from big cities like that.

“Baltimare, huh?  That’s quite a ways away.  What brought you out here, if I might ask?”

“Oh, you know, word got out that business was hopping here, that sort of thing,” Snowflake disclosed.  “Come on, I’ll tell you more while I show you around.  I gotta grab a bite anyway before my lunch break ends.”

“Wait, you were serious about that?” Derpy asked in a surprised voice.  Snowflake readily nodded.

“Sure.  I mean, you’re gonna be doing deliveries around here regularly, right?  Well, you gotta get to know the neighborhood, now, don’t ya.  Sooner you do that, the better.”

Derpy liked this mare already, impressed by her generous offer, especially given how young she looked.

“Alright, sounds like a plan, but only if you’re sure.  Lead the way, Snowflake!”

“With pleasure,” she said.

For some time, both mares wandered about the district with Snowflake leading the way.  It was a bit slow-going, but Derpy dropped off mail and packages when she could, all while Snowflake helpfully explained who lived where and what certain establishments were, information which Derpy dutifully made note of and mentally tucked away in the back of her mind.  While they hardly hit the entire neighborhood, it was still a good start and would make navigating the place much easier for Derpy going forward.  After stopping at a tiny eatery nearby where Snowflake grabbed a bite to eat, the two mares continued onward, Snowflake taking bites of her eggplant panini between sentences.

“So tell me, where exactly did everyone around here come from?” Derpy asked.  “Cause I gotta tell ya, we never saw a population boost like this around here before I left.”

“Oh, all over.  Manehattan, Fillydelphia, Baltimare, lots of big city ponies like my sis and I.”

Strange, very strange.  Why the hay have so many urban dwellers been coming all the way out here?

Not noticing Derpy’s furrowed brow, Snowflake continued.  “Yeah, certainly been a big change from the city, but we’re doing alright.  I kinda like how wide and open everything is.  And the green, oh gosh, everything’s so green!  No concrete jungle around here, that’s for sure.  Anyways, here we are, Midnight’s Delight!”

They both came to a halt outside one of the new establishments Derpy had spied earlier.  From what she could tell, it appeared to be a bar or nightclub of some sort, and compared to some of the others she’d seen so far it was one of the more agreeable looking ones.  The building’s façade itself resembled for the most part the typical cottage design so prominent around Ponyville, impressive considering some of the South Side buildings looked like they’d been thrown together in five minutes, much less had any actual thought put into their design.  The sole, noteworthy deviation from the standard Ponyville design was the great, glowing, magenta neon sign on the front of the building which read in flowing script ‘Midnight’s Delight.’

“Um… OK, uh, why are we here?” Derpy asked.

“Duh!  I told you I was on my lunch break.  Well, this is where I work,” Snowflake replied matter-of-factly.

“Ohhhhh, I see,” Derpy acknowledged.  “Well, I better be going the–”

“Oh no, please, come in, I insist!” Snowflake pleaded.  “You just have to meet Midnight.  Trust me, you won’t regret it, you’ll have a hay of a lot easier time getting to know the South Side once you meet her.  Besides, you can drop off some of your mail with the girls inside, I’m sure you’ve got something in there for at least a few of them.”

Derpy waffled at that idea.  She really didn’t need a distraction like this right now, especially not today of all days.  However, a glance at the town clock tower allayed her nerves somewhat, showing she still had plenty of time to spare.  With a shrug, she turned back to Snowflake.  “Oh what the hay, sure, why not?”

Entering inside, Derpy was swiftly taken aback by what she saw.  If the sign outside was one thing, the stark contrast between the interior and exterior design was a whole other matter altogether.  As opposed to the building’s folksy façade, soft, violet lighting darkly lit the inside of Midnight’s Delight, adding at once both an inviting warmth and sensuous edge to the atmosphere.  A neat and very well-stocked bar, along with some empty tables, dominated one half of the main floor, while the other half largely consisted of a dance floor and thrust stage.  The couple of burlesque poles dotting the stage did not escape the attentive mare’s notice.

Ah, I see, it’s that kind of club.  Interesting.  I wonder if that means Snowflake’s a… huh, interesting.

From the top of a flight of stairs behind the bar, a silky voice called out, “Snowflake, dear, who’ve you brought with you into our lovely establishment today, hmmm?”

An earth pony mare descended the stairs towards the two.  She was considerably older than either Derpy or Snowflake, possibly in the twilight of her midlife, but she was strikingly good-looking for her age.  Her coat was the same violet hue as the lighting inside, she had a wavy, stylish magenta mane and tail, and a simple, silver chain necklace complimented both nicely.  But it was really her comportment from whence her allurement truly resonated; she wholly carried herself in a way which Derpy could only describe as elegantly inviting.  It reminded her of the polished movements Rarity typically displayed about town, but like the club itself, there was a voluptuous air to it all, as though she were silently insisting, “Come hither, if you dare.”

Sauntering up to the two, she flashed a warm smile at Derpy.  “Hello, dear.  Welcome to Midnight’s Delight, where delight is your right.  I’m the owner of this den of a million pleasures, Midnight Marvel.  What can I do for you?”

Tearing her gaze away from wandering about the club, Derpy replied, “Oh, uh, sorry.  I’m just here to drop off some mail.  Oh, but where are my manners?  I’m Derpy, Derpy Hooves.”

“Derpy Hooves?  Now where have I heard tha- oh yes, of course, you’re Cloud’s friend!”

Of course she knows Cloud.  I can only imagine how much time she’s spent at a place like this.  But hey, I suppose it’s a good thing if it has her seal of approval… maybe.  She does have pretty high standards after all, won’t go to just any old sketchy place.  Well, most of the time anyways.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome, it’s so good to finally meet you!  Any friend of Cloud’s is a friend of mine.  I must say, however, you’re a bit more toned than I’d imagined you’d be.”  Midnight’s eyes drifted to her backside, eliciting a fierce blush from Derpy.  Something about an older mare commenting on her derriere seemed even stranger than one of her best friends doing so on a regular basis.  Maybe she was just used to it by now with Cloud; now there was a worrying thought.

“Yeah… well, anyways, Snowflake here got me out of a bit of a jam and has been kind enough to show me around a bit.  Most everything south of the Smith River wasn’t here last time I was in town, you see.”

Midnight nodded understandingly.  “Of course, of course, a most marvelous idea indeed, Snowflake!” she said approvingly.  “I always encourage my employees to be good neighbors.  After all, it’s important making a good impression and keeping up appearances in a small town like this.”

“Wow, that’s very candid of you,” Derpy admitted, to which Midnight simply shrugged.

“I’m a businessmare my dear, and I make no apologies about it.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’d want to be a good neighbor wherever I lived no matter what, but a mare in my position can’t ignore the incentives for being one either.  Happy neighbors mean happy customers and more of ‘em.  That’s the type of business model I will always get behind.”

“Seems it works out for ya pretty well,” Derpy said.  “You’ve got a really nice place here.  At least, I think it is, but I could be wrong since I don’t go to that many clubs and bars.  And wow, sorry, I hope that did not sound insulting in any way.”

Luckily, Midnight just laughed it off, waving a reassuring hoof.  “Oh my dear, think nothing of it.  In my line of work, you quickly get used to patrons who’ve never been to a place like this, especially in a town like Ponyville.  You’re hardly the first nervous mare I’ve ever had in my establishment.  Now then, as long as you’re here, would you care for a drink?”

Derpy shook her head.  “No thanks, it’s a bit early for me, especially considering I’m still on the clock.  Speaking of which, do you know which of your employees are in right now?  I’m a mailmare, and Snowflake thought it might be a good idea for me to drop some of my mail off to whoever’s in right now.”

“Certainly!  Snowflake, be a dear and fetch this week’s work schedule from my office.”  Snowflake trotted up the stairs, leaving Derpy alone with Midnight.  “Sure I can’t tempt you with a drink on the house?  I make a mean daiquiri.”

“That’s really nice of you, but I’ll have to take you up on it some other time,” Derpy maintained.  “I haven’t technically landed this job yet and need to be on my best behavior today.  Hopefully if I do well enough, you’ll be seeing a lot more of me around here.”

“Well that’s a relief.  The postal service has been awfully shoddy on this side of the river to date,” Midnight groused.  “Not that I entirely blame them for that.  Things are, in a word, chaotic around here, to say the least.”

“Yeah?”

“Mhmm,” Midnight nodded, producing a glass and bottle of whiskey from behind the bar and pouring herself a drink.  “This part of town is hot right now.  In some ways, too hot.  You got some folks like me who just want to make an honest living, but then there’s a whole mess of scoundrels around here who’ll do anything to make a bit.  And I do mean anything.”

If they’re anything like those jerks earlier, I can see how that’d be a problem.

Derpy grabbed a seat at the bar while Midnight slowly sipped her drink.  A few minutes later, a commotion came from upstairs and Snowflake shortly emerged with some papers and something else rather unexpected held aloft in her telekinetic magic.

“Well, well, well, look what I found scrounging around your office, Midnight,” she announced, smirking as a small pegasus colt squirmed in the grasp of her magic.

“Lemme go, c’mon, lemme go!” the colt protested.

“No doubt trying to find your secret stash of sweets, as usual,” she said, chuckling.

Midnight snorted and Derpy couldn’t hold back a laugh either at the ridiculous sight.  “Yours?” she asked.

“Nah, Firecracker’s, Snowflake’s older sister,” Midnight replied.  “Oh Silver, Silver, Silver, what in Equestria am I going to do with you?”  The colt ceased his struggling momentarily to grin sheepishly at Midnight with the most endearing smile he could muster.

“Uh, let me go and not tell mom about this?” he suggested.

“Oh you are such a treat sometimes,” Midnight said.

“So you’ll do it?” he asked hopefully.

“Yeah, no,” Midnight said, shaking her head.  “Although I could be convinced to see your side of things if, say, you sweetened the deal for me.”

The colt bit his lip, in deep thought.  “Ummm… would you let me go and not tell mom for a hug?”  Midnight rolled her eyes.  “A really, really big hug?”

“Tell you what.  You Pinkie promise to help your mom with chores around your place more, and I won’t tell.  Sound fair?”

“Awww sheesh, do I have to?”  Midnight and Snowflake nodded in unison, and the colt groaned in exasperation, finally conceding as only an outmaneuvered colt could.  “Fine.”

“Go on,” Midnight pressed.

“I promise to help mom around the house more.  Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye,” he grumbled, going through the motion familiar to ponies all over Ponyville.

“Good boy.  And remember, if you break it, she’ll know,” Midnight warned forebodingly.  “Alright Snowflake, you can drop him.”  Snowflake released her nephew from her magical grasp and he promptly scampered off, no doubt searching for new mischief to get up to as befit a colt his age.  Derpy chuckled at the conclusion of the exchange.

“You know about Pinkie promises?”

“I’m surprised you even have to ask,” Midnight remarked.  “After all, you’ve known Pinkie longer than I have.  First thing I learned about this town after the name was that there is no escaping that crazy filly.  I’m actually rather worried by the fact that ninety-percent of her behavior doesn’t even faze me anymore.  Anyway, here’s today’s work schedule.”

“Thanks.”  Derpy scanned the schedule and removed whatever mail she could.  As she was doing so, the now-unfettered colt trotted up to where she was sitting.

After a moment, he suddenly asked, “What’s wrong with your eyes?”

“Silver, rude!  Where are your manners?” Snowflake exclaimed, scolding her nephew.  Derpy, however, wasn’t fazed in the slightest, and was actually rather pleased with his observation.

Alright, good, must be crossing the eyes pretty well if he noticed.  Celestia bless colts and their inability to keep their big mouths shut.

Waving a placating hoof, Derpy said, “It’s OK, don’t worry about it.  Truth be told they’ve been like that for as long as I can remember.  Kinda what a lot of ponies know me for around here.  Don’t worry, though, I can see just fine.”

Snowflake nodded.  “Alright, if you say so, but that still doesn’t excuse you, mister,” she said, still scowling at Silver.  “When your mom gets here we’re gonna have a nice, long chat about picking your words carefully.”

“Aw c’mon, aunty, we have a deal!” Silver protested, but Snowflake simply chuckled.

“I don’t recall our deal covering every way you get yourself in trouble,” she slyly remarked.

That drew a rather adorable pout from Silver.  “So where’s your mom work anyway?” Derpy asked, still sorting through mail.

“Oh she’s not at work.  She’s probably with her friend,” Silver answered.

“Her friend, huh.  Who’s that?”

“Mister Foggy.”

Midnight let out an annoyed grunt and, out of the corner of her eye, Derpy noticed her pouring herself another drink with a very noticeable grimace fixed on her face.  “Yeah, friend, now there’s a word for it,” she muttered to herself.

Her curiosity piqued, Derpy decided to press Silver to learn more.  “What kind of a friend is this Mister Foggy, huh, Silver?”

“Well, he’s OK, I guess,” Silver replied.  “He’s real nice to mommy and gets me and her all sorts of nice things.  But Miss Midnight doesn’t seem to like him too much.”

Midnight snorted indignantly.  “I never said I didn’t like him,” she said defensively.

“But I hear you and mommy yelling about him a lot,” Silver countered.

“Silver, why don’t you go back upstairs and finish your homework befo– oh, well speak of the devil, look who’s back!” she remarked.  Glancing over her shoulder, Derpy espied a pegasus entering the club.  She was a beautiful mare, with the same bright orange coat as Silver had, but also a curly and well-kempt mane and tail with fiery orange and ruby red streaks.  She seemed positively radiant, and it wasn’t just her looks that made it so; bedecked in very expensive-looking jewelry, she exuded a carefree confidence as she strode towards the group.

“There he is, there’s my little Silver Sunrise!” she exclaimed, scooping Silver up into her hooves.  While he squirmed in her grip as any colt his age would in the “embarrassingly” public embrace of his mother, she held fast and showered kisses upon his cheeks and silver mane as only a mother who didn’t care how much she was embarrassing her son in front of others could.

“Mom, stop it!  Bleh, you’re getting cooties all over me, what if my friends walk in?  Mom!  Mom!!!”  Finally relenting her grip upon him, Silver wriggled out of his mother’s grasp and rubbed his cheeks with a hoof in disgust, as if he were trying to wipe some foul substance from them.  His mother in turn dug through a saddlebag resting on her back, eventually producing what appeared to be some sort of superhero toy.

“Look what mommy got you, sweetie.”  Silver’s eyes lit up and he quickly got over his mother’s overt displays of affection.

“Woah, is that the new Mistress Mare-velous action figure complete with limited edition lasso?”

“The one and only.”

“Awesome!!!”  Silver bounced up to grab it, but his mother kept it just out of his reach.

“Ah, ah, ah, first things first, young stallion.  Is your homework done yet?” she asked.

“Well… kinda,” Silver sheepishly replied.

“Kinda?”  A skeptical, raised eyebrow was all Silver needed to see to know his mom wasn’t buying it for a second.

“Ugh, fine, I’ll go do it.  Then can I play?” he asked sullenly.

“Of course, sweetie.  Now run along, and don’t just fill in whatever, really do your homework.  Remember, I’ll know if you weren’t trying,” she warned.  Silver dragged himself upstairs, but as soon as he was out of sight, Midnight snickered.

“Nice going, hon, you’re getting pretty good at the whole ‘parental-bargaining’ thing,” she remarked.

“Thanks.  Figure I might be able to get him to eat all his dinner tonight too if I play my cards right,” she said half-jokingly.  Turning to Derpy, the mare’s eyes widened in recognition.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.  I’m Firecracker, terribly sorry for not noticing you earlier!”

“Derpy Hooves,” Derpy replied.  “And no worries, your kid’s more important than little ol’ me.  I’m just your friendly neighborhood mailmare.  Well, hopefully will be, at least.  Anyways, nice to meet you, Firecracker!”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Firecracker assured her.  “A mailmare you say, how nice.  So what brings you down here today, if I might ask?”

“Your sister brought Derpy by to get to know the neighborhood,” Midnight explained.

“Oh, you know Snowflake?  Wonderful.  And clearly you already met Midnight and my little bundle of joy, Silver, as well.”

“You got it,” Derpy nodded in affirmation.  “Say, that’s a beautiful pearl necklace you got there, where’d you get that?”

Firecracker waved a hoof but blushed bashfully.  “You like it?  My Foggy just gave it to me today over lunch.  Can you believe it?  Must’ve cost him a fortune.”  At the mere mention of Foggy, Midnight’s mood immediately darkened and she huffed, which did not escape either Derpy or Firecracker’s notice.

“Everything alright, Midnight?” Derpy asked.

“Yeah, of course, fine,” she curtly replied.

Firecracker seemed to ignore her entirely and kept going from where she’d left off, though with the slightest bit of edge in her own voice now.  “Yes, Foggy’s been very good to Silver and I since we got together, very good indeed, and I love him for it.”

Midnight snorted and absentmindedly took yet another sip of her rapidly shrinking drink, drawing a heated glare from Firecracker.

Well sounds like somebody doesn’t agree with that assessment.  Wonder if Midnight’s just jealous, or if she doesn’t like this Foggy fella.  And if she doesn’t like him, why doesn’t she?

Just as Firecracker was about to respond to Midnight’s very evident disdain, a new voice spoke up from the front of the club, one which Derpy recognized, much to her surprise.  “Well hello, Miss Hooves, fancy seeing you here!”  All three mares turned to find none other than Time Turner.

“Oh, hi Time.  What are you doing here?” Derpy asked.

“I could ask you the same thing,” he said matter-of-factly.

She shrugged as nonchalantly as she could, though her face turned the slightest tint of red given the particular location he’d found her in.  “Oh, just getting to know the neighborhood while doing some deliveries, you know how it goes.”

“Oh, you’re a mailmare?”

“Was.  Trying to get my old job back and it turns out they could use an extra hoof to help with the South Side, so, here I am.  Figured I’d give my hooves a bit of a break and get to know some of the folks around here.  Speaking of which, Time, this is Midnight Marvel and Firecracker.”  Both mares smiled and Midnight stepped out from behind the bar to greet Time.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance.  I’m Midnight Marvel, owner of this fine establishment.  Now, who might you be, handsome, and what can I do for you?” she said whilst batting her eyes, her voice smooth as Appleloosan whiskey.

For his part, Time just smirked.  “Oh, you’re not gonna like it,” he assured her, producing his badge and eliciting a scowl from Midnight.

“You’re a cop!  Hold on a minute, I run a perfectly legitimate business here,” she contended defensively.

Time waved a hoof, returning his badge to his saddlebag.  “Relax, relax, I’m not vice.  I don’t even think this town has a vice squad to be honest.  I’m a detective, ma’am, and new in town.  I’ll be doing a lot of work in the South Side and like Miss Hooves over there, I thought it’d be apt to explore around and get to know some of the ponies living here.  My chief, Commissioner Gust, assured me that your club was a good place to start.  As I recall, his exact words were, and I quote, ‘Midnight’s a decent sort, and certainly the first mare you’d want to get to know over there.’  So that’s why I’m here, ma’am; I want to do right by Ponyville’s residents, all of them, and that means getting to know you and the South Side.  Would you be so kind, then, to indulge some questions of mine?”

Midnight seemed to struggle internally for a moment but finally gave a sharp nod, downing the last of the drink she still held.  “Alright, alright, we can talk.  Gust’s been pretty good to us, so if he sent you, I guess you must be okay.  Let’s go back to my office.  It was nice meeting you Derpy, sorry I have to cut our visit short.”

“No worries, I gotta get back to my deliveries anyway.  Thanks for letting me rest my hooves here, and I hope to see you around.  Same to you, Firecracker, and tell your sister I said thanks, she’ll know what for.  Have a good day, everypony!”  Springing from her seat, Derpy trotted for the exit, giving one last, friendly wave to the others as she left.

“A good day to you as well, Miss Hooves!” Time called.

“Time, please, seriously, nopony calls me ‘Miss Hooves’,” Derpy lightheartedly pressed, giggling.

Now it was Time’s turn to blush.  “Er, of course Miss– I mean, Derpy.  Have a nice day, yes, you do that now and I’m… gonna try to stop being a total spaz and come off as something resembling professional at the very least.  I hope.”  His ear’s flattened in embarrassment as Derpy left Midnight’s Delight still laughing, but Midnight seemed to enjoy his loss of composure.

“Oh don’t be so formal, detective, I’m certainly not.  Come on then, step into my office.  I’ll tell you what’s what and who’s who around here.”

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“Sure I can’t interest you in some carnations?” Lily asked.

“Nope.”

“How about fuchsia, it’s got quite a kick to it!” Daisy offered.

“Nah, I’m good.”

“Marigolds, we’ve got plenty of marigolds!” Roseluck emphasized.

“Girls, I told you, I’m fine!” Carrot Top insisted in annoyance to the trio of sisters, despite knowing she’d immediately regret it.

“Oh, this is a disaster, a disaster!”

“Simply awful, awful, awful!”

“Whatever shall we do?”

The mares swiftly descended into a panic around Carrot’s vegetable stand while she just stood there, an unamused, stony expression etched upon her face.

Dear Celestia, why me?  Why did I ever set up shop so close to the Flower sisters?  Every time these girls have some extra flowers they always, always insist I buy some before anypony else since I’m right next door.  And every time I say no, they do this!

In a last ditch effort to calm down the mares ever-so-prone to hysterics, Carrot suddenly blurted out, “Uh, I could use some sage if you’ve got some.”

“We’re all out of sage!” Lily moaned, and her sisters promptly renewed their wailing as well.

“Oh for Pete’s sake, girls, it’s just a little bit of overstock, it’s not the end of the world!  Sheesh, get a hold of yourself,” she demanded.  The sisters calmed down, but glared angrily at Carrot.

“Well, I never,” Daisy huffed.  “There’s no need to lose your cool like that, Carrot.  If you’re having a bad day, just tell us.  Come on, girls, we don’t need this drama.”  The three stomped away, leaving a bewildered Carrot who just stood behind her stand straight as an arrow, one of her eyes now twitching involuntarily.

I just… I… what?  You know what, buck it, I’m packing up.  Been a long day, I’ve got a shift at the Hay Burger in a few hours, and I do not need any more of that, thank you very much.

Carrot hastily began packing her unsold produce into a cart next to her stand, in no mood to put up with anypony else’s shenanigans for the day even though she knew that’s exactly what awaited her later that evening.  Just as she was loading her last bucket of carrots, something slammed into her with what felt like the force of a hurricane.  Two hooves wrapped around her trunk and hoisted her into the air, squeezing her as tight as a boa constrictor.

While she overcame her shock at what she could only assume was an assault, a voice cried out, “Carrot, I got it, I got it Carrot!  I got it!  I got it!”

Recognizing the exuberant voice, Carrot barely managed to gasp out, “Derpy… put… me down.  Can’t… can’t breathe.”  Getting a hold of herself, Derpy gently released her friend and set her back down on solid ground.

After taking a few gulps of precious air, Carrot moaned, “Ohhhhh, my poor ribs.”

“Heheh, sorry about that, guess I got a bit carried away,” a sheepish Derpy said.

Carrot waved a dismissive hoof.  “Forget it.  Now, what’s all this then?  What exactly did you get?”

Derpy perked up once more, practically bouncing where she stood.  “The job, I got the job!”  It took a moment to register with Carrot, but as she processed what Derpy was telling her, her eyes widened.

“Wait, seriously?  When?”

“Not five minutes ago!  You’re looking at Ponyville’s newest-former-but-now-rehired mailmare.  You should have seen the look on Postmark’s face when I got back with two hours to spare, it was priceless!  I don’t think I’ve ever seen any pony’s jaw drop so low, he could barely even get a word out.  I doubt he thought anyone could deliver all that mail in one day, but I did it, I did it, I did it!  Hey, where’re you going?”

“Wait here,” Carrot said.  Without another word, she left her loaded cart with Derpy and headed straight for the Hay Burger adjacent to the marketplace.  About ten seconds after she trotted inside, an earsplitting, jubilant, “I QUIT!!!” rang out, drowning out all commotion in the marketplace and drawing more than a few concerned and curious gazes.

Carrot immediately reappeared, trotting back over to Derpy with quite the bounce in her step.  “Wow, that felt even better than I’d fantasized it would,” she remarked, sounding as though a great load had been lifted from her shoulders.

“Been waiting to do that for a while, huh?” Derpy said, grinning.

“Derpy, you don’t even know.  Thank you, though, so very much.  You have no idea how much I needed that.  Come on, let’s go home, I’ll fix us up something real nice for dinner,” Carrot promised, strapping her cart’s harness to her trunk before the two started making their way back to their cottage.  “So you had a pretty good day, I imagine, yes?”

“Yes indeed,” Derpy said, beaming.  “Oh it’s good to be back.  I’ll have to tell you all about it over dinner.  And you’ll have to tell me about the South Side.”

Carrot raised a curious eyebrow.  “Why?”

“Well I’ll be working there, I mean, that’s why Postmark rehired me.  With all the new ponies in town, he needs more hooves to carry the extra work load.  But I’d be lying if I said that were the only reason.”

“It’s not?” Carrot wondered, and Derpy shook her head but said nothing for a few minutes, as though contemplating where to go next with this conversation.  “Well go on, spit it out,” Carrot finally urged.

“It’s just… something you said the other day, when I got back.  You mentioned there being lots of new faces around town, but also lots of new problems.  I think after seeing the South Side, I know what you meant by that, at least somewhat.  There’s something definitely… off about that place.”

“But why do you want to know more?”

“I don’t know,” Derpy admitted.  “I met some ponies who live there.  There’s some good ones over there, no doubt about it, but there’s more than a few bad eggs, as well.  There’s also a… I don’t know, an air of foreboding about the whole place.  Most of the ponies I saw over there seemed to be trying to stay inconspicuous as possible, and those who didn’t seemed to be making sure the rest stayed that way.  It just didn’t feel right.  It didn’t feel like a place ponies want to live.”

Carrot didn’t say anything for a while but gave a small nod.  “Well you’re not exactly wrong,” she finally said.  “Ask any decent folk around here, I’m sure they’d tell you one and all that that place is bad news.  But that still doesn’t tell me why you want to know more.”

Derpy simply shrugged.  “I just… it just bugs me, OK?  Doesn’t sit right.  I’ve just got to know more so I can, I don’t know… I just want to know more, that’s all.  It’s our home, and it wasn’t like this when I left.  I need to know what happened, how it happened.”

Carrot frowned, but also nodded in understanding.  “Alright, I hear you.  I’ll tell you what I can over dinner.  I owe you that much for restoring a little bit of my sanity and helping me quit that awful job.”

“Thanks Carrot.”

They arrived at their cottage a few minutes later when Derpy suddenly put a hoof to her forehead.  “Oh horsefeathers, I completely forgot!  I gotta go see someone, Carrot, I won’t be long.  Mind getting started on dinner without me?”

Her friend shook her head rather emphatically.  “Oh, trust me, I wasn’t planning on letting you anywhere near my kitchen!  Even if you’d spent a hundred years in the mountains, I don’t think I would; I’ve seen what you do to food, my dear.”

“Har har, very funny.”

“Go on, do what you gotta do,” Carrot said.  “Oh, and tell her I said hi.”

Derpy smiled softly.  “Thanks Carrot, will do.”

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“Hey.  Long time no see, right?  Well, not really I guess.  I mean, I know you’re always with me, but it’s… it’s different being back here, ya know?  I’m sure you’d understand.”

A cool, early spring breeze blew past Derpy atop the hill she stood upon, nipping her coat just the tiniest bit.  The sole shelter afforded to her was a single, mature apple tree, its buds on the verge of blooming any day now, as they had for the past eighteen years.

“Things are going pretty well.  Got my job back, connected with some old friends, made some new ones.  Carrot says hi, by the way.  All in all, things are really good.”

For a second, Derpy almost believed it.  Almost managed to convince herself that things were just fine.  Almost.

“Well… no, that’s not true.  Nothing’s terrible, but, something feels wrong still.  Some of it’s home, for sure, there’s definitely something going on around here.  I don’t know what, but it stinks.  It’s not just that, though.  It’s me, too.  I can’t pretend the last year didn’t happen, can’t live a lie and just try to get back to the way things were.  That’s not enough anymore, not now, not after everything.  Maybe that’s why I want to know what’s wrong around here.  Maybe I think I can help.  If I can, who am I not to?  You wouldn’t hold back if there was a way you could help someone.  Not your style, never was.  So why should I?  How can I?”

Derpy sat upon her haunches in deep contemplation, the sun just beginning to steadily lower as evening drew ever nearer.  Ponies were retiring to their homes for the evening or out and about grabbing a bite to eat, though noticeably the South Side itself appeared to be becoming more animated.  She ignored that though for the time being, soaking up the abundance of peace and quiet she so enjoyed every time she visited.  Finally, taking a deep breath, she let out a sedate sigh.

“I think I’m past the point where I can see a situation like this going on and do nothing.  And I’m actually OK with that.  In fact there’s… a flame inside.  It’s been growing, and I know it.  I tempered it for a little bit while I got home and got things straightened out here, but it’s still there, and it’s not going away.  Seeing this, now, what’s going on at home, it’s going to grow again, I just know it.  I can’t fight it, and I don’t want to.  But I can’t let it consume me.  I can’t just feed it, I’ve got to control it.  Let it fuel my drive, not destroy me.”

Whatever happens, I want you to know that I’m not going to throw away everything you gave me.  But I won’t watch my home struggle against something I might be able to help with.  I won’t do nothing if it needs me.  It needed you, and you laid down your life for it.  If it comes to it, Celestia forbid, I’d be willing to do the same, but I won’t let it come to that.  I’ll be better than this, whatever it is that’s infested my home.  I’ll be better than it and anything else that gets thrown my way.  I can be better than it, and I will, because anything less than my best is unacceptable.  I’m not there yet, but I will be.  I’ve just gotta be patient, watch, learn, prepare, and act.  Yeah… that ought to do it.”

For a while longer she sat in deep thought, considering her next course of action.  She could visualize the roadmap before her, what she needed to do, but what lay at the end of it was still a mystery.  It would come to her, though, she was sure of it, in due time it would come.  She just had to find it.

“Love you mom, good talking with you.  Hope the stars shine bright tonight, for ya.”  Taking one last, long look at her headstone, Derpy turned and slowly descended the hill where her mother still rested, the sun just dipping below the horizon as she reached the bottom.  Letting out a contented sigh, she slowly walked back home, relishing the time she had along the way to be alone with her thoughts.

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Cold.  It was so cold, and dark.  The groggy mare wondered if her eyes were even open as she tried to figure out where she was, so impenetrable was the darkness.  How had she gotten here, she wondered?  The last thing she remembered was packing her bags to leave town before everything went dark.

She lifted herself up to try and better regain her bearings, but the sound of metal chains scraping against stone dispelled that notion.  Lifting her hooves, she quickly realized her hind legs were shackled and chained to the floor, and that sent a wave of panic crashing over her.  Someone had brought her here, she realized, and whoever they were they wanted her to stay put.

Still trying to comprehend what was happening to her, her breath caught in her chest when the sound of hoofsteps on stone suddenly pealed out in the darkness and grabbed her full attention.  The steps grew louder and louder, clearly drawing nearer, and she backed away from them as far as her chains would allow.  Then, just when it seemed they were mere feet away, the steps came to a grinding halt.

For a moment there was nothing but the sounds of her breathing.  She couldn’t hear anything, anything at all in front of her.  Finally, unsure what else to do, she quietly whispered, “H-hello.  Is someone there?  Please, I… whatever you want, I’ll give you whatever I can, just please don’t hurt me.  I… please.  Please, let me go.  Why am I here?  What… what did I do?”

Silence.  Nothing but silence.  That in and of itself was almost unbearable.  Whatever happened next, she just wanted to know, needed to know at this point who was doing this to her, why.  Everything unknown was just as bad as the situation she was in, and even more unnerving.  But she dared not speak again, just as fearful of what might happen if she did.  It seemed whoever was before her figured this out and soon decided to break the oppressive silence instead.

“I wonder… are you afraid?”

“Wh-what?  Of course I am!” she said somewhat indignantly, shocked that was even a question.  Her captor, however, chuckled at her response before falling silent once more.  He didn’t stay silent for long.

“No.  No, you’re not afraid.  Not yet,” he assured her.  “What you’re feeling is merely a base, animal instinct that so many others in your exact situation would also feel.  But you’re not really afraid.”

She had no idea what he meant by that, but most certainly dreaded finding out.

“No, my dear, we need to peel layer upon layer of your psyche to get to that, I’m afraid,” he said.  “Though I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t looking forward to it.”

The mare started pulling at her chains as hard as she could, hoping beyond hope that by some miracle they might break and she might escape this nightmare.  When that didn’t work, she braced herself for the final blow, squeezing her eyes shut, but nothing came.  Nothing save for a small puff of air directly in front of her face.

She blinked rapidly.  She couldn’t understand why nothing had happened.  The darkness and silence were all she could sense, but she knew, she just knew that he was still there as well.

Then, a near imperceptible scratching in the back of her mind.  She barely noticed it, but she did catch it nonetheless.  Something… something moving in the deepest, darkest recesses of her subconscious.  A glow came, but it didn’t really pierce the darkness.  Rather, it seemed to come from her, spreading, threatening to engulf her, and as it spread so too did a burning sensation.

She looked down at her hooves and to her terror saw them bathed in flames.  No, not just them.  Everything.  Everything flames.  Her coat, her mane, tail, and wings, all aflame, all burning, all pain.

“Oh gosh… oh gosh, it’s everywhere!” she screamed.  “No please, stop!  Make it stop!  It hurts, it hurts so much!  The burning, the flames, please, please, please mister, put them out.  Someone, anyone, please, make it stop!  No no no no no, Celestia please, nooooo!!!  Help me!!!”

She thrashed on the floor, but nothing took them away.  They climbed higher, and higher, and higher and soon it seemed the whole room was aflame, but the darkness remained.  An entire room filled to the brim with darkness and fire and her screams.

Her captor watched her display silently, breathing in deeply as she began to writhe and wail.  “Hmmm… pyrophobia, I see.  Fascinating.”

He closed his eyes, soaking in the sound of her screams.  Even as her voice became hoarse, still she cried for help, for release, for death.  But nothing came except a never-ending cascade of terror.

“Just kill me, please!  Make it all go away, I don’t care how!  Please!  Please!  Please!!!”

He smiled at the music to his ears.  A beautiful, wonderful harmony of horror.  Taking another deep breath, he shuddered in ecstasy, finally uttering, “Thank you, my dear, thank you.  This has all been very educational, and your fear is absolutely… delicious.”
Batmare Begins - Chapter 12: Tabula Rasae, Part 3
Heheheheheh, ya'll thought I wasn't ever gonna get to any good stuff, didn't ya?   I know that these last three updates were a lot of exposition and new character introduction, with a lot of slice-of-life bits, but unfortunately I couldn't really skip the whole "homecoming" arc.  The good news is this is as slow as it'll get.  I hope you're all having a blessed and Happy Easter, and thank you again as always for your support.  If you have any questions or critiques, feel free to PM me or leave them in the comments below.  Have a nice day, everyone!
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“So let me see if I follow you,” Postmark began.  “You skip town and your job, no word to anypony whatsoever, and leave me high and dry.  You come back over a year later and your first thought is to try and get this very same job back as though nothing happened.  And you think this is going to happen why, exactly?”

Oh boy… guess Postmark’s disposition hasn’t changed much either.

All things considered, Derpy supposed things could be going worse.  At least he hadn’t thrown her plot out of the post office the second she’d walked in.  But still, her efforts so far weren’t going much better than that.

A prickly old earth pony, Postmark had always been a tough but fair boss for the most part, but he also knew how to hold a grudge.  Needless to say, Derpy had given him more than a few headaches in the past with her old antics and periodic clumsy episodes, and frankly she was amazed sometimes that he’d never fired her before, though her tireless dedication to her job could’ve been behind that.  But now she’d crossed a line, and she knew it.  She didn’t regret for a second anything she’d done in the past year, but still, she understood where he was coming from.  Disappearing without a trace on personal business?  She was surprised he was still talking to her at all.

“Postmark, please, hear me out.  Leaving you high and dry like that, that was wrong, I get it, and for that I’m sorry.  But I don’t regret what I did.  I was a mess, a lot more than you or anypony else knew, and I wouldn’t trade anything in the world for what I went through in the past year.  I’m a new pony, sir, and a lot better for it.”

“Well that’s all fine and dandy, now, isn’t it?  But you didn’t answer my question.  Why should I hire you now after royally bucking me and the entire Ponyville Post Office over?”  Postmark glowered at Derpy from across his desk with a look that could make the most stalwart of stallions quake with fear, but Derpy met his gaze without so much as a flinch.  Confidence was crucial in this situation, and she knew she’d get nowhere with Postmark hemming and hawing.

“Look, I could feed you some line about appealing to your better nature, but we both know that wouldn’t work.  So I’ll be blunt instead.  I saw the mountains of mail and packages in the back, and I know for a fact you’re as short staffed as ever.  So clearly you need all the help you can get right about now.  Well, I’m here, ready and willing to get right back to work, and I promise you I can and will give you far better work now than I ever have before, if you’ll only give me the chance.  So what do you say, Post?”

For a while it didn’t seem like he’d say anything, and just keep glaring over his desk at her.  For the most part his expression didn’t change one bit, save for an eyebrow raised ever so slightly after Derpy had laid her cards on the table.  She knew there was nothing more she could do now, not after that.  She was either going to get her job back, or get her plot thrown out faster than you could say pickle barrel kumquat.

At last, bitterness dripping from every word as though an acrid taste clung to his tongue, he said, “OK.  If we’re pretending, even for just a moment, that there’s anything at all which might incline me in the slightest to give you your job back, there is… maybe, maybe one thing that would.”

Derpy allowed the slightest sigh of relief to escape her lips.  “Alright, now we’re talking.  So what is it?  You name it, I’ll do it.  That is, assuming it’s a job.  It is a job, right?”

“Yes, yes, it’s a job,” Postmark confirmed, waving a dismissive hoof.  “Calm yourself.  I still can’t guarantee that I will give you a second chance, but if you perform well enough, I just may.  What do you know about Ponyville’s South Side?”

“Uh… South Side?  You mean like Sweet Apple Acres?”

“No, no, no,” Postmark shook his head in exasperation.  “Sheesh, what, have you not looked out a window since you got back?  The South Side, across the Smith River.  It’s a big collection of newer businesses and residencies that’ve settled the area in the last year.  It’s also where the new ‘mountains of mail’ you mentioned are coming from, or rather, going to.  We’ve got almost twice as many customers now than we did last year before you left, and even after hiring three more delivery ponies in the last six months, we still don’t have enough sets of hooves.  I’ve got a week’s worth of backlog, mostly for the South Side, just sitting back there; if you can somehow get it all delivered by this afternoon before the work day ends, I might just consider bringing you back on.  We got a deal?”

Despite the fact that this news was a lot for Derpy to absorb all at once, she hastily nodded.

“Deal.  I’ll get right on it.”  The two shook hooves, sealing the verbal contract.

“Good, you do that now.  Just one more thing before you go,” he added.  “Be careful.  The South Side’s a bit… rougher than most neighborhoods in town.  There’s some scary characters over there.  Just don’t piss anyone off, alright?  There’s plenty there who won’t just laugh off one of your goofs, if you know what I mean.”

Derpy was more than a bit taken aback by Postmark’s words of warning.  Despite his grumpy nature, not much truly phased him; after all, he had put up with her as an employee of his for years.  For that matter, she really had no idea what he even meant by a “rough neighborhood” in Ponyville.  Sure they had their slew of monster attacks fairly regularly (more like with alarming regularity the more Derpy thought about it), but Ponyville itself was about as quaint a small town as they came.

Maybe this South Side’s what Carrot was talking about yesterday when she mentioned things had changed.  What was it she said?  New faces and new problems.  Well, guess I’ll see soon enough, won’t I?

Flashing an earnest smile, Derpy assuredly replied, “Don’t worry, Post, I’ll be sure to tread lightly.  It’ll practically be like I’m not even there.”

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What in the world is going on?

A wide-eyed Time Turner surveyed the scene before him with bewilderment.  On the outside, Ponyville’s police station looked every bit the small town police headquarters that it should; a humble two-story brick building, it was neither as big as the city’s town hall nor nearly so quaint as the cottage-like structures which seemed to make up the rest of the town as far as the eye could see.  Still, it appeared like it belonged, a piece that just seemed to naturally fit into Ponyville’s small-town scenery as much as anything else he’d seen there so far.

The inside, on the other hoof, was a whole other story.

Police ponies, detectives, lawyers, and criminals (some being booked, some getting out on bail) were bustling all over the place like an army of multicolored ants.  A cacophony of voices struggled to be heard over one another, paperwork was strewn all over the place, and a stench of cigarette smoke and burned coffee hung in the air.

In a word, it was utter chaos.

Wow… they’re more buggered than I thought.  I know Chief said things were bad here, but I never imagined this.  Where does one even begin?

Time took it all in for a few moments before a voice spoke up from his side.  “Hey there, can I help you?”  Turning, Time found a light green pegasus with a short snow white mane dressed in police blues looking at him with an inquisitive expression.

“Oh yes, sorry!  Uh, Detective Time Turner, at your service.  Just transferred from Manehattan and it’s my first day on the job; you wouldn’t happen to know where I’m to report, would you, miss?”

The officer’s ears perked up at the news and she nodded in recognition.  “Oh yeah, the Manehattan guy, the commish told us to keep an eye out for ya.  Name’s Frost, Officer Spring Frost, pleasure to meet ya.”

“Likewise,” Time nodded, shaking her extended hoof.

“Commissioner Gust is expecting you; I think he’s meeting with another new guy right now, but he should be finished any minute now.  Follow me.”  Officer Frost took the lead, forcing her way through the throng of ponies bustling about, and Time duly followed in her wake.  Ascending a set of stairs in the back of the station, the two made their way to the second floor and after a short walk came to a door with the words ‘Police Commissioner Cirrus Gust’ painted on fogged glass.

After lightly rapping on the glass, the two waited until a loud “Come in!” came from inside the office.  Entering, they came upon two stallions, one, a wide-eyed, young-looking freckled fellow, the other, a middle-aged pegasus whom Time could only assume was Commissioner Gust.  Sitting behind a crisply-ordered desk which didn’t look like it had so much as a paperclip out of place on it, he looked every part the model police commissioner, right down to his navy blue coat, neatly-trimmed mustache, and regulation-cut mane and tail.  Judging from some old photos Time had seen of him, aside from some flecks of gray now dotting his rich, golden hair, he looked barely any different from his younger days on the Manehattan police force.

The commissioner’s eyes widened in recognition as the two ponies entered, and he rose from his chair.  “Ah, Officer Frost, your timing is punctual as always.  You must be Detective Turner, I presume?”

“Indeed I am, sir,” Time affirmed.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” the commissioner replied.  “Please, have a seat.  I was just finishing up welcoming another new member of our force.  Officer Frost, I’d like you to meet your new partner, Officer Sun Flowers.”  Spring Frost cocked her head to one side, her face stiffening into a carefully neutral expression as the evidently surprising news hit her like a ton of bricks.

“Partner?” she repeated.  “Oh sir, you… you shouldn’t have.”

If Commissioner Gust caught the strained intonation in her words, he didn’t show it.  “Why not?  I think it’s a rather ideal fit.  You’re one of our more experienced patrol officers after all.  I’m sure you’re more than qualified to show Officer Flowers the ropes and will get him to fit right in in no time.  That sound good to you, Officer Flowers?”

“Sure does, sir!” the earth pony beamed, blissfully unaware of his newly assigned partner’s poorly hidden annoyance.  “Sun Flowers, pleasure to meet ya, ma’am!”

“Uh, likewise,” she replied hesitantly.

“Why don’t you two get to know each other better on patrol?  Show him the rounds, officer, help him get acquainted with how we do things.”

Breathing a small sigh, Spring muttered, “Yes sir” in defeat and beckoned the rookie to follow her.  They quickly departed, closing the door behind them and leaving Time alone with his new boss.

“Well, you sure dropped that on her,” Time observed.  The commissioner relaxed back into his chair and shot an impassive look back at Time.

“What’s your point, son?” he asked aloofly.  “She’ll get over it.”

“Bit cliché, don’t you think?  Looked like something straight out of a bad buddy cop comedy,” Time remarked, chuckling.  Commissioner Gust, however, apparently didn’t see what was so funny.

“I don’t really care.  We’ve all got to work with some green sometime, that’s inevitable.  Frost is a good officer, but if she wants to be a better one, learning how to teach another’s how she’s going to do it.  That’s that, and she can take it or leave it.”

Time straightened up in his seat, remembering who he was dealing with.  “Of course sir, as you say.  Sorry for the cheek, train ride was a bit long is all.”

“No need to apologize,” the commissioner assured him, waving a dismissive hoof.  “New moves are never fun, not in the beginning at least.  Always long, always stressful, I get it.  But enough chitchat, let’s get down to business.”

The commissioner spent some time going over basic police guidelines and other minutiae, nothing Time hadn’t heard before.  This normally wouldn’t be a problem, but unfortunately he happened to have some rather pressing matters on his mind at the moment.  After a while he began to get lost in thought, though unfortunately he didn’t do a very good job of hiding it.

“Hey, you listening to me, son?” Commissioner Gust sharply asked, stirring Time out of his train of thought.

“Erm, sorry sir, my apologies,” he quickly said, bowing his head.  “Won’t happen again.”

The commissioner looked him over carefully a moment before finally asking, “Something on your mind?”

“It’s nothing, really sir,” Time assured him.

“Well I certainly would hope I’m not so boring to a new member of my police force that he would stop listening to me over nothing, so I’m guessing it’s not nothing.  Come on, spit it out.”

Time took a deep breath and rolled his head from side-to-side a few times, clearly uncomfortable with whatever it was he had to say but finally acquiescing.  “Well, I hate to say this on the first day of the job, but, well, I guess I’m just wondering what I’m doing here?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Well, it’s just… when I agreed to take this job, I was under the impression that the situation here was urgent and out of control.  Commissioner Ember told me as much, and she assured me that if her old beat partner said things were out of control, then it must be so.  So I took it, because it sounded like this was a place where I might be needed.

“But to be honest, sir, even though I’ve only been here a couple of hours, this place already comes off as just about the most quaint, run-of-the-mill small town you could ask for.  The townsponies are lovely, the streets clean, and everything’s as bright and happy as a fairy tale happy ending.  So what gives, sir?  What am I doing here?  Either there’s something I’m missing or you’re quite the exaggerator.”

Instead of answering, the commissioner simply rose from his chair and strode straight for his office door.  Time was sure his new boss was about to show him the way out and also probably give him a piece of his mind, but instead he just opened the door and beckoned Time to follow.  After a second’s hesitation he did, following the older stallion down the hall and up another flight of stairs until a few minutes later they emerged out onto the roof of the police station.  While hardly the tallest structure in Ponyville, it was still one of the taller ones in town and had for the most part a clear view of the surrounding landscape, including most of the town itself.

“You’re only half-wrong, detective,” Commissioner Gust finally said.  “For almost as long as I’ve been here, Ponyville has indeed been like something out of a vacation brochure.  Even today it still looks the part, at least at first glance.  But the funny thing about looks is that they can be quite deceiving, sometimes.”

They both walked to the edge of the roof, looking out over the whole town.  Below them, townsfolk bustled this way and that, going about their everyday business as usual.  Time wasn’t sure yet what he was still missing, but he listened with rapt attention to the commissioner’s words which he spoke with unmistakable seriousness.  He had to know why.

“Couple years back things started getting a bit nuttier around here when the Elements of Harmony were rediscovered.  Between Nightmare Moon, Discord, and pretty much any foul creature you could think of dragging itself out of the Everfree, trouble of all sorts sure seems to have a way of following those Element Bearers around.  Still, I can’t really complain; our police force may not exactly be equipped to deal with a lot of those threats, but those girls sure can and always manage to hold their own somehow.  Point is, things got crazier, but we adapted, we dealt with the crazy because we could.  That is, until about a year ago.”

The commissioner turned and walked to the opposite edge of the roof, followed by a still-puzzled Time Turner.  Leaning over the edge, he stared out across the small river which quietly cut through Ponyville, his mind seemingly elsewhere for a moment.  Tearing himself from his stray thoughts and back to the matter at hoof, he turned to Time once more, in that moment the living, breathing picture of stoicism in every aspect of his demeanor.

“Tell me detective, what do you see?” he simply asked.

Taking a look for himself, Time scanned the area, sure there must be something which would pop out and reveal itself to his critical eye any minute now.  But no matter how long or hard he looked, nothing stood out.  All he saw as far as the eye could see was more buildings and more ponies.

Letting out a sigh in frustration, he answered, “Just more of your town, sir.  More buildings, more ponies, more everything.  So what am I not seeing here?  I bet it’s something that’s going to make me feel real dim for completely missing it, right?”

“Hardly,” the commissioner replied.  “On the contrary, every observation you just made is perfectly true.  But what would you say if I told you that a year ago, almost everything you see across the river wasn’t there?”

“Come again?”  That couldn’t be right, Time was sure of it.  There were almost as many buildings on the south side of the river as there were on the north side.  Towns this small didn’t grow like that, they just didn’t.

But Commissioner Gust nodded emphatically without missing a beat.  “I’m dead serious.  Last year most of that side of the river was nothing but empty land on the edge of the Everfree.  But in the past year we’ve seen a population explosion the likes of which this town hasn’t known since its earliest days.  Town’s populace has almost doubled, and more and more just keep coming.”

“So it’s a logistics issue, then,” Time suggested.  “Your force is stretched thin and you’ve got too few hooves to handle all the new faces, is that it?”

“In part, yes,” the commissioner confirmed.  “But it’s also considerably more complicated than that.  If it were just a matter of hiring more officers to the force, you think I’d be calling in favors from old friends and looking as far away as Manehattan for veteran officers like yourself?”

“Probably not,” Time admitted, conceding the valid point.  “So how’s it more complicated?  Your new residents aren’t all changelings in disguise, I hope.”

Time chuckled, trying to lighten the mood, but his attempt at levity fizzled rather quickly.  If anything, Commissioner Gust’s mood only seemed to get even grimmer than it already was, if that were possible.  “That’s no laughing matter, detective,” he sternly remarked.  “To my knowledge, we’ve no changelings among us, but you can never rule anything out, not in times like these.  But no, that’s not our primary problem.  No, the root of our problems is the root of where all these ponies came from.  All evidence suggests that this population boost has been primarily spurred on by a vigorous and significant incursion of organized criminal activity.”

An incredulous Time’s eyes widened.  “You’re kidding!  Here?”

Cirrus nodded.  “Are you familiar with a slimeball by the name of Foggy Trotter?”

“Foggy?  Wait, of the Trotter crime family in Manehattan?” Time asked.

“The same.”

“Sure, I know that weasel.  Pretty low level guy in the family hierarchy, if I remember correctly.  Slippery eel, though, mostly involved in some minor racketeering and smuggling operations; we raided a couple of his suspected joints but could never tie anything directly back to him.  Then he dropped right off our radar.  I figured he must’ve skipped town, maybe gotten in some trouble with a rival crime family.”

“Well he’s here now,” the commissioner said matter-of-factly.  “And it seems he’s the head honcho around these parts.  We haven’t been able to tie anything to him here either, but he owns a number of legitimate businesses in the South Side and there’s mounting evidence that he’s running a number of illicit operations.”

“If you don’t have anything solid, how do you know all this?” Time questioned.

“Because I have eyes and ears, detective, and so do the rest of my officers.  Ever since Foggy and his pals showed up, it’s not just more ponies that have come to our town; trouble followed him here as well, lots of trouble.  We haven’t just seen an uptick in crime around here, we’re seeing crimes committed that Ponyville hasn’t even dealt with before!  Burglaries, robberies, assaults, and that’s just what’s been reported.  We’ve also heard whispers of widespread intimidation and extortion, and not just south of the river.  They’re starting to branch out north, it seems, and folks are getting scared.”

Cirrus grimaced as though the mere thought of what he was about to say next was distasteful.  “We can barely keep track of all the new faces around town, there’re just too many coming too fast, and we don’t have the infrastructure for it.  If a recent arrival suddenly disappears, I don’t even know if they’ve just left town or if something far worse has happened to them.  We’ve been making so many arrests that we’ve had to construct a brand new, makeshift penitentiary on the northern edge of town.  And about a month ago some poor filly who looked like she should still be in high school was… sexually assaulted.”

Time winced, deeply troubled by the picture being painted for him by Commissioner Gust.  Things were starting to click and make sense, and if everything he was being told was accurate, then clearly the situation around here was worse than he’d thought.  Ponyville’s police had to be way in over their heads, too few in number and not prepared to handle this level of crime.  The new residents couldn’t possibly help matters either.  In a small town like this, everypony knew each other, law enforcement included.  That helped build not only a sense of community, but also genuinely aided police in their work; knowing those you served forged connections between civilians and law enforcement that made them both more likely to better collaborate with one another.  But a whole half of town barely anypony knew, including the police?  That was just trouble waiting to happen.

“Alright, that certainly does sound problematic to say the least.  And you have no idea what could have possibly set all this off?”

“None.”

“Great.  Anything else I ought to know?”

“Oh it gets better,” Commissioner Gust said sourly.  “I think Foggy and his friends might be running some smuggling operations.  No idea if contraband is being brought in or if they’re simply using Ponyville as a waypoint on a bigger smuggling network.  Could be both for all I know.”

“How in the world could they be managing that without anyone noticing?” Time asked.  “For that matter, how is any of this going undetected?  I understand you’re shorthoofed around here, but a place like this is too small for all this kind of activity to possibly be flying over everyone’s heads.”

“I was just getting around to that,” the commissioner assured him.  “You’re right, though, criminal activity of this nature and at these levels should not be going unnoticed, not here.  Granted, Foggy owns a lot of property, including a couple warehouses; that’s a lot of real estate for him which he can use to move goods through.  But that can’t be it, uh-uh, not by a long shot.”

The commissioner letup for a moment, looking over the young detective before him with gauging eyes.  When he’d finished his silent appraisal, he continued, “I might as well just come out and say it.  I think some members of my force are dirty.  That’s what you’re doing here, detective.”

It took a minute for Time to register what he’d just been told.  As it sunk in, he just stood there, donning a dumbfound expression and standing perfectly still save for the occasional, aggravated flick of his ear.  Finally he snorted and shook his head in disbelief.  “Well… isn’t that just perfect.”

“I need your help on this, Detective Turner, desperately,” Commissioner Gust firmly stated.  “And you and I both know that you’re uniquely qualified for just such an endeavor.  When I began looking for some fresh sets of hooves, I extensively investigated multiple officers in the Manehattan PD looking for a transfer.  Your name stood out, and I think you can guess why.”

“Yeah, I can,” Time shot back.  “It’s because I was an errand boy for internal affairs and got the shaft for my trouble.”

“Now don’t be like that,” Commissioner Gust enjoined.  “Your cooperation with IA back in Manehattan was both good and admirable work.  You directly helped root out a number of corrupt elements within the police force, and I know for a fact that Commissioner Ember greatly appreciated your efforts.  She told me as much in personal correspondence, and you know as well as I do that she is not one to hand out praise lightly.

“Now look, I get it, I do.  I really do.  You sacrificed a lot because of your work, there’s no denying that.  IA’s the law enforcement equivalent of the kid on the playground who nopony else wants to play with.  When you did what you did, I can only imagine how many officers treated you as though you were no longer even a brother of the badge.  Corruption or no corruption, you went behind their backs, and that’s hard for any police officer to forgive.”

“Gee, thanks, that supposed to make me feel better?” Time asked with overt sarcasm.  Unfortunately for him, Cirrus wasn’t having any of it.

“No, it’s not,” he retorted.  “In fact I’m sure you still feel pretty shitty after you more or less got shunned into leaving the force.  As well you should.  But you learned an important lesson, or at least you should’ve.  In case you haven’t yet, let me spell it out for you.  Doing the right thing’s not always all it’s cracked up to be; sometimes it’s shit, and when it is, that’s when we need to most step up, that’s when our true character shows itself for what it is.  From what I can tell, based on what you’ve weathered, yours is pretty damn admirable, and I want someone like you, with your character, on my force.  What do you say, detective?”

Time thought upon that long and hard.  The memory of what he’d endured in Manehattan, the treatment he’d received from mares and stallions whom he’d called colleagues and even friends, simply because he’d done the right thing which no one else wanted to do, was still painfully fresh in his mind.  Those wounds were still healing, and he’d come to Ponyville in part to get away from all that.

Yet he’d also come because he still wanted to make a difference, and this was a place where he thought he could do just that.  He’d never imagined all this going on here, but he was still young, bright, resourceful, and had an unceasing sense of duty to that which was good and just ingrained in him since he was a colt.  Despite his previous experiences, he knew there was no way he could walk away from a situation like this simply because he might have to relive what he’d wanted to escape in the first place.  He’d run already, but only when the going got tough; he wasn’t proud of that, and still regretted it in many ways, but at least he’d tried to weather the storm.  There was no way, however, that he was going to run ever again, much less because he was scared.  If he did, then he didn’t deserve to so much as wear the badge.

I hate it when I know I’m wrong in every which way.  Ah well, guess it’s better than thinking I’m right when I’m wrong.  It’s probably going to be a total shit if I stay, but hey, at least I won’t be alone.  Suppose that’s it, then; nothing more to do than earn my keep and do my job.

With new determination in his voice, Time looked Cirrus straight in the eye and said, “Well sir, I say let’s step into this shitstorm together.”

For the first time since meeting him, the commissioner flashed the slightest of smiles and gave Time a firm pat on his shoulder.  “Glad to hear it, son.  So, where do you want to start?”

“Well, I guess first things first, assuming there are indeed dirty cops here, who can I trust?”

Commissioner Gust tepidly chuckled.  “No one, if I’m being perfectly honest,” he bluntly replied.  “Outside of myself, of course.”  

“Wonderful.”

“Indeed,” the commissioner dryly concurred.  “Now that’s not to say I’m looking over my shoulder every five seconds; that’d be sheer paranoia and probably do more harm than good.  Obviously there are some I’m more certain are clean than others, but none definitively one way or the other.  All I know for sure is that somepony’s dirty, maybe more than one.  Too much is being missed, too many crimes getting overlooked for it to be mere ineptitude that’s responsible.  Someone is deliberately looking the other way, maybe even actively misleading other officers and sending them on wild goose chases away from real crimes in progress.

“Just keep your eyes open, tread carefully, watch your back, and as a general rule, trust no one.  Get to know your fellow officers and use caution in choosing who you collaborate with, but do not give anyone your full trust, not until we know with certainty who we can.  Until that time, you and I can only trust each other and ourselves.”

“Well… that’s simply splendid now, isn’t it?”

Commissioner Gust shrugged.  “It’s not ideal, certainly, but it can’t be helped.  I really should have had guidelines in place for dealing with this sort of thing, but can you honestly blame us for not being better prepared to deal with this?  I mean bought cops, here?  Never saw that coming in my wildest dreams.”

“Right, I get that.  About as shocking as organized crime having a presence here.  Heading up this force as long as you have, probably figured you had everything you needed in place to keep things running smooth.  Anyone would’ve been caught off guard as much as you were.”

Cirrus gave a cheerless grunt but shook his head.  “Still no excuse for how bad this situation has become.  Long as I’ve been doing this, with my experience, shouldn’t have let things get so out of hoof.”

Time nodded sympathetically, unenvious of his chief’s position all things considered.

Bet he’d kill for the kind of infrastructure he’d have with a force like Manehattan’s right about now.  Seems the deck is quite stacked against us.  But hey, guess things wouldn’t be very interesting if it weren’t, now, would it?  At least we’ve got some good experience between the two of us.  Town’s very fortunate to have an old beat cop like him for commissioner, especially if half the stories Commissioner Ember told me about him are true.

The commissioner absentmindedly preened his feathers on his left wing for a moment before turning back to Time.  “Sorry, old Long Patrol wound.  Wing doesn’t work so good anymore, gets a bit sore from time to time.  One more matter of business: just so you’re aware, I’ve not shared my suspicions with anyone else on the force.  You and me, we are the investigation.  Share your findings and suspicions with me and only me, don’t even so much as hint to anypony else that you’re looking for dirty cops.  Think you can be that discrete?”

Time nodded in affirmation.  While they’d be shorthoofed, in some ways he actually preferred this arrangement; at the very least he wouldn’t have to deal with being a go-between guy for an internal affairs division.  This would be a very personal, hooves-on investigation, just the way he liked it.  More responsibility and pressure, sure, but more freedom as well.  If he did his job right, Time just knew he’d flourish in an environment like this.  Still, more help couldn’t possibly hurt, and an idea suddenly entered Time’s mind as he considered some options they might have.

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance we might be able to land some assistance from certain outside parties?” Time asked.  “I remember reading before I came here that there’s a company of Royal Guard currently operating in the area.  They still around?”

The commissioner gave a stiff nod, and his mustache peculiarly twitched from side-to-side.  The annoyance very evident in his body language did not escape Time’s notice.  “They are, they are.  Machwing Company’s stationed at a base about ten miles north of town, been there for the past year.  But I’m afraid that’s simply not an option.”

Time cocked his head to the side.  “Why not?  Certainly not unheard of for the Guard to assist in law enforcement affairs if it’s needed.  Not saying we declare martial law or anything, but I’m sure they could spare at least a few hooves.”

The commissioner, however, resolutely shook his head in firm rejection of the proposal.  “I’m afraid Major Gust simply cannot.  It’s not a question of Machwing Company’s capabilities; after all, they’re one of their highnesses’ finest and most prestigious units.  However, they’ve got their hooves full with their own responsibilities.  They were stationed here for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to keep a sharp eye out for changelings and changeling activity.  They’re spread very thin as it is and have to patrol a region that stretches all the way from the Rambling Black Ridge to White Tail Woods.  I am not saddling them with more responsibilities than they already have.”

The commissioner’s reasoning was plenty sound, but something he said piqued Time’s curiosity.  “Hang on a moment… Major Gust?  Uh, any relation there, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Commissioner Gust groaned but nodded, albeit hesitantly.  “If you must know, yes, there is.  She’s my sister.  And if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, the answer is no, my refusal to ask for Machwing Company’s assistance has absolutely nothing to do with my sibling.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Time reassured him, raising his hooves defensively but also grinning sheepishly.  The commissioner rolled his eyes and remained unamused.

“I assure you, it is not personal; I would never dream of being that selfish.  It is merely a matter of duty, that is all.  Our duty is to enforce the law and to serve and protect Equestria and the citizens of Ponyville in doing so.  Major Gust’s duty, on the other hoof, is to ensure the safety of the Element Bearers; why else do you think an elite unit like Machwing Company was assigned to this region?”

“Makes sense, but from what I’ve heard, those Element Bearers take care of themselves pretty well,” Time countered.

“Maybe so, but the changelings managed to abduct and replace an alicorn princess herself right under our very noses in the most heavily guarded city in all of Equestria, and no one was the wiser until disaster was upon us.  That cannot happen again, and I refuse to interfere with my sister’s responsibilities by overburdening her with my own.  It is not that I grudgingly refuse to collaborate out of pride; it is that I refuse to compromise Equestria’s wellbeing simply because the going has gotten tough for us recently.  These problems in town are our problems, and I will not make them anypony else’s.  Is that understood?”

Time sighed but reluctantly nodded.  As much as he hated to admit it, the commissioner had a point.  He still wasn’t entirely convinced the chief’s relationship with Major Gust didn’t have anything to do with his refusal to ask for help from her, but nevertheless, he knew the changelings still posed a grave threat even after their failed attack on Canterlot the previous year.  If they ever resurfaced anytime soon, the Element Bearers would undoubtedly play a critical role in stopping them, so obviously ensuring they remained safe and secure until that time was of the highest priority.

“Of course sir, understood.  Don’t worry, I won’t approach them for help unless you at any point decide it’s prudent to do so.”

“Sounds like a plan, detective,” Commissioner Gust said.  Once more he turned his gaze to the south, staring out across the river.  After regarding it for some time, he finally said, “I won’t lie, detective, I’m scared.  In all my time here, I’ve never seen anything like this.  Buck, I never saw anything like this in Manehattan.  There’s something sinister about all this; it’s too well-organized, too well-run.  The big operations, the really major business, whoever’s involved has stayed squeaky clean up to this point, and that tells me there is an intelligence behind these operations and how they’re being conducted.  Your run-of-the-mill crooks usually aren’t this good at staying in the shadows.

“I love this town.  I’ve made a life here with my family, seen my children grow up here, found a place to call home, my own.  There’re good ponies here, lots of them, and they’re scared too.  Some are still trying to get a good grasp on what’s even going on, and most never imagined this type of trouble would or even could come here.  If we’re going to act, to do what we have to in order to turn things around, we need to act soon.  It’s not going to be easy, but if we’re true to our trade, our service, our guiding principles… well, that might be enough.  We’ll see, I suppose.  You ready to get to it?”

Time smirked and nodded.  “You bet, sir.  I’ll give you and this town everything I’ve got and then some.  Count on it.”
Batmare Begins - Chapter 12: Tabula Rasae, Part 2
And the plot thickens!  As promised, here's the second of this weekend's chapter updates.  Lot of exposition, I know, but hopefully it was interesting stuff for all ya'll.  It was a lot of fun getting to flesh out my own unique take on another character from the show who's going to be a major player in this universe, and I look forward to working with Time Turner even more.  Hope ya'll enjoyed, and if you have any questions or critiques, feel free to either PM me or leave them in the comments below!  Have a nice day everypony!
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“Come on, come on.”  Concentrating with all her might, Derpy stared intently straight into the bathroom mirror.  After a few minutes of getting nowhere, her eyes slowly but surely began drifting away from their straightened position until they closely resembled her old, cross-eyed expression.  Breathing a sigh of relief, Derpy spent a few moments practicing reverting them back and forth between their straightened and cross-eyed appearances.  It took a lot of concentration, but she figured that if she kept practicing it’d get easier in time to switch between the two semblances.

At the sound of a knock upon the bathroom door, Derpy called, “Come in!”  Carrot Top immediately entered, holding a steaming mug full of cream-colored coffee.

“Hey, you alright?” her friend asked.

“Yeah, fine,” Derpy replied, shaking her head as she peeled her eyes away from the mirror.  “Just practicing some things with my eyes, is all.”

“Oh.  Like what?” Carrot inquired, raising a curious eyebrow.

“I’m trying to see if I can make ‘em cross-eyed like before.”

“OK… why?”  Now Carrot was genuinely confused, though Derpy couldn’t really blame her given the seeming randomness of it all.

“I figure it might put some ponies around town at ease if they see me with the ol’ cross-eyed expression.  Help convince them I’m still me, ya know, same old same old.”

“Yeah, I think I see what you’re getting at.  So how’s it going so far?”

“Pretty good, better than I thought it initially would.  Guess my body got so used to the old expression that it’s easier to revert to it if I want to.  Bet if I keep at it, I’ll have it down like clockwork in no time.”  Carrot nodded in understanding, taking a sip from her mug.

“Well, you better get going, work day’s going to start soon and you probably want to catch Postmark before he gets swamped,” she suggested.  Derpy nodded in agreement, and grabbed an old saddlebag from her closet before making her way downstairs.

“Yeah, good call, just gonna grab a bite to eat at Sugarcube Corner before I go,” she mentioned, stopping in her tracks when an unfortunate realization suddenly dawned on her.  “Uhhhhh… you wouldn’t be able to spare a few bits, would you?” she asked, her face reddening.  She looked down at her hooves in embarrassment, but Carrot nodded understandingly and fetched a hoofful from her own saddlebag.

“Here, don’t worry about it, really,” she insisted, hoofing the bits off to Derpy.  “Just be sure to get some money out of the bank as soon as possible.  Your checking and savings accounts should still be opened same as always.”

“Thanks,” Derpy said, gratefully accepting the bits, “Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to pay you back.”  The two friends shared a quick embrace, squeezing each other tightly.

“Alright, go get ‘em,” Carrot said in encouragement.  “Just be your old, lovable self, and you’ll do fine.”

“Right, yeah, just be myself.”  Derpy headed for the door, taking one last, steadying breath to calm her nerves.  “OK, wish me luck.  Look out Ponyville, I’m back!”

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

“This is Ponyville Railway Station, Ponyville Main Street.  All departing passengers, please check your overhead luggage rack for any personal belongings, and have a pleasant day.”

A pale brown stallion looked up from the day-old newspaper he’d been dully browsing through for the past hour and glanced out the passenger car window.  Sure enough, this was his stop.  Tossing away the paper, the stallion grabbed a saddlebag from an overhead compartment above his seat and slung it over his back before stepping out onto the simple railway platform.  Spying a station porter handling his luggage, he trotted over to him.

“Good morning, lad,” he said to the teenaged colt.  “Would you be so kind as to take my bags to the Silver Saddle Inn for me?  I promise I’ll make it worth your while.”  Digging through his saddlebag, he produced a bag of bits and hoofed over five to the colt.

“Gee, thanks mister,” the colt said.  “I’ll be sure to get these over there right away.  Who should I tell the staff to hold them for?”

“Time Turner, if you will,” he replied.  “Say, you wouldn’t happen to know a good place to grab a bite to eat, would you?”

“Oh sure, Sugarcube Corner’s pretty much the go-to place around here for early morning commuters.  Just a few blocks away from here, you can’t miss it, looks like a giant gingerbread house.  I’m sure you’ll be able to find something there to your liking.  Anything else I can help you with?”

Time Turner thought for a moment before nodding.  “Sure, one more thing.  Could you point me to where the Ponyville Police Department is?”

The colt nodded and gestured over his shoulder.  “Yeah, that’s easy, just head towards town hall in the center of town, you can’t miss it, biggest building in Ponyville.  The police station’s right across the street from it.”

“Thank you, son,” Time said, tossing the colt another bit.  “You run along now and get my bags to the inn.”

“Yes sir!” the colt said, saluting the stallion before he started loading his luggage onto a cart.  Departing from the railway platform, Time trotted further into the awakening town in the direction the colt had indicated Sugarcube Corner was in.

The sun was still low in the sky, but slowly climbing higher and higher, its rays brightening the whole town.  Mares and stallions left their homes for work, some setting up shop in Ponyville’s marketplace, and fillies and colts made their way to school, a few of the littler ones accompanied by a watchful parent.  A few passing ponies shared morning greetings with the unfamiliar stallion, which he cheerfully returned.  All around Time, life was blossoming, ready for a new day.

Seems like a rather pleasant place, actually.  Can’t imagine what could possibly be wrong here; certainly isn’t Manehattan, that’s for sure.  Kind of reminds me of home, now that I think about it.

Turning a corner, he came face-to-face with what he could only assume was Sugarcube Corner.

Oh wow… lad wasn’t joking, it does look like a giant gingerbread house.  What a strange establishment.  That’s certainly something I wouldn’t see back home.  Might even be a bit much for Manehattanites’ tastes.

Entering the building (which itself almost looked good enough to eat), Time was greeted by a plethora of sugary smells.  Being a bakery, he hoped they might carry something besides sugary confections; he wasn’t very much in the mood for sweets this early in the morning.  Making his way into the thankfully short line to the register, Time found his attention drawn towards a commotion in the shop that seemed far too animated for this time of day.  Its source, much to his disbelief, seemed to be one single pony alone, a very pink earth pony who appeared to be bouncing circles around a grey pegasus.  What was even stranger was that everypony else in the store, including the pestered pegasus, seemed to be taking all of this in stride as though it were no more odd than a summer shower.

“OK, first I have to get a ‘Welcome Back Derpy Jamboree’ put together, wait, no no, that can’t be it.  How about ‘Yay You’re Back and Not a Changeling Blowout’?  Or perhaps ‘Super Spring Surprise Derpy’s Back Bash’?  Oh oh, I know, ‘Yay Hurray So Very Happy You’re Not Deadapalooza’!”

“Those all sound great Pinkie, but I’m sure you’ll settle on just the right one,” the pegasus said, giggling.

“And thennnnnnn you have to tell us all just where you’ve been!” the incredibly hyper mare continued.

“Well, I’ll tell you all what I can, but some of it’s a bit personal and private.  You understand, right?”

The one apparently called Pinkie bobbed her head up and down, and without missing a beat said, “Oh of course, nopony likes a snoopy McNosy pony sticking their nose where no nose should go.  Should we make a list of everything you don’t want to talk about?”

The pegasus shook her head and replied, “Nah, that’s probably not necessary.  We can figure out the details later; besides, you should probably get back to work, looks like you’re starting to get more customers.  Talk to ya later, Pinkie.  It’s good to see ya again.”

“Okie dokie loki!  Later Derpy!  La-lala-lala.”  Just like that, the pink pony bounced off to some other part of the store.

What a strange pony.

Time turned back to the line when suddenly–

“Hi!”

“Gah!” Time cried out, jumping at the sudden appearance of the very same pink pony he’d definitely seen only seconds before on the other side of the store now directly adjacent to him, as if she’d manifested out of thin air.  “What?  I mean- how, what, but you were there, and now you’re here, and–”

“I’ve never seen you before!  My name’s Pinkie Pie, what’s your name?”

Well that seemed a harmless enough question to answer.  “Uh, Time.  Time Turner.”

“Nice ta meetcha Time!  Or do you prefer Turner?  Or maybe Mister Turner?  Timey?  T.T.?  Turneriffic?  Timetabulous?  Tim?”

Offering only a confused blank expression in return, Time responded the only way he could to that.  “What?  Er, I mean, no, just Time is fine, thanks.”

“Nice ta meetcha Time!  So what brings you to our little corner of Equestria on this funtastical morning we’re having?”

“Well work, actually.  Starting a new job here, and just got in on the train this morning from Maneha- are you quite alright?”  Quick as a flash, Pinkie’s eyes had widened at an alarming rate and her jaw had dropped so low Time could’ve sworn he could fit his head into her gaping maw.  Just as quickly, however, her gasping came to an abrupt end, only to be replaced by a smile that did not seem to stop growing.

“So you’re new in town?!” Pinkie asked, pulling Time in closer and waiting for his answer with bated breath.

“Um… yes.”

Before Time knew what was happening, he was in the clutches of the tightest (and pinkest) vise he’d ever been in in his life.  Just as his vision started getting blurry from air deprivation, the pink force relinquished her grip upon him and instead started bouncing around him repeatedly, all the while gleefully cheering, “Yay, yay, yay, yay, yay, yay, yay!”

Oh sweet Celestia, what did I do wrong?

“Oh my gosh, this is the best day EVER!  First I get one, and now two new parties to plan?!  Now I’ve got to show you around town and introduce you to everypony, make a list of your favorite flavors of ice cream, pick up a dozen avocados and piñatas from the Avocados and Piñatas store, and learn everything there is to know about you!  Could this possibly get any better?  OK, first question: have you ever been or plan to be at some point in the future allergic to okra?”

Time had never seen anything like it; her mouth just kept moving and would not stop, as if it had a mind of its own.  Just when it seemed like she couldn’t possibly think up anything else to say, more words just came pouring out of her like a flooded river crashing through a smashed dam.  Thankfully salvation came in the form of an amber earth pony standing behind the counter.

“Pinkie, what did we tell you about smothering customers?” the stallion wearily admonished.

“Awwwww, but Mister Cake, I hadn’t evened gotten around to my Welcome Wagon Welcome song yet!”

“No, not in here!  You’re holding up the line and we told you two weeks ago that you had to stop bringing that in, it was scuffing up the floor and you kept getting confetti and cake batter everywhere.”

“But this time I’m sure I put the confetti in the confetti cannons and the cake batter in the oven,” Pinkie pleaded.  “At least I think I did.  Though there was that welcome party for Bitta Blues just two days ago, and I may have had Gummy restock the Welcome Wagon after that since I was also busy with Lucky Clover’s birthday party that day, and sometimes he mixes up the cake batter and confetti, which you’d think he wouldn’t since alligators aren’t color blind, but–”

“Never mind that.  Pinkie, would you be a dear and go into the kitchen to see if Missus Cake needs your help with any orders?” Mr. Cake asked.

“Yepperoni!” she said, and without another word she bounced her way back through a set of batwing doors, leaving a thoroughly flummoxed Time Turner behind.

“So sorry about that, sir, Pinkie can get a little… overenthusiastic sometimes,” Mr. Cake explained, chuckling.

“I can see that… er, no worries though, it’s no trouble at all, really,” Time assured him.  “Sorry, I don’t believe I caught your name.”

“Of course, my apologies.  I’m Carrot Cake, owner of this fine establishment along with my wife Cup Cake.  You already met Pinkie Pie, she’s not family but rents the loft on the third floor.  Then there’s our twin foals, Pound and Pumpkin; they’re not awake right now, but you’ll probably see us around town with them soon enough.  And you are?”

“Time Turner, pleasure to meet you,” he said.

“Likewise.  So, what can I get you this morning Mister Turner?” Mr. Cake asked.

“Well I was wondering if you might happen to have some muffins.  I’ve got a real hankering this morning for a buttered muffin.”

“Certainly!” Mr. Cake replied.  “Have a look for yourself, we’ve got all sorts of muffins right here for you to choose from.”  He indicated the display case in front of him, but after a moment’s survey Time only gave a puzzled look in return.

“Sorry, you’ve got some lovely looking baked goods here, but I can’t seem to find any muffins.”

“What?” Mr. Cake gave him a perplexed look of his own.  “Sir, there’s two rows of them right here.”

“Where, behind the sweet buns?  I’m telling you, there’s no muffins in there.”  By now the line behind Time was starting to grow, and some ponies were getting rowdy.  “You know, muffins, small, round, flat, you toast and butter them?”

“Ohhhhhhh, you mean Trottish muffins!”  Both Time and Mr. Cake looked directly behind him to find that same grey pegasus whom Pinkie had been talking to earlier.  “I was passing through Canterlot once on a delivery and asked for some muffins at a local bakery, and that’s all they had.  Nasty things, so dry, absolutely no flavor whatsoever.  Uh, no offense.”

“Um, none taken,” Time replied.

“Oh, Trottish muffins, of course, silly me!” Mr. Cake exclaimed.

“Ah, you do know them!  So you have some?” Time asked hopefully.

“Uh no,” Mr. Cake replied.  “Sorry, never carried them in stock ourselves.  Not much of a demand for them around here.”  Time’s shoulders sagged in disappointment.

“Well, got any bagels or anything?  Not really much in the mood for a sugary snack this time of day.”

“Our first batch of the day isn’t quite finished, but we do have some day-old ones if you’re interested,” Mr. Cake offered.

“Well, alright, sure, let me see–”

“Oh no, you don’t want some day-old bagel,” the pegasus mare interjected.  “Here, get a pumpkin muffin, I promise you it isn’t that sweet.”  Time glanced between her and the indicated confection with some apparent skepticism, but finally assented.

“Alright, fine, I’ll take one of those pumpkin muffin, sweet cake things,” he said.

“Certainly sir, coming right up!”

“And a cup of coffee too, if you have any.”

“Of course.  That’ll be three bits,” Mr. Cake said.

“Thanks,” Time said.

“I’ll take a butter rum muffin myself, Mister Cake,” the pegasus behind Time said.

“Second one already, eh Derpy?” Mr. Cake said, chuckling.

“Ah what can I say, been too long since I had ‘em, I got ‘muffin withdrawal’,” she joked.

“Alright, that’ll be two bits.”

“Here you go.  Hey mister, wait up!” she called to Time, who turned to face her.

“Uh, yes?  Can I help you, miss?” he asked.

“Just wanted to know if you’d like to join me is all.  Figured you’re looking for a place to sit, and from the looks of things, you’re also new in town, right?”  Time nodded.

“I sure am, and certainly, I’d be happy to join you.  Always happy to make a new acquaintance,” he stated.

“Great, follow me!”  The two trotted over to a nearby table and hungrily dug into their morning snacks.

“Mmmmm.  You know, this actually is pretty good,” Time remarked between bites.  “You weren’t lying, not too sweet but very flavorful.”

Derpy nodded.  “Yeah, can’t ever go wrong with a pumpkin muffin.  Always a favorite of mine,” she said through a mouthful of muffin.

“I can tell,” Time chuckled.

Swallowing the delectable snack, Derpy’s face reddened.  “Sorry, couldn’t help myself.  Kinda been awhile since I had one of these, and guess I missed them more than I realized,” she said, smiling sheepishly.

“Yeah, you mentioned that,” Time remarked.  “So from the sound of things, I gather you just got back into town, miss…”

“Oh, Hooves, Derpy Hooves.  And you are?”

“Time Turner, pleasure to meet you Miss Hooves,” he said, extending a hoof which she shook.

“Likewise, but please, call me Derpy.  Nopony calls me Miss Hooves, like, at all.  And yeah, been out of town for a little over a year,” she explained.

“Why’s that?” Time asked.

“Eh, it’s kind of personal,” Derpy replied, looking down and rubbing the back of her neck.

Oh, good one Time, didn’t take long to turn this conversation awkward.  Smooth.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to step out of bounds there.”

“Oh no, it’s fine, you’re fine!” Derpy assured him.  “It’s just a bit of a private matter is all.  Let’s just say I had to get some things squared away and straightened out in my life.”

Time nodded understandingly after taking a sip of his coffee.  “Hey, we all have ‘personal issues’ we have to deal with.  And dealing with them is better than ignoring them, I mean, that’s how we grow and all, yes?”

Oh great, now I’m telling the pony I’ve known for all of five minutes that she had a problem when I don’t even know what she was dealing with.  Truly I am the epitome of smooth.

Much to his relief, his new acquaintance didn’t seem perturbed in the slightest.  “Took the words right out of my mouth,” Derpy said in agreement.  “But enough about me, tell me about you!  What brings Time Turner to our quiet little corner of Equestria, hmmm?”

Grateful for the topic change, Time happily answered her query.  “Work, actually.  Starting a new job here with the Ponyville Police Department.”  Derpy’s eyes widened in surprise.

“So you’re a cop?”

“Well, detective actually,” Time clarified.  “But yes, I am a law enforcement officer.”

“Detective, huh?  I would’ve never guessed.  Not sure you’ll find that many crimes to investigate around here.  Where are you coming from anyway?”  Derpy asked.

“Well I’m originally from Trottingham, but I’m coming over from Manehattan and–”

“Manehattan!” Derpy exclaimed.  “You left a job with the Manehattan police force for one in Ponyville?  Sounds like somepony wanted a change of pace.”  Time gave a flick of his ears, one after the other, and silently contemplated how best to respond while periodically sipping his coffee.

“Eh… I guess you could say that,” he finally said, frowning.  “I just wanted to go where I thought I was most needed, though from what I’ve seen so far… ah, forget it.”

“Sorry,” Derpy hastily threw in.  “Was it something I said?”

“Nah, forget it, it’s nothing,” Time assured her, somewhat forcing a small smile.  “So tell me more about Ponyville.  Seems like a charming little place so far, from what I’ve seen.  Certainly would love to know more about the place I’ll be calling home from now on.”

“You sure?  What about work?”

“I actually arrived in town a little early, so I’ve still got some time yet,” Time explained.  “Though if you need to head off to your own job, don’t be late on my account!”  Derpy shook her head.

“No worries, I’ve got some time myself.  OK, where to start?  Well you’ve already met Pinkie, so you pretty much know her.  And before you ask, yes, she is always like that.”

“Always?”

“Always.  It’s for the best, really; you really don’t want to know what she’s like when she’s not herself, believe me!  Also, a word of advice: she is dead serious about that welcome party she said she’s going to throw for you, and probably already knows where you live, so don’t be surprised when it happens.  It will, trust me, it just will.”

Time briefly considered asking more about the perplexing earth pony, but swiftly decided against it.  From what he’d seen and heard already, he figured further scrutinization would lead to only more questions (and possibly a migraine).  “Right, well I’ll be sure to keep all that in mind and keep my eyes peeled for any surprise welcome parties.  Please, carry on.”

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“Cerberus?!  No way, you’re pulling my leg.”

“Nope, it’s the truth, I swear!  He was right outside just across the street, chewing on that building there.”

“Which one?”

“The one with the big strawberry and cherry fixtures on top.”

“Ohhhhhhh now I see it.  Guess I’d go for something like that too if I was a giant, three-headed dog.  How’d you all ever get rid of him?”

“Well that was thanks to Fluttershy.  She just gave him the biggest belly rub I’ve ever seen before Twilight led him back to Tartarus.  She’s kinda insanely good with animals that way, though I’m sure you’ll know all about that soon enough.  You’ll probably be dealing with Fluttershy quite a bit given that she’s also one of the Element Bearers,” Derpy remarked.

Time’s ears perked up at that.  “Oh that’s right, that bunch lives around here!  It’s so odd to think that some of Equestria’s greatest heroes live in some dainty little town in the middle of nowhere like Ponyville.”

Derpy giggled.  “Yeah, I guess it is.  Things have certainly gotten pretty interesting around here since all of that business with Nightmare Moon a couple years back.  No idea if the two are related, but we certainly seem to attract all sorts of interesting characters and creatures to our neck of the woods these days.  No one seems to mind, really, I mean, we always seem to bounce right back on our hooves.  Maybe we’re all used to it by now.”

“You’re all used to thousand-year old nightmare tyrants, guardians of Tartarus, and lords of chaos by now: should I be concerned?”  They both shared a hearty laugh, audible even over the noise of the by-now bustling crowd that filled the bakery.

All things considered, Derpy was rather pleased with herself at the moment.  She normally wasn’t one to welcome strangers to Ponyville (most folks in town left that to Pinkie Pie since, well, she was so good at it), but things had been going quite smoothly.  She’d given Time a nice rundown of Ponyville, from some of the basics like Sweet Apple Acres, the Element Bearers, and the town’s propensity for attracting bizarre and dangerous creatures, to more specific little tidbits, like how their town was one of the only ones in Equestria that still manually cleaned-up winter without the use of any magic.  It’d all come very easy to her, and it didn’t hurt that Time was a considerate listener, though at the same time a very pleasant conversationalist.

“So, where’re you staying?  Got a place of your own?” she asked.

Time shook his head.  “Not yet, no.  Only decided on the job change itself a few weeks ago, and been busy getting things settled at my old job in Manehattan since then before the move.  I’ll be at the Silver Saddle Inn for the time being until I find something more permanent.  Got any suggestions?”

“Hmmm… well, Filthy Rich manages a lot of the real estate in town; my own housemate and I rent our cottage from him.  He’d probably be able to find something for ya.  Er, don’t let the name fool you, Filthy’s a good guy for the most part, treats his tenants and business partners very fairly, even if he does like raking in the bits.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, thanks,” Time said.  “What kind of rates does he normally char–”

“Sweet Celestia’s Sunbutt, it’s really her!” a voice suddenly cried out, a voice which Derpy knew all too well.  Before she had time to react, however, a lavender blur flew into her with the force of a buffalo charging full speed, and two hooves wrapped her in the tightest of vices.

“Argh… hey Cloud, nice to see you too,” Derpy barely managed to get out while Cloud Kicker continued to squeeze the life from her in a hug that could almost rival one of Pinkie Pie’s.

“It’s you!  You’re back, you’re really back!  Oh my gosh, where the buck have you been, you crazy filly?” Cloud exuberantly asked, mercifully relinquishing the grip of one of her forehooves as she proceeded to give Derpy the biggest noogie of her life.

“Cloud, language, we’re in a bakery for goodness’ sake, not some nightclub,” another voice called out in rebuke, this one belonging to Blossomforth.  “And let poor Derpy go, she’s half dead already the way you’re going!”

Cloud loosened her grip, much to Derpy’s relief, but blew a raspberry at Blossomforth.  “Aw, c’mon Blossom, what did you expect?  Had to go big or go home with a homecoming like this.  Although I can certainly think of a few ways it could stand to improve.  Say Derpy, care to drop by our place later today?  We can have a real bang-up welcome back bash, if you know what I mean.”  Cloud cast an expectant, promiscuous glance at Derpy and Blossomforth, her lewd gaze darting back and forth between the two.  Derpy giggled, glad to see Cloud hadn’t changed a bit, but Blossomforth on the other hoof simply rolled her eyes.

“Cute, real cute, that’s real mature Cloud.  In case you hadn’t noticed, we kinda interrupted Derpy and her friend here.”  She gestured towards the somewhat befuddled looking Time, still reeling from Cloud’s sudden appearance.  Finally letting go of Derpy, Cloud turned to Time and waved.

“Oh yeah, sorry about that,” she said, grinning sheepishly.  “Well OK, not really considering I’m pretty sure I’ve known Derpy longer than you have, but still, nice to meet you.  I’m Cloud Kicker and this spoilsport’s my marefriend, Blossomforth.  And you are?”

“Time Turner, er, a pleasure,” he said, nodding at both mares in acknowledgment.  “And don’t worry about it, I really need to be going anyways.  First day on the new job and all, certainly don’t want to be late and make a bad first impression.”  Getting up, he turned back to Derpy.  “Thanks for the warm welcome, Derpy, it’s been a pleasure meeting you.  Hope to see you again soon; maybe we’ll talk some more over muffins some other morning, eh?  Take care!”

“You too Time, good luck with the new job!” Derpy said, waving at him as he departed Sugarcube Corner.  Blossomforth gave Derpy a quick hug of her own before pulling up a chair after he left, followed by Cloud.

“He seems nice.  Nice flank, too,” Cloud remarked.

“What?” Derpy blurted.

“Oh yeah, quite the looker indeed.  Not bad, not bad at all,” Cloud continued, only to get cuffed upside the head by Blossomforth.

“Honestly, is that all you think about?  Even seeing Derpy for the first time in over a year, and that’s where your mind immediately goes?” she chided.  Cloud just shrugged her shoulders in response, all the while wearing a very self-satisfied grin.

“Hey, I just call ‘em like I see ‘em, you of all ponies should know that, my little bedroom contortionist,” she teased, nudging a blushing Blossomforth in the ribs.

“So you two are still together, huh?” Derpy asked, drawing nods in the affirmative from both mares.  “Wow, I must say I’m impressed Cloud!  Never thought you’d be one to ‘settle down,’ so to speak.”

“Well now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Cloud warned.  “It’s not like we’re married or anything.  But yeah, I guess we’ve got a pretty good thing going on, Blossom and I.  Still have some pretty crazy nights on the town sometimes, but certainly doesn’t hurt that Blossom here’s quite talented in ways I can definitely appreciate.  I mean, not as much as me, but hey, who is?”

“We’ve been living together at Cloud’s place for about six months now.  It’s a bit cramped, and I’m still not crazy about living on the ground, but we manage for the most part.  Not so bad living on the ground when we have each other.”  Blossomforth gave Cloud a short but sweet nuzzle, a gesture which was well received.

“Ahhh, the things I have to put up with now.  Look at this, I swear, I can barely keep her off me for five seconds,” Cloud teased.  “But enough about us, what about you?  Where the hay have you been, huh?  Spill it, we wanna know everything, and I mean ev-er-y-thing.”

“Don’t you two have work with the weather team?  I don’t want you guys to be late,” Derpy noted.

“Aw c’mon, our supervisor’s Dash for crying out loud, she won’t mind!” Cloud assured her.  “If anything she’ll probably be happy she gets a chance to show off carrying more of the workload until we get there.  So c’mon, talk!”  It was obvious by now these two weren’t going to budge, so Derpy figured she at least had the time to give them the short version.  Well, the short version of the fiction she and Carrot had concocted, at least.

“Alright, alright, I’ve got some time, but I can only give you the condensed version right now.  I’ve gotta try to get my old job back this morning, and you know how Postmark can be.  Best to get him early in the day before things get too busy for him.”

While the story remained the same, Derpy couldn’t help but feel a little more guilty than she had yesterday telling it now.  It just felt more wrong lying to two of her best friends like that, especially Cloud; they’d been friends since they were both fillies, and Cloud had always looked out for her during some of the rougher patches she’d been through.  She may not have joined the Royal Guard like most other Kickers, but she definitely had quite the protective-streak running through her, especially when it came to watching out for her closest friends.  Still, it couldn’t be helped, not unless Derpy wanted to open up a whole new can of worms and cause herself all sorts of trouble.

When she finished, both Cloud and Blossomforth were staring at her with slack-jawed expressions.  Cloud was the first to snap out of it.

“Wow… that’s quite the trip you went on,” she remarked in bewilderment.  “I don’t know what to say, Derpy.  Feather me, I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.”

Now it was Derpy’s turn to be confused.  “Sorry?  For what?”

“I’m supposed to be your friend, Derpy.  Hay, I’ve known you since we were both fillies.  And yet I never noticed you were struggling.  That you needed someone, something in your life to make it better.  I just… some friend I am.”  Both Derpy and Blossomforth were caught off guard by Cloud’s remarks and downcast demeanor, and Blossomforth quickly rubbed her shoulders with a reassuring hoof.

“Hey, don’t say that, none of us noticed,” Blossomforth comforted her.  “It’s not like Derpy was begging for help or anything.  Sounds like she kept a lot of this pretty well buried, right?”

Derpy nodded in confirmation.  “Blossom’s right, Cloud.  I thought I could just grin and bear my problems on my own.  That didn’t make either of you any less of friends.  You just had your own lives, your own dreams and problems, and I… well, I just didn’t want to make my burdens your own.  I didn’t want to even confront them, much less force ponies I cared about to do so.”  Cloud frowned as she processed these rebuttals but soon grudgingly nodded.

“Alright, fine, maybe there wasn’t anything more I could’ve done.  Doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.  I mean, horsefeathers, there were times we thought you were dead!”  Teasingly she conked Derpy over the head.  “Don’t ever do that again, you knucklehead, you had me worried sick!”

“Gee Cloud, sounds like you sure missed me,” Derpy teased.

“Of course I did!  The mere thought of never seeing your delectable bubble butt ever again was almost more than I could handle,” Cloud declared, followed by an over-the-top swoon as though even now the suggestion alone pained her still.  “Although now that I mention it, I must say, your bubble butt lost a little bit of its bubble, what gives?”

“Oh you know, been eating better, working out a lot.  All Full Heart’s doing, mind you.  Why, you don’t like the new me?”

“I don’t know.  You have me in quite the pickle.  On the one hoof, you had one of the finest posteriors in all of Equestria.  On the other hoof, this new, lean you is looking fine, very fine indeed.  Hmmm, decisions, decisions… ah to hay with it, you’re as bangable as ever, that’s all that really matters!”  Cloud and Derpy broke into a fit of giggles while an evidently unamused Blossomforth just sat there shaking her head in dismay at her marefriend’s behavior.

“Remind me again why I’m still with you?” she asked drolly.

“Well where does one even start?  Between my looks, my undeniable charm, and the irresistible allure that just seems to resonate from me, I’m surprised you didn’t get with me sooner,” Cloud reflected, clearly buying every word coming out of her mouth.

“Nah, it’s probably just that you’re half-decent in the sack,” Blossomforth countered, setting off a fresh round of guffaws about the whole table.  Derpy wiped a few tears from her eyes as she calmed down, the first happy ones she’d had in some time.

“Oh boy, I missed you guys a lot,” she said.  “Well, this was fun, but I really have to get going.  Promised Carrot I’d get a job this week after all, and I intend to do just that.  See you around girls, we’ll have to catch up some more sometime soon!”

“Of course, have a nice day, Derpy, and good luck with the job hunt!” Blossomforth called out.

“Our bed’s always open for some ‘catching up’!” Cloud declared, earning her one more cuff over the head from Blossomforth.  Derpy sighed as she departed Sugarcube Corner, a warm feeling of content spreading throughout her whole body.  So far so good, all things considered.  In her first morning back home she’d made a new friend and reconnected with some old familiar faces, and it wasn’t even lunchtime yet.  It was still going to take some time to readjust, but more and more she really felt like she was back home, back where she belonged, and old friends like Cloud and Blossomforth certainly helped.

It was nice to see that some things never changed.
Batmare Begins - Chapter 12: Tabula Rasae, Part 1
I LIVE AGAIN!!!  Yes, after a period of no updates that lasted far longer than I originally intended, I'm back with the first of three chapter updates this weekend.  The next two will be released around this time on Saturday and Sunday.  I want to thank all my readers again for being so patient with me as well as supportive.  A giant shout-out to Chengar Qordath as well for his permission to utilize the Kicker family and clan as depicted in the Winningverse, as this chapter marks the first time that Batmare Begins can officially be considered a part of an AU Winningverse universe with the appearance of Cloud Kicker!   Anyways, I hope you all enjoy and stay tuned for the next two chapters.  It was certainly a lot of fun getting to finally write with the setting in Ponyville and handling characters like Pinkie Pie, and there's even more of that to come.  Catch you all tomorrow everypony, and have a blessed Good Friday. 
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Batbrony
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*cue dramatic entrance* Hello everypony, and welcome to my inner sanctum, my... Derp Cave, if you will. I am called by many names, the Derp Knight, Muffin Mare, but you may refer to me as... Batbrony!!! I am the forum's resident guardian of the night, protecting both the innocents of this forum as well as muffin-lovers worldwide from those who would smear either the good name of this forum, or, even worse, the good name of muffins.

Some of you may be wondering what I do when I'm not a brooding creature of the night, and I'm sorry to say that I can only divulge so much information. However, I have prepared an... alibi of sorts, to satisfy your curiosity (keep in mind, some or all of the following information may or may not be a clever ruse, designed to protect my identity and, more importantly, the safety of those ponies closest to me from any of my enemies who would want to do me harm).

In the spring of 2013 I graduated from Hillsdale College magna cum laude and with a B.A. and departmental honors in American Studies, after four years of rigorously studying philosophy, American history, literature, politics, and most importantly, Henry Adams. At the moment I'm currently attending Western Michigan University's graduate school, studying as a grad student and working as a teacher's assistant, and preparing for my future independent adult life. During the day, I carry out mundane activities to pass the hours, such as gaming, working-out, or reading and writing fanfics, as I eagerly anticipate the coming of the night when I may assume my alter ego and continue my duties of protection. My interests include history, literature, theology, video games, comic books, movies, working-out, football, good animated films and television programs, Christianity, and most importantly, muffins. I aspire to continue my mission of the night alongside a certain masked superhero who operates in Gotham City, but he has yet to return my phone calls or emails, so if that doesn't work out, I guess I'd settle for doing work in historical conservation, such as at a Civil War battlefield, as a cover for my greater mission! Well, that's all I have to say, and all that anypony really needs to know about me!

Remember everypony, I am the night... and muffins rule! *cue dramatic exit*
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:iconfhaolan:
Fhaolan Featured By Owner Nov 28, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
Hey Batsy, thanks for the fave on Pixel! ;)
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:iconbatbrony:
Batbrony Featured By Owner Nov 29, 2016
Yeah no problem buddy!
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:iconhywther:
Hywther Featured By Owner Aug 31, 2016  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thanks for the fav! =)
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:iconbatbrony:
Batbrony Featured By Owner Aug 31, 2016
No prob!
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:iconijoinedforponies:
IJoinedForPonies Featured By Owner Jul 23, 2016
Happy Birthday! ^^
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:iconbatbrony:
Batbrony Featured By Owner Jul 23, 2016
Thank you!!!
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:iconcore-mlp:
Core-MLP Featured By Owner Jun 18, 2016  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you so much for the watch my friend! :D
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:iconbatbrony:
Batbrony Featured By Owner Jun 18, 2016
But of course, no problem! ^_^
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:iconspade-sisters:
Spade-Sisters Featured By Owner Jun 12, 2016  Hobbyist Digital Artist
;-; Thank you so much for the watch Heart
Here have a cookie~
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:iconbatbrony:
Batbrony Featured By Owner Jun 12, 2016
No problem, always happy to find a new artist to follow! :D
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