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Post in forum #1905 - An ongoing MLP Roleplay Thread, Rated PG-13.

“Sister. Fleur! You have to tell me what is wrong!”

Fleur Blanc felt her brother’s hoof land on her shoulder and give her a gentle shake. He had already tried making soothing noises and soft questions. Now came the demands. Fleur curled up on her bed. She didn’t cry harder, because she was already crying as hard as she could. Sometimes when she had hysterics she got violent, though to stuff rather than ponies. Mostly she just dissolved into noisy tears. It embarrassed her; she should have more self-control at her age. Knowing that only made her feel worse.

Flambé gave her another little shake. He was useless at this kind of thing, all awkward and at a loss and feeling useless. But he had never stopped trying to comfort her when she needed it. Fleur loved him for that even if his bone-headed attempts to console her got annoying. She’d never quite had the heart to tell him there wasn’t anything he could do when she was like this. Nothing but be there.

Most of her sobbed into her pillow but there was always some tiny part of her with nothing better to do than hang back and watch. If he followed the usual form, his next move…

“Did somepony hurt you?” Flambé said. “Who? Just tell me a name, sister, and they’ll never hurt you again.”

‘Right on cue.’ Fleur thought. ‘As if beating up the pony that insulted me would somehow undo the hurt their words caused. Gallant, almost charming, and very stupid. Which brings us to…’

Sure enough, Flambé turned hesitant and kindly and increasingly desperate for some way to help. “Is…is there anything I can get you? Glass of water, another blanket? Handkerchief?”

Releasing her death-grip hug on the pillow, Fleur sat up long enough to face her brother, pull him into a hug, and sob into his blue-black mane. He went rigid as a statue, of course, before he forced himself to relax and hug her back. Flambé was not a very huggy stallion.

A while later, maybe a few minutes, it was over. As usually happened, the storm broke apart all at once. One moment bawling like a jilted filly, the next moment calm. It never failed to startle her. Still shuddering, queasy, and leaking tears, but calm in her heart. Taking a deep, unsteady breath, she held it for a while and let it out in a long trembling sigh. Flambé helped her sit up when she began to. She took the hanky he offered without even looking. She knew he’d have one and even where his hoof would be. Blowing her nose with a sound like a trumpet half-plugged with pudding, she heaved a huge sigh that left her feeling deflated.

“Does rump need kicking?” Flambé said.

Fleur made a shaky little laugh. He was so formal. Serious. The laugh died in a hurry. Fleur knew all she had to do was say a name, and the one she named was going to suffer if Flambé could possibly manage it. It made her even queasier, but of course she would never ever point her brother at somepony like…like an attack dog. Never again. She wouldn’t just refuse for her, but for him too. There were things nopony should ever do, even for the ones they loved. Not even for a little sister who was his only real family. They had left that life behind when they came to Aura.

Smog had rescued them. He was a bad creature, yes. A criminal. They served him, yes. They did illegal things for him. Keeping a hidden surgery room where criminals could be patched up in secret. Hiding criminals who needed to run, providing them with disguises and fake papers. But he never asked them to do evil. He had promised, and kept it. Flambé’s special talent was knives. He used it to be a great chef, but there were other ways to use it. Smog could have used him for something besides the pony that prepared his meals. If it meant Fleur was kept safe, comfortable, and happy…Flambé would have done almost anything.

Fleur’s heart actually ached as she gave her nose another blorting blow. Patting Flambé’s cheek with a wing, she shook her head in answer to his question. He didn’t look convinced. “No sadness, brother. Just hysterics.”

“You don’t panic for no reason.”

“I know.” She bit her lower lip to keep from saying more.

Fleur would trust Flambé with her life. She would trust him with anything. That included the secret she had learned today. Smog had never really been a true dragon. He hadn’t been truly heartless, just with his heart locked up and buried. At some point his heart had escaped its grave and today the spell keeping him dragon-shaped had failed. There was a real danger the transformation would make certain agents believe Smog had been replaced or mentally compromised. They had orders for situations like that. Terrible orders. That was half of Smog’s armor: the consequences of defeating him were just too awful.

Serving Smog had downsides, of course. Half of Smog’s spies spied on his own employees. Including other spies. Making sure none of them were up to no good. Or rather, up to unauthorized no good. The spies also watched for ponies who weren’t being careful enough with what they said. Nothing kept a pony from temptation like knowing somepony might be watching. There were things she and Flambé never talked about. Not ever: no matter how impossible it seemed for anypony to overhear. It was the only way to be absolutely sure.

Fleur would tell her brother everything that had just happened in the Den. In a heartbeat. If only she could be sure nopony else might hear. But she never could be sure enough to take a risk this big. Smog was going to try and salvage this. Write messages and invoke code-words. Exchange signs and counter-signs. Invite in high-level employees one at a time and convince them he was still himself inside this new form. Ponies who were only one step below Smog in his criminal empire. Ponies with absolute proven loyalty. In a few days, he would have all those ponies announce what had happened. They would swear it was really him and the rest of the organization below them would have to accept it.

Smog would succeed. He had to. The result was unthinkable and not just because of what would happen to this twin city. Smog was…Smog. Fleur knew of things he’d done. Breathtakingly devious things. Ponies who had been sure they were defying him ended up doing exactly what he truly wanted. He was hardly ever caught by surprise and even then he had backup plans, and backups to the backups. Fleur found him terrifying, and as long as she stayed loyal she had nothing to fear from Smog. She feared him anyway. Scariest of all, Fleur knew she only heard a tiny fraction of it. He could handle this. Yes, he could: and he’d probably make it look easy and somehow end up profiting from it.

Her rickety confidence collapsed into rubble again. Smog was Smog, and he was always in control of himself. Cold, calm, confident, calculating, and cunning…and those were just the C’s. Not anymore. Smog had looked nakedly uncertain today. Announced that he would try but that he might fail. Then he had just…deflated. His neck had draped across the bar so his head hung down the far side. Washing smut out of the blackened cloud floor with his silent tears. Smog had made it clear he thought he might fail. Even that he would probably fail. The thought made her feel like she was caught in a nightmare. Smog…fail. Both words made sense but the combination felt like nonsense. It was like waking up on the ceiling or seeing the sun rise green with a big bite out of the side.

Fleur had gone into hysterics as soon as she was safe in her room because…well, if a mare couldn’t have a panic attack about the bedrock of her life turning to quicksand, what could she panic about? Worse, she couldn’t even tell Flambé what was wrong. Pulling the tear-soaked pillow into her lap, she hugged it tight. “I can’t talk about it.”

His hurt, confused look lasted less than a second before understanding replaced it. “Can’t talk about it?”

Fleur bit her lip to keep back the flood of words that wanted to spill out. She needed to share all this with somepony and she couldn’t do it. If Aura’s fate already hung by a thread, she wasn’t going to be the pony that cut it. She buried her muzzle down into the pillow and shook her head. “Uh-uh.”

“How about…” Flambé said. “…if I guess?”

Fleur gave a choked giggle. He’d never guess. Not in a hundred thousand years of guessing. Fleur had seen it with her own eyes and she had trouble believing it. The thought of Jindalee’s question and Smog’s…lack of answer…tried to invade but she shoved it away. If they survived the next week without a disaster she could start feeling horrible about the inevitable disaster when Smog just couldn’t stay awake anymore. More selfish thoughts circled like buzzing flies and refused to be banished. ‘What will happen to me and Flambé if Smog falls? We can’t stay in Aura, but where would we go? What would we do? Would we be arrested? We’d deserve it if we are. If we run we would have to spend our lives running from the law. We could end up homeless again.’ Old memories welled up and she felt her eyes sting with fresh tears.

Fleur raised her head and forced her eyes to meet her brother’s. She didn’t grow any less afraid, but something changed. Warmth filled her heart and crept out through her. It gave her a kind of quiet strength that made it easier to fight the fear. No matter what happened, they’d face it together. Now matter how bad things got, it wouldn’t be completely bad as long as they still had each other. Flambé inhaled to speak and paused when she pressed a hoof to his lips. “No. No guessing. I could use a mug of tea. With a dash of…no, no.” She bit her lip again, something she suspected she might be doing a lot. “Nothing extra. Just tea. Understand? No hardening it. I am serious, now. Really don’t.” Getting drunk right now sounded amazing, and would be an amazingly bad idea.

Fleur herded her brother out of her room to go make the tea. If she made it through the week without getting an ulcer she would be amazed. Pacing back and forth, she paused to rearrange the throw pillows on her love seat and then tried to make her face look less like she’d been crying. Then she resumed pacing. Maybe if she went out. She didn’t stretch her wings often enough. Maybe things would seem better out in the fresh air and sunshine. Or at least she might be able to pretend nothing bad had happened.

After what felt like forever, a knock sounded on her door. She hurried to open it, knowing it could be tricky to open a door while carrying a loaded tray. Her brother was certain to come back carrying a whole tea service with lemon, honey, sugar, cream, and a little bottle of brandy in case she changed her mind. Some sandwiches and cookies in case she was hungry. Honestly, if she asked for fresh milk he might show up with a cow, a bucket, and a milking stool.

Smiling a little from the image, she opened the door. Blinked, then looked a little lower down. Perth looked up at her, holding his stylish hat in front of his chest. His funny little paws kept giving it nervous little turns clockwise. Each one precise, like a weird hat-clock.

Fleur’s smile vanished. The koala flinched as if she’d moved to hit him. “Sorry, I was expecting my brother.”

Perth’s little brown eyes went blank. “Pardon?”

Smacking herself between the eyes, Fleur did the little mental twist that shifted her thoughts from her native language to Equestrian. “Sorry. I’m not unhappy to see you, ze not-smiling was just because I am surprised to see you.” She smiled again. It felt forced but it must have looked fine.

The koala turned very formal but under it she saw relief. “I need to speak with you, Madame Fleur.”

“Some things should not be talked about.” She gestured around her, glancing about, then tapped an ear and gave him a meaningful look. He looked confused and about to panic. “You can never be too careful about being overheard.”

“Oh! Oh, yes. Hm. Good point, excellent point. Can never be too careful. Excuse me.” He waddled off at high speed in the direction of his room. Fleur stared after him and made a silent vow. If she and Flambé had to run they’d take Perth with them. They could use the money his skills would let him easily make. He could use their help dealing with the ‘Outside,’ as Dustans seemed to call the world beyond their borders. All would benefit. Besides, it was bad form to abandon a friend.

Flambé turned up to find her still standing in the doorway. The tray was just as bad as she’d expected. By the time she got a mug of tea inside her, the cheddar-cheese and lavender-flower sandwiches started to look good. Flambé thought they were disgusting, but she had always loved them. She bit into one and somepony knocked. Flambé answered it, opening it a crack. He closed it again and looked back at her. “It’s ze teddy bear.”

“Flambé!” She swept the tray with her eyes, then chose a sugar cube to flick at him. It bounced off a wing and he didn’t even have the good manners to flinch. “Be nice! I like him.” His expression changed, one eyebrow going high. “Not like zat.” She flung another sugar-cube and missed. “Just as a friend. Let him in.”

Grumbling, Flambé made a big show of brushing imaginary sugar grains off his wing before opening the door with the sarcastic flourish of a proper butler. Perth waddled in like a drunk sailor on shore leave, leaning back against the weight of the…thing…he hugged to his chest. Three upside-down, dark-brown beer bottles stuck up from the top of a mesh-sided cube filled with gears, springs, and wires. Something in the heart of the jumble gave off a flickering glow in a disquieting shade of blue. “Sorry it took so long, had trouble finding a substance for the disintermediation matrix. Settled on crystallized sodium fluoride. Now I need a new tube of toothpaste.” Perth set the thing on an end table, stared at it, and then gave one of the beer bottles a tiny adjustment. They stood in a triangle with much less than an inch of space keeping them from touching.

“Apologies in advance for any discomfort.” Perth said.

“Wh-” Fleur said.

Perth gave the device a poke and the beer bottles struck a shrill glassy chord that made a cat sliding down a chalkboard sound like a professional choir. It didn’t just put her teeth on edge; it felt capable of putting an edge on her teeth. Her perfume bottles chattered and then joined the ghastly wailing. The reflection in her mirrors dissolved into a blur. Blue sparks danced up and down between the bottles. Then the broken notes of un-music all shifted, fitting perfectly together like the jagged fragments of a beautiful vase. The lovely tone faded at once to a faint dull hiss.

Flambé spoke and she couldn’t hear his voice. In fact she had gone totally deaf. Perth clipped a pair of tacky-looking earrings to his little rounded ears, like dream-catchers made of a brass ring and silver wire. The clip held a tiny clockwork thing with a little tuning fork that blurred with vibration. He offered her and Flambé a pair of the same, each. Fleur clipped hers on. After a brief buzzing whine, her hearing came back. Flambé clipped his on after she gave him a Look.

Merde!” Flambé said.

Fleur gave his shoulder a smack, but it was pure sisterly reflex. Her ears felt…odd. Tingly, down inside. His voice had sounded strange too. Flat, as if they were outside. “Perth?”

His manner shifted back from eerie calm to honest anxiety. “Um, I made a little something to make sure no sound produced in the room can be perceived by any listening device or living ear not equipped with the…um, cancellation cancellers. I’m sorry again for the initial noise; the frequency divisor field takes a few moments to stabilize.”

“Huh?” Flambé said. He did not look at all fetching in his new earrings.

Perth looked as if he’d just bitten a lemon. “Ummm…I made a spell that fills this room. It shifts the pitch of all sounds made inside the room. It shifts them so high even bats cannot hear or to a pitch of equally inaudible deepness. The direction of the frequency shift is reversed at semi-random intervals. The earrings have…magic…that drops or raises the pitch back to where they had originally been. Mostly.”

“Anti-eavesdropping.” Fleur said.

“Just so.” Perth said. He had gone back to being distant and calm. “Even if someone had an ear an inch from your mouth they could hear nothing without the earrings. I regret to inform you that I shall be too busy for the next few days to pursue the deepening of our friendship. Mister Smog has given me a task of the highest importance and urgency. It must be completed before…” He trailed off to eyeball Flambé and his nervous side returned. “Um.”

“I can take a hint.” Flambé said. “I’ll be in ze cirrus-fluffing kitchen if anypony needs me.” He returned the earrings to Perth and stalked out.

Perth studied the ceiling, blushing. Fleur studied the device making their room the most private place to talk in Aura, with the likely exception of Smog’s office. “What is ze glow?”

“Err…do you know what a klein bottle is?”

“Is it for designer beer?”

Perth gave a nervous titter, though she was sure her horrible little joke had passed over his head. “No, no. Beer in a klein bottle…hah. Ahem. Pardon me. It’s a…thing…that has only one surface. Mobius loop?” He didn’t look hopeful.

“Them I know, it’s a party trick. You take a paper loop and give a half-twist before sticking ze ends together. You can draw a line on it that proves ze loop only has one side. Some magic rings are ze mobius so ze inscription on them has no beginning or end.”

“Well…this is like that, only…with a bottle. It’s self-contained but it only has one surface. Not an inside and outside.”

“Sounds impossible.”

Perth sighed and rubbed at an ear. “It should be. To be crude, I gave the universe a wedgy. The glow…I suppose you could say it’s the universe trying to pull its pants-”

Fleur’s poker face dissolved into giggles. “Sorry, sorry! What is it you need to tell me, Perth?”

Perth had shaded from pink to red. “There will soon be deliveries of equipment and supplies to my room. I will be too busy to come to the front desk and claim them. I was told by Mister Smog that you could be relied upon to ensure they are brought to my room as well as ensuring I do not neglect to pause for meals. When in my…madness place…food seems unimportant.”

“I will do that thing.” Fleur said.

“The earth pony Lute is part of what I must do. I have been tasked to make him a mechanical leg.”

“…what. This is ze utmost-important thing?”

“I…I don’t un-understand all of what’s happening but I gather that Lute is a friend of Mister Smog. From…long ago.”

“It couldn’t be that long ag…oh.” Fleur was glad for the magical device ensuring their privacy. Her mouth opened and shut a few times before anything came out. “How?”

Perth snatched off his glasses and began to polish them. “I don’t know enough to speculate but the means employed appear to have profoundly undesirable aspects. My task is more than simply to make him a mechanical leg, but there are aspects of my work I promised not to discuss with anyone. You are safer remaining ignorant. As well, Lute is safer. I am sorry. Smog…wishes to ensure he can keep a promise he made to his friend. While still able.”

Fleur felt some very odd emotions at the notion of Smog having an old friend. Or any friend. There was that detail she’d heard of Smog being able to handle a certain cursed urn that only those in love could handle. A…special friend? Smog’s natural voice was feminine at least half the time. Smog might really be a girl? She pushed the jumble aside to untangle later. “Can you leave ze thing in here for a while? I would like to speak with my brother.”

Perth got very quiet. Then he gave the device another prod. The beer bottles stopped blurring and swapping static inchworms. A brighter flash came from that hidden blue glow in its heart. The clip-on earrings she wore went dead and her ears stopped tingling. Perth replaced his glasses on his face. “I’m very sorry, Madame Fleur, but I cannot do that. Anything you need such precautions to discuss, you should not discuss with him.”

Taking a sharp breath, Fleur gave her head an even sharper shake. Holding the breath until it was breathe or burst, she tried to let her anger slip out with it. “I understand.”

Perth took back her earrings and removed his own. All three sets went into his pocket. “I’m sorry.”

“Oui, thank you.” Grabbing the bitten sandwich, she crammed half of it in her mouth and chewed. Not hungry anymore, she kept chewing anyway. Perth almost spoke, hesitated, almost spoke again, and then sighed. He picked up the device and waddled for the door. Hesitated. Fleur made no move to help. She knew it was petty, but she felt petty. He started to set it down so he could open the door. Fleur tried to shout a warning but her mouth was too full.

The device dropped through the floor and out of sight.

“Um.” Perth said. “Oops.”