He woke up at the crack of dawn, as he did almost every day. An old habit he’d kept from the Undiscovered West, from the times when waking up late was a literal matter of life and death.
Times were different now, of course. Sleeping in wouldn’t result in a band of mercenaries kidnapping him like that time in Siribilo, but it would result in a mare being quite, quite upset.
Speaking of which…
He cracked an eye open and saw her sitting on the other side of the fire, awake and alert in the early dawn, still plagued by insomnia. Oh, he did appreciate her! They’d barely known each other in the grand scheme of life, but he deeply appreciated his strange friend and the fascinating story forever scarred into her body.
She frowned at him, suddenly, and though he thought he’d been subtle, it seemed she noticed him wake.
She stood up without effort nor sound and walked towards him, her gaze promising a scolding on the theme of hurrying up and getting ready.
He debated pre-empting her, lifting his hoof and saying alright, alright! I’m getting up!
A vicious beast pre-empted his pre-emption.
Before she could reach him, a snarling manticore jumped out from behind the nearby bushes, placing itself between the startled unicorn and the wide-awake stallion. It glanced over him for a moment, barely a second, inspecting North Ridge as if looking for something.
“What… What in Equestria’s name…?”
The words tumbled out of North Ridge’s mouth, his brain scrambling to understand, to protect, and to maybe, just maybe, recognize.
The manticore turned to Rarity and then did it become truly frightening. Its ears flattened against its skull, its massive wings splayed out like a shield, and every hair on its body stood on end. It hissed at her, its clawed paw raised and its pupils wide as moons, as if it were frightened by Rarity just as much as she was by it.
“North!” Rarity gasped in fear. “Do something!”
“Now, now, Rarity, it’s just a manticore!”
“Just a manticore?!”
“Yes!” he continued, rather excited to be honest. “I can deal with it! They’re easy to subdue and—” The manticore turned to him as he said that, giving him a look of offense and confusion. “And…”
The thought drifted away, his mind now faced with the possibility of the past catching up. He looked the beast over, what he could of it at least, and took a shot in the dark.
The manticore growled in assent, its tail thumping up and down on the ground before turning back to Rarity and baring its teeth at her.
“Tangerine!” North exclaimed, breaking into a wide grin. Briefly. “Oh. Wait! Wait!” He barged forward, pushing past Tangerine and jumping in front of Rarity. He raised a protective forehoof and looked the beast in his eyes. “She’s a friend, Tangerine! She’s a friend.”
Though his hairs remained standing up, Tangerine’s expression softened, his searching eyes darting back and forth between Rarity and North.
“When have I ever lied?” North asked, and added after a pause, “Alright, well, I’ve lied many times, but this time isn’t one of them!”
A few seconds went by, and eventually Tangerine relented. His ferocity faded, his hairs lowered, and North Ridge grinned when the beast sat on his hindlegs, his ears flitting up and his paws lifted to his chest, transforming him from a terrifying beast to a timid, harmless overgrown cat.
“Oh, Tangerine! Tangerine!” North exclaimed, rushing forward and embracing his friend. He stood back and looked the manticore over, practically glowing as he did so. “You’re certainly a sight! A fantastic sight, at that! How did you find me?! Oh!” He quickly gestured to Rarity. “Tangerine, this is Rarity. I met her a few days after crossing the border!”
With cautious steps, Tangerine moved towards Rarity, meekly held out his paw, and said with the softest voice:
Rarity’s eyes darted back and forth between his eyes and his paw, and though in her hesitation she did not shake his paw, she did offer an attempt at a nervous smile. “…How do you do.”
Her delighted laughter rang in the air, intermingling with the crackles of the logs burning in the fire.
“He didn’t!” Rarity exclaimed to Tangerine, who nodded furiously in return as he stirred the soup cooking over the fire. She turned her sights to the grinning North Ridge. “You didn’t.”
“I did! I was chained, beaten, had a migraine that would kill me, and I still spat in his face and told him—” He cleared his throat. “Well, I told him things you wouldn’t approve of involving his mother. I could tell you what I said, if you’d like.”
“No, thank you,” she replied. “Oh, how uncouth of you! You must have had a death wish.” She leaned in, riveted. “What happened next?”
Tangerine stopped stirring the soup long enough to straighten his posture, glancing to Rarity and then excitedly throwing a string of mewls and growls towards North.
“Yes, yes, I remember how you threw him out the window,” he said nonchalantly. He then eyed the soup and smacked his lips, leaning in. “Is it almost ready? It smells fantastic.”
“It really does,” Rarity added, breathing in the scent.
Tangerine nodded, taking a nearby bowl and filling it up as North nodded his head in hungry encouragement. Once it was full, the manticore put the spoon down and offered the bowl to Rarity.
She lifted her hoof. “Ah, no, thank you,” she said, kindly.
“More for me!” North exclaimed, already reaching for the bowl. “You can start preparing my next four bowls, please, Tangerine.”
Tangerine rolled his eyes, reaching for another bowl, while Rarity could only laugh.
“Your next four bowls?! And I thought Twilight was a glutton!” She turned to Tangerine and noticed the manticore putting his bowl down and stepping away. “Is something wrong?” she asked, glancing at North when Tangerine mewled a reply.
“He needs to relieve himself,” said the stallion between spoonfuls.
Once he’d disappeared into the forest, North turned to Rarity.
“What do you make of him?”
“He’s certainly very interesting, though not entirely what I imagined from the stories you’ve told me,” she said, still looking off towards where the manticore had disappeared off to. She turned to North. “That’s quite a first meeting you had.”
“It went better than expected, all things considered. It could have been me he was hurling out the window! …Or at a bookcase.”
Rarity pointedly didn’t dignify him with a reply, instead turning back to the forest.
“I’m surprised he came looking for you,” she said. “I had the impression you’d parted ways permanently.”
North stared into his soup for a moment, trying to voice what he’d long tried to ignore. It really was true, wasn’t it? One can’t always escape the past.
He put the bowl on the ground and took a breath.
“I was the one who asked to part ways,” he confessed. “I didn’t give him a choice. He was…”
“You didn’t?” she asked, surprised. “Why not?”
The answer was hard to voice. In fact, it was hard to think about; hard to accept that ghosts would not stay in the past.
“My wife,” he said and was surprised to find tears in his eyes. “He reminded me too much of better days, I suppose, when she was still here. It was too much.”
Her ears lowered. “Oh, North…” She mulled on her words and ventured forwards. “I confess that you never talk about her so I’d just assumed you’d… well, you know.”
He laughed. “You and I handle this in very different ways, Rarity. I don’t speak about her, and you—” He grinned. “I might make good money writing about Princess Twilight’s biography.”
“Aren’t you exaggerating a bit?” she said, her cheeks tinted red and her hoof clutching her necklace. At his pointed stare, she continued. “In any case, be that as it may, I… Well, I would like to hear more about Frost.”
North looked at Rarity.
Really, really looked at her, at this mare he strangely saw so much of himself in. Saw in her his past that had caught up, and saw in her a story that he had now joined.
And if that was so, then it was his role to make sure this story ended as it should.
So he made a choice.
“Very well! I will tell you one last story, if only because it’s the last one I’ll tell.”
The delight in her expression vanished.
“What do you mean?”
How difficult. How difficult it was!
“I’ve decided I’m no longer going with you to Ponyville, Rarity.”
And there it was, and it was just as painful as he imagined it would be.
“What?” She laughed, but it was strangled, uncertain, unwilling to believe. She smiled, and it wasn’t a smile. “And where, may I ask, are you going instead?”
“To the next event, wherever it’s held.”
Rarity blanched, knowing full well what that was. What it meant.
“North. North, if this is a joke, I’m not finding it funny.”
“I wouldn’t joke about this.” He smiled wryly. “Rarity! You must have seen this coming.”
“No, I didn’t,” she said quietly. “I actually didn’t.” She thought of Tangerine and wondered if maybe he had. “I gather I don’t have a choice.”
“You gather correctly.”
“And you won’t change your mind?”
There was a long pause. Long, and long, and he decided he would allow it to be as long as she needed it to be.
“I… I’m frightened.” Her eyes sparkled with tears. She laughed, and it was heartbreaking. “I’m not ready.”
“I know. I know, and I don’t blame you,” he said kindly, “and it’s why I’m not asking you to come with me.”
He thought carefully about it, for all things that mattered deserved care.
“I’ve been a distraction to you, Rarity. A dashing distraction, clearly, but a distraction still. To put it in a way our dear princess would approve, I’ve been a footnote taking your attention away from the story that needs to be told. It’s been some time I’ve cared for a story as much as I care for yours. I don’t want to hold you back from finishing it.”
She said nothing.
“I know what you’re going to say, North. I think I’ve always known.”
And as much as she didn’t want to admit it, as hard as it was… he was right.
She looked back to him. “He’s going to come. After you’ve left. He’s going to gloat and tell me I made a mistake and…” She gritted her teeth. “Damn him. Damn him.”
“Rarity, now now! If he dares come to you, I have some very good insults you can say about his mother!” he said, and how grand it was when she laughed, genuinely and sincerely.
It didn’t last long.
“Will I ever see you again?” she asked, her voice cracking.
“You will,” he said, and he meant it. “This isn’t goodbye.”
“What is it, then?”
He leaned back. “So long? See you soon?” He mulled it over and found what he wanted. “It’s a promise you’re going to make to me.”
“What promise?” she asked.
“A promise that, even if I will no longer be with you, even if my footnotes in your tale disappear, well…”
“Promise me you’ll catch up to ours, hm?”
“Alright,” she said, the tears fresh on her face. She made an effort and grinned valiantly. “I promise I shall, but… I still want this last parting story of yours. And it better be a damn good one.”
“Rarity! Rarity, I would have it no other way! I’ll tell you the best story I have! And do you know why it’s the best story to tell?”
“Because it starts just like a bad joke,” he declared, and gestured for the forthcoming manticore to take a seat.
“I believe you’ve told me this one before,” she remarked, the twinkle in her eyes now from amusement rather than tears.
“Have I? Well, would you say it’s worth hearing again?”
She thought about it for a moment and grinned.
“Well then!” he said, settling in for one last tale. “A zebra, a stallion, and a manticore walk into a bar…”